Month: March 2018

Kiki’s Delivery Service


Our Studio Ghibli initiation continues apace, as we find ourselves – for the third week running – taking advantage of The Cameo’s most welcome retrospective. It’s snowing today, but that doesn’t appear to have deterred anyone from venturing out, and the audience figures seem very healthy for a Sunday afternoon. There’s a lovely atmosphere in the cinema, a sense of nostalgia and shared pleasure. It’s a delight to be here.

Based on the novel by Eiko Kadono, this screenplay by director Hayao Miyazaki is as delightful as even our brief acquaintance with Ghibli has led us to expect. Kiki (Minami Takayama) is a witch and, as she’s just turned thirteen, tradition has it that she must leave home and seek a town in which to complete her witch training. She’s sad to leave her family, of course, but keen to assert her independence, and she sets off in high spirits, determined to forge a new life in a big town near the sea. She strikes lucky, landing a job in a bakery in a bustling city, and accommodation with an ocean view. She and her sarcastic cat, Jiji (Rei Sakuma), settle in happily, and Kiki uses her broomstick skills to set up a speedy delivery service.

But this is a coming-of-age story, and adolescence – it turns out – is as tough for a witch as it is for anyone. Kiki is tongue-tied and embarrassed when Tombo (Kappei Yamaguchi) invites her to a party; she’s self-conscious about her clothes; she becomes withdrawn and depressed. Worse, she loses the ability to understand what Jiji says (although this may have more to do with Jiji’s own growing up, as he falls for local cat, Lily, and fathers kittens with her) and then finds she can no longer fly. Still, we’re not kept in the doldrums for long, as we learn – alongside Kiki – that if we’re patient, rest, take care of ourselves, and allow our friends to help us, that our spirits will revive and we’ll become ourselves again.

If that sounds saccharine, it shouldn’t. The story is smartly told, and not overly sentimental. Not everything is resolved. Madame’s ungrateful granddaughter, for example, remains just that: not a character in need of redemption, simply a selfish girl. But it’s utterly adorable, just heart-warming and beautiful and a perfect way to spend a Sunday.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield




Another day, and another movie goes straight to Netflix. After Mute and The Cloverfield Paradox, this is starting to feel like a trend, though in the case of Annihilation, writer/director Alex Garland has been very vocal about his displeasure in learning that his brainchild would not be receiving a theatrical release. The reason he was given by Paramount? The film was ‘too intellectual.’ More likely, perhaps, is the fact that too many big-budget science fiction movies have failed to put bums on seats over the past year.  Whatever the explanation, the film’s expensive credentials are evident and it must be said that some of the more eye-popping effects sequences really would have looked a lot more impressive on a big screen.

Soldier-turned-college-biology-lecturer, Lena (Natalie Portman), is in a bad place in the film’s early stretches. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is a soldier, missing in action for over a year after being sent away on a secret mission – but she hasn’t quite given up hope that he will return. Then, quite unexpectedly, he does come back, acting very strangely, shortly before collapsing into a coma. On the way to the nearest hospital, the ambulance is intercepted by soldiers and Lena and Kane are rushed to a secret facility in Florida, where Kane is put on life support. Lena meets scientist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells her about ‘The Shimmer’ – a strange, shifting dimension that has established itself in the Everglades after a mysterious meteor strike. The Shimmer appears to be constantly expanding and Ventress tells Lena that Kane was part of a team sent in there to investigate. The other members have all disappeared without trace. Ventress explains that she is planning to lead an all-female team in there in a few days’ time and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lena elects to go with them.

Once inside this unknown dimension, things begin to go very weird, very quickly. The team soon establish that here, species are getting their individual DNA all mixed up with others. This can be as enchanting as flowers sprouting multi coloured petals from the same stem, or growing into the shape of humans – but it can also be as sinister as a huge alligator which seems to have merged with a shark, creating a creature you most definitely do not want to spend any time with. As the team make their way closer and closer to the site of the meteor impact it begins to look as though their chances of surviving this mission are growing perilously slim…

Annihilation is a decent sci-fi movie, if not an exceptional one – and it’s nowhere near as effective as Garland’s previous effort, the criminally underrated Ex Machina. It’s refreshing though to see an action film that is predominately led by female actors, even if I really didn’t learn an awful lot about their respective characters – and there’s one particular sequence in here, featuring a mutated bear, that really did push the throttle headlong in the direction of terror. There’s an interesting conclusion too, which will doubtless prompt some discussion after the credits have rolled.

In the end, it’s hard to say whether this film would have done much business at the cinema. I actually doubt it. And, judging by what I’ve seen on social media, it’s getting plenty of  viewings on Netflix, even if most of the resulting comments are far from complimentary.

One thing’s for sure. It’s an easy matter to tune in and judge for yourselves.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Play That Goes Wrong


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The clue is most definitely in the title. When we arrive at the King’s, members of Mischief Theatre’s ‘technical crew’ are making frantic last-minute repairs to an elaborate 1920s country house set. A member of the audience is recruited to help them and is furnished with booby-trapped equipment that malfunctions whenever he tries to use it, eliciting much laughter from the audience and serving as an indicator of what is to follow. And then, the lights dim and the leader of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society strides on to introduce, The Murder at Haversham Manor. He explains that the society has recently been the recipient of an unexpected bequest, one that has allowed them to put on a much more ambitious play than their earlier efforts…

Then the  play itself, a hoary old murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie, gets under way – and it’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that yes, it does go wrong in just about every way imaginable – actors forget their lines, a ‘corpse’ keeps making inappropriate noises, important pieces of scenery repeatedly fall down and at one point, a key member of the cast is knocked unconscious and has to be replaced by a stage hand – who is then reluctant to relinquish the role when the original actor unexpectedly recovers.

Ironically, in order to depict a show going so badly, the cast are called upon to maintain absolute control; they display excellent comic timing and, as the play gathers pace in the second half, we are treated to some truly spectacular (and dangerous-looking) disasters, including one that seems to have drawn its inspiration from the work of Buster Keaton.

All right, it’s fair to say, I suppose, that this is all a bit one-note – it does pretty much what it says on the can and repeats the same basic joke ad infinitum – but it’s all presented with such zeal and precision that it succeeds spectacularly on that score. By the time I stumble away into the night, my face is aching from a surfeit of hilarity. Those of you who are in dire need of cheering up – and goodness knows there seems to be plenty of things to feel morose about lately – should look no further than this Olivier Award winning comedy.

It’s a cracker.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


My Neighbor Totoro


After the harrowing Grave of the Fireflies, the next film in the Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season comes as a slice of light relief. My Neighbor Totoro is the enchanting story of two intrepid young girls from the city, Satsuki (voiced by Noriko Hadaka) and her little sister, Mei (Chika Sakamoto). In the opening scenes, we watch as the girls move with their father to a dilapidated house in the Japanese countryside in order to be closer to their mother, who is ill in hospital (with what, exactly, we are never told).

The old house harbours some fascinating secrets, including the little creatures called ‘Soot Spreaders’, who haunt the dark corners of each room and scatter away whenever humans approach; but Satsuki and Mei seem to greet such visitors with interest and delight, rather than dread. If there’s a central message here it seems to be ‘embrace the inexplicable’ and that’s exactly what the girls do, encouraged by the enthusiasm and positivity of their father. They soon make friends with Granny (Tania Kitabayashi) an old lady who lives nearby and even with Kanta (Toshiyuki Amagasa), a teenage boy who initially appears to be unfriendly but who proves to be a friend when push comes to shove. The girls also discover that the nearby forest is home to a collection of mystical creatures, not least the strange shambling clawed beast known as Totoro, who unlike most monsters turns out to friendly and helpful.

As in ‘Fireflies,’ this story perfectly captures the essence of a moody but resourceful  little girl (Mei) and her interplay with Totoro provides much of the humour here. Their antics are often laugh-out-loud funny. The storyline has strong echoes of Alice In Wonderland, particularly in Mei’s pursuit of a rabbit-like creature down an underground opening and in the form of a Cheshire Cat-headed magical ‘coach’ summoned by Totoro to take the girls off on fantastic adventures. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, this is a delightful film that has genuine appeal for all ages. It’s also quite beautiful to look at – some of the gorgeous woodland vistas captured here would not look out of place on the walls of an art gallery.

Utterly beguiling. The Cameo’s season continues on Sunday 18th of March with Kiki’s Delivery Service. Get those tickets booked now!!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


You Were Never Really Here


There’s plenty to admire in You Were Never Really Here. Lynne Ramsay’s edgy, coiled-spring of an action movie, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, is deeply unsettling, even if I can’t help drawing comparisons with an even better film, Taxi Driver, with which it shares a central premise.

Ramsay’s take on the idea is a much more fragmentary affair than Martin Scorcese’s 1976 masterpiece, flickering eerily in and out of past trauma and often showing us images that turn out to be no more than sick fantasies in the head of the central character.

That character is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix),  a shambling, bearlike presence in this film, muttering in monosyllables and wandering morosely from scene to scene as he metes out grim retribution to those he believes are beyond saving. He’s a traumatised ex-soldier and former FBI agent, who now earns a crust  tracking down missing girls – and sadly there seems to be no shortage of them in the cities of America. In his down time, Joe cares for his aging mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he shares a touching, almost childlike bond.

Joe has a healthy paranoia about being seen by others (hence the title) and always does his level best to stay off the radar. His services are enlisted by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), whose teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped by a well-connected paedophile. She is being held hostage in a city hotel room, so Joe goes in to rescue her, armed with his favourite weapon, a ball-peen hammer. But he soon comes to fully appreciate just how powerful Nina’s kidnapper is – and it isn’t long before he has become a target for the man’s deadly enforcers.

This is an uncompromisingly brutal film, the many scenes of violence somehow made even more affecting by the fact that we glimpse them from a distance, or through the impassive monochrome gaze of a hotel’s security cameras. The action is liberally crosscut with harrowing memories of Joe’s troubled childhood, when he and his mother were regularly terrorised by Joe’s abusive father. It soon becomes apparent that what Joe is seeking more than anything else is some kind of redemption for his own suffering.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s nonetheless mesmerising. Phoenix is utterly convincing in the central role, there’s a bruising score by Johnny Greenwood, and Ramsay directs with a confident, almost hallucinatory style, never over-explaining the story, allowing her viewers to reach their own conclusions through the barrage of conflicting images she immerses them in.

It’s a powerful brew, not for the faint-hearted.

4.5 stars




Assembly Hall, Mound Place, Edinburgh

A joint production by renowned theatre companies, Grid Iron and Stellar Quines, this comedy musical is an ambitious project. It’s not easy to stage a riotous musical with a small cast and no live band or orchestra. Given these limitations, Bingo! punches well above its weight, with gutsy, energetic songs and performances to match.

Set (where else?) in a bingo hall – staffed by the lovely Betty (Jane McCarry) and her sidekick, Donny (Darren Brownlie) – it tells the tale of world-weary travel agent, Daniella (Louise McCarthy). She’s fed up of living at home with her mother, Mary (Wendy Seager), and feels left-behind by her best friend, Ruth (Jo Freer), who’s not only been to university but has got herself a teaching job, a husband and a baby. Daniella is bitter and sad; she wants a bit of glamour and excitement in her life – and that’s what a bingo win can offer her. Oh yeah, and it just might provide an answer to a more pressing problem too, such as how she might replace the money she’s ‘borrowed’ from the holiday kitty she’s been entrusted with. Throw drunken old lady Joanna (Barbara Rafferty) and her Henry Hoover into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a perfect set-up. Sit back and see what happens next!

There’s a whole lot of lovely in this show. I’m especially impressed by Jo Freer, who has an easy naturalism; there is real depth to her portrayal of Ruth, which goes well beyond ‘convincing.’ But she’s in good company: these are all skilled practitioners, showing their acting chops. The choreography is good, and I really like the lighting and the set. There’s a bit of a problem with the sound towards the end of the first act, but it’s all back on track after the interval, so it’s not a big issue.

But there are some negatives, not least the fact that Bingo! sometimes seems unsure of what it is. The dark comedy juxtaposed with tender relationships works well; the social commentary is less convincing (Daniella bemoaning how little money she earns doesn’t make me feel particularly sympathetic, for example; she still has money over after she’s paid for rent, bills, food, take-aways, nights out, clothes, etc.). And there are some details that stretch credulity, such as the big money prize being paid in cash, making the recipient a target for anyone who wants to get their hands on it.  (I asked a reliable source – a regular bingo player – who told me it’d definitely be paid directly into the winner’s bank account.)

Still, these niggles aside, this is a funny, enjoyable production, and you could certainly do worse things with your evening than spend it in the company of these hopeful gamblers.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield




Lothian Road, Edinburgh

When we first decided to feature food reviews on this blog, we agreed that we wouldn’t be covering any chain restaurants. We really didn’t think there was much point. But I suppose there has to be a notable exception to every rule and when, after a particularly fraught day’s work, we decide there’s really only one place we both fancy dining, then this review becomes inevitable. Because as chain restaurants go, Wagamama is, in our humble opinion, the best of the bunch. You can see the food being freshly prepared in the open kitchen, the staff are friendly and attentive and I love their open approach to specialist tastes – there’s a huge choice of both vegetarian and vegan meals and even some gluten-free options. We have eaten in Wagamama venues all over the country and the quality of the food never falters.

It’s a Thursday evening and the Lothian Road branch is pleasantly bustling with post-work diners. We take our seats, order drinks and peruse the menu, though I already have long-established firm favourites here. One of them is the chicken katsu curry. To me, this is the ultimate ‘hug on a plate,’ not at all challenging, you understand, but so very satisfying. There’s something about that big mound of sticky rice bathed in a kind of gloopy ‘chip shop curry’ sauce that is so compelling. There’s also the tender strips of chicken in their breadcrumb coating and that perfectly judged crispy salad dressed in a zesty sauce. I’ve often said that, when I find myself on Death Row (presumably sent there for crimes against humanity), this is the dish I will send out for.

I will also ask for a portion of duck gyoza, those succulent, flavoursome steamed parcels which are so delicious on their own and taste even more so when dipped into the accompanying bowl of  sweet chilli sauce – my mouth is watering just describing it!

We also order a portion of yasai yaki soba, a big plate of sizzling noodles with mushrooms, egg, peppers, bean sprouts and much more. There’s a fabulous gingery kick to this dish and a wonderful contrast between the softness of the noodles and the crunchiness of the vegetables that just compels you to keep eating until the plate is clean. Sprinkle it with soy sauce and it’s even better!

One more main dish, we decide, something we haven’t tried before and it’s prawn raikusaree, a mild coconut and citrus curry, served with a mound of white rice, peppers, red onion, red chillies and lime. The decently sized prawns are perfectly cooked and almost melt in the mouth. It’s sublime, and we realise that we’ve just discovered what’s destined to be another firm favourite.

After all that, can we possibly find room for pudding? Well, it has been a particularly tiring day… we were up at 5am for goodness sake! We decide to share a coconut and fig cheescake and a bowl of salted caramel ice cream. The former is light and adorable, based on a crunchy biscuit base and, of course, ice cream is just ice cream, right? Well no, as it happens, even this has its own unique flavour, sprinkled with caramelised sesame seeds and liberally dressed with a chilli toffee and ginger sauce. Yum!

Wagamama seems to me to be almost unique amongst chain restaurants, displaying levels of invention married to standards of quality you won’t find in many  establishments. Oh, and did I mention it’s also excellent value for money? Little wonder you rarely see the restaurants empty.

This was a great idea and it certainly won’t be the last time we dine here.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney