Month: May 2018

Withnail and I


It’s always interesting to revisit an old favourite. You’re never entirely sure how well it’s going to hold up after the passage of so many years. Withnail and I (1987), shown here in a spanking new high resolution print, is a good case in point. I saw it on its first release when working as a reviewer for Manchester’s City Life Magazine and fully remember being absolutely blown away by it, laughing hysterically from start to finish. Though I’ve seen it a few times on TV over the years, it is great to have the opportunity to watch it again, as it was always intended to be seen.

Set in 1969, at the fag end of the hippie movement, it concerns two ‘resting’ actors residing in a dilapidated London flat, both of them dreaming of theatrical success and in the meanwhile going about the nearly full time task of getting themselves thoroughly wasted. After which, needing a break, they go on holiday in the country ‘by mistake.’

The role of Withnail provided Richard E. Grant with a stunning cinematic swansong and launched him on a long and varied career which continues to this day (though it’s sobering to reflect that in everything he’s done since, he never again had a role as downright memorable as this one). As his friend and flatmate, Paul McGann is so much more than just a foil. His bleak voiceovers are the glue that holds this shambolic series of misadventures together and his total incomprehension of his friend’s selfish, venal and manipulative habits is always a source of considerable merriment. Whilst we’re handing out the plaudits, let’s not forget Ralph Brown’s inspired turn as drug dealer and philosophiser Danny, which also provided him with a career high. Most telling of all, can there be any other film that features so many downright quotable one-liners? I seriously doubt it.

If there’s a problem with viewing a film that is so  ‘of its time’, it inevitably comes with the late Richard Griffiths’ portrayal of the predatory Uncle Monty, a rich homosexual who has set his sites on ‘I’ and means to have him by any means at his disposal. There’s nothing wrong with Griffiths’ performance, of course. Like most of his screen work,  it’s exemplary and he somehow manages to evoke genuine sympathy for a tragic character who is, more than anything else, lonely – but all that talk about buggery by force does make you feel rather uncomfortable. Is the film homophobic? Yes, undoubtedly – and I’m quite sure that, were it being shot in this day and age, writer/director Bruce Robinson would be obliged to rein in certain aspects of his script. Sadly, Robinson too never fulfilled the potential he demonstrated here – How To Get Ahead in Advertising, also starring Grant, was a much-anticipated misfire and the two films he’s made since then have failed to demonstrate his flair for whip-smart dialogue.

Ultimately, Withnail and I still works, even if – these days – I’m laughing more from familiarity than anything else. How great it would be to go back and view it, once again, for the very first time. It may, with the gift of hindsight, be a flawed classic – but a classic it undoubtedly remains.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney



How to Talk to Girls at Parties


How To Talk to Girls at Parties has been openly derided by many reviewers, the main criticism being that it tries to cover too many genres. On the other hand, its rare – in these movie-saturated times – to find a slice of cinema that’s trying for something truly original and, for this at least, the film deserves some respect. Partially based on a Neil Gaiman short story and directed by John Cameron Mitchell (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame), it feels  – more than anything else – like a gutsy little independent production, but one that’s somehow managed to persuade an A-list cast to climb aboard for the voyage.

It’s 1977, the year of the Queen’s Jubilee, and Enn (Alex Sharp) is a teenage punk, disgusted with what’s happening around him and currently running a fanzine which he does with the help of his mates, John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (Abraham Lewis). In their down time, they eagerly discuss the great issues of the day, such as the Clash signing to CBS and, of course, most baffling of all, the age-old problem identified in the film’s title. Meanwhile, they attend punk rock concerts helmed by local icon, Queen Boudicea (Nicole Kidman sporting a blonde wig and a faintly dodgy cockney accent). But when the three friends go in search of an ‘after-show’ party, they chance upon a gathering of what they first take to be American art students, but what actually turns out to be a crowd of visiting cannibalistic aliens.

Amidst the confusion, Enn bumps into disaffected young extra-terrestrial, Zan (Elle Fanning doing that sleepy–eyed wild-child thing she does so brilliantly), and she asks Enn to teach her more about ‘the punk.’ Which he gleefully agrees to do. It’s not long before the two of them start to fall for each other. But it appears that their time together is to be short, because the leader of the alien visitors is planning something very drastic indeed…

HTTTGAT is undeniably ramshackle and the plot machinations are, frankly, of the fruit-loop variety – but, having said that, the film has a gutsy charm that makes you forgive its excesses and it somehow manages to capture the exuberance of the Punk Rock movement in a way few other films have. Sharp and Fanning make an agreeable twosome and the off-the-wall alien costumes, created by veteran designer Sandy Powell, are delightfully eye-popping. This certainly won’t be for everyone – it’s very quirky – but I thought it was great fun, no matter how many genres it gleefully straddled.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


I Feel Pretty


I have to admit, my expectations are low for I Feel Pretty. I’ve seen the trailer, and it all looks a bit… silly. I’ve read reviews too, and they’ve not been kind. Amy Schumer, according to some critics, is just too conventionally pretty and relatively slim to convince as an ugly duckling. To these commentators I say just this: I think that’s the whole point.

Because Renée (Schumacher) isn’t supposed to be hideous. She’s just ordinary. She looks fine. But she doesn’t look the way she wants to; she doesn’t fit the image she sees held up as an ideal – an image she’s exposed to even more than most people, because she works for a cosmetics company. Her self-esteem is so low she can’t look people in the eye, whether she’s trying to order drinks in a bar or give her shoe size to a clerk. But a drunken trip to a wishing well followed by a bang to the head in an exercise class give Renée a new-found confidence: when she looks in the mirror, she sees a supermodel. To everybody else she looks just the same; her friends are dumb-founded when she talks about how much she’s changed. But her self-belief yields positive results: the new, bold version of Renée is go-getting and popular. The message, it seems, is a simple one: believe in yourself and others will follow suit.

It’s a sensible message, and Schumer is a strong performer: funny and engaging and easy to like. A shame, then, that the film is so muddled, that – after a strong opening third – it flounders, and seems to lose its way. Take Renée’s first date with Ethan (Rory Scovel), for example. He’s a great character, and their relationship is touching. But the bikini contest (which Renée enters on a whim) is a baffling mis-step, which seems to undermine any positive message about female body image and empowerment that the film lays claim to. How can this ‘baying-men-decide-who’s-the-hottest-girl’ competition fit with that narrative?

There are other issues, mostly of credibility. Why is Renée so needlessly cruel to her friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps)? It doesn’t seem in keeping with the character (I know she’s been transformed, but it doesn’t match any of her other behaviour, even after the change). And the saccharine ‘we’re all beautiful’ ending makes me want to puke. I mean, c’mon. All this for that?  It’s depressingly trite.

Still, there are redeeming features. Michelle Williams shows once again what a chameleon she is; I hardly recognise her at first as squeaky-voiced company director, Avery LeClaire. A lot of clichés are successfully avoided: the fashion folk are not all vacuous and bitchy; the ‘beautiful’ women are as real as the ‘plainer’ ones. It’s eminently watchable. It’s just not very good.

3 stars

Susan Singfield



Let’s face it, Macbeth’s biggest problem is its ubiquity. Easily the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays – and arguably one of the most powerful – we’ve seen so many average versions of it over the years (amongst which I am inclined to include Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation) that a production really needs to do something very special with the source material in order to make it an enticing proposition. I’m therefore delighted to say that the National Theatre’s latest production, directed by Rufus Norris and seen here via a live cinema linkup,  does exactly that, giving us a Macbeth that rivals the very best of them.

It almost goes without saying that both Rory Kinnear (in the title role) and Anne Marie Duff (as his manipulative wife) submit exceptional performances, giving those oh-so-familiar lines enough oomph to make you feel as though you’re actually hearing them for the first time. No mean feat.  But it’s the production design that really shines. This version takes place in what might well be a post-apocalyptic world, where a civil war has just been bloodily disputed and where everything has a grungy ‘make do and mend’ look. Severed heads are proudly displayed in supermarket carrier bags, food is served in battered mess tins and even Macbeth’s armour is contrived from found items battered into shape, which have to be literally gaffa-taped onto him before each battle. Duncan (Stephen Boxer)’s royal regalia comprises an ill-fitting red velvet suit, that might have been salvaged from a charity shop. It provides the one splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise drab and scuffed world.

Production designer Rae Smith has created a huge wood and metal arch upon which much of the action plays out. It somehow contrives to be both heavily industrial yet strangely ethereal as it swings silently back and forth. It is poised over a revolving circular stage, so that each successive scene can glide effortlessly into position. In one sequence, the Weird Sisters move with the turning of that central wheel like the protagonists of a particularly disturbing nightmare. There’s some great use of regional accents: Trevor Fox’s Porter is a dour Geordie; Patrick O’ Kane’s MacDuff a pugnacious Irishman. Oh, and the element that lets down so many stage productions – that climactic battle – is delivered here with enough zeal and gusto to be truly convincing. You’ll believe that a head can be bloodily severed.

Of course, if you’re reading this and you weren’t at last night’s showing, you’ve already missed your chance to see the live broadcast, but the good news is that the production is heading out on a UK and Ireland tour from late September, so – if it’s showing anywhere near you – do take the opportunity to see it. It will serve to remind you that Shakespeare, when convincingly done, can be truly and utterly enthralling.

5 stars

Philip Caveney




King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

All the familiar tropes we associate with the First World War are present and correct in this adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel: plucky working class ‘Tommys’; a handsome young upper-crust officer; a selection of patriotic songs – and, of course,  the overpowering futility of the ‘war to end all wars.’ Faulks’s 800 page doorstop tome must have been a challenge to adapt but Rachel Wagstaff has done an efficient job of distilling it down to its key points.

The stage version focuses primarily on two characters. Jack Firebrace (Tim Trelor) is a ‘sewer rat,’ one of the sappers whose job it is to tunnel for miles under enemy lines, planting explosives and then detonating charges. It’s thankless, back-breaking work and the claustrophobia of the Firebrace’s situation is cleverly conveyed. Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) is an artistically inclined young officer, haunted by memories of an affair he had in France – before the outbreak of war – with Isabelle (Madeleine Knight), a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship with a much older husband. The constant segues – from the trenches of 1916 to his time with the Azaire family in Amiens in 1910 – are at first a little disorienting but, once I have settled into the rhythm, I begin to appreciate how skilfully the transitions have been achieved. The final scene of act one as the allies prepare to go ‘over the top’ at the Battle of the Somme is particularly powerful and, for me, the dramatic high point of the play.

The second half takes us on to the aftermath of the Somme, where Wraysford, wounded in the battle and assigned a desk job returns to Amiens to search for his former lover. If it lacks some of the urgency of the first half, there’s still much here to enjoy, not least the plaintive vocal stylings of James Findlay, whose affecting voice lends the songs of the period extra resonance.

This is a powerful and mournful play that skilfully combines elements of brutality and romance. It may be an oft-told story, but – in this case – familiarity does not breed contempt. In fact, in these chaotic times, it feels sadly prescient.

4 stars

Philip Caveney


Mary and the Witch’s Flower


Studio Ghibli may be defunct, but here’s the first release from its successor, Studio Ponoc, and it’s apparent pretty much from the word go that the resulting film couldn’t be more Ghilbli-esque if it tried. All the familiar tropes are here. A moody young girl with low self-esteem? Check! Stranded in an unfamiliar neighborhood while her parents are away? You’ve got it! A cheeky but handsome boy she at first hates but grows to care about? Oh, yes! Sumptuous representations of the countryside?  All present and correct!

Which might give the impression that Mary and the Witch’s Flower is nothing but a pale imitation of what has gone before and I certainly don’t mean to do that. Suffice to say that the film is very much in the great tradition of Japan’s leading animation studio and, of course, that should be no great surprise, because its director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (of When Marnie Was There), was one of Ghibli’s most acclaimed animators.

MATWF is based on classic 70s novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, a book that was clearly a huge influence on  the work of a certain Ms Rowling, and tells the story of young Mary (Hana Sugisaki), who is currently living with her Great Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) and doing her best to fit in with a rather dull day-to-day existence in the countryside. A chance encounter in the woods leads her to discover the titular flower, said to be able to grant its possessor incredible powers and, shortly thereafter, she finds an ancient broomstick, which – once activated – takes her off to the mysterious Endor College, a school for witches…

As a calling card, Studio Ponoc really couldn’t have done much more to assure Ghibli fans that its towering reputation is in safe hands. There are the kind of gorgeously lush settings we’ve grown to expect, elements of adventure, comedy and suspense and, of course, that all-important atmosphere of magic that will entrance viewers of all ages. There’s also a choice of viewing. Those who, like me, prefer to watch it in the original language with subtitles, can choose to do so – but there is also a dubbed version on offer, voiced by Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent.

Mary Stewart would, I’m sure, have been thrilled with this delightfully inventive adaptation of her classic book. It’s sure to captivate a legion of animation fans.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney




Diablo Cody’s latest offering is as quirky and unflinching as we’ve come to expect from the author of Juno. The eponymous Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a night-nanny, her services gifted to a reluctant Marlo (Charlize Theron) by her rich younger brother, Craig (Mark Duplass). Mark might be crass and boastful, but he knows how exhausting it can be to look after a newborn, especially when there are already two older children on the scene. Marlo and her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), don’t like feeling beholden to Craig, but – after a scene at their son Jonah’s prestigious kindergarten, where the staff seem neither able nor willing to deal with his additional needs – Marlo concedes defeat. Drew is busy at work, chasing a promotion that will mean a lot to them, and she simply can’t cope with all she has to do. She calls Tully. And Tully changes things.

This is a deliciously honest account of family life and parenting: of the grinding drudgery of night-feeds and school runs, as well as the fierce love and joyous moments that make it all worthwhile. The characterisation is sharp: Marlo, Drew and their children are flawed, believable people, as three-dimensional as they come. They feel real, as if you know them – or people like them, anyway. Tully herself is less familiar, but that’s fine; viewed through Marlo’s eyes, she’s an angel, a saviour, who appears in the night like the elves for the shoemaker, cleaning and baking and taking care of everything.

There are a few moments in the film where I am suddenly unsure, uncomfortable, not convinced by what I see. But I’m glad I stick with it, because everything plays out satisfactorily, and all the things that don’t quite sit right are squared away.

Theron is very good indeed; she plays tired and frazzled with complete authenticity. I like Ron Livingston too; he treads a difficult line here, making Drew at once immensely likeable and irritating. Why does he sit upstairs playing computer games while his wife is falling apart? But he’s not uncaring, nor is he lazy – he does the kids’ baths and supervises homework every night, as well as working long hours – he’s just oblivious and unaware. Still, I do have one major gripe here, which I don’t think the film answers, and it’s this: why does Drew never introduce himself to Tully? She’s in his house every night, and he’s there as well. Why doesn’t he go downstairs and meet the woman who is looking after his baby? He’s a good father, invested in his kids. This makes no sense to me at all. Still, it’s not enough to spoil what is essentially a decent movie, entertaining and informative and very well worth the ticket price.

4 stars

Susan Singfield