Month: July 2018

Swimming With Men

11/07/18

The Full Monty has so much to answer for. Since its initial success in 1997, there have been innumerable films about groups of men banding together in order to perform in front of audiences, and the makers of Swimming With Men are clearly hoping to find similar success. Herethe chosen skill is male synchronised swimming and, while there’s definitely the germ of a good idea at the heart of this endeavour, the resulting film never really manages to make its way out of the shallow end.

Eric Scott (Rob Brydon) is an accountant, currently going through a mid-life crisis. Thoroughly bored and disgusted with his day job, he somehow convinces himself that his wife, newly elected town councillor, Heather (Jane Horrocks), is having an affair with her boss. He promptly storms out of the family home to live in a nearby hotel and spends most of his spare time at the local swimming baths, working off his feelings of discontent. It’s here that he encounters a group of disaffected men who are learning synchronised swimming routines. They include handsome leader, Luke (Rupert Graves), former youth team footballer, Colin (Daniel Mays), and dodgy delinquent, Tom (Thomas Turgoose). Eric’s abilities with mathematics apparently make him an ideal addition to the collective and, pretty soon, with the help of swimming bath attendant, Susan (Charlotte Riley), they are training to enter the Male Synchronised Swimming World Championships. (If this strikes you as an unlikely occurrence, the film makers are keen to point out that a team from Sweden – who actually have small roles in the film – did exactly that a few years ago.)

But really, Swimming With Men fails to convince on so many levels, this is the least of the problems I have with it. There’s undoubtedly a timely message here about male bonding and the need for men to find a place where they can open up and talk about their unhappiness, but this film is a missed opportunity to fully explore the idea. Instead, the lazy, underdeveloped screenplay prefers to deal with simpler issues, but even then it doesn’t get them right, throwing up too many questions for comfort. Why is Brydon’s character so deluded? We are shown very little motivation for his destructive behaviour. And what really changes by the end?

There are also some less pressing  – but nonetheless niggling – issues. Why are several really excellent character actors given very little to do but splash around in budgie smugglers? And why is there no visible change over time in the physiques of men who are supposedly training hard for a World Championship?

Ultimately though, what really defeats the film is the fact that the sport of synchronised swimming, as performed by a group of amateurs, just doesn’t look very spectacular on the big screen. I find myself in total sympathy with the bunch of kids at a birthday party who are given a performance as a special treat and watch the resulting antics in bemused silence. (No wonder one of them feels the need to liven things up by putting a turd in the pool.) Indeed, it really says something when the film’s most memorable scene has the swimming team performing a spirited routine… on dry land.

This is a potentially interesting idea that fails to stay afloat and seems destined to sink without trace.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Leave No Trace

11/07/18

Debra Granik’s latest offering is Leave No Trace, a movie every bit as haunting and memorable as her 2010 Best Picture contender, Winter’s Bone. Based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, this is a slow, thoughtful and affecting piece, a considered exploration of what it means to live outside society, how much pressure there is to conform, to opt in.

Ben Foster is Will, an army veteran with recurring nightmares and an aversion to bureaucracy. He lives with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), in the wilds of Oregon’s Forest Park, which – although not far from the state’s bustling capital of Portland – is a vast, unpopulated area, dense with trees, and far removed from the ‘civilisation’ embraced by the city-dwellers. Of course they have to venture into town sometimes – Will picks up his prescription drugs from the veterans’ clinic, then sells them so that he can buy supplies of rice and beans and chocolate. But essentially they are survivalists, sleeping in a small tent, cooking over open fires, foraging for much of what they eat. They read, they play chess, they fend for themselves. They also practise being invisible, enacting ‘drills’ where they try to trace one another, preparing for an inevitable attempt from the outside world to capture them and draw them in.

When that outside world does invade, however, it proves to be a strong adversary, with teams of police and tracker dogs; Will and Tom cannot escape. Reluctantly, they leave their camp, and undergo a series of psychological tests to determine where they should be placed. Everyone they meet is kindly and polite; they are treated well. But they are not allowed to live the life they choose, and must try to fit in, whatever they believe. A well-meaning farmer (Jeff Kober) reads about them in the press and offers them use of a small house on his land. In return, Will must work for him, pruning, chopping and packing Christmas trees, in a not-so-subtle metaphor for the way his own true nature is being curtailed. The serried ranks of fir are so very different from the dense, lush forest they have left behind, and Will is desperately miserable. Ben Foster’s quiet embodiment of misery is one of the best things about this film: on the surface, he is doing what he’s asked, drawing little attention to himself. But it’s no surprise when he packs his bags, when he tells Tom that they are moving on.

Tom, though, is less elated to be leaving. She’s a teenage girl; she loves her dad and enjoys her life with him, but she’s learning to appreciate other people’s company; she’s excited – if nervous – about starting school. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s performance is remarkable, as understated as Ben Foster’s, and devastatingly engaging. She doesn’t say much about how she feels, but it shows in her eyes, in her trembling chin.

At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story: Tom is growing up, growing away. And the life Will needs has little place for compromise; even a rural trailer park in Washington, run by the kindly Dale (Dale Dickey) is too structured, too populated for him to endure. So Tom is faced with a heartbreaking choice.

This is a gentle but fiercely intelligent study of what it means to be human and how we interact within our world. Will has been profoundly affected by the war he has fought in; he is a product of the society he now rejects. It’s not hard to understand how the simple beauty of nature is balm to his soul, and the cinematography substantiates that sense of wellbeing, the lush greenery embracing him and Tom in a verdant hug, as intimate and knowable as it is boundless and strange.

A lovely film, and well worth seeking out.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Whitney

10/07/18

Whitney Houston was the proverbial golden girl. Born into a talented family – her Mother was Cissy Houston, her cousin Dionne Warwick – she was blessed with an almost incandescent beauty and a singing voice that was quite simply thrilling to listen to. Of course she was always going to be a star and it’s little wonder that her version of  Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You is still the biggest selling record by a female artist ever. But her career also followed a depressingly predictable trajectory. A meteoric rise to stardom, following by a rapid descent into drug-fuelled oblivion. Why is it that so many successful pop stars follow that route? Why does having so much inevitably lead them to the feeling that they actually have nothing worth living for?

Of course, the popular opinion is that Whitney was a saint, led astray by her marriage to bad boy singing car crash, Bobby Brown – but what quickly becomes clear from Kevin MacDonald’s astute documentary, Whitney, is that the seeds of her self-destruction were sewn years before her success as a pop star. It was there in the family that closed ranks around her and effectively became her employees, in the pushy mother who groomed her for success and the interfering father who stole vast sums of money from her and eventually ended up suing her to the tune of a hundred million dollars. It was in the two brothers who first introduced her to drugs when she was still just a teenager and it was in the ever-hungry public who demanded everything from her when she was successful and yet voyeuristically relished her dramatic fall from grace. And of course, it was in the tabloids, as ever, waiting in the wings to feed on the misery…

Whitney isn’t an easy watch. At times, it’s downright heartbreaking. MacDonald has opened the film up to be more than just the standard pop star biography. He pulls in found elements that reflect the world over the turbulent years of her fluctuating fortunes, contrasting her sweet girl image with the ugly reality of war and race riots. Unlike Nick Broomfield, who also filmed a Whitney biopic this year, MacDonald has the full cooperation of the singer’s family and what they have to say about her life is sometimes frustrating and more often downright chilling. Towards the end of the film, a shocking accusation is made about a member of the family, one that is quickly backed up by others in the clan, and you begin to appreciate that this particular rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.

But Whitney’s talent shines through like a beacon, her superb voice even managing to make her rendition of The Star Spangled Banner (at the1991 Super Bowl game) a profoundly moving event. It’s as though her voice encapsulates all the pain she’s been going through for years, making it part of the fabric of her talent. Whitney fans may find this gives them a little more than they actually want to know, but it’s a powerful and affecting film that tells some uncomfortable truths.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Mary Shelley

09/07/18

It’s one of the most fascinating stories in the history of literature – how an eighteen year old girl, albeit the daughter of two respected writers and the partner of an acclaimed poet, managed to create one of the most seminal novels of all time – a book that has never been out of print since its release in 1818, one that has been filmed and staged countless times… and a book, moreover, that is a brilliant metaphor for womankind’s lot in the male-dominated society of the period.

Here, Mary is played by Elle Fanning, doing that sleepy-eyed, sulky thing she does so perfectly, while the role of Percy Bysshe Shelley is played by Douglas Booth. Indeed, at times, it’s hard to decide which one of them is the most photogenic. When we first encounter Mary, she’s sixteen years old, living with her father, the bookseller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her argumentative stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggat), and her stepsister, Claire (Bel Powley). Mary is obsessed with reading Gothic horror stories and is already making her first tentative attempts at writing fiction but, as her father tells her, she needs to stop imitating others and ‘find her own voice.’

On a rare visit to one of her cousins in Scotland, she encounters the handsome Percy Shelley and there’s an instant attraction between them. Summoned back to London because of Claire’s fictional ‘illness’, Mary is astonished when Percy turns up at her father’s bookshop, having enlisted William as his patron. It’s only a matter of time before Mary and Percy are in the throes of a full-blown romance. It’s not all plain sailing though. For one thing, there’s the fact that Percy already has a wife and daughter, a little detail that he has completely neglected to mention. But Mary manages to put her doubts aside. She’s smitten.

And then, to the complete disgust of polite society, the two lovers decide to run away together, taking Claire along for the ride. The three of them live a dissolute existence, struggling to make money and frittering away whatever they earn on alcohol and extravagant parties. Percy believes in free love and it isn’t long before, much to Mary’s dismay,  he’s drawing Claire into his amorous clutches. Then, the trio find themselves invited by Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) to stay at his villa in Switzerland, where he and his personal physician, Dr John Polidori (Ben Hardy), are currently holidaying – and where all the elements are in place for the creation of a Gothic masterpiece.

Haifaa al Monsour’s film sticks fairly closely to the facts and, despite the odd contemporary-sounding phrase, Emma Jensen’s screenplay easily manages to hold the attention. If Shelley comes across as a privileged idiot, he’s totally eclipsed by Byron, who, as portrayed by Sturridge, is easily the most slappable person in nineteenth century Europe, prone to making vile utterances about the superiority of men and engaging in macho posturing. Indeed, amongst the young male characters, only Polidori emerges as genuinely decent, though the treatment he experiences at the hands of the two poets might give him good cause to be surly.

This is a good movie, handsomely staged and capably directed. It may be the first time that the extraordinary nature of Mary’s achievement has been fully realised onscreen. If the film is a little short on fireworks, it’s nonetheless offers a fascinating insight into the scandalous events that surrounded the creation of Frankenstein.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Home, I’m Darling

 

07/07/18

Theatr Clwyd, Yr Wyddgrug

What’s this? A trip to the homeland to visit family that coincides with a chance to see the world première of Laura Wade’s latest play before it transfers to the National at the end of the month? Perfect timing! Four tickets, please. For the Saturday matinee.

It’s a sunny day, so we pack some fruit and sandwiches to take with us. Theatr Clwyd is in Yr Wyddgrug (aka the more prosaic ‘Mold’), and there are picnic tables outside, with panoramic views over the Clwydian hills. It’s a lovely place to sit and eat our lunch before we venture indoors. This is a bustling regional arts centre, with three theatres, a cinema and a function room, as well as a shop, bar, and bistro cafe. Neither Philip nor I have been here for a while, so we spend some time exclaiming over changes, and reminiscing about the past (factoid: Philip’s band, Hieronymous Bosch, used to play here, providing the music for youth theatre productions such as Godspell back in the day). We’re with my parents and, as mum walks with a zimmer frame, we’re pleased to note that the venue is pretty accessible, and that the staff are friendly and willing to help, e.g. with storing her wheels while we watch the play.

And what a play! We’re so glad we’ve come, even though there are blue skies outside and mum and dad are missing England defeating Sweden in the football word cup (we’re missing it too, of course, but we wouldn’t have watched anyway).

Katherine Parkinson stars as Judy, a woman obsessed with the 1950s. She met her husband, Johnny (Richard Harrington, or – as he’ll always be known in this house – DI Mattias) at a vintage car convention; their clothes and home decor are all authentic detritus from the decade they love so much. But paraphenalia isn’t enough to satisfy Judy and Johnny’s obsession; unlike their best friends, Fran (Kathryn Drysdale) and Marcus (Barnaby Kay), who just like the 50s aesthetic, the dancing and the airstream caravans, Johnny and Judy choose to model their whole lives around the fantasy, embracing – as Judy’s mother (Siân Thomas) says – a strange nostalgia for a time they never knew. Judy’s redundancy (she’s been working in finance and hating every minute) is the catalyst for their whole-hearted immersion; she will become a traditional housewife, making everything from scratch, keeping their home perfect. Meanwhile, Johnny will continue to work, but – when he comes home – it will be to warm slippers and a cocktail, a clean house and a fragrant wife. He takes some persuading – this is Judy’s dream, really – but he knows she’s unhappy in her job, and he can’t pretend he isn’t drawn to the idea of being waited on. It sounds great, right?

Except, of course, that it isn’t real. This isn’t the 1950s and this is not what life is like. Indeed, again according to Judy’s wonderfully acerbic and impatient mother – Siân Thomas is clearly relishing this role – this is not even what life was like in the actual 1950s. It’s a sanitised, glamourised version, an ideal that glosses over myriad inconvenient details. And, when Johnny’s new boss (Sara Gregory) fails to honour the promotion he’s been promised by her predecessor, Judy’s carefully constructed edifice is threatened by the humdrum irritant of ‘not having enough money to pay the mortgage or the bills.’

It’s a clever play, this, with a lot to say. Through Judy’s brittle fetishisation of the past, we get to analyse the gender politics of the modern age, to see that traditional gender roles don’t make men happy either; they’re no good for any of us. The rise of the alt-right means we’re being dragged backwards, losing rights hard-won by those who came before us. This play lays bare the problem with rose-tinted reminiscence, with cherry-picking details that seem appealing to us now. It also looks at the present with an eye that matches Judy’s gimlet cocktail, with nods to #metoo and eroding workers’ rights. Under Tamara Harvey’s direction, the performances are note-perfect, six complex, rounded characters with believable relationships.

I like the set, designed by Anna Fleischle: a doll’s house construction with a front wall that’s opened out as the play starts, all yellow kitchen and pineapple ice-buckets, flamingo shower curtains and muslin bottle tops. And the transitions between scenes are audacious, choreographed by Charlotte Broom, the jive entwined with prop-positioning.

If you’re in or near North Wales, you really should try to catch this before it makes the move to London – you’ve got until Friday. If not, it’s worth the trip to England’s capital.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

10/01/19

This excellent play is transferring soon to the Duke of Yorks Theatre in London’s West End. You’ll find booking details here: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/home-im-darling/duke-of-yorks/

Chez Jules

05/07/18

Northgate Street, Chester

The best Christmas presents often arrive late. This year, one of our gifts from Susan’s parents was a voucher entitling us to a visit to a restaurant, and we are finally, FINALLY in the right neck of the woods to take delivery, accompanied by said parents and ready to dine. It’s one of the hottest days of the year, so it’s hard to summon up that Christmas feeling but, after a leisurely stroll around Chester’s city walls, it’s certainly not difficult to enjoy the delights of Chez Jules, a spacious and airy French restaurant located on Northgate Street.

Susan opts to start with the heritage tomato salad, which comes with a delicious black olive tapenade, caper berries and watercress pesto. It’s zesty and refreshing, perfect for the unaccustomed heat wave. I go for a crab cake, liberally stuffed with delicious crustacean and served with sweet aioli and a cluster of green leaves. It’s nicely prepared and handsomely presented.

The hot weather persuades us to stick with the salads for the main course. Susan has the salade maison, a gorgeous combination of spicy sweet potato, giant cous cous, green beans, pecan nuts, pomegranate and watercress, all lightly sprinkled with a tangy citrus dressing. It’s a delight. I choose a perennial hot weather favourite, a Caesar salad, the crispy iceberg lettuce coated with just the right amount of dressing and sprinkled with croutons, parmesan cheese and (important this) plenty of good quality anchovies. For extra measure, I’ve had the version that incorporates a chopped chicken breast, the pieces of meat nicely judged, crispy on the outside but not too dry within. There are some people out there who insist that combining chicken and fish is a crime against humanity but, for my money, a salty anchovy agreeably nestled against a chunk of seared chicken is one of life’s little pleasures.

And so to the puddings and it’s interesting to note, that many of the items on the dessert menu are suitable for vegans, though you wouldn’t necessarily believe it if you weren’t given that information. Susan has a vegan chocolate and strawberry torte, which is wickedly (dare I use the word?) creamy,  and comes with strawberry gel, compressed strawberries and chocolate soil. My orange polenta cake is a bit of a revelation, not heavy and soggy like so many others I’ve sampled, but light as air, drizzled with miso caramel and served with a dollop of passion fruit marscapone. In a word, it’s scrumptious, and in moments, I’m virtually licking the plate clean.

Chez Jules, currently celebrating it’s 21st birthday, is a cut above many of its competitors. It proudly boasts that it doesn’t use any frozen foods, that all the ingredients are seasonal and freshly sourced each day – and, isn’t it lovely to find a place that allows vegetarians and vegans to indulge in some truly wicked puddings?

Nicely satisfied, we troop back out into the blazing sunshine, thinking that, as Christmas presents go, this has been one of the more memorable ones.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney