Month: September 2018

A Simple Favour

23/09/18

After the hysterical social media mauling that Paul Feig received over his all-woman remake of Ghostbusters, I fully expected him to navigate back towards the safer waters of his earlier material, but with A Simple Favour, he’s attempted something altogether trickier than the ‘women being outrageous’ comedies that made his reputation. It’s evident from the very start, as vintage French jazz oozes over the credits, that he’s trying to emulate one of those twisty-turny Gallic neo-noir thrillers of the 1950s – indeed, one of the characters even mentions Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, without so much as raising an ironic eyebrow.

A Simple Favour is the story of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), an endlessly sparky single mother, trying to be positive after the death of her husband and half-brother (in the same car crash), and channeling most of her spare time into the Vlogs she does, which offer cookery tips to hard-pressed ‘moms.’ As a result, she is soundly patronised by the other parents at the school and doesn’t really have any close friends.

Her life changes dramatically, however,  when she encounters Emily (Blake Lively), a mysterious mover and shaker in the fashion industry, who lives in the kind of dream home that Stephanie has always fantasised about, and who has the dreamboat husband to go with it. Sean (Henry Golding) is a failed-novelist-turned-college-lecturer, a man who is clearly putty in his wife’s manipulative hands.

One day, Emily asks Stephanie for the titular favour. Could she pick up her son from school and look after him until Emily comes for him? Stephanie readily accepts, seeing a way for the two of them to develop their friendship, but as the days pass by and there is not so much as a text message from Emily, Stephanie begins to realise that something is wrong. She decides to do a little digging… and discovers that her new friend has several dark and troubling secrets.

Of course, this being Paul Feig, he keeps the tone comic throughout, something which works well enough for the first two thirds of the film, as Kendrick and Lively strike verbal sparks off each other – but, in the final third, when the storyline strikes out into darker territory, he might have been better advised to ease off on the chuckles. The problem with this lightness of tone is that nothing ever feel convincingly threatening. The various revelations, as they drop, lose much of their power and, instead of suspending my disbelief – as I need to – I start to notice how wildly implausible much of the storyline is. I also can’t help thinking of an alternative twist, that I’m convinced, would work better.

Look, this isn’t by any means a terrible film. Kendrick is as delightful as ever, Lively is convincingly seductive and, as for Golding, he clearly has a huge future ahead of him. But this doesn’t quite come off. Nice try, but no cigar.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Little Stranger

22/09/18

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a curiously enigmatic and unsettling tale, and its transition from page to screen is profoundly satisfying. It’s a ghost story without ghosts, a horror film without real scares. And yet an uneasy sense of impending doom pervades the piece, and the tension in the cinema is almost palpable.

It’s 1948, and Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has returned from years of study and army-medic work to his Warwickshire hometown. He’s ill at ease here though, all too aware of his humble origins, and still obsessed with Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked as a maid.

Called to the Hall to minister to an ailing servant, Faraday finds himself drawn to the Ayres family: the ailing matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), who’s haunted by memories of her dead daughter, Susan; Roderick (Will Poulter), who’s struggling to cope with both the physical injuries and the mental stress he’s brought with him from the war; and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who – tasked with looking after them both – is bored and isolated in her idyllic country prison. But the relationships they forge are as unhealthy and demanding as the mouldering ancestral home, and it soon becomes clear that things are not going to end well.

This is a fascinating film, directed with the precision we expect from Lenny Abrahamson, following the award-winning Room. I like the careful slowness of it all, the repressed emotions that reverberate and shimmer. Domhnall Gleeson’s performance is wonderfully understated, the clenched jaw and tense body language testimony to just how much this man has to conceal: his past, his class, his raging desire.

Ruth Wilson is utterly convincing as the gauche Caroline Ayres, an unhappy blend of self-doubt and entitlement, both poor and rich, privileged and trapped. Of course, the whole film is a kind of commentary on class, on what it makes us and how we respond to it. And it’s as illuminating and disturbing as the shadows haunting Hundreds Hall.

The muted, misty colours of the post-war landscape mirror the shadowy ambiguities of the story, where we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is supernatural or not. It’s frustrating, all this teasing, but that’s no bad thing: it only adds to the film’s potency. Truly, this is an enthralling film.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Crazy Rich Asians

19/09/18

I’m conflicted about this movie before I even enter the cinema.

On the one hand, I’ve been reading a lot about representation, and how stupidly rare it is for mainstream American movies to feature Asian characters in lead roles, despite Asian-Americans making up a sizeable minority (5.6%) of the population there. So Crazy Rich Asians, with its Asian cast, writer and director, is a welcome reminder that the US is a diverse place, and that there are different cultural perspectives from those we’re offered time and time again.

On the other hand, the trailer has alarmed me. It seems to be wealth porn, revelling in images of lavish houses and designer clothes, first class this and diamond that – not so much aspirational as simple showing off. I’m alarmed rather than impressed by the excesses showcased here.

True, the film makes some attempt to comment on the over-abundance of everything, to dismiss as shallow the trappings of the 1%. But it’s never very convincing in its condemnation, luxuriating as it does in expensive frippery.

Based on Kevin Kwam’s novel of the same name and directed by Jon M Chu, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU. When her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), invites her to Singapore – to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family – she’s excited: she’s never travelled before, and she’s keen to see the world beyond America. What she hasn’t realised, however, is that Nick is super-rich: his family are property magnates, the wealthiest in Singapore. And they have very definite ideas about the kind of girl that Nick should marry: American is bad enough, but working-class and fatherless? That’s too far beyond the pale.

Characterisation is this movie’s major strength: the actors are all accomplished and the roles are distinct and largely believable. Wu and Golding make an appealing central pair, and there are some delightful supporting characters, notably Rachel’s college friend, Peik Lin Got (played with relish by the charismatic Awkwafina), and Nick’s fashion-forward cousin, Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos).

But the storyline is clichéd and – dare I say it? – dull. It’s also very American-centric, despite its Asian credentials. The underlying message seems to be that the American way  (the pursuit of individual happiness, following individual passions) is right, and that the Singaporean ideal (at least as espoused in this movie) – of destiny, of family ties and responsibility – is wrong. Rachel has nothing to learn from the people of Singapore, but they have much to learn from her. And this makes me quite uncomfortable.

I’m also bored by all the depictions of excess wealth, and irritated that this movie tries to have its cake and eat it, mocking the vulgarity of Charlie (Harry Shum Jr)’s stag do, whilst revelling in his ludicrously OTT wedding. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), whose defining moment seems to be the ’empowering’ realisation that she doesn’t have to hide her million dollar earrings from her husband, nor of the final, celebratory party – complete with rooftop synchronised swimmers, because what’s a party without them? – which seems to contradict entirely the sentiments preceding it.

All in all, I’m frustrated by Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t know how it can appeal to anyone who’s even slightly socialist. In its favour, it has showcased a plethora of Asian actors, and I hope that we’ll see them again – in better films than this.

2.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Twelfth Night

 

18/09/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s the start of a new season and the Lyceum launches with this groovy co-production with Bristol Old Vic. Twelfth Night, written late in Shakespeare’s career, is surely one of his finest comedies, featuring as it does some very memorable (and genuinely amusing) characters. But of course, there’s no point in doing Shakesy-P (as he’s indelibly known around B & B Towers after listening to the Six soundtrack) if you’ve nothing new to add to the formula.

The conceit here is that we’re at a debauched bacchanalian party in a run down country house. It’s somewhere in the late sixties or early seventies and the guests, having been roistering and jamming for several days, are still reluctant to call an end to the proceedings. One of them happens to be reading a copy of the play, so it is decided they’ll  give an impromptu performance of it. Suitable costumes are quickly improvised and, voila! We’re off.

Actually, the very start of proceedings feels a little er… forced and I start to suspect that I’m not going to enjoy this all that much, but happily, that feeling is spectacularly short-lived. The look and morals of the era actually lend themselves very well to this surreal gender-bending comedy of mistaken identities – and, just a few lines into Dawn Sievewright’s spirited performance as Lady Tobi Belch,  I am fully on side.

I also love Guy Hughes’ performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. He’s dressed like a full glam Elton John, and even blessed with a thoughtful Your Song-style ballad about his former days as a knight-errant. It’s decidedly odd, but it really works.

But it’s the role of Malvolio that is the real gift to any actor. Is there a more heart-rending character in all of the bard’s canon? I suspect not. Christopher Green makes an absolute feast of the role, all buttoned-up and controlled in his earlier manifestation, and then quite spectacular when transported by the power of love. The moment when he prances onstage in yellow cross-gartered stockings and (quite literally) lets his hair down is perhaps the production’s most memorable moment, one that earns an ovation all of its own.

I should also add that musical director Aly Macrae’s turn as a kind of groovy priest, shuffling into view and blessing everything in sight, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages, and that’s without him uttering so much as a word.

Wils Wilson directs with aplomb, the costumes, designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, are delightfully bohemian and, as for the original songs by Meilyr Jones, I think it’s safe to say that Will would have heartily approved of them. Shakespeare haters – and they do exist, I’ve met them – will surely find much here to convert them.

What a brilliant start to the new season!

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Grand Cru

15/09/18

Hanover Street, Edinburgh

It’s that rare beast: a Saturday where we have nothing particular planned, and a yearning to play out. Just as we’re wondering what direction our day will take, an email pops up, informing us that Grand Cru’s special lunch costs only £8.95 for two courses. Can this be true? We google the menu and it looks pretty impressive; the trip advisor reviews are decent too.

So we decide to head there for a late-ish lunch. And we’re really glad we do. Because, for the price, this is mighty fine.

There’s a friendly, informal atmosphere: a long bar and lots of nooks and crannies. We’re seated in the main area, and it’s buzzing – but even though it’s busy, we’re not too close to other diners and have plenty of room.

Philip begins with a caprese salad of mozzarella, tomatoes and avocado. It’s a generous portion, and the balsamic vinegar it’s topped with is as thick and sticky as can be. Delish! I have mussels in tomato sauce, which are served with a slice of warm, home-made bread. The mussels are perfect: big and soft and so plentiful I have to ask Philip to help me finish them. He’s more than happy to oblige, especially as the tomato sauce they’re in is rich and deeply satisfying. We’re off to a great start!

For his main, Philip opts for classic fish and chips – or, more accurately, angel cut Scottish haddock, cooked in home-made beer batter and served with chips and garden peas. The batter is hot and crispy; the fish perfectly cooked. The chips – often the weak point on a cheap menu like this – are lovely: clearly fresh rather than frozen, exactly as they need to be.

My beetroot and blue cheese risotto is a bit more unusual, but it’s really interesting and I enjoy it immensely. The flavours are strong and it’s very filling; we definitely don’t need the side of mac’n’cheese we’ve ordered to share, which matches nothing else on our plates, but we can’t resist (we never can say no when mac’n’cheese is on offer). It’s tasty and indulgent but quite unnecessary. Oh well.

We’re delighted to see a Willows End New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the menu for a mere £22 and, after polishing it off, decide we’re too full to even think about pudding.

We’re sated; we’re happy; we’ve had a lovely time. And the bill comes in at £43. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be back again.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Dunyayi Kurtaran Adam (aka Turkish Star Wars)

 

14/09/18

It’s after midnight and I’m watching what must be, hands down, the worst film I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Weirdly, though, I’m really enjoying the experience and so is the rest of the audience, who have flocked along to this midnight screening of 1982 Turkish fantasy movie, The Man Who Saved the World, or, as it’s better known these days, Turkish Star Wars. The nickname derives from the fact that this shoestring production shamelessly steals footage from Star Wars and a bunch of other movies, gleefully splicing it into the action and making no apologies for having done so.

Set somewhere in an unspecified future, there’s a long voiceover that sets out to explain the current world situation: the earth has been plunged into an interplanetary nuclear war and only mankind’s combined brainpower prevents it from being totally destroyed – at least, I think that is the gist of it. It has to be said, this is not the world’s most coherent plot.

We are then introduced to our heroes: intrepid space cadets, Murat (Cuyneyt Arkin, who also wrote the screenplay), and his best mate, Ali (Artekin Akkaya), who, when we first meet them, are engaged in a dogfight with some very familiar-looking spaceships. They are promptly shot down and wake up on a mysterious planet, whereupon they are attacked by a pack of tubby ‘skeletons’ on horseback and quickly reveal that, as well as skilled pilots, they are also martial arts experts. An extended punch up ensues, our heroes dealing out a flurry of complicated kicks and punches, none of which look as though they have the power to knock the skin off a rice pudding – and I find myself laughing out loud.

There are, it turns out,  a lot of punch ups in this film, many of which seem to employ the use of a hidden trampoline (aways handy for such occasions). Murat and Ali are attacked by zombies, and mummies and what look like huge, multi-coloured cookie monsters, all unleashed by the evil magician who rules the planet and who wanders morosely around the place, with his head sandwiched between two pieces of corrugated cardboard, which are clearly held in position by bits of peeling sellotape. This is pretty symptomatic of the standard of props and costumes in the film, which look as though they’ve been knocked up by enthusiastic PTA members for a primary school play.

There’s a bit of a love story, as Murat starts making goo-goo eyes at what appears to be pretty much the planet’s only female character, though it’s nothing compared to the love-fest which seems to be going on between Murat and Ali, who can’t stop praising each other – and I’m still laughing uproariously as the lads start fighting with a really crap robot and a ‘monster’ with deadly tinsel streamers for hands. And then there’s the magic sword that Murat manages to get hold of – the one that appears to have been made out of a length of MDF sprayed with metallic paint…

Look, I’m actually torn here. As a movie, I really can’t award this any more than a token star, because it fails on just about every level of filmmaking. It’s horrendously acted, badly dubbed, clunkily shot, and the actors keep looking sheepishly at the camera. What’s more, the story makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. However, let me add that, if this comes to a cinema near you, you should grab a couple of drinks to fortify yourselves, gather up your friends and go along for what just might be the most fun you’ve had in a cinema in a very long time. Because there’s bad and there’s Turkish Star Wars-bad. And that level of bad just has to merit a few extra stars…

Oh, and savour the scene when Murat does his special whistle – you know, the one that women can’t help being attracted to. That might be my favourite bit.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Predator

14/09/18

First, a bit of history.

The crab-faced, dreadlocked super hunter from another planet first stalked Arnold Schwarzenegger through a rain forest in 1987. There was an iffy sequel starring Danny Glover in 1991, before the franchise sank dismally into the wretched nadir of the Alien versus Predator films in the mid-noughties. In 2010, director Nimrod Antal made a valiant attempt to revive its fortunes with Predators, but the results were, to say the very least, so-so. Which brings us to 2018 and yet another reboot, desperately seeking to inject new DNA into the format.

I’ll be honest and admit the only thing that tempts me to give this one a try is the name Shane Black, attached as director and co-writer. Surely, I think, if anybody can pull this off, he’s the one.

Well, to be fair to him, he gives it his best shot. Here, the action is split between three main stories. On a special mission in the Mexican jungle, sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) witnesses the crashing of a stricken extra-terrestrial craft. He salvages some alien technology from the wreckage, and promptly posts it back to his home in the USA for safekeeping. It is soon discovered by his son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who has Asperger’s Syndrome and is, like most Asperger’s kids in movies, some kind of super genius who manages to figure out how it all works. Meanwhile, University lecturer, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), is collected by special forces and taken to a secret laboratory where a captive predator is currently being experimented on. She is asked to put in her four pen’orth, as she is the ‘foremost authority on genetic hybridisation.’

Almost before you can mutter, ‘Really?’ said Predator is on the loose and despatching laboratory technicians in a decidedly visceral manner – whereupon Ms Bracket, like all university lecturers in such situations, grabs a machine gun and morphs into some kind of action woman. But it’s all to no avail, because the creature has decided to take young Rory back to his home planet in order to make use of the boy’s special skills and has headed off to track him down.

Okay, maybe there always needs to be some suspension of disbelief in these films, but at times I struggle. Suffice to say that Black’s best addition to the franchise are the wisecracking  special forces misfits, who team up with McKenna and Munn in an attempt to retrieve Rory from his alien kidnapper. If the wisecracking isn’t quite as assured as Black’s previous efforts, well, let’s put that down to the fact that he has never worked in this genre before. He also throws in some extra-terrestrial hunting ‘dogs’ and (perhaps inevitably) a super-sized, hybrid Predator, bigger and more powerful than its predecessors. Because bigger is always better, right?

What else? Well, there are plenty of action set pieces, which are decent enough, but not really top-notch, and the film’s finale is so ridiculously OTT I find myself shaking my head at the sheer ridiculousness of some of the stunts. A coda that appears to set the film up for a sequel may just be wishful thinking on Black’s part. I really can’t see this nonsense setting the box office alight, but hey, who knows? At the heart of the problem, in my humble opinion, is the simple fact that the Predator films really want to be the Alien films, but are never in the same league. (Hell, the Alien films haven’t been in their own league for a very long time now, so what chance is there?)

And I just wish Hollywood would accept that there are some dead horses that have been flogged quite enough, and it might be time to try coming up with some new ideas.

Come on, how hard can it be?

3 stars

Philip Caveney