Month: October 2018

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

30/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

What better way to commemorate the night before Hallowe’en than with this production, which offers enough blood, mayhem and diabolical carrying-on to satisfy the darkest of appetites? Published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s tale of repressed Victorian sexuality forms one of the cornerstones of Gothic horror fiction, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published eighty years earlier in 1818.

Of course, the main difficulty for anyone undertaking Dracula in this day and age is that the story is so familiar to audiences around the world, it is virtually impossible to create any sense of surprise. To give this production its due, it doesn’t really try to do that, offering a fairly close interpretation of Stoker’s original tale – unless, of course, we count the addition of a Lady Renfield (Cheryl Campbell) and a silver bullet trope that appears to have been borrowed from the werewolf tradition, which, the more I think about it, doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense. Plans I might have had to incorporate a ‘fangs ain’t what they used to be’ byline are, I’m afraid, somewhat redundant. Still, I’ve little doubt that Stoker would have approved of this interpretation of his most celebrated story.

Mina Murray (Olivia Swann) bids a fond farewell to her fiancé, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Andrew Horton), as he sets off to Transylvania to organise the impending relocation to Whitby of a certain Count Dracula (Glen Fox). Harker promptly goes missing and, while he’s away, Mina’s friend, Lucy (Jessica Webber), begins to exhibit some rather worrying symptoms. Why is she sleepwalking every night? And what are those peculiar marks on her neck? It’s not until Mina has travelled to Europe to collect an emotionally drained Jonathan that his journal explains what he has been up to – and it is clearly time to call in Professor Van Helsing (Philip Bretherton), who has previous experience of this kind of thing.

If Jenny King’s adaptation sometimes feels a little stilted, it’s Ben Cracknell’s galvanic lighting design that offers us most in the way of surprises, with jolting flashes of light revealing fleeting glimpses of carnage before we are plunged abruptly back into darkness. Illusionist Ben Hart throws in some impressive disappearing tricks, director Eduard Lewis supplies some eerie choreography, and Sean Cavanagh’s  clever set design manages to transform the stage of the King’s Theatre into a series of suitably atmospheric locations. It’s an ensemble piece, of course, but Jessica Webber gives a particularly assured portrayal of Lucy, sprightly and coltish in her earlier scenes and horribly transformed later on.

This is a decent, if not exactly transformative production, perfectly suitable for the Hallowe’en season, and with scenes that may unnerve some viewers.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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Fahrenheit 11/9

 

28/10/18

It’s rare that I emerge from a cinema shaking with anger, but that is exactly how I feel after watching Michael Moore’s latest offering, Fahrenheit 11/9. As you’ll doubtless surmise from the title, it’s his investigation of the phenomenon of ‘President’ Donald Trump. But it’s actually much more than that. This is a documentary that questions the very existence of democracy itself, demonstrating again and again that, in contemporary America, the original meaning of the word has been consistently devalued until it is nothing more than a hollow shell, a travesty of its former self.

The film has been accused by many as being ‘scattershot,’ but I don’t believe it is. True, it  examines a whole range of topics, but they are expertly drawn together to illustrate one central point: Moore’s belief that his country is fatally wounded and rapidly expiring. It is, if anything, a prolonged howl of anger and remorse. ‘How could this happen?’ Moore asks us, repeatedly. ‘How could it be allowed to happen?’

Sure, he takes in the rise of Trump, comparing it to the ascent of the Nazi party in Germany after the First World War, even going so far as to show footage of one of the Fuhrer’s rallies overlaid with lines from Trump’s speeches. It ought to be a cheap shot, but I’m afraid it works all too convincingly.  He also offers footage of Trump in earlier times, where the clues to his repugnant personality were already there for all to see.

Moore returns to the situation in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, the subject of his first film, Roger & Me in 1989, where the mostly black inhabitants were (and unbelievably, still are) being forced to use a water supply that is contaminated with lead. (There is a clean water supply available but it’s reserved… for washing engine parts.)

It looks at the recent situation where teachers – fed up with being paid peanuts and irate at being obliged to demonstrate their fitness regime in order to access healthcare –  were obliged to instigate a strike in order to receive better treatment. And it looks at the Parkland School shooting where pupils came together to protest about what happened and managed to mobilise huge rallies across America. It’s only in these two areas that we are offered any rays of hope, the proof that ordinary people can effect change if they get off their backsides and do something – but, as Moore observes in an early scene, there are over a hundred million Americans who don’t even bother to vote. And why would they, when they look at the sorry cavalcade of greedy, self-serving capitalists that are trotted out as candidates?

This doesn’t make for a pleasant trip to the cinema. It’s a shocking, excoriating journey to the dark side and, worst of all, it isn’t a slice of dystopian fiction: this is happening, right now – in the place that likes to boast that it’s ‘the land of the free.’

If you want a fuller picture of what’s really happening to democracy in the USA, I urge you to go and see this film. But don’t expect an easy ride.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Hate U Give

27/10/18

Adapted from Angie Thomas’s YA best-seller of the same name, The Hate U Give is a powerful film, with a compelling central performance by Amandla Stenberg as Starr, a sixteen-year-old black girl struggling to fit in. Her mother doesn’t want her to attend the local public school, where the kids from her neighbourhood go to fight and get high. Instead, Starr is sent to a private – and mostly white – establishment, where she has to hide huge swathes of her identity to get along, to be ‘the non-threatening black’ her new friends find palatable.

So far, so standard teen movie, but then Starr’s childhood friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) is killed by a cop who pulls them over as they’re driving home from a party: shot dead for being a little mouthy, for reaching for a hairbrush, for doing these things while black. Starr is the only witness, and she’s afraid. She knows that speaking up will mean media coverage and instant fame, and she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself this way. Partly because of school, where she reveals little of where she lives, but also because of King (Anthony Mackie), the local drug lord, who doesn’t want the authorities to know that Khalil has been dealing drugs for him.

It’s an uncompromising story, with strength in its convictions, using Starr’s confusion to  confront this whole big ugly mess. When media pundits dismiss Khalil as a lowlife dealer, Starr demands they stop blaming him for his own death: we already know that he sells drugs because there’s no easy way to make money in their no-hope suburb, and that there’s no universal healthcare to ensure his grandma gets the cancer drugs she needs. When her white friends use the cop’s acquittal as an excuse to walk out of school to protest that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Starr is appalled, not because she doesn’t agree with their sentiment, but because they’re blatant in their insincerity – they want to avoid a test. She doesn’t want them to co-opt his name for their own ends, especially not Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), who’s unequivocal in her belief that the cop was just doing his job.

Okay, so sometimes it’s a little clunky and heavy-handed, more of a message than a story, but it’s a prescient and vital message nonetheless, told with nuance and with heart. We’re offered various points of view: Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common) gives us some insight into why cops might sometimes shoot before they should; her boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), shows us how to be a white ally. It’s a learning curve for me, at least, and I suspect I’m not alone.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Unreturning

24/10/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Traverse Theatre is sold out tonight, testament to the fact that Frantic Assembly are arguably the UK’s leading exponent of physical theatre. The fact that their work is on many a drama exam syllabus may account for the scores of teens in the audience, or maybe it’s just that everyone already knows how good they are. Either way, this co-production with the Theatre Royal Plymouth is currently touring the country, and the word of mouth has clearly been good enough to pull in a crowd.

As we take our seats, a large metal shipping container appears to be floating centre stage on a pool of rippling water. The lights dim, the music begins to pulse and sliding doors in the container open and close introducing us to the four young actors who will be presenting Anna Morgan’s The Unreturning. Then the container starts to spin like a well-oiled merry-go-round and, from the very first moment right up to the powerful ending, I am totally mesmerised.

This is a story set in three different time periods. In 1918, young army officer George (Jared Garfield) returns from the trenches traumatised by the horrors he has endured and longing to be reunited with his wife, Rose. In 2018, squaddie Frankie (Joe Layton) comes back from a tour of Iraq in disgrace, after participating in an act of mindless violence after the death of one of his comrades. And in 2026, Nat (Jonnie Riordan), who has fled to Norway in order to avoid conscription in the UK, decides to head back to his homeland in the hope of reconnecting with his younger brother, Finn (Kieton Saunders-Browne), with whom he has recently lost contact. All three men are heading for the same place: their home town of Scarborough.

This is a tale about young men and the shattering effect that war can have on them. It is also about the importance of home and about what it represents to different people.  It is simultaneously a requiem for the past and a chilling warning for our potential future. Director Neil Bettles handles the piece with consummate skill as the four actors flit athletically from role to role, somehow finding time to refigure their costumes, so I am never in any doubt as to where I am or when I am. Morgan’s haunting prose is augmented by incredible physicality as the actors run, leap, clamber and whirl around the stage in a series of perfectly choreographed moves. Special praise must go to Andrzej Goulding’s deceptively simple set design, which allows the shipping container to be all manner of locations: a ruined house, a boat, a vehicle speeding along a motorway…

Look, I won’t beat about the bush here. This is, quite simply, a brilliant piece of theatre. If it comes to a venue near you, please don’t miss the opportunity to see it. It really is very accomplished, an absolute wonder to behold.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

First Man

24/10/18

Q: Who was Neil Armstrong?

A: The first man to walk on the moon.

Q: Yes, but who was Neil Armstrong?

This is the question that informs Damien Chazelle’s intriguing and surprisingly intimate biopic of the astronaut who took ‘a giant step for mankind.’ It’s an attempt to reveal the true nature of one of the most famous men in history. It’s also a curiously thankless task because, as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is an enigma, a man so tightly buttoned-up that he is unable to reveal his true self, even to his wife, Janet (Claire Foy).

We first encounter him in 1961, when he is a test pilot for the infamous X-15 rocket-powered plane, putting himself in danger on an almost daily basis without complaint or, indeed, comment. It is the same year that his infant daughter Karen dies as a result of a brain tumour, something that affects him deeply for the rest of his life and that prompts him to enlist in the fledgling space programme – as though, in order to hide from his own grief, he needs to get as far away from his home planet as possible. Gosling is terrific in the central role, expertly conveying a taciturn hero, whose inner turmoil rages like an inferno behind a perpetually blank expression.

First Man also offers us alarming glimpses into early space missions, which seem to consist of men strapping themselves into oversized biscuit tins, crossing their fingers and blasting off into the stratosphere. It demonstrates how arduous it was, how downright dangerous. As Janet observes at one point, the team of ‘experts’ behind the space missions have no real idea of what they’re doing, they are just ‘boys building balsa wood models.’ But the all-pervading desire to beat the Russians to the moon leads them to cast caution to the wind. This is amply conveyed by the tragedy of the 1967 Apollo Mission test that results in the deaths of three astronauts. It’s brilliantly underplayed, a single thread of smoke escaping from a sealed hatch demonstrating how the awful details of such incidents are always kept securely locked away from the public gaze.

This is a nuts and bolts depiction of the events leading up to one of mankind’s most memorable achievements and it tells me more about those events than I’ve ever heard before. It’s only in the climactic sequence – the moon landing itself – where the film is finally allowed to slip into the realms of grandeur, the endless grey vistas of the lunar landscape brilliantly recreated. It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that the mission is successful – but, once back on earth and with Neil in quarantine, he and his wife are  still on opposite sides of a glass wall – this time literally.

So no change there.

Chazelle’s film is certainly on the long side, weighing in at two hours and twenty one minutes (ironically, exactly the same length as the last film we saw, Bad Times at the El Royale) and it might have benefited from a tighter pace, but it manages to keep me hooked throughout. And the next time somebody asks me the question, ‘Who was Neil Armstrong?’ I’ll be able to give a much more detailed reply.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Macbeth

23/10/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

We were awed by the original version of this production, which we saw at the cinema via NT Live earlier in the year (https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2018/05/12/macbeth-3/). Still, marvellous as the National Theatre’s outreach programme is, it’s not the same as seeing a live show, and so we were delighted to learn that the Scottish play was heading out on tour. We wrote the Edinburgh date in our diary, and eagerly anticipated its arrival. How would director Rufus Norris and designer Rae Smith handle the transition from the Olivier Theatre with its drum revolve stage to the myriad regional venues and their proscenium arches? Would they be able to retain at least some of the stature of the set, the awful bleakness of the London show?

They would. They did. The bridge that arcs over the central wasteland is smaller, sure, and moved by hand, but its construction is ingenious. Homes – damaged, mostly, with bare concrete walls and broken furniture – are two-sides of a wheeled box, spun as we move from outside to in. The lighting (by Paul Pyant) is eerie and atmospheric, all mottled shadows and clear bright shafts.

Usually, I’m irked when Macbeth is played by a middle-aged actor: to me, the character exemplifies a ‘young pretender’ – not just ambitious but impatient and impetuous, careless of consequence, swaggering in self-belief. He’s a fine soldier, but newly recognised as such; I’d place him at twenty, tops. But here, in this post-apocalyptic vision of the Macbeths’ world, fifty-year-old Michael Nardone’s casting as the eponymous anti-hero makes perfect sense. This is a war-torn nowhere/anywhere, adrift in time, as much now as then, and it’s dog-eat-dog; he doesn’t have a lot to lose. There are indeed daggers in men’s smiles; only the fittest can survive. Kirsty Besterman makes a decent Lady Macbeth too – her husband’s equal, complicit in his downfall, but not the evil cause of it.

I like the depiction of the witches; in this war-torn landscape they seem more displaced than supernatural, feral rather than ethereal. There’s a telling contrast between the ramshackle, held-together-with-gaffa-tape body armour of the rebels, and the fit-for- purpose equipment of the English troops. And the sound design (by Paul Arditti) builds a pervading sense of unease; these are very troubled times.

I’m relieved and delighted that the touring production is so good. I know this interpretation of the play has been quite controversial, but it really works for me. I think it captures the very essence of Macbeth and illuminates the themes and characters with great clarity.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Bad Times at the El Royale

22/10/18

Drew Goddard has made his name mostly as a writer on various projects over the years with only 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods under his directorial hand. With Bad Times at the El Royale, he finally goes the full Orson Welles: writing, producing, directing – and no doubt making the tea whenever he has a spare moment.

It’s clear from the get go that this is a true labour of love and, what’s more, a considerable cinematic achievement. The film looks absolutely stunning and its multilayered characterisations and linking narratives recall Paul Thomas Anderson’s work on the equally labyrinthine Magnolia. Praise indeed.

The story opens in 1959 in a room of the titular hotel, where something mysterious and very film noir kicks off the proceedings with a loud gunshot. We then cut to the same location, ten years later. The El Royale is situated slap bang on the border between sunny California and dusty Nevada – indeed, a red line runs through the lobby and guests can choose to stay in their preferred state, so long as they agree to abide by its rules. A disparate group of travellers book themselves in for the night. They comprise shambolic priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), angel-voiced pop singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), loud-mouthed vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour (John Hamm), and the mysterious and sullen Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). They are greeted by the hotel’s lone employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who, after delivering a well-rehearsed introduction, assigns them to their various rooms.

It soon becomes clear that hardly any of the guests are quite what they seem – and that the hotel too has many dark secrets to be uncovered. Indeed, the story has so many fascinating twists and turns, it makes it difficult to relate much in the way of plot without risking major spoilers. Suffice to say that Goddard’s masterful script is packed full of genuine surprises. Just when I think I know where I am, he gleefully pulls the rug from under me, again and again. And each time I fall for it. Every occupied room number is assigned a title header – think of them, if you will, as chapters – and there is much about this film that makes me think of great books rather than films.

At two hours and twenty one minutes, Goddard is clearly happy to take his own sweet time to let his characters fully develop; indeed, it’s a good forty minutes before we even get so much as a glimpse of  the Charles Manson-esque, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), and it’s only in the film’s final stretches that he comes swaggering into the action, dispensing violent retribution to whoever is unlucky enough to cross his path.

This is simply glorious filmmaking and if there’s a more intelligent thriller this year, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Bridges is terrific (let’s face it, he always is) but it’s Erivo as the quietly determined Darlene who is the true revelation here, her presence absolutely illuminating every frame she’s in. There’s a superb soundtrack of Motown classics (with a little Deep Purple to emphasise Billy Lee’s satanic connections) and, despite the complexity of those interweaving stories, complete with various flashbacks to earlier days, I never have any questions left unanswered.

There aren’t many people in the viewing I attend and that’s a real shame. Sadly, films of this quality don’t come around too often.

My advice? See it now, before it’s gone. That gorgeous cinematography won’t look half as ravishing on the small screen.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney