Month: January 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk

28/01/18

After the meteoric success of 2016’s Moonlight (only his second attempt at direction), Barry Jenkins could probably have chosen any subject he fancied for his third feature. As it turned out, he’d already begun developing If Beale Street Could Talk at the same time as his Osar winner, adapting it himself from a groundbreaking novel by James Baldwin, so of course it was a logical step to move straight on to that. Set in the early 1970s, it’s a stylish slow burner that centres on the doomed relationship of two young people.

Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) has known Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) since the two of them were kids. She’s the youngest daughter of a loving and supportive family and is still based at home, while he’s become more of a loner, living in a rundown basement where he’s trying to establish himself as a sculptor. (His work, it must be said, is spectacularly underwhelming). When romance finally blooms between Tish and Fonny, it seems almost inevitable that they will end up as man and wife – but when he is wrongfully accused of rape and sent to prison, she discovers that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child; and all their hopes for the future come tumbling down around them.

Jenkins takes his own sweet time over the narrative, skipping back and forth in chronology to hone in on key points in the couple’s relationship. We also spend time with Tish and Fonny’s respective parents and in particular, we focus on Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King) and her increasingly desperate attempts to prove Fonny’s innocence by travelling to Puerto Rico to confront the poor woman who has mistakenly identified Fonnyas her assailent. King’s performance has garnered the film a ‘best supporting actress’ Oscar nomination, along with Nicholas Britell’s score and Jenkins’ for best adapted screenplay. But this is essentially Tish and Fonny’s story and the two leads play their roles with absolute conviction.

There’s a rich, languorous intensity about If Beale Street Could Talk that really takes us inside the central characters, revealing everything we need to know about them and the way they relate to each other. If the glacial pace occasionally palls – the scenes where Fonny reconnects with his old friend Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry) could have benefited from a little pruning – this is nonetheless a considerable achievement and something that in these times of short attention spans, we are rarely witness to. This puts me in mind of the films of the late, great Douglas Sirk, who worked in a similar way.

I love the film’s brutal honesty, refusing point blank to offer us anything resembling a convenient conclusion, pointing out that real life rarely comes with such luxuries attached – and for a young black man in America, justice is a commodity that’s very hard to find.

This may not be the absolute knockout that Moonlight was, but it’s nonetheless an engrossing and beautifully directed film that deserves the widest attention.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Advertisements

Touching the Void

26/01/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I have to confess that my first thought when I see this production advertised is, ‘How the hell are they ever going to put this on a stage?’

Anyone who has read Joe Simpson’s true account of his disastrous misadventure in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 – or seen Kevin MacDonald’s subsequent documentary – will know that Touching the Void is an epic story of adventure and survival against all the odds, with most of the action taking place on the remote peaks of an icebound mountain. The Lyceum has a reputation for inventive staging, but it’s clear from the get-go that this production will necessitate designer Ti Green and his crew to pull out all the stops.

David Greig’s canny adaptation begins – rather disturbingly for those who know the story – in a climber’s pub in Glencoe, where Joe Simpson’s sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton), welcomes us all to her brother’s wake. She tells us she’s forgotten to make sandwiches and then cranks up the jukebox with a few eighties classics. Joe’s climbing partner, Simon (Edward Hayter), turns up, accompanied by the nerdy Richard (Patrick McNamee), the young man who served as assistant on Simon and Joe’s recent climb, and Sarah asks them for more information about what happened up on the mountain.

Simon begins by trying to explain the allure of mountain climbing by literally showing Sarah the ropes. They start small, by ascending an upended dining table, but pretty soon they are using ropes and winches to scramble up the sides of the proscenium arch. Sarah is astonished to find that she is enjoying the experience, but she still wants to know more…

And then Joe (Josh Williams) appears and, at the rear of the stage, a representation of the Peruvian mountain rears slowly into position so that Joe and Simon can re-enact their climb.

This is the point where the audience’s disbelief must be fully suspended if this is going to work – and I’m happy to report that it doeswork, quite brilliantly. Clambering about on a haphazard construction of metal and paper, the actors somehow manage to generate extraordinary levels of suspense, leading inexorably to the point where disaster occurs. It’s a heart-stopping moment, simply but convincingly staged.

If the play’s second half doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of the first, it is perhaps because it chooses to focus on the concept of solitude as a badly injured Joe is faced with the Herculean task of dragging himself back to base camp, accompanied only by a hallucinated version of Sarah, whose method of encouragement consists mostly of repeatedly whacking her brother’s broken leg with an ice axe. The characters of Simon and Richard are largely forgotten here and it might have helped to involve them a little more in the proceedings. Simon in particular seems poorly served. We never really share the feelings of guilt he must have had over what happened – indeed, we find out very little about what lurks behind his impassive expression.

That said, the story’s powerful conclusion, where we finally see the true grandeur of the mountain itself is undeniably exhilarating, and the four actors fully deserve their enthusiastic applause.

We’re all familiar with that famous quote about climbing a mountain ‘because it’s there.’ This production seems to live by a similar ethos, fearlessly tackling a subject that few theatre-makers would dare to attempt and, for the most part, taking it to dizzy heights.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Glasgow Girls

23/01/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

If you were told you were going to see a play about asylum seekers threatened with deportation, I doubt you’d imagine an exuberant production, but that’s exactly what Glasgow Girls is. A vibrant, pulsing, emotional whirl of a musical, with a vital message and a warm, fierce heart.

The girls in question are real: this piece, written by David Greig and directed by Cora Bissett, is based on their real struggles, their real lives.   They’re a disparate group, hailing from Somalia and Poland, Iraq and Kosovo, but they all end up in Glasgow’s Drumchapel High School. Here, they are brought together via Mr Girvan (Callum Cuthbertson)’s ESL class and, when Agnesa (Chiara Sparkes) – a Roma refugee from Kosovo – is threatened with deportation, they learn that the local community is on their side. As local matriarch, Noreen (Terry Neason), tells us, the working classes are often lazily depicted as racist or bigoted, but here the girls find true allies, prepared to pay far more than lip service to their cause.

The music makes sense: these are teenagers, as loud and demanding as they ought to be, with strong opinions and clear beliefs. If something’s wrong, they want to put it right. Theirs is, fundamentally, a simple tale. They are Scotland’s children now. And they are clearly shown here as more than just their troubled pasts, as more than numbers, more than problems, or outsiders. They’re people, with the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us, and surely – surely? – the same right to live good lives.

So of course they sing; of course they dance – why wouldn’t they? And the music complements the story well. There are upbeat, sassy, kick-ass songs and sombre ballads to temper them. The immigration officials’ robotic sequences are cleverly handled, and the voices are all commanding, bold as well as vulnerable.

I laugh as much as I cry, and I cry a lot while I am watching this. It’s a timely piece,  serving not just as a reminder that asylum seekers should be met with kindness rather than hostility, but also, actually, a call to action. If six school kids can make a difference, then why can’t we? We can all be Glasgow Girls.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Beautiful Boy

21/01/19

The people emerging from the afternoon screening of Beautiful Boy, still mopping at their eyes, pay testament to the fact that this film is what used to be termed a ‘four handkerchief weepie.’ My tears are undoubtedly flowing as abundantly as many others in the audience, because this is a heartrending story about a father’s desperate attempts to deal with his beloved son’s drug addiction. Be warned, it does not exactly make for a side-splitting trip to the cinema.

Freelance journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell, who seems to be in so many films lately it’s a wonder he didn’t land the title role in Mary Queen of Scots) has always had a close relationship with his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), a handsome and talented young lad who appears to have the brightest possible future ahead of him – until crystal meth addiction gets in the way and turns him into a deceitful, self-destructive shadow of what he once was. David can only watch in abject misery as all his hopes for his son’s future go headfirst down the nearest toilet – and we share his pain. It’s like watching helplessly as an out of control vehicle hurtles headlong to destruction, knowing that we are powerless to change anything.

Based on two books – one by the father and the other by the son – Beautiful Boy attempts to give us both sides of the story, though it must be said that I am occasionally left wanting more detail – and there is the conviction that some of the less salubrious elements of the tale have been lightly glossed over, perhaps because they may not show the protagonists in the best light. For instance, at one point David says that he has made mistakes in parenting Nic, but we don’t see any – indeed, he emerges as an almost saintly figure, working tirelessly to offer help and financial support.

The film belongs to the two leads and Chalomet, building on the superb work he did in Call Me By Your Name, manages to make us care about Nic, even as he does the most heinous things to the people who love him, even stealing money from the younger brother who clearly idolises him. Maura Tierney as David’s second wife, Karen, doesn’t have an awful lot to do here and, for that matter, neither does Amy Ryan as his first wife, Vicki. The story skips nimbly back and forth in time, using earlier scenes to emphasise the implicit trust that father and son once enjoyed and there are some clever uses of music to help tie things together – any film that features Neil Young’s Heart of Gold gets brownie points from me, even if its appearance precedes one of the story’s most distressing scenes.

The film ends with a plea for addicts everywhere to seek help and reminds us that, in America, drug addiction is the primary cause of death for young men under the age of fifty, which is sobering news, and underlines how the massive profits enjoyed by both drug suppliers and treatment centres are shameful and obscene.

Beautiful Boy is a heartfelt film with an important message and it deserves to be seen, but be prepared, take a hanky. You’ll probably need it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Mary Queen of Scots

18/01/19

The Tudors are common parlance Chez B&B these days; since downloading the Six The Musical soundtrack, we’ve barely listened to anything else. Of course, this new film is a very different beast, but it does share a few key players, and our recently-discovered interest in the period makes us extra keen to see what’s on offer here.

What Mary Queen Of Scots has in common with Six is its telling of ‘herstory,’ with female experiences placed firmly and unapologetically in the spotlight. The perspectives belong to the women. Not just because they’re the main characters, but because the directors (Josie Rourke and Lucy Moss respectively) are women too, and so everything is reflected through this – sadly still unusual – prism.

Saoirse Ronan is Mary, and she’s every bit as impressive as you’d expect this extraordinary young actor to be. She’s strong and commanding, warm and vulnerable: the heart and heroine of this tale. Margot Robbie, as Mary’s English cousin and counterpart, has arguably the harder role: Elizabeth is less likeable, and burdened with the fact that (spoiler alert!) she has Mary imprisoned and then killed. But Robbie is more than equal to the task, imbuing the English queen with both formidable resolve and an unexpected frailty. The parallels between the two women – and the tragedy that they can not be allies – are central to the film.

The brutality of the era is clearly evoked, with bloody murders a-plenty. Thankfully, there are no extended battle sequences here (I’m a little weary of them); instead, the skirmishes are short and definitive, the armies as small as I suppose they really must have been, the power-grabs and politicking as baffling and depressing as they remain to this day.

The men might be peripheral, but they’re played with panache by such stalwarts as David Tennant (virtually unidentifable as John Knox, with his strange hat and straggly beard), Jack Lowden (as the loathsome, weak-willed Henry Darley) and Guy Pearce (playing William Cecil, chief advisor to his Neighbours stablemate, Robbie). The structural power bias is evident in the way these men succeed in out-manouevring even the redoubtable Mary, and in Elizabeth’s cannier recognition that the only way she can retain her position is by disavowing her gender, and surrendering her happiness.

A fascinating film, and – if the sold-out screening we’re at is anything to go by – one that is likely to do well. Mind you, we are in Edinburgh. And Mary is the Queen of Scots.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Vice

16/01/19

Those people who look at the current political landscape in America and despairingly ask themselves, ‘How could this ever have come to pass?’ should pop along to a showing of Vice at their earliest opportunity, where all will be explained. This is the story of how a taciturn bit-player in American politics cleverly advanced himself into a position of unprecedented authority, becoming the power behind the throne in the administration of George W Bush, and ushering in the kind of rampant corruption that would reach its apotheosis under the tiny thumb of one Mr Trump.

When we first meet Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), he’s a hopeless case: a University dropout with a drink problem, taking menial work to make ends meet. After a confrontation with his long-suffering wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), he vows to straighten himself out and enrols in a political internship, where he finds himself assigned to Republican congressman, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell in his by-now-habitual good form). Largely by nodding his head a lot and saying very little, Cheney’s career progresses in leaps and bounds – and, when he finally has the chance to play Vice President to the very naive George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), he spots an opportunity to seize the kind of power normally reserved for the President himself.

Adam McKay’s film certainly has the potential to be yet another dull political biopic in the mould of The Front Runner, but it’s lifted way above this level by the playful nature of the storytelling. Whenever there’s any danger of events beginning to drag, McKay has a way of enervating proceedings – a Shakespearian parody here, a sly aside to the camera there – and the repeated analogy of Cheney’s skills as a fisherman are brilliantly exploited as we watch him quietly reeling the next sucker into his control. (When the sucker in question is the President of the USA, it’s particularly chilling.)

There’s also an inspired device where everyman narrator Kurt (Jessie Plemons) keeps popping up to offer his insights into what’s happening, informing us that he and Cheney are somehow ‘related,’ a mystery that’s finally explained in a moment so shocking it nearly has me leaping out of my cinema seat.

Of course, I can’t review this film without mentioning Bale’s Oscar-nominated performance in the lead role. We may be a little jaded by his insistence on physically occupying his chosen subjects, but theres no doubting the fact that he has once again achieved a stunning transformation, as shocking in its own way as what he did to his body in The Machinist. But it’s more than just the look. Bale conveys the character’s traits in every shrug, every grimace, every sly glance – and remember, he’s impersonating a character who’s so impassive there’s very little to work with. It’s a superb central performance in a very assured film.

Make sure you don’t leave the cinema too early – there’s an amusing post-credits sequence that brings matters bang up to date. I emerge feeling as though my eyes have been well and truly opened – and uncomfortably aware that the double meaning of the film’s title is all too apparent.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Colette

13/01/19

Imagine this scenario, if you will. A celebrity decides he wants to write a novel. He can’t actually write fiction himself so he gets somebody else to write it for him, but insists that his name goes on the published book. When the book is a huge success, he gets the writer to turn out more stories on the same theme and resolutely refuses to give their creator any credit whatsoever. Shocking, right? And yes, I know, it’s a depressingly familiar occurrence in this day and age. But Colette is proof that it’s by no means a new phenomenon.

When we first meet Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly), she’s a young woman living in the Burgundy countryside, carrying on a secret romance with trusted family friend Willy (Dominic West). He lives in Paris, where he is carving out a precarious career as an ‘author,’ many of his books ghost-written for him by more talented acquaintances. Pretty soon, he and Gabrielle are married, and she moves in to his apartment in the city, where she realises that her new husband is not exactly trustworthy. When she discovers he has been unfaithful to her, he protests that it’s not really his fault: he’s a man and he needs stimulation!

On hearing Gabrielle’s stories about her childhood, Willy decides that there just might be a book in it. He encourages her to write, mostly by locking her in her room for hours on end. The resulting book, Claudine à L’école, becomes an instant hit, selling millions of copies and necessitating sequels. Colette, as she now calls herself, is only just beginning to realize her own powers. She agrees to continue the deception but warns Willy that she is attracted to other people too…

Colette feels weirdly prescient, yet another example of a talented woman being subjugated to the will of a manipulative man – and then fighting back. Knightly, who often faces accusations that she ‘cannot act’ is on splendid form here, giving a nuanced and thoroughly believable performance in the lead role, while West somehow manages the impossible, making the repellant Willy oddly charming, so that I understand how this man can bend so many people to his will.

Of course, vital to this biopic is the subject of intellectual property, and anyone who has published any sort of written work will doubtless share my horror at the scene where Willy callously instructs an employee to burn the original handwritten copies of the Claudine novels. It’s all I can do not to shout at the screen.

But at the heart of this tale is Colette herself, and – even if this were a contemporary tale – it would still feel pretty sensational, what with her (partially) open marriage, lesbian affairs and long-term relationship with the (probably) transgender ‘Missy’ de Morny (Denise Gough). The fact that it all happened back in the 1890s is the real eye-opener. Gough and Knightly imbue the latter partnership with real warmth, and it’s fascinating to see the contemporary reactions to their public intimacy.

I’m currently working my way through Colette’s short stories, which are rather fey and whimsical, it must be said. But I’m planning to read the novels soon, and hoping to find some of what made her so beloved, and eventually won her the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Meanwhile, do catch this sumptuous, witty evocation of Parisian life at the turn of the century. It’s really very good.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney