Month: March 2019

(Can This Be) Home

28/03/19

Writer/performer/poet Kolbrùn Björt Sigfúsdóttir fully expected her extended examination of the Brexit conundrum to have reached some kind of a resolution by now – it is after all, the night before the UK is scheduled to leave the European union – but the slow separation lumbers inexorably on, with nobody any the wiser.

Icelandic by birth, Sigfúsdöttir has lived and worked in the UK for five years now and is understandably concerned about what’s going to happen to her ability to travel and work in Europe after Brexit has changed the rules. (Can This Be) Home is essentially a series of poems about what it means to be an immigrant, though it should be said, that she’s speaking from a fairly privileged point of view, something that she really only acknowledges in her final (and most successful) poem.

Her readings are counterpointed with short pieces by musician Tom Oakes, who plays a wooden flute and a stringed instrument that, to my untutored eye, looks like a lute crossed with a guitar. Tom features a nice line in anecdotal patter and his observation that it’s hard to write a protest song when you’re an instrumentalist gets the evening’s biggest laugh. His musical influences come from all over the world, but particularly from the Scandi-regions where he has often been based – so he too is waiting for the results of Brexit with some apprehension.

While Sigfúsdöttir recites her work, Oakes immerses himself in a book, and while Oakes tootles his flute, Sigfúsdöttir models house-shaped images from what appears to be a mixture of sand and putty. This pointed ignoring of each other’s efforts is obviously intentional but I would actually like to see them combining their respective talents to create a more cohesive whole. It’s also true to say that tonight, at the Traverse Theatre, the two performers are pretty much preaching to the converted. I doubt there’s a single person in the room who actively disagrees with what they are saying.

The result is therefore a strangely muted affair. It would be very interesting to see this performed to a more partisan audience, one featuring people with an entirely different view of the Brexit situation. As it stands, this feels a little too comfortable, a little too lacking in fire and urgency.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Shazam!

27/03/19

It’s generally accepted that, as comic book universes go, Marvel is the outfit that employs a lighter touch, whereas DC habitually plays things dark and po-faced. So Shazam! is clearly an attempt to give the latter franchise a kick up the spandex-clad backside, playing things primarily for laughs and making a pretty good job of it. Unfortunately, the tone of the film tends to veer alarmingly back to the dark side every now and then and, whenever it does, the momentum is temporarily lost and has to be recaptured.

Shazam! began life back in 1939 as a comic, where the central superhero was known (rather confusingly, given recent film history) as Captain Marvel, but the origins story remains pretty much intact. This is the tale of young orphan, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who loses his young mother in a crowd one day and, years later, is still desperately trying to find her. For no good reason, an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounso) gifts him with the ability to transform himself into the titular superhero, Shazam (Zachary Levi). But before we see that origins story, we are obliged to sit through another one, a scene from the childhood of Thaddeus Sivana, who will one day grow up to be played by Mark Strong and who will be a very bad egg indeed.

To be honest, the opening twenty minutes of the film are a bit of a trial – indeed, I am actually considering walking out of the screening until Billy’s first transformation occurs and the film takes a huge step in the right direction. The central conceit – what would a superhero be like if he was actually a fourteen year old boy? – is a bit of a masterstroke and Shazam’s early attempts to come to grips with his newfound abilities, aided by his nerdy friend, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), are laugh-out-loud funny. Likewise, Billy’s interplay with the foster parents who take him on is nicely done with some lovely dialogue between him and the other kids in the group home.

But of course, it’s only a matter of time before a grown-up Dr Thaddeus Sivana shows his face and matters lurch straight back to the dark side. Sivana has managed to find a way to channel the seven deadly sins, giving himself superpowers of an altogether more sinister kind than Billy’s. A scene where Sivana flings his older brother through the window of a skyscraper and then orders his brutish parasites to chow down on a boardroom full of businesspeople (one of whom is his father) does not sit particularly well with the humorous stuff I’ve just been enjoying so much.

The film continues to seesaw its way along in this disconcerting fashion and I find myself constantly having to reassess my position on it. For the most part, it’s enjoyable stuff and even the distressingly long, CGI-assisted final confrontation is, I suppose, par for the course in a superhero movie. There’s a brief coda that provides a brilliant last laugh and a post credits sequence that suggests the possibility of a sequel. I’m not sure this idea has the legs to go very much further, but Shazam! is, for the most part, entertaining and, unlike so many comic book movies of recent years, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Which, when I think about it, may be the best recommendation of all.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Mid90s

25/03/19

The latest Hollywood actor to take his position on the other side of the camera is Jonah Hill. Mid90s is his first film as director and, it turns out, he wrote the screenplay too. The result is a charming little calling card of a film, with a grungy, indie sensibility and a clear determination to avoid the clichés that have dogged so many earlier attempts to get to grips with the subject of skateboarding.

Thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives in LA with his single parent mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), and his bullying, older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges, working wonders with an almost monosyllabic role). Left mostly to his own devices and clearly fed up with his brother’s constant physical abuse, Stevie chances upon the Motor Avenue Skateshop, run by Ray (Na Kel Smith), a talented skateboarder who has accrued a small coterie of followers. There’s wannabe skate boy, Ruben (Gio Galicia), messed-up rich-kid, Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) and putative filmmaker, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin).

Watching the gang interact, Stevie has a kind of epiphany. He buys an old skateboard from Ian and sets about following the other kids around with an almost obsessive zeal, taking every opportunity to get into their good books. Though he can’t ride a skateboard to save his life, his presence is soon accepted and and the others even adopt him as a kind of  mascot, giving him the nickname ‘Sunburn.’  Pretty soon, they are introducing him to the dubious delights of drugs, acts of minor hooliganism and granting him access to their regular parties, where, on one momentous night, he even manages to shrug off his cumbersome virginity.

There’s no great message in Mid90s – it’s a picaresque adventure in which we share Stevie’s growing awareness of who he is and what he wants to be. It’s set against a meticulously researched 90s landscape and is provided with a kicking soundtrack to ease matters along. With a surprisingly brief running time of just one hour twenty-five minutes, the film fairly races by on well-oiled wheels and the performances are uniformly  spot-on. Hill even throws in a few simple visual tricks that hint at the possibility of even better things to come from him.

This surely won’t be for everyone, but it feels like so much more than a Hollywood actor’s vanity project. It’s a genuine delight.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

No Such Thing As A Fish

24/03/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

We initially hummed and haahed about this one. A podcast? Live? Would that actually work? But of course, in the end, we were always going to go along to it, because NSTAAF is pretty much our favourite podcast. We have now listened to every available episode and what’s more, we sleep with these people almost every night.

(Ahem. Allow me to quantify that statement. When we settle down in bed each night, we have an episode running to lull us to sleep. If we nod off before we reach the end, we listen to the second half the following night, and so on). This is not to suggest that the show is soporific – anything but. It’s endlessly fascinating. But those four voices are now an integral part of our lives.

So here we are at the King’s Theatre and it’s clear from the get-go that a lot of other people like NSTAAF – the place is rammed. The show is divided into two sections. The first half has the team taking turns to deliver a presentation about potential ways in which the podcast might develop in the future. It’s good-natured if undemanding stuff, with James Harkin’s reimagined Shark Song the best of the bunch. (Little known fact: Harkin was working as an accountant in a Portakabin in Eccles when Dan and producer John Lloyd lured him to London to join the QI team.)

But of course, it’s the second half of the show that provides the main course – the recording of a live podcast with the team contributing their meticulously researched collection of weird facts. It’s great to have the opportunity to watch them at work. Obviously, the foursome have been doing this for quite a while now and it’s immediately apparent that what makes this work so well is that their four very disparate personalities slot seamlessly together to create the whole – so there’s Dan’s puppyish enthusiasm, Anna’s witty cynicism, Andy’s droll wisecracks and James’ uncanny ability to locate a pun in just about any material he’s offered. Put them together and it’s little wonder that the show has generated such a faithful following.

As we leave the theatre we spot them at a signing table, besieged by legions of ardent fans, clearly destined to be there for hours after the event. And later that night, what podcast do we choose to drift off to?

Take a wild guess.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Us

23/03/19

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, was an extraordinarily accomplished start to his filmmaking career – indeed, we chose it as one of our ‘best of 2017’ movies. Although Us has a few echoes of that film, it’s an altogether more complex and ambitious project, a powerful metaphor about American society (does Us actually stand for U.S? Could be…). This is about privilege and aspiration and good old-fashioned greed. If occasionally it feels as though Peele hasn’t quite got control of the plethora of issues he unearths here, it’s nevertheless an eminently watchable film.

The Wilsons are a likeable and clearly affluent family, who set off for a summer vacation at the beach resort where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) used to go with her parents back in the day. Her affable husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), can’t wait to hit the beach and rent out a fancy powerboat, just like his even more wealthy friends, the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), with whom Gabe has a bit of an unspoken rivalry. The Wilson kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her little brother, Jason (Evan Alex), are happy to be anywhere that has wifi and access to a mobile phone. But Adelaide is hiding a fearful secret. Back in 1986,  when she last visited the resort with her parents, she wandered into a beachside hall of mirrors, where she had a life changing experience…

The past soon makes its chilling presence felt with a night-time visitation by a mysterious family, who turn out to be warped doppelgängers of the Wilson’s themselves – and what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation turns all too quickly into a frenzied struggle for survival.

The first half hour of Us is brilliantly played, starting with subtle intimations of approaching disaster and leading very convincingly into a terrifying twist on the old ‘home invasion’ genre. But, as the story progresses and we begin to learn more about the Wilsons’ nightmarish visitors, we realise that we are in the midst of a raging allegory that attacks the tenets upon which much of middle-class America is founded, sending a warning to the current elite that there’s a whole underclass out there, casting envious eyes upon all those fancy possessions, and covertly drawing up plans to come and take their share.

There are, it has to be said, a few mis-steps here. The Tylers have little to do other than be obnoxious and serve as bloody victims of the new order – and, though I initially enjoy the jokey dialogue that sets up the Wilson family’s dynamic, I feel less comfortable when characters are still doing it in the midst of total carnage. Furthermore, the complex plot strands that explain the existence of the doppelgängers don’t always stand up to close scrutiny. On the plus side, Nyong’o’s performance as the tortured mother with a terrible secret to protect is really quite brilliant and, with a lesser talent in the lead role, this film wouldn’t fly nearly as successfully as it does.

In the end, this doesn’t really measure up to Get Out but there’s enough here to keep you hooked to the final frame, and – unlike many films in this genre – it also gives us plenty to think about afterwards.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Velvet Petal

23/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Velvet Petal, choreographed by Fleur Darkin, is a compelling piece about identity and self-image, emergence and self-discovery. Performed by twelve dancers, it’s as much performance art as it is dance theatre, a series of thematically linked ideas and images, overlapping to create a sensation rather than a story.

Inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, Patti Smith’s poetry and the migration of Monarch butterflies, the characters veer between languid and frenetic, assured and tentative. These are young people, in a bedroom or at a house party, trying poses and costumes,  selecting and rejecting a range of personae. Who are they, and how do they want to be seen?

They rarely work together (although when they do, moving mechanically, as if by rote, to a nightclub hit, it is singularly arresting). Instead, the stage is filled with micro-tales, vignettes of love and sex, of sadness and joy, with bystanders occupying the edges, watching or cuddling, or changing outfit for the seventh time. Sometimes, the lighting directs us to a key moment: two lovers slowly removing their clothes, hesitant, making themselves vulnerable; a young woman contorting herself to fit into a suit hanging on a rail, assuming an identity that seems uncomfortable, then summarily swept aside, despite all her effort. At other times, it’s hard to know where to look, there’s so much going on: one thing is certain, no two audience members will have seen exactly the same show.

The dancers’ physical control is extraordinary; for all its sensual punk-rebel attitude, this is a perfectly drilled piece, precise and disciplined. And the soundtrack, from Leonard Cohen to The Cure, is oddly powerful, mirroring and magnifying both anxiety and desire.

My inclination is towards more narrative art forms; I tend to favour story over concept. But when a production is as absorbing as Velvet Petal, I’ll take it exactly as it comes.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Joni 75: a birthday celebration

21/03/19

Joni Mitchell is seventy-five years old. After suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, she’s probably lucky to have made it this far but, tragically, her condition has robbed her of the ability to perform. This birthday concert, recorded in November 2018 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA, is a celebration of her music, performed by a whole host of artists who openly acknowledge her as one of the greatest singer-songwriters in musical history.

I’ve long been a huge Joni Mitchell fan. I have only to hear the opening chords of All I Want, the first track on Blue, to be transported back in time to a grungy little bedsit in Barkingside. I’m in my twenties, I’m spending my spare time singing with a rock band and I’m beginning to take my first tentative steps towards becoming a published author. And Joni is providing the soundtrack. Heady days.

Blue is, quite simply, an astonishing album, a collection of heartrending confessional songs, chronicling the up-and-down relationship Joni had with Graham Nash in the late 60s. It was followed by a string of equally accomplished albums, her career perhaps reaching its apotheosis in 1975 with the extraordinary jazz-inflected landscapes of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, where Mitchell’s lyrics somehow transcended the idea of mere ‘songs’ and became a series of brilliantly observed short stories set to music – and all this from a young woman who openly claimed that her first love was painting; to her, music was just a ‘sideline.’ Boy, what I wouldn’t give for a sideline like that.

So, here at last is the tribute she’s long deserved – a band of highly skilled session musicians supporting a series of top flight artists all performing songs by Joni. There’s so much to enjoy here and the standard is excellent, but there are, naturally, some particular highlights: Diana Krall crooning a heartfelt Amelia, Rufus Wainwright offering a plaintive rendition of Blue and, perhaps best of all, Seal delivering an absolutely knockout version of Both Sides Now. Graham Nash makes a brief appearance too, singing Our House, the hymn to domestic bliss he wrote for Joni when they were still a couple, and which has the audience singing gleefully along.

Of course, as ever in concerts like this, I miss some of my particular favourites but, when there are so many shimmering nuggets to choose from, it’s inevitable that some absolute treasures are going to be overlooked. As the artists perform, the screen behind them features photographs from Joni’s past and selected paintings that amply demonstrate that she’s no slouch at the artwork either. There’s even a clip from her infamous appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, where she berates an uppity crowd for ‘acting like tourists’ and then goes on to slay them with sheer talent.

Of course, the saddest thing here is that Joni is sitting in the audience throughout, a silent spectator, unable to contribute anything to the proceedings beyond blowing out a single candle on her birthday cake. But it’s heartening to see that the big screen at the Cameo is completely sold out tonight. Clearly, there are plenty of others who love her music every bit as much as I do.

Belated birthday greetings, Joni. And many more of them.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney