Month: April 2019

Eighth Grade

28/04/19

I love a good coming-of-age story, and Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a fine example of the genre. It’s charming and excruciating in equal measure, specific to contemporary America yet universal in its appeal. We haven’t all grown up with social media, but we have all endured those painful teenage years, negotiating the complexities of school and home, trying to find where we fit in.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is about to graduate from middle school; she’s lonely and self-conscious, desperate to dispel the myth that she is ‘quiet.’ She vlogs a more outgoing version of herself, but no one seems to be watching; she’s a voyeur, viewing the world through the prism of social media, willing herself to live up to the persona she projects online. Her to-do list is dreadfully sad: get a best friend, be there for them no matter what. She doesn’t want much, but even these small dreams seem beyond her reach.

What’s clever here is the sheer ordinariness of it all. Kayla isn’t odd or unusual; she’s a dorky, awkward everykid. Her dad, Mark (Josh Hamiltion) is a loving parent (her mum is absent; she ‘left’ when Kayla was little, but we don’t find out why, and it doesn’t seem to be a real issue). She isn’t bullied at school; she’s just ignored. Even the stuff that seems scary from the outside – a school shooting drill; an older boy making a pass – doesn’t materialise into anything bigger than Kayla can cope with. This is not a sensationalist film.

Elsie Fisher is delightful in the lead role, as natural and appealing as it’s possible to be. Her vulnerabilities are writ large, but so is her underlying optimism, and the kindness that defines the character. Hamilton is also terrific as Kayla’s devoted dad, patiently struggling to communicate with a daughter who is monosyllabic in his presence, and who reacts angrily to his well-meaning attempts to offer reassurance and love. Theirs is a convincing relationship, a beacon of hope.

As you might expect, there is a lot of humour here too: Burnham is a comedian, after all. But it’s a gentle sort of comedy, delivered with affection; this is, ultimately, life-affirming stuff.

A heart-warming little movie – and one that might just make you want to cut those moody teenagers some slack…

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Zookeeper’s Wife

27/04/19

Like so many recent movies, The Zookeeper’s Wife is based upon a true story, even if closer examination quickly reveals that (as ever) several major liberties have been taken with the facts in order to dramatise the proceedings. But there is a remarkable tale at the heart of this film and it’s evident that Atonina and Jan Zabinski were an extraordinarily brave couple, who really did risk their lives in order to save those of around three hundred Jewish people during the Second World War.

The film opens in 1939, when Antonia (Jessica Chastaine) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), are the proud owners of the Warsaw Zoo. There’s an idyllic, chocolate-boxy feel to the early scenes, as Antonina pedals cheerfully around the zoo grounds dispensing love and care to the resident creatures – doubtless intended to contrast with the grim realities to come. And come they do, because, of course, pretty soon Warsaw has been invaded by the German army and the zoo devastated by bombing raids.  An acquaintance of the Zabinskis, German zoologist (and Nazi) Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), offers to take the zoo’s rarer species to Germany ‘for safe keeping’. He also exhibits evident romantic interest in Antonina.

The Zabinskis consequently decide to exploit this interest by offering to turn their zoo into a massive pig farm, using the resulting meat to feed the German troops, something that Heck happily agrees to – but the couple are secretly planning to use the extensive cellars of their zoo to hide Jews, smuggled from the nearby ghetto, in order to help them escape to freedom. It’s a reckless ambition and one that’ll expose them to considerable danger…

This is a decent and perfectly watchable film, built around a strong performance by Chastain in the central role but – even though the story incorporates some devastating events: the heartless rape of a young Jewish girl; the callous murder of two other women;  the desperate plight of Warsaw’s Jewish population – the film never quite manages to generate the emotional power you’d expect from a story like this. I feel somehow distanced from the onscreen horrors and that is a problem.

Still, this is nonetheless an interesting tale plucked from the pages of history, and the courage of the Zabinskis deserves to be celebrated. The good news is the film is available to watch right now on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Eco Larder

27/04/19

Morrison Street, Edinburgh

Okay, so we don’t usually write about shops here at B&B. We don’t like shopping; the ‘food’ heading is for restaurant reviews (we do like eating out). But The Eco Larder is such a fabulous little store that we just can’t help ourselves. We want to extol its virtues.

And it’s our blog. We can stretch that ‘food’ category to include a shop if we want to. Right?

Run by the lovely Stephanie and Matt, The Eco Larder is a not-for-profit business, a social enterprise, with the laudable aim of eliminating plastic packaging. It’s encouraging to see zero waste shops like these springing up around the country, and The Eco Larder really is a bit special. We’ve all but ditched the supermarket in recent months (apart from an occasional trip to stock up on tinned food and alcohol); instead, we’re taking a weekly walk down Morrison Street, containers at the ready.

The shop is small, but bright and clean, and stocks an impressive array of goods. As well as our dried foods (pasta, rice, seeds, fruit, nuts, pulses, legumes, herbs, spices), we’re also buying our household items here, refilling old bottles with washing up liquid and hair conditioner. They sell loo roll and toothpaste, olive oils and vinegars, fresh bread and organic vegetables, reusable straws and sanitary pads. Honestly, they’ve got it all. As you’d expect, the prices vary. Some things seem expensive; others are very cheap. But overall, our weekly food bill is similar to what it was before; it’s changed the way we eat.

There are treats in store too. We especially love the freshly squeezed orange juice, and not just because it’s fun using the machine. The nut butter is delicious too, and no palm oil (or salt, or sugar) to make this pleasure a guilty one.

The recent addition of a milk vending machine is the icing on the (fair trade) cake. Those of us who live in city centre flats don’t have the option of milk delivery, and it’s rankled, seeing those endless plastic bottles filling up our recycling bag. But now we can take a bottle to The Eco Larder and fill it up with organic semi-skimmed. What’s not to like?

Shopping at The Eco Larder is actually pleasurable – a far cry from the stress of pushing a trolley around Aldi or Waitrose. Matt, Stephanie and their volunteer crew are all friendly and helpful; it’s a calm, gentle experience, and one we both look forward to.

So if, like us, you’re dismayed by the amount of waste you’ve been generating (and you’re in Edinburgh), why not take a walk down Morrison Street and try it for yourself?

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Locker Room Talk

 

23/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Donald Trump’s infamous “you can grab ’em by the pussy” brag caused international outrage: protest marches, column inches, pundits decrying him. But it didn’t cost him anything. The dismissal of his misogyny as “locker room talk” clearly resonated with voters, and he was duly elected president. What chance did Hillary ever have in such a toxic environment?

Gary McNair’s play, Locker Room Talk, is a direct response to this. Are Trump’s words really just banter, typical of what men say when women aren’t around to hear them?  If so, what does that tell us? And what should we do?

McNair set off with a voice recorder, and interviewed a lot of men. The result is an hour-long verbatim piece, performed – crucially – by four women (Maureen Carr, Jamie Marie, Nicola Roy and Gabriel Quigley), each wearing an earpiece and repeating the men’s words exactly as they hear them.

It’s chilling, listening to these words spoken by their subjects, squirm-inducing to hear women articulating the sexism that’s directed against them. The men’s voices are diverse, covering different socio-economic and age groups. But they’re united in their reductive brutality; their points-scoring systems; their adherence to stereotypes of women as sex objects, nags or domestic chore-doers. Spoken by women, the dark underbelly of the badinage is fatally exposed. The performances are stark and illuminating, the portrayals clever and detailed.

Of course this is heavily edited, the most vile and disparaging responses selected for impact. Of course the questions are leading, the responses shaped by what the participants think the interviewer wants to hear. And, of course, there are lots of men out there who’d never dream of saying things like these. But none of this matters here: it’s not a scientific study or academic research; it’s a play, a snapshot of how some men – too many men – talk about women. As a provocation, it’s perfect. We have to challenge this kind of talk; it isn’t good for anyone.

The question and answer session, expertly facilitated by Dr Holly Davis, is billed as a “post-show discussion” but, actually, it’s very much part of the play. This is the point, I think: to stimulate dialogue, to find a way forward.

Because it’s not okay to boast about “grabbing pussies” – is it?

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

What Girls Are Made Of

17/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed What Girls Are Made Of at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which is a shame because Cora Bissett’s autobiographical tale was a First Fringe winner there and enjoyed great word of mouth. This timely reshowing at the Traverse gives us an opportunity to catch up with it and boy, are we glad we do.

From the moment she wanders onto the stage carrying a cardboard box full of ‘memories,’ Bissett has us clutched in the palm of her hand – and she expertly delivers her picaresque story, relating her knockabout schooldays in Kirkcaldy, her early years in rock music and her exciting brush with fame when her newly formed band Darlingheart shared stages with the likes of Blur and Radiohead at the height of the Britpop phenomenon. Bissett is a superb raconteur and she knows exactly how to pull an audience into her world.

If you’re thinking that this is a piece that concentrates only on the good times, let me assure you that it also takes in the darker side of the music industry, demonstrating how a young musician’s hopes and dreams can be ground underfoot by unscrupulous record labels. There’s a reason you may not have heard much about Darlingheart, and Bisset reveals it all in excruciating detail. This part of her story speaks volumes to me: back in my teen years, I too was a hopeful in a rock band, and went through my own long dark night of the soul at the hands of the music moguls.

Lest I give the impression that this is just a solo performance, I should add that the three members of her band (Simon Donaldson, Harry Ward and Susan Bear) not only provide a kicking soundtrack for Bissett’s story, but also take on a multitude of roles, playing key characters on her journey with aplomb, Ward in particular evincing much laughter as her indomitable mother. Ward is an arresting performer, last seen by B&B in the superb Dark Carnival, also at The Traverse.

Bissett eventually emerged from the carnage of Darlingheart, learning how to survive, and finally carving out a career as a writer, performer and director. Her conclusion – that we are all a result of the various obstacles we overcome in our path through life – is cannily encompassed in a final, rousing song.

This is enervating stuff and the standing ovation the four performers receive as the last chords die away is well earned. If you can grab a ticket for What Girls Are Made Of, do so with all haste. It’s often said, but I’m saying it anyway: this is simply too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Abigail’s Party

16/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Mike Leigh’s 1970s drama is one of those pieces everyone just seems to know. I was only six when it was first screened in 1977, far too young to have seen it then, and yet it feels like something I have grown up with, ever-present, with Alison Steadman’s Beverly the towering icon at its heart.

For those few the play has eluded, or whose memories need a jog, Abigail’s Party is a dark comedy, an agonising depiction of social embarrassment. When painfully polite divorcee, Sue (Rose Keegan), needs somewhere to spend the evening while her wayward daughter, Abigail, has the titular party, Beverly (Jodie Prenger) seizes the opportunity to play host, inviting gauche new neighbours, Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Calum Callaghan), to make up the numbers. Beverly’s overworked estate agent husband, Laurence (Daniel Casey), is reluctant – he has business calls to make and has to be up early in the morning – but Beverly prevails. It’s clear that Beverly always prevails. And nothing will stand in the way of her desire to show off her cocktail cabinet and leather three-piece-suite.

It’s a sturdy piece of work, and one that stands the test of time, with far more to offer than the kitsch 70s-pastiche set and costumes might suggest. But these are just a kind of shorthand, a means of settling the audience comfortably into a recognisable time and place, before discomfiting us with the hubris and frailty of the characters on stage.

The acid nature of the couples’ relationships and their collective lack of self-awareness drive the humour here; we, like Sue, are baffled outsiders, blinking at the awfulness of the people before us. Rose Keegan is adroit at conveying a sense of mounting horror, her pleasant manners becoming an ever-less effective method of keeping Beverly at bay.

Prenger, as Beverly, is of course the key to the whole play, and she’s a formidable performer, who has the chops for the part. I can’t help wishing there was less of Steadman here though; director Sarah Esdaile asserts that “Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice” – she helped create the role – and I know that’s true, but I would prefer to see a different incarnation of Beverly, a new interpretation of this monstrous creature. After all, there are Beverlys everywhere.

Vicky Binns does a cracking turn as the gawky Angela, gamely weathering her taciturn husband’s scorn, and desperate to impress. The saddest moment in the play for me is when she decries her parents’ dreadful marriage, seemingly unaware that her own is a carbon copy; the funniest is her dance. At first, I find her style a bit declamatory but, as the drama progresses, it works: Angela is performing for Beverly.

Calum Callaghan might not have showy stuff to do as Tony, but his dark mood effectively puts a dampener on the evening, quelling every moment of  light-heartedness or potential joy. And Daniel Casey’s Laurence is a fascinating study, almost likeable, but for his desperate snobbishness, and his vengeful urge to humiliate his wife.

An excoriating social satire, Abigail’s Party might press the nostalgia buttons, but it’s still very relevant today.

4 stars 

Susan Singfield

 

The Sisters Brothers

15/04/19

The western movie has ridden some twisted trails over the years, but few of them are quite as strange as the one followed by The Sisters Brothers. The first feature in English by French director Jacques Audiard, it’s based on the acclaimed novel by Patrick De Witt. It’s a good deal more philosophical than your average oater and it takes it owns sweet time to relate a decidedly bizarre tale.

The titular brothers are hired guns, working for the mysterious Commodore (a thankless non-speaking role for Rutger Hauer). Eli (John C Reilly) is the shy, sensitive one, who’s clearly not cut out for this kind of work, but is nonetheless deadly with a revolver, whenever push comes to shove. He tends to play second fiddle to the more nihilistic Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a habitual drunkard, who somehow manages to turn everything he touches into absolute chaos.

For their latest mission, the brothers are despatched to rendezvous with another hired gun, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), in order to apprehend the charismatic Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a man with a spectacular (and, it would seem, almost magical) secret. But when Morris bumps into Warm, he soon falls under the man’s peculiar spell and the two of them quickly become business partners – a move which makes the brothers’ latest mission even more complicated than they expected.

This is a weirdly metaphorical film, where strange images loom out of mythic landscapes – a film where blazing horses career through the night and chunks of gold shimmer invitingly at the bottom of a creek – where opportunities pop up unexpectedly from the sagebrush only to metamorphose into death traps. As the brothers bicker and quarrel their way across the screen, we begin to learn that they are pioneers of their own misfortune, doomed to keep running from the seemingly endless adversaries that are pitched against them – and, even when they too find themselves partnering with their former target, it is only to unleash more dangers.

The Sisters Brothers certainly won’t be for everyone – and, with a running time of just over two hours, it will try the patience of those who want something more straightforward. But once settled into its peculiar rhythm, I find myself beguiled and occasionally startled by it. This is a Western the like of which I’ve never seen before and, trust me, I’ve seen many. I enjoy the ride.

4 stars

Philip Caveney