Month: October 2019

Monos

30/10/19

In a remote mountain hideout, somewhere in Colombia, eight teenage guerrillas are killing time. They belong to some unspecified rebel organisation, and their main purpose is to watch over an American captive, referred to simply as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). The youths all have the anonmity of nicknames and they pass the long hours playing bizarre sports, exercising, arguing, having sex and recklessly discharging semi-automatic weapons, in some cases with catastrophic results.

From time to time, The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) rides over the hill and puts these feral youngsters through the wringer, instructing them to work their bodies to the limits of their endurance, encouraging them to inform on each other in order to further exert his malign influence over them. We learn nothing about the organisation they work for – or even why Doctora is being held hostage in the first place – but strangely, this all serves to make writer/director Alejandro Landes’ story ever more mesmerising as it unfolds.

There’s so much to relish here: the stunning location cinematography, the raw performances from the young actors (particularly from Sofia Buenaventura as the conflicted ‘Rambo’) and the oppressive feel of the isolation the eight-strong team are forced to endure. Watching this is an ordeal, but in the best sense of the word.

In the second half, after a violent skirmish with Doctora’s would-be rescuers, the team take their captive into deep jungle, where she attempts to engineer an escape – and the film veers into action/adventure territory. There are breathless chases and dangerous plunges down wild river rapids, all of which keep me perched on the edge of my seat right up to the final shattering frame.

There are evident references to other stories here, most noteably to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – indeed, one scene is a direct homage to it. There are other images that wouldn’t look out of place in Apocalypse Now or Aguirre: Wrath of God. But such comparisons can sometimes serve to diminish a film’s worth, and Monos is very much its own creature, a brilliant and intelligent meditation on the nature of indoctrination.

If you can see this on the big screen, so much the better. It’s a stunner.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Fibres

29/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Fibres is Frances Poet’s ‘heath and safety’ play, an emotive response to her discovery that an acquaintance had lost both parents, six months apart, due to asbestos poisoning. Poet’s perception of asbestos as ‘something dangerous from the past’ was exposed as a fallacy; subsequently, she learned that more people die of asbestos-related illnesses each year than die in traffic accidents, that the NHS will be footing the bill for corporate greed/negligence until 2040. Mesothelioma takes between twenty and fifty years to develop, and even brief exposure is enough to kill.

Indeed, the brevity of exposure is a key feature of this play. Jack (Jonathan Watson) only works as a shipbuilder for a few days; he’s nervous about the asbestos dust he’s been warned about, so takes a pay cut and becomes an electrician. He thinks he’s dodged a bullet. His wife, Beanie (Maureen Carr), washes his overalls, a simple domestic act fraught with symbolism, as the fibres enter her lungs too.

As you might expect from Poet, there are many layers to be unravelled here; it’s not a simple polemic. There are parallels drawn between the asbestos fibres and the impact of traditional gender roles on a relationship: a slow, invisible poisoning.

Despite the subject matter, it’s not all doom and gloom. Jack and Beanie are a believable couple, muddling through as best they can. They’re facing the horror with fortitude and humour: Jack loves a bit of comedy, and has a catalogue of cringey jokes. Their daughter, Lucy (Suzanne Magowan), is struggling, but her breakdown is shown through a series of bleakly humorous, hide-your-eyes-behind-your-hands-while-your-toes-curl moments.

Breaches in health and safety protocol are given a human face, in the form of Lucy’s boss, Pete (Ali Craig). They work for a fibre optics company, and he’s up against it, trying to meet the demands of a contract while allowing his workers their requisite study days and sick leave. He’s fed up with the union rep’s ‘unreasonable’ demands, preventing him from getting the job done. We’re shown how it happens, how decent people can be pressured into repeating old mistakes. But Pete is given a chance to learn: his fondness for Lucy redeems him.

If this all sounds a bit po-faced, don’t be misled. This plays as a cleverly written domestic tragedy, with a window onto larger political issues. The actors switch between narration and performance; the set (by Jen McGinley) is a fluid, symbolic space, where the characters flit between life and death, the past and the present, dark humour and even darker anger. Jemima Levick’s assured direction ensures that there is no confusion: we always know where and when events are taking place, the pace allowing us time to digest what’s happening.

Fibres is a vital, heartbreaking play with an important message at its core.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Prism

28/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jack is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As he increasingly slips into a fog of forgetfulness, his son Mason attempts to get him to write his autobiography before he forgets everything. He fills the garage with photographs and pieces of equipment salvaged from his father’s long career, hoping they’ll provide inspiration. But, inevitably, the artefacts send Jack’s consciousness careering back to experiences from his past.

Jack (Robert Lindsay) is the near-legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff. (If the name is unfamiliar, think Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes, to name but three.) Mason (Oliver Hembrough) is a camera operator, determined to keep his father productive, while Jack’s wife, Nikki (Tara Fitzgerald) is just trying to come to terms with the fact that her husband keeps mistaking her for Katherine Hepburn, with whom he once had a serious dalliance. Into this troubled household comes Lucy (Victoria Blunt),  charged with the tricky task of helping Jack to write that autobiography – no easy matter for somebody who professes to hate ‘old films.’

Lindsay offers a nicely nuanced performance as Cardiff, finding the humour in the man’s situation (and yes, there is humour there) as well as the poignancy, when somebody whose career has been entirely composed around his ability to capture the magical qualities of light increasingly finds himself slipping further and further into the darkness.

The video designs of Ian William Galloway, where old photographs blossom magically into motion, help to convey the idea of his cinematic history and there’s a gorgeous flashback to 1951 and the set of The African Queen, where Fitzgerald does a fabulous turn as Katherine Hepburn. Blunt also manages to transform herself from a no-nonsense Yorkshire lass to a pretty convincing Marilyn Monroe. A sequence where an earlier scene is replayed word-for-word, but seen from Jack’s deluded perspective, adds a delicious twist to the proceedings.

You don’t have to be a film buff to enjoy this, by the way. Cardiff’s plight is one shared by so many people and his story serves to accentuate the horror and tragedy of this all too common malady.

But his shattered genius somehow lends the story an extra shot of melancholy.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Zombieland: Double Tap

27/10/19

It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since the first Zombieland film – and, while the original came as a breath of fresh air amidst the unseemly scramble of leaden undead movies that hit the screens around that time, it’s probably fair to say that there weren’t too many punters desperate to see a sequel. But you have to take your hat off to director Ruben Fleischer, who not only persuaded somebody to finance this, but also got the four lead players to reprise their roles.

A decade has passed for the quartet of survivors too, who – when we first encounter them – are moving into their new headquarters: the White House. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and Witchita (Emma Stone) are now a couple, while Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) has taken on a fatherly role towards Little Rock (Abgail Breslin). But LR’s at a difficult age, starting to long for a little ‘me time’ and, when Columbus rashly proposes marriage to Wichita, she too feels a little hemmed in. So the two women hit the road, looking for new horizons.

Complications occur when LR encounters a wandering hippie (Avan Joggia) with a guitar and a repetoire of popular rock songs, which he claims to have written. She falls promptly under his spell and runs off with him to a hippie community where weapons are banned, dumping Wichita in the process. Wichita returns to the two men but, in her absence, Columbus has hooked up with Madison (Zoey Deutch), an airheaded valley girl, who has improbably managed to stay alive (and meticulously clean) in the midst of all the carnage. Despite the awkward situation, the four of them head out on LR’s trail.

Double Tap is undoubtedly fun – a silly, good-natured addition to what went before – but, like so many sequels, it struggles to add anything new to the mix. Here, there’s an attempt to suggest that the zombies are evolving from the simple shuffling ‘Homers’ of the original story to ‘T-800s,’ leaner, meaner and harder to kill – and there’s a loosely knit story arc about the importance of family – but, ultimately, that’s not really enough to justify this as a film in its own right. And some of the internal logic of the tale really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The laughs come easily enough and there are sly references to things that occurred in episode one. The cartoon violence is unashamedly visceral (unleash these levels of slaughter at human victims and that 15 rating might need to be raised a notch) and there’s an interesting new character in the shape of Rosario Dawson, as a woman with a major Elvis Presley fixation.

So yes, it’s no hardship to watch – but it isn’t destined to linger very long in the memory.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Thick Skin, Elastic Heart

26/10/10

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Thick Skin, Elastic Heart is billed as ‘a hybrid poetry/drama production’ and I’ll admit, based on that description, my expectations are not particularly high. Let’s just say, I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by such shows in the past. You know the kind of thing. Short pieces of poetry, thoughtful silences, and smatterings of polite applause…

And when I learn that the theme of the show is ‘millennials,’ I’m not exactly overjoyed. I seem to have heard people banging on about that subject a lot recently…

Which only goes to show how wrong you (I) can be.

Touring company Sonnet Youth make a point of showcasing some local talent at every performance so tonight we open with a selection from young poet, Catherine Wilson, who delivers a series of wry, amusing, observational pieces that range from the sweet and poignant, to the downright hilarious. Wilson is a confident, engaging performer and this gets eveything off to a strong start.

And it only gets better.

The pieces that follow, all written by Drew Taylor-Wilson, offer observations on the complexity of modern life: the awful paranoia of job interviews, the tribulations of sexual relationships, a deeply affecting piece about miscarriage… this runs the gamut of the emotions, each successive piece contrasting with the last, so there’s never a sense of repetition – unless it’s deliberate. The show is performed with considerable alomb by Charlotte Driesler, Robert Elkin, Danielle Jam and Cameron Fulton. And it’s not just a series of poems delivered one after the other. Lucy Wild’s choreography has the four performers moving effortlessly around the stage, sometimes delivering monologues, often speaking in unison, augmenting each section with simple costume changes and skilful interaction. To say that I’m spellbound would perhaps be an understatement.

I’ve rarely seen this kind of thing done so well and it exerts a powerful grip on my attention from start to finish. The applause at the end is anything but polite.

After just two nights at The Traverse, the show is moving on for a series of one-off engagements across Scotland. If this should happen to land anywhere near you, do yourself an immense favour and grab a ticket.

I’m confident you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

4. 4 stars

Philip Caveney

Barber Shop Chronicles

24/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s a different vibe in the Lyceum tonight: a youthful, energetic atmosphere. We take our seats fifteen minutes early, but the party’s already in full swing, with audience members invited up on to the stage, where the twelve-strong cast are dancing, chatting and miming cutting people’s hair. A couple of teenagers from the front row run up the steps self-consciously; within seconds they’re in barbers’ chairs, laughing with the actors standing behind them. A middle-aged man tries in vain to copy some dance moves; he’s having a great time. An actor wanders through the auditorium, shaking hands, making daft jokes. This immersive opening has a clear message: Barber Shop Chronicles is an inclusive piece of theatre, and we’re meant to be more involved than mere observers.

Inua Ellams’ play was first performed two years ago at the National Theatre (who co-produced it with Fuel and Leeds Playhouse). Since then, it’s been on tour, and its success is well-deserved. An intimate piece that spans six countries; a politically-charged play that doesn’t proselytise; a comedy that brings its audience to tears: Barber Shop Chronicles is nothing if not original.

The conceit is simple: a barber is not just a man who cuts his clients’ hair. He is also a counsellor, his shop is a confessional. And, if this is true, if men really do open up to their barbers, then what can we glean if we listen in? London-based Ellams’ research took him to South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, and he returned with sixty hours of recordings on which he based his play. The authenticity of the voices rings true throughout, exploring the experiences of black men in Africa and the UK. We flit between time zones and hairdressers, the clocks whizzing round at double speed to take us between continents. In each shop, they’re watching the same football match (Chelsea vs Barcelona), each disparate group united by their interest in the sport.

There’s a lot to take in; under Bijan Sheibani’s direction, everything happens at breakneck speed. I like this: sure, there’s not always time to absorb one idea before another comes along, but the overlapping stories and fragments of ideology feel wonderfully realistic, adding to the impression that we’re listening in to what real people have to say.

The performances are exuberant for the most part, but quiet and heartfelt when required. This is true ensemble work, with a real sense of a team creating something together. The scene transitions are fascinating, the choreography both lively and precise.

The best thing, though, is the wide-ranging conversation, encompassing little-heard persepctives on everything from Nigerian Pidgin to Mugabe, from high performance cars to fatherhood. It’s densely packed – and never dull.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

The Monstrous Heart

23/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart takes place in a remote log cabin in the wilds of Canada, where Beth (Charlene Boyd), recently released from a long prison stretch in England, reconnects with her mother, Mag (Christine Entwhistle). It’s clear from the outset that this is not going to be a warm family reunion. The two women have unfinished business, business that relates to the little girl in the next room – and the threat of physical violence hangs heavy in the air.

There’s another protagonist in this story in the (very realistic) form of a dead grizzly bear, stretched out on the kitchen table, where it’s in the process of being stuffed by Mag, who, after an alcoholic past, has somehow rebuilt her life and now works as a respected taxidermist. The bear is a great big metaphor and its massive frame dominates the set, in some cases (perhaps deliberately?) blocking the sight-lines for some of the story’s action. Director Gareth Nicholls does his best to orchestrate the ensuing antics and, to give the actors their due, they subit powerful performances here. Boyd offers a devilish, gleefully nihilistic Beth, while Entwhistle’s Mag is a parcel of twitching uncertainty, never more compelling than when she tells her daughter exactly what she thinks of her.

But the script isn’t as assured as it needs to be and simply leaves too many unanswered questions, rendering the characters somewhat unbelievable. Around the midway point, there’s a scene that is surely intended to transform everything we’ve seen so far, as the bear does a bit more than just lie around – but sadly, it doesn’t quite come off.

Also, this is an extended riff on the plot of Frankenstein; there’s no mistaking it, as it’s  heavy-handedly referenced at one point, just to be sure we’ve got the message. Of course, it’s not this production’s fault that the last play we saw was Rona Munro’s sprightly adapation of that classic tale, but it certainly doesn’t help matters that this incarnation feels somewhat lumbering by comparison.

The Monstrous Heart is all about nature versus nurture, how creators can become as twisted and unpredictable as their creations. It certainly isn’t dull and it keeps me hooked right up to its violent conclusion.

But I am left wanting a little more substance, a little more depth.

Nice bear, though.

3 stars

Philip Caveney