Month: November 2019

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol

29/11/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Does anything embody the theme of Christmas more perfectly than a generous helping of Charles Dickens? A Christmas Carol remains one of his most popular books – indeed, the images it contains pretty much sum up the British public’s entire concept of Christmas. Victorian costumes, decorated trees, festive feasts and of course, copious snow tumbling from the heavens. Tony Cownie’s spirited retelling of the story adds an extra ingredient: Edinburgh. And it works like a charm.

Actually, there’s solid reasoning behind this addition. There’s evidence to suggest that Dickens found inspiration for his most enduring character during a visit to Canongate Churchyard, where he spotted a tombstone commemorating a certain Ebenezer Scroggie, and even made a note about it as a potential character name for future use. Sadly, the gravestone is no longer there (lost during restorations in 1932), but Dicken’s inventive story still dazzles.

In An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, Scrooge (Crawford Logan) is a dour, curmudgeonly man, forever sneering and rolling his eyes at his good natured clerk, Rab Cratchit (Ewan Donald), and nimbly avoiding all who ask him for contributions to good causes. This sprightly version sticks fairly closely to the original story, but throws in a local legend in the furry shape of Greyfriar’s Bobby, still sleeping on his master’s grave, and in danger of being banned from the city for want of a licence. Would Ebenezer like to contribute to the cost of buying one? Bah! Humbug!

The addition of Bobby is a bit of a master stroke. This is the most family-friendly festive offering we’ve seen at the Lyceum, and the youngsters in tonight’s audience are clearly entranced by the puppet versions of Bobby and Tiny Tim. It’s not all lighthearted. There are those pesky ghosts, for starters. A little girl sitting behind me finds the presence of a headless drummer momentarily overwhelming, but she’s soon back to being delighted by all she sees.

There’s also plenty for older audience members to enjoy, not least the gorgeous set design by Neil Murray, which captures the somber beauty of Edinburgh, and when combined with Zoe Spurr’s dramatic lighting shows off the city to great effect. There’s humour too in the witty dialogue, and those who enjoy a festive singalong are well served by the presence of the Community Choir, who offer a series of rousing carols throughout the production. What else do we need to create a perfect Christmas treat? You want snow? You’ve got it!

Even a dedicated Scrooge like me emerges from this production with a warm glow inside (and I swear it’s not just the mulled wine!). Christmas cheer seems to be in rather short supply this year, so why not head on up to the Lyceum for a much-needed top up? I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the experience.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Frozen II

28/11/19

Disney’s Frozen II  is facing a hard slog with this particular critic: I’m not a great fan of fantasy/quest stories, power ballads don’t really float my boat, and sequels are rarely much cop. But, being firmly of the opinion that opinions can and should change, I’m determined to approach it with an open mind. After all, there are great tales in every genre. In the end, if it’s done well, I’m happy.

2013’s original Frozen is a case in point. Despite myself, I liked it. A lot. Of course, this second outing can’t benefit from the freshness of the idea, and is bound to suffer – to some extent – from trying to replicate the original’s huge success. You can almost hear the songwriters’ straining for this year’s Let It Go. 

It’s three years after Elsa’s coronation, and everyone in Arendelle is enjoying Autumn. But then Queen Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling to her, and feels compelled to follow it. But her sister, Anna, won’t let her go alone, so – quelle surprise – they are accompanied by Christoph (Anna’s boyfriend), Sven (Christoph’s reindeer) and Olaf (the chirpy snowman). The voice leads them to the enchanted forest where, years ago, the women’s grandfather was killed. Elsa’s mission, it turns out, is twofold: to heal the rift between the Northuldra tribe and the soldiers of Arendelle, all trapped together in the forest since the fatal fight; and to appease the elemental spirits angered by human folly.

The songs, sadly, are all so-so ballads, with little to distinguish them, and none as memorable as Let It Go; more variety would really perk things up. Olaf’s constant joking is less adorable in this outing; I find myself wishing he’d shut up. And honestly, I’ve no idea why Anna and Elsa wear dresses, high heels and full make-up for hiking in the hills.

Still, the animation is glorious: the water horse (or Nokk) and the earth giants are particularly impressive. The plot is convoluted and a bit silly, but it skips along nicely and holds my attention.

The verdict: Frozen II is… lukewarm.

3.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Dolemite is my Name

27/11/19

Whatever happened to Eddie Murphy? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself.

For those who weren’t moviegoers during the early 80s, it’s hard to convey the seismic impact he had on cinema. I still remember my first sight of him in Walter Hill’s 48 Hours, sitting alone in a prison cell, earphones in and singing raucously along to Roxanne. It was evident at a glance that he was going to be a massive movie star. And through that decade, that’s exactly what he became in films like Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop.

But during the 90s, things went awry. A combination of poor film choices, and personal disasters contrived to push him further and further out of the public consciousness. With only occasional flashes of the old brilliance, it seemed to be over for him. So hearing that he is starring in a new movie, released without fanfare direct to Netflix comes as a bit of a surprise – as does the discovery that Dolemite Is My Name is actually pretty decent.

Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a real life comedian/filmmaker, often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Rap’ and, moreover, a man who Murphy has often cited as an influence on his own early career. When we first encounter him, Moore is working by day as the manager of a Los Angeles record store; by night, he’s performing as a music club emcee, but failing to connect with audiences.

When Moore hears a homeless guy reciting  bawdy poetry about ‘Dolemite,’ a legendary character amongst older members of the local community, he spots an opportunity to reinvent himself as a standup comedian. Donning an afro wig, and some some flamboyant clothes he hits the stage. In his brash new potty-mouthed persona, he makes an instant connection with the customers, and his fame begins to spread.

When he subsequently offers his act to record labels, they shy away, horrified by the unashamedly sexual nature of the content. Undeterred, he decides to  record some albums himself with the aid of friends and relatives; and pretty soon, he finds himself on the billboard charts, selling records by the ton.

And then, one evening, a disappointing trip to the cinema gives him another idea. Why not write and produce a Dolemite movie? No film company wants to take it on, so once again, he has to find unconventional ways to make it happen…

It’s lovely to see some of Murphy’s old familiar spark being reignited here. Moore’s story is that of the classic underdog, the kind of guy who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and whom audiences just can’t help rooting for. I’ve never caught up with the original Dolemite, but it’s clear from the scenes lovingly recreated here (and reprised in their original form in a post credits sequence) that this Blaxploitation classic belongs in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. This sparky film, directed by Craig Brewer, tells the story with aplomb and the presence of Wesley Snipes as louche actor D’ouville Martin and (an uncredited) Bob Odenkirk as a predatory movie executive add to its appeal.

Anyone interested in seeing this can catch it any time they like on Netflix. As for Murphy, he has a Coming to America sequel in the works. It remains to be seen if that endeavour will be afforded the luxury of a theatrical release.

Fingers crossed.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical

26/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Goodness, is it that time of year already? That time when entire families run frantically around the shops loading up on presents for the family? That time when baubles, tinsel and unecessary plastic objects appear in every window? Bah! You know, when I think about it, the Grinch and I have quite a bit in common.

However, one Christmas tradition well worth preserving is the annual family trip to the theatre and, this year, first off the starting block in Edinburgh is the Festival Theatre, with this lush and lively adaptation of the Dr Seuss classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Of course, the problem with Seuss is that his slim volumes are so deceptively simple, they manage to effortlessly pack each complex tale into just a few cartoons and some amusing verse. This can create problems for those seeking to adapt his work for the stage. In order to achieve the necessary running time, it can often feel like too much padding has been added to the mix. But tonight, this is not the case: a musical is clearly an ideal way to spin the format out without loads of repetition.

First off, there’s a short introduction from Gregor Fisher, who reads a few pages of the book to a bunch of youngsters recruited from the audience. It’s not a particularly auspicious start, because the children aren’t really given anything to do but sit there and listen. However, as soon as the music strikes up and the Whos dance onto the stage, it’s clear that we’re in for an exhilerating ride. The songs are charming, and the choreography a delight. The costumes are eye-popping and the set design (based on the good Dr’s distinctive illustrations) provides a riot of festive colours.

Then on comes Old Max (Steve Fortune), the Grinch’s faithful hound who tells us the story of when he was Young Max (Matt Terry) and how, one fateful night, he was enlisted to aid the Grinch (Edward Baker-Duly) is his devious plan to kidnap Christmas and leave the Whos of Whoville bereft of Christmas cheer. Suess’s central message about the perils of consumerism is properly conveyed, together with the conclusion that Christmas should be (and can be) something much deeper than a mere trip to the shops. Whenever there’s a danger of it all becoming a little too sentimental, the script manages to pull things back to the right side of the line.

Baker-Duly gives us a splendid Grinch, slyly snarky and deliciously devious, thrilling the youngest members of the audience, while sneakily throwing in jokes for their parents. Special mention should be made of Isla Gie, playing Cindy Lou Who on the night we attend. The Grinch in me hates to use the word ‘adorable,’ but after some consideration, I really can’t think of a more apropriate one, and Gie comes dangerously close to walking off with the entire show.

As you’d expect from any Christmas production, TGWSC has all the pyrotechnics you could reasonably ask for, including a pretty convincing snowfall (I’d hate to be handed the task of cleaning it up afterwards).

Those looking for an enchanting festive night out for all the family will surely find what they want right here.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Knives Out

25/11/19

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit for our times. Although reliant on the tropes and clichés of the murder-mystery, the delivery makes this a thoroughly modern thriller.

The cast is stellar. Christopher Plummer is Harlem Thrombey: a successful eighty-five-year-old novelist with a penchant for games and a vast fortune to bequeath. The morning after his birthday party, he is found dead, his throat cut in an apparent suicide. But just as the police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Began) are ready to finalise the cause of death, enigmatic private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) turns up, hired by an anonymous client to investigate further.

Thrombey’s children and grandchildren are all present, and it turns out each of them has a motive for his murder – although I won’t reveal the details here. His daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a forbidding businesswoman, visiting with her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), and their feckless son, Ransom (Chris Evans). Thrombey’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), is a gentle soul, but a hopeless case, incapable of making it on his own. He has a wife too (Riki Lindome), and an alt-right-leaning teenager (Jaeden Martell), who spends his time perusing questionable websites on his phone. And finally, there’s Thrombey’s yoga-and-crystal-loving daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), and her student daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford).

As you might expect of the genre, the setting is a remote country house, and so – of course – there are staff too: housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), both of whom prove central to the plot.

There’s an appealing playfulness here, with zingy dialogue and witty repartee, and the performances are as sprightly and assured as you’d expect from these marvellous actors. But the plot is a little predictable: there are no real surprises here, mainly because the various ‘twists’ are too heavily signalled. The middle third sags under the weight of a lengthy red herring, where the focus drifts from the larger-than-life characters and their shenanigans, following instead a more muted, less engaging thread.

Nonetheless, this is a lively and eminently watchable film – just not the masterpiece I hoped that it would be.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Harriet

25/11/19

Anyone who has witnessed the superb double-punch that was Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows will surely have the same conviction as me: that Cynthia Erivo is destined to be a major player in the cinema. So her presence in the lead role of Harriet feels suspiciously like an affirmation. This is a part she was born to play and it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to depict this spirited, fearless woman. Filmmakers have been playing with the idea of a Tubman biopic for something like twenty-five years now, back when producers actually considered offering the role to Julia Roberts! Wow. But here, finally, is the film we’ve been waiting for and, in terms of a performance, Erivo knocks it right out of the park. 

We first encounter Harriet Tubman in 1846, when she’s Araminta Ross, a slave ‘belonging’ to the Brodess family in Maryland, and dreading the prospect of being sold further south, as her two sisters were when she was a child. She’s also prone to having religious visions, a legacy of a fractured skull delivered by her ruthless owner, Edward. Harriet is married to John Tubman (Zackery Momoh), a so-called free man, and has acquired legal papers to prove she too should be free. But Edward is adamant that he will never give up such a valuable piece of property. When he dies, his equally odious son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), needs to pay off his father’s gambling debts and decides that he will sell Harriet. She takes the only option she feels is left to her and runs away, leaving John behind for fear of getting him involved in her illegal act.

Through sheer grit and determination, she makes the one-hundred-mile trip to Philadelphia unharmed, and is introduced to William Still (Leslie Odom Jnr), a major player in the Underground Railroad, a secret organisation dedicated to bringing slaves from the Southern states to freedom in the North. Harriet takes her new ‘free’ name and tells William she wants to go back to Maryland to rescue her husband and the other members of her family, but he doubts that a lone woman could ever achieve such a task. Undaunted, she heads back anyway, risking her own capture to bring her loved ones to freedom. Once there, she finds that John, believing her dead, has married and is due to be a father. But the rest of her family still need guiding to safety. This achieved, Harriet extends her help to strangers. And when changing laws mean that she has to take her ‘passengers’ as far north as Canada, she doesn’t hesitate to do so…

Harriet is a film that eloquently communicates the true horrors of slavery. Whip marks on people’s bodies bear silent testimony to the horrors of the antebellum South, and the story doesn’t hold back on shaming the people who perpetuated slavery and who were even willing to go to war in order to preserve it. Gideon Brodress is depicted as a truly loathesome example of humanity and, sadly, the corridors of power are populated by others just like him. 

Tubman, by the way, is one of the few women who served as a soldier during the American Civil War, leading a black regiment to rescue 750 captive slaves at Combahee River. It would be hard to imagine a more worthy recipient of our respect and yet, when it was recently suggested that her image should replace that of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, a certain Donald Trump had the change ‘postponed’ until 2026. Which demonstrates that we may not have come as far as we might like to think.

Till then, Kasi Lemon’s moving and important film must suffice as Harriet Tubman’s memorial. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t getting the kind of massive rollout that more commercial movies are receiving, but I urge you to see it, if only for Erivo’s dazzling performance in the title role.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Honey Boy

24/11/19

This semi-autobiographical tale, written by Shia LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har’el, is clearly the actor’s attempt to exorcise the demons of a troubled relationship with his father, though he’s wisely changed the names of the protagonists. We first meet ‘Otis’ (Lucas Hedges) in 2017, when he’s pursuing a hectic schedule as a movie actor, and abusing drugs and alcohol on a daily basis. When everything spins out of control and he’s involved in an alcohol-fuelled car crash, he’s faced with a stark choice: go into rehab for the PSTD he’s suffering from, or face a four year stretch in jail.

Naturally, he chooses the former option.

From here the film cuts back in time to find Otis, at the age of twelve (and played by Noah Jupe), already working in television. He’s living in a seedy motel with his father, James (LaBeouf), who is a Vietnam veteran, a former rodeo clown and a convicted felon. It’s James’ job to chaperone Otis: make sure turns up for work every morning; go over his lines with him; and try to ensure that his son stays on the straight and narrow. But it’s evident from the word go that James is a pretty terrible example of fatherhood, and in no position to hand out advice to anyone. Indeed, he’s given to dark rages, which he takes out on the boy. As Otis bitterly observes, James is with him for one reason only, because he’s paid to be there.

Having estabished the two versions of Otis, the screenplay cuts nimbly back and forth between them, the twelve-year-old desperately searching for some kind of affection from his old man, the twenty-two-year-old still trying to deal with the messed-up psyche he’s inevitably been left with. Watching this, it’s little wonder that LaBeouf’s own career has been so incendiary. (The screenplay was actually written while he was in rehab.) If there were ever any doubts about the importance of nurture to a growing child, this film underscores its worth in thick black marker pen.

It’s frankly nobody’s idea of a jolly picture, but it’s brilliantly acted by all three of its leads, and Alma Har’el’s vivid, fragmentary style suits the subject admirably, particularly in the short dream sequences that punctuate events, and in which older Otis is still attempting to cross the void that lies between him and his father. While I’m never quite convinced that the angel-faced Noah Jupe could grow up to look like Lucas Hedges, this is a mere detail.

Honey Boy is a powerful, emotive story, expertly told.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney