Month: December 2019

Theatre Bouquets 2019

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

It’s time again to reflect on the year that has passed, and to reconsider all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) theatre we have seen. What lingers in the memory, cuts through this crowded arena even after many months? Which ideas still keep us up at night; what audacious direction still makes us smile? Here – in chronological order – are our picks of 2019.

Ulster American – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Ireland; director – Gareth Nicholls

The Dark Carnival – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Matthew Lenton)

What Girls Are Made Of – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Cora Bissett; director Orla O’Loughlin)

Electrolyte – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – James Meteyard; director Donnacadh O’Briain)

The Duchess (of Malfi) – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Zinnie Harris)

Endless Second – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Theo Toksvig-Stewart/Madeleine Gray/Camilla Gurtler/ Cut the Cord)

Who Cares? – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Jessica Temple/Lizzie Mounter/Luke Grant/ Matt Woodhead/ LUNG & The Lowry)

Shine – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Olivier Leclair/Tiia-Mari Mäkinen/Hippana Theatre & From Start to Finnish)

Solaris – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Greig; director – Matthew Lutton)

Clybourne Park –  Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Bruce Norris; director – Michael Emans)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Rona Munro; director – Patricia Benecke)

Goldilocks and the Three Bears – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writers – Allan Stewart & Alan McHugh; director – Ed Curtis

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2019

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

It’s that time again when we award (virtual) bouquets to our favourite films of the year. As ever, the final choice may not always reflect the films that scored the highest at time of viewing, but rather those that have stayed with us most indelibly.

The Favourite (director – Yorgos Lanthimos; writers – Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Capernaum (director – Nadine Labaki; writers – Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany)

Eighth Grade (writer/director – Bo Burnham)

Booksmart (director – Olivia Wilde; writers – Emily Halperm, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman)

Beats (director – Brian Welsh; writer – Kieran Hurley)

Rocketman (director – Dexter Fletcher; writer – Lee Hall)

Animals (director – Sophie Hyde; writer – Emma Jane Unsworth)

Hustlers (director – Lorene Scafaria; writers – Lorene Scafaria and Jessica Pressler)

Joker (director – Todd Phillips; writers – Todd Phillips and Scott Silver)

Monos (director – Alejandro Landes; writers – Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos)

Honey Boy (director – Alma Har’el; writer – Shia LaBeouf)

Little Women (director – Greta Gerwig; writers – Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott)

 

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

 

 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

21/12/19

In the early 70s, a young filmmaker called George Lucas had a vision. He wanted to make an epic space saga that would consist of nine episodes in total. (And one for which he would, naturally, retain all merchandising rights.) For reasons best known to himself, he decided to begin, in 1977, with episode four of what, for me, is one of the most overrated film franchises in history.

It began well enough – indeed, the first two films are great – but, from that point, it has descended into a whole series of misfires. There’s the one with the Ewoks. And those three awful prequels… oh God, those prequels!

Finally, here we are at episode nine: The Rise of Skywalker. After the bewildering cul de sac of The Last Jedi – and after the ignonimous departure of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow – J J Abrams is back on board to bring the saga to an end. This seemed like a sensible decision when it was first announced. After all, his The Force Awakens was easily the best Star Wars movie in a very long time, a sort of lively ‘best of’ compilation. If anybody could offer a safe pair of hands, surely he was the man? So it’s sad to report that (for my money, at least) this final chapter provides a decidedly lacklustre conclusion.

The plot: a familiar voice from the past is threatening the rebel resistance, which is still being commanded by Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, courtesy of some visual trickery). Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) head off on a quest to try to find where that pesky voice is coming from, accompanied by C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still intent on ruling the universe. And then… ah, who cares? It’s all lumpen and – dare I say it? – dull. I find myself bored after just twenty minutes of viewing. And considering the film opens with an all-out action sequence, that’s a problem.

So what has gone wrong? Is it the unnecessarily complicated storyline that sinks it? The seemingly endless procession of people we think are dead, but aren’t any more? (Maybe even the ones who actually are dead but don’t seem to know it – and I’m not talking about Carrie Fisher here, but the fictional characters.)

Is it the series of hopelessly turgid lightsaber duels that drag it down? The fact that people talk in a series of fridge magnet quotes? Is it that characters still can’t decide if they’re good eggs or dark, demonic nasties? Or is it simply that not enough time has passed since Jedi to allow audiences to summon up enough enthusiasm for this nonsense? Whatever the reasons, by the time we hit the (ho hum) extended space battle climax, I’m looking at my watch and praying for it to be over.

I appreciate that the diehard fans will rally round to support the film, because, well, that’s what Star Wars freaks tend to do but, apart from a couple of scenes here and there, I can’t honestly say that I enjoy this. And that’s a shame because, despite the curse of diminishing returns, Star Wars has had a remarkably good run down the decades and I want it to go out on a high.

Of course, I’m not so dumb as to imagine it’s really going to end here. As long as there’s more money to be made, there will be spin-offs and prequels and homages and tie-ins.

But I seriously doubt I’ll be watching them.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Muppet Christmas Carol

18/12/19

Most film fans have those puzzling gaps in their backlists – movies they’ve always meant to watch but, somehow, have never gotten around to. Over the years, I’ve gone to considerable lengths in my attempts to rectify such situations. (I’m the guy who sat doggedly through the six hour silent version of Abel Gance’s Napolean, just so I could say I’d seen it.) But, until yesterday, I had never seen The Muppet Christmas Carol. And neither had Susan. Admitting to it on social media unleashed a stream of comments from people who have long cherished it as a yearly festive treat. What were we thinking of? Were we crazy?

It’s not that I have an aversion to the Muppets. Far from it. I loved their TV series back in the day, I’ve seen most of Jim Henson’s cinematic offerings (including The Dark Crystal) and, as a former drummer, whenever I see Animal’s leering countenance, I find myself smiling in something like recognition. But, nevertheless, I missed the film on its initial release in 1992 and, after that, never cared to watch it on the small screen. So, when I see it listed as one of the Cameo’s Christmas offerings, I resolve to finally put the matter to rest.

And of course, my friends are right. It’s an absolute charmer, a retelling of Dickens’ classic tale that sticks very closely to the original, even incorporating many of the great writer’s own words. It simply swaps some of the key characters for cuddly puppets and throws in several jaunty songs by Paul Williams. What’s not to like?

There’s something so right about Kermit playing Bob Cratchit that it’s hard not to cheer – while turning Fezziwig into Fozziewig and having him played by Fozzie Bear is little short of genius. Dickens himself makes an appearance, played by The Great Gonzo and aided by his friend, Rizzo the Rat. It’s always been a wonder to me how Henson’s simple creations seem to come alive in front of the cameras, but they absolutely do. I even shed genuine tears over the scene where Bob and his wife, Emily (Miss Piggy), mourn the passing of their son, Tiny Tim. And yes, I realise I’m crying over a few scraps of green felt, but I can’t help myself.

It’s more than just the puppetry, of course. The delightful production design by Val Strazovec gives the film an enchanting visual flair, and I love the supernatural elements, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who looks like he’s crept out of a movie by Guillermo del Toro.

Best of all is Michael Caine’s accomplished performance as Scrooge, resolutely refusing to tip a wink or give a nudge to the audience, playing the role with absolute gravitas. It’s this serious element at the heart of the story which makes all the buffoonery around him resonate. Caine has made many movies over the years, but this surely ranks as one his finest achievements.

So yes, I’m glad I finally ticked that box. The Muppet Christmas Carol is a heartwarming delight. And it’s only taken me twenty-seven years to come to that opinion.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Ordinary Love

16/12/19

Written by Owen McCafferty and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, Ordinary Love is a poignant, heartfelt film, detailing the extraordinary ordinariness of dealing with a serious illness. Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) are the ‘normal people’ of the original title, a middle-aged couple who’ve been together all their adult lives. It’s a decade since their daughter died, and they’re coping, kind of, although they seem to have retreated into their dark, quiet, Northern Irish coastal home. They’re on auto-pilot really, muddling through and getting on.

But then Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer, and everything looks different – and yet somehow just the same. Life goes on: there’s still the supermarket shop to do, the gentle bickering about how much beer is too much beer, the nightly walks to feed the Fitbit. It’s just that, now, there are chemotherapy appointments too – and hair loss and existential fear. Their loneliness is cleverly revealed: ‘We’re both suffering,’ insists Tom, anguished, but Joan’s the one who can’t stop vomiting. ‘No, we’re not! This is happening to ME.’

Neeson is terrific in this role. He plays alpha-male ‘revenge dads’ so often that it’s easy to overlook his ability to inhabit subtler, more nuanced characters. His pain is palpable, his reserve convincing. Manville is less of a surprise – she’s superb, as you’d expect. I like the brittle, chin-up attitude she conveys, the doubt and terror just discernible. The supporting cast do a good job too, particularly David Wilmot as Peter, the primary school teacher with a terminal diagnosis, in whom Joan finds a confidante.

The movie is a timely reminder, too, of how much we need the NHS. A cancer diagnosis is stressful enough; grumbling half-heartedly about having to pay for hospital car parking ‘even when you’re a patient’ is the extent of the financial worries that add to Tom and Joan’s burden.

In the end though, it’s the mundanity that makes this film so heartbreaking. There’s no big cathartic moment, no dramatic revelation. But there is hope and there is love. Of the extraordinary, ordinary kind.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Jojo Rabbit

16/12/19

After the massive success of Thor Ragnarok, Taika Waititi could probably have directed any film he fancied. But he decided to stick with Jojo Rabbit, a long-cherished project, based on a novel by Christine Leunens and written for the screen by Waititi himself. Before Thor, no studio wanted to touch ‘a coming of age comedy featuring the Hitler youth,’ and it’s really not difficult to understand why. On paper, it sounds batshit crazy and on the screen, it looks… well, pretty deranged. But mostly in a good way.

Ten-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffith Davis) is doing his best to fit in with the other kids in the local Hitler youth, and he’s helped along by his imaginary friend, Adolf (Taika Waititi), for whom Johannes has an unquestioning adoration. But a bullying incident soon earns Johannes the titular nickname of Jojo Rabbit. Meanwhile, he tries to figure out what’s going on with his secretive mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who clearly tolerates her son belonging to an organisation she detests, while taking every opportunity to instill in him the kind of worldview that the Nazis would certainly not approve of. And then, a chance discovery up in the attic leads Johannes to Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl, whom Rosie has given refuge to. Should he inform his sympathetic troop leader, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell)? Or should he try to learn as much as he can about this mysterious creature whom he had been taught to believe is some kind of evil monster?

The film lurches audaciously between moments of slapstick humour and scenes of outright horror. Of course, this is all seen from a ten year old’s perspective, which accounts for the cartoonish feel of the film, but there’s sometimes the impression that characters are being brought on as added comic relief – Stephen Merchant’s chilling turn as a member of the Gestapo is a good case in point, great while he’s on, but then we barely see him again. Rebel Wilson, an actor whose popularity I struggle to understand, has a cameo role as Fräulein Rahm, occasionally dropping in to shout obscenities and burn books. Johanssen is delightful as Rosie, while Johannes’ interraction with his doleful best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) is one of the film’s strongest suits. I love too that Elsa is depicted not as a victim, but as a strong, resourceful survivor.

It’s also true that, in a world that is increasingly drifting to the right, Jojo Rabbit has an added prescience. Here, the antics of fascists are held up for ridicule. If only what’s happening in the real world right now were anything like as funny.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Little Women

15/12/19

Here, at last, are screen versions of the Little Women I’ve had in my head since I read the book when I was eight. Headstrong, unconventional Jo, born to write and desperate for a bigger life; romantic Meg, yearning for riches but choosing (relative) impoverishment with her one true love; shy, saintly, not-long-for-this-world Beth; and Amy, little Amy, all drive and ambition, always trying to impress (or beat) Jo.

I grew up with these girls, and every adaptation I’ve seen has failed to realise them convincingly. Except Jo, of course; there are lots of lovely screen-Jos (Katherine Hepburn, June Allyson, Winona Ryder). She’s the most captivating character, the Lizzie Bennett: it’s easy for a good actor to capture her spirit. But her movie sisters have always been a disappointment to me, even when played by talented performers. They’ve never felt right. Until now.

Saoirse Ronan makes a marvellous Jo (of course she does); Emma Watson perfectly embodies Meg’s earnest longing; Eliza Scanlen imbues Beth with strength as well as a sweet nature. But it’s Florence Pugh’s pugnacious, jealous Amy that has me almost exclaiming with delight. Here she is: a proud and lively girl, both friend and rival to her big sister Jo. She’s bloody brilliant.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig shows us once again how talented she is: this is Little Women writ large, barely deviating from the source material, but bringing contemporary resonances to the fore. There’s less piety and sermonising here than there is in Alcott’s novel, and the chronology is disrupted, so that we first meet Jo as an already published, ambitious woman, negotiating the terms for her latest stories while working in New York. The girls’ childhood is shown through a series of flashbacks, and we flit back and forth in time, never confused, even though the same actors perform throughout, ageing ten years through hairstyles, clothing, poise and gait. This structure gives prominence to the women the girls become, contrasting their childhood aspirations with what they actually achieve.

There’s such vivacity and energy here, it’s impossible not to be charmed; Gerwig has captured the very heart of Alcott’s fictionalised autobiography. The story arc actually works better in the film, and the audacious ending is a genuine master-stroke.

Timothée Chalamet is an inspired choice for Laurie, depicting with ease the neighbour’s loneliness and need for love, as well as his playful decadence. Laura Dern makes an excellent Marmee, and who else but Meryl Streep could have played Aunt March to Ronan’s Jo?

I have a couple of quibbles. I don’t know why middle-aged, paunchy, German Professor Bhaer is replaced with a young, handsome Frenchman (Louis Garrel);  why shouldn’t Jo establish a less conventional friendship? And I would like to see more of Meg: her character is well-established, but her storylines are too truncated, I think.

But honestly, these are just tiny niggles. This movie makes me really happy; indeed, the last ten minutes have me grinning so widely I actually hurt my face. Bravo! A fabulous film to end the year.

5 stars

Susan Singfield