Month: July 2022

The Sea Beast



While Netflix might not be the cinematic treasure trove it was during lockdown, there are still some rewards to be found lurking in its lockers. The Sea Beast is a great case in point, a delightfully inventive family film, a collaboration between Sony Pictures’ Imageworks and Netflix Animation. This is an assured production that comes close to challenging the best of Pixar and Dreamworks. While other Netflix animated projects have been summarily axed after recent losses of revenue, this one has thankfully made it to the finish line – and it’s fabulous.

The story is set in an imaginary world where humanity has been at war for centuries with a whole variety of semi-mythical sea creatures. Leading the fight is ‘The Inevitable’, a red-masted schooner commanded by the legendary Captain Crow (voiced by Jared Harris). Crow, though still formidable, is growing older and looking for somebody to succeed him. The obvious choice is Jacob Holland (Karl Urban), found drifting on a piece of wreckage as a child and now grown up to be a consummate hunter of the ocean’s denizens. He is, in many ways, the son that Crow never had.

But when a plucky little girl called Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator) stows aboard The Inevitable, Jacob’s conversations with her soon have him questioning aspects of his life that he’s always taken for granted. Why must this endless slaughter perpetuate? Are the sea creatures really the monsters that popular literature has painted them as? And is Captain Crow – fixated on his endless search to vanquish the ‘Red Bluster’ that blinded him in one eye many years ago – just as duped as everybody else?

Those who detect a reference to Melville’s Captain Ahab are not mistaken, but this is more than just a seafaring yarn with literary ambitions. It’s also a clever allegory about humankind’s endless quest to vanquish everything and anything it doesn’t properly understand.

There are some superb characterisations here – Maisie is a particularly delightful creation and there are some adorable little blue creatures that have, perhaps inevitably, already made the transition into plush toys. The world building here is extraordinarily accomplished, with every aspect of this imagined civilisation thought through and delivered with absolute authority. Frantic action sequences are balanced by gentler, heart warming scenes and the pace is never allowed to flag.

But best of all is the animation itself, especially the depictions of the ocean in its ever-changing forms, from tranquil turquoise to turbulent indigo. Not for the first time, I find myself wanting to watch this on a giant screen, which really is where it deserves to be viewed. Helmed by former Disney big-hitter, Chris Williams, this is well worth your consideration and, happily, the adults are likely to be every bit as entranced as their offspring.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Where the Crawdads Sing


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Delia Owens’ blockbuster novel Where the Crawdads Sing makes the transition into film, thanks to Reece Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine. I’ve never read the book but it’s probably just as well. The fact that it’s sold twelve million copies worldwide would make anything I have to say about it sound suspiciously like sour grapes. Suffice to say, I really hope it’s more convincing than the film.

This is the story of Kya Clark, a little girl living with her family in a remote shack, deep in the marshes of North Carolina. Kya’s Pa (Garret Dillahunt) is a violent drunk, a man so odious that first his wife leaves him, then his two daughters, then his son. None of them bothers to take poor little Kya, so she has to look after him on her own (thanks, guys!) Then Pa abandons Kya and she is obliged to fend for herself, grubbing a living by digging up mussels and selling them to the nice couple who run the local store. She tries a day in school, but is subjected to so much sniggering and cruelty from the other pupils that she runs home and never goes back. Somehow she manages to evade the authorities for… well, years. Mind you, this is the 1960s. It was a different time.

Quite how grubby little Kya metamorphoses into the impeccably turned-out Daisy Edgar-Jones is only one of the many mysteries here, but perhaps it’s something to do with washing your hair in swamp water. Eventually, Kya has a romantic dalliance with ‘nice’ Tate (Taylor John Smith) who teaches her to read (apparently in a matter of weeks). Then, when Tate heads off to college, she hooks up with the rather less cuddly, Chase (Harris Dickinson), who seems to be on a mission to be even more toxic than Kya’s Pa. We know from the film’s opening that Chase has ended up dead at the bottom of a lookout tower and that Kya is on trial for his murder. Luckily, she has the help of ‘nice’ lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn), who has come out of retirement in order to defend her…

If I’m making this sound unbelievable that’s because it really is – and it doesn’t help that its all painted in such broad brush strokes that nuance doesn’t get a look in. The people are overblown caricatures and the eyebrow-raising events just keep right on coming. Kya, it turns out, has the ability to draw and paint like a pro (without any formal training) and her very first submission to a publisher results in a life-changing publishing deal! Yeah, right. Apparently, there’s a massive demand for a book about swamp shells.

Edgar-Jones does the best she can with the thankless lead role, but she struggles as her character progresses through a series of dull events, which have the eerie ability to make a two-hour movie feel more like three. It’s not just me. The audience starts filtering out long before the final scene but I stick resolutely in my seat to see the film’s final – heavily-signposted – ‘twist’.

Of course, crawdads can’t actually sing, so Taylor Swift steps in with a specially-written ballad over the credits. Which is arguably the best thing here, but it’s a very low bar. Those who enjoyed the book might want to give this a go, but be warned: it’s underwhelming to say the least.

2.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Prima Facie


NT Live, The Cameo, Edinburgh

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jodie Comer is a formidable talent, and I am more than happy to add my voice to the fangirl choir. Not only is she a chameleon, she’s also bristling with charisma, and she’s perfectly cast to play this complex, demanding role. The only difficulty is in believing this is her stage debut – because she seems born to it. She is a theatrical tour de force.

Prima Facie is, essentially, a feminist polemic, and a much-needed one. Art, as Aristotle sort of said, is multi-purpose, and can be used to educate as well as simply entertain. And boy, do we need educating. In the UK, a shocking 99% of reported rapes don’t even make it to court, and – of those that do – fewer than a third lead to a guilty verdict. When we take into consideration the enormous number of sexual assaults that are never reported at all (an estimated 83%), there’s only one conclusion to draw: the system isn’t working. Rape is a horrendous crime, but it’s one you’re likely to get away with.

Australian playwright Suzie Miller is on a mission to address this. She used to be a criminal defence lawyer, specialising in human rights, and she realised then that something was amiss. The law, she says, is built on assumptions that don’t acknowledge the realities of rape, without any real understanding of what consent looks like in practice, nor of how a victim might present. And so Prima Facie, directed by Justin Martin, comes howling into the void, forcing us to consider the urgency of change. The sold-out run at London’s Harold Pinter theatre, and the packed live-streamings at cinemas across the land, suggest there’s a lot of support for the idea (as well as a lot of Killing Eve fans, of course).

Comer plays Tessa, a brilliant young woman, who’s made it against the odds. Her first battle – as a state-educated Scouser – was getting into Cambridge law school; her second was graduating; her third becoming a barrister. She’s on the up, winning, sniggering at a young wannabe who asks of a rapist, ‘But is he guilty?” – because objective truth isn’t what she seeks. It’s “legal truth” that matters, which lawyer is best at playing the game. And she’s a fine player, one of the best. Lots of accusees are walking free because of her.

Until, one day, Tessa is raped. It’s a messy, complicated case, the type she knows she’ll never win. She was drunk; she’d had sex with the perpetrator before; she hasn’t any evidence. The whole legal edifice – the thing she’s dedicated her life to – comes crumbling down; the scales fall from her eyes. Her rapist will get off scot-free, thanks to someone like her, just doing their job. And the change in her is utterly and devastatingly believable. She’s always been determined. This might be a losing battle, but she’ll go down fighting.

The staging (by Miriam Buether) is an interesting blend: the piece opens in the naturalistic confines of a stuffy, traditional chambers, but the tables are soon being utilised as a courtroom, the chair as a toilet; costume changes happen slickly, on stage: Comer is her own dresser, as well as her own stage hand. Out on the street, after the assault, rain falls almost literally on her parade, washing away her former swagger. The lights change, the stage becomes a suffocating black box, and a projected calendar reveals the shocking truth of just how many days it takes to get your case to court. Years are lost.

The score, composed by the ever-fabulous Self-Esteem (Rebecca Lucy Taylor) perfectly complements the piece – it’s an intelligent marriage of art forms.

I won’t reveal whether Tessa wins; you can consider the statistics and place your bets. What she does do is deliver a final speech that, while it isn’t necessarily believable, is a perfect piece of wish-fulfilment. It’s all the conversations she’s had in her head during the three years she’s been waiting; it’s her fantasy moment, raising her voice and finally being heard.

This is a call to action that walks the walk, directly supporting The Schools Consent Project, “educating and empowering young people to understand and engage with the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault”. It’s also a powerful, tear-inducing play.

More, please.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

The Railway Children Return


Cineworld, Edinburgh

As a child, I loved Edith Nesbit’s books. I read and re-read the Bastables’ treasure-seeking adventures, and was totally immersed in the magical world of Five Children and It (although, because I borrowed them from our small village library, I never managed to read any of the series in the correct order). But it was The Railway Children that really stole my heart, and I know I’m not alone. It’s a lovely book, and Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 film adaptation really captured its essence. Both book and film deserve their classic status.

Sequels, though, are tricky things. Sometimes they spill out, one after another, quickly diluting the potency of the original (Home Alone, I’m looking at you). And sometimes it’s fifty-two years before one shows its face. Is it worth the wait?

In the main, I’d say the answer’s ‘yes’. Although The Railway Children Return will never match its progenitor, it’s nonetheless a charming tale, and remains true to the spirit of Nesbit’s novel.

Time has marched on since a trio of young children first arrived at Three Chimneys, reeling from their father’s sudden absence and their resulting change in circumstance. But, hey – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It’s 1944 and, although Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) is a grandma now, history is about to repeat itself. Lily (Beau Gadson), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby) are evacuees from Manchester – and Bobbie can’t help but empathise. Her daughter (Sheridan Smith) was only planning to accept one child; she’s very busy, after all, as headteacher of the local school, and how is she supposed to feed three hungry mouths? But she acquiesces; of course she does. Her son, Thomas (Austin Haynes), is a sweet-natured boy, and quickly befriends them all. If it weren’t for the constant background rumble of the war and their separation from their real family, this would be an idyll. But the real world keeps intruding: bombs fall; fathers die. And one day, whilst playing Hide and Seek in the railway station, the children make a startling discovery: an American soldier on a secret mission. Can they help Abe (Kenneth Aikens) achieve his goal?

The Railway Children Returns is a lot earthier than the original: Lily, Pattie and Ted are tough, working-class, city kids (although Danny Brocklehurst’s script avoids any obvious Goodnight, Mr Tom-style clichés), very different from the privileged Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter, for whom Three Chimneys – with its single, not even live-in servant – was quite the comedown. These kids scrap and tell mucky jokes, and they don’t mind lying to protect themselves. “You can’t kid a kidder,” says Lily.

Politically, the issues are different, but the tone is similarly liberal and progressive. In The Railway Children, Mrs Waterbury empathises with Russian dissidents, and takes in a refugee. In this sequel, the focus is on racism, particularly among the US troops, improbably stationed in the village. Abe is black, and has suffered horribly at the hands of his fellow officers. The message is a good one (‘racism is bad’), but it’s all very superficial, and it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest that only the Americans are prejudiced, while the local British community refuses, as one, to accept such bigotry. I know it’s a children’s tale, but children aren’t stupid, and they can deal with more nuance than this.

For the most part, though, director Morgan Matthews competently straddles the line between the bucolic dream and the wider-world nightmare, with moments of genuine sadness piercing the children’s fun. This, at least, feels very believable. It’s a shame, though, that Agutter isn’t given more to do.

Gadson’s Lily is the perfect successor to Bobbie: she has the same lively, attractive nature; the same determination and chutzpah. I think Beau Gadson is a name we’ll hear again. Who knows, maybe she’ll even appear as a granny in The Railway Children 3: Full Steam Ahead, coming to a cinema near you in 2074.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Thor: Love and Thunder


Cineworld, Edinburgh

The MCU is a variable place. Sometimes its offerings can be po-faced and terribly earnest and, then again, they can occasionally be played for laughs. I tend to prefer the latter, which makes Thor: Ragnarok – in my humble opinion – one of Marvel’s better efforts. Writer/director Taika Waititi did a great job with the Thor franchise, amping up the laughs and throwing in fistfuls of surreal nonsense, just because they let him. So I go along to Thor: Love and Thunder with high expectations. For the film’s first half, I’m happy enough, though it’s probably true to say that, despite Chris Hemsworth’s best efforts, many of the jokes here don’t land quite as well as they did in the first film.

And then, in the second half, there’s an attempt to swing the mood towards more serious subject matter and I find myself less enamoured.

The events of the story are related by the rock-warrior, Korg (voiced by Waititi), who explains that – after much time spent voyaging with the Guardians of the Galaxy (who appear briefly but don’t get much of a look-in) – Thor parts company with them and answers a call for help from the citizens of a little village back on earth. It’s under attack by the sinister Gorr, the God butcher (Christian Bale, quite the most memorable character here), a man who has acquired a powerful sword and who has the intention of killing off every god in existence. Who shouted ‘hooray?’

Thor arrives at the same time as his old flame, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who is now calling herself ‘The Mighty Thor.’ She’s dressing like her former beau and, annoyingly, has control of Mjolnir, Thor’s mighty hammer. This is one really weird love-triangle.

A mighty punch-up dutifully ensues – though, due to the inevitable 12A rating, it’s a curiously bloodless affair. Gorr eventually makes his escape, taking all the local children captive – and now Thor, Jane, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg must launch a rescue mission… but first they need to enlist the help of the mightiest god of all, Zeus (Russell Crowe), who might just lend them his thunderbolt and who, for reasons best know to Waititi, talks like an Italian waiter…

If the plot sounds like drivel, well, it pretty much is, but Hemsworth plays the central role with such knowing charm and swagger that he almost manages to make me overlook it. There’s lots of Guns ‘n’ Roses-style guitar noodling on the soundtrack and some neat tricks are played with the film’s colour palette (Gorr has a habit of draining everything to monochrome whenever he appears), but – for me – this lacks the sheer brio of Ragnarok and various attempts to twang at the viewers’ heartstrings feel a tad too cynical for comfort.

For those who like these things, there are, of course, a couple of post credit sequences. Whether they’re worth hanging on for is a matter of debate, but they don’t add much to what is, ultimately, a somewhat disappointing exercise.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Brian & Charles


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Like a grimy Wallace (pal of Gromit), Brian is an inventor. Unlike his plasticine doppelganger, Brian (David Earl) rarely enjoys success. His flying clock erupts in flames while still firmly earth-bound, and his plunger-water-bottle is an exercise in unhygienic futility. Nevertheless, he persists. Before long, he’s embarking on his most ambitious project to date, a robot – improbably fashioned from a discarded mannequin head, a washing machine and a rubber glove. All it takes is a stormy night on the Welsh hills, and Brian-Wallace-Frankenstein finds himself in possession of a fully-functioning AI called Charles (Chris Hayward).

Earl (who, with Hayward, co-wrote the film) imbues Brian with a likeable vulnerability. He’s a lonely, sweet-natured man, who’d be content with his ramshackle life – cabbage-heavy diet and all – if only he had someone to share it with. The friendship Charles provides bolsters Brian’s confidence, and soon he’s mustered up the courage to ask his friend, Hazel (Louise Brealey), to join him and Charles on a day out. A gentle, touching romance ensues.

Of course, it’s not all plain sailing. Not only does Brian have to deal with Charles’ (very funny) adolescent mood swings, he’s also the target of local bully, Eddie (Jamie Michie), and his terrifying teenage daughters, Katrina and Suki (Lowri and Mari Izzard). Can he protect his invention from their cruelty?

There’s a lot to like about this film, not least its warm heart and quirky humour. Directed by Jim Archer, there are many laugh-out-loud moments, and the characters are convincingly drawn. The Welsh landscape is another joy: Snowdonia national park looks glorious, even under heavy cloud, and Llyn Gwynant is breathtakingly beautiful.

But there are issues. My main bugbear is with the accents and their subtext. Apart from a few minor roles, the cast comprises essentially three goodies (Brian, Charles and Hazel) and four baddies (Eddie, Katrina, Suki and Nina Sosanya’s Pam). While the baddies all speak with pronounced Welsh accents, the goodies, for no discernible reason, have English ones. For Charles, this might seem fair enough: he is a robot, after all. But Hazel lives with her mother, Winnie (Lynn Hunter), who has a Welsh accent, and Brian makes reference to his father teaching him to build the fences around his cottage when he was young; they’re both local through and through, and there’s no mention of either of them ever having lived elsewhere. Did no one think about the connotations here?

There are plot holes too. It’s a fun film to watch, but it doesn’t bear much scrutiny. I won’t say too much for fear of spoilers, but where does the money come for from Brian’s final gesture, for example? And why has Hazel – who’s kept horribly busy by Winnie – suddenly got so much free time? More importantly, Brian & Charles at first appears to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with Brian directly addressing the camera, and even receiving spoken replies from the film-maker. As the story progresses, this device peters out, and a more straightforward narrative form is deployed. This feels awkward and unresolved.

I’m a little saddened by Brian & Charles, because it would only take a few tweaks to make it utterly loveable.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Kora by Tom Kitchin


Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh

The Southside Scran was always our go-to place for great quality seasonal cooking – and, when it closed its doors just before lockdown after a disastrous flood, we were very sad to say the least. We couldn’t walk up to Bruntsfield without casting hopeful looks towards its shuttered premises as we went by. After what seemed an eternity of waiting we finally spotted a sign bearing a brand new name and started counting down the days. Indeed, we’d have been here on its opening night if the dreaded COVID hadn’t stepped in with a disastrously-timed delaying tactic.

Finally, my isolation period is over and we are able to take our seats in Kora, which has a fresh new look and now offers tempting bar snacks for those who aren’t looking for the full dining experience. We are greeted at the table by Tom Kitchin himself, who tells us a little bit about Kora’s ethos and presents us with two glasses of fizz and a delightfully spiced broccoli tempura, as an example of the aforementioned bar snacks. This new venue, he tells us, is all about seasonal cooking, about creating a relaxed and informal place to dine. He’s put together a young and enthusiastic team to help him deliver his new creations.

For starters I sample the day boat squid which comes with delicious crispy jambon, runner beans and girolle mushrooms. To describe it as ‘tasty’ would be doing it a disservice. It is absolutely delicious, right down to the final succulent mouthful. Susan’s courgette flower tempura, stuffed with ricotta, and accompanied by olives, tomato and chickpeas is just as assured.

The main courses are faultless too. I’ve gone for the crispy Ayrshire belly pork, a generous chunk of tender meat with a gratifyingly crunchy topping, lying on a bed of cabbage and black pudding. Mmm! Susan has the Errington goat’s cheese tart with sweet red onion and pine nuts. Accompanied by glasses of cold Sauvingon Blanc, the course is an absolute delight, and it’s hard to imagine how these dishes could be bettered. They are note-perfect.

The puddings can sometimes be the element that lets a meal down, but not so here – my Blasgowrie gooseberry fool with oatmeal granola certainly has the wow factor and looks every bit as good as it tastes – as does Susan’s praline – which is actually a island of soft meringue floating in a sea of custard. There’s really nothing here to fault and we leave feeling that the Southside has a worthy successor. Kora is another wonderful venue to add to Tom Kitchin’s impressive collection.

Will we back? Most definitely!

5 stars

Philip Caveney