Month: January 2023

The Crucible

26/01/23

NT Live: Cineworld, Edinburgh

It’s a Thursday night, and a bit of a scramble getting to the cinema after work for a 7pm start. There’s certainly no time for anything so trivial as say, food, this evening. Sure, it’s The Crucible, and we’ve read a lot about this latest production from the National Theatre. But is it worth skipping a meal for?

Thankfully, Lyndsey Turner’s interpretation of Arthur Miller’s timeless classic is so absorbing that we forget our empty bellies: we’re right there in Salem, Massachusetts, drawn into the destructive hysteria of the seventeenth century witch trials.

The story is well-known. A restrictive society collapses in on itself; petty grievances escalate into accusations of witchcraft; accusations of witchcraft further escalate into a feverish cull. Powerful men exploit vulnerable children, and women pay the price.

In this production, power imbalance is given centre stage. Erin Doherty’s Abigail Williams is no feisty seductress; instead, she’s a troubled teenager, all stroppy self-absorption and wounded spite. I like the way the girls are styled – as artless kids, kicking against a regime that affords them little in the way of entertainment, let alone autonomy. Proctor’s attempt to blame Abigail for their affair is shown as fundamentally flawed. It is his transgression, because he is the adult.

But he’s a victim too, and Turner’s direction highlights class warfare as well as misogyny. Hathorne (Henry Everett) and Danforth (Matthew Marsh) represent the ruling elite, issuing diktats and seizing ever more control. Reverends Parris and Hale (Nick Fletcher and Fisayo Akinade respectively) are the useful middle-class idiots, serving up the workers to the toffs. They’re very different men, but they fulfil the same role: condemning the villagers to their dreadful fates.

Es Devlin’s roofed set is wonderfully oppressive, a sheet of rain acting as an extra barrier, showing how cut off and isolated the villagers are, making their implosion all the more credible. The costumes (by Catherine Fay) also work well to create a sense of timelessness: they’re sort-of period, sort-of modern; not-quite-now but not-quite then. And what is The Crucible if it’s not a play for all ages, exposing our ongoing susceptibility to witch-hunts, both literal and metaphorical?

Brendan Cowell’s John Proctor is fascinating. He’s a shambling contradiction of a man: an honest cheat; an exploitative victim. I think he might be my favourite of all the Proctors I’ve seen, illuminating the character’s complexities. Here, he’s styled almost as a lone cowboy – a broken maverick, who comes good in the end. “Because it is my name” is such a weighted line, fraught with audience expectation (akin to Lady Bracknell’s “A handbag?” or Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?”) and it’s nice to see it being played down, spoken softly, as if it’s a simple, self-evident thing.

I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again: hurrah for NT Live. It means that our ‘national theatre’ really is national – easily accessible and (relatively) affordable. And definitely worth one missed evening meal.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Jesus Christ Superstar

25/01/23

Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m by no means a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber (and I’m an atheist to boot) but I have to admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for Jesus Christ Superstar. Back in 1971, the ‘rock opera concept album’ (as it was originally styled) had a revered place in my vinyl collection and was played on a regular basis, much to the consternation of my flatmates. I genuinely believe that Webber’s rock inflected melodies and Tim Rice’s acerbic lyrics are one of the great musical partnerships of the seventies. It’s an ambitious show for a student group to take on, but EUSOG are good at rising to a challenge and, in this stirring, gender-blind production, they attack the familiar material with their customary brio.

Of course, at the the heart of the musical lies the adversarial relationship between Jesus (Roza Stephenson) and Judas (Hollie Avery), but there are plenty of other opportunities to shine and director Izzy Ponsford ensures they are not ignored. There’s a stately performance from Gordon Stackhouse as Pontius Pilate, a man haunted by the fact that his name will be forever associated with the murder of an innocent. Sofia Pricolo handles Mary Magdalene’s plaintive ballads with aplomb and actually manages to coax tears from me during I Don’t Know How to Love Him. As Herod, Joey Lawson offers a jaunty, crowd-pleasing turn, complete with flashy tap dancing, while Theo Chevis and Kathleen Davie convince in their chilling double act as the priests, Caiaphas and Annas.

But more than anything else, JCS is an ensemble piece, so hats off to the huge chorus of disciples and acolytes, who breathe life into this Biblical extravaganza. Emily Bealer’s exuberant choreography is perhaps the standout of the production, but the music is excellent too: a twelve-strong band under the joint supervision of Emily Paterson and Falk Meier, providing note-perfect renditions of all those memorable songs.

It’s also nice to see a EUSOG production in the comparative luxury of the Church Hill Theatre – we’ve seen them perform in a variety of locations and this is the best venue so far.

I leave humming one of my favourites songs – Could We Start Again Please?- having been thoroughly entertained.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Yara

21/01/23

Wilmslow Road, Cheadle

We’ve popped down to Greater Manchester for the night and – of course – we need to eat. We’re visiting family who have recently moved house, and now they’re near Cheadle, giving us a whole new (to us) raft of neighbourhood restaurants to explore. The area is lively and vibrant, and there’s a lot of choice – but our hosts have been to Yara before, and assure us that the hummus alone is worth the trip.

Yara is a Lebanese and Syrian restaurant. It’s big, but it runs like clockwork, the young staff friendly and efficient and clearly well trained. They do sell booze, but you can also BYO, which we do – simply because it’s cheaper, and so why wouldn’t we? We’re provided with an ice bucket and glasses, and left to peruse the menu.

We order separately, but actually share everything. This works well for the starters. We have the hummus dip, of course, which comes with pitta, and decide to try the labneh too. This concentrated yoghurt dip is a creamy, herby delight. We have broad beans and tomatoes in the form of a full-flavoured ful madamas, and a generous portion grilled halloumi, cooked to perfection – nicely charred on the outside and soft in the middle.

Given that we’ve decided to share, we really ought to pay more attention to what the others around us are ordering for mains, but we don’t, and so end up with four lamb dishes. They’re different, of course, but I wish we’d opted for a chicken and a veggie dish as part of the mix. Never mind. Between us we have a lamb shawarma, a lamb sharhat, a bamieh and a muklabeh c.y. salad. Three of the dishes come with rice, and we’ve also ordered a Greek salad (the feta cheese is particularly delicious). They’re all good, but the standout is probably the muklabeh, despite it being one of the ugliest dishes I’ve ever seen. Its unprepossessing appearance conceals something very special: the aubergines have been slow-cooked so that they’re almost caramelised, and melt in the mouth before giving way to the succulent lamb and rice beneath.

The first two courses are a hit, so naturally we want to see if the puddings can compete. They can. We share some ballorieh knafeh (pastry stuffed with pistachio nuts, butter and honey), a piece of walnut honey cake, a portion of muhalabieh, which tastes like a cross between panna cotta and cheesecake, and – best of all – a selection of different flavoured chunks of Turkish delight.

So yes, we’ve had a lovely time. Sated, we venture out into the icy air, and head home, still smiling, for more drinks and some long overdue family time. A palpable hit.

4.4 stars.

Susan Singfield

Babylon

20/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Babylon arrives in British cinemas surrounded by all the signs of a cinematic disaster. The complaints are depressingly familiar. It’s too expensive, too complicated and, at three hours and nine minutes, too flipping long for mass consumption – though that doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the vapid Avatar: the Way of Water. The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating – and for anyone remotely interested in the history of cinema, this is a delicious confection, to be consumed slowly, relishing every mouthful. It manages to hold me spellbound throughout.

It’s the year 1926 and the silent cinema industry is rejoicing in its unparrallelled power and glory, staging depraved and profligate parties/orgies in the Hollywood Hills. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent movie star in the tradition of John Gilbert, has enjoyed an impressive career thus far and is blissfully unaware of the massive sea change that will hit the industry in just one year’s time. Meanwhile Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is taking his first steps into the industry he’s always longed to be part of, mainly by saying ‘yes’ to anything that comes his way – even if that means agreeing  to transport an elephant to one the aforementioned parties. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is a trumpet player, whose presence at that very event initiates an opportunity to take his place – abeit briefly – in the Hollywood firmament. 

And then there’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), self-styled wild child, currently broke and living in a shit hole, but able to bluff her way into any soiree. She’s not just convinced that she’s destined to be a star – she thinks she already is one, but nobody’s noticed yet. When she and Manny bump into each other, sparks fly between them – but it will be several years before they have anything resembling a relationship. 

Babylon is another film about the magic of cinema, though it also has some harsh observations to make about the process of stardom – the arbitary quality of it, the way it defiines and redefines the people it happens to and how, in most cases it destroys them. Several of the characters here are based upon real people and, in some cases, they’re easy to identify. Others are composites. There are some wonderful evocations of the film-making process. An early scene depicting the shooting of a ‘silent’ sequence which features a battle between medieval armies is a joyful, rampaging slice of mayhem, with actual carnage occurring in the process. It’s contrasted with a scene just a year later, where the filming of an early ‘talkie’ is dependent on quiet, and constantly, maddeningly disrupted by every squeak of a shoe, every rustle of clothing.

And there’s a powerful coda in 1952 as an older, wiser Manny slips into a cinema to watch Singin’ in the Rain, only to see his life flashing before his eyes and twisted into comedy. The film’s final sequence is either utterly mesmerising or alienating – there are some walkouts at  this point from those in the latter faction – but I adore it.

Babylon is big, powerful, ambitious and illuminating, all qualities that ought to make it a massive cinematic hit. But we seem to be living in an age where – James Cameron excepted – smaller, more personal films are ruiling the roost. This carries me effortlessly through its duration. Pitt is superb as a once great performer, watching in puzzlement as his powers wain. But Babylon is really Robbie’s film. As the dangerous, self-destructive Nellie LaRoy, she’s the beating heart of this sumptuous, powerful epic.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Bank of Dave

19/01/22

Netflix

Netflix’s Bank of Dave claims to be a true(ish) story. While I appreciate that there has to be a degree of artistic licence in any film based on real events, it only takes a quick Google search to persuade me that in this case, that licence may have been pushed a tad too far. ‘Ish’ doesn’t quite cover it. Others, of course, may disagree. Oddly enough, if this were presented to me as a work of fiction, I’d be much happier about it.

Dave Fishwick (Rory Kinnear) is a cheery, plain talking Northerner. He’s also a highly successful businessman with a fortune created from selling vans. Based in Burnley, he’s been lending money to local friends and businesses for years and, what’s more, he donates all his profits to charities. He eventually decides he’d like to set up his own bank (as you do) and engages the services of London-based corporate lawyer, Hugh (Joel Fry), in order to help him achieve that goal. Though initially sneery about anything north of Watford Gap and, fully aware that no new bank has been granted a licence for 150 years, Hugh heads off to Burnley. Once there, he’s swiftly converted by Dave’s cheery persona and by the charms of Dave’s niece, Alexandra (Phoebe Dynevor), an A & E doctor – who, it must be said, appears to have more spare time on her hands than most in her profession. 

But Hugh soon comes up against a cabal of snooty London bankers, led by the villainous (and entirely fictional) Sir Charles Denbigh (Hugh Bonneville, once more steering his career into darker waters). These toffs are determined to block the deal by any means possible. What, let some Northern oik get into the business of banking? No fear!  It soon becomes evident that founding a new bank is going to be no easy matter.

The early stretches of the film feel somewhat caricatured as the evil privileged elite stamp gleefully over everything the cheery Northerners attempt to do. The latter are depicted as a bunch of saints, fond of a good laugh, a foaming pint and a night at the karaoke bar, clapping along as Dave belts out the greatest hits of Def Leppard. (Fans of the veteran band will doubtless enjoy the film as it features several of The Lepp’s best known songs and even a guest appearance from the musicians themselves.)

Once it hits its stride, Bank of Dave is a cheerful and uplifting movie with an overall ‘greed is bad’ message that few viewers will disagree with. Piers Ashworth’s script is funny, Kinnear provides a genuinely affable presence and Fry, once he’s loosened up a bit, is immensely likeable as a leading man. Most viewers will feel genuinely uplifted by the triumphant ending.

So why the relatively low score?

Inevitably, I must return to my original point. How ‘true’ should a true story be? How much massaging of the facts are viewers expected to accept? And why can’t filmmakers – just for once – own up to the fact that a ‘true’ story might not need the unconditionally joyful ending that’s been invented here? 

You be the judge. For me, it’s an issue.

Still, that said, hats off to the real Dave – he might not have achieved the dizzy heights this film credits him with, but he has made a real difference to a lot of people’s lives.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

M3GAN

18/01/23

Cineworld Edinburgh

M3gan is a retread of a very familiar trope. The toy that’s more dangerous than a mere plaything. The AI that goes awry. We’ve seen it all before, haven’t we? And yet, having said that, this is terrific fun, brilliantly executed and perfectly paced, with a running time that never allows its deliciously sinister title character to overstay her welcome. There’s also a mischievous sense of humour, which can’t be said for many of its predecessors.

Gemma (Alison Williams) is a roboticist working for a toy company called Funki. They’re best known for producing jolly little companions for children – think more sophisticated Furbys. Indeed, the film opens with their latest cheesy commercial featuring entranced children interacting with their cute little ‘pets’.

Gemma’s ball-busting boss, David (Ronny Chieng) is furious that other toy companies are copying their ideas and selling them at half the price. He wants Gemma to concentrate on creating a cheaper, furrier version of their current best-seller, but she has bigger ambitions. Together with co-workers, Cole (Brian Jorden Alvarez) and Tess (Jen Van Epp), she’s been secretly working on a more sophisticated AI called M3gan (Model 3 Regenerative Android), a super-smart robot, designed to bond with the child that owns it.

When Gemma’s young niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), is orphaned in a car accident, Gemma has to take on the responsibility of parenting a child, something she has no experience of. So wouldn’t it be great, she thinks, if she could enlist a helper, someone who will always put Cady’s welfare first, while also freeing Gemma to pursue her own interests? And before you can say ‘This is a very bad idea!’ Gemma has activated M3gan and synched her with Cady. Now the AI stands ready to oppose anyone who opposes her new best friend. What could possibly go wrong?

This is a ton of fun. M3gan is a wonderfully chilling central character, created using a clever combination of animatronics, puppetry and the stylings of 10 year old actor, Amie McDonald. You’ll believe a doll can dance, whilst simultaneously brandishing a deadly weapon. McDonald’s efforts are matched by a nicely nuanced performance from McGraw, and the scenes between the two of them are spellbinding – especially when M3gan sings one of her syrupy songs! 

As you’d expect in this genre, it’s not all lighthearted fun. There are moments of bloodshed in the later stretches and, though writers Akela Cooper and James Wan don’t flinch from the body horror, director Gerard Johnstone knows exactly when to cut away from images that could so easily nudge this into the realms of an 18 certificate.

In my experience, horror films have a habit of careening out of control in the final third, but once again, M3gan confounds expectations, keeping the momentum going right through to the final scenes. Those expecting a lacklustre reworking of Child’s Play will be pleasantly surprised. Here’s a film that dances to its own tune. I leave the cinema having been thoroughly entertained – though I can’t help reflecting on the world of litigation that poor Gemma is going to face in the aftermath of M3gan’s climactic carve up.

Those in possession of an Alexa, be warned. This may make you a tad nervous about asking her to switch off the lights at bedtime.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Enys Men

15/01/23

Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

Mark Jenkins made an impressive feature debut in 2019 with Bait – a story about the gentrification of a Cornish fishing village. Filmed in monochrome, using hand-cranked 16 mm stock, it had a distinctive look, akin to one of those old public information shorts that still pop up on Youtube. The film received a well-deserved BAFTA for ‘outstanding debut by a British director’.

Enys Men (Stone Island) is both more ambitious and more nebulous than its predecessor. Jenkins has progressed to colour, but even that is done on his own terms, retaining that grungy, scratchy look he’s known for. He’s also retained the services of Mary Woodvine, who played a wealthy, holiday-cottage owner in Bait. Here, she’s ‘The Volunteer,’ marooned on a remote island off the Cornish coast, tramping industriously around the rocky landscape in a vivid red waterproof jacket. Her daily task is to keep tabs on a bunch of rare flowers.

According to her daily log, it’s the year 1973; day after day, she steadfastly records the fact that nothing has changed. Not a thing. But it’s clear from early on that her life is shadowed by vivid memories and by a series of troubling hallucinations. Who is ‘The Girl’ (Flo Crowe), who hangs around the woman’s cottage, observing her routine? And who is the elusive ‘Boatman’ (Edward Rowe, another familiar face from Bait), who regularly contacts The Volunteer via a short wave radio, promising to bring supplies, most crucially petrol for the generator.

And then there are other characters, less easy to explain – silent milkmaids, singing children, and dirt-plastered tin miners – whose expressionless visages seem to stare across the centuries in silent accusation.

Enys Men is the kind of film that flings out plenty of questions but takes its own sweet time before offering just one or two answers. Indeed, the glacial pace and the constant use of repetition test my patience at times (as does the guy sitting next to me, who spends most of the evening looking at his phone) and it’s probably fair to say that Jenkins’ script needs a little more flesh on its bones to adequately fill the film’s one-hour-thirty-six-minute running time.

Still, for all that, this is an offering that will inspire plenty of conversation long after the final credits have rolled. Jenkins is a true auteur and, though Enys Men certainly won’t be for everyone, it’s nonetheless a unique viewing experience.

3. 6 stars

Philip Caveney

Tár

13/01/23

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Todd Field’s Tár is a complex, demanding film. And yet, despite its difficult themes and its contemptuous, autocratic central character, it’s also engaging and exciting.

At first, I’m not quite sure. The film begins with the credit sequence. This feels pretty audacious in itself. They’re called ‘end credits’ for a reason, right? They’re for putting your coat on and fumbling your way down the stairs in the dark, not for actually watching. I mean, I don’t care who provided the catering truck, or who the post-production supervisor is. Here, I’m forced to watch, and to listen to the music (Elisa Vargas Fernandez’s Cura Mente).

Okay, so I’m unsettled, which I guess is the point, but from here we’re into an equally long opening scene, where we meet the eponymous Tár being interviewed. The discussion itself is deferred by an interminable introduction, listing not just the highlights, but every one of the great conductor’s achievements, and – when the questions do begin – they’re dry and academic, the answers a forensic examination of classical music from a maestro’s perspective. I find myself shifting in my seat, wondering how this is the film that’s just won Cate Blanchett a Golden Globe.

And then…

Suddenly, there’s a shift. We’re with Tár at Julliard, where she’s teaching a class. She’s angered by a young student’s dismissal of Bach as ‘irrelevant’, and we’re offered a glimpse of her scathing nature as she belittles his concerns. It’s a shocking moment – and it’s not the last. Because somebody is watching her…

Blanchett is utterly compelling. She towers; she glowers. Lydia Tár is both maestro and monster, impressive and imperious. She’s living her best life: conducting the prestigious Berliner Philharmoniker, launching her autobiography, Tár on Tár, flying first class around the world, and sharing a stunning apartment with her wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), and their young daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic). But she’s also careless of other people’s feelings, and ruthless in her dealings, both personal and professional. She has dalliances with some of the impressionable young women she mentors, then ditches them when she grows bored. Nothing seems to touch her – until it all comes crashing down.

The whole thing is disquieting, elements of melodrama and thriller juxtaposed with the minutiae of how a professional orchestra works. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Both the story arc and the characters are unconventional, the precise, deliberate nature of the structure mirrored by Tár’s meticulous dissection of Mahler’s fifth symphony.

By the time the end-end credits roll, I’m a complete convert. This is a fascinating film, so densely packed I know I need to watch it again (something I rarely do). Quite simply, Tár is a masterpiece.

5 stars

Susan Singfield


The Pale Blue Eye

12/01/23

Netflix

It’s the year 1830 and, at West Point military academy, a student has been found hanged. More puzzlingly, his heart has been removed post mortem. Veteran detective August Landor (Christian Bale) is recruited by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to investigate. He is somewhat surprised to discover that he has an ally amongst the cadets in the gangling form of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), who – as well as exhibiting a flair for writing dark poetry – is also an amateur sleuth. Soon, another murder occurs…

Director Scott Cooper has worked with Bale before (most memorably on the hard hitting western, Hostiles), but The Pale Blue Eye, based on a source novel by Louis Bayard, is a much more laid back affair, handsomely filmed and starring a clutch of accomplished character actors in minor roles. However, the women in particular have a thin time of it. Any film that offers the likes of Gillian Anderson and Charlotte Gainsbourg such thankless, underwritten roles should hang its head in shame.

Ultimately, The Pale Blue Eye is a two-hander between Bale and Melling (the latter having a field day as the wide-eyed, melodramatic young author). The result is an atmospheric story, with a distinctly Gothic flavour and some genuine surprises hidden within its twisty-turny plot – so it’s a pity that the eventual solution to the mystery is so risible – and that the reasons for the murders should prove to be so clumsily reductive about both disability and violence against women.

Poe aficionados will doubtless have fun spotting the various references to the great author’s work, but ultimately this feels like a missed opportunity.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Dulse

08/01/23

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

The New Year’s festivities are over, the decorations are packed away (in our case into a tiny box), and we’re into the dreary days of early January – a time when not very much happens. So aren’t we glad we took advantage of some Black Friday deals and lined up a couple of gastronomic treats for early 2023? The first of them is for a Sunday roast at Dulse. It’s here that chef Dean Banks has lined up a eclectic menu, all based around seafood. Seafood for a Sunday roast? Does this compute? More of that later.

We’ve dined in this building before, of course, back when it was L’escargot Blanc, a cosy French restaurant, all nooks and crannies, with an authentic country inn kind of feel. Now the place has been opened out and given a brighter, more contemporary look. Somehow it feels as though it’s doubled in size, which can’t be possible. We order a bottle of the house white – a lovely melon-flavoured Languedoc that rejoices under the name of Baron de Badassiere (which we inevitably dub ‘Baron Badass,’ mainly because there’s nobody to stop us). We sip our drinks and peruse the menu.

For starters we order a delightful trout pastrami – sashimi styled slices of fish bursting with flavour and served with rye bread and a dollop of Katy Rodgers creme fraiche. Each bite is a little taste of heaven, the crispy rye bread a perfect foil for the smoky, succulent slices of fish. There’s also a huge bowl of Singapore mussels, which for me are the star of the show, as they reside in a superb, spicy broth, packed with garlic and chillies, each mouthful offering that delightful catch at the back of the throat. We see now why the waitress advised us to also order the bread loaf with sustainable butter, because chunks of this fabulous grain bread dunked into the broth are just heavenly. The plates are cleared in record time and we’re already brighter than we were.

Now for the main course, the Sunday roast. Picture, if you will, the images that those two words conjure in your mind’s eye and then erase them and think again. In place of the meat course, there’s a whole slow roasted plaice, sliced down the middle but left on the bone, the flesh so delicate that it virtually melts in the mouth. I’ve had plaice many times, but this is a revelation. So too are the accompaniments, which are roast new potatoes, perfectly cooked, with a crispy exterior and soft, buttery inside. There’s a also a couple of wedges of charred hispi cabbage, deliciously crunchy and with a couple of sauces to pour over, one flavoured with saffron, the other, lemon. It’s hard to decide which is the best, but eventually we decide on the lemon. I’ve never had a Sunday roast like this before and, unlike the traditional alternative, when it’s finished I don’t feel stuffed to the gills.

Which is great because there’s a pudding (when is there not a pudding?) and, though both of them sound unprepossessing, each in its own way is quietly impressive. There’s a dulce de leche chocolate pave, served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and it’s both perfectly executed and perfectly delicious. Then there’s a plum and apple crumble, which in itself seems like a reinvention, the chunks of fruit cooked al dente, the crumble topping light and (dare we use this word?) sort of… healthy. It’s all finished off with a dollop of cream.

Suddenly, January doesn’t seem quite so dreary. Anybody wishing to partake of some stunning seafood should hurry on down to Queensferry Street at their earliest opportunity. This is a game-changer.

5 stars

Philip Caveney