Author: Bouquets & Brickbats

The Irishman

16/11/19

Martin Scorcese is one of our greatest living film directors. The partnership he’s forged with Robert de Niro – from Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, through to King of Comedy and Raging Bull, right up to Casino in 1995 – has produced some of the most unforgettable moments in cinema history. So it beggars belief to learn that the only studio with pockets deep enough to finance their latest based-on-real-events collaboration is TV streaming service, Netflix. Happily, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse has the rights to show it on the big screen, and it is no great surprise to see this Saturday afternoon showing jammed to the rafters.

The Irishman in question is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), World War II veteran turned hitman, mob player and influential labour union official. When we first meet him, a tracking camera finds him sitting in a care home, white haired and frail, talking about his experiences, perhaps to Charles Brandt, on whose book this is based. Sheeran explains how, as a younger man, he met up with powerful mobster, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and was taken under his wing; how he ‘painted houses’ for Bufalino (a code term for performing executions); how he was eventually handed a key role in the powerful Teamster’s Union, where he became a close friend and confidente of the union’s President, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Scorcese’s film is a study of the innocuous nature of evil, how truly heinous people exert their influence upon society, and how their bloodstained hands are in evidence upon the political landscape. It also demonstrates how, in this Machiavellian world, no one can truly trust anyone, because there will always come a time when that trusted person will be surplus to requirements. The film regularly features onscreen credits detailing the eventual demise of these players: shot in the head, shot in the back, knifed, bludgeoned and in some cases ‘disappeared.’ Very few manage to live to old age.

It’s a delight to see De Niro finally back in a role worthy of his talents. His Frank Sheeran is a stolid, strangely humble figure, who says little but shows so much through his troubled gaze. The acting throughout is totally naturalistic and there’s unexpected humour to be found in the deliberate clumsiness of the dialogue. The much discussed ‘de-aging’ technology is flawless; after the first transition from old De Niro to middle-aged De Niro, I forget it’s happening and am just happy believe that I’m watching a feature shot over decades. It’s also lovely to see De Niro and Pacino working together for the first time since Heat, and to see the great Joe Pesci exercising the kind of acting chops we haven’t seen since Good Fellas.

This is a man’s world. The female characters don’t get an awful lot to do here and it’s irksome to see Anna Paquin, as Sheeran’s troubled daughter, Peggy, reduced to seven words of dialogue. Maybe Scorcese’s point is that women were generally excluded from meaningful conversation in this era, but I wanted the catharisis of seeing her properly confront her father for what she’s witnessed over her childhood. It’s my only real criticism – but an important one, I think.

A word of warning. The film weighs in at a bladder-challenging three hours and thirty-five minutes and the problem is, there’s no obvious point to slip away to the loo. Could it be shorter? Yes, undoubtedly – but it’s to the film’s great credit that I manage to stay in my seat right to the final poignant frame. Those with a decent sized telly and a subscription to Netflix can watch it, with toilet breaks, from next week.

But if you can see it on the big screen, grab the opportunity. And all credit to Netflix for making this happen.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

At Eternity’s Gate

14/11/19

Here’s one I missed at the cinema, but – as is increasingly the case these days – it’s right there on Netflix for anyone to see at the click of a button. While this would definitely benefit from the immersive qualities of a big screen, beggars can’t be choosers.

Julian Schnabel’s film of Vincent Van Gogh concentrates on his years in Arles and, later, at Auvers Sur Oise. Willem Dafoe stars in what is possibly the role he was born to play, so convincingly does he settle into the great man’s persona, and he greatly deserved his Oscar nomination.

This is far from a straightforward biopic, however. Indeed, anybody who prefers a clear narrative arc will probably have a tough time with this. There’s a lot of footage of the artist, easel strapped to his back, wandering for miles across the French countryside in search of the elusive ‘perfect light’ and the film takes its own sweet time over those sections. But there’s no doubting the power of the sumptuous cinematography of Benoit Delhomme, which really does capture the unique look of Van Gogh’s paintings.

A lot of big names pop up in cameo roles. Oscar Isaac is a suitably swashbuckling Paul Gaugin, Rupert Friend is Vincent’s endlessly patient brother, Theo, and Mads Mikkelsen gets the dubious honour of portraying the priest at an asylum, who unashamedly informs the artist that his work is ‘ugly and without merit.’ Dafoe, meanwhile, suffers for his art in utterly convincing style and generates pity for Vincent as well as anger at the horrible treatment he receives on an almost daily basis.

There’s a powerful payoff when, after his mysterious death (which is frustratingly skipped over), we witness Vincent lying in his coffin, surrounded by his paintings and we cannot help but see that the mourners are already taking more interest in his work than they ever did when he was alive.

An interesting effort, then, and – while it lacks the jaw-dropping power of Finding Vincent – it’s still essential viewing for fans of one of history’s greatest artists.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Alex & Eliza

13/11/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alex & Eliza, written and performed by Umar Butt, is inspired by the true story of his grandparents, who give the play its title. Zubair (Butt) works in a corner shop in Glasgow. Raised a muslim, he obeys the strict rules of his religion in public, but secretly enjoys playing music when he’s alone and even plans to audition for an amateur production of Fame. He also strikes up an unlikely friendship with a troubled alcoholic customer (Danny Charles), who regularly calls to the shop for cigarettes and booze.

When his parents head off to Manchester to attend a muslim convention, Zubair is handed the job of picking up his grandmother, Eliza (Seweryna Dudzińska), at the airport and looking after her for a few days. Zubair is astonished to learn that this enigmatic white woman is also an accomplished musician and, after playing him some traditional tunes on a harmonium, she tells him her story: how she and her Sikh husband, Alex, endured  the harsh rigours of partition in 1946, and how they were obliged to change their religions in order to survive.

There’s no doubting the sincerity of Butt’s story and this works best when we are watching the misadventures of the titular duo, particularly during their desperate attempts to flee India for Pakistan. Other scenes feel somewhat less assured (a couple of lengthy interludes between Zubair and his freewheeling friend feel like an intrusion on the more compelling central story). And, like so many true-life tales, there are elements here that really are stranger than fiction. Eliza’s introduction to the young man who will become her husband is a good case in point. As it stands, it doesn’t entirely convince. Eliza’s father seems to happily hand his daughter over to a complete stranger.

Still, there are many powerful moments throughout the play and the onstage action is augmented by the presence of musician Laura Stutter, who, under the musical direction of Ross Clark, adds evocative flourishes on guitar and keyboards, as well as interracting with the other characters. Dudzińska offers stirring vocals at key moments – she has an extraordinary voice.

At the play’s heartfelt conclusion, Butt is reduced to tears and a quick glance around the audience confirms that he’s not alone.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Doctor Sleep

11/11/19

Stephen King famously disliked Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1980 novel, The Shining – so much so that, in the 90s, he scripted a television series with the same name, one which he felt stuck closer to his original concept. (I haven’t seen it but the general opinion seems to be that it was lacklustre.) So it’s odd to see him executive producing this adaptation of the sequel, Doctor Sleep, considering it has a whole section devoted to Kubrick’s vision, complete with convincing lookalikes of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval. Go figure.

It’s many years after the events of The Shining and little Danny Torrence has, improbably, grown up to be the dead spit of Ewan McGregor. Now called Dan Torrence (see what he did there?), he’s understandably a troubled soul, addicted to alcohol and cocaine and still haunted  by visions of his time at The Overlook Hotel – indeed, he has regular conversations with the late Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly standing in for Scatman Crothers). Driven to desperate measures, Dan decides he has to change, so he takes off to a new town where nobody knows him, and where he has a chance of starting over. As the months pass, he cleans up his act and eventually takes a job as a hospital orderly, where he soon develops a reputation for easing the passing of dying patients and where he acquires the nickname of Doctor Sleep.

But trouble is coming in the shape of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her band of travelling vapour junkies, addicted to murdering anyone with telepathic abilities and inhaling their unique aura in order to keep themselves alive, long past the time when they should be shuffling off to oblivion. When they fix their hungry sights on a talented teenager called Abra (Kyliegh Curran), she reaches out to Dan, who has been a kind of psychic pen-pal of hers for years, asking for his help. He reluctantly answers her call but the desperate struggle to elude these murderous wanderers inevitably leads back to a very familiar location…

Writer/director Mike Flanagan has done something more than the usual cheapie horror adaptation here. He takes his own sweet time to unload the various strands of the story, cross-cutting effortlessly from Dan to Abra to Rose and giving a very real sense of the events unfolding over the years. There are a few eerie moments along the way, but the supposedly scary scenes never connect as solidly as they might. The overall feel is one of unease rather than out-and out terror. Both McGregor and Ferguson submit nuanced performances and Curran has an appealing presence.

The main problem, however, lies in the film’s final act when Dan, Abra and Rose go hotfoot to Colorado for what feels suspiciously like The Overlook’s Greatest Hits.  Flanagan’s team have done an uncanny job of recreating the look of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, but the internal logic feels decidedly off: there’s never any real justification for them going there in the first place and I find myself asking too many awkward questions of the how, when and where variety as events gallop headlong towards a climactic cosmic punch-up.

It would have been braver, I think, to give us an Overlook that doesn’t already feel way too familiar. As it stands, this decision delivers a fatal wound to the proceedings, making the adventure’s final stretches a bit of an ordeal – and with a hefty running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes, sleep feels, at times, too close for comfort.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Good Liar

10/11/19

The Good Liar is a pacy thriller, set in the unlikely world of silver dating. Helen Mirren is Betty McLeish, a retired Oxford professor, recently widowed and seeking companionship. She meets up with Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), who, despite appearances, is quickly exposed to the audience as all rogue and no charm – indeed, a thoroughly bad egg. He’s a conman, masterminding sneaky schemes to ensnare gullible businessmen, and keen to relieve Betty of her rather impressive savings.

Before long, Roy has moved in to Betty’s suburban bungalow. This is a platonic arrangement, necessitated by Roy’s supposedly bad knee, which means he can’t climb the stairs to his top-floor apartment. He invites his ‘accountant’ sidekick, Vincent (Jim Carter), to visit, and together they prepare the ground for their great robbery. But Betty isn’t stupid, and she has her grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), to look out for her…

The plot (based on Nicholas Searle’s novel)  is gripping, and it’s refreshing to see older actors in such meaty roles – and, indeed, to see this kind of dark thriller targeting an older audience. The Good Liar is a long way from the cosy middle-class japes of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; these are complex characters, played with wit and vivacity.

There are some issues. Some of the so-called twists are apparent early on, and the extended flashback sequences are a tad too expositional. The final revelation comes out of the blue, and doesn’t feel like it’s been adequately set up. And I do have a problem with aspects of the film’s worldview, where illness and infirmity are served up as karma, and where the type of house you can afford to buy determines how ‘interesting’ you are.

Still, this is a lively, slick movie, as sprightly as its veteran leads.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Aeronauts

09/11/19

This ‘inspired by a true story’ film is pitched as a family-friendly affair in the trailer, but actually plays more like a hair-raising tale of (literally) high adventure. It’s based around a genuine hot air balloon ascent made in 1862 by two men, but here, one of the men has been replaced by fictional female balloonist, Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones). It has to be said that her character is one of the best elements in this production and anyway, women have been callously written out of the history books so often, it’s actually refreshing to witness one actually being written into it.

Meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) has a burning ambition to venture higher than any man has done before, mainly because he fervently believes it will advance the fledgling science of weather prediction. Glaisher seeks out ‘the widow Rennes,’ a woman still in mourning for her husband, who died in an earlier balloon ascent. He somehow manages to persuade her to be his pilot, though he is quietly appalled by all the carnival razzmatazz she brings to the public launch.

Once up in the air, the film settles into a series of alarming and genuinely vertiginous escapades as the duo battle storms, winds and freezing temperatures. There are some stunning ariel shots and occasional flashbacks to the couple’s respective stories – Glaisher trying to come to terms with the advancing senility that is overtaking his father, Arthur (Tom Courtenay), and Rennes dwelling on that earlier ascent which cost her so dearly. While the action scenes are enough to put me right on the edge of my seat, the flashbacks are rather less successful and I’m particularly disappointed to see brilliant character actors like Anne Reid and Tim McInnery given so little to do.

A couple of questions I can’t help but ponder after seeing this. When balloonists throw stuff out of the gondola in order to ‘lose weight,’ what happens to those unfortunates who happen to be wandering around thousands of feet below them? And, if Glaisher went through such hell advancing the science of weather prediction, why do I find myself walking to the cinema through a rainstorm that completely failed to show up on my weather app?

The Aeronauts is certainly worth seeing, not least for Jones’ delightfully gritty  performance in the lead role. But don’t expect to see the jolly, easygoing film promised by the trailer. This is made of sterner stuff and those who suffer from vertigo might just decide to give this one a wide berth.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

Cabaret

06/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

I think I know Cabaret because I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. But tonight, at the Festival Theatre, I quickly learn that the stage version is very different. At first I’m disappointed. One of the things I like most about the movie is that it’s a musical where the songs are all supposed to be songs, performed in a club or at a rally. Here, characters sing instead of speaking, break into song to declare their love. In short, it’s a more traditional musical. And, as it goes on, I come to appreciate it.

Cabaret the movie is very much Sally Bowles’ story – and, of course, it’s Liza Minelli’s film. Here, Sally (Kara Lily Hayworth) has to share the limelight with two other leads: Emcee (John Partridge) and Fräulein Schneider (Anita Harris). It’s New Year’s Eve, a breath away from 1931; we’re in Berlin – and American wannabe novelist, Cliff (Charles Hagerty), is seeking inspiration.  At the train station, he meets the charming, erudite Ernst Ludwig (Nick Tizzard), who recommends Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, and arranges to meet him at the bawdy Kit Kat Club, where English Sally is a dancer. It’s an intoxicating, hedonistic place,  but – even within these walls – the creeping march of Nazism cannot be avoided forever…

The choreography (by Javier de Frutos) is stunning: sexy, vibrant, funny and spectacular. Indeed, in the first act, the big number club scenes almost eclipse the story. Standout routines include the lewdly hilarious Two Ladies and the unsettling Tomorrow Belongs to Me. The orchestra are integrated with the action, on an upper tier, visible when we’re in the Kit Kat Club, but otherwise behind a screen. This works well, implying that they’re employees of the club.

The relationship between Sally and Cliff seems a bit muted, which makes sense, I suppose, as – in this version – she’s only staying with him because she’s lost her job and has nowhere else to go. Of course, he’s gay and she’s not one for commitment, so it was never going to be a forever thing, but I would like to see a bit more spark. Otherwise, Hayworth makes a lovely Sally – all wit and vivacity, with a beautiful singing voice – and Hagerty does a decent job as Cliff.

The storyline between the elderly Fräulein Schneider and her beau, Herr Schulz (James Paterson), is particularly emotive, their tentative steps towards romance thwarted by anti-Semitism. Harris and Paterson are nicely understated in these roles: they show the fortitude of those who’ve learned not to expect much; they’ve already survived one war and lived through hyper-inflation. Their pragmatism is heartbreaking, and provides an interesting counterpoint to both Cliff’s naïve idealism and Sally’s determined ignorance.

The second act is more compelling than the first: by now, we care about the characters, and the Nazi undercurrent is getting stronger. Partridge’s Emcee is getting visibly more edgy, his playfulness takes on a desperate tone. And we watch, horrified, as it all unravels, waiting for the inevitable horror we know must come.

The final scene is awful in the truest sense; it’s a powerful set piece, exemplifying Rufus Norris’ directing prowess. I won’t describe it here, because I think its impact relies on some element of surprise; suffice to say, the applause is accompanied by a sense of unease, the usual whoops and cheers that follow a rumbustious musical take a little while to erupt. And it takes a craftsman to achieve that.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield