Author: bobthebiker

Late Night

12/06/19

Mindy Kaling’s feature debut is a warm, witty and timely tale, a gentle rebuke to those who bemoan positive discrimination, blind to the privilege that underlines their own positions. To Kaling’s credit, the overt message in no way impedes the film’s humour or likability.

Kaling stars as Molly, an Indian-American woman, who’s been working as an admin assistant in a factory – sorry, chemical plant. An essay-writing competition affords her the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to write for her hero, late night TV host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). But, while Katherine is keen to improve  her show’s ratings by shaking up her all-white, all-male writing team, the men themselves are less accommodating, threatened by the presence of an outsider. It doesn’t help that one unfortunate latecomer is literally fired as Molly hovers near his seat.

Thompson is magnificent as the imperious, demanding Katherine. Our view of her is softened by the tenderness of her relationship with her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who is struggling to come to terms with the effects of Parkinson’s disease. This strand offers us an insight into Katherine’s psyche, and helps us to appreciate the sheer talent and drive that has led to her success, and the potential cost of failure. No wonder she is exacting and difficult.

It turns out Molly is exactly what Katherine needs. Not because she is a genius; not because she’s better than all the guys. But because she is as good as them, and she has something different to offer, a less comfortable, tried-and-tested approach. In her innocence, she questions their assumptions and, in time, makes them question themselves.

It’s not all one way though; Molly is not a one-woman saviour – she has lessons to learn too. Veteran writer, Burditt (Max Casella), and conceited ‘head of monologues’, Tom Campbell (Reid Scott), as well as Walter and Katherine themselves, all have sage advice to offer her. The lesson here is simple: we all benefit from inclusivity.

If this makes the film sound dull, then I’m doing it a disservice. It’s properly funny, with Kaling’s genial charm a perfect foil for Thompson’s acerbic wit. Molly’s quiet determination proves a force to be reckoned with, and provides plenty of laughs along the way.

Late Night is a cracking story – a political rom-com for our times.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

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549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War

 

07/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle: in a small pub in Prestonpans, the parallels between four disgruntled millennials and their 1936 counterparts are explicitly drawn.

The 2017 quartet are somewhat disaffected, ground down by austerity and disillusioned with democracy. George (Robbie Gordon), who was famed at school for being the political one, isn’t going to bother voting in the next election. What’s the point? The others disagree, but that doesn’t mean they’re of one mind. They’re angry, polarised; either silent or shouting; held together only by proximity and a shared past.

But, during a powercut, Old George (Michael Mackenzie) appears briefly and then  vanishes, leaving behind a mysterious suitcase. Bar manager Ellen (Rebekah Lumsden) seizes the opportunity to school the boys, telling them that Old George is long dead, and that his suitcase contains mementoes of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

George Watters joins the legendary International Brigade in 1936, spurred on by his deeply held belief that fascism must be thwarted, no matter what the cost. He persuades his mates and his brother-in-law too: Jock (Josh Whitelaw) is keen because he wants to spread his wings, to see the world beyond East Lothian; Bill (Cristian Ortega) is an innocent, young and easily swayed, who just wants to meet some Spanish girls; Jimmy (Nicholas Ralph) is in it for the money. Their ideologies differ, but they bond over the fight.

As Ellen tells the story, the men enact it, using whatever they can find in the bar to represent the tale. Their guns are snooker cues; their barriers bar tables. The lighting (by Benny Goodman) is unusual and most effective: there are banks of brightly coloured pink and yellow spots, almost blinding at times, denoting the present day, while an atmospheric orange gloom settles over much of the past action. It’s a quirky palette, but somehow it makes perfect sense.

The physicality of the drama is excellent, with some inventive set pieces, particularly the bike ride and the battles. The small space feels crowded by soldiers; the pace never lets up, and the characters are well drawn. This is true ensemble work, and very nicely done.

And, in a testament to the power of theatre, the simple reenactment of the tale has a profound impact on the boys, shaking them out of their torpor. I know, I said it wasn’t subtle. But this isn’t the place for subtlety. Maybe, in these troubling times, as the far right rears its head again, we all need to wake up and realise what’s worth fighting for.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Alice in Wonderland

06/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alice in Wonderland is something of a phenomenon, famous more for its cast of extraordinary characters than for its storyline. Anyone who grew up reading English novels (or watching the films based on them) knows the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Lewis Carroll’s 1865 creations are an illustrator’s dream; indeed, John Tenniel’s drawings are at least as powerful as the author’s words, and surely party responsible for propelling Alice to stardom. Responsible too, perhaps, for sidelining the protagonist, who slides into insignificance in many adaptations of the work.

And there are many adaptations of the work. I’m almost weary at the thought of seeing another one. I know the story well: I read both books as a child, and have seen countless stage and cinematic versions. I’ve even directed a school production – the Disney Junior one – so I’m well-versed in its lore.

Esteemed Irish theatre company, Blue Raincoat, are well-versed too: this is a revival of their own 1999 production, adapted by Jocelyn Clark. I didn’t see their original, so I can’t compare the two, but I can say that this interpretation is the closest I’ve seen to the novel, with young Alice (Miriam Needham) placed firmly centre-stage, her internal monologue brought to life by her older self (Hilary Bowen-Walsh)’s narration.

This is a shabby, degraded Wonderland, seen through the adult eyes of a jaded Alice. But the bold, frenetic, questing nature of the child is captured perfectly, as is the perplexity of growing up, where one minute she is like a little girl, the next too big for the confines of her world. The people and creatures this Alice meets are (rightly, I think) peripheral: she’s the hero of her own tale; they exist only insofar as they relate to her. Her intelligence and curiosity shine brightly in this production; she demands answers to everything, but is offered nothing satisfactory. Only when she takes charge and asserts herself is she able to wake up from the dream.

With such emphasis on Alice, it’s safe to say that this is an intense piece of theatre, with both Needham and Bowen-Walsh surely pushing themselves to exhaustion. But the supporting cast are strong as well; the portrayal of the Duchess (Sandra O’Malley) is particularly interesting, especially as her baby morphs into a pig.

The set design (by Paul McDonnell) is ingenious: adult Alice’s basement transformed into Wonderland, all broken picture frames and stepladders and old bits of wood, and (of course) a series of different-sized tables used to great effect.

Under  Niall Henry’s frantic, physically-focused direction, this show is something of a tour de force.  Not a new take, exactly, but certainly a refreshing one.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Drone

04/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A tiny drone whirs into life and rises smoothly from the studio floor to survey the audience. An instant later, we see ourselves projected onto a big screen at the back of the room, our bemused faces staring straight back at our ourselves. Electronic music throbs and jitters, steadily rising in volume. And then Harry Josephine Giles walks onto the stage and begins to speak…

Drone describes itself as ‘a jam of sound, visuals and poetry,’ but the ensuing show is a lot more controlled than that suggests. Giles’ words tell the unfolding story of ‘a drone,’ part weapons system, part office worker. It explores the central theme both in realistic and abstract terms, while Neil Simpson’s music provides a pulsing sonic backdrop, and the visual designs of Jamie Wardrop are projected onto a screen behind the performers, a mixture of psychedelic landscapes, obscure images and found film extracts.

My first impression is that I’m not going to enjoy this very much – it seems a little too arch, a little too pleased with itself – and yet, inexorably, it pulls me into its orbit and I’m soon entranced by what I’m seeing and hearing. Giles’ assured, controlled performance is compelling, unleashing a torrent of visual metaphors that build to a maelstrom. This, the narrative seems to say, is symptomatic of the age in which we are live, a bleak, compassionless society, hurtling headlong to oblivion.

Sharp, provocative and challenging, Drone certainly won’t be for everyone, but those who seek something truly original and idiosyncratic should find plenty here to enthrall them. When, at the end of the performance, the drone goes haywire and careers into the audience, it’s hard to know if it’s intentional or not – and that, in a strange way, pretty much sums up what this piece is all about.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Brasserie Prince by Alain Roux

03/06/19

Princes Street, Edinburgh

We’re here today because… well, we haven’t really got a reason. It’s a run-of-the-mill Monday (we don’t work Mondays). It’s lunch time. Usually, this would signal some kind of soup or salad eaten in our own kitchen, but today we feel like eating out.

So here we are. Brasserie Prince is a relative newcomer (it opened last year, in the renowned Balmoral hotel), but its pedigree is excellent, being a joint venture between veteran chef Michel Roux and his son, Alain. We’re keen to see what they have to offer.

As you’d expect from this cooking dynasty, the focus is on classic French food, with a healthy respect for local produce. There’s an extensive à la carte selection but, as this is an impromptu visit with little to justify it, we decide to stick to the express menu, where two courses cost £19.50 and three £25 per head. The options here look perfectly acceptable.

We order a small glass each of Pinot Grigio, and tuck into the tapenade and crispbreads that are placed on the table. Delicious! Who can resist the salty tang of an olive dip? Not us, that’s for sure.

The pace here is leisurely, which we like, so it’s a little while before our starters arrive. Not too long, just long enough to make the meal feel like an event. I have the Quinoa, sunflower seed and spring vegetable salad with minted soya yoghurt dressing, which is fresh and delicate with a lovely zing. Philip has the beetroot and goat’s cheese salad with red pepper vinaigrette, which is an absolute delight. It’s deceptively simple looking, but the beetroots – both red and golden – are served in a variety of ways (pickled, roasted and crisped) and the goat’s cheese is mellow and creamy. So far, so (very) good.

Philip has the Armoricaine monkfish, Camargue wild rice and tenderstem broccoli for his main. The fish is well cooked, deliciously meaty, and served with a lip-smackingly savoury sauce. My Shetland mussels with white wine and parsley are pretty good, although, coming so soon after last week’s mussels extraordinaire at the Edinburgh Food Studio, perhaps they are destined not to wow. Still, it’s a generous portion – more than I can eat – and the sauce is rich and decadent. I order a side of fries to accompany the shellfish, and these are fine too (although suspiciously akin to the frozen variety…).

We go off-piste for pud, because the à la carte options are just too appealing. Philip has the classic tarte tatin with a scoop of vanilla ice cream; this is faultless, exactly as you’d expect. I opt for the warm lemon madeleines and cherry compote; this unassuming-sounding dish turns out to be today’s star. There are five madeleines (we could easily have shared; we do, in fact, share…), all hot lemony loveliness, the sponge as light as can be, and the thick sweetness of the cherry compote contrasts with it perfectly.

We order a second (small) glass of wine, and sit contentedly for a while, enjoying the ambience and bustle of this friendly, attractive restaurant. It’s formal without being fussy, busy without being loud. All in all a lovely place to while away an early afternoon.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Cabaret

02/06/19

Whenever I’m asked to name my favourite musical, Cabaret is always right up there at the top of the pile. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love lighter stuff like Singing in the Rain and Calamity Jane, but there’s something about this film that transcends the limitations of the genre. While it boasts a whole bunch of solid gold songs, courtesy of Kander and Ebb, the film deals with much weightier issues than your average singalong. Set in Berlin in the early thirties, it documents the decadent nightclub entertainment of the era, set against the rising prominence of Hitler and the Nazi party. I’ve seen it a few times since its UK release in 1972, but only on small screens – this Vintage Sunday screening at The Cameo Cinema gives me the opportunity to properly reasses it. I’m happy to say it hasn’t aged one bit – indeed, given recent political developments, it feels eerily prescient.

Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in Berlin where he intends to write fiction, whilst financing himself by giving English lessons. He books in at a once-genteel boarding house and finds himself rooming nextdoor to entertainer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), currently wowing audiences at the seedy Kit Kat Club, presided over by the creepy and salacious MC (Joel Grey). Brian and Sally become close friends and, as time goes on, lovers – but their relationship is developed through turbulent and changing times. The Nazi party members who hand out leaflets at the club are at first derided and openly laughed at by the customers but, gradually, they come to prominence until they are calling the shots – a situation perfectly captured in the scene at a biergarten, where an angelic-faced member of the Hitler youth croons a stirring rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me and the bar’s customers, one by one, begin to sing along with him.

There’s so much to enjoy here it’s hard to know quite where to begin. First of all, there’s Minnelli, positively incandescent, the sheer talent seeming to blaze off her as she sings and dances with absolute authority. Joel Grey too is deliciously dissolute, clearly relishing the role he was born to play. But it’s director/choreographer Bob Fosse who is the real revelation, his mercurial visual style unleashing a whole blitzkrieg of unforgettable scenes. As in all the best musicals, the songs comment on and add to the action and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is forever cutting away to Grey’s leering, winking countenance as he slips us a knowing smile. ‘Look what’s happening here,’ he seems to be saying. ‘And you’re doing nothing to stop it.’

The tragedy, of course, is that none of the major players here ever achieved anything of comparable excellence in their lifetimes. Minnelli’s subsequent screen career is distinctly underwhelming, Grey’s likewise and Bob Fosse directed only another three features before his untimely death in 1987. But Cabaret stands as a dazzling example of the screen musical, a film that never mocks the flamboyant characters it depicts, never goes for the cheap shot and, most important of all, never shies away from asking profoundly unsettling questions.

If you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, grab it; if not, see it anyway, in whatever way you can. Few films have such an immense reputation and even fewer actually deserve the acclaim they receive.

Cabaret is, quite simply, a musical masterpiece.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Thunder Road

01/06/19

A few years ago, Jim Cummings was just another wannabe with a crazy dream of making a movie. In 2016, despite having no practical experience, he wrote, directed and starred in a short film, playing the role of a police officer making a disastrously misjudged  attempt to deliver a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. The short won a prestigious award at Sundance and, spurred on by this, Cummings decided to work it up into a full length feature, raising a shooting budget of around $180,000 via Kickstarter and several private investors. When distributors offered him a risible amount of money for world rights to the finished film, he figured he might as well go ahead and distribute it himself…

Now here is that feature, which starts – just as the short did – with Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings) delivering his eulogy, including a toe-curling attempt at interpretive dance to Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. Unlike the original film, this version is further complicated by the fact that he cannot get his daughter’s boom box to work. The camera remains unflinchingly focused on his humiliation throughout, and I sit watching in turmoil, unsure whether I should be cringing or laughing. In the end, I experience a combination of both extremes, as Cummings performs a perilous tightrope walk that feels simultaneously challenging and exhilarating. Happily, what follows doesn’t feel like a hastily conjured add-on, but a compelling story in its own right.

Arnaud is a man on the very edge of a nervous breakdown. He has recently separated from his wife, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer), and is desperately trying to connect with his young daughter, Crystal (a delightful performance from Kendal Farr). Rosalind is making no secret of the fact that she’s planning to go for sole custody in the upcoming divorce, leaving Arnaud to face the prospect of being completely alone, something which terrifies him. Meanwhile, he struggles to carry on with his duties as a cop, pushing his best friend, Officer Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson), to the very limits of his patience.

Thunder Road is a terrific little independent film, a salutory lesson to those who claim that movies simply cannot be made without the investment of a major studio and a multi-million-dollar budget. Cummings depicts a character who is a bubbling cauldron of insecurity and anger, forever boiling over and giving others the wrong impression. Watch the scene where he meets up with Crystal’s teacher, Mr Zahn (Macon Blair), to explain why his daughter is having problems at school. As Arnaud becomes ever more volatile, we fully understand why Zahn chooses to surreptitiously slip a pair of craft scissors into his pocket.

Those who saw the trailer for this can be forgiven for expecting some kind of screwball comedy, but it’s so much more than that. There’s real poignancy here and a lightness of touch that usually only comes after years of experience in the film business. Cummings is evidently a natural, and a name to watch out for in the future. Meanwhile, those who’d like to see the original short (where Officer Arnaud does get that pesky Springsteen song to play) can check it out on Vimeo.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney