Author: bobthebiker

22 July

18/10/18

Since his sterling work on the Jason Bourne franchise, Paul Greengrass has earned a reputation as a master of the action movie but, in 22 July, he pursues a more thoughtful and measured approach to this true life horror story.

In July 2011, white supremicist Anders Breivik, enacted a horrible crime, detonating a bomb in Oslo and, shortly afterwards, travelling to Utøya island to hunt down and kill members of the Norwegian Labour party’s youth league, who were attending a summer camp there. Heavily armed and disguised as a police officer, Breivik killed more than seventy people, most of them teenagers.

Although Greengrass depicts these events in unflinching detail, they only comprise the first third of the film. He then moves beyond the tragedy to focus on young survivor, Viljar Hansen (Jonas Strand Gravil), who, despite being horribly injured in the attack, devotes himself to recovering enough to be able to confront Breivik (chillingly portrayed by  Anders Danielsen Lie) in court. Hansen’s achievement is astonishing and turns what could have been a profoundly depressing film into something more important, more life affirming.

What really impresses here is Norway’s even-handed approach to Breivik’s crime, refusing to ‘monster’ him and treating him with the kind of dignity and fairness that he denied his victims. I particularly like Jon Oigarden’s masterful performance as lawyer, Geir Lippestad, the man who was handed the poisoned chalice of having to defend Breveik in court.

This film is a Netflix Original, so it’s there to be watched whenever you’re ready for it, but be warned, it does feature scenes that some will find distressing. Neverthless, its observations about the rise of right wing politics in Norway (and indeed the world in general) is an important and affecting story that’s well worth investigation.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Cyrano de Bergerac

13/10/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Since its debut in 1897, Edmond Rostand’s most celebrated play has seen many reboots, reimaginings and reinterpretations – perhaps most unusually in Steve Martin’s 1980s movie, Roxanne, which pitched the American comedian as the head of a fire station, opposite cinematic newcomer Darryl Hannah – and of course, many will remember a more traditional movie version of the tale starring a never-better Gerard Depardieu.

This co-production with The National Theatre of Scotland and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, directed by Dominic Hill, is a revival of Edwin Morgan’s 1992 translation, which envisions Rostand’s celebrated hero as a Glaswegian, complete with unflinchingly authentic dialect. Why? Well, Morgan felt the character of swashbuckling soldier-poet Cyrano was perfectly suited for such a transformation, and who am I to argue with him? Ihave to confess though, that it takes me a little while to adjust to this particular aspect. Despite living in Scotland for over two years, some of Brian Ferguson’s earlier utterances in the leading role are initially hard for me to decipher, something that isn’t helped by the huge false nose he’s obliged to wear. However, as I gradually adjust to that undiluted accent, so I begin to warm to the character and there’s no denying that Ferguson’s performance here is a veritable tour de force, as Cyrano jokes, swaggers and bellows his way through the proceedings, barely offstage for more than a few moments at a time. One can only wonder if his voice will hold up to such a battering.

Of course, the central premise of this story is one of unrequited love. Cyrano is madly in love with his cousin, Roxane (Jessica Hardwick), but she has eyes only for the handsome Christian (Scott Mackie), the new recruit to Cyrano’s regiment. She begs Cyrano to help her win the newcomer’s heart. So besotted is Cyrano that he is powerless to resist her entreaties and so pledges to do his level best to help her achieve her aims. Christian, of course, is a plain speaking sort of fellow, so Cyrano uses his poet’s intellect to open a series of heartfelt letters to Roxane, passing off his own devotion as Christian’s. The deceit works like a charm, but of course, tragedy is always waiting in the wings to throw a well-timed spanner into the works.

This rumbustious production has much to recommend it, not least the spectacular set designs of Tom Piper and Pam Hogg’s eye-catching costumes, which combine traditional elements with an irreverent dash of punk rock. There are live musicians onstage throughout the proceedings, that infamous ‘nose-insults’ routine is delivered into a microphone in standup style and there’s a beautifully executed sword fight to help to keep the action flowing.

But there’s no denying that this is a long play, a full three hours in the telling – and, with most of the most memorable scenes occurring in the first half, it feels as though a little judicious editing in the second would make this feel a wee bit more fleet-footed. See this for Ferguson’s barnstorming performance and for those audacious costume designs. And whatever you do, don’t mention the size of Cyrano’s nose. He’s touchy about that kind of thing.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Arctic Oil

11/10/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ella (Neshla Kaplan) is a committed environmental activist, currently stranded on the remote Scottish island where she grew up. She and her infant son have been living near her widowed mother, Margret (Jennifer Black) and she has been going stir crazy. So, under the pretext of visiting London to attend a friend’s wedding, Ella has covertly planned to head off to an Arctic oil rig to join a team of activists in a potentially dangerous protest, leaving Margret to babysit her grandson. But Ella has underestimated Margaret, who is wise to her daughter’s plan and determined to keep her out of harm’s way. With this in mind, she lures Ella into the bathroom of the family home, then promptly locks the door and swallows the key.

What follows is a tightly constructed two-hander as mother and daughter argue, debate the future of the planet and uncover old grievances. Margret is quick to point out that the island on which they live is dependent on oil company investment. The industry provided work for her late husband, when he was in dire financial straits; and besides, instead of trying to change hearts and minds, shouldn’t Ella be more concerned with being a responsible mother to her son?

For Ella, it’s all about the future of that son and the doomed planet on which he’ll be expected to exist. It’s about the destruction of one of the world’s last true wildernesses, the inexorable rise of global warming  – and the fact that if nobody takes a stand on this issue now, then its all headed for hell in a hand basket.

There are two strong performances here and, apart from a  few nitpicks – would news of what’s happened to the oil rig protesters reach the mainstream media quite as promptly as it does, for example – Clare Duffy delivers a prescient tale that raises plenty of important questions. Gareth Nichols directs with a sure hand and I love the ingenious set, designed by Nichols and Kevin McCallum, which is built to withstand the onslaught of Ella’s rigorous attempts to kick her way through that locked door.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is all questions and precious few answers, but it’s nonetheless a thoughtful piece, which arrives at a time when the world has been publicly warned of the dire consequences of global warming. But, at its heart, this is far more about the mother-daughter relationship, and the love that underpins all their differences.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

10/10/18

There’s no way around it. I’m getting old.

Of course, I kind of already know that but, lately, a series of cinematic arrows have been whizzing in out of the blue, as if to remind me of the fact. Apparently, it’s been twenty years since The Big Lebowski. Hell, it’s been thirty since Repo Man! And now, somehow, John Carpenter’s Halloween is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Can this be right? I mean, for God’s sake, I remember seeing it for the first time so vividly. It was back in… yep, sure enough. It was in 1978.

I saw it at the Odeon in Gants Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, my first novel had been published a year earlier, and I was just getting settled into my long and heady love affair with cinema. I’d read a review in New Musical Express that seemed to suggest that this low-budget horror movie was something worth catching up with.

Which turned out to be an understatement. Halloween blew me away.

It’s still one of most successful independent films of all time and certainly the most imitated, initiating a whole cavalcade of We-Know-What-Your-Babysitter-Did-on-Friday-the-Thirteenth pretenders, none of which have the wit or sophistication of the original, and all of which make the cardinal mistake of substituting gore for suspense. Even the eight or more sequels that came trotting gamely along in the film’s wake fail to measure up to their illustrious progenitor. (Okay, so I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Halloween 3, but only because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the source story.)

Halloween starts on October 31st 1963, when six-year-old Michael Myers takes his trick-or-treating a little too seriously and kills his sister. We cut to 1978, when Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) sees an adult Michael escape from the institution where he’s been held ever since that fateful night. Loomis heads off in hot pursuit, knowing where Michael will inevitably be headed: his home town of Haddonfield, just in time to celebrate his favourite night of the year, and where he has some unfinished business. There, young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles), are about to experience the longest and most traumatic babysitting session of their lives.

Even after all these years, the film holds up superbly (although, now transferred to digital, Dean Cundy’s gleaming Panavision widescreen shots have lost a little of their brio. What I wouldn’t give to see it projected on celluloid again!). But that’s really my only quibble. Carpenter’s no-nonsense direction is still exactly what’s needed and, if some of the tropes now seem predictable, you have to remember that in 1978, we were seeing them for the first time ever. Those voyeuristic steadicam shots along deserted streets; the perfectly timed jump-scares; the killer who seems to be dead but just won’t stop moving – oh, and of course there’s Carpenter’s wonderful soundtrack, featuring that theme tune, the same one that now, converted to a ringtone/alarm, wakes me every morning of my life. Yes, that’s how much I adore this film.

Interestingly, we’re only days away from David Gordon Green’s reboot of the same name, which is ditching all of those dodgy sequels and picking up forty years after the events of the first film. Jamie Lee Curtis is returning to the role of Laurie Strode, who has, apparently, been waiting for Michael’s return all these years. Will it be in the same league? Or even close? I seriously doubt it, but I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

For my money, Halloween may just qualify as the greatest horror movie of all time – it’s certainly in my top five. If it comes to a cinema near you, grab the opportunity to watch it again on the big screen – which, as Carpenter observes in the preceding interview, is easily the best way to see it.

Oh yes, one other thing. In 1984, I interviewed Nick Castle for his film, The Last Starfighter. In Halloween, Castle plays Michael Myers, the deadly presence behind that creepy William Shatner mask. When we said goodbye, I shook hands with the man. A thought flashed through my mind. I am shaking hands with ‘The Shape.’

Some things you never forget.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Rebus: Long Shadows

09/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s most famous detective is making his theatrical debut, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the iconic character fares in his home town. But we spend all day unsure if the play is going ahead after lead actor Charles Lawson was taken ill on-stage last night – the sort of dramatic twist nobody wants to experience. We wish him a speedy recovery. In the meantime, we’re relieved to hear that understudy Neil McKinven has stepped into the role, and that the show will go on.

Long Shadows is a new, original Rebus story, co-written specifically as a piece of theatre by Ian Rankin and Rona Munro. It’s a sensible decision: instead of shoe-horning a complex novel into a two-hour slot, this tale is suited to its form, and pared down, free of the literary clutter that scuppers so many adaptations. It fits into the novels’ time line though: this is retired Rebus, unable to let the job go, still haunted by the ghosts of all the crimes he didn’t solve.

In this incarnation, though, the ghosts are made flesh, with murdered teenagers Maggie (Eleanor House) and Angela (Dani Heron) given a formidably physical presence, a sort of chorus of the dead. I like this device: it gives the girls a voice, makes them real characters instead of mere victims, showing us their combined strength instead of focusing on their frailty. There’s also wit in using these ghosts as stage hands, making the scene transitions seamless, and emphasising the idea that the girls help shape the narrative.

We’re in cold case territory. DI Siobhan Clarke (Cathy Tyson), Rebus’s longterm sidekick, finally has the chance to see known killer, Mordaunt (played tonight by Andy Paterson), pay for his crimes. Technology has improved, and there’s DNA evidence tying him to Angela’s murder, twenty-five years ago. He’s got away with it so far, and Siobhan is determined not to let any loose ends threaten this opportunity to take him off the streets. She visits Rebus to see what he remembers, to see if he has any idea what the defence might have hidden up its sleeve.

Inevitably, all roads lead to Cafferty, Rebus’s Moriarty, played here with great aplomb by John Stahl. He’s exactly as I imagine him from the books, all machismo and panache, charm and thuggery. And Maggie’s death, seventeen years ago, is woven expertly into the mix, brought to mind by the arrival on Rebus’s stair of her teenage daughter, Heather. It’s a clever plot, with twists and turns that keep me guessing. I can’t deny it’s all quite expositional, a lot of telling-not-showing of the past; we’re watching people sit and talk about events rather than seeing them unfold before our eyes. But it’s enlivened by the presence of those ghosts, the gobby teenagers who won’t be shut up, and by strong performances all round.

McKinven does a sterling job. In the first act, he’s faultless: the role belongs to him. He does have a script in the second act, but he doesn’t refer to it often. It makes sense: the first act is much more of an ensemble piece, and McKinven, in his usual multiple roles, clearly knows this section well. But the latter half is essentially a three-hander between Rebus, Cafferty and Clarke; presumably McKinven has habitually spent this time in his dressing room, relaxing, before appearing briefly in the concluding scene. No matter, the script stuffed into his pocket doesn’t look out of place – Rebus is always carrying case files around. And he only seems to need it to place what’s coming next: he’s acting the dialogue, not reading it. And maybe, by tomorrow, he won’t need it at all. Either Lawson will be back, or McKinven will have learned the lines.

The set, designed by Ti Green, is perhaps my favourite thing about this whole production. I love the simplicity of it, the economy. There are no unnecessary props or pieces of scenery; it’s as uncluttered as the script. But it’s wonderfully evocative: Edinburgh’s tall grey walls and winding paths, tunnels and closes, stairs and bridges, all there at once, their purpose and atmosphere changing with the light. It’s almost breathtaking when the streets of the Old Town are turned instantaneously into a glass penthouse on the Quartermile by the stupidly simple method of lighting the side panels from behind. It’s a revelation as remarkable as those related to the crime.

So, a welcome addition to the Rebus pantheon, and certainly a must-see for fans of the irascible ex-detective.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Venom

09/10/18

First, the good news. Venom isn’t quite as terrible as everybody is saying.

The bad news? It still isn’t great.

Indeed, watching this unfold, I can’t help wondering what it was about the project that tempted top drawer actors like Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed to hop aboard for the ride. It can’t just have been the size of the pay check. Can it? I mean, surely they must have thought the end result would be… well, better than this?

Events start (as they so often do in such stories) with a spaceship crashing in East Malaysia. Billionaire scientist Carlton Drake (Ahmed) has despatched it to a remote asteroid to collect some alien life forms. In the ensuing chaos, one of the captive creatures manages to escape after latching on to a human host. (Yes, I know. So far, so dreadfully familiar.) Drake manages to salvage the other ‘symbiotes,’ as he dubs them, and has them brought to his state-of-the-art laboratory in San Francisco, where he sets about experimenting on them by unleashing them into a succession of live hosts. At first he contents himself with cuddly bunny rabbits but, despite all of his top scientists advising against it, he quickly progresses to homeless people, whom he’s duped into helping him with his ‘research programme.’ Drake, as you’ll have gathered, is not a very nice man. He’s hoping that he’ll find a perfect match, creating a human-alien hybrid, but his first attempts are… messy, to say the very least.

Meanwhile, freewheeling investigative reporter, Eddie Brock (Hardy), tries to do a filmed exposé on Drake, but soon discovers that the man has enough power to get him unceremoniously fired from his job. The problem is, Eddie has ‘borrowed’ some information from the files of his fiancé, lawyer Anne Weying (Williams), which means that she also gets the push. She is angry enough to tell Eddie to stick his engagement ring where the sun don’t shine. Eddie is understandably miffed by all this but, when one of Drake’s employees, Dr Skirth (Jenny Slate), smuggles Eddie into the laboratory, things go spectacularly wrong. He is invaded by one of the alien creatures, endowing him with a range of formidable superpowers and some very unsavoury eating habits. Chaos ensues, as Eddie and ‘Venom’ learn to co-exist. While some of this is reasonably entertaining, the greater part of it suffers from a bad case of over-familiarity.

To give Hardy his due, he does his level best to make this unpromising material work, but the fact that he’s been asked to play things for laughs may not have been the wisest decision. His Eddie Brock is a likeable slacker, who has inadvertently been thrust into very difficult circumstances, and he handles that side of things well enough. But overlong motorbike chases and CGI tweaked punch-ups are not really Hardy’s forte. Likewise, Williams is too much of a trooper not to give this her best shot, but she really isn’t given an awful lot to do and, once again, if you have an actor of such undeniable skill, maybe give her something to convey other than bewilderment?

Like most Marvel films, this eventually heads into one of those extended animated monster-battles, which – while undoubtedly expensive – just become rather tedious to behold. Director Ruben Fleischer must have been confident that this project would fly, because the first post-credit sequence sets up a sequel featuring a very well known actor in a fright wig. I can’t help feeling this is an over-optimistic move. There aren’t  many bums on seats at the viewing I attend. If however, you do feel like hanging on through the interminable credits, it’s worth staying in your seats for a sneak peek at Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, an upcoming animation that, in just a few minutes, manages to knock spots off everything that’s gone before. Maybe Sony Pictures decided they needed to salvage something from the wreckage. Or maybe they’re just proud of their new baby.

Venom is ultimately one for the Marvel-heads – and only the most diehard amongst them, I think. It really didn’t rock my world. Oh, and – of course – there’s a Stan Lee cameo. There’s always a Stan Lee cameo. Don’t worry, it’s mercifully brief.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Wife

08/10/18

The Wife, directed by Björn L Runge, opens in 1992, when novelist Joe Castleton (Jonathan Pryce) picks up the telephone to hear that he has won the Nobel prize for literature. As soon as he realises who is calling, he insists that his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), picks up the extension before any details are revealed: he wants to share the news with her. She’s delighted; they clamber up on to the bed, holding hands, and begin to jump. But it’s not long before we feel the first frostiness between them: “I’ve won the Nobel! I’ve won the Nobel!” Joe shouts, and Joan visibly shuts down. (How does Close do that? There’s not even a flicker on her face, but we see the light fade from her eyes. It’s astonishing.) Clearly, all is not as rosy as it seems…

There’s a revelation at the end of the film that I won’t spoil in this review. I will say, though, that there is no big surprise, and I guess that’s deliberate – it’s not very well concealed. In fact, it’s pretty clear from the trailer where we are headed. But this is much more about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ than it is about the ‘what’ – The Wife is very much a character-led piece, the study of a relationship, and the lies and compromises that make it tick.

Close is extraordinary in the role, combining flinty intelligence and self-control with a much softer, love-fuelled tenderness. Pryce is also very good, his puffed-up pride and self-importance masking his deep-rooted insecurity. We follow Joe and Joan from their first meeting, back in 1958. Young Joan (Annie Starke, Close’s real-life daughter) is an aspiring writer, studying at the prestigious Smith College; Joe (whose youthful incarnation is played by Harry Lloyd) is her professor. He’s married with a baby, but that doesn’t stop them falling in love. And, more than thirty years later, here they are, proving that their relationship was worth it: they’re thriving. He’s a celebrated literary author; she’s the kingmaker behind the throne. They have two children and one grandchild. Theirs is a story of success.

But their son, David (Max Irons), is not happy. He’s a writer too, and desperate for his father’s approval. But Joe can’t give David the validation he seeks: even though Joan insists that David’s work shows real talent, Joe can only offer muted praise.

In Stockholm, as the big Nobel prize ceremony draws ever nearer, the tension bubbles ominously, and it’s clear that something has to give. But what will prove the final catalyst? Will it be Joan’s simmering resentment at being rendered invisible, relegated to the role of ‘shopping with the other wives’? David’s anger at his father’s implied criticism? Or the slippery Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), would-be biographer, and his desire to write an exposé?

The Wife is an engaging drama, astute in its depiction of the petty details that inform arguments with loved ones, the fondness and fury that bind families together. And it shows us too how we never really know the truth about other people’s lives, only what they choose to let us see.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield