Author: bobthebiker

The Ritual


We missed this at the cinema – not difficult to do, since it had a blink-and-miss-it release – but we saw the trailer and thought it looked promising. But The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner and based on a novel by Joe Barton and Adam Neville, is now happily located on Netflix. It starts well enough, exerting a steadily mounting Blair Witch-style sense of dread, but eventually loses its way.

At the film’s opening, Luke (Rafe Spall) is out with his mates on the town. They are Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton) and Robert (Paul Reid). Luke’s mates are all showing troubling signs of growing up. They don’t want to stay out on the lash and are discussing plans for their upcoming holiday together, which – instead of the usual booze up in a hot climate – is shaping up to be a hiking trip in a remote part of Sweden. Luke persuades Robert to go into a off-licence with him to purchase a bottle of vodka and the two of them chance upon an armed robbery in progress. Luke ducks behind some shelves and Robert winds up bloodily murdered.

Six months later, Luke and the rest of the band find themselves embarking on the long hike that Robert was so keen to do – but Luke is haunted by the fact that he failed to help his friend and is also aware that the others think less of him for not stepping up when push came to shove. The group soon become lost in dense forests and, when a violent rain storm hits them, they take refuge in an old shack for the night, where things turn decidedly scary.

Now they have to continue their trek, horribly aware that they are being pursued by something unseen, something that has a nasty habit of leaving dead animals hanging in trees…

The first two thirds of the film are really rather effective. The edgy interplay between the characters is convincingly written and the terrifying foe is a powerful concept as long as it remains pretty much unseen, which it does for about an hour. But the final section squanders all of that hard-earned suspense by offering a convoluted explanation that feels distinctly risible. It’s not helped that the effect sequences that finally show the marauding beast are rather less than convincing.

Also, there’s something strangely skewed about the logic of this tale. Luke badly needs some redemption but, as it stands, he doesn’t really get any; he just finds himself plunged into a desperate struggle for survival. And I’m desperately struggling to care.

A shame, because this could be a decent little chiller. Instead it feels more like a great big missed opportunity.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney


Stones in his Pockets


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

A little rural town in County Kerry has been appropriated as the setting for a big Hollywood movie, and most of the locals have landed themselves roles as extras. They include Jake Quinn (Owen Sharpe) and Charlie Conlon (Kevin Trainor), two likely lads with plenty of time on their hands.

Charlie is, at first, perfectly content to take his forty pounds a day and all he can eat from the catering wagon, but Jake has somewhat loftier ambitions. He has written a screenplay of his own and intends to show it to everybody he meets in the vague hope of achieving some kind of success. When the film’s glamorous star, Caroline, unexpectedly flutters her eyelashes in Charlie’s direction, Jake inevitably hears the sound of opportunity knocking. But he has a lot to learn about the ways in which the film industry operates…

Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones is a gentle and engaging comedy. First performed in Belfast in 1996, it went on to have a lengthy run in the West End and, later, on Broadway. This timely revival is beautifully performed by Sharpe and Trainor, who – as well as delivering the lead roles – also portray a whole host of incidental characters: there’s the film’s bombastic director; some of its stars (including the seductive Caroline); a muscle-bound security guard; various local inhabitants (one of whom is the only surviving extra from The Quiet Man); and even the doomed, drug addicted teenager, Sean Harkin, whose unexpected suicide gives the play its title and whose funeral arrangements threaten to throw the Hollywood production into disarray.

But this is really all about the performance. It’s a delight to watch the two actors snap so effortlessly into each successive role, using a whole array of poses and gestures to ensure we’re never in any doubt as to who is talking to who at any given moment. The resulting interplay provides plenty of laughs and, at key points, some moments of genuine poignancy.

This play examines how the film industry remodels reality to make it more palatable for the big screen, how it exploits bystanders, seducing and dazzling them them into providing whatever is necessary to achieve a satisfactory end product. And it also highlights the desires and dreams of ordinary people that are so rarely given the opportunity to bloom into some kind of reality.

Stones in his Pockets is a little gem that’s well worth your attention.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Pet Sematary


Since the success of It, Stephen King seems to be enjoying a bit of a cinematic renaissance – and, as most of his books have already been made into films, studios are gleefully remaking the ones that weren’t so successful first time around.

Pet Sematary initially saw the light of a cinema screen in 1989, under the direction of Mary Lambert, and boasted a screenplay by Mr King himself. I know I saw it when it came out but I remember very little about it – other than the fact that I was rather underwhelmed by what I saw. This new version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, certainly offers a more confident approach to the source material, even if there are some inherent problems lurking  in the mix. Essentially a spin on WW Jacob’s famous short story, The Monkey’s Paw, Pet Sematary still harbours some of the tropes that might have passed muster when the project was first conceived, but which look a little dodgy in the current climate.

Here, Louis (Jason Clarke) is the overworked doctor who decides to move his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and his two children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie), from the big city to the peace and quiet of the countryside. Major mistake. The family’s new home comes complete with a massive stretch of land, most of which is heavily forested and much of which is the former ancestral burial grounds of the Mic Mac Indians. The land also encompasses the badly spelled graveyard, where the local kids go to bury their dead critturs (though I feel impelled to ask, where are these local kids? We see them only once, wearing creepy looking masks and then never again).

Young Ellie soon makes friends with elderly next-door neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow, twinkling effortlessly), and even introduces him to her beloved pet cat, Church. But the highway beside the house is a regular route for articulated lorries driven by reckless idiots and, when Church winds up splattered across the tarmac, Jud convinces Louis to hide the truth from Ellie and to bury the feline’s remains up on the old Mic Mac land, assuring him that, if he does so, something incredible will happen.

Sure enough, the next day, Church comes wandering home but, as the family soon discovers, something about his nature has changed for the worse…

For the most part, the film holds up well, creating an atmosphere of steadily mounting terror, even if some of the developments do test my credulity. (The family owns a vast stretch of land, so naturally they decide to host Ellie’s birthday party right beside that dangerous highway instead of somewhere safer – like, that would happen, right?) But there are some genuinely nerve wracking scenes here and also some explicitly visceral ones that push the 15 certificate to its very limits.

What really don’t work are the sections that flash back to Rachel’s childhood, when she had a morbid terror of her sister, Zelda – because she had a twisted spine. Sorry, but physical deformity is not fair game for horror and somebody should have thought carefully about those scenes before merrily throwing them into the screenplay – especially when said sister behaves like something out of The Exorcist.

Still, that error aside, this is genuinely compelling in places and offers one of the bleakest endings I can remember seeing since… well, another Stephen King-inspired movie, The Mist. Go to this if you feel like being terrorised but, be warned, some of those body horror scenes have been woefully misjudged.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Out of Blue


Out of Blue is a bit of a conundrum, a real curate’s egg of a film. At times, its audacity is breathtakingly impressive; at others, its pretentious incoherence is, well, kind of annoying.

Patricia Clarkson is Detective Mike Hoolihan, a genre-typical detective with an alcohol problem and a troubled past. When astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found dead next to her telescope, Mike notices similarities to a series of unsolved murders by the so-called .38 calibre killer. As she investigates, long-repressed childhood memories begin to resurface, and her composure fractures, leaving her vulnerable and exposed.

So far, so good, but of course Carol Morley was never going to embrace a straightforward whodunit crime procedural. Instead, we are treated to a philosophical musing on the nature of our place in the universe, looking outwards into the infinite vastness of a black hole, and inwards to the personal experiences that shape who we become. Stylistically, this works: the cinematography is sumptuous, and the blue-red colour palette is bold and arresting. But the endless banging on about Schrödinger’s cat gets a bit wearisome; this is entry level stuff given unwarranted gravitas. And the suggestion of parallel universes seems an unnecessary complication, adding little and muddying the plot.

I like the plot, actually, with its twisty ending (although presumably that’s down to Martin Amis, on whose novel this is based), and Patricia Clarkson’s performance is admirable here. Toby Jones is a welcome addition to any movie, and his depiction of Rockwell’s snivelling boss, Professor Ian Strammi, is no exception to this rule. Jacki Weaver never disappoints either, and she’s on top form as Rockwell’s flaky mother. But even these fine actors are not quite enough to save this film from its own sense of how clever it is. It’s all a bit show-offy for my taste.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield




Disney’s 1941 animation Dumbo is one of the House of Mouse’s greatest achievements. The simple tale of a baby elephant with oversized ears and the mouse who gives him the confidence to fly, it’s also one of the most affecting films ever made. Only the hardest of hearts can sit through the scene where Dumbo goes to visit his captive mother, without collapsing in floods of tears. Continuing the trend for making live action versions of Disney cartoons, Tim Burton offers us a much more complex reimagining of the original, devoid of its snappy songs, its inspirational mouse and, I’m afraid, also bereft of any real sense of emotion.

It’s 1919, and the little travelling circus belonging to ‘the Medici Brothers,’ pluckily makes its way across Florida, just about managing to survive despite the economic ravages that have laid the country low. There is actually only one Medici, ringmaster Max (Danny DeVito) and he’s doing everything he can to hold things together. Former stallion-master, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the great war minus an arm and is reunited with his children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finlay Hobbins), who he has left in the care of a couple of other entertainers. To add to the family’s woes, their mother has recently died after succumbing to the Spanish flu.

Holt soon learns that his beloved horses have been sold and he is now expected to take control of the circus elephants, one of whom, Mrs Jumbo, is heavily pregnant. The result, of course, is her son, Dumbo, who’s oversized ears make him the subject of much derision, but who, it turns out, has an amazing skill.

Matters become even more complicated when that skill comes to the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an entertainment entrepreneur who senses an opportunity to make some money. He swiftly incorporates Max’s circus into his unfeasibly massive Dreamland complex on Coney Island and teams Dumbo with another of his acquisitions, French trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green). Vandevere is an interesting addition to the story.  With his fake hairstyle, his predilection for making money and the fact that he is in hock to the banks up to his eyeballs, he is the very embodiment of a certain Mr Trump, and Keaton plays the role with evident relish.

I emerge feeling strangely conflicted about this film. On the one hand, I’m delighted that Burton hasn’t produced a cut and paste imitation of the original – on the other, I fail to understand why it’s so curiously dispassionate. There’s so much potential sadness here, yet Burton and his screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, seem unable to bring it out, often having to resort to characters telling us how sad they are just to make sure we haven’t missed the point.  The problem is, I need to feel that sadness and try as I might,  I do not – and trust me, I’m usually a sucker for that kind of thing

This is, of course, by no means a complete dud. As ever with Burton, the film looks absolutely stunning and the acting is pretty good throughout. Dumbo himself is a marvellous CGI creation, cute but not sickeningly so. It should have been a contender.

But without the heart that lies at the core of the original, the film is fatally skewered. Though it occasionally flaps into life, it never really soars.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

China Red Buffet Restaurant


Grindlay Street, Edinburgh

China Red has been on our radar for a while now. Not only was it the winner of the Edinburgh Evening News’s 2018 Chinese Restaurant of the Year award, it’s also situated conveniently near to where we live. We’ve often walked past, remarking, “We really ought to come here some time.” Tonight, at last, that time has come.

It’s Saturday, and we’ve had a couple of drinks before we arrive. I think this is a good thing: a buffet is suited to such circumstances. We order a glass of sauvignon blanc for me and a bottle of Tsing Tsao for Philip, and then set off to explore the vast cornucopia of edible items on offer. We’re paying £16.50 each, which seems eminently fair with such an array laid out before us.

We sample tiny bits of lots of things, far too many to detail here, but we barely scratch the surface of what’s available. Nothing we try is terrible. Some is average. And much is really very good.

I enjoy the sushi, particularly the cooked salmon and crab, which are delicate and really fresh. I also like the steamed broccoli and prawn dish, cooked in a light oyster sauce. The shellfish are firm and sturdy, and the vegetables retain their bite.

Philip’s especially impressed by the selection of noodles; he tries them several different ways. The Singapore vermicelli is his favourite, packed with ginger and spice. He also loves the salt and pepper ribs and the roast duck, which are rich and densely flavoured.

We’re both fans of the teppanyaki bar, where a friendly chef cooks us small portions of king prawns, lamb chops and steak, before setting them on fire for a bit of theatre. The prawns and the chops are perfect; the steak isn’t as good but, on reflection, we were never going to get a prime cut for the price they’re charging here.

There are lots of puddings available, but we both decide to try a made-to-order banana and chocolate crêpe, which is every bit as delicious as it sounds, albeit not very Chinese. Ça ne fait rien. We eschew any further sweet stuff, because we’re full, and because the pancake seems an ideal final course.

Will we come back? Probably, on a weekend night with a bit of booze inside us. It’s a convivial, relaxed place, and there’s enough choice here to satisfy even the fussiest of folk.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

(Can This Be) Home


Writer/performer/poet Kolbrùn Björt Sigfúsdóttir fully expected her extended examination of the Brexit conundrum to have reached some kind of a resolution by now – it is after all, the night before the UK is scheduled to leave the European union – but the slow separation lumbers inexorably on, with nobody any the wiser.

Icelandic by birth, Sigfúsdöttir has lived and worked in the UK for five years now and is understandably concerned about what’s going to happen to her ability to travel and work in Europe after Brexit has changed the rules. (Can This Be) Home is essentially a series of poems about what it means to be an immigrant, though it should be said, that she’s speaking from a fairly privileged point of view, something that she really only acknowledges in her final (and most successful) poem.

Her readings are counterpointed with short pieces by musician Tom Oakes, who plays a wooden flute and a stringed instrument that, to my untutored eye, looks like a lute crossed with a guitar. Tom features a nice line in anecdotal patter and his observation that it’s hard to write a protest song when you’re an instrumentalist gets the evening’s biggest laugh. His musical influences come from all over the world, but particularly from the Scandi-regions where he has often been based – so he too is waiting for the results of Brexit with some apprehension.

While Sigfúsdöttir recites her work, Oakes immerses himself in a book, and while Oakes tootles his flute, Sigfúsdöttir models house-shaped images from what appears to be a mixture of sand and putty. This pointed ignoring of each other’s efforts is obviously intentional but I would actually like to see them combining their respective talents to create a more cohesive whole. It’s also true to say that tonight, at the Traverse Theatre, the two performers are pretty much preaching to the converted. I doubt there’s a single person in the room who actively disagrees with what they are saying.

The result is therefore a strangely muted affair. It would be very interesting to see this performed to a more partisan audience, one featuring people with an entirely different view of the Brexit situation. As it stands, this feels a little too comfortable, a little too lacking in fire and urgency.

3 stars

Philip Caveney