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Loveless

20/03/18

This powerful, brooding film by director Andrei Zvyagintsev (who also gave us the equally compelling Leviathan in 2014) offers a melancholic slice of life in contemporary Russia. A nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, it eventually lost out to Sebastian Leilio’s A Fantastic Woman, but it’s nonetheless a superb drama that deserves wide acclaim.

Loveless focuses on a couple going through the throes of a messy divorce. Boris (Alexi Rozin) is an office worker, whose deeply religious boss is opposed to any kind of marital discord. This means that Boris has to keep his impending break-up a close secret around the workplace. He has already found himself a naïve young girlfriend, Masha (Marina Vasileva), has got her pregnant and is planning to set up a new life with her – but, for the moment, he’s still sharing the family home with his wife, Zhenya (Marian Spivack). Mind you, she’s not blameless in all this, because she too is embroiled in a passionate affair with widower, Anton (Andress Keiss), and is intent on ensnaring the man she sees as her best hope of escape from drudgery. Both Anton and Zhenya are completely focused on their respective futures – so much so that it is all they can think about.

The problem is, they have a 12 year old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), who regularly witnesses their bitter arguments and even overhears them trying to fob responsibility for him onto each other. A scene that cuts from a bitter marital dispute to Alyosha – in the darkness of his bedroom, face contorted in an agony of misery – is utterly heartbreaking. Neither Boris nor Zhenya seems to be aware of his unhappiness – indeed, they barely notice him at all, until, inevitably, he goes missing. The resulting search means the two of them have to grudgingly work together alongside the highly motivated volunteer group that has been recruited for the task.

In a Hollywood version of this story, of course, the two protagonists would no doubt develop new respect for each other; they would discover hidden strengths that they never knew existed; they might even end up deciding to stay together. But in Zvyagintsev’s abrasive world-view, there is no redemption. The couple are enslaved by their own mutual loathing and bitter resentment. They go about the search for their son as though it is some kind of thankless chore, an annoying box to be ticked. A visit to Zhenya’s secretive mother on the suspicion that Alyosha may be hiding out with her amply demonstrates that the roots of such selfishness run deep. She too seems unable to exhibit any kind of concern for the missing child, preferring instead to complain about the way she has been treated by her daughter and the man she never wanted her to marry in the first place.

Aloysha’s unseen presence dominates the remainder of the film. It is there in the deserted buildings the search team visit; it is there in the sterile winter landscapes through which they trudge. It would, of course, be wrong to reveal how the search for him turns out, but suffice to say that a brilliantly constructed coda displays all too effectively how hopeless and myopic his parents’ dreams of bright new futures are. In this story,  selfishness is all-pervading and parents will always put their own aspirations above those of their off-spring.

A word of warning. This is not the film to watch if you are seeking a cheery and relaxing  night at the cinema. If on the other hand, you enjoy a deep, harrowing drama that claws relentlessly at the emotions, it’s certainly one to check out.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Box of Delights

02/12/17

The Box of Delights might have started life as a novel by John Masefield in 1935 but, for me, it will always belong to 1984 and television.

The BBC children’s adaptation was my first ‘box-set binge,’ enjoyed even before I knew those words existed in formation. It was Christmas Eve, early afternoon. I was thirteen, my brother three years younger. Mum called us down to the front room, where there were blankets on the sofa and a plate of mince pies on the coffee table. And she handed us a present. A small, VHS-sized box, containing – we soon discovered – the whole six-part series, painstakingly recorded every week, and saved up for this festive treat (a cunning plan, of course, designed to keep us out of the way while our parents did the busy stuff that parents do on Christmas Eve, but we were blissfully ignorant of this then). We settled in for the long haul, and were mesmerised by the tale that unfolded.

I never revisited the story: never read the book, never sought to see it again. But when I saw it advertised as part of The Cameo’s 2017 Christmas season, I couldn’t resist the chance to view it, on a somewhat larger screen than the 14″ one we had back then.

And it’s lovely; no wonder the memory is so golden. Okay, some of the special effects – so impressive in their day – look pretty shonky now, and there are gaping plot-holes that need to be plugged. But the overall effect is still magical; the story still engaging.

Orphan Kay Harker (Devin Stanfield) is home from boarding school for the holidays. He’s staying with his guardian, Caroline Louisa (Carol Frazer) in his ancestral home, Seekings. He’s pleased to find that his friends, the Jones, will be staying for the holidays, as their parents have had to go abroad (there are four Jones kids, but only two of them really have anything to do, namely Maria (Joanna Dukes) –  a fierce little thing who’s a dab hand with a pistol – and Peter (Crispin Mair), who’s a bit of a drip really, but proves to be a useful ally in Kay’s adventuring. Susan and Jemima (Flora Page and Heidi Burton respectively) remain in the background, Peter’s ‘sensible sisters’ – I’m not sure why they’re there). Maria’s fears that the festive season might prove dull are certainly unfounded: Kay, it seems, has been identified as someone who can help those in the magic world, and Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton) has a mission for the boy. For Hawlings has a magic box, and the evil Abner Brown (Robert Stephens) is in hot pursuit of it; Kay must look after the Box of Delights until it can be returned to its rightful owner…

The ‘returning it to its rightful owner’ is by far the worst part of the series. It’s episode five; we’re reaching the dramatic climax. And then there’s a bizarre scene where Kay goes ‘to the past’ to seek Arnold of Todi (Philip Locke), by way of some badly rendered pyramids and some English-speaking ancient Egyptians. It’s the weakest moment by far, but it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the show. Nor does the odd acceptance everyone seems to have of kids going missing (a whole gaggle of choirboys are kidnapped, and there’re no parents waiting for them when they’re finally rescued).

Because, despite the flaws, there’s a lot to love. Jonathan Stephens is really funny as inept gangster, Chubby Joe, and Robert Stephens is as delightfully malevolent as you’d expect, clearly relishing the role of arch-villain Abner Brown. The scenes with Herne the Hunter  (Glyn Baker) are spectacular, and some of the effects are truly impressive, even after all these years (the shrunken posse of kids standing next to Chubby Joe’s big foot is particularly well-conceived). It’s a joyous, festive slice of nostalgia. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Now, pass the mince pies!

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Chris Dugdale: Up Close

17/08/17

Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

There’s no other explanation: Chris Dugdale is actually a sorcerer. He’s not a performer who’s learned a load of tricks; he can’t be, because some of what he’s doing is simply impossible. Okay, so he’s a showman and he plays along with the schtick, delivering a few crowd-pleasers that we’ve seen elsewhere and can conceive of what the trickery might be (although we still don’t know how, but we can’t have everything), but there are elements here that simply don’t make any sense – unless we accept that he’s a wizard of some sort.

I mean, I don’t know how he does that stuff with the Rubik’s cubes, but I can go along with the idea that it’s a relatively simple blend of maths or dexterity – or, indeed, trick cubes of some sort. But the tiny tin of Altoids that never leaves the table… I won’t give any spoilers, but THERE’S NO WAY A MERE HUMAN CAN ACHIEVE WHAT HE DOES HERE! 

This is the third time we’ve seen Dugdale perform, and he gets better every time (or maybe he’s just making us think that with his mind control techniques?). This year’s show, Up Close, is much more dazzling and show-bizzy; there’s an energy and pace that has us buzzing from the start. He’s clearly enjoying himself, and his enthusiasm is infectious: the crowd is lapping up his act.

If you’ve had a busy day and are feeling tired or lethargic, get yourself along to the Assembly Rooms and see Chris Dugdale if you can. He’ll have you pepped up and grinning within a few minutes – although he may leave you doubting everything you think you know…

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

A Number

08/04/17

Caryl Churchill’s play is a meditation on the nature of identity, presented here in partnership with Edinburgh’s International Science Festival. Concise, punchy and extraordinarily thought-provoking, it’s set somewhere in the near future and consists of a series of conversations between two characters… or more accurately, between four characters because the play is about cloning and its implications.

The staging is sparse and unsettling. A claustrophobic boxlike space is inset onto the bigger stage of The Lyceum Theatre. The floor inclines sharply upwards and there is little in the way of props: a couple of wooden chairs, three doorways, a bare light bulb. As we join the story, Bernard 1 (Brian Ferguson) is midway through a conversation with his ‘father’, Salter (Peter Forbes). Bernard has just discovered that he is not Salter’s original birth son but a clone created from the genes of an original child, who, Salter tells him, died in a car crash. More unsettlingly, Bernard is not a singular clone but one of ‘a number’ (probably more than twenty) that were created at the same time, without Salter’s knowledge or permission. Bernard is just coming to the realisation that there’s a score of identical copies of him somewhere out there and the thought of it is driving him mad…

Churchill’s dialogue is, as ever, beautifully crafted, lots of overlapping thoughts and fragmented sentences, ideas hinted at but never overstated. Scenes are interrupted by sudden flares of light, which surprise the audience every time they occur. The two actors portray their characters brilliantly and if there’s a disappointment here, it’s only that the play is over too quickly – I was left wishing that there could be another hour of this to relish and that I could have met a few more of those clones. But as the saying goes, that’s all she wrote.

Those who love Churchill’s writing should take the opportunity to catch this rarely seen work. It will stay with you long after the cast have taken their bows.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Certain Women

08/03/17

Certain Women seems like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day. Our expectations are buoyed by the stellar cast (and yes, I’m including Kristen Stewart in that; we can’t hold Twilight against her forever), and we are not disappointed. This quiet little film is a lovely, lovely thing.

There are three (largely) unrelated stories here, all set in the same Montana town. First up is Laura (Laura Dern), a stressed-out lawyer with an unhappy client. The hyper-realism of the film means that even the most dramatic moments are beautifully understated: there is no sensationalism, only humanity and warmth. There is nothing so simple as a baddy, just flawed people, doing the best they can – and carrying on when things go wrong. Dern excels as the overworked, harassed professional, berating herself for her failings, and always striving to do more. It’s compelling stuff.

The second tale is Gina’s. Michelle Williams plays the role with customary skill, imbuing the ambitious businesswoman with vulnerability as well as zeal. We know her solid-seeming relationship is flawed, because we’ve already seen her husband (James Le Gros) in the first story, leaving Laura’s bed, but again writer-director Kelly Reichardt eschews the cliched route, and nothing much is made of this. There’s no discovery, no showdown, no climactic denouement. Instead, we are shown the minutiae of their house-building project, the moral compromises they make to source some local stone. It sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s a real slice of life, a perfect example of a (sandstone) fourth wall being gently lifted so that we can peek inside.

The third story is the best of the bunch, utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity. Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a newly qualified lawyer, who works for the same firm as Laura. In need of extra money, she’s conned into taking an evening job teaching school law in a town that’s a four-hour drive away – an unsustainable arrangement that leaves her exhausted. A lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) chances on the class – “I just saw the people going in” – and begins to rely on her weekly trips to the diner with her teacher. Gladstone’s beatific smile when Beth rides with her on her horse is so touching it hurts. Her neediness is naked, and her disappointment inevitable. It’s all the more devastating because of the way the narrative confounds our expectations: we are movie literate; we know there’s supposed to be a last-minute knock-on-the-door or change of heart. But there isn’t, of course. Just sorrow for what might have been, and the resumption of routine.

This is a wonderful film, full of sympathy and heart.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Lyceum Variety Night 2

26/02/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Those enterprising people at Flint & Pitch have been busy putting together another night of  entertainment at the Lyceum Theatre, featuring the best of spoken word, theatre and music. Hosted by genial regulars Sian Bevan and Jenny Lindsay, this eclectic second helping kicks off with the jazz-inflected rhythms of Pronto Mama, a band who revel in slippery time signatures and who soon have everybody bopping along in their seats.

Next up, poet Aidan Moffat treats us to some of his wry and rather saucy poems (plus some rather wonderful extracts from his son’s diary). He finishes his section with a dedication to all the people he’s canoodled with down the years, complete with a raised can of Tenants Lager at the end. I’ll drink to that!

Actress/musician/singer/author Gerda Stevenson offers us a varied selection of items – a traditional Scottish ballad accompanied by one of those strange droning instruments that resembles a wooden suitcase (and which I’ve annoyingly never learned the name of), a trio of prose pieces commemorating great Scottish women, and a final song for which she enlists the help of a couple of friends for the harmonies.

After a short break, festival favourites, The Creative Martyrs take to the stage, looking like a cross between Estragon & Vladimir and Laurel & Hardy. Incredibly, they soon have us chanting along to the suggestion that we should ‘Burn The Books’, while their song about drowned refugees is also incredibly provocative and revealing, the final line leaving the audience temporarily too stunned to applaud. These two performers are really quite brilliant.

Tonight being the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s death, singer/songwriter Rachel Sermanni kicks off her segment with a haunting cover of one of the great man’s most famous songs, A Thing Called Love, and then offers a couple of songs of her own. Her voice is remarkable – ethereal, haunting, quietly amazing. I fully expect to hear more of her soon.

The advertised act, Don Paterson, is down with the flu, but Colin McGuire fearlessly steps in at the last moment to give us an extract from his work-in-progress play, which is all about that most important of subjects – sleep. He goes down a storm with the Lyceum audience.

Last up, American poet (and BBC slam-champion), Adele Hampton offers us some of her wry and distinctive poems. She admits that she is feeling a little nervous but despite that, acquits herself well with tales of weight-lifting and belonging. She leaves the stage to heartfelt applause.

It is left to Pronto Mama to finish off the night, which they do not with the usual pounding rock song, but with a plaintive acapella tune, which sends everyone home feeling happy and thoroughly entertained.

The next variety night is penciled in for Sunday 4th June. Miss it and you’ll only have yourselves to blame.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Gold

04/02/17

We’re getting used to those Matthew McConaughey mega-performances. In Gold, he goes full Jake La Motta, transforming himself into an overweight, balding, snaggletoothed chain-smoking alcoholic and yes, it’s the kind of impressive tour de force we’ve come to expect from the man, who used to make a living taking his shirt off in Jennifer Aniston comedies; but you can’t help wondering why he’s gone to such extreme lengths when the character he plays is semi-fictional anyway.

In Gold, he plays Kenny Wells, a down-on-his-luck prospector who gambles everything on one last-ditch expedition after having a dream about striking gold in Indonesia. (Let’s face it, we’ve all had that dream!) He hooks up with geologist, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a man who talks a good game and Wells raises the money to finance a trip to the Indonesian rain forest. Once there they pitch their tents and settle down to the wearisome task of drilling soil samples and having them assayed. For a long, long time, nothing happens, (unless you count Wells’ debilitating bout of malaria) but then they do find gold and almost before you can say ‘yippee’ the entire might of Wall Street is rushing in to get their hands on a piece of the action…

We’ve all seem films that are ‘based on a true story.’ This one is ‘inspired by real events’ and sure enough, a little searching on the internet pulls up the story of a man called David Walsh, who founded a tiny mining company called Bre-X in 1989. In the early 90’s he and one Michael Guzman discovered gold in Indonesia and generated billions of dollars off the back of it, before it was discovered that the whole thing was built on a lie. Gold alters some of the facts and shifts the events firmly into the 1980s (which if nothing else, does give the excuse for a cracking soundtrack) but the film is rather dominated by McConaughey, relegating most of his fellow-actors to the sidelines (including Bryce Dallas Howard as his long-suffering wife, Kay) and, rather like the star’s waistline, the film does get a bit lumpy towards the middle section.

A firmer hand in the editing suite would have helped to streamline proceedings, but this is nothing like as bad as some critics have suggested and here and there, the film does manage to fizz into life. Mind you, if you were looking for something to improve your opinion of the American financial system, this one isn’t for you. You’ll leave the cinema with the impression that every last person in the industry is a venal, money-grubbing back-stabbing piece of excrement.

Just sayin’.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney