Scenes for Survival

27/08/20

BBC iPlayer/YouTube

Scenes for Survival is a series of short digital artworks created by leading Scottish theatre and screen talent, co-produced by the BBC and the National Theatre of Scotland.

It’s a mixed bag, that’s for sure, a veritable cornucopia of ideas, all inspired by or relating to lockdown. Their variety is their strength; there is a sense of universality, of common suffering. Some of them are frustratingly short: the briefest of glimpses into a situation or psyche, and – inevitably – some are better than others, although they’re all high quality, as they should be, with actors, writers and directors of such calibre.

The obvious standout so far (they’re still being made) is Fatbaws, written by Douglas Maxwell and performed by Peter Mullan. It’s a simple, cheeky little idea – a man being bullied by the birds in his garden – but the writing is exquisite and Mullan’s performance is jaw-droppingly good, a masterclass in character acting. No mean feat when two of the characters are a crow and a pigeon.

I also like Larchview by Rob Drummond, where Mark “Ubiquitous” Bonnar plays a disgraced minister making a public apology for breaking lockdown rules. His progression from phoney contrition to peevish defensiveness is deftly conceived, and there’s redemption too, as he begins to hear the emptiness of his excuses, and a real sense of remorse emerges. It’s cleverly humanising – and Lord knows our politicians need a bit of that.

Alan Cummings stars in Johnny McKnight’s twisty three-parter, Out of the Woods. It’s a shaky hand-cam thriller, depicted as a series of FaceTime calls between a man and his mother and his child. He’s creeping through the woods to his estranged partner’s house; he’s picking up their daughter, but her other dad is not to know…

But honestly, even if these don’t appeal, there are so many to choose from, there’s something here for everyone. Retired Inspector Rebus (Brian Cox – not that one) puts in an appearance, courtesy of Ian Rankin, and there are contributions from many of Scotland’s best-loved creatives, including Val McDermid, Elaine C Smith and Janey Godley.

So, take a peek. See what tickles your fancy. Because strong original content has been a rarity for the past few months, and these are a real treat, as well as a vital documentation of our times.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Tenet

26/08/20

You have to feel a wee bit sorry for Christopher Nolan. He is the first film director of stature to pop his head above the parapet post-lockdown, and so Tenet has the daunting task of being the flag bearer, the film expected to tempt cinema-goers back into the multiplexes en masse. Both the Bond franchise and Disney’s Mulan, have recently baulked at the responsibility and who can blame them?.

Interestingly, it’s a Bond movie that most springs to mind watching Tenet, though it would be 007 On Acid, given that its plot elements are so incomprehensible, I feel singularly unqualified to say much about them. (Sadly, I don’t possess a PHD in quantum physics.) Suffice to say that Nolans’s regular obsession with time (and the manipulation of it) are taken to their ultimate conclusion here. The result is mind bending – and not always in a good way.

The hero of the film, a CIA operative known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), is first encountered as a member of a team carrying out a (frankly baffling) assignment in the Kiev Opera House. After that, he is recruited for a special assignment, which is referred to only by the palindromic title and a certain hand gesture. It’s all about the reversal of time or, as one character puts it, ‘entropy’. What ensues is a whole series of action set-pieces, where fights, car chases and even explosions can run forwards or backwards – often simultaneously.

The Protagonist soon finds himself teamed with the more modestly monikered Neil (Robert Pattinson) and, shortly after that, becomes increasingly enmeshed in the lives of the enigmatic Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband, power-mad Russian arms dealer, Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). Andrei, it seems, has the power to end the world as we know it, and The Protagonist has been handed the job of putting a stop to his shenanigans – so, no great pressure there…

There’s no doubting the sheer scale and ambition of this work and there’s certainly plenty of brain-scrambling action on offer, but Nolan doesn’t do himself any great favours with the complexity of the plot and the fact that much of the expository dialogue is obscured by an overly intrusive soundtrack, courtesy of Ludwig Göronsson. Washington doesn’t really have the opportunity to emote enough for us to care what happens to him, while Branagh’s snarling, bellowing Andrei veers dangerously close to caricature. Debicki is good though, and Pattinson manages to exude a suave, laidback charm, which helps no end.

I find myself alternately enjoying parts of this and feeling frustrated by others. While I’m generally the last person to favour ‘easy’ stories, I’m not convinced that this is the kind of material designed to tempt Joe Public back to the cinema – though I also have to add that it did feel wonderful to be back there, even if this isn’t the best Christopher Nolan film ever (that would be The Prestige, by the way. Thanks for asking).

If you’re looking for something big, loud and packed with action, Tenet is probably the logical choice – just don’t expect to understand everything you see.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Days of the Bagnold Summer

20/08/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Based on a graphic novel and directed by Simon Bird, best known for playing Will McKenzie in The Inbetweeners, the curiously titled Days of the Bagnold Summer is a gentle, quirky little film that really doesn’t fit comfortably into any particular genre. It’s not exactly a comedy, though it generates plenty of smiles and there’s very little in the way of action or suspense. One quality it has in abundance, however, is charm. 

It focuses on the relationship between shy librarian Sue Bagnold (Monica Dolan) and her teenage son, Daniel (Earl Cave), a morose, heavy metal obsessed goth, who has never really forgiven his mother for breaking up with his father, even though it happened years ago. When a planned trip to Florida to spend time with his dad and his stepmum fails to materialise, Daniel doesn’t hold back in complaining about the prospect of spending the summer with the woman he considers to be the most boring person on the planet. 

Meanwhile, Sue attempts to form a meaningful relationship with amorous college lecturer, Douglas (Rob Brydon); she spends time with her more outgoing sister, Carol (Alice Lowe); and ends up confessing her troubles to smug, new age therapist, Astrid (Tamsin Greig). Daniel, aided and abetted by his only friend, Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott), tries to find a summer job and entertains ideas of becoming the front man for a local band…

If this all sounds a little underwhelming, it’s important to add that the appeal of Days of the Bagnold Summer lies in its ambling, good natured approach to its chosen subject. Both Dolan and Cave submit note-perfect performances in the lead roles: you believe in their characters absolutely and neither of them is ever allowed to become a caricature. There are no great dramatic revelations here. This is a story about a mother and son learning how to rub along with each other and their eventual bonding over the imminent demise of a family pet is nicely handled.

All in all, this is a delightful first feature for Bird and it will be interesting to see where he goes next.

4.1 stars

Philip Caveney

The Equaliser 2

13/08/20

Netflix

Lost in the shuffle on its theatrical release two years ago, The Equaliser 2, like so many other middle-range thrillers, is now available to watch on Netflix. The franchise, of course, has quite a history. It started way back in 1985 on the small screen, when Edward Woodward played Robert McCall , a retired CIA operative with a penchant for wreaking violence on those villains reckless enough to disrespect his friends and neighbours.

In 2014, Denzel Washington stepped into McCall’s loafers and, under the direction of Antoine Fuqua, delivered a palpable hit, grossing 192 million dollars at the box office – proof if ever it were needed that there’s money to be made from mayhem. In this iteration of the character, McCall brought almost the entire stock of a DIY store into play during his violent altercation with some major league bad guys.

Several years later, and officially ‘deceased,’ McCall is still living a quiet life, reading quality literature, driving a Lyft taxi to make ends meet and occasionally breaking off to inflict major injuries on those who cross him or, more specifically, his friends. He also bonds with Miles (Ashton Sanders), a young local teenager with artistic ambitions who is being tempted into the world of drug dealing by some local hoodlums.

But when McCall’s old associate, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), is brutally murdered, McCall enlists the help of another former colleague, Dave York (Pedro Pascal), to seek out those responsible and unleash some Biblical level violence upon them.

In an illustrious movie career that stretches all the way back to 1979, it’s interesting to note that this is the first sequel that Washington has attached his name to and, to give it its due, it’s far from the stripped-down action-fest I was expecting. While there are obvious problems with any story that attempts to present a vigilante as somebody we should all be rooting for, Washington does manage to give the character a surprising degree of depth – though finally imbuing him with attributes that wouldn’t look out of place on a saint might be over-egging things. And I can’t help wondering how he manages to live such a comfortable existence on the money he makes from driving a taxi… he can’t be living on a generous pension, because… well, he’s dead, right?

Still, there are enough surprises in the plot to keep me guessing till the end and an extended climactic confrontation is given an extra layer of jeopardy when it takes place in the midst of a hurricane.

All in all, this makes for decent viewing in these impoverished times – but Denzel, mate, maybe don’t go for the hat trick, huh?

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

The Nightingale

04/08/20

Netflix

It’s been six years since Jennifer Kent’s impressive second feature, The Babadouk initiated the urgent need for more absorbent seating in cinemas throughout the land. But where that film was a cleverly constructed frightmare, The Nightingale is terrifying for entirely different reasons. It’s an unflinching account of events in Tasmania in 1825, where the indigenous population is being systematically eradicated and where everyday life for the white settlers is unrelentingly savage.

I’ve been wanting to see this film for quite some time. On its cinematic release in 2018, it caused much controversy, but I was unable to find a single cinema in my locality that was showing it. Now, finally, here it is on Netflix, in all its excruciating detail. And ‘excruciating’ is definitely the operative word.

The ‘nightingale’ of the title is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish woman, sent to the penal colonies for some unspecified crime before being ‘rescued’ by Captain Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a callous and ambitious military officer, who keeps her for his own amusement – and for her ability to sing plaintive Irish ballads. 

Clare is now married to another convict, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and even has a baby by him, but – when Clare asks if, after three years of toil, she and her husband might be allowed to go free – Hawkins (in an almost unwatchable scene) exercises his control over her in the most brutal way imaginable. And when Aidan,, emboldened by drink, goes to plead his wife’s case, horrific violence ensues.

Hawkins and his equally depraved Sergeant, Ruse (Damon Harriman), set off across the hostile landscape to the town where Hawkins is to take up a new commission. Clare follows, intent on revenge, enlisting an aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali  Ganambarr), to be her guide. At first the two of them simply tolerate each other but, as their arduous journey continues, they start to become friends…

It should be said right up front that The Nightingale is not for the faint hearted. It’s a coruscating, shocking and occasionally heartbreaking story, set during one of the most shameful periods of contemporary history. Rape, murder and general violence are all depicted in unflinching detail – though it’s important to add that at no point does any of it feel prurient. Hawkins is a particularly nasty piece of work – and perhaps it’s this character that prevents the film from being a truly great piece of work – he’s so unremittingly horrible, so vile, that he sometimes borders on caricature: a leering pantomime villain who exists purely for audiences to despise him. I would like some insight into what has made him the loathsome creature that he is. Also, there’s a point in the film where Clare bafflingly appears to lose her lust for vengeance and we’re never entirely sure why this is the case. The film wobbles for fifteen minutes or so, before coming back to full coherence.

And yet, this is a story that needs to be told, a reminder of how dehumanising the process of colonialism is. It’s a matter of historical record that the natives of Tasmania were eradicated by over-zealous settlers in just a few short years: apart, that is,  from one old woman who was kept alive… and exhibited in a zoo.

So, steel yourself and watch The Nightingale – if you have the mettle for it. I won’t try to claim that it’s a comfortable experience, but Kent’s film nonetheless tells a story that must never be forgotten.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Garden Party

GP 1

23/07/20

Big Mind Theatre

Creators gonna create, right? 

Until March 2020, I’d only ever associated the phrase ‘the theatres were closed’ with Shakespeare-lore: fascinating to read about, but as relevant to me as a ruffed collar or a Stratford cottage. 

And then along came the coronavirus – and suddenly we were living right in the middle of history, experiencing the kind of ‘interesting times’ that make it into school syllabi. 

It affected us all. As a drama teacher and a reviewer, I was left with a void. My day job and my night job, both vanished in one fell swoop. 

But we pick ourselves up, don’t we? The company I work with started offering drama workshops on Zoom. The National Theatre beamed its extensive back catalogue into our living rooms. We muddled through, made do.

But oh, I have missed live theatre. And, even now, as other industries begin to open up, there’s little sign that our playhouses will be able to follow suit. 

So thank goodness for the inventive minds that populate the performance industry, for the brainwave that saw somebody realise that certain classic plays are perfectly suited to the Zoom platform. Thank goodness for Big Mind Theatre, and their cleverly staged production of Václav Havel’s 1963 play, The Garden Party. 

It’s live, properly live, and I love it. We sign in, then mute ourselves and make ourselves invisible. 

The play is an allegory, skewering the behaviour of those who conformed to the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Language becomes meaningless as the characters parrot the same phrases in an endless loop, all struggling to adapt to a nebulous set of ideals.

Not quite all: Hugo Pludek (Ben Fleming) is, it transpires, marvellously adaptable. We first meet him talking to his parents (Ross Bailie and Mick Rowe) whilst listlessly playing chess against himself, winning and losing every game. They’re worried about him, so they’ve arranged a meeting with the influential Mr Kalabis. 

They wait, fruitlessly repeating the same inane questions; there are definitely echoes of Godot here. And then, when Kalabis reneges, citing the need to attend a Garden Party as an excuse, Hugo is dispatched to the same party, in order to ingratiate himself.

It all works out rather too well, as Hugo coldly observes and plans his moves, before assimilating – and then annihilating. 

It’s a bleak tale, and chillingly directed by Katrina Woolley. The textual changes required to make it believable as an online world are only slight, and it feels unpleasantly prescient. The performances are uniformly good, with Lucy Wilson creating an especially nightmarish vision of ruthlessness hidden by a big bright smile.

I have just one criticism, and that’s the length. It’s an intense piece of writing, and the Zoom format really amps up that intensity. It all gets a bit much, and I can’t help thinking some judicious pruning would be beneficial here.

All in all though, this is a bright spot in a world of dark theatres. Don’t miss the chance to see it. You have until 25th July and you can find tickets on Eventbrite or by following this link. https://www.facebook.com/events/228638011488957/?active_tab=about

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Old Guard

22/07/20

Netflix

Charlize Theron’s steady advance into the realms of the action hero continues apace with this Netflix Original, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based – unsurprisingly – on a comic book by Greg Rucka. Theron plays ‘Andy’ (or Andromadache of Scythia, if you want to be more formal about it), a centuries-old warrior princess. She’s the leader of a group of immortals who spend their spare time as mercenaries, jetting off to the world’s war zones to offer help to those who need it – kicking much ass as they do so.

The team also features Booker (Matthias Schoenarts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), characters Andy has encountered at various points across the world’s turbulent history, none of whom has much of a backstory – or at least not that the writer has bothered to share with us. When the team’s latest mission turns out to be a double cross, they quickly realise that somebody wants to capture them, and it becomes clear that CIA operative, Copley (Chiwetel  Ejiofor in a rather thankless role), is a key player in this operation.

Meanwhile, young GI, Nile (Kiki Layne), is wondering why a supposedly fatal injury she’s recently acquired in the line of duty hasn’t finished her off. Could it be that she’s the next new recruit for Andy’s team? Sure enough, Andy is soon showing her the ropes…

To be fair, The Old Guard isn’t the total debacle that many reviews have labelled it. It’s hokum, for sure, but it’s niftily directed hokum, which features several developments you don’t often see in a mainstream punch ’em up. Women are placed at the forefront of the action, for instance, while Joe and Nicky are lovers and proud to declare the fact to anyone who’ll listen.

But the story doesn’t always convince. We’re told that members of the team are immortal until ‘it’s time to die,’ which seems to be a case of having your cake and eating it – while Copley’s actions are frankly incomprehensible, lauding Andy and her crew in one breath and ratting them out in the next. His involvement with ruthless scientist and all-round bad egg, Merrick (Harry Melling), is unconvincing to say the least. What exactly are his motives?

Still, this is sprightly enough to pass a couple of hours with ease –  even if the obvious attempt to set this up as the first in a series is a tad optimistic.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Clemency

19/07/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Anybody who still believes that the death penalty is a defensible punishment should sit down and take a long, hard look at this film. Chinonye Chukwu’s bleak, slow burn of a movie ably demonstrates the ways in which capital punishment brutalises and destroys all who come into contact with it – including those who have to implement its chilling procedures.

Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) is the warden of an American prison, a place mostly populated by inmates awaiting death by lethal injection. In a blistering opening sequence, we see one such execution being carried out in unflinching detail. It’s horribly botched, which makes it all the more affecting.

Also waiting on death row is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a taciturn young man accused of murdering a police officer. He’s been imprisoned for seven years and  insists that he’s innocent, but what makes Clemency different from Just Mercy – a film with which it will inevitably be compared  – is that we’re really never sure whether he has committed the crime or not. In a way, it’s irrelevant, because it’s the very system of capital punishment that’s on trial here and not its victims.

Bernadine is struggling with her duties as warden – the daily grind of dealing with the fear, the hope, the demonstrators, the relatives of those imprisoned and, of course, the inmates themselves. She takes solace in drink and realises that a wedge is developing between her and her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), but feels unable to do anything about it. Around her, other people are quitting. Defence attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who has spent his life fighting for death row prisoners, tells Bernardine that Woods’ case will be his last – he just can’t take any more campaigns for clemency that never yield results. Even the dead policeman’s parents feel that justice has already been served and want Woods to be pardoned. And he, meanwhile, has pinned all his his hopes on meeting his young son for the first time.

Both Woodward and Hedges submit powerhouse performances here; neither of them isafforded much opportunity to talk, but their fears and hopes are writ large in every move, in every despairing look they direct towards the camera. This will not be the happiest screen experience you’ve ever had, but it’s nonetheless a stirring and emotional story, and a passionate plea for change.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Amadeus

16/07/20

National Theatre Live

Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus is that rarest of creatures, a celebrated play that went on to become an equally celebrated film. 

This 2016 production by the National Theatre, streaming live on YouTube for a limited period, is well worth catching. Lively, vivacious and compelling, it offers a thrilling blend of theatre and music – indeed, I’ve rarely seen an orchestra so perfectly integrated into a performance. They move around the stage with their instruments, performing brilliant renditions of Mozart’s best known work, and are as much a part of the production as the characters in costume, ‘players’ in every sense of the word.

This is, of course, the ‘based-on-fact’ tale of the bitter rivalry between successful-but-mediocre musician Antonio Salieri (Lucian Msamati) and youthful musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen). Mozart has newly arrived at the court of Joseph II in Vienna, expecting to be feted by all he meets, but he unwittingly ignites Salieri’s jealousy and enmity by being too talented for comfort. Some historians have questioned the authenticity of Schaffer’s story, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s quite simply a great idea, beautifully realised.

At first, I have some doubts about this particular adaptation. In the opening scenes, Msamati’s grandiloquent and declamatory delivery is a little hard to take but, thankfully, he soon switches to a more naturalistic approach and, from the moment we are introduced to Gillen’s Mozart, the play finds its wings and soars. 

Gillen plays the upstart visitor as a hypercharged, twitching bundle of neuroses, coming across as a weird mixture of Rick Mayall and Thing 1(or 2?), seemingly unable to stand still for a moment as he spouts strings of inventive obscenities. He’s an absolute joy to watch, and the calm, still performance of Msamati provides a perfect foil for his talents.

Of course, this is much more than a two-man show. The large cast offer faultless support, as they speed the story headlong from each scene to the next.

Under Michael Longhurst’s direction, this production is both playful and inventive, veering expertly between slapstick comedy and moments of pure poignancy. It’s easy to see why the play has achieved such success and the opportunity to reappraise its considerable charms is surely not to be missed.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Deep Blue Sea

15/07/20

National Theatre Live

Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play seems remarkably contemporary, despite the period details that flood both the script and director Carrie Cracknell’s interpretation of it. Boarding houses are prevalent; Freddie has turned to alcohol because of his awful experiences as a second world war pilot; suicide is illegal; Dr Miller (Nick Fletcher), the doctor-turned-bookie, has a German accent that makes him an outsider. But its central themes – of love, loss and alienation – endure, even if the specific context does not.

Helen McRory is an inspired choice for the lead role, imbuing Hester Collyer with an oxymoronic fierce fragility. She’s at once desperate and sprightly, confident and lost.

Hester too is an outsider: a vicar’s daughter, she has left a respectable marriage (to the paternalistic Sir William, a judge, played with eminent likeability by Peter Sullivan) in favour of a love affair with the dashing Freddie Page (Tom Burke). It’s to the play’s credit that neither of these men is easily dismissed: Sir William is kindly, but Hester wants more than the pleasant companionship he offers; Freddie is unreliable and unromantic, but he is no cad. Both men offer Hester what they have to give, but neither has enough.

And, unable to envisage a future without Freddie’s love, Hester attempts to kill herself.

It’s undoubtedly a tragic tale, brutal in its exposure of human sadness. Tom Scutt’s design, with its eerie reflectiveness and skeletal outlines of other apartments – other sorrows – underscores the universality of Hester’s unhappiness.

But there is hope here, and redemption. And a fried egg sandwich too!

4 stars

Susan Singfield