Tully

04/05/18

Diablo Cody’s latest offering is as quirky and unflinching as we’ve come to expect from the author of Juno. The eponymous Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is a night-nanny, her services gifted to a reluctant Marlo (Charlize Theron) by her rich younger brother, Craig (Mark Duplass). Mark might be crass and boastful, but he knows how exhausting it can be to look after a newborn, especially when there are already two older children on the scene. Marlo and her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), don’t like feeling beholden to Craig, but – after a scene at their son Jonah’s prestigious kindergarten, where the staff seem neither able nor willing to deal with his additional needs – Marlo concedes defeat. Drew is busy at work, chasing a promotion that will mean a lot to them, and she simply can’t cope with all she has to do. She calls Tully. And Tully changes things.

This is a deliciously honest account of family life and parenting: of the grinding drudgery of night-feeds and school runs, as well as the fierce love and joyous moments that make it all worthwhile. The characterisation is sharp: Marlo, Drew and their children are flawed, believable people, as three-dimensional as they come. They feel real, as if you know them – or people like them, anyway. Tully herself is less familiar, but that’s fine; viewed through Marlo’s eyes, she’s an angel, a saviour, who appears in the night like the elves for the shoemaker, cleaning and baking and taking care of everything.

There are a few moments in the film where I am suddenly unsure, uncomfortable, not convinced by what I see. But I’m glad I stick with it, because everything plays out satisfactorily, and all the things that don’t quite sit right are squared away.

Theron is very good indeed; she plays tired and frazzled with complete authenticity. I like Ron Livingston too; he treads a difficult line here, making Drew at once immensely likeable and irritating. Why does he sit upstairs playing computer games while his wife is falling apart? But he’s not uncaring, nor is he lazy – he does the kids’ baths and supervises homework every night, as well as working long hours – he’s just oblivious and unaware. Still, I do have one major gripe here, which I don’t think the film answers, and it’s this: why does Drew never introduce himself to Tully? She’s in his house every night, and he’s there as well. Why doesn’t he go downstairs and meet the woman who is looking after his baby? He’s a good father, invested in his kids. This makes no sense to me at all. Still, it’s not enough to spoil what is essentially a decent movie, entertaining and informative and very well worth the ticket price.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

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Nothing Like a Dame

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03/05/18

Take four national treasures. Decant them into a country house and allow to ferment for a couple of days. Throw in four glasses of champagne, then sit back and watch what happens. This is pretty much the recipe for Roger Michell’s charming documentary, Nothing Like a Dame, and, given how unpromising it sounds, it’s amazing how entertaining the results are.

The dames in question are, of course, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, old friends of long standing, and this is a regular get-together they’ve kept going over the years, meeting up at the country home that Dame Joan shared with her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier.

What the film offers us is a series of anecdotes – many of them laugh-out-loud-funny – and a chance to look back at four astonishing careers, with vintage clips of their first forays into theatre and film. Totally unscripted and extremely relaxed, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug, fully engaging while it’s happening but not particularly memorable when the credits have rolled. Dame Maggie arguably gets the majority of the best lines, sporting a sarcastic streak that makes the most throwaway remark an absolute killer, while Dame Judi spends much of the film helpless with laughter as she and her friends discuss some of the experiences they shared in those early days. What this is, more than anything else, is a film about ageing and the effects of it. Seeing footage of them, so young, so vital, so filled with enthusiasm for their chosen careers is simultaneously enervating and also vaguely melancholic.

There isn’t much to talk about here in terms of a review, but lovers of theatre and admirers of these four women in particular will find plenty to enjoy. Roger Michell, as he openly admits in the little feature that accompanies the main film, doesn’t so much direct as simply point the camera and allow it to run. This certainly won’t be for everyone, but lovers of theatre – and of the work of the four dames – are in for a treat.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Avengers: Infinity War

02/05/18

The furore has settled. That inevitable record-breaking opening has come and gone. The embargoes have finally been lifted and, hopefully, the Marvel die-hards have accepted that reviewers are actually allowed to talk about what has been widely touted as the ‘holy grail’ of comic book movie adaptations. It’s time to take stock of Avengers: Infinity War. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the genre but, that said, I have seen most of the eighteen films that lead up to this one – and, you know what? I actually enjoyed a few of them. But I can’t help feeling dismayed that this has been accorded such awe-struck reverence. Let’s face it, it’s not some major cinematic milestone. It’s not Citizen Kane. It’s a big dumb movie about people in spandex who hit each other. 

Of course, such movies always require a big, bad villain and here that post is filled by Thanos (Josh Brolin, somehow still recognisable under the layers of pixels), who admittedly has a little more nuance than most Marvel villains – but only because, unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t advocate the destruction of all humanity – just half of it. And even that’s because he believes said destruction is the only sure way to ensure any kind of future. Which sort of makes him a pragmatist, I suppose. He’s currently on the search for the Infinity Stones that will make him the ultimate force in the universe. One of them is in the possession of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the other is, rather inconveniently, embedded in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany).  There’s a final ultra-mysterious stone somewhere but nobody seems to be sure where that one might be hiding.

Thanos dutifully sets off on a mission of destruction and The Avengers get the old group back together in order to oppose him. So that’s Iron Man and Spider-Man and Black Widow and… many others. Just in case that wasn’t enough, they are augmented by The Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and just about anybody else available… apart from Hawkeye, who presumably isn’t considered super enough, having only a humble bow and arrow to work with. Actually, I can’t help feeling the makers have missed a bit of a trick here by not including an Uncle Tom Cobley-Man, but hey, maybe I’m just not reverential enough.

It’s probably pointless to say anything else about the story – it will only incur shouts of ‘plot spoilers!’ from those who have appointed themselves as the guardians of such things – but the film’s main problem is evident from very early on. Too many superheroes. There are virtually herds of them, racing across the screen and doing super heroic things to try and slow down the seemingly invincible Thanos. (If he’s this powerful without the Infinity Stones, you can’t help wondering why he’s going to such lengths to get his mitts on them.)

To be fair to directors, the Russo Brothers, they do a decent job of keeping this potential sludgefest moving merrily along, mainly by cross cutting from one major plot strand to another – there are five to choose from. The film is at its best when it keeps things light and snarky – usually whenever Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is onscreen – but when it tries for solemnity, well… I just can’t stop reminding myself that this is actually a film about people in spandex punching each other – and look, I really wouldn’t mind that so much, if it didn’t go on for quite so long. An action set piece in Wakanda, starts well, but seems to last for what feels suspiciously like a week.

Of course, the big thing here is that, unusually for this genre, there are several high-profile casualties… but who amongst us is naive enough to believe that, with a second instalment already being made, those ‘shocking’ deaths will be allowed to stand? What, kill off several billion-dollar franchises in one fell swoop? I seriously doubt it. Call me cynical; I don’t care.

In the end, Infinity Wars is a decent enough attempt at tying up a bunch of narrative loose threads but it’s not the masterpiece that many have claimed and, trust me, if you haven’t seen at least a few of the earlier movies referenced here, you’ll struggle to figure out what the hell is going on. Kids (and those who generally think that bigger and louder automatically equals better) will no doubt have a field day with it, but as far as I’m concerned, Infinity War Part Two can take as long as it likes to get here. I’m not holding my breath.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Creditors

 

 

01/05/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Wow. I thought I knew what I was getting here. Strindberg. Bleurgh. I mean, yeah, I know he’s an important playwright, one of the fathers of naturalism, etc., etc., but I’ve always found it hard to actually enjoy his plays. Even Maxine Peake’s 2012 performance of Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange in Manchester didn’t warm me to the material, despite her masterly performance. And then there’s the misogyny – all the Women’s Inferiority to Man stuff; he’s a difficult man to like.

And yet here I am, in the Lyceum Theatre, watching Creditors and loving every minute. I’m laughing, I’m listening, I’m enthralled, engaged. Because this production – by David Greig and Stewart Laing – is a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminates and animates the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas. I’m hooked.

It’s a simple story: artist Adolph (Edward Franklin) is lonely. His beloved wife, Tekla (Adura Onashile) is away on business, and he’s missing her dreadfully. His new friend, Gustav (a wonderfully oleaginous Stuart McQuarrie), is a welcome distraction, but Gustav has his own agenda, filling Adolph’s head with doubts about his wife. On her return, Tekla is dismayed to discover that Adolph no longer trusts her, that he feels emasculated by her success. When she finally encounters Gustav, his nasty plan is revealed, and they are all left reeling from the emotional fall-out.

The performances here are all strong: I’m fully invested in all three characters, and there is real emotional heft in their relationships. But it’s the design and technology that really make this production shine, from the forced perspective of the holiday chalets that dominate the stage, to the Bergman-esque black and white  film we see projected live onto a screen, allowing us voyeuristic access to what’s going on indoors. The public exposure of internal, private matters both highlights and validates the introspective nature of the material, and it’s thrilling, actually, to  peep in illicitly.

Then there’s the eerie presence of the girl guides (played by a rotating cast of Lyceum Creative Learning participants), whose robotic uniformity and practicality provides a stark counterpoint to the emotional chaos of the main characters. They’re marvellous in a way that’s hard to pin down: solid yet abstract, staunch and ethereal, all at the same time.

It’s faultless, really – all of it. I can’t recommend this highly enough. And if, like me, you think you’ve seen all you want to of August Strindberg, well, maybe it’s time to think again.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Gut

28/04/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Frances Poet’s lean and powerful psychological drama was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for playwriting in 2015, and it’s easy to see what appealed to the judges. This tense  and affecting four-hander examines the entirely natural fears that can lurk in the minds of any parent – the worry that something bad might happen to their children – and it demonstrates how such fears, allowed to fester, can grow out of all proportion.

After a night away, young couple, Maddy (Kirsty Stewart) and Rory (Peter Collins), return home, where Peter’s mother, Morvern (Lorraine McIntosh), is babysitting their three year old son, Josh. Morvern tells them about an incident the previous day, when she took Josh to a cafe for his lunch. Josh needed to go to the toilet and, when a male customer offered to take him, Morvern was grateful for his help. Nothing sinister appears to have happened, but Maddy and Rory are understandably perturbed. The man was a complete stranger – how could Morvern have been so trusting? Terse words are exchanged and apologies made.

Rory soon gets over the situation but, for Maddy, the event has a much deeper resonance,  driving a wedge between her and Morvern and firing up a powerful distrust of any men she subsequently comes into contact with: the father of one of Josh’s schoolmates; Rory’s colleague from work; a man who comes to the door delivering leaflets  – all played by a wonderfully sinister George Anton. As her paranoia intensifies, it soon becomes apparent that Maddy’s fears are leading her and her son to a very dark place indeed…

Simply and effectively staged, with strong naturalistic performances from all the actors and adept direction by Zinnie Harris, Gut exerts a powerful grip on the audience’s emotions. The almost bare set thrusts the play’s themes into stark focus, with the occasional scattering of large boxes of brightly coloured children’s toys across the stage, hinting at the increasing disintegration of the family unit. An eerily lit doorway at the rear of the stage occasionally allows distorted shadows to be glimpsed through an opaque screen and a sombre musical score adds to an all-pervading sense of unease. It’s demanding stuff, but an unexpected reveal in the play’s closing moments offers some respite and actually brings audible gasps of relief from the audience.

This is a challenging and intriguing piece of theatre that keeps me hooked to the very end. The Traverse has a reputation for bringing exciting new work to public attention and Gut deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Daliso Chaponda: What the African Said

27/04/18

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There’s a curious dilemma to be considered whenever you are planning to write a review of somebody you know. Daliso Chaponda is a longtime friend of Bouquets & Brickbats and, naturally, we worry that people are going to think that we’ll inevitably big him up, because… well, he’s a mate. On the other hand, do we choose to ignore one of the funniest comedy shows we’ve seen in ages? In the end, we decide to review and be damned. Hey, what’s the worst that can happen? Some mean remarks on Twitter? We can live with that.

Of course, we’ve followed Daliso’s career since earlier days, when he was gamely plugging his way around the intimate comedy venues of the UK. But a lot has changed since then. In 2017, he came third in the 11th series of Britain’s Got Talent and naturally, it brought him to much wider attention – hence this UK tour entitled What the African Said. The Queen’s Hall is packed out with eager punters and, from the moment he walks onto the stage, he has the audience in the palm of his hand.

I find myself pondering what has changed since those early days. Not that much, really. His delivery is perhaps a little more exaggerated, allowing him to milk every line for ultimate comic effect and, though he’s always been supremely confident, he now has the kind of ease with an audience that surely only comes from steady touring. His material still ranges from the controversial (an always amusing – and sometimes challenging – African perspective on our cosy white privilege) to the mildly saucy (the trials and tribulations of dating, replete with descriptions of a sexual nature). He gets away with the latter, mostly because of his appealing persona – did he really say that? I think he did! He’s adept too at making you see familiar situations in an entirely different light.

He gives us a lengthy and very wide-ranging set, a good eighty minutes in duration, and it doesn’t flag for a moment. Indeed, he leaves the audience vociferously shouting for more and, when all is said and done, that’s the ultimate sign of a successful comedy show.

His  tour continues across the UK, culminating in August with a week at the Edinburgh Festival. If he comes to a venue near you, do yourself a favour. Grab a ticket and head down there. I’m willing to bet you’ll have a very good time… unless of course, you’re one of those people who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh. In which case, this really isn’t for you.

5 stars

Philip Caveney 

 

 

Love, Simon

25/04/18

We came rather late to this, deterred mostly by its trailer, which appeared to pitch a very different kind of film indeed, making it look like a lame, ‘ten years too late’ attempt at a coming-out movie. But after hearing very good word of mouth, we decide to give it a chance and, as it turns out, Greg Berlanti’s  Love, Simon, is actually a sprightly, wittily-scripted film, which (unusually for a teen vehicle) seems to really understand the characters it’s depicting. This isn’t the first film that’s suffered from an underwhelming trailer but I’ve rarely seen such a poor attempt to convey a movie’s evident strengths.

Simon (Nick Robinson – no, not that Nick Robinson!) is a handsome, likeable teenager, currently going through his final year at high school. He has a trio of close friends and is currently rehearsing for the school’s production of Cabaret. But he has a secret. He’s gay, something he’s known about for several years. He’s certainly not the only gay pupil at the school. For instance, there’s Ethan (Clark Moore), who is happily out of the closet and makes no secret of his sexual orientation, but Simon just can’t bring himself to tell anyone, particularly his liberal and totally open-minded parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel). He doesn’t want anything to change; he’s comfortable with his image and the way he fits in. It’s not that he thinks he will face any overt homophobia (well, maybe from a couple of ne-er-do-wells, but not from anyone who matters), just that he’s not ready to share this part of who he is.

Still, when he discovers some posts on school gossip blog, Craig’s Secrets, from another secretly gay boy calling himself ‘Blue,’ Simon responds enthusiastically, and the two of them begin to correspond regularly. But who is Blue? Will Simon ever meet him in real life? And will either of them ever come out into the open? In Simon’s case, the matter is taken out of his hands when a classmate chances upon his secret and threatens to expose him, unless he helps the blackmailer out with a certain situation. In the resulting scramble to keep a lid on things, Simon risks alienating himself from his closest friends…

Everything here is so deftly handled. There are engaging performances from all concerned (look out for Tony Hale as well-meaning, but totally hapless teacher, Mr Worth); there’s a fresh lively look to the cinematography, a zingy soundtrack and a couple of scenes that are genuinely affecting – I find myself welling up at two key points. Robinson is perfect in the title role and Logan Miller does a great job of depicting the nerdish and extremely needy Martin, the kid who all the others make an effort to avoid and who is handed the film’s most toe-curling scene.

Best of all, this doesn’t come across as some forty -year-old writer’s idea of what teenagers are all about. It nails them perfectly and manages to be effortlessly entertaining – and informative – in the process. Result.

So, the moral of this story is, I suppose, always take a trailer with a large pinch of salt, otherwise you could just end up missing a treat.

Love, Simon is just such a treat. Don’t miss it.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney