High Life

13/05/19

The first English language production by French auteur Claire Denis, High Life uses the conventions of a science fiction film to tell its rather bleak story, though there is little in the way of the kind of visual splendour you might expect to find in this genre. Here is a nuts and bolts future where space ships look like packing crates and space suits resemble things you might pick up in Gap. Monte (Robert Pattison) is a former Death Row inmate who, when we first meet him, is alone on a space ship with a baby. We then learn, through a series of flashbacks, how the two of them came to be there.

Monte, it turns out, was part of a team of prisoners, sent on a journey to a black hole deep in space in order to harness its energy. This crew of misfits is presided over by Doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who – presumably spurred on by the knowledge that the mission is going to take longer than the average human life span – has become obsessed with the idea of starting new life aboard the ship. But instead of letting the crew just pursue things in the usual way of procreation, she keeps everyone heavily sedated. The male crew members have to submit a daily sperm sample to her, which she, in turn,  administers to the females.

Hardly surprising then, that deep resentment begins to simmer, and it’s only a matter of time before things kick off.

Denis has quite a reputation and it might be this, more than anything else, that has initiated the slew of glowing reviews this film has already garnered – but for the life of me, I can’t share this enthusiasm for it. It soon becomes apparent that, while the film’s setting might be futuristic, its sexual politics remain deeply entrenched in the stone age. And this prompts some worrying questions.

Why does Binoche’s character wander around the spaceship in a nurses’s outfit that is clearly several sizes too small for her? And why, in the extended sequence when she pleasures herself in the ship’s ‘fuckbox,’ does it look as though it has been choreographed to please some unseen male gaze, even though it’s been co-authored by Denis herself? There’s also a particularly nasty rape scene, later in the film, which culminates in the bloody death of the perpetrator, but which adds precisely nothing of value to the story. Presented as it is, it just feels salacious.

These are not the only problems I have with High Life. I learn very little about Monte and even less about his crew mates, which makes it hard for me to care about them when they end up as so much flotsam. I think that Monte has some feelings for Boyse (Mia Goth) but can’t be entirely sure – and what exactly is the story behind Monte’s childhood crime, only partially revealed in flashback? Finally… that harnessing of the black hole’s power… how was that supposed to work exactly? It seems a bit cavalier to use the conventions of a genre without properly thinking it through.

If High Life was the product of a debut director, it would be panned and quickly forgotten. But I fear it’s become one of those ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ movies, with few people prepared to step up to the plate and denounce it as the wrong-headed, misogynistic muddle that it surely is.

Unless I’m missing something? Answers on a  postcard, please…

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Long Shot

12/05/19

Long Shot takes place in an alternative version of America, where Charlize Theron could conceivably be Secretary of State and where she just might be having a covert affair with Seth Rogan’s amiable slacker of a journalist. Think, if you will, of a US version of a Richard Curtis film. It might have a perfectly preposterous story line but, if you turn a blind eye to that, it’s nonetheless pretty entertaining.

Theron is S of S Charlotte Field, looking towards turning her current situation into a bid to become America’s first female POTUS, having received an endorsement from  incumbent President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), who has decided he wants to get out of politics and become a film star. At an upmarket party, Charlotte reconnects with Gonzo journalist, Fred Flarsky (Rogan), for whom she used to babysit back in the day, and with whom she clearly has unfinished business. Flarsky is newly unemployed after the paper he works for has been bought out by the odious capitalist, Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), and it just so happens that Charlotte is looking for a speechwriter to help her launch her bid for the presidency.

With Flarsky on board, Charlotte sets off on a world tour in an attempt to sell herself as the next president of America but, inevitably, romantic sparks soon begin to fly between the odd couple. Problem is, Flarsky’s image may not be a suitable fit for somebody looking to be taking seriously as a politician…

As I said, Long Shot might not have the most convincing plot you’ve ever encountered, but it’s smart, clever, and – for most of its duration – very funny. Theron and Rogan manage to generate some convincing chemistry together, and somewhere in here there’s the age-old message about being true to yourself and never compromising on your beliefs.

So – fun while it’s happening, but probably not destined to linger in the memory for very long. And as for that title, I have no idea what it refers to.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

Grazing by Mark Greenaway

11/05/19

The Caledonian, Rutland Street, Edinburgh

We were excited to learn that Mark Greenaway was taking over the space vacated by the Galvin brothers in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Greenaway’s food holds a special place in our hearts: we ate at his short-lived Stockbridge Bistro on our (very low key) wedding day, and rather marvellous it was too. We also enjoyed his flagship restaurant on North Castle Street, and – when that closed – kept an eye on the local press to see what he’d do next.

And Grazing is it. This new project is a more casual affair, with a hearty-sounding menu and a breezy, friendly atmosphere. It’s Saturday night, and we’ve been busy all day. We’re hungry and looking forward to an enjoyable evening.

Things get off to a promising start with the arrival of some stout and treacle bread and duck skin butter. The lightness of the bread belies the density of the flavour, and we’re both mightily impressed. We eat it far too quickly, and the waiter brings us more. We endeavour to approach the second portion with more circumspection; we don’t want to fill up before we’ve sampled the menu.

We both go for the same starter, because it sounds so enticing. Who could resist a crumpet with smoked trout and a poached egg? Not us! And it is absolutely fabulous: packing a real punch, yet somehow delicate. This is the kind of dish that gets people talking. (But only once they’ve cleared their plates.)

For the main, we decide to try one of the ‘grazing for two’ sharing dishes, the fish pie. This comes with two sides. The ugly potatoes sound delicious, but – we reason – there will be mash on our pie, and we don’t want double-spud. So we opt instead for Kentucky fried cauliflower and green beans with hazelnuts and goat’s cheese. The green beans are delicious, complemented well by the crunch of the nuts and the creamy, salty cheese. I’m less keen on the cauliflower, but then I rarely enjoy breaded/battered/deep-fried things, so it’s probably more me than it. Philip likes it well enough, and polishes it off.

Our reaction to the fish pie is a bit mixed. There’s no mash topping; it’s a naked pie. We should have ordered those potatoes after all; it might have been nice to be warned. The chunks of fish are large and perfectly cooked; there’s egg in there, and the white sauce is rich and piquant. But it doesn’t feel very indulgent; it’s not that we need a bigger portion, exactly; we just need to feel like we’re being spoiled. And this is somehow meagre, a little mean. A shame.

For dessert, Philip has the sticky toffee pudding soufflé, which is the standout dish of the evening. I wish I’d chosen it too. It looks magnificent, and has the substance to back up its style. It’s a light take on a stodgy dish, all the datey, caramelly, sticky joyousness without the heavy carbs. It comes with a hot caramel sauce and honeycomb ice cream, and is a knockout.

I’ve ordered the brown sugar cheesecake, mainly because it comes with tomato, and I’m fascinated to see how this works. In reality, it’s a little disappointing: there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but I can’t really taste tomato (presumably it’s in the syrupy sauce drizzled on my plate); the cheesecake is pleasant, but not memorable.

There’s a decent wine list, from which we select the a French Touraine sauvignon blanc. It’s fresh and clean tasting, exactly what we want.

All in all, our experience of Grazing is a bit hit and miss. I’m sure it’s possible to have a 5 star meal here, if you chance upon the right dishes. We’ve had a lovely evening, and I’m sure that we’ll come back. But we’ll know what not to order, too.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Keep on Walking Federico

09/05/19

Keep on Walking Federico is a monologue, written and performed by Mark Lockyer and apparently based around an experience from his own family history. There’s a simple set: a chair, a table, and a floor covered in sand, from which Lockyer periodically unearths items that relate to the story he unfolds. This is all about incidents buried in the past, so that makes perfect sense.

After a family tragedy, Mark arrives in a sleepy little Spanish village, where he has gone to attempt to find a resolution to his sorrows. Lockyer is an accomplished raconteur and he skilfully embodies the various people he encounters during his stay, flitting effortlessly from one to the other: the worldly-wise proprietor of the local bar; the mysterious handsome GP who appears to have criminal connections; a tragic flamenco-dancing female neighbour and a portly Dutchman with a liking for baklava and Miss World pageants. Lockyer also offers us conversations with his mother, who, we slowly begin to realise, is the source of much of Mark’s distress.

Though the performance is strong, the material is perhaps a little too introspective, a little too precious. Though this offers a pleasant enough diversion for an hour or so, it’s conclusion doesn’t really carry sufficient resonance to make it truly memorable.

As for the title, you’ll have to wait until the very end for an explanation.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Beats

08/05/19

It’s cold and it’s raining and we’re in two minds about going out tonight. We’re booked in for an Unlimited screening of a film we know nothing about and it is really miserable out there. On the other hand, we reason, what if the film turns out to be great? We’ll be mad we missed it, won’t we? So, after some deliberation, out into the raging elements we go and boy, are we glad we do!

Beats is set in 1994. The TV screens are awash with images of Tony Blair and scenes of violent civil unrest. Johnno (Cristian Ortega) lives with his mum, Alison (Laura Fraser), and his would-be stepdad, Robert (Brian Ferguson), a straight-laced police officer. Alison and Robert dream of moving away from the depressing estate in which they live to a starter home in a nicer neighbourhood. In the meantime, schoolboy Johnno has a thankless part-time job stacking shelves at the local supermarket, and spends his downtime hanging out with his best pal, Spanner (Lorn MacDonald). This does not sit well with Alison and Robert, who openly refer to Spanner as ‘scum.’ Spanner’s older brother, Fido (Neil Leiper), is a notorious drug dealer, and seems to get a kick out of bullying his younger sibling at every opportunity.

On a local radio station, D-Man (Ross Mann) keeps trumpeting an upcoming illegal rave (details to follow) and Spanner tries to persuade his friend to go along to it with him, so they can have one last fling together before Johnno heads off to his new home in the suburbs. But nicking a stash of money from Fido to enable them to finance the trip might not be their wisest move…

Beats manages to do the impossible, making me nostalgic for a music scene I have no personal experience of. Ortega and MacDonald enact a brilliant odd-couple partnership – the former all glum-faced desperation, the latter a grinning, gurning powerhouse. (We last saw MacDonald in the terrific Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley, who also wrote this screenplay.) Brian Welsh directs with aplomb, and the stark black and white cinematography of Benjamin Kracun is an absolute joy to behold, building as it does to an extended rave sequence, where the loved-up, E-fuelled revellers dance wildly and the screen suddenly explodes into full colour. The effect is, quite simply, mesmerising.

If I have a minor niggle it’s simply that the sound levels of that pulsing, throbbing soundtrack are kept a little too polite. I keep anticipating a sudden push into full volume that never comes – but, well, I guess you can’t have everything.

Beats is a film about escape. All the characters, for their own particular reasons, are trying to outrun something that brings them down – poverty, violence, bullying, boredom… you name it. For one night, in a deserted warehouse off the M8, it can all be put aside and forgotten in a blaze of lights and music.

On our way home it’s still raining, but somehow we barely even notice it.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Worst Witch

07/05/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch has surely earned a place on the ‘children’s classic’ list by now? First conjured into print in 1974, Mildred Hubble has been casting her spell over children for nearly five decades, with film, television and now stage adaptations all helping to extend her reach. Her guileless exuberance and gauche clumsiness are a heady mixture; she’s a relatable heroine – her fallibility as important as her courage and warm heart.

This production, adapted by Emma Reeves and directed by Theresa Heskins, has much to commend it. It’s a sprightly dash through key elements of the eight novels – focusing on Mildred’s breathless arrival at the school and the countless scrapes she gets into – and there’s enough energy and zeal here to keep even the youngest audience members engaged.

The conceit is that the students of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches are putting on a play, written by fifth-former Mildred (Danielle Bird) about her early days at the school. The metadrama allows for some deliciously lo-tech creativity, and the school-show-style solutions with their implicitly small budget are both charming and effective. I like the silliness of the blue blankets to denote invisibility, for example, and the broomstick-swings for the ill-fated flying display. The sock-puppet cats are also a delight: a daft idea that works remarkably well.

The characters are nicely drawn. These are adults playing children, but it doesn’t feel too much of a stretch. The structure means that they’re supposed to be sixteen, after all, playing at being their younger selves. Rosie Abraham stands out as uber-snob Ethel: her smug demeanour is perfectly portrayed, and funny rather than threatening. Bird is a suitably scatty and likeable Mildred, and Rachel Heaton’s embodiment of Miss Hardbroom is marvellous. The incorporation of Mildred’s classmates and teachers into the on-stage band is neatly done, with Miss Bat (Molly-Grace Cutler), Miss Drill (Megan Leigh Mason) and Fenella (Meg Forgan) rocking out convincingly. The first act is, well, first-rate.

I’m not so keen on the second act, where the action moves backstage. Despite a powerful performance from Polly Lister, the Miss Cackle/Evil-Twin Agatha sequence dominates to such an extent that it feels unbalanced; this is no longer Mildred’s tale. The transition from school play to ‘real life’ is a little fudged, and some of the children around us are confused, asking their parents to clarify. I like the sequins and campery, the panto-villain strutting and the body-swap routines, but the pyrotechnics and video projections just don’t work as well as the homespun stuff in the first half. They’re not magnificent enough to impress, and lack the bravura inventiveness of the earlier ideas.

Still, this is a fun piece of theatre, and well worth seeing. Mildred Hubble is a truly lovely character, and it’s easy to see why she has endured.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Booksmart

06/05/19

It’s the day before they graduate from high school, and best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are secure in the knowledge that they have achieved first class grades. They’ve managed this by working hard and staying well away from the kind of distractions that their less dedicated classmates have enjoyed to the full – parties, romances, drink and recreational drugs. Amy and Molly are the kind of students who spend their leisure time in the library and who can’t help correcting the grammar on the graffiti in the school toilets. They are – basically – swots.

So when Molly discovers that all her hard-partying classmates are also going to graduate with honours and will attend the finest universities in the land, she’s understandably dismayed. She vows that, tonight, she and Amy will attend the wildest party in town, that they will pursue the long-held romantic interests they have deliberately set aside, and  indulge in all the hedonistic pleasures they can lay their hands on.

In short, they will, for once in their lives, let their hair down and enjoy themselves. The only problem is, they don’t actually have the address where the party is being held…

Dever and Feldstein are terrific as the central couple and the witty script expertly kindles the laughs as the duo experience alarming setbacks in their quest to experience those forbidden pleasures. There are some genuinely heartwarming moments too, as the girls finally address the unspoken issues that lie at the heart of their mutual dependancy.

The real strength of Booksmart, however, lies in the way it cheerfully sets up a whole string of audience expectations, only to cleverly subvert them – from the school’s sardonic principal (Jason Sudeikis), who moonlights as a taxi driver, to the resident rich kid (Skyler Gisondo), reduced to trying to lure friends to his party by offering them free iPads.  Nothing here is ever quite what you expect and none of the characters are allowed to descend into cliché.

Directed by actor Olivia Wilde, Booksmart is a joyful little peach of a movie: sharp, clever and perceptive. It’s sure to make you laugh and you may even emerge from the cinema (as I did) with a lump in your throat. Enjoy!

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney