The Public

07/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

It’s probably a sign of the times when one-time movie brat and teen heart-throb, Emilio Estevez appears in a film playing – of all things – a librarian. Mind you, it’s clear from the outset that his character, Stuart Goodson, has hidden depths, not to mention a colourful past. And his tryst with kooky neighbour, Angela (Taylor Schilling), is enough to convince us that he knows how to party.

In The Public, he’s a long-serving worker at the Cincinnati Public Library, liked and trusted by his colleagues, his boss, Mr Anderson (Jeffrey Wright), and the legions of unemployed and homeless people who regard the place as an all-important refuge. They come here on a daily basis to get warm and dry, to educate themselves and to meet up with friends from across the city.

It’s one of the coldest winters on record and the city just doesn’t have enough shelters to ensure everyone has a bed for the night. Homeless man, Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), knows he is unlikely to survive another night sleeping on the streets, he instigates an occupation of the library, and Goodson doesn’t exactly do his utmost to dissuade him from the notion. Pretty soon, the library is in lockdown, packed with destitute people, and the forces of law and order are called in to solve the situation. Key amongst the latter are heinous public prosecutor (and would-be Mayor) Josh Davis (Christian Slater) and experienced police negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin). And Bill has his own reasons for wanting to study the faces of the occupiers.

Written and directed by Estevez, The Public is an immensely likeable movie that strangely enough, has some things in common with John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club: a bunch of likeable misfits who find themselves trapped in a library under the baleful glare of authority. Sound familiar?

Davis is an interesting character and, if some of the others are less convincingly drawn (we really don’t find out enough about Ramstead and the situation with his runaway son), this is an enjoyable watch. The political messages occasionally verge on the naive; nonetheless, they are well-intentioned – and I love a narrative that repeatedly drives home the message that public libraries are a valuable and much-neglected resource, and richly deserve all the funding that can be thrown at them.

As somebody who regularly avails himself of the services of a public library (or at least, somebody who used to), this has me longing to be back in those quiet reflective spaces. Until such things are possible once more, The Public will have to suffice.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Assistant

06/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Writer/director Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a quietly troubling movie, a queasily believable insight into the machinations of the film industry, where venerated individuals are afforded too much power.

Julia Garner is Jane, a high-flying graduate who aspires to become a producer. For now, she’s stuck in an entry-level post, a lowly assistant to a movie mogul. Her duties include making coffee, photocopying, and removing evidence of his excesses. She throws away used syringes, wipes white powder off his desk, returns a stray earring to his lover, babysits his children and placates his crying wife. Her colleagues collude; they’re all fully versed in the kind of apologetic email she should send in response to being screamed at by the un-named boss, and a meeting with HR manager, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen) – sought because of Jane’s concern for a ‘very young’ and naïve new recruit – reveals the unsurprising fact that there’s absolutely no support available. There are four hundred other people waiting to take her job, Wilcock tells Jane. She needs to put up and shut up – or she’s out.

The cleverness here is all in the understatement. We see how tedious and soul-destroying Jane’s role is: the brutal pre-dawn commute, the punishingly long hours, the personal nature of much of what she’s asked to do. She orders lunch for the whole office but doesn’t get a break herself; indeed, we’re always aware of how hungry she is, never managing more than a single bite of anything she tries to eat. Garner conveys Jane’s anxiety and brittle desperation most eloquently, despite  saying very little. We can feel her gritting her teeth, determining to get through this phase so that she can, eventually, have the career she wants. What’s less clear is whether she’ll be able to endure, and, if she does, what she will lose in the process.

The movie is claustrophobic and tense; there is little action but much revelation. I like that we never see the boss. His absence makes him universal – not a capricious individual who needs to be replaced, but a symbol of a rotten system that’s ripe for revolution.

And the Janes are starting to speak out.

#MeToo.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Calm With Horses

03/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

There’s something of the young Marlon Brandon in Cosmo Jarvis’s performance in Calm With Horses; indeed, there are plot similarities here that make this feel like a West of Ireland homage to On The Waterfront. But that doesn’t detract from the film’s power, nor the intensity of the performances.

Jarvis plays ‘Arm,’ a promising boxer in his youth, whose career hit the skids when he accidentally killed an opponent in the ring. Now he’s reduced to being the hired muscle for the Devers clan, a family of criminals who hold sway over the town where he lives. Arm is accompanied by his minder, Dympna (Barry Keoghan), who is the nephew of Hector (David Wilmot), the gang’s head honcho. Dympna is desperate to prove his worth and seems capable of making Arm do pretty much anything, no matter how brutal, usually by getting him drunk and stoned beforehand. It’s clear though, that Arm is basically a decent bloke who’s taken a wrong turn back in the day.

He has a son, Jack, with his former partner, Ursula (Niamh Algar), but the boy is severely autistic, only really happy when he’s riding a horse (hence the title). Ursula wants to move Jack to Cork, where there are specialised schools that can help him, and she asks Arm for financial help, but Dympna manages to dissuade him; he has another job for Arm, one that requires him to more than just beat somebody up…

Nick Roland’s debut picture, with a screenplay by Joe Murtagh, is set in those parts of the West of Ireland where tourists would fear to tread – indeed, a visit to Paudi (Ned Dennehy)’s garage is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not just sides of beef he has hanging in that outbuilding. This is mostly Jarvis’s film, though Keoghan once again displays his uncanny knack of choosing the right role at the right  time, and Dennehy’s smirking, scowling performance shows why his is one of the most familiar faces in Irish cinema.

If there’s a certain inevitability to the story’s ending, it’s more than compensated for by the film’s raw power and those memorable characterisations. Those looking for a charming, lyrical tale of simple country folk may wish to look elsewhere.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Vivarium

02/04/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Curzon Home Cinema has become our go-to for movies in these stay-at-home times, and Lorcan Finnegan’s waking nightmare, Vivarium, is the latest on their list to catch our eye.

Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg star as Gemma and Tom, a teacher and a tree surgeon. They’re ready, they think, to buy a home together, and visit an estate agent to see what’s available. When creepy Martin (Jonathan Aris) recommends Yonder, a vast suburban estate of identikit new builds, Gemma and Tom are dubious. But Martin is very persuasive, and they agree to go along, just to have a look.

To their horror, they find themselves trapped: it is impossible to escape Yonder’s endless green streets; despite their ever-more frantic efforts, they always end up back at the same house, with food and other staples delivered silently and anonymously, all shrink-wrapped and pre-packaged like the life they’re being forced into. One day, a baby (Côme Thiry) is deposited on their step; within days he has grown into a freaky young boy (Senan Jennings). Tom insists they should refuse to care for the child – it’s not human, he says, and certainly not theirs – but Gemma can’t face leaving the boy to his fate, and does her best to look after him. Tom, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly obsessed with digging a hole in the garden…

The metaphors here are all thinly-veiled. The opening sequence of a cuckoo forcing its way into a nest, brazenly devouring everything it can, is a beautifully brutal portent of what’s to come, but it’s not a subtle allegory. The cartoon-like Yonder, with its perfectly manicured lawns and lifeless, listless architecture, represents the living hell of conformity, the loss of self that many couples feel as they settle down, do what’s expected of them, become subsumed by their children’s needs.

So no, not subtle, but clever nonetheless. The child’s age, for example, is a neat concept: the sight of a six-year-old screaming relentlessly while his ‘parents’ desperately try to placate him with food seems monstrous; the way he copies what they say and parrots it back at them is equally grotesque. But this is just what babies do, amplified here to awful effect.

There is, it must be said, only a single idea here, so it is all bit one-note. Nevertheless, Vivarium is a taut and genuinely frightening film, and its pervasive imagery might well haunt your dreams, especially if you watch it now, while we’re all ensnared in a similar scenario, unable to venture far from home, and barred from participating in the lives we used to lead.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Extraction

30/04/20

Netflix

Written by Joe Russo (one half of the world’s most successful filmmaking duo) and directed by former Avengers stunt coordinator, Sam Hargrave, Extraction is a brutal action flick that once might have found an audience amongst undemanding cinema-goers, but is now plying its muscular swagger on Netflix. Chris Hemsworth stars as hard-bitten mercenary, Tyler Rake – a name that sounds more like a useful instruction for a gardener than an actual person – and, when we first meet him, he’s already taking bullets on a bridge in Dhaka, whilst being haunted by blurred memories of a happier, earlier lifestyle.

When Ovi Maharjan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the teenage son of a powerful Indian drug lord, is kidnapped by a rival gangster, Rake is handed the unenviable task of rescuing him and bringing him back alive. At first the mission goes surprisingly smoothly but, of course, things quickly go awry when Rake finds himself double-crossed  by Ovi’s father. What first seems like a straightforward extraction becomes ever more complicated, as armed drug dealers and a corrupt police force team up to recapture Ovi.

This is based on a graphic novel, but for much of the time feels more like it’s trying to emulate a video game, as Rake guns down, stabs, and punches what appears to be an interminable number of adversaries. At one point, he even takes out a troublesome opponent with the very gardening implement from which his name derives. For the first ten minutes or so, the action set pieces are suitably thrilling, but since all the fight scenes seem to go on forever, they soon start to become tedious.

Ironically, the film works best during its (admittedly brief) quieter stretches, though Rake is such a monosyllabic character, I find myself longing for him to utter more than the occasional grunts he emits whenever his teenage ward asks him pertinent questions. On the plus side, it’s great to see a mainstream film that employs so many subtitles, and the settings are beautifully presented, even if Rake appears to be doing his level best to eradicate most of the local population.

This is an unabashedly amoral tale. Our ‘hero’ is a man who will do pretty much anything for the right amount of money, the other major players all equally repugnant. There’s also a cameo by David Harbour as Rake’s ‘oldest friend,’ another mercenary, ready to sell poor Ovi to the highest bidder. Of course, Ovi is the only character here we can really root for, but, since he spends the entire film running frantically for safety, he never gets the opportunity to connect as he might do – and it’s hard to understand exactly why a deep bond seems to flourish between him and Rake, when they’ve barely exchanged a dozen words.

This isn’t awful, but somebody should have told the writers that less is more, and that a couple of beautifully executed, brief action sequences would have connected a lot more effectively than the endlessly protracted mayhem that’s on offer here.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Six by Nico: Home by Nico Experience

24/04/20

sixbynico.co.uk

Running a review site that focuses on film, theatre and comedy has never been more problematic and, of course, we also review restaurants – and that’s even more difficult. While film,theatre and comedy can be sourced online, restaurants cannot.

So when we hear that Six by Nico are offering a four course meal, to be cooked in customers’ home ovens, we sit up and take notice. At £80 for four people, it’s not cheap, but neither is it too extortionate for a high-end takeaway, and it does include wine! And yes, there are only two of us, but we’ll freeze up two portions for later. (Future menus, it transpires, will be available for two diners, at the reduced cost of £50.)

In the good old days B.C. (before Coronavirus), we had plans to visit this popular restaurant with friends, but could never seem to sort out a time when we could all get there. Ah, for such problems now! SbN is best known for showcasing a different theme each month and tends to book out well in advance. So, here, finally, is our chance to try out their cuisine, albeit in the familiar surroundings of our modest home. This week’s menu theme is ‘Catalonia.’

The food arrives at 10am, neatly packaged with cooking instructions and full allergy information. It’s apparent at a glance that the portions are on the generous side. We separate two portions, put everything in the fridge, and look forward to the evening.

Unfortunately, when we approach the allotted hour of 7pm, (Sod’s law!)  a whole battalion of workers start attacking the pavement outside our front door with drills, a process that continues until the small hours of the morning. Apparently there’s a problem with the electricity supply. ‘Will it last out until we’ve finished cooking?’ we yell over the noise, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best…

It does. Phew!

For starters,we have a very nice foccacia with olive oil and basalmic vinegar. (The foccacia isn’t quite as splendid as the one we’ve been sampling from Tasty Buns, but is nonetheless an appetising introduction.)

Next up, it’s a manchego bomba with red pepper romesco: a round, firm sphere of excellence filled with a gooey, melting cheese and potato filling and accompanied by some green salad. Delicious.

The main course is a rich, chicken and chorizo ragout, accompanied by paprika & garlic patatas bravas and roasted fennel and piquillo pepper cous cous, the latter served cold. This is the most ambitious of the dishes here and it works very well indeed. There’s also a bottle of Plot Twenty Two Tempranillo Shiraz, the heavy acidic flavour cutting perfectly through the tang of the sauce.

Next up, cheese and crackers: a portion of ossau iraty, a delicious cheese from the Pyrenees (and when I say a portion, there’s a huge block of the stuff, which will be happily eaten over the next few days). We enjoy this with some charcoal crackers and a tangy chutney, noting that the cheese has been sourced from I J Mellis, our usual purveyor of choice in Edinburgh (though somebody recently treated us to a subscription to the equally excellent Pong Cheese, so it’s a wee while since we’ve been).

And so to pudding, which is slightly disappointing. St Clement’s cake  – the name conjours images of a moist citrusy orange and lemon concoction, but this, served with a vanilla crème anglaise, though a perfectly decent bake, is a little too bland for our liking. It lacks the lip-smacking decadence of a perfect pud, the final flourish that such a meal demands.

Of course, what’s missing from all this of is the theatre of visiting a top flight restaurant, the vivacity and atmosphere that the food itself is only a part of. Nevertheless, this is more ambitious (and feels much more special) than your average takeaway. Those wishing to investigate should note that only the first two hundred customers who apply for a weekend meal will be successful, so if you want to try it, book early.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Twelfth Night

23/04/20

National Theatre Live

I’m never sure about Twelfth Night. Yes, it’s a perfectly constructed play, with a rich cast of characters and some of Shakespeare’s most profound and memorable lines. But I’m always pulled up short by the identity swap stuff, because it’s so silly. And, dare I say it, over-used in the bard’s comedies. Yes, I know he’s a genius. But come on. It defies credulity.

Still, major plot quibbles aside, this latest offering from the NT Live’s lockdown programme is nothing short of glorious. Director Simon Godwin really revels in the play’s theme of gender fluidity, and it makes perfect sense in this context to have a female Malvolia (the marvellous Tamsin Greig), Feste (Doon Mackichan) and Fabia (Imogen Doel).

For those who need a memory jog or who are new to the play, this is the story of twins Viola (Tamara Lawrance) and Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), washed up on the shores of Illyria following a shipwreck. Each believes the other dead, and sets out alone to seek shelter.

To Viola, disguising herself as a boy seems the safest bet, so she changes her clothes and calls herself Cesario. So-disguised, she finds work as a messenger for Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris), and is soon engaged in the peculiar business of attempting to woo the Countess Olivia (Phoebe Fox) for him. Unfortunately, Olivia falls for Cesario instead – and, to complicate matters further, Viola herself is smitten with the Duke. Add Olivia’s unruly uncle Toby (Tim McMullen) and his drunken entourage into the mix, and it’s easy enough to see why the prissy, order-loving Malvolia becomes so peevish and out of sorts.

The standout here is clearly Greig’s Malvolia; this is a star turn. Her obsessive, precise nature is beautifully detailed, and the frenzied abandon that follows when she falls for the revellers’ trick – instructing her to dress in yellow stockings to win Olivia’s favour – allows us a glimpse beneath Malvolia’s repressed exterior, as her secret desires are cruelly exposed. Her abject humiliation is genuinely heartbreaking.

But there’s plenty to admire besides Greig: McMullen’s interpretation of Toby (all louche and dissipated, like an ageing rock star) is original and works well with the script, while Daniel Rigby’s man-bunned Andrew Aguecheek makes a perfect comic foil.

The set, by Soutra Gilmour, is inspired: dominated by a huge rotating staircase, that turns to reveal a vast range of locations, all cleverly depicted with a few deft strokes.

This is a lovely, light production, with both exquisite foolery and emotional depth. I reckon I’ll even let the false identity stuff go. Against the odds, they make it work.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield