The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

11/11/18

It’s early November and I’ve just been to see what is, for me, the first Christmas-themed movie of the year. Perhaps it’s more of a reflection on me than the season in question, but it still feels much too soon. However, I buckle myself in and watch Disney’s latest release, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. The first thing to say about the film is that it’s undeniably opulent. The screen virtually pulsates with light and colour and general sparkliness. Overall, however, it puts me in mind of a gigantic glittering Christmas bauble, delightful to look at – but completely empty at its core.

This is the story of Clara Stahlbaum (McKenzie Foy), a teenage girl still mourning the recent death of her mother and feeling somewhat aggrieved when her gloomy father (Matthew MacFadyen) expects her to attend the huge Christmas ball they go to every year and look as though she’s enjoying herself. Before they leave for the ball, Mr Stahlbaum hands out presents to Clara and her siblings, gifts that have been left for them by their mother, who, it turns out, was an inventor. Clara is bequeathed some kind of a jewelled egg with a lock on it – but alas, there’s no key. However, if anyone knows how to unlock the egg’s secret, it’s the mysterious toymaker, Mr Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who’s hosting the ball tonight.

At the party, there’s a hunt for the various gifts that Mr Drosselmeyer has created for the visiting children. In search of her own present, Clara follows a length of ribbon out into the garden, through a maze and into a mysterious alternate world, where lie the Four Realms of the title. She soon discovers that her late Mother once ruled as Queen here. Now, with the help of Nutcracker Soldier, Philip (Jaden Fowara-Knight),  ‘Princess Clara’ has to resolve a quarrel that has plunged the different realms in to war.

There’s a ridiculously starry cast involved in these shenanigans  – Keira Knightly as Sugarplum, Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger and Richard E Grant as er… Shiver. Lots of other big names make fleeting appearances too, albeit for no good reason. The special effects are, of course, beautifully realised, but there’s little contrast between the magical world and the one that Clara has recently vacated. Furthermore, there’s no disguising the fact that this is just sumptuous fluff that doesn’t manage to field one single, original idea, repeatedly falling back on over-used fridge magnet messages – ‘the power is within you, Clara… you just need to learn to love yourself…’ and so on and so forth. Ad infinitum.

Look, I fully appreciate that this film isn’t aimed at somebody like me and, if I were an eight-year-old child, it’s quite possible I’d emerge from this feeling that I’d been thoroughly entertained. As it stands, I find TNATFR as tedious as its overworked title. There is a nice ballet sequence to accompany the end credits but, since members of the audience decide to chatter all the way through it, that’s a little squandered too.

A treat for young children only. Accompanying adults (and even discerning teens) might prefer to seek out something more original for their festive entertainment.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Wildlife

11/11/18

Wildlife is Paul Dano’s directorial debut, and its an impressive opening gambit from the quirky young (ish) actor. He’s co-written the screenplay too (adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel), his second collaboration with his real-life partner, Zoe Kazan. I like it. A lot. It’s a quiet, understated piece of work, and it gives the actors space to develop their roles.

It’s 1960-something. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is fourteen, and he’s moved with his family to Great Falls, Montana. We soon learn that he is used to new beginnings, that his dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a dreamer; he finds it hard to hold down a job. Joe’s mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), indulges Jerry’s fecklessness: she loves him. So she and Joe follow him from town to town, never putting down roots.

But when Jerry is fired for being over-familiar with the members of the golf club where he works, he decides he wants to join the firefighters tackling the flames devouring the Montana forests. Jeanette begs him not to take the job: it means leaving his family, and they’ve never been apart before. She’ll deal with anything, it seems, as long as they’re together. If he goes, he risks the whole relationship, but he can’t seem to stop himself. Never mind that Jeanette can earn more than him, as a substitute teacher or a swimming coach; never mind that there are other jobs in town; he’s too proud to take them. He’s set on his course, determined to see it through.

Gyllenhaal is a gifted actor, no doubt about it, but it’s at this point – as he leaves – that the film begins to flower. Joe’s pained, inarticulate response to the disintegration of his parents’ marriage is excruciating; Oxenbould excels at conveying discomfort without saying anything.

And Mulligan is magnificent as the aggrieved Jeanette, bitter and resentful that her sacrifices haven’t been enough. She’s stuck with Jerry through thick and thin, but now he’s abandoned her. She reacts with self-destructive fury, seeking to recover the girl she used to be, dressing up and acting up, flirting with men she doesn’t even like. There’s a vulnerability at the heart of the performance that keeps us onside, even when she’s making Joe’s (and our) toes curl, with the kind of sexual and emotional revelations no teenager ever wants to hear from a parent.

And Gyllenhaal gets his chance to shine too, on his return, when the inevitable consequences creep up on them all. No one’s behaving well, but no one means any harm: it’s a sad tale of human frailty, an affecting tragedy.

The Montana backdrop is beautifully filmed, the hazy smoke a constant reminder of the dual threat the fires pose. There is a slow, almost dreamy quality to the storytelling here, an emotional depth that draws us in with no sensationalism. Mulligan has been widely tipped for an Oscar nomination, and I can absolutely see why. Jeanette is a character of great complexity, the performance nuanced and intricate.

A must-see, I’d say.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

10/11/18

There seems to be a bit of a Greatest Showman buzz about this film. Most critics have been decidedly sniffy about it, accusing it of glossing over some of Freddie Mercury’s darker traits, as well as his bisexuality. Audiences, on the other hand, have eagerly embraced it, claiming it as a five star picture. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between these extremes.

It’s a competent biopic, with a mesmerising central performance from Rami Malek that goes way beyond mere impersonation. He fully inhabits the character of Freddie Mercury and it’s interesting to conjecture how the film might have fared if it had stuck with its original lead, Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s hard to believe anyone could have done it more justice. Still, for all that, there are missteps in the mix and, just like The Greatest Showman, this so-called ‘true story’ takes some sizeable liberties.

We first meet Freddie in 1970, when he’s still Farrokh Bulsara, working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and, in his spare time, virtually stalking local band, Smile, which features Brian May (Gwilym Lee) on lead guitar and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) on drums. When the band’s singer departs to join another outfit, the way is open for Freddie to offer his services as vocalist and songwriter. After a slightly shaky start, and the addition of bass player, John Deacon (Ray Mazello), the band soon have a record deal and are on the way to a brilliant career. Freddie, of course, woos and marries the ‘love of his life,’ Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), something that proves rather awkward when he latterly arrives at the conclusion that he’s bisexual.

To give the screenwriters their due, they don’t exactly ignore Mercury’s darker side, particularly during the period where he leaves the band to embark on an ill-fated solo career (although, in reality, that break up never actually happened). He is shown to be a loose canon, indulging in the excessive lifestyle that ultimately led to his untimely death. Even here there are untruths. The film wants us to believe that Freddie had his HIV diagnosis before he appeared at Live Aid. He didn’t. Also, the gig, which took place in 1985, is depicted here as some kind of a reunion for the band, but actually they’d been recording their album The Works only the year before and had just toured it all over the world.

Of course, changing the truth for dramatic effect is not exactly a new phenomenon, but what about those missteps I mentioned? Well, for one thing, the other members of Queen seem incapable of speaking any of their lines without throwing in some exposition, just in case we’re unsure of what’s happening at any given time. For another, the clunky scenes where Freddie interacts with his Zoroastrian parents, Bomi and Ger, are decidedly mawkish. There’s also a cameo by Mike Myers as (fictional) EMI record executive ‘Ray Foster’, who denounces the titular single as ‘too long for the radio’ in a cod Northern accent that borders on caricature. This leads to the band walking out on their record label. (Again, this didn’t happen.) In the end, it’s these liberties that niggle me more than anything else. When you’ve got a story as amazing as this one, why muddy the waters by adding stuff that never actually occurred?

Of course, you can forgive a lot when you have the kind of soundtrack that’s offered here, featuring pretty much all of Queen’s biggest hits – and the decision to end the film with an uncanny twenty minute recreation of the band’s appearance at Live Aid is a clever mood, sending audiences out on a high. Rami Malek’s performance is the kind of flashy role that can attract Oscar attention, and I won’t be remotely surprised if he gets a nomination next year – but to my mind,  Bohemian Rhapsody represents a bit of a missed opportunity.

In the end, it’s a decent biopic, but not an entirely convincing one.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Last Witch

 

10/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s 1727, and Janet Horne (Deirdre Davis) is eking out a living in the Scottish Highlands with her teenage daughter, Helen (Fiona Wood). Times are tough: they have no peat for their fire and very little food. But Janet knows what to do: a few incantations, some good luck charms and a venomous tongue are all she needs. If the neighbours think she’s a witch, then they will try to keep her sweet…

And, by and large, it seems to work. The people of Dornoch might fear Janet, but they like her too, for her healing hands and her lively spirit. Even the local clergyman (Graham Mackey-Bruce) seems content to turn a blind eye her way. But, when Douglas Begg (Alan Steele)’s cattle succumb to sickness, he blames Janet and, in his anger, reports her to the sheriff, David Ross (David Rankine). And the wheels are set in motion for what turns out to be Britain’s last ever legal execution for witchcraft.

This revival of Rona Munro’s 2009 play has been designed by Ken Harrison, with two huge discs dominating the acting space. The first forms a stage, raked at a steep angle, cracked like dry earth; the second is suspended above, a moon, sometimes reflecting the ground below, sometimes projecting other images. It’s stark and atmospheric, ingenious in its simplicity – and the brutal beauty of the final scene is really something to behold, especially the light on Elspeth Begg (Helen Logan)’s face as she shouts her cryptic message of support.

Deirdre Davis is superb in the lead role, a beguiling, unapologetic rebel, forging her own path. Janet Horne is a strong woman: sensual, clever, brave and charismatic – and Davis’s performance brings her forcibly to life. She might cling a little too closely to her daughter, afraid to let her go, but she loves her fiercely nonetheless; she only wants to keep her safe. Because the world – as Janet knows – is cruel, and Helen’s claw-like hands and feet will be seen by some as the devil’s mark. Their spiky relationship is delightfully depicted, Fiona Wood subtly teasing out Helen’s frustration and naivety. Little wonder she’s such easy prey for the enigmatic Nick (Alan Mirren).

Richard Baron’s direction is faultless: this is a fluid, unsettling piece, carefully choreographed and visually arresting. But the real magic lies in the writing, Munro’s lyrical script an absolute delight.

It’s a shame that this is such a short tour. There’s only one more chance to see this production; if you’re free, head to the Traverse tonight. Otherwise, you really have missed out.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Oh! What a Lovely War

08/11/18

Studio Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s very nearly the 100th anniversary of the November armistice, the event that officially marked the end of the First World War – so what better way to commemorate the occasion than with Joan Littlewood’s celebrated show? I have fond memories of it myself. Back in the days when I had more hair and fewer inhibitions, as a member of the Redbridge Youth Theatre, I was myself a performer in a production of it.

It’s a curious affair, Oh! What a Lovely War, a precarious balancing act between comedy and tragedy, sentimentality and shock. Get it wrong and it can be an unrewarding watch.

Happily, tonight, Captivate Theatre have got it just right, sticking closely to the original format and launching into the song and dance routines with absolute conviction. By the first interval, they have managed to achieve a powerful sense of momentum – but, as the audience leaves for the break, a fire alarm goes off and we find ourselves herded out onto the wintry street, waiting for a fire engine that never turns up. By the time the situation is resolved, and we’re allowed to head back inside, I am seriously worried that the company will never be able to recover their former brio. The fact that they quickly do pays testament to their grit and determination.

I’m soon reimmersed in the atmosphere, tapping my foot to those oh-so-jolly songs, each one designed to mask the fears and insecurities of a nation in dire peril. Meanwhile, on the screen behind the actors, the awful statistics of the conflict unfold – the war to end all wars left ten million young men dead and countless millions more injured or missing. This was the war where the average life expectancy of a machine gunner at The Front was four minutes.

This is, of course,  an ensemble show, so it’s impossible to pick out names from the cast; but the scene where a Sergeant Major barks a series of unintelligible orders at his latest recruits has me crying with laughter, while the one where a young nurse leads the company in a heartfelt version of Keep the Home Fires Burning, has me shedding tears of an entirely different kind. Powerful stuff, this and in its own way, informative. Chances are, you’ll leave knowing a lot more about the First World War than you did when you came in. We’d like to think, of course, that the powers-that-be would never be stupid enough to make the same mistakes again, but a mere glance at recent world events makes me suspect that they just might.

At any rate, this is a lovely version of a classic production that marked a milestone in British Theatre. Go and see it, before it marches on.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Stuff

06/05/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Sylvia Dow’s Stuff, the story of Magda, a woman who struggles with a hoarding disorder, really resonates with me. Not that I have the same affliction – I don’t; I’m definitely on the ‘minimalist’ side of the spectrum – but I did have an uncle who lived a life a lot like hers. The play reminds me of him, and it makes me sad. Mainly because I miss him, but also because of how much he missed out.

Directed by Muriel Romanes, this is a subtle, nuanced piece, told with tenderness and care, and never judgemental: not about Magda and her teetering piles of junk; not about her daughter, Chrissie (Romana Abercromby), who’s never once phoned since she left home; not about Jackie (Pauline Lockhart), the social worker assigned to ensure Magda clears her home because the neighbours have complained.

Carol Ann Crawford’s Magda is at the centre of the piece, and it’s a lovely performance. Magda’s sadness and vulnerability are palpable throughout, but so are her humour and her humanity. And Rosemary Nairne’s opera-singing Mama-ghost adds an extra dimension, physicalising the memories Magda can’t let go, not least her childhood in war-torn Ukraine. The singing is haunting and beautiful.

The set is rather special too. It doesn’t seem so at first: just a pile of boxes and scattered sheet music. But the boxes begin to reveal a doll’s house of recollections, cleverly constructed miniatures, designed by John and Jeanine Byrne. There’s a graveyard, a grand piano, a teetering pile of chairs: eight boxes, eight spaces, eight specific memories. No wonder Magda struggles to give up her precious things.

Tonight is Stuff‘s last night at the Traverse, and it’s sold out – but, if you can get hold of a return ticket, it’s certainly worth your while. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking play, and I know that it will stay with me.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield