Wonder

 

 

04/12/17

In the golden age of Hollywood, some films were often described as ‘four-handkerchief-weepies.’ Wonder may qualify as an ‘economy-sized-kleenex-weepie.’ From about fifteen minutes in to its running time I am in a hopeless state, tears pouring copiously down my face and having to make a conscious effort not to sob out loud – and this is a condition  that stays with me pretty much throughout proceedings. Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s best-selling novel launches an all-out attack on the heart strings with devastating results. It’s not that the film is over-manipulative, either. This is just a genuinely sad story, told with great skill, and one that never allows itself to wander too far into the land of mawkishness.

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay, who made such an impact in Room), was born with severe facial deformities. His parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson) have been naturally protective of their son, home-schooling him for years, but as he approaches the age to enter fifth grade, Isabel comes to a momentous decision. Auggie needs to go to a proper middle-school, where he at least has a chance to meet new people. He is naturally anxious about this, but eventually accepts his fate and does his best to fit in, painfully aware of the appalled stares of his classmates whenever he enters a room. His life takes a turn for the better when he makes friends with classmate Jack Will (Noah Jupe), but he soon learns that the path of friendship is not always an easy one to negotiate…

Meanwhile, Auggie’s older sister, Via (Isabela Vidovic) goes through some problems of her own, when she loses touch with her long-time best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). Via’s problems simply don’t get the attention that Auggie’s do, but since the death of her closest ally, her much-beloved Grandmother, she has learned that her best option is just to quietly get on with things. Her parents’ attentions are always focused on her brother and she has nobody else to turn to…

Critics could argue that Wonder is a bit of a misery fest – Auggie’s family seems to lurch from one heartbreaking disaster to the next – but it’s done with such warmth and skill, that it’s easy to forgive its occasional excesses and the film’s conclusion is uplifting enough to make you forget the agony that you’ve just been put through. The performances, meanwhile, are uniformly good. Tremblay manages to emote brilliantly despite having to act under layers of latex and Jupe (who was one of the best things in George Clooney’s Suburbicon), clearly has a bright future ahead of him. Lovely too, to see Mandy Patinkin in a small but memorable role as the schools’ head, Mr Tushman. At the end of the day, if weepies are not your thing, then this may not be the film for you. If on the other hand, you’re partial to shedding the occasional tear in the stalls, fill your pockets with tissues and get along to see this at your earliest convenience.

I leave the cinema feeling absolutely destroyed but as anyone will tell you, I’m a proper softie when it comes to this kind of thing. See it and weep.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Room

03/12/17

We are sitting in a packed cinema and large sections of the audience are hurling handfuls of plastic spoons at the screen…

No, it’s not some weird cinema-related nightmare, but a showing of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 magnum hopeless The Room, screening at The Cameo Cinema, because these people know a cult when they see one – and with James Franco’s The Disaster Artist looming on the horizon, there really couldn’t be a more propitious time to do this. Up until a week ago, The Room had managed to completely pass us by, but I knew that my daughter and her beau were longtime fans and, wanting to be able to view Franco’s film with some background knowledge of its inspiration, I asked if we could borrow their precious (signed by Tommy W!) DVD copy. Shortly after viewing it, we heard that The Cameo would be doing a screening and felt we had to go along and experience it with an audience. Perhaps, I thought, we’d missed something first time around…

Some films become a cause celebre because they are brilliant. The Room has earned that accolade because it is, frankly, terrible. From the endlessly repeated shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, to the interminable soft-porn sex scenes (one of them shown twice!), to the fact that Wiseau cannot even seem to walk convincingly, let alone act, write or direct a feature film, this is risible stuff. And it doesn’t matter how often Wiseau claims that it was always meant to be a comedy, it’s quite clear that what he actually thought he was delivering was a deep and powerful meditation on the human condition. Oh dear…

Johnny (Wiseau) is a man who works in a bank. In what capacity, we can only guess, but we do learn that he is frustrated that he has yet to be given the ‘promotion’ he feels he so richly deserves. He is however, endlessly devoted to his girlfriend, Lisa (Juliette Danielle), who he is planning to marry in just a couple of weeks. We are led to believe that Lisa has a job, though we never actually see her doing work of any description, unless you count her indolently pushing a broom around the apartment every now and again. Johnny’s best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero), is somewhat bemused when Lisa starts trying to seduce him and keeps reminding her that he is Johnny’s best friend, and she is getting married soon and yet, he somehow can’t quite bring himself to resist her advances. Suffice to say that Lisa is depicted as an evil, self-centred banshee, callous enough to risk her relationship for a bit on the side, and even brushing aside her mother’s announcement that she has breast cancer with a glib, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ Johnny is… well, equally unbelievable.… and you know what, it’s really not worth going into any more detail on the plot, which is pretty nonsensical anyway. No character here does or says anything remotely convincing.

Often described as ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies,’ The Room is certainly shoddy enough, but not so enjoyably bad that it actually becomes ‘good.’ I mean, it’s not Plan 9 From Outer Space, for instance, a film that I can watch repeatedly and never tire of – but I will admit that watching Wiseau’s efforts with a crowd of laughing, jeering devotees, certainly helps to lift the mood. I laughed a lot. Having said that, I really don’t feel compelled to watch it again for a very long time.

Which brings me to a conundrum. It is, of course, our practice to awards star ratings to movies and I feel that in the normal run of things, I’d be hard pushed to give this any more than one. Having experienced it in a cinema with a crowd of fans, then okay, I’m prepared to go for two stars, but I really don’t feel good about it – and I have to say that Wiseau is incredibly lucky that his lamentable efforts have been rewarded with a sizable following in his own lifetime, something that Ed Wood, who died an alcoholic pauper, never experienced. And Cameo, if you’re reading this, a showing of Plan 9 From Outer Space strikes me as a really good idea.

Oh, the spoons? Good question. Pay close attention to the framed pictures in Johnny’s apartment and you’ll get the gist.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Box of Delights

02/12/17

The Box of Delights might have started life as a novel by John Masefield in 1935 but, for me, it will always belong to 1984 and television.

The BBC children’s adaptation was my first ‘box-set binge,’ enjoyed even before I knew those words existed in formation. It was Christmas Eve, early afternoon. I was thirteen, my brother three years younger. Mum called us down to the front room, where there were blankets on the sofa and a plate of mince pies on the coffee table. And she handed us a present. A small, VHS-sized box, containing – we soon discovered – the whole six-part series, painstakingly recorded every week, and saved up for this festive treat (a cunning plan, of course, designed to keep us out of the way while our parents did the busy stuff that parents do on Christmas Eve, but we were blissfully ignorant of this then). We settled in for the long haul, and were mesmerised by the tale that unfolded.

I never revisited the story: never read the book, never sought to see it again. But when I saw it advertised as part of The Cameo’s 2017 Christmas season, I couldn’t resist the chance to view it, on a somewhat larger screen than the 14″ one we had back then.

And it’s lovely; no wonder the memory is so golden. Okay, some of the special effects – so impressive in their day – look pretty shonky now, and there are gaping plot-holes that need to be plugged. But the overall effect is still magical; the story still engaging.

Orphan Kay Harker (Devin Stanfield) is home from boarding school for the holidays. He’s staying with his guardian, Caroline Louisa (Carol Frazer) in his ancestral home, Seekings. He’s pleased to find that his friends, the Jones, will be staying for the holidays, as their parents have had to go abroad (there are four Jones kids, but only two of them really have anything to do, namely Maria (Joanna Dukes) –  a fierce little thing who’s a dab hand with a pistol – and Peter (Crispin Mair), who’s a bit of a drip really, but proves to be a useful ally in Kay’s adventuring. Susan and Jemima (Flora Page and Heidi Burton respectively) remain in the background, Peter’s ‘sensible sisters’ – I’m not sure why they’re there). Maria’s fears that the festive season might prove dull are certainly unfounded: Kay, it seems, has been identified as someone who can help those in the magic world, and Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton) has a mission for the boy. For Hawlings has a magic box, and the evil Abner Brown (Robert Stephens) is in hot pursuit of it; Kay must look after the Box of Delights until it can be returned to its rightful owner…

The ‘returning it to its rightful owner’ is by far the worst part of the series. It’s episode five; we’re reaching the dramatic climax. And then there’s a bizarre scene where Kay goes ‘to the past’ to seek Arnold of Todi (Philip Locke), by way of some badly rendered pyramids and some English-speaking ancient Egyptians. It’s the weakest moment by far, but it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the show. Nor does the odd acceptance everyone seems to have of kids going missing (a whole gaggle of choirboys are kidnapped, and there’re no parents waiting for them when they’re finally rescued).

Because, despite the flaws, there’s a lot to love. Jonathan Stephens is really funny as inept gangster, Chubby Joe, and Robert Stephens is as delightfully malevolent as you’d expect, clearly relishing the role of arch-villain Abner Brown. The scenes with Herne the Hunter  (Glyn Baker) are spectacular, and some of the effects are truly impressive, even after all these years (the shrunken posse of kids standing next to Chubby Joe’s big foot is particularly well-conceived). It’s a joyous, festive slice of nostalgia. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Now, pass the mince pies!

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Oliver!

 

29/11/17

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

Ah, Oliver! Beloved by schools and youth groups, its jaunty sing-a-long-a-songs and larger-than-life characters mean that we often forget what it’s really about, the squalor and violence of Dickens’ London romanticised beyond recognition: all cute kids and bright handkerchiefs, the focus on the (frankly dubious) rags to riches element of the tale.

EUSOG’S version, directed by Erica Belton, works hard to avoid this trap. Of course, this being a student production, there are no sweet little eight-year-old performers who might need protecting from the grim realities of Victorian poverty, and so we’re free to see the savagery of the poorhouse in an electrifying opening scene, where the desperate inmates swarm through the auditorium towards their meagre meal, a starving horde reduced to zombies, caring solely about sustenance, and fighting for their share. Little wonder that Oliver (Yann Davies) asks for more: even his tiny helping of gruel has been snatched and devoured by others; he’s starving and has nothing to lose. His recklessness makes sense in this context – he’s not new to the workhouse; he knows his request will not be welcome – but this is a moment of rebellion born of deprivation.

I don’t need to outline the story – the musical’s ubiquity means there can be no surprises with the plot – but there are new interpretations of some of the characters. Fagin, for example, is played with wit and empathy by Kathryn Salmond. She shows the softer side of the avaricious old leech, ensuring we see that he is also a victim of a cruelly unfair society.   Reviewing the Situation is an absolute triumph, revealing much about the man.

Ashleigh More’s Artful Dodger is also interesting. More is an arresting performer: cheeky and lively and engaging as can be. Dodger’s heartbreak over Nancy’s death is beautifully bleak.

Grace Dickson (Nancy) also deserves a mention. She strikes just the right balance between strength and vulnerability, making us believe in and understand her doomed relationship with the evil Bill Sykes (Saul Garrett). I’m crying when she sings As Long As He Needs Me: willing her to leave, although of course I know she won’t; wishing she lived in a world where there was somewhere else for her to go.

Not everything about this production is perfect: perhaps more could have been made of the Sowerberrys’ scene, and of the stark contrast  between Oliver’s life so far and the luxury and opulence Mr Brownlow represents. Then there’s the inherent problem of a story where the hero is the least interesting person in it, almost a cypher, on whom we can project our own emotions and through whose eyes we see events unfold; this works well in Dickens’ novel, but is less successful on the stage.

Still, none of this prevents it from being a resounding success; it’s a lively, thought-provoking interpretation, with strong performances throughout. The choreography is very good indeed, and the orchestra plays beautifully (the violins are particularly memorable). This is definitely a show worth seeing, and it’s on until Saturday, so get yourself a ticket and go along. A note of caution though: take an extra sweater. The temperature in the Pleasance is positively Dickensian.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Legally Blonde: The Musical

27/11/17

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Legally Blonde began life as a movie in 2001, based on a semi-autobiographical (unpublished) manuscript by Amanda Brown. It became the subject of a Hollywood bidding war, made a star of Reese Witherspoon and went on to earn over one-hundred-and-forty million dollars at the box office (and this at a time when one-hundred-and-forty million dollars was considered a lot of money!). Perhaps it was inevitable that it would be turned into a musical but what few people could have anticipated was the fact that the resulting show would actually improve upon the film.

From the opening chords of the first song, this version – slickly directed and choreographed by Anthony Williams – is a bright, shiny bauble that virtually dares you not to enjoy its outrageous antics. Okay, so it’s double fluff with a side order of fluff but, my word, what brilliantly acted, superbly choreographed fluff it is!

Elle (Lucie Jones) is a style icon, the one that her friends seek out whenever they need tips about what clothes to wear and which make-up to team it with. When her long-term boyfriend, Warner (Liam Doyle), invites her out for a special meal, she confidently expects him to ask for her hand in marriage – so she’s absolutely devastated when he announces that he actually wants to dump her so he can devote more time to his studies at Harvard Law School. Desperate to win him back, Elle embarks on a daring mission. She will enrol at Harvard too and prove to him that she’s more than just a ditzy blonde…

Once there, she meets up with shy-but-caring fellow student, Emmett (David Barrett), the mendacious and influential Professor Callahan, (Bill Ward), and her rival for Warner’s affections, Vivienne (Laura Harrison). She also enlists a secret weapon: the much put-upon hairdresser and occasional muse, Paulette (Rita Simons), who helps Elle to achieve everything she wants and more.

At a time when the subject of women’s rights is receiving more attention than ever before, it seems particularly appropriate that this story is all about a woman triumphing over adversity and over men’s preconceptions about who she is and what she is capable of. The ‘Harvey Weinstein’ moment at the start of the second act is genuinely hard-hitting, prompting a moment of uncomfortable silence in amongst the candyfloss. It’s surprisingly effective. If I’m making it sound a bit po-faced, please don’t be fooled. The messages are all served up with huge dollops of fun. The script is often laugh-out-loud funny and there’re some eye-popping dance sequences (the one where a large group of dancers indulge in synchronised skipping is a particular stand-out). I also love the fact that, even with a cast of over twenty actors, everybody has their moment to shine.

If you’re in the mood for an enjoyable night at the theatre, you really won’t do much better than this. Only the stoniest-faced curmudgeons will be able to resist its charms. I used to think of myself as one of these… but there I was, clapping gleefully along with the rest of the audience.

Note to self: I really must try harder.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Gathering

26/11/17

Glencoe, Scotland

We’re in Glencoe, where we’ve spent the days climbing hills and being generally gobsmacked by the amazing scenery that waits at every turn. After last night’s fine dining at the Loch Leven Hotel, we’re in the mood for something a little more straightforward. The Gathering catches our eye, a green painted wooden building off the main road with a prominent welcome sign, which promises ‘fish and chips and more’ (it’s the ‘more’ that gets our attention). After a quick glance at the menu, we decide that a bit of lobster is exactly what we fancy, so in we go and, as it’s a rather chilly night, we locate a table as close as we can to the roaring multi-fuel stove which is doing its level best to heat up the large and attractive open-plan dining area.

The deal here is very no-nonsense. Fifteen pounds buys you half a char-grilled lobster and, for a couple of quid extra, they’ll throw in a bowl of chips – and that’s pretty much what we go for. After a short wait, the platters arrive and there they are, exactly what we ordered – the decently-sized half-lobsters accompanied by some nicely dressed rocket and a large bowl of garlic butter in which to dunk the meat. Mmm.

Okay, so lobster can be a bit of a faff. Once you’ve picked out the easy bit, there’s a lot of wrestling with medieval-looking implements in order to break open those claws and seek out their tasty interiors. For some it’s just too much effort for too little return, but the lobster is a tasty beast, and we have time on our hands, so we’re prepared to give it our best shot. The chips, by the way,  are perfect: crispy on the outside and nice and soft within. We ask for a bowl of mayonnaise in which to dip them and it is promptly provided.

Afterwards, we’ve still room for some pudding so we order a warm chocolate fudge cake with a couple of scoops of salted caramel ice cream, which we share, and which finishes the meal off to our satisfaction. With a couple of drinks the bill comes in at under fifty pounds which feels like a result.

If you’re in Glencoe and you’re in the mood for fish and chips (and more), this may be just the place for you.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Loch Leven Hotel

25/11/17

Old Ferry Road, North Ballachulish

We’ve been living in Edinburgh full-time for eighteen months now, and we’re horribly aware of how little we still know of our adopted country. So we make the most of a free weekend, and head up to Glencoe, to explore a portion of the Highlands. We find what looks like a decent deal for a couple of nights at the Loch Leven Hotel in North Ballachulish, check out the tripadvisor reviews and make our booking.

And, my word, we’re glad we do.

Because the hotel’s location is nothing short of magnificent. Situated on the shores of the loch, it boasts an enviable view, all snow-capped mountains and autumnal trees. Our room opens out onto a veranda, with a path that leads directly down to the water. It’s breathtaking. Add to that a warm, friendly vibe and clean, comfortable rooms, and you’ve got yourself a great hotel. The gin experts’ bar and the fine-dining restaurant are the icing on the proverbial cake.

They’re justifiably proud of what they’re achieving at the Loch Leven Hotel. It’s a small, family-run establishment, and they’re clearly an ambitious clan. When we praise the food, the manager, Henry, tells us that they’re ‘going for an AA rosette’; on the basis of what we eat tonight, I’d say the award’s not far away.

I start with the pan-seared Isle of Mull scallops, which are simply perfect. They’re melt-in-the-mouth, with a backnote of chargrill; it’d be hard to better this. Philip has the smoked and dry-cured grouse breast; this is the first time he’s eaten grouse prepared this way, but he says it will not be the last. It’s bold and flavoursome, a revelation of a dish.

Philip has the Scottish herb-crusted lamb rack for his main, which comes with Dauphinoise potatoes, butternut squash puree, heritage carrots, and the richest stickiest berry jus either of us have ever tried. It’s all lovely, but the jus is the killer. We ask the waiter what’s in it, and are surprised to note there’s Pernod in the mix. It seems there’s life in the 80s throwback still. Meanwhile, I’m tucking in to the Scottish venison steak, which is served rare, with braised cabbage, white wine and cream spinach and some carrot crisps. It’s delicious, and makes me resolve to buy some venison next time I visit the butchers.

And then there’s pudding, of course; we’re not ones to say no. Philip decides to sample the salted caramel and dark chocolate torte, while I have the sticky toffee pudding, both of which we have with vanilla ice cream. They’re lovely: dark, sweet and gooey as can be, but perhaps not as noteworthy as what has gone before.

We share a bottle of the house white – a perfectly decent chenin blanc, then retire to our room, a mere ten feet away from the table, declaring ourselves more than happy with all we have consumed.

Would we come back again? You bet we would – for myriad reasons.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield