Pecking Order

 

04/10/17

I’ll be perfectly honest, I really didn’t expect to enjoy this film. A documentary about a bunch of obsessive Kiwi chicken-breeders? it doesn’t really tick any of my boxes, but it is, quite literally, the only film on offer that we haven’t already seen. Which only goes to show how wrong you can be. This quirky, amusing little movie really is good fun and a perfectly pleasant way to spend one hour and twenty eight minutes.

It’s 2015 and the members of the Christchurch Poultry Club, founded one hundred and forty eight years ago, are fast approaching their own ‘night of the long knives.’ The elderly chairman of the society is being challenged by younger members who have plenty of ideas about how the club can be changed for the better, but he’s stubbornly staying in his seat – and meanwhile, the National Poultry Show is fast approaching. Can everything be sorted out in time for that all-important event? Well, yes, but it’s going to take some considerable wheeling and dealing.

The film introduces us to an eclectic bunch of characters, young and old (but, it has to be said, mostly old) all of whom are totally obsessed with the idea of breeding prize winning poultry and are ready and willing to share their secrets with the audience. They are a mostly likeable, if somewhat eccentric collection. We watch them shampooing and blow-drying their roosters, manicuring them and inspecting them for feather damage in the dead of night. We also find out exactly what the judges are looking for in a prize winning bird. Purple feathers? That’s a no-no (apparently).

I’ll be honest, this is nobody’s idea of a cinematic masterpiece. But it’s an enjoyably hokey slice of entertainment, wittily directed by Slavko Martinov and at the end of the day, that’s surely no bad thing. Does it inspire me to think about taking this up as a hobby? Well, no, but I do find myself looking at poultry with a fresh eye and thinking to myself, ‘Lovely plumage on that one.’

Which is worrying…

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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A Streetcar Named Desire

03/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Rapture Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is as intense and uncomfortable as it should be, with a towering central performance by Gina Isaac as Blanche DuBois, who absolutely captures the oxymoronic tigress/moth nature of Tennessee Williams’ most complex anti-heroine.

The story is well-known: Blanche visits her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, in New Orleans, where she soon overstays her welcome, drinking their liquor and sneering at their two-room home. However, despite her airs and graces, it transpires that Blanche has nowhere else to go: the plantation her family owned is gone; there is no money left and she’s lost her teaching job. She’s a tragic creature, as desperate as she is beautiful, as damaged as she is damaging. She clings to the old order, where she had youth and status and respect; she can’t accept that it is gone.

The casting of a black actor (Joseph Black) as Stanley Kowalski adds the suggestion that Blanche’s snobbery is tinged with racism: her descriptions of him as an ‘animal’ or an ‘ape’ mirror the racist language deployed by white supremacists. She feels instinctively superior to him, and is condescending even as she relies on him for the very basics of her existence. Under Michael Emans’ direction, the claustrophobia of their lives is central, emphasised by the small set, which squats at the front of the large stage space. There may well be a world out there, but the characters in this play aren’t able to enjoy it. They’re all trapped, bound together in their misery; it’s a crackling tinderbox.

And when it catches, the fire destroys everything. Stanley rapes Blanche and it’s brutal: Isaac’s depiction of drunken vulnerability makes the moment stark and clear. There is no way this woman is capable of consent. Whatever humiliations she has heaped upon Stanley, in this moment, he is entirely at fault. It’s horrible to watch and it’s very powerful indeed.

I’m not sure about the music, which I think is supposed to be inside Blanche’s head, played at a volume where I can just about catch it. I’m guessing this is the point, but I find it distracting and not a little irritating at times. Still, this is a strong production, which does real justice to Williams’ play, and never shirks from the complexity of the characters portrayed.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Breakfast Club

01/10/17

John Hughes’ 1985 coming-of-age movie is fondly remembered by many, exemplifying the writer/director’s instinctive understanding of the teenage mindset. And I’m delighted to report that its heart hasn’t died, despite the fact that it’s grown old.

Actually, it’s not all that long since I’ve watched it; it’s one of those films I return to periodically: an easy fix of feelgood catharsis, guaranteed to make me laugh and cry as I wallow in nostalgia, mouthing the words that I know by heart. But I’ve never seen it on the big screen before, so The Cameo’s John Hughes season is very welcome indeed. I seize my chance.

The plot, such as it is, is very simple: five kids, each representing a different high school social group, spend a Saturday together in detention for various misdeeds. During the course of their enforced proximity, they get to know one another. And they learn, famously, that each one of them is, in fact, “a brain, an athlete, a basket-case, a princess and a criminal” – i.e. that they’re more similar and more complex than their stereotypes suggest.

But this isn’t really about plot at all; it’s character-driven drama in its purest form. Nothing happens and everything happens. It’s a journey of self-discovery, and of developing empathy; an expose of the tragedies – both large and small – that drive young people into reckless acts. From the undeniable awfulness of Bender (Judd Nelson)’s homelife –  where he’s burned with a cigar for spilling paint on the garage floor – to the peer-pressure heaped on spoilt-little-rich-girl Claire (Molly Ringwald), Hughes’s script recognises the reality of their misery, compounded as it is by the lack of autonomy that comes with the territory.

My favourite moment is when Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) explains the reason he’s in detention: he tried to kill himself because he got an F in ‘shop’ (design technology). It’s painful to watch, and always makes me weep, but then it’s so beautifully undercut by the revelation that he messed the suicide up too, attempting to use a flare gun which went off in his locker, which makes the others laugh despite the gravity of what he’s telling them. It’s glorious.

Emilio Estevez (the athlete) and Ally Sheedy (the basket-case) give excellent performances too (although I still think Allison has more style before the make-over scene than after), as does Paul Gleason as the egocentric teacher, Mr Vernon.

If you haven’t seen The Breakfast Club before, it’s honestly a must. And if you’ve not indulged in it for a while, maybe now’s the time to watch it again. It’s a perfect little film: funny as anything and guaranteed to wring tears from all but the stoniest of viewers.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Brimstone

28/09/17

Westerns are a pretty rare species in this day and age, but even rarer is the Dutch Western – indeed, I can’t think of any others before Martin Koolhaven’s Brimstone, a long and rather visceral story that seems to be mostly a mediation on the awful treatment meted out to women in the Old West. With a variety of locations in Europe standing in (pretty convincingly) for America, the film plays audacious tricks with chronology, jumping backwards from time to time to reveal what happened earlier. It finally zooms back to its starting point for a violent conclusion.

When we first meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), she is a married woman with a stepson and a young daughter to care for. She is also mute and we learn, fairly quickly, this is because she has no tongue. When not working alongside her husband raising sheep, she is the local midwife, helping to deliver her neighbour’s children. But the arrival of The Reverend (Guy Pearce) sends her into an evident state of terror. It’s clear from the first sight of him that the two of them have history and that he is there to exact some kind of vengeance. As the film progresses, we learn more about their past… and it’s not an appealing story. This is a relationship forged in hell.

While I take Koolhaven’s point that women were treated abysmally at that time, I think there’s a fine line between the depiction of such brutality and inviting viewers to relish in those depictions. As I watch, women have their tongues cut out. They are whipped, punched, sexually violated and generally abused. Mind you, the violence is not confined to the female characters. One man has his innards cut out and wrapped around his neck. Another is hanged whilst trying to take a crap. This is clearly not The Little House on the Prairie. Pearce’s character must be one of the most irredeemably malevolent creatures ever committed to film; indeed, the film hints at the fact that he might not even be human, but some kind of supernatural being that simply cannot be killed. It also seems to be putting forward the suggestion that religion is at the heart of all evil

If you can get past all the violence, it has to be said that Brimstone is superbly filmed and acted – it’s great to see Dakota Fanning back on screen and brilliantly handling what must be a very demanding role. I also particularly like the evocative score by Junkie XL (who wrote the music for Mad Max: Fury Road). But to be honest, this is a hard film to enjoy – too heavy-handed in its sadistic depictions of brutality for my taste, even if it does feature some powerful scenes. Game of Thrones fans may like to know that it also features Kit Harrington in a minor role as a gunslinger.

Those of you with sensitive stomachs may want to give this one a miss – and if you’re already upset by the sheer volume of violence against women in film, it’s definitely not for you.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Flatliners

29/09/17

If there was a prize for the least anticipated remake ever, Flatliners would probably be pretty high on the list. On its release, Joel Schumacher’s 1990 original was roundly drubbed by most critics as ‘pretty but vacuous’ and this new version seems to have reached the big screen with very little trumpeting from its makers. On the face of it, not much has changed from the original story.

A bunch of medical students based in an American hospital, all of whom are haunted by incidents in their past, decide to run a series of experiments where they deliberately stop each other’s hearts in order to try and discover the answer to an age old question: is there life after death? Ring leader Courtney (Ellen Page) is tormented by the fact that, nine years ago, she inadvertently caused the death of her younger sister in a car accident. Rich-kid Jamie (James Norton) ran out on his pregnant girlfriend. Sophia (Kiersy Clemons) was the ringleader of a bullying campaign on a vulnerable girl at her high school, and Marlo (Nina Dobrev) accidentally caused the death of a patient at the hospital and then falsified the records. Only Ray (Diego Luna) appears to have no skeletons rattling in his closet but, luckily, he’s the one who always knows what to do in any given emergency – and, inevitably, things go wrong fairly often.

From the word go, viewers are asked to swallow a rather unlikely premise – that there’s a fully equipped and functioning operating theatre down in the hospital’s basement, one that isn’t guarded and is only ever to be used ‘in an emergency.’ (Yes, I know.) However, if you can accept that, what follows is entertaining enough in a kind of breathless, galumphing sort of way. Each character undergoes a freaky near-death experience – and afterwards, is haunted by ghostly visions and inexplicable events. The jump scares are expertly handled by director Niels Arden Oplev and the first two thirds of the film whizz by quite entertainingly. It’s only as it thunders into the final furlong that things begin to run out of steam and I find myself with the conviction that the writers haven’t really thought the story through properly. To be haunted by a dead person is one thing. To be haunted by somebody who is still demonstrably alive and existing happily in the world, is quite another. And to me, that’s a problem. Because, if the ‘spirits’ are only a manifestation of an already guilty conscience, why do the young doctors need to flatline in order to awaken them?

The acting from the ensemble cast is consistent throughout and it’s interesting to see Happy Valley’s James Norton making what looks like a pretty assured transition to Hollywood. Just for the sake of tradition, Kiefer Sutherland (who had a lead role in the original) throws in a cameo performance as a rather grumpy teacher, prone to snarling at his pupils and banging his walking stick on their desks whenever they fail to answer his questions correctly. The film’s somewhat cheesy conclusion – that people need to be ready to ‘forgive themselves’ – kind of blows what’s left of the credibility.

Ultimately, I think, this is one to watch when there isn’t much else on offer – and, come to think of it, that’s exactly why we’re seeing it. It’s decent enough entertainment but, in the end, forgettable and a bit… dare I say it? Flat.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Victoria and Abdul

27/09/17

It’s 1887 and Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has completely lost her zest for life. A widow for something like thirty years (and missing the attention of her much-loved Ghillie, the late Mr Brown,) she suffers silently through a daily onslaught of official functions, signing papers and attending dinners – all under the baleful gaze of a whole retinue of servants who feed her, dress her and even keep watch on the Royal bowel movements. And then along comes Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome young servant despatched from his hometown of Agra in India in order to present the Queen with a rather unprepossessing commemorative coin. In so doing, he breaks with protocol and actually dares to look her in the eye. Something clicks between them. Pretty soon, Abdul has been appointed as her personal servant and, not long after that, as her ‘Munshi’ or teacher, when she decides she’d like to learn to speak Urdu.

Predictably, the appointment causes much consternation in the Royal Household, not least to Edward, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), who feels that a servant – and a Muslim one, to boot – does not make a suitable companion for his mother. Despite this, when Victoria learns that Abdul is a married man, she insists that he send for his wife and daughter immediately and has the family installed in their own cottage on the palace grounds.

This is an interesting true life story in which Dame Judi does her usual seemingly effortless magic, while director Stephen Frears takes the opportunity to nail the jealousy, spite and hypocrisy that always simmers under the polite surface of the aristocracy. Karim, however, remains something of an enigma. Was he a genuinely devoted servant or, like so many others in the Royal household, simply looking to exploit the situation to his own ends? We’re never really sure – and Victoria doesn’t seem to care. Whatever, it’s clear the real exploitation was visited upon the colonies, so who could blame Karim for trying to turn the tables to his own advantage?

Whatever the truth of the situation, he was clearly shabbily treated by Edward and by the supercilious Lord Henry Ponsonby (a lovely swan song from the late Tim Pigott-Smith). There’s also an appealing turn from Adeel Akhtar as Karim’s politically-astute friend, Mohammed, who, shorter and less handsome than his celebrated companion, is doomed to be forever in his shadow. This is an assured little film, beautifully performed by a stellar cast and, while the world doesn’t exactly move for me (a bit like the Royal bowels, I suppose), it’s nonetheless well worth watching, if only to fill me in on a little bit of history I wasn’t previously aware of.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Monty Python’s Spamalot

 

26/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

‘Your father is a hamster and your mother smells of elderberries!’

With dialogue like that,  it can only be Monty Python’s Spamalot, the show that creator Eric Idle claims was ‘lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Since it opened on Broadway in 2005, this musical has played all over the world with a whole string of actors in the central role of King Arthur.

Tonight, in Edinburgh, Arthur is played by Bob Harms and his grubby assistant, Patsy, by Rhys Owen. From the moment they enter on horseback (or rather, on foot, accompanied by the sound of coconut shells) the audience is laughing helplessly, a state they remain in throughout the show. Lovers of Python – and they are many – will have a field day with this, because it features plenty of scenes from the film, together with songs specially composed for the musical (The Song That Goes Like This, which parodies the Andrew Lloyd Webber school of composition, is a particular standout) and, of course, since it’s simply too good to leave out, we are also treated to a version of Always Look On The Bright Side of Life from The Life of Brian, which has us all whistling happily along.

I won’t pretend this is anything more than a piece of fluff but, my goodness, what beautifully presented fluff! The production values here are spot on. Sarah Harlington as The Lady of the Lake submits some astonishing vocals and the various members of the chorus leap and pirouette around the stage for all they are worth. There’s also a fabulous moment where the fourth wall is well and truly broken. It would be a crime to reveal what actually happens but suffice to say one unsuspecting member of the audience is in for a real treat.

Was I entertained? Yes, massively. Could I tell you what the story is actually about? Well, no, but that’s kind of the point. Python always was a celebration of the ridiculous and Spamalot doesn’t change the formula all that much – so of course there are mystical knights desperately in search of a shrubbery. Of course there are interruptions from the voice of God (John Cleese). And of course there’s a killer rabbit – come on, it doesn’t get much better than a killer rabbit!

If you’re feeling a bit down or in need of a tonic, this show could be exactly what you are looking for. I came out with a great big grin on my face. Chances are, you will too.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney