Avengers: Endgame

30/04/19

It’s pointless to try and give this one a body swerve. It lumbers over the cinematic horizon like a behemoth, gobbling up viewers and crushing box office records beneath its massive feet. Resistance is futile.

As one of the few reviewers who was distinctly underwhelmed by Infinity Wars, I still need to see how the Russo Brothers are going to extricate themselves from the corner they’ve seemingly painted themselves into. Oh, right… like that. Well, I guess it was the only way possible…

By the way, those of you who like to cry ‘plot spoiler!’ every time a tiny detail is revealed may want to think twice about reading the following two paragraphs. Just saying.

Endgame opens briefly on events shortly after Thanos (Josh Brolin) has made the most calamitous finger-snap in history. It then moves on five years to show the remaining Avengers trying to come to terms with what has happened to the world. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is now a ruthless swordsmen, carving up Japanese gangsters with relish, whilst sporting a disastrous new haircut that makes him look like a disgruntled cockapoo. Captain America (Chris Evans) is attending therapy classes, but is still impossibly clean and healthy. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), on the other hand, has really let himself go and now sports hippie dreadlocks and a fearsome beer belly. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has learned to manage his anger issues and is permanently trapped in his green, oversized alter ego, Hulk. And… well, so on.

Then, up pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) recently returned from imprisonment in the quantum realm. He brings along an idea that might just undo the Infinity Curse and return the world to where it was five years ago. So the Avengers assemble for one more mission.

OK, so my main beef with this is the same as it was with Infinity Wars, only even more so. There are just too many superheroes for comfort. The way things stand here, they seem to outnumber ordinary people, which can’t be right, surely? And you know, I, for one, am happier with those movies (like Shazam!, for instance) that know they are essentially kids’ film’s and feel no shame about it. Endgame, however, is for the most part so serious it hurts – it’s a great lumbering leviathan, creaking beneath the weight of its own self-importance. Happily, the po-faced stuff is leavened every so often by some much-needed humour, most of it coming from Hemsworth’s corner. (I love the fact that Thor never has to apologise for losing that gym-ready look and Hemsworth always has a cheeky glint in his eye that suggests he knows how ridiculous it all is but couldn’t care less.)

To give the Russo Brothers their due, this doesn’t really feel like a bum-numbing three-hour marathon. It’s action packed enough to allow the time to zip by and, if the script occasionally feels ridiculously over-complicated, well that’s just par for the course when you have an audience that picks so avidly over every little detail. And pick they will. Reports are that people are going back to watch the film over and over again.

Of course, as ever, we are presented with a great big climactic battle, made even more of an endurance test by the fact that the scriptwriters feel duty bound to include every single lead character from the preceding twenty-one movies in the Marvel EU. That’s an awful lot of spandex to take in. And then of course, once the punch up’s done and the dust has settled, there’s the little matter of tying up all those loose ends…

Look, the cinema going public has made its mind up on this, and who am I to say that they’re wrong? I can only speak for myself when I repeat the old mantra ‘less is more.’ Give me one superhero and one villain, and I’m a relatively happy bunny.

Endgame is undoubtedly a big movie, but maybe not in the way it thinks it is.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

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Greta

29/04/19

Neil Jordan is always an interesting director. From his debut with Angel in 1981, through Hollywood blockbusters like Interview With the Vampire, to little jewels like Breakfast on Pluto, he has steadfastly resisted being confined to a particular genre, instead choosing to nip effortlessly back and forth across various categories with alacrity. Greta sees him diving into an old-school psychological thriller, once again tearing up the rule book as he goes, and emerging with something gloriously off-kilter.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) lives in a swish Tribeca apartment with her rich and spoiled flat mate, Erica (Maika Monroe),  earning her rent money as a waitress in a swish Manhattan restaurant. Heading home from work on the subway one night, she chances upon a handbag, which contains the ID for Greta Hildeg (Isabelle Huppert). Though Erica urges Frances to spend the bundle of money that’s also in there,  she decides to do the decent thing and return it to the owner, who turns out to be a lonely piano teacher. Frances has recently lost her mother, and she instantly warms to Greta’s maternal and affectionate manner.

Much to Erica’s disgust, Frances and Greta quickly form a friendship, but Greta soon begins to overstep the mark, coming on way too strong. When Frances makes a chilling discovery in Greta’s apartment, she attempts to call a halt to the friendship, but Greta does not want it to end and seems prepared to go to any lengths in order to keep Frances in her clutches…

This is by no means a perfect film – indeed, there’s a plot twist at one point that frankly beggars belief – but Jordan is very adept at using the tropes of more conventional horror movies to create almost unbearable levels of suspense, something he manages to maintain until the very final frame. It’s refreshing too to see a film that offers three terrific lead roles for women, while the male cast members are merely incidental characters. That said, I felt a tad sorry for Jordan’s old comrade, Stephen Rea, lumbered with a thankless cameo as a detective, stumbling towards his own destruction. Huppert is terrific in the title role (so good that I’m almost ready to forgive her for her involvement in the repellant Elle) and Moretz and Monroe also acquit themselves well.

Given the unfortunate timing of its release (pitched against the audience-gobbling behemoth that is Avengers: End Game) Greta has inevitably been somewhat lost in the shuffle, which is a great shame because – that dodgy plot device notwithstanding – there’s plenty to recommend in this wiry, old-fashioned thriller.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Eighth Grade

28/04/19

I love a good coming-of-age story, and Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a fine example of the genre. It’s charming and excruciating in equal measure, specific to contemporary America yet universal in its appeal. We haven’t all grown up with social media, but we have all endured those painful teenage years, negotiating the complexities of school and home, trying to find where we fit in.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is about to graduate from middle school; she’s lonely and self-conscious, desperate to dispel the myth that she is ‘quiet.’ She vlogs a more outgoing version of herself, but no one seems to be watching; she’s a voyeur, viewing the world through the prism of social media, willing herself to live up to the persona she projects online. Her to-do list is dreadfully sad: get a best friend, be there for them no matter what. She doesn’t want much, but even these small dreams seem beyond her reach.

What’s clever here is the sheer ordinariness of it all. Kayla isn’t odd or unusual; she’s a dorky, awkward everykid. Her dad, Mark (Josh Hamiltion) is a loving parent (her mum is absent; she ‘left’ when Kayla was little, but we don’t find out why, and it doesn’t seem to be a real issue). She isn’t bullied at school; she’s just ignored. Even the stuff that seems scary from the outside – a school shooting drill; an older boy making a pass – doesn’t materialise into anything bigger than Kayla can cope with. This is not a sensationalist film.

Elsie Fisher is delightful in the lead role, as natural and appealing as it’s possible to be. Her vulnerabilities are writ large, but so is her underlying optimism, and the kindness that defines the character. Hamilton is also terrific as Kayla’s devoted dad, patiently struggling to communicate with a daughter who is monosyllabic in his presence, and who reacts angrily to his well-meaning attempts to offer reassurance and love. Theirs is a convincing relationship, a beacon of hope.

As you might expect, there is a lot of humour here too: Burnham is a comedian, after all. But it’s a gentle sort of comedy, delivered with affection; this is, ultimately, life-affirming stuff.

A heart-warming little movie – and one that might just make you want to cut those moody teenagers some slack…

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Zookeeper’s Wife

27/04/19

Like so many recent movies, The Zookeeper’s Wife is based upon a true story, even if closer examination quickly reveals that (as ever) several major liberties have been taken with the facts in order to dramatise the proceedings. But there is a remarkable tale at the heart of this film and it’s evident that Atonina and Jan Zabinski were an extraordinarily brave couple, who really did risk their lives in order to save those of around three hundred Jewish people during the Second World War.

The film opens in 1939, when Antonia (Jessica Chastaine) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), are the proud owners of the Warsaw Zoo. There’s an idyllic, chocolate-boxy feel to the early scenes, as Antonina pedals cheerfully around the zoo grounds dispensing love and care to the resident creatures – doubtless intended to contrast with the grim realities to come. And come they do, because, of course, pretty soon Warsaw has been invaded by the German army and the zoo devastated by bombing raids.  An acquaintance of the Zabinskis, German zoologist (and Nazi) Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), offers to take the zoo’s rarer species to Germany ‘for safe keeping’. He also exhibits evident romantic interest in Antonina.

The Zabinskis consequently decide to exploit this interest by offering to turn their zoo into a massive pig farm, using the resulting meat to feed the German troops, something that Heck happily agrees to – but the couple are secretly planning to use the extensive cellars of their zoo to hide Jews, smuggled from the nearby ghetto, in order to help them escape to freedom. It’s a reckless ambition and one that’ll expose them to considerable danger…

This is a decent and perfectly watchable film, built around a strong performance by Chastain in the central role but – even though the story incorporates some devastating events: the heartless rape of a young Jewish girl; the callous murder of two other women;  the desperate plight of Warsaw’s Jewish population – the film never quite manages to generate the emotional power you’d expect from a story like this. I feel somehow distanced from the onscreen horrors and that is a problem.

Still, this is nonetheless an interesting tale plucked from the pages of history, and the courage of the Zabinskis deserves to be celebrated. The good news is the film is available to watch right now on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Eco Larder

27/04/19

Morrison Street, Edinburgh

Okay, so we don’t usually write about shops here at B&B. We don’t like shopping; the ‘food’ heading is for restaurant reviews (we do like eating out). But The Eco Larder is such a fabulous little store that we just can’t help ourselves. We want to extol its virtues.

And it’s our blog. We can stretch that ‘food’ category to include a shop if we want to. Right?

Run by the lovely Stephanie and Matt, The Eco Larder is a not-for-profit business, a social enterprise, with the laudable aim of eliminating plastic packaging. It’s encouraging to see zero waste shops like these springing up around the country, and The Eco Larder really is a bit special. We’ve all but ditched the supermarket in recent months (apart from an occasional trip to stock up on tinned food and alcohol); instead, we’re taking a weekly walk down Morrison Street, containers at the ready.

The shop is small, but bright and clean, and stocks an impressive array of goods. As well as our dried foods (pasta, rice, seeds, fruit, nuts, pulses, legumes, herbs, spices), we’re also buying our household items here, refilling old bottles with washing up liquid and hair conditioner. They sell loo roll and toothpaste, olive oils and vinegars, fresh bread and organic vegetables, reusable straws and sanitary pads. Honestly, they’ve got it all. As you’d expect, the prices vary. Some things seem expensive; others are very cheap. But overall, our weekly food bill is similar to what it was before; it’s changed the way we eat.

There are treats in store too. We especially love the freshly squeezed orange juice, and not just because it’s fun using the machine. The nut butter is delicious too, and no palm oil (or salt, or sugar) to make this pleasure a guilty one.

The recent addition of a milk vending machine is the icing on the (fair trade) cake. Those of us who live in city centre flats don’t have the option of milk delivery, and it’s rankled, seeing those endless plastic bottles filling up our recycling bag. But now we can take a bottle to The Eco Larder and fill it up with organic semi-skimmed. What’s not to like?

Shopping at The Eco Larder is actually pleasurable – a far cry from the stress of pushing a trolley around Aldi or Waitrose. Matt, Stephanie and their volunteer crew are all friendly and helpful; it’s a calm, gentle experience, and one we both look forward to.

So if, like us, you’re dismayed by the amount of waste you’ve been generating (and you’re in Edinburgh), why not take a walk down Morrison Street and try it for yourself?

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Locker Room Talk

 

23/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Donald Trump’s infamous “you can grab ’em by the pussy” brag caused international outrage: protest marches, column inches, pundits decrying him. But it didn’t cost him anything. The dismissal of his misogyny as “locker room talk” clearly resonated with voters, and he was duly elected president. What chance did Hillary ever have in such a toxic environment?

Gary McNair’s play, Locker Room Talk, is a direct response to this. Are Trump’s words really just banter, typical of what men say when women aren’t around to hear them?  If so, what does that tell us? And what should we do?

McNair set off with a voice recorder, and interviewed a lot of men. The result is an hour-long verbatim piece, performed – crucially – by four women (Maureen Carr, Jamie Marie, Nicola Roy and Gabriel Quigley), each wearing an earpiece and repeating the men’s words exactly as they hear them.

It’s chilling, listening to these words spoken by their subjects, squirm-inducing to hear women articulating the sexism that’s directed against them. The men’s voices are diverse, covering different socio-economic and age groups. But they’re united in their reductive brutality; their points-scoring systems; their adherence to stereotypes of women as sex objects, nags or domestic chore-doers. Spoken by women, the dark underbelly of the badinage is fatally exposed. The performances are stark and illuminating, the portrayals clever and detailed.

Of course this is heavily edited, the most vile and disparaging responses selected for impact. Of course the questions are leading, the responses shaped by what the participants think the interviewer wants to hear. And, of course, there are lots of men out there who’d never dream of saying things like these. But none of this matters here: it’s not a scientific study or academic research; it’s a play, a snapshot of how some men – too many men – talk about women. As a provocation, it’s perfect. We have to challenge this kind of talk; it isn’t good for anyone.

The question and answer session, expertly facilitated by Dr Holly Davis, is billed as a “post-show discussion” but, actually, it’s very much part of the play. This is the point, I think: to stimulate dialogue, to find a way forward.

Because it’s not okay to boast about “grabbing pussies” – is it?

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

What Girls Are Made Of

17/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed What Girls Are Made Of at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which is a shame because Cora Bissett’s autobiographical tale was a First Fringe winner there and enjoyed great word of mouth. This timely reshowing at the Traverse gives us an opportunity to catch up with it and boy, are we glad we do.

From the moment she wanders onto the stage carrying a cardboard box full of ‘memories,’ Bissett has us clutched in the palm of her hand – and she expertly delivers her picaresque story, relating her knockabout schooldays in Kirkcaldy, her early years in rock music and her exciting brush with fame when her newly formed band Darlingheart shared stages with the likes of Blur and Radiohead at the height of the Britpop phenomenon. Bissett is a superb raconteur and she knows exactly how to pull an audience into her world.

If you’re thinking that this is a piece that concentrates only on the good times, let me assure you that it also takes in the darker side of the music industry, demonstrating how a young musician’s hopes and dreams can be ground underfoot by unscrupulous record labels. There’s a reason you may not have heard much about Darlingheart, and Bisset reveals it all in excruciating detail. This part of her story speaks volumes to me: back in my teen years, I too was a hopeful in a rock band, and went through my own long dark night of the soul at the hands of the music moguls.

Lest I give the impression that this is just a solo performance, I should add that the three members of her band (Simon Donaldson, Harry Ward and Susan Bear) not only provide a kicking soundtrack for Bissett’s story, but also take on a multitude of roles, playing key characters on her journey with aplomb, Ward in particular evincing much laughter as her indomitable mother. Ward is an arresting performer, last seen by B&B in the superb Dark Carnival, also at The Traverse.

Bissett eventually emerged from the carnage of Darlingheart, learning how to survive, and finally carving out a career as a writer, performer and director. Her conclusion – that we are all a result of the various obstacles we overcome in our path through life – is cannily encompassed in a final, rousing song.

This is enervating stuff and the standing ovation the four performers receive as the last chords die away is well earned. If you can grab a ticket for What Girls Are Made Of, do so with all haste. It’s often said, but I’m saying it anyway: this is simply too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney