Monday, January 20, 2020

Bombshell – telling the story of Ailes at Fox reveals Trump’s ticking timebomb

Bombshell a sick, telling a story that should never have had to be told. It’s about abuses of power, about chains of command that can keep awful secrets hushed up and not spoken about even though hundreds of people have more than a clue about what is going on. In one sense, it’s a universal story; in another, its awful essence is that it is based on a US television news channel that was meant to be reporting wrong-doing and exposing perpetrators rather than covering up its own sin.

When presenter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) was forced out of Fox News, she sued the chairman and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) claiming sexual harassment. Ailes had built the conservative-leaning network up into a huge profit centre of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Even before the film studio video idents are played, a screenful of text reminds Bombshell audiences that the real-life story has been dramatized. A younger composite character (Kayla Pospisil played by Margot Robbie) is used to challenge one of the older protagonists, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) about the cost to others of her years of silence about Ailes behaviour. I still can’t decide whether a silent scene with the three principle women in a lift is brilliantly uncomfortable or excruciatingly poor.

Over on this side of the pond, these Fox News figures are not particularly well known and some commentators who know a lot more are reluctant to label Megyn Kelly as a hero. But director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph seem to attempt to redeem Theron’s character at the start of the film with footage of her challenging Trump over his attitude towards women at a Republican presidential candidate debate:

“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals … Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on the Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president? And how do you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton – that you are part of the war on women?”

While I’m male and no expert, to me the film successfully portrays Ailes behaviour as unequivocally wrong, and conscientiously explores the complex emotional and financial reactions to Carlson’s accusations. Some women who had experience of Ailes’ harassment lie low while others stand square behind the sleazy second floor boss who had more than a penchant for female presenters’ legs, viewing his abuse as a transaction that had advanced their careers. Even Kelly’s producer, played by Rob Delaney, swings between supporting his female colleagues and self-interest about his own future if they dare to speak out.

Kidman depicts the main accuser as someone who does their homework and remains calm under pressure, even when other women are slow to speak to her lawyers and join her action. Theron demonstrates the hesitancy of her character’s need to weigh up the possible effect of speaking out on her career and reputation. Robbie manages the delicate balance of portraying someone who is young and ambitious yet vulnerable and trapped. Her interactions with a gay colleague played by Kate McKinnon add to the three-dimensional reading of the complex relationships and fears at play in this super-conservative workplace.

Bombshell takes a while to warm up and launch its attack. The opening sequences break the fourth wall and allow Kelly/Theron to address the cinema audience before reverting to more traditional storytelling, though inner monologues still periodically burst out. Shade is liberally thrown, with an element of guilt by association of which the average audience cannot judge its veracity.

Yet Bombshell turns into a powerful reminder that no single man – or in this case, two: Ailes and Bill O’Reilly both leave Fox under considerable clouds – can bring everyone in an organisation down with them when they fall. The inclusion of presidential candidate Trump in the tale is surely a nod to his own feet of clay and the possibility that he is not beyond being toppled over under the burden of past sins.

The film also reminds audiences that there is a cost to speaking out: being part of Ailes’ downfall has not been good for some of the women’s careers and earning potential. In choosing to depict complexity over an (even more) simplified narrative, Bombshell highlights moral dilemmas without mandating particular binary choices that everyone should have taken.

In a good world, there would never be a need to make another film like Bombshell. But in the meantime, this is just one drop in a cinematic ocean from a film industry that has a lot of stories of bullying, harassment and coercion littering its own back yard to expose and atone for.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

1917 – set in an immersive battlefield, the technical bravado overshadows a weak story

Pick a man. Grab your kit. It’s 6 April 1917, and the instructions thrust Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) into an unwanted mission as he accompanies Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) across no man’s land, through seemingly deserted enemy lines to warn another company not to proceed with an attack that will see thousands of men walk into a trap, with the added hook that Blake’s brother is at the far end and due to be part of the doomed attack.

A single camera travels with the pair, sometimes anticipating their movements, watching from in front and then circling around behind as they navigate the treacherous terrain. The giant CGI rats deserve an Oscar. The very long takes are neatly stitched together, though the passage of time and distance (the lorry, the blackout, the river, resting with the mother and baby) is a constant struggle throughout a two-hour film that relies on enormously detailed trench sets, armies of extras, and fabulous ADR that recreates the immersive sound of the battlefield and the pair’s journey to add grit to the less than weighty story.

As war movies go, 1917 contains at least as many warnings about the failings of war as moments of heroism. Some of its strongest themes are the questioning the motivations of senior leaders (seen to be gung-ho) and the articulation (by Schofield) that widows won’t be cheered up by gallantry medals. This is a film about following orders, brotherhood and sacrifice; about letting go and getting up; about endurance and inner steel; about the fruitlessness and mass death that comes with war.

Neither the storyline nor that dialogue is particularly rich or believable (though the inspiration for the plot comes from a story from director Sam Mendes’ family). It takes a long time before there’s any real sense of tension, even when the pair jump into an Indiana Jones-style sequence running through collapsing tunnels, though the first big death scene delivers an emotional punch. Everyone they meet along the way is merely a wayfarer, present for a few minutes before the mission rushes on past, leaving them in the dust behind. So it’s highly appropriate that near the end Schofield pauses in a field and listens as the haunting voice of a soldier singing The Wayfaring Stranger wafts over a field of resting troops.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil or danger
in that bright world to which I go.

I know dark clouds were headin' around me
I know my way is tough and steep
Yet beautious fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed their vigils keep.

I'm going there to see my mother
She said she'd meet me when I come
I'm only goin' over Jordan
I'm only goin' over home...

The technical bravado (I’d love to see the IMAX version) and 1917’s ambitions are impressive, but perhaps, most of all, Mendes should be applauded for avoiding dressing up war as anything other than a monstrous act that must be avoided at all costs.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Just Mercy – lead performances and civil rights at risk capture attention despite muted direction (UK and Irish cinemas from 17 January)

By telling the story of Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy throws light onto a racist and corrupt criminal justice system in Alabama, and his work from the early 1990s to defend some of the prisoners on death row who sentences were very uncertain. Sadly, it’s also a somewhat universal tale that still has relevance in the US today, though are also significant echoes in a number of recent news stories about summary justice, humiliation, collusion and discrimination at home and abroad.
“You think those fancy words are going to get you anywhere in Alabama?”

Michael B Jordan plays the young lawyer who is not daunted by the total lack of success of overturning convictions of felons facing the death sentence in the state of Alabama, and in particular his work to shed light on the manipulation, intimidation, and even ignored witnesses, that put Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) behind bars for the murder of a white woman he did not commit.

It’s a strong storyline, and Jordan and Foxx’s performances, often appearing head-to-head in prison interview rooms, are sturdy. Brie Larson is relegated to the role of paralegal colleague Eva Ansley with whom Stevenson can have lofty conversations, including one chat set at the side of a lake seemingly for no particular reason other than aesthetics. The local Sheriff and the District Attorney are in each other’s pockets, though escape being as fully demonised on-screen as they surely deserve.

The strongest and most affecting scenes occur inside the prison. The camaraderie on death row paints a remarkable picture of community and mutual support. A scene of execution is handled sensitively and is a crucial set-up for a number of characters to change their tune. The courtroom scenes are overly succinct and act as dramatic shortcuts, with surging preachy speeches and very little legalese, removing any suspicion that the 137-minute film is about to turn into a docudrama, but also removing any feeling of realism.

Somehow the passion of Stevenson and the perilous life and death nature of his clients’ cases is unexpectedly restrained as the story unfolds. Yet while the importance of the true story behind the film may have deserved a more bombastic movie, the lead performances and the civil rights at risk capture your attention despite Destin Daniel Cretton’s muted direction.

Just Mercy will be screened in Movie House Cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre as well as other UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 17 January.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Little Women – Saoirse Ronan stars in Greta Gerwig’s superb adaptation, a real tonic for the new year

Why couldn’t Little Women be three and a half hours long and The Irishman cut to half of its flabby run time? Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book is a magical cinematic experience for the start of 2020.

The March family are strong of spirit, poor in pocket, with riches stored in their hearts. Young Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the most like her sacrificially giving mother (Laura Dern), while Amy (Florence Pugh) is headstrong and artistic, Meg (Emma Watson) has talent that she suppresses in favour of making a family, while the eldest Jo (Saoirse Ronan) cuts a lonely path as she asserts her independence to the point of lost ambitions.

The sisterly performances are all strong, but Ronan’s sometimes sullen yet eventually caring attitude as Jo is enchanting and deservedly owns the central strand of the story. Meryl Streep’s formidable Aunt March doles out harsh life lessons and makes decisions that upset and surprise. Timothée Chalamet plays a rather dashing boy-next-door love interest who melts more than one March girl heart.

There’s a discussion about whether marriage is transactional from different gender perspectives and yet again this year I seem to be faced with a story that examines the prospect of women being seen as the property of men. In the midst of this, Jo is able to garner an income writing fiction and even secures her copyright, helping support her family through some of the struggles that they face.

There’s a lot of timeline hopping with flashbacks galore, yet it weaves together into a rich picture rather than a confusing melange. The collision of desire between Jo and younger Amy is just one drama that keeps the second half of the 135-minute film flowing.

In a decade that is beginning with harsh and selfish government policies that don’t do much to build community or look out for the disadvantaged, Little Women is a tonic that reminds us that everyone can choose to pull their weight.

The film doesn’t specifically feel like a female led movie written and directed by a woman. It doesn’t feel like an adaptation of a book that is 160 years old. It is all of those things. But more than that, it’s the well-crafted plot devices, great performances and talent in front and behind the screen that create such a successful film. Little Women deserves to win lots of awards, but more importantly, it deserves to be seen by big audiences.

Little Women is still being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Movie House Cinemas, Omniplex Cinemas, Odyssey Cinema, The Strand Arts Centre, and beyond!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Long Day’s Journey into Night – a technical marvel that overshadows its poorly told story

If you ever need an example of film whose form and technical prowess gets so far ahead of the story that the plot dissolves into thin air, look no further than Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

It’s the evening of the winter solstice, and Luo Hongwu (played by Huang Jue) has returned to his hometown of Kaili to search for a lost love Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). There follows an existential journey …

The first half of the movie is conventional, although there is little scaffolding to help signpost the storyline. The early cinematography revels in reflective surfaces that add layers of intrigue to the dank sets. Luo’s behaviour towards women – yanking their hair – makes him an anti-hero and a bad guy.

Then Wan sits down in a cinema and dons his 3D glasses, a cue for cinema audiences to take theirs out of their hands and wear them for the final hour of the film which switches to an immersive, apparently single-shot, 3D extravaganza. (Though not much is lost if you watch a fully 2D version of the film as I did in the QFT.)

The horse with the oranges panics on cue. The rain is Biblical. The subtitles are the smallest ever in the history of cinema. Wan’s green dress should win awards. The steps up and down the final set must have worn out a lot of Steadicam operators. But the wizardry of shifting a camera from bike to human to slide to drone to human, not to mention a location that starts to spin, all distracts from the weakly told story.

When Long Day’s Journey into Night comes out on DVD, it would be worth buying to watch it to listen to a director’s commentary. But the original movie was far from satisfying and left me applauding the handful of souls who walked out of the screening at the 40-minute mark. For the first time in years, I’m not pleased I stayed to the bitter end.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Belfast Children's Festival launches with the best of local and international arts for children and young people (6–11 March) #bcf20

Ireland’s largest children’s festival was launched on Wednesday with a programme packed full of drama, dance, music, and thoughtful activity for babies, children and young people. Between Friday 6 and Wednesday 11 March the festival will explore the theme of ‘place’, asking what makes a home and how to be a placemaker.

Welcoming the festival launch to its hub venue, The MAC’s CEO Anne McReynolds reminded guests that year after year Young at Art bring the best the world has to offer for children and young people.

Some highlights from the programme:

The Untold Truth of Captain Hook by local theatre company Replay allows the villain of Peter Pan to become the hero of his own tale, taking audiences on an awfully big adventure through the time before Neverland in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio between Friday 6 and Sunday 8 March. Age 7+. £10.

After last year’s concert version of horror opera The Musician, Belfast Ensemble are back with the world premiere of Conor Mitchell’s Kindermusik Project which uses nursery rhymes and nonsense songs to explore what a tune ‘means’, how we hear it, and how we might one day play it. Written for narrator, chamber ensemble and toy instruments, it will be performed in St Martin’s Centre, 88 Newtownards Road between Friday 6 and Sunday 8 March. Age 6+. £10.

ØAR is an immersive augmented reality fusion of dance and technology. Participants can interact with short dance works using connected tablet, moving and interacting with and influencing the performances. Belfast campus of Ulster University on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 March. Age 5+. Free.

Baby Rave, pioneered by festival organisers Young at Art, is back with its accessible, family-friendly dancing in The MAC on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 March with its fun-filled Age 0–4. £10 (includes entry for adult and baby).

Last year’s Family Comedy Club with Paul Currie’s brand of madcap puppetry and clowning sold out very quickly. He’s back in the Black Box on Tuesday 10 March if you dare accompany your youngsters. Age 6+. £10.

Hermit is a non-verbal physical performance from Dutch artist Simone de Jong who is the shy inhabitant of a miniature house, promising to be a funny and moving performance about being alone, coming home, and what it takes to open your home. Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 March. Age 2–6. £10.

Seedhead Arts have long run adult magic nights in the Black Box Green Room. But they’re bringing a Mini Midweek Magic to the Belfast Children’s Festival on Wednesday 11 March with close-up magic, stage tricks and thrills for all by the best local talent. Age 5+. £8.

Tetris closes the festival on Wednesday 11 March with a Dutch physical dance quartet Arch8 who – inspired by the well-known game – explore private languages, social architecture and how we fit in and cooperate through a performance suitable for 5 year olds and upwards. Age 5+. £10.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The First Day by Phil Harrison – a tale of biblical knowledge, love, loss and revenge

Phil Harrison’s The First Day is a phenomenal debut novel. Immersed in a protestant evangelical world, it explores the repercussions an east Belfast mission hall pastor Samuel Orr’s passionate love affair with a younger unchurched Beckett scholar and poet Anna Stuart. It’s a setup that doesn’t seem so fanciful with the sad news this weekend from a church in Newtownards.

Initially narrated from Anna’s viewpoint before switching to the thoughts of their son some thirty years later, we watch how father of three Orr manages to rationalise his adulterous behaviour with his faith’s view on sin. Soon we also watch his inability to control the violent fallout from his fall from grace, and discover how judgement waxes and wanes in a society that only pretends to distinguish between good and evil in its most binary form. Though the gospel hall easily separates his no longer tolerable leadership with his continuing membership in a way the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly might find harder to swallow.
“… the way he looked at her, opened her up. The way a farmer looks at a field he’s about to plough.”

This is the second book I’ve read this year that is laced with issues of male ownership of female bodies. Harrison creates unusual similes that surprise, intrigue and often entertain, lightening the flow of reading what is at times a dark and sinister tale.

The somewhat mysterious yet warm narrator and the shifting perspectives are well crafted and don’t distract. The fact that 30 years into the future everything still seems to be the same as today is perhaps part of the books message and metaphor. Biblical text and lines from Beckett, sermon snippets and fine art criticism are melded together with beautifully written passages that describe love, lust, loss and revenge.

Harrison writes with elegance, an accessible intellect, and while Anna and Orr’s relationship has a somewhat rarefied and cinematic feel – The First Day could make a great film split across Belfast and Manhattan – there’s a pace and urgency that propelled this reader to squeeze in another ten or twenty pages before switching out the bedside light in the wee small hours of the morning.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

A Run in the Park – an all too brief treat from the pen of David Park

Having missed the first episode but listened to the next three on BBC Radio 4 catch-up on the drive down to an appointment to get stabbed in Newry – a travel vaccination administered by a Boots’ pharmacist rather than anything more sinister – I was delighted to realise that the text of David Park’s ten part series was available in print.

A Run in the Park listens in to the thoughts of some of the participants in a nine-week Couch to 5k programme. I’m shocked, nay devastated, to discover that David Park has taken part in such an exercise regime. I can only trust that this phase of getting his breath in short pants was purely for research purposes and won’t mark the abrupt change of his normal sober and sceptical sensibility that first came to my notice 12 years ago in 2008 with the publication of The Truth Commissioner!

Maurice is a widower who can’t seem to help his family but has decided to step out and tackle his weight and lethargy. Cathy is a sweet librarian who worries about her pregnant daughter in Australia. A young couple are planning a wedding but while a silver spoon was popped in Angela’s mouth shortly after birth, nurse Brendan is unsettled by the ambitious preparations. Yana is perhaps the youngest yet most experienced runner in the group who meet three times a week to train. Exercise was her escape in a sprawling refugee camp before being relocated in Northern Ireland under the UK government scheme to help Syrian families.

The metaphor of individual runners working as a team finds its way into the structure of A Run in the Park. While each episode stands alone as its own short story, they come together to create a powerful narrative about an encouraging cross-generational community, sharing goals, experiencing loss, and the healing power of touch.

It’s a short set of stories, ten internal monologues each spanning nine or ten pages. You can read it end-to-end in a couple of hours. Another one or two hundred pages could have been added to flesh out the backstories and show the reader how Park imagines it all ends. But instead, the accomplished author revels in paring back the detail and leaving every reader or listener to write their own stories for these characters.

Despite the brevity, there are still gut-wrenching scenes from chapter four onwards, and as I switched off the light last night and turned onto my soggy pillow to fall asleep, the pathos of the turmoil facing many of the central characters remained vivid as I closed by eyes. It’s a privilege to join Angela, Brendan, Cathy, Maurice and Yana as they overcome inertia and set their bodies and minds in motion. And hopefully a taster of more fully pledged titles from Park in the near future.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Films of 2019 … and my top pick, Woman at War

My take on my favourite, as well as the most disappointing, films of the 80 or so titles I reviewed online or on the Banterflix TV show during 2019.

My top film of the year has got to be Woman At War which looks under the model citizen veneer of a community choir conductor and finds an eco-activist lurking who takes direct action against the Icelandic government’s plans to expand the aluminium-smelting plant to take on Chinese orders. Smart, funny, quirky and possibly the most unexpected action film of the year.

My other favourite films of the year …

Extra Ordinary is a well-named escapist supernatural Irish comedy that was a complete blast. With an ending that takes this potential cult classic into a whole other realm, it’s hard to fault this stream of imagination that’s been structured into a coherent and comedic film about a driving instructor turning her back on family ‘talent’.

Capernaum is a reminder that children often bear the brunt of conflict. This is a fictional, yet believable, tale of young Zain, who lives with his siblings and parents in a Beirut slum. With an old head on young shoulders, and a keen observer on what is going on – and not going on – around him in his family, his neighbourhood and wider Lebanese society, Zain has the drive to try to escape. A flawed plot device but an essential film.

For Sama is a heartbreaking record of the ordinary and extraordinary in under-siege Aleppo - journalist Waad al-Kateab’s love letter For Sama to her daughter, born in the conflict.

Gloria Bell sees director Sebastián Lelio return to his 2013 Chilean Gloria with Julianne Moore in the titular role. Moore delivers a masterclass in awkwardness, navigating the conflicts and emotional family situations with a confidence that lets the audience sit back and enjoy the ride. At no point did the plot get its emotional hooks into me, but unusually that didn’t dampen my enjoyment. Gloria Bell is an incredibly satisfying film that deserves its explosive conclusion and the final song from karaoke queen Gloria. The cinematic equivalent of a warm hug.

Apollo 11 was Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary that constrained itself to the period of the launch until the crew arrived back on Earth and sat out 18 long days in quarantine. It used NASA film footage from numerous angles in the launch and mission control rooms and from the Saturn rocket, command and lunar modules, and combined it with the 30-track tapes of mission control voice recordings. No distracting talking heads. Instead it let the first manned mission to the moon tell its own story. The filmmakers trusted that the implicit danger and the obvious dedication of the NASA staff and Apollo crew would be sufficient to carry the 93-minute film. Their bet paid off with a documentary that enthrals and excites.

Ready or Not is the beautifully barbaric tale of a troubled family’s initiation ceremony for people marrying into the household. It’s a bonkers, macabre, gorefest that will have you rolling in the aisle. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett pull off the trick of planting a grin on audience faces right at the moment something grotesque happens. The accidental dispatch of members of the household staff never fails to be comical. Proper horror.

Captain Marvel had no shortage of action scenes, with barely a blond hair out of place on the scalp of Brie Larson after she knocked nine bells out of the baddies. The film’s ‘girl power’ feminism is worn very lightly. It’s a movie, about stopping wars rather than simply warmongering. If the big film studios are going to insist on churning out superhero films, then let’s have more frivolous stuff like Captain Marvel please. Solid entertainment without so much worldbuilding that the universe collapses on top of its audience.

Joker wasn’t without fault. It’s set in the past (1981) but relies on modern themes. Women are somewhat incidental in the movie. The violence isn’t entertaining. But the thrill of the film is watching Joaquin Phoenix’s title performance. Every movement, every twitch adds to our understanding of the gaunt man behind the mask. And then the moment comes as the Joker walks down a steep set of steps, dressed in a natty red suit and orange waistcoat, with war paint applied. He turns into the familiar figure that has been drawn and acted by so many over the years. The manic dance, the bend of the knees, the flailing hands. The image of a man out of control. The Joker is born. And the scene that follows with Robert De Niro playing talk show host Murray Franklin is the chilling cherry on the cake.

Sometimes Always Never is a story split over two parts and three generations. An initial road trip sees Alan Mellor (Bill Nighy) as a grandfather and a tailor who travels with his son Peter (Sam Riley) to see if they can identify a body washed up on the shore in a town around the coast from where they live. On the silver screen it is a charming, eccentric and witty story of a Scrabble shark who knows about losing.

Accolades for some films made locally or with local resonance …

An Engineer Imagines was a beautiful tribute to the life and work of genius dreamer and cross-disciplinary structural engineer Peter Rice (educated at QUB) whose inspirational talent and unorthodox approach to design and building was superbly portrayed.

The Dig shows a community digging themselves into and out of an early grave. Moe Dunford played Callahan, a prisoner who had served his time and returned to his family homestead. It was moody, bleak, and while totally un-uplifting, there were plenty of gritty performances, inhospitable landscapes and the gradual revelation of the story.

A Hole in the Ground watched single mum Sarah (Seána Kerslake) leave her old life behind and move to a remote rural location with her son Chris. Atmospheric and sinister rather than scary, an Irish horror with a sinister sinkhole, spiders and spaghetti.

Bathroom drops in on two circus artists Regina and Ronald (Angelique Ross and Ken Fanning) who are trapped, living in their upstairs bathroom following ‘the Situation’. They’re locked into a cycle of performing routines and recording them to satisfy the gas mask-wearing visitor Slav from the Council who also provides food to hoist up in a bucket. It's a celebration of circus and proves that the art-form can succeed as effectively under a hot tap as a under a big top. Its light-hearted, unpretentious visualisation of circus mentality is very entertaining, and its allegory overcomes any looseness in the plot. A real highlight from Belfast Film Festival.

A Bump Along the Way with a mum and daughter doing a bit of growing up in a female-centred drama that celebrates ochre and Derry’s scenery. Gorgeous cinematography, but so balanced between the story of the mother and the daughter that neither was given sufficient room. But a fine film about making the most of what life throws at you, valuing good friendships over popularity, and the perils of parenting.

Extra Ordinary is a well-named escapist supernatural Irish comedy that was a complete blast. With an ending that takes this potential cult classic into a whole other realm, it’s hard to fault this stream of imagination that’s been structured into a coherent and comedic film about a driving instructor turning her back on family ‘talent’.

Lost Lives is a lament for the lost lives of the Troubles, a beautiful film about a grim period of local history. Sober spoken words strike into your soul. Provocative, raw, touching and very melancholy.

Ordinary Love is a triumph of restraint as script, direction, music and cast (Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson) combine with the audience’s own insecurities to journey for a year through cancer. Has Whiteabbey ever looked as good?

And to finish, the greatest cinematic disappointments of 2019 …

Aquaman was more fowl than fish, a triumph of CGI and costumes over plot.

Vice was a character assassination grudge of a film (aimed squarely at VP Dick Cheney) that reinforces whatever prejudices you walk into the cinema with.

The Kid Who Would Be King was either a genius parody about the current Brexit debacle or just a film that brought the Arthurian legend into modern times but lacked the script and dialogue a pre-teen audience deserved.

I’m a fan of Atomic Blonde (will there be a sequel in 2020?), Red Sparrow and Salt, but Luc Beeson’s atrocious Anna (starring Sasha Luss) was pallid excuse for a female spy thriller.

Alita: Battle Angel ended up as a cyberpunk slasher roller derby dystopian triumph of motion capture and CGI over plot. While it ticks James Cameron’s boxes for having a strong central lead character and exploring how humanity adapts to technology. However, the epic ambition in Cameron’s mind was not delivered in the script he wrote and the film costing close to $200 million that Robert Rodriguez directed.

The Current War didn’t light me up with its tale of Edison and Westinghouse competing for the electric crown while Tesla looked on in poverty.

IT Chapter 2 was burdened by a 169-minute run time, an appalling ending with a second-rate cinematic pay off as the adult Losers Club were outflanked by their younger selves.

The Irishman was so not worth the three-and-a-half-hour hype – heresy to say, I know – but I’m still glad I saw it in the cinema (with no toilet break) rather than trying to watch it on a small screen on-demand.

See you in 2020.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Cats – never quite achieves its ambition of becoming The Greatest Showcat

Evita easily translated to film with a sweeping story of misused power that was rooted in reality. The cinematic version of Cats is more of an ask with neither huge crowd scenes to wow nor gripping characters with which to pour out your empathy.

The music is good, the singing fresh and the bringing to life of performing mice and marching cockroaches works well in the CGI world. Paying homage to TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats through the recital of verse is less effective, and the initial appearance of Grizabella the Glamour Cat (Jennifer Hudson) is somewhat underwhelming, though her later rendition of Memory is superb.

Steve McRae’s routine as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat impresses, James Corden’s cameo as Bustopher Jones is passable as a star turn, while Ian McKellen shines as Gus the Theatre Cat and Judi Dench should play every role from now on dressed up as Old Deuteronomy given the sense of presence and warmth she wraps up in that furry catsuit.

The last time I saw Cats was on a school stage, showing off the dancing rather the musical talent of the pupils. In Tom Hooper’s new version, the dancing is less thrilling – that’s more about the distance from the screen and the style of editing than the quality of the performances – though Francesca Hayward creates some very graceful moves and shapes while playing the abandoned kitten Victoria.

The finale of the Jellicle Ball requiring the magical abilities of Mr Mistoffelees (played charmingly by wide-eyed Laurie Davidson) is definitely the story’s high point, though it never achieves its ambition to become The Greatest Showcat.

Instead, Cats translates Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular musical to the silver screen in a way that works for anyone already familiar with the music and story, but doesn’t add much to what a televised version of the stage show could achieve … the 1998 film of the West End production is still available! Update – having now watched the 1998 DVD, the new film has marginally more story and less confusion than the watching-paint-dry televised stage version. Hmmmm ...

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker – making a last stand to save a dying franchise and answer the question ‘Who is Rey?’

I’m not a Star Wars hater, though I did smirk when I read Barra Best’s Facebook post about the correct order to view the films. Top trolling! The middle films to be produced (and tacked on the front of the classic trilogy) were weak. But some of the more recent additions to Star Wars canon showed signs of improvement.

Episode VII: The Force Awakens was sufficiently retro and full of cliché that happy nostalgia flowed through my veins. I really enjoyed Rogue One. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi lacked hope, lacked Rey (Daisy Ridley), and required a man to turn up and conclude every perilous situation. And let’s not talk about Solo: A Star Wars Story which lacked charm and could have been be subtitled ‘The Great Train Robbery meets Hustle meets Robot Wars in space’.

I sat down in my cinema seat as the familiar yellow text crawled up the screen and hoped that Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker would provide a decent conclusion. It’s definitely not a movie that works as a standalone piece of content. And I struggle to believe that a high enough proportion of cinemagoers are so invested in the series that they can correctly place all the characters and loose threads that are being tied up in neat bows to give it a graceful ending.

There’s a real problem with scale. Spaceships seem to travel vast distances across galaxies at the same speed, no matter their size or condition (and many are literally rust buckets). Key characters can turn up in the same spot defying the rules of probability and the firepower of the Empire’s new fleet.

There are a lot of goodbyes, yet the franchise is extremely reluctant to kill off any of the main characters. Even in this last episode of the story.

There’s a problem with Rey’s parentage – an oft-referred to aspect to Episode IX’s narrative arc – that is really not adequately addressed by the final scene which can surely only be taken as some kind of existential overlay rather than an actual answer.

The opening scenes are wordless and yet introduce the concept of “a New Empire” (very New Labour) with none of the banal dialogue that JJ Abrams allows to pepper the remaining hours of the film. An arch-nemesis who has been pulling the strings continues to stay one step ahead of the Jedi until quite near the end. General Leia has become oddly crucial to the franchise, and while Carrie Fisher is held fondly in fans’ hearts, to me her on-screen presence seems to distract and be more about memorialising the actress than properly developing the twin sister of Luke Skywalker.

A central concern – every film resonates with Brexit in some form or other – is the worry that ordinary people have given up hope and become apathetic in their fight against the Empire. Yet there are deserters who do the right thing and a Dunkirk-like rescue to restore any wavering faith in the Force. “Good people will fight if we lead them.”

Without introducing too many spoilers, watch out for a hot-wired ship that looks like a pair of flying binoculars. The cast visit a Burning Man festival in a desert. A bearded Jedi Father Christmas delivers a very useful present. There are horses in space, and flying Stormtroopers … though the technology seems a little bleeding edge. And Rey comes face to face with demons from her past and some old friends.

Fans may be satisfied, but this cinemagoer’s happiness could have been sated if the story had been curtailed after the first three films (Episodes IV–VI). As much as I love BB-8 and D-0 droids, and enjoy Rey’s attempt to carve out a solo role that isn’t propped up by men (dead and alive), I was disappointed with the 141-minute long conclusion of the franchise 42 years after it began. If anything, the whole of the series is now less than the sum of its parts.

Rewilding Winter Cabaret – a rich potage of irreverent madness to chew on (Writers Square until Sunday 22 December)

The word ‘rewilding’ suggests that something has become tame and is now on the turn. And it’s a good metaphor for the smorgasbord of acts that have come together under the banner of Rewilding Winter Cabaret to delight Belfast audiences in Cathedral Quarter in the run up to Christmas.

The temporary big top squeezed into Writers Square contrasts with the permanence of the stone block Belfast Cathedral on the other side of the road. Both have high roofs. Both had their lights on last night. Both use music and storytelling. Both host events that reflect on issues facing us as stewards of the planet. Both celebrate winter festivals … though in very different ways.

There’s a definite irreverence and a gentle pushing of the boundaries in the cabaret which promises to be “unconventional, environmentally friendly, late night, gender neutral [and] Belfast brewed”. Imagine ‘vegan circus’ and you’ll not be a million miles away from the woke vibe. Punters who bought tickets that included food get a tasty hot cardboard box of vegan goodness from Curated Kitchen to tuck into while comedy songstress Emer Maguire takes to the stage with her clever and entertaining odes to syndromes, class and online love. (Why isn’t she a regular of Radio 4’s Dead Ringers?)

The eco-theme pops up later with Victor McVictor’s energetic exploration of the familiar animals inhabiting the rave jungle, and a Turkey (Cecil McNulty) who somewhat selfishly espouses the benefits of veganism at Christmas and not eating sausages with every meal. Grant Goldie’s contact juggling mesmerises. With Rewilding Winter hosted in a circus tent, it’s entirely appropriate that Suzanne’s impressive trapeze act and Emmen Jude Donnelly silks are part of the cabaret. And given the season, why not throw in Dan Leith’s charity Christmas single and a burlesque Christmas tree (Nuala Rude) that’s dropping more than needles for good measure … even though I’m pretty sure denuding forests is a bad thing for the environment.

The tent is warm, the bar is open, the food was apparently delicious, master of ceremonies Leonie Pony shares extra treats and the sharp edge of her banterous tongue with the audience (poor baldy beardy Ian!) while boisterously introducing the eclectic slate of artists.

Like a rich potage or stew, the Rewilding Winter Cabaret throws together different ingredients and boils them together to create a tasty meal. The thematic linkages are quite loose, and when the artists all come back up to take a bow at the end they could do with a song or a dance to flamboyantly exit the stage. But it’s entertaining and will give you plenty of chuckles and more than a few oohs and ahhs during the 90 minute show before you disappear back into the cold streets of Belfast and rush back off to save the planet from wasteful Christmas shopping, over-travelled brussels sprouts, and trees that have been uprooted merely to cry needles onto your carpet.

Rewilding Winter Cabaret is produced by Three’s Theatre Company in the Tumble Circus Big Top and continues nightly at 8.30pm (doors open 8pm) until Sunday 22 December.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

The Enchantress – womanising royals, scheming advisers and an opera singer threatening a trio of prima donnas (NI Opera Studio until 8 December)

As playboy Prince Ivan gets ready to assume the Zergovia throne from Regent Milock, he must choose a princess to be his queen from the bevy of women who flock around him trying to catch his wandering eye. But can Ivan resist the power-hungry forces who try to provoke his abdication and steer a commoner, the fine opera singer Vivien, into his sights?

NI Opera Studio have a reputation of producing accessible operettas to develop and showcase the talents of their young singers. Victor Herbert’s The Enchantress (with book and lyrics by Fréderique de Grésac and Harry B. Smith) has been considerable shortened, modernised and improved by NI Opera’s dramaturg Judith Wiemers and brought to life with Jennifer Rooney’s choreography and Kate Guelke’s direction in order to create an hour of fun theatre.

So many news stories and contemporary themes resonate with The Enchantress: the womanising of men in power like Prince Andrew and President Trump, the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle’s desire to step away from some royal traditions, the scheming behaviour of political special advisers, confusion about calling vs career, and our obsession with fulfilment over integrity. The objectification of women is familiar, the struggle to be respected as independently-minded and monied can still be an issue today.

David Corr’s lazy Regent Milock is advised by “something smells fishy” Troute (Ben Escorcio), a figure who is reluctant to let go of the power behind the throne. Womanising Prince Ivan is played by Vladimir Mihai-Simai, backed up by seemingly less effective courtier Poff (Jakob Mahase) who reckons romance may get in the way of complicated trade deals.

The appearance of Zoë Jackson’s glittery opera soprano Vivien, the titular enchantress, enacts the scheming plans and sets up the Prince’s dilemma. A trio of maiden princesses (demure Ana-Maria Acunune, broad-accented Mary McCabe, and cross-dressed counter tenor David Lee) offer up a very dainty Once there was a very happy little princess before Acunune steals the show with Art is calling for me and her desire “to be a prima donna” and to “shine upon the stage” rather than be married.

Keith McAlister’s spritely piano accompaniment keeps the show moving. The lyrics are easy to follow, the connecting dialogue is full of mirth, and at one point Macarena dance moves add to the sense of farce. The cast step off the sparse black stage and walk amongst the audience who are seated around tables. Props fly, bubbles are blown, tea is well and truly spilt, and the plot zig zags with increasing speedy twists and turns towards its will-they-won’t-they conclusion.

With performances in Derry’s Culturlann and Belfast’s Black Box under their belts, you have one more chance to enjoy this production of The Enchantress on Sunday evening at 7.30pm in Accidental Theatre in Shaftesbury Square.

Cartoon: Mary McCabe

Friday, December 06, 2019

My Big Fat Belfast Christmas – full of heart and soul (Theatre at the Mill until 31 December)

Although their annual Christmas shows at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey are dressed up with humorous trimmings and larger-than-life characters, Julie Maxwell and Caroline Curran write with pathos about real issues with which audiences can empathise.

My Big Fat Belfast Christmas was first performed five years ago. The script was given a polish over the summer, not long before Julie Maxwell’s sudden death. Despite Maxwell’s sorely-felt absence from the tight-knit cast and production team, this year’s performance made me chuckle out loud – a rarity – as I watched Youcef travel over to his girlfriend’s home in Belfast to celebrate Christmas. The poor lad knew not what he was stepping into. And the host family were pretty up-tight about his arrival on Christmas Eve.

Social ‘entrepremanure’ Mags still lives at home with mum Mary and dad Joseph and doesn’t see eye to eye with her wee sister. But she’s buzzin’ to open her self-given present on Christmas morning. The spare room is filled with the beauty treatment stock she flogs to those she has online influence over. And with no room at the Premier Inn, wee Mary and her beau Youcef are having to stay next door with the neighbours.

Each of the main characters is harbouring a secret, something that will surely surface and change the whole complexion of the festive season in a grand farcical moment of catastrophe. When three strange men with gifts turn up at the door, you’ll begin to listen out for the bleating of sheep and a bright light over the theatre. Financial, familial and social stressors abound. Grief, anxiety and regrets abound. And Christmas only magnifies the problems.

Curran revels in the role of cheeky Mags, showing off her comic timing and facial expressions. Abigail McGibbon brilliantly plays the somewhat flustered Mum who is gloriously when tall and handsome Youcef steps over the threshold. The production plays up these uncomfortable moments to full effect, with director Fionnuala Kennedy elongating the pauses and giving each character a range of facial expressions and movements to create a horrific tableau of awkwardness.

As wee Mary, Bernadette Brown capably portrays a young woman who has returned home from the big smoke with trepidation, having to stand up to the exploits of Mags/Curran who throws shade like a champion dart player hitting treble 20. Dad Joe (James Doran) wanders around the house singing his own versions of classic festive songs, while Youcef pulls off the swaddling clothes that wee Mary has woven to protect his actual backstory and delivers a very amusing Stormont rap – “Brexit’s back … What’s the craic … Politics is cack …” – that would have been even better if Matthew Sharpe had thrown his whole body and hand/arm movements into the routine.

While there is much melancholy lurking in the front room, it’s covered up with sufficient levity that the final letter from the grave packs an emotional punch that hits you right in the tear ducts. Last year’s It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas was dramatically more sophisticated, perhaps a sign of how far Maxwell/Curran had progressed in their writing partnership. But My Big Fat Belfast Christmas is full of soul, wearing its heart on its theatrical sleeve and a reminder that no matter how awkward your Christmas dinner is, it’ll never top the carry-on at Mary and Joe’s house!

My Big Fat Belfast Christmas continues at the Theatre at the Mill until New Year’s Eve.