Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Wolfpack - fear, seclusion, films and escape - a unique coming of age documentary (QFT, 21-27 August)

Fear breeds fear. Fear binds people up. Fear closes people down. To conquer it, fear must be stood up to.

In the case of the Angulo family in Lower East Side Manhattan, a Peruvian father’s fear about the outside world and what might happen to his children if they step over the threshold of their shabby four bedroom apartment means that he has insisted that his six sons and one daughter grow up in an indoor seclusion. Describing drug dealing in the apartment block’s lift and killings in the neighbourhood, the father comments (without any sense of irony):
“It was a piece of jail outside.”

Most years the children left their flat just a handful of times – if at all – and were taught not to look at or engage with people they saw. Their mother’s allowance for home schooling has been the sole household income since their father’s other act of rebellion against society has been to not go out to work.

While cut off from real people, Dad has been feeding his kids a diet of VHS and DVD films. Like a family locked into Play Resource Warehouse, the children build brilliant cardboard props, replica costumes, type out scripts, learn off parts and film each other re-enacting elaborate scenes from their huge and varied library of cinema.
“Is this the end of the beginning?
Or the beginning of the end?
Losing control or are you winning?
Is your life real or just pretend?”

Their father can’t see any alternative to staying indoors. But one son “can’t live with” or “get over” his father’s treatment and – taking inspiration from The Dark Knight – Mukunda goes for a walk.

A year after first tasting freedom, by chance filmmaker Crystal Moselle meets the six dark haired young men dressed in their striking black suits and dark shades – a cross between Reservoir Dogs and Blues Brothers – and her gentle film The Wolfpack captures what happens next.

Grainy home movie footage of their film re-enactments is cut in with scenes of day to day life captured over a couple of years inside the apartment. The story is at first told by the children, with their mother Susanne later letting down her guard, and finally a few underwhelming contributions from the father Oscar.

There’s little to admire about Oscar: a paranoid man who sometimes slaps his wife when their argue.

The boys are all strong characters, but Susanne is the figure in The Wolfpack that I’m most drawn to. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage – “probably more rules for me than for them” – but seems to have stayed to look after the children. The eldest child – Visnu – has a developmental disorder and “lives in her own world”.

While many formative years of proper socialisation have been stolen from the children, the six sons seem well equipped to engage with the real world … once they figure out how it differs from the movies. They’re thinkers, actors and film makers: bursting with creativity and musical talent. But there is less time remaining for Susanne – a former Mid West hippy – to catch up with her aging mother who until recently didn’t even know she had seven grandchildren. Susanne has been robbed the most.

The Wolfpack mixes imagination with disbelief, fiction with real life, and despair with hope. It is neither voyeuristic nor exploitative. A unique coming of age film that is well worth catching at the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 21 and Thursday 27 August.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Strong women in a modern financial morality tale with laughs: Fly me To the Moon in the Lyric Theatre (until 22 August)

Marie Jones' two-handed farcical morality play Fly Me To The Moon is back in Belfast, this time on the stage of the Lyric Theatre. Davy Magee is an older gentleman who is recovering from a stroke and lives on his own in a bungalow. His speech has been reduced to moans, and his mobility is poor. Loretta and Francis are two of his regular care workers.

Francis (played by Katie Tumelty) is quick to see money-making opportunities. She's harshly suspicious of her boyfriend, but proudly lauds her entrepreneurial son who swans round in a shiny suit selling dodgy DVDs. Loretta (Tara Lynne O'Neill) has a heart of gold. She goes the extra mile for her house-bound clients. And under her own roof, she displays a surprising amount of empathy for her husband, an unemployed bricklayer who has swapped his trowel for the TV remote and a phone to call into daytime gameshows.

After two years of changing Davy's sheets, taking him to the toilet, collecting his pension and putting his bets on at the bookies they've really left it too late to find out about his background, his loves and his life. But do they deserve the high regard with which Davy secretly holds these two angels of mercy?

Presented with the chance to make a small profit at the expense of a dead man, the pair begin to slip down a criminal slide with no way to arrest their descent. Every time Francis says "Just hear me out ..." Loretta's ethical instincts are piqued before being quickly overridden by real world problems that a few more quid in her purse would solve.

One ruse leads to another and the women's crisis multiplies: by four o'clock in the afternoon the two care workers should be wondering how soon they will be swapping their green work clothes for prison uniforms. While the colleagues normally get on like a house on fire, the stressed circumstances begin to stretch their relationship.

As well as setting up a situation of escalating deceit and an examination of legacy, Marie Jones' play sets the audience up to assess the financial and social pressures facing working class families with examples of claim culture, questioning the cost and value of a child going through grammar school and spotlighting an expectation culture that is so hard to fund.

Some of the Lyric audience giggled their way through every funny retort that ping ponged between the two talented actors that were so at ease with the script. Others failed to choke back their laughter at the most inappropriate moments. (And one punter emptied their packet of Skittles over the floor.)

The content is both humorous and disturbing. There's an extended moment of John Cleese Ministry of Silly Walks performed in a wheelchair that is simultaneously hilarious physical humour and uncomfortable to watch.

With Frank Sinatra covers playing in the auditorium before the show starts, and "There may be trouble ahead" bursting in so appropriately as the interval lights fade up, Davy's love of Ol' Blue Eyes will be passed on to you by the time you leave the theatre. The see-through set works well and the actors never cheat by looking at each other through the invisible walls.

If you're ever trapped in a lift with Tara Lynne O'Neill and Katie Tumelty, ask them to tell you the story of the two care workers and Davy. You're sure to wet yourself laughing (or drop your Skittles). In the meantime, head down to the Lyric Theatre before 22 August to catch Fly Me To The Moon to see two great performers on the Danske Bank Stage before it transfers to Gaiety Theatre in Dublin from 2 to 19 September.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Celebrating Brian Friel: Dancing at Lughnasa, words, music, food ... and kites (August 2015)

Boutique festivals, Belfast festivals, and now bio-festivals … not events based around yoghurt culture but a festival that has a biographical connection to the artist being celebrated.

The inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival takes that one step further by basing the programme around the themes from a single play from the Irish playwright: Dancing at Lughnasa.

I spoke to festival founder Sean Doran at the launch this morning and he began by explaining how to pronounce Lughnasa (loon-asa, think lunacy!) before going on to describe how the various festival events in Donegal and Belfast link back to Friel’s play.

As well as the signature production of Dancing at Lughnasa that’s running in the Lyric Theatre from 26 August to 27 September, the Philadelphia Belfast Here I Come half of the programme includes rehearsed readings; dancing on the new Lagan Weir footbridge, Lanark Way Peace Wall, Titanic Slipways, Giant’s Ring, and the City Hall; concerts; fine food and kite flying.

Throughout the festival a strand of all-female talks will offer up the thoughts and views of Shami Chakrabarti, Sandi Toksvig and Sinead Gleeson among many others.

More details on the Donegal and Belfast weekends of the festival on their website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

13 Minutes (Elser) - the story of a German whose bomb failed to kill Hitler (QFT 14-20 August)

A bomb is set to detonate while a world leader addresses a hall full of activists. This could be the storyline that drives a series of 24 or the next Spooks film. Except it is a true life story from November 1939 that forms the basis of the new film 13 Minutes (Elser).

Georg Elser (played by Christian Friedel) was a clock maker/furniture maker who had taken a job in an armament factory. He planted sticks of explosive and an intricate mechanical timer in a hollowed-out pillar to bring the roof down in the Munich hall in which Adolf Hitler was due to speak.

Due to a weather-induced change of travel plans, the Führer left 13 minutes before the blast. Miles away, Elser was caught acting suspiciously and linked to the explosion whenever a copy of the hall’s plans were found in his jacket pocket.

And so the Criminal Police and Gestapo began a gruesome game of searching for facts that never existed. If the Führer wanted to know who inspired the plot, he need only have looked in the mirror. Yet those who detained the clock-maker struggled to believe he had the means or the motive to carry off the attack alone.
Police chief: “We can’t get any more out of him than the truth.”

Gestapo chief
: “We make the truth.”

The film’s sense of pace is plagued with flashbacks to fill out Elser’s social and workplace backstory (though it does slightly limit the amount of torture the audience has to endure). His friends see him as a coward, but he’s a quiet activist with a sense of justice, a sympathiser rather than a member of the Communist Party.
“If humanity dies, everything dies with it.”

An interesting side plot explores the Nazification of Elser’s home town and his growing intimacy with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler), a young mother who is beaten by her husband. They bond over dancing, but their permanent partnership is delayed by the zither-playing mechanical genius’ plans for destruction in Munich.

War was macho, and like the secretary who sits reading a book outside the interrogation room during the worst of Elser’s torture, the experiences of the German women featured in the film were shaped by men.

Elser believed he would prevent even greater bloodshed through his lethal deed. Asked by an interrogator what right he had to take the lives of the seven innocent people caught in the Munich blast, by a tragic coincidence Elser ended his days incarcerated in Dachau concentration camp.

Despite the precision of Elser’s bomb-detonating timepiece and the seriousness of the historical plot, 13 Minutes is tediously slow film. Long running at a shade under two hours, neither the action nor Oliver Hirschbiegel’s direction elevates 13 Minutes from being a worthy film to a great one.

13 Minutes will be screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast between Friday 14 and Thursday 20 August. Let me know what you think of 13 Minutes if you see it.

Theeb and The Diary of a Teenage Girl are also running in the QFT from this weekend.

Warning: 13 Minutes contains scenes of torture as well as accordion playing that could scare away the bogeyman and a buzzing fly that really shows off a cinema’s surround sound.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

You’re Ugly Too - a sombre film, tinged with hope (QFT 7-13 August)

Life has thrown a lot at Stacey during her first 11 years. With her father already dead, she is fostered when her mother suddenly dies.

Her only close relative Uncle Will (played by Aidan Gillen - Love/Hate, Queer As Folk) is given temporary compassionate leave from prison to look after his niece.
“I don’t understand why we’re staying in a shitty caravan in the middle of nowhere?”

Rescuing a Belgian neighbour in a tight spot introduces Emilie (Erika Sainte) to the pair’s solitary confinement in the caravan park.

Will’s ambiguous answers about his past and present don’t cut the mustard with Stacey and threaten to damage their embryonic guardian/daughter relationship.
“You hurt my eyes with that outfit … you look like a freakin’ optical illusion!”

Lauren Kinsella plays the inquisitive, cheeky, spitting, burping and at times sweary Stacey. She’s still at the age where you wear t-shirts with upside down zebra patterns, but has a spirited soul and a blunt honesty that cuts through the deception she finds in the people around her.

The colour palette is green and beige, reflecting the mood of every character as well as the Irish midlands scenery. While some of the early cuts between camera angles are overly abrupt, the film soon settles into a temperate rhythm.

After seventy minutes or so the screen went blank and I wondered whether writer and director Mark Noonan was going to leave the audience to make up the rest of the story as we walked out of the dark cinema screen.

Instead another five minutes of script was acted out, moving time and the characters’ lives forward.

Coping, adapting, grieving but never crying out for pity: Stacey needs a second chance at being part of a family. Will’s parole isn’t permanent. Does he deserve another shot?

With a soundtrack that’s as gentle as the film’s humour, You’re Ugly Too is sombre but tinged with hope. It opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday 7 and runs until Thursday 13 August.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Finding community in the strangest of places - an ecovillage, a yoga studio, a brewing cooperative & a campervan

Four people related their different experiences of intentionally creating communities across Ireland at an afternoon seminar in Corrymeela’s 50th anniversary APERTURE festival.

Davie Philip spoke about the Cloughjourdan Ecovillage in Co. Tipperary.

Elizabeth Welty introduced the audience to the community-uplifting values that underpin Flow Studio Yoga Studios in Belfast.

Matthew Dick talked about his passion for community home brewing that led to setting up the Boundary brewing cooperative (after a spell with working for Brewbot).
“If you do something interesting and beautiful and different – and you’re not an asshole – people are really drawn to that.”

Finally, Ruth Gray sped through the development of the Campervan of Dreams. (The VW relic broke down on the way up to Ballycastle, but has been busy ever since.)

Well worth a listen.