Saturday, April 30, 2016

Son of Saul - one's man futile ambition amidst death and depravity (QFT until 12 May)

Son of Saul invites audiences to step inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp for 36 hours to see life from the perspective of a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig) who works as a Sonderkommando, disposing of corpses in return for privileges and a temporary reprieve to his own certain death.

The camera never leaves the presence of Saul and László Nemes’ use of a 40mm lens at eye level captures the prisoner’s field of vision, with much of the background detail blurred or out of focus.

We hear the noise of inmates in the gas chamber, but don’t see behind the closed door until Saul enters to “move the pieces” and stack up the bodies so they can be moved for cremation in the next stage of the deadly production line. The sounds of the camp and Saul’s environs are often as important as the images on screen.
“You’ll help me bury my son?”

The title is a giant spoiler: Saul identifies one young naked body as his son and in a defiant act of humanity decides to smuggle the child away to be buried in accordance with Jewish tradition. This desire propels him through the rest of the 107 minute film in a bid to find a cooperative rabbi.

It’s never clear whether the child is really Saul’s son, or whether he adopts the tragic youth as a last protest against the system that is squashing his little remaining life force. While Saul plans his own act of insubordination, the Sonderkommando plan a revolt to escape the camp and evade the gas chamber that awaits them as ‘bearers of secrets’.

The story telling is chaotic as we move around different sections of the camp following Saul. We share his vantage point, but not his thinking and the audience are forever playing catch up with the action. This adds to the feeling of futility mixed with fear. Shots are allowed to run on a lot longer than usual, intensifying the feeling of proximity to the action.

A dark and unsettling watch, this movie has deservedly accumulated a bulging table of awards for debut director László Nemes, including the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It’s a reminder both that desperate people can be pushed to do desperate deeds, but also that desperate people can still yearn for normalcy and respect in a dehumanised and nearly emotionless environment.

Son of Saul is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until 12 May.

Here Comes The Night - ambitious tragicomedy set in 1966 and 2016 (Lyric until 14 May)

The first half of Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Here Comes The Night sets up an extended study of a less than budding republican writer (played by Michael Condron) who is otherwise workshy and lives with his pregnant wife Mary (Kerri Quinn) and her younger sister Jenny (Susan Davey) in a mostly Protestant street in east Belfast.

Vincent Gallagher’s fired-up prose is affected by his celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and Mary worries that this will engender a notoriety that will put the family at risk from local loyalist activists and enlists the help of her priest (Niall Cusack).
“Who do you thing you are? Wolfe Tone?”

Another man of letters, Freddie the postman (Thomas Finnegan), is their link to the dominant local community.

His cross-community fondness for young Jenny is perhaps not his most disruptive trait when menacing troublemakers gather outside the Gallagher house.

The pace and satire are moved up a notch in the second half when the same cast return playing new characters who have moved into the same house fifty years later in 2016. Marta (Davey) is a Polish community worker who is supporting Syrian refugees being resettled in Belfast. She’s moved in with local boy Jim (Condron). Again the couple are outsiders, at a distance from the local community and keen not to be brought to their attention. Displacement is all around.

The arrival of a mustard trouser wearing representative of the Ulster Historical Society and a blue plaque to be erected to mark the home of the utterly unremarkable yet newly rediscovered Vincent Gallagher causes a stir. But it is the entrance of Donna Ni Duineachair (Quinn), Minister of Culture Arts and Leisure, that blows the situation up into a storm. Racism is layered on top of sectarianism and a post mortem is swiftly carried out on the new Northern Ireland.

It’s a relief to find that the second half does not completely mirror the first. The ghosts of 1966 are subject to revisionism. Old difficulties are faced but new mistakes are made. Real life figures like 2014-15 poet laureate Sinéad Morrissey invade the script. The Culture Minister Donna is remarkably familiar: the Socrates/Sophocles reference is from a real speech delivered in Cultúrlann that I recorded and published online!

The period costumes pick up the 1966 brown theme of the confined living room created by Linbury Prize-winning Grace Smart. The scene changes and air guitar playing sequences overlaid with (mostly) 1966 music are a little too prolonged. A snatch of Bowie after the interval pins the action in contemporary times.

Jenny’s dancing feels quite exuberant, even for the swinging sixties though Davey offers a sophisticated portrayal of Marta, a heavenly messenger turned fallen angel. While everyone is a foil for Condron’s comic timing, every character is blessed with laugh out loud lines including Father Black who accuses Vincent of “fighting the British with your Schaefer”. There are some great original jokes in the play and the Lyric audience titter along with glee.

The set is small, but Here Comes The Night’s ambition is huge and director Jimmy Fay takes advantage of the play being staged in the Lyric’s main auditorium. The placement and direction of Philip Stewart’s sound effects stand out from most plays, with a baying crowd, stones on windows and the odd call of a sea gull.

Jenkinson explores the freedom of artists to “be free to write what they want” as well as the politicisation of culture and remembering in Northern Ireland. There are also nods towards a writer’s immortality versus controversiality, a fine line that writers of satire must tread. An off stage, off colour joke in the second half pushes boundaries and audience buttons; the anxiety in the stalls lightens when, after a pause, the character acknowledges what they’ve done.

References to a “culturally monolithic community” resonated with echoes of Jenkinson’s earlier play The Bonefire [script available on Amazon]. Maybe one day, along with David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue, it will be staged in Northern Ireland.

Here Comes The Night is an entertaining tragicomedy with novel humour and an outsider’s perspective. It runs in the Lyric until 14 May. It’s funny, sassy and surely an apposite reminder that it’s possible to reference the Troubles in drama without revelling in the conflict or merely squeezing out cheap jokes rather than challenge.

Photo credit: Steffan Hill / Lyric Theatre Belfast

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The C**t of Queen Catherine: historically salacious norm-twisting music-theatre (MAC until 30 April)

I didn’t seem to be the only person at the MAC last night who had a really sketchy recollection of Henry VIII’s wives from second year history classes in school (Year 9 in new money). Even study of the play Man For All Seasons for GCSE English Literature has lapsed to less than a distant memory. Horrible Histories via my daughter leaves me with the rhyme: divorced, beheaded and died; divorced, beheaded, survived.

Catherine of Aragon is the first wife on that list. But as playwright and composer Conor Mitchell illuminates in his new show, there’s a lot more to Catherine than simply being the first in a tragic line of six. The relationships between this Castilian princess and her first (Arthur, Prince of Wales) and second (King Henry VIII) husbands are at the heart of Mitchell’s title – The C**t of Queen Catherine – which sums up the central anxiety about Catherine’s uncertain and unstable position in the Royal household. Yet gender and reproduction didn't limit Catherine's true legacy.

A little like Mr Benn walking through the magic door at the back of the changing room, entering the Upstairs venue in the MAC can be quite an adventure. The rectangular stage is located in the middle of the theatre space, and the tiered seating has been pushed back. The audience mostly sit on cushions on the floor or lean against the walls on three sides of the theatre (unless suitable dispensation has granted them a chair).

Abigail McGibbon confidently plays the titular role, an older woman (dressed not unlike Hillary Clinton) who paces up and down inside the single room she now permanently inhabits. Her retrospective monologue emotionally veers from shouty to despairing and is accompanied by an often discordant score performed by Conor Mitchell and a string trio (Aoife Magee, Clare Hadwen and Kerry Brady).

Shafts of light pierce the foggy gloom and intersect the stage. In an instant the mood changes and Simon Bird’s lighting design bathes the shiny floor in brilliant white from sixteen overhead spotlights. A microphone picks up Abigail’s raised voice and her words reverberate around the theatre’s hard surfaces, staying on the right side of feeding back.

Catherine looks back over her upbringing, early life and unfortunate loves. Prince Arthur was a sickly man who died five months after they were married and apparently before the marriage was consummated. Her first son with Henry VIII died …
“I had a son for fifty days but God could not wait. [Daughter Mary] … has she no head to wear a crown?”

The live score certainly adds a sense of urgency to Catherine’s impassioned musings. The actor and the musicians are tightly bound to each other’s cues. The script is Shakespearian in tenor, occasionally lurching back into modern vernacular to curse the French or some such utterance. Some scenes did race through at a speed that left me grasping to keep up with the story.

The Belfast Ensemble are playing with the format of theatre, and it’s rewarding to experience. Long may Conor Mitchell and friends continue to challenge the definition of normal.

The C***t of Queen Catherine runs Upstairs in the MAC until Saturday 30 April.

It’s a bold forty minute music-theatre performance with a novel staging and an unexpected but thoughtful examination of an unexplored character from European history. If it’s brave to be the only actor occupying an exposed set, Abigail McGibbon gives away no tell tale signs of apprehension. Instead she reels in the audience with her autobiographical analysis. While the show’s title is a bit of a dummy pass that will hinder some from attending – though in Mitchell’s defence, the title The Vagina Monologues had already been used – the script is historically salacious rather than fictionally sensual and I suspect Queen Catherine will return at some point to a local stage.

Update - April 2017 - review of the next version of the show.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Spike Milligan’s Puckoon: novel, full tilt and madly imaginative (The MAC until 30 April + tour)

Somewhere north east of Sligo lies the sleepy village of Puckoon with three policemen, a graveyard, a pub and a host of eccentric madcap characters. It’s the location for Spike Milligan’s comic novel that was dramatised after his death by Vincent Higgins and performed by Big Telly Theatre Company. Their revival of the show is currently touring Britain and Ireland.

Paul Boyd (“The Writer”) superbly anchors the absurd show from behind a piano in the corner of the stage. The rest of the cast play tin whistles, ukuleles, guitars, drums, and sing along in-between nipping across the stage to act out scenes.

Paddy Jenkins plays Dan Milligan, a fictional fool who quickly reveals that the normal rules of theatre have been suspended – never mind the fourth wall broken – and argues back and forth about his role with The Writer. I’ve never seen a show with as many props, non sequiturs and raised eyebrows.

Patrick J O’Reilly and Keith Singleton act like a pair of eejits who switch genders and characters as if someone was snapping at a button on their remote control. They frustrate The Writer’s attempts to move the story on and are deservedly rewarded with some of the heartiest laughs of the night. Keith Singleton’s portrayal of an Ulster Unionist with loose denture could be spun off into a whole show of its own. John O Mahony and Giles Stoakley complete the cast.
“The Lord will provide … but is behind with his payments.”

Having set up the quirky world of Puckoon, we reach the point when life in the village changes for ever. The Ulster Boundary Commission decide that the border will be somewhat arbitrarily drawn through the middle of the community, dividing the church from its graveyard. Add a border post, officious upholders of rules and bomb smugglers and the pandemonium unravels.

Lighting designer Kevin Smith has cunningly adapted some furniture props so beams of light illuminate actors’ faces from below. Along with the clouds of fog that eerily linger above the cast’s heads, the stained glass window effect adds to the set without cluttering the stage.

The randomness of Milligan’s writings is retained in the script, and the humour is simultaneously visual, physical and oral. And this is where Puckoon succeeds and The 39 Steps falters. Acting out a Hitchcock film on stage with only three actors is comical to watch, but Puckoon is imaginative in so many other dimensions.

While the original novel was written while in Australia, Puckoon appositely satirises Irish sensibilities about identity and state interference. The entertainment is novel, the performances full tilt, and the storyline as hard to unravel as Spike Milligan’s mind. Director Zoë Seaton and musical director/actor Paul Boyd have created a comical gem.

Catch Puckoon at The MAC until Saturday 30 April before it tours Strabane, Ballymun, Naas, Armagh, Coleraine, Cork, Bray, Ennis, Wales, England and Scotland (dates and locations on Big Telly website).

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dheepan - distressing, edgy, tense & absorbing (QFT 22 April-5 May)

At the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, a Tamil Tiger soldier teams up with a wife Yalini he’s never met before and a daughter they buy to flee from a refugee camp to set up a new life in France. Their rapidly assembled nuclear family is meant to help their cover story to claim asylum.

Assuming the name on a dead man’s passport, Dheepan swaps his weaponry for a mop bucket and a screwdriver as he becomes the live-in caretaker covering four blocks of flats. Gangs ‘own’ the area and the family witness a nightly drama out of their ground floor window. They have escaped one conflict to emerge in the middle of someone else’s war.

Little Illayaal demands that her mother “give me a kiss like everyone else” as the young charge is dropped off at school. The child’s grasp of French is stronger than her parents, and she becomes their interpreter as they navigate bureaucracy.

Integration is not easy. Yalini finds work cooking and cleaning for a man confined to his high rise flat. But it’s in the most intimidating block, and soon she becomes acquainted with one of the gang leaders.
“We’re new – it’s normal they stare.”

Intimacy grows amongst the family. All three yearn for physical and emotional security as they battle PTSD. The gang members they rub up against daily are trapped too in their own cycles of conflict.

The calm middle section of the film belies the later explosive scenes when matters escalate and Dheepan finds himself drawn back into a dark place to face his demons. This brutal dénouement has a ballet-like quality while the final dream sequence feels crudely tacked on the end, giving the audience a few welcome moments to regain control of their blood pressure, but doing nothing to resolve the story.

At times distressing, always edgy, Dheepan is a tense and absorbing film. What starts as a story about war and displacement becomes a tale of love and longing before as director Jacques Audiard (The Beat My Heart Skipped) makes it turn full circle and disrupts the estate.

Well worth catching Dheepan at the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 22 April and Thursday 5 May.

Miles Ahead - fictional portrait of real life jazz man whose on-screen daemons nearly drown out his music

Miles Ahead - Icon Film Distribution
Miles Ahead is a semi-fictional posthumous biopic of the very real jazz musician Miles Davis that weaves genuine incidents around a cooked up gangster plot that involves a gun-toting chase across a landmark-less New York to recover an overdue master tape of new tunes from record label executives. Since it was Davis who said “play what’s not there”, his ghost can hardly criticise the fantastic plot.

Don Cheadle plays the jazz social musician whose trumpet fingering can’t keep up in an opening scene but is much better throughout the rest of the 100 minute film. (Cheadle played saxophone as a child and learned to play the trumpet for this film that he stars in, directed and helped write.)

Miles Ahead - Icon Film Distribution
The story begins at the end of five years of silence in which the artist has gone to ground. The messy interior of his apartment, littered with bottles, music manuscript paper and paintings is convincing. Add to this Obi-Wan Kenobi with longer hair, playing a Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill who inveigles his way into Davis’ house and Davis’ life in order to write an article that will blow open the mystery of the reclusive legend.

If you’re at all tired, there’s a good chance that the constant jazz lullaby will help you drift off to sleep. A gunshot or two will awaken you, but no significant plot points will have been lost. The story visibly lurches between the mobster storyline and flashbacks that give viewers a glimpse of the messed up jazz world.
“Oh come on man. This is nuts, man.”

Miles Ahead - Icon Film Distribution
It’s a portrait of a talented musician who lived life with a wild abandon and who tried to control everybody around him while exhibiting a complete lack of self control. The virtuoso quality of his playing doesn’t redeem his violence, philandering, wife beating (Frances played by Emayatzy Corinealdi) and drug taking. And none of those add to the enjoyment of the film.

The final scene enigmatically jumps to a present day concert with Cheadle’s Davis playing with a band. It’s probably a reminder that Davies went on to create and play beyond the period covered by the film … and the #socialmusic hashtag-emblazoned waistcoat that Cheadle wears implicitly refers to the crowdsourced fundraising that part-financed the film.

The music really is very good though. But not enough to redeem the movie.

Miles Ahead is being screened at the Queen Film’s Theatre between Friday 22 April and Thursday 5 May.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The History of the Peace (accordin' to my Ma) - Grand Opera House until 30 April + tour

A cacophony of news reports and voices hushes the audience as cast of four walk out from the dark wings to begin The History of the Peace (accordin’ to my Ma). It was obvious from the huge on-stage letters that the ‘peace’ is not yet complete!

Karen Reid (played by Maria Connolly) narrates much of the play, facing the audience as she moves the storyline forward over the twenty or so years covered by the script. She’s a shouty mother who cares about her community, meets a pipe-wielding loyalist and wants to get a community centre built in East Belfast … a recognisable amalgam of Dawn Purvis and Linda Ervine.

The cast remain on stage for the duration of the performance and slip in and out of their multiple roles as quickly as donning a pair of sunglasses or rearranging a scarf. They know each other well from previous shows and the chemistry is there from the start.

Karen’s best friend from school days is Stacey McCoubrey (Tara Lynne O’Neill), a libidinous hair dresser with an eye for footballers (and three children to prove it). With a fetching eye patch Tara transforms into ‘big Denise’, a scary woman who could be put to good use getting the audience to stop lighting up the auditorium with their phones during the performance.

Firebell (Conor Grimes) is cousin of the companion play’s hospital porter Fireball and shares his endearing lisp. He’s an entrepreneurial funeral director and wins the hearts of the audience with his hilarious physical comedy. Firebell also offers a line of witty cremation jokes (though someone from Roselawn Cemetery should really offer to show him round so he understands how the actual process works).

Alan McKee plays husbands, a band master and Pineapple the UDA brigadier. The perfect timing between McKee and Grimes is a joy to watch.

Written by Martin Lynch, Grimes and McKee, there are lots of name checks for landmarks like The Bethany and the Strand Cinema, as well as a shout out for NICVA. We race through ceasefires, Drumcree, peace talks, the Chuckle brothers, the flag protests, and the new caravan park at Twaddell. The between-scene strains of Van Morrison don’t excuse the Cyprus Avenue legend from being called “grumpy”: no one escapes.

The audience save their loudest and longest laughs for the five minutes of unsympathetic material about Iris Robinson and Kirk McCambley set in the Lock Keeper’s Inn. It’s not clear why early in the first half we needed to chortle at the Canary Wharf bombing (which killed two people and injured many others). Too soon. Someone behind me sounded like they were about to wet themselves with laughter when some Irish was spoken in the context of a cross-community weekend that injected hope until the script reintroduced the stereotypes.
“[Short Strand Catholics] … they’re just decent people like ourselves, but when we get back to Belfast they’ll still be Fenian bastards.”

It’s more than ten years since I took my seat in the Grand Opera House stalls to see one of the many reruns of the original History of the Troubles (accordin’ to my Da). It grew out of a commission by the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Fireball’s lisp and shouts of “the balloon is up” live on in my mind. It was a review of the Troubles 1969-2002 performed post ceasefire, looking back at a past chapter with a line drawn under it having turned the page.

The History of the Peace (accordin’ to my Ma) suffers from the fact that we’re still stuck in this new post-ceasefire conflicted chapter, struggling to turn any more pages. The play is impaired by its lack of plot. Karen’s struggle to get a community centre built and her family tragedy at the start of the second half on their own are not enough to compensate for the Horrible Histories treatment of the peace process.

The irony of the flag protests – corrected on stage to be ‘fleg’ – is allowed to fly over the heads of the giggling audience. All hope is finally buried when the final moralising soliloquy admits that our twenty years of “perfect imperfection” leaves us with “squabbling [and] worrying” as “the sound of peace”.

While the action swings from the west of the city to the east, Ivan Little gets a fond name check and there are still babies, lisps and political impersonations. The gender balance of ‘Ma’ is infinitely better than ‘Da’. There are some great set pieces. The shapes thrown during “Girls just want to have fun” reenergised the audience (whose interval imbibing definitely relaxed their funny bones). Dan Gordon’s direction is crisp and takes full advantage of David Craig’s simple five letter set: the Carl Frampton toilet joke is beautifully executed.

A few years ago Martin Lynch made a fuss about theatres in Belfast being middle class and the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure at Stormont launched an inquiry into “Inclusion in the Arts of Working-class Communities”.

Monday night’s performance The History of the Peace was professionally acted, succeeded in entertaining the crowd and finished with a standing ovation. But if the show represents Martin Lynch’s ambition for how the arts should reach out to working class communities then he surely underserves his target audience. There are no layers, no complexity and little subtlety. The sweary script reduces history to a succession of jokes that we lap up and laugh at. It’s commercial, but not challenging.

The History of the Peace (accordin’ to my Ma) is being performed in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 30 April. GBL Productions will then tour the show through Antrim, Banbridge, Omagh, Monaghan, Cookstown, Newcastle, Enniskillen, Coleraine and Strabane - dates and venues on their website.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Eye In The Sky - drone warfare: all picture no sound, but with the same deadly consequence

Some of the highest terrorist targets on the East African most wanted list meet in the suburbs of Nairobi, Kenya. High in the sky a US drone watches over the property. Smaller (futuristic) covert cameras disguised as a hovering bird and a flying beetle add street level and indoor surveillance capability.

In Surrey, Vegas, Hawaii, London and an under-the-weather Government minister’s Singapore hotel room, people in the “kill chain” watch as an operation to capture has to adapt to changing circumstances and becomes a matter of shoot to kill once a couple of suicide bomber vests are added to the equation.
“Do we have authority to prosecute the target?”

While the military options are limited, the political consequences are less well understood. Is there any precedent for the UK launching a drone strike over a friendly country? Can the definite harm of a “sweet child” near the target building ever be traded against the speculative harm against many, many more lives – including children – in a crowded retail outlet? Does her presence challenge the military, human rights, legal or political decision?
“[That would be] obvious to anyone not trying to avoid making a decision.”

While the software industry isn’t usually quite so life and death, the scenes were reminiscent from major release teleconferences or major incident calls in my past which seemed to have a cast of hundreds, where opinions outnumbered people, and only a few people were ever willing to break through the chaos to make clear decisions and live with the consequences.

In the case of Eye In The Sky, the time-constrained decision isn’t whether to deploy or back out a new software drop before the maintenance window ends.

The mission is coordinated from a UK underground military bunker, a COBRA meeting room, a photo analyst’s desk and a tiny desert Portakabin which serves as the flight deck for the drone pilot and his TOOLS operator.
“Mam, I think it would be wise for you to refer up.”

Warfare by committee, with people watching screens, mostly in silence. The need to escalate to higher authorities out of fear as well as to follow protocol. Pressing for decisions to be made before the targets leave the house and go their separate ways and wreck havoc on innocent lives.
“Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

Guy Hibbert’s multi-layered script with its mounting jeopardy and runaway situation is superb fodder for Gavin Hood’s direction and the ensemble cast that includes Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Phoebe Fox and Aaron Paul.

Eye In The Sky skilfully explores the grey space between absolute facts, examines the moral latitude of analysts and officers. The remote conflict shown is no less brutal, even if it minimises the blood on the hands of the supposed ‘good guys’. The difference is the silence. All picture no sound. Yet at the end of this mission, the audience see what the kill chain don’t witness: the final sobering consequence of their action.

One can only hope that this much care is taken every day during modern warfare.

Eye In The Sky is on general release in cinemas. One of the best films I’ve seen so far this year.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity - a fond (if masculine) memorial to an important mathematician

Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel) is a self taught mathematician living in Madras, India. He perceives that his discoveries are accurate and important, but without a degree no academic in India will take a risk of working with him.

But G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) in Trinity College Cambridge is already an outsider and a political radical in the hallowed environs of Trinity College Cambridge. He invites Ramanujan across to England and cajoles the instinctive prodigy to produce the proofs that will add rigour and allow his broad range of breakthroughs to be published.

“Change gentleman, it’s a wonderful thing. Embrace it!” says Hardy, not knowing that a war that will forever change the nature of his college is around the corner.
“I doubt a dark face will ever grace these walls, never mind become a fellow.”
The Man Who Knew Infinity is a story of talent mixed with academic snobbery and a huge dollop of 1920’s racism (which pretty much mirrors 2010’s racism), ill health, disrupted love and the effect of the First World War.

Ramanujan’s wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) frees her husband to travel to the UK to pursue his maths, but her mother-in-law frustrates her attempts to keep connected. Bhise – who doesn’t seem to appear in production shots for the film – makes the most of her limited scenes, displaying an on-screen sweetness and longing that pay off in her final distraught scene. Irons manages the complexity of supporting his protostar while being dismissive of his Indian clothes and customs.

Dev Patel is superb as his autodidactic character extends his independent thought from the realm of number theory to widen his worldview before succumbing to his failing body, all the while maintaining an enviable composure. It’s a long way from his previous roles in Skins, Slumdog Millionaire or The Newsroom.

The Man Who Knew Infinity falls into the category of movie that celebrates forgotten heroes. A few token mathematical concepts are explained in a 108 minute film that otherwise summarises formulae as “paintings” and mathematics as a series of “patterns”. To avoid the theorems, the audience suffer a lot of philosophical dialogue (and a few appearances from Bertrand Russell) that pads out the film but adds little to the storyline.

Released four years before the centenary of his death, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a fond memorial to the life and work of an important mathematician. It’s being screened in Moviehouse and Omnipex chains as well as Odyssey Cinemas.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Belfast Film Festival 2016 - quick picks from the bulging programme of tantalising films (14-23 April)

Belfast Film Festival is back, running from 14 to 23 April with 133 films from 30 countries crammed into 10 days.

The festival is now in its sixteenth year, and the organisers are telling the truth when they describe the line up as “tantalising” with its mix of new international cinema and documentaries, features and shorts from local filmmakers, with post-screening discussions and talks all over the city.

While Oscar-nominated Mustang opens the festival in the Dublin Road Moviehouse this evening, I’ll be over at the Better World Film Fringe in the MAC hosting a panel discussion after the screening of District Zero (filmed in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan).

Some picks from the bulging programme:

Friday 15 April

Parisienne – from Beirut to Paris – QFT at 6.30pm

When Marnie Was There – childlike friendship anime – QFT at 9pm

Blade Runner Night – dressing up encouraged – Black Box at 9pm

Saturday 16 April

Open Fest – twenty minute short celebrating the brand new Open House Festival choir as over ten weeks they go from nothing to supporting Duke Special in Bangor Abbey – QFT at 12.15pm

Virgin Mountain – you can’t go wrong with Icelandic cinema and deadpan humour – QFT at 6.30pm

The Conversation at SARC – delve into the audio-driven world of a surveillance expert who may or may not have recorded two people discussing a murder plot – SARC at 7pm

Land of Mine – surrendered German soldiers order by Allied forces to remove their own landmines from the coast of Denmark – QFT at 8.30pm

Sunday 17 April

Das Boot at SARC – hear the expanding and contracting metal of the submarine and the sonar pings with SARC’s immersive sound system – SARC at 3pm

Monday 18 April

Schneider vs Bax – surreal and delightfully dark comedy as a contract killer’s birthday party is disrupted when he’s sent to dispatch a drunken writer – QFT at 6.40pm

Film Devour – short film festival where you score a dozen or more fabulous sub-15 minute films, each with a local connection – Black Box at 7pm

Tuesday 19 April

Internet Cat Video Festival – over 100 videos, from Vines to short films, all adorable – Black Box at 7pm

This Changes Everything – seven powerful portraits of communities on the front lines of climate change – part of the Better World Film Fringe – The MAC at 7pm

Light Years – what happens when someone is physically present but no longer ‘there’? – QFT at 8.30pm

Thursday 21 April

Vessel – the story of Women on Waves, challenging anti-abortion laws around the world with a floating advice centre – The MAC at 4pm

As I Open My Eyes – on the eve of the Arab Spring, a Tunisian student passes her exams but is drawn to her passion for music rather than medicine – QFT at 6.30pm

Traders – recession hit Ireland and the brutal lengths people will go to to hang onto wealth – QFT at 6.40pm

Remainder – adaptation of cult novel about a young man stuck on repeat – QFT at 8.45pm

Bruce Bickford Films – catch the stream of animated consciousness from this inspirational and cult animator – Beanbag Cinema at 9pm

Friday 22 April

Embers – science fiction in a post-event world: everyone who remains has chronic amnesia  – Beanbag Cinema at 9pm

Saturday 23 April

Easter 2016 – Graham Reid’s 1982 science fiction episode for the BBC’s “Play For Tomorrow” set in the days leading up to the Easter Rising – Black Box at 2pm

Sunday 24 April

Arabian Nights trilogy – 6 hour screening – QFT at 11.30am

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Couple in a Hole - Scots couple take refuge in a French cave (QFT until 14 April)

Couple in a Hole is a curious amalgam of Room and The Survivalist. A Scottish couple take refuge in an underground cave, living primitively in a verdant forest on the edge of a French village.

Karen (played by Kate Dickie) is emaciated and agoraphobic, struggling to step out into the clearing in front of their unusual home. John (Paul Higgins) spends his days wandering around the forest, foraging for food and hunting rabbits (hence the BBFC certificate warning about scenes of animal butchery).

A spider bite injects peril into their mysterious existence and propels John towards the village to seek medical attention. A French couple are introduced to the story arc. The interactions of Andre (Jérôme Kircher) and Celine (Corinne Masiero) with the wannabe Flintstones – whose tragic backstory is gradually revealed – cause the equilibrium to be slowly and inexorably upset.

Under threat, the forest takes on a different nature. Snow falls like ash. The soundtrack oddly includes strains of electronic keyboards, clashing with the film’s natural environment. It’s impossible not to compare Couple in a Hole with the reclusive living superbly portrayed in post-event The Survivalist. Trapped by their own reaction to heartbreak rather than Room’s jailer, the feral pair aroused little sympathy with me.

Ultimately, the initial sparse dialogue and smart cinematography cannot rescue this film whose incendiary conclusion jars with the more mundane middle. A week after seeing Tom Geens’ feature, it hasn’t grown on me.

Couple in a Hole is being screened in the QFT until Thursday 14 April.

Monday, April 11, 2016

District Zero - the stories inside refugees’ smartphones (14 April, Belfast Film Festival) #bff16

District Zero tells the story of daily life of a tiny mobile phone shop in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, the second largest in the world. The phone memory cards of Maamun’s customers contain their past in Syria – happiness, routine, family life – before the war came, followed by destruction, fear and flight.

Maamun rebuilds photos and sound, recovers lost content, recharges batteries, and restores the only link his neighbours still have with Syria. And together with his friend Karim, they print off the photos which have filled up the mobile phones of the people who live in Za’atari.

On Thursday 11 April, District Zero will be screened as part of The Better World Film Fringe at Belfast Film Festival at 7pm in The MAC by the Coalition for Aid Development Agencies (CADA). Tickets £5.

After this UK and Irish première, I’ll be hosting a short panel discussion on the situation in Syria and its human impact with
  • Ahmad Alissa (a refugee from Syria living in Belfast)
  • Colm Byrne (Oxfam Humanitarian Manager)
  • Prof Monica McWilliams (Womens Studies at UU Transitional Justice Institute).
District Zero is part of the EUsaveLIVES - You Save Lives campaign by Oxfam and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) to raise awareness on the lives of almost 60 million refugees and displaced people worldwide and the vitally important role humanitarian aid has in their lives.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

I Am Belfast - an insider's reflection on his birth city (QFT 8-14 April)

I missed the screening of I Am Belfast at last year’s Belfast Film Festival (and was unusually disappointed by 6 Desires, the other Mark Cousins film that was showing) so I’ve been keen to see the filmmaker’s guide to the city.

What if Belfast was a woman, a woman as old as the city?
“Listen first, then look, then walk”

Belfast city is epitomised on-screen as a ten thousand year old woman – played by a much younger Helena Bereen – dressed in a long dark purple coat wrapped in a purple shawl, wearing ankle boots with bleached hair tied back in a tight bun. Along with the dulcet tones of the director, she narrates the film.

I Am Belfast has the classic Cousins look and feel, though credit for the imagery must go to cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Reflections, clouds, watching scenes through objects held in front of the camera lens, feet walking up streets, seeing the world upside down as if being carried or dragged along by someone, mixing shaky handheld footage with static shots of action observed from a distance and archive material. The moody visuals are matched by David Holmes’ ethereal ambient soundtrack which overlays the erratic conversation between Cousins and Ms Belfast.

The film is a quasi-self portrait of Cousins’ birth city. It’s much more personal and broody that my favourite film from his back catalogue, Here Be Dragons (which explores the political, cultural and cinematic landscape of Albania).

The visual poetry celebrates a working class and industrial Belfast and over 84 minutes it journeys through run-down city centre streets, interface areas and the greener outskirts. “We're quite good at parades” quips the filmmaker in one aside.

The Titanic and conflict collide as the narration suggests that an “iceberg hit” as the Troubles erupted and “we fought each other”. The film’s journey halts to remember some of the detail from the McGurk’s Bar bombing and Bloody Friday.

Half way through the film, the ceasefires are in place and sunshine is allowed to reach into the cityscape. Local “diamonds” – Rosie and Maud – share a cup of cross community coffee and profanities in a scene that leaves us not much wiser about hope or history.

Ultimately, I Am Belfast is a film full of longing and imagining, a film that wonders whether this generation will see the last vestiges of unacceptable behaviour and thinking wiped from its streets. The final scene – after the last bigot is buried – finds optimism, albeit in an incident that could have as easily happened any time in the last fifty or sixty years as now.

Both an insider and an outside, Cousins has the insight and the distance to comment on local affairs and shine a light on some of the challenges still facing Northern Ireland society. The city of “salt and sweet” is recognisable, yet full of previously unnoticed details. He ignores politics – perhaps an unnecessary sideshow – and focuses on people. It’s an unusual film, neither drama nor documentary, but one that left me wondering how, if left to me, I would portray the city with all its warts and wonders.

I Am Belfast is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 8 to Thursday 14 April. Mark Cousins will take part in a Q&A after the 6pm screening on Sunday 10 April.

There is a special afternoon screening on Sunday 10 April at 1pm in The Black Box (£4). Unfortunately the post-screening walk around the Belfast locations with Mark Cousins has sold out, but you can can complete the tour on your own without the director between noon and 6pm by following the map posted on the I Am Belfast tumblr site. You can even stop off in Rosie and Maud's favourite coffee shop. And there are still tickets for the the after party in The Black Box from 8pm-11pm (£5) on Sunday night with soundtrack composer David Holmes and Stuart Watson.

Film Hub NI are curating a mini-season of feature films that - like I Am Belfast - use colour to spellbinding effect.

You can see The Wizard of Oz, martial arts epic Hero and Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers at the QFT on Saturday 9 April.

The BFI are also running a programme of I Am ... events in other cities like Manchester, Edinburgh and Newcastle which are screening the film.

I Am Belfast is also available to watch online through the BFI Player (£££).

Saturday, April 02, 2016

After Miss Julie - desire, envy, power, revenge … and blood (The MAC until 9 April)

Adapted from August Strindberg’s 1988 play Miss Julie, Patrick Marber has revamped his earlier 1995 script and relocated the action of After Miss Julie to a country house in Fermanagh shortly after the end of the Second World War.

Christine (played by Pauline Hutton) and John (Ciaran McMenamin) serve at the pleasure of “His Lordship”, an unseen widower of ten years. While he’s away from the estate his ‘lush’ daughter Miss Julie (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) joins in the dancing in a VE Day celebration in the barn with the workers and sets tongues wagging.
“I have low expectations, I'm rarely disappointed. I understand, how could you resist her beauty when you're just a man?”

Christine is the cook. Her character is driven by twin principles of an upright religious fervour and a practical realism that allowed backhanders to be given to the butcher to overcome the meagre supply of wartime ration coupons.

The house thrives on secrets. Although Christine and valet John are an item, John and Miss Julie both have eyes for each other based on strong pre-war memories.
“I saw your mother pushing you in your pram … My first memory is you … and a feeling without the words to describe it. Now I can call it love … or envy. A man of my class can rise, like break, but not cake.”

John shows deference to his master and receives respect in return. However he covets the wealth and lifestyle he is denied, sneaking away with unfinished bottles of fine wine from the table upstairs. The more Miss Julie pushes his buttons, the less hesitant he is to begin to break rank and boldly confront her with his unattractive, violent and misogynistic manner.

Miss Julie displays manic mood swings, with sudden lurches from being forward and frisky on the kitchen bench to moments of self doubt, incapable of knowing what to do next. At times the dialogue is rapid fire and emotionally charged. Yet the waves of urgency and discordant soundtrack are complemented with some beautifully becalmed scenes. Carl Kennedy’s musical interludes allow an actor to potter around the stage, while the audience watch them wordlessly peel back another layer of their character.

Sarah Bacon’s set is based on the kitchen in Enniskillen’s Castle Coole. Cupboards line the walls along with a black range dominates one side of the room. A chunky wooden table and benches occupy the middle of the floor. High windows and a back corridor bring shafts of light into the room. The intricate sound design makes pans sizzle and wafts birdsong and singing into the spacious scullery.

Great theatre often sneaks up and surprises you. And that’s the case with Prime Cut’s production of After Miss Julie. What could have been a simple upstairs/downstairs tale of class and gender becomes a much more complicated three hander full of desire, envy, power, revenge … and blood (mostly Julie’s).

Emma Jordan’s direction gives the spiralling emotions space to grow and time to linger. The cavernous kitchen is mostly filled by the three competing egos and after a slow start the one act play builds up momentum that sustains it to its conclusion.

Lisa Dwyer Hogg creates a mesmerising Miss Julie, while Ciaran McMenamin plays a thoroughly dislikeable John who really deserves to meet his end in a similar manner to the unfortunate canary. But it is Pauline Hutton’s unbending Christine who wins the sympathy of the audience … until we discern that she too has feet of clay.

Perversely while I felt that last year’s Prime Cut production of God of Carnage was “crying out for adaptation to a Northern Ireland location with local occupations and local accents”, I’m not so sure whether After Miss Julie needed the tweaking. As a period piece, the Fermanagh location explains the inclusion of local vernacular, but adds relatively little to the themes or meaning.

If you like your theatre full on and challenging, go and see After Miss Julie in the MAC (until 9 April).

Production photos: Ciaran Bagnall.

The 39 Steps - stylised witty homage to Hitchcock (in Lyric Theatre until 16 April)

The conceit of The 39 Steps is that a cast of four perform 139 parts during this highly choreographed and stylised witty play based on the 1935 Hitchcock film of John Buchan’s novel. The stage is sparse, the props are plenty and the comedy is continuous.

Richard Hannay (played by Michael Johnston) is the kind of smooth-talking moustached Londoner who smokes a pipe, has a broker, belongs to a club and doesn’t care for wars. But this resourceful fellow finds himself accused of murder when the mysterious Annabella (Hannah Brackstone-Brown) dies overnight in his flat. He travels north to Scotland to find the only man who can help unravel the mystery of [pause for effect] “The 39 Steps”. Classic cinematic moments ensue with chases, escaping out the door of moving trains, more chases, and the unravelling of stockings.

The show starts with Michael Condron and Liam Jeavons bursting onto the stage as the two clowns who pick up the majority of the parts and bring the most energy (and twangs) to the performance. Matthew Reeve’s surround sound effects and background music run continuously throughout the two act show. However, the gesture response ping pong between the actors and the sound effects soon becomes wearisome as does all the jiggling and shuffling.

The physical humour is fast-paced and mostly avoids slapstick. At times the two ‘clowns’ play five parts between them in the one scene, swapping hats and accents as they twirl around. Some of the fun comes from the quick costume changes and movement of props that very occasionally go wrong (mostly pre-planned).
“Pretty slick sleuthing for an amateur Mr Hannay.”

Energy levels drop a little during the hotel scene in the second half. Michael Johnston’s delivery of a stump speech at the Vote McCorquodale town hall rally is better in quality and content than I’ve seen from any of the current US Presidential candidates. Hannah Brackstone-Brown ably plays the three main female roles and does well to inject as much personality into them given the constraints of the script – very much of the period in question – and its tendency to reduce women to objects for smooching rather than three dimensional characters.

It’s a complicated script performed with confidence and panache. While it feels like a strange choice – even for Bruiser who revel in physical comedy (remember Spelling Bee?) – the company have mastered it completely.

At times The 39 Steps reminded me of watching the film Anomalisa or Victoria: the conceit is clever, the execution spot on, and it must be great fun to perform and to be in the middle of, but for me it’s not that entertaining. It didn’t appeal to my sense of humour at all – it didn’t make me smile, never mind laugh – but the woman sitting next to me in the Lyric stalls giggled and giggled and she wasn’t alone in having tears of joy streaming down her cheeks at the madcap action.

The 39 Steps plays at Lyric Theatre until 26 April.

Victoria: a grand (larceny) night out in Berlin [QFT Fri 1-Thu 14 April]

Bring a picnic if you’re going to see Victoria. A large one. Nothing in noisy wrappers that will distract from the often breathy dialogue. Maybe a large can of Pringles and a sandwich. Or a pizza. And not too much liquid as you don’t want to be running to the loo during this two hour fourteen minute, twenty two location, single take film.

Victoria (played by Laia Costa) is young, Spanish and out late clubbing in Berlin. With not enough time to go home before her shift, she’s heading straight to work to kip for a couple of hours and then open up the café for the early morning trade. Some lads flirt with her as leaves the club and she lingers. The gang are trying to steal a car. But is Victoria bothered? Soon she’s helping them steal booze under the nose of a sleeping corner shop owner, jay walking, enjoying an illicit rooftop drink and taking Sonne (Frederick Lau) back to the café. Young, risk-taking and light fingered.

Wilhem and Medné’s organic café – it’s a real business – conveniently has an out of tune piano and the action rests there a while to fill in Victoria’s musical backstory. Where will the night’s madness end? Just over an hour into the film, the pace (thankfully) quickens and the previously absent jeopardy is introduced. Up to that point the most frequently repeated line of the film must be:
“I have to go. I have to open the café at seven.”

But now the gang return with a ‘job’ to do and carefree Victoria agrees to help with their heist. The focus of the rest of the film revolves around the consequence of this largely unseen incident, and frankly around the high velocity criminal journey of a non-German speaking Spanish girl spending the summer alone working in Berlin. Her motivation to jump from shoplifting to grand larceny all within the space of ninety minutes is never fully justified. Initially a panicker, she learns to keep her cool in the chaos that ensues.

As an audience we spend a lot of the film looking over Victoria’s shoulder with the pavement scenes bathed in the warm amber glow of the street lights until the sun eventually rises. The one shot magic builds up its confidence early on with a short bike ride, a mere children’s party trick when compared with a later bike stunt. It’s ten years since the two enormously long takes in Children of Men appeared on cinema screens.

The camera in Victoria is like her shadow and never strays to far from the titular character. Almost becoming another silent character, it nips into the ladies loos, wobbles up streets, climbs ladders, gets in and out of cars, is shot at and eventually stands still for the last minute of the film. With all the bobbing around I’d recommend sitting fairly far back in the cinema to allow your neck to rest. The released film was only the third and final take the crew shot, though the outline script was rehearsed in smaller chunks over ten days. [The film was shot on a Canon EOS C300 camera without a bulky Steadicam harness. Canon’s interview with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is a great read.]

The cast do well to keep the emotional interest in each other and allow their eyes to dart realistically as the scenes unfold. Victoria speaks English while the gang often revert to German which she doesn’t understand (though the audience can follow through subtitles). It requires a lot of concentration, particularly when some of the dialogue is whispered. With the real time nature of the story, the constant chattering of the improvised script all becomes a bit too much at points and it is a relief when the actors’ mics are faded down and Nils Frahm’s soothing soundtrack is allowed to take over for a few minutes.

Victoria is as long as three episodes of 24. There are fewer stunts but the intensity is there during parts of the film. The question for me is whether the twists and turns are believable when held up against what we learn about the character of Victoria. If they are, then beware minimum wage café workers in Berlin! However, I fear that the quality of the finished film suffers due to the real time storyline and becomes more about the herculean length of the shot rather than quality of the plot and acting.

Sturla Brandth Grøvlen certainly deserves his top billing as the first name that appears when the credits finally roll. To make your own mind up on whether the plot rivals the quality of the craft, you can see Victoria at the Queen’s Film Theatre between Thursday 1 and Friday 14 April. (Don’t forget your picnic.)