Friday, May 27, 2016

Love & Friendship … scheming towards matrimony in this whimsical delight (QFT until 9 June)

The lilting harp music that opens Love & Friendship is quickly followed by some light drumming, perhaps hinting at the emotional light and shade ahead in this entirely whimsical but utterly enchanting period drama.

Love & Friendship doesn’t take itself at all seriously: that’s immediately apparent from the captions that appear under the book-like introductions to the large cast. Yet it’s beautifully shot and moves along like a real page-turner.

Filmed in Ireland and based on an early Jane Austen novella, we step back into the highfalutin English Regency era where men wore wigs and tights while women sought husbands of wealthy enough to fund their lavish wardrobes.

Widowed Lady Susan (played mischievously by Kate Beckinsale) has escaped to her in-law’s estate while the chattering classes gossip about her morals. It’s all true. She’s as twisted as some of the old trees on the estates she flits between. But she’s a woman with a mission: she needs a man to fund her lifestyle, and so does her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) who’s nearing the end of her formal education (though her mother has a thing or two to teach her).
“We don’t live, we visit.”

Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) is a fool, and one who could fill the whole vacuum of space with inane twaddle unless someone interjected. He has proposed to young Frederica who has the wit to be repulsed by him. Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) is of fine stock but his parents warn him to be wary of any dalliance with the flirty widow. And then there’s the already married Lord Mannering (Lochlann O'Mearáin) and his hysterical wife (shrilly played by Jenn Murray).

In what becomes a fast-paced reality show complete with playground gossip of who’s going with whom, new plot points draw up to the door of stately homes by horse and carriage and through the delivery and reading of letters sealed with wax causing characters to travel post haste across England to steer men in and out of the way of Lady Susan’s charms. Chloë Sevigny plays Alicia, and American confidant of the devious star of the film.
“Facts are horrid things.”

A queen of manipulation, Lady Susan could talk herself out of anything. “Only clever tradesmen can evade” her charms and genius quips one wise character.

Before you know Whit Stillman has the ninety minute film all wrapped up and the credits are rolling. For such a sweet film, the succinct ending is a little unsatisfactory. While justice has perhaps been done, I can’t believe Lady Susan would go to all that effort and then be content with the eventual conclusion.

You don’t need to be familiar with Jane Austin to enjoy the film. It’s complete nonsense, but delightfully entertaining all the same. Love & Friendship is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 9 June.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Northern Star - the seven ages of Henry Joy McCracken (Lyric Theatre until 29 May)

“Citizens of Belfast …”

The clever set for Northern Star portrays the backstage area of a theatre, with piles of props and a cue station monitoring the action on the other side so the backdrop. It’s quickly clear that this a metaphor for Henry Joy McCracken’s seven reminisces on the eve of his arrest and execution. A noose hangs over the stage as another reminder of McCracken’s ultimate fate.

The script’s opening stage directions are read aloud at the start reminding the audience that the cast flit between characters during the play. A large Lambeg drums sits on its side at one corner of the stage, along with a piano and various other instruments. Members of the cast slip in and play.

McCracken is mostly played by Paul Mallon in a low key performance, while other male and female cast members get to wear his fetching green jacket too. He’s a leading light in the Society of the United Irishmen in Belfast (liberal Protestants who longed to end British interference in Ireland and bring about a shared social change).
“Every joke turning into a nightmare. Every nightmare into a joke. That’s an Irish lullaby.”

Words flow out of McCracken’s troubled mouth like a tap that is stuck open. He’s simultaneously eloquent, quotable, incisive and absurd. He’s hiding with Mary Bodle (Charlotte McCurry) and their illegitimate baby in a cottage with a loft in one corner of the set. She dozes upstairs with their daughter while he spends a sleepless night talking to the ghosts of his past. Mallon and McCurry are joined on stage by Richard Clements, Darragh Kelly, Eleanor Methven, Rory Nolan, Robbie O’Connor and Ali White.

Other reviewers who are more ‘in the know’ will explain how different scenes in the play are written by Stewart Parker in the style of other Irish playwrights (Wilde, Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Beckett etc). But that device is lost on the average audience member who like me will merely notice some abrupt changes of language and style.
“It isn't true to say they forget nothing. It's far worse than that. They misremember everything.”

Heavy themes of identity, nationhood and legacy run through the play. There’s a little humour – Wolfe Tone has the most outrageous costume and the dark glassed beret wearing duo cut a comedic pair in the second half – but it’s mostly pretty serious.

In the end Lynne Parker’s direction and Zia Holly’s set couldn’t overcome the obstacles in the original script to transport me back to 1798. The clash of styles and the density of the language left me exhausted and I came out of Northern Star only a little the wiser. The thrust of Stewart Parker’s Pentecost proved much more accessible when performed on the same stage last year.

Rough Magic’s Northern Star has toured through Dublin and Glasgow and plays in the Lyric Theatre until 29 May.

Green Room: a battle of the bands followed by blood and red laces (QFT until 26 May)

It takes a while for Green Room to make sense. Why has a van come to a halt in the middle of a maize? Why are the four passengers (played by Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner) asleep? Why do they carry around the necessary piping to siphon petrol from other cars rather than buying ‘gas’ for themselves?

The Ain’t Rights are a punk band and they’re touring on the cheap. A gig falls through but they’re promised a slot in another out of town red-neck venue. Twenty minutes into the film and one band member’s chance sighting of the aftermath of a stabbing casts a dark shadow over their own longevity and their future as a four piece group. The white supremacist venue’s manager (Macon Blair) struggles to keep a lid the situation, holding the band hostage in the green room along with a beefy bouncer and the dead girl’s friend (Imogen Poots).
“I’m not keeping you: you’re just staying.”

For the next seventy minutes, we witness what happens when the blood, gore and violence faders are slowly turned up full in a tense and often brutal slasher movie. Along the way there’s some industrial bandaging with duct tape, a DIY zombie look when a fire extinguisher is discharged, and dogs that you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. Patrick Stewart gets to be evil, playing the venue owner and man in charge of handing out the coveted red laces to the neo-Nazi group.

Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier is wedded to the soundtrack, happy to cut away where others would have lingered. (Despite the heavy influence of the punk scene, unlike last week’s release Everybody Wants Some, there’s no rendition of Alternative Ulster to cheer everyone up.) The slow motion mosh pit scene easely on is artistic and a moment of relative calm before the storm around the corner.

I’m not a fan of horror films, so when one character asks “Shouldn’t we be panicking?”, I know that anyone with a nervous disposition (who’s left) in the screening has already mentally answered “We are”. The special effects, slashes and blood spurting are high quality. The characters are hard to love, with very shallow backstories and a sense of increasing expendability.

Green Room is screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 26 May. Update - also playing in Omniplex and Moviehouse cinemas.

As The Tide Ebbs - seeking truth amongst the post-Troubles squalor (Rawlife Theatre at the Lyric until 5 June)

Pearse Elliott’s new play As The Tide Ebbs explores the life of a couple of ex-combatants and a younger man seeking the truth about his family.
“This place is my home. It might be a shit hole but it’s where I live … where I was brought up …”

Fuzzy (played brilliantly by Billy Clarke) lives in the wreck of his family home. He holds a bottle in one hand a rubs his face compulsively with the other. Nothing in this excuse for a domicile works except the multiple fridges used to keep the alcohol chilled, an unnecessary precaution given the lack of heating in the dingy squat. His speech is slurred and his logic is as pickled as his alcohol-infused, drug-addled brain. But these vices disguise the baggage he carries from the conflict.

Friends from the old days call in to while away the day. Shasu (Marty Maguire) carried out a lot more “jobs”. He and Fuzzy reminisce about old war stories over a ‘gargle’ or two. The language is colourful and, as we’ve come to expect from Pearse Elliott, there are west Belfastisms aplenty to spice up the dialogue.

After twenty minutes, the younger Wishy (Michael Liebmann) joins the pair. He brings curiosity along with clinking blue bags of comfort into the house. There’s a normalcy to killing “the enemy”. Conversation about murder intertwines with notions of home improvement and women. It’s not just another topic: it’s also the topic that most burdens their lives.

Even with an hour of acting before the interval, it’s well through the second half before the big reveal and the Fuzzy and Shasu face up to their past. The characters – particularly Fuzzy – are satisfying to watch, but there’s definitely room to prune the text (and remove some of the repetitions) as well as inject more variation of emotion into the play. Although the tension in the audience rises when the threat of violence enters the house, our fears are betrayed when the play’s conclusion is reached. The final scene is fitting and well staged. However, the run up to it leaves us unsated.

The audience sit along the front and side of the stage in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio. Don’t be scared: the best seats are at the side, very close to much of the action director Martin McSharry has engineered. Niall Rea’s fabulous set sprawls over the confines of the usually cramped Naughton Studio stage. While fictional, there’s more than a whiff of fact about As The Tide Ebbs with the house and some of the characters and situations obviously familiar to some in the audience.

Your political and cultural background will somewhat determine how you appreciate the play. Themes of touts, the Disappeared, the Hooded Men and the yearning for truth recovery float to the surface. There are moments of laughter – and loud snorts from some in the stalls – among the banter. But it’s noticeable that different sections of the audience laugh at different jokes. Writing and directing so close to the bone dampens many of the collegiate giggles a play like this would often expect to earn.

In 2015, every play in Belfast seemed to use a projector. (As The Tide Ebbs plays an extended video at the start of both acts that is projected across the set, the imagery indiscernible and the context lost on this reviewer.) This year theatre involves lots of opening bottles and drinking and singing. The on-stage threesome prove that they have strong bladders and good voices, with a particularly tuneful rendition of a Dylan song. Though the lyric at the close of the show is perhaps most apt:
“It makes no difference how far I go / Like a scar the hurt will always show”
As The Tide Ebbs is unrelentingly masculine. The dark post-Troubles play is at times more tragedy than comedy, but it succeeds in shining a light on a cadre of activists who society leaves in the company of their consciences while surviving family members still crave for closure on the fate of their loved ones.

Rawclife Theatre’s As The Tide Ebbs runs in the Lyric Theatre until 6 June.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Channel 4’s Pedro Cosa: TV and data is a clash between art and science #BigDataBelfast

A couple of years ago I unexpectedly ended up working on a ‘big data’ project. The term had existed since 2001, but was only beginning to permeate the vocabulary of IT professionals and the wider world along with a growth in NoSQL and high performance denormalised database technologies.

With a stream of metrics being recorded every few seconds and intermittently spat out by servers hosted in data centres around the world we ran the risk of being data rich and information poor unless the significance of what was being gathered could be visualised and deviation from the norm could trigger intervention before catastrophe.

UK broadcasters have long relied upon overnight viewing figure information from BARB which collects data from set top boxes in over 5,000 homes and delivers reports to the desks of channel controllers at 9.30am each morning. TV bosses have long measured success based on reach (the number of people watching) and share (the proportion of people watching). More sophisticated metrics like the Audience Appreciation Index slowly joined the stable of indicators.

The advent of video on demand, second screen apps, short content shared or promoted on social media have revolutionised the possibility of what audience behaviours and actions can be instrumented and measured. The challenge for the broadcasters is to avoid drowning in this sea of numbers.

Pedro Cosa is speaking at the Big Data Belfast conference on Thursday 2 June. He is Channel 4’s deputy head of data analytics. He explained to me that the broadcaster began seriously mining its data five years ago.

TV in itself as a medium has changed very dramatically in the past few years … the way that people are consuming is driving change. Content is available across many different platforms and many different formats. Live TV is still really big, but young audiences – that are more likely to watch Channel 4 – have new ways of consuming content which is starting to transform the whole industry …

We are changing from a broadcaster’s perspective which is ‘one to many’ (broadcasting to as many eyeballs as possible) to a ‘one to one’ relationship and we are now entering this world where you can engage on a one to one basis with each one of your viewers.

How is the availability of richer data changed Channel 4’s decision making?

Channel 4 has always been very open and ambitious with data. We wanted the data to be used across the channel, not just for pure commercial purposes (which in itself has got a massive advantage). Across every single part of the business we’ve been trying to investigate how data can help.

We’ve been creating a structure where we’re understanding how the business works, what the processes are, how decisions are made … and where we can identify where [each] opportunity is.

As well as the obvious feed into commercials/ad sales, Channel 4 are using the data they gather to better target their own marketing and promotion of content. But it doesn’t stop there.

We are also using this to enhance the relationship with our viewers. We now have 13.5 million registered viewers, one in two of the UK population aged 16-34 …

Pedro was clear that Channel 4 take their customer data seriously, with a “promise” to viewers around the use, retention and right to delete each individual’s records.

The most challenging aspect for his team is to “help the creative side of the business” with proofs of concept to demonstrate that data can lead to better decisions. “TV is very creative,” explains Pedro. Bringing TV and data together is like “a clash between art and science” with data sometimes seen as preventing creativity.

Many of the tools and techniques have been invented by Channel 4 as they ploughed their data furrow ahead of other broadcasters. Rather than collect data and then figure out what to do with it, Channel 4’s methodology is to start with a business challenge – something to change or fix – and then look at how the data might help.

Training and developing talent in this area is something we have to do for ourselves and for the industry. We’re conscious that Channel 4 may become the power house of big data for TV.

Channel 4’s own ‘IT Crowd’ aren’t hidden in the basement of Horseferry Road. Instead, the team deliberately sit up in the middle of the second floor amongst the rest of the business. The broadcaster works with universities like UCL to create a flow of graduates, with sponsorship of masters and PhD students.

Is serendipity lost when machine recommendations take over? Pedro admits that their video on demand service has so much content that it’s “almost impossible to navigate”.

Because we are a public service broadcaster we have this remit to fulfil. For us it’s not just about generating more views and more money, it’s also about fulfilling that remit. That means we wouldn’t be using normal recommendations to maximise the number of views, revenue and return.

So they’ve built their own in-house recommendation engine to avoid simply promoting already popular programmes and making them even more popular.

Are there surprises in the data?

More than surprises there are things you didn’t know existed but when you see them they make sense. We’ve been trying to understand relationships between programmes, especially with video on demand you can see how people are self-selecting what they watch (as opposed to the more linear schedule on TV where there is a legacy and you keep watching).

They’ve created a huge universe of relationships around how programmes are watch and “generated micro-genres”. As opposed to the well known genres like drama, factual, entertainment, Pedro’s team can see how very specific niche programmes cluster with each other (eg, teen American drama with a bit of comedy). This is helping drive commissioning decisions to fill gaps or feed interests.

Visualisation is a big part of our data programme. For every single thing that we do we have some sort of deliverable that is a visualisation. Normally these are the more interactive online tools so you can start moving things around and exploring.

When Pedro speaks at Big Data Breakouts, he’ll bring the perspective of an organisation that didn’t just start to exploit existing data but innovated to generate new data and use it for the benefit of the organisation and its customers (viewers).

Up and running for three years, the data analytics team stopped being a cost centre and became a profit centre within Channel 4.

We paid of all the investment in terms of our IT systems and people … It’s a very successful story [about] how we managed to quickly delivery back value to the business …

The team has learnt to say no, only producing reports when it’s clear what the business transformation will be on the back of the data crunched.

[To make] business impact and transformation we tend to avoid reporting for the sake of reporting, being just happy delivering a report and placing it on someone’s desk.

We want to make data actionable and see the results coming from it.

More information on the Big Data Breakouts website and Twitter feed.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!! ... or ‘Men Behaving Badly’ (QFT 13-26 May)

I feel shallow for even sitting in the cinema to the end of the preview screening of Everybody Wants Some!! (The two exclamation marks are part of the official title, there’s nothing I can do.)

If film reviews had executive summaries, this one would say:
Life’s too short for a 117 minute film about a bunch of college jocks whose minds are as filthy as the puddle of mud one wrestles a female party goer in. The woman wins … which is perhaps the message of the film.

The action begins three days before the start of term when freshman Jake (played by Blake Jenner) and a couple of other new scholarship students arrive at the dilapidated house shared by the baseball team. 1980 culture is laid on thick: it’s the era of pinball, space invaders, and handlebar moustached young men cruising the streets in beat up cars armed only with a set of chat up lines that have less chance of success than putting me into bat at a game.
“Only been at college an hour and I’m already pulling in the groupies.”

The screenplay takes wild swings at pranks and parties, initiation and humiliation, and majors on the competitive personalities that make up the team. But it’s a total strikeout.

There are so many continuity errors between cuts in scenes that it must be a deliberate device. Much like the inclusion of lame dialogue and the clunky way Jake appraises his housemates about the messed up narcissistic, macho culture and confirms out loud what the audience have been thinking since the third minute of the movie.

Unfortunately Jake also dabbles in the very same behaviours he criticises, though his well signposted relationship with the “auburn haired girl” (Beverly played by Zoey Deutch) is finally dropped into the second half of the script and he moves around the bases at a little more leisurely pace than his teammates would. While a fair few women willingly fall under the spell – possibly smell – of the sporty students, a healthy number demonstrate a more discriminating attitude.

There’s very little of merit in this unsophisticated, testosterone-driven Richard Linklater film other than the soundtrack, which rips through disco, country and punk tunes like a Spotify playlist 1980’s jukebox on autoplay. (Get ready to laugh with everyone else in the cinema when a local punk favourite appears sixty minutes into the movie.)

The ending is abrupt – practically mid scene – and long overdue. I wasn’t left with any sense of desire to know what happens next. While Linklater received plaudits for Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!! deserves none.

If you go and see Everybody Wants Some!! at the Queen’s Film Theatre between 13-26 May leave a comment below and let me know what you thought.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Shakespeare's Women (CQAF) - polished and expressive, thoughtful and great fun

Shakespeare’s Women is a real treat. The two night run up in The Barracks is over (and was sold out), but you can be sure it’ll reappear on a local stage before two long.

Clare McMahon (Unhome) and Siobhan Kelly play Jules and Fi (better known to students of English literature as Juliet and Ophelia). Their situation is gradually revealed and it becomes apparent that they’re trapped together in limbo. Hanging around the waiting room of the dead with nothing to do, they talk about their lives and loves.

It’s clear that they’ve been together for some time and are familiar with each other’s stories. They rehearse key moments from their stories, lapsing back from everyday Belfast dialect to Shakespearean vernacular. Subtle accessories – scarves and shirts – transform their grey and denim afterlife uniform into the characters.

At first the mirth emerges from their dissection of Romeo and Hamlet (who “could be a little self-centred!”) before they reach back into the Collected Works and pick out other tragic couples. The audience chortle at the idea of Juliet leaning out the balcony having a sneaky fag (and thinking about Romeo, obviously).

The hour long performance (written by Clare McMahon and directed by Benjamin Gould) rips along with only an odd moment of silence punctuating the boisterous and energetic delivery of McMahon and Kelly, with their clear diction, raised eyebrows and sideways looks.

Large portions of speeches and conversations are interwoven into the two women’s voyage of discovery. The not quite 14 years old Juliet was only married a matter of days before her unfortunate end. But she’s wise beyond her years, the queen of understatement, and ventures to chasten and challenge Ophelia and the other characters they survey. So many women die at the hands quill of Shakespeare’s imagination. Can the dead take back control?

One of the joys of the piece is the slow disclosure of the characters’ state of affairs. We don’t need to know too much too quickly, so Clare has the confidence to withhold detail. The ending is explosive.

Shakespeare’s Women is a thoroughly polished and expressive performance, thoughtful and great fun. And part of a rich vein of new theatre being performed a part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - like a Pick'n'Mix revival - in the all-black The Barracks (a newish venue up the alley way beside The Black Box).

Mustang - misplaced desire for chastity leads to isolation in this sad Turkish tale (QFT until 19 May)

Mustang is an incredibly sad film: a story about being confined, isolated and forced to make difficult choices. (A recurring theme in films being screened at the QFT so far this year.)

It begins with a mixed group of children mucking about on the beach at the end of the school year, displaying the Turkish equivalent of joie de vivre [possibly yaşam sevinci depending on the quality of Google’s language skills].
“Everyone’s talking about your obscene behaviour.”

Word of the five orphaned sisters’ horseplay in the surf reaches home before them and their grandmother (played by Nihal Koldaş) berates them for inappropriate contact with boys. Their uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) starts to fortify the house, and they are immediately cut off from friends and the freedom they’d enjoyed.
“The house became a wife-factory.”

Home schooling switches to a curriculum of cuisine and home-making. The girls are kitted out in “shit-coloured, shapeless dresses” and only appear in public to parade down an impromptu catwalk to catch the eye of families who may fancy them for their sons.
“If there was the slightest doubt you wouldn’t be able to get married.”

The village community depicted in Mustang has an unhealthy obsession with chastity and physical virginity. While intimate checks are made by compliant doctors to produce ‘virginity reports’, it’s sickening to discover that an adult male in the family is abusing at least one of his nieces.

The grandmother is torn. Along with her sister she reacts sympathetically when the girls seize an opportunity to escape their incarceration. But she bows to the pressure of wanting the girls married off without fuss before she dies.

This is not a coming of age film that oozes sexuality and hedonism. After a moment of voyeurism, director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (making her feature debut) steers the film back towards the five teenage sisters facing the very adult prospect of being rapidly married off to strangers … or taking matters into their own hands. Gradually, the house’s defences are reinforced and the youthful laughter subdues as each child faces their future with varying degrees of hope and doom. The contrast of emotion is heart-breaking.

Barely any religious practice is betrayed. Mustang is not a film that rails against religion or is totally damning of arranged marriages. One sister puts her foot down and selects her beau. The girls’ custody is both physical and emotional. Even when some escape the house through marriage, contact is irregular and there’s little effort to come back to help the sisterhood who remain. And where’s the knock on the door from a curious school principal to find out where five pupils have gone?

The off-screen narration by the youngest sister Lale (Güneş Şensoy) jars a little in the opening scenes but is soon forgotten as the scandalous situation unfolds. Lale witnesses what’s happening to her sisters and while she may have a few years to wait, she wastes no time in planning ahead. A local truck driver Yasin is perhaps the only honourable man in the whole film, a rare saint among sinners.

Deep strings and piano accompanies some scenes, intensifying the sick feeling in the audience’s stomachs. Mustang is troubling to watch and raises questions about how men - and women - behave, how society cares for its youth, and how different cultural norms can be squared against a western sensibility of what is right and proper.

Mustang will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 13 to Thursday 19 May.