Monday, August 14, 2017

Everything, Everything – teen date movie where the truth shall set you free (from 18 August)

A frail and fragile bird – in this case a young woman turning 18 – is trapped in a glass cage – in this case her mother’s hermetically sealed house with an airlock instead of a porch – unable to leave for fear that a cat – in this case the nasty germ-filled world – would kill her. Welcome to the world of Everything, Everything.

Maddy’s life revolves around her Mum (a doctor played by Anika Noni Rose), her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) and Rosa, her nurse’s daughter (Danube Hermosillo). No one else enters the house due to her severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).

Then a boy moves in next door. Whereas Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) wears nothing but white clothes in her obsessively clean house, Olly (Nick Robinson) always wears black.

She sits on her wide windowsill and gazes over at his bedroom window. It’s like the cinematic version of Dawson’s Creek. Except her window doesn’t open, so there’s no need for a ladder. Which is shame as the ladder was what made Dawson’s Creek into magical television.

If a review of a theatre production obsesses with the set and the lighting then it’s often a sign that the script or the story or the acting wasn’t up to scratch. This film deserves much praise for its cinematography. You’ll spend much of the 96 minutes noticing that there’s not a single bad shot. Each scene feels like it meets Da Vinci’s golden ratio.

The colour palette is gorgeous, extending to the costumes, with Maddy journeying from simple white t-shirts to fancier and fancier tops of various pastille shades, and (tiny spoiler) Olly eventually ending up in a white t-shirt.

There’s much creativity in the different ways that Olly woos (though at the start I’m not certain that he knows he’s wooing) Maddy through the scenes he creates out the window. There’s also creativity in the director’s freedom to use animation – though in a way that marks the film as a teen flick rather than a film aimed at an adult audience.

The way that Maddy’s inner feelings are represented by a spaceman adds some humour. Transforming remote text and phone conversations into the characters pretending to sit facing each other across a diner booth, or shouting across a library, works well as reality has long since been suspended. However, and there’s a big sigh that goes along with that ‘however’, it all becomes a bit much, particularly when the protagonists’ inner feelings start to appear as subtitles while they have a conversation.

Although all of this creative stuff is clever, it serves to remind the audience that Everything, Everything feels like a very short story that has been elongated the thin plot to the hour and half mark through the distraction of musical and imagined ellipses. Yet the book it is based upon by Nicola Yoon is 310 pages long …

At first Everything, Everything looks like a coming of age movie. And there’s just enough of that developing intimacy to keep it a 12A. But it’s really a finding out the truth movie. Except the truth is pretty well signposted if you’re paying attention from the start, and given the various moments of peril and the resolutions to the conundrum of life versus love, it totally fails to elicit an emotional response from its audience, never mind tears. I’m the world’s easiest cinemagoer to reduce to floods of emotion. Even Maudie managed it last week! But the dominoes set up by director Stella Meghie are strangely cold and fail to trigger any sense of melodrama or histrionics, despite at one point the soundtrack switching to “Please don’t take my love away” with thunder rumbling in the background.

While Stenberg makes the most of the character she given – Maddy seems to have lost the younger-than-her-years, depressed feel of the book – and develops her confidence in steps, Rose is less believable as the mother, with a particularly unconvincing confession speech that seems disconnected from her heart.

Teenagers out on a date will be able to chat, snog, crunch popcorn and generally not pay attention to the screen and yet leave the cinema with a complete grasp of every intricacy of the plot. Clearly forty four year old me is not the intended audience. I’m perturbed by the fact that Maddy isn’t ever billed for her bottomless credit card, and demonstrates that she is well-educated but doesn’t seem to appreciate that air passengers spend a few hours breathing in and out each other’s recycled breath. And even more perturbed that the airlock allows you so easily open both doors at once, defeating its whole purpose.

Everything, Everything is released in Movie House Dublin Road and other cinemas on Friday 18 August. Or there’s always the award-nominated book

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wifi Refugees - marketing advice for local businesses & fundraising for refugees

Earlier this summer, Andi Jarvis launched Wifi Refugees, offering free twenty minute marketing sessions to local businesses, in exchange for a donation to a local refugee charity. David from Soarscape was the first person to drop in for a session.

Andi is a marketing consultant. He knows that small businesses often don’t have the budget to get professional marketing help, so he started this philanthropic venture that combines helping businesses, a refugee charity, and the independent coffee shops that he runs his drop-in clinic in for two hours each month.

The inspiration for the project was hearing David from Outside In speak at the recent Power of Video Conference in Belfast. The social movement and clothing supplier operate a Wear One Share One model: when you buy a garment from Outside In, they send you one and they donate another to someone who is homeless.

Hearing David’s story gave Andi the impetus to stop sitting on the idea and to stop sitting on his own idea and get on and implement it. The conference was on a Friday, the website was built by the Sunday and he launched Wifi Refugees on the Tuesday or the Wednesday.

At the moment Andi runs clinics in Belfast (The Bobbin Café in Belfast City Hall) and in Bangor (The Red Berry café). He explained:
“I spend two hours there. You can come along, first come first served, and spend twenty minutes getting help with some marketing issue. It tends to work best with more of a narrow marketing issue as twenty minutes goes quite quickly.”
In return, you’re expected to buy a coffee to support the café who are allowing him to sit at a table running the two hour sessions, and you’re encouraged to donate to a local refugee charity. The money he raises will be given to Embrace NI. Some colleagues in London and Leeds are keen to extend Wifi Refugees to their cities.
“All you need is somebody with a professional background – in my case it’s marketing – who’s prepared to give two hours a month. It’s not the biggest commitment really for any marketing expert or whatever. You need a coffee shop that will let you sit down in their place for free.”
He wants the money to always go to a local charity working with refugees. While Wifi Refugees is Andi’s project, the concept is repeatable and adaptable by individual, groups, charities or churches.

I asked Andi why he’d decided to support refugees rather than another sector or charity? He explained that there had been a couple of reasons.
“I have referred to myself as a ‘wifi refugee’ for many years. It was a tongue-in-cheek name. Part of being a marketing consultant means that you spend a lot of time working in coffee shops and you’re always looking for good wifi and good coffee. So you’re bouncing around from one place to another. It was a term I’d used for years and years and years. So that helped.”
But Andi also knew about being an outsider, and a newcomer to the community he now lives and works in.
“I’m not from Northern Ireland, I’m from England … I speak the same language, I have rights to work here, I’ve moved over here with a good job, I had family here at the time. Everything was in my favour.

“And it still took me four or five years to settle and feel like this was my home.

“And it made me think, how do you settle and make this place your home when you’ve got none of those advantages? You’ve maybe come from a warzone and had to leave everything behind, you don’t speak the language, you can’t claim any benefits, you can’t work. How do you really get to make this your home? How do you settle your family? How do you get ingrained in the local culture?”
While Andi appreciated the fantastic work being done elsewhere in emergency camps and sea crossings, he realised that “the problems that refugees face don’t go away just because they get to somewhere that supposedly a developed nation that’s going to help them”.
“That’s the end of the first part of the journey, the rest of it starts then.”
For Andi, with his background of migration and settling in, supporting refugees in his local area felt like the best fit.

You can find out more about Wifi Refugees on its website,, and find the latest information about upcoming drop-in marketing sessions on Twitter and Facebook.

Andi is running two drop-in clinics this month, both on Wednesday 16 August. The first is in The Bobbin (Belfast) between 1pm and 3pm, before he heads home to The Red Berry, Bangor between 6pm and 8pm.

Cross-posted from focusonrefugees.org

Friday, August 11, 2017

Preview - Michelle & Arlene - a fine foemance on a satirical trip away (Accidental Theatre, 24-26 August)

Comedians continuously tweak their routines and work topical references into their material. Radio 4’s The Now Show is pretty up to the minute with its lampooning of affairs at Westminster. And The Folks on the Hill series used to have its finger on the pulse of Stormont. When events fit into the weekly schedule of writing, some newspaper columnists cash in on a crisis and make incisive comments while the news cycle unfolds.

But what about the stage? Could the theatre dissect the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin, between its (northern) leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill? Could a playwright get past the oft-repeated mantras that justify social conservatism and language act red lines and expose the heart of the political matter?

Rosemary Jenkinson mentioned the idea of a theatrical “rapid reaction unit” in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph’s Lee Henry when she took up her position as the new writer-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre in January.
“I'd love to write plays about Trump and Brexit but often the problem with writing about politics is that the situation changes and it becomes yesterday's news very quickly. If we had more money in arts, we could have some sort of artistic equivalent of a rapid reaction unit and we could really spearhead social protest.”
It’s certain that no more money has been invested in the arts since that interview, but a conversation between Jenkinson and Richard Lavery at Accidental Theatre at the beginning of July has created the opportunity for a new piece of work reflecting on the volatile state of contemporary Northern Ireland politics to be written and produced before the end of this summer.
“There’s so much going on in politics in the world and here, right now. And nobody’s writing about it in theatre.”
The normal gestation period of a modern play could never be described as ‘rapid’. ‘Elephantine’ would be a better description of the long drawn-out process of pitching, commissioning, writing, drafting, revising, scheduling, casting, rehearsing, and finally performing … the period from idea to stage can often be measured in years.

But it wasn’t always that way. When I interviewed her this week, Rosemary Jenkinson recalled that Bertolt Brecht had his own theatre and could thus respond straight away to situations. Dario Fo lampooned Silvio Berlusconi throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). “They had the power to do that” she says. “But most modern playwrights don’t have that power.”

The marketing image for Michelle & Arlene evokes memories of Thelma & Louise, two women who embark on a road trip with disastrous consequences. Jenkinson explains:
“It’s a buddy movie of two opposites, two people who got thrown together by chance. It’ll appeal to the political savvy because the references will chime a chord with them. But even if you don’t know the politics you’ll get something from it in terms of a female road movie.”
Jenkinson wonders about political leaders who have responsible role and “always keep their mask up”.
“People who keep the mask up most need an outlet to have a break and go wild. And that’s what I was thinking with these two heading off without their respective husbands or family, and seeing how would they behave if they had a few days away totally from that stressful reality that they live in.”
Satire tends to exaggerate in order to make its point and maximize impact. “I’m pushing their behaviours to an extreme” says Jenkinson who begins this play with a vaping, drinking Arlene Foster. ‘These are extreme characters … they have quite extreme politics so who knows how extreme they are in their personal lives.”
“The premise is that Michelle and Arlene separately go on holiday to Ibiza but keep bumping into each other. In spite of their initial hostility, it's almost as if they are fated to be closer than they ever thought possible!”
While this fine ‘foemance’ between the Executive Office text buddies may be fictional, it has its roots in reality, including Arlene Foster’s interview in which she described Michelle O’Neill as “blonde” and “attractive”.
“I think there’s some chemistry there! Everything’s based on reality but just pushed.”
It’s not all pantomime and pantyhose. Expect plenty of talk about boilers, languages and equal marriage.
“They do debate politics in this play … which is quite realistic as they’re in negotiations about these issue so they must have those times when they discuss them [face to face]” says Jenkinson, adding “I’m looking at the ludicrousness of their intransigence”.
Accidental Theatre hope that Michelle & Arlene is the first of many Rapid Response plays that Jenkinson and other playwrights will pen and produce. There’s certainly a vacuum of this kind of political satire in theatre.

Michelle & Arlene runs from Thursday 24 – Saturday 26 August in Accidental Theatre’s new space at 12-13 Shaftsbury Square, behind the Fonacab advertising and under the big screen. Tickets are now on sale.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Atomic Blonde – hedonistic espionage thriller set in stylish Cold War Berlin (from 9 August)

I’m a sucker for an espionage film with plenty of stunts and bullets flying. Bourne sets the bar well above Bond, but every now and again something else outside these well-established brands comes along and stands out.

Salt added a certain style and sophistication to the world of a spy on the run, and perhaps stands as cinematic penance for some of Angelina Jolie’s less noteworthy acting. But the new solo directorial debut from David Leitch, part of the team behind John Wick, is my new favourite.

Atomic Blonde tells the tall tale – for it is particularly unbelievable even in the rarefied world of Cold War spy fiction – of an MI6 agent sent to Berlin to question loyalties and root out a list suspected double agents in the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It’s a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.” (Machiavelli, though maybe not!)

With bleached hair and sense of fashion that is straight off the catwalk, Lorraine Broughton (played by Charlize Theron) must have been at a dental appointment on the day spyclass discussed camouflage and merging into the background. Red ‘killer’ heels, off the shoulder jumper dresses, knee length boots, shiny white haute couture trench coat. How it all fitted into her suitcase is mystery. Whether taking an iced bath or fighting off yet more waves of green uniformed cops, throughout the 115 minute film, Theron plays it gritty rather than aloof. For all the coiffeur and glamour, this is an agent who takes as many blows as she gives, and whose cuts and bruises don’t disappear from one scene to the next.

James McAvoy plays the MI6’s number one asset in Berlin. With his Sinéad O'Connor crew cut, David Percival floats across Checkpoint Charlie trading humint for jeans and booze, while cutting deals with his counterparts in rival spy organisations. His wardrobe budget only extended to V-neck jumpers and borrowing the uniforms from the still warm bodies of dead policemen. Percival’s world is disrupted by Broughton’s arrival on his patch, with her independent determination and her own ability to reach out and relate – Bond style – with a local French agent (Sofia Boutella).

The plot unfurls in a series of extended flashbacks as Broughton is debriefed on her return to London by her UK boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA colleague.(John Goodman). The usually comedic duo keep it deadpan throughout. The established film grammar is somewhat broken fifteen minutes from the end when Percival turns to camera and addresses the audience with a short forgettable monologue that serves to multiply audience doubt that he’s not the only bad egg in town.

The depressed colour palette is washed out with blocks of red standing out against the sea of white and grey. Slide projectors are made to feel chic. Sophistication is added to fighting scenes played out in silhouette. In the heat of the moment, sometimes the camera is pushed out of the way, or gets splatted with blood. With pumping music and a man escaping in his vest in the first scene, this is the intersection of Spooks and Trainspotting.

Amidst the supposedly long take choreographed fight scenes and the blood-splattered walls – they’ll either pick up a craft Oscar or the Turner Prize for the shapely red patterns adorning the flock wallpaper – there is a subtle humour with the audience in my screening bursting out in laughter at some otherwise sinister moments. The final computer terminal screen message that leads into the credits adds another wink at the audience.

It’s a shame that the striking colour of the kickass protagonist’s barnet is used as the film’s title. It somewhat belittles the rest of her character. But as an escapist nonsense thrill ride, Atomic Blonde is racy, pacey, spy romp that puts weaves a lot of style and incredible action into a far-fetched story.

Atomic Blonde opens in Movie House and other local cinemas from 9 August.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Annabelle: Creation - conjuring up a dolly horror (Movie House from 11 August)

Anyone who’s been reading my film reviews for a while will realise that I’m not a big fan of horror films. There can be a behavioural element to zombie films that is fascinating; the unseen yet sinister monster can be effective; special effects can be gloriously gruesome; little details can suggest menace (like Green Room’s red laces). There can even be a layer of intelligence built around the premise, exposing some human predilection towards a particular behaviour, or a weakness in society that needs to be exposed. Alternatively ...

Annabelle: Creation can be categorised as a jump-scare paranormal horror film. However, unless you’re a fervent follower of The Conjuring series of films and the previous Annabelle spinoff – to which this is a prequel – it may also merit a tick in the slow-action-may-or-may-not-build-suspense and not-that-impressed boxes.

A toymaker and his wife live out in the dusty countryside. Their daughter dies in a road accident on the way home from church. Twelve years later, the couple penitentially invite six Catholic orphan girls along with Sister Charlotte to come and live in their oversized wooden house. Cue creaky floorboards and child-written notes under doors. Locked rooms which mysteriously open themselves. A dolls house with lights that models the actual house. A creepy mannequin doll in a cupboard. A less than creepy scarecrow. Torches under sheets. Religious overtones, wooden crosses, a frenzied string section and every cliché in the book.

The cast shrinks a little after the ‘monster’ is revealed exactly half way through the 109 minute film, though I was a little disappointed that Annabelle: Creation didn’t obey the final girl trope and rather too many cast members survive to the credits in my morbid opinion. Carol (Grace Fulton) was so asking for a grisly end.

At first Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto make a sweet if earnest Mr and Mrs Mullins before he adopts a sinister gruff demeanour and she disappears to bed. Stephanie Sigman animates Sister Charlotte and makes the most of the religious-sounding platitudes her character is forced to speak in front of the girls. A cattiness amongst the six orphans relegates Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman) to a smaller bedroom. The fact that Janice has polio and a leg brace neither dampens her sense of adventure nor her ability to get into trouble, rather effectively switching from heroine to villain. Talitha Bateman is the best element of this film.

Other a brief discursion about parents being willing to do anything to find a connection with their lost child, I’m not sure that Gary Dauberman’s script and David F Sandberg’s direction intend to achieve anything other than scare their audience. There’s no real moral. And as a standalone film – I wasn’t even aware of its earlier incarnations having not done much homework before tonight’s screening – there’s no sense of it fitting into a larger narrative until the final twelve years later scenes right at the end.

While I can appreciate the filmmakers’ craft skills and ability to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and to build tension through the groaning subwoofer, the actual plot felt far too thin to justify the doleful doll-ridden movie being made. Horror aficionados may violently disagree and consign me to a creepy cupboard.
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. At least there is the fun of watching the people in the rows in front involuntarily rise up out of their chairs a couple of inches and then fall down again when the creepiness is interrupted by a bang.

Annabelle: Creation opens in Movie House Cinemas from Friday 11 August.

Warning: contains tickling and wooden dolls.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Maudie: spellbinding Sally Hawkins brings an artist to life (QFT 4-17 August)

Maud and Everett Lewis are “like a pair of odd socks”, living in a remote cottage in Nova Scotia. He sells fish and chopped wood. In the film Maudie, we see her slipping away from living with her uncaring aunt to move in with Everett as his housekeeper. But Maud’s talents are not limited to cooking and sweeping.

At first, the brusque man treats the determined and headstrong woman with contempt, verbally and physically abusing her. Disturbingly, witnesses do nothing to intervene.
“Show me how you see the world”
As Maud’s amateur painting starts to generate interest and much needed income, Everett is soon wheeling Maud on his cart across the field rather than firewood. However, his enthusiasm is tinged with jealously and their matrimony is threatened.

Sally Hawkins is spellbinding as Maud, capturing the effect of rheumatoid arthritis in her gait and in the difficulty making the fine motor movements required to paint. Nearly every line is delivered in a whisper as her condition worsens. Hawkins’ hunch and furrowed brow tighten, and the character seems to grow older and quieter in each scene.

Yet this isn’t a film or a character defined by disability. It’s about Maud’s creativity, her tenacity, the smile that accompanies her wry observations, her pleasure in the small things. Even though she lives and works in the tiniest of dwellings, its windows and door give her a view of the windswept landscape, and her influence stretches right the way to the White House in Washington DC.

Ethan Hawke brings an enigmatic quality to the distant Everett who is entirely unsuited to employ a housemaid. He starts by delivering brutally dismissive lines without flinching, while later on discovers his character’s heart and warms it up to act out some touching scenes with compassion. The unconventional couple’s unconventional chemistry evolves gently, with director Aisling Walsh allowing the unrushed alchemy to proceed at the walking speed that dominates 1930s Marshalltown in Nova Scotia.

Sherry White’s screenplay hints at much but explains very little in the opening scenes. The burden of Maud discovering the truth about her dead baby is all the more powerful when we realise just how callous her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) can be.
“I was loved”
I felt a little cheated that the stubborn and persistent lifeforce of Maud was missing from the last few minutes of the film. But then I could barely see the screen for tears as the heartbreaking story concluded.

This biographical tale would be too slow for the stage. The real life of Maud Lewis is perhaps even more tragic than the film version. But enough of her life force is captured to create a thoughtful and haunting piece of cinema that deserves two hours of your life to view.

Maudie is being shown in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 4 and Thursday 17 August.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Howards End (restored 4K) – a sumptuous battle of the classes (QFT until 3 August)

Howards End is set nearly a century apart and released two years before Four Weddings and a Funeral, but there’s a remarkable similarity in the style of storytelling and the casting of this Ismail Merchant/James Ivory film that has been recently restored and is now being screened in cinemas as a 4K digital print.

We’re slowly introduced to the three different family units with their different social backgrounds and their different relational dynamics before their lives are gradually allowed to meld together.

The adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel starts with an unexpected and unapproved announcement of an engagement to a young Wilcox lad that sends an old Aunt (Prunella Scales) racing off to the titular house in the country to investigate. Totally without any sense of farce, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) simultaneously travels back to London, having back-pedalled on the romance.

And so begins a lot of toing and froing between the big smoke and the low ceilinged rural house with its rich drapes and wooden beams. (The 2017 audience will silently rejoice that that the text message is more instantaneous than ye olde telegram for delivering urgent news!)
“We’re not odd; we’re over expressive”

It’s a totally female led film. Emma Thompson is marvellous as Margaret Schlegel, playing Helen’s older sister who runs her socialist-leading household with a pragmatic level-headedness, a touch of confident feminism and a need to interfere in other people’s lives. Practically every male on screen is a bit of a disappointment: I half expected Hugh Grant to appear before the end.

While the giddy and progressive Schlegels are well off, they are not rich. The wealthy upper class Wilcox family move in across the road and soon we also become acquainted with Jacky (Nicola Duffett) and Leonard Bast (Samuel West) who live in a flat in the shadow of a railway track and inject disruption into the storyline.

A death leads to the Wilcoxes colluding to deceive the Schlegels about a possible inheritance, but circumstance slowly unravels the wrongdoing Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) grows close to Margaret Schlegel, throwing complex mixed motives at the minds of the audience.

Gentle humour accompanies the well-signposted misunderstandings. Heart strings are never seriously pulled. But there are many moments of awkwardness and social distress as class and convention rub up against expectations. And there should be sadness when justice for the most impoverished can only be found after death.

The many familiar cast members look frightfully young. While the story telling feels more modern than the turn of the 20th century setting, the strange fade-to-black that is used to jump forward in time within a scene must have jarred as much in 1992 as 2017.

The 4K conversion looks sharp and faithfully maintains the brown and amber tint of the original colour palette. Occasional artefacts jump out, like the butter-coloured speckled wallpaper that momentarily has a distracting moiré effect towards the end of the film.

Very long (142 minutes) and without any tear-jerking moments of surprise, Howards End could have been a damp squid of a film. Yet Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has successfully translated a well-constructed plot from paper page to silver screen and together with the quality of the acting and the sumptuous sets and costumes delivers an engaging and satisfying film.

You can catch the restored 4K print of Howards End at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 3 August.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Preview of 2017 John Hewitt International Summer School (24-29 July in Armagh) #JHISS

Borders, Brexit and Dreams are recurring themes in this year’s John Hewitt International Summer School which runs between Monday 24 and Saturday 29 July in The Market Place Theatre in Armagh. 2017 is the 30th anniversary of the John Hewitt Society, and this year’s event features 55 artists, writers and speakers participating in 35 or more events over the six days.

On top of the creative writing workshops and masterclasses, there’s a rich set of talks and panels looking at contemporary politics and culture. Some events are already sold out, so worth checking The Market Place Theatre website or box office before travelling down to Armagh.

The opening address on Monday morning will be delivered by Dame Helena Kennedy QC, a barrister and broadcaster who champions civil liberties and promotes human rights. As a Labour peer, she currently holds the record of rebelling more frequently that any of her other party colleagues in the House of Lords. She recently appeared– quite frustrated – on screen in Laura Poitras’ documentary The Risk that profiled Julian Assange.

Monday afternoon’s panel discussion asks 30 Years On: Where are we now? Seamus Mallon, Naomi Long, Steve Aiken and Steven Agnew will be in conversation, chaired by Peter Osborne.

The opening night’s gala event reprises In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: A Journey in Words & Music. First staged in the Dublin Abbey Theatre and at Belfast Festival last year, the show features a selection of the island’s finest and most respected artists as they look back over the last century and chart the journey of reconciliation from 1916 to the present day through poetry, music, drama and imagery.

Tuesday afternoon’s panel discussion looks at The Art of Conflict Transformation with Katy Radford, Paula McFetridge, Marguerite Nugent and Oliver Sears.

On Tuesday evening evening, Kabosh Theatre will perform Green & Blue, a play that looks back at border policing using Garda and RUC officers’ oral history. One of the most memorable pieces I reviewed during last year’s Belfast Festival, a thoughtful and respectful play that is worth catching.

Political sociologist and border studies expert Dr Katy Hayward will discuss the future of borders – frictionless and otherwise – on and around the island of Ireland after Brexit in her Wednesday morning reflection.

Thursday morning sees literature academic Dr Caroline Magennis take to the Armagh stage to discuss Unsettling Intimacy: Northern Irish Short Fiction after the Agreement. (Caroline is currently organising an international conference on the cultural legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, to be held in Manchester in April 2018.)

Friday morning continues the theme of borders with Dominique Jan Searle talking about The Garlic Wall and the border separating Spain from Gibraltar that was closed between 1969 and 1985. Dominique is the Gibraltar Representative to the UK and will talk about the human and political factors behind the dispute with Spain and how the future management of the frontier will be affected by Brexit.

Borders also return on Friday evening with a reading from Garrett Carr’s recently published book The Rule of the Land which documents his walks along the border that separates north from south. He’ll be joined by John Paul Connolly who voiced the book when it was adapted for Radio 4.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Half a Sixpence: two proposals and a wedding in BSPA’s rags to riches musical tale

Half a Sixpence is the rags to riches tale of Arthur Kipps, an orphan who is separated from his childhood friend Ann and becomes an apprentice in a Folkestone drapery shop.

Can the cockney couple rekindle their friendship? Or, egged on by an aspiring thespian, will the young lad’s attention be distracted by high society Helen Walsingham who runs evening classes for the underprivileged in the “town of vulgar prosperity”?

Throw into the mix a sudden fortune and a few swipes of fate and you have a two hour, class-riven musical with song, dance, and costumes galore.

With a cast of thirty 8–16 year olds, and only two weeks of rehearsal, director Peter Corry together with choreographer Gemma Quigley-Greene, musical director Thomas Brown and the back stage crew pulled off a minor miracle with the nearly word-perfect musical which had two public performances earlier this week.

Other than pantomime, the size of Northern Ireland audiences and venues dictate that very few performance have more than six actors in a production.

So it was a treat to have the MAC’s stage full of colourful talent for this Belfast School of Performing Arts summer show.

“Once a boy gets whiskers on his chin / He will soon start falling into sin”

Fresh back from The Voice Kids UK, Nathan Johnston’s voice found its confidence part way through the first half to deliver a sure-footed performance (that included tap dancing!) in the lead role which kept him on-stage for virtually the whole show, singing in nearly every number including solos and duets.

Victoria McClements blended her voice beautifully with Kipps/Johnston during Ann’s duets and delivered a stunning solo I Know What I Am, keeping up the Cockney accent throughout the entire show.

Her rival Helen Walsingham was played by Leesa Seffen, at first gracious and kind before toughening up under the influence of her stern mother (Ellen McAdam).

Glenn Parkinson’s camp Harry ‘Biff’ Chitterlow had the audience roaring with laughter (even when only his silhouette was visible pulling the curtain across the stage in the dark).

Four junior narrators provide frequent updates for anyone in the audience who has missed a vital plot point. Louis McCartney and Young Walsingham Michael Nevin (about takes up his scholarship at Winchester College Chapel Choir in September) deserve a mention as talented trebles who also added much to the humour of the show.

Peter Corry didn’t often let the action drop its pace, creating a remarkably tight and ambitious production. The live band hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stage stayed within earshot of the performers and some beautiful trumpet tones cut through above the rest of the soundtrack.

With only two performances and such a short time for tech, the odd issue with sound and mics are inevitable in this kind of production. Yet to the credit of the cast, they didn’t miss a beat and carried on regardless: good training for their future stage careers. (And it’s a good reminder that modern performers – young ones and older more established ones too – still need to be able to project their voices out into an auditorium and not always rely on amplification.)

The Half A Sixpence musical that I sat through several times as a child – enjoying performances by Ulster Operatic and other amateur groups – was revamped in 2016 and the version performed on the stage of the MAC this week is substantially less dated, while maintaining the turn of the last century feel of HG Wells’ novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul.

BSPA’s junior summer show was quite a treat, and the standard of the ensemble as well as the principals bodes well for the health of musical theatre in Northern Ireland. Keeping up the Tommy Steele theme, BSPA will be back in the MAC between 23 and 26 August with their senior show: Singin’ In The Rain.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dunkirk - stunning cinema with evacuation story allowed to eclipse the cast (QFT in 35mm from Friday 21 July)

The creative hands of Christopher Nolan are all over his new film Dunkirk as writer, director, producer and even arbiter of the distribution media. It reanimates the history books that describe the days in 1940 when victory snatched from the jaws of defeat as upwards of 300,000 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk where they had been trapped, surrounded by the German Army and being picked on by the Luftwaffe.

Nolan follows a handful of key characters. But unlike most disaster films, we never find out much about their back story or motivation. They’re just familiar faces there to juxtapose, and help weave together, the different strands on the ground, at sea and up in the air.

The film begins with Tommy running through the streets of Dunkirk, under fire. The soundscape is intense. And as the young soldier ducks behind the sandbags and reaches the beach, the visual width opens up and the scale of Nolan’s vision is revealed.

A young boy jumps on board his friend’s father’s weekend boat to help the war effort and sail to Dunkirk to rescue the troops. This storyline brings the civilian population into an otherwise military sphere of operations. Spitfire pilots defend the skies above the beaches being evacuated and try to protect the mixed flotilla of vessels sailing towards France.

Military officers assess the chances of survival and debate the times of the tide (leading to the gratuitous but funny line “it’s a good job you’re army and I’m navy”).

Kenneth Branagh stands on a pier pulling excellent faces for despair, hope and resolve. Mark Rylance sees the bigger picture as he holds his pleasure cruiser’s course for France despite protestations from a very disturbed Cillian Murphy who us rescued along the way. Fionn Whitehead plays a central army private along with Harry Styles (yes, that Harry Styles). Up in the air, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are anything but gung-ho in their dogfighting Spitfires.

There is as much fear and cowardice on display as heroism. Survivors often seem to be driven towards self preservation, making the luck that propels them towards staying alive (even at other people’s expense). After a while it becomes nail bitingly tense, and even through the success of the evacuation by sea is known by most before they enter the cinema, the feeling of defeat in the hearts of the returning soldiers adds a poignancy to the tale.

The action is self-explanatory and dialogue is used sparingly. Often the soundtrack and music are given priority and allowed to wash over the spoken words anyway. Hans Zimmer uses the mechanical groans of distress that emanate from torpedoed ships to sustain the beat.

Nolan messes with time, stretching and compressing it to fit the rhythm of his plot. It only becomes annoying at the end when he brings together the returning armada and a vulnerable plane (which glides nearly as long as the boats motor back across the Channel). It’s a brave departure from his back catalogue of blockbuster films. There are no superheroes. And it is perhaps cowardice on the great director’s part that he gives in to using the familiar strains of Elgar’s Nimrod (albeit at first disguised) to underscore some key scenes, bringing a smidgen of jingoism to a film that didn’t require it.

Dunkirk is a stunning piece of cinema that recreates and brings to life a well known scene from the Second World War. Despite the scale and sophistication of the production, it stays unfussy to the point of modesty and only stays on screen for 106 minutes, allowing the evacuation story to keep the focus rather than the fine cast. A grown-up film from Mr Blockbuster.

Queen’s Film Theatre are showing the 35mm print version of Nolan’s film for the first week of its run until Thursday 27 July. With soft edges, artefacts, and a colour scheme that today feels straight out of an Instagram filter, the experience adds to the realism of footage that could have been captured during wartime. (That’s the version that was previewed and the basis of this review).

After the first week, the QFT switches to the 4K digital version – using their shiny new projector – and having seen a few minutes of Dunkirk in 4K, it’s quite a different film, with a much sharper, more modern, action adventure feel and much more definition to the surround sound.

Dunkirk is being shown in the QFT (and other local cinemas) from Friday 21 July. It’s history that has not been narrated within an inch of its life – or truth – and history that, while told only from an Allied perspective, has not been wrapped in a large flag that distracts from the horrible reality of war and the decisions people take in war. Christopher Nolan should be proud of this film: it may well be his best.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Midwife - beginnings and endings; life, love and death (QFT, 14-26 July)

Martin Provost’s new film The Midwife (French: Sage femme) is a Parisian collision of beginnings and endings.

Béatrice Sobolevski (Catherine Deneuve) was once an important figure in the family life of Claire Breton (Catherine Frot) and reappears after a thirty years absence. Friendless and challenged by a serious health condition her plan to rebuild burnt bridges with Claire’s father is tragically belated. Meanwhile at the same time as Claire’s job in the midwifery clinic is coming to an end – being replaced by an industrial-sized technology-led ‘baby hospital’ – there is a pregnancy in the family and could a tender friendship be blossoming in the allotment?

The two Catherines play very distinct characters. Frot is the dowdy and dedicated medical practitioner who can disarm scared young mums and stays calm in an emergency. She earns little, lives alone and relies on no one. On the other hand, blunt and glamorous Deneuve is not alone by her own choosing. She keeps the company of poker players and drinkers in the bar – both of which explain why her cashflow ebbs and flows like the tide – but knows that those shallow relationships will not sustain her in her frail final days.

While sentimental, this movie is no tearjerker. Midwife is a two hour long film that gently meanders through the plot, only occasionally breaking off from following Claire (Frot) to peek into the activity of the other characters. You’ll see real babies being born, and older people kissing. There are work colleagues, a son and a long-distance lorry driver, but the two Catherines occupy most of the screen time, two older actors given the space to treat audiences without the necessity to introduce young nubile talent to

The premise is simple, but the film is well executed. There’s no wow factor, other than the babies popping out. But there is a sense of satisfaction as Claire develops a renewed sense of purpose, emotionally and physically letting her hair down, while Béatrice more fully comes to terms with the consequences of her past actions and faces up to her mortality.

The Midwife is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 14 until Wednesday 26 July.

Monday, July 10, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes … or Four Apes and a Little Lady (in cinemas from 11 July)

In a cruel twist of fate, after the virus outbreak (and the intervening films) the only remaining humans are all North American and hell bent on self destruction, distracted only by their desire to attack the apes who hold a mirror up to fallen humanity. Can Caesar – the chief ape – lead his people to the promised land? And unlike Moses, will he make it all the way? Nature throws some shapes of its own to remind the mammals that other powerful forces are also at play in War for the Planet of the Apes.
“We are not savages”
As someone new to the Planet of the Apes universe, this 140 minute film was a strange mix of a Bourne, some Biblical exodus movies, the Revenant, the Godfather, the Great Escape and Three Men and a Little Lady. Scenes of genocide, forced migration and combat are mixed with a comedy ape who escaped from a zoo.

Writer Mark Bomback and returning director Matt Reeves through an awful lot at the script: resistance, fortitude, sacrifice, revenge, betrayal, slavery, rebellion, ethnic cleansing, not to mention apes on horseback riding through the snow.

Intellectually, there’s a lot going on in War to think about. Arrows can beat bullets just like steam can beat electric in Starlight Express. Emotion is explored as the obsessed Colonel McCullough (played by Woody Harrelson) who is prone to primitive thinking becomes locked into a fight to the death with Caesar (Andy Serkis) who has to battle with avenging his own family loss. Communication within and between species is also studied – spoken and signed – though the loss of speech seems to be unnaturally devastating for some humans.

In one of the sweetest moments in the film a young child (Amiah Miller) slips around unseen in a heavily militarised zone. No one’s looking for her; no one sees her. I find it interesting that her ‘guardian’ ape Maurice, who has perhaps the greatest emotional intelligence of the troop, is played by a woman actor (Karin Konoval).

But oh the questions and loose ends that litter the movie like bodies piled up after an incursion. Where are all the women? What powers the army camp? Why does Caesar speak in English when the apes around him only speak by sign? Who carries the spare bullets?

We need to talk about 3D. I don’t watch usually films in 3D. I think this is only the second time I’ve sat in a darkened cinema while wearing dark plastic shades. We’re very used to capturing images on smart phones where nearly everything in the frame is in focus. The world is flat unless you use macro lenses or fiddle with the settings a lot more than the average user.

Television and film drama relies on depth of field, and pulling focus between nearby and faraway objects. Even news reports use focus to draw your eye from one area of the screen to another as the cameraman helps the narrating journalist paint a story about the topic.

But 3D cinema takes focus to a whole new dimension. No longer can you scan across the wide screen in front of you to take in details. It’s not just bits of the background that are kept out of focus. With a 3D film like War for the Planet of the Apes, often a head or a shoulder of an ape that is in-between you the viewer and the ape that’s talking will be a furry blur too. The director and the camera man literally call the shots.

Overall, I found the 3D experience a huge distraction. Though it works a treat in one scene not too far from the end when Caesar climbs up from ‘under the screen’ onto a metal grill and just appears into view. That was the money shot. But I suspect the 2D version will be a lot less irritating … particularly since War was shot in 2D and converted to 3D post production. (Here’s a 2010 blog post I’ve subsequently found that much better articulates that rant!)

War for the Planet of the Apes will be screened in Movie House cinemas in 2D and 3D (and other big chains) from Tuesday 11 July.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

RISK - unsatisfactory and uncomfortable, much like its subject (QFT until 6 July)

Laura Poitras had already been filming behind the scenes with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange when Edward Snowden’s release of NSA information hit the headlines. She was embedded with the team that helped Snowden evade US authorities and travel to Russia. That part of her footage was extracted into the successful standalone film CitizenFour (reviewed) and released in late 2014.

Filmed over five years, Risk is like prequel and a sequel to that story. However, Snowden is a relatively straightforward, clean cut character who can attract audience empathy in a way that the more complicated Assange cannot.

At first Poitras portrays a principled and pragmatic publisher of government secrets who admits that he may not behave in a “methodical manner” when subjected to threats. Then a layer of the onion is peeled away to reveal a paranoid protester who must have a crick in his neck given the number of times he looks over his shoulder while being briefed by a colleague in a wooded area near the WikiLeaks HQ.

‘Being briefed’ is misleading phrase for me to use: Assange frequently interrupts those who speak to him. It’s one of the traits that jumps out from the 92 minute film. He is unable to suppress his own thoughts escaping his mouth while he is supposed to be listening to someone else.

And then there’s his startling lack of empathy for other people, including the women who made the allegations of sexual assault. He dismisses the complaints and investigation as a radical feminist conspiracy. Suddenly he’s on the wrong side of this conspiracy.

The onion continues its raw reveal as we realise that although WikiLeaks is a small organisation, this is a boss who lets other people dial the numbers and start phone calls before he reaches over to take the handset. His team trim his hair, and even when closeted in his cramped quarters in the Ecuador embassy next door to Harrods in London (June 19 was his fifth anniversary), he is surrounded by WikiLeaks staffers.

One of his most trusted aides, Sarah Harrison, was unable to return to the UK for several years after helping Snowden flee to Russia. Yet we hear no complaint. Loyalty within Camp Assange is high.

One side effect of the extended period of filming is that some of the long-running characters disappear (like a soap opera). Jacob Appelbaum (journalist, hacker and computer security researcher) is at first prominent, speaking at conferences about WikiLeaks and challenging government figures, before making a quick exit from the scene (and his involvement with the Tor Project) when allegations of sexual abuse were made.

The case of Bradley Manning (who transitioned to Chelsea Manning over the course of the documentary’s timeline) is also woven into the general tapestry of discordant digital rebellion along with visits to Washington, Tunis and Egypt. Footage of Lady Gaga interviewing the white-haired crypto-journalist is surreal.

While never, or rarely, appearing on camera herself, Laura Poitras has chosen to narrate the film through a series of production diary extracts. The story she tells is bitty. The chosen end point is no better – and no more conclusive – than if the film had stopped ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

We see the risks that WikiLeaks staff take in their pursuit of publishing the ‘truth’. We see the risks some may have taken outside of their work. We are also introduced to the risk being taken by the filmmaker who has triggered government agency trip wires and is now viewed as a sympathiser if not a direct advocate for WikiLeaks.

At points in the film, Risk feels both unsatisfactory and uncomfortable. As a consequence it successfully reflects the WikiLeaks organisation and its leader Julian Assange.

The film no where near as complete and finished as CitizenFour. And Assange is no where near as likeable a subject as Snowden. But Risk is a good overview of the Assange era, even if his story – and incarceration in the Knightsbridge diplomatic mission – has not reached a neat conclusion.

If WikiLeaks made films about people doing things they didn’t like, Risk contains exactly the moments that they would include to shake the trust the audience would have in their subject. Laura Poitras has certainly done nothing to give Julian Assange hero status, nor has she rescued his reputation. The uncompromising documentary highlights his aloofness and the contradictions in his approach.

Risk is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 6 July.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Here We Lie - a dark morality play where lies are louder than truth (Lyric until 2 July)

With the hoods of their transparent rain macs up over their heads, the five members of the Here We Lie cast turn into feverishly grotesque goblins who feed off other people’s misery, the kind of souls who swap sympathy for information in times of trouble. Meeting in the aisles of the local supermarket, they swap tales gathered from social media as well as the streets of Loughshea.

When Brian (Antoinette Morelli with her hood down) admits to having an affair, Sharon McKevitt (Rosie McClellend) panics and screams out an even bigger revelation in retaliation. But she’s not dying.

However, words can’t easily be unspoken. Particularly when your husband blabs all in the pub and the local gossiping goblins decide that they can “Make Loughshea Great Again” by wallowing in your misery and boosting their profile and sense of self-importance by arranging fundraising, cake sales, and all manner of publicity.

In a time of need, everyone needs a friend. Enter Michelle (Louise Matthews) who has her own problems at home with unemployed husband Declan (Claire Connor) whose car accident while under the influence has created a financial meltdown. Meanwhile, mistress Paula (Bernadette Brown) has to contend with Brian’s conflicted loyalty.
“People aren’t stupid: have they caught on yet?”

The community grief at first deafens their ears to the truth. And when some do realise what is really going on, they are too caught up in their own plans and misfortune to be able to set the story straight. The circle of lies and deception spirals out of control as the community’s need for the fake news to be real heightens.

After the interval there are the inevitable confrontations; yet the revelations are pleasingly unpredictable if all the more shocking. Writer/director Patrick J O’Reilly’s has developed a sense of movement amongst the entire cast that accentuates the ghoulish and helps distinguish the gossiping witches from the main characters.

Niall Rea has created a dystopian world is which the entire set – including chairs, tables, beds, and walls – have been fashioned from supermarket trolleys and wire baskets. The only comfort comes from stuffed supermarket ‘bags for life’, perhaps referencing the temporary solace brought by money and the stuff it can buy.

If the set wasn’t a big enough clue, Isaac Gibson’s sound design firmly places the opening scenes in a supermarket and the comical tannoy announcements add to the dark mirth throughout.

The Lyric Theatre are currently hosting two shows with all-female casts. (The Ladykillers continues its run until 8 July.) The two shows raise questions about gender and comedy: whether audiences perceive women as funny – or funny in the same way – as men?

At times the script overly relies on cussing and swearing to generate the emotion of scenes. Bernadette Brown makes a fabulous jilted lover who challenges the cloud of deception and one stage intervenes without having to rely on over the top reactions. Louise Matthews has a superb repertoire of scowls that bring both Michelle and her rain mac-covered evil sprite to life. I never want to look out and see her at my window!

Here We Lie is a dark and sobering morality tale that is sinister rather than silly and avoids being played as a farce which might have garnered more laughs. We watch a victim being scapegoated as the entire community figure out how to live with the consequences of their monstrosity. Individually we may recognise ourselves in the on stage victims or perpetrators. But on a grander scale, Northern Ireland society too knows all about scapegoating and the ongoing upshot of community lies and mistruths.

Rawlife Theatre Company’s Here We Lie continues at the Lyric Theatre until 2 July.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

National Theatre's Salomé - intertwining two stories of oppression and occupation: one political, the other personal

The National Theatre’s performance of Salomé was beamed into cinemas this evening as part of its NT Live programme.

It’s a novel reworking of the tale that is briefly mentioned in the Bible but has been expanded in countless pieces of art and culture, not least in Oscar Wilde’s play which popularised the notion of a dance of the seven veils and formed the basis of the opera (most recently performed in Belfast by NI Opera back in February 2015).

Yaël Farber’s version intertwines two stories of oppression and occupation: one political, the other personal.

The prophet who preaches outside the authority of the Temple is willing to die but Herod the Tetrarch (Paul Chahidi) knows he must not kill John the Baptist (Iokannan the Zealot played by Ramzi Choukair) for fear of a popular uprising. So instead he is kept incarcerated in, force fed and forgotten.

Herod lusts after his step daughter Salomé (Isabella Nefar). She in turn is fascinated by John and he inspires her to start her own sexual revolution with a ritual of passing through seven gates and casting off the accoutrements which so attract her perverse father (who fancies her as the next Queen of Judea) in order to find freedom. And so when he asks her to dance and give herself to him, the femme fatale in return calls for the one thing he truly politically fears.

The story is narrated in flashback by an older ‘nameless’ Salome (Olwen Fouéré) who has been incarcerated and forgotten, much like the man whose death she requested. Pilate faces a deadline and is running short of time to extract the story from the woman who has kept her silence for so long.

Susan Hilferty’s set of rotating concentric circles at times leaves the powerless going round in circles while the women take control. In fact that’s the point of this production: putting women back in control of a plot that has for so long been written by men projecting their own notions onto the women in the story. Metaphor piles on top of metaphor – much like the grains of sand that slip through Salomé’s fingers and form heaps on the stage floor – and her own violation seems to be mirroring the colonisation of Judea by the Romans.

Biblical imagery and Hebraic singing are constant companions to the unravelling story. Iokannan only ever speaks in Arabic (subtitled), and in finding her route to freedom, young Salomé joins him and switches away from English. The atmosphere is electric, though the amount of water on stage must make the NT’s electricians into nervous wrecks. (Given a bigger budget perhaps fire could have been added to the water earth and air that are already in the production.)

Overall, the novel adaptation of the story together with the big production values that would elude all but the largest producers of theatre made this version of Salomé a very worthwhile trip to the cinema.

The only thing that spoilt it was not the obtuse and poorly poetic script. Now was it the dramatic use of big billowy curtains comes over a bit too Eurovision at one point.

The downside of watching Salomé on the cinema screen was the ever so slightly aloof mindset of some fellow punters who talked louder than they normally would in the QFT. Someone even got up and went out, not to the toilet, but to the bar for a refill of coffee at one point. At least the incessant text message beeps that interrupted the play’s introduction were silenced by the time the actors stepped onto the stage.

Salomé continues to run in the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre in London until Saturday 15 July. 

Photo credit: Johan Persson