Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Final Year - following the normal, clumsy people who led US foreign diplomacy under President Obama (QFT until 25 January)

Greg Barker followed senior Obama White House officials to document 44’s foreign policy manoeuvres in the last twelve months of his presidency. Over 90 minutes in The Final Year, audiences learn about the freedom Secretary of State John Kerry was given to pursue the agreed policy agenda; discover the manic travel schedule of deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes as he writes draft speeches, leads negotiations in Cuba, and lives through the waves caused by a profile piece in The New York Times Magazine; and saw how US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power appreciated her role as an immigrant who now diplomatically represented the country her family moved to when she was just nine years old.

While Kerry is a consummate statesman, aware of the uncertain future results of his tentative negotiations, and interviews with President Obama add glitz, it is Power who is the most interesting subject. The Irish immigrant is free of the need to worry about Congress up on Capitol Hill and pushes to pursue a more ideological vision through the UN than her West Wing colleagues can stomach. She believes in getting out of New York UN building and visiting people in conflict situations in the field. Her hands on approach extends to taking the time to visit the family of a child killed by her convoy as it leaves a camp.
“You don’t want group think around the table”

The Final Year follows around normal, clumsy people who negotiate with their kids over breakfast as often as they foreign regimes. They are tying up the loose ends of decades of work. They are juggling values, interests, strategies and goals.

This is an administration that has learned some lessons from the past: military action in the Middle East has a history of making things worse. Climate change is as important as resolving the situation in Syria.

For a while The Final Year feels like a pro-Obama puff piece, a trumpet-blowing documentary celebrating successes in Cuba, Iran, Laos, Nigeria, Cameroon, Japan and even Greenland. Then it becomes apparent that the final actions of the administration are attempting to “[make] it harder to dismantle [our policies] should we take a different turn”. The policy approach has been to “resolve our differences peacefully” as “great power no longer fight wars”, and the next President for whom they’re nailing 44’s legacy to the wall is assumed to be Hillary Clinton.

Two thirds of the way through the film, Donald Trump becomes the Republican candidate. The mood of the election night party of women ambassadors at the UN tilts as states turn red and the expected narrative is torn up. Rhodes is literally speechless at the result in a scene that is probably better than any directed fictional moment of surprise in cinematic history. Suddenly Power's emotional speech at a citizenship ceremony has a new poignancy.

Perspective - perhaps Obama ‘hope’ - is offered too:
“History doesn't follow a straight line. It zigs and zags but the trend is to fight fewer wars and be more empathetic.”

The Final Year is a particularly stylish documentary with beautiful captions and takes full advantage of the presidential photograph library to illustrate events with well shot still images as well as the filmmaker’s own video footage. (Though it all becomes a bit hero-worshippy when you realise that the West Wing walls are also crowded with blown up photos of Obama in neat black frames.)

Trump supporters will appreciate the confirmation about just how many other countries into whose business the US was deliberately poking its nose while those still besotted with Obama will understand the cruel change of approach at the top of the US political tree. The rest of us will walk out of the cinema understanding a little more about how high level foreign policy is shaped and pursued, and realise that ordinary people make extraordinary decisions that affect the health and security of the world.

The Final Year is being screened in Queen's Film Theatre until Thursday 25 January.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Preview - May The Road Rise Up - seizing life before life seizes you (C21 Theatre at Lyric Theatre +tour)

The concept of Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play May The Road Rise Up was first mooted this day last year, her first day in post as Writer in Residence at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.

“It was a great year, and totally unexpected” says Jenkinson. Since last January, her “roller coaster ride” has included her play Lives in Translation about the disempowering asylum system being been produced by Kabosh as part of Belfast International Arts Festival (it’s coming back in 2018) and a series of satirical Michelle and Arlene rapid response plays produced by Accidental Theatre documenting two local political leaders’ fine foemance as well as a festive special looking at Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas by C21 Theatre.

May The Road Rise Up is a dark comedy telling the story of Mia, an East Belfast woman who freewheels through life, having fun in spite of the challenges she faces. She loses her boyfriend, loses her credit balance, loses her job, yet never quite loses her sense of humour. Jenkinson describes the work as “a kinetic kaleidoscope of the society we’re in”.

At the start of the play, Mia is making ends meet by driving a supermarket delivery van around Belfast, surgically analysing the families into whose houses she lugs their groceries and drink.

The script reads like Trainspotting meets I, Daniel Blake. There are wild parties and shenanigans in East Belfast in tandem with debt, prescription drugs and disability.

The play is written to be “a one person road movie … about a woman who seizes life before life seizes her” says Jenkinson. A one woman show is “a more personal way of writing a play, more emotionally direct and a faster way to reveal ideas than using dialogue”.

“You’re in her head space. She’s very spontaneous, leaping from one event to another. It’s fast paced and you certainly won’t be bored.” Through hearing her thoughts and recollections rather than dialogue between characters, Jenkinson feels that the audience get a better insight into her motives.

Thrilled to be working again with C21 Theatre – who are “always great to work with” and “a lot of fun” – Jenkinson says that at the auditions actor Christine Clare stood out as someone with “the verbal drive to make the character really engaging”.
“I wanted to look at all the different components that can make somebody sink from being a fairly secure position in society to potentially going on the streets: credit card debt, prescription drugs, real disability through her back injury, relationship breakup, all of these components add to her situation.”

In the past some of Jenkinson’s scripts have been inspired by people she knew who were working in a particular industry or experiencing a particular problem. With May The Road Rise Up, there’s an autobiographical element to the plot, capturing Jenkinson’s own experience of trying to claim Employment and Support Allowance (if you can't work because of illness or disability).
“Shortly after having back surgery, I tried to get ESA and I couldn’t get it. I failed to score enough points in my interview because they can’t recognise pain. All the questions are weighted towards mental illness and they can’t prove that somebody has severe back pain through questions, and there’s no CT scan that proves pain.”

On top of her anger at the unfairness of the social security system is layered Jenkinson’s awareness of the effect of taking prescription drugs. “Your life drifts when you’re on prescription drugs” and that’s part of the fictional Mia’s experience. “They fog up your brain and make you not do things and not get on with things” and it takes a long time to reduce the dosage and finally get off them.

May The Road Rise Up hits the stage of The Lyric Theatre from 20-24 February before embarking on an NI tour through Marketplace Theatre, Armagh (Thursday 1 March), Sean Holywood Arts Centre, Newry (Friday 2), The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast (Thursday 8), The Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey (Friday 9), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (Saturday 10), The Alley Theatre, Strabane (Thursday 19 April) and Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 20).

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lady Bird - living and learning in a film with ambition but slightly disappointing grades (from 16 February)

It’s hard being a teen. Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPhearson (played by Saoirse Ronan) would score an A+ in that subject (and that subject alone) if only her Catholic school assessed adolescence alongside more traditional topics.

Eschewing her given name for a more self-expressive ‘Lady Bird’, she is growing up on “the wrong side of the tracks” in Sacramento accompanied by a depressed economy, family, education and social life.

Her Mum (Laurie Metcalf) works double shifts at the local psychiatric hospital; her dad’s firm (he’s played by Tracy Letts) is hitting the rocks. Her brother needs a job, while his live in girlfriend is perhaps the most upbeat member of the family. This is no California dream in this corner of post-9/11 America. In fact, the dream is to get out of California and find solace on the east coast. But neither her grades nor her family’s bank balance is likely to facilitate that outcome.

In senior year at a Catholic high school, Lady Bird finds friendship in the drama club, before flitting away to hang out with the cool kids whose affluence she admires and whose turned up noses she tolerates.

And there’s quite a bit of hanging out with boys and kissing of frogs. Though while each boyfriend is enigmatic for the first few minutes, unfortunately they quickly lapse into two dimensional stereotypes rather than real, gritty people. The drama teacher Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley) disappears unsatisfactorily from the narrative, making way for Father Walther (Bob Stephenson) who brings a totally different playbook to his dramatic direction.

A few of the other characters have more interesting facets and more surprising twists in their story arcs. School principle Sister Sarah Joan is unexpected witty, while Lady Bird’s best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) eventually pulls a okay performance out of a meh beginning.

But it’s the parents, her conspiratorial and supportive father and her always-on-her-case mother off whom she bounces most frequently. While her nagging mother shows some signs of love, it’s nearly always too little, too late.

The ethic of the 94 minute long film is that if you’re not going to follow the rule, then you better learn when you’re living. It’s a film full of aspiration, longing, discovering, breaking free, and failing to cement a maternal/child bond. It’s also a film in which a child turns out to be frighteningly like their mother and in which perfunctory religious observance in school later provides solace when the chips are down. Yet the pair of them continuously fail to reach out to reassure each other and overcome their internal insecurities.

Jon Brion’s woodwind score is mellow though the final descent into doom wasn’t as steep as the soundtrack suggested. As a parent of a newly teenage child, I know that car journeys offer both the chance for conversation and awkward silences. And the two car journeys that more or less bookend the film are beautifully shot and edited.

If Saoirse Ronan can be forgiven for appearing in Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl pop video, then her performance in Lady Bird can be applauded for its representation of plainness, self-doubt, misplaced confidence, expression, and resilience. Lady Bird is no role model, but all the same, no anti-hero.

I like Lady Bird, not for its profundity, its pathos or its pithy one-liners. The humour is gentle but it’s in no way as laugh out loud funny as I remember Juno. Would another couple of draft scripts have tightened up the plot and decreased the number of loose ends?

Instead I warmed to it because writer and (début) director Greta Gerwig portrays an imperfect family unit with imperfect expression of feelings and imperfect life choices that challenge through pain and acceptance. It’s much closer to home than most Hollywood fare and if we needed another coming-of-age movie added to the already bulging genre, then this one is a worthy entrant given the teenage and parental angst on show.

Lady Bird is being screened in Movie House Cinemas and the Queen’s Film Theatre from 16 February.

Phantom Thread - an asparagus ambush in a cantankerous house of couture (from 2 February)

Set in 1955 London, Reynolds Woodcock is a dressmaker to those rich enough and famous enough to afford his services. The confirmed bachelor (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) lives with his spinster sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).

Phantom Thread explores the relationships between these siblings and Woodcock’s new muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), whose figure catches his eye in a seaside café and is soon given a seat at his breakfast table. However, unlike his previous friends with whom he has become irritated and bored before dismissing them from his presence, Alma has more of a backbone and stands up to the fastidious whims and fancies that rule her boss’s life.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay is as measured as the sumptuous costumes Woodcock’s customers are squeezed into, and his direction leaves no wriggle room as Alma cuts through to disrupt the course of the dressmaker’s life and work. (The focus on an artist and his assistant also worked well for Prime Cut’s production of the play Red at the Lyric Theatre last year.)

The action switches between a tall London residence whose loft is the scene of fervent sewing by a phalanx of white coat-wearing women and Woodcock’s more relaxed country house where he has time to sew alone. Mark Bridges’ costume designs are to the fore and the dresses are given prominence whether being worn by mannequins or customers, standing out against the more dowdy and dilapidated buildings they are created in. At times the 35mm filming left an on-screen graininess that was momentarily distracting in some scenes.
“Marriage would make me deceitful”

Wedding dresses, wedding superstitions, body image and Woodcock’s deceased mother are ever present throughout the film. So too are the eponymous hidden messages sewn inside the hem or lining of garments.

Daniel Day-Lewis has mastered the very specific style of dialogue supplied by Anderson who has written for a character who speaks sporadically and curtly, pausing after ever few syllables and striking a good balance between confrontation-phobic artisan and irascible bachelor.

Vicky Krieps is poised and demure as she portrays a character who is innocent yet rarely vulnerable. A pivotal show-down while eating sharp-looking asparagus tips turns into a verbal sword-fight with Krieps gently adding a calm sinister streak to Alma’s character as she becomes more calculating in her manipulation of Woodcock.

In-between the master and his muse sits Lesley Manville’s Cyril, played with a brilliant older sisterliness that both challenges and covers up the worst excesses of his eccentricity.

Like My Cousin Rachel and Love & Friendship, Phantom Thread is yet another example of a period film that overcame my default dislike of such productions.

While there’s a risk that pins and needles will set in given the 130 minute run time, the story’s gentle twists and turns held my attention, in particular the triangle of tension that started every day around the breakfast table and continued until bedtime. A film as fine as the clothes its stars create.

Phantom Thread is released in the UK on 2 February and being screened in Movie House Cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre.

Monday, January 15, 2018

House Belfast opens its hotel doors on Belfast's Botanic Avenue

More than a thousand new hotel bedrooms will become available in Belfast this calendar year. However, away from the major chains, one boutique hotel is planning to make its mark as it opens its doors on Botanic Avenue after a £2 million investment.

House Hotel is trading in a location that has been occupied by a hotel for at least 55 years – The York Hotel opened in around 1960 before Madison’s took over in 1995 – yet previous visitors may not recognise the inside of the building following its latest renovation.

If you frequented Madison’s, you may not recognise House Belfast once you walk in off the street past the outdoor garden area. The front four bedrooms have been removed to create an impressive double height atrium hosting a main bar dominated by a blossoming cherry tree, a separate whiskey bar and a coffee dock that can double as a cocktail bar at night. Upstairs there’s a balcony space and a quieter carpeted snug holding around forty five people that can be booked separately for parties and events that has its own bar.

I spoke to Michael Stewart on Friday afternoon while the finishing touches were being made to the new venture. He’s been overseeing the refit of the hotel which closed its doors back in April but opens again under its new brand today. With 31 years in the hospitality trade under his belt, Stewart describes House Belfast as “a great bar that has bedrooms” that will contribute to “a rising tide” on Botanic Avenue with other small hotels like Dukes at Queen and Town Square sitting alongside quality outlets like Kaffe O and Tribal Burger.

House Belfast’s décor and facilities are designed to attract a 25+ clientele rather than the students living in the area. As well as catering for overnight guests, House Belfast will be open to the public for breakfasts from 8am as well as lunch, afternoon tea (from springtime) and dinner.

A lot of effort has gone into the hotel’s interior design. The boutique-styled rooms have distinctive copper detailing and artwork that will appeal to business travellers wanting to shun the identikit big brand hotel rooms, as well as families exploring Belfast and enjoying family celebrations in the city. Baths have been replaced with luxurious rainforest showers, bedside tables are attractive pieces of furniture rather than chunky wooden boxes straight out of an IKEA catalogue. Rooms start at £110/night.

The old basement nightclub will be redeveloped later in the year and is likely to incorporate dining as well as retaining some element of dancing. But the emphasis is on staying classy, pitching at 25 year olds and older, and delivering a quality experience whether in the bar, dining, meeting spaces or accommodation.

Photos from House Belfast gallery plus author's own.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Out To Lunch Arts Festival: Making January Great Again! (until 28 January) #otl18

In its thirteenth year of brightening up the dark month January, The Out to Lunch Arts Festival is well under way in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. The majority of events are hosted in the main space within The Black Box or it’s front Green Room, with a few others in The Duke of York, Oh Yeah Centre and The Empire.

The ticket price of weekday lunchtime events tend to include a fabulous warm lunch. Lots of the events have already sold out, but here are a few highlights of the best of the rest of the programme.

While Wednesday 10 January’s evening with Andrew Maxwell as sold out, tickets are still available to hear the cutting edge comedy and social commentary in Showtime on Thursday 11 at 8pm.

Joanne McNally went on an amazing diet and lost weight, jobs, friends and fellas. Come along to The Black Box at 1pm on Thursday 11 to hear her one woman show Bite Me and how, realising she had lost her mind, she enticed it back to recover her sanity.

The Irish Video Game Orchestra will bring over 30 years of classic video game tunes (including The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros) to life in a concert in The Black Box on Saturday 13 at 2pm.

Robin Ince’s new stand up show Pragmatic Insanity looks at ideas about creativity in science and art, and asks why we believe we see what we see and why we believe what we believe. 1pm and 8pm on Tuesday 16.

Monthly storytelling evening Tenx9 (which now has its own podcast) is back on Wednesday 17 at 7.30pm. It’s free, so turn up early to hear nine ten-minute stories on the theme of “Never Again”.

I last heard Bernadette Morris at Out To Lunch back in 2012. It was a fabulous gig – her first one headlining in Belfast – with her lilting voice and fiddle bringing folk songs to life. She’s back launching her EP upstairs above The Duke Of Work at 8pm on Thursday 18.

Traditional harpist and singer Amy McAllister will entertain a lunchtime audience at 1pm on Friday 19 January with original material alongside traditional airs. Deirdre Galway from Realta will accompany Amy in The Black Box.

Dead Ringers’ Jan Ravens brings her Difficult Women show to The Black Box at 1pm and 8pm on Tuesday 23 with impressions Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Diane Abbott, Hillary Clinton, Kirsty Wark, Lyse Doucet, Fiona Bruce and more. She asks why women are perceived as being ‘difficult’ when they are just being decisive, ambitious and tenacious?

Young comedy talent Alison Spittle – star and writer of RTE sitcom Nowhere Fast – brings her touring show Worrier Princess to The Black Box at 1pm on Wednesday 24.

The Leading Ladies – a trio of songstresses Michelle Baird, Ceara Grehan and Lynne McAllister – will be blending their richly flavoured voices on stage in The Black Box and entertaining the lunchtime audience with their repertoire of stage, screen, opera and swing. 1pm on Friday 26 January.

Iain Lee and Katherine Boyle’s live podcast The Rabbit Hole will be streamed from The Black Box’s Green Room on Sunday 28 January at 7.30pm, rounding off the festival. With interaction from people phoning in as well as those in the room, there’s no way of knowing quite where the conversation will go.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Darkest Hour – Churchill's political battle for war & victory instead of appeasement (Movie House from 12 January)

Darkest Hour attempts to turn the early weeks of Winston Churchill’s premiership into a political thriller as the unorthodox and unwanted Prime Minister (played by Gary Oldman) faced the Nazi advances across western Europe and feared that Britain would be invaded before long.

Over the new permiere’s shoulder stood the peace-talks-promoting Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and the former PM (and still Tory party leader) Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), both of whom were included in Churchill’s War Cabinet (on the basis of keeping enemies close).

It’s a film about external bravado and internal conflict: the war in Europe, the strife at Westminster and within the Cabinet War Rooms, the new Prime Minister’s relationship with the monarch, Churchill’s legacy of military failure, his feeling of self-doubt and weakness … bolstered only by his long-suffering wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his shorter-suffering-but-loyal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
“The last ten years I was the only one to tell them the truth, until tonight”

There’s a poignancy in 2018 – a year in which the phrase ‘fake news’ is still not far from some politicians’ lips – watching the scenes showing Churchill misleading the public about the extent of the Nazi advance through France in an effort to stoke up their hope and resilience.

This is not the only film released during the last 12 months that features Winston Churchill during World War Two. In last June’s Churchill he was depicted with depression in the four day run up to D-Day, whereas in in Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright shows off the desperation and despondency that overshadowed his early days at Number 10. (Churchill’s words were included in last summer’s Dunkirk, but the politician was not included on-screen lest the film would get “bogged down in the politics of the situation”.)

A braver edit would have excluded the scenes of war from Darkest Days and kept the focus on politics. A shorter edit would have concentrated on story rather than biography. Instead, the film wobbles along for the first twenty minutes, picking up pace slowly, all the while underserved by Anthony McCarten’s script which is packed to the gills with factual detail and over-explained commentary.

As director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel has given Darkest Hour a distinctive dark and sepia tone lit by rays of natural light that conveniently flood each new location. Often low angle shots look up at characters. Trance-like slow motion streetscapes accompanied only by piano music are observed out the window of Churchill’s car (twice). Amongst this filmic flair there are moments when successive shots jar, for example when Churchill looks out of an airplane window and the film cuts to an overhead shot only a few metres off the ground.

Towards the end of the film, an invented scene thrusts Churchill amongst his subjects and allows him to show off his charm and rapport, and to discover that his fight-to-the-end mentality is echoed by the  population at large, even if not by all of his war-fearing colleagues. Despite being dramatically useful, this emotional scene of nationalism is a clunky device and unrealistically long, ruining the desire effect.
“He’s an actor who loves the sound of his own voice”

The best moments are based around Churchill’s famed rhetoric, watching him pace up and down, dictating passages and corrections to his secretary. The preparation is skilfully woven in with their delivery in the House of Commons and radio broadcasts. (The real life Elizabeth Layton wrote a book about her time working during the war: Winston Churchill by his Personal Secretary: Recollections of The Great Man by A Woman Who Worked for Him.)

While the heavily made up Oldman is heavily made-up and hiding behind prosthetics: he’s no Churchill lookalike, but his facial expressions are watchable and he captures the conflicted leader. Scott Thomas is as brimming with love and loyalty as she is with glamour. James manages well her character’s journey from demure typist to confidant aide. Chamberlain’s twin battle with dogma and cancer is delicately portrayed by Pickup whose health visibly fails during the film, while Dillane keeps a stiff upper lip as the well-connected member of the House of Lords keen to enter negotiations.

Despite its flaws and its quirks, if you stick with Darkest Hour for all 125 minutes it rewards you with an intelligent critique of Winston Churchill’s first month in power that is careful not to relegate those supporting appeasement to easy-dismissed one dimensional characters. The moral and military tussle around deliberate sacrifice and the sanctity of independence was largely missing from my childhood education about WW2, and the conflicted Churchill was nowhere to be found in the two primary school projects I completed about the famous character.
“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”

Darkest Hour’s themes and dialogue resonates at a time when the UK is retreating from Europe and a US President seems to feel that you can’t negotiate with a leader like Kim Jong-un.
“He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”

In the future if anyone wants a six hour DVD marathon, Darkest Hour followed by Dunkirk and then Churchill would be a good order to watch the three recent films. In the meantime you can catch Darkest Hour in Movie House cinemas (and elsewhere) from Friday 12 January.