Saturday, August 11, 2018

Unfriended: Dark Web – slow-burn, non-horror turkey is a timely reminder about electronic surveillance and computer security (from 10 August)

Unfriended: Dark Web joins a group of friends for game night. Unable to meet face-to-face, they instead play Cards Against Humanity over Skype. In real time we watch the screen of Matias’ new computer which he ‘came across’ that day. He flicks between a Facetime Messenger video call with his deaf girlfriend and the rest of the gang.

As the evening unfolds, Matias gets help to unlock hidden files on the laptop and after 40 or so minutes of meaningless malarkey, a dark and sinister plot comes to light that threatens the circle of friends as an unseen man tries desperately to recover his property.

Colin Woodell plays the permanently flustered protagonist, Matias, who is juggling a lack of computing power with his attempts to avoid learning Americal Sign Language to properly communicate with his increasingly disenfranchised lip-reading girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras).

The character development of the games night participants – cute couple Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani), IT geek Damon (Andrew Lees) and AJ (Connor Del Rio) – plays second fiddle to the murky plot, and their backstory and reasons for friendship are never fully explored.

While it’s laudable for writer and first-time director Stephen Susco to experiment to see if the found footage genre could be expanded to include computer-based material, he has not made a horror film. While momentary licence is taken at key plot points by adding deep and subtle sound effects that are external to the otherwise sterile soundscape, the filmmakers struggle to build any tension and do not intimidate their audience with scares. The on-screen events are clearly frightening for the fictional characters, but my stomach certainly didn’t lurch in sympathy as the glitchy villain invaded the gamers’ privacy.

The 16:9 aspect ratio works well and supports the dramaturgical niftiness that keeps the focus on particular characters during the main five-way Skype call between the friends. The use of commands in the Skype chat window is relatively realistic, though the IP address beginning ‘617.___’ is a forced technical error that should have been spotted.

Overall, Unfriended: Dark Web is a poor demonstration of the horrors that may lie in corners of the actual dark web. While there have already been a few cinematic turkeys this year, this definitely makes the list with its slow burn brand of non-horror, only rescued by a mercifully short 92 minute runtime and a nice mention of ‘covfefe’.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Meg – the de-fin-itive summer disaster movie (from 10 August)

The makers of The Meg must have asked themselves what more could sensibly be added to the canon of shark films. It’s a well-established genre that regularly spills red blood into the blue sea and puts fear into the heart of nervous cinemagoers.

The Meg begins on the offshore marine research platform Mana One which has been independently financed by a bearded billionaire (played by Rainn Wilson). He’s flown in to visit the team as they plunge one of their fleet of Thunderbird-like craft into the depths off the shore of China.

“There’s something out there” is an apt if unoriginal line in the script which foretells the need to rescue the submersible’s crew. And who better to ride to their rescue than Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) once they find him “washed up on a Thailand beach”. He nicknames the underwater enemy ‘The Meg’, not short for Margaret, but instead referring to Megalodon, a presumed-extinct species of giant prehistoric shark.

Masi Oka (familiar from the role of Hiro Nakamura in Heroes) plays adolescent joke-cracking Toshi who is the early indication that any underwater doom will not be needlessly gloomly.

Jason Statham plays the hero whose name’s similarity to Jonah cannot be accidental and is given his own theme song Mickey. Jonas shifts from being diffident to cocky and finally altruistic, sparring and then sparking with Suyin (Bingbing Li), the plucky and head-strong daughter of the Mana One platform chief.

Her daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) steals most of her scenes, along with an accesorised Roomba that quietly slides down the underwater corridors, and a cute dog called Pippin (in a nod to Jaws).

The Meg doesn’t take itself at all seriously. Yet it stops short of knowingly becoming an Airplane! or Galaxy Quest spoof. If you walked out if the cinema after the first 40 minutes you’d be satisfied with a perfectly serviceable, complete, TV-length episode that could reboot Seaquest DSV (minus the talking dolphin). Stay for the next hour and a quarter, and you’ll begin to question why it’s taking so long to crack the jokes, kill off the bad guys, and hint at the prospect of romance.

While you may be unfortunate and have a ‘jumper’ in the seat in front of you, The Meg isn’t a scary film. The inability for the scriptwriters and the director (Jon Turteltaub) to find a conclusion creates a Bond-like series of false endings whose moments of peril are well diluted with wise cracks and a game of Pokemon where you’ve gotta to catch em all.

The Meg opens at UK and Ireland cinemas on Friday 10 August. A tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food would be the perfect snack to bring!

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Darkest Minds … bringing idiopathic screen-based adolescent acute neurodegeneration to a cinema near you from 10 August

The premise of The Darkest Minds is that a majority of children across North America – the filmmakers’ boundaries stretch no further than the US – have been killed by an outbreak of Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration (IAAN). While the near-annihilation of children causes the economy to tank, the remaining children are viewed with suspicion and the new superpowers that helped them fend off the disease cause them to be interned in camps by military wearing yellow suits.

Ruby has mind-altering abilities. Played briefly as a small child by Lidya Jewett, it’s Amandla Stenberg (Rue from Hunger Games) who takes over the role six years later and plays it with empathy and resilience while remaining as always-on-edge as might be expected from someone with special enough powers to carry a target on her back. As an actor, she deserves a better vehicle to show off her talent.

Breaking free and heading across state boundaries towards safety, audiences learn that her travelling companions have lesser powers: Liam (Harris Dickinson) can move objects – think Quake from Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD but with less sass and less gorm; Zu who brings a spark to any party appliance is cute but her character is only ever used as an emergency exit; and Charles/Chubs (Skylan Brooks) who has been written as one dimensional super smart nerd who can’t see far without his glasses.

The Darkest Minds wants to be the next Hunger Games. It could be a female-led apocalyptic survival franchise with young people rage against other young people as well as fearful adults. But instead it edits together moments of Mad Max, Watership Down, Animal Farm, Vulcan mind-melding and throws in the Scooby Doo van and the Child-Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for good measure to make a ‘young adult’ science fiction adventure that surely underestimates and under-stimulates the minds of the teenagers it so wants to entertain.

Good and evil are mixed up. No one can be trusted. Important lines are repeated. No one can be trusted. The narration is over-the-top, and lines like “we’re going to need another doctor” that may once have looked funny on paper fall flat when projected onto the big silver screen.

Logic goes out the window when the gang – who have been chased while driving along the road – choose to abandon their trusty vehicle and walk. I didn’t catch any explanation about why the US has remained childless, and why the older teens remain unencumbered by romance and pregnancy in their new post-IAAN free world. So many questions that a TV mini-series – and presumably Alexandra Bracken’s original novels (five in this series at the time of writing) – would have time to explore. But not in this 104-minute cinematic catastrophe.

The clichés come thick and fast: power(s) come with responsibilities; diversity is good; never be ashamed of who you are. Could it be that director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s switch from animation to live-action has brought the sensibilities and pace of one genre into another without sufficient adaptation? Or am I missing something new and vibrant by being a stick-in-the-mud?

The film’s concluding scenes – which could have been sponsored by The United Colours of Benetton – are the some of the weakest parts of an already diluted and tame story. They cry out* for a sequel; a sequel that is not deserved. (*The only tears will be on-screen, you’ll not need a tissue for this film!)

The makers of scandi-noir The Snowman admit that they ran out of money and edited the film together without all the scenes being shot. The makers of The Darkest Minds don’t seem to have that excuse. But they took a flimsy script and padded it out to make a film that will kill brain cells of those who watch it in a tribute to their fictional IAAN!

I thought that January’s release of Maze Runner: The Death Cure was a plague on teen thriller adaptations. Boy oh boy was I wrong … Or maybe I’m clueless! Maybe The Darkest Minds will be a wild success at the box office this summer, entertaining courting teens and others who want something light and fluffy with a bit of action to entertain but no gore or horror to upset.

The Darkest Minds goes on general release in UK and Irish cinemas including the Movie House chain from Friday 10 August. Let me know what you think of it …

Sunday, August 05, 2018

So I Can Breathe This Air – a study of belonging, identity and home while walking across Belfast (TheatreofplucK until 7 August as part of EastSide Arts Festival)

Walking across Belfast in a group, we’re listening to the stories of members of The Rainbow Project’s Gay Ethnic Group (or GEG as they somewhat tongue-in-cheek refer to themselves). Each has made a different journey for different reasons to end up in Northern Ireland. Some are claiming asylum, some have been refused, some acknowledge that they fall outside the definition of refugees. Through So I Can Breathe This Air, all are telling us about the mixture of bureaucratic, social, racial, religious and financial challenges they face as they seek to integrate.

We’re wearing headphones, having synchronised pressing the play buttons on our MP3 players. Our guide – Noel Harron – wearing a fluorescent yellow vest pauses and we stare across a street. The building facing us might be referenced in our ears at that moment, or perhaps a character brushing past (Martin McDowell) represents the person whose story we’re listening to. The acting is subtle and the actors – particularly the many women played by shape-shifting Holly Hannaway – often attract the attention of passers-by (some of whom come close to intervening) as she bangs on doors or stumbles along the pavement. Ultimately we become hypervigilant, bringing all kinds of random people on the Belfast pavements into the story we’re building up in our minds.

Reviewing another audio walking theatre piece Quartered: Belfast, A Love Story last November, I wrote about the challenge of walking a mile or two in somebody else’s shoes. There’s something very intimate about walking along with other people’s stories in your ear. Shannon Yee (Reassembled, Slightly Askew) is a master of new forms of storytelling, yet never lets the technology trump the narrative.

The audio is beautifully crafted by sound designer Isaac Gibson and director Niall Rea. This isn’t just a set of recorded interviews that have been cut and paste together and exported out to an MP3 file. The voices are crisp and clear, and the subtle binaural (I assume) affect places the words at a slight distance to your ears, making it more like walking down the street listening to someone than merely listening to a podcast. Music and street noise adds to the realism.

Starting out at Europa Bus Station and meandering eastwards, plenty of time passes – not to mention miles passing underfoot – to relax and be drawn into the oppressive asylum system and its methods of crass intrusion and overly-suspicious investigation. A change of mode of transport at one point provides a reminder of what it’s like to feel lost and having to navigate somewhere unfamiliar, yet perpetually on the march with no end in sight.

Any notion of complacency is also challenged early on with questions about quite how progressive society is in Northern Ireland compared with the experience of some of the GEG participants back home. Some of the external reflections on our local peace process are illuminating too. As too are the often, though not universally, negative experiences with churches and people citing religious faith as their reason for exclusion.

It’s a sterling exploration of belonging, love and identity – to all of which food is often associated! – and the struggles that build resilience among those who can survive. Where do I belong? Where is home? Questions that we often take for granted. The performance is long. On a dry Sunday afternoon, it was a joy to be outside. On another day with inclement weather, it would have been quite a trudge since the pace of the audio cannot be altered. Yet the subject matter and the real and very personal stories from GEG deserve our attention given how rarely they are told and how rarely we bother to listen out to hear them. 

So I Can Breathe This Air is running as part of EastSide Arts Festival and continues twice a day on Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 August. The journey from Great Victoria Street across to the Newtownards Road takes approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. It takes another 40 minutes if you need to walk back to the beginning. There is an opportunity for a comfort break and light refreshments along the way.


Jimmy Ellis: Home Again – a fond poetic tribute to parents with intertwining words and fabulous music (Blunt Fringe Theatre as part of EastSide Arts Festival)

Knit together from a large collection of Jimmy Ellis’ poems, Glenn Patterson has crafted a nostalgic series of vignettes describing war-time life in Ellis’ family home. The well-known actor’s verse is a fond and loving tribute to his parents rather than a self-indulgent memoir of his own life. The director and creative team have woven period music and songs around the narrative, creating a rich and evocative production.

The rehearsed reading of Jimmy Ellis: Home Again was performed as part of the EastSide Arts Festival in St Martin’s Church off the Newtownards Road. Dust sheets cover furniture in a deserted house. Stuart Graham plays Jimmy and remains on stage throughout, mostly sitting in a chair to one side of the chair delivering the stanzas that tell the story.

While the spoken words paint pictures of life in 30 Park Avenue with its runaway dog and the lodgers – flappers and down in luck Lords – as well as the shipbuilding and war efforts in the surrounding area, it’s the music that lights it all up with emotion.

While Graham shows of his dynamic control of the script, Fra Fee and Clare Galway demonstrate their huge talents and versatility as musicians through voice, piano, flute, violin, tin whistle and more. My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose was a particular joy to listen to. Katie Tumelty steps on stage as mother Tilly – effective but underused – and Michael Nevin plays young Jimmy whose stirring solo closes the 65 minute show.

The production values were high for a mere rehearsed reading. The synchronisation between music and poetry was magnificent, precisely meshing together Graham’s phrases with Fee’s control of the accompanying tunes to create wonderful moments of intersection.

Having been woefully under-impressed with a recent nostalgic production by a different company in a different theatre, I was relieved to find that there is life and vitality in the genre. Jimmy Ellis: Home Again shows how it should be done.

Director Martin McDowell and producers Robina Ellis and Claire Murray have fashioned a warm-hearted tribute that echoes one of Ellis’ lines: “it’s the little things that make you cleave together”.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Evita – quality performances in a production which allows the music to take centre stage (Grand Opera House until 11 August)

Evita has rolled into town. It’s the story of a young woman, Eva Duarte, a social climber who worked her way up through Argentinian society, stepping on the shoulders of every social class until she climbed to the very top and partnered up with Juan Perón, the military leader she would guide to become the country’s president. It’s also arguably the best musical from the renowned partnership between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In this production, Eva comes across as a subtle prima donna, rarely over the top. Lucy O’Byrne’s voice is well-suited to the title role and the iconic balcony song Don’t Cry For Me Argentina which is brought right to the front of the stage. Ultimately Eva’s ambition is found to be greater than her health and O’Byrne saves her best performances for the final half hour, injecting a convincing frailty into her movement and voice.

Directors Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright don’t encourage Juan Perón to be madly enamoured with his pushy beau. The arc on which the character shifts from being led by Eva at the beginning to being a step ahead of the failing thirty-something towards the end is well acted. Mike Sterling is faultless with a commanding presence on stage and beautiful baritone voice.

Glenn Carter plays common man Che who commentates on proceedings. He has a solid voice, but eschews the sarcasm that would have brought a much-needed glint to Che’s voice.

Christina Hoey impresses with her adolescent Mistress rendition of Another Suitcase In Another Hall. The company’s rendition of Requiem for Evita embraces the set’s religious imagery and is rewarded with an even better song in the second half. Santa Evita benefits from a great performance by an unnamed child from the local Stagecoach Theatre Arts School and contains rich harmony singing that sent shivers down my back.

While Evita’s strength as a show is its catalogue of big songs that you can hum as you leave the performance, some of the best moments of the current touring production are softer scenes accompanied by Brian Streeter’s guitar. While there are moments in the first half when the music drowns out solo voices – unfortunate, because the intricacy and richness of the story is told through the elaborate lyrics – the balance improves in the second half.

While there’s certainly a poverty-to-riches thread within the narrative, Tim Rice’s book and lyrics also tell the story of political change in 1940s Argentina. There is much in the story that resonates in 2018. The people’s first lady sings that “we will take these riches from the Oligarchs … for all of you” as she accumulates wealth in the name of social change while noting that “accountants only slow things down, figures get in the way”. Her tour of Europe is commented upon: “your wife's a phenomenal asset, your trump card!”
“Who the hell does the King of England think he is?
Tea at some tinpot castle of his!
What kind of invitation is that?
Argentina's first lady deserves Buckingham Palace
If England can do without me
Then Argentina can do without England”

Food for thought for world leaders, royalty and the public who can be so easily hoodwinked into thinking that those who rise to the top will keep their promises.

I’ve a strong childhood memory of attending a touring performance of Evita in the Grand Opera House during the late 1980s. Bill Kenwright’s revival of the musical is surprisingly straight and risk-free with its direction, shying away from pulling too many heart-strings, and it allows the music to take centre stage.

A number of the lead roles have recently been refreshed and the quality of singing and blending across the company is strong although there’s room for a greater Latin feel to the music. While much of the humour and cheeky playfulness that can be found in other more playful productions is absent, the cast, musicians and Matthew Wright’s flexible staircase set tell the story of Evita in a very satisfying manner.

Well worth catching Evita during its two-week run in the Grand Opera House which finishes on Saturday 11 August.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Pull Focus Documentary Film Festival - preachers, pelotons, paramilitaries, police collusion and the paintings of Orson Welles (9-16 August)

While the main Belfast Film Festival happened earlier this year, the team are screening a strand of documentaries during August in their Pull Focus Documentary Festival. Below is my pick from the full programme.

A lyrical and visual poem about the latter day prophets preaching salvation and the end of days on street corners, at cattle fairs and in the tabernacles. In Dust on the Bible, local director John T Davis draws parallels between America’s fundamentalist Bible-belt and the manic street preachers in his home city. Friday 10 August at 7pm in the Beanbag Cinema.

Wonderful Losers tells the story of the cyclists at the back of the peloton, the so-called ‘losers’ of professional cycling who are dismissed as water carriers for the heroes at the front of the race. Discover the monasticism, unconditional acceptance and self-sacrifice at the heart of the Giro D’Italia in Arunas Matelis’ film on Sunday 12 at 7pm in Movie House Dublin Road.

I, Dolours is the unsettling cinematic memoir of an IRA activist whose deadly idealism turned out to be hollow. Based on an interview with Dolours Price in 2010, Maurice Sweeney cuts in reconstructed scenes and archive footage to reveal her path into the IRA and her role in the ‘Disappeared’. Monday 13 at 7pm in Movie House Dublin Road, followed by Q&A with producer Ed Moloney. [Read my review from 25 July.]

The festival closes with the screening of Unquiet Graves at 7pm on Thursday 16 in Movie House Dublin Road, followed by Q&A with director. Based on research by The Pat Finucane Centre, Justice for the Forgotten, and Anne Cadwallader’s book ‘Lethal Allies’, the film tells the story of the Glenanne Gang and the collusion of members of the RUC and UDR in the murder of over 120 civilians.

Mark Cousins regularly serves up a treat with his quirky, left-field sensibility that looks through a camera lens and sees what others would not. Granted access to private drawing and paintings by the late director and actor Orson Welles, Mark Cousins reveals a portrait of the artist in The Eyes of Orson Welles, with a vivid examination of his passions, politics and power that perhaps still resonate thirty years after his death with the antics of another well-known American showman who is never out of the news. Screening in the week following the Pull Focus festival on Tuesday 21 at 7pm in The Strand.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Paperboy – coming-of-age tale of a Shankill lad delivers a treat (Youth Music Theatre UK at Lyric Theatre until 29 July)


Young Tony gets his first part-time job as a paperboy. It’s 1975 and he lives on the Upper Shankill Road. Over the new two-hour long musical Paperboy we watch the lad grappling with the chaos and division around him as he steps into young adulthood with a vision for a different future and his earnest pursuit of an elusive sweetheart.

Youth Music Theatre UK run an ambitious programme of new and devised work every summer with young performers. Auditions on the Shankill and Falls brought local acting talent into the cast along with young people from across the rest of the UK and Ireland.

Sam Gibson is the star of the show, playing Tony Macaulay whose popular eponymous memoir has been adapted by Andrew Doyle to create the book and lyrics for this musical. Only in Belfast could ‘vibration’ be used as a rhyme with ‘detonation’!
“The night as heavy with the smell of burning double-decker buses.”

Rarely off stage for the two-hour, two-act performance, Gibson clicks his fingers to step out of the action to narrate asides and anecdotes about his nascent understanding of what’s going on in the streets around his home, before jumping back into the singing and dancing. Auditioned on the Shankill, the 14-year-old Campbell College pupil starred as the Artful Dodger in last summer’s Grand Opera House's Summer Youth Project production of Oliver.

Gibson has a beautiful, well-pitched voice, and has his character’s pre-teen swagger down to a tee. There’s so much attention to detail in the performance, closing gates as thoroughly as his popular paperboy character would be expected to. His stage presence shines, with an ability to demand to be the centre of attention one minute and then to slip into the background when the spotlight is off him shows a maturity not always seen in full-on youth drama productions.

Erin Ryder plays the hair-twirling and bubbly Sharon Burgess who is the apple of Tony’s eye but turns out to be more of a forbidden fruit who whose affections lie with Ben McGarvey’s suave and worldly Big Jaunty. Another stand-out singing voice in the production belongs to Honor Brigg who plays Tony’s mum Betty.

With a cast of 35 playing more than 50 characters, along with puppets (and a great Ian Paisley impersonation by Patrick Connor), Tony’s family, a pubescent rock band, Sunday School, dream sequences, the surreal appearance of Tony’s science fiction fixations Mr Tumnus (CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia), Doctor Who (the fourth one with a long scarf) and Thunderbirds, there’s a lot – probably too much – going on in this first outing of Paperboy. It’ll take harsh cuts to select the themes that should survive in the subsequent runs that must surely follow for this intelligent and witty musical.

Natalia Alvarez’s set design wraps the Belfast skyscape as a newspaper-covered fence suspended above the uncluttered stage. Similarly-covered simple frames create doors, gates and seats. The costumes are fully of wide flares, wide stripes and colourful patterns. The script is littered with nostalgic references to popular culture, and audience-pleasing hits from the Bay City Rollers, whose rhythmic vibe extends into the Duke Special’s music for the show’s 28 songs.

Two numbers stand out. The History Lesson explains local history from each side of the peace wall, with the second half explanation of the Easter Rising and partition ending in a pastiche of a familiar dance formation! Near the end of the show, A River Runs Beneath Us accompanies a women’s peace march and aptly references the underground Farset meeting the Lagan as women from the Shankill and Falls come together.

With a focussed rehearsal period and a diverse cast, the co-directors Dean Johnson and Steven Dexter have achieved a lot in a very short timescale. At times, English and American accents clash with the more Belfast-sounding voices, but this can be forgiven in light of the energy and precision of much of the rest of the performances.

A lot of plays have been written from the perspective of different sides of the conflict. Few adequately explore people who chose to walk the middle line, discovering and questioning all traditions. Paperboy remains very true to Tony Macaulay’s history of peace building.

The extended and sold-out run of Paperboy, a coming-of-age musical that will surely make you laugh and may also bring a tear to your eye, continues at the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 29 July. Turn up early and queue for returned tickets if you want a theatrical treat.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

I, Dolours – an unsettling cinematic memoir about an IRA activist whose deadly idealism turned out to be hollow

As the title I, Dolours makes clear, this is a cinematic memoir rather than a critical analysis and is thus prone to the criticism that can be levelled against any autobiographical account. The storyteller – or perhaps storytellers plural in this case with interviewer and producer Ed Moloney deserving equal billing with his now-deceased subject – can be selective, revisionist, revengeful and view events through rose-tinted or very foggy glasses as well as having the opportunity to be brutally honest.

Archive footage is intercut with Ed Moloney’s single-camera interview with Dolours Price in 2010 as well as reconstructed scenes in which Lorna Larkin plays the younger woman. A couple of crackly snippets from an audio-only interview are also edited into the narrative.

In the distributor’s production notes, Ed Moloney explains that his video interview was recorded in the aftermath of Dolours speaking publicly about her role in the IRA ‘disappeared’ to the Irish News. He made a deal to record her story and only publish it after she died if she promised not to speak further to newspapers and exacerbate her poor health. It feels like yet another flawed aspect of the governance that has blighted the well-meaning Belfast Project (‘Boston Tapes’) oral history archive.

Having established the Price sisters’ republican family pedigree, the film explores the lead up to the civil rights movement (Dolours and Marian joined The People’s Democracy group) and the outbreak of the Troubles. Captions explain some key moments in the timeline, emphasising the difference between meek nationalists and fervent republicans, and explaining that republicans were initially unarmed and unable to defend themselves against attacks from state forces and loyalists.

Dolours’ idealism leads her not only to join the IRA, but to trust it with her loyalty, even when asked to perform demeaning or unpalatable tasks, from polishing up rusty bullets, to being ‘promoted’ to ‘the unknowns’ and ferrying touts across the border to be killed and disappear. She appears unflinching rather than unquestioning.

“I just knew I had to bring them across the border and leave them there” in the hands of the local unit who would ultimately kill them and bury them.

Dolours gives some background to the disappearance of Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright in 1972, as well as Joe Lynskey . She describes Jean McConville as “arrogant” and “an informer” who had an army transmitter in her home and was identified by her slippers being smuggled into a police station. Those statements are strongly contested by the McConville family and the Police Ombudsman report.

Having admitted to being one of the three volunteers who drove the mother of ten across the border, watch out for the verbal dexterity when Dolours slips into the third person to describe how the volunteers had to return when the local IRA unit refused to kill a woman, and each of “the three volunteers” (rather than ‘we’ or ‘I’) shot her in the head.

There’s nothing terribly new in the film. She smuggling explosives across the border and robbed banks dressed as a nun, putting it down to the “recklessness of youth”. She describes Gerry Adams as the “officer commanding in Belfast” to whom people “reported”. She says he was there when they discussed “a serious matter … a hanging job” to escalate and extend the campaign of terror to England.

Dolours tells Moloney about her role as OC in the operation to explode multiple car bombs in London. “I was only too willing and happy to undertake.” In a rare moment of humour in the 82-minute film, she shares an anecdote about Gerry Kelly breaking cover and leapfrogging over bollards that rings true and underlines his penchant for jumping onto objects.

Arrested and charged for their role in the Old Bailey bombing – in which 200 people were injured and one man died of a heart attack in the immediate aftermath – Dolours and her sister Marian became the third generation of women in their family to serve time in Armagh Gaol. Dolours describes it as an “honour”, saying that her Aunt Bridie’s suffering in the aftermath of lifting an arms dump that subsequently exploded, blinding her and destroying her hands, “obliged me in some way to continue the struggle”.

Initially imprisoned in England, reconstructed scenes depict the hunger strike action taken in protest at their location. Dolours discusses how after 20 days of refusing food, prison authorities force-fed her once or twice a day for the rest of their 208 day protest. She links the force-feeding with suffering from anorexia, which along with a reconstructed scene that includes a panic attack, are the only real hints of the much larger psychiatric and substance abuse problems with which she suffered.

Some aspects of the film’s storytelling techniques let it down, making it feel at best rushed, and at worst, truncated or unfinished. While the reconstruction could only have been avoided by bringing other voices and commentators into the documentary, director Maurice Sweeney’s decision to allow the way ‘young’ Dolores narrate some scenes lacks the authenticity of the filmed interview.

I, Dolours is a deeply unsettling film. In her interview, Dolours is lucid and articulate. But the idealism and dogma used to justify her membership and activity in the IRA is gradually replaced with a (quite poorly-described) disillusionment about the direction mainstream republicanism took after the ceasefires.
“My life’s purpose had been to fight the fight [as my family had done] over the generations … and to [ultimately] realise it had all been for nothing.”

Certainty about the cause was replaced with questioning and disenchantment about the hollow political process . Yet people – in the case of Joe Lynskey, a close friend – had been ferried to their death. Bombs had been planted.

Three years after the interview, Dolours Price was found dead in her County Dublin home having taken an overdose of medication.

I, Dolours will be screened on Monday 13 August as part of Belfast Film Festival’s Pull Focus season of documentaries before going on general release across Northern Ireland on Friday 31 August.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – toe tapping summer lovin’ movie to make you weep and smile ... with added Cher

While ABBA seemed to be the music of much of my childhood – I still have the cassettes somewhere in a box – the only time I watched the original Mamma Mia film was on a portable TV mounted high up on the wall of a German hotel room.

So I went sat down this afternoon in screen two of Lisburn Omniplex to watch Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with a love of the music, but no particular attachment to the characters.

The film picks up the story five years after the end of the first movie, back on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi (this time using the Croatian island of Vis). Sophie is opening the Hotel Bella Donna, named after her mother, but a storm threatens to ruin the plans for a fabulous party. Flashbacks using a well-matched younger cast show Donna’s journey to the island, and her proclivity for unprotected one-night-stands that led to baby Sophie and her three Dads.

The Ol Parker and Richard Curtis script is cliché-ridden – “Do what makes your soul shine” – and the lead-up to one of the opening numbers, When I Kissed the Teacher, is the clue if any was needed that the plot is neither designed to be deep nor believable. It was lovely to catch a glimpse of Björn Ulvaeus sitting on stage at the graduation, and Benny Andersson pops up later, perched behind a piano in Waterloo, one of the most outrageously fun songs that is the closest Mamma Mia 2 gets to the pumped up verve of The Greatest Showman.

Clever cinematography and editing by Robert Yeoman and Peter Lambert allow scenes to flash back and forward and locations to mirror each other with a visual choreography that is often more impressive than the big group Fame-tastic dance-offs which have scale and colour but lack any emotion other than flagrant happiness.

I’m a fan of the rich harmonies in ABBAs songs, the sound of the synths, and the chord sequences that embellish the melody and turn nearly every song into an anthem. (Head along to the IKEA Crayfish Party in Holywood Exchange on Thursday 9 August for Swedish kitsch and great live music from The Bjorn Identity.) Most of the cast do most of the songs justice as they lip-sync to studio-recorded tracks.

Lily James shines out from the cast as ‘young’ Donna. The frisky lass’s voice confidently wraps around her songs and she seems totally at home stepping into the twenty-something shoes of Meryl Streep. Christine Baranski steals scenes with her cougar-esque one liners as Donna’s friend Tanya – “Have him washed and sent to my tent” – while Julie Walters is endearing playing the bumbling Rosie. It’s only towards the end that Amanda Seyfried can inject some depth of character into Sophie.

The Lisburn audience laughed politely during the first two thirds of the film, and shuffled in and out to the toilet and concession stand, enjoying casting the shadow of their heads along the bottom of the film screen as they bobbed up and down the steps.

But when Cher stepped onto the island – yes, we had been waiting for ‘you’ – the film allowed itself to change up a gear. Having been tinged with grief throughout, the emotionally-packed finale delivered surprise reunions of long (and lost) relatives, a great rendition of Fernando, and a final glitzy number which merged together the young and old casts and allowed the audience to tap their feet – but never break out into song – one last time. And if you wait until the end of the credits, Omid Djalili makes an extra appearance in his illogical passport-stamping booth.

While the prequel/sequel melange is quite creative and the blend of familiar and less-familiar ABBA songs are well executed, the expensive cast across the two timelines dilutes the energy and dulls the sense of character recognition. But that won’t matter if you go back to see it a second or third time.

ABBA was always fairly tongue-in-cheek and aware that their fashion was outlandish and their routines over-the-top. So too with this second Mamma Mia movie. It’s a bit of summer lovin’ to make you weep and smile.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is available in most cinemas.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Hotel Artemis – a dystopian ‘Casualty’ for felons (Movie House cinemas from Friday 20 July)

Los Angeles in the year 2028. The privatisation of water companies has led to city-wide rioting. A criminal’s brother is shot while escaping a botched bank job. They head to a secret hospital for felons run up on the penthouse floor of the once-sophisticated but now dilapidated Hotel Artemis. It’s private wards – of which we only see four – have art deco detailing. They’ve been fitted with hi-tech diagnostic equipment, robotic surgery and a rather neat 3D organ printer. A very apt premise for Northern Ireland audiences given the domestic hosepipe ban and the NHS70 celebrations!

The night shift seems set to be busy and bloody with a floor full of sick criminals who have taken out this dark form of health insurance, and the streets full of heavily-armoured cops, angry members of the public and criminal gangs taking advantage of the mayhem,

Jodie Foster plays the 70-year-old struck-off doctor who hasn’t stepped outside her highly secure ward for over 20 years. ‘Nurse’ is somewhat of a benign Miss Hannigan (from Annie) who drinks to manage the pain of the memory of her son’s death while caring for the vulnerable (like a modern-day Greek God Artemis). Walking up and down the green-wallpapered corridors with a very particular gait, she responds to medical situations flagged up on her ever-present tablet computer. Foster plays the most colourful character in the script.

The rest of the ensemble cast for a long time strangely feel like they have fallen out of a Cluedo film. Sterling K. Brown plays the mastermind whose injured brother has been checked into the Waikiki suite. Up the corridor in the Nice suite, silent assassin Sofia Boutella is recovering from a simple bullet wound. Arms dealer Charlie Day provides the comedy in Acapulco, while a character played by Jeff Goldblum is being rushed in to take up the last room. The overworked hero of the piece is Orderly Dave Bautista who doubles up as security, building maintenance and medical assistant.

It’s a story of physical and mental hiding and escape for Foster and Brown’s characters. The external world’s demons continue to haunt them when inside the prison-like hospital. Redemption requires a degree of unshackling and stepping out into the unknown to taste the new dawn. In a better film, it could have been tolerably clichéd. Instead, the vital signs of Hotel Artemis remain flat.

The film’s first half is its best. It is writer Drew Pearce’s first time in the director’s seat and he is to be applauded for hiding lots of detail from the audience and allowing their list of questions to merrily stack up unanswered for a long time, adding to the feeling of mystery and satisfying revelation as the answers are finally revealed at just the right time.

However, this level of control does not extend to all aspects of the film. Some plot points are so well signposted – labelled in the case of the power outlets – that they lessen the fulfilment and weaken what could have been a much better neo-noir film. Zachary Quinto’s character is one dimensional and his phalanx of henchmen are wordlessly brawnful. And aspects of the dialogue are repetitive to the point of irritation.

The medley of hand-to-hand killing provides an ending that well befits the mood of the 94-minute movie which is surprisingly generous in the fate provided for its main characters.

Hotel Artemis is released on Friday July 20 across the UK and Ireland and is being screened at Movie House cinemas.


Friday, July 06, 2018

Preview of 2018 John Hewitt International Summer School (23-28 July)

This year’s John Hewitt International Summer School runs in Armagh between Monday 23 and Saturday 28 July. The programme prominently features a quote from John Hewitt’s The Frontier:
“We pass here into another allegiance: expect new postage stamps, new prices, manifestos, and brace ourselves for the change. But the landscape does not alter…”

The festival theme of ‘facing change: shifting borders and allegiances’ pervades the week of talks, poetry, music, and debate …


Monday 23 July > The opening address on Transcending Boundaries of the Past and of the Future will be delivered at 11.15am by Dr Martin Mansergh, a former Fianna Fáil Minister of State at the Departments of Finance and Arts. Later at 4.30pm, Peter Osborne will chair a panel discussing why the Civil Rights movement was replaced by the violent conflict. He’ll be joined around the table by Gregory Campbell, Colm Gildernew, Trevor Ringland and Brig Rodgers. And from 7pm, Malachi O’Doherty will be in conversation with author David Park about his recent novel Travelling in a Strange Land and photographer Sonya Whitefield (whose exhibition accompanying the book will be on display in The Market Place Theatre & Arts Centre throughout the Armagh festival).

Tuesday 24 July > Facing change: the identity perspective is the title of Nabeel Goheer’s talk at 4.30pm. He’s assistant secretary general at the Commonwealth Secretariat. (The Commonwealth of Nations is an intergovernmental organisation with 54 member countries that promotes peace, democracy, human rights and development.) At 8.30pm Duke Special returns to the summer school with Ulaid, with a mix of contemporary songwriting and traditional music.

Wednesday 25 July > Emeritus Professor Arthur Aughey will deliver the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ lecture at 9.45am. Later that afternoon at 4.30pm, Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh will discussing Writing & Refugees with Ian Duhig, who recently edited an anthology of work from immigrant communities in Leeds. That will be followed by the launch of Mariusz Smiejek’s exhibition of photographs – Daily Lives: Asylum Seekers in Italy and Ireland – at 6pm.

Thursday 26 July > Linen Hall Library will share some of their rich political collection in an illustrated presentation at 2.45pm about their archive which documents activities and views of all parties to the conflict and subsequent peace process. At 4.30pm, Kelly Andrews, Kellie Turtle and Betty Carlisle will look back on the anniversaries of the Civil Rights movement and the Representation of the People Act 1918 and ask whether there is Unfinished Business in establishing equal rights between women and men. And at 7pm in The Man From God Knows Where, writers and broadcasters, Jane Cassidy and Maurice Leyden will tell the story in words and music of Thomas Russell, a soldier, a revolutionary and the first librarian of the Linen Hall Library.

Friday 27 July > Emeritus Professor Monica McWilliams will delve into her recent research project at Ulster University to talk about Women waging peace: the challenges encountered in making and implementing the Good Friday Agreement at 9.45am.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Dublin Oldschool – a cinematic tale of two prodigal sons beset by poetry (QFT until 5 July)


While it opens with pumping music and a poetic voiceover, that in no way qualifies Dublin Oldschool to be labelled as Dublin’s version of Trainspotting.

This new film follows DJ Jason (Emmet Kirwan) and his drug-taking, sometimes drug-dealing, friends as they have hazy, crazy adventures across Ireland’s capital, running from the police, running from each other, and ultimately running from themselves.

The emotional thread driving the story is the strained reunion of two brothers who have to decide whether blood is thicker than (cans of) lager. The city of Dublin looks well with its maze of back streets and off-the-beaten-track shops providing the backdrop to much of the story.

Emmet Kirwan has a face shaped by a thousand tales and grabs attention as the film’s lead when he is on screen. (He also wrote and starred in the original play of the same name.) Given Jason’s hectic and itinerant lifestyle over the weekend depicted by the film, his lack of stubble is remarkable, perhaps even miraculous. Long-lost bedraggled brother Daniel is a heroin addict – a less recreational addict – and is played by a hirsute Ian Lloyd Anderson (the other half of the original two-man show).

While Jason’s ex, Gemma (Seána Kerslake), adds a further broken relationship to the mix, it’s another woman – Lisa, played by Sarah Greene – who continually steals scenes with a wee sideways look or a good line, yet her character is never fully developed.

Directed and co-written by Dave Tynan, at its best Dublin Oldschool reminds me of the self-discovery masterpiece Daphne. But the obsession with performance poetry proves to be a stylish distraction and while a succession of house parties and a rave in a rural idyll are musically upbeat, the film ends weakly having celebrated drug-taking without anyone feeling the pain.

Dublin Oldschool is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 5 July.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

We Like It Here – rural isolation and psychosis in a new a dark play (Lyric Theatre until 30 June)

Even waiting until the next morning to begin to write this review, Jonathan M. Daley’s new play We Like It Here is proving to be a head melt of a production.

The living room of a small house has come to represent the whole rural village of Ballyarby. Three unnamed sisters occupy the space where their father has ruled in an authoritarian and abusive manner. The household is somewhere on the spectrum between a disturbing cult and a witches’ coven.

Tracey Lindsay’s crafty set uses a horizontal stockade with missing slats as the back wall, while earthy trenches make up the other boundary walls in the triangular room. The three sisters reach into the soil and pick out articles of clothing. Putting their father’s belt around their waist, any of the sisters can be transformed into their father, all too soon demonstrating how that same belt was used to beat and bruise his children.

Playing the eldest sister, Mary O’Loan is aloof, staying above the fractious goings-on all the while orchestrating most of them. Maeve Smyth plays the besotted and spurned middle sister, with the fieriest temper on stage. As the youngest sibling, Adele Gribbon has most energy and bounce, and is also the most disturbed of the threesome. She is most at peace with the strange living arrangement and questions little about their odd situation and practices.

Into this isolated rural nightmare walks Cailum Carragher, playing Thomas, the village Garda officer who is investigating the disappearance of the sisters’ father. The small town feel is amplified by his estranged relationship with the middle sister (played by Maeve Smyth) who is aggrieved that Thomas deserted her for the sexual charms of another girl in the village. He too is soon accessorised and morphs into acting out other characters’ lives, giving him the chance to demonstrate a range of emotions and expressions.

Ultimately the storyline leaves too many questions unanswered about whether we are witnessing one sister’s psychosis, or whether fiction and reality have somehow fused and something in the Ballyarby tapwater has disturbed a whole community. Director Emily Foran injects a dark and sinister life into this difficult script, while choreographer Emily McDonagh creates a memorable nightclub scene that the cast play to perfection.

Snippets from an episode of Friends feel far more real life than the unfolding psychological drama in the front room. Ripples of audience laughter accompany some of the most uncomfortable scenes, yet the disturbing pretext is always far from funny.

Just over an hour long, We Like It Here by the Headrush creative collective (who produced Sink or Swim back in March) plays in the Lyric Theatre until 30 June.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Fall of the House of Usher - a study in mood (Belfast Ensemble at Lyric Theatre until 24 June)

The first rule of Belfast Ensemble is to expect the unexpected. In fact, they’d never be so derivative to steal someone else’s strapline. But it’s never what you’d expect.

I described one of their previous productions as “genre-busting” and it’s true for their new work, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Taking Edgar Allan Poe’s short story as their inspiration, the collective have created a visual and aural treat that suggests and confuses and amazes and challenges.

But what continues to set Belfast Ensemble apart from other theatre-makers is the way that the lighting, sound, set and acting all have equal billing and equal effort going into them.

Empty wooden frames hang down over the raised stage (that itself contains a belated surprise). The frames suggest that we’re looking through different windows into Usher’s life, an analogy used very effectively by the priest who conducted by late-Aunt’s funeral last year.

Seven musicians set the mood of Usher (Tony Flynn) who paces up and down the stage with the poise and purpose of a ballet dancer. Voiceless, but not without message, he examines his late sister’s belongings that have been packed into a suitcase. Distorted video projections are caught on the actors’ white painted faces while a recorded narration tells the story.

Abigail McGibbon – the only cast member who speaks live on stage – play’s Usher’s sister. Like an intense banshee wrapped in a red cardigan she powerfully spits out her words, adding to the sense of mental distress, throwing up the possibility of foul play.

Matthew Cavan tends to Usher’s corporal needs, with the placid actions and reactions at odds with the brooding tension that wordlessly is created between the characters.

Three or four different lighting scenes use height to change (and sometimes eliminate) the shadows cast by the frames on the stage while projectors map solid blocks of light onto the floor. And watch out for some clever trickery that turn Tony Flynn’s trousers and shoes purple.

Conor Mitchell’s score expertly weaves over someone’s cover of Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? It’s a beautiful moment, complete and fulfilling, one among many in this hour long performance.

The story of grief, upset, fear and instability is a study in mood. A demonstration of what’s possible when a group of people let their imaginations run wild and find new ways to express old stories.

It’s not an uplifting piece of theatre. The plot is creepy, the characters are sinister, and there isn’t really a moral backbone upon which the story can rest. However, The Fall of the House of Usher is stimulating and disturbing and a quality example of a contemporary musical horror book adaptation that you couldn’t have predicted would be so satisfying to watch.

Belfast Ensemble’s The Fall of the House of Usher continues at The Lyric Theatre until Sunday 24 June.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Zoo - elephant antics loosely based on the real life Blitz story of a Belfast Zoo heist (cinemas from 29 June)

In recent years, the story of the Belfast Zoo elephant which walked down from Cavehill each evening along the streets to the nearby home of a keeper for protection during the Belfast Blitz has become reasonably well known. During its 75th anniversary year, the zoo was able to trace the woman from an old black and white photograph which showed an elephant in a Belfast back yard. And so the story of 'elephant angel' Denise Weston Austin was uncovered and brought to newspaper and TV audiences.

Colin McIvor has taken this true story and thoroughly adapted it in the screenplay for his new film Zoo. The opening credits explain that it was "inspired by true events" and audiences are soon introduced to the fictitious Tom Hall, the son of a zookeeper who is distraught that the dangerous animals are being shot in case they escape during German bombing raids over Belfast. His father has been called up to serve overseas, and together with a small group of other children, he concocts a plan to sneak Buster the baby elephant out of the zoological gardens.

In a story that is as much about rescuing a girl from her drunk father, a bully from his controlling friends and a woman from her grief as it is about rescuing an elephant, there are a lot of characters to introduce and set up in the first third of the film. It's a slow burn that finally gels in the last 30 or 40 minutes when the characters and story settle into their final stride. But from there on until the end, it's a rewarding watch and tears will be shed.

Tony Jones provides comedy in his role as Charlie, an officious security guard who lives in the gate house and controls access to the zoo. Ian McElhinney's zoo manager is a heartless character who acts with his head rather than his heart. Mrs Austin is played by Penelope Wilton as an eccentric woman whose house is a veritable menagerie stuffed full of birds, reptiles and furry mammals. Early on, she is a figure of ridicule, but her backstory and warm heart come to the fore as the film progresses.

Young Tom Hall (Art Parkinson) has the passion to save Buster from being shot, but needs help to pull off his scheme. The characterisation oddly seems to shift back and forth from over-confidence to nervousness around people. It takes the cunning of ingénue Jane (a début performance by Lisburn-born Emily Flain) and the strength of reforming bully Pete (Ian O'Reilly) and his kid brother 'wee' Mickey (James Stockdale) to make the half-assed plan to sneak an elephant out of the zoo during the nightly curfew into an achievable heist.

There's a lot of atmosphere and sepia scenes as children practice wearing their gas masks and air raid sirens wail in the middle of the night and people rush to the community shelters. The terror of the Blitz is often balanced by moments of humour, though McIvor doesn't shy away from the deadly reality of the bombing raids and creates some moving scenes that take the story beyond one simply about an elephant.

Filmed in Canada as well as Belfast, local viewers will both recognise vistas and scratch their heads at some of the film's geography. Zoo will be screened in cinemas across Northern Ireland from Friday 29 June, just in time for the school holidays. (Also available on US iTunes.)