Thursday, January 31, 2019

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful – finding and choosing hope in the darkness of poor male mental health (Prime Cut tour)

In Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful, director Rhiann Jeffrey allows Malachy’s chirpy sense of humour to get the audience tittering from the second line of the play. Actor Simon O’Gorman, robed in his dressing down, begins to speak from a reposed position on a chunky sofa that seems more sturdy than his frame of mind.

His very male and middle-aged views on exercise, gravity and animals generate varying degrees of laughter, though the most fulsome shrieks of mirth from women – young and old – in the audience last night were saved for his treatise on vaginas.

In a year since its last outing at The MAC, so much is improved in this restaging of John Patrick Higgins’ play. The pretentious watery set and background music has been banished, allowing the playwright’s voice to break through, and giving the audience the freedom to more fully engage with the wit and pathos on display.

The Chuckle Brothers scene has us howling at Malachy’s humiliation. Anyone who has read Higgins’ reviews and rants will know that he has an exquisite way with words. It’s not a ‘nugget’; instead it’s the more supremely glorious “chicken in its little breadcrumb suit”.

We enjoy Malachy recounting the ups and downs of relationships, until the atmosphere changes in an instant when he explains about the tragedy that has shaped every subsequent day of his life. O’Gorman’s timing is perfect, as he quickly tacks back and forth with the prevailing emotional wind. Amusing melancholy is replaced with deep sadness, then outbursts of anger and frustration, before a dark despair finally settles over the bedsit.

What is normally locked up inside is given permission to be expressed and exposed. The tilted stage adds to the feeling that the character is being propelled into this descent by some unseen force; the mirrored panels that rise high above the stage remind the audience that we are with Malachy and, often, we are Malachy.

May we all remember that hope can be more sustaining than tormenting as we navigate the joys and sorrows of 2019. It’s a simple lesson that needs to be learnt, and one that Higgins’ play and O’Gorman’s performance does its damnedest to share.

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful is staged by Prime Cut Productions alongside Fintan Brady’s East Belfast Boy (performed by the energetic Ryan McParland and reviewed last year) as part of a double bill examining male mental health. The production has finished its Belfast run in The MAC and is now touring through:
  • Roscommon Arts Centre (Friday 1 February)
  • The Everyman, Cork (Tuesday 5-Thursday 7 February)
  • The Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar (Monday 11 February)
  • An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny (Tuesday 12 February)
  • Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick (Friday 15 February)
  • The Market Place Theatre & Arts Centre, Armagh (Saturday 16 February)
  • Project Arts Centre, Dublin (Monday 18-Wednesday 20 February)
Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

Destroyer – Nicole Kidman plays a damaged cop who vengefully revisits her undercover past

A new lead for an old case sends a traumatised and somewhat unorthodox LAPD detective Erin Bell back to find the head honcho of a gang she infiltrated while undercover with an FBI colleague. As she works her way up the criminal foodchain, Erin is violently reacquainted with former colleagues and the personal and professional decisions she made in the past.

Nicole Kidman takes the lead in Destroyer and strikes a gritty and dishevelled pose as a detective who eschews social niceties and whose tired body can barely keep up with the wear and tear of the job. From early on in the movie, her bloodshot eyes suggest that they’ve witnessed traumatic events. It’s the complete opposite of Kidman’s glamorous role as Queen Atlanta in Aquaman. No one stands in the way of Bell’s fist-throwing, gun-toting persona and unlike most female action leads, Kidman takes a lot of blows and bruises in the frequent fight scenes.

Theodore Shapiro’s disquieting music ups the tension with metallic strings while one dark scene of Russian roulette took me back to the 2005 black and white film 13 Tzameti (not the pointless 2010 remake). Jade Pettyjohn plays Bell’s wayward and headstrong daughter Shelby, a chip off the old block. Their fraught and angsty relationship plays well on screen as a sub-plot right up to the final serious mother/daughter chat that kills the pace of the movie.

Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay weaves together flashbacks that fill in the backstory of Bell’s earlier work with partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) and reveals the vicious nature of gang boss Silas (Toby Kebbell) with whom she’s out to settle a score.

Throughout the two-hour film, I’m left wondering why Bell’s partner allows her to work alone and accepts that she keeps him in the dark. It’s never explained and leaves a large hole in the credibility of the story.

The twist in the latter stages of the tale is well executed and will set your brain racing through the earlier film to reassess what you thought you were seeing and believing.

Kidman doesn’t shy away from the filthy lengths Bell will go to get information. Yet the storyline and pacing issues mean that the clever reveal, Kidman’s commitment to the script, the no-holds-barred brutality, along with the amazing makeup and prosthetics aren’t quite enough to deliver anywhere near the ambition of the premise.

Destroyer is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre, Movie House and Omniplex cinemas.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Vice – an interesting but unfocussed character assassination that falls short of its potential impact

Vice is a film that shows former US Vice President Dick Cheney to be – at one point, quite literally – a heartless power-monger who settled for getting his hands on the largest levers of power in the US rather than the absolute top title. Though, in some of the final scenes, screenwriter and director Adam McKay suggests that he is ready for the next generation of Cheney politicians – his oldest daughter Liz – to overcome his campaigning hurdle of younger daughter Mary’s sexuality in the pursuit of her political career.

Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney throughout his adulthood, from the drunk mediocre no-hoper who is challenged by his wife to “have the courage to be someone or I’m gone”, to pacing the hallways of decision-making and rising to become the youngest White House chief of staff before the setback of Ford losing the 1976 election to Carter, winning his way to be a congressman, Secretary of Defense, a private sector CIO, and engineering his way to become finally Vice President.

We drop into the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the dodgy dossier (Tony Blair gets a few seconds of screen time) and the US population’s re-education to associate Saddam Hussein and Iraq with al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorist attack. Focus groups are shown to help reframe the words used to better persuade and less candidly explain government policy and the rationale for military action.

But the film’s truest purpose is to encourage its audience to think carefully about how power is grasped and at times stolen, used and abused. Vice asks questions about authority and accountability, using Cheney’s long-held keenness to find legal opinion that supports the notion of Unitary Executive Theory (basically, cover for whatever the President does to be legal because he is the President) as well as some of his specific actions in the hours after the 9/11 terrorist attack as a basis to suggest that the VP wanted to short circuit normal governmental checks and balances.

More often than not we hear Cheney’s inner thoughts than his words, but when he does, Bale speaks through the side of his mouth, pauses mid-phrase, and imitates the few Cheney-isms that are at all recognisable from public appearances. The physical transformation is impressive over the fifty year period the film studies. The steely-eyed decisiveness, often based on instinct and long-term threat management, is stirring, if not a little alarming.

Lynne Cheney is portrayed by Amy Adams as the antithesis of a feminist whose own glass ceiling will not limit her ambition for her husband who only needed to be given a stern ultimatum once. “I won’t ever disappoint you again” he promises her. Nearly always by his side, she supports, stands in and counsels her pet power project.

Given the half century timeline and the real life figures involved, the audience are necessarily introduced to a breath-taking cast of characters over the two and a bit hours. Along the way we’re introduced to the continuing adventures of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) as well as the side story of how Roger Ailes’ long-championed to change TV impartiality rules which led to the launch of Fox News. But the film is somewhat littered with too many people carefully wigged and made up to look like their real-life counterparts.

Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack barges into key moments of action with a clanking piano or a loud orchestration dominated by stabs of brass. It’s not subtle. But nothing about this film is. It’s a frontal attack on Cheney’s style of leadership and the Republican party and its supporters who allowed him to operate with near total power at the right hand of a weak President George W Bush. Sam Rockwell’s depiction of Bush as a small child in an important chair amplifies the differences between President and VP.

While I’d problems with the tone and flippancy of McKay’s earlier The Big Short, it’s exposé of financial mismanagement and the subprime mortgage crash was much more focussed and coherent than Vice.

The audacious alternate ending midway through the movie is probably the only laugh-out loud moment. A fly-fishing metaphor is lightly followed throughout the film, but Vice’s impact would have been greater if it had been more consistent humorous, satirical or educational. The film tries to be smart, even addressing the likely accusations of its liberal bias in a mid-credit scene before the cinema screen lights go up.

Dick Cheney is an interesting figure. However, overall, Vice comes over as a character assassination film that bears out a grudge against him and will reinforce whatever prejudice you enter the cinema with. It’s over-argued, and the self-admission that Cheney is a private man about whom little is known somewhat undermines the huge amount of imagination that has gone into the fictionalisation of his personal and political life.

Vice is being screened in Movie House, Belfast Odeon, Omniplex and Odyssey cinemas.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – rich performances and evocative storytelling (from 1 February)

When an out-of-fashion biographer runs out of words and her agent ignores her as much as her creditors don’t, Lee Israel finds that other people’s words are a more lucrative – and enjoyable – way to earn a crust.
“A 51 year old woman who likes cats more than people”
Melissa McCarthy plays the unconventional character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a light-fingered alcoholic who lives alone with her beloved cat. While researching for her next manuscript, she discovers an original typed letter from a celebrity tucked into a library book. When she is disappointed to discover that it is too boring to be collectable, she types on an outrageous postscript to boost its value and soon she finds herself using her study of literary characters to knock up fake memorabilia on a suite of old manual typewriters in order to pay her bills.

She meets Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in a bar and the disgraced grifter is slowly woven into her world of fabrication and fraud. Superficially friendly, the chemistry between these pair of oddballs never totally turns into trust, but they usefully prop each other up and offer often-madcap opportunities to escape the daily grind.

McCarthy is beautifully morose, snapping out biting insults to all those around her in a way that communicates the quick wit and intelligence of her character. We feel Israel’s discomfort around people who (did) care for her (all except her landlord whom she treats with uncharacteristic generosity). As the author’s despondency intensifies and it becomes obvious just how many aspects of her life are out-of-control, McCarthy builds a persona that attracts audience empathy and downplays her criminal side.

Grant wallows in his own web of lies about his living quarters and health. He brings an otherworldliness and an alternative desperation to the fusty world of old books Israel lives in. He carries the flamboyant costumes with ease, and Grant’s demeanour portrays a frail humanity as we watch Hock’s health failing (he’s HIV positive).

Nate Heller’s jazz score gently animates the prolonged character study while Brandon Trost’s cinematography rather obviously and frequently pulls focus across a scene to steer the viewer’s eye from character to character in shots that tend to be longer than modern cinema usually enjoys. Stylistically, the film adopts a brown and beige colour palette like the old books that line the shelves of the disreputable dealers who accept Israel’s supply of fabricated memorabilia.

I’m often a critic of on-screen crimes being portrayed as victim-less. In this story, it is implied (particularly in the final scene) that the dealers are knowing accessories in the fencing of less-than-authentic items which are bought by those rich enough not to care.

The titular quote from Dorothy L Sayers asks a question. We know that Lee Israel remained proud of her fictional writing – it was truly some of her best creative work. Audiences will find it hard not to have sympathy with her position, particularly when the story is as well constructed and executed as Nicole Holofcener’s script and Marielle Heller’s direction.

There’s hardly been a film this year that isn’t derivative of a memoir, biography or history book. When it is realised to cinemas in a couple of weeks’ time, I half expect The LEGO Movie 2 to flash up “based on a true story” at the start! Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on Lee Israel’s self-penned confessional.
“Go out and make a name for yourself”

Death and disappointment are themes that run through much of the dialogue in the film. While the literary world has more than its fair share of penniless writers, the feeling of depression about not achieving your dreams is common to much of western society. Israel’s sense of failure extends from her words to relationships, and McCarthy shows this inner turmoil as she repels an attracted bookseller and is rebuffed by her worn down ex-girlfriend.

Can You Ever Forgive Me is a great piece of evocative storytelling with rich performances from the two central actors. In Movie House cinemas from 1 February and the Queen’s Film Theatre from 15 February.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened … burnt by Fyre: a tale of credit cards and influencers being used to suspend disbelief (Netflix)

There have always been influencers in society. Many years ago, film stars smoking a particular brand of cigarette would assign a coolness to a product that their fans would copy and purchase. People following what a politician says – rather than their strict party policy – is not a new thing.

Nowadays, Instagram is awash with people promoting brands and events. By reviewing theatre performances and films on this blog, I’m often engaging in a small way in the ‘critic’ corner of this universe of influencing. And while that type of work is well-established and well understood – I write critical reviews rather than spouting a sponsored advert or direct marketing (which really require an #ad or #sponsored tag to indicate it’s not natural) – it’s not unreasonable to conclude that I’m more likely to review a film or show that is previewed for free than one I need to spend my own hard-earned freelance pennies to get into. Feel free to click the Buy Me A Coffee link over on the right of this webpage if you enjoy it’s content! (Though sometimes I do independently book tickets and pay to see shows and film … and this year I’m keeping count to see how it balances out.)

FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened tells the story of Billy McFarland, an entrepreneur with an exclusive credit card membership scheme behind him, who moved onto his next big project: building an online platform called Fyre that would allow artists to be booked by mere mortals who had the money to contract them to perform, bypassing the need for agents and needing to know the right person to have a conversation in the ear of someone who could secure the band’s agreement.

In order to promote the under-development platform, the Fyre Festival was dreamt up. An exclusive sunny weekend of music and cuisine on a small Caribbean island. People would pay top dollar to be among the few to experience what others could only dream of attending.

And in order to promote the festival, a small planeful of supermodels were flown out to an island in the Bahamas to be filmed partying for a few days. US Rapper Ja Rule helps front the publicity. Promoted with an orange square that clicked through to a glossy bikini-filled video, Fyre Festival took off.

Meanwhile a team was assembled to meet the demand and the incredibly short timescale to stand up a new event in a remote location. Over 97 minutes, we see the “unflappable and delusional” Billy McFarland hustling to pull together an impossible goal. He’s fabulously calm while all around people are querying the viability of his latest dream.

People who questioned the viability of providing sanitation for thousands of people without existing infrastructure were swapped out. The first island of paradise feel through and eventually a neglected corner of Great Exuma was secured. Emergency tents left over from a hurricane were repurposed as luxury accommodation for people who thought they were booking more lavish.

The nature of the high-volume filming to support the initial influencer marketing and desire to capture behind-the-scenes footage of the festival build-up, along with the fact that so many people did not get paid, means that there was a ready supply of material with which the filmmakers to intercut with the interviews with crew and paying punters.

It takes a message from above – the heavens open and rain falls on the campsite on the eve of the first festival goers flying into the island – for the penny to drop, though it takes another 24 hours for clarity of thought to reach the top of the organisational tree.

In October 2018, McFarland was sentenced to six years in federal prison. If the Fyre Festival pyramid had a fraudster at its top, it had hard-working innocent people – like the hundreds of Bahaman workers who build the site – who were left unpaid. The caterer cries on camera as she explains how she used her life savings to pay her staff. She would continue to live on the island and couldn’t run away from her debt like the festival organiser.

I’ve never been to a music festival – the idea of spending any more nights in a tent does not appeal to me – though I’ve mixed sound for bands at non-music festivals and chaired, facilitated and reported from countless events and conferences. On a tiny scale I’ve an appreciation of the chaos of event management and can imagine how it grows exponentially into a teetering tower of malpractice when very novice heads are in sole charge.

At that level, FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is interesting to watch. It casts judgement on the human nature of both the organisers and those who funded it (the people for whom the greatest party could already be imagined in their heads).

It’s yet another wake-up call to pay less attention to the perfect bodies and perfect lifestyles on Instagram and the right-hand column of the Daily Mail website. While they continue to sell lifestyles that some people can afford, as a population we need to stop aspiring to joining them. We can’t all be trustafarians!

The documentary is also a powerful reminder that in a world that values influencers, what looks organic online is often organised and orchestrated behind the scenes.

And it is an object lesson in why everyone has a responsibility to keep their eyes open, the critical thinking function of their brain active, and to ask questions and refuse to be blindsided, it’s also a reminder that everything that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s just glitter poured over a turd and filmed in a good light.

(Hulu gazumped Netflix and released their own documentary Fyre Fraud about the Fyre Festival fiasco four days before The Greatest Party dropped. While Hulu agreed to pay Bully McFarland for an interview, the producers of the Netflix documentary (Jerry Media and Matte Projects) did not accede to his demands for money.)

Is That Too Hot? A close shave with bankruptcy threatens a salon at the heart of its community (The MAC until 10 Feb + NI tour)

Patricia Gormley’s second professionally-produced play is a hair-raising tale of the ups and downs of the staff and clients at Buns’R’Us, a fictional west Belfast hair and beauty salon.

Is That Too Hot? features young trainee Jolene who can barely work a kettle but has the ambition to graduate from just sweeping the floors. Ailing Granny Eileen shuffles in on rollator and relates all the gossip from the nearby sheltered housing, accentuated with malapropisms and outbursts of swearing that catch the audience off guard. Mrs Hughes Queues is a snob with a posh-sounding son and a fur hat that hopefully protects her ears from the slanderous gossip others spread about her. And then there’s jet-setting Chelsea Marie who has walked up more aisles than enough in her budget airline cabin crew job but now needs to hurriedly arrange her nuptials.

Christina Nelson twists her body into each of these characters, drawing each with their own set of mannerisms (a quivering leg, fiddling with buttons, flicking hair), a great set of accents and comic timing that allows a myriad of jokes to have the space to land and garner laughs from the willing audience.

This sequel to I’ll Tell My Ma benefits greatly from a second actor. Roisin Gallagher sustains the show playing the hair salon owner Olive who sports an impressive ‘updo’. Somehow in the midst of managing her staff and customers, she has forgotten to manage her finances and the future of her business looks bleak.
“I work all night I work all day / To pay the bills I have to pay”
The first sounds of the play, heard through the salon’s hi-fi, aptly set the scene for dramatic predicament facing Olive. While the build-up of jeopardy is patchy in the first half – which essentially introduces the characters and sets up the community spirit – the final climax and resolution is tear-jerking.

Directed by Alan McKee, the pair clearly enjoy bouncing off each other. Gallagher’s poise, eyebrows, empathy and pathos make her a believable salon owner who can relate to all the nonsense that comes through her door and lend a listening ear and a wee act of kindness.

Community theatre can be twee and cheap. But Is That Too Hot? is a well-constructed and well-observed piece of theatre that celebrates the best of community without having to shamelessly mock it. The local references and Glider gags anchor it in west Belfast, but the themes and characters are universal.

Is That Too Hot? is a sweet and warm introduction to the new year that certainly gave last night’s audience a lift. Its run in The MAC continues until 10 February after which it’ll tour through Lisburn, Cookstown and beyond!

Photo credit: Simon Fallaha

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Beautiful Boy – one family’s story about parenting and substance abuse

Parenting trap number 1 has got to be the desire to ‘fix’ your children. It starts innocently enough whether they fall over in a playground, graze a knee. Or maybe when they take a swipe at another toddler in a playgroup who has grabbed a brightly-coloured plastic object from their hand.

In the first instance you quickly eliminate the notion of wrapping them in a huge cotton wool cocoon and decide to stay within reach to scoop them up like a superhero before gravity brings them tumbling to the ground the next time. In the second you try and build up their resilience while teaching them to be assertive while falling into the trap of listing the obvious deficits in the other’s child’s character and its parents. It’s the beginning of helicopter parenting, the bane of school and college teachers’ lives!

There comes a point when you realise that not every bloodied knee can be prevented, and bad stuff happens in the world at age two and twenty-two. Part of parenting is to know when to let go, even though you dearly want to interfere or revert to ‘fix’ mode.

Beautiful Boy dramatizes the real-life story of David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff as told in their pair of memoires, Beautiful Boy and Tweak. When things go wrong, can and should David ever stop trying to ‘fix’ Nic?

The teenager seems happy in his isolated world of poetry and novels. But when he fails to come home for two nights, his father realises that all is not well and checks his son into an addition clinic. Relapse follows rehab as Nic jumps onto the helter skelter than only spirals downwards, while his journalist father, artist step-mother and remote birth mother try to figure what to do with the child who is addicted to crystal meth.

Beautiful Boy is a valid and relatable story, but it’s just one story of many, and perhaps the one that will appeal most to Amazon Studios’ ‘Prime’ demographic. It feels like little is achieved by dramatising several years of Nic Sheff’s life that couldn’t have been as candidly portrayed in a documentary.

In the same way Trainspotting is a story of working class drug use, Beautiful Boy is a tale of substance abuse in a white family of privilege. Money is rarely an object, neither for the parents in their attempts to divert a child from his path of self-destruction nor for the child who only ever steals a step-brother’s piggybank and gathers up some of his father’s old recording gear to fund his addiction.

From his leading role in Call Me By Your Name, we know that Timothée Chalamet is quite an acting talent. His face keeps changing and he successfully plays the many different versions of Nic: the one who sparks with joy; the one who deceives, promises the earth, and blames everyone around him; the one who really tries but can’t overcome the urge to replace the anxiety of sobriety by slipping back into a happier place of chemical fog; as well as the physically gaunt Nic in hospital.

Steve Carell plays David Sheff and certainly emotes a feeling familiar to many parents of being distracted in the workplace, overburdened by a family situation. He brings to life that need to grasp at every straw of illusive hope as well as portraying a reluctance to necessarily push the nuclear button to cut ties and protect the innocent from further damage.

My problems with the film shouldn’t override the joy at seeing difficult and unheroic parental situations being sensitively portrayed on the big screen. But at times it feels like the whole film was dropped on the floor during the editing process, leaving some scenes behind and others jumbled up when they were pieced back together.

Maura Tierney’s role as Karen Barbour (David’s second wife) is woefully under-developed while Nic’s fellow junkie friend Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever who recently popped up as Gary Hart’s daughter in The Front Runner) appears from nowhere more than half way through the film, shoots up, has sex and then disappears into the back of an ambulance never to be seen again. Perhaps that’s realistic, but it’s poor cinema.

For young couples visiting the cinema, Beautiful Boy may turn out to be a remarkably effective contraceptive, delaying notions of parenthood. It’s a tough road with no easy answers. Your beautiful child may not follow the path of Nic, but there’ll be plenty of other moments when you’ll reach for the Haynes Manual only to discover that the index disappoints.

Beautiful Boy is a salutary tale of how hard drugs get into your system and change how your brain responds, presumably one that a lot young people are already aware of, yet so many will be unable to dodge in their own lives. And a reminder that parents can’t be responsible for steering all the choices their children make – though that doesn’t stop us loving them all the more.

But in the end Beautiful Boy is not shocking. It doesn’t feel like the kind of film that deserves a miraculous ending. As the film spun around, descending towards the credits, I began to wonder whether the director Felix van Groeningen would be brave enough to divert from the source material and instead find painful closure in a funeral rather than a fresh start. For too many families – and I pause as I type to remember loved ones not too far away from me on the family tree – that is the tragic reality they face.

Beautiful Boy is playing in Movie House cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Mule – Clint Eastwood in a charming film with an ethically dubious subject matter (Movie House from Friday 25 January)

In The Mule, Clint Eastwood provides the latest addition to the film genre of ‘old man committing a felony’ and surpasses the recent success of Robert Redford’s The Old Man & the Gun.

Based on a true story, it’s a welcome return to the silver screen for the silver-haired actor and director who plays Earl Sharp, a grandfather who in earlier years put his career in horticulture (hybrid day lilies) above his family.

With finances tight (online selling knocked out his catalogue trade), he loses his home in Peoria and takes up an offer to earn money doing what he’s been doing best for the last sixty or more years: driving carefully across the country making deliveries without picking up any speeding tickets.

The size of the wad of banknotes stuffed into a brown envelope in the glove compartment of his pickup truck as payment surprises the somewhat naïve and incurious pensioner. He uses the money to invest in his family and the community, as well as buying a new set of wheels. “Who’d you have to kill to get a place like this?” Sharp asks the Mexican drug cartel leader who demands to meet his prize driver at his luxurious mansion.

In parallel with his rise to become one of the drug cartel’s most successful mules (transferring millions of dollars of heroine across states), there’s a new Drug Enforcement Agency investigator in town, Colin Bates (played by Bradley Cooper), who starts squeezing informants for information and slowly zero in on the cartel’s routes and their prize mule.

Eastwood visibly ages between the opening scenes which show Sharp in his late 70s and the main action 12 years later in his early 90s. Subtle changes in his gait, stoop and dodderiness, together with more pronounced wrinkles, make it a very believable transition and Eastwood (aged 88 at the time of filming) makes it feel very natural.

Despite Sharp’s glorious political incorrectness – due it seems to age and ignorance rather than any malice – there’s a warmth to his interactions with those supplying and receiving the bags that are loaded into the back. His Luddite relationship with modern technology is charming. His instinct is to help people … albeit somewhat at odds with his cargo.

Outside of Sharp’s family – in which the strains between his estranged wife (Dianne Wiest), daughter (Alison Eastwood) and granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) are well observed – women tend to be sex objects with single scenes and no backstory.

It’s a lovely film and a very pleasant watch. Saying that, I’m troubled and slightly haunted about the ethics of whether a film about drugs can be ‘pleasant’ or upbeat or celebrated. As a character Earl Sharp gets his comeuppance and finds redemption from the break in family relationships. But that’s not the whole story.

While the law tends to catch up with these old gangsters, like The Old Man & the Gun, Eastwood’s new film makes no reference to the true victims of the crimes, and the effect on the lives of those users taking the drugs. And while Sharp doesn’t take drugs, it is clear that he personally enjoys other vices that are not victimless.

Instead The Mule concentrates on one man’s late realisation that family is more important than work, even lucrative driving for bosses who become more tetchy and controlling as the value of the packages increase. It highlights our human desire to be ‘someone’ within our spheres of influence, the desire to find freedom (perhaps even in being caught) and to be loved.

There’s a good pace and some nice repetition to the 116-minute movie, much less lethargic than the aforementioned Redford’s bank heist, but travelling along under the speed limit with no need for jump cuts to squeeze in extra storyline. As tension builds in the plot, it is never allowed to translate to the soundtrack and you’ll be humming along with the easy listening tunes from Sharp’s car radio.

Overall, The Mule is much more accomplished compared with Eastwood’s last directorial disaster in the terribly flawed The 15:17 to Paris. However, the box office opportunity to see Clint Eastwood back at work is slightly marred by the odd selection of the story to be told.

The Mule opens in Movie House cinemas on Friday 25 January.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Aquaman – more fowl than fish – battling baddies on land and sea to find the magic spork

Ahoy! Aquaman is following the pattern of Wonder Woman: better as part of a pack in Justice League than standalone.

We witness the result of a cross-species union between a warm-hearted lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and an underwater Queen (Nicole Kidman) fleeing an arranged marriage which births the bullet-dodging aquatic titular hero (Jason Momoa) who grows up and makes a mess of nearly every house he enters, particularly when he comes through the roof like a clumsy tattooed Santa Claus.

Director James Wan and his team of writers abandon the rules of storytelling as well as the basics of physics. It’s like an epic Dora the Explorer bedtime story where someone mean has glued all the books together into a seemingly never-ending story that takes two hours twenty-three minutes to find the conclusion. (By a bizarre coincidence, the actor playing Aquaman’s father will appear in a Dora the Explorer movie next year.)

Just as your toddler would be fast asleep before the end of Dora’s mega odyssey, if it wasn’t for the pumping soundtrack with its electric guitar riffs to warn you of impending action, you too might be in the Kingdom of Zeds before Aquaman battles all the baddies on land (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and sea (Dolph Lundgren) and finds the magic spork.

Between Mary Queen of Scots and Aquaman, red hair is featuring heavily on our cinema screens at the moment. Princess Mera (Amber Heard) transports Aquaman out of some tight spots and demonstrates great combat skills, but the script has a tendency to allow her to be rescued at intervals as if to remind her of men’s ultimate superiority. A poor show for a promising character.

A bastard half-blood son is pitched against his duplicitous pure blood half-brother – it would be improved with some hip-hop borrowed from the musical Hamilton – with scenes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Sand and an underwater Star Wars episode. There’s a lot of threatening parents and action which conveniently occurs within swimming distance of the east coast of the US, specifically the state of Maine.

Ultimately, Aquaman is a triumph of CGI and costumes over plot, which promises more humour at the start than it can consistently deliver throughout the remainder of the film. The ocean throwing up decades of garbage back onto beaches was a nice touch and at least it only costs £3 to watch in the Odyssey Cinema (whose non-VIP tickets are discounted during all of January).

But – shock horror – the credits indicate that there’s a sequel, which was a let down after the lovely song Everything I Need from Skylar Grey.

If you still feel the need to watch Aquaman, then go and see it in a cinema and enjoy the big bassy sounds from a proper sound system that will give you shivers your home cinema setup will never provoke.

Aquaman continues to shown in more cinemas that I can reason why!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Mary Queen of Scots - remarkable performances in a film which blends history with fiction

Recently widowed Mary returns from France to Scotland and assumes the throne as Queen of Scotland, a Catholic who also has a claim to the throne of England. On the south side of the border, unmarried cousin Elizabeth is the heirless Queen of England whose court is troubled by Mary’s power.

In Mary Queen of Scots, over two hours we watch Elizabeth’s health fail, potential husbands being presented to Mary, as well as diplomatic and military action being taken to resolve the impasse.

Director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon provide a feminist take on the historic events – based largely on John Guy’s biography My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots – and allow cinema audiences to eavesdrop on court conversations that convince one queen to pimp out her boyfriend to be her rival’s husband while at the same time she is chided on her lack of a husband to try to produce an heir.

In summary, mostly we see men meddle in women’s affairs, forcing the hand of the two monarchs who otherwise showed signs of tolerance (particularly Mary) and understanding.

The talented Saoirse Ronan was only 23 at the time of filming, yet was the same age as Mary Queen of Scots for much of the film. Ronan’s piercing eyes and flaring nostrils are only part of her varied toolkit to create a strong presence on-screen. Mary has less power than her English cousin and Ronan adopts a cheeky ‘can do’ attitude, the kind of monarch who can get her dress dirty while walking outside.

Ronan also deals well with the seriousness of her catastrophic marriage to vain and arrogant Lord Darnley (played to a T by Jack Lowden) who makes a (probably) fictional pass at Mary’s court musician, Italian David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) whom (spoiler alert) he later helps murder (back to non-fiction I’m afraid).

Margot Robbie’s Queen Elizabeth gets less time on screen, but demonstrates the burden of ill health and the pressure of testosterone-fuelled advice from the men who barely stomach her presence on the English throne. Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (actor Martin Compston) from Line of Duty shows up as an underhand and nasty member of Mary’s court, while a long haired and hirsute David Tennant plays John Knox, a firebrand cleric who we see stirring up Scottish sectarian feeling. Colour-blind casting pulls together a talented cast that includes Gemma Chan and Adrian Lester.

The opening of Mary Queen of Scots in UK cinemas coincides with this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, so the overtly sectarian rhetoric that demands “she must bow to you, not Rome” cries out loudly from the screen into today’s still-divided society.

Mary Queen of Scots is a tale where women put forth overtures of tolerance that are met with male fear and hatred. It all becomes a bit too Lord of the Rings with armies battling muskets against swords, sibling rivalries and child abduction all thrown at the script to squeeze in more of the history. The film ends up both saucy and violent, and while the embellishments work well cinematically – the fictionalised meeting of the two Queens is quite exotic and an oasis of calm in the long film – some moments in the film do feel bolted on for viewing pleasure and 21st century sensibilities rather than essential storytelling. Leaving all that aside, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie turn in remarkable performances and there is much to praise in the film.

Mary Queen of Scots is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Strand Arts Centre, Movie House, Omniplex, Odyssey and Odeon cinemas.

Colette — a sumptuous period drama that holds up a mirror to reflect on contemporary issues

Colette tells the story of a real-life woman who finds her voice and identity, yet is denied recognition.

In 1893, a Parisian author, publisher and libertine marries a rural Burgundy lass whom he had courted behind her family’s back in the hay shed.

With a factory of writers pumping out articles, reviews and novels under his pen name of ‘Willy’ and more bills to pay than he had cash in the bank, he takes advantage of his young wife’s skill of storytelling and has considerable financial success publishing a series of semi-autobiographical novels she writes about ‘Claudine’.

His expensive habit of philandering does not abate, yet he refuses her request to be acknowledged as co-author of the works that are now sustaining their finances. She too starts to enjoy the company of other women and expands her talents from the page to the stage.

Kiera Knightly delivers a mesmerising performance as the down-to-earth, unfussy, yet excitable young girl who endures the social whirlwind of Parisian high society and realised that her marital and creative partnership is not evenly balanced.
“I promise I won’t sleep with her again; it’s what men do in the city.”

Dominic West creates a charming and sophisticated Willy, full of empty promises and manipulating all those around him to profit his enterprises at their expense. Horrible yet relatable.

Knightly is delightfully harsh – and believably so – when she lays into her aptly named husband who demonstrates that he is as louche as the fiction he produces. She transforms Colette from being his servile wife to become other people’s lover, pushing gender and sexual boundaries to search for respect and contentment. Her skill as an actor shines through in a confrontation late on in the film which in one take slowly zooms in on Knightly’s face as she holds her husband’s gaze and eviscerates his bad character.

While the use of verbal English and written French initially distracts, the sumptuous wardrobes and sets – that will surely win awards in four weeks’ time – ground the action in opulent Paris in the late 19th century, and the script is allowed to keep English double entendres like “You don’t have to worry about Willy” that raise a smile and also point to the antagonist’s increasing impotence.

Director Wash Westmoreland uses Colette to hold a mirror up to today’s society. The reflection motif is there visually with Giles Nuttgens’ stunning cinematography allowing the audience to watch action through a mirror in the remarkable opening shot, before repeating the trick in the next two scenes and at intervals throughout the film. Do men still take the credit – knowingly or systemically – for women’s contribution to organisations and society at large? Are women judged by different and harsher rules than men? (Themes familiar from The Front Runner which is also running in local cinemas.)

Colette is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre and Omniplex cinemas.

The Front Runner – Gary Hart’s campaign implosion and the fall out on the women around him – has much changed in 30 years?

A couple of weeks ago, BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme included a segment discussing whether the misdemeanours of artists and actors can be separated from the quality of their work and performances. The panel discussed figures like singer Michael Jackson, actor Kevin Spacey and director Roman Polanski. They quickly highlighted that lines appear to be drawn in different places, quite inconsistently, depending on the individual being judged and the depth of roots their creative work has put down before their wrongdoing is discovered.

It’s a wonder none of the listeners phoned in to mention that many Christians have a similar problem with their Bible ‘heroes’ who have similarly clay feet: Abraham’s mistreatment of his wife’s handmaid Hagar, and King David’s leering Bathsheba bathing, adultery and set up her husband to die in battle.

Politicians too have their share of clay feet. At Westminster, my impression is that MPs resign from Cabinet positions, and sometimes even resign their seat in the Commons and force a byelection, whenever they become a prolonged and embarrassing distraction to their party’s messaging – a secondary reason – rather than a resolve to address the primary concerns.

In Northern Ireland in recent months, a spotlight has been shone on the travel expenses and lobbying of Ian Paisley MP, as well as a number of councillors caught by the police for drink driving. Two and a half years ago, after a lengthy investigation by the NI Assembly Commissioner for Standards – whose Appendices of evidence I still find a disturbing read – the Committee for Standards and Privileges did not uphold any of the complaints of bullying and sexual misconduct levelled against NI21 leader Basil McCrea.

Escaping police attention for breaking the law is not up for discussion. But under what circumstances is there a real public interest in the moral failures of public figures?

When is an extra-marital affair a matter of sadness for loved ones and when does someone deserve to be dragged through the Sunday newspaper hedge along with their family and perhaps innocent bystanders? When is it truly consensual, and when is it an abuse of power? And could it ever be a set-up?

The Front Runner looks back at Gary Hart’s campaign to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. He lost out to Walter Mondale in 1984 but returned to the next campaign with a strong lead in opinion polls.

Director Jason Reitman bases his film on Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid which documents how Miami Herald reporters were tipped off about the disconnect between Hart’s call for good morals in high public office and his habitual womanising and infidelity. The result of the imbroglio was that his campaign turned and began to bury itself in the ground like a giant tunnelling machine at the end of its life.

The political film begins with lots of mumbled dialogue and women making coffee in the 46-year old’s campaign office. Some of his team want voters to “get to know” Hart and his family, but apparently “‘personal’ is not a comfort zone”.

The candidate wants to be the “voice of a new generation” and launches his latest bid for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the Rocky Mountains, dragging reports and TV crews up a hill. But the neither the new generation of reporters nor voters are willing to overlook previously ignored personal peccadilloes.

Hugh Jackman is engaging as a politician who is bubbling with new ideas. Quite a showman, but definitely not the greatest! He makes the rule-breaking and schmoozing look natural rather than sleazy, and displays a facial reluctance to react to the sky that begins to fall on top of him and his family.

The moral debate happens in the offices of the Miami Herald, whose reporters stake out Hart’s Washington DC town house and confront the political hopeful, and the Washington Post which at first saw itself above reporting tittle tattle before realising that society, and their industry, was moving ahead of them. In the end, it is Hart’s inability to be honest about his own character that is his downfall rather than any specific incident of infidelity.

Vera Farmiga depicts the complexity in the character of Lee Hart, a woman who is well aware of the loose zip in her husband’s trousers, but has invested decades in the marriage and continues to play a role in his campaigning while insisting that “the one thing I ever asked is that you don’t embarrass me”.

Molly Ephraim plays a duplicitous (and fictional) campaign advisor who hides Donna Rice (the alleged mistress, played by Sara Paxton, who has never confirmed that there was anything more than a friendship) from the public eye before knowingly abandoning her to the fray of the baying press. (Today, Rice works as an Internet safety advocate.)

The ripple effect of one man’s misjudgement on these women becomes the takeaway from the film, a reminder that it’s often women who carry the long-lasting demonisation while men shrug off the “gossip”. (The former US Senator may never have made it to the White House, but he was appointed as US Envoy to Northern Ireland in 2014, a position that no longer exists under the present US administration.)

While the replay of the 1987 editorial and political conversations are interesting, and the mobile phone and early Apple Macintosh props are fun to revisit, it’s the invasion of privacy of young women involved with married politicians and the seeming continued absence of editorial protection that are perhaps most disturbing to watch 30 years later.

The Front Runner is still playing at some Movie House cinemas.

Cross-posted from Slugger O’Toole.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Favourite – a quirky period drama with a love triangle and power struggle set in the royal court of Queen Anne

Yorgos Lanthimos’ oeuvre is dominated by surreal films that disturb (The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster).

His new film, The Favourite, is a more mainstream period drama, albeit with a few twists, based around a love triangle and power struggle in the royal court of Queen Anne.

Picking up the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos creates a film that examines what happens when young Abigail (Emma Stone) barges into the strong womance between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her special advisor Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) comedy.

Colman brings to life a monarch who suffers from physical and mental ill health (and has lost 17 children to miscarriages and infant death) and has handed over the detail of running her country – which is at war – to her oldest friend and confidante. Often wordlessly holding her face, over two hours, she gives a masterclass in acting, portraying pain, sadness, depression, mischievousness, lust, ecstasy and loneliness.

While the usual level of fantasy has been turned down and there’s a lot more dialogue than you’d expect in a Lanthimos film, the director’s trademark can be seen stamped on the sometimes unmelodious soundtrack, the chapterisation of the narrative structure, the typography of the opening and closing credits, and the frequent use of a fisheye lens provides distorted views of a royal court where not all is as would be expected. Duck racing and cake-eating rabbits are other reminders that the country may not be well governed. Watch out for a quite brilliant anachronistic dance sequence.

While Britain is at war with France, Lady Sarah and her young cousin Abigail lock themselves into a battle of subterfuge and flirting to win the heart of the queen and permanently banish their rival from the royal court. Weisz and Stone create worthy opponents and strongly dislikeable characters that deserve to pick up awards, even if they are dwarfed by Colman’s central performance.

Rich sets, huge wigs (for the men), political intrigue, bedroom shenanigans and a huge power tug of war over the head of the nation along with Lanthimos’ quirky asides creates a compelling and rather wonderful film to begin 2019.

The Favourite continues to be screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 17 February and is also still running in most other local cinemas.