Sunday, July 25, 2021

Previewing Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play, Billy Boy, as part of the 2021 EastSide Arts Festival

Northern Ireland theatre never stopped. The industry found novel ways of continuing to perform. Online. Outside. On television. In audio. But despite many other sectors and related practices being able to take mitigating action to minimise the airborne spread of the corona virus, theatres didn’t manage to return even in the gaps between previous lockdowns.

Without wanting to spook the horses, the NI Executive may yet confirm that theatres can reopen later today. And that could mean that in a fortnight’s time, Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Billy Boy can have a live run at Strand Arts Centre as part of EastSide Arts Festival.

The premise is that it’s the 11th July. The sun is splitting the trees. The tarmac is melting on the ground and Aaron and his mates are protecting the biggest bonfire in east Belfast. It’s a complicated situation. Everyone has an opinion, but as everyone knows ‘Compromise Equals Sell-Out’.

“… flames flying, near roasts your eyeballs off, the heated last you to Christmas. We can’t stop staring at it, pulls us into it’s glow, it’s mesmerising, it’s primal, black pallets falling into the bright orange. And the rave’s back on …”

That’s a quote from Billy Boy and it summons up my own sensory memories of Eleventh Night visits to photograph and report on bonfires. I asked Rosemary if she’s been a regular visitor to the bonfires in East Belfast?

I used to visit the Annadale bonfire which inspired my first play, The Bonefire. In the East, I go to the huge Ravenhill bonfire, though I also checked out the contentious Avoniel bonfire two years ago which helped formulate the idea for Billy Boy. I’ve always loved bonfires as fire appeals to our primeval instincts. It’s hard to explain to people who have never been, but, to me, Belfast bonfires combine the atmosphere of a Glastonbury rave with something sacred like the ceremonial burning of a Viking longship.

It’s often said that loyalist culture isn’t as frequently portrayed or marked in the arts as republican culture and history. As a writer and playwright, were you surprised to find yourself returning to the subject of bonfires after a fifteen-year gap?

I’m not surprised, as the political landscape has changed – just look at the recent furore over the Tiger’s Bay bonfire. There may be anti-social issues around certain bonfires, but it’s interesting how bonfire builders often view themselves as on the front line of a cultural war. Back in 2006, tyres were burnt to make bonfires last longer, but thankfully environmental concerns are now more to the fore.

It’s true that loyalist culture isn’t as frequently portrayed in literature and that’s because it doesn’t fit conveniently into an Irish or British box. Republican culture fits into an all-Ireland and Irish-American narrative and has been embraced by both writers and the middle-classes. Writers have to paint a more balanced picture when it comes to identity, and I plan to bring bonfires to wider international attention.

Bonfire culture is much talked about, much criticised, much stereotyped. In some of your plays, you’re quite obviously taking a position against big banks and the finance system, or highlighting inadequacies in the asylum system. Having read the script, this time, it feels like you’re less judgemental and perhaps letting the bonfire speak for itself. As a playwright, did you start out with a sense of how you’d tackle the subject?

Plays are often fuelled by a playwright’s own moral outrage, but I decided to let my voice take a backseat, though I came up with the narrative myself with a nudge from Maurice Kinkead of the EastSide Partnership who suggested the Amsterdam angle. [A visitor from the Netherlands brings the gaze of an outsider to the finale.]

It’s all too easy for a writer to rage about the Irish tricolour being burnt on a bonfire, so instead I let the bonfire builders explain why they do it in their own words. In The Bonefire my target was paramilitaries, but in Billy Boy my target is those who completely condemn bonfires without recognizing the history, the sheer architectural talent, and the community spirit behind them. It’s great to look at a cultural phenomenon from different perspectives and with Billy Boy I made the decision not to look at it from the outside but from the inside.

Creatively, has the pandemic been tough for writing plays, knowing that other than filming them, there was no chance of an audience? Are you looking forward to seeing and hearing live audience reaction to Billy Boy at the EastSide Arts Festival? And do you hope some of the bonfire collectors and builders attend?

Tough? It’s been hell. I’ve written very few plays during the pandemic as filmed plays don’t garner the same attention as live performance. It’s also unbelievable that the Executive haven’t reopened theatres yet. Even Shakespeare at the time of the plague didn’t have to wait as long as this!

Our director Matt Faris has made an excellent film of the play, but it can’t compare to the thrill of live performance. I can’t wait to hear laughs and gasps and am especially excited about the standing ovation (thought I’d plant a seed there!) One thing’s for sure - John Travers is going to put in a scorching performance. EastSide Arts are inviting the bonfire builders I interviewed, and I’ll be dying to get their response.

What’s next? More plays? More short stories? A novel?

I’ve been writing historical partition plays for Kabosh and National Museums Northern Ireland which will be performed live at Omagh/Cultra in September – it’s been a pleasure to write politically on that theme. I have a new collection of short stories, Marching Season, coming out with Arlen House in the autumn, so fingers-crossed for a live launch. I’ve other projects on the go, but, unless they’re a cert, I don’t talk about them in public in case I tempt fate! Nothing is real until it happens.

You can catch Billy Boy in the Strand Arts Centre as part of EastSide Arts Festival at 3pm and 8pm on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 August. Tickets £15. Performed by John Travers, written by Rosemary Jenkinson, and directed by Matt Farris.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Nowhere Special – a film about love and death, kindness and perspectives (QFT and Omniplex)

John is a window cleaner with an occupational perspective into other people’s lives. At the same time, he is searching with social services to find an adoptive family to look after his perceptive young son Michael when he’s no longer there. 

The reason that John is a single parent and the detail about his life-changing circumstances are gently revealed, allowing a sadness to slowly creep across the 96-minute film. Screenwriter/director Uberto Pasolini based Nowhere Special on a newspaper story he read.

The on-screen chemistry between Michael (Daniel Lamont) and John (James Norton) is believable. The father’s love for his child is well-established, along with Michael’s adoration for his dad. Norton sets out with a steely resilience that at first masks the urgency of the deadline to which his search must work, while Lamont’s gaze portrays a sense of trust, and his gentle manner shines in some later moments when he instinctively steps into a caring role. Norton’s Norn Iron accent is very good, though it never quite matches his son’s brogue.

While I was never quite sure which rules student social worker Shona was breaking, the tears in Eileen O’Higgins eyes made me want her to get away with it.

Set in and around greater Belfast, the location is unimportant to the story, although it provides a great set of cameos for local actors like Bernadette Brown, Roisin Gallagher, Louise Matthews, Stella McCusker and Siobhan McSweeney.

At the heart of Nowhere Special, there’s a great film that has become obscured by some clunky characterisation and hackneyed dialogue. The cartoonlike inappropriateness of some of the potential adoptive families is disappointing. In particular, the last couple, Lorraine and Trevor (Niamh McGrady and Caolan Byrne), are painted as being so unfeeling and gormless that the stereotype stretches beyond breaking point into discomfort. In total contrast, one household John visits seems so perfect for Michael that it beggars belief that no positive comment is made and the search moves on beyond that point. Having so carefully allowed John’s condition to be revealed over time, later moments needlessly paint words on top of what the audience already understands.

Yet Nowhere Special recovers and behind me in the mid-afternoon screening I could hear other audience members gurning their lamps out too as John finally made preparations for Michael’s future life without him, the only major moment of sentimentality that Pasolini allows.

Nowhere Special is a film about love and death, inadequacy, kindness, preparedness and perspectives. Currently being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre, Omniplex cinemas and the Belfast Odeon.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Father – a fleeting but powerful glimpse at life with dementia

The Father examines the life of a man living with dementia in London. We dip in and out of different times, never quite sure how far apart they are, or how to explain what has just happened.

Confusion is baked into the audience experience. While at first, it feels like that an Inception-like diagram of what’s happening will be possible by the end of the 97-minute film, what Florian Zeller has created is much more brilliant.

The theatrical origins of The Father are obvious. It’s based on Zeller’s play La Père (which had been translated into English by Christopher Hampton), and retains the structure of scenes, incremental changes to the set, and consistent framing of the action.

The beauty of the film is that Anthony is at the heart of the story, not his carers or his daughter. So we glimpse his sense of paranoia, his frustration at a forced reduction in his independence, and his difficulty in rationalising what he is sensing happening around him.

Anthony Hopkins brings the central character to life, with an emotional range on display that captures forlorn, playful, vulnerable, hurt, resigned and rage. He was superb in The Two Popes, but is Oscar-deserving in The Father. Opposite him, Olivia Colman at times acts without words or movement: her presence and facial expression sum up her inner thoughts. Imogen Poots finally adds moments of on-screen joy and delight when she turns up as the latest in a line of carers. But soon the weary fog of confusion and brokenness descends on a man who is caught between his past and an unknown present.

The final 10-15 minutes bring just enough clarity to release the audience from scratching their heads all the way home. Yet the revelations that seep through, along with the gentle, calming touch of a nurse, add to the distress. The Father portrays a fleeting but powerful glimpse of what living with dementia might feel like, while also counting the human cost of caring.

The Father currently being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre as well as Movie House Cinemas, Omniplex Cinemas, Strand Arts Centre and The Odeon.

Monday, June 07, 2021

After Love – double lives exposed once a husband enters the after life (QFT until Thursday 17 June)

As Mary (played by Joanna Scanlan) comes to terms with the recent sudden death of her seafaring husband and clears out Ahmed’s possessions, she discovers a large secret that was hidden under her marriage. Her desire to find out more takes her 21 miles across the English Channel to Calais and, through an unlikely but dramatically pleasing moment of serendipity, into the house of another family with links to her own.

Much is said, but very little of it has to be spoken in screenwriter/director Aleem Khan’s debut feature After Love. The details of the plot unravel slowly and without gratuitous shock. Mary’s duplicitous avoidance of confrontation allows the tension to build up – accompanied by visual manifestations of the cracks appearing in her backstory – until an eleventh-hour break. While the story could have satisfactorily stopped at this point of fracture, the subsequent ten-minute afterword injects healing, warmth – and a few tears – to the tale.

While Scanlan is renowned for comedic roles (No Offence, The Thick of It), her ponderous ability to provide space for the story to settle around her in a scene is both restful to watch and testament to her talent. Her whole body weeps uncontrollably at one point, exuding her distress.

Khan gives his central character Mary the opportunity to be normal amidst a sea of abnormal circumstances. What was the last film that allowed a character to boil the kettle and make a cup of tea without jump cutting its way through the process to speed up the action. When was the last time you heard a Muslim woman pray on-screen?

The cross-channel counterpoint of mirrored and of family life and experience with some jarring differences is satisfying in its construction. The domestic setup of a French mother and son family allow Nathalie Richard to range from scepticism to rage, while Talid Ariss allows his conflicted character to open up to Mary’s empathetic conspiratorial gestures.

The mix of languages adds to privileged feeling of being a fly on the wall, understanding everything some on-screen characters remain in the dark. The portrayal of faith and a mixed-faith marriage is refreshingly uncomplicated. Ahmed’s faithful fervour in the UK turns out to be at odds with his behaviour in France. Yet Mary continues to find comfort in rituals – spiritual and secular – even as the ceiling of her marriage threatens to collapse on top of her memories.

After Love is a beautiful story of loss and gain, of sharing beyond the grave, and of the dual lives that are only a little more extreme than could be found in your street or even your house. Ninety minutes long, After Love is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 17 June.

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If you enjoyed the review, feel free to buy me a coffee tea!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Apples – peeling back the skin on a tale of absurd amnesia (QFT until 30 May)

A bearded man carrying flowers is woken up when his bus reaches the end of the line. He can’t remember where he was going, or who he is, and is carrying no identification. And so he is labelled as another sufferer of a never explained pandemic of amnesia, and is carted off to an overloaded health facility which quickly farms patient 14842 back out into the community with a rather Heath Robinson set of activities designed to integrate the “unclaimed patients” back into society.

A story of isolation, identity and new starts seems remarkably appropriate for a first trip back to the cinema after a five-and-a-half-month absence. And great to sit down towards the back of the warm and familiar Screen 2 of Queen’s Film Theatre. Nearly thirty years ago, it was the venue for second year CSC206 Parallel Programming lectures from Prof Ron Perrott, studying a new programming language every two weeks. Nowadays it is a home for international cinema, with subtitles overcoming any residual language problems.

Shot in 4:3, Apple’s unusual aspect ratio emphasises the height of some locations while the lack of width suggests the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a world and a life that has removed identity, agency and impetus.

Director Christos Kikou peels back the skin of the tale to uncover health professionals who exude uncaring attitudes, and use fairly facile steps in a “New Identity” programme that often exploit both the patient and those they are asked to engage with in the world around them.

While tiny details come back to the patient (played by Aris Servetalis), no one is listening as regular check-ups have been replaced with a cursory examination of an album of Polaroid photos proving that he has completed his mailed out tasks. The fancy dress party is surreal; the car task darkly funny. Apple’s cityscape is from a time before smartphones and Instagram. Yet the taking of analogue selfies speaks loudly into today’s world.

Servetalis portrays a sombre character that engages with his new normal with a quiet forbearance and occasional frustration while munching on his favourite fruit. His encounters with a fellow amnesiac (played by Sofia Georgovassili) are believably tentative as they cagily figure out the new rules of their existence.

Come on let's twist again / Like we did last summer! … / Do you remember when …

A pivotal disco scene provides a glimpse of what this man might once have been like. Yet dressed at one point as a spaceman, we sense his deep solitude.

At times poignant, at times darkly funny, it’s a film that provokes thoughts and demands an internal monologue inside your head the whole way through its 90-minute runtime. It speaks about our treatment of people with dementia, as well as how health professionals cope in crisis situations, and how we adapt to unusual situations.

Apples is a great gentle reintroduction to the world of post-lockdown trips to the cinema and is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until 30 May 2021.

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If you enjoyed the review, feel free to buy me a coffee tea!

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

I Believe Her (Three’s Theatre Company)

I’d been working late in an office, and around midnight I walked up Botanic Avenue from the bright lights of Shaftesbury Square to where my car was parked along University Square. There weren’t many people around. The fast food delivery cyclists were nowhere to be seen. The train station was closed.

It was just a couple of nights after I had heard the tragic news of Sarah Everard’s death.

No one’s ever messaged me to say “Text me when you get home”. And as ambled up Botanic, I sensed for the first time the privilege of being a white male who really didn’t need to worry about his safety in this area at that time of night. I didn’t need to keep my phone in my hand, ready to fake a call to someone to make me look less vulnerable, or need to hold a sharp key in my fist ready to fight back against an attacker.

For the first I wondered whether I should cross the road to be less of threat for the woman walking down the same side of the street towards me on her own. Could I – should I – reduce her potential anxiety?

These are among the themes picked up in Three’s Theatre Company’s latest audio project, I Believe Her. The producers recommend that you pop some earphones on and listen to it while on a half hour walk.

Curated by Anna Leckey, an all-female team of seven writers have contributed inner monologues and thoughtful reflections that are voiced by female actors. The mix of topics includes period poverty along with sexual harassment and sexual violence. There’s a matter-of-fact-ness about some of the contributions that gives a real kick up the backside as you walk along listening to the tales. Katie Richardson’s sympathetic soundtrack creates gentle mood and differentiates the various pieces of spoken word.

These are not extreme stories. They are everyday, yet mostly suppressed, experiences that need to be heard and responded to. I Believe Her puts you inside womens’ heads and asks you to listen.

The stories cry out for you to be aware, to be an ally, to ask questions, to check your own behaviour and those of the people around you. They also ask for legislators, the criminal justice system and civic leaders to make changes, follow through and show leadership in turning up the volume on conversations and issues that are so often muted.

You can find a link to the audio and to how to make a donation on Three’s Theatre Company’s website.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The University of Wonder and Imagination – a magical journey through time and space – Cahoots NI as part of #BIAL20

Different Northern Ireland theatre companies have different traits that often pop up in their work. Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney infuses his company’s work with magic, surprises, slick stage management, and a great control of light and sound. And in these socially distanced times, he’s managed not to let go of his secret ingredients to create an experience that goes far beyond what would be expected online through the sometimes tired medium of Zoom.

The University of Wonder and Imagination plays to deliberately small audiences – six remote devices/families at a time – involving everyone in the journey through time and space. The show relies on a variety of close magic, predictions and wonder as we zoom around the underground rooms of the underground teaching bunker, with a feeling of control over our destiny, where we go, and what we do.

Sean Kearns inducts every new cohort into the performance, while Lata Sharma floats around Armagh’s Robinson Library (neatly grounding the show for Northern Ireland audiences) and gets us to note down various numbers and shapes for use later on. Then it’s up to magic-fingered mathematically-savvy Caolan McBride to wow us with his numbers, musical astronomer Philippa O’Hara to send us off around the solar system at the speed of light, and Hugh W Brown to finish the show with some pleasant thoughts about a mid-term break somewhere sunny.

The usual approach to online theatre, particularly performances that are aimed at entertaining families and children, is to be incredibly high-energy and include lots of actions. Cahoots NI manage to avoid the need for a sugar rush frenzy, replacing it with intrigue, wonder and amazement. The cast don’t try to be larger than life or shouty. Instead, rich costumes that stand out against the often sometimes physical backdrops (not everything is green screened) help bring the characters to life. And the small numbers in each show mean there’s lots of name-checking and unmuting families to pick numbers and direct the next part of the show.

Looking through a screen undoubtedly takes away from the intimacy of breathing the same air as on-stage performers. The spine-tingling moments of a show like Secrets of Space can’t quite be reproduced over the interwebs. But Cahoots have made a wise decision to go with a bespoke magical variety show rather than one that overly relies on plot. Intelligent choices given the constraints of the medium. Where they stand out from other companies and have created something that can play to homes around the world from their Belfast base is the high production values (acted in a studio environment with good internet and reliable sound, not cast’s bedrooms) and the investment in real-time visual effects (the joins between live and prerecorded segments are pretty seamless unless you know where to look) and Garth McConaghie’s backing track that captures another sense.

Northern Ireland has proved quite pioneering in pushing the innovation cycle in the emerging market for Zoom theatre. With this show, Cahoots take another step up the ladder with something that is very transferable to any English-speaking market, with no flicking between windows or rooms, yet several shows overlapping in behind-the-scenes to get more bums on seats.

The University of Wonder and Imagination is playing this week as part of Belfast International Arts Festival before touring living rooms in Ireland and beyond. Tickets are charged at £20 per screen (which a whole family can sit behind) and there is still some availability. Sit down, relax and be amazed at what is possible which technicians, magicians and actors let their minds run wild with ambition.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Singing Struggle and Agreement - discussing and singing the Good Friday Agreement! #BIAF20

Culture, in its many varied forms, can provide a window through which to view society, and also a mirror to reflect back what we might not have noticed about ourselves. We often connect emotionally with pieces of music. Songs become sporting team anthems. Music can be a passionate cry of celebration or bellow of despair.

One Sunday morning last November, I received an email from a mutual friend saying that a former NIO official had set part of the Belfast Agreement to music. But it hadn’t been sung on the island on which it was negotiated or voted upon. Did I know anyone who might tackle it?

It was clearly kind of quirky, unexpected and potentially thought-provoking event that Peter O’Neill at the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics in March was indeed bound to support. I would build a panel around remembering the talks leading up to the Agreement, and Spark Opera volunteered to take on the music.

Then imminent lockdown made rehearsals impossible and the event was shelved.

But much like on off on off Northern Ireland peace talks, the event has revived and regrouped with the help of Belfast International Arts Festival in partnership with Spark Opera and Slugger O’Toole. We’d big plans for 90-strong socially distanced audiences to enjoy the even more distanced singers in the cavernous St Anne’s Cathedral. That too was stymied. The word ‘struggle’ in the event title began to take on additional layers of meaning.

Yet, festivals – and the arts community in general – are incredibly resilient. Tonight, the festival streamed our event. You can still go back to watch and hear the 25 singers (recorded on Saturday spread out across Fisherwick Presbyterian’s pews) perform a variety of songs of struggle, and one of agreement (its Northern Irish and Irish première), and listen to the panel (recorded yesterday). Can you tell the whole show was filmed by me using iPhones?!

Clare Salters set the opening preamble of the Belfast Agreement to music, subtitling her piece “p E A C E in 4/4 time”, a musical cryptogram referring to piano (soft) and the first four rising notes of the piece. The Agreement’s opening Declaration of Support is more human and less legal than the chapters that follow. It’s a verbatim piece, so all of the words in the right order, including tricky lists of cross border institutions that have got to be held in tension with each other, musically and in real life.

The musical programme includes five other pieces that shout out against tyranny, oppression, attack, and explore identity and solidarity. Spark Opera’s Hearth Chorus were joined by NI Opera’s Associate Artists and a couple of guests under the baton of Keith McAlister. Present to film the pieces – the sound engineer and me the only audience – it was moving to witness live music on that scale after so many months when buskers seemed to be all that remained.

Woven through the music is a panel discussion. Mark Devenport recalls the months he spent reporting from the car park outside Castle Buildings and the moment when Stephen Grimason arrived with a first full copy of the Agreement. Monica McWilliams tells the story from inside the negotiations, the narrow corridors, and the TV used to watch politicians negotiating on the airwaves outside the window. And there’s a story of David Ervine becoming Tarzan to quickly exit from a CNN interview conducted up a tree. We hear from composer Clare Salters, and Spark Opera’s Kate Guelke gives the music context and also reflects on how a political agreement shaped her life.

The event was free but Belfast International Arts Festival welcome donations!

Elsewhere in the festival programme, you’ll find some cutting edge online theatre – Macbeth and The University of Wonder & Imagination – alongside a very rich programme of free interviews and talks (including Stuart Maconie, Jenni Murray and Lennie Goodings). You’ll also find music, films, and you can book a slot to visit the RUA Annual Exhibition in the Ulster Museum. Full programme available on the Belfast International Arts Festival website.

cross-posted from Slugger O’Toole


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Memories of Murder – like a particularly corrupt episode of Line of Duty with added comedy entrances (QFT until Sun 26 Sep)

When sales of an author’s book take off, a light is often shone on their back catalogue and some older words are reissued to a willing audience of readers. So too with films.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (recently re-released in foreboding black and white) has encouraged distribution of a 4K restoration of his older film Memories of Murder.

Monday night’s screening in Queen’s Film Theatre was full (in the sense of socially distanced seating full, but still busier than most Monday night’s in a Belfast cinema) as people sat down to savour this threat.

The family at the heart of Parasite start out as well-meaning entrepreneurs and become cold hearted leeches sucking the life out of their well-to-do host family’s property. Similar character journeys crop up in this earlier work, along with the darkly comic moments that invade very serious scenes.

It’s October 1986, and local police detectives Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha) demonstrate their inept and corrupt techniques as they use baseless assumptions and bewildering predictions in their attempts to investigate the rape and murder of several women in their district.

Into this fray comes Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), a colleague from South Korea’s capital Seoul, whose textbook mantra is that “documents never lie”. But as the body count increases and the police run out of suspects to torture confessions out of, there’s a curious transition as the upright Seo is led by his heart while Park becomes more attentive to the evidence.

Meanwhile Kwon (Go Seo-hee), a female officer who is ordered to make tea and perform menial tasks, gets little thanks when she makes breakthroughs in the case.

There’s no shortage of serial killer films and TV series, and like most, women are certainly not at the heart of this one). Everyone will relish the comical entrances made by cast members while fans of Parasite will enjoy the rainy scenes and recognise Bong’s use of jump-scares.

Ultimately this is a story of women and families let down by incompetence, malpractice and a rush to get results. More than 15 years after the film’s release, the real case upon which Bong and co-writer Shim Sung-bo based their film was finally solved.

Bong’s characters are flawed in unexpected ways. His ability to sprinkle comedy over the darkest of scenes is unnerving to watch. I can only hope that some of the rest of his back catalogue will make its way to western cinema screens before too long.

Memories of Murder is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until Sunday 26 September.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Rocks – newcomers impress in a great portrayal of loss, isolation and friendship (QFT until 1 October)

Rocks charts the reactions of an East London teenage girl friendship group as one of their own adjusts to the sudden absence of her mother from their single parent family and the sudden need to take on caring responsibilities for her kid brother.

Bukky Bakray plays Shola, the steely young woman nicknamed ‘Rocks’, who is at the heart of the story. She shows talent as a make-up artist, but at the rate she is burning through schoolfriends after the loss of her mother, electricity and then the security of her home, the other meaning of make up becomes crucial to her survival. Little Emmanuel (D'angelou Osei Kissiedu) is a loveable, dinosaur-obsessed daydreamer, dragged around along with his class pet, and mostly unaware of the seriousness of their situation.

There’s an authenticity to the dialogue and interactions between the youths that’s explained (in a recorded discussion shown after last night’s QFT screening) by the long months of workshopping and on set improvisation with the impressive ensemble, most of whom are starring in their debut feature. Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson’s screenplay has been homed and polished, as has the film’s foundational soundtrack that is ever present yet never in the way.

An early moment dips into the inner-city school’s careers class where anyone with hifalutin aspirations is quickly advised to have a more realistic plan B. Rocks proves that she’s capable and resourceful, even if she makes bad decisions when caught in tight spots. The tension and eventual explosion of anger between Rocks and stalwart best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) is really well drawn by director Sarah Gavron, and the sense that Rocks’ problems are in a different league to the issues troubling her friends is subtly underlined throughout the 93-minute film.

The film paints a profound picture of increasing isolation and diminishing hope as Rocks defers seeking help. A school art lesson on cubism and Picasso injects interesting points about identity. After the first few scenes, Rocks’ mother is no longer visible. Yet her presence, or the gap her absence causes, is felt all the way through as we wonder whether she will have even half the support Rocks can muster to work through her mental health problems.

The sharp-tongued multi-cultural gang of girls can cut someone in two with a sharp phrase, yet are fiercely loyal to one of their own as they figure out if and how they can help. Short snippets of mobile phone footage – even some vertical video thrown in, which works surprisingly well given the physical height of the cinema screen – and lots of banter grounds the vibe. Rooftop picnic scenes with vistas over London remind us that this fictional story is happening in real life but mostly not being talked about.

Other films like The Florida Project and Moonlight achieve a level of authenticity, but for a low budget film with a teenage cast, Rocks really delivers a stunning peek into other people’s lives without labouring the point or taking audiences on a guilt-trip.

You can watch Rocks in Queen’s Film Theatre until 1 October.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

La Haine – novel angles to view a familiar story of community tension and state brutality (QFT until Thursday 24 September)

“Hatred breeds hatred” says Hubert, a black boxer played by Hubert Koundé who deals in drugs and warns his friends that not all cops are bad. Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is outwardly aggressive, promising to use a service weapon he found to avenge the death of a man attacked and hospitalised by the police. Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is a Muslim lad, boasting about things he hasn’t done, mildly hot-headed until there is actual conflict at which point he becomes a shy voice of calm.

Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz and first released in 1995, La Haine (‘Hate’) spends a day in the life of this almost clueless trio, learning about life in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a 40 minute rail ride north west from the centre of Paris. The kind of young guys who don’t own up to their farts, pull the ‘your mother’ or ‘your sister’ card to escalate an argument, and can barely hotwire a car never mind drive one. Vinz might be carrying a gun, but would be really ever pull the trigger?

When the film was released in 1995, The Independent reported that the then French Prime Minister Alain Juppe organised a special screening for the cabinet: attendance was mandatory. I wonder was there facilitated discussion afterwards led by residents of the area, or was there just loud tutting and the empty silence of a penny failing to drop?

La Haine demonstrates what happens when the state gangs up on a community, labelling everyone as a bad egg, pushing them into economic and housing distress until the pressure escapes and the scale of crime ratchets up towards the top end of the scale. Scenes of rioting, armoured vehicles, communities looting their local shops and burning out their own area. A TV news report of conflict elsewhere in Europe in the background of one scene hints that the story is universal. It’s certainly frighteningly familiar.

The French equivalent of Del Boy (nicknamed ‘Walmart’) lives in a high rise flat full of boxed up electronic goods he can no longer sell after his wheels were torched. At times, there’s almost a comical Trainspotting-esque note to the dialogue. Banal asides and lengthy anecdotes punctuate the group’s constant movement. They generate ‘so what?’ responses from the on-screen characters and the cinema audiences, underscoring the futility of the situation.

The choice of filming in black and white emphasises just how much colour is at play in this fictional story built around a real incident in 1993. It highlights the greyness of the police. The unusual camera angles hint that Kassovitz wants the audience to look at the situation from novel perspectives to step into the lives of the oppressed and disrespected. There’s no doubt that there’s fault on all sides: but it’s clear why the cycle of violence is being perpetuated.

Twenty-five years on, the anniversary re-release of La Haine stands up to the test of time. It’s visually clever, with a use of slang that must have delighted the subtitlers. Les Misérables is still being screened for another couple of days (until Thursday 17 September) in Queen’s Film Theatre. It’s a like a modern sequel to La Haine, in colour with far more anger, and a lot more focus on the behaviour of the police. Both films peek under the lid of the pressure cooker of community tensions, poor housing, joblessness and disrespect and ask where the power lies, and from where the solution will come.

La Haine finishes its run in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Thursday 24 September. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Monday, September 14, 2020

Bill & Ted Face the Music – a better adventure for being less pale, stale and male (UK and Irish cinemas from 16 September)

Bumbling bandmates Bill and Ted’s adventures have been occurring since the late 1980s. If you weren’t well through school in 1989 when the first film came out, here’s what you missed.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was to blame for school children overusing the words ‘dude’, ‘excellent’ and bodacious. Theodore ‘Ted’ Logan (Keanu Reeves) and William ‘Bill’ Preston (Alex Winter) have been identified as ‘The Great Ones’ by future inhabitants of the world who send Rufus (George Carlin) back to help the teenagers engage in a spot of time travel and counteract the words of the opening song that say “you can’t change the course of your own destiny”. They play historical Pokémon, collecting (white) American and European figures from the past to help them get a much-needed high score in their end-of-year history presentation.

Two years later, the sequel returned to San Dimas, California where a big band contest was on the cards along with a double wedding with two 15th century English brides (who were willing trafficked into the future it that’s ever moral or possible). But neither the Wyld Stallyns band nor love follow a straight path when a couple of automaton imposters get in the way. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Adventure is as grim as the reaper (played by William Sadler in scenes that start out with a very The Seventh Seal feel) who accompanies them on their journey back to modern day life.

So is the threequel bodacious or bogus?

Bill & Ted Face the Music is so much less pale, stale and male. Gone are most of the tonally awful attitudes towards women and sex. Gone too are the youthful zest and naïve ignorance that propelled the energy of at least the first episode. Reeves and Winter play world-weary fathers whose mojo is flagging and who are thoroughly unprepared to take up the latest Eurovision-style challenge to unite the world in song … in 77 minutes time.

But fear not, this is 2020 and women are allowed to think and speak and even act out of their own initiative. For the second time, the princesses/wives have been swapped out, this time for younger models, Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays. But they do at least get some more screentime.

The stars of the new film are the Great Ones’ daughters Thea (Samara Weaving from last year’s fabulous gorefest Ready or Not) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Pain) who get to play greatest musicians of all time Pokémon and round up a diverse group of historical figures to play the ultimate anthem to save the world. Lundy-Pain has the mannerisms of teenage Ted off pat while the young pair mimic the talking in unison and finishing each other’s sentences so familiar from the first two incarnations of Bill & Ted.

William Sadler is back as the grim Reaper, and there are numerous nods to George Carlin who played the lads’ guide Rufus in the original film and died in 2008. Throw in a persistent and then penitent robot killer and you have a literal bus load of cast to transport to the end of the film. The soundtrack is still heavily influenced by electric guitars, though a lot less metal, and you’d be loath to turn the playlist of this soundtrack up to 11 in the car on the way home from the cinema. and the ending is enormously abrupt, as if they ran out of money or script pages or edit time.

Bill & Ted Face the Music isn’t the most excellent episode in the franchise: that plaudit rests securely with the original. But it’s a big improvement on the second outing, and the more thoughtful scenes – like Bill and Ted meeting their geriatric selves – will please old fans while the two families’ mad time-travelling capers will lift the fatigue of COVID-atrophied cinemagoers. We are in need of a good dose of goofy fluff to distract us from the doom and gloom of living through a pandemic, and Bill & Ted have come to the rescue for one last time.

Already out in the US, Bill & Ted Face the Music will be screened in UK and Irish cinemas from 16 September. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Les Misérables – incendiary policing stirs up fire in the modern hearth of Victor Hugo’s novel (QFT until 17 September)

The morning after French victory in the 2018 World Cup and newly transferred to the station, Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) spends his first day in the back of the patrol car being shown the sights Montfermeil (the location of Thénardiers' inn from Victor Hugo’s eponymous novel) by ‘Pink Pig’ Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) from the Street Crimes Unit.

Les Misérables depicts a style of policing where searches are arbitrary, and the legal basis somewhat spurious. Leaders in the local community are played off each other. This is policing without accountability and without any respect for the citizens supposedly being protected.

It’s a male tale. In one of just a few brief scenes in which women speak, it is established that Chris’ unorthodox methods are tolerated by his senior colleagues due to his legacy of getting results.

A missing circus animal sends the squad on a search for a young boy (Issa Perica) and the subsequent arrest goes ‘sour’. But when Chris realises that their ‘situation’ has been filmed from above, he goes into overdrive to cover their tracks. Along the lines of Spiral, but even more cowboy and out of control.

The early scenes gently and expertly introduce the modus operandi of the large cast of characters, each baring their imperfections like the proud scars of war. The sound of the estate provides the rich soundtrack.

The storytelling comes with a sense of intimacy. Les Misérables is personal. Director Ladj Ly grew up in Les Bosquets and documented police action and was a strong voice during the 2005 riots during where he witnessed an act of police brutality. So it’s no accident that his son, Al-Hassan Ly, appears as Buzz, the youngster who owns the drone that captures the fictional event at the film’s point of no return.

The final scene returns to the same streets and witnesses the violent consequences for all those who were complicit in the previous day’s actions and coverup. Rather than seeing the elimination of all that was bad, it demonstrates how a new generation can simply perpetuate the same behaviours of their elders.

Having stepped into the squad car along with Stéphane and seen the wrongdoing with our eyes, audiences are implicitly asked what it will take for the rules of the game to change and not just the players. The closing shot pauses to wonder if Issa has witnessed anything worthy of trust in the behaviour of Stéphane. It’s a harsh lesson from Ly that rings as true in Northern Ireland as the eastern suburbs of Paris.

Les Misérables is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until 17 September. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Babyteeth – well drawn characters raise film above just being another terminally ill tale (QFT until 10 September)

Every eighteen months or so, cinema seems to return to the subject of a sick young person. In Babyteeth, 16 year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen who played Beth in Little Women) is in remission when cancer returns. With a psychiatrist in need of therapy for a father (Ben Mendelsohn) and an overly-medicated mother (Essie Davis) who hasn’t quite got over her first love, into Milla’s precarious life steps Moses (Toby Wallace), a twenty-something junkie who brings her hope and headache in equal measure.

“This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine” states Milla’s mum, summing up the two-hour film where health, time and wellbeing are also in short supply,

The narrative arc for a coming of age story about a white middle-class terminally ill teenage virgin is a well-trodden path. The more predictable moments are all there, but what makes Babyteeth stand out from the crowd is the quality of the characterisation. Milla’s purposeful wanderlust and desire for control is balanced by her dysfunctional parents and their catastrophic mental health and unravelling relationship issues. These are well drawn and complex people who draw the viewer in, wanting to find out more about what makes them tick.

There are unexpected details and lots of surprises that point to the theatrical background of the script. Screenwriter (Rita Kalnejais) and debut feature director (Shannon Murphy) know how to quickly establish scenes and create edge-of-seat moments. The strong soundtrack, used sparingly rather than continuously, hooks into the emotional baggage the characters cart around with them.

Late on, a party cleverly brings together most of the cast, though rather than neatly tying off the loose ends, it leaves them awkwardly ragged and ultimately serves only as a device to empty the house. The denouement is at first disturbing (one cinemagoer walked out of my screening) and then disappointing, until the final beach scene recovers Babyteeth’s sense of perspective.

Ultimately, the creative team replace what could have been a templated story about finding a will to live with a story of letting go, being free and helping other people towards a promised land somewhat freer of the drugs that hold them back. While parts of Babyteeth are incredibly sad – you will cry, but socially distanced seating gives you privacy! – there’s plenty of comedy as the self-absorbed figures panic while Milla sets her affairs, and everyone else’s, in order.

Babyteeth continues at Queen’s Film Theatre until 10 September. Shannon Murphy and Eliza Scanlen are definitely ones to watch in the future. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...