Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Fabelmans – Spielberg opens up about how his family shaped his art

Steven Spielberg knows how to tell a story. You can sit back in your cinema seat, relax, and enjoy The Fabelmans. It’s a tale about endings, about manipulation, and about the tug of war between art and the incredibly rational world of engineering.

The year is 1952 and Sammy Fableman is the eldest child in a Jewish family living in New Jersey. His Mum was a concert pianist, his Dad is an electronics whizz who’s at the forefront of what has yet to become the business computer industry.

Sammy’s first trip to the cinema stirs up his imagination. Back in the family home he recreates a stunt he saw on screen using a trainset, Noah’s ark and his father’s cinecamera. (My own first time at the cinema involved queuing for three hours in the snow outside the ABC picture house in Belfast to see Spielberg’s ET. Thankfully that didn’t inspire in me a career searching for extra terrestrial life!)

You can’t help but immediately appreciate the artistry of the young child and his seemingly innate knowledge of how to sequence shots. Throughout the film, we see how the budding cinematographer/director learns to manipulate who and what he has to hand to create on-screen magic. While he’s socially awkward, boy can Sammy communicate through the medium of film.

And you can see the penny drop as young Sammy realises how his direction and editing can evoke emotion and tell stories and create effects that he has fabricated. A soldier can be caught up in battle one minute and become frail and battle-scarred the next. A school bully can be turned into a popular hero … whether he likes it or not! And all of this through silent films with a simple musical accompaniment. Though all picture no sound could also describe young Sammy’s modus operandi.

Spielberg drops clues about the plot like a toddler throwing food out of their high-chair, so everyone in the audience knows what’s happening with “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogan) long before Sammy’s camera captures the evidence. Well-fringed and versatile Michelle Williams plays impetuous mother Mitzi: the revelational scene in Sammy’s bedroom/closet is an emotional highpoint of the movie. Paul Dano captures the awkwardness of a fun-sponge geekish father who values his work and carries on home life as if he’s not deeply conscious that everything is not quite right. The sibling dynamic is incredibly fond – and frank at times – with great performances from Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten and Sophia Kopera as Sammy’s younger sisters.

The subtext of The Fablemans is writ so very large – it’s a very autobiographical representation of the director’s upbringing – that some of the other characters and subplots distract. The arrival of Judd Hirsch as granduncle Boris is humorous but laboured. Anti-Semitism is awkwardly paired with hilarious evangelical fervour as bullying and romance collide at high school.

John Williams’ soundtrack is gentle and effective, dominated by piano playing that leans into Mitzi’s former passion. By the end of the film, Spielberg is more or less speaking lines directly to the audience with a knowing “unless I make a movie about it … which I’m never ever going to do” and a horizon-shifting camera tilt. And we don’t mind. We’ve spent twenty years over 150 minutes in young Spielberg’s, I mean Sammy’s company.

Did I walk out of the cinema with (to quote from an early moment in The Fabelmans) “the biggest, sloppiest smile on my face”? Not quite. But I was incredibly satisfied that Spielberg (along with co-writer and co-producer Tony Kushner) had created a story that could both respect his parents and siblings, but also unpick what was going on in the family home in a way that never papered over the tensions and difficulties.

The Fabelmans is available in most local cinemas, the third in a recent spate of films that celebrate cinema (Babylon and Empire of Light).

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Monday, January 30, 2023

Not On Our Watch – standing up to a system that lets its citizens down (Kabosh)

Late last week, the NI Children’s Commissioner released the results of a formal investigation into the life of a child in the car of the state. As the effect of interventions and missed opportunities for intervention in the young woman’s life were uncovered, the report ends up tracking her life from birth until now in her early twenties. At every stage, the state had let her down. For much of the time, her ‘legal parent’ has been the Health and Social Care Trust. Today the state is still letting her down through an inability to provide care in Northern Ireland , leaving her in an English institution, deprived of her liberty and ready access to her family for the last six years. It’s a heartbreaking report, and in my opinion it has been largely underreported in the local media. The summary and full versions can be read online.

Louise Mathews’ new play Not On Our Watch brings to life another example of state inaction. In this case, what seems from the outside like a lack of proper governance and regulation of the organisation running a women’s hostel, Regina Coeli House in west Belfast, just behind the Felons Club on the other side of the road from the Kennedy Centre. It was the only dedicated women’s homeless hostel in Northern Ireland.

Some context for anyone who hasn’t been following the news. (I don’t think it counts as spoilers given the real-life circumstances being portrayed!)

Regina Coeli House became a charity in 2017. It leases its building from leases the building from the Legion of Mary. The latest accounts (year ending 31 March 2020) on the Charity Commission website explain that:

The purposes of the charity are to provide Belfast based temporary accommodation for homeless women from the ages of 18 up, by providing a safe and secure environment for the residents with appropriate levels of staff cover and pastoral care. The hostel provides accommodation for 21 women and accommodation includes 4 rooms with are disabled access. An emergency room is also available. As well as providing temporary accommodation, the Hostel provides advice and assistance to all residents by allocating each resident a keyworker who will help with primary health care, budgeting, debt management, mental health issues, substance misuse issues and future resettlement.

Under ‘achievements and performance’ the charity accounts say:

The Hostel has provided temporary accommodation to homeless women since 1938. The hostel is a refuge for homeless women, many of whom have a history of rough sleeping and alcohol or substance misuse and frequently present challenging behaviour. In the year to March 2020, Regina Coeli has provided support to 245 (2019: 235), homeless women. Each woman presented their own unique needs and risks, which are assessed during the application process and continuously assessed during the first week of their stay in Regina. These assessments provide the basis for individual support plans. The end goal being that the women are re-housed successfully with external floating support in place.

The play uses a multi-roled cast of three to portray three key members of staff (Aoife, Grace and Mary) as well as some of their colleagues and many residents. The fictional characters are based on a larger number of real staff and residents, The set is bare: three black chairs on an empty stage. There are no sound effects. This is stripped back theatre with a real bite. Yet director Paula McFetridge makes the cast and characters sing – literally and dramatically – as they bring the roller-coaster ride of a story to life.

The Legion of Mary is made up of lay Catholics. “Seeing and serving Christ in the sick and marginalised” is seen as one of the “vital” parts of the organisation’s mission.

The hostel’s management committee decided to close the facility, citing a building survey that suggested £500,000 of repairs were necessary. New managers had noticeably changed – and allegedly damaged – the spirit of the regime within the hostel. Covid restrictions had reduced the number of residents and staff, and the decline continued throughout 2021 with unsafe and inappropriate alternative accommodation offered to women in Regina Coeli House.

Six staff members in conjunction with the Unite union staged a ‘work-in’, continuing the support the handful of residents who remained while politicians and community members lobbied and negotiated with the Department for Communities, the NI Housing Executive, the Diocese of Down and Connor, the Legion of Mary and the hostel’s management committee.

Louise Mathews’s intelligent script uses humour, slang and passion to convey the daily work in the hostel and the build-up of anxiety and fear among the staff. Mary (Rachel McCabe) can’t help but connect what people are saying to pop lyrics, bursting into song at every possible moment. In happier times, her colleagues join in. When times are more tough, they channel their emotion through the titular anthem composed by Katie Richardson. Over ninety minutes, we see Grace (Catriona McFeely) grow in confidence while Aoife (Bernadette Brown) shows the struggle of juggling work and family.

The work-in ceased in March 2022 after 12 weeks. The Department for Communities committed to opening new enhanced women-only hostels within two months (May 2022) and the remaining residents offered their own turnkey accommodation across the city. The department’s promises were not fulfilled. It’s now January 2023 and just one hostel is operating, and only overnight (with no daytime provision). Only one of the residents felt able to stay alone in the provided housing: the move away from the hostel was too soon for them.

Not On Our Watch is an important piece of theatre that highlights how a society can so often overlook the support and fair treatment of women.

It records the stories of real people: residents and staff. It humanises a news story that was sometimes – though not always – reduced to a charity not being able to afford to continue, workers not accepting the financial situation, and a government department unable or unwilling to intervene. Yet this play produced by Kabosh adds colour and texture, highlighting parties which refused to engage, pointing to hypocrisy and vindictiveness, and shining a light on the human cost of residents being ‘resettled’ from the hostel before they were ready. While the production is supported by Unite, the union doesn’t come out of the script entirely unscathed. To realise that shipyard men ‘from the east’ showed active support for a west Belfast hostel is a joyful detail to include.

Kabosh productions “give voice to site, space and people”. There a vibrancy to Not On Our Watch that matches the animation of A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe and on the whole it works much better than recent Callings that was somehow less theatrically fulfilling.

While the work and impact of Kabosh and its artistic director Paula McFetridge are well established, Louise Mathews has put herself on the map as a playwright in the mould of Fionnuala Kennedy and the late Jo Egan, able to create a dramatic narrative and engaging dialogue from real people’s recollections of extraordinary situations that deserve to be captured, both for posterity and to challenge systems and gatekeepers in the here and now.

When Not On Our Watch is next out on tour, book a seat. 

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Monday, January 23, 2023

Babylon – where the scenes of pooping, peeing and puking excel above the celebration of all that is bad (and good) about cinema

Babylon is a largely episodic film that charts the development of the US movie industry over 25 years from silent films into talkies. It follows the undulating and mostly self-destructing career trajectories of four characters, punctuated by at first decadent and depraved parties, then snobbish gatherings with a thin veneer of laminated sophistication and contempt. (The opening soirée would make the devil-may-care characters in Channel 4’s Skins blush!)

Manny Torres (Diego Calva) starts out as an elephant wrangler, but is a king of improvisation and has a nose that can sniff out the changing zeitgeist of the cinematic world, becoming a director for a time.

Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) provides flesh and sass to spice up early movies, before the studio tires of her many vices and failure to reinvent.

Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is a talented jazz trumpeter, and for a time his music and his orchestra are in demand with film makers and their audiences. He walks out on the studio when they ask him to darken his skin tone to match the other performers. (That’s also the very moment that two different couples walked out of my screening, two hours into the three-hour endurance production.)

Meanwhile, box office veteran Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) has nearly as many wives as leading ladies. But he can cope better with the inevitable failure of his relationships than the stymieing of his career as his box office appeal wanes.

Babylon is a mess. Deliberately so. One overly simplistic reading of the film would be to imagine that it’s all a dream in Manny’s head, having paid 50 cents and fallen asleep in the cinema as Singin’ in the Rain plays on a loop, as he snoozes he imagines the roles he could have been playing behind the scenes. But you might try to demand a refund for your ticket if that was your only take.

At one point, Jack criticises the subtexts and complexity of theatre (with its lower audiences) and talks up the mass entertainment of movies. This piece dialogue jumps out in a film that clearly has much to say underneath the façade of racy storylines and damaged characters.

Babylon is testament to the ability for cinema to abuse those who work for it – in front of and behind the camera – at every point in its history. A reminder that exploitation in the industry is nothing new, and that the industry can casually consume anyone who works in it. It’s also an aide-mémoire that audiences love its product while largely overlooking the manner in which it is made. Characters deliver somewhat clichéd lines about the magic of cinema, complete with moments on set when everything comes together even better than the director could imagine.

Robbie delivers a sympathetic performance as a starlet who is sucked in and spat out by the studio system. Calva is mesmerising throughout as the outsider who burrows into the heart of Hollywood. Adepo deserves more time on screen to develop his character, though his playing and presence adds greatly to each of the parties. Pitt looks and sounds ridiculous at all the right moments, keeping dignity as an actor while the character loses every ounce he ever head.

Watching Babylon feels like going to a hotel carvery and putting a scoop of every dessert on offer into your bowl. It’s full of delicious and sometimes unexpected mouthfuls. The scenes of pooping, peeing and puking are particularly well executed. The hedonism at the start and end is closer to horror than comedy.

Writer and director Damien Chazelle is back working with composer Justin Hurwitz, who adds some tasty flavour by way of riffs that remind you of La La Land and make you wish it was playing immediately afterwards in the cinema screen next door as a way of washing out the foul taste Babylon leaves in your mouth.

“Well there’s a film I won’t rush back to see again” was how one cinema goer loudly expressed her exasperation with Babylon as the credits rolled. I silently agreed as I stumbled down the steps into the foyer and back into the real world. Neither the explosive elephant excretion nor the spoiling of a good carpet will be easily forgotten. But I doubt I’ll be remembering Babylon as a celebration of all that is bad (and good) about cinema. 

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Saturday, January 21, 2023

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish – in which the hero comes out of a reluctant retirement for a spot of introspection and adventure (cinemas from 3 February)

After a lot of close shaves, there comes a time in a cat’s life when living up to the legend is no longer the main priority. Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) briefly considers hanging up his swashbuckling ways and settling down into retirement, before bounty hunting Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears (watch out for Olivia Colman as Mama Bear) track him down and he becomes convinced that that course of action isn’t “just right”.

In this new animated treat, introspection hits the cocky outlaw feline like a rapier in the gut. Based “in the Shrek universe”, the film inherits the same cheeky style of dialogue from the popular franchise, but tones down some of the madcap Shrek storytelling to suit this band of furry musketeers who are on a quest to make their wish come true. Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) is back along with their originally-irritating-now-indispensable friend Perrito (Harvey Guillén).

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish catches up with some familiar, less-mainstream characters in a story. And then there’s the matter of Death who is on the title stars’ tail. True to the genre, there’s plenty of self-help advice covering the perils of dilly dallying, facing up to regrets, living as your true self, the benefits of therapy, commitment, and the joy of belonging. Wholesome stuff and a fine mix of Dora the Explorer and spaghetti western to boot. While there are a couple of lightly intense scenes, none of the little people in the Movie House Cinemas preview screening I attended sounded at all bothered by the on-screen menace.

A gorgeous trailer for Marcel The Shell With Shoes On was shown beforehand which promises to make 2023 a good year for the Dreamworks studio.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is in UK and Irish cinemas from 3 February.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Sister Act – swapping sorrow for solidarity as the sisterhood learn to sing under the disco glitterball (Grand Opera House until Saturday 28 January)

A trinity of glitter balls hang over the audience as I Will Survive plays, the theatre doors close, and the house lights dim at the start of Sister Act. It’s Christmas Eve, but the Sisters of Perpetual Sorrow have little to celebrate. Their convent is falling apart, the Sunday congregation and its weekly offering is shrinking, and their days are well and truly numbered as commercial interests see more secular potential for the property.

Elsewhere in the city, singing wannabe Doloris (played with passion and power by Sandra Marvin) is under the cosh of gangster nightclub owner Curtis who discovered her in McDonalds. But when she witnesses a moment of violent retribution, her days are numbered and the police make her go into hiding in an unexpected location.

Well, “Sisters, the reviews are in” … to borrow a line from the script.

There are moments of great humour – the high-speed chase on a rickshaw is expertly performed – and some splendidly neat scene changes. Later on, there’s an excellent solution to the question of who will play the part of the Pope in the second act concert. Police Chief Eddie Souther (played by Graham MacDuff on opening night in Belfast) has an unexpected double on-stage costume change during I Could Be That Guy: blink and you’ll miss the second one. And set designer Morgan Large’s stunning stained glass window creates a beautiful backdrop when it is finally revealed near the interval. (Though Bill Buckhurst’s 2023/4 touring set is much less elaborate than the Manchester version of his production in 2022, and the aerial stunts have been removed.)

The outrageous disco costumes mean that at times it’s hard to take Curtis (Jeremy Secomb) seriously as a killer, strutting around in patterns that nowadays you wouldn’t use for old curtains protecting furniture while you’re painting. His three-man crew are whiny and awkward, right up to the point they transform into brilliantly mocking backing singers.

The potential of Sister Act starts to show when Deloris (now Sister Mary Clarence) becomes caught up in the counter-cultural musical number It’s Good to Be a Nun. It’s hard not to grin as they rhyme “the world’s our oyster” with “locked inside a cloister”! But it takes 55 minutes before the ‘Whoopie’ moment when the first joyous convent choir rehearsal takes place and the shrieking sisters begin to blend and sparkle, putting an infamous folk mass incident behind them.

Lesley Joseph’s Mother Superior exudes disdain and her crisis of faith is palpable in Haven’t Got a Prayer. A well-known Jewish actor playing a Catholic nun definitely adds some unspoken comedy. Although Mother Superior/Joseph’s stern swagger could be even more pronounced, particularly when riffing off Doloris/Marvin’s sassy manner, and her dance choreography is noticeably less assured than her dialogue and singing.

Every time Rhys Owen comes on stage he makes Monsignor O’Hara even more outrageous and ostentatious. And hats off to Lizzie Bea who disguises the impressive voice of Sister Mary Robert (a young postulant seeking out her call to holy orders) before letting it loose in later scenes.

As you’d expect, it takes a while for the strait-laced and tradition-loving Mother Superior to warm up to the disruptive albeit talented singer who is sheltering in her convent. But she gets there, much like the overall Sister Act production in its powerful post-interval scene of reconciliation and the glorious moment around the reprise of the title song when the Sisters of Perpetual Sorrow swap sorrow for solidarity. Real emotional highpoints in a musical which does suffer from a baggy first half that ploughs through a lot of slow character development. Overall, the show is great in some parts, but a little underwhelming in others.

A review of last night’s performance wouldn’t be complete without a shoutout to a really well-behaved baby a few rows behind me in the stalls. Little people who don’t check their phones or try to video the performance, and who don’t talk loudly to their friends and family should be a very welcome addition to any auditorium. Parents know their bairns. Hopefully the first of many theatre visits for that little tot.

Sister Act continues at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 28 January (with early mass, I mean matinees, on Thursdays and Saturdays). The tour will end in Derry’s Millennium Forum in January 2024.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan (note that some of the photos show the 2022 Manchester cast and set)

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Monday, January 16, 2023

Empire of Light – thematically abundant but ultimately tender and emotional

For Hilary (played by Olivia Colman), the Empire cinema in the seaside town of Margate is a place of respite and distraction. A place to return to after treatment for sunnier days. A workplace to pour her energy into from the start of the day right through until after the last customer has left. Though a place marred by the carnal demands of the cinema manager (Colin Firth), whose vile manner is epitomised by the line: “your arse feels so good in my hands”.

For Stephen (Michael Wright), the Empire is a place of gradual belonging, a substitute for a frustrated college application. A place where this young black man can find other fans surfing the vibrant wave of two-tone music, and where he falls for a woman old enough to be his mother. Though ‘Empire’ also refers to an ugly cloud of racism and the ensuing verbal and physical abuse that he endures from customers and marauding skinheads.

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light (and his first solo screenwriting credit) touches powerfully on mental health and racist attitudes. He explores what it means to be idly complicit and to not challenge what’s obviously wrong around you. It’s also about family and what happens when colleagues bother to look out for each other.

Empire of Light is also – and goodness knows which of these themes is meant to be the primary one – an ode to cinema: as a place where other pasts and other futures can offer a couple of hours of escapism, as a community full of wonderful people. Has the phrase “show me a film” ever before been imbued with such pent-up emotion that risks flooding a cinema’s carpeted floor? When Colman smiles, her character’s radiance lights up the on-screen 1981 cinema and the faces of the 2023 audience. When she switches to make Hilary down and sad, everyone is forlorn and retreats into themselves.

To adapt a line from the film, who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare, Empire of Light’s call to action might be summed up as “to intervene, or not to intervene, that is the question”.

Stephen must decide how far to push into Hilary’s depressed withdrawal. Toby Jones’ projectionist Norman at first appears seems to be a grumpy distraction in his scenes, before an overly abrupt change of personality that foretells Hilary’s growing self-awareness and her intervention that reveals the personal burden Norman has been carrying. Later Stephen’s mother unexpectedly intervenes instead of interfering.

Mendes throws a lot into the script and his direction. There’s a pigeon-with-a-broken wing metaphor that is anything but subtle. Though it’s still lovely to watch. Hilary’s dialogue is laden with rhetoric (“well you can’t just give up … you have to go out and get it”) she should obviously be obeying before offering as advice to others. If there was an Oscar for staring, Colman and Ward would be joint winners on 12 March. There is a lot of earnest poetry. The cross-generational bond is believable, although their sex is both distant and tinted with a coating of male gaze. And bravo for an ending that is courageous enough to offer hope without actual resolution or surety.

Ultimately, for me the lumpiness of the storytelling takes second place to the tender relationship that builds up between Hilary and Stephen. And it’s definitely a celebration of Roger Deakins’ fine cinematography. If you can catch a 35mm screening of Empire of Light in the Queen’s Film Theatre – [edit] or the Strand Arts Centre! – sit near the back. Allow the noise of the projector and the spinning reels add to the soundscape, and your awareness of the cue marks burnt into the celluloid pre-empt the on-screen explanation.

Empire of Light is playing digitally in most local cinemas, and there’s a 35mm screening each day for the first week at Queen’s Film Theatre and also at Strand Arts Centre.

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Sunday, January 15, 2023

Tár – a conductor who sets time but loses her grip of what little she has left (QFT and Omniplex)

Tár depicts a critically acclaimed musician, composer and conductor who is at the pinnacle of her career, about to complete her orchestra’s cycle of Mahler symphony recordings. Her podium, front and centre of the players, is a pulpit of power. But power can be abused, and the celebrated conductor appears to have a long history of bad behaviour that could threaten her starry status. As someone who normally controls time, Lydia Tár risks losing her grip on what little she has left in a film whose architecture is as brutal as its protagonist.

While trombone-playing screenwriter and director Todd Field has created an authentic musical psychodrama, it’s Cate Blanchett who brings the story to life. Her performance as Tár is outstanding, creating a flawed yet compelling character that makes the 158-minute runtime fly.

“They can’t all conduct honey, it’s not a democracy.”

In front of an orchestra, she’s masterful and athletic in her virtuoso movement. Behind the scenes, she plays politics like a veteran. At home, her OCD is more pronounced, and her relationships strained. Tár’s attitude to wielding power is cemented in a scene where she decides the only course of action is to bully a school child in order to protect her partner’s daughter. All that on top of Blanchett learning to conduct, playing piano, singing and a spot of road rage.

Field creates an overture for the film, showing the credits at the start: he says it was “to recalibrate the viewer’s expectations about hierarchy”. It’s not the only unusual or disorientating decision about the structure of the film. A long sit-down interview with Tár early on in the film helps the audience to understand the conductor’s mindset. Later, a one-take musical masterclass brilliantly examines cancel culture, Tár parrying with a somewhat woke student who sticks to his guns while the conductor’s sharp tongue lays into his arguments and idealism.

Another standout performance comes from German cellist Sophie Kauer in her acting debut. She plays Olga Metkina, a gifted new entrant to the orchestra upon whom Tár can’t help but bestows much favour. Yet flirty Metkina is not captured by the besotted conductor’s web and this reversal of power is a pivot point in the movie.

The final, somewhat abrupt, ten minutes of the film could perhaps usefully be repeated at the end for audiences to pick up all of Field’s references and conclusions. Look out for the familiar orchestral arrangement of the masseuses. Ponder the degrading job with a youth orchestra playing a video game score (Monster Hunter, apparently). Perhaps abusers never truly stop if there is someone, somewhere else in the world that will welcome a westerner with a ruined reputation and give them the adoration they crave, even if the work is humiliating and there’s a chance they will continue to harm those around them.

The orchestra’s music is uplifting. The conductor’s downfall is deserved, though realistically incomplete.  Blanchett’s performance is captivating. The ethics are at first obvious, but scrape away the surface and Field has created a glorious maelstrom of power-plays and ambiguities.

Tár is playing at Queen’s Film Theatre and some Omniplex cinemas. Go with a friend, and reserve time to sit over coffee afterwards to dissect what you’ve just witnessed on screen.

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