Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

Photos from House Belfast gallery plus author's own.


Tuesday, January 09, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Hamilton: it's great to be in the room where it happens (Victoria Palace Theatre, London West End)

It’s very unusual to sit through a theatre production in an auditorium packed full of people who already know that they love the show before a single actor walks onto the stage. But that’s the case with Hamilton in London’s West End. Every seat sold for the first few weeks (maybe even months) of the run is occupied by people (and their friends/families) who booked back in January 2017 when the tickets went on sale.

I’ve been walking past the Victoria Palace Theatre – or what was left of it behind the scaffolding – monthly for the last two years. In November and even early December, there was no hint that there was a finished theatre in behind the ongoing construction works. So I was somewhat surprised when the delayed previews were able to go ahead and Hamilton opened a few days before Christmas.

Stepping inside the restored theatre on Thursday afternoon, past the friendly-looking sniffer dog, it was a relief to see no sign of builders wearing hard hats indoors, though a fire warden did continuously tour the aisles and corridors (when the show wasn’t on) so there must be a fair amount of unfinished work.

The hip-hop musical takes liberties with the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries as it creates a dramatic narrative around his rise to power and premature exit from the political stage. The deliberate multi-racial casting presents a vision of modern-day America rather than the whiteness of political and military movers and shakers in the late eighteenth century.

It’s a story of a driven man – “I am not throwing away my shot” – who climbs the ladder of power, chooses the post of Treasury Secretary over control over the State Department (thereby creating a much longer and harder-to-unpick legacy of structural change rather than tickle and reversible foreign policy) yet in the end is a kingmaker but never the king.

The character of Hamilton in the musical – and in real life according to historical biographies – was no saint. It’s somewhat ironic that his legacy was only secured (and promoted) through the actions of his cuckqueaned wife Eliza after he pays the price for being competitive and losing everything at the hands of his convictionless competitor Aaran Burr who introduces himself as “the damn fool that shot him” in the first song.

Technically, the West End production of Hamilton was impressive and incredibly precise. Given the steep ticket prices and the waterfall of lyrics to follow to keep up with the plot, the quality of sound was both reassuring and essential. While the micced-up performers were fed through speakers dotted around the auditorium close to the audience, the live band boomed out from the base of the stage, keeping the lyrics crisp and every word intelligible. The lighting rig often bathed the seemingly simple wood and brick set* with warm and natural hues, throwing unexpected shapes (one of which hit me quite emotionally – a bit of a first!) and even created subtle movement during scene changes. [* the back wall of the set may not be quite as static as it looks!]

After witnessing the brute force necessary to manually rotate the Lyric Theatre’s stage in two shows this Christmas, Hamilton’s smooth and effortless rotating stage with independent inner and outer rings was a revelation. The automation that brought little wagons of candles on and off stage, guided by a groove in the floor, showed the attention to detail (and the money available to pull off such a design). Yet I’ve no idea why two ropes were anchored to one side of the front of the stage at the beginning, only to be removed and never used.

Success, failure, forgiveness, leadership, ambition, death, politics, economics, military strategy, migration, rights, human relationships … at times, Hamilton was closer to an opera than musical theatre. There was an intensity to the performance that never let up.

Jamael Westman physically towered above the rest of the cast playing Alexander Hamilton. He was rarely off-stage, and commanded attention as he dashingly strutted about in his boots, clashing with Giles Terera’s Aaron Burr (the clear baddie dressed in black).
“Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?”

Even if you’ve been experiencing Hamilton vicariously through the Broadway cast album and Youtube clips (as we have been subjected to in our house), the level of hilarity was totally unexpected as the live cast injected personality into the music.

The West End’s King George III was ridiculously effected and played to marvellous extremes by Michael Jibson who wandered around the stage, inserting looooong pauses into his songs and jabbing his finger in the direction of the audience while promising to send a fully armed battalion to remind us of his love. He also voiced the tongue-in-cheek pre-recorded mobile silencing announcement at the start: for once, the instruction was obeyed.

With much of the cast double roling, Jason Pennycooke stood out as a gloriously laughable and impish Lafyette in Act I, before morphing into a more serious Thomas Jefferson after the interval. The controlled slow motion choreography in the eye of the hurricane was just one example of its artistic quality.

The three Shyuyler sisters – Eliza, Angelica … and Peggy (Rachelle Ann Go, Rachel John and Marsha Songcome at the performance I attended) – provided the non-political thread to bind together the rest of the show. Songcome was impressive as Maria Reynolds in Act II. While the female characters were in a sense underwritten (though still critical to the plot), then gender mix in the ensemble dancing was refreshing and beautifully arbitrary.
“Don't modulate the key then not debate with me!”

There were little moments of endearing self-awareness that winked at the audience and acknowledged that this was theatre and not a straight history lesson.

Why a musical about an American founding father should work as a show in London is down to the quality of the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s writing and the wholehearted performances delivered by the entire cast rather than the actual events upon which they are based. Hamilton is similar to Evita in taking a relatively obscure story and giving it a dramatic and musical flourish (the running piano phrases that step out of so many of the songs are magical) that delights rather than confuses.

Hamilton is a musical that has been carefully designed to maximise its chance of success. Investment is on show everywhere, from the sumptuous costumes that set the tone of each scene (even if the knee breeches look like jodhpurs and make you wonder whether one of the ensemble dancers will soon enter stage right on a horse) to the automation, lighting and sound design. Musical Director Richard Beadle’s head and occasionally his hands popped up from the orchestra pit to keep the chorus starting and stopping together, even conducting the bows at the end of the show and giving the instruction for the cast to leave the stage.

Yet despite the level of programming and control, Hamilton was a show that emotionally connected. No one on stage was just going through the ritual of phoning in their performance (like I found at Fame one afternoon in the West End while on honeymoon some fifteen or so years ago). It was performed as much as it was produced, with and had heart and soul, energy, rhythm as well as an engaging way of telling a story that resonates on many different levels: racially, economically, politically and culturally.

Hamilton is not perfect. If your concentration wavers for a more than a few seconds you can miss a lyric and be left wondering who a character is, or what the significance is of an action on the stage. There are moments when you wonder whether the symmetry and plot twists are just a little too contrived. A mic was left muted for 20 seconds when King George III walked onto the stage, and one singer struggled with high notes. But those niggles barely add up to anything.

The enormous ambition of Hamilton is very definitely achieved, and achieved through the skill and talent of a wide range of people behind-the-scenes as well as up-front on stage. If you can afford tickets and can make it to London you’ll experience an example of musical theatre that sets the bar high even for the West End. It certainly left me wanting more.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Human Flow: Ai Weiwei’s perspective-giving primer on global migration (QFT 5-11 January)

Rather than pick a few interesting personal stories out of the millions of displaced people across the globe, Ai Weiwei keeps his focus on the scale of the worldwide Human Flow in his new documentary.

By stretching the narrative across 23 different countries, Ai Weiwei also zooms out from the handful of countries normally associated with refugees and fills in gaps in western public consciousness. Twenty three countries are visited over a year including Bangladesh, Gaza and Mexico as well as Germany, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Macedonia and Pakistan.

A mixture of cinematography showcases serene drone shots which demonstrate the scale of movement with handheld footage getting up close and personal with refugees. Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei often somewhat self-indulgently wanders into shot, filming what he sees on his camera phone and talking to people on the move. A UNHCR spokesperson adds the scale marker to the picture that the filmmaker is creating: 65 million people have been forcibly displaced across the world.



The opening scene of a bird flying across a blue sky is quickly contrasted with an overhead shot of a small boat packed with people making its way across the blue sea. Freedom vs organised smuggling or trafficking. There’s poetry and unspoken narrative in these moments of high quality cinematography, later repeated with shots that soar over refugee camps, showing off the block layout and fire breaks between rows of tents and semi-permanent huts and caravans. But these arty shots are not allowed to dominate the imagery.

The shaky bodycam and phone footage shows refugees being given blankets and warm tea as they step onto the European shore. Women describe living under the ‘rain’ of missiles, fired and landing without warning, and drone footage once again takes viewers to the flattened suburban landscapes from which they fled.

Over 140 minutes Ai Weiwei tours areas of displacement across the world, walking and talking alongside families and individuals making their way towards safety. The white infectious disease protection jumpsuits worn by rescued refugees are suggestive of dehumanisation. While the ethnically cleansed Rohingya community now living in Bangladesh are labelled as ‘stateless people’ and ‘boat people’, the film notes that they are primarily humans.

One contributor sums up her aim:
“… on a daily basis make people feel like human beings and know that we really care about them.”
The contrast between beautifully-crafted footage and guerrilla filming (complete with the howl of the wind in the uncovered mics) prevents the audience from sitting back in their seats to take a clinical at the problem. It is rough and ready, and in our faces. The film’s editing is deliberately ragged: some cuts are very sharp, other shots are allowed to linger and give space to think.

Fifty minutes into the film there’s a sobering reminder that this is not a travel documentary, and that while sea crossings are inherently dangerous, crossing land brings with it risks of rape, torture, slavery and death.

Wherever Ai Weiwei takes his camera, there are long trails of people walking along roads and tented camps of different shapes and sizes. There are flows of people seemingly perpetually on the move, never staying still, searching for alternative security and overcoming natural obstacles like rivers.

The only thing that halts the movement are man-made barriers: border fences have multiplied six-fold since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film visits politically-sealed borders with barbed wire and guards between Greece and Macedonia, as well as the patrolled border between the US and Mexico. Grown men cry with the helplessness of neither being able to step forward, nor step back to return home.

Palestinians living in Gaza speak about the difficulty of younger people growing up with stereotypes, not knowing the area before the walls and not having the opportunity to get to know and understand Israelis. Symbolically Ai Weiwei includes footage of Laziz the tiger being rescued from a cramped Gaza ‘zoo’. In a cruel irony, the tiger is helped to escape through Israel to enjoy a new life in South Africa, unlike the humans left behind in the caged-in region.

With 26% of global refugees hosted in sub-Saharan Africa, the cameras call at Dadaab in Kenya, a cluster of five refugee camps. They also visit the refugee camp inside Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport, an Ideal Home Exhibition-like vista of roofless cubicles built indoors. Normal patterns of life – births, marriages, deaths and even haircuts -

Cash grants are used as an incentive for Afghans now living in Pakistan to return home. With the best will in the world, after 30 or 40 years they cannot always return to their family’s plot of land, and their villages may still be insecure. So they remain displaced and dislocated, just no longer in Pakistan.

The reality of arriving in Europe is somewhat at odds with the continent’s reputation of human dignity and respect. In my screening, applause broke out when former Syrian astronaut Muhammed Faris gave his perspective of looking down on Earth and realising how humankind shares the planet.

Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder at the effort and ingenuity that governments invest in securing and surveilling borders as opposed to changing the many different reasons that continue to cause forced migration around the world.

Human Flow’s distribution in UK cinemas was brief and patchy: however you will still find it playing in London screens and some larger independent cinemas. And the producers welcome opportunities for churches, museums, schools and other organisations to register their interest in showing the film.

Avoiding the temptation to over-moralise or point too many fingers – though European Union policies do come under its microscope – Human Flow provides a global perspective on a global problem and its duration is sufficient to give each audience member time to react to the scale of the story on screen.

Human Flow is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 5-Thursday 11 January.

Cross-posted from FocusOnRefugees.org

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Game of Gnomes and Trump's Big Bad Belfast Christmas (C21 Theatre)

Two very different one act plays graced the stage of The Black Box in Belfast last night.

Brendan Quinn stumbled up first with his fifty minute solo show Game of Gnomes. His alter ego, an aspiring out of work actor Brendan Sythe (a proud product of Larne community drama classes), explained to anyone willing to listen in the make-up truck how he’d got this big break on a well-known film set.

Deftly switching between characters, mannerisms and accents, Quinn whipped up laughs as he outlined the confusing audition process, a bizarre bootcamp, and his subsequent experience working as a Castlecourt Elf. Around a dozen roles populated the piece, including a grumpy yet worldy-wise Santa, a coy female Elf and an outrageous mother who mistook him for a gnome.

Tom Finley’s direction brought to life well-written overlapping conversations that comically fused together and utilised the limited set (three black cubes) to create height and movement on the diminutive stage. By the end, the audience were hooked on the story and whooping along with the finale. While Sythe may not have initially seen the potential in his festive “great character piece”, the Black Box audience certainly lapped up the story acted out by Quinn.

After the interval bar break, it was the turn of Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas, with two local actors reprising roles they had played elsewhere in recent weeks in a new satirical play by Rosemary Jenkinson.
“If there’s one thing Northern Ireland has a talent for, it’s building walls; though we’re good at building bridges too … with peace money.”
Escaping the White House staff eggnog-fuelled party, US President Trump (Miche Doherty) flies to Belfast in ‘North Ireland’ to find out about our beautiful walls which have kept people apart all these years. DUP leader Arlene Foster (Maria Connolly) is his willing tour guide, her party name temporarily confusing the Republican president. Darlene and Donald slip, incognito, into a loyalist bar for an eventful pint!

Doherty’s impossibly long red tie, well-coiffed wig and glare brought this not-so-fantastical world leader alive despite his trim waist and unclassifiable accent. His bravado-filled performance captured the essence of the mulch-maligned president. Connolly never stepped out of character, eyes constantly darting around, and switching between gloom and glee as she tried to manage the erratic big wig.

Despite only being scheduled for two performances, and the rehearsals accelerated, cast were confident with their lines and hammed it up to the delight of the audience who joined in with the reworded Fairytale of New York (more Nightmare on Newtownards Road) and the boisterous finale Summer Christmas Lovin’ (“She ate sausage / I had some champ”).

As well as the brutally cruel lampooning of there two well-known political leaders, the refracted image on stage gave a quasi-international perspective on some of the ways and customs we take for granted and so often forget to critique in Northern Ireland, as well a chance to question how different or similar we are to our 50 state cousins.

A triumphal evening of festive comedy from C21 Theatre Company which finished their year of productions with a definite bang.

You can catch more of Arlene in Michelle and Arlene Holiday Special: Planes, Trains and Tractors in Accidental Theatre’s 12-13 Shaftesbury Square venue on Thursday 21 and Friday 22 December, and C21 Theatre are back with another Rosemary Jenkinson play May The Road Rise Up in the Lyric Theatre from 20-24 February.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sanctuary - consenting to a season of good will to all people in this sweet yet challenging coming of age film (QFT from 29 Dec to 4 Jan)

Sanctuary is a coming of age film that sees a group of young and not-so-young adults leaving their day centre to go on a festive trip to a local Galway cinema. Their normal work of stuffing folders with leaflets is coming to an end, and in the new year there will be skills-based workshops, but no more paid work.
“The way things are going around here I might not get another chance.”

For the tight-knit group who describe themselves as being “intellectually disabled” (in the UK we might be more used to the phrase ‘learning disability’). With the help of his key worker Tom (Robert Doherty), Larry (Kieran Coppinger), who has Down’s Syndrome and works in a fast food outlet, has engineered the opportunity slip across the road during the screening with his epileptic girlfriend Sophie (Charlene Kelly) to spend quality time in a hotel.

When Larry asks for a condom, Tom realises that he is stepping well over the legal line that criminalises sex outside of marriage* in the case of into hot and deep water. “Would it be different if we were normal?” asks Larry, using the ‘n’ word that Tom is professionally uncomfortable with.

Meanwhile, away from the dancing and romancing, interest in the film is waning – no surprise since it wasn’t chosen with anyone’s cinematic preference in mind – and the curious and shepherdless sheep start to scatter across Galway city centre. William (Frank Butcher) and Andrew (Patrick Becker) go out on the tear, Sandy (Emer Macken) flirts endlessly with Peter (Michael Hayes), Rita (Jennifer Cox) falls asleep before having a spliffing time, while Alice (Valerie Egan) and Matthew (Paul Connolly) go on a shopping spree and melt the heart of a burly security guard. Director Len Collin manages the mayhem beautifully, always stopping short of farce, but never afraid to let levity lift a scene’s mood.

Aside from the central challenge about consent and capacity to consent – which is dealt with both sympathetically and realistically – there is a second challenge to cinema audiences about whether they are well enough informed to hold prejudices about people who they may feel are different from them. The point at which shoppers, guards and cinema staff finally engage with the mutineers who are temporarily freed from Tom’s care, the barriers break down and they all relate to each other with a common humanity.

Larry displays a tenderness and compassion towards Sophie that is endearing, compensating for her tremor by pouring her tea and acting as the very role model of a complete gentleman. His confidence and aspirations meet Sophie’s past, and it’s a privilege to watch the pair’s intimate conversations.

Across the rest of the characters, there’s a mirroring of this compensation and complementation as the street smart and the logical, the impetuous and the thoughtful, combine into brilliant couplings that supply sanctuary to each other.

The twist at the end of this comedic movie is cruel yet credible as the superheroes finally bump into society’s buffers. While each of the day trippers clearly has more sense than their key worker Tom, should his transgressions be allowed to severely impact their lives and freedoms?

The 87 minute long film isn’t too tinselly - Christmas is the excuse for an outdoor market, bright lights and some super drone footage – but if this is truly the season of goodwill to all people, then Sanctuary is a timely reminder.

It’s one of art’s purposes to challenge stereotypes and give power to the marginalised. (You’ll find that in Rosemary Jenkinson’s play Lives in Translation which will tour again in 2018.)

Based on Christian O'Reilly’s play for the Blue Teapot Theatre Company and using its gifted cast, Sanctuary is a must-see film this Christmas. The performances are a tribute, in particular, to Coppinger and Kelly’s acting talent as they, along with the rest of the cast, lift the characters off the stage and onto the silver screen.

Sanctuary will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 29 December to Thursday 4 January.



- - -

The Republic of Ireland’s Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 made sex with someone who was ‘mentally impaired’ (the Act’s term, not mine) an offence, along with anyone soliciting or importuning. The legislation was there to protect vulnerable people from abuse. However it also overruled autonomy and the opportunity to consent. The 2017 Act amended this to outlaw sex with a ‘protected person’ defined by a ‘lack of capacity to consent … by reason of a mental or intellectual disability or a mental illness’.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi - a dreary and dissatisfying tale of Star Wars: Hope Snuffed Out


Two years ago I started my review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens with the statement that ‘I’m not a big fan of Star Wars’. But the retro, derivative and cliché-ridden reboot of the franchise has grown on me – think of it as Indiana Jones and the Lost Droid – and last year’s Rogue One was a decent science fiction movie.
“My disappointment at your performance cannot be underestimated”

There’s a performance management comment that will be wheeled out in many a year-end review this year! And it applies to my impression of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. It was a big disappointment.

Things started well with an soundtrack rich with stabs of strings and brass. However, the effect of the John Williams motifs faded over time as the problematic storyline took centre stage. The early instances of humour lifted the feeling of worthiness from the convoluted plot and the overly wordy Empire stooges who annunciate each new thought.

There were space dogfights, parries with light sabres, a visit to a seedy watering hole, creeping on and off enemy ships, flying big ships through tight tunnels, and a holiday trip for Rey to an Irish island – Atishoo Ahch-To where it rained and there were disturbing puffin-like critters which after a while demonstrated great facial expressions and toppled into the comedy list – all of which led to an awakening.

But the lack of hope was endless. The ‘force’ had not topped up its card at the filling station and was running perilously low.
“The greatest teacher failure is”

You’ll have to guess which character spoke that line, but he was an welcome addition to a scene that (perhaps symbolically) burnt stuff while the Resistance complained about needing a spark. And he was just one instance of many force-fuelled apparitions of characters in remote locations.

The best battle was saved until the end. The red salt lying under the covering of snow was a fabulous invention and provided the strongest visuals of the film. However Snoke’s red domed (and perhaps doomed) lair with its shiny floor looked like unfinished CGI.

I enjoyed the slower pace, even if it contributed to the 152 minute run time. The characters had time to breath and the space to develop had that been written into the script. Yet at times this rather robbed the plot of much needed jeopardy and my heart never raced.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) had a much more sedate role, separated from the main cast. He see her grow emotionally and spiritually, but her combat abilities are saved for one late tussle. Princess General Leia (Carrie Fisher) overcame the physics of a vacuum (the force is a great gift). So there’s a definite gender rebalancing of the force-ful characters.

Resistance maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is a breath of fresh air, putting principles ahead of reverence and hero worship of Finn. Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) has a short but interesting character arc, playing an uncomfortably safe battle strategy in charge of the Resistance’s last ship before making a fatal yet effective manoeuvre.

Yet despite these strong and interesting women, I noticed that it was men (like Luke Skywalker) who heroically arrived in situations to rescue the many. Men who never showed emotion while the women were allowed to shed tears at will.

But the dissatisfaction comes from convoluted plot devices which send characters on a mission to find someone to break in somewhere to turn something off which of course never happens and makes things a hundred times worse than they would have been. That’s on top of battle decisions that stupidly further diminish the Resistance fleet. Self-inflicted misery.

Overall, it felt like Rian Johnson had set out to write Star Wars: Hope Snuffed Out. Episode VIII may be a credible part of the overall Star Wars canon, but it’s a dreary two and a half hours that fails to live up to the magic of best of the rest of the trilogy of trilogies.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Spectacular Aladdin: pantomime, but not like you’ve ever seen it before! (SSE Arena until 27 December)

With only 18 months between inception and the opening night, planning a brand new show using a team of largely local creatives to stage an arena pantomime for the first time in Belfast is a remarkable achievement. Joe Rea and Martin Lynch have shown incredible ambition to pull this off.

Last night’s performance of The Spectacular Aladdin was loud, brash, full of movement, and it seemed to delight many of the youngest members of the audience who could sing along to S Club 7 anthems and dance Gangnam style in the aisles.

It was definitely pantomime, but not as we know it!

The storyline followed the familiar tale of young Aladdin (played by Jake Carter) defying ‘pain of death’ to gaze upon Princess Jasmine (Nadia Forde). His Mum, Widow Twankie (Chris Robinson) runs the local laundry. The evil Abanazer (Rhydian) is on the hunt for Aladdin, believing that he can provide him with a magic lamp to make him rich. Add to this Wishie Washie (Christina Nelson, who inducts the audience into her gang), a Police Chief with a bushy moustache (Marty Maguire), the Empress mother of the princess (Nuala McKeever) along with the Slave of the Ring (Naomi Rocke) and The Genie (Ross Anderson-Doherty).

Packed into the front third of the SSE Arena, the venue presents its own challenges and opportunities. The stage is incredibly wide and director Dan Gordon has done well to fill it with a relatively small cadre of actors, dancers and child performers that bring the action as close as possible to the tiered seating.

At regular intervals cast members paraded through the wide aisles in the ground floor seated area in front of the stage, and at one point the Genie of the Lamp appeared over my left shoulder in row Q to sing a long distance duet with the Slave of the Ring about 40m away on stage!

It’s a strong cast, with Rhydian stepping comfortably into the shoes of Abanazer though it was only in the second half that he got the boos his malicious character deserved. It shouldn’t have been any surprise that Irish pop artist Jake Carter had a great voice (and played guitar on stage for a quick cover of Galway Girl), but he also played Aladdin with a confidence that belied his lack of theatre experience. Nadia Forde couldn’t quite compete with her heart throb’s dulcet tones.

The job of audience participation fell to Widow Twankie and Wishie Washie. Pantomime dame Chris Robinson persevered with his scripted jokes, innuendo and ad libbing and was much more confident and rewarded with audience reaction after the interval. Human dynamo Christina Nelson never stopped moving and delivered a relentlessly energetic and quick-witted performance the whole time she was on stage.

Naomi Rocke as Slave of the Ring carried a lot of the show’s narration, with lots of flourish-ridden poetic lines, and her duets with Ross Anderson-Doherty were amongst my favourite moments from the show. Nuala McKeever’s wit was underused in her small role as Empress.

Other than a few large rotating pieces of set, projections against the back wall of the stage replaced traditional flown backdrops to place each scene in context. Animation was employed successfully, often synchronised with lighting effects, to increase the sense of drama. While the width and height of the SSE Arena could allow performers to be flown in and out on wires, Aladdin’s ‘flying carpet’ relied this year on more basic trickery. There were lots of sound effects to cartoonify the on-stage action and a live band of five accompanied throughout.

The first act of the pantomime ended with a big song – Reach for the Stars – but there was a lack of jeopardy to carry the plot into the interval: for a minute I thought that the show was over and reached into my pocket to fish out the car park ticket. There were gentle nods to the sponsors throughout (though BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan gets more mentions than Q Radio’s Stephen Clements) and eternal favourites like The Time Warp and a Twelve Days of Christmas skit (complete with Super Soaker squirting) are woven into the show.

The size of the auditorium dents the precision of some performances. While the dialogue was quite clear, much of the sung lyrics were lost in the echoey and muffled sound. (It’s a problem I don’t remember from musical On Eagle’s Wing when it played in the Odyssey back in 2004.) Seated much further away from the action than any other stage in Belfast, I leant forward to squint at the characters on stage. Despite Susan Scott’s bold and glittery costumes helping to make the cast stand out, follow-spots were only used sporadically and at times it felt like some of the action was taking place in relative gloom, particularly when characters moved away from the centre of the stage.

While it’s popular to complain about noisy sweet wrappers in theatres, the concession stands remaining open during the performance (just as they would do during an ice hockey match) created the most disturbance with a constant stream of people in our row squeezing past our legs to go out for more fizzy drink, followed up by a run to the toilet.

Taking a pantomime out of the theatre and into a larger, more open arena was a high risk move. The energy of the performance on Saturday night compensated for a lot of the issues caused by the novel venue. I left the SSE Arena a little bewildered about what I had just witnessed, but satisfied that it was both spectacular and a pantomime.

M & J Pantos seemed to be learning to walk before they ran in their first year of operation with relatively straightforward staging and no pyrotechnics. The team plan to return next Christmas with Cinderella and if they build upon this year’s success and learn lessons from their inaugural run, their annual pantomime may present more established competitors (admittedly with more seats during longer runs) with a challenge to improve their offering.

The Spectacular Aladdin continues in The SSE Arena until Wednesday 27 December.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Happy End - a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling

Michael Haneke is a bit of an evil genius when it comes to screenwriting and directing. And his new film Happy End adds to his fabulous body of thought-provoking and unsettling work.

The film begins with some shaky vertical smartphone footage of a woman’s nightly bedtime routine, with every action anticipated with a typed comment as she brushes her teeth and hair etc. It’s the first sign of a youngster with a penetrating eye and a disturbed attitude towards life, suffering and death. Later we’ll realise that darkness runs in the family genes. (It’s also a nod to Haneke’s pervious film Caché (Hidden) which had surveillance footage at its disquieting heart.)

With her Mum hospitalised, Eve (Fantine Harduin) moves to Calais to live with her father (Mathieu Kassovitz, who walked out of her life years before and has now remarried). Three generations are housed together, each living with their anxieties and insecurities about health and wealth. Eve’s aunt (Isabelle Huppert) is running a struggling construction company that is collapsing before her eyes, not helped by her unstable son (Franz Rogowski), her boyfriend (a rather dapper Toby Jones who is battling with North Sea offshore workers) while her morose father (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is recovering from a car accident.

Happy End is a misleading title, or perhaps just an aspirational one. In truth, this dark family soap opera is more about the ‘end’ than the ‘happy’, at least for those who have a choice in the matter. To say more would be to spoil the story that is very slowly revealed over 107 minutes.

The camerawork is very distinctive, with very long takes keeping a tight focus on people’s heads and keeping as much of the background out of focus (so you can never quite make out the posters on walls as characters walk around). Much of the film is either spent looking into a scene as if through someone’s eyes (or standing just behind them) or standing at a distance, unable to discern what is being said, but able to watch interactions (which at times can be violent).

Much of the dialogue is subtitled in French. Facebook Messenger exchanges intelligently incorporate the subtitles into the on-screen user interface, while a smaller font size is used when eavesdropping on other people’s dialogue.

As the screen went dark and the credits rolled in silence, there was a ripple of nervous laughter across my screening as if the final unresolved unhappy non-ending was a relief.

The inclusion of refugees in and around Calais helps ground the film in contemporary France. The casual racism and maltreatment of the Laurent family’s servants push them over the edge to be thoroughly hard to like yet fascinating to watch.

There’s a lot of death, a lot of longing for death, and a fair amount of engineering it too. Not for the fainthearted, Happy End is a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling.

Ferdinand - good for children, harmless for adults (from 15 December)


I think that the best way, as an adult, to tackle a viewing of Ferdinand is to imagine you’re watching a comedy Bourne film, particularly when it comes to the chase sequences. Otherwise, you’ll wallow in the realisation that this doesn’t measure up to the quality of a Pixar or Disney animation, and is nowhere near as appealing as the original Ice Age.

The first part of the film deals with the origin story: a bull calf (voiced initially by Colin H Murphy, who later hands over to John Cena) with a traumatic upbringing who rebels against the system and escapes when his father doesn’t return victorious from the bullfighting arena in the lorry the young bulls grow up calling the ‘winner’s truck’.
“You can hurt me if you want, but leave the flower alone.”

Along the way he meets a little girl Nina (Lily Day), who so nearly becomes his sidekick before being cruelly replaced by a streetwise goat called Lupe (Kate McKinnon). The little calf grows up, realises that he is more at home in a meadow full of his favourite flowers, becomes confident in his otherness, eschewing violence and simple stereotyping.

On the farm, Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) is a bully, like his father. Bones (Anthony Anderson) is labelled as an underdeveloped “weirdo”. Guapo (Peyton Manning) is nervous and provides the sustained and wretched throwing up jokes.

Ferdinand’s 107 minute journey loops him back round to familiar places, building up momentum, and allowing some of the characters to shake off their wicked ways.

The animation is good and never distracting, and the gentle acoustic guitar-heavy soundtrack is a particular joy to listen to. The beginning of the film is surprisingly morose as Ferdinand’s insecurity is explored and many of the jokes in the script fall flat until the arrival of the comedy hedgehogs.

The bull in a china shop scene is brilliant for its sense of reserve, and the chase sequences with trains and traffic are the points at which the film really comes alive (leading me into my Bourne fantasy).
“You’re either a fighter or you’re meat.”

Set in Spain, it’s a while before you hear any foreign accents, never mind Spanish ones. But over time you’ll hear the German dancing ponies who separate the bulls from the meat factory that conveniently sits a few fields away. “I’m a bull not a doctor” knowingly shouts Angus, the long-fringed bull voiced by David Tennant who gets some of the best lines of the film.

Being an animated kids film doesn’t forgive the many plot holes. The need to escape through the house (a fun albeit prematurely curtailed sequence) is later contradicted by the possibility of galloping through over the fields to the strangely unpopulated slaughterhouse.
“I can’t wait to show you to the rest of the guys! They’re gonna fertilize the yard.”

That’s not a quote I wanted to reuse on the way out of the screening. The young children at the preview seemed to enjoy Ferdinand. This bigger child found it somewhere between Moo and Meh.

Ferdinand is good for children and harmless for adults. It’s a satisfactory animation that suffers from a poor script, and by next Christmas will be gracing supermarket DVD shelves and appear in a less than prime time slot in the festive Radio Times.

In Movie House Cinemas and elsewhere from Friday 15 December.