Monday, August 14, 2017

Everything, Everything – teen date movie where the truth shall set you free (from 18 August)

A frail and fragile bird – in this case a young woman turning 18 – is trapped in a glass cage – in this case her mother’s hermetically sealed house with an airlock instead of a porch – unable to leave for fear that a cat – in this case the nasty germ-filled world – would kill her. Welcome to the world of Everything, Everything.

Maddy’s life revolves around her Mum (a doctor played by Anika Noni Rose), her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) and Rosa, her nurse’s daughter (Danube Hermosillo). No one else enters the house due to her severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).

Then a boy moves in next door. Whereas Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) wears nothing but white clothes in her obsessively clean house, Olly (Nick Robinson) always wears black.

She sits on her wide windowsill and gazes over at his bedroom window. It’s like the cinematic version of Dawson’s Creek. Except her window doesn’t open, so there’s no need for a ladder. Which is shame as the ladder was what made Dawson’s Creek into magical television.

If a review of a theatre production obsesses with the set and the lighting then it’s often a sign that the script or the story or the acting wasn’t up to scratch. This film deserves much praise for its cinematography. You’ll spend much of the 96 minutes noticing that there’s not a single bad shot. Each scene feels like it meets Da Vinci’s golden ratio.

The colour palette is gorgeous, extending to the costumes, with Maddy journeying from simple white t-shirts to fancier and fancier tops of various pastille shades, and (tiny spoiler) Olly eventually ending up in a white t-shirt.

There’s much creativity in the different ways that Olly woos (though at the start I’m not certain that he knows he’s wooing) Maddy through the scenes he creates out the window. There’s also creativity in the director’s freedom to use animation – though in a way that marks the film as a teen flick rather than a film aimed at an adult audience.

The way that Maddy’s inner feelings are represented by a spaceman adds some humour. Transforming remote text and phone conversations into the characters pretending to sit facing each other across a diner booth, or shouting across a library, works well as reality has long since been suspended. However, and there’s a big sigh that goes along with that ‘however’, it all becomes a bit much, particularly when the protagonists’ inner feelings start to appear as subtitles while they have a conversation.

Although all of this creative stuff is clever, it serves to remind the audience that Everything, Everything feels like a very short story that has been elongated the thin plot to the hour and half mark through the distraction of musical and imagined ellipses. Yet the book it is based upon by Nicola Yoon is 310 pages long …

At first Everything, Everything looks like a coming of age movie. And there’s just enough of that developing intimacy to keep it a 12A. But it’s really a finding out the truth movie. Except the truth is pretty well signposted if you’re paying attention from the start, and given the various moments of peril and the resolutions to the conundrum of life versus love, it totally fails to elicit an emotional response from its audience, never mind tears. I’m the world’s easiest cinemagoer to reduce to floods of emotion. Even Maudie managed it last week! But the dominoes set up by director Stella Meghie are strangely cold and fail to trigger any sense of melodrama or histrionics, despite at one point the soundtrack switching to “Please don’t take my love away” with thunder rumbling in the background.

While Stenberg makes the most of the character she given – Maddy seems to have lost the younger-than-her-years, depressed feel of the book – and develops her confidence in steps, Rose is less believable as the mother, with a particularly unconvincing confession speech that seems disconnected from her heart.

Teenagers out on a date will be able to chat, snog, crunch popcorn and generally not pay attention to the screen and yet leave the cinema with a complete grasp of every intricacy of the plot. Clearly forty four year old me is not the intended audience. I’m perturbed by the fact that Maddy isn’t ever billed for her bottomless credit card, and demonstrates that she is well-educated but doesn’t seem to appreciate that air passengers spend a few hours breathing in and out each other’s recycled breath. And even more perturbed that the airlock allows you so easily open both doors at once, defeating its whole purpose.

Everything, Everything is released in Movie House Dublin Road and other cinemas on Friday 18 August. Or there’s always the award-nominated book

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wifi Refugees - marketing advice for local businesses & fundraising for refugees

Earlier this summer, Andi Jarvis launched Wifi Refugees, offering free twenty minute marketing sessions to local businesses, in exchange for a donation to a local refugee charity. David from Soarscape was the first person to drop in for a session.

Andi is a marketing consultant. He knows that small businesses often don’t have the budget to get professional marketing help, so he started this philanthropic venture that combines helping businesses, a refugee charity, and the independent coffee shops that he runs his drop-in clinic in for two hours each month.

The inspiration for the project was hearing David from Outside In speak at the recent Power of Video Conference in Belfast. The social movement and clothing supplier operate a Wear One Share One model: when you buy a garment from Outside In, they send you one and they donate another to someone who is homeless.

Hearing David’s story gave Andi the impetus to stop sitting on the idea and to stop sitting on his own idea and get on and implement it. The conference was on a Friday, the website was built by the Sunday and he launched Wifi Refugees on the Tuesday or the Wednesday.

At the moment Andi runs clinics in Belfast (The Bobbin Café in Belfast City Hall) and in Bangor (The Red Berry café). He explained:
“I spend two hours there. You can come along, first come first served, and spend twenty minutes getting help with some marketing issue. It tends to work best with more of a narrow marketing issue as twenty minutes goes quite quickly.”
In return, you’re expected to buy a coffee to support the café who are allowing him to sit at a table running the two hour sessions, and you’re encouraged to donate to a local refugee charity. The money he raises will be given to Embrace NI. Some colleagues in London and Leeds are keen to extend Wifi Refugees to their cities.
“All you need is somebody with a professional background – in my case it’s marketing – who’s prepared to give two hours a month. It’s not the biggest commitment really for any marketing expert or whatever. You need a coffee shop that will let you sit down in their place for free.”
He wants the money to always go to a local charity working with refugees. While Wifi Refugees is Andi’s project, the concept is repeatable and adaptable by individual, groups, charities or churches.

I asked Andi why he’d decided to support refugees rather than another sector or charity? He explained that there had been a couple of reasons.
“I have referred to myself as a ‘wifi refugee’ for many years. It was a tongue-in-cheek name. Part of being a marketing consultant means that you spend a lot of time working in coffee shops and you’re always looking for good wifi and good coffee. So you’re bouncing around from one place to another. It was a term I’d used for years and years and years. So that helped.”
But Andi also knew about being an outsider, and a newcomer to the community he now lives and works in.
“I’m not from Northern Ireland, I’m from England … I speak the same language, I have rights to work here, I’ve moved over here with a good job, I had family here at the time. Everything was in my favour.

“And it still took me four or five years to settle and feel like this was my home.

“And it made me think, how do you settle and make this place your home when you’ve got none of those advantages? You’ve maybe come from a warzone and had to leave everything behind, you don’t speak the language, you can’t claim any benefits, you can’t work. How do you really get to make this your home? How do you settle your family? How do you get ingrained in the local culture?”
While Andi appreciated the fantastic work being done elsewhere in emergency camps and sea crossings, he realised that “the problems that refugees face don’t go away just because they get to somewhere that supposedly a developed nation that’s going to help them”.
“That’s the end of the first part of the journey, the rest of it starts then.”
For Andi, with his background of migration and settling in, supporting refugees in his local area felt like the best fit.

You can find out more about Wifi Refugees on its website,, and find the latest information about upcoming drop-in marketing sessions on Twitter and Facebook.

Andi is running two drop-in clinics this month, both on Wednesday 16 August. The first is in The Bobbin (Belfast) between 1pm and 3pm, before he heads home to The Red Berry, Bangor between 6pm and 8pm.

Cross-posted from focusonrefugees.org

Friday, August 11, 2017

Preview - Michelle & Arlene - a fine foemance on a satirical trip away (Accidental Theatre, 24-26 August)

Comedians continuously tweak their routines and work topical references into their material. Radio 4’s The Now Show is pretty up to the minute with its lampooning of affairs at Westminster. And The Folks on the Hill series used to have its finger on the pulse of Stormont. When events fit into the weekly schedule of writing, some newspaper columnists cash in on a crisis and make incisive comments while the news cycle unfolds.

But what about the stage? Could the theatre dissect the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin, between its (northern) leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill? Could a playwright get past the oft-repeated mantras that justify social conservatism and language act red lines and expose the heart of the political matter?

Rosemary Jenkinson mentioned the idea of a theatrical “rapid reaction unit” in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph’s Lee Henry when she took up her position as the new writer-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre in January.
“I'd love to write plays about Trump and Brexit but often the problem with writing about politics is that the situation changes and it becomes yesterday's news very quickly. If we had more money in arts, we could have some sort of artistic equivalent of a rapid reaction unit and we could really spearhead social protest.”
It’s certain that no more money has been invested in the arts since that interview, but a conversation between Jenkinson and Richard Lavery at Accidental Theatre at the beginning of July has created the opportunity for a new piece of work reflecting on the volatile state of contemporary Northern Ireland politics to be written and produced before the end of this summer.
“There’s so much going on in politics in the world and here, right now. And nobody’s writing about it in theatre.”
The normal gestation period of a modern play could never be described as ‘rapid’. ‘Elephantine’ would be a better description of the long drawn-out process of pitching, commissioning, writing, drafting, revising, scheduling, casting, rehearsing, and finally performing … the period from idea to stage can often be measured in years.

But it wasn’t always that way. When I interviewed her this week, Rosemary Jenkinson recalled that Bertolt Brecht had his own theatre and could thus respond straight away to situations. Dario Fo lampooned Silvio Berlusconi throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). “They had the power to do that” she says. “But most modern playwrights don’t have that power.”

The marketing image for Michelle & Arlene evokes memories of Thelma & Louise, two women who embark on a road trip with disastrous consequences. Jenkinson explains:
“It’s a buddy movie of two opposites, two people who got thrown together by chance. It’ll appeal to the political savvy because the references will chime a chord with them. But even if you don’t know the politics you’ll get something from it in terms of a female road movie.”
Jenkinson wonders about political leaders who have responsible role and “always keep their mask up”.
“People who keep the mask up most need an outlet to have a break and go wild. And that’s what I was thinking with these two heading off without their respective husbands or family, and seeing how would they behave if they had a few days away totally from that stressful reality that they live in.”
Satire tends to exaggerate in order to make its point and maximize impact. “I’m pushing their behaviours to an extreme” says Jenkinson who begins this play with a vaping, drinking Arlene Foster. ‘These are extreme characters … they have quite extreme politics so who knows how extreme they are in their personal lives.”
“The premise is that Michelle and Arlene separately go on holiday to Ibiza but keep bumping into each other. In spite of their initial hostility, it's almost as if they are fated to be closer than they ever thought possible!”
While this fine ‘foemance’ between the Executive Office text buddies may be fictional, it has its roots in reality, including Arlene Foster’s interview in which she described Michelle O’Neill as “blonde” and “attractive”.
“I think there’s some chemistry there! Everything’s based on reality but just pushed.”
It’s not all pantomime and pantyhose. Expect plenty of talk about boilers, languages and equal marriage.
“They do debate politics in this play … which is quite realistic as they’re in negotiations about these issue so they must have those times when they discuss them [face to face]” says Jenkinson, adding “I’m looking at the ludicrousness of their intransigence”.
Accidental Theatre hope that Michelle & Arlene is the first of many Rapid Response plays that Jenkinson and other playwrights will pen and produce. There’s certainly a vacuum of this kind of political satire in theatre.

Michelle & Arlene runs from Thursday 24 – Saturday 26 August in Accidental Theatre’s new space at 12-13 Shaftsbury Square, behind the Fonacab advertising and under the big screen. Tickets are now on sale.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Atomic Blonde – hedonistic espionage thriller set in stylish Cold War Berlin (from 9 August)

I’m a sucker for an espionage film with plenty of stunts and bullets flying. Bourne sets the bar well above Bond, but every now and again something else outside these well-established brands comes along and stands out.

Salt added a certain style and sophistication to the world of a spy on the run, and perhaps stands as cinematic penance for some of Angelina Jolie’s less noteworthy acting. But the new solo directorial debut from David Leitch, part of the team behind John Wick, is my new favourite.

Atomic Blonde tells the tall tale – for it is particularly unbelievable even in the rarefied world of Cold War spy fiction – of an MI6 agent sent to Berlin to question loyalties and root out a list suspected double agents in the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It’s a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.” (Machiavelli, though maybe not!)

With bleached hair and sense of fashion that is straight off the catwalk, Lorraine Broughton (played by Charlize Theron) must have been at a dental appointment on the day spyclass discussed camouflage and merging into the background. Red ‘killer’ heels, off the shoulder jumper dresses, knee length boots, shiny white haute couture trench coat. How it all fitted into her suitcase is mystery. Whether taking an iced bath or fighting off yet more waves of green uniformed cops, throughout the 115 minute film, Theron plays it gritty rather than aloof. For all the coiffeur and glamour, this is an agent who takes as many blows as she gives, and whose cuts and bruises don’t disappear from one scene to the next.

James McAvoy plays the MI6’s number one asset in Berlin. With his Sinéad O'Connor crew cut, David Percival floats across Checkpoint Charlie trading humint for jeans and booze, while cutting deals with his counterparts in rival spy organisations. His wardrobe budget only extended to V-neck jumpers and borrowing the uniforms from the still warm bodies of dead policemen. Percival’s world is disrupted by Broughton’s arrival on his patch, with her independent determination and her own ability to reach out and relate – Bond style – with a local French agent (Sofia Boutella).

The plot unfurls in a series of extended flashbacks as Broughton is debriefed on her return to London by her UK boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA colleague.(John Goodman). The usually comedic duo keep it deadpan throughout. The established film grammar is somewhat broken fifteen minutes from the end when Percival turns to camera and addresses the audience with a short forgettable monologue that serves to multiply audience doubt that he’s not the only bad egg in town.

The depressed colour palette is washed out with blocks of red standing out against the sea of white and grey. Slide projectors are made to feel chic. Sophistication is added to fighting scenes played out in silhouette. In the heat of the moment, sometimes the camera is pushed out of the way, or gets splatted with blood. With pumping music and a man escaping in his vest in the first scene, this is the intersection of Spooks and Trainspotting.

Amidst the supposedly long take choreographed fight scenes and the blood-splattered walls – they’ll either pick up a craft Oscar or the Turner Prize for the shapely red patterns adorning the flock wallpaper – there is a subtle humour with the audience in my screening bursting out in laughter at some otherwise sinister moments. The final computer terminal screen message that leads into the credits adds another wink at the audience.

It’s a shame that the striking colour of the kickass protagonist’s barnet is used as the film’s title. It somewhat belittles the rest of her character. But as an escapist nonsense thrill ride, Atomic Blonde is racy, pacey, spy romp that puts weaves a lot of style and incredible action into a far-fetched story.

Atomic Blonde opens in Movie House and other local cinemas from 9 August.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Annabelle: Creation - conjuring up a dolly horror (Movie House from 11 August)

Anyone who’s been reading my film reviews for a while will realise that I’m not a big fan of horror films. There can be a behavioural element to zombie films that is fascinating; the unseen yet sinister monster can be effective; special effects can be gloriously gruesome; little details can suggest menace (like Green Room’s red laces). There can even be a layer of intelligence built around the premise, exposing some human predilection towards a particular behaviour, or a weakness in society that needs to be exposed. Alternatively ...

Annabelle: Creation can be categorised as a jump-scare paranormal horror film. However, unless you’re a fervent follower of The Conjuring series of films and the previous Annabelle spinoff – to which this is a prequel – it may also merit a tick in the slow-action-may-or-may-not-build-suspense and not-that-impressed boxes.

A toymaker and his wife live out in the dusty countryside. Their daughter dies in a road accident on the way home from church. Twelve years later, the couple penitentially invite six Catholic orphan girls along with Sister Charlotte to come and live in their oversized wooden house. Cue creaky floorboards and child-written notes under doors. Locked rooms which mysteriously open themselves. A dolls house with lights that models the actual house. A creepy mannequin doll in a cupboard. A less than creepy scarecrow. Torches under sheets. Religious overtones, wooden crosses, a frenzied string section and every cliché in the book.

The cast shrinks a little after the ‘monster’ is revealed exactly half way through the 109 minute film, though I was a little disappointed that Annabelle: Creation didn’t obey the final girl trope and rather too many cast members survive to the credits in my morbid opinion. Carol (Grace Fulton) was so asking for a grisly end.

At first Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto make a sweet if earnest Mr and Mrs Mullins before he adopts a sinister gruff demeanour and she disappears to bed. Stephanie Sigman animates Sister Charlotte and makes the most of the religious-sounding platitudes her character is forced to speak in front of the girls. A cattiness amongst the six orphans relegates Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman) to a smaller bedroom. The fact that Janice has polio and a leg brace neither dampens her sense of adventure nor her ability to get into trouble, rather effectively switching from heroine to villain. Talitha Bateman is the best element of this film.

Other a brief discursion about parents being willing to do anything to find a connection with their lost child, I’m not sure that Gary Dauberman’s script and David F Sandberg’s direction intend to achieve anything other than scare their audience. There’s no real moral. And as a standalone film – I wasn’t even aware of its earlier incarnations having not done much homework before tonight’s screening – there’s no sense of it fitting into a larger narrative until the final twelve years later scenes right at the end.

While I can appreciate the filmmakers’ craft skills and ability to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and to build tension through the groaning subwoofer, the actual plot felt far too thin to justify the doleful doll-ridden movie being made. Horror aficionados may violently disagree and consign me to a creepy cupboard.
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. At least there is the fun of watching the people in the rows in front involuntarily rise up out of their chairs a couple of inches and then fall down again when the creepiness is interrupted by a bang.

Annabelle: Creation opens in Movie House Cinemas from Friday 11 August.

Warning: contains tickling and wooden dolls.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Maudie: spellbinding Sally Hawkins brings an artist to life (QFT 4-17 August)

Maud and Everett Lewis are “like a pair of odd socks”, living in a remote cottage in Nova Scotia. He sells fish and chopped wood. In the film Maudie, we see her slipping away from living with her uncaring aunt to move in with Everett as his housekeeper. But Maud’s talents are not limited to cooking and sweeping.

At first, the brusque man treats the determined and headstrong woman with contempt, verbally and physically abusing her. Disturbingly, witnesses do nothing to intervene.
“Show me how you see the world”
As Maud’s amateur painting starts to generate interest and much needed income, Everett is soon wheeling Maud on his cart across the field rather than firewood. However, his enthusiasm is tinged with jealously and their matrimony is threatened.

Sally Hawkins is spellbinding as Maud, capturing the effect of rheumatoid arthritis in her gait and in the difficulty making the fine motor movements required to paint. Nearly every line is delivered in a whisper as her condition worsens. Hawkins’ hunch and furrowed brow tighten, and the character seems to grow older and quieter in each scene.

Yet this isn’t a film or a character defined by disability. It’s about Maud’s creativity, her tenacity, the smile that accompanies her wry observations, her pleasure in the small things. Even though she lives and works in the tiniest of dwellings, its windows and door give her a view of the windswept landscape, and her influence stretches right the way to the White House in Washington DC.

Ethan Hawke brings an enigmatic quality to the distant Everett who is entirely unsuited to employ a housemaid. He starts by delivering brutally dismissive lines without flinching, while later on discovers his character’s heart and warms it up to act out some touching scenes with compassion. The unconventional couple’s unconventional chemistry evolves gently, with director Aisling Walsh allowing the unrushed alchemy to proceed at the walking speed that dominates 1930s Marshalltown in Nova Scotia.

Sherry White’s screenplay hints at much but explains very little in the opening scenes. The burden of Maud discovering the truth about her dead baby is all the more powerful when we realise just how callous her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) can be.
“I was loved”
I felt a little cheated that the stubborn and persistent lifeforce of Maud was missing from the last few minutes of the film. But then I could barely see the screen for tears as the heartbreaking story concluded.

This biographical tale would be too slow for the stage. The real life of Maud Lewis is perhaps even more tragic than the film version. But enough of her life force is captured to create a thoughtful and haunting piece of cinema that deserves two hours of your life to view.

Maudie is being shown in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 4 and Thursday 17 August.