Review of Cold War

Poland has become renowned for its cinema in recent years, typified by it’s 2013 Oscar winner Ida. From the director of that very movie comes Cold War, a film set during temultious times for a pair of long distance lovers. 

The film sees the leading character Wictor traveling throughout the country trying to band together the best musicians that Poland can get and recording the folk music that they play. The film has a fantastic opening shot of an extreme close up of a French horn, from here on in the film is a visual delight to behold. The ultimate objective (for Wictor) is to create a school of excellence where talent is nurtured for the cultural wellbeing and the future of the nation. Unbeknownst to him the nation is merely interested in propaganda. It is as part of this work that Wictor meets a music student named Zula, they fall in love and eventually hatch a plan to escape their oppressive existence. However they become separated at the point of crossing and instead have to live life apart for a time. It is at this point that the story takes a back seat to a certain extent in favour of visuals.

With exquisitely choreographed scenes of folk dancing depicting what would have been the communist ideal of the time, although shot entirely in black and white the film has a vividness that matches any colour film. While Cold War won’t exactly bowl people over with the plot it does more than enough visually to hold the audience’s attention. 

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Why We Cycle

The Netherlands, more than any other country, has an obsession with cycling. It is a way of life, as natural to Dutch people of all ages as breathing. In Why We Cycle; which was screened at the Nerve Centre in Derry recently as part of the Foyle Film Festival, this national pastime is explored more fully. 

In this documentary we aren’t talking about lycra wearing troops of middle-aged men taking up roads or footpaths, ringing their bells as they wizz past unsuspecting pedestrians who are using the spaces provided primarily for the latter while specially designed bike lanes lie empty. Various members of Dutch society,  as well as those visiting the  country give testimony  to how the Dutch fit the ordinary everyday cyclist into ordinary everyday life. 

This documentary tells the viewer how Dutch society has successfully integrated all in their society; from the youngest to the oldest into its mainstream transport system safely and responsibly.

What Why We Cycle does well is promote cycling as a casual pastime that anyone can take part in rather than the “sport” that participated in by dangerous obsessives who want everything their own way; which it is in danger of becoming.

It is a documentary which should be shown in every school, to every town planner and to everyone who wants to stand any hope of building a properly integrated transport system.

Filmworker tells the story of Stanley Kubrick’s right hand man.

The world of film, just like every other, is filled with unsung heroes; those people who are there to help the main actor or, as in this case, the director. Leon Vitali, the subject of documentary, Filmworker, shown as part of the Foyle Film Festival, is one of those people. After staring alongside Ryan O’Neill in Barry Lyndon, Vitali gave up a career in front of the camera for one in front of it.

Throughout the film Vitali remains forever humble; leaving it up to other contributors to expound his virtues. The lines on Vitali’s face, each one indicating the passage of time; but also so much more than that. They show experience, a life lived. 

Vitali is portrayed throughout the documentary as someone who has a thirst and ambition for what he does, however unlike the situation in most cases it is for the sake of the work alone, the finished piece rather than for satisfying his own ego or career ambitions. This is emphasised by his children who lament the fact that they didn’t see so much of him as they would have liked; although it has to be said that this is stated rather matter of fact rather than with any sense of bitterness. 

Filmmaker also keenly illustrates the sort of criticism that Vitali took upon his own shoulders regarding Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s 1999 career finale, which the director died not long after making. Much of the criticism for the movie falling upon him rather than postumously on Vitali.

Filmworker is about someone who could have easily had stardom at the other side of the camera but who doesn’t seem to regret it for one single moment. He doesn’t regret it because he got to work with one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century and as a result has become a part of cinematic history.

This is one for Stanley Kubrick fans and general film fans alike. Although it would be suggested that if you are in any way a casual and unenthused cinema goer you leave this one alone.

For the rest are you who didn’t get to see Filmworker as part of the Foyle Film Festival you can now get it in the usual formats from the usual sources.

The Eyes of Orson Welles

Orson Welles is widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time; his 1941 debut Citizen Kane is thought of by many as the greatest film ever made. In this documentary, director and writer Mark Cousins explores the many passions of Orson Welles, including many unseen before sketches, drawings and paintings. Along the way Cousins guides the audience through Welles’ many interests from his childhood in Wisconsin to youthful foreign trips, 1930s activism and his interest in African American theatre.

For anyone whose life has straddled the two most recent centuries it is hard to believe that Welles, such an innovator in cinematic arts and sciences, has not been around to witness such advancements in the world such as the internet, or, perhaps more thankfully for him has not given witness to the rise of a real life Charles Foster Kane.

The entire feel of The Eyes of Orson Welles reads as it sounds, as if the great maestro himself is looking on; looking on as Mark Cousins and we the viewer intrude upon a life that was. Throughout the film you have a sense that Orson Welles’ ghost (an alternative title perhaps) is following Cousins, but unable to control what Cousins is doing, unable to have a say. Or maybe it’s even the other way around.

As we travel with Cousins we travel with Welles’, through a lifetime of drawings and sketches and photographs, all of which would go on to inspire the many works of Orson Welles.

In between visits to old neighbourhoods, interviews with Welles’ daughter you see clips from Welles’ extensive body of acting as well as directorial work; only through this could many people, unless they be the most enthusiastic of film fan, just how extensive and important to cinema Orson Welles really was.

Although this film might be considered self indulgence to some it is without doubt an important testament to one of the most important figures in twentieth century cinema. A must watch for any film fan!

The Happy Prince

While The Happy Prince, disappointingly in many ways, is not a retelling of Oscar Wilde’s classic and well known children’s story, it is an imaginative and creative account of the last days of it’s celebrated writer. Shown at the weekend as part of the 31st Foyle Film Festival; with one of the film’s stars, Edwin Thomas, who plays Wilde’s long time friend Robbie Ross, in attendance.The Happy Prince is set just after Wilde’s release from prison and follows his life in continental Europe right up to his death which took place in Paris in 1900. It portrays Wilde as a debortous drunk who is thrown out of pubs for creating trouble. He’s on his last penny and has only a few genuine friends left. Rupert Everett, in his directorial debut, is unreasonable as an older Wilde. He is some who seems determined however to reconcile himself with his long suffering wife Constance, the narrative however does leave it open to interpretation if he was actually serious about this or not. It cannot be guaranteed that this is an authentic portrayal of course very few can tell, however as interpretation goes it seems to be the one of the better ones. These are the days long after Wilde’s hayday, although there are brief flashbacks to happier times. Colin Firth, in a relatively low key role plays Regie Turner; one of the few friends Wilde had left in is latter years. Colin Morgan, who shot to stardom as the young Merlin in the hit BBC series Merlin is unrecognisable as Bosie, and also suitably spoiled and uptight, playing the part to a tee. While relative newcomer Edwin Thomas gives an assured performance as Oscar’s longtime friend Robbie Ross. On the whole while not being wildly brilliant The Happy Prince is a good, entertaining story which entertains and interprets real life events in a way that upholds the humanity of real life characters.

Foyle Film Festival starts with a bang

There was a packed house as the Foyle Film Festival’s 31st year commenced with a gala screening of Collette on Friday night at the Brunswick Moviebowl in Derry.

The film, starring Kiera Knightly, Dominic West and Eleanor Tomlinson (she of BBC’s Poldark fame) star in this biopic of French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette; known to most simply as Collette. Most people will not be familiar with the subject of this film, however anyone who is familiar with the film Gigi starring Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan might be interested to know that Collette wrote the novel upon which the film is based.

The film is certainly sublime when it comes to costume, set design and cinematography However, what it gains in those things it sacrifices in plot. The film completely ignores two of her marriages, the birth of a daughter and the most prolific writing period of her life; thus ignoring the strong female role that could have been portrayed for that of someone who was manipulated by her first husband and hopped into bed with almost any woman that was around. 

While it is obvious that the film has tried to portray Collette as a rebellious trend setter who broke the mould that society of the day set her; it cannot be helped but to think that the achievements of the real Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette have been sacrificed by this film in the name of sensationalism. It is obvious that the film wanted to get across the fact that Collette was manipulated by her first husband, artist and writer Henry Gauthier-Villars, (also known simply as Willie) (played abily by Dominic West) and the fact that he controlled much of her earlier career; the film could have been braver and more adventurous in doing so. Collette is a reasonably watchable film, however it can’t help but be thought that it could have been a whole lot better. Instead this film tends to do more for the male gaze than the feminist cause.

The Foyle Film Festival continues until Sunday 25th November.

Atrium by Manoli Moriaty And Echo Echo Ensemble 

Whenever you are used to seeing the world from a certain angle you realise that you have a unique perspective on everything that no-one else can quite grasp. 

When this particular reviewer arrived at this particular performance the choice was offered whether to go to the top and work my way down along with the performance, or stay at the bottom and watch everything develop above me and evolve from there. 

.The later was eventually decided upon, made in part because in this rather futuristic venue it might be difficult to see over stairways as the performance progressed. Also vertigo has a nasty habit of striking at the most inappropriate moment.

The performance in question was that of Echo Echo Dance theatre company in collaboration with Manoli Moriaty, a sound artist originally from Athens but who is now based in the UK. The performance was part of the ISSTA (Irish Sound Science and Technology Association) 2018 conference, during which the notion of urban society being a contested space would be explored.
So it was that the performance began at ground level, bodies twisting and turning in slow movement, exploring the environment around them. As these strange creatures in this futuristic jungle become more aware of their surroundings. All the while a soundtrack of hypnotic, almost nauseating music is heard. These strange creatures, like currents of electricity began to explore their steel surroundings, occasionally returning to each other for comfort and warmth.

Soon these strange creatures burst into chitter chatter; as if someone had turned on a switch and they were suddenly realising the power of speech. As you watch this strange urban jungle, where evolution and electricity coexist the onlooker can feel like somewhat of a voyeur; like a David Attenborough programme, watching these newly created electrical beings coming to life and exploring a new world. The interaction between the audience and the performer at times made it seem as if the onlooker was a natural part of the environment and perhaps made that onlooker question; what is their part in this strange world. Nonetheless less the onlooker is left in the end feeling as if they are just that; an onlooker, observing this world of electrical evolution.

Echo Echo Dance theatre company’s dance and movement festival continues until the weekend. 

Simon McBride Trio give masterclass in the blues

Having appeared on stage with Queen at the age of 9 you could say that nothing fazes Simon McBride. He has drawn comparisons with the likes of Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore; his high tempo rock/blues palette has won him many fans the world over.

On Tuesday however it was to the University of Ulster’s Magee College campus in Derry that he appeared with his trio as part of the university’s ongoing music@one series of conserts; which is there for to broaden the musical horizons of student and general public alike.

Playing his own brand of rock-blues and backed up by Dave Marks on bass and Marty McCloskey? on drums it seemed at first as if the audience gathered weren’t sure how to react, many of them being sheepish music students who were perhaps beginning to tire from a morning of scholarly activity or perhaps eagerly anticipating their lunch, or (dare I say it) suffering the effects of some other student activity. In time though you could see the odd head bobbing or foot tapping.

Hard hitting anthemic rock would be the best way to describe McBride’s brand of music,  underlayered with the line of smokey blues. This is evident in many of the tracks played on the day including the opening song You Got a problem a number reminiscent of  what through time and musical evolution has become known as the power ballad; but what this particular reviewer would simply class as a great rock song. From the band’s playing and McBride’s singing it was soon clear that the students were there for a master class and didn’t realise it. The band moved swiftly on to a number with a familiar sounding title Down to the River but no, this wasn’t that classic and much underrated Bruce Springsteen classic (which is simply called The River). This was the sort of high tempo rock song with a catchy tune and lyrics you found yourself almost believing you had known all your life. The sort with guitar riffs you can sit back and admire and thumping drum beats that can’t fall to go unnoticed.

Down to the Wire ,  the next song on McBride’s reportoire is the sort of stuff that legends are made of, reminiscent of the likes of Gary Moore; by now the students were sitting up and taking full notice. From here we were taken forward about twenty years or so with a song called Change, a song with a kind of early nineties vibe about it; the sort of thing the Red Hot Chili Peppers might have produced but without the rapy bits. Dave Marks certainly could be compared to Flea, at least in playing stakes. This leads swiftly on to Fat Pockets, the type of song about someone down on their luck with next to no money that everyone can relate to. On this track the trio show that they really can blend elements of the classic and contemporary effortlessly. It’s also a track where Marty McCloskey on drums particularly comes into effect.

So Much Love to Give  is classic rock balled with a rip-roaring edge given to it by McBride’s boys.

African Queen Kidjo Delights audience in Belfast

Before this particular reviewer commences this particular review a certain amount of bias must be confessed. In the mid-nineties; while a lot of my peers were listening to hardcore rave or grunge music, artists such as Angelique Kidjo could be found in my fledgling CD collection. Indeed given how long the Beninese songstress has been on the music scene it is hard to believe that this was her first visit not just to Belfast; as was the case on this occasion, but the first time that she has played in Ireland at all – quite a coup for the international arts festival in Belfast.

She’s a UNICEF good will ambassador, she’s an advocacy ambassador and multi-award winning recording artist and last Monday night took to the stage. The critically acclaimed singer was in town to show case some of her best known songs as well as those from her latest offering, a reimagining of Talking Heads 1980 album Remain in Light, which became known for such hits as Once in a Lifetime, and The Great Curve, and which it is said was inspired by many of the rythem found in African music. So it is only natural that one of Africa’s top recording artists brings those beats back home.

 The night began with an upbeat rythem. Born Under Punches was her opening song, the lines punch out like a great political statement, “Take a look at these hands, take a look at these hands” Kidjo has a power and range to her voice that makes her audience immediately sit up, pay attention and crave more still. “All I want is to breathe” she sings melodically. The whole time Talking Heads original disappears into the mists of time and what emerges is something fresh and different that makes the song sound as if it was meant to be sung by Angelique Kidjo. Next up on the process of transformation is Cross-eyed and Painless originally a funk disco vibes song, somewhere in the back of the mind the listener can still hear the original with the new version laid over it and appreciate how it has been made completely new.

As well as her music, Angelique Kidjo is also known for her advocacy work and her work to help young girls around the world, who would otherwise be married off at a young age, achieve their goals of a productive education. In tribute to this she slows down the tone and sings a heartstring pulling lament Cauri. Moving swiftly back into Talking Heads material came Listening Wind, a song Kidjo uses to illustrate the greed and corruption that is riddling both the African continent and the world.

The Great Curve is transformed into a afro jazz number with a fast paced drum beat, and pulsating trumpet sounds, high tempo afro beats and electric guitar blend. The world moves on a woman’s hips indeed, this is another song that seems made for Angelique Kidjo

Next song on the reportoire is one neither of hers nor Talking Heads but “If you don’t know this you have not been living on planet earth”” she declared to an enthusiastic audience before the familiar beat of Pata Pata starts up (CJ: put it this way, you do know it, you just don’t know that you know it, if you search for it on Google you’ll soon be thinking “ah that one!”)

The Overload, updated by Angelique Kidjo into a song with attitude. African drum beats slow paced, electro pop turned afro rock with a smooth brass line.

Next up was the ultimate in audience participation. Angelique at this stage had well and truly seeped into the spirits of her audience and she new it. Now it was time for them to join in, not one person was uninfected with the rythem and the beat that she was spreading. Within minutes not a member of that audience wasn’t singing “Mama se Mamá se Mama Afirika” The world is Africa and Africa is the world; and the world is above all else human.
After the excitement and euphoria had lowered just a touch the magic was continued in the form of the iconic Once in a Lifetime (not on the Into Light album but a welcome addition nonetheless). The song is familiar enough to be recognised but Kidjo gives it her own twist.

The tempo was kept high and the audience participation also kept to the maximum with Tumba, a high octane catchy tune that sticks in the memory. Then comes a song that began it all, that first brought the hostess for the evening to this particular reviewer’s attention – Malaika , a melodic and tender love song in Swahili from the archives of African folk music.

Angelique Kidjo rounded off the night with her funked up version of Burning Down the House, a song not on the current album, also famously covered by Tom Jones and the Cardigans.

On the whole, while some might have expected a more extensive back catalogue to be covered by Kidjo she was there to highlight her most recent recording and did so with flash and with flair. This particular reviewer isn’t in the habit of liking an album of cover versions, often thinking it lazy and a sign that an artist’s career is slowing down, however and I hate again to show bias (“oh go on”, I hear you all cry, “you know you want to”, oh ok then) this was an inspired transformation of songs and the most energetic and enjoyable show this particular reviewer has been to. The high enjoyed by this particular event is still being felt, well done Angelique!

Mark Kermode at QFT and review of the Breadwinner

The Godfather of all film critics, Mark Kermode was in Belfast at the weekend as part of QFT’s 50th birthday celebrations.

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In conversation with Brian Henry Martin, Kermode talked about everything from his beginning in criticism and the fact that he believes that there are too many middle-class, middle-aged men in film criticism and that there needs to be more diversity. Mr. Kermode also talked about his most and least favourite film and also films that everyone else loved almost universally but he himself wasn’t so keen on. This is where the audience were brought in as several members of the audience gave their input as they gave their opinion as to what should have the dubious honour of being on this list. Mark Kermode also revealed an exclusive; new episodes were being made of the critically acclaimed Secrets of Cinema which will feature… Yes you’ve guessed it, or is it too soon to mention the “C” word?

Another anecdote in Kermode’s conversation was that he remembered criticisms of himself and his work more than he remembered the praise. In fact he acknowledged that Secrets of Cinema wasn’t universally loved, one critic from one of the UK’s leading daily newspapers bemoaned the fact that “Mark Kermode watches too many films”!

Part of the reason Mark Kermode was there was to preview his choice for the 2018 Belfast Film Festival Pick, The Breadwinner, a 2017, Irish, Canadian, Luxembourgish co-production. The Breadwinner is a beautifully animated story set in Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban. It focuses on Parvana, a young girl who spends her time with her father, who we learn from quite early on has given her daughter a sense of determination and independence; a dangerous thing for a young female in Taliban ruled Afghanistan to have. When her father, who has previously been left as an amputee following the Afghan-Soviet war, is arrested by the Taliban, Parvana; living in a country where females cannot go out in public without being chaparoned must resort to desperate measures to provide for her family. She must also however also endeavour to save her father.

Along the way she encounters many people, both friend and foe and survives through sheer determination and the memory of some of the folklore that her father has passed down to her. There is a contrast set in the film in that it is an animated film, but has very graphic adult themes such as beatings. The character of Parvana is only eleven but finds she has to grow up quickly in order to survive; indeed the audience, although tempted to think of it as a pleasant cartoon about the life of a young girl are occasionally nudged in the elbow and reminded that before their eyes is a serious drama.

Although The Breadwinner does have some heart pounding moments and does deal with some violent themes, (it is set in a turbulent land during turbulent times after all) gratuity is never resorted to. The Breadwinner is a story of triumph over adversity and determination over despair that is bound to be enjoyed by the whole family.