Monday, 31 March 2014

Game of Thrones, season four, episode one

If there exists, somewhere, an ounce of Game of Thrones fatigue, there was no evidence of it on Thursday evening. A collection of hardy fans queued patiently on a bitterly cold March evening, waiting for admittance to the Movie House, Dublin Road, and the first night of the the Belfast Film Festival. Winter was coming.

In securing a prized preview of the newest episode of HBO’s fantasy drama, the Festival has pulled off something of a coup. Yet it is a testament also to the central role currently occupied by the American cable giant in the development of Northern Ireland as an important hub for film and television. Game of Thrones is a bona fide juggernaut and its ongoing production in the region speaks to the success it has so far enjoyed during its four-year stay. 

By extension, the Belfast Film Festival sits as the creative showpiece in an increasingly relevant filmmaking landscape. It also flies the flag for a city keen to establish itself as a producer of high-end output — both foreign and domestic — and one which is home to a bustling, diverse artistic sector. HBO has long enjoyed a reputation as a purveyor of material rich in appeal from both a commercial and innovative standpoint. That it should contribute to the Festival’s slate is a bonus for the many local Thrones fans who take great pride in Northern Ireland’s contribution to this realisation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin’s towering literary saga. 

With series regular Ian McElhinney in attendance, the organisers were good enough to put on two separate screenings of season four’s opening instalment, Two Swords. Of the 7000 hopeful applicants, 500 lucky, excited souls were on hand for a sneak peek some two weeks before the rest of the world gets to join in. 

Picking up, roughly, at the halfway point of Martin’s third volume, A Storm of Swords, Thursday evening’s delights began with the calculating Tywin Lannister (an always brilliant Charles Dance) destroying the great sword of Sean Bean’s late, tragic Ned Stark. In melting it down to forge two new blades he is essentially usurping the Starks’ proud heritage. By tossing its wolfskin scabbard into the furnace, he finally dismisses the threat so chillingly snuffed out in season three. 

For a show big on statements, it is a considered and nuanced opening sequence. It suggests, now more than ever, that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are confident custodians of HBO’s most valuable asset. Indeed, Game of Thrones occupies a curious place in the zeitgeist. A series of peerless majesty, it straddles the divide between screens large and small. It may be beamed into living rooms on a weekly basis but the content is undeniably cinematic in nature. Its arrival on the large screen may be unfamiliar but the novelty is, nonetheless, entirely fitting given the spectacular, arch fantasy at its core. 

From the moment that Emilia Clarke and her dragons appear, one is struck by the ease with which it all translates to the scale of a movie theatre. As the messianic, quietly ruthless Daenerys Targaryen, Clarke has grown into the role with each passing year. Alongside McElhinney’s stoic Barristan Selmy, the ‘Mother of Dragons’ occupies one of the sprawling tale’s more compellingly fantastical arcs. 

Equally thrilling is the introduction of fan favourite Oberyn Martell, the hot-tempered, hypersexual nobleman intent on seeking revenge for a murdered sister. Pedro Pascal carries, with ease, Martell’s potent brew of charm, cunning and menace. His crackling interplay with star turn Peter Dinklage offers a delicious hint of what is to come. As he slides through his debut like liquid mercury, the casting represents another inspired choice by the Benioff-Weiss think tank.

Game of Thrones is now running on all cylinders though it has not completely abandoned the notion of attracting new viewers. On more than one occasion, the usually taut dialogue slips into exposition at the expense of the story. It is not a burden to relive the myriad events leading up to this point but the more it happens, the more it jars. With any luck, this need to rake over the past will have dissipated by the time season four truly breaks out.

As ever, much is packed into the 50 minute running time and the final scenes featuring Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) and Maisie Williams’s Arya Stark ably captures all that makes Thrones great. Funny and foul-mouthed, violent and visceral, the duo’s encounter with a band of murderous marauders is a classic summation of the jagged alliances and lust for vengeance that have always defined the show. The final corruption of Arya is met not as tragedy but as triumph. It is in these contradictions that the real strengths lie. 

For the Belfast Film Festival, its association with HBO is an impressive start, an admirable response to obvious public appetites. As a means of getting people through the door and excited for the rest of the programme, it is a fairly inspired choice. Long may it continue. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Starred Up

The beginning and end of Starred Up, David Mackenzie’s brutally frank prison drama, take place within the confines of the film’s nameless penitentiary. The world outside the walls may as well be the Moon for all the relevance it has to any of the proceedings within them. Revisiting the spare immediacy of Hallam Foe and Young Adam — and aping, in style, if not narrative, Jacques Audiard’s startlingly realistic A Prophet —  Mackenzie’s powerful depiction of the British penal jungle is a claustrophobic meditation on the collapse of social conventions and controls. 

Opening with the invasive inspection of stoic, newly arrived 19-year-old inmate Eric Love — ‘starred up’ from a young offenders’ institution — events are set against the drearily evocative backdrops of Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol and Lisburn’s Maze prison. Forget the tabloid tales of comfortable sofas and Sky Sports, Love’s new home is cramped, desolate and utterly horrifying. Indeed, it is somewhat fitting that Northern Ireland, a place not unfamiliar with the concept of Her Majesty’s pleasure, should be able to provide locations as truly desperate as these. This is not the gothic cathedral of Stephen King’s Shawshank, nor is it imbued with the mellow, familial elegance of his green mile. If Eric wasn’t mad going in, it is likely he would emerge a lesser man.

Eric is sane, of course, but he is not exactly well adjusted. A product of the system, and a longtime ward of the state, his crimes are many, his senses honed, even at his relatively young age, to an almost perfect degree. His first action upon earning a moment’s privacy is to fashion a shank from a razor blade and a toothbrush, a coldly efficient use of time and materials. Within hours of arriving he has accidentally beaten a fellow prisoner senseless, induced a riot and bitten a guard’s penis. It is a hectic opening, though, given the obvious savagery of Eric and his jailers, not entirely surprising. 

In the lead role, Jack O’Connell excels, reducing his murderous ring leader of 2008’s terrifying Eden Lake to little more than a petulant lout. Featured already this month in the deliciously overblown 300 sequel, his performance here is undoubtedly one of searing authenticity. It marks him out as an up-and-comer of genuine talent. Eric is, with the best will in the world, set to spend much of his life inside and O’Connell is careful not to play him as someone with any plans beyond the next meal. Incarceration is his reality, his touchstone and, in spite of the efforts of some of those around him, he has few designs on anything else. Significantly, the reasons for his being locked away are never articulated. Like all that exists beyond the horizon of high concrete walls, they are irrelevant. 

With the aid, however, of Rupert Friend’s tutor, Oliver, Eric slowly comes out of his shell. He learns to offer gratitude, practise self-control, conciliate; he even gains a tea mug with his name on it. These are small steps on the road, not to redemption, but to survival. 

Friend is particularly fascinating. A hazily-motivated civilian counsellor who hints at significant personal baggage, he may leave at any moment but clearly seeks, and finds, solace in this grim edifice of HMP Wherever. He is the one calming figure in an unsteady environment where dangerous men live on top of each other, where jailhouse flunkies are used for very specific purposes — mobile phones can fit into many small spaces it seems — and where sexual proclivities are born of necessity: “It’s fuckin prison innit?”

In the midst of all the grime rests a surprisingly tender family tale. Glum Australian character actor, Ben Mendelsohn, is a seriously gifted performer and, as prison enforcer Nev Love, he turns in a brilliantly layered portrayal. 

As it happens he is also Eric’s wayward father, torn between keeping the population in line, at the behest of his sinister benefactor (Peter Ferdinando), and providing some level of foul-mouthed guidance to his defiant offspring. Nev’s is a contorted moral code and sure, the circumstances of the reunion may be far from ideal, but, in his quieter moments, he is solid in the conviction that his son’s best interests are of foremost concern. 

It is unfortunate that the bravery on show comes under threat from the kind of overheated, underdeveloped mawkishness that defines the final twenty minutes. Quite why Mackenzie decided to follow this route is confusing considering the atmosphere of vicious realism in which his picture ultimately thrives. The tenderness of the finale is far more apt, a suggestion that simple contact is as essential to humanity as the need to endure. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

There are few auteurs in cinema more distinctive than Wes Anderson, the quietly confident Texan whose films have proved a subtly dazzling antidote to Hollywood's penchant for rote excess. He is everything that mass audiences are supposed to dislike: curiously whimsical, slightly off-kilter -- the anti-Michael Bay if you will.

Yet, he continues to produce work of a superlative standard, occupying that restlessly idiosyncratic corner of American cinema populated by kindred spirits such as Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. With his eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson once again strikes out in a new direction. He brings with him, however, the visual tropes and narrative flourishes that have defined him since his superbly left field debut Bottle Rocket

Precisely how Anderson divines his ideas is known only to him. They are the products, obviously, of a keenly creative mind and The Grand Budapest Hotel shows Anderson in full flight. This is lively and imaginative, confident and controlled. It is quite brilliant. 

Dispense with the need for an easily accessible plot and Anderson's films becomes infinitely rewarding. He is not one to deal in obscure or abstract art house fare — The Royal Tenenbaums was, ultimately, a recognisable tale of family dysfunction — but his output can be an acquired taste. Indeed taste, perhaps above all else, is an essential element here, sometimes good, sometimes horrible, never unseen. 

Opening, for no apparent reason, with a young girl reading alone in the shadow of a bust dedicated to a man known only as ‘the Author’, the setting is as gratuitous as it is vivid: a snowy Soviet park handily dressed with a trio of singing elders. The next stage shows the Author (Tom Wilkinson) introducing the volume in the girl’s possession, namely his book about the eponymous old hostelry. In typical Anderson style his second intro is populated with charming irrelevancies: a mischievous child with a pop gun; Wilkinson’s narration presented as a bulletin-like piece to camera. From the beginning the director’s confidence is almost tangible. 

This is a picture of multiple layers, peeled repeatedly in its initial stages to open up fresh angles and lines to follow. The succeeding sequence sees the Author’s younger self — an amusingly upright Jude Law — holidaying in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. His lodging of choice is the draughty, ‘enchanting old ruin’ of the title, replete with faded grandeur and equally weathered kitsch. The Author, in turn, learns of the hotel’s lively history from its urbane owner, Zero Moustafa (the ever impressive F. Murray Abraham).

As the chronology shifts once more, Zero is re-introduced as Tony Revolori’s lowly lobby boy at the luxurious Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a place of class and discretion, ruled over by his mentor, and elegant chief concierge, Monsieur Gustave. As Gustave, Ralph Fiennes is a whirlwind of precise manners, boundless avarice and preening self-regard. It is a hilarious depiction of a truly original character and Fiennes luxuriates in every last word of his refined, expletive-marked dialogue. Given his largely austere résumé, it is easy to forget Fiennes’s facility for comedy and, unfortunately for the rest of the cast, he leaves little room for anyone else.

That is not to suggest any struggles from his fellow players. Newcomer Revolori is more than a match for Fiennes, his deadpan delivery bouncing nicely off the veteran’s biting one-liners and withering verbosity. Jeff Goldblum shines as a steady attorney, the only sane person in a hilariously unhinged plot. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe stand out also as scumbags for the ages, the former a raven-haired manchild, the latter his creepy fixer. Even Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman pop up too, sporting ridiculous beards and strange haircuts. By the time Harvey Keitel appears as a bald convict, it is clear that this was a project on which serious talent was jostling for work. 

That said, not everyone slots in seamlessly. Edward Norton, normally so watchable, is inexplicably uncomfortable. Saoirse Ronan, herself no stranger to acting excellence, seems to have missed the joke altogether. 

The labyrinthine plot borders on indulgent, though, mercifully, it is never dull. As Gustave, Zero and the rest tear around Mitteleuropa in pursuit of the key to a wealthy heiress’s fortune (one of the suave concierge’s many aged lovers), the story and repartee retain a relentless cadence.

As ever, longtime collaborator Robert Yeoman ably captures Anderson’s lushly coloured, Thirties vision. By contrast, his early frames are filled with the sort of folksy, staid quirkiness for which Anderson is known. The energetic camera soaks in the Grand Budapest’s rich palette with as much efficiency as it invigorates the idyllic alpine splendour of its location. From time to time, the duo reach back into the annals of early 20th century European animation, putting to use tiny moving silhouettes and delicate cardboard funiculars. These are mere quaint trappings, of course, but they undoubtedly complement the depths of the experience.

As a piece of pure storytelling, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fantastically enjoyable yarn and Anderson, working from his own script as before, instills it with his usual sense of relaxed, dysfunctional farce. For those wishing to invest in it, there await rewards aplenty. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Film Hub NI

Northern Ireland’s film exhibition sector continues to benefit and grow thanks to the efforts of Film Hub NI. Still in its first year of existence, this initiative, which is based at Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) and sits within Queen’s University’s Culture & Arts Department, forms the Northern Ireland arm of the Film Audience Network. The Network, established by the British Film Institute (BFI), seeks to provide support, investment and information to the specialised film arena throughout the United Kingdom. 

According to interim project manager, Hugh Odling-Smee, ‘At its heart the Film Hub is an audience development program and what the BFI is trying to do is to put investment into showing more specialised and cultural films.’ He points out that the aim is not simply to base such activities in London, hoping that regional theatres, like QFT, take part. Instead, there is a sustained move to be ‘proactive about assisting film clubs, film societies, local authority arts venues and so on to take cinema, and specialised cinema, more seriously as a programming tool.’ These bodies constitute the film exhibition sector and it is on them that Film Hub NI is concentrating its efforts. 

Specialised film is defined, basically, as that sitting outside the realm of the commercial multiplexes, though it should not be taken as an euphemism for obscure or unfriendly. Foreign language pictures, documentaries and classic movies all fall within the scope of this area and it is these genres which Film Hub NI is keen to promote. ‘To a certain extent it’s about consciousness and people being aware of films,’ says Odling-Smee. ‘I don’t think that commercial cinemas are scared of specialised film. There’s no snobbery but their marketing system and processes aren’t really designed to sell those kind of films.’

Local audiences, however, are more and more receptive to specialised content. Odling-Smee recalls the success of the French multiple Oscar-winner, The Artist, which pulled in hefty crowds at both QFT and mainstream venues. ‘There used to be the old joke about people not wanting to watch films with subtitles. I don’t think that really happens in the same way anymore. I think people are a lot more culturally aware of that sort of stuff, there’s a lot less fear and people are more willing to take a punt.’ Exposure, he suggests, is crucial: ‘Our job is to make sure that the films are available, in their area, to see.’

Film Hub NI’s second round of funding, which opened on 4th March, has not been ignorant of commercial outlets as a means of spreading niche fare. The Strand in east Belfast, a stately old landmark in that part of the city, will receive investment to allow for experimentation with programming. ‘What we would like them to do is feel that they can take some risks,’ says Odling-Smee. Off the back of this funding the Strand intends to work with pensioner groups in developing a schedule of features from the Forties and Fifties.

Odling-Smee is quick to highlight the fact that the exhibition sector, as it stands currently, is far from a sparsely populated one. Societies, clubs and festivals exist from Dungannon to Newry. Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart also looks set to build its own club with the aid of Film Hub NI. Newcastle Community Cinema — voted the best film society in the UK two years running — ‘do amazing things’ he says. Recently, a showing of Jaws took place at an outdoor swimming pool in the town. ‘It’s a really innovative way of programming; an innovative way of creating a film experience,’ adds Odling-Smee. ‘What we want to do is take that baseline and develop it and put investment into it.’

That investment by Film Hub NI is substantial. ‘It’s certainly the biggest, in this sector, that there has ever been,’ he says. A total of £800k will be made available to members over the next four years and membership is open to all capable of demonstrating a clear commitment to the Hub’s objectives. The funding arrangements are divided into two tiers of up to £15k and £9k respectively. Given the relatively small sums required to exhibit a specialised film, says Odling-Smee, the figures quoted are significant. ‘There is a value for money element to this. It’s about getting as many people as we possibly can in to see films; building the audience up from quite a low level in Northern Ireland.’

The recognition that cinema plays more than a single role — be it one of distraction, commentary, or expression — is central to Film Hub NI’s remit. ‘It has a place as an entertainment in people’s lives but I think, more and more, there is an awareness that, culturally, it has a lot to say,’ says Odling-Smee, invoking one of the best films to spring from these shores in recent years. ‘I think something like Good Vibrations was very interesting because it was a piece of art that came from Northern Ireland which was full of ideas about what art means… Those kind of films can be tremendously satisfying.’ 

In a society as particular as Northern Ireland, there are positives to be gained through such an approach. In Odling-Smee’s view, film crosses religious boundaries and divides. ‘It’s a very universal art form. It’s not favoured by one community or one group. It has its benefits in terms of where we can reach and where we can go with it.’

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

How to lose games and alienate people

My latest article over on

'By refusing to engage with fans’ genuine concerns, casting any discord as the mark of a fringe minority, Tan is essentially telling paying customers where they can stick their unease. He comes from a culture where the rich and powerful expect (and receive) deference. In these circumstances no questioning of one’s methods by mere proles is countenanced. Wherever Tan hopes to garner such cloying approval, South Wales is the last place he should be looking.'

Check it out here.

Monday, 3 March 2014


Liam Neeson’s transformation into a hulking action movie star still carries a certain degree of novelty charm. From playing Oskar Schindler to portraying Hannibal Smith, his career has taken a somewhat unexpected turn since that iconic collaboration with Steven Spielberg. 

In 2008, Taken, a grittily violent slice of wanton entertainment, signalled Neeson’s rebirth. Its toxic reviews and crassly Europhobic plot (teenage daughter goes to France against her dad’s wishes and is kidnapped immediately. Dad goes to France. Kills everyone) failed to dampen audience enthusiasm for its lead’s hard-bitten impersonation of every Charles Bronson role committed to film. It was a significant box office success and suggested that there was money to be made from unleashing Neeson’s imposing figure on evildoers worldwide.

Further roles in similarly-themed actioners followed thereafter. The Grey and The A-Team were decent. Others, such as Taken 2 and Unknown, were frankly dreadful. Neeson is a working actor of course, in spite of his undoubted success, and at times he simply appears loath to reject the job. Whatever his motivations, at 61 years of age he shows no signs of slowing down.

His second collaboration with Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra — also responsible, on a more positive note, for ghostly Spanish horror The OrphanageNon-Stop is typical of the middling, schlocky, check-your-brain-at-the-door material in which Neeson is now a familiar fixture. One should have no expectations of being treated to anything other than a mildly entertaining and derivative hijacked-plane drama. There is nothing new, or remotely nuanced here beyond a topical fixation with the apparent terrors of mobile technology. That said, it is not as brutally uninteresting as a naff marketing campaign might otherwise indicate. Neeson remains an engaging presence and, for all Non-Stop’s rote predictability, there is just enough to save it from complete ignominy.

As federal air marshall Bill Marks, the Ballymena actor checks all the necessary tormented-protagonist boxes. He glowers, touches pictures of his daughter and speaks in gruff tones. He even stirs his snifter with a toothbrush. His passport says ‘Belfast’, his accent less so. Set to board a flight from New York to London, he begs his supervisor to grant him a quick turnaround. He can’t be in London for more than a day, he growls down the phone. His problem with the Big Smoke is never revealed. Perhaps it’s the weather?

Anyway, his brief time at the gate introduces all of the significant co-passengers before locking them in a claustrophobic steel tube for the next 90 minutes. The usual archetypes are present and correct: the comforting crew (Lupita Nyong’o, slumming it after 12 Years a Slave, alongside the always lovely Michelle Dockery) and reassuringly British pilots; a brash NYPD cop; a Muslim doctor; a nervous traveller. So far so unoriginal. In the seat next to Marks is Julianne Moore’s chirpy frequent flier, an irritating and deliberately suspect ally for much of the duration.

None of it is especially interesting until Neeson’s cell starts buzzing with anonymous messages promising airborne chaos unless $150 million is transferred to the obligatory shady bank account. From that point on, a taut enough little mystery thriller develops as the taciturn hero stalks the aisles attempting to weed out the perpetrator. There may be inevitable and numerous plot chasms — how does the villain get our Liam’s number again? — but jettison the need for highbrow things like, say, logic and Non-Stop becomes eminently bearable. 

With his adversary warning of a death every twenty minutes, the marshal is forced to go full federal and dispense with any inflight niceties. This includes, horrifyingly, turning off the wi-fi. The twenty minute segments maintain the pace and the way in which that particular threat is fulfilled displays a surprisingly clever level of manipulation.

Collet-Serra manages to keep his film interesting by shifting the focus of suspicion from seat to seat. The identity of the antagonist is fairly obvious from an early stage but there are ample opportunities for those assumptions to fade. Indeed, with all signs pointing in his direction, Marks seems in danger of morphing into something more sinister, a twist hovering in the background. 

The mystery is literally blown up before the finale, however, as it all descends into a cloud of generic CGI, slow motion gunplay and hilariously bad dialogue (“Come on you wankah!”). The reasons behind the conspiracy turn out to be so ludicrous that they may well have been dreamed up seconds before the cameras rolled  a cringe-inducing commentary on United States foreign policy. Or something. 

Whatever Non-Stop’s deficiencies, few stem from the name above the title. Neeson is still good value for the price of a ticket and fans of his newer populist output will find much to cheer about. Anyone expecting Schindler’s List needs to catch the next flight. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.