Review: The Bowie Experience

The Bowie Experience. SSE Arena, Belfast. 4 February 2017
Reviewed for GiggingNI.

The Bowie Experience at the SSE Arena, Belfast

The Bowie Experience at the SSE Arena, Belfast

Billed as the ‘World’s Number 1 Celebration of David Bowie’ Bowie Experience has been running in one form or another since 1997, earning a solid reputation as homage to the late Mr Jones, particularly during those fallow years when the one-time Thin White Duke retired from the stage. In the year since Bowie’s death, shows like this offer an opportunity to experience a ‘greatest hits’ package with some of the iconic dressing that has become synonymous with our idea of what made Bowie Bowie….

[read the rest of the review on GiggingNI here]

The Bowie Experience is currently on tour across the UK and Ireland. For more information check out their website at


Carrie Fisher (In Memoriam)

Carrie Fisher in Channel 4's Catastrophe (2015)

Carrie Fisher in Channel 4’s Catastrophe (2015)


Carrie Fisher was great, wasn’t she?

We could talk at length about Fisher’s iconic role in Star Wars, for it is without doubt the thing for which most people identify her with. But that’s barely scraping the surface of her career,  let alone her individual self.

While she wasn’t prolific she was a fine performer, a brilliant comic talent often overlooked. She could be strong, sexy, scary,  solemn, graceful, vulnerable, powerful and more.

Her sometimes problematic status as a sex symbol through Star Wars (and that exploitational bikini) rather pushed her actual talent to one side. I think of her knife edge psychopathy in The Blues Brothers or her caustic dry wit and disarming charm in sitcom Catastrophe – strong women were her forte, and she made even the unloveable likeable.

She was a wicked writer too and a script doctor par excellence, leaving her mark on many more projects than she ever got credit for.  From Hook to the Star Wars prequels, Fisher’s skills with dialogue saw her raise the bar of many Hollywood smash hits without most of us ever catching on.

And damn, she owned her mistakes and her mental health battles. Her personality ensured people talked about addictions, drugs, and mental frailty. She broke the taboos repeatedly and gave so many of us the strength and encouragement to do similar. She brought it into the open, instead of hiding it shamefully under a bush. Her candid approach and self-deprecating style was refreshing and welcome,  disarming and empowering. We focus so much on Fisher’s screen appearances that we risk forgetting Fisher’s star power transcended any one role,  one responsibility. It isn’t the Star Wars Fisher that is the real icon,  but this glorious powerhouse of strength,  opinion and talent.

Gone too soon,  but what a legacy she leaves.

Carrie Frances Fisher
Born 21 October 1956. Died 27 December 2016.

Publicity image of Carrie Fisher

Publicity image of Carrie Fisher

Robert JE Simpson, 28 December 2016

Film Review: Assassin’s Creed (2016)

On paper this has potential. A big budget adaptation of a popular computer game series of Assassins and Templar Knights featuring the talents of Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and the ever-handsome Michael Fassbender. On paper.
Unfortunately the film I saw was a turgid test of my attention and bladder. A convoluted narrative that had something to do with destiny,  time travel,  vengeance and a steampunk fusion of science and Biblical icons. Oh and patricide. There’s a lot of daddy issues in this one. 

In spite of a near two hour running time, it completely fails to drum up any real compassion for any of the characters. In the gaming world swarms of uber-cool aloof personalities might capture one’s attention, but here the sum affect is like watching actors who just want the paycheck without any real effort 

There’s minimal threat or drama,  not helped by the time hopping device. The action sequences betray their CG inspirations,  and deprived of the interactivity of actual game play become gradually inoccuous. 

It’s like a pretentious take on the Da Vinci Code and lacking all the personality. 

Forget about this one. If you’re a gamer stick to the games,  if you’re a film fan treat yourself to anything else. 

Robert JE Simpson

Assassin’s Creed
Directed by Justin Kurzel
116 mins
Released 21 December 2016 (US)
1 January 2017 (UK)

Film review: Blood Father (2016)

Blood Father. US poster

Blood Father. US poster

John Link (Mel Gibson) is an ex-con, eeking out a quiet existence as a tattooist in a trailer park, He hasn’t seen his wayward daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) for years. Until a violent gun crime brings her back to his doorstep in desperate search for help. Reunited, its a race against time to escape the hitmen seeking revenge on Lydia…

Its not the first image in the film, but our first glimpse of Mel Gibson is an unforgiving close-up of his face – greying beard, face etched and weathered with deep lines – as he speaks to his meeting of former alcoholics. This is a man who has lived through troubles, a survivor. Its not just the face of an ex-alcoholic, ex-con, ex-Vet character, but that of Mel Gibson, the Hollywood star, a man similarly troubled by scandal and alcoholism. An actor whose career has suffered as a result of his off-screen antics.

Blood Father is a film rich in redemptive storylines. It is also a film in which Gibson’s screen capabilities can be reconsidered. By the close of play, Gibson’s talents are unarguably redeemed – and this alone makes it worth the price of the cinema ticket. We’ve forgotten just how likeable a rogue Gibson is – how much talent he actually holds. One almost wishes we could have him back as an ageing Mad Max – because damn sure he’s quite capable of returning to that franchise.

Whilst the plotting is far from original, this is a solid film with convincing performances, and one which is more deserving of attention than it has so far received. A US release during the summer months quickly saw the film move to VOD, but its better than average fair. Since the success of Taken, we’ve become a little tired with distant father’s avenging and protecting their daughters – but the formula goes back to Michael Winner’s Death Wish, and Blood Father has the appeal of a 1970s B-movie. The production is old school – the effects are stripped back, deprived of CGI we’re given something more visceral in its reality. Budget limitations are no hindrance to the ability of the film to pack a satisfying punch.

There does seem to be a rule that male Hollywood megastars  should make at least one more ponderous family-oriented thriller with an independent company as they hit their 60s. Whilst a little more action-oriented than some of those, there’s still emotive stuff here. Like War On Everyone (also out this week in the UK) the choices made by the protagonists have us question our own moral code and accept a certain ambiguity. Treading that fine line between criminality and legality has always provided cinematic sustenance and long may it remain.

Erin Moriarty never quite convinces the viewer that she’s a somewhat naive 17 year old.  She carries too much confidence. One feels that she’s playing her father – though there’s a warmth to their exchanges that have us rooting for the pair as they make their way across the country to escape the vengeful gang members.

If one overlooks the box ticking feel – Spanish gangs, Nazi sympathisers, alcoholic distant father, pretty teen on the skids, revenge, motels, the desert – this is a diverting bit of entertainment.  Part road movie, part morality play, all Mel.

Blood Father
directed by Jean-François Richet
88 mins
Released: 31 August 2016 (France), 7 October 2016 (UK)
Available to buy/download in US now from here.

Thanks to Movie House Cinemas for facilitating the preview.


Film Review: War on Everyone (2016)

A couple of New Mexico cops (Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña) sail a path close to the wind, dealing their own brand of justice on criminals much to the frustration of their boss. That is until they become embroiled in a conspiracy of international proportions…

War On Everyone - UK quad poster

War On Everyone – UK quad poster

Right from the opening scenes War on Everyone has a habit of welcome disorientation. It looks like a 1970s cop film, it frequently feels like one too with its swaggering leads, stereotyped characters and gorgeous production design. And it’s only a running thread about X Boxes that cements it in the present. It’s like the bastard offspring of Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Nic Roeg and Graham Linehan. Clever, self-aware, sumptuous. And also quite possibly too intelligent for its own good.

There’s still a rich Irish humour and characterisation in John Michael McDonagh’s third film (following on from The Guard and Calvary), but we’re far from Ireland in a tale that twists from New Mexico to Iceland. Moving beyond our shores might just earn McDonagh the global audience he deserves.

Its tempting to complain about the racial stereotyping and broad brushstrokes used throughout, but the whole thing gels together well and the dry wit takes us beyond the borderline offensive nature of much of it. Instead the chortles advance to belly laughs and all is forgiven.

Theo James’ English aristocrat is a little obvious as the villain of the piece – but his degenerate character not only harkens back to generations of aristocratic corruption, but bang up to date with memories of Operation Yewtree fresh. That blend of the present and the 1970s vibe does perhaps suggest a desire to dish out a brand of justice on the celebrity perpetrators of such antics. That this is McDonagh’s second film in a row with a undercurrent of sexual abuse cannot go unnoticed – his treatment here in stark contrast to that in the excellent Calvary.

While McDonagh’s cops are almost oblivious to the letter of the law with regard policing, its impossible not to find sympathy with some of their approach – particularly in proportion to the crimes investigated. Skarsgård’s Terry Monroe is seemingly the more extreme of the pair, but its him that finds an inner peace, gaining a pseudo-family and learning how to be unselfish. Peña’s Bob Bolaño meanwhile is the family man who seems reluctant to be in the position.

Technically the film is a work of art – slick production design and camerawork, with compositions that draw the viewer in; combined with a clever soundtrack including a running Glen Campbell gag that heightens the surreal nature of the drug-infused antics.

There’s more than a little Tarantino to this, and memories of the director’s earlier efforts will be stirred. But this isn’t a carbon copy – it offers something else, a narrative that demands questions about our own moral code. Like McDonagh’s earlier efforts, it rewards inquisitive viewers and demands a rewatch.

War On Everyone
directed by John Michael McDonagh
97 mins
Released: 7 October 2016 (UK and Ireland)
Thanks to Movie House Cinemas for facilitating the preview.

Film review: Eddie the Eagle (2016)

Eddie the Eagle - US 1 sheet poster

Eddie the Eagle – US 1 sheet poster

Eddie Edwards is determined to compete in the Olympics. Only problem is, he’s a sickly child and driving his parents mad with his athletic inability. Until he hits upon the idea of competing in the winter Olympics.
Through sheer stubbornness Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards takes himself to Europe to train as the first British competitor in the ski jump in over 50 years, en route for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and a place in the history books and the nation’s affection…

The slightly gormless-looking Eddie Edwards is a legendary figure to British folk of a certain age. His unlikely performance at the Winter Olympics turned him into a household name, a figure of affectionate fun, and the epitome of true British sportsmanship – God loves a try-er.

Dexter Fletcher’s big-screen version of the story plays up the pathos and pantomime, delivering a heart-warming tale of an underdog oblivious to adversity. Rich in laughs and tears in equal measure, Eddie has all the makings of a comedy classic.

Taron Egerton as Eddie is virtually unrecognisable from his turn in Kingsman, proving his range and comic timing. He reminds this reviewer a lot of Jude Law, but also captures the broad character of the real Edwards in a way that will have you scouring YouTube for clips to verify the authenticity. Keith Allen and Jo Hartley are nicely restrained as Eddie’s long-suffering parents.

Egerton spends long portions of the film solo, emphasising the rogue nature of Eddie’s struggle against just about everyone, including his parents and the British Olympic selection board. When he’s not alone he’s paired up with Hugh Jackman as the enigmatic American ex-ski-jumper-turned-reluctant-coach Bronson Peary. Jackman oozes a Fonz-like cool that juxtaposes nicely with Egerton’s geekish awkwardness, with an onscreen chemistry that is infectious. Eddie’s own journey against adversity serves to bring out the humanity in Bronson – Eddie and Bronson both struggle to fit in until they find the strength in each other.

The lesson we’re expected to take, as we’re reminded several times throughout the film, is that it isn’t the winning that matters, but the struggle. Hard to accept when you’re in the middle of a struggle, but it certainly makes for a better story.

Surprisingly the Calgary Winter Olympics of 1988 have now inspired two rather delightful comic tales in the form of Eddie the Eagle and Cool Runnings. Both films share as subject unlikely heroes, characters defying expectations and competing against the grain. They’re also doomed to fail (history tells us that), but in failing they inspire the world. Last year’s Shooting for Socrates attempted this with Northern Irish football, but Socrates suffers from a clouded agenda, an over-large cast of characters and an inability to escape Troubles narratives.

Fletcher’s film is slick and accomplished with high production values and a keen eye for period detail. Peppered with strong supporting turns (none delighted me more than that of Fletcher’s ex-Press Gang co-star Paul Reynolds) and snappy dialogue, Eddie the Eagle may take liberties with the historical facts, but the myth is guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye and to inspire.

Eddie the Eagle
directed by Dexter Fletcher
105 mins
Released: 28 March 2016 (UK Previews), 1 April 2016 (UK General Release)
26 February 2016 (US)

Trailer for Eddie the Eagle

Film review: Victoria (2015)

UK quad poster for Victoria

UK quad poster for Victoria

Victoria (Laia Costa) has been living in Berlin for a few months, a Madrid-native, she works in a little cafe and enjoys partying. On a night out she meets a group of men who encourage her to join them for a late party on a rooftop. Before dawn breaks her world is thrown into chaos as she finds herself a participant in a bank heist and faced with deadly consequences.

Sebastian Schipper’s 2 1/2 hour film has been generating quite a buzz since making its debut early in 2015. As it finally hits the UK much has been made about its ambitious running time and completion in one take, and rightly so – this is a brave and bold technical experiment that pays off.

One cannot help but marvel at the ambition of the project. Filmed with one camera in one constantly moving shot, in real time one morning in April 2014 (attempted three times in three nights – this is reportedly the final night’s take), over a large district in Berlin, with improvised performances based around a script that was reportedly no more than 12 pages long. No mean feat.

The performances are solid and convincing, with just enough awkwardness and naturalism (aided by everyone’s broken English) to make proceedings seem real. The camera positions itself throughout as a passive observer – consistently trailing the protagonists, putting the viewer in a ride-along position, an unacknowledged fly-on-the-wall, part-of-but-detached from events.

Directors have been exploring the long-take for as long as cinema has existed, constantly testing the limitations of technology. Past-masters include Scorsese, Welles and Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) for example was an attempt at a one-take film within the restraints of the time: a reel of film lasted for around ten minutes, and Hitchcock attempts to hide every other break. Had he been able to run for the whole 80 minutes with one mag of film, it seems pretty likely he would have tried.  But where Hitchcock and Schipper differ significantly is in their in-camera range. Schipper allows his DP (Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) to approach the visuals in a relatively pedestrian manner – passive, non-invasive, restrained – rather than utilise the camera as a part of the story-telling process. It is only in a handful of specific moments (at the cafe piano, in the car, the hotel room) that the camera dares to break lines and become more inventive. While one applauds the sheer tenacity to keep the camera running, there is some disappointment that the camera couldn’t have been used more ambitiously. A gauntlet thrown for another filmmaker to pick up.

By virtue of the real-time playout we allow for the meandering opening to the film, the long rambling periods during which the characters sound each other out before the drama is unleashed proper. We become Victoria’s conscience, feeling our way through a drunken, pill-enhanced haze, slightly befuddled and easily led by the moment. Once the stakes are raised following an interrupted moment of tenderness at the cafe the film comes into its own, and we’re brought on a heist journey quite unlike anything previously committed to the screen. From there the tension builds, is released, builds again and heads to an unexpectedly honest denouement.

For sheer scale, Victoria begs to be watched and devoured.  If it wasn’t for the real-time narrative, I’d be complaining that it slightly overstays its welcome. Similarly, this isn’t the last word in one-take filmmaking, and I hope other filmmakers will push the boundaries further still. A bold experiment.

Victoria plays at the QFT Belfast from 1 – 14 April 2016, and across the UK & Ireland.
Victoria is available to rent or buy online from Amazon
Victoria is available to pre-order on Blu-Ray and DVD (released 23 May 2016)

directed by Sebastian Schipper
138 mins, Cert: 15
Language: German / English (with English subtitles)
Released: 1 April 2016 (UK), Artificial Eye.
11 June 2015 (Germany)

Trailer for Victoria