Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Cardboard Gangsters

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Annie Curran checks out Cardboard Gangsters, which screened at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

“Suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret” reads the wall of the gym where Jason Connolly, protagonist of Cardboard Gangsters, aggressively hits a punching bag. This mantra ultimately proves to be the lesson that Jason and his friends learn as they find themselves more and more entangled in the initially alluring world of the Darndale drug trade.

Actor John Connors, who co-wrote the dramatic crime film with director Mark O’Connor, stars as Jason. The film was largely inspired by Connors’ own experience growing up in the neighborhood, which is situated on the Northside of Dublin and is a hotbed of cyclical social problems. During a post-screening Q&A at the Cork Film Festival, O’Connor stated that since the Cardboard Gangsters are a product of their environment, their goal as filmmakers was to show the “humanity of these characters.”

Jason and his group of three childhood friends are involved in small-time drug dealing. But as economic pressures mount, Jason concedes to his friend Dano’s wishes to begin selling “brown,” even though their neighborhood has been the authoritative and tyrannical Derra Murphy’s terrain for their entire lives. As to be expected, Derra does not take kindly to the newfound business competition.

From loansharking to unplanned pregnancy, Cardboard Gangsters expertly details the variety of social problems that Darndale residents face. In one heated exchange, Jason’s friend Cobbie is called a “Nigerian,” to which he has to defend himself as “Irish bred and born,” thus highlighting the racism that remains embedded with certain facets of Irish society. These social problems do not feel heavy-handed or clichéd, which is owed to Connors and O’Connor’s authenticity of experience.

Connors gives a masterful performance as Jason, who initially does not want to take over Derra’s territory. During an early scene where Jason attempts to pick up a welfare check, his face is framed next to an advert for a “Low-Self Esteem Clinic.” This framing tells the audience everything they need to know about the problematic masculinity that is created out of the limited options in Darndale. Jason’s check is refused because he has been DJ-ing as a hobby, thus implying that his attempts to better himself through healthy choices can’t even pull him out of the cycle of crime.

Perhaps the film’s finest cinematographic achievements are the sprawling one-take tracking shots. Producer Richard Bolger joked at the Q&A about the logistical stress of shooting one scene in particular, where Jason terrorizes a man with a chainsaw. While the scene might have been an insurer’s nightmare, the results are equally terrifying and electrifying. The filmmakers frequently use the frame to emphasize how the men get trapped into a world of crime, including shots where they walk behind fences that look like jail cells and are silhouetted by smoking piles of trash.

In an effort to present every day life in Darndale, the film contains a fair amount of scenes that don’t necessarily drive the plot. This is best exhibited in the music videoesque sequences that show the characters hanging out, selling, and simply living their lives. The hip-hop and rock influenced soundtrack is made up of all-Irish musicians and mostly local Darndale musicians. The filmmakers felt it was imperative to get the music right in order to capture Darndale’s local culture. As such, one of their inspirations was the 2015 biographical film Straight Outta Compton, which details the early lives of hip-hop group N.W.A.

Cardboard Gangsters truly shows the psychological effects of not suffering the pain of discipline. The scene where Jason breaks down into his mother’s arms is one of the most poignant moments I’ve seen in recent cinema. Jason gives into his vulnerability and the results are gut-wrenching and powerful. O’Connor told the audience at Cork Film Festival that is was very important to Connors that the film showed at-risk youth that dealing drugs will never end well.

To do this more effectively, the film highlights the suffering of all of the characters, even Derra. During a tracking shot of a robbery of the liquor store, the camera zooms in on the panicked face of an alarmed employee, before focusing back on the action. This moment painfully reminds the audience that the whole community is victimized by these crimes. But additionally and most importantly, the film shows how Jason, his friends, and Derra are victimized by their own crimes, which leads to the conclusion’s violent trail of revenge. The idiom an “eye for an eye” has never rang more true.

 

Cardboard Gangsters screened on 20th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)

 

Cardboard Gangsters is set to open in cinemas across Ireland in February 2017.

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Further Beyond

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Annie Curran goes Further Beyond at the Cork Film Festival screening of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s documentary.

Further Beyond, the debut feature documentary from filmmaking team Desperate Optimists — Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor — is not a biopic about eighteenth century Irish-born Chilean leader Ambrosio O’Higgins. Rather, this unconventional documentary describes the process of how Molloy and Lawlor would make a biopic on O’Higgins.

Molloy and Lawlor are drawn to O’Higgins because they are fascinated by narratives of displacement. Thus, the film parallels O’Higgins’ journey with the story of Lawlor’s mother Helen, who moved from the Bronx to Ireland and back again. Actors Denise Gough and Alan Howley narrate these intricately intertwined stories of dislocation. They bring Molloy and Lawlor’s words to life with haunting elocution.

Yet this documentary is about something bigger than O’Higgins and Helen; it is about how filmmakers take a subject (real or fictional) and construct a narrative through a series of creative and logistical decisions. As such, a central question that the film asks is whether it is easier to write or film. Ultimately, the form of this documentary reminds the audience of the similarities between the processes of writing and filmmaking. Further Beyond is framed by two prologues and an epilogue, thus emphasizing that Molloy and Lawlor wrote their versions of O’Higgins and Helen onto the screen.

As a result, most of the film is spent suggesting what O’Higgins and Helen felt in the various places they travelled. The narrators generally focus on larger themes, like Irish nationalism or humiliation, since their distance from the characters (Helen passed away a few years ago) prevents them from knowing specifics. These contemplations are set to long takes of the various locations, such as the lake in County Sligo, where O’Higgins spent much of his youth, which are beautifully shot by Lawlor.

While some of these shots feature Jose Miguel Jimenez, in costume, as a stand-in for O’Higgins, most simply show a snapshot of the location now. There is something incompatible about setting their musings on the characters to these images, since their stories seem so distant to modern life. This is especially shown as Howley describes Irish families saying goodbye to loved ones at Heartbreak Pier in Cobh Harbor, which is edited against the image of the remnants of the pier. The exterior shots begin to feel very repetitive by the conclusion, but that also could be a statement on the financial limitations of making a film. It reiterates that this is not a biopic; it’s the planning of one.

Further Beyond expertly interweaves anecdotes that explore the difficulty of making a movie. The narrators discuss a variety of technical, aesthetic, and monetary decisions, like finding the right opening shot or choosing a topic that will attract financial backers. The directors deserve a lot of credit for choosing a topic — a film about making a biopic rather than a biopic — that is less bankable.

The documentary also features an assortment of literary and film allusions, from Don Quixote to On the Waterfront, but it is the many intertextual references to Molloy and Lawlor’s past work that are far more interesting. These reminiscences provide the audience with a clearer sense of their process as creators.

The finest example of this intertextuality comes during a stunning shot of Jimenez on the snowy Andes, as majestic music plays in the background. The shot abruptly cuts to Gough in the recording studio, who asks the team if that was the same music from their last film. Molloy and Lawlor confirm that it is the same music and tell her that it will only be temporary. Yet, Further Beyond does in fact use the soundtrack from their 2013 feature Mister John. The decision to reuse the music yet again accentuates that the film is about the process of storytelling, not the finished product.

Molloy and Lawlor have written and directed numerous shorts and two feature films together over the past decade. In an introduction for the screening at the Cork Film Festival, Head of Programming Don O’Mahoney noted that while the documentary was a new departure for the pair, Further Beyond still maintained the energy found in their earliest work.

 

Further Beyond screened on 13th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)

 

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Power on the Box

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Annie Curran checks out  a preview screening of the first episode of RTÉ’s upcoming television docuseries, Power on the Box, which screened at the 2016 Cork Film Festival.

Audience members at the 2016 Cork Film Festival were treated to a preview screening of the first episode of RTÉ’s upcoming television docuseries, Power on the Box. The four-part series, hosted by Irish Times journalist Harry McGee, details the impact of Irish television on politics during the last 50 years.

 

The documentary balances interviews from politicians and journalists, weighing both the positive and negative effects of television on the bureaucratic landscape. McGee provides the viewers with a variety of differing opinions and does not suggest which side of the argument he falls on, stating only that “there’s no denying the power of the box in the corner.”

 

The first episode chronicles the creation of the television branch of RTÉ, which officially premiered on December 31, 1961. As Irish historian and longstanding RTÉ broadcaster John Bowman describes, politicians “weren’t ready to be on screen.”

 

Skeptics of television included Éamon de Valera, who compared it to an atomic bomb and expressed his concern over the harm it could cause. In contrast, Taoiseach Seán Lemass said television could be an “instrument of public policy.” Additionally, former Fianna Fáil Minister Noel Dempsey says that seeing politics on camera is what made him want to pursue his governmental career.

 

The majority of the episode is devoted to detailing the implications of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, which gave the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs the ability to issue a Ministerial order to prevent RTÉ from airing interviews with Sinn Feinn and IRA members. The documentary includes interviews with politicians who think Section 31 was necessary, as well as those who decry the censorship and fault RTÉ broadcasters for cowering to it. The most critical view comes from Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who tells McGee that Section 31 delayed the peace process.

 

One of the most fascinating and ultimately humorous moments in the episode stems from the discussion of how RTÉ was able to work around the limitations of Section 31. The network could broadcast footage of Sinn Fein and IRA leaders if actors dubbed over their voices. McGee interviews famed actor Stephen Rea, who provides an entertaining account of the voice-over work he completed for the network. Adams tells McGee that he thinks the actors’ voices were better than his own and that Rea was his favorite version of himself.

 

McGee also travelled to the U.S. and attended the 2016 Republican Convention. Considering Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the recent election, this footage is even more powerful now, and only further proves the correlation between media attention and political success.

 

The screening at the Cork Film Festival was followed by a panel discussion hosted by McGee. Compliance Committee Member for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland Dr. Ciaran Kissane; University College Cork History Department Lecturer Dr. Finola Doyle-O’Neill; and Communications Executive at NUI Galway, Acadamh Dan Dwyer provided fascinating context to information presented in the documentary. For example, Doyle-O’Neill informed the audience that since the Irish were already buying televisions and accessing world news, the state felt it was important to create an Irish network so that citizens would not get all of their information from British or American sources.

 

The panel also raised the excellent point that scripted television shows and talk shows have perhaps influenced public opinion more than television news shows. The first episode does not address this point, and thus perhaps misses the full implication of the power of television. However, because of the confines of a four-episode format, it is understandable that the producers honed in specifically on televisions news.

 

Additionally, the episode featured a major lack of women. This is certainly accurate to the disparity of genders in both politics and journalism, however I hope that future episodes feature more female voices.

 

The first episode of Power on the Box will air on Monday, 28th November at 19:30 on RTÉ1. The rest of the series will delve further into the tensions between journalists and politicians by reliving more consequential moments in the history of Irish television.

 

Power on the Box screened on 17th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

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