Review: Glass

DIR/WRI: M. Night Shyamalan • PRO: Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum, Ashwin Rajan, Steven Schneider, M. Night Shyamalan • DOP: Mike Gioulakis • ED: Luke Ciarrocchi, Blu Murray • DES: Chris Trujillo • MUSIC: West Dylan Thordson • CAST: Bruce Willis, Luke Kirby, Anya Taylor-Joy

The latest film from fallen wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan serves to unite two phases of his career. Characters from his early hit Unbreakable – a relic from the time when Shyamalan was being heralded as the next Spielberg – cross paths with the stars of Split, his low-budget return to form which took many by surprise. Unfortunately, Glass more closely resembles the period between Unbreakable and Split, wherein Shyamalan’s films were marked by thematic incoherence, leaps of logic and unintentional comedy.

We pick up weeks after the events of Split, with Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and his multiple personalities having kidnapped another crop of teenage girls. Unbreakable’s hooded vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) tracks Kevin down, resulting in a thrilling fight scene that ends in flood lights, sirens and police intervention. The two are arrested and sent to a Psychiatric Hospital.

The bulk of the film is spent treading water in the facility housing Crumb, Dunn and the titular Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson).

This coalescence of separate films resembles The Avengers and other Marvel team-ups, in that it mostly results in tedious plate-spinning without any narrative drive or central protagonist. In uniting all these iconic characters, their individual personalities are diluted, leaving us with a sprawling mess of half-baked twists and turns.

It begs the question of whether the merging of these two cinematic worlds was a good idea in the first place. The horror of Split comes off as less creepy and more pantomime here. Anya Taylor-Joy returns as Casey Cooke, one of Crumb’s victims. Their faux-romantic relationship in the original film contained multitudes – she was largely humouring his sentimental side for her own survival, while ultimately empathising with his abusive upbringing. This nuanced look at the reverberations of abuse is traded in for Glass’s take – that Cooke’s loyalty to Crumb resembles that of a stubborn dog, occasionally tipping over into a full-on Stockholm-style romance. Her undying affection for Crumb, her attacker, is borderline pathological, and ultimately absurd.

Connections with Unbreakable only serve to underline the stylistic regression as a filmmaker Shyamalan has made since. Clips from the 2000 film flash intermittently throughout and the keen eye for blocking and composition is striking. One recalls the opening shot of Dunn on a train, fluidly shot in a kind of dance with the row of seating in front of him. That kind of daring, intelligent filmmaking is notable for its absence in Glass.

It may only be a side effect of a once-A-lister dwindling far into the half-life of stardom, but Bruce Willis’ performance is mostly droning and frustrated, lacking the wonder and nuance of Dunn’s prior outing.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Glass is how short it falls of its own potential. Samuel L. Jackson, despite performing mostly through torpid stares, has an enchanting presence. He steals entire scenes with a twitch of the eye and a crane of the neck. James McAvoy is also a treat, showing dynamic range between a myriad of personalities. The problem is that they are dropped into a context where their characters seem woefully out-of-place. When the actors are going for gasps, the film around them is going for laughs.

The script appears to be constructed with care. Connective threads are constantly being drawn between the two films preceding it, tying their worlds ever closer together. The bulk of these are superficial and irrelevant, though. One wishes that the same attempt at streamlining was made in the film’s third act, which careens hopelessly out of control to a laughable degree.

In a climax as frustrating and convoluted as it is boring, a flaccid meta-commentary on superhero tropes serves to suffocate any actual coherence. A master plan is enacted which makes no logical sense, and the longer one thinks about it, the more elusive and obfuscated it becomes.

There are attempts throughout to give superheroes and superpowers a political dimension. Is it wrong to believe one can simply be genetically superior to others? Or is it instead wrong to stand in the way of those with superior ability? The film fumbles these problematic ideas in a finale that seeks to lionise superheroes – without having them do anything worth lionising. In what is passionately declared as “an origin story” for superhero acceptance in society, all we see is terrorism, violence and brutality.

Such moral deception was present in Unbreakable, too. As the final twist of that film, it is revealed that Mr. Glass had orchestrated terror attacks around the world in hopes of finding superhumans that would survive them. That iconic twist was one of horror – unsheathing an ugliness to Glass that Dunn, and the audience, recognised as such. The film Glass contains that same ugliness, but intercuts it with people holding hands and smiling.

Cian Geoghegan

129 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Glass is released 18th January 2019

 

 

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Irish Film Review: The Meeting

 

DIR: Alan Gilsenan • ED: Emer Reynolds • CAST: Ailbhe Griffith, Terry O’Neill, Kevin McCormack, Dr Marie Keenan, Brenda McSweeney, Allan Keating
 
Alan Gilsenan’s new film The Meeting opens with a sweeping title card, declaring that events depicted in the film are “Entirely” true – a daring choice of words, and an absolute to which the film is fully committed.

 

Ailbhe Griffith is the survivor of a horrific sexual assault. Nine years after the incident, she organises a meeting with her assailant. Authenticity is the central aim in depicting these events. Moment-to-moment accuracy is valued over dramatic tension. The result may come across as quiet and cautious, but the emotional pulse of the film beats loudly, drowning out any trepidation.

 

Across the first ten minutes, we are presented with Griffith’s assault in fractal passages. Extracts from her statement boldly stretch across the screen. The evening in question is presented in haunting echoes. No re-enactment of the assault is necessary, as brief glimpses of the evidence silently tell all. The barren bus stop. Discarded keys. A body lashed with bite marks.

 

When we are transported from the hallways of memory to the meeting room of the present, there is a tonal and stylistic shift. Abstract recollections of horror become solid and close. The wordless, silent opening is drowned out by a steady stream of dialog.

 

This is not good movie dialogue. Sentences are plump with polite niceties and repetitions. Focus is rested on the mundane, the undramatic. Yet there is something undeniable about it – a truth.

 

Griffith gives a resounding performance as herself, recounting traumatic events with the noblest of grace. She does not stand out among the actors (and non-actors) around her. Her honesty and bravery is the beating heart of the film. Empty of typical story structure, it is her experience that bolsters the film and gives it shape.

 

The central question at play here is one of depicting reality. Comparisons could be drawn to how Kiarostami blends documentary and fiction through the use of non-actors in his film Close-Up. Director Gilsenan infuses his film with more cinematic style and daring compositions, while the content is sometimes stagnant in its adherence to the facts. The audience is forced to soak in the dead air between moments. When Griffith leaves the room for a break at the midpoint, we stay with the assailant, Martin Swan. Watching from a birds-eye view, every shift of weight is amplified, every jerk of the hand is loud and cacophonous. Things that really have little effect on the narrative are put under the spotlight. Text is left bare, and we have only subtextual gestures to draw from.

 

Is it a pleasant experience? No, but a necessary one. The audience is put through an ordeal similarly therapeutic as Griffith’s. She finds closure in her attacker’s humanity, by dethroning him from a beastly symbol to a sad, defeated man. There may be a wide range in audience response. Some may find the same closure as Griffith, and see restorative justice at work. Others may be aghast at facing such misogyny head-on. They may be shaken from their preconceptions about the state of sexual assault in Ireland, and plumb new depths of empathy for the horror carried by its survivors. Whether you align with Griffith or the latter group, both lessons are an absolute necessity to learn.

 

Famed film critic Roger Ebert described the movies as “A machine that generates empathy.” Here, we see that tenet put forth as social activism. Gilsenan cleverly frames his film towards this end, in means which go beyond Griffith’s testimony. Just as Griffith seeks the meeting in an effort to make human what she called “the personification of misogyny”, Gilsenan takes a similarly empathetic approach towards the character of the abuser. When Griffith leaves the room, we stay with him. When she speaks to him, she stares down the lens. If the film takes any one perspective, it is of the abuser, in an attempt to interrogate – and hopefully restore – his humanity. In this, it wrestles with the concept of forgiveness, and whether those who do the unforgivable can ever truly be loved.

 

The film’s goals are certainly admirable, yet the presentation is not spotless. Riddling the film are a series of extreme close-ups of table-top paraphernalia. With very little action to follow, scenes buffer with shots of tea settling and light dancing through blinds. While the shots are well-composed, certain ones fall flat. The sight of biscuits left untouched and sweat crawling down Swan’s skin feel borne out of restlessness. This is unfortunate, as the close-ups of characters feel full, confident and able to stand on their own without the insistent cutaways.

 

The film’s final tip of the hand also feels a bit too orchestrated. With consistent adherence to a strict realism, the film’s final moments, without spoiling them, seem overly staged and out of place. The ending surely sounded good on paper, but it doesn’t quiet stick the landing.

 
That said, these superficial flaws are dwarfed by the aching humanity on display. The moments of release that are built up across the runtime are euphoric. When the film comes closest to finding an answer to its big, difficult questions, the result is close to pure visceral cinema. Gilsenan and Griffith have crafted a haunting parable of forgiveness and justice in their shifting forms.

 

Cian Geoghegan

 

95 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)

 

The Meeting is released 21st September 2018

 

 

 

Alan Gilsenan, Writer / Director of ‘Unless’ & ‘The Meeting’

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Review: BlacKkKlansman

DIR: Spike Lee • WRI: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee • DOP: Chayse Irvin • ED: Barry Alexander Brown • MUS: Terence Blanchard • DES: David Wilson • PRO: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele, Shaun Redick • CAST: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace. Ron Stallworth

 

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation has held an awkward spot in film history since its initial release in 1915. Hailed as a pioneer of film form, Griffith ushered in techniques now foundational to film grammar. He is also responsible for the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century. Adapted from a book entitled The Clansman, the film depicted the KKK as a group of swashbuckling heroes, whose lynchings were heroic acts of vigilantism. Many took the film as a call to arms.

 

Today, wide swathes of the modern audience detest The Birth of a Nation and what it represents. Among them is Spike Lee, writer/director of BlacKkKlansman. However, at a Q&A in the BFI Southbank in London, Lee makes it clear, “I never said people shouldn’t see Birth of a Nation,” he says, “I just think we should talk about it.”

 

And BlacKkKlansman is truly a film in conversation with that uncomfortable history. The film opens with the iconic shot of wounded soldiers from Gone With the Wind and later includes footage from The Birth of a Nation, screened to a guffawing audience clad in white robes. Lee allows the viewer to consider these scenes beyond the veil of form and under their larger social context. It is in this very conversation that BlacKkKlansman reveals itself as a film full of passionate, direct emotion and carefully considered direction and storytelling.

 

Shot on 35mm film, Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin also harken back to 1970s Blaxploitation films. Shots are grainy and saturated, and the production design sees that all in-frame elements are period-accurate. The soundtrack is stocked with a selection of blues classics, while the score evokes ’70s kitsch with an orchestral intensity.

 

With such strict adherence to period detail, Lee’s typical winks to camera are absent. The true story of Ron Stallworth is allowed stand on its own two feet. As a rookie cop for the Chicago Springs Police Department, Stallworth (John David Washington) leads an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan that leads him all the way to Grand Wizard and National Director David Duke. Alongside him is Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who poses as Ron Stallworth at face-to-face meetings, while the real Ron to corresponds by phone. The fact that Lee – a famously self-referencing, fourth-wall-breaking filmmaker – has taken such a straight-faced approach to Ron’s story says it all – in this case, what can be crazier than the truth?

 

The film walks a tonal tightrope in portraying the Klan as both a crew of bumbling clowns and a legitimate threat to society. Lee is able to flip things on a dime, jerking the audience from laughter into a dead silence. The full emotional gamut is at play here – joy, shock, awe, terror. Things reach their emotional apex at the use of Griffith very own cross-cutting to unite the testimony of a Civil Rights pioneer (Harry Belafonte) and the delight of an audience of cross-burners. A composed anger seethes through every frame.

 

This quiet anger of dualities is the thematic constant. Dual identities stay on the film’s mind. The light-skinned person of color passing for white. The behind-closed-doors racist passing for objective law enforcement. The Jewish police officer passing for an anti-semetic Klansman. The black police detective passing for a white supremacist over the phone. A period piece passing for contemporary.

 

BlacKkKlansman is not a film in conversation solely with the past. Links to the present are often loud and explicit – the audience is called several times to “Wake Up”. The implementation of footage from last year’s alt-right march in Charlottesville is sure to shake any viewer to their core.

 

Truly a film heavy with the burden of its own ideas, BlacKkKlansman remains unable to show strain beneath them. Not without its stylistic flourishes, the result is still a film that speaks loud and clear all the way back to the cheap seats. Once-film critic and French New Wave bad-boy Jean-Luc Godard has said, “I used to write criticism; now I film it.” Spike Lee may have never written reviews, but he has carved out quite a legacy in filming his own criticism. The vital question he poses in 2018 is less whether his targets will hear him; more whether his allies will take his message to heart and continue the march toward sunrise.
Cian Geoghegan

16 (See IFCO for details)

135 minutes
BlacKkKlansman is released 24th August 2018

 

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Irish Film Review: The Breadwinner

 

DIR: Nora Twomey • WRI: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis • PRO: Anthony Leo, Tomm Moore, Andrew Rosen, Paul Young   ED: Darragh Byrne • MUS: Jeff Danna, Mychael Danna • CAST: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Noorin Gulamgaus

 

The Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon have cemented themselves as an animation powerhouse. Such a claim may be lofty for any other young animation studio, but not for one with three feature films and just as many Academy Award nominations.

 

The first two films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, breathe new life into Irish folklore. They allow myths and legends of custodial seanchaí to find a new home on the cinema screen. Tales survived in largely Gaeltacht areas have been transposed onto a world stage, with international critics comparing Saloon’s work to that of Pixar or Japan’s venerated Studio Ghibli. Their Irish cultural heritage has played a major role in establishing the identity for which the studio has become so acclaimed. If it’s not broke; don’t fix it, right?

 

For this reason, it may be of surprise to some that Nora Twomey’s follow-up to The Secret of Kells takes place 6,000 kilometres from Trinity Library. The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, a young girl living in Afghanistan under Taliban control. Her story is a harrowing one of severe hardship and perseverance in the most dire of circumstances.

 

Perhaps too intense for young children, the film wastes no time with throwing its characters into misery. Parvana’s father, a former teacher insistent on the value of banned books, is arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban in the first ten minutes. What continues is a spiral of disrepair, tinged with stretches of hope and sorrow. There are very difficult moments – violence towards the child protagonist is not presented as comic peril, but rather a horrifying reality. So much misery would wear down a viewer, but the film endures with an aching humanity that is optimistic but not naïve.

 

The optimism inherent to The Breadwinner rises from its deep love of storytelling. Truly, this is a story on the necessity of stories. Not only does Parvana’s father preach storytelling as a tenet, Parvana herself tells a story of her own throughout the film – a Campbellian myth of a boy fighting a mountainous elephant – all of which expertly echoes the dramatic beats of her own life. This film-within-a-film is made distinct through a whole new animation style. The clean pencil lines and simple shapes of the main film are traded in for computer-simulated construction paper. The stylistic shift is refreshing, although the segments bow down to slapstick a bit too frequently. Tonally, it’s jarring; conceptually, it’s quite clever. Cartoon Saloon cannot seem to escape its obsession with stories and myths.

 

In today’s world of cultural appropriation (and the larger blowback against cultural appropriation), one may question the move of an Irish animation studio to make a film so distinctly Afghan. Luckily, the culture is depicted with care and strong attention to detail – there is nary a Celtic trace to be found. The beautiful animation feels graceful and lived-in, never depicting an “other”. The absence of any American characters speaks to commitment in showing the Afghan perspective – we see the start of the American War in Afghanistan, but Western characters cannot be found beyond a few anonymous planes. The geo-political background to the War is unknown to our characters. Hell, the war itself remains unknown until it reaches their doorstep.

 

Despite the content being quite intense as previously described, The Breadwinner imparts valuable lessons that braver children will surely take on, have they the perseverance to hear them. The necessity of stories. The necessity of action in troublesome times. The necessity of compassion in the face of pain. All told through the eyes of a child. The film’s commitment and endearment to the power of storytelling is self-evidently proved by the rousing emotions it provokes.
Cian Geoghegan
 
12A (See IFCO for details)
 
93 minutes
The Breadwinner is released 25th May 2018
 
The Breadwinner – Official Website

 

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ADIFF Review: Isle of Dogs

 

 

Cian Geoghegan enters a dystopian doggie future in Japan.

 

Many long winters have passed since Wes Anderson’s snowy epic The Grand Budapest Hotel stormed theatres across the globe. This is the longest gap Anderson has taken between films to date – four years. It’s not out of commercial exile, as the filmmaker has only found more and more success the more and more idiosyncratic his style becomes. He has turned auteur-driven filmmaking into a franchise of sorts. 

The world has changed greatly in the four years without a new Wes Anderson joint. The fascist spectres looming in the background in Grand Budapest were once just a further burst of the writer-director’s imagination. Now, their inclusion seems eerily prescient. The rise of far-right politics in both Anderson’s home country and Europe, the home continent of many a stylistic influence, leaves a sharp impact on his new film, Isle of Dogs. Anderson has always used his fantastical worlds to understate a deeper emotional anguish. Here, everything is fantastical – the anguish is found in how close the supervillains are to reality. 

The plot is simple – Atari, the young ward of a corrupt mayor embarks to the Isle of Dogs, to where the canine population have been exiled following a dog-flu scare. His mission: to rescue his dog Spots. Our cast of outcast “alpha-dogs” (Bryan Cranston among Anderson regulars – Norton, Murray, Goldblum and Balaban) take it upon themselves to guide him across the island, the mythology of which is textured, tragic and largely unspoken. 

Displaced people, bigoted leaders, child activism – Dogs makes The Post look like a narcoleptic journalist submitting assignments months past the due date. Given the massive timescale required for a stop-motion feature, many of these real-life parallels are just happy accidents. The most affecting such accident may be Greta Gerwig’s character Tracy, an Ohio foreign exchange student with the energy to overthrow as many political oligarchs as there are hours in the day. The shooting in Parkland, Florida and the subsequent activist movement on behalf of surviving students occurred a week shy of the film’s Berlin premiere, yet these strands of art and life clash in a way that is not just coincidental, but profound and necessary. 

Cool your jets on the ideology, though. All this political allegory props up a film of immense watchability. Jokes whip past at breakneck pace, with running gags drawing incessant giggles from the wholly adult audience at my screening. The music keeps the tone light as well. The nostalgic indie tunes typical of Anderson strum along, helping us forget how much this beautiful trash island probably smells. 

Despite working mostly in live-action, Anderson seems a student of animation in Isle of Dogs. The constant barrage of dog jokes from all angles recall the childlike giddiness of Aardman animations. The quiet moments mirror the best of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The footprints of Japanese filmmaking are left beyond the limits of animation. The shadow Kurosawa casts over the film cannot be understated.  

It’s fitting that a film so thematically concerned with inclusivity and multiculturalism would serve just shy of being a bilingual picture. From the film’s earliest moments, it is clear we are witnessing a worldly film that is as much Japanese as it is American. Large portions of the film will play diametrically different to Japanese audiences, as the film audaciously focuses on Japanese characters speaking Japanese without subtitles. The viewer doesn’t feel left in the dark – if anything it endears them to the dog characters (“I wish somebody spoke his language,” one of Jeff Goldblum’s many zingers) The film’s identity is firmly planted in the far East. Weaved within the stop-motion is an ingenious visual effect dancing between rotoscope, cell-shading and hand-drawn animation. Art inspired by the Edo period is all over the film – particularly in the unapologetic exposition-dump of a prologue. Those who thought, that post-Budapest Anderson’s style was destined to collapse under its own whimsy if pushed to any further extreme, will be pleasantly surprised. A taste of the far East is just what Anderson needed to keep his style fresh. 

The stop-motion on show is joyously (and sometimes deceptively) simple. The human characters are toy-like. They recall Robot Chicken more than Chicken Run. Use of practical effects carries on from Fantastic Mr. Fox – cotton clouds the skies and obscures the many dogfights with a busy haze. In terms of character design, the dogs have no right to be as distinct as they are – their personality are as thin as the scrawny inhabitants of the island, after all. Yet when one scene sets the canine cast in silhouette within an igloo of discarded bottles – a directorial decision made as if on a dare – we instantly know who is who. It helps that the warm glow of the scenery makes it one of the most beautiful scenes in a film of beautiful scenes. 

The film seems to appeal to the kid in all of us, but the filmmakers seek to steer clear of actual kids. The MPAA have slapped a PG-13 on the film, prompting many to call foul, but I can see their reasoning. Sparse moments of language, gallows humour and bizarre gore add character to the film, but will keep it from reaching the widest audience and having an impact on the kids it so clearly wants to save the world. 

Act three brings on another classic Andersonian climax, wherein all the dominoes set up so meticulously get to fall. Something about this ending seems a tad too neat, however. Anderson’s tightly constructed narratives have never contradicted the emotional truth lying beneath for the sake of cohesion, but in this case, he comes dangerously close. Teetering on feeling unearned, the film’s final moments are a tightrope-walk. Themes of anti-corruption and transparency come a hair too close to being betrayed for this critic’s liking. 

Isle of Dogs is another instalment in Anderson’s hot streak, an animated film with personality and purpose to spare. The film is a crucial commentary on today’s climate, with visuals so beautiful as to make you forget how trenchantly political it all is. In what may be the Wes Anderson film both most and least concerned with the goings on of our world, he pulls off yet another impressive trick with grace. Good boy. 

 

 

Isle of Dogs screened as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21 February – 4th March)

 

 

 

 

 

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