We Love… Superheroes – The Hulk


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  Illustration: Adeline Pericart

Bam! Pow! Thwack! From masked avengers to caped crusaders, what would we do without spandex-wearing superheroes fighting crime and righting wrongs? While we mere mortals go about our daily business and sleep soundly in our beds at night, an army of superheroes are working tirelessly around the globe – but mostly in America – fighting to bring peace, justice and outside-underpants to the world.

And so, in honour of their efforts, our own band of Film Ireland superheroes assemble to dish out their own critical form of justice and wreak havok on those villians who long for a world without heroes.

Eat dust evil! Superheroes are here to stay.

 

We Love…

Superheroes

 

The Hulk

‘… there is something cathartic, even joyous in those releases of anger, those vents of everyday frustration…’

David Neary

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Long before Batman became all broody and Tony Stark became an out-and-out dipso, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a superhero, or rather super-anti-hero, with an exceptionally relatable gift/curse balance.

Dr. Bruce Banner, typically mild-mannered scientist, first appeared in printed colour boxes back in 1962, when an atomic blast mutated him into a near-indestructible muscle-riddled green giant, the Incredible Hulk. Sure the super-strength and super-leaping and super-rage are what makes the Hulk so appealing, but what makes him interesting is his relationship to Banner. Banner does not control the Hulk, but the Hulk becomes unleashed when Banner is angered – by personal/emotional stress or impending danger.

Banner’s rage becomes the Hulk’s rage – human anger turned all the way up to 11. The Hulk is a colossal adolescent tantrum, a beast fuelled by hyper-masculine lack of control. Banner’s great intellect and genuine decency do not make him immune to human failings and weaknesses – fears, regrets, sexual frustrations and so forth combine to create this terrifying monster. But the Hulk is not a villain, and there is something cathartic, even joyous in those releases of anger, those vents of everyday frustration. Where the average person in a fit of anger might throw a book to the floor, the Hulk can throw a tank – and throw his green-eyed rage can tell right from wrong, so more often than not that tank will get thrown at a villain, if a villain wasn’t already driving the tank…

The Hulk’s relationship with the big and little screens has been more hit than miss. A beloved TV series ran for five years from 1977-82, starring Bill Bixby as the straighter-named David Banner and body-building champ Lou Ferrigno as his alter-ego. Ferrigno’s stagey rage was so convincing that it was all too easy to forgive the rather silly makeup, wig and green bodypaint he had to wear for the role.

TV movies followed, pitting Bixby and Ferrigno against other famous Marvel heroes such as Thor and Daredevil, but Bixby’s premature death in 1993 put an end to the run. Animated series of the character ran in the ’80s and ’90s, pitting the Hulk against his more sci-fi-based (and less live-action-freindly) villains, such as The Leader and evil Soviet hulk the Abomination.

In the ongoing superhero movie boom that followed the digital effects revolution and the success of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), a Hulk movie was inevitable, and the result was the oft-and-unfairly-maligned Hulk (2003). Genre-juggler Ang Lee was a curious director to take on such a project, and while he played around with the effects as much he could, he was far more interested in the underlying psychology of Bruce Banner’s rage and the formal constructs of a film literally based on a comic book movie, with editing flowing between on-screen panels – everything short of speech bubbles. Eric Bana, doomed to never become the star he deserved to be (see also his performance in the similarly under-rated Troy) had a superb intensity as Banner, while Sam Elliott stole the show as the well-meaning but empathy-less General Thaddeus Ross, who leads the hunt for the Hulk. The effects were troublesome, and audiences bemoaned the lack of action, but there was a lot to enjoy here, including a superb battle between the Hulk and the United States Army across the American Southwest. The decision to go all-out-Freud on the Hulk’s origin was a mistake however, and as Banner’s father and primary villain Absorbing Man, Nick Nolte didn’t so much absorb the scenery as chew it up.

A semi-sequel reboot followed in 2008, and was the polar opposite to Ang Lee’s effort, drained of drama and intellect but full of Hulk smashing and monster fights. Louis Letterier’s The Incredible Hulk, indisputably the worst film yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, brought very little to the table, but just about managed to outgross its predecessor at the box office. As Banner, Edward Norton didn’t so much need to vent his rage as need a firm smack in the mouth. William Hurt played General Ross as a villain of the week. Tim Roth played a Russian/British soldier on loan to the American military, who morphs into the Ken doll-genitalled Abomination. Not even a stunt cameo by Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark could win this one a sequel.

After four years the Hulk made his reappearance in The Avengers, this time in the human guise of Mark Ruffalo, after Marvel fell out with Norton over him being a bit of a jerk. While only a supporting character in that superhero ensemble, The Avengers featured , in one speech about an attempted suicide by Banner, more pathos and character depth than The Incredible Hulk had managed in two hours. The film refused to dwell on the psychological implications of Banner’s powers, but in its final moments delved into the idea that Banner had come to terms with his demons, and was able to not-so-much control the brute, as control himself, and when the beast should be unleashed. “That’s the secret… I’m always angry,” he confessed, as he instantly morphed into the monster and KO’d a colossal alien nasty with one punch. It was the most audience-pleasing moment the Hulk had ever performed on the big screen, and for the first time since Lou Ferrigno last washed that green paint off his body, the Hulk’s live-action self was truly incredible once more.

 

Stay tuned. Next time on ‘We Love… Superheroes’ – James Phelan on Blade

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The New Dawn of Irish Animation

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 The Amazing World of Gumball

David Neary talks to the movers and shakers making it happen in animation.

It’s been 18 years since Sullivan Bluth Studios closed their doors. One-time Disney prodigy Don Bluth had gone rogue in 1979 and founded his own company, which set up shop in Ireland in 1985, providing Irish animators with an outlet and distributor for their talents. Bluth helped launch an animation course at Ballyfermot College ensuring a new generation of skilled Irish animators would now emerge.

And then the end came.

The apprentices of Bluth went their separate ways, founding a number of smaller animation studios in a shrivelled market. It seemed for a time like the golden age of Irish animation was long gone. But now it appears it has only just begun.

Casual observers of the Irish film industry were no doubt surprised in 2009 when The Secret of Kells, by the Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon, emerged from the woodwork. An Academy Award® nomination for best animated feature proved Irish animation could now play with the big boys.

Since then the rebirth of Irish animation has been unmistakable, with accolades pouring in from abroad. Brown Bag Film’s short Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty accompanied Kells to the Oscars®. BAFTAs have been dealt out to JAM Media’s Roy and Boulder Media’s The Amazing World of Gumball (the latter also won an Annie Award). Doc McStuffins, a preschool show animated at Brown Bag, recently launched on the Disney Junior UK channel to record ratings. Elsewhere, Irish producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly joined the Oscar-nominated® elite this year thanks to her work on the short Head Over Heels.

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Doc McStuffins

So what’s driving this renaissance in Irish animation? Good old determination and hard work, of course, and that grand tradition of Irish storytelling. But amongst industry professionals there’s wide acceptance that Adobe Flash was the game-changer.

Gerard O’Rourke founded Monster Animation in 1995 in the wake of Bluth going bust. Flash, he explains, was originally used for creating banner ads for websites, but its potential for quickly designing high-quality animation was soon seized upon by the animation industry at large.

‘Flash turned it all around,’ he says. Recalling his days at Sullivan Bluth, he explains that in the traditional cell animation business, an animator’s work had to go through 27 departments, be shot in the camera bay, shipped to Technicolor in London, processed in 35mm, brought back and loaded onto a projector before the animator could see the fruits of his labours. This process took 10 to 12 days. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘an animator on a daily basis can sit there and start with a blank screen and at the end of the day have movie files of what they animated that day.’

The reduction in costs is colossal, and better still has managed to keep those animation jobs in Ireland. ‘Without that digital revolution, a lot of the work would have remained in the Far East, but we’ve managed to bring it back,’ O’Rourke adds.

Monster considers itself ‘your genuine 100% Irish-owned animation studio’. The company nurtures home-grown talent, refuses overseas service work and finds great value in its own intellectual property. The most Irish of Irish cartoons is Monster’s Ballybraddan, about a school hurling team. It’s the ideal Monster property; something that RTÉ can’t import for next-to-nothing like a syndicated Disney show.

Such is the success of Monster that it has separated into two companies. Initially it split into Monster Entertainment, a distribution company and Monster Animation and Design, which specialises in production, but the latter has since re-launched as Geronimo Productions Limited, with both companies now producing and distributing animated projects.

The team at Geronimo showed faith in their own business plan when they produced the preschool show Fluffy Gardens, resisting market demands for characters with ‘generic stories’. The results speak for themselves; Fluffy Gardens is now broadcast in a stupefying 120 countries in 20 languages. With that success under their belts, Geronimo have made even bolder moves since, producing Punky, an animated series about a young girl with Down syndrome. It’s the first show in the world to feature a lead character with such a disability, meaning this company of only 15 has already made its mark.

At its peak Sullivan Bluth employed a staff of some 350 people, producing as much animated material as a company of 80 can produce today. Boulder Media is just such a company. Robert Cullen founded Boulder in 2000 to design E-cards, but after a few animation tests they were handed the reins of Cartoon Network’s multi-award-winning series Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.Roy Their staff of six grew almost overnight to 28. ‘It was a big task,’ Cullen admits. ‘Definitely a baptism of fire.’

Fosters PR Mac Bloo Coco Eduardo Horz

Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends

Boulder went on to produce a series for Nickelodeon before returning to Cartoon Network for The Secret World of Gumball. Since Gumball arrived, staff numbers have swelled to 78, with the company developing a 3D department in-house to keep up with the shifting industry. Now in the midst of a two-year stint on Disney’s Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, Boulder have secured a name themselves as Ireland’s premier service studio for animation.

‘We’re definitely punching above our weight,’ Cullen says of the Irish animation industry. ‘With all the big shows that are out there, so many seem to be produced or co-produced in Ireland. It’s great for Ireland’s reputation. As more broadcasters come back to Ireland for projects, hopefully that will incentivise others to pop over to Ireland and make use of Section 481 as well.’

There’s no time for nostalgia about the Bluth era. Cullen admits: ‘If we were offered an endless time frame we’d love to go back to pencil and paper, but I think what we’re trying to do is create that sort of fluid animation within Flash. So it’s still quite traditional animation, just not using paper.’

Nowhere is that clash of old and new in animation more evident than at JAM Media, whose very headquarters reveal a jolting juxtaposition; their offices, complete with glossy logo and a shiny new BAFTA, are located in a deconsecrated 18th Century Moravian Church on Dublin’s Lower Kevin Street. In addition, JAM’s biggest success, the BBC-produced Roy, is about an 11-year-old Ballyfermot boy who appears to be a living hand-drawn cartoon – but it’s all done in computers.

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Roy

Roy is drawn directly into Flash, to create a hand-drawn shape, before he’s sent through the programme After Effects to add natural-looking pencil lines. As Roy producer Ian Hamilton points out, there is an irony in that the better the digital technology becomes, the more ‘papery and textured’ Roy looks.

Roy demonstrates the technology shift behind the current animation boom better than any other project. The show began life as a 23-minute short, Badly Drawn Roy, which was hand-animated, and took a small team nearly a year to produce; picked up for a third and fourth season, Hamilton points out that JAM will now produce 26 episodes of Roy in almost the same amount of time, thanks to Flash.

Despite the wealth of animation talent, with new students graduating each year from courses in IADT Dun Laoghaire and Ballyfermot, and new programmes as far apart as Letterkenny and Carlow, there is still a deficit of animators, with JAM having to look to Canada to get their projects completed. ‘Animation in Ireland is booming at the moment,’ says Hamilton. ‘It’s very hard to find an animator out of work at the moment.’

This is a sentiment echoed by Robert Cullen: ‘I think the industry is in its golden age now; the biggest problem people have in the animation industry in Ireland at the moment is finding the staff! It’s not been hit by the recession in that sense. The really talented people out there are usually hunted down very quickly, so if you’re a good animator you’re pretty much guaranteed a job at some stage.’

Keith Foran, Director of Animation at the National Film School at IADT, has seen the face of Irish animation change more clearly than anyone. He graduated from the Bluth programme at Ballyfermot in its inaugural class, and was a part of the original line-up at Brown bag. He refutes the idea that there is a renaissance in Irish animation, suggesting Bluth was only a precursor to an industry, never truly Irish.

‘The industry has grown, certainly in the last two to three years, but the cottage industry has been there for 15 years,’ he says. ‘The industry that came in before was American-skilled, American-authored, with tax-break incentives and young Irish people doing the menial artistic tasks. That was the structure of an animation industry but it closed down over night. The industry that’s there today is not a renaissance,’ he adds, ‘it’s actually a new industry – a new dawn.’

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine – Issue 144, 2013

 

 

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Cinema Review: Blancanieves

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DIR/WRI: Pablo Berger  Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof PRO: Ibon Cormenzana, Jérôme Vidal DOP: Kiko de la Rica ED: Fernando Franco DES: Alain Bainée  CAST: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Ángela Molina, Emilio Gavira
 
It may not be fair to say The Artist is solely responsible for the existence of Blancanieves, a Spanish silent retelling of the Snow White tale, but certainly without Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winner this film would never have been released in these parts.

Silent films never actually went away after the ’20s, but for the most part they remained in the realm of the arthouse and the experimental. Like The Artist, Blancanieves is an excellent production that presents a simple story in a manner that modern audiences are no longer accustomed to, but can quickly adapt to.

Set in Seville in the 1920s, Blancanieves retells Snow White with the king a champion bullfighter paralysed in the arena and the evil stepmother his nurse, an ambitious flapper living off her new husband’s fortune.

After her caring grandmother dies, Carmen is sent to live with her father and his wife, where she is locked away in a shed and is put to work as a servant. But she soon learns the truth about her father, the bullfighter, and mother, a beloved flamenco dancer. If this film were any more of a Spanish cliché their daughter would be unemployed right now.

Things take a sudden if expected turn after an assassination attempt on Carmen goes awry and she survives, waking up in the company of a band of travelling bullfighting dwarves. Conveniently amnesiac, this beautiful ‘Snowhite’ shows a remarkably adept skill at battling the calves the dwarfs fight with. They take her in as their star attraction, and soon she is the most talked about, and indeed fairest, person in all the land. A vengeful stepmother is quick to take notice.

The update of the story works rather well, with fashion magazines of the 1920s standing in for a magic mirror and the stepmother’s medical background representing the sorcery of the fairytale. Snow White’s friendship with the animals is here replaced by a cute relationship between the young Carmen and a comic relief rooster. In 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman the film tried to be modern and edgy by having there be eight dwarfs instead of seven – here there are six, but the missing seventh gets referenced in a nice little gag. The climactic confrontation is as macabre as the Disney version’s, while the ending has a unique twist on the fairytale’s famous ending.

So why a silent film? Well, why not? We all know the story, and the dialogue, perhaps through lazy translation, perhaps through over-familiarity, is easily the film’s weakest point. If anything, there may be too many intertitles explaining what’s going on. Old-timey techniques like circular frames and closing oculus cuts are used sparingly and to good effect. The black and white is crisp if a little too heavy in contrast, and while many of the scenes look like they might have been shot in old Hollywood, the handheld camerawork that intrudes on certain scenes kills the illusion of this being a 1920s film in a way The Artist never suffered from. Film nerds will likely be peeved that while the film is framed in the suitable Academy ratio, the intertitles break out into 16:9, as if desperate to use the whole screen.

The music is infused with a Spanish flavour that energises the film for the most part, with plenty of twanging guitars and flamenco claps. The performances are mostly fine, with a little too much camping in certain cases. Macarena García makes a decent stand-in for Bérénice Bejo as Carmen, but the real charm comes from the young Carmen, played by the very sweet and capable Sofia Oria. The dwarfs all excuse themselves well, although writer/director Pablo Berger’s decision to have their leader, the Doc of the group, play a secondary antagonist to ramp up the drama does not succeed.

A huge dip in energy in the second half of the film (Carmen doesn’t become Snow White until more than halfway through the film) means Blancanieves overstays its welcome, but the ending almost makes up for it. It’s a terribly pretty film with some fun ideas that stands as further proof that silent cinema is far from dead, even if it has been in a magical slumber for a very long time.

David Neary

104 mins
Blancanieves  is released on 19th July 2013

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Cinema Review: Pacific Rim

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DIR: Guillermo del Toro • WRI: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro  PRO: Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Thomas Tull DOP: Guillermo Navarro  ED: Peter Amundson, John Gilroy  DES:Andrew Neskoromny, Carol Spier  CAST: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day
 

With the major exception of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has always excelled at style over substance, producing gorgeously imagined films with tiresome scripts, clichéd stories and cardboard cut-out villains. This time, for once, this is the kind of film del Toro is actually trying to make! The bottom of the ocean aside, there is no depth to Pacific Rim, and no one making it seems to care about that. Why should they? Pacific Rim has monsters! Giant monsters! And robots! Giant robots! And the giant monsters, and the giant robots? They fight!

Opening with a barrage of exposition that could’ve fleshed out a whole trilogy, Pacific Rim rapidly tells us how alien mega-beasties, named ‘Kaiju’ for the Japanese subgenre that gave us Godzilla and Mothra, emerged from a dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific and began destroying major seaboard cities. Quickly responding to the attacks by increasingly larger creatures, mankind rallied and built giant robots, ‘Jaegers’, to do combat with them. As the film begins the war is being won, but as the Kaiju evolve to tackle everything the Jaegers can throw at them, things soon turn nasty, and the Earth’s last line of defence begins to run out of pilots and steel.

PTSD-riddled Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) gets re-drafted as desperate times call for desperate soldiers. Under the command of no-nonsense boss Marshal Stacker (Idris Elba), he joins a tiny team of remaining Jaeger operators to launch a final assault on the rising Kaiju threat. In a subplot, goofy biologist Newton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day) and flamboyant boffin Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, doing a bizarre impression of Lee Evans from There’s Something About Mary) try to discover the truth behind the Kaiju, with the help of black marketeer Hannibal Chou (a scene-chewing, golden-shoed turn by del Toro stalwart Ron Perlman).

Devoid of pretension but equally lacking in good dialogue and characters, Pacific Rim is a big movie for big kids. The characters are all action movie clichés, from the shoulder-raising Ruskies to the young Australian pilot who thinks Raleigh is a renegade and endangering the mission but eventually comes to the understanding that he is, in fact, top robot gun. A romance bubbles between Raleigh and his co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), but whether for sloppy writing or conservative inter-racial reasons it never properly catches fire. Idris Elba shouts lines whenever required to by the drama.

“But what about the robot/monster fights?” you asked a few paragraphs back. Well, for the most part they’re kind of awesome. Kind of really awesome. Keenly choreographed and using all kinds of props (cranes, bridges, ships) to great effect, the punching and clawing and hurling never stops being fun, or very very loud. The Jaegers repeatedly surprise, with all kinds of weaponry emerging from their chassis like an enormous Swiss Army Bot. The “rocket elbow”, which ignites to throw an even more face-crushing punch, is a particular favourite, but only one of many. Sadly we get to see very little of the three-armed Chinese Jaeger Crimson Typhoon. Did somebody say “prequel”?

The problem with the fights is that, for the most part, they are held at night, making some of the visuals difficult to make out in the hurly-burly of metal fists and whipping tails. The endless rain doesn’t help much, nor does the fact a pivotal action sequence takes place underwater. We rarely get a proper look at the constantly moving Kaiju, which is a shame given how remarkably well designed they are. Many of the Kaiju battles shown briefly in flashback occur during the day, and it’s hard not to feel like the best stuff was never actually filmed.

But what you can see of the film looks amazing, and del Toro uses plenty of finely designed sets to accompany the digital effects work. Hannibal Chou’s domain in particular, full of jars of Kaiju organs and assorted body parts, feels truly del Toro, recalling both The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy 2’s Troll Market. He may not be much of a writer, but del Toro has an eye as crafty as his imagination, and where the drama dips from time to time, the visuals are never dull.

While the crashing of metal and Kaiju skull is often deafening, one of the big highlights of Pacific Rim is its score, composed by Ramin Djawadi, best known for the booming flurry that opens each episode of Game of Thrones. This score is equally bombastic, as grand and overpowering as the Jaegers themselves, with audible echoes of that manliest of songs, ‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel. In its electric and orchestral forms, the main theme with drill itself into your ear and have you humming its main refrain for hours afterwards.

Doing exactly what it says on its hulking robot tin, Pacific Rim is a mindless blockbuster par excellence. Which is not to say it’s a particularly good movie, but it’s sure as hell a great entertainment. I won’t even say “switch your brain off on the way in”; with its blistering visuals and ear-pumping sounds, Pacific Rim will very much take care of your brain for you.

David Neary

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details) 

131mins
Pacific Rim is released on 12th July 2013

Pacific Rim – Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: A Field in England

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DIR: Ben Wheatley, WRI: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley  PRO: Claire Jones, Andrew Starke   DOP: Laurie Rose  ED: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley  DES: Andy Kelly  Cast: Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Reece Shearsmith, Peter Ferdinando

 

Somewhere in England there is a field. A terrifying, beautiful field, where the wonders of nature and its darkest horrors collide. In case you’re wondering, it’s in Surrey.

Ben Wheatley, who made the filmgoing world vomit in horror and surprise with his 2011 horror/thriller Kill List, has made quite the name for himself as a director of low-budget, daringly original films. His black comedy Sightseers won plaudits last year, but his latest, A Field in England, is his most triumphant work yet.

Set during the English Civil War, the film follows Whitehead (League of Gentlemen alumnus Reece Shearsmith), an unfortunately named academic charged with tracking down a wayward alchemist named O’Neill (Belfast actor Michael Smiley of Kill List and Spaced fame). When his party becomes cornered during a battle between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, Whitehead escapes through a large hedge, a veritable rabbit hole in the literary sense, and into ‘the field’.

There he meets a group of three deserters; the bullying Cutler (Ryan Pope), the blunt but decent Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the Shakespearean fool Friend (Richard Glover), who is apparently too stupid to be killed. The party, lost and bewildered and utterly mismatched, decide to abandon all their goals and head to the pub.

The field, however, is easier entered than exited. Much like Waiting for Godot and similar fictions, you soon realise that the world offstage may not exist at all, and is certainly inaccessible. The field is magic, in its own way, harbouring unseen treasures. A wooden post, carved in runic symbols, when turned opens the doors to this Wonderland still wider.

Soon the formidable O’Neill shows up and using unexplained powers takes command of the group, using Whitehead’s knowledge of ancient books to search for the field’s hidden treasures. O’Neill is happy to stoop to torture to get what he wants. “It does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman,” Friend offhandedly remarks.

Shot in startling black and white, A Field in England is an astonishing work, conjuring recollections of many great films without ever feeling unoriginal. O’Neill’s billowing black robe recalls The Seventh Seal, as does the black humour found amongst the peasant characters, but that is as far as that comparison goes. Wind whips through the long grass, bringing to mind Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Often moments freeze in time, as if the characters were posing for an unseen painter – the whole film feels as if Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway had raised a demented child together. And that can only be a good thing.

Laurie Rose’s soft focus nature photography reveals the simple natural beauties of rural Britain, while his close-ups on the character’s mud-caked faces reveal an attention to detail in this £300,000 production that is nothing short of amazing. When O’Neill force-feeds the company magic mushrooms, a kaleidoscopic Stargate opens that brings you through one of the most dizzying and brain-melting film experiences in recent memory. If it’s at all pretentious, at least it commits to it, and then some.

There is so much invention in this film, from a deafening cannonball volley to a simple CGI eclipse created by a disc of dark cloud. Even the opening, a splatter of ferns and drumbeats, drags you by the throat into its period nightmare. It never really lets go.

But it’s in its script that A Field of England truly stands out. Written by Amy Jump, who wrote Kill List, the film features remarkable use of period language while also having a superb sense of mannish banter. Wit drips from the page, such as when the bookish Whitehead excuses his lack of interaction with people, admitting: “I find pages easier to turn than people.”

Wheatley fans may find his latest a little obtuse, although it is far more forthcoming with its drama than some similar mind-bending art films. The typical Wheatley body horror is uncommon in this film, but when it comes is jaw-plungingly effective. A close-up of Jacob’s penis, revealing he has every illness known to science – “except plague” – is as hilarious as it is revolting. While Glover gets all the best lines, it is Smiley who dominates here. O’Neill is one of the most intimidating and disturbing (and disturbingly entertaining) villains to appear in a film for years. While the rest of the cast chew mushrooms, he chews the remainder of the English countryside. It is a sickening delight to behold.

In an ambitious turn by Film 4, A Field in England opens in cinemas today concurrent with its release on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. Even more pioneeringly, the film will be broadcast on Film 4 on the very night of its release. Audiences now have few excuses to miss one of the most startling, disturbing and ambitious films of the year.

David Neary

90 mins

A Field in England is released on 5th July 2013

A Field in England – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Despicable Me 2

Despicable-Me-2

 

DIR: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud WRI: Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul  PRO: Janet Healy, Christopher Meledandri •  ED: Gregory Perler   DES: Yarrow Cheney • CAST: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove

 

What is going on with Al Pacino? Apparently doing a dance to sell Dunkin’ Donuts in Jack & Jill isn’t beneath him, but he’s above a little ethnic stereotyping in a children’s cartoon? Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here…

The original Despicable Me was the first feature from Illumination Entertainment, and taking in more than $500 million dollars worldwide in 2010 threw down a gauntlet to the likes of Pixar and especially DreamWorks, whose similarly themed Megamind, also out in 2010, took in little more than half that sum. The surprise success of Despicable Me was only surprising to those who didn’t see it. While the animation was nothing spectacular, the film’s extraordinary wit and heart made it a favourite for kids young and old.

Despicable Me 2 follows on in the fashion of its predecessor, as hapless supervillain Gru continues to balance his hi-tech exploits with raising three adorable but troublesome girls. Now retired from evil, Gru and his army of yellow Tic Tac Minions dedicate themselves to raising the children. But when a mysterious supervillain steals a dangerous mutagen, Gru is taken on by the Anti-Villain League to weed out the culprit. It’s the old hire a supervillain to catch a supervillain trick.

The story, what there is of one, is terribly light, with Gru and AVL agent Lucy Wilde having to pose as pastry chefs at a local mall to work out which shop owner is behind the plot. It is played like a whodunit, except we are only ever given two candidates to choose from: Mexican restaurant owner Eduardo and Asian wigmaker Floyd Eagle-san. Elsewhere oldest daughter Margo discovers boys, youngest daughter Agnes tries to encourage a romance between Gru and Lucy and middle child Edith gets utterly sidelined. When the story slackens, the Minions are wheeled out for more of their delightful gibberish-filled antics. The word “gelato” has never brought so many smiles.

There was something so “modern family” about the first film, with a (camp? gay?) single dad raising three girls and discovering he could manage, that really made it stand out. This time around it’s all about finding Gru a girlfriend, and thus finding the girls a mother. It’s an unfortunate step towards a heteronormative family unit that kids’ movies just don’t need right now. Gru is better off a single dad! It also doesn’t help that for much of the film Lucy Wilde is excruciatingly annoying – voiced by Kristen Wiig, she plays it like her role in Bridesmaids but without any of the tragicomic charm.

It also doesn’t help that the racial stereotyping is even worse this time around. Steve Carell gets away with playing Gru as a mad Slav by filling the role with enough soul to excuse it. But having Ken Jeong voice yet another flamboyant Asian man while Steve Coogan plays a British toff with a silly name is all too easy. The character of Eduardo, all flamenco dancing and body hair, was originally to be voiced by Al Pacino, who left the project among some whispered controversy – it’s not hard to see why, Pacino has never been very convincing with his Latino accents.

Despite these problems and the various abandoned subplots (Margo’s love life goes nowhere), there is a good bit to like here, and plenty of proper laughs. The Minions get most of them with their ridiculous singing, inappropriate costumes and general over-eagerness at performing tasks, but Gru and Agnes don’t disappoint.  A fun reference to Alien may be a little obvious, but a later allusion to the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is deliciously obscure for a family movie.

Fans of the original will be disappointed if they expect film two to be of the same standard, but they should be able to enjoy it as just an extra adventure for characters they loved. In the meantime, we can all look forward to next year’s Minions spin-off movie, because let’s face it, they’re all we really want to see.

 

David Neary

97 mins
G (see IFCO website for details)
Despicable Me 2 is released on 28th June 2013

Despicable Me 2 – Official Website

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duE9Ac1JG50

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Interview: Ciarán Foy, director of ‘Citadel’

Citadel

 

Dublin-born director Ciarán Foy has taken his debut feature all over the world; all over that is, except for the countries where it was made and set. Citadel, a low-budget but extremely creepy psychological horror is set on an unnamed Dublin council estate, but was largely filmed in grey, wintry Glasgow, featuring a cast of actors from all over these two islands. Foy’s film was received to much acclaim at South By Southwest in March 2012, and despite being a home-grown film is only reaching these shores now.

Citadel is inspired by traumatic events that Foy actually fell victim to – a savage beating by violent youths that left him with a crippling case of agoraphobia, the fear of the outside world. In his film, Foy addresses his own demons by demonising his assailants, imagining a world where a working class Dubliner is attacked by hoodied youths who are revealed to be not social delinquents but actual monsters. Tommy, played by Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard (Ironclad), develops agoraphobia when his wife is murdered by the creatures, unaware of their true nature. When the blind but fear-sensing mutants return for his daughter, only a bullish local priest (James Cosmo – Game of Thrones, Troy) with secrets of his own can help him defeat the nightmares in their tower block citadel.

As Citadel finally opens in Ireland on Friday, 21st June, Ciarán Foy sat down with David Neary to discuss his film, its journey around the world and his own journey with it.

 

It’s been 15 months since Citadel had its premiere at SXSW. What’s it like to finally be bringing it home?

Obviously it’s my only experience with it being my debut feature, but from talking to people most of the time it’s the other way round – if the film gets a US release at all, it usually comes out back home first.

Because we premiered at SXSW, when it won the Audience Award there that began a bit of a feeding frenzy from distributors in the US to secure the film. So before we left the festival Cinedigm had agreed to take it and release it in the US. So it was following SXSW that I seemed to go around the world the opposite way – the US, then South Korea, finally coming around to Europe. So it’s kind of odd that the final stages of it are Ireland and the UK.

It’s strange, because obviously a lot of the iconography would make a lot more sense to people in this part of the world. I had people coming up to me in the States referencing the tower blocks and saying “Do people actually live there, or did you create this?”, as if it’s a complete fantasy environment!

A lot of people over there would hear the accents in the movie; my lead is Welsh, Marie (Wunmi Mosaku) is English, Cosmo is Scottish – and they would just assume those are all Irish accents, because I’m an Irish person and it’s set on an Irish council estate, with Irish characters. It’s going to be interesting to see how people respond to it here given the familiarity to things. It was all shot in Glasgow except for the interior of Tommy’s house, that was shot in Crumlin.

How do you hope Irish audiences react to it?

I’ve never seen Citadel as an ‘Irish film’. And that’s not being facetious or anything. I remember being asked in the US am I an Irish filmmaker or a filmmaker who happens to be Irish. I think I’m a filmmaker who happens to be Irish. So I hope they treat it like a regular horror. But even compared to low-budget horrors like The Purge, we’ve got like half a per cent of their marketing budget, so we just can’t reach that wide an audience. I just hope that people can watch it and see a horror film that feels like a ’70s psychological horror that gets under your skin. I just hope they respond to it.

You mix your own experience of real horror with the fantastical. What brought you to turn a real terrifying experience into an unspeakable nightmare?

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy and science fiction and adventure. The kind of movies I love are the kind I grew up with; Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis, Verhoeven. Those are my teachers. When the attack happened to me and I was left with this condition that I didn’t have a word for at the time, agoraphobia, and I was just scared out of my wits to even look at the front door, never mind leave the house, the idea of turning that into a movie was the furthermost thing from my mind.

But it was really when I went to film school and I was getting help for agoraphobia from the free counsellor in the college that the idea for the film began to develop. We were talking about body language and she was saying that when you’re afraid your body says you’re afraid. And she said it’s as if these “street predators”, as she called them, can see your fear. And that concept stuck in my head, the idea of something that could see my fear. I just thought if that was literally the case it would be so creepy. So I remember that evening going home, again adding nothing from my own life, and sketching the idea of a creature that was blind but could see fear.

And it was really while talking about that idea with people, and about the my personal inspiration for it, that I got the same reaction every time: “Man, you should put some of that in.” So it was just this weird fusion of my experiences with agoraphobia mixed with my love of genre film. And in an odd way, the more I thought about it, to really tell a story that is true to what it’s like to be agoraphobic, almost requires you to veer into the fantastic because it’s such an irrational fear. You’re seeing things that aren’t there and you’re hearing things that aren’t there. And that constant state of paranoia, to really put the audience inside the head of an agoraphobic, was my intention from the outset, to make an extremely subjective experience. To do that you’ve got to amplify things; to do a straightforward drama about a guy with agoraphobia from an objective point of view wouldn’t really be honest to what it’s like.”

In a sense Aneurin Barnard is playing you, albeit suffering through even more horrific torments. What was your working relationship with him like?

It was pretty intense, but it was interesting. On the page there was a lot of me in the character, which I didn’t really want to put on screen; I didn’t want to direct an actor saying “well what I do is…” or “back when I was you…” or something. I really wanted him to own the character and run with it.

So Aneurin brought a lot of his own experiences to it. He’s had a similar background to me, which is something that I had an instant rapport with. I wanted somebody very young to play this young father, but the hard thing was to find somebody who was that young but had that depth of emotional intelligence. I remember going through 22 guys in one day in London, and the thing that kept hitting me was “these guys are winners”. Their own experiences of life have been great; they’re young, they’re good-looking, they’re extroverted, they haven’t had that kind of experience.

So when Aneurin came in, straight away there was just a presence off him. He was talking about his background and I knew he was what we were looking for. On set he would constantly pick my brain about everything. Intimate thoughts. Everything.

It was very tough going. We had only 23 days to make this film, shooting four or five pages of script a day, and you throw into the mix gangs of kids in prosthetic makeup and two baby boys playing the baby girl – all the clichés about ‘don’t work with children and animals’, they all have a basis in reality. This in combination with the weather, which was the coldest winter Glasgow had on record, it was -19°C most days, and it’s just this very concentrated and intense ‘get-the-fucking-thing-shot’ environment.

Once he got to that level of anxiety he never got a chance to come down from it – it was literally ‘next shot’,  ‘next shot’, ‘next shot’. I think it helped his performance. But at the end of a shooting day he and I would go to the gym just to become more tired. So it was a bit method like that. To hold a screaming baby for 11 hours is no easy task.

James Cosmo is a domineering presence in your film, maniacally chewing the scenery and yet not undermining the production. How did you manage to restrain him?

I had him in mind when I was writing the priest. And I remember describing in prep with James and Aneurin the visual of a lion and a mouse. In that sense I did have to pull it back down a bit. You meet James and he’s 6’4” or something like that – and the same width, he’s just this tank! He was shooting Game of Thrones in Belfast at the time and I was like “he’s not going to do it now…”, but he responded so much to it that he was basically flying between Glasgow and Belfast the whole shoot, going from being Lord Mormont to being the priest in Citadel.

He’s got a very formidable presence, but he’s one of the gentlest souls you’d ever meet. But he’s very astute with a script. And I remember him making some suggestions that, at first, because I’d written the thing and it took me five years to get off the ground, that I was like ‘I’m not changing that line’.

There was this line in the movie where the priest’s attaching some plastic explosive to the main gas riser in the tower and Tommy says to him ‘Where did you learn to do this?’ And I’d spent ages getting this blurb right about his backstory and how he knows how to do it, and James just said: “I don’t wanna say that.” So how do I find some diplomatic way around this to sort of say “no, no, you need to say that”? And he says “It’s better if I just say ‘Past life.’ That’s enough.” And I remember saying “OK, let’s try it, and see what it’s like.” But he was just so right! You can bring whatever you want to that, and it works so much better than some vaguely corny backstory. So he was a great mentor in that respects.

Citadel is set in Dublin but it doesn’t feel oppressively Irish as a story. Was this your intention?

In my head I had always imagined it set in a fictitious council estate. Because this for me was a dark, gothic fairy tale of sorts, where different things represent different things. I didn’t want to say “this is set in this neighbourhood” because that’s generally sweeping everyone in that neighbourhood. So I had always seen it set in a fictitious neighbourhood. And because I’m from Dublin and always imagined making my first film here, I set it in some kind of weird parallel dimension to Dublin.

It was when we realised that one of the central images of the movie is the rectangle – because what represents the thing that an agoraphobe fears the most, and in a weird way the answer is a door, the threshold that they can’t walk through – that was what gave birth to the idea of a tower block as this giant door. It’s also a tombstone. In terms of composition we always try to keep Tommy trapped within rectangles. So I felt the headquarters of the antagonists needs to be a tower block, but by that time all the tall ones in Ballymun had come down. So we immediately started looking elsewhere.

We didn’t looked at places likes Hemsmead in London and eventually Glasgow, but what really struck me was that the visual iconography was the same. These council estates all sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s and they all have that vaguely Soviet, concrete, minimalistic look, with big patches of scorched grass and shopping trolleys. So I felt I was able to tell the same story there.

But what worked to its advantage in shooting it in Glasgow with actors from all around Britain and Ireland, was that it lent a sort of Twlight Zone-y feel of not being able to anchor yourself, to orientate yourself. Kinda like The Road, not being able to say exactly when this film is set, or where it’s set. It’s slightly anxious-making. It feels more dream-like. And that worked because I always saw the film in my mind as Tommy’s nightmare that he can’t wake up from.

The film addresses the issues of violence amongst working class youths, but skirts around the actual causes and potential solutions. There’s not much pity for these working class monsters, or redemption. How do you respond to accusations that your film is, on some level, classist?

I wanted to make a film that was honest to how I saw the world as a frightened 18-year-old. I was quite conscientious about it. I get slightly annoyed when I watch a film like Eden Lake, where you’ve got overtly middle class characters being hunted and tormented by working class kids. And I wanted Tommy, the lead, to come from that area. I didn’t want his BMW to break down in the middle of Shitsville and suddenly he’s chased by the evil working class!

Everyone in the movie comes from this area. I wanted to set it in a working class council estate with working class characters and within that there are good and there are evil. So for me the creatures – I mean, they’re inbred feral mutants, they’re not even kids! – I wanted to create a fictitious fantastical environment in order to give myself permission to do what I do in the end of the movie.

I think if they were regular kids it would be different, and I’ve read reviews where people have picked up on it the wrong way and seen it as some kind of totalitarian thing. There’s no redemption for the creatures, but then no one ever says that about zombies. ‘The poor zombies!’ No, they’re something that needs to be dealt with. And horror films allow you that platform to shock and provoke and tell allegorical tales like that. They’ve never been known for their political correctness!

Opening in the middle of summer is not easy for a low-budget Irish film. On the plus side, at least your film is not out the same day as Man of Steel

We were actually meant to release on June 14thCitadel was originally meant to have a release here in November, but our distributor in the UK was Revolver, who went under. So we’ve just got the film back, with Metrodome in the UK and Wildcard who are releasing it here. But we were originally meant to open on the 14th against Man of Steel, and it was actually Cineworld who contacted us and said “Just stay away from that weekend! We have sold-out screenings everywhere already.” It was great of them to do that.

Now that Citadel has finally reached home base, what comes next for you?

I’m working on a science fiction film set in a futuristic New York, about identity theft. I’m having a lot more levity in writing this script compared to the intensity of writing Citadel.

With Citadel getting such strong notices in the US, will that make it easier for you to get films made?

The fact that Citadel has done pretty well has made there be even more pressure to make sure it’s right and that I’m proud of the next one. I remember talking to Rian Johnson when he had just come off Looper and I said “Surely it gets easier, I mean with a budget of $30m!” and he said “The gap just expands.” And that’s just how it is.

 

Citadel is in cinemas nationwide this Friday, June 21st.

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Cinema Review: After Earth

after_earth_trailer_1

 

DIR: M. Night Shyamalan • WRI: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan • PRO: James Lassiter, Jada Pinkett Smith, Caleeb Pinkett, Will Smith • DOP: Peter Suschitzky • ED: Steven Rosenblum • DES: Thomas E. Sanders • Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Isabelle Fuhrman, Sophie Okonedo

The original teaser trailer for After Earth felt like an M. Night Shyamalan movie. In deep space, in the future, super-soldier Will Smith and his would-be hero son Jaden crash land on an unpopulated, savage world. But twist! It’s Earth!

But much like Shyamalan’s last disastrous venture, The Last Airbender, After Earth isn’t one of the director’s traditional twist-based thrillers, rather a sci-fi action adventure film. And once more the director is considerably out of his element.

Based on a story idea by Smith the elder, and written by Shyamalan and Book of Eli writer Gary Whitta, After Earth is a father/son bonding tale set within a clumsily considered (and more clumsily realised) science fiction universe. The whole venture feels like an excuse for Will to show off his son; Shyamalan certainly has no chance to show off anything here.

Set some 1,000 years after Earth is abandoned for environmental reasons, mankind has settled on a sunny, Grand Canyon-esque planet called Nova Prime (‘new one’ – not even the most embarrassing use of Latin this film demonstrates). Ranger Corps general Cypher Raige (Will Smith, overcompensating for how ordinary his real name is) has become the hero of humanity after defeating an alien invasion; in what would probably have been a much more entertaining movie to watch. He has perfected the art of “ghosting”, suppressing all fear so that the alien beasties can’t see him. But the death of his daughter at the claws of one of the creatures has scarred his relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has sort of been blamed for her demise despite being only about six at the time it happened.

Attempting to reconnect, Cypher takes Kitai on a mission with him, but soon enough an asteroid collision leaves them the only survivors of the starship once it crashes down to Earth. With Cypher’s leg broken, and the only working distress beacon in the tail section of the starship some miles away (alternative title: ‘Lost in space’), Kitai must venture into the sort-of-unknown to save the day and earn top-billing on the movie posters.

The lush landscape of Earth is now dotted with plenty of predators and poisonous nasties, mostly mild evolutions of creatures we already have – slightly bigger eagles, slightly bigger cougars, slightly bigger monkeys, slightly bigger leeches, ordinary-sized boars. But, due to science and why-the-hell-not-ery, the temperature plummets to below freezing after nightfall, meaning Kitai must race to reach a series of hot spots – thermal safe zones, assumedly where he can save his game and regenerate in case he is killed in his mission.

In a plot mechanic worryingly borrowed from space Viking movie Outlander, an alien being transported by the ship has also survived, and is after Kitai, who must prove himself a fearless hero like his father. The alien, a feral xenomorph thing that shoots needles, is called an ‘ursa’, from the Latin for ‘bear’, because screw education that’s why. There is nothing remotely bear-ish about these things.

There is almost a decent story in the pre-Earth sequences of this film, although Will Smith’s robotic delivery and 14-year-old Jaden’s slightly awkward performance don’t capture the militant father/struggling son dynamic as well as maybe it appeared behind the scenes. Smith Sr., reduced to Morgan Freeman impressions in Jaden’s ear for much of the film, gives his son as much room as he can to act the star, but the young performer is just not up to carrying a movie – especially with only CGI animals to perform against for much of the time.

The locations are lush but the CGI is poor, and when swarms of computerised monkeys rumble through the ferns it looks almost laughable. The action scenes in general are disastrous, with all but one of them cut short after only a minute – an aerial showdown with an eagle ends almost as soon as it begins.

While the architecture of Nova Prime is briefly interesting, the story leaves it so quickly that we never have a chance to be wowed by the $130m production values. The inside of Cypher’s ship looks like something out of Blake’s 7, all cardboard walls and hangar netting. They were going for a look, clearly, but they forgot to finish it. The one piece of design truly worth commending is in the Ranger Corps’ weaponry – they wield ‘cutlasses’, blade handles with control panels on them allowing the wielder to select the blade of their choosing to shoot out from it. It’s a nice idea, and gets a few brief clever uses; but if you’ll remember the last time a sword was the best thing about a film you were watching The Phantom Menace.

It’s impossible to know what anyone saw in this project. What is the moral? Certainly not environmentalism – mankind has only been gone a millennia and Earth looks gorgeous again! The father/son bond is central but never really pushed, and climaxes on a remarkably awkward joke that suggests not so much an understanding has been reached but that neither man is up to their line of work. Wedged in the middle is the most preposterous re-enactment of Androcles and the Lion you could ever hope to witness. The running theme of overcoming fear allows for a lot of The Secret-meets-FDR nonsense talk from Smith, suggesting fear is something we choose to have, even when watching our sisters get impaled by colossal lizard bug monsters, called bears.

Shyamalan’s failure is most of all not knowing how to control an action sequence, and he seems to have no sense of what audiences want from their thrill rides. Lacking pacing, drama, emotion, action and even a truly unique vision, After Earth is about as big a dud as Hollywood can hope to churn out these days. Not even the combined starpower of Mr. and Mr. Smith can save this one.

 

David Neary

12A (see IFCO website for details)

99 mins
After Earth is released on 7th June 2013

After Earth – Official Website

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