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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Cinema Review: Byzantium

Byzantium, film

 

DIR: Neil Jordan  WRI: Moira Buffini • PRO: Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson, Elizabeth Karlsen, Alan Moloney, Stephen Woolley • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Tony Lawson • DES: Simon Elliott • Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley

 

Neil Jordan returns to cinemas for the first time in four years with this neo-gothic vampire tale, just as that particular genre begins to sink below the zeitgeist waves. We are now post-Twilight, with True Blood and The Vampire Diaries in their second death throes.

 

But there’s life in the undead dog yet. Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist vampire art-house romcom Only Lovers Left Alive just received deserved praise at Cannes, and while Jordan’s work is flawed, it’s an admirable piece of cinema nevertheless. And why shouldn’t Jordan latch on at the last moment – his 1994 take on the myth, Interview with the Vampire, is as much responsible for the vampire boom that flowed from Buffy to Twilight as any film.
 
The film stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a wandering mother/daughter vampire team, Clara and Eleanor, constantly on the move to evade from those who would uncover their true identities, and those who already know it. A moral pair, they work as sort of Angels of Death, only feeding on the terminally ill or the extremely elderly – a form of vampiric euthanasia. Clara, eternally voluptuous, trades on her body to keep the duo in housing and out of trouble. Eleanor, eternally 16, searches for meaning in her never-ending life, tortured internally by the things she has seen and done.Their wanderings bring them full circle to the sleepy English seaside town where their story began 150 years earlier, prompting a series of fractured flashbacks that give us a glimpse into their pasts. Clara’s being condemned to imprisonment in a brothel in her earlier life is echoed as she turns a run-down hotel in the present, named Byzantium, into a whorehouse with herself as madam. Eleanor starts at a new school where her creative writing assignments draw suspicious glances and her relationship with sickly classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) causes her cursed heart to skip a beat.
 
A gorgeous production, shot in some curious locations, Byzantium looks as good as anything Neil Jordan has made before. Ever-reliable cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame) excels in lighting the dark and murky streets of modern Britain, while sadly bringing little life to its nineteenth century counterpart. Perhaps the most in-your-face achievement of Byzantium is the remarkable varieties of ways the crew have found to light and shoot Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. Jordan has never been one to shy away from sexuality, but here the obsession with Arterton’s bosom is beyond distracting, the centre point of far too many frames. In one of the film’s most dramatic sequences, a vampire’s birth is heralded by a Shining-like cascade of blood, in which Arterton bathes, her cleavage overflowing with blood. Her cups literally runneth over with blood.

In spite of scene-stealing competition from her cleavage, Arterton holds much of the film together with an impressively committed performance. Ronan is ever reliable as a disenfranchised youth, and her sighs and longing glances carry her character’s tragedy. Sadly, she remains utterly unconvincing in romantic roles, and paired with the zombified Jones, sporting a Danish (?) accent that is baffling to the ears, makes for some very awkward drama. Johnny Lee Miller minces amusingly as the Victorian villain, while Control’s Sam Riley is horrendously underutilised in a supporting role.

One of Byzantium’s great saving graces is in its lightly sketched mythology, introducing its vampires as an underground cabal of male vampires who do not approve of females amongst their ranks, and forbid them to be makers. The idea of an ancient sect of fundamentalist chauvinists throws up cute allusions to the Catholic Church, although despite their intimidation it is hard to suppress a guffaw when they introduce themselves as ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’.

Lovely to look at for the most part, adequately acted and with an impressive score by Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth), Byzantium will not be one of Jordan’s best remembered films, but it is a welcome return to the gothic for the Irish filmmaker. While the ending feels rushed and features one excessively under-explained character reversal, there is enough in the film to keep the attention throughout.

A mobile phone vibrating in a puddle of blood, for example. There’s something we haven’t seen before.

David Neary

15A (see IFCO website for details)

118 mins
Byzantium is released on 31st May 2013

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Cannes Diary 5: Days 9-12

M_Id_388721_cannes-concludes

 

David Neary checks out the boat porn and all the winners, and waves a fond farewell to Cannes.

 

By Thursday morning the buzz was beginning to grow around Cannes that La Vie d’Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Colour) was now the one to watch, and I was still simmering having missed it. Things were only going to get more disappointing as the morning wore on. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska was on too early for me to make. The screening of Jerry Lewis’ new movie Max Rose was cancelled. (You may now take a moment to process the fact that Jerry Lewis is still alive. OK, moving on…) There was nothing to be done except to drink espressos and write and complain about how we hadn’t seen La Vie d’Adèle yet.

It was after 4pm before I saw my first (and only) film of the day. Screening as part of Cannes Classics, Yasujiro Ozu’s swansong An Autumn Afternoon was showing in the blissfully air-conditioned Salle Buñuel. The 1962 film, newly restored by Shochiku, was presented by, amongst others, Hirokazu Kore-eda, in town with his superb new film Like Father, Like Son. I had already heard him speak at his film’s press conference, but now was a chance to actually watch a movie with one of my favourite living filmmakers. Honestly I’m pretty sure he ducked out halfway through, having seen it many times before and being busy selling his film, but either way, it was still the best cine-date I’ve ever been on. I hope he calls me…

In many ways a remake of his earlier film Late Spring, Ozu’s last work has all the director’s trademarks – motionless cameras, head-on framing, a gripping sense of the simple tragedy of everyday life. The audience was utterly absorbed, except for the seven-year-old girl whose mother had thought it appropriate to take her to a sluggish Japanese ’60s drama, and who spent most of the film unleashing squeaky, puppy-ish yawns much to the audience’s aw-ing delight. Thinking back on it now, I think she may have been the only child I saw in that entire fortnight. Curious that.

By means far too long-winded and silly to explain, I had been invited to a proper Cannes party that night, and made my way up into the hills above the town to the chateau of a producer I can’t identify for legal reasons and because I lost his card and can’t remember his name. It was a curious intermingling; producers chatted with journalists, industry sales folk bantered with actors. I met the writer of an unmemorable Roman Polanski movie, and engaged in some great conversation with representatives of the Serbian film board (not to be confused with A Serbian Film board – that’s a very different thing altogether). We drank experimental not-yet-on-the-market vodka-infused energy drinks and listened as a young woman wearing fairy wings playing an acoustic set of The Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’. That was a good time to call it a night I thought.

It was when I got into Cannes on Friday that the festival’s drawing to a close became obvious – there were more people getting on trains to leave Cannes. For reasons I have not yet had fully explained to me, Cannes becomes a bit of a ghost town for the last few days of the festival. Sure, the markets close and the deals stop being done, but why all the journalists and cinephiles leave before the final screenings and the awards ceremony is beyond me. Who flees Wimbledon the day before the men’s singles final?

On the plus side, this meant that the queues would now be shorter, and hopefully no more films would be denied to me. My over-ambitious schedule of films to watch, drawn up on day one of the festival, erroneously had me down as having seen La Vie d’Adèle, and it now took priority above all else. Given its three-hour length, this would mean skipping two films just to catch it. And good lord it would be worth it.

Taking my seat in the cinema, the woman next to me apologised that she was going to have to barge out halfway through, as she had a meeting to attend. She was still there, in her seat, transfixed, as the final credits rolled. I’ve rarely heard such silent audiences. Blue Is the Warmest Colour tells the story of Adèle, a teenager dealing with all-too-real problems, whose life begins to simultaneously bloom and unravel when she realises she is a lesbian. Newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos, only 19, gives one of the most breathtaking performances you may ever see in the lead role, while the ravishing Léa Seydoux (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) is sublimely sensual as the blue-haired object of her affections. It is one of the most intoxicating, absorbing works of cinema released in the last two decades, and barely feels half its length. The 10 minutes of unsimulated lesbian sex that follow the first act are utterly warranted by the drama that precedes, although it remains to be seen how deep the censors’ knives will cut when the film gets an international release later this year.

Afterwards, I stood sipping espresso and tweeting violently with other critics who had just seen the film. Rarely have I seen so many critics lost for words. The general agreement was, however, that we had just seen the Palme D’Or winner. Even my beloved Kore-eda’s latest could not compare to this masterful new film.

Still stunned and a little teary from the film, I walked down the promenade and splashed out on an expensive but delicious pizza (I say expensive, which it was for France, but still the same price and twice the size of what you’d get in Milano’s back home), while hoovering up press materials on Blue into my brain. The director, Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kerchiche, has admitted he may wish to return to the character in a few years for another film, giving me a delicious slice of food for thought to accompany my meal.

What could possibly follow Blue, I thought to myself. Surely Jim Jarmusch’s latest, vampire dramedy Only Lovers Left Alive, would drown in insignificance by comparison. Well actually, no, not really. Jarmusch’s lightest film in a decade, Only Lovers stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as suitably angular-faced vampires who have been married since the mid-nineteenth century. As much social commentary as romance – the immortal duo despair at humanity’s insistent failure to evolve beyond war and injustice – the film is also exceptionally funny, with Hiddleston and Swinton delivering the silliest of lines with deadpan purity. It’s slight, and another of Jarmusch’s stranger genre pieces, but it’s quite the treat, and definitely one of the more surprising entries in the main competition this year.

On the night bus home, two tuxedoed English short film producers engaged me on who I thought would take the Palme. They had managed to see every single film in competition (at this stage, I, by comparison, was only hitting 12/20) except La Vie d’Adèle, so we had a very long debate about how it was all going to go. Of course, all I was thinking about at this stage was when was I ever going to find the time to catch up on the films I had missed. Thankfully, with Cannes drying up in terms of population, the weekend would provide more than enough time to visit what I had missed.

Stocks of espresso were also drying up on Saturday leading to minor panic in the press area. Cinema seats lay vacant in screenings that would have been in demand three-fold just a few days earlier. The men’s room had run out of John Williams and was now bellowing Howard Shore’s Fellowship of the Ring theme. The festival was coming to a close.

On my way to check out Michael Kohlhaas, I passed by the press conference for Only Lovers Left Alive, which emptied out into the main corridor, unleashing Tilda Swinton, Jarmusch, Hiddleston and John Hurt on my already celeb-filled retinas. Hiddleston, outrageously dashing in a three-piece suit in the warmest colour, stood for photographs as long as he could, before being very apologetic about the need to run off and do more important things. A proper gent that one, even if I still haven’t forgiven him for Agent Coulson.

Michael Kohlhaas is exactly the kind of film Americans think of when they think of European art films. Glacially slow, stupidly beautiful, featuring themes of faith and justice. It’s a mediaeval tale starring Mads Mikkelsen as a horse trader who takes the law into his own hands when wronged by a local baron. People discuss death and god a lot. Horses get progressively more covered in mud. Even when there is action, it is either off screen or so esoterically edited as to be dull to watch. One of the weaker films in competition in Cannes this year, it is gorgeously shot but otherwise nothing that hasn’t already been done to death.

Picking up the pace, and with less distractions in an emptier Cannes, it was straight into my next film, German drama Nothing Bad Can Happen, competing in Un Certain Regard. In the immortal words of Nelson Muntz, I can think of at least two things wrongs with the title of that movie. A Christ analogy set in modern Hamburg, Nothing Bad Can Happen sees a young devout Christian attempt to save a working class family who at first humour him and then begin to psychologically and physically torture him. It’s heavy-handed in the extreme, but it has some great use of focus and the only case I’ve ever come across of the Inception noise being used in a straight drama without any explosions.

Un Certain Regard announced its jury’s decisions after the film, and I hid my face lest anyone could tell that I hadn’t caught any of the prize winners. With this second-tier competition running parallel, it’s hard to make time for its films and even harder to predict what might be the big films in it ahead of the festival. I’ll have to pay more attention to the buzz next time.

There was time for some last-minute Cannes stuff (Sunday was destined not to allow a moment to breathe, let alone take care of non-film business), so I grabbed a burger, wrote some postcards and ambled down the docks with an ice-cream checking out all the boat porn moored there for the festival. When I’m rich and famous, someone remind me to buy a boat. Rumour has it competition jury president Steven Spielberg has barely been ashore all festival, watching all the movies in the cinema on his boat. There comes a point where something is so unimaginably brilliant that jealousy can longer comprehend it, and you just start feeling loss.

My last film for the night was the final Cannes Classic screening of the festival, Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), with the film’s star Alain Delon, fighting fit at 77, presenting. It’s a 1960 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley that plays brilliantly on burgeoning ’60s cool and is kept lively for the most part by Nino Rota’s proto-Godfather score. The remastered transfer was stunning to behold, as was young Alain Delon, a man so preposterously good-looking that just seeing him will bump you up a spot on the Kinsey scale.

While waiting for the film to start, I realised that Max Von Sydow was seated about 10 places over from me. The moment when you realise you’re within scrunched-up ball of paper-throwing distance of one of the greatest film actors of all time, whose career spans both The Seventh Seal and Flash Gordon, is a special one. Less special was the Asian girl in front of me who kept bouncing excitedly in her seat and bashing my knees throughout the film. But worse still was the woman a few rows ahead of me who insisted on filming huge chunks of the film on her digital camera while looking at the footage on the display screen. Video piracy; of classics; in Cannes. If it can happen in Cannes it can happen anywhere. If only I’d had that scrunched-up ball of paper to fling at her head…

The last real night of the festival, I went out on the town with some friends and didn’t make it home ’til after 4am. But you’d better believe I was back in at 9am for movies… I wouldn’t miss a moment of the final day of Cannes.

The last day of the festival everything is deserted. As the red carpet gets laid out for the closing ceremony, massive deconstruction of other areas begins. The press document boxes, now emptied, had their security equipment ripped from them and stored away from another year. Like a surly barman calling last orders, Cannes wanted us to know we were not welcome to stay much longer.

Rather than show anything new, the wind down day of Cannes is a veritable clip show episode, in which every film in the main competition gets rescreened in order to give people a chance to catch them at this last venture. I had a lot of movies to watch, and was running mercilessly low on steam and caffeine.

The schedule for the rescreenings was hugely telling, with the Salle Debussy, the largest available screen by a good distance, showing Inside Llewyn Davis, Like Father, Like Son and La Vie d’Adèle over the course of the day – my three frontrunners for the Palme D’Or. Not exactly subtle on Cannes’ behalf. The schedule worked brilliantly in my favour, placing film after film I hadn’t seen at non-clashing times. It’s almost as if it had been written for me.

First up was Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful), the latest from French voyeur François Ozon. It’s a rich, attractive drama about sexual identity and rebellion, that makes the improbable leap of having its 17-year-old protagonist over-compensate for a bad first time by becoming a part-time prostitute. It’s sexy and never dull, but it’s far from the quality of the thematically comparable La Vie d’Adèle.

I dashed up stairs, via the espresso bar rattling in its death throes, to catch The Immigrant, and I sort of wish I hadn’t. A period drama set amongst prostitutes (theme for the morning) in 1920s New York, director James Gray’s latest is the social and visual antithesis to festival opener The Great Gatsby. Featuring decent but tired performances from Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, it features superb period detail, but almost nothing else. It plods along at a frustratingly slow pace, and never gets anywhere special.

There was barely a moment to check my emails and grab some water before sprinting across the Palais once more to catch Le Passé (The Past), once upon a time in the festival a favourite to win. Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his similarly excellent A Separation is a heavily layered drama of family secrets and scars, with several clever reveals and a fantastic cast, particularly The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo as a mother dealing with a rebellious daughter and two men in her life she both loves and despises.

With only five minutes between the end of Le Passé and my next film, Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur, I was disappointed to arrive after the screening had filled up. It was probably for the best, in the end, as it gave me a chance to take a break from all the endless film watching and get some almost food into me. Pretty much the only building in Cannes that looked like it wasn’t about to close up for the winter was the panini stand out back, so that would have to do.

My last film of the evening, and of the festival as it turned out, was Nebraska. Alexander Payne’s intergenerational road movie sees Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Forte drive his elderly father, played by Bruce Dern, from Montana to Nebraska to pick up prize money he is convinced he has won in a dubious postal draw. Shot unnecessarily in black and white, it’s still a great slice of modern America with lots of heart and some terrific laughs. Dern gives one of the performances of his career, and one that is begging for an Oscar come February (are we allowed talk about the Oscars yet?).

By the time I got out of Nebraska the jury had already announced the prizes. The Palme D’Or had gone to La Vie d’Adèle and justice felt deliciously served. Second and third place had gone to Inside Llewyn Davis and Like Father, Like Son, a decision I would personally reverse in order but still could not help but be happy with. Bruce Dern and Bérénice Bejo took Best Actor and Actress, making my film-viewing for the day seem all the more relevant in retrospect. Some were surprised to see Best Director go to Heli helmer Amat Escalante, although I found Best Screenplay for Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin far more peculiar, despite some seriously biting commentary in that film.

At that stage, I had three options. Race to Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw and actually stay awake this time; go home and change into my tux for the closing film, Zulu (no, not that Zulu), which critics had been busy mauling all day; or else admit that the festival had finished for this year, and it was time to move on. So I did the mature thing. I bid farewell to friends I had met throughout the festival, logged off the press computers for the last and, with heavy heart and heavier eyelids, left the Grand Palais for the last time this year.

Somehow I had survived two straight weeks of film screenings and writing at the sacrifice of food and sleep. My blood now runs brown with espresso. And for the most part I saw only great films, seeing nothing I wished to boo or needed to walk out of, catching only a select few disappointments. The whole festival had worked out quite splendidly in the end.

You can appreciate where all the hype comes from, even if at 66 you’d expect they know how to organise a goddamn queuing system.

 

Check out David Neary’s previous diary entries:

Cannes Diary: Days 7-8
David Neary embraces American-English, misses out on three-hours of lesbian sex and gets ripped off by Ma Nolan.

Cannes Diary: Days 4-6
David Neary dons his debs tux, fumes at French teens and survives on the Cannes diet and nap regime.

Cannes Diary: Days 2-3
David Neary eavesdrops on the Danish, gets berated by a Mexican, shares a boat with Metallica and hangs out with three of a decade’s worth of celebrity crushes. It’s tough in Cannes…

Cannes Diary: Day 1
David Neary brushes shoulders with the stars and an umbrella salesman at Cannes.

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Cannes Diary 4 – Days 7-8

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 Behind the Candelabra

David Neary embraces American-English, misses out on three-hours of lesbian sex and gets ripped off by Ma Nolan.

Tuesday was another beautifully sunny day in Cannes, the perfect excuse to hide from the sun in a dark room and watch things flicker on the screen that were less bright and frightening. I had missed Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, that morning, and as seems to be daily routine now everyone was talking about how great it was and its chances for the Palme d’Or. Michael Douglas, for the time being, is seen as a shoe-in for Best Actor.

Still disappointed from the film the previous night, I opted not to head into the Grande Bellezza press conference, despite my love of Sorrentino. After downing another liquid thunder-coffee at the espresso bar, I got in line (American journalists are rubbing off on me, the word ‘queued’ has started to look strange to me) for Claire Denis’ latest Les Salauds (The Bastards). There I got talking to Polish film critic Michal Oleszczyk, who sported a gloriously nerdy T-shirt with ‘Pauline Kael’ written on it in the font of an ’80s rock band logo. Cannes truly is the Mecca of film geekdom.

Controversially not in the main competition (where there are no female directors this year), Les Salauds may have a strong shot at winning Un Certain Regard. With the most vaguely plotted first 20 minutes imaginable, Denis’s film is a neo-noir that doesn’t introduce its characters, and leaves you collecting information a frustrating few beats behind the protagonist. Not a very enjoyable watch (and with some horrific sexual violence – a bit much before lunch), it all comes together for a quite startling final 10 minutes that make this a truly memorable film. Whether or not it was deserving of a spot in the main competition, it was certainly many leagues above the likes of Jimmy P.

I had planned to catch A Castle in Italy, but word was it is the weakest film in competition this year (worse than Jimmy P. and Wara No Tate), so I passed in order to catch up on writing and get some food for a change. Caught for time with another film fast approaching, I had to make the tourists’ Sophie’s Choice of grabbing food in McDonalds or Subway. I chose the latter, but I didn’t feel good about it.

Back at the Salle Debussy, I managed to squeeze my way into the press screening of Grigris, a French/Chadian coproduction, showing in the main competition. It’s perhaps the most unoriginal story imaginable; a performer in desperate need of money gets involved in illegal activities, decides to rob from his criminal bosses and has to go on the run. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before – except for Grigris himself. Playing a fictionalised interpretation of himself, dancer Soulémane Démé is a performer like no other. With an unexplained disability meaning his left leg is withered down to a slender stalk, Grigris is a human rubber band, able to bend himself in unimaginable ways as he gesticulates his flailing form with incredible skill on the dance floor. Démé’s physical performance is what makes the film work, in addition to some solid nighttime cinematography and an unexpectedly feminist ending.

Jaws was playing at the cinema on the beach, but I decided to call it a day then. Waiting for my train, an unexpected (and unwarranted) blitzkrieg of fireworks erupted over Cannes, deafening everyone for miles around. No doubt they cut into the enjoyment of Jaws a little.

The next morning I woke bright and early for another 8.30am screening. At this stage of the festival it had become embarrassingly clear that despite my expectations of drowning in movies at the festival, my batting average was only two a day. Today was going to be different, I thought, as I grabbed a petit déjeuner of a croissant and a bag of Haribo crocodiles and waited for my train.

Seated in the Grand Théâtre Lumière there was a huge amount of excitement in the air for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, his follow-up to Drive. There had been rumours slamming around Cannes the previous days that a gaggle of Danish press had seen a preview and been heartily unimpressed. Now was our chance to finally find out.

Well, yeah, they were right. Even more visually stylish than Drive, Only God Forgives also has less plot, character or purpose. A convoluted revenge tale set in Bangkok, Ryan Gosling stars as Ryan Gosling playing Ryan Gosling, a drug dealer who comes up against an unstoppable and vicious police chief who allowed Gosling’s brother to be killed in custody. Very little happens, and very little is said, other than Kristin Scott Thomas talking at length about her sons’ genitalia. It may be gorgeous to look at, but it’s very little else. As the credits rolled, rapturous applause and blistering boos rose into the air and collided like at the battle of the bands in Scott Pilgrim.

It was straight out of that into a rescreening of Behind the Candelabra for me. Soderbergh’s purposed final film is a superbly judged if straightforward drama anchored by excellent performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It’s Rob Lowe who steals the show however in his brief appearances. American audiences with HBO can enjoy it almost straight away, as it airs on Sunday night. At the cost of new Game of Thrones, however. Surely that’s too great a price to pay…

My closest shave of Cannes 2013 thus far came shortly after as I was hanging around the American Pavilion, chatting to some staff there about how disappointing we all felt Only God Forgives had been. ‘I thought the music was great at least,’ conceded one woman of Cliff Martinez’s score, to which I agreed, but added that it sounded like leftover tracks from Drive. We moved onto another topic altogether, but only just in time, as Cliff Martinez walked into the pavilion and straight through our conversation. Being a critic at Cannes can be very dangerous sometimes. You never know who is listening, or lurking around the next corner.

My third film of the day was to be Wakolda, showing in Un Certain Regard. Seemingly a rather pretty but standard Argentinian period piece, about a family opening a hotel in 1960, it takes a turn for the disturbing when their first guest turns out to be Josef Mengele, the real-life Auschwitz physician, and he takes a creepy interest in the family’s youngest daughter and her mother’s in-utero twins. A little slow moving, it is still a solid drama with some terrific imagery, most notably a doll factory where perfect blonde plastic girls are lined up on shelves while mangled and burned defected dolls lie crumpled in a heap on the floor.

Absent for a few days, the rains came back a vengeance, bringing with them the familiar sights of dampened tuxes and umbrella salesmen all down the promenade. With time to spare to grab some food,  I checked out the Armenian kebab joint everyone had been telling me about, and was not left disappointed. If there’s anything you miss while at Cannes, it’s eating remotely healthily.

Hiking back to the Palais in the rain, I shared a knowing, damp look with Michael Cera as his entourage umbrella’d him through the town. When I got back to Salle Debussy, I realised I had made an enormous error of judgement. The three-hour La Vie d’Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Colour) was having its press screening and with the rain and its length I had assumed there would be little demand or queue for it. I could not have been more wrong. Apparently people really like their three-hour lesbian sex dramas.

Who knew?

Rejected from my second film of the festival, I had no choice but to join some friends for drinks in a local Irish pub, the unfortunately named Ma Nolan’s, where pints were a preposterous €6.70. If it can happen at Cannes, it can happen anywhere.

No, wait, scrap that! You’d never pay €6.70 for a pint at the Galway Film Fleadh. That’s some serious bullshit right there!

Still to come, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch and Roman Polanski all have new films to show, and now that everyone and their mother is hailing La Vie d’Adèle as the first true masterpiece of the festival, I suppose I’ll have to block off some time to catch that now too.

It’s all fun and games until somebody misses a film.

 

Check out David Neary’s previous diary entries:

Cannes Diary: Days 4-6
David Neary dons his debs tux, fumes at French teens and survives on the Cannes diet and nap regime.

Cannes Diary: Days 2-3
David Neary eavesdrops on the Danish, gets berated by a Mexican, shares a boat with Metallica and hangs out with three of a decade’s worth of celebrity crushes. It’s tough in Cannes…

Cannes Diary: Day 1
David Neary brushes shoulders with the stars and an umbrella salesman at Cannes.

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Cannes Diary Days 4-6

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 Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis

 

David Neary dons his debs tux, fumes at French teens and survives on the Cannes diet and nap regime.

 

Day four began at the crack of dawn as I ventured into Cannes for the 8.30am screening of Jimmy P., playing here in competition. Insult added to sleepy injury, there wasn’t much demand for it and I could’ve shown up just as it started, instead of a little after 7.But it was my first film in the colossal Grand Théâtre Lumière, and had to make sure I saw something in the cinema where all the real magic happens. Jimmy P., however, was not a good example of this magic. The film, full title Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, is a mess of a play of a film, a series of decently performed psychotherapy sessions that say very little about the male psyche or Native American history and society. Now, I don’t want to be over-dramatic here, but in terms of the people involved – Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Almaric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) star, Howard Shore scores, Stéphane Fontaine (Rust and Bone) is DoP. and the director is Arnaud Desplechin, beloved in his native France for films such as A Christmas Tale (not to be confused with A Christmas Story, that’s a very different film) – Jimmy P. may just be the most disappointing movie ever made. Pretty but permanently bland, with tiresome dialogue and Oscar-baiting performances, it is somehow never exactly boring, but it’s not for a moment interesting.The epic dud-ishness of this first flop of the festival was all anyone could talk about Saturday – well that and the starter pistol incident that resulted in a man being arrested Friday, and Christoph Waltz being forced to run for his life. This impeded everyone by ramping up the already excessive security procedures – getting into the Grand Palais now requires more bag and I.D. checks than the United States.Still buzzing from Like Father, Like Son the night before, not even Jimmy P. could bring me down. At the press conference for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film (they say never meet your heroes, but you should sit in rooms with them and hear them talk if you can), we got some great insights into the film. One of the most fascinating revelations was that the child actors in the film were never given the script; the adult actors had set lines to deliver and the kids were invited to just respond to those. As the star Masahuru Fukuyama put it, ‘we just let them play’.

Surely the quote of the festival so far came from six-ish-year-old actor Shogen Hwang, who was asked what he thought of Like Father, Like Son and of working on it. Translated from the Japanese into French before being fed by a second interpreter into my earpiece in English, little Shogen responded: ‘It was fun and very interesting,’ before pausing to add ‘The end was not a real end, and I like it.’ If I were a film critic in Japan I’d be watching my back, because that kid would have my job in 15 years!

I dropped by the Irish Pavilion, to check on how the Film Board were succeeding in  promoting their wares and steal some of their coffee and wifi. Things seemed to be going well, although the intermittent rain was disabling their terrace from being used for meetings. Never underestimate the role the sun can play in business transactions.

Playing as part of the Cannes Classic section of the festival, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (The Lonely Wife) was a chance for me to brush up on my film history. Both Ray and Indian cinema are massive blank spots on my to-see list, so this was an unmissable chance (although only because nothing else newer and more appealing was on at the same time). A pleasant love-triangle drama with some plucky musical asides, it gets a little bogged down in period politics of its 1870s setting. Slowly paced, its late afternoon screening time was perhaps ill-judged, and the audience began dozing on a pretty wide scale. The cinema, the Salle Buñuel, has the most legroom I have ever come across in any theatre, so I suppose I can’t blame the sleepyheads.

Had dinner with a friend, American filmmaker Heather Fink, over in Cannes gathering finances for her end-of the-world comedy http 404, about mankind’s struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world without internet. Given the pathetic quality of the wifi (or ‘weefee’ as they say here) around Cannes, I feel like I am already living in that universe, and it is hell.

The only hell worse than not having internet is queuing, and queue we did. In line for the hugely in-demand Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the Coen brothers, a big crowd of lowly journalists waited two hours just to get in. The press pass system here is cruelly tiered, with white and pink badged hacks waltzing in 15 minutes before the movie starts while the blues and yellows camp out hoping that the pastels leave us a few seats. Carnage broke out when the doors finally opened, but a preposterous decision from on high meant that only the blue badges could go through – desperate film critics shoved and tore their way through the crowd. Tensions and bodies became heated. New aromas never before smelled by man were invented. By the end of the debacle, the yellows were turned away, cut off by Cannes’ cruel system of journalistic apartheid. There was nothing to be done except go to the bar for a much-needed drink.

Sunday I took off, hanging out in suburban beach town Antibes to catch up on sleep, writing, and most important of all food. Cannes is so hectic and expensive that many people struggle to manage even one meal a day, living off of espresso and free M&Ms. No doctor has yet come out in support of the Cannes diet, but a week in the results are already speaking for themselves in terms of belt notches. And in terms of scurvy.

However, since the only thing better than not watching movies is watching movies, I opted to head back into Cannes Sunday night for my first black tie event of the festival. The black tie dos here are ticketed affairs, and while tickets must be requested by the plebs of the cinema, many people opt to camp out in their finery hoping that a generous and busy patron of the festival will throw them a spare. This was my only option. Standing there like a nob in my somehow still wearable debs tux with a scrap of paper reading ‘un billet s’il vous plait’, I felt like the festival was beginning to turn against me. But only for five minutes; that’s how long I was there before someone gave me a ticket for the premiere of Borgman. Beggars can’t be choosers, but they can be winners.

 

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 Mr Neary scrubbed up

Ascending the red carpet staircase of the Lumière with a bombardment of camera flashes firing off all around was one of those rare experiences of satisfaction you get as a cinephile. Inside Ifound myself  seated in the best available place some hundred feet above the main floor and waited for the director and his cast to arrive for the film to start.

Borgman, the Netherlands’ first entry in competition in nearly 40 years, is a twisted black comedy thriller horror satire that feels like the illegitimate child of Dogtooth and Boudu Saved From Drowning. Borgman, played by Christoph Waltz’s cousin (probably) Jan Bijvoet, is a fiendishly manipulative homeless man who blags his way into the suburban home of a miserably well-off family. Things start out strange, and get stranger, before getting absolutely batshit demented as Borgman takes complete control of the household, bodies begin to pile up and reality begins to collapse on itself. Disturbing but often hilariously funny, it is one of the most pleasant surprises of the festival so far.

The only real disappointment of the night was the four French teens to my left, who talked and checked their phones and falsely hollered laughing when the audience laughed all through the movie. The only thing worse than louts is louts in tuxedos. Steven Soderbergh’s right, the cinema experience really is dying. If it can happen at Cannes, it can happen anywhere.

Having missed the last train to Antibes, the only option was to party through the night, resulting in me missing the first train as well. Worried about when I would ever catch up on the sleep I was missing, a fellow rail user provided some help by wising me up to the concept of the ‘Cannes nap’. This ingenious ploy is performed by finding a film that you don’t want to see that is on during a gap in your schedule and going in purely with the intention of falling asleep for the film’s duration. Films not in your own language are of course preferable so you’re not being woken by the dialogue. I didn’t know how soon I was going to need one of these…

Arriving back at my apartment, my alarm having gone off en route from the train station, I climbed out of my tux and into the shower before heading straight back to Cannes like some kind of film devouring machine.

First up was Takashi Miike’s in competition thriller Wara No Tate (Shield of Straw), about a group of cops protecting a killer from innumerable bounty hunters after the billionaire grandfather of his murder victim puts a colossal sum on his head. At least, I think that’s what it’s about. I couldn’t be certain, since the subtitle track in English didn’t work. Normally I would take this as an opportunity to walk out of the film, but given my schedule for the day, I switched to a seat near the back, took off my glasses, put on my sunglasses and took a Cannes nap, falling unconscious for two blissful hours.

I didn’t miss much it seems. There were boos in one screening, and most critics agreed it was a waste of a competition slot. With another hour to kill, I headed down to the beach and rested to try and keep my energy up for the day of movies ahead.

Determined to see it at the festival since it won’t hit cinemas until December at the earliest, I queued once more for Inside Llewyn Davis, and this time got in. An intimate film from the Coens about a folk singer in 1962 New York, it’s another triumph for the pair. Drifting between comedy and heavy introspective drama, Oscar Isaac (Drive) is astounding as Llewyn, a tortured artist furious at his own music because it won’t provide a future for him. If there’s a better soundtrack this year, I’ll be shocked.

Feeling accomplished after catching that, I got queuing for one of my most anticipated films of the festival, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). Director Paolo Sorrentino’s last film, the Dublin/America-set This Must Be the Place was a troubled, if beautiful, mess, and I was very much hoping for a return to form with the director reuniting with his muse Toni Servillo. Alas I was to be disappointed. Ostensibly a retread of Fellini’s La Dolce VitaLa Grande Bellezza sees Servillo playing an aged libertine struggling to start a second novel decades after his first work became an astonishing success. Immaculately shot with suitably oddball asides, Sorrentino’s film is never less than eye-blisteringly beautiful, and Servillo is perfect in the role, but the story meanders from scene to scene without effectively building its themes, and it struggles to come together at the end. It’s a step up from This Must Be the Place, but still a long away from the glorious heights of his The Consequences of Love and Il Divo.

Racing from that screening I had very little time to make it to a cinema down the promenade to catch Irish director Ruairi Robinson’s Last Days on Mars. With the streets thronged with black tie and gowned moviegoers queuing for disappointment in Wara No Tate, navigating my way to the film before it started turned out to be impossible, and I took this as a sign from the cine-gods that I badly needed to go home and get some sleep.

Halfway through the festival now, and with no decisive leader for the Palme D’Or, anything could happen yet. Most likely more films though. We’ll see what else.

 

Check out David Neary’s previous diary entries:

Cannes Diary: Days 2-3
David Neary eavesdrops on the Danish, gets berated by a Mexican, shares a boat with Metallica and hangs out with three of a decade’s worth of celebrity crushes. It’s tough in Cannes…

Cannes Diary: Day 1
David Neary brushes shoulders with the stars and an umbrella salesman at Cannes.

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Cannes Diary: Day 2-3

France Cannes The Bling Ring Photo Call.JPEG-0cf6b

 

David Neary eavesdrops on the Danish, gets berated by a Mexican, shares a boat with Metallica and hangs out with three of a decade’s worth of celebrity crushes. It’s tough in Cannes…

 

The rains had poured and poured like streamers at a Jay Gatsby party as Cannes opened on Wednesday night. Two days later my socks are still drying in the bathroom. But Thursday morning my whole body was still dampened from the long umbrellaless search for a taxi the night before, so curling up under the sheets to dry off seemed like a far better idea than heading straight for Cannes to catch François Ozon’s latest Jeune & Jolie. From what I hear, I didn’t miss much.

Not that it would have mattered had I arisen on time, an electrical fault meant a 90-minute wait for the eight-minute train to take me into Cannes. The rain was barely a faint drizzle when I got to the Palais, which was mobbed with new arrivals to the festival. We had had it easy the day before…

Caught between screenings I opted to attend the press conference for Heli, which had just had its official premiere that morning but had screened for the press to positively mixed reviews the night before. Director Amat Escalante spoke long and passionately about his film’s depictions of violence, while deflecting some roundabout abuse from a French critic who complimented him on his depiction of rural life despite being ‘a bourgeois’. Only in France. The press were conspicuous in their absence; a day earlier reporters had been practically stabbing one another with pens to get into the Great Gatsby Q&A, but here the room was barely a quarter full. Even in this Vatican of cinephilia the queues for the multiplexes dwarf the queues for the art house films. If it can happen at Cannes, it can happen anywhere.

An interview had been lined up for me with Northern Irish director Brian Kirk (The Tudors, Game of Thrones), in town to dig up a distributor for his upcoming sci-fi romance Passengers, which has Keanu Reeves attached as its star. More on that interview elsewhere later, but it’s worth noting the interview was on a boat docked in the harbour. Alone and waiting for the interview to begin, I mumbled to myself about being ‘on a boat’, but it just doesn’t carry the same majesty when not shouted at someone. Disembarking the three-storeyed floating palace, I overheard another journalist arriving for his ‘Metallica interview’. I now get to tell people semi-erroneously that I have been on a boat with Metallica, so yeah, there’s that.

Refuelling, I was forced to spend €10 on a plate of pasta in a bar along the promenade. Outside, a man in a convincing Toxic Avenger costume danced with his mop to raise awareness for video nasty legends Troma, who have their first film in years, Return to Nuke ’Em High, playing during the festival. Cannes and Troma; together at last.

‘OK, this is a stupid question, right,’ began the American girl behind me in the queue for The Bling Ring, ‘but is there popcorn inside?’ This was the moment I realised I was in the wrong queue. After a realigning myself I waited amongst the press for nearly two hours just to get into Sofia Coppola’s new film, opening Un Certain Regard. In the meantime we were treated to blaring music from the film’s soundtrack to pass the time. Unfortunately, it was the same two tracks on a loop, leaving a few hundred people feeling like they were a subject of controversy in Zero Dark Thirty. When said songs featured during the film, bitter grunts were audible in corners of the theatre, many patrons still harbouring the audio scars.

Un Certain Regard jury head Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, The Hunt) introduced his jury, amongst them Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool). Sagnier wore a dress so canary yellow that all across France canaries were dropping dead in their cages from the shame of being not quite canary yellow enough. When Coppola and her cast, amongst them Emma Watson (who nearly Jennifer Lawrenced herself ascending the steps to the podium, but recovered gracefully) took to the stage, I suddenly realised that I was in the same room with three of a decade’s worth of celebrity crushes – Zhang, Sagnier, Watson. How often does that happen?! Isla Fisher, in town for The Great Gatsby, still eludes my eye – 10-year old me’s heart beats only for Shannon from Home & Away.

The Bling Ring is an entertaining turn from Coppola, with some light comedy sprinkled into its rich girls gone bad storyline. Sadly, it’s as vapid as its central characters, and runs out of ideas long before it is over.

There was only time to gargle a quick espresso (fifth of the day) before the 10pm screening of competition film A Touch of Sin, from Chinese director Jia Zhangke. A hyper-violent quadrilogy of short films making pointed commentary on the state of modern China and the carnage brewing within it, it loses itself after the brilliant first tale and overstays its welcome. Still, if I find a more jaw-dropping metaphor in a film this year than a Chinese businessman beating a woman across the head with a slab of 100 yuan notes until she agrees to sell him sex, I’ll be very surprised.

Taking the late bus home, I conversed with fellow passengers about the films they had seen, only to be berated by a Mexican for having liked Mexico’s competition entry Heli. No satisfying some folks.

Friday morning the sun was splitting the pavement, but terrified of another turn for the worse in the weather I was sure to pack bulky waterproof gear I would inevitably never need. Once pissed on, twice shy.

Having missed the morning screening of Le Passé (The Past), the latest from Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), I was doomed to be landed in conversation after conversation with people who had caught the then-frontrunner. I decided to ease my suffering by escaping to one of the screenings running at the time, the out-of-competition special selection Stop the Pounding Heart. And now let us never speak of that film again.

Queuing for my next film, I could only stand there and listen-in fruitlessly as four Danish critics engaged in fiery debate about Spring Breakers. I really wanted to join in, but my Danish doesn’t extend beyond ‘tak’ meaning ‘thank you’ and ‘Spring Breakers’ meaning ‘Spring Breakers’.

Playing in Un Certain Regard, Miele (Honey) is the directorial debut of Italian actress Valeria Golino, best known for playing Ramada in the Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux. A drama about a beautiful loner who assists the terminally ill to commit suicide, for a price, Miele is finely written, beautifully shot and features two superb central performances. It is sure to be one of this year’s best first-time films. Awkward laughter descended on the audience however when a fade to black at the film’s close was greeted with a huge round of applause, which was then followed by five more minutes of the film. No one was certain whether to clap or not when the end finally did come. Good thing a few tweaks can be made before wider release!

It was a revolving door at the Debussy theatre, leaving Miele to go straight into Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, Like Father, Like Son. It is a magnificent tragicomedy about a couple faced with an impossible decision when they learn that their six-year-old son was switched at birth – meeting their real son and his family, the question arises of whether the two families will perform a swap. Heartbreaking, gently handled and beautiful to behold, it is one of the director’s finest films, and a major forerunner at the festival right now. With Steven Spielberg chairing the jury, there is likely to be a boost for a film that so adeptly captures the innocence and humour of children. The director of E.T. will no doubt find himself swooning.

Tears carefully wiped off faces, the critics left the cinema, leaving behind a few select individuals who needed more time to weep. The competition is heating up, and we’re still only a third of the way there.

 

Check out David Neary’s previous diary entries:

Cannes Diary: Day 1
David Neary brushes shoulders with the stars and an umbrella salesman at Cannes.

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Cannes Diary: Day 1

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David Neary brushes shoulders with the stars and an umbrella salesman at Cannes.

It was a damp start to the 66th Cannes Film Festival  the deluge began just as the stars began to walk the red carpet into the Grand Théâtre Lumière in the Palais des Festivals.

But it had been a bright, if cloudy day up to that point; the town was busy with the arrivals of film industry professionals, up-and-coming filmmakers, over-enthusiastic cinephiles and journalists from all corners and all media.

Navigating the Palais, an unending stream of free espresso as my only fuel,  I found myself waiting with the photographers and TV cameras outside the Great Gatsby press conference – which was already full to the brim inside. The slightest flicker of a celebrity approaching and several score cameras leapt into the air like the alert heads of meerkats when a predator is suspected to be approaching. Carey Mulligan walked by – radiant, in couturest of black outfits – and I thought for a moment I might faint from her beauty; actually the press corps have been waiting so long that the heat their bodies is emitting is now overwhelming. As Leonardo DiCaprio passed by, I slipped out of the crowd before I was crushed to death by a flurry of camera bags and tripods.

Eager not to miss Gatsby, lest I not have anything to talk about to anyone for the rest of the Festival, I placed myself at the top of the queue for the afternoon press screening. The tiered system of press passes meant that despite my punctuality a few hundred more premiere journos got let in ahead of me. I whiled away the time planning my schedule for the coming days and chuckling at the solitary brown pigeon strutting his stuff on the red carpet, and the burly security type singularly failing to scare it off.

The Great Gatsby, the opening film of the festival, is an attractive if soulless venture that eschews much of the subtlety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel in order to focus almost solely on the central love affair, creating a hybrid of Gatsby and the director Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! A short duration into the film I had to change my 3D glasses, which were malfunctioning and distorting the images. The Parisienne to my right texted throughout the film. Remember folks, if it can happen at a screening in Cannes, it can happen anywhere!

The press screenings over, the jury could begin to assemble for the Opening Ceremony. Steven Spielberg, head of the jury this year, walked past sporting the most stylish flatcap the movie industry may have ever seen. In honour of his presence, Jaws is being screened at the open-air Cinéma de la Plage next week, and the theme music from Jurassic Park can be heard playing in the men’s room. The press attempted to bait the jury on a variety of issues, including Spielberg and fellow jury member Ang Lee’s “rivalry” since Lee took home the Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi over Spielberg for Lincoln, but the jury members were putting up a unified front. Christoph Waltz seemed delighted with all the attention. As the rains began to fall and the wind began to whip them up, Nicole Kidman looked less than comfortable on the red carpet, clinging to her umbrella and joking with reporters that she felt she might blow away like Mary Poppins. It remains to be seen what they thought of Luhrmann’s film.

On the other side of the Palais, arrogant and Irish, I queued in the now undeniably lashing rain for the press screening of Mexican drama Heli, while rebuffing the offers of quick-witted salesmen trying to pass me on overpriced umbrellas. In retrospect I should have coughed up.

Heli, from Mexican director Amat Escalante, whose film Sangre screened at Cannes out of competition in 2005, is a superb work. Hard-hitting from its grim opening shot and the barbaric conclusion to its first scene, it is also often witty and tender. But as a story about a drug deal gone bad in a rural town, there is not much room for happiness, and Heli features some truly brutal scenes of violence and torture. Twice the audience unleashed gasps of horror, which the film earned with moments of despicable, believable cruelty.

Outside again, and the attendees of the Gatsby premiere looked bedraggled in their waterlogged gowns and tuxes; the rain thundering down now. This is the price you pay to look fabulous in a Mediterranean town still suffering the unpredictable weather of late spring.

Hopefully the rain is the only washout that will hit Cannes this year. But there’s still plenty of time yet for something else to go wrong…

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Cinema Review: Me and You

 me and you bertolucci
 
DIR: Bernardo Bertolucci  WRI:Umberto Contarello, Francesca Marciano,
Bernardo Bertolucci • PRO: Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Mieli • DOP: Fabio Cianchetti • ED:
Jacopo Quadri • DES: Jean Rabasse • Cast: Tea Falco, Jacopo Olmo Antinori, Sonia Bergamasco, Veronica Lazar

I like to imagine Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski have had fist fights over who likes apartments more. While Polanski is probably the master of the apartment-set almost-a-play film, Bertolucci has a similar passion for such intimate surroundings, playing them more for familial or romantic drama than the psychological thrillers of the paranoid Pole.

In his latest film, his first since 2003’s The Dreamers, Bertolucci once again looks at apartment-bound siblings, thankfully steering (narrowly) clear of the incest that helped undermine the prior film.

Me and You follows frustrated, angry 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who, feeling unhappy at school and over-mothered at home, decides to spend some time in isolation to stew in his adolescent ire. When a school skiing trip leaves for a week, he tells his mother he is going on it, but secretly moves himself into his family’s storage room in the basement of his building.

Lorenzo is enjoying his pressure-free time of reading, listening to music and gazing at an ant farm when his estranged half-sister unexpectedly shows up needing somewhere to stay. A sexually charged artsy 20-something, Olivia (Tea Falco) still harbours a grudge against Lorenzo’s mother for ‘stealing’ their father away from her and her mother. She is also coming down from a serious heroin addiction, and decides to use Lorenzo’s closet of solitude as her cold turkey pit stop.

As the two demi-siblings bond over their shared confinement and interests in music, Lorenzo must help Olivia as her condition worsens. He begins to go stir crazy, acting like a caged armadillo he saw in a pet shop, while the ants escape their confinement following an accident. Soon however, both brother and sister learn important life lessons about facing up to your demons. If only a week were all that took…

Drawn out but never quite boring, Me and You is held together by its two strong performances. Antinori in particular deserves credit for both playing and looking like a believable teen. His spot-riddled face and grungy would-be moustache make him look like an everyday reality almost never seen on-screen. His body language – bowed head and hunched soldiers – is utterly convincing.

The film however is not as convincing, and while the slightly flirty relationship between brother and sister never escalates beyond horseplay, the lingering threat that it might makes much of the film more uncomfortable viewing than it might have been in the hands of another filmmaker. It looks great throughout (although the repeated establishing shots of the building to let us know if it’s day or night frustrate), and the soundtrack (The Cure, Arcade Fire, and David Bowie track sung in Italian) make a pleasant accompaniment.

A film about the prisons we find ourselves in, literal or figurative, self-inflicted or otherwise, Me and You is a passable drama that hardly scratches at the greatness of Bertolucci’s best work, such as The Conformist. The ending, with visual echoes of Les Quatre Cents Coups, suggests Bertolucci and co-screenwriter Niccolò Ammaniti felt this was a far more important project than it has proved to be. With Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor rearing its head once more at Cannes this year in a new 3D restoration, Me and You is unlikely to register in the director’s canon. Sadly it’s clear to see why.

David Neary

96 mins
Me and You is released on 10th May 2013

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYdCVH0KHCI

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Cinema Review: The Gatekeeepers

The-Gatekeepers

 

DIR/WRI: Dror Moreh • PRO: Estelle Fialon, Philippa Kowarsky, Dror Moreh • DOP: Avner Shahaf • ED: Oron Adar • DES: Jerry Fleming • Cast: Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom

A nominee for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, which along with its unofficial companion piece 5 Broken Cameras lost out to crowd-pleaser Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers is a mesmerising work that probes one of the most powerful counter-terrorism outfits in the world, Israel’s Shin Bet.

With unprecedented, eye-raisingly open interviews with not one, not two, but six of the agency’s former heads, The Gatekeepers looks at the unnatural power wielded by these men, who have control of the fates of both the enemies of Israel and the innocents who might get caught in the crossfire.

Told mostly through use of the six extremely personal talking heads interviews, director Dror Moreh supplements these confessional narrations with expertly sourced news footage, photographs, military archive material and choice computerised graphics. As former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom discusses the bus hijacking that ended his career when he covered up the fates of the terrorists involved, Moreh presents us with an animation assembled with remarkable skill from the photographs taken by a journalist who had snuck onto the site. It creates the illusion of experiencing the intrigue of the period without embellishing or inventing for the sake of entertainment or keeping the audience’s attention.

As the story progresses in a relatively linear manner from the Six-Day War, we can see how both the Shin Bet develop their tactics as the terrorists they combat become more sophisticated, especially as the threat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation waned and was followed by the rise of Hamas and radical Islam. Moreh keeps his focus on the Shin Bet perpetually, studying their questionable successes and their very blatant failures, most notably the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, by a radical Israeli, in 1995. Bombs are dropped with deadly accuracy, but sometimes the terrorist target is on the wrong floor, and sometimes they hit the wrong building.

Like Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, The Gatekeepers presses its subjects hard, and Moreh is able to find more regret and doubt in the six gatekeepers than Morris ever could in Robert McNamara. Late in the film, as Shalom is asked about the morality of the choices he made during his stewardship of the Shin Bet, he begins his sigh-laced defence while awkwardly picking at his fingernails. Were he on trial no jury could ever acquit him.

‘In the war on terror, forget about morality’ we are told, and it is plain to see here. The six men we meet are haunted, but less by what they’ve done than by what they can never be sure of. Across their wearied faces we can read this doubt, as it becomes clearer that the attempts to quash terror only breed more of it. The cyclical nature of terror is seen as strikes against masterminds in Gaza level whole apartment blocks, radicalising civilians. An eye for an eye, for an eye, for an eye, for an eye…

Propelled forward by a murmuring score that sounds suitably out of an episode of counter-terrorism TV series 24, The Gatekeepers never stops asking the hard questions right to the very end. Former Shin Bet bosses attempt to defend violently shaking the heads of prisoners, even when it results in accidental death. A sequence showing real footage of Israeli soldiers raiding households of suspected terrorists – using head-mounted night-vision cameras with elliptical lenses that distort the image – has all the frantic ferocity lacking from the closing scenes of Zero Dark Thirty. This is the real deal; a study into the nature of terror and the demons it creates on both sides. The questions can never be answered, but they could not be better addressed.

 

David Neary

Not Rated

95 mins
The Gatekeepers is released on 3rd May 2013

The Gatekeepers – Official Website

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Cinema Review: I’m So Excited

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DIR/WRI: Pedro Almodóvar • PRO: Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García • DOP: José Luis Alcaine • ED: José Salcedo • DES: Antxón Gómez • Cast: Javier Cámara, Pepa Charro, Lola Dueñas, Cecilia Roth

 

Pedro Almodóvar has become an institution of Spanish cinema, the industry’s only major player internationally and the sort of filmmaker academics pitch to students uncertain of what an auteur is.The director’s camp and irreverent style that flourished in the post-Franco ’80s grew into his unique brand of melodrama following 1995’s The Flower of My Secret. Almodóvar’s gender-bending genre-bending films, with their energetically dysfunctional characters and colour wheel appearances, are unmistakeably him. But now, tired of being an adult, Almodóvar has taken a step back from his powerful (if flippant) dramas towards the high camp comedy that originally made his name.I’m So Excited is the Spaniard’s slightest film since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, an audacious sex comedy with only light sprinklings of his very modern kind of humanist drama. Set almost entirely on a transatlantic flight, it is most reminiscent of his ’89 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with its limited locations and unexpected sexual revelations.

In an amusing dual cameo, clumsy airport staff Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz let their personal affairs get in the way of their duties (a theme in this movie) resulting in some damage to the landing gear of a plane bound for Mexico. When the problem becomes apparent and the pilots are forced to circle an airport waiting for a chance to make an emergency landing, the three senior stewards, each more flamboyantly gay than the last, take the wise decision to drug everyone in coach to avoid panic and, more importantly, complaints. This leaves the trio with only the sexually repressed pilots and an assortment of oddball business class passengers to deal with. Things rapidly get silly, sexy and silly again.

The three stewards – blabbermouth boss Javier Cámara (of Almodóvar’s Talk to Her), judgemental Rául Arévalo and devout, superstitious Carlos Areces – are three very different breeds of modern gay men; watching them you feel a contemporary American screenwriter could never have written them as separate characters. While they carry much of the weight of the film, they are less the main characters than our eyes on the cabin floor, judging the passengers – although Cámara’s affair with the married captain (Antonio de la Torre) remains an amusing subplot. The focus drifts between the passengers from psychic virgin (adult chastity is a recurring theme for Almodóvar) Bruna (Volver’s Lola Dueñas) to dominatrix to the stars Norma Boss (Cecilia Roth), to shamed businessman and estranged father Más (José Luis Torrijo).

Much of the drama circles around the passenger Ricardo (Guillermo Toledo), a soap actor and womaniser straight out of Women on the Verge. Fearing the end is near as a safe landing becomes ever less likely, he calls his girlfriend in the middle of a suicide attempt, only for her to drop her phone off the bridge she was about to hurl herself. In a moment of whimsical quirk even Wes Anderson couldn’t have got away with, the phone, still connected, lands in the lap of Ricardo’s previous girlfriend Ruth (The Skin I Live In’s Blanca Suárez), leading to a series of confrontations over how men mistreat the women in their lives.

As serious as it all sounds, this remains a daft comedy with some truly excellent laughs. ‘I am bleeding to death’  tweets an antisocial airport staff member after lightly scrapping his arm. The laughs keep coming as the trio of stewards perform a hysterically choreographed rendition of the titular tune to keep the business classers amused, to little avail. ‘Maybe we chose the wrong song,’ they opine, more concerned about their karaoke than their imminent deaths. The film, and the plane, run rapidly out of fuel in the third act however, following a misjudged drug-induced sequence in which the passengers and crew release their inhibitions. The central moment of crisis in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, the rape of an unconscious victim, is here re-enacted as a moment of humour and triumph, a troubling sequence that the film never satisfactorily glosses over. Going back to his comedic roots, Almodóvar seems to have lost north on his moral compass.

But there’s plenty to like here, from the bouncing cartoon luggage of the opening credits to the luminous chalky blue and red palette. Almodóvar’s regular composer Alberto Iglesias’ music adds to the fun with its twangy sounds conjuring the older era of sex comedies this film aspires to. There’s a subplot about banking mismanagement that hints at Spain’s financial pitfalls, but that serves as minor satire in a film that is more concerned with the narrow patch on the Venn diagram where sex and love interlink.

It’s just a bit of fun all round, but the drama fails to land, much like a troubled airplane. Almodóvar can be excused for taking a break from churning out the classics, but for those expecting All About My Mother, you’re boarding the wrong flight.

 

David Neary

16 (see IFCO website for details)

90 mins
I’m So Excited is released on 3rd May 2013

I’m So Excited- Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Look of Love

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DIR/WRI: Michael Winterbottom • PRO: Melissa Parmenter • DOP: Hubert Taczanowski • ED: Mags Arnold • DES: Jacqueline Abrahams • Cast: Imogen Poots, Anna Friel, Matt Lucas, Steve Coogan
 

There was a time when Steve Coogan seemed to have unbridled potential to conquer Hollywood, but it never happened. Ricky Gervais is probably to blame. Coogan’s career cracked along with passable minor appearances in American films while, with the exception of revivals of his human faux pas Alan Partridge, his only shining moments came in his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom. Having caricatured himself in their previous two films together, The Trip and A Cock and Bull Story, Coogan is back playing another morally clouded media type in The Look of Love.

After triumphantly playing Madchester impresario Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People back in 2002, an unaging Coogan is here cast as British nightclub and pornography mogul Paul Raymond, who ruled the striptease scene in London’s Soho district from the 1960s until the 1990s, when he was believed to be one of Britain’s wealthiest men. A showman by nature, Coogan plays Raymond with all the smarmy wheeler-dealer skills his characters have shown previously, although Raymond is far more successful at this kind of enterprise than many of Coogan’s other roles. Learning early on that while lion taming and scantily clad women sell tickets, scantily clad women and more scantily clad women sell more tickets, The Look of Love traces the rise and rise and occasional dips of Raymond’s bizarre career. He seduces press and clergy to keep his clubs open. He enters into theatre and publishing, both with their share of female nudity. But the film is far more concerned with Raymond’s private life, tracing his affair with his star attraction Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) and the collapse of his marriage to wife Jean (Anna Friel), who would later re-enter his life as one of his covergirls.

The focus however is more on Raymond’s unhealthy relationship with his daughter Debbie, played by the ever-on-the-cusp-of-stardom Imogen Poots.  As with Michael Corleone and his daughter Mary (and by extension Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia), Raymond’s affection for his daughter is crippling and blinding – he sets her up as the star of one of his musical shows despite her very limited singing capabilities. Debbie is anointed her father’s business successor, but her developing drug addiction begins to get in the way.

Winterbottom playfully shoots his film in the style of each decade, beginning in crisp black and white before dissolving into the bleached colour palettes of the ’60s and ’70s. The production design is superb, but there’s a staleness to the imagery despite its quality. 24 Hour Party People was beautiful in its ugliness, but The Look of Love is often dull in its gloss. Coogan brings his A game to a character who is not quite as deep as Control writer Matt Greenhalgh’s script wants to believe he is. We never truly get inside Raymond’s head, and he is never quite as morally repugnant nor as fiendishly brilliant as the drama would hope. He is however regularly amusing, and Coogan’s rapport with Chris Addison as his number two keeps much of the film aloft.

Anna Friel plays spurned wife and saucy MILF with equal relish. Cameos range from the superb: David Walliams’s vicar; to the downright disappointing: The Inbetweeners’ Simon Bird wearing a beard so false you can practically touch the blobs of glue holding it on. What makes The Look of Love a moderate success is how well it captures the shifting styles and attitudes of Britain over more than three decades, but also in the chemistry between Coogan and Poots. As unlikely an onscreen father and daughter pairing as there might be, the two find a tragic sweetness in their decidedly creepy relationship, that makes for uncomfortable yet touching viewing.

The least satisfying of Winterbottom and Coogan’s collaborations so far, The Look of Love is still a fine production that’s only real failing was believing its subject was a more interesting character than he truly was.

David Neary

18 (see IFCO website for details)

100 mins
The Look of Love is released on 25th April 2013

The Look of Love – Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

 

 

DIR Derek Cianfrance WRI: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder PRO: Lynette Howell, Sidney Kimmel, Katie McNeill, Alex Orlovsky, Jamie Patricof  • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Jim Helton, Ron Patane • CAST: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta

 

Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 breakthrough feature Blue Valentine gave him instant recognition as a mercilessly honest student of human failings, tracing the blossoming of love between a young couple intercut with the furious demise of their relationship some years later.

Reuniting with Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling, Cianfrance’s follow-up The Place Beyond the Pines similarly juxtaposes two contrasting stories, although this time they are loosely connected tales about two men, fathers, under pressure to do the right thing. In the style of La double vie de Véronique or Chungking Express, the two tales play out sequentially, and the ties that bind them are not entirely clear from the get-go.

Set in the small city of Schenectady, New York (Schenectady translates loosely as ‘beyond the pines’ from the native Mohawk), we are first introduced to daredevil fairground stuntman Luke Glanton (Gosling), mechanically twitching a flickknife in his campervan before going on stage. In a superbly choreographed single take, Hunger and Shame D.P. Sean Bobbitt’s camera follows Glanton across the fairground, to his motorbike and, with a clever off-camera actor switcheroo, into a steel cage where he performs his gravity-defying entertainment.

Learning he has an infant son in the city from a previous passing-through, Glanton opts to abandon his travelling act and stay in town, mindful of the effect not having a father had on him. His baby-mama Romina (Eva Mendes) is not entirely happy with the arrangement – her live-in boyfriend is furious with it – but a serious attraction between the pair lingers. Encouraged by his mechanic friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to ‘use his skillset’, Glanton turns to bank robbery, escaping through winding streets on his motorbike. With money comes increased danger of being caught and a desire to play a greater role in his son’s life, but Glanton is not one to give up easily when he’s on to a good thing.

Equally stuck to his own guns is honest cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), whose story becomes the sole focus of the film in the second act. Also a father to a young son, Avery is the natural foil to Glanton – his father (Harris Yulin), a district attorney, supports him; his wife (Rose Byrne), shows her love and concern. Yet, by pursuing corrupt colleagues within his own department, Avery shows the same determination to make the world a better place for his son as Glanton did.

These two stories are meticulously filmed and paced by Cianfrance, who co-wrote with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. Like the best dual-story films the echoes of the first story in the second make both stories all the stronger. Glanton’s tale allows Bobbitt’s camerawork to ignite the screen. Avery’s story provides some superb character development and bubbling tension.

Casting two of the most desirable male movie stars in the business right now is a stroke of genius that pays off superbly. Gosling channels the pain of his Blue Valentine character and pours it into the empty vessel of his Drive persona, creating an aching but deep-down kindly criminal, whose face constantly fights back the emotions it wants to betray. Cooper expresses more of the frustration and isolation he performed so strongly in Silver Linings Playbook, playing a character who is willing to sacrifice his own happiness for what he believes is right. The two handsome stars reflect one another like Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona, almost merging in the audience’s mind, as Gosling’s central role transfers to Cooper.

It is as the second story comes to a close that everything goes terribly wrong. Not content with a superb compare-and-contrast, Cianfrance’s film begins an epilogue, set 15 years after the earlier sequences, to tie up the loose ends that were better left undone. What might have been covered in five minutes is dragged out to a mind-numbing 45, as the epilogue mutates into a yawn-inducing third act.

We follow the teenage sons of Glanton and Avery (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen respectively) as they interact and suffer for the sins of their fathers. Story, acting and style go out the window in favour of this hackneyed, utterly predictable conclusion that simply has no need to exist, except to hammer home a metaphor already beautifully and understatedly handled in the first two acts. It is a painful experience to endure; not only is it mind-numbingly boring, but watching a modern masterpiece of cinema dissolve into a mediocre work before your very eyes is like seeing an art gallery on fire and knowing there is nothing you can do. Like Avery seeing his son grow up and becoming a drug-abusing disappointment, Cianfrance seems to sit back and let this bastardisation of his own work continue, and continue, and continue.

Still, even the disastrous conclusion is not enough to completely derail this stunningly made film, even if it does leave a bitter aftertaste. Eva Mendes gives a superb supporting performance as a woman bitterly torn between what she wants and what she needs, and traumatised when that decision is made for her. Ben Mendelsohn, now typecast as the shifty working class goon, plays strong support, as does his Killing Them Softly co-star Ray Liotta as a vengeful crooked cop. Dane DeHaan is passable as the younger Glanton, but Emery Cohen is a mumbling drain of energy in every scene he appears.

One thing the final act cannot sully is the sublime score by Michael Patton, with its echoing keyboard effects conjuring a romantic melancholy that electrifies many of the film’s key scenes. It is further evidence of Cianfrance being able to surround himself with talented artists at the top of their game, and points towards even better things ahead for the director.

But there’s no denying here that Cianfrance has scuttled his own ship, and a film that might have been one of the year’s finest is now one that will likely be forgotten by many. It’s a lesson in self-indulgent storytelling, and a tragedy for great drama and filmmaking. Enjoy what you can in it; for all its shooting itself in the foot, there is much beauty here.

David Neary

15A (see IFCO website for details)

140mins
The Place Beyond the Pines is released on 12th April 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Pilgrim Hill

 m-pilgrim-hill

DIR/WRI: Gerard Barrett  PRO: Gerard Barrett • DOP: Ian D. Murphy • ED: Gerard Barrett • CAST: Keith Byrne, Muiris Crowley, Corina Gough, Kevin McCormack

There’s a part of Ireland still untouched by the 21st Century, where the Celtic Tiger’s roar was only a distant echo. So Gerard Barrett’s feature debut Pilgrim Hill shows us. We follow the daily life of rural farmer Jimmy (Joe Mullins) as he goes about his pastoral chores – if it weren’t for the Oreos stacked on the local shop’s shelves or his unemployed young friend Tommy’s (Muiris Crowley) shiny Beamer, Pilgrim Hill could almost be set in the 1950s.

Eschewing the high drama of John B. Keane’s The Field, Barrett’s story takes a more real and reserved approach, as it slowly but steadily reveals the wearying effect the world takes of Jimmy. He cares for his cows like family, even though in his own words they are barely pets. He looks after his stroke-addled father – never seen but ever present – but wishes he didn’t have to. Even his rare trip to the pub is a miserable one; a single pint sipped alone so as not to go over the legal limit. The only real energy in Jimmy’s life comes from the rhythmic pulsing of the milking machine; the rest is silence.

The film is punctuated by a series of almost-to-camera interviews with Jimmy, whose shyly averted gaze says as much as his words. These are great insights into the character, who has never truly bloomed as a person, and they allow Mullins to really get into Jimmy’s skin, but one can’t help but wish there was a more inventive way Barrett might have opened up this character to us.

The steady pacing of the story is accompanied by tidy, withdrawn framing that keenly demonstrates the isolation of the character, marred by some unfortunate lapses of focal depth. Jimmy’s house is littered with items from the life he might have lived – a Rod Stewart mug and a pair of polka-dot purple underwear reveal a side to the man that we will never hear from his lips.

As life takes increasingly cruel tolls on Jimmy, Barrett’s film becomes a study of how much a man can take before he breaks down and cries. Does healing come with tears?

Unambitious but well executed, Barrett reveals himself a filmmaker to keep an eye on, while Mullins, a sometime theatre actor with no prior features under his belt, carries the weight of the film with a sincere, world-weary performance, taut with closeted emotion.

Pilgrim Hill is an honest portrayal of a fragment of Ireland we all too eagerly like to pretend we have left behind us.

 

David Neary

12A (see IFCO website for details)

78mins
Pilgrim Hill  is released on 12th April 2013

Pilgrim Hill – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Trance

DIR: Danny Boyle • WRI: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge  • PRO: Danny Boyle, Christian Colson • DOP: Anthony Dod Mantle • ED: Jon Harris •  DES: Mark Tildesley • CAST: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel

Memory’s a tricky subject to study in film, and the complex workings of the mind are even trickier. Danny Boyle, surely one of the most ambitious and thematically ambidextrous filmmakers working today, here takes his shot at making a real mind-bender, following in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan, Satoshi Kon, David Cronenberg, Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel. Surprisingly, the director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire finds himself struggling with these mental gymnastics, producing a film that looks, but never feels, the part.

James McAvoy stars as Simon, an art auctioneer with serious gambling debts who winds up in trouble when a heist goes wrong – he’s the only one who knows where the £25 million painting is, but a bash to the head means he can’t remember. Vincent Cassel and his cronies try to torture it out of him, but to no avail. Enter Rosario Dawson’s expert hypnotherapist, Elizabeth, whose attempts to mine the corridors of Simon’s subconscious turn up unexpected secrets, and put her in a position of power over both Simon and Cassel’s Franck. Mental and sexual manipulation is never far off.

Opening with a superb, jauntily paced heist sequence that feels like an MTV version of Inside Man, Trance never recaptures the energy of its pre-credits sequence. Spurred forward by a pulsing soundtrack by Underworld’s Rick Smith, it descends into a lot of sitting around watching McAvoy sleep and Vincent Cassel becoming oddly less frustrated. A whirligig of twists in the final act reveals so many character reversals that it becomes difficult to decide whose side you’re on, who the main character is and whether or not you actually like any of them to begin with.

In the same way Inception never felt properly like a dream, Trance rarely feels like a nightmare, and shies away from symbolism or other techniques for addressing with real emotional issues. This is a film which pseudo-poetically discusses the virtues of female pubic hair, while using Austin Powers-esque camera angles to cloak the two male leads’ members from the audience’s gaze.

However, the cast are all in top form. McAvoy is full of the charisma that once shot him to the top of the game; that he gets to use his real accent for once is a plus. Cassel makes a very likeable villain. Dawson, whose 25th Hour promise has been time and again dampened by poor subsequent roles, plays the mysterious, dominant female with plenty of class, and remains watchable even as the material of the film collapses around her.

Boyle’s regular collaborator, the genius cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, has created a stunningly glossy, red-stained palette for Trance. The images are crisp throughout, with some clever cycling of focus, but there’s very little cutting-edge imagery on show here to add to a portfolio already packed with 28 Days Later, Slumdog and 127 Hours. Editor Jon Harris ties it all together as best he can, but is hindered by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s front-heavy screenplay.

Despite some unpleasant body horror (of which finger-nail torture and genital squibs are only mild examples), Trance never manages to notch up the tension effectively. It is never as disturbing as the cold turkey scene Boyle’s Trainspotting, nor as demented as the video game trip in The Beach. This is all due to the script and its inconsistent characters.

Trance has a number of fine moments, but it never amounts to anything more than a cleverer-than-average thriller. And it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

David Neary

16 (see IFCO website for details)

101mins
Trance is released on 29th March 2013

 

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Cinema Review: Parker

 

DIR: Taylor Hackford •  WRI: John J. McLaughlin • PRO: LLes Alexander , Steve Chasman, Taylor Hackford, Sidney Kimmel, Jonathan Mitchell   DOP: J. Michael Muro  DES: Missy Stewart  Cast: Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis

With all the (negative) press being dumped on the recent returns of ’80s action heroes Arnie, Stallone and Bruce Willis, spare a little thought for poor Jason Statham. Only 12 years Bruce’s junior, The Stath became the go-to action hero just as Millennials began to tire of macho heroics in favour of CGI nonsense. With the notable exception of his Transporter series, almost all of the films Statham has headed have struggled to recoup their cost in cinemas, despite regularly becoming staples of man-sized DVD collections afterwards.

Parker is likely to do the same. A basic revenge/heist caper in the vein of Point Blank– its tagline, ‘Payback has a new name’, seems to draw on the disastrous Point Blank remake Payback – Parker finds The Stath left for dead by some co-conspirators, and vowing to take them down on their next job. The film is based on the book Flashfire, the nineteenth (!) book in the Parker series by American crime fiction author Donald Westlake, who wrote under the nom de plume Richard Stark. Unsurprisingly, that series also bears the inspiration for Point Blank, although it’s troubling to note that John Boorman’s film was based on a different Parker novel. Do they all begin with Parker being betrayed? Probably.

Dodging mob hitmen, Parker tracks his prey to Palm Beach, Florida, where his former colleagues plan to rip-off some very wealthy retirees. He finds a sidekick in mousy real-estate agent Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), struggling with banking debts (ooh, how contemporary!), and sets about sabotaging the heist.

There is very little more to Parker than this, and yet the film is padded out to a scandalous two-hour run-time. Featuring only three proper action scenes and a confused romantic subplot, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly where the editors should have made cuts, without reducing the film to 70 minutes. While the central fight scene between Parker and a hitman in a plush hotel room is about as visceral a donnybrook as The Stath has ever performed, the good it does is largely undone by the final showdown, wherein the odds have been so teetered in Parker’s favour that tension is nowhere to be found.

Still, despite all its problems, Parker is hardly a disaster. Directed by Taylor Hackford (Ray), it’s never short of competently made. Statham brings his earnest A-game, as always, and fires off one or two chuckle-worthy one-liners. Lopez gets mileage out of recycling her Wedding Planner character, although Patti LuPone steals many of her scenes as her overbearing mother. Michael Chiklis is sufficiently tough and gruff as the villain.

But really it all comes down to its length. Twenty minutes shorter and Parker could have been an easily recommended diversion. As it is, it is just a bit exhausting. It’s not that there are particularly bad scenes in it, but rather far too many unnecessary ones. Wannabe script editors could learn a lot by counting them. That’ll help you make it through the movie.

Don’t expect any of the remaining 23 Parker novels to be made into films any time soon.

David Neary

16 (see IFCO website for details)

118mins
Parker is released on 8th March 2013

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ4Nsu2tXTk

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Cinema Review: Broken City

DIR: Allen Hughes  • WRI: Brian Tucker  PRO: Remington Chase, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Allen Hughes, Stephen Levinson, Teddy Schwarzman, Mark Wahlberg  • DOP: Ben Seresin • ED: Cindy Mollo • DES: Tom Duffield • CAST: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Another tale of political corruption in the US here, Broken City feels very much a product of a different time, that time being the 1990s.

Written by newcomer Brian Tucker, Broken City sees New York’s slimy mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) trying to win a tight re-election campaign against improbably nice politician Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). His name sounds like valiant, so you know he’s the good guy. Unfortunately for everyone (including us), the manipulative Mrs. Hostetler (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having a not-so-subtle affair, and her accomplice may be a member of Valliant’s campaign team. Proper scandal here, like.

Enter Mark Wahlberg’s Billy Taggart, a disgraced former cop let off the hook by Hostetler back in the day, now a struggling private detective. Taken on by Hostetler to spy on his wife, Billy soon ends up getting caught in a web of intrigue and back-stabbery that might make a good TV movie version of L.A. Confidential.

Breaking so little new ground that it actually manages to pack dirt back into that hole, Broken City is however a passable entertainment, the sort of film that you might catch on the telly at 11pm after an aborted night out and be very grateful to have stumbled upon.

Crowe and Wahlberg, two actors prone to violent bouts of over-acting when under-directed, make a surprisingly good pair here, neither quite able to out-class, or out-yell, the other. Zeta-Jones sleepwalks through her role like never before, but the always reliable Jeffrey Wright and comeback king Kyle Chandler provide quality support, however rarely.

Director Allen Hughes, out on his own for the first time having made the likes of From Hell and The Book of Eli with his twin brother Albert, goes for a gritty look in his film, but finds the night sky of New York too polluted with office lights and street lamps. Even in the darkest corners of Brooklyn Hughes can’t quite make New York look like a bad place to live. The constantly moving camera makes one wonder if his DOP was involved in some twisted re-enactment of the film Speed, where if the camera dropped under 2 miles per hour it would explode.

The main plot may be nothing new, but it has enough little twists to keep the attention, even if it never gives a sense of New York City beyond the corridors of power. The subplots are a mess however, with Billy’s troubled relationship and even more troubled past feeling like after thoughts, which are hardly resolved at all.

With some nice touches, particularly a television debate between Hostetler and Valliant – in which Crowe is finely caked in fake tan – that takes a turn for the nasty, Broken City is still little more than another post-Oscars screen-filler. It will do fine until something better comes along, but it’ll do even finer on Netflix during a post-Christmas party hangover. If you must see it, save it for then.

David Neary

15A (see IFCO website for details)
108mins
Broken City is released on 1st March 2013

Broken City  – Official Website 

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Oscar 2013: Best Picture Nominee – Life of Pi

 

David Neary defends Life of Pi‘s Oscar hopes against fiercesome predators as part of our Oscar 2013 Best Picture countdown…

 

Remember when everyone and their mother was reading Life of Pi? Despite having a cover (and a premise) that made it look like a story you’d read kids off to slumberland with, Yann Martel’s book did remarkable business, selling millions of copies and winning a variety of literary awards. The general consensus amongst fans, however, was that as a story it was ‘unfilmable’, so no one dared attempt a movie version of it until 10 years after it was published.

The word ‘unfilmable’ means nothing to Ang Lee, who has taken countless risks throughout his career, directing films based on the works of both Jane Austen and Stan Lee. Working from a neatly honed script by David Magee (Finding Neverland), Lee has crafted a remarkable fantasy that pulls no philosophical punches while still dazzling the eyes.

Life of Pi tells the story of a young man trapped in a lifeboat for several weeks with a fierce Bengal tiger, but the simplicity of this set-up belies the depth of its subject matter. Pi’s fight for survival, against a fearsome predator on his boat and an ocean of terrors below, addresses some truly human, and some assuredly divine, issues.

Pi’s tale, told to a journalist (Rafe Spall) by the hero in his middle age (Irrfan Khan), is full of allegory and anecdote. From the origins of his own name, to the explanation of how his tiger companion came to be known by the handle ‘Richard Parker’, Life of Pi features the best selection of tall tales since Big Fish. But matters grow more serious, as Pi explains how when his family attempted to move from India to the US, to start over and sell the animals from the zoo they owned, a shipwreck left him the sole human survivor, alone on a raft with only animals for company. Very soon Richard Parker was the only animal left in the raft.

Shot in breathtaking 3D – without doubt the finest use of the toy since its re-emergence in the digital era – Life of Pi shows off all the magic and horror of life at sea. From plunging into the ocean’s depths to encounters with gargantuan whales and tiny flying fish, Lee’s film never avoids boasting its visual spectacle. More objects leap at the screen than in many children’s 3D movies, while cheap tricks such as shrinking the film’s letterboxing to allow creatures to appear like they are leaping through the borders of the screen are employed shamelessly and effectively.

The special effects steal the movie, with the switches between the real tiger playing Richard Parker and his digital double seamless. However, as the teenaged Pi, newcomer Suraj Sharma puts in a truly impressive performance, swaying between passion and exhaustion, that makes him a fine flesh-and-blood rival to the dominance of CGI.

The film quite surprisingly gets across all of the book’s ideas without softening much. It addresses the importance of storytelling to both listener and narrator, and raises fascinating questions about the nature of god and belief. Only one sequence in which Pi and Richard Parker find themselves drifting onto a mysterious floating island, populated by swarms of meerkats, feels out of sorts with the flow and themes of the story. But the scenes on this island are so eye-wateringly beautiful it’s hard to criticise them to any great degree.

From the moment the film begins, Life of Pi is a beautiful and playful film. The opening shots of the various animals in Pi’s family’s zoo are overlayed by the title credits, which see the various letters tat make up the filmmakers’ names impersonate the animals on screen. That the film manages to be this beautiful, whimsical and also deep is a remarkable achievement, and it will stand as one of Lee’s finest films.

With 11 Oscar nominations to its name, the possibility of Life of Pi walking away from the Academy Awards empty handed seems truly unlikely, but it is not impossible. With luck, its visual scope and superbly evocative soundtrack by Mychael Danna will win it some accolades on Sunday night.

David Neary

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JDIFF 2013: ‘Spione’ (Spies)

 

David Neary delights in the live score accompanying Fritz lang’s Spies, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Spione (Spies)

Sun, 17th February
Light House 1
20.20
145 mins

One of the annual favourites of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, the big silent movie always draws a crowd of film fans as hungry for classics of early cinema as they are for live performance. Few things can beat a crisp black and white film with a musical accompaniment created right before your very eyes, beneath the very screen.

For the first time in festival memory, however, the film itself was a somewhat of a disappointment. Fritz Lang’s Spione (Spies), a ripping espionage yarn about secret treaties and tiny cameras, features some moments of expected directorial flair – a thrilling train crash, poison gas filling a bank vault, a ghostly visitation to a shamed Japanese diplomat about to commit hara-kiri – but there’s not enough to excuse its run time, excessive padding and ricocheting tone. While Lang’s previous film, Metropolis (which played at JDIFF in 2007), had lost UFA an unimaginable sum of money, Spies represents a more restrained Lang, and a remarkable climb-down in terms of artistic ambition.

Thank heavens therefore for Gunther Buchwald. The German pianist gave the plodding film a new life with a plucky, tinkling accompaniment that captured all the intrigue and antics of Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou’s oddly balanced script. Switching to violin for dance scenes (and at one point playing both piano and violin at once, to the bewilderment of the audience), Buchwald demonstrated the suitability of his composition and the thought that has gone into it. In the finest melding of sight and sound all evening, a tense scene in Spione, in which the hero investigates a darkened room, was accompanied by Buchwald directly tickling the piano wires with his fingertips, evoking the sound of some demonic harp.

Spione may not have captivated its audience as did Häxan, last year’s silent revival, but Gunther Buchwald has proven himself one of the most welcome guests at this year’s festival. Hopefully he will return to Ireland again soon, and with a great wealth of Weimar silent cinema to choose from, with luck he’ll bring a stronger film than Spione to accompany.

David Neary

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JDIFF 2013: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

 

David Neary on Alex Gibney’s hard-hitting documentary, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (14-24 February 2013)

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Fri, 15th February
Light House 1
18.00
107 mins


Who better to tackle the unsettling, knotty subject of child sexual abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church than Alex Gibney? The director’s documentaries, from Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to Casino Jack and the United States of Money, have always tackled powerful men and their abuse of that power. As Mea Maxima Culpa is keen to point out, there is no corporation in the world more powerful than the Catholic Church; no CEO as powerful as the Pope.

Receiving its Irish premiere at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival the very week that Josef Ratzinger announced he was to hang up his very large hat (Gibney claims no responsibility for this news), Mea Maxima Culpa seems simultaneously dated and thrillingly current. A lawsuit detailed within the film, taken by victims of clerical sex abuse against Pope Benedict XVI, gets shot down because the head of another state cannot be brought before a foreign court. All of a sudden, the events of the film take on new meaning.

Mea Maxima Culpa takes as its cornerstone the Father Lawrence Murphy case, in which a priest and educator sexually abused some 200 students at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, between 1950 and 1974. Interviews with four of his victims, some of whom have only spoken out about their suffering in recent years, help break down the horrific circle of secrecy that allowed this monster to go unpunished, and unimpeded, for so long.

Gibney fleshes out the story from here by touching upon abuse cases in Boston and Italy and, thanks to Irish Film Board funding, a lengthy stay in Ireland. But this is all padding (and the Irish abuse cases are more than deserving of their own feature-length doc), and it is not until Mea Maxima Culpa tackles the rotten heart of the Roman Curia, the sins of Pope John Paul II and the mishandling of the scandals by Ratzinger that the meat of the story is truly exposed.

Finely assembled from source materials, bolstered by re-enactments and location shooting, Gibney’s film allows its line-up of victims and legal experts to judge the abusers and those who shielded them from scrutiny, rather than going on the attack itself. There is not much new to learn from the film, but the sheer emotional weight of all the horrors the Church and its ‘servants’ have committed, when piled together like this, hit hard.

When the film ended, half the audience was in tears, the other half was visibly fuming with rage. No matter how much these issues are dealt with, talked out and reparations are made, those feelings will not disappear.

David Neary

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Cinema Review: A Liar’s Autobiography

 

DIR: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett WRI: Graham Chapman, David Sherlock PRO: Bill Jones, Ben Timlett DOP: Karim Hussain ED: Bill Jones DES: Arvinder Grewal Cast: Graham Chapman, Philip Bulcock, John Cleese

 Graham Chapman died in 1989 of tonsil cancer, putting to bed any hopes Monty Python fans the world over had for a new film from their comic heroes. The announcement of A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, an animated take on the pipe-smoking comedian’s 1980 book of the same name, seemed to ignite hopes of the first proper outing for the Pythons since The Meaning of Life, 30 years ago.

Sadly it is nothing of the sort. Built around a recording of his book that Chapman made shortly before his death, A Liar’s Autobiography is fleshed out with visual accompaniment by a number of different animation studios working with vastly different styles. The goal is to recall the kind of anarchic, surreal montage work that Terry Gilliam perfected for the Pythons back in the day, but with an overuse of bland Flash animation and dated 3D models the whole project is an eyesore to say the least. The film’s most obnoxious sequence, in which Chapman bemoans his habit for namedropping while continuously dropping famous friends’ names, is animated in a crude, blockish manner where all the elements of the image are see-thru. It is difficult to endure.

But there are moments when the animation amuses, particularly a sequence where the self-proclaimed ‘raging poof’ discusses his youthful attempts to engage in heterosexual intercourse – these see Chapman travelling through his past on a rollercoaster car shaped like a penis.

This is not for the easily offended, and indeed Chapman’s humour is far cruder (and more personal) than even the naughtiest bits the Python’s ever dared to show on screen. Sequences range from an adolescent sex dream about Biggles to a full-blown song and dance performance of Python classic ‘Sit On My Face’ in a style borrowed all-too heavily from The Meaning of Life’s ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’.

While Chapman’s decent into gin-soaked alcoholism and his often difficult struggles with his sexuality are interesting, they are never presented with enough humour to overcome the seriousness of the issues. The fact that Chapman is also challenging us to not believe anything he is recounting makes this all the more difficult to deal with.

What you realise watching this film is how much the Pythons censored and controlled one another. Too much of what Chapman delivers in his own reading is not very funny, and often it’s not even silly enough to warrant the Colonel from the Flying Circus (one of Chapman’s finest characters) walk in and say ‘Sorry, this is just too silly.’ All the biggest laughs in the film come from clips of classic Monty Python scenes, and not from Chapman’s tales.

With the exception of tireless killjoy Eric Idle, all of the other Pythons make vocal appearances, and it’s nice to hear some banter between John Cleese and Chapman from beyond the grave. In a scene so head-scratching you may cause your scalp to bleed a little, Cameron Diaz cameos as the voice of a stop-motion Sigmund Freud. It’s too odd to be funny, and very much the wrong kind of silly.

At only 85mins, this should breeze by, but it drags incessantly, and there is so much filler around Chapman’s recording that hardly an hour of it is even used. For example, the Biggles sequence features a full minute of adequately animated aerial battle; this is not what we come to a Monty Python film for.

With only the occasional giggle along the way (the contents of the Queen Mother’s purse spring to mind, or John Cleese’s hilariously mean impression of David Frost), A Liar’s Autobiography is a frustrating, ugly film, that does little for the memory of the man who became Monty Python’s leading man. However, its brazen honesty (when it’s not outright fabrication!) does paint a unique, if unsatisfying portrait of a comic legend, dearly missed.

David Neary

85 mins

A Liar’s Autobiography is released on 8th February 2013

A Liar’s Autobiography – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Wreck-It Ralph

 

DIR: Rich Moore • WRI: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee • PRO: Clark Spencer • ED: Tim Mertens•  CAST: John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Sarah Silverman

 

It is a widely held opinion that no good film based on a video game has yet been made, and it’s a hard point to argue against. But the culture around video games and its concept of infinite digital worlds has produced some fine stand-alone films, from charming ’80s family fun like Wizard, to reality-bending thrillers like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. But if any film paved the way for video games to be taken seriously in the movies, it was The King of Kong, the outstanding 2007 documentary about obsessive gameplay and retro fixation.

It’s hard to think of Wreck-It Ralph existing in a time before The King of Kong, and yet the idea was first pitched at Disney back in the 1980s. The set-up is reminiscent of Toy Story – when an arcade closes down for the night, the characters from various games take their leisure time, travelling between games or resting in the train station-like lobby inside the multi-socket plug that connects the games together.

Inside Fix-It Felix, a fictional 8-bit retro game still mercifully standing in the arcade after 30 years, time has taken its toll on the game’s badguy, Wreck-It Ralph. A Donkey Kong-like brute (Fix-It Felix is a window repairman to Mario’s plumber), Ralph dreams of being taken seriously by the denizens of the game, and not still treated like a villain when he clocks-off after closing. At an AA-style meeting for video game badguys, Ralph admits to his peers (cameos include Mario’s Bowser, Street Fighter 2’s M. Bison and Zangief, and Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Eggman/Robotnik) that he doesn’t want to be a badguy any more. ‘Just because you are a badguy doesn’t mean you are a bad guy,’ Zangief reassures him, but Ralph takes no solace in the good advice.

To prove he is a hero, Ralph game jumps from his 8-bit pixellated comfort zone into the hi-def world of contemporary shoot-’em-ups in a game called Hero’s Duty (Halo meets Medal of Honor). Come morning, his absence from the Fix-It Felix game draws disappointment from arcade customers, and the manager is forced to mark the game ‘out of order’, making unplugging imminent. Felix himself teams up with a feisty female sergeant from Hero’s Duty to find Ralph and save their world.

Ralph’s rage issues make him an unlikely children’s movie hero, as his tantrums range from hormonal teenager to potential domestic abuser, but his upset is easy to appreciate and his journey makes him a calmer, happier person. Voiced by John C. Reilly, whose input into the character earned him a writing credit on the film, he is far gruffer than traditional Disney heroes – a less handsome or street-smart Aladdin, a less upbeat Pinocchio.

Much of the latter half of the film is set in the game Sugar Rush, a candy-themed version of Mario Kart where Bratz-like J-pop characters race across mountains of marshmallow and rivers of caramel. Here Ralph meets Vanellope, a childish outcast like himself, who due to faulty programming uncontrollably glitches into 1s and 0s, meaning she can’t take part in the actual game, or leave its world. Sarah Silverman’s potty-mouthed performance is at first highly irritating, but once Ralph and Vanellope develop a rapport there is an undeniable sweetness in the oddball coupling, he 20 times her size.

Jack McBrayer (of 30 Rock fame) is awkwardly charming as Felix, but Jane Lynch steals the film as the no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun, a far tougher version of her Glee character Sue Sylvester. Calhoun is ‘programmed with the most tragic backstory ever’, and nabs many of the film’s most brilliantly melodramatic lines, referring to the unsettling world of Sugar Rush as a ‘candy-coated heart of darkness’. Alan Tudyk hams it wonderfully as King Candy, the flamboyant ruler of Sugar Rush, taking his cues from the Mad Hatter in the 1951 Disney Alice in Wonderland.

While the story is mostly predictable (barring one excellent twist near the end), Wreck-It Ralph’s greatest achievement is in its creation of its video-game world. Like Rex the dinosaur discussing his being ‘from Mattel’ in Toy Story, the characters know the rules of their complicated world – there is no Buzz Lightyear-style confusion. In addition to the countless cameos by famous game personalities (Mario is notable in his absence), there are several clever nods to more obscure games and gameplay rules. Minor characters in Fix-It Felix move in stuttered pixellated spurts, even when fully realised in 3D animation. The 1980s beer-serving game Tapper is where characters go to drink, and a drunk game character walks mindlessly into a wall like a World of Warcraft avatar with the forward key held down. 3D versions of Pong figures, massive cuboids instead of bars, continue to pass the ball back and forth even outside their game. Even more subtle, the security code to a vault is the ‘access any level’ cheat code from the original Sonic the Hedgehog.

Despite its charms and humour, Wreck-It Ralph is let down by its look, lacking the gloss of Pixar or DreamWorks’s latest outputs. So much of the film is set in the Sugar Rush game that the artificial colours and textures begin to grate visually, although the countless puns on sweets are more than welcome (Felix nearly drowns in a pit of Nesquiksand!). The added 3D throws up very few moments of engrossing depth, even during the climactic race, so opt for the glasses-off version.

But this is not an ugly film, and it is often very playful with its look as it switches between 3D and pixellated visuals – the closing credits feature the heroes popping up in several classic games tracing decades of video game development. Sometimes moving, regularly funny, often exciting and always far more clever than it needs to be, Wreck-It Ralph is a real treat worth putting all your quarters into for a fun arcade adventure.

It would be unfair not to mention the Disney digital short, Paperman, which precedes Wreck-It Ralph; a gorgeous, simple romantic tale, told in black and white, about a pencil jockey trying to attract the attention of a beautiful stranger. Make sure you’re not late to the cinema.

David Neary

G (see IFCO website for details)

107 mins

Wreck-It Ralph is released on 8th February 2013

Wreck-It Ralph – Official Website

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Cinema Review: I Wish

DIR/WRI: Hirokazu Koreedaf • PRO: Kentarô Koike, Hijiri Taguchi • DOP: Yutaka Yamasaki • ED: Hirokazu Koreeda• CAST: Koki Maeda, Ohshirô Maeda, Ryôga Hayashi

Few directors can handle newcomer actors better and more naturally than Hirokazu Koreeda. For his 1998 film After Life, he surveyed 500 people to find the 20 most suitable life stories to work into his script – when it came to casting, most of those 20 people were hired to play themselves, acting out their stories. Because who could tell it better than those who had lived it?

For his latest film I Wish, finally released in the West almost two years after its Japanese premiere, Koreeda wrote the story but held off on scripting dialogue until his two young leads were cast, so he could fluidly work the sort of things these children would say into the characters’ lines. Going one step further, Koreeda cast as the two young brothers a pair of young brothers, Koki and Oshiro Maeda.

The brothers in the film are separated when their parents split up and each is given the choice to live with the adult of their choosing. Apprehensive Koichi (Koki Maeda) stays with his mother (Nene Otsuka) and her parents in the small city of Kagoshima. The city is forever in the shadow of the A-bomb-like clouds that emit from the semi-active volcano across the bay. These clouds coat Koichi’s neighbourhood and school in a light film of ash most mornings, much to the annoyance of the fussy 12-year-old.

Meanwhile, his younger brother Ryu (Oshiro Maeda), a hyper-active and immensely popular boy, has moved to the far more buzzing city of Fukuoka with their father (Joe Odagiri), a near-deadbeat indie rock musician. The boys communicate in secret via mobile phones, each demonstrating a great love for the other, but also indifference towards the parent of the other’s choosing.

Overlooking the endless fights that broke their parents up, Koichi decides to get them back together, by wishing for the nearby volcano to erupt and literally force his parents to reunite. Ryu, once bitten, is less sure of their compatibility, but decides to help his brother in any way he can. Upon hearing playground gossip that the passing of two bullet trains creates a flash of light that grants wishes, Koichi decides to embark on a miniature quest to find the spot where these trains will pass and make his cosmic request. Ryu agrees to meet him halfway, and both find their friends, who have wishes of their own, tagging along.

Koreeda uncovers remarkable sweetness in his leads, who are normally a duo of young comedians in Japan, and the characters they play are invested with remarkably natural and believable characteristics. Watching Koichi wait at a level crossing, meandering his whole body as he waits impatiently for a train to pass, you realise you are watching a true natural in Koki, a kid who understands how to be a kid and not just act like one. Oshiro’s Ryu, normally bouncing off the walls with juvenile energy, brings out the film’s most dramatic punch when, talking to his mother on the phone, he asks her why she would want to see him when she doesn’t like him. His mother is suitably shocked, but he tells her she always says he is just like his father, and since she doesn’t like his father, she must not like him. The child’s logic is surprisingly strong and simultaneously heartbreaking.

While the story is slight, and Koreeda shows limited visual flair (with some stunning exceptions), the acting and characterisation on display make this a film of great worth and warmth. Beyond the two boys, their friends are brilliantly developed and recognisable as real youngsters. Magumi (Kyara Uchida, excellent) wants to be an actress, but her mother doesn’t believe she has the confidence to succeed in such a cutthroat business. One of the boys fancies the school librarian, while another wants to be a baseball star. Each young actor shows a remarkable appreciation of the character they play, and an understanding of the need to properly flesh them out. In one of the film’s finest sequences, a montage shows the youths practising the talents they want to excel at, showing a desire to grow up; to stop wishing and start trying.

The two brothers find themselves growing up also, sharing with one another the crumbs at the bottom of a bag of crisps, their favourite part, now something to give instead of take. When they meet for the first time in half a year, Ryu comments how tall Koichi seems to have become – standing back-to-back the fraternal bond is deepened as the boys’ frames seem to curl naturally around one another, yet their stance shows how their lives point in different directions.

Full of beautiful, unique and truly human observations, Koreeda’s film is not his masterpiece, but it is still a superb look at the lives and dreams of children that owes as much to De Sica and Truffaut as it does to his hero, Ozu.

David Neary

128 mins

I Wish is released exclusively at the IFI on 1st February 2013

I Wish – Official Website