The Salvation

The-Salvation

DIR: Kristian Levring • WRI: Anders Thomas Jensen, Kristian Levring • PRO: Sisse Graum Jørgensen • DOP: Jens Schlosser • ED: Pernille Bech Christensen • MUS: Kasper Winding • DES: Jørgen Munk • CAST: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Danish director Kristian Levring, a member of the Dogme 95 Collective, returns to the screen after a six-year hiatus in his Danish Western film, The Salvation, set in 19th century America. Renowned for locating his films around the theme of survival in remote and expansive landscapes, such as The King is Alive (2000) set in a Namibian desert or The Intended (2002) situated in the Malaysian jungle, The Salvation sees Levering not only assign the arid landscape as a central protagonist in the narrative, as is common to the Western, but his cinematic techniques in the film sees a near return to the concepts of the Dogme filmmaking movement which have dominated his craft. Whilst Levring does not strictly adhere to their tenets and his commitment to the traditional conventions of the Western genre permeate throughout, Levring infuses The Salvation with jarring elements of Nordic nihilism and jingoism, mirroring the conflict between Old and New World societies, thereby appropriating and aligning his Western film with his original Dogme roots.

Danish immigrant and former soldier Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) awaits the arrival of his wife and young son to Black Creek in the Wild West after a seven-year separation. Although Jon has become ‘Americanised’, his non-English speaking wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) finds the American Old West anything but the land of opportunity as she perceives an uncivilized, felonious frontier full of corrupt degenerates, which hold no social, legal or moral boundaries. As the self-effacing family departs to their new home aboard a stagecoach, Marie is violated and murdered by repulsive savages, as is son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) in the presence of a helpless Jon, motivating a bloodthirsty revenge plot on the perpetrator of the heinous crime. Unbeknownst to Jon, his family’s murderer is the brother of the notoriously feared, despotic town gang leader, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who determines to brutally avenge his brother’s killer. Such is the terror inflicted on the repressed townsfolk of Black Creek by land baron Delarue, the dehumanized community colludes with Delarue, impelling Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrand) to seek vengeance themselves.

In keeping with the traditional Western, The Salvation appears to adhere to the conventions, tropes and themes of the genre. Set in 1870s in the American Old Wild West, the theme of revenge between a morally wronged hero and a feared, iniquitous outlaw drives the narrative, where redundant enforcers of the law are in name only, and social order is restored through a self-entitled disregard and elimination of human life. Following the conventional narrative structure, a reputable hero rolls into an uncivilized town and is atrociously wronged by an ill-bred and barbaric group of bandits, thereby reaping revenge and restoring social order through a code of honour, customarily a bloody feud. Levring also commits to another common trope in the liberation of the subjugated damsel in distress, usually at the hands of the town’s head honcho.

As with most Westerns, the landscape plays a highly significant role in the The Salvation’s narrative. The vast and desolate space allows for social order and law enforcement to be abandoned, allowing corruption, violence and deadly executions to cultivate. The stark and unforgiving mountainous landscape holds no social or legal boundaries and becomes a space where brutality flourishes and the oppressed are devoured. Where Levring departs from the conventional Western is his unembellished production set and uncontrived action from his players. We rarely see the ubiquitous Western saloon, where carousing and womanizing is central to the action. There are no churches or schools and the general store is barely frequented. Only the interior of the jailhouse features prominently and it is a space where corruption and savagery permeates throughout. Rather, Levring creates a minimal production set that allows the action to be driven by its revenge narrative alone, abandoning the iconography that defines the Western.

Native Americans do not feature in the film but are commonly referred to and, evidently, Levring is drawing comparisons between the treatment of new immigrants, on which the United States was founded upon, and the destruction of the Native Americans. Degradation, annihilation and an utter disregard for human life are imposed on the citizens of Black Creek who hold no place for Others and masculinity is measured by excessive violence, abuse and the infliction of suffering, creating a desperate, unforgiving and hopeless tone throughout the narrative. The pace of the film is slow, tense and anxious, built upon a motivation for revenge between two antithetical men, who are united through a shared destructive ideology, cementing the absurdity of human ideals. The cinematography is stylish and luminous, complementing the sparse production set, yet creating a contrasting light and shade between tense violent revenge and moments of sensitive poignancy in relation to human oppression.

In a nod to his Dogma roots, Levring allows the actors to drive the narrative and Mads Mikkelsen excels as the stoic and troubled widower, Jon, whose point of view steers the narrative. As with many Western heroes, he does not indulge in any outpouring of emotion but rather maintains a dignified yet determined commitment to his cause, whether he is being violently tormented or merely indulging in quiet contemplation and grief. In The Salvation, as Jon’s wife is already slain and in keeping with his highly principled values, Jon is enable to further revenge on Delarue, by rescuing his mute mistress Madelaine (Eva Green), who had her tongue cut out by Native Americans, although it was Madelaine’s husband who killed Jon’s family.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is spine-chilling as the demonic archetypal Western villain and both Jonathan Pryce as the bumbling, obsequious mayor and undertaker, Keane and Douglas Henshall as the noisome, arbitrary sheriff are revelatory in their roles. But it is dignified performance by Eva Green as the mute Madelaine, whose physicality in her characterization is extraordinarily more communicative than any dialogue could express, that must take the acting honours.

The Salvation is a contemporary western that adheres to the American conventions of the genre with flashes of unconventional techniques from one of the Dogme 95 members. If one expects to see The Salvation littered solely with hackneyed Western conventions, one will be pleasantly surprised by some of the unexpected jarring flashes of Dogme regulations in the film that could possibly herald a new cinematic convention for the contemporary Western.

 

 

Dee O’Donoghue

15A (See IFCO for details)

92 minutes

The Salvation is released 17th April 2015

 

 

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Report: Dublin Doc Festival

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Dee O’Donoghue reports from this  year’s Dublin Doc Festival and takes a look at the top three short documentaries.

 

Now in it’s 3rd year, the Dublin Doc Festival was recently held in the historic and resplendent setting of The O’Connell Room at The Irish Georgian Society. Providing a unique platform for both Irish and International documentary filmmakers, the event aims to showcase short documentary films and highlight Dublin as an international destination for documentary film. This year’s festival attracted over eighty entrants, with seven films shortlisted and curated around the theme of  interior/exterior and mindscape versus landscape.  The selection of documentaries blend an idiosyncratic exploration of the festival’s themes with more traditional conventions of documentary filmmaking, probing challenging and existential questions of the past, present and future. The seven shortlisted documentary films included:

 

‘Fathom’ by Pat Collins and Sharon Whooley

‘Bloody Good Headline’ by Paul Quinn and Tom Burke

‘Bo’ by Oisín Bickley

‘Gordie’ by Traolach Ó Murchú

‘Love and Other Drags’ by Ryan Ralph

‘Anónimo’ by Moises Anaya

‘The Last Days of Peter Bergmann’ by Ciaran Cassidy

 

The above films engage with diverse aspects of individualism, marginalisation, alienation and difference, including; a day in the life of a newspaper seller, the isolating yet hypnotic life around South West Cork’s Fastnet Lighthouse, a homeless man negotiating life on the threatening city streets, the career ambitions of an aspiring drag queen, a Tinglit man’s struggle to comprehend a childhood trauma, the mysterious last days of a foreigner in Sligo and a unique insight into life on the land for a West Cork dairy farmer.

 

This year’s top three short documentaries executed the festival’s themes through a visual and thought-provoking exploration of its subjects and subjectivity, elevating the everyday ordinary to the wondrous extraordinary.

 

Bloody Good Headline directed by Paul Quinn and Tom Burke

 

Opening the festival, Bloody Good Headline explores the anonymous identities behind some of Dublin’s rush-hour newspaper sellers, inviting the audience to see, hear and identify with the dehumanized figures that blend into the capital’s cityscape. The film goes behind the people holding the headlines, the purveyors of bad news, to portray the physical endurance and psychological effect of an occupation where one person’s misfortune is another’s financial gain. The film provides a fascinating insight into the socio-economic circumstances of the newspaper sellers who navigate demanding and demeaning everyday situations for very little economic reward.

 

Gordie by Traolach Ó Murchú

 

Gordie is a powerful story about a drug addict and alcoholic Tlingit man, who narrates his own account of a childhood trauma that haunts him to this day. Recalling his kidnap and subsequent gang rape against the backdrop of a bleak and hostile landscape, Gordie’s jagged narration and haunting tone pieces together elements of this disturbing event, the memory of his trauma blurred and incomplete, leaving the story open to audience interpretation.

 

 

 

The Last Days of Peter Bergmann­ directed by Ciaran Cassidy

 

Closing the festival on a note of intrigue, The Last Days of Peter Bergmann explores the mysterious final days of a foreigner, who arrived into Sligo town under an assumed identity and whose methodical daily routine over the course of three days comes under scrutiny when a body is washed up on Rosses Point beach. Going to great lengths to conceal his true identity and dispose of his personal possessions, the beautifully-paced film recreates puzzling events in the traditional style of documentary filmmaking, with eye witness accounts attempting to piece together the baffling and saddening fate of this unknown man.

 

 

The third Dublin Doc Fest took place on Saturday, 28th February 2015 at 7pm in The Irish Georgian Society, City Assembly House, 58 South William Street, Dublin.

 

Read an interview with Festival Director Tess Motherway here

 

 

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Interview: Tess Motherway, Dublin Doc Festival Director

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Dee O’Donoghue chatted with Dublin Doc Festival Director, Tess Motherway, after the event to discuss her impressions of the night and why she feels the Dublin Doc Festival is an important platform for documentary filmmakers.

 

How many entrants were there in total and was this amount up on last year?

We had over 80 entrants this time around due in part to our engagement with online submission platform Film Festival Life, which accounted for almost half of the entries.  This was indeed an improvement on last year and allowed us to cast our net wider in terms of the films that we received.

 

The theme of the festival was Interior/Exterior and Mindscape/Landscape – how did the seven selected films meet this thematic criteria above all other entrants?

The aim of each screening is to carefully curate short documentary film in a programme that complements each film.  I’m always guided by the entries, I like to see what filmmakers are engaging with, the subjects that excite them, and work the programme around what we receive.  I take a long time to consider and review all the films, but it was quickly clear that this year’s strongest entries had the common thread of interior/exterior.  I then got to work selecting films that worked well together and engaged with this theme in varying and interesting ways.

 

Did you receive much international interest and how are you hoping to attract more international entrants next year?

Most of our entries were actually international, which is great, and a good measure of how far the festival is reaching.  We always have strong Irish representation in the programmes, being an Irish festival, but the demographic of films submitted depends on so many factors.  We really pushed the boat out with this year’s screening launching a new website and setting up more social media accounts and actively engaging with other festivals and filmmakers.  This has had a huge effect on growth and I’m confident that it will result in even more submissions.

 

Why do you think it is important to hold a Dublin Doc Festival?

I think it’s really important to offer the hugely talented short documentary filmmakers out there (of which Ireland has many) more opportunities to show their films as I think short documentary film has limited opportunities within film festival shorts programmes to be shown.  Dublin Doc Fest was founded with the objective of creating a new platform for documentary film in Ireland and, being a documentary filmmaker myself, my aim is to present short documentary in carefully curated programmes and non-traditional screening spaces.

 

Were you pleased with the success of the event and how do you hope to exceed this year’s festival next year?

I was delighted with this year’s event. We were completely sold out and there felt like a real buzz about it, especially online. We received really positive feedback and people are already asking when the next will be, can it be bigger and when can they enter their films. Our next step is to put together a solid funding and sponsorship plan to enable us to put on a bigger, longer event. I chose the name Dublin Doc Fest with the ambition of it becoming a full festival some day and that is still my goal. Next year I’d love to have a few screenings take place, I’d also love to take a different approach with the film festival structure and bring something new to the way things are done.

 

The third Dublin Doc Fest took place on Saturday, 28th February 2015 at 7pm in The Irish Georgian Society, City Assembly House, 58 South William Street, Dublin.

 

You can read Dee O’Donoghue’s report from the festival here

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Paper Souls (Les Âmes de Papier)

Paper Souls

DIR: Vincent Lannoo • WRI: François Uzan • PRO: Patrick Quinet, Claude Waringo, Serge Zeitoun • DOP: Vincent Van Gelder • ED: Frédérique Broos • MUS: Gast Waltzing • DES: Véronique Sacrez • CAST: Stéphane Guillon, Julie Gayet, Jonathan Zaccaï, Jules Rotenberg

 

Attempting to situate Paper Souls within a specific generic category has not been an easy task. It may be classified as a supernatural, romantic, fantasy comedy drama and as director Vincent Lannoo certifies, highly influenced by Woody Allen’s postcards from Europe oeuvre. The latter claim should be an optimistic indicator of the Belgian director’s ninth outing, but alas, a charming location and spirited musical score are where the similarities end between Paper Souls and Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Paul (Stéphane Guillon) was a successful novelist until the death of his wife five years previously. Overburdened with grief and lassitude, he abandons novel writing and earns a living drafting elegies for relatives of the deceased. Emma (Julie Gayet) lost her husband Nathan (Jonathan Zaccaï) over a year ago but her son Adam (Jules Rotenberg) is unable to come to terms with his father’s death. When Emma asks Paul to masquerade as an old friend of Nathan and bond with Adam, he reluctantly agrees. As a taciturn Paul becomes closer to both, he unwittingly recalls Nathan back from the dead. An amnesiac Nathan is unrecognisable to his family and they share no collective memories of one another. However, similarities between Nathan and memories of Paul’s dead wife begin to emerge, placing Paul in a compromising predicament.

 

A quirky, supernatural French farce by un grand provocateur should be enough to pique critical and audience interest. However, the subversive tone that graced Lannoo’s acclaimed mockumentaries, Strass (2001) and Vampires (2010) or the dark satire and scathing humour found in the impious In the Name of the Son (2012), is glaringly absent in Paper Souls. Rather, a tangled and inaccessible script devoid of parody, satirical impulse or comedic conviction fails to ignite the film on any jocular or fantastical level. Paper Souls suffers from a severe identity crisis. Whilst the film’s style (jerky camera movements, fast cutting, whimsical score) is intended to underpin its farcical elements, it is so at odds with the core romantic plot that in the absence of satire, the convoluted narrative merely creates a maelstrom of chaos.

 

The lead actors attempt to salvage what they can from such a muddled script but the narrative oscillates from comedy to tragedy, sentimentality to vulgarity and reality to absurdity at such an impenetrable pace, it hampers any possibility of inspiring accomplished performances. Pierre Richard’s turn as the mischievous Victor is evidently intended to reinforce the film’s comedic components but is constrained by such trite dialogue possessing neither irony nor originality, he becomes a more regressive than congenial or sympathetic character. Julie Gayet approaches the role of Emma with apprehension, evidently stumped by the discursive sub-plots and rather sombre romance with Paul. The affair lacks chemistry or sexual tension, resulting in a rather underwhelming liaison, Gayet more at ease in her maternal role than that of sensual lover. Stéphane Guillon and Jonathan Zaccaï attempt to compensate for the film’s shortcomings and whilst there are glimpses of poignancy and nuance from both, they are unable to overcome the narrative’s disjointed limitations. The metaphysical possibilities are cursory and unexplored and further investigation had the potential to anchor and balance the plot’s farcical and romantic elements whilst the phantasmal Zaccaï in particular, is regrettably underused.

 

In the hands of a more accomplished scriptwriter and an appropriation of style and tone from his earlier films, a subversive Lannoo could have made a refreshing mark on the romantic, comedy fantasy genre. In his attempts to evoke the silvery sentimentality and seductive charm of Midnight in Paris, the film becomes a victim of its director’s overambition, unable to execute its profusion of generic conventions satisfactorily. Instead, Paper Souls results in a highly fragmented, befuddled and contrived film, which just does not gel on any level.

Dee O’Donoghue
          

100 minutes

Paper Souls is released 27th February 2015

 

Paper Souls –  Official Website

 

 

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Catch Me Daddy

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DIR: Daniel Wolfe • WRI: Daniel Wolfe, Matthew Wolfe • PRO: Michael Elliott, Hayley Williams • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Dominic Leung, Tom Lindsay • MUS: Matthew Watson, Daniel Thomas Freeman • DES: Sami Khan • CAST: Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, Connor McCarron, Gary Lewis, Barry Nunney, Wasim Zakir

 

Best known for his artistic vision on commercials and music videos (Plan B ‘Prayin’, The Shoes ‘Time to Dance’), Daniel Wolfe’s debut feature film Catch Me Daddy is a British social realist thriller and tells the story of British-Pakistani Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) who has escaped from her despotic father and gone into hiding with her white boyfriend, Aaron (Conor McCarron). Defying the tenets of her religious faith, Laila’s father (Wasim Zakir) deploys an armed mob to track down the teenagers and return Laila home for punishment, forcing the fugitive lovers on the run to save their lives.

 

Set in the mystic and tranquil environs of the Yorkshire Moors and drawing on conventions from the Western and road movie genres, Catch Me Daddy is an unflinching, emotive and deeply troubling account of an illicit and fateful love affair. The narrative is structured between day and night and the plot unfolds from two perspectives; the predatory hunters and the nihilistic hunted, each marked by a sharp contrast in technical style. By day, the two lovers, enclosed in their oasis of freedom; a cramped mobile home on the margins of a grim northern town, attempt to settle into fugitive bliss, aware their fleeting contentment is merely a reprieve. The hostile mob, hot on their trail, is divided into two factions. The Muslims, headed by Laila’s brother Zaheer (Ali Ahmad) are bound by a religious code of honour to avenge Laila’s cultural ignominy, while the white rabble, unemployed Tony (Gary Lewis) and Barry (Barry Nunney) are motivated by a cash reward to fuel an excessive cocaine habit. As the predators close in, an ominous shift from an interminably anaemic daytime into a frenzied nocturnal chase mobilises grim brutality and blood-curdling violence in the pursuit of vengeance and greed.

 

Stunningly shot on 35mm, acclaimed Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Philomena, The Angels’ Share) melds drab, soulless northern towns with the melancholic misty moors in the first act, creating a tense and foreboding platform from which to jerk the narrative into the heightened pandemonium of the second. Infused with kaleidoscopic waves of surrealism and symbolism underpinned by hallucinatory sound design techniques, the furious road trip sequences and intense cat and mouse chases deviate wildly from the parameters of social realism and become more akin to a noirish thriller. The musical score weaves original atmospheric trances with magnetically frantic tracks, intending to both lure and distance, devices that intensify the film’s themes of alienation, dissatisfaction and marginalisation, to create a raw and contradictory portrait of social tensions in contemporary Britain.

 

The use of non-professional actors with professional actors and a largely improvised script heightens the sense of verisimilitude and while at times such inexperience is evident as the pace overwhelms the non-professionals, the incoherency also heightens the palpable urgency and terror running through the narrative. There is quite an over-saturation of underdeveloped characters that have potentially intriguing narratives but Wolfe predominantly remains focused on the gendered nature of honour killings, giving an identity to the victims behind such egregious cultural acts.

 

Sameena Jabeen Ahmed makes an impressive acting debut as the young British Muslim who has to reconcile new identities in Britain with a culture and heritage that is informed by the past. Such new identities place her at odds with father and brother, who remain contained within a strict cultural, religious and patriarchal framework. She strikes the perfect balance between wilful, coming-of-age independence, rejecting the social fetters and the lack of agency dictated by her culture and a naïve, childlike innocence, seemingly uneducated to the stigma her actions produce within a traditional, religious context.

 

Laila’s father, the omnipresent despot who drives the plot, chillingly emerges in the final act, illustrating the seriously problematic nature of intergenerational dynamics between British Muslims. Bearing the burden of paternal love for his daughter but bound to restore the cultural honour she has defiled which exceed any parental sentiments, the climax is frighteningly palpable, returning to the suffocating claustrophobia and tense anticipation executed at the beginning, a dénouement that may not satisfy all audiences.

 

Like the Western, the social realist film can be reflective of the current socio-cultural climate and with the current spate of gendered-based violence and honour killings rising in the UK and the increasing growth of Islamophobia, the film will undoubtedly polarize audiences. Daniel Wolfe is quick to delineate the gendered nature of honour killings and a cultural framework that deifies a son and demonises a daughter. Catch Me Daddy marks a bold and impressive debut from Wolfe and, although in need of some refinement, shows promise of great things to come.

Dee O’Donoghue

112 minutes

Catch Me Daddy is released 27th February 2015

 

Catch Me Daddy – Official Website

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0-AAhMJBRw

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Focus

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DIR: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa • WRI: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa • PRO: Denise Di Novi • DOP: Xavier Grobet • ED: Jan Kovac • MUS: Nick Urata • DES: Beth Mickle • CAST: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney

 

As one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, Will Smith has dominated the box office for over twenty years. Grossing over $6 billion global sales, thanks to action blockbusters such as Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997) and I Am Legend (2007), Smith’s name on the billboard is generally regarded as a sure-fire guarantee to worldwide commercial success. After a four-year hiatus from the screen and a string of subsequent miscalculations, including critical catastrophe After Earth (2013) and a bewildering cameo in Winter’s Tale (2014), Will Smith appears to be in a somewhat acting void, in need of a cinematic masterstroke to regain the dizzying heights of former box office glory.

 

Focus is a romantic crime caper starring Smith as seasoned con artist Nicky Spurgeon. Jess Brennan (Margo Robbie) is the young and beautiful criminal novice who persuades a reluctant Nicky to teach her the tricks of his trade. She joins Nicky’s amoral empire of fraudsters, swindling their way through the obscenely wealthy, until Nicky realises their suppressed romantic feelings are a liability and unceremoniously dumps her. Three years later, as Nicky is about to undertake his riskiest scam, they meet up by chance in Buenos Aires and Nicky soon discovers he may have taught Jess more than he can handle.

 

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) Focus is a slick and polished fast-paced romp, which oozes sensuality and decadence, drips of glamour and excess and seeps in self-indulgence and extravagance. Underneath its lustrous veneer however, lies a series of convoluted entanglements, an overinflated and well-worn plot and a narrative that remains too faithful to the conventions of its genre, it ends up on the whole, a rather predictable and messy affair. The film throws the kitchen sink of lacklustre sub-plots into the narrative without much consideration for originality or execution and ironically, Focus ultimately becomes a film that is afraid to take risks.

 

Amidst the array of tomfoolery, the bubbling romance between Smith and Robbie has the potential to sedate the film’s hyperactivity and offer a respite from the myriad of capering. Despite the evident on-screen chemistry between the two leads, this romantic element is unbearably teased out and the shenanigans keep coming at such a magnificent velocity, that by the time the romantic narrative has limped towards the final act, any remnants of a love affair has lost its appeal and gloss.

 

Regardless of its gleaming production and costume design, smooth technical style and frisky musical score, Focus is largely seductive because Smith and Robbie are the seducers. It is a testament to Smith’s experience and skill that is he able to maintain a semblance of credibility and finds the correct balance between poise, charisma and boyish vulnerability, adapting to the script’s strained meanderings without descending into farce or caricature.

 

After her memorable breakthrough performance in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the role of Jess Brennan could be viewed as rather regressive for Margot Robbie. Although she plays the part of the criminal ingénue-turned-accomplished fraudster with exquisite style, the voyeuristic emphasis on her flawless beauty leaves a void in the development of her character and any emotional intelligence she attempts to display is thwarted by the overt emphasis on her physical allure. Devoid of Scorsese’s black comedy to ignite the character, sees Robbie hovering in limbo, neither vindictive enough to be the archetypal femme fatale nor vapid enough to be mere eye candy.

 

Focus is a crime caper that commits to such a formulaic narrative it struggles to breathe new life into the genre and severely fails to mark its own identity. The film is imbued with just enough energy and commitment from Smith and Robbie to keep it above water and although we have seen Smith do funny and charming countless times and Focus far from equals his previous work, his performance has enough respectability to at least see him move in the right direction.

Dee O’Donoghue

 

15A (See IFCO for details)
104 minutes

Focus is released 27th February 2015

 

Focus  – Official Website

 

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Cake

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DIR: Daniel Barnz • WRI: Patrick Tobin • PRO: Courtney Solomon, Kristin Hahn, Mark Canton, Ben Barnz • DOP: Rachel Morrison • ED: Kristina Boden, Michelle Harisson • MUS: Christophe Beck • DES: Joseph T. Garrity • CAST: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Felicity Huffman

 

Famed for comedies and romantic comedies, Jennifer Aniston has amassed an impressive filmography since her television career climaxed in 2004. While she has garnered commercial success in films such as Marley and Me (2008), Horrible Bosses (2011) and We’re the Millers (2013) critical opinion has pointed to Aniston’s inability to break free from the often hapless but endearing characters that have marked her work. Aniston has previously gone against type and toyed with more sophisticated performances in films such as The Good Girl (2002) and Derailed (2005) but the romantic comedy genre has remained a safety net for Aniston, providing an indemnity against commercial loss and overall critical maligning. Cake however, a powerful and melancholic drama, marks an immense departure from Aniston’s fluffy comedic roles, presenting a platform whereby she may showcase her merit as a serious and versatile actress.

 

Aniston plays damaged and fragile Claire Bennett, whose physical and emotional pain tortures her daily. She belongs to a chronic pain support group but finds the meetings more beneficial as an outlet for her profound anger. When she is thrown out of the group for her flippant remarks about co-member Nina’s suicide, Claire continues on a self-destructive path, becoming heavily addicted to painkillers and alcohol. As her condition deteriorates, suicide becomes a hugely inviting recourse and out of curiosity, she orchestrates an encounter with Nina’s widower Roy and soon the sardonic Claire and empathetic Roy discover they have more in common than they initially realised.

 

Stripped of glamour, marked with physical scars and burdened with restricted mobility, Aniston approaches the role of misanthropic Claire Bennett with an almost obsessive-like ferocity. Claire is a deeply tortured woman who endures such intense physical and mental paralysis; her body is unwilling to heal. Suffering defines Claire Bennett and her substance abuse, meaningless sexual encounters and caustic tongue are the only means she has to insulate her daily torment.

 

One of the most problematic aspects of Cake is that the audience is oblivious to the root of Claire’s exhaustive distress for a considerable part of the film. Outward circumstances steer Claire’s rancorous behaviour but in the absence of a clear motivation, the focus on Claire’s increasing burden becomes a test of endurance, the audience empathising with her pain but unable to identify with her suffering. Cake contains very little in the way of a plot and as such the narrative is structured upon Claire’s trajectory from trauma to healing. As a result, the relentless pace of angst becomes both draining and distancing. While it is arguably Aniston’s most exacting role to date and the demands made of her as an actor are relentless, there is a cynical undertone that Cake is merely a vehicle whereby Aniston can demonstrate a broad range of acting capabilities and finally silence her critics.

 

Cake attempts to balance its profound morbidity with comedic and supernatural elements intended to disrupt the paranoia and cynicism that suffocates the narrative. Adriana Barraza as devoted housekeeper Silvana reveals a hugely different emotional landscape and her sensitivity towards her employer provides a heartening antidote to Claire’s heightened anxiety. Nina’s ghost returns, on cue, to haunt and taunt a saturnine Claire, as she was incipiently thawing through her friendship with Roy. Both Anna Kendrick as the sneering spirit and Felicity Huffman as the mawkish group support leader also bring a much welcome reprieve but alas, the supporting acts and their relationships to Claire are all too sporadic to soothe the macabre milieu Claire inhabits.

 

Despite a formidable and kaleidoscopic performance, there is a sense that the themes of human frailty and the will to heal that inform the film’s narrative are beyond Aniston’s abilities as a serious dramatic actress. Her physicality may be transformed and the comedic quips replaced with acerbic, sardonic jibes but her performance lacks the emotional resonance required to bring Claire Bennett from a state of complete desolation to a place of untroubled acceptance. Aniston fails to evoke the visceral reactions that have given her much currency in romantic comedies and one could be forgiven for thinking that Claire Bennett in Cake is merely Jennifer Aniston having a bad day.

Dee O’Donoghue

 

15A (See IFCO for details)
101 minutes

Cake is released 20th February 2015

Cake  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fifty Shades of Grey

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DIR: Sam Taylor-Johnson • WRI: Kelly Marcel  • PRO: Dana Brunetti, Michael de Luca, E.L. James • DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Lisa Gunning • MUS: Danny Elfman • DES: David Wasco • CAST: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson

 

When the first instalment of E.L. James’ concupiscent trilogy was thrust into the literary world in 2011, few could have predicted that despite its lascivious content and perceived glorification of sexual exploitation, the novels would go on to sell over 100 million copies worldwide. A vehement critical backlash however, deemed its substandard literary qualities more offensive than its erotic content, its low-cultural value merely providing pabulum for the gendered masses. Whilst the character of the submissive ingénue is hardly unfamiliar in literature or contemporary cinema (Steven Shainberg’s 2002 film Secretary based on Mary Gaitskill’s novel Bad Behaviour, springs to mind) the success of James’ novels has piqued such intense global interest in the film that its cultural significance cannot be underestimated.

 

Dakota Johnson stars as demure and diffident student Anastasia Steele who is sent to interview handsome publishing tycoon, Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) for the college newspaper. Despite having little in common, they are attracted to one another but Anastasia soon discovers that the brooding billionaire conducts his private life on the sexual fringe and that she is merely a conduit for his priapic fantasies.

 

Adapting the novel for the big screen, director Taylor-Johnson has had to navigate a high wire between its hard-core pornographic elements, its global popularity, criticism of its sexual violence and film as a profitable commercial venture. Attempting to strike a balance between all four, Taylor-Johnson focuses on the development of the emotional relationship between the protagonists rather than an exploration into the world of sadomasochism, which steers the source material’s narrative. As a result of such diluted text, the sexual content is pallid and restraint, neither sexy nor risqué. By moderating the driving force within the core narrative and littering the film with sexual metaphors in its place, leaves the film with very little in the way of plot development and it has simply nowhere to go.

 

It is left to Johnson and Dornan to rescue what they can from such sexual oblivion and whilst Johnson is a revelation as the innocuous student turned sexually curious mistress, Dornan struggles to connect with dual characteristics of Grey, failing to strike a balance between charismatic businessman and sadistic Dominant. The restructuring of the film’s narrative evidently hinders Dornan and while Anastasia Steele is emotionally more rounded, the psychologically complex Christian Grey is premised upon excess, domination and obsession and by moderating these characteristics, Anastasia’s desire for an impenetrable Grey becomes less plausible.

 

In spite of the unbalanced lead performances, the stylistic elements of the film complement the shameless absurdity of the plot and the polished production design exudes glamour and indulgence, underpinned by an erotically charged music score. The sophisticated production values fail however, to conceal the lack of chemistry between the lead characters and Dornan’s struggle to connect with an egregious script overwhelms any attempts by the film’s design to compensate for its nonsensical plot.

 

While the film is arguably no better or worse than its literary source, it does shatter the fantasies of sexual desire and sexual pleasure constructed within the novel. Fifty Shades of Grey is a book premised upon the attainment of sexual pleasure and fulfilment through the dark and sinister practices of sadomasochism. Subverting the very elements in which the narrative is structured upon and supplanting it with an anaemic love story brings a certain morality to the film that is absent in the novel and it is doubtful that Taylor Johnson’s film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey will satisfy even its most ardent fans.

                Dee O’Donoghue

 

18 (See IFCO for details)
125 minutes

Fifty Shades of Grey is released 13th February 2015

 

Fifty Shades of Grey – Official Website

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