Review: First Man

DIR: Damien Chazelle • WRI: Josh Singer • DOP: Matthew Libatique • ED: Jay Cassidy • DES: Karen Murphy • PRO: Marty Bowen, Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner • MUS: Justin Hurwitz • CAST: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke

Truth be told, LA LA Land never did it for me. Sing Street was a better musical. In fact, there’s a chant in the middle of this film that is catchier than anything in Chazelle’s preceding musical.

However, as a filmmaker, he is undoubtedly testing himself and here we get to see if he has the right stuff to tackle the NASA program to get a man on the moon. The answer comes back firmly in the affirmative. This handsome, thoughtful film is no jingoistic or romanticised account. Indeed, the film does its utmost to strip any veneer of glamour from the process.

To that end; earth-shattering mission decisions are related in anonymous bathrooms. Major selections for seats on a shuttle result in the briefest of smiles rather than high fives. Stoic resolve seems to be the strongest response to both success and failure. The film is so reserved, so ready to eschew the big moment that I wondered would it end before the most famous quote of all.

Opening with a nerve-jangling sequence as a high altitude test of Armstrong’s threatens to maroon him in space,  First Man  is at its best in stressing the stress these astronauts were under and indeed the stress these almost primitive ships endured. At certain points, as capsules rattle, vibrate and tumble; the thinness of the line between life and death is astoundingly clear. The biggest leap in space travel seems to have been the leap of faith by these men to climb inside these claustrophobic tin machines in the first places.

Yet the film’s central thesis may just be that men can’t be machines. In its depiction of Neil Armstrong, the film zeroes in on the loss of a child early in his marriage as a key driving force.  Indeed, the shadow of death hangs over the entire picture like a fickle finger. In the lead role, Ryan Gosling dials back his innate charisma to heighten his intensity. Humour isn’t entirely absent but most of it here is close to professional gallows humour, considering the lives lost in the pursuit of what seemed an often impossible goal. It qualifies as brave to keep things this grounded when dealing with the loftiest ambitions mankind has ever had.

In an era and arena dominated by male presences, Chazelle and writer Josh Singer seem at pains to have a strong female role. And though Claire Foy is superbly committed and tangibly real as Janet , you can feel the film battling to include her. Yet often leaving her with little to do but wander dark halls after her children. There is one barnstorming visit to mission control but one suspects it’s as much a moment for the trailer and award ceremonies as the film.

Chazelle’s evolution as a filmmaker is best exemplified in how he deals with a horrific fire within a shuttle while locked in place on the pad. His decision not to depict or dwell on these horrific details is hugely mature. Instead, he allows the simple puffing of a sealed metal door to say it all. There is also a queasy dedication to close-ups intended to surely mirror an astronaut’s narrow field of vision. And remind an audience that the length and breadth and glory of space is mostly experienced not in some widescreen format but from cramped confines and iced windows.

Exuding a nervous, jittery energy throughout, the film will surely feature prominently at the Oscars on the technical side, with sound awards a near certainty. Other wins will surely hinge on whether audiences warm up to the fascinatingly cool film.

Tough. Tender. Terrific. First Man is a real five-star trip to the stars.

James Phelan

141 minutes
12A (see IFCO for details)
First Man is released 12th October 2018

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Review: A Simple Favour

Director: Paul Feig • Writer: Jessica Sharzer •  DOP: John Schwartzman • ED:  Brent White • DES : Jefferson Sage • MUS: Theodore Shapiro • Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Jean Smart. Rupert Friend 

Initially drawn in by a premise that sounded Hitchockian in its simplicity, it was a jarring shock to discover A Simple Favour was a very different film from its pitch. However, in another sense (and paying homage to one of its stars) it was pitch perfect. Also funnier and far better than any one dared hope or imagine in this distinctly fallow period for film.

And what a fizzy heady confection it is. Playing out like a comedic take on Gone Girl, this twisty pretzel sets out its stall from the get-go as Anna Kendrick uses her minor online celebrity (I am not going to use the word ‘vlogger’ in this review…. ah damn it) to spread the word about her missing friend Emily (Blake Lively). In this shallow suburban pond, appearances are definitely deceptive though.

Turns out Stephanie and Emily have become fast friends and barely know each other. Stephanie’s eagerness to jump blindly into deep smit with her new bestie allows her to blissfully overlook huge warning signs about Emily.  Enduring her sharp tongue and hair-trigger temper are a sufficient price for Stephanie to hang out in a beautiful house with her beautiful friend, having beautiful drinks. Kendrick infuses her single mum/star-baker character with a convincing hollowness at her core. In parenting circles, she is isolated by her perky perfectionist attitude while naturally drawn to the ideal Emily seems to project.

Much like this review, the simple favour the film pivots on, takes a while to arrive. In fact, it’s a favour innocently requested of Stephanie before – to pick up her friend’s kid from school. So far so simple, but then Emily doesn’t come home. Once Emily is officially missing, the film becomes a different beast. More of a shaggy dog story. But a bloody loveable dog all the same. It also makes shag-all sense and requires a suspension bridge of disbelief but don’t fight this film. Let it win.

There is a tonal disrupt in a film being both a mystery and a comedy. It’s not a combo you see very often but A Simple Favour seems all the fresher for it. Frankly, anyone wanting to poke holes in the plot of this film could have a field day. Slaves to logic or those with concerns about credibility should leave that critical facility at the door. Or not bother going through the door in the first place. You gotta surrender to the nutty tone of this, as say Stephanie impersonates a cleaner at a southern Gothic mansion straight out of ‘Scooby Doo’.  Or considering its creators, ‘American Horror Story’.

Quality wise, Kendrick is always a gold standard. She clearly has taste, grace and great comedic chops, including a willingness to be goofy that is deeply endearing. Director Paul Feig also shows an adroit nimbleness here in brilliantly dialling back from his Ghostbusters reboot, which was unfairly booted. Re-emerging with a whip-smart effort with a pared-down cast just feels right. And he lets the film breathe brilliantly. There is no story reason why, for instance, Kendrick singing along to the radio should be included. In fact, any studio interference might push towards pulling the scene due to being too close to that whole Pitch Perfect shtick. But it is retained if only for that most old fashioned of desires – to entertain an audience.

My own big admission is that I have never gotten Blake Lively. Till now. She’s always been striking but this role taps deep into the talent well. And she is not found wanting. She carries the glamour with radiant ease but her clear relish in delivering laser-guided lines is palpable. And here we turn to another heroine: screenwriter Jessica Sharzer equips everyone with aces, especially her leads. And they serve them up with serious sparkle and vicious élan. There truly are some gasp-inducing bits of audacity here. Plenty of barbs aimed at the school-gate set and more truth-bombs aimed firmly at the heart of consumer America. One entire unseemly element of Stephanie’s back story could have been excised even late in the day without hurting the film. Again, it remains. It garners lots of laughs but wow – it feels like a heavy dash of hard alcohol in a mocktail.

Rarely have I wanted to return to a film just to reaffirm if I heard that right or whether I caught everything. It’s a screenplay of real subversive substance riddled with needle and with a fair bit of acid on its fangs. I think the script should be in the mix come award time. It looks simple but isn’t that the trick of all truly accomplished work. A definite favourite of mine going forward.

James Phelan

116 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
A Simple Favour is released 21st September 2018
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqsdrYBPjv8

 

 

 

 

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Review: Mindhorn

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DIR: Sean Foley • WRI: Julian Barratt, Simon Farnaby PRO: Jack Arbuthnott, Laura Hastings-Smith • DOP: David Luther • ED: Mark Everson • DES: Peter Francis • MUS: Keefus Ciancia, David Holmes • CAST: Julian Barratt, Essie Davis, Andrea Riseborough, Harriet Walter

Pity the poor actor. Those who never attain any measure of success in the first place can be tragic enough. But maybe it’s even crueller on those who had a taste of fame only to have it whisked away by the fickle whims of fashion, time and trends. In this bracket, certain thesps are so hugely associated with only one role that they may as well be branded on the forehead in the eyes of both the public and casting agents. And on these islands, these actors usually suffer a testing amount of recognition without the financial resources to detach themselves away from a level of fandom that is regularly intrusive but rarely lucrative.

It’s a heck of a bind. And it is such a position that Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) finds himself in. The role he is most associated with is the titular Mindhorn – who, as well as being a bit of a tit himself, was also a detective in the ’80s on a show set on the Isle of Man. The show has long since receded in the collective pop culture memory and Richard and his once lustrous hairline have receded with it.

Lucky then, when a seemingly demented killer crops up on the island with his only condition for co-operating with the local cops being if Mindhorn becomes the point of contact. The hunted killer believes that Mindhorn is real. A desperate, depressed Richard is only too happy to play along. He doesn’t need the fictional detective’s bionic eye to spy a real opportunity for exposure and a well earned return to the big time. And earning.

Richard returns to his old stomping ground, palpably anxious and painfully excited about being relevant again. Naturally, the Isle of Man police force is forced to put up with him but his inept interventions have an expiry date as patience and expense accounts run thin.  However, the actor has more than crime on his mind on the island as he busily pines for a lost love and covets the success of a former colleague.

Co-written by its star, this is a bravely unflattering and deft performance by Barratt, who injects a delicate balance of resilience, sadness and resentment into Thorncroft while still making us root for him as the ignominies mount up. He has lost out on his former leading lady to a South African stuntman (played by his co-writer Simon Farnaby), who is worthy of his own spin off. And speaking of spin offs, Richard has endured his former side-kick parlaying a minor role in the original show into a franchise that has long outlived Mindhorn.

British comedy has continually show mastery in making their central characters the butt of the joke. No American comedian would probably explore these depths. Yet this film is considerably stronger for it. However, neither is it a perfectly honed, utterly complete comedy film. It boasts a cracker of a first act but once on the island the actual criminal case is concluded with almost comical ease but without much comedy. And with that plot literally on life support, the tautness that provides the richest seam of humour is oddly absent as we follow Richard through a bunch of unfocused scenes as if everyone concerned is trying to find the comedy jugular again but keep missing by a fraction. But the fractions ultimately add up. And while they don’t mar or scar the film too deeply, they do dilute its’ potency.

And the final reel seems a little weak. Perhaps the filmmakers believe that they are honouring the ropey hokum of TV plots as a nonsensical narrative is tied up with ease but little sense.  It’s a bit of a cop out if this is the case. The ending needed to be unhinged. It is merely mild and polite.

The inspirations underpinning everything are clear – from era specific shows like ‘Bergerac’ to ‘Lovejoy’ to the knowing parody of ‘Garth Marenghai’s Dark Place’. Naturally over all of this, the shadow of Alan Partridge hangs hugely but as if to acknowledge it – here’s Steve Coogan gleefully sending up his often perceived lust for Hollywood status and success. In fairness, Coogan and his production company are key movers behind the film so he clearly believes Barratt’s Mindhorn is a completely different beast.

Overall, perhaps it’s not the mind-bending treat that has been touted in some quarters but it packs in plenty of laughs into a brisk, lithe and deceptively light package. If this were American in origin, there might be a clamour now to continue and deepen the post-modernism maze by making actual episodes of the Mindhorn show. For once, making a bad show deliberately is not such a bad thought.

James Phelan

88 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Mindhorn is released 5th May 2017

Mindhorn – Official Website

 

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Interview: James Phelan, writer ‘Striking Out’

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Sarah Cullen caught up with James Phelan, writer of the RTE drama Striking Out, which follows the tumultuous professional and personal life of Dublin-based solicitor, Tara Rafferty, and her fledgling legal firm.

Acorn TV is giving the Irish legal drama an exclusive U.S. premiere on its streaming service on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.

I think one of the stars of Striking Out has got to be Dublin itself – the place looks fantastic! I wonder how important the location and setting was in the writing of the script?

Naturally enough, a huge amount of credit has to go to the director Lisa (James Larsson) and the DOP Frida (Wendel). I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for this being a case of an outside eye looking at the city afresh and while there’s an element of that, it was always envisaged that Dublin be the final character of the piece at script level too.

And I guess that’s what’s great about Dublin for drama. You can mould your vision for your drama around different and differing areas that are all legitimately and authentically Dublin. Even the juxtaposition of our beautiful historic districts bumping up against stunning new modern architecture really works well onscreen.

Overall, it was an upfront ambition to openly acknowledge that Dublin is an attractive city. I think I alluded to the connection between New York and Sex and the City in early style notes for the show. You want it to feel rooted and real as opposed to an affectation. But on a level deeper than optics, I did want to stock an attractive show about Dublin with attractive people without sacrificing depth. And without ever having to apologise for it. If Dublin gets a tourism boost out of how well the show looks, what a lovely upside.

 

There’s a lot of in-depth analysis of the Irish legal system going on in Striking Out. Did you feel the need to do any research for the court proceedings and the legal aspects of the storylines?

Oh yeah, I think you have to do due diligence and have the world sound and feel right. You don’t want to straitjacket the drama either by being overly zealous and overly exact but there is a balance to be struck. I have a slight grounding through studying law for a few years but really it’s the feel of the law in practice that has to feel right and real.

It’s not a show ‘about solicitors for solicitors’ but you want to evoke a recognisable world where the setting is a convincing crucible for drama. That said, adhering to the reality of the law would inherently kill so much drama if we had to truly acknowledge or account for every naturally occurring delay or adjournment that would crop up. So it’s definitely a balance between creating a case that would resonate with our main character Tara and then finding the entry point that cuts to the quick of drama. As in most screenwriting lessons – that entry point was generally as late as possible so Tara could be proactive, positive and effective.

 

Would it be fair to say that scriptwriting on Striking Out is a rather different affair to your historical comedy drama Wrecking the Rising? How did you manage to shift from one style to the other?

I’m definitely of the mind that any writer should have an adaptable style. The material is king and dictates so much. If a writer has a style that is so pronounced and particular and rigid –  I doubt it would always serve differing subject matters properly.

In my book, I think the language and style of writing is sculpted to extract the most and evoke the most from any premise. A period horror script should read so differently from say – a cyber thriller. Even from the same writer. Obvious, I know. But one style does not fit all. Or suit all.

Wrecking the Rising probably contained a couple of different styles in that it had fictional modern men alongside real historical figures. I guess the most delicate balance there was to embrace the fun and whimsy of a time-travelling plot while also striving to be weirdly respectful, insightful and even poignant.

One of my ambitions setting out with Wrecking was not to have the historical characters converse in ‘patina-encrusted speech mode’. I loved how in JFK every minor character Jim Garrison interviews feels real and in the moment. And almost preoccupied in that moment by something personal. Hence, I had Connolly obsessing about his missing hat. Rather than fretting about masterplans or recounting all the events that lead to the occupation of the GPO. They all knew why they were there. Why on earth would they be reiterating it endlessly?

I’m delighted with Wrecking. And delighted it felt so different from Striking Out. And hopefully the next couple of planned dramas and features will feel very different too.

 

There’s some serious acting talent going on in Striking Out. When you were writing did you have any of the actors like Amy Huberman or Neil Morrissey in mind?

Well Neil was a bit of a bolt from the blue. Just in terms of a casting coup. The character of Vincent was created during the period of development that the show went through. He was always erudite and charming with a slight self destructive streak. Neil was inspired casting. He embodies Vincent so well. It looks effortless like all great acting.

It was the opposite situation with Amy because it’s a case of going from an actor I hadn’t thought of for Vincent to pretty much the only actor I suggested for Tara. And it was merely a suggestion. From a lowly writer with no power to swing these things. But back in the very early days when the producers asked who I saw in the role – I just thought instinctively Amy would be a great fit for Tara. On our lengthy journey to the screen, the show is never truly in casting mode until things get more concrete as it nears production. So there’s a lovely symmetry in Amy ending up in the role. And excelling in the role.

 

Were there any scenes or characters you particularly enjoyed writing?

I spent the most time on Episode 1. It’s an ultra dramatic start that kicks off the show and it has a propulsion that plunges Tara and the viewers into an engrossing chain of events. I always liked that Tara and Ray found each other and bonded on this most traumatic dramatic day. Seeing that connection blossom and the actors bringing it to life was very satisfying.

 

Did you spend any time in collaboration with Striking Out’s other writers, Rob Heyland and Mike O’Leary?

I hope I had lot of the groundwork in place by the time the boys came onboard. I had plans in place for the four episode arc but between us we divided it up and fleshed it out.

I guess I saw my job as show creator as equipping the other writers with compelling cases and a vivid cast of characters to play with. And through which they could explore and expand our world.

For example, when I came up with the bigamy case for Episode Three and the organ donor angle that underpinned it, I knew a writer as experienced as Rob would knock it out of the park, which he proceeded to do.

Overall, I’m most proud that of all the intellectual and storytelling rigour applied to Striking Out that the world and cast of characters I created really stood solid. You can tell that something is working when characters you conjured out of thin air are being instantly discussed as very rounded relatable characters. That occurred with so many characters from Tara’s mum to Eric’s father and everyone in between.

 

And finally, without giving too much away, the finale of Striking Out certainly left scope for a second season. Do you think Tara and the gang might return to our screens?

Striking Out was definitely designed to be a renewable and returnable series. I think there is plenty of mileage in the tank for it because I think an audience want to see more of Tara’s journey. It was my plan if we were lucky enough to get a second series that we see Tara returning to the dating scene and depict her enjoying her life again. Which she surely was before she discovered Eric’s cheating. An audience hasn’t seen that aspect of her yet.  I think Amy and the rest of the cast can grow even further into these roles and entertain the nation for a while yet.

 

Premieres March 17 at https://acorn.tv/strikigout.

 

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Irish Film Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

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DIR: Billy O’Brien • WRI: Billy O’Brien, Christopher Hyde • PRO: James Harris, Mark Lane, Nick Ryan • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Nick Emerson • DES: Jennifer Klide • MUS: Adrian Johnston • CAST: Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Max Records

 

Lurid title aside, here’s a film that needs to be taken seriously. Even if this surprisingly thoughtful horror contains a seam of spry and wry humour that insures that it doesn’t take itself too serious. And therein lays a vital distinction and a winning quality.

Beautifully timed as a release at the time of year that puts a chill in our bones, this film achieves the same ends serving up familiar genre tropes with a seam of personality and humanity that moves the film beyond simple or easy classification.

Presided over by the supremely assured touch of Irish director Billy O Brien, ‘IANASK’ is thoroughly a slice of Americana as John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) navigates the snow-caked roads of his small provincial town with a forensic detachment that is exemplified by his unsettling eagerness to assist at his mother’s funeral home.

Painfully aware of his own morbid fascinations, John has long since adopted a code of conduct to keep his macabre tendencies in check. However, when dead bodies start to crop up around town, the audience is kept on a knife’s edge when striving to interpret John’s passionate yet inscrutable desire to track down the killer. Is it admiration? Jealousy? Or is he seeking a mentor? It certainly doesn’t read as a typical hero’s crusade for justice but that’s exactly the atypical territory this film drops us into – shorn of the standard issue map of the hero’s journey that we are all so fatally over-familiar with.

Occasionally the film seems in danger of playing out as a riff on ‘Juno’ with just way more disembowelments. (An element that would only have only improved ‘Juno’ by the way.) Disaffected youths not being understood can stray into hipster whining in a heartbeat but the film clicks up several gears when John starts to focus on his elderly neighbour played by Christopher Lloyd, in a beautifully calibrated performance steeped in the weariness of a long life lived. Yet underpinned by a burning, enduring desire to keep living.

Which ties into the true horror at the heart of this film and it is merely this – the horror of ageing. The indignities it can contain as our bodies betray us. Our bones crumble. Our organs collapse. I struggle to think of a genre film that has so adroitly tapped into this rich theme. There’s a scene of Lloyd in the snow backlit by headlights that throbs with both rage and humanity as he lurches around in a manic bid to survive. The sequence literally bristles with a palpable primal urgency – it’s the howl of a dark soul facing its’ mortality. And it is bloody powerful.

Frankly, this is not the type of film that ends up on the Academy’s radar but it should, with Lloyd worthy of recognition to crown not only a widely divergent and impressive career but also this specific performance. A win for this role would not be some sop or the equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement award – he would deserve it for how honest, raw, tender and fiery his portrayal here is.

And so to the Irish talent at the heart of the film. Frankly, such is his virtuosity,  Robbie Ryan’s cinematography would only be newsworthy at this stage if it inexplicably turned shit overnight. Which may sound like the most Irish compliment of all time so let’s be clear – his blistering icy and inky visuals are central to the thematic success of the film. Hankering back to a ’70s aesthetic while capturing a rare sense of naturalism elevates everything here. Giving it gravity and making the film seem vintage and timeless simultaneously.

The film represents a career high-point for Billy O Brien too, with the film’s director also sharing writing duties. And on this front, the film is no less accomplished, managing to intermittently defuse mounting tension with some bitterly funny lines and moments.

It’s not flawless. Some of the surveillance central to the plot stretches credulity. The ending probably over-explains when there may have been more potency in just cutting away with some mystery intact. There also appears to be a lull in the middle of the film as John appears to freeze into Hamlet-style procrastinating after he learns the killer’s identity. Still, considering what he’s up against, John probably has more genuine reason for delaying than the Dane.

If the festive cheer is leaving you cold or the incessant barrage of cosy commercials doesn’t chime with your world view right now, this film can serve as the perfect antidote. It’s original, oppressive and impressive. What an unexpected and enjoyably unpleasant surprise this film is.

   James Phelan

104 minutes

16 (See IFCO for details)

I Am Not a Serial Killer is released 9th December 2016

I Am Not a Serial Killer  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview: James Phelan, writer of ‘Wrecking the Rising’

sean_purcell_(peter_coonan),_ernest_timmons_(owen_mcdonnell)_and_tom_morgan_(sean_t_o_meallaigh)_selfie

 

Brian Ó Tiomáin interviews fellow Film Ireland journalist James Phelan about the scripts of his show Wrecking the Rising – a comedy drama about time travel and 1916 that broadcasts for three nights in a row starting this Saturday 23rd April. 

 

Can you tell us where the idea for Wrecking the Rising came from?

Well, will I start with an exclusive? (laughs) I’ll try to be terse but this is actually me coming clean. A few years back there was an open call for 1916 ideas to pitch in public with some prize money attached. I had this notion of battle re-enactors travelling back to the exact battle they knew by heart. And the first iteration of this was World War 2 in my basic note. But the second 1916 connected with this idea, I felt I had something. I applied for the pitch but didn’t make the shortlist. Then I passed the concept by TG4 and drama commissioner Micheal O Meallaigh. Again it would be glossing over fact to say he went for it first time. But a few months after I thought this idea was going nowhere Micheal got back in touch and said that the central idea of Wrecking had been gnawing its way into his subconscious. And that we had to do it and we did. But getting a show off the ground is never a straight line and everything gets knockbacks and setbacks – but I was chuffed the idea for this show won out.

 

After you started writing the script, did the concept evolve further over time?

The basic concept of three guys travelling back in time to the Rising where they immediately put the cat among by pigeons by accidentally killing one of the leaders on Easter Monday morning stayed intact throughout. Around the fringes there was plenty of change, and ‘evolve’ is a good word. The main change I can think of is initially the three friends all used to work in the same school but now we have a variety of occupations and they come together for re-enacting. Which was so useful. For instance, Peter Coonan’s character Sean being a site archaeologist freed us up for him to be the guy to find the time travel relic organically enough… I know – ‘time travel’ and ‘organic’ in the same sentence. I didn’t kill myself on the time travel science but we wanted it purely as a device. What works for Woody Allen is good enough for us!

 

Genre wise, what is Wrecking the Rising?

It’s a hybrid for sure of lots of genres but unified by a pretty clean concept. This project was a dream to pitch because it was ‘time travellers wreck the Rising before it even begins’. If I had to describe it as a dark comedy historical adventure drama with elements of science fiction, it would have bogged the whole thing down. Having seen it, I’m so pleased that the last episode has such a powerful emotional climax. Even if people think we’re just goofing around inside history, I think we will surprise people by making them think about both the past and present in a fresh light.

 

There’s been a huge amount of 1916 programmes already this year, are you afraid of viewer fatigue?

Of course. I’m afraid of everything. Afraid we’ll be lost in the flood. Afraid that we won’t get a chance to connect but we hope people give us a chance because we really are something radically different in relation to 1916. It’s not just marketing rhetoric but we are genuinely the antidote to all the solemn stuff. We rip through history and though we are not ripping the piss, we provide something original, outrageous, extreme but also extremely funny and thought-provoking. There’s been a lot of classical treatments of 1916 knocking around – this is more punk rock.

 

Speaking of… do you listen to specific music when you write?

Hah. I used to think that was such bollocks but now I understand why David Koepp says he wrote Panic Room to an exclusive score of heavy metal. I actually did a soundtrack for the writing of this and no,  it wasn’t diddely aye era-specific folk music. It was Springsteen’s album ‘Wrecking Ball’. The title is kind of just a coincidence but the music on that vastly underrated album has a real aggressive protest song vibe to it. While also being pretty redolent of Irish/Scottish airs. And it really fed into the script. So much so that Peter’s character within is it a big Springsteen fan who actually infuses the music into the show at pivotal and totally anachronistic times. Fair play to Tile Films and the director Ruan Magan for following through on it. We have Peter pay tribute to one song in a recurring manner that is both really funny and really moving.

 

Can you remember how you first became interested in writing and at what stage after that you thought about writing for the screen?

Well, English being my sole good subject in school guided me a bit. In fact I lie. History was decent for me too but probably because it was an English-language subject. In my secondary education in Abbeyside Dungarvan, I got great encouragement from two English teachers and when you spend your time writing essays for other people in class, it’s probably a precursor to feeding actors lines. I always liked the secret pride in that.

And before you ask – no, I wasn’t good at Irish either. I’m still not. So again, credit to TG4 to being open enough to accept ideas and scripts from everyone and everywhere. When I first sent in my ideas for Rasai na Gaillimhe /Galway Races I thought I’d probably be disqualified by having these ideas in English. Gallingly, my mother is from the smallest Gaeltacht of Ring outside Dungarvan and my Irish teacher knew she was fluent but I remain stubbornly resistant to taking any additional languages onboard.

 

Who were your major influences in film and writing?

Anytime I answer this I feel I should be all obscure and arty but the truth is I believe that film and TV are primarily entertainment. It’s occasionally elevated to art if the practitioners excel  but I love mainstream writers who please an audience while still being true to themselves. The last decade of TV has thrown up people I admire and adore on occasion. From Josh Whedon to Aaron Sorkin to Tina Fey. In film I feel like such a bore saying the Coens,  but it’s true. The variety and consistency of their work is astonishing. That said, as my recent review of Hail Caesar attests – they can still have the odd off day. And I’d have to qualify my love for Quentin by limiting it to early Tarantino. I quite like the films Diablo Cody is putting together but putting together a really satisfying body of film writing seems to getting harder and harder.

 

Are you drawn to particular genres or subject matter?

Judged on my TG4 work it would seem I have a thing for setting things over one week. That said we did Rasai Na Gaillimhe twice so it was bound to be race week twice. But also ‘Wrecking’ being set on Easter week. Other recurring things thus far – I seem to have a dark comedy obsession with moving dead bodies around. Weekend at Bernie’s must have had a bigger effect than I imagined on me. I will defend myself by saying I think it’s an inherently dramatic and often comedic situation. If you factor in my short films, I think there’s a tendency to lose body parts too. Oh, and I inject comedy into everything. The darkest material is made palpable by humour and even on their worst days, I like my characters to summon humour to cope or improve a situation or just be defiant. It’s a trait in Wrecking... for sure, where even in the deepest peril, the characters find the funny.

 

Any interest in features?

Plenty of interest. I just need to get producers interested in my feature scripts. I started out by writing features to learn the trade. And it worked to some extent. I see a steady improvement and I have a little reservoir of viable features sitting there. They will always need another draft but I favour writing actual scripts over purely having short documents to represent a project. I hate short docs as much as any writer out there and I think they lie and over-promise anyway. I have a script that I’d love to do as my debut feature. And increasingly I’m looking to animation too. I’ve got TV animation credits under my belt with Oddbods which is apparently doing very well audience-wise on Boomerang channel.

 

Wrecking the Rising screens over three consecutive nights on TG4 at 9.30pm starting on Saturday, 23rd April.

 

 

 

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Review: Hail Caeser

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DIR/WRI: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen • PRO: Tim Bevan, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Eric Fellner • DOP: Roger Deakins • ED: Dylan Tichenor • DES: Jess Gonchor • MUS: Carter Burwell • CAST: Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton

To utilise a recurring phrase from Hail Caesar the Coens Brothers always make prestige pictures. Though increasingly their individual filmic output seems to be instantly and strictly branded by critics as either serious fare or lighter fluff. Based on their own terse thoughts in interviews, it’s hardly a distinction the brothers make themselves. And yet here we are again, ostensibly and somehow undeniably at the lighter end of the sliding scale of seriousness.

Cards on table, I am avid fan battling to hold onto impartiality and discernment. Still, I can’t fight the feeling that the serious pictures are being a tad over-praised these days and the lighter pictures unnecessarily lambasted. Early word and trailers for Hail Caesar! were highly promising. The studio setting. The welcome presence of Josh Brolin in a lead role. Clooney looking to poke fun at acting hubris. What’s not to love? And since when have the Coens not wrangled tension, humour and even emotion out of a kidnap plot?

The elements are all present and correct. And yet something at the heart of the film fails to fire, leaving the entertainment soufflé stubbornly refusing to rise. Certainly, there are moments of quality and levity that hit the mark but they are scattered throughout the film like an bony archipelago where a spine should be. Hail Caesar! is brightly shot and endearingly performed by a terrific ensemble cast but crucially and fatally, it’s never exactly fun or funny.

It’s a danger for any reviewer to start reviewing the film Hail Caesar! with what could or should have been but I contend that the promotional materials promised one film while delivering another. Not an uncommon occurrence but insightful since the most effective trailers for this film pitched it as a thriller. And surely that was the connective tissue to ease an audience through this maze of murky plot and uneven tone. The central character Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a Hollywood studio fixer and initially seems to be occupying a recognisably hard-boiled world. Everyone else is literally acting in a different movie – which may be a very meta-joke as Eddie flitters from film set to film set trying to quell problems – but it’s still an unsolved flaw at the heart of Hail Caesar! Summed up by the kidnapping of one of the studio’s biggest stars Baird Whitlock (Clooney) being drained of any tension by the audience being privy to both sides of the abduction from the get-go.

Again, the Coens are proved masters of making even this scenario sing but here it’s off-key. Thrillers need tension and so occasionally do comedies. Moments of potential interest like studio extras being braced for information are referenced in passing but not depicted – who doesn’t want to see that scene? And yet the Coens are clearly more enthralled with evoking this era on soundstages onto which Mannix walks to impotently watch entire musical numbers of impressive scale but scant narrative interest. In The Big Lebowski, the Dude’s drug fevered dreams still advanced the story and deepened character. As impressive as Channing Tatum’s dance sequence is, beyond the nimble hoofing, it has nothing going on under the hood.

Even by Saturday night multiplex standards, the whole thing starts to feel frightfully slight. Amiable performances alone aren’t enough. Ralph Fiennes returns to mining his recently discovered comedy chops and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich has fun as a drawling cowpoke pushed into a period drama but it’s all a little dramatically inert. Even the solace of great dialogue is mainly absent but of course, there is the occasional golden line.

Overall, one has to be careful and acknowledge historical precedent. The Coens’ body of work contains several films that have grown in affection and stature as the years pass. Personally, Burn After Reading and Intolerable Cruelty have risen off the floor and proved to have an afterlife. I fervently hope Hail Caesar! grows in prestige as the years go by. Hell, that would be swell.

James Phelan

12A (See IFCO for details)
105 minutes

Hail Caesar! is released 4th March 2016

Hail Caesar!  – Official Website

 

 

 

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Another Look at ‘Room’

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James Phelan takes another look inside Lenny Abrahamson’s Room.

 

Who faces the biggest challenge in Room? The audience or Lenny Abrahamson and his creative team? The prospect of depicting such an intrinsically horrifying situation and making it palpable to any audience was a massive ask of all concerned. The covert imprisonment of a mother and child in a cramped suburban shed seems like the uneasy intersection of much too real real-life horrors and the tasteless end of exploitation cinema.

Thankfully, through a combination of inspired casting, sensitive direction and masterful writing, the end result is a powerful testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Without crucially ever being an endurance test for the audience.

In fairness, when faced with the constraints of depicting life within a small unadorned space, every department nearly to be firing to maintain both the overall conceit and viewer interest. And this supreme collective effort is expertly marshalled by the singular vision of Lenny. He is studiously unshowy within the creative restriction the ‘Room’ imposes but his steadiness and confidence seeps into the texture of the film. The bravery to hold a shot. To eschew swift edits and any sense of sensationalism.  Here is a film that breathes and where we care about every breath the two principals take. There is no Fincher-esque drifting through air ducts or following cables through walls. This world is a solid, relentless island of isolation. Yet there are deep reservoirs of defiance, heart and even humour on this island too.

Room never shies away from being claustrophobic but neither does it shy away from warmth and humanity. The palpable love and resilience emanating from within Brie Larson’s character (initially known as Ma) is a wondrous beacon for the audience and for her child Jack. Brie’s performance is a beautifully calibrated feat. We glimpse her fragility. Her profound uncertainty. Her underlying growing dread. We literally see her swallow or swat away momentarily flickers of fear to protect her child from even their startlingly obvious and overwhelming proximity to real evil. The scope, complexity and nuance of this role is an acting Everest that Larson scales with both incredible effort and incredible ease.

Clearly guided by the overall warmth of Emma Donoghue’s initial prose and her own skilful adaptation of her novel, Room is actually at its best in the period of confinement. In less capable hands, Jack’s rituals of addressing inanimate objects might have been too cutesy but we witness all these routines as vital structures for survival. Ma’s imaginative use of the space for exercise, education and entertainment is that of a mother determined to fight stagnation and apathy at any cost. Her impassioned promises to Jack of a world outside the room are imbued with increased rising urgency as an escape plan is hatched to fool their captor known only as Old Nick.

I better flag some major spoilers from here on. I was shamefully unfamiliar with the novel and so didn’t know if the escape gamble would be successful. It certainly fed the tension of a sequence that is both uplifting and nerve shredding. However implausible the plan, it literally unfurls in a manner that will have audiences having heart palpitations. Jack’s first foray into the wider world is so unbearably fraught while still laced with a wondrous sense of liberation. Small details within this sequence are casually haunting. Personally, I found the lack of fight in Old Nick’s character when challenged to be both truthful and chilling. His willingness to walk away revealed so much in even his cowardly retreat.

Which brings us to the second half of the film where we witness Ma reclaiming her original name Joy while struggling to explain this new overwhelming reality to Jack. The initial sense of wonderment in the outside world is again filled with sublime specific moments. The depiction of the media interest in their plight seems a logical organic progression of the story but it moved the film into familiar ground. To be honest, this part of the film couldn’t help but naturally lack the focus of the first half. And oddly, I wasn’t the only one missing the ‘Room’. The script and film dares to circle round to the almost unimaginable truth that humans sometimes crave for a life they know above the unfamiliar and alien.

It’s also in the latter half that the casting became slightly problematic for me. Hands down, Joan Allen and William H Macy are superb actors and I’m always pleased to see them show up in anything. Apart from here. It’s weird but they feel too starry for the film. The second you see Joan Allen walk down a hospital corridor, the connotations of Bourne can’t help but kick in. It was no surprise to hear Lenny speak of Allen as one of his favourite actors and he has every right to work with her. Yet in a film where not recognising the cast was so pivotal to creating an imposing compelling reality, the spell was broken for me.

That idiosyncratic gripe aside, Room is a powerful raw rumination on the nature of family. It’s naturally not flawless but it is honest, unflinchingly and hopeful. I’d advise that you make some room in your life for Room .

And frankly, I found it funnier than Frank.

 

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Tips: 5 Tips for Novice Screenwriters

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Writer James Phelan sets out his top tips for those new to screenwriting.

1 – FINISH YOUR SCRIPT

Sounds obvious but until you do, it’s all theory and hot air. Chances are when you pitch or visualise the project you envisage a couple of scenes or sequences that really rock. And those are the ones you talk about. And that’s only natural. There’s a reason that no one ever hushes an entire room at a pitching event or in a bar at a film festival and starts with ‘I have a couple of really terrible scenes that are rife with clumsy exposition, trite dialogue and really contrived beats.’

Be proud of your great scenes but even if they do turn out great, those won’t be the scenes that need work. It’ll be every other connective or establishing scene into which you need to layer or bury exposition and characterisation while simultaneously infusing the entire thing with entertainment value. Until the script exists, our illusions and dreams inspire us and protect us. Finishing a script is reality setting in. And usually it ain’t just setting in, it’s moving in.

And in terms of finishing, I’m referring exclusively to actual screenplays. The industry may be obsessed with treatments and short docs but that doesn’t mean writers should be. You may write the best treatments in the world but until you write the screenplay, it’s all just a promise to be awesome. Being awesome in script form is way more important. And impressive.

 

2 – NOW THAT YOU’VE FINISHED START AGAIN.

Nope. Not on a different project. The same one. Sure – get away from it for a while. Put it in a desk for a few weeks but unless you’re insanely talented or insanely lucky, you’re going to need to wrestle your script into its optimum shape.

Novice writers simply start to polish, tighten, augment and edit the first draft and assume that’s a second draft. It’s not. Re-drafts often need to be radical. All the prep documents aren’t the only place where fundamental questions should be asked about a project. Now that the skeleton of the story has been fleshed out, what are we looking at? Frankenstein or Einstein?

If the actuality isn’t lining up with the intention, then here come those fundamental questions again. Have we followed the right character? Have we started the story in the right place? How much do we need to shed or add to get the best out of this?

Some writers seek comfort in hitting a page count. However, just because you have 110 pages doesn’t mean you have a viable script. You just filled 110 pages. You have to police yourself on whether you’re padding out your story. It doesn’t mean the story is a dead loss. There are shorter forms for every kind of story. And any time spent writing is never wasted time. It is a process of discovery though.

 

3 – HAVE MORE THAN ONE PROJECT ON THE GO

Having a range of projects is crucial. Having writing samples that span many genres is better again. Generating your own back catalogue is easier said than done but if you’re a writer – you should be interested in exploring and developing your own range and ability.

Some aspiring beginners seem to adopt a stance of ‘I’ll write when someone pays me to’. Which, while honourable in it’s own way, seems a little daft to me. Yes, it’s great to draw a wage from writing but if you have no credits, how can you prove to someone else that you can write if you haven’t proved it to yourself. In a business where years and decades fly by, your principled stand-off with an oblivious industry may ultimately become life-long.

Write firstly for your own enjoyment and education. You can always monetise a project later. A couple of projects I’ve written were kick-started into paid development because convincing and viable scripts already existed.

 

4 – DON’T BE A SNOB

We all want to make movies. Let’s take that as a given. But in a small country with limited opportunities to get paid to write, cast your net wide and keep your options open.

I presume that no film purists starting their careers within this country can afford to be snooty anymore about tainting themselves with TV work if offered. You’d be nuts to ignore this outlet where you may be better paid and you will actually reach an audience. Bar our biggest films, the audience for some of our domestic film releases are pitiful. If you want to get your work out there, no one still does it better than TV.

Similarly, radio drama is undergoing a bit of a BAI-backed boom in this country. It’s a highly inventive, accessible and relatively inexpensive way of telling stories. While theatre retains a real allure for writers who get to maintain authorship throughout in a manner that no other form can match.

 

5 – MAKE SOMETHING

Again while I advocate building a back catalogue, there’s little point going to all that effort of generating all that material unless, once in a while, one of the damned things gets made. It’s bizarrely easy to forget.

As writers, we can retreat into our caves and start churning stuff out but when you become capable of constructing actual physical forts with printed scripts, it might be time to make one.

If you don’t want to be a director – that’s fine. Plenty of others do. Just throw a rock. Test your ideas and scripts by filtering them through someone else’s vision. No one’s work gets to screen unfettered. Start getting familiar with the heart-breaking compromises. Learn how to protect what’s important and integral. Learn how to lose some battles. Learn which hill you want to die on. Hang on tightly. Let go lightly. Someone said that in a movie once.

 

James Phelan is an IFTA and Zebbie nominated scriptwriter whose first TV series, Rásaí na Gaillimhe/Galway Races, remains TG4’s most viewed drama. As well as a sequel season of that hit show, James has written several short films produced under Filmbase, Galway Film Centre and Irish Film Board schemes.

His current projects include the four-part drama series Cheaters, in advanced development with Blinder Films and RTE, as well as scripting duties on upcoming international animation shows Oddbods and Cuby Zoo.

His next project into production is Wrecking the Rising for TG4 and Tile Films. The historical mini-series is currently shooting and is an imaginative alternate take on the events of 1916 as three modern-day re-enactors and self-proclaimed Rising experts time travel by accident to Easter week and alter history at every turn. Soon they are battling for not only their own futures but the entire country’s future too. The show’s title in Irish is Éirí Amach Amú.

 

WTR PUBLICITY STILL 1 (Peter Coonan, Owen McDonnell & Sea¦ün T. O'Meallaigh at the GPO in Wrecking the Rising)

Peter Coonan, Owen McDonnell & Seán T. Ó Meallaigh at the GPO in Wrecking the Rising

 

 

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Review: Amy

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DIR: Asif Kapadia • PRO: James Gay-Rees • ED: Chris King • MUS: Antonio Pinto • Cast: Amy Winehouse

The first seismic shift in my understanding of music occurred when I realised that most musicians don’t sit around writing lyrics as a kicking off point for a song. Until that early point in my life, I naively believed that words came first. They took precedent. Priority. The realisation that lyrics are often an utter afterthought to fit a tune floored me and not in a good way.

Even lyrical geniuses like Paul Simon are often warping language to sit inside a song construct. Yet lyrics are still important to me. They were important to Amy Winehouse. And thankfully they are important to director Asif Kapadia (Senna) too.

Within this film, Amy states that she couldn’t sing a lyric that wasn’t personal to her. That she hadn’t lived. And Kapadia wisely puts her words central to the entire documentary. They are literally painted on screen. To a huge extent, it’s as personal and deep as one could get with Amy Winehouse. Since she was an elusive, enigmatic, contradictory and mischievous interviewee judging by the multiplicity of material presented here in a colourful insightful mosaic where we still struggle to see the overall picture with any certainty.

Like Senna, Kapadia totally eschews talking heads in this documentary. Instead it was cobbled together with a multitude of footage ranging from official media interviews to paparazzi snaps to personal videos from friends and family. Cobbled is not to suggest an absence of skill rather it a skill in itself. Kapadia admits that it took a lot of negotiation with Amy’s loved ones to gain access to this footage. A process seemingly worthy of a film in its’ own right.

The narrative structure Kapadia selects to follow is pretty much linear tracing Amy’s rise from a raw singer with an artistically interesting first album through to the genuinely overwhelming response to ‘Back To Black’ that in retrospective seemed akin to a tsunami engulfing a fragile soul who simply saw herself as a soul singer. An artist happier at niche jazz festivals or smoky clubs rather than playing stadiums. Amy’s unease at where her career careered off to is tangible from the second her personal rollercoaster crested the summit of fame.

Since its ecstatic reception at Cannes, a huge amount of focus on this film has zeroed in on Amy’s turbulent relationship with her former husband Blake Fielder-Civil. What is certainly true is that this film is infused with both sadness and anger that Amy spiralled downwards and that no one could save her. Least of all herself it seemed. The deep poignancy of the film is often so simply earned. Tender scenes with her hero Tony Bennett sit side by side with a shocking low-key admission to a friend that rams home the insidious lure of addiction.

And under all of this remains a central and still unanswered mystery. Where exactly did this voice and talent come from? For all her father’s apparent ambition and showbiz leanings, nothing in her lineage really explains it fully. She seemed like a voice from a different age and of a different age. Her existence proved the truth in the cliché of ‘an old soul in a young body’ but there remains the sense that even under the scrutiny of Kapadia’s piercing gaze, the real ‘Amy’ remains unexplained and untouched.

James Phelan

 

15A (See IFCO for details)
127 minutes

Amy is released 26rd July 2015

Amy – Official Website

 

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Altman

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DIR: Ron Mann • WRI: Len Blum • PRO: Ron Mann • DOP: Simon Ennis • ED: Robert Kennedy • CAST: Julianne Moore, Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, James Caan

Let me be upfront about the fact that on a scale of Altman worship, I’m closer to agnostic than true believer. What is undeniably true is that the inventive director enjoyed hugely creative purple patches across several decades and his highs represent real pinnacles in filmmaking. A pioneer in both technical and artistic terms, Altman radicalised both television and film with his approach to dialogue, acting and sound. His impact on the cinematic landscape is undeniable.

Yet when contextualising any career, shouldn’t we look at it in its totality? What weight do we give then to the misfires, disappointments and outright calamities? Apparently none – judging by this bright, brisk doc on Altman’s sprawling career that is never less than interesting. Yet never more than superficial.

Not speaking ill of the dead has morphed here into not being critical of the dead. The metaphor of a film being as decorative, illusory and temporary as a sandcastle bookend the film and director Ron Mann engineers his own film as if to give credence to this credo. This project even bucks my almost automatic admiration for any filmmaker displaying the discipline and rigour to cut their piece to the running time sweet-spot of ninety minutes or so. For once, I wanted more. And I doubt I’ll be alone in that desire.

As Mann races through Altman’s back catalogue, the initial pleasure of pace and momentum is eroded as the conscious exclusion of genuine substance and dissenting voices becomes apparent. Only slivers of discord remain. The Altman family are depicted as a wholesome harmonious bunch but tantalising glimpses of a story untold or ignored emerge from one son’s admission that he mainly worked on Altman’s set as a way of seeing his father. Curiously, the one fit of pique from on-set footage has Altman stalking around the Sally Gap during the shooting of Images in this country in 1972.

Meanwhile, more weight is given to some very famous Hollywood heads cooing their admiration for Altman but as a leading American critic pointed out, where are the regular recurring members of Altman’s ensemble of character actors. Even the editorial decisions within this imposed framework are curious. To the best of my knowledge, Altman only worked with Bruce Willis fleetingly whereas, despite appearing in some of his earliest work, Robert Duvall seems pointedly absent.

The documentary is at its best focusing on Altman’s early years in TV and industrial films. The groundwork and experience of this era apparently inspired an artistic fire to stretch beyond the suffocating restrictions of TV. Yet his first forays into film met instant resistance and interference from studio heads. And so it was to be for the vast majority of his career. According to Altman himself, the majority of his creative quantum leaps were taken when Hollywood studio bosses were out of town or looking the other way. There are quotes galore throughout and no opportunity is missed to paint Altman as a colourful maverick.

Surprisingly the sole critical voice within the piece is Altman himself. In public interviews, he is affable and charmingly self-deprecating about his output. The advances Altman encouraged in sound are rightly acknowledged as is his less known return to television where his series Tanner ‘88 was a incipient model for establishing the entire genre of ‘mock-doc’. Regarded by Altman as his best work, this early HBO show pitched a fictional presidential candidate into the heat of a very real electoral campaign. The fake candidate played by Michael Murphy was taken seriously and folded into the media circus of factual talk shows, town hall debates and tour buses with shocking ease.

Altman was also a precursor to how Woody Allen would enliven and elongate his career by adopting a European dimension. Licking his wounds from a woefully misconceived take on Popeye, Altman retreated to Paris and, trading on a reservoir of goodwill and his critical standing, he continued to make films that ranged from low-budget experiments to trifling Euro puddings that uniformly found little commercial or critical traction.

Thankfully, there literally was a Hollywood ending for Robert Altman. Invigorated by taking a caustic swipe at the studio machine with The Player, Altman enjoyed a golden years’ renaissance with Short Cuts and Gosford Park providing final reel highlights.

There are the bones of a great documentary here but just the bones. Leaving one asking – where’s the meat? The marrow? The gristle? Altman’s career is worthy of more than a skimming pass. What remains here would suffice as a pure celebration piece at a gala in his honour but Altman was never about fluff or sparkly distraction.

All told, Altman made nearly forty films in his career. I’m not saying for a second that there aren’t little gems littered around those critical peaks that connected with the zeitgeist. However, it strikes me that for all his raging against the Hollywood system, the output of Studio Altman had as many hits and misses as any studio slate.

James Phelan



68 minutes

Altman is released 3rd April March 2015

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPPSo6uagAs

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Big Hero 6

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DIR/WRI: Don Hall, Chris Williams • PRO: Roy Conli, John Lasseter, Kristina Reed • DOP: Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird • ED: Tim Mertens • MUS: Henry Jackman • DES: Paul A. Felix • CAST: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Jamie Chung, T.J. Miller

You have to hand it to Disney. They aren’t exactly going for volume in terms of film output these days. So every release must be very considered and come through an intense rigorous creative process. So rigorous you’d imagined that one might worry for the creativity part of the equation.

And yet the resultant recent films still contain admirable levels of verve, imagination and even individuality. Next up is this sassy animation that leans towards pleasing a more teenage demographic while still being sweet and accessible enough for the pre-teens.

Set in the future fusion cyber-city of San Fransokyo, it follows a rebellious computer whizz-kid Hiro who has his world rocked by a seismic shock that decimates his family. Feeling alone and unprotected, he is surprised to discover he has accidentally inherited a sweet-minded inflatable minder. The air-headed (and air-bodied) Baymax is a gentle giant, designed to protect and provide medical assistance.

His innocent protocol isn’t much immediate help to the streetwise Hiro but when an unfolding mystery about the boy’s missing invention deepens, Baymax is just the robot to have on his side. Around this duo a gang of talented friends dedicate their complimentary abilities to the cause of truth and justice. Although moving their skills from the lab to the real world isn’t an exact science.

This band of high-tech heroes are occasionally their own worst enemies but their definite very real enemy is a spooky menacing presence, Yokai, who commands a mutating legion of micro-robots at his fingertips. As villains and visuals go, the genuinely sinister air around Yokai will have kids and even adults watching through their fingertips.

However, balancing that out is Baymax who is a delightful creation from first appearance to last. The animators aren’t in any rush with him which is so refreshing. His surprise inflations and deflations are priceless as are his elongated awkward negotiating of simple obstacles. The bravery to hold the shot and play out the physical humour reaps huge dividends. As does Baymax’s idiosyncratic response to a fist bump.

Due to my considerable ignorance of the source material, the title of the film only made sense during the final frames. Apparently I’m as inept at maths as I am at science. If they can keep the standard this high, expect ‘Big Hero 6 – Six’ at some distant point in the future.

James Phelan

PG (See IFCO for details)
107 minutes
Big Hero 6 
is released 29th January 2015

Big Hero 6 – Official Website

 

 

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Dumb and Dumber To

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DIR: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly • WRI: Sean Anders, John Morris • PRO: Riza Aziz, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, Joey McFarland, Bradley Thomas • DOP: Matthew F. Leonetti • ED: Steven Rasch • DES: Aaron Osborne • MUS: Empire of the Sun • CAST: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Rob Riggle, Laurie Holden

Is making a great comedy film by design, alchemy or accident? It sure would help if a great script was written but in an era where American comedians are frequently entrusted with finding the funny on the day through the variable returns of improv, the recipe for success seems loose and elusive. Resulting in some sporadically funny films in recent times but precious few ‘start to finish’ classics.

Back at their zeitgeist-setting zenith, the Farrelly Brothers believed in applying as many funny bones and brains to the process as possible. Table readings with writers, performers and finally the cast refined crude material into sparkling scatological humour that even high-brow critics celebrated for a brief shining moment. The process worked brilliantly for a while. However, it seems keeping your finger on the comedic pulse across decades is extremely difficult.

Let’s be clear – moments of this sequel rival and even trump the daft ingenuity of the first film. Yet the moments are lonely and sit alone and adrift amid long stretches that just don’t click. Sustaining lunacy is a miracle that the original film succeeded in making look easy. Re-lighting that fire in this case takes a lot of effort. Occasionally this sequel catches fires but in other places the attempted jokes act as fire extinguishers. And a flabby edit allows the audience way too much thinking time and sadly, silence for dud jokes to echo around in.

No fault for effort could ever be laid at the door of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. They truly reprise these characters in a manner that makes you think they might have been getting together in the intervening twenty years to dust off Lloyd and Harry at regular intervals. The film opens promisingly with a witty explanation of Lloyd’s dedication to a bit. The next twenty minutes are where the film meanders desperately in search of a plot. The convoluted premise of ‘Harry needing a kidney from a daughter he doesn’t know he has’ is perfectly fine as a framework but it literally takes forever to get on the road. Which is a shame because once the road trip starts, the comedy gears shift into overdrive.

Out on the highways, the comedy comes alive. Getting these guys locked in a car is apparently the key to the entire endeavour. Their games of one-upmanship with Rob Riggle capture that requisite but evasive mood that we fell for the first time. Sadly, a closing section at a computer conference drifts off that sweet spot again. Still, there’s some gold in the mud. One of the funniest things about the sequel is that they pay huge homage to their direct predecessor to the point that they build plot points off minor characters and mere asides in the original. I watch Dumb & Dumber semi-religiously and they were losing me at times.

In all of the kerfuffle, the film that isn’t getting mentioned at all is the black sheep of the ‘trilogy’. Remember When Harry Met Lloyd. NO? No one does but it’s the prequel that nearly neatly bisects the twenty years and though there’s precious little overlap in the Venn diagram of creative talent between that film and this, it was an ominous early warning about the dangers of returning to this ‘lighting in a bottle’.

It’s also odd to me that the film isn’t enlivened by cameos or star turns of any kind. Not that I want the whole project to be overwhelmed but the opposite effect is achieved by the absence of anyone to remotely rival Carrey and Daniels.

Is Dumb and Dumber To worth your two cents? I’m not certain it’s a ‘hire a babysitter/pay for parking/buy popcorn in the cinema’ kind of cinema trip. More a ‘take an afternoon off/sneak into a matinee/smuggle supermarket popcorn’ kind of trip. You might get your money’s worth with the latter method.

Shame. A sharper edit and sharper script could have put an impossible feat within reach.

 

James Phelan

15A (See IFCO for details)
109 minutes.
Dumb and Dumber To
is released 19th December.

Dumb and Dumber To – Official Website

 

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Penguins of Madagascar

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DIR: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith • WRI: John Aboud, Michael Colton, Brandon Sawyer • PRO. Lara Breay, Mark Swift  • ED: Nick Kenway • MUS: Lorne Balfe   • CAST: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights

Supporting characters often steal films. How often have you wished that you could shunt aside the dullards at the centre of a film and follow some fringe character who rocked up late doors, delivered some dynamite dialogue, made an insipid film sing for a second and exited like a fizzing firework?

It even happens in animation. Now a seasoned veteran of the animation game, I think it’s fair to say that the central quartet of the Madagascar films placated the young ones but any sensible adult was rooting for the manic and inexplicably militarised penguins to show up and blow up some stuff.

Thankfully, studios pay attention to this kind of thing nowadays. Probably in actuality to a degree that would scare me to my naive core but still, we should be grateful to whatever super computer or feedback forum launched ‘Penguins’ at us. Beginning with an inspired bit of mischief involving omnipresent arctic documentary crews, a marooned ship and some nasty seals, the film is a feast for the eyes and could easily cause bellyache in the laughter stakes.

Detouring to Fort Knox for reasons too daft to disseminate any further, the flightless and often witless birds embark on a global tour orchestrated by an unknown enemy known only as Dave. Their romp through Venice pursued by some ominously designed octopi is a real highlight. As is an extended joke about them mistaking a distinctively Asian city for Dublin.

The villain of the piece is voiced by John Malkovich. He’s no stranger to a sound booth but here’s the rub – the directors and writers eke a wonderful vocal performance out of him. It could so easily have been phoned in but it’s clearly treated with a degree of emotive import that elevates everything around it. I warmed less to a super slick bunch of animal spies known as the ‘North Wind’. They play their part but never capture the imagination or the heart the way the penguins do.

How good is this film? Let’s just put it this way – a cracking set piece that represented the film in an earlier trailer – the inflation of a bouncy castle while falling out of a plane – is now a mere footnote.

Now, how does one avoid a ‘p-p-p-pick up a penguin’ reference in a final paragraph? Oh, think I got something. Rather than getting your kid a Penguin book, book Penguins down the
multip-p-p-lex.

Drat. Didn’t quite work, did it? Ah well, there’s no way the Film Ireland editor will leave that in. We’d both look like idiots and neither of us wants that. Let’s just p-p-p-pray he’s p-p-p-paying attention…

 

James Phelan

G (See IFCO for details)
91 minutes.
Penguins of Madagascar
is released 5th December.

Penguins of Madagascar – Official Website

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Gone Girl

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DIR: David Fincher   WRI: by Gillian Flynn  PRO: Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, Cean Chaffin, Joshua Donen  CAST: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry,Patrick Fugit

The sense that David Fincher has a lot of ground to cover is clear from the outset as the zippy credits blink by. Somewhat lost within their muted brevity is the fact that the bestselling source novel by Gillian Flynn was optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.

Odd then that the lead role of missing wife Amy Dunne was entrusted to Rosamund Pike rather than its superstar producer. On paper, it’s well within Witherspoon’s wheelhouse.  Amy is an all-American sweetheart who deliberately conceals a vat of contradictory behaviour and emotion beneath a placid veneer. As written, Amy is an enigmatic, inscrutable, seemingly fragile figure. It’s a stand-out part and frankly, Pike has been given the role of a lifetime out of the blue.

Her character begins off-screen as her husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns to their palatial McMansion to what looks like the aftermath of a home invasion. The actual incident is rather low key but insidiously disturbing. Especially when Amy appears to have disappeared. As days slip by, Nick slips into a mounting vortex of media and police suspicion. Nick isn’t the most emotive guy in the world and his taciturn nature isn’t synching up with the wider world’s vision of a worried husband. Sadly for Nick, anyone looking for problems within his superficially picture-perfect marriage can find them much more easily than his elusive wife.

Adding layers of confusion via regular revelations and flashbacks, the film shuttles back and forth between the giddy heights of the couple’s courting days while simultaneously chronicling the on-going cooling of ardour within the subsequent marriage.  At the point of Amy’s vanishing, all warmth and affection has drained from the relationship. Instead bitterness, resentment and according to one version of events, outbursts of domestic violence have begun to define a deeply unhappy union.

Even at this late hour, delving too deep into plot still threatens to ruin the enjoyment of those unfamiliar with the novel. Suffice to say, the film depicts the Dunnes’ crumbling alliance from both perspectives but it’s pretty evident from early on whom the (more) unreliable narrator is. Wisely, Affleck’s Nick is no angel. The nasty but deliciously dark notion that Nick is better off without his wife is floated early and often. The significant flaw in that mostly desirable scenario being that Nick could easily face the death penalty for killing his wife. The lingering lack of a body initially saves Nick from the chair but when new and damning evidence starts to surface with alarming regularity, Nick detects an element of intelligent design behind his nightmarish plight.

Naturally, Gone Girl is brilliant in places. This is Fincher after all. He doesn’t come out to play lightly and again credit must surely go to Reese Witherspoon for attaching him to material that could easily be unwieldy and wildly implausible. How she talked him into it in the wake of a rather cool reception for his last adaptation of a literary behemoth – namely The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – is intriguing.  I’m more enthralled by how he talked himself into this. Wrestling massively popular mammoth tomes into mainstream entertainment is starting to become his thing. And selfishly, I want more from him than that. That said, Gone Girl is four fifths a stunning film but the final fifth is deeply unsatisfying and can’t help but retrospectively tarnish what came before.

The problems surely emanate from the source material. Flynn’s adaptation of her own work is a dextrous, slick and skilful job across the board but the worlds of books and films share a universal truth – endings are a bitch. Great stories rarely have great endings. In that context, as an esteemed film buddy remarked to me recently – only obscenely successful books get to keep their utterly bonkers plots entirely intact. Daft developments within novels are seemingly sanctified by vast literary success. Reflect on that after you see this and ponder whether a novice or even a lauded screenwriter could get this ending past a studio boss as part of an original screenplay without being laughed out of the room.

Many observers contend that the film has ventured into satire by then but I don’t concur. After all, the actual story of this film can be distilled into a perfect Hollywood pitch. This is fundamentally an uneasy marriage of Sleeping with the Enemy and The War of the Roses.   Since Gone Girl is depicting an uneasy marriage, you might say that setting a drama in the shared area of that particular Venn diagram may be fitting but both older films knew exactly what they were – however flawed they were. Gone Girl deals with issues of identity but it has an identity crisis of its own. Worryingly the parallel for this film within Fincher’s own back catalogue starts to become The Game – the distant memory of the hollow machinations of that film start to invade as we are dragged deeper into an elongated coda.

I refuse to end on a downer. Don’t be put off by my enduring gripes about the ending. There is much to admire and value here. Fincher is on fine almost playful form. Adroitly articulating mostly internal anxieties with real cinematic flair. Precise yet never constrained. Meticulous but as humourous as he’s ever been.  Affleck will surely be a better actor and director after the Fincher experience. Whereas Pike’s improvement is immediate and obvious as she alternates impressively between a brittle survivor and an empowered avenger. Yet for me, the real treasures of the cast reside in the supporting female roles. Carrie Coon is excellent as Nick’s sparky yet snarky sister while Kim Dickens is a true delight as an investigating detective worthy of a film of her own. The quirk factor of the ensemble extends to comedy veterans Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris accepting atypical roles that they clearly relish.

The only audience demographic that should give this film a wide berth are even moderately unhappy couples. Any remotely strained relationships will probably not survive any post-film discussion after witnessing this raw autopsy of a modern marriage turned toxic. Fincher’s films have always kept people awake before and disturbed sleep patterns. Yet, the agent of malevolence has most often been external. Sowing the seed that the real evil is already inside the house, across the bed – that’s true horror. Maybe that’s how he talked himself into this. Maybe he’s right. Maybe.

James Phelan

16 (See IFCO for details)

148 minutes

Gone Girl  is released 3rd October 2014

Gone Girl  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Inbetweeners 2

"The Inbetweeners Movie" Los Angeles Bus Press Tour

DIR/WRIDamon Beesley, Iain Morris  PRO: Spencer Millman • DOP:Ben Wheeler  ED: William Webb   DES: Richard Bullock MUS: David Arnold, Michael Price   CAST: Simon Bird, James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas

In the beginning there was the TV show and the show was good. Then came the first film and even amid the hype of its release, it seemed like a very hesitant step into features for the comedic quartet who were the affable heart of the TV version. Still the hype and popularity of the performers powered through to turn their Spanish sojourn into a palpable hit. Palpable but not really understandable considering anyone recommending the film off the back of the superior TV show was left feeling a little foolish.

Between the first and second film, the show’s creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley have moved into the directors’ chairs. Thereby surely clinching their creative control over the entire project. Their directing instincts display promising flair in an early sequence evoking the humping hubris of Jay (James Buckley) with a slickness that serves like a puerile companion to the continuous beach shot from Atonement. Jay regales his UK-based buddies from the apparent safety of Oz with his customary tall tales of rampant sexual conquests. However, when Will, Simon and Neil show up to partake in the shenanigans, the reality is naturally rather pathetic.

Er, but it’s not the directing that really required most focus. For the second time, the truly adult cast of the show have been massively short-changed. In fact, the complete absence of the boys’ suburban existence mars this film exactly like its predecessor. Newcomers might assume the original show was a travel series based exclusively on the features. In the rush to get the students to Australia as quickly as possible, an entire first act is ditched. The infinite potential fun in the struggle or graft or chicanery needed to raise funds for a long-haul holiday is breezed past with a throwaway line. The increasingly awkward interactions with parents and authority figures were mined brilliantly in the show but have been restricted to mere cameos here.

To be honest though, this is a much better film. The targets are often soft – Simon Bird’s rant against posh gap year toffs posing as hippies – but far more jokes hit their actual target. Deficiencies on the writing sides are even bailed out by the superb physical skills of the cast at times. Surely no one knew before cameras rolled, how funny the straight legged desperate shuffle of Neil (Blake Harrison) towards a mirage would actually be. The directors have the conviction to hold the shot and it justifies the existence of the entire film in that moment. It’s not always so clever. The regular sightings of prosthetic testicles aren’t as inherently hilarious as some involved here believe. The makers also depict a poo in the pool moment that would make the Farrelly Brothers cringe. It’s either the zenith of the nadir of the franchise’s ambition. Though oddly, I’m in between about it.

 

James Phelan

16 (See IFCO for details)
97 mins

The Inbetweeners 2 is released on 8th August 2014

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Cinema Review: Bad Neighbours

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DIR: Nicholas Stoller  • WRIAndrew J. Cohen,  Brendan O’Brian PRO: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver • DOP: Brandon Trost • ED: Zene Baker • MUS: Michael Andrews • DES: Julie Berghoff • CAST: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Lisa Kudrow

 

Trading in America under the simpler (if misspelt) moniker of Neighbors, this sporadic scatological comedy has had ‘Bad’ grafted onto it’s title in this territory. Probably for fear we mistake it for a feature-length take on TV’s Ramsey Street and its soapy residents.

This venture is set in an American college town where human Fozzie Bear Seth Rogen has improbably settled down with Australian goddess Rose Byrne. (She probably was the first to alert the producers to the title clash in her homeland). For once employing her native accent on-screen, Byrne is a foul-mouth delight throughout and sets the comedic bar for the rest of the cast. Sadly the remainder of the ensemble treat the bar as something to limbo underneath rather than something to vault over.

Rogen is quickly becoming comedy Marmite. His habit of yukking it up at his own jokes seems to be a reflex that he can’t shed. But surely a director and editor working in tandem could literally cut it out. Or cut it down a bit at the very least. Anyhow, for reasons too simple to not outline, a university fraternity moves in beside the couple in their tranquil suburban neighbourhood. Initially, the pair displays an odd, yet understandable, impulse to not be regarded as old and unhip by the teen army on their doorstep.

However, despite sampling the frat’s hospitality to the full, the home owners quickly tire of the incessant raves and ragers next door. When they breach a pact not to call the police, the leaders of the frat (Zac Efron and James Franco) seem both wounded and wound up by the betrayal. Soon open war has been declared with the students investing immense time, expense and effort into ever more elaborate pranks. While Rogen and Byrne’s characters consider minting a brand new definition for the word ‘fratricide’.

Or at least that last paragraph suggests what the pitch for this film must have promised. In truth, the escalation of hostilities is handled poorly enough. It’s all a bit spluttering and unsure of itself. One recurring gag about redeployed air bags was given away entirely in the trailer and limps to an uninspired conclusion rather than a comic crescendo.

Elsewhere the entire project smacks of a feature that never had its script nailed down and wanted to allow room for the performers to find the ‘gold’ on the day. Naturally, actors must love the exploration and spontaneity allowed under this method of work but increasingly it strikes me that audiences are getting a bit short-changed in this process. For the most part, comedy should be tight as a drum. Not meandering and poking around in search of the joke. And it must be placing a huge onus on editors to retroactively re-align story and character within the flux of this framework.

And here it shows. For instance, Byrne’s best pal apparently begins a mildly inappropriate relationship with a male student but it is so absent in the story that a late reference to its’ importance is utterly lost. Overall, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is featured so rarely that his absence or presence here is redundant.

Still, American high-school movies have always possessed the ability to depict parties on an epic scale that can only make Irish filmmakers drool in envy. Most Irish house parties on screen usually consist of three extras doing laps around a lava lamp. However, even in the hedonistic stakes Bad Neighbours is a bit tame. Again, the sense that more explicit material will be added in future released versions is omnipresent. You can already see the ads for the DVD having ‘a too hot for cinema’ edit with an extra ten minutes restored.

As it stands, the film is far from a dead loss and there are some great one-liners strung across the film like islands in an archipelago. In the end though, Bad Neighbours isn’t bad enough. Or offensive enough. And personally, I’m a little offended by that.

James Phelan

16 (See IFCO for details)
96 mins

Bad Neighbours is released on 2nd May 2014

Bad Neighbours – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Mr Peabody and Sherman

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DIR: Rob Minkoff   WRI: Craig Wright  PRO: Denise Nolan Cascino, Alex Schwartz  ED: Tom Finan   MUS: Danny Elfman  DES: David James  CAST: Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton, Mel Brooks

 

STOP. DO NOT CLICK OFF THIS PAGE…

I’m not one for stereotyping or profiling but I have a sense of the average Film Ireland reader. And I’m sensing kids’ animations get short-shift from you lovers of interminable European arthouse dirges and avid fans of restored silent black and white Eskimo epics from 1936.

What can I do to change your collective mindset? All I can say is that if you pass over this film with your snooty cineaste nose held aloft, then you are potentially missing one of the early unexpected highlights of 2014. (If you have a snotty cineaste nose – go see a doctor. That’s a whole other condition). So do you hate enjoying yourself? Do you hate laughter? Do you hate children?

If you’re still here, you’ll be happy to hear that I’m not exaggerating. This is a little gem of an animation bristling with verve, imagination and genuine warmth. I’m blissfully ignorant of the original TV show (bar a tangential reference in a Simpsons time travel episode) but I instinctively doubt it was as subversive and sharp as this modern re-imagining.

The film centres on and celebrates the relationship between a super-smart canine Mr Peabody and his adopted human boy Sherman. Even in an animated fictional world, their pure and mutual affection is viewed with incredulity and suspicion. Sherman becomes self conscious about having a dog as a dad when he starts a new school. However he is proud enough of his guardian’s inventions to try and impress a classmate by showing her a top-secret time travel machine. When they start to zip and rip through the fabric of history, their only option is to confide in Mr Peabody and trust that his genius brain can re-impose order on the past.

Naturally this playful confection has a zany take on history from Troy to the French Revolution but by jingo – there’s a subtle yet substantial educational pill inside this candyfloss entertainment.  Yet, the film is never less than an irreverent and rollicking adventure. Summed up by the duo developing a habit of being ejected from any animal shaped construct whether Sphinx or Trojan horse by the rear exit – if you get my drift. And it’s hilarious.

On paper, the character of the know-it-all Mr Peabody could easily be a bore or just plain annoying. However he is brilliantly personified by the dulcet tones of Ty Burrell (who is equally impressive as the effete father Phil Dunphy in TV’s Modern Family). As well as undercutting his boffin status with practical shortcomings and occasional over-confidence, Burrell imbues the dog with palpable insecurities. The stiff upper lip of the character is adroitly established with the clever deployment of a discernible trace of an English accent in the vocal performance. On the back of this wonderful work, I envisage Burrell being a stalwart on the voiceover scene for the foreseeable future.

Much like veteran vocal artist Patrick Warburton who is hysterical in the Troy sequence as an empty headed but overly emotive Agamemnon.  That entire section has me in stitches from the moment the occupiers of the main Trojan horse are fooled into bringing a much smaller wooden horse into their covert hiding place. Again, the film operates superbly but differently for kids and adults. The comedic peak of the film’s ambitious climax is a supremely naughty reference that kids will be blissfully oblivious of.

And though rampant incessant entertainment would have been reward enough, the film even has an emotional arc that resonates without being cloying or overly saccharine. The writer Craig Wright must be singled out even in this most collaborative art form. His script zings and fizzes with giddy creativity but in fairness, the visuals are exceptional too.

Even the 3-D is expertly and continually utilised to accentuate the storytelling. And that really is rare. Most 3-D in this field focuses on the opening sequence and perhaps is again concentrated on during the closing stretch. An entire raft of animated films has displayed this token approach to 3D but this film distinguishes itself by never forgetting about the extra dimension. From sword fights to snake fangs or angles that emphasise the height and depth of an Egyptian tomb, the effect is, for once, mesmerizing.

Kids of a certain age love watching favourite films over and over again. This title will instantly enter that firmament. Personally, I could have easily sat through it a second time just after the first screening had concluded. When’s the last time that happened in the cinema?

James Phelan

G (See IFCO for details)
92  mins

Mr Peabody and Sherman is released on 7th February 2014

Mr Peabody and Sherman – Official Website

 

 

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Cinema Review: Free Birds

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DIR: Jimmy Hayward • WRI: Jimmy Hayward, Scott Mosier • PRO: Scott Mosier • ED: Chris Cartagena •  DES: Mark Whiting •  MUS: Dominic Lewis • CAST: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Dan Fogler, Amy Poehler

Dear faithful reader – allow me to enlighten you on how work gets divvied up at Film Ireland HQ. If you’re imagining a more bookish version of Avengers Assemble than you’re not far off. Our roguish editor in chief Steven Galvin alerts us to upcoming missions. Usually volunteers are easy to find. You could throw a rock and hit a willing reviewer for the vast majority of films awaiting release. Arms shoot up with the eagerness of an incontinent kid in need of the bathroom. The glamour jobs like Gravity or the latest flick from the Coens cause a stampede towards Steven.

However, there’s a strain of film that causes a stampede in the opposite direction. Within seconds, ‘FI HQ’ is as empty as an echo chamber. Our plucky editor is sounding the klaxon but no one responds. It’s like a 999 call to a garda station that has deliberately left the phone off the hook for days on end. So Steven strides around the moonlit roof of FI HQ like Nick Fury pointing the Batsign in vain at the heavens.

And then a hero comes along with the strength to actually go to a G rated mid-tier non-Pixar animated film. There’s no glory in it but there is bravery. Now I’m a modest and handsome man but where does my bravery rank? Well, I occasionally nip to the shops without raingear. I once bit into a Scotch Bonnet chilli pretty much on purpose. I won’t interrupt a mugging but I will report it to the authorities at my earliest convenience. Going to a film like Free Birds though – that’s Purple Heart behaviour in critical circles.

Every critic going in knows it too. The swollen gallery of casual reviewers, guests and liggers evaporate in these cauldron moments. We are distilled down to the core few. No excess. No excuses. No passengers. Strewn across the vast chasm of seats like defiant pockets of resistance. We’re here to do a job and by god, we’re going to see it through. I know what you’re thinking by now – ‘where’s the bloody’ review? And firstly that’s not cool. This is a kid’s film and parents and children could be reading this expecting a G rated review for a G film. So ease up on the potty mouth people. Secondly, I’m trying out an AA Gill style review where he eventually mentions the food in the last two paragraphs.

So Free Birds is about a pardoned turkey on thanksgiving who travels back in time in order to change the Pilgrim’s choice of celebratory food for the very first all American holiday. Thereby saving future generations of turkeys. It’s not a bad premise at all but similar to a lot of recent animations, the idea is better than the actual script. I kept expecting a genuinely subversive notion like the turkeys trying to convert an entire nation to a vegetarian nut roast being a suitable centre piece for their festivities. As such, genuine wit is in short supply but some of the character design and sequences deliver enough action and humour to divert undemanding minds for the duration. Parents won’t be racing back to it but it’s plenty entertaining for little ones.

OK – let’s stuff in some turkey references. Audiences will flock to it because it’s plucking good fun. This film will be panned. It’s bound to get a critical roasting and be carved apart. It’s just a shame it doesn’t feature music by the Cranberries. And so on….

I’ll be back with a bulletin from the frontline again soon. Stay tuned folks and watch the skies. But not for turkeys. ‘Cos they can’t fly.

James Phelan

G (See IFCO for details)

90  mins

Free Birds is released on 29th November 2013

Free Birds – Official Website

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Short and Feature Progress for Waterford Writer

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A busy weekend at Waterford Film Festival (November 8th – 10th) for writer James Phelan was capped by winning best short screenplay at the awards ceremony. The competition is open to hitherto unproduced scripts every year and receives entries from across Ireland and around the world.

James’ short script The Drowning Pool was selected from over 120 initial submissions as well as triumphing in a reduced list of twenty finalists. The Drowning Pool is a dark brooding drama that explores whether a violent act can ever break a cycle of violence and actually have a positive outcome.

The period film is set in a stark crumbling town on the edge of civilisation where neither law nor religion has taken hold. Against this bleak backdrop, the brutal patriarch of a bunch of feral boys becomes a target of long-plotted revenge. It’s a visual and hugely evocative script infused with a palpable air of both menace and mystery that still manages to end on a real moment of hope and optimism.

The writer of both seasons of Rasai na Gaillimhe, James plans to add The Drowning Pool to his list of directing credits. He previously directed the Filmbase/RTE short Poetic Licence and the Galway Film Centre/RTE short The Ottoman Empire as well as several independently produced shorts. He also contributed a short film to the portmanteau feature Hotel Darklight. James also intends making his feature directing debut in 2014 with the self penned project Nailbiter.

The award bookended a busy weekend for the Waterford native as he simultaneously hosted a table reading of his latest feature screenplay Stalled in the city. The project was awarded a bursary by the Artlinks organisation in April this year in order to create a first draft. Set in Waterford, Stalled depicts an escalating feud between a young car thief and a driving test assessor that begins innocently but spirals out of control with tragic consequences for all concerned.

James describes the film as a social realism thriller. ‘In one way it’s hugely indebted to the tradition of Mike Leigh’s films but I hope I’ve managed to craft a gripping story with the attributes of a thriller while still being firmly rooted in a recognisable reality’.

With the assistance of Kevin Glynn of Big Idea Films, James cast the table reading via a day of auditions of local talent. ‘We assembled a great ensemble of local actors. It was instructive and extremely positive to hear a Waterford set film with Waterford voices. If this film were to be made, casting local faces and unearthing new talent seems like an organic conclusion of this script’s journey.’

James currently has a number of projects in advanced development including the historical comedy drama mini-series ‘Wrecking the Rising’ with TG4.

James is represented by Holly Carey at Lisa Richards Agency.

 

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The cast of the Stalled table read. L-R – Stephen Forristal, Emer O Brien, Shane Flynn, Rhiannon Colbert, Nick Kavanagh, Damien McDonnell, Kieran Doyle, Anita O Keefe and Lorraine Murphy.

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Cinema Review: Runner Runner

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DIR: Brad Furman • WRI: Brian Koppelman, David Levien • PRO: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson Killoran , Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Michael Shamberg , Stacey Sher • DOP: Mauro Fiore • ED: Jeff McEvoy • DES: Charisse Cardenas • Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie

You go the cinema expecting an expose doc on the trainer industry and instead end up with a run of the mill thriller. Fittingly, this film is bizarrely akin to spending an hour and a half on a treadmill. Insofar as it expends a lot of energy but really doesn’t go anywhere. Not anywhere remotely interesting anyway.

Justin Timberlake takes a break from his music to play a Princeton grad student who takes a break from his studies to track down the shady big-wig behind an online poker empire. His crudely named character Richie Furst considers himself a bit of a whizz at virtual cards but takes major umbrage when he is cleared out online. Proving that you have to spend money to get money back, he takes off on a rather whimsical trip to Costa Rica to get his tuition fees reimbursed. Convinced that he has been ripped off, Richie intends to confront the mysterious businessman Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) behind an ultra successful cyber gambling site.

Disproportionally impressed by this bit of brio, Block naturally offers Richie the kind of Faustian pact that even blind blues musicians at a crossroads at midnight could see coming from a million miles away. Richie subsequently appears to develop a kind of ‘crime glaucoma’ where everything is rosy and legit right in front of his eyes but he inexplicably can’t see the major criminal edges of Block’s empire. Even subtle hints like Block feeding lumps of frozen meat to his pet crocodiles on a moonlit jetty fail to raise an eyebrow. It apparently takes a lot to sour Richie’s cheery worldview that mobsters, gamblers and prostitutes are all law-abiding all of the time.

With American law enforcement closing in on the exiled Block, soon Richie’s only choice is whether to be a stool pigeon for the Feds or a patsy for the bad guy. Perhaps his eureka moment arrived in a deleted scene where he rents ‘The Firm’ (the Tom Cruise one – not the Danny Dyer one) and follows its’ step by step guide to getting out of this exact same scenario. In fact, this entire film feels like one particular sequence from that thriller where Gene Hackman brought Cruiser down to the Caymans to corrupt him.

Trying to figure out the motivation of the actors for doing this rather feeble film is kind of fun. Timberlake is definitely committed to being serious about his thespian career. Protected by strong directors like Fincher in The Social Network, he can transmit his inherent charm through the camera with nonchalant ease. Nor is the onus of shouldering the central role brand new territory for him. He has borne the pressure of carrying a movie before and far better than here. Even in fluff like Friends with Benefits or In Time, he stretched himself and, to an extent, proved himself. In this, he looks uncomfortable and even that discomfort doesn’t feed into the nervous energy that the character should emit at pivotal moments.

Whereas ostensible female lead Gemma Arterton needs exposure in big American releases so her agenda is obvious and understandable though the resultant pallid role never taps into her considerable talents. For Affleck, you’d have to suspect the pay cheque was more tempting than the material. An opening speech about exile aside, there’s no depth or context to Block’s villainy. Maybe Affleck got to write Argo 2 on location in the tropics but the outstanding question then becomes what exactly does an audience get out of Runner Runner?

Precious little is the answer unless you’re in the most forgiving form of your life. It may just suffice as a sun kissed slice of distraction but in reality, there’s not a beat of this story that isn’t predictable or even tries to subvert the overly familiar.

Admittedly this is glib but if someone suggests going to Runner Runner, do a runner in the opposite direction.

James Phelan

15A (See IFCO for details)

95 mins
Runner Runner is released on 27th September 2013

Runner Runner – Official Website

 

http://www.runnerrunnermovie.com/index.html

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Cinema Review: World War Z

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DIR: Marc Forster WRI: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof PRO: Ian Bryce, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner CAST: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Fana Mokoena, Matthew Fox, Ruth Negga

 

What’s the collective noun for critics? A pack? A coven? A murder? Watching this film I was moved to reflect that critics certainly can display a herd mentality not dissimilar to a rampaging zombie horde. The merest scent of blood in the air about a supposedly troubled film and they can swamp the resultant project in a ravenous tide that is often utterly disconnected from the quality of the final film. In the wider media, judgement is often summarily passed without even viewing the actual completed movie. For instance, last year’s John Carter seemed doomed before it was even released or seen.

Early word on WWZ had the critical masses sharpening their incisors. The gossip grapevine contended that Marc Foster was presiding over a sprawling, incoherent mess with a ballooning budget and a never-ending schedule. An apparently fractious set and extensive, expensive re-shoots seemed to confirm this film was going to be a pre-ordained turkey. It was open season and now…it’s all gone a bit quiet.

I’m as susceptible as anyone to being infected by this behaviour. Who can’t resist a sneaky kick to the torso of a stricken studio blockbuster? They fail so rarely that once one is wrestled to the ground; it’s hard not to relish dissecting the hubris of both stars and studios as gargantuan budgets are wasted on puny ideas. We all know the vitriolic slam dunk reviews are the most pleasurable to write. And probably the most fun to read too. Which by a circuitous route brings me to World War Z and I gotta say – it’s not half bad. That is a backhanded compliment in blockbuster season but bear in mind Man of Steel is half bad. Granted that horribly elongated concluding fight is not really half the movie – it just feels like it is.

World War Z certainly opens strongly as chaos grips gridlock in downtown Philadelphia. A palpable and organic sense of panic is superbly evoked and maintained as Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family are enveloped in a stampede of swarming bodies. At first, it’s spookily unclear what people are fleeing from. We’ve seen scenes like this before and it’s usually a wall of water or Godzilla.  The reveal that it’s blood thirsty commuters acting in a cannibalistic manner is deeply unnerving. This is no shuffling zombie saunter. It’s a torrent of milling indistinguishable limbs and manic propulsion.

Gerry quickly displays the resourcefulness and survival skills that suggest a past beyond suburban dad. And so it transpires – in the middle of a nationwide outbreak, Gerry gets a call from his former employer the U.N. to track down the source of the zombie virus. After some pitifully hilarious protestations that he’s not a hero, Gerry embarks on an extremely heroic world tour of zombie hotspots as he traces the evolution of the outbreak. The plot doesn’t really advance much before that really. The film moves at the now customary breathless blockbuster pace but to my mind, this project justified that pacing more than most. The world is literally being devoured. Gerry’s in an understandable hurry. So the action switches from South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales with sequences of varying effectiveness in each location.

Cleverly, the film amps up Pitt’s hero stature by populating the cast with emerging and unknown actors rather than the usual rota of reliable and recognisable character actors. Everyone acquits themselves well even if the writers push the boat out on thankless female roles by literally pushing the ostensible female lead Mireille Enos out onto a boat where she spends most of the movie looking elegantly stressed. Or ringing her husband at the exact wrong moment.

Against the odds, Marc Foster emerges with some credit. Or is it damning him with faint praise to say he doesn’t ostensibly do anything wrong. Some of the bigger scenes like the storming of Jerusalem are impressively rendered. There’s nothing as problematic as his chronic mishandling of the action in Quantum of Solace (or ‘Pond of Wood’ as Mark Kermode deliciously dubbed it). Could it be that Foster is simply on a learning curve himself where he gets to evolve and improve with each outing? He’s learning in public on a big canvas but keeping creative control of a mammoth project like this must be a head wrecker. This could have been a career wrecker but by accident or design, ‘WWZ gets there in the end.

In the third act, World War Z bucks another prevalent trend. Apparently, out of necessity but regardless of the reasons, this film reverses the blockbuster tendency to ram up the scale as the finish line approaches. Apparently, the ultra busy scribe Damon Lindelof was drafted in to construct an emergency ending and a lean, tense and unbearably claustrophobic sequence set in a lab was constructed as a band-aid remedy. Well sometimes, band-aids are needed and sometimes they work. In this case, I think the action is focused down to telling effect. While other blockbusters invariably resort to bombast and visual frenzy, WWZ distils the essence of the film down to stillness and silence. Instead of the typical ear-drum damaging souped up sound, we get unforgiving quiet. Instead of drowning in zombies, Gerry is confronted by one zombie clacking his teeth in a deeply creepy manner.

It’s not perfection by any means especially when the film has no real sense of closure: only a cocky insinuation that a sequel is going to be needed for viewers to see any more. WWZ may still fail but I don’t think it’s a failure. However in a bid to please everyone, it may please no one. Too unfaithful to the source material to please die-hard fans of the book. Too bloodless to placate gore hounds. Too internationally focused for an American audience. Too inconclusive and open ended for those seeking a rounded one-off cinematic experience. In falling between so many stools, the danger is the film is regarded as a stool of a whole other variety.

It isn’t. It’s not Grade A but it’s not Grade Z either.

 

James Phelan


115 mins

15A (see IFCO website for details)

World War Z is released on 21st June 2013

 

 

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Cinema Review: Earthbound

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DIR/WRI: Alan Brennan PRO: Heidi Madsen, Jacqueline Kerrin, Dominic Wright ED: Barry Moen DOP: P.J. Dillon Cast: Rafe Spall, Jenn Murray, David Morrissey, Carrie Crowley

It’s not unusual for a film to feature a central character who is alienated. We’ve seen variations on the loner and the outsider countless times but this amiable Irish film’s hero has good reason to feel displaced. Mainly because he believes that he actually is an alien.

Joe Norman (Rafe Spall) lives a seemingly normal if rather sheltered life in Dublin enlivened only by his rapt interest in science fiction. However, Joe’s obsession with the genre stems from his certainty that certain elements of sci-fi are based on fact and not fiction. Turns out that Joe’s father divulged a seismic family secret on his deathbed. Namely that despite having the appearance of a human, that Joe is actually an outcast alien from a distant planet Zalaxon. His father contends that they are hiding on Earth from intergalactic bounty hunters intent on snuffing Joe out.

This kind of earth shattering news accompanied by profound grief makes a lasting impact on Joe. As the primary action of the film begins twenty years later, Joe is still following the prime and last directive he received from his father – to hide himself away and limit interaction with the humans. Naturally this has guaranteed a lonely existence. However, after decades without any close calls or alien activity of any kind, doubt and a drop in vigilance begins to invade Joe’s life. He remains in contact with his father via a hologram of stored parental advice but his guardian’s pleas for incessant unwavering caution begin to fall on deaf ears.

Something in Joe is stirred by a meeting with a nubile human Maria (Jenn Murray). A sweet and tender courting follows until Joe reaches a defining moment when he must confess his true origins. Suffice to say – Maria does not take the news well. Soon Joe is dismissed as mad and appears on the cusp of being committed to an institution. Only in his darkest hour does the full truth finally emerge. Joe’s universe is going to be blown apart and maybe ours along with it.

Earthbound skilfully weaves in a story thread of depression and mental illness throughout that keeps uncertainty alive for the audience. Was Joe’s father just mad in the head? Has his son just inherited the same delusions? Is it all just a cruel lifelong folly that Joe has been burdened with? While never didactic, the film can’t help but reflect on that fine line between imagination and insanity. Anyone in a creative field can associate with hearing voices. The film could have settled for merely being a poignant exploration of deep grief. Ambitiously though, deep space is also served up in the same portion of quietly impressive entertainment.

Brennan is served by a stellar cast with Spall exuding a goofiness that doesn’t grate while also possessing enough inner steel to convince when the going gets tough. Speaking of which, Jenn Murray actually has the tougher role of the two. Striving and succeeding in keeping Maria endearing in the face of a betrayal that while believable could have hurt her standing in the audience’s eyes. Elsewhere, there’s a terrific vampy turn from Carrie Crowley which threatens to steal the show even from Ned Dennehy’s icy headhunter. While the ubiquitous David Morrissey brings vital gravitas and authority to his brief role.

It’s great to see Dublin locations being exploited so cleverly. Many buildings, backdrops and settings in the capital have strong sci-fi connotations if you look long and deep enough. And Brennan clearly has. Fans and especially non-fans of a relatively new modern Dublin landmark will surely get a buzz from seeing it launched into space. Brennan’s film is filled with wistful thinking, wit and even a little sprinkling of wonder. Rare enough qualities in films worldwide. Virtually extinct in homegrown ones. Until now.

James Phelan

12A (see IFCO website for details)

97mins
Earthbound is released on 15th March 2013

Earthbound – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9QE0f5aVdY

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Cinema Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

  • DIR: John Moore  WRI Skip Woods   PRO: Alex Young  • DOP: Jonathan Sela • ED: Dan Zimmerman • DES: Daniel T. Dorrance • CAST: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

The decline of the Die Hard series continues unchecked with this empty cacophonous clanger that is so inert story-wise that no amount of explosions can blow the cobwebs away. In fact, let’s face it – the quality has nose dived since Die Hard with a Vengeance. That smart inventive second sequel proved irrefutably that action films can evolve away from the basic concept of a franchise while retaining real character, wit and heart.

The greatest charge levelled against Len Wiseman’s last pallid instalment was that it didn’t feel like a Die Hard film at all.  Any hope that our own John Moore could arrest that creative slide departs within moments of the start. In fairness to him, the incessant action is handled competently enough but the script can’t find any reason to have action. It just insists it takes place.  All the time. For no reason.

Therefore, the lion’s share of the blame falls on Skip Woods’ horrendously superficial screenplay. The credits haven’t even concluded by the time a tight knot of dread forms as the lazy action failsafe of a coveted ‘file’ is trotted out. In that moment, we know we are simply watching a chase film. There was a time when a chase was just a constituent consequence of story and plot that formed part of a film. Right now, chases are movie length and most of the time to paraphrase Morrissey – we are bored before we even begin. It’s definitely the case here So entire rooms, roads, buildings and city districts will be razed in pursuit of this MacGuffin ‘file’.  It serves only as an excuse for action but it’s a sorry excuse that doesn’t remotely justify or explain the carnage that follows.

Woods seems to have literally lost the plot because no plot exists bar John McClane travels to Moscow to visit his incarcerated son Jack.  Once there, Willis attempts to shake off jet lag by absorbing the full impact of not one but two vehicles in his seemingly crush proof chest. To rouse himself further, he spins a lorry over countless cars before emerging unscathed. All of the shattered glass in just this one sequence prompted a memory of the original Die Hard which brilliantly distinguished McClane as a vulnerable and human hero. The first film showed the damage caused by bare feet walking over broken glass. A simple scene that made us wince in empathy and admiration while making the audience feel genuine pain.

This film is painful too but it’s not the same thing. In this, car windows, chandeliers and glass ceilings exist only to explode or cascade. There is so little at stake that even the characters muse around the midway point that they have nothing at stake in the plot and could easily just leave.  When your ostensible heroes can freely walk away mid-film, something has gone horribly wrong on the screenplay side. Ideally, they should be locked in an inescapable escalating scenario and be compelled to continue.  Woods can’t even equip Willis with any decent quips. Sure, McClane talks away to himself in that established style of the series but now it seems more like the onset of dementia than cool movie patter.  Judging by Woods’ back catalogue which began vacuous with Swordfish and has stayed vacuous through turgid fare like Wolverine and Hitman, he seems chronically incapable of writing a decent line of dialogue. The sloppiness is summed up when Woods misplaces the entire city of Grenoble.

So this film bellows along punctured with predictable outbreaks of inconsequential action. A simple game can offset the boredom – the second Willis walks into any room guess how long it’s going to take before gunfire reduces the set to ribbons. Or predict which surface is going to inexplicably explode first. Throughout, the action is expensive rather than impressive. There is no tension, ingenuity or intelligence to how any fight begins or ends. And just to quench any notion of hope you may have, the middle of each fight is blandly uninspiring too. In fact, those are the worst bits. Where once exposition was skilful in this series, now it amount to characters walking past a swimming pool. Oh, I wonder if that will prove useful. The daftness never gets endearing either but culminates with Willis jumping in one window only to jump back out of it seconds later.

The increasingly convoluted titles are symptomatic of how awkward and forced these sequels have become but I’m honestly a huge fan of the first three films. Die Harder was the runt of the litter when there were only three but with each passing instalment, its’ stock grows. In my favourite sequel Die Hard with a Vengeance,  the action played out across the entire city of New York but still felt tense and important. This film is terse in terms of running time but there’s no tautness at all. Or personality. Wit, charm and heart have left the building and they ain’t coming back at this rate.

 

James Phelan


15A (see IFCO website for details)

97 mins

A Good Day to Die Hard is released on 15th February 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61UqRmDjwgc

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Cinema Review: Zero Dark Thirty

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DIR:  Kathryn Bigelow  WRI: Mark Boal  DOP Greig Fraser   ED: Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg  DES: Jeremy Hindle  CAST: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler

Condensing the ten year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden into movie form is a tough task especially when the ending is already firmly cemented in the public consciousness. The appeal of this film then becomes a procedural study of what information and intelligence we weren’t privy to during a decade where the trail appeared to have gone cold.  The devil is therefore in the detail and the Hurt Locker creative team of Bigelow and screenwriter Boal have rendered a forensic, exhaustive and often exhausting depiction of a murky labyrinthine process.

Aiming for the sort of quasi-documentary feel that infers and evokes an air of convincing verisimilitude, the filmmakers elect to insert a fictional character Maya (Jessica Chastain) as the audience’s guide through the jargon-heavy world of military intelligence. Chastain plays a CIA analyst who latches onto a snippet of intel extracted by extremely dubious means. Her superiors dismiss the value and veracity of the information but Maya is dogged in her pursuit as the quest becomes more personal with every passing year.

The atmosphere of authenticity is enforced by Bigelow’s decision to staff her film with largely unknown faces. At first glance, Chastain seems to breach this self-imposed rule but despite a run of impressive high-profile work, she retains a genuine chameleon quality where she melts into each individual role. It would be perverse if the profile and exposure that accompanies a possible Oscar win robs her of that virtue. In truth, Maya is deliberately one dimensional. Her entire focus and indeed entire being is devoted to the manhunt to the exclusion of any relationships. Thankfully, the characterisation never slips into ‘ice maiden’ caricature as Maya’s coolness is regularly enlivened by humanising outbursts of wit, insolence and office-based graffiti.

The film juxtaposes infamous dates that are seared into the collective memory with lesser known events. In a context where prior knowledge should dilute tension, Bigelow excels at generating it. Her skills are deployed with superb precision in certain sequences especially a misjudged decision to allow an unsearched vehicle onto an army base. The small ominous details are astounding. For instance, a black cat crosses the screen in the foreground as the car approaches. It’s subtle. It might even have been a happy accident for the filmmakers but it’s a potent and insidious portent of impending doom. Another incendiary act of violence literally shatters a moment where the audience foolishly relax in conjunction with the characters onscreen. Naturally, the concluding nocturnal storming of the Bin Laden compound is a technical marvel. For gung-ho members of the audience, this sequence is the entire raison d’etre for the film but it’s telling that this project was apparently greenlit long before those climatic events unfurled in real life.

For all its excellence, the film is far from flawless. Bigelow and Boal strain to keep Maya central to the action in a manner that winds up straining credibility in the end. Her ubiquity begins to approach omnipresence as she is placed at far too many notorious events. The pain is also palpable as you can sense Bigelow’s frustrated desire to place Maya on the marine choppers on the actual mission. Instead, she is somehow the person manning the radar at base and letting the soldiers know that fighters jets have been scrambled as their intrusion into Pakistan is spotted. Equally, the need to distil an entire nation’s pain and bitter determination into one person exerts a toll on credibility. Towards the end, the global search nearly becomes solely and exclusively Maya’s property and some of the dialogue lines to stress that are risible even coming from a performer as accomplished as Chastain. Frankly, they’d be risible coming from Rambo.

Like its’ central character,  Zero Dark Thirty is cold and methodical. That innate coldness may put some viewers off. Others may not get the film they expected.  Thankfully the tone is mainly more cerebral than celebratory. As embodied in Maya, it’s clear even in a moment of victory that key values and qualities have been lost forever. It’s a fitting and well judged note of sadness to end on.

James Phelan

 

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

157 mins

Zero Dark Thirty is released on 25th January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty  – Official Website

 

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

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‘Django Unchained’ Could do with an Operation Transformation

 

The Western gets the Tarantino treatment has been the vainglorious gist of the media campaign for this unassuming little fragile film. Well, the good news is that it’s a far superior piece of revisionist history than Inglorious Basterds. The bewildering critical and commercial success of that film continues to baffle me. It was a war film without any real war. Despite its epic running time, it was sketchy and incoherent. Despite its ‘men on a mission’ premise it was barely an ensemble piece. It seemed the goodwill glow engendered by that rightly revered opening farmhouse scene convinced cinemagoers that the uneven mess that followed was of a similar calibre.

Thankfully, the first hour of Django is a different beast entirely. For a while, Tarantino seems intent on curbing his own predilection for indulgently long scenes. Initially, this film has short connective scenes that move the story on with pace and addictive momentum. Genuinely, the opening half of this film as Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter Doctor King Schultz frees Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to track down the fugitive Brittle brothers is as good as Tarantino has been in decades. Perhaps since his career opening salvo.

To Quentin’s immense credit, Waltz has been handed a peach of a role as the charmingly verbose German who plies his retrieval trade under the guise of a travelling dentist. His eloquent use of English habitually confounds his cow poke adversaries giving him a lethal advantage in any duel. His originally self-serving liberation of Django softens slowly into mutual respect and friendship – a relationship endearingly accelerated by the mere coincidence that Django’s beloved wife goes by the Germanic name Broomhilda. Schultz’s simple desire to speak his native language with someone is a brilliant insight into his character’s loneliness and alienation within America of that era.

With all the verbal fireworks handed to Waltz, it’s a deceptively tough spot for the ostensible star Foxx to be in. By necessity, he is forced to be the stoic, hardened and taciturn hero at the heart of a quest to find and free his enslaved wife. Some occasional humour emanates from Django but the spotlight is constantly dragged elsewhere with Waltz at first and later Leonardo De Caprio and Samuel L Jackson dominating the screen. Foxx excels as the strong, silent type but it’s a losing battle for the film to keep the focus on his character especially once the action transplants to Calvin Candie’s plantation – the incongruously titled Candyland.

Beyond his blackened teeth, Leo’s Calvin Candie is not that vivid a creation. He is all costume, accent and affectation but there’s no real insight into his heart of darkness. True, there are instances of extreme cruelty that emanate from his character but he hardly registers on the baddie scale and is utterly usurped by Jackson’s indelible etching of the house slave Stephen who is so outraged by Django’s open flouting of freedom.  Seemingly brainwashed by generations of slavery, Stephen is bitterly committed to the enforcement and maintenance of the supremacist status quo. In fleeting screen time, Jackson easily eclipses fellow villains Di Caprio and the mute moustachioed gunslinger Kurt Russell with insouciant ease.

The main crux that infects the film is that it slows to a snail’s pace upon arrival at Candyland. Tarantino’s fondness for longwinded rhetoric re-emerges at the worst possible time as it all goes a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ with everyone sitting down to supper. In doing so, Tarantino allows the audience too much thinking time. One is allowed to consider that isn’t this just a reprise of that kitchen table scene from ‘Inglorious’ albeit at the opposite end of this movie.  And isn’t he just remaking the same revenge film constantly and just changing the milieu? And then finally when the speechifying is done, the self referential aspect goes haywire as we are treated to a cowboy variation on the Crazy 88. The slaughter is all masterfully handled and some will love the bullet fest but I was left pining for something different and more. Considering the setting, the climax could have been leaner, darker and derived from character instead of dependent on scale and blood squibs.

And then the audience discovers that even this violent crescendo is not actually the end. The film goes on again with an ill fitting epilogue featuring a lazy escape where Tarantino abdicates his writing duties for an incredibly easy option.  More violence follows but mentally, everyone is already in the car park.

In fairness, this film is an entertainment behemoth. It gives major bang for your buck but I can’t shake the feeling that the two-hour version of this film is a stone cold classic Western. What emerges here is big and bloated. To over-extend a metaphor, in this film Tarantino allows himself plenty of rope resulting in large stretches of slack. When snapped taut, Django Unchained is superb. How much the various languors diminish your enjoyment is probably a matter of personal taste. It may be a Western but there’s no reason why everyone has to end up feeling saddle sore!!!

James Phelan

 

 

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Cinema Review: Pitch Perfect

 

DIR: Jason Moore   WRI: Kay Cannon  PRO: Elizabeth Banks, Paul Brooks, Max Handelman   CAST: Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Elizabeth Banks

Trends seem to have an unpredictable life span. The entertainment industry will clearly jump on any bandwagon, ride it (and drain it) for all it is worth and sadly still be making films in that narrow niche area long after the rest of the world has moved on.

No prizes for guessing that it’s the shadow of Glee that hangs over this college based comedy about competitive acapella singing. It’s hard for the unwieldy release of a feature to compete with a weekly TV show and still rival it for relevance. In fact, based on my cursory knowledge of Glee (I swear to God it’s cursory) I know that this film doesn’t just cover the same territory as the TV show but it also covers some of the same songs.

That said, it’s a pleasure to report that Pitch Perfect is not some dead-eyed cynical cash in. Sure it’s surprising that it needed to be based on a book in the first place but it does have a sparky undercurrent of genuine wit and is populated by amiable performers with Anna Kendrick leading the cast with her now customary charm. She plays Beca who is reluctantly attending a college where her father is Dean. Determined to remain anti-social while covertly pursuing a career as a DJ, she is reluctantly recruited to the Bellas – an all-female acapella group lead by the highly strung Aubrey (Anna Camp).

Aubrey’s conservative musical choices are boring the bejasus out of judges, choir commentators and members of her own vocal group. There’s a recurring gag about the choir endlessly reprising Ace of Base’s ‘The Sign’ to the muted despair of audiences. Predictably with Beca’s established fondness for remixing and ‘mash ups’, the two girls are on collision course. Although in terms of dramatic stakes, the battle for supremacy is a bit too gentle at times.

Complaining about corny or cringey scenes in a film like this is mainly redundant. Most of the time it’s the exact effect that the filmmakers are aiming for. The smarmy male rivals from the same campus provide plenty of such moments. On a weaker note, (ahem) there’s a regrettable reliance on projective vomiting for negligible comedic return. If anything elevates the film, it’s the impressive ensemble female cast with Rebel Wilson shining as the self dubbed Fat Amy. There’s also a hilariously soft spoken Asian girl who continually confesses terrible things at a volume only dogs could hear.

Musically, the film offers few highlights. Even Beca’s supposedly superior musical taste seems remarkably mainstream and unsophisticated. Remixing ‘Bust a Move’ may be a connective reference to the same song’s use in her breakthrough film Up in the Air but it doesn’t establish her own character in this film especially well.  However, her initially faltering version of ‘No Diggity’ that eventually clicks with her troupe is a mini-triumph. Elsewhere, my ears might be deceiving me but the actual live performances seem to quickly abandon the core concept of the music just being formed from vocals.

There are a few other incidental pleasures in the film too. Producer Elizabeth Banks casts herself as one of those ‘Best in Show’-type commentators who undercut the on-stage sweetness with a dose of acid reality. Though in an odd aberration and massive oversight the film doesn’t actually fully establish who she and co-host John Michael Higgins are actually talking to. They don’t seem to be speaking to the audience in the arena or to TV cameras so who exactly are they addressing their quips to? Each other? Maybe they’re just two lunatics with laptops who wandered in.

There’s further accidental amusement in the casting of Kendrick & Co who are all clearly a decade too old to be playing college girls. Still, even these choices add an extra air of enjoyment to a film that could easily be picked apart by nit-picking but hey, it’s hard to be too down on it at this time of year. If you know what to expect, you should have a good time. If you know it’s not your bag then steer clear.

James Phelan

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)

112 mins

Pitch Perfect is released on 21st December 2012

Pitch Perfect  – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siEHekc-1oE

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‘Na Deich nAitheanta’ (‘The Ten Commandments’) on BBC2 NI tonight

Writer James Phelan concludes a busy year by contributing to the current BBC 2 NI series Na Deich nAitheanta ’(The Ten Commandments) . His instalment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ broadcasts this Thursday night at 24.20.

The series is comprised of monologues based on witty contemporary takes on each individual commandment. The premise maintains an odd recurring trend in James’ nascent TV career. With the TG4 comedy drama Rasai na Gaillimhe loosely based on the seven deadly sins and this year’s sequel Rasai na Gaillimhe 2 touching lightly on the lesser known seven virtues, James jokingly admits he may become pigeon-holed as ‘the religious numbers guy’.

‘Na Deich nAitheanta’ series was produced by Ashlene Aylward and her Ulysses Films company after she issued an open call for ideas riffing on making the Ten Commandments humorously relevant to modern life. James concedes he has known the producer for a few years. ‘We originally met at an Equinoxe screenwriting workshop in Norway. I was there with my feature script and she was producing another feature. We bonded on a hovercraft trip down a fjord – which isn’t a sentence you get to use very often in life’.

James continues ‘I assumed ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ would be oversubscribed but I threw my entry into the mix. I was naturally pleased it was picked but I remained very hands off. I knew Ashlene had entrusted it to a great actor in Aodh Óg Ó Duibheannaigh. He rightly made the monologue his own and dispensed with a lot of my waffle.

Aodh Og played Charlie Burn in the much loved TG4 Irish language comedy series ‘C.U. Burn’.. In ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, Aodh Og plays Christian a pest controller whose entire business is jeopardised when he is born again. Despite his claims to the contrary, will his true nature still emerge when put to the test? With a nod to the closing scene of ‘Psycho’, this short monologue packs a punch. The series runs late night this week and next with all episodes available on line after terrestrial broadcast.

James’ year has been bookended with work for TG4. ‘Rasai na Gaillimhe 2’ broadcast to glowing reviews earlier this year. The riotous comedy drama boasts stellar turns from a vast cast including Don Wycherley, Tom O Suilleabhain, Donncha Crowley, Owen Roe and Carrie Crowley. James confesses it’s a treat to write for such great actors. ‘Especially when writing for characters like Don’s politician chancer ‘Ultan Keane’ where you know Don is going to have a field day with the material.’ The original series was similarly well received winning the IFTA for Best Irish Language series in 2010.

The next project in development with TG4 for the Waterford writer is an inventive take on a period drama. The details of ‘Wrecking the Rising’ are still under wraps but the author admits the title is a giveaway about the 1916 setting. However, in the same breath he reveals, ‘we’re hoping to employ a really fresh inventive angle on the seismic events of Easter week by the addition of some fantastical elements that will shake up any notion of a staid dry period drama.’

James Phelan is represented by Holly Carey at Lisa Richards Agency.

 

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Cinema Review: Mental

 

 

DIR/WRI: P.J. Hogan  PRO: Todd Fellman, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker  DOP: Donald McAlpine  ED: Jill Bilcock  CAST: Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Deborah Mailman

A lot of people would consider the area of mental health as a minefield for comedy where one should tread carefully and lightly. On the other hand, P.J. Hogan charges gleefully across the same territory with heavy handed abandon, indiscriminatingly setting off politically incorrect bombs in his wake.

Perhaps Hogan’s irreverent attitude stems from the fact that he is apparently drawing on his own family’s history for this companion piece to Muriel’s Wedding. In one way, it’s commendable to tackle this potentially touchy-feely subject matter in such an aggressively brash manner. Unfortunately though, subtlety is the first and continual casualty of the incessant explosions of colour and volume that swamp any message in the material.

The film focuses on the sprawling Moochmore family comprised of five daughters, a Sound of Music-obsessed mother Shirley and a mainly absent dad. Acutely aware of their mum’s loon status within the local community, the girls are locked in a strangely competitive battle to self-diagnose themselves as crazy. When Shirley’s tenuous grip on reality slips, she is institutionalized leaving bad dad Barry (Anthony LaPaglia) desperate to find a child minder. His bizarre remedy is to pick up a random hitch-hiker Shaz (Toni Colette) and install her as a nanny for his moody brood.

In fairness, depicted with limited screen time LaPaglia’s patriarch is a truly despicable creation. Incapable of distinguishing his daughters by name, the damage of his deliberate on-going absence from the family home is only matched by the equivalent havoc inflicted by his rare appearances.  In that context, it’s actually imaginable that he would consider it a good idea to put a homeless hippie with a switchblade in her boot in charge of his clan.

The re-union of Hogan with Toni Colette was probably crucial to this film securing funding. In turn Hogan’s clear desire to create a star turn for Colette unbalances the film.  Sadly, Shaz is probably more fun to play than she is to watch. Her campaign to convince the Moochmore girls that they are sane and normal is intermittently touching but contains plenty of dud moments too. Hogan populates his vision of stifling suburbia with a gallery of grotesques and clichés who are only present as easy targets to rebel against.

The film works in fits and starts but rarely reaches critical mass as a comedy. The first hour is particularly fitful coming across like a high pitched Australian version of Shameless. The vast central cast vie for screen time leaving fringe characters feeling completely indistinct and redundant. Again, the audience’s threshold will be tested to the limit by the film’s unfocused climax. Frankly, there are endless endings as Hogan indulgently ignores ample opportunities to tie the film up. It’s like a broken toy that can’t be turned off – but an audience will be turned off.

While the film may be an uneven blend of shock therapy and wholesome homespun wisdom, anyone in the mood for a colourful and camp confection with plenty of bawdy humour will find Mental fits the bill.

James Phelan

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

115 mins

Mental is released on 16th November 2012

 

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Another Look at ‘Looper’

DIR/WRI: Rian Johnson  PRO: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern   DOP: Steve Yedlin ED: Bob Ducsay  Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels

In the not too distant future, time travel has been invented but is strictly outlawed. A rule obeyed by all except major crime syndicates who send their enemies, opponents and problems back to the past to be eliminated. The assassins in the present who carry out this dirty work are known as Loopers.

During a vivid opening sequence, various victims materialise in a remote cornfield to be immediately dispatched by a shotgun blast. The unquestioning trigger man is Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who accepts the illicit money involved and the inevitable Faustian pact where one day his future self will suffer the same fate.

It’s a nifty premise and Joe receives a salient lesson in the folly of showing mercy when a colleague Seth (Paul Dano) allows his future self escape. In a startling scene, the older Seth is fleeing when his body is remotely afflicted by torture being inflicted on his younger self. The nightmarish effect is truly memorable and also weirdly subtle being bereft of blood but full of horror.

Joe is quickly plunged into the exact same dilemma when his older self proves an elusive target as he arrives for execution. Basically outwitted by himself, young Joe must track down older Joe or suffer the wrath of his criminal master. Older Joe is played by Bruce Willis and the physical discrepancy between the two actors is literally bridged by prosthetic work to Gordon-Levitt’s nose and face as well as tweaking his eye colour to match Willis.

To the film credit this casting choice is probably the biggest leap an audience has to take in a rare film where style and substance are in perfect equilibrium. Johnson doesn’t oversell his vision of the future. He shies away from Bladerunner scale to deliver a slightly advanced but recognisable universe where the focus is rightly kept on the engrossing story.

The film drops slightly short of masterpiece status mostly due to the unsavoury nature of older Joe’s mission in the past which involves child murders. The intensity of the storytelling also fades somewhat when the action switches to a remote farm as Emily Blunt’s character is belatedly introduced. However, it rouses itself for a surprisingly emotive and vaguely positive ending where a sliver of hope emerges.

Naturally, the myriad of sci-fi antecedents and influences are obvious throughout with Willis’ presence in particular recalling the not overly dissimilar Twelve Monkeys. Still, Johnson has largely plotted his own distinctive path to create a sharp intelligent blockbuster. This is slick, smart and visually impressive stuff.

James Phelan

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
118mins

Looper is released on 28th September 2012

Looper –  Official website

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