Review: Marriage Story

DIR/WRI: Noah Baumbach • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Jennifer Lame • DES: Jade Healy • PRO: Noah Baumbach, Leslie Converse, David Heyman • MUS: Randy Newman • CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Merritt Wever, Adam Driver

It’s already well documented that this is much more a divorce story, as writer director Noah Baumbach utilises the dissolution of one relationship to rail against an entire industry set up to profit from marital breakdowns.  Naturally, Noah is far too reserved to actually howl against the very real business of divorce in America but he does steep the entire film in a palpable air of anguish and occasionally anger. Mercifully he doesn’t exclude humour from the mix and it’s that seam that makes the bleak bearable and the characters warm enough to root for. 

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play an agonisingly hip theatre couple, ostensibly happy in New York, but the fault-lines in their relationship turn into chasms when Scarlet’s character Nicole moves to her hometown of LA to shoot a TV pilot. Divorce proceedings start in a civilised manner with an apparent pact to not lawyer-up and an expressed desire to remain friends during an amiable division where their child is the mutual priority. This film suggests that these good intentions simply curdle in the adversarial culture of American divorce and so it comes to pass – a gradual ramping up results in each side siccing their own legal Rottweilers on the other. The rival attorneys, as depicted deftly by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, pass as personable, seductively reasonable and even sympathetic to the other side. And yet the creeping drift into costly trench warfare is painfully inevitable. 

I wasn’t personally paying enough, or frankly any attention to Bambauch’s private life prior to seeing this film. So I didn’t know that he has been through a divorce in recent years. Naturally, he must be mining his experiences and collated observations here but he is at pains to be balanced and depict both parties fairly and warmly. Giving each character equal agency and air though can’t dismiss the notion that his sympathies tilt at a discernible point in the direction of Driver’s character Charlie. The theatre director’s initial dazed bemusement gradually slides into utter disdain for the process itself and its complicit practitioners. Even the cuddliest lawyer of the bunch, played with immense grace by Alan Alda, isn’t immune to a tongue-lashing from Charlie who rightly assumes every moment is at his expense. The lawyers’ giddy excitement at where to order lunch literally turns Charlie’s stomach.

Though attracting raves everywhere, the film is often as imperfect as the people it portrays. Like all auteurs with any modicum of autonomy, Baumbach has pushed the running time to patience and bladder testing extremes. At certain points, one might wonder if we are watching this divorce in real time. 136 minutes might not sound long these days but dwell on the fact that it’s a film about a testing, stressful divorce, not a Marvel film with twenty five minutes of credits. 

Equally, however heartfelt and organic the emotions, the film falls into the trap of often mistaking arguments for drama. Spending time in the company of bickering couples is low on everyone’s priority list in real life. Expecting us to seek it out at the cinema seems wildly optimistic from the filmmakers. And finally the film never quite sheds the ambience of the ‘improv space’ as if weeks of character work has been transported in from some black-box rehearsal room without some judicious pruning. And a final warning, Marriage Story joins the pantheon of super awkward first-date movies. Don’t get fooled by the jaunty poster of two beaming movie stars. Anyone wandering in expecting a rom-com may get a rude awakening.

That said, here is a list of some of the film’s many attributes. It’s raw, honest, heartfelt, compassionate, sensitive, tender, touching, witty and charming. Praise be to any film hitting these heights and plumbing these depth simultaneously.  Hats off to all involved. 

James Phelan

136′ 41″
15A (see IFCO for details)

Marriage Story is released 15th November 2019

Marriage Story – Official Website

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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’

Striking-Out-Amy-Huberman

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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