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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