Review: Life

&NCS_modified=20170322134807&MaxW=640&imageVersion=default&AR-170329705

DIR: Daniel Espinosa • WRI: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick • PRO: Bonnie Curtis, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Julie Lynn• DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Mary Jo Markey, Frances Parker • DES: Nigel Phelps • DES: Jurgen Doering • MUS: Jon Ekstrand • CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal; Ryan Reynolds; Rebecca Ferguson

After extra-terrestrial cells discovered in Martian soil rapidly evolve into a violent and intelligent creature, astronauts on board the ISS struggle to contain it.

The fact that Life will inevitably be compared to Alien is only exacerbated by the fact that not once is the creature described as such – instead dubbed with the crowd-sourced moniker Calvin in a grade-school competition that tragically missed the boat on Alien McAlienface.

This aim to reflect “real-life” might have been an effort to go high where Ridley Scott’s classic horror goes low, grounding high concept science fiction in the modern day rather than the grimy pulp future of interstellar travel. The comparisons are nonetheless inescapable, though not necessarily unfavourable. Life also takes its time, ratcheting up the tension for slowburn release as the crew’s initially benign forays into study of the life-form turn disastrous.

It’s a tension the film manages to maintain throughout, aided by fantastic creature design that manages to attach untold dread to the appearance of what is essentially a malevolent banana peel. Body horror abounds as one-by-one the crew succumbs in ever more grisly ways, their fumbling course corrections in the effort to contain the creature nudging them further into calamity.

Cast-wise, like most horror films what we’re presented with are less fully-rounded characters than cannon-fodder with just enough baggage attached for it to register when each meets their inevitable end. The more recognisable cast play to their strengths here, Gyllenhaal quiet and vaguely neurotic and Ryan Reynolds playing Ryan-Reynolds-in-space.

Ultimately the film’s main strength is in successfully straddling the line between fantasy and reality without tipping too far in either direction. The station feels lived-in, fragile – the inherent vulnerability of life on-board as much a feature of the horror as the monster. Where Alien very quickly establishes itself as a classic monster movie, Life instead strives to keep the narrative grounded – or as grounded as any film featuring a sentient tea-towel as an antagonist can feel.

Though borrowing heavily from better films that went before, Life is nonetheless an entertaining entry to a tired genre that manages to stand alone by the simple refusal of the cast and crew involved to phone it in.

Ruairí Moore

103 minutes

15A See IFCO for details

Life is released 23rd March 2017

Life – Official Website

 

Share

The Canal – Review of Irish Film at Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015

06-The-Canal-WEB 

Ruairí Moore stretches his legs along The Canal, Ivan Kavanagh’s latest nightmare, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

So much of what constitutes classic horror is bound up in style and aesthetic – with each successive slasher flick where the order and extent of grotesquery is generally ranked by ethnicity or attractiveness, the gateway to the true shock and awe that horror is capable of providing creaks a little further shut. With The Canal, Ivan Kavanagh plants a foot in the jamb and barrels the door wide open.

A loving father and husband, David (Rupert Evans) is surprised to learn that his new family home was once the scene of a series of horrific murders. Initially dismissive, the mild-mannered film archivist soon begins to question his sanity when the brutal images begin to insinuate themselves among the various aspects of his personal life.

Nothing ground-breaking, but then it is not the plot that will see audiences stuck to their seats. Kavanagh’s love of cinema is immediately evident; the hum of film-reel and the snap-hiss of the projection light are the first images to startle, and it’s a device the director returns to time and time again.

Where much modern horror subsists on jump-scares, The Canal opts for a much more humdrum brand of dread, where the everyday is an invasive force. Sound design is key here, the growl of coat-zippers and the sudden slamming of doors adding a more ominous dimension the haunted-house scenario.

Neither is Kavanagh afraid to let silence and space stretch, favouring largely static cinematography but for the odd tight zoom – the end result is a gathering sense of genuine dread that is a welcome tonic to the flimsy and fleeting hysteria that is the foundation of so much of the genre.

There is much and more that could be said of the cast, but suffice to say that newcomers Kelly Byrne and Calum Heath can’t help but steal the show, particularly in the funny and all-too-brief respites from the unrelenting force that is the rest of the film.

Raw, visceral and atmospheric, The Canal is one of the best horror films to grace Irish screens in far too long a time, and possibly the best these shores have ever produced. For those unmoved by patriotic sycophancies, a decent core workout is promised at the very least.

 

The Canal screened on Saturday, 28th March 2015 at The Light House Cinema as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Check out our reviews of the Irish films that screened at this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Share

Seventh Son

Jeff-Bridges-and-Ben-Barnes-in-The-Seventh-Son

DIR: Sergey Bodrov • WRI: Charles Leavitt, Steven Knight •  PRO: Basil Iwanyk, Thomas Tull, Lionel Wigram • DOP: Newton Thomas Sigel • ED: Jim Page, Paul Rubell • MUS: Marco Beltrami • DES: Dante Ferretti • CAST: Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges

“What goes around, comes around” is one of those vague truisms that only truly applies in two contexts: pass-the-parcel and pop culture. The past decade alone has proven true for the latter, with the superhero genre having completed a full cycle from matinee fluff to box-office heavyweight – a certain be-cowled billionaire proving particularly symbolic of a shift from camp four-colour fun towards the grounded and gritty.

Even now, however, there is evidence of a return to nostalgia – just as Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe begins to court the more colourful aspects of its comic-book ancestry, Matthew Vaughn was all-too-happy to provide a similar tonic to a spy genre replete with Bournes and Bonds in the form of last month’s Kingsmen: The Secret Service.

So with Game of Thrones as the undisputed and unrelenting lord of television and most big-screen releases little more than copycats coasting in the wake of LOTR’s box-office success (its own sequel trilogy the greatest offender among them), the fantasy genre is set for a director to come along and breathe new life with a (semi-) original property that drags traditional fantasy kicking and screaming into the internet age.

And traditional Seventh Son certainly is.

John Ward (Ben Barnes) is the seventh son of a seventh son, and thus born to fight the forces of darkness besieging a medieval world where dragons, witches and shapeshifters are very much more than stories. With an old evil newly-awakened, he is sought out by Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), last of the Seventh Sons and in the market for a new apprentice after his last protégé fell to head witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore).

The fun brand of fantasy here owes less to Tolkien than it does to Dungeons & Dragons, where monsters are ranked by classes and the apple-pie American accent is standard, the British lilt reserved only for those of sinister intent. The other trappings, however, are pure fantasy – McGuffins masquerading as jewellery abound, and the quest aspect is but another iteration of the original conservative allegory of eliminating any outside forces which might attempt to change the world we live in – there would genuinely be more pathos in watching an order of Seventh Sons passively resist their doom in the form of increasing urbanization and smaller family sizes it fosters.

An engaging story can win out above all, but when the imagination is so starved in that regard the mind turns itself towards picking flaws that might have otherwise gone happily unnoticed. It’s hard to escape the idea that Seventh Sons would have been better off evoking the trappings of traditional fantasy without chaining itself to the most restrictive of them; each enemy is just another jingoistic stand-in for a sinister ethnic other, so that the plot essentially boils to white men whacking minorities with sticks. Watching the news is free, thanks.

As for the cast, no amount of gravitas can override this much unintentional ham. Julianne Moore channels a brand of camp better suited to a Hocus Pocus sequel and though Jeff Bridges fares better by going with the flow and opting for an accent somewhere between Bane and bronchitis, I’d have much preferred to see the film he thought he was making.

Ruairí Moore

 

12A (See IFCO for details)
102 minutes

Seventh Son is released 27th March 2015

Seventh Son – Official Website

 

Share

Insurgent

1insurgent

DIR: Robert Schwentke • WRI: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback •  PRO: Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian • DOP: Florian Ballhaus • ED: Stuart Levy, Nancy Richardson • MUS: Joseph Trapanese • DES: Alec Hammond • CAST: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Theo James, Naomi Watts

 

In an industry where practiced weariness at pop culture clichés has become a cliché in its own right, it can be hard to know how to approach franchise fodder. Hollywood chews up a thousand interesting ideas for every one it spits out, but occasionally something self-aware speckles our chin and we can wipe our collective faces and be glad. So it was armed with awkward metaphors and an open mind that I sat down to review Insurgent, the second entry in a series that was rapidly dubbed an Aldi-brand Hunger Games the moment it slipped off the YA assembly line.

Certainly, it shares many of the hallmarks; we follow Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), a tween saddled with survivor’s guilt after her daring escape from a future dystopian Chicago costs the lives of her mother, father, and many of her friends. Tris is Divergent, genetically predisposed not to easily fit into any one of the five factions on which the security of this future society rests, and thus a threat to the entire system. So far, so bleh.

Where the film gets truly interesting, however, is in its own reflection of an admittedly simplistic core concept. As the heroes fend off an attack on board a moving train early on, Tris is left dangling inches above the rails as her brother Caleb watches on. An erstwhile member of the most cerebral and ruthless of the factions, Caleb has already expressed misgivings about their rebellion, reasoning that while the faction system is certainly oppressive, it also provides stability in a post-war society – which the very existence of his sister threatens. For the brief moment in which his face becomes cold and impassive as his sister fights to survive, I thought I might be watching a very different kind of film indeed.

But alas, Insurgent is not 30 minutes long but 119, and the hour and half to follow only compounds the overriding flaw that prevents it from being anything other than a reasonably-priced anaesthetic for the arse – namely the inability to allow well-acted, interesting archetypes to aspire to any more shading than your average stick figure.

Strung together by SFX-ridden set pieces, the rest of the plot sees Tris and co. flee Kate Winslet’s Aryan librarian (libr-Aryan?) antagonist to meet up with the obligatory black-clad insurgents, led by a severely-underutilised Naomi Watts. The cast manage to wrangle as much as possible from the material, Woodley in particular bringing some raw nerves to an otherwise blank slate, but it is ultimately not enough to rise above the film’s many flaws – weird science and henchman myopia but minor among them.

The very cause that our heroes fight for – the idea that we are all born equal, despite how society might try to divide us – is regularly undermined by conflicts resolved only because Tris is superior – genetically so- and it’s a core contradiction that ultimately defines the entire film. With a plot so deeply focused on the idea of breaking free from constraints placed upon us by time-honoured tradition, Insurgent’s overriding inclination is to play it safe.

 

Ruairí Moore

12A (See IFCO for details)
118 minutes

Insurgent is released 20th March 2015

Insurgent – Official Website

Share

Ex Machina

ex-machina

DIR/WRI: Alex Garland • PRO: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich • DOP: Rob Hardy • ED: Mark Day • MUS: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury • DES: Mark Digby • CAST: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

With consistent critical acclaim under his belt, it has almost become incumbent upon sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland to take authorship of a production of his own in order to truly earn the all-hallowed hyphen in “writer-director”.

Anyone who feared that the writer’s directorial debut would abandon the cerebral, doughty fare of his previously-penned Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and roughly 15 minutes of 2011’s Dredd need not have worried – more than any of Garland’s previous efforts, Ex Machina weighs the heavier side of science fiction and what it means to be human. A question as old as the genre itself and exhausted to boot, most would say; however, it is not in the concept itself but the quiet confidence of its delivery that Garland establishes himself as much more than a pen on paper.

Eternal everyman Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer invited to spend a week at the mountaintop retreat of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive tech magnate on the cusp of creating true artificial intelligence. His brilliant but overbearing host has chosen Caleb to be the human component in the Turing test, designed to determine whether the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) is truly sentient – but as the test progresses, Caleb begins to wonder if he himself isn’t part of a larger game between creator and creation.

It is in the quiet, understated interactions between the characters that Garland truly delivers a worthy examination of our notion of identity. Much like most of Garland’s previous work, Ex Machina sees a small core of characters thrown together under extreme confines and examines the shifting power-dynamics that follow.

Caleb’s sessions with Ava unfurl with deliberate care and increasing warmth, punctuated by exchanges with the acerbic Nathan; by turns swaggeringly drunk and startlingly – almost savagely – lucid, Ava’s creator seems simultaneously eager to see Caleb fail even as he seeks validation of his own genius, so that their every conversation becomes as much of a power-play as that between man and machine.

Spare cinematography and low, throbbing synths manage to make a prison of Nathan’s airy mountain home, the latter landing somewhere squarely between Blade Runner and Mass Effect without being overly indebted to either.

However, it is unquestionably Vikander’s turn as Ava that pulls the film head-and-shoulders above most other efforts on the same theme. Beguiling and beseeching by turns, Ava is as empathetic as she is utterly alien, and Vikander underplays these contradictions with all the insidiousness they require to avoid lapsing into yet another iteration of woman-as-object on screen.

Restrained, understated and above all atmospheric, Ex Machina may not break new ground on a much-overplayed theme but provides a breath of fresh air nonetheless, delivering a sci-fi thriller with easy sex and violence that are an afterthought to something more cerebral.

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)
108 minutes
Ex Machina
is released 16th January 2015

Ex Machina – Official Website

Share

American Sniper

scope

DIR: Clint Eastwood • WRI: Jason Hall • PRO: Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar, Robert Lorenz, Peter Morgan • DOP: Tom Stern • ED: Joel Cox, Gary Roach • DES: Charisse Cardenas, James J. Murakami • CAST: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Brian Hallisay, Luke Grimes

In reviewing Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper – the latest in an almost obnoxiously prolific directorial career – much has been made of the film’s position on the war in Iraq, whether as a chest-beating tribute to the troops or a morally-distilled and utterly misleading account of a man whose trade could be called murder but for the stars-and-stripes pinned to his chest.

True enough, Sniper has plenty of time to deliver on both fronts; over a run-time in excess of two hours, there is sufficient flag-waving and male bonding to satisfy even the deepest of patriotic fervours. Likely more palatable to those dismissing the story as reductive are the slight dips into fancy in an otherwise taut and grounded tale; comrades confide in one another moments before becoming so much cannon fodder, and an obscure enemy sniper (barely mentioned in the source material) turns up as a bandanna-wearing, rooftop-leaping nemesis against whom our hero must test himself – though not before the audience is treated to the obligatory revelation of the “We are not so different, you and I” variety.

Both views, however, overlook the true strength of the piece, clearly outlined in the film’s opening moments. Propped on a rooftop with a young Iraqi boy caught in his sights and a commanding officer bleating in his ear, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) flashes back to the Texas of his youth, his father outlining the moral foundation that will bring him to this point – that the world consists only of wolves, sheep, and those willing to stand between.

It is in the soldier’s struggle to reconcile his clean and unquestioning view of what is right with what he sees through his rifle-scope that American Sniper truly shines. Full credit is due to Cooper here, who sheds the easy charm of earlier roles to deliver perhaps the most understated performance of his career. As four tours of war slowly transform the easy-going and unassuming cowboy into a relentless and near-fanatic killer, it is actually the moments at home that deliver the most, as Kyle goes about the day-to-day tasks of modern suburbia with a barely-restrained violence that’s difficult to watch.

Does American Sniper paint a more sympathetic picture of its hero than even a quick Google search might suggest of its inspiration? Perhaps. Equally the film fails to provide a broader contextual view of the conflict itself, but by the latter stages this very much feels like the point – as the initial battle cries fade and the post-911 fury lapses instead into a grudging war of attrition in which Kyle and his comrades are but further flesh on the scales, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the illusion of fighting for a cause he can believe in.

Far from Eastwood’s best but certainly a return to form, this is a film on a subject so contentious it seems destined to provide ammunition enough for near any perspective – those hoping for a nuanced look at the problematic notion of patriotism might perhaps find a little more.

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)
132 minutes.
American Sniper
is released 16th January 2015.

American Sniper – Official Website

Share

The Skeleton Twins

THE-SKELETON-TWINS-r3-1-1-2.JPG

DIR: Craig Johnson   WRI: Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson   PRO: Stephanie Langhoff, Jennifer Lee, Jacob Pechenik  • DOP: Reed Morano ED: Jennifer Lee  DES: Ola Maslik MUS: Nathan Larson  CAST: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson

It has become an unspoken trope of the comic actor’s career that they must, at some point, try to “break out” – to land a role with enough dramatic weight that they might slip free of whatever one-liner or  bit role previously defined them in the eyes of the audience. Some succeed, many don’t, but even the most successful of these ventures can often feel like a career move posited in a publicist’s office rather than a genuine desire to break form.

 

Not so with The Skeleton Twins; director Craig Johnson’s second effort sees estranged twins Maggie and Milo reunited after a shared trauma in their lives – namely their separate attempts at suicide on the same day, hundreds of miles apart. With SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig taking a turn as the titular twins, this could have easily been a cynical vehicle for actors aiming to establish dramatic chops. Instead what unfolds is a nuanced, understated drama with a biting comic edge that can’t help but be sincere.

 

Fresh from a spell in hospital, a reluctant Milo moves in with his sister, oblivious to the fact that his emergency phone-call only just interrupted her own attempt at an overdose. Appalled at her seemingly picket-fence marriage to the uncomplicated Lance (Luke Wilson), Milo is determined to reconnect with the sister he remembers, only to discover the more that he picks at the threads of her life, the more it unravels.

 

Anchored by excellent performances from all involved (Luke Wilson in particular does surprising things with the dull, puppy-like Lance), it is this quietly desperate edge that sets The Skeleton Twins apart from other mumblecore fare. Where the indie sub-genre is largely typified by protagonists suffering early onset mid life crises or a long awaited coming-of-age, The Skeleton Twins instead revolves around stasis, the quiet traumas that creep up on you.

 

Much will be made of the chemistry between Wiig and Hader, and for good reason – their easy banter is put to great use here, encompassing the improvised skits we’re used to seeing as well as achingly awkward moments where forced punchlines fail to fill the silence. Mishandled, the subject matter could have very easily tipped over into something trite, but instead plays out as something a little more nuanced that resists the urge to tidy up after itself.

Ruairí Moore

12A (See IFCO for details)

169 minutes

The Skeleton Twins is released 7th November 2014
The Skeleton Twins – Official Website

 

 

 

 

Share

The Guarantee

guarantee

DIR: Ian Power   WRI: Colin Murphy   PRO: John Kelleher  DOP: Cian de Buitléar   ED: Vinny Beirne  DES: Ray Ball   MUS: Stefan French CAST: Peter Coonan, David Murray, Orla Fitzgerald, Gary Lydon, Morgan C. Jones, Jesse Morris

Rarely enough do we see Irish cinema aim for any type of self-reflection lacking the padding of time and thematic distance; accounts of Bloody Sunday and the Guildford Four crept onto our screens twenty years after the fact, and more recent exercises in navel-gazing have thrust more towards some sense of the Irish spirit or character without any contextual foundation in current events.

Not at all to our discredit, mind – it is simply that Ian Power’s The Guarantee is a beast of a different kind. Based on Colin Murphy’s stage play Guaranteed!, the film takes us through 2008’s banking collapse, a defining event still very much an open wound in the national psyche.

Spanning the lead-up to and events of the critical night on which the government agreed to prop up the ailing financial system, it is bold and relevant subject matter for which any Irish artist should be applauded for tackling. Even if, as in this case, it veers slightly wide of the mark.

From the outset, The Guarantee strives manfully to prop itself between the two stools of documentary and drama, but ends up heaped between the two. Talking heads and TV3 newsreel punctuate sterile, studio-shot tracking sequences and eerily back-lit press conferences. Headlines and frantic email exchanges flutter across the screen, as fleeting as any effort to ground the audience in human moments amidst a flurry of economic jargon and bankers so sinister they lack only cloven hooves and moustaches for the twirling.

The characterization is one of the more disappointing aspects – The Guarantee posits itself as a drama first, but for the notable exception of David Murray’s underplayed Finance Minister Brian Lenihan (and perhaps Gary Lydon’s underserved Taoiseach Brian Cowan), the cast largely melds into a parade of frowning suits blaring but one note.

An effort to render a political thriller in the tradition of All The President’s Men with the high-value gloss of The Social Network,  The Guarantee ultimately fails to capture the style or substance of either. It is, however, a worthy effort to open dialogue on an issue that is as incomprehensible to the general Irish public (this reviewer included) as it is all-pervading in their day-to-day lives.

 

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)

76 minutes

The Guarantee is released 31st October 2014

 

 

Share