Our podders return after a Film Ireland funded extended holiday to look back on the last couple of months in cinema. Dividing their time between tropical islands and cinemas in Dublin, Sarah Cullen and Richard Drumm take out their film scalpel and get under the skin of Extra Ordinary, Joker, Harriet, The Irishman, The Laundromat, La Belle Époque, Hustlers, Gemini Man and Ready or Not.
DIR: Kasi Lemmons • WRI: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons• DOP: John Toll • ED: Wyatt Smith • DES: Warren Alan Young • PRO: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard • MUS: Terence Blanchard • CAST: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters
When Harriet (Cynthia Envo) realises that she must escape from slavery or suffer getting sold down the river she cannot risk speaking to her mother, Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway). Instead, she reveals her plan in the form of a spiritual, singing to Rit while she is still toiling in the fields. It’s at moments like this that Kasi Lemmons’s biopic Harriet hits home: showing the collective pain shared by those in slavery, while also demonstrating the strategies the enslaved employed to circumvent daily injustices.
Where Harriet is perhaps not so successful is in its portrayal of its central figure, slave-turned-liberator Harriet Tubman, who single-handedly rescued 70 others from slavery and lead armed expeditions in the Civil war. While Envo endows her protagonist with a quiet certainty, the narrative feels less comfortable giving Harriet too much agency too early. Instead, after fleeing her plantation in Maryland, leaving her family and husband, she must go on an overly conventional hero’s journey in which a mix of historical and fictional characters instruct her on how to escape slavery and become an abolitionist. The historical Tubman’s belief in her direct interactions with God is played down: this sadly ends up feeling like a watering down of Harriet’s personality.
Harriet explores some interesting new ground in the slave narrative genre, highlighting some of the diverging opinions in the abolitionist experience as seen in Harriet’s relationship with real-life Underground Railroad conductor and historian William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and a strong female relationship between Harriet and fictional wealthy freewoman Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). However, in other ways, Harriet is hampered by an over-reliance on the genre. In particular, too much time is taken up following a personal enmity between Harriet and her former slave owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). While Harriet undeniably risked danger at every step at the hands of bloodthirsty slavers who would stop at nothing to take down the mythical slave-liberator “Moses,” one suspects that filmmakers could figure out a way to highlight the plight of African American individuals without foregrounding white characters and actors.
Much of Harriet’s escape is portrayed as a sprint through the rural South as she narrowly avoids slave catchers and their hounds. This certainly lends the film an exciting, adventurous quality to it: however, it begins to strain credulity when every fugitive appears to have the lung capacity and muscular strength of an Olympic track athlete. And indeed, Harriet in general has something of a speeded-up quality to it, as certain fascinating aspects of Tubman’s life are glossed over.
If this review appears to be overly nit-picky that’s because it is. Harriet brings a lot of good to the table and more should be done to remember the extraordinary women who fought and continue to fight for Black civil rights in America. Tubman may in some ways just be too extraordinary a figure to fully capture in the form of a biopic. Ultimately, Harriet is an admirable and thought-provoking look at a pivotal figure in American history, and well worth the watch.
DIR/WRI: Nicolas Bedos • DOP: Nicolas Bolduc • ED: Anny Danché, Stéphane Garnier, Florent Vassault • DES: Stéphane Rozenbaum • PRO: Martin Metz • MUS: Nicolas Bedos, Anne-Sophie Versnaeyen• CAST: Daniel Auteuil, Guillaume Canet, Doria Tillier, Fanny Ardant
Poor Victor Drummond (Daniel Auteuil). He lost his job as a comic-book illustrator because of the horrible modern world in which everyone worships the internet all the time. These days he has to suffer through life as a kept man while his wife and son make pots of money and try to convince him to accept well-paid work on their streaming service.
Forgive me my skepticism, but for some reason I’m just finding it harder to buy into the dilemma of the poor little well-off white guy as found in Nicolas Bedos’ La Belle Époque these days. Maybe it’s simply a moral failing of mine. Hmm.
Anyhow, Victor’s son Maxime (Michaël Cohen) is luckily not entirely devoid of use when he gifts Victor a voucher for an innovative re-enactment entertainment package, in which he gets to pick the time period. Think of the packages as escape rooms, except instead of escaping a room of puzzles there’s, um, history. Victor picks the date in 1974 when he first met his recently estranged wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant) and soon finds himself on a carefully recreated life-size set of the street and bar in which they first locked eyes. Cue much romantic comedy as Antoine, the producer and director of Victor’s time-travelling experience, repeatedly bullies his employee Margot, the actor playing the younger Marriane (Doria Tiller). Don’t worry though, he’s troubled and loves her so it’s apparently fine.
Comparisons have been made between La Belle Époque and the work of Charlie Kaufmann. However, what came to the fore for this reviewer was more similar to Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. While Victor may have signed up for this immersive recreation of reality, the lengths to which Antoine and his crew go in order to control and observe Victor certainly cross the line into unacceptable. However, disappointingly, and in contrast to The Truman Show, despite being ostensibly critical of the problems of technology, La Belle Époque has curiously little to say about the dangers of surveillance in the modern era.
To give the film some light praise, La Belle Époque sets out to be provocative as demonstrated in the film’s frenetic opening regency-era sequence, replete with raunchiness and sudden shocks. It does succeed. The fast-paced, at times exhausting editing slows down as the film travels back to Victor’s more simple, idealised era. This was preferable but only just, considering that providing certain characters with more nuance did not necessarily improve events.
Who knows? Maybe I would have been more entertained by Victor’s exploits if it didn’t take the world literally being turned into a playground for his own desires and a huge cast of characters provided to accede to his every whim in order for him to learn some surprisingly banal and rudimentary lessons about life. But that’s the plight of the poor little well-off white guy these days and I will prepare my tiny violin accordingly.
DIR: Ang Lee • WRI: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke • DOP: Dion Beebe • ED: Tim Squyres • DES: Lucio Seixas • PRO: Jerry Bruckheimer, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger • MUS: Lorne Balfe • CAST: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen
Kids these days. Not only are they spending all their money on skinny lattes while simultaneously hoarding their wealth, they’re also ruining the action-hero genre. That is, at least, according to Ang Lee’s latest film, in which middle-aged men are the characters with agency who not only save the world but also threaten it with danger. Millennials just seem to get in the way of everything with their constant neediness.
Gemini Man follows Henry Brogan, the older Will Smith, an elite assassin who is about retire, when he himself becomes the target of a failed assassination attempt. Escaping to Europe with fellow agent Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he discovers that he has been cloned to create an improved version of himself – ingeniously named Junior, just in case we were confused. When the two Smiths first come face-to-face it’s hard not to think about the cop from Bright trying to swat away the Fresh Prince: the film is at its best when engaging in ridiculous, over-the-top action set pieces, but even those are few and far between. If nothing else, it’s rather fascinating that the aspect of the younger Smith with which the CGI has the most problem representing is his upper lip, inviting us to question the directorial choice to draw attention to it by having him licking ice cream while watching a simulated army training montage. Yes, that is a thing that happens.
For most of its run-time Gemini Man is far from thrilling and appears stuck in nostalgia for a bygone time when manly men manfully transversed the globe in luxury jets saving the world. Henry’s ex-colleagues are all men of a certain age who appear to still be the ones saving the world despite (or perhaps due to) their opulent lifestyles (although this reviewer is happy to admit she is always delighted to see Benedict Wong doing well for himself). The film also sets the low bar of expecting kudos for not having Henry engage in sexual relations with Danny. Gotta start somewhere, I suppose.
Where Gemini Man gets particularly squeaky is in its politics regarding the younger generation. The problem with Junior, despite being a born-and-bred assassin, is that his father figure (Clive Owen) coddled him as a child. He is, as a result, simultaneously a cold-blooded killer and also a spoilt brat with no direction. There probably should be some interesting commentary to be found about incels hidden beneath it all, except for the fact that we’re watching it from the point of view of heroic boomers who just happen to know what’s best for the poor little disturbed millennial boy. While we get the ages of both Smiths, Winstead’s Danny is that eternal age of women in Hollywood action: approximately thirty (probably?) but with little-to-no character development so it doesn’t really matter.
The whole project would likely be a lot more enjoyable if it wasn’t for the woeful script in which characters never say anything that the audience hasn’t already anticipated. If nothing else, for those watching it in 3D there are some enjoyable scenes in which the depth-of-field is carefully used to enhance the action. For the rest of us, unless you’re an Ang Lee completist, it’s far from necessary.
Sarah Cullen takes a look at Kim Longinotto’s powerful documentary which strips back the glamorous image of the Sicilian Mafia, showing the harsh reality of life, death and business at the hands of those who wield it.
After being bowled over last year by Sicilian Ghost Story, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s haunting fictional rendering of the real-life mafia kidnapping and murder of Giuseppe di Matteo, the son of a mafia informant, my interest was piqued when I heard about the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival’s showing of Shooting the Mafia. Kim Longinotto’s documentary examines the work of photographer Letizia Battaglia who has spent decades capturing the crimes of the Sicilian mafia. Guiseppe’s unimaginable ordeal is not mentioned, which says far more about the bloody history of the notorious crime syndicate than it does about the documentary: as demonstrated by Battaglia’s haunting photography, there have been countless Giuseppes since she began recording their violence since the 1970s.
The first female photographer to be employed by an Italian newspaper as well as the first Italian photojournalist to document the mafia’s violence, Battaglia’s life and work are both explored throughout. At the age of only sixteen she entered into a constricting marriage to escape from her controlling father. After her divorce she took up photojournalism. Using her camera she took over 600,000 photos recording the death and destruction wrought across Sicily by mob violence. Shooting the mafia, in Battaglia’s case, frequently meant recording the aftermath of their actions: inert bodies in their own blood, funerals, the destruction of vehicles. Inevitably, her life is part of the wider fabric of Sicily: she became a target of threats from the mafia and relates her own grief at the deaths of other resistors against the regime. Through it all the photographs she never took, she observes, are the ones that haunt her the most.
Longinotto’s ambitions to push at the boundaries of the documentary form are highlighted early on: as she highlighted in the Q&A afterwards, alongside photography and other archived recordings, Battaglia’s life is illustrated with footage from early Italian cinema. Drawing comparison between the men who attempted to prevent Battaglia’s creative freedom as a young woman and the mafia which circumscribed the freedoms of Sicily, Longinotto draws a line between the importance of personal creativity and the self-determination of an entire community. In its many uses of multimedia, Shooting the Mafia explores the possibilities of art as a tool for challenging violence.
Coming out of Shooting the Mafia, I felt like I had more questions than answers. In a certain sense, it’s difficult to know for sure what the focus of Longinotto’s chronicle is: Battaglia’s life, her photography, or the struggles of Sicily. But then again, this may be appropriate considering the multiple meanings of focus in a filmed recording of a rumination on the possibilities of photography. Like Battaglia’s own photography, which approaches its subject matter in an oblique manner, Shooting the Mafia approaches Battaglia in an oblique manner, through her romantic relationships, her photography, and her political career. One suspects there is much that Battaglia is keeping from the viewer: moreover, one suspects that is the intention of an individual who approaches the world from behind the camera.
DIR: Olivia Wilde • WRI Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman • DOP: Jason McCormick • ED: Jamie Gross • PRO: Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Megan Ellison Katie Silberman • DES: Katie Byron • MUS: Dan Nakamura • CAST: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis
What can one hope for from a female coming-of-age comedy 2019? I for one went into Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart hoping that it would be this year’s Blockers (which was, in turn, the previous year’s Bad Neighbours 2). And reader, it did not disappoint.
Following the fortunes of two model students on their final day of high school, Amy (Kaitlyn Deever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have avoided parties and general tomfoolery in favour of study and intellectual rigour throughout their school careers to ensure success later in life. This backfires when they discover that the rest of their graduating class has also been accepted to Harvard and Yale. Looking to make up for lost time, the two girls set off on an odyssey of graduation parties. Yes, it is in many ways the female version of Superbad. And while in one way it’s sad that we have had to wait over a decade for such a film to appear, it’s perhaps also a very good thing that no one attempted a female version of Superbad ten years ago.
While it’s undeniably satisfying to see new films flipping the script on the assumptions Hollywood has made about American high school since the ’80s, the film does occasionally overplay its hand. Almost every character turns out to be something they’re not, which at times can be exhausting, particularly for characters that had barely any screen time in the first place. However, this isn’t to take away from the impressive supporting cast and the good intentions behind it all: it’s nice to see a diverse array of high school characters wherein everyone is treated as an individual, and long may the dismantling of the Hollywood hierarchy continue.
And for many reasons, Booksmart feels worth the wait, bringing together as it does two fantastic leads who have deserved more screen time for quite a while now: Kaitlyn Deever managed to be a kick-ass kid in television’s adult-focused Justified while Beanie Feldstein was the infinitely likeable best friend in Lady Bird (and should have been the focus of the movie, in this reviewer’s humble opinion). Together they bring a wonderful combined energy to the film, with lots of the comedy coming from their offbeat exchanges. Despite seeing each other daily, they take plenty of time to send each other constant encouragement, which is as sweet as it is bizarre. As a spiritual sequel to Blockers it also follows in that film’s progressive steps: Amy is out and, aside from her Christian parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) who are stepping over themselves to demonstrate their acceptance of their daughter, her sexuality doesn’t raise any eyebrows. And indeed, if Molly fails to understand the nuances of her best friend’s sexuality at times, it’s her own misunderstanding of female sexuality that is the butt of the joke. “I have a secret for you.” she tells Amy: “I once tried to masturbate with an electric toothbrush, but I got a horrible UTI.”
Hopefully we will see more directing from Wilde and her all-female writing team, as they have succeeded in creating a laugh-out-loud comedy which explores the nuances of female friendship and permits its characters to make mistakes. Booksmart graduates with top marks (but doesn’t forget to have fun along the way).
102 minutes 16 (see IFCO for details) Booksmart is released 27th May 2019
Sarah Cullen and Richard Drumm address the nation and share their latest jibber jabber on some new films that people have made for you to see, including dream-chasing and drug-taking in Wild Rose, spotting Dublin streets in Greta, and high-school yarns in 8th Grade and Book Smart.
Sarah takes a look at three Netflix films with women drinking in Wine Country, a lack of murders in Who Would you Take to a Desert Island, and alive ghosts in Suzzanna: Buried Alive.
Richard takes his seat at the High Table and discusses the endless shoot-outs of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, nonsense in the cinema at Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, and the pointlessness of Vox Lux.
And finally there’s the glass cliff of Avengers: Endgame (were they tears Richard?)