Review: Us

DIR/WRI: Jordan Peele PRO: Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele • DOP: Mike Gioulakis  ED: Nicholas Monsour• DES: Ruth De Jong  MUS: Michael Abels • CAST: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss

I’m still a bit miffed that Jordan Peele didn’t run with my super-cool idea for his film. Picture this: the movie opens with the title card for Us, except it’s obscured by some sort of spooky fog. Then, as the fog clears, the title card comes into sharper focus and – what’s that? Two dots have appeared! It’s not Us as we imagined, but instead U.S.! The United States! On the big screen! Who’d have imagined?! Aaaand, fade to black, the end. But Peele had his own ideas, just not quite as nuanced as my own, and I can respect that. And since Us turned out to be well paced, tense, and genuinely scary, I have to hand it to him: he did not need my help this time.

In Peele’s new horror, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) is haunted by a trauma that has remained with her for over thirty years: as a young girl, she was briefly separated from her parents while at a beach-front carnival and only vaguely remembers what she endured while exploring an abandoned hall of mirrors. Returning to the same beach three decades later with her family in toe, Adelaide fears that whatever she has been trying to avoid all that time is about to catch up with her. It appears that her fears are not unfounded when four enigmatic figures, all dressed in red, appear outside their holiday home one night. When they break in and come face-to-face with the Wilson family, the Wilson family discover their doubles staring back.

While Us might not be quite as good as Peele’s breakout debut Get Out, it’s certainly the most immediately scary of the two (whereas the Sunken Place in Get Out had me feeling sick to my stomach, the cat-and-mouse games throughout Us had me watching through my fingers), and surely that is one reasonable metric by which to measure your horror. Starting off evocative of other terrifying home invasion narratives such as The Strangers and The Invitation, Peele’s second film, like Get Out, reveals its machinations originate in a landscape located somewhere between the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Not unlike the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, this enables Peele to explore the implications of the surface of society in comparison to what remains unseen.

Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic as both versions of Adelaide: both the socially awkward loner and over-protective mother protagonist, and the terrifying crack-voiced double who appears to be spearheading the doppelgänger attack. Winston Duke plays Adelaide’s husband, Gabe, a likeable if somewhat bumbling boat enthusiast. What with his square glasses, beard and comic relief, he comes across as something of a Peele-a-like. If I were to fault the casting in any way it would be a criminal under-use of the incredibly funny Tim Heidecker as the father of a fellow vacationing family and frenemy of Gabe (that’s right, I’m taking no prisoners here).

While Us couldn’t really be said to be a sequel to Get Out it does still tackle many of the same ideas, particularly in relation to the commodification of the (both African and non-African) American body. I am already anticipating plenty of discussion regarding the significance of the doppelgängers’ red costumes, for starters. Beyond the immediate nail-biting horror there is plenty to mull over, and indeed it feels like a movie that will reward repeat viewings. All I can say for now is that, after one viewing, Us feels like a puzzle that disconcertingly doesn’t seem to quite fit together: maybe you’re not looking at it the right way up, maybe there’s a piece missing, or maybe you’ve just realised your double is hiding under the table and is really putting you off. Whatever the reason, Us remains disturbingly oblique and is probably all the better for it.

Sarah Cullen

116 minutes
16 (see IFCO for details)
Us is released 22nd March 2019

 

 

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Review: Under the Silver Lake

DIR/WRI: David Robert Mitchell PRO: Chris Bender, Michael De Luca, Adele Romanski, Jake Weiner • DOP: Mike Gioulakis  ED: Julio Perez IV • DES: Michael Perry  MUS: Disasterpeace • CAST: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace

 

Is it impressive that Under the Silver Lake manages to be a lot stranger than the trailer implies (and the trailer is quite odd in and of itself). I don’t know if  that’s impressive, but I feel it’s worth mentioning. Sometimes trailers these days don’t give away the whole movie, which is something to admire. If this seems like faint praise, it sort of is. Because while an attempt to make something Pynchon-esque yet more accessible for the screen is in and of itself far from unwelcome, director David Robert Mitchell’s over-indulgent run-time and some undercooked storylines mean it is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.  

Andrew Garfield’s Sam is an aimless young slacker living in L.A. whose money is just about to run out. He spends much of his time in Rear Window fashion, spying on his female neighbours in his condo and engaging in conspiracy theories. After encountering a mysterious new women, Sarah (Riley Keogh), at the swimming pool, Sam falls for her and spends the evening with her, only to discover the next morning that she and her roommates have all left in the night. Wondering whether her disappearance has anything to do with the recent sudden death of a local billionaire or a prophetic zine, Sam starts following clues which lead him into the underworld (occasionally literally) of Hollywood.

While not without some enjoyable sleuthing for both the protagonist and audience, Sam’s character is perhaps a microcosm of the film’s problems as a whole. We never really get a strong sense of what exactly Sam believes beyond the fact that he, um, thinks that pop culture has secret messages embedded in it that are meant for rich people. Yeah. This admittedly could be a good starting point for a character (or indeed a movie), but requires a lot more fleshing out to become something interesting. As it is, the central mystery of the film feels similarly like a bare-bones outline of a finished work, with a whole load of unnecessary red herrings thrown in (to take my example above, I feel I was being rather charitable in comparing the film to Rear Window. Quite frankly, Sam’s just a Peeping Tom). Where Mitchell’s film is more successful in evoking its competing themes of anxiety and nostalgia for twentieth-century popular culture is in its visuals and soundtrack: aesthetically impressive and gorgeously edited, Under the Silver Lake certainly feels appropriately neo-noirish as Sam wanders around in a fugue of Los Angeles-tinged uncertainty.

It’s also disappointing to see how Under the Silver Lake under-uses its cast beyond Garfield. Garfield himself is hugely likeable (arguably more than the character should be) and capable as a protagonist who could easily have been unforgettable as an author or audience surrogate and as such is hugely pivotal in maintaining engagement in the film. However, beyond Garfield the impressive supporting cast are almost all reduced to glorified cameos, with Topher Grace, Jimmi Simpson and Laura-Leigh Clare appearing in only in a small number of scenes. Particularly glaring is Zosia Mamet’s Troy, seemingly Sam’s friend with benefits who, despite featuring heavily in the first half of the film, is not seen again.

While Under the Silver Lake may be well-intentioned in its attempt to explore the dark underbelly of the American movie business, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that it attributes so little agency to the victims of the Hollywood Machine. The gone girl supposedly at the centre of the tale is not so much a character in her own right but an excuse for the protagonist to indulge in his nostalgia, something we’ve seen far too often. To the film’s credit there are some wonderfully zany moments which should pique interests throughout (and in particular a short-lived horror villain which will probably give me nightmares). On the other hand, it’s hard to know whether the film’s scattergun approach works overall (I refuse to believe that R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency?” is anyone’s dance number). Perhaps the most surprising part of this Hollywood puzzler is just how conventional it is.

 

Sarah Cullen

139 minutes
16 (see IFCO for details)
Under the Silver Lake is released 15th March 2019

 

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Film Ireland Podcast: Episode 33 – Sandblasted and Dehydrated

 

Sarah Cullen and Richard Drumm are back in your ear to deliver their take on the Oscars. Plus amongst their reviews, Sarah implores you not to see Dragged Across Concrete, Richard ponders the point of Cold Pursuit, starring Liam Neeson as an avenging Mr Plough and there’s love for If Beale Street Could Talk and a look at… a look at… a look at Happy Death Day 2U. Outside of the cinema, there’s a bit of Netflix chats and on the Irish cinema front Richard finds himself liking Cellar Door.
 

 

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Review: Happy Death Day 2U

DIR/WRI: Christopher Landon • PRO: Jason Blum • DOP: Toby Oliver • ED: Ben Baudhuin • DES: Bill Boes • MUS: Bear McCreary • CAST: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma

Wizzard truly missed a trick in 1973 when they didn’t write a song about how they wish it could be birthday everyday. What with the recent spate of Groundhog Day-inspired birthday media (well, specifically this and the Netflix series Russian Doll), Roy Wood et al. would, forty six years after the song’s release, now be rolling in dough. Live and learn.

Having survived the events of Happy Death Day (2017) in which Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) had to relive the day of her death time and time again in order to unmask and defeat her killer, Tree realises that she has unfinished business when she is thrown right back into that same time loop. However, in Happy Death Day 2U she also has to contend with interdimensional travel and a really lousy Dean. Tree finds herself in an alternative universe where she has a slightly different life: the old gang are here, including her new boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) and roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), but her relationships with them all are not quite the same. With help from a group of science students, Tree must both avoid murder at the hands of a new killer and figure out a way home. Yes, director Christopher Landon has really given himself a lot to contend with here, particularly considering how other horror franchises take about four instalments before their characters even venture out into space. It can be a little lopsided at times, with the whodunnit aspect getting short-changed in favour of the science fiction arc. However, in light of how much is thrown at the wall in Happy Death Day 2U, a surprising amount sticks.

There’s also plenty that doesn’t quite land of course: early on it appears that this sequel might be focused on a new, somewhat unexpected protagonist – specifically Ryan (Phi Vu), Carter’s Asian roommate who was a bit part in the original 2017 instalment – but very quickly things are reshuffled to ensure it’s all about Tree once again. While it’s far from being the worst of possible outcomes, (particularly because Tree is a compelling character) it would have been interesting to see a slasher flick about someone other than a white girl, particularly considering the way it’s teased here. Then again, perhaps the HDD franchise is one that will have the longevity to expand on its representation (early box office numbers aren’t entirely promising but if these films have taught me one thing, it’s that anything is possible. Also that baby masks are scary). Happy Death Day 2U also can’t figure out how to get its characters out of a dilemma without having a bunch of nerds hilariously explain science to a clueless blonde girl. And finally, there is a somewhat questionable montage regarding Tree figuring out ways to commit suicide in order to re-spawn the following morning. While everyone involved is aware that these deaths aren’t permanent, perhaps making light of suicide is not the best of looks.

It’s likely that your enjoyment of the second instalment will depend on what you made of the first one. If you liked that, this will probably keep you well entertained. If you didn’t enjoy the first, it’s unlikely this is going to change your mind. What’s particularly satisfying is seeing how successfully Tree has become a heroine worth championing, thanks in large part to Rothe’s excellent performance, which carefully balances the comic and pathos required. While somewhat muddled and too busy at times, Happy Death Day 2U should be given its due for being a clever sequel and more or less as fun – and perhaps more surprising, having as much of an emotional arc – as the original.

Sarah Cullen

100 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Happy Death Day 2U  is released 15th February 2019

 

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Review: Creed II

DIR: Steven Caple Jr.• WRI: • Juel Taylor • PRO: William Chartoff, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King Templeton, Charles Winkler, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler• DOP: Kramer Morgenthau• ED: Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, Paul Harb • DES: Franco-Giacomo Carbone • MUS: Ludwig Göransson • CAST: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren

As a viewer, approaching Creed II with any knowledge of the original Creed is almost unfair. Ryan Coogler’s supreme direction, Maryse Alberti’s superb cinematography and Michael B. Jordan’s powerhouse performance mean that the first Rocky spin-off is a nail-biting rollercoaster of emotion that will have you punching the air as often as Adonis “Donnie” Creed punches a big muscly dude. By rights, Creed II shouldn’t be able to reach the dizzying heights of the first one. And so when it doesn’t, that’s okay. We can’t all be champion of the world.

Indeed, approached independently of Creed, Stephen Caple Jr.’s film makes a good fist of the genre and would rank well among the Rocky franchise. Building upon Creed, it reintroduces more familiar faces from the Rocky universe: Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Adonis’ father, Apollo Creed (in Rocky IV), returns to the American boxing scene after thirty years, with a challenge for Adonis. After Rocky defeated Drago (also in Rocky IV) he found himself ostracised by Russian society. However Drago believes he has now found a way to win favour once again in the shape of his son, heavyweight fighter, Victor (Florian Munteanu).

Now that Adonis has conquered America, it’s only fitting that he take on the wider world; unfortunately the depiction of Eastern Europe feels uncomfortably one-dimensional here, with Russian-American relations almost adorably naive. There are no hackers in sight, but instead it feels as if Russia is still licking its wounds in the aftermath of the Cold War.In fact, any cultural commentary feels wholly undercooked, perhaps because Caple Jr. is uninterested in engaging in such commentary. He instead relies heavily on using familiar faces to create a story about patrimony. As demonstrated in the summary, Creed II is all about fathers and fatherhood, which maybe makes it unsurprising (but no less hilarious) that Stallone tried unsuccessfully to have Apollo return as a ghost to comfort Adonis in a low moment. One wonders whether there was also a “To Punch or Not to Punch” soliloquy that just didn’t make the final cut.

As a story about fathers and sons, Creed II largely works, although it shows the genre limitations when considering how to follow its themes though to their logical conclusions. Much of the film is concerned with choices relating to fatherhood and responsibility: when should a man stop thinking about his own personal victories, and concentrate on his children? While the film may say some interesting things on the subject, it stops short of actually deciding anything. Or to put it another way: in order to follow through on its themes, Creed II would probably have to stop being about boxing. Which, to be fair, is unlikely to happen in a boxing movie.

Nonetheless, Creed II is an enjoyable movie about this sport, which perhaps is all we should demand. The action is tense and visceral. Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson bring great chemistry to their relationship. Despite the veto on the Apollo-ghost scene, one can sense Stallone’s creative control with Rocky getting all the best lines, and admittedly delivering them pretty well. The film never quite finds a consistent tone but it never stops being entertaining either.

 

Sarah Cullen

129 minutes
12A (see IFCO for details)
Creed II is released 30th November 2018

 

 

 

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Review: Halloween

 

DIR: David Gordon Green • WRI: David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, Jeff Fradley • DOP: Michael Simmonds • ED: Timothy Alverson • DES: Richard A. Wright • PRO: Malek Akkad, Laura Altmann, Bill Block, Jason Blum • MUS: Cody Carpenter, John Carpenter, Daniel A. Davies • CAST: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak

 

What has happened to our fresh-faced franchises that filled us with hope? Has Father Time turned us all into cynics? I don’t know to be quite frank, but I couldn’t think of any other way of segueing into my observation that David Gordon Green’s Halloween is only the second time that we have recently encountered an L. S. who has become embittered, misanthropic and estranged from their community in a remote hermitage (although this time it’s not off the west coast of Ireland) decades after the last time we saw them. Laurie Strode/Luke Skywalker – coincidence? Yeah, probably.

It’s forty years since the infamous Haddonfield murder spree in which Michael Myers murdered Laurie Strode’s friends and forced her to fight for her life. Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle have returned to reprise their roles, with James Jude Courtney performing Myers’ stunts. Still under lock and key, Myers is soon to be transferred to a new, more secure, institution. He has refused to utter a word in four decades, much to the curiosity of Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), successor to the now deceased Dr. Loomis, and the frustration of the investigative journalists (Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall) that have come to interview him. Unable to gain any insight, the journalists turn instead to Laurie who is almost as tight-lipped about the events. Recognising the significance of the upcoming date and his transfer, Laurie attempts to impress the seriousness of the situation onto her family – her estranged daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and granddaughter Alyson (Andi Matichak).

The new instalment is at its most interesting when examining the trauma that Laurie has battled with throughout her adult life. The echoes of the ongoing #MeToo movement can be seen as Curtis plays her elusive “final girl” as a battle-hardened survivor who has had to sacrifice relationships in order to maintain her grip on the world around her.

Returning to the franchise that spawned the slasher genre, it would perhaps be difficult to avoid meta commentary, and Green chooses to address the wider mythos of the franchise head on. Laurie and Myers’ siblingship, which was a revelation at the end of Halloween 2 and was felt to be a misstep by Carpenter himself – who has returned as creative adviser – has been retconned (something which the movie rushes to make clear). The film also seems to be rejecting the notion that Myers’ actions can ever be understood: lampooning the current obsession in popular culture for true crime, the two investigative journalists prove more interested in provoking Myers and Laurie than documenting them.

While there is lots to admire in the latest instalment, certain aspects also feel a little undercooked. Thanks to a lot of shifting in focus, the film takes a long time to find its feet. The central premise is compelling and makes for a suspense-filled romp, with the inevitable final showdown between Laurie and Michael both chilling and thrilling. Both the directorial team and the protagonist make great use of Laurie’s survivalist retreat, employing metallic shutters to slowly close down extraneous rooms, reducing the space between hero and villain as it draws towards the film’s inevitable conclusion. Yet one almost wishes that this compartmentalising could have started sooner, quite simply because other aspects of the movie feel somewhat tacked-on and insubstantial. Several set-pieces appear to be there as call-backs to the original film, and in particular Allyson’s high-school storyline could be removed wholesale while retaining the same plot. There’s certainly an argument to be had that Halloween is paying homage to what has come before it with these elements, but one also can’t help wondering if they couldn’t just be a bit more ambitious or creative while doing so.

Overall Halloween is certainly worth a watch for horror fans. In particular the excellent en media res suburban scenes of trick-or-treaters blithely skipping past Michael Myers as he goes murdering from house to house are a great call-back to the original movie and still highly evocative. There is plenty of tension and terror to be found: from the get-go, the opening credits are a stark reminder of just how spine-chilling Carpenter’s score is even four decades on, and Michael Myers unrelenting pace and cold-blooded killing still disturbs. So give yourself a treat this Halloween, and go see this bag of tricks.

Sarah Cullen

106 minutes
18 (see IFCO for details)
Halloween is released 19th October 2018

 

 

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Review: The Nun

 

DIR: Corin Hardy • WRI: Gary Dauberman • DOP: Maxime Alexandre • ED: Michel Aller,Ken Blackwell • MUS: Abel Korzeniowski • DES: Jennifer Spence • PRO: Peter Safran, James Wan • CAST: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet

 

Considering The Nun’s director, Corin Hardy, was last in the director’s chair for the taut and entertaining (if somewhat formulaic) Irish eco-horror The Hallow, it’s a pity to see how out-of-touch he is with Irish affairs. Unless this tepid tale of Vatican power ends up doing well at the box office. In which case, I just don’t know what to think.

 

Comprised mainly of uninspired jump scares and things that initially appear to be jump scares but aren’t (and then there’s a jump scare anyway), there is nothing to recommend in this latest instalment of the Conjuring franchise. Other than perhaps trying to figure out whether the film’s protagonist, Sister Irene, played by Taissa Farmiga (Final Girls), is in any way related to franchise regular, demonologist Lorraine Warren, played by her own real-life sister, Vera Farmiga.

 

An origin story for that same franchise, The Nun sends us back to the 1950s, following Sister Irene and Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a member of some sort of Vatican priest detective force, who have been dispatched to the Romanian countryside in order to investigate the case of a nun’s suicide in a remote monastery. They are joined by the travelling Frenchman (Jonas Bloquet), who made the gruesome discovery. The nuns prove to be strangely elusive but eventually the intrepid investigators uncover the order’s secret, which involves demons and portals and possession.

 

The Nun is more concerned with delivering run-of-the-mill shocks than any attempt at storytelling, as the film’s supposed mystery is solved within the opening minutes, leaving the audience watching the clock as they wait for the characters to catch up with them. Character development is undercooked and uninspired, with even the most rudimentary storylines fizzling out when their usefulness to the plot has run their course. The evil ghost demon nuns are also all super-strong Jason Vorhees-types, which isn’t exactly a problem, so much as the film only occasionally comes across as a ghost story.

 

The Nun certainly seems like the kind of movie that should offer its audience some laughs, if nothing else. Unfortunately, it’s all so routine and repetitive that it soon loses even that appeal. Or, to put it another way: with regards to fun, there’s NUN to be found here.

 

Genius.

Sarah Cullen
96 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
The Nun is released 7th September 2018

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Review of Irish Film @ ADIFF 2018: Black 47

Sarah Cullen saddles up for Lance Daly’s drama set in Ireland during the Great Famine.

Sometimes it pays to go into movies blind. Well, or as blind as you can to a film which you know is going to be about that big important event that has shaped your country’s history for the last hundred and fifty years. I’ll admit it, friends: I was expecting something appropriately Lenten. Something dreary, something slow-moving and self-important. Something, in other words, that was good for me. But good for me in that Catholic way. You know. Boring.

Boy, was I ever happy to be wrong. Not only is Lance Daly’s newest feature a rollicking western with fantastic action and excellent performances, it also demonstrates how a film’s subject matter can add much-needed pathos and nuance to a genre. Colour me impressed.

Black 47 follows Feeney (James Frecheville), an Irish ranger who has returned home to Connemara after fleeing his post in the British army. Upon arrival, he discovers that his family has been evicted and his mother and brother have died in the famine. Seeking out answers (and a spot of revenge), he takes it upon himself to find those responsible for his family’s destruction. Meanwhile, word of Feeney’s desertion has reached the British battalion in Dublin and Feeney’s former comrade, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), is recruited to hunt him down.

Of course, that is not to say the Ireland depicted here isn’t bleak in the extreme, which is just as it should be. With a fantastically evocative soundtrack and populated by skeletal extras, the Conemara depicted is one straight out of the collective Irish memory. The harsh landscapes of empty and dilapidated cottages doesn’t feel that distant, however. One cannot look at them without being reminded of the growing number of homeless families up and down the country. Indeed, Black 47 focuses much of its ire on the local landlords who exploited the poor classes for personal gain. With recent news surfacing of Dublin landlords employing heavies to break down doors to illegally evict tenants, such scenes have an added urgency to them.

Black 47 should also be praised for its fantastic stunt choreography. While many of the fight scenes take place in close quarters which best enables Feeney to square up against multiple adversaries (and also demonstrates his strategic cunning), larger shoot-outs demonstrate impressive directorial ability. Taking place in the courtyards of lavish Irish manors, such scenes bring another element to a novel take on the western.

While in its basic construction, Black 47 is not much different from other recent revenge films in the Taken franchise and its numerous imitations, its pathos comes from its wider examination of society. Black 47 recognises that Feeney’s operation cannot right all wrongs, nor that all the wrong-doing can be scapegoated to a single individual, or even a single group. Feeney’s mother dies not at the hands of one person, but because she chose not to “take the soup.” Her death is the fault of not only British but also of numerous Irish collaborators who chose to act on their own selfish impulses. Feeney can attempt to re-enact revenge on individuals, but he is powerless to affect larger social or political changes.

The drama is supported by an impressive cast: Frecheville’s Feeney is stoic but never uncaring. His carefully controlled rage is released when the situation calls for it, and Frecheville ensures that Feeney is an eternal presence. Hugo Weaving comes across anachronistically, but rather appropriately, as an Aussie who’s sick of being a subject of the Crown. Freddie Fox is eminently punchable as the British emissary who views the famine as a result of Irish laziness.

If the film has one failing it’s in its portrayal (or indeed, lack thereof) of Irish women. While Sarah Greene holds her own as Feeney’s resilient sister, Ellie, there are very few other women to speak of. Two of the film’s main male characters also use the metaphors of comely British maidens versus bedraggled Irish ones to compare the state of the two countries. One wonders whether an otherwise resourceful film needed to resort to such clichéd stereotypes.

Interestingly, while opening the film, Daly noted that at the film’s Berlin premier, several English critics appeared less than happy with the British portrayal in Black 47. An unwillingness to acknowledge Britain’s not-too-distant colonialism aside, such a response is somewhat surprising: without giving too much away, the film’s conclusion extends an invitation to redemption for one of its main English representatives. The choice may not be easy or simple, but then what about Brexit – uh, I mean history – is?

Black 47 screened on Wednesday, 21st February 2018 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21 February – 4th March).

 

 

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