Big Eyes


DIR: Tim Burton • WRI: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski • PRO: Scott Alexander, Tim Burton, Lynette Howell, Larry Karaszewski • DOP: Bruno Delbonnel • ED: JC Bond • DES: Rick Heinrichs • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter

As unfair as this is on the man, the best Tim Burton films are often the least Burtonesqueone. While the cartoonish Gothic shtick has certainly served him well – most obviously in his early career – many would surely agree it has led to rather diminishing returns in more recent times. He’s clearly a talented, individual director, but one who dances perilously close to self-parody on occasion. That’s not even mentioning the something of an over-reliance on certain collaborators, no matter how ill-suited they are to the task at hand.


That’s why it’s refreshing on those rare occasions when he breaks out of his dominant mode of expression – I for one definitely would not object to another film in the vein of Ed Wood, or even Big Fish. On the surface, it looks as if Big Eyes should capably serve that purpose – heck, it doesn’t even feature Johnny Depp! Excepting the absence of the earlier film’s star, the similarities to the delightful Ed Wood are fairly striking – they’re both based on bizarre real-life stories, they’re both period pieces, and they even share screenwriters (Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander). But while Ed Wood was an atypical Tim Burton film in a refreshing way, Big Eyes instead comes across as disappointingly anonymous.


The stranger-than-fiction tale at the film’s centre is that of Margaret and Walter Keane, played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz respectively. As the film opens, Margaret is leaving her first husband, and she moves to bohemian San Francisco with her daughter Jane. Margaret wants to be an artist, and her particular skill is the creation of portraits of wide-eyed ‘waifs’. While trying to sell the portraits one day, she meets charming amateur artist Walter. The two hit it off, and are soon married (a decision aided by a legal letter from husband number one). Walter is dedicated to striking it big with his art, but while holding an ‘exhibition’ in a jazz bar’s corridor, he discovers that it’s actually Margaret’s art that is making the biggest impression. One thing leads to another, and he manages to convince Margaret he should take credit for the paintings, because ‘women’s art doesn’t sell’. Soon, the waifs are a huge commercial hit. Margaret covertly toils away at creating the paintings while Walter takes credit, but it’s a secret that starts eating away at her.


Big Eyes’ evocation of the 1950s and 60s is a peculiar mix of pleasant and bland – which, to be honest, sums up the film as a whole. Everything is kept ticking over without grave offense being caused, but it consistently fails to really explore the material in a satisfying or surprising way. Take the relationship between Frank and Margaret. There’s an interesting dynamic of domination and submission, but Burton and the writers never tease the nuances out, relying instead on the broadest of brush strokes.


The only obvious DNA Big Eyes shares with sections of Tim Burton’s filmography – barring a very weak Danny Elfman score – are the bigeyed waifs. Margaret Keane’s style must have influenced the director’s animated work in particular, subconsciously or otherwise. In this case, though, the film as a whole suffers due to a lack of authorial signature. There’s one or two well handled sequences where the Keane style seeps into the real world with the aid of some imaginatively creepy effects work. In fact, other compositions in the film are sometimes inspired by the wider world of mid-century pop art in quite witty ways (a Warhol reference during a supermarket reference is not subtle, but still serves as a neat throwaway visual gag). Those are the rare moments when some of the film’s otherwise confused themes and underwhelming visual identity are operating on roughly the same page, and one wishes the rest of the film operated as effectively.


One of the film’s major problems is that it boasts a great cast, but a script that does not offer them anything in the way of meaty material. Amy Adams acquits herself well enough in what is easily the closest thing the film has to a three-dimensional role. Waltz gives it his all, but cannot possibly elevate a character that is written as a crude caricature. Walter Keane is portrayed as a transparently manipulative, selfish and domineering con artist – albeit with a rougish charm. While it may be somewhat true to life (it goes without saying I am not in a position to make that assessment), it’s a point made sufficiently early on, and the writers’ disdain for him only increases as the film progresses to the point of pettiness. As a result, Keane becomes more and more of a one-note character,  and no amount of Waltz’s talent can save Walter as he transforms into a pantomime antagonist. At least Waltz has plenty of opportunity to chew the scenery. Spare a thought for Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp, playing an arrogant gallery owner and snooty art critic respectively – two already crude stock types, written in an even cruder way.

Buried somewhere in Big Eyes is a debate about the nature of art and entertainment; the conflict between elitism and populism; an ode to authorship; an exploration of mid-century gender politics. The story itself is so straight-up odd that it cannot help but be strangely compelling, not least the farcical legal proceedings that brought the core conflict to something of a close (and easily the dramatic and comedic highlight here). Big Eyes, though, is not a film that explores any of that in anything more than a perfunctory, mildly entertaining way. Tim Burton films often suffer from a surplus of character – Big Eyes could have used some of the overflow.

Stephen McNeice


12A (See IFCO for details)
105 minutes.
Big Eyes
is released 26th December.

Big Eyes  – Official Website


The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

DIR:  Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Howard Shore • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies starts with an ending – or what seems like it should have been an ending. Smaug’s attack on Laketown is a deeply peculiar choice to open the film with. Everybody’s in the middle of doing something, and we have no time to catch up as we’re breathlessly thrown into an elaborate action setpiece. The strange thing is, as soon as it’s over – and it doesn’t account for much more than 15 minutes of screentime – it feels like the film proper has started too, with the pace mellowing (temporarily) and plenty of time given to re-establishing the characters and their new motivations.

The entire Laketown arc would have worked well as one entity – whether as the ending of one film or the beginning or middle of another. Split as it is, with a gap of a year since the pointless Desolation of Smaug cliffhanger and its resolution, the sequence here serves as an ill-judged prologue. It’s separate from the rest of the Smaug story for no obvious reason other than some perceived need to open with an action spectacle – something that can’t help but seem surplus to requirements in a film where a good half the running time is given over to action spectacle anyway (the clue’s in the title).

It is but one more symptom of a problem that has been obvious since An Unexpected Journey, arguably even since the announcement of the three film plan – The Hobbit never needed three films. There’s one, maybe two, good films buried in here somewhere, but they have been smothered as a result of the method of delivery. Some of it will play better when all three films are available to watch in quick succession – better yet, when somebody does a much-needed, clinically brutal fan edit (it won’t be Peter Jackson, who has released Extended Editions for these films which badly need the opposite approach). But watching them in the cinema with a year between releases, The Hobbit has been a slog – worse, a trio of slogs.

I consider this pretty faint praise, but The Battle of the Five Armies is probably a little better than its predecessors. Not insignificant is that it’s a good bit shorter than either of the first two films, meaning it’s less top-heavy in terms of ‘stuff’. Adjusted expectations also surely factor into that, along with the fact that there have never been any illusions that the film was going to be much more than an extended battle scene. There’s more to it than a five army melee, but not much more.

The battle itself… well if you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings you know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s an hour-long affair, cutting back and forth between the various factions a la the battles of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith.  While there’s plenty of individuals to follow, to Jackson’s credit he allows us relatively lengthy unbroken stretches with most of them, meaning it doesn’t feel as disjointed or hyperactive as it could have been. The battle itself is fine, I suppose – it’s pretty standard fare, enlivened by a few imaginative moments (a new twist on the Orc battering ram stands out). There’s still an over-tendency towards having characters swoop in at the last second to manufacture drama – a trick Jackson has overplayed throughout the series.

The eponymous battle also serves as a firm reminder of Jackson’s over-reliance on CG, which has been another major sticking point throughout The Hobbit saga. While generally far less cartoony than the other films, there’s still a real lack of physicality to much of Five Armies’ action and characters, the Orcs particularly. Although this is often obvious during the action – one shot of Legolas running across a collapsing bridge is very poor indeed – it’s almost worse during a number of dialogue-heavy scenes where actors are clearly standing in front of green screens. The The Lord of the Rings struck the perfect balance between CG and practical effects, makeup and locations. The Hobbit feels overly artificial, comparable to – dare I say it? – the Star Wars prequels of all things.

On either side of the battle – and even occasionally during it – there are some solid character moments, however. Bilbo’s relationship with Thorin is well handled (bar a misjudged ‘dream’ sequence that fumbles badly in its attempt to visualise Thorin’s descent into madness), and gives Martin Freeman in particular some great material – that’s a good thing, considering he has often been relegated to the sidelines in a film where even the title declares him to be our protagonist. Near the end, Freeman also enjoys a great, almost silent scene with Ian McKellen as Gandalf, albeit one undermined slightly by a less impressive follow-up a couple of minutes later. There are plenty of subplots to resolve, but the film does not spend quite as much time on them as Return of the King did, which is a relief.

The Hobbit may be a marginally learner and sometimes meaner films that its predecessors, but that’s not to say there isn’t filler – in fact, there’s plenty. The screenwriters’ manufactured ‘star-crossed love story, and Legolas too!’ subplot is a dreary distraction, that amounts to little more than Evangeline Lilly’s character learning the meaning of true love. Blegh. Several characters could easily be excised to the benefit of the film’s pacing. That, for example, is true of Alfrid, played by Ryan Gage, and not coincidentally another of Jackson and Co’s own creations. He’s a crudely written stereotype even in a franchise that trades in archetypes, and bafflingly several of the film’s key characters repeatedly trust him to carry out important tasks despite the fact that he’s clearly a backstabbing rat and does little to disguise it. The sheer bulk of characters, meanwhile, means Jackson cannot possibly afford many of them much screen space, and hence they often disappear for huge swathes of the running time (the band of dwarves particularly suffer in that regard). In some cases, we don’t hear from them again at all for no apparent reason.

Battle of the Five Armies also continues The Hobbit series’ tradition of clunky callbacks to The Lord of the Rings. There are several remarkably unsubtle nods to what is to come – they could only be more obvious if the characters in question turned to the audience and remarked “this is a reference to what’s going to happen to me in The Lord of the Rings, by the way”, followed by a cheeky to-camera wink and a ‘To Be Continued’ title card. That said, the superfluous prequelising of the story does lead to what is easily the film’s – and possibly The Hobbit as a whole’s – best set piece. Several of Middle Earth’s most recognisable ancillary characters get to show off their fighting skills in a visceral supernatural showdown, with Jackson illustrating a sense of brutal visual panache barely seen elsewhere in the trilogy. It’s the climax of a redundant subplot spread out across all three films, but hey at least it concludes in style.

The Hobbit ends as it started – bloated and clunky, albeit with scattered moments that capture, however briefly, the alchemy that made The Lord of the Rings so successful. That’s a formula the new trilogy failed to replicate consistently or convincingly as it stretched a modest adventure story beyond breaking point. Maybe a fan edit will salvage it one of these years – creating the one great film The Hobbit could have, perhaps even should have been.

Anybody have Topher Grace’s number?

Stephen McNeice

12A (See IFCO for details)
144 minutes.
Battle of the Five Armies
is released 12th December.

Battle of the Five Armies – Official Website


A Spell to Ward off the Darkness


DIR/WRI: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell PRO: Julie Gayet, Indrek Kasela, Nadia Turincev

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is just about as experimental an effort as you’ll see getting a (very limited) commercial release this year. For that reason, it is not an easy film to describe, because much of its effectiveness – or, depending on your preferences, complete ineffectiveness – is obtuse and almost subconscious. If its rhythm hooks you you’re likely to be hypnotised by its elegantly ethereal mood, but there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself bored and irritated by its languishness. It’s just about as subjective as cinema-going gets, although given more than half of the viewers at the screening I attended abandoned ship well before the end credits, the odds may be stacked in one particular direction.


But as far as I’m concerned this is a film worth defending. Directors Ben Rivers and Ben Russell have abandoned most traditional forms of cinematic storytelling in favour of something much more poetic and primordial. It blurs the border between fiction and nonfiction to an inseparable degree. Emotions are not explicitly expressed, and instead emerge almost eerily through the images, editing and soundtrack. It is a film that, by its very nature, requires its defenders to summon up their most flowery and pretentious language to and describe a film experience that is defiantly indescribable. For many who fail to jump on board, a mere shrug of the shoulders will likely suffice.


A Spell… takes the form of a triptych of ‘stories’ (I use the term generously, given there is little in the way of traditional narrative), all of which are tied together by the presence of artist and musician Robert A.A. Lowe. In the first chapter, we observe the day-to-day activities of a group of people living in a commune in Estonia, as they ponder ways of living ‘liberated’ from mainstream society. In the second, Lowe’s nameless protagonist (himself?) explores a Finnish forest, sleeping alone in a small hut and living off the plants and animals he finds. The final section takes the form of a full half-hour death metal performance, shot in what appears to be a single, fluid take.


Following a lengthy and haunting opening panning shot of a lake (with a magnificently effective creeping choral soundtrack), the commune section is the most ‘traditional’ section of the film: in fact, it’s the only one with any actual speech. It is still, however, demandingly tranquil and meandering. The characters casually – and for quite a while completely nakedly – ponder their relationship with nature, society and each other, with the building a sort of ‘bio-pyramid’ happening in the background. There are some beautiful shots – including one remarkably expressive one of the group relaxing on the shore of a drowned town – but it’s the subsequent sections that prove truly sublime. The commune sequences are important, though, as they’re where the filmmakers most explicitly – i.e. very vaguely – hint at some of their thematic and artistic concerns before abandoning dialogue entirely.


When Lowe takes to the forest to live his solitary existence, the ethereal tone really starts to get under the skin. The dreamy and beguiling pacing becomes more poetic and tantalisingly ambiguous. The calm, observant camera and subdued sound design are hypnotic. Lowe says nothing, but he exhibits a curiosity and fascination with the landscape and his place in it, and that inquisitive nature is echoed through the meditative and observant cinematography. There’s a natural beauty here, but it’s contrasted in intriguing ways with Lowe’s own presence. One memorable shot of a dusky scene is contrasted with distant gunshots on the soundtrack – a straightforward but powerful evocation of the relationship between this one man and nature.


Then something bursts, or cracks. Lowe has a sort of primal realisation, which leads to an act of beautiful destruction. A stunning nighttime scene then vividly segues into the death metal performance. Lowe and his bandmates seemingly embrace and confront their inner darkness – and the darkness of the world around them – to conjure up something intensely creative.


The music will not suit all tastes, but the method of capturing this performance is remarkable. Rivers and Russell instill the camera movement with a spectral curiosity. It probes the scene, floating slowly. It drifts from one band member to the next, moving in for extreme close-ups and moving out for dynamic pans that intimately document both the emotions and (more fleetingly) the musical specifics of their performance. In the half-hour long take, the filmmakers also carefully documents the audience and their responses – some are enthralled, others observing more coldly.

It’s an astonishingly rich way to film music, and one that explores both the communal and individual aspects of live performance. This unashamedly inaccessible sequence will understandably prove one hurdle too many for some viewers, but for others it’ll represent A Spell to Ward off the Darkness achieving a rare level of cinematic transcendence – further emphasised by an incredible ending that gives a whole new meaning to fading to black. Count this viewer among the spellbound.

Stephen McNeice


98 minutes

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is released 12th September 2014




DIR David Gordon Green WRI: Gary Hawkins   PRO: David Gordon Green, Lisa Muskat, Derrick Tseng, Alexander Uhlmann, Christopher Woodrow  DOP: Tim Orr   ED: Colin Patton  DES: Chris L. Spellman MUS: Jeff McIlwain, David Wingo   CAST: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter

Many great American films could be classified as Southern Gothic, but whatever the reason the last few years in particular have seen an explosion of films from the US focusing on the rural Southern states and their inhabitants. You have Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud, Winter’s Bone, Killer Joe, Hide Your Smiling Faces and more besides – very different films, but all memorably and proudly Southern. To that list we can add Joe, David Gordon Green’s hasty follow-up to Prince Avalanche.


This isn’t new geographical territory for Green. His still remarkable debut George Washington was set in North Carolina, and several of his subsequent films also affectionately portrayed life in the South. Sadly for fans of these films, Green’s incredibly promising early career was interrupted by his work on a trio of dumbass comedies that could generously be described as varying degrees of shit (although not without their fans). While no doubt there were reasonable motivations behind this bizarre shift in directorial direction, for this viewer at least Green’s return to smaller, character-based dramas – and, not coincidentally, the Southern states – has proved something of relief.


Like Prince Avalanche, Joe takes place in rural Texas. Like the earlier film’s haunting use of destroyed woodland, the setting here is one of its most valuable assets. Plot-wise, there’s not a whole lot going on in Joe you haven’t seen before, but Green manages to maintain an uneasy, even surreal mood.


Joe (Nicholas Cage, in one of his occasional excellent performances) is a man with a colourful history with the law, but seems to have settled down. He runs a tree-poisoning business, in which and he and his men prepare stubborn trees for timber companies. He lives alone, albeit with the occasional casual visit from Connie (Adriene Mishler). Joe being Joe, though, peace is a challenging state to maintain, and a disagreement he had in a bar with an aggressive local (Ronnie Gene Blevins) threatens to escalate. But it’s the appearance of young Gary (Tye Sheridan), who has is looking for work for himself and his father Wade (Gary Poulter). Gary proves to be a hard and loyal worker, and Joe takes him under his wing. Wade, though, is cruel, lazy and abusive, and as is to be expected this starts to cause some problems.


This is Southern Gothic turned up to eleven, and sometimes to the point of near parody. Joe’s world is an incredibly grimy, miserable one. Violence, substance abuse and prostitution of an almost Old Western sort are commonplace here. It might not be pleasant, but it sure is atmospheric. Muted but moody cinematography further emphasises this powerful sense of place.


It could, in less skilled hands, come across as almost exploitative in its stylistic exaggeration of an impoverished community. That’s a line individual viewers might feel is crossed at times. But Green lends a strange empathy to proceedings, and a respect and understanding of a lifestyle most of us aren’t familiar with. This might be a gritty thriller featuring violent characters committing violent deeds (or, in the protagonist’s case, trying desperately not to), but Green takes the time to carefully portray the daily rhythms of the poor but proud people too. It’s far from a romanticised portrait, but it can be a quietly affectionate one. That ensures things don’t descend into the ‘hicksploitation’ realm – well, at least for the most part.


As the title indicates, Cage’s Joe is very much the centre of attention here. Cage, I think it is fair to say, isn’t always a fan of subtlety (even in some of his best performances), but here his distinctive style works very well indeed. He plays Joe as a man constantly on the edge of exploding, and largely articulates this through body language and gestures. On the occasions when he does blow up, Cage’s familiarly wild acting style is a perfect fit for the fits of rage that follow.


Even then, however, there’s a powerful sense of regret and frustration in the character, as if he is trying with everything he has to keep in control. Although there’s a fundamental goodness about Joe, he’s just as likely to act indifferently or even cruelly to those he’s closest to. He might not always be a traditionally likeable protagonist, but he sure is a compelling one, and it’s not hard to buy into the deep-rooted respect many peripheral characters have for the man.


Cage’s stylised, powerhouse performance cannot help but dominate proceedings, but he’s capably backed – particularly by Tye Sheridan as the young Gary. Amazingly, though, there is something of a match for Cage’s typically bold performance, and that’s from Gary Poulter.


Poulter – who died last year while living in a makeshift campsite for the homeless – had never acted before (bar a role as an extra on TV), and had been diagnosed as bipolar. His life was equal parts wild and tragic – and that carries over here in an utterly unique performance that could only have come from a non-professional actor. Once again, there’s the threat of exploitation here, especially given Poulter’s own life story and its sad conclusion so soon after the film wrapped. But it is hard to deny the performance is fascinatingly raw, further enhancing the film’s memorably chaotic atmosphere.


Potently chaotic though the film may be in many respects, the actual story that drives it is largely lacking in surprise. The surrogate father-son relationship that develops between Gary and Joe is as familiar as they come, while there’s no doubt whatsoever everything is building up to a violently melodramatic conclusion. When that comes, it’s a dispiritingly familiar punctuation mark. But the performances and direction allow Joe to overcome some of its limitations. It certainly is ridiculous and exaggerated at times, but that helps make for a combustible cocktail of hyper Southern Gothic.

Stephen McNeice

16 (See IFCO for details)
117 mins

Joe is released on 25th July 2014

Joe – Official Website


Cinema Review: Tom At The Farm


DIR/WRI: Xavier Dolan  • PRO: Xavier Dolan, Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz • DOP: André Turpin • ED: Xavier Dolan • MUS: Gabriel Yared • CAST: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy

Early reviews from Tom At The Farm suggest that the film marks Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan venturing into properly ‘genre’ territory for the first time. However, while the film does utilise – and subvert – the tropes of a standard thriller, it so constantly sidesteps convention and audience expectation that any formal generic classification proves woefully inadequate.

After retreating exclusively behind the camera for his last film – the epic transgender relationship study Laurence Anyways – Dolan opts to take the lead role of Tom here. The story, adapted from a play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard, has Tom travel to his lover Guillaume’s funeral somewhere in rural Quebec. It transpires that the deceased’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), had no idea her son was gay. Tom is told in no uncertain terms to keep the secret, well, secret by Guillaume’s violent, quite possibly unhinged brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Initially intending to leave immediately, Tom finds himself increasingly fascinated by Agathe and particularly Francis, and opts to stick around. But as the lies pile on top of each other, it’s uncertain if secrets can stay hidden.

Homosexuality has been a key theme of Dolan’s films to date, and it’s central to Tom at the Farm’s drama. Initially Francis seems like your standard bigot, disgusted at his brother’s sexuality and committed to keeping it secret at whatever cost (especially if that cost is some sort of serious assault). However, as the film progresses a sort of masochistic homoerotic tension begins to develop between Francis and Tom. It’s a strange sort of relationship to witness, and leads to scenes playing out in ways the audience is unlikely to expect or predict. At its best, the film manages to paint Francis as an angry, self-destructive enigma, and captures Tom’s journey of self-discovery, as well as his potentially dangerous curiosity about his dead boyfriend’s unstable brother. There’s a few welcome narrative curveballs thrown into the mix, such as an ever-escalating attempt to persuade Agathe that Guillaume actually had a girlfriend.

Unfortunately, all this can also stretch credibility. It’s hard to get a firm grasp on any of the characters, who seem borderline schizophrenic at times. Occasionally it can be quite potently ambiguous (details of the characters’ backstories, for example, are doled out in a nicely controlled fashion), but a lot of the time it can be pretty frustrating as these people act in illogical, maybe even contradictory ways without much coherent rhyme or reason. There’s lots of room here for viewers to read into subtleties and hints – there’s a purposeful lack of concrete answers – but it’s sometimes worth asking how effective that ambiguity is: the ending particularly will annoy the hell out of anyone seeking something more definitive. Although some of the themes are clearly very personal to Dolan, it’s a film that feels somewhat cold and clinical overall.

Dolan can’t resist filming this in an impressively vibrant way – significantly pared back from the proudly indulgent Laurence Anyways, but still immaculately composed. That includes the finest aerial shot of Canadian farmland you’re likely to see in the foreseeable future. While Dolan constantly sidesteps predictable drama, there are a number of traditionally ‘thriller’ scenes – a fight, a threat or a chase here and there. Interestingly, Dolan chooses to explicitly utilise the aesthetics of genre cinema for these moments. The aspect ratio dynamically narrows, the lighting becomes more explicitly stylised, and the soundtrack bursts to life with the sound of excited strings. It’s an interesting and largely effective directorial choice, although most notably serves to highlight how the narrative steadfastly refuses to conform to convention despite seemingly borrowing some familiar tools. That playful adaptation of genre norms is to be celebrated, although ultimately the film is a strange mix of curious experimentation and frustrating elusiveness.

Stephen McNeice

105 mins

Tom At The Farm is released on 4th April 2014

Tom At The Farm – Official Website


Cinema Review: Noah

Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic

DIR: Darren Aronofsky • WRI: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel • PRO: Darren Aronofsky , Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent • DOP: Matthew Libatique • ED: Andrew Weisblum • MUS: Clint Mansell • DES: Mark Friedberg • CAST: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson

If ten years ago you said that the director responsible for Pi and Requiem for a Dream would be making $125 million biblical epics you would have been… remarkably prescient. So, eh, well done, I guess!


Yes, surely thanks to the remarkable performance of Black Swan at the global box office, Darren Aronofksy has been granted a budget and canvas rarely afforded to arthouse darlings. With those resources, he has opted to put his own unique slant on one of the most famous stories of them all – that of Noah and his apocalypse-proof ark. It could have gone either way – a triumph or a massive disaster. Actually, it’s neither, but it’s absolutely fascinating to watch.


Do I need to go into a synopsis? The core story – divine vision, two of every animal, apocalyptic flood – is roughly intact, so many of the key story beats are obvious. What is interesting, however, is how unusual Aronofsky’s telling of the story is. He picks and chooses elements from the various versions and interpretations, as well as adding details of his own. Structurally, it’s far removed from your typical Hollywood blockbuster – most of the spectacle is spent in the film’s first half – which is perhaps perhaps best described as a ‘fantasy epic’ – and a majority of the second is devoted to a pretty intense family melodrama.


Noah, it should be said, is rather ‘Old Testament’ in its storytelling. It manages to get across the horror, violence, ancient morality and – yes – moments of beauty that are contained in those early volumes. It makes a valiant attempt at both critiquing and respecting the religious aspects of the story. There’s a truly stunning ‘creation’ sequence, for example, that recounts the biblical story while also allowing an evolutionary reading – a wonderful and provocative discourse realised with Aronofsky’s visceral visual storytelling (here using rapid montage editing). ‘The Creator’ (no mention the G-word here), meanwhile, mostly remains an elusive, mysterious presence throughout, despite being integral to the story. Aronofsky brings a welcome degree of scepticism while staying generally loyal to many of the myth’s themes and ideas: likely to alienate many viewers in the process, but resulting in a richer film. There’s also a contemporary environmentalist message mixed in, although it gels into the story’s themes relatively nicely and only rarely feels preachy.


The production values to the film are predictably impressive throughout – iffy CGI aside, but more on that anon – although the film inevitably sings during the scenes where Aronofsky indulges his wilder stylistic urges. There are several seriously spectacular moments, including a recurring dream / vision sequence that adds some welcome aesthetic oomph to that hoary cinematic tradition. The spectacle, when it comes, is intense and epic. Clint Mansell again proves himself a valuable asset, with his bold score embracing both subtlety and bombast when required. The music is overblown at times, but no more so than the story itself. Generally, there’s a welcome eccentric unpredictability to the film – despite tackling one of the best known stories from history, it’s the rare film of this scale that is happy to embark on stylistic flights of fancy or explore the underexplored thematic resonances inherent in Noah’s plight.


Actually, the single-most interesting aspect of Noah is the characterisation of the man himself. Crowe, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel collaborate to put him on-screen as someone driven to obsession and near-madness by the challenge handed to him. He’s far from a traditional screen hero, particularly in the film’s latter half when he becomes almost completely delusional and manages to violently alienate his family in the process. It’s certainly a bold take on the character. Other members of Noah’s family do get the screentime necessary to explore their own stories, however. Jennifer Connelly plays his initially supportive wife, Naameh, with real passion, while Anthony Hopkins’ cameo adds some welcome colour – and the film’s only thing resembling humour – as Noah’s ancient grandfather Methuselah. One of the meatiest supporting roles is reserved for Emma Watson as Ila, the ‘barren’ partner of Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, who has comparatively little to do). Much time is also devoted to the increasingly strained relationship between Noah and middle-son Ham (Logan Lerman), who understandably is a little depressed about the possibility of a new world without the fairer sex. Ray Winstone appears as Tubal-cain, the cruel leader determined to procure the ark for himself. Alas, his extended appearance is one of the film’s less interesting features.

Which naturally leads on to the observation that the film is pretty wildly uneven. As soon as the CGI rock monsters / fallen angels appear in the opening minutes, it’s pretty obvious that certain aspects of the film ask a lot from the viewer, even if you’re willing to accept the more fantastical elements. Said ‘Watchers’ don’t become any less odd as they play a more integral part in the film’s second act. The whole thing is earnest and self-serious: rightly so at times, but to the point of parody at others. As alluded to above, plenty of it is completely overblown, especially some of the farcically melodramatic turns towards the film’s end. Surprisingly, apart from two scenes, the animals themselves are underused, although that might be down to the fact the CGI teams are clearly struggling to believably render thousands of different species at the same time. And the ending feels far too neat and tidy, as well as tonally inconsistent with what came before.

Yet, for all its imperfections – and it is, no mistake, a wildly mixed bag – there’s something ultimately admirable about its devil-may-care ambition. Aronofsky throws everything he has at the screen, and while much of it fails to stick, a lot of it does. It is a brave, auteristic blockbuster in an era when blandness and safety have become the standards. There’s something refreshing about that. It’s a reminder how rarely directors like Darren Aronofsky are gifted an opportunity to craft something on this scale, and how strange it is to see a fresh interpretation of such an iconic story. When Noah is at its visceral best, it’s something to be truly savoured, even if it can be just as maddening as endearing.

Stephen McNeice

12A (See IFCO for details)
139 mins

Noah is released on 4th April 2014

Noah – Official Website


Cinema Review: The Unknown Known


DIR: Errol Morris • PRO: Amanda Branson Gill, Robert Fernandez, Errol Morris • DOP: Robert Chappell • ED: Steven Hathaway • MUS: Danny Elfman • DES: Jeremy Landman • CAST: Kenn Medeiros, Errol Morris, Donald Rumsfeld

Errol Morris has a really remarkable way of getting people to open up on camera. In his debut The Thin Blue Line, he famously managed to record something that could well be a murder confession, helping lead to the release of the innocent Randall Dale Adams (who had been sentenced to life in prison). The Fog of War saw Morris ‘face off’ against former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. While McNamara didn’t necessarily ‘crack’, Morris managed to secure some startlingly and complex insights from his interviews with the man. Even in his 2010 film Tabloid – which is very purposefully a structurally tricky and playful affair that reminds the audience to be distrustful of individual testimonies – Morris ultimately manages to get his subject Joyce McKinney to make some memorably frank and intimate observations on camera (how much you believe them, of course, is up to you). Morris has even used the word ‘Interrotron’ to describe his trademark interview style of having his subjects talk directly to the camera – or is that the audience? – as if on trial.


The Interrotron is employed once again in The Unknown Known, with Morris turning the camera on another former Secretary of Defence. A two-time Secretary of Defence, in fact: Donald Rumsfeld. This time, however, Morris’ usual techniques make nary a dent in his interviewee’s armour. More often than not, questions are answered by Rumsfeld with a familiarly calculated response or enigmatic grin. When Morris – sometimes with genuine frustration and disbelief in his voice – attempts to push harder or presents Rumsfeld with a knowingly inflammatory query, the Washington veteran bats not a single eyelid as he shoots down the line of questioning or effortlessly defuses Morris’ enquiries.


Conclusions on how compelling a documentary this elusiveness makes is likely to differ from viewer to viewer. The Unknown Known lacks the surprises and fresh insights that have defined many great documentaries, much of Morris’ own work included. That’s one of the things about making any documentary: you don’t know what the results will be until you’re near the end of making it, with many changing shape radically over the course of production. If Morris was hoping Rumsfeld would reveal something controversial or even drop his charismatic public persona, he may well have been severely disappointed.


That, however, would be dismissive of what is a fascinating film in different ways. Rumsfeld might be an expert deflector, but his story is a great one. After all, this is a man who held one of the most influential positions in Washington during Watergate, the Cold War, 9/11 and the beginnings of the Afghan / Iraq wars. It’s a compelling political and personal story, full of twists and turns – at one point, he casually observes that under very slightly different circumstances, he could have been President or Vice-President of America. He worked over Dick Cheney, for example, when he was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff – indeed, it was seemingly Cheney’s recommendation that got Rumsfeld a prize position in George W. Bush’s cabinet. Obviously, little regret is expressed over his ultimate life and career trajectory – this is a man not hung up on what might have been.


This all makes for a very strong character study. The elusiveness, so frustrating in some respects, is curious in others. Here is a man who has been instrumental in some of the biggest and most controversial decisions in contemporary history, and has been quizzed about them hundreds of times (the footage of his press conferences are highlights here). He is able to personally justify or critique all his decisions – in fact, even if you don’t agree with his actions, there are times here when you won’t fail to be impressed by his persuasiveness and raw charisma. He’s, above all, a powerful screen presence, able to own and even manipulate the camera to his advantage.


Morris, for his part, adds a few interesting flourishes to ensure it’s not all Rumsfeld’s face for 100 minutes. There’s lots of archive footage, naturally. There’s a Danny Elfman score that’s at times more like his Batman work than your typical documentary soundtrack – I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. There’s also frequent shots of empty sea, culminating in the launch of a dodgy CGI rocket that would have been best left excised. More interesting are the structural ideas, most intriguingly the way Morris repeatedly bases questions or loose ‘chapters’ of the film on Rumsfeld’s tens of thousands of memos to his Pentagon colleagues. From reflections on international tensions to requesting dictionary definitions of words like ‘quagmire’, they’re a further unusual insight into the man’s working and communication methods. It also serves as a way of highlighting the strange bureaucracy of Washington – a segment on the torture in Guantanamo Bay and other POW prisons sees Rumsfeld explaining it away as a series of miscommunications, misinterpreted documents and misunderstandings of the chain of command.

On a couple of occasions, Morris leaves the camera linger for a few extended moments on Rumsfeld’s face after he artfully deflects a particularly contentious question. Morris is clearly under the impression that this man has many things to hide, but there’s not a chance he’s giving them up. Perhaps we will never know what’s really going on in Donald Rumsfeld’s head, but gazing into the face of the unknowable holds its own unique appeal.


Stephen McNeice

96 mins

The Unknown Known is released on 21st March 2014


Cinema Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo Dicaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Dir: Martin Scorsese • Wri: Terence Winter • Pro: Riza Aziz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff • DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Bob Shaw • CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey

Having not too long ago celebrated his 71st birthday, it is obvious to any observer that Martin Scorsese’s love affair with cinema is still as all consuming as ever. His last film Hugo was an extravagant tribute to cinema itself: a compelling ode to the creatives, aesthetics and imagination of early cinema. Meanwhile, his continued patronage of projects like the World Cinema Foundation – dedicated to restoring and preserving films from countries without the resources or culture to do so themselves – further indicate his amour du cinéma. We the viewer luckily reap some of the benefits of this: Masters of Cinema and Criterion have started releasing gorgeous Blu-Ray boxsets of the Foundation’s preservation projects, Scorsese himself appearing on camera to introduce each of the films.


The Wolf of Wall Street is not as ‘literally’ the work of a cinephile as Hugo or the WCF, but it is unmistakably the product of a veteran director still madly, deeply infatuated with cinematic form. It radiates energy and enthusiasm, and is as lively and committed as anything he’s ever made over a nearly half-century long career. It is a welcome revisit to many of the stylistic and storytelling techniques that have defined many of his most beloved works, but also a fresh and ambitious project that differs significantly from the films we writers are obliged to compare it to (Casino and Goodfellas, if you’re wondering). It’s also incredibly funny.


The film is “based on a true story”, specifically that of Jordan Belfort – once dubbed the eponymous Wolf in a Forbes profile. As you can tell by the strategically placed quotation marks, the ‘truth’ is merely a launching point, but more on that shortly. First, the basics.


Belfort (Leonardo di Caprio) is a young, enthusiastic stockbroker, who unluckily earns his full broker’s license right around the time of the 1987 economic meltdown. After a brief period of unemployment, he winds up in a rundown brokers’ office offloading junk stocks to people barely able to afford their bills in the first place. He proves to have a knack for the work, and soon opens up a new firm exclusively trading in these rubbish but extremely profitable ‘penny stocks’. The work isn’t necessarily regulated or even legal in the traditional sense, but soon Belfort has started his own firm and trained a ragtag group to sell these rubbish shares over the phone. Soon, the company – named Stratton Oakmont – has exploded in size and popularity, moving to swank new high-rise offices and employing dozens of staff, with more begging to be hired. Belfort and his inner circle, meanwhile, are earning almost a million dollars a week, and spending much of it on mountains of quaaludes, prostitutes, private helicopters, alcohol, marching bands and hired dwarves (who they use as human darts). Naturally, this high life starts to take something of a toll on Belfort, all while FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) starts investigating the company’s unusual practices.


The basics and even most of the specifics of The Wolf of Wall Street conform with Belfort’s own recollections, published in his memoirs of the same name. Scorsese, though, has opted to bring the situations and characters to life in a wild, cartoonish manner. Take it as a serious deconstruction of financial corruption and you’re in for a fall. The greed, the arrogance, the rudeness, and the reckless abandon of the Stratton Oakmont crew are merrily overblown, the film achieving a thoroughly entertaining hybrid of fact and comic exaggeration – well, I hope it’s exaggerated anyway, as you can never quite tell with those reckless financiers. The film manages to be a lightly damning critique of economic and social corruption (timely, considering recent financial shenanigans) but first and foremost it’s a madcap black comedy.


A wonderful comedy it is too, likely to offer the game audience member plenty of belly laughs. One late film setpiece plays out something like Buster Keaton meets Hunter S. Thompson: an inspired and very un-PC sequence of drug-addled slapstick. Scorsese, it goes without saying, directs this with the fervour of a true auteur – perhaps not the most distinctive film he’s made stylistically speaking, but still propelled by inspired musical choices, bold voiceover work, kinetic camera movements and a general structural playfulness (such as the fake television ads planted throughout the film). Thelma Schoonmaker – almost certainly the most important collaborator of Scorsese’s – expertly patches the chaos together, and with the exception of some minor lulls the 180 minute runtime whizzes by. In terms of its overall pace, style and structure it resembles – those names again! – Goodfellas and Casino, but is also very much its own beast.


DiCaprio, meanwhile, earns our undivided attention. The film, I must point out, offers a strong ensemble cast – notably a sultry Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife and Matthew McConaughey’s committed extended cameo as Jordan’s wall street mentor (Jonah Hill, by the way, is fine: not exactly offering a whole lot we haven’t seen from him before, but acting as something of a useful comic foil for DiCaprio). The lead, though, is a force of nature. DiCaprio paints Belfort as a charismatic asshole, the performance growing in complexity as drug addiction and other excesses take their toll. He’s smug and often insufferable: occasionally he even shatters through the fourth wall to shamelessly talk down to the audience. But DiCaprio also manages to portray how Belfort manage to stir up such loyalty among his supporters – during several intense motivational speeches to his staff, you’d almost be forgiven for briefly buying into his twisted, exploitative ideologies and practices. He also has a strange but fragile loyalty about him, explored intriguingly in the film’s second half. Scorsese forces Belfort through some crazy comic ordeals, but in DiCaprio’s hands he’s an individual with depth.


Any negatives worth noting? Well, one could argue certain sections feel repetitious, and there are perhaps moments of sluggishness (appropriate, maybe, given the increasingly grueling drug addictions experienced by the characters). Many moments are pitched extremely broad, with some scenes ending up feeling flatter than others. And these thoughts could lead to the question of how much depth there really is underneath the vibrant surface. Quibbles, these are. The Wolf of Wall Street is a refreshingly raw and vibrant Scorsese joint: a film that serves as a warm reminder of many of his most iconic directorial trademarks, as well as bringing plenty of new tricks to the table. It’s a wild ride and as funny as anything you’re likely to see in the cinema over the coming year. Martin Scorsese might have spent the last few years asking us to look back at cinema history with him, but on the strength of The Wolf of Wall Street we should all be greatly enthused about his present and future too.

Stephen McNeice

18 (See IFCO for details)
179  mins
The Wolf of Wall Street is released on 17th January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street– Official Website


Book Review: The Filmmaker’s Handbook – A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age


Stephen McNeice takes a look at ‘The Filmmaker’s Handbook – A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age’ 

The Filmmaker’s Handbook (2013 Edition) – A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age by Steven Ascher & Edward Pincus (published by Plume, RRP £21.99) has its work cut out for it. The risks involved with writing a ‘comprehensive’ overview of the practical & technical aspects of filmmaking are many, but most significant of all is the ever-shifting digital landscape. By the time you research the topics, put together your tome and get it published there’s a very high chance what you’ve spent all your time on will be already rendered obsolete. A book on digital filmmaking written even three years ago is effectively useless now. Plus, there’s the not insignificant complication we call the Internet – the immediacy of online writing ensures Phillip Bloom and the like will always be several steps ahead of the printed word. Some basics of filmmaking never change, but the specifics have in recent years been in endless flux.


Steven Ascher – revising the popular book he originally co-authored with Edward Pincus – gives it a good shot though. The guide does make liberal use out of the phrase ‘as of writing’, but as of writing this review the information contained in the handbook is more or less representative of current trends and technology. The likes of the ARRI Alexa, Thunderbolt, Final Cut Pro X, cloud-based editing systems and 48 frames-per-second all get a look in – often brief mentions, but at least they’re acknowledged and ensure the book feels pertinent & useful.


The book is less concerned with individual brands and technologies, however, and much more interested in giving an all-encompassing guide to the filmmaking process. The result is a dense but undoubtedly comprehensive walkthrough of the various stages of production. This isn’t a book you just sit down and read casually: each chapter tackles a specific area (cameras, sound, editing, lighting, producing & distributing the movie etc…) in quite a bit of detail. Only the most committed independent director will feel the necessity to study every single chapter in depth. The book is far too jargon-heavy to be considered a light read, but you’d be hard pressed to find a production or postproduction concept that isn’t given a page or two attention. You won’t emerge as an instant sound recordist or post-production engineer, but you’ll find a solid grounding in the ideas & technology involved. Even well versed filmmakers could benefit from the straightforward breakdowns of tricky concepts – very few film professionals are jacks-of-all-trades after all, and the book’s early chapters particularly work well as a tight, to-the-point overview of production processes.


The subtitle gives away the predominantly digital focus, but there are many sections retained from earlier editions examining the various practicalities of good old analogue formats. The book is broken down into seventeen chapters, each with a significant number of subsections. This does lead to unfortunate moments of repetition – chapter one, for example, introduces data management concepts, which is expanded upon in chapter two, revisited in chapter five and further repeated in the numerous post-production chapters. While the chapters themselves tend to follow a relatively logical flow, it can be a bit frustrating when topics are discussed in bits & pieces over the course of several hundred pages. The book is generally written in a straightforward, manner that will predominantly benefit complete newcomers. While there’s a wealth of useful information for more knowledgeable filmmakers, there are moments when the simple, factual writing assumes the reader is a bit too ignorant. Sample quote: ‘most camcorders have a microphone (also called a mic – pronounced “Mike”)’. Later chapters are unapologetically technical, however.


In general the book’s 800 pages contain a wealth of potentially useful practical advice and helpful breakdowns of potentially convoluted subject matter. With a couple of subsections excepted, the book is far more concerned with the practical aspects of movie production than the artistic ones (mise-en-scene concerns being a bit of both). It’s also primarily written from an American point of view – while HD technology is increasingly rendering traditional PAL / NTSC divisions less significant, there are brief sections that will prove less relevant to an Irish readership (notably the final chapter on producing and distribution). Still, a majority of the content is universal, and as an overall reference guide it mostly deserves its self-proclaimed ‘comprehensive’ status. Used in conjunction with the more up-to date blogs and journalism – and, it goes without saying, actual practice (what’s the point in theory if you don’t use it?) – the printed – or indeed e-book – edition of The Filmmaker’s Handbook earns its keep in a digital world. Until 2015 rolls around and it is rendered basically useless, of course.


  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: PLUME; New edition edition (2 Aug 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452286786
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452286788
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 4.4 x 22.9 cm

Cinema Review: The Croods



DIR: Chris Sanders • WRI: Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco  • PRO: Kristine Belson, Jane Hartwell • DOP: Yong Duk Jhun • ED: Eric Dapkewicz, Darren T. Holmes •  DES: Christophe Lautrette • CAST: Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener

The details are vague, but a couple of years ago animator Chris Sanders was ‘removed’ from directorial duties on American Dog, his follow-up to Lilo & Stitch. Some sort of ‘creative differences’ had occurred between Disney management and Sanders, and the film was repurposed as the solidly inoffensive Bolt. Sanders wasn’t out of work for long, and was responsible for How to Train Your Dragon at Dreamworks – not exactly paradigm shifting stuff, but a smart script and direction ensured it was the best non-Pixar mainstream American animation in quite some time.I open with this brief career synopsis as the idealist in me likes to think Mr. Sanders’ ideas for American Dog were simply too bold and offbeat for the House of Mouse. The man is a genuine talent, and I’d love to see what he’d do when unshackled by the formulaic demands of the major animation studios. Alas, there’s no real spirit of rebellion or imagination present in The Croods, co-directed by Sanders and Kirk DeMicco. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this hybrid of The Flintstones and Ice Age: Continental Drift – it’s perfectly competent stuff with a few decent ideas. Yet there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it either: another victim of the increasingly familiar formula few American cartoons have been brave enough to depart form. Shame on me, perhaps, for even expecting anything better.


The Croods follows the Croods, a family of cavepeople just about surviving by venturing out of their shelter every morning to risk grabbing an egg or two. Father Grug (voiced by Nicholas Cage, doing his best Nicholas Cage impression) is overprotective, which is frustrating rebellious, hyperactive daughter Eep (Emma Stone). Things change quickly with the arrival of mysterious wanderer Guy (Ryan Reynolds), bringing with him a strange new concept known only as ‘fire’. Eep is smitten with Guy and fire, but their arrival is swiftly followed by the destruction of the Croods’ home valley. With Pangaea breaking up right behind them – in cinema, you can always outrun an apocalyptic event – the Croods are forced to embark on a road trip to the safety of high ground. Guy reluctantly decides to join them, much to the displeasure of conservative old Grug, who isn’t so fond of the stranger’s new ‘ideas’.


You know the drill: manic setpieces, pretty animation, wacky animal sidekicks, a highly sentimental third act etc… The focus is mostly on the relationships between Grug, Eep and Guy, in which they all learn to appreciate each other as the story dictates. The rest of the Croods – voiced by Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman and Clark Duke (there’s also a mandatory hyperactive infant) – are mostly left on the sidelines. The animation is technically proficient, the action loud and ridiculous.

There’s a hint of originality in the light evolutionary concepts explored in the film – the primitive Croods are eventually forced to adapt to a more conscious way of acting to survive the trials they face, with Grug the last one to hop on the ‘thinking’ bandwagon. This generally Darwinian element is welcome. The filmmakers also have the opportunity to subvert expectations with a poignant, devastating and thematically appropriate endnote. They even bravely build it up for a good fifteen minutes before they chicken out. What happened to the good old days of traumatising children with a death scene now and again? Come back, Bambi, all is forgiven!


All this is grand, and kids will be entertained. There’s been worse, there’s been better. But Chris Sanders undoubtedly has better material than this in him. Let us hope that one day he has the bravery and financial resources to bring them to life. American animation is stagnating, and people like Sanders need to be given the opportunity to challenge that. But hey, this will make bucketloads of money. In the end, isn’t that all that really matters?


The answer is yes.


Stephen McNeice

G (see IFCO website for details)

The Croods is released on 22nd March 2013

The Croods – Official Website


Oscars 2013: Best Picture Nominee – Amour


Stephen McNeice professes his love for ‘Amour’ as part of our Oscar 2013 Best Film countdown…



To say I’m apathetic towards the Oscars is an understatement – sometimes that apathy morphs into straight up hostility. The Academy are generally so wearily specific with the types of films they award that you’d hope they eventually simply doom themselves to irrelevance. After all, what sort of organisation will bestow ‘best actor’ nominations upon decent but unremarkable performances from Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman and Denzel Washington while the genuinely astonishing and profound achievements of Denis Lavant and Jean-Louis Trintignant are shamefully shunned? At least Daniel Day-Lewis and – to a much greater degree – Joaquin Phoenix deserve their nods. Similar arguments can be made for pretty much every category, and yet for so many the Oscars remain a barometer for the best cinema has to offer. In reality, the awards can be maddeningly limited. Doesn’t stop the press and viewers being consumed by the hype year after year.  
As ever, a majority of 2012’s most groundbreaking, vital films have seemingly passed the Academy by (that or the distributors couldn’t afford the promotional costs). Perhaps most controversially of all – where the heck was The Master? We can all probably identify our own personal grievous absences and misjudgements, especially as Les Miserables stinks up a ‘valuable’ nomination slot seemingly solely because it’s an extravagant period musical directed by a previous Oscar-winner.

Not that the current batch of Best Picture nominations are worthless or anything. There’s actually a lot of pretty to really good films on there, even if they fail to achieve genuine greatness. Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Django, Silver Linings… these are all smart and engaging if ultimately suffering from various degrees of imperfection. Also unexpectedly refreshing to see the promising and bold debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild so prominently featured, even if it’s unlikely such an underdog stands a chance against the Hollywood giants and industry veterans (Beasts… is also disgracefully absent from the ‘best original score’ nomination list, but now I’m just being petty).
So we’re left with just one genuinely ‘great’  film on the list – Michael Haneke’s devastating relationship study Amour. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the most deserving of both the Best Picture and Best Director awards. It is the work of a true master: a one-of-a-kind auteur who has once again offered cinema fans something truly special. Every single frame of Amour is perfectly considered – Haneke is in absolute control of the images, whether that’s a moment of quiet reflection, a heated argument, a heartbreaking daydream or an unexpected pigeon invasion. It’s a work that’s both highly accessible and worthy of years of critical, academic and audience analysis. It’s also home to two remarkable performances, from Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (who must win best actress). Amour grabs your attention through its shocking prologue, and doesn’t let go until its conclusion. It is as close to perfection as cinema has to offer. With Amour every single directorial decision is impeccable and singular – there are no missteps, no weak-links, no inconsistencies. It is masterly.  


Funnily enough, it might not even be the best or most provocative film that its creator has ever made (that honour, in this writer’s opinion, still belongs to Caché) but when you’re dealing with Michael Haneke masterpieces ranking is an exercise of purest futility. Every film the man makes enriches cinema as a medium. He’s pretty much peerless; a proud candidate for ‘greatest living director’. Amour is another flawless work, and one that is perhaps his most emotionally engaging film yet. In terms of quality, Amour is in a league of its own compared to other nominees. Not only that, but a European film walking away with the highest Academy honour would set a wonderful precedent. The Oscars consistently ignore or actively ghettoise the best international cinema in favour of mainstream American or British cinema, regardless of quality. A victory for Amour would not just see the most deserving film win, but also signify a welcome shift in Academy voting habits. It is not completely outside the realms of possibility – recent years have seen a shake-up in the make-up of the director’s branch of the Academy particularly, with a variety of offbeat and international talents occupying seats once held by more conservative studio types.  

Going by the pre-awards hype and buzz, however, it seems incredibly unlikely Amour will walk away with the grand prizes. Indeed, the bizarre and unwarranted controversy that has sprung up around Zero Dark Thirty illustrates just how afraid of rocking the boat the voting establishment seem to be. It’s much more likely the safe and predictable likes of Argo (much more worthy of ideological criticism than ZDK, incidentally, but that’s another argument) or Lincoln will emerge triumphant – solid films in their own right, but par for the course when it comes to award hyperbole. It is likely Amour will instead be an afterthought, almost undoubtedly earning the token Best Foreign Language Film statuette, with perhaps a deserved Best Actress award to boot. Still, even if Haneke’s film doesn’t emerge as the big winner on 24th February, there’s no doubt whatsoever that it is the best film nominated for best film.

Stephen McNeice



Cinema Review: This is 40


DIR/WRI: Judd Apatow • PRO: Alan Barnette, Joe Medjuck, Tom Pollock , Ivan Reitman, Tom Thayer • DOP: Phedon Papamichael • ED: David L. Bertman, Jay Deuby, Brent White • DES: Jefferson Sage • CAST: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow

This is 40 marks a radical departure for director Judd Apatow. He has resisted the temptation to cast his wife, daughters and friends. There are few if any incidences of toilet humour. The film never stops in its tracks to allow characters to exchange pop cultural gags or insults. Also absent are the ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’ cameos and guest appearances from famous and ‘kinda famous but Judd Apatow likes them’ faces. And, most impressively, the director has scaled-back his indulgent sense of pacing to provide a brisk, ninety-minute drama that doesn’t overstay its welcome.


Yeah, sorry about that. I lied. This is 40 is most definitely a typical Judd Apatow film, for better and worse. It’s being billed as a ‘sort of’ sequel to Knocked Up – as in it features a few ancillary characters from that film that you might have forgotten about in favour of instead retaining the ‘crowning’ gag. This time the merrily rambling narrative focuses on married couple Debbie (Leslie Mann, who lest we forget is Apatow’s own wife) and Pete (Paul Rudd) in the run up to the latter’s fortieth birthday party (and, since Debbie is fond of lying about her age, potentially her secret mid-life bash too). They have two daughters, Sadie and Charlotte, played by Mann and Apatow’s own kids Maude and Iris. There are a range of subplots – Pete’s record company is in trouble, Debbie’s employee (Megan Fox) might be stealing from her, they both are having trouble with their respective fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks), Sadie is dealing with the tribulations of early adolescence, general concerns of an economic nature etc… All of this – and more, including such random additions as guest appearances from Billie Joe Armstrong and Ryan Adams – is putting much strain on Debbie and Pete’s once happy marriage.

I suppose the nicest thing I can say about all this is that it’s an improvement on Funny People. Make no mistake: This Is 40 doesn’t hit the comedy highs of Apatow’s first two films, and it barely deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Freaks & Geeks (almost inevitably the best thing anyone involved with it will ever be a part of). There are moments here that will make you cringe out of embarrassment, and not in a good way. Individual scenes and even whole characters (Charlyne Yi, Maude Apatow) come across as consistently shrill and irritating. The laughs-per-minute rate is distressingly low. Apatow’s insistence on casting his own family members continues to make his work look like the most commercially successful home videos of them all (he has already threatened to make another ‘sort of’ sequel focusing on his daughters). The film is full of bloated subplots, with several quite talented actors underused in the process (Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd particularly). And yes, it’s over two hours long for various barely justified reasons.

Yet amidst all the mindless self-indulgence – and there is an awful lot of inconsistent material over 130 minutes – This is 40 is watchable. Faint praise, perhaps, but it will have to do. While the film is wildly uneven in terms of comedy, there are some genuinely witty and amusing moments that earn their laughs. As a study of a marriage in crisis, set in a period of economic turbulence, Apatow’s film is sometimes surprisingly acute for a film that begins with a less-than-subtle ‘Viagra in the shower’ joke. It occasionally resembles a thoughtfully observed examination of a middle-class family consumed by technology, consumerism, miscommunication and the other pressures and expectations of modern life. Again, we’re not talking Scenes from a Marriage or Saraband material here – there are too many ass jokes for that – but there are glimmers of genuine insight and poignancy here.

All this is, of course, buried in an avalanche of often intolerable bloat. But it’s a Judd Apatow film. What did you expect – brevity?

Stephen McNeice

15A (see IFCO website for details)

133 mins

This is 40 is released on 15th February 2013

This is 40 – Official Website


Cinema Review: No


DIR: Pablo Larraín • WRI: Pedro Peirano • PRO: Daniel Marc Dreifuss, Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín • DOP: Sergio Armstrong • ED: Andrea Chignoli •  CAST: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers

¡Viva la revolucion 4:3, amigos! After the dissemination of square televisions necessitated filmmakers to adapt aspect ratios of a wider persuasion, good old Academy Ratio is undergoing a minor artistic resurgence. The Artist re-appropriated it as part of its emulation of silent aesthetics, while Miguel Gomes similarly drew on its classical connotations for his nostalgic and intoxicating Tabu. Kelly Reichardt used it to differentiate her bleak, claustrophobic Meek’s Cutoff from any number of epically Cinemascope Westerns. And now we have No, whose director Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem, Tony Manero) uses 4:3 to make his film look like crap.At least it looks crap for a reason! The film is set in Chile in 1988, and tells the story of the television advertising campaign that was waged against dictator Pinochet’s referendum calling for a further extension to his already fifteen year long reign. Larrain uses the relatively primitive television technology of the time – a camera system called U-matic – with good cause. It does not make for the most beautifully cinematic feature film – there is constant ugly artefacting and the exposure basically freaks the hell out when it has to deal with direct sunlight. And yet it works, predominantly because archive footage is near seamlessly integrated with the ‘new’ footage. The film’s strikingly retro visualisation creates a memorable sense of place and time, and the eccentric format is pretty much completely justified. Not that every period film should suddenly start shooting in U-matic, of course.


The visuals may be non-traditional, but the story being told is a pretty straightforward one. Gael García Bernal plays René Saavedra, a composite of several real-life advertising creatives. After being persuaded to help craft the ‘No’ campaign, he decides to focus on a joyful, optimistic campaign to counter the Pinochet’s camp typically unconvincing propaganda. Initially the idea is met with resistance by the ‘Vote No’ camp, who think the campaign is downplaying the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. But it quickly becomes apparent the positivity is resonating, and it isn’t long before the dictator’s minions take a particular interest in the people behind the increasingly popular campaign.


It’s a fascinating history lesson about one of the few incidences where the language of advertising and selling was utilised to achieve a grander goal than the promotion of soft drinks. Bernal’s protagonist is an interesting one, dealing with the personal and social repercussions of his work. The story is told with the right blend of comedy and drama – examining an intriguing mini-revolution while not forgetting to have a bit of fun. There aren’t a whole lot of surprises in the way René’s story plays out, and the film could perhaps have probed the ethical and moral dilemmas of the situation in greater depth (the film does conclude on a satisfactorily bittersweet note). On the whole, though, No is never less than engaging and enjoyable. And those cheesy ‘No’ jingles really are strangely persuasive…


It’s actually somewhat of a shame the film’s  unusual presentation and subtitles will relegate this to small releases in arthouse theatres like the IFI. It’s an accessible and entertaining film that would undoubtedly appeal to those who enjoyed the likes of Argo. If you do happen to stumble across it, No is well worth a look as a distinctive way of telling a great story.




Stephen McNeice

15A (see IFCO website for details)

117 mins

No is released on 8th February 2013

No– Official Website


Cinema Review: Everyday


DIR: Michael Winterbottom • WRI: Laurence Coriat, Michael Winterbottom • PRO: Melissa Parmenter . • DOP: Sean Bobbitt, James Clarke, Annemarie Lean-Vercoe, Simon Tindall, Marcel Zyskind • ED: Mags Arnold, Paul Monaghan • CAST: Shirley Henderson, John Simm, Shaun Kirk


Everyday couldn’t be a more appropriate title – Michael Winterbottom’s understated experiment attempts to capture glimpses of everyday life and routine in all its minute, unromantic detail. The film’s most noteworthy gimmick is that it was shot over a five-year period to allow its younger cast members (and, as far as haircuts and facial hair go, its older ones too) to age on camera. It’s a neat and justified artistic decision, but it’s hard to call whether the story deserved the logistical effort.


Shirley Henderson plays Karen, a mother of four young kids – the fictional siblings all played by real-life members of the family Kirk (Shaun, Robert, Katrina and Stephanie, to be exact). Father Ian (John Simm) is serving a five-year prison term for some sort of robbery. We check in with the family irregularly over the course of his sentence. The kids have trouble in school, Ian gets frustrated by the drudgery and isolation of prison life, and Karen raises the kids while holding down a series of jobs and attempting to resist the temptation of a romantic admirer (Darren Tighe).


One of the interesting side effects of the five-year filming approach is that we can see the progress digital cinematography has made during that period firsthand. Early scenes are visually noisy and rough, but the picture clarity ever improves as the film progresses. Winterbottom settles on mostly handheld, improvised camerawork in naturalistic settings such as houses, parks and (inevitably) prisons. Those familiar with ‘mumblecore’ or even Dogme 95 aesthetics will find themselves in relatively recognisable territory. The film’s loosely defined chapters are often broken up by sedate landscape shots and bursts of an energetic score by Michael Nyman – two concessions that feel a little odd in a film so militantly naturalistic.


In terms of storytelling, ‘realism’ is the order of the day. Devoid of voiceover or any such cheap tricks, the film gives us fleeting glimpses into the everyday life of one separated family. The film’s story is straightforward and often effective. Ian being forced to return to the prison after a rare day’s leave with his family is a heartbreaking moment, and much more so since Winterbottom and Simms don’t overplay the emotions. The film’s most ‘dramatic’ plot point is ambiguously hinted at throughout, and the big ‘revelation’ only arrives minutes before the credits roll.


Other times, the film’s incessant subtlety hints at interesting character developments that are never built on. The two boys, for example, are gifted with much more screen time than the girls, and we’re shown how the two youngsters are getting into fights at school. But the film doesn’t probe why that is sufficiently (although the absence of their patriarch is a given), and the subplot stops short of real insight. Indeed, the plot is so determinedly non-dramatic we’re regularly left short of genuine insight or catharsis. There’s also the perhaps not unjustified argument that these characters simply aren’t that interesting or developed enough to spend intimate time with. The constant prison visits grow repetitive (which, admittedly, is part of the point) and whatever understated plot there is is quite familiar.


Still, the film is diverting enough on its own limited terms. The acting is consistently decent – of course from proven talents like Simm and Henderson, but the kids handle it well considering the odd position they find themselves in. There’s some intriguing scenes, and an admirably unpretentious delivery throughout. Ultimately this long-term shooting experiment has delivered a very small-scale drama, and its simplicity is both its greatest asset and its biggest liability.

Stephen McNeice

Everyday screens exclusively at the IFI

106 mins

Everyday is released on 18th January 2013


Cinema Review: Gangster Squad


DIR: Ruben Fleischer • WRI: Will Beall • PRO: Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadross• DOP: Dion Beebe • ED: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert • DES: Maher Ahmad • CAST: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi

It’s quite obvious a significant level of effort was put into the production of Gangster Squad. A crack team of award-winning and well-regarded actors were persuaded to take part – whether through artistic or financial motivations we will never know. Considerable energy, both practical and computer generated, has been put into evoking 1949 Los Angeles. After principal photography had wrapped, Warner Bros. made the not insignificant decision to get everyone back together for expensive reshoots when a key ‘cinema shootout’ sequence drew unfortunate parallels with the Aurora massacre. So yes: time and money was undoubtedly spent getting Gangster Squad into theatres. Shame the script didn’t really deserve the effort.


The set up, supposedly inspired by true events: determined LAPD sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is ordered by his chief (Nick Nolte) to set up a secret ‘guerrilla’ squad to take down increasingly powerful (and real-life) gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). O’Mara pulls together a team including an old gun (Robert Patrick), the old gun’s young protégée (Michael Pena), a tough but virtuous beat cop (Anthony Mackie) and a tech-head / family man (Giovanni Ribisi). There’s also Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who happens to be having an affair with Cohen’s moll Grace (Emma Stone). Can O’Mara save L.A. from corruption, while fulfilling his promise to his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) to not get himself killed?


Here’s the thing: every time a character is introduced, every time a seemingly throwaway line of dialogue is given that little extra emphasis, every time the classic three-act structure requires a very particular plot development… you know exactly what’s coming next. Gangster Squad is lacking in the element of surprise, and Will Beall’s script is derivative to an absolute fault. There’s nothing you haven’t experienced before, often in vastly superior form. Given the film’s deep debt to countless film noir and gangster films past, some degree of familiarity is to be expected, but this is simply lazy. A surprisingly brutal duo of opening sequences tease that we’re in hard-boiled territory. Alas, everything that follows is soft and runny, right through to an unconvincingly sunny side up ending. The film taunts that it might probe the moral ambiguity of the increasingly unhinged police at the centre of the tale, but they are mere taunts. Those looking for character development, despair: Gangster Squad is not the motion picture you seek (although Enos as O’Mara’s wife is allowed to be a tad more proactive than might be expected from such a potentially thankless role).


Pitifully formulaic though it may be, it also passes the time without great offense being caused (ludicrously high ‘generic gangster’ body count aside). The cast have all done better, but no one embarrasses themselves, so hooray there. Director Ruben Fleisher’s direction isn’t anything to write home about, but the film is tightly paced with little waste. The action set pieces, barring some uneven attempts at slo-mo stylisation, are diverting, particularly an amusing prison breakout sequence. And while the film could hardly be accused of being the most intoxicating period drama ever made, mid twentieth century L.A. is evoked well enough through period detail and era-appropriate soundtrack choices.


So Gangster Squad is the dictionary definition of ‘alright’ then – passes the time, but near instantly forgettable due to its formulaic writing. Hollywood has produced worse films about Hollywoodland, but its also made much better.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

112 mins

Gangster Squad is released on 11th January 2013

Gangster SquadOfficial Website


Cinema Review: Neil Young Journeys


DIR: Jonathan Demme •  PRO: Jonathan Demme, Elliot Rabinowitz • DOP: Declan Quinn • ED: Glenn Allen • CAST: Neil Young
Jonathan Demme procrastinates from following up on his excellent last fiction feature Rachel Getting Married with concert film Neil Young Journeys. This marks the third collaboration between director and musician, having previously produced the well-received Heart of Gold (2005) and Trunk Show (2010, which doesn’t seem to have received an Irish release). This time around, Young performs solo in Massey Hall, Toronto in support of his 2010 album Le Noise. Between songs, Demme cuts in scenes of Young’s road-trip from his hometown in Ontario to the venue.


Listen: if you’re a Neil Young fan, you’ll more than likely enjoy this. If you can’t stand his distinctive drawl, well then its safe to say Journey is unlikely to convert you. Still, for what its worth, it is quite well made within its unavoidable confines. Demme – a concert movie veteran, with the beloved Stop Making Sense under his belt – keeps the camera focused squarely on Young throughout. There’s not a single reaction shot from the – seemingly enthusiastic – crowd, and we only glimpse them in silhouette for the first time an hour into the ninety-minute film. Demme shoots and edits in a considered style – long shots for the most part, only becoming comparatively frantic during the climactic performance of ‘Hitchhiker’. The camera angles are unusually chosen – during two songs, for example, we cut to extreme close-ups of Young’s mouth. I mean extreme – you can pretty much make out individual facial hairs, and the ‘mic camera’ is amusingly victim to what seems to be some stray saliva towards the end of the set.

Luckily, Young is still a spry and energetic performer, more than able to hold our attention on his lonesome. The soundtrack is spread fairly evenly between cuts from Le Noise and classics such as ‘After the Goldrush’, ‘Hey Hey, My, My’ and ‘Down by the River’. There are few outright duds. One odd misstep is Demme’s decision to repeatedly superimpose the photographs and names of “the four dead in Ohio” over the rousing performance of Young’s protest anthem Ohio. It’s a nice sentiment that reminds us of the song’s historical origins, but the delivery – complete with a font choice right of a hastily thrown together Powerpoint Presentation – feels clunky, inelegant and stylistically out of whack with the rest of the film. The quality of the sound design is, naturally, excellent throughout, and really brings out the sonic subtleties of Young’s performance.

The road-trip footage is relatively inconsequential, but there’s not really all that much of it (probably around fifteen minutes worth, if even). There are some nicely poignant moments when Young visits his family’s long since abandoned plot of land, but apart from that I wouldn’t say the eponymous journey significantly enhances or detracts from the documentary.

Neil Young Journeys, then, will inevitably resonate most with fans – especially Irish fans rabidly anticipating the performer’s 2013 long-awaited return to Dublin. For everyone else, it will likely boil down to your tolerance of Young’s music. Still: it’s well-put together by Demme, and a fine testament to a veteran performer who has lost little of his musical spark.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 12A

87 mins

Neil Young Journeys is released on 4th January 2013

Neil Young Journeys – Official Website 


Cinema Review: The Man with the Iron Fists


DIR: RZA • WRI: Eli Roth, RZA • PRO: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Eli Roth • DOP: Chi Ying Chan • ED: Joe D’Augustine • DES: Drew Boughton • CAST: Russell Crowe, RZA, Zhu Zhu, Lucy Liu

The Man with the Iron Fists answers a question that someone out there has long pondered – can Wu-Tang Clan’s The RZA direct, score, star in and co-write a decent martial arts film? The answer is no.The story is one of the most ludicrous and convoluted offered in any film of recent years, so it’s unworthy of much attention. At its most basic level, the plot kick starts after the murder of a gang leader in a vaguely historical China. The leader’s vengeful son (Rick Yune), an immigrant blacksmith (RZA) and a playboy British envoy (Russell Crowe) all end up stuck in the middle of the gang war that ensues, localised around Jungle Village. This plot encompasses so many different factions and individuals its impossible to care about who is who, or why they just disembowelled that other guy. An over prominent voiceover by Mr. ZA himself plays over proceedings. The film was co-scripted by Eli Roth, so take that as a warning / recommendation as per your personal opinion of the man.


The multi-tasking helmer has a deep affection for kung-fu action, having clearly studied everything from the Shaw Brothers’ classics to his old collaborator Quentin Tarantino’s (here serving as off-screen ‘presenter’) reinterpretations of cheesy B-Movies. There are times when this threatens to become a convincing homage to the same – whether it’s the gloriously multi-coloured sets, pitch-perfect retro titles or the cameos from cult genre icons.


Alas, aesthetically the film is an absolute mess, and not just the liberal spilling of CGI blood and guts. The fight scenes lack any sense of spatial awareness or energy, even though the film’s more fantastical elements add a distinctive twist to the combat (there is indeed a man whose fists are iron). The cinematography fails to take advantage of the rich sets or beautiful Chinese locations. The disparate influences of the soundtrack – hip-hop beats, orchestral numbers and the occasional Oriental-infused composition – fail to gel together into a coherent whole.


The editing, though, is the most infuriating problem of all. The film is so excitedly cut together that it feels like we’re enduring a feature-length montage. The average shot-length can’t be more than a couple of seconds. The pacing is therefore exhausting, and the rapid cutting further damages the already uninspiring setpieces. During the film’s climactic battle scene, for example, Yune’s character ends up in a hall of mirrors against a hidden opponent. It looks as if we’re about to get the film’s action payoff in a visually magnificent setting. Alas, after around twenty seconds it cuts to an entirely different and much less interesting scene. Every time the film appears to be taking flight, the editing ensures it comes crashing down again.


The acting is a mixed bag. The decision to shoot an English language film with a predominantly Chinese cast is a strange one – while the dialogue is still undeniably stilted, the ensemble do fare better than the Japanese cast of Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django did. RZA is an uncharismatic lead. Lucy Liu appears as little more than O-Ren Ishii Redux. Russell Crowe has a lot of fun hamming it up. It’s not a great performance by any stretch, but we’ll let him away with having a blast.


The Man with the Iron Fists just doesn’t come together. Not funny enough to work as a satire, not slick enough to be a worthy genre entry in its own right, the film feels careless and haphazard. A missed opportunity.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)

95 mins

The Man with the Iron Fists is released on 7th December 2012

The Man with the Iron Fists – Official Website


Cinema Review: Rise of the Guardians


DIR: Peter Ramsey • WRI: David Lindsay-Abaire • PRO: Nancy Bernstein, Christina Steinberg • DES: Patrick Marc Hanenberger • CAST: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman

Christmas and Easter have come at once in the animated Rise of the Guardians, quite literally. The eponymous Guardians are a ragtag group of iconic (whisper it, in case the kids are reading) fictional figures who are tasked with safeguarding the children of Earth. There’s Santa Claus, reimagined as a burly, sword-wielding Russian. The Easter Bunny – voiced by Hugh Jackman in his natural Aussie accent – is a grumpy, boomerang hurling action hero. The Sandman is a silent fellow of miniature stature, while the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is… well, the Tooth Fairy. Mischievous Jack Frost (Chris Pine) is volunteered by the moon itself – I’m not making this up – to join this group of righteous warriors when the Boogeyman (Jude Law, because British accent = Evil) makes his unwanted return to basically try and destroy all childhood hope. Initially reluctant to join, Jack is slowly persuaded to join the good fight, and will inevitably learn something about himself along the way.


Listen, films like Rise of the Guardians put reviewers in an awkward position. This is very much a film aimed directly at a young audience, so it’s a challenge to discuss through more cynical adult eyes. The moral dilemmas, characters, jokes and story will almost certainly engage young audiences. But this isn’t Toy Story. Heck, it isn’t even How to Train Your Dragon. There are few concessions made for parents and guardians. This, I guess, could be considered both a positive and negative.


The visuals offer relatively pleasant eye-candy. One review has already equated the film to ‘a toy box exploding’, which isn’t too far off the mark. It’s so colourful and energetic that even the silly old three-dimensional glasses cannot dim the vibrancy. A sojourn to the Easter Bunny’s multi-coloured layer is a mid-film highlight. Naturally, it can all get too busy, especially during the hyperactive action scenes, but Dreamwork’s rendering farms have mostly been put to good use. Composer-in-demand Alexandre Desplat keeps things buzzing with a suitably frenetic score that probably isn’t as good as his work on The Tree of Life, in case you were wondering.


The characters are familiar, but a mixed success in terms of execution. The Sandman – perhaps not entirely coincidentally the only one who cannot speak – is the most charming of the lot, and regrettably absent for much of the plot. It’s nice to see alternative takes on old Mr. Claus and the Easter Bunny, but the portrayals feel a tad off here. Jack is a bland protagonist, although the Boogeyman is an even blander adversary.


Mostly, Rise of the Guardians passes the time inoffensively. Some parts are downright silly. The frequently verbalised moral of the story is ‘You should believe what the moon tells you to’, which makes only a little more sense in the context of the film itself than it does written down here. Given that Toy Story 3 has irrevocably upped the game when it comes to tear-jerking family cinema, this is comparatively cheesy. Also (warning: critical pretension alert!) the whole film might well be a thinly veiled Christian analogy. Cheeky Dreamworks!


Still, the kids who were in attendance were gasping with delight, shock and awe throughout the screening: a simple, telling fact that pretty much renders anything else I had to say about the film completely redundant.

Stephen McNeice

Rated G (see IFCO website for details)
97 mins
Rise of the Guardians  is released on 30th November 2012

Rise of the Guardians  – Official Website


Cinema Review: Rust and Bone

DIR: Jacques Audiard WRI: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain   PRO: Jacques Audiard,  Martine Cassinelli  DOP: Stéphane Fontaine • ED: Juliette Welfling • DES: Michel Barthélémy • CAST:  Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette

The plot of Rust and Bone – the latest film from A Prophet director Jacques Audiard – must have sounded absolutely ridiculous on paper. Orca whale attacks, bare-knuckle boxing tournaments, illegal surveillance rings, a severely disfigured protagonist… and that’s just the first half. There’s no denying that the execution can sometimes be contrived and silly too. And yet… Rust and Bone enthusiastically embraces its eccentric ideas and emerges as an involving, distinctive melodrama.


Matthias Schoenaerts plays Alain, who has moved into his sister’s house to get his young son away from his troubled mother. After procuring a job as a bouncer at a nightclub, Alain rescues Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) from a group of aggressive admirers. While dropping her home, Alain discovers that Stéphanie thrives on male attention in order to make her partner jealous. Still, the two exchange phone numbers and that seems like the end of it… until marine mammal trainer Stéphanie suffers a terrible whale-related accident at work. It’s several months after the accident that, in the midst of a debilitating depression, she decides to call Alain. The two commence a very unusual friendship.


A lot of Rust and Bone’s effectiveness is due to the stellar work by the two leads. Cotillard is the real deal, a genuine movie star – radiant and extraordinarily talented. Here, she turns in a hypnotically emotive and complex performance. Stéphanie is stuck in a situation where her whole personal and professional lifestyles have been cruelly ripped away. Luckily Audiard and Cotillard manage to quickly develop the character beyond the self-pity that initially seems doomed to define her. Schoenaerts, meanwhile, plays a protagonist who is convincingly allergic to commitment in all its forms. His journey to maturity is an often frustrating albeit ultimately rewarding one. Both roles are physically and emotionally demanding in very different ways, and the odd chemistry between the two make the inevitable romantic developments compelling.


The script adds a lot of complications to differentiate what is, in essence, an old-fashioned romance from the crowd. It’s certainly different, for better or worse – two lost souls bonding over illegal fighting tournaments leads to some absurd moments, and some third act dramatics are contrivances too far. Still, the bizarre set-ups gel surprisingly well with the understated, poetic romance and character arcs. The direction and cinematography are consistently strong – the film is rich with visual symbolism and Audiard is fully aware of the cinematic power of quiet contemplation. Given the film’s themes and dreamy presentation, comparisons to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are not unwarranted, if not always favourable. A further stylistic flourish is a series of a peculiar yet effective music cues. I am no fan of Katy Perry’s Fireworks, but it soundtracks two of Rust and Bone’s most poignant and memorable sequences.


The strange tone and narrative of Rust and Bone might restrict its wider appeal – it’s hard to call if it will experience the same crossover success A Prophet enjoyed. It’s rough around the edges, certainly, but at its best Rust and Bone can be a truly intoxicating experience. The talented director and cast ensure what could have been a very silly film indeed evolves into something much more elegant.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
122 mins

Rust and Bone is released on 2nd November 2012

Rust and Bone –  Official Website


Cinema Review: Resident Evil: Retribution

DIR/WRI: Paul W.S. Anderson  PRO: Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Don Carmody  DOP: Glen MacPherson  ED: Niven Howie  DES: Kevin Phipps  Cast: Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory, Michelle Rodriguez, Aryana Engineer

Amongst numerous other problems (not least Uwe Boll), it’s shocking the casual disrespect video game adaptations have for their source material. Sure, the terminology and characters may be vaguely similar, but few directors have accurately emulated the tone and identity of the interactive originals. A handful of anime adaptations and Silent Hill (which, despite its admirable stylistic emulation of the games, still wasn’t very good) pretty much stand alone in their loyalty to their respective inspirations. Many, many others – from Mario to Final Fantasy – have been shameful bastardisations that have horrified fans and newbies alike. Imagine the Harry Potter films re-imagined Harry as a suave, trash-talking ninja. Actually, that sounds kind of awesome, but you get my general point.

Not that Resident Evil was ever particularly hallowed interactive source material, with its B-movie inspired thrills and farcically convoluted lore. But even in its more action-orientated instalments the game series has provided intense, claustrophobic survival horror experiences. The series has reliably scared the shit out of gamers such its inception in 1996. Since the first movie in 2002, however, the films have shown themselves entirely unwilling to reflect the tone and atmosphere of the game series, settling instead on derivative action sci-fi. The characters are there, the Umbrella Corporation is sufficiently evil and there are still zombies, monsters and axe-wielding giants. It’s Resident Evil alright, but not as we know it.

Despite a consistently low quality, the films’ baffling financial success has justified this fourth sequel (I had to double check what number we’re actually on). This time, series protagonist Alice (Milla Jovovich) thinks she has escaped the pursuit of the dastardly Umbrella Corporation. Inevitably, the opening credits (presented alongside a pointless reversed action scene) have barely concluded before she’s caught yet again. Darn. Locked up in a secret Arctic underwater base operated by a demented A.I., Alice’s ex-friend Jill Valentine (an hilariously awful Sienna Guillory) cruelly interrogates our heroine by playing a mildly annoying tone. But Alice is promptly released by Ada Wong (Li Bingbing) who has organised a rescue team…

Oh, who cares? The filmmakers certainly don’t have much interest in the plot, so why should we? This is a pointless, nonsensical narrative that falls apart if you have the cheek to think about it. Basically an over-extended escape sequence, the film is almost entirely inconsequential and uninteresting. I’m not joking when I say the last ninety seconds or so are the only moments that have any real bearing on the series’ dull overarching plot. This is a filler song on an already awful album. A series of noisy action scenes, unconvincing CGI / 3D, a script riddled with clichés (the phrase ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ needs to be banned from cinema, effective immediately)… This film has very little going for it indeed.
There’s a suburban zombie attack near the start that is relatively intense, and in a rare break from tradition actually somewhat reflects the visceral tone and style of the game series. Alas, it’s still almost entirely pointless, and the rest of the action consists of grizzled superhumans firing a lifetime supply of bullets at undead sponges. There’s the odd burst of kung-fu too, rendered laughable by director Paul W.S. Anderson’s (always worth noting that it’s most certainly not that other Paul Anderson) penchant for lame slow motion and dramatic posturing. Jovovich seems to spend more time landing awesomely with guns drawn than anything else.

The acting is uniformly dreadful. It’s unfair to pick one cast member out for particular criticism, but Guillory impressively cannot even convince as a brainwashed & monotone automaton. Also, it is staggering how long it takes the other characters to figure out that removing that glowing red mind control gem from Valentine’s chest might be a good idea. If the good guys in this film were playing the superb Resident Evil 4, they wouldn’t have gotten past the first boss.

So yeah: this film is offensively worthless. It’s is simply a cynical, desperate attempt to justify yet another franchise entry (the sequel crassly teased in the closing minutes). I was going to end this review by providing rough estimates of how many more interesting films could have been made by efficiently reappropriating the budget for this series to date. But that’s a fun bit of mental arithmetic to keep anyone unfortunate enough to end up in a darkened theatre watching this trash occupied.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

Resident Evil: Retribution is released on 28th September 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution –  Official website


Cinema Review: Anton Corbijn: Inside Out


DIR: Klaartje Quirijns • WRI: Klaartje Quirijns, Thomas den Drijver • PRO: TGertjan Langeland, Sander Verdonk • DOP: Diderik Evers, Martijn van Broekhuizen • CAST: Anton Corbijn, Bono, Martin Gore

Anton Corbijn: Inside Out is a documentary profiling the titular Corbijn: photographer to the stars, music aficionado and sometimes film director. Corbijn made his name photographing any number of musical talents over the course of three decades: Depeche Mode, U2, Joy Division, Miles Davis, Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Nirvana, Metallica, Lou Reed etc… etc… In more recent times, the Dutchman has made the move into filmmaking (having honed his craft on several music videos over his lengthy career). His debut was Ian Curits biopic Control, which he followed with the considered George Clooney thriller The American. This documentary loosely covers the latter film’s pre-production, production and post-production periods, as well as various other ‘jobs’ over an undisclosed amount of time (Corbijn’s fluctuating facial hair being a good indicator that time has indeed passed between individual sequences).

An inherent problem with documentaries such as this is that there’s a tendency to have interviewees endlessly wax lyrical about the subject. While there’s certainly a few moments of superstars praising Corbijn’s talents – including Wim Butler, Bono, James Hetfield and George Clooney – the film largely resists the temptation of repetitive hyperbole and takes a more observant approach. Barring the multitude of conversations with Corbijn himself, the interviews largely take place within the locations where Corbijn is working. The filmmakers talk to Bono while Corbijn waits for a Polaroid to develop on Sandycove beach, and Clooney in between takes on The American set. It’s an approach that works well, and throughout the documentary director Klaartje Quirijns allows us to simply observe Corbijn’s working habits without redundant running commentary.

The man himself is the modest, quiet and likeable sort. You can tell he has a genuine love for what he’s doing, and a natural talent that makes his work seem almost effortless. In interviews with the documentary crew, he has a tendency for sombre inward reflection as he jets around the world from job to job. For the first half of the film, this is all well and good. But Corbijn’s nature as the transient, lonely artist is emphasised ad nausea in the closing half hour of the film. There’s several shots where he speaks candidly and philosophically to the camera, then walks slowly out of shot as the camera lingers reflectively. It’s a neat trick the first time, but Quirijns repeats it a few times too often. It has the unfortunate side effect of the film looking like its about to cut to black, only for Corbijn to speak candidly and philosophically to the camera, then walk slowly out of shot as the camera lingers reflectively. Again. It’s a tad repetitive. At a mere eighty minutes, there’s the impression that buffing this up to feature length may have been a challenge for the editors.

I don’t want to end this review on a negative note though, as for the most part Inside Out is a thoughtfully constructed and engaging documentary that does a good job of capturing the nature and lifestyle of its chosen subject. And the documentary doesn’t skimp on showing selections of Corbijn’s work. The photography is genuinely great, and while the quality of the video clips vary it gives an excellent overview of his career and workflow (including Super 8 footage captured by Corbijn in the documentary crew’s presence).

Corbijn’s first love is music, so it’s appropriate that there’s a fantastic soundtrack featuring plenty of Arcade Fire and Joy Division, amongst others. While it feels somewhat overstretched, for this most part Anton Corbijn: Inside Out does a fine job celebrating the life and work of a genuinely talented individual.

Stephen McNeice


Anton Corbijn: Inside Out is released 15th September 2012

Anton Corbijn: Inside Out – Official Website


Cinema Review: The Three Stooges

DIR: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly • WRI: Mike Cerrone, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly • PRO: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly Bradley Thomas,  Charles B. Wessler • DOP: Matthew F. Leonetti • ED: Sam Seig • DES: Arlan Jay Vetter • CAST: Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, Will Sasso

They’re back: despite the original trio(s) having passed away decades ago, The Three Stooges return to woo a new generation with their physical comedy and amusing sound effects. Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly have cast three new actors as the titular buffoons – Sean Hayes, Will Sasso and Chris Diamantopoulos as Larry, Curly and Moe, respectively. The trio are easily the highlight of this film – completely committed to the hyperactivity and eccentric mannerisms of the iconic characters (although more iconic in the States than they are here). Unfortunately, the film they find themselves in is unsure whether it wants to embrace the new or the old, resulting in an awkward, unsatisfying whole.


The story couldn’t be simpler: the Stooges grew up in an orphanage run by Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) and her fellow nuns (including, bizarrely, the great Larry David in drag). Like many hapless heroes past, the orphanage’s imminent closure is the catalyst that provokes the middle-aged trio to leave their lifelong home and track down the funds to keep the place open. While desperately searching for work, they’re approached by a scheming wife (Sofía Vergara) and her secret lover (Craig Bierko), who promise to provide the Stooges with the required funds if they’re willing to murder her ‘terminally ill’ husband. Misadventures are sure to follow!


The plot is too throwaway to warrant much comment, and there’s little doubt it’s simply there to structure the gags. The film’s biggest problem, alas, is that it simply isn’t very funny. While the leads’ commitment is to be admired, the comic timing feels decidedly off throughout. The gags are there, but are mostly cheap and obvious, often signposted minutes in advance. So-so special effects further dilute their impact. The Farrelly Brothers produced some comedic gold early in their career, but they continue a lengthy streak of mediocrity here.


The Farrellys are unsure what audience to aim at. Accurate emulation of the sights and sounds of old school cinematic comedy – from classic title cards to endless trademark ‘honking’- infrequently suggest this may be an effort for a nostalgic older crowd familiar with the original incarnations of the Stooges. Yet it also positions itself as a family movie through and through, with its broad narrative and simplistic slapstick. But then there’s the Farrellys’ trademark toilet humour, and an awkward tendency to focus on Vergara’s cleavage. Oh, and there’s also a plethora of misguided pop cultural references – most dismally through extended cameos from the cast of the deplorable Jersey Shore. I’m usually firmly against the idea that a film needs a ‘target audience’, but this one seems to want all of them at once and hence transforms into a feature-length identity crisis. I for one wish the sibling directors would have just embraced the old-fashioned slapstick without feeling to unconvincingly modernise it, à la The Artist. A weak epilogue homages the original series, but unfortunately the ‘don’t try it at home’ schtick simply adds a condescending final insult to injury.


It’s a shame Sasso, Hayes and Diamantopoulos have so little to work with, as with a bit more effort the Farrellys could have given them the script their enthusiasm deserves. There’s a few light chuckles here and there, including a decent dynamite gag and a running joke about Curly’s hair. But there was not a single belly laugh in the screening I attended, which is a fairly damning indication of the film’s minimal comedic value.


The Three Stooges has an enthusiastic cast, and directors who certainly have affection for the source material. They even very occasionally nail the aesthetics. But when a cross-dressing Larry David cannot save a comedy, you just know something has gone very wrong indeed. But then again this is a film that’s pretty much critic-proof. Maybe your kids will like it?

Stephen McNeice

Rated PG (see IFCO website for details)
91 mins

The Three Stooges is released on 24th August 2012

The Three Stooges – Official Website



Cinema Review: My Brothers

DIR: Paul Fraser • WRI: Will Collins • PRO: Rebecca O’Flanagan, Robert Walpole • DOP: P.J. Dillon • ED: Emer Reynolds • DES: Mark Geraghty • CAST: Timmy Creed, Paul Courtney, Kate Ashfield, Sarah Greene

My Brothers is the directorial debut feature of established screenwriter Paul Fraser, best known for his collaborations with Shane Meadows. Set in Cork around Halloween 1987, the film focuses on Noel (Timothy Creed), a seventeen year-old whose father (Don Wycherley) is dying from a disease that has left him bedbound and confused. Alongside domestic concerns, Noel has school and a part time delivery job with a bakery to worry about, and he’s becoming increasingly unsatisfied with his lot in life. One day, he borrows his father’s beloved Casio watch, which is soon destroyed in an unfortunate incident involving the school bully and a hurley. Desperate, Noel decides to embark on an epic but secretive trip to Ballybunion (where the watch was initially won in a seaside crane game) in a ‘borrowed’ bread truck to replace his father’s prized possession. Necessity dictates that he brings his two younger brothers Paudie (Paul Courtney) and Scwally (T.J. Griffin) along for the ride, and that inevitably brings complications…

Comparisons are unavoidable: although scripted by first-time writer Will Collins, My Brothers shares many similarities with the filmography of Fraser’s better-known collaborator. A modern period setting. The naturalistic, unpretentious delivery. Social realist leanings and a deep affection for working class families. Youngsters dealing with situations well outside their maturity range. While much of this hits the mark, My Brothers lacks the unique perspective that has allowed the best of Meadows’ films to stand out from the crowd.

The road trip movie at My Brothers’ core is mildly diverting, but rarely feels vital or particularly original. The interactions between the three brothers are handled with care and affection, but they’re neither funny nor dramatic enough to truly leap off the screen. The performances are good – Courtney particularly achieves a lot with a role that could easily have drifted towards stereotyping – but the characters feel somewhat underwritten. Noel particularly comes across as inconsistently realised (although one could argue that’s appropriate for a directionless seventeen year-old), while some of the minor characters are massively underused over the very lean running time. The plot itself is contrived, with few of the complications experienced by the siblings proving particularly surprising or insightful. The road trip structure has regularly been the foundation for great cinema, yet My Brothers struggles to match the humour or pathos of the best the ‘genre’ has to offer.

There are things to like, though. P.J. Dillon – the current star of Irish cinematography – does a great job with sometimes aesthetically limited locations, especially during a very impressive sequence involving sparklers. There’s a very, shall we say, ‘memorable’ performance from Charlie Casanova director Terry McMahon, whose brief appearance provides a genuine sense of threat and darkness. While there are few surprises in the delivery, the final act provides some satisfying character moments and catharsis.

My Brothers isn’t a bad film, but there’s a lack of ambition and character that undermines its moderate successes. Even the 1987 setting suffers through a series of careless anachronisms – it’s unreasonable to expect perfect period detail in a film of this low budget, but obvious cameo appearances from modern Tayto and contemporary arcade games are distracting. My Brothers is accessible and mostly harmless, that’s for sure, and could very well resonate with a wider audience. Indeed, Fraser’s modest ambitions and simple, unshowy delivery may be seen as positives by many viewers. But this one struggles to recommend it as anything other than merely decent.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
87 mins
My Brothers is released on 17th August 2012


My Brothers director Paul Fraser talks to Amanda Spencer

Issue 133 Summer 2010 Irish Playwrights & Screenwriters Guild: Will Collins on My Brothers


Cinema Review: A Simple Life

DIR: Ann Hui • WRI: Susan Chan, Yan-lam Lee • PRO: Pui-wah Chan, Ann Hui, Yan-lam Lee, • DOP: Nelson Yu Lik-wai • ED: Nicholas C. Smith • DES: Albert Poon • CAST: Andy Lau, Deannie Yip

Andy Lau may be best known around these parts for his roles in action films (House of Flying Daggers) and thrillers (Infernal Affairs), but in his homeland he’s a megastar and performer of surprising versatility. We can’t forget his roles in several classic Wong Kar-wai joints, after all. After last being seen on Western shores fighting a pack of deer (you read that correctly) in Detective Dee, he’s back on Irish screens in emotional, understated drama A Simple Life: a film that will hopefully provide a wider audience with the opportunity to catch a glimpse of his filmography’s range.

Directed by veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui, the story follows Ah Tao (the excellent Deannie Yip), who has been a long time housekeeper for the Leung family. With Roger (Lau) the only family member left in Hong Kong, the elderly Ah Tao now spends most of her days preparing extravagant meals for her remaining master. After suffering a stroke, she makes it clear that she wants to be put into a nursing home. Roger makes it his duty to fulfil that wish, and is determined to lavish her with the care & attention that she has provided him with since he was child. As her health declines, we observe the two character’s interactions during Ah Tao’s time in the home.

This is a subtlety observed drama that only irregularly feels lazily sentimental (a twinkly, over-emotive but – thankfully – infrequently utilised musical score is a main culprit in that regard). It’s an intelligent character study, with the emotional bond between Roger and Ah Tao delicately realised and uninterrupted by contrivances. Indeed, several of the film’s most dramatic events occur off-screen, with some sequences taking place after considerable chronological jumps. Hui is instead brave enough to allow the affecting friendship speak for itself, with an unobtrusive visual style keeping the focus squarely on the characters.

This does have a negative side-effect in that the film can seem a little on the slight side, with a handful of underdeveloped subplots. The scene where Ah Tao arrives at her new dwellings – a rundown, soulless nursing home in the middle of a busy Hong Kong street – is rather grim, and there’s the brief suggestion that this is going to be a more cynical critique of over-population problems and mistreatment of the elderly. There’s an equally depressing scene where the home’s residents are visited by a bunch of ‘performers’ who treat their audience with disdain and apathy. This cynicism seems underdeveloped in a film that is otherwise an unashamed celebration of friendship, family, nostalgia and community spirit.

Largely down to the strong performances of Yip and Lau (in that order), however, the film manages to be poignant and engaging despite the residual hints of missed opportunity. As a crowd-pleasing and emotionally honest character study, A Simple Life succeeds without cheap trickery. If nothing else, it’s great to see high-quality Hong Kong cinema in Irish theatres that isn’t a genre pic. It’s not quite the best the region has to offer, but Hui’s film wears its heart on its sleeve, and definitely doesn’t lack emotional force.

Stephen McNeice

118 mins

A Simple Life  is released on 3rd August 2012

A Simple Life – Official Website