Alan Gilsenan, Writer / Director of ‘Unless’ & ‘The Meeting’

 

Stephen Porzio met up with filmmaker Alan Gilsenan to chat about his two films set for Irish cinemas this year.

Imagine being a director and getting trapped by snow at home, the day your new film will premiere. This happened to Irish filmmaker Alan Gilsenan, leading him to walk from the Wicklow Mountains all the way to Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema.

“I kind of enjoyed it. It was like a strange pilgrimage”, he remarks. His story reminds me of fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog, who famously walked from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend. Gilsenan jokes: “Jesus, I’d say that’s where the likeness ends but if we could even approach old Herzog that’d be fine for me”.

Following last year’s acclaimed documentary Meetings with Ivor, Gilsenan is here at the Filmbase office to promote the first of two dramas he directed being released this year. Out on the 16th March is the Canadian-set Unless, starring Catherine Keener as an author whose daughter (Hannah Gross, Netflix’s Mindhunter) decides to drop out of college and live on the streets.

Attending the press screening of Unless was the first time I left my house after the Beast from the East. What am I presented with but a cold, drippy, snowy Ontario setting.

“I’d always pride myself as someone who doesn’t really feel the cold. But I was in Toronto and thought ‘this is just unbearable’ … I heard some of the sparks and the grips talking about how it was the coldest Winter in Toronto in 150 years the March we shot,” Gilsenan laughs.

Continuing he says: “I’d go into the catering truck just to be warm for five minutes. The other thing is I envisaged a Toronto covered in snow but when it gets to those temperatures, the snow doesn’t fall. It’s just ice. We were putting in fake snow even though it was -35 degrees.”

Adapted from a novel from Pulitzer Prize-Winner Carol Shields, writer-director Gilsenan translates the stream-of-consciousness prose of the source to the screen. While the book is about a mother’s reaction to her child wanting to live on the street, the film centres on the mystery of why the heroine’s daughter, Norah, acts in such a manner.

On adapting the novel, Gilsenan says: “[The film] is a meditation. The source was Carol Shields’ book … Sometimes I’d go back to [it] to check something and think ‘what was I thinking’. It’s the most unlikely film. The book is like Virginia Woolf. It all happens in her head.”

Many of Shields’ themes remain, the cynicism of the modern world and a desire to subvert common depictions of the ‘dysfunctional’ middle-class family. However, a key aspect of the book was excised in the transition to the big screen.

“I think partly the book is a reflection about being a woman in the world. I probably didn’t emphasise it quite as much. I’m also aware that with an extraordinary female cast and Emer Reynolds editing the film and Celiana Cárdenas as the DOP, I’m the only weak link.” He adds thoughtfully: “Probably should have been a woman who made it”.

Unless provides a realistic depiction of homelessness. I ask Gilsenan if the rise of people living on the streets in Ireland led him to choose the subject matter: “Maybe at some subliminal level … It did really bring home the reality of homelessness. The bitter cold … We were in Toronto when quite a few homeless people froze to death. We’ve started to see that in Dublin.”

I note that the scenes where Norah is living on the street felt authentic. “Some of the stuff we shot with Hannah on long lenses is on active streets. In the scene where the frat boys are hassling her – a young woman – it’s actually in the film – got very upset. That was real,” Gilsenan replies.

Gilsenan’s second film in 2018 The Meeting also feels eerily topical, focusing on the true story of a young rape victim confronting her attacker. Scheduled for a September release, the drama premiered at ADIFF last month. Before this interview, I couldn’t find who starred in the movie.

“Alva Griffith, the woman [it is based on] plays herself. It was a deliberate decision by ADIFF not to put the cast in. We felt the film will always be talked about in terms of Alva playing herself. We thought it would be nice to have a screening where that isn’t the issue.” He adds: “A lot people said to me after, ‘Who’s the actress. She’s great.’”

Clint Eastwood made a similar casting decision in his 2018 film The 15:17 to Paris. “Clint copies me in everything. I keep saying to him ‘Clint, stop’”, Gilsenan laughs.

Playing the assailant in The Meeting is Terry O’Neill, an actor who recently appeared in IFTA-winner Michael Inside. Between this and Hannah Gross recently working with David Fincher on Mindhunter, Gilsenan has a knack for discovering great talent. “Well you hope … I think Hannah’s wonderful and Terry is a real star.”

Next, Gilsenan plans a ‘strange experimental film inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses’. He is elusive when I ask if he will return to documentaries: “I quite like the documentary area, I like the drama. I like the more experimental stuff too.” A bit like Werner Herzog.

 

Unless is in Irish cinemas from 16th March 2018

The Meeting will open in Irish cinemas later this year

 

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Review of Irish Film @ ADIFF 2018: The Delinquent Season

Stephen Porzio attends a dinner party.

The Delinquent Season is a surprisingly old-fashioned drama told with skill by debut director and accomplished playwright Mark O’Rowe (screenwriter on Intermission). The film centres on two couples Jim (Cillian Murphy – Dunkirk, Peaky Blinders) and Daniele (Eva Birthistle – Wake Wood); Chris (Andrew Scott – Sherlock, Spectre) and Yvonne (Catherine Walker – A Dark Song). At first, the relationships appear strong. However, as typical with these types of dramas, cracks soon emerge. Jim, a writer working from home, has succumbed to the ennui of being a stay-at-home dad. Meanwhile, Yvonne’s relationship with her husband has grown volatile. After Chris hits her during a heated argument, Yvonne spends the night at Jim and Danielle’s. When Jim and Yvonne are left alone together, they start to have an affair.

From this point on, The Delinquent Season threads a similar line to movies like Closer, Fatal Attraction and Match Point (O’Rowe even inserts a witty line where Jim comments how clichéd it is) but in a more realist manner. Like these films, the viewer is essentially watching unlikeable characters for two hours. That said, what makes the movie engrossing is the authentic south-Dublin setting and O’Rowe’s knack for capturing how people really talk (a scene revolving around putting out the bins is well-observed). These elements make it easier to identify with the characters. One does not necessarily like Jim and Yvonne. However, the drama lends the question; If you were married but met someone with whom you shared a powerful connection, what would you do?

The film, as its title suggests, manages to capture both the thrill of doing something transgressive but also the pressure to hide it from others. The scenes of intimacy are raw and sensual but forever tinged with the knowledge that things will not end well. Even when Jim and Yvonne’s actions come to light, the drama continues to explore the messy fallout. O’Rowe highlights how promises made in the throws of passions can feel perfect and ideal but can never truly be fulfilled, moving towards a denouement which is moving but also reinforces the idea of life as unpredictable.

O’Rowe comfortably adapts to the cinematic medium with some nice tracking shots – following Jim as he runs errands with his children on a dull, grey South Dublin morning (reinforcing that feeling of ennui) – and a creepy dream sequence. That said, his theatre roots remain in his dialogue, particularly one or two monologues delivered by Andrew Scott’s character. This theatricality is not a major problem when one has actors of such a high calibre. Murphy brings both charisma and naturalism to his character, who is perhaps the most ordinary, normal man he has ever played. Scott evokes a surprising amount of empathy despite his character’s early heinous actions. He tears into monologues, shedding tears and spittle, in a way which makes one wish they saw his Hamlet on stage.

Birthistle, although slightly underused, is excellent. Playing the only properly decent character of the foursome, she brings a coolness and strength to Daniele – as evident by a scene where she berates Chris directly to his face and without hesitation for hitting her friend. However, the show-stopper is Walker who manages to be vulnerable, sensual and three-dimensional in a turn which will no doubt put her on many people’s radar.

 

The Delinquent Season screened on Saturday 3rd March as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21 February – 4th March).

 

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Review of Irish Film @ ADIFF 2018: Kissing Candice

Stephen Porzio puckers up at the 2018 Audi Dublin International Film Festival for Aoife McArdle’s Kissing Candice. 

I recently criticised The Lodgers for being an Irish genre movie that failed to capitalise on the country’s rich history. For a gothic horror set in the 1920s, it felt uninterested in engaging with Ireland’s Battle for Independence or Civil War, events which had they been a greater part of the story would have made it richer. Thankfully, Kissing Candice – a graphic novel-esque tale of cops and robbers and young lovers caught in the crossfire set in Northern Ireland – does a better job at this. The debut from writer-director Aoife McArdle (U2’s Every Breaking Wave music video) takes the time to acknowledge The Troubles and the impact the era had on the generation that followed.

An incredibly expressive Ann Skelly (Red Rock, Rebellion) stars as Candice, a 17-year-old living in a one-horse-town with her troubled policeman father, Donal (The Fall’s John Lynch), and disconnected mother, Debbie (Lydia McGuinness, who had a great role in another ADIFF premiere, The Delinquent Season). Both dealing with her blossoming sexuality and severe seizures, Candice retreats into dreams. While dreaming, she has visions of man who she does not know but feels inexplicably drawn to.

Things get complicated, however, when Candice meets literally the man from her dreams, Jacob (Ryan Lincoln), a former member of a ruthless local gang who Donal wants to put behind bars. Having turned on his partners in crime, the criminals want revenge – targeting Candice in the process.

With its neo-noir aesthetic, its sensorial depiction of female sexual desire and its hallucinatory representation of the journey from teen to adult, Kissing Candice is part Streets of Fire, part Raw and part Donnie Darko. However, what keeps the movie feeling fresh and exciting, as opposed to derivative, is Aoife McArdle’s direction. Coming from a music video background, she emphasises mood and visuals over the story. Kissing Candice could be viewed without audio, and audiences would still be transfixed by its imagery; a burning toy house in the middle of a road, a dream in which a man walks stoically as his arm is on fire, a party-goer’s creepy mask at a neon-drenched nightmare rave.

While the glossy music video aesthetic for the most part works to the film’s favour, occasionally Kissing Candice feel more like long-form accompaniment to Jon Clarke’s pulsating score. This is particularly noticeable in the movie’s oblique denouement which would work better in an experimental music promo than a narrative feature.

Still, McArdle deserves credit for doing something revelatory. She manages to convey the stark brutal reality of living in some parts of Ireland but in a way which looks as incredible as a Michael Mann joint. Also, as mentioned in the first paragraph, McArdle seems to be making a commentary on the lasting impact on The Troubles. The murderous gangs that populate Kissing Candice, Donal remarks, are the sons of those who fought in the conflict. Perhaps, the violence is not quite over yet.

 

Kissing Candice screened on Friday, 2nd March 2018 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21 February – 4th March).

 

 

 

 

 

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Irish Film Review: The Lodgers

DIR: Brian O’Malley •  WRI: David Turpin • PRO: Julianne Forde, Ruth Treacy  DOP: Richard Kendrick • ED: Tony Kearns • MUS: Kevin Murphy, Stephen Shannon, David Turpin • DES: Michael Corenblith • CAST: Charlotte Vega, David Bradley, Bill Milner

 

The Lodgers is a film to laud on concept not execution. It’s an effort to give the Irish literary Gothicism of Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu its long overdue chance to spook on the big screen. Still, while the movie certainly conjures enough atmosphere to be in line with a ‘Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural’ paperback, it’s less successful in character and story.

Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) are Anglo-Irish twins living in a debilitated mansion in 1920’s rural Ireland. The house exudes a strange curse over them: they must be in bed by midnight; they may not permit an outsider past the threshold; if one attempts to escape, the life of the other is placed in jeopardy. The return of Irish WWI soldier, Sean (Eugene Simon), may lead Rachel to break these rules. Falling in love, the two plan an escape from the village. However, the increasingly demented Edward and the spirits of the house have other ideas.

Opening with the virginial white gowned Rachel fleeing in terror through the woods, director Brian O’Malley sets the tone well early. He uses the rugged nature of the Irish countryside to his advantage, crafting a Gothic landscape that feels tangible. With its small villages, crumbling Victorian mansions, fog filled forests – the film looks both authentic and fantastical. O’Malley also stages a handful of eye-catching scenes, most involving Sean’s missing leg – one a terrifically OTT phallic metaphor, the other a creepily uncanny dream sequence.

Yet, while the atmosphere seems like it was agonised over, the script by David Turpin less so. It has its moments – the anachronistic dialogue works, Sean fighting in WWI establishes him as someone heroic who gets caught in other people’s causes like Sarah’s. However, there is a constant sense that the film could do more to link its Gothicism with its post-1916 Ireland setting. For instance, no one comments on the Protestant landowner Sarah becoming romantically involved with the Catholic village-boy Sean.

No character has any depth. Rachel, Edward and Simon never feel like anything other than the damsel, the creep and the hero. This may not be a big problem with charismatic performers (see Crimson Peak). Yet, the lead three actors in The Lodgers are only serviceable, struggling to inject personality into their roles.

Meanwhile, The Lodgers’ 92-minute running time leaves the film feeling truncated. The moments of terror happen so fast and suddenly, there is never much of a chance for the movie to build any sustained dread. It also doesn’t give its well-chosen supporting cast comprising of Deirdre O’Kane, David Bradley and an excellent Moe Dunford (as Sean’s bully, he brings a sizable amount of menace to such a small role) much time to shine.

Overall, The Lodgers is a mixed bag. It’s too atmospheric and attractive to call a missed opportunity, yet too slight and light on scares to leave much of an impression. For fans of the gothic, it will satisfy their cravings. At least, until Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger comes out later in the year.

Stephen Porzio

15A (See IFCO for details)

93 minutes
The Lodgers is released 7th March 2018

 The Lodgers – Official Website

 

 

 

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Review: Gringo

DIR: Nash Edgerton • WRI: Anthony Tambakis, Matthew Stone • PRO: A.J. Dix, Nash Edgerton, Beth Kono, Anthony Tambakis, Charlize Theron, Rebecca Yeldham  DOP: Eduard Grau • ED: Luke Doolan, David Rennie, Tatiana S. Riegel • MUS: Christophe Beck • DES: Gary Freeman • CAST: David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton

 

When entering the press screening for Gringo, I was informed of an embargo. Critics in attendance were not allowed to make their opinions about the film public until the day before its official release. This usually goes two ways: either the movie is terrible, and the studio are trying to prevent bad word of mouth affecting early box-office takings (Suicide Squad), or, it’s good and features twists the distributors do not want revealed (Alien: Covenant). Gringo, however, is an odd case. I’m both happy but slightly disappointed to report the film is fine if unremarkable. Not bad or good enough to provoke an extreme reaction, making the choice of an embargo an odd one.

Nash Edgerton (who made a solid neo-noir named The Square in 2008) directs from a script by Matthew Stone (Intolerable Cruelty) and Anthony Tambakis (Jane’s Got a Gun). David Oyelowo (Selma) stars as Harold Soyinka, a Nigerian immigrant working for a company producing medical marijuana. His boss, Rich (Nash’s brother Joel Edgerton), has dangled a promotion in front of the employee as a means of keeping him in line. On a business trip to Mexico, Harold discovers that his manager was lying about the new position and that after an impending merger, he will be laid off. Hurt, lacking money and recently estranged from his wife (Thandie Newton), Harold pretends he has been kidnapped.

Things get complicated, however, when it’s revealed Rich and his co-worker/lover Elaine (a foul-mouthed Charlize Theron) have ties to a Mexican cartel. Having promised them some of their product but not delivering, the drug dealers want what’s theirs and plan to use Harold as leverage.

To its credit, Gringo takes a complicated story (I haven’t even mentioned Sharlto Copley as Rich’s brother Mitch, a mercenary sent into Mexico to retrieve Harold, or Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway as vacationers whose paths cross with the protagonist) and tells it in a brisk and pacey manner. Given Nash Edgerton’s background in stunt work, the action scenes are solid, if brief. The Mexican setting looks great while a stellar supporting cast give it their all, even if – as in Theron’s case – their character’s schtick grows tiresome.

That said, while Gringo is watchable, it doesn’t do enough to separate itself from other better comic-crime thrillers. A Mexican cartel boss who kills people if they don’t like The Beatles feels sub-Tarantino-esque. Oyelowo’s sad sack evokes memories of William H. Macy’s Fargo character. The relationship between Harold and Mitch is part In Bruges, part Midnight Run – although the actors do not have enough time to let the audience invest in their relationship. While Gringo doesn’t insult these movies by drawing elements from them, it doesn’t have much personality of its own, with both the jokes and the violence being somewhat tame.

Aside from a few satirical jokes about middle management being seen as expendable by those above them, all Gringo really has to differentiate itself from the pack is a fun, rare comic-turn in the lead from David Oyelowo. While the actor is better known for more serious fare, here he is the performer who gets the lion’s share of the laughs. Speaking in a wonderful-to-the-ears Nigerian accent, he is energetic, charming and manic. If the movie had just a little more of these qualities, it would be something special.

Stephen Porzio

15A (See IFCO for details)

110 minutes
Gringo is released 9th March 2018

Gringo  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

 

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Review of Irish Film @ ADIFF 2018: Good Favour

Stephen Porzio wanders into Rebecca Daly’s haunting parable.

Rebecca Daly is an interesting filmmaker. In 2016 she made Mammal, a critically acclaimed Irish drama that got some recognition abroad and helped launch Barry Keoghan’s career pre-Dunkirk. With that under their belt, most writer-directors would attempt to get a big-name star in their next movie or go stateside and make something more commercial. Daly bucks this trend with Good Favour, an atmospheric religious parable set in a German Catholic community isolated by forest from the outside world.

The film begins with young man, Tom (Vincent Romeo), stumbling into the mysterious village injured. After initial hesitance from the locals, the newcomer becomes apart of the community. However, there is something eerie about the parish. A child goes missing and the leaders of the ‘compound’ hide it from the police; a sick elderly woman is refused to leave the village to get urgent hospital care; children are warned about an invisible boundary in the surrounding woods they can never cross. Meanwhile, something about Tom is strange too. His wounds do not appear to be healing and kids begin to follow him around as if he is the Pied Piper.

Good Favour is a mood piece that manages to sustain itself for most of its running time by provoking in the viewer a sense of unknown dread. Although it never reaches the same level of terror as a movie like Martha Marcy May Marlene, there is some of that film’s DNA within the drama. Daly and co-writer Glenn Montgomery find menace in the malaise. With long scenes of foreboding church sermons: “Those that don’t trust completely in God, don’t just not get his protection. They get his judgement”, and religious rituals (a prolonged scene where a young woman’s head is dunked repeatedly underwater as part of her baptism), the two appear to be highlighting how unsettling it must be to live life completely devoted to an all-powerful being.

That said, despite the film’s impressively pervasive mood, it is a little disappointing that Good Favour never sets a match to its slow petrol-leak style narrative. The whole movie feels like its building to a shocking denouement that never comes, meandering instead to the finish line. Meanwhile, one gets a sense that Daly and Montgomery wanted viewers to form their own interpretation of the events which transpire. Yet, they withhold so much information that the viewer never connects with the movie beyond its abstract sense of menace. Every character is an enigma and it’s unclear as to what the film is trying to say. For those that hated the two twists that rounded out M. Night Shyamalan’s similar in tone and setting The Village, Good Favour may quench that thirst for an open-ended art-house chiller. However, while Daly’s latest further cements her as a master of mood, a more focused and engaging story would do her well next time around.

 

Good Favour screened on Tuesday, 27th February as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21 February – 4th March)

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fczr0Q0hwk

 

 

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Grainne Humphreys, ADIFF Festival Director

Stephen Porzio caught up with festival director Grainne Humphreys to get a heads-up on this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival. 

With the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in full swing, what better time is there to shine a spotlight on Dublin’s own annual celebration of cinema, ADIFF 2018. From February 21 until March 4, over 100 movies from across the world will screen and A-listers will be in attendance. Yet, while many presume the life of a film festival organiser must be one of glamour, ADIFF director Grainne Humphreys wants to set the record straight.

“The common perception if you meet civilians, which occasionally you do [Humphreys jokes], is that they think your life is basically a yacht at Cannes and you walk on a red carpet and have dinner in very expensive restaurants. That’s not the case. I was on my first yacht in 25 years last year by complete accident”. She adds, “for anyone who thinks it’s a glamourous lifestyle… I really want to sit them in a small darkened room with a laptop and put them in front of four hours of really terrible film”

Humphreys has been running the festival for 11 years. Warm and genial, she is the opposite of what one would expect from a film festival director. One tends to think of professional cinefiles as culture snobs. While this was the case at Cannes, a festival which turned women away from screenings for not wearing high-heels and has banned Netflix movies from competing for awards, Humphreys believes the key to ADIFF’s success is down to its more ‘calm’ and ‘informal’ vibe.

“We’ve tried to shy away from the celebrity element. The festival never becomes a segregated VIP only event. [Guests] like that. They come as filmmakers.”

As if to prove her point, the festival director seems less interested in discussing the bigger names appearing at the festival, such as Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara and Cillian Murphy. Instead, the acclaimed directors and character actors scheduled to give Q&As excite her more, particularly Lynne Ramsey (We Need to Talk About Kevin) premiering her latest, You Were Never Really Here.

Phoenix, appearing at ADIFF for another premiere (Mary Magdalene), stars in Ramsey’s film as a war veteran turned contract killer. He uncovers a web of corruption while trying to save a kidnapped teen from prostitution.

Claiming You Were Never Really Here feels as immersive as the virtual reality conference ADIFF is running this year. Humphreys says excitingly about Ramsey, “That’s somebody who is really a story teller. That’s a film where I was gripped, I was moved, I was shocked and when I came out I literally was still moving around, trembling for a couple of hours after.”

Another high-profile guest is Independence Day star Bill Pullman, premiering the Western, The Ballad of Lefty Brown. Humphreys sites this as an example of ADIFF’s reputation as being less celebrity-focused paying dividends.

“It’s a small passion project. [Pullman] knows film festivals and the kind of energy and support that a festival audience can give. A lot of the time you are sending invitations out but a lot of the time [filmmakers] are looking towards film festivals to give their projects a kind of profile or positioning. They get a sense they will connect with audiences”.

What hidden gems should audiences seek out at the festival? Humphreys praises Irish documentary The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid, Belgian crime thrillers Above the Law and The Racer and the Jailbird and Indonesian film, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. She also thinks opening-night film Black 47, a Western set during the famine, starring Hugo Weaving and Barry Keoghan, could be this year’s most successful Irish film.

However, the movie she seems most enthusiastic about is Thirst Street, an American indie from director Nathan Silver. “Nathan has been around 15 years and makes these low-budget but really clever melodramas. Thirst Street is about a female air hostess who is dumped by her boyfriend and goes to Paris. It has this wonderful whimsical aspect to it but a witty voiceover from Anjelica Houston spins it in another direction”.

To prepare for ADIFF, Humphreys watches over 30 movies a week, culminating in around 12,000 per year. This experience has left her with plenty of feedback for filmmakers.

“So often it strikes me that a lot of filmmakers don’t go to the cinema enough. If they went to the cinema, they would realise there are standards for telling a story. A lot of the time people think long, slow, boring serious movies about the weight of the world make people feel important. No. They don’t. They make them feel terrible. If you have something that makes an audience feel happy or makes them view their world differently, that’s a plus and something you mark as special”.

Talking about the current health of Irish film, Humphreys says that the quality and quantity of Irish movies has ‘doubled’ since she began as ADIFF director. She believes Irish actors and directors happy to work both internationally and domestically helps bring money into the industry, that the rise of TV has given filmmakers the ability between movies to ‘hone their craft’ and that Ireland’s four film studios keep important professionals constantly working.

Ending the interview, Humphreys states, “It used to be quite lonely going to festivals a few years ago. You’d say, ‘oh, we have a great Irish cinema’ but nobody ever knew anyone. Now we have a well-known, well-structured industry”. Perhaps, if things progress, Dublin could compete with Berlin or Cannes someday.

 

The 2018 Audi Dublin International Film Festival takes place from 21 February – 4 March 2018.

 

 

Preview of Irish Film @ ADIFF 2018

 

 

http://filmireland.net/2018/01/26/film-festivals-2018-here-abroad/

 

 

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Review: Downsizing

DIR: Alexander Payne • WRI: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor  PRO: Jim Burke, Megan Ellison, Mark Johnson, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor  DOP: Phedon Papamichael • ED: Kevin Tent • MUS: Rolfe Kent • DES: Stefania Cella • CAST: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau

It’s always frustrating when films start off promising but lose their way as they progress. Such is the case with the dramedy Downsizing, the latest from acclaimed writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska). Matt Damon stars as Paul, a working class middle-aged man whose life is stuck in a rut. However, when Norwegian scientists discover how to shrink people, he thinks becoming ‘downsized’ will give he and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a new lease on life. Not only could it help solve the world’s over-population problem, the government to promote the scheme ensure that one’s money goes further in communities for the small. Paul and Audrey’s $150,000 becomes $12 million in the miniature gated community, Leisure Land. Yet, when Audrey decides post-Paul’s shrinkage to not undergo the irreversible process, our protagonist is left alone and five inches tall. While in Leisure Land, a depressed Paul comes to realise that the seemingly idyllic miniature society may just be as flawed as the real world.

To its credit, the first two-thirds of Downsizing are impressive. The central concept is refreshingly unique. Payne, along with co-writer Jim Taylor, seems like he has put a lot of effort into creating the world both visually and story-wise. The mix of Michael Gondry-esque in camera-effects with sparing CGI looks delightful. Meanwhile, the themes regarding how humans often corrupt inventions originally developed for the betterment of society (e.g. dynamite) resonate. Downsizing was invented with the goal to protect the world’s resources, to help reduce pollution and stop global warming. Yet, it is not long before dictators shrink dissidents, fears of tiny immigrants and terrorists infiltrating US borders emerge and racism between those tall and small becomes an issue. That’s not even mentioning people like Dusan (Christoph Waltz in perhaps his best performance outside of a Tarantino movie), Paul’s decadent neighbour in Leisure Land. Along with his friend (Udo Kier, also fantastic), Dusan profits from shrinking and smuggling contraband goods into the miniature community.

However, just as Payne seems to be about to sink his teeth into this story destined to be a scathing satire (sort of High Rise meets Ant-Man), he loses his nerve. As Paul becomes friends with Lan Chan (Hong Chau, Inherent Vice – bringing vibrancy and energy to what could be a racial stereotype), a Vietnamese political activist jailed and downsized against her will, Downsizing devolves into an oddly earnest tale about a white middle-aged man reminded to care for others by a kind outsider inexplicably attracted to him. Not only does this feel cliched but Paul is so passive and dull. Although Damon is solid, his protagonist gets lost in the narrative, only acting in response to the actions of the far more charismatic players inhabited by Chau, Kier and Waltz. Placing either of these three characters as a lead would improve the film substantially.

By the time the final act – involving an utterly pointless excursion to Norway – rolls around, one is left wondering if Payne simply could not handle such an ambitious sci-fi premise. There are reports that the director struggled with the editing process, excising a narration by Damon’s Paul (perhaps its inclusion may have made the protagonist feel less like a spectator). These behind-the-scenes issues show in the film as characters such as Wiig’s or Jason Sudeikis’ friend to Paul just disappear from the movie.

Downsizing traverses the globe and analyses the fate of humanity. Yet while the film’s scope originally seems in keeping with this, as it continues one realises it is just another movie about a sad sack middle-aged American by the writer-director. That’s not a critique of Payne’s other work (Sideways is wonderful), but with a premise this ingenious, one wishes Downsizing as a whole was too.

Stephen Porzio

15A (See IFCO for details)

135 minutes
Downsizing is released 19th January 2018

Downsizing – Official Website

 

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