Review: The Post

DIR: Steven Spielberg • WRI: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer  PRO: Kristie Macosko Krieger, Amy Pascal, Steven Spielberg  DOP: Janusz Kaminski • ED: Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn • MUS: John Williams • DES: Rick Carter • CAST: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson

The Post, above all else, is a reminder that its director Steven Spielberg is a master at his craft. The film’s dialogue heavy screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, taking place mostly over a few days in June 1971, in lesser hands could have been stagey. However, Spielberg brings his flair for blockbuster directing to proceedings, crafting a film where the duty and potential power of a free press – represented by a mammoth old-style printing machine mighty enough to shake a building – feels as strong as a velociraptor.

The Post kicks off with military analysist Daniel Ellsberg (an excellent Matthew Rhys – The Americans) leaking files to The New York Times. The documents highlight how the US for years has been aware the Vietnam War is a lost cause but has continued to send soldiers. The paper begins to post stories based on the files. However, the expose is cut short when a court injunction sought by Richard Nixon prevents The New York Times from continuing with their expose.

Meanwhile, editor-in-chief for The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (Spielberg’s muse Tom Hanks), is eager to get his hands on the same documents and disregard the court injunction. The assistant editor for the paper, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk, bringing the same likeability and pathos he brought to Better Call Saul), knows Ellsberg personally and has a hunch he is behind the leak. While Bagdikian tries to locate the documents, Bradlee attempts to convince paper president Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to ignore the injunction. Not only could this jeopardise the paper’s upcoming IPO – necessary to keep the paper solvent – Bradlee and Graham could face prison.

From the opening scene, Spielberg elevates the material. The film begins with an impressive Vietnam war action beat. Following this, The Post moves into spy-thriller mode as Ellsberg stalks the corridors of his organisation’s offices by night to steal America’s secrets or when Bradlee pays an intern to loiter around The New York Times’ newsroom to swipe a scoop. Meanwhile, as critic David Ehrlich notes, there is a Scorsese swagger to the scenes at The Washington Post’s headquarters. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s camera swoops around the offices at a breath-neck tempo, evoking a similar tone to films like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. This pace works for drama, highlighting that the characters (particularly Hanks’ Bradlee) find their job – being the gatekeepers that keep democracy functioning – and its many challenges exhilarating.

The script is on-the-nose at times – I did not need to hear Carrie Coon’s journalist state that the press exists to serve the governed, not the governors (although it is great the The Leftovers actress is given a juicy monologue to sink her teeth into). That said, the screenplay does a very good job at telling a convoluted story in a way that feels succinct and easy-to-follow. Also, it is filled with interesting characters (I have not even mentioned Jesse Plemons as The Washington Post’s legal counsel, Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford as advisors to Graham and Bruce Greenwood as Secretary of Defence Bob McNamara) and each is given a moment to shine.

The acting, as expected with Spielberg and his typically stacked casts, is universally impeccable. Tom Hanks’ brings a blend of effortless confidence but world weariness to the same role which won Jason Robards the Academy Award previously in All the President’s Men. Meanwhile Streep, although saddled with slightly more conventional material (a family tragedy, sexism), gives her best performance in years. Her character’s arc is relatively simple; someone who changes from brittle to strong, from being told what to do to someone giving orders. That said, when the switch comes, it is undeniably powerful because of Streep’s phenomenal talent.

Not only is The Post a fun and exciting movie (comparable in tone to Spielberg’s previous work Catch Me If You Can and Bridge of Spies), it is an important film in today’s climate. There are scenes in the drama where the audience hear Nixon ranting and swearing about The New York Times and The Washington Post, calling to mind Trump’s recent war on ‘fake news’.

The Post is a reminder that quality journalism should still be cherished and championed. Journalists have a duty to inform the people and have the potential to bring about a great change.

Stephen Porzio

12A (See IFCO for details)

115 minutes
The Post is released 19th January 2018

The Post – Official Website

 

 

 

 

Share

Review: A Woman’s Life

DIR: Stéphane Brizé • WRI Stéphane Brizé Florence Vignon • PRO: Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto  DOP: Antoine Héberlé • ED: Anne Klotz • MUS: Olivier Baumont • DES: Valérie Saradjian • CAST: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau

A Woman’s Life poses an interesting question: can a film be forgiven for being dreary and plodding if it is trying to accurately depict an existence defined by these adjectives? Directed by Stephane Brize, the movie is an adaption of Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 novel Une Vie. Judith Chemla stars as Jeanne, a young and innocent woman who falls for Julien (rising star Swann Arlaud, The Anarchists). However, our protagonist’s husband is a terror. Not soon after the couple’s marriage, Julian impregnates their maid and after begging for forgiveness for his transgressions, also begins to have an affair with Judith’s best friend.

Brize makes the oppression and lack of agency for women in the 19th century palpable. The movie rarely changes location, with scenes taking place in the same areas of Jeanne’s house again and again – adding to the sense of confinement. An unchanged orchestral accompaniment returns throughout the movie, playing like a chorus of monotonous misery. Brize set the film in the 4:3 Academy Ratio (the same as Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights adaptation), with its square – as opposed to rectangular screen shape – claustrophobically boxing Jeanne into a life of marital servitude and imprisonment. After all, as Brize depicts, this is a time when a priest could come to a wife’s home and request that she not leave her husband, despite his many affairs.

However, these tricks, as evocative as they are, do not engage the viewer or work cinematically. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights aimed for a similarly downtrodden depiction of the 19th century. Yet, that film had a stark but savagely beautiful environment – one which managed to capture the oppressiveness of the period but in a way which felt filmic and memorable. In contrast, Brize’s film just looks dull, like a BBC made-for-TV Victorian novel adaptation. Also, last year’s Lady Macbeth took a similar story of female mistreatment set during the same time but played up its genre elements as a means of mustering excitement. Meanwhile as Brize’s film enters its second half and Jeanne continues to suffer, drained of every penny by her awful son Paul (Finnegan Oldfield, star of the amazing Nocturama), one longs for even a sliver of the edge that Macbeth had. Instead, viewers are treated to another hour of slog.

The performances are lacking. Brize’s previous film The Measure of a Man – a very good drama focusing on economic-recession victims attempting to reintegrate into the workplace – also used static shots and lack of music to capture a feeling of boredom, monotony and restlessness. However, that film had as its lead Vincent Lindon, an actor capable of adding a soul and a beating heart to the most sterile of cinematic environments. On the other hand, Judith Chemla’s performance as the lead in A Woman’s Life does not convey her character’s internal battle to the audience adequately. She begins the film hopeful and throughout the movie – through make-up and slightly greyed hair – becomes increasingly downtrodden. That is all there is to the character and Chemla never gets under Jeanne’s skin, such as why she continues to be a quiet doormat to all the male figures in her life.

A Woman’s Life is frustrating. It’s depressing and lifeless, but perhaps these faults are not only hard-wired into its source but are the reason for its success. That said, without the prose that made de Maupassant’s novel still readable 120 years after its release, Brize struggles to add a pulse to what is essentially a two-hour dirge. How this beat La La Land or Jackie for Best Film at Venice is beyond me.

Stephen Porzio

15A (See IFCO for details)

128 minutes
A Woman’s Life is released 12th January 2018

A Woman’s Life – Official Website

 

 

 

 

Share

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

DIR/WRI: Martin McDonagh • PRO: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh  DOP: Ben Davis • ED: John Gregory • MUS: Carter Burwell • DES: Inbal Weinberg • CAST: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Martin McDonagh, the writer-director and playwright behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, returns with his most mature film yet. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, stars a never better Frances McDormand (Fargo) as Mildred, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered. Seven months later, the police – fronted by the beloved Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and violent, racist Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – have been unable to find the culprit. This leads Mildred to rent three billboards and put up posters as a means of keeping the case in the public eye. However, the people of Ebbing to not take kindly to the signs criticising the sheriff as Willoughby is dying.

Less comic than his previous films (although what is left is wonderfully dark), Three Billboards feels like a return to the tone of McDonagh’s early plays, particularly the tragedy within Beauty Queen of Leenane. The violence hits harder. There are no easy answers or clear-cut heroes and villains. Much of the first three quarters of the film is highlighting the darkness of the world: violence, racism, sexism, hatred and death. The kind characters – Sheriff Willoughby, billboard owner Red (another note-worthy turn by Caleb Landry Jones), Peter Dinklage’s James – all suffer while the angry and abrasive wreak havoc. At points, one even questions Mildred’s attitude, wondering whether her actions, committed out of utter anger and despair, are constructive or whether they just beget more anger.

However, this section of the drama is far from a miserable slog. McDonagh is such a talented writer that, through sheer skill at crafting dialogue and character, he makes the darkness engrossing. In fact, he even manages in the final act to transform the film into a story about forgiveness, hope and human connection.

Also worth pointing out about the finale is how certain characters completely change their attitude and perspective in a way which feels natural and not saccharine. For example, Sam Rockwell’s Dixon is such a realistically abhorrent character throughout. While watching, one thinks there is no possible way he could be redeemed. Yet, when the moment happens, one buys the transformation – on account of McDonagh’s ability for subtly foreshadowing future developments and Rockwell’s multi-layered performance.

McDonagh has come under criticism from some quarters for his perceived inability to write female characters, a critique he himself highlights in the meta-as-hell Seven Psychopaths. Here, each woman has a personality and voice, whether it be Abbie Cornish’s tragic wife of the dying Sheriff or Mildred’s ex-husband’s 19-year-old girlfriend (Samara Weaving bringing a beam of light to the dark world).

However, it’s McDormand’s show. The character of Mildred feels so well-realised and lived-in. She’s a woman who has lost the most important thing to her and cares little for how society perceives her quest for justice. There’s even a sense that the anger and determination to find her daughter’s killer is the only thing keeping her functional. McDormand matches the material and even enhances it. The Coen brothers’ muse brings physicality and venom to her acts of violence, both physical and through dialogue (a cutting monologue delivered to an interfering priest is one for the ages). Yet, she also imbues the character with a vulnerability and sensitivity in the quieter, more introspective moments.

Three Billboards may be Martin McDonagh’s most impressive work behind the camera to date. While it lacks the non-stop cracking one-liners of In Bruges or the stylised wackiness of Seven Psychopaths, in their place is a host of well-fleshed out, fascinating characters that each could be the star of their own spin-off. The themes it tackles are complex and while McDonagh may not have all the answers, the emotion he musters in the audience as he explores them perhaps tells us all we need to know.

Stephen Porzio

15A (See IFCO for details)

115 minutes
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is released 12th January 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Official Website

Share

Review: Jupiter’s Moon

DIR: Kornél Mundruczó • WRI:Kornél Mundruczó, Kata Wéber PRO: Viola Fügen, Michel Merkt, Viktória Petrányi, Michael Weber  DOP: Marcell Rév • ED: Dávid Jancsó • MUS: Jed Kurzel • DES: Márton Ágh • CAST: Merab Ninidze, Zsombor Jéger, György Cserhalmi

Those who feel worn out by the vastly over-saturated superhero genre should do themselves a favour and check out this gem from Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo (White God). Originally screened in competition at Cannes, Jupiter’s Moon begins with a group of Syrian refugees attempting to cross over to Hungary. Attacked by border patrol, a trigger-happy agent (György Cserhalmi) kills Aryan (Zsombor Jéger, a dead ringer for Gael Garcia Bernal). However, Aryan is found healing and floating in the air by Stern (Merab Ninidze) a corrupt refugee camp doctor with a tragic past. The two go on the run, using the migrant’s special powers to make cash. Yet, they are pursued by the agent who shot Aryan originally, attempting to cover his tracks.

Hollywood should come calling to Mundruczo’s door soon because he stages a handful of phenomenal scenes in Jupiter’s Moon. The opening border patrol raid, shot as an extended one-take following Aryan running through the forests at Hungary’s border, evokes memories of the muscular filmmaking of Children of Men. The levitation scenes with their swirling, gliding camera work call to the mind the dizziness of the action spectacle of Gravity. The audience see a car chase in which the camera is placed on the bonnet of a vehicle in pursuit of another and are right in the action as two cars graze against each other at full speed. Meanwhile, it all ends in an impressively staged hotel shootout that the Wachowski’s would be proud of.

Yet it is not just the action beats Mundruczo nails. A breathtaking moment sees Aryan flee from his pursuers by calmly floating down an apartment block. The audience only see the refugees’ shadow glide down the building, all the while getting glimpses into the other apartment occupants going about their day through windows in a gorgeously composed shot. If Mundruczo could accomplish so much on a Hungarian film’s budget, it boggles the mind what he could do with the financial backing of a big studio.

Cannes may have not been the correct place to premiere the movie because although it’s certainly ambitious in terms of its themes, it lacks the grace in covering them one would associate for movies in competition. The movie, in its first half, seems to be highlighting the excessive force inflicted upon refugees by Hungarian ‘border hunters’. However, later we learn that many of the immigrants Aryan travelled with were terrorists. This plot-beat blurs the message of the film (perhaps intentionally to highlight the complexity of the issues being addressed) but leaves a bad taste in automatically assuming that groups of refugees would generally include extremists.

That said, the film does possess a weighty thematic backdrop in regards its exploration of religion in today’s society. Stern, in his past, botched an operation because he was drunk and begins to see Aryan or the ‘angel’ as a way of redeeming himself. He discusses how that people live their lives today horizontally and that Aryan is a reminder to look up, to open one’s eyes to miracles around us. It’s a hopeful message, especially appreciated in these times of unrest. Although Jupiter’s Moon may not be deep enough for the Cannes’ audience, genre hounds who do not mind subtitles will get a kick out of it.

Stephen Porzio

15A (See IFCO for details)

128 minutes
Jupiter’s Moon is released 5th January 2018

 Jupiter’s Moon – Official Website

 

 

 

Share

Irish Film Review: Torment

Stephen Porzio unearths Jason Figgis’ latest slice of horror, Torment, in which a man is buried alive in punishment for a heinous crime while a couple struggle to come to terms with a dreadful loss.

Jason Figgis has become a staple of the Irish independent film festival circuit. I admire his prolific nature (he makes about two or three movies as year, as well as contributing to various anthology films) and his passion for cinema. However, sometimes in the past I’ve found that his creativity has occasionally been stymied by the low-budget parameters in which he works. His output, like Urban Traffik and Don’t You Recognise Me?, is often ingeniously plotted and his themes regarding familial dysfunction, revenge and violence are consistently interesting. Yet sometimes a dodgy special effect or an amateurish performance from a supporting actor can take the viewer out of the fictional world Figgis otherwise creates very well.

In this respect Torment – his latest playing at IFI’s Horrorthon on October 29th – is a step-up from his previous work. The film focuses on two interlocking stories. Bill Fellows (Lady Macbeth) plays a man who is buried alive and taunted by a sinister disembodied voice over an intercom. Meanwhile, a married couple (played by Cora Fenton and Bryan Murray) attempt to cope with grief and loss. Over the course of the film, we come to realise how these three characters are connected.

Torment is a film which narratively plays to Figgis’ strength. It combines the high-concept plot of Don’t You Recognise Me? (a film about a documentarian who gets more than he bargained for when hired to film a young wannabe gangster’s daily activity) with the character-driven intense family drama of Urban Traffik. The result: a blend of the claustrophobia of Ryan Reynolds’ vehicle Buried with the bleak horror of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

The low-budget nature of the film (it’s almost all gloomy interiors and shots from inside the coffin) feels like a benefit to Figgis this time around. Not only does the plot not demand the type of special effects used in his other output but the less polished style adds a real rawness to Torment. This sensation is vital since it’s a film, without getting into spoiler territory, about the horrors of grief and violence.

The performances here are the most consistently good of Figgis’ filmography with Fenton (The Young Offenders) delivering a tour de force as a mother who has lost everything and is failing to cope with the situation. She is so good that at times it’s almost a difficult to watch because her wails of sadness feel very authentic.

This brings me to my warnings about the film. As its title suggests, it’s an incredibly bleak, often uncomfortable movie to sit through. It tackles dark, transgressive issues and their effects on people in a very serious manner – more seriously than the typical campy or genre-based Horrorthon entry. If one is looking for something light and enjoyable, I’d suggest giving Torment a miss. However, those looking for something that will stay with them and if a haunting evocation of emotional suffering sounds compelling to you, Figgis’ latest is a must.

 

Torment screens on Sunday,  29th October 2017 at 23.00 as part of IFI Horrorthon, October 26th to 30th 2017. 

Tickets here

 

You may like:

Horrorthon Podcast with Directors Jason Figgis & Mark Sheridan

Share

Review: Call Me by Your Name

DIR: Luca Guadagnino WRI: James Ivory  PRO: Emilie Georges, Luca Guadagnino, James Ivory, Marco Morabito, Howard Rosenman, Peter Spears, Rodrigo Teixeira • DOP: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom • ED: Walter Fasano  DES: Samuel Deshors  • CAST: Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg

Movies rarely come more sensual and intoxicating than Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) and written by James Ivory (Remains of the Day). Set in the 1980s, rising star Timothee Chalamet plays Elio, a 17-year-old American-Italian living in North Italy as his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) works on a project focused on the sensuality of Ancient Roman statues. When a 24-year-old protegee of his dad, Oliver (the always great Armie Hammer), comes to stay for the summer, it awakens confusing feelings of desire in Elio. Through look and touch, Oliver and Elio begin to develop a relationship over the season.

Call Me by Your Name has an amazingly tactile presence. Hammer and Chalamet give both soulful and physical performances. In the early portions of the drama where the two are struggling to cope with their feelings for each other – both being deliberately standoffish – they still manage to convey through subtle glance and stolen touch a live-wire spark of chemistry. They naturally inject a jolt of energy into what could have been a slow-burn first half through sheer charisma alone.

Meanwhile, when things do become more intimate, there is a blend of authenticity but also bewitching romance. Sufjan Stevens provides the soundtrack, giving the film a delicate but brittle quality – perfect for Elio and Oliver’s tentative bond. Meanwhile, Guadagnino clearly has an eye for scenic locations as this film will make one want to move to sun-drenched Italy to eat apricots and read Antonia Pozzi poems relaxing by a lake.

Adding to the tactile quality of the film is the fact that despite how heavenly the setting is and how achingly romantic, there are little moments that ring true. A brief but important example is a scene in which Elio is seen reading a Penguin Books copy of Heart of Darkness. As he is reading, the novel falls apart in his hands, something anyone who has bought that particular brand of book in a charity shop can relate to.

At 130 minutes, the film can occasionally feel a little rambling. However, I’d argue that is to Guadagnino’s strength as he has created a movie that vividly captures the feeling of a long summer. Also, just when one thinks the director may be wasting the great talents of Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire, A Serious Man), the actor gets to deliver one of the most beautifully written monologues I’ve ever seen in a film. In five minutes, the combination of the speech and delivery fills a fairly background character with such incredible depth. Yet, it’s just one of many beautiful moments one will want to re-visit in Call Me by Your Name, a work as heart-warming as it is gorgeous.

Stephen Porzio 

15A (See IFCO for details)

131 minutes
Call Me by Your Name is released 27th October 2017

Call Me by Your Name– Official Website

 

 

Share

Irish Film Review: Return to Montauk

DIR: Volker Schlöndorff   WRI: Colm Tóibín, Volker Schlöndorff  PRO: Sidonie Dumas, Rainer Kölmel, Regina Ziegler • DOP: Jérôme Alméras • ED: Hervé Schneid DES: Sebastian Soukup  MUS: Michael Bartlett, Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, Max Richter • CAST: Stellan Skarsgård, Nina Hoss, Bronagh Gallagher

Return to Montauk stars Stellan Skarsgård as writer Max Zorn who, while on a press tour with his girlfriend, Clara (Suzanne Wolff), in New York, attempts to connect with old flame, Rebecca (Nina Hoss – Phoenix, Homeland). Written by Colm Toibin (author of Brooklyn and The Master), it begins promisingly. It feels novelistic in story while the Manhattan setting adds a cinematic feel. The supporting cast (Jacques Audiard regular Niels Arestrup, Ireland’s own Bronagh Gallagher) feels well-chosen and international. Its depiction of the literary scene is impressive. As Skarsgård zips from book launch to public reading to drinks with other authors, one gets a sense of what it would be like to a writer in that scene. What it would be like to make a living from one’s own personal experiences, to make friendly with contemporaries who appear both jealous and in awe of you, to travel the world despite not earning a lot of money.

Sadly, while all these incidental details and literary references to Henry James, Kafka and Nabokov are intriguing – the main-plot itself is quite pedestrian – eventually devolving into a stereotypical depiction of a selfish writer, hurting those who love him, in a mid-life crisis fuelled quest. Yes, it could be possible to make an unlikeable character interesting if one can empathise somewhat or even understand him (see Showtime’s The Affair). Yet, although Skarsgård and Hoss both give fine individual performances, they have no chemistry. They need to generate enough spark to make one understand why Max would risk damaging his current relationship. However, while they are together, the whole time one is thinking about Clara due to Wolff’s warm, charasmatic turn – one which makes an on-paper dull character far more interesting and from the side-lines overshadows Skarsgård and Hoss’ performances.

While the opening passages are script heavy, co-writer and director Volker Schlondorff (the original Handmaid’s Tale adaptation) edits them with visually grand scenes of Zorn making his way through the concrete jungle of Manhattan. However, once Skarsgård and Hoss make their way to the quiet, secluded Montauk – where there characters once spent some time as lovers – any sense of cinematic sheen dissipates as the film fades into a series of theatrical monologues. The cast just talk endlessly, as if reciting passages from a Tóibín novel – something which has appeal but not in the cinematic medium.

One gets a sense, particularly with its ending, that Tóibín and Schlondorff are trying to subvert the expectations of a love-story, implying that not all meaningful relationships work out. People change and often the past should be left alone (was Max and Rebecca’s relationship really as passionate as the writer had thought?). Yet, they miss the mark – downplaying all the elements of the genre until the film just feels like a surprisingly humdrum, plodding romance.

In Return to Montawk, moments of inventiveness – Arestrup’s art-dealer and mentor figure to Zorn delivers a great passage about letting his beautiful paintings fade in the sunlight: “When I’ll be gone, they will too. I find comfort in that” – are often but fleeting. It’s main story-line is a mess, too intellectual to tug at the heart strings and too wordy to accurately capture emotion.

Stephen Porzio

15A (See IFCO for details)

106 minutes
Return to Montauk is released 8th September 2017

 

 

 

 

Share

Irish Short Film Review: The Observer Effect

Stephen Porzio gets goosebumps watching Garret Walsh’s mystery.

Ingenuity goes a long away in a short and The Observer Effect has plenty to spare. It begins conventionally. A news report informs the viewer that there has been a wave of killings. We see a mysterious, threatening-looking man (Patrick O’Brien) stalk a woman (Vanessa Emme), someone who seems to be entering a relationship with a co-worker (Brendan Sheehan).

However, it isn’t long till writer-director Garret Walsh pulls the first of a few rugs out from under the viewer. Without entering spoiler territory, any original audience judgement of the three main characters is proven to be false – something evident when their paths collide.

Walsh’s direction enhances the atmosphere of the piece. The washed-out colour palette is starkly beautiful while also establishing a sense of gothicism. Meanwhile, the choice not to include any dialogue (the conversations between Emme and Sheehan’s characters are muted) is a brave one, stripping away any fat or filler to leave the film feeling tighter and more compact.

Moody and eerie, The Observer Effect is an effective chiller. If one came across it on horror streaming platform Shudder on a dark Halloween night, it would put them right in the festive spirit.

 

Share