Interview: Aoife Kelleher, director of ‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’

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Stephen Porzio sat down with Aoife Kelleher to chat about her latest documentary, Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, which explores the big question of faith, in the small Irish village of Knock.

Knock was declared a Marian Shrine after fifteen people in the village witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879. Knock welcomes one million pilgrims annually.

 

There’s a been a wave of anti-Catholic films in recent memory, such as Doubt, Philomena, Mea Maxima Culpa and this year’s Oscar winning Spotlight. Although your film doesn’t shy away from the sex abuse scandals, it is, for the most part, a positive representation of Catholicism – would it be fair to say that?

I think it’s a complex film and I think multiple readings are there, depending on the viewer. Rather than it being a broad examination of Catholicism, it’s more an examination of Catholicism as a narrative by examining this one particular story that’s been handed from generation to generation and how it has influenced the village of Knock. In a sense, what it is looking at is what draws people to Catholicism and the solace that people find in a place like Knock. What brings them there – even if they have, as some of our contributors would, quite a complex relationship with the church itself. So, for me, it’s an observational film and my stance would be a neutral one. It’s about giving the people of Knock a chance to tell their story. And looking at what continues to draw people to the church even after the scandals of the 1990s. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that it’s positive, more so that it is looking at what people find positive there.

 

It is very observational in the fact that there is a vast array of opinions on Catholicism within the film, for example, there is the man who works in the giftshop who uses Old Testament language of burning in hell for all eternity. While almost immediately afterwards there is a scene with the younger priest who preaches love and opposes the notion that religion is all about guilt. Was it important for you to have these opposing opinions on your subject matter?

What was important is that we show the full spectrum of opinions that exist in Knock. Obviously, someone who is vehemently opposed to the Catholic Church and someone who has absolutely no belief in the apparition whatsoever is not going to be found at Knock Shrine. There is a limit to that spectrum of what you can show. But in showing all of the different shades of Catholicism, from the progressive to what some people might regard as more archaic, we are showing that faith and religion in Ireland is complex – and that people engage with it in different ways.  It was important to show the full spectrum of opinion there and to show that there isn’t one single form of Catholicism in Ireland.

 

The film address very complex themes such as faith, the commercialisation of religion and homophobia. Yet it still retains a certain lightness, was that difficult to achieve?

I think it’s very important that every documentary has moments of lightness. Where you have human beings going through their daily life, when you have human relationships, you’re always going to have moments of lightness and humour – that is the reality of Knock. You have people who are funny; people who are warm; people who are witty and people who are joyful. Of course it was important to reflect that in the film. Yes, the film tackles a topic as complex as religion, but there can still be a lightness to that examination.

 

A lot of that lightness comes from the talking heads in the documentary, who are so interesting. You could nearly make a movie about their lives. In particular, there is Father Richard Gibbons. Could you explain how he became involved and what it was like to work with him.

Father Gibbons is the parish priest and was one of the first people we approached when the possibility of making the documentary came up. He was involved in the film from day one essentially, as far as you can never gain access to a place like Knock unless you had the consent of the parish priest. He is central to the everyday life of the shrine. I’m sure he had some trepidation about it, as anyone would participating in a documentary but he was always so incredibly generous with his time. With any documentary, with any contributor, it’s an ongoing process of relationship-building and I think he understood what it was was I wanted to achieve.

 

I was struck by how cinematic the documentary looked, particularly the skyline shots of Knock and the basilica, which really give the documentary a sense of place

We were truly lucky to have an amazing drone cameraman, David Perry, who came on board with us and shot some really beautiful footage. I have worked with David before and it was a joy to spend time watching him on the monitor. What was extraordinary with the drone footage is you get to see how unique the landscape is on the West of Ireland. Sometimes it looks almost lunar.

 

2016 has yet again been a good year for Irish documentaries with the likes of Mom and Me, Atlantic and Bobby Sands released in cinemas. What do you think are the reasons behind this creative output?

I think Irish people are excellent storytellers and what is extraordinary about the majority of the films is that they are telling Irish stories to Irish audiences. There’s a greater interest in Irish documentary among Irish audiences. Also, I think the support of funders – in our case the BAI, RTE and the Film Board – is invaluable. It’s been an extraordinary few years for Irish documentary and what is brilliant is that there is a cinema-going audience that really anticipates the stories and will go and watch them.

 

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is currently in cinemas.

 

 

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Review: Julieta

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DIR/WRI: Pedro Almodóvar • PRO: Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García • DOP: Jean-Claude Larrieu • ED: José Salcedo • DES: Antxón Gómez• MUS: Alberto Iglesias • CAST: Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Inma Cuesta

Earlier in the year I wrote an article discussing my most anticipated movies of 2016. I included Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta on that list stating: “Any Almodóvar’ film, even the ones that don’t entirely work, are generally worth seeing”. His trademark blend of comedy, tragedy, melodrama, irreverent humour, sex and glossy décor is unique. One can always tell when one is watching an Almodóvar’ movie whether it’s his horrors (The Skin I Live in), his dramas (Broken Embraces) or his comedies (What Have I Done to Deserve This?). That said, Julieta is one of his more conventional films.

Based upon three short stories from Alice Munro, the movie focuses on the titular heroine who attempts to reconnect with her long-lost daughter by writing a journal explaining her life up to now. The film is set in both the past, in which Julieta is played by Adriana Ugarte and the present, where she is played by Emma Suarez.

Upon its festival run Julieta was accurately described by various critics as “subdued” and “polite”, words not typically associated with its vibrant director. Perhaps its Almodóvar’’s love of the source material (he paid homage to Munro’s literature in The Skin I Live in) but he doesn’t seem to have injected much of his own personality into the film’s story. Munro’s work has been described as “mellow” and in paying respect to this quality of the short stories, the director fails to add a sense of urgency. Events just happen, without creating much tension as supporting characters drift in an out to push the plot forward. Throughout there are brief flashes of Almodóvian strangeness such as a humorous interaction between Julieta and the students she teaches Greek mythology. However, these moments are not enough to elevate Julieta above being mildly interesting.

That said, Almodóvar does bring his trademark visual flair to Julieta. The film is a joy to behold as the director jam-packs his frame with so many bold, primary colours. Julieta’s clothes and jewellery, her home, the coastal town where she lives with her fisherman husband, Xoan (Daniel Grao) – everything looks absolutely exquisite.

While Emma Suarez performance is a little stilted as the older, broken Julieta, Adriana Ugarte is rather fabulous as her younger incarnation. She begins the film with a radiance in both her attitude and looks but as the film progresses she becomes less and less lively, devolving into Suarez’s fifty-something melancholia infected character. It’s a subtle performance where one doesn’t immediately realise the changes Julieta undergoes as life begins to take its toll on her.

Yet, despite these pleasures, Julieta feels a little hollow, leaving the viewer with the unmistakable feeling that something is missing. Its score resembles a thriller’s, but there are no thrills. It’s a family drama where the family are missing for the majority of the time. Perhaps Almodóvar was aiming to convey a sense of emptiness (something implied by the movie’s abrupt ending). Like the film, Julieta is missing something, her daughter. Either way, Julieta is still a mixed bag. It’s great to see Almodóvar return to the women-centred films that brought him international success and to witness his aplomb for creating colourful movies. However, one can’t help but wish the film was as bold narratively as its visuals.

Stephen Porzio

98 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Julieta is released 26th August 2016

Julieta – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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Irish Film Review: Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village

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DIR: Aoife Kelleher • WRI: Rachel Lysaght 

It’s been a very good year for Irish documentaries. 2016 has already given us Atlantic – an eye-opening account of corruption within the fishing industry, Mom & Me – a touching ode to mother-son relationships and 66 Days – a film detailing Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. Adding to this impressive list is director Aoife Kelleher’s new movie Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village. Taking its title from headline in a British newspaper, the documentary examines the reported sightings of the Virgin Mary in Knock in 1879 and the effect they still have upon the community.

It’s an impressive work in the sense that it tackles very weighty and complex issues such as faith, the commercialisation of religion, the child-sex abuse scandals, abortion and homophobia while still retaining a certain lightness. The various talking heads within the documentary (all of different opinion in regards to religion) are for the most part engaging and warm presences. On top of this, Kelleher adds a gentle humour to the film, allowing it to breathe, while never sacrificing its serious exploration of issues. As a result, Strange Occurrences is a documentary which feels light while never making light of its subject matter.

The documentary’s complete lack of archival footage is to be commended. Every scene from the spectacle that is a New York St. Patrick’s Day parade to the gorgeous aerial drone footage of Knock has been shot specifically for the film. This not only creates a sense of authenticity, but also gives Strange Occurrences a cinematic touch that not many documentaries have, making it a pleasure to watch.

Kelleher has stated that the documentary is not pro or anti-Catholicism. Instead, its goal was to portray a community completely reliant upon a religion, both morally and financially, accurately. She accomplished her task with gusto creating one of the most engrossing documentaries of the year thus far.

Stephen Porzio

68 minutes
PG (See IFCO for details)

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is released 26th August 2016

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village – Official Website 

 

 

 

 

 

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Irish Short Film Review: Radha

 

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Stephen Porzio takes a look at Nicolas Courdouan’s  22-minute drama with horror elements. The short recently had its world premiere at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Providence, RI (19 – 21 August ) and will go on to compete at the Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, OR (7 – 9 October).

 

A meditation on grief, as well as a nicely twisty and surprising horror, Nicholas Courdouan’s Radha is a rather effective short film. Sue Walsh stars as Saoirse, a woman trying to form a new life in the aftermath of a tragic event, who stumbles upon the enigmatic titular dancer (Kojii Helnwein).

The short benefits from some memorable, well-executed set-pieces. For example, Radha’s central dance would not be as compelling if it wasn’t so tightly edited. The camera lingers on her contorted body, not revealing her face. This is then juxtaposed with the gazes of her gaunt-looking viewers, who she claims she “helps”, creating a real sense of dread, even when the viewer is unaware of what exactly there is to fear.

The clothing and lighting contribute to this paranoid atmosphere. Through the dark moodiness of the room and the way Radha’s black hair and clothes hang off her body, the short evokes the feel of a J-Horror. At times, the titular character resembles Sadako from Ringu, particularly with the unnatural way she moves.

There are moments within the short where the dialogue does not ring true and is delivered rather stiltedly. However, this is easy to forgive when there is so much else to like. The final scene, taking place on a beach, is gorgeous looking, resembling the coastal scenes from the similarly Irish Calvary and The Eclipse. Also as it continues, Courdouan’s film interestingly plays with audience expectation. Radha is less the villain we expect and more a beacon to Saoirse of what the movie’s title translates to in Irish (vision, sight, aspect).

The short also builds an intriguing mystery. Who is Radha and where does she come from? This is something I would be curious to see explored to some degree should Courdouan expand this twenty-two minute short into a feature length.

 

 

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Another Look at ‘The Shallows’

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Stephen Porzio wades in.

The Shallows is an example of a fairly standard and unoriginal genre picture yet manages to be far more entertaining that its premise would suggest. Blake Lively plays Nancy, a Texan surfer, who takes time out of her medical degree to journey to Mexico. Her goal is to discover a secret beach which was of great significance to her recently deceased mother. While surfing close to coast, she happens upon the dead body of a large whale. Without realising, Nancy has stumbled upon a shark’s feeding ground and is subsequently attacked. Close enough to see the shore but not to reach it, our protagonist must leap-frog from the dead whale to a tiny piece of land and then to a buoy in order to stay above water – avoiding her predator. However, with the tide rising and Nancy becoming weak from the scars of the shark’s original onslaught – can Nancy survive?

While sharing a plot similar to various survivalist sea-set thrillers such as Open Water or The Reef, The Shallows still manages to engage due to its stripped back nature. It’s only 86 minutes, meaning the film never drags, delivering tense set-piece after tense set-piece. Also, its script by Anthony Jaswinski (which was included in 2014’s Black List – a list of the best unproduced screenplays), despite being slightly clichéd, is very economical in terms of information and time. There are no superfluous scenes. The audience is given everything they need to know but nothing else, briefly and efficiently, allowing the film to maintain its quick pace while still enabling the viewer to root for the protagonist. It’s also a very funny script, managing to stack the deck against Nancy in more convoluted but enjoyably bizarre ways as it continues.

However, the writer is not the only person worthy of credit. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (whose output is almost entirely entertaining films with average premises) adds a sheen to proceedings. Having worked in both the horror genre (Orphan, House of Wax) and the action genre (Non-Stop, Run All Night), he is the perfect choice to tackle a survivalist thriller. He manages to the convey the horror of Nancy’s situation with great skill as evident by The Shallows sound-mix. While another director would use visual gore to portray our hero’s suffering, Collet-Serra emphasises the loud bangs as Nancy crashes into jagged rocks and stinging coral to create a more visceral experience. His talents as an action director also shine through in his staging of the shark sequences. They manage to be both inventive (a shark-attack seen from the POV of the victim’s GoPro is genius) and coherent. In relation to the latter, one is always aware where Nancy is in relation to her attacker which serves to heighten tension.

Blake Lively (The Town, Green Lantern), who is often type-cast in a bland love interest role, makes for a rather charismatic final girl of sorts. Essentially carrying the movie by herself, she is forced to convey every emotion from joyous optimism upon finding the secret beach, to terror at her situation and then to acceptance of her predicament. Lively is up to the task, even entertaining as she talks to a seagull (hilariously dubbed Steven Seagull) a la Wilson in Cast Away, adding levity. Her performance, a tight script and efficient direction raise The Shallows above its predictable premise, reminding that even serviceable films can be quite good in the right hands.

 

 

The Shallows is currently in cinemas

 

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Review: Suicide Squad

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DIR/WRI: David Ayer • PRO: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle • DOP: Roman Vasyanov • ED: John Gilroy • DES: Oliver Scholl • MUS: Steven Price • CAST: Margot Robbie, Cara Delevingne, Will Smith

I approached David Ayer’s Suicide Squad with an attitude that can be best summed up as “cautious excitement”. I was curious to see whether or not the film could live up to its string of promising trailers. However, following Zack Snyder’s hulking, lifeless Batman v Superman (with which Suicide Squad shares a burgeoning D.C. cinematic universe), I was not sure this would happen. Comic-book movie fans, of which the majority appear to be in the same boat as me, can now rest easy. I am happy to report that Suicide Squad is a significant improvement over its lumpen predecessor.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Snyder’s movie and Ayer’s is that the latter is so much more fun. Perhaps, this is down to the original premise of John Ostrander’s comic: violent criminals with abilities are recruited by a shadowy government organisation to take down a more sinister villain. In return, the anti-heroes get time in prison reduced. It’s a plot that has been around many years (see Dirty Dozen or Inglorious Bastards – the original) for a reason. It’s oddly satisfying to see typical bad-guys reform for a good cause, putting their badassery to good use. Often, the best comic-book films are genre pieces that happen to feature superhero characters (the space-opera of Guardians of the Galaxy, the heist movie that is Ant-Man). Suicide Squad falls into this bracket. It does not try, like Batman v Superman, to cram the plot of five movies into one in order to lay the groundwork for impending releases. Instead, it tells one self-contained, genre story, which hints at what is to come in the future.

Like many superhero movies, the early passages of Suicide Squad are the best. As government official Amanda Waller (the always brilliant Viola Davis) explains to her colleagues her plan to recruit smaller time crooks to fight greater threats, we get a small origin story for each member of the team. On paper, this is a sequence that should resemble that horrendously clunky moment in Batman v Superman where Bruce Wayne finds the footage of each future Justice League member and we watch it in its entirety with him. Yet, Ayer throws so much information (gang wars, world-class hitmen, Australian bank-robbers and an Amazonian adventure) at the viewer at such a speed that it’s hard not to get swept up in the movie’s fast, propulsive pace. These sequences are also the funniest (Jai Courtney, against all odds, is the best Australian low-life on-screen since Ben Mendelsohn in Killing Them Softly) and the most stylish, recalling movies such Sin City or Dredd.

As the film continues, it does begin to fall into the same trappings of Batman v Superman and of superhero films in general. As Cara Delevingne’s personality-less villain (a pagan God who attempts to prove she is all powerful by destroying the world a la X-Men’s recent Apocalypse) becomes more prevalent, Suicide Squad lags in pace becoming just one set-piece after another. Also, because it is well known that future movies such as Justice League are on the way, the final battle is stake less – Enchantress’ plan will clearly fail. Although, this is the case with practically every other superhero movie too, Ayer drops the ball character-wise with his key-players. For instance, although Harley Quinn is a fun character, she is completely psychopathic and Ayer skirts past any chance to give her real depth (what attracted her to Jared Leto’s Joker, making her kill for him – we never learn). Also, the other character’s motivations such as Will Smith’s are bland and clichéd. As a result, one does not become invested enough to care who lives or dies.

In terms of the performances, despite charismatic turns from Will Smith and Jai Courtney, Viola Davis steals the show. Her Amanda Waller is cold, cruel and commanding. One never questions for second that she is the most powerful in the film, even in the face of people with actual superhero abilities. Davis effortlessly exudes strength in a role that would slip easily into Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In contrast, Margot Robbie is far showier but that suits Harley Quinn, as the character is always acting, trying desperately to appear wild and effeminate. As her lover, Jared Leto’s take on The Joker is far more random and sexual than previous takes on the character, as evident by his incoherent babblings regarding the “heat of his loins”. Yet, I think this suits Ayer’s “gangster take” on the character. If a Joker was to exist in real-life, he would act like this.

D.C. are still far from rivalling the behemoth that is Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. However, with Suicide Squad, they prove that they are capable of producing an overall successful blockbuster. David Ayer’s movie gives a little hope to fans anxious for the upcoming Wonder Woman and Justice League.

 

Stephen Porzio

122 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Suicide Squad is released 5th August 2016

Suicide Squad – Official Website

 

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Review: Chevalier

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DIR: Athina Rachel Tsangari • WRI: Efthymis Filippou, Athina Rachel Tsangari • PRO: Maria Hatzakou, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos • DOP: Christos Karamanis • ED: Matthew Johnson, Yorgos Mavropsaridis • DES: Anna Georgiadou • CAST: Vangelis Mourikis, Nikos Orphanos, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos

Chevalier, the latest from writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari, appears to be getting a release in Ireland through its association with the burgeoning Greek “weird wave” movement. Numerous of the country’s films in recent years – Tsangari’s previous film Attenberg, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence – have received critical acclaim and accolades at International award ceremonies. Following the surprise success of Lanthimos’ recent movie The Lobster, it makes sense that distributors are pushing for more Greek films to play internationally.

This weird-wave derives its name from the dark absurdity of Greece’s current cinematic outputs, perhaps a response to the turbulence of the country in recent years. Chevalier boasts a winning premise in keeping with the movement. Six fishermen, journeying back to Athens by boat, kill time by constantly pitting against each other in competitions. One of the men devises a new game – “The Best at Everything” – whereby the men rank each other on everything (sleeping, table-manners, building Ikea furniture and penis-size). The person who has the most points by the time they dock at Athens is the winner.

The film shares similarities with The Lobster (Tsangari produced three of Lanthimos’ works), particularly its wordy script and the deadpan delivery by its actors. However, comparing the two movies only serves to highlight the flaws of Chevalier. Both are billed as dark comedies. Yet, while The Lobster managed to make a recurring gag about a man banging his nose violently against a desk funny, Chevalier barely raises more than a few light chuckles at situations which should have been hilarious. The latter’s premise enables it to go either two interesting ways. Events could begin lightly but may then escalate into Michael Haneke-esque horror, highlighting the dangers of this toxic form of masculinity. Or, the events could become more absurd and screwball-esque, signifying through satire the ludicrousness of man’s need for competition. Chevalier does neither, sitting rather uncomfortably between the two. Although, the movie certainly portrays the crew’s endless game-playing in a negative light, its meandering pace and limp humour (Tsangari appears to think a heavy-set man lip-syncing to Minnie Riperton’s ‘Loving You’ is the height of hilarity) removes any of Chevalier’s potential to be truly edgy. Thus, one is stuck with these unlikeable characters for 105 minutes, while they do very little to shock, to make the viewer laugh or to truly engage.

On the positive front, Christos Karamanis cinematography is excellent. The film opens with a beautiful long take of a vast coastal cliff as the men reach the shore. As Chevalier continues, the area covered within the frame gradually becomes tighter, with all action eventually taking place on the boat itself, mirroring the claustrophobia of its characters. Also, the performances are quite good, even if the actors are working with thin characters. Makis Papadimitrous as Dimitris, the kind but weakest member of the crew, manages to add some depth to his character while also eliciting the most laughs through his humorous delivery. However, with a weak third act, which ends with a whimper, these are only minor joys in movie which is not mischievous enough for its own good.

Stephen Porzio

99 minutes

Chevalier is released 22nd July 2016

 

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