Review: American Animals

DIR/WRI: Bart Layton • DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland • ED: Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Julian Hart • MUS: Anne Nikitin • DES: Scott Dougan • PRO: Arcadiy Golubovich, Macdara Kelleher, Jonathan Loughran, Tim O’Hair • CAST: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Udo Kier, Ann Dowd

 

From its very first title card, American Animals boasts of its historical accuracy. ‘This is not based on a true story’ appears on the screen, only for the ‘not based on’ to be dropped to read ‘This is a true story. American Animals is the first fictional feature film from filmmaker Bart Layton, who is most famous for the 2012 documentary The Imposter. The Imposter tells the unbelievable true story of a French man impersonating a missing Texas teenager and being accepted by the boy’s family despite being seven years older, speaking with a French accent and not matching his physical description at all.

While American Animals might not be as outrageous as The Imposter, it is still hard to fathom why four college kids would risk their futures to steal a handful of rare books from their University – the university in question is the Transylvania University in Lexington Kentucky. Granted, the score would garner them a couple of million dollars but as the plan escalates and complicates they are given plenty of time to back out of a pipe dream, but they never do.

Spencer (Keoghan), an art student, comes into contact with the rare books on a tour of his new campus. He mentions them to his best friend Warren (Peters) and the wheels of disaster are set in motion. This is also the point of the film where the ‘true story’ becomes complicated. Layton structures American Animals in the vein of a docu-drama. Interspersed with fictional scenes are interviews with the actual culprits of the heist. It is a technique not unlike the one used by Scottish filmmaker Kevin MacDonald for Touching the Void (2003). Layton, however, focuses more on the fictionalised scenes, using the interviews as punctuation.

More recently, Craig Gillespie employed a technique like this one for his film I, Tonya (2017), yet another unbelievable true story about a working-class ice skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie in an Oscar-nominated performance) who gets embroiled in an assault scandal which effectively ruins her career. In I, Tonya, however, the interviews are played by the actors and Gillespie is toying with the idea of a fictional film ‘based on a true story’. A line spoken by Robbie’s Harding towards the end of the film is indicative of this: ‘There is no truth, it’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth and life just does whatever the fuck it wants’. Using the actual perpetrators of the crime it is clear that Layton wants to get to some sort of truth. However, Layton also recognises that memory and perception are objective and his subjects have different memories of the same event. This is highlighted in the film through different re-enactments of the same scene and interviewees doubting that some events actually took place.

Layton serves up a multitude of hypotheses why these four young men did what they did, among them, middle-class boredom, millennial entitlement, not wanting the same ‘boring’ lives as their parents and a subconscious yearning for notoriety. None of which endears anybody to these young men. This is a problem that many critics have with the film, and it’s an age old trope in cinema, the glorification of the bandit. Yes, the fictionalised scenes are stylised in such a way to make these young men look cool, funny and engaging but these are offset by the genuine emotion of the interviews where regret is deeply expressed. What is most interesting is that these guys still don’t seem to be able to answer in any definite way why they did what they did. The film also contains a lot of references to heist films, namely Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), which can serve to glorify the modus operandi of the young men. It may also at times make light of an event which caused trauma to people so recently. However, Layton has a counter-argument and American Animals is a multi-faceted piece of work, which is accentuated by the film’s sobering final act.  

Special mention must be given to the performance of young Irish rising star Barry Keoghan. While his performance, vocally, is very close to his chilling turn as the antagonist in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), his magnetism on screen is undeniable.

 

Tom Crowley
116 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
American Animals is released 7th September 2018

 

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Review: Upgrade

DIR/WRI: Leigh Whannell • DOP: Stefan Duscio • ED: Andy Canny • MUS: Jed Palmer • DES: Felicity Abbott • PRO: Jason Blum, Kylie Du Fresne,Brian Kavanaugh-Jones • CAST: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilberston, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Simon Maiden

 

Leigh Whannell first found success with b-movie horror game-changer Saw (2004). Saw became a revelation within its genre and was the launching pad for the much derided ‘Torture Porn’ sub-genre. The film was directed by his friend and fellow Aussie James Wan. Following the massive success of Saw, the pair collaborated on three more films, Dead Silence (2007), Insidious (2010) and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), Wan as director; Whannell as writer. All were commercially successful films released to varying critical reviews. Wan’s career has sky-rocketed, helming both Conjuring films (2013, 2016), Fast and Furious 7 (2015) and Aquaman, which will be released in December of this year. One can’t help but see Whannell as a McCartney to Wan’s Lennon.

Whannell himself has made the transition to director with Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015), which was received poorly by critics. With Upgrade, his second directorial effort, Whannell has taken a little side-step from horror into the realms of techno-thriller, although his penchant for gore is still readily apparent.

Quite like a feature-length Black Mirror (2011-) episode, Upgrade is set in the not-too-distant future. Technology has taken over, autonomous cars, houses that speak to you and tend to your every need- cooks meals, tells you when you are out of eggs, orders the shopping, etc. Our protagonist, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), is a self-confessed technophobe. The first shot we get in the film is that of a record-player. Grey listens to classic rock as he fixes a now vintage automobile- one that requires a human to drive it. He has found a little niche for himself, fixing-up these cars and selling them on to fellow motor-purists. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), has fully embraced the all-encompassing technology in this futuristic world. There differing philosophies on this brave new world doesn’t get in the way of the love they have for each other.

Unfortunately, in a reserve Ghost (1990) type scenario, Asha is slaughtered senselessly in the street, Grey is left paralysed from the neck down, grieving and out for revenge. Ironically it is a ground-breaking technology created by hermit/tech-genius, Eron (surely a play on Elon), that allows him to pursue his blood-lust.

That’s enough of plot. Upgrade is a film conflicted within itself. It wants to eat its cake and have it too. Sometimes it has b-movie sensibilities, others times Whannell stretches for the heady sci-fi heights of Blade Runner (1982). It’s a melodrama, and then it’s a comedy. The humour in the script takes over in the second act and seems to come from nowhere – very off-putting. The dialogue is too clunky and terribly obvious, at one point Grey actually says the line ‘I got you, you sons-of-bitches’, there are many other examples. The acting is poor, especially from the Harrison Gilbertson (a Dane deHaan look-a-like) who plays the villain of the piece, Eron. Melanie Vallejo and Logan Marshall-Green do not escape unscathed either. They cannot quite carry over the script’s tonal imbalances. A female cop, played by Betty Gabriel, is nothing more than a thinly drawn stereotype.

Whannel leaves himself open for a sequel.This reviewer will not be in a rush to see it.

 

Tom Crowley
100 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Upgrade is released 31st August 2018

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Review: Last Flag Flying

 

DIR: Richard Linklater • WRI: Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan  PRO: Richard Linklater, Ginger Sledge, John Sloss  DOP: Shane F. Kelly • ED: Sandra Adair • MUS: Graham Reynolds • DES: Bruce Curtis• CAST: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell

With Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater has supposedly made his second ‘spiritual sequel’ in a row. His 2016 effort Everybody Wants Some! captured the ‘spirit’ of his 1993 gem Dazed and Confused – taking its young, wild, stick-it-to-the-man attitude and translating them from Senior Year High School to Freshmen Year College, using different characters in the process. The complications behind the term ‘spiritual sequel’ are plenty and in any case Everybody Wants Some! is nowhere near as good a film as Dazed and Confused.

With Last Flag Flying, Linklater once again enters the murky waters of ‘spiritual sequel’. Last Flag Flying’s father film is Hal Ashby’s 1973 New American Cinema masterpiece The Last Detail, starring Jack Nicholson. The film had a sense of humanity and authenticity to it, two ingredients that can be found in abundance in most of Richard Linklater’s work. In The Last Detail, two sailors are tasked with escorting a younger subordinate to serve a harsh sentence in jail for a dishonourable discharge. The two sailors warm to the charming innocence of the other and endeavour to show the young man a good time before he spends some of his best years locked up.

The Last Detail is a true masterpiece and catching up with these characters 30 years on (Last Flag is set in 2003) in a film directed by Richard Linklater is a truly mouth-watering prospect. Unfortunately, this is a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. The names and personalities of the characters have been changed beyond recognition and perhaps most surprisingly, gone is the sense of humanity and authenticity. These sentiments are replaced by a politically charged agenda and characters cut out to meet certain political views of the Iraq war.

Steve Carrell plays Doc Shepard, a man who has lost his son to the war in Iraq. He seeks out Sal (Cranston) and Mueller (Fishburne), two of his Vietnam ‘buddies’ to accompany him while he travels to collect his son’s body. Those who are watching the film having already seen The Last Detail will spend your time wondering who is who in Last Flag Flying. Carrell’s Nicholson moustache is particularly jarring. In fact, it’s best to watch Last Flag Flying without having seen The Last Detail as the film pales in comparison in every single way.

It’s always difficult to balance comedy and tragedy but Last Flag Flying really messes up its tonal juggling act. It is contrived when it tries to be genuine and lacks any kind of comic punch. There is a running joke about mobile phones – because it’s 2003. The humour is reminiscent of recent low-brow aging actors behaving badly comedies such as Last Vegas (2013) and Going in Style (2017). Bryan Cranston is completely miscast as a disgruntled army veteran New Yorker with a drinking problem. Carrell under acts to the point where he sounds like Brick Tamland making a one-liner every time he enters the conversation. Laurence Fishburne fairs slightly better as a former wild-man turned Reverend but even that bit grows stale fairly fast. Sal and Mueller clash over politics and religion, sometimes the tone is serious sometimes more light-hearted. Doc, the one holding all the grief, plays referee and other times enlightens and sobers the ideals of the other two men.

Last Flag Flying is a road film, just like its predecessor. The difference is you feel like you want to be on the road with the characters in The Last Detail. You could imagine happily drinking in a shabby hotel room in your underwear with them. This is not the case with the aging characters in Last Flag Flying. You would want to run a mile from their preachy patriotism and scepticism of mobile phones and the internet. It just doesn’t feel like a Richard Linklater film. Gone is the subtlety in the dialogue. That doesn’t seem to be important in the script that he wrote with Darryl Poniscan, the author of both The Last Detail and Last Flag Flying. The message tries to be the important element here. This message of patriotism and what it means to fight for one’s country is mixed and problematic, especially in the film’s final act. It’s a film that doesn’t pick a side, much to its detriment.

Tom Crowley

15A (See IFCO for details)

125 minutes
Last Flag Flying is released 26th January 2018

Last Flag Flying – Official Website

 

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Review: Straight Time (1978)

Tom Crowley checks out Ulu Grosbard’s 1978 film Straight Time, which recently screened at the IFI as part of its Dustin Hoffman Retrospective.

We begin Straight Time (1978) with our anti-hero Max Dembo (Hoffman) leaving prison after a six-year stint for armed robbery. Director Ulu Grosbard tricks us. He gives us a shot of a woman and her kids. We assume they are there to see our protagonist come home. They are not there for him. Max jumps in the back of a pick-up truck and hitches a lift to central Los Angeles. Max is alone, make no mistake about it. He visits the house of an old friend Willy (Busey). He is told by Willy’s wife (Bates) he is not welcome, he is a bad influence.

A career criminal Max is determined to go straight. In the space of a week he gets a job, finds a room to sleep in and even begins courting his recruitment agent Jenny (Russell). Max, however, never feels particularly comfortable in his environment. Over dinner with Jenny he explains that many inmates find it scarier on the outside; one gets the feeling that he is indirectly talking about himself. Despite this, Max gets on with it, Jenny the dominating motivator for him to live the straight life.

A serious obstacle to this is his passive aggressive parole officer Earl (Walsh). It is not easy to determine whether Earl is purposely being a menace or if he is just plain ignorant. Either way he is a thorn in the side of an already edgy Max. Max comes home one night to see his bedroom door open. Earl is nosing around his digs. He finds matches and automatically assumes Max is ‘fixing’. He sends him back to the county jail while he awaits results of a drug test.

This is the final straw for Max. He goes on the run with the support of Jenny. The plan is to rob enough money to leave L.A. for greener pastures. Once Max re-accepts his criminality we see Dustin Hoffman’s performance become far more external. The shifty and uneasy straight Max becomes far more purposeful when he embraces his identity as a criminal. First incarcerated as a juvenile, it is the only life he knows.

Max is connected. He runs in criminal circles, his only friends are criminals or ex-criminals. For better or worse this is who Max is. One of the ex-criminal’s is Jerry (Stanton). Max convinces him to go on a spree with him. Not that he needs much convincing. Jerry is a successful paint contractor but the straight life is boring the hell out of him. It is a terrific performance by Harry Dean Stanton who brings comedy and pathos to the film.

The first impression of Max is that he is a moral person caught up in an immoral world. He believes the world is unfair and he does everything he can to cheat it, a classic counter-culture hero. It is shocking then to see how greedy and at times violent Max can be. His greediness and violent behaviour is never glamorised either by the script or Hoffman’s performance. Max sucks you in, turns on you and the ultimate feeling you have for him is pity. It is one of Hoffman’s many career highs.

The script is adapted from a novel by Edward Bunker called No Beast So Fierce. A former career criminal himself Bunker turned to writing and acting. Film fans will perhaps most recognise Bunker from playing the part of Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Max and his misadventures are based on Bunker and his life. The title of the book pleads sympathy for the devil. The film seems to at the beginning but ultimately loses this one track approach mainly on account of Hoffman’s layered performance.  Bunker shares a screenwriting credit for this film with two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Julia (1978) and Ordinary People (1981)) and Jeffery Boam. Bunker also has a cameo in a bar with a mustachioed Hoffman. They look like they could be father and son, or a weird cross-generational twin.

Straight Time is a fantastic, stirring, character-driven film. It is not always mentioned in Hoffman’s popular filmography but it is among the talented actors best work. A major flaw in the film is the relationship between Max and Jenny. It is never really clarified what attracts Jenny to Max so much. The answer is in the writing. Female characters are either underwritten or stereotyped in this film. This is an accusation you could point at many of the New Wave American films. Women are the object of male desire. They will do anything for them for little or no reason. Watching back as a revisionist it looks like a collective fantasy in the male-dominated writing rooms.

Having said that, this reviewer believes that Straight Time along with Scarecrow (1973) are two films from their potent era that deserve more attention.

 

 

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Review: Alien: Covenant

 

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DIR: Ridley Scott • WRI: John Logan, Dante Harper • PRO: David Giler, Walter Hill, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott • DOP: Dariusz Wolski • ED: Pietro Scalia • DES: Chris Seagers • MUS: Jed Kurzel • CAST: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Guy Pearce, James Franco

 

The sequel to the much hyped Prometheus (2012) very much returns to the ethos of the early Alien films. It still has some long, frankly boring scenes, in which characters try to get across their pseudo-philosophical ideals to one another but when Alien: Covenant is at its best is when it takes the tone of the original horror/sci-fi hybrid.

The title Covenant, like Prometheus, comes from the name of the ship that is taking our characters to a distant planet Origae-6. Their mission is to colonise the habitable planet. Things go awry very early on when the ship glides into a ‘space storm’ in layman’s terms. This results in the death of the ship’s captain Branson (Franco).  Second-in-command Oram (Crudup) takes over as skipper of a grieving crew including Branson’s wife Daniels (Waterson), pilot Tennesse (McBride) and an updated version of Prometheus’ android David, Walter (Fassbender). The tragic event causes the crew to be hasty, choosing to take a look at a previously unchartered planet which is mere weeks away as opposed to the seven year journey to Origae-6. An accidental detection of human life draws their attention. A fuzzy version of John Denver’s Country Roads picked up on the ships satellite.

Oram, a man of ‘faith’ gives the go ahead for the exploration mission. Daniels who is now his second-in-command is more of a sceptic and strongly opposes. It turns out that this seemingly serene planet has some sinister and deadly quirks. If you look at it thematically Alien: Covenant is again pitting religion and science against each other, as represented by the characters Oram and Daniels. If Prometheus was ambiguous about its philosophy, Alien: Covenant is a straight up nihilistic narrative where evil always gets the better of good and characters’ faith and love is only repaid by loss and eventually death.

Reading those last three lines makes the film sound ultra-depressing, however Scott delivers the narrative in such a way that you don’t get bogged down by it as the action is happening. Covenant is very much an amalgamation of Scott’s own original and James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) with a hint of its direct predecessor, Prometheus, and the result is not original and very predictable.  The script is not as bad as Prometheus but there is way too much expositional dialogue for comfort. The film delivers on scares, gore and some interesting action sequences.

As with Prometheus, the highlight is again Michael Fassbender- who is in a duel role this time round. As well as playing Walter he reprises his role as David, who the crew find marooned on the very planet they are exploring. Fassbender’s talent as an actor is plain to see as he is required to play two different robots on seemingly different levels of consciousness. David (whether deluded or not) thinks he is capable of feelings. Walter is more practical about his existence and his depth to his creators. The slight idiosyncrasies in Fassbender’s demeanour and voice when switching between Walter and David are a marvel.

The creationist theme is carried on from Prometheus and is embodied by David. Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein as the modern Prometheus. David is Alien: Covenant’s Frankenstein. A mad scientist android, his villainy has burgeoned in his 10 years of isolation after the events of Prometheus.

Ultimately Alien: Covenant is not a smart enough film to get across its heady themes in any engaging way. At times it does seem to take itself too seriously, something the original Alien (1979) could not be accused of. Covenant is at its best when the horror aspect of the film comes to the fore, the problem is that one has to be patient while the scriptwriters amble down thematic blind alleys.

Tom Crowley

121 minutes
16 (See IFCO for details)

Alien: Covenant is released 12th May 2017

Alien: Covenant – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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Review: Silence

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DIR: Martin Scorsese • WRI: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks • PRO: Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, David Lee, Gastón Pavlovich, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler • DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Dante Ferretti • MUS: Kathryn Kluge, Kim Allen Kluge • CAST: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tabanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Shinya Tsuckamoto, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issey Ogata, Yoshi Oida

Religion has always had prevalence in Martin Scorsese’s work. The veteran director grew up in Little Italy. It was a community polarised by religion and organised crime, perhaps more specifically by Catholicism and violence. His upbringing manifested in his early filmography, the French New Wave influenced Who’s That Knocking on My Door (1967) and Mean Streets (1973). Especially in Mean Streets as the films protagonist overtly struggles between his devout Catholicism and his gangster lifestyle. Mean Streets coupled with Goodfellas (1990) solidified Scorsese as the quintessential gangster filmmaker, surpassing Francis Ford Coppola, and spawning many inferior copycats.

However, if you look at Scorsese’s filmography as a whole it suggests a very different kind of filmmaker. Mobsters only make up a percentage of his modus operandi. Catholic guilt has always been an undercurrent of Scorsese’s work through symbolism and imagery, some subtle, some not so subtle in his films. Silence is Scorsese’s 3rd film after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) where religion is the pervading theme. Rather than hidden in his character’s psyche, it is out there plain to see and to deliberate on.

Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priest Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver) who travel to Japan for a duel propose. They are to preach and practice outlawed Catholicism and to find their mentor, Ferreira (Neeson). Ferreira is rumoured to have apostatised and taken up the Buddhist religion, a slander unfathomable for the young idealist priests. From the beginning Scorsese doesn’t hold back on crucifixion imagery. The opening is brutal, harkening back to Mel Gibson’s notorious The Passion of the Christ (2004). Thankfully, Scorsese spares us from witnessing such cruelty at length, save from a couple of scenes later on in the film.

Silence, shot by Rodrigo Prieto, paints a gorgeous and treacherous journey for the Jesuits. A sense of adventure is felt as they first swim to the shores of Japan (Silence was actually shot in Taiwan). The huge risk they are taking is always there, highlighted by the films grim opening scenes.  They will encounter secret Christian villages. The trials of the villagers in the name of their God will test the limits of their pure and devout Catholicism.

Rodrigues is very much the film’s protagonist. It is an excellent performance from Andrew Garfield as a man whose very purpose in life is questioned and whose faith is tested to its very limitations as Japanese Buddhists torture anyone who declares themselves Catholic. Importantly Rodrigues himself isn’t subjected to physical torture but the Japanese endeavour to break him mentally. Rodrigues is God’s representative on earth, can he stand by and witness such immeasurable cruelty, as God’s silence exposes him to the harshest of mental anguish. The role was initially meant for Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who for obvious reasons would be better physically and vocally equipped to play a Portuguese Jesuit. In his absence however it is no surprise that Scorsese was drawn to Garfield, his appearance uncanny to the popular artist rendering of Christ. His face brings a certain boyish innocence to a tough role. A career highlight to date.

With Silence Scorsese asks many universal religious questions without attempting to provide any answers. He doesn’t have an argument, rather a burning passion and an intense interest in the question of religion itself. Allegories can be found in the modern world, decapitated Christian heads remind one of Islamist extremism but this is not Scorsese’s raison d’etre. Scorsese is interested in the relationship between religion and humanity throughout time. This disparity is awe-inspiring for him and this seeps onto the screen with some of his best filmmaking in years. Gone is the frenzied style of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Departed (2006). Silence is made with care and devotion. It is a film that will get everyone who pays attention thinking, questioning, even the atheists among us.

Tom Crowley

161 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Silence is released 1st January 2017

Silence– Official Website

 

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Cork Film Festival Review: Certain Women

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Tom Crowley finds three to be a crowd Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, which played as part of the opening weekend of the Cork Film Festival in the Everyman Palace Theatre.

With her new film Kelly Reichardt returns to her feminist oeuvre after a brief foray in filmic activism with the eco-thriller Night Moves (2013). Shot on film, Certain Women has a certain raw quality, a look that is reminiscent of Chantel Akerman’s feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). However, Certain Women is no such masterpiece. Her best film still remains Wendy and Lucy (2008).

Certain Women does in fact share a lot of the same thematic qualities as Wendy and Lucy, especially in the crippling loneliness and stoicism embodied by Lily Gladstone’s character, a ranch hand in search for a meaningful relationship. The film is a triptych. We begin with the story of Laura (Dern), a lawyer who feels unvalued in her field because of her gender. She acts as a surrogate other-half, sister and mother to a disgruntled client Fuller (LaGros) whose marriage is falling apart.

Our second protagonist Gina (Williams) is also underappreciated. She is taken for granted within her family unit consisting of her pushover husband Ryan (LaGros) and bratty teenage daughter Guthrie (Rodier). The problem with the film as a whole is that the first two stories are significantly over-shadowed by the third.

Although feminist in context, it deals with the more universal theme of loneliness as Jamie (Lily Gladstone in a magnificent performance) goes in search of a meaningful relationship. In an attempt to connect with the world she goes to a night class she isn’t even signed up for. There she meets her teacher Beth (Stewart). Beth is a blindly ambitious and self-involved aspiring lawyer who makes a four hour trip twice a week to teach a class about ‘School Law’, a subject she knows nothing about just to please her bosses. Jamie sees a comparable loneliness in Beth and falls into silent infatuation. The ending to this particular panel is devastating.

The three narratives are loosely linked together by geography and ignoble relationships. The fact that the film is split into three stories helps ease Reichardt’s notoriously slow pacing. She is a director that really wants her audience to feel time. She is a committed realist. However, with Certain Women one could argue that Reichardt doesn’t get the dramatic balance right – although this opinion could be purely gender related. It is interesting that the connection that this reviewer felt most deeply with was Jamie. In the original short stories by Maile Melroy from which Reichardt adapted this film, the character of Jamie was a man. Reichardt changed the characters gender to appropriate her feminist agenda.

Certain Women premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. in January 2106. It screened as part of 61st Cork Film Festival opening weekend in The Everyman Palace theatre Saturday 12th November and will get a limited release in Ireland on the 3rd March 2017.

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

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Review: Embrace of the Serpent

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DIR: Ciro Guerra • WRI: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal • PRO: Cristina Gallego • DOP: David Gallego • ED: Etienne Boussac • MUS: Nascuy Linares • DES: Angélica Perea • CAST: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenku Migue, Nicolas Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna, Edward Mayo

 

With his new film, Ciro Guerra intensifies his study of nature and travel, motifs which have pervaded his work thus far. Embrace of the Serpent is essentially a road movie set in the Amazonian jungle. The script is loosely based on the travel logs written by botanists from Sweden and American decades apart, both searching for the elusive and fabled yakruna plant. The explorers seek the plant for medical and spiritual reasons respectively.

The source material forces the split structure of the narrative between Theo’s (Bijvoet) journey in 1909 and Evan’s (Davis) in 1940. The two stories are unified by an Amazonian shaman Karamakate, played by Nilbio Torres in 1909 and Antonio Bolivar in 1940, as he is persuaded by the two travellers to aid them in their journey. In the earlier story, Karamakate is more sceptical and reluctant to help an ailing Theo, while an older Karamakate is more at peace and philosophical in his relationship with Evan.

The aesthetic of the film is quite dreamlike, which is intensified by the crisp black and white cinematography and the unconventional intercutting between the two stories. Guerra manages to capture the vast freedom and morbid fear of going into the great unknown. The director achieves this by using contrasting imagery of nature, from the beautiful to the vile. The film’s editing and the characters our travellers meet creates an almost psychedelic vibe not unlike Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013). Both films also share a common theme of searching for the unknown.

The film’s subject matter harkens back to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) in its depiction of a strange and reclusive cult, and the work of Werner Herzog in the overriding theme of the relationship between man and nature. Embrace of the Serpent is certainly a unique cinematic experience, however, the film’s relationship with itself stops it from becoming wholly immersive, juggling between the strikingly real nature of the setting and the mythical aspects that such great untouched beauty inevitably creates.

The film has garnered critical acclaim from critics and earned Columbia its first ever Oscar nomination for Foreign Language film. While the naturalistic storytelling and imagery is fantastic on a surface level, the finer points of the narrative require a fearless and deeply inquisitive traveller to fully appreciate, something which this reviewer cannot claim to be.

 

Tom Crowley

124 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

Embrace of the Serpent is released 10th June 2016

Embrace of the Serpent – Official Website

 

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Review: Victoria

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DIR: Sebastian Schipper • WRI: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper, Eike Frederik Schulz • PRO: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones • DOP: Sturla Brandth Grovlen • ED: Olivia Neergaard-Holm • DES: Uli Friedrichs • MUS: Nils Frahm • CAST: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski

 

 

Victoria is a film with no breaking point, yet it somehow manages to have a three-act structure and a profound character arc. Susan Sontag in her seminal essay ‘Against Interpretation’ posits that the ability to see, hear and feel should surpass interpretation in terms of cinematic experience. Sebastian Schipper and his cinematographer Surla Brandth Grovlen come close to achieving this ideal in their new film which is made up of one 138-minute long continuous take. The film follows its titular character (Costa) during the small hours of a life-altering night. Her fate is changed by an encounter with a group of men in an underground Berlin night-club.

Victoria is a breath-taking technical feat, matched with thrilling narrative content. Andre Bazin theorised that the long take is a superior mode of filmmaking because it recognises that space and time exists. Victoria accomplishes extraordinary verisimilitude. At first it captures the madness and freedom of a crazy night-out. Following on Victoria manages seamless yet striking tonal shifts in real time. It demands audience involvement. We are not especially led to focus on anything as we would in a conventionally edited production. Although in some circumstances Grovlen’s camera does persuade and in some instances seems to take the perspective of Victoria.

In some ways Victoria looks to be influenced by Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009). However, where Noe’s intent is metaphysical, Schipper’s raison d’etre is purely phenomenological. Long-take filmmaking is held in high regard, with many of cinemas greatest filmmakers including it as an aspect of their films. Most recently Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu created the illusion of such in his surrealist Oscar-winner Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). The same goes for master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Technology prevented him from making Rope (1948) a continuous take. Hitchcock used hidden cuts to give the appearance of real time. Victoria is not the first film to be made in one continuous shot, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), made as almost a counterpoint to Sergi Eisenstein’s October (1927), will forever hold that title. However, in terms of this type of filmmaking and its relationship with narrative, Victoria seems like a significant landmark in cinema history.

Tom Crowley

138 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Victoria is released 1st April 2016

 

 

 

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Review: Zootropolis

ZOOTROPOLIS

DIR: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush • WRI: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon, Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee, Dan Fogelman • PRO: Clark Spencer • ED: Jeremy Milton, Fabienne Rawley • DES: David Goetz • MUS: Michael Giacchino • CAST: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk and Shakira

 

Before I get into my views on this film I must make clear that I am fully aware that this is a tonally light animation film. However, hidden within this ‘tonally light animation film’ is an elegantly told crime/mystery. It is also a fable about system failures and political corruption. In this anthropomorphic world a seal named Bunk Morland and a badger named Jimmy McNulty wouldn’t be out of place. There is (kind of) a Stringer Bell in the character Chief of Police Bogo who is voiced by Idris Elba, a water buffalo, who must report to Mayor Lionheart (Simmons) a lion.

There is a chain of command in Zootropolis, our hero rookie cop Bunny Hops (Goodwin) is at the bottom of it. Zootropolis is set in a world where the animal kingdom can get along civilly. Predator and prey can live side by side in the name of commerce. How this came to be is unexplained (as is the question as to what the carnivores eat). Our idealistic hero enters Zootropolis fresh from the police academy and ready to make a difference. She is swiftly brought down to earth by Chief Bogo who puts her on parking ticket duty. There is something amiss in Zootropolis however. Predatory animals are mysteriously reverting to their wild ways. It is up to Bunny and a fox named Nick Wilde (Bateman) (an odd couple situation) to crack the case against the odds and the pressure from superiors and society.

Not only does Zootropolis have a strong plot but also a fantastic message of tolerance and inclusion for audiences of all ages. Especially in the world climate we have found ourselves in today with the likes of Donald Trump and Isis attempting to poison our minds and outlooks on the world we live in. Zootropolis’ message is to treat everyone as an individual and don’t be too quick to judge.

Grievances lie in the film’s third act which is a little bit stretched, giving the feeling that it has two parts. This is a minor structural problem. Zootropolis ,while entertaining, is not consistently funny. Pop culture gags and parodies of The Godfather (1972) and Breaking Bad (2008-13) seem tired and unoriginal. Admirably, Zootropolis shares the same positive message as Fitz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a silent film made 89 years previous. We as individuals have the authority to make our world a better place.

Tom Crowley

108 minutes

PG (See IFCO for details)

Zootropolis is released 18th March 2016

Zootropolis – Official Website

 

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ADIFF Review: Anomalisa

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Tom Crowley checks into Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, which screened at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

Anomaly- ‘Something that deviates from what is standard, normal or expected’

An anomaly is something that our protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is desperately searching for in Charlie Kaufman’s fantastic new stop-motion animation. Anomalisa is co-directed by stop-motion expert Duke Johnson and is an existential tale of depression, alienation and mundanity.

Michael Stone is a renowned customer-service specialist who flies to Cincinnati to give a speech at a convention. He stays at the Fregoli Hotel. ‘Fregoli’ does sound like the name of a posh hotel, but it is also a rare monothematic delusion. The Fregoli delusion is a rare disorder in which a person believes that multiple people are in fact the same person in disguise. Michael Stone has a variation of this disorder, and in turn while experiencing the film, so does the audience. Everyone’s voice is the same (voiced by Noonan in monotone) and everyone has the same blank face.

This represents Stone’s severe depression. Nothing excites him, people are boring to him. To talk on the phone to his wife and child is a chore for him. He doesn’t seem to like himself or what he has become. He lights up cigarettes almost ceaselessly to accentuate the pointlessness. During his one-night stay at the hotel he chases the past in desperation which only brings him to realise why it is the past.

Then he suddenly finds his anomaly, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Hearing her voice down the hotel corridor he frantically chases her down. Lisa, although quite insecure, is the opposite of Stone. She finds beauty in the small things that life has to offer. She is fascinated by things that Stone finds melancholy. Lisa is a customer service team leader and is instantly infatuated with Stone, a supposed rock star in such a circle. Stone falls in love with her because she is different. He can’t get enough of hearing her voice.

However, for Kaufman, it is clear that this is a tale of depression. Stone’s mental illness becomes readily apparent. This is much to the confusion of Lisa, a breath of fresh air in this deeply existential and at times truly depressing narrative. With these two characters Kaufman endeavours to dissect a fragment of the human condition. When they are together the romance between Stone and Lisa is potent. As individuals, sadly, it could never work.

The humanity within this stop-motion animation is amazing. It is interesting to gauge this aesthetic with our connection to these characters’ unreal human bodies. It reminds one of the audience affiliation with the Operating System Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). In cinema when the body is taken out of the equation audiences have a different understanding and perception of character. Anomalisa certainly wouldn’t have had the same impact if the characters where played by Thewlis and Leigh in the flesh. To take leave from the real provokes unbiased metaphysical thought.

Anomalisa and Her share the same idea of a lonely man searching for the ideal. Kaufman’s long anticipated follow-up to Synecdoche, New York (2008) has been worth the wait as he continues to fuel self-reflection and existential thought in his audiences.

 

Anomalisa screened on 23rd February 2016 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (18 – 28 February)

 

 

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ADIFF Review: Mustang

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Tom Crowley checked out Mustang, which screened at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

 

‘She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness’, a comment made by the former Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey during a speech on ‘moral corruption’ in 2014. When watching this Turkish coming-of-age drama one gets the feeling that it is an artistic rebellion against these misogynistic views. Mustang begins like so many Americanised coming-of-age dramas, on the last day of school. Six sisters, ages ranging from early to late teens, celebrate their freedom by diving into the ocean (fully clothed) with boys of similar age.

This innocent expression of budding sexuality is witnessed by a busy-body and soon becomes a scandal in the small Turkish village. The act sees the sisters held prisoner in their own home. An allegory for female sexual oppression in modern-day Turkey is readily apparent. The more the sisters rebel the more extreme the exclusion from society by their Grandmother (Koldas) and Uncle (Pekcan) becomes. Their vibrancy is slowly chipped away. Stripped of their individuality they are made to wear plain ‘shit coloured’ clothes.

Mustang points at the generation gap between the female villagers. The young, wild and free is juxtaposed with middle-aged women conditioned by a misogynist society. The film is seen very much through the eyes of the youngest sister Lale (Sensoy). She is the most rebellious. Her innocence and ungovernable nature sets her free from conservative views. However, she slowly sees her older sisters get swallowed up by their culture and the system of arranged marriages. We witness her trying to get her head around all of it, which makes the action even more poignant.

There is a brilliant sequence of liberation when the sisters escape to Istanbul to watch a soccer game in an all-female crowd. Men have been banned from the stadium on account of hooliganism. The sequence of joy and excitement is reminiscent of Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006) about female oppression in modern day Iran. Offside, like all of Panahi’s films is banned in Iran. Mustang is edited by Panahi. The sister’s night-out comes at a price as their home quickly transforms into something more resembling a prison.

This has all the hallmarks of a passion project for first time director Erguven. Cinematographers Rami Agami and Mahmound Kalari lovingly shoot the sisters, evoking a heart-warming togetherness. Their bodies are usually basking in the Turkish sunlight, angels and nymphets. Comparisons can be made with Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), both aesthetically and thematically. Coppola framed her sisters in the same way. The Virgin Suicides was a condemnation of conservative views and the repression of young women in society. Like The Virgin Suicides, Mustang captures the farce of male hysteria surrounding female sexual awakening.

Mustang is far from perfect. The dialogue in the film can be heavy-handed where subtly should be key. Erguven at times resorts to trying to spoon feed us. The film’s antagonists could also be developed to create a further sense of realism surrounding the story.

However, Mustang is thematically and politically relevant. World cinema has an exciting new female voice.

 

Mustang screened on 19th February 2016 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 18 -28 February) 

 

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Review: Southpaw

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DIR: Antoine Fuqua • WRI: Kurt Sutter • PRO: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Antoine Fuqua, David Ranes, Alan Riche, Peter Riche, Ning Ye • DOP: Mauro Fiore • ED: Derek R. Hill • MUS: James Horner • DES: James D. Bissell • CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, Oona Laurence, Rita Ora

 

Antoine Fuqua’s recent entry into the boxing canon Southpaw is visceral yet manipulative. It is a generic rags-to-riches story which includes a little girl (Laurence) whose sole purpose in the narrative is to try her best to make the audience weep. The film is steeped in melodrama.

Southpaw originated as vehicle for rapper Eminem who instead just provides the soundtrack. The lead role of Billy Hope (that’s no joke) was taken on by Jake Gyllenhaal. This proves a blessing for the film. Gyllenhaal’s performance as Billy Hope seems like Jake La Motta light. However, he adds a bumbling pathos to an innately clichéd character with an already well-worn path to follow down the film’s over-familiar plot.

Not only does Gyllenhaal borrow from Robert De Niro’s classic performance, Southpaw and its director borrows from almost every boxing film ever made, most glaringly from Raging Bull (1980). Fuqua lifts shots from a film which was so uniquely conceived 35 years previously. Genre tropes are hard to avoid in this kind of film but Southpaw indulges in them without a glimmer of self-consciousness.

Some fine acting by Gyllenhaal, McAdams as his wife and Forest Whitaker as his coach make this film watchable, but such is Fuqua’s appetite for the mundane, none of them can flourish. Gyllenhaal’s transformation is something to behold. The male body is something that has recently come to the forefront of Irish culture as the vast majority gaze toward the form of Conor McGregor in sexualised awe and appreciation. Gyllenhaal’s transformation from night crawler to buff brawler is commendable and raises more comparisons with De Niro’s ‘method’ acting in Raging Bull.

Fuqua not only sexualises his lead but also his counterpart McAdams. He does so for the sake of it. McAdams’ performance already oozes sexual confidence and social awareness. She is the brains of the operation. Fuqua ruins the elegance of her performance by exploiting her with his camera, like she is starring in a 50 Cent or Eminem music video. It is a misguided attempt at gender politics, another staple of the boxing genre.

Leger Grindon posits in his seminal essay Body and Soul: The Structure of the Boxing Genre ‘The boxer’s career unfolds in an exclusively male world which retards the fighter’s emotional development and intensifies his difference from women’. He goes on to say ‘In the romance, the female protagonist is associated with mainstream culture and the family’. All Billy knows is how to box. The distance from women is not as intense because of his relationship with his wife and daughter. However, it is them that teach him everything else he needs to know about life. McAdam’s character repeats the importance of home and family like it is a mantra, her philosophies are echoed by her daughter towards the end of the narrative.

 Grindon continues ‘Whereas the society of the boxer is defined not simply as male, but also as undeveloped and apart’. Billy Hope cannot conform to the rules of society. It is a tragic flaw for him, but especially for those closest to him. He constantly questions societal boundaries, lashing out in anger if he cannot transcend him, flipping tables if he cannot find the words he needs to express his feelings.

Causal filmgoers will probably enjoy this film. However, there are much better examples of this genre. Anyone who has seen the best ones will not enjoy such a clichéd affair. What must be stressed is do not, under any circumstances, watch the trailer for this film. It gives away too much plot points.

Tom Crowley

 

15A (See IFCO for details)
123 minutes

Southpaw is released 31st July 2015

 

 

 

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