Review of Irish Film @ Galway Film Fleadh 2019: Irish Talent: New Shorts 3, Fiction

Stephen Burke checks in on Galway’s programme of live action shorts which explores the parallel problems of escapism from a variety of settings: judgement, troubled pasts and unhappy status quos. 

It’s a great credit to the Fleadh that the range of shorts on offer is so incredibly diverse. Half of the shorts in this line-up were directorial debuts and all were being screened for the first time. Aside from a brief synopsis, there’s very little information to be found on such films before seeing them. That’s what makes screenings at the Fleadh so exciting though. You’re not quite sure what you’re about to see. This is refreshing in an age where marketing is quite often so over the top to the point where it’s not a rarity for a trailer to spoil the entire plot of a movie. 

Before the screening, the short film co-ordinator, Eibh Collins, emphasized that some of the films were quite heavy. She certainly wasn’t just saying this for effect. The first three shorts on show featured some of the darkest themes you’re likely to see in any film programme outside of a Lars Von Trier retrospective. Of course, when tackled properly the darkest of themes can make for the most interesting pieces of cinema and such was the case here with the two strongest films coming from this first half.

Limbo

Darkness is firmly established in the first scene of this debut film from 21-year old Matthew McGuigan when we’re presented with the image of a man walking across an abandoned landscape. This is cleverly juxtaposed alongside scenes of the central character Brendan interacting with his elderly mother Eilis in her nursing-home room. You just know that there will be some connection between the two images, but what is it? This gives the audience something to think about from the beginning.

Eilis’ death is clearly imminent. She is as aware of this as anyone and so finally feels comfortable enough to reveal a long-held secret to Brendan… A fellow resident of the nursing home overhears and insists that some man on a particular island will be able to solve “the mystery” for them. Brendan is skeptical, feeling the resident’s suggestion is all a bit fairytale like. The reality of what’s happening with his mother though is far from a fairytale of course and wanting to honour her wishes, Brendan agrees to follow up the source.

The acting in this film is strong and the relationship between Brendan and his mother is completely believable with top-notch performances coming from Patrick O’Kane and Roma Tomelty. For such a harrowing subject matter the script also manages to inject some humour without unbalancing the overall sombre tone. Despite its short running time, Limbo boasts more character development than it perhaps has any right to. The pacing is also spot on with the film taking its time to reach what seems like an inevitable conclusion. However, in not rushing things, the emotional impact of this conclusion is greater when it does arrive with audience members likely to be all the more devastated when their suspicions prove to be founded. This is a very impressive debut from Matthew McGuigan with much credit also going to his cinematographer Mark Garrett for capturing the required mood and tone. 


Run

Caroline Grace Cassidy and Róisín Kearney have each written and directed several short films before but Run is their first collaboration. It was created following the introduction of a new legal framework on domestic abuse, to include coercive control in Ireland. 

Right from the off it’s clear that the lead character, Sarah is married to a pig of a man. Physical violence isn’t the issue here however. The point of the film is, of course, rather to show how a spouse can wield emotional control over a partner. In Run Sarah’s husband is so much of a pig though that you initially wonder how she hasn’t left him a long time ago. What’s interesting is that in a strange way, as the film progresses, the viewer does become acclimated and accustomed to the husband’s boorish behaviour, revealing just how easily people can end up trapped in such toxic relationships.


Void

Ger Duffy’s Void is a visceral experience boasting a tour-de-force performance from Laurence O’ Fuarain. At the outset, the audience is presented with some interesting images, all of them begging a similar question – “Where the hell are we?” Are we in the future? Is it the present world?’ One thing is clear. The nameless character onscreen is a man who is being tortured by a whole range of agonizing yet mostly indecipherable thoughts. 

The man sets off into the night in search of something. It might be judgment. It might be an escape from the demons within. If it’s the latter they soon confront him instead. Before long, he arrives outside a nightclub. After making an aggressive but unsuccessful attempt to gain admission, he manages to sneak inside. Once in, he engages in full-on debauchery, including pill popping and having sex in a bathroom cubicle. All the while the mental anguish continues. 

The interesting thing is that apart from O’ Fuarain nobody else actually appears on screen throughout. Instead of using supporting actors, Duffy employs an extremely imaginative narrative technique to evoke the memories of the character. He uses lighting and audio effects in particular to tell the story. In other words, while we see the man dancing or fighting or going through the motions of interacting with people, these other people are never onscreen. We hear them but don’t see them. Sound has long been considered to perhaps be the most undervalued aspect of filmmaking and it is used here to brilliant effect. Much credit must go to sound mixer Andrew Fenton and sound editor Damian Chennell.

From a visual point of view, the nightclub itself is actually an empty house with strobe lighting and similar effects portraying otherwise. Duffy’s methods work very well in unsettling viewers and bringing them into the seedy world that O Fuarain’s character is desperately navigating. The consideration of film being a form of voyeurism comes to mind as the audience is watching some very personal and intimate memories and as such they are forced to not only observe the character’s actions but also to be somewhat complicit in them. It feels like the definition of a bad trip but more importantly it’s a very powerful piece of cinema.

As the sole performer O’Fuarain is quite simply terrific. He possesses a very strong screen presence and at times in this film he physically resembles a feral Paul Galvin. His character is a ticking time bomb detonating at regular intervals before resetting to soon do the same again. O’Fuarain is a skilled enough actor though to wrench empathy from his audience. The character is explosive but in his hands and in Duffy’s there is always the sense that an unfortunately misguided individual lays beneath all the rage. This is why a late hint at redemption doesn’t feel like it’s stretching the bounds of credibility. O’Fuarain’s performance in Void is far removed from his equally impressive leading turn in Alan Mulligan’s The Limit Of, which was released in cinemas this past April. In the latter film his character may have been burning up on the inside but he constantly projected an outward appearance of stoic calm. The fact O’ Fuarain can portray both roles so convincingly marks him down as a talent to watch. The same can be said for Duffy. Void is a great follow-up to his very impressive debut short film Little Bear (which he co-directed with Daire Glynn) and he is now 2 for 2.


Halo

Halo is the directorial debut from Michael-David McKernan, who also plays the lead role of taxi driver Dara in this 16-minute one-take film. Ever since the 1970s when Travis Bickle first got behind the wheel in Taxi Driver, onscreen drivers of this ilk have usually fallen into one of two categories – the comical chatterbox or the lonely crusader. Dara belongs to the latter category though at the beginning of Halo, he doesn’t seem to be on any particular mission.

When we first meet him, Dara seems to be having a fairly standard night on the road, dealing with a fairly obnoxious couple of passengers before picking up a female customer (Toni O’Rourke). While driving her to her boyfriend’s house, he tries and somewhat succeeds in striking up a conversation. What happens next affects them both. Dara is clearly a lonely guy and McKernan’s portrayal is good, veering between awkwardness and sincerity. He brings a charming likeability to Dara. His acting is restrained which is impressive considering McKernan is directing himself. 

The nighttime setting of Halo creates a suitably dark and detached mood, the latter matching the likely mindset of the lead character. McKernan must be commended for his creativity and ingenuity in using some royalty free Beethoven music too, which works in terms of plot as well as serving the atmosphere. The one-take style actually suits this type of story quite well and there isn’t really any occasion where it feels unnecessary. Burschi Wojnar’s cinematography is un-showy and he keeps a largely steady hand throughout.

One issue though is that as Halo moves on, the direction that the story is heading begins to feel predictable. As such, a slight left turn at the end is more than welcome. While not perfect, this is a solid first effort from Michael-David McKernan and it will be interesting to see what he does next, both as an actor and as a director.


Starry Night

Starry Night is a graduate film from students of the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dun Laoghaire with Emma Smith directing from a script by Rachel Moloney. The first scene opens on an estate in Dublin city as Cara (played by Hazel Clifford) leaves her house and gets into a taxi with her best friend Jeanie. A voiceover narration from Cara explains that she’s finally leaving the place she grew up in, something she never felt she’d have an opportunity to do. Up to this point she’s had to put her own future on hold to take care of her young sisters.

The film then flashes back, showing the events leading up to this moment juxtaposing scenes from the recent past alongside scenes from this day of departure for Cara. Starry Night follows Cara’s attempts to get somebody to take care of the children for her, under the false pretense that she’ll be collecting them again later that night. In reality she is about to abandon the girls to pursue her own dreams. Throughout the piece, titles are repeatedly superimposed on screen displaying how long it is before Cara and Jeanie’s flight leaves. The use of these titles does get a bit tiresome after a while. 

While the stakes are unquestionably high for Cara, there’s just not as much tension in the film as there could be. Following her great performance as Sharon Curley in the stage version of the Snapper last year, Hazel Clifford gives another likeable turn and she has a bright future ahead.  At the end of the film, Cara faces a huge decision but there’s never really any doubt which way she will go with it and it all becomes a bit obvious. It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that the voiceover is overdone but Clifford is a good enough actor that perhaps the film didn’t need it. It’s likely that a greater emotional effect would have resulted if the audience weren’t told Cara’s feelings at certain points but were just allowed to concentrate on the performance instead. 

The production design is worth praise and the cinematography is strong. Without meaning to be condescending the film does look and feel like a professional production, which is not always the case with student pieces. The use of a single location for the majority also brings across a feeling of claustrophobia, which effectively mirrors Cara’s constricted existence. 


The Blizzards – Behind the Music

Who Would Want To Be In A Guitar Band? This is the question that is playfully explored in Jeff Doyle’s lighthearted mockumentary about Irish band The Blizzards. It’s a relevant enough question too in this modern world where guitar-based music seems to be drifting further and further from the mainstream scene. 

The plot of the film consists of The Blizzards attempting to make a comeback and being led in their quest to do so by hapless manager Duncan Browne. In an attempt to get with the times they actually record a non-guitar inspired song called “Who Would Want To Be In A Guitar Band?” (“your music is just too guitary” moans Browne at one stage), which is met with widespread derision. This spells catastrophe for Browne and for the band members, with each of them dealing with the fallout in their own individual way.

Johnny Elliot gives a good performance as Browne. The band is also game for proceedings too and they do well at sending both themselves and the music industry itself up. This kind of film has been done many times before though and although humorous, Behind The Music is just not laugh-out-loud enough to compensate for the lack of originality. Mockumentaries have burned themselves out over the past decade or so and the humour in such films needs to constantly be razor-sharp if they are to stand a chance at being noticed from amongst the pack.

There is a constant stream of celebrity cameos throughout with Mattress Mick and John Connors probably being the most memorable. These guest appearances are fun at first but soon begin to grate when hardly a minute passes by without one occurring (though kudos to Doyle for getting Stormy Daniels to appear in his film!).

Aside from fans of The Blizzards, it’s hard to know who the film is aimed at. Ironically a serious documentary about the same subject matter may have broader appeal. There are plenty of music fans out there that would find the notion of the guitar as an instrument of the past to be a very unappetizing one indeed. It would be interesting to see just how a thirty-something band like the Blizzards manage to navigate this current world of sanitized pop. At one point in the film Louis Walsh shows up to give lead singer Bressie a pep talk. Aiming to convince him that there is still a place for guitar in the music business, Walsh stresses that: “Ed Sheeran plays guitar”. Regardless of whether that line is intentional or not, it might just be the funniest joke in the entire film.

 

 

The Irish Talent: New Shorts 1: Documentary Irish Talent: New Shorts 3, Fiction programme screened 11th July as part of the 2019 Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July)

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