Review: The Commune

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DIR: Thomas Vinterberg • WRI: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg • PRO: Sisse Graum Jørgensen, Morten Kaufmann • DOP: Jesper Tøffner • ED: Janus Billeskov Jansen, Anne Østerud • MUS: Fons Merkies • DES: Niels Sejer • CAST: Ulrich Thomsen, Fares Fares, Trine Dyrholm

Thomas Vinterberg has come a long way since Festen – the Dogme 95 manifesto has been fed into the shredder and the handheld cameras have been packed away. But his urge to prod the shaky foundations of liberal society remains, and The Commune is another delve into the dreams, drives and fears that lurk beneath middle-class life.

It’s the mid-seventies. Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), a professor of ‘rational architecture’, inherits his father’s large Copenhagen house. Delighted by its value, and thinking it too big for his current family of three, he plans to sell. But his newsreader wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) has other ideas – bored with the repetitions of conventional middle age, she sees an opportunity to fulfil her dream of a shared, stimulating living space. Erik’s misgivings are put aside: the commune is born and swiftly populated by a spectrum of bohemian friends and, somewhat inexplicably, a penniless immigrant who keeps bursting into tears.

Some of what follows is predictable enough, as idealistic purity is gradually muddied by complex feelings and repressed resentment. But this is not the standard morality tale you might expect – the conflict that develops is almost entirely focussed on Erik, Anna and their daughter, while the commune itself – so often portrayed as the clichéd cause of selfish excess – is actually a fairly stable backdrop to their troubles.

The Commune is lighter than much of Vinterberg’s previous work. There’s a mildly satirical, farcical feel to much of the action – partly because this particular commune is spectacularly middle class, and a far cry from the hedonistic images usually associated with such places. Yes, the talk is open and the alcohol flows, but this is no High Rise-style anarchy. Instead, we’re not too far from a typical house share, with kitchen meetings about cooking rotas and arguments over who drank all the beer.

Unfortunately, this tone creates a problem. The Commune is clearly a film that seeks to link ’70s political struggles with the hopes and fears of his main characters, but the end result is a little muddled. While there’s a gentle mocking of the characters’ nonconformist spirit, the action often veers into moments of real tenderness and raw emotion as Erik and Anna’s marriage crumbles. Meanwhile, the ideological tensions of the time – militant unions, the horrors of south east Asia – are a constant presence around the edges of the story. These very different ingredients never quite blend into a satisfying whole, and there’s a nagging sense that The Commune is trying to do too much at once.

Visually, the film also feels slightly out of kilter with some of its themes. There’s a softness to the ’70s setting – a warm palette that disregards the usual grim, gritty footage of the era. Although not a problem in itself, this cosy aesthetic sometimes jars with the darker elements of the plot: loss of childhood innocence, the terror of aging, the post-hippie comedown.

These shortcomings are a shame, because the film contains more than a few moments of cinematic excellence – Vinterberg’s habit of allowing the camera to linger on a face for those extra few seconds brings out the best in his actors, and Trine Dyrholm gives an especially touching performance as she stares down the barrel of emotional collapse.

Interesting, occasionally poignant and perfectly watchable, The Commune is well-paced, well-written and well-made – but it is far from Vinterberg’s best. And while there’s no disgrace in failing to reach the heights of Festen or The Hunt, he will inevitably be judged by his own high standards. On this occasion he falls just short.

Gareth Thornton

111 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

The Commune is released 29th July 2016

The Commune – Official Website

 

 

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Review: Kill Your Friends

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DIR: Owen Harris • WRI: John Niven • PRO: Gregor Cameron • ED: Bill Smedley • DOP: Gustav Danielsson • DES: Charlotte Pearson • MUS: Junkie XL • CAST: Nicholas Hoult, Ed Skrein, James Corden

With perspective comes clarity, and history is beginning to pass judgement on the 1990s. For all its Celtic Tigers and post-Soviet strut, the last years of the second millennium are beginning to look strangely hollow, strangely drab – the fag end of an exhausted century – and those of us who grew up in England during that time have to admit that, for the most part, it was a bit crap. While our parents were nourished by the optimism of the ’60s or the passionate politics of the’ 70s, we were served up reheated banality, commodified rebellion and the vacant leer of abandoned ideals – Oasis, The Spice Girls, New Labour.

Kill Your Friends is set in the blackened heart of this cultural wasteland – specifically the 1997 music industry. Adapted from his own novel by John Niven, the action revolves around Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult), a record label scout with a weakness for cocaine, misogyny and murder. As Britpop rules the waves, Steven pursues his sole aim: to vanquish his professional competitors and become head of the company’s A&R department. A proud psychopath, success (preferably at the expense of others) is the meaning of Steven’s life and he disdains anyone who doesn’t share the same philosophy. Luckily for Steven pretty much everyone in Kill Your Friends does appear to share the same philosophy and the film presents a year in the life of this dog-eat-dog corporate music hell.

The cynicism is relentless and often viciously funny. Niven’s real life experience as an A&R man added a genuine venom to his novel, and many of his most caustic putdowns have made it into the script. Everybody’s in it for themselves and nobody escapes contempt: talentless pop wannabes, earnest indie vegans, managers, journalists, and of course that special blob of ignorance known as ‘the public’. It’s an endurance test of misanthropy, but the script zings with bitterness and there’s something almost admirable in the way the film extinguishes any spark of empathy, humanity or hope.

Kill Your Friends will inevitably be compared to American Psycho, and there are also shades of Trainspotting and Fight Club. Unfortunately those comparisons don’t do the film any favours. All three rise above this offering because they more effectively explore the dark neuroses that lie behind each era’s shiny happy face. While Patrick Bateman’s nihilism can be seen as a perverse rebellion against amoral ’80s materialism, it’s hard to see Steven Stelfox as representing anything other than squalid, vitriolic nastiness.

The result is a shortage of satirical spice. The film starts and ends with images of a grinning Tony Blair – billboards hanging ominously on the edge of shot – but it’s a stretch to view Kill Your Friends as any kind of attack on ’90s superficiality or the betrayals of Blairism. Instead, director Owen Harris seems happy to limit the film’s bile to its primary subject – the malignant narcissism of the pop music world. Perhaps this is a product of Niven’s script, which doesn’t stray too far from the source novel, but a more interesting approach to its fin de siècle setting would’ve been nice. Stock footage and ’90s anthems are all well and good, but the film misses the opportunity to join a few cultural dots.

Having said that, Kill Your Friends is sharp, entertaining and watchable. Thirty-somethings will bask in the soundtrack and musical references, and the film is fun for a while. In the end though, a bit like Britpop itself, everything becomes slightly repetitive, with a nagging lack of originality and depth.

Gareth Thornton

18
103 minutes (See IFCO for details)

Kill Your Friends is released 6th November 2015

 

 

 

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Review: Wolfpack

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DIR: Crystal Moselle • WRI: John Green • PRO: Hunter Gray, Alex Orlovsky, Izabella Tzenkova • DOP: David Lanzenberg • ED: Enat Sidi • MUS: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans, Aska Matsumiya • CAST: Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo

 

It was a chance encounter. Filmmaker Crystal Moselle is out and about in Manhattan and sees a pack of wannabe Reservoir Dogs lurching down First Avenue. Zany eccentrics may be plentiful in New York, but something about this group of young men – awkward yet graceful, suited, booted, Ray-Ban sunglasses and long dark hair – grabs her attention. Conversation ensues, a friendship begins, and ultimately The Wolfpack is born.

Because it turns out these particular Tarantino fans – six brothers aged 16 to 23 – have a darkly unique backstory. Victims of their Peruvian father’s paranoia about New York’s contaminating evils, the boys and their sister spent virtually their entire childhood locked in a cramped Lower East Side apartment. For fifteen years the Angulo children were home-schooled by their mother and allowed only brief, supervised ventures into the outside world. Oddly, for a man determined to protect his kids from America’s debauchery, the father had no problem at all with his children watching (and meticulously re-enacting) thousands of films, including some of the most violent Hollywood productions. Denied access to ‘reality’, the Angulo children’s knowledge of it came from movies like Pulp Fiction, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Now if all that sounds a bit sinister, it’s because it is – the children were effectively unknowing participants in a dystopian psycho-social experiment, and The Wolfpack allows us to examine the results.

A curious case. And it’s a film that ends up prompting a curious question: how does a documentary about enforced child captivity end up being so heartwarming? Part of the answer lies with the stars of the show. Despite their airless upbringing, the siblings are bafflingly well-adjusted – reflective, articulate, with warm smiles and knowing looks, they manage to be both self-aware and endearingly naïve. But the film’s sweetish flavour is largely down to its timing, capturing as it does the brothers’ transition from nervous trepidation to wide-eyed wonder as they begin to explore the world for the first time. We learn retrospectively about the act of defiance that first undermined their father’s authority, but it’s clear that at the time of filming their integration into society is still very much a work in progress.

The Wolfpack’s uplifting glow also comes from its inversion of a common cinematic theme. Think of those Lynchian masterpieces (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive), or recent documentaries such as The Act of Killing and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell – explorations of our ability to wilfully retreat from a traumatic reality into fantasy, film and fiction. The Angulo kids are joyously heading in the opposite direction – emerging from their movie-inspired imaginations into a reality brimming with hope, excitement and possibility. It’s impossible not to root for them, and Moselle nicely captures the vulnerable innocence of it all.

But from a purely artistic perspective, the peculiarity of the story prevents The Wolfpack from taking its place amongst the truly great documentaries. Studies of real-life outsiders are most memorable and most affecting when we get the unsettling feeling that their subjects, for all their supposed weirdness, are perhaps not so different from ourselves – their stories and behaviour rooted in emotions, anxieties and insecurities that we all know. The Angulo children are instead simply the products of an extraordinary childhood, and while seeing them break out of their parental cage is interesting and heartening, the film was always going to struggle to transcend its specifics and tap into something more universal. So in the end we are left with a well-made curiosity – fascinating in its own way, but unlikely to live too long in the memory.

Gareth Thornton


15A (See IFCO for details)
89 minutes

The Wolfpack is released 21st August 2015

The Wolfpack– Official Website

 

 

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Review: Precinct Seven Five

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DIR/WRI: Tiller Russell • PRO: Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Sheldon Yellen • DOP: Igor Martinovic • ED: Chad Beck, James Carroll • MUS: Amy Marie Beauchamp, Jose Cancela CAST: Michael Dowd, Ken Eurell, Walter Yurkiw

 

There is something strangely alluring about the New York of the ’70s and ’80s, and much of that is down to cinema. The city was not just an instantly-recognisable backdrop for countless films – it was more like a character itself, an ominous presence that seeped into the very fabric of movies like The French Connection, Death Wish and Taxi Driver. For those of us growing up thousands of miles away it also seeped into our imagination, and we couldn’t help but be enthralled by this steaming cauldron of grime, graffiti and incredibly loud people.

Of course it’s easy to be sentimental about a place when you never actually had to live there. In reality, much of the Big Apple was genuinely anarchic at this time, gripped by a crack and crime epidemic that claimed thousands of lives and made vast chunks of the city perilously unsafe. A Most Violent Year recently examined the mayhem of the era, and now Tiller Russell’s Precinct Seven Five throws a non-fictional spotlight on the police venality that helped perpetuate that mayhem.

The film focuses on the infamous story of Michael Dowd, a corrupt NYPD officer who spent most of the decade working within ‘The Seven Five’ – a tough part of Brooklyn notorious for its murder rate and drug gangs. Dowd tells how he progressed from low-level bribery (200 dollars for a ‘lobster lunch’ in order to tear up a traffic ticket) to burglary, racketeering, and protecting ruthless high-level criminals. It’s a staggering slide into moral oblivion, and while tales of police corruption may not exactly shock us to the core these days, the scale, severity and span of Dowd’s crimes will surely astound even the most hardened cynic.

Russell’s achievement in getting most of the main players to participate in the film gives him some excellent raw material, and he expertly weaves these disparate voices – gang bosses, politicians, good cops, bad cops – into a coherent, compelling narrative. The testimonies are spliced with footage from the time (including Dowd’s 1993 grilling by an anti-corruption commission), police documents and recordings, as well as a slightly-unhealthy dose of stock New York imagery. Ominous music underpins much of the film, and the whole thing rattles along like a gangster movie – the characters often sounding as if they were speaking straight from a Scorsese script, with all the recalled-hedonism, hubris and betrayal such stories entail.

Those hoping for a socio-political exploration of police corruption may be disappointed. The poverty-blasted, decaying streets of East New York are evoked early in the film, but only really to set the scene, and the ordinary victims of this unspoken complicity between criminals and cops are almost entirely absent. Likewise, there are hints of an interesting subtext in the tension between the ‘establishment’ line (Dowd is labelled ‘a once-in-a-generation corrupt cop’) and the testimony of the officers themselves, who talk about a more institutionalised, pervasive rule-breaking within the NYPD. But again, the idea of Dowd as a symptom rather than an aberration is only briefly touched upon, and you feel Russell has deliberately skimped on intellectual depth in order to prioritise the drama of the story. And you could hardly blame him, because it’s quite a story.

Gareth Thornton

12A (See IFCO for details)
105 minutes

Precinct Seven Five is released 14th August 2015

Precinct Seven Five – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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Short Film Report: ‘Aonrú’

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Gareth Thornton dropped along to the Dublin premiere of Dominic de Vere’s short film Aonru – an exploration of Cape Clear Island, West Cork and the extinction of its indigenous fishing industry.

 

On Saturday, 27th June 2015, the IFI hosted the Dublin premiere of Dominic de Vere’s short film Aonrú – a wistful ode to the West Cork island of Cape Clear. The film explores the plight of the island’s inhabitants – a people literally on the margins of Ireland – as they face the demise of the fishing industry that sustained them and the erosion of their community.

The  filmmaker was joined at the premiere by the film’s producer Jason Gaffney – who was quick to credit Dominic with creating the beautiful visual texture of the film, which often slips out of its documentary clothing and reaches towards a more lyrical, impressionistic approach to its subject.

Speaking after the screening, Dominic told the audience, “I didn’t really want the film to become too like a TV documentary, too spoon-fed.” The result is a testament to the filmmaker’s style that skilfully brings out the sad, isolated beauty of the setting.

Jason Gaffney took the opportunity to thank those who had helped finance Aonrú via the ‘Fund it’ website, and also spoke of his desire to make the film as a means of giving a voice to some of those on the edge of society. “It’s so sad to see what has happened to the fishing industry on the island, and this was an opportunity to tell the story of the islanders, to have their voice heard and to let them have their say. Hopefully platforms like this will give them the opportunity to be heard more often.”

Shot over five days, Aonrú hears testimony from a number of sea-hardened fishermen, and the filmmakers spoke of their struggles with seasickness while filming in the Atlantic. “I was just throwing up,” said Dominic. “I would throw up while holding the camera, then feel OK, point the camera, hope for the best, and then throw up again.” Fortunately that suffering was not in vain, and Aonrú is sure to gather more critical acclaim as it continues on the festival circuit.

 

Directed by Dominic de Vere, produced by Jason Gaffney with sound design by Danny Crowley (Hunger, Control), Aonrú is co-funded by Bord Iascaigh Mhara and has been developed alongside Cork Screen Commission.

 

 

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