Irish Film Review: ‘Calm with Horses’ @ Toronto International Film Festival 2019 

 

Aoife O’Neill was at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019 and sent us on this review of Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses.

 

One of a few Irish films that closed Toronto International Film Festival this year is that of Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses; a film that was adapted by Joe Murtagh from Colin Barrett’s acclaimed collection of short stories. Calm with Horses premiered at the festival alongside an Irish Canadian co-production starring Dakota Fanning called Sweetness in the Belly, (also a book adaptation from Camilla Gibb’s book of the same name), as well as Neasa Hardiman’s film Sea Fever. It is clear that Ireland was definitely represented on the big screen in Toronto this year.

Calm with Horses tells the story of Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong, an ex-boxer, who has been adopted into the deadly Devers family. Used as a muscle man, particularly by Daimhin Devers (Barry Keoghan), he is treated like a lap dog doing the violent bidding for the family and he is also kept on a very short leash. At the centre of the film is the struggle of Arm and where his loyalty lies. Is he loyal to the adopted family that ‘protects’ him or to his actual family that he must protect? At first, the audience is led to believe that Arm should be hated and is a violent thug at heart, but then, as the story unfolds, we see the person behind the brutally-violent actions.

The catalyst of this thriller-crime drama is when Arm must choose to either kill a man for the Devers or provide money for the education of his five year-old autistic son, Jack. The viewer is thrown into the action of the film almost immediately, only discovering the motives behind the actions of the characters as the story reveals itself. The brutality and unyielding wrath of the Dever family illustrates clearly, the fact, that they will stop at nothing to maintain their power in the community, even at the expense of Arm.

Violent from the get go, this film is not for the faint-hearted. After seeing this film with a Canadian audience, it was almost amusing to hear the loud gasps and shock from audience members at the most violent scenes. Not that the violence is amusing but, Canadian audiences, I have found, are very vocal when watching films in the cinema.

With a similar vibe of RTÉ’s Love/Hate, Irish viewers, I think, will enjoy this thriller. Set in  rural Ireland, Calm with Horses puts a spin on the gangland drama usually set in Irish cities. Trained eyes may recognise some of the backdrop of the Irish countryside throughout the drama (filmed in both Galway and Clare).

The slow pace of the film reflects the lifestyle of the characters and the community they inhabit; their simple survival for money and opportunity while wanting a better life. The depiction of rural Irish life is true to form, where the community knows or think they know everything about you. The isolation and judgement one feels is shown particularly well as it affects the character of Ursula, in her desire to escape the judgemental town they live in. Ursula is condemned by the community as they accuse her of giving her son Jack his medical condition.

Despite the brutal violence in the film, the story is juxtaposed with moments of calm as the title suggests. As Arm tries to bond with his son, Jack, it is clear that he has not grasped the concept of Jack’s medical condition and diagnosis, unlike Jack’s mother, Ursula. Played by Niamh Algar, Ursula provides the voice of reason to Arm, trying to release the grasp the Dever family have over him.

Headed by a heavy Irish cast including outstanding performances from Barry Keoghan and Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders), as well as American born actor Cosmo Javis (Lady Macbeth) taking the lead role of Arm in the film. Calm with Horses is from the DMC Film production company. The production company, founded by Michael Fassbender and Conor McCaughan, and producer Daniel Emmerson developed the project with Film4 as Nick Rowland’s feature directorial debut.

Most importantly, it was nice to have the opportunity to watch an Irish film in Toronto on the big screen being so far from home. After supporting many different world cinemas throughout the festival, such as Latin America, Spain, France, Japan, India and Africa to name but a few, it was fantastic to get to experience this film with a very packed Canadian audience excited to see Ireland represented on screen.

 

Calm with Horses had its world premiere 8th September 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

‎The Toronto International Film Festival 2019 took place 5–15 September 2019.

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Irish Film Review: Dark Lies the Island

DIR: Ian Fitzgibbon • WRI: Kevin Barry • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: Stephen O’Connell • DES: Jeff Sherriff • PRO: Michael Garland • MUS: Stephen Rennicks • CAST: Peter Coonan, Moe Dunford, Charlie Murphy, Pat Shortt, Jana Moheiden

Dark Lies the Island is about a doomed love-rectangle in a small Irish town. Daddy Mannion (Pat Shortt) has the run of the place in Dromord. Every other business in town is a Mannion enterprise. But as his two sons (Moe Dunford and Peter Coonan) become jealous of his money and young wife Sara (Charlie Murphy), can the Mannions escape with their dignity intact? Inspired by characters from Kevin Barry’s short-story collection by the same name, Dark Lies the Island is a film about desperation and loneliness in a town that has a hold over all the characters.

Daddy Mannion may be the success of the town, but his personal life leaves much to be desired. His wife Sara, twenty years his junior, is bored sick at home with an atypical teenage daughter, played brilliantly by Jana Moheiden. Sara will do anything to punish Daddy for keeping her trapped in Dromord. To make matters worse, Daddy has two grown sons from his first marriage: failed businessman, Martin (Moe Dunford) and a recluse who runs shady businesses from his shack in the woods, Doggie (Peter Coonan). 

Most of the characters are desperate to get out of Dromord but do nothing to leave. Circumstances like debt, marriage, family business or agoraphobia keep people there, drive people to madness, and send them to the bottom of the lake. The irony of Doggie’s situation is highlighted when he says “I can leave whenever I want” but hasn’t set foot outside his shack in years. The feeling of being trapped is emphasised by cinematographer Cathal Watters, as he frames the characters in lots of close-ups, contrasting the expansive scenery outside. 

Something magical hangs over the film, as though Dromord has abstained from the rules of reality. The whole 90-minutes you’re waiting for the worst to happen to the Mannions, but you feel like absolutely anything could happen. The score by Stephen Rennicks (Room, Frank) enhances the mood – dark and playful at the same time, balancing light and dark.

I really wanted to like it more than I did. I’m a big Kevin Barry fan, so I was interested in seeing how Fitzgibbon would manage it. Barry has such a distinctive style that sadly didn’t translate to the screen. The magic of Kevin Barry is he puts you in someone’s head and makes you believe you’re there. But in the film, the focus shifts between so many different characters that it feels like a diluted version of his work. Barry perfectly balances humour and darkness in his short stories, and I’m not sure anyone can do him justice. 

With solid performances and gorgeous cinematography, it’s a shame the film doesn’t live up to the book. Barry’s tone is a hard one to pin down so I think audiences might have a hard time knowing how to feel. 

Aoife O’Ceallachain

87′ 

Dark Lies the Island  is released 18th October 2019

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Irish Film Review: Land Without God

DIR: Gerard Mannix Flynn, Maedhbh McMahon, Lotta Petronella • WRI/PRO: Gerard Mannix Flynn • DOP/ED: Lotta Petronella 

This documentary style film follows Gerard Mannix Flynn and his family’s traumatic experience within multiple institutions run by state and church in Ireland. 

The film gives light to the aftermath of violence many people have felt due to the power of church officials and how they ran certain institutions with an iron fist while preaching the word of god. Gerard revisits some of the institutions he was incarcerated within while breaking this up with interviews with his family and their experiences within the same or similar places. 

The story within aims to hit hard and it does deliver  as many people can relate to the story being told whether through themselves or their own family members. The fear within Gerard’s family members to this day is evident as they speak out and it is visible that their words are chosen with careful consideration with the aim of being able to tell what happened but also fear of retaliation even in modern-day Ireland. 

The only thing that took me away from the events being portrayed was the way in which the interviews were broken up. Gerard walking around the old institutions brought home the actual story being told but the break-up of the interviews with him in a room with only a chalkboard seemed unnecessary and brought me back to reality and not immersed in the events being told to me. The lack of narration did the same thing, but I have less quarrel with this while Gerard walked around the old buildings as sometimes you need the silence to appreciate the scene being shown to you. 

Overall, I feel obliged to thank Gerard and his family for being brave enough to speak out about what happened to them in relation to the physical, sexual and psychological abuse they suffered day in and day out when incarcerated within these places as children. The underlying theme of the story is that both violence and incarceration can only breed more violence and incarceration. This film is an important document that examines the legacy of institutional abuse by the Irish Church and State and poses the question of whether it is ever possible to exit the traumas it inflicted on the people whose lives it took away. 

Sean Dooley

74′ 

Land Without God is released 18th October 2019

Land Without God – Official Website

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Irish Film Review: Naked

 

June Butler takes a look at Naked, Edward Kennedy’s film which documents the collaboration between Irish artist Róisín Cunningham and three life models. The film explores the relationship between sexuality and creativity, the similarities and differences between the male gaze and the female gaze, and body image.

If a group of people were questioned about what would constitute their worst nightmare, standing naked in front of total strangers for hours at a time while those same viewers stare and scrutinise every line of your body must rank at the top of the scale. For three models, this is their daily job – for one model, it is her sole means of income.  

The promotion line for Naked is touted as a ‘life modelling film about life’ narrating the story of three young life models who pose for artists. Director Edward Kennedy has beautifully rendered a most imaginative take on life models who tell their stories – provoking the same questions of each as they are asked the reasons behind embarking on such a career. Two female models and one male model are interviewed individually and it is fascinating to hear how they arrive at the same conclusion albeit using different language. All insist the initial stages were daunting but all equally maintain the ultimate payoff was worth the risk. 

Model Kate Dunne explains once the threshold of fear was crossed, the idea of posing naked was no longer fraught with difficulties. Dunne is emphatic in her new-found sense of empowerment and observes being in such a position has lent increased meaning to her life. The narrator asks of Dunne whether she agrees with the statement that to be naked is to be oneself but to be nude is to be seen naked by others yet not recognised for oneself. Artist Roisin Cunningham, queries of Dunne which she prefers – to be naked for the camera or to be nude for the artist’s drawing. Dunne states she would prefer to be neither but feels in the setting she is both. Dunne brings her own sense of impartiality to the scene – Dunne senses she is an object yet is at peace with this depiction of her body. When Kate is asked if the feeling of being unclothed is one of sensuousness, she is unequivocal in her assertion that it is not but goes on to say that when looking at a naked body, the viewer can either take sexuality from that body or project sexuality onto it.  

Izabella Linuza confesses to being fundamentally shy and claims that entering into the world of life modelling was her key to finding inner stability and peacefulness. Linuza exudes an air of contentedness and it is patent to see she is confident with her choice of metier particularly when artists, in some cases, can be standing as close as one metre away. There is a sense of Linuza accepting she is on a journey but pausing at this stage of emboldening, intent on continuing her travels when the need is sated. Izabella reveals when she is modelling, she can feel slightly numb, distanced from the activity but concludes this experience brings with it serenity and tranquillity – away from the bustle of day-to-day living.  

The only male model of the three is Dylan Jon Matthews and for the most part he emanates a different energy. He discusses the male gaze versus the female one and agrees the female gaze is slowly coming to the fore. Matthews claims the male gaze is more overt whereas that of the female is somewhat hidden. However, Matthews feels this is changing and agrees with the evolutionary process. Dylan is the most extravert of the three – cheekily he suggests everyone should be naked all the time. He feels this is liberating but states it was not always the case. When Matthews first started life modelling, he did so because a friend challenged him to do something that took him out of his comfort zone. Life modelling fitted the bill and Matthews has never looked back. 

Director Edward Kennedy has directed a wonderfully, enlightened documentary. Instead of stopping and starting the narrative, he provides a seamless continuum between watching the life models pose, witnessing the artist (and narrator) sketch, and hearing the testimonies of the three life models themselves. William R. Keane rounds off a most evocative and beautiful rendering with an imaginative and well-placed musical score. In all, Naked is just exquisite and truly worth watching. It is what a documentary should look like when it has grown up.  

 

Naked is available to rent or buy on

 

The distributor for Naked is Journeyman Pictures.
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Irish Film Review: Extra Ordinary

DIR: Mike Ahern, Enda Loughman • WRI: Mike Ahern, Demian Fox, Maeve Higgins, Enda Loughman DOP: James Mather • ED: Gavin Buckley • DES: Joe Fallover • PRO: Ailish Bracken, Yvonne Donohoe, Katie Holly, Mary McCarthy • MUS: George Brennan • CAST: Maeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Will Forte

That rare beast, the funny, Irish, comedy feature film is back again in the form of Extra Ordinary, which follows the supernatural adventures of Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins), a psychic paranormal expert, who tries to pursue the ordinary life as a driving instructor since having inadvertently caused her father’s death many years before when the two of them tried to save a dog from a haunted pothole. You know how these things go.

But the ordinary life is not to be; local widower Martin Martin (Barry Ward) reaches out for help with his abusive dead spouse who won’t move on to the afterlife. Though Rose initially refuses to help him, his second call for help with his levitating, comatose daughter is one she feels she can’t refuse and sure she fancies Martin anyway. What they don’t know is that these coma/levitation shenanigans are the result of satanic dabblings by the local, evil, failed rock star, Christian Winter. Yes, Christian Winter not Chris De Burgh. He plans to sacrifice the virginal girl to Ostrogoth and revive his failed music career; as you do.

Directors Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern have created their own satanic alliance, ignoring the sacred rules of co-directing by not being siblings and it has paid off quite nicely with this clever, funny little film.  With a matter-of-fact attitude, blending the ordinary and banal with cheap shocks and fantastic absurdity, Extra Ordinary builds its humour gently before finally reaching hysterical proportions in its final scenes.

Holding these elements together are a superb cast, playing fun characters, who are as enjoyable in the more down-to-earth scenes before the supernatural shenanigans really kick in. Maeve Higgins’ central performance holds things together quite nicely with her innocent, yet mischievous, Rose Dooley but she is well aided by brilliant performances from all those involved, including some American fella, Will Forte, looking to make it big on the Emerald Isle.

A highly enjoyable romp for children of all ages, except for maybe the squeamish ones under ten.

Paul Farren

94′ 13″
15A (see IFCO for details)

Extra Ordinary is released 13th September 2019

Extra Ordinary – Official Website

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Galway Film Fleadh 2019: A Bump Along the Way

Siomha McQuinn gives up her seat for Shelly Love’s A Bump Along the Way.

A Bump Along the Way, a product of an all-female creative team and winner of Best Irish First Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh, is about the tumultuous relationship between happy-go-lucky Pamela and her 15-year-old daughter, Allegra, who does not shy away from scolding her mother’s behaviour. Picture a modern-day Gilmore Girls but the relationship between the Lorelei and Rory is more hostile, Rory is a vegan and Stars Hollow is now a gossipy town in Derry.

After a night of lacklustre romance with a younger man, Pamela is baffled to find herself pregnant. Her situation is far from ideal as the father wants nothing to do with her and she can barely make ends meet in her current situation. The news puts further strains on her relationship with Allegra and the pair must learn to navigate their reality as they prepare for the arrival of their newest family member.

Many of the ideas in this film are already well-trodden paths such as the mother/daughter role-reversal and the absent father. However, both Pamela and Allegra are given narratives that are separate to the central relationship and this makes the world of the film richer.

The role of Allegra is played by Lola Petticrew, who won the Bingham Ray New Talent Award for her performance. She switches seamlessly between being a callous and bitter teenage daughter and a shy, artistic student who falls prey to some of her classmates. Her acting style is very natural as she creates a character who is quietly brave. The way she treats her mother initially seems disproportionately cold and unfair but with the realisation that Allegra is having a difficult time in school, and the knowledge that Pamela’s pregnancy will only act as fuel for her bully’s taunts, it is easier to empathise with a teenager who is doing her best to survive a tough time in her life. 

Bronagh Gallagher, who plays Pamela with big-eyed lovability, is clueless to Allegra’s bullying. She is well-meaning but vulnerable, which makes the growth of her character even more pleasing. A party-girl by nature, she is restless during her pregnancy and it is endearing to watch the pure torture that it is for her stay at home and rest, made worse by Allegra’s increasingly busy social calendar.  

Apart from Pamela’s delightful baker boss and Allegra’s kind teacher, men are painted in an almost entirely negative light; from the father of Pamela’s unborn child, who is fiercely unkind when discovering the pregnancy, to Allegra’s father who kicks up a fuss when asked to contribute financially. Their characters lack much intricacy, but this is easily forgiven as A Bump Along the Way is a film that champions women and delves into their complexities, making a slight dent into the massive backlog of films that represent women through flimsily constructed characters. These typical toxic male characters are there to aid the narrative. Pamela realises that she needs to stand up to the negative men in her life if her daughter is ever to respect her. 

A Bump Along the Way is a sweet and uplifting film about female relationships, the difficulties of life in a small town and the power of standing up for yourself. Despite engaging with difficult topics like bullying and misogyny it remains light and upbeat. It is satisfying and fun and suggests a bright future for the women involved in its production. 

Siomha McQuinn

@SiomhaMcQuinoa

A Bump Along the Way screened 13th July as part of the 2019 Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July).

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Irish Film Review: Prisoners of the Moon

DIR: Johnny Gogan • WRI: Johnny Gogan, Nick Snow • DOP: Eoin McLoughlin • DOP: Johnny Gogan, Fionn Rodgers • ED: Patrick O’Rourke • PRO: Johnny Gogan  • MUS: Steve Wickham • CAST: Jim Norton, Cathy Belton, Marian Quinn, Alan Devine

The human and environmental cost of technological progress is a spectre which haunts history, from medical trials without informed consent to conflict minerals in smartphones. It’s a difficult subject to grapple with, especially when a now mainstream technology or an historical feat of technological achievement has a murky past. 

In Johnny Gogan’s Prisoners of the Moon, we hear the words of Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp survivor, Jean Michel: ‘It was at Dora I realised how the pyramids were built’. It was in the underground tunnels of Dora that the German army’s V-1 and V-2 rockets were manufactured using slave labour. The book that Michel would go on to write about his time at Dora would eventually lead by chance to one of the V-1 and V-2’s chief engineers, Arthur Rudolph, being forced to leave the United States despite being given citizenship while working on the American space program.

After World War II, several engineers and rocket scientists who were based at Dora, including Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, were hired by the US government as part of Operation Paperclip. This docudrama examines this era, when US authorities decided to look the other way when considering the moral implications of recruiting former Nazi party members to work on their project to send a man to the moon. 

It takes as its focus Rudolph, whose work on the V-1 and V-2 rockets contributed to the success of Saturn V and the Apollo 11 launch. Using a mix of archive footage, interviews, and dramatic re-enactment, the film follows Rudolph’s early career in Germany, his time in Dora, his immigration to the US and work on the space program, his return to Germany by ‘mutual agreement’ after questions were raised in the ’80s, to his detention when attempting to enter Canada in the ’90s and the subsequent immigration hearing there. The film explores Rudolph’s culpability, what he may have seen or not seen at Dora, and speculates on the man and his conscience.

The re-enactment segments are where the film wavers. While well cast, there are some scenes that may have been better served by a documentary style rather than a dramatic one. The wealth of detail in the film, from archive footage to written and verbal accounts and expert analysis, suggests there would’ve been ample material to tell this story in documentary mode alone. Those elements of this deftly researched docudrama are its strongest and most engaging, raising challenging questions about the role of Nazi scientists in the achievement of the first human space flight.

Cathy Butler

75′ 29″
12A (see IFCO for details)
Prisoners of the Moon is released 28th June 2019

Prisoners of the Moon – Official Website

 

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Irish Film Review: Papi Chulo

DIR/WRI John Butler • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: John O’Connor • PRO: Rebecca O’Flanagan, Robert Walpole • DES: Susannah Honey • MUS: John McPhillips • CAST: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Elena Campbell-Martinez

John Butler, director of Handsome Devil (2016) and The Stag (2013), has proven his ability to explore the poignancy, volatility, and ultimate realness of human connections in his films. Papi Chulo, starring Matt Bomer and Alejandro Patiño, is certainly no exception. The film follows Sean (Bomer), a TV weatherman who finds himself struggling with loneliness and isolation in the sweltering urban landscape of Los Angeles. In an effort to combat this loneliness, Sean hires migrant worker Ernesto (Patiño), under the guise of requiring his labor, but it becomes apparent very quickly that Sean is not looking for an employee so much as he is looking for a friend.

The two certainly make an unlikely pair. Sean is young, white, gay, and apparently wealthy. Ernesto is middle-aged, Mexican, married with a wife and children, and doing everything he can to make ends meet. Through these characters, human differences and their ultimate limitations becomes one of the film’s main points of exploration. Sean and Ernesto clearly have very little in common, and their relationship is even more strained by the distinct language barrier between them. However, the two men manage to find ways around it, and the film reveals through its progression that what is truly important is the act of communication itself, the connection that forms between two people simply from being heard and acknowledged.

Barriers between people undoubtedly exist; barriers of race, class, age, and language. Butler skillfully demonstrates these barriers not only through the characters’ dialogue, but also through a clever motif of glass doors and windows. An early scene in the film, for instance, has Sean taking refuge behind the window of his car door in an effort to avoid a conversation with his coworker Susan (D’Arcy Carden). This motif also serves to initially separate Sean and Ernesto, as Sean is frequently shown viewing the older man through his car window or the glass door of his deck. These separations create tensions between characters, which in turn create opportunities for the film’s wry sense of humor. Butler perfectly captures the universal human experience of awkwardness, whether it comes from stretches of silence between two characters that lasts just a little too long for comfort, or from a character trying, and failing, to keep his composure under the scrutiny of his peers.

Papi Chulo is ultimately a film about human connections, about the shared experiences of loneliness, loss, and unlikely friendships. It is brilliantly acted, with wonderfully astute and down-to-earth performances by Bomer and Patiño, backed by Wendi McLendon-Covey, D’Arcy Carden, and Elena Campbell-Martinez. The urban setting of Los Angeles is particularly well-suited to the narrative, as Sean and Ernesto form an unlikely friendship in a city where genuine human connections can prove shallow more often than not, and where time can seem to stand still under an always-shining sun.

 Dakota Heveron

98 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Papi Chulo is released 7th June 2019

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