Book Review: The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the International Communist Avant-Garde

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June Butler takes a look at Owen Hatherley’s The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the International Communist AvantGarde.

Owen Hatherley has left no stone unturned in this marvellous book on Charlie Chaplin basing it on the rather novel angle of ‘Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant Garde’.

For most authors, tackling one aspect of this subject would be a daunting task – Hatherley however, simply takes it in his stride. And to say he keeps his promises is an understatement – the opening lines present a rousing soliloquy from Charles Chaplin himself as he breaks character in The Great Dictator (1940):

“Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”

Hatherley leads with an in-depth study of Frederick Winslow Taylor, (an American industrial theorist and engineer), who recounts how he succeeded in persuading an ‘ox-life’ Dutch immigrant called Schmidt achieve a seemingly impossible output of work based on Taylor’s mathematical calculations. In these sums, Winslow estimated the ‘precise measurement and recording’ of Schmidt’s physical abilities in order to maximise the worker’s capabilities. Taylor constantly teases Schmidt by asking if he is a ‘high priced man’, thus leading the poor fellow to consider lifting 48 tons of pig iron per day for $1.85, an increase of merely 70c on the previous output of 30 tons. The goal as Winslow puts it, is to deflect Schmidt from considering the impossibility of the task and instead dangle a pay rise in front of him so it becomes all he sees. Hatherley posits the idea that there is something essentially masterful about effectively duping the hapless Schmidt into working harder for not much more money. He feels that were it not for the context, it would be almost as if Taylor has become a stage hypnotist with Schmidt as his gullible victim. Hatherley makes the statement that his book concerns those people who envisaged ‘turning industrial labour into a circus act’.

Taylor’s principles came to be applied within the Ford Empire as ‘time and motion’ and was strictly adhered to in accordance with Henry Ford’s own work ethic. Such was the success of Taylor’s theories, they were diligently put into practise when the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics set up their own institutes. A former metalworker, trade union leader and poet in the Proletkult (‘proletarian culture’), Alexei Gastev founded an Institute of Labour in order to train workers in the new concepts of Taylorist principles and, as his ideas grew in success, they came to be applied outside the factory walls and into daily life.

Hatherley maintains his book is based on an unplanned cultural exchange between three poles. Two consist of the Trans-European route that went from Weimar Germany to the U.S.S.R. The third refers to America but without denoting the actual space of the country itself, the allusion is accredited to a collection of ideas, concepts, technologies, and the mass-production of goods and art objects. ‘America’ was the place where mankind had begun to truly take control of nature and attempt to bend it to its will yet, astoundingly, very few Russians who welcomed American theories had ever actually visited the country which meant that for a number of these, America was a dream, not an actual place. 

For the moralising Soviets, however, ‘America’ came under fire for its supposed exploitation of labourers and minority groups. Dziga Vertov’s 1926 documentary film, One Sixth of the World, offers a panoramic view of the industries and peoples of the Soviet Union and opens with images of that which it is not – a black American jazz band energetically plays as affluent whites dance and shimmy with gay abandon. According to Vertov’s condemnatory intertitles, this is the descent of a dying class – the danse macabre of an era coming to an end. While Vertov extrapolates what he needs from these images, the mesmerising rhythm and pace of the dancers, essentially he is also creating a heartbeat which resonates for the duration of the film. Vertov and others, including Elizaveta Svilova who edited One Sixth of the World, were part of a sect called the ‘Kinoks’ otherwise translated as ‘life caught unawares’. Vertov et al, wanted to depict post-revolutionary life in all its comicality – a veritable banana skin applied to a world turned upside down.

It is this positioning and careful placement of American mass culture against a backdrop of political critique, a nod towards labour and contemporary urban life as comic or ‘slapstick’ containing plenty of ‘new stupidities’, and the creation of a new comic space as well as innovative forms of architecture, that have provided the core theme running through this book. Americanism can be thus referred to as Chaplinism.

Hatherley has researched his topic thoroughly and relentlessly – points are made and supported with pithy quotes and examples. Nothing is left to chance. This truly is an impressive read and an excellent research guide to those who would like to investigate the topic further – a lot further!

 
 

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Book Review: Alex Cox’s Introduction to Film – A Director’s Perspective

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June Butler finds a lot to like in Alex Cox’s Introduction to Film – A Director’s Perspective.

 

 

Alex Cox’s An Introduction to Film – A Director’s Perspective is probably one of the best in-depth pieces written on cinema for some time – not since Peter Biskind’s Gods and Monsters or the equally wonderful Hollywood’s Second Sex by Aubrey Malone, has anecdotal story telling become such an intrinsic part of reading film. From Cox’s text, it is eminently clear how deep his passion for the magic of movies runs. Each description is imparted with authority and an easy familiarity that makes every narration so worthwhile. It makes readers want to investigate this book again and again.

Cox is probably better known for the Moviedrome series – a BBC weekly showing of cult films held during the summer months. The episodes commenced in 1988 headed by Alex Cox, and continued until 1994 where the series came to an end. It restarted in 1997 introduced by Mark Cousins but the second round lacked the connection Cox had so ably instilled in his loyal viewers and the final airing of Moviedrome was in 2000. While Cox did not chose the movies, he had some say in what was shown – his introductions to the films alone (according to die-hard fans), were considered more interesting than the screening itself and some viewers confessed to tuning in solely for Cox’s opening words. Although for this particular reader, no words could replace Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, The Wicker Man – happily included in the launch of Moviedrome.

Cox’s book is a cross between expert storytelling and incredibly detailed research into all things cinema. He explains easily without making it obvious – chapters consisting of such titles as ‘The Editing Room’ and ‘Cinematography, The Frame, Understanding Crew Roles’, deconstructs the art of ‘how to’ rather than posing the question of ‘what’s that?’.  At one stage, Cox makes the point that there is a ‘sort of insanity that follows film sets and goes on to narrate a number of instances where the safety of actors, extras, and stunt actors were placed in jeopardy. He cites The Day of the Locust (Dir. John Schlesinger, 1975), a big-budget movie where an unfinished and clearly unsafe film set collapsed beneath the cast and crew as they were filming. Cox then recounts a catastrophic accident on set for The Twilight Zone – a 1983 film based on the television series comprising four segments with separate directors (Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller and Steven Spielberg). The devastating occurrence, which was placed firmly at the door of on-set negligence, caused three lives to be lost, of which two were children. Cox sums up the code of conduct when he says ‘there is a tendency to think, on movies sets, that the film is the most important thing. It isn’t. The most important thing is the safety of your cast and crew’.  He damningly continues ‘making a film is also an opportunity for some people to behave extremely badly and immorally, and this has not been lost on filmmakers’. Cox doesn’t mention the culprits but such a statement coming from someone so well respected in writing on film makes readers pause for thought.

Cox manages to captivate completely from the first page right through to the last. His analytical skills are impressive and this book will delight every cinema lover and garner a few new fans to boot.

 

 

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ADIFF Irish Film Review: Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future

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June Butler takes in Johnny Gogan’s documentary about Irish essayist Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future, which screened at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

Born in 1900 to a family that could trace their roots to the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, Hubert Butler thrived on the peaceful existence of a life that included a zest for growing apples in his own orchard. Not being without a robust sense of humour, Butler was oft heard describing himself as a writer and market gardener.

His fluency in Russian enabled a translation of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904), which is still in use to this day. He loved the slow pace in his ancestral home of Maidenhall and was a popular figure in the local village of Bennetsbridge, Co Kilkenny. Despite having travelled extensively throughout the Balkans in his early life and learned multiple languages along the way, Butler’s heart first and foremost, lay in the land where he was born and he maintained the mantra that local history was eminently more important than national history. Indeed, Hubert Butler went so far as to insist that ‘where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be of only marginal concern to us’.

Butler was passionately committed to verbally defending Ireland both within and without from forces that at times threatened the integrity and stability of the nationalist core he strove to protect  – sometimes even at great sacrifice to his own mental and physical wellbeing. On more than one occasion, Butler held forth on matters of great portend to a disbelieving public who aimed derisive criticism at this man of letters when the opposite should have been the case. While he may have appeared mild-mannered, when circumstances dictated, Butler had a firm grasp on the subtly of politics and could deliver stinging rebuttals as his rivals all too humiliatingly became aware.

Ireland was, and remains, deeply indebted to Butler’s unwavering morality and nowhere is it more evident than in Johnny Gogan’s in-depth and soulful film on Butler’s life ‘Hubert Butler; Witness to the Future’. Aided by poet Chris Agee, Gogan ably narrates Butler as an expert essayist and considers him to have been at least fifty years ahead of his time when it came to summarising events of national and international importance.

Gogan claims that Butler was able to predict with unerring accuracy future happenings in the volatile arena of pre and post-war Europe. It is testament to the level of investigation into Butler’s life that his writings are mentioned throughout the documentary with such affection and to such a relentless level of detail. Gogan has literally left no stone unturned.

In my interview with Johnny Gogan, he took into account Butler’s devotion to the country life and in no small way, Gogan has included the orchard at Maidenhall where Hubert Butler spent so many happy hours, almost as an expert witness but equally silent additional cast member. When discussing Butler’s impact on modern history, Gogan said one thing that above all made him feel he was in the presence of greatness – Butler he averred, wore his learning lightly and with humility. The magnitude of knowledge he possessed was vast and yet Hubert Butler was a model of reservation and sincerity – unless his conscience was piqued in which case, Butler’s righteous rebukes were remorseless and acerbic. Gogan goes on to prove his words by stating Hubert Butler travelled to Austria at his own expense in 1938 and rescued Jews who were almost certainly due to be transported to work camps prior to the outbreak of WWII. There are dozens of Jews who could place the claim of survival firmly at the feet of Hubert Butler and his wife Peggy.

People often made the point that Butler’s writings could be compared to those of George Orwell. I would go a stage further and suggest that Butler’s writings were unique and comparable only to one – that of Hubert Butler himself. It is right and fitting that through the remarkable vision of Johnny Gogan, Butler has finally come to our attention for his supreme acts of humanity and recognition as the man of learning he truly was. Generations of Irish will have much to thank Johnny Gogan for this wonderful film.

 

Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future screened on 22nd February 2016 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 18 – 28 February) 

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Podcast Interview: Grainne Humphreys, ADIFF Festival Director

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June Butler chats to Grainne Humphreys, the festival director of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, about the selection process involved in the festival and what’s in store for Irish film lovers this year, including Sing Steet, Viva and this year’s films from Reel Art, an Arts Council scheme designed to provide film artists with a unique opportunity to make highly creative, imaginative and experimental documentaries on an artistic theme, operated in association with Filmbase.

Check out our preview of the Irish films set to screen at this year’s festival.
 
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The 2016 Audi Dublin International Film Festival takes place 18th and 28th February 2016. 
 
Click here for the full programme

 

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DVD Review: A Doctor’s Sword

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June Butler unsheathes the DVD of A Doctor’s Sword, Gary Lennon’s documentary  about Aidan MacCarthy, an Irish doctor, who, at 28, joined the RAF in London as the 2nd World war began.

 

Ensconced in MacCarthy’s bar in Castletownbere, Co. Cork, hangs a Samurai sword with still razor sharp edges and evidence of it being a working weapon. Such blades were far more than merely a form of defence – they were used as proof of filial devotion and a sign of dynastic honour – once holding great meaning for the person who previously possessed it. Carefully contained inside the worn handle, ashes of ancient warriors lie in state. The sword is accompanied with photographic evidence of its former owner – 2nd Lieutenant Isao Kusono. On the reverse side of the image is a profound declaration of true friendship between Lieutenant Kusono and Dr Aidan MacCarthy, a survivor of the Nagaski bombing and prisoner of war,interned in two separate Japanese camps during the Second World War.

The story of Dr Aidan MacCarthy related in great detail by director Gary Lennon is one that would have even the most hardened of cynics accepting of MacCarthy’s greatness. In this poignant tale, lies the narrative of a medical doctor who truly merited the Hippocratic Oath of ‘first do no harm’ despite the many injustices he himself received.

One of ten children, MacCarthy was born in 1914 to a middle class family and attended Clongowes Wood secondary school as a border. Upon leaving Clongowes, a medical career beckoned and MacCarthy went to UCC where he graduated as a doctor in 1938. Jobs in his home town of Castletownbere were scarce so MacCarthy and a number of his classmates mooted heading to London where they might fare better. War was on the horizon and MacCarthy decided to join the armed forces – his choices lay between the RAF or the Royal Navy – an obliging dance-hall hostess flipped a coin and MacCarthy duly signed up for the RAF. He later claimed all medical checks and paperwork were done with such haste that following his enlistment, MacCarthy arrived back in the local bar before they opened their doors at eleven o clock.

What unfolds in this remarkable story is something far more than miraculous – MacCarthy was marooned for three days and nights at Dunkirk – survived and went on to receive the George Cross for bravery when his direct intervention saved the crew of a crash-landed Spitfire. He was captured in the Japanese attack on Singapore and from there, spent three arduous years in a prisoner of war camp. First in Java, later in Nagasaki. Despite horrendous abuse and torture meted out to those captured by the Japanese, MacCarthy rose above his experiences to emerge a forgiving and empathetic figure having never lost his faith in humanity nor his ability to absolve the actions of others. Of even greater inspiration is the sword that takes pride of place among MacCarthy’s possessions and how it came to be located in a small bar in rural Ireland.

Lennon deals sensitively with the issues surrounding MacCarthy’s incarceration and follows his daughter, Nicola, as she journeys to Japan in search of the history behind the sword. It is clear that this topic is one of great interest to Lennon given that no stone is left unturned in the telling of a truly amazing story. Archive radio interviews with MacCarthy were unearthed in the course of making this film and it is heart-warming to hear his rural burr and kindly tones as his story is relayed without the slightest hint of rancour.

On being asked by the interviewer what he put down his survival to, MacCarthy deftly responded saying that it was “a combination of my Irish Catholic Heritage, my family background, and lots and lots of luck”.

 

  • Directors: Gary Lennon
  • Producers: Gary Lennon Bob Jackson
  • Format: DVD-Video
  • Language: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Classification: Exempt
  • Studio: Wildcard Distribution
  • Run Time: 70.00 minutes

 

A Doctor’s Sword can be purchased on DVD in stores including Golden Discs and Tower Records, the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork and the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, MacCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere and also online on Amazon and the Wildcard Distribution website.

 

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Book Review: Hollywood’s Second Sex The Treatment of Women in the Film Industry, 1900 – 1999

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June Butler reviews Irish author Aubrey Malone’s latest book, Hollywood’s Second Sex The Treatment of Women in the Film Industry, 1900 – 1999.

 

If an author could win an Oscar for most thorough research, Aubrey Malone would be right up there with the best of them for his well-thought through and insightful tome on Hollywood’s Second Sex – The Treatment of Women in the Film Industry, 1900 – 1999.

On first reading, it seems more anecdotal than directional but with each subsequent scrutiny, it soon becomes apparent that the narrative builds up to an impressive overview of just how shabbily actresses were treated in Hollywood from the inception of film right up to the present day. Malone brings the story forward, stretching beyond the lifespan of most humans to realise that in the broader scheme little seems to have changed in the way women are regarded amongst the hierarchies of the film industry during the twentieth century.

The dedicated and in-depth knowledge of every spirited actress from silent movies until more modern times places Malone in a league of his own. From Theda Bara’s muted luminosity to tragic Louise Brooks and her iconic pixie hairstyle. Katherine Hepburn was once cruelly nicknamed ‘Katherine of Arrogance’ merely for refusing to kow-tow to studio demands. Doris Day – America’s sweetheart lived through a relationship with Al Jordan, a trombonist. Day wasn’t particularly into the idea of marriage but did so because she was pregnant by Jordan who went on to physically beat Day to the point where she almost miscarried. Jordan then decided that suicide was the way forward – one day he thrust a gun into Day’s stomach urging her to kill herself. Her erstwhile spouse promised faithfully he would follow suit. Finally seeing sense, Day sought a restraining order against Jordan who stalked her for a while but eventually moved on. Decisively (and possibly much to the relief of his second wife), he followed through on hollow rhetoric by shooting himself in the head – forgetting perhaps that the golden rule of an empty threat is not to carry it out.

Jodie Foster in her auditions for The Accused (Kaplan, 1988), had to have a makeover in order to render her more ‘rapable’. In the first audition, the studio felt she wasn’t convincing enough to make audiences believe anyone would want to molest her. So Foster gamely set about changing the perception by wearing more make-up and less clothes. It is almost inconceivable that Foster should have been put in such a position yet no one batted an eyelid as her status of ‘rapability’ was mused over and tacit permission was given to those who would despoil Foster’s character by deeming her to have ‘asked for it’.

By contrast, women were for the most part, presented by Hollywood on pedestals – beautiful, alluring, incandescent, unobtainable and mainly adored from afar. In such scenarios it would not be too much to assume that respect and dignity for women should follow closely behind. According to Aubrey Malone, this was most assuredly not the case.

As a lover of film, this book initially appears somewhat voyeuristic considering the amount of salacious information – but that is only at first glance. Further reading is so detailed as to create an unrelenting tableau that does not flinch when it comes to revealing the unpalatable truth – which is that despite a plethora of denials, Hollywood’s second sex was female.

 

 

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: McFarland (April 10, 2015)
  • Language: English

 

 

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GAZE Film Festival Report: Irish Shorts

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June Butler was at a screening of Irish short films at the recent GAZE Film Festival.

 

Sunday the 2nd of August, found me gainfully occupied in viewing a number of short films as part of the Gaze Film Festival based in the beautiful Lighthouse Cinema. What followed was an afternoon well spent indeed – 6 pearls of short movies – all different but every one with a message that was both heartfelt and moving.

Making History (2015), directed by Ana Rodgers is a four-minute account of the referendum for same sex marriage in May 2015. Regardless of whether the viewer voted yes or no, it would be impossible not to feel emotional about this outpouring of joy and freedom. The piece is well edited and with scene after scene of rapture, it is a short film that makes for compulsive viewing. Capturing a nation caught in the throes of a common goal is truly uplifting beyond belief. People are naturally drawn to such euphoria – doubly so because of the statement made in upholding the individual’s human rights. Rodgers short film compacts pride at all levels into Making History.

Directed by Eoin Maher in 2013, No Strings tells the story of two young men who hook up for benefits without friends. Bryn from Wales and Sean from Ireland awkwardly meet. The agreement is that neither want anything more than sex. Both are migrants but while Sean uses humour to deal with his situation, Bryn is numbed to social interaction and simply wants to return to his family home in Wales. As the film progresses, it is interesting to note how both characters evolve – Maher has a most subtle touch in this wistfully delicate film and it is homage to his abilities that viewers care deeply about the outcome long before the final credits roll.

Our Gemma (2015) is a twelve-minute short on comedienne Gemma Hutton’s experience of coming out in the small northern town of Bangor. Hutton takes a no-nonsense approach to how she is viewed but it is clear from the narrative that past struggles have been endured and overcome. Hutton’s grandmother is a bastion to understanding and humour – a shining star in a sky of acceptance who loves and supports her granddaughter without conditions. This is an incredibly insightful and wry piece of filmography. Directors Cara Holmes and Paula Geraghty should be rightly proud.

Kudos to Cork filmmaker Brian Deane for getting such stunning performances from his two young actors (Brandon Maher and , Tadhg Moran). Notwithstanding the fact that Céad Ghrá (2014) is narrated with panache ‘as gaeilge’, Deane also convincingly succeeds in effecting an authentic tableau of first love. The drama enfolding between the two leads is truthful in source and brings a sense of understanding to the frailty of human interaction. At only 13 minutes long, Deane imbues his characters with warmth and humour holding our full attention until the final scene.

Luke (2015) is a ten-minute short about a young transgender who narrates his story with insight and laughter. Luke prefers not to label himself or others but instead aspires to the adage of live and let live. There does not appear to be external guidance regarding how Luke records his tale, with the end result being a picture of searing honesty coupled with the freedom that ensues. Shannon Purcell directs this compassionate and poignant film.

Born in 1830 (died 1904), Edward James Muggeridge was a pioneer in the art of photography with a particular interest in motion photography and the newly emerging motion picture. He changed his name to Eadweard Muybridge because he considered this to be the original Anglo-Saxon spelling. Turning (2015) is a six-minute short film (directed by Eoin Heaney) paying deference to Muybridge’s work. It also brings to mind, albeit on a lesser scale, Maya Deren’s 1958 trailblazing film titled The Very Eye of Night in its depiction of stylised beauty from a cyclical view. Heaney’s enthralling film strips away the clothes that bind us to embrace the rawness of visual allure – touchingly honest in its presentation and yet deeply inspiring from every aspect as the balletic dancers come to a final gentle denouement. This short film was a fitting end to an afternoon of wonder.

 

The GAZE Film Festival took place 3o July – 3 August 2015.

 

 

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Short Film Review: Leave

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              Moe Dunford in Leave. Still courtesy of 925 Productions

 

June Butler takes a look at Mike Hayes’ “incredibly clever” short film Leave.

 

Mike Hayes’ Filmbase/RTÉ supported short film Leave (2015) is an incredibly clever piece of filmmaking and it is right and fitting that he should be confident with his abilities when considering this gem. What has ensued is a devilishly slick story – told at rapid fire pace and unrelenting in its knowledge that as films go, this one is all grown up, knows where it’s heading, and what it wants to be when it arrives.

Hayes shot the movie in March 2015 – a quick turnaround on a modest budget. The modesty of funding doesn’t show because editing is genius and as casting goes, the actors were a director’s dream team. For the armchair psychologists among film goers, Leave should have been like Pavlov’s dog – created to make us pompously think we would know how it enfolded and salivate at the first inkling of coulda, woulda, shoulda – shrieking with clenched fists cackling ‘I told you so’. But on further consideration it is far less obvious – and this is its brilliance. In making decisions, veering to the left, sashaying to the right – should that call be answered, will I stay in, go out, drink, blink, sigh, breathe, leave – there goes any one of us. Tied and bound to serendipity. Enthralled to the gods of faking free choice. Imprisoned by the fire-burst of not really knowing why or how we do things. Is impulse really so impulsive after all? Do genetics play a role? Is misadventure innate? How and why can random be understood? After the event, just how many people have meant it when they said hindsight is twenty/twenty vision?

Moe Dunford plays the role of Brendan – a kindly and well meaning cop who does a favour for an old friend. Brendan’s actions remind viewers of the old adage – no good deed goes unpunished. The story unfolds bit by bit with tantalising glimpses as tension builds – an unconditional timeline of suspense that is bound to no master. Every minute is gripping and grudgingly released – melting into moments spirited away by a relentless taskperson. According to Hayes, even chance meetings in casting key players signifies just how much Leave is everyone’s story.

Real talent is making something appear seamless and entertaining – it’s about making viewers think it’s easy. And it is…..if you’re Mike Hayes. Hayes said that he’d sooner be one man’s glass of whiskey than every man’s cup of tea – in directing Leave, he has become ‘the’ glass of whiskey for a whole lot of people.

 

 

 

 

 

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