Review: It Comes at Night

 

DIR /WRI: Trey Edward Shults • PRO: David Kaplan, Keetin Mayakara, Andrea Roa • DOP: Drew Daniels • ED: Matthew Hannam, Trey Edward Shults • DES: Karen Murphy • MUS: Brian McOmber • CAST: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo

It Comes at Night kicks off with a piercing dosage of horror, that accelerates with masterful subtlety, heightening tension and walking a directorial high wire with great finesse.  Trey Edward Shults’ second feature clarifies a visionary talent, whose distinctive mixture of narrative discipline and cinematic restraint is a cathartic antidote to the present. The film is something of a cinematic rebirth for mainstream horror, ripping apart every ounce of superficiality, right down to the bone, leaving us with only the raw taste of horror. Veins flow, arteries throb, and hearts scream, exposing a cloud of paranoia. This is America, the land formerly known as the land of the free, now a Hades, a ghostly plane, where the diseased and the desperate seem destined to walk, and die alone.

In the half-light, two figures breakthrough branches and greenery, their appearance more alien than human. Their faces hidden behind gas masks, eyes darkened, voices muted.  They’re dragging something. The withered body of an old man. He’s barely still breathing. They throw him into a freshly dug hole. They look at him remorsefully, his skins putrid, sickly, and covered in sores. His eyes black, venomous.  Bubonic fluid dripping from his lips. One of the masked men douses him in petrol and sets him ablaze.

As they sit around the dinner table, Paul consoles Travis over the loss of his grandfather.  He was sick, Paul says, he could have infected everyone. Paul lives by a brutally conservative code to ensure his family’s survival. But Travis isn’t entirely convinced; he’s more liberal-minded than his father.  Sarah, Paul’s partner, just wishes their son didn’t have to participate in the killing, and tells Paul as much. Now it’s just the three of them. They’re living in seclusion in a forest, totally off the grid, hundreds of miles from the nearest town. It’s a suffocating existence behind boarded-up windows, with confined sleeping quarters and limited food supplies. They’re totally sheltered off from the world, but there’s no choice. There’s something in the air, a disease, a virus. It comes at night. There’s no antidote, no cure, no hope. They haven’t heard from the outside world since the outbreak, all they can do is survive, waiting for the rapture. Unless something comes for them first.

This is potent subjective filmmaking, which boldly brings the audience into an enclosed domestic war zone like no other. Shults and his cinematographer, Drew Daniels, use highly functional cinematography that’s bound to the soul of character and story. They succeed in creating a visual palette which is masterfully subtle, and that is felt rather than noticed. The visual style is further complemented by Brian McOmber’s score, which is an unnerving delight. The arrangements constantly create suspense and elevate the story, adding a heightened sense of spirituality and religiousness to it.

Joel Edgerton wields the fiercest performance of his career as Paul, the domineering patriarch. While in contrast, Kelvin Harrison Jr. brings a warmth and humility to Travis. And Carmen Ejogo dances frantically between love and fear with a raw maternal drive.

Trey Edward Shults carves out a claustrophobic, atmosphere to die for, inviting us straight into the heart of darkness, where law and order have broken down, and lawlessness, thievery and murder reign supreme.  And in these desperate times, desperate people are driven to bloody mercilessness carnage. Often compromising the very values they pertain to support. At its core, the film harbours a pressing theme; if we’re too brutal, the cost is our humanity, but if we’re too idealistic we won’t survive, so what’s the cost of survival? The film seems to yearn for a rational balance between these two realities. Shults has crafted a beautifully intelligent psychological thriller, where the most monstrous and horrific thing is ourselves.

Michael Lee

91 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

It Comes at Night is released 7th July 2017

It Comes at Night – Official Website

 

 

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A Second Look at Alien: Covenant

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Michael Lee enters an uncharted planet and makes a terrifying discovery. 

The Covenant is hurtling silently through the vacuous abyss of space. It’s a colonization mission carrying over 2000 embryos to a planet surrounding a distant star. All the crew are frozen deep in hypersleep, while the artificial Walter (Michael Fassbender) keeps control of basic mission duties. During routine protocol the ship is struck unexpectedly by violent turbulence. Glass shatters and rains, sparks fly. Walter tries to maintain control of the situation, but the ballooning complexity necessitates emergency procedures.

Daniels (Katherine Waterston) opens her eyes pushing herself out of the cool chamber, to an onslaught of piercing alarm bells and flashing lights. There’s been an emergency wake up from hypersleep. Nauseous, disorientated and anxious she catches her balance and pulls herself out to face unforeseen horrors. Crew members desperately try to pry open a hypersleep chamber. They’re trying to free the captain, who’s engulfed in flames inside. Daniels recognizes her partner and throws herself at it, trying to break her way through, but it’s hopeless. Right from the get-go Daniels is struck with a tragic loss and left in a deadened state of mourning. It’s from here Daniels starts out, and she must salvage whatever strength she can in order to survive.

Oram (Billy Crudup), a self-doubting evangelical type, reluctantly steps into the captain’s shoes and attempts to pull in the reins. It’s quickly determined that an unexpected solar flare caused the tragedy. Shortly after, during the repair operation Tennessee (Danny McBride) comes across an enigmatic radio transmission. Upon further inspection, the transmission is revealed to have emitted from an unknown planet surrounding a nearby star. This planet exceeds the projections necessary for sustaining life, even more so than the crew’s destination planet. Factoring into account the relative distance of their destination and dangers posed by a further 7 years traveling, Oram decides to investigate. But it’s an uphill battle; and he faces disapproval from various crew members, chiefly Daniels who’s doubtful of his motives.

A small expedition craft parts from the Covenant and lands in a mountainous Eden covered with a green canopy of ancient trees. On first appearances the planets by all accounts an island paradise, but when you stop to listen, there’s a deathly silence hovering in the air. The team set off like pioneers; walking through reeds of wheat and into the thick of the foliage. Daniels wearily follows. As they pursue the radio transmission’s origin the Expedition team discover the colossus ruins of an Alien Spacecraft. And from here on out we spiral into the escalating depths of pure horror and carnage.

Since Ridley Scott first brought Alien to the screen in 1979, the series has been a benchmark stylistically. The level of visual richness Scott achieves in Covenant is staggering; he’s built a world in its entirety from the ground up, a fully functioning ecosystem that activates all the senses. It’s a hazy mountainous landscape that brings a fresh sense of texture and location to the series. There’s a razor-sharp crispness to Darius Wolski’s cinematography, which is breathtakingly immersive, inviting us close up and personal into the inner lives of the Covenant’s crew.

Jed Kurzel’s score is dually indebted to Alien and Prometheus, and incorporates key aspects of both compositions. Kurzel shifts with ease from a potent religiousness to a daggering sense of tension and anxiety. In terms of production design, Covenant is nothing short of stellar, Chris Seager’s work is of unparalleled genius. Janty Yates is an otherworldly talent, and once again she pushes the boundaries of costume design, with a masterful subtlety of detail and a measurable sense of realism.

For the Covenant’s crew, Scott’s rounded up a powerhouse cast of players. With her choppy short haircut, Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is undoubtedly the film’s spiritual equivalent to Ripley. She gives Daniels a distinctive femininity that weathers her through the storm. And Billy Crudup brings a sincere vulnerability to Oram. For me it’s Danny McBride’s performance as Tennessee, which is one of the film’s true shining lights; McBride brings a genuine warmth and strength amidst all the chaos and drama. And then, of course, there’s Fassbender. There seems to be a near mysticism to Michael Fassbender’s ability as a performer to wholly embody his character. And what’s more, in Covenant Fassbender does it twice, playing both androids, Walter and David. Fassbender ingrains these characters with clear distinguishable personalities, from the honesty and functionality of Walter to the intellectual arrogance of David. Watching Fassbender spar with himself is hypnotically masterful.

John Logan’s script is certainly a towering step up from Damon Lindelof’s botched effort with Prometheus. And while Covenant is a clear return to form for the series, Logan’s script is none the less hampered by a number of clear drawbacks. Chief among these being the deliberate parallels set up between Covenant and the original Alien. There was a piercing subtlety to the original that ate at you to the core, right down to the marrow. Logan’s script, however, gets weighed down by artifice, and the not so subtle nods to the original film. In many ways, Logan’s attempts to re-live the original are, in the end, more superficial imitation than celebration or homage. Everything in the original film was fresh, and textured, and grounded in a clear emotional reality that developed organically. Alien: Covenant reaches for an uncertain mix of grandiosity/philosophy and horror, and, like the self-aggrandizing Prometheus before it, the film attempts to over-intellectualize itself. Ultimately, it lacks a clear vision of what it’s meant to be. Scott sacrifices the primal horror of the original in favor of a half-hearted, half-winded script, which at times gets bogged down by a deadly contagion of predictable Hollywood cliché.

But even taking all this into account, when the Alien is climbing out of the primordial soup, eyes bulging, mouth twisted, tearing through flesh like a blood-stained dinosaur; my eyes can’t help but light up. H.R Giger’s creation is a creation outside of time, eternally frightening in appearance, shark-like, versatile, and strangely mechanical, Alien is a truly mercurial creature. It’s a product of the darker nature of creation, which seems to somehow perfectly encapsulate our own unconscious fears. Make no mistake, Scott’s nearly 80 and he’s still a stylistic heavyweight, and one of cinema’s rarities, a truly visionary filmmaker, who knows how to keep nerve endings dosed in a constant state of fear. Alien: Covenant is half Prometheus sequel/ half Alien prequel and in many ways, it feels like a missed opportunity, but it’s probably the best Alien film this side of Alien Resurrection or Alien 3; so for now at least I’m happy to chew the fat.

 

 

 

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Irish Film Review: Without Name

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DIR: Lorcan Finnegan • WRI: Garret Shanley • PRO: Brunella Cocchiglia • DOP: Piers McGrail • ED: Tony Cranstoun • DES: Jeannie O’Brien • MUS: Gavin O’Brien, Neil O’Connor • CAST: Alan McKenna, Niamh Algar, James Browne

Without Name is the hallucinogenic feature debut of Irish director Lorcan Finnegan.  Finnegan comes from a seasoned background in commercial work and shorts, including the acclaimed short film FoxesWithout Name is an Irish psychological horror with strong ecological undercurrents running throughout.

Eric is a surveyor, who strives for order and structure and is highly disciplined and meticulous in certain domains of his life, such as his work. But his personal life is a far more chaotic affair, his marriage is strained; he’s got a lover Olivia (Niamh Algar). As Eric pushes the boundaries of his personal life further, his perceived sense of order is breaking at the seams and into the chaos and uncontrollability of nature, a theme which is at the heart of the film. In this regard, the film is somewhat reminiscent of Ben Wheatley’s historical mind fuck A Field in England, or Lars von Triers Antichrist.

We follow Eric into the forest as he descends from order going on an acidic voyage into the unconscious realm that lurks beneath the surface of waking reality burrowing through the poisonous shrubbery and toxic foliage, down in the dirt. He hovers through the astral plains of his own psyche, and into an abyss of paranoia, a twilight zone of self-loathing and doubt.

Finnegan is clearly a filmmaker of tremendous capacity and vision, and even when it doesn’t entirely work, he doesn’t fail in teasing the promise of his visionary talent. He creates a potent voyeuristic atmosphere which seems to have a stranglehold on the viewer, luring them in, overdosing them with tension. Piers McGrail’s cinematography is a key binding ingredient in the mix. McGrail is on a steady path to mastery, his work gets more refined with each picture, it’s no surprise he’s one of the country’s most sought after cinematographers. McGrail is Finnegan’s brother in arms in helping to serve up the hellish palette of a world that visibly shifts from poisonous to toxic in a heartbeat.

Alan McKenna offers a haunting nerve-wrenching turn as Eric, which makes his trip into the forest all the more traumatic. Niamh Algar shapes Olivia with beautiful subtlety, crafting a performance ripe with portent. The cast is further complimented by Olga Wherly as Eric’s wife and Brandon Maher as his teenage son, who both provide intricately grounded performances.

Without Name was written by Garrett Shanley, and the script is loaded with a treasure trove of heady ideas and images, but for me, one of the biggest drawbacks is that these aren’t always motivated through character and lack the emotional richness which perhaps could have elevated their significance. Without Name, seems to operate by means of tribal mechanics, which at times defy logical explanation but which ultimately seem to leave you pulsating with a never ending fear.

Michael Lee

93 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Without Name is released 5th May 2017

 

 

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Review: It’s Only the End of the World

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DIR/WRI: Xavier Dolan •  PRO: Sylvain Corbeil, Xavier Dolan, Nancy Grant, Elisha Karmitz, Nathanaël Karmitz, Michel Merkt, Vincent Cassel • DOP: André Turpin • ED: Xavier Dolan • DES: Colombe Raby • MUS: Gabriel Yared • CAST: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard

With It’s Only the End of the World, Xavier Dolan took last year’s Cannes Film Festival by storm winning the Grand Prix award and the Ecumenical award and was nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or. But while Dolan’s previous film Mommy (2014) was hailed a masterpiece, somehow his follow-up, for me at least, doesn’t live up to that kind of hype. It’s not exactly surprising that the critical reaction so far has been mixed to say the least.

Dolan adapted the screenplay from a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce. It’s immediately apparent what drew Dolan to the material with its intricate weave of fractured family relationships. The story focuses on Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), an acclaimed gay playwright, who, in light of his terminal battle with aids, returns home after 12 years absence in order to tell his family. Dolan handles the subject matter expertly, understating the issue just enough to draw us into the enigma of Louis’ mysterious persona. Of course, little’s changed at home and Antoine (Vincent Cassel) almost immediately goes head to head with Louis.

Dolan’s cast is nothing short of exquisite with Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel and Gaspard Ulliel. Gaspard Ulliel gives a masterful performance as Louis, while Vincent Cassel’s Antoine channels his inner demons and rocks the boat. The beautiful Marion Cotillard is seamlessly perfect as always, she’s the only beating heart within the core of this dysfunctional family.

And with regard to his visual approach, Dolan largely restricts himself to one location and limits the framing, keeping it airtight. There’s no doubt this was a strategy to honour the theatrical nature of the piece and keep the power in the characters’ words and performances. And this approach also supports the claustrophobic fixed nature of the relationships. But by doing so without any significant visual change, it lacks a sense of visual progression, which inevitably makes the film feel slow and reduces the sense of character development dramatically. In Mike Nichols’ critically lauded adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe he opened up the locations of the text. His motivation being that he found the locations in Edward Albee’s text too reductive for the audience, and it also wasn’t utilizing one of the major assets of the form, which is the ability for cinema to go anywhere. And that’s exactly what Dolan is missing here.

Most of the picture is conveyed through medium shots and close-ups, but the usage of these is so taxing and limited that they retain almost no power when the film needs them most. There are a few brief exceptions, such as the opening when Louis arrives, or when he goes for a drive with his paranoid brother Antoine. But none are really long enough to free the film up and give it the breath of fresh air it so vitally needs.

Michael Lee

99 minutes
15A See IFCO for details

It’s Only the End of the World is released 24th February 2017

It’s Only the End of the World – Official Website

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Review: Neruda

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DIR/WRI: Pablo Larraín • PRO: Rebecca O’Flanagan, Robert Walpole • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: John O’Connor • DES: Kathy Strachan • MUS: John McPhillips • CAST: Fionn O’Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott

 

I hadn’t seen any of Pablo Larraín’s other films, but I knew who he was, he’s been on my radar for a while. Chinese whispers from so and so said he was a director to keep an eye on. And rumor had it Neruda was pretty good, so with that, I signed up. Neruda marks Pablo Larraín’s seventh feature including NO and more recently the multiple Oscar nominee Jackie.

Set during the early post war WW2 period, the film follows the titular Pablo Neruda, a controversial public figure in Chilean politics.  Neruda was a powerful voice, a strong leftist politician and poet who had the love and respect of the working people. Neruda’s an hypnotic, taxing, dense, moving, poetic, and ultimately rewarding piece of filmmaking if your open to it.  But Larraín doesn’t water the content down for the audience; instead, he manages to keep it potent, and, what’s further still, accessible. He magically filters the experience of this complicated episode of Chilean politics straight through the senses of Neruda himself. Through Neruda we are invited into the world of hip leftist communism, pre-beat trendsetters, artists,  activists, staunch leftists, politicians and criminals, a tight-knit motley crew all together in the hothouse of Chilean history.

When Neruda is designated a threat to Chile by his government who’ve given into American pressure, he becomes a marked man forced on the run. Thus igniting a cat and mouse witch hunt for him throughout Chile. We follow Neruda as he hides out in cramped quarters, and high in hills, banished from public life. We’re presented with the blurry line which defines Neruda between his politics and his poetry. It’s a murky twilight zone but for Larraín it seems clear Neruda is a poet at heart.

Larraín’s perspective on Neruda is an allegorical mythic take and one that paints the man’s life as he lived it, through poetry, lavish beauty, and blind indulgence. And in doing so Larraín paints the myth of a man. Larraín masterfully shapes the film in the guise of a film noir/ detective story and utilizes this set-up as a romantic metaphor drawing the audience right into the man’s heart. The film merges fact with fiction in an act of cinematic alchemy. Larraín isn’t so much interested in a straightforward biographical account as he is in finding the essence of Neruda as a man, exposing his heart and soul and putting it on full display, the good, the bad, and everything else in between.

Larraín’s deft exploration of Neruda exposes the hypocrisy of his political philosophy and his desires which are at moments, at complete odds with one another. One of the most powerful moments for me is a scene in which a woman approaches Neruda in a luxurious restaurant and bitterly points out how removed he is from the plight of the working class. There’s a biting reality to this that seems to, for a moment at least, pierce the rose-tinted romance of Neruda’s vision.

Luis Gnecco illuminates his versatility as an artist, crafting a performance from history, overflowing with the hearty arrogance and bravado romance of the entertainer and provocateur. The naturalism of Gael Garcia Bernal’s characterization brings Oscar Peluchonneau from the path of deduction to the brink of ideological seduction with a candid humor and life.

Larraín’s strengths as a visual storyteller are magnetic to the extreme, his functional sense of composition is energetic and fresh and elevates the narrative to another level. One of the film’s most astonishing, but discrete features is the editorial tempo. Given the complexity of the material, the density of politics and poetry, Larraín masterfully controls the tempo simply, letting the film flow. The inherent value or meaning of the meta element of the story is entirely dependent on this. Pablo’s collaborator cinematographer Sergio Armstrong paints a rich geography of urban and rural landscapes, letting the ghostly snow-covered mountainscapes bleed into the light of our minds.

Pablo Larraín is an unquestionable cinematic visionary, and his only visible weakness as far as I’m concerned is that at times he can’t help reaching for a sense of sophistication and profundity, but it organically derives from the material so he’s bound by this for now, in truth, I’m probably nitpicking a bit. Viva Pablo.

Michael Lee

108 minutes

Neruda is released 21st April 2017

Neruda – Official Website

 

 

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Goodfella: Martin Scorsese in Dublin

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 All Pics: PAUL SHARP/SHARPPIX

 

Martin Scorsese was recently awarded a gold medal by the University Philosophical Society of Trinity College. Michael Lee shines a light.

On the evening of Friday the 24th of February, acclaimed cinematic auteur Martin Scorsese (74) was to be awarded the Gold Honorary Patronage medal by the Trinity College Philosophical society. With some scant research I’d found out, Trinity College Philosophical society was founded in 1683, and is the oldest debating society in the world, and has housed debates from some of the most esteemed and radical intellects over the centuries. Notable members of the society include Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Beckett. Scorsese had recently been in London where he gave a powerhouse speech to the British Film Institute, and rounding out his trip this side of the Atlantic, Scorsese dropped into Ireland. It was the first time the director had been in Dublin since 1998, when he gave a directing workshop in UCD, before leaving to chair Cannes film festival.

 

With what little sleep I’ve had, I awake with a blast of optimism and wipe the sleep from my eyes. Today’s the day I’m going to meet Scorsese. I can feel it in my bones; I’m going to see a walking talking idol in the flesh, and try to hustle an interview. I stuff my creased edition of the Goodfellas screenplay in my back pocket, grab a biro and race out the front door.

 

I arrive at Trinity a little after 4, which makes me over an hour early for the main event. It’s probably going to be a long haul, but who knows what’s going to happen, or when or where Mr. Scorsese’s going to come from. I’ve heard spontaneity is key, hence my premature arrival. Scorsese had been rumored to take a photo in front of the iconic Campanile bell tower beforehand. But as I walk into the front square he’s nowhere in sight. I wait for a few minutes but decide to take my chances inside the venue first and see if I can catch him hanging around afterward.

 

To my right, there’s a noisy queue of around 200 students queuing up outside the stately looking exam hall. There’s a wild mixture of faces, with everything from gaping grins, to looks of sheer terror, and even boredom. The prospect of having to wait in line filled me with that kind of nervous dread distinctive to queuing for a big event.  What if I don’t get in? How will I write an article? I approach the head of the queue and am speedily directed to the press area. I climb a winding wooden stairs up to an empty balcony and take my pick of the few chairs there.

 

The Trinity exam hall is an austere surrounding, and it’s filled with a sea of function seating. At the end of the hall on what’s like a slightly raised stage or proscenium, there are two large antique chairs set facing the crowd, one slightly more throne like than the other. Decadent renaissance style oil paintings of regal looking intellects hang high on the walls. As they stare out through the canvas with their pompous looking haircuts and curly mustaches, it’s easy to imagine that they are probably former deans or patrons of the college. There’s a freshness to the hall without it being exactly cold. Down below volunteers direct the remaining students and guests to their seats. The crowd anxiously awaits Mr. Scorsese. A biting tension isin the air, an electricity. And every time so much as a footstep or a muffled voice is heard coming in the door, a rapt silence sweeps across the hall and necks creak around at awkward 90-degree angles; only to be brutally disappointed by the sight of college personal. Of course, the collective whispering resumes immediately, charged with a building expectation; until the next footstep, and all sound momentarily stops again.

 

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At 5:45, Scorsese makes his way up the centre aisle, accompanied by an enthusiastic applause. When the clapping finally comes to a close, Scorsese is presented with his honorary medal and he sits down with little fuss, his small figure enshrined by the decorative wooden backing of the throne.

 

The Gold Honorary medal is given to people who have made a profound contribution in their field of expertise. And Scorsese no doubt fits the bill for sure. He’s a multiple Bafta winner, check. Oscar winner, check. Golden Globe winner, check. DGA Lifetime Achievement Award winner, check. And now, Gold Honorary Patronage medal awardee, and soon to be recipient of the John Ford award, check. But it goes further than mere accolades; Scorsese has made some of the greatest American films of the last 50 years; from the biting realism and violence of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas to The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street and most recently Silence. Taxi Driver might have changed my life. I might have been 15 when I first saw it and was just torn apart by the angst and frustration of the Travis Bickle experience. There was a real humanity there, and it struck a nerve. I mean Travis is so lost and confused; you just want to reach out to tap him on the shoulder and tell him, but somehow you never can. And all this is topped off by Bernard Herrmann’s spellbinding score.

 

Scorsese is poised comfortably in the throne; it’s safe to assume that it’s his chair. He’s a man seasoned to public life and clearly knows how to handle it. He looks out at the audience with ferocious enthusiasm. From the balcony, he’s basically a white dot donning thick glasses and a dark suit, but it’s easy to imagine his friendly old face creased with lines of wisdom. And somewhere between the endless clicks of cameras, and spontaneous coughs, I realise he’s already started speaking. But the exam hall’s basically an undesignated echo chamber; so his iconic New York accent literally ricochets off the walls. I try to focus solely in on the sounds of Scorsese’s words, and zone out the excess sounds, which proves kind of tricky so it takes a couple of seconds for me to latch on.

Legendary film director Martin Scorsese pictured being presented with a gold medal by Trinity College's Philosophical Society this afternoon. Martin Scorsese pictured with his daughter Francesca, wife Helen Schermerhorn Morris. The Oscar winner and man behind such classics as Taxi Driver and Goodfellas will then give a speech and take part in a Q&A session.Scorsese's movies have been nominated for a total of 80 Oscars. After being passed over for the Best Director Oscar several times, he finally won in 2007 for The Departed. PIC PAUL SHARP/SHARPPIX Pictured with Trinity Provost Patrick Prendergast and President of Philosophical Society, Mathew Nudding.

The young interviewer, Matthew Nuding, who’s also the President of the Philosophical Society, is seated in the other chair to the left; he addresses Scorsese with a brisk confidence. Nuding notes that while Scorsese always seems to have been drawn by character, he famously stated that The Departed was the first time that he felt he did a movie with a plot. Nuding is keen for the Hollywood legend to elaborate. But when Scorsese talks about it, he emphasises his fascination with the scripts ending. He says he had just come off of two big spectacle pictures in a row, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, and he explains his initial impulse coming out of that kind of experience was to do the opposite. So basically he wanted to try and make something on a simpler production scale, and which was also a chance to experiment with plot.  There’s a traditional type of Hollywood movie that uses plot, and Scorsese felt that he’d never really approached story that way; he’d always worked through the characters. Scorsese expresses his endearing affection for some of these movies, and mentions his lifelong fascination with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It was with The Departed that he was presented with opportunity to explore this territory.  But Scorsese’s approach to plot in the film isn’t how he normally works as a mode of direction, and this proved challenging in the making of the film. Eventually, he just decided to follow the characters’ perspectives. And his decision worked perfectly, finally bagging him the coveted Oscars for Best picture and Best director. I think the point Scorsese’s trying to illuminate here, is that contrary to how he may have been interpreted before regarding plot; for him plot essentially has to come out of character, and not vice versa, and that in truth they’re inseparable. Of course by now, I really regret not having a Dictaphone or a sound recorder in my arsenal, as every word coming out of Scorsese’s mouth seems to be pure cinephile gold. So I’m winging it and saving as many quotes as I can possibly fit in my trusty old Nokia.

 

Given the current political climate it’s not surprising that Scorsese is asked to address the place of his films in this modern climate. The interviewer ask’s Scorsese point blank how his 70’s films relate to the current political climate “It’s a scary time,” Scorsese openly declares. This is coming from a guy who’s lived through the political nightmares of the Cold War, McCarthyism, Vietnam and Watergate. In reference to the first Gulf War and 9/11  Scorsese says, “I knew it would be a never-ending situation,” which seems to suggest everything from Iraq to the current Middle Eastern crises. He doesn’t skirt around the issue, he answers it honestly and without any sense of fear or negativity. But he courts the issue delicately, as if he doesn’t want to be sucked into the all-consuming political rabbit hole, and it’s hard not to admire him for this. He elaborates a little further stating that, “I like to read a lot of history” and regarding the current climate, “it reminds me a lot of the 20’s and the 30’s”. And for anyone who’s dusted off their old history books, it’s hard to deny a similarity in the global shift towards aggressive right wing politics. Scorsese never states directly whether he’s talking about America alone, or the larger world, logically it’s probably safe to assume both.

 

Scorsese goes on to relate the current mentality to that of Travis Bickle, the tragic antihero of his 1976 classic Taxi Driver. It’s easy to see why; Bickle is the classic outcast figure, a disillusioned Vietnam veteran, who’s completely alone in New York and trying to find meaning. Bickle tries first in the usual ways, through the job and through the girl, Betsy. But when these traditional avenues fail him Bickle wields his anger towards the society that he believes let him down, and sets out to “clean up the filth” through aggressive force. According to Scorsese, “There’s thousands of Travis Bickles” in the world right now. These are, to paraphrase Travis, “God’s lonely men”, the outcasts, the misfits, the angry white men. It’s a testament to the supreme craft of Taxi Driver, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, that it’s somehow, perhaps more pertinent than ever in 2017.

 

On Taxi Driver, Scorsese clarifies that he really got to develop his working relationship with Robert DeNiro, and admits he established a much greater trust with the actor on that collaboration than he did on Mean Streets. Scorsese explains the benefits of this improvement, while recounting how, during the shooting, DeNiro would approach him with new ideas on set before takes, and, after a few times, Scorsese turned to DeNiro and said, “Don’t tell me, show me.” This is emblematic of Scorsese’s sense of collective creativity and his appreciation for film as a team sport. He makes it clear that he wants to be surprised by actors, because those little surprises, the things he doesn’t always think of, or expect, are according to Scorsese, what bring it to life and keep it engaging. Scorsese’s work makes a convincing case for how inclusion of those kinds of actors in the creative process, is extremely beneficial.  He briefly cites Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Departed, and how Leonardo di Caprio opened a car door with his leg in The Wolf of Wall Street before the conversation swiftly moves on.

 

Speaking in relation to what draws him to a script, Scorsese says with an illuminating simplicity, “It has to sound right.” Scorsese highlights that he’s limited by his own personal experience, which he states is local to the North East Coast. “That ear really only goes as far as the north east.” This isn’t exactly a fact that he conceals, repeatedly in interviews he has drawn attention to how his childhood experience in New York shaped him as a filmmaker and is a constant source of inspiration for his films, Mean Streets being a prime example of this.

 

Scorsese candidly admits looking up to cinematic new-wave icons Fellini and Godard and of having aspired to some level of that fame. But he makes it clear there’s a trade-off, a compromise, and that comes at a personal cost. There’s a humbleness to his tone, that seems by means of osmosis to let you know he was talking from personal experience. “Celebrity culture is in a way a serious illness,” and he explains that celebrity poisons people; it eats them up and spits them out, luring them away from meaningful ambitions. In the long run, Scorsese contests, “It’s the work that matters,” and it’s important to aspire to making something meaningful. “It has to come from here”, the man places his hand over his heart.

 

The pressures that arise from the studio and from the concept of celebrity are obstacles created by the Hollywood machine, which Scorsese suggests can compromise your vision, he advises “To not let the machine dissuade you” and emphasises “you just have to keep punching away.” Scorsese’s artistic instincts seem to be aligned with an uncompromising sense of honesty. “Comic book stuff, it’s not for me.” He jokes that they, ‘they’ as in the studio, should keep making movies like The Revenant. His example of The Revenant seems apt, as it’s a big budget studio movie that readily exemplifies how it’s possible to make a commercial film and also maintain a certain sense of integrity with regard to the artistic vision. He briefly alludes to the future of cinema and the complexities of telling stories through Virtual Reality. Scorsese smiles brightly and jokingly muses that, he doesn’t have to worry about it anymore because, “I’m on the way out”. And with that, it’s over and Scorsese’s hurriedly escorted out a back door.

 

Seconds before the crowd begins to disperse, I push by, and race outside. But there’s no sight of Scorsese. I walk around the back of the hall. Security patrol the back, so any chance of meeting the man seem slim to none.  A few seconds later a Mercedes minivan with tinted windows shuttles past. Scorsese no doubt inside. Any chance of an interview now safely up in smoke. I’m hit with a momentary sense of depression before thinking back to his comment on celebrity culture, and briefly consider that this might apply to me, but not exactly sure how,  I decide instead to call it a night.

 

On the 25th of February Martin Scorsese was also awarded, the John Ford Award, by IFTA and John Ford Ireland. The award was presented by president of Ireland and champion of the arts Michael D. Higgins.

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Review: La La Land

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DIR/WRI: Damien Chazelle • PRO: Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt • DOP: Linus Sandgren • ED: Tom Cross • DES: David Wasco • MUS: Justin Hurwitz • CAST: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Amiée Conn

Only his third film, and director Damien Chazelle seems to be tap dancing all the way to cinematic immortality with La La Land, his follow up to 2015’s jazzy psycho drama Whiplash. Right off the bat we dive into a world of sun-drenched nostalgia, a whirlwind of song and dance, a contemporary throwback to the golden musical days of Minnelli, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and all the good old boys in the musical department at MGM. At 31, Chazelle seems to be the definition of a wunderkind, a pioneering directorial force who’s sparking fresh life into an old genre, and with it, a magical vision of LA.

Los Angeles is a strange dark magical place, city of angels, a mythic land of dreams where anything is possible, and dreams can come true. But more often than not they don’t, and once bitten twice shy, and a loss of innocence is always pretty fertile ground for a good story. Of course, Chazelle knows this, bringing us into a world of heavy hearts with heavy burdens; that all too often get anchored down by the weight of their own dreams.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), in his crisp cotton suit, is a jaded jazz pianist with purist ambitions. His heart’s set on opening a real classical Jazz club, the kinda place Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington would have played in back in the heyday, a celebration of pure Jazz, no funny business. And Mia (Emma Stone) on the other hand is a small town girl with pipe dreams of being an actress. But for all her effort she just hasn’t cut it in auditions. However, a series of serendipitous encounters lead her and Sebastian together. And, as their love for each other blossoms, they’re faced with the prospect of having to compromise their individual dreams. Emma Stones walks the tightrope with ease, giving a nuanced performance that masterfully balances between drama and comedy. This is complimented perfectly by Gosling’s piercing moody blues, which bring you from heart to heartbreak in a second.

Visually Chazelle adopts an overwhelming romanticism, and it’s mesmerizing. Linus Sandgren’s dreamy cinematography sedates and exhilarates, seemingly making the camera waltz across the screen. Chazelle paints in big bright primary colors, adding the story together block by block, forming a whole incomprehensibly greater than the sum of its parts. The characters are carved out masterfully in front of the blazing oranges and blues of magic hour sky’s, which melt into the background, creating a modern spin on the old painted backdrops. The head over heels choreography, twists and turns, sweeping you right off your feet and straight into the next big dance piece, making you want to scream and shout.

Musically La La Land is a never ending gold mine of cascading arrangements, poppy Jazz numbers and lilting melodies. Composer Justin Hurwitz gave my heart an infinite dose of pins and needles with his potent dreamy compositions. And the songs never drift too far away from the rose-tinted longing for the past at the centre of the film. The melancholic song ‘City of Stars’ invites the audience into Mia and Sebastian’s tangled web of hope and sadness.

Chazelle’s greatly indebted to the vast cinematic heritage of mostly Hollywood musicals, but he wears his influences brazenly on his cuff, honoring his heroes with gusto. With obvious points of reference such as A Star is Born, Singing in the Rain and Scorsese’s underrated 1977 musical New York New York. Chazelle openly sings his praises for the realism of Jacques Demy’s groundbreaking french musicals, notably The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,which he confesses is his favorite movie of all time. One of Chazelle’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is that he always keeps La La Land grounded in a plausible emotional reality, so that even at its most searing narrative heights it always feels real. At its core this is a film dealing with nostalgia, nostalgia for old dreams, old loves, old cities and clearly, for Chazelle, old musicals. La La Land offers a warming, renewing sense of magic and hope in the world, the perfect antidote to all the chaos of the present. In the end it’s an unapologetically bona fide love affair with love and dreams.

Michael Lee

128 minutes
PG (See IFCO for details)

La La Land is released 13th January 2017

La La Land – Official Website

 

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A Second Look at ‘Silence’

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Michael Lee explores Martin Scorsese’s passionate pilgrimage.

Silence is a decadent purging of the soul from American cinema’s most esteemed auteur powerhouse, Martin Scorsese. Well into his seventies and still seemingly at the peak of his powers and punching some seriously heavy cinematic weight. Silence perhaps isn’t the usual fanfare audiences have grown to expect from Scorsese, whose oeuvre is often defined by his more gritty streetwise character driven realism. But the roots of Catholicism/Spirituality have always ran deep throughout the personal cinema of Martin Scorsese, from the moral complications and religious fervor of Mean Streets and The Last Temptation of Christ, to the meditative explorations of Kundun; and Silence is perfectly at home in this tradition.

Silence is a long gestating passion project, which has been lingering in development hell for the most part of three decades and which finally came to fruition in the year of our Lord 2016. It’s an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s esteemed novel about two 17th century Jesuits in Japan. The script for Silence is keenly labored by the hearts and minds of Scorsese and his frequent collaborator in kind Jay Cocks, who’s also lent his services to such projects as The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. This marks Scorsese at his most philosophical and meditative, Silence is a film which is unashamedly centered around the nature of faith and to be even more specific, what does it mean to renounce one’s faith publicly,to apostatize. In all honesty, this is probably going to be a pretty tough sell for mainstream audiences, and a pretty trying theme to explore, but if your prepared to accept the film on its own terms and not the film you want it to be, it rewards richly.

When the film kicks off we immediately set foot into a dangerous world where Christianity is outlawed,and believers are tortured, maimed, and even crucified if they don’t renounce their faith. Icy waves break across limp figures hanging from crosses. Spectators fearfully watch from the cliffs. In the thick of it, in the jungle wilds of seventeenth century Japan, on a clandestine mission driven by faith two Jesuits, Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield), Garpe (Adam Driver), set off to retrieve their enigmatic mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They become lost in a hostile world, soaked in fear, but bound by their sense of duty and belief. Ferreira disappeared on the missions in Japan, but is rumored to have apostatized, Rodriguez and Garupe cast doubt on this assumption and persuade Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) to let them find him.

Andrew Garfield is a terrific actor, and bears a certain naivety or virginal lamb-like quality which seems perfectly suited for the loss of innocence his character undergoes. But somehow he still feels miscast, the role of Rodriguez necessitated an internal psychological battle of faith, and needed an actor of a more introverted caliber who could express the intense magnitude of his faith. No disrespect but this somehow seems beyond the scope of Garfield’s present ability as an actor. Someone like Oscar Issac, or Paul Dano could have done it or even a young Martin Sheen, and it would have yielded a more promising result, perhaps grounding the picture in a clearer emotional reality. Ultimately, Garfield is hampered by a dense tough script, which at times puts theme before character, and which arguably compromises the picture. Adam Driver excels as the taciturn Garupe. Ciaran Hinds gives a steely turn as Valignano. And Liam Neeson is masterfully restrained in his performance as the enigmatic Ferreira, who for all appearances seems to have strayed from the Christian path.

Visually, Silence is drenched in epicness, unfettered in the scale of Scorsese’s vision and almost David Leanean in its scope. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto crafts a cinematic tapestry woven by a master, rich in detail and texture yet retaining a clear visual economy. The rocky coastal faces are stretched out like bodies, the hellish cave’s suffocating, and the haunting dullness of the sky bleaches what would otherwise be paradise. Making it feel like an oppressive limbo, a no mans land between heaven and hell. With regards to music, Scorsese has opted for a sparse minimal score by Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge to accompany the film, but really it contributes little to the identity of the film. This seems unfortunate as Silence could have benefited greatly from a score designed to help give insight into the internal struggle of faith for Father Rodriguez and Father Garupe.

At the core of Silence, Scorsese seems to be asking, when reality is at its bleakest and you’re left drifting through purgatory, in the hope of eternal salvation, is it possible to maintain the light of hope in what seems to be total darkness? We’re also given a sense of the struggle of the conflicting philosophical positions of the West and the East. But this is limited by sticking entirely to Rodriguez’s perspective. I suspect giving some more insight into the alternative position could have strengthened our ability to empathize with Rodriguez.

Silence is a film which, at times, lingers in its own profundity, and, in moments, gets weighted down by exposition. But Scorsese is uncompromising in his devotion to his approach, bringing us on an unholy pilgrimage, illuminating the possibility for doubt to not just compromise our faith, but actually to strengthen it. It’s the kind of film I’m really on the fence about, I’ll either love it or hate it, but in my gut I suspect it will hold up much better under a second viewing. If the auteur filmmaking philosophy was two films for the Studio, one for me, then make no mistake this one’s for Scorsese and he’s earned it.

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