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The glass may be half empty but it will contain good whiskey. I write film reviews for http://www.scannain.com/ , say hi and we can debate films forever and ever and ever...... Warning this blog may contain more than just film talk.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

With a heavy heart I will be putting CineIreland on hold. Life has got in the way and I just do not have the time to give it the proper attention it needs. To all the people who have visited the blog, many thanks. To all the people I have chatted to on Twitter about it, cheers for the support. To the films and projects I didn’t get around to reviewing, apologies. There just hasn’t been the time. It has been a fun few years and I have seen some great Irish films. Perhaps the most surprising thing for me in the last year was finding the low budget Irish film area in rude health. Make the effort to find them, it is worth it.

Most of all thank you to everyone who took the time to read the reviews. I have tried to be fair and honest and if I didn’t like something I would endeavour to explain why. I think that criticism of Irish film is getting better. Where it used to be either a slating or over hyping with nothing in between, there is now a more considered approach (for the most part). This can only be good for our films.

Anyway I will still be writing for Scannain.com so you can check out my reviews, interviews and articles on that fine site. Who knows, I may re-activate the blog at some point in the future and give it the attention it deserves. But it will remain online should you want to look up any of the reviews.



Thursday, 13 February 2014

Film Review - Calvary (2014)

From the opening scene it is clear John Michael Mc Donagh is aiming for a weightier tone than the lighter one successfully employed in his previous box office smash The Guard. An older looking and bearded Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a priest who at the beginning is sitting in the confession box. Off-screen we hear someone enter and start talking. There follows a quite astonishingly worded first line by the off screen character (mentioned in surprised awe by the Father James after it is spoken. Indeed there is some reflexive play on writing and characterisation littered throughout Calvary). The camera stays on Gleeson’s wonderful face throughout. The set up for the film is established in this scene: Father James has a week to get his house in order before he is murdered. This sets in motion a week where Father James meets up with all his regular parishioners (played by an assortment of famous Irish faces) and starts to think about how he has spent his years as a priest. There is also the small matter of family issues to deal with.  

The film is sectioned into days of the week which propels it forward nicely towards the inevitable showdown. It is clear that Father James is heavily involved in the lives of his parishioners. And what a group they are: there is Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) the town butcher having marital difficulties. He believes his wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) is having an affair with Simon (Isaach De BankolĂ©). There is the rich banker Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) with difficulties money can’t buy. There is also Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) the most cynical of doctors. We also have Milo (Killian Scott) who is lonely desperately so and local barman Brendan (Pat Shortt) who watches and sees everything. It should also be mentioned that legendary character actor M. Emmet Walsh turns up as a reclusive American writer. Add to all this Father James has to deal with Bishop Montgomery (David Mc Savage) and inept priest Father Timothy Leary (David Wilmot). There are a lot of troubles ahead.

There is a touch of an Agatha Christie whodunit about the set up here. Each character could conceivably hold a grudge if not against the priest certainly against the Catholic Church. This seems to be Mc Donagh’s theme here. Does a good man have to keep apologising for the wrongs of an organisation? And more importantly should he die for that organisation? Not for nothing is this film called Calvary. There is a lot to like about this film. As mentioned Gleeson is always a pleasure on screen and it is great to see him in a leading role. But for me the problems far outweigh the good qualities on show. Whilst the acting from the cast is pretty good very few of them can get under the skin of the characters they are playing (Chris O’Dowd is a notable exception). This is mainly due to a quite frankly poor screenplay. Some of the dialogue is fine and occasionally inspired. But the main problem with the screenplay is the same that plagued The Guard, namely the characters speaking the same cod philosophy and phraseology. Here it is expanded out to a much larger cast. The effect of this is exhausting meaning we never really get to know any of the characters (there a lot of speaking roles, more than even mentioned in the last paragraph, far too many really). This is all fine if you place the film within a heightened universe, so the dialogue can be played up theatrically say. But this so grounded in the admittedly beautiful Sligo soil that the words sound ridiculous and staged when they should sound heartfelt and realistic.

Calvary will no doubt have its fans. Indeed it would be nice to see an Irish Film Board funded film do well at the box office. But there is a sense here that Mc Donagh has not really moved on from The Guard. And with the success of that film maybe he does not need to. But for me this is a film that despite some good moments, a great cast and some gorgeous cinematography just does not work. By the time the final act happens (which aims for and fails to achieve a kind of operatic grandeur) you just do not really care. A missed opportunity. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Film Review - Jack and Ralph Plan a Murder (2014)

All it takes is one inspired moment in a movie to get you in sync with it. I had been enjoying Jack and Ralph Plan a Murder up to a point but had not quite clicked with it. In truth, the scatological tone of the film is not generally my cup of tea but the performances and the story had kept me interested. The story concerns Jack (Jeff Doyle, also writer and director) a meek guy who is bullied mercilessly by co-worker Pat (a splendidly odious Chris Newman). Jack is in love with Laura (Aisling Bodkin) who also works in the office. Jack is advised on life by his imaginary best friend, the titular Ralph (Johnny Elliot, unapologetically profane) and it is Ralph who suggests that they devise a plan to kill Pat. So far so good but I was looking for something to hook me in. The scene that did occurs when Jack is in ‘training’ to kill Pat. Himself and Ralph (but really just himself) come across a dog in a park. The ensuing scene with the dog rendered me helpless with laughter. I was in and ready to laugh at things I really should know better than to laugh at.

Throughout the film Jack is encouraged by Ralph to fight back against various different people. But the device is really there so Jack can try to give himself some courage. There is a really nice scene after Jack has an accident at a party.  It is a quiet conversation with Laura on the street at night. Under the street lights we see that at that moment Jack is frightened not of Pat but of Laura and indeed reaching out. It is reflected in the yellow hue that surrounds him and this makes for a surprisingly subtle and effective scene. To be honest my only real criticism of the film is that the situation Jack finds himself in is a very real one and there are some missed opportunities for some genuine pathos here. But Doyle is going for the jugular regarding dark comedy and there is no doubt there will be something for everyone to be offended by.

Indeed there is a terrific line said early on by Pat to Laura describing Jack: ‘I heard he watched Schindler’s List and laughed all the way through’. If you find this funny this may well be the film for you. This line whilst been very funny to me also sums up very nicely that Jack is a very troubled man. Seen talking to himself (or Ralph) by various people does mean that we strongly suspect that Jack has some sort of mental illness. This adds a layer of tension to the film and gives an occasional moment when you think Jack might become tragically out of control. But a laugh is never far away to cut this tension.

The cast for such a low budget film is really good. Newman and Doyle impress as does Johnny Elliot who plays Ralph with a kind of swaggering ‘Kilgore in Apocalypse Now’ vibe. Bodkin makes the most of a decent but quite small role as Laura. There are a couple of small cameos by Peter Coonan and John Connors. Coonan plays a pimp who made me laugh with the most graphic assault on food I have ever witnessed. I laughed and winced. Connors is fast becoming one of the most promising actors in Ireland and he adds to that reputation here as a kind of religious figure for Jack to talk to.

Overall Jack and Ralph Plan a Murder is a film that will not be to everyone’s taste. But that is quite all right. A film cannot be all things to all people. But there are quite a few laughs to be had, it is well acted and really nicely shot (great to see Smithfield looking so well, an underused area for filming in). I am genuinely interested to see what Jeff Doyle does next and for me that is as good a recommendation for a first film as there is. 

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Film Review - Trampoline (2014)

Given Ireland’s reputation for the gift of the gab and its high rate of people attending college it is surprising that there hasn’t been more films about people leaving education and finding their feet in life. Trampoline, at its centre, tells the story of an educated woman in her mid 20s trying to make sense of the world with no real experience of it. It has a feeling of the talky US indies that litter film festivals these days (St. Francis Ha anyone?) but has its own easygoing charm. Trampoline’s main story involves Angie (Aoife Spratt) who returns home to Nenagh from London to take up a temporary teaching position at a local school. She reconnects with her family and friends at the same time as she tries to make sense of where she is going. Plot-wise this is about the size of it in Tom Ryan’s micro budget debut feature film. There is certain trepidation in watching debut Irish features particularly with a very small budget: you want them to be good because it is clearly a heroic endeavour to get a film made and released with practically no money. They are generally passion projects and the last thing filmmakers want to hear is a reviewer dumping on their dreams. Watching the first twenty or so minutes of Trampoline, I had started to worry. There was the familiar tension in the family reunion with a past issue to be resolved. There was also a group of bored girls to be reached in the classroom so the potential for a Dead Poets Society scenario hung over the early part of the film.

Happily Ryan avoided most of these pitfalls quite smartly. The family issues were brought to the fore, notably in a terrific scene between Aoife and her mum (Margaret Walsh) but were not overdone. It also turns out quite refreshingly that Aoife is not that much of a teacher and her methods are questionable to say the least (watch out for her recommendation instead of reading The Great Gatsby). The real issue in this film is about the place in society for people who leave college qualified and enter into a job market with no jobs. The real question for Aoife is ‘should she stay or should she go?’ This is discussed directly and indirectly over the course of the film with fellow teacher Maria (Niamh Algar), best friend Kate (Audrey Hamilton) and love interest everyman James (Eddie Murphy) who dreams of getting out.

This is a film that could easily slip past you without you noticing. It is a slight thing, full of tiny moments. There are some scenes early on in the film that could have been edited a little tighter as they tend to go on a little. But the last 20 – 25 minutes of the film is where it really works. Most of this is down to the wonderful Aoife Spratt who anchors the film in a very real way. She has a young Pauline Mc Lynn vibe, all charm and mischievous eyes. Indeed it is wonderful to see a woman in the main role of an Irish film, it really doesn’t happen very often. My main fault with the film is that at times it is almost too wordy, particularly in the early part. In the second half it becomes a little more about visual storytelling and the film is better for it. There is a beautiful final shot that is a perfect example of how to show something instead of telling you something. It is delightful.

Director Tom Ryan has made a low key film that will probably divide audiences a little bit. If the charm washes over you it will be an enjoyable experience. If not, you may find yourself a little bored. But Ryan is a writer and director to watch out for. Given a decent budget and a more ambitious scope he could well become an important Irish filmmaker over the next few years. 

Trampoline goes on release from the 21st February at the Ormond Cineplex Nenagh.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Film Review - Limp

2013 was not a vintage year for Irish film. There were some exceptions of course but a small handful of films aside, the quality was down on 2012 which was an excellent year. It is an odd thing in a lot of ways exclusively reviewing Irish films. You really want them to be good and when they are not, you do not want to kick them around and hurt their chances to get wider distribution. At the same time you do not want to over-hype a film and disappoint an audience. This has been the case in the past and nothing makes an already sceptical audience even more tentative when approaching the next ‘great’ Irish film. All that can be done is to be fair, if you do not like something, say so but crucially explain why. It sounds simple but it is not done as much as it should be. So as I approached my first film of 2014 I was hoping for something to give me that feeling of optimism, something to make me think that 2014 could be our year. My first film of 2014 was Shaun Ryan’s Limp and if this is the standard that is being set it looks like being a fine year indeed.

Limp tells the story of Mr. Grot (Eoin Quinn) who lives the most solitary of lives. Seemingly permanently in his own head, his days seem punctuated with whatever fantasy he can concoct. We can tell early on that something is very wrong. The pulsing soundtrack (take a bow Chris Zabriskie) accompanies Mr. Grot on a shopping expedition to some women’s clothes shops. Of course he could be buying a present for his wife or girlfriend but something in the way he touches the dresses make you suspect he is not. It is this moment early on in the film that is key to the success of Eoin Quinn in the central role. Calm and quiet but silently screaming, the curdling loneliness and flashes of anger flit across his face every so often. He comes home after buying a dress and director Ryan shows his confidence with a superb long take in which we discover the full horror of Mr. Grots living arrangements.

It is not a spoiler to say that Mr Grot has a dead woman in his apartment. A former co-worker Catherine (Anne Gill) has been missing for a while and while we do not see what happened to her we do see the aftermath. That in a nutshell is where the power of Limp resides. It is a kind of horror film but not gruesome in the slightest. It is about the horror of decay, be it spiritual, mental or physical. It leaves so much to the imagination, forcing your mind to turn over the possible details. We see scenes either real or imagined from Mr. Grot’s point of view. These have a nightmarish and hallucinatory quality. This gives an insight to the growing sickness in Mr. Grot's mind. There is a genuine question that takes shape midway through the film. Will the ‘happy’ couple reside in the apartment until someone comes knocking or will Mr. Grot make a decision that will change everything.

There are a couple of minor problems with Limp. The first one is that the film is only about an hour long. I have no idea if this will make distribution more difficult but I hope not as it is a film that deserves a proper release. I also have a problem with some of the names in the film. The name Mr. Grot could have been a little less on the nose. I also could live the rest of my life without seeing working class ‘scumbags’ being called Anto and Jacinta. Filmmakers, working class people have other names, they do not all end with a vowel. But these are minor quibbles.

Shaun Ryan has assembled a fine film here. There is even a series of scenes not obviously connected to the main narrative that are revealed to be not quite what you think they are. For this I applaud the filmmaker. He has obviously watched enough horror films to know that the power of them lives in the lack of information given. Limp is more of a mood piece than a classical horror narrative and is all the better for it. The two main actors give fine performances with Quinn in particular an uneasy presence. The film is scratchy and nervous just like its lead character. Limp is a very good calling card on what looks like quite a low budget. I for one look forward to what he does next.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

My Irish film awards for 2013

Although it pains me to say it, it has not been a particularly vintage year for Irish film. There were none released that were particularly bad per se, more that there was precious little to get excited about. That being said, for the second year in a row 2 Irish films will make it into my top 20 films of the year (one in my top 5). So positivity is necessary here. The ones that were good were really good. Instead of doing a list, I am going to do what I did last year and give out arbitrary and imaginary awards to those who deserved them. It is more fun to come up with silly names quite frankly. So without further ado…

The make me laugh and cry award (aka best Irish film of 2013) - Good Vibrations

This is a film that blindsided me this year. It tells the story of Terri Hooley, record shop owner, music producer, dreamer and bad husband who brought punk to Belfast in the 1970s and 80s. This film is an absolute joy to behold, emotional without being cloying, harsh without being brutal. There are tears and laughs in equal measure but crucially they are earned with a terrific tone and a great screenplay. Richard Dormer is terrific in the main role. The scene when he hears a certain record for the first time is just beautiful to behold. This is an absolute triumph and it is easily the best Irish film of 2013.

The ‘What’s Up Doc?’ award – Broken Song

The best Irish documentary this year was the wonderful Broken Song directed by Claire Dix. It tells the story of a group of young lads who rap. They are predominantly from the Finglas/Ballymun area of Dublin. Git and Costello have a father/son relationship which they both seem to draw on for lyrical inspiration. They also try to mentor some of the younger kids of the area. The songs themselves are lyrically brilliant, the content reflecting lives lived and dreams that slipped away. Into this comes singer/songwriter Willa Lee, who has a voice most singers would kill for. But he is also a troublemaker and a little bit too lazy. Dix delves lightly into their pasts but without reducing the film to working class misery porn which can happen in films such as this. At its heart, Broken Song is a simple story well told. And it is all the better for it.

The ‘overnight sensation’ award - Paul Duane

If you do not know who he is now he will be more familiar to you in 2014. Duane has had a superb year with Barbaric Genius released on DVD, a superb documentary (Natan) on the way, and a TV show about to air on RTE and BBC 4 (Amber). If that is not enough Variety only went and named him on their highly prestigious 10 Directors to watch in 2014 list. He is an all round good egg and very entertaining on Twitter (@MrPaulDuane). Mark my words this time next year he could be announced as the director of Transformers 5. We can only hope he can resist the lure of Hollywood and keep making the quality Irish films he has been making.

The ‘this kid’s got something’ first film award - Gerard Barrett Pilgrim Hill

Pilgrim Hill was released to talk of an instant classic and of a serious talent to behold. The talk of a masterpiece doesn’t help either the filmmaker or Irish film in general. Pilgrim Hill is not a masterpiece but it is a good enough film to suggest the birth of a major Irish filmmaker. The story of Jimmy Walsh and his life on his farm is lean, beautifully shot and very confident. It has a feeling of authenticity rarely seen. You get the feeling that Barrett and lead actor Joe Mullins know this terrain very well. They have carved out a memorable and low key film with a great central character at the heart of it. I cannot wait for Barrett’s next film to come along.

The 1st Annual ‘just release the f*cking film will ya’ award – Tin Can Man

This is an easy winner. It is Tin Can Man by Ivan Kavanagh. It will be the same winner every year until this film gets a cinema release. Seriously people you have no idea how good this film is. Hassle your local TD. It needs to be seen.

A couple of honourable mentions. Citadel by Ciaran Foy was a very interesting film that fell away into genre conventions a little too much. But there is more than enough to suggest that he will make something excellent in the future.

It has not been on general release yet but the excellent documentary Where I Am by Pamela Drynan is a terrific and humbling story of what happened to American writer Robert Drake. It did screen in the IFI over the summer so I do not know if is getting a general release. It has been an excellent year for Irish documentaries as evidenced by the above choices and I have still to see The Summit! I will do so soon.

So that is it for 2013. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for an article on Irish cinema in 2014 which I will publish over the next couple of weeks.  

Film Review - Stalker

Director Mark O’Connor arrived at the Galway Film Fleadh with a bang in 2012. Armed with a manifesto and two films under his arm he wanted to shake up the Irish film industry a little bit. The two films were King of the Travellers (released in cinemas this year) and his latest film Stalker which is yet to be released. The manifesto got quite a bit of press and Stalker was second in the best Irish feature award (no shame in being second to the excellent Good Vibrations) and was widely praised at the time. So why hasn’t the film arrived on our screens? Irish films need publicity to stand a chance of being seen at the cinemas and considering the marketing budgets are miniscule surely festival goodwill is an opportunity to help with the marketing a little bit. This is an argument that will run and run about why we do not see Irish films at the cinema and it is one I am sure I will be returning to. But coming back to Stalker, what does Mark O’Connor have in store for us? Well for me Stalker is as fascinating an Irish film as I have seen in quite some time.

Stalker tells the story of Oliver (John Connors), a homeless man wandering the streets who befriends a young boy called Tommy (Barry Keoghan) who he helps fight off bullies. Tommy’s life is in a bad way with a drug addicted mother and a crazy drug dealing uncle Rudyard (Peter Coonan). Oliver vows to help Tommy but his intensity scares Tommy a little. Plot wise that is about it but this is a film less inclined towards plot and more towards tone and feeling.

In my reviews of O’Connor’s previous films Between the Canals and King of the Travellers I mentioned that his films feel a little rough around the edges. That may have sounded like a criticism and in some ways it was. But it is also a compliment in that it gives his films a particular feel and tone that not all Irish filmmakers have. In Stalker he is aided by some beautiful camera work by Eoin Macken which initially brings a touch of the fairytale to an otherwise dark film. In the final third the camera work is used in a heightened fashion which also serves the ending well. So the look of the film is excellent - what about the rest of it?

John Connors is superb as Oliver; completely convincing as someone with some serious mental health problems. He is also co-writer here and he is a real talent. He commands the screen in a very naturalistic way and it looks effortless. Barry Keoghan is also very good and is an actor to watch. The two share some scenes that are intense and emotional. Peter Coonan is his usual manic self and his character Rudyard is an odious one. But Coonan plays it a little too broad and over the top at times and I would like to have seen a little more control in the performance.

The film does have some issues. There is a scene set in a cinema that is a little unconvincing. While I liked the idea of the scene, the way it plays out doesn’t really ring true. I don’t want to give away any more details that would spoil it but it comes across as a little too on the nose in relation to the state of modern Irish filmmaking. Perhaps it is the script that is at fault here as it gives Oliver too much information to impart. It is the only time in the film that Oliver sounds like he is explicitly delivering the words and viewpoint of the writer rather than just talking. There is also a bit of a problem towards the climax when the plot and narrative take over. Stalker (and indeed O’Connor) is at its best when it is freewheeling along without any real narrative concern. The utterly strange feeling is more than enough to sustain real interest. But the film rallies to deliver a really intense and feverish climax that works very well indeed.

There is a real feeling here that with Stalker, Mark O’Connor has finally found his cinematic voice. Stalker has a more experimental feel and this benefits O’Connor hugely. This approach may well produce a masterpiece in the future. And with the wonderful John Connors writing and starring with him he may well have found his muse. I for one look forward to the next two films arriving in Galway.