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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.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Films: less of, more of, ideas to lose and new ones to think about

  1. The Troubles

In cinematic terms this genre (as it can probably now be called) has been flogged to death. There are so many Irish films that have been made on this subject that we are at the stage of seriously diminishing returns. Films like Nothing Personal, Anton, The Devil’s Own, Resurrection Man, A Further Gesture, Some Mother’s Son, Bloody Sunday, Blown Away, Cal and Fifty Dead Men Walking are just some of the titles that come to mind. Of course there have been good and interesting films on the subject such as The Crying Game and Hunger which have added to the genre. But enough! More time needs to pass for a proper re-visiting. If we are to probe our past, where better to start than the 1916 rebellion with the one hundredth anniversary coming up soon. Surely that is a subject ripe for a revisionist take?

  1. The dumb Garda

How many films must we have in this country were the Gardaí are portrayed as hapless idiots. This may have begun accidentally with the famous Kit-Kat advertisement of the Garda traffic police at the side of the road who misses a car driving past him because he is having a break. Please give stupid, greedy and corrupt Gardaí a break on screen. Indeed we can see a somewhat similar character in the big Irish film at the moment, The Guard. In fact nearly all of the Gardaí portrayed in that film are either stupid or corrupt. Admittedly this extends to other countries as well but it would be good to see, just once, a film where the Garda is not divorced/alcoholic/corrupt/obsessed with one case that got away, why not somebody who just genuinely wants to do their job and go home?

  1. Be more universal

Where are the stories of the immigration to Ireland and its influences on the native culture? Sure there is a token foreigner in some of the films released in the last few years. There is a wealth of stories to be told about the immigration of the new Irish in the 1990s and 2000s. Parallel to this, there is also the story of the 1980s in Ireland with massive emigration from these shores. Jim Sheridan’s In America is about the only film that touches on this.

Another area worth ranting about in this context is the lack of an angry response on film to the global financial crisis and our relationship to it. What about Ireland’s role within the EU and where we fit into it? These are important areas that need to be explored. Stuart Townsend’s Battle in Seattle is the only film by an Irish filmmaker who has touched on this area.

  1. Genres

Genre is a very interesting area when we are discussing Irish film. Apart from some recent examples it is not something we have done a lot of. In fairness we have had an interesting version of the musical with John Carney’s Once, and there have been variations on the zombie film (Dead Meat) and more recently the post apocalyptic story (One Hundred Mornings). This is a trend it would be good to see continuing and expanding in future. We obviously have made other films in genre terms like the troubles or the Irish gangster film (The General). But where are the modern Irish interpretations of Film Noir or of the Western for example? I think that an Irish spin on classic genres like these would make some very interesting films in the next few years.

  1. Promotion and Distribution

This is a tricky area that there is not an obvious solution for. The success of The Guard (€2 million at the Irish Box Office at time of writing) shows what can be done if you give an Irish film the advertising budget needed. This coupled with strong word of mouth can propel a film if marketed properly. The success of Ken Wardop’s His & Hers which had a record run at the now closed Lighthouse cinema (to be left for another article’s discussion) is an interesting case in point. A documentary about the lives of seventy women of all ages in the midlands of Ireland does not particularly sound like box office gold but is another example of what can be done if films are advertised to the right audience. If there is a little more bravery in spending some money on marketing there is every chance that we could see more Irish films in the cinema with an audience to see them.

Where do you stand on some of the areas raised? Have I missed out on examples that you could recommend? Please let me know below so we can start a much needed debate on these areas.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Film Review - I Went Down (1997)

After reviewing The Guard last week and then hearing about how successful it is in Irish cinemas I decided to look back and review the film it most reminded me of, I Went Down. Paddy Breathnach's film, written by playwright Conor Mc Pherson was a box office success in Ireland back in 1997 (I saw it in the cinema myself) so I went online to see if I could buy a copy. Lo and behold it is not available to buy on DVD. Readers of my blog will know that I bemoaned the lack of a DVD release for How to Cheat In The Leaving Certificate in a previous review but to some degree I could understand this, it is a shame but it is not as well known as I Went Down. But this is a national disgrace, when will sink in that we will never get people to watch Irish films in a consistent way if they cannot even buy a copy of films that are released. Don't forget this film had a successful run at the Irish box office. The Irish Film Board and BBC films really need to get their act together and release this film. There is even a facebook campaign to get it released and I urge you to sign up to it. Suffice to say, that I managed to 'obtain' a copy of the film online to watch and review but really it should not have to come to this.

The film's plot is relatively simple. A couple of days after getting out of prison Git (Peter Mc Donald) intercedes in an argument his friend Anto (David Wilmot) is having with dodgy bookies about gambling debts he owes. Git breaks a bottle and disfigures one of the bookies who turns out to be working for local gangster Tom French (Tony Doyle). To make it right he has to go to Cork to bring back an associate of French's called Frank (Peter Caffrey). French tells him to go down with one of the others who work for him, Bunny Kelly (Brendan Gleeson) and that Anto will stay with him as hostage until it is done. This is the set up for a classic Hollywood style buddy/road movie, in the style of Midnight Run.

The film itself is a small classic. Beautifully shot by Cian de Buitléar with lots of wide shots of a stunning Irish countryside at the magic hour, the films look is far superior to its budget. It is primarily a comedy with an undercurrent of melancholy running through it. Gleeson is brilliant and can do these parts in his sleep, initially he plays Bunny as a buffoon but in Mc Pherson's sharp and layered script he is revealed as quite a vulnerable character. But the real star of this film for me is Peter Mc Donald, who's character Git is the heart of the film, sad and stoic to what life can throw at him. All of the cast excel, with a special mention for the late Tony Doyle as the Mr. French who has some of the best lines in the film which I will not spoil here.

There is perhaps one scene that the film could have easily lost which is an extended period flashback explaining the background relationship between Frank and Mr. French. It is unconvincing and not needed at all in the overall context. The title of the film itself is open to interpretation of meaning. There is obviously a sexual connotation which is alluded to at the very end of the film, but it also refers to Git going to prison and both Git and Bunny's trip down to Cork which changes both of them. I Went Down is a funny, touching and beautiful film which achieves what The Guard did not, a completely successful marrying of comedic tone, visual style, and strong direction and which also happens to be a rich character study. Just don't be expecting to see it anytime soon unfortunately.

Update: I Went Down is now available to buy on DVD. Alas lots of Irish films still are not.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Film Review - The Guard (2011)

It is tempting to compare John Michael Mc Donaghs The Guard with his brother Michael Mc Donaghs superficially similar In Bruges. Both star Brendan Gleeson and both are the rarest of Irish films, box office hits in their native country. They were both advertised in their respective trailers as comedies but with a dark heart. But there is a difference in tone which becomes apparent when The Guard begins. It does not go for the jugular and make its characters potentially unlikeable which is the case in In Bruges. The Guard owes its debt to classic Hollywood standards to such as the buddy movies, fish out of water comedies and westerns. Whereas In Bruges is on the surface is also a buddy comedy it quickly becomes a quieter, sadder and more complex and even moving film. The Guard however, whilst aiming for something similar it unfortunately falls short.

The Guard tells the story of Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) a garda with a love of drink and women who gets caught up in an international drug ring investigation led by FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) after he finds one member of the drug ring murdered. This type of film, with the mis-matched pair of leads has been done so many times before and The Guard doesn’t add a lot to it here. The script by John Michael Mc Donagh has some very un-PC and funny lines but falls curiously flat overall. The roles of the villains are particularly underwritten, with only Mark Strong as the ‘Brit’ emerging with any character. His scene with the two policemen who he is paying off is one of the more memorable in the film. His weariness as he patiently explains to them why the money he is bribing them with is all there and accounted for is very funny indeed. The other problem with the villains roles is the propensity for them to keep throwing out philosophical quotes throughout the movie. This is seemingly to add more depth to the stock characters but has the opposite effect and becomes wearisome. There is also a sub plot with Gerry Boyles mother who is dying but this fails to add any real depth to his character or the film in general as it fells like it is tacked on.

Still there is fun to be had when Gleeson is on screen. The role of film lead rests easily on his shoulders and he is the main reason to see the film as he is given nearly all the best lines. Cheadle acquits himsef admirably as the straight man to Gleesons character but receives none of the great lines in the script and he is only seems to exist to react to to Boyles outrageous statements. There are some uncomfortably racist lines in the film which do get some great laughs. When Sgt. Boyle says to Everett that he thought all drug dealers were black, pauses for a beats and then adds or Mexican there is a real uncomfortable laugh to be had. The best line in the film has to be when Gleeson is asked to explain about his racism he explains; ‘Racism, sure its part of the Irish culture’. It is with moments like this that the script sparkles but there are not enough of such moments to sustain the plot which is quite thin to begin with.

Overall The Guard is a film worth seeing in the cinema. It is a perfect Friday night film that will entertain if you do not expect too much from it. If you are expecting a film with the quality and execution of In Bruges you are going to be disappointed. But there are so many poor films that earn phenomenal sums of money at the box office that is easy to justify seeing The Guard on the big screen. You may find that it does not quite live up to the pre release hype and the overly praised reviews. But while it is an entertaining film you may find that apart from Brendan Gleeson performance and the occasional sparkling dialogue you may not remember much else about it.

Monday, 4 July 2011

What is an Irish film?

By the very broadest definition of the subject anything from Braveheart to Saving Private Ryan could be Irish. To most fans of cinema this is clearly not the case. However to define an Irish film can be fairly tricky enterprise. This very identification is at the very heart of our understanding of Irish cinema as a whole. Take a film like In Bruges. It is written and directed by an Irishman, stars two Irish actors but is set in the town of its title. It was funded by Film 4 so does this make it make it an English film? Such arguments are vital to our understanding of the notion of our national cinema.

Geffin Pictures, David Geffin’s film production company funded two of Neil Jordan’s most famous movies Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy. These two films would probably be considered Irish films by most people with an interest in film. So the important question would seem to be, does anyone really care where the money comes from? If your film has an Irish sensibility surely this enough regardless of whether you are funded by Warner Brothers or The Irish Film Board? Guinness is still considered by many people all over the world as an important Irish product and symbol yet it is now owned by the large international company Diageo. If you consider the amount of Irish actors and craftsman who worked on Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy combined with the subject matter of both they would definitely have to be seen as Irish films.

And yet, films that show Ireland in a clichéd light, such as Leap Year, we distance ourselves from the very idea that they would be construed as an Irish film. In that particular film it is worth noticing that despite the similarities to films previously mentioned such as location and Hollywood money there is a real marked difference that I do think really defines what an Irish film is. The key thing here is writing and directing from an Irish perspective. Both Martin Mc Donagh and Neil Jordan, the writers and directors of the above mentioned films are Irish and how they write their scripts (interestingly they are also both writers as well, Neil Jordan a novelist and Mc Donagh is a playright) and shoot their films suggests a sympathetic Irish sensibility.

There seems to be an interesting new development in funding models with the Irish film becoming part of European co-productions. I think this expands the borders of what an Irish film can be even further. As one of the mainstays of the European Union and a country which has received immigrants to these shores in decent numbers for two decades now, there is the feeling that Irish film will change with the times. This could be with films with a more European or International flavour. Films such as Juanita Wilsons As If I Am Not There and Lapland Odyssey show the types of co-productions that we may see more of in the future.

With the price of film kits plummeting in the last few years the democratisation of filmmaking in Ireland is now finally here. Anyone can now make a film which in itself a good thing although but the mantra should be that quality should not be lost at the expense of quantity. Possibly for the first time in our film history there is a chance for everyone with an interest in making films to go and do so. The next decade could well be one of the most exciting times in Irish cinema history.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Film Review - How To Cheat In The Leaving Certificate (1997)/ Rant

Following the suicide of his friend Cian after being caught cheating in his exams Fionn (Garret Baker) sets out to beat the system and find a way to cheat in the Leaving Certificate.

This simple premise is executed in classic Hollywood caper style, with various team members brought together for their expertise; the electronics expert, the locksmith etc. This kind of heist film has been done so may times before but is pulled off with a certain kind of style here. It is nice to see a Hollywood style film like this played out in Ireland and the black and white photography adds to the classic feel. The film is written in a sparse style by Tadhg O Higgins, Aislinn O Loughlin and director Graham Jones and is filmed in much the same way. It does feel at times that you are looking at a well made home movie and I can only imagine it was shot on a very low budget which for most of the running time it manages to hide.

Thanks to the complaints of our politicians, particularly Junior Minister for Education at the time Willie O Dea, the film received some no doubt welcome free pubicity. No doubt those same politicians had not even seen the movie because if they had all they would have seen was a passionate argument about the need for reformation of the education system. The shock tactic of cheating the system is a great way to bring this debate right into the heart of the political arena.

The acting in the film from the young and unknown cast is ok, with some doing better than others. There is a host of cameo roles from some of Irelands best known celebreties of the time including Eamon Morrissey, Mick Lally, Shay Healy and Joe Duffy. But the kudos must go to pop star Chris de Burgh who all but steals the film in an hilarious and creepy two minute turn. 'Athlone is the centre of Ireland, did you know that? Ann maybe the centre of the universe'. Wonderful stuff and probably the best line in the film.

How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate is not a classic by any means but is certainly a film worth seeking out. But don't think for a second you can just go out and buy it as it does not seem to be available on DVD. Considering the sheer number of mediocre films on DVD it seems a shame that it is not available as a DVD. It would seem a release just before the Leaving Certificate with maybe a commentary by the director and writers and some extre footage of the politicians reactions to the film would make a nice little package. How are we supposed to have a proper film industry if we cannot even buy the films that we make? A debate for another day perhaps. If you do want to see it you can do as I did and watch on Youtube below. We should do a little better than this.

Should there be more older Irish films released on DVD?

Which ones would you like to see? Let me know below.