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February 3, 2016

Frank (2014)
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Actors: Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender

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Synopsis: Joe (Domhnall Gleeson), a suburban homeboy with dreams of becoming a songwriter, is fast-tracked into a position within an avant garde band led by the mask-wearing, Frank (Michael Fassbender), when their keyboardist is taken ill before a gig….

Review: After the slightly more conventional and dramaturgically centred works of Adam and Paul and What Richard Did, Lenny Abrahamson returns with this witty, intuitively cartoonish parable on the twin themes of individuality and creativity. Dramatising lonely, suburban bedroom artist, Joe, and his sudden ascension into the position as keyboardist for a hugely eccentric touring American band (replete with the eponymous ‘Frank’ – the lead singer permanently encased behind a bulbous, papier maché mask), Abrahamson makes such light, subtle work of this film’s potentially stodgy moral.

What’s clever about the underlying weight of Abrahamson’s tone, is that it’s so smooth and deadpan it takes a while to assimilate just how unexceptional and conformist Joe actually is. His early gauche attempts at songwriting, at rebellion against his suburban neighbourhood, and his gradual move to centre the band with a more mainstream sensibility seem initially more endearing and buffoonish than sinister – especially in his contemporary obsession with blithe updates on Twitter and his submission to the tyranny of ‘followers’, ‘views’ and ‘content’.

As Joe slinks away at the end, clearly not wanted in his band’s moving reunion as the non-conformist, ragtag bunch they’ve always wanted to be, the moral undertow of the film hits you. In many ways, it reminded me of David Mackenzie’s underrated and loosely similar The Last Great Wilderness, another story about troubled individuals undergoing a strange journey of transformation in the libertarian, celtic wilds. (February 2016)

Reservoir Dogs

January 28, 2016

Reservoir Dogs (1991)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi

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Synopsis: A group of hoodlums meet in a LA warehouse after a planned diamond heist has gone horribly wrong.

Review: This virtuoso, crackling piece of cinema is, along with Pulp Fiction, undoubted apex to the whole Quentin Tarantino oeuvre. Yes, there may be some valid fatigue in the reception of Tarantino’s more recent, blunter pieces of work, but Reservoir Dogs stands the test of time and deserves its reputation as one of the great cinematic debuts.

It’s ironic because Reservoir Dog is unquestionably the film with Tarantino’s lowest ever budget, yet that smallness of scope never feels a problem as he is able to wring such storytelling juice out of his scenario through exploiting the medium in just about every way possible. Some of the elongated dialogue sequences with their pop cultural detours are absolute genius, not just in the insanely detailed content but also through the clever way they are filmed and gradually reveal dynamics between the various hoodlums. The opening diner scene is simply immemorial with Steve Buscemi in particular holding court magnificently while lamenting his hatred of tipping, and the late flashback scene where the guys receive their colour moniker from Joe is epically funny (again, thanks in no small part to Buscemi, stewing over his ‘Mr Pink’ alias.)

It seems passé now but Tarantino’s jumbling of his chronology, his clever changes of tone and context of plot from the central, claustrophobic ‘gangsters in meltdown’ warehouse section to various character origin flashbacks, plus the ironic use of musical numbers and sudden camera pans to shift perspective, they were all sign of not only a master filmmaker but a master dramatist too. (January 2016)


The Revenant

January 23, 2016

The Revenant (2015)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson

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Synopsis: A group of rugged trappers in the wintry nether-regions of the Canadian wilderness in the 19th Century lose their transport and find themselves under siege from an enemy Native American tribe. When one of the group, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left near dead after a vicious bear attack, he is eventually abandoned to the wilds all on his own….

Review: Akin to the juggernaut that was Twelve Years A Slave from two years previous, The Revenant hits this year’s award season as the worthy, muscular ‘big hitter’, and judging by its reviews and box office figures so far, it’s conquered hearts and minds aplenty already, so let me sound a contrary voice amid the fanfare….

I found the film to be purveyor of an air of faux spiritualism, and, ironically on a similar bent to the previously mentioned Twelve Years A Slave, it confuses ‘epic’ with ‘meaningful’, and ‘sadism’ with ‘attrition’. Also, beneath The Revenant‘s earnest veneer of elemental savagery and brutality, it’s a staggeringly conventional story, supping from a very similar gooey syrup of pastoral and dreamy ‘lost wife and son visions’ to those of Gladiator – another film that bears uncanny similarity to The Revenant.

Of course, the film is immense to look at, but then I’d expect nothing less considering the subject matter, the budget, and the pedigree of director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. And even then, the ethereal white glow they balm their stark scenery in transmits as a slightly clunky effect to over-demonstrate this attritional/dreamy dialectic. I imagine González Iñárritu and Lubezki thought they were pitching the material somewhere along the lines of a Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog or Francis Ford Coppola number, yet they’ve ended up rolling out the hackneyed historical epic tropes of a Ridley Scott instead. (January 2016)


In Another Country

January 22, 2016

In Another Country (2012)
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Actors: Isabelle Huppert, Yoo Jun-sang, Kwon Hae-Hyo

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Synopsis: A young Korean screenwriter, struggling for money, invents three stories about a mature French woman, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), coming to a sleepy Korean seaside town…

Review: This slight and insubstantial Korean riff on a Lost in Translation style scenario is a work that won’t linger long in the memory, though at the very least it does provide one or two bizarre comic diversions and showcases a hitherto underdocumented corner of the globe (namely, a quiet Korean coastal town).

The humour is very wacky and East Asian: mimicking the European woman’s vanity at her pedestalisation by the Koreans, the Koreans’ gawky and deferent attitude to her, and there’s a play on the general inscrutability of the Korean sensibility to Western eyes. Hong Sang-soo tries to create an ironic narrative tapestry, à la Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, in having the same scenario of Anne coming to Mohang play out multiple times only with marginally tweaked raw materials each time. Sadly, the film is in such an unassuming, minor key, it’s almost instantly forgettable, although if nothing else, it does hint at the presence of an unusual, eccentric filmmaker with his jarring use of sharp pans and focuses, plus a nice feel for photography. (January 2016)


January 20, 2016

Spider (2002)
Director: David Cronenberg
Actors: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne

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Synopsis: Dennis ‘Spider’ Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) is a mentally fragile, middle-aged man relocated to a halfway house in the King’s Cross area of London. Over the following weeks, as Dennis wanders round the neighbourhood, which also happens to be his boyhood haunt, Dennis’s memories entwine with the distortions of his own mind…

Review: This interesting little curio from David Cronenberg is perhaps best enjoyed from a literary framework: it’s an exceedingly theatrical film (everything is subservient to ‘story’, and it really homes in on and prioritises the minutiae of performance), plus it’s a work entirely subsumed in the parlour-game of subtext. And quite rightly too, for what David Cronenberg has crafted is a work about the miasma of mental illness, and how some people live in an ulterior world constructed entirely by the way their brains have been shaped by the shadows, echoes and horrors of their past. Thus, while I call it a literary film, Cronenberg also makes it very tactile and interior, appropriating the way that the fearfully traumatised Dennis, aka ‘Spider’, receives the phenomena of the world around him: the ominous gas canister that lurks right across from the halfway house he’s been sent to, the seedy pubs and allotments he ghosts his way round, and even the elaborate spider motifs he’s forever associated with (from his own string patterns and metronomic scribblings, to the re-arrangement of a shattered pane of glass after another ‘patient’ in the house has a major temper tantrum.)

This subtextual element does lead to some transparently convenient devices such as Spider suddenly whispering slightly more emotional context and backstory than he might otherwise be able to (so the audience can follow of course!), and the comprehensible trope of Miranda Richardson as Spider’s mother slowly taking over all the female roles (to represent Spider’s bastardised Freudian angst) is a touch overly demonstrative and might have had more chilling effect if only thrown in a couple of times toward the climax. That apart, this an entirely admirable work by Cronenberg, and one has to especially admire his steadfastness and sense of austerity in committing to such a quiet, pungent story of the legacy of mental trauma – while also throwing in lovely moments of gallows visual humour too (the brown-watered bath and the vat of slops in the halfway house are two such gems.) (January 2016)

What Richard Did

January 17, 2016

What Richard Did (2012)
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Actors: Jack Reynor, Lars Mikkelsen, Roisin Murphy

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Synopsis: Richard (Jack Reynor) is the nominal alpha male in a large group of middle-class Dublin teenagers. One summer, Richard becomes fixated by winning the affection of Lara (Roisin Murphy) – the girlfriend of another guy on the fringes of his crowd – but the ripple of discord that lingers from the enmity between the two boys, and a sudden, violent act that Richard commits, sends huge shockwaves across the community.

Review: Back for my second helping of Lenny Abrahamson fare this weekend, and I’m equally as impressed with What Richard Did as I was with his smackhead tragicomedy, Adam and Paul. What I like about Abrahamson is that he’s a really great dramatist who (for the most part) manages to realise his stories so evocatively and cinematically. He’s an absolute master at conjuring a sense of atmosphere and tension, and by using the special properties of sound and scenery so purposefully. Watching this film, I was actually reminded of a similarity to some of the better works from French filmmaker, François Ozon, and how both directors are so sure-footed in making mysterious, yet such psychologically acute, cine-dramas.

Being hyper-critical, Abrahamson is tangibly battling with his material in the more interior second half of the film, as he has to characterise (read ‘demonstrate’) the fallout from the tragic act committed by lead character, Richard. There are lots of angsty close-ups, jump cuts and overlapping sequences of dialogue that strike me as Abrahamson trying to overwork the material a tad. This section of the film also has a touch of the ‘Nordic Noir’ about it too. Maybe I’ve been sucked in by the casting and presence of venerable Dane, Lars Mikkelsen, but Abrahamson selects a sour, blue-tinted sheen to his cinematography which mirrors much of the palette of recent Scandinavian TV output. And the scene where Richard confesses to his austere father is a touch portentous and has more than a whiff of the worthy ‘Actors Workshop’ about it.

That aside, where Abrahamson is beyond reproach, and in fact quite masterly, is in What Richard Did‘s forensic dissection of its middle-class milieu: from the subtle framing of the alpha-teen, blue-blooded rugby cult, to the icy legacy of status that Richard’s family and their various homes emit, to the brilliant portrayal of Richard himself – a precociously confident teenager, with an almost sociopathic bent that manifests itself in a narcissism that’s gratified by sexual conquests, to a chronic machismo which sadly, under the distorting effect of alcohol, slips out just once, but crucially so, when his one-time love rival is lying reeling on the floor….(January 2015)

Adam and Paul

January 16, 2016

Adam and Paul (2004)
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Actors: Mark O’Halloran, Tom Murphy, Gerry Moore

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Synopsis: Destitute no-hopers, Adam (Mark O’Halloran) and Paul (Tom Murphy), wander haplessly around Dublin, trying desperately to scam some money so they can score a hit….

Review: Adam and Paul is one of the most intelligent and perfectly controlled pieces of cinematic storytelling I’ve seen in recent times, and offers clear evidence as to why the career of its director, Lenny Abrahamson, sky-rocketed from this point on. 

The film opens on a simply exquisite sequence of observational comedy which stands as fitting emblem for the overall excellence of Abrahamson’s craft: two smackheads, Adam and Paul, wake up abjectly on some isolated scrubland on the outskirts of Dublin, and Paul has to comically extract Adam from the disused bed mattress he’s somehow found himself glued to. It’s both an unbelievably funny instance of slapstick, while offering subliminal, darker social commentary – namely, how did these two guys end up in that situation (the implication is due to awful, squalid reasons), and what on earth do they do with their day(s) from this point going forward? It’s also a beautifully framed scene, with Adam and Paul’s travails shadowed by the industrial, metropolitan landscape of Dublin that they’re destined to enter to presumably hustle for chemical, fiscal (and emotional) succour.

What Abrahamson gets so right is this tricky blend of quite remarkable comedy – mining an ambience both farcical and of the bleakly ‘gallows’ variety – with a wider social critique. Although Adam and Paul are to some extent pitiable characters, most of the acts they commit are actually extremely criminal and antisocial – an attempt at carjacking, stealing bags in cafes, and even robbing a Down Syndrome boy. The mastery of Abrahamson’s narration is that without the humorous rhetoric the film would actually have been rather sinister and venal. And sure enough, Adam and Paul’s ‘Day in the Life of’ odyssey has an inevitable undertow to it, ending cyclically enough with both of them drugged out of their heads on the same stretch of Dublin coastline, only this time with a tragic, rather than comic, morning surprise….(January 2016)


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