Art Will Save The World (Niall McCann, 2010)

Artwillsave

For his first feature, Niall McCann bravely sets himself the unenviable task of deconstructing former Auteurs main-man, Luke Haines. The Auteurs were hailed as The Next Big Thing by the U.K. music press in the mid-1990s. Their first album, New Wave, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1993, losing out to Suede by one vote for the top prize. That was pretty much their pinnacle, as things unravelled thereafter with record company pressure and the emergence of Britpop; a “scene” which Haines openly despised and still smarts about in this enjoyable, insightful documentary.

McCann’s film takes its lead from Haines himself; favouring an obfuscatory, back-roads approach to his subject rather than opting for a  formal, linear hagiography. Based on Haines’ memoir, Bad Vibes, the film explores his life and music in the Britpop era and beyond; featuring contributions from assorted friends and associates. The humorous voice-over, written by McCann, is provided by Haines himself. Apparently the director approached Haines after a gig in Dublin and asked if he’d be interested in getting involved in the film he was planning. This turned out to be quite a coup, as Haines’ onscreen presence greatly adds to the film’s sense of mischief. Scenes of him revisiting old childhood haunts, for example, are underscored by his sardonic quips and are as far away from the usual Behind The Music-style biogs as one can get.

By including humorous scenes of actors auditioning to be Luke Haines for the documentary, McCann also seems to be asking questions about representation in a format which we believe to be intrinsically “truthful”. Most documentaries now, of course, feature filmed reconstructions of events, and Art Will Save The World is no exception. However, in McCann’s case, while it’s used to underline factual information, that trope is utilised mostly for comedic effect. Like Haines’ music, the film seems to delight in wrong-footing its viewers, while at the same time acknowledging their complicity by letting them in on the joke.

Naturally the film features Haines’ music quite heavily and one hopes that it may reignite some interest in its subject. These days he seems to have happily accepted his lot as a performer outside of mainstream music culture; but looking back, it appears that he was heading that way all along. After all, songs such as Light Aircraft On Fire, Unsolved Child Murder and his Baader Meinhof incarnation weren’t exactly going to endear him to regular viewers of Top Of The Pops.

Luke Haines continues to write, record, agitate and confound; in typical style, his last album bore the catchy title – Nine And A Half Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s and Early 80s.  Thankfully, he continues to work at the coalface of conceptual rock. Long may he pun.

Watch the trailer: 

2012 in review

Thanks to the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys, who prepared a 2012 annual report for my blog.

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,300 views in 2012 from 74 countries; the highest concentration of readers was in the United States, with Ireland a close second! Not bad for a little blog of film reviews written in my spare time.

So, as I am on the threshold of only my second blogging year, it’s time to look back and reflect on 2012.

There are some surprises here for me in terms of the popularity of some posts. I don’t know why, but a post I wrote in 2011 – a review of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) – proved to be a very popular one; a lot of people who found Focuspullr through search engines were searching for some information on this film between 2011 and 2012!

Unsurprisingly, to me at any rate,  the most popular post of the year was my trip to Liverpool to stay at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel.  This was a fantastic few days in the city spent doing Beatles-related activity, so I may have to consider more trips to write about in 2013!

Thanks to everyone who took the time to stop by the blog in 2012; I am making a New Year’s resolution to blog more in 2013, and hope to expand and improve on the blog as we go through the year.

Wishing you all a gentle and peaceful New Year.

Click here to see the complete report.

Horrorthon and on and on…

It’s been a long and busy Halloween weekend as the Irish Film Institute once again hosts Horrorthon, their annual gore-fest for fans of the horror genre. Running over four full days, there is almost too much to see –  a good complaint by the way- as they bring together classics, new releases and previews.

Armed with nothing more than a sturdy(ish) constitution, focuspullr set off to embrace the darkness for a full-on weekend of Zombies, Hoodies, gory body modification and good old-fashioned terror, with some laughs thrown in along the way. Naturally with so many films showing, some cuts of my own had to be made, so here are some capsule reviews of my weekend highlights.

We kicked off with the Festival’s opening film Antiviral –  the debut feature of Brandon Cronenberg, son of body-shock Master David Cronenberg. This sci-fi horror centres around a clinic selling vials of celebrities’ infections to their obsessive fans. Taking certain sections of society’s almost pathological fixation on celebrity culture to an extreme conclusion, the film features a great central performance from Caleb Landry Jones as Syd March, the employee with a byline in stealing samples from the clinic,which he sells on the black market. Naturally things don’t go quite according to plan, not helped by the fact that the only way Syd can get the viruses out of the clinic is by injecting himself with them.  This is a good-looking film with great cinematography and an interesting premise, but it’s a little overlong and loses some of its bite as a result.

Room 237 is a fascinating Documentary exploring the perceived hidden meanings and sub-texts of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, The Shining.  Using extensive film clips and voice-over narration to probe Kubrick’s multi-layered film, theories range from the believable to the outrageous. Some readings see the film as dealing with the slaughter of the American Indians, The Holocaust and Kubrick’s part in faking the Apollo 11 Moon landings, among others. It’s a fantastically well executed film which will leave you wanting to see Kubrick’s masterpiece one more time.

Ciaran Foy’s debut feature, Citadel, got a very warm welcome at its home screening. The Director was there to introduce the film and take part in a Q&A afterwards.  He told the packed house that the idea for the film was inspired by an assault on him by a gang of youths (on his way home from the cinema, incidentally) in which a dirty syringe was held to his throat. He suffered from Agoraphobia following the attack, a condition he ascribes to Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), the lead character in the film. Tommy’s life is made hell following an attack on his pregnant wife in the condemned council tower block they’re just about to leave. A gang of hooded youths armed with a syringe attack her and leave her for dead, while Tommy watches helplessly from the building’s stuck lift. Later moving into a council house on the same estate, Tommy and his new baby daughter are stalked by the malevolent teens, who it transpires, are not at all what they seem. Citadel cleverly mixes social realism with the Zombie/Vampire genre and makes great use of its council estate locations, which are beyond bleak, to say the least.

The Anthology film has long been a staple of the Horror genre. From the fertile ground of the 1970s which gave us Tales From The Crypt and The House That Dripped Blood, to name but two, through to more recent fare such as the straight to DVD schlocker, Trick r Treat. These usually consist of 5 or more individual stories within a story, which play out in turn while bringing us back periodically to the original framing story.  VHS is the latest addition to the genre, comprising 5 shorts; with each segment covered by a different director. These are firmly rooted in the modern Indie-horror style; with takes on slasher flicks, found footage films, haunted house scare stories and ’70s inspired occult weirdness. As with other compilation films, some segments fare better than others, but overall VHS delivers on the shocks with some genuinely scary WTF moments.

A couple of worthy mentions go to American Mary and Excision, both of which deal with female characters with a yen for home surgery.  In American Mary, director twins Sylvia and Jen Soska (Dead Hooker in a Trunk) give us the story of broke surgical student Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle). Mary is offered a sizeable amount of cash to perform some no-questions-asked surgery on the wounded accomplice of a sleazy night club owner, which propels her into a shady underworld of illegal body modification. Things take a turn for the weird when, thanks to a creepy tutor, Mary’s hopes of becoming a qualified surgeon are dashed, and she’s soon embarking on a bloody revenge spree.  American Mary is a well made, tightly paced shocker which cleverly finds inspiration in the underground sub-culture of tattooing and piercings.

In contrast Excision’s lead female character also has her hopes set on a career in surgery. Unfortunately the problem with Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is that she’s a seriously disturbed, delusional teenager whose wayward behaviour eventually wreaks havoc on the lives of her cosy, suburban family.  Pauline’s sister Grace (Ariel Winter) who has Cystic Fibrosis, is the apple of Mum Traci Lords’ eye. Hen-pecked hubby Bob (Roger Bart) just wants a quiet life but Pauline’s problems at home and at school soon put paid to that. With its clean, brightly lit suburban setting, Excision is reminiscent of Donnie Darko in places, but its gross-out comedy/horror mix pales next to that superior films more serious, sinister undertones. Featuring a cameo from the great John Waters, it’s an enjoyable enough film which builds neatly to its shock ending.

Of the Irish short films I managed to see, which screened before the main features, I must give special mention to Lorcan Finnegan’s unusual and excellent Foxes and Randal Plunkett’s Zombie flick, Out There.

So we must  leave Horrorthon for yet another year and come blinking back out into the sunlight. No doubt there are lots of other worthy films in the Festival which I missed out on, but such is the strength of the selections, that choosing what to see is a decision-making nightmare; albeit a deliciously enjoyable one.

Horrorthon finishes today at the Irish Film Institute.

Ferry To The Mersey

As well as being a film blogger and ardent movie-goer, I am also a huge music fan and sometime musician. So when I was offered a car-cation to Liverpool – the home of The Beatles –  courtesy of Stena Line, I couldn’t say no! The timing couldn’t have been better as not only is Stena Line celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but it’s also 50 years since the formation of The Beatles as we know them today.

The ferry at Belfast Port

We set out for Belfast to catch the 10.30am ferry to Liverpool. As it’s an 8 hour crossing, I was delighted that we had a nice little cabin to relax in. We also had access to the Stena Plus Lounge, where we could avail of free snacks, wine and soft drinks as we kicked back to enjoy the journey.  Being a movie buff, I was excited to check out the onboard cinema, which was showing a couple of recent releases, and which was a great way to pass some sailing time!

The onboard Cinema

Pretty soon the Liverpool skyline appeared in the distance and it was time to bid the boat goodbye. We were staying at the Beatle-themed Hard Day’s Night Hotel, which is only a 10 minute drive from the port, and is a must for any Beatles fan. The hotel is housed in a Grade II listed building in the heart of the “Beatles Quarter”, right around the corner from Matthew Street, home of the famous Cavern Club. As well as the photo’s and murals which adorn the hotel walls, each room features a unique Beatles artwork, while non-stop Beatles music plays in the bar and restaurant. It’s fair to say I was smiling like a Cheshire cat the whole time!

“It’s been a Hard Day’s Night”…The Beatle-themed Hotel in Liverpool

Give Sleep a Chance! John Lennon artwork in hotel room

“Roll up for the Mystery Tour” – The Magical Mystery Tour Bus

The hotel package we availed of for our stay was The Magical Mystery Package, which includes tickets for the Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles Story – two fantastic tours not to be missed. The Magical Mystery Tour takes you down to all the places associated with the Fab Four and their songs; it was an amazing experience to stand in Penny Lane, to look through the gates of Strawberry Field and to see Woolton Village where Lennon made his first public appearance with the Quarrymen! We also took in the childhood homes of John, Paul and Ringo (George’s being unavailable that day) and finished up at The Cavern where we were treated to live renditions of Beatles hits over a Beatle drink or two. The Beatles Story is an interactive journey through the bands’ history, which features great sets and memorabilia throughout.

Blue Plaque on the front of Mendips, where John Lennon lived with his Aunt Mimi

20 Forthlin Road – Paul McCartney’s childhood home

To give ourselves a little break from our Beatles activities, we took a stroll down to the Albert Dock. Situated in the heart of the city, Albert Dock is a wonderful area to browse around, as it houses lots of great shops, bars and restaurants. Grouped around the Marina, this is a lovely location to stop for a drink and it even has its own Yellow Submarine! A short walk from the Dock we took a well-earned break with a rooftop dinner and drinks, overlooking Liverpool’s iconic Liver Building.

Rooftop view of the Liver Building

Sadly, our time in Liverpool was drawing to a close. After saying our goodbyes at the hotel, we headed back to port to catch the evening ferry home. On the way, we decided to take a short drive out to see Anthony Gormley’s installation, Another Place, which is situated on Crosby Beach, about a 15 minute drive from Liverpool city centre. It was a beautiful evening and as the sun was beginning to set, we took in the mysterious figures staring out to sea. This was a perfect way to end our trip; the figures invite contemplation as they stand looking at the horizon, and the view of these cast-iron men dotted along the coastline left me with a sense of peace and calm, as my thoughts turned to our journey home.

Nowhere Man – “Another Place”

Well, it had been a hard day’s night and we would be sleeping like logs courtesy of our cabin onboard, but how can I sum up my first car-cation? Easily –

I was a guest of Stena Line, who provided ferry travel and hotel accommodation on this trip. All opinions expressed in this blog are my own. Photographs courtesy of Ronan Loughman. Many thanks to Stena Line employees Bernadette and Jimmy, who made our outward and return journeys so enjoyable.

Transmissions From The Heart – Silence (Pat Collins, 2012)

After four documentary features, whose subjects have included Gabriel Byrne, Abbas Kiarostami and John MaGahern, Pat Collins has made his first feature film, of sorts. Silence follows the travels of Sound-Recordist Eoghan (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride) who leaves Berlin for the North and West coasts of his native Ireland, to record areas bereft of man-made sounds.

I say it’s a feature film of sorts, because Collins uses the mechanics and devices of documentary cinema to outline Eoghan’s journey.  This is a feature film that feels like a documentary.  There isn’t a narrative beyond us being told that Eoghan is undertaking this trip for work. There isn’t a script as such either, but rather, Eoghan chats with various characters he meets along the way; all of which feels “real” and unscripted. It’s an intriguing idea. Perhaps in using these techniques, Collins is trying to get at some authenticity, some “truth” about the world which pure fiction can’t deliver.

We first see Eoghan about his work in Berlin; recording the ambience of the busy streets, bustling with trams, traffic, cars and people. It’s quite a change then when he lands in Ireland, searching out ever more remote places to set up his mics and recording equipment. There is some humour, in that even in seemingly remote areas, the sound of man’s industry can still be heard; diggers confound Eoghan’s recording attempts in one instance. In one of his encounters, Eoghan tells a man he’s recording places free of man-made sound; “but you’re here”, the man sagely replies, to which Eoghan says, “aye but I’m keeping quiet”.

Silence tries to locate this idea of “keeping quiet” amid the multi-platform-everything-all-the-time 21st Century we now find ourselves in. It’s a film which searches for space to reflect, for meaning, for the opportunity to journey inward. It’s a meditation on time, memory and loss. Is Eoghan somehow trying to find a way to extend the present, or to hold onto the past, by recording it and playing it back? Nothing is made explicit, the film’s power works on a slow, steady accretion of detail and observation.

While Richard Kendrick’s beautiful cinematography is worthy of mention, it is also worth remarking on the soundtrack and sound design. Fittingly, and perhaps obviously, Silence is also a film about sound – the sound of the natural world, the sound of our urban busyness, the sound of people sitting in houses talking and sometimes singing.  The sound of us.

Silence is on current release and is also available to buy or rent from Volta.ie

Watch the trailer

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)

Killer Joe is the 2nd collaboration between Academy Award-winning Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and Playwright and Screenwriter Tracy Letts, following 2006’s Bug. Both films are based on plays by Letts, whose style has been described as “trailer park noir”, and who owes a debt in his storytelling to pulp fiction greats, James M Cain and Jim Thompson.

The premise of Killer Joe is simple. Small time drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes a lot of money to local crime boss Digger Soames (Marc Macauley). The only way Chris can raise the funds quickly is to have his errant mother killed, so he can cash in her insurance policy which names his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as sole beneficiary. Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – a local police detective who moonlights as a hired killer, to take up the contract.

Chris lives with his lunk-head father Ansel (a terrific Thomas Haden Church), spacey sister Dottie and opportunistic step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon). This highly dysfunctional family unit enters into a contract with Killer Joe, which is further complicated when Joe insists on his fee upfront. Unable to provide the money, Chris agrees that Joe can take Dottie as collateral, but pretty soon Chris’s plans start to crumble.

Friedkin lets the story and characterisation lead the way. There is no directorial grand-standing; no car chases, fight scenes or set-pieces to navigate. The focus is firmly on character development, and Letts has created characters who fully inhabit their environment.  An atmospheric tension is established from the opening scene of a car travelling on rain-lashed streets; and it is towards the release of this tension that the film itself travels.

Killer Joe is also notable for McConaughey’s central performance. His hired hand with southern-gentleman manners is personable, intelligent and articulate. Of course he’s also a psychopath who is capable of acts of sudden and shocking violence, and he ably walks this tightrope for all of the film’s lean playing time. The entire ensemble cast deserve mention, as everyone dives in and gives it their all. Friedkin lets everyone off the leash for the final, extended showdown in the family trailer, which becomes almost unbearable to watch.

The 77 year-old Friedkin was on hand at this screening in Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema to provide some valuable insights into his working methods, and to tell lots of funny stories about his years in Hollywood. He is part of that legendary elite of film-makers who came of age in the late 1960s, in the so-called New Hollywood – a contemporary of Martin Scorsese (whose Raging Bull he said he was almost drafted in to complete), Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; all of whom helped forge a new path for American cinema in the 1970s.

In Tracy Letts he now seems to have found a collaborator who not only shares his interest in investigating the dark side of human nature, but whose penchant for grimy locations and pulpy dialogue are perfect bedfellows for Friedkin’s visceral style of film-making. It will be interesting to see where they go next.

Killer Joe is on general release from next Friday.

Watch the trailer

Closer to Darkness – The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky, 2011)

Sometime back in 2008, the Hungarian film-maker Bela Tarr announced, somewhat surprisingly, that The Turin Horse would be his last film. This is perhaps fitting, as it would be hard to imagine where he might go next, were he to continue. The Turin Horse feels in some ways as if Tarr’s vision, unlike the world inhabited by its protagonists, has come to a satisfying conclusion.

Tarr’s inspiration for the film came from the story of an alleged incident in Turin in 1889, where the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a horse being beaten by its owner. Nietzsche was so incensed at this scene of cruelty that he apparently flung his arms around the horse’s neck, in an attempt to protect it. Following this, he was said to have suffered a severe breakdown and eventually died a couple of years later. With this story in mind, and as a jumping off point for his last film, Tarr asks – what happened to that horse?

The Turin Horse is the story of a father and daughter living in a near-derelict farmhouse, in a remote rural landscape. The wind howls day and night; their daily meal consists of one boiled potato each, which they eat with their hands. There is no electricity or running water. We don’t know if this is a contemporary setting, or as the images might suggest, the middle ages.

This highly demanding film follows their daily routine, as they get up, dress, fetch water from the well and prepare the horse and cart for the daily journey into town.  All of this unfolds in Tarr’s usual long, slow takes. Gradually, we see that the horse becomes unwell and is eventually too weak to move. Thus also begins the couples’ slow decline, as without the horse, their world shrinks; and so too does any hope of them being able to carry on. Added to this, there is a creeping sense of unease, as if an apocalyptic Judgement Day is about to reign over this wind-blasted Beckettian landscape.

Tarr is once again aided by his cinematographer Fred Kelemen, whose gorgeous black and white images frame the hard-scrabble existence of the protagonists.  Whatever you think of Tarr’s work, there’s no denying that there are quite beautiful images here – the close tracking shots of the daughter as she trudges to the well, carrying two heavy wooden buckets, her cloak and hair flying in all directions; or the close-ups of the father’s heavily lined face, looking like something hewn out of solid rock. Every shot is crafted and deliberate. Lighting is minimal, the interiors suffused with lamplight, closer to darkness than light. In contrast to the slowly deliberate action on-screen, Kelemen’s camera glides serenely in and around the characters in a wonderfully kinetic dance.

Marking this film as a truly collaborative effort, Tarr has again used his usual composer, Mig Vihaly, whose customarily melancholic strings infuse most of the scenes; and Tarr’s wife (and editor) Agnes Hranitzky also gets a co-director nod. Tarr has already spoken of his reasons for quitting film-making, and has outlined his future plans. However, there can be no doubting that European art-cinema will miss his singular imprint. It will be interesting to see if his influence extends to younger generations of film-makers, and if they will attempt to improve upon his good, if slow, work.

The Turin Horse is out now.

Watch the trailer