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

Watch the trailer


Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) – Preview and Q&A

Last night the Irish Film Institute hosted a special preview screening of Shame, Steve McQueen’s latest film, which stars Michael Fassbender (as did McQueen’s debut film Hunger). The screening also featured a Q&A with the Director and the film’s co-writer Abi Morgan, via satellite link-up with the Curzon cinema in London, as well as some sixty-odd other cinema’s around the UK and Ireland.

In the film Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a slick, suave professional living and working in New York City. He lives in a modest, minimal apartment in Manhattan and works at a non-specified office job in the city; but he also harbors a full-on addiction to sex, which takes up a large chunk of his time each day. Not only is Brandon downloading porn onto his hard-drive at work, but he pays regular visits to the office bathroom during the working day, and flips open his laptop to view more porn as soon as he gets home. He also pays for prostitutes when not engaging in casual sex with random bar-room pick-ups.

Brandon’s “routine” is interrupted with the arrival of his needy, self-obsessed singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who lands in Manhattan to do some gigs and needs a place to stay. Though he is helpful at first (though not exactly courteous), needless to say he soon tires of Sissy’s attention-seeking behaviour and things start to spiral out of control for both siblings.

McQueen said in the Q&A afterwards that the central idea for the film was arrived at quite arbitrarily, as was the decision to shoot it in New York – apparently he couldn’t find any sex addicts in the UK who were willing to discuss their addiction. While the idea of “sex addiction” might seem like something dreamed up for a salacious TV programme; the film (though never naming the issue) treats the subject seriously and focuses on Brandon’s issues with intimacy, his inability to conduct relationships and his sense of isolation as a result.

Other questions are raised also about the ubiquity of porn, through ease of access via the internet and social media sites, and how easily we accept that these are just facets of how we all live now.  However the film makes it clear that Brandon has a real problem, though it doesn’t make any judgements on his condition. Both Brandon and Sissy are unquestionably damaged people, but McQueen gives us no backstories to show how they’ve arrived where they are. He simply shows them to us in the here and now and lets us make of them what we will.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan are excellent as brother and sister, while McQueen’s direction is confident and inventive.  He has a gift for framing images in a way that makes them appear fresh, or even disconcerting – the opening overhead scene of Fassbender in bed silently staring up at the camera is a case in point.

 One thing which didn’t occur to me as I was watching the film, but has been picked up elsewhere, is the idea of Sissy as a sex addict. Certainly her behaviour is also compulsive, erratic and perhaps dangerous; but I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion, though it is interesting to think about in retrospect. Shame is a film which lingers in the mind, due in no small part to its icy cool tone and moody ambivalence.  A must-see.

Shame opens at the Irish Film Institute on Friday, January 13th.

Watch the trailer:

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)

I know what you’re thinking. You wait ages for a Focuspullr review and then two come along at once. No? Ah well. Apologies friends for overloading the blogosphere, but despite seeing this during the IFI’s Horrorthon Festival over the Halloween weekend, I felt compelled to write it up, as it is a highly original and striking film.

Snowtown concerns itself with the true-life crimes of Australian serial killer, John Bunting, brilliantly played by Daniel Henshall.  Between 1992 and 1999 Bunting and a group of not-so-willing accomplices murdered eleven people in various locations in Southern Australia. The murders became known in the national media as The Snowtown Murders, as some of the bodies were discovered in barrels hidden in a disused bank vault in Snowtown, a suburb north of Adelaide. Bunting’s victims were random people he thought to be homosexual, or whom he considered to be paedophiles, and therefore “dangerous”, and were drawn from the mostly welfare-dependent communities in which Bunting established himself.

In the film, John befriends Elizabeth (Louise Harvey), a depressed, separated mother of three teenage boys. The boys had previously been left with a paedophile neighbour who abused them while Elizabeth was out visiting her ex-partner. When Bunting learns of this, he embarks on a campaign of intimidation to scare off the neighbour. John then becomes a kind of father-figure to the boys; slowly establishing himself in their home, and gradually becoming Elizabeth’s partner. John strikes up a close friendship with Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), the middle son, in particular, and involves the boys in his hate campaign against their paedophile neighbour, who eventually flees the area.  As we come to understand the neglectful environment the boys are growing up in, we learn that Jamie is also being abused, physically as well as sexually, by his older brother Troy (Anthony Groves); causing him to withdraw into near silence, and inuring him to anything resembling “normal” feelings.

This is Justin Kurzel’s feature debut – apparently he grew up in and around the area where some of Bunting’s murders took place –  and instead of giving us a straight-ahead chronological or biographical treatment, he allows the film to gradually unfold in a series of images and transitions which simply show rather than tell. I knew nothing about the real-life story before seeing the film, and had to read up on Bunting afterwards to fill in most of the blanks, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. Kurzel’s images are so strong, so artfully well constructed, that prior knowledge of the factual elements of the story is not essential.

Daniel Henshall really steals the show as Bunting; charismatic, friendly, charming – it’s easy to see how he could pull people in and gradually get them to do his bidding. Kurzel doesn’t paint him as obviously psychotic or crazy, but as really very ordinary – just a regular guy who likes to play Dad, who is likeable, dependable and a shoulder for people who need him. His true nature is revealed slowly and incrementally; the crimes he commits gradually depicted, the horrible tortures he inflicts slowly built up to. Actually the film is not all that graphic; there is only one extended scene which is difficult to watch, but otherwise Kurzel’s camera implies rather than shows directly.

Daniel Henshall as John Bunting

The film leaves Bunting nearing the end of his murder spree, with another soon-to-be victim, in that disused bank vault in Snowtown.  Kurzel’s film doesn’t go into the details of what followed, but instead ends with some textual information on the facts of the case. This is an intense and involving film that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it left me wanting to see it again almost immediately. Highly recommended.

Snowtown opens in Cineworld Dublin today.

Watch the trailer:

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

Well it’s been a hectic time over at focuspullr HQ of late, what with other commitments and illness keeping me away from the blogosphere, though I’ve still managed to see a few movies. Highlights of recent viewings have been Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and the subject of this post, George Clooney’s The Ides of March.

Taking his title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, signalling political intrigue and backstabbing, Clooney marshalls a superb ensemble cast for the second overtly political film of his career, after Good Night, And Good Luck. He stars as Mike Morris, a liberal, handsome governor of Pennsylvania, competing in the Democratic Primary elections, and aiming for the office of U.S. President. Heading up his campaign team is seasoned veteran Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) aided by hot new kid on the political block, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling).

Meyers is youthful, sharp and politically astute; hitting all the right buttons with his campaign speeches for the governor, and quietly confident that Morris is the man for the White House job. However, his ill-advised decision to attend a meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for a rival Democratic Candidate, puts him in a compromising position with his employer and unwittingly leads to him becoming tangled up in a complex political web also involving the governor and a beautiful young intern, played by Evan Rachel Wood.

American Stars and Bars - George Clooney in The Ides of March

Though it lacks the serious analytical depth and complexity of 70s political drama’s such as All The President’s Men or The Candidate, which it calls to mind, The Ides of March soon turns into a cracking political thriller. Clooney and his co-writers Grant Heslov (who also worked with Clooney on Good Night and Good Luck) and Beau Willimon (on whose play, Farragut North, the film is based) keep a firm grip on the narrative tension as the backstabbing, bluffing and double-crossings gather pace. Gosling is excellent as the initially idealistic Meyers, who soon discovers that a career in politics is, in fact, not at all based on old-fashioned beliefs and ideals, but rather on who can best manipulate the state of play to his own ends. He is ably assisted by both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, both heavy hitters in their own right, who bring great intelligence and subtlety to their respective supporting roles. Clooney also deserves a mention as the handsome, clean-cut governor, with a dangerous skeleton lurking in his campaign locker.

The 1970s feel of the film is apparent in the martial drumming which plays over the opening credits, and in the plain white lettering of the title, as well as in Clooney’s assured, non-showy direction. While he mostly lets the story do the talking, he also knows how to build visual suspense. The scene where Morris calls Seymour Hoffman’s character over to his jeep and leaves us and the camera outside is skilfull and unexpected. Clooney keeps the focus squarely on the character-driven narrative, which progresses logically, is always believable and concludes that even the most high-minded and morally robust of men can lay ideals aside to protect and further themselves, in pursuit of their own ambitions.

The Ides of March is on general release now.

Watch the trailer

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011)

Paddy Considine will be familiar to Irish audiences mainly as an actor; most notably in Dead Man’s Shoes and A Room for Romeo Brass, directed by his friend Shane Meadows, and for his role as a lecherous, self-styled self-help guru in Richard Ayoade’s 2010 debut, Submarine. Tyrannosaur is his directorial debut.

Considine has elicited outstanding performances from Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, My Name is Joe, NEDS) and Olivia Colman (Hot Fuzz, Peep Show) in the lead roles. Mullan plays Joseph, a violent, middle-aged, working-class widower who, when he’s not getting into fistfights or harassing local shopkeepers, spends his days between the bar and the bookies. Olivia Colman (better known for her comedic Television roles) is a revelation as Hannah, a married Christian woman who drinks on the quiet, and who volunteers in the local charity shop, where she first runs into Joseph.  Both are unhappy in their lives and come to form a friendship of sorts, albeit one that begins with Joseph berating her for her religious beliefs, and what he perceives to be her smug, middle-class lifestyle.

Considine has described his film as a love story, but if it is, it’s a love story that is imbued with its lead characters’ attributes – violence, self-loathing, despair and desperation. The two leads find themselves at sea in a brutal, unloving, untrustworthy world, with only the other to keep them from finally going under. The grimness is leavened, from time to time, by slivers of black humour; mainly in the form of Joseph’s Irish drinking buddy Tommy (Ned Dennehy), and Considine allows his characters some hope and redemption by the end of the final act.

Tyrannosaur is not an easy film to watch; but it is genuinely powerful, moving and at times unbearably poignant. It is an incredibly confident and assured debut and despite production problems with finance, proves that hope, and a great story, can win out in the end.

Tyrannosaur opens at the Irish Film Institute on Friday, October 7.

You can watch the trailer below

The Best Fictional Bands in Films?

A major hit of nostalgia was shot into my brain recently when I read that Breaking Glass (Brian Gibson, 1980) is to get a DVD release this month, 31 years after it was first released in September 1980.  31 years? Crikey, I saw this in the cinema when it first came out!! Yikes. All the songs played in the film by the fictional rock star, Kate and her band Breaking Glass, were mainly written by the film’s star, Hazel O’ Connor. I was getting seriously interested in music at this point (well, mostly Bowie and The Police) so I lapped up anything and everything going. I even bought a few Hazel O’ Connor singles on the back of the film’s release! Oh well, I was young and easily impressed. It would be fun to see the film again now though.

Anyway, it got me thinking – and this is the perfect idea for a Friday post –

Who are the best fictional bands/artists you’ve seen in films?

I have listed the my choice of films below, with links, in no particular order. I’ll kick off with Hazel, for old time’s sake.

Who have I missed and who would you include?

1. Breaking Glass – Hazel O’ Connor plays Kate, who with her band, Breaking Glass, achieves the fame she’s always craved, but at what cost? Was Lady GaGa even born when this came out? Here’s Eighth Day –  

2. Grace Of My Heart – Alison Anders’ wonderful film from 1996, loosely based on the life and work of Carole King. The soundtrack features some heavy-hitting songwriters, such as Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, who provided this superbly crafted period song for Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas) to perform –

3. That Thing You Do! – Also from 1996, Tom Hanks’ directorial debut charting the rise and fall of Beatles-style Beat Combo, The Wonders. This is their big hit! Great film too.

4.  That’ll Be The Day / Stardust – Well ok, I’ve snuck in two films here; but they go hand in hand, as they chronicle the life and times of fictional superstar Jim McClaine (David Essex) and his band, The Stray Cats. With great star turns from Ringo Starr (That’ll Be The Day) and Adam Faith (Stardust). Allied to Essex’s own real Star charisma, these are two of the best films there are about the Business of the thing we call Show. Watch out for turns from Keith Moon and Dave Edmunds as band members –

5. The School of Rock – Ok dudes, I’m going to finish on a real face melter. I absolutely love The School of Rock (2003). Directed by Richard Linklater, it stars Jack Black as failed musician Dewey Finn, who seizes one last chance at the big time by impersonating his teacher friend Ned Schneebly, and turning his class into a kick-ass, hard rockin outfit so that he can take part in a school’s Battle of the Bands competition, to get revenge on the band who dumped him. It’s top class from start to finish. Here’s the band in action, and remember, you’re not hardcore until you live hardcore! – Happy Weekend! 

Thanks to suggestions from commenters, I’m adding a few more bands to the list.

7. The Committments – Alan Parker’s film of Roddy Doyle’s hilarious novel about the titular Dublin Soul band was a huge success. Here’s a tune from it –

8. This is Spinal Tap – A classic –

9. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – How I could have forgotten The Soggy Bottom Boys from The Coen Brothers’ wonderful movie, I’ll never know.

10. Star Wars – The Cantina Band from George Lucas’ Star Wars seem to have a huge online following! Thanks to Ronan for pointing this one out to me – I can’t find a clip from the movie, but this is the tune they play in the Cantina scene.  

Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

Ben Wheatley shot his first feature, Down Terrace (2009) in just eight days and on a ridiculously modest budget somewhere in the region of £6,000 (the actors deferred their wages until the film eventually made some money back).  He used real locations, such as the house of a friend’s father, who he also had star in the film. The film went on to win the Raindance Award at the British Independent Film Awards in 2009, and Wheatley was awarded a Best Newcomer prize by the Evening Standard British Film Awards in 2010.

With Kill List, the budget has improved but Wheatley’s modus operandi has remained much the same. He still uses real, albeit fairly anonymous locations; ring roads, petrol stations, lock-ups, suburban housing estates – these are the areas his desultory characters inhabit. But lest you think Wheatley is yet another British director fashioning some kind of social-realist aesthetic, think again – his filmic territory is more like Ken Loach meets John Carpenter.

Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are two best friends and former Army buddies. Jay is back in England following his last mission in Iraq, and is having real problems settling back into suburban married life with his Swedish-born wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) and their son Sam (Harry Simpson). In an attempt to help his mate out, and get him back into the world of work, Gal proposes Jay joins him in some lucrative work, as contract killers for the shady Client (Struan Rodger). The Client provides the two pals with their “kill list” and a suitcase full of money, and soon the pair are on the road, glad to be working together again.

What makes Kill List so unsettling is that Wheatley grounds these characters in everyday reality. During a fraught dinner party with Gal and new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), for example, talk turns to the recession, to lack of money, and we understand that these people are just trying to get by like everyone else. Fiona works in Human Resources, essentially firing people for a living. Both Jay and Gal have their problems-and Jay in particular seems to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – but nothing that a nice bit of work can’t sort out. The difference is that Jay and Gal kill people for a living. What’s more unsettling is that Jay’s wife Shel knows what he does, is complicit in his actions, and nags him about not working; as if he were simply an unemployed plumber going through a bad stretch.

What starts as a realist drama about two hitmen going about their business then suddenly takes some very unexpected turns. Gal’s girlfriend Fiona carves a Hex-style emblem into the back of Jay and Shel’s bathroom mirror. Is she putting a spell on the house, on Jay and Shel? Later, she turns up unexpectedly at Shel’s when Jay and Gal are away working, and tells Shel she’s waiting, but waiting for what? Meanwhile, on the road, Jay is becoming increasingly unhinged, as his previous professionalism on the job gives way to out-and-out violence and brutality.

Wheatley shifts the focus of the film, in its 2nd half, to a very British type of horror.  Calling to mind Brit-Horror classic The Wicker Man, Jay and Gal encounter a weird late-night torch-lit procession going on down in the woods; and when they erroneously intervene, they are chased by the mask wearing mob, complete with flaming torches and knifes. The film then proceeds to a bizarre and unsettling finale that leaves more questions than answers. Wheatley doesn’t favour exposition, so don’t expect much in the way of explanation or a tidy resolution to the story. Like the spooky soundscapes and jerky jump-cuts he employs throughout, this is a film-maker who is out to undermine and wrong foot the audience’s expectations at every turn, but who never talks down to them.

You are left to make of Kill List what you will. I can’t say that I fully understood what the hell was going on by the end of the film, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterwards.

Kill List is on general release now.

You can watch the trailer here