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.

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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.

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.

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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

Focuspullr is One Year Old!!

Focuspullr has been very remiss of late in getting to see films, let alone finding the time to review them. However, as tomorrow, May 3rd marks the first anniversary of this blog, I thought it appropriate to get busy and post a review!

I first saw Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress during the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival back in February, and posted a review at that time. However, I’ve since seen the film a second time and enjoyed it even more.  So, to celebrate the past 12 months, and as I look forward to the next 12, here’s my updated review for your reading pleasure.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to stop by and read my blog in the past year. It really means a lot. I look forward to your company again in the months ahead.

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)

This is Whit Stillman’s first feature since Last Days of Disco in 1998, and while his work rate wouldn’t worry Woody Allen, it’s an absence of almost Malickian proportions for this most urbane of directors. What has kept him away for so long is uncertain, but with the release of Damsels in Distress, it’s as if he’s never really been away.

The story takes place at the leafy Seven Oaks College where a trio of high-minded female students, led by the very lovely Greta Gerwig (as group leader Violet) attempt to take on the rampant “male barbarism” which they feel has overtaken the college. The girls’ mission, amongst other things, is to tackle the high incidences of college suicides; encouraging the students to improve themselves, they advocate the eating of doughnuts and self-expression through tap dancing. As you may already have gathered, for a campus-set teen romp, Animal House this ain’t.

After the early, loose trilogy of films with which he made his name – Metropolitan, Barcelona and Last Days of Disco – Damsels in Distress feels slightly like Whitman in off-duty mode. This is certainly no bad thing as the film contains his usual trademark qualities – well dressed, well heeled, articulate, intelligent characters; smart, funny dialogue; cheesy music and droll humour.  Like David Lynch, another creator of familiar-but-weird American settings, Stillman creates his own world, which you either enter into at face value, or want to run screaming from.

Though, to be fair, this is not a film which you can really dislike or even hate.  There are some funny visual gags, and the girls themselves are earnest and likeably sweet, if a little dim.  They all sport fragrant names, Violet, Heather, Lily and Rose – who seems to believe she’s from London, despite only spending a few short weeks there.  Like a benevolent old uncle, Whitman indulges the girls and their heart-felt, though half-baked theories. One of their self-improving ideas, for example, is taking on less good-looking, less intelligent boyfriends, in order to improve them. While Whitman gently pokes fun at the girls, he is never mean or cruel to them. In fact, there is a sort of old-fashioned innocence to the whole affair which is oddly appealing.

Violet even aspires to inventing a new dance craze, the Sambola, which she genuinely believes will make the world a better place. And if all this faux-naivety isn’t quite enough for you, the film ends, as surely every film should, with the principle characters leading their partners in a chereograped dance sequence set to a cheesy, 1950s faux-rock and roll soundtrack. Marvellous.

Watch the trailer –

Long Night’s Journey Into Day – JDIFF # 2

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Question – When is a crime drama not a crime drama? Answer – When its made by Turkish filmmaker and photographer, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. For his sixth full length feature, Ceylan takes on the police procedural, but his version is sure to be unlike any you will have seen before.

In the dead of night somewhere in the Anatolian steppes, a convoy of cars goes in search of a dead body, buried somewhere in the Turkish countryside. The cars contain the two murder suspects, the police chief, his officers, the town prosecutor, the  town doctor, soldiers and two local men whose job it will be to dig up the body, if and when it is found.  As the suspects were drunk when they committed the murder, their memory of where they buried the body is pretty sketchy. All they know for certain is that they left it near a tree and a fountain. What we see as they drive through the night, stopping here and there, is that the Turkish countryside is full of trees and fountains.

This is the basic backdrop which Ceylan sets up for his talkative protagonists, all of whom are male. And as they drive, they talk. Subjects range from good quality buffalo cheese, the symptoms of prostate problems, small-town politics, life, death and supernatural occurrences. It could also be a study of male middle-aged ennui; the police chief in particular seems to have had enough of work, as well as home life. Dread thoughts seem to dog them all, for different reasons.

Ceylan’s filmic sensibility is akin to that of the “old masters” of European art cinema, such as Andrei Tarkovsky. The pace is slow, the characters are given time to talk, smoke, then talk some more. In one lovely sequence, while the doctor and the prosecutor talk in the background, the camera tracks an apple as it is dislodged from a tree, rolls down the side of a hill, lands in a stream, gets carried along for a time by the water and then finally stops. Whatever about the slight details of the film’s plot, the images are never short of ravishing.  Ceylan also takes time to say something about the politics of town versus village life in rural Turkey. As the party stops off to eat in a nearby village, the local government official uses the opportunity to push for better facilities, such as a morgue, while entertaining the party with his best food. It’s also clear that the town officials, while polite, see him as slightly pitiful and inferior to themselves.

Obviously this film won’t be to everyone’s taste. There is a quality to the storytelling which renders it more like a fable, made clear especially in the ongoing conversation between the doctor and the prosecutor. Though the dead body is located and brought back to town for an autopsy, there is no real resolution to the story in the conventional sense. This is a closely observed character study, and it is the relationships of the men, their lives and duties that Ceylan focuses on. He tests his audience’s patience too, not just with the unconventional narrative, but with a running time which nears the 3 hour mark. I would be hard pressed to recommend this to anyone, other than fans of this very particular kind of cinema.

Michael (Marcus Schleinzer, 2011)

Schleinzer was Michael Haneke’s casting director for many years, and his problematic debut film quite patently owes a huge debt to his mentor’s chilly style. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a paedophile who keeps Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) a ten-year old boy, captive in his basement. Schleinzer presents Michael as introverted and quiet; fastidious in keeping his home clean and a polite, if non-communicative employee of an insurance firm. Many scenes show Michael blankly going about his daily chores; shopping, cooking, washing-up, and visiting Wolfgang’s room at night, where we assume he abuses him. Only one scene intimates that this is the case, but as with the film in general, everything is hinted at, rather than made explicit. One might say Schleinzer is brave in tackling such a difficult subject, and he may well be, but part of the problem with his film is that he doesn’t seem to want to confront the reasons for the behaviour he is depicting on-screen.

Michael’s visual template is similar to that of earlier Haneke films like Benny’s Video or Code Unknown. The settings are pedestrian, even drab – much like the main character himself – who is portrayed as being quite pathetic overall.  Though the film stops short of making us sympathetic towards Michael, as it regularly reminds us of the horror of the situation which he has brought about. As a filmmaker, Haneke, in contrast, does at least attempt to provide some kind of context for his subjects, and if he doesn’t exactly provide answers, his films prod you into asking questions around his characters’ motivations.  Schleinzer’s film is less successful in this regard. It only left me asking, is it enough to simply present images and situations and to then expect the audience to guess what the filmmaker’s motivation might be? Isn’t there some responsibility or even duty on the director’s part to make some kind of commentary, especially with subject matter as sensitive as this? Otherwise, the only question one can ask is: what is the point of this film?

 

Both films were showing as part of the 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.