Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 2010)

It’s probably a gross understatement to say that Lena Dunham is currently the most well-known twenty-something female on the planet right now. The ubiquitous film studies graduate turned film-maker has just released her latest feature film, Tiny Furniture, which stars not only herself in the main role, but also her real-life Mother and sister playing on-screen versions of themselves.

Dunham plays Aura, a twenty-something film studies graduate recently returned from college, to the gorgeously spacious mid-town Manhattan loft shared by her Mother and sister. Aura’s Mother is a successful photographic artist whose photo’s of miniature furniture give the film its title. Her younger sister has just won a major poetry prize, as in fact did Dunham’s sister in real-life. Aura is stuck at an awkward juncture; her care-free college days are behind her, but she is not yet ready for the impending world of work (whatever that may be) and is reluctant to let go of the safety net afforded her by the security of the family apartment.

As has been noted elsewhere, Dunham is among a new internet-savvy generation of hip, young film-makers who have developed their craft by using Youtube as an early testing ground. They could almost have taken Youtube’s “Broadcast Yourself” mantra as their manifesto; and in fact in the film, Dunham has a character who is famous (“in an internet kind of way”) for humourous observations delivered from atop a rocking horse.  This kind of self-referential, semi-autobiographical, independent cinema – out of which “scenes” such as Mumblecore emerged – often chart the lives of creative twenty-something characters who bear more than a passing resemblance to their film’s makers.

Dunham too has taken this approach but has broadened her scope to include, whether knowingly or otherwise, the politics of gender and familial relationships. Her dialogue is sharp, knowing and funny. She has a playfully cynical eye which doesn’t let anyone of the hook; not only are her male characters truly awful specimens, she also shows little camaraderie towards certain female characters, for reasons which always feel true.  Added to that, her willingness to display her own body on-screen has gotten her probably more column inches than the film’s techniques or subject matter.

There is no doubting that Dunham is certainly no slacker scenester, but rather a talent to watch. She already has one feature behind her; next to come is her HBO TV series Girls, about the experiences of a group of twenty-something female friends which she wrote, directs, produces and stars in. Sex and the City for a whole new slacker generation? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Tiny Furniture is out now.

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:

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)

Following on from her acclaimed features Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009); Andrea Arnold moves away from her usual stomping ground of present-day council estates to the bleak, rain-lashed Yorkshire Moors, for her take on Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights.

Arnold’s story concentrates on the first half of Bronte’s novel; where Heathcliff, a young orphan boy of exotic stock, is brought to live with the Earnshaw family at Wuthering Heights. Hindley and Catherine, son and daughter of Mr Earnshaw, are unwelcoming at first; and while Hindley nurses a deep hatred of the boy, Catherine eventually warms to him and the two come to form a deep, lasting friendship.

Cathy and Heathcliff spend every available moment happily wandering the moors together, and are indulged by Cathy’s father. However when he dies, his son Hindley takes over the house and things worsen for Heathcliff as he is relegated to servant status and made to bed down with the farm animals. When Cathy goes to stay with the Linton family, after an attack by one of their dogs, she makes friends with Edgar Linton; a friendship which blossoms into a marriage proposal which forces Heathcliff to run away from Wuthering Heights in a jealous rage. When Heathcliff returns some years later, wealthy and well dressed, his passion for Cathy unabated; he sets out to take revenge on Hindley, Edgar and Cathy.

Arnold moves with ease from contemporary cityscapes to the period countryside of Bronte’s novel; and her decision to use young, inexperienced actors, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, to play the young Heathcliff and Cathy, gives the film a realism which couldn’t be further removed from the melodramatic romanticism of earlier screen versions. Arnold’s usual Cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoots close-up, in natural light, and there is no soundtrack, except for the natural sounds of wind, rain and wildlife.

The Director has obviously made some serious, stark choices in her presentation of the novel’s story. She has cast a young black actor as Heathcliff, prompting Hindley to call him a “nigger” at one point; and Heathcliff himself uses colourful modern language which I doubt peppered Bronte’s original. As for language, Arnold leaves Bronte’s period prose to one side; there is very little dialogue in the film overall and what there is tends to be terse, raw, brutal and far from poetic or florid.

Foggy notions - Kaya Scodelario as Cathy

Instead Arnold’s direction picks out the misery and brutality of the lives depicted. We see casual cruelty dispensed to people and animals alike; Hindley’s violent and cruel behaviour towards the young Heathcliff is mirrored by the older Heathcliff hanging a dog on a gate post and leaving it there. Heathcliff is also cruel and manipulative towards Edgar’s sister Isabella, whose infatuation he stokes in order to punish Cathy and infuriate Edgar.

While the film always looks beautiful, the inexperience of the younger actors shows and sometimes lets it down. Arnold has worked successfully with non-actors before (most notably Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank) but in this case, I just didn’t feel Cathy and Heathcliff’s pain. I was waiting to feel great rushes of emotion from their deep, overpowering love; but these just didn’t materialise. It was difficult to believe how Heathcliff could have nursed such an obsession towards Cathy all his adult life, when their earlier years depict them as being more like just good friends, not impassioned lovers – but perhaps this is better mapped out in the novel.

In any event, this is an interesting side-step for Andrea Arnold and, to her credit, she has kept her own vision very firmly up on the screen, despite dealing with period material for the first time. Very few directors would be as brave, or take the chances that she takes with this film; but I think I prefer her adapting her own writing for the screen, and look forward to seeing where she wanders to next.

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

Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)

Re-released in September 2011 to coincide with Ken Loach’s 75th birthday, Kes was the acclaimed Director’s debut feature, filmed in the summer of 1968, on a characteristically tight budget. It was also the first feature of Cinematographer Chris Menges, who later went on to shoot The Mission, The Killing Fields and The Reader, amongst others.  Kes also featured the debut acting performance of then 14-year-old David (now Dai) Bradley, who secured the lead role of Billy Casper; the Yorkshire schoolboy who captures and trains a Kestrel, allowing him a form of escapism from his constrictive and often cruel working-class surroundings.

Bradley is wonderful as Billy; the picked-upon, slight but bright schoolboy who, while not at all academic, manages to teach himself how to care for and train a wild Kestrel (the “Kes” of the title) that he finds in the grounds of a local farm. Billy’s home life is turbulent – shared by a bullying older brother Jud ( Freddie Fletcher) who works down the local mine, and an inattentive, nagging mother (Lynne Perry) who is doing her best to raise two boys alone.

Nor does Billy find any comfort in friends or at school; playground politics dictate which pupils rule and which get picked on. The schoolyard is just as brutal as the home or street; and teachers too are mostly over-worked, bad-tempered and quick to mete out punishments to their young charges. Loach’s template of social criticism centred on working-class lives is already fully formed here. Billy’s personal circumstances are leavened by his deep interest in caring for Kes, and there is a lovely classroom scene where one of his teacher’s, Mr Fletcher (Colin Welland), has Billy explain what this entails to the class – enthralling everyone in the process.

Indeed a nice contrast is struck between caring Mr Fletcher, who takes an interest in Billy, and Billy’s hard-nosed P.E. teacher Mr Farthing (Brian Glover) who subjects his boys to violence on and off the football field. In one of the film’s funniest and most enjoyable sequences, Mr Farthing plays out his fantasy of being Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton (“it’s too cold to be a striker”) in a match against the boys, marked by the teacher’s casual violence and dubious refereeing decisions.

Very much of its time and place, Kes still carries resonance in its depiction of the struggle of ordinary lives. Billy’s options for gainful employment after school, other than working down the mine like his dullard brother, are few, to say the least. When discussing potential work options with Mr Fletcher, the insightful schoolboy states that it doesn’t matter what work he does, as he won’t enjoy it any more than he does school, but notes “still, I’ll get paid for not liking it”.  

As you might expect, Kes ends on a characteristically downbeat note; the film’s ending also signals the death of Billy’s childhood, and leaves us wondering where he will go from here. Though David Bradley’s career did not again reach the heights of his debut performance, he can be assured that, in the character of Billy Casper, his place in the pantheon of great screen roles is most certainly assured.

Kes finishes its run in The Irish Film Institute today.

Watch a clip here.

The Skin I live In (La piel que habito) Pedro Almodovar, 2011

For his 18th feature film, Pedro Almodovar moves away from the female-centric stories of his previous films, into a more ramped-up, melodramatic tale comprising elements of Science-Fiction and Grand Guignol horror.

The Skin I Live In features one-time Almodovar stalwart, Antonio Banderas as Dr Robert Ledgard, a brilliant but unhinged plastic surgeon who is developing a new type of skin; made through a process of cloning and combining animal (in this case pig hide) and human skin to form a new hybrid. Ledgard is operating on a beautiful female captive, Vera (Elena Anaya) who may or may not be his wife, badly burned years earlier in a horrific car crash.

It’s difficult to discuss the film’s storyline without giving away major plot spoilers; suffice it to say that the far-fetched fantastical story, luckily, takes 2nd place to the film’s ravishing mise-en-scene. Other reviewers have criticised the film’s lack of emotional depth, but to me this is a (almost literally) clinical film all about surface sheen and superficiality. Almodovar attempts some psychological depth by showing Vera passing the time reading some very tasteful literature (Alice Munroe for one), and recreating works by Louise Bourgeois on the walls of her room; but, apart from being utilised to state the obvious (the Bourgeois work referenced is Femmes Maison– concerning a woman trapped in/by a house) there isn’t much room to delve deeper into these additions.

The rather cluttered storyline doesn’t detract, however, from Almodovar’s images, which are the best things about the film. Shots are beautifully composed;cool and elegant, with a gorgeous colour palette washing over the high contrast images. The score too, by Almodovar regular Alberto Iglesias, serves to add to the sense of heightened glamour.  In storyline and look, the film strongly references Hitchcock’s Vertigo, while the “mad doctor” scenario calls to mind Georges Franju’s classic Eyes Without A Face, which I’ve written about before. In Banderas too, Almodovar has a charismatic leading man; turning in a strong, assured performance while perfectly fitting the bill as the handsome, suave, yet creepy Dr Ledgard.

There is also a fitting contrast between Banderas’ middle-aged, lined features; those of Marilia (Marisa Paredes), his older, aged housekeeper and Vera’s smooth, blemish-free skin. In her we see no sign of the mortality which afflicts the other two, as her super-skin is resistant to ageing, heat, and even mosquito bites. This is still an Almodovar film though and he manages to imbue the film with his familiar themes – sexuality, voyeurism, transsexualism and transgender issues all play a part.

Like Doctor Frankenstein’s man-made Creature, this particular monster may be lacking a heart, but it is only ever concerned with surface appearance anyway.  While it may mark something of a departure for Almodovar, he reminds us of his own earlier films too; as elements of both Bad Education and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! are reflected in the super-shiny new skin of this one.

The Skin I Live In is on general release.

You can watch the trailer here

Treacle Jr. (Jamie Thraves, 2010)

While his previous day job involved making acclaimed music video’s for the likes of Blur, Radiohead and The Verve; Jamie Thraves seems something of a neglected talent when it comes to feature film-making. Treacle Jr is his second film, following The Low Down, made in 2000 and also starring Aidan Gillen.  In 2006, that film was included in a list of “50 Lost Movie Classics” (at No. 18 no less) by the esteemed Observer film critic and writer, Phillip French.

In Treacle Jr Tom Fisher plays Tom; a forty-something married man with a new baby, a car and a house in the suburbs, who ups and leaves everything behind one day, seemingly for no apparent reason. Tom cuts up his bank cards, pockets the few remaining bank notes he has and takes to sleeping in doorways. As a result of an incident one night, following a fracas with some yobs in a public park, Tom ends up down the local A&E where he bumps into Aidan (Aidan Gillen). Aidan is a man with a child-like innocence, who has some slight mental health issues, but is otherwise relatively “normal”; but in Aiden’s world, “normal” ain’t such an easy thing to be.

The story unfolds in mostly episodic bursts as the pair end up hanging out together and Tom comes to rely on Aidan’s friendship and hospitality. Aidan has his own council flat, albeit shared with a bullying and untrustworthy “girlfriend”, Linda (Riann Steele).  After some unsuccessful attempts at sleeping rough, Tom comes to spend more and more time at Aidan’s, and a bond of sorts grows between the two men. Tom’s good nature sees how Aidan’s vulnerability can be easily abused, and he becomes a kind of protector to Aidan.

Aidan Gillen appears to have invested his character with the attributes and personal history of real-life “Master of the Universe” Aidan Walsh. Walsh was an eccentric, but well regarded figure on the Dublin music scene of the 1980s, with connections to bands as diverse as The Golden Horde, The Virgin Prunes and U2.  While taking nothing away from his co-star, Aidan Gillen’s performance throughout the film is nothing short of inspired and mesmeric.  He is an assured and charismatic performer, who turns the dial up to 11 for his portrayal here. Where, in other hands, there could be a danger of making the character nothing but a collection of quirks and tics, Gillen makes Aidan a fully fledged, living, breathing character with real depth and feeling; and who wins over the audience, right from his first scene.

Thraves also deserves credit for hanging back and letting his actors and the material breathe; though his cinema-verite style of shooting suits the material and makes for an almost documentary feel at times.  I wondered how much was scripted and how much was the actors’ contribution (especially in Gillen’s case), as scenes felt almost improvised at times. It would be a shame to see this film ignored as his previous feature was, as there is an undeniable talent at work here, which deserves much wider recognition.

Treacle Jr is at the Irish Film Institute until September 1st.

You can see the trailer here