Talking Movies

June 17, 2019

Notes on Balloon

An old-school nerve-shredding Cold War German thriller was the film of the week yesterday on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

30 years ago the German Democratic Republic aka East Germany was still in existence, an insanity propped up by Russia. This film is set in 1979 with two families desperate to escape to the West, and taking the unusual approach of running the border by hot air balloon. The first attempt is a failure, and the wreckage of the balloon 200 metres from the border leaves enough evidence for Stasi Lt. Col. Thomas Kretschmann to find them, given enough time. Resources are not a problem. He has 300 agents working by the end on catching 4 people who wanted to live 10 kilometres to the south. As Kretschmann closes in our heroes decide to go for broke and build a second balloon, and composer Ralf Wengenmayr does his best Hans Zimmer and really elevates the film with rhythmic percussion, scurrying strings, and swoops of synthesiser. Director Michael Herbig is best known in Germany for comedy, but this film is a chilling portrait of a society drenched in fear and paranoia, and dripping with well-crafted suspense.

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May 27, 2016

The Price of Desire

Mary McGuckian directs an impressionistic portrait of Irish designer Eileen Gray’s battles over authorship with egotistical French architect Le Corbusier.

Eileen Gray (Orla Brady) is an Irishwoman abroad, leading an emancipated life in post-WWI France as a designer, riding the wave of the same zeitgeist as the Bauhaus school in the Weimar Republic. A romantic relationship with the rich Jean Badovici (Francesco Scianna) sees her designing a villa for him on the Côte d’Azur, e1027. Badovici, however, is also promoting the work of architect and self-promoter extraordinaire Le Corbusier (Vincent Perez). Gray and Badovici grow apart as he spends more time with younger women and she more time with American lesbians, and Le Corbusier takes advantage. First he defaces her villa with his inane murals, by the end he will have pretensions to have designed the entire building, and decades later be pleading with wealthy patrons to save his hideously inappropriate murals as being the creative soul of the piece.

McGuckian’s film is so minimalist as to be quite theatrical, perhaps as a creative response to its small budget. Scenes in which Gray and other artists critique a gallery exhibition feel like they’re taking place on a small and obvious stage, as do scenes with Alanis Morrisette as Gray’s lover Marisa Damia. It’s a disorienting effect, and when combined with the extreme contrast of the sun-dappled Riviera locale of e1027, the unusually short scenes, the constant fade-out and fade-ins, and the characters’ fluid switching between French and English, it all goes towards creating an oddly dreamlike effect: an after-image is left of natural white Riviera sunlight and artificial black modernist interiors across which an impression of Gray’s life and work was sketched. This approach is unusual, and perhaps explains the slightly hysterical hostile reception afforded the movie at JDIFF 2015.

This is itself a mere sketch of a review, as I was unable to make recent press screenings, and so am working from notes on that JDIFF version. It would be surprising if it had not been reworked after that critical mauling. The Price of Desire in that cut also eschews straight naturalism by being extremely heavily scored, but Brian Byrne’s music is one of its strongest elements; indeed at times with sinuous timbres of woodwind and string he appears to be channelling the sound of the fabled French group of composers Les Six to conjure the post-WWI era depicted. Another highlight was Vincent Perez, who broke the fourth wall as a fantastically egotistical Le Corbusier; his unpleasant dogmatism pushed him close to Sartre’s continual philosophical revisions – ever protean but never wrongand James Joyce’s depiction as parasite in Nora.

“The house is a machine for living in” declared Le Corbusier, but this dream of heat and sensuality suggests Gray’s vision of form, functionality, and sleek beauty through minimalism ultimately had far more soul.

3/5

 

***The Lighthouse Cinema will host an afternoon and evening tomorrow celebrating the Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray on film, with The Price of Desire alongside companion documentary Gray Matters. Gray Matters, directed by Marco Orsini, documents the long, fascinating life and career of the architect and designer whose uncompromising vision defined the practice of modernism in decoration, design, and architecture. “We hope the day will be an engaging opportunity for the public to explore and immerse themselves with this unique and wonderfully talented Irish creative, to converse with the film-makers and Eileen Gray experts involved in both projects,” says Mary McGuckian. Q&A panels will follow screenings of Gray Matters (matinee) and The Price of Desire (evening screening). Panelists will include Mary McGuckian (writer/director), Peter O’Brien (costume designer), Jennifer Goff (Eileen Gray curator, The National Museum of Ireland), and they will be moderated by former Irish Times Environment Editor Frank McDonald. The event will also feature an exhibition of stills from The Price of Desire, shot by Julian Lennon and published by Stoney Road Press, and a selection of Eileen Gray furniture on display, courtesy of MINIMA Ireland. Tickets can be purchased online at www.lighthousecinema.ie

 

 

November 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg returns with a true Cold War spy story that’s thankfully imbued with far more energy and clarity of purpose than his meandering Lincoln.

ST. JAMES PLACE

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a deep cover Soviet spy apprehended in Brooklyn in 1957, who is assigned as his counsel insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); after some arm-twisting by Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda). Watters, and Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are soon surprised by the bond that develops between wry Abel and the stolid Donovan, and Donovan’s dogged determination to demand the rights promised by the Constitution be granted to an illegal alien from an enemy power. The Donovan children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp), and Carol (Eve Hewson) are as uncomprehending as Joe Public of their father’s actions. But when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in May 1960 Company man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) brings Donovan to Allen Foster Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to be entrusted with a secret mission.

First off, history… English playwright Matt Charman’s screenplay was polished by the Coens, but in a BBC Radio 4 interview Charman didn’t mention Giles Whittell’s 2010 book Bridge of Spies. Perhaps it’d raise uncomfortable questions; like why Hoffman and Dulles tell Donovan their intelligence suggests the GDR is about to wall off East Berlin when the CIA, despite Berlin crawling with so many spies Willy Brandt derided it as grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians, had no idea till secretly stockpiled barbed wire went up overnight. Also master spy Abel (Willie Fisher during his British adolescence) perfected his Brooklyn cover, as a retiree taking up painting, at the expense of actually spying. Despite prosecutorial fulminations he wasn’t charged with acts of espionage, because there was no evidence of any. And the arrest of Yale doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is total melodramatic fiction; the Stasi were simultaneously extremely sinister and blackly hilarious. Their ineffectual interrogations of Pryor were True Kafka.

There are three moments in this tale spun from historical elements; a polite mugging, a pompous phone call, and a fake family; that are pure Coens, but this is Spielberg’s show. His visual storytelling is concise and expressive; especially the opening FBI pursuit of Abel, where we recognise Agents by glances, and Powers’ dismayed expression at his Moscow show trial, where a craning pull-out emphasises his isolation. Janusz Kaminski mostly reins in his diffuse supernova lighting to showcase Adam Stockhausen’s decrepit design, while Thomas Newman stands in for John Williams with orchestral flavours akin to Williams’ JFK score. Donovan’s line, “It doesn’t matter what other people think, you know what you did,” is the moral of the film, emphasised visually twice over. And his bloody-minded defence of the 4th amendment seems extremely pertinent when the 1st amendment is equally beleaguered.

Twitter lynch-mobs wouldn’t appreciate the nuance Donovan tries to impart to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) but Spielberg’s film is a call for decency over outrage that is alarmingly timely.

3.5/5

September 8, 2015

El Dschihad

My sometime co-scriptwriter Emmet Ryan has, in an unusual move, taken time out from reviewing beer and customised burgers to catch a play in Berlin. From Ballhaus Naunynstrasse he sends this review of El Dschihad:

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German-Iraqi actress/writer/director Claudia Basrawi takes 70 minutes of her audience’s lives and throws them into a story built around facts but delivered with aggressive and compelling storytelling. The story of El Dschihad is built around interviews Basrawi conducted to get an understanding of Germany’s historical role in the current problems in the Middle East. Basrawi, whose youth brought her to Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, tells the story of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s efforts to get Muslim subjects of the British Empire to rise up against their colonial masters during the First World War. Germany’s ill-fated plan was to use an insurrection in Arab states to divide the attention of British forces.

The piece jumps between discussions of contemporary efforts to battle terrorism and the historical follies of the Kaiser. Despite its documentary format this is very much a drama, albeit a deliberately disjointed one. Despite being the effective lead, Basrawi deliberately takes a back seat instead essentially letting her cast, playing a multitude of roles, take their lead from her cues.

No-one makes greater use of this than Rahel Savoldelli, who is brutally intimidating in multiple formats. Savoldelli’s appearances in the multimedia elements of the performance are nothing less than an attack on the audience. Opening with her interview as a psychiatric patient of Mario Mentrup, acted live in a corner off-stage but broadcast on a larger screen, Savoldelli is aggressive in her deliberate attempts to confuse Mentrup’s supposed straight man. Mentrup does an excellent job in playing the foils to those opposite him, most notably in his primary role as Mr S, a composite character of multiple interviewees of Basrawi, where his character is more direct with his emotions in order to make the cold reality of Elmira Bahrami’s Ms K stand out.

One isn’t meant to like Ms K; she’s got too many right answers, and most of them are ugly; but her calm delivery is arguably as tough on the senses as the intensity of Savoldelli’s pre-recorded piece, reading notes on the plan to convert British POWs into agents of insurgence against the Crown. In this brief but effective monologue, Savoldelli’s head appears like Big Brother albeit with the odd harsh cut to rouse the audience as she details the plans to use Mohammedans against the British Empire.

The mixture of multimedia elements, including an opening that shows contemporary damage to an unnamed city in the Middle East, forces the audience to shift focus but not at the expense of the message. Basrawi is trying to comment on a complex issue from afar, but one that is close to her heart, and does so in a way that doesn’t play as excessively preachy. It’s a tough balance but one delivered well.

4/5

March 17, 2015

Any Other Business: Part X

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a tenth portmanteau post on television of course!

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Hurlers on the Ditch Jersey Turnpike

GAA USA, a new four part series, begins on TG4 at 9.30pm tomorrow night. Dara Ó Cinnéide, former All-Ireland winning Kerry captain and award-winning broadcaster, investigates the extraordinary and largely unknown history of Gaelic games in the United States. Produced by Éamonn Ó Cualáin, and directed by Sean Ó Cualáin, the series sees Ó Cinnéide visit NYC’s Gaelic Park & Yankee Stadium, and Milwaukee’s Hurling Club, as well as attend the 2014 North American Championships in Boston. In conversation with Irish people who have made a home for themselves in America, he encounters an enduring love of Gaelic games, and resourcefulness and passion, that since the 1870s, kept the GAA the most important Irish cultural organisation in America, intimately linked to continuing Irish emigration.

 

Episode 1: Go Meiriceá Siar – West to America, (1840-1918)

Dara investigates the earliest reporting of Gaelic games in America and the devastating effect baseball had among the immigrant Irish of the eastern seaboard; discovering compelling evidence of ‘pay for play’ long before the amateur ethos was enforced. In 1888, the newly formed GAA organised an American tour of visitingIrish athletes. A huge surge in interest followed this ‘Irish Invasion Tour’ as record numbers of new clubs were founded in dozens of cities. As the self-help movement became militarised, huge support for Irish independence in America funded and armed the IRB and IRA. And yet, despite huge interest in Irish affairs and the evolution of strong competitions across the country, when America entered WWI thousands of Irish-Americans left to fight Germany, and the playing of Gaelic games virtually ceased.

 

Episode 2: Idir Dhá Shaol- Striving for an Identity, (1918-1945)

The GAA reflected a profound dilemma faced by Irish-Americans driven by the idea of Irish Independence while striving to carve out a new identity in America. The health of the GAA mirrored America’s mood during the Roaring 20s: hopeful, bold, brash, expansionist. In an illustration of the resurgent interest in Gaelic games, the Kerry team played in front of a crowd of 60,000 spectators at Yankee Stadium in 1931. But, even as American newsreels began to notice Gaelic games, reportage was very much coloured by stereotypes of the Catholic Irish prevalent at the time; which had been fostered aggressively by the Scots-Irish since the 1840s. Rare 1930s footage demonstrates such racist propaganda: hurling was a brutal ‘thug sport.’ In the early 1930s St Mary’s College in California introduced hurling to its students, only to disband the team under pressure from the local baseball league. The Great Depression and WWII crippled the American GAA. To stand any chance of revival an unprecedented sporting spectacle was required.

 

Episode 3: An Ré Órga – The Golden Age (1945 -1980s)

In 1947, the All-Ireland final was staged at the Polo Grounds in New York. This unlikely event gave the GAA in America a much needed shot in the arm. The Polo Grounds are long gone, but Dara locates the only remaining part of the historic arena, a small stairway that once overlooked the stadium. The 1947 All-Ireland final coincided with a reopening of the floodgates at Ellis Island, and the consequent dawn of a golden age of Gaelic games in America. Never-before-seen colour footage of matches from the Polo Grounds show crowds in excess of 25,000 cheering their teams, as well as visiting teams (including legendary Cork hurler Christy Ring).This success was matched by increasing political influence. But this couldn’t prevent strict new immigration laws in the mid-1960s.

 

Episode 4: An Chéad Ghlúin Eile – The Next Generation

After the 1960s, in response to tighter immigration laws and a reluctance among the children of Irish immigrants to get involved, American clubs looked to Ireland; importing players, paying them to play for entire summers. The wealthiest clubs got the best players and the most championship wins. In recent years it’s estimated American clubs raised in excess of $100,000 to win local championships. By the late 1990s, it was clear that change was needed. All across America, ordinary members of the GAA made a concerted effort to focus on youth development, spending money on the development and training of American-born children. This, he discovers, is where the real future of the GAA in America lies. And on the evidence he finds, that future looks bright.

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They call it award-winning Celtic Noir now

The feature film version of An Bronntanas is enjoying a strong run at international festivals, and recently received the Jury’s Special Award at the Boston Irish Film Festival. An Bronntanas started life as a TG4 series, noted hereabouts in a piece about Celtic Noir a few months back. A contemporary thriller set on the coast of Connemara, it found a lifeboat crew responding to a distress call on a stormy night only to discover a fishing boat with a dead passenger and a cargo of over a million Euros worth of drugs, tempting them to leave the body and sell the drugs… Directed by Tom Collins (Kings), with Cian de Buitléar as DoP, and produced by Ciarán Ó Cofaigh of ROSG (Cré na Cille) and Tom Collins, it starred Dara Devaney (Na Cloigne), Owen McDonnell (Single Handed), Michelle Beamish (Crisis Eile), Charlotte Bradley, Janusz Sheagall, and, in a previously hailed stroke of casting genius, the unexpected Gaeilgeoir John Finn (Cold Case). The TV show was re-edited into a feature film, which has recently screened in Barbados and Washington, and will soon be screening in Boston, Chicago, and Rome. Producer Ciarán Ó Cofaigh says:

“We were very proud of the success of the series when it was broadcast recently on TG4, but it’s apparent that the film version has its own legs.  The production of An Bronntanas was an enormous challenge and we believe we have achieved this production to a high international standard.  Winning this award in Boston and the film’s selection for many other festivals will further promote the film and the Irish language.” With Hinterland and An Bronntanas winning acclaim Celtic Noir is definitely an award-winning thing. We just need a dark thriller series from Brittany now to make things complete.

blacklist

“I do not believe that’s how psychos behave” (with apologies to Dr Seuss)

Complaining about The Blacklist’s many shortcomings, or even attempting to catalogue its pilfering from other shows and movies, is apparently a futile gesture. But I have to say something about its pilfering from Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. Peter Stormare’s introduction as super-villain Berlin at the end of season 1 was somewhat compromised by the fact that someone like Peter Stormare is not going to guest star and be anyone other than Berlin, try the script ever so hard to convince you otherwise with various feints. But the revelation of his identity; disguised by his appearance at a hospital with an amputated hand as a victim of Berlin, and the “lexical ambiguity” of the witnesses as to what happened between the prisoner and the guard as the plane crashed – “He cut off his hand”; screamed Hannibal Lecter cutting off his own hand at the end of Hannibal in order to escape from Clarice Starling’s handcuffs. But… while Hannibal’s actions were just about plausible (if not very likely) given his observance of etiquette towards Clarice (she could after all have an amputated hand reattached when the emergency services arrive), it just becomes farcical when Berlin cuts off his own hand instead of cutting off the guard’s hand and making a break into a crowded city from the downed plane. As always The Blacklist favours blindly following previous exemplars rather than think anything out for itself, but by following Hannibal’s lead here it seems to suggest that psychopaths are defined by masochism and an ability to endure self-mutilation for the sake of their freedom. Whereas you’d imagine psychopaths, on the whole, would skew more towards sadism and an ability to casually sacrifice other people’s body parts to ensure their freedom…

July 22, 2014

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

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Hamlet 25th – 27th September Grand Canal Theatre

You haven’t appreciated Shakespeare until you’ve heard him in the original German. Ahem. Berlin’s Schaubuhne theatre troupe returns under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier for an acclaimed production of the Bard’s magnum opus. 6 actors play 20 roles in a production characterised by a spectacular stage covered in loose earth, turning to mud as actors hose it, and film each other for projection.

 

Zoo 25th – 28th September Smock Alley

Teatro de Chile present a one-hour lecture, of sorts. Two scientists inform you of their astonishing discovery, the last two Tzoolkman people; and then bend their brains trying to figure out how to preserve a culture whose central feature is imitation. So far, so Monty Python, but this is intended to be a serious problematisation of the idea of academic ‘performance’ in serious lecturing.

 

The Mariner 25th September – October 11th Gate

Hugo Hamilton appears to be the Gate’s go-to guy for the theatre festival. Following an adaptation of his Speckled People memoir he unveils an original script about an Irish sailor traumatised by the Battle of Jutland whose mute state inspires very different reactions from his wife and his mother. Patrick Mason directs, but how much insight can novelist Hamilton deliver in 90 minutes?

 

After Sarah Miles 26th September – October 11th Axis/Civic/Pavilion/Draiocht

Don Wycherley’s received nothing but rave reviews for his solo performance as fisherman Bobeen in Michael Hilliard Mulcahy’s new play about a fisherman remembering his life from teenage days in 1969 to the present. As the touring element of this festival Wycherley will appear in four venues as the fisherman who worked as an extra on the filming of epic Ryan’s Daughter.

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Our Few and Evil Days 26th September – October 11th Abbey

Mark O’Rowe takes on directing duties for his first original play in some years and he has assembled a stunning cast for it: Charlie Murphy, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Sinead Cusack, and Ian Lloyd Anderson. We’re promised that a devoted daughter will find out a shocking secret about her parents from a menacing stranger. Violence and poetically abrasive language ensues…

 

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich 1st – 4th October Belvedere

The most ambitious of the three Australian plays at the festival sees the Hindu God Ganesh embark on a journey to reclaim the Swastika from the Nazis, only for things to lurch away from fantastical epic into behind the scenes bickering; as an overbearing director fights with his cast over their right to use the most sacred elements of other cultures.

 

DruidMurphy 1st – 5th October Olympia

DruidMurphy’s trilogy of plays was a highlight of the 2012 Festival, and Garry Hynes returns for a second helping with Marie Mullen and Marty Rea still in tow. Not only will Tom Murphy’s 1985 classic of a dying matriarch, Bailegangaire, be revived, but Murphy has also written a new play Brigit which acts as a prequel by filling in the back-story of matriarch Mommo’s husband.

 

Spinning 1st – 12th October Smock Alley

Fishamble presents the great Karl Shiels in a new play by Halcyon Days playwright Deirdre Kinihan. He plays a man trying to hold onto a life coming apart at the seams, who unexpectedly meets a woman coming to terms with the senseless murder of her daughter. With a cast that includes Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran this looks set to be an absorbing production.

 

Jack Charles V The Crown 8th – 12th October Samuel Beckett

I can’t help but think of this Australian one-man show as being an eccentric kin to Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Jack Charles was part of the Stolen Generation, and then became part of Koori theatre in the 1970s and a film actor; having been a cat-burglar, heroin addict, and convict in the meantime. He performs his life-story with unrepentant brio.

 

Book Burning 8th – 11th October Project

Belgium story-teller Pieter De Buysser tells the story of Sebastian, a man he met at an Occupy demonstration. Sebastian had become embroiled in a WikiLeaks scandal; and from there De Buysser, and his visual artist Hans Op De Beeck, spin out the implications of one man’s struggles to make Sebastian’s story a synecdoche for a new mode of being in the impersonal globalised world.

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