Greek tragedy

The horror, the horror…

***

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2
Cert: 12A

BEING supposedly the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time, you’d be forgiven for wondering why it has taken 14 years to produce a sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If you went by interview snippets with writer and star Nia Vardalos, you might read between the mealy-mouthed lines and put it down to a dearth of worthy ideas or inspiration until now.

The 14-year gap however, should not be taken as a sign that extra care and attention has been spent fine-tuning a modern classic because this follow-up is best forgotten and consigned to the “regrettable sequel” dungeon.

Toula (Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) are now the proud parents of moody, gothy 17-year-old Paris (Elena Kampouris). From the opening scene involving grandfather Gus (Michael Constantine), both Toula and Paris are subjected to the same, lame “marry-or-you’ll-turn-ugly” gag that the entire first film was built upon. Toula and Ian are trying to spark up their marriage while also bracing themselves for Paris’s possible move away to college. But the brand title requires that an aisle be walked down. The honour falls to Gus and equally boorish Greek-immigrant-stereotype partner Maria (Lainie Kazan) whose original marriage, it emerges, was never legally signed off on.

The only remarkable thing about all of this is that nothing fresh has been brought to the table after all these years. Gus, Maria and Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin) trade in lurid clangers and old-school snobbery. The elderlies squint confusedly at technology and it’s meant to be comedy. Did you say pre-wedding hiccup? There is a tiresome succession here, all solved by the gaggling family committee and all swooped upon to the incessant strum of Greek folk guitar.

Humourless tosh.

1/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

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Club agenda

Dark and difficult, it may be, but Pablo Larrain’s El Club is sheer mastery. 

***

El Club
Cert: Club

CELEBRATED Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain turns his political gaze away from Pinochet – a backdrop he used to great effect in Tony Manero (2008) and No (2012) – to close his lense in on another great institutional evil with startling results.

He takes us to a wind-lashed fishing village in the back end of Chile where four men and a female warden co-habit on the periphery. A strange dynamic is trickled out between the sitting room and the beach front; the four are perpetrators of clerical crimes, ranging from baby-snatching to paedophilia, and have been housed there by the Church to do penance. Their quiet life of prayer and greyhound training is upset when a new priest arrives. Very soon he meets his end, resulting in a Church inquisitor being dispatched to the house to investigate his death.

Larrain’s roving direction and cool framing, Carlos Cabezas’s strings and a roundly excellent cast combine to stunning effect in this magnetic and highly original critique of the Church. Rarely does a drama balance a range of colours – intrigue, repulsion, beauty, dread, humour – with such brazen confidence.

5/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Drive-in like you stole it

Worth waiting for? You better believe it. As soon as they walked on stage all in uniform, you could tell it was on. Fifteen years since ripping Temple Bar Music Centre (and the rock landscape in general) a new one, the Band That Changed My Life regrouped, reignited and staged an indoor Easter Rising. How the hell was it so incredible?  Read on…

***

At The Drive-In
Vicar St, Dublin / March 26, 2016

FOR a city currently under siege from talk of rebellions and insurrections, it took At The Drive-in to show what a latter-day Rising looks like. “This is a re-ignition,” brayed top-heavy frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala halfway through the set as a mush of sweaty bodies panted with euphoria on the floor of Vicar St.

Part of this mass exhalation must surely be down to relief in light of the dreaded “comeback tour” spectre. At The Drive-in have occupied a particularly deified corner of rock fandom since imploding under the weight of hype, artistic differences and hallucinogen abuse 15 years ago. It came shortly after their Temple Bar Music Centre date, a gig that has now become a kind of GPO for Irish gig-goers in so much as about four times the capacity of the venue claim to have been at it.

And like the GPO, the band’s subsequent demise would go on to stir a revolution. The possibilities of how guitar rock could be configured saw a sea change. At The Drive-in demonstrated new routes to hard-rock thrills without the need of distortion pedals or gym socks. Their demise gave birth to countless numbers of Bloc Parties, Foals, Battles, Richter Collective champions and DFA funky punks, even if it never seemed obvious at the time. Maybe there was something in that “new Nirvana” tag after all.

Fears that the 11th-hour departure of guitarist Jim Ward and the customary expectation levels would mar the evening are immediately shit-canned with the maracas-and-hurricanes intro to ‘Arcarsenal’. It all goes heavily against script from there on in. Unlike those Coachella gigs a couple of years back, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez looks charged by the whole experience, writhing the angular riffs of ‘Quarantined’, ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Ursa Minor’ into life and shouting the replies to Cedric’s William Burroughs barks. Super-sub Keeley Davis looks fundamental to the power play. Cedric may no longer quite stand on his head but the 41-year-old still flails and whirls the length and breadth of the stage.

The citizen army genuflect with frenzied slam-dancing and karaoke wailing, and are not admonished from the microphone as that night in Temple Bar. In fact, this has been the definitive Irish outing for At The Drive-In. Chaos and petulance have made way for generosity and focus. With this first night of their huge 13-week tour triumphing, the quintet genuflect back to the troops with sincerity. Both parties walk away feeling tonight had no right to be this good.

First published on State.ie

Sing when you’re winning

The third bullseye in the Brooklyn/Room Irish invasion currently taking place, Sing Street is the most joyful and charming of the three. (You might pick up on my enthusiasm during the below Sunday Indo review). 

***

Sing Street
Cert: 12A

BETWEEN Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013), director John Carney has shown that when it comes to dramatising music’s power in bringing an emotional vocabulary to our lives, he’s the best in the business.

Sing Street, however, marks a considerable hike in the serotonin levels of the Dubliner’s oeuvre and will become forever known as one of Irish cinema’s resounding feel-good staples. Unashamedly 80s-nostalgic and positioning itself somewhere between The Commitments‘ salt-of-the-earth Dublin beat and a John Hughes teen romance, it leaves a joyous, soft-centred taste in the mouth.

Conor (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) stands out like a sore thumb when his parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) move him to the inner-city Synge Street Christian Brothers school. Distraction arrives in the form of the lovely but cool Raphina (Lucy Boynton). To get her attention, he does what boys have always done to win a fair lady: he starts a band.

Up goes the notice board ad and soon a gas crew of young misfit musicians (all unknown actors) is assembled. At home, meanwhile, Conor is schooled in the musical canon by stoner brother Brendan (Jack Reynor, on fire). Fashion senses and musical styles evolve in tandem as the soundtrack to Conor’s life (Duran Duran, Hall and Oates, The Cure) harmonises with his changing romantic fortunes. A glorious and irresistible teenage dreamscape opens up before our eyes.

It’d be nothing if Carney didn’t slow the rhythm and let the pulse of young love, and indeed brotherly love, shine through. Between this and the soundtrack – penned by Carney and Gary Clark – expect to be charmed to tears between the bellylaughs.

A classic, and yet another durable blossom in Irish cinema’s current purple patch.

5/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Master of puppets

The world can always do with a new Charlie Kaufman offering. This animated jewel will do nicely. Read on…

***

Anomalisa
Cert: 15A

WE’VE missed Charlie Kaufman. Seven years is a long time to be without one of the most singular writers in modern cinema but that is what we’ve endured since his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York bombed at the box office. His films are hilarious, surrealist, metafictional and often contain veiled, postmodern versions of himself (ie fumbling menopausal males). In the case of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and the brilliant Adaptation (2003), the results can make for life-affirming cinema.

Despite being depicted in co-director ’s distinct stop-motion animation, Anomalisa is as “Kaufman” as it gets. A big screen adaptation of his 2005 play, it features a glum middle-ager with grey hair and grey life (a customer service guru called Michael). It has an existential and romantic crisis forced to the surface by way of said despondent fugue. Michael (voiced by the reedy whine of David Thewlis) is in Cincinnati to give a talk at a conference. Everyone in his orbit sounds exactly the same to Michael (all voiced by Tom Noonan), from his wife and son to the hotel bellboy.

After a romantic grapple with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a frumpy conference-goer staying on his hotel floor, he falls hard, convinced that she is the remedy to his many midlife-crisis ills. As he does, shards of Noonan start to creep in to Lisa’s voice, hinting that only Michael can fix Michael.

There’s much to take from Anomalisa that belies its soft-eyed dolls and dry wit, not least its meticulous mix of the whacky with hard, uncompromising realism. Even Thewlis’s bleating feels like “textbook Kaufman”, which is saying something. It’s great to have him back.

5/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Lonely are the brave

Expect to see Olivia Laing’s latest in the end-of-year lists of 2016’s top non-fiction titles. My Irish Independent review hopefully lays out an argument why.

***

The Lonely City
Olivia Laing
Canongate

LONELINESS may seem like the lot of modern day urbanised lifestyles, where people exist through bandwidths and answer work emails long after they’ve clocked off. The truth is that it is a reality of human existence, and all sorts of things may provide relief – a relationship, a pet, a subscription to a club or society.

For author and columnist Olivia Laing, a move to New York City amplified her feelings of solitude in ways only a huge and bustling metropolis can. She turned to the arts, a harvest which New York has (or “had”, depending on your view of the cultural sanitisation of that once fecund hub) always counted among its most treasured gifts to the world. It became clear that the state of being lonely had fuelled some of the city’s most prized exponents of visual and performance art.

This collection of interconnected essays sees Laing range through the elements of loneliness, taking the work and lives of particular artists as a cipher for her own feelings of isolation. With striking emotional intelligence and a heightened awareness of the therapeutic potential of creativity, she goes exploring. What she discovers is told in language that is accessible, bright and endlessly thought-provoking.

The nocturnal urban scenes of Edward Hopper are less voyeuristic, she argues, than replicating “one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure”. Andy Warhol’s muted speech and obsession with “sameness” signal to Laing his own isolation as a shy immigrant outsider, despite eventually having the city’s artistic community hang on his every move. This seam of “outsider art” crops up continually in The Lonely City, whether it is David Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud-mask series of photos, the troubled universe created in secrecy by Henry Darger or the compulsive hoarding of street photographer Vivian Maier.

What marks Laing out as a commentator of exceptional heart and voice is how she frames these outputs within her own struggles. She drifts in and out of her discourse, doing what so much artistic criticism is unable to – giving life, blood and breath to the discussion. When her focus turns to technology (a charged chapter that sees her decamp to a squashed bedsit polluted by artificial light from Times Square), she deconstructs social media and “its pledge of connection, its beautiful, slippery promises of anonymity and control”. What was simultaneously “a community, a joyful place, a lifeline” to her could also seem “insane, a trading-off of time against nothing tangible at all”.  Screen addiction is well debated these days, but here Laing somehow makes it an evolutionary branch of Andy Warhol’s obsession with recording machinery.

There is little of Alain de Botton’s pop-philosophical finger-wagging in this splendid volume. Nor is there the spectacle-pushing self-regard of high-brow arts reviewing. And nowhere, thankfully, does The Lonely City become some kind of self-help guide for life in the 21st Century.

Instead, this is a paean to the functioning human heart, to dreamers and lovers and beautiful souls who quest for more from life. It also emerges as a love letter to New York, the city that made Laing experience acute loneliness but also provided her with a vocabulary to deconstruct it so elegantly. Art can’t bring people back from the dead, she concludes in the final chapter, nor can it mend arguments between friends or cure Aids. It does, however, “have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly”. One could argue that brilliantly rendered non-fiction can perform a similar feat.

First published in the Irish Independent

For The Birds

A little treat here for cinema fans of all hues: What happened when The Master of Suspense sat down with the Marquis of French New Wave. Documentary magic ensues in Kent Jones film, as this Sunday Indo review attests.

***

Hitchcock/Truffaut
Cert: Club

HARD to imagine, perhaps, but a point arrived in Alfred Hitchcock’s career where his studio heft, celebrity brand and prolific turnaround saw him fall out of favour with US critics. He was considered too box office to be an auteur of real scope and vision, something that is of course beyond question today.

Tippi Hedren and her feathered co-stars had just wrapped on The Birds when a superfan in France, adamant that the portly English director’s genius be pondered by wider society, contacted him with a view to recording a week-long series of interviews to be later compiled in book format. The book was released under the title Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock, later shortened to Hitchcock/Truffaut. Its author was none other than French New Wave goliath François Truffaut.

Truffaut always dabbled in film criticism, and the compendium slowly became a staple of film students and budding directors everywhere following its publication in 1966. Documentarian and cinephile Kent Jones guides us through the intriguing encounter over an affectionate 80 minutes that doubles as a potted history of Hitchcock and his method.

Truffaut – who ranked the Master of Suspense alongside other fatherly mentors Renoir and Rossellini – manages to contain his gushing as an interpreter relays questions to Hitchcock, who in turn slowly enunciates back between cigar puffs. The recording plays over relevant clips from Hitch’s catalogue (Vertigo is a chief point of focus) and a lofty assortment of contemporary directors (Scorsese, Fincher, Linklater, Wes Anderson, Assayas) sing the praise of both men’s oeuvres.

A delight from start to finish.

5/5

First Published in the Sunday Independent