Getting Arcade Fired Up…

IN December 2010, Arcade Fire waltzed into Dublin and tore the 02 a new you-know-what. That night, I popped my cherry on the much-lauded Canadian collective and have not been the same man since. I hereby re-post this review I did for state.ie to prove that while I may have been the only Dubliner absent on Sunday in Marlay Park (I have a very demanding cat), I was there, man…

 

THE reasons I never ‘got’ Arcade Fire remain unclear. It may have been that I grew sick of people ordering me to love them upon my arrival home from a couple of years away. Returning to Ireland in 2005, it was all Orcade Foyre this, Orcade Foyre that. Jump forward five years, and I’m exiting the O2 breathless and emotional and struggling to think of the last group that has made a real, tangible connection with their audience on such a level. Boringly, U2 is all I can muster.

It should also be noted that tonight probably wasn’t even their best Irish show ever. Opening with the chugging insistence of ‘Ready To Start’, they were greeted by a white noise of welcome but still had to get us out of bed, as it were. ‘Stand the fuck up!” barked Win Butler to the seated tiers before ‘Month of May’’s staccato drone tore off in their direction. This show was happening, even if the crowd had to be prodded once or twice. ‘Neighborhood #2 (Laika)’ sees another plea to stand and be counted, but the malaise is then well and truly bludgeoned by ‘No Cars Go’. Salutes and a ‘HEY!’ chant that could split the ice outside give it the semblance of a fascist political rally. Arcade Fire’s aural Red Bull has found the bloodstream.

The audience are as proud of muscular new LP The Suburbs as the band are, swishing along to the title track and its hushed Thomas Newman-style outro, but the bar did get a little busier during ‘Modern Man’. It’s like watching two old friends catch up. “We know it’s hard times… politicians are fucking you over,” sighs Butler, unselfconsciously, at one point. The building roars in agreement.

The octet are finished with foreplay though, and with the encore in sight, they decide it’s time to slip it in. Butler wonders aloud which of their O2 performances will be the best, and that in their experience it’s usually the second. The O2 jeers in response. ‘Well then show us what you’ve fucking got. 1, 2, 3,…’ he snarls before ‘Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)’ is detonated.

Watching the group stroll away, the audience realises they have limited time left with their old friends. When they return to more white noise for a final brace of songs, everybody – everybody – wants to make up for initial lethargy. ‘Wake Up’ unites each last living voice in the former Point Depot. The chorus is overwhelming, like a winning try against England in Croke Park. We file out into the cold along with 13,000 or so others, our buttons firmly pushed. Now I get it.

Getting down with Mrs Brown…

I’m nothing if not fair, as this review in yesterday’s Sunday Independent of Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie should prove. While Messrs O’Carroll and Duffy took potshots on the Marian Finucane Show yesterday at the film critics of Dublin for doing their job and having objective critical opinions about a film (gasp!), the cash has rolled in for the release’s opening weekend, begging the question – why bother guys? You’ve won. Be the bigger person. 

 

WITH one or two exceptions, TV show migrations to the big screen tend to be vanity projects rather than dignified creative augmentations. Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie is no different really, its remit to deliver a cinema-sized slice of the sitcom for its bafflingly vast legions of fans.

You certainly cannot begrudge creator/writer/star Brendan O’Carroll the success the show has had in the UK after his many years of slog but it remains unlikely that this typically crass-humoured, panto-ish outing will make many new converts.

O’Carroll and director Ben Kellett step out from the studio into Dublin’s inner city itself, dressing the capital in primary colours and a sunny sheen while peopling her with charmingly gruff fishwives and merry Moore Street stallholders. There’s a bit of a song-and-dance number before plot drama is installed by way of greedy South Side developers (“boo”) and Russian gangsters (“hiss”) who are out to disrupt the proud street trader tradition.

As everyone runs around flapping their arms to try and thwart them, the fourth wall is lowered here and there in bemusing style. O’Carroll winks knowingly at the camera and outtakes are left in the screenplay, leaving glimpses of the fun had on set and providing respite from the hair-dryer strength Mullarkey. Joe Duffy, Frank Kelly, ex-Ireland hooker Shane Byrne and (of course) June Rogers join the usual cast members made up of Carroll’s real-life family and friends.

It’s tempting to dismiss Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie as a €4million odd inflation of O’Carroll’s award-winning ego but the truth is that it is very much fit for purpose, romping with potty-mouthed abandon and doing what it says on the tin. That said, if you are not yet inured to his Mrs Bleedin’ Doubtfire shtick, then steer clear.

First published in the Sunday Independent

Film review: Benny & Jolene

Director: Jamie Adams
Exclusively at IFI 

PERHAPS the most odious thing about Benny & Jolene is the notions that it has about its own wit. Pegging itself as a gag-athon road-movie/mock-rockumentary in keeping with the finest comedic traditions of Ricky Gervais, it feels that it can bring a new breadth of hilarity to the peerless Spinal Tap mould. How dare it, quite frankly.

That it underperforms was never going to be a surprise, but there are offences happening at a few levels of Jamie Adams’s debut that turn an underwhelming film into an outright mistake on everyone’s part.

Craig Roberts (who lit up Richard Ayoade’s Submarine) and Charlotte Ritchie faff about for 88 minutes as the titular freak-folk duo who find themselves with a surprise hit on their hands before they can even really play. Off they go on a tour of Wales with their manager and PR girl (This Is England’s Rosamund Hanson). Every comic device is knackered; they’re given an old camper van instead of a tourbus; no one turns up to their record store signing; they read reviews of their music that are nearly as scathing as this one.

All along, Benny is holding a candle for Jolene leading to all sorts of inane flapping and overcooked interactions that, like the dire, lazy script, miss the runway altogether. It’s despairing to watch and a cautionary reminder that improv and underwriting are strictly for masters.

Book Review: From Out Of The City by John Kelly

Space issues forced this to get snipped back in yesterday’s Sunday Independent. Here, in all its splendour, I give you the full monty…

Image

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
RRP: €10.50

WERE we to draw a loose literary-fiction line starting with crime writing set in today’s Ireland and ending, say, in the feral knife gangs of Kevin Barry’s City Of Bohane, somewhere in the middle would sit From Out Of The City. John Kelly sets up shop in 2040 Dublin, 13 years ahead of Bohane, but where Barry bludgeons the west coast, Kelly crimps and lacerates the Fair City. Barry scraps technology whereas Kelly gaily satirises the social and political warpings of internet culture and globalisation gone too far.

The affable arts broadcaster has sculpted our beloved capital into a place of anarchy and environmental disarray within a puppet police state and a muscular “European Alliance”. The furiously detailed reconstruction makes enough wholesale changes to excite, but keeps just enough (delayed Darts, gannets on Ireland’s Eye) to harry the pull of outright sci-fi. It is only 26 years away, after all. Speculative, yes, but rooted weirdly in the all-too-familiar.

It can be hard to keep up with the somersaults of Kelly’s imagination and the deep, penetrative humour which soundtracks much of this warped conspiracy noir. Monk (named after ivory maestro Thelonious) is our octogenarian narrator, eavesdropping and spying from his Dun Laoghaire flat on Schroeder, a sacked Trinity lecturer getting sucked towards the shooting of a US President during a State visit to Dublin. This is Monk’s confessional, and persistent reminders come that “this is no thriller or makey-up tale of suspense”, and is simply the events as they played out in a time “when dysfunction was everywhere and anywhere”.

Subsisting on Stolichnaya and pills, Schroeder is like a half-cut stranger staggering around a carefully set chess board, powerless as the gods conspire to put him in the path of conspirators, touts, shady secret agents and bad sorts who may have a stake in the shooting. Femme Fatales, like the mysterious Chantal and the seductive news reporter Paula Viola, torment his loins enjoyably. Pieces pop up or disappear around him as the final act approaches, but there is little he can do except exasperate through a hangover.

The chess board itself is something to behold. US kowtowing has led to an aircraft carrier setting up residence in Dublin Bay, to the point that it is “as normal as the Sun”. Dun Laoghaire “grins grotesquely” at the waters (“polluted beyond all salvage by plutonium, uranium and flesh”) “like a mouthful of rotten teeth”. Temple Bar is a no-go-zone of cutthroat bars and drug and smut snake pits. Protestors are mowed down by troops outside Leinster House and Phoenix Park, now a US military base called “Fort Phoenix”, has lost all its deer to a deranged marine with a machine gun. It turns out there is a lot of low-down dirty fun to be had watching one’s hometown sullied so thoroughly.

Monk is less the omnipotent narrator as the suburban know-it-all. He speaks about his rooms chock full of screens, files, scribbles and notes, and with the detail in the novel’s charged prose scuttling about the page you start to imagine a similarly obsessive Kelly homestead. References wink at you during paragraphs. Etymology of Dublin placenames is nerdishly explained while it’s probably no accident that he namechecks Pere Ubu, Suicide, The Fall and New Order. Some bypass you if you’re not careful, so you stay alert, even during those phases where Schroeder is between dangerous liaisons.

If Dublin survives without degenerating into Kelly’s devilish cesspit, you can imagine From Out Of The City taking on classic status, like a Terry Gilliam film that needs time to be fully absorbed and appreciated. He gets rough, for sure, but there is indeed “a modicum of love” at work in the way he crafts so much from what probably presents itself on the commute into Montrose. Sooner or later, the One City, One Book committee may even cast its eyes on Kelly’s charged, whipsmart and hugely entertaining literary cartwheel and decide that if ever there was a writer who put their own stamp on this town of love and hate, it was him.

First published in the Sunday Independent

 

 

Georgia on my mind…

Title: In Bloom
Director: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross
(IFI and selected cinemas) 

A film set in Tbilisi during the aftermath of the Soviet collapse was never going to be a barrel laughs, what with a brief civil war and prolonged instability rocking that city in the early nineties. Georgian writer Nana Ekvtimishvili was a teenager at the time has made In Bloom with German husband Simon Gross as a way of exploring the strife she encountered in those troubled days.

Food rationing, guerrilla bullying and everyday firearm possession are all draped around the edges as the story is told of two 14-year-old girls whose friendship makes life both tolerable and paradoxically complicated. Eka (a near expressionless Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria) both come from households disrupted to greater or lesser degrees by the political events beyond the city, as if the trials of teenagerdom were not already enough.

In between the downward expressions, pretty young girls sing songs about dreams being crushed, grannies wail forlornly and suitors won’t take no for an answer. But the ways of this society are really hammered home to the girls when they come into the possession of a handgun. Meanwhile, both struggle to resist the forces of Georgian social convention which their beleaguered elders thrust upon them.

Using a “mise en scene” approach and shooting everything in a bleached pallor, Gross’s cinematography is all about realism and humanity, with the physical surroundings only there to be considered if you seek them out. The centrifugal force is supplied by two stunning lead turns by Babluani and Bokeria, the former in particular conveying the complex cultural mores of the gender dynamic in one stunning wedding scene. Superb, if morose, fare.

When I met the lovely Joanna Hogg…

With her new film Exhibition showing this week in the IFI and selected cinemas, I thought I’d throw this Joanna Hogg interview I did a couple of years ago up on to this blog. Just cuz. 

 

At the bottom of the staircase in the Merrion Hotel foyer hangs Paul Henry’s Dawn, Killary Harbour, one of the finest examples of 20th Century Irish landscape art. Examining its violet mountains and bleached misty waterscape closely, Joanna Hogg seems transfixed. “That. Is. Wonderful,” she mutters.

Rewind half an hour, and the filmmaker and I are discussing the role of landscapes in her latest release. A feature event of this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Archipelago is a slow-burning drama about a fraught family reunion set against the stunning backdrop of the Isles of Scilly. It was there, she tells me, that her own family would holiday when she was a child. “The actual setting has very personal resonances,” she says, “and that only adds to it for me, to the intensity of it. I cast the place like I cast the actors; I’ll only cast an actor if I feel some connection with them or I feel they understand what I want to do. I don’t just choose a location because it’s pretty. It’s got a lot more layers to it than that.”

“In fact we had really lovely happy holidays so I don’t know where the anxiety came from,” she laughs. “Well I do sort of know…” The anxiety she refers to is palpable throughout Archipelago. Pregnant silences and bottled-up emotions inhabit most scenes, sometimes to amusing effect. As in the films of kindred spirit Mike Leigh, the dinner table and kitchen sink become emotional battlegrounds.

We’re sitting in an upstairs room. Through the window behind her, the sky is a rare blue while the evening sun illuminates the granite of government buildings opposite. The shy and highly observant child she professes to have been is somehow visible in there still; dressed in jeans a lose-necked jumper, Hogg’s eyes are oddly expressionless and she has a disorienting habit of shaking her head when saying “yes”. Often, a clear and serious tone fizzles into a whisper only to swoop up loudly again.

She is gracious and agreeable and seemingly unaware of her standing as one of UK cinema’s most celebrated newcomers. The release of Unrelated, her 2007 debut, saw the then 47-year-old arrive as a mature and fully-formed talent, wowing critics and plundering awards ceremonies. It came following a spell directing music videos before moving on to shoot TV shows such as Casualty and EastEnders.

“I just stopped thinking about it and became quite bloody minded,” she smiles, “and felt that if I wasn’t going to do it at that point in time then I never was. I find myself appreciating the idea that I can express myself creatively. It’s still a new sensation as I’ve only made two films, and I had many more years of making television. I definitely see it as a liberation.”

Was television that confining for her? “At the time, I probably enjoyed it in practical ways – it’s quite fun working with actors – but in terms of my own personal creative ideas, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do I think,” she trills. “I’ve got a lot of ideas!”

She’s certainly made up for this previous dearth in artistic freedom. Stylistically, Hogg is already regarded as something of an auteur thanks to her spacious, still-camera compositions and incorporation of non-actors into her scenes. “Hopefully it makes the audience just forget that it’s fiction,” she explains. “I’m very clear on what I want but at the same time I leave those gaps, and that to me is what is exciting about filmmaking. If it was just about executing a plan I really would have no interest in that. I think most films, even if they are very tightly scripted, need to leave room for things to happen. Then these nice accidents occur.”

As the writer of her films, she exercises her need to grapple with “personal but not autobiographical” themes. She has said that there is a little bit of her in each of the characters in Archipelago, something I ask her to elaborate on. “Yesss,” she begins uneasily, “and that doesn’t have to be taken totally literally. I’m not a mother so I don’t have experience of being a mother. But some of the issues that Patricia, the mother in Archipelago, is dealing with I can relate to – I can relate to her state of anxiety, and that’s what I was taking from that character for myself. And then with Cynthia, the sister, I think it’s more the desire or the need to control everything, also the indecisive, very sensitive son. So there are little hints of my own issues in each of them. These traits that I have are quite contradictory, so it felt good to spread out some of them among the different characters.”

She cackles loudly at the suggestion that Archipelago is like an autumnal and particularly hellish family Christmas. “I think it’s only a matter of time before Christmas becomes one of my settings! I find family an endless source of ideas.”

She goes on to talk about also drawing inspiration through literature, contemporary art and even eavesdropping on train journeys (“I have to be careful sometimes,” she guffaws.). Suddenly a light bulb goes off in her head. “I’ve just remembered another filmmaker who I love and that’s Lenny Abrahamson,” she says in reference to a previous question. “I thought Garage was a really beautiful film. Very moving. Deeply moving.”

In 2001, Hogg married the sculptor Nick Hurvey, a relationship that hasn’t hurt her quest for creative stimuli. “I really like it. I’m sure there are downsides too. We work in different disciplines but one thing can feed another. One of the reasons I go to a lot of exhibitions is because he’s an artist, but I see that as an advantage for me, and then maybe he sees certain films because of me. It sort of works both ways, in terms of feedback. It’s really positive.”

Surely this must lead to some heated exchanges of opinion or bruised egos, I wonder aloud. “There’s always those moments, and I hate criticism!” she roars laughing. “I choose my moments very carefully when I show him something because he makes very, very good comments but he’ll be very honest about what he thinks about something – in a very un-English way actually! And vice versa.”

In a short while, Hogg will politely but sincerely thank me for my questions and descend the hotel staircase. As if predicting that the Paul Henry will be pointed out to her, she will first tell me about casting the English landscape artist Christopher Baker as himself in Archipelago, and that the discipline of painting infects both her directing and the film’s plot.

“You were asking me what I was like as a child,” she considers. “The other thing I did apart from observing was I drew quite a lot. I now really love painting. I’m not saying I’m any good at it but I find the process important actually. It’s very different from filmmaking; you don’t need any money to do it but it’s something that’s very involving. I haven’t really changed; I still observe things all the time.”

Living In A Coded Land

Title: Living In A Coded Land
Director: Pat Collins
Released: April 25, 2014 (exclusively at IFI)

With the weight of history firmly leaning in behind the recent state visit of our President to UKland, it is eerily fitting that Irish audiences be treated to Living In A Coded Land. Unashamedly designed to duel with the Irish condition’s sometimes lazy comfort in itself, Pat Collins’ film essay is both a cattle prod and a soothing balm for the Hibernian Gestalt.

Tracking the same woozy paths to the intellect as he did in Silence (2012) and Tim Robinson: Connemara (2011), Collins makes facing up to the past’s presence in modern Ireland a sensory experience, one where the director’s trademark glacial tempo allows ideas to mature and plant root.

The title says much – this is a decoding of modern Ireland that rocks gently back and forth between today and events centuries ago – the Battles of Aughrim and The Boyne, the Famine, emigration – weaving threads to join them together and arguing that history actually never stopped happening to us here. Battlefield victories give way to architectural pomp and Orange parades. A new Dublin-based business class emerges to dethrone the ruling cattle classes and workplace amateurism elongates itself into a dole queue culture. These are all things the modern Irishman has long held hunches about but Collins is providing the space and compass points to consider what has always been staring us in the face.

Archive footage from RTE and the IFI wafts in and out of Collins’ more handsome, ambient contemporary shots. Narration comes from wise voices (Sean O Faolain, The Cruiser, a hypnotic John B Keane) and the sounds of nature and Seamus Ennis’ uilleann pipe lull and stir. With stealth, Collins is making you join the dots. A real achievement in Irish cinema.