Down Mexico way

*****

Sicario

Cert: 15A

A STRONG female protagonist is thrown in with cocky, war-hardened marines and sent to an alien planet to fight a deadly and faceless enemy that cocoons its victims. No, we’re not talking about James Cameron’s 1990 sci-fi-slasher classic Aliens but the latest grim confection from the ascending genius of Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies).

Sicario (a Mexican term for hitman) does a superb job of pairing such horror elements with the sun-baked darkness of cartel-ridden badlands. Emily Blunt is by-the-books FBI agent Kate Macer, co-opted on to a special task force to Mexico to escort a top cartel leader for questioning. Not only does the convoy have a bullseye painted on it, but Kate is also unsettled by both the movements of Josh Brolin’s shifty mission leader and a smouldering Colombian consultant (Benicio Del Toro) riding alongside her.

The tension at one border-control scene is a work of art but Villeneuve and first-time scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan unsettle at seemingly banal moments as well. Kate’s questions are never answered properly. Moralities blur. Cinematographer Roger Deakins conjures bee-sting alarm bells with a jaundiced yellow-and-black palette.

The three-way dynamic of Blunt (essentially playing one of us), Del Toro (a career high) and Brolin is delectable and full of hidden corners. Villeneuve, meanwhile, burning images into the mind through composition and light-play, ensures Sicario stays with you for days afterwards. If you only see one action thriller this year, it must be this.

First published in the Sunday Independent

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St Vincent’s Day

Oh St Vincent, let me count the ways… Scrap that. Here’s my State.ie review of her recent July show in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens. Photos provided by the not inconsiderable snapping skills of Robert Porter

***

IT RAINS, the sound is bad and it’s full of scenesters. That’s the mantra of the increasingly vocal sector besmirching the name of outdoor gigs. A glance up at the soupy broth replacing the summer sky this evening, a part of you wants to agree and leave the oasis of Iveagh Gardens to see who’s playing the front bar in Whelans. But you don’t. You wait because this generation’s Bowie is here. Her and Danish support act Mew will seduce and electrify, your heart tells you. The rain will be an inconsequential spittle. There will be no place for that tedious “rain failed to dampen spirits” line here. And maybe, this time, you’ll be right.

It seems to be going to plan as Mew go about their business with all the efficiency and cleanliness you’d expect from four chiselled Scandinavians. Studio-quality renditions of ‘Am I Wry’, ‘Special’ and the helixing vocals of ‘The Zookeeper’s Boy’ all sound the result of a ‘play’ button somewhere backstage, they are so faithful. Alas, this is just a simple combination of good live mixing and hardened gig-fitness. It’s usually our preference to have the non-album colours come across in the live scenario but today it feels somehow fitting for these poppiest proponents of prog-rock.

As crowds go, Mew’s “small but attentive” lot are swelled by St Vincent’s “hipsterfied all-sorts”, many of whom are initially too cool to fully lose it when Annie Clark slinks on stage like the second coming of Ziggy Stardust. This doesn’t last, however, and it’s only a couple of songs in before they’ve been beguiled by Anni-B Parson’s android choreography, the insistent throb of Clark’s immaculate three piece backing band or the centrifugal force of the entire shebang – Clark herself.

Let’s take a moment to digest what we have before us because it’s a rare and exotic species indeed. The electro-pixie look of the 2014 leg of this tour has been ditched and in its wake comes something that is equal parts Joan Jett, Edward Scissorhands and Catwoman. There is an oozing, vampish sexual arsenal behind every footstep but it is when she’s in the throes of another crunching, unruly guitar workout or rolling down the rear-stage riser that you begin to suspect a proper enigma has crash-landed on earth.

Opener ‘Birth In Reverse’ is a robotic ballet of tick-tocking shimmies with guitarist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda. Clark is bathed in golds, purples and blues as she takes to the riser for the widescreen sway of ‘Prince Johnny’, and it is from up here, statuesque before the congregation, that ‘Cheerleader’’s languid climaxes see the air above the audience get punched. ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ shows off a guitar tone as distinctive as any Josh Homme or Jack White. Listen carefully and you’ll hear State and thousands of others sighing.

Yes, it’s been a splendid coup indeed for the outdoor concert experience. By the time of the encore, State has learned of a new-born child that was recently named after this goddess of cool. And there, up on the stage, we continue to watch entranced as Clark is wheeled out on a psychiatrist’s lounger for ‘The Party’. We hope they never find a cure for her.

Blue me away

Eoin McNamee’s brilliant Blue Is The Night has just scooped the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award at Listowel Writers’ Week. When I reviewed it last year for both Metro Herald and the Sunday Independent, I knew it was something special. Just sayin’ like…

Ahem. Anyway, here’s the Metro Herald review. 

Blue Is The Night

by Eoin McNamee

Faber & Faber

UNLIKE your Adrian McKintys or Stuart Nevilles, the crime writing of Eoin McNamee’s Blue ‘trilogy’ does not have the dread of hot sectarianism to provide a wrenching backdrop.

McNamee has made a name for himself with true-crime renderings of subjects such as the Shankill Butchers and the ghastly demise of Captain Robert Nairac. The Blue books – not so much a trilogy in the traditional sense as a gothic inquiry on loosely linked incidents – however are situated in corrupt post-war Belfast, and zero in on Attorney General and High Court Judge Lancelot Curran, whose daughter Patricia was found viciously stabbed near his Whiteabbey pile in 1952. That murder was recounted and reviewed in The Blue Tango (which earned McNamee a Booker longlisting in 2001), and she haunts this third part along with many ghosts in what is a supremely eerie and evocative novel.

With one foot in 1949 and one in 1961, the earlier years see Curran’s advisor and strong-arm Harry Ferguson meddling as his boss seeks to hang protestant Robert Taylor for the horrific murder of Catholic Mary McGowan. Ferguson is out to prevent this to improve Curran’s chances of elevating to the political sphere. But a rot permeates Curran and his family, between his mentally troubled wife Doris and promiscuous 19-year-old Patricia.

Chills waft off the page as Ferguson visits Doris years later in a psychiatric home in the hope of bypassing dark voices in her head and solving Patricia’s mysterious murder. Few writers can build such menace and foreboding within the palette of history as McNamee, his tidy, mesmeric syntax dripping with atmosphere and animating malevolent psychologies, both human and spectral.

An early contender for crime novel of the year.

Alan Rickman Interview

First Bowie, now this? I give up. Horrid news altogether that we have lost a proper screen icon. Here’s an interview I did last year with the inimitable, aquiline-nosed, feline-voiced legend during the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. He will be sorely missed.

***

YOUR heart flinches ever so slightly when Alan Rickman smiles at you.

That smile. That same macabre, fangy, slit-eyed grin that (nearly) fooled John McClane and terrorised the townsfolk of Nottingham.

It appears often on the star’s face as he sits opposite me, his back to the blustery bright morning going on outside the window. The 69-year-old is in town for a special screening of period romance A Little Chaos at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and all is well with the world as he tells me about his Irish heritage through his paternal grandmother.

“When I came here, and I’m not kidding,” he says with mock indignation, “it was absolutely like coming somewhere I knew, and that was back in the mid-nineties when I was shooting An Awfully Big Adventure. And those were the days before the banks went belly-up. Then it was unbelievably celebratory, and for me to just go into a bar and there wasn’t some dreadful jukebox but actually people talking and seeing Sharon Shannon play in a club, it was honestly like meeting a bit of myself. And I was talking to (Texas singer and friend) Sharleen Spiteri about being a Celt, how you smell each other out, because my mother’s family is Welsh. There’s not a lot of English blood in me.”

All of this is delivered via the great Rickman trademark, to use a horrible office-speak-ism, his “USP”; that voice.

To hear that rich, caramelised purr slowly enunciate something as mundane as ordering a coffee or commenting on the weather is remarkable. It is a voice designed to silence rooms, filmsets, political rallies and the mess hall of a school for wizards. It feels a crime to interrupt it but I must. Did it mean a lot to him to do a film like Michael Collins, given this family link?

He nods thoughtfully. “A huge amount,” he blinks. “Especially when you do the homework. I couldn’t see how Neil (Jordan, director) was going to do it in two hours. I thought that was an incredible achievement given that it ought to have been a 16-hour miniseries really. I could see a way that you could do that story from different points of view and then find a meeting point at the end.”

Rickman has spoken about playing real life historical characters and becoming “defensive” of them as human beings for the simple reason that if you judge your character too much they become harder to play. He felt this about King Louis XIV, who he plays in A Little Chaos, and still does about Eamon de Valera nearly two decades since the release of Michael Collins.

“It’s no secret what Neil’s feeling about de Valera would be,” he sighs with a hint of resignation. “I think there’s another movie to be made about one of the great love affairs of all time which would be de Valera and Collins before they split up. When de Valera was in America, Collins was going over and reading bedtime stories to his kids! They were such yin and yang, of course they were close on some level. I don’t subscribe to the view that de Valera was responsible for his death because as far as I can see he didn’t have enough power at that point, and there’s enough stories saying the day before he was killed he was running around trying to find Collins. He must have known something but didn’t have the power to stop it. Yeah, it was very important to me at the time.”

This is obvious. You can hear it in the way he recounts sitting in a cell in Kilmainham Gaol and being handed a note written by de Valera in “the tiniest handwriting” asking the nuns to look after his family. “Incredible,” I remark, for a few reasons. “Yeah,” Rickman murmurs. “Rich, rich, rich.”

A Little Chaos is the second time Rickman has directed a feature film after 1997’s The Winter Guest but the first where he has starred as well. Written by Allison Deegan (the Dublin-born wife of author Sebastian Barry), it tells of a landscape gardener and mourning mother (played by Kate Winslet) employed to design one of the lavish palace gardens at Versailles. It is a lush and canny outing that is quite understated for its genre. Studio investors, he says, insisted Rickman take a leading role as well as direct.

“It wasn’t’ my choice,” he explains. “The only thing that made it doable was that Louis XIV was a bit like a film director. It’s a certain attitude of watching everything and making a choice or moving something. The expression on the face didn’t have to change much, and he’s a fixed point so he didn’t have to move anywhere. People come to him. I remember thinking, ‘if only somebody had invented the movies for Louis. Move over Harvey Weinstein.’” Another grin and another tiny flinch.

He politely entertains my assumption that there must be an element of stepping back in time when making such a sumptuous, costume-heavy production before squashing it. “You’re really living in the present,” he gently smiles. “Believe me, there’s always a gun to your head, a very present-day gun, and if it’s not the weather, it’s the money or just the pressures of film-making. The homework is enjoyable because you’re surrounded by people who are passionate. And if the weather’s kind and you don’t have an airplane flying through every ten seconds, then there are great celebratory days of work. It’s just work. And that’s what’s enjoyable. You’re just working.

“Work”. It is that code Rickman has obeyed throughout a glittering stage and screen career that began when the then-26-year-old successful graphic designer won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) after giving in to the acting itch. Artistic growing up in council-estate Hammersmith, Rickman’s factory worker father died when he was eight. Life for his mother and three siblings wasn’t easy back then. Anything he achieved he did so through graft, and acting, like any other profession, was a challenge, not a laugh.

“If you have a talent, all you have is a responsibility to it,” he insists. “You can’t take credit for it. It’s an accident of something or other. Somebody else is a brilliant firefighter. And it gets harder and harder; young actors today; they don’t have to be a member of the union and there’s no particular pressure on them to train. They don’t notice how quickly they could get spat out by the machinery and the finger snap and the box-ticking of it all.”

As Vice Chair at Rada, Rickman is well placed to be concerned about the lot of young actors yet he does not fret over Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, his former Harry Potter co-stars and arguably the most famous teens in the world during the planet-eating franchise’s heyday. He and life partner Rima Horton never had children, but he speaks with pride about the trio. “All of them are brave young souls. You’ve only got to watch Emma speaking at the UN or Rupert throwing himself on to the West End stage or Daniel making really bold choices with his life and work. I don’t know if it’s down to luck or the fact that there were lots of voices to mentor them. I suppose we all talked to them when we had half a second on set.”

He still struggles to get over the Potter phenomenon, and marvels at meeting “obsessed” fans who weren’t born when he began playing shifty Severus Snape. “What is it about ‘once upon a time’,” he wonders aloud, “that still has such power over people’s imaginations? I find it a relief to think a child will pick up an actual book and get lost inside it. There’s something just fundamental about it; it’s how we figure out who we are by telling stories to each other.”

A good-natured Alan Rickman “harrumph” comes when I ask about retirement.

“You try saying that word to Judy Dench or anybody,” he scolds. “The point about actors is the work goes on.”

 

First published in the Sunday Independent

Treasure this

There’s still time to get in to see the Zellner brothers’ wondrous little fairytale if you’re around Dublin area.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Cert PG

Inhabiting a rare place between fact and fiction, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter was always going to stand out at this time of year, wedged as it is between the Oscarbait and the awards-season run-off.

You won’t have seen anything quite like it of late, and while much of its peculiar ambience is tied up in loneliness and confusion, it will leave you with a strangely optimistic glow that will puzzle you for days.

The Zellner brothers (director and co-star David and producer Nathan) co-wrote this fairytale from a beguiling source, namely an urban myth that had adhered itself to a 2001 tragedy. A Japanese woman was found frozen in Minnesota having taken her own life. But media at the time latched on to the rumour that she had gone there searching for the very loot which Steve Buscemi’s character is seen burying in the Coen bros film Fargo (1996). The Zellners were concerned only with this dotty and discredited side-plot.

Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) is still waters running deep as the isolated Tokyo office worker bullied by her boss and mother for being so alone. On a scratchy VHS copy of Fargo, she studies the briefcase of cash being stashed in the snow with fascination. She gets her hands on the company credit card and ventures off to North Dakota to hunt down the money and its totemic worth.

With an airiness that recalls both Jarmusch and at-times the aforementioned Coens, Zellner tightrope-walks between whimsical and gravid. This is a daydream, designed to tickle fancies and wonders, but with reality’s hard knocks serving as a vital bogeyman.

A treasure in itself.

First published in the Sunday Independent

Gift of the Gabby

Connemara debutante novelist Alan Stephenson went straight for the teen fiction jugular on his debut and drew blood. This is my messed-up way of saying Gabby is a nifty stocking filler for those complicated folk we call teenagers this Christmas. The Sunday Independent were good enough to let me explain why.

 

WHO’D be a teenager these days, what with having to contend every day with raging bodily chemicals, awkward dispositions and peer pressure.

Spare a thought, then, for Gabby, the protagonist of this fleet-footed fantasy debut by Connemara-based author Alan Stephenson. If all these things were not enough, our young heroine has the added complication of transforming into a titanium-winged harpy when her humour is tested. And teenage humours are easily tested, you may have noticed.

Of Traveller stock, Gabby’s family is massacred one night in the West by a foreign hit squad intent on snuffing her out on the eve of her sixteenth birthday. The reason for this, one that slowly dawns on her in the aftermath of the attack, is the threat she poses to a clandestine crime cult based in the north of Spain who know that, as the daughter of the seventh son of a seventh son, burgeoning puberty will equip her with terrible powers.

She goes on the run, aiming for refuge on an island off the coast near the fishing village of Cleggan.  Chapterless, bite size scenes carry us along as she discovers that when her adrenaline rises, Gabby grows talons and huge metallic wings while undergoing a sense of heightened sensory awareness. These very much come in handy as she is hunted across Connemara by specialist assassins, Romany gang leaders and those trying to help her.

Stephenson takes a careful aim at the teen-fiction market and hits a bullseye. It’s not rocket science, he shows us. He makes an entertaining emulsion of rhythm, danger, character empathy and the usual teenage dilemmas of getting to grips with hormones and emergent adulthood. The animals she befriends offer her what the humans around fall down on – loyalty and trust. That said, by the time of the brisk finale, she has a band of relatives and colourful local well-wishers around her that react to her plight with either familial defensiveness, desire or the awe and devotion of witnesses to a miracle.

If one could fault Gabby it would perhaps be in the magnitude of her powers which by the end of the book are so fearsome that you are in little doubt that she will come out the right side of any altercation with dart-slinging witches or crack snipers. It is important, therefore, that her deadliness is countered and subdued by all the trappings of her age and Stephenson makes sure that these are part of her saga (like when she is completely disarmed by flutters after crossing paths with dashing fisherman Crabapple Jones.

Stephenson doesn’t clutter the language with lexical flora. The modern and the mystical get fused in the dialogue, between jocular rural Irish and the dour, biblical speak of her tormentors who are packaged in the same darkly zealous robing as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code ghoul, Silas.

It’s an age-old template in a novel – a seemingly ordinary young person who develops amazing abilities. It resounds with young readers for whom nothing would be more wonderful than appearing ordinary on the surface in the school hallway but harbouring something inside that trumps their peers. Tolkien and JK Rowling built empires out of the blueprint. Even Cloud Atlas supremo David Mitchell has tried something similar (if more brain-scrambling) in his recent The Bone Clocks. If Stephenson can build on this debut and bring further riches to what he intends to be a trilogy, who knows where this could lead.

First published in the Sunday Independent

H Is For “Hell Yeah”

I had to work hard not to let my long association with falconry taint my Sunday Independent review of Helen McDonald’s nature memoir ‘H Is For Hawk’. Luckily, it is a beautiful piece of work regardless of whether you know your Barbary falcons from your Red-Nape Shaheens…

 

AFTER the death of her beloved father, writer, poet, Cambridge academic and falconer Helen McDonald sought out falconry’s most challenging charge – the goshawk, “the ruffian” of the hawk world. It would, she hoped, consume her so greedily as to soften the waves of remorse she felt for her father, a Fleet St photojournalist whom her nature-mad childhood had revolved around. The move chimed with other glaring absences in her life; a man, a family, a job or a permanent abode.

Unlike most reviewers, I have actually trained and hunted with a goshawk and would not wish it on anyone going through a time of emotional fragility. Only perhaps racehorses require more daily management than falconry birds, all of which are non-domesticated species that must be intensively conditioned to tolerate and respond to the trainer before flying free. In particular, however, few birds in this ancient art absorb patience or test resolve like the spring-loaded, mercurial goshawk.

McDonald’s subconscious took her and her grief into the world of this solitary species, a place where human connections and feelings would only get in the way. H Is For Hawk is about that process and what she discovers on the other side. But there is also much more going on in this achingly honest journey.

As a child, McDonald was a raptor “bore” to her parents, obsessing over them, drawing them, and poring over all the old falconry literature. One of these texts was TH White’s The Goshawk (1951). White – who deserved more fame in his lifetime for his Arthurian legends The Once And Future King and Disney’s adaptation of his The Sword In The Stone – had, as McDonald biographs with forensic sensitivity, a sorry life. He was abused by his violently incompatible parents as well as at school, and lived with little in the way of human companionship due to his closeted homosexuality. The goshawk he disastrously trained in 1936 was White’s way of “disappearing into nature” in order to treat utterly human wounds.

White thus looms large on the fringes of McDonald’s courageous memoir. Besides the skill and thought with which she pieces apart his nebulous life and motives, she uses White as a prism through which to understand her own self-imposed feathery exile. Where once she scorned White the novice falconer, she now finds herself softening to him. She stands back even further then, questioning the romantic myth of nature being a refuge for bruised hearts. Mabel – the name she gives to her own captive-bred goshawk – is a predator, a “spooky, pale-eyed psychopath”, no matter how comfortable and playful she comes to be in the author’s company. It is ultimately the hawk’s cold-eyed lack of humanity in the hunt that reminds McDonald of her need to return to more human temperatures.

And yet for a book that has death and dead people at its core, H Is For Hawk is not only full of light and buoyancy but is also some of the most charged nature writing to appear since JA Baker’s evergreen The Peregrine (1967). McDonald’s ruminations on Mabel, her prey, English wildlife and habitat are gilded, shimmering things, like graffiti being precision-flung before your eyes. Here, a cloud of bouncing linnets are “half midges, half musical notation”. There, a wild hawk’s swoop is “a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl”.

Baker, like White, leaked shards of himself into his OCD-laced diary, but McDonald has perhaps more in common with AL Kennedy whose On Bullfighting begins as a treatise on a mystery and ends up being illuminated by something from within the writer themselves. This, along with some exquisite language, is McDonald’s achievement and the reason for the many textures, both tame and wild, harrowing and celebratory, found here.

Hilary A White

H Is For Hawk, by Helen McDonald. Jonathan Cape, €14.99

First published in the Sunday Independent