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Review

Review: Animals (Dir. Sophie Hyde, 2019)

Laura is 32 (Holliday Grainger) and has spent the last decade writing a novel, and still only achieved ten pages of content. It’s about a spider caught in its own web and the woman – one in love with the idea of being in love – who tries to rescue it. An analogy for the ages it has to be said. Laura lives with her best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat) who learns of her father’s death at the start of Animals (and just prior to her thirtieth birthday). While we never learn much more, it’s safe to assume there is no love lost there.

Taking its inspiration from the pages of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Manchester-based novel of the same name (she adapted her own work for the screen), the film plays out like a long extended night out complete with wraps of coke, gallons of Sauvignon and several brain-mushing hangovers. As for plot, there isn’t much of one per se as Laura and Tyler navigate their drunken, oft directionless way through life and the pressures that society places upon women (and ergo themselves) to conform to this ideal model of womanhood, i.e. successful, a wife, a mother, settled, and that darn necessity to ‘behave’.

Gladly, neither do, and what could have been a one-note comedy about women seeking love – Laura flirts with it briefly after meeting talented pianist Jim (Fra Fee) – children, marriage and ‘finding their way’ actually becomes that little bit darker. Do women have to settle for all of these things if they’re not deemed successful in a career? This film says nope, and acts instead as a celebration of women, their flaws – bad decisions and all – the complexities of female friendship and a glorious defiance against expectation.

While the novel’s location is replaced by the fair city of Dublin – Manchester is represented in the form of screenwriter Unsworth and Grainger – it loses nothing as the Irish capital is a wonderful alternative, fusing art, nightlife and creativity, and is just as inspirational as the themes it presents. It also acts as a perfect city buffer/juxtaposition to the suburbs; a place which has no sound; “they sell it as peace but really it’s death.” The recurring images of foxes and cats also fail to be seen in the suburbs – animals which nod not only to the film’s title but also act as visual representations of our leading ladies; on the prowl, sometimes feral, independent creatures surviving.

There’s a wonderful moment when Laura, Tyler and Marty the Poet (Dermot Murphy) are standing against a wall outside of a house and he asks the question: “What’s an animal’s primary need?” All three answer differently – food, sex and safety. That’s what the film is about, searching for your primary need outside of expectation, looking for shelter within yourself and longing to be exactly who you are without of all the exterior noise, whether that be ‘society’ or the unsolicited opinion of your best bud.

The film depicts loneliness and the pathos that goes with it in a compelling way; as a fight for independence and inspiration while embracing hedonism.. It’s funny and furious and led by a couple of splendid performances. Grainger proves she has more than (lovely) cheekbones and a pout to her repertoire and quite the emotional dexterity to inhabit a leading role and Shawkat, who is widely known for more comic roles brings a poignancy to Tyler’s acerbic wit. The character is a staunch feminist who refuses to acknowledge how lost she actually is, while ensuring her thoughts on everything are expressed and heard. There’s even an old Hollywood glamour to her character and her costumes (gorgeously designed by Renate Henschke), as if she is lost in time in this, a delightful depiction of modern femininity.

Animals is a breath of fresh air. It depicts fully rounded characters who are empathetic and credible in a current climate where women are having to defend their rights to choose how they live. It’s an insightful, fun and defiant celebration of female friendship and creativity (made by a largely female crew under Sophie ’52 Tuesdays’ Hyde’s direction), finding your place in the world and not settling. Emma Jane Unsworth’s next novel is called Adults. Although not a sequel, perhaps the animal phase comes after tween, coming-of-age with full maturation (allegedly) hitting at, say, 40.

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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: The Bells of St. Mary’s (Dir. Leo McCarey, 1945)

It was the film listed on the marquee of the local cinema as George Bailey (James Stewart) ran through a snow-covered Bedford Falls, and back into the bosom of his family. It was also the picture that Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) took Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) to see at Radio City Music Hall on their first date. Aside from being dearly beloved by filmmakers named Francis, The Bells of St Mary’s does what very few films have been able to do, and that is out-charm its cinematic predecessor (despite Bosley Crowther’s 1946 claims in The New York Times).

Father ‘Chuck’ O’Malley (Bing Crosby) was first seen in Leo McCarey’s 1944 hit Going My Way and is reintroduced here – wearing his straw boater on a jaunty angle – arriving at St. Mary’s in order to help Sister Superior Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). She, who is fighting to keep the Parochial school open and out of local businessman Horace P. Bogardus’ hands. Bogardus (Henry Travers) has already purchased the adjacent building to St. Mary’s but is determined to secure the school grounds for his parking lot.

In the beginning, Father and Sister clash – albeit with a twinkle of the eye and a sly smile on the face, alongside quips like: “Did anyone ever tell you, you have a dishonest face? For a Priest, I mean.” Somewhat predictably, they – the American Priest and European Nun – realise they must come together to fight a common goal. Sound familiar? Okay, so it’s not fascism per se but the film was released in December of 1945 so it’s hardly a stretch to see its themes set against the war effort.

Director McCarey had a somewhat varied career, dabbling in slapstick (Duck Soup, 1933), melodrama (Make Way For Tomorrow, 1937), screwball comedy (The Awful Truth, 1937) and romance (An Affair to Remember, 1957). He would make four Priest-led films (Going My Way…St. Mary’sMy Son John in ’53 and The Devil Never Sleeps in ’62), which for a devout Catholic is hardly surprising, but in all and especially in this film he managed to humanise both Priests and Nuns, depicting them as flawed individuals and, crooner Crosby and the radiant Bergman take Dudley Nicholls’ script and run with it.

There are no villains of this piece – Travers best known for playing angel Clarence in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is probably the most antagonistic, however, manages to convey sincerity and humour all the while attempting to chuck the Sisters and their young wards out of their school. While this is the overarching plot, there are minor, almost irrelevant arcs which provide the gentle comedy and at times offer the most laughs, which go to the heart of the film and viewer alike. Like, flunking student Patsy Gallagher (Joan Carroll) who leans on Father Chuck to help her pass the school year.

Patsy is left at St. Mary’s while her mother Mary (Martha Sleeper) weighs up giving caddish pianist Joe (William Gargan) – who left her pregnant and alone – another chance. Or, bullied Eddie Breen (Richard Tyler) who has been “turning the other cheek” as per Sister Superior’s advice until she decides to teach him, in one memorable and hilarious scene, to box. Even when Chuck and Mary Benedict do have a difference of opinion, it is all decidedly good natured.

It is these threads, and elements within the mise-en-scène, which show the passing of time as the seasons change and the school year progresses, culminating in the most adorable Nativity performance, in the history of Nativities. McCarey was all about improvisation and naturalism in his actors’ performances, and it is no more apparent than in the recreation of “Jesus’s birthday”. It was reportedly shot in just one take with the children encouraged to ignore the camera and crew, and approach their material as they saw fit.

This is an aspect of McCarey’s work ethic which admirer Yasujirō Ozu emulated in Tokyo Story – the 1953 retelling of Make Way For Tomorrow. It is a characteristic which make this film so utterly charming. There are of course – given Crosby’s presence – musical numbers, courtesy of composer Robert Emmett Dolan, such as the delightful “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” and even Bergman stretches her vocal chords in her native Swedish for “Varvindar Friska” (Spring Breezes) and while musicals are not everybody’s cup of tea (I know, who doesn’t love a bit of Bing?) there are ample numbers to enhance the narrative yet few enough not to put people off completely.

Drill deeper and there are interesting depictions of the gendered approach to conflict which one may argue are outdated, however, some still ring true even today. Yes, it may offer an idealised, even sweet depiction of Catholic schooling but this assertion of patriarchal power is more than still relative especially in the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed, as discussed by Revd Steve Nolan’s analysis in the disc extras – the notion of paternalism. Made obvious in the way Dr. McKay (Rhys Williams) decides to withhold vital information of and from a (female) patient but discusses freely with ‘a man of the cloth’.

Although not necessarily a Christmas film, you can do a whole lot worse than including this film on your festive watchlist (if not before). It’s the perfect addition containing humour, charm and sincerity, and one which warms the cockles in much the same way as The Shop Around the Corner or Remember the Night. It may not be regarded as McCarey’s most cinematically satisfying film but its popularity is evident and understandable.

The performances are natural, subtle and nuanced especially Bergman who was rarely seen onscreen less than glamorous, and was loaned by David O. Selznick as part of a deal he struck with McCarey. Here she shines, quite literally, from the glow of her unmade-up face to the luminosity of her smile and the clever use of lighting which flawlessly renders her, hitting the eyes perfectly within her wimple. Made all the more noticeable here thanks Paramount’s restoration process which still contains some grain but which creates a beautiful monochromatic sheen to each frame, set within a 1:37:1 aspect ratio.

The Bells of St. Mary’s will charm your socks off – and it’s a well-known fact that this writer watches it every Christmas Eve without fail. It just ain’t Noël without that little boy, Bobby (Dolan Jr), knocking on a curtain introducing himself in one breath, “This is Mary and I’m Joseph, and we came to Bethlehem to find a place to stay.”

Special Features

It’s almost a given now that if it’s an Arrow Films release, the Academy label in this instance, there are always a few extras to enjoy after the credits have rolled… and only then.

Up to His Neck in Nuns (22 mins) – This visual essay by David Cairns is entertaining and informative as the writer dips into Leo McCarey’s filmmaking history, his early life, Catholicism and heavy drinking. It switches from film clips, stills, photos, archival interview quotes, and Cairns’ lovely Scottish lilt ensures it’s never boring.

Analysing O’Malley (19:48) – This appreciation by the Chaplain of Princess Alice Hospice, film academic, and author of Film, Lacan and the subject of Religions: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Religious Film Analysis, Revd Dr. Steve Nolan is a little dry in comparison to the previous essay. Nolan sits to the right of the frame and narrates; reading an essay from an autocue. It’s a fascinating analysis but one which would have worked just as well as a commentary (surprisingly lacking here).

You Change the World (32:07) – This short religious propaganda film was shot by Director McCarey in 1949 and features appearances by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Irene Dunne, William Holden, Loretta Young, and Jack Benny – all regarded at the time as ‘super Catholics’. It’s arguably some of the best acting any of them have ever done, and they’re playing themselves! It’s preachy, condescending, cringeworthy hypocrisy at its finest (and I say this as a Catholic). The purpose of the film was to persuade “good, decent, normal people” to join The Christophers. I stopped counting how often “The Declaration of Independence” is mentioned when I reached ten.

Two Screen Guild Theater Radio Adaptations: One from August 26th, 1946 (29:52) and the other recorded October 6th, 1947 (28:59). Both star Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman reprising their roles as Fr. Chuck O’Malley and Sister Superior Mary Benedict. The radio programmes are played over a slide show of film stills.

Musical Score Featurette produced by RKO Radio (22:28) – This was made to promote the film’s original release in December 1945, and is played over the same film stills as the radio adaptations.

Theatrical Trailer (1:51) – A perfect way to compare the film against this trailer and see the amount of work that has gone into the restoration process.

Image Gallery – This is slideshow of 35 images. There are gorgeous chiaroscuro snaps, candids, as well as magazine covers, set images and colour posters.

First pressing only: Fully illustrated booklet containing new writing on the film by Ronald Bergen.

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio.

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Review

Review: Men and Chicken (Dir. Anders Thomas Jensen, 2015)

Although renowned for the nordic noir insurgence of recent years – it is fair to say that – not only are the Danes prolific filmmakers and masters of tension but they appear to have a dark, very specific sense of humour and especially in the case of writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen.

Jensen has, over the last sixteen years or so, created a wonderfully weird little world with Flickering Lights (2000), The Green Butchers (2003) and, Adam’s Apples (2010). Men & Chicken fits perfectly into this twisted little village of well, not to put too finer point on it, weirdos. These are incredibly simple stories told at the periphery of the societal norm and are deliciously transgressive with the filmmaker gathering a supreme ensemble fronted by Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and Nicolas Bro who feature in all four features. These fine actors, usually known for their dramatic roles clearly relish the opportunity to play, and play they do.

The film opens fairy tale-like with two small boys walking hand-in-hand down a brightly lit corridor, Frans Bak and Jeppe Kaas’ score is wonderfully dreamlike, melodic ominous strings give way to piano and woodwind. The voice-over narration illicits a sense of whimsy which is almost immediately undermined as Gabriel (David Dencik) visits his dying father. His brother Elias (Mikkelsen) is at a therapy session/date at which he reveals aspects of his rapey subconscious, he’s overbearing, has possible incestuous leanings and, what we will soon discover, a chronic masturbatory “issue”. Physically, the only indication that the two are brothers is a harelip, although, only a scar in Gabriel’s case, and once their father passes they discover a VHS taped confessional which serves to reveal the truth behind their real parentage.

Somewhat reluctantly, they set off on a road-trip in the hope of meeting their real paterfamilias Dr. Evelio Thanatos, a Danish/Italian medical researcher whose fancy-sounding name literally translates into “he who gives life” and “death instinct” (stopping along the way for Elias to relieve himself). Their journey takes them to the Island of Ork – population 38 – where they find more brothers living in a crumbling sanatorium amid peeling paint. Francis (Søren Malling), Joseph (Bro) and Gregor (Lie Kaas) share their home with a variety of animals, have an indoor badminton court, and a room full of cheese, they all possess the distinctive harelip, beak-like noses, and unfortunate hair/facial tics and like Elias, large prominent teeth. One doesn’t need to imagine too hard the smells permeating from the dilapidation and general uncleanliness, especially amid the palette of nude, taupe, brown and orange, or eggshell-manure chic if you will.

Understandably, Men & Chicken won’t be to everybody’s taste. It is The League of Gentlemen by way of The Three Stooges, a slapstick social satire combining hilarious horror with pitch black humour, and while there is something quite grotesque and melancholic about the whole thing, it’s actually fairly moving as the notion of what constitutes as family is questioned and civilisation, religion, philosophy and social etiquette is introduced to the three hovel-dwelling brothers.

By the time the family’s full parental history is revealed, the pay-off is well worth the wait. Ridiculous yes, but a testament to the acting prowess and writing to deliver something so ludicrous. Yet, it is bizarrely emotive, not one family fits all and for the Thanatos boys, it comes in many (many) forms surrounded by lots of poultry and cheese.

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Film Festival Review

Review: Chevalier (Dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015)

LFF 2015

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Economic crisis birthed a Greek New Wave with Athina Rachel Tsangari leading the fore. Historically, she has written, produced and/or directed many of the films associated with the Greek film industry resurgence – Dogtooth, Alps, Attenberg (and acted in Before Midnight too with her lead actor Panos Koronis). She and fellow Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) screened at this year’s LFF.

Tsangari’s last cinematic outlets Attenberg (2010) and her 2012 short The Capsule heavily featured females and their place in – and on the periphery of – the world around them; the director’s next concentrates on the adult male. In spite of its gallic sounding name, Chevalier is very much Greek. Set upon a yacht amid the Aegean Sea and a palette of pale greys and marine blues, it is like Attenberg in that the look is minimalist playing against the backdrop of the Aegean and the insular interior of the boat.

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We never find out what brought these men together, or why they decided on a boat-trip. There are indications as to how they know each other: the Doctor and his handsome predecessor, the Insurance salesman nudist son-in-law, and his loner-genius brother who cannot go into the water (although, we never find out why), the one who spends an inordinate amount of time on his hair, and his pal; they are all friends of sorts. Growing tired of the tedium of card playing and incongruity of asking each other what fruit they see each other as, they decide to make things interesting and create a new game – who is the best in general? They start marking each other on everything, from sleeping posture, the ability to make an IKEA shelving unit, to the size and girth of their erections. The Chevalier of the title is referenced by a signet ring, often worn by French nobility and although its meaning varies depending upon which culture it inhabits, it is also a decoration given by a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church/Knight/Nobleman. You get the gist.

Co-written by Efthymis Filippou (Alps, Dogtooth) which may give an indiction the absurdist direction the film will veer. As to the journey, we’re all along for the boat-ride. To see these men primp and preen is a riot and even I relished (and perhaps snorted) at the male insecurity and ludicrous machismo on display as characters start to examine themselves in the mirror and bemoan the size of their thighs; an anxiety usually associated with female culture.

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There is little guidance in relation to interpretation; the film can be read in socio-political terms especially when the game catches on with the boat’s chef and porter but Tsangari never leads one way or another.  Friendships will be tested and manipulated, blood bonds broken and formed as the best man overall is discovered.

Chevalier is a rebellious, brilliantly mordant and shrewd satire of the male ego. It is absurdist, surreal in parts, and hilariously droll from start to finish. It takes an astute filmmaker to hold a mirror up to society and provoke laughter and it will make you laugh. A lot.

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Review

Review: Calvary (Dir. John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

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In the name of the Father.

Forgiveness is a tricky business especially when religion is thrown into the mix. For Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) everyday duties amid his often troubled, sometimes inexplicable, parishioners, take a sinister turn when, during confession, one of them tells the Priest that he will be murdered within the week. Father Lavalle is instructed to put his affairs in order because killing a Priest, and on a Sunday, “That’ll be a good one.” Given John Michael McDonagh’s last cinematic outing, you would be forgiven for expecting a punchline; The Guard was blackly comic, even laugh-out-loud chucklesome, and here – reunited again with leading man, Gleeson – one would expect much of the same. There are comic moments, however, the tone of Calvary is much darker; still amusing but angry.

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This tragically woven satire has much to say about a country; fractured as it is amid financial ruin and governed, in part, by a disjointed religious institution as well as commenting on the themes of life, death, and faith – what is to be saved and what is to be damned. Using topical issues which have dogged the Catholic Church for decades, this is a who-will-do-it as opposed to a who-dunnit which unfolds like a subversive Western, rural Ireland an unlikely, yet perfect substitute for America’s Wild West with Gleeson as the ‘good’ hero attempting to save the deeply flawed town from themselves and, in doing so, himself from the lone gunman. Among the cast of characters there is the quirky atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen), the supercilious, smarmy banker (Dylan Moran), the cynical, religiously lapsed pub licensee (Pat Shortt), the imprisoned serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson), the cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd), and even a village idiot (Killian Scott); all of whom Father Lavalle tries to steer onto the path of righteousness or dissuade from the life-choices they insist on pursuing, in addition to comforting his own self-destructive daughter (Kelly Reilly), before his day of reckoning. These people are deeply flawed, fallible, clearly as bad as each other and by-and-large vile products of the world they live in.

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It is a film that re-envisions the Stations of the Cross albeit through a Parish Priest in County Sligo and while it is not quite perfect – the script meanders a little – Calvary is wonderful; original, modest, and bleakly dramatic with an outstanding performance by Brendan Gleeson who can convey so much with so very little; a big-bear of a gentle man who wears the cassock and clerical collar with aplomb – it is satsifying to see a decent Priest depicted, it feels like it has been far too long The film’s denouement is dramatic, grand, even operatic in scale, some may argue that it is misjudged but, gut-wrenching as it is, there is no other way it could have ended. With its biting satire, surprising comedy and sheer contemptible anger, Calvary delivers a body-blow that resonates long after the credits roll.

Out on DVD, Blu-ray and available via VoD on 11th August 2014

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Review

Review: Sightseers (Dir. Ben Wheatley, 2012)

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Redundancy, oppressive living environment thanks mainly to a passive-aggressive matriarch, canine-icide and all those little annoying habits of others, like littering, personal success and the class-divide which make one want to pummel in somebody’s skull – desires which social convention and psychological adjustment prevent – are the main themes of Ben Wheatley’s third directorial outing Sightseers following Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011).

The main protagonists Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) are lucky to find each other in this cynical age of romance and chance (plus it reaffirms the old adage that there is indeed someone for everyone however angry or homicidal you may be). He wants to show his new girlfriend “his world” which involves a caravan, a large bag of extra strong mints and excursions to some of the country’s leading, albeit, obscure heritage sites. Tina intends to let him and rock his (world) in her, wholly fetching, knitted bra and crotch-less, big knickers. Following an accident at their first stop (the tram museum) things take a sinister turn and their holiday tests them both and the strength of their relationship.

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Chris refers to Tina as “his muse”, however, she is more of an unconventional femme fatale throughout a series of transgressions and while Sightseers’ pitch black context is, inadvertently, played for laughs, it is Tina’s story arc which is the most evolutionary. She embodies the two binaries of women which are often indicative of the noir: the dependable, domesticated and safe in addition to the alluring, sexual (the lingerie really has to be seen to be believed) and dangerous female. Chris is the male in crisis and she, on occasion, a function of his dilemma and powerlessness. Interestingly, the time she rebels against her own passivity and becomes the idealised version, she believes, Chris wants her to be is the moment when she is dressed at her most feminine, in a dress, completed with lipstick. The scene in which she exerts her first real sign of independence is also the scene in which she, it can be argued, seizes phallic power, here, signified as a very large writing pencil. Certainly, the last sequence does suggest that Tina is the one in control and has, perhaps, precipitated the whole journey and its outcome – “witch!”

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This film really showcases Wheatley’s direction given his lack of involvement with the story and there will be comparisons made between this and Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (1976) and like last year’s Kill List this film also owes a debt of gratitude to Hammer horror. Essentially, the fact that he did not write it makes this a radically different film from his previous, and yet still retains elements of the Wheatley style . Screenplay praise, of which there should be much heaping, falls to the writers and lead actors. Oram and Lowe who both had small parts in Kill List, are better known for their television roles in comedy series Tittybangbang and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place respectively, as well as dual appearances in The Mighty Boosh and Channel 4’s Comedy Lab. Here, they are a match made in heaven as “a ginger faced man and an angry woman.”

Forget what has gone before, this is the comedy of the year. Caravanning is the deadliest and sexiest way to holiday.