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Non-Review Review: Isle of Dogs

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Isle of Dogs is a beautiful piece of work, in every sense of the word.

The obvious point of comparison is The Fantastic Mister Fox, Wes Anderson’s previous stop-motion adventure. Isle of Dogs and The Fantastic Mister Fox are certainly of a piece with one another even beyond the wonderful production design, featuring meditative canines engaged in existential struggles. However, Isle of Dogs represents an extension and deepening of the work that Anderson did with The Fantastic Mister Fox.

Isle of Dogs reflects the more daring formal experimentation that made Grand Budapest Hotel such a treat, trusting the audience to accept and even embrace Anderson’s consciously hyperstylised approach to storytelling. In a strictly logical or rational manner, almost every major creative decision in Isle of Dogs seems to have been made to remind the audience that they are watching something constructed and crafted, the film consciously and artfully heightened so as to remind the audience of the remove that exists between them and the film they are watching.

Although Anderson has come to be known for this conscious and playful aesthetic, it is not his greatest accomplishment as a director. The most wonderful and beautiful thing about Isle of Dogs is that the film is so lovingly and carefully crafted that repeatedly drawing the audience’s attention to the artifice of it renders it no less real and no less moving.

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Non-Review Review: Paradox

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

The obvious point of comparison for Paradox is Taken.

Of course, Taken is so archetypal an action film that it has become a stock point of comparison for any gritty action movie with a paternal protagonist. However, the similarities to Paradox are quite apparent. Both Paradox and Taken are the stories of fathers who discover that their daughters have been kidnapped while holidaying abroad, and who inevitably use their investigative skills (and their capacity for violence) in order to track down their lost loved one while venturing into a disturbing subculture that exists for the gratification of the rich and the privileged.

Paradox follows veteran Hong Kong police negotiator Lee Chung-Chi when his daughter is kidnapped in Thailand. It quickly becomes clear that the girl has been targeted by illegal organ dealers to provide a heart transplant for the corrupt local mayor, meaning that the father is caught in a desperate race against time to pull back the layers of corruption and indifference that serve to insulate those responsible. Along the way, he teams up with local police inspector Tsui Kit to crack the case.

However, much like the obvious comparison to Taken, the simple plot description does not do justice to the weirdness and tonal awkwardness of Paradox. It is perhaps most accurate to describe Paradox as a film quite like Taken, if Taken featured a scene in which one character dangles another off the roof by their penis.

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Non-Review Review: Sweet Country

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

“What chance does this country have?” asks Sam Neill towards the climax of Sweet Country.

In the context of the scene, it isn’t entirely clear to whom the character is speaking. There is one other individual in the scene, but they are preoccupied at that moment and it’s not clear they are even within earshot when Neill’s character makes his grave assessment about the future of this young nation. However, outside the context of the scene, it is very apparent to whom Neill’s character is addressing his concerns. He is speaking directly to the audience through the medium of film.

Sweet Country is not a film that does subtlety or nuance. As Neill’s character offers this pointed question, he stumbles through the Australian wilderness, as if to suggest that he is lost. He stops just short of bluntly stating that he is lost, just like this country, the film demonstrating uncharacteristic faith in the audience’s narrative and thematic comprehension. Nevertheless, just in case the audience still doesn’t get it, Neill’s character asks this very profound question while wandering in the direction of the tail end of a rainbow set against a stormy sky.

“What chance does this country have?” the character wonders. The audience doesn’t feel the need to articulate the obvious response, “Not much, if it produces films like this.”

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Non-Review Review: First Reformed

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

First Reformed is an unholy mess.

On paper, First Reformed has some very interesting ideas. It is a film grappling very consciously with weighty themes and heavy subject matter. It is about the challenge of finding faith in a modern and cynical world, and about reconciling the mundane maintenance of spiritual belief with the euphorically elevation of pure devotion. This is a broad theme that resonates in a world that feels increasingly disconnected and diffused, in a time when people feel increasingly distant from purpose or meaning.

Indeed, the core premise invites comparisons to Taxi Driver, which remains the defining work in Schrader’s filmography. Schrader has been working as a writer for almost forty-five years, and as a director for forty years, but his body of work is still discussed in terms of the second script that he wrote. Although most audiences associate Taxi Driver with the creative partnership of Scorsese and DeNiro, it was a work that was very important to Schrader, articulating themes and ideas to which he would return time and time again.

First Reformed brings Schrader back to that, with Reverend Ernst Toller feeling very much like a spiritual sibling to Travis Bickle, a man who struggles to make sense and to find meaning in a chaotic world and who decides to impose his own order upon the universe. Schrader is very much playing with his own history and iconography here, playing out a familiar story in a new setting with a slightly different emphasis. As with a lot of artists revisiting their earlier and defining, the results are frustrating. First Reformed bends and contorts in the shadow of its predecessor, never coming into its own.

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Non-Review Review: The Breadwinner

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Stories enrich us, stories empower us, stories sustain us.

The Breadwinner is many things. It is a beautifully animated film from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, a worthy successor to The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and also the first time that the company have looked beyond Irish shores for one of their feature-length releases. It is a stunning adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ novel, offering a compelling glimpse into Afghanistan as controlled by the Taliban at the turn of the millennium. It is a genuinely affecting tale of a young girl surviving in a climate that seems actively hostile to her very existence.

However, The Breadwinner is also a meditation upon the power of stories. This is not a surprise, it is very much in keeping with the aesthetics and interests of Cartoon Saloon. It is a recurring theme in their work. (As a point of comparison, Pixar Studios are invested in parental anxieties, down to the inclusion of the “Pixar Babies” in the credits of every major release.) Indeed, The Breadwinner might be seen as a spiritual successor to (or the third part of a thematic trilogy with) The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, stories about children reconnecting with the mythic history of their countries.

Indeed, this is one of the most striking and appealing aspects of The Breadwinner is the way in which it finds something universal in its very specific setting. The Breadwinner is a story very firmly anchored in one time and place, but one that should resonate with everyone.

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Non-Review Review: Black ’47

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Black ’47 is a powerful piece of pulp storytelling, a bold and daring window into an under-served chapter of Irish history.

Directed by Lance Daly, working from a story derived by a variety of writers, Black ’47 is essentially a western set against the background of the Irish Famine. Of course, the reality is much more nuanced than that simple description would suggest, but it provides a suitable starting point for discussion. Indeed, all the genre elements are in place; a soldier returns home from war to discover the horrors that have befallen his family, and decides that there shall be no justice on earth save for that which he might exact by his own hand.

Black ’47 is a very sparse and rugged film. It would be a surprise if the nominal lead character, Feeney, speaks more than one hundred words. Indeed, at one point he explicitly rejects the English language as a tool of communication. The landscape of the film is rough and cold, the audience feeling the chill that runs through the film and almost smelling the decay in the air. Black ’47 reflects its rough and wild settings, and the characters who have been shaped and moulded by those surroundings.

Black ’47 is an effective piece of storytelling.

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2018) #2!

And we’re back to doing it almost weekly!

The new and improved Scannain podcast continues. A one-stop shop to talk about the week that has been in Irish and world cinema, the Scannain podcast features a rotating pool of guests discussing the week in film – what we watched, film news, the top ten and new releases. This week we’re celebrating both the Oscar nominations and the announcement of the line-up for this year’s Audi Dublin Internation Film Festival.

I’m thrilled to be part of a panel including Phil Bagnall, Jay Coyle, Ronan Doyle and Stacy Grouden. Give it a listen below.