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Non-Review Review: Unless

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Unless is a film that woefully over-estimates its own profundity.

Unless is an indulgent, misguided, ill-judged, clumsy and offensive piece of work, a tone-deaf study of upper-middle-class ennui that laments the plight of characters at least two degrees of separation from an individual with an interesting perspective. Unless is a story about vicarious empathy, the tale of wealthy people whose response to horror and tragedy is to assume that they cannot feel true compassion for an individual’s suffering without embarking upon their own existential grief tourism.

Begging belief.

Begging belief.

All of this is compound by a script and direction that are suffocatingly heavy handed. As if afraid that its audience might somehow miss the subtle nuances of this tail of wealthy familial angst, Unless repeatedly trips into slow motion for the most mundane of moments as if hinting at some deeply-buried profundity. The music soars, even when the events of screen do not merit it, leading to a hilarious disconnect between the events happening and the movie’s estimation of them. And everything is ominously signposted, as characters muse endlessly in pseudo-evocative monologues about life.

Unless is, quite frankly, a terrible piece of film.

Norah battle to the strong.

Norah battle to the strong.

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Non-Review Review: Their Finest

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Their Finest is a charming, if somewhat overly schmaltzy, Second World War comedy drama.

To be fair, the basic premise and setting do a lot to carry the film. The Second World still exerts a mythic power, particularly to the members of the United Kingdom that weathered the Blitz before marching (with American support) to victory. That moment is powerful and evocative, Britain serving as the “island fortress” holding Nazi German at bay. The imagery is striking, from the bombed out buildings to the rubble on the streets to the sounds of air raid sirens. It is a rich and evocative setting.

Projecting.

Projecting.

More than that, it is a setting that offers all manner of storytelling possibilities. As one of the defining moments of the twentieth century for Great Britain, it is the perfect fodder for telling smaller and more intimate tales. After all, everybody knows the basics of the Blitz, so there is more opportunity to explore the lives of those who exist at the fringe of the narrative. Those were extraordinary times, and so stories that might otherwise seem ordinary are elevated to be extraordinary by virtue of unfolding against those circumstances.

Their Finest is the tale of about one woman’s struggle to be heard and acknowledged as a writer against this backdrop, fighting the war at home in any number of ways. It is a fascinating premise, and one that feels relatively under-explored in the larger context of this defining historical moment. While Their Finest occasionally trips into cliché and melodrama, and occasionally even loses focus on the story that it is trying to tell. Still, a strong cast and a lot of charm carry Their Finest a long way.

Station keeping.

Station keeping.

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Non-Review Review: Mindhorn

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

The first half of Mindhorn is a pretty enjoyable British show business farce.

Richard Thorncroft is a failed British character, struggling to keep his career alive following a run on the cult eighties television show Mindhorn. Throncroft made his name playing the eponymous detective with a bionic eye that literally allowed him to see the truth. Inevitably Thorncroft ended up washed up and forgotten, a failed star crashing to Earth. When he is offered one last job, he is forced to return to Mindhorn both literally and figuratively. It is a fairly standard set-up, with Mindhorn reveling in Thorncroft’s lack of self-awareness and decency.

Not a patch on Bergerac.

Not a patch on Bergerac.

However, the second half of Mindhorn is something to behold, as this familiar set-up gives way to a high-energy surrealist farce.

Around midway through the film, Mindhorn makes a sharp pivot into something altogether more outlandish than the familiar British “failed celebrity” farce and evolves into something much less grounded and familiar. The result is one of the most enjoyable comedies in recent memory, and a cult film in waiting. As Thorncraft finds himself wading deeper and deeper into the chaos and insanity, Mindhorn feels like a psychological horror played as absurdist comedy. The result is nothing short of astounding.

King of the Beach.

King of the Beach.

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Non-Review Review: Logan

Logan is a powerful piece of blockbuster cinema, an R-rated feature film that recognises the distinction between “adult” and “mature.”

Logan is unashamedly a comic book movie. There is no getting around that. It features all manner of fantastic trappings, from Charles Xavier’s telepathy to self-driving trucks to clones to cyborgs. Logan is a film that revels in its superhero trappings, in particular the genre’s tendency to appropriate imagery and iconography from wider popular culture to fashion something unique and distinct. Logan is a superhero post-apocalyptic western road movie, and is unapologetic about that.

Bloody murder.

Bloody murder.

However, Logan never lets any of that get in the way of what is essentially a very intimate and personal story about a surrogate family unit and what it means to be a parent in a cruel and uncaring world. Logan is very much character-driven, using a very simple story to delve into its characters in a way that feels earned and nuanced. As much as Logan is proud of its more outlandish elements, it never allows them to crowd out a simple story about growing up and growing old.

Logan is a superb piece of cinema, one that knows when to go quiet and when to go loud, approaching its central character with considerable empathy and dignity.

A driving plot.

A driving plot.

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Non-Review Review: Mali Blues

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Mali Blues is a joyous ode to the communal power of music, an affectionate to the social value of art.

Mali Blues follows a collection of musicians in the eponymous African country. Along with many other African countries, Mali is considered by many to have been a starting point for contemporary blues music, the music taken from the continent that would inspire a North American art form. Given that rich cultural history and important artistic heritage, it is no small irony that music finds itself under attack in Mali. The various performers and entertainers featured in Mali Blues are linked by a common thread, all forced south by radical Islamic extremists in the north.

Up on the roof's the only place I know...

Up on the roof’s the only place I know…

Director Lutz Gregor follows a collection of musicians trying to deal with the country’s political and social issues through their music. However, there is more to it than this. Fatoumata Diawara, Bassekou Kouyate and Master Soumy do not just hope to use their music to comment upon the current situation, instead believing that their compositions and engagement might actually bring about positive change within their communities. There is something profoundly optimistic in the way that these artists look at the world.

Mali Blues invests itself completely in that idea, believing wholeheartedly in the idea that music can serve as more than just entertainment. In contrast to the radical attempts to ban music in the African country, Mali Blues insists that a vibrant musical community is essential nourishment for a nation’s soul.

Fatoumata played guitar.

Fatoumata played guitar.

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Non-Review Review: The Rehearsal

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

There’s a lot of dramatic weight to be derived from the idea that actors are fundamentally creepy.

Of course, this is a crass generalisation and in no way reflective of how the world actually works, but just conceptually there is something fascinatingly creepy in the idea of acting. At best, it is a form of grown-up make-believe, in which the performer conjures reality from imagination in a way that blurs the line between the tangible and the ethereal. At worst, it can seem almost predatory as these actors draw up real-life experiences to enhance the illusion; how must it feel for an actor to manifest something deeply personal or intimate?

ACTion man.

ACTion man.

This is perhaps why popular culture has grown so fascinated with tales of “method” actors who warp their bodies and bend their psyches in pursuit of some fundamental truth about the characters they have been asked to bring to life. It does not matter that the Stanislavski method is quite far removed from the sensationalist version that has seeped into public consciousness. After all, there is something fascinating about tales of Christian Bale’s remarkable physical transformation or that time Daniel Day Lewis saw the ghost of his father while playing Hamlet.

The Rehearsal really mines this popular notion of actors as an uncanny bunch blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, exploiting real emotions and stories so as to offer a more convincing simulacrum. The problem with The Rehearsal is in trying to wed this sensationalist and exaggerated approach to a more relaxed feel-good film and forcing to to conform to something approaching the form of a romantic comedy.

Courting controversy.

Courting controversy.

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Non-Review Review: Without Name

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Without Name is a stunningly confident theatrical debut from director Lorcan Finnegan.

In theory, Without Name belongs that long-standing environmental horror genre, the fear that nature exists in opposition to mankind and that human beings are ultimately a hostile species not welcome in their surroundings. There are all manner of variations in that classic horror set-up, but it bubbles through any number of classic horror films, from The Shining to Jaws to The Birds. There is a recurring fear that the world is not a welcoming place for mankind, and that the wilderness might one day rebel against mankind’s desire to tame it.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

Without Name takes that familiar premise and puts a uniquely Irish spin on it, distinguishing its own set of anxieties from those felt by the European Settlers in the United States or even those disconnected from their pagan roots in the United Kingdom. Without Name draws heavily upon the Western European pagan spirituality that informs films like The Wicker Man or A Field in England, but weds it to unique Irish anxieties about property and ownership that reflect both long-standing uncertainties and modern fears.

The result is a delightfully weird little environmental horror that feels very much of its time and place, a credit to its first-time director.

Sleep well...

Sleep well…

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