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Non-Review Review: Mickey and the Bear

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Mickey and the Bear marks a confident theatrical debut from director Annabella Attanasio.

Mickey and the Bear is a study of poverty in the Pacific Northwest, unfolding against the backdrop of a small Montana town. The opening scenes establish this quite effectively, introducing Mickey as a young woman living in a trailer that is literally falling apart with her father Hank. Hank is a veteran of the Iraq War, and the scars clearly linger. He has an opiod prescription to help with his leg wound, but adamantly refuses the psychological help that he clearly needs to come to terms with the trauma. The film is essentially a ticking time bomb in the form of a character study, a countdown to the point where Mickey’s world implodes.

Mickey and the Bear is bolstered by a set of strong performances. Mickey is played by relative newcomer Camila Morrone, who offers a complex and nuanced take on a character who has largely given up any real hope of outside intervention and so has retreated into herself. Hank is played by veteran James Badge Dale, with Hank’s dysfunction feeling of a piece with the psychological damage felt by Badge Dale’s characters in films like Flight or Echoes of War. The two play off one another well, layering their relationship with myriad emotions which suggest the full range of their complicated dynamic.

As writer and director, Attanasio infuses Mickey and the Bear with a palpable sense of quiet desperation. Dread and anxiety hang over the film, but even they are pressed beneath the weight of grim inevitability.

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Non-Review Review: Vivarium

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Vivarium is an abrasive and aggressive work of surrealism.

It is very much of a piece with director Lorcan Finnegan’s earlier work, feeling like a clear descendant of his “ghost estate” short Foxes and his “land will swallow you whole” horror of Without Name. Indeed, Vivarium taps into many of those same fears, essentially beginning as a horror story about a young couple going house hunting and ending up lost in a monstrous and seemingly unending estate. It morphs from that into an exploration of a broader set of anxieties about the very idea of “adulthood”, of what young people expect from their adult life and what it in turn it expects from them.

Vivarium often feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It features a small core cast. Although shot on an actual housing estate, Finnegan pushes the production design into the realm of the uncanny so that it looks like a gigantic creepy sound stage. The script consciously pushes its narrative into the realm of the absurd. However, throughout it all, the film remains keenly focused on a simple and strong central metaphor. Although Vivarium operates at an unsettlingly heightened level of reality, and although its populated by a mess of signifiers it never entirely explains, it remains firmly anchored in relatable ideas.

Vivarium is perhaps a little over-extended and little heavy-handed in articulating its central themes and ideas, but it is consistently interesting and ambitious. It’s well worth the time.

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2019) #8! Live From VMDIFF!

It’s time for the latest Scannain podcast!

This time, coming live from the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, recorded in the space between the showings of Another Day of Life and José on Saturday 2nd March. I join Jason Coyle, Ronan Doyle and Alex Towers of When Irish Eyes Are Watching discuss their own experience of the festival to this point, including highlights and otherwise.

Films discussed include: Loro, What Time is Death?, Happy as Lazzaro, Ash is Purest White, Rafiki, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life, The Man Who Feels No Pain, Fighting With My Family, Angelo, Vox Lux, Her Smell, Dragged Across Concrete, Another Day of Life, Dub Daze, Out of Blue, A Girl From Mogadishu and She’s Missing.

Due to the unique constraints of the festival, this episode eschews the usual format (no top ten! no new releases!), moves at a much brisker and looser pace, and was recorded in the wild. As such, the sound includes ambient rainfall.

Non-Review Review: Greta

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Greta is a pure and pulpy delight.

In some ways, Greta could be seen as a follow-up to director Neil Jordan’s previous film, the under-appreciated Byzantium. Like Byzantium, Greta is also a tale of monstrous motherhood and of a young woman struggling with a prolonged and extended childhood. Indeed, both Byzantium and Greta are very much genre pieces. This is in keeping with Neil Jordan’s sensibilities as a filmmaker. It is dismissive of these stories to suggest that Jordan “elevates” them, but he has a very strong understanding of the mechanics of how stories like these work. He always has, going back to stories like The Company of Wolves or Interview with a Vampire. (Even other “genre” work, such as crime films like Mona Lisa or The Crying Game.)

Both Greta and Byzantium are monster stories, even if Greta is anchored by a much more modern sort of monster than Byzantium.  Whereas Byzantium explored this mother-daughter push-and-pull through the lens of the classic vampire story, Greta draws inspiration from a different sources. There are obvious classic gothic influences at work in this psychological horror – Edgar Allan Poe looms large over one of the film’s big reveals, to pick one example. However, Jordan is most obviously and most consciously evoking the popular trashy psychological horror genre of the late eighties and nineties, the dozens of the films that were legitimised by the success of Silence of the Lambs; films like The Cell or Kiss the Girls or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

Indeed, the easiest and most efficient way to describe Greta might be “Postnatal Attraction” meets “Single Hungarian Female.”

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Non-Review Review: Angelo

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Angelo is perhaps as good as “what if Barry Lyndon, but with slavery from a European filmmaker?” could hope to be.

The basic premise of Angelo owes a lot to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a period piece that largely eschews many of the conventional trappings of period productions to offer a more philosophical meditation on man’s relationship with the larger world. Both Angelo and Barry Lyndon are stories about people trying to navigate the complicated networks of human relationships in an unstable world, their own pursuit of stability and self-actualisation subject to arbitrary forces that exist outside of their control. Both are stark moral fables that border of nihilistic, shot in a much a colder manner than most of their period movie contemporaries, eschewing a lot of the warmth and romance traditionally associated with the genre.

Of course, Barry Lyndon was the story of a peasant Irishman who found himself fleeing to the European continent and trying to make a living for himself, whose star would rise and fall along the way. In contrast, Angelo is inspired by the true-life story of Angelo Soliman. Writers Alexander Brom and Markus Schleinzer take obvious liberties with the basic story of the black man who integrated himself in some of the most exclusive circles of nineteenth century European royalty only to discover how fickle such associations could be. This creates an inherent tension within Angelo. This is a film that opens with Angelo’s abduction from Nigeria, and which returns time and again to his status as a slave. However, it does so without really grappling with that reality.

Angelo threads the line about as delicately as possible, focusing more on its abstract thematic preoccupations and philosophical musings than any concrete details. However, there is a sense of cynicism about the film, a sense that the movie is utterly uninterested in the particulars of Angelo Soliman’s life or the finer details of what life as an actual slave (and later a freed slave) would be like in the nineteenth century. Instead, Angelo avoids these smaller questions by asking bigger and bold questions about the very nature of human existence as a whole.

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Non-Review Review: Out of Blue

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Out of Blue is just awful.

Carol Morley is an intensely talented director. Dreams of a Life is a fascinating documentary, exploring a harrowing true story with empathy and compassion. However, Out of Blue seems to get away from her. Morley is directing a screenplay that she adapted from Night Train, Martin Amis’ darkly comic parody of detective fiction. Indeed, Out of Blue seems to carry over some of the parodic intention of the source material in its better moments, playing as deranged and heightened homage to detective movie clichés. However, there is also a sense that Out of Blue is taking all of this very seriously underneath it all, that it is unwilling to commit to “the bit” and that it confuses its own pseudo-profundity for actual insight.

Even if Out of Blue never actually functions as a cinematic narrative, there is some fun to be hand with certain stretches of it. There’s enough in Out of Blue that it almost plays as investigative thriller pastiche; a knowing and heightened riff on the familiar formulas of sordid investigative thrillers. There are stretches when Out of Blue plays like the kind of weird and esoteric object that a view might find playing on Adult Swim in the early hours of the morning, couched between episodes of NTSF:SD:SUV and playing opposite Angie Tribeca. The dialogue is so hardboiled that it could be used as murder weapon, the insights into the human condition so laboured that they’ve been granted health insurance.

The biggest issue with Out of Blue is that it never seems to be “in” on the joke.

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Non-Review Review: Happy as Lazzaro

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Happy as Lazzaro meditates profoundly on the modern world, and reaches the important and timely conclusion that maybe slavery is bad and maybe capitalism is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Alice Rohrwacher structures Happy as Lazzaro as an Italian neo-realist fable, a fairy tale for the modern world evoking both the Brothers Grimm and the Holy Bible. Its title character is a martyr who dies (or at the very least suffers terribly) repeatedly for the sins of the fallen world around him, wandering with wide-eyed innocence through a landscape that is ground beneath the heel of market forces. Happy as Lazzaro offers a happy-go-lucky protagonist who wanders listlessly from one event to another without any guile or ambition to cloud is judgement, affording him a purity that allows Rohrwacher to make her commentary on the various ills of contemporary society.

However, the biggest problem with Happy as Lazzaro is the eponymous character, the dim-witted and perpetually good-natured farmhand who provides both the narrative engine and the central perspective of the film. The issue is not actor Adriano Tardiolo, who does the best that he can with the material afforded to him, his face a perpetual blend of innocent optimism and mild confusion at even the most mundane of situations. The issue is the character himself, who exists as a moral and social vacuum at the heart of film. Happy as Lazzaro expects the audience to treat its central character as a paragon of virtue untouched by the sinful materialist world in which he finds himself. Instead, he comes across as a character completely devoid of any weight.

There is something to be said for using a character like that as a vehicle for social commentary. Narratives like Being There, Twin Peaks: The Return and Forrest Gump have employed the “guileless fool” as a protagonist to varying degrees of success. The issue with Happy as Lazzaro is that it is not content to simply use its central character as a leaf caught in a wind, but instead insists upon his purity and sanctity. Happy as Lazzaro is a film that constantly confuses the lack of any moral agency whatsoever with something approaching moral superiority.

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