The Guard

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John Michael McDonagh’s dark comedy-thriller The Guard (2011) is, the “most successful independent Irish film of all time”, grossing over €4.3 million. (IFTN) Starring Brendan Gleeson as the dead-pan Sergeant Gerry Boyle and Don Cheadle as FBI agent Wendell Everett, small time Irish policing and big time American law enforcement come together to solve an intriguing murder and intercept a multi-million dollar drug deal on the West Coast of rural Ireland.

It’s the classic culture clash set up. Boyle is the sweary, corrupt bad but essentially good cop to Everett’s by the book, big city law man. It’s this dynamic that creates The Guard’s darkly comic backbone. There is  some well-observed Irish humour with Cheadle, as the outsider, being the butt of most of the jokes. However, for me it’s Boyle’s unorthodox approach to law enforcement that delivers the most laughs.

As a subversive slow-burn thriller I found it comparable to McDonaugh’s most recent film Calvary (2014). In both Gleeson plays an unconventional authority figure, in charge of and yet at the mercy of a small, rural community he is bound to protect. Both films also rely on the presentation of a ramshackle almost caricatured version of Ireland: “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture”.Yet while at times cheap stereotypes seem to prevail in The Guard, it is Gleeson’s sensitive portrayal of Boyle which reaches beyond character type and adds real emotional depth. The scenes between Boyle and his mother, while slightly rushed and oddly positioned throughout the film demonstrate Gleeson’s emotional range and instinctive acting style. Moreover, The Guard mixes styles and genres, borrowing from the Western in the final scenes of the showdown. The spaghetti western orchestral score playing over Boyle arming himself up for war in his Garda uniform reaffirms his position as the renegade cowboy, an outsider, a maverick, on the side of good but firmly on his terms.

McDonaugh’s washed-out cinematography creates an interesting and indie-esque canvas. The frequent use of long-shots is particularly effective, framing the action against the bleakly beautiful landscape that continually grounds the film. At times, however, the use of colour feels over done. The over exposure of colours, particularly green, leaves the Emerald Isle looking more of a neon highlighter tinge. Indeed McDonaugh seems torn between lo-fi indie images and more edgy graphics. The closing credits, for instance, seem more suited to a Tarantino movie and jar slightly with the underlying emotional subtlety of The Guard.

WINNER OF THE GUARDIAN’S FIRST FILM AWARD 2012

The 2014 Man Booker Prize is the first to accept submissions from across the globe. Whereas previously limited to the Commonwealth, any novel is now theoretically eligible, providing it was originally written in English.
Of the 13 chosen books, four are American, six are British, two by Irish writers and one by an Australian. Not hugely diverse - white male writers are still heavily dominant - but the leveling of the playing field surely opens up the prize for the years to come.
I’m particularly excited about Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a post-apocalyptic novel set in 1066. Published by Unbound, a crowd-funded, independent publisher it is a refreshingly unique entry with the innovative use of language to create a modern day interpretation of Anglo-Saxon sounds and language.
Amongst the big hitters of the list Howard Jacobson’s J and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks look intriguing. However while Mitchell appears to be playing to his strengths with The Bone Clocks looking to be a time traveling, mind-bender similar to Cloud Atlas, Jacobson has taken a departure from his oeuvre with a dystopian epic.
The shortlist will be revealed on 9 September with the winner being announced on the BBC News at 10 on October 14, 2014.
The winner will receive £50,000 and universal acclaim/trashing depending on which way the wind is blowing.

The 2014 Man Booker Prize is the first to accept submissions from across the globe. Whereas previously limited to the Commonwealth, any novel is now theoretically eligible, providing it was originally written in English.

Of the 13 chosen books, four are American, six are British, two by Irish writers and one by an Australian. Not hugely diverse - white male writers are still heavily dominant - but the leveling of the playing field surely opens up the prize for the years to come.

I’m particularly excited about Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a post-apocalyptic novel set in 1066. Published by Unbound, a crowd-funded, independent publisher it is a refreshingly unique entry with the innovative use of language to create a modern day interpretation of Anglo-Saxon sounds and language.

Amongst the big hitters of the list Howard Jacobson’s J and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks look intriguing. However while Mitchell appears to be playing to his strengths with The Bone Clocks looking to be a time traveling, mind-bender similar to Cloud Atlas, Jacobson has taken a departure from his oeuvre with a dystopian epic.

The shortlist will be revealed on 9 September with the winner being announced on the BBC News at 10 on October 14, 2014.

The winner will receive £50,000 and universal acclaim/trashing depending on which way the wind is blowing.

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, Inside Llewyn Davis follows a young, unsuccessful folk singer around the hot spots Greenwich Village over one week. The 1960s marked a huge revival for folk music, especially across alternative venues in New York. It was the era that produced Bob Dylan, something the Coen brothers don’t let us forget; Llewyn’s cover of “Fare Thee Well” is followed immediately by a shadowy figure with the mistakable voice of Dylan performing the same song.

So Llewyn Davis is a exploration of failure. Where Llewyn’s friends thrive, he struggles. Sleeping on sofas and hauling his belongings from friend to friend’s apartment, there is no constant, reassuring presence in his life. In typical Coen style the film is a comedy-drama, elucidating our sympathy for Llewyn as a classic anti-hero figure.

At times, however, the film felt lacking in plot. A slow meander through Llewyn’s day to day existence is fine but it would have been nice to see more of Carey Mulligan’s character. Jean exudes real power of emotion whereas the other characters simply hover along a melancholic flatness. She also has a cracking voice.

Most of the musical performances were recorded live and sung in full. Oscar Isaac reaches depths with his singing that his acting lacks and captivates the viewer. Justin Timberlake (Jim) is also incredible, showing off his impressive vocal range and ability to adapt to the under-produced folk sound. Llewyn’s opening and closing rendition of “Hang Me” is particularly moving, bringing the film full circle to an emotional climax.

WINNER OF THE GRAND PRIX - CANNES FILM FESTIVAL (2013)

Dazed and Confused

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May 28, 1976, Austin, Texas. School’s out for summer at Lee High School and it’s out with the old and in with the new. Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater) is the classic American high school coming of age film, creating what have become the cliches of the genre. It’s not surprising then that ritual hazing, underage drinking, keg parties, jocks and stoners, and getting laid form the backbone of the story 

Set over their last day and night of term, Dazed and Confused follows the incoming senior and freshman classes. The divide between the classes is reinforced by ritual humiliation. The freshman boys try, unsuccessfully, to evade a violent paddling while the girls endure relentless air raid drills and a dousing of ketchup, mustard and flour. When two freshman students get taken along for the ride, the two worlds collide in a frenzy of drunken adventures. The film bounces around between social groups across both classes over the progress of one night. While the ‘popular’ jocks go on a rampage of mail box destruction the ‘squares’ have a milder time at the drive through. The film climaxes at the moonlit party where all groups converge on the keg.

For saying that Dazed and Confused is considered such a cult classic and is regularly listed on “Best Film of All Time!” type lists, it left me quite cold and to be honest I was expecting much more. While I enjoyed the film’s relaxed pace, the lack of plot proved trying at times. Whereas in some cases lack of plot can be made up by strength of character, in this case a lot of the students merged into one another. One of the film’s main plot arcs is star quarter-back Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd’s (Jason London) dilemma over quitting drink and drugs to concentrate on the team. I don’t whether it’s because I have zero interest in American football, or sport in general for that matter, but this quandary left me nonplussed and unmoved. The female students are similarly bland, but with less dialogue.  

But there are some really funny and insightful moments in Dazed and Confused. The stoned conspiracy theories were hilariously observed. I particularly enjoyed Slater’s (Rory Cochrane) theory that George Washington oversaw the mass planting of cannabis crops: “Didja ever look at a dollar bill, man? There’s some spooky shit goin’ on there. And it’s green too”.  A lot of critics have honed in on this social cross-section observational style, seeing it as “art crossed with anthropology”. (Roger Ebert) It’s a unblinking look at high school life in the seventies over the course of one night of debauchment.

It also marks the birth of a catchphrase for a young Matthew McConaughey: “alright, alright alright?”. And perhaps that’s why Dazed and Confused is so fondly remembered – many of the large ensemble cast have gone on to be major Hollywood stars. That and the kicking soundtrack. With Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Sweet and Bob Dylan to name a few, the soundtrack is an edited highlights of the seventies music scene, which, as an accompaniment to the party, immortalises youth in revolt in what essentially becomes an exercise in nostalgia.

Buried

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An American civilian truck driver wakes up bound and gagged in a buried coffin with only a lighter and phone for company. Taken hostage by terrorists while stationed in Iraq, Paul (Ryan Reynolds) must piece together the little information he has to escape before time runs out.

Rodrigo Cortes’s 2011 thriller Buried takes the classic one room concept to a new level: the entire film is set in the claustrophobic space of a buried coffin. This puts tremendous pressure on Reynold’s performance. While we hear other character’s voices mediated through his phone, he is alone on screen for the entire 95 mins. However, the narrative is kept surprisingly fresh given the lack of space with well structured twists and turns. Moreover, in trapping the viewer in the box with Reynolds, Cortes makes the claustrophobia contagious, transferring Paul’s terror to the viewer. 

While somewhat coasting through his emotional range, Reynolds, on the whole, delivers. From the panic of his first awakening to the tragedy of his last phone call to his mother, the performance is incredibly watchable, even given the viewer’s lack of choices.

An intriguing and original concept thriller, Buried  is incredibly tense and tightly structured. It lacks shelf-life however; a second-viewing would add nothing and lose the crucial thrills of the surprises.

Fruitvale

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In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant III was shot by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) police officer on the platform of Fruitvale Station, Oakland, California. On his way home from New Year celebrations with friends in San Francisco, Grant was traveling in one of the train’s front carriages when a fight broke out. The police were notified and removed Grant and several other men from the train when it pulled in to Fruitvale. Tension built as the men were held on the platform by police and the situation became more hostile. Grant was held down by police for ‘resisting an officer’ and shot in the back. The officer claimed he had mistaken his gun for a taser. Grant was taken to Highland Hospital and died seven hours later.

Fruitvale (2013, dir. Ryan Coogler) tells the story of Oscar’s (Michael B. Jordan) last days. Beginning with actual amateur footage of the shooting, the film plunges straight into the tragic climax with disorientating intensity. While Coogler was initially “firmly against” including any real footage, he was motivated by the need to make people aware of Oscar’s story, feeling a “responsibility to put it out there”. It is a shocking opening, and one which casts a long shadow over the happier episodes of the flashback narrative. An exercise in dramatic irony, the viewer’s impression of Oscar is irreparably altered by their knowledge of his tragic fate.

However, at times this takes on a slightly mawkish tone. In the days preceding his death Oscar is in the process of turning his life around: dumping his stash of weed, pleading with his boss for his job back and becoming a model son, partner and father to his long-suffering mother (Octavia Spencer) ,girl-friend (Melonie Diaz) and daughter. Yes, Coogler is drawing our sympathy for Oscar, but is this pulling on our heart strings really necessary? We have already seen Oscar publicly shot while being restrained by multiple police officers for seemingly no reason, surely enough of an empathetic opening? Yet, in showing Oscar as part of a loving family environment Coogler crucially humanises his protagonist. The story of a young black man being involved in a violent altercation with the law is all too well known. In seeing Oscar struggling to escape from a life of dealing, Coogler challenges to media stereotype of guilt and blackness.

Indeed, the portrayal of the holdup at Fruitvale is raw and powerful. Despite the viewer knowing what is inevitably coming, Coogler maintains the tension as we will another way out for Oscar. Michael B. Jordan’s intensity in these scenes is breathtaking, capturing the panic, confusion and terror of the situation with vivid realism. Coogler’s naturalistic style of overlapping dialogue and the deep focus of the screenshot above also contribute to the disturbingly real image of events.

Fruitvale is an absorbing reflection on one man’s life and the circumstances leading to his tragic and untimely death. A powerful film with stunning performances from the lead cast, it is an impressive debut feature from Ryan Coogler, seeking and succeeding to shine a light on injustice.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Film at Sundance Film Festival 2013

Winner of Best First Film at Cannes Film Festival 2013

The Crimson Petal and the White

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Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

At over 800 pages, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is the longest novel I’ve read in a while, and yet one of the most absorbing. Sugar, a prostitute in her mother’s brothel, undergoes a change of fortune when one of her clients makes their transactions exclusive. From her meagre lodgings on Silver Street, Sugar is installed in a private apartment in Notting Hill, then finally, to her clients own house where she becomes governess to his daughter.

The novel begins in the second person address, inviting the reader into the world Faber has created. Shifting between characters before alighting on Sugar and William Rackham, Faber creates a furtive tone, making evident that the reader is an interloper in an alien world. However, once the plot begins to unfold the ‘narrator’ melts away and the reader is left to find his own way. Indeed, there is a complete world to become immersed in. The prose is rich with detail and description not just of character, but of the bustling world of Victorian London and the myriad of stories it contains.

Labelled “the novel Dickens might have written had he been allowed to speak freely” by Kathryn Hughes (Guardian), there is a similarly epic Dickensian proportion to the world of the Crimson Petal and the White. Faber explores the Victorian ideal of self-betterment, a theme present throughout Dickens’ work, as Sugar rises through the social strata to achieve a place if not in high, then certainly middling society. However, he also challenges the stability of such endeavours. Sugar’s control over William’s affection is enforced by her sexuality. Once his passion for her subsides she becomes vulnerable and is ultimately cast out.

In contrast, Agnes Rackham’s power over William seems to grow despite their lack of sexual contact. His continual refusals to send her to a mental hospital and keep her with him at home despite her social embarrassments ultimately comes down to her class. In this way Faber comments on the dispensable nature of the working classes in Victorian society. Although Sugar reaches great heights in comparison to her previous life, she was born into the wrong class and thus never receives his full respect as an equal.

The Crimson Petal and the White is not something I would usually be drawn to read, historical fiction not being one of my favourite genres, but now that I have finished it I am sad that it is over. A book to get lost in, the return of the ‘narrator’ in the epilogue reminds the reader how far we have traveled and suffered with these characters: “But now it’s time to let me go”.

Meet the Mormons

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Channel 4’s documentary Meet the Mormons starts on a controversial note: Mormons perform baptisms for dead people; wear special underwear to protect themselves from temptation and believe that Jesus went to America after his resurrection. Sadly, this is about as direct as it gets.

As someone whose only experience of Mormonism comes from occasionally being approached by a couple of missionaries on my walk to work, along with a limited knowledge of the hit satirical musical Book of Mormon, the factual tone the documentary was enlightening and interesting. The premise, to follow 20-year old British Mormon Josh Field as he sacrifices two years of his life in attempt to convert the people of Leeds to his religion, tackles the most accessible side of the religion to non-Mormons. Indeed, presenting herself as a caring, motherly figure in the deliberate absence of Josh’s, or as he is now known, Elder Field’s family and friends, the filmmaker challenges the unnecessary isolation of the young missionaries, at times pushing the line of questioning until Josh’s missionary ‘companion’ becomes highly defensive.

However, overall the questions veer to the mundane. With the Mormons stipulating that a PR representative of the Church is to be present at all times, the film is restricted to the Church of Latter Day’s Saint’s anxious self-image. Panning round a corner to expose Richard, the Church’s official rep, the documentary exposes the mechanisms of control which lie behind the seemingly open expression of the interviewees. Indeed, when finally managing to have a frank discussion with Josh in relative privacy he admits that it is probably only by having his missionary partner with him at all times that he hasn’t left the programme and returned to his family - an opportunity which is not allowed to arise again.

Meet the Mormons is interesting but not ground-breaking. While the documentary shows some previously unseen footage of the Church’s secret headquarters and allows unprecedented access to the training centre for missionaries, the whole experience seems irreparably censored.  Josh’s story is told in way sensitive to his beliefs and circumstances but the underlying questions remain unvoiced and the older generation of Mormons who administrate the missionary programme remain unchallenged.