Tag Archives: irish film institute

Horrorthon and on and on…

It’s been a long and busy Halloween weekend as the Irish Film Institute once again hosts Horrorthon, their annual gore-fest for fans of the horror genre. Running over four full days, there is almost too much to see –  a good complaint by the way- as they bring together classics, new releases and previews.

Armed with nothing more than a sturdy(ish) constitution, focuspullr set off to embrace the darkness for a full-on weekend of Zombies, Hoodies, gory body modification and good old-fashioned terror, with some laughs thrown in along the way. Naturally with so many films showing, some cuts of my own had to be made, so here are some capsule reviews of my weekend highlights.

We kicked off with the Festival’s opening film Antiviral –  the debut feature of Brandon Cronenberg, son of body-shock Master David Cronenberg. This sci-fi horror centres around a clinic selling vials of celebrities’ infections to their obsessive fans. Taking certain sections of society’s almost pathological fixation on celebrity culture to an extreme conclusion, the film features a great central performance from Caleb Landry Jones as Syd March, the employee with a byline in stealing samples from the clinic,which he sells on the black market. Naturally things don’t go quite according to plan, not helped by the fact that the only way Syd can get the viruses out of the clinic is by injecting himself with them.  This is a good-looking film with great cinematography and an interesting premise, but it’s a little overlong and loses some of its bite as a result.

Room 237 is a fascinating Documentary exploring the perceived hidden meanings and sub-texts of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, The Shining.  Using extensive film clips and voice-over narration to probe Kubrick’s multi-layered film, theories range from the believable to the outrageous. Some readings see the film as dealing with the slaughter of the American Indians, The Holocaust and Kubrick’s part in faking the Apollo 11 Moon landings, among others. It’s a fantastically well executed film which will leave you wanting to see Kubrick’s masterpiece one more time.

Ciaran Foy’s debut feature, Citadel, got a very warm welcome at its home screening. The Director was there to introduce the film and take part in a Q&A afterwards.  He told the packed house that the idea for the film was inspired by an assault on him by a gang of youths (on his way home from the cinema, incidentally) in which a dirty syringe was held to his throat. He suffered from Agoraphobia following the attack, a condition he ascribes to Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), the lead character in the film. Tommy’s life is made hell following an attack on his pregnant wife in the condemned council tower block they’re just about to leave. A gang of hooded youths armed with a syringe attack her and leave her for dead, while Tommy watches helplessly from the building’s stuck lift. Later moving into a council house on the same estate, Tommy and his new baby daughter are stalked by the malevolent teens, who it transpires, are not at all what they seem. Citadel cleverly mixes social realism with the Zombie/Vampire genre and makes great use of its council estate locations, which are beyond bleak, to say the least.

The Anthology film has long been a staple of the Horror genre. From the fertile ground of the 1970s which gave us Tales From The Crypt and The House That Dripped Blood, to name but two, through to more recent fare such as the straight to DVD schlocker, Trick r Treat. These usually consist of 5 or more individual stories within a story, which play out in turn while bringing us back periodically to the original framing story.  VHS is the latest addition to the genre, comprising 5 shorts; with each segment covered by a different director. These are firmly rooted in the modern Indie-horror style; with takes on slasher flicks, found footage films, haunted house scare stories and ’70s inspired occult weirdness. As with other compilation films, some segments fare better than others, but overall VHS delivers on the shocks with some genuinely scary WTF moments.

A couple of worthy mentions go to American Mary and Excision, both of which deal with female characters with a yen for home surgery.  In American Mary, director twins Sylvia and Jen Soska (Dead Hooker in a Trunk) give us the story of broke surgical student Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle). Mary is offered a sizeable amount of cash to perform some no-questions-asked surgery on the wounded accomplice of a sleazy night club owner, which propels her into a shady underworld of illegal body modification. Things take a turn for the weird when, thanks to a creepy tutor, Mary’s hopes of becoming a qualified surgeon are dashed, and she’s soon embarking on a bloody revenge spree.  American Mary is a well made, tightly paced shocker which cleverly finds inspiration in the underground sub-culture of tattooing and piercings.

In contrast Excision’s lead female character also has her hopes set on a career in surgery. Unfortunately the problem with Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) is that she’s a seriously disturbed, delusional teenager whose wayward behaviour eventually wreaks havoc on the lives of her cosy, suburban family.  Pauline’s sister Grace (Ariel Winter) who has Cystic Fibrosis, is the apple of Mum Traci Lords’ eye. Hen-pecked hubby Bob (Roger Bart) just wants a quiet life but Pauline’s problems at home and at school soon put paid to that. With its clean, brightly lit suburban setting, Excision is reminiscent of Donnie Darko in places, but its gross-out comedy/horror mix pales next to that superior films more serious, sinister undertones. Featuring a cameo from the great John Waters, it’s an enjoyable enough film which builds neatly to its shock ending.

Of the Irish short films I managed to see, which screened before the main features, I must give special mention to Lorcan Finnegan’s unusual and excellent Foxes and Randal Plunkett’s Zombie flick, Out There.

So we must  leave Horrorthon for yet another year and come blinking back out into the sunlight. No doubt there are lots of other worthy films in the Festival which I missed out on, but such is the strength of the selections, that choosing what to see is a decision-making nightmare; albeit a deliciously enjoyable one.

Horrorthon finishes today at the Irish Film Institute.

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A Kind of Dreaming – Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

The German Expressionist film movement of the late 1900′s radically altered the landscape of European silent cinema, and paved the way for inventive directors such as FW Murnau,  GW Pabst and Fritz Lang.  Expressionism’s formal stylings – painted sets, flat lighting, angular cinematography – rejected any attempt at naturalism, and instead made a virtue of stylization.

These breakthroughs naturally coloured the cinema of other countries, as other film-makers began to experiment with form. Danish Director Carl T Dreyer’s 1927 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is notable for its use of a non-professional actor in the lead role, its reliance on close-ups, very little use of intertitles for dialogue and a near empty frame. The German set designer Herman Warm, who had worked on the Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) also designed Joan of Arc’s bare minimalist set, the style of which owed more to theatre production than to cinema.

In 1932, Dreyer followed the ascetic minimalism of Joan of Arc with an altogether different film; Vampyr is his adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla (from the collection In a Glass Darkly) and is an early entry in the vampire film genre. Here, Dreyer indulges his passion for experimentation, producing an atmospheric fable which leaned heavily on Expressionist motifs, and Surrealist imagery.

Vampyr’s plot, such as it is, follows the protagonist Allan Grey as he arrives at a remote French village. Grey stays the night at a local inn, but his attempts at sleep are hampered by an encroaching  sense of unease, as well as by a nocturnal visitor who inexplicably states “She must not die” before vanishing. The visitor leaves a parcel bearing a note that it is only to be opened in the event of his death. This sets Grey on a mission to discover who the mysterious visitor is. Later, we discover that the parcel contains a book on vampires, including mention of one who has wreaked havoc on the very village Grey has found himself in.

Dreyer’s vampire story differs from, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  In Stoker’s story the central character was the embodiment of evil who was pitted against a morally “good” adversary with whom he battles.  Vampyr largely eschews the idea of a bad or evil central figure and instead deals with the notion of evil as an unseen destructive force which reaches into the lives of ordinary, law-abiding people.  In Dreyer’s film a young village girl has been “possessed” by the vampire figure, and it is her struggle to live and to refute evil which Dreyer foregrounds.

Vampyr uses techniques borrowed from German Expressionism and the French Surrealist Movement to tell its tale. Dreyer had spent time in Paris with the Surrealists, and at times Vampyr’s narrative reflects the non-linear, dream-like patterns favoured by them. Indeed a key central segment of the film has Allan Grey “step out” of his body, and see himself placed inside a coffin being carried to a graveyard. The image of Grey’s face under the glass of the coffin lid, with the sky and trees reflected in it, is one of the most visually powerful in the film.

As with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Vampyr’s set designs feature cramped, uneven interiors, shadows, narrow hallways and darkened rooms. The character’s inner turmoil and emotions are expressed in the films visual style; we see as Grey sees. Often we don’t know if what he is seeing is real or imagined; here Dreyer’s subjective style gives the film a psychological realism which was unusual for its time.

Vampyr was not a commercially successful film. Bad press and indifferent audience reaction sent Dreyer into a physical and mental tailspin, and it was some time before he returned to film-making. Much as the influence of Caligari and the Surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou (1928) can be seen in Vampyr, the film’s own influence can be seen in the work of later generations of experimental film-makers such as David Lynch.

The screening I attended featured a live musical score from Steven Severin, ex-bassist with 70s goth-progenitors Siouxse and the Banshees. Severin’s evocative electronic score greatly complimented the eerie visuals of Dreyer’s film, breathing new life into a still slightly perplexing film; now rightly regarded as a classic of its kind.

More information on Carl Dreyer and Vampyr can be found here and here.

Watch a film clip here

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Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 2010)

It’s probably a gross understatement to say that Lena Dunham is currently the most well-known twenty-something female on the planet right now. The ubiquitous film studies graduate turned film-maker has just released her latest feature film, Tiny Furniture, which stars not only herself in the main role, but also her real-life Mother and sister playing on-screen versions of themselves.

Dunham plays Aura, a twenty-something film studies graduate recently returned from college, to the gorgeously spacious mid-town Manhattan loft shared by her Mother and sister. Aura’s Mother is a successful photographic artist whose photo’s of miniature furniture give the film its title. Her younger sister has just won a major poetry prize, as in fact did Dunham’s sister in real-life. Aura is stuck at an awkward juncture; her care-free college days are behind her, but she is not yet ready for the impending world of work (whatever that may be) and is reluctant to let go of the safety net afforded her by the security of the family apartment.

As has been noted elsewhere, Dunham is among a new internet-savvy generation of hip, young film-makers who have developed their craft by using Youtube as an early testing ground. They could almost have taken Youtube’s ”Broadcast Yourself” mantra as their manifesto; and in fact in the film, Dunham has a character who is famous (“in an internet kind of way”) for humourous observations delivered from atop a rocking horse.  This kind of self-referential, semi-autobiographical, independent cinema – out of which “scenes” such as Mumblecore emerged – often chart the lives of creative twenty-something characters who bear more than a passing resemblance to their film’s makers.

Dunham too has taken this approach but has broadened her scope to include, whether knowingly or otherwise, the politics of gender and familial relationships. Her dialogue is sharp, knowing and funny. She has a playfully cynical eye which doesn’t let anyone of the hook; not only are her male characters truly awful specimens, she also shows little camaraderie towards certain female characters, for reasons which always feel true.  Added to that, her willingness to display her own body on-screen has gotten her probably more column inches than the film’s techniques or subject matter.

There is no doubting that Dunham is certainly no slacker scenester, but rather a talent to watch. She already has one feature behind her; next to come is her HBO TV series Girls, about the experiences of a group of twenty-something female friends which she wrote, directs, produces and stars in. Sex and the City for a whole new slacker generation? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Tiny Furniture is out now.

Watch the trailer –

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Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) – Preview and Q&A

Last night the Irish Film Institute hosted a special preview screening of Shame, Steve McQueen’s latest film, which stars Michael Fassbender (as did McQueen’s debut film Hunger). The screening also featured a Q&A with the Director and the film’s co-writer Abi Morgan, via satellite link-up with the Curzon cinema in London, as well as some sixty-odd other cinema’s around the UK and Ireland.

In the film Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a slick, suave professional living and working in New York City. He lives in a modest, minimal apartment in Manhattan and works at a non-specified office job in the city; but he also harbors a full-on addiction to sex, which takes up a large chunk of his time each day. Not only is Brandon downloading porn onto his hard-drive at work, but he pays regular visits to the office bathroom during the working day, and flips open his laptop to view more porn as soon as he gets home. He also pays for prostitutes when not engaging in casual sex with random bar-room pick-ups.

Brandon’s ”routine” is interrupted with the arrival of his needy, self-obsessed singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who lands in Manhattan to do some gigs and needs a place to stay. Though he is helpful at first (though not exactly courteous), needless to say he soon tires of Sissy’s attention-seeking behaviour and things start to spiral out of control for both siblings.

McQueen said in the Q&A afterwards that the central idea for the film was arrived at quite arbitrarily, as was the decision to shoot it in New York – apparently he couldn’t find any sex addicts in the UK who were willing to discuss their addiction. While the idea of “sex addiction” might seem like something dreamed up for a salacious TV programme; the film (though never naming the issue) treats the subject seriously and focuses on Brandon’s issues with intimacy, his inability to conduct relationships and his sense of isolation as a result.

Other questions are raised also about the ubiquity of porn, through ease of access via the internet and social media sites, and how easily we accept that these are just facets of how we all live now.  However the film makes it clear that Brandon has a real problem, though it doesn’t make any judgements on his condition. Both Brandon and Sissy are unquestionably damaged people, but McQueen gives us no backstories to show how they’ve arrived where they are. He simply shows them to us in the here and now and lets us make of them what we will.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan are excellent as brother and sister, while McQueen’s direction is confident and inventive.  He has a gift for framing images in a way that makes them appear fresh, or even disconcerting - the opening overhead scene of Fassbender in bed silently staring up at the camera is a case in point.

 One thing which didn’t occur to me as I was watching the film, but has been picked up elsewhere, is the idea of Sissy as a sex addict. Certainly her behaviour is also compulsive, erratic and perhaps dangerous; but I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion, though it is interesting to think about in retrospect. Shame is a film which lingers in the mind, due in no small part to its icy cool tone and moody ambivalence.  A must-see.

Shame opens at the Irish Film Institute on Friday, January 13th.

Watch the trailer:

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Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011)

Paddy Considine will be familiar to Irish audiences mainly as an actor; most notably in Dead Man’s Shoes and A Room for Romeo Brass, directed by his friend Shane Meadows, and for his role as a lecherous, self-styled self-help guru in Richard Ayoade’s 2010 debut, Submarine. Tyrannosaur is his directorial debut.

Considine has elicited outstanding performances from Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, My Name is Joe, NEDS) and Olivia Colman (Hot Fuzz, Peep Show) in the lead roles. Mullan plays Joseph, a violent, middle-aged, working-class widower who, when he’s not getting into fistfights or harassing local shopkeepers, spends his days between the bar and the bookies. Olivia Colman (better known for her comedic Television roles) is a revelation as Hannah, a married Christian woman who drinks on the quiet, and who volunteers in the local charity shop, where she first runs into Joseph.  Both are unhappy in their lives and come to form a friendship of sorts, albeit one that begins with Joseph berating her for her religious beliefs, and what he perceives to be her smug, middle-class lifestyle.

Considine has described his film as a love story, but if it is, it’s a love story that is imbued with its lead characters’ attributes – violence, self-loathing, despair and desperation. The two leads find themselves at sea in a brutal, unloving, untrustworthy world, with only the other to keep them from finally going under. The grimness is leavened, from time to time, by slivers of black humour; mainly in the form of Joseph’s Irish drinking buddy Tommy (Ned Dennehy), and Considine allows his characters some hope and redemption by the end of the final act.

Tyrannosaur is not an easy film to watch; but it is genuinely powerful, moving and at times unbearably poignant. It is an incredibly confident and assured debut and despite production problems with finance, proves that hope, and a great story, can win out in the end.

Tyrannosaur opens at the Irish Film Institute on Friday, October 7.

You can watch the trailer below

 

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Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)

Re-released in September 2011 to coincide with Ken Loach’s 75th birthday, Kes was the acclaimed Director’s debut feature, filmed in the summer of 1968, on a characteristically tight budget. It was also the first feature of Cinematographer Chris Menges, who later went on to shoot The Mission, The Killing Fields and The Reader, amongst others.  Kes also featured the debut acting performance of then 14-year-old David (now Dai) Bradley, who secured the lead role of Billy Casper; the Yorkshire schoolboy who captures and trains a Kestrel, allowing him a form of escapism from his constrictive and often cruel working-class surroundings.

Bradley is wonderful as Billy; the picked-upon, slight but bright schoolboy who, while not at all academic, manages to teach himself how to care for and train a wild Kestrel (the “Kes” of the title) that he finds in the grounds of a local farm. Billy’s home life is turbulent – shared by a bullying older brother Jud ( Freddie Fletcher) who works down the local mine, and an inattentive, nagging mother (Lynne Perry) who is doing her best to raise two boys alone.

Nor does Billy find any comfort in friends or at school; playground politics dictate which pupils rule and which get picked on. The schoolyard is just as brutal as the home or street; and teachers too are mostly over-worked, bad-tempered and quick to mete out punishments to their young charges. Loach’s template of social criticism centred on working-class lives is already fully formed here. Billy’s personal circumstances are leavened by his deep interest in caring for Kes, and there is a lovely classroom scene where one of his teacher’s, Mr Fletcher (Colin Welland), has Billy explain what this entails to the class – enthralling everyone in the process.

Indeed a nice contrast is struck between caring Mr Fletcher, who takes an interest in Billy, and Billy’s hard-nosed P.E. teacher Mr Farthing (Brian Glover) who subjects his boys to violence on and off the football field. In one of the film’s funniest and most enjoyable sequences, Mr Farthing plays out his fantasy of being Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton (“it’s too cold to be a striker”) in a match against the boys, marked by the teacher’s casual violence and dubious refereeing decisions.

Very much of its time and place, Kes still carries resonance in its depiction of the struggle of ordinary lives. Billy’s options for gainful employment after school, other than working down the mine like his dullard brother, are few, to say the least. When discussing potential work options with Mr Fletcher, the insightful schoolboy states that it doesn’t matter what work he does, as he won’t enjoy it any more than he does school, but notes “still, I’ll get paid for not liking it”.  

As you might expect, Kes ends on a characteristically downbeat note; the film’s ending also signals the death of Billy’s childhood, and leaves us wondering where he will go from here. Though David Bradley’s career did not again reach the heights of his debut performance, he can be assured that, in the character of Billy Casper, his place in the pantheon of great screen roles is most certainly assured.

Kes finishes its run in The Irish Film Institute today.

Watch a clip here.

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Treacle Jr. (Jamie Thraves, 2010)

While his previous day job involved making acclaimed music video’s for the likes of Blur, Radiohead and The Verve; Jamie Thraves seems something of a neglected talent when it comes to feature film-making. Treacle Jr is his second film, following The Low Down, made in 2000 and also starring Aidan Gillen.  In 2006, that film was included in a list of “50 Lost Movie Classics” (at No. 18 no less) by the esteemed Observer film critic and writer, Phillip French.

In Treacle Jr Tom Fisher plays Tom; a forty-something married man with a new baby, a car and a house in the suburbs, who ups and leaves everything behind one day, seemingly for no apparent reason. Tom cuts up his bank cards, pockets the few remaining bank notes he has and takes to sleeping in doorways. As a result of an incident one night, following a fracas with some yobs in a public park, Tom ends up down the local A&E where he bumps into Aidan (Aidan Gillen). Aidan is a man with a child-like innocence, who has some slight mental health issues, but is otherwise relatively “normal”; but in Aiden’s world, “normal” ain’t such an easy thing to be.

The story unfolds in mostly episodic bursts as the pair end up hanging out together and Tom comes to rely on Aidan’s friendship and hospitality. Aidan has his own council flat, albeit shared with a bullying and untrustworthy “girlfriend”, Linda (Riann Steele).  After some unsuccessful attempts at sleeping rough, Tom comes to spend more and more time at Aidan’s, and a bond of sorts grows between the two men. Tom’s good nature sees how Aidan’s vulnerability can be easily abused, and he becomes a kind of protector to Aidan.

Aidan Gillen appears to have invested his character with the attributes and personal history of real-life “Master of the Universe” Aidan Walsh. Walsh was an eccentric, but well regarded figure on the Dublin music scene of the 1980s, with connections to bands as diverse as The Golden Horde, The Virgin Prunes and U2.  While taking nothing away from his co-star, Aidan Gillen’s performance throughout the film is nothing short of inspired and mesmeric.  He is an assured and charismatic performer, who turns the dial up to 11 for his portrayal here. Where, in other hands, there could be a danger of making the character nothing but a collection of quirks and tics, Gillen makes Aidan a fully fledged, living, breathing character with real depth and feeling; and who wins over the audience, right from his first scene.

Thraves also deserves credit for hanging back and letting his actors and the material breathe; though his cinema-verite style of shooting suits the material and makes for an almost documentary feel at times.  I wondered how much was scripted and how much was the actors’ contribution (especially in Gillen’s case), as scenes felt almost improvised at times. It would be a shame to see this film ignored as his previous feature was, as there is an undeniable talent at work here, which deserves much wider recognition.

Treacle Jr is at the Irish Film Institute until September 1st.

You can see the trailer here

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Recalling Past Lives – Apichatpong Weerasethakul At The IFI

As mentioned in my previous post, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was at the Irish Film Institute today, in conversation with Dr Maeve Connolly of the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design.  The interview focussed on a number of Apichatpong’s films; specifically Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century; and featured extracts from them as well as the short films, Third World and Letter To Uncle Boonmee.

It appears that Mr Weerasetthakul’s films have found great favour with Irish audiences, which is pretty remarkable given that his films are usually regarded as difficult and impenetrable. Dr Connolly explored the main themes of Apichatpong’s films: the dichotomy of city and countryside, the role of education and health, and his subtle but ever-present references to Cinema. The director filled us in on his background in Thailand, and spoke of his time in Chicago studying Experimental Film. He was an amiable, intelligent and humourous interviewee; when asked if his films contained “a message”, he laughed saying this lack of any overt meaning was one of the problems he himself has with his films, and which also caused problems when he went looking for funding.  He spoke about his belief in the “shared authorship” of his films – seeing the process of filmmaking as collaborative and open, though admitting that he is something of a “dictator” when it comes to putting the final film together.

The interview also covered Apichatpong’s love of music and popular culture (national and international), and his approach to finding the stories of his films, often developed with his actors as he is actually filming. He likes to mix professional and non-professional performers, and often finds actors in unlikely places – one cast member of Blissfully Yours was a casting agent who was supplying Apichatpong’s film company with potential actors, and kept slipping her own photo in amongst the others. She was eventually cast in one of the leading roles. Not the kind of thing I imagine happens very often in Hollywood.

One thing that strikes me about his films generally is the lack of any cynicism or criticism. He seems to be genuinely in thrall to national character and idiosyncrasies, while finding surreality in certain mundane aspects of Thai culture; his interest in Thai folk music for example. His films usually feature old Thai folk songs, sometimes performed in Karaoke settings within the film story or played on the soundtrack. In conversation, he talked about his love of this kind of music and routinely shows his characters finding solace or escape through song, sometimes in unconventional ways (see the singing dentist of Syndromes and a Century). He also talked about the importance of the spiritual element of his films, his interest in buddhism and reincarnation; and registered his surprise that some buddhist friends found that his films had an ability to help them achieve a kind of meditative state!

Apichatpong hinted at a possible change in direction for his film style, which may be signalled by his upcoming installation at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, “For Tomorrow, For Tonight“, which opens on July 27.  The exhibition mixes film, photography and installation art and should be a must-see for any admirers of his films. The IFI is currently running a retrospective of the director’s films, which I believe will run into August, to coincide with the IMMA exhibition, and with more of his short films scheduled.

Watch the trailer for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk-EoUb0nvg

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul At The IFI

The Palme D’or winning Thai film director visits the Irish Film Institute tomorrow, July 23rd, for a public interview and Q+A with Dr Maeve Connolly of Dun Laoighre Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

This appearance is part of a film retrospective currently showing at the IFI, which will be followed in August by an exhibition by the filmmaker at the Irish Musuem of Modern Art. Weerasethakul’s films are playful, elliptical, funny, mesmerising and strange – so this public interview to discuss his work, and his working methods, is sure to be interesting. The event is free to attend, but you must pick up a ticket in advance from the IFI box-office.

To get you in the mood, here’s a clip from his 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century –

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The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)

Strangers on a train – Sinatra and Leigh in The Manchurian Candidate

Right, the conspiracy starts here…  Those nice people over at the Irish Film Institute have launched a season of Classic American conspiracy thrillers, under the banner: High Anxiety. The season is designed ostensibly to mark the occasion of the re-release of the classic Cutter’s Way, which opens on June 10th. Kicking it off is this classic Cold War-set political thriller from heavyweight director, John Frankenheimer.

The Manchurian Candidate centres around Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) who, after returning from service in Korea, is troubled by a recurring nightmare in which he sees his commanding officer, Congressional Medal of Honour hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), kill other members of their platoon, who are being held as POW’s by Russian Communists somewhere over the Manchurian border. Convinced there’s more to the dream than just the Cold War equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Marco tries to unravel the meaning behind the nightmare. In doing so, he lays bare a plan which aims to undermine the American political system at its highest level.

Shaw comes from a powerful political family, whose matriarch (played by a fantastic Angela Lansbury) will stop at nothing to get her 2nd husband, the numbskull Johnny Iselin, elected to the senate. Shaw becomes a pawn in his mother’s game with terrible consequences for him and anyone connected to him.

Frankenheimer’s ice cool conspiracy movie works both as political satire and good old-fashioned thriller. It boasts outstanding performances from all the leads; Sinatra is absolutely terrific as the shaky, emotionally edgy Major Marco; Laurence Harvey has just the right blankness as Shaw, but Angela Lansbury is a revelation, if you only know her as the interfering old biddy from TV’s ”Murder She Wrote”, then wait till you see her here. Her devious, conniving, deadly mother-from-hell is an amazing performance in a movie full of high-voltage star performances. There are some fantastic scenes also with Sinatra and love interest Rosie (Janet Leigh), which feature sometimes quite surreal, but very funny dialogue. One scene in particular, which takes place on a train, never fails to strike me as wonderfully, beautifully strange no matter how many times I see the film.

The film still looks, and works, great-even today. It’s featured as the opening film in this season for the obvious indebtedness later 70′s “conspiracy” films owe it; for its cool, urgent style and prescient subject matter. Sinatra was a major star at this time and had made the transition from singer to actor very convincingly, with some heavy hitting roles already behind him. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson said “Sinatra is a noir sound, like saxophones, foghorns, gunfire, and the quiet weeping of women in the background”. That’s about right for his performance in this film too.

The High Anxiety Season continues at the IFI until June 26th.

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