2 new films, from Denmark and Harlem, and a short from Belfast

Movie poster for Another Round.
Another Round.

Another Round is the latest film from Danish film maker Thomas Vinterberg. Vinterberg was, together with the more combustible Lars von Trier, one of the co-founders of the Dogma 95 collective, a ‘movement’ that managed to be at once fecund and puerile in equal measure. His 1998 film, Festen was by far and away its most successful production.

Another Round is a relatively high concept film and challenges you, knowingly, with what seems to be a perfectly reasonable, indeed a logical idea. Four male, provincial teachers facing up to their fast-approaching mid-life crises decide to conduct an experiment. They’ll spend every day moderately inebriated to see what effect it has on them. 

After all, drinking is only bad for you in excess. And everyone knows how much more confident, loquacious and amusing we all become after those first few swift ones. All one need do, surely, is drink forever in careful moderation.

The film engages winningly for the first hour or so, not least because of Mads Mikkelsen’s powerful central performance. But inevitably, the film runs out of steam in its final third when Vittenberg opts for both a moral and an anti-moral ending, that is to say an ending that is both Hollywood and anti-Hollywood. Which, necessarily, ends up being neither.

It’s a film you’ll not be sorry to have taken the time to watch. But neither is it one you’re likely to sit down and view again in, say, 5 or 10 year’s time.

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul, on the other hand, is a film you’ll joyfully revisit every single time you’re offered the opportunity. Over the course of half a dozen weekends in the summer of 1969 a park in Harlem hosted what amounted to a black Woodstock. 

30-40,000 almost exclusively black New Yorkers were treated to a dizzying spectacle of outlandish sartorial exuberance and effortless musical sophistication by the likes of a teenage Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and the personification of peerless cool, Sly with his Family Stone.

It would have been nice to have been surprised to learn that this footage had lain around ignored for the last 50 years. But that of course is very much part of the story that the film tells. Now re-discovered thanks to the diligence of The Roots’ Questlove, he and his editing team have produced what is quite simply one of the great music docs. Never have two hours flown by so quickly nor quite so pleasurably. 

Nina and Sly in Harlem.

Short films are so reliably disappointing that I only very reluctantly sat down to watch Rough because of the word of mouth that preceded it. How refreshing occasionally to be proven wrong. 

Immaculately scripted, impeccably performed, it’s everything that a short should be, and delivers an ending that is both deft and quietly moving. Written and directed by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn you can (for the moment at least) see it on the RTE Player.

You can see the trailer for Summer of Soul here:

And the trailer for Another Round here:

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A new film from M Night Shyamalan, the horror, the horror

Old, 2021.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema, Be afraid, be very afraid… Are these the 7 most terrifying words in modern cinema; a new film from M Night Shyamalan?

Shyamalan burst on to the scene with his third feature, The Sixth Sense, which he wrote and directed in 1999 at the tender age of 29. I remember watching that film and thinking, what on earth is all the fuss about? But then it delivers its ending, and I thought, in fairness, that was genuinely surprising.

The Sixth Sense, 1999.

So I sat down to watch his next film, Unbreakable, from 2000, in a mood of quiet excitement. And, like the previous film, it ambles along in a perfectly inoffensive manner for four fifths of its duration, before delivering what was similarly intended to be a killer blow. But blow alas is the appropriate term. Instead of explain all that had gone on before, all the ending did was to undermine and cheapen it.

Next up was Signs, a sub-Spielbergian tale of awe and wonder which was so conventional, conservative, ham-fisted and ill-conceived it was hard to know what to think. Worse, that cute cameo he’s always rewarded himself with was here allowed to morph into a fully-fledged speaking part. And not a small one at that. What on earth were we to make of him? 

The Village, 2004.

But that was swiftly cleared up by the two films that came next. The Village, from 2004, is not so much an homage to The Crucible as it is a violent assault on it. On to its basic backdrop Shyamalan inserts a series of pedestrian twists that are as drearily predictable as they are improbable. And for the first time, we get a clear picture as to quite how poor a screenwriter he is. 

But it’s with his next film, Lady in the Water, from 2006, that any ambiguity as to the man’s gifts was cleared up once and for all. This was so badly written that it went on an almost unique journey from mesmerically bad, to so-bad-it’s-good, and on beyond to so irredeemably bad that it became literally unwatchable. 

I lasted for the first 25 minutes or so, until it was revealed that the person who was, wait for it, going to save humanity, was in fact…  a writer! And that that writer was played by none other than… Our very own writer director himself. Once I’d recovered from a protracted fit of giggling, I’m afraid I got up and left. 

Lady in the Water, 2006.

But there is one invaluable service that that film serves. For any writer out there convinced that what they’re working on is beneath worthless, all they need do is watch Lady in the Water, and they’ll immediately feel better about themselves. It’s the perfect tonic.

So I’ve not seen his latest magnum opus, Old. But I can’t wait. By all accounts, it’s another gem from the pen of every writer’s very best friend. I’m saving it up for a special occasion. 

In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Old.

And here’s the trailer for Lady in the Water.

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‘The Alienist’, Hurray for Hollywood! (it’s a living)

The Alienist.

Despite being set in New York at the turn of the 20th century and being filmed in Budapest, The Alienist boasts a plethora of Irish talent. Amongst the cast we find David Wilmot, Michael McElhatton, Peter Coonan, Gavin O’Connor, Sean McGinley, Maurice Byrne and Paul Reid. The principle directors of photography are Cathal Watters and PJ Dillon, Dermot Diskin edits and Philip Murphy is on set décor. 

Much of that is thanks to the arrival of Stuart Carolan and David Caffrey. Carolan was brought in as show runner in 2020 for season 2, and asked Caffrey to direct many of those season 2 episodes for him. 

Getting work in Ireland on film and television is, to put it mildly, a precarious pursuit. One producer once summed it up memorably to me when he said, striving to get a project off the ground in Ireland was like “trying to fuck smoke”. 

Love/Hate. Here’s looking at you kids.

And you learn very early on that what semblance of stability there exists is to be found in television. And, very quickly, what you really hope for are the regular payments that a series can provide you with. 

You don’t just get paid for a number of episodes. Thanks to the vigour of the muscular unions, you also have to get paid out for any possible repeat screenings, often in multiple territories and on different platforms.

All of which means that what you secretly dream of more than anything else is getting that call up for a Hollywood series. So it’s hardly surprising that Carolan should have leapt at the chance to join the Alienist as show runner, albeit for season 2. 

After all, with around $5 million per episode, he had considerably more money for each individual episode than he did for an entire season of Love/Hate, an episode of which was said to have cost around €600,000. 

Heaven’s Gate, Lord above.

Just to put all this in perspective. Every single one of the cast and crew would have greeted those five seasons of Love/Hate, with  €600,000 an episode(!), as all of their Christmases coming at once. 

The fact that, once it got over its teething problems in season 1, Love/Hate then evolved into one of the most exciting and dramatically taut series ever broadcast on Irish television was very much but an added bonus.

So the prospect of joining a bona fide $5m an episode, prime time Hollywood drama series – $5m an episode! – would, literally, have been a dream come true for cast and crew alike. And it’s genuinely thrilling to see so many seriously gifted actors and film makers involved in such an opulent affair. The end product is very much neither here nor there.

And, in fairness, season 2 of the Alienist is no worse than season 1 was. The opening episode of that first season looked like a very early draft of the first assignment of a 1st year film student after spending his very first weekend watching nothing but Michael Cimino films. Well, specifically, a Cimino film – see my earlier review of Heaven’s Gate here.

It’s all so busy. There’s stuff everywhere, And you keep waiting for it to take that final step from just plain bad to so-bad-it’s-good. But, for whatever alchemical reason, it somehow fails to ever make that triumphant transition from pants to kitsch and camp.

Never mind. It’s fantastic to see so many talented individuals so gainfully employed, and I very much hope that season 3 gets given the green light. After which, I’d love to then see them all get their teeth into something with a little bit more bite.

You can see the trailer for season 2 of The Alienist here.

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Promising Young Woman, disjointed muddled film

Cinemas have been eerily abandoned for over a year now, and drifting past them through deserted city centres felt at times like finding yourself in a scene from The Omega Man. So it’s perfectly understandable that we should all latch on to some of the new releases when they do surface and greet them much as a man in a desert might welcome of bottle of bog standard bottled water. None the less, the hoopla that Promising Young Woman generated was somewhat baffling.

Basically, it harks back to those late 80s, early 90s zeitgeist movies that Hollywood periodically gravitates towards. The title of course references Single White Female, but what it feels like more than anything else is a riposte to Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Essentially, it’s a revenge film for the Me Too era. And its problems are twofold.

First, is it a revenge thriller? There’s a visual joke early on around a hot dog which is genuinely funny and plays on the question of what exactly it was that our heroine did to her previous night’s ‘victim’. But that ambiguity is never resolved. 

Is this a good old-fashioned slasher movie, and are we looking at a female answer to Charles Bronson in Death Wish? Or is our heroine a complex, moral character carefully carrying out a precisely calibrated plan?

Some have welcomed this ambiguity as further evidence of the film’s charms. But all it means is that we’re never sure of what kind of person she is, that is to say what type of character she represents, and therefore what kind of film it is that we’re watching. This confusion is exacerbated by the second of its problems. Its structure.

Todd Solondz’ Happiness.

Effectively, it’s three films in one. It begins as what seems to be some sort of a revenge thriller come slasher movie. Then it morphs into an impeccably crafted, very left of field indie, personal drama. The scenes inside the house with her parents are wonderfully claustrophobic and feel like something out of a Todd Solondz film. 

But suddenly, about half way through, it lurches into rom com territory, as the Carey Mulligan character hooks up with an ex class mate, played by Bo Burnham. But about 20 minutes into this, it reverts back to revenge thriller mode.

The problem is, Bo Burnham’s performance is so impressively naturalistic and so winningly believable in the rom com section that the rest of the film’s parts are thrown completely out of kilter. Mulligan of course, it almost goes without saying, is wonderful throughout. She adopts a studied neutrality which manages to meld perfectly with each of the film’s three modes. 

But the sections with her parents, who are quietly mannered and off, grate horribly with the revenge movie sections, in which the villains, and for villains read males, are painted with such broad brushstrokes and are all so one dimensional they’re little more than cartoon caricatures. Which would have been fine if the whole film had been like that. But it’s not. 

Mulligan and Burnham are foot perfect but they’ve wandered into a whole new film.

When, for instance, you meet those sorts of moustache-twiddling villains in the likes of Killing Eve, you either sit back and accept them or you turn over to something else. That they should surface here makes compete sense as this is the feature debut of Emerald Fennell, who was one of Killing Eve’s principle writers and its show runner for season 2. 

The problem with Promising Young Woman is that Fennell was unable to decide on exactly what kind of film she wanted it to be. So unfortunately, it just ended up as a mess. A very well made mess, with a pair of stand-out performances. But a mess none the less.

You can see the trailer for Promising Young Woman here.

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Waldemar Januszczak and the curse of the Sistine Chapel

Waldamar Januszczak.

The finest writers on art, at least in the English language, are Peter Schjeldahl and Waldemar Januszczak. And they straddle the Atlantic like two colossal light houses, the former from somewhere in Williamsburg where he files his celestial copy for the New Yorker, the latter from his muse in Chelsea where he writes a weekly column for the Culture section of the Sunday Times.

If you haven’t seen this already, treat yourself.

Januszczak has gone on to forge an almost flawless career as a documentary film and series maker where he focuses principally on late 19th century Paris. But he’s equally adept and comfortable on the Renaissance and everything in between. All of those movements that led from there to the birth of Modernism as it burst forth from Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

He is both deeply knowledgeable and consistently illuminating on everything from Picasso – on whom he teamed up with the peerless john Richardson – Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, to the Baroque, sculpture and the birth of Impressionism, reviewed by me earlier here. But that ‘flawless’ is stained by that ‘almost’ courtesy of an albeit understandable fixation with the Sistine Chapel.

In 2011, he made his one and only dud, The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, which was recently screened again on the excellent Sky Arts. All of its parts are as engaging and enlightening as you’d have hoped and expected. All of that research into the Medici popes, the Franciscans and his meticulous reading of the bible and the scriptures was well worth the considerable effort it obviously cost him.

But none of it adds up to anything. There’s no there, there. He plainly sees some sort of connection between the Branch Davidians and that madness at Waco, Texas, and the chapel’s ceiling. But if anyone can tell me after watching it what that connection is, I’ll send you on a bar of chocolate and a can of fizzy pop.

He’s wonderful company and a glorious guide, and I am more than happy to have sat through the thing for the second time. But for the life of me, I’ve still no idea what any of it was actually about.

If you’re unfamiliar with Januszczak, then you should search out some of his articles, any of them. His criticism is absolutely bullet proof. And if you can, watch any of his documentaries. But you should probably treat The Michelangelo Code as something of a bonus track, a deleted scene. Strictly for aficionados only.

You can see the tailer for the Michelangelo Code here.

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