What begins as a grieving mother’s search for justice in her daughter’s murder case turns into a story that weaves together gang violence, cyclical poverty, and guilt in the fallout of trauma.
In 2006, Crystal Theobold was murdered – shot dead in her family’s car by the 5150 gang of Riverside, Southern California. Frederick Munk’s new documentary Why Did You Kill Me? explores the aftermath of Crystal’s murder, focusing predominantly on her grieving mother, Belinda. Sadly, gang-related violence is all too common in the area. However, what’s not so common was Belinda’s unique methods in seeking out revenge. She enables the help of her niece, Jaimie, to set up a fake MySpace page to gain information on the gang members she believes were involved. This was not just any MySpace page; they used images of Crystal for the profile and made some of the same gang members who killed her fall in love with her along the way.
Belinda and Jaimie wanted to show these men that Crystal was a beautiful person with goals and aspirations, and they had taken that away forever. Belinda doesn’t share her darker reasons for wanting to find these men; which she later has to come to terms with. Munk brings viewers into the world of the Theobold family with screen-recorded reenactments of MySpace messages Jaimie shared with these men. While this style feels cheesy at first, it soon becomes necessary to show the conversations between Jaimie and the gang members. She aims at building a relationship with them to show them that they had senselessly murdered an innocent woman. However, the plot to catfish these men into confession doesn’t go to plan. This documentary is unlike any other murder docs I have seen– where typically the family sits back to grieve while the detectives do the work. What makes this so much more gripping is that you get to tag along for the investigation, even if the investigation is a little unorthodox. Munk is able to spin the story just right – with each twist and turn you inch a little more towards the edge of your seat. Although this is definitely not a documentary for the faint of heart, it is worth the watch solely for how out of the box it is. With plenty of introspection and collateral damage along the way, Why Did You Kill Me? sums up the pain and madness that follows in the murders’ wake.
The novelty of the superhero genre has already lost its attraction to many viewers, as the formulaic films completely dominated the entirety of the last decade. Nevertheless, it appears studios will attempt any amount of alterations to achieve a new result, without really changing anything of substance. The most recent attempt of this by Netflix is Thunder Force (2021, Ben Falcone), which, even from the title, gives the impression of being quite generic and vague. The action-adventure comedy follows two childhood friends, Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) as they reunite through an accident which infuses Lydia with super strength. Lydia has dedicated her life to giving ordinary people super powers to fight against “Miscreants,” a brand of supervillains “genetically predisposed to being sociopaths”. The premise of the film is not incredibly original, but it works because the film does not take itself too seriously or attempt to explain the science behind these powers in detail. However, while the film is fun to watch, it is not especially revolutionary.
The aspect of this film that Netflix clearly hoped would draw in an audience was the new twist on the genre. Rather than another team of adolescents or twenty-somethings gaining and learning to use a set of powers, Thunder Force focuses on two middle aged, plus sized women in the same situation. While this is a refreshing rewrite of the now overplayed superhero film, it’s not quite enough to compensate for the average plot. The comedy in the film was enjoyable, and despite some slapstick moments feeling slightly out of place I did occasionally find myself chuckling out loud.
However there were moments it seemed that the film was attempting to make “fat jokes” without explicitly stating so, by putting the two main actresses- who would both be considered plus size- in situations that used more physical and ‘gross out’ comedy than might have otherwise been used. This is not inherently detrimental to the film, but coupled with a few moments where the possibility of having queer characters was either hinted at or acknowledged but never confirmed or centered, makes me wonder if they only included these lines and jokes for the sake of being seen as progressive without actually being inclusive.
The film managed to balance its comedic and emotional appeal, but somewhat lacked action. When there was action though, it was dynamic and the stunts were well executed, and the score allowed for a distinctively nostalgic experience of the 80’s. Had Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer not been the leads, some of the comedic scenes definitely would have fallen flat, but overall, Thunder Force was a positive viewing experience.
Bubblegum pop and neon colours are how Emerald Fennell’s debut, Promising Young Woman begins but not even the glitzy glamour of Fennell’s vision can make up for a tragically poorly-executed storyline.
A parable of the MeToo era, we’re introduced to Cassie (Carey Mulligan), alone and drunk in a lowbrow bar. Jerry (Adam Brody) sees her from across the room; so intoxicated she can barely stand. His friends make crude comments about “asking for it”, but Jerry’s a good guy, a nice guy, so he takes her home. Except, of course, he doesn’t, and instead brings her back to his place. Before things get any worse, Cassie reveals that she was sober all along.
This, we find out, is Cassie’s shtick. She goes to bars, pretends to be drunk, and then when men try to take advantage of her, like an angel of revenge, she frightens the bejesus out of them so they’ll never do it again. Or, at least, not in this parallel world, where one bad interaction would be enough to seriously stop a predator.
This is the first glaring issue with Fennell’s script: it’s not entirely based on realistic experiences of 21st century women. And though film is perhaps the best method of communicating out-of-this-world experiences, when dealing with something like rape culture and the toxicity of the patriarchy, sometimes a reality check is the best thing that’s needed. However, Fennell’s story isn’t entirely out of touch: near perfect casting of Bo Burnham as Ryan, Cassie’s love interest, sheds light on how hollow the ‘nice guy’ persona can be when the going gets tough. Further cameos from the likes of Max Greenfield, Alison Brie, and Alfred Molina make for a strong ensemble, but none of them are ever really given time to shine.
Here’s the issue: Promising Young Woman sells itself as a revenge film. Revenge films only work when the audience genuinely likes the protagonist, and is willing to overlook any moral lines or boundaries they cross or break in order to pursue justice. Except, it’s hard to have a revenge film when your main character is utterly unlikable which, unfortunately for Cassie, she is. I didn’t care enough about Cassie, or her friend Nina whom she was supposedly trying to avenge (whom we never see, bar one photo at the very beginning of the film, and hardly hear about). The lengths that Cassie goes to, then, didn’t feel inspired or fueled by a love of justice. They felt mean-spirited and deeply misogynistic, especially considering that two-thirds of the revenge is targeted at other women; both of whom had no actual hand in the act that (we’re led to believe) caused Nina’s untimely death.
This is the central issue with Promising Young Woman: it weaponizes rape culture as a fun “gotcha!” moment rather than a systemic societal ill that will take much more than one single woman to dismantle. Furthermore, in a film that is supposedly about retribution against the men who perpetrate and thrive off rape culture, it’s a surprising (if not incredibly insensitive) choice to have the only scene of gratuitous violence be against a woman, at the hands of a man.
Where the ending is framed by Fennell as being heroic, and has been praised by some as “gleeful” or “triumphant”, to my eyes it was anything but. Capitalizing on the MeToo movement and the hunger for reparations to finally be made to so many victims of systemic rape culture and sexual assault, Promising Young Woman essentially betrays that movement by its sickening ending. Sure, there are hints that the men might finally get their serving of justice but, in Fennell’s film, women have to die and become manic-pixie-dream girls from beyond the grave for this morsel of basic ethics to come to pass. Promising Young Woman is full of promise, sure, but not quite full of bite and the result is a tepid examination of the male gaze that ultimately is only able to leave a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.
In a year where the disparity between the Hollywood elite and regular Joes became increasingly visible, the appetite for a nail-biting Awards race was notably lacking this year. And for good reason; cinema closures affected releases, which means that oftentimes only the luckiest of critics may have gotten a chance to see all the contenders. The nominees– while all worthy– don’t stray too far from “Oscar-bait” material and in a year where so many of the key workers who hold up the systems that make the Oscars happen, from the cinema host to the key grip, were forgotten about, a night of celebrating the cinema only of those “public” enough to matter seemed in poor taste.
But nevertheless, the Academy persisted. With rapid COVID-testing and a no-mask policy that would raise even the most skeptical of eyes, it became increasingly clear that the night of Hollywood pageantry was exactly that– Hollywood pageantry, where the films they claim to be celebrating will always, always play second fiddle to self-congratulation and a million-dollar shoes.
In terms of the awards themselves, there’s not much to report on. Part of the reason for this year’s lackluster build up is due in part to the fact that the nominated films are almost skull-numbingly boring. There were no surprise last-minute nominees, no dark horses or underdogs. The winners, for the most part, were even more predictable– though thankfully, well deserved. Emerald Fennell took home Best Original Screenplay for her divisive script Promising Young Woman (2019), Thomas Vinterburg’s Another Round (2019) unsurprisingly won Best International Feature, and sadly for us, Soul (Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, 2020) beat out Wolfwalkers (2020, Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart) for Best Animated Picture in a win that though expected, still stings.
Daniel Kaluuya becomes the first Black Briton to win Best Supporting Actor for his phenomenal turn as Fred Hampton in Judas and The Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2020). Mank (David Fincher, 2020), the forgotten middle child of this years season, takes home Best Cinematography (in a slight upset for Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020) who was a front runner) and Best Production Design. The Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2019) wins Best Editing and Sound, which are both thoroughly deserved. Though Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2019), a brilliant meditation on what it means to be American, doesn’t win any of the heavy hitters, they don’t go home empty handed and Youn Yuh-Jung wins Best Supporting Actress. Best Documentary is a slight surprise, with My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020)taking home that little golden god instead of more popular bets like the Romanian Collective (Alexander Nanau, 2019) or the searingly intimate Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020).
This is where things start to get messy (in the typical Oscar fashion). I really can’t stress how surprisingly refreshing it was to have a somewhat normal Oscars. There were no real technical difficulties, the host-less approach worked fantastically, and QuestLove provided some absolute bops to get us through the night. Following up from the historic wins of last year’s ceremony, and the increasing call for genuine diversity in American Awards shows, it seemed that this year’s Steven Soderberg-helmed Oscars would be continuing in a new legacy of celebration without borders. Would that we were so lucky.
Firstly, they change the schedule of awards, which at first didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Best Director was thrown into the middle of the ceremony, a category which is usually reserved for later on in the night, considering how hotly contested it is. But nonetheless, it goes to Chloé Zhao, who is the first ever Asian woman to win the prestigious award and only the second woman in the Academy’s history. Skip forward to the last segment of the night. First we have the astoundingly insensitive In Memoriam section; which, among other things like excluding Jessica Walters and Naya Rivera, goes at such a fast pace you would need to read at the speed of light to catch every name on screen. Then, we have Best Picture.
As long as the Oscar statue has been gold, Best Picture has been last. That is the way of the Academy’s world– and it makes sense! It’s the crowning glory, the victor of the season, the high note of the night. So putting Best Picture before Best Actor and Actress in a Lead Role was surprising at least and shocking at best. But, it made sense– the Academy had made much of Chadwick Boseman’s untimely passing, even including an NFT of him in their “goodie bags”. So, reason would have it that they rearranged the schedule to commemorate Boseman in the best way possible, right?
Wrong. Oh, dear reader, so, so wrong. After Nomadland’s win, followed by Frances MacDormand’s win for Best Actress in that same film, we come to Best Actor. Jaoquin Phoenix, looking like he’d rather be literally anywhere else, is presenting the award. He reads out the list of nominees– and Anthony Hopkins wins for The Father. The night ends. Literally. In the space of five seconds, three hours worth of pomp and circumstance came to an astoundingly anti-climactic close, with Hopkins not attending the event and so not able to accept his award. The credits rolled, and the night was over.
The arrogance of the Academy to rearrange the Awards to congratulate themselves on progress they hadn’t made didn’t just fail Boseman– it failed everyone. Hopkins’ performance in The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020) was a tour de force, and now will be remembered only for the wrong reasons. Zhao’s historic win, and Nomadland’s impressive feat as a quietly humanistic love letter in the face of so many louder, brasher films were completely obscured and undercut by the change in programming, unable to be properly celebrated like Bong Joon Ho’s wins for Parasite last year. But above all, Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing was capitalized upon by the Academy, and instead of being celebrated for who he was and all he did, he’s now become emblematic of the deep-rooted systemic issues engrained in the Academy’s structures. There are a lot of words that have been used to describe the Oscars– gaudy, celebratory, flashy, progressive. The only word that seems to be on everyone’s tongue this year, though, is ‘distasteful’.
The fourth in TFR’s coverage of VMDIFF, with reviews by Cathal Eustace and Katie McKenna.
Review by Katie McKenna
Art is full of “bad Dads”, and as someone who actually likes their Dad it’s becoming more and more difficult to find a song to listen to or a film to watch. So, when I heard about Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys, a film that explores a father-child relationship with a Dad who is neither “bad” nor “good”, I was excited. I’m sad to say that the excitement was short lived once I began to watch the film.
Cowboys is a modern Western about a father and son on the run from the police trying to make it to Canada. The story is told through two timelines, the present day in which Troy (Steve Zahn) and Joe (Sasha Knight) evade the law and the past in which we see the events that caused them to run away.
The film feels like it’s trying to say something but isn’t exactly sure how to say it. Trying to give a simple story undeserved nuance; the story feels padded with inauthenticity. Often characters make sudden decisions to move the story forward that come out of nowhere. Characters seem like two completely different people in the past and present. Throughout the film I found my attention drifting, it’s hard to care about a film where you never know what sudden change of heart someone will have.
Through all the film’s flaws, Steve Zahn’s performance stands out, he gives an almost comically dramatic character, a down to earth realness. Even with a cast of established actors such as Ann Dowd and John Reynolds, Zahn shines. At times however, his phenomenal performance only exemplifies the holes in Sasha Knight’s. While it’s hard to get a good performance from a child actor, it still detracts from the film. In the midst of an emotional scene, you don’t use critical analysis to acknowledge that this child is inexperienced and it’s too much to expect them to be as good an actor as a trained adult, you just look for something that feels real, and in Cowboys that was lacking.
I remember watching a couple Westerns with my Dad and what always stood out to me was their simplicity, they told an uncomplicated story well. And I think that big problem with Cowboys, it tries to tell us too much and ends up telling us nothing.
Review by Cathal Eustace
The two factors that drew me to Jumbo were its offbeat plot and it’s casting of Noémie Merlant, best known for Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019). Unfortunately the film failed to deliver in most regards save for a few visually impressive scenes, powerful color coding, and Merlant’s performance as Jeanne; a young woman living in rural France who falls in love with a fun fair ride which she affectionately names Jumbo.
The visuals in question are often of the Jumbo machine which is beautifully lit in an assortment of neon bulbs. Director Zoé Wittock searched far and wide for the perfect machine to play Jumbo. It was quite a lengthy casting process resulting in Wittock almost ordering a machine from the United States before the crew discovered the perfect claw shaped funfair ride.
Maybe this film’s shortcomings were accentuated by my high hopes crumbling as the narrative slowly unfurled itself before me: slow, incomplete characterisation with regards to all characters due to the poor dialogue (or maybe the poor translation) lacking performances from all cast members excluding Merlant and a plot where not much happens (but not in a calming, introspective fashion). All I have to offer you is a warning: Don’t anticipate a delicate story about psychosis or the strength of love and quirks of individuality, instead think ‘Transformers fanfiction.’
The third in TFR’s coverage of VMDIFF, with reviews by Cathal Eustace and Katie McKenna.
Review by Katie McKenna
The pantheon of British black comedies is filled with some of the all-time greats of the genre; Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987) and Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)immediately coming to mind. I have no doubt that Ben Sharrock’s second feature, Limbo, will soon be added to that list. Set on a remote Scottish island, Limbo follows a group of refugees as they wait for the results of their asylum requests. It is a film that bounces from wickedly funny to gut wrenchingly sad, all in the search of something authentic.
Sharrock rejects the idea that his film should have a blatant “message” and instead he focuses on characters. When injustice happens, it isn’t shoved in your face, but rather he forces you to sit in the discomfort with the same powerlessness the characters have. For most of the film there are no big dramatic moments; we just watch this eccentric group chat, watch Friends and learn about Western culture in classes led by the hilarious Margaret (Grace Chilton) and Boris (Kenneth Collard). These little moments filled with dry humour make the film, giving it its strange charm. It’s sad when we slowly lose these moments in favour of a more conventional story; it’s a shame to see a film lose what made it great.
We fall in love with our lead Omar (Amir El-Masry)’s quirky bunch of friends, at the expense of Omar. The scenes with Omar’s family feel forced and unearned. His emotional scenes don’t hit us like a surprise gut punch, instead they are forced in when they don’t really belong.
Sharrock never cuts the playful nihilism entirely. The ‘life is absurd’ aspect that defines black comedy is certainly there, though probably not as much as I’d want. It’s hard to finish a film– setting up a clever premise and writing funny scenes is easy, but when you have to bring it all together and end it satisfyingly is when it gets difficult, and this is where Ben Sharrock stumbles.While Limbo has its flaws, they are easy to overlook. Any dissatisfaction I felt when initially watching the film was forgotten. When I look back on it, I remember the funny moments and intensely likeable characters. I see a potential cult classic, and a director soon to join the ranks of Danny Boyle and Edgar Wright.
Review by Cathal Eustace
Gagarine follows the teenage Yuri (Alseni Bathily) who desperately attempts to save his home, a housing project known as Cité Gagarine, from being demolished. Both Yuri and his home were named after the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin who is shown visiting the apartment blocks in the 60s. Yuri is stuck in a stagnant quest for meaning as he walks around the Cité Gagarine with his friends. Cité Gagarine feels like a character in itself, arguably just as important to the film as Yuri. Large, grey and dull it’s a constant backdrop against Yuri’s existence, giving him shelter and company, later beautifully juxtaposed against Yuri’s surrealist, beautiful dream sequences.
Yuri’s obsession with science and space poignantly fills the void left by his family, something that could be discussed more in the film. This obsession is detrimental to Yuri’s nature and is what leaves him fervently clinging to the Cité Gagarine; though it is doomed to be destroyed, and all of those around Yuri seem to have made peace with that. Yuri’s love for his home and the extremes he endures to stay there are elegantly accompanied by charming montages and the endearing, oddball characters who populate the Banlieue. Though not much happens in Gagarine, there is an introspective tone that results in a non-French speaking audience feeling rewarded for sticking with and appreciating the film.
Gagarine is directorial debut for Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh and, had the Cannes Film Festival 2020 gone ahead, I can guarantee that we would all be hearing more noise about it this year. Khoudri’s performance wonderfully complimented Bathily’s, and under the impressive direction of Liatard and Trouilh, this film will go far.
The second in TFR’s coverage of VMDIFF, with reviews by Cathal Eustace and Katie McKenna.
To All My Darlings
Review by Katie McKenna
With the likes of Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson, Hettie MacDonald), Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, 2020) and the upcoming Conversations With Friends, it seems like we are in the midst of an Irish screen renaissance. It’s refreshing to see Irish culture portrayed so vibrantly and authentically on screen. I find myself wondering: how long can this last? However, having had the pleasure of watching IADT student Lia Campbell’s short, To All My Darlings, I think my question has been answered.
After another miscarriage, Adaeze (Demi Isaac Oviawe), must break the news of a serious medical diagnosis to her husband, Nonso (Precious Okpaje), in Campbell’s emotional drama. The film is seeping with empathy, thanks primarily to Oviawe’s magnetic performance. A particular standout is a scene in Adaeze’s garden, where, with absolutely no dialogue, Oviawe says a huge amount. This character study lives or dies on the lead performance and Oviawe absolutely delivers.
The story does, however, feel somewhat underdeveloped, particularly when examining Adaeze’s relationship with her husband. Near the end of the film, Nonso says, “they’re my kids too.” It feels as if it isn’t just Adaeze who forgets this, but the film as well. Nonso feels like a tacked-on element, neglected until the very end. It’s hard to care about him or his relationship with Adaeze as we’re shown almost none of it. This could be a consequence of the restricted runtime that comes with making a short. However, I feel, the filmmakers chose to develop the world the characters live in at the expense of the heart of the story. While her film lacks the final emotional pay-off, I believe that Lia Campbell is a filmmaker with a huge amount of promise and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
A Worm In The Heart
Review by Cathal Eustace
This documentary tracks the journey of a gay Irish couple’s journey along the Trans-Siberian railway. The filmmakers Paul Rice and Liam Jackson Montgomery meet with members of the LGBTQ+ community in various cities across Russia, staying with them and talking with them about their experiences. The pair had clearly done their research and made an effort to communicate with their interviewees prior to their trip: hidden groups of social workers providing secret mental health support to locals, sisterhoods of trans women who are forced to live together for safety, drag queens in the icy plains of Siberia — all the while explaining the history of systemic homophobia in Russia.
Sitting down and allowing the horrifying stories of queer Russians to suck me into the disturbingly calm Siberian tundra created a surreal viewing experience. I only paused the film occasionally to register the scarring retellings of violence against the interviewees, otherwise I watched it all the way through, never leaving the couch– to do so would have felt like I was disregarding the trauma of those being interviewed.
Following the route along the Trans-Siberian railway eastwards, the gradual shift from the more “progressive” cities of St Petersburg and Moscow all the way to the remote Vladivostok creates a simple structure for the audience to follow. The film is bookended by the couple’s experiences before and after their journey. Prior to their departure we feel as if the pair are venturing into the unknown, almost expecting something awful to befall Paul and Liam as they go from the relative safety of Ireland to the legitimately dangerous climate of Russia. After their journey however we feel as if the pair have become involved members of the Russian LGBTQ+ community.
The first in TFR’s coverage of VMDIFF, with reviews by Cathal Eustace and Katie McKenna.
Attending a film festival online was uncannily comfortable. Spanning nearly two weeks and beginning on the 3rd of March, myself and Katie McKenna were at liberty to enjoy and critique some of the most interesting films that VMDIFF had to offer. Whilst the idea of attending a festival in person, moseying around, seeing famous people etcetera is still at the top of my to-do list, my experience of VMDIFF online never struck me with a sense of loneliness. The VMDIFF website felt like browsing Netflix and the abundance of Q&As made up some semblance of the human to human contact you could expect from a film festival.
Be Good or Be Gone
Review by Cathal Eustace
Be Good or Be Gone was my first experience of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, detailing four days in the lives of two inmates on temporary leave from Mountjoy Prison. The film follows Ste (Les Martin) and Weed (Declan Mills) as they navigate their personal lives, aspirations and the criminal underbelly of Dublin city.
This script was brought to director Cathal Nally by Declan Mills who knew Nally would understand how to make this film. Writers Les Martin and Paul Murphy had a vision for Be Good Or Be Gone that would consistently be disregarded by previously approached production companies. “They were trying to turn it into a Guy Ritchie movie, which is not what it is, it’s a simple redemption story,” as Nally described to me in a private Q&A.
Throughout Be Good or Be Gone I was struck by subtle moments of reflection dispersed between the narratives’ chaotic mixture of comedy, gratuitous violence, and substance abuse. These small instances were carefully engineered by Nally with assistance from the rest of the cast and crew, which is a manifestation of Nally’s collaborative directing style and inclusive dialogue with cast members: “People are always saying “oh what about the director’s vision”. Fuck that. Who cares… I prefer to listen to everybody”. This organised communal reflection on Be Good Or Be Gone is responsible for some of my favourite moments in this film, particularly cinematographer Stephen C Walsh’s lingering, reflective close-ups, soaked in a pale light reminiscent of the prison cell to which our lead characters know they must return to.
The stories told whilst traipsing around Dublin city can vary greatly, but through a shared history and sense of place, they tend to complement each other nicely. From Ulysses to Adam & Paul (Lenny Abrahamson, 2004), the feel of Dublin permeates through the art that it is home to. In Be Good Or Be Gone,the flats of the north inner city often set the stage for Ste and Weed’s lonesome roamings. Here, they encounter the variety of eccentric characters whose roles tread the line between comedic relief and catalysts for violence. Be Good Or Be Gone intentionally struggles to decide whether it is a crime thriller or a buddy comedy. This lack of generic delineation conflicts with Nally’s reflective moments and ultimately serves to create a sympathy and respect for the characters.
Is There Anybody Out There?
Review by Katie McKenna
When we think back on the year 2020, the same thing comes to mind: the disease that shall not be named. A year of news stories about doctors, Leaving Cert students, and the elderly — we often forget about the less vocal groups. Vilified on the news as selfish party animals, the media forgets that college students are spending “the best years of their lives” when “they never looked better” indoors. In their film, Is There Anybody Out There?, Trinity’s students explore this.
Told through a series of video diary entries, Is There Anybody Out There? tells us the story of the pandemic as students show us their experiences of it. When I had the opportunity to talk to producer Justin MacGregor about his film, he described it as “a snapshot of another time”, and I couldn’t have described it better myself. It’s stunning how accurately the students captured the transition from the novelty of a two-week quarantine and fun staycations to the dread that comes with being in a tunnel with no light at the end. One of my favourite shorts starts with a group of students deciding to spend the rest of the semester in Kerry. What starts out as a fun holiday– students going for walks in the country and playing football on the beach– abruptly ends with the message “By April, the COVID 19 situation had worsened, and we left Cahersiveen and completed our last assignments at home”: a microcosm of 2020.
The film is hard to watch at times, each filmmaker tells their story with such honesty — a ‘warts and all’ approach — that it’s hard not to feel an existential dread while watching. A film that portrays such a traumatic period of time with such authenticity is never easy viewing.
But Is There Anybody Out There? isn’t about dread, or sadness, or tragedy. It’s about triumph. Showing us that, in times of great stress and sadness, we come together to help each other. Whether it’s the doctor in Peru putting his life on the line to save others or the college student checking on their friends, the film is full of people trying to help. Bursting through the sadness of the film there is hope. Is There Anybody Out There? shows us that we can — and will — get through this.
Interview With Justin MacGregor
You follow many stories throughout the film, do any of them particularly stand out to you?
Obviously, one of the filmmakers getting COVID and documenting it really stood out. It not only highlighted the way all the filmmakers were so honest about themselves and their situations but it was also a stark reminder of how fragile COVID had made everything and that people we know were, and are, in harm’s way. From the point of view of a documentarian, we live in an age where so much is labelled fake news and some people question what seem to be obvious truths, but the honesty of everyone involved gave an insight into the truth of the collective situation everyone was going through.
Having said that, when we were editing, what really stood out to me was how the stories came together to cover so much territory without it being planned centrally. After all, each of the filmmakers got to choose their own point of view and story. In the end, we had two stories about the situation in Italy, one from inside quarantine in Wuhan, a story of a doctor worrying about the poor in Peru, a firefighter in San Francisco, a Muslim talking about the meaning of Ramadan in the context of the lockdown, and so many more – as well as all the thematic links about family, friendship, mental health, technology, the news, being away from home…it was like tapping into the zeitgeist and then being able to edit it together into a story.
Were there any specific challenges you faced making a film in the midst of a pandemic?
There were several. The first was that it might not have worked at all as everyone was working in isolation! Fortunately, all the filmmakers rose to the occasion and delivered amazing points of views and perspectives on such diverse subject matter despite all the restrictions everyone was under. As they were all working in isolation, this led to very different styles, so then when all these films came in, it was like pieces of a complex puzzle you’ve never seen. The challenge was determining how to bring them together and ensure the fragments made up a whole and that everyone was represented. But the support of the Festival Director of VMDIFF, Gráinne Humphreys, kept us focused and offered everyone a light at the end of the tunnel. The final challenge was that we were going to move through different documentary modes and needed to make that coherent – all while working remotely. The editor, Andy Wilson, did a great job made even more remarkable given that we have never met in person. That was a first.
How did you decide when the story was complete? Was there a specific point during the pandemic that helped you decide that the story was complete?
I’m not sure the story is complete. This film feels like a snapshot of another time – the first wave of the pandemic starting to ease and the curve beginning to flatten. Watching it now, in this terrible third wave with vaccination so close and yet so far…there was so much we didn’t know, so many challenges ahead of us. The film ends on an upbeat note, people saying what they are looking forward to. But we’re not there yet, nearly a year later. The film may end, but the pandemic isn’t over.
Throughout the past decade or so, live action adaptations of classic cartoons and animated media have become a staple of blockbuster cinema. As a fan of animation, I cannot say these adaptations were something I felt effectively captured the charm of the works they were based on. Unfortunately, Tom and Jerry: The Movie (Story, 2021), proved not to be an exception. It appears that Warner Bros. hoped that the brand name of Tom and Jerry, along with a number of household names like Chloe Grace Moretz (playing Kayla) and Michael Peña (playing Terence) would be enough to carry this film, because in all other respects Tom and Jerry was undeniably lacking.
The writing for the film was glaringly inconsistent, maintaining only a surface level focus on character motivations and dialogue, and the characters felt as if they were constantly being forced along for the sake of advancing the plot. This was all highlighted by the choppy editing, and the overuse of voiceover resulted in the dialogue standing out as lazily written, often breaking the immersion that was already difficult to maintain. Another effect of this choppy editing was that the acting throughout the film was constantly disrupted, and the acting towards the animated characters specifically suffered even more so. There were many scenes in which it was painfully obvious that the actors seemed to have little idea of how their animated costars would actually move.
The animation itself, which acts as the film’s main draw, was lacklustre to say the least. The filmmakers clearly tried to avoid a Sonic the Hedgehog (Jeff Fowler, 2020) redesign disaster by retaining a strong commitment to the original 2D hand drawn designs of the characters, while still capitalising off of the recent ‘live-action’ craze as seen through the likes of Disney remakes and Detective Pikachu (Letterman, 2019). However this results in an art style that is painfully boring to watch, with the characters appearing brazenly oversaturated and simplistic in design. Where the likes of Detective Pikachu took time to carefully translate the colourful Pokémon into believable live action counterparts, Tom and Jerry might as well have stayed in the second dimension, where the world around them can be used to further this over-the-top slapstick style. Furthermore, restricting the classic Tom and Jerry style cartoon violence to these lazily-made models lacks the suspense of disbelief that the original cartoons manage to convey so effectively, resulting in moments of cartoonish violence that feel out of place within the live action setting. Ultimately, if you’re a fan of the cartoon duo, stick to the original cartoons.
The 2021 documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (Chris Smith) is an account of the scam headed by William Rick Singer which bought places at Ivy League colleges for wealthy students. Known as the “side door”, Singer’s method was to doctor and bolster evidence of participation in niche sports and to manufacture SAT and ACT scores, bribing certain university staff to turn a blind eye to any inaccuracies. Wealthy parents would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children in this “side door”, with Singer receiving a sum of over 25 million dollars between 2011 and 2018. When the scandal was made public in 2019, 53 people were accused of participating in the scam, including 33 parents, who disguised their bribery through “donations” to Singer’s two firms, Key Worldwide Foundation and The Edge College & Career Network.
The documentary consists of interviews, news footage, videos posted online by teenagers, and reenactments pieced together using actual conversations between Singer and his clients recorded by the FBI. These scenes are more bearable than your run-of-the-mill documentary reenactment, making Operation Varsity Blues quite cinematic. It provides an engaging narrative, smooth, sweeping shots from Singer’s life, and a bit of clout from Matthew Modine, portraying Singer. The filmmakers were also savvy enough to include self-uploaded videos from teenagers discussing their thoughts on the scandal and their experiences with college admissions. This showed their understanding of the importance of social media as a source of cultural history, something which is often overlooked by those who weren’t raised with it.
Where the documentary falls down is its choice to skim over the system which allowed this kind of “side door” for the wealthy in the first place. Factors like class and race are mentioned in passing, but the documentary is more interested in presenting an image of Singer’s life and defending the likes of John Vandemoer, the sailing coach at Stanford who the documentary argues is another victim of the scheme. It didn’t use this opportunity to explore the system of education inequality or spotlight any groups working to end the disparity between rich and poor, white and BIPOC.
In truth, it is common knowledge that rich people can buy their way into colleges. The documentary doesn’t reveal anything about the corrupt education system that we don’t already know, so to focus on just the specifics of the Operation Varsity Blues “side door” is to miss what would make this story compelling. The meat of the issue is the problematic, systemic foundations that encourage this behaviour beyond the specific people involved in this particular scam. We need more than a few generic remarks about the cost of college tutors. We need an exploration of the causes and consequences of education inequality to move Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal from shallow synopsis to substantial commentary.