Playwright turned filmmaker Carmel Winters makes a confident and courageous debut with Snap, a scathing psychological drama about how a mother and her estranged teenage son cope with a family tragedy that becomes a media scandal.

Snap opens with middle-aged recovering alcoholic Sandra (Aisling O’Sullivan) inviting a documentary crew into her apartment to “get everything out in the open”. As she sits, smoking, in her scrupulously clean kitchen, Sandra looks into the camera and explains that three years previously her 15 year old son Stephen (Stephen Moran) kidnapped a toddler from a local park. He brought the child to an isolated house owned by his grandfather (Pascal Scott) and kept him there for five days. We don’t know why he did it and neither does Sandra, but she has her suspicions and so do we. As Sandra tries to explain what happened the story flashes back to the event itself, as the teenager sits with the toddler in the isolated house, feeding him junk food and watching old films on a battered television.

Even as Sandra attempts to make sense of her situation in a tumble of denials and confessions, Winters further fractures the story into dozens of fragments. An unseen hand pauses and rewinds the raw documentary footage, looking for unguarded moments. As Sandra explains to the camera, she has become a pariah, painted as the epitome of evil by sensationalist newspaper coverage. Even now, three years later, she is being plagued by nuisance phone calls and poison pen letters, which she burns without reading. She has kept the old newspaper clippings from the case, analysing them for mistakes and inaccuracies. She seems coldly indifferent, but she is angry and obsessed.

Between these uncomfortable scenes, an objective camera watches as Stephen wanders around the old house, watching images of the toddler’s parents on television, pleading for the child’s safe return. He also watches old 8mm home movies of himself as a young child with his grandfather, learning to ride a bicycle and blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Winters then returns to Sandra as she bounces around her apartment, afraid to go out, passing the day with her brash best friend Chris (Eileen Walsh) and a deeply uncomfortable encounter with a dishevelled drunk she picks up in a local chip shop (the late Mick Lally, in his last role).

At first, Snap seems like an unsolvable jumble but Winters has a keen sense of the art of storytelling, slowly unravelling the puzzle to bring clarity to her jigsaw construction. Throughout, the director maintains a mood of imminent horror, a sense that the awful things that have been revealed are nothing when placed against what remains hidden.

The broken narrative is given a firm grounding in O’Sullivan’s intense, searing performance, monstrous and sympathetic at once. Winter’s script allows the actress to build her frustration into moments of full-throated fury, which O’Sullivan delivers with unerring force. As the damaged, emotionally inert Stephen, Moran remains a blank slate at all times, completely internalising the dire events boiling around him. The director’s background is in theatre, but her scenes never feel stage-bound, cutting between timelines and visual formats with consummate delicacy and framing the action for maximum emotional effect.

Cold Fish

Inspired by an infamous case of serial murder which took place in the Satima province in 1993 (and is still winding its way through the Japanese courts), cult Japanese director Sion Sono’s macabre serial killer drama Cold Fish is a full-throated, blood-soaked examination of a murder and mayhem in Tokyo.

Meek, bespectacled Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikoshi) owns a tropical fish shop beside a busy highway in Tokyo. His home life is almost as cold-blooded as his floating stock; his rebellious daughter Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) despises his second wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), while she in turn has become bored with the quiet life they live behind the store. One night, Mitsuko is caught shoplifting in a supermarket but before the manager can call the police, another customer, Murata (Denden) talks him out of it. By coincidence, Murata also owns a tropical fish shop, so invites Shamoto and his family around to take a look at his elaborate set-up. Within a couple of hours, the boisterous Murata has talked mild-mannered Shamoto into a high-priced business deal, arranged a job in his shop for his new partner’s teenage daughter and made a clumsy pass at his lubricious wife.

At first, everyone is pleased with these new arrangements but the over-bearing Murata and his smirking wife Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa) have a sinister ulterior motive. Murata might be a successful businessman but he is an equally adept and ruthless serial killer who boasts of having murdered fifty eight people over the years, sometimes for money and sometimes just for fun. Together with his willing accomplice Aiko, he typically poisons his victims before carefully dismembering their bodies and leaving no forensic traces, a process the killer calls “making them invisible”. Soon, Shamoto has been drawn into the couple’s murderous scheme, blackmailed into helping the killers to dispose of the body of a business investor they have killed for money.

And that’s just the start; it’s gets a lot messier from there. Veteran character actor Denden (who usually cast in comic roles) plays Murata as an explosive extrovert, a charismatic, seductive bully who does whatever he wants, regardless of the cost to others. Timid Shamoto, who spends his free time at the planetarium dreaming of the stars, is harder to get a handle on. Is he just a frightened weakling, easily pushed into doing the unthinkable, or has there been murder in his heart all along? We don’t know for sure because the character doesn’t seem to know, with Sono drawing out the suspense across a nerve-shredding two and a half hours before a jaw-dropping finale.

Not one for the squeamish, Cold Fish takes no quarter yet the film cannot be easily dismissed as just another exploitative genre horror. Amidst all the sleazy carnage Sono mounts a serious exploration of the tensions between obedient Japanese conformity and the sensational thrill of transgressive criminality. The director asks significant questions about the human capacity for evil and carefully analyses his findings. As compelling throughout as it is stomach churning and unsettling, Cold Fish slowly builds into a nightmare of brutality and pain; brilliantly acted, daringly edited and scored with a thunderous soundtrack of crashing drums and squealing violins.

Sucker Punch

Zack Snyder made his name directing faithful, frame-by-frame adaptations of the popular graphic novels Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but he’s got nobody else to blame for the farrago of Sucker Punch; his first original screenplay and an unmitigated disaster from start to finish.

Taking his cue from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Sucker Punch takes place across three different levels of reality. The story opens in the “real world”, sometime in the 1950s, with a twenty year old woman (Emily Browning) witnessing the death of her mother at the hands of her abusive stepfather. When she subsequently tries to shoot him, she is locked away in an all-female asylum where she will undergo a lobotomy at the hands of a corrupt doctor (Jon Hamm) in five days time.

As a way of coping with her terrible fate, the young woman imagines a fantasy world where the grim asylum is transformed into a colourful brothel and she is a burlesque dancer named Baby Doll. In this reality, she befriends the other women, including sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). With them, she conceives of an escape plan that will require stealing five essential objects from under the nose of the brothel manager, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac).

The success or failure of the escape plan rests on Baby Doll’s uncanny ability to hypnotize the brothel patrons with her dazzling dance moves while the other women secure the items required to carry the plot forward; a map, a knife, a cigarette lighter and so on. We, the audience, are not privy to Baby Doll’s distracting dances. Instead, we are transported further into Baby Doll’s fevered imagination, where the five women don lingerie and automatic weapons and fight their way through a succession of violent action sequences, from a World War I battlefield (complete with trenches and pointy-helmeted soldiers) to a dragon-filled castle lifted straight from The Lord of the Rings. The exotic dancers are trained in their gyrations by Dr Gorski (Carla Gugino, affecting an inane Polish accent) while later, in bullet-flinging girl-power mode, they are guided by a craggy-faced sergeant major known as Wise Man and played by an expressionless Scott Glenn.

Even if viewers follow Baby Doll’s lead and try to block out all the bad stuff, Sucker Punch is still difficult to comprehend and impossible to care about. It’s as if Snyder choreographed a series of flashy fight scenes and then attempted to frame a narrative to tie them all together. This he achieves by flicking through his DVD collection, lifting concepts and plot devices from a host of better films, video games, music videos and cartoons. Individually, his scenes have no shape; taken together, they are repetitive and derivative.

Sucker Punch
is a triumph of digital image-making over storytelling and sensation over substance. The characters are shadow puppets, the story is witless and the dialogue is prattling nonsense. Snyder strains to inject drama into proceedings but settles for noise and sparks. The endless set-pieces of slow-motion carnage eventually congeal into an unappealing digital bilge, scored with a tone-deaf soundtrack of pounding rock covers. Snyder’s heavily-armed, skimpily-costumed heroines are supposedly empowered to fight back against their oppressors but as the cast writhe around in their underwear, the nagging question arises: whose fantasy are we watching, exactly?

The only suckers being punched here are those who might pay good money for a ticket to see it. Just be thankful it’s not in 3D.


PJ Dillon’s Irish thriller Rewind opens with a young woman sitting in a circle at an AA meeting, wordlessly mouthing the Serenity Prayer. Karen (Amy Huberman) is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, but has been clean and sober for seven years. A city girl, she was wild in her twenties but has settled down with her husband Brendan (Owen McDonnell), a successful businessman, and their 4 year old daughter in a satellite town, somewhere outside Dublin. Life is boringly normal, precisely the way Karen wants it to be.

Then Karl (Alan Leech), an old boyfriend, turns up unexpectedly having been “away” for a few years. Karl, whose surface charm barely hides a sinister, unstable personality, knows things about Karen’s past. “That was a different life”, Karen says, but soon Karl is interfering with her future, the plans she has made and the life she has built for herself and her family. With his easy smile and con-man's instinctive understanding of propriety, the interloper worms his way into the family home, pretending to be a long-lost cousin. Brendan, who knows his wife had problems with substance abuse in the past, is suspicious, but what can he do? Then, a package containing a video tape turns up and Karen has to take a road trip with Karl in a desperate effort to keep her past where it belongs, buried deep and out of sight.

Cinematographer turned director PJ Dillon’s debut feature looks terrific, as you’d expect, washed in cool blues and ominous greys by Director of Photography Ken Byrne, and is keenly paced and tightly edited. The script, from Dillon, Ronan Carr and Roger Karshan, is cleverly conceived but even over a terse 80 minute running time, feels as if it is missing a twist or two. The staging is sometimes stiff, the dialogue lacks polish and Huberman and Leech’s game attempts at inner-city Dublin accents at times sound like poor impersonations. The later stages of the plot hinge on an absurd and improbable coincidence, undermining Dillon’s otherwise carefully constructed realism.

For all its flaws, mostly attributable to the scant production budget, Rewind is superbly acted with Dillon making the most of finely judged performances from his talented cast. More familiar as a smiling, carefree presence in Cowboys & Angels and Man About Dog, Leech plays a convincing scumbag, conniving and dangerous while Huberman, wide-eyed and cold-hearted, perfectly expresses Karen’s shame and fear of discovery. As the panicking husband, McDonnell brings a recognisable bewilderment and sympathetic panic to what is an underdeveloped role.

Like Margaret Corkery’s inky black comedy Eamon and Conor Horgan’s soon-to-be-released apocalypse drama One Hundred Mornings, Rewind was financed by the Catalyst Project, a practical creative initiative from the Irish Film Board, supported by broadcasters and training agencies, which has resulted in three films completed for a total budget of less than €800,000. All three films are of a quality that belies their micro-budget origins and all have won awards at festivals at home and abroad. Although there are issues surrounding distribution and promotion, expensive endeavours not covered in the original budget, the Catalyst Project has been remarkably successful and fully deserves to be renewed.