Category Archives: Comedy

Short and Sweet: The Firehouse Film Contest

The following article was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXII, Issue VII. It appears in print and online.

David Monaghan speaks to content creators at the 18th Firehouse Film Contest in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.

Short films are often overlooked. Despite being arguably the most accessible and immediate form of film-making, audiences tend to focus more on the short’s longer, star-studded cousin: the feature film. With the Oscars airing at the end of the month, ardent viewers will undoubtedly be making the journey to their local picture houses to catch most of what’s been nominated at the prestigious ceremony, without considering too much the potential of short films. The Firehouse Film Contest is an event that highlights this potential, with much of its content exhibiting creativity, humour and talent.

Developed by former OTwo stalwarts Conor O’Toole and Conor Barry, alongside their friend Simon Mulholland, Firehouse is an “almost monthly” contest in which creators are encouraged to make short films that are five minutes or less. This appears to be the event’s one restriction, as each and every film produced for it varies in tone and production quality. “We started the Firehouse Film Contest because we had loads of friends who were great film-makers but had no deadlines to encourage them to make things,” says O’Toole. “And so we set an arbitrary one once a month, with the hopes that they would make more films.” Although the contest is open to all genres, Conor Barry notes that the submissions they receive are geared more towards comedy, due to the short film format. “But we’re always very happy when we have dramas, and experimental films,” O’Toole chimes in.

Although normally located in A4 Sounds off Dorset Street, the 18th and most recent contest took place in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. One of the contest’s most frequently featured directors is Séamus Hanly, whose frantically-edited, ‘Tim and Eric-style’ videos have made him a recognisable creator at the monthly event. For its 18th iteration he produced an intentionally clumsy video which lampoons the style of bad video bloggers. Titled ‘2016 (So Far),’ it is indicative of his self-aware, parodic style, featuring awkward cutaways, poor sound quality, and a stilted delivery. “What they said from the beginning was any variety of production quality [is welcome],” he says. “You get some very nicely shot, very nicely sound recorded stuff. Then you get videos by me.” Though he creates content for a film festival, he is hesitant to say he makes short films. “I wouldn’t call them short films, and that’s a complete technicality. I see them as videos; YouTube videos or sketches… When you don’t see it as a short film but as a video, there’s a lot of freedom, and you can mess around and stuff. When it’s called a short film it’s almost as limited as a feature.”

As has been said, there is a great freedom in creating content for Firehouse. Counter to Hanly’s humorous videos are items like ‘White Fluffs,’ a short film that intermittently follows tiny bits of fluff as they blow in the wind, or ‘Creep,’ a music video. “You do get the odd artsy short, and the audience goes quiet, doesn’t laugh, and takes it for what it is.” He also credits part of contest’s draw to its welcoming environment. “It’s genuinely friendly. A lot of people don’t want to say this, but for Dublin that’s kind of special. There are a lot of good, niche things in Dublin, but it really means something when it’s not commercial. There’s no surface level ‘oh, we welcome all kinds of films,’ then you realise they don’t. Here, they really do.”

Each month, special prizes are handed out to certain videos at the contest. The categories are Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Production/Technical Prize, and a Judges’ Prize, which in the past has been decided by the likes of Tara Flynn, director Mark Doherty, andRepublic of Telly host Kevin McGahern. The winner of the most recent Best Picture award was ‘Bigger Cats’ by Donnacha and Diarmuid O’Brien of Dangerfarm, the latter of whom has worked on RTÉ productions in the past and has produced Tara Flynn’s videos. A comedy writer like many others at Firehouse, he edits videos as a day job. He is critical of ‘mainstream’ Irish film-making for stifling creativity. “To make any sort of feature, it’s still someone else’s money. So you always have to answer to all these people and you have to deliver on what they’re investing in, with little freedom to do what you want.”
He continues: “For an actual ‘Irish new wave’ to come about, there needs to be major changes, especially in the dismissive attitude towards screen-writing… New writers need to be properly developed and paid for their apprenticeship by the industry.”

He praises the monthly contest as an outlet for up-and-coming creatives who may be struggling against such a system: “‘Official’ Irish film-making takes itself very seriously. Festivals, academia and funding are focused on arty [and] important endeavours. The Firehouse is a godsend for frustrated comedy-makers like myself. RTÉ’s remit is kind of broad stuff, so here you can pursue quirky odd things.” O’Brien gives particular praise to the people behind Dreamgun whose short feature, titled ‘The Crush List,’ won the Technical Prize at the 18th Firehouse. “They normally make really high production stuff. They didn’t have time this month so they took out a phone and they did it through Snapchat. That shows how good they are because it was a stylistic choice and it was really funny… I think they make the finest videos in the country.”

Running a little over two years, the Firehouse Film Contest has, in that time, drawn a large following. Its 18th contest was filled to audience capacity and drew a record total of thirty short films. Despite not proving as popular with wider audiences as the feature film, events like Firehouse, with its abundance of talent, show that there is life in the short film yet.

The next Firehouse Film Contest is on March 6th in A4 Sounds.

Youth: Review

The following was originally published in the University Observer Vol. XXII, Issue V. It was later posted on the paper’s website.

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Ed Stoppard
Release Date: In Irish cinemas January 29th.

We are all just extras. This is the message director Paolo Sorrentino hopes to convey in Youth, his second English language film after 2011’s This Must Be The Place, and his first cinematic feature to follow his 2013 Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. It acts as a poignant reflection upon life, death, and everything in between.

Set against the backdrop of a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps, Youth follows Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired classical music composer, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a filmmaker in the process of writing his latest feature titled Life’s Last Day. The pair are close friends who also happen to be connected by their respective offspring: Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is married to Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard). Their relationship is made complicated when Julian leaves Lena for pop star Paloma Faith, who plays herself in an awkward and clunky cameo. This marital breakdown drives the narrative forward, but narrative and plot are merely secondary in a film preoccupied with symbolism.

Fred and Mick spend the majority of their vacation at the resort discussing the past and the future. Now that they have reached old age their memories have started to fade, and they see little hope in coming times. Their anguish over growing old acts as a counterpoint to the vibrancy of the Alpine setting, which is visually breathtaking – cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is to be commended. The aging pair encounter various other characters at the resort, such as a retired Maradona (who plays himself), disillusioned actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), and a Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), all of whom reflect on their lives and careers. They offer levity in a film steeped with heavy-handed visual metaphors, which make the film feel rather bloated at times. Also of note is how wonderful sequences, like one in particular in which Fred flashes back to all the starlets he has worked with over the years, are let down by others, such as when we see Michael Caine conducting a field of cows into musical symphony.

In a Nutshell: Youth is a sometimes-poignant, but often self-indulgent reflection on life, death, and aging; overbearing symbolism does not always work in its favour. It is worth watching for its stunning photography and emotional soundtrack.

Finding Out About Santa

This piece originally appeared in the University Observer Vol. XXII, Issue II, in October 2015. It appeared in print only.

It was the Christmas of 1999. Westlife, Boyzone, Eiffel 65, and Ricky Martin topped the charts, Stuart Little, The Matrix, and Pokemon: The Movie entertained cinemagoers worldwide, and in a small village in rural Ireland a young boy was preparing for the arrival of Santa. This little boy was a very lucky little boy; he had light-up sketchers, a Game Boy Colour (with Tetris n’all), and all the crayons he could chew. What more could he want?

This was the last Christmas of the 20th century, and while people were preparing for the oncoming doom of Y2K, there was only one thing this ignorant little boy wanted: a Dustin the Turkey plush, complete with a silver suit and whacky catchphrases. “It’s as clear as the nose on Anne Doyle’s face,” the toy would yell. Of course, this little boy didn’t know who Anne Doyle was nor did he care, all he knew was that Dustin was on the tellybox and he was funny. He knew that this was what he would ask Santy for. He knew that this was going to be the best Christmas ever.

It was two weeks to the holiday, and the house was getting busy. Family members were running back and forth, wrapping presents up and putting decorations on the wall. “Will you be okay while we pop out for a bit, Dave? Your grandad will be so upset if he doesn’t get his annual gift of socks and aftershave.” “Sure thing, father,” said the young boy, like a Dickensian orphan. “I promise not to get up to shenanigans in your absence.”

This little boy was a lying snake. While his dear old dad was out, he decided to inspect the wardrobe in his paternal figure’s room, only to discover, to his horror,  the very Dustin the Turkey plush he wanted from Santy, staring right back at him. It was in that moment that the young boy realised that Santy hadn’t been giving him presents all this time. That Thomas the Tank Engine bike he got two years previous? A sham! That Batman costume with the welly boots and gloves? A lie. Everything he had held dear up until this point had become unravelled.

And that little boy, dear reader, grew up to be me.

Distorting Reality: How Unique is Irish Comedy?

This work was originally published by the University Observer in October 2015.

David Monaghan looks at what makes Irish television unique when compared to its American and British counterparts.

Whenever discussions around television comedy arise, two distinct styles are often pitted against each other: British and American. British comedy champions the downtrodden, all-too-human hero, while American comedy offers a more positive and uplifting outlook on life. While this is a slight generalisation (there are a few American comedies that feature underlying negativity, just thinkArrested Development or South Park), in most cases it is the accepted norm. Irish comedy, much in the vein of its British counterpart, also stems from a culture of negativity, but is there anything unique about it?

British comedy, while funny, also displays scenes of intense sadness or pity. Audiences laugh when Ricky Gervais’ David Brent hijacks an office training session to play his comically-misguided guitar songs, they squirm when he attempts to upstage his new boss with a terrible dance. They sympathise with Dawn when she, in the very same show, describes how disappointing her life has turned out to be. Similarly, people remember when a frustrated Basil Fawlty thrashes his car with a broken tree branch, when Del Boy falls through an open bar, and when Blackadder and company make the final leap over the trenches and into war. The humour in British comedy is often physical and at a character’s expense, and is punctuated by moments of reality.

American comedy, on the other hand, is distinctly different. While tackling moments of sadness, as well as elements of reality, it tends to wrap things up in a nice, neat narrative; rarely is anything left sad or ambiguous. In the sitcomScrubs, for example, a storyline involving Dr. Cox’s alcoholism and depression is brought to a conclusion when JD helps the misanthropic doctor get back on his feet, and most episodes end with a life lesson or a moral. Friends concludes with Ross and Rachel getting back together, ending a long-running plot thread. This is in contrast to the final episode of something like the UK’s The Thick of It,in which Malcolm Tucker is arrested, his future left uncertain.

So, where does all this leave Irish comedy? Like British comedy, it wallows in negativity at times, but unlike British comedy, reality is often distorted or rejected. A very introspective form of comedy, it sees the faults in our culture, or our society, and it exaggerates them to the point of parody. It is no coincidence that Father Ted came to our screens in the 1990s, when people began to question the failures of the clergy in decades past. The show follows three Catholic priests on a small island off the west coast of Ireland – a simple, realistic premise. It is only when they do strange things like enter a version of the Eurovision or fend off an invasion of elderly women that farce comes into play. Both Father Ted and Father Dougal display incompetency at their jobs, and in one episode Father Ted attempts to woo a female writer on the island, a very controversial depiction. Writer Graham Linehan explains that they’re “just two people who happen to be [priests].”

This parody of Ireland’s reality can also be seen in shows like Republic of Telly.In a mock news segment, for example, host Bernard O’Shea sings in sean-nós style about emigrants’ longing for Tayto crisps while abroad – bringing Ireland’s emigration problem to the fore and playing with it. In a sketch from the same show, titled ‘Edward Hurleyhands,’ a blatant spoof of Edward Scissorhands, a character, dressed head-to-toe in black and with hurley sticks for hands, uses his strange gift to master the game of hurling. Irish culture and reality are once again brought to the fore, but are mocked or distorted to the point of parody.

While British and American brands of comedy continue to dominate the scene, Irish comedy, while holding some similarities to its British counterpart, is a unique creature. Seeing the flaws in its own culture, it chooses to parody them instead of embracing them. So why is it that it teeters on the edge of discussing something real, only to take two steps back? It can be argued that it has something to do with an Irish cultural reluctance to discuss things frankly, but who knows for sure? To paraphrase one Father Dougal Maguire; “the whole thing’s a bit of a puzzler.”