The Return of Cinemas | Now is the Time to Discover Some Smaller Gems

One of the things I think we can all agree on about the Covid pandemic is how absolutely brilliant it has been. There’s evidence for that everywhere. If you’re reading this in certain parts of the world, your favourite cinema has probably just reopened after a prolonged absence, only to be confronted with the harsh reality that there are no new films. There might be some new films later in the year, if the world settles down a bit. But, at the moment, cinemas are subsisting off scraps. As I am nothing if not a tedious contrarian, I’m here to explain why this in fact a good thing.

The current schedule at the Gate Cinema, on North Main Street in Cork City, is weird. It’s a hastily constructed, patchwork affair, with a few films that were brand new when everything shutdown, and a few crowdpleasers from the past few years. Yep, The Greatest Showman is BACK, it will NEVER GO AWAY. There are also two small gems, both of them Irish, both of them hovering at the ideal 90 minute mark. Maybe in ordinary times, I would have been too distracted by flashier productions with bigger name actors to see them. But it would have been a woeful decision on my part, and it won’t be such a hot decision on yours if you sleep on either of them.

First of all, let’s chat about Sea Fever. Sea Fever came out on Video on Demand in April. At least over here in Ireland, this was the time where everything seemed to be at its most fucked. If you were, or still are looking for some pleasant escapism from this hellscape, Sea Fever refuses to provide it. A taut, gripping, claustrophobic sci-fi horror thriller, it adeptly marries eerily prescient pandemic anxiety with the similarly frightening prospect of a giant fucking squid shooting its offspring into your eyeballs. Hermione Corfield is excellent as Siobhan, a socially inept marine biology student. She purchases a place on board a struggling fishing vessel to do some kind of boring fish research. Happily, everything does not go according to plan for her. The boat becomes ensnared in the clutches of a mysterious, tentacled sea creature, and she has to try and marshal the largely reckless and sceptical crew into getting home safely.

There’s a lot to say for Sea Fever. The supporting cast live up to the high standards Corfield sets (particular credit goes to Dougray Scott as the maverick, grizzled skipper Gerard, and Ardalan Esmaili as the immensely likeable and talented engineer Omid). Pretty much every single person in the film is outrageously attractive, which never hurts. But the best thing about the movie is how straight forward it is.

A consistent feature of positive film reviews I write are that the films are roughly 90 minutes long. Sea Fever is just slightly over, and feels perfectly paced at that length. It isn’t a film with terrific emotional depth or any sort of big idea or message beyond “wouldn’t it suck if a massive squid could transmit infectious parasites into our bodies via the medium of luminescent gloop? Wouldn’t it suck if that one boss from the harbour section of Super Mario Sunshine was real, and approximately 10,000x less incompetent?” But it delivers that one idea superbly well.

As the characters aboard the boat get increasingly frazzled and twitchy, so do you in your seat. There are only a couple of gory bits, but they’re affecting enough to have you watching through your eye balls. The ending is entirely satisfactory. Everything just functions very well for 94 minutes. It makes for a monster movie that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but certainly, um, fits the wheel very nicely to its vehicle so it can drive smoothly. Or something. And it’s particularly enjoyable at the cinema, where the seclusion of sitting in a darkened room adds to the atmosphere of fear and isolation aboard the doomed boat.

Still, while Sea Fever is thoroughly successful at what it’s trying to do, it isn’t trying to do anything that’s going to get it recognised as one of the films of 2020. But it’s not the only movie I’ve seen at the cinema since the shutdown was eased. The best coming of age movie of the last decade is Lady Bird, and I think you could make a robust argument that Dating Amber is actually even better than it. I’ve not got the guts to outright say it is, but if somebody else was willing to do so, I’d probably retweet them and follow them on Twitter.

Dating Amber is a delightful comedy, with real emotional heft, about two gay teenagers in a sleepy Irish town during the 1990s. To avoid mockery at school, Eddie and the titular Amber decide to feign a heterosexual relationship with each other. They become close. Unfortunately, one of them is much less comfortable with their sexuality than the other, and this leads to a final third which is turbulent, intense, and remarkably moving.

Everyone in this film is good, but Lola Petticrew’s performance as Amber will, if we live in a just world, send her career stratospheric. She’s wildly charismatic. She’s an identifiably daft and pretentious teenager whilst still somehow being incredibly likeable. She doesn’t so much nail both the comic and dramatic elements of the plot as much as she does completely obliterate them. Fionn O’Shea is also strong as Eddie, though his performance is more limited, and I’m not sure whether that’s by design or not. He is so wracked with anxiety that he never seems more than a split second from a howling mental breakdown, other than the brief stretches where Amber is able to get him out of his own head. His endless reserves of jittery energy, and absolute bewilderment at the world around him threaten to grow slightly tiresome at points. Happily, the redemptive, hopeful ending of the film works just about well enough for the ends to justify the means.

Obviously, Dating Amber doesn’t quite have the sheer style that Lady Bird does. It’s also unforgivably deficient in the ‘having Saoirse Ronan in it’ stakes. But it compensates for it in sheer spirit, and for offering a vision of Ireland in the 90s that manages to be warm, romantic, unflinching and unsentimental. As one of those tedious straight people they have now, who also, disgustingly, was born and raised in England, it’s not my place to comment on that depiction’s accuracy. But I hope I’m not wide of the mark in suggesting that there are some people who will really, really appreciate this movie’s existence, the way it amplifies their voices and experiences, their triumphs and tragedies. As it happens, the ending of Dating Amber and the extraordinary sacrifice one character has to make for another is maybe my least favourite part of it, and yet I still left the cinema feeling more moved than I did at the end of Lady Bird. You can’t argue with the film criticism of your heart. It wants what it wants, so I’m told, and what mine wants is for Eddie and Amber to grow up and live spectacularly happy, fulfilling, truthful lives.

I started writing this article roughly a fortnight ago, back when Ireland was emerging bleary eyed from the majority of its strictest lockdown restrictions, with new daily cases of Covid consistently in the single figures. I’m finishing it with new cases back in the 20-30 per day range and discussion about having to return to Phase 2 of restrictions if things get much worse. So a chirpy article about why you should get down to the cinema again doesn’t seem quite as fitting anymore. But if the only reason you’re not going to the movies is because the blockbusters you were looking forward to have been postponed, you should take a punt on whatever it is your local cinema has found down the back of the sofa. You might be pleasantly surprised!

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