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An Unresolved Murder In West Cork Still Keeps Audiences Intrigued 25 Years Later



When Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found murdered on December 23rd, 1996, near her holiday home in Drinane, near Schull, County Cork, Ireland, it shocked not only the county but the country.

It had been the first murder in the area in maybe a century or more. This was a very remote area — few immediately knew where her house was. Artists, poets and various artistic types ostensibly came to the region to mix with locals but were viewed with suspicion at best.

Nonetheless, her killing — unusual as it was — intrigued not only folks in the area but the country as a whole. It put a spotlight on the Irish police (the Garda), and their investigative skills — the investigation quickly shifted from the local police to those from Dublin — or the lack thereof. It also forced an examination of Ireland’s criminal court process and ultimately extended itself to the French and France’s legal system as well.

When her body was found by a neighbor. Toscan du Plantier’s head had been staved in by a concrete block (or a huge rock) and her body was left askew not far from her driveway. She was dressed in a nightgown and boots; her body was splayed against a fence. It was left there without forensic protection out in the rain until the coroner arrived 28 hours later. The investigation then pinioned from one questionable interrogation to another.

The 39-year-old had bought the house in this remote region of West Cork after she had visited frequently with friends and family but in December 1996 she traveled there alone for the first time.

Born on July 28th, 1957, Sophie Bouniol had been raised in Paris’s first arrondissement (district) in the apartment where her parents Marguerite and Georges Bouniol still live. She married in 1980 and had a son, Pierre-Louis Bauday-Vignaud, the following year.

Sophie was a producer for French television of documentaries on subjects concerning art and various subcultures. Among her documentary projects was a film about the concept of “the fold” in art and philosophy, titled Il Voit Des Plis Partout (He Sees Folds Everywhere). Directed by Guy Girard, the film was released a year after her murder and was billed as presented by “Sophie Toscan Du Plantier.”

In 1991, she got remarried, this time to the renowned French film producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier and they lived in Paris’s second arrondissement. In 1992, she bought a getaway home in Toormore, County Cork. Sophie visited frequently with friends and family but in December, 1996, she traveled there alone for the first time.

At the time of her murder, she had been separated from her second husband, who, as a prominet producer, brought more attention to the sensational circumstances of her death. A peculiar mix of murder mystery and social commentary pervaded stories of her demise and the subsequent media coverage at the time of the initial investigation. Although this murder happened more than a quarter century ago, it still stirs interest in its central mystery — who killed Sophie Toscan du Plantier?

The investigation out of the Garda’s Dublin headquarters was led by chief inspector Dermot Dwyer who interviewed many of the key participants and eventually became convinced that English journalist Ian Bailey— who had moved to the region several years before the murder and was originally from Manchester — was the prime suspect. Bailey, as a local “blow-in,” at first provided articles from a bird’s eye view of the investigation. Then the focus shifted from him being an investigator to suspect because of several surprising discoveries. He apparently had been seen in the area of the murder at 3 AM on the day of the event. He had scratches on his hands and face and had been under police scrutiny for his violent relationship with his live-in lover.

Bailey eventually was accused of the murder and was tried inabsentiain France where he was convicted. Yet he’s still out free in Ireland because the Irish court didn’t extradite him to France.

This murderous affair is being talked about again because Netflix released at the end of June, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork— a three-part documentary mini-series about this still open-ended crime story. Directed by John Dower and produced by Suzanne Lavery, this telling of the tale both tries to make sense of its convolutions and sorts out the characters involved — the suspect, the witnesses to his behavior, the Garda and Sophie’s survivors — including her only child.

Besides revealing the flaws of the investigation and the quirky nature of the folks living out there in West Cork, the series shows the impact Sophie’s death had on the people who were there in one way or another. It’s a well-made doc and provoked this audience member to ask lots of questions, some of which I wished it had answered.

I wanted to know what happened to the house and Bailey’s relationship with his lover at the time. I would have posed further questions to the son about the effect of his mother’s death. And there’s more.

But, I guess, I will have to turn to West Cork, a non-fiction podcast series reported and hosted by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde. The 13-episode series premiered as an Audible original in February 2018, as a binge, and was made freely available widely as a podcast in 2021. A new episode of the series was released this May, 2021, detailing the trial of the main suspect. It is Audible’s most listened-to podcast series of all time, and spent seven consecutive weeks as the site’s number 1 nonfiction best seller. The series became notable again in April 2021 when it was released free to air on the general podcast platforms and went in at number 1 In the Apple podcast charts in several countries.

So thanks to the media, Sophie’s death will not be forgotten. Whether justice will ever be served remains to be seen.

Celebrate Halloween With A Night For Horror Masked By Cinema

Photo by Glenn Hughes

When I recently found a new edition of Irish author Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” it led me back into one of the greatest stories ever told. It’s a classic tome about a legendary character who’s the quintessential embodiment of horror. In fact, Ireland has been a source for characters that have populated many a horror story thanks to Celtic mythology. Whether it be the Samahain Festival when spirits walk the earth or the legend of the selkie — a mermaid-like seducer (as featured in Neil Jordan’s “Ondine”) Ireland has provided its share of horror archetypes.

I love horror, fantasy and sci-fi, so Halloween stirs up a conundrum for me — should I stage my own little horror movie marathon or not? Sometimes I feel compelled to exploit the moment — not being much for trick or treating or costume parties — and look back at the horror films I love or try out new ones for my imagined personal film festival.

Spurred on by an NPR interview with sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer, I sought out the DVD of the cinematic retelling of his “Annihilation.” As director Alex Garland’s perfect example of the cross between sci-fi and horror, the film creates both a sense of dread and wonder. Audiences are fascinated in the way that an alien appears on earth after a spaceship had crashed into an isolated lighthouse. This small patch of earth is transformed into an otherworldly environment, where sinister doings pervade it all. Natalie Portman and the rest of the cast play the role that most humans do in a horror film — that of passive participants who are buffeted by forces beyond their control.

The intersection of horror and sci-fi also was brilliantly expressed in the first “Alien” film. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Sigourney Weaver as crew-member Ripley, whose earthbound cargo ship becomes infested with monsters that make their way onto her starship and start killing everyone. She’s no passive player once she realizes she has to defeat the monsters or die.

Actor/director John Krasinski’s recent film, “A Quiet Place” blends the two genres in a unique way. Extraterrestrials appear who shred people because they’re drawn to the noise they make — any noise. Just imagine the constraints such a situation provokes. The film reveals the terrifying lengths a family has to go through in order to stay quiet and stay alive.

Sci-fi and horror pervaded 1987’s “Predator” which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a commando team leader on a mission to take out rebels in a South American jungle. Suddenly the hunters become the hunted as an alien tracks and tries to kill them all for trophies (which is their skulls and backbones).

If a monster movie is created with a clever touch and designed with a bit of snark then it merits inclusion here. Witness the low-budget rethink of the werewolf myth in “The Howling,” Joe Dante’s ‘80s classic. He re-imagines werewolves as a cult community with the expected frightening results. Maybe the werewolf doesn’t get the props that vampires get but several other films do their best at myth-making this man-into-beast character. These include 1935’s “The Werewolf of London” and 1961’s “Curse of The Werewolf” — which starred Oliver Reed and was produced by Hammer Films — and John Landis’ tragicomic “An American Werewolf in London” which came out in 1985.

That brings me to Hammer — a British film studio which made some of the best genre films during the ‘50s and ‘60s including “The Horror of Dracula” which starred Christopher Lee who performed the most terrifying rendition of The Count ever seen on screen.

Before that studio, there was Universal which established the classics from which everything else emanates. Among their many signature franchises established through the ’30s, it made James Whale’s “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” the original “Dracula” (with Bela Lugosi) and “The Mummy” (with Boris Karloff).

Roger Corman’s AIP studio churned out a vast array of horror films with many of them starring the regal Vincent Price. He played many a scary character in a slew of re-interpretations of master horror scribe Edgar Allan Poe’s many stories including “The Pit And The Pendulum” and “The Raven.”

When director George Romero set into motion the zombie craze with his groundbreaking B&W low budget hit, “Night of The Living Dead” in 1968, younger horror masters such as Danny Boyle  fashioned new benchmarks out of that earlier trope-definer. Witness “28 Days Later,” his reboot of the zombie film establishing new elements to the mythology and this horror sub-genre has spawned countless films and TV variants.

Mexican-born Guillermo del Toro, another new-gen horror-meister, used “The Creature from The Black Lagoon” (a Universal monster classic from the ’50s) as inspiration for his Oscar-winning woman/monster love story, “The Shape of Water.” Del Toro has been doing his best to re-envision fantastic films; his “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a great example of that.

But enough of that. At the core of some of the best horror is the unexplainable, the supernatural, and other stuff that happens without any logic to it. “The Exorcist” is the best example of a supernatural film in cinematic history. No other movie has ever scared me as much, and, though I have watched other classics more than once, I can’t even imagine viewing this film in its entirety again. After I saw it when it first came out, I was so disturbed that I was ready to become a Catholic before it ended.

Besides “The Exorcist,” and, maybe, “The Omen,” no other film dealt with the Devil so powerfully as did Roman Polanski’s artful “Rosemary’s Baby” in which the hubby (played by John Cassavetes) gives his wife (Mia Farrow) to the Devil who impregnates her with his child.

I would also choose touchstones from such directors as Jonathan Demme (“Silence of The Lambs”) Nicholas Roeg (“Don’t Look Now”), Ken Russell (“The Devils”). And of course, there’s the masterful Stanley Kubrick who lent “The Shining” —Stephen King’s tale of demonic possession — his own unique, profound stamp.

King, the prolific master of horror fiction, prompted the making of a formidable array of horror classics from “Carrie” on to the most recent remakes of “It” with its demonic clown Pennywise as the ultimate antagonist. The list of his achievements is formidable and so are the many films he’s responsible for. Other literary stars such as Clive Barker transformed their own books into shock-inducing series; witness his “Hellraiser” films with his torturer from Hell, Pinhead, as an iconic figure.

While King first established his mark as a copious maker of literature (though he also acted in many of the films that sprang from his twisted brain), nobody churned out as many incredible productions as British director Alfred Hitchcock. The portly auteur made two distinctly frightening films — “The Birds” and “Psycho.” Both stylistically came at the genre in two distinctly different ways. The former was shrouded in mystery; the latter addressed madness. And incidentally, Hitchcock made also appearances in the films he created.

The horror genre is notable for the many franchises it has generated. Two classic blood-n-guts slasher flicks — “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Halloween” — set in motion murderous antagonists who have spawned many successful sequels. Given “Halloween’s” success, credit must go to its director/creator John Carpenter who also made the ghostly “The Fog” and a terrifying version of “The Thing,” the ultimate sci-fi/horror remake. In it, Kurt Russell plays a scientist who battles a shape-shifting alien in order to prevent it from escaping out of the Antarctic.

Another film which enjoyed being remade to good effect was Don Siegel’s 1956 classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It also dealt with outer space invaders trying to replace humans with otherworldly replicas. Underlying this film and its subsequent re-thinks (especially Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 version) were larger social issues as viewed through the lens of a sci-fi narrative.

Yet nobody has pushed the limits of horror-as-social-commentary as has director David Cronenberg. His early work — “Shivers,” “Rabid” and “The Brood” — were all masterpieces of body-contorting horror. But of all his brilliant films, “Crash” illuminated a perverse and obsessive psychopathology which was not only tortured but also erotic.

While Cronenberg established an aesthetic outer limits, it has been Jason Blum, whose company Blumhouse re-thinks horror tropes through its many movies. It recently produced Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking and highly praised “Get Out,” which tackled racial issues under the guise of being a horror flick. Its story line revolves around a white cult making sinister use of African Americans’ bodies to extend their own lives. His production house has made dozens of films based on contemporary themes by applying unique conceptual approaches to sometimes worn-out ideas (the supernatural “Ouija”) or by freshly blending genres (as with the mad-killer dystopia of “The Purge” or through the mysterious “Us”).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what could be a many month-long fest of cinematic contortions. And given the tortures of this year — the plagues, political passions, lies and misdemeanors — there’s enough horror all around.

Maybe it will all end with the results of the vote after November 3rd.

 

Director Todd Phillips and Actor Joaquin Phoenix Formed a Unique Union To Make “Joker” An Award Oriented Hit

 

Viewing Joker a second time — thanks to Deadline’s Awardsline screening series — not only provided further insight but also a chance to hear director Todd Phillips explain himself, just as he did at the film’s World Premiere Q&A. Phillips is no stranger to controversial award nominations. In 2006 he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for scribing Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical comedy Borat — not exactly the most politically correct film of its day. Now he’s gotten both hosannas and harangues for his very un-comical Joker (though it has darkly funny moments). But despite divisive responses, it nonetheless spurred 11 Academy Award noms including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay and earned him the Golden Lion at the 76th Venice International Film Festival.

joaqOnce known for writing and directing comedies from 2000’s Road Trip to The Hangover trilogy (released in 2009, 2011, and 2013), Phillips expanded into other genres when he did a biographical crime drama — 2016’s War Dogs. But did he ever imagine that Joker — an experiment in transforming a comic book character into some kind of relevant, contemporary figure — would produce such a response, “Honestly, I couldn’t have imagined the level of discourse it [stirred] in the world. It’s a complicated movie and that’s okay. It sparked conversations and debates around it. It sounds insane, but there has been so much conversation around the movie written by people that haven’t seen it. There have been think pieces that say, ‘I haven’t seen the movie, I’m not going to see the movie’ and then they write two pages about it. I didn’t expect that. See the movie and then comment; it seems logical. But it probably helped to have people talk about it. I just didn’t expect that.”

When he dug into the character, Phillips used existing storylines and character as a foundation but took things in a radically different direction from other cinematic Jokers. The director expanded on how what he and his team came up with ended up on screen. “When the idea came to do a stripped down comic book film, we wanted to do a character study on one of these characters we’ve seen before. The logical choice was the Joker. He represents mayhem and chaos, two things I’ve always been somewhat attracted to.”

Added the 49-year-old, “To breakdown how we got it like that was very simple. Scott Silver and I wrote the screenplay and it was about running things through as realistic a lens as possible. That carried over to the design, the cinematography and everything else. What do we know about Joker? He laughs in the comics and movies. How did he get that laugh? Why is his skin white and his hair green? Well in the comics, he fell into a vat of acid. We thought about that in the real world and said, ‘What if he was a clown?” It was fun backwards-engineering that while we were writing, giving him this affliction [as the reason] for his laugh. There was a lot of things that formed. There’s childhood trauma, which is not a new idea, and there's a lack of love; there’s Gotham which represents a lack of empathy. There’s all these things that to us build character.”

Born in Brooklyn, this New Yorker had been interested in controversy ever since he began as a student filmmaker making a documentary about the late shock punk purveyor GG Allin — “Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies.” So when Phillips cited the directors and films that inspired him, he picked some controversial ones. “When I was younger the movies I grew up on were comedies. But as I got older and started to study filmmaking at NYU, I was studying the great filmmakers of the 1970s the ones who really touch people in a [strong] way. There was Sidney Lumet’s ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and of course Martin Scorsese, his influence is in this movie — ‘King of Comedy’ and obviously, ‘Taxi Driver.’ Production designer Mark Friedberg, Mark Bridges, and I were referencing those films. We talked about Network. I discovered these movies in my early 20s and that changed me. We were referencing those movies throughout this. There’s also the visual references we used for this movie from others and from photographs. Mark and I would pour over that and Mark grew up in New York.”

toddHis Gotham is very much like New York of the 1980s, so this city was about creating this character, which he sought to explore. “I grew up in a town called Teaneck, New Jersey. So as someone who went into the city and snuck in on buses and stuff in the early 80s, I have strong memory of that era. Much of the movie is about that look for references and something anthropological. What did Gotham, New York and New Jersey — since we were shooting there — look like back then? How do you get to that? I found that every time we’d reference movies like Dog Day photographically, it’d be like ’It’s not that movie.’ It’s more of an influence for the idea than the look and feel of it. So for me, what I did was transport my memory of what it was when I got robbed. What did it feel like? What did the city feel like?You start talking about being in New York in the early-80s, late-70s, garbage strikes, what New York looked like. Everything in the movie was run through a very realistic lens.”

Besides the aesthetic, there was the development of Joker’s character, which Phillips acknowledged was as much because of a collaboration between him and star Joaquin Phoenix as anything else. “Joaquin is just somebody who got into it, through all of the characteristics of Arthur Fleck. He liked the spirit of the film, the sort of anti-comic book film.”

Phillips and Phoenix had detailed meetings over three to four months before committing, as the bearded Phillips added “It really helped us down the road.” One thing they discussed was Fleck’s distinctive, uncontrollable laugh. That aspect of Phoenix’s performance had to be right. Phillips recalled, “He was nervous about the laugh. “[The time we took] was like prep in a way. It really helped us down the road. But Joaquin is just somebody who got into it through all of the characteristics of Arthur including the wardrobe.”

Not only has the film garnered all the award buzz, it has been one of Warner/DC’s biggest hits with a box office of $1 billion in global sales. Sequel talk has been surging. “Joaquin and I have talked about it. We’d really like to do more in this world, but the story would have to be right. Neither one of us wants to do it just to do it.”

As Phoenix said at the premiere, “Now when I look back on it, I’m so grateful we did that because playing Joker informed how we approached Arthur. We had a sort of radical reinterpretation of the character. I wouldn’t change it. That happens more often than not. When people ask me I say whatever it is it’s seems right.”

Robert Miller’s Project Grand Slam-ming into An Auspicious Year

 

For electric bassist Robert Miller and Project Grand Slam, his jazz-rock band, it’s been an auspicious year. In releasing “Trippin,” their latest full-length album, he embarked on a readjusted sonic path, one that has brought him back to his rock and roll roots and garnered him and his septet some of the best reviews in his long career. The resulting buzz led to “Trippin’” (the album) being submitted to the Grammys for Album Of The Year, Jazz Vocal Album, Pop Vocal Album, Recording Package and Producer Of The Year, while “Trippin’” (the song) has been submitted for Instrumental Composition. The songs “Lament” and “You Started Something” have each been submitted for Grammys for Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year, and “Lament” as well for Pop Duo/Group Performance.

The veteran band leader explained, “It’s only the first step to getting Grammy but it is a step. This reaction will be used to bolster our Grammy hopes. Though I didn’t realize at the time, those positive reviews really started a ball rolling…”

In order to achieve such a response, he stocked the album with new tunes rich in vocals, some solid reboots of old classics, and various rock-ified improvisations. Plus he’s worked with a band he has known for several years, established the kind of tight bonds any great combo needs to have to make work

Besides bassist/composer Miller, his Trippin’ band includes singer Ziarra Washington, percussionist Guillermo Barron Rios, drummer Joel E. Mateo, saxophonist Mario-Castro, and guitarist Tristan Clark. Said Miller, “I think that the band has blazed a totally unique path in today’s music, and I’m so pleased that our music has resonated with every audience that we’ve appeared before. Getting any Grammy nomination would be the icing on the cake for PGS!”

Miller’s Project Grand Slam has celebrated a Jazz Rock Fusion all along but really threw the spotlight on Washington’s singing. “Ziarra has really come into her and she really knows how to command the stage. I got such a great response to her performance that I started writing songs with her in mind.” He really believes that emphasis on both musicanship and live performance got them the Grammy nominations in several categories.

Their highly acclaimed 6th album was released in June 2018 and achieved the #1 spot on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart in August, remaining in the Top 10 through September. This iteration of PGS not only released “Trippin,’” it headlined seven domestic and international music festivals including their first two in Europe. In fact, their performance at the Nisville Jazz Festival in Serbia led to a top flight live recording and compilation video from the performance which has already been viewed 100,000 times on YouTube in the short time since its release. “We were lucky that performance, was recordee and they provided us with a copy,” Miller remarked, “We thought it was so good, it’s going to be our next album.” 

PGS also performed in 2018 at a number of the major performance venues in the U.S. including The Ridgefield Playhouse (CT), Mayo Performing Arts Center (NJ), Count Basie Theater (NJ), and the Paramount Hudson Valley (NY), and has shared the stage with such artists as Edgar Winter, Boney James, Blues Traveler, Mindi Abair, and YES.

Known for their dynamic shows and signature fusion, they also transformed re-imagined Classic Rock covers. A huge fan of these ‘60s and ‘70s benchmarks, Miller likes to do versions of some of the best-known songs with the added twist of using female vocalist Washington. This style has quickly become a fan favorite and a hallmark of PSG including covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, and Cream’s “I’m So Glad.” ’Trippin’’ continued this trend by including PGS’s uncharacteristic rendition of The Who’s iconic “I Can’t Explain”. This track is also up for Grammy consideration as Best Rock Performance. As Miller said, “Those live performances shine and anyone who gets to see us live will see what and why it works — we understand the past but we also project it into the future.”

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