In Bruges


Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

(2008) Crime Comedy (Focus) Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clamence Poesy, Jordan Prentice, Jeremie Renier, Elizabeth Berrington, Zeljko Ivanek, Mark Donovan, Anna Madeley, Jean-Marc Favorin, Rudy Blomme, Thekla Reuten, Inez Stinton, Ciaran Hinds, Theo Stevenson, Sachi Kimura, Eric Gordon, Stephanie Carey. Directed by Martin McDonagh

My wife is fond of saying that your sins will find you out. She used to say that to our son when she knew he was hiding something from us. With a mom’s unerring nose for a kid’s transgressions, she’d sniff out whatever it was that he was keeping from her. Sometimes, it’s a pity that our mums can’t be with us even as we get older to steer us right.

Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson) have been ordered to Bruges to cool their heels after botching a job. Of course their chosen profession is contract killing, so who would think of looking for them in a sleepy little tourist town like Bruges, the best-preserved medieval town in Belgium?

The skittish Ray could care less; he’s bored out of his skull and haunted by the results of his sanctioned but unintended mayhem. Ken on the other hand is a little more worldly; he is quite content to sit back, do some sightseeing and enjoy the magic that is Bruges. He knows that in time, his employer will call with instructions and the best thing to do is lay low and make as few waves as possible.

Ray, being Ray, is more interested in hanging out in the pub, finding himself a girl and getting his bones generally jumped. After getting more than a little tipsy one night, Ray and Ken run into a location set for a Dutch movie being filmed in Bruges, with a dream sequence starring Jimmy (Prentice), who prefers the term “dwarf” to “midget.” Ray also meets a beautiful local named Chloe (Poesy) whom he flirts with. She finally agrees to go out to dinner with him.

Meanwhile, their employer Harry (Fiennes) is getting more and more frustrated that he can’t contact his men since they are always out when he calls. He leaves a profanity-laced message with Marie (Berrington), the very pregnant receptionist who happens to be the co-owner of the boutique hotel the men are staying at. When Harry finally gets in contact with Ken, he gives the man instructions that the worldly killer may not want to follow, but at this point, Ken may not have a choice.

The top three leads – Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes – are three tremendous talents who by themselves individually would entice me into the theater. All three together, well now you’re talking. Gleeson in particular has developed into a marvelous actor who gives a memorable performance nearly every time out. His trademark “gruff with a heart of gold” rough about the edges sorts translates well for Ken.

Farrell has that innate Irish charm that has served him well in both major high-profile projects and smaller independent-minded ones like this one. While Farrell has been somewhat less active in the cinema recently, this one shows him at the apex of his game. His Ray is young and less experienced, virtually jumping out of his skin and bored to tears, failing to see what’s right in front of him. Yet Ray is truly a tortured soul and his sins are just about to catch up with him, but the question becomes is it too late for redemption. Farrell’s soul-searching is particularly poignant and you virtually watch him crumble before your very eyes in one unforgettable scene.

Finally, Fiennes who has Schindler’s List and The Constant Gardener on his resume of award-winning performances doesn’t have a whole lot to do here but makes every scene he is in memorable. He’s one of those actors who makes every line count and uses every nuance in his arsenal to make his character remarkable.

Eigil Bryld’s cinematography is understated, effectively so. Bruges is already fairytale-like in appearance; he uses the town’s charm to his advantage. Carter Burwell’s score is, as always, well-suited to the atmosphere. Although early in his career he tended to be a bit too jazzy for my taste, he has become in my opinion one of the more reliable film composers working today.

Bruges itself is a character in the movie, and its charm is the movie’s charm. I wasn’t that familiar with the town before seeing this movie; now it’s a place I’d like to visit someday. I suppose that would characterize me as more of a Ken sort than a Ray, but history and architecture are two passions of mine. Movies like this one can make a particular place come alive and excite your imagination. Who knew that Bruges would end up on my bucket list?

The movie was sold as a black comedy and it really isn’t when it comes right down to it. This is more of a crime drama with a bit of farce but the tone is black nonetheless. In point of fact, I’m not sure if the writers and director were quite sure what this movie was intended to be, so it turns out to be neither one thing nor the other. My expectations going in from what I’d heard about it weren’t met so I came out disappointed when I saw it initially, but the truly odd thing is when I revisited it recently (I first saw it in theaters back in ’08) is that my opinion of it revised upwards to a near-mediocre score to the much more enthusiastic score you see below.

There is a great deal of charm in the movie and some wonderful performances in it. I think if you go in without the very high expectations I went in with you might wind up enjoying it more than I did. It is definitely worth seeing regardless, if not for Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes but for the irresistible appeal of Bruges itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, compelling performances from Farrell, Fiennes and Gleeson. Bruges might just enchant you. Dreamlike surreal quality in some scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wobbles between crime caper and black comedy.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some explicit violence, a surfeit of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Both Gleeson and Farrell were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances here; Farrell eventually won the award.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a gag reel, a montage of all the copious cursing done in the film called F***ing Bruges, and a five minute-plus boat trip through the canals of Bruges, further cementing the magic of the place.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.4M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven Psychopaths
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Art of Getting By

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The Way


The Way

Sometimes the little things we encounter in our journey have the most profound effect along the way.

(2011) Drama (ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez

It is a popular aphorism to make life a journey along a road that makes many twists and turns, making it often impossible to see what lies on the horizon. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself and sometimes, just getting out the door and out on the road.

Tom (Sheen) is a successful ophthalmologist living in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. He is a widower whose relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez) is rocky; Tom has trouble understanding his son who seems so very different than himself. He drives his son to the airport; Daniel has quit his doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology because he has gotten frustrated with learning about things and has decided to take some time to experience them directly. He goes to Europe, which his father makes clear he doesn’t approve of.

Shortly thereafter Tom gets a call that his son has died in Europe while hiking in the Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom goes to France to retrieve the body of his son. A sympathetic gendarme (Karyo) accompanies Tom to the morgue to identify his son’s body and gives him Daniel’s possessions. As Tom goes through them he realizes he really didn’t know his son at all.

It turns out that Daniel’s intention had been to walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. It is a pilgrimage that has been going on for more than a thousand years with pilgrims walking from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tom, raised Catholic but not actively practicing, decides to complete the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes, stopping to leave a little bit of his son’s remains at various places on the route.

Along the way he meets a variety of people – a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Von Wageningen) who is walking the route to lose weight but can’t stop eating and drinking the delicacies of Spain; Sarah (Unger), a Canadian with a chip on her shoulder who is out on the Camino to quit smoking (which she intends to do when she reaches the terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) and Jack (Nesbitt), a garrulous travel writer from Ireland suffering from writer’s block and an excess of bonhomie.

Tom doesn’t really want the company; he’s a private individual who wants to grieve on his own terms. However he can’t help but open up to his travel companions and along the way, not only is there magnificent scenery but he meets a variety of people – from a kindly American priest making his pilgrimage to a group of generous Basques in Roncesvalles to a Gypsy father in Burgos. And the question becomes – is he taking this trip to honor his son, or for reasons he can’t begin to imagine?

This is a movie I expected to like but not as much as I did. Being a lapsed Catholic myself, I’m familiar with the Camino de Santiago and its importance particularly to Spanish Catholics. The remains of the Apostle St. James are supposedly beneath the Cathedral and all along the Way are stops of significance both historical and religious. There is something thrilling about seeing what pilgrims from centuries ago also saw. We are taken along on this journey and it is a road trip of a lifetime.

Sheen, brilliant for so many years on “The West Wing,” continues to show why he is one of America’s most underrated actors and has been for a very long time. There is an honesty, an authenticity to his performance. It’s very subtle and understated and not at all the kind of performance that attracts Oscar’s notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing piece of acting.

There are some very wrenching moments. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child – even if he is an adult – and I hope I never have to. Given what the family was going through as this was being filmed (yes, it was when Charlie Sheen was the center of media attention), it makes me wonder how Sheen and Estevez could muster up the concentration to do their jobs as well as they do here.

This had a powerful effect on me, not just for the obvious reasons of confronting grief or my Catholic upbringing but also because it is about some of our most fundamental values and how they serve us – or don’t – in times of crisis. This isn’t preachy in the least and those thinking that this is all about converting you to the Catholic way, think again – the Catholics haven’t particularly embraced this movie, at least not officially. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual element to it, particularly on a humanist level. This isn’t a movie about religious denominations, but what drives us as human beings and what is important in life.

This isn’t revelatory in the sense that you’re going to learn anything new about life, but it does give you the opportunity for personal insight. You may not necessarily be motivated to convert to Catholicism but you might very well be motivated to start walking yourself. The Way is the biggest surprise so far in 2011 and may well wind up being the best movie this year.

REASONS TO GO: A film that is both uplifting and deals honestly with grief and reaching out. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too slow-paced for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic elements that might be a little much for the younger or more impressionable set, as well as a few bad words sprinkled here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The inspiration for the film came from a pilgrimage Sheen made with his grandson Taylor Estevez several years ago. Estevez met someone and fell in love on the pilgrimage and elected to remain in Spain.

HOME OR THEATER: At this point it will be difficult to find in a theater but if it’s playing near you, by all means make an effort to see it.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret in Their Eyes