Extra Ordinary


Will Forte goes all satanic on your ass.

(2019) Comedy (Good DeedMaeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Will Forte, Claudia O’Doherty, Jamie Beamish, Terri Chandler, Risteard Cooper, Emma Coleman, Carrie Crowley, Mary McEvoy, Sarah O’Farrell, Agatha Ellis, Jon Cheung, Valerie O’Connor, Siobhan Sweeney, Paul Holmes, Eamon Morrissey, Jed Murray, Mike Ahern, Daniel Reardon, Alison Spittle. Directed by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman

 

I’ve heard that Ireland may be haunted, and that’s my weak attempt at sarcasm. The truth is, you can’t swing a dead cat (although why would you want to) without hitting a ghost, a banshee or some other spook.

Rose Dooley (Higgins) knows all about it and she has the dead cat to prove it (figuratively speaking, PETA – this isn’t that kind of movie). Her father Vincent (Cooper) hosted a paranormal direct-to-VHS series when Rose was a wee lass, before he met a tragic end that Rose blames herself for.

You see, Rose has a special talent; she can perceive ghosts and even communicate with them. After the passing of her father, Rose determined to ignore her gift, although it’s kind of hard to do when sometimes you can’t tell the living from the dead. So, Rose keeps mostly to herself, only her pregnant sister Sailor (Chandler) really having any sort of ongoing relationship with her. Rose runs a driving school in her tiny town which seems to suit her just fine.

Martin Martin (Ward) whose parents must have waned him to get beat up in school, has a different problem. His wife Bonnie may have passed on but she hasn’t moved on; she still picks out the clothes he’s to wear and sends messages like “The Dog has worms” burned into the toast and from time to time hits him in the face with a cabinet door when he shows any sort of sign of defiance. Their daughter Sarah (Coleman) is fed up; she can’t find closure until her mom’s spirit is at rest and she basically gives her pa an ultimatum; get help or I’m gone.

Sarah is aware of Rose’s past and gives Martin her business card. Martin, wary and kind of spineless, signs up for Rose’s driving course – even though he passed his exam years before. When he finally confesses his real reason for seeking her out, she orders him out of her car. Still, Rose feels a connection with the distraught man and eventually agrees to help.

In doing so, she inadvertently puts herself in the crosshairs of dark forces. You see, American ex-pat Christian Winter (Forte) was once a pop phenom, but after his big hit “Cosmic Woman” put him on top was unable to capitalize on the momentum and now has become a has-been staring at financial ruin. He needs a comeback album and makes a deal with the devil, who needs a virgin to be sacrificed. There really aren’t many of them in town though, but Sarah is one and Christian marks her for sacrifice to the demon Astaroth (Murray).

Rose knows that stopping Christian won’t be easy. She needs the ectoplasm of seven ghosts to do it but fortunately Martin has a talent of his own – ghosts can easily possess him, after which he ends up vomiting up (literally) ectoplasm. Unfortunately, the blood moon is approaching and the sacrifice is nigh. Can Rose and Martin figure out a way to save Sarah and also the world?

The Irish are nothing if not charming and this movie has oodles of that. Higgins is extremely likable as is Ward; they make a cute if awkward couple. Ahern and Loughman, who in addition to co-directing the film also co-wrote the screenplay, never let the horror elements (and there are some) overwhelm the comedy, nor do they let the humor go too over-the-top. This is about as laid back as a movie gets.

The special effects are pretty rudimentary although the appearance of Astaroth near the end of the movie is cleverly done. While the movie loses its momentum in the middle section, it grabs it back once Martin and Rose start tracking down ghosts. Ward gets a chance to show off his chops, taking on the persona of the ghost each time he’s possessed, often to hilarious effect. One of my favorite bits of business is that whenever his late wife Bonnie resides in him, an unlit cigarette dangles from his lips as it did with her while she was alive. How did it get there? Who cares, it works!

And that sums up how I feel about the movie. There’s a specific mythology that the movie builds as it goes along, but don’t be intimidated; it makes good sense and the background is accessed in painless ways, often by showing clips from Vincent’s low-budget show. This film is pleasant, inoffensive and should elicit a smile from all but the most jaded of filmgoers. In an age of pandemics, politics and climate change, heaven knows we can all use a bit of inoffensive pleasantness.

REASONS TO SEE: A very droll sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags a little bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a bit of sexuality, horror violence and some gross images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Higgins, who plays a driving instructor, didn’t know how to drive before filming started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Workforce

Don’t Go


Ireland may not be the best place to go to assuage your grief.

(2018) Mystery (IFC) Stephen Dorff, Melissa George, Simon Delaney, Aoibhinn McGinnity, Grace Farrell, Gavin O’Connor, Lalor Roddy, Des Cave, Luke Griffin, Charlotte Bradley, Sean Mahon, Laurence O’Fuarain, Sahar Ali, Ella Connolly, Tara Breathnach, Grainne Coyne, Aiveen Gleeson. Directed by David Gleeson

When times are hard the movies tend to reflect that – not necessarily about the things causing those hard times but with films that reflect people going through hard times themselves. Any parent will tell you that the hardest time of all is losing a child; it’s not just the anguish of grief but the recriminations particularly when the death could have been prevented.

Writer Ben Slater (Dorff) and his wife Hazel (George) are going through exactly those circumstances. The two are renovating the family hotel that has been in Hazel’s genealogy for generations, a lovely boutique hotel right on the wild shoreline of Ireland. Ben is teaching at a local Catholic school where he pals around with the irreverent Father Sean (Delaney) who recognizes that Ben is using the booze a little too much, even for Ireland.

Often, Ben passes out on the beach near a rocky outcropping where he has a dream – or perhaps memory – of a family day at the beach not long before Molly (Farrell) fell down the stairs of the hotel and broke her neck. It was one of those lovely family days of building sand castles and two parents delighting in the antics of their daughter. Ben is also getting an odd recurring message: Seas the Day.

He becomes convinced that Molly, for whom spelling was a challenge, is the one behind the messages. He also begins to obsess with the idea that he is actually travelling into the past, particularly when he starts returning to wakefulness with mementos of that day clutched in his hand. In subtle ways he has begun changing things in the past but not enough to bring Molly back. To make matters worse, Hazel’s somewhat fragile and emotional friend Serena (McGinnity) has moved back in with them and she carries a secret that can break apart the already on thin ice couple. Things are definitely not right but what will Ben do to make things right?

Think of this as an Irish ghost story without the ghost. Molly’s presence is all over the place for Hazel and Ben, but she’s no apparition and there are no real scares here. Mostly, this is a mystery of a man desperate to change his circumstances and trying to interpret the clues left to him to do it. Dorff, a dependable performer who unfortunately has been stuck with comparisons to Kiefer Sutherland throughout his career, deserves better. His performance here is strong enough to take notice, although not strong enough to overcome the flaws in the script.

The story moves at an elephantine pace and it feels like it shouldn’t be. There are too many scenes that reconfirm points that have already been made; the script could have used a little more brevity or the film more judicious editing at the very least. At times it becomes too much the soap opera which undercuts the basic melancholy which suffuses the movie throughout. Then again, the grim tone could have used a little more lightness.

Besides Dorff, there are other reasons to see the movie. The picturesque Irish countryside and coast make for lovely backdrops and Ferry Corsten delivers a truly lovely score that enhances the beautiful images we are treated to. Still, this is a movie that just can’t seem to get out of its own way and while it comes together nicely with an ending that ties things together, it is definitely a downer of a movie that is best suited for rainy days and broken hearts.

REASONS TO GO: Both the score and the cinematography are lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much soap opera sabotages what would otherwise be a nifty concept.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and drug use extant.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Dorff will be a key cast member in the next edition of True Detective.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Traveler’s Wife
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story

Choosing Signs


An American tree-hugger teaches an Irish lad the joys of natural energy.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Random) Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremy Ocanas, Stephen Wyley, Cora Fenton, Alan Riordan, Claire Bermingham. Directed by Owen Dara

 

The universe is a great big place. Some folks believe that our lives are guided by it if you just notice the signs that the universe is sending you. Personally I think the universe has way too much to do to bother with individuals but that’s just me and I’m a heathen.

Jennifer (Lancaster) believes it though. When she has tried to make decisions on her own, they’ve been utter catastrophe. She figures that allowing the universe through flipped coins, throwing dice – i.e. random chance – probably couldn’t end up worse. This has brought Jennifer from the shores of the United States to Cork, Ireland along with her mentally ill brother Matty (Ocanas) whose institutionalization has been paid for by Marc (Wyley), with whom Jennifer is living. Matty is obsessed with cars and building one out of found items. Marc has an obsession of his own – building low cost housing for immigrants during an Irish economic boom known as the Irish Tiger – and Jennifer is kind of drifting through the world that has been laid out for her through the signs.

Eamon is the nurse for Matty at the institution. Matty likes him; the easy-going Eamon treats him like he’s not crazy. Matty is also fully aware that Eamon has it bad for his sister and seems to be okay with the idea. Jennifer is a bit of a new age nut – she’s a big believer in things like shakras, auras and the like – so at first the match with the down-to-earth Eamon looks doomed. The charming Irishman is persistent though and not even the knowledge that she’s living with another fella dampens his spirits much but when the inevitable happens, Jennifer finds herself left with a decision that she simply can’t leave to chance.

This is a movie with a ton of heart which can excuse a lot of sins. It is also an ultra-low budget affair (Dara made the movie for about $25K) which can excuse a lot of other sins. However, there are some issues here that one should bear in mind when choosing to watch this or not. The soundtrack, composed by Dara as well as all his other duties, is mainly made up of acoustic folk songs written by Dara and sung by Dara and Virginia Williams. Dara has a pleasant voice as does Williams but the songs are noticeably too similar and after awhile it really gets on one’s nerves. It should be said that getting the rights to songs to be included on a soundtrack can be prohibitively expensive even for performers who aren’t well-known so unless you happen to have friends in the local music community who are willing to contribute songs for nothing which is actually a loss if you count recording costs, then chances are the music will have to be DIY.

Dara is an engaging performer, using his Irish charm to full advantage. He seems to be a very strange mix for the flighty Jennifer but then, Lancaster and Dara are a couple in real life so assuming this isn’t autobiographical (which I’m told it isn’t) there’s probably much more in common between the two in real life than there is in reel life.

One thing you can say about the movie – it isn’t a typical rom-com. All four of the main characters have some sort of burden or mental issue and Marc’s Ukrainian housekeeper Svetlana (Douds) whose blunt tell-it-like-it-is style forces all of them sooner or later to take a good hard look at themselves. Even Matty gets a dose of Svetlana’s forthright tongue. In many ways, Svetlana is the most compelling character and despite being a supporting character who gets little screen time eventually becomes the one you’d want to spend time with in real life.

Not everyone will latch onto this. It is by-the-seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and at times the low budget is very evident. What remains with me after having seen this yesterday is that charm, heart and conviction can go a long way in indie filmmaking and Choosing Signs has plenty of all three. If you’re willing to overlook the fact that there are no stars, no Hollywood glitz and the fact that all of the characters are damaged in some way – even Eamon as we discover late in the film – then you might just fall under the sway of this charming Irish production.

REASONS TO GO: Dara gives the film a great deal of charm.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack has too many similar-sounding folk songs and needs way more variety.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to producing, writing, directing and starring in the movie, Dara also composed all the songs for the soundtrack and edited the film as well. He may also have swept the floor of the theater after the show.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Public Image is Rotten

The Journey


Two serious fellas take a walk in the woods.

(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm

 

Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.

It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.

Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.

Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.

Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.

While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.

While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.

The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.

Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.

The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.

I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.

This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult  for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football

The Lobster


Sharing a moment.

Sharing a moment.

(2015) Romance (A24) Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Ashley Jensen, Jessica Barden, Roland Ferrandi, Imelda Nagle Ryan, Emma O’Shea, Olivia Colman, Garry Mountaine, Michael Smiley, Patrick Malone, Sandra Mason, Anthony Moriarty, Judi King Murphy, Laoise Murphy, Nancy Onu, Rosanna Hoult. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Florida Film Festival 2016

Love is certainly not what it used to be. Our choices, with the advent of the Internet and its dating services, have grown but in some ways, our understanding of love has narrowed. Once upon a time, we were limited to people we knew and saw every day in the places that we lived. These days, we can choose from all over the world but rather than make our love lives easier in many ways it just makes finding the right one harder.

David (Farrell) has recently been dumped by his wife (Hoult). Seeing as this is a dystopian version of the Ireland of the quite-near future that means he must surrender himself to the authorities where he will be taken to the Hotel, along with other single men and women of a certain age. There, as he is informed by the hotel director (Colman) that he, like all the others who have come in that day, must find themselves a new mate within 45 days or surrender their humanity – literally. Guests, as they are called, can extend their stays by going into the woods and hitting loners – those who were unable to find a mate and managed to escape the conversion process – with tranquilizer darts with each tranquilized loner adding a day to their stay. After 45 days, those who are still single will be turned into an animal of their choosing. David chooses a lobster because of its long life span, its virility throughout its entire life and as an additional bonus feature that it literally has blue blood. I don’t think David thought that entirely true – lobsters do get eaten.

David makes a couple of new friends – one with a limp (Whishaw) and one with a lisp (Reilly) – other than David, none of the other characters in the film are given names, only affectations. The limping fellow finds himself a girl prone to bloody noses (Barden) which he is not but he fakes it in order to get the all-important move from the singles tables to the couples tables. Couples are also given a month to get to know each other, then they are put aboard a yacht for two weeks. If all goes well, they are given marriage certificates and sent back into the world. If not, they are given a child to help distract them from their problems. If that fails, they are returned to the singles area to start again.

David is accompanied by a dog, but not just any dog – his brother, who failed the process and became man’s best friend. Knowing what happened to his brother imbues him with a kind of desperation, and he begins to cast about desperately for anyone who might possibly be a match, even a heartless woman (Papoulia) who clearly is not suitable for anybody.

Things unfortunately don’t work out for David and with the help of a friendly maid (Labed) he escapes into the woods and meets up with the Loner Leader (Seydoux) who says any relationships are forbidden in the woods and that each Loner must dig their own grave first. There David meets a short-sighted woman (Weisz) – what we in the States call near-sighted – and the two find that there is something between them after all. But now love is forbidden and the couple must find a way to escape everything and everyone and begin a life of their own without the Loner Leader finding out.

This was the opening night film at the recent Florida Film Festival and pretty much the verdict I heard was people either ended up loving or hating this movie, depending on how immersed they became in this somewhat bizarre world, and how willing they were to just let themselves get swept up in it. I have to admit that I can see why people hated it but I ended up loving it just the same. This is a smartly written satire on the importance we place on relationships, with emphasis on grey tones in the cinematography that make the world seem a chilly place which nicely compliments the cold emotional tone.

Nearly all the dialogue is read in clipped, stilted tones like a high school English class reading a play aloud. That got a little tiresome as the movie went on. Most of the rest of the cast were made to keep their emotions strictly at bay, with the exception of Weisz who shows her emotions subtly but recognizably. It’s a very understated performance that reminds us of how gifted an actress this Oscar-winner is.

Animal lovers be warned, there are a couple of scenes that are hard to watch – I almost walked out on the film during one intense scene involving the Heartless Woman but I chose to stick with it which was a good thing. Most of the movie’s emotional resonance comes in the second half.

The movie is divided into two distinct sections – the first at the hotel, the second in the Loner’s woods. The hotel sequence is in many ways the most surreal, the sequence in the woods are the most rewarding. For a movie that takes such great pains to come off as emotion-free, the final scenes in which David is forced to make a decision will trigger a variety of strong emotions in the viewer. In fact, there are a lot of scenes in the movie that hit more powerfully because the rest of the movie is so cold from an emotional standpoint.

This isn’t for everybody. Some people are going to find it too quirky, too cold, too smart, too different. That’s all right. Again, there isn’t a lot of middle ground with this movie; people tend to love it or hate it. As for whether or not you should see it, you will likely fall into one camp or the other and there’s no way of knowing which until you see it. My advice is to take a chance and decide for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: A smartly written film. Utilizes barren, cold landscapes to reflect barren, cold emotions. Different than anything you’re familiar with – you’ll either like it or hate it.
REASONS TO STAY: May be excessively quirky for the taste of some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a small amount of violence but mostly there are sexual concepts including some dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The song that David and the short-sighted woman synchronize on their CD players and dance to in the woods is “Where the Wild Roses Grow” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds featuring Kylie Minogue. David also sings the same song towards the end of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Nice Guys

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

Waking Ned Devine (Waking Ned)


David Kelly doesn't like his wardrobe.

David Kelly doesn’t like his wardrobe.

(1998) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, James Nesbitt, Susan Lynch, Maura O’Malley, Eileen Dromey, Brendan Dempsey, Paul Vaughan (voice), Adrian Robinson, Robert Hickey, Paddy Ward, James Ryland, Fintan McKeown, Kitty Fitzgerald, Dermot Kerrigan, Jimmy Keogh, Matthew Devitt, Rennie Campbell. Directed by Kirk Jones

Once in a while, movies come in from left field that are sweet, gentle, and good-natured. They make the viewer feel like he or she has become, for two hours, part of a family or a community. These movies generally look at the foibles of life with a little bit of a wink and a wry smile. There is a sense of reality about them, or at least reality as we wish it were.

Movies like that are worth seeking out and embracing with both arms. Waking Ned Devine is such a movie. With the Isle of Man subbing for Ireland, the movie engenders such a feeling of warmth you’ll swear you’ve had a drop of the most heavenly whiskey west of the Emerald Isle.

Aging roustabout Jackie O’Shea (Bannen) has discovered that someone in the tiny town of Tulaigh Morh (i.e. Tullymore) has won the jackpot in the Irish lotto. He, his best friend Michael O’Sullivan (Kelly) and his long-suffering wife Annie (Flanagan) set out to ingratiate themselves amongst the townsfolk to find out who the lucky winner is.

And a charming lot the townsfolk are, for the most part. There’s Finn (Nesbitt), a pig farmer who has a deep, abiding love for the lovely poet Maggie (Lynch) who returns his love, only she can’t stand the smell of him. There’s the amorous store clerk, Mrs. Kennedy (O’Malley), and certainly not least, there’s the vicious Lizzie Quinn (Dromey), a mean-spirited cross between Lizzie Borden and the Wicked Witch of the West, only less friendly. She’s the type of woman who rides a wheelchair not because she’s disabled, but because she likes rolling over other people’s feet.

Jackie, Michael and Annie rule out the townsfolk one by one until they figure out who it is: Ned Devine (Keogh), a fisherman who lives in the remotest section of town. Trouble is, when they go to visit Ned, they discover that the shock of the lottery win has stopped his heart.

Therefore, the three perpetrate a bit of a scam; to convince Jim Kelly, the representative of the Irish Lottery (Dempsey) that Jackie is Ned Devine, and claim the winnings for themselves. Unfortunately, the early arrival of Kelly (signaled by the unmistakable sound of the poor man’s hay fever) puts their plans in a tizzy and the less, ummmmmmm, untruthful Michael is forced to assume the role of Ned. However, when Kelly explains that he has to verify Ned Devine’s identity with the townsfolk, and that the amount of the jackpot is several MILLION pounds instead of a few hundred thousand as they expected, they must involve the entire town. Some are willing than others.

The acting is so good you can’t tell that anyone is acting. These all seem like real people who have wonderfully rich lives. Every character has character, and there’s a sweetness about the movie that hits every charm button you may have. It’s a shame that Bannen passed away in a traffic accident a year after the release of this movie; he makes the most charming rogue that I have seen onscreen since Darby O’Gill.

The term “feel-good movie” is tossed about in reviews and on daytime shows without regard, but this film defines it. The movie not only feels good, it makes YOU feel good about watching it. It’s the kind of movie you won’t be able to avoid telling your friends about, and it’s one you’ll almost certainly want to own once you’ve seen it. If you need a pick-me-up after the world has kicked you around some, Waking Ned Devine is tonic for the troops.

WHY RENT THIS: As Irish as a pint of Guinness. Makes you feel toasty-warm inside.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dry sense of humor.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, a bit o’ foul language and some mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: UK and European distributors shortened the title to Waking Ned because they felt it was snappier and more user friendly. The US and Canada were the only territories to keep the original working script title.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $55.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brigadoon

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Legend of Hercules

The Guard


In Ireland, fighting crime starts when they're young.

In Ireland, fighting crime starts when they’re young.

(2011) Comedy (Sony Classics) Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, Fionnula Flanagan, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan, Pat Shortt, Katarina Cas, Declan Mannlen, Dominique McElligott, Owen Sharpe, David Pearce, Wale Ojo, Sarah Greene, Darren Healey, Michael Og Lane, Laurence Kinlan, Gary Lydon, Laura Hitchings. Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Offshoring

In a cop buddy film, it always helps if you get complete opposites as partners – check. There needs to be terrific chemistry between the two partners – check. They need to have some pretty nasty baddies to go up against – check. Fun to watch? Read on…

Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is a member of the Garda (the Irish State police) in the tiny village of Connemara in County Galway. He is liable to drink on the job, spends time with hookers (Greene, McElligott) and his mom (Flanagan), dying in a senior home, in about equal quantities. He spouts off vaguely racist epithets when boozing in the pubs – which is often.

When a body is discovered (with pages of the Bible stuffed in his mouth and a message written in blood on the wall), Gerry doesn’t think too much of it. He honestly doesn’t believe he’ll ever get the resources to solve the crime – on that count he’s wrong, however.

A stick-up-his-ass FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Cheadle) is assigned to the case as it is believed that it is the work of a major drug operation working in the area. Boyle, as one of the senior Garda officers in the region, is assigned to Agent Everett because of his knowledge of the locality. Gerry reacts to this with the same enthusiasm as he might drinking a Slovakian whiskey. It might be good, but it’s not Irish.

The two bicker like an old married couple with Gerry constantly testing Agent Everett’s laid-back demeanor with outrageous statements or questions. Apparently he thinks, or at least to Agent Everett’s perspective, that because Agent Everett is an African-American that he’s an expert on all things ghetto as seen on the American television shows that have made their way to the Emerald Isle.

Still, the triad of drug runners – O’Leary (Wilmot), Sheehy-Skeffington (Cunningham) and their leader Cornell (Strong) are especially vicious and not opposed to burying an FBI agent or a Garda in a shallow unmarked grave if need be. Both men will have to learn to trust and depend on one another if they are not only to survive but to in fact solve the case.

There’s a lot to like about a film like this. McDonagh gives the movie an easygoing Irish charm. There is a lot of sniping back and forth in a way that feels familiar and comfortable, much the way barflies do “take the piss” out of each other. To that end he has done a great job in casting, starting with Gleeson, a gruff and tumble character actor who has that Irish charm that can’t be taught. Making matters even better is the addition of Cheadle, one of the more capable actors working today, who can do drama and comedy with equal precision. The two pros work exceedingly well together and create a partnership that is believable and fun to watch.

The rest of the cast is just as strong, much of it Irish and local to County Galway. There isn’t a performance wasted here and everyone not only knows what’s expected of them but delivers. This is as fluid an ensemble as you’re likely to get, with everyone working well together, even the extras.

Granted, if you’re looking for innovation in cop buddy movies, you won’t find it here. The plot is pretty standard and predictable and despite the lovely Irish edge that the production has, it doesn’t cover up that this is a pretty unremarkable story that most cop film lovers will see what’s coming in throughout. There are also a few slow spots in which not a lot happens, which could easily have been edited out.

That notwithstanding, this is still a pretty damn good film which slipped under a lot of radars here in the States, undeservedly so. If you like cop buddy films and haven’t seen this, by all means do. In fact if you haven’t seen this film, by all means do. The movie is more than entertaining enough for any audiences, but if you’re sensitive to certain words (the one that the Irish pronounce that rhymes with “kook”) be warned that the F bomb is dropped repeatedly to the point that fifteen minutes into the film you become numbed to it as it is used like Americans use “umm” or “err.” Otherwise this is one of those overlooked gems you’ll thank me for hooking you up with.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle, and also Gleeson and Flanagan. A laconic Irish charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really daring or innovative plot-wise. Drags in a couple of places.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language (nobody curses like the Irish), a little bit of violence, some drug use and a wee bit of sexuality here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a few outtakes and the short The Second Death by McDonagh which includes several cast members from The Guard and introduces an early version of Gerry Boyle. There’s also a festival Q&A with Gleeson, Cheadle and McDonagh.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.6M on a $6M production budget; this constitutes a minor hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hot Fuzz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 4

The Eclipse


The Eclipse

Iben Hjejele gets another awkward call from a psychic service while Ciaran Hinds tries to pretend he doesn’t notice

(2009) Romance (Magnolia) Ciaran Hinds, Iben Hjejle, Aidan Quinn, Jim Norton, Eanna Hardwicke, Hannah Lynch, Avian Egan, Mia Quinn, Billy Roche, Valerie Spelman, Jean Van Sinderen-Law, Hilary O’Shaughnessy, Declan Nash. Directed by Conor McPherson

 

Grief is one of the most powerful of human emotions. It can affect us physically, turn us into basket cases emotionally and mentally. We all deal with it in different ways and sometimes it overwhelms us, no matter how well-balanced we might be normally. We never know how we’ll react until it becomes our time to grieve.

It is Michael Farr’s (Hinds) time to grieve. A gentle good-natured shop teacher in a small but bucolic Irish village, his wife Sarah (Lynch) passed away from cancer two years previously. Now he is struggling to raise their two sons alone. As if that weren’t enough, his father-in-law Thomas (Hardwicke) is also dying in a nursing home. Michael does his best to be attentive but his time is limited.

That’s because it’s also time for the town’s literary festival, one of the highlights of their year. Michael has volunteered to ferry various authors around the village for the length of the festival, becoming something of a personal assistant to them. His main charge is Lena Morrell (Hjejle), a noted author of supernatural tales. That’s a godsend to Michael because he’s begun to have some supernatural visitations of his own, not only from his dead wife but from his father-in-law as well.

Lena has some ghosts of her own, mainly in the form of Nicholas Holden (Quinn), a bestselling American author who is, to put it bluntly, a drunken jackass. He had a fling with Lena at a similar literary conference a few years ago and ever since has been something of a stalker, feeling that there is a relationship between them. For her own part, Lena views it as a mistake she made but is too nice to tell the married Nicholas to go take a long walk off a short pier which is probably a lot nicer than Nicholas deserves.

She has begun to grow attracted to the quiet, grief-stricken Irishman who shows her kindness and respect. Nicholas has noticed this and has grown rather jealous. And the apparitions that are haunting Michael are growing more and more disturbing and threatening by the day.

This isn’t a movie that follows conventions. Yes, it tells a story but not the way you might be used to. There are things that happen, there is a beginning and a middle but the end is not so much a denouement as it is a stopping point. And I kind of like it that way. It unfolds at a pace that is its own, on the slow side for those ADHD sorts that make up most of the movie audience these days. It will drive them absolutely batshit.

And because of that, they’ll miss a performance by Hinds that shows why he is so in demand as a character actor. He has the kind of talent to carry a movie on his own as he does here – he just doesn’t have the dashing lead actor kind of face and build. These sorts of generalizations tend to make Hollywood look for stories that only happen to good-looking people, ignoring the ordinary and the less beautiful. Maybe that’s why those in the indie community feel that mainstream Hollywood is so out of touch.

Musing aside, Quinn also gives a damn good performance (and yes, he’s one of the pretty boys Hollywood usually goes for). It’s not a pleasant character and Quinn doesn’t pull any punches (literally) with him. There’s a drunken brawl Nicholas gets into that is note-perfect; it’s not two fighters facing off but two men whaling away on each other. They both grunt like walruses as they launch haymakers and miss. It’s a pretty realistic fight, the sort you really see in pubs and bars.

There’s also the romance with Hjejle, who is kind of caught up in a triangle. It’s not the usual love triangle; she clearly isn’t in love with either man, although she could potentially fall for Michael; it’s just that they live in two completely different and separate worlds. There’s an unspoken element of tragedy – that familiar tragedy we all undergo at some point in our lives when we meet someone we want to love but is completely wrong for us.

That said, there’s the elements of horror that grow in scope as the movie develops; from simple half-glimpsed figures to rotting corpses. I don’t quite know what to make of it; part of me wants to think that it’s more symbolic than anything else. I don’t think Michael is having a nervous breakdown although that’s certainly one interpretation. Still, it remains unsettling and keeps the audience off-balance which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a negative.

Where the movie fails is that it shows a good deal of passion – Michael’s grief, Nicholas’ obsession with Lena – but didn’t inspire any in me. I suspect I will like this movie more as time goes by, particularly if I choose to see it a second time which at this point is problematic. Still, it did at least bring about some intellectual stimulation which is more than a lot of films that purport to do. I’ll say see it, but only if you’re in the mood for thoughtfulness.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances by Hinds and Quinn. Not conventionally told; keeps the audience off-balance throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally slow-paced. Fails to generate much more than intellectual curiosity.

FAMILY VALUES: As befits a story with supernatural elements there are some images that might be frightening, particularly to the sensitive. There is also a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in the village of Cobh in County Cork.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $159,852 on a $3M production budget; the film failed to make back its production costs at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

Turning Green


Turning Green

When you reach the edge of the world there's nothing left to do but fall off.

(2005) Crime Drama (New Films International) Timothy Hutton, Alessandro Nivola, Colm Meaney, Donal Gallery, Killian Morgan, Jill Harding, Brid Ni Chionaola, Deirdre Monaghan, Frank Kelly, Myles Purcell, Billie Traynor, Katherine Kendall, Gavin O’Connor. Directed by Michael Aimette and John G. Hoffman

 

Wherever you go, as a wise man once said, there you are. Sometimes where we are isn’t necessarily where we want to be. Sometimes we need to get a little creative to get where we want to be.

James Powers (Gallery) is in Ireland but he sure doesn’t want to be there. He and his little brother Pete (Morgan) were shipped there to his overbearing aunts when their mother passed away; now James can only think about finding a way back to America.

He at first tries to raise some cash by performing drinking tricks at the local bar (which cause him to throw up after all the patrons have left) and then he starts running numbers for Bill the Bookie (Nivola). Bill takes a liking to the industrious James while his right hand enforcer Bill the Beater (Hutton) is a little bit more suspicious.

James, being 16 years old, is also discovering the joys of masturbation. He is constantly in the bathroom, so much so that his aunts are under the mistaken impression he’s suffering from severe constipation. The aunties dote on the local priest and have no idea how to handle a young man who is awakening sexually.

While on a visit to London, James is introduced to the wonderful world of dirty magazines. He realizes that they’re illegal in Ireland and that if he could figure out a way to smuggle them in, he’d make a fortune and make enough to get him and Pete back home in no time. So he does just that, not realizing that he is attracting the wrong kind of attention, the kind of attention that will get friends like the drunken fisherman (Meaney) who is the closest thing he has to a father figure in deep trouble.

This is a fairly low-key affair that wants to steep itself in rural Irish charm but doesn’t quite get enough of a soaking. Part of it is that we spend a lot more time dealing with James’ tallywhacking than anyone should have to sit through. Gallery is a pretty decent actor, but he doesn’t really have the roguish charm that Irish actors like Colin Ferrell and Liam Neeson possess and in any case, few actors who can easily pass for 16 have that ability anyway but Gallery gives it a good solid effort and is likable enough.

Hutton is a very strong and able actor who has an Oscar under his belt but playing Irish muscle is a bit out of his comfort zone and he also gives it a good try but is ultimately unconvincing in the role. The actor who fared best IMHO is Nivola, who made the charismatic Bill the Bookie come to life. His is the character I remember most vividly from the movie.

This is a very masculine movie – most of the female roles are either sex objects or comedy relief and there is very little in between. It is also quite schizophrenic; the first two thirds seems to be more of a coming of age film but then it makes an abrupt left turn into a crime drama. There is a good deal of wit through both portions which kind of ties the film together but I would have preferred that the movie stuck to one set of guns. Goodfellas this ain’t.

Nonetheless I can give it a mild recommendation. It certainly has a different point of view and has a different feel than most of the films out there. If you’re looking for something that is a little bit off the grid, this might not be a bad choice.

WHY RENT THIS: Good cast performs solidly. Doesn’t have much of a female point of view.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overuse of masturbation as a thematic issue. Can’t decide if it wants to be a crime drama or a coming-of-age film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and nudity, teenage drinking, a wee bit of violence and a whole lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was a runner-up on HBO’s first season of “Project Greenlight.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: John Carter