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The glass may be half empty but it will contain good whiskey. I write film reviews for http://www.scannain.com/ , say hi and we can debate films forever and ever and ever...... Warning this blog may contain more than just film talk.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Film Review - The Dead (1987)

The inevitability of death permeates through John Huston’s remarkable final film. The adaptation of the short story of the same name by James Joyce, The Dead tells the story of an Epiphany party held in Dublin in 1904 and its aftermath. Whether it is the director himself, sick and frail whilst making the film (it would be released posthumously) or the beautiful monologue at the end of the film revealing that ‘one by one we’re all becoming shades’. Death hangs over this film like a shroud. There is talk of the loss of a life in the film too, an expected and profoundly moving loss but the knowledge of this arrives unexpectedly. This reveal is wonderfully done in the hands of a filmmaker who expertly knew how to handle such material.

And yet the film begins in almost jovial fashion with the arrival of several carriages of people to the party on a snowy Dublin night. The two elderly sisters are at the top of the stairs in a bit of a frenzy, nervously wondering if a particular guest Freddie Malins (the wonderful Donal Donnelly) will arrived ‘stewed’. The arrival of nephew Gabriel (Donal Mc Cann) and his wife Gretta (Angelica Huston) calms their nerves somewhat as it is expected that he will keep an eye on Freddie. Freddie duly arrives a little drunk and the stage is seemingly set for a comic dinner. But this being Joyce and not Wilde, this is not the case.

It becomes so much more. Seemingly innocuous conversations have underlying meanings. As the men and women dance before dinner, the camera seems to float beautifully between them. Snatches of conversations are heard from the various dance partners and it is clear that there is some unease beneath the surface. That there is tension between Gabriel and Gretta and this may have something to do with another woman at the party, Mrs. Ivors (Maria Mc Dermottroe) who Gabriel dances with. She rebukes him for holidaying in France instead of the west of Ireland. She is a political woman, calling Gabriel a ‘West Briton’ for looking to England instead of his own country. There is again a feeling of death just out of reach here: The Great War is only 10 years away, the Easter Rising 2 years after that.

One of the elderly sisters Miss Julia (Cathleen Delaney) sings a song ‘Arrayed for the Bridal’ and it is here that age and death take centre stage. As she sings slightly out of tune with a very weak voice Huston’s camera cuts away to show empty rooms and things like ornaments of angels to underscore her old age. As she finishes, there is an artificial rush to congratulate her for her singing. Freddie, by now drunk, says that he has never heard her sing better. Embarrassingly he keeps repeating this and the others start to look away. It is another song that leads to the most magnificent of endings however. One of the guests, Mr. Darcy (the Irish tenor Frank Patterson) sings a beautifully sad song called ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. This brings to the surface long buried feelings of loss and guilt.

The cast are uniformly excellent, with special mention going to Donal Mc Cann and Donal Donnelly. Angelica Huston is also wonderful, all glances and pain hidden just out of sight. Cinematography is wonderful with the camera intimately moving from room to room. The set is beautifully lit with candles everywhere which further underlines the shadows cast by the story. It is a wonderful film, richly textured, remarkably quiet but asking the big questions in this way. This is about life, what we do with it while we are here, and how it affects others when we are gone. But these themes are woven into the fabric of the film by a director of some skill. The Dead is now 25 years old yet if feels like it could have been made today. Yet with a literary heritage that is the envy of the world, the question has to be asked as to why Irish filmmakers are not making films from such rich source material. It is a question for another article perhaps, the joy here is that The Dead was made at all and for that we should all be thankful.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

My top 10 Irish films of all time

The danger in compiling a list like this is that there is a possibility of leaving out a film that is glaringly obvious. The only way to be fair is to not call the list the 10 best Irish films ever made. There is something reductive about articles that definitive. Film preferences are a deeply personal thing, completely subjective and there really is no right answer to the best ever. This list below comprises of my favourite Irish films. But I must stress that it is my top 10 films that I have seen. There may well be a film just around the corner that will explode into my favourites list and bump one of these out. In fact I am sure of that. There are still a lot of Irish films I have still to see or re-visit in some instances.

The main reason for doing this is to stir up some feeling about our national cinema. If you forcefully disagree with my choices, let me know. I want the whys and wherefores. I even want the ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ comment if someone can give me alternative titles and a reason for their inclusion. All film fans in Ireland have a huge part to play in how we view our own films and how much exposure they get. The more we see now the more we will see in the future. It is about economics and bums on seats. The more we debate our cinema and how much it means to us (or not and why not) the more predisposed we will be towards Irish films in general. This may be overly optimistic but why not be optimistic for a change. Anyway here are my favourites. They are from 10 to 1 but the order is somewhat arbitrary as it changes with my mood.

10. The Wind that Shakes the Barley
Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winning film about the struggle for Irish independence is a film more about tone and emotion than it is about visual representations of violence. This isn’t sensational and it isn’t a thriller. It is a fraught and angry film that dares to make every bullet count. There are moral ramifications for the murders that take place here. Every death counts. Cillian Murphy’s character asks at one point ‘whether this Ireland of ours will be worth it?’. This gets to the heart of a very philosophical film. How much violence, if any, can be justified for a particular cause? It is an important question in an important film.

9.  What Richard Did
 Lenny Abrahamson makes his first appearance on this list with his latest film. Anchored by a career making performance by Jack Reynor as the titular Richard, Abrahamson explores in the most naturalistic way that difficult transition into adulthood for young teens in Dublin. With a terrific script by Malcolm Campbell and beautiful camerawork, this is a world expertly drawn without missing a beat. The pivotal moment is captured in a disturbingly beautiful way and its aftermath is dealt with sensitively and with great filmic skill. Abrahamson is surely about to make it big on the world stage. Let us hope he continues to focus on Ireland as well as there is not a filmmaker that comes close to capturing as it is warts and all.

8. The Crying Game
Neil Jordan’s Oscar winning film is one that can be mulled over for quite a bit of time. It starts off as one film and by the end becomes quite another. It is a tribute to Jordan’s really strong screenplay that it all gels together so well. It is a story about a kidnapped British soldier, which becomes a love story, which turns everything on its head. There is a big reveal in the middle which sums up the film for some people but the film is so much more than that. Jordan can be a frustratingly indifferent filmmaker but when he is on form he is a brilliant one. Between this and The Butcher Boy Jordan has secured his place as one of Ireland's great filmmakers.

7. Silence

Acclaimed documentarian Pat Collins’ Silence is a film that came from nowhere with practically no advertising and blew me away. Silence is the story of Eoghan, a sound recordist living in Berlin who accepts a job back home in Ireland to document the countryside away from manmade sounds. This a feature film with a beguiling documentary feel, full of haunting and beautiful images of landscapes. For all the beautiful images on show this is really about the feeling inside, an urge to reconnect with a land and a life left behind. As Eoghan moves further and further away from civilisation he moves closer to where he hails from. This is his journey home. And what a stunning and moving journey it is. Silence is not just one of the best Irish films in 2012 but one of the best films of 2012 period.

6. Adam and Paul
Lenny Abrahamson’s film is quite frankly an unexpected joy. It is a film that came out of nowhere to confound an audience ready to jump on another clich├ęd story about drug addicts. But Adam and Paul is so much more. There is humour in the darkest of places. There is even an element of hope that bursts through on occasion. But what is most impressive is how humanistic the film is. This is a very timely reminder that the drug addicts on our street who we look at in disgust and mistrust are people and victims. We should care more. It is a beautiful and heartfelt film, that most wonderful of things: a melancholic joy.

5. My Left Foot
Jim Sheridan’s beautiful biopic of Dublin writer Christy Brown is a joy to behold. With Oscar winning performances by Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker, Sheridan tells in turn a warm and caustic tale.  It is a compassionate film, celebrating a unique story without sentimentality but with plenty of warmth. A critical and commercial success, My Left Foot arguably brought the Irish film industry into the international arena for the first time. This is a deeply humane film which Sheridan has yet to better.

4. The Butcher Boy
Neil Jordan’s dark and profane adaptation of Pat Mc Cabe’s novel is a wonderful achievement. Told by unreliable and troubled teenager Francie Brady, this film is an explosion of anger, grief, isolation and pop culture. It is also a social critique of small town Ireland in the 1950s. There are some wonderful performances from actors such as Jordan regular Stephen Rea and a wonderful Fiona Shaw as Francie’s nemesis Mrs Nugent. Add Sinead O’ Connor as a spiky Virgin Mary and it pretty much sums up the tone of this film. 

3. The Dead
John Huston's final film is a mesmerising adpatation of James Joyce's story from his Dubliners collection. Starring Donal Mc Cann and Angelica Huston the film is set at a dinner at a beautiful Dublin home in 1904. It is a tale of death and its inevitability. Shot with a wonderful intimacy by Huston although never intrusive, the film is elegant and very moving. There is humour to be had (the wonderful Donal Donnelly as the n'er do well Freddie Malins) but it is the singing of a particular song that stirs up some old emotions that leads the film to its extraordinary ending. There is terrific acting by the entire cast with particular mention to the truly missed Donal Mc Cann as Gabriel. This is a film that demands to be seen as fitting tribute to a great filmmaker.

2. Hunger
This film is a tour de force of acting and directing from the start. Michael Fassbinder plays Bobby Sands on hunger strike in the 1980s. Director Steve Mc Queen uses this as a springboard to make a film about the appalling dehumanising of the human spirit in prison. There is an audacious unbroken 15 minute scene in the film that is mesmerising and Mc Queen does not shy away from showing the horrors of prison life. Fassbinder is spellbinding as Sands with great support from Liam Cunningham as the priest. Harsh, brutal and moving Hunger is a towering achievement in Irish film.

1. Garage
There are some films on the list that on the surface tackle more important issues and weightier themes. But for me, there are none that come near to achieving the devastating emotional impact of Garage. It is a deceptively simply story of a simple man, Josie (Pat Short, astonishing), who looks after a garage in a small town in Ireland and his friendship with a local boy who comes to work with him. But Josie is lonely, heartbreakingly so, and his efforts at making connections are fraught with tension and pity. To say more of the plot would ruin the effect of the film. Suffice to say Mark O’ Halloran and Lenny Abrahamson have fashioned a film of beautiful intensity, by turns funny and sad. It is a magnificent achievement and one that will stay with you for a long time afterwards.

There are some films that are just outside the top 10 that could get in on another day. The honourable mentions are: Pyjama Girls, I Went Down, Once, In The Name of the Father, The Commitments, The General, In Bruges.