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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.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Film Review - Calvary (2014)

From the opening scene it is clear John Michael Mc Donagh is aiming for a weightier tone than the lighter one successfully employed in his previous box office smash The Guard. An older looking and bearded Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a priest who at the beginning is sitting in the confession box. Off-screen we hear someone enter and start talking. There follows a quite astonishingly worded first line by the off screen character (mentioned in surprised awe by the Father James after it is spoken. Indeed there is some reflexive play on writing and characterisation littered throughout Calvary). The camera stays on Gleeson’s wonderful face throughout. The set up for the film is established in this scene: Father James has a week to get his house in order before he is murdered. This sets in motion a week where Father James meets up with all his regular parishioners (played by an assortment of famous Irish faces) and starts to think about how he has spent his years as a priest. There is also the small matter of family issues to deal with.  

The film is sectioned into days of the week which propels it forward nicely towards the inevitable showdown. It is clear that Father James is heavily involved in the lives of his parishioners. And what a group they are: there is Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) the town butcher having marital difficulties. He believes his wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) is having an affair with Simon (Isaach De BankolĂ©). There is the rich banker Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) with difficulties money can’t buy. There is also Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) the most cynical of doctors. We also have Milo (Killian Scott) who is lonely desperately so and local barman Brendan (Pat Shortt) who watches and sees everything. It should also be mentioned that legendary character actor M. Emmet Walsh turns up as a reclusive American writer. Add to all this Father James has to deal with Bishop Montgomery (David Mc Savage) and inept priest Father Timothy Leary (David Wilmot). There are a lot of troubles ahead.

There is a touch of an Agatha Christie whodunit about the set up here. Each character could conceivably hold a grudge if not against the priest certainly against the Catholic Church. This seems to be Mc Donagh’s theme here. Does a good man have to keep apologising for the wrongs of an organisation? And more importantly should he die for that organisation? Not for nothing is this film called Calvary. There is a lot to like about this film. As mentioned Gleeson is always a pleasure on screen and it is great to see him in a leading role. But for me the problems far outweigh the good qualities on show. Whilst the acting from the cast is pretty good very few of them can get under the skin of the characters they are playing (Chris O’Dowd is a notable exception). This is mainly due to a quite frankly poor screenplay. Some of the dialogue is fine and occasionally inspired. But the main problem with the screenplay is the same that plagued The Guard, namely the characters speaking the same cod philosophy and phraseology. Here it is expanded out to a much larger cast. The effect of this is exhausting meaning we never really get to know any of the characters (there a lot of speaking roles, more than even mentioned in the last paragraph, far too many really). This is all fine if you place the film within a heightened universe, so the dialogue can be played up theatrically say. But this so grounded in the admittedly beautiful Sligo soil that the words sound ridiculous and staged when they should sound heartfelt and realistic.

Calvary will no doubt have its fans. Indeed it would be nice to see an Irish Film Board funded film do well at the box office. But there is a sense here that Mc Donagh has not really moved on from The Guard. And with the success of that film maybe he does not need to. But for me this is a film that despite some good moments, a great cast and some gorgeous cinematography just does not work. By the time the final act happens (which aims for and fails to achieve a kind of operatic grandeur) you just do not really care. A missed opportunity. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Film Review - Jack and Ralph Plan a Murder (2014)

All it takes is one inspired moment in a movie to get you in sync with it. I had been enjoying Jack and Ralph Plan a Murder up to a point but had not quite clicked with it. In truth, the scatological tone of the film is not generally my cup of tea but the performances and the story had kept me interested. The story concerns Jack (Jeff Doyle, also writer and director) a meek guy who is bullied mercilessly by co-worker Pat (a splendidly odious Chris Newman). Jack is in love with Laura (Aisling Bodkin) who also works in the office. Jack is advised on life by his imaginary best friend, the titular Ralph (Johnny Elliot, unapologetically profane) and it is Ralph who suggests that they devise a plan to kill Pat. So far so good but I was looking for something to hook me in. The scene that did occurs when Jack is in ‘training’ to kill Pat. Himself and Ralph (but really just himself) come across a dog in a park. The ensuing scene with the dog rendered me helpless with laughter. I was in and ready to laugh at things I really should know better than to laugh at.

Throughout the film Jack is encouraged by Ralph to fight back against various different people. But the device is really there so Jack can try to give himself some courage. There is a really nice scene after Jack has an accident at a party.  It is a quiet conversation with Laura on the street at night. Under the street lights we see that at that moment Jack is frightened not of Pat but of Laura and indeed reaching out. It is reflected in the yellow hue that surrounds him and this makes for a surprisingly subtle and effective scene. To be honest my only real criticism of the film is that the situation Jack finds himself in is a very real one and there are some missed opportunities for some genuine pathos here. But Doyle is going for the jugular regarding dark comedy and there is no doubt there will be something for everyone to be offended by.

Indeed there is a terrific line said early on by Pat to Laura describing Jack: ‘I heard he watched Schindler’s List and laughed all the way through’. If you find this funny this may well be the film for you. This line whilst been very funny to me also sums up very nicely that Jack is a very troubled man. Seen talking to himself (or Ralph) by various people does mean that we strongly suspect that Jack has some sort of mental illness. This adds a layer of tension to the film and gives an occasional moment when you think Jack might become tragically out of control. But a laugh is never far away to cut this tension.

The cast for such a low budget film is really good. Newman and Doyle impress as does Johnny Elliot who plays Ralph with a kind of swaggering ‘Kilgore in Apocalypse Now’ vibe. Bodkin makes the most of a decent but quite small role as Laura. There are a couple of small cameos by Peter Coonan and John Connors. Coonan plays a pimp who made me laugh with the most graphic assault on food I have ever witnessed. I laughed and winced. Connors is fast becoming one of the most promising actors in Ireland and he adds to that reputation here as a kind of religious figure for Jack to talk to.

Overall Jack and Ralph Plan a Murder is a film that will not be to everyone’s taste. But that is quite all right. A film cannot be all things to all people. But there are quite a few laughs to be had, it is well acted and really nicely shot (great to see Smithfield looking so well, an underused area for filming in). I am genuinely interested to see what Jeff Doyle does next and for me that is as good a recommendation for a first film as there is.