THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN (2022)

November 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. IN BRUGES is a cinematic litmus test. It turns out, whether someone is a fan of that movie or not is a particularly dependable indicator of similar or disparate tastes in dark comedy material. For me, it’s a film I never tire of … whether re-watching in its entirety or catching just a few scenes while surfing. The plot is bleak, yet we laugh. The characters are sad, yet we are charmed. It’s the perfect blend of character, story, and setting … and proves how exceptional and precise screenwriting can be. So why am I writing so much about a movie from 2008? Well, that film’s writer-director, Martin McDonagh, is back, and he’s brought along that film’s co-stars, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.

Now don’t think this is yet another in the endless stream of Hollywood sequels. It’s not. These are (much) different characters in a (much) different setting. What does remain the same is the onscreen magic when Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson collaborate with writer-director McDonagh. It’s how some singers are meant to sing one song (Sinatra belting “New York, New York”), or how some athletes are tied to a particular team (Sandy Koufax to the Dodgers). These three talented men are at their best when working together.

Padraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson) have been best buddies for most of their lives. Every day at 2:00, Padraic fetches Colm and they head to the pub. One could set their watch by this. That all changes one day when Colm refuses to answer the door when his pal knocks. Later that day, he informs Padraic that they are no longer friends, as he refuses to waste another moment drowning in inane conversation, and instead will focus on fiddle music and living his life to the fullest. Padraic is shook and confused … as are the bartender and the other folks in this quaint (fictional) seaside village in coastal Ireland. There is a certain symmetry with the civil war playing out on the mainland and this break in a friendship. A crack about not knowing why the sides are fighting in the war adds yet more symmetry as Padraic searches for meaning in the rift.

When Colm finally tells Padraic that he doesn’t like him anymore and he doesn’t want his old friend speaking a word to him, we initially understand and agree with his reasoning, even if it seems a bit harsh. Padraic is a bit of a bore – a man satisfied with his work as a milk farmer and spending off hours petting Jenny, his pet donkey, before blowing a couple more hours chatting at the pub, and ultimately retiring to the tiny cottage he shares with his erudite sister Siobhan (a superb Kerry Condon, “Better Call Saul”, “Ray Donovan”). Dull, dim, not a thinker … all descriptions of Padraic we hear, though his self-reflection finds a gentle, kind soul – mostly harmless and enjoying his daily life. Well, that is, right up until his best friend locks him out.

The interactions between Padraic and Colm are fascinating to watch. The two actors play off each other so well, we find ourselves hoping they will be together on screen without a break. It’s here where McDonagh’s script really shines. Ms. Condon as Siobhan and Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) as Dominic both play significant roles  (as does Jenny the miniature donkey). What initially seems like commentary on a shattered friendship between two men expands significantly thanks to these two characters. It reminds us that our network, regardless of how small, has an impact on others, even on a remote island in Ireland. The script and actors blend here to drive home the point.

Siobhan begins to question her own existence and how she might pursue her own dreams. Local boy Dominic is the son of an abusive policeman, and his troubles seem to run deeper than just being the town oddball. He likely has mental issues, yet occasionally shows flashes of hyper-awareness. He befriends Padraig after the split, and his unconventional personality never quite sits well with others. When Dominic’s own dream gets shot down, he doesn’t possess the capacity to handle it well. The story and the island sustain tragedies, both small and large, and to top it off, there is a creepy old woman in the village who has visions of death.

Once we have settled into the drum beat of the split between Padraig and Colm, McDonagh raises the stakes, bringing an unusual form of violence into the proceedings. This catches us and Padraig and the whole of the village off guard, and makes for a stunning visual and eye-opening shock. There is no way to go into further detail without spoilers that should not be conveyed. What you need to know is that this is expert filmmaking, superb screenwriting, and the best acting of Colin Farrell’s career … leading the way for other excellent performances. Facing one’s own mortality is never easy, and we can each relate to Colm’s search for meaning as he sees time slipping away. The film also treats us to the best ever confessional scene, and more frequent uses of the word “fecking” than we’ve ever experienced. The beauty of the island is shown, but never featured. Instead, McDonagh does what he does best – delivers memorable characters and dialogue and unforgettable surprises. He also makes us wonder if our laughter is socially acceptable, causing us to be thankful for the dark theater.

Opening wide in theaters on November 4, 2022

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BLACK 47 (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While filmmakers don’t tend to shy away from sad or even depressing characters or events, Ireland’s Great Famine has rarely been depicted on the big screen, for whatever reason. The film’s title refers to the worst year of the famine (1847). These were bleak times and folks were desperate – nearly without hope. More than one million people died, and between one million and two million emigrated from Ireland (depending on what time frame you exam). It all began with potato blight.

Director Lance Daly co-wrote the script with PJ Dillon, Eugene O’Brien, and Pierce Ryan, and have chosen to explain history through a personal story rather than an epic big picture one. Feeney (James Frecheville, ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) goes AWOL from the British Army in order to check on his family. The home he finds hardly resembles the one he left. His mother is dead from starvation and his brother was hanged. The rest of his family has been evicted and is soon dead as well. Apparently what he witnessed in war prepared Feeney for the horrors he discovers in his homeland. To complicate matters, he is not only viewed as a deserter by the British, but also a traitor within his own community (for fighting for the British).

Feeney becomes a renegade on a mission to avenge the deaths in his family. The film plays like one of those Charles Bronson movies, where a man of principle believes in doling out his own form of justice. A posse of 4 is assembled to track down Feeney. Captain Pope (Freddie Fox, THE THREE MUSKATEERS, 2011) is a despicable soul and by-the-book soldier who blindly follows orders and ignores the suffering of citizens he views as barely human. Young Hobson (Barry Keoghan, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) is the Captain’s personal valet, while Conneely (Stephen Rea) is local added as a translator – and some much needed comic relief. The most interesting of the group is Hannah, a disgraced Inspector and Feeney’s former commanding officer.

Hugo Weaving (THE MATRIX) plays Hannah as a man driven to the edge by his war experience. One a hero, now slightly unstable in his actions, Hannah agrees to join the posse instead of spending his life in prison. His commitment to the cause is always in question, as we are led to believe there is much to the connection of Hannah and Feeney … a connection that plays out dramatically when they finally cross paths again. Mr. Weaving’s great face is contrasted nicely by Mr. Frecheville’s dead eyes (‘like a doll’s eyes’).

The revenge mission plays out with some violence, but director Daly never stoops to gratuitous gore. Instead, we typically see the aftermath … one of which brings a twist to the phrase “pig-headed”. Feeney’s time as a soldier has well prepared him for this mission. Even Crocodile Dundee would be proud of Feeney’s knife, and he does tend to make a statement with each of his killings.

Supporting work is provided by Jim Broadbent, Moe Dunford (“Vikings”), and Sarah Greene (“Penny Dreadful”). There are a couple of themes on display here: the politics (and power grab) of the time, and one man’s drive to knock down corruption and clean up his beloved country … while showing no mercy to those who have harmed his family. The contempt for the British is quite clear. Religion doesn’t escape commentary and judgment, with a sequence involving a Protestant minister, a Roman Catholic priest and a soup line with a catch.

Director of Photographer Declan Quinn (MONSOON WEDDING, IN AMERICA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS) does work capturing the contrast between beautiful vistas and incredible hardships. The stunning Connemara (western Australia) landscape is offset by immense suffering and cruelty … only the art design is a bit shaky, which is understandable given budgetary challenges. Though we’ve rarely, if ever, seen such a cinematic treatment of this era, it’s clear the guns misfired more often than this production.

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THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we become a spouse and a parent, we immediately develop a mode of protection never before experienced. We would do anything possible to protect our kids and spouse – even die for them if necessary. One of the most gifted and imaginative filmmakers working today forces us to consider a terrifying scenario: what if we had to select one of our family members to die?

Yorgos Lanthimos delivered the most bizarre and interesting film of 2016 with THE LOBSTER. This time out he re-teams with co-writer Efthymis Filippou, although this story eschews the dark humor of their previous film, opting instead for a type of gut-wrenching psychological warfare we have not previously witnessed on screen.

The goal here is not to make the viewer uncomfortable. Mr. Lanthimos wants us downright miserable from the tension. This is obvious from the opening scene as Schubert accompanies a close-up look at open-heart surgery, and continues through the awkward conversations and speech patterns as we get to know the characters. A terrific Collin Farrell plays the surgeon Dr Steven Murphy. Nicole Kidman is his wife (also a doctor), and their kids Kim and Bob are played by Raffey Cassidy (TOMORROWLAND) and Sunny Sulgic, respectively. The wild card is Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK) who plays Martin, the most charming and oddball stalker who is hell bent on revenge and retribution. Keoghan is quite brilliant in this most difficult role.

Beyond the psycho-revenge plot lies a story of survival and atonement, making for an excruciatingly unsettling time in the theatre. We feel the vice tightening on us as the tone shifts from uncertain awkwardness to dark sinister intentions. Director Lanthimos and his regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis are in perfect sync with the various harsh angles (high and low spiked with screeching violins) and the necessary tight shots to emphasize the uneasiness and confusion of the characters.

Alicia Silverstone is quite memorable in her one scene as Martin’s mother. Frustrated that her flirtations with Steven aren’t reciprocated, she belts out the year’s greatest line of dialogue: “I won’t let you leave until you’ve tried my tart!” Of course, we couldn’t expect sexual relations to be any closer to normal than the conversations, and Ms. Farrell and Ms. Kidman ensure this to be so. Truly at the peak of the acting profession, Ms. Kidman has never shied away from tough material or less-than-ideal characters. Her strength and determination come through in every scene here, and it’s her scene at Martin’s home where she really puts her stamp on the film.

As difficult as it is to describe the film without giving anything away, one thing is certain – it’s a horror film. It’s difficult to imagine a more frightening scenario than what shakes out here with touches of both SOPHIE’S CHOICE and THE DEER HUNTER, while also having nothing in common with those films. The film’s title comes courtesy of Euripides, and its suspenseful awkwardness at a level rarely seen. The next feature from Mr. Lanthimos (starring Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) is due next year, and if the line was forming now, I’d be in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

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