The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) movie poster

director Ken Loach
viewed: 06/21/2015

Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley is set during the 1920’s in Ireland during the Irish War for Independence and the resulting Irish Civil War, a drama played out, as oft civil war stories are, at the clash between two brothers.

At the onset of the film, Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor, not motivated to join his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) in the Irish Republican Army in grass roots efforts to oust the brutal imperialist Black and Tans who mete out viciousness to the locals.  But after seeing too much brutality, Damien is convinced to take up arms and is not only forced to engage in the guerrilla war but in executing prisoners and even a young Irish traitor to the cause.

Against all odds, the battle wins out against the established imperial army, but concessions and treaties make for rifts and valleys between the newly freed Irish.  Teddy’s IRA gang moves into politics, taking up arms and essentially replacing the British with their own brand of brutal leadership, attempting to disarm their old companions and becoming the establishment.  This breaks down the sides against one another, eventually leading the dramatic ending in which one brother must oversee the execution of the other.

Loach’s film is a work of humanism and social realism, a naturalistic drama told with great earnestness.  It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2006 and became one of the most highly-grossing Irish independent film productions of all time.  And it is a good film.

I watched it with Felix, my 13 year old son, who was impressed by it.  I found that the story does a good job of elucidating the fractious factions of Irish history and politics in telling its personal, dramatic tale.  It’s solid stuff, certainly.  I’d never seen any of Loach’s films before this, though have had this in my film queue for some time.  I had a friend who loved this film.

I would say that as good and solid as it is, it does at times play out like a more standard, almost made-for-television drama.  I don’t know if this would have felt the same on the big screen or not.  But for the beauty of the landscapes and the natural Irish countryside in which the action is filmed, it felt less cinematic at times than other films of its genre that I’ve seen.  Consider that a qualifier, though not a major criticism.  Overall, a very fine film.

Song of the Sea (2014)

Song of the Sea (2014) movie poster

director Tomm Moore
viewed: 04/12/2015

Song of the Sea is a traditional cel-animated feature film from Tomm Moore, one of the directors of 2009’s The Secret of Kells.  Song of the Sea came and went from the theaters, even in San Francisco where things like this often have longer legs, in one week and with little or no fanfare.  In that time, Felix managed to go see it on his own and liked it quite well.

In a similar highly stylized fashion, Moore animates the story of a “selkie”, a Celtic mythological character who is a human sometimes and a seal sometimes, shedding their coat to walk the land and donning it to re-enter the water.  In this case, the selkie is the daughter of a selkie and a lighthouse keeper who also have a human child son as well.  It’s a mystical adventure tied to traditional Irish folklore and is filled with magic of many kinds.

My kids both really liked The Secret of Kells, which we saw over five years ago, and they both really enjoyed Song of the Sea as well.  I actually liked it a lot better than the earlier film, for whatever reason.  Both films feature magical soundtracks composed by French musician Bruno Calais.

The connection to traditional native mythologies reminded me spiritually perhaps of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, the way he employs the natural and pagan spirituality, a return to the soil and the soul of a people and their land.  Moore’s style isn’t as lush, which could be my only complaint here. The stylized characters are tied to a more limited style of animation that isn’t as impressive in its own inherent beauty, though it is pleasing in its own way, too.

Frankly, I was surprised how much I liked Song of the Sea.  I really did like it.  Quite well.

Wake Wood (2011)

Wake Wood (2011) movie poster

director David Keating
viewed: 12/17/2014

British film studio Hammer has long been legend in the industry for its contributions, largely via stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, in the realms of Dracula, Frankenstein, and a lot of Victorian era costume horror films from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.  But then it sort of dried up.

In the last five years, though, the studio has gone through a rebirth of sorts and has gone back to the core of their past successes in re-embracing the horror genre, with some nods to their own traditions but definitely as well for the modern audiences.  David Keating’s Wake Wood is one of the first slew of Hammer productions in this new era and it seems semi-emblematic.

Set in the small Irish village of Wakewood, a young couple whose daughter was killed in a vicious dog mauling, finds that the locals with their secretive traditional Pagan ways can bring back a dead person for three days of time for a chance to say goodbye.  That is, only if the person has been dead for less than a year.  And the whole process involves a lot of bloodletting and sacrificial hoodoo, as well as a committment to never leave the vicinity.  It’s been noted aptly that the film channels aspects of both Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) and Robin Hardy’s classic The Wicker Man (1973) (interestingly neither actually Hammer horror films themselves).

For my money, Wake Wood is a mixed bag of qualities.  I don’t think that the film is all that effectively made, though I’d be pressed to put my finger on exactly what was missing.  It’s a sort of timing or pacing thing, I think.  I don’t know.  Parts of the film are vividly effective while as a whole it feels a bit of a munge.

Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle are good as the bereaved mother and father led down the dark alley by Timothy Spall, the town’s black magic patriarch.  But their otherworldly daughter, Alice, played by Ella Connolly is the real stand out.  Because when you bring young mauled child back to life, especially when it’s been a few days longer than the year suggested by those who practice the dark arts, you know she’s going to come back a bit more evil and messed up than you would like.

The film has some bloody gore, with some animal mutilation/vetrinary treatment that winds up being very effective.  It may have even been the efficacy of this gore that brought home the visceral nature of these Pagan rituals, this super-natural rite, that made this film as good as it is.

Which is good.  Not fantastic.  But good.

All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)

All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) movie poster

director Don Bluth, Dan Kuenster and Gary Goldman
viewed: 08/30/2014

After recently re-watching Don Bluth’s terrific animated feature The Secret of NIMH (1982), I was reminded that for no really good reason, I had abandoned Bluth’s films after that.  In reality, I guess it was simple unjustified prejudice.  An American Tail (1984) looked cloying to me and The Land Before Time (1988), well, I’m still trying to decide if I can stomach that one.  And in a similar slant, All Dogs Go to Heaven seemed exactly like the kind of thing that would sicken and annoy me.

It’s the title taken literally, I suppose.  One way or another, I never managed to see any of the films.  Now, I’m making my reparations, my personal reparations.

It turns out that All Dogs Go to Heaven isn’t at all the cloying schmaltz that I had projected upon it.  In reality, it’s a gritty nearly noirish flick, set in Depression Era New Orleans and really is a bit of an A Matter of Life and Death (1946) via cartoon canines.

When a scrappy German Shepherd named Charlie gets rubbed out by his old partner and finds that indeed “all dogs do go to heaven,” he sneaks his way back to Earth to exact some revenge.  His revenge turns out to be abducting his arch nemesis’s ace in the hole, an orphan girl who can talk to animals and know who is going to win horse or rat races.  This girl, Anne-Marie, is a lost orphan looking for a home and in the end Charlie does have to risk his life and a trip to hell to save her.

The animation is lush and beautiful traditional cel work.  And actually, the film feels like something of an older era.  The fact that it came out in 1989 seems almost a misprint.  This is a rich, traditional American piece, not modernized like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or The Little Mermaid (1989) or any of the Disney renaissance.

Also highly odd is some of the voice casting.  Not odd bad, but odd good.  Burt Reynolds plays Charlie, with Dom DeLuise voicing his buddy Itchy, and even Loni Anderson throwing in a voice too.  This is the most 1989 thing about it.  But there is also the excellent Vic Tayback as Carface, the villain and Charles Nelson Reilly as Killer, a very oddly-designed character.

Sadly, the voice of the orphan Anne-Marie belonged to the young Judith Barsi.  She’s very good and cute, but the sadness is in her real life.  She was murdered by her psychotic and abusive father before the film was even released, dead at the age of 10.  Horrible and bizarre.

There is music, too.  Tolerable if rather unmemorable tunes.

Really, though, the whole design and characters are rich and strange and lushly done.  There are a couple of moments of racial stereotypes that truly seem to emanate from another era, most prominently, the huge-lipped gator/voodoo witch doctor.  It’s amazing there wasn’t more blow-back from that character.

Overall, it’s a very fine animated feature.  My prejudice against it seems utterly unfounded and foolish.  I believe that we’ll be visiting other Don Bluth films in the coming months, a well-deserved re-appraisal.

Byzantium (2012)

Byzantium (2012) movie poster

director Neil Jordan
viewed: 03/12/2014

In this day and age, if you want to make a vampire movie and you don’t want it to be derivative, you’re best off not making a vampire movie.  Vampires have gone from the odd depths of horror to straight-up mainstream popular genre.  And the sheer numbers of vampire books, shows, movies, it’s become a more and more pedestrian affair.  Their ubiquity has led to such a watered-down and multi-modified series of permutations of the vampire legend that each little universe has come to define the “rules” of being a vampire.

Sunlight?  Mirrors? Being asked indoors? Fangs?  Sparkling in sunlight?

All this said, I guess that I was oddly cynical to queue up a vampire movie, even one by a director like Neil Jordan who I have liked quite a bit in the past, but probably held moderately low hopes for in this film that came a went rather quickly.  The film does however star both Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, two beguiling actresses.  And I felt like I could use a less heady film for the moment.

But surprisingly, Jordan does not disappoint.  If anything, if this movie had been made during a dearth of vampire stories rather than the spate that we are in, it might well have garnered more and better attention.  I suppose it’s not unique enough to stand out from a crowded shelf on looks alone.  But it is indeed a richer, more interesting, and moving motion picture than I anticipated.

Adapted for the screen by playwright Moira Buffini from her own work, it’s the story of a mother and daughter pair of vampires who have eked out an existence for 200 years.  Though mother and daughter, they pass themselves as sisters, Arterton the elder in her early 20’s, Ronan her daughter trapped at the age of 16.  Their story unfolds as they flee to a small English seaside village, running from their past and some mysterious hunters.

Arterton’s Clara has earned their living as a prostitute (for all 200 years), and has been eternally protective of her far more innocent daughter.  But this is the time and place that everything comes out, a return to the place that it all began, the same seaside from all those years before.

And interestingly, the vampire mythos on display here are Irish-oriented, involving a cave and an unnamed power, an isolated island, birds, and blood.  Why they need to be asked in to a dwelling?  Sort of arbitrary.  They don’t have fangs.  They can’t “turn” one another.  Again, all this quibbling over the specifics of the take on the vampire concept.

But I actually did like it.  Arterton I’ve found lovely since I first set eyes on her a few years back in Clash of the Titans (2010).  Saoirse Ronan has struck me from trailers and movie posters since she came on the scene.  Really the first thing I saw her in I suppose was Hanna (2010), which was also very surprising and good.  It’s one of the natures of movies, beautiful young actresses, personas, riveting attention.  I like them both.

And for Neil Jordan, the Irish director of A Company of Wolves (1984), Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Butcher Boy (1997) (a personal favorite), he has proven himself to me yet again that he’s got more substance than so many.  He works here with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt who has made his name working with Steve McQueen on his films, paints a lovely world here, the decaying English seaside and its rugged coast.

Really, quite a good film.

The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Tom Moore, Nora Twomey
viewed: 04/07/10 at the Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

This Irish animated feature film managed to garner an Oscar nod this year for best animated film, perhaps more significant from a promotion and distribution perspective than an all-out plaudit.  Still, it’s one of those films that I find myself having to tell people about because no one has seemingly heard of it.  Well, that’s the benefit for my kids that I seek out not just the big films that all their peers see and want to see, but the more odd or unusual children’s film experiences out there as well.

Actually, the kids both really liked the film.  It’s a story about the Book of Kells, Ireland’s great national treasure, an illuminated text dating back to the 9th century, a time when literacy and history and knowledge were at a serious ebb, putting at risk the great literature of antiquity (and much else), at the hands and swords of the marauding Vikings and the generally uneducated.  It fell on monks and the like to keep the practice alive of copying texts, and in this case, illustrating them and decorating them with unique designs and imagery.

While that hardly sounds like the stuff of a childrens’ movie, it is, set around a young monk-in-training at the village of Kells, who wants to learn the art of adding to the books.  And in his ventures from the protected place of his uncle the abbot’s, he heads into the forest to meet a forest spirit who takes the form of a young girl or a white wolf and who introduces him to the mysticism and pagan “realities” that are at conflict with the most traditional approaches of his uncle’s belief.

The film is designed in a very stylized 2-D, in which characters have simplified forms, though far from naturalistic.  At times this design style seems vaguely a litte too TV-animation level, meaning the simplified forms do not evoke depth of character and their simplicity makes for easier or “limited” animation.  But the style is not purely functional because the designs of the settings (which are also very abstracted and strangely 2-D but wonky) are also given to great flights of surreal fancy.

I was reminded, though it’s been years since I’ve seen it, of the mythological sequences in the film version of Watership Down (1978), in which the designs are illustrating a fantastical storytelling and are significantly stylized and abstracted.  And the design in The Secret of Kells is influenced by the designs in the Book of Kells, with much Celtic knots and crosses and a rich, vivid decorous system.  And ultimately, it works.

I was also struck by some of the music, which interestingly was composed by Bruno Coulais, whose music has struck me in the film Coraline (2009).  There is something magical about the music, especially the one “song”, sung by the forest spirit, calling to the friendly cat to help her to “go where I cannot”.  It is not such a common thing for me to be struck by music of this type and so it’s particularly notable to me in that these two animated films both had rung a similar bell in my mind.

The kids did enjoy the film, liking the design style.  Felix noted that the film was short and that “nothing really happened in it”, which is debatable, but I do have to agree that the ending had a mild anti-climax.   Still, this is a lovely animated feature, something that is not like the other films out there, to be forgotten, mixed-up with one another, confused in memory.  And I’m glad that we saw it.


Shrooms (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Paddy Breathnach
viewed: 04/12/08

This low-end slasher film set in the rural woods of Ireland, amidst a group of backbacking, “shroom”-eating American college students is really pretty lame.  The whole nubile dunderheads getting picked off one-by-one by some threatening killer, a genre whose rebirth has seen a moderate pick-up in the last few years, has come back, but without anything new to add, nor even offering the qualities of their progenitors in the 1980’s.

For this one, knowing that it came and went from theaters pretty quickly, I hadn’t high hopes.  But the novelty of the kids all being high on hallucinogens while they get picked off offered the possibility of something new or novel.  Sadly, though, the “shroom-vision” and the killer’s perspective looks pretty goddam bad.  No matter how decent a notion could be, handed to the wrong creative team it doesn’t have a chance.

It has no flavor whatsoever of genuine Ireland.  Even the Irish guide to the kids has an English accent, explained away by his education in an English public school.  There are backwoods weirdos, Gaelic versions of inbred rednecks, but they hardly speak.  I wonder if this was even filmed in the country.

And for the stock characters, the girls are a little more interesting than the boys, one of whom looks like a poor man’s Jason Mewes of director Kevin Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob”.  Who knew that anyone actually cultivated that look than Jason Mewes himself?

Anyways, this is not really worth the time, not even for those who might see this just to fill out their checklist of the genre.  But if you are a genre checklist type, then you’ve probably already seen it anyways.