Best of Irish Film 2014

 

2014 was a strong year for Irish films released in the cinemas. Alongside a number of successful mainstream releases were some excellent independent features and documentaries. Our Top 5 of the year looks a little something like this:

 

Frank

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“…sharply-scripted, beautifully-shot…”

Read Ruairí Moore’s review here

 

Out of Here

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“Foreman’s direction is exceptional…”

Read Anthony Assad‘s review here

 

Love Eternal

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“…its ingenuity and freshness is something [to] be applauded…”

Read Stephen Totterdell’s review here

 

Calvary

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“Gleeson’s most compelling performance yet…”

Read Ruairí Moore’s review here

 

Jimmy’s Hall

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“…excellent pacing and rich cinematography…”

Read Stephen Totterdell’s review here

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Q&A with John Michael McDonagh, director of ‘Calvary’

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Calvary, starring Brendan Gleeson, is released on DVD and Blu Ray from today. John Michael McDonagh’s film opened in American cinemas last week and Film Ireland threw a few questions across the Atlantic to the director in the hope he’d give us some tasty feedback – he certainly did.

 

With the release of Calvary in the US how’s the whole experience treating you?

The critical response has been fantastic, but my liver is suffering at this point.

Despite the “big issue” of the film, for me it’s quite a personal film about what it is to be good – and the scenes between Father James and Fiona are telling… can you tell us about this aspect of the film?

Those scenes were expanded upon after Brendan received the first draft. They made the film more emotional, less nihilistic and detached. They are now some of my favourite scenes in the film.

We recently spoke to composer Patrick Cassidy who said the film was “a great canvas for an underscore” – could you talk a little about the music from your perspective?

I’m somebody who can happily watch films that have absolutely no music at all (a Michael Haneke film, let’s say), but I know that for most audiences music helps them connect emotionally with a film. Patrick was the perfect composer to work with because he provided a very emotional and moving score but allowed me to use that score quite sparingly and at very specific moments.

Brendan Gleeson has spoken to us about how Sligo had “a real bearing on how everybody interacts” in Calvary, how did you approach the use of that particular location and what was your visual ambition for this film?

I didn’t want to make a small, parochial, “Irish” film. I wanted it to be expansive and cinematic. The landscape of Sligo gave me that widescreen grandeur. Producers in Ireland need to look to themselves, they need to go on location, they need to stop shooting everything in fucking Dublin and Wicklow.

It’s turning out to be a good year for Irish film and we still have the likes of Glassland and Patrick’s Day to come – how important is it for you to be a part of this?

It’s not important for me at all, but I wish both those films well. I know the filmmakers are committed. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Thanks for your time – appreciate it…

No worries

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‘Calvary’ Released on DVD

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Brendan Gleeson stars in the critically acclaimed Irish box-office smash hit Calvary – from John Michael McDonagh, the writer and director of The Guard.  On DVD & Blu-Ray in Ireland from Friday 8th Aug. 2014, cert: 15A.

 

Calvary is a wickedly dark comedy drama starring some of Ireland’s most exceptional actors including Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen and Dylan Moran. Kelly Reilly rounds off the cast in this 5 star masterpiece from John Michael McDonagh, which is one of the most critically acclaimed Irish films of recent years. Calvary was a box-office phenomenon when released in Irish cinemas earlier this year, with a gross of almost €1.6 million.

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Interview: Patrick Cassidy

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Patrick Cassidy is a renowned Irish born composer. As well as his concert work and compositions, he scores and collaborates on film and documentary projects. Notable credits include Hannibal, Veronica Guerin, Confessions of a Burning Man, Salem’s Lot, King Arthur, Layer Cake, Che Guevara, Ashes and Snow, Kingdom of Heaven, The Front Line, L’Aviatore, The Irishman and Calvary, which is released in American cinemas this week.

Darragh John McCabe caught up with Patrick to chat about his career to date.

 

Patrick, you’re an Irish composer. Your most famous work is an Irish language symphony. And this interview is on the occasion of the soundtrack you composed to one of the biggest Irish films of the year, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. Why are you speaking to me from Los Angeles?

Before I moved here, I’d written lots of pieces for orchestra. I’d done that symphony, The Children of Lir, which had done well in the classical charts in the United States. Ireland is a small place, and my publishing company was based in L.A., and I felt the need to try to do something on a bigger stage. Working in Ireland you might be chasing one gig a year – I just wanted to try my luck and come here.

 

But there are still strong links with home, Calvary being a case in point?

It was really nice to get to work on an Irish movie. Most of the work I do these days is in Hollywood. And everyone was quite happy with the score, which means I might be doing more work in Ireland, possibly.

 

And James Flynn, the producer of the movie, called it “the best Irish score in twenty years” at the IFTAs?

Calvary was just one of those movies where everything came together well. We started with a good script and everyone got the chance to excel. The score seems to play an important part, too – the film was a great canvas for an underscore, and that doesn’t always happen. I put a huge amount of effort into it. It was a particularly pleasant experience, actually, Calvary; just a great bunch of people, from the director to the editor right down to the sound designers, happened to be working on it. There was a great atmosphere throughout the whole of post-production.

 

Is working on a relatively small-scale Irish film a different experience to some of the bigger Hollywood films you’ve done? I’m thinking of Hannibal, Layer Cake…

You know it’s pretty much the same. The one that they both really have in common is that you never have enough time, I suppose because music is the last thing that gets put in. Say for instance with Calvary, they already had an edit that was quite close to the finished movie by the time I saw it. When the composer comes in they’re running out of time. Though I actually had around 10 weeks for Calvary, which isn’t too bad.

 

But do you think that the fact that Calvary was produced in the context of a far smaller film community made it such a pleasant experience?

That’s probably part of it. But the main thing was, we all liked the movie. And we certainly knew that it was something different. This was definitely a very Irish story that hadn’t been touched on before. It was exciting.

 

And what’s your methodology?

Well, the technology is amazing. To do film music it’s so important that you conform to picture. So I have the movie on one sceen and I’m writing music on another screen. I actually write music every day, so I have this bank of sketches and ideas. Whether I’m writing a score or a classical piece, I’ll tap into it when I need it. I think it’s really important to keep working and to keep having ideas.

 

Is it a challenge to understand what a director is looking for in a score?

Usually the biggest indicator is the temp score. When an editor is editing a movie, they work with the music editor and the director to come up with music for the rough cut. It can be anything, really; just whatever can give a strong enough guideline for what they’re looking for. Usually it’s music from other film scores, actually. It means that the scene already has a good pulse to it by the time the composer gets to it. And if you can do something better than what’s on the temp score, they’re usually pretty happy. It’s what you should be aiming for, really.

 

Calvary is now a very well-regarded film – you don’t have to name any names here, but is it the case that the worse the film, the harder it is to score it?

It’s very hard. Sometimes you can try to fix a scene with music, but you often just make it even worse. Music has to complement and enhance the emotion – it’s really incredibly important, actually, for capturing what’s special in a scene. And if the film isn’t so good, it’s hard to know what to do. If the music’s too good, it’s nearly wrong. In the same way, working on Calvary was nearly effortless. It seemed to be like I always got it right the first time, which is rare. John Michael made a lot of suggestions, all right, but he liked the approach I took with the material in general.

 

It must sometimes be difficult for a director to communicate what they want from a score if they don’t have a musical way to explain it to you.

Oh yes. It’s a whole language. And even that language can’t explain why a piece of music is beautiful or it isn’t.

 

And what are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing an opera called Dante – it’s the story of Dante’s life told through his own poetry. Not working on a movie at the moment, but probably will be soon. I was composing music before I ever got into composing for film, and standalone works of classical music are still my main focus.

 

Your biggest hit, so to speak, was a setting of Dante, right?

That was called ‘Vide Cormeum.’ I suppose that’s my most popular piece over here in the U.S. And Ridley Scott used it for both Hannibal and The Kingdom of Heaven. It’s always nice to get a hit. It became very popular – the Welsh mezzo Katherine Jenkins has covered it, and Sarah Brightman has sung it as well. It all happened because in the script of Hannibal, Hannibal went to an opera – the opera was described in the script, but nobody had written it. I was working with Hans Zimmer at the time, and he knew that I was involved primarily in choral music. He asked me when they were literally going to be shooting the scene in two weeks time. Very short notice – that’s quite typical. But I relished it.

 

Finally, can you talk a bit about your influences? And are there any film composers whom you think have been overlooked?

A lot of my favouite classical music is music that’s outside of film – Mozart, Beethoven. But there are a few film composers – I always find it kind of surprising that Ennio Morricone never won an Oscar, for example. The score for The Mission is just amazing. He might be the best film composer of the last generation. He’s done so many interesting things – you see Quentin Tarantino going back to that spaghetti western music he did. The score for Dances with Wolves, by John Barry, is a favourite too. In recent years, there have been some very poor scores – very generic, not a lot of individualism. I’m not knocking anybody – maybe that’s what the directors want. But personally I like to bring my own style to things, and if somebody hires me they know that that’s what they’re going to get.

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Cinema Review: Calvary

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DIR/WRI: John Michael McDonagh  • PRO: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez-Marengo, James Flynn • DOP: Larry Smith • ED: Chris Gill • MUS: Patrick Cassidy • DES: Mark Geraghty • CAST: Aidan Gillen, Brendan Gleeson, Kelly O’ Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Killian Scott

 

Village priest Father James Lavelle finds himself offered up as a sacrificial lamb when a victim of sexual abuse, now grown, decides that killing an innocent priest will send a better message than disposing of a guilty one. Granted seven days to “put his house in order”, Lavelle embarks on a stumbling Stations of the Cross through an unrepentant parish only too happy to parade their sins before him, and trade every attempted benediction for yet another barb.

John Michael McDonagh’s much-anticipated follow-up to first feature The Guard, Calvary certainly aims to shake audience expectations, evidenced scarcely five seconds into the opening scene when our faceless parishioner delivers his ultimatum.  However, while certainly sharing the biting humour and self-awareness of its predecessor, the irreverence here is aimed not so much towards tweaking the nose, as it is towards a close and often uncomfortable scrutiny of spirituality in the modern day.

What follows is a search for meaning that meanders between comedy and tragedy, anchored by Gleeson’s most compelling performance yet as a shepherd doomed to spend his (potentially) final days tending a flock of black sheep. A widower and former alcoholic, Lavelle was world-weary before he came to the cloth and finds himself growing increasingly frustrated as his attempts to offer comfort and guidance are consistently thrown back in his face by residents of an unnamed Sligo village that often seems McDonagh’s version of a small-town Sodom.

Filling out alongside Gleeson, McDonagh’s cast boasts a rogues’ gallery of Irish talent – Dylan Moran’s embittered banker, Killian Scott’s aspiring sociopath and Kelly O’ Reilly as Lavelle’s grown daughter – all worthy of particular note. Solid performances are tied together by a haunting score and enough gorgeous landscape shots to make any Fáilte Ireland employee weep shamrocks.

While the meandering script and a slightly cluttered cast contribute to a third act that begins to lose momentum, any doubts are quickly dismissed by a confident and compelling conclusion. The critic’s knee-jerk reaction to pan McDonagh’s sophomore effort as self-indulgent is ultimately stifled by the sense that a few bum notes do little to impact the overall piece, and that this notion of throwing the baby out with the bathwater is exactly the type of reductive cynicism that Calvary rails against.

If The Guard is a deconstruction of genre and our notion of “Oirishness”, Calvary is the follow-up that aims to strip away the cynicism that has become so embroiled in Irish spirituality simply to see what is left. Half-critique, half-homage but feeling all-organically Irish, Calvary will likely secure a place amongst one of Ireland’s most talked-about films  and, if nothing else, affords us yet another opportunity  to bow down in worship of the craggy island that is Mr. Gleeson’s well-worn visage. Hallelujah.

 

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)
100 mins

Calvary is released on 11th April 2014

Calvary– Official Website

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Interview: Brendan Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh, ‘Calvary’

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Lorna Buttimer chats to John Michael McDonagh, writer/director of Calvary and its star Brendan Gleeson ahead of the film’s release in Irish cinemas.

John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson clearly get on well. Calvary is their second feature together, and it sees the two tackle the Sligo landscape to portray the life of Father James, the kindly priest who learns by confession that a parishioner plans to murder him in retribution for the crimes of the Catholic Church in seven days’ time. Not knowing if the threat is real, the priest tries to put right the many problems in his small rural community, and reconnect with his estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly) before his possible murder.

Gleeson, of course, plays Father James, the player upon the Sligo stage. ‘Father Jamo’, in Gleeson’s words, is someone aware of his particular uniform. But what separates him from his peers is the fact that he is a ‘modern creature’. ‘Like when Jesus knocks the hell out of the money guys in the temple and kicks them out, it seems to me that Father James comes from that line. There is a rage in him about the self-serving, petty mindlessness of it all,’ claims Gleeson.

Father James comes to the Catholic Church after a marriage, a child and a troubled life with alcohol. In Gleeson’s view, these experiences make his character stand apart. ‘It gives him a personal life, a personal history. Father James has been in the world; he has had contact with stuff maybe other priests don’t have.”.

As a result of such experience, Father James is able to reach out to his parishioners and through that, maybe discover who wants him dead. ‘John said I was more or less a Samurai in a way. And the funny thing was when I went to get fitted for the vestments I got a real weird goose-bumpy, tingly kind of a thing, where it was like a suit of armour, and you’re the protectorate of all things good. I wasn’t prepared for it or didn’t expect it.

‘And that’s what he does – he goes and he takes on the forces of despair and he’s fighting his own temptation of despair quite a lot too. Rather than someone who went into the church naively, he understands how dark it can be and the temptation to go into despair. He becomes a lightning rod for everyone else’s disillusionment and they try their hardest to break him. But in the end they don’t really want to break him at all; they want their own cynicism to be overturned by his belief.’

The film is marked by its use of location. Shot in Sligo, both are keen to emphasise how the film flourished under Ben Bulben’s deep shadow. ‘The locations are very important, you know, Galway was very important on The Guard and Sligo was very important on this one,’ says McDonagh.

‘It has a real bearing on how everybody interacts,’ elaborates Gleeson, ‘and just the way people carry themselves. It’s only working when you feel part of the place. And you can see that in the film – you really can.’

With smaller budgets, crews and time, sometimes Irish films don’t make it to the actual location. For Gleeson, this is a huge mistake. ‘You’re going to get the counter argument that if you go to a location it’s a day to travel and a day to travel back and if you’re trying to keep to budgets that you’re pushing to the limit. There is always the temptation for people to say “sure Wicklow’s just down the corner”. But it has a huge impact on the film – the whole Ben Bulben thing in this, it’s so iconic.’

Speaking about Ireland’s landscape, McDonagh tells how Ryan’s Daughter ‘was a big influence on this and The Guard – the way it’s shot; just beautiful scenes all the way through, scenes that showed how you could shoot Ireland’. He further muses, ‘With Calvary, if you look at all the scenery, you wonder why hasn’t an Irish film been shot there before?’

To answer this, McDonagh recognises that the Irish film industry is perhaps too centralised in Dublin. When budgets and schedules are tight, Wicklow, ‘down around the corner’, is cheap and easy for outdoor locations. For the director this isn’t palatable any longer. ‘That seems to be the default position but it just leads to this kind of visually claustrophobic set of films that are all or mostly set in the Dublin environment,’ and for McDonagh, that doesn’t cut it. Here is a filmmaker that wants to explore, portray and discover what that the Irish landscape has to offer.

Calvary premiered at Sundance. McDonagh says he was delighted with the reaction. ‘There’s the strain of black humour that lasts throughout the movie. I thought about half way through that the audience were going to go ‘Awh this is gonna’ go really dark’ but what happened was, even in the last third of the film, we were still getting laughs and I think it was because certain scenes were just so dark that people just wanted some kind of relief. I was pleased they got the reactions, the rhythms and everything, and I think they grasped quite quickly that the film wasn’t The Guard Take Two’.

And the question on everyone’s lips – will the two work together again? The answer is yes –  it’s already in development. ‘Yeah, we’ve got one more’, reveals McDonagh, ‘I haven’t written it but it’s gonna be about an abusive paraplegic, so Brendan will be in a wheelchair scuttling around South London!’

Calvary is released in cinemas 11th April 2014

 

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JDIFF: Irish Film Review – Calvary

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Donnchadh Tiernan checks out John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, which opened the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

The opening line of John Michael McDonagh’s sophomore effort packs such an almighty punch it would be a shame to divulge it here. As a quote from Saint Augustine on the poetic implications of the titular hill fades to the candlelit visage of Brendan Gleeson’s central priest a line of dialogue is delivered with enough weight to shake any audience of expectations for a would-be sequel to 2011’s The Guard. The dialogue of the anonymous confessor continues to outline what will be the framework within which the film will play out; in seven days, having spent their childhood being raped daily by a priest, the faceless victim will shoot Gleeson’s priest, plainly because he, a good priest, being murdered will send a greater message. When Gleeson leaves the booth he seems to know who has threatened him. We, however, do not, and the film commences.

The prime action of the piece is made up of Gleeson’s interactions with locals; characters played by the greatest assembly of Irish and British acting talent since Intermission: Pat Shortt as a Buddhist publican; Dylan Moran as a socially estranged property developer; Chris O’Dowd as the butcher; Kelly Reilly as Gleeson’s suicidal daughter from a pre-orders marriage; Aidan Gillen as an atheistic, nihilistic doctor. The list actually does go on but to give everyone worthy of shout-out here their just deserts would evolve this review to a novella. Everyone available seemingly wanted to appear in this film and once one sniffs out the marrow of the meandering plot it is easy to see why.

The first act of Calvary is the segment that requires the most salt in viewing. What might be biting satire or critique is diluted with Fr. Ted jokes as they might have been written for HBO. McDonagh being cut from the cloth he is the dialogue and structure is ever a comment on the medium and genre itself, in this case such thematic stuff as Song for a Raggy Boy or Sleepers, but considering both the setting and the opening this does not seem enough. As a matter of fact, until Gleeson’s church is burnt to the ground midway through (as seen in the trailer and on the poster), it seems as though the writer-director is shying from the route he initially gestured towards. Then, as flames flicker against the night, the second act reveals a darker side of The Guard’s wry wit and the film dives headlong into murk the previous film only hinted at.

What transpires in the film’s remainder is often heavy drama and is a credit to its cast, particular credit due to Domhnall Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd, the former stepping out of his father’s shadow while sitting across from him, the latter whom will surely be hearing meatier dramatic scripts whacking his hallway floor more regularly in the coming months. This film’s heart, soul and muse, as with The Guard, is undoubtedly the masterful Brendan Gleeson, who communicates the bitterness and flickering hopes of a dying faith with dark weary eyes and reserved gestures.

Any flaws here are minor and aesthetic. The rent-boy Lucky Leo is one caricature too far and Dave McSavage playing a bishop carries too much weight as a cultural reference to work alongside the more serious tones surrounding the role. The cast of characters is, overall, too large to justify and trying to keep up with them at times muddles the plot. Thankfully, McDonagh’s agenda is so potent and engaging that its confidence propels viewer attention along with it at far too ardent a pace to linger on such minor foibles.

With Calvary, McDonagh has completed the sentence he began to utter with The Guard. As an already evident auteur, he loves Ireland (as clearly evidenced by the glorious landscape shots throughout) and despises such Irish institutions as middle-management, bitterness and mob-rule. Were he a pamphleteer, which on a certain level he undoubtedly is, his prime target would be Joe Duffy’s listenership and high-ranking church officials in equal measure. In fact, there is such ample critique of Irish society in the third act it feels as though two films in he may have made his magnum opus. On immediate reflection, not only do I wish to re-watch Calvary soon but I believe it will prove as much of a necessary watch for at least one generation to come as it will be a gripping, funny and moving one for audiences this year. Once again, McDonagh has produced a work impossible to pigeon-hole into any genre, except perhaps “Essential Viewing”.

 

 

Click here for further coverage from the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Calvary screened on Thursday, 13th February 2014 as part of the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (13 – 23 February 2014).

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