Tag Archives: Irish films

Feelin’ Groovy

The Job of Songs

by Christie Robb

Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” is a one minute and 43 second impression of being content and in the moment. It feels like a possible anthem for the Slow philosophy—an approach to life that values taking one’s time, doing things at the right pace, valuing the quality over the quantity in life.

Writer/director Lila Schmitz’s one hour and 13 minute documentary has a similar approach.

The Job of Songs is about the community of session musicians that populate the small village of Doolin in County Clare in the west of Ireland—the area around the Cliffs of Moher. An isolated village until the 1970s, folks gathered in homes to play traditional (“trad”) Irish music and to dance.

Opening the Cliffs to international tourism brought in increased revenue and enabled musicians to pursue their art professionally, but it also changed the cultural scene. Folks dashed in on day trips to take a snapshot of the Cliffs, but failed to linger and really take in the place and the people.

Tourism meant that performances moved from private to public spaces—out of the kitchen and parlor and into pubs and restaurants.  But performing trad music is still a community activity. At a session, anyone is welcome to pick up their instrument or raise their voice and join in, even if they only know a couple of bars to a piece.

Through candid interviews and emotional performances, Schmitz’s film explores the changing culture of Doolin and the various purposes songs have in the lives of the Irish of the West country. It’s a source of entertainment, yes. But songs also carry the often melancholy history of the Irish people and culture, allow the saying of otherwise unspeakable things, and give people permission to feel things that are not easily understood intellectually.

The film explores the different aspects, both dark and light, that this musical culture has in people’s lives. While the session scene brings people together, it also has ties to drink, depression, and suicide. And though singing the old trad songs maintains a connection to Ireland’s past with its history of brutal colonization, famine, and emigration, Schmitz also leaves space to explore the change that technology, tourism, and a recent history of immigration has brought to the scene. She shows how a culture so rooted in a place can slowly change over time.

The music of  Luka Bloom, Eoin O’Neill, Kate Theasby, Christy Barry, and Ted McCormac (among others) could be draw enough, but slowing down to appreciate the way the cozy light of the pub provides an antidote to winter’s gloom goes a long way toward making a person feel pretty groovy.  As does the drama inherent in the view of the green of the land ending abruptly in the pounding of the ocean. It’s a movie worth savoring.

Rising Up to Meet You

The Quiet Girl

by George Wolf

This has been a fan-fecking-tastic awards season for the Emerald Isle. Multiple Oscar nominee The Banshees of Inisherin has racked up plenty of other noms and wins these last few weeks, and the sublime short feature An Irish Goodbye is a recent BAFTA winner and leading Oscar contender ahead of Sunday’s ceremony.

But the hometown favorite might well be The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin), up for a Best International Film Oscar after winning seven of its ten nominations at the recent Irish Film Awards.

So yes, it’s feckin’ good, and it’s so exquisitely, heartbreakingly Irish.

In fact, the feature debut from writer/director Colm Bairéad is the first Irish language film to be nominated for an Oscar, but it begins speaking through the subtle foreshadowing of a cuckoo’s song – the bird known for laying its eggs in the nests of others.

And in rural Ireland circa 1981, young Cáit (an astonishing debut from Catherine Clinch) is sent away from her dysfunctional family to live with “her mother’s people” for the summer. Middle-aged couple Seán (Andrew Bennett) and Eibhlín (a marvelous Carrie Crowley) have never met the shy and introspective Cáit, but they welcome her into their home.

Seán spends most days working the farm, so Eibhlín tends to Cáit with an unconditional affection she has never known, and the young girl begins to blossom. But after Eibhlín declares “if there are secrets, there is shame,” Cáit discovers a secret that permeates the farmhouse.

Like Belgium’s Close (also up for Best International Feature), The Quiet Girl features a terrific debut from a child actor and is draped in a tender stillness that gently cradles the building of its central relationship. Clinch and Crowley are absolutely wonderful together, rendering it nearly impossible not the care whether this wide-eyed young girl and her wounded mother figure will feel safe enough to open their hearts.

In adapting Claire Keegan’s novella, Bairéad’s storytelling is confidently restrained and overflowing with compassion, as it builds to one of the most quietly devastating final shots in years. The Quiet Girl is an intimate, beautifully realized take on finding what we need to heal our pain – and knowing when to rise up and meet it.

Family Ties

The Shadow of Violence

by George Wolf

Just how Irish is The Shadow of Violence?

Well, it’s got enough of its Irish up that hearing “Whiskey in the Jar” play on a barroom jukebox feels like being part of an inside joke. And that’s about the only funny business in a film that fuses multiple inspirations into one searingly intimate rumination on a life defined by violence.

Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) was once a promising Irish boxing champion, but left the gloves behind for the reliable income and familiar treatment offered by the Devers crime family. As their chief enforcer, Arm is feared, which often hampers his relationship with his ex Ursula (Naimh Algar) and their autistic son Jack.

The delicate co-existence of Arm’s two worlds is a constant struggle, but when family patriarch Paudi Devers (Ned Dennehy) finally orders Arm to kill, it becomes clear there is room for only one set of loyalties.

Director Nick Rowland and screenwriter Joseph Murtagh adapt Colin Barrett’s short story “Calm With Horses” with a tightly-wound sense of tension and brutality that propels a fascinating curiosity about the lasting effects of violence on the ones dishing it out.

While recalling films from the classic (On the Watefront) to the underseen (The Drop), Rowland’s feature debut carves out its own rural identity thanks to an instinct for detail (watching two Irish gangsters debate the wisdom of fleeing to Mexico is perfection) and a marvelous cast.

Jarvis makes Arm an endlessly sympathetic brute, providing a needed depth to Arm’s slow awakening about who is and isn’t worth his trust. Much of that trust is given to Paudi’s heir apparent Dympna, an unrepentant manipulator brought to menacing life by Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk), who again shows why you don’t want to miss any film with him in it.

But it’s Arm’s time with Ursula and Jack (Kiljan Moroney) that reminds him of the kind of man he wants to be, one that knows the difference “between loyalty and servitude.”

These moral complexities of a man questioning his sense of the world are what gives The Shadow of Violence its voice, one that speaks most eloquently in the spaces between the bloodshed.


St. Patrick’s Day Countdown

Are you ready? It’s just about time to find your Guinness T-shirt and crack everybody up with “You know what I wish? IRISH I had another beer!” Yeah, that one always kills, most likely because all your friends are hammered.

But aside from the blackouts and inflated drink prices, let’s celebrate the season with five..er..six of our favorite Irish flicks!

6. The Boondock Saints (1999):

Let’s start with the pretend Irish here at home. Jesus, these brogues are terrible. Just awful. But writer/director Troy Duffy’s sordid story of the righteously violent McManus twins did find an audience. They’re out to clean up the Boston they love – or at least ensure that it’s the Irish, not the Russians, allowed to shoot up the neighborhood. Steeped in Catholicism, blood, pathos and, again, the worst imaginable accents, Boondock Saints is weirdly watchable. It helps that Willem Dafoe tags along as one bat shit insane FBI agent.

5. Knuckle (2011)

James Quinn McDonagh cuts an enigmatic presence through the bloody world of Irish Traveler bare knuckle “fairfights” in Ian Palmer’s documentary Knuckle. The unbeaten pride of the Quinn McDonaghs, James takes on challengers from the feuding Joyce clan. Unfortunately, each win quells the action only briefly, as family members’ chest thumping and boasting reignite the feud, and another challenge is made. Palmer aims to illustrate the culture that fuels rather than overcomes its grudges, due in equal measure to unchecked bravado and finance (wagers bring in fast money for the winning clan). Filming for more than a decade, Palmer uncovers something insightful about the Traveler culture, and perhaps about masculinity or warmongering at its most basic.

4. The Guard (2011)

Then to a lighthearted look at drugs and crime on the Emerald Isle. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh assembles a dream cast anchored by the ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson to wryly articulate a tale of underestimation and police corruption in this very Irish take on the buddy cop movie. Through Gleeson, McDonagh shares a dark, philosophical yet silly humor, crafts almost slapstick action, and offers a view of hired guns as workaday folk. The Guard is a celebration of tart Irish humor and character; the actual plot merely provides the playground for the fun.

3. Calvary (2014)

McDonagh and Gleeson return three years later in Calvary. The endlessly wonderful Gleeson plays Fr. Michael, a dry-witted but deeply decent priest who has a week to get his affairs in order while a parishoner plans to kill him. Sumptuously filmed and gorgeously written, boasting as much world-weary humor as genuine insight, it’s an amazing film and a performance that should not be missed.

2. Once (2006)

You can’t celebrate St. Pat’s without some music. In Once, an Irish street musician fixes vacuums by day and dreams of heading to London in search of a recording contract. His unpredictable relationship with a Czech immigrant becomes the needed catalyst. Writer/director John Carney creates a lovely working man’s Dublin in a film blessed with sparkling performances from heretofore unknown leads Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Their chemistry and their music are the heart of the film. This immensely charming slice of life picture, superbly crafted with tender realism, also boasts an honest, understated screenplay, and undoubtedly the best soundtrack of 2006.


1. The Commitments (1991)

Jimmy Rabbitte intends to manage the greatest soul band in the world, so he hand crafts The Commitments, a Dublin-based, all white, blue collar soul band the likes of which Ireland has never seen. (The band includes Hansard again, much younger and with a magnificent ‘fro.) Alan Parker’s “behind the music” style tale of the rise and fall of a band is as charming, energetic and great sounding a way to spend St. Patrick’s Day as you will find.


Those are a few of our favorites…and if you think we missed any…let’s meet at the bar and fight about it!

Modern Martyrdom


by Hope Madden

Has the Catholic Church so comprehensively betrayed the nation of Ireland that it would take the second coming of the Messiah to set things straight?


The ever more impressive writer/director John Michael McDonagh may not be trying to rectify the Church’s situation, nor is he bringing about revelation. Rather, he offers a microcosm of the fallout with insight, humor and compassion in Calvary.

Brendan Gleeson, as brilliant as always, plays Father James, a good priest. As the film opens, we sit inside the cramped confessional as Fr. James waits for the penitent on the other side to begin.

“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”

It’s not a confession so much as an announcement. The parishioner, whose face we never see, spent a childhood of horrifying abuse at the hands of a priest. But what good is it to kill a bad priest? If you want to really send a message, you kill a good priest.

He gives Fr. James a week to get his affairs in order and makes a date to take his life. “Sunday week, let’s say?”

It’s almost too ripe a premise, really, and yet McDonagh’s never stoops to melodrama, or even thriller. As Fr. James goes about his week tending to his parish and reflecting on what’s to be done about this threat, we get the unique perspective of a good, decent man with a collar.

The dry, insightful, exasperated humor that saturates McDonagh’s writing is a thrill to take in, and Gleeson has never been better. Never showy, without a hint of sentimentality, he brings this decent but hardly sinless man authentically to life.

As Fr. James’s week drags on, McDonagh and his ensemble slowly amplify the wickedness of the townsfolk, creating, finally, a real parallel between the plight onscreen and the allusion of the title. But nothing about Calvary is even moderately preachy.

The priesthood is not what it used to be – not for them or for us. And it may be too late to save the Catholic Church. But a filmmaker who can hold up a mirror to our troubled times and find weary humor and redemptive humanity in it is inspiration in itself.


Who Knew Acting Was His Forte?

Run & Jump

by Hope Madden

Five years ago, if someone said to me that Will Forte would become a respected talent in independent cinema, I would have said, “Nice to meet you, Will Forte’s mom.”

Who could have know that the mostly forgettable SNL star would have such a way with understated authenticity? But with his Golden Globe-nominated turn as the very patient son in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, we got a glimpse of what he could do. Run & Jump offers another such sighting.

Forte plays Ted, an American psychological researcher living for two months with an Irish family that’s coming to terms with the patriarch’s stroke. Thirty-eight-year-old Conor Casey’s entire personality changes due to the damage done to his brain, and while Ted observes Conor’s condition, he also witnesses the unraveling of a family held together by a vibrant mother (Maxine Peake).

It’s Peake who steals the show with such a raw and lovely performance. You can see the anguish and optimism duking it out in this effervescent redhead’s every thought. Thanks to Peake and a handful of multidimensional, natural performances, the film never feels false or contrived.

It’s a credit to co-writer/director Steph Green’s light touch that this complicated, even heavy premise can feel so genuine. Green’s nimble writing introduces scores of grand ideas, and under the direction of a lesser craftsman, the film would have crumbled with the weight of it. Run & Jump does not. Instead, it feels like the kind of endless mess real life often becomes.

Compassion and resilience are as bountiful as the gorgeous landscape, and both family and sun-dappled environment are fimled equally lovingly. Whether the artist is new to you (Green, Peake), or a familiar face with hidden talent, each plays a remarkable part in animating this fresh charmer.