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Last Sunday week I attended the world premiere of the Irish film Calvary at the Sundance Film Festival. This highly anticipated movie, from John Michael McDonagh, has received nothing but rave reviews and has already been snapped up by Fox Searchlight, for a reported $2.5 million, for distribution in the U.S. and select international territories.

Que for the world premiere of Calvary.

Queuing up for the world premiere of Calvary.

Audience waiting for Calvary to start.

Audience waiting for Calvary to start.

Set in Sligo, Calvary is the story of a tough-minded but good-hearted Irish priest marked for death by one of his parishioners and tormented by the cynical, spiteful members of his village. Given a week to make his peace with God, he ministers to lost souls ~ visits that double as a guided tour of suspects ~ and makes peace with his adult daughter, a child from his marriage before entering the priesthood.

This darkly comedic, and brilliantly layered, drama exposes the ugly side of Catholicism’s contemporary woes (from sexual abuse to waning influence). It is a masterful follow-up to The Guard for writer-director John Michael McDonagh. And, it firmly secures Brendan Gleeson’s place as Ireland’s hottest actor.

John Michael McDonagh, Chris O'Dowd, and during the Q&A session after the film.

John Michael McDonagh, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, and Isaach de Bankole taking questions during the Q&A session after the film.

There are so many great things to tell you about this movie but better writers than I have already done so. Please check out Variety’s comments here, The Hollywood Reporter’s comments here, and Collider.com’s comments here. What I’d like to focus on in this post is what has not really been said or written about Calvary.

For starters, thanks to the Director of Photography, Larry Smith, Calvary shows off Ireland in the most beautiful of ways. McDonagh’s script writing is reminiscent of great Irish theatrical productions that still show in the Gaiety, the Abbey, and the Olympia. The gallows humor peppered throughout perfectly relieves the otherwise tense subject matter of child-sex abuse by the Catholic hierarchy that is the focus of the film. Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly and all the cast were ideally suited to each role and played off one-another in ways that pull you back and forth between delight and disgust. And, though the opening line is absolutely repugnant, it draws you into the story so quickly that you are vested long before you realise.

A light moment during the Q&A session.

A light moment during the Q&A session.

Now, all these things being true…I still have something to say that may not be very popular and it is this: though I thought this was a terrific film and would encourage people everywhere to see it, I found myself {about half-way through} wondering…”Why are ALL the characters (bar one) in Calvary caricatures of the worst kind of Irish people?”

Let me give you a run-down of the main characters: There’s the town butcher who is suspected of beating his wife. His slut-wife who is sleeping with her black immigrant lover from the Ivory Coast. There’s the sinister police officer and his saucy male lover; a doctor with violently atheist views; a snobbishly wealthy man who’s part of the recent Irish banking debacle; a sex-starved young Irishman; and an imprisoned-rapist-murderer-cannibal. Even the priest himself has a drink problem, and his poor daughter has recently tried to commit suicide. The minor characters are also grossly exaggerated in the most ugly of ways. For example, there’s the two airport workers callously lounging on a casket before it’s put aboard a plane to France and a man who prejudges and accuses Gleeson’s character of inappropriate behaviour with a minor only because he is a priest walking with a child along a lonely stretch of road leading to a beach.

Maybe it’s hard for me to be impartial {given that my husband is Irish, my children are Irish and most of my friends are Irish…not to mention that my family tree is firmly rooted in Ireland} but I found the total stereotyping of the characters in this film to be somewhat offensive and distracting to the storyline, which is both powerful and moving.

There was also an exchange during the Q&A between McDonagh and a film-goer that was off-putting. McDonagh was asked, “Does this film in any way represent the current feeling in Ireland towards the Catholic church?” To which he replied, “I think if you go to Ireland now the Church, the Roman Catholic Church, is actually dead in Ireland. There’s hardly anyone at Mass….I think it’s almost dead in Ireland.” Personally, I feel McDonagh allowed this viewpoint of Catholicism to colour the personality of all his characters (except a French woman whose husband is killed in a drunk driving accident) and I believe the film would have been better served with a more balanced reflection of the Irish society.

John Michael McDonagh at the Q&A session.

John Michael McDonagh at the Q&A session.

To this, I can only counter with my own experience of Catholicism in Ireland…the Church is not dead. Our Church, in a suburb of Dublin, is standing room only on Sunday mornings and on Holy Days. My children have been Alter Servers, as have many of the boys and girls living in our village.

And, I am sure my brother-in-law, who gave up a successful career in the technology industry to become a priest 15 years ago, would disagree with McDonagh’s comment about the Church. Sure, during the heat of the child-sex-abuse scandal, my brother-in-law would have found himself feeling the outrage of strangers and passersby while wearing his cleric attire, but he would say today that people of faith have stayed true to their beliefs and have not painted him or the whole Catholic Church with the same wicked paint brush. Perhaps like the French woman in Calvary says…{and I am paraphrasing here} “perhaps those who gave up their faith so easily, never had it be begin with.”

I think Calvary would have been better served if it had had less caricatures of ill-tempered, poor mannered, drunken Irish people in it. I also feel the film would have been better served if McDonagh had been more realistic about “faith in Ireland” by showing that while it has been tarnished, battered and bruised, it continues on.

Calvary is a beautifully crafted film. Visually, emotionally and intellectually it is superb. I encourage you to see it. And, I would love to know what other Sundancers thought/felt about it…are my comments ridiculous or valid? Lastly, I wonder how well Calvary will be received at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival next month. I suppose, we shall see.

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Today I’m giving you the facts, and just the facts, regarding Irish films at Sundance 2014 as they are reported across various media outlets. None of these are my own opinions.

There are four films at Sundance that have an Irish connection. They have either received funding from the Irish Film Board (IFB), have been filmed in Ireland, have been in post production in Ireland, star Irish actors, or some combination of the above. The films are: Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank; John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary; Ciaran Cassidy’s The Last Days of Peter Bergmann; and Jack Paltrow’s Young Ones.

Currently there are trailers for only three of the films:

Press coverage, as of today, for the films at Sundance {good, bad and indifferent} includes the following:

Calvary from The Hollywood Reporter: “John Michael McDonagh’s 2011 debut, The Guard, provided the wonderful Brendan Gleeson with a vehicle for some of his best screen work, playing an Irish West Country cop unencumbered by diplomacy skills. But the follow-up collaboration of the writer-director and lead actor is in a whole different league. Gleeson’s performance as a man of profound integrity suffering for the sins of others is the lynchpin of this immensely powerful drama, enriched by spiky black comedy but also by its resonant contemplation of faith and forgiveness. Representing a considerable leap in thematic scope and craft for McDonagh, Calvary deserves to reach the widest possible audience.”

Calvary from Variety: “McDonagh and his collaborators have delivered a technically immaculate work that feels appropriately austere by comparison. D.p. Larry Smith’s widescreen compositions are framed with unfussy precision; as stunning as the rugged landscapes are to behold, particularly the shots of waves breaking against cliffs (the production shot on the east and west coasts), the lighting and color balancing of the interior shots are no less exquisite.”

Calvary from The Guardian: “Calvary boasts a sharp sense of place and a deep love of language. It’s puckish and playful, mercurial and clever, rattling with gallows laughter as it paints a portrait of an Irish community that is at once intimate and alienated.”

Frank from The Hollywood Reporter: “Whimsy and madness mix for an very unappetizing cocktail indeed in Frank, a gently eccentric account of an avant-garde band whose leader wears a large artificial head with a cartoon face painted on it. Irish director Lenny Abrahamson clearly means to beguile with this weird mix of moods and methods — goofy comedy here, sudden slashes of tragedy there, momentary eruptions of musical inspiration overshadowed by admitted mediocrity — but the mash-up of elements combine with a singularly unpleasant roster of characters to create a work of genuinely off-putting quirkiness. Particularly gullible younger audiences and fringe music fans might synch up with the sensibility here to create a modest cult following, but on any serious level this oddball creation doesn’t cut it.”

Frank from Variety: “Of all the acting challenges Michael Fassbender has faced, none quite compares to performing without the use of his face. That’s precisely what’s required in “Frank,” a weird and wonderful musical comedy about an oddball outsider band whose mentally ill frontman insists on wearing an expressionless plaster mask at all times — both onstage and off, in the shower and even to bed. It’s the sort of affectation that gets films labeled as “quirky,” although this one happens to be inspired by a true story. Luckily, helmer Lenny Abrahamson (“Garage,” “Adam & Paul”) puts the pic’s eccentricity to good use, luring in skeptics with jokey surrealism and delivering them to a profoundly moving place.”

Frank from Collider: “Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is a funny, warm, thoughtful story about crafting an artistic identity, and needing to seize on to someone else’s expression when you don’t have one of your own.  It also provides an insightful look at the fault in trying to forge an identity based on the acceptance of others instead of embracing one’s own oddities and shortcomings even if the world at large sees them as “insane”.”

Young Ones from Collider: “Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones is remarkable in how it does so much right, and yet it leaves the viewer completely cold.  Its strengths are undeniable and its flaws are subtle, so subtle that it can be confusing as to how such a technically superb picture can be so ineffective.

Young ones from Variety:A hodgepodge of Western, sci-fi and Greek tragedy, “Young Ones” is certainly one of the more unique films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But the sophomore effort from Jake Paltrow (“The Good Night”) gets so bogged down in its primal tale of murder and revenge that the most intriguing elements become little more than futuristic window dressing. Unfolding in three distinct chapters, each featuring a different protagonist, the visually rich and dramatically spare pic plays a bit like a cinematic graphic novel. A cult following could be in the offing, but commercial prospects otherwise appear limited.”

Young Ones from The Hollywood Reporter: “Ponderous, self-important and thematically narrow, Jake Paltrow’s dystopian future Western set in a Dust Bowl where water is controlled by the state and monopolized by industry is all oppressive mood and atmosphere with not much on its mind beyond an old-fashioned tale of murder, retribution and a robo-cow. Young Ones is visually commanding and not without inventive ideas, plus its pared-down narrative at least rescues Michael Shannon from the thudding memory of Man of Steel. But otherwise this lethargically paced, dehydrated update on There Will Be Blood will be strictly for artsy minimalist sci-fi enthusiasts.”

Commenting back in December on the early Irish line-up for Sundance 2014, James Hickey, Chief Executive, of the Irish Film Board said: “Irish film has performed very well at Sundance over the last number of years. Films such as The Guard, Once, His and Hers, and The Summit have all been discovered at the festival and have gone on from there to be distributed internationally.” “Both Frank and Calvary showcase the excellent work happening right now in the Irish industry and they include a world-class line-up of Irish stars including Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson. Chris O’Dowd, Domhnall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen and Killian Scott. It is a very positive start to 2014 for the industry and a great representation for Ireland internationally.” 

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Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 12.27.05 AMToday is Day 1 of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and like so many others (50,000 give or take a few!), I am excited and delighted to be in beautiful Park City, Utah during the 30th Anniversary year of this prestigious event.

In his own words, Founder and President of the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford has said, “I started Sundance to provide a home for independent storytellers and inspire a community of people to experience their work. Three decades later, this simple idea continues to drive all that we do.”

It was a simple idea…give independent filmmakers a place to showcase their work and let’s see what happens.

Now, 30 years later, the Sundance Film Festival has become an institution that reaches out to the four corners of the world and brings filmmakers, movie lovers, industry-types, celebrities, everyone together for ten days of watching and learning. It is, in two words…simply terrific.

To get a brief overview of the past 30 years, check out this interactive timeline the Sundance Institute has posted on their website. And, see John Cooper, Director Sundance Film Festival, and Trevor Groth, Director of Programming Sundance Film Festival, talk about the 2014 event and looking back at three decades at The Wall Street Journal.

For a full listing of films at this year’s Sundance, check out the online version of the Film Guide. And, last but not least, to read about the Irish entries check out Calvary, Frank, and The Last Days of Peter Bergmann.

Cheers!

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The Irish are headed to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival and, for the third year in a row, so am I!

The Irish films Calvary and Frank will have their world premiere at Sundance and The Last Days of Peter Bergmann, which premiered at the IFI (Irish Film Institute) Stranger Than Fiction event last September, will be competing in the Documentary Shorts Programme.

Calvary is a black-comedy-drama telling the story of a Catholic priest who has one week to put his life in order after being told, during confession, that he will be murdered. The film reunites Brendan Gleeson with The Guard director John Michael McDonagh, and also stars Marie Josée Crozé, Isaach De Bankolé, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Pat Shortt, and David Wilmot.

Frank is an offbeat comedy from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. It tells the story of “a wannabe musician who finds himself out of his depth when he joins a maverick rock band led by the enigmatic Frank – a musical genius who hides himself inside a large fake head”. It is loosely inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the persona of the late cult musician Chris Sievey. It stars Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Scoot McNairy.

The Last Days of Peter Bergmann, directed by Ciaran Cassidy and produced by Morgan Bushe, tells the story of a man (calling himself Peter Bergmann) who arrives in Sligo town in the summer of 2009. Over the last few days of his life, he goes to great lengths to make sure no one will ever know who he was or where he came from. It won the audience award for Best Short Film at the IFI Stranger Than Fiction event.

All three films were supported by Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board (IFB). James Hickey, Chief Executive of the Irish Film Board recently said, “Irish films have performed very well at Sundance over the last number of years. Films such as The Guard, Once, His & Hers, and The Summit have all been discovered at the festival and have gone on from there to be distributed internationally.”

Having three films this year at Sundance is a roaring start for the Irish film industry. I, for one, can’t wait to see each one and promise to report all the happenings of Sundance 2014 in the coming days.

Press release from the Irish Film Board at http://www.irishfilmboard.ie/irish_film_industry/news/Major_Irish_feature_films_Calvary_and_Frank_to_screen_at_Sundance_Film_Festival_2014/2340

Blog from John Murphy, editor of The Last Days of Peter Bergmann at http://johnmurphyeditor.com/2013/12/11/peter-bergmann-is-going-to-sundance/

Follow Irish director Ciaran Cassidy’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/CiaranCass

Praise for Irish film maker Lenny Abrahamson on Variety at http://variety.com/t/lenny-abrahamson/

Follow John Michael McDonagh, director of Calvary, on Facebrook at https://twitter.com/ReprisalFilms

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