Song of the Sea (2014)

Song_of_the_Sea_(2014_film)_posterIn an animation market saturated by the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, those that have become some of the foremost names of the latest wave of animation, we sometimes forget that there are other voices as well. Song of the Sea is one of those alternative stories that is ripe for discovery.

Tomm Moore’s creation is so rich and vibrant, steeped in mythology and Irish folk tales. In some strange way, there’s a very cursory resemblance to some of Hayao Miyazaki’s worlds — the way that this story is similarly immersed in the culture in wonderful ways as well as fantasy elements entrenched in the culture (ie. Selkies), yet it still manages to remain universal, grounded in the everyday relationships of a family that pertain to all of us.

It becomes this grandiose mixture of the depressed and even decrepit streets of Ireland, wind-tossed waves, and hardened rocks. But against that very austere environment is something so luminous, magical, and life-giving. It gives the story an immense character both pictorially and thematically that runs through its entire narrative with every frame reflecting a certain essence of Irish culture, history, and even topography.

We watch with a degree of awe as young Ben is brought up to look at the world with the same wonderment in his Irish heritage. His father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) is the local lighthouse keeper and his mother raises him up in a loving spirit. But with the birth of his younger sister and the loss of his mother, Ben’s life is different. He’s faced with loss just as his father is but he’s also faced with a promise he must keep. To love and protect his little sister Saoirse — to be her guardian — as his mother entreated him to.

Of course, the story devolves into a tale of annoyance and jealousy as Ben grows a little bit older and slowly becomes peeved with his sister’s ways. She still doesn’t talk and seemingly beats by a slightly different drum. He quickly loses sight of the value in her — only seeing the nuisance that dwells there.

But if anything, Song of the Sea is a story of discovery or even rediscovery if you will. Like Narnia or any such fantasy tale, it asks its main protagonist and the audience as well to grab hold of their child-like sensibilities and lose everything that causes them to grumble on a daily basis. That is the road that Ben is taken on. First, his goals are simple. He’s sent away from the family home he’s lived at forever and so his main objective is to escape grandma’s house in the city and get back to his dad and his dog, the massive, huggable, lovable sheepdog Cu.

However, Song of the Sea’s stakes heighten so much more because he comes to realize, begrudgingly at first, how special his little sister is and as his mother entrusted him so long ago, he must protect her. It’s a struggle but to the end, he honors that promise and it reflects the maturity that comes over him. It makes the film’s conclusion especially meaningful because we have seen the full progression and know truly what is at stake. That’s the sign of quality storytelling that will meet both kids and adults and leave them changed for the better.

In truth, my own name is Irish Gaelic and though I don’t speak a lick and the closest I’ve ever gotten geographically is Scotland (not quite close enough), there’s still a fascination I have with the very spirit of the place embodied so perfectly by this film.

The folk songs are elegantly mellifluous and even in all the chaos, all the darkness, great light can still be revealed. That is the hope of this film and even as families are fragmented and split apart. They can be mended and healed. Even if all the pain and hurt does not evaporate, the fact that we can hold family close, share the laughter as well as the tears together, that is often enough. Because it teaches us to care about others — to leave our petty, selfish endeavors behind to love others well.

4/5 Stars

In Bruges (2007)

In_Bruges_PosterNear the end of the film, one of our main characters questions whether or not being stuck in Bruges is the equivalent to being in Hell. However, far from badmouthing the Flemish city, director Martin McDonagh actually makes it a fascinating backdrop for a film. It’s a city full of history, romanticism, mystery, and even peril. It just depends on how you look at it, with eyes of reverence or general disdain.

In Bruges, the film, only happens because two men have to make a quick getaway after knocking off a target in London. That is the life of a hit man. Quick work and then long periods of waiting. That is the majority of what we witness, following the existences of Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson). Ray is a bit of a jerk sometimes and to him, Bruges is a living nightmare. Completely and utterly dull. But then he happens upon a fantastical film set starring a dwarf. There a beautiful woman Chloe (Clemence Poesy) catches his eye and then Bruges doesn’t seem so bad after all. At least for now.

Then there’s Ken. He’s not looking for casual companionship or booze. He has respect for the arts, the places of worship and the culture around him. Both men share foul Irish mouths and a general jadedness about their profession. After all, being a hitman is a living, but as Ray finds out it’s not without its stress. Shooting a little boy on accident takes its toll, and Ray must contemplate the entire framework of his morality. Meanwhile, Ken sticks by the phone and gets a call from their fiery boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes). He gets an order, and it catches him off guard. He already has his next assignment, but now he must attempt to reconcile orders with personal conviction. These are hitmen with a conscience.

Scum of the earth, yes, rough around the edges, maybe, yet somehow they still reveal their humanity. The miracle is that through the violence, we still find common ground to relate with them. We become thoroughly involved in this tale that, while darkly funny, is most certainly moving. When all the shots are fired, what we’re left with feels like a Shakespearian tragedy sprinkled with the absurdity of Bosch. Place all of this in front of the quaint Flemish setting and you have a rewarding adventure. I also recently saw Hot Fuzz and it seems that these films could almost be watched in tandem. Aside from both being British productions, they both have action, violence, and dark humor, but perhaps, more importantly, they exhibit genuine heart. That’s something not to be taken too lightly these days.

3.5/5 Stars

Calvary (2014)

calvary1We meet Father James (Brendan Gleeson) as he sits listening to one man’s confession, but it turns out that this confession is more of a threat. The unseen figure threatens to kill the Father by the end of the week, not for anything he has done, but because the world is an unfair, ugly place. The vengeful man had a traumatizing experience as a boy that rightly so alienated him from the church. The Father listens and does the most humanly thing possible. He doesn’t act as if he has the solution to all the problems, he can’t attempt to fix what has already happened, so he simply acknowledges it and extends his sympathy.

The same goes for the threat of death. He’s not sent into some hysterical fit of terror or rage. He continues through his life, making his rounds through the community to the people in his parish. He goes to their shops, their places of residence, and the bars. You can tell he truly cares for the people around him, but there is an underlying jadedness to everything he does. You can see it on his face wherever he goes. But it doesn’t come from a lack of conviction or faith in his God like father Tomas in Bergman’s Winter Light. James is a priest for the modern age, and it all makes sense if you look around his town.

True, this film starts off with a death threat to a priest, but it’s hardly a mystery because James knows who the Judas is. What’s really paramount are all the people he interacts with. They are the ones who are truly sucking the lifeblood out of him, not the threat of death. The young people are fully engulfed in a secular world and have little notion of how religion plays a role in life. They’re not against it so much as they’ve lived a life without it.

The adults are perhaps worse because they look at the Father and his calling with a cynicism. They say his way is finished. They scoff, belittle, and make light of him for no good reason. Simply because they have no need for Him or his faith. This is the modern world after all. Butchers, bartenders, mechanics don’t need someone to repress them and act as a moral compass. That’s so archaic and constricting.

Meanwhile, they stand by as his church is razed to the ground and they do nothing. The throat of his beloved dog Bruno is slit and Father James is left to weep alone. There are a few characters on the outskirts, who seem to care for him, and one happens to be his daughter Fiona. She too has grown up in the secular world, but they love each other dearly. Her serious contemplation of suicide is yet another anxiety plaguing her father’s life.

calvary2Interestingly enough, Father James notes how there’s much more talk about sin rather than virtues. He realizes that forgiveness is highly underrated and that is something that he learns a great deal about over the course of his week. Whether it’s in easier circumstances when responding to his daughter or invariably more difficult forgiving all those hard-hearted individuals around. Or perhaps the most difficult of all, forgiving the man who is going to kill him.

The Father makes his way to the beach ready to meet his assailant as a stoic solitary figure, not simply ready to meet his executioner, but ready to meet his maker. This is a dark and heavy film, but certainly not without merit. It’s weighed down by cynicism, but at its core is a man of immense strength and personal conviction. He’s not a perfect example of a man of faith, but does anybody really want a perfect example?  It’s an impossible expectation, but Father James is a living example. Living, breathing, and dying. A man who was just as prepared to forgive those who despised him as much as he loved those ones who actually cared. Kudos to Brendan Gleeson for a truly stirring portrayal.

4/5 Stars