Tag Archives: Irish

342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

“I asked the actor playing the priest, a very nice actor, ‘Would you mind repeating those lines, but this time would you wear this alien fly head?'”–Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy commentary track

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Sinéad O’Connor, Alan Boyle, Aisling O’Sullivan

PLOT: In flashback, the grown-up Francie Brady describes his childhood in a poor Irish village: the son of a drunk and a depressed mother, he passes his days getting into mischief with his best (and only) friend, Joe. As his home life deteriorates, Francie increasingly blames his stuck-up neighbor Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. His escalating attacks on the poor woman result in him being sent first to a strict Catholic boarding school, then to a mental hospital, as he grows more violent and detached from reality.

Still from the Butcher Boy (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was based on Patrick McCabe’s stream-of-consciousness novel “The Butcher Boy.” McCabe co-wrote the adaptation with director Neil Jordan. The writer also appears in a small role as the town drunk.
  • The title comes from an old folk ballad (probably English in origin) that became popular in Ireland in the 1960s.
  • An uncredited Stephen Rea provides the narration as the adult Francie Brady.
  • One of Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll take any of the visitations from the glowing, foul-mouthed Virgin Mary, played with straight-faced seriousness by Sinéad O’Connor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy in a bonnet; Virgin Sinéad; ant-head aliens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With schizophrenic nostalgia, The Butcher Boy starts from an intense, uncompromising subjectivity and jumps down a rabbit hole of boyish delusion.


Original trailer for The Butcher Boy

COMMENTS: Shot on location in postcard-pretty County Monaghan with a cast of locals supplemented by stalwarts like Stephen Continue reading 342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

CAPSULE: FUDGE 44 (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Jones

FEATURING: A series of interviewees, each of whom speak for less than a minute

PLOT: Dozens of residents of a Japanese suburb are interviewed about a series of sightings of little men, in a story that gets progressively wilder with every new detail that is revealed.

Still from Fudge 44

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an odd experiment in how to make a film with almost no money down, but there’s not really enough texture or action here to merit a general recommendation.

COMMENTSFudge 44 might have made a good short story; it’s almost entirely composed of narration by talking heads, with very little cinematic illustration to catch our interest beyond the faces of the interviewees. There is occasional music, but far more noticeable is the audio tape loop which runs for about 10 seconds, ending in a pair of clicks, which accompanies the entire film. This hard-to-explain audio affectation could give the film either a hypnotic or an annoying aspect, depending on your outlook. (I sort of liked it). The plot-heavy nature of the project makes it difficult to discuss without spoiling it, but it’s safe to say that it begins with reports of sightings of tiny little men in a Japanese suburb, and a backstory is gradually revealed that is as consistent as it is bizarre, bringing in a bank robbery, a puppet show, and a gang of “multicultural assassins.”

The story of Fudge 44  is far too absurd to fool you into believing it’s true; rather, it tries to fool you into believing that other people might believe it’s true. And why not, in a world where people believe in Bigfoot and alien abductions? Despite its minimalist format, Fudge 44 has a lot on its mind. It’s a parody of cryptozoological documentaries, and the opening quote suggests that it’s a criticism of the way Western media views Japan through a series of stereotypes. At its core, it’s a whopper, with the trappings of a hoax; and, by the end, it becomes a sort of melancholy elegy for the passage of our childhood ability to believe in such tall tales. “She knew the difference between imagination and reality, but maybe this didn’t fit into either category,” muses one interview subject when describing a child’s reaction to an encounter with the little creatures. It also could be a slogan for Fudge 44, an oddity that doesn’t really fit into any category.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story becomes more and more convoluted as it unfolds by including a bizarre tale of a pair of boys who came up with a secret recipe for fudge and later disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”–Matt Exile, “Japanese Hollywood File”

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BUTCHER BOY (1995)

DIRECTED BYNeil Jordan

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Sean McGinley, Peter Gowen, Alan Boyle, Andrew Fullerton, Fiona Shaw, Aisling O’Sullivan, Stephen Rea, Sinéad O’Connor

PLOT: Against the backdrop of Cold War absurdity, a rebellious 1950’s Irish youth descends into a psychotic maelstrom upon the deaths of his dysfunctional parents and abandonment by his best friend.

Still from The Butcher Boy (1997)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Based on the prize winning stream of consciousness novel by Pat McCabe, the movie flows like a grim fantasy regurgitated by a mescaline-intoxicated James Joyce. The combination of genres and mild-mannered, cavalier narrative of perversity and violence make The Butcher Boy a weird and wonderful, if unsettling viewing experience.

COMMENTS:  High production values and slick editing distinguish this utterly bizarre story about a cheerfully deluded boy’s descent into madness, mayhem and murder. The lighthearted presentation of repellent material makes for a heavy cinematic encounter that timid viewers will find unpleasant and unsettling.

Francie (Owens) is a slightly delinquent youth. His father (Rea) is a talented, but unrecognized musician—and an anti-social, violent alcoholic. His bipolar mother does her best to distract herself from the family’s depressing existence via a zealous plethora domestic rituals.

Despite his oddball, dysfunctional family life, Francie manages to hang on until his mother commits suicide. The tragedy triggers a series of frantic misfortunes that lead to an insidious and inevitable structural decay of the framework that Francie desperately needs for a normal maturation.

Lacking valid coping options, Francie immerses himself in a comic book-fueled world of fantasy, accentuated by typical boyish adventures and games. But the games become increasingly grim when misfortune and his own recklessness lead him ever further astray.

Beguiled by hallucinatory visions, Francie is off first to a Catholic reform school where he stabs a pedophile priest, then to a lunatic asylum where the staff jolts him with shock treatments and a fellow patient warns him of impending trepanation-style lobotomy. Concluding that the damning chain of unalterable events is rooted in a neighbor’s hatred, Francie finally plunges over the dam of reality. Maddened and desperate, he cascades away on the headwaters of a psychotic mission to compel salvation and resolution via maniacal revenge.

The Butcher Boy is a viewing experience steeped in incongruity. The plot is cinematically presented as a comedy. It is anything but. Grim, twisted, and gritty, the sequence of events that unfold are nothing to laugh at. The storybook Irish countrysides of Warrenpoint and Monaghan accent this foreboding tale, and clash with starkly seedy Dublin locations. Discordant hallucination sequences disrupt the balance of reality. The resulting contrast between subject matter and tempo results in an arty, but disturbing film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though the movie sometimes looks as if the authentic Irish wit, colour and blarney has been filtered through the sensibility of a Buñuel or Polanski, Jordan never allows the surreal/expressionist aspects to dominate.”–Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide

CAPSULE: ONDINE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Neil Jordan

FEATURING: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea

PLOT: An Irish fisherman scoops up a girl in his nets one day; is she actually a selkie?

Still from Ondine (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird (that’s not a spoiler; weird is an aesthetic choice, and the movie might not be weird even if Ondine is a selkie).

COMMENTS:  Neil Jordan has gone weird from time to time (The Company of Wolves, The Butcher Boy), but even when he’s not being totally bizarre he’s often at least provocative (The Crying Game).  It’s therefore strange to see him helm a movie that plays it so safe, that aims so squarely at a middlebrow arthouse crowd who only ask for picture postcard vistas and enough painfully dramatic soul-searching to make the happy ending seem well-earned.  Starting with the myth of the woman from the sea who falls in love with a mortal man, Ondine breathes in magic, but exhales mere quality.  The cinematography by Christopher Doyle captures the quaint beauty of an Irish fishing village and the majesty of the surrounding ocean (often shot on overcast days so that the sky and the sea share a uniform blue-gray tint).  Performances by the principals are also top notch.  As Syracuse, the on-the-wagon alcoholic subsistence fisherman with a sickly daughter, Colin Farrell projects ancient guilt and sadness: this bedraggled, sad-eyed ex-rake never looks more at home than when he’s in a confessional.  Polish beauty Alicja Bachleda has an otherworldly sensuality that serves her character well; she goes swimming in sun dresses, then lounges in the sun like a seal with the wet clothes clinging to her.  Young Alison Barry does fine in a role we’ve seen many times before: the sad outcast kid whose belief in magic teaches the adults in her life a thing or two about the power of hope.  As for the script, in its mechanics, it’s hard to criticize (though I would have killed off a different character).  Jordan’s writing provides proper character depth and ties up loose ends cleverly.  The film’s overall narrative strategy, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to cozy up to.  It starts as a slow but pleasant drama with the ambiguity about Ondine’s true nature driving the tale, then wanders around in some melodramatic side alleys before resolving itself with a thriller conclusion that drains the magic out of the film.  The film also has a technical issue: for Americans, at least, the dialogue can be hard to make out due to the authentic Irish brogues and low conversational sound levels.  Stephen Rea, in particular, is indecipherable when he hushes his voice; I couldn’t turn the sound up loud enough to make out what he was saying.  Overall, it’s easy to see how someone could be briefly charmed by Ondine, but it’s hard to imagine even the most romantic soul being enchanted by it.  It’s more of a movie to flirt with than to take home to bed.  It seems like the kind of classical, meditative, risk-free story older filmmakers tackle when they want to make sure they are being taken seriously as artists—but it’s that very self-seriousness that makes what emerges a minor work.

“Ondine” was a 1939 play by Jean Giraudoux about a water nymph who falls in love with a knight.  Tales of women from the sea falling in love with mortal men are a common motif in fairy tales.  The film Ondine adapts Celtic folklore about the selkie, a seal who can shed her skin to become a beautiful female and mate with mortal men.  The same legend formed the basis of John Sayles’ 1994 independent arthouse hit The Secret of Roan Innish.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…works best when it stays within the blurry in-between space separating the everyday world from that belonging to story-time flights of fancy.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey

FEATURING: Voices of Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally

PLOT: In Ireland in the Dark Ages, Brendan chafes under the rule of his stern uncle, an

Still from The Secret of Kells (2009)

abbot obsessed with building a wall around the monastery to repel Viking invaders; the boy’s apprenticeship into the art of creating illuminated manuscripts gives him the courage to leave the safety of the village and enter the faerie-haunted forest that surrounds it.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s original, artistically superior and nearly dreamlike, but it lacks that defiant sense of “otherness” needed to carry it from the realm of the offbeat to the truly weird.

COMMENTS:  If Walt Disney hired a group of 9th century Irish monks to oversee the work of the animators who created Fantasia, the completed project might look something like The Secret of Kells.  (In fact, the animators weren’t Disney veterans, but some of the same folks who pulled off The Triplets of Belleville).  Both the story and the animation style of Secret were inspired by the historical Book of Kells, one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the history of Christendom.  Just as in the movie, books like Kells kept the light of knowledge and civilization burning during the Dark Ages, and invading barbarian hordes intent on plunder did threaten to quench that flame. (The movie is impeccably researched and filled with sly little details: even the white cat Pangur Bán is a historical figure).  Brendan’s quest to preserve and complete the Book places his story in an epic context, and it raises interesting implications about the way pagan and Christian beliefs melded to form a common culture, but the real tale here is the mythological Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell defined it: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  Brendan, the novice, ventures from the walls of the monastery into the mystical forest, where he encounters the faerie spirit Aisling: he defeats the sleeping pagan god Crom Cruach, symbolically becomes a man, and returns to Kells as the conquering hero who completes the Book and keeps civilization alive.  (Curiously, Christianity is never explicitly mentioned in the script; presumably, the omission is an attempt to universalize the tale).  The simple and familiar structure is a brilliant choice to tell this story, because it allows you to settle in and let the amazing imagery float through your eye and into your mind.  The color scheme is jewel-like, like the eye-popping miracle inks the monks go to great lengths to acquire for the Book.  Like the illustrations on the margins of an illuminated manuscript, elaborate curlicue motifs and baroque Celtic knots appears everywhere in the film—look for them drifting about in fog, falling in snowflakes, or hidden in the foliage of the forest.  Sometimes the edges of the frame will be decorated with these figures, like the margins in the real Book of Kells: but here, they acquire another dimension, swirling and dancing about, sometimes invading the frame like spinning Celtic amoebae.  The human figures, in contrast, are abstract, stylized and geometric. Abbot Cellach’s stature in the community is revealed in his freakish height; the bodies of the wolves are assembled out of sharp toothy triangles; the Vikings are brute cinderblock shadows with horns.  The styles merge to create a unique, otherworldly visual experience that simultaneously recalls the artwork of medieval monks and classic storybooks. The synthesis is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  It’s a picture-perfect, visionary universe in which to set a tale trumpeting art and imagination as the essence of civilization, the only power strong enough to defeat the forces of darkness and barbarism.

No one denies the films visual authority; the sole criticisms revolve around the supposition that it’s light on plot.  I’m not so sure: the movie encompasses the story of a young boy who becomes a man and an artist, and it has fox-spirits, ancient pagan gods, mystical forests, spells, historical allegories, a flawed authority figure, moral dilemmas, Viking assaults… really, all its missing is a wisecracking anthropomorphic sidekick and a chase scene.  And I don’t miss those.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“On the visual level, the film is on a higher plane… The climactic sequence in which the Vikings finally attack might scare small fry if it weren’t so surreally, almost mathematically beautiful.”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)