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Posts Tagged ‘John Michael McDonagh’

If someone makes a really great movie, does that mean you automatically go and see their next movie? There is something to be said for caution, after all: it does seem like some people only have one really great movie in them – look at Robin Hardy, who did The Wicker Man, or Douglas Hickox, who directed Theatre of Blood. But if someone makes two great movies on the spin that does earn them a pass, I think. Which brings us to John Michael McDonagh, who in 2011 made The Guard, a scabrous black comedy thriller which I loved, and in 2014 made Calvary, a drama which really impressed me. So naturally I went along to see his new film, War on Everyone.

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War on Everyone is probably – we will discuss this – a jet black parody of Hollywood buddy movies, with McDonagh’s usual erudition and willingness to rip up the rulebook subtly stirred into the mix. The leads are Bob (Michael Pena) and Terry (Alexander Skarsgard), a pair of Albuquerque police detectives. It is quickly established that these guys take a very flexible view of the whole ‘serve and protect’ ethos as the opening sequence depicts them running someone over solely so they can nick his stuff.

Basically, they show no interest at all in actually, you know, upholding the law, and spend all their time trying to get rich in any way they possibly can: extorting bribes from criminals, ripping off the proceeds of successful bank robberies, and so on. ‘Utterly and enthusiastically corrupt’ only begins to describe these guys. Bob is also a fairly appalling parent, though his wife seems very fond of him, and Terry has various substance abuse problems too.

The arrival in town of Lord James Mangan (Theo James), a well brought-up English criminal mastermind, proves significant for the boys, as he sets about orchestrating a huge heist at the local racetrack. Scenting an opportunity to advance themselves, basically by waiting for the robbery to succeed and then stealing the money from the robbers themselves, Bob and Terry obtrude themselves into Mangan’s business, and things quickly turn quite nasty…

Well, this is obviously much more of a piece with The Guard (loud-mouthed, lairy) than the more thoughtful Calvary, and for all of the film’s mostly-American setting and style McDonagh has brought along one of that’s film’s supporting cast (David Wilmot). But where The Guard had an undeniable warmth and an almost sitcom-like gentleness at times, War on Everyone is more of a full-throttle experience, uncompromising, harder edged. It almost feels to begin with as if McDonagh is prioritising outrageous jokes and situations over remotely credible characterisation – Bob and Terry aren’t just corrupt, they are absurdly corrupt, Bob isn’t a bad father, he’s a ridiculously bad father. And it’s so over-the-top that it’s difficult to engage with the story for a while.

In fact it eventually started to seem to me that War on Everyone might in fact be a surreal, deadpan deconstruction of the classic Hollywood buddy movie, maintaining the general shape and conventions but emptying out all the content and replacing it with such bizarre material that the limitations of the form are thrown into sharp relief.

At one point, for example, Bob and Terry are looking for a suspect who they are basically looking to shake down for some immoral earnings, but they learn he has gone into hiding. In Iceland. So the scene changes to Iceland for literally about five minutes, until they go back to New Mexico, and it’s very strange. Compounding the oddity is a moment where one of them asks the other what their plan is to find the man, who is African-American. The other admits he doesn’t have a plan, but says something to the effect that ‘there can’t be many black people in Iceland, if we just stand here in the street we’re bound to spot him sooner or later.’ And the guy promptly walks past them.

There are parts of War on Everyone which almost move into the ‘a film with something to offend any decent person’ category – and again, you wonder if McDonagh is just looking to satirise the excesses of political correctness, or satirise racism itself, or doesn’t give a damn and is simply going for the most outrageous, near-the-knuckle jokes he can come up with. We see the boys down the police firing range at one point, and sure enough all the practice targets take the form of pictures of black men, some of whom have clearly already surrendered. You can’t fault the director’s willingness to go way out there, but given what’s happened in the US recently, is that really funny?

The film becomes slightly more engaging as it goes on, and McDonagh is too good a director not to make a good-looking film with strong performances and moments along the way – he’ll just switch off the plot for a moment for a dance routine, for instance, and the images and the soundtrack will conspire to create something genuinely great. But the need for a strong conclusion requires the film to become more conventional, and Bob and Terry inevitably discover some remnant of decency within themselves, provoking a heroic confrontation with the bad guys (their motivation for this is somewhat hackneyed).

In the end I would say War on Everyone isn’t really close to the standard of either The Guard or Calvary, and it really is one of the strangest and most difficult to figure out films I’ve seen in a long time. In the end, McDonagh’s intelligence and wit keep it watchable, giving the film a certain level of style – but while the film succeeds because of its style rather than its substance, I don’t really think you can call it a triumph.

 

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For a while I was slightly aware that this year was looking a bit lightweight, both in terms of the number of films I’d been to see, and their overall quality – I was a good half-dozen behind where I’d been at the same point in 2013. However, having seen five films in the last fortnight, with at least two more coming in the next week, these concerns feel less pressing. It has also helped that most of these movies have been pretty good in one way or another: certainly, none of them has been a total disaster.

Particularly outstanding, in many respects, was John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. The McDonagh brothers (John Michael’s sibling is Martin, writer-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) are rapidly establishing themselves as film-makers of real stature, and Calvary may be the best film one of them has yet produced.

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Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a Catholic priest in the Republic of Ireland. While hearing confessions one day, an unidentified parishioner reveals that he was abused as a child by another priest, now dead. As an act of retribution, the man now intends to kill Lavelle, reasoning that no-one will bat an eyelid at the death of a guilty priest, but the murder of a good and innocent man as punishment for the sins of another will attract everybody’s attention. The would-be killer thoughtfully gives Lavelle a week to set his affairs in order.

That Lavelle does not immediately consider if he is justified in calling in the police, or contemplate skipping town entirely, tells you something of the tone of Calvary, which is measured and thoughtful throughout. The film follows the priest through the week and observes his interactions with various members of his flock, who are a colourful bunch, as well as his troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly) – she is the product of a marriage which ended prior to Lavelle’s taking the cloth. All the time the viewer is aware that a clock is ticking, but Lavelle concerns himself with a troubled marriage, or a prison visit, or giving solace to a recently-widowed woman: simply with being a priest, in other words.

And it seems to me that this is what Calvary is actually about: the question of the place of religion in the modern world. The setting of the film is clearly contemporary – this is an Ireland ravaged by the wake of the financial crisis, where the church is under siege from accusations of corruption and much worse. As a source of moral authority, Lavelle finds himself constantly challenged and mocked, both by nominal Catholics and atheists, while even his decision to follow his vocation and join the priesthood is criticised by his daughter. ‘Your time has gone,’ he is explicitly told at one point.

This of course feeds into the idea of the film as an allegory for the story of Christ, which it is obviously intended to be (the title and the premise make this clear) – but it’s also a character study of Lavelle, and the question of exactly what motivates him. By potentially risking death, is the priest simply trying to justify his own existence? Does some part of him actively seek martyrdom? The film is intelligent enough not to offer easy answers (nor, indeed, does it entirely resolve its own plot, which some people may grumble about).

The last film from Gleeson and McDonagh was The Guard, to which Calvary bears something of a resemblance – community figure in rural Ireland with troubled female relative, literate script, various oddball supporting characters, somewhat offbeat conclusion – but this is a much more serious and thoughtful film that isn’t afraid to deal with some difficult subject matter. It’s by no means totally gloomy, but it’s certainly not a comedy either.

This is despite the presence of a few actors best-known for comic work: Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd both appear, along with Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, and various people who were also in The Guard (Gleeson Junior is issued with an unflattering brown wig to reduce his resemblance to his dad). All the performances are good, but dominating the film with a monumental portrayal of simple humanity and decency is Brendan Gleeson. In Lavelle, he and McDonagh have created another richly three-dimensional human being: I fear that the decision to release Calvary at Easter may mean the film is forgotten about when it comes to next year’s awards season, for once again Gleeson is deserving of some sort of recognition for his work here.

But, on the other hand, many people may just regard this as a child-abuse drama about the Catholic church in Ireland, and stay away on principle. This would be a great shame, for Calvary is much more than that. It’s as complete and as satisfying a film as any I’ve seen this year, and managed to be thought-provoking, moving, funny, and occasionally upsetting to watch. Well worth seeking out.

 

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Maybe it’s the time of year, but here at NCJG it feels like a very long time since there’s been a real belter of a new movie to write about. Not that everything recently has been wholly worthless – far from it – but there hasn’t been the kind of film from which you emerge exhilarated, with your belief in the possibilities of cinema rewarded.

Thankfully this has been rectified with the arrival in Oxford (finally) of John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, which is following up a smash-hit release in Ireland with a shamefully limited British run. This is a crime movie centred on a tremendous performance by Brendan Gleeson, an actor perhaps best known for playing supporting parts in much bigger movies like Troy and Gangs of New York.

Gleeson seizes with enormous relish on the role of Gerry Boyle, a sergeant in the Garda of west Ireland. Boyle initially appears to be not much more than a simple country copper, unreconstructed, often crass, bigoted (‘I’m Irish, being racist is part of my culture,’ he explains, when someone objects to this), and laid-back to the point of actual moral degeneracy.

However, when a murdered corpse turns up on his patch, Boyle finds himself involved in the hunt for a group of drug traffickers (led by Liam Cunningham and the increasingly ubiquitous Mark Strong). As a result he is somewhat reluctantly partnered with slick and etiquette-conscious FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). As it becomes increasingly apparent that other Garda members take their corruption rather more seriously than Gerry, the two find themselves increasingly isolated as they close in on their quarry.

It sounds like a fairly routine odd-couple crime thriller, and on one level The Guard delivers this in a very efficient and taut way, albeit with some novelty value due to the Galway setting. However, what turns it into something very special is its tone, which is totally at odds with this: despite being a film about drug smuggling which hinges around a considerable number of deaths, most of them violent, The Guard is more consistently and genuinely funny than most comedies.

Normally I have no time for the lazy reviewer habit of amalgam algebra – you know, describing a film as ‘It’s Groundhog Day meets Murder on the Oriental Express!’ or something ludicrous like that. However, the best description of The Guard I’ve read is something just like this – it’s Father Ted meets Bad Lieutenant. Tight and effective though the story is, the dialogue keeps meandering off in odd directions as characters discuss Russian literature or existential philosophy. Both Boyle himself and the movie ruthlessly undercut and mock any sign of Hollywood posturing from the story or characters. Galway is depicted as a rusticated hinterland populated entirely by oddballs and much of the humour comes from the reactions of unsuspecting outsiders who’ve wandered into this realm and can’t quite believe what they’re seeing and hearing.

Mark Strong is customarily good as a bad-tempered drug baron who resents the poor class of person he meets in the course of his career, but the main foil is Don Cheadle’s character. Cheadle finds an impressive number of different ways of looking gobsmacked at the various pearls of wisdom Gleeson passes on to him, and there’s more than a hint of In the Heat of the Night in the relationship between the two characters. In the end though, he’s very much the straight man and second banana to Brendan Gleeson.

Gleeson turns Boyle into one of the great movie characters of recent years, a fully rounded and believeable – not to mention hugely likeable – figure, despite his various outrageous excesses. The script shows us all sides of the man: his usual cynicism and world-weariness, the integrity buried somewhere deep within, his intelligence (usually masked behind a boorish facade), and his emotions. This latter element is mainly explored through a subplot involving his relationship with his ailing mother, which still manages to be deeply funny as well as moving. (His mother is played by Fionnula Flanagan, who seems to specialise in playing a) mothers and b) people who are either dying or actually dead.) That said, this isn’t a movie which treats human behaviour in a simplistic or mechanical way – we’re left to draw our own conclusions as to why Boyle makes some of the choices he does as the film goes on.

McDonagh’s script effortlessly juggles characters, plot, dialogue, and even genre: at times this film plays like a western, an impression which is helped by Calexico’s twangy score. In the end, though, the sheer quality of the piece transcends this sort of consideration: no matter how you approach it, The Guard is a terrific, hugely impressive movie, stuffed with good performances and pricelessly funny lines and moments, all in the cause of a very solid story. One of the very best films of the year so far.

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