Films to warm brave souls

 

A programme awash with lively, innovative Irish features and top-class performances ensured that miserable weather would not dampen audience enthusiasm at the 20th Galway Film Fleadh, writes MICHAEL DWYERFilm Correspondent

TAKING PLACE UNDER grey skies more appropriate to an Ingmar Bergman chamber piece, the 20th Galway Film Fleadh produced such a lively, attractive programme that nobody cared about the unusually cold July weather. Brave souls congregated in Eyre Square by night for the free open-air screenings. By the banks of the Corrib, crowds thronged the bars and jetty at the rowing club, animatedly talking pictures until a late hour.

Two formidable actors met for the first time when Jessica Lange, a two-time Academy Award winner, joined Peter O'Toole, who has been nominated for eight Oscars without ever winning, for a photocall at Spanish Arch. Over at the Radisson hotel, US actor Bill Pullman, in Galway with his new movie, Surveillance, was giving media interviews. And at the Town Hall Theatre, director Alex Gibney was discussing his powerful Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, which addresses US torture practices in Afghanistan.

The fleadh was awash with new Irish shorts, features and documentaries. Anyone who attended the world premiere of Kisseswill not have been surprised that it was voted Best New Irish Feature when awards were handed out at the closing ceremony on Sunday night. Written and directed by Lance Daly ( The Halo Effect), Kisseswas received with cheers and sustained applause after the closing credits rolled and Daly and producer Macdara Kelleher brought its two young stars on stage.

Wonderfully natural young actors, Kelly O'Neill and Shane Curry play Kylie and Dylan, pre-teen neighbours on a drab Dublin housing estate photographed in grim black-and-white. The movie subtly shifts into colour when the two of them impulsively escape their environment and their dysfunctional families, leaping on to a barge that takes them into Dublin city centre for a long night's journey into day.

Terrified by his violent father, Dylan is quiet and shy, but he lightens up in the company of Kylie, who is exuberant, confident and protective, but vulnerable nonetheless. Through their adventures they experience the kindness of strangers, mostly immigrants to Ireland, and the menace and danger on the city streets by night. Daly's assured and endearing movie artfully blends tension, most effectively in an extended chase sequence, and humour, wittily drawing on Bob Dylan references and culminating in a clever punchline that involves Stephen Rea in a cameo appearance.

The humour is pitch-black in Ian Fitzgibbon's A Film with Me in It, which opens on an amusing cameo from Neil Jordan as a film director brusquely turning down a luckless actor, Mark (Mark Doherty), at an audition. Mark lives with his girlfriend (Amy Huberman), his disabled brother (David O'Doherty) and their dog in a rundown building that's also home to Mark's best friend, Pierce (Dylan Moran), a dissolute aspirant film director addicted to alcohol and gambling. The assistant at his local Paddy Power outlet greets him with the line, "Hello, Martin Scorsese".

Accidents will happen, and they follow in swift succession as the body count escalates and Mark and Pierce find themselves caught up in a real-life drama more outlandish than any of Pierce's pretentious screenplays. The movie's energy levels sag around the middle but soon recover as the tone of the farce darkens further. If you can imagine Withnail & Ireworked by Joe Orton, you will begin to get the measure of Mark Doherty's acute, merciless screenplay that offers juicy roles for himself and Moran as a definitively odd couple.

Life out in the sprawling suburbs of Celtic Tiger-era Dublin proves just as discomfiting in Ivan Kavanagh's Our Wonderful Homeand Gerard Stembridge's Alarm. Kavanagh's ironically titled drama introduces Fred and Fiona (Myles Horgan and Karen Griffin) as an ostensibly happy middle-class couple with a 17-year-old daughter, Emma (Emma Eliza Regan), a naive material girl obsessed with being as thin - and as famous - as the celebrities that fascinate her.

As Kavanagh rips down their facade of domestic contentment, he employs the initially offputting device of having the characters reveal themselves to an off-screen interviewer, but that grows in effectiveness as the film builds to a conclusion of simmering intensity. Horgan and Regan persuasively capture the enveloping desperation of their characters.

The protagonist of Alarmis a young woman turning increasingly paranoid after she buys a house on the outskirts of Dublin. Played with conviction by Ruth Bradley, Molly is traumatised after an incident at her family home in which intruders killed her father. (Stembridge's screenplay was inspired by a burglary at his own house and the unease he felt for days afterwards.) Molly escapes the cacophony of Dublin traffic for the virtual silence of her new home on an estate where everyone else leaves early every morning for their jobs in Dublin. She works from home as a researcher on a radio arts programme; in a sly dig, Stembridge feeds one character the line that she's reading books so that the show's presenter can pretend to have read them.

Stembridge also targets the property obsession of recent years in his picture of a woman unhinged by creepy events that finally force her to install the alarm that gives the movie its title. Adrian Turner engagingly plays the amorous young man she regards as her protector until her trust in him is shaken, too. The consequences are not as compelling as the premise, and curiously lacking in tension.

The strangest of the five new Dublin-set movies at Galway was writer-director Rick Larkin's Satellites & Meteorites, an initially intriguing romantic fantasy that transpires to be taking place within the subconscious minds of two coma patients, a prolific author (Adam Fergus) and an American satellite engineer (busy Amy Huberman). The film drifts into a meandering structure that prompts a distancing effect.

THE ONLY NEW film at Galway to be set in that city, Vox Humana( Notes for a Small Opera), was named runner-up to Kisseson awards night. Newcomer Luke Caldwell plays Luke, a down-at-heel drummer estranged from his wife, living off his wits and petty theft, and sleeping on the streets of Galway. The roots of his problems are succinctly explained in a flashback to a careless accident with tragic consequences.

A social outcast, Luke finds a place where he feels he might belong when he helps out at the rehearsals of the Galway Baroque Singers, a 70-member group whose ethereal hymns provide the soundtrack for Luke's rocky road to potential redemption. The scenario devised by the film's veteran director Bob Quinn offers no soft options, and In the Bleak Midwinteris the apt choice of final hymn as the film reaches its uncompromising conclusion.

The award for Best First Feature went to writer-director Macdara Vallely for Peacefire, a Northern Ireland drama with a pun in its title and a sting in its tale. John Travers plays Colin, a bored teen whose days revolve around stealing cars and drinking outdoors with his friends. Colin's father was an IRA member shot dead for "being in the wrong place at the wrong time", and when Colin tangles with the police, he is offered a reprieve if he informs on the activities of dangerous local Provos.

A Special Branch officer warns Colin that history keeps repeating itself, and his mother's silent despair makes it clear that she fears that Colin will meet the same fate as his father. Travers, who made a striking debut in Song for a Raggy Boy, plays Colin with an impressively expressive screen presence at the heart of Vallely's earnest drama.

Another young man gets caught up in another spiral of Northern Ireland violence in Graham Cantwell's confident debut feature, Anton, set in the early 1970s. Anthony Fox, who wrote the screenplay and produced the film with Patrick Clarke, takes the title role as Anton O'Neill, who returns after five years at sea to his Co Cavan Border home.

The film captures a festering atmosphere of bigotry and misguided patriotism that Anton finds all too contagious. Introduced as being "based on true events", the drama takes off on a commendably unpredictable path that brings Anton to Paris at one point and offers the possibility of a new life, but he is already in too deep and out of depth. Fox immerses himself in the central role with unstinting commitment, and Gerard McSorley brings authority to the role of the gruff police inspector on his trail.

On a much lighter note, Martin Duffy's Summer of the Flying Saucertakes place in rural Co Mayo in 1967 when Danny (Robert Sheehan), a boarding-school student, returns home for the summer and shocks his farmer father (Lorcan Cranitch) and the conservative villagers with his new hippie appearance. They get much more to bother them when Danny discovers two aliens in his backyard and befriends them. He introduces them to the locals as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

The scene is set for conflict between the prejudice and fear of difference in the village and the values of peace, love and understanding represented by Danny and the aliens in this amiable coming-of-age fantasy. It is pointlessly saddled with a present-day preface to set Patrick Bergin's narration of the story in motion. The deadpan cast includes John Keogh as a paranoid publican and Hugh O'Conor as a guitar-playing, would-be trendy young priest.

THE MANY NEW documentaries showing at the fleadh included two portraits of key figures in Irish film. Ciarín Scott's absorbing Waiting for the Lightpays welcome, long overdue tribute to George Morrison, the pioneering director of the remarkable historical documentaries, Mise Éireand Saoirse?.

Directed by Pat Collins, Gabriel Byrne . . . Stories from Homefeatures the Irish actor in an extended candid interview interwoven with archive footage as it follows his prolific career through productions as diverse as The Riordansand Miller's Crossing, both of which are featured in clips.

As the curtain fell on the highly successful fleadh, the organisers led by managing director Miriam Allen and programmer Felim Mac Dermott were already looking ahead to the celebrations that will mark the event's 21st edition next summer.

• Michael Dwyer reports on selected short films from Galway in The Ticketon Friday.