St. Patrick’s Day in America has become a day of drunken celebration–green beer, plastic hats, and parades featuring a enormous, creepy, grinning semblances of the ubiquitous leprechaun. We’ve co-opted a Catholic holiday celebrating a saint and molded it into an excuse to drink and get silly. Which, generally, I have no problem with.
For this edition of The Weekly Listicle, Dan Fields and I will host our own celebration of the Irish in cinema, from Irish-Americans to immigrants to movies set in the old country. Tip yer hat, pour yerself libations, and follow us to the end of the rainbow.
The Boondock Saints (dir. Troy Duffy, 1999)
One of the first movies that comes to mind as March 17 creeps nearer is Troy Duffy’s cult favorite The Boondock Saints. After an ill-advised but unavoidable bar brawl, twin Bostonian brothers Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) McManus decide to take justice into their own hands. The brothers aned friend Rocco (David Della Rocco) slyly take out Boston’s mob bosses, uttering prayers that’ve become fodder for Hot Topic t-shirts and sporting “Veritas” and “Aequitas” (truth and justice) hand tattoos.
All the while nutty FBI Agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe) tracks the McManuses, conducting personal symphonies as he recreates the crimes. Mob bosses, fearing for their evil, evil lives, ensure the release of the McManus brothers’ papa (Billy Connolly) from prison, hoping he’ll make them stop their good deeds. Of course The Duke only joins them in their battle against the baddies. Vigilantism in film has rarely been so satisfying–and despite stolid, unexpressive performances from Flanery and Reedus, Dafoe and Connelly are both pretty great.
Troy Duffy was a bouncer/bartender before he wrote the movie, and the filmmaking is subpar but lively. Miramax bought the film then rescinded, and in 2003 a friend of Duffy’s released a documentary about the making of The Boondock Saints called Overnight, which revealed Duffy to be an abrasive, insensitive asshole. Surprise?
Either way, the movie grossed tens of millions in home entertainment sales after failing miserable in box offices–and became the best kind of cult classic (critics on IMDb rate it approximately 44%, but its average rating from IMDb’s everyday users is 7.8/10). It has infinitely memorable lines, smartly rendered characters, and more than a bit of the old ultraviolence. It’s one of recent cinema’s most memorable representations of modern Irish Catholics – and the badassery of killing in the name of God, truth, justice, and the American way.
(Note: I haven’t seen the sequel released in 2009. As I understand it, I shouldn’t and nor should you.)
Gangs of New York (dir. Martin Scorcese, 2002)
I’ve heard the more snobbish among us refer to Gangs of New York as “lesser Scorcese.” Nonetheless, as a love letter to the director’s home city and as a bastion of the less-admirable bits of American history, it holds up. The movie, set pre-Civil War, is centered on the Five Points district in New York City, an area over which the Natives (those born in the U.S.) and the Irish Catholic immigrants fought brutally and bitterly. Their battles were ideological, religious, and strangely honorable. Scorcese, a New Yorker one hundred ten percent, took the opportunity after 9/11 to illuminate his city’s dark past and highlight New Yorkers’ fortitude in the wake of the tragedy. (Spike Lee’s 25th Hour did the same thing post-9/11, but Lee’s work is more pedantic and less palatable.)
After his immigrant father’s (Liam Neeson) bloody death at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points to seek revenge. But “there’s no place warmer than under the dragon’s wing,” and Amsterdam and Bill begin a strange, familial relationship. When Bill finds out Amsterdam is Priest’s son, tensions in the Five Points escalate until the two factions – Natives and Dead Rabbits – hit a boiling point…just in time for the Civil War to begin in earnest, dwarfing their petty concerns. Get it, guys? We live in a melting pot. We’re all Americans. (There are some who could stand to have this lesson beaten into them right now.)
Gangs of New York marked Day-Lewis’s return from his five-year “vacation” from acting, during which he was a cobbler in Italy. According to reports he’s a Method actor, which means Gods help anyone who was near him while he was in the skin of Bill the Butcher. His performance ratchets the movie up from what could’ve been a stylish but verbose period piece to a genuinely good movie; he’s brilliant. Scorcese draws the big names from the Hollywood stockyard, and the movie boasts a great cast including Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly (in one of his rare serious roles), Brendan Gleeson, Cameron Diaz, and E.T.‘s Henry Thomas. Its sets are gorgeous–and those with sharp eyes may recognize the maze of wooden platforms in Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera. It’s a tad heavy on the historical, educational narration, but all in all it’s an epic period piece with great respect for a variety of cultures–the Irish in particular.
The Town (dir. Ben Affleck, 2010)
Here we are, back in Boston with the Irish mob.
I’m frankly a little surprised The Town didn’t score more Oscar noms this year. Affleck proved himself a talented director yet again, Jeremy Renner’s performance is wonderful (and Oscar-nominated of course), and even Blake Lively (also known as Boobs Legsly in certain parts of the interwebs) has a decent turn. The late actor Pete Postlethwaite gave one of his last performances, looking ragged and sinewy as a mob boss.
According to the movie, the Charlestown district of Boston has churned out more career bank robbers and armored truck thieves than anywhere else in the world. Doug MacRay (Affleck) and James Coughlin (Renner) are part of a team of thieves, but when they kidnap beautiful bank teller Claire (Rebecca Hall) Doug is torn between the life he was meant to live and the one he wants. No one gets out of the business; the Florist, Fergus “Fergie” Colm (Postlethwaite), sees to that…until Doug decides that’s exactly what he’s going to do.
Movies about the Irish, particularly Irish-Americans, have a pretty hefty focus on crime and the mob. Almost all the ones I’ve been able to come up with also emphasize family, perhaps more strongly than other mob flicks. The McManus brothers rip apart bathroom fixtures to save one another; Amsterdam Vallon attempts to assassinate his father’s murderer; James Coughlin and Dougie MacRay are family too–and they’ll do anything for each other.
The Secret of Kells (dir. Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey, 2009)
Netflix has been recommending The Secret of Kells to me since its release, but I didn’t get around to watching it until recently. The animated picture tells a fictionalized account of the tale of the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s greatest national treasures. It’s a lovely fable transmitted through fantastic animation.
In the ninth century, Brendan (Evan McGuire), a young apprentice at the scriptorium in the monastery of Irish village Kells, undertakes a lifelong journey to illuminate the secrets of the Book of Iona. After befriending the elderly but spry Father Aidan (Mick Lally), Brendan struggles against his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson, who appears more than once in this Listicle), whose sole obsession is building strong walls to keep the Vikings from destorying Kells. Once outside Kells’s fortified boundaries, Brendan meets Aisling (Christen Mooney), a forest fairy whose family were killed by Crom Cruach, a pagan deity. With help from Aidan and Aisling, Brendon must find the Eye of Collum-Cille, a looking-glass that allows the viewer to illuminate great tales and symbols. Although the Book of Kells was never finished, the movie posits that Father Aidan brought it from Iona, and Brendan’s hands wrought the remainder of the illuminations in its pages, creating the final Book of Kells.
Not only is the legend interesting and romantic, but what better way to tell it than via gorgeous animation? Celtic symbols swirl through watercolor-splashed backgrounds; beautifully rendered frames within frames, based on the meticulous detail of the Book of Kells itself, contain characters drawn in simple, thick lines. Shadows come to life, telling legends within the tale. Dizzyingly beautiful gyroscopic imagery shimmers through the screen. Vivid greens (I hope you’re wearing some today!) and morose reds dominate the film, and the traditional soundtrack is heavy on fiddle and banjo. On St. Patrick’s Day, we should all try to respect Irish culture instead of, you know, dyeing our beer green and wearing bobbly-antennae hats. For a retelling of one of Ireland’s most beloved fables, this is certainly the movie to watch.
On The Waterfront (dir. Elia Kazan, 1954)
Elia Kazan’s masterpiece On The Waterfront tells the tale of Terry Malloy, a former boxer turned longshoreman, though as you may remember he “coulda been a contender!” Marlon Brando brings aching sensitivity to the role, masterfully playing a young man dealt a sorry lot. Pulled before his time from the ring by the hand that feeds him, Terry takes up work on the Hoboken docks and doesn’t complain much. His brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) provides legal counsel to the local boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a connection which provides a measure of security to a brother who knows how to keep his head down and his mouth shut.
When Terry gets himself sent on an errand that spells murder for one of his friends, he becomes ensnared in a dilemma between doing the smart thing and doing the right thing. The dead man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) and the local priest (Karl Malden) approach Terry to come forward and tell what he knows. His brother and his boss make it clear that nothing of the kind ought to be done. Otherwise, Terry may find himself on the wrong side of the gun next time. Neither side intends to give an inch, and Terry must ultimately be guided by what he knows in his heart.
With On The Waterfront you get prize fighters, dockside violence, and fiery Catholics aplenty (Karl Malden as Father Barry does some fantastic preaching. You may find yourself thinking of your own sins when he stares the camera down). In short, the classic hallmarks of the Irish working man’s plight are here in strength. The cast is outstanding, and typical of Elia Kazan’s work, everything from the camera work to the music is elegantly assembled to make a stirring drama of lasting acclaim.
The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Originally re-imagined from Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s high-speed cop thriller Infernal Affairs, this movie unpacks the concept of dueling informants within the ranks of the law and the bad guys, respectively, into a modern underworld epic. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a handsome young thug secretly installed in the Irish mob by the Massachusetts State Police. Matt Damon plays a shifty-eyed charmer installed in the Massachusetts State Police by the Irish mob. Each eventually gets charged with the task of identifying and taking down the other. As I have said before, just wind them up and watch them go!
This movie boasts one of the most entertaining ensemble casts we have seen in a long time. In addition to the leads, numerous supporting roles feature the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Jack Nicholson in possibly the darkest and most hateful role he has yet played (he’s the bad guy). The rapid-fire script is Scorsese at his best, bewilderingly clever and often hilarious in the most grim situations. It is also worth noting that as actor and director, DiCaprio and Scorsese seem to bring out the best in one another. The story, by contrast, brings out the worst in almost everybody. Scorsese piles layer after layer of corruption and deception one upon the other, until it seems that there is no honest way out alive.
Besides the obvious musical tie-in – remember that this movie allowed Dropkick Murphys to go fully mainstream by featuring their smash single “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” – The Departed revels in Boston Irish atmosphere. Police funerals with bagpipes, strong family ties, complicated religious themes, and lots of Boston pride cement the film’s tie to the heritage of its characters. All these actors are clearly having a blast with their Boston accents.
In some ways, this movie resembles a modern, tongue-in-cheek answer to On The Waterfront, which taken in that light seems to prove that human nature has changed little in the last fifty years.
Leprechaun (dir. Mark Jones, 1993)
Time for a change of pace. Let us consider the most logical – yet least respectable – candidate for a Saint Patrick’s Day movie marathon. Of all the cult horror franchises, perhaps none has prolonged itself to such ridiculous effect as Leprechaun, starring Warwick (“Willooooooooo-ow!”) Davis as the nastiest imaginable ambassador of the wee folk. The plot is simple enough – he wants his gold back! – and his pursuit has taken him on bizarre killing sprees through rural America, the Hood (more than once), and outer space. No kidding.
The first Leprechaun features a young Jennifer Aniston, every bit as cute as the wicked leprechaun is hideous. She and her friends discover the little feller in a box, where a greedy thief had imprisoned him upon stealing his precious gold. Now he blindly murders his way through everyone in his path, hoping to reclaim the treasure. You may find yourself a bit weary of puns about gold, bad luck, and other leprechauny matters in short order. Even more than your average slasher, this one really ramps up the contrived lunacy of the various ways to kill people. This movie is famous in its proper circle for death by pogo stick. Being a whimsical little imp, the Leprechaun must naturally find some measure of gruesome good humor in his murderous exploits. Did I mention he speaks in lilting riddles and rhymes most of the time?
Leprechaun is one of those single-gimmick horror movies that’s so bad it’s… well, no, it’s pretty bad. But taken in the proper spirit, it offers its share of gross and hilarious mayhem. In any case, this is a movie for enjoying all the way or not at all. My recommendation: pop it in, pull up a box of Lucky Charms, pour in a Guinness, and enjoy in your best green shamrock PJs.
The Commitments (dir. Alan Parker, 1991)
Alan Parker’s The Commitments, based on Roddy Doyle’s novel and the first of the “Barrytown” trilogy of tales, tells of a motley group of down and out Dubliners who come together to form a soul band, of all things. Full-time dreamer and self-styled manager Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) builds the group up from nothing with inspiring tales of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Soon, he discovers a surprising measure of talent in his friends and neighbors. If only he can reign in their hot tempers and headstrong attitudes, he might just have the makings of a real sensation. He names them “The Commitments,” because all the great soul bands had names sort of like that.
The charming rise of this rough-cut band plays out against the backdrop of working class Dublin, which unlike Rome was built in a day, according to one of the characters. These fast-talking, foul-mouthed youngsters may just have found real success for the first time in their lives, and through a series of hard-fought gigs and hot-blooded creative differences they intend to prove it. Jimmy finds a dubious mentor in his trumpet player, Joey “The Lips,” whose tales of life on the road with the legends may or may not be true, and whose designs on the female members of the group only add to the tension and occasionally violent altercations among them. Anchoring the ensemble is Colm Meaney as Jimmy’s dad, whose simultaneous reverence for Elvis and the pope nicely illustrates the offbeat humor pervading
The Commitments. “Say it loud,” urges Jimmy at the outset, “I’m black and I’m proud.”
This is a story full of colorful and hilarious characters, from the swaggering bull of a lead singer to his fierce trio of backup gals, to the out and out hooligan of a drummer. One gets the feeling that even as the group gains polish and charisma on stage, their personal differences and clashing egos threaten to blow the operation sky high. Time will tell whether the powder keg will hold. In the meantime, prepare to do a lot of laughing and hear some great music. Stephen Frears adapted the other Barrytown books, The Snapper and The Van, into later films. Both of these are quite good, but neither has quite the same punch and fire as The Commitments.
The Pogues: Live At The Town And Country Club, London (1988)
It seems improper to dance at such length around questions of Irish persuasion without including one film which embodies everything about the true spirit of Saint Patrick’s Day. What better ambassadors than the Pogues to demonstrate the proper observance of so high a holy day? By themselves, this band captured everything charismatic about working class anger, Irish passion, rock and roll attitude, and complete poetic abandon. This concert film, taken at the height of the group’s career and marking the beginning of the end for frontman Shane MacGowan’s reliability on stage, chronicles the ultimate Saint Patrick’s Day party.
It is a shame that MacGowan is chiefly infamous for his appearance as a shambling, toothless wreck (which he is) and not so widely revered for his stirring lyrics and adventurous musical style while at the helm of the Pogues. By this time, he was beyond reclaiming his razor-sharp delivery on the band’s early albums, but his rebel yell still said everything it was meant to say
The most appropriate way to leave this list is with a proper invocation of the festivities. To wit, I offer you the greatest Irish party song ever written or performed by the Pogues or any band. Kick your night off with their soulful classic “If I Should Fall From Grace With God.” Enjoy yourselves and see that it doesn’t happen. Best to all.