The Irish Pub

by James McNally on October 21, 2014 · 0 comments

in Documentaries

The Irish Pub
The Irish Pub plays from October 24–30 at the Carlton Cinemas and the Kingsway Theatre in Toronto.

The Irish Pub (Director: Alex Fegan): I was born in Ireland and although my par­ents brought me to Canada when I was just a tod­dler, I’ve been back more than a dozen times in my life­time, and have some great memories of time spent in tra­di­tional Irish pubs. So it wasn’t too dif­fi­cult to con­vince me to watch this new doc­u­mentary about these unique places. Director Fegan takes his camera around Ireland and spends most of his time in country towns where the pubs have often done double duty as gro­cery stores (and in one case, even as an undertaker’s). That should give you an idea of how essen­tial these places have been in the his­tory of the country. Far more than just a place to drink, the pub has been at the centre of social life for the com­munity, including the arts for which Ireland has become famous. It seems that every pub in this film is filled with storytellers and musi­cians. In one case, a pub­lican became a rather well-known play­wright even as his cus­tomers knew that most of the plots had been lifted almost dir­ectly from the con­ver­sa­tions he’d over­heard through the years.

The film allows many of the pub’s owners and cus­tomers to relate some of the stories that have made each one unique. In a few places, there are (largely unne­ces­sary) sub­titles. Many of the pubs are set in post­card gor­geous set­tings. The camera lingers lov­ingly on items of bric-a-brac, and on faces. It’s a leisurely-paced film with no real struc­ture, and no grand thesis. Instead, it simply aims to doc­u­ment people and places that seem in danger of dis­ap­pearing forever. As such, it’s a pleasant exper­i­ence, although surely a bit roman­ti­cized. I’d have liked to hear how the pubs were also hives of polit­ical res­ist­ance and act­ivism during the years of English rule. Or hear more about the pub’s rela­tion­ship with that other insti­tu­tion of Irish life, the Catholic Church. Alcoholism and oppressive reli­gion and eco­nomic des­pair are also a huge part of Irish his­tory, and the pub could be a divisive as well as a uni­fying force.

That being said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this film a lot. To hear the sort of stories told in darkened pubs in a variety of charming brogues would put a smile on anyone’s face. And you’ll meet a whole cast of charming char­ac­ters, from Athy to Ballylongford, from Clonakilty to Dingle, and beyond.

Lately, I’ve been watching a reality tele­vi­sion show called Bar Rescue, in which a brash con­sultant tries to “turn around” failing bars in a few days. Often he berates bar owners for not chan­ging their decor, or not upselling cus­tomers to more expensive drinks. This film, and its name­sake the tra­di­tional Irish pub, is just about the com­plete opposite of the new ideal for bars and pubs. But I’d argue that it’s what the Irish call “the craic” that people are looking for when they walk into a bar. This film gives that dif­fi­cult to define term a bit more sub­stance, and makes for a healthy cor­rective to the relent­less cyn­icism of reality TV.


UPDATE (September 23, 2014): Due to an over­sight, one ballot that was sub­mitted on time wasn’t tab­u­lated. I’ve adjusted the res­ults accord­ingly, and there have been some changes to the Top 10. My apo­lo­gies for the inconvenience.
I’d like to ded­icate this edi­tion of the CAST Awards to our friend Peter Chu (@pchu1234), who passed away in June. His favourite film from last year’s TIFF was Gravity and his Twitter avatar was the poster image from The Tree of Life and I don’t think I can add any­thing to that.

For the third year in a row, I’ve com­piled a spe­cial edi­tion of the CAST Awards, just based on what people saw during the Toronto International Film Festival. Here are the CAST Top 10 based on the votes of 29 sub­mitted bal­lots. Voters ranked up to 10 films on their ballot from top to bottom, with first choices receiving 10 points, second choices 9, etc. The Points column lists the total score for each film, Mentions indic­ates how many voters included it in their Top Ten, Average is the average point score, and Firsts shows how many voters chose it as their favourite TIFF film.

In the case of points ties, the film with the higher number of first-place votes is listed first, then by highest average score. Because our sample size is quite small, these “rank­ings” don’t actu­ally mean much, but I thought it would give a good idea of what this par­tic­ular group of fest­ival­goers enjoyed this year. I’m curious to see how many of these show up in our reg­ular year-end CAST ballot and how they do.

Nightcrawler - Tony Gilroy
The Look of Silence - Joshua OppenheimerWhiplash - Damian Chazelle
Mommy - Xavier DolanThe Duke of Burgundy - Peter StricklandClouds of Sils Maria - Olivier Assayas
What We Do in the Shadows - Taika WaititiForce Majeure - Ruben OstlundTop Five - Chris RockThe Guest - Adam Wingard

1. Nightcrawler 69 9 7.67 2
2. The Look of Silence 52 6 8.67 4
3. Whiplash 50 6 8.33 0
4. Mommy 49 5 9.8 4
5. The Duke of Burgundy 49 7 7.0 2
6. Clouds of Sils Maria 49 7 7.0 1
7. What We Do in the Shadows 41 7 5.86 1
8. Force Majeure 40 6 6.67 1
9. Top Five 37 5 7.4 1
10. The Guest 36 9 4.0 0


Here is a PDF with each person’s ballot and the full col­lated res­ults, with a few more inter­esting stats included.

And for those still reading, here is my final TIFF CAST ballot. There are only 7 films because that’s all I was able to see this year:


  1. The Look of Silence
  2. Mommy
  3. Clouds of Sils Maria
  4. Behavior
  5. 1001 Grams
  6. Natural Resistance
  7. National Diploma


McCabe and Mrs. Miller
McCabe and Mrs. Miller will screen at TIFF Bell Lightbox with an intro­duc­tion from its cine­ma­to­grapher Vilmos Zsigmond on Friday August 8 at 6:15pm.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Director: Robert Altman): In Robert Altman’s “revi­sionist Western,” the smell of saw­dust is in the air of Presbyterian Church, an emer­ging boomtown that’s so new it doesn’t even have a very ima­gin­ative name. A man arrives in town and sets up a card game. He seems to have plenty of money and is rumoured to be the gun­fighter “Pudgy” McCabe. Soon he’s building a saloon and bringing pros­ti­tutes in to work in it. Julie Christie’s mys­ter­ious Mrs. Miller soon arrives to tell him he’s doing the brothel thing all wrong, and that she can help. He bends to her strong will, and soon becomes smitten with her. But just as they’re tasting suc­cess, and maybe romance, the naked aggres­sion of America’s cap­it­alist system takes notice of them.

It’s not hard to see why McCabe does so well as a “busi­nessman” in the town of Presbyterian Church. At the begin­ning of the film, there’s hardly any­thing here. Even the church hasn’t been built yet. It’s virgin ter­ritory, which makes it a per­fect place to start a brothel.

Warren Beatty’s McCabe is my favourite type of char­acter, a man whose vanity doesn’t mask his insec­ur­ities and lack of intel­li­gence. In fact, it only heightens them. Late in the film, he shows genuine fear, and I found myself hoping he’d somehow talk his way out of things and at least be able to start over yet again some­where else.

These are char­ac­ters who arrive on the screen fully-formed and yet we are privy to very few of their secrets. Why is Julie Christie “Mrs.” Miller? What happened to her hus­band? Nobody in this town even asks, the assump­tion being that everyone is here to rein­vent (or maybe just invent) themselves.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s gauzy cine­ma­to­graphy makes everything seem like it’s being seen behind a scrim. Exteriors are seen through a haze of rain­drops or snow­flakes, while interiors seem lit by ker­osene lamps, with the accom­pa­nying smoke. The Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack are some­times a little too insistent, but Zsigmond’s images do a lot of heavy lifting. Late in the film, there are con­sec­utive shots of our two main char­ac­ters curled up in womb-like spaces that won’t really pro­tect them from the nasty world around them. It also emphas­izes their isol­a­tion, even from each other. The pos­sib­ility of real con­nec­tion in such a lonely land­scape comes agon­iz­ingly close for our pair, but in the end, everyone is alone. It’s beau­ti­fully con­veyed, and all the more dev­ast­ating for it.

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Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Robert Altman is a dir­ector I’ve always loved and respected. I loved that he dir­ected indus­trial films in his twen­ties, made tele­vi­sion in his thirties, and was well into his forties before he began making fea­ture films. He has also been described as quite a char­acter, prone to heavy drinking and strong opin­ions. He was always a mav­erick, and des­pite many crit­ical suc­cesses, he still found it a struggle to get many of his films made. I also love that he took many risks, dir­ecting films in many styles. He def­in­itely had a few flops (Popeye, not showing in this series) and films that I per­son­ally dis­liked (The Company, which will be screened), but all of that made him even more human, even as his oeuvre (all of it cre­ated in the latter half of his life) makes him larger than life. If you’re looking for some reading material about Altman’s life, I thor­oughly enjoyed Mitchell Zuckoff’s Altman: The Oral Biography (2010), and recom­mend it as a worthy com­panion volume to seeing the films in this series.

TIFF is bringing a wide-ranging ret­ro­spective of his work to the TIFF Bell Lightbox from August 7th-31st, and I’m excited to see some old favour­ites again, and to fill in a few gaps, too. Even better, kicking things off on Friday August 1st at 7pm is Altman, Toronto film­maker Ron Mann’s new doc­u­mentary on Altman’s life and work. Here are just a few highlights.

Still from M*A*S*H
M*A*S*H (1970)

It wasn’t his first fea­ture, but M*A*S*H def­in­itely announced Altman’s arrival and her­alded a new type of film­making that would come to be known as the “New Hollywood.” The tra­gi­comic lives of a group of bat­tle­field sur­geons during the Korean War came out while the war in Vietnam was in full swing, and its satire still stings today. M*A*S*H screens on Thursday August 7 at 6:30pm.

Still from McCabe and Mrs. Miller
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Described as a “revi­sionist Western,” McCabe and Mrs. Miller has been on my “blind spot” list for years. I’m so glad I finally got to see it on the big screen. I’ll be posting my thoughts on the film here very soon. McCabe and Mrs. Miller will screen with an intro­duc­tion from its cine­ma­to­grapher Vilmos Zsigmond on Friday August 8 at 6:15pm.

Still from Brewster McCloud
Brewster McCloud (1970)

This story of an eccentric young man (Bud Cort) who lives in the Houston Astrodome and who wants to fly like a bird has been dif­fi­cult to see over the years. I’m looking for­ward to catching it on 35mm. Brewster McCloud will screen on Sunday August 10 at 1:30pm.

Still from California Split
California Split (1974)

One of the only Altman films I’ve actu­ally written about before, this fea­tures two stal­warts of ‘70s cinema, Elliott Gould and George Segal as a couple of gambling bud­dies. It’s funny, but also darker than it first appears. Addiction’s pull is just below the sur­face of all the other antics. California Split screens on Thursday August 21 at 6:15pm.

There is much, much more, including screen­ings of The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), The Player (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Gosford Park (2001), and his last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). More inform­a­tion on the series from the TIFF web site.

Tickets for all screen­ings are avail­able through the TIFF web site or at the box office. I’ve got mine already. See you there!

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Alfred & Jakobine

Alfred & Jakobine (Director: Jonathan Howells): After meeting and falling in love in Japan in 1955, American Alfred Hobbs and Danish artist Jakobine Schou impuls­ively mar­ried, with their mutu­ally adven­turous spirits taking them to Casablanca shortly there­after. Here, the new­ly­weds pur­chased a beat-up London taxi built in 1934 and spent the next four years driving it on an epic global road trip, where the couple’s pas­sion for each other never waned and their exploits brought them minor celebrity. When their journey was over, Alfred and Jakobine (pro­nounced “Yauk-o-beena”) set down roots in New York state. Not long after, Alfred unex­pec­tedly walked out on Jakobine, leaving her shattered. The couple recon­nected at a party a few years later, con­ceived a son, and Alfred soon exited Jakobine’s life once again. 40 years later, an 84-year-old Alfred con­fronting his mor­tality decides to fix up that same taxi, travel across America with the son he’s never really known, and sur­prise the woman whose heart he broke by offering her “one last ride,” as he describes it.

Director Jonathan Howells is the bene­factor of this rich source material and has pro­duced a reflective and moving film about the beauty and pain of love. The film­maker entwines the past and present with an effective bal­ance of first-person recol­lec­tions and visual aids (taken from the couple’s archives made up of 3,000 pho­to­graphs and numerous hours of their well-crafted 8mm and 16mm film footage), and the doc­u­menting of both the dif­fi­cult res­tor­a­tion pro­cess of the taxi and the 2,400 mile trip in September 2009 that Alfred and his son Niels took in it from Taos, New Mexico to Jakobine’s home in Oneida, New York. Adding to the intrigue encom­passing the modern-day trip are the dis­tant rela­tion­ship between Niels and Alfred, the arduous toll of the trek upon their del­icate vehicle, and the fact the unsus­pecting Jakobine (who appears to have never gotten over Alfred) has been hap­pily remar­ried for dec­ades to a like­able chap named Rusty, who actu­ally helped coordinate the reunion.

Alfred & Jakobine’s only real fault is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the many fas­cin­ating layers of this story due to the all-too-brief 73-minute run­ning time (pre­sum­ably due to busi­ness con­sid­er­a­tions involving run­ning times for the­at­rical screen­ings and tele­vi­sion broad­cast, not cre­ative reasons). Specifically, Alfred’s mys­ter­ious reason for leaving Jakobine never feels explained to sat­is­fac­tion and the scenes involving the Taos-to-Oneida journey seem scant in com­par­ison to the four weeks it took to com­plete the trip. Additionally, the lack of stories involving Alfred and Jakobine’s adven­tures in the 50s is dis­ap­pointing. The film’s press kit ref­er­ences one story not included in the doc­u­mentary that found them “cap­tured by armed guer­rillas in (Africa’s) Atlas Mountains and…thrown into a desert prison, where they thought they would most cer­tainly die”. It’s a test­a­ment to Alfred & Jakobine’s core appeal, how­ever, that a com­pel­ling nar­rative such as this could end up excised from the final cut and the film still has plenty of pro­ver­bial meat on the bone. Hopefully, the documentary’s future DVD/Blu-ray release allows for a more in-depth present­a­tion. Brevity aside, Alfred & Jakobine proves to be a touching charmer.

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