Song of the Sea
Song of the Sea opens Friday December 19th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. See it on the biggest screen possible.

Song of the Sea (Director: Tomm Moore): As a huge fan of Tomm Moore’s pre­vious film, The Secret of Kells, I was eagerly looking for­ward to seeing Song of the Sea. And I do mean seeing, since Moore’s work as an anim­ator is grounded in a lush yet spare drawing style that is simply gor­geous to look at. And true to form, every frame of the new film is as visu­ally stun­ning as a painting. What I wasn’t pre­pared for was how much of an emo­tional wallop the film packs.

Though I’m a true lover of cinema, there are times when I’m grateful that I don’t have to make my living writing about films. This is def­in­itely one of those times. Instead of bashing out my 300 words trying to slot this into some cat­egories (anim­a­tion, family films) and per­haps musing about its poten­tial box office num­bers before moving on the next week to whatever the media fire­hose belches forth, I can take my time a little. I can write about this film simply because it mat­ters to me, and I can write about it in whatever way that I can express that.

I’ll begin by pointing out that Moore and his pro­duc­tion com­pany, Cartoon Saloon, have been working on Song of the Sea for more than five years, on a budget a frac­tion of what a com­pany like Pixar would have avail­able. Without dis­par­aging any other anim­ated fea­ture films out there, this cer­tainly speaks to the level of craft and love for the medium that Moore and his col­leagues share. Operating out­side of the Hollywood industry, Cartoon Saloon is more like an Irish ver­sion of the late, great Studio Ghibli.

The film begins with a few lines from W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” a poem which has par­tic­ular meaning for me, a trans­planted Irishman. I chose it to be a part of my father’s memorial ser­vice a few years ago, and I’ve always found The Waterboys’ song based on it to be incred­ibly moving. It’s the story of a child being lured away from “a world full of weeping” by faeries.

It’s won­derful to see Moore return to the Irish myth­o­logy which The Secret of Kells brought to life so mem­or­ably. This time it’s a story about selkies, creatures who exist as seals in the water but as humans on dry land. Sometimes they take human spouses, but these unions often end tra­gic­ally when the selkies return to their true home, the sea.

Song of the Sea

On the night that young Saoirse is born, her mother Bronach dis­ap­pears, leaving hus­band Conor the light­house keeper heart­broken and son Ben bitter and angry at his baby sister. As she grows up, she remains mute and Ben con­tinues to reject her. One night she dis­covers a spe­cial coat and wades into the sea where she is trans­formed into a seal and swims hap­pily with a group of her own kind. But when her vis­iting grand­mother finds her washed up on shore, she takes both Saoirse and Ben to live in the city, away from the dangers of the sea and their dis­tracted father.

Being away from the sea and her spe­cial coat weakens Saoirse and Ben begins to show more sym­pathy for her. As well, he quickly dis­covers that all of the stories about faeries and witches that his mother told him before she dis­ap­peared are true. Soon the sib­lings are caught up in a life and death struggle to save Saoirse’s life and to restore a whole pop­u­la­tion of faery creatures who have been turned to stone by the witch Macha.

The emo­tional core of the film is lit­er­ally about having an emo­tional core. The “vil­lain” (who is really just unable to cope with her own pain) tries to lure Ben by asking him to forget his pain and bottle up (again, quite lit­er­ally) his feel­ings in jars. But this well-meaning coping strategy has turned all of the faeries into stone, including Macha’s beloved son, the giant Mac Lir. In her mis­guided desire to rescue him from heart­break, Macha instead stole her own son’s lifeblood. There’s a very clever pairing of human and faery char­ac­ters in the story as well, which makes the myth­ical stories much more immediate.

The mes­sage of feeling your feel­ings, even when they’re painful, was not lost on me. I’ve gone through more than my fair share of per­sonal tra­gedies this year. I cry much more easily now. I spent more than half of the film a quiv­ering, sniff­ling wreck, and it felt won­derful. Although this is a film that deserves a huge audi­ence, in many ways it felt like Tomm Moore made it just for me. And that is the highest praise I can bestow.


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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