Film reviews

The Boys & Girl from County Clare

Directed by John Irvin
(Ireland, U.K. Germany, 2003)
Review by Lois Siegel

The Boys & Girl from County Clare (originally titled The Boys from County Clare) is a battle of the bands as only the Irish can.

The film opens with “Whiskey in the Jar,” a rousing tune, and we’re off and running with a toe-tapping, traditional sound track. We hear and see fiddles, accordions, whistles, pipes, harp and piano. If you are a musician or love traditional music, this film is definitely for you.

It’s 1965. The British Invasion is happening in every country except Ireland where traditional music reigns. The Liverpool Shamrock Ceilidh Band is competing in the “All Ireland Traditional Music Competition.” Can they win the trophy?

Band director Jimmy McMahon (Colin Meany) brings his motley English crew to the competition in County Clare. His older brother, John Joe (Bernard Hill), wants his local band to win for the third time in a row. The family rivals clash.

Anne (Andrea Corr) is Clare’s young star fiddler. She is not only interested in music. She likes Teddy (Shaun Evans), Liverpool’s star flute player. The location is a delight: crowded pubs, narrow streets. They only play Clare tunes –“If you want spice, go to a curry house” – leave “jazz” to the Beatles.

Just getting to the event isn’t easy as the travelling band faces a multitude of road blocks – literally, with cows or sheep in the road, but also disappearing instruments and van wheels.

Nevertheless, humour prevails. For example, two lost musicians on the road talk about playing the Bad Ron. What is that? The correct name is “Bodhran,” the Irish drum. And they insist on a pint of Guinness for breakfast because it’s “not good to eat on an empty stomach.”

The film is set in different times and a harsher world. A young lad under 12 competes in the competition and misses some notes of his fiddle tune. His father slaps him hard. “No pint of ice cream for you,” he shouts.

Music is everywhere, recognizable Irish tunes. Anne’s father tells his daughter, “When you’ve got the music, you’ve got friends for life, remember that.” Besides music, Anne is also ready for romance. As a result, her father recognizes that “it’s better to gain a musician than to lose a daughter.”

Anne is played by Andrea of the well-known Corrs Family, the Irish pop/rock/Celtic music group.

The Corrs have performed on tour with the Rolling Stones. Anne is the songwriter and lead singer. She had a speaking role in the film The Commitments. The Corrs got their start by auditioning for that 1991 film and each won small roles; Andrea played band manager Jimmy Rabbitte’s little sister Sharon.

The  cinematographer on The Boys & Girl from County Clare is Tom Burstyn who used to make films in Montreal and now lives in New Zealand. Burstyn was also the cinematographer on Liberace, a TV movie. He is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated cinematographer and was trained at the National Film Board of Canada as a documentary filmmaker before turning to feature films.

Available: Ottawa Public Library & Amazon.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minute

Les Misérables

Directed by Ladj Ly
(France, 2019)
Review by Paul Green

To say that the teeming banlieues (suburbs) of northeastern Paris – home to many of France’s marginalized African and maghrebin (North African) citizens – are a powder keg is a bit of a cliché. Notwithstanding, for the residents of the tumbledown housing projects known as “les cités” that have sprouted like mushrooms in these benighted neighbourhoods – people who remain largely excluded from mainstream life in France – the atmosphere of tension is a daily reality. In 2005, the banlieues exploded in rage when three North African youths were electrocuted while being being chased by police. Buildings and cars were put to the torch, prompting then-president Nicolas Sarkozy to denounce the rioters as “cette racaille,” or this riff-raff.

Fourteen years later, it seems little has changed. Expanding on a well-received short he made in 2017, also called Les Misérables, first-time director Ladj Ly, himself a product of “les cites,” has fashioned a stunning portrait of the multi-layered societies that inhabit them. While this Les Mis is not another recounting of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th-century tale of revolutionary fervour, its themes of social injustice, police brutality and class warfare are never very far from the surface.

In the Parisian arrondissement known as Montfermeil, a three-man team working for the Brigade Anti-Criminalité roams the mean streets looking for trouble. Veteran Chris (Alexis Manenti), the alpha white male of the trio, is cynical and acts as though his badge gives him licence to do as he pleases; in an unsettling early scene, we witness him gratuitously harassing a 15-year-old North African girl at a bus stop, while his colleagues observe somewhat uneasily. His partner Guada (Djibril Didier Zonga) is more the strong and silent type. They are joined by Stéphane who has transferred from the provinces. It is perhaps intentional that these characters call to mind the three protagonists in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 landmark film La Haine.

The cinematography in this very kinetic film is impressive, supplemented as it is by drone shots that highlight the concrete wasteland that seems to blemish much of Montfermeil. Les Mis is further enhanced by the authentic portrayal of a wide variety of well-rounded characters drawn from different sectors of this community where various national groups coexist in an uneasy harmony.

Besides the police, there is Salah, a reformed Muslim radical who runs a kebab shop that doubles as a sort of drop-in centre.  Rounding out the drug dealers and petty criminals, Gypsy travellers run a local circus. Significantly, the women of Montfermeil are strong, stand up to the cops and generally keep a benevolent eye on things. We even look in on a kitchen full of women counting cash for a “tontine,” a sort of community loan enterprise, a timely reminder that it is very often the women in these communities who keep things going.

Finally, there is the tech-savvy Buzz, a young, bespectacled African boy who flies a drone from the roof of his block, sometimes indulging in petty voyeurism, but more often just keeping watch on his “hood.”

Improbably, a fuse is lit when someone steals a lion cub from the Gypsy circus. Furious, the Roma go on the warpath. To head off a riot, our trio of cops sets out to arrest young Issa who has been fingered as the suspect. Disaster ensues when the arrest is bungled and the boy is injured when a flash bomb is detonated close to his face. The police are mortified to learn that Buzz and his drone have filmed the entire incident. With a crowd gathering, the police find they are unable to get out of a jam without digging themselves in deeper. Young Issa, whom we have seen in the film’s opening sequence celebrating France’s 2018 World Cup victory, has become a symbol – a latter-day Gavroche – and now much depends on him.

It is difficult to believe this is Ly’s first feature film. The steady ratcheting up of tension is the work of a master, and the film’s climactic sequence, where the stakes are very high, is worthy of Victor Hugo himself. This is bravura filmmaking and recommended viewing for the yellow vests and Emmanuel Macron.

Running time: 102 minutes.
In French with English subtitles. Probable rating: 14A.
Scheduled for upcoming DVD release.

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