Now entering its sixth year, the Toronto Irish Film Festival returns this Friday, February 28th to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for several screenings of features, shorts, documentaries, and TV shows to showcase some of the best works coming out of the Emerald Isle in the past year. A blend of world premieres, productions that haven’t made their way to Canada yet, and films that made waves on the festival circuit there seems to be a little bit for everyone this year.
While we didn’t get a chance to look at everything from this year’s line-up, there do seem to be some potential gems to be found. Ross Whitaker and Aideen O’ Sullivan’s When Ali Came to Ireland (Saturday, March 1st, 7:00pm) is a mid-length documentary about the bizarre way that fight promoter Michael Sugrue was able to convince the greatest boxer who ever lived to come and fight in Ireland against non-contender Alvin “Blue” Lewis at the height of his popularity, and how the trip affected Mohammad Ali’s life after the fight was over. Lance Daly’s dysfunctional family comedy Life’s a Breeze (Sunday, March 2nd, 7:00pm) returns after premiering internationally last year at TIFF, telling the story of a mattress containing a matriarchs millions in Euros getting unceremoniously tossed and the subsequent recovery effort by the grandmother’s family. A series of six shorts screens on Saturday at 5:00pm dealing with everything from fears of modernization (The End of the Counter) to road trips (Two Wheels Good) to nature (Fear of Flying). There’s even a bit of dark comedy and suspense in the shorts programme with The Tree, Breakfast Wine, and The Boys from County Hell. The festival has also landed the Canadian launch of the second season of actor and writer Chris O’Dowd’s semi-autobiographical comedy series Moonie Boy (Sunday, March 2nd at 5:00pm).
But of the two films we were able to catch, the definite better of the two was opening night film, The Irish Pub (Friday, February 28th, 7:00pm). Alex Fagan takes a stripped down and unpretentious look at some of, if not THE, most widely beloved Irish national institutions: old school taverns with almost ancient looking stone floors, shelves of ephemera gathering dust across generations, and Guinness on tap. Fagan’s documentary takes a somewhat disjointed approach at first, focusing on the more anecdotal recollections of pub proprietors of different ages, backgrounds, and approaches across the countryside and in major cities. Some welcome change, others want it desperately, but most want to leave things the same in a last bastion of traditionalism in a country still struggling to find its identity. By frontloading his film with the fun drinking stories that anyone could relate to, however, Fagan turns the second half of his film into a more humanist and personal look at the hearty souls and families that have thrived and endured in one of the world’s oldest professions in a country full of prolific imbibers. It creates a nostalgic sympathy for the bartender, someone who usually has to listen to the problems of others instead of telling their own stories. It’s as relaxing and charming as sitting down in a snug with that elusive after-hours pint slipped to you on the sly by a kindly barkeep.
Much less successful that that, however, is the unoriginal and somewhat frustrating microbudget indie drama Made in Belfast (Saturday, March 1st, 9:00pm), which might just suffer from not being Irish enough. Actor Paul Kennedy’s debut feature as a director focuses on a pretty standard “going home” narrative, which with the exception of a few brief flourishes of dialogue specific to the Belfast experience could have taken place anywhere and been just as contrived. Ciaran McMenamin stars as an Irish ex-pat best selling novelist living in Paris who reluctantly heads home for his father’s funeral at the request of his estranged brother (Shaun Blaney). Every beat of Kennedy’s film feels way too familiar and forced to feel fresh or natural. The man never has a chance to tell his dad why he left, he tries to make amends with old friends, he seeks out a former love, etc. Nothing really deviates from the Sundance Academy playbook (including the really “trying too hard” indie rock soundtrack), and it feels more like hanging out with a bunch of people that aren’t really that interesting. There is a great standout, though: Blaney, who gives a breakout performance as the good natured, but understandably defensive younger brother who stayed behind while the character was out “finding himself.” It would have made for a better story of brothers than a redemptive tale.
But like I said off the top, there’s plenty more where these two came from, so for a full list of films screening, more information, and tickets, check out the Toronto Irish Film Festival website.