Mike Houlihan, founder of the Irish American Movie Hooley festival, is so dedicated to Irish-American filmmakers and culture that this year he screened 50 domestic and international submissions before he and Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, settled on the three films they felt were the most consonant with the Hooley's mission of furthering the traditions of Irish storytelling.
Among them is Ireland's highest-grossing indigenous production of 2017, Cardboard Gangsters, a crime story in the vein of early Matthew Vaughn, Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, and Matthieu Kassovitz films about small-time crooks in over their heads. One might call its Darndale setting on the northern fringes of Dublin the Celtic version of a Paris banlieue: the district is the poorest in the Irish capital, plagued by narcotics, violence, and a general lack of opportunities for its low-income housing residents. The film's protagonist is Jason (John Connors), a bruiser still living at home with his mom, who's in hock to the local drug kingpin, Derra (Jimmy Smallhorne). Jason's occasional gigs as a nightclub DJ don't go far toward lowering her debt, so he decides, with the help of his lowlife crew, to encroach on Derra's territory, a ballsy but tragically ill-advised move.
Because many criminals have poor impulse control, letting their addictions and testosterone override any vestiges of logic, it's not surprising that as Jason stresses out he's tempted by Derra's sultry wife, Kim (Kierston Wareing of Fish Tank), while his own hothead sidekick, Dano (Fionn Walton), proves to be a weaseling, colossal bungler. As the gang war escalates, Jason turns as lethal as Derra-at which point any sympathy for our "hero" is severely taxed. But director Mark O'Connor shows considerable skill at orchestrating action sequences, and Connors is very expressive as a strongman who's not strong enough to thrive.
Covadonga is an oddity, part ghost story, part mystery, but mostly a showcase for Irish-American writer-director Sean Hartofilis's acting and musical talents. He plays Martin, a widower whiling away time in his expensive lakefront home in rural upstate New York. When not swimming or singing plaintive songs (some traditional Irish ballads, others the filmmaker's original compositions), he's given to odd behavior like cleaning house in his bathrobe while dancing, Fred Astaire-like, with his floor mop. A cop checking on a missing persons report (the director's father, George Hartofilis, channeling Peter Falk's Columbo) inadvertently sends the crumbling Martin into a tailspin, and apparitions of his dead wife increase—or are they products of Martin's unsettled mind? That we never find out is the underdeveloped screenplay's biggest flaw.
The strongest of the festival's trio of films is Mother's Day, a moving BBC drama based on a real-life late 20th-century campaign to end "the troubles" in Northern Ireland. On March 20, 1993, the Irish Republican Army set off bombs in a shopping area of Warrington, a town near the west coast of England, catching weekend customers unawares and killing three-year-old Johnathan Ball and mortally wounding 12-year-old Timothy Parry. The next morning, on Mother's Day, Dublin housewife and mom Susan McHugh (Vicky McClure) reads a newspaper account of the terrorist attack and is so disturbed that she will become motivated to lead a peace initiative. Eventually she and her husband, Arthur (David Wilmot), cross the Irish Sea to arrive on the Parrys' doorstep, greatly surprising Tim's mother, Wendy (Anna Maxwell Martin), and father, Colin (Daniel Mays), who nonetheless welcome them in.
Thus begins an unlikely alliance that will lead the two couples on journeys to places they hadn't imagined visiting—including Belfast, where the McHughs have some gut-wrenching encounters with the families of Ulster's victims in the long-running internecine conflict. One mother, remarking that Susan knows the names of the Warrington children, suspects the Dubliner doesn't know the name of the Belfast woman's own murdered daughter. Chagrined, Susan admits she doesn't, prompting the aggrieved parent to ask if one slain child is more important than another.
It's in the many keenly observed moments like this that director Fergus O'Brien exhibits both a sharp eye for entrenched behavior and a humanist belief in the inherent impulse toward goodness that can inspire change for the better. O'Brien began as a TV and film documentary maker in 2003, then turned to narrative films with last year's TV movie Against the Law. Mays was just as stirring in that film as he is in Mother's Day; here he's well matched by McClure, Wilmot, and Martin, who renders every gesture of her reticent character telling beyond words. v