The new autumn season promises a wealth of new features from established actors and directors in mainstream cinema, as well as a burgeoning crop from new names on the indie fringes of the industry.
Gabriel Byrne, special guest at last month’s relaunch of the Irish Echo, kicks off the Halloween frightfest on Oct. 25 with a foray into the horror genre, in Steve Beck’s “Ghost Ship”. Byrne shares top billing with Julianne Margulies and Isaiah Washington as the crew of the Arctic Warrior, a salvage tug that scours the frigid waters of northern Europe for shipwrecks to dismantle. In the Baltic Sea, they come across a deserted ship, missing since 1953, and set about towing it back to harbor for scrap and profit. Sinister happenings on board the stricken vessel soon make them regret their plan, as they realize that the eerie hulk is possessed by demonic forces. Expect Byrne and Margulies to duke it out with the special effects department in a spectacular battle for screen supremacy, if Beck’s previous frightener, “13 Ghosts”, is anything to go by.
Byrne’s next film takes him back onto terra firma in “Shade”, a tour of the murky milieu of poker hustlers who work the pool halls and martini lounges of Los Angeles. A group of small-time hoods team up with a legendary operator named The Dean, played by Sylvester Stallone, to plot a major heist that goes wrong. The intended victim of their scam soon sics a vengeful mob of Mafia types on their tails. The cast also includes Melanie Griffith, Jamie Foxx and rising Irish star Stuart Townsend. Currently in post-production, “Shade” is slated for a mid-2003 release.
The Irish director Neil Jordan pursues a similar theme in his upcoming feature, “The Good Thief”, currently doing the rounds of the film festivals. This sly, charming crime caper is a remake of the 1955 French classic “Bob le Flambeur” by Jean-Pierre Melville, and stars Nick Nolte as a semi-retired thief and former high roller whose luck has long since run out.
As the infamous medusa-like mugshot from his recent glug-glug, vroom-vroom incident with the LAPD attests, Nolte is scarcely playing against type. He inhabits the role of drunken has-been Sam with the kind of dissolute charm that makes him an irresistible mentor for younger hustlers. Low on dope and dough, Sam decides to shackle himself to his bed to sweat out his demons and clear his head so that he can lead his gang of thieves on one last raid before he calls it quits. His target is a casino in Monte Carlo, home to millions in cash and a priceless art collection.
“The Good Thief” is shot with the visual flair, spot-on casting and droll dialogue that we’ve come to expect from Jordan, and festival feedback indicates a return to form for the director after the tepid response to his previous feature, “In Dreams”. “The Good Thief” was screened at Toronto and San Sebastian Festivals last month, and will go on general release in the U.S. in March of 2003.
Jordan’s’other work-in-progress, “Borgia,” is currently in post-production and will not be released until next year. The film was shot in Umbria in Italy with a cast that includes Ewan McGregor and Christina Ricci as Borgia siblings Lucrezia and Cesare, members of the murderous family that ran the 16th Century Vatican as their own personal fiefdom. John Malkovich co-stars as Machievelli.
Back in Ireland, Jordan’s production team, The Company of Wolves, is backing yet another heist movie, “Intermission”, starring Ireland’s fastest rising star, Colin Farrell. Having played second billing to Bruce Willis in “Hart’s War” and Tom Cruise in “Minority Report” earlier this year, Farrell takes the lead in a cast that includes Colm Meany, “Gosforth Park” star Kelly McDonald, and “Disco Pigs” lead Cillian Murphy. Farrell plays a small-time crook who takes on a risky job, way out of his league, with a view to starting a new crime-free life — if all goes according to plan. He enlists the help of his friend John (Murphy), a lovelorn stock clerk from the local supermarket, and their scheme quickly falls apart. Do these heists ever go right for small-time crooks? The hapless pair soon run afoul of a relentless detective (Meany) who’d rather use his fists than the rulebook to nail his suspects. The script is written by playwright Colm O’Rawe, and the production team is currently shooting on the streets of Dublin.
Colin Farrell’s busy year continues with the release on Nov. 15 of “Phone Booth”, a lean thriller in which he co-stars with Kiefer Sutherland and Forrest Whitaker. Farrell plays a New York executive who hears a pay phone ring while walking in the street, picks it up, and is told by a sinister caller (Sutherland) that he’ll be shot if he hangs up. To convince him that he means business, the caller takes a few potshots at him with a high-powered rifle. The film is directed by Joel Schumacher, who set Farrell on the road to stardom by casting him as the lead in his hard-edged Vietnam film “Tigerland” two years ago.
Schumacher’s post-Batman indie reinvention of his former hack self continues apace, with “Veronica Guerin”, a low-budget biopic of the late Dublin journalist. This is the second film made about Guerin, who was murdered six years ago by a gang whose criminal activities she had exposed in her newspaper articles. Cate Blanchett plays the title character, and Gerard McSorley plays the ruthless drug lord who becomes her nemesis. Unlike the earlier Joan Allen version, “When The Sky Falls”, real names are used, and the story stays closer to the real events of Guerin’s life. Colin Farrell pops up yet again in a brief cameo as a favor to his mentor, Schumacher, playing a street thug who tries to pick up the investigative journalist. Shot on location in Dublin, the film is currently in post-production, and despite rumors of a Nov. 22 release date, we’re unlikely to see it outside of the festival circuit before the spring of next year.
Also shot in Dublin and in diverse locations farther afield, and currently screening at the Irish Film Centre, “Last Days of Dublin” is the debut feature of a young Irish filmmaker with a literary bent, Lance Daly. Citing influences as diverse as James Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh and James Leo Herlihy, Daly put together a no-budget odyssey shot in Paris and Cairo as well as his home turf to tell the tale of an Irish dreamer in search of exotic adventure. “Last Days” has appeared in U.S. and Irish film festivals but has yet to find a U.S. distributor.
The writings of James Joyce continue to exert an influence over Irish independent filmmakers. A version of “Ulysses” is in the works, the brainchild of Dubliner Sean Walsh, the writer, producer and director of the project. This classic of modern literature has long resisted successful screen treatment, and the best known previous attempt, Joseph Strick’s 1967 “Ulysses”, starring Milo O’Shea as Bloom, managed to please neither the cinephiles nor the literati, despite receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Walsh has assembled a strong cast for his lead roles: long-time Neil Jordan cohort Stephen Rea plays Leopold Bloom, and “The Commitments” star Angeline Ball plays his unfaithful wife, Molly. Hugh O’Conor, best known for his extraordinary performance as a child actor in the role of the young Christy Browne in “My Left Foot”, plays Stephen Dedelus. Shooting began on the new “Ulysses” on Sept. 22 and will continue into early November, using many of the locations cited in Joyce’s epic tale of Dublin city.
The Dublin-based movie company Element Films is currently weathering the storm of controversy surrounding its latest production, Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters”, which recently got two thumbs down from the Vatican. Based on real events in the Ireland of the early 1960s, the film chronicles the lives of young women designated as “fallen” by the Catholic church and held as virtual prisoners for years on end at special homes where they carried out unpaid work for the clergy. The film fared better farther north in Italy than it did in Rome, winning the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in September. Screenings at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals followed the Venice success later the same month, and “The Magdalene Sisters” was selected as the opening feature for the Cork Film Festival in early October. The combination of controversy and critical acclaim for this harrowing film drew the attention of numerous US distributors, with Miramax the victor in the bidding war that followed. No U.S. release date has yet been set, but when it does happen, controversy is sure to follow the film that Vatican organ L’Osservatorio Romano denounced as an “angry and rancorous provocation.”
On a lighter note, two august cinematic franchises lumber into view in the near future, one a relative newcomer, the other a four-decade-old veteran with tons of staying power.
Nov. 15 sees the release of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, the second cinematic installment of J.K. Rowlings’s astoundingly successful series. Belfast thespian Kenneth Branagh adds some Shakespearean heft to the proceedings as he joins the staff of Hogwarts, exclusive boarding school for young wizards, in the role of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart. Limerick native Richard Harris reprises his role as the kindly and wise Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts.
Pierce Brosnan dons the tuxedo and lifts the attach