Song of Songs

Frank McGuinness' screenplay is adapted from a prizewinning drama by the eminent Irish playwright Brian Friel, who says he was inspired by the real-life stories of his own maiden aunts. It pivots on a homecoming that disturbs the Mundy sisters' fragile equilibrium. Their beloved brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest, returns from a quarter-century of missionary work in Uganda, and at first he appears to be a broken old man. Jack babbles on about the spirits inside yams, as well as ritual sacrifices (which does not endear him to the local parish priest), and in one of his funks he dreamily beats a pair of sticks against a water bucket. The real story, of course, is that although Father Mundy may have lost his mind going native in Africa, he also liberated himself from the past in a way his sisters cannot imagine. Their idea of a big time in repressed Catholic Ireland is walking three miles to the dry-goods store in Ballybeg to buy a sack of flour.

The Mundy farm is also revisited by little Michael's father, a charming bounder named Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans) whocontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagedrops by on his way to the Spanish Civil War. Gerry, too, is a free spirit of the sort women are not allowed to be: He feels no obligation to his son, or to Christina, except in the moment. But he also lights the fuse of possibility in the joyless sisters. So does Dancing at Lughnasa's symbolic event -- an annual back-hills dance celebrating the harvest deity Lugh, the pagan god of music and light.

If we haven't already grasped the irony of the Mundy sisters' plight, here it is, writ large: Once a year, most of the townsfolk can break loose from the harsh proscriptions of Mother Church and wallow in the old Celtic sensuality, leaping through bonfires, swilling on the poteen jug and dancing with abandon. But not even this release is allowed the Mundy women: In the film's big liberating set piece, they spontaneously create their own unbridled Lughnasa back at the farm, linking arms as sisterly spirits and dancing a wild jig as a glory of fiddle, flute and drum pours out of their new radio set. In the heat of this outburst, old resentments, abrasions and strictures are forgotten: For one transcendent moment they are free women who have overcome their tragic fate.

For some viewers this minor miracle may seem like a scant reward for women so long imprisoned by their own culture. It is scant. But Dancing at Lughnasa creates a vivid portrait of a time and place and a condition of life that takes hold of the emotions in a way most movies don't. As the imperious Kate, Streep puts in another beautifully nuanced performance, but in no way does she outrank the other members of the ensemble: You can feel the emotions of each Mundy sister on the surface of your skin -- the yearning, the disappointment, the bravery wrung from deprivation. It's almost enough to rekindle a belief in the nobility of outcasts.

Opens Dec. 25 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG
Directed by Ron Underwood

Nowadays Disney movies need two reviews each. The first one would have to describe the transparently sentimental yet always moving story and the latest astonishing advance in animation or special effects that it features: In the new Disney remake of Mighty Joe Young, that story concerns the touching relationship between Jill Young (Charlize Theron) and the 15-foot, 2,000-pound gorilla (no kidding; they use that phrase) she has cared for in the mountains of central Africa. When poachers encroach on Joe's habitat, Jill follows the advice of zoologist Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton -- who else?) and moves him to a California animal preserve.

Eventually -- though for perfectly understandable gorilla reasons -- Joe runs amok in the streets of LA, a la The Lost World's T. rex. If the endangered-species subtext of this version robs it of some of the B-movie glee of the original (the scene in which Joe destroys the nightclub in which he's been forced to perform remains one of the great barroom brawls in cinema), the effects and the rich color in which they are rendered make this Mighty Joe Young visually compelling. Even kids who have been brought up on a steady diet of digitized dinosaurs will be amazed by the nimble, natural Joe, who also has as much emotional range as any of the humans in the film -- a fact that should make him less scary but no less impressive to younger children. Special-effects wizard Rick Baker is a worthy heir to stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who animated the original Joe in 1949 (and has a cameo appearance in the new film).

The second review would consider any new Disney film as a cultural artifact, acknowledging the influential position of Disney/Cap Cities in the world of infotainment. In the case of Mighty Joe Young, this review might note the irony of Disney's releasing a film about transporting wild animals to sanctuaries in the U.S., given the negative publicity surrounding the opening of Disney's own wild-animal park earlier this year; in that context, the demonization of poachers in this version -- absent in the original but of course only natural in this day and age -- takes on additional significance. Or one could lament the way in which Joe's heroic actions at the end of the story are made much more spectacular in this version and then much more sentimental -- that is, how the ending of the original has been fully Disneyfied. Or -- and this is what I'd do -- one could observe that in the grand tradition of Bambi, Dumbo and The Lion King, Disney has once again released (on Christmas, no less) a film in which the main character is orphaned in the first 20 minutes. In fact, given that this is a remake and therefore must outdo its original, two of the main characters -- Joe and Jill -- are orphaned in the same scene. And we parents, happily oblivious to the little displaced oedipal psychodrama Disney keeps reproducing for our children, keep on driving them to the mall or multiplex for another formula feeding.

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