Irish American film Hooley returns for its 8th year

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In addition to Mike Houlihan’s many other creative pursuits, which have included acting, writer, radio host and political consultant, he became a film festival impresario nearly a decade ago and is still there, happily.

“It was a real joy to be exposed to films that few people see,” he tells me.

This role grew out of the frustration he felt at not being able to find a film festival location for two films he directed and produced, ‘Her Majesty, ‘da Queen’, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the process and the politics involved in selecting Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day queen and “Our Irish Cousins,” a charming film that follows Houlihan back to her Irish roots; the late critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was “made with such brilliant spirit and good humor”.

Houlihan called his festival the Irish American Movie Hooley. ‘Hooley’ means an Irish party usually with music and it’s no coincidence that it sounded like ‘Houli’, the nickname by which Houlihan has long been known.

This is how the festival was born and remains, as it enters its eighth year, the only film festival of its kind in the world.

This year, the festival is changing location. In previous years, it took place over a weekend at the Siskel Film Center. This year’s event takes place at two locations over two weekends: the Classic Cinemas Lake Theater in Oak Park Friday through Sunday and the Wilmette Theater September 23-25.

“I think it will give us the ability to reach more people,” Houlihan said.

As in past years, three films will be presented.

The opening offer is “Extraordinary,” which at its heart is a charming if highly unusual love story. It stars Maeve Higgins as Rose, a kind driving instructor who has a gift for exorcism she inherited from her late father, a famous paranormalist who made video guides.

She gave it up after her death, in which she played a central role. But she is brought back into the supernatural game in order to help a sad and very needy widower (Barry Ward), haunted by the ghost of his late wife. Complicating matters is an over-the-top rock star (Will Forte) who happens to be a Satanist. If this all sounds a bit silly, it is, but enjoyable, with plenty of sight gags and good comedic acting.

The Saturday offering is “Redemption of a Thief”, a surprisingly confident debut from award-winning playwright Philip Doherty.

It tells the story of a battered, scruffy man named Jimmy Cullen (Aaron Monaghan), who drags himself back to his fictional small hometown after a seven-year absence after leaving in disgrace after screwing up on a football pitch.

Her goal of dying by suicide is derailed by issues with her brother Damien (Kieran Roche), who owes a debt to mean people, and the death of their father. Their father, also evil, had a will that stated that Jimmy and Damien would get no inheritance if they buried him on a rainy day.

And so it rains… and rains and rains. This buys time for Jimmy to start an awkward relationship with a drug-dealing singer (Aisling O’Mara), while the townspeople blame the brothers for various misfortunes.

It’s a warmly eccentric film, with a catchy soundtrack. The characters are endearing and distinctive. The flashbacks are deftly handled, certain religious themes are never shouted too loudly, and the cast is engaging.

The film won top awards – Best Irish First Feature and Best Irish Film – when it premiered at the Galway Film Festival.

The Sunday finale of the festival is “The Boys of Kingsbridge: From High School to Ground Zero,” which begins innocently enough with home movies focusing on longtime friends who as kids went to church, went to school, and shared the kind of adventures all the town kids shared. Their neighborhood was the close-knit Irish Catholic community in the Bronx known as Kingsbridge.

They grew up and got jobs and on the morning of September 11, 2001, they found themselves in the midst of horror that struck from the sky.

The men – Danny McNally, a detective with the NYPD bomb squad; Mike Hussey, a union electrician; Eddie O’Mahoney, an FDNY firefighter, and Brendan Carroll, the staff engineer of a building near the World Trade Center, were eyewitnesses to the 9/11 tragedy and offer chilling memories and still alive many years later.

Thomas MacNamara is a longtime friend of these men, remaining so even after moving to Los Angeles, where he owns the Irish Import Shop in Hollywood. He directed and produced this film and conducted the interviews. His familiarity gives the film incredible impact, with an intensity and honesty that is both chilling and intimate.

We come to understand how the ethos of educating men guided their actions on 9/11. None of the men call themselves heroes, but it’s easy to see how admirably they behaved in the face of danger and death.

It’s kind of a film that benefits from friendship but is never exploitative. It is not embellished with the familiar 9/11 images that we have all seen on news programs and other documentaries. With the exception of these home movies from long ago and some contemporary cards, there is little nightmarish newsreel footage.

The film focuses on the four men, and their stories are candid and raw in a way they might only be able to be in the company of a friend. They were obviously quite comfortable sharing heartbreaking stories and in the end, the film honors them in a deeply personal way. Only one hour, it will stay with you forever.

As has been the case at festivals in recent years, some filmmakers will be present.

“That was always the bonus for me,” says Houlihan. “Having met the actors and filmmakers over the years has been an inspiring joy.”

The Irish American Movie Hooley will screen Sept. 16-18 at Classic Cinema’s Lake Theater, 1022 Lake St., Oak Park, and Sept. 23-25 ​​at the Wilmette Theater, 1122 Central Ave., Wilmette; www.hiberniantransmedia.org

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

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