Review: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

Trailer

Chris Evans takes on the man in Bong Joon-ho's trippy post-apocalyptic thriller.

Chris Evans takes on the man in Bong Joon-ho’s trippy post-apocalyptic thriller.

Alright, here is a strange one. Technically a 2013 film, Snowpiercer has first become available to western viewers mostly though online streaming options, and so I count it as a 2014 release here. I’m unfamiliar with the work of the director or the graphic novel that the film is based on, and so can come into this film with unblinkered eyes.

18 years after a disastrous attempt to solve global warming left the Earth a frozen wasteland, what is left of humanity travels incessantly onboard a train with an engine driven by perpetual motion. Onboard, a strict hierarchy has developed, with the elites at the front and the poor at the back. Tired of the obscene conditions they and their fellow underclass must suffer, Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam (John Hurt) forge a rebellion seeking control of the train from the likes of the warped Mason (Tilda Swinton) and the mysterious engineer Wilford, with the aid of a drug addicted security specialist (Song Kang-ho) and his clairvoyant daughter (Go Ah-Sung).

In order to get any kind of enjoyment out of Snowpiercer, you have to approach it like some kind of bizarre post-apocalyptic fairy tale, where the rules of logic not only do not apply, but were thrown out the window long ago. Looking at the premise presented in Snowpiercer with an analytical eye will yield a mountain of plot holes and inconsistencies, but it is clear that director Bong Joon-ho is long past caring about such things. His film is not about a realistic interpretation of a never stopping train in a frozen wasteland.

No, instead it is about class divide, class war and propaganda. It’s more like Elysium on a train. For a time Bong is content to settle on that, focusing purely on the rebellion of Curtis and others, and the action scenes that follow, as the rebels inch up the train, fighting back against a grotesque and tyrannical upper class government. While the action scenes were not all that, they served their purpose, and the fantastical caricatures helped to keep the experience somewhat enthralling.

But past the half way point, Bong really lets go, and we enter something akin to a Terry Gilliam world, where the warped and increasingly strange vistas threaten to engulf the increasingly stretched point that Snowpiercer wants to make. Curtis’ journey is still worth following, framed as a succession of terrible choices that he is pushed to make in the maelstrom of conflicting emotions that make up the titular train. The ending will dissatisfy many, as it did me, as the plot holes and taut fabric of the universes walls reach far past the Inception tests limits by the conclusion.

But it does help that Bong has assembled such a well working cast. Evans is great, and the quality of his performance, especially in a chilling monologue late on, keeps Snowpiercer from (pun very much intended) going off the rails in large sections. Tilda Swinton’s Mason is a twisted but visually distinctive adversary, who finds an opposite, for most of the film anyway, in John Hurt’s bedraggled Gilliam, a role similar in scope and screen time to his part in Hercules, but played with far more gravitas. Bell’s second in command is an enthusiastically played idealist while Song and Go offer some interesting cutaway performances and sub-plots, albeit somewhat truncated.

Visually Snowpiercer is quite well put together. The cramped environs of the train start off as you would expect, with all of the grime and dankness of the post-apocalyptic genre. But from, there Bong delights in rapidly changing sets of very different styles, all with a general theme of back (or left) being the bad choice, and forward (or right) being the positive one, where the road leads and where the journey ends. The action is acceptable though not, in my view, the masterpiece of choreography that some make it out to be. Bong and Kelly Masterson’s script also helps to raise Snowpiercer up, even if it gets more than a little derivative of other works before the end. Characters have their distinctive voices and, in line with my above warning on accepting the fairy tale nature of the film, helps to add greatly to the atmosphere of a world where low lying peasants are on the same train as upper class toffs. Musically it could be a little better, with Marco Beltrami seemingly on the wrong end of what looks like only a moderately sized budget.

I didn't find Snowpiercer's action scenes all that brilliant, merely acceptable.

I didn’t find Snowpiercer’s action scenes all that brilliant, merely acceptable.

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-Like I said, I disliked the ending a bit, finding it a bit too corny, Truman Show-esque, or maybe The Matrix Reloaded. The “revelation” of how the train was set up to operate didn’t land as well as I would have liked, the whole thing being a bit too neat and tidy, stretching the limits of disbelief suspension as the characters more openly talked about the universe they were inhabiting (never a good idea in a film like this).

-The main point related to that is simply what a train like the Snowpiercer needs with an underclass. Curtis and his fellow underlings don’t appear to actually do anything on the train akin to a working class, and the implication that their existence was somehow propping up everybody else, all the way to the engine, didn’t really make sense to me at all. But there I go, trying to think logically about a film like this. They did draw attention to it though.

-Ed Harris’ Wilford really was The Architect in so many ways. I half expected him to start dropping the words “ergo” and “vis-a-vis” into his dialogue after a while. After so much build up to get to him, I was fairly let down by that. Also, does he just live in that one room all the time?

-Tilda Swonton’s Mason was one of Snowpiercer’s better characters, and that was largely down to just how weird and out of place she was. It reminded me of Effie from The Hunger Games in some ways, insofar that the oddness is mostly visual as opposed to characterisation. Her end comes very suddenly, and that was a bit of a disappointment.

-Man, all those revellers in the upper carriages. Where is all the booze coming from? OK, I’m doing it again.

-The sub-plot about Yona and her clairvoyant abilities was dropped at some point and never revisited, a very strange thing. It seemed like it was going to be an important point worth exploring in depth at some point, but Bong never got round to it.

-Curtis’ monologue outside the engine room, on how he and his fellow survivors were forced to turn to cannibalism until a fever of self-sacrifice emerged from the likes of Gilliam, was beautifully handled, both haunting and engaging. The film lacked a really strong sense of horror until that point, and it’s probably one of Snowpiercer’s best moments.

-The very end was open ended of course, leaving the audience to its own interpretations as to how humanity will fare from now on. I suppose that will only be possible if there are more humans around somewhere though.

 Spoilers end.

Snowpiercer’s uniqueness and fairy tale-esque make-up make it more than a little endearing, but it isn’t quite good enough, in my opinion, to justify the massive amounts of praise that it has received from some. It’s no masterpiece, because of the unhinged way the narrative progresses, the weak ending, the music and a few other flaws. But it features some great acting performances, some nice visuals and a strong central arc for its main character. Snowpiercer is a nice breath of fresh air for a genre that is frequently all too stale and dull, a film where the director and his team were willing to take a few risks and see what resulted. For that, it is to be praised. Just not too much.

sp1

An interesting example from the genre.

 

(All images are copyright of CJ Entertainment and RADiUS-TWC).

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Ireland’s Wars: Thomas Blood

The road to the War of the Two Kings is a long and complicated one, with issues of pertinence on both sides of the Irish Sea. But there are a couple of unrelated incidents of note in Ireland, with relation to military history, worth discussing in the intervening time as well. The first, and the one that I will be talking about today, concerns one of the Restoration ages most infamous figures, and one of its most mysterious. It’s a short entry, but still worth exploring.

Thomas Blood was of the gentry in Ireland in the 17th century, and had a very unremarkable upbringing. He was the son of a land owning Protestant, probably born in County Clare around 1618. His family owned land throughout Ireland, but especially in Meath and Wicklow. Blood was educated partly in England, married, raised a family, and looked set for an altogether unremarkable life.

The Eleven Year Wars in Ireland and the Civil Wars in England changed all of that, as it did for so many of Blood’s contemporaries as well. When the call to arms came from Charles I, Blood enthusiastically travelled to England to answer it. He fought for the Royalist cause for a few years, but at some point and for vaguely remembered reasons, defected to the Parliamentarian faction and fought under Oliver Cromwell in the New Model Army. Blood was not alone in such an act, and there are many possible explanations, not least that he simply recognised the winning side when he saw it.

Blood received land and position in Ireland from Cromwell at the conclusion of the wars, and seemed well set-up for the next few years. But the restoration undermined all of this, and Blood suffered at the hands of the returning Charles II, whose 1662 Act of Settlement ended up leaving Blood near financial ruin, as property and land he had won from the Parliamentarians was confiscated from him.

In the face of this perceived persecution, Blood decided to commit an extreme act. He had no love for James Butler, the recently returned Earl of Ormonde, who was back in his previous position as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on the order of Charles II, and saw an opportunity to redress the wrongs done to him through the leader of the King’s administration in Ireland.

Blood formed a plot with other disaffected former Parliamentarians, the main crux of which was to be a sudden attack on Dublin Castle, the centre of royal government in Ireland. The castle was to be seized and Ormonde was to be captured. It is possible that risings in different parts of the country, not unlike the 1641 rebellion I suppose, were also planned, but Blood apparently never had the means of doing this, and may not even have been the main leader of the conspiracy that has since borne his name. Whatever the methods of the plot, its success was dubious from the start, and we can infer some instability or presumptuous on Blood’s part for even attempting to follow through on it.

Ormonde was no fool when it came to matters like this, and in a land at peace his intelligence operations were of a much better level than they had been during the wars. He was well forewarned by spies and informers of the plans being hatched against him, and at first did not take them very seriously. But when he received word that Blood and his confederates were prepared to act very soon, Ormonde had enough.

The conspirators were hunted down and arrested, with several of them ending up on an executioners block because of their attempted act. Blood was not among them. He managed to evade arrest and fled north, surviving with the help of some friends in the rural regions before managing to get out of Ireland entirely, going into what was essentially an exile in the Low Countries, having been declared at outlaw by Ormonde. Blood carried an even greater enmity towards Ormonde than he had before because of the whole business, and some speculate this enmity drove Blood on to some of his later acts (just a moment).

Blood’s plot is a bizarre little entry in the annals of Irish military history, and part of me only places it here out of a desire to record it for greater posterity. It was a ramshackle and altogether humdrum affair, with dubious means, motives and a terrible execution. In the aftermath of the Restoration, Ormonde power and position were all but unassailable (they wouldn’t be for long) and an attempt at kidnapping seems strange to modern eyes. But the incident does serve to show that the aftermath of the Restoration was not an entirely peaceful time in Ireland, and that the land was still full of disaffected elements, not all of which were Catholics with a grudge.

Blood would go on to have a career filled with even greater notoriety. He was implicated as being involved in a brief Scottish Covenanter rebellion – the Pentland Rising – in 1666. In 1670 he travelled and set up shop in London, despite his outlawed status, and attempted to assassinate Ormonde shortly afterward, in an extraordinary operation that involved the ambushing of the (then) Duke’s carriage in the streets of the city and an attempt to lynch him at Tyburn like a common criminal. Ormonde escaped and survived, and Blood evaded prosecution yet again. The following year, the most famous deed of his life was undertaken, as he and a group of others attempted to steal the Crown Jewels of England. They nearly got away with the jewels, an epic story in itself, but Blood was captured this time.

Extraordinary, Charles II became taken with Blood, and essentially pardoned him before, to the disgust of Ormonde, giving him a position at court as well as titles to land in Ireland. Charles II is purported to have had a certain fascination with the “scoundrel” type, and could be easily swayed to offer leniency and even favour to the kind of man that Blood was. Blood would eventually wind up in prison, but this was not due to any active criminal act on his part, but because of his inability to pay the awarded damages in a defamation lawsuit. He died in 1680, just a short while after his release from prison.

His is just a small part of Ireland’s military history. But there is more to tell before the next great conflict.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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In Detail: Iron Man – “That’s My Exit” (01.19.26 – 01.25.02)

The scene shifts abruptly to a clean looking room somewhere else in the world, where computer monitors display pictures of maps, telemetry, details ion planes and what looks like Afghan landscapes. A lot of voices are going off all at once.

We’re in Edwards Air Force Base, California, made clear both by the caption and the sudden appearance of everyone in the room, all wearing military uniforms. Edwards is quite real, and is the home of a variety of testing units for the USAAF. That makes its apparent command and control of air operations in Afghanistan a little strange, at least insofar as this scene depicts, but we’ll just overlook that little quibble.

AIRMAN 1:
What the hell was that? Were we cleared to go in there?

AIRMAN 2:
No, they were using human shields. We never got the green light.

Oh, how I do hate this exchange. Part of the whole point of the Gulmira sequence, in my eyes at least, was to show the ability that Stark has to intervene in situations where the traditional authorities would be unable to. The United States was being shown as weak and ineffective at Gulmira, unable or unwilling to get involved. The line above excuses them of everything, justifying a total lack of action on war crimes and atrocities because “human shields” were involved. I just found it a rather childish way to give the US military an out on the story, since there is no way that an American film like this can apparently go too far in painting them as anything less than stellar.

Well, all bar what’s about to happen next. The point stands though, that Iron Man gives the US military an easy out of its responsibilities with that exchange.

The guy in command of this setting looks a little stressed, a Major played by Tim Guinee, who some might recognise from his recurring role on the last few seasons of Stargate.

MAJOR:
Put me through to State. They’re going to be all over this.

I bet they are. One of the underlings spots a very fast moving red dot on his radar:

AIRMAN 3:
Get those monitors up! We got a bogey!

Nabbed Tony, although the whole point of the scene so far is that the military doesn’t know who just “hit” Gulmira. A rapid flurry of back and forth takes place, as the guys in Edwards do a great job of finding out who wasn’t involved:

AIRMAN 3:
Wasn’t Air Force!

MAJOR:
We got the CIA on the line?

AIRMAN 2:
I’ve got Langley on the line. They want to know if it’s us.

AIRMAN 1:
No, it definitely is not us, Sir!

AIRMAN 4:
It’s wasn’t Navy.

AIRMAN 5:
Wasn’t Marines.

MAJOR:
I need answers! Can I please get eyes on target?

A nice sense of rising tension is being created here with the way that the dialogue unfolds at any rate. The guys in this room, so far, can only lock their eyes on the bigger screens on the wall in front of them, and that rapidly moving red dot of unknown design and construction.

MAJOR:
Get me Colonel Rhodes from Weapons Development down here now!

There’s two things with this line. Firstly, it’s OK that Rhodes would be in Edwards, because as a weapons development guy, the main centre for USAAF testing is the perfect place for him to be. But, um, why is he being called into this situation right here? Is there any indication so far that they would need the input or advice of someone from USAAF Weapons Development? I would have thought that the automatic assumption would be that this red dot is some kind of Afghan operated aircraft or drone right? Also, why is the Major demanding that the Colonel appear before him?

In what is basically little more than a filler shot, we see Tony streak through the sky, almost a mirror of his flyby scene in the last sequence. For the moment, he is alone.

Back in Andrews, Colonel Rhodes has arrived. A plaque on the wall seems to indicate that this is CENTCOM, but that’s actually in Florida as far as I know. Anyway, the conversation is all business:

MAJOR:
We ran an lD check and cross-referenced with all known databases. We have nothing.

RHODES:
Any high altitude surveillance in the region?

AIRMAN 2:
We got an AWAC and a Global Hawk in the area.

AWAC is “airborne early warning and control”, essentially an advanced military radar system. A Global Hawk is an advanced surveillance drone.

RHODES:
So this thing just appeared out of nowhere? How come it didn’t show up on the radar?

AIRMAN 1
Got a minimal radar cross-section, Sir.

RHODES:
Is it stealth?

AIRMAN 1
No, Sir, it’s tiny. We think it’s an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Well, they’re partly right. This little bit seems to be just trying to excuse the fact that these men have called on Rhodes, but I’m still not buying it. Just seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

MAJOR:
Colonel, what are we dealing with here?

And then Rhodes snaps his head up, and considers for a moment. The gears are turning in his head, and we can tell that he is remembering a conversation he had previously in the film. A conversation about “working on something big” that came after the idea of “a pilot without a plane”.

RHODES:
Let me make a call.

Iron Man is still flying along steadily, when suddenly a ring tone is heard. It’s somewhat humorous to actually see the Mark III’s head tilt back to check out the noise, before Tony, presumably using some kind of hands free interface, answers.

TONY:
Hello?

RHODES:
Tony?

TONY:
Who’s this?

RHODES:
It’s Rhodes.

TONY:
Sorry, hello?

RHODES:
I said it’s Rhodes.

TONY:
Speak up, please.

The joke here being, of course, that Tony knows exactly who is calling and is just screwing with Rhodes. Typical Tony. Well, for once in the film, he’s about to regret being so snarky of his supposed best friend.

RHODES:
What in the hell is that noise?

TONY:
Oh, yeah, I’m driving with the top down.

Tony’s behaviour towards Rhodes here is fairly glib, and it starts out with this excellent line, that will lend itself to Iron Man’s main theme. The tone is of someone trying to come up with an obvious lie, and not really caring about it.

RHODES:
Yeah, well, I need your help right now.

TONY:
It’s funny how that works, huh?

Oof. Tony and Rhodes did not leave each other’s company the last time on the best of terms, we know this, but this line gives an indication of just how annoyed Tony was with the total dismissal that was shown to him by Rhodes. Rhodes, for his part, ignores the jibe and stays on message with a certain military focus.

RHODES:
Yeah. Speaking of funny, we’ve got a weapons depot that was just blown up a few clicks from where you were being held captive.

TONY:
Well, that’s a hot spot. Sounds like someone stepped in and did your job for you, huh?

Mixed in with the bare attempt to lie his way out of what has rapidly become an interrogation, Tony lets another arrow fly at Rhodes, and the military in general, exulting in the fact that he was able to sort out a problem that they couldn’t (or at least in his mind – the longer term consequences for Gulmira are not something that Iron Man is going to be looking at too much). We should also take a moment to appreciate the intelligence of Rhodes, who has successfully guessed that Tony is responsible for whatever has been going on in Gulmira, though he hasn’t found the whole truth yet.

RHODES:
Why do you sound out of breath, Tony?

TONY:
I’m not, I was just jogging in the canyon.

RHODES:
I thought you were driving.

TONY:
Right, I was driving to the canyon, where I’m going to jog
.

This quick back and forth is obviously meant to be more than a little comedic, thanks largely to Tony’s terrible efforts to cover himself. In truth, that aspect of it is also foreshadowing to the final moments of the film, evidence that having a secret alternative identity is not something that Stark is terribly interested in pursuing. For now, it is blatantly clear that Tony’s lies are fooling no one.

RHODES:
You sure you don’t have any tech in that area I should know about?

TONY:
Nope!

Suddenly, the blurry grey image of the Mark III appears on the screen in Edwards. Busted.

AIRMAN:
Bogey spotted! Whiplash, come in hot.

RHODES:
Okay, good, ’cause I’m staring at one right now, and it’s about to be blown to kingdom come.

Rhodes is refusing to tolerate any of Tony’s nonsense today, set on his idea that his friend has just sent what is presumably a UAV of some kind into an active war zone as part of his own personal vendetta. That explains the vehemence in this last line. There’s no way Rhodes suspects that it is Tony inside this thing, whatever it is.

Back in the sky, Tony is suddenly not alone . “Whiplash” is revealed as two USAAF F-22 fighter jets, the same kind that are proudly displayed in model form outside of Stark Industries. Tony’s radar isn’t quite as good as it could be apparently, because the two planes have apparently been able to sneak up behind him. Part two of this action sequence is about to start.

TONY:
That’s my exit.

End of conversation, as Iron Man twirls offscreen to our right, the F-22′s in pursuit. A very different action environment to the last one has now begun, as Tony faces off against what are, we can infer from that model, something he had a hand in creating, and that he can’t really fight back against.

The F-22′s curl after the Mark III, your classic fighter jet shots here, birds eye looks from cockpits mixed with exterior glimpses of the chase.

WHIPLASH ONE:
Ballroom, this is Whiplash One. I’ve got the bogey in my sights.

RHODES:
Whiplash One, what is it?

WHIPLASH ONE:
I’ve got no idea.

I’ll say.

MAJOR:
You have radio contact?

WHIPLASH ONE:
Non responsive, sir.

MAJOR:
Then you are clear to engage.

Back in the air, we’re back inside the suit, where Tony HUD helpfully gives the option for supersonic flight. That’ll do nicely.

TONY :
Hit it.

Iron Man streaks away faster than he was going earlier, to the shock of the chasing F-22′s. He’s lost in clouds, but technology has no such constraints.

WHIPLASH ONE:
That bogey just went supersonic. I got a lock!

And now there is a missile streaking towards the Mark III, the two points getting closer and closer. The music is back on now too, giving the entire sequence an additional kick (OST: “Gulmira“) with the throbbing percussion.

JARVIS:
Inbound missile.

TONY:
Flares!

The missile is closing in when the suit side pockets suddenly eject dozens of little red lights, which trail behind briefly, detonating the missile and producing a shockingly orange and fiery explosion. The Mark III is catapulted forward, Tony screaming, but alive. The chasing planes dodge the fireball, but aren’t fooled:

WHIPLASH ONE:
Wait a second. Bogey deployed flares!

Iron Man is tumbling to the earth, repulsors going off at random intervals in a desperate bid to retain control, Tony screaming all the while. He eventually does, and curls away, but the F-22′s are on his tail almost instantly, an incessant pursuit that shows no signs of letting up.

The missile option having been tried and failed, the pilots go for good ol’ fashioned guns. Stark is lined up in the crosshairs, and a steady stream of ammunition is sent flying out of the Raptors.

Tony dodges and yells as best as he can, but it’s painfully clear that he is unready for this kind of combat, especially with forces that he can’t shoot back at. Taking a few hits and with bits of metal flying off the suit, he makes a desperation manoeuvre:

TONY:
Deploy flaps!

They deploy and the Mark III comes to a dead stop, the camera moving away from him, him and the suit suddenly very small in the background, the F-22′s streaking past on either side.

Back in Edwards, the red dot vanishes.

AIRMAN:
That thing just jumped off the radar, sir. The sat visual has been lost.

WHIPLASH ONE:
No way that’s a UAV.

RHODES:
What is it?

WHIPLASH TWO:
I can’t see anything. Whatever it was, it just bought the farm, I think bogey’s been handled, Sir.

Rhodes, despite the apparent good news, does not look one bit at ease with what transpired, even if the sense of relief in the room is palpable. And then his mobile phone starts ringing, with a high pitched tone version of the Iron Man theme we heard earlier in Vegas (of course). Tony Stark, down as “The Starkster” and with an image taken straight from that Vegas outing – a million miles away from where we are presently for Tony – is calling.

Also, let’s thank LG and Verizon for coughing up the money for this sequence!

Rhodes takes a moment and steps aside before answering the phone, fully aware of the conversation he is about to have, and all that it entails.

TONY:
Hi, Rhodes, it’s me.

RHODES:
It’s who?

TONY:
I’m sorry, it is me. You asked… What you were asking about… is me.

Tony sounds pained, but Rhodes is in no mood to mollycoddle him over what has just happened, reacting with a quiet fury at the stunt his friend has apparently just pulled. But he still doesn’t grasp the full details:

RHODES:
No, see, this isn’t a game. You do not send civilian equipment into my active war zone. You understand that?

Back in the sky, we get that frontal look at Tony’s face inside the Mark III, now looking strained and under pressure, the HUD flickering alarmingly.

TONY:
This is not a piece of equipment. I’m in it. It’s a suit. It’s me!

Must be hard thing to admit, but Tony isn’t getting out of this without help. Rhodes is left dumbfounded by this revelation.

MAJOR:
Rhodes, you got anything for me?

Rhodes just stares back at the Major, his phone left hanging in his hand.

Back in the air, the F-22′s are ready to return to base, when one of them spots a certain something hanging on the bottom of the other.


WHIPLASH TWO:
On your belly! It looks like a…man!

An Iron Man? Glad they resisted the need to namedrop the superhero title.

WHIPLASH TWO:
Shake him off! Roll! Roll!

Rhodes can only look on in impotent horror as the F-22 banks and rolls, Tony desperately trying to cling on. But the manoeuvre is botched – as Iron Man finally lets go, the other F-22 is unfortunately placed right behind.

Iron Man, in no control, flies back and smashes through the wing of the first F-22, which is suddenly spiralling itself (interesting sidenote, this shot is recycled twice in rapid succession from different angles, so fast you don’t really notice in the playing of the film normally). Edwards looks on, baffled, with nothing they can do to stop the horror. The F-22 now, aflame down one side, is seemingly doomed.

The pilot attempts some brief control but has no choice but to “punch out” after a few terrible seconds. His canopy explodes out and he is ejected, but straight into the fire and smoke slewn slipstream of his doomed jet, which explodes shortly afterward. A shaky cam zoom up shows the pilot, still in his seat, plummeting to the ground without anything stopping him.

WHIPLASH TWO:
Whiplash One down.

MAJOR:
Whiplash Two, do you see a chute?

WHIPLASH TWO:
Negative! No chute, no chute!

The unfortunate pilot, in a great series of shots that stay locked on him even as he falls, struggles with his chute release, which is hopelessly jammed. The men and women in Edwards look appalled, now apparently having to witness the inevitable death of one of their fellow airmen.

He’s not beyond hope yet though, because a white streak of smoke and a red flash is hurtling towards him.

WHIPLASH TWO:
Sir, I’ve got a visual on the bogey.

MAJOR:
Whiplash Two, re-engage. lf you get a clear shot, you take it.

Rhodes, shaken out of his stupor, tries to intervene, much quieter than he was doing before.

RHODES:
Major, we don’t even know what we’re shooting at. Call off the Raptors.

MAJOR:
That thing just took out an F-22 inside a legal no fly zone! Whiplash Two, if you have a clear shot, take it!

We’ll just ignore the fact that the Major just ignored the Colonel. Back in the skies, Tony closes in on the stricken pilot.

JARVIS:
You’ve been re-engaged. Execute evasive manoeuvre.

TONY:
Keep going!

Like the missile streaking towards him before, Tony gets closer and closer and finally gets to the pilot. With the strength of the suit, the chute release gets ripped out, and the pilot is saved, Iron Man streaking off after confirmation.

WHIPLASH TWO:
Good chute! Good chute!

Edwards erupts in cheers. It’s another important moment on the road for Tony to become a hero. In Gulmira he was on the offensive, dealing death to nasty people and helping some others in the process. Here, he saves someone from a terrible death very directly, and in a manner where he put his life on the line selflessly.

The Mark III spirals away, almost like a victory manoeuvre.

RHODES:
Tony, you still there?

TONY:
Hey, thanks.

RHODES:
Oh, my God, you crazy son of a bitch. You owe me a plane. You know that, right?

TONY:
Yeah, well, technically, he hit me.

It’s nice that the tension has broken and that the two can joke about the enormity of what just transpired. Rhodes is laughing heartily though, seemingly just grateful that the pilot was saved.

TONY:
So, now are you going to come by and see what I’m working on?

RHODES:
No, no, no, no, no, no, the less I know, the better.

It’s an interesting volte face from Rhodes here, who is essentially covering his own ass after his slightly strange behaviour in Edwards during this sequence. You would think that he would still be intolerant of the idea of Tony sending his own equipment – and himself – into an active war zone though.

Tony continues to waltz around clouds and mountains.

RHODES:
No, no, no, no, no, no, the less I know, the better. Now, what am I supposed to tell the press?

TONY:
Training exercise. Isn’t that the usual BS?

RHODES:
It’s not that simple.

Blackout. Cut to Rhodes in full dress, in front of a podium.


RHODES:
An unfortunate training exercise involving an F-22 Raptor occurred yesterday. I am pleased to report that the pilot was not injured.

It’s still probably one of the best jokes in the film, even of it contributes to making Rhodes look more and more like an idiot in the face of Tony’s genius.

Watching Rhodes on TV is none other than Obadiah Stane, presumably in his own home. It’s a lavishly decorated place, with a mahogany aesthetic that is at (I would assume deliberate) odds with the Malibu mansion of Tony. Exotic art work, animal pelts, an extravagant looking chess set, fancy scotch bottles and some very nice looking pyjamas mark this whole place out, Stane in his castle and looking every bit the King. But, watching Rhodes talk, he’s clearly unhappy.

RHODES:
As for the unexpected turn of events on the ground in Gulmira, it is still unclear who or what intervened, but I can assure you that the United States government was not involved.

Stane continues to watch, perplexed and annoyed. The plot thickens.

For The Film

This sequence continues from the Gulmira action scene, but allows Tony to show off what he can now do in a different environment. He also gets to play the hero even more, doing an unreservedly good act in saving the pilot. We are also reintroduced to the Stark/Rhodes relationship, which has now evolved to a new place. But, it is still mostly just about action, as this will, essentially, be the last of it until the finale.

Characterisation

Tony Stark

Stark is returning home victorious already, but gets the chance to do an even better job here. He has some issues to work out with Rhodes, and an unjustified high horse attitude in that regard, but is still showing off the kind of man he intends to be from this point on: someone who can and will put his own body on the line to save others.

James Rhodes

Rhodes initially retains some mistrust and anger towards Stark, but when it becomes clear that his friend has personally stepped into a very dangerous situation, that changes. At first Rhodes is dumbfounded at the situation, but when he sees the kind of hero Stark can be, he becomes more positive towards his friend once more, and is now prepared to help him on his crusade.

JARVIS

Stark’s trusty electronic butler is along for the ride, but doesn’t get much characterisation here.

Obadiah Stane

We only get a brief look at him, but what we see is grand, opulent, but also troubled. The action at Gulmira is vexing for Stane, and we might well wonder why.

Next time, Tony faces some revelations that are more unpleasant.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Interstellar

Interstellar

Trailer

Matthew McConaughey goes down the rabbit hole in Interstellar.

Matthew McConaughey goes down the rabbit hole in Interstellar.

I’ve had huge expectations for this one, ever since the first trailer (above), set to the haunting strings of V For Vendetta’s “Evey Reborn”, first dropped. Even beyond the seemingly impressive scope for an epic story, the name of the director would have sealed my attendance at a screening, with Nolan’s Inception not only being one of my favourite films ever, but even lends its name to my own barometer for how to measure the quality of a film despite apparent plot holes. Nolan is an ambitious and committed filmmaker, and the thought of following a narrative of his into the stars and beyond was tantalising to say the least. Could he keep striking gold in my eyes, and craft something to rival or better the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Ex NASA pilot/engineer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) farms corn on an Earth suffering an ecological cataclysm that has forced humanity back into an agrarian age. With mankind’s options running short, Cooper must leave his children behind when he is selected to go on a daring mission through a mysterious wormhole just past Saturn, with the hope of finding a new habitable world for the human race on the other side. On Earth, Coop’s daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain) works with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to find a solution to the oncoming apocalypse, while in another galaxy, Cooper and Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) go further than any other explorer has gone before.

Interstellar is, as advertised, an ambitious, expansive, epic tale of space exploration and humanity on the brink of survival. It has its fair share of marvels, and a strong emotional core. But something stops me from offering the firmest kind of recommendation, despite all of the positives I could offer about this modern day jaunt through our solar system and beyond.

As with other Nolan films, I found that I most enjoyed the first two acts of the film, especially the first 45 minutes or so set on a rapidly falling to pieces Earth, where the right amount of great detail, down to the necessity of leaving plates upside down before meals to stop the dust from spreading, was presented. It was simple, measured exposition and universe building, showing how far humanity had fallen, not just in actuality but in the dreams they are encouraged to have. Gone are tales of daring do and reaching beyond our limited understanding of the universe. Here to stay are lessons on how the moon landing was faked, and the best students in school being assigned farming work.

Coop and family are our eyes on this world. Coop is a man out of time, desperate to explore but pegged back by social and family responsibilities. Interstellar very quickly puts his relationship with daughter Murphy – named after the famous law – front and centre, a parent and child bond whose strength will have to transcend boundaries of time and space. The two, thanks to mysterious goings on at the Cooper household involving strange binary messages and “ghosts”, stumble upon the remains of NASA, and from there Coop is off to try and save the human race. But Interstellar never forgets its base – the Cooper/Murphy relationship – and everything is designed around that, effectively for the most part.

But, if I’m being honest, we didn’t come here for all that. The second act is a breathtaking journey through the planets, wormholes and another galaxy, of alien vistas and environments, of the limits of human endurance and hope. There is adventure and enthrallment aplenty, most notably surrounding the brilliantly executed story arc of a character, introduced late enough with a big name actor in the role, amazingly kept hidden in the promotional material. There are moments of great levity, desperate danger and wonderfully explained scientific quandaries. But it is also in these sections, between the maudlin tale of a suffocating Earth at home and subpar monologues on the power of love in space, where Interstellar starts groaning under the weight of its own running time and ideas. The supporting cast becomes more and more empty of character, and not just because of the black hole.

The ending – the last act that is – was a disappointment for me, for three main reasons. First, after a story about making difficult choices on behalf of the entire species, everything gets wrapped up all too neatly. Second, 2001 was an obvious influence on Nolan, and it shows in this ending, to an extent that threatens to leave “lifting” and move straight into “rip-off” territory. Third, and most importantly, the ending is all kinds of sappy and corny, in both narrative choices and dialogue, to an extent that felt more insipid than inspiring. Par for the course, although not totally film destroying, the ending leaves you with plenty of “But wait, what about…” thoughts pinging around your head. While I am certainly a proponent that it is better to let the audience figure some things out for themselves and connect the dots, at times in the final straight of Interstellar I would have preferred a bit more showing, telling or a mixture of both.

In acting terms, Interstellar is, regrettably, a mixed bag. McConaughey is immense, whether he is being the brow beaten father, the fearless space adventurer or the desperate representative of the human race, lost among the stars. Nolan consistently gets the goods from his leads, and McConaughey is the equal of DiCaprio or Bale. Beyond him, MacKenzie Foy is brilliant as the younger Murphy, really doing a fantastic job at making that emotional connection with the Cooper character, VA Bill Irwin has a great turn as robotic assistant TAGS, and that big name actor really makes his mark in the time he has onscreen.

The Cooper/Murphy relationship forms the emotional core of Interstellar, thanks largely to the performance of  Mackenzie Foy.

The Cooper/Murphy relationship forms the emotional core of Interstellar, thanks largely to the performance of Mackenzie Foy.

But then it all goes to hell. Hathaway, an actress I am rapidly coming to think very overrated, is rather stale in what is, essentially, the female lead role, though the fact that she is stuck with the highest amount of the frequently terrible wordplay might be the cause of that. Michael Caine struggles through, this being one Nolan film too many maybe. And Jessica Chastain, as the elder Murphy, is just too dry and flat in the role, hardly living up to the emotionally gut punching performance of Foy.

But I’d say a lot of the audience is here for the visual feast, and boy is there one. Yes, Nolan has some repetitive camera and environment choices – spinning action scenes and weird overhead landscapes spring to mind – but it all just works. I caught Interstellar on 35mm, as the director wanted people to see it, and beyond some eye straining for scenes of all white, I found it to be a brilliant portrayed film. Alien landscapes are strange but accessible, the “action” scenes bring a measure of Gravity back to the big screen, and all of the wonderful details and minutia that you would have come to expect of Nolan are present, whether it is a dust ravaged convoy of refugees on Earth or the scintillating depiction of a black hole about to swallow you up. The immensity of what Interstellar is depicting is really brought home on the audience through the visual work, and Nolan is a master at blending the computer generated with the real, to create something that might very well prove iconic when it comes to science fiction on screen.

Oh, if only the script had been there to back it up. It’s never been Nolan’s great strength (or that of his co-writer, brother Jonathan) but it really is a black mark on Interstellar, a film that is chock full of the kind of language that makes you arch an eyebrow and think “People do not talk like that”. Characters in Interstellar go around spouting poster taglines and other action hero mumbo jumbo, when they aren’t waxing lyrical about how love is the only thing that can transcend time and space (or something). The science is explained well, but how about some character interaction? How about some of the kind of dialogue that was present in Inception, when characters had more distinct voices? The exception is the stuff between Cooper and Murphy, but the back and forth between the two is gone after the first act.

Interstellar’s soundtrack is a difficult one to judge. It was certainly booming and dramatic, without having the kind of instant appeal of the music for Inception or The Dark Knight trilogy. But the problem, one that I read is replicated in many different screenings throughout the world, is with the sound mixing. It is simply put: at times throughout Interstellar, the soundtrack literally makes dialogue unintelligible, sometimes very important dialogue. Characters appear to be mumbling under the symphonic assault on our ears, and it’s all very bizarre. Some people claim this didn’t happen to them in theatres, and I believe them. So, what is the issue then? Whether it is the fault of the filmmakers, the people doing the screenings, or both, Interstellar has some very serious sound issues that should have been worked out better.

Some brief spoiler talk.

-You expect the standard influences: 2001, Gravity, The Black Hole, etc. But I really didn’t expect Nolan to take an idea from Contact, in regards the watch Cooper gives to his daughter. Man, there are better films to get your ideas from.

-So, the ending – the whole plot in general – is a gigantic bootstrap paradox without any explanation of throwaway reference to explain it. If “they” are an evolved form of humanity screwing with time from the future, how did “they” even get to that point if the humanity of Interstellar’s time are on the brink of extinction without the intervention of “them”? Where’s the closed loop?

-I’ve read different things about the accuracy of the science in Interstellar, between the likelihood of planets surviving near black holes or the finer points of time dilation. In the end, I didn’t care too much. It doesn’t have to be completely accurate to form a good movie, and Nolan is clearly driven by the idea of getting one of his characters through a black hole, and into a beyond that science cannot fathom yet.

-Man, that opening shot of Cooper having some kind of test flight accident: that just seemed to be dropped as a plot point near instantly.

-It would probably outrage much of the audience, but I think I would have preferred a film where the revelation of “Plan A” being a lie was at the end, and formed a conclusion, the Earth (and Coops kids) doomed and the astronauts left to save the species with the “population bomb”. Pessimistic? You bet. But I feel it would have been more satisfying to me than what we actually got at the end.

It is, very much so, a visual masterpiece of science fiction.

It is, very much so, a visual masterpiece of science fiction.

-Because that ending, wow. Yes, Nolan is wrapping everything around the Cooper/Murphy relationship, but it all gets stretched too far, with a liberal dose of difficult to understand science involving four dimensional boxes and the involvement of “them”. And it’s just corn, corn, corn all the way, whenever the concept isn’t so high as to be unreachable. Too many ideas are better than none, but that doesn’t mean you should pile them on.

-TAGS was one of the best parts of the film. It’s been a while since a robotic character has been done this well onscreen.

-I find Interstellar is this year’s Pacific Rim, insofar as it has a fanbase who are passionately, irrationally, drawn to not only praise it to the hilt, but criticise those who have decided not to. I have read, in several places, defences of the film that claim those who criticise it are merely doing so out of some form of ill-defined spite or “to be different”. Gimme a break.

- I loved Matt Damon and his performance as Dr Mann. It’s a little character journey that’s expertly done, the heroic astronaut built up long before we meet him, only to turn into the worst kind of coward right before our eyes (and perhaps, through his name, a representation of the worst aspects of the species).

-That Dylan Thomas poem was overused the second time its lines were read out. I think they quote from it four times in total.

-“They” were really just the ultimate Doctor Who-esque deus ex machina device, whose involvement could make up for any problem in the narrative, right down to Cooper getting rescued by “Cooper Station” at the end.

-“Cooper Station” itself, and the scenes that take place there, could do with a bit of elaboration. Is that ship heading through the wormhole? If so, why does the elderly Murphy insist Cooper follow Brand right then and there?

Spoilers end.

I did like Interstellar. It seems to be one of those divisive kind of pictures, where to not love every bit of it is distressing to those who do, or where criticism of its parts is met with scorn. I have no compunctions in saying I deeply enjoyed the first two hours or so of Interstellar, but felt that its final half hour or so was some of the poorest work Nolan has ever done, and rather spoiled the, to then, favourable impression I had of the overall film. As well as that, most of the supporting cast are misused or not putting in enough work, the script is remarkably underwhelming and the sound issues bear serious scrutiny.

But Interstellar is still enjoyable. It passes the Inception test. Its whole is better than the sum of its parts. That’s thanks to McConaughey, the general story, the visuals and that father/daughter relationship in the first half of the film. It is not as good an experience as Inception, and part of me does feel somewhat let down by how it all turned out. But that might just be a measure of the esteem I feel for Christopher Nolan, and the majestic adventures in visual storytelling he tries to take people on. I eagerly await his next effort.

Somewhat overrated, but still a very enjoyable experience.

Somewhat overrated, but still a very enjoyable experience.

(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures).

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The Last Hobbit Trailer

Another trailer, another analysis courtesy of yours truly. Let’s kick on and have a look shall we? Spoilers, I guess.

-A big and obvious emphasis is going to be on Thorin and the “gold-sickness” it seems, the trailer going back to the idea of him turning into his grandfather repeatedly. It’s a good avenue to take for Thorin, though I sort of hope it isn’t egged as much as the trailer would indicate. Softly, softly.

-I’m struck, by this trailer and the first, by how little we see of Smaug’s attack on Lake-town, just a few glimpses here and there (and just one look at the dragon, in the first trailer). That either means it’s going to be an amazing sequence they’re just teasing out, or it isn’t finished yet. Remembering some documentaries I’ve seen on WETA, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the second one. The drama over a single Mumak shot in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is something to see.

-There’s a group shot of the company, minus Thorin, inside the Lonely Mountain here, which I think is a bad choice. Four of the dwarves were left in Lake-town at the end of Desolation, and I thought the point was to create a sense that one or more of them might get consumed by dragon fire. But, as this trailer makes clear, they all make it out. I thought for a bit that James Nesbitt’s Bofur was missing, but he’s just hidden behind someone else. A strange move.

-Bilbo’s in that shot somewhere by the way. They try to give him a bit of an emphasis in the trailer, but it seems likely that it’ll be a struggle to give him adequate screen time to justify the actual title of the film.

-The gates of Erebor are collapsing for some reason. Probably a big and loud effect for the titular battle.

-That looks like Thrainduil in Dol Guldar, looking for something that belongs to him? Not sure what that’s about really, what could Sauron have that the Woodland King wants? Rings?

-The Peter Jackson bestiary gets added too seemingly, now with giant bats, which are probably more than a little similar to the bats from his King Kong. I’m sure the purists are whining, as is their constant want, but they’re no more ridiculous than giant eagles really.

-Christopher Lee is back, and heading for a showdown with Sauron. That should be interesting to see, for a lot of different reasons. Is Saruman already corrupt in Jackson’s vision, or is this the moment of seduction?

-Troll artillery! That’s the way to do it! Maybe that’s what is bringing down the Dwarf statues.

-Some focus on Fili and Kili in the trailer, most notably Kili. The depiction of him seems to indicate some anger and recklessness, traits that will likely play a part in his (provided Jackson stays faithful to that part) death. Fili too.

-Hmm, a brief look at that Tauriel/Kili plot too. I still don’t want to say “Love plot” because so far the love part is all one sided. A total wildcard. Both of them could be dead by the end of the film.

-Action, action, action. The battle on the title seems like it will be a very long sequence indeed, and the plot of the film could actually get lost in it somewhat.  We’ll see.

Not long now!

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Revolutionary Remembrance: Moore Street (Again)

A bit late, but only had time and the energy to jot down the following thoughts at this point.

The other week I happened to stumble upon another of the interminable debates about the commemoration for the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, with the focus of the discussion right back on Moore Street and its possible rehabilitation/renovation, this one on the radio show of Sean O’Rourke. Enter the descendants of some of those involved in the Rising, once again given a broad swath of airtime in which to air their views as part of their “Relative Association”. A few points in response:

  1. Being a descendent of an Easter Rising veteran does not give you any greater right to decide or dictate how it is to be remembered, especially 100 years later.

I mean this should be an obvious point, right? These groups are going around acting as if they have some kind of inherent right to tell the (elected) government of the day what to do on this issue, and all apparently on the basis that they are three generations out from the people involved.

So what? The Easter Rising does not belong to these people. Especially if the claim is being made on such a flimsy basis. If I walked into a meeting to decide how best to commemorate the Royal Munster Fusiliers 100 years on and started demanding (because that’s what these groups are doing – demanding) exact aspects of the commemoration to be carried out according to my desires, I’d be laughed out the door, and rightfully so. Why should we give any extra credence to people who are descended from the Easter Risers? You’re not Padraig Pearse or James Connolly. You never knew them, anymore than I know them.

I wish we could get some pushback from the government and other “opposed” parties on this point, because it genuinely baffles me, how much undue airtime and respect has been given over on the sheer basis of distant bloodline. And speaking of demands…

  1. Discussions such as this need compromise, not demands.

I hate hearing that word in any missive on the nature of commemoration, because it is s direct way of shutting down conversation. “Demanding” things helps nobody, and discourages the art of compromise, which is supposed to be what government is about after all. Who are these people, without any kind of popular mandate, to demand anything anyway? If you want to talk and discuss, fine. But this outward show of demanding this and that is both unhelpful to the larger issue and deeply disrespectful. Of course, a lot of these fringe groups will try and make themselves seem far more impressive and important than they really are through the use of such words.

  1. Pick your targets.

Isn’t it amazing, how groups such as these focus on the national government, while ignoring other institutions, like Dublin City Council, who arguably have a much higher degree of control of the project? Of course, I’m sure it has nothing to do with a pre-existing enmity because of other matters, or any kind of tie-in to a political agenda held by the membership. Hey, look who they share a stage with!

  1. Do not dare try and whitewash the military side of the Rising to suit your modern agenda.

There was a repeated talking point from several different people in the course of the program, downplaying or deflecting the Easter Rising as a military exercise, in favour of focusing on the “culture” of the Easter Risers. I hate this attempted whitewash of history, which surely stems from an anti-militaristic stance many of this people have today, which does not mesh so well with the glorification of Pearse and company I suppose. To ignore or deflect from the Easter Rising as a military exercise is obscene, and does an immense disservice to the 466 people who died in it. Maybe the fact that 254 of them were unarmed civilians rankles a bit. Or maybe it is the simple reality that the Easter Rising was botched militarily. And that might reflect badly on the deified ancestors. Regardless, cut it the hell out. It’s disrespectful and obscuring.

  1. Stop aggrandising.

On different occasions, I heard people involved with this movement describe Moore Street as “the most important street in Irish history” and claim that the Easter Rising made various independence movements throughout the world, such as in India, possible. This kind of historical aggrandisement is hyperbolistic and unnecessary, a pathetic way to try and make the “claim” on Moore Street bigger than it is and more important than it is. Regardless of what these people think, the popular consciousness associates the Easter Rising more with the GPO than Moore Street.

I don’t like these people, and I make no attempt to hide that fact. I find them, their movement and their statements, condescending, dishonest, arrogant and wrapped up in contemporary political movements to an unhealthy extent. We should not be giving too much heed to these people, who have played their part in the stagnation of Moore Street too, whether they would care to admit it or not. The centenary decade needs clearer heads to be in charge and making decisions.

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Review: One Million Dubliners

One Millions Dubliners

Trailer

More Dubliners reside at Glasnevin than reside in the city. This is their story.

More Dubliners reside at Glasnevin than reside in the city. This is their story.

Glasnevin is one of Dublin’s, and Ireland’s, historical treasures, an intrinsic part of the city that offers a firm link to a long stretch of its history. It is fair to say that the cemetery really is the Irish equivalent of America’s Arlington (even if Glasnevin is actually older) and any mass resting place for the dead is bound to produce a certain curiosity, morbid or otherwise. But Glasnevin has the additional attraction of being the final point on life’s journey for such a wide cadre of major historical figures for this country, from O’Connell to Collins, and that means there is fertile ground for a loser look at just how things work in a place where there are, quite literally, one million Dubliners to be looked after.

Documentarian Aoife Kelleher takes an in-depth look at Glasnevin cemetery in One Million Dubliners, and the various parts of its day to day business. There’s tour guides for history, cremators for the more modern entrants to the graveyard, singers, foreigners and various different class of mourners. But what is it about Glasnevin that attracts so much interest?

One Million Dubliners could be accused of being overly sentimental or of trying to play on the emotions of the audience to an extent that borders on manipulative. But, in truth, I feel that the flaw in One Million Dubliners is more about the the overall point of the exercise. Documentaries must either inform or explore. One Million Dubliners does a good bit of informing, which is fine, but it is in the exploring that it sort of falls down.

That is not to say that One Million Dubliners is a bad film. It isn’t. Framing itself around the work of Glasnevin’s tour guide Shane Mac Thomáis, it jumps from topic to topic at a reasonable rate, showcasing many of the lesser known but still fascinating parts of how the people at Glasnevin – staff, mourners and visitors – do their thing. Some of the segments stand out more than others of course. There’s the rather disturbing glimpse at the people, many of them ignorant of the man before Neil Jordan’s biopic, who flock repeatedly to the grave of Michael Collins in a cult-like fashion. Seriously, some of those interviews were actually rather chilling.

There’s the cremators, who are so inured to the reality of their five a day job that their method can seem shockingly impersonal, and even disrespectful, to those viewing that job for the first time, though by the end of that segment I think that a good enough job had been done at engendering a a level of understanding about such a job. There are those who go to mourn deceased infants and the miscarried, denied access to the consecrated found of the main part of the cemetery, perhaps the most saddening part of the production. And there are the varied amount of staff, florists, receptionists and gravediggers, who man what has rapidly become a very popular tourist attraction thanks to more recent investment, as well as most hallowed ground.

There is plenty to be learned about the Glasnevin’s operation in One Million Dubliners, and that stuff is genuinely interesting. On an emotional level, One Million Dubliners is also a success, creating a narrative around its central players that is surprisingly affecting, especially because of its unexpectedly sad ending. I suppose it isn’t too hard to play on human emotions when the entire exercise revolves something like the final resting places of the dead, and you certainly feel something when you hear the top brass of the cemetery talk about how their stone fast policy is to never, ever, disturb the dead, even if coffins, due to soil movement over the years, encroach on other plots.

The people of the modern cemetery are the stars and the storytellers of One Million Dubliners.

The people of the modern cemetery are the stars and the storytellers of One Million Dubliners.

But I do think that One Million Dubliners goes off the rails a little bit, primarily when it tries to be deeper and more philosophical than it has to be. The recurring question asked of every interviewee and contributor is, essentially, “What do you think happens to us after we’re dead?” It’s a major question that does fit the surrounds of the documentary, but a big part of me felt like it was too simple an approach to make, and offered little to what else One Million Dubliners was trying to do.

Nobody that Kelleher talks to has anything particularly noteworthy to say on that score, or at least nothing that you haven’t heard before. An afterlife or nothing is what it boils down to, like it always does. More interesting to me were peoples opinions on the varying methods, especially burial or cremate, of how to treat bodies after death. Coming on the heels of an in-depth look at just what cremation entails behind the scenes, it seemed to be a far more pertinent question to be exploring.

Visually, One Million Dubliners is impressive, with lots of high quality camerawork showing off every corner of the cemetery. Yes, it gets a little bit repetitive, seeing the ranks and ranks of tombstones, but there is also an interesting variety in eve the bog standard editions. There are monuments and mausoleums of outstanding vividness and beauty in Glasnevin, and One Million Dubliners makes sure to show most of them off in their turn.

Kelleher makes the decision to stay behind the camera and let her subjects speak for themselves with only inferred direction, and this communal narration helps add the sense of the cemeteries various facets coming together to tell its story, with as broad a scope as possible. This approach helps to paint a large picture of the cemetery, and with just 83 or so minutes to play around with, I found this to be an impressive achievement.

There’s even room for a bit of music to be a part of the proceedings in One Million Dubliners, surrounding another of the graveyards more famous personalties, that of Luke Kelly. Much like Michael Collins, Kelly’s final resting place is a draw for a variety of people, though in the case of Kelly I felt like the obsession was based much more on a genuine feeling of connection. The use of Kelly’s rendition of “The Night Visiting Song”, twice, was perfect for the production.

One Million Dubliners will probably not live long in the memory, but still manages to offer a glimpse into the workings of one of Ireland’s more notable tourist attractions. Parts of it do not work as well as they possibly could, there is a sense that the production lacks a lasting point, and the sentimentality of the entire exercise could have been streamlined to a better extent. But in terms of this kind of attraction focused documentary, One Million Dubliners can class itself as one of the better ones. I’m reminded, looking back at One Million Dubliners, of the way that Mrs Browns Boys: D’Movie tried, and in my opinion failed, to glorify Dublin’s Moore Street as an intrinsic part of the city. One Million Dubliners, in a non-fiction way, does the same job far, far better.

Postscript: I must, unfortunately, register my displeasure at seeing this documentary receive an airing on terrestrial television so soon after its cinema release, a practice I find very irritating and disrespectful to cinema-goers. The system is designed so people pay for a ticket to avoid a significant wait to see the content for free on smaller screens. In the case of a documentary like this, this goes even further, lacking any kind of big budget visual element that would encourage seeing it on a big screen. Regardless of the why – creator decision, financing obligations or what have you – it is simply put that I would probably not have forked over the cash for a cinema ticket and associated costs if I had known I could have seen the same content, for free (or for whatever minuscule slice of the TV license it would have cost) such a short time later. For this reason, One Million Dubliners has slipped a bit in my estimation. 

A decent documentary.

A decent documentary.

(All images are copyright of Underground Films).

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