Review: United Passions

United Passions

Trailer

Ugh...

Ugh…

In the “Special Thanks” section of the end credits of United Passions, the very first name listed is that Joseph Sepp Blatter, the (at time of writing) current President of FIFA. Considering that United Passions is a film where Blatter is the main character for half of its running length, this should tell you all you need to know about this film, whose 19 million dollar budget was largely provided by FIFA itself. After debuting a ghastly trailer a few months ago, United Passions got a very, very limited release before going up on French iTunes. Is it as much a propaganda film as it appears? Or is it really a worthwhile exploration of footballs global governing body?

United Passions tells the story of FIFA, from its limited foundations in 1904 to the sprawling empire of today, primarily through three inter-linked figures: Jules Rimet (Gerard Depardieu), who tries to create an international competition of renown in the first half of the 20th century, Joao Havelange (Sam Neill), who tackles organisational stagnation in the 70’s, and finally Sepp Blatter (Tim Roth), who helps brings commercialisation to the game in the more modern era.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

Right from the start here, I want to be upfront about how bad this film is. Not God’s Not Dead level bad, but still absolutely terrible. I’m going to go through United Passions bit by bit without dallying anywhere too long, but before any of that I want to be clear about how much disdain I have for this production generally.

We open on a scene so full of corn I’m amazed the director passed it off with a straight face. The narrative of United Passions is framed around a football match between a load of kids in some unstated part of the world, playing on a dirt pitch. United Passions returns to this scene repeatedly, without any clear reason as to why, apart from a tired metaphor about how underdogs can prove doubters wrong or something – as well as trying to get across the enduring popularity of football, as larger and large amounts of people come to watch the kids play. But it’s all just a temporary distraction from what the film is trying to show us in the actual substantial parts of the production and seemed, at times, to just be the only way that the creators could put actual football in their film about football.

From there, we dive headfirst into the awful. Overly dramatic narrations announce that several individuals are seeking to form a world governing body for the sport at the start of the 20th century, said with all the gravitas of someone announcing a declaration of war. We get introduced to our opening batch of continental footballing idealists, most notably Carl Hirschmann, a Dutchman who served as one of FIFA’s first secretary generals. He approaches the FA’s Lord Kinnaird about English involvement in the proposed new global entity, astonishingly choosing to do so in the middle of a football match.

FIFA’s track record of dispute with the English FA is well known, as are Sepp Blatter’s frequent instances of butting heads with the same organisation – they tend to have this annoying tendency to not fall in line behind him at every turn like other national FA’s. So, while it is quite true that the early days of FIFA were marked by a rivalry with the FA, it should come as no surprise that the English in United Passions are undoubtedly the bad guys, whose every appearance in the film adds on another layer of antagonism. Here, it’s just all too casual arrogance and dismissiveness of the Europeans trying to play their game, while they prance about giving instructions to the teams playing before them. Focusing on how different the game was in this period – along with how it was still basically recognisable – would have been a far better road to take. Instead, we get an awkward and slanted conversation on the sideline.

These opening scenes also contain much of what makes United Passions so badly directed. Scenes are framed and lines are written as if they are being made for a docudrama-like production. There are no character arcs here, just reconstructions of events that happened. I kept expecting a narrator or modern interviews to cut in, Seachtar Na Casca style. It really does have that feel, of simply being scenes from a history book played out as simple as possible, little bits and pieces of FIFA’s history played out in short scenes. Characters speak their motivations like its nothing, and exposition is the order of the day. It’s worse in the opening half of the production, but never really goes away. Feeling like you’re watching footage meant for a different kind of film, being presented as straight drama, gives the whole affair a very unsettling feeling.

Anyway, FIFA is founded in someone’s kitchen and the narrative jumps ahead a couple of decades to 1924 and the aftermath of the Paris Olympics. The Uruguayan football team inexplicably has a press conference solely to talk about how great they are – a truly strange moment – but get harassed and harangued by a man in the crowd of fawning journalists. Here’s Jules Rimet, played by French acting legend Gerard Depardieu. Unfortunately this appears to be a bit of stunt casting, as the overweight and deteriorating Depardieu cannot really capture anything of the real Rimet, a far leaner and more impressive looking man in what visual depictions of him remain. Depardieu cannot inject any life into the man either, as flat and stale as anyone else in all of his scenes.

Rimet’s passionate denunciation of Uruguay for having the temerity to win some Olympic medals gets him inside FIFA, and begins the first of two main plots of United Passions: Organising a World Cup of football. There is some brief and barely effective commentary here about the implied dodginess of the host selection for the eventual tournament, with Uruguay – the only nation capable of hosting it at the time – miraculously chosen by what is implied to be a popular vote, after Rimet had all but picked them himself. United Passions might be trying to draw an unexpected parallel with the most recent World Cup bid process, but after the host is picked it moves ahead and never looks back.

Yay FIFA!

Yay FIFA!

Before the World Cup in Uruguay actually starts, we do get another look at those terrible English officials, still sneering at FIFA from the sidelines. In a scene with Rimet’s daughter Annette – a character given screentime purely so Rimet would not have to talk to himself when he needs to outline exposition – an English FA official mixes casual racism with sexism, implying that neither Africans or women can play the game. Aside from the fact that both were playing football at that point – Egypt had joined FIFA in 1923 for example, and women had played football for crowds of thousands during World War One – it’s just another way to slander the nameless English bad guys, whom Rimet and co are fearlessly standing up to. No racism with the predominantly French organisation! It also starts this strange and vaguely unsettling recurring plot, about FIFA’s relationship with African football. More on that later.

Anyway, the 1930 World Cup, despite the absence of so many key sides, is a raging success, as an actual “spinning newspaper” effect makes clear.  No time to dawdle on any of that though, as United Passions jumps ahead again, something it does all the time, usually in four year bursts to coincide the “action” with the latest World Cup. We have never have time to settle in to any time period, as the manic narrative just jumps and jumps and jumps.

Post Italy 34, Jules Rimet is unhappy once again, with the Fascist Italians dominating and the world headed towards war. FIFA is in financial trouble (a recurring theme/excuse) and the relationship between some members is getting rancorous. The levels of precognition from Rimet and others here, about the apparent inevitably of European war, really stretch the bounds of believability. The possibility of a discouraged and disillusioned Rimet having to find a way to bring football out of the darkness is largely forgone as we move forward: another time jump and everything is alright again, with just a brief stopover to discuss the “Death Match” of 1942. They try and make this very moving and dramatic, but it’s all so much bluster and, with modern research taken into consideration, bad history. Football has to be at the forefront of everything in United Passions, even the horrors of the eastern front.

But who cares about any of that because now it is 1950 and time for some Samba soccer! Rimet is happy, FIFA is successful, and we didn’t even have to see any of it being fixed that way. Who has time for that anyway? United Passions forges on with a dramatic reconstruction of the 1950 final in the Maracana, watched and listed to by the entire Brazilian people, perhaps meant as some kind of salute to the host nation of this year (though they do take the time to mock the English a bit more before that. Losing to the USA? How embarrassing monsieur!). It falls horribly flat, not least because of the strange way that the trophy presentation was framed after Uruguay beat the Brazilians, Rimet in shock and moving like a zombie in front of the really obvious green screen. It was portrayed as some kind of horrible blow to Rimet or something – maybe because he really wanted the Brazilians to win or something? – and next thing you know he is in his grave being mourned by his daughter. Thanks Uruguay! Rimet’s part of the plot ceases as suddenly as it started, and with no real point having been made, just a really badly handled reconstruction of a few moments in his career.

And so, onto the second half, where United Passions jumps ahead to a slightly more modern era, ignoring the 54, 58 and 62 World Cups because who cares about them right? Instead we get Joao Havelange and then FIFA President Stanley Rous. Oh God, an Englishman is in charge of FIFA? Better make him arrogant and racist fast, lest we break the narrative consistency of the film so far. After blindly dismissing Brazilian football in general, we get a stop off in the England of 1966 so we can see Geoff Hurst’s goal again. There’s no larger narrative about ’66 at all, just a brief scene to remind us that it happened before we are off again. What was the point?

Anyway, Havelange wants to be head of FIFA so he can bring the organisation into a new age, tired of seeming stagnation and reluctance to embrace new areas for the game. The arrogant and unprepared Rous is beaten by Havelange in an election they try to frame as tension-filled but just really isn’t: Havelange relies greatly on the votes of delegates from CAF. That’s because he is the friend of the African it would seem, determined to bring that confederation up a few pegs. How nice of him. Such few ulterior motives as well.

This brings us to the introduction of one Joseph Sepp Blatter, a Swiss national who finds himself travelling up the FIFA ladder rapidly during Havelange’s tenure. The story now is about the increasing commercialisation of FIFA through corporate sponsorship, excused as a necessity due to FIFA bad financial situation. Blatter is a hero in this regard, fearlessly chatting up the likes of Coca Cola and Adidas, aided and abetted by people like Horst Dassler. Blatter saves FIFA from collapse and becomes a rising star under Havelange’s careful watch. Thomas Kretschmann’s Dassler is sort of involved, but they never go too much into it in United Passions (and we all know why, right?).

The deification of Blatter has begun and is never ending for the rest of the film. Havelange gets slightly worse treatment, with a really odd scene inferring that he was willing to give underhanded support to the Argentina team in 1978 because it would be good for business. This is depicted as a lesson to Blatter in how to move the sport forward, but the vagueness of it all makes the whole exercise, in narrative terms, rather pointless. United Passions seems willing to point in the generally direction of FIFA excesses and corruption, without ever getting into too much specifics.

Sepp Blatter, the hero.

Sepp Blatter, the hero.

As an example of that, let’s go back to CAF. Havelange is depicted, sort of, as reneging on some of his previously made commitments to African football, commitments that Blatter eventually makes good on. Sponsorship, development funds, seats at the bigger tables, Blatter makes sure that Africa gets them all, and he gets support in the future as a result. The hidden side of this – that what Blatter was really doing (and continues to do) is essentially blackmail in exchange for votes – is not covered at all. Blatter and co are depicted as the antithesis of the racist English of earlier who have, by the way, now vanished from the screen.

From 1982 on Blatter basically seems to take over the running of FIFA from an increasingly aging and absent Havelange. More strange framing here, as United Passions makes it look for a moment like Havelnage is trying to hang Blatter out to dry in place of himself, only for the two to have a much closer relationship in time for the nest big time skip, all the way to USA 94. Havelange resigns, and Blatter becomes the next President of FIFA.

This is the big finale, but gets drawn out to a painful degree. Blatter is inexplicably portrayed as a corruption fighting family man, cruelly slandered by uncomprehending journalists who just don’t understand that he is actually against all of that sort of thing.

Facing the truly terrible prospect of being turfed out of his position after 2002, Blatter gets some slightly shady advice from Havelange, which essentially amounts to blackmailing his opponents and voters. It’s all OK, because they are the real bad guys: Blatter is just going to use such things in self defence. It’s another really warped scene of corruption excusing, the closest United Passions gets to actually talking about it all.

Blatter survives in a complete failure of tension-filled filmmaking, bringing the whole torturous exercise to a close, thankfully. Wait, no, we’re not done – our last scene, mid-credits, is Blatter announcing South Africa as the host of the 2010 World Cup. This really is the film where Sepp Blatter is the hero, and the entire finale is framed about how awesome the fact that he is still President is. And look at how much he values Africa football! Not like those nasty English. If only he could give the same consideration to Qatari construction labourers.

United Passions has one female character of note, Annette Rimet, who serves as a support and audience for her father. She’s fairly shallow as a character, just someone to be in scenes with Rimet, with no thoughts or agency of her own. I suppose it is strangely appropriate that such a male-dominated organisation of FIFA should see the film depicting its history carry that gender difference over.

The plot of United Passions is then, a terrible, terrible thing, lacking any verve or excitement, boring in parts and offensive to the intelligence of the audience in others. How does United Passions do when it comes to themes?

Not great either, surprise, surprise. There is generic stuff about having a dream and following it in the opening half, through the idealistic vision of the FIFA founders and Jules Rimet’s idea of a World Cup. They face challenges, problems, opposition, but they always find a way around it. Isn’t FIFA great? Unstoppable, predestined, amazing, you might say. From there it’s simply an overarching theme of getting ahead at any cost, though United Passions is careful not to make the people undertaking such getting ahead as too bad. Otherwise we might start to think of them as corrupt and bad for the sport in general.

United Passions is a bad film. I suspect FIFA set out to make a self aggrandising propaganda piece that would fit in well with the footballing love-in that Brazil 2014 was supposed to be. When the wave of negativity surrounding that nation’s hosting of the World Cup did not just go away, not to mention the continuing controversy over the 2018 and 2022 hosting decisions, suddenly the atmosphere was not so ripe for its release. So, it seems to have been quietly shunted off to the side with the most limited of limited releases, likely to never really see the light of day in a substantial fashion. A good 19 million down the tubes. It must be nice to have that kind of cash to squander away on such a vanity project.

Blatter, FIFA and the production team have, together, crafted an appalling film, that is far too sympathetic to its subjects and completely unwilling to ask the really hard questions. Aside from that, the narrative is weak, the acting is poor, the direction is mediocre, the script is terrible and the entire effort is repulsive when you take even the most cursory look at its origins and its financial backing. While the more insidious and immoral aspects of God’s Not Dead makes it a worse movie – and likely to be my worst film of the year – United Passions can only say that it is just barely better. As bad as you have heard, and as unworthy of further discussion as you can imagine.

Not good.

Not good.

(All images are copyright of Falcon Films, MTVA, and NOS Audiovisuals).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Restoration Coups

So ends the bloody business of the day.

-Homer

Richard Cromwell had a short honeymoon period upon taking up the office of Lord Protector, with his brother Henry remaining in his position of power in Ireland as well, seemingly a smooth transition for Britain’s new ruling family. But it was not to last. Lacking any of the personal charisma, political experience and iron will of his deceased father, Richard – derisively nicknamed “Tumbledown Dick” by his opponents – was fated to lose control of the situation before too long.

The key issue was the army. Oliver Cromwell’s rule had been solidified and held up by the support of the armed forces, who despite some occasional differences in political opinion and upset at delayed payment of wages, loved their commander who had led them to so many victories in the wars. With the backing of the army Oliver Cromwell had been a powerful man. That army offered little of the same support to his successor, who had not even served, in any great capacity anyway, during the Civil Wars.

After a few months, things came to a head. Amid lack of pay and grumbling at the direction the country was taking, some elements in the army decided to act. In May of 1659, a group of New Model Army “grandees”, headed by Richard’s brother-in-law Charles Fleetwood, moved against him, removing the Lord Protector from office in a quick and carefully orchestrated coup. Richard went quietly, fading into the background of history without much resistance.

The new leadership reinstalled the so-called “Rump Parliament” but essentially governed Britain as a military dictatorship through several committees, the membership of which included Fleetwood and John Lambert, a key Parliamentarian general who remained immensely popular with the rank and file. They aimed to maintain the lack of monarchy and perhaps to even increase the power of the legislature in time – but only under their own terms.

They were opposed by many, not least the slew of remaining Royalists who saw the possible disintegration of their enemies as a chance to get Charles Stuart back into power. A failed uprising in the Cheshire region was a sign of things to come. It was from Scotland, where George Monck remained in command, that the true threat would come.

Monck kept his cards close to his chest during this period. His governorship of Scotland had ended up giving him a large degree of power, not to mention a fine army of his own, and when Richard Cromwell was overthrown Monck was one of the few people in Britain who stood a realistic chance of stepping in successfully. Uninterested in maintaining the rule of the Cromwell’s, he waited, taking advice and pleas from both Parliamentarians and Royalists, refusing to declare support for the designs of Lambert and Fleetwood. In late 1659 he assembled his armed forces and crossed the border, marching decisively south. Lambert, badly caught by these events, rapidly gathered together his own forces and headed north to meet him.

Watching this maelstrom were the figures in charge of Ireland. Henry Cromwell had departed in June, his position as leader of Ireland untenable in the wake of his brothers political demise. The Irish administration took the appearance of a vacuum, with no clear leader and plenty of other personalities in the country in a position to effect things.

These included Charles Coote and Roger Boyle (the Lord Broghill). Both men had gotten much out of the Civil Wars, increasing their estates and their powers, Coote in Connacht and Ulster, Broghill in Munster. Both men were distrustful and suspicious of the other, being political rivals under the Protectorate, but neither man was a hardcore supporter of the Parliamentarian cause. Watching the events unfold in England, they knew that they stood at a decisive moment for Ireland. They had the choice of declaring for the Parliament – though the legislature was hardly behind Lambert in a firm way – or Monck, who many suspected was operating on behalf of Charles Stuart.

It was not an inconsequential manner. The people of Britain and Ireland had barely endured eight years of relative peace after over a decade of bloody strife, and now it seemed as if another round of political violence was in the offing. The wars in Ireland had begun from just a few simple seizures of castles and towns, ballooning into a bitter sectarian conflict that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The acts of a few men now could replicate that process if things were not done carefully.

Moreover, whoever came out on top in England would be in the best position to decide things for the whole Kingdom, but whoever was able to grab power in Ireland would also be in a position to dictate matters, being in control of potentially a very large army, and being able to invite Charles Stuart to land back on the soil he claimed as his own. In Ireland, there were plenty of potential Kingmakers – and killers.

A round of coups ensued as various factions in Ireland sought to control the main centre of administration and political authority: Dublin. Aside from being the nominal capital (with everything that this entailed) it was also the main port on the eastern side of the country, with the easiest possibility of hooking up with supporters in England. Holding Dublin had immense political and military value then, in the event that further fighting broke out in the Commonwealth at large.

The first to seize Dublin was Theophilus Jones, a Parliamentarian and brother of the deceased Michael Jones. He had inherited his brothers former position of governor of Dublin, and now, with a small group of other officers, took military control of the Castle and openly declared for the cause of Parliament.

Jones didn’t last too long in his position. His act was essentially the sound of a starter’s pistol, and soon all the vital areas of Ireland were being seized and controlled by a small number of select players, mostly Coote and Broghill, who secured the majority of Connacht and Munster respectively. Local garrisons and army units were bound to be influenced by the nearest figure of authority, and no one wanted to be caught declaring for the losing side. As such, it was relatively easy for those in the more powerful positions of Irish politics – like Coote and Brogill – to take control of numerous positions of importance without resort to bloodshed.

In the meantime, Edmond Ludlow tried to change things to his own advantage, having been given the nominal appointment of commander-in-chief of Irish military forces by the new Parliamentarian regime. Distracted by the political manoeuvrings in London and distrusted due to his own radical beliefs, Ludlow was unable to really do anything to aid his cause in Dublin, caught between Jones’ military control of the city and the reality of Coote and Broghill’s expanding control of the rest of the country.  Declared a traitor by the officers in Dublin in December, who were not as Republican minded as he was, he fled back to England.

Next up was Hardress Waller, a veteran of Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland, who had remained a crucial part of the Irish political and military scene under the Protectorate. Retaining control of some forces in the face of the rapid Coote/Broghill takeover, he was able to advance on Dublin in February of 1660 and seize it from Jones, apparently without much bloodshed.

He was wasting his time. Coote and Broghill had secured Galway, Athlone, Limerick, Cork and a host of other positions along the coast. They had also secured control of most of the armed forces remaining in Ireland, purging them of the more radical elements in their leadership who might have had more sympathy for the position of Ludlow and Waller. Only a few days after Waller’s takeover, Charles Coote advanced on Dublin, arriving in greater force than Waller and compelling him to surrender control of the city. Waller was arrested. With Dublin and every other point of strategic and political significance in their hands, the alliance of Coote and Broghill, though tenuous, had grabbed control of Ireland. It had happened entirely bloodlessly as well, something that comes as a surprise given the years off fighting beforehand.

By now, Coote and Broghill had made up their minds. In England Monck’s advance had been irresistible, with Lambert’s larger army dissolving before coming anywhere close to battle, mostly due to lack of pay and political disillusionment. The Parliament, as it was, was increasingly seen as a corrupt and overly wieldy institution, and though Monck publically wavered between announcing for a return to the Long Parliament and a restoration of the monarchy, privately he had all but made up his mind. In contact with Charles Stuart on the continent, plans were already far progressed for the King’s return.

Coote and Broghill, seeing which way the wind was blowing, declared for Monck and, with that, Charles Stuart, promising to hold Ireland in trust for the monarch. Both men urged Charles to land in Ireland at the earliest opportunity and take up his throne there, lest things not go to his advantage in England. The exiled ruler declined, wanting to focus on England alone for the moment, perhaps wary of a regional approach to regaining his throne after the failure of his Scottish alliance. But he trusted Coote and Broghill, despite their Parliamentarian backgrounds, to hold Ireland for him.

The Restoration could not be stopped, despite some desperate last minute manoeuvring by Lambert, who was eventually taken into custody, with Fleetwood stripped of his position by the now victorious Monck.  In early April, from the same place where he had made his ill-fated agreement with the Scottish Covenanters, Charles made the “Declaration of Breda”, promising, in the event of his return, to refrain from widescale persecution of former foes, to bring in religious toleration (with some addendums) and to issue pack pay for Monck’s soldiers. The Declaration was received warmly, and in both London and Dublin, the new Royalists organised Convention Parliaments to oversee the final moves. Charles Stuart was proclaimed king in London on the 8th of May, and in Dublin on the 14th, without opposition. The Parliamentarian radicals had been purged, the republicans captured, killed or exiled, the remainder willing to forgo previous commitments to rule by the legislature in order to facilitate a peaceful return to traditional government. Charles Stuart, now Charles II in actuality, returned home on the 23rd of May. The following year, the newly enthroned King called his first Parliament in both England and Ireland.

With that, we can call an end to the era of Civil Wars in Britain, 19 years after the initial rebellion of 1641. Now was the era of the Restoration, with rewards for those who had supported Charles’ return and punishments for those who had opposed him. We’ve covered a lot of events in Ireland’s Wars, and a lot of personalities, in that 20 year period. Let’s take a look at the fates of some of the more major ones, who were still alive to tell their tales in 1660.

James Butler had been one of the most stalwart supports of the Stuarts throughout this time, and that did not change during the interregnum, when he took up a position as a chief advisor to Charles Stuart during his exile. Butler even took the risk of a disguised trip to Protectorate England in 1658 to assess the chances of a Royalist rebellion. Upon the Restoration, he received back all of his estates in Ireland (and then some) as well as a ranking promotion: now becoming Duke of Ormonde. Starting in 1662, he became once more the dominant political figure of Ireland, well respected and honoured, largely remaining so until his death in 1688, aged 78. His service in Ireland during this period had been of the most immense importance. His military record is shaky, as is his political legacy for the time discussed. But it cannot be denied that, apart from maybe Cromwell, he had the largest impact on Ireland in the course of the Eleven Year Wars.

Returning with him were several figures. Murrough O’Brien, the Baron Inchiquin, had been baptized a Catholic during his exile, serving in a few continental armies. His religion prevented him from gaining any high offices upon the Restoration, but he did receive some estates in Munster, and a title of Earl, for his service to the Royalist cause. He lived quietly until his death in 1674, aged 60. His campaigns were controversial, and when faced with an opponent of even basic competence he seemed incapable of victory, but his impact on the first half of the war was gigantic, especially in maintaining the Parliamentarian position in the country.

James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, served Charles II in exile and received his former estates upon the Restoration, though his religion barred him from any great legacy of service afterward.  He remained a well regarded figure, even among his Protestant peers. He died in Tipperary in 1684, aged 67. He had been a firebrand in the wars, with a healthy taste for self aggrandisement, but he did have some military talent. But his overall impact was exaggerated – not least by himself – and his military failures outweigh his successors.

Charles Coote had opposed Charles II, but his role in the Restoration was rewarded. He was ennobled as the Earl of Montrath in 1660, but did not live long to enjoy his new title and lands, dying of smallpox the following year, aged 51. He remains a figure of hatred among some Irish Catholic circles, especially in Ulster and Connacht, but his military record speaks for itself. Apart from Cromwell, there is probably no other figure who started the war without titles of nobility who had a bigger impact.

His Restoration ally, Broghill, also received a position of higher nobility, made Earl of Orrery in 1660. He remained a prominent political figure for several years, though he never got on with Ormonde, retiring in 1668 and living quietly until in death in 1679, aged 58. His role in the wars had been of vital importance, if relatively underappreciated – the seizure of the Cork coast in 1649/1650, without much bloodshed, had been a key aspect of the Cromwellian Conquest, an act largely undertaken by the initiative of Broghill.

Other players also received their rewards. The Viscount Muskerry returned, made Earl of Clancarty, dying in 1665. The heirs of the deceased Clanricarde were restored to their former position in Connacht. John Dillon, the defender of Athlone, returned, dying in 1669.

Meanwhile, George Monck, the chief architect of Charles’ return, was awarded numerous honours and positions of high office, including extensive command of England’s navies in an ongoing war with the Dutch. He died in 1670.

And what of the other side, those relevant to Ireland? Charles Fleetwood escaped retribution, but saw his political career destroyed and ended, holding no office of repute until his death, aged 74, in 1692. Hardress Waller escaped a death sentence for his regicide, but spent the rest of his life, until 1666, imprisoned. Edmund Ludlow went into exile when he faced arrest and execution, dying in 1692. Colonel John Hewson, one of Cromwell’s key subordinates in Ireland from 1649 to the Restoration, also went into exile before dying in 1662. Henry Cromwell retired and was left unmolested by the new regime all the way to his death in 1674.

A grimmer fate awaited Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, or at least their bodies. Numerous regicides were arrested, tried and executed and rather than leave the dead alone, the new Royalist regime decided to make a macabre example of Cromwell and Ireton. They were disinterred, their corpses placed on trial for treason. After being found guilty, the bodies underwent the “punishment” of being hung, drawn and quartered, their heads put on public display afterward. 13 of the surviving regicides were executed, 19 others were imprisoned for various amounts of time. They were some of the only people to suffer retribution in the aftermath of the Restoration, which was, overall, a remarkably tolerant time.

There were several decades of relative peace to come, but there would be trials and tribulations throughout all of that time, not least for the Catholic Irish. Many expected a return to their previous lands and the introduction of greater religious toleration following the Restoration. They would be disappointed.

But all of that is a section of history for another day. For now, my “coverage” of what I have decided to describe as the “Eleven Year Wars” has come to an end. They are a series of extraordinary and fascinating conflicts, so misunderstood and misremembered by people today, in Ireland and in Britain. This was an age of political and military titans that have been so largely forgotten in the popular consciousness and remembrance of Ireland’s 17th century. Events like Benburb, Dungan’s Hill, Clonmel and the Restoration coups deserve a higher place in our minds when we think of Ireland’s military history. They were conflicts of politics and religion, bitter feuds and honourable enemies. They became great conflagrations from insignificant beginnings, bringing to mind the words of the Earl of Manchester in 1644:

It was easy to begin the war, but no man knew when it would end.

But now, they were over.

It is has been an extraordinarily long journey from my starting point in April 2013. I’d like to thank all readers, commenter’s, followers and subscribers for giving this website a look and for sticking with me for so long.

Ireland’s Wars will take a short break while I figure out how to move forward. I think I would like to do a summary piece on the Eleven Year Wars akin to this one I did for the Nine Years War, and that will take some time to write. After that, I might press ahead into the prologue of the War of the Two Kings or maybe instead go back briefly and cover parts of Irish military history I have neglected to a certain degree like, say, the finer details of the Norman Conquest. I’ll make that decision in a couple of weeks (and if anyone has a preference, please say so).

Until next time.

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

 

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Revolutionary Remembrance: Patrick Costelloe, Royal Munster Fusiliers (Part One)

Something a little different this time. In the spirit of the current focus on all things “Start of World War One”, I thought we’d talk about my great Grandfather. And we’ll do so, in the spirit of education, by having a look at the documents of his that I was able to track down on Ancestry.co.uk a while back. We’ll go through them one by one, detailing what they tell us, and hopefully someone else trying to decipher some of them will find some tips and explanations of certain things.

First up is a “Short Service” enlistment form. Let’s take it from the top:

This is the “attestation” of Patrick Costelloe, who was looking to join the Royal Munster Fusiliers. It begins with listing his name and then his “Parish or Town”, in this case that of St Munchins in the town and county of Limerick. He acknowledges that he is a British subject and then lists his age: 18 years and 0 months. So, he joined the army as soon as he was legally able. Or he’s lying about his age to get in, because isn’t that just a nice round number.

Under “What is your Trade or Calling?” he has simply written “Labourer”. So, we can tell Patrick Costelloe was a young man without much education or amazing employment prospects. He has not resided outside of his “Father’s House” – his family home then – for more than three years.

There follows a list of basic questions. Patrick Costelloe has never been apprenticed to a trade. He is not married. He has never been imprisoned. He has never been a member of the Armed Forces before. He has never been rejected for service before. He is willing to be vaccinated.

The unit he wants to join is the Royal Munster Fusiliers. He received a notice about the details of his enlistment from a Sgt whose name I can’t make it, from a Corps I also cannot distinguish. He agrees to serve in the Armed Forces for 12 years, seven in the regulars and five in the reserve, with all of the usual addendums for emergencies.

Lastly for this page, he declares his answer true and signs his name twice, once for the form and once for an oath of allegiance. A Sgt’s signature, presumably the enlister, stands as witness. According to the footer box, he has been enlisted in Limerick on the 29th day what looks like December, 1898. We can tell his personal signature is a little bit different from the rest of the writing, more clumsy, so we can perhaps infer that Patrick Costelloe was no great writer.

Next up is a descriptive form. First, some basic characteristics are listed: Patrick Costelloe was, again, 18 years and 0 months old upon his enlistment. He was only 5 foot 4 ½ inches, quite short, even for the time. He weighed 118 lbs. His chest was 33 inches at minimum and 34 ½ at maximum. He had a “Fresh” complexion, brown eyes and “Reddish brown” hair. He was a Roman Catholic. He had no distinguishing marks. So, he was a short, thin, fresh faced and sandy haired Irish labourer.

Next, a medical officer confirms that he has examined the patient, and that he is fit for army service. I can’t make out the name of this officer, but the examination happened in Limerick on the same day as Patrick Costelloe’s enlistment. Next, confirmation from the recruiting officer, whose name is fairly illegible, that Patrick Costelloe has been found fit for military service. Then the “Approving Officer” does the same thing. A lot of people needing to sign this piece of paper.

We then move on to some of the more substantial stuff, with a “Statement of the Services”, essentially a very basic listing of Patrick Costelloe’s army career. He joined his unit on the 3rd of January 1899, at Tralee, County Kerry, only a few days after his enlistment. His attestment date is listed again, and then he is “Posted” sometime in April 1899, presumably for basic training. An entry for the 29th December 1900 lists something about “Pay”, but the rest is illegible. All of this is signed off on by various people whose names are not clear, along with a stamp that says something about the “101st Reg”. The Munster Fusiliers were formed out of a combination of the 101st and the 104th several decades before this document was signed, so presumably has something to do with that.

Next there is a scrawled “P. Costello” (why the misspelling I don’t know) to an illegible declaration that he will “come under ??? governing…” something, signed in 1898. Underneath is another stamp, wherein Patrick Costelloe agrees to more regulations and pay details, and extends his service to eight years, signed in 1904.

Next is a scrawl of handwriting, mostly illegible. Costelloe was granted two badges for something on the 1st of August in what I think was 1904. He is noted as extending his service and something to do with “colours” (“Eight years service with the colours” I think) in the same year. There are two crossed out lines and then another “Posted” notice, this time for December 1906. We can infer from all of this that Costelloe was on active service somewhere in the British Empire, extended his service at some point and then was posted somewhere else. Looking at the dates, we could reasonably conclude that he was in South Africa during the Boer War(s), and so was a member of the RMF’s 2nd (Regular Service) Battalion which served in South Africa during that time. All of these lines are signed off by various Captains, whose names I cannot make out. The same signature repeats (it almost looks like “Aubert” or “Awbert”) indicating a constant commanding officer.

A stamp dated to the 16 January 1907 declares Costelloe’s transfer to the Army Reserve, as per his terms of service. He is “Transferred” to something in the next note, on the 17th of January 1908, perhaps to a different reserve unit. On the 18 of July 1910 his service was apparently up, but Costelloe chose to become “Re-engaged” at that time for whatever reason.

The next part is where it gets really interesting. A stamp boldly declares that Costelloe has been “Mobilized at TRALEE” on the 5th of August 1914. So, he was a reservist who was called to arms when World War One started. A stamp next to that declares he has been “POSTED” the following day, presumably as part of the initial BEF. Next to that are a collection of numbers that are apparently “costs” but costs of what exactly is unclear, possibly pay.

Underneath all of that comes more handwritten notes. On the 18th of September 1914 Costelloe was “awarded 10 days F.P No 2 by ??? Falling out of line of march”. Oh dear. F.P is “field punishment”. From this website:

Field punishments

Field Punishment Number 1 consisted of the convicted man being shackled in irons and secured to a fixed object, often a gun wheel or similar. He could only be thus fixed for up to 2 hours in 24, and not for more than 3 days in 4, or for more than 21 days in his sentence. This punishment was often known as ‘crucifixion’ and due to its humiliating nature was viewed by many Tommies as unfair. Field Punishment Number 2 was similar except the man was shackled but not fixed to anything. Both forms were carried out by the office of the Provost-Marshal, unless his unit was officially on the move when it would be carried out regimentally i.e. by his own unit.

Costelloe would have been 34 at the time, and would not have been in the regular army for seven years, so we might perhaps understand why he may have fallen out of a march. If it was fatigue related.

But then, something happened, because the next line declares Costelloe as “Discharged” on the 21st of April 1915. A further addition lists his years of service – 16 years and 114 days apparently – and some illegible notes about a pension. Throughout all of this, Costelloe’s rank is listed as “Pte” – Private.

This is where we start to get more solid info about what happened to Patrick Costelloe, in his “Military History Sheet”. It starts with another listing of his service, but this one is more legible. He was “Home” for the first eight months of his military career, presumably training. Then “South Africa” for three years and a few months, up to the latter half of 1902. Then something new: “East India” it looks like, on garrison duty for the better part of five years and to the end of his regular service. Then “Home” again, for all of six days, before his transfer to the Reserves. The next line is fairly unclear, but you can just about make out “Mob”, probably meaning “Mobilisation”, in August of 1914. After that, Costelloe is a member of the “British Expeditionary Force” for 150 days, up to January 1915, before a final return “Home” until his discharge. His years and days of service are listed in exact detail.

There follows a series of blank sections. Costelloe had no military education, no certificates of education, no “Passed classes of instruction”. Just an uneducated, perhaps illiterate, private then. The next line lists his “Campaigns”, that is, active military service. South Africa, from 1899 to 1902 is listed, and then the B.E.F again from the 13/8/14 to 9/1/15.

Then the big one. Under “Wounded”, it states “Left leg blown away by shrapnel in action”. So, this is the reason for the discharge. There is a date listed next to this, “18th or 19th” of a month that is unclear, in 1914.

Costelloe’s battalion and unit were heavily engaged in the early months of World War One, taking tremendous casualties at every turn at places like Mons and Ypres, and especially during a famed rearguard action at Etreux. But the exact engagement that Costelloe suffered this wound at escapes us unfortunately. Since he was punished for falling out of a march on the 18th of September of that year – and we can hope the reason wasn’t because he was missing a leg – we know that he was wounded sometime in October, November or maybe even December. Shellfire did it, so would not necessarily have been while in direct contact with the enemy.

“Effects of wounds” confirms that Costelloe’s left leg has been amputated up to his thing. There are no “Special instance of gallant conduct” to be listed. Under a “Medals, decorations and annuities” heading, there are some illegible words indicating something about a “King’s African Medal” – presumably a campaign medal – given to him while in “Cape Colony”.

There are no entries under anything related to “Deferred Pay” and it’s on to “Next of kin”. There are several scratched out lines here, that we can just about see to be “Father John”, “Mother Mary” and perhaps “Brother Tony”, with an address in Limerick. They have been superseded by another: A wife whose name is a bit unclear. It looks like “Moary” or “Moaly”. It is remarkably frustrating, but the letters really do seem to fall that way. In the next section though, what appears to be this woman’s pre-marriage surname is listed, as something that looks like “Mourray”. There’s what seems to be an “o” after the “M” in both instances, that if removed makes everything simpler: “Mary Murray”. Perhaps that is what it is, but the way of signing the “M” seems bizarre.

Anyway, his wife is listed as a spinster before the wedding, which took place in Saint Munchins Church, Limerick, on the 8th of October 1910 with a “Revd J. Maloney” presiding. Two witnesses are listed, perhaps “Martin Riordan” and “Charlotte Dickenson”.

Next, with the quality fading fast, are listed what children the couple had while Costelloe was still in the military. First is what looks like “Francis Josephine”, born on the 6th of August 1911, just ten months after the wedding. There are two other names listed, but the blurriness makes recognition difficult. Perhaps “Catherine”, “Bartholomew, “Cornelius” (who would have been my Grandfather), “Christine”. It doesn’t help that genders aren’t listed. Regardless, the second child was born on the 6th of April 1913 and the third sometime in December 1914 when their father was still in France, presumably in a hospital somewhere. You don’t want to skew your impressions too much, but it is easy to imagine such a time being difficult for Mary, at home with three children while her husband, presumably the main or only provider, might have been dying on the continent.

Plenty more of these documents to cover, and I’ll go through the rest of them another time.

 

Posted in History, Ireland, Revolutionary Remembrance, War | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: God’s Not Dead

God’s Not Dead

Trailer

This sums up the movie.

This sums up the movie.

I want to fully admit, at the start, the only reason I actually watched this film was because I had heard how legendarily bad it was, in a whole lot of different ways. You might well wonder if this perception might skew my appraisal a bit. But from the moment that a black character made a glib comment and then introduced himself as “G-Dog” in the first five minutes  – and proceeded to have no more lines for the rest of the film – I knew I was in for something especially terrible, and I have no compunction saying so.

Christian college student Josh (Shane Harper) refuses to sign a document that his philosophy lecturer, Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), insists his class agree to, a paper that proclaims “God is dead”. Annoyed at his intransigence, Radisson challenges him to a series of debates on Josh’s counter assertion that “God’s not dead”. Meanwhile, several people connected to the two undergo their own experience with faith – or the lack of it.

Though I am a fairly terrible Roman Catholic by the official standards, I still count myself as a Christian, so you could say that this is the kind of film, heavily religious in every facet of its being, which is aimed at me. Well, I’m here to tell you that not only is the religious message of God’s Not Dead horribly offensive, the actual film itself is as bad or worse than anything else I have seen this year (and who am I kidding? The people behind films like this hate Catholics).

The central premise is a hackneyed and clumsy attempt to film a version of the “atheist professor” strawman story some might be familiar with. A needlessly aggressive and morally bankrupt atheist takes on a determined, brave resourceful Christian, and, sorry to spoil, the former gets humiliated and shown up. All of the sequences involving the two would be comical if it wasn’t for the films apparent popularity with its core demographic, who you worry might actually buy into the terrible logic, the circular reasoning and, ultimately, the total dismissal of the main characters failure to actually prove the existence of the almighty, despite the indication that he somehow has. Atheists have no bedrock for morality, sections of Genesis describing the Big Bang and evolution, tu quoque assaults on the Professor and his sources, it goes on and on, leading up to a vomit-inducing finale of total victory.

This main plot provides an outlet for the production teams apparent bitterness at academia in America, portrayed as a breeding ground for infectious atheist thinking, where a packed class of philosophy students do not even offer the slightest objection to being ordered to renounce any belief in a God. Why would they? In a later scene two religious characters blindly agree that such students have probably never encountered the message of Christ before. In America. The skewed view of the world presented here is staggering, making God’s Not Dead positively fantastical.

And then there is the swarm of sub-plots surrounding the main circus, featuring more of the same strawman characters and ridiculous narrative. The Professor’s God-fearing girlfriend tolerates his amazingly brutal put downs before dumping him. A female liberal blogger (as focus shots on her bumper stickers make clear, she’s the trifecta of suck for the films target audience: atheist, vegetarian and believes in evolution) mocks God and those who worship him (including what I took to be a redneck stereotype, but who turned out to actually be one of the “cast” of Duck Dynasty, playing himself) until she gets struck by cancer, inevitably repenting. Her gleefully amoral boyfriend (played by Dean Cain of all people) dumps her after finding out about the cancer, later taking time to mock his dementia suffering mother. A student from China is inspired to convert against his father’s wishes (because we have to hit all of the Christian bogeymen, even communism). The local reverend tries to plan a trip to Disneyland (wait, what?).

My favourite sub-plot involves a young Muslim woman, encouraged by her devout father to adhere to their traditions, no matter how difficult it might seem. I though God’s Not Dead was miraculously going to make a decent point about the similarities between Christianity and Islam, since adherence to religious tradition seemed to be the crux of the other plots. But no. Once said Muslim girl is revealed to be a secret Christian, we get some domestic abuse and abandonment. Yeesh. Sexism, racism, bigotry. God’s Not Dead has it all and wears them proudly.

The films bounces around its sub-plots in a hectic manner, eschewing character development for cobbled together stereotypes that reinforce a message of condescension, insult, hatred and discrimination towards any non-Christians, inventing a version of the United States where Christians are an oppressed minority. The narrative tries to act clever in stringing all these plots together, but fails totally, the effect being comical more than endearing, making for a confused and untidy story.

The acting matches the trend. Sorbo is clearly enjoying himself, given authority to overact to the fullest in this vaudevillian interpretation of an internet meme, and he’s basically the only one worth talking about. The rest, from Trisha LaFache’s liberal screecher to Dean Cain’s evil elite, just can’t seem to get any kind of acting talent to shine through the terrible dialogue and worse characterisation. Playing a cardboard cut-out is one thing, but playing a religious sub-set’s picture of the “bad guys” is another. The lack of enthusiasm (and talent) is plain to see.

Director Harold Cronk, with a pedigree in films of this nature, can’t really do much to liven up proceedings. Many of his shots are framed rather strangely, particularly when it comes to centring characters and the like. There’s also an avalanche of dialogue-less establishing shots and scenes frequently seem to last far longer than they should have to because of it. The script is flaky and full of trash-level stuff, the product of a writing team more obsessed with getting their religious viewpoint across as directly as possible than actually crafting decent dialogue. The score is lax, only the half-decent pop rock of Christian band The Newsboys saving it – and even they don’t get a pass, offering an extended cameo in one of the films worst scenes near the conclusion.

I did not expect much from God’s Not Dead at all. Maybe just some “goodbad” level stuff, like a Christian version of The Room. There was plenty of that, but it all came with a horrific core, one of intolerance towards non-believers and a celebration of their misfortunes. No part of the production comes out of this thing looking good. Go and check out Calvary if you want to see a film built around a dignified and positive message of the Christian faith. Run like the wind from this film, which will only make you laugh in the brief moments between the sections that will make you outraged. Not recommended.

More in-depth discussion, with spoilers, follows.

Jeez, what more do I want to say about this piece of nonsense? What we have here is a startlingly poor film, one that fails on nearly every level of its story and production. Christian themed films are one thing, but this is an utterly warped version of the Christian message, turning it from one of forgiveness and loving thy neighbour into segregation and barely concealed scorn for your fellow man – if he doesn’t happen to be from this very specific sect of evangelical Christians.

That main plot man, I dunno. Kevin Sorbo’s philosophy professor would presumably be laughed out of his job if he actually attempted some of the things he does in the classroom here, but presumably the people behind God’s Not Dead actually think things like this are happening the way they portray it. This fantasy land of Christian oppression in America is the setting for an increasingly crazy plotline. It isn’t just enough that this extraordinarily aggressive atheist professor does not want to discuss the issue of God in his class. He can’t just move on to other things. No, he has to get the class to all sign their names to a piece of paper proclaiming “God is dead”. And the craziest thing about this scenario, the most baffling, is that every person in the class – bar our “hero” Josh – signs it without the slightest bit of questioning or protest. They all nod their heads and sign.

Shane Harper's Josh is about as charming and convincing as Kevin Sorbo.

Shane Harper’s Josh is about as charming and convincing as Kevin Sorbo.

This is because, as a later scene between Josh and understanding/inspiring Reverand Dave  – the “cool priest” if I ever I saw one – indicates, the people behind God’s Not Dead actually seem to think that a class of philosophy students in America today will never have been exposed to Christianity in their lives, that is, that Josh’s debate lectures will be their first brush with the Christian faith. In America. You know, the country where nearly 75% of the population is some form of Christian.

This is all comes from a position held by some evangelical Christian communities, that everyone outside the circle is an enemy and is to be regarded in the worst manner possible, whether it is because of your religion, nationality or political beliefs. This includes nasty liberal progressives, the worst of the worst, who have raised, apparently, an entire generation of young people who have no understanding of Christianity. Until Josh turns up, with his good looks, terrible acting talent and (picking my words very deliberately) God awful debate logic. He’s not totally charming of course, as his whiny girlfriend decides to inexplicably dump him when he refuses to back down in his debate with Radisson. You’re better off Josh, she was sort of a cardboard cut-out (“I have our whole lives planned out Josh. I’m sorry, but that’s just the kind of girl I am” – actual lines).

It’s not hard to argue with a strawman of course, and Kevin Sorbo’s Professor Radisson is so stuffed full of straw he should have a fire warning on him somewhere. Here is a character with an unyielding hatred of theists that he expresses at the slightest opportunity, and who vindictively goes after Josh for no other reason than…because he’s an evil atheist? This cartoon villain was funny at the very least, especially when, inevitably, it turns out he believed in God all along, he just doesn’t like him very much (which led me to remember a line from Pitch Black, a much better movie: “You got it all wrong holy man. I absolutely believe in God. And I absolutely hate the fucker”).

I could get into the finer points of the debate, but I fear I would just start to aggravate myself, so I will be brief. What starts out as an attempt to prove the existence of God rapidly becomes a game of circular arguments, specious reasoning, tu quoque attacks on the Professor and some terrible tripe where vague verses from the Bible are insisted to be descriptions of the Big Bang and evolution. In the end, Josh absolutely does not prove the existence of God (who can, scientifically?) but instead “wins” the debate by attacking his opponent and goading him into revealing his previous religious upbringing. Since Professor Radisson is, apparently, a hypocrite, this means that his assertion that “God Is Dead” must be false. I don’t have to waste my time explaining why such reasoning is badly flawed, or why it is such a terrible thing to try and pull in a debate about religion.

This adaptation of the “atheist professor” fiction you might have seen on different parts of the internet (here’s a relevant page discussing it) is the main plot and takes up most of God’s Not Dead’s running time. But I was struck, and surprised, by the sheer amount of concurrent sub-plots, all with tenuous connections to the main one. Let’s take them one by one, briefly:

I suppose the biggest secondary plot involves Amy, the most straw filled of the strawmen. She’s hits a multitude of the bad points for the fundamentalist evangelical Christians this film is aimed at: working female, liberal, blogger, atheist, vegetarian, believes in evolution. Add in the typical traits to make female characters look as bad as possible: cattiness, irrationality, hypocrisy, shrillness and you’ve got yourself a piñata to beat up.

As mentioned, Amy is a blogger, but apparently some kind of professional one doing a story on Duck Dynasty. I admit I sort of zoned out on the set-up, because when I watched her “interview” with what appeared to be the very picture of a redneck stereotype, I thought God’s Not Dead might actually have been making some kind of satirical point about how liberals might view them. But no, it was an actual member of the Duck Dynasty crew, playing himself. Anyway, in a scene that actually caused me mild indignation from the sheer brass neck of it, Amy is rude, condescending and generally unprofessional with her interview style, while Mr Duck Dynasty is calm, reassured, polite and reasonable. It was an amazingly set-up scene, all designed to make us hate the poor woman soon to be struck by cancer.

Call it God’s wrath I suppose, this film certainly seems to think it is. Amy is bitter about this, of course, and eventually chooses to lash out at The Newsboys, a Christian pop rock group (again, playing themselves), pulling a Radisson and blaming a God she is supposed to not believe in for her troubles. It’s OK. They pray with her and set her on a peaceful path in the light of the Lord. Cool, I guess all the nonbelievers just need the horror of a potentially terminal illness and some condescending pity to make them praise God. This recurring fiction – that atheists actually do believe, but are hiding it because… – is an incredibly warped perception to have.

Her plot is connected to that of Mark, played by Dean “I was Superman once, remember?” Cain of all people. He’s a high powered business executive, with nice suits, fast cars and an easy lifestyle dominated by the pursuit of money and pleasure. Naturally, he also doesn’t believe in God, and all of his negative traits can be traced back to this. What else would you expect, in the main plot this film trots out the childishly inane argument that atheists have no basis for morality because they don’t believe in God. Anyway, Mark dumps Amy, his girlfriend, a minute after he finds out she has cancer because, you know, atheists are like that. He later decides to taunt his dementia suffering mother for no other reason than it appears to amuse him, but he gets his own back, as she warns in an atypical moment of lucidity that all of his success is probably down to Satan, something that leaves him visually disturbed. Actually, that was one of the better scenes just because the creepiness of it was so effective, but the inner message – that financial success without belief in God is the work of the Devil – is as disturbing as anything else God’s Not Dead can come up with.

Mark’s sister is Mina, the girlfriend of Professor Radisson. He’s a crazily aggressive atheist, she’s a meek believer. They’re the original odd couple! Anyway, this subplot exists purely, and I mean that in the strongest sense, so that Radisson can be made to look as bad as possible. He insults his partner constantly, belittles her in public and gets all sorts of domineering whenever she tries to stand up for herself. This all ties back into the fantasy God’s Not Dead is trying to portray, that evangelical Christians are somehow an oppressed minority in America. Anyway, Mina eventually finds her balls, and dumps Radisson publically, which would feel great for the audience, if I felt like this erstwhile love plot actually had an inch of believability to it.

Then there are two people that Josh meets/inspires in the course of his one man atheist wrecking mission. Chinese exchange student “Martin”(!) ponders Josh’s arguments and discusses thongs with his strictly secular father back in the PRC. I suppose every other Christian bogeyman is getting a hit, might as well throw in some communists. Martin eventually becomes so convinced by Josh’s non-argument that he decides to convert. Take that China!

Much worse though is Ayisha, a young Islamic girl who works at the university. She is lectured by her stern but seemingly affectionate father that the traditions of her religion are important and she should not be swayed by the lives and practices of those around her. I thought, fervently hoped even, that God’s Not Dead was about to make a half-decent point about the similarities between Christianity and Islam, since one of its main points about Christianity was the importance of adhering to tradition through the Bible’s teachings, even if this is difficult to do in your present circumstances – denying your faith is seen as a problem for both creeds.

But nope, God’s Not Dead decides that it can’t have us viewing something as traditionally bad (to Christians) as Islam in a sympathetic light, so when Ayisha turns out to be a secret convert to Christianity, her previously loving father beats her ands throws her out of his house. Nice God’s Not Dead. Adding to the casual racism and more upfront bigotry in a major way. It all turns out fine though, Ayisha becomes a well adjusted Christian and goes off to listen to the Newsboys concert with Josh.

I noticed the promotional material heavily emphasises the brief cameo of one of the appalling Duck Dynasty guys.

I noticed the promotional material heavily emphasises the brief cameo of one of the appalling Duck Dynasty guys.

That leads into the finale, which involves the aforementioned Reverend Dave. He’s been trying to arrange a trip to Disneyland with a visiting African missionary, but all of his plans keep falling apart! It’s played as comedy (really, really bad comedy) but has this underlying hint of “Oh, God doesn’t want you to go to Disneyland for some reason!” It turns out to be true. Radisson, the latest atheist to change his mind about the whole “strongly held personal beliefs” thing decides to track down Mina at the Newsboys concert, but gets run over by a car in the presence of Reverend Dave and friend (I think it might have been implied that Dean Cain’s character did the running over? Not sure).

Anyway, this leads to another of my favourite moments of the film where said African missionary takes a five second look at Radisson’s prone form, without even taking his shirt off, and declares confidently that Radisson ribs are crushed, his lungs are punctured and filling up with fluid and “there’s nothing we can do for him”. Man, you must be a hit with the people of Africa if they ever need medical help.

Anyway, it’s all just a means to an end, as Reverend Dave, the friendliest cleric in the world, convinces Radisson to express a belief in God before he dies, because we all know that the most sincere baptisms/repentance occurs when a person is going into shock and about to die. But hey, suck it atheists, we got another one! The scene that follows with Reverend Dave and his missionary friend laughing and joking about the incident is incredibly disturbing, shot and placed by someone who does not know how to real people react to such situations.

Which leads on to the actual finale, a celebration of Josh and his “achievement” in debating away the terrible arguments of a character as fantastical as Mickey Mouse. At least the title song was catchy. Duck Dynasty’s last second inclusion, not so much (are they, like, poster boys for this movement or something?). God’s Not Dead ends the same way that it framed most of its narrative, celebrating the victory of evangelical Christianity over the forces outside of it: women, atheists, liberals, Muslims, communists, business men, vegetarians, “G-Dog”. OK, maybe not so much with the last one, but seriously what the hell was that?

What themes does God’s Not Dead have? None that I really care to talk about in too much detail. The overwhelming message is that only faith in God and an acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savoir will save you from unhappiness, disease and eternal damnation. The characters who endorse the  ”God is dead” message, either directly or indirectly, are the monsters of the piece, all destined for some bad end, whether it is outright death, cancer, familial alienation or the threat of hellfire. The ones who embrace the titular message are the saved, the righteous, the happy, the fulfilled, the people destined for good, decent lives. I am sure there are plenty of people across the world who would subscribe to such a message, but that absolutely does not make it right. The main theme and message of God’s Not Dead is a sickening one for me, utterly distasteful and, frankly, unchristian. This is the kind of message for people who like to add various shades of “unless” to the most boiled down lesson of Christ: “Love thy neighbour”.

I did not expect much from God’s Not Dead at all, so I suppose you could say my expectations were largely met. Maybe I thought I would just find some “goodbad” level stuff, like a Christian version of The Room. There was plenty of that, but it all came with a horrific core, one of intolerance towards non-believers and a celebration of their misfortunes, which causes unease, to put it mildly.

There is something truly poisonous about a film like this. No part of the production comes out of this thing looking good. Go and check out Calvary if you want to see a film built around a dignified and positive message of the Christian faith. Run like the wind from this film, which will only make you laugh in the brief moments between the sections that will make you angry.

Woeful.

Woeful.

(All images copyright of Pure Flix Entertainment).

 

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Ireland’s Wars: The Protectorate And Resistance

The war was considered over, by the most of the players and by modern historians, but the fighting continued past 1653 and through the reign of the British Commonwealth, that varied succession of governments and Parliaments that ruled in the latter half of the Civil Wars right up to the Restoration, sometimes dubbed “the Protectorate”.

While it took a bit of time for it to become official, Oliver Cromwell was the ruler of the land in this period, eventually taking on the grandiose title of “Lord Protector” – a King in all but name – and governing in most respects as a military dictator, his position backed by the intense loyalty of the Parliamentarians armed forces.

Peacetime brought many challenges for Cromwell. The country had to deal with heaps of debt, political instability and the need for a permanent settlement in the countries of Scotland and Ireland. His period of rule had mixed results, for a lot of reasons, but was certainly a defining era for the Three Kingdoms.

Parliament had already been largely subjugated to the will of the military earlier in the war, and Cromwell was soon disagreeing with most of its desires and workings, even after reducing it to its most ineffective size and powers with the so called “Barebones” Parliament of 1653. Before too long, Cromwell choose to dismiss this body totally and rule his domains through his own power and that of regional military governors, the “Major Generals”, whose numbers made up some of his most loyal confidents and advisors.

But even then things were not rosy. There was a great deal of financial uncertainty, severely limiting any initiatives that Cromwell wanted to pursue. The Puritan aspects of the new regime, though much exaggerated in historical reporting since, caused discomfort and anger in some. Royalist supporters and their conspiracies to plot the return of Charles Stuart, back in France, were never-ending, and a source for many panics during the period. Cromwell’s own faction was divided into smaller groups in which included radical elements who wanted a total republican style form of government and some who were considering a return to monarchy. There were some fanatically loyal to Cromwell, and others who saw him as an obstacle to real political progress. Cromwell did have to face several assassination attempts and plots during his reign, indicating how dangerous the situation was.

Outside of Britain, there was continued commercial and naval conflict with the Dutch along with a messy war with Spain to consider. Started in 1654, that would not be officially concluded until after the Restoration. Mainly naval, the war had two notable flashpoints. The first, a botched Commonwealth attempt to capture the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, involved the incompetent military leadership of Robert Venables, the Parliamentarians commander who had previously conquered much of Ulster during Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland. After losing most of his force and having to make do with the (then) much lesser prize of Jamaica, Venables would end up imprisoned in the Tower of London and then stripped of his official positions, living out the rest of his life in relative obscurity. The second flashpoint was land combat in Flanders and northern France, undertaken with French allies that Cromwell had spent a great time cultivating. This endeavour went better, and after several victories the English actually controlled land – Dunkirk and the surrounding areas – on the European mainland for the first time since the reign of Mary I.

And there were the settlements. In Scotland, the process went relatively smoothly, with another Irish veteran, George Monck, placed there as the military governor. Though there was some uprisings and scattered resistance, it is fair to say that Scotland under the Commonwealth was relatively peaceful, albeit with some barely hidden resentment against the new regime.

Ireland was a different story. The subject of this series is military affairs, so I will not go into too much detail about the majority of the Commonwealth’s activities in Ireland during this time period. I imagine most readers will be very familiar with them anyway. The defeated Irish, starving and subjugated, received little mercy from the Parliamentarian regime headed by Charles Fleetwood. Catholicism was oppressed, mass deportations of undesirable elements occurred and there was wholesale land seizures in large parts of Leinster, Munster and Ulster, land taken from Catholics, low born and noble, to be given to English settlers, soldiers and “adventurers”. The Catholic Irish who found themselves stripped of their earth were sent into the altogether less productive and valuable land of Connacht, the act of which was the source of, perhaps, the most famous phrase of Oliver Cromwell, at least in Ireland.

What we dub today the “Protestant Ascendency” was being created in Ireland, with a government, military and local administration dominated by Protestant English and Irish, with the Catholic Irish reduced to rump holdings in the west, and still desperately reliant on the new leadership to avoid starvation and other perils. It is only natural that these acts created resentment and, inevitably, resistance.

The Tory attacks never stopped, even after the generally accepted end of the Eleven Year Wars. But after 1653 they had become very small scale, pinpricks against the might of the Parliamentarians regime, which soon felt comfortable enough to actually draw down the amount of New Model Army soldiers still garrisoning Ireland, in order to reduce the costs of the occupation. Large parts of Ireland remained depopulated, but once new settlers began to arrive, there was no longer as much need for vast amounts of soldiers to keep the peace.

But still, all the way up to the final days of the Commonwealth, some of the Irish continued to fight back. The Dublin administration enacted its own counter measures to this task of law and order, including the wholesale disarmament of Catholics, an extensive system of bounties on the heads of killed or captured Tories and the strict regulation of village sizes – so as to better control the population – but still the ambushes, raids and burning continued to occur. The civilian population, who had suffered so greatly in the previous decade, continued to find themselves in the middle of a bitter insurgency conflict, where to stay neutral was largely impossible and where to aid one side was to draw on the anger and revenge of the other. Any Tory attacks were liable to bring down extensive retribution on the local area, in the form of arrests, executions, transplantation to other parts of the country for entire families or villages and even deportation to the West Indies. With the powers that Charles Fleetwood had, it was easy for local commanders to operate with impunity.

Parliamentarian efforts to enact initiatives and policy in the more rural parts of Ireland were especially targeted by Tories. Surveyors in charge of organising seized estates for plantation were hated by many, and they came under a sustained attack, with a Tory leader by the name of Donough O’Derrick, nicknamed “Bling Donaugh”, being particularly successful in attacking these workers in the east Leinster regions, especially in Kildare and Wicklow. These areas remained remarkably unsafe even years after the end of the war, with the local Irish clans a continual thorn in the side of the Dublin leadership. O’Derrick was just one, but after an increase in the price of his head and proactive counterinsurgency operations, he was eventually brought to heel.

In other areas, and despairing of a manner in which to end the Tory nuisance, the Parliamentarians took the unpalatable step of hiring former Confederates and Tories who had surrendered to build and lead new counter-guerrilla units, to hunt down their former comrades. It only made sense, as these men would have had the knowledge of Tory tactics and local terrain that New Model Army troops would not have had. It would have been some of the only times that the Parliamentarians willingly armed and supplied Catholic Irish. And so, in exchange for payment and exemption from transplantation, many former Confederates did indeed take up the anti-Tory Parliamentarian cause.

Perhaps the most notable of these was Charles Kavanagh who, with a group of 13 others set up shop in Carlow on behalf of the Parliamentarians. There, they guarded against the approach of Tory bands coming down from the Wicklow mountains, being easily placed to respond to threats on Wexford as well.

The murder of planters, the retaliation against civilians and the seemingly never ending struggle continued, though the Tory cause had long since been sunk. This part of the conflict between Catholic Ireland and the Parliament was more simply a lashing out of dissatisfied and bitter Irish natives, who refused to simply follow Parliamentarian order and laws without some form of resistance. If becoming a Tory or aiding the few bands of them that remained helped to deal a blow against the Parliament, then so be it, but all and sundry must have realised that there was no way that the limited movement of remaining Tories would ever bring a lasting victory.

In 1655 Fleetwood’s infamous reign came to an end. His policies were starting to be viewed as counterproductive by London, who wanted greater tax yield and peaceful settlement from Ireland. Moreover, following the assumption of near-Royal power by Cromwell, Fleetwood was criticised for failing to rein in his more radical officers, like Edmund Ludlow, who refused to recognise the authority of the new regime.

His eventual replacement as Lord Deputy was Henry Cromwell, Oliver’s fourth son. Henry had served in the New Model Army since 1649, and had campaigned with Lord Broghill in Munster during his father’s Irish campaigns. Since then, he had moved more into civilian administration, serving as one of Ireland’s few representatives in the Barebones Parliament. His rule in Ireland is generally viewed sympathetically, even by Catholic historians traditionally hostile to anything Parliamentarian. Henry is viewed as a loyal hard-working moderate, who rowed back on some of the more intense repression of Fleetwood’s era, and made efforts to bring greater stability to Ireland by urging various Protestant factions into harmony. Transplantation did continue, but at a slower pace, and the thought of full scale ethnic cleansing that had previously dominated Dublin thinking was now cast aside. The Tory attacks did not stop, with even the final days of the Protectorate marked by complaints towards London, from Dublin, of their continuance. But though they remained a problem, they were no longer the threat they once were.

In England, Cromwell continued his rule, rejecting an offer of the crown and arguing with and dismissing several Parliaments when they would not bow to his wishes, and despairing at the level of discord within the faction at large. Truly, so much of what made his Protectorate regime as stable as it was, was Cromwell’s very presence at that top, a grand unifying figure who retained the loyalty of the armed forces and thus ensured that the rancour between radicals, moderates and religious extremists never erupted into full scale fighting.

But it could not last forever. Cromwell was a man in perpetually bad health, suffering from the after effects of several illnesses during the war along with other ailments. Adding the stress of political leadership during such a tumultuous time, and his eventual collapse in health was inevitable. He died after a repeating bout of malarial fever on the 3rd of September 1658. He was 59.

His military campaigns in Ireland were instrumental in ending the conflict. He arrived at a pivotal moment, and through his audacity, ruthlessness and power, he crippled the Royalist/Confederate alliance and all but insured that his successors would end the war in Parliament’s favour. His methods were controversial, occasionally abhorrent, but one cannot argue with the results. Cromwell and the New Model Army smashed the Royalist cause in Ireland to bits, and that was only one part of his immense achievements.

He rose from obscurity to become one of the most influential and powerful men of his generation, the leading figure of the Civil Wars and national bogeyman for all time when it comes to Ireland. He died as the titanic figure of British politics, the only man who could keep it all together.

Now, things would start to fall apart. And the effects of that would be felt all over the Protectorate, even in Ireland.

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 – The Mark I (31.35 – 42.00)

There will be pictures. This is the most visual section of the film I have covered so far, so stand by for a lot of images.

We open on the best hero shot of the film so far. The music is blaring with deep horns and tight violin (OST: “Mark I“), the striking of the hammer actually matching the beat really well. Tony stands next to a furnace, only in a sweatshirt, perspiring and grubby but looking utterly determined, hammering away at a thick piece of metal as sparks fly around him. The movement is firm, but calculated, lacking wild rage or imprecision. When we get a look at Tony’s face, he looks very, very annoyed, but still in control. This is his birth as a superhero, completing the final parts of his mechanical contraption.

He places the piece of metal he was working in a bucket of water, and then carries it to Yinsen, sitting at a nearby table working on some electronics, his face lacking any of the grimness of Stark’s.

It’s a helmet, the music falling a bit lower and focusing on electronic guitar as it steams on the table. It’s an imposing thing, thick but with wide eye-holes.

A quick montage follows, the tension ramping up nicely. Tony tapes up his fists, throws on what looks like heat resistant clothing and engineering gloves, protects his neck, while Yinsen gets the torso of the suit into position. There are no words, none being necessary at this point.

Tony then gets strapped into the suit, and while a full look of the thing in all its glory is yet to come, we do start to get an idea for its actual size. Tony looks decidedly puny in this chest plate, his head peeking out of the top like a rabbit coming out of a hole.

Yinsen is losing just a little bit of his cool as well, looking sweatier than before and speaking with more panic. We know the two are being watched, so once they put their plan into action they have a very limited timeframe in which to execute everything. Bits of this suit need to be drilled together, hydraulics have to be hooked up.

As they work, they go over the plan again:

YINSEN:
Okay? Can you move? Okay, say it again.

TONY:
41 steps straight ahead. Then 16 steps, that’s from the door, fork right, then 33 steps, turn right.

This is all Yinsen of course, he being in the cave structure longer than Stark, knowing the ins and outs of the place better. This bit of dialogue indicates how smart Yinsen is though, having done enough to track just how many steps will be required to get from their current position to outside, including the directional changes that will have to be made.

Elsewhere, Raza peers at the camera monitors, glimpsing bits of Yinsen but unable to see Stark. He’s no idiot, but remains calm and collected, sending guards to check on the two immediately. He’s still in control, and as far as he knows the duo have no ability to escape from him. He just stays, intently looking at the monitor, trying to work things out.

The two goons sent to check on the two get to the cell door and start shouting through the peephole, demanding Yinsen stop whatever it is he is doing. Stark seems immobilised at this point, so it’s all down to Yinsen:

TONY:
Say something. Say something back to him.

YINSEN:
He’s speaking Hungarian. I don’t…

TONY:
Then speak Hungarian.

YINSEN:
Okay. I know.

TONY:
What do you know?

YINSEN:
(In Hungarian) One minute, one minute!

Tony’s tone and demeanour is, despite his lack of movement, calmer than Yinsen here, the bespectacled man stressed and increasingly fraught from the stress of the situation. His clumsy Hungarian doesn’t mollify the guards.

The camera cuts back to them, then pans down to reveal the opening of the doors had been rigged with what we can reasonably expect to be some kind of explosive. The tension rockets up even more, now with an unbearable timer counting down in the audiences’ head, to the moment when those doors open and the men on the other side get blown up.

It doesn’t take long. They open the door, get blown to bits in the resulting fiery explosion, and everywhere in the cave people react. Raza is stunned and furious, urging his men to stop what is happening with shouts of “Yalla, yalla, yalla!” an Arabic phrase loosely translated as “Let’s go!” or “Hurry up!” Everywhere, soldiers of the Ten Rings are arming themselves and running.

Tony and Yinsen have taken out two, but there are a lot more coming.

TONY:
How’d that work?

YINSEN:
Oh, my goodness. It worked all right.

TONY:
That’s what I do.

Yinsen has a glimpse at the two dead bodies of the guards during this exchange. His tone isn’t one of disgust or shame as he remarks “It worked all right”, but neither is it very exuberant. He has little pity for the Ten Rings soldiers, but he isn’t an action hero either. He wants to get of their alive (maybe), and taking a few of his enemies with him in the event of failure is fine too. Tony is a little more action-heroish, coolly acknowledging the success of his explosives.

Yinsen moves to set up some kind of software program for Stark’s suit, for which he receives a series of barked instructions from Stark. Research elsewhere tells me that the computer code on display is actually firmware usually used for LEGO robotic toys, so it sort of makes sense in the context of this situation. In reality, I’d say the computer exists to give us a literal progress bar on the status of the duo’s escape attempt, and to increase the tension – nothing is going to happen until that bar reaches 100%, and the clock is ticking. Tony starts to lose his composure a bit in this moment too, urging Yinsen to be more descriptive in what is on the computer screen.

Ten Rings soldiers charge through the cave structure yelling. Yinsen “buttons” the last of Stark’s suit up, but is losing what is left of his composure rapidly:


TONY:
Every other hex bolt.

YINSEN:
They’re coming!

TONY:
Nothing pretty, just get it done. Just get it done.

YINSEN:
They’re coming.

A quick cut to the progress bar shows it only half full and not likely to jump to 100% any time in the next minute. Yinsen sees this even as Stark continues to reaffirm their original design. Stark can’t see Yinsen’s face, but we can and we know he’s coming to a fateful decision.


TONY:
Make sure the checkpoints are clear before you follow me out, okay?

YINSEN:
We need more time.

He says this very quietly, acknowledging an undeniable fact that needs tackling. He turns to Stark, his decision already made.


YINSEN:
Hey. I’m going to go buy you some time.

This is it. Yinsen is writing off his own chances of survival in this exact moment, declaring that his purpose now is to simply facilitate Stark’s escape, and to lay down his life doing so. We know Yinsen never had any great expectation of escaping alive anyway, but this is a far more direct and, ultimately, heroic manner of expressing that sentiment. Stark is stunned and tries to talk Yinsen out of it, but he’s trapped in his mechanical behemoth with no ability to prevent him doing whatever he is going to do.

TONY:
Stick to the plan. Stick to the plan! Yinsen!

But Yinsen can’t do that. The plan’s caput and only a whiff of death will keep it from stalling completely. Yinsen picks up one of the rifles from the dead guards and goes charging up the cave structure, firing into the air at intervals.

Tony can only turn and gaze out, the anger evident in his eyes, the frustration at being unable to do anything about Yinsen’s probable fate. When he does get going, we can only imagine what will happen to the Ten Rings.

The Ten Rings soldier charge around the cave, and then go screaming backwards in the face of Yinsen’s gun toting charge. Its a little sequence straight out of Star Wars, Han Solo versus the stormtroopers in the Death Star, only more deadly in the end: Yinsen rounds the corner and is faced with a dozen armed men, led by Raza, guns coked and ready to fire. Yinsen’s actually been aiming his gun in the air when firing, indicating an aversion to actually killing directly, and has nothing to react with. We cut before we see his fate, but we know it can’t be good.

In the cell, the loading bar hits 100%, the lights dim and our ears are full of mechanical noises, gears and hydraulics moving. But we don’t see anything, not yet, and this starts a little sequence more akin to a horror movie than a superhero origin.

A larger group of armed soldiers advance into the cell, noticeable slowing as they reach its entrance. The movement pauses so we can take in the dead bodies of the two unfortunate guards who got blown up by Tony and Yinsen’s trap. The mood is tense, these men are nervous. Imagine any film or TV show involving a group of soldiers taking on some kind of monster and you’ll get the idea. Marvel even did the exact same thing again in their introduction to the titular hero in The Incredible Hulk.

Two particularly hapless looking Ten Rings members are ushered forward to have a closer look, entering the cell dripping with sweat and apprehension. There isn’t anything to see, one of the only sources of light being the computer with its now complete program.

Until we get a lower shot, the soldiers blurry in the background, with our focus on a tube of metal with a glove sticking out of the bottom, a glove flexing in anticipation. Stark is like a predator hiding in the shadows, just about to pounce.

One of the soldiers turns about when a light appears, and we only get a brief look at the metal around that light before a whirr and a blow sends the soldier flying across the room, the distinctive pop of his H&K echoing as he fires at the last second. The remaining soldiers pull a Predator, firing randomly into the room, at anything and everything, hoping to kill the monster. They think they got him when all is silent, even the music, only for Stark to emerge from the shadows in all of his hulking glory, smashing the remaining soldiers off the wall, absorbing bullets like they are nothing.

Then we get the rotating hero shot, coming to a halt as we take in the Mark I in all of its immensity as the tight violins return. It’s big and unwieldy, looking none too comfortable. It has extensive attachments on the arms, including some flickers of flame that can only spell some kind of fiery weapon. It turns awkwardly, its gears grinding. It has the appearance of a metal behemoth, a monster from nightmares. There is little sign of humanity in this thing, not even Tony’s eyes very visible through the holes in the helmet. The Mark I is based off of the earliest Iron Man suits from the comics, which were bulky, grey things, with no sign of the sleekness or colour of the later incarnations. The film version has been bent up and made to look a bit more ramshackle, given the situational and I think it’s an amazing piece of prop hardware.

And then the advance, first shown from a peculiar foot based shot, as the remaining soldiers at the end of the tunnel blindly open fire. It doesn’t stop the Mark I.

Two particularly brave individuals charge down the tunnel with suicidal abandon, but are tossed aside or punched backwards with the most amazing ease. This thing looks and acts like a robot, with no kind of care for the people in its way. The camerawork is more stuff straight from horror, with GoPro cameras, shaky techniques and the “monster” blurry in the background, all to give us that sense if desperate fear and claustrophobic conditions.

Tony comes to a crossroads, pausing only to clothesline another obstacle into oblivion. The rest of the bad guys in the immediate vicinity are running for their lives now, and Tony advances after them, his suit clicking distinctively every time he alters direction.

Now we actually see the eyes behind the metal, and they are grim and determined looking, the combination of flesh and machine altogether unsettling.

A door gets locked, and one hapless bad guy is trapped on the wrong side as the Mark I keeps up its relentless pace, the birds eye camera views from its joints coming again and again. He pounds on the door and screams for help, but his comrades refuse to assist him. In more shots straight out of the horror genre, the Mark I catches up with its prey, its shadow looming large like some kind of metal Dracula. We cut away to the other side of the door, the unlucky souls fading screams the only sign of his inevitable fate, caught and munched on by this colossus.

It continues as Tony starts pounding on the door, the thud’s echoing into the distance, increasing in tone every time he strikes. The bullet holes in the door show the briefest glimpse of what lies beyond, the bulk blocking out shafts of light. The door starts to give way. The soldiers start edging back, terrified. Eventually, a few run, just as the Mark I smashes through the barrier, flattening one of the soldiers who decided to make a stand. It’s a great little sequence to demonstrate the power of the Mark I, both in terms of its physicality, and in a psychological sense.

Tony advances again, and with another swipe his arm actually gets lodged into the walls of the cave, the Mark I struggling to get free. As he does so, wordlessly exhorting the machine to get free, another of the more brave bad guys takes out a pistol and goes for a coup de grace type shot, right into the temple.

It’s actually a darkly comedic moment in the midst of all the horror, as the bullet bounces off and ricochets back into the Ten Rings soldiers head, killing him instantly. Tony takes a brief moment to consider that situation, pulls his arm loose, and continues.

Elsewhere, Raza loads up what looks like a grenade launcher and strolls into the oncoming path of Tony’s machine. In a hurricane of screaming men and panicked retreats, he appears to be the eye of the storm, still remarkably calm, even just slightly annoyed at the escalation of events in front of him. He isn’t suicidal, simply prepared, and he stands ready, near the entrance of the cave, to give the Mark I a taste of something a bit more powerful than a bullet.

Tony rounds a corner in the background, as we see a prone and badly wounded Yinsen in the foreground, trying to cover up his wounds with what looks like a sandbag, clearly on his last legs. I suppose that was inevitable. Tony screams Yinsen’s name, in response to which Yinsen can only warn him, desperately, to watch out.

Raza fires and Tony jerks back in the face of the rocketing grenade. It misses and, if we’re being honest, it doesn’t even seem like Tony needed to move in order to avoid it. Raza is just a terrible shot.

Its Tony’s turn and we get the first shot of the Mark I in CGI form. It’s not really brilliant computer graphics if I’m being honest, although maybe it’s just because I’m watching on a small screen. Regardless, the CGI Mark I just looks sort of fake in the real surrounds. Tony opens up a panel on one of his arms and pulls the trigger on a missile of his own. This too misses, but the explosion sends parts of the cave crumbling down on top of Raza, cutting off a brief scream from him. Classic media treatment of death – “Did Raza just die? I don’t know, it was very unclear” – and we can be reasonably sure that Raza isn’t quite gone to meet his maker just yet.

Stark bends down to assist Yinsen and we get our first bit of dialogue in a few minutes, with a simple two camera set-up. The music gets lower, with what I think is a flute or a similar wind instrument providing the sparse accompaniment, a melody that actually sounds vaguely like something from The Lord of the Rings if I’m being honest. Interesting to note, the sandbags Yinsen is laying on carry the American flag, and have the words “NOT TO BE SOLD OR EXCHANGED” on them. Even the Ten Rings’ sand is stolen.

Yinsen is bleeding, pale and slurring his words a little bit.

YINSEN:
Stark.

TONY:
Come on. We got to go. Move for me, come on. We got a plan. We’re gonna stick to it.

YINSEN:
This was always the plan, Stark.

Yinsen’s words are tinged with sadness, but also have a palpable sense of acceptance. Yinsen seems like a tired man, almost resigned to the fact that his time to lay down his burdens has come. We know from the last entry that he had little actual expectation of getting out of the cave alive, and his line here essentially indicates that his self-sacrifice was something that he planned for directly – though the previous scene made it seem like it was a spur of the moment decision. Maybe he had just been thinking about it for a while without making a decisive call. Tony can try and get Yinsen moving, but it’s obvious he isn’t going anywhere.

Stark has one last card to play:

TONY:
Come on, you’re gonna go see your family. Get up.

But Yinsen torpedoes that plan too:

YINSEN:
My family’s dead. I’m going to see them now, Stark.

We could also infer this from the last entry too, that Yinsen would “see them when I leave here”. We might also remember one of the brief flashes of anger, when he declared the Ten Rings to be a pack of “murderers”: that came from a very personal place. His declaration here is obviously a sad one, a pained memory he no longer wants to contemplate. The loss of his family would obviously have informed his decision to sacrifice himself for Stark – maybe Yinsen does not really have anything left to live for outside the cave – but there is a bit more to it.

As Yinsen continues, the camera switches back between him and a silent Stark, who is finally understanding some things about his friend, the pain of it etched across his face, and the frustration that he is going to have to leave Yinsen behind.


YINSEN:
It’s OK. I want this. I want this.

Yinsen has the barest beginnings of a smile on his face here, but it doesn’t make his statement any less heartbreaking really.

Tony gives Yinsen a small smile of his own, one more of resignation than anything, and gives him one last gift:

TONY:
Thank you for saving me.

YINSEN:
Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life.

This then, is Stark’s true call to arms, and the statement that will influence everything that he does in the future. Yinsen has laid down his life for Stark, so that Tony will have the opportunity to better his life and do something more worthwhile with it. Something more worthwhile than sleeping with beautiful women and getting drunk, living an empty shell of a personal life while accepting the plaudits of his professional one. This is Iron Man’s “With great power, comes great responsibility” moment (and comes from some top notch performances from Downey Jr and Shaun Toub).

Yinsen passes after a few more shallow breaths, Iron Man not willing to belabour the point. Tony, now wanting a more vindictive kind of payback, doesn’t wait around for the sake of sentiment, shoving the helmet back onto his face and turning towards the cave entrance.

We cut to outside where, in the blazing sunshine, the remainder of the Ten Rings wait, guns pointed at the cave entrance, the music faded into near silence. The mood is incredibly tense, with the changed light conditions offering something a bit different to the previous horror in the caves. The silence is also eerie after the loud throbbing of the soundtrack in the early part of this sequence. Everyone waits.

We hear Tony before we see him, the deep thumping of the machine heralding its arrival. Then the light in the chest plate, then the outline and then the Mark I steps into the light.

The soldiers are taken aback, seeing this thing in broad daylight for the first time. Perhaps their fear in the tunnels had turned it into something much more gargantuan, or something that wasn’t man shaped. Either way, here is the (CGI) Mark I, standing at the entrance of the cave, in what looks like another hero shot, a well built up one.

A short moment for a deep breath, and then the gunfire comes, another Predator moment. Sparks fly off the Mark I, and miraculously no bullets find Tony’s eyes or hands. He does stagger back a bit under the sheer weight of the fire, but remains standing.

The gunfire ceases, the clips apparently empty, leading into another moment of silence, this one almost awkward. What now?

TONY:
My turn.

It’s a cheesy line, but a good set-up for what follows. Stark’s back as the powerful and arrogant individual of before, who waits to let his enemy expend their strength before attacking himself, as if to show to an even greater degree how much more deadly he is. The flames on the end of Stark’s arms burst into life, and two steady streams of fiery death shoot out of the Mark I as the next part of the soundtrack, a similar track to the few that came before but with a more rising tension/desperate twang to it, begins (OST: “Fireman“).

Flamethrowers have the double advantage in film of being both horrible weapons whose entire purpose is to burn people alive and looking extremely cool and eye catching. You can’t help but be captivated by the orange liquid death here, the strange way that the fire seems almost malleable as Stark unleashes it, even crossing the streams in an odd moment. The Ten Ring soldiers fall back, some caught in the fire, screaming their lives away. The outside of the caves, that hectic area packed with the flotsam and jetsam of the Ten Rings’ operations, is engulfed in the conflagration of the Mark I.

Aside from getting rid of the last of the opposition, Stark is also performing the other part of his plan: destroying the weapons. His weapons. Anything with a “Stark Industries” label is getting torched here, the crates and boxes wreathed in flame, ready to go up when the heat gets to be too much for the explosives inside. Stark’s faced the horror of seeing his work fall into the hands of those for whom it was never intended – Remember the emotion of “I think you got a lot of my weapons” – and this is his direct solution. As a sign of a man who has now turned against the weapons industry, it couldn’t be blunter.

As Stark walks amid the boxes, we also get a brief shot of the back of the Mark I, which is all gears and moving parts, a vulnerable spot. We remember that Stark has never turned his back to the enemy yet. There is a reason for that, and the visual focus on this weak point will have a payoff in a moment.

On a ridge a bit away, one bright Ten Rings member gets on a .50 Cal and cocks it, commencing a withering fire on the Mark I. For anyone who doesn’t know, a .50 Cal is an immensely powerful and devastating machine gun, whose larger rounds can generally make mincemeat out of anything that doesn’t have the thickest armour.

Finally, the Mark I has met an enemy it cannot with stand, Tony staggering back under the fire, raising his arm to protect his face for the first time. The spark effects for the .50 Cal muzzle flash and sparks are a little lame if I’m being honest, but probably looked a lot better on the big screen.

The other Ten Rings soldiers suddenly rally a bit, joining their other comrade by laying down a constant fire on the Mark I. One industrious soldier, having been bypassed in the flamethrowing, takes aim and hits some kind of thread in the rear of the Mark I, causing Tony to stumble, one of the legs apparently now inoperable. The monster does have a weak point.

The action now has become this maelstrom of bullets and flame, the players engaged in this death battle in the middle of a hellish landscape. Tony tries to fight back as best he can, but his efforts are superfluous at this point: things start to explode, the firework like trails of missiles and rockets combusting becoming obvious. The Ten Rings soldiers, suddenly realising they have voluntarily remained in an area filled with explosives on fire, begin to flee for the last time.

With the music at a fever pitch, Tony struggles to his feet once more, though the Mark I is apparently incapable of walking anymore. Just how is he going to get out of this one? We might well wonder.

He unlatches a panel on his left arm, revealing a big red button. If there is one thing the world of science fiction has taught me, it’s that big red buttons are designed almost exclusively to do big things. The Mark I mashes the button and we take a deep breath.

Flames spurt out from the legs of the Mark I, and Tony actually lifts off the ground, just as the remainder of the explosives go up. A gigantic fireball erupts, rising over the mountains, sending bits and pieces scattering…and there goes the Mark I, arcing into the sky with the smoke trail behind, the music now exploding into the rhythmic violins once more, a heroic accompaniment to the final miraculous escape.

The Mark I soars out of the fireball before the rockets suddenly cut out, the machine seemingly having just enough juice for one big burst of flight. Suddenly Tony is making a beeline for the ground, at a velocity fast enough to produce a shrieking whistle. The Mark I begins to fall apart midair, as Tony screams before the final, brutal, contact with the sandy desert beneath, sending up a cloud of debris along with the dull reverberating thud.

A down low advancing shot shows us the immensity of the boring desert, accentuated by the blue skies to the rear and the mountains to the right. Scraps of the Mark I are everywhere and, once some smoke clears, Tony lies, half submerged in the sand, the last remnants of his amazing machine barely clinging to him. He carelessly clangs the barely whirring arms off the sand before pulling off the helmet, revealing a cut, burned and very tired looking face that stares listlessly into the sky. He groans in pain, but is triumphant all the same:

TONY:
Not bad.

I guess it wasn’t.

Here’s the problem.

Tony has, during his weeklong sojourn in this cave, managed to do the following:

-He has created, from the dissection of some missiles and some basic moulding/welding techniques, an immensely strong power source.

-He has built a complete mechanised suit of armour, strong enough to deflect bullets and wieldy enough to be a capable fighting machine that can take on people hand to hand.

-He has managed to weld several deadly weapons to this machine.

-He has someone managed to graft on a rocket propulsion system of enough power that it can get the machine into the air almost instantly, and at a very high velocity very fast.

-And, the kicker, the entire contraption is so sturdy and safe, that it will keep the occupant from any harm, even in the event of a catastrophic fall from a gigantic height.

The suspension of disbelief an audience must have gets pulled on a lot in this sequence. Tony is an exceptional man, but to have done all of this? In a week? It seems a bit much. As another character will put it, in a memorable sequence later in the film, he has done all this “IN A CAVE! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!” And that is a bit of a plot hole, if we are all being honest with ourselves. If a greater amount of time had passed, if there were more obviously components that could have done this in the cave….but no.

It wasn’t a bad action sequence at all though. Tony’s escape was a thrilling one, something that mixed traditional military-style excitement with elements of horror, showcasing the kind of power that the machines Stark can build are capable of exerting. The Ten Rings barely stood a chance, and even their most powerful players were helpless in the face of Tony’s assault. But it did not come without its costs, and the entire affair is well weighted by the death of Yinsen. Iron Man is going to be a film where not every hero is guaranteed to make it out alive and his death is used to illustrate that point, as well as providing the right kind of end for his arc. Yinsen dies heroically, not wasting his life in the service of terrorists. And that example is one that will now inspire Stark to do go on and change his life immeasurably.

First though, he has to actually get home. The next few shots bring us crashing back to the reality of Stark’s situation – he’s wondering in a desert, with no idea where exactly he is, without food, water, or even proper clothing, barely able to protect his head from the blazing sun by wrapping some rags around it. The standard desert tropes are used here – the wavy lines to indicate the intense heat, the out of focus main character to indicate the oppressive and hallucinogenic properties of the surrounds, the vaguely Arabic wind instruments to give that lonely air of desperation (OST: the beginning of “Vacation’s Over“). Tony is alone in this expanse. How is he going to get out of this one?

And suddenly there is salvation. Tony crests a hill, and above fly two US military helicopters, so low that they must have seen him. The music swells back into a more traditional hero tune, more American, as Tony starts screaming for their attention.

With a “V for Victory” symbol, Tony collapses to his knees as one of the choppers lands in front of him. It is a very joyous moment, seeing Stark complete his rise from the darkness of the cave.

And then there is more happiness, as five soldiers emerge from the chopper, the leading one clearly Colonel James Rhodes. We had no idea of Rhodes’ fate remember: he could easily have been killed in the ambush where Stark was captured. But here he is, and we can infer that he has been spending the last week looking for Stark in the mountains.

Stark and Rhodes’ relationship has been a little strange so far, with Stark being dominant and frequently rude to a man who seems to admire him greatly. We have barely gotten the sense that the two are actually closer friends. But I think nothing better illustrates the closeness of their relationship than Rhodes’ first line here:

RHODES:
How was the ‘funvee’?

Just a sarcastic, almost ribald joke, mocking Stark for one of his own quips earlier. I think only the best kind of friends would be able to see each other again after such an absence and open with a line like that.

Stark simply smiles at the rejoinder from Rhodes, his eyes closed as if he is remembering that moment he mocked Rhodes before, declaring that the “humdrumvee” was the other car. It must seem like so long ago.

Rhodes gets down to Stark level and looks him dead in the eyes.

RHODES:
Next time you ride with me, ok?

It’s an emotional declaration of a man who nearly lost a close friend. He pulls Stark in for a one armed embrace, the kneeling man’s head bowed in exhaustion, Rhodes’ face a mixture of relief and happiness. This moment seems to actually be about Rhodes more than Tony, since we get more of a focus on his reaction to proceedings, perhaps to emphasise how missed Tony was, and how important it was that he was found.

Tony has escaped from rock bottom. The question now, is what is he going to do with this new opportunity?

For The Film

This section provides the first action scene of real scope, as the Ten Rings gets its ass handed to it by the rampaging mechanical genius of Tony Stark, a sequence that whets our appetite for the stuff to come later with the more refined suits. We see the first titular “Iron Man”, and it is impressed upon us that even this rickety device is a game changing weapon that is not easily countered. The first character death of consequence occurs, handled well, providing the inspiration for Stark to make good his escape and go on to be a better person. This is also the end of the first act, more or less, and we have spent that act establishing the universe, all of the main characters and getting the primary core of the origin story out of the way. The mini story that every act should tell has been told well here: the fall and rise of Tony Stark, both externally and internally.

Characterisation

Tony Stark

He is now a million miles away from the man who seemed so hopeless when initially captured. Dominant, forceful and brave, Stark spends this sequence getting some payback on the Ten Rings, utilising the physical end product of his vast intelligence and mechanical know how to destroy their operation and win his freedom. The loss of Yinsen clearly affects him deeply, but does not restrain his joy at being rescued too much. Stark has proven himself the kind of hero that can alleviate his terrible circumstances, and now faces into the challenge of bringing that new man home.

Yinsen

Here, Yinsen enacts his pre-thought plan of sacrificing himself so that Stark may live, gladly doing so. Discovering that his family have already been killed – probably by the Ten Rings – shows us a man who had very little left to live for anyway, and helps us to understand his motivations in nursing Stark back to health and aiding in his escape plan. The effect Yinsen has had on the plot will long outlast him.

Raza

When everyone else around him is running scared of the metal monster, Raza stands firm, showing some of his own kind of bravery in the process. He refuses to back down from Tony’s assault, and his apparent death is the result. Perhaps he does lose his nerve in the end, missing the Mark I from a relatively short distance, but we can’t deny Raza’s determination – determination that may yet see him return in some fashion.

James Rhodes

Rhodes looks tired but happy to have found Stark, and we get some of the first true indications of how deep their friendship goes. Stark’s an important man, but to Rhodes his rescue/escape means a whole lot more than the recovery of a famous billionaire.

Next time, Stark returns to the States.

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

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Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy

Guardians Of The Galaxy

Trailer

"...I'm high on believin..."

“…I’m high on believin…”

Iron Man was not a well known character in 2008, so making a film about him was a risk. Thor was not a well known character, so that was a risk. Captain America was a risky thing to try and sell to audiences in Europe and beyond. The entire Avengers project was a risk. But if all of those things were risky moves, then we can only describe the niche property of Guardians of the Galaxy as a Hail Mary pass, Marvel trusting in their now proven ability to succeed with comic book adaptations to the furthest degree yet. A huge amount of hype has surrounded this production for the last few months. Does it all pay off?

Peter Quill had only a Walkman filled with 70s tracks on him when he was abducted by aliens and whisked away from Earth in 1988. Twenty six years later, the adult Quill (Chris Pratt) is a universe travelling mercenary and outlaw, who gets on the wrong side of genocidal Kree leader Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) over a mysterious orb Quill “acquired”. Before too long Quill finds himself thrown together with deadly assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldano), genetically modified raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), bi-pedal plant Groot (Vin Diesel) and vengeance obsessed heavyweight Drax (Dave Bautista) in a mission to save the galaxy from Ronan’s depredations.

A short, non-spoiler, review follows before more in-depth discussion, a transition that will be clearly marked.

Director James Gunn has a lot to balance here, between the five main characters, a handful of bad guys and a host of other players, ranging from space police commanders to Liberace-inspired species collectors. And I’m happy to say his attempt to pull it all together into a coherent form is mostly a success, with an action-packed feature that boils over with colour and extravagance.

Obviously the important thing is the titular team, the outcasts of society drawn towards each other by the chance for reconnection and redemption. While there is an issue with characters just blurting out their backstories and motivations at the drop of a hat, the interactions between the five are great, radiating with warmth, panache and the sort of sarcastic humour that Joss Whedon made commercial.

In fact, so dominant is the focus on those interactions that the plot actually takes a back seat to an extent, with Guardians of the Galaxy suffering from a rather lame villain with a by the books evil plan, only a partial step up from the disappointing Malekith of Thor: The Dark World. Centring around the MacGufffin orb, the plot moves from impressive set-piece to impressive set-piece, gorgeous location to gorgeous location, without ever really threatening to break out into the kind of success that The Avengers was, a film that better balanced large cast interactions with decent plot. Guardians of the Galaxy goes further, with a huge supporting cast that actually drags down the overall quality through their over numerous presence, but it’s not a gigantic flaw: some will likely enjoy the expansive and detailed world Gunn has brought to the screen.

The pace is hectic, the surrounds are pretty and the experience is undeniably enjoyable, but it’s also dirt simple when it comes to the actual story, with more than a whiff of Star Wars about it, especially in the last act. However, it is also certainly a sci-fi epic with legs, the film driven on by the strength of its core characters and their exchanges, their charm and charisma. Guardians of the Galaxy delights in what it is, revelling in its status as the “fun” example of comic book adaptation, almost a direct contrast with the (still entertaining) grimness of The Dark Knight or Man of Steel.

Chris Pratt is a sheer delight as the vain, cocky Quill, ho grates when no one appears to know his “Star Lord” codename. It would be easy to just be a Han Solo clone, but his Quill is a lot more than that, thankfully. Saldano’s had better roles, but is decent enough as Gamora, and a tired romantic plot with Quill is largely avoided. Cooper had a huge task to make Rocket not a Jar-Jar level disaster, and succeeds, the talking raccoon with the biting humour one of the films main highlights, matched by the simple but remarkably expressive performance of Diesel, clearly channelling a bit of The Iron Giant. Bautista is probably the closest to a weak link, with Drax’s trait of being unable to understand metaphor and non-literal expressions seeming like a sop to his lack of acting talent compared to the other four.

The supporting cast, featuring big or notable names like Lee Pace, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Karen Gillian, Peter Serafinowicz, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Rooker and Josh Brolin is so expansive that I can’t do them justice in this short space, apart from saying that no one disappointed too much, save for their limited screentime. Gillian and Hounsou in particular, as minor villains, seem to exist just so the good guys have someone vaguely recognisable to fight in the last act, while Close might be an underwhelming attempt to match the prestige casting of Sir Ben Kingsley and Robert Redford in Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier respectively. Pace is disappointingly underwhelming as Ronan, a dime store bad guy with poorly elaborated motivations or any real sense of threat.

Visually though, oh how Guardians of the Galaxy does shine. A handful of poorer moment barely detract from the symphony of bright colours and emotive CGI renderings of a full and complete universe, with dazzling locations that stick long in the mind through their diverseness and splendour. The likes of Rocket and Groot have no problems being believable as living entities, and the make-up/prosthetic team deserve as much plaudits as they can reasonable receive. It has been a long time since I have seen the production of a sci-fi world reach these heights.

Chris Pratt takes a deserved leap into the A-List ranks with his performance as Peter Quill

Chris Pratt takes a deserved leap into the A-List ranks with his performance as Peter Quill

The script is good and bad in different sections. The distinctive voices of various characters is a huge positive for such a large cast, but those of my outlook will be rolling their eyes at some of the more garish comedy lines as we enter into the last act, Marvel’s success now guaranteeing that every finale must be replete with awkwardly inserted comedic material. I could also have done with a few less monologues on the nature of friendship I suppose, but the overall strength of the wordplay is obvious.

Musically, Tyler Bates’ score is nothing to write home about, rarely threatening to match the heights of some of his previous work. It is in the soundtrack that Guardians of the Galaxy succeeds to a greater extent, with a fine and wonderfully appropriate selection of 70’s hits, from Blue Swede to the Jackson Five, which help to give the film the weirdly entrancing sense of laid back space adventure that it really needs.

Guardians of the Galaxy is great. It’s an upbeat vibrant production, with a fine central cast. I do find myself not quite agreeing with an apparent consensus that it is near-flawless – the plot is simple enough, the supporting cast is misused frequently and the villains are weak – but I cannot deny that it was the kind of film that puts a smile on your face, and leaves you hungry for more. Entertaining and engaging, Guardians of the Galaxy is yet another triumph for Marvel Studios, and comes fully recommended.

More in-depth discussion, with spoilers, follows.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a great film, overall, if not quite the epic masterpiece the last week of reviews and gushing praise has tried to paint it out to be. What we have here is a fun, laid-back accessible sci-fi saga, more Star Wars than Avengers, but we do not have anything truly astounding in quality (and certainly not on the same level as those two mentioned films).

I sort of find myself in a bind with Guardians Of The Galaxy then. The film is very entertaining, but I do not agree with the procession of critical positivity that has accompanied it to a large degree. As such, this review might seem a bit more negative than positive, but if so, it is only because I am trying to counter that positivity to the limited extent that I can.

But there is still so much good to talk about it. At its heart, we have a very simple story about a band of adventures overcoming a singular bad guy and his MacGuffin powers, but a wonderful universe and great pacing encapsulates that simple story. Director James Gunn has crafted a confident production that revels in the craziness and whacky hijinks it gets to portray, that takes the niche status of its source material as something to be celebrated, not to be altered. So, we get a few new kinds of superhero, battling an alien menace that we might last have seen on our screens in the grand old days of the sci-fi space opera decades ago. It’s thrilling, it’s enjoyable to watch and it keeps you engaged to the required degree.

Guardians Of The Galaxy’s main strength, the main focus even, is on those five titular characters and their interactions. Taking his cues in a large way from Joss Whedon’s style (and obviously influenced by the character interactions of The Avengers) Gunn portrays a buddy love movie with five main pieces, five broken outcast individuals thrown together and forced to work alongside the others for their own and the galaxy’s benefit.

The star is obviously Peter Quill, a man who, in a lazier director and actor’s hands, could have just been an inane Han Solo clone. But Chris Pratt and this director instead craft a more enthralling character than that, a Terran orphan who got to fly into the stars from a very young age and live out the kind of fantasies that other boys his age can only dream of. Quill is the science fiction man child, fleeing headlong from responsibility, stealing valuable artefacts while dancing around ancient ruins, still running, 26 years after the fact, from the pain of his mother’s death, ignoring her last gift. But he is still quintessentially cool, trying to personify the outlaw image in every act and strut, from cutting ties with Udonto to calmly taking Gamora down when she steals the orb off him.

The audience is flung into the deep end with Quill, and expected to simply shut up and enjoy the ride. Through Quill we get gradually introduced to our other four players, first Gamora. She’s the unfavoured child of Thanos, the rebellious one trying to fight back against him in her own way, cold and distant with all around her. Quill is her opposite in terms of maturity and what he wants out of life but the two become inexplicably connected very quickly after meeting each other.

Then there is Rocket and Groot, the two total wildcards. Rocket had the terrible potential to be the 21st century Jar-Jar Binks, but thankfully Gunn has managed to make something worthwhile out of him. While it can be a tad difficult to take the weepy monologues and appeals to Groot’s friendship seriously when they are coming out of the mouth of a sentient raccoon, they do at least try and play Rocket’s existence within the universe as straight as possible, refusing to fall back on more childish elements of humour, preferring to stick with the tried and true comic book version of a foul mouthed mercenary (who just happens to be a Terran rodent). Rocket serves as comic relief, yes, but also forms one half of the beating heart of the team.

The other is Groot, whose entire section of the script consists of four words. Yet, it is a remarkably expressive performance from Vin Diesel, clearly channelling a bit of his work on The Iron Giant, that makes Groot what he is – Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Chewbacca, a completely alien creature who you can’t even understand directly, but who you have no problems accepting as a living breathing entity within the universe. Groot is the Shakespearian fool of the film, always there in the background with key moments of plot importance, sometimes seeming to be the smartest one of the bunch.

Lastly then there is Drax. His plot, a basic revenge story that doesn’t even get a direct resolution, is probably the weakest of the five, not helped by Dave Bautista’s lack of acting talent compared to the other four. That might be why Drax is portrayed as a member of a species that does not understand metaphor, since his dialogue was nearly one long in-joke about that concept. But every team needs the tough guy character, the Guardians Of The Galaxy have theirs in Drax, the space version of the Incredible Hulk. Perhaps it might have helped if we knew why exactly Ronan had chosen to kill Drax’s family, or how Drax wound up in prison, or a load of other minor things. They aren’t there, and while Drax is fine for some comic relief and a few half-decent fight sequences, he isn’t all that.

So, it is the interactions between these five that are the key to how Guardians Of The Galaxy is a good film. Whether it is Quill and Gamora discussing what dancing is, Rocket and Drax getting into repeated bar fights over the causal insults they throw each other’s way, Groot’s monotone discussions with anybody or any of the group discussions, those moments of characterisation and dialogue are among the best that Guardians Of The Galaxy has to offer. Yes, they go from hanging around each other for their own profit to being willing to die for each other very fast, but that matches the breakneck pace that Guardians Of The Galaxy sets itself on from the start.

The problems with all of that is in the finer details and in some of the execution. At their core, everyone is a very simple, almost archetypical character – space orphan, rebellious henchman, gruff mercenary, alien grunt, revenge obsessed tough – that you can find in a host of other medium: You could make a Guardians Of The Galaxy movie about Philip J. Fry, the Silver Surfer, Boba Fett, Teal’c and the Punisher with basically the same dynamic between the five. The back stories of the characters are, in four of the five examples, worryingly short on depth, a symptom of the limited screentime Gun had to dedicate to the issue.

Vin Diesel's Groot is one of the films great triumphs, both in terms of CGI and characterisation.

Vin Diesel’s Groot is one of the films great triumphs, both in terms of CGI and characterisation.

That leads to some really poor examples of characters just laying out their back stories and motivations in a really unnatural way, with Gamora, Rocket and Drax all having moments where, without any real compunction, they start detailing their lives and why they want to take Ronan down (or, in Rocket’s case, how he came into being). It’s basically a repeated infraction of the standard “show, don’t tell” rule, only partially dodged in the case of Gamora and largely avoided for Quill. The titular Guardians aren’t the only ones of course, with a host of bad guys and supporting characters doing the exact same thing. Gunn had two hours and a lot of characters he had to bring to life, so he clearly fell back on the really base ways of letting the audience know the finer details of the cast. The answer was to lessen the amount of characters (or increase the running time) and neither of those two options were taken.

And so obvious is the focus on the relationship between the main five, that two other aspects of Guardians Of The Galaxy suffer unnecessarily: the plot and the bad guys. The plot revolves around a dime store MacGuffin, in this case an orb that turns out to be an infinity stone. This one serves in exactly the same way as the Ether did for Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, with the two films having a very similar structure in a lot of fundamental ways. We’ve seen the plot of this MacGuffin before, and seeing it again is just dull – the orb exists purely as a means to move from set-piece to set-piece, with ill-defined powers that characters intelligently dodge in dialogue, as if Gunn is telling the audience to sop seeking answers to questions he doesn’t care to address. If Marvel, with three more infinity stones to cover before they do the inevitable Thanos story, keep doing this, I’m going to get fed up fast. Make them distinctive. Make them interesting. Do something with them. I want more One Ring’s and less “orbs”.

Then there are the bad guys themselves. Ronan is fairly dull and disappointing as an antagonist, a bare step up from Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith. Both are just characterless, morose terrorists with bland ambitions for galactic domination. Have them murder someone in their first scene to show how tough they are, have them issue a few threats and send henchmen off on dangerous missions, have them try to undo the galaxy itself. But God forbid you actually make them memorable. Ronan’s a direct contrast with the more colourful and character-filled Guardians, and maybe that was the point. But man, I think Gunn and Pace should have just embraced the insanity and ran with it, creating a really over the top and memorable villain, more Darth Vader-like in visual direction, stage moment, tone and dialogue.

The supporting bad guys, the named ones anyway, aren’t any better. Karen Gillian’s Nebulae is barely in the film long enough tor register as a proper opposite of Gamora, and their final clash lacked a real emotional spark for me, just another showdown in a series of showdowns. Djimoun Hounsou had similar problems as Korath, just a grunt with a name, more fodder for the finale. At least Thanos was coo, but he was barley in the film (which is fine, it’s not really his movie). So much work and so much time was allotted to the Guardians, that the people they actually have to fight are just frighteningly dull in comparison.

As an aside, this seems to be the key flaw of this Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of Loki, what great screen villains have they produced? The likes of Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, the Red Skull, the Abomination, Alexander Pierce and the Mandarin had their moments, but none of them could be described as great screen antagonists. And then there are the duds: Whiplash, Winter Soldier, Malekith, who barely registered as characters. Just thinking on Marvel’s direct competition and their limited offerings, Liam Neeson, Heath Ledger and Tom Hardy gave the Dark Knight trilogy some distinctive and memorable bad guys, and even in Man of Steel Michael Shannon was great. Maybe Marvel Studios should think a bit more on their bad guys – Tom Hiddleston can’t be in every film.

But this is what you deal with when you have such a mountain of characters to give time to and a lot of different places to see. A strength of the film is the universe it manages to portray, with a lot of really great locations, computer generated or no, from orbital prisons to the giant skulls of dead celestials. It helps the threadbare story immeasurably when such world building takes place, when we see such a wide range of distinctive and unique environments. Yes, there is a lot of Star Trek/Stargate style “They’re basically human, just a different colour” going on, but it is the sheer amount of colours and species, and some of their home worlds, that makes Guardians Of The Galaxy’s universe such a captivating place to watch a story unfold in. We go very quickly from Xandar, the Kyln and Knowhere, but they were all awesome placed to stop off in for a time.

Guardians Of The Galaxy is a visual wonderfest.

Guardians Of The Galaxy is a visual wonderfest.

Knowhere, the kind of sci-fi imaginarium only a concept like this could throw up, is where our motley crew encounter the Collector, the space Liberace who likes to collect different species and put them in glass cages (for some reason). While a lot of people, including myself, have been looking forward to seeing what Guardians Of The Galaxy could do with the Collector after his brief and bizarre appearance at the end of Thor: The Dark World, they might feel a bit let down. The Collector is just Mr Exposition, albeit a very weird Mr Exposition you aren’t likely to forget. His entire purpose in the plot is to simply tell the Guardians what the orb is and what it can do – leaving it to his hapless assistant to demonstrate this more practically – and the Guardians are on record as barely caring about the specifics. Then, he’s done. Considering the big name actor attached to the role, and his big-ish place within the Marvel universe, you’d think they’d find more for the Collector to do.

He’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of those characters. Nova Prime, Yondu Udonta, Rhomann Dey, Garthann Saal and Cosmo the Space Dog are just some of the minor characters, not mentioning the already discussed minor villains, who pop up for a few lines here and there, desperately trying to appear as actual characters, sometimes in very strange ways: the Nova Corps police guy Dey does Guardians Of The Galaxy’s standard “explain your backstory” thing by talking about his family, before we actually just see his family at the end. What the hell is that, “Don’t just show or tell, do both!”?

Having a lot of characters fills out the world and gives it that larger epic feel, but my personal tastes prefer a smaller cast with better characters. Too many of the people who show up in Guardians Of The Galaxy are paper thin, appearing only very briefly and having very little of their own agency in the story, not to mention very little impact. Did anyone really care when Saal is killed in the final battle? It felt like we were meant to, but I cared as much as I did for Red Leader  or Biggs (more on that in a second).

Take Udonta, the mercenary who Quill has an ongoing dispute with during the film. He gets time and lines to explain himself and be a character, but in the hands of Michael “How can I make whoever I’m playing more of a southern stereotype?” Rooker, he’s basically just a bipolar alien with a temper problem, who also happens to have a really neat arrow device controlled by whistling. His motivations are defined as greedy, which is fine, but he’s also just immensely dumb, which is not so good. I think he existed so Quill could turn up on Xandar with an army at the conclusion, and I understand that necessity. Oh wait, I don’t, because the Nova Corps, just finished fighting a war with the Kree Empire, has a military of its own. Undonta seems to be in the film less out of a desire to make a good character that Quill could play off of, and more because Gunn had an inexplicable need to pack in a gigantic range of characters from Marvel’s outer space universe, and had an idea for a little set-piece with the arrow. Some restraint would be advised in the future.

At least some restraint was demonstrated in terms of romantic plotlines, something that Marvel Studio’s is actually threatening to turn into standard practise in some of its properties (and more power to them). Quill makes a brief attempt to seduce Gamora, but she rejects him, and from there the two embark on a more platonic friendship, something Quill seems satisfied with, which instantly made him seem like a better man to me (and was another notch against the Quill character just being Han Solo, with Gamora as Leia). In productions like this, with such a gigantic amount of characters and (simple but) lengthy plot to get through, the standard Hollywood dross that passes for romance is gladly dismissed.

If Guardians Of The Galaxy has a major flaw, its in its rather pedestrian villains.

If Guardians Of The Galaxy has a major flaw, its in its rather pedestrian villains.

That is not to say that there isn’t dross though, mostly in the multitude of dialogue selections and speeches that talk about how awesome friendship is. While teamwork is obviously an important part of the message that Guardians Of The Galaxy is trying to get across, I could have done without the extended devotion to the power of friendship, how glad everyone was to have friends, how everyone was better off with friends again, how they are willing to die for each other at the drop of a hat because they are all friends. Mr Gunn, you made the point just fine in the little rallying cry scene on the mercenary ship, there was no need to keep going on and on about it in the finale. I mean, I get that the finale required that point get even furthered hammered home, visually, but that just made the repeated references to it earlier even more superfluous.

That finale is fine. It’s probably the weakest act of the film, which a lot of Marvel properties regrettably are also guilty of, consisting mostly of CGI destruction and personal battles of little emotional weight. I’d say the way that Rocket and other break from the battle to save civilians lives (and how the evacuation of the city was confirmed in the middle of the battle) is a hearty and well deserved two fingers to DC over Man Of Steel, but there is still a great deal of implied carnage in that finale.

And it is just so, so Star Wars. That finale takes so much from the attack on the Death Star in A New Hope that Lucas should sue, if he wasn’t busy ripping off anything and everything himself. You have the giant enemy ship that has the power to destroy a planet. You have that ship slowly getting into position so it can perform that attack, the controllers of that ship seeking to bring an end to a conflict that has been waged for a while. You have the political/military leaders on the ground, watching the computer imagery of the battle and seeing the ship get closer and closer. You have the counter-attack done by the smaller ships, who end up engaged against other smaller ships. You have the weakpoint that the good guys are trying to exploit. You have one of the chief bad guys (Nebulae in this case) out in one of the smaller ships until she’s so damaged she has to withdraw. You have the minor character who dies in the assault. You have the money obsessed mercenaries assisting in the attack.

There’s so much of Star Wars there (and in some way, much of the rest of the film) that I found it weirdly distracting until the ship actually hit the ground and Guardians Of The Galaxy became its own beast again. Oh, and let’s not forget how the Nova Corps busts out its own Tholian Web during the battle either.

From there, friendship is magic and lonely Ronan is defeated despite handing every other member of the Guardians their ass in hand to hand combat in some form, so everything did feel just a tad unsatisfying (and was anyone else picturing this during that while thing with the infinity stone?). The “death” of Groot also failed to land for me for the most part, because I was so certain that he would be back before the credits rolled. Low and behold, I was right. If there is one thing I really dislike in science fiction or fantasy, it’s the frequent cheapness of character death. And Groot was such a surprisingly good character, that it felt even more cheap to me, to have him be this needless sacrifice (in plot terms) when Ronan’s ship crashed. Maybe Gunn felt like capitalising on the audiences inevitable attachment to Groot to conjure some manipulated happy feels for the very end, having Groot return in twig form, soon to get big again, I would presume.

Oh, and the comedy. This is an especially personal thing I guess, since several people in my own social circle that I have talked to on the topic see no problem with it, but I hate, hate, hate Marvels’ recent propensity for putting in comedic material at even the tensest moments. I suppose I blame Joss Whedon and his snarky brand of humour, even in the depths of peril, for this. That “Puny God…” moment of the billion dollar profit Avengers was probably what set this all off.

Because all of Phase Two’s films have this annoying trait, that Phase One did not share, of switching rapidly between tense action and light hearted comedy even in the middle of their finales. Tony Stark’s suit failing to get to him in Iron Man 3, Thor stuck on the Tube in The Dark World, even some of the Fury/Pierce interaction at the end of The Winter Soldier. And here, as Ronan prepares to commit mass genocide, Peter Quill starts awkwardly dancing to distract him. A lot of this stuff does make me laugh, but I invariably catch myself in the cinema, seeing my investment in the peril of the characters severely dented by the lackadaisical approach to that peril. Can’t we leave just the finales themselves humour free Marvel Studios? Please?

Marvel keeps doing it, so I’ll also mention the post-credits nonsense. Following on from the comedy of Iron Man 3’s example, and ignoring the seriousness of The Dark World’s and The Winter Soldier’s, Guardians Of The Galaxy decides to actually waste their time throwing Howard the Duck into the mix, of all people.’ It’s his anniversary!’ I hear you cry. I don’t care. He’s a terrible character noteworthy nowadays only for the awful movie his name is attached to and there is no legitimate reason for him to be included in the MCU.

While Guardians Of The Galaxy, and Marvel Studios in general, have come in for some deserved flak over mostly picking male characters for lead roles over women, I think this film does a good enough job with the female characters it introduces. Gamora is great: she has an actual personality, she has an arc, her own nemesis and she doesn’t fall into bed with Quill at the click of his fingers. She’s powerful, self-reliant, capable and rebellious against the outside influences that seek to control her. She faces down danger with bravery and embraces the friendship that the others offer without reservation – more than they do, really. Of the five, she’s probably the most selfless really: Quill, Rocket and Groot are looking for a payday and Drax wants to gratify his own need for revenge in going after Ronan. Gamora actually wants to save the universe, right from the start.

Zoe Saldana's performance will hopefully be another jab at Marvel Studios' male centred way of doing things.

Zoe Saldana’s performance will hopefully be another jab at Marvel Studios’ male centred way of doing things.

Some of the other female characters don’t really match up to her. As mentioned, Nebulae is a little weak, designed more as a vague opposition to Gamora, someone for her to fight at the conclusion, than as a really interesting character of her own accord. She doesn’t even have loyalty to Thanos to differentiate her from Gamora really, and could have been replaced by some generic thug without losing much of what she offered. Having the Nova Corps lead by the impressive and unyielding presence of Glenn Close’s character was a bit better, even if she was in the film only just long enough to barely register. There’s also Peter’s mother, appearing only in the opening few minutes, but whose death has a powerful effect on his subsequent development (IN SPAAAAAAAACE!)

Beyond those three, women in Guardians Of The Galaxy are slaves or one night stands. Marvel Studios has run out of excuses for denying more leading roles to women – they did a while ago, and so has everyone else in Hollywood – and the wait for one of their blockbusters headed by a woman is becoming intolerable.

So where to from here? The MCU is taking a bit of a break until the behemoth that is Age of Ultron, unless you want to talk about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But Guardians Of The Galaxy itself has a bright future. There is a grand universe to be played around with, and no shortage of potential concepts or villains to be faced down: especially Thanos, who had a decent intro here. The larger mystery of Peter Quill’s parentage is also a decent enough hook for an audience I would feel. A good amount of set-up – not too much, not too little – has been done here for any sequel.

So, moving into themes. Surprise, surprise, top of my list is the theme of friendship and team work. Guardians Of The Galaxy is a large rallying cry for the concept, an equal of last year’s Pacific Rim in that regard. The entire crux of the plot revolves around the reality that the Guardians are better off working together and seeking each other’s friendship. In the first instance they are able to achieve far more as a group than they would ever have been able to as individuals, namely preventing Ronan from commencing on a galaxy destruction tour. I suppose though, it is the second degree that the greater change, character wise, is found, with the five individuals fixing some key things about themselves with the formation of this group.

Because they are all damaged. To put a name on another theme, they have all lost something, are all incomplete. Quill has never really grown up following the death of his mother and the beginning of his adventures. Gamora lost her family in more violent circumstances, along with her innocence. Rocket’s mentally damaged from his very creation. Groot lacks the proper means to communicate with others to the same degree as normal sentient beings. Drax has also lost his loved ones violently, along with any sense of purpose beyond getting revenge for that reality.

Those links to family form another important theme for three of the five Guardians. Quill is defined by his rejection of adulthood after witnessing the passing of his mother, ailing from some kind of cancer battle. The absence of a parental influence is life has turned him into this irrepressible man child, who only starts to grow up when the entire galaxy is put into peril. Gamora moves from one family to another, trading her real parents for the dark influence of Thanos. But she ends up rejecting him and his false parentage, leaving her in a similar but contrasting boat as Quill, all grown up but lacking that guiding hand. And then, obviously, there is Drax, whose loss of family is a rawer wound than the other two have experienced, and who only has the singular goal of taking down Ronan as violently as possible. As for Rocket and Groot, they might not have lost families, but it is made clear that they have “dead people“ too. The lack of a family unit is what makes them who they are, but also provides the impetus to create a new family, in the form of the Guardians. The damage will not fix itself.

Finding friendship and a team ethic helps to nullify some of that damage, and to make the individuals of this group more whole. Quill finds some responsibility and some peace over the death of his mother by the conclusion. Gamora and Drax both find a measure of peace for their past losses, and the discovery of a new family. Rocket and Groot, outcast wanderers, find somewhere to call home. Compare to Ronan, an individual who finds himself embracing his inner damage, and faces into the final confrontation of Guardians Of The Galaxy totally alone, friendless, with even his quasi-loyal underlings having vanished from sight. In that final battle, the teamwork of the Nova Corps, the mercenaries and the Guardians is what stops the singular Ronan from completing his mad ambitions, in a way that none of them individually could have accomplished.

Lastly, there is the simple theme of revenge. Everyone in Guardians Of The Galaxy, everyone important anyway, seems to want revenge for something. Quill is bitter about his childhood abduction, Gamora wants to get back at Thanos, Rocket and Groot seem to have a grudge against the whole world, Drax is focused on Ronan and Ronan himself seeks revenge against Xandar for undefined religious and political differences. Revenge and the seeking of it drives them all on, even after the formation of the Guardians. It is a powerful motivator, Guardians Of The Galaxy indicates, but one whose fulfilment is a poisoned chalice just on its own. Taking down Ronan is justified, but without the larger threat of the destruction of Xandar, it would just be an emotionally deadening gratification of a negative instinct. It wouldn’t bring any dead families back and what little satisfaction there would be to find would not last too long. In embracing the higher motive, the Guardians are able to greater justify themselves and their outlook, and bring a greater level of peace to their internal workings.

In conclusion, Guardians of the Galaxy is great. It’s an upbeat vibrant production that allows for some tremendous fun to be had, with a fine central cast to propel things along nicely. It’s visually brilliant, one of the best films of the year in that regard. I do find myself not quite agreeing with an apparent consensus that it is near-flawless, for several reasons, mainly that the plot is simple enough, the supporting cast is too large along with being misused frequently and, crucially, the villains are really weak.

But I cannot deny that it was the kind of film that puts a smile on your face, and leaves you hungry for more, looking forward to both its direct sequel and whatever else Marvel Studios cares to throw at us. Entertaining and engaging, Guardians of the Galaxy is yet another triumph for Marvel Studios, and comes fully recommended.

A great, if not quite masterful, production.

A great, if not quite masterful, production.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

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