Review: Gotham (“Selina Kyle”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“Heavy Is The Head”)

Gotham – “Selina Kyle”

"You're quite the survivor Cat..."

“You’re quite the survivor Cat…”

Gordon investigates a spate of child abductions with Bullock, where the victims are all under the age of 16, while also being asked to intervene with a self-harming Bruce Wayne. Elsewhere, Cobblepot adjusts to life outside Gotham and the Falcone/Mooney tension escalates.

After a slightly iffy “Pilot”, Gotham now has to try and solidify its narrative and keep the initially hooked in audience with them. “Selina Kyle” is juggling several plot threads at once, and I wasn’t terribly convinced by the overall product.

Like the pilot, the nominal main plot loses much of the drama it should have because of the competing threads. The villains abducting children (Lili Taylor and Frank Whaley) are weird and creepy enough to be memorable, but what we don’t see about them – namely motivations for crime or a back-story – makes them rather ineffective as episodic antagonists. For an episode with her name on it, Kyle has precious little to offer in plot terms until the final minutes (including an uncomfortably violent and bloody moment near the very end) and the GCPD investigation felt clipped and rushed to me, with only a few decent moments of Gordon/Bullock interaction, overtaken by the base elements of the most bog standard procedural, just with a clunky added finale where the bad guys plan is put back into motion briefly.

Some of the sub-plots were better, most notably that revolving around Bruce Wayne. Brooding is to be expected, but Gotham is taking a more visceral direction with the young man, with opening scenes of him burning himself in the dark and later drawing disturbing art adding something very noteworthy to the evolution of the character. Gotham has the potential to be the most in-depth exploration of Batman’s genesis ever, and it makes sense that it should be a traumatic disturbed thing. Gordon’s continued connection to Bruce is well done, though I’m still unconvinced by Sean Pertwee’s Alfred.

Penguin’s transformation to Gotham mainstay continues apace, with his lashing out at the people who picked him up unexpected and in tune with the more obviously grim way Gotham is treating the character, though you wonder if they might be going just a little bit too psychopathic with him. Cobblepot strikes me as the kind of character the audience should actually sympathise with a little, and that won’t be possible if he continues the way he’s going. The Falcone/Mooney scene was a bit weird and contrived, seemingly included just to keep that sub-plot boiling over, and Pickett Smith’s overacting was less endearing in “Selina Kyle” than it was in “Pilot”.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the opening, where the simple corruption of the GCPD was laid out clearly. I liked the scene with Bullock’s romantic advice for Gordon (they need more time with each other in episodes). I liked the very beginning of the hints that Bruce is headed down the Batman path, “testing” himself. I disliked the namedropping of a B-list Batman villain as the mastermind of the child abductions (that Arrow has already done, and recently). I disliked the random and confusing nature of the Falcone/Mooney interaction. I disliked the political angle to the main plot, which seemed to stretch the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

There’s also the Gordon/Sarah relationship moments and the MCU investigation to keep track of, which both get a scene here. Gotham, just two episodes in, seems like it is biting off more than it can reasonably chew when it comes to efficient narrative and compelling storytelling, with six separate plot lines vying for time. While it is still early in the shows run, I know which of those plots I would give more time too, and which I would drop.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Heavy Is The Head”

"I need you because I can't be you, not anymore."

“I need you because I can’t be you, not anymore.”

S.H.I.E.L.D remains on the hunt for the “Absorbing Man” with Coulson struggling under the necessities of leadership. As well as that, mercenary recruit Lance Hunter’s allegiances are in serious question.

Going by that episode title (though it should be “Uneasy lies the head”, get your Henry IV, Part Two right!), this is a story about leadership, with Coulson starting to show the strain of being the neo-S.H.I.E.L.D director. He has to make hard choices about whether people live or die, what’s worth fighting for and who to trust, and isn’t in a position to give way to emotional solutions anymore. I thought “Heavy Is The Head” approached this topic well, culminating in Coulson’s reasonable justification for keeping slightly untrustworthy people around and a very important opening up to May.

That formed the backbone for another strong episode, with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D sticking to a firm serialisation format, with this one practically being a part two for “Shadows”. Crell – the Absorbing Man – remains the main problem, and the sequences with him tripped along nicely leading up to a simple but well choreographed finale, that tied in to both Coulson’s internal debate on the role of a leader and the Hunter uncertainty.

Hunter (Nick Blood) could well find a good niche in this show. With some of the other mercs eliminated already, he’s taking advantage of the room to grow as a character, showing a multifaceted personality and leaving the audience guessing on some crucial points. There’s even room for all the cast to get in some characterisation (minus Trip I suppose), between May’s remerging rebellious streak, Skye’s adjustment to being a S.H.I.E.L.D agent proper and Fitz’ struggle with his existing nature. I’m also liking Henry Simmons’ role as Mac, providing a nice cipher for the Fitz character. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D has introduced new characters, and I’m liking them.

The bigger picture is also getting filled out at a nice rate. The reappearance of Raina, one of the better aspects of S1, is to be welcomed, with Kyle MacLachan’s brief cameo promising greater intrigue as we move forward. S.H.I.E.L.D  vs HYDRA interminably would be rather boring: it’s good to get new players on the stage.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the slow motion bullet shot on Absorbing Man. I liked the interaction between Fitz and hallucination Simmons, which others are catching on to. I liked the conversation between Hunter and Skye in Hartlet’s room. I disliked the way some plot elements of S1 were reintroduced without greater elaboration, basically a recap. I disliked the way the Trip character is being increasingly marginalised. I disliked some of the script contrivances, like the misinterpretation of Fitz’ “I didn’t solve this today”.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D continues its solid start in round two. The serious tone is being upheld, there’s more continuity between episodes and already a sense of mystery and intrigue – over the Obelisk, over HYDRA and over Raina’s new friend – unique to this season. It’s a welcome improvement on the beginning of season one, and I only hope that the ratings and interest reaffirm the decision to go in this direction.

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Ireland’s Wars: De Lacy And John

The English continued to expand in 1178, heedless of any previous agreements made with Rory O’Connor or any other major Irish figure, but they were not invincible. The colonial advance was less a tidal wave and more a lengthy erosion, with plenty of setbacks in between moments of success. The Irish had learned some things about fighting the Anglo-Normans, and the Anglo-Normans were getting very stretched.

In the north, John de Courcy had been able to carve out a substantial niche for himself in the region synonymous with County Down today, but still faced heavy pressures. Supplies were not guaranteed from the area that would become the Pale, so other alternative had to be found. Raiding for cattle in the area of Louth, he and his men were attacked while camping near the Newry River, by forces from both Oriel and Ulaid. The defeat was stinging – the Irish claim several hundred casualties – and he was further repulsed while engaged in more cattle raiding in Antrim. But the English control of Down remained intact, albeit a control that was struggling to expand. The constant wars between the Irish – in 1178, the Irish of Ulster are recorded as fighting with the Irish of central Leinster for a time – helped to insure that de Courcy was not in too much danger of a total defeat, a situation mirrored in plenty of other places, such as in north Munster, where Irish elements from Thomond and Desmond continued a low intensity but weakening struggle, even while their territories were being siphoned off by the new arrivals.

By 1179, Henry II had tired of the unpopularity of Fitzaldhelm, his chosen man to lead the Irish administration, and replaced him with Hugh de Lacy, the Lord of Meath. De Lacy was fighting a continual border war with the Irish who had previously controlled Meath, one of the most valuable areas of land in the country, and his new position of authority aided him in continuing that fight, with the constant building of forts and castles to shore up English control and offer greater resistance to Irish raids. De Lacy’s position of Lord of Meath, governor of Dublin Castle and now essentially governor of the English position in Ireland generally, has led him to essentially be marked as the first proper Viceroy of Ireland, a role that would eventually become the more well defined Lord Deputyship/Lieutenancy.

It was not an easy road for him though: holding such a position in Ireland involved amassing power, and thus jealousies. When de Lacy married a daughter of Rory O’Connor – another attempt to improve the fractious relationship between the Irish and the English we can presume – he did so without seeking any kind of permission from Henry. As with Strongbow, the English King suspected an imminent grab for sovereign power in Ireland, and de Lacy was ordered to give up his position and return to England. But the manner in which de Lacy did so – immediately and without any fuss – engendered him back into Henry’s good graces, and he was soon returned back to his role in Dublin, albeit now in a joint capacity with Hubert Walter, the Bishop of Salisbury, essentially fulfilling a overwatch role on behalf of the monarchy.

De Lacy oversaw continuing trouble in the Munster area, where the English were trying to break out of the coastal region they were hitherto pegged back to. Milo de Cogan was at the forefront of this effort, but in 1182 he was killed in an ambush (or by foul play) while travelling from Cork to Waterford. His death came at a bad time, as numerous Irish chieftains and their forces made a concerted effort to retake the town of Cork from the English. The town was hard pressed for a time, before reinforcements led by Raymond de Gros arrived by sea from Wexford, ending the siege and preserving the English garrison in Cork. The loss of de Cogan was hard, but additional English troops and colonists were soon being sent to the area.

There was better news for the English to the west, where an ageing Rory O’Connor choose to retire and leave his Kingdom in the hands of his son, Conor. He was a giant of his age, the last of the High Kings, and perhaps was one of the only men in Ireland who stood a chance of inflicting any kind of decisive defeat on the colonising English. But his hands were tied by the numerous problems of his position and it is unrealistic to think that, given the reality of Ireland at the time, he could really have done more than he actually did. He would spend the rest of his life a subordinate to his son, still involved in conflicts with other Irish Kingdoms, but never again regaining his larger prominence.

1185 saw the pattern continue, of gradual English expansion and occasional Irish resistance. Anglo-Norma territories in Cork, Desmond and Down were relatively stable, and Henry was able to enact greater taxation on these areas, along with the coordinated raids that kept harassing Irish lands in the border lands. But 1185 is more notable for the expedition of John, Henry’s youngest legitimate son, who had previously been granted the “Lordship of Ireland”, though attempts for this to become a royal title had to be curtailed.

John, aged 19 at the time, arrived in Waterford, with 400 soldiers and a retinue of courtiers. Just what his exact goal in Ireland was is unclear, though there are some indications that Henry expected him to exert enough control and to push the Irish back enough that Ireland could yet become his Kingdom. But this was not to be so.

John is a tricky figure to approach in history, as the writing and accounts of him that still exist are remarkably negative, to the point of clear bias. Even today, he seems popularly to be best known as the incompetent enemy of Robin Hood, who was a tyrant to his people and was forced to sign over greater rights to his subordinates at the point of a sword. That was all ahead of him of course, but even at this eagerly point in his life, the negative appraisal of him is clear, in Irish sources anyway, with the young Prince depicted as vain, foolish, prone to indulge in vice and quick to give ill-advised insults to the native Irish: a famous story exists that claims that John and his friends were so amazed by the appearance of Irish chieftains who greeted him at Waterford that they made jokes and “plucked their beards”. Whether this is true or not, John’s time in Ireland was not marked by harmony between the natives and the colonists.

In truth, John’s approach in Ireland was to combat two potential enemies. He travelled, much like his father had, from Waterford to Dublin by a circuitous route, ordering the construction of castles wherever he went, most notably in Tipperary and Kilkenny, to increase the protection of the new colonists. But at the same time he was suspicious of the power of the local Anglo-Norman elite, and the likelihood of them rebelling against his and his father’s authority. It frequently came back to Hugh de Lacy, whom some contemporary commenter’s continued to insist sought a crowd for himself, probably the Kingship of Meath. John aimed to provide greater lands and powers for those nobles whose loyalties were more assured, like the Walters, soon to become the Butlers.

John’s efforts to deal with both problems were seriously hampered. The forces of Thomond undertook several deadly raids during the time period, most notably one that captured the newly built castle at Ardfinnan, Tipperary, making a mockery of the protection John was trying to create. In the Pale, John was undermined and made to feel threatened by the power of de Lacy, or at least so John would claim later. Much less sympathetic sources claim that John and his courtiers abandoned themselves to drink and vice in the capital until, out of money, he came home and blamed it all on de Lacy. John would be back, but his first expedition to Ireland was a damp squib of an affair.

Neither John nor his father had to worry about de Lacy much longer though. In 1186, while inspecting the construction of a castle in Offaly, he was attacked and killed by an Irish assassin, apparently taking the opportunity to kill an enemy when he happened to stumble across him unguarded. De Lacy’s loss would not have unduly troubled Henry or the remaining powerhouses in Dublin.

So, as Ireland entered the waning years of Henry II’s reign, much the same situation remained: the English were expanding, with difficulty, and the Irish were constantly reacting to this, rather than taking any firm initiative of their own. It was simply too much to expect even the larger Irish Kingdoms to launch substantial assaults into English held lands, given the propensity of their fellow Irish to take advantage of the distraction, not to mention the constant amount of low level raiding that also had to be contended with. The Irish could repulse the English, even defeat them militarily on the field of battle at times, but had no means by which to defeat them utterly. At best, the Irish could look forward to a stalemate between east and west, with the north and the south of Ireland the true areas to be keenly contested.

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

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Revolutionary Remembrance: Our Great Men

For a time a while ago I worked in a civilian capacity for the Irish Defence Forces. Contract work with a fixed end date, when it was finally concluded, the staff I had worked with were kind and gracious enough to present me with a small gift in appreciation for my time there, an act for which I was very much grateful.

The gift was a modestly sized bust of Michael Collins in the uniform of the National Army, based off his appearance circa 1922. It was while staring at this bust, now displayed on a shelf in my home, that I begin to think about our relationship to the individual figures of the Irish Revolutionary Period, and why we have raised up some in our estimation in comparison to others.

If I was to ask the reader of this piece, right now, to name the most famous personalities of the Irish Revolutionary Period, who can we surmise would be the first names to spring to mind? Michael Collins of course, probably fighting it out for top spot with Padraig Pearse. Then Eamon De Valera and James Connolly in all likelihood, followed by men like Tom Clarke, Rory O’Connor, Cathal Brugha, Thomas McDonagh, Jim Larkin and Liam Lynch. The response will change from person to person, but I feel I am not out of order with my posited answers.

With the notable exception of De Valera, the recurring thread for all of these men is that they died during the Irish Revolutionary Period, most of them before they reached true middle age. There is an attraction, in terms of historical remembrance, in that. We make romantic heroes of those who did not make it through, of those who died heroically, with little stain left on their characters – or, rather, those who never had the chance to have that stain. They are our “great men”, as defined by that Victorian idea on the flow of history.

Michael Collins, of course, is especially romanticised. The accent, the handsome face, the disposition. He is perceived as the lynchpin and driving force of the IRA effort, especially in the skulduggery intelligence war in Dublin. His name is attached to events like Bloody Sunday and their aftermath. He is seen, with some justification, as a swaggering heroic figure, cycling around Dublin and organising attacks on the DMP and its supports, even while being the most wanted man in Ireland. His disputes with the contemporary’s in the cabinet and the Dail mark him as twice the rebel, and culminated in the diplomatic epic of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He made the hard choice and sided with the pro-Treaty side. He was shot dead while trying to be a peacemaker, in dramatic circumstances, even as his fiancée was preparing for her wedding (or at least, so Neil Jordan has managed to ingrain on the Irish consciousness). Here is a giant, a man with a story easily followed and even more easily celebrated. The romanticisation is easily done, leaving little room, for most people, for more serious critique of the man’s life deeds, and effect.

We do not consider, too much, the likelihood of what came after and how Collins may have lived in that world. We do not think about how such a militarily minded man might have approached the passing over of Irish rule to civilian democrats, or even the rest of the Civil War. Some soothe themselves with ideas that Collins, the giant, the incorruptible, would have executed no Irregulars, would have continued IRA attacks in the North, would have been every inch the republican so many continue to want him to be in their minds. Or would he have been a tyrant, a man unsuited to the world of pure politics, disdainful of the Dail and the squabbles it engendered? Or would he have been an unremarkable politician in the new Irish Free State, fading to mediocrity in a world without gunmen? They are questions we could ask of nearly all the figures that I have mentioned above, though the usefulness of such an endeavour is curtailed by the inherent pointlessness of the counterfactual posit.

Why not admire these men? Or rather, why admonish the admiration of them? I do not seek to tear down peoples inspirations, or belittle their motivation in choosing these people for such a role. I only wish to point out that, today, in this Ireland, men like Collins and Pearse, Connolly and Clarke, would not be heroes. They would not be effective politicians, anymore than they were 100 years ago. They would not be at the forefront of representative democracy. Today, we are a nation of peace loving people, who emphasise neutrality and discourse, a process epitomised in things like the Good Friday Agreement. But still we look back and proclaim these military men our heroes, our inspirations, our figures to look up and be like. We make busts of Michael Collins still.

There is a quote by an English author Samuel Johnson, who, writing in 1778, said: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier”. Today, in our comfortable pacifism and enjoying the fruits and productivity of political discussion and negotiation instead of air raids and infantry marches, I do not think it is too much to suggest that part of our glorification of the past in this manner, our unrelenting favouritism given to the heroic martial figures of a hundred years ago, might have something to do with the way that our world is today, with its lack of opportunity for similar daring do, for the same level of traditional tests of manhood, that have so defined our ancestors in days more dangerous than our own. I suggest that some of us look back and pick our inspirations, our national heroes, on the basis of things we cannot do today, and imbue these men with greater honour and reverence than they perhaps deserve because of it. I admire Michael Collins in a way, but I am beginning to realise more and more in this period of remembrance that such admiration should also be given to others.

John Bruton has aggravated many in recent weeks and months with his championing of John Redmond’s cause, that of Home Rule and its possible effects if it had been implemented without the violence of 1916, provoking a debate on the nature of the centenary decade, where political achievements are either ignored or outright scorned. I do not claim to believe in all of Bruton’s argument about Home Rule, but I admire the sincerity of his beliefs, and the larger message that there are figures from the Irish Revolutionary Period whose lives and acts should serve as greater inspiration for people today than the same lives and acts of military men and women.

Consider Eamon De Valera, the one man in the above list who survived the Irish Revolutionary Period and had a notable political career afterwards. You will be hard pressed to find busts of De Valera being handed out as gifts. He’s seen as the Machiavellian puppetmaster of the early Irish state, the man who sabotaged the Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations, was willing to “wade through Irish blood” to get his way, who kept Ireland backward and in the control of the church, who was the architect of Irish neutrality in World War Two. The reality of some of these things is clear, and I merely wish to point out that the degradation of De Valera’s memory is copper fastened by the fact that he lived and went on to become continually controversial, while others, like Collins, were denied the chance to sully their names through subsequent deeds or misdeeds. The reason why Collins is thought of better than De Valera is obvious, but the reason should still give us all cause to question ourselves.

Because remembrance today is not about De Valera, or Redmond, and it won’t really be about Arthur Griffith or Eoin MacNeill or Bulmer Hobson or any other person who took a mostly non-militaristic role in the entire affair. It won’t be, largely, about women or trade unionists. The centenary decade, inevitably, will focus on military deeds, and will seek to celebrate them. The Easter Rising, Soloheadbeg, Kilmichael, Bloody Sunday, the Battle of Dublin, they will receive pride of place, as will the people who fought in them. We will continue to focus on those like Collins and Pearse, the gunmen, and I fear that the people of this country will not do a good enough job at asking themselves just why they are doing so.

I and others can merely be Cnut pressing back against the tide. It is pointless, and perhaps unwise, to tell people to back away from the deification of Michael Collins and the people like him, after a century of things going in the other direction. And they are not unworthy of remembrance themselves in any way. Just, I believe, less worthy of dominating proceedings as they previously have done.

For now, I think we could, at the very least, start small and utilise some of the great resources that have been made available to us for this centenary decade. I encourage, and even challenge, the readers of this piece to go the digitised witness statements of the Irish Bureau of Military History, and find an account to read. Follow up on a name, or pick someone at random, and perhaps see the Irish Revolutionary Period through the eyes of someone you didn’t know about before, to find a unique perspective, which will open eyes and engender greater understanding of the struggle in a general sense.

I certainly plan to, and will perhaps devote some of the future entries of this heading to them.

 

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Review: Gotham (“Pilot”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“Shadows”)

Since there are so many TV shows out this year with comic book source material that I’ll be watching, I’ve decided to expand my focus when it comes to reviews. Last TV season I wrote a lot solely on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but now we have Gotham, The Flash, Constantine and Agent Carter to go along with the pre-existing Arrow as well.

So, for as long as I can, I’ll offer brief reviews of each shows episode every week in a combined piece. These reviews will be spoiler-free for that particular episode, but will not refrain from discussing details of past episodes. It’s early days yet, and this week saw only the pilot episode of Gotham and the season two opener of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Flash begins October 7th, followed by Arrow the night after, then Constantine on the 24th of that month. Agent Carter will hit our screens in January, and at some point after that the Marvel/Netflix union will produce its own shows as well. So, let’s get right to it.

Gotham – “Pilot”

"There will be light..."

“There will be light…”

When one of Gotham City’s wealthiest couples is murdered, leaving behind a grieving son, rookie detective James Gordon and haggard veteran Harvey Bullock are tasked with tracking down the killer. 

A victim of so much whining fanboy entitlement about its very existence, I was predisposed to Gotham before I actually sat down to watch it (seriously, Gotham Central, Year One, Elseworlds? It’s like alternate continuities don’t exist to these people). But while I was mildly entertained by Gotham’s pilot, it is clear that it remains very rough around the edges, with plenty of underwhelming elements.

The set-up was good. The Crime Alley murder of the Wayne’s is always a gut punching scene, and while Gotham can’t top Batman Begins’ adaptation of that seminal superhero moment, it comes close. David Mazouz sucks you in early with his shocked despair as the caped crusader in waiting, and that continues for the rest of the episode.

But Gotham isn’t about him. It’s about a young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the decent man in an indecent time, paired with the lazy, corrupt and uncaring Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). McKenzie wasn’t great to be honest, looking too out of place and struggling to sell the character, even in his crucial “There will be light” speech to a grieving Bruce (Begins again has them beat there, with Gary Oldman’s simple, almost wordless, comforting of Bruce on the big screen). Logue has the better of McKenzie in terms of acting chops in this pilot, settling in easily as the reprehensible yet endearing Bullock, though the extent of his corruption makes him fairly unlikeable by the conclusion of “Pilot”. The back and forth between the two was alright, mired in cliché, but had acquired a necessary edge due to the ending of the episode, that bodes well for the future.

The actual plot was fine, just rather weighty, even for a pilot. The chase for the Wayne’s killer was simple, but dragged down by layers of subplot – the MCU going after Gordon/Bullock, Gordon’s relationship with Barbara Kean, Montoya’s relationship with the same, the budding gang war between Carmine Falcone (an excellent John Doman) and Fish Mooney (the even better Jada Pinkett Smith), the genesis of the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), etc. Showrunner/writer Bruno Heller has a lot to say in this pilot, and I felt like a two-part 90 minute thing might have served better, given the circumstances.

Other points: I liked the brief introduction of Nygma, if only for the look of shock/annoyance as Gordon instantly solves one of his riddles. I liked the use of a very young Selina Kyle for the opening, and the connection immediately drawn between her and Wayne. I liked the limited action, the set for the GCPD and the Eartha Kitt-ness of the Fish Mooney character. I didn’t like some of the lighting effects, especially in night scenes, which were altogether garish, or some of more extreme camera choices. I didn’t like the vague hint towards the Joker, which was my personal step too far when it came to references. I didn’t like Sean Pertwee’s Alfred, which seemed like the writers saw Michael Caine’s version and decided to push it too far.

Like I said, rough around the edges. But that’s pilots for you. There is solid bedrock here, great potential for mystery of the week story telling combined with overarching plot. And there’s a certain ambition in trying something new with a well worn tale, which I cannot help but admire. For now.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Shadows”

"It's make or break...all or nothing."

“It’s make or break…all or nothing.”

Operating under vastly changed circumstances after his organisation’s destruction, Agent Coulson, director of the new S.H.I.E.L.D, continues the struggle to combat the villainous HYDRA.

It seems like a long time since I was writing on this shows abominable pilot. But it got better, and it deserved the second season it was trusted with. Now, a year on and carrying Marvel Studios’ efforts singlehanded until Ultron shows up, Coulson and company needed to make an impression.

And they did. I was quite impressed with “Shadows”, a season opener that expertly establishes the changed nature of the universe for the titular organisation and a marketedly changed tone for the entire thing as well. One of my most recurring criticisms of Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s first season was that it frequently felt like no one was taking things seriously enough. That’s changed in “Shadows”, with the strained nature of S.H.I.E.L.D’s existence making everyone look more professional, more dedicated and more believable as their own brand of secret agents.

An opening flashback to 1945 – almost a backdoor introduction to the upcoming Agent Carter – starts things off nicely, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Reed Diamond in the future. Things move a bit slowly from there, but it was fine: “Shadows” had a story to tell and wasn’t in a rush, with a very changed world and new characters to establish. The use of “Absorbing Man”, while hardly very vivid in his characterisation, was effective insofar as it was a cool looking and very dangerous villain to focus the episode around. That didn’t detract from the larger picture of S.H.I.E.L.D now having “gone dark” and having very difficult choices to make. The sense that it is, at times, “all or nothing” for the new S.H.I.E.L.D, with the prizes up for grabs not what the audience might have expected, is created very well, and there are a lot of effective sub-plots set in motion besides: Ward as the Hannibal Lector in the basement, Coulson getting used to being the “Buck stops here” guy, Talbot’s relationship with the new S.H.I.E.L.D and the mercenary aspect of the operation.

Those new characters, led by Lucy Lawless, didn’t get much time to make a large impression, but that will hopefully change in the future. Better was Adrian Pasdar as Glenn Talbot, whom “Shadows” starts to humanise away from his grouchy military archetype showing of last season. The established regulars are all battling for screentime in a season opener packed with characters, but I can’t really complain about any of them, especially Iain de Caestecker. I’m delighted to see Agent’s Of S.H.I.E.L.D not cop out on the trauma his character suffered at the end of the last season, and his situation by the end of “Shadows” is genuinely heartbreaking.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the action, which were simple but effective at driving things along. I liked the brief use of comedy moments, namely Coulson’s impression of Talbot on the phone. I liked that Coulson was less of a main character than he was before and that Skye is actually a proper S.H.I.E.L.D  agent. I didn’t like some of the plot point requirements (the terrible efforts to contain Absorbing Man by the military for example). I didn’t like the much reduced participation of the Trip or May characters, with the cast looking whiter than ever with the new recruits. I didn’t like the somewhat hackneyed nature of the final scene, as trope-like as they come.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D is off to a solid start with its second season, far more solid than it was this time last year. I hope the ratings solidify as well, because this premiere, with its more serious tone, driven pacing and well layered sub-plots, was the perfect episode to whet the appetite for an upcoming season.

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Ireland’s Wars: Windsor Ignored

The Treaty of Windsor, signed between Rory O’Connor and Henry II of England, did not last long. Anglo-Norman colonists in Ireland were still hungry for power and land, liable to undertake their own ventures into Irish territory, and Henry was not of a mind to put too much of an effort into stopping them, distracted by more import events elsewhere in his vast holdings. While the situation in Ireland remained more finely poised than subsequent remembrance like to state, the English were still expanding.

Raymond de Gros, the beloved leader of so many Norman expeditions, was at the forefront of this. He was continuing to lead troops into Munster, attacking the forces of Thomond and interceding in the constant squabbling of other Irish chieftains, most notably the McCarthy’s of Kerry, who in 1175/76 were struggling with internal division between leaders and their sons: a common Irish problem as we will soon see. With an established base in the recently captured town of Limerick, de Gros was able to exert more pressure than before, without the need for constant resupply and reinforcement from the east.

That all came crashing down in April of 1176, when Strongbow died in Dublin. Irish sources like to claim that divine retribution did him in, through a festering ulcer on his foot, or maybe a painful battle wound whose issues were reoccurring. But the truth is that, aged 46, De Clare was already far along in years relative to the times, and his death was not some surprising event, not that much.

Strongbow’s role in the Norman invasion is a bit exaggerated really – he was more of a politician than a soldier, and most of the initial expansion was undertaken by others, like de Gros – but his part was still gigantic. His marriage to Aoife helped solidify the English claim to parts of Ireland, and the reconciliation with Henry ensured that it was no temporary engagement. This down on his luck Welsh noble found a way to better his circumstances spectacularly, and has occupied a place in Irish history of considerable fame (or infamy if you prefer) ever since because of it.

De Gros, hearing of Strongbow’s death, hurried back to Dublin. Unwilling to leave a small garrison behind when they would be left weak and easy prey, he essentially abandoned Limerick to the O’Brien’s once more, who retook the town and burned a large part of it in the process. After Strongbow’s funeral, de Gros, through his military power and marriage to De Clare’s daughter, took temporary charge in Dublin, but was soon superseded by Henry II’s choices for a new Irish government, most notably William Fitzaldhelm, a favourite noble who had previously accompanied the King on his expedition to Ireland.

Fitzaldhelm’s administration did not last long. There was open quarrelling with other elements of English power in Ireland, with de Gros a much reviled figure among the new arrivals.  The Irish were pressing back in the Meath region, with the castle at Slane captured and its garrison slaughtered, provoking a limited flight of colonists from the area. Fitzaldhelm’s stuttering efforts to enforce the terms of the Treaty of Windsor made him more unpopular, and he as soon being flat-out ignored by his nominal subordinates.

John De Courcy was one of those. An ambitious young noble, he had been among the first wave to land in Ireland with Strongbow, and now wanted to establish his own lands. Taking 22 knights and a contingent of foot soldiers, he marched north in early 1177, seeing to stake a claim to an area of Ulaid, an old Irish Kingdom in the east of what we would recognise as Ulster today.

His men reached and stormed Downpatrick, the chief town of the region, and then awaited a response. The leading families of the area refused attempts at clerical negotiation, and gathered as many men as they could, but were badly defeated by de Courcy in battle twice, once in February and again in June, though we have little details about what actually took place. De Courcy held onto the lands he had taken, began building a castle, and beat back all comers, even advancing on raids as far away as Derry. Ulster and its chieftains had been able to stay aloof from the larger issue of Irish/English interaction up to that point, not even offering Henry the most empty kind of submission like others had done. That was now changing.

Miles de Cogan attempted to match de Courcy’s exploits that same year, only heading west instead of north. Giving support to Murrough O’Connor, a rebellious son of Rory, he led knights and troops into Roscommon seeking plunder and land. The expedition was a failure: the native Irish initiated a scorched earth policy and fled west, leaving de Cogan and his knights nothing to take or to subsist on. Forced to withdraw after a time, they were then pursued by the forces of the elder O’Connor. Irish sources claim O’Connor inflicted a bloody defeat on the retreating Normans on the banks of the Shannon, though it is little mentioned elsewhere. De Cogan was able to withdraw safely, though Murrough was not so lucky, captured and blinded by his revengeful father. O’Connor remained one of the most powerful men in Ireland, and this episode helps to illustrate that. If the Irish could be organised enough, with a strong enough figurehead, then they could do some serious damage.

By now, the Windsor agreement had totally broken down, and Henry continued to grant tracks of land to his favourites that were not really in his power to give. Large swaths of Munster were granted to noblemen, who then had to travel to Ireland and take it by force. Future Earldoms in Desmond and Thomond began their existence as nominal lands of the King when they were still being controlled by Irish chieftains. Efforts to establish English rule in these areas were tricky, with only small portions of land, most notably around the town of Cork, recently seized, coming under firm English dominance. There wasn’t, yet, enough English settlers to enforce the claims, these areas being so far from the established foothold in the east, and surrounded by hostile Irish. There are plenty of cases of noblemen turning down gifts of land in Ireland, or essentially letting the claims lie dormant after a failed or expensive attempt to take them. Such is the progress of colonialism, but the English were still creeping ever outward.

Henry had his own personal issues, with a fractious relationship with his sons threatening his plans for his own succession. The lands he controlled were extensive, but he also had numerous offspring, who all wanted a piece of them. These disputes erupted into rebellion and war on several occasions, and were a constant source of stress and pressure on Henry. Largely because of this, he had fond feelings for his youngest (legitimate) son, John, nicknamed “Lackland” by some contemporary commenter’s due to his apparent deficit of title. Seeking a way to grant John some land, Henry had him declared, at just ten years old, to be the first “Lord of Ireland”, setting in motion a title that would stick to English monarchs’ until the time of Henry VIII. For the moment, the title held little actual power, given John’s age, and Fitzaldhelm remained in power in Ireland. But it would not be so for much longer.

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 – Working On Something Big (54.14 – 01.01.11)

Establishing shot of that beautiful Malibu mansion which, again, is completely CGI, and we’re back into the thick of things. A lighter, more percussion driven backing accompanies us for the moment, with slightly booming violins to accentuate (OST: “Mark II“).

Tony sets up a very fancy looking quasi holographic keyboard – covered in symbols that don’t really make much sense to me, but whatever – and gets working.

TONY:
JARVIS, you up?

JARVIS:
For you sir, always.

TONY:
I’d like to open a new project file, index as Mark II.

Tony sits before an impressive looking computer system, multiple monitors, surveying what are obviously the schematics for the Mark I suit that he wore in the escape from Afghanistan, now looking altogether more complex than it did when it was just seen on ratty paper schematics.

This is Tony’s new workspace, a marked difference to the cave he was previously trapped in. This place is clean, smooth, refined with the jukebox in the back and the extremely advanced holographic technology to aid in the production of whatever Tony is tinkering on. The CGI here is fairly crisp and believable, even if the suspension of disbelief does take a bit of a hammering.

JARVIS:
Shall I store this on the Stark Industries’ Central Database?

TONY:
Actually, I don’t know who to trust right now. ‘Til further notice, why don’t we just keep everything on my private server?

Tony doesn’t know who to trust? Remember, Tony was ambushed by and forced to work on Stark Industries weapons that had somehow gotten into the hands of the Ten Rings in bulk. That’s shady, and we might well understand the conflict this brings out in Stark. Has someone in Stark Industries been involved in double dealing? It wouldn’t take a genius to come up with one particular suspect.

But more than that, Tony is going to be building something, a very advanced piece of machinery, which is going to propel his mission to be a better person and to make the world a better place. That mission is going to have its opponents – like Rhodes, as we saw in the last sequence – and Tony has been left alone to complete it without any distractions or roadblocks. And he’s going to keep it that way.

The shot pans right to take in a new part of the garage, this office/kitchen area. Everything looks homey, and this is almost a place where Stark can live: an important thing to get straight, as we need to believe that Stark could actually stay down here for a very long period of time.

Tony starts interacting with the complex hologram on the table in front of him, removing parts and placing the light based images into a trash can. This is a simple, but underappreciated, visual nicety. Anyone familiar with computers is aware of a recycle bin facility, and so can instantly understand just what it is that Stark is doing, even if the technological sophistication of it is far ahead of what we can actually do ourselves.

JARVIS:
Working on a secret project, are we, sir?

This is the first line from JARVIS that indicates he is more than just a computer program that “runs the house” and does simple tasks. He asks a question that results from something Tony has said, inferring the “secret” nature of it, before displaying some basic inquisitiveness. JARVIS is more than he appears to be.

TONY:
I don’t want this winding up in the wrong hands. Maybe in mine, it can actually do some good.

Hmm. Just what are “the wrong hands”? Stark Industries? Stane? The US military? Or the Ten Rings? Tony has decided to supersede all of them and go it alone, so that he can be the ultimate arbiter of doing “some good”. He has to strike out on his own, lest he be swayed or corrupted by those whom he previously allowed to influence his actions. Tony spins his holographic suit around, considering.

Cut to some of those “wrong hands”. It is the desert, the same smooth sands where Tony made his crash landing during his escape. Only now, there is a lot of people and a lot of movement. Heavily clothed figures, their heads wrapped up by scarves and other material, goggles over their eyes and no skin showing, struggle against a harsh breeze, that blowing sand across the frame, a picture of desolation made worse by the distant twangs and booming percussion of the old Afghan theme.

This is the Ten Rings again, but they’re up to something a bit different this time, digging in the sand, which looks as crazy as Cnut trying to hold back the tide. It becomes clear very fast what they are actually doing: digging up the remains of the Mark I, which Tony was forced to leave behind after his crash landing.

One soldier palms away the sand to reveal another bit of metal, raising it up as dramatically as possible. The sand spills out and we see the facemask of the Mark I, as distinctive as ever. The soldier calls out to someone.

Cut to Raza, alive, but not so well. In truth, I can’t help but be a little underwhelmed by this reintroduction, largely because of overly dramatic turnaround matched with the choice in eyewear: Raza sports a pair of modified sunglasses/goggles that have lenses to the sides of the main ones. They are probably practical enough in the desert, but that doesn’t stop them from looking just a tiny bit ridiculous on his head, almost like he is a child wearing an adult sized pair of sunglasses. This takes away from the momentousness of the reveal, confirming that Raza survived his meeting with the Mark I, and remains a threat to Tony. He hasn’t come away unscathed though, sporting a very nasty looking scar/burn on the right side of his skull.

Raza calls the underling over and takes the mask, staring at with a grim-set expression on his face. I suppose the look of the helmet is supposed to be contrasted and compared to the makeup of Raza’s face, a certain similarity in design between the holes in the metal and the bizarre contraption on facing it. Just what is this warlord planning to do with the dilapidated and torn apart pieces of the Mark I?

We’ll have to wait and see, because a slide cut brings us back to Tony on his basement garage, with an accompanying change in music, now returned to a variation on the main Iron Man Theme. A nice panning shot, right to left, shows Tony, now wearing just a dark sweatshirt, working on what looks like some kind of oversized metal boot, with openings showing a plethora of wires and pistons. The pistons jiggle as Tony works with a soldering iron, assisted by one of the robotic arms from earlier, who is the unfortunate target for some of Tony’s frustrations.

TONY:
Next. Up. Not in the boot, Dummy. Right here. You got me? Stay put. You’re of no benefit at all. Move down to the toe. I got this. Okay, I’m sorry, am I in your way? Up. Screw it. Don’t even move. You…are a tragedy.

He’s quiet as he says these things do, giving out the criticism in a restrained way. His focus is almost entirely on the contraption in front of him, while screens offer a 3D rendering of in the background, that draws the eye away from the clutter on the table in front of Tony. Tony sits back and considers his work, opening up the back of the boot with a click.

Cut to a more low-tech camera angle, almost home video like, with battery life, “REC” status and a timestamp all evident. The slightly dodgy audio quality, pans and zooms indicate an inexperienced cameraman, so it should not come as any surprise to find out that it’s another of the robotic arms, fast becoming Laurel and Hardy-esque, behind it. Tony stands on a grid pattern, his feet ensconced in two of the metal boots he was working on earlier, his left hand holding some kind of controller, and everything hooked up to the light in his chest. He looks altogether over-encumbered and rather strange.

TONY:
Okay, let’s do this right. Start mark, half a metre, and back and centre. Dummy, look alive. You’re on standby for fire safety. You, roll it. Okay. Activate hand controls.

Tony’s tone is flat and even. Just another test, with only his two robotic arms for company, one there for “fire safety”. OK then. Tony tenses up and gets into a slightly hunched stance as we move forward, shifting his body a bit to get used to the weight.

TONY:
We’re gonna start off nice and easy. We’re gonna see if 10% thrust capacity achieves lift. And three, two, one.

It’s a strangely tense moment as Tony counts down, only for the boots to spark into life, throwing him backwards, catapulting, into the slanted ceiling behind him with gusto. What was tense becomes comedic fast, especially as “Dummy” immediately sprays an unseen Tony with flame retardant gas.

It’s a strange little scene really. At first glance, Tony’s been propelled backwards fast enough, and hit a hard enough service, that you might worry he’s killed himself, or at least suffered very bad injuries (what was protecting his head and face?). But the new kind of camera look, the interaction with the “Dummy”, the tenseness and the countdown all combined to make the result work better as comedy, releasing that danger suddenly and shockingly, with the “fire control” moment the icing on the cake. It’s more than a little slapstick, but it does work very well. We just have to forget that Tony should be going through the rest of Iron Man with a smashed face.

Next, Tony, looking none the worse for wear, works on the arm parts of his new contraption, barely taking his eyes off the computer models of these things over another panning shot. The sense is supposed to be that of a driven, determined individual, and that’s what we get. Then, more hologram fanciness, as Tony manoeuvres things into place with a light pen, before demonstrating rather wonderfully that he can actually put his arm inside the thing and move it around, giving us a taste of just what the Mark II is going to look like upon completion. It’s just sort of visual fanciness, but it fits Iron Man really well.

Later, with the music continuing to throb to a montage beat, Tony works with a physical model of his arm device, very similar to the boot in so far as its metal, holey and full of wires. It also has a very bright light in the palm. Tony is interrupted by the only thing that could have gotten his attention you feel, namely Pepper, arriving in the basement with coffee and a nondescript brown package. She sets them aside as she approaches Tony, who’s very engrossed in his work.

PEPPER:
I’ve been buzzing you. Did you hear the intercom?

TONY:
Yeah, everything’s… What?

Tony has enough of an attentions span to acknowledge Pepper’s existence, but anything else is unimportant. This isn’t like the scatterbrained nature of their very first conversation in the same place earlier in the film, this is different. Tony is more genuinely distracted, unrelentingly focused on the task in front of him.

PEPPER:
Obadiah’s upstairs.

TONY:
Great.

PEPPER:
What would you like me to tell him?

TONY:
Great. I’ll be right up.

Hmm. Just what Stane is doing upstairs – and why he isn’t allowed downstairs, apparently – is a bit intriguing. Tony, as before, seems unconcerned by Pepper’s concern at this state of affairs, lifting his metal arm off its stand with an effort. Pepper looks at the thing with apprehension.

PEPPER:
I thought you said you were done making weapons.

It’s interesting that that’s where she goes. Rather like Rhodes, she instantly assumes Tony’s new project is some kind of weapon.

TONY:
It isn’t. This is a flight stabiliser. It’s completely harmless.

Tony smashes a big yellow button on the table, a sound of power revving up is heard and then a boom. The arm flashes with a blazing line of light, a high pitched warning sound is emitted and Tony is thrown back amid noises of smashing, breaking a trail of smoke. Pepper covers her ears and cowers.

TONY:
(Offscreen)… I didn’t expect that.

It’s another comedy moment, and this one doesn’t work quite as well as the last, by virtue of simply being more of the same, even with the well timed delivery of Tony’s deadpan last line. Pepper is aghast at the destruction in front of her, and it’s a good one for setting the tone. We can well image her thought process. Just what the hell is Tony doing?

Tony emerges from his garage/basement, our eyes stuck on that magnificent water feature that dominates his living space. Stane sits the Bluthner piano, his jacket off, a glass of what I presume scotch at hand. Interestingly enough he’s playing a piece by Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer who is popularly believed to have been a great rival of Amadeus Mozart, thanks largely to the likes of the film Amadeus. So, going by that thought process, Stane is playing a piece by a man who thought himself superior, but was largely considered inferior to his great contemporary. The symbolism is not hard to see for Iron Man.

TONY:
How’d it go?

Obadiah just keeps playing, offering a brief neutral glance at Tony. Tony espies a pizza box on the table, just as Pepper, looking distracted as she types on a laptop, comes into frame. We might also note an interesting addition to the table accompaniments: a backgammon board. We might infer this as a connection to Yinsen and the game Tony played with him in Afghanistan, but deleted scenes might offer a different theory. I’ll get to that in time.

TONY:
Went that bad, huh?

STANE:
Just because I brought pizza back from New York doesn’t mean it went bad.

TONY:
Sure doesn’t. Oh, boy.

There is that strange childish sense to this entire interaction, with Obadiah softening the blow of bad news with New York pizza. Tony digs into the food, his tone indicating he doesn’t really care that much about the topic of conversation. Stane does however, stopping his recital in the middle of a bar.

STANE:
It’s would have gone better if you were there.

TONY:
You told me to lay low. That’s what I’ve been doing. I lay low, and you take care of all…

STANE:
Hey, come on. In public. The press. This was a board of directors meeting.

Obadiah approaches Tony here, drink in hand. He looks more haggard and tiered than we are used to with him at this moment, with creases in his shirt and an exasperated tone in his words. The mention of board of directors changes the mood of Tony instantly. We might wonder why Stane did not tell Stark of this meeting directly though.


TONY:
This…This was a board of directors meeting?

He’s genuinely stunned by this. Tony has repeatedly claimed that Stark Industries is “his” company, so might not like to be reminded that there are other players on that stage.

The camera discards the wide look and moves in closer for the most pertinent part of the conversation. Stane sighs as he prepares to deliver the truly bad news.

STANE:
The board is claiming you have post traumatic stress. They’re filing an injunction.

TONY:
A what?

Tony can’t believe what he is hearing, the concept is so alien to him. The chickens are coming home to roost for his big announcement it seems.

STANE:
They want to lock you out.

TONY:
Why, ’cause the stocks dipped 40 points? We knew that was gonna happen.

PEPPER:
Fifty-six and a half.

TONY:
It doesn’t matter.

Tony is agitated and annoyed by this news, not welcoming Pepper’s input, sweating suddenly, raising his voice. We haven’t actually seen him this out of sorts since Afghanistan. This is clearly a setback that was not expected.

TONY:
We own the controlling interest in the company.

STANE:
Tony, the board has rights, too. They’re making the case that you and your new direction isn’t in the company’s best interest.

Obadiah has his head down as he says this, his words coming out slow, again like a parent explaining something to a child. Tony doesn’t respond well.

TONY:
I’m being responsible! That’s a new direction… for me, for the company!

Stane has a shocked look of surprise on his face when this gets delivered, perhaps a bit sceptical of Tony’s words. He clearly doesn’t think Tony’s ideas are that responsible. Tony gets increasingly flustered, and suddenly turns to Pepper, struggling to explain himself properly.


TONY:
I mean, me on the company’s behalf, being responsible for the way that…(stands up, annoyed) This is great!

Pepper doesn’t give him the support Stark is apparently seeking, and he storms off. Things have turned rather abruptly against Tony, and a little sub-plot of his mental fitness (especially in Pepper’s eyes) is now progressing.

Stane stops Tony for one last verbal showdown, but Tony has already retreated, content to head back to his garage and go into isolation again.


STANE:
Tony. Listen. I’m trying to turn this thing around, but you gotta give me something. Something to pitch them. (Points at Tony’s chest piece) Let me have the engineers analyse that. You know, draw up some specs.

TONY:
No. No, absolutely not.

STANE:
It’ll give me a bone to throw the boys in New York!

TONY:
This one stays with me. That’s it, Obie. Forget it.

Tony is being remarkably narrow minded really. He’s asked Obadiah to sort out the mess he created with his “change of direction” but is refusing to actually help him out, even after suggesting that the new direction involve his breakthrough into Arc reactor technology. Stark has nothing to show on that score. We know why Stark is being so obtuse – he needs his reactor to power his secret designs – but at this moment in time, this act could be disastrous for his company. That’s all notwithstanding our suspicions of Stane’s true motivations.

Weirdly, the scene turns strangely comedic, in a moment that I imagine was probably ad-libbed between Downy Jr and Bridges:

STANE:
(Takes pizza box from Tony) All right, well, this stays with me, then. Go on, here, you can have a piece. Take two.

It’s a strange epilogue to what was a very tense moment between the two earlier. Tony heads back downstairs, and Obadiah can’t resist a parting shot:

STANE:
You mind if I come down there and see what you’re doing?

TONY:
Good night, Obie.

Has someone – namely Pepper, or maybe Rhodes – tipped Stane off as to what Tony is doing in his basement? Who knows? Tony is apparently spending a lot of time down there, so his absence from the real world is probably becoming notable.

We cut back to the garage, now with what looks like a curving upward entrance tunnel in frame, a bit closer to Tony’s wondrous collection of awesome looking vehicles. The camera around Tony, flanked by his robotic arm companions. He looks even more ready for business than ever – full sleeved shirt, dark colours, slight curl of hair falling down on his forehead and metal contraptions encasing his arms and feet – and it’s a feeling matched by the hard, intent character of his voice as he dictates to his non-living friends.

TONY:
Day 11, test 37, configuration 2.0. For lack of a better option, Dummy is still on fire safety. (To Dummy) lf you douse me again, and I’m not on fire, I’m donating you to a city college.

Still some time for a little levity, but after the last test and its unintended consequences, we can easily buy the serious way in which Stark talks.

TONY:
All right, nice and easy. Seriously, just gonna start off with 1% thrust capacity. And three, two, one.

Through the more normal camera eye of before and a dead ahead shot, we see Tony lift off the ground, more gently than last time, hovering in the air for a few moments. Our eyes are drawn to the bright lights emanating from his appendages, that give up a vapour or smoke that dissipates quickly. His movements in the air are jerky and awkward, but relatively stable, like a newborn calf trying to walk for the first time. He crashes back to earth, flinging up some sparks, but stays on his feet. Success! We’re seeing the progression of Tony in action.

TONY:  [To Dummy, following closely with the fire extinguisher] Please don’t follow me around with it, either, ’cause I feel like I’m gonna catch on fire spontaneously. Just stand down, if something happens, then come in.

The humour here is a bit better, less slapstick, a nice temporary relief in the face of the worry Tony might be about to hurt himself again, aided by the anthropomorphised robotic arms downward angle, indicating sadness.

A lovely wide shot follows, which might be the most expansive look at the garage yet, showing all of its clutter, technological sophistication and signs of wealth in one go, with Tony right at the centre of it all.

TONY:
And again, let’s bring it up to 2.5. Three, two, one.

The result is a bit different this time. Tony wobbles in the air, moves strangely, and then takes off from the launch pad, after a brief up close look at the boots in operation. The sharp twangs of tight violins and occasional electric guitar serve to try and make this scene tense in a way, a substitute for the relative lack of action in the second act (and we’ll be seeing the biggest example of that shortly), but it doesn’t quite work. In the end, Tony is only a few feet off the ground, and seeing him scorch his material belongings is still more comedic than anything

TONY:

Okay, this is where I don’t want to be! Not the car, not the car! Yikes!

The flashy vehicles get a bit damaged as Tony struggles to get any kind of control into his flight pattern, heading straight for a workstation where notes go flying. But here he does take a measure of control, and I think it is another important moment.

He flings his arms up to push himself backwards, already getting a better feel for how the suit is going to operate in practise, positioning himself back onto the launch platform. He looks a bit ridiculous in doing so, but it’s a still a defining instant, when he stops flailing around like a child and takes some power over his own machine and, thus, his larger plans.

Chuckling nervously, he finds himself back over the launch pad, and with some clever movements, settles into a gentle, stable rotation, the musical tenseness lessening into some light violin chords as an accompaniment. Tony is in command, in a way he hasn’t been since he returned to the United States. The ignition goes out and Tony falls again, just catching himself from collapsing backwards. He looks around, as if to check whether what happened was just a dream, seeing “Dummy” ready to open fire, its “head” looking up like a happy dog.

TONY:
No! Ah ah ah!

This time, it’s a comedic moment we can fully enjoy. The purpose of these things is obvious: it gives Downey Jr something to interact with other than JARVIS’ voice when he is constructing the Mark II, something real the audience can see and try to relate with. They only have a few more moments in the story, but they’ll actually be important.

The test, and this sequence, ends with some simple, stirring words from our hero:

TONY:
Yeah, I can fly.

He says them as both a boast and as a bare statement of fact. It’s a great line, summing up Tony Stark’s attitude towards what he just accomplished – look at me and how great I am. No belaboured wonder at the possibility of flight, just four words that could almost be interpreted as a challenge towards anybody – Stane, Pepper or Rhodes – who might try and stop him.

And with that, we are halfway there.

For The Film

We’re into what Blake Snyder would call the “Fun and Games” section of the film, where things become a bit more relaxed, especially in a visual sense, and where the production team has the leeway to have a bit more fun. Tony starts construction on the Mark II, giving the audience plenty of laughs along the way. More seriously, the conspiracy noose around Stark continues to tighten with greater audience suspicion falling on Stane as we move forward. By the end of this sequence, Stark has taken a greater step towards becoming a hero, with more control over both his designs and his larger plans.

Characterisation

Tony Stark

He’s trying to take more control of life, and move ahead with the promise he made to himself in Afghanistan, to become a better person. But it’s not easy. He finds obstacles on all sides, between the sketchy nature of his early designs and the reality of corporate politics. Tony is frustrated by having to face such an enemy, and is, so far, blind to the possibility that those closest to him might be at the heart of the conspiracy against him. But still, he’s coming together more, with greater confidence, panache and belief that his plan for the suits can actually turn into something worthwhile.

JARVIS

This section is the first indication that JARVIS is more than just a computer program, as he asks questions and even makes some approaches towards humour.

Raza

Still kicking, but with a serious reason to want some payback on Tony. He’s getting the Mark I back together, and that can’t be good.

Pepper Potts

She grows increasingly concerned about Stark and what he’s up to, worry being etched all over her face as she sees his constructions in the garage. Later, she tries to ignore Tony’s apparent lack of care for his company, only interjecting to point out how bad the stock drop is. It’s clear she isn’t completely onboard with the new direction Tony’s life has taken.

Obadiah Stane

On the surface, he’s trying to do things Tony’s way, but is frustrated by what that actual means in practice. Underneath it all, he’s still the Salieri to Tony’s Mozart, annoyed at playing second fiddle and, we can probably begin to infer at this point, working against him behind the scenes. He’s getting more and more curious about what Tony is working on as well, which won’t lead to anything good. He wants the miniaturised Arc reactor, and it won’t be long before he won’t take no for an answer.

Next time, Tony takes the Mark II out for a spin.

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

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Review: A Nightingale Falling

A Nightingale Falling

Trailer

Irish, indy, small budget, historical....what can go wrong?

Irish, indy, small budget, historical….what can go wrong?

I have to feel for a film like this. It’s Irish. It’s from a small production studio. It has a small budget.  It’s about the Irish Revolutionary Period, which has been one of academic focuses for a long time. It has so many things gnawing at my resolve before I even sit down in the theatre, my cinema going self desperately wanted this to be a film I’d like. After a fairly decent year for Irish cinema thus far, no matter what John Michael McDonough wants to claim, I had high hopes for this adaptation of a PJ Curtis novel, but was also aware of a small apprehension that it might not meet those expectations, made worse when I caught a glimpse of the production companies name: “Mixed Bag Media”. Now there’s a title that’s tempting fate, no?

Anxious matriarch May Collingwood (Tara Breathnach) and her wistful younger sister Tilly (Muireann Bird) live in rural Ireland, running their deceased parents failing estate at the height of the War of Independence. Amidst the continuing conflict, May discovers a badly wounded “Black and Tan” soldier on her land (Gerard McCarthy), whom she resolves to nurse back to health in secret, with unintended consequences for all concerned.

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.

Unfortunately, that small apprehension of mine turned out to be bang on the money. Coming from a place where I may have been more sympathetic in my assessment than I should have been, it should mean more when I outline how disappointing A Nightingale Falling is, for a variety of reasons. I was prepared to treat this production with kid gloves, but even that could not save it from a legitimate critical appraisal.

The actual plot is a very maudlin tale, which seems to be taking inspiration from a wide variety of places. Misery, Downton Abbey and Ryan’s Daughter all spring to mind immediately, for plot points and setting details. That setting just happens to be in the middle of the Irish War of Independence, but precious little of actual substance is done with that backdrop. There is some brief and vague skulduggery about a farmhand with hidden guns for the IRA and some simplified depictions of Crown Forces operating in the countryside running around and shooting people for the fun of it. An historical titbit: not every soldier in Ireland at the time was a “Black and Tan”, no matter what A Nightingale Falling’s rather basic opening crawl and following visuals would like to suggest. I similarly found myself guffawing at the idea that “every home in Ireland” was terrified of the Black and Tans. This is forgivable aggrandisement of the war I suppose, but still a bit unnecessary – the Irish War of Independence was fought almost entirely in Dublin and Munster.

But that’s all unimportant really, what’s important is the flaws that really affect your viewing enjoyment. The elongated and fairly predictable central plot trundles along at a snail’s pace: it would seem that this is a narrative that was probably much better on paper, adapted too faithfully for the visual medium. Every act is stuttered and overly lengthy. A good 20 minutes or so could have been cut out of this film, to make it more palatable, a flaw worst in the final act when a succession of possible ending points come and go, like The Return Of The King without the higher production values (as an aside, I wonder if this being an indy film might not be a detriment in that sense, with no experienced studio heads telling creators when to draw the line).

The pacing is all off, and any kind of excitement that the film tries to conjure as a result is severely dampened. The depressing aspect of all of this – it isn’t just enough that May kills the soldier, or that Tilly gets pregnant or has to leave, or that Tilly dies and leaves the son behind, or that Jackie is killed or that May can’t bring herself to raise the baby herself, May has to (it is heavily implied) kill herself as well – doesn’t help A Nightingale Falling either, since the pile on of misery just makes you want the entire experience to be over as soon as possible, like a trip to the dentist. If the other aspects of the film – acting, writing, pacing etc – were of a higher standard, it is something you could get over. But as it is, A Nightingale Falling just doesn’t know when to stop.

Maybe we should go into it a bit more in detail. The initial set-up is fine, just a bit too long. We understand fast that May and Tilly are strangers in their own land to an extent, that May is the one trying to make sure everything doesn’t fall apart and that the estate is in financial trouble. The discovery of Captain Sheering is the catalyst for everything that comes after. Every sequence and scene is a tad too long and drawn out – lots of unnecessary travelling and establishing shots are the main culprit – but so far, so good.

Things start getting creepy fast, that Misery feel I mentioned earlier easy to get sucked in to. May, with some sort of undefined doomed romance in her past, quickly latches on to the unconscious soldier as some sort of romantic  figure for herself, heedless of the fact that her hither-to withdrawn younger sister has the same idea (only with a better chance of making it work). Again, these sequences are not inherently bad, or even unengaging, they’re just too long. Every step in Sheering’s recovery has to be documented, we have to see him getting fed over and over, it’s all just dragged out so, so much. The Misery idea is a fine one, with the added kick of family squabbles, the execution could just do with a little bit tweaking (and editing).

The love triangle is inevitable, but not particularly engaging.

The love triangle is inevitable, but not particularly engaging.

A bit of engagement can be made with the journey of May, caught between emotional pulls over the wounded soldier, and susceptible to some pathetic delusions regarding the romantic possibilities between them. She is the driving force of the entire plot really, the character with the most agency, and her obsession with making something out of her connection with James, something that remains hidden for the entirety of the film, should be better presented if A Nightingale Falling is going to make the most out of its premise. I thought the May character was very well defined though, from her desperation over the state of the farm through her bitter sorrow at the way things turn out at the end. She seemed real, which is more than I can say for most of the other characters.

But it doesn’t change the predictability of the entire exercise though, and long before you’re thinking “love triangle”, it’s very obvious where things are going to go between the soldier and the younger, more restless, Collingwood sister, even if their whole relationship is barely formed onscreen. Tilly is the innocent, the shutaway who has become increasingly aware of both her attractiveness to the opposite sex – thank Jackie for that – and her own desire for love, sex and a life away from the humdrum existence she is currently trapped in. She’s still very naive and somewhat repressed about it though, and one of A Nightingale Falling’s best aspects is how it remains suitably unclear whether James is actually in love with her, or whether he was just after a brief sexual encounter and a chance to escape. Ultimately, Tilly is probably the most tragic figure in A Nightingale Falling, a girl who allowed her life to be destroyed by a succession of bad choices. However, she’s also one of the more under-written characters, and the performance of Bird was not great, her accent briefly changing during one scene, and her delivery generally underwhelming. It’s made look even worse next to Breathnack, who was easily the very best of the cast.

The characterisation for the two sisters is decent, but given the large amount of time spent on the two, this should not be, perhaps, too surprising. It is a good thing to see a film like this with a female focus (and leads) but one cannot help but wish for something a bit better than a turgid love story, which is almost Pearl Harbour-ish, just without the CGI or explosions. The character of James is the most poorly presented in the love triangle, with few lines, little visual direction to carry out and a somewhat surprising death at the end of the second act. We never really get to know him at all, or what kind of man he really is. Part of this is necessary, since the focus is primarily on the relationship between the two Collingwood sisters. But given the extreme length of the film relative to the amount of plot that it actually contained, I’m still surprised that James, so important as the catalyst for everything that happens in the film, is left so one dimensional.

A subplot about a father/son labourer family in the Collingwood’s employ passes by in similar fashion, with precious little actual impact. This was a shame, because I actually felt a bit more interested in them than the soldier, in a strange way. Tom, the father, is essentially the nicest character in the film, softly spoken, friendly and just pushing ahead despite all of the tragedy in his life. Jackie, the son, is less good, a brief dalliance with the local IRA seeming somewhat pointless in the larger sense of the film, with his brief interactions with Tilly more aimless teenage flirting and philosophising than anything else. The conclusion of these plots does tie in well with that of the Collingwood’s, showcasing the continued moral decay – necessary, but still a decay – of the May character, and defining a key difference between her and Tom, both similar in many ways, but reacting in a very different manner to their circumstances.

There’s also some time given to the Black and Tans, with one of their leaders getting to wax lyrical in one very odd scene around the midpoint, about how he’d like to own a house like the Collingwoods’ one day, a bizarre moment punctuated by a poor delivery. I don’t know if this was a hackneyed way of trying to make the “bad guys” look more human or just a section from the source material badly adapted. Either way, it was very strange. The Black and Tans were characterless goons in A Nightingale Falling, which is fine, since they are not the story, and the production team is clearly not interested in a more nuanced look at the War of Independence. But that being the case, you shouldn’t have scenes like the one with the Black and Tan officer at the Collingwood estate. Without additional exploration, depth or dialogue, then and in subsequent scenes, it’s pointless.

Back on the actual main plot, the love story between Tilly and James is terribly underdeveloped, just something that happens as she reads poetry to him and he stares at her from his bedside. A very awkward and underwhelming sex scene later, and they’re ready to get hitched and head to Argentina, much to May’s legitimate horror and disgust.

This leads to the main crux of the entire film, and presumably the source of the title. May decides to off James so that Tilly will have no reason to leave, since the spinster lifestyle on her own does not appeal. It isn’t very subtly done (or, at the very least, I twigged what had happened pretty much instantly) but is an interesting plot point to round out the second act. The problem of course, is that very last point.

Because A Nightingale Falling just keeps going and going after that, with a cavalcade of continuing tragedy and death, all stemming from May’s action. Everyone is left either miserable or in the grave by the end of A Nightingale Falling, and it takes a very long time, in a excruciating third act, for us to get there. A Nightingale Falling is never satisfied with itself until long past the point when  it should have stopped, obsessed with dragging May down even further, showcasing exactly how her intense jealously and obsession-filled love for her sister has doomed so many people around her in different ways. The point is made too much. Way too much.

The film fails to really do much of value with the chosen setting.

The film fails to really do much of value with the chosen setting.

I won’t rehash it to a great extent. The very last shot of the film – connected to a pointless in medias res beginning – implies that May is about to take her own life, unable to handle the crushing reality of her current life (along with an amusingly blind dismissal of the Irish Civil War’s existence). It’s the last crushing moment in a long line of crushing moments. To repeat, my problem is not that A Nightingale Falling’s ending is downbeat. My problem is in how that was portrayed, in how the plot point moments of it were executed and in how it was all just drawn out. And out and out and out.

A Nightingale Falling is dominated by female characters, which is a good thing, and in Breathnack they have an actress doing a very good job with her character. I have my issues with some aspects of the Tilly character, but I’m happy to see an Irish film set in this era have such a female focus, even if it falls all too easily into the bounds of maudlin romance. Tilly lacks a little agency, a problem May does not share, but overall I’m satisfied with the way that A Nightingale Falling approaches its female characters. Again, it’s just the details of the execution that are a problem.

Theme wise, A Nightingale Falling has plenty of depth in parts – it would want to, given the length – and some things worth discussing. For me, the clearest theme was one of dichotomy between fate (that is, pre-destination) and control of one’s own life, a contrast defined by the two Collingwood sisters. May seeks control in all things: over the estate and it’s failing fortunes, over her sister and her want away aspirations and over the wounded soldier she finds, ultimately stopping him from leaving when he wants to. When the grand designs she has planned go awry, she herself seems to struggle with a degree of mental instability. The failing farm is one thing, but the romance between Tilly and James is another, pushing May into an alcohol fuelled depression, lacking control over her life and the lives around here. Only briefly is this desire for control shown up as the malicious thing that it really is, until it takes its ultimate form when May murders James secretly. This is the ultimate act of attempted control, but fails: it only creates more chaos, and leads both sisters down an even darker road.

Fate is the other side of the coin, the idea that we are unable to have any real personal control over own lives, something that Tilly ascribes to in the end. She falls in love with James and plans to run away with him, trusting that the rashness of the decision will have no ill consequences. She does not think that she can have any kind of future with the Jackie character, as the universe has simply decided that it is not possible at that moment in time. Everything that happens, the fortune and misfortune, come from a place where she cannot alter decisions, and with her ignorance of May’s actions, she continues to believe this, perhaps right up to the moment when she see’s Jackie die, with May’s partial collusion.

The message of A Nightingale Falling on that score would seem to be that fate is a tricky thing, and perhaps false. There is action and reaction, with the latter often being unintended and hard to comprehend before it happens. May has the most agency and attempted control in A Nightingale Falling, but she cannot, any more than Tilly, keep a handle on the consequences of her actions.

I suppose that any film set during the Irish Revolutionary Period has to have a discussion on the nature of freedom. The conflict between the IRA and the Black and Tans (sigh) has little: even the local IRA commander doesn’t have any political rhetoric in his few scenes. Discussion of freedom comes, again, from the Collingwood sisters. Both of them want a different kind of freedom. May wants self sufficiency, peace and quiet, freedom from financial failure and self-doubt, from the wolves at the door. Tilly wants freedom in a realer sense: freedom from a dull, pointless spinsterhood. Usually a film like this would try and draw a contrast between these personal struggles and the political ones happening all around – see The Wind That Shakes The Barley as an example – but A Nightingale Falling doesn’t really go for that. People want freedom in A Nightingale Falling, but no one really gets it. May is trapped and alone, Tilly dies in the act of trying to gain some freedom, and James is murdered as a virtual prisoner.

Finally, I suppose that there is love. The sisters share a love for each other, with May perhaps being the more intense. She can’t imagine a life absent both her parents and Tilly, and strives to keep what she has left intact. This kind of negative, self-destructing love inevitably brings terrible consequences. Tilly loves her sister too, but is perhaps not worldly enough to realise that this connection is more important than any other, disregarding it easily enough when it comes right down to it. She has James, a lust-filled fiery passion, as well as the affections of Jackie to ponder over. This kind of intoxicating affection masquerades as love, but is mostly shallow when examined more closely. The relationship with James is probably doomed realistically, and Tilly decides to forgo any affection she has for Jackie. Both men wind up dead, with May involved intimately in both events, her own brand of extreme love blinding her to morality or less fatal choices.

So, to conclusions. I really wanted to like this film, but have been left distinctly underwhelmed due to certain deficiencies, most notably in pacing, the overuse of certain visual shots, the badly placed score and the paucity in acting talent in much of the cast. There are things you can excuse due to a low budget, and there are things that you cannot. This is a shame, and for this film in particular, I take no pleasure in saying so.

A Nightingale Falling strikes me as the kind of project that would have been better suited as a two part TV miniseries than a two hour film, with the big screen medium irreconcilable to the various traits of this movie. I can see something like this showing up on RTE on a Sunday evening, and I wonder if the production team considered or attempted this avenue. But in taking the riskier approach of the cinema, flaws have appeared that could have been remedied otherwise.

It seems to me that the production team were too much in love with the source material, their own camerawork and the score they had acquired when they should have been worried about other details: editing, the script, and a more satisfying conclusion. As it is, A Nightingale Falling is a frustrating film, where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

A let down.

A let down.

(All images are copyright of Mixed Bag Media).

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