Review: The Irishman

The Irishman

Trailer

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Quick, into the Lazarus pit!

For reasons that go beyond his thoughts on the latest breed of Hollywood blockbuster, I cannot say, truthfully, that I hold Martin Scorsese in the same esteem as so many others do. Oh, he’s a good director, with a filmography that is most impressive, Goodfellas is a film I will praise to the heavens, and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull speak for themselves. But what has Scorsese done lately? Leaving aside his penchant for documentary film-making you have the self-indulgent Gangs Of New York, the overly-praised The Departed, the weird-for-the-sake-of-it Shutter Island, the tone-deaf The Wolf Of Wall Street and the miserable slog of Silence. The Aviator and Hugo buck the trend a little, but while all of them are interesting in their own right, and they all have redeeming features, are any of them truly on the same level as Goodfellas or Taxi Driver?

But The Irishman was a project that intrigued me the moment I heard about it, and not just because of the obvious potential of the source material or the obviously eye-catching cast. A director of the status and temperament of Scorsese working with Netflix? How would the old master try and adapt to the world of streaming, with its emphasis on smaller screens and shorter bite-sized chunks of entertainment? The answer appears to be “He won’t”, as Scorsese continues to encourage viewers to watch The Irishman in theatres and in one sitting, when he isn’t slating entire sub-genres of film. So this was the kind of mix that might make movie heaven or a total disaster. Which side did The Irishman come out on?

Facing the end of his life in a nursing home, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) relates the story of his time as a mafia hitman: his friendship with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci); his role in numerous crimes and murders across multiple decades; and his ties to powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As Sheeran prepares for the end, he must contemplate what it was all for, and whether it was worth it or not.

It certainly isn’t heavenly, but neither is it a disaster. Instead, it’s somewhere in the middle, but the question must be asked is that really that much better of a position to be in? For someone like Scorsese, I think not. I regret to report that The Irishman exhibits some of Scorsese’s worse impulses as a film-maker, and is actively harmed by Netflix’s apparent hands-off approach when it comes to creative control: The Irishman is a film that is very much out of control, in many different ways.

It’s a meandering thing for sure, a 209 minute journey through Frank Sheeran’s life, and through so many other lives as well. Scorsese, with his reputation and with Netflix’s approval, is very much off the chain here, and the result is a bloated ungainly production, that takes in so many events and characters that it quickly collapses under the weight of its own narrative. It is simply put that The Irishman is far, far longer than it has to be, or had any need to be.

The film needs an editor with a bit more balls and a director with a bit more restraint. It feels like every scene, every exchange of dialogue, every large sequence is one that should have been cut down, filled as they are with all manner of unnecessary back-and-forths between principals (nearly every conversation has to include some manner of pointless small-talk or awkward talking over one another) or distractions from the main point (like freeze frame cue cards outlining random mobsters bloody fates, to no particular point save a half-decent gag an hour and a half in). In scene after scene, Scorsese indulges some of his worst instincts, and comes out with a picture that has scenes that I am convinced would be decried as laughable if another name was on the marquee, where nameless characters pontificate about people whose names you don’t recognise and couldn’t possible care about.

The narrative structure, in line with the bloat, is also needless complicated by the decision to jump around in the timeline. The Irishman opens with Sheeran in a nursing home, then going on a cross-country trip decades before, then goes back to him as a younger man, and is happy to flip between these perspectives at critical moments. The effect is not, I presume, what Scorsese intended, because all it did was take me out of the main action – that set in the late 50’s to the mid-70’s – with every recourse to everything else. One brief scene where we see Sheeran executing German prisoners in World War Two is a prime example of an unnecessary cut from the central story, that seems to serve only to increase running time, and adds very little that the accompanying flash-forward isn’t already doing. The film is a flashback in a flashback in a flashback, and that’s just not good.

Don’t worry about not being in tune with what year Scorsese is setting certain scenes in: he’ll be sure to let you know with a succession of remarkably clumsy historical way-markers, usually in the form of background news broadcasts about JFK’s election, the Bay of Pigs invasion, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, in scenes that look like something a college student would have come up. Elsewhere The Irishman comes off as just a series of mafia-related anecdotes that Scorsese just wants the opportunity to film and put into a movie, even if, as stated, they really don’t serve the movie.

All of this would be much more passable if The Irishman was the acting masterclass that it could certainly be, but, whisper it, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci just aren’t that good here. Much like my reaction to Joker, it seems to me that the way to get kudos for the acting craft from so many critics today is to adopt an accent or a certain manner of speaking and just stick with it to the bitter end, and that’s all that I can see here. That, and a certain whiff of nostalgia-bait in the efforts to get the central three back on-screen with each other.

De Niro shuffles awkwardly through the role of Sheeran, speaking mostly in clipped, almost stuttering, sentences, so reserved emotionally that it is difficult to get any kind of a read on Sheeran. Pacino has a bit more too him as Hoffa, but ultimately goes too far in the other direction, playing the union man like he is suffering from some kind of OCD-related mania the entire time. And Pesci, while being the best of the three, is very much an actor at the conclusion of his career, and no longer capable of the same kind of performances he would have been capable of two decades ago (and De Niro appears to be not far behind him, having failed to do anything with his career of any real note in decades). All of them are a bit too, shall we say, “projecting”, a bit too much with their resorts to loud voices in place of nuance. The trio appear more to be imitating than acting.

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It must certainly looks good, that’s for damn sure.

The supporting cast is so numerous that its hard to take them all in. The standouts are Ray Romano as a mafia/union lawyer, Bobby Cannavale as a mafia heavy, Stephen Graham as a rival to Hoffa, Harvey Keitel as another mafia kingpin and Jack Huston as Robert Kennedy. But the truth is that they all come and go so quickly, alongside dozens of others, that it is genuinely difficult for anyone to make a lasting impression. Even De Niro has that problem.

Despite being the Irishman of the title, there are huge parts of the film where Sheeran is not the main character, and really isn’t anyone of consequence of all, just sort of there in several scenes. Once Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is introduced, De Niro takes an obvious back seat for something close to an hour, which is not what The Irishman really needs, seeing as how the friendship between the two should be the beating heart of affairs. Instead, owing to the limitations of either actor’s performance when on-screen together and Scorsese’s failure to imbue a predictable tale with tension, it seems more like a false friendship, an inorganic thing.

Scorsese has never been a woman’s director, and boy does that show with The Irishman. The only significant female role is given to Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s emotionally stunted and eventually estranged daughter Peggy, but she’s utterly wasted in a role where the character is treated more like a mute (she has seven words of dialogue). At times, it seems like the director is going to make more of the Peggy character than he does, seeing as how people Hoffa or Russel spend so much time with her, often in a strangely leering, perverse kind of way. But she never really gets to be anything other than a silent judge of Sheeran’s actions. The only other women, mostly nameless wives there to fill out a few scenes, are further evidence that the director doesn’t value the experience and perspective of an entire gender.

It certainly isn’t all bad. One sequence that really stood out for me as an example of the great work that Scorsese can do was one at around the 130 minutes mark, with the setting of a Teamster union award ceremony for Frank. It’s an extended scene lasting around 15-20 minutes, where the facade of a glamorous night of celebration hides a multitude of murky goings on, as Sheeran, Bufalino and Hoffa verbally spar back-and-forth over Hoffa’s actions, knowledge of mafia criminal activity and future intentions, before making sure to go back out on the dance floor and put on the mask again. You could have made a whole film out of this setting, a 90-minute dialogue heavy piece of intrigue and underhanded dealings, to explore how the mafia came to the final decision that Hoffa could not be allowed to continue breathing. It would have been more interesting than the larger production that the sequence is just a small part of.

But where The Irishman most definitely gets things right is in its reaction to the act of killing. Its final sections consist of Sheeran contemplating the end of his existence and what his lifetime of death has resulted in: a large portion of his life in prison, failing health and deteriorating or non-existent relationships with what family he has left. The ultimate framing device is of an elderly Sheeran wasting away in a nursing home, attended to by nurses who don’t even know who Jimmy Hoffa was. In depicting Sheeran’s final days in such a manner, full of loneliness and failing efforts to come to terms with his sins – Sheeran struggles to demonstrate true remorse, in awkward scenes with an earnest priest – Scorsese appears to be rejecting the narrative that his films glorify violence and killing.

One can’t help but think of Scorsese’s many imitators, Todd Phillips most recently, and how they have aped his visual style while portraying murder as an empowering act. If The Irishman does nothing else, it showcases a late-in-life viewpoint of such things, and that view is predominantly negative. And yet, even this calls attention to flaws in the film: we spend literal hours with Frank as a mob hitman, but never adequately explore how he became so amoral in the first place, bar that brief-to-the-point-of pointlessness glance at his experience in World War Two. Perhaps The Irishman may have been better if it had devoted some time in the 70’s for Frank’s introspection.

It’s Scorsese, with the very accomplished Rodrigo Prieto beside him, so The Irishman of course looks great, even if the normal method for viewing the film will probably make the director tear his hair out. We open with an entrancing tracking shot through a nursing home until we come to focus on an elderly Sheeran, before Scorsese goes to his tried and true methods of showcasing the criminal underworld, all gritty streets, masculine presence and sheltered conversations. The production details are superb, and you are never in doubt as to what period you have been landed in scene-to-scene (an assassination scene around the mid-point especially is awash with so many small details, its clear its been assembled in minute fashion).

The oft-debated CGI effects used to “de-age” De Niro and others have their positives and negatives. It’s noticeable at first, especially those alarming bright blue eyes, but the length of the film means that your brain has plenty of time to acclimatise to the sight of a young De Niro. Once you do, you can appreciate what the tech can do. It’s in other things that it falls apart, most notably when wider shots encompassing most of Sheeran’s body mean that a 76-year-old De Niro is shuffling along in a 30 something body. A scene revolving around Sheeran assaulting a shop-owner is particularly notable for this, with De Niro’s body movements very obviously those of an more infirm old man.

I couldn’t help but be disappointed by The Irishman. Scorsese is, with this, merely continuing what I can only see as a run of unexceptional form, and betraying some of his own insecurities with recent ill-advised comments. The film is far too long, its running time evidence less of epic scope and more of an unrestrained ego. The central three simply aren’t up to the task of carrying the amount of material that they have to carry, and the digital efforts to help them are hit and miss. The film’s treatment of female characters and actors is fairly shameful. And while there are some moments and sequences, especially in the latter half, that show what could have been, too much is lost in the larger morass of a production that, to reiterate, seems to have been out of control. Scorsese’s apogee was a while ago, and The Irishman does little to change that opinion in me. Not recommended.

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No Irish 0/10

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Ballinspittal Ambush

In this series, as we continue to follow the path of the Irish revolutionary period, I know that the incidents of note that I “cover” may seem so small-scale that, at times, you may well think that they are barely worth being noticed at all, especially in the larger context of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and, later, the Civil War. But I do still find myself drawn to some of the very little known attacks and ambushes, perhaps because I have an innate desire to ferret out information about the lesser-know things, or maybe because there is some unique slice of information about them that draws the eye. Today’s entry is one of those.

We have already discussed, at great length in some ways, the nature of the IRA’s war against the RIC. In significantly large parts of Ireland, to be an active member of the Royal Irish Constabulary was to have a target painted on your back, though this was not a universal state of affairs. There were areas, the jurisdiction of certain units of the IRA, where if a member of the RIC was not too circumspect in pursuit of certain parts of his job, if he did not try to interfere with the local IRA or the republican counter-government, if he “kept his head down” so to speak, then he was not subject to the same harassment or threats, hypothetical or actual, of violence that others were. And, of course, there were plenty of men in the RIC who aided the IRA in more practical ways.

But there were also parts of the country where every member of the RIC, good, bad or indifferent, were in the same boat, being the enemies of the IRA, and the easiest targets in the growing conflict. The area of Cork under the purview of the 3rd Brigade could probably be said to be one of the worst of these. At some point in the war, the decision was made that all RIC men in the brigade area were fair game, and should be the subject of attack and ambush whenever possible. This was a period of the war where the RIC had essentially reached their lowest point, and the decision to push them even harder was good strategy, as well as a response to whatever attempts the RIC had made to fight back in those early months (more on that later).

One of the RIC men situated in Southern Cork was a Sergeant Cornelius Crean. Originally from Kerry, he had served in the RIC for nearly thirty years by 1920. In 1916, he had even been briefly held up by mobilised units of the Irish Volunteers, though nothing came of the act. Crean rose to become one of the main intelligence men of his area, and was a respected figure, even by members of the IRA, one of whom described him as “diplomatic”, a term that was about as good as any RIC could expect as a descriptor from the enemy. Yet, that same diplomacy was also something that doomed Crean in time, as he was known as a man whose penchant for friendly chats with whomever he met could hide ulterior motives: wanting to know how a certain young man was getting on could soon turn into an innocent sounding query about where the same young man was the previous night. One local researcher has since described Crean as “a man of great brain and resource”, the kind of figure that the RIC desperately needed, and that the IRA did not want active in the community.

As such, and regardless of whether Crean was liked, respected, or dismissed by the IRA, he was designated as a target, especially after the local RIC played their part in the increase of raids and arrests that characterised the British response to the IRA in early 1920. Crean’s recent stationing in the local area, and his pro-active work there, often meant that he went on patrols of the route between Bandon and Kinsale, and it was on one of these patrols, on the 25th April, that an ambush was sprung,

Many of the details of this ambush are uncertain, such as just how many took park, and just who was in charge: some say that it was Charlie Hurley, at the time the vice commandant of the Bandon Battalion, and soon to be involved in events of much greater notoriety. Others say it Jim O’Hurley, a man in a similar position. Some sources say that Crean and the others who accompanied him were on foot, while other accounts say that they were riding bicycles (probably more likely, given the nature of police patrolling at the time). Either way, the IRA officers and the men they had assembled from the local unit, aware of the routes that Crean and others would take on their patrols, assembled at the designated ambush point, a road just outside the small village of Ballinspittal.

Crean, Cavan born Constable Patrick McGoldrick and another Constable named Power, had just come from the Innishannon RIC barracks and had passed through the small village of Upton, when they came upon the ambush site. McGoldrick, according to Power, stopped to light his pipe, and then the IRA struck. Firing appears to have commenced almost immediately, with no suggestion that any effort was made to neutralise the RIC bloodlessly. McGoldrick was killed almost instantly by a shotgun blast that mangled his head; Crean and Power ran towards a nearby bend of the road, seeking cover, under fire the whole time. Crean turned to try and return fire, and was hit by multiple rounds in the chest. Power fled, surviving to relate an account of what had occurred. A local priest who went to the area where the firing had been reported claimed that he found Crean alive, his back to a wall, facing the direction of where the fire had come from, but he died shortly after. The IRA took no casualties.

Some may recognise Crean’s name, and make the connection with a somewhat more famous figure. Cornelius was the older brother of Tom, the renowned sailor and explorer, who has been involved in numerous expeditions into hazardous areas, most notably with Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance. Tom Crean had actually only just returned to Ireland after being invalided out of the British Navy for issues with his eyesight: he was unable to properly mourn his brother, owing to the IRA’s influence over the area, and Cornelius’ status, earned or not, as an enemy agent. The younger Crean was already a limited figure in his home land for much the same reasons, his heroics with the British Navy things he could not be celebrated for (ironically, his home would be raided by the British later in the war, who allegedly left the Crean’s in peace when they found a photograph of Crean in Navy uniform).

The death of Sergeant Crean thus serves as an example of how the War of Independence had become an increasingly complicated and bloody struggle. Only a year previously this kind of ambush may not have resulted in any casualties, now death was a foregone conclusion. Excepting the escape of Power, the ambush was carried out in a ruthless fashion, by an organisation that had become more and more adept at such small-scale attacks. Just how much of an effect Crean and McGoldrick’s deaths had on the course of the war in that area cannot be known, but the RIC’s influence undoubtedly continued to retract. They could ill-afford the loss of talented men.

In the next entry we will discuss another ambush, this time in County Limerick, but on this occasion the consequences were a bit more severe. Having already made a bit of a brutal reputation since their first arrival, now the Black and Tans would make their presence felt.

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

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Review: Frozen 2

Frozen 2

Trailer

FROZEN 2

Do you want to make a sequel?

Given how often I’ve heard “Let It Go” since it first got belted out by Idina Menzel, it really doesn’t seem like it has been six years since Frozen came out of nowhere to stake a claim at the top table of Disney – and general – animation. Frozen was a genuine masterpiece of that genre of cinema, and I don’t use the term lightly: on the fronts of animation, character, narrative, villain and, of course, music, it was the best thing Disney had come out with since the halcyon days of the mid 90’s. It hit effectively on such varied themes as coming out, pick-up artist manipulation, rushing into things and sibling bonds, and it did it all well.

A sequel was inevitable. You don’t make a film this successfull, that reverberates as much with the popular consciousness as it did, without lining up some manner of continuation, and direct-to-video isn’t going to cut it this time (sorry Return of Jafar and Simba’s Pride fans). It is only natural to fear for some manner of easy cash-in, but if that was to be the case, surely it would have comes a few years before now? The question was whether there was anything else to say in the Frozen world, or at least worth saying: myself and so many others were betting – and hoping – that there was.

A few years on from the events of Frozen, Queen Elsa (Menzel), Anna (Kristen Bell), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gadd) and Sven the Reindeer are living a happy life in Arendelle, with Kristoff on the verge of proposing to Anna. When Arendelle comes under threat from elemental powers, the five must venture north to a mysterious forest, following a ghostly tune that only an ever more restless Elsa can hear.

I mentioned above the key themes that Frozen hit on, and I want to emphasise that the film made good use of its time to explore those themes without one dominating or without the experience being diluted by multiple focuses. Frozen 2, while trying its very hardest, is not a film that can the same. Unfortunately, it seems very much to be a case that nothing was planned for a Frozen sequel, and in their efforts to create one, the Disney team decided that having eight or more good ideas meant they should try and put them all in.

Frozen 2 is a film that doesn’t really know what it is about, or what it clearly wants to impart. Scene to scene, conversation to conversation, even line to line at moments, the film changes tack to focus on a new theme, a new plot point, a new character. Very little gets the time to breathe in Frozen 2, not like things were allowed to develop in 2013. It’s hard to offer an assessment of the film from a narrative standpoint as a result, but I will zero in on three aspects of note.

The first, with Elsa, would appear to be a natural continuation of her character arc in Frozen. That was about learning to accept who you are and be proud of it, and to cast off the pressures of societal expectation, with fairly obvious LGBTQ allusions. Here, Elsa is “out” and better for it, but must now find a sure footing in a whole new world, a niche where she can be comfortable with herself after the legwork has been done to reach the plateau. In line with the slightly more grown-up audience, the film is about the perils of growing up. The quest for this, manifesting in the form of a ghostly call from the north and a journey into a succession of magical environments, is well put together for the most part, right up until it has to intertwine with the main plot, and then things start to seem a little clumsier than you might be used to with this franchise.

That takes us onto the second plot point of major significance, which is an effort to resolve the problems of the past that continue to echo into the present. Essentially, the Arendelle royal family have some skeletons, and the sins of the grandfather, father and mother, are now being visited upon the children. Elsa and Anna have to redeem some of their family’s past failures that have upset the magical balance and here the director/writing team are able to play around with nods to bias, fake news and exploitation of native groups.

While ostensibly being based on a Danish book, Frozen takes many of its cues, visual and musical, from Norway, and specifically Sami or Lapland culture. Frozen 2 continues this and makes the connection more explicit, with the forest denizens being a fairly obvious stand-in for the Sami, from their clothes to their rendition of “Vuelie”. As we get into the nitty-gritty of how the “Northuldra” have been manipulated and exploited by the urban power centre down the way, you begin to realise that we are seeing an allegory for the concept of “Norwegianisation”, the Oslo government’s efforts to enact a common culture across all of its territory, which included laws that aimed to strip the Sami of their own lands, language and culture, that only formally came to an end in the 1980’s. Frozen 2 ties all three of these ideas in to each other pretty well – Elsa needing to discover some important things about herself, which are connected to the mis-remembered actions of her ancestors, which were a negative for the Northuldra people – and if the film had stuck to that trinity of themes, it might have been able to scale the heights of 2013.

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If nothing else, the film looks fantastic, with a sequence involving a water-based horse spirit being a special highlight.

But it doesn’t. Among the other things that get heaps of time in Frozen 2 are Anna’s distress that her sister may be becoming too reckless with her powers; Anna’s own lack of agency, and obvious need to be more than just someone else’s support; a general commentary on what to do when your own support structure vanishes; Kristoff’s bumbling attempts to propose to Anna, which then become a deeper introspection into whether the two do belong together long term (some real clumsy “crazy girlfriend” dialogue here); a general theme of nature vs technology, symbolised  by a Arendelle-made dam that is later revealed to be at the heart of environmental problems in the mysterious forest; a thirty year long conflict between the Northuldra and a remnant of Arendelle’s military that was trapped in the forest; a mystery to be solved around the identity of a figure that rescued Elsa and Anna’s father when he was a young man; a commentary on the nature of morality in the face of hopelessness; and a very strange turn from Olaf, who attempts to have something akin to a comical existential crisis throughout the film, as he ponders on the warped perceptions the young have about the nature of maturity, and on the general impermanence of things (he’s a step away from declaring that “Nothing beside remains”).

I hope I am not out of line to note that Frozen 2 has an expanded writing team, and I fear that Disney executives had a bigger say in its production than they may have had in 2013. It just seems like too much has been shoved in here, as if nobody could make up their minds and, worried about missing the mark, chucked everything at the wall. Frozen 2 seems overloaded as a result. Even with Menzel, Bell, Groff and Gadd giving it socks in terms of VA, even they seem laden down with the amount of material they have to get across. That’s especially regrettable in the case of Gadd, who would have been better off without the ennui: a scene where he sums up the plot of Frozen in around 30 seconds, to a fully engaged audience, is probably the film’s funniest.

One of the things that made way for all of the above is an antagonist. This isn’t so much a criticism, because films of this type don’t necessarily need villains, but more of an observation: perhaps if Frozen 2 had an antagonist in the mold of Hans, it could have been a bit more focused plot-wise, which may well have been to its betterment. Frozen 2 struggles a bit with its pacing and how to wrap up its final act, with some character death fake-outs that fail to land in a big way. As it is, the main antagonist force is mostly the darkness of the far past, which you can’t give a kick-ass villain song to (aside: “Love Is An Open Door” was the best Disney villain song since “Hellfire”).

But Frozen 2 is not some shallow exercise in hoovering up money from the movie-going world, something that can be seen from the other key aspects of its production, namely the visuals and the music. The technology may not have moved on much in six years, but the world of Arendelle and beyond still looks great, awash as it is with those Scandinavian inspired landscapes and translated fairy-tale elements.

The first film was awash with ice, but the second wants to take in new environments: crisply presented forests of brown and gold, black waters of immense size and depth, and dark caverns where the long night of the soul can be undertaken as well as it can be for certain characters. The individual details and touches are what make the film stand-out: the stone-giants, the ice sculptures created from water’s memory, an ocean-living horse spirit and a mindmeltingly fractal glimpse into the secrets of the past are all good examples. The human (and snowman) characters continue to look as well as CGI can make them look, avoiding the uncanny valley deftly.

And then the songs. It would be hard to match up to Frozen’s motley collection of top tier musical choices, and Frozen 2 doesn’t manage it. But that doesn’t mean that it is a soundtrack that is not something worth praising, being more than good enough to match up to most of Disney animation’s back catalogue. We open with a haunting fairy-tale lullaby dubbed “All Is Known” that will become a recurring plot-point, before going straight into the jauntier heres-what-everyone-has-been-up-to-since-the-first-one tune “Some Things Never Change”. Frozen’s 2 big number is the soaring “Into The Unknown”, where Menzel does as much as she can to match “Let It Go”, aiden by a four beat addition from AURORA, and while it isn’t as memorable as “Let It Go”, it still has a power all of its own.

“Lost In The Woods”, an 80’s style power ballad where Kristoff wonders if his relationship with Anna has a future, complete with 80’s style music video touches, is a nice diversion, while “Show Yourself” and “The Next Right Thing” help to emphasise the key plot points for Elsa and Anna’s arcs respectively, without being truly memorable. Finally, Panic! At The Disco contribute a very catchy version of “Into The Unknown” for the credits, that is arguably a bit better than Menzel’s. They’re all catchy in their own way, and a credit to the returning song-writing team.

Despite the strength of its songs, its cast and its visuals, it’s difficult for me to classify Frozen 2 as anything other than a disappointment. It wants to do too much in too little time, and the end result is a dilution that leaves this follow-up feeling regrettably rushed and ironically bland in its desire to be so many different things at once. A third is probably inevitable, and perhaps lessons will be learned, with a recourse to a few basic themes, the re-introduction of an antagonist character and a maintaining of the high production standards that the franchise has otherwise continued to exhibit. If they do that, then Frozen may have a sequel worth the praise that the original quite rightly acquired. Frozen 2 isn’t that film, though it comes with plenty of redeeming elements. Partly recommended.

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Next time bring a coat.

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

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Review: Dolemite Is My Name, Let It Snow, Klaus, Fast Color

Dolemite Is My Name

Trailer

dimn1

F**king up motherf**kers

Los Angeles in the 1970’s: Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) works in a record store, struggling to turn his night-time stand-up comedy routines into tangible success. After an encounter with a homeless man and his strange rhyming rants, Moore is inspired to invent the character of “Dolemite”, a foul-mouthed blaxploitation icon, and he and his creation soon take off on a journey across multiple media.

It has been a while, a very long while, since I saw Eddie Murphy in anything that I could say that I had enjoyed. Dreamgirls is a full thirteen years ago, and his filmography between now and then is a cavalcade of terrible comedy, animated cash-ins and terrible attempts at dramatic legitimisation. So I was delighted to discover Dolemite Is My Name, despite the dangers of it being a car-crash standing ovation biopic dumped on Netflix, is easily Murphy’s best film in well over a decade, presumably aided by the streamer’s hands off approach when it comes to creative control, the more than helping hands of director Craig Brewer and the recent Black Panther-inspired rush of films designed for African-Americans.

I think what it comes down to is simply that Murphy, long established as a master of vulgar comedy, really cares about the material. It’s obvious that he has a great deal of reverence for Rudy Ray Moore, a man popularly considered one of the godfathers of African-American comedy, blaxploitation and the rap genre of music. His brand of comedy is the sort of thing Murphy used to excel in, and now he has a tremendous chance to fall back into that line. Murphy’s Moore goes through the standard beats of a rag to riches story, but it is in the finer details of Dolemite Is My Name that the film really sparks to life.

It works as a character study of Moore, an insecure dreamer (in one telling scene he rants at a picture of his father, a “fucking farmer”) who accidentally stumbles into a character ripe to entrance the African-American zeitgeist in the 1970’s, with Murphy playing him as bold, brash and just about impossible to resist; it works as a showcase for a veritable queue of fantastic African-American talents, most notably Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Keyand Wesley Snipes (remember him?); it works as as an ode to the joys of making movies, with the film’s best segment being its recreation of the production of 1975’s Dolemite, a slapstick artistic process that produced a cult favourite; and it works as a comedy in itself,  with Murphy having the time of his life playing this foul mouthed, pimp cane brandishing outrage, who seems to be equal parts fantastical and the kind of person that Moore himself really wants to be. Ultimately, the film posits that as low-brow and dismissable as Dolemite is, he was an inspiration and a joy to a huge amount of people, who saw in him, much like some modeler audiences may see in Black Panther, their image reflected back at them on the big screen.

Of course, there are elements of Dolemite Is My Name that I am not really in a position to appreciate, give that I am an Irish white male a million metaphorical miles removed from the sort of background that Moore had, or the sort of audience that he aimed to engage with (the film itself notes this, as Moore criticises the Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon’s The Front Page as having “no titties, no funny and no kung-fu” . But I still found Dolemite Is My Name to be something that I could connect to, a film with heart, humour and characters that I could get behind. As a glimpse into the oft-ridiculous world of blaxploitation and how it was made, it a real treat, and it is truly wonderful to see Murphy actually making good once again. I don’t know how many more of these that he has left in him, but here’s hoping that Dolemite Is My Name is the beginning of a trend. Recommended.

Let It Snow

Trailer

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Nowhere to go.

 

In the small town of Laurel, Illinois, various people and couples are drawn to a party at a diner: aspiring medical student Julia (Isabela Merced) and stranded pop star Stuart (Shameik Moore); Tobin (Mitchell Hope) and his best friend/crush ‘the Duke’ (Kiernan Shipka); diner waitress Dorrie (Liv Hewson) and recent hook-up Kerry (Anna Akana); and paranoid Addie (Odeya Rush), trying to find out if her boyfriend is cheating on her.

Adapted from a compilation novel from Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle, Let It Snow is Netflix’s first shot in a veritable invasion of Yuletide-themed films slated for release between now and the 25th of December, that will run the gauntlet between mumblecore fare like this, animation (see below) and stuff that can be best described as Hallmark card adaptations. This at least has source material from a variety of well-respected authors – chief among them Green of course, whose every written word appears to be either adapted or in pre-production nowadays – and that’s needed, because it can be a bit hard to keep your attention on Let It Snow, a film that really feels like it needed to be episodic (rather like the recent Hulu adaptation of Green’s Looking For Alaska).

Any of the central four plots – and there are a few more minor ones I could throw in, but who has the time for Jacob Batalon’s throwaway role – could be an episode of a mini-series, which may have allowed for them to be fleshed out a bit more. As they are, they are a mostly superficial experience, stories that are overly-sentimental and not really engaging. The linking device of Joan Cusack being a tinfoil-hat wearing crazy person seems an odd choice in retrospect, a framing that wasn’t really required, and seems real forced in the “make every character a little bit kooky” kind of way.

Looking at the stories in turn, and you’ll find a consistent heart-warming nature, but little else besides. Julia and Stuart are both insecure and limited in their own ways, but through their chance encounter discover that they can be more than their stresses and negativity; Tobin needs to get over his own faults and tendency towards jealously so he can finally tell the girl he is so obviously mooning over that he loves her; Dorrie and Kerry need to come to terms with their respectively varied attitudes towards their own sexuality; and Addie needs, to risk a patronising term, to learn how to chill out a little bit.

Let It Snow manages to avoid 90 minutes of whinging teenagers through some good script-work – Tobin and the Duke’s story especially is full of some decent humour involving stolen beer and slow-speed car chases – but can’t really get beyond the sense that we are watching little more than a feature-length episode of a low-stakes soap opera. There’s too many characters and sub-plots to cover, so the film feels endlessly mobile, never willing to let the audience settle on one relationship foible or emotional trauma for too long.

Director Luke Snellin, mostly known for British TV, manages some competent cinematography and visual story-telling, in a film that loves blanketing the viewers vision in the titular white stuff, but also features some well-designed interiors, most notably the increasingly packed out diner that every character ends up spending some portion of the story in. Let It Snow can only really be considered passable, an inoffensive Christmas treat that goes down easy and leaves little in the way of an impression. Partly recommended.

Klaus

Trailer

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How is his head being supported?

Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), the shiftless heir to a postage service empire, is given an ultimatum by his father: to travel to the Arctic Circle town of Smeerensburg and post 6’000 letters within a year, or be disowned. Finding the rundown town riven by family feuds, Jesper despairs, until a chance encounter with an old toy-maker named Klaus (J.K. Simmons) gives him the idea of inventing a magical figure who gifts toys to children.

Klaus has been a longtime in the making, the brainchild of animator Sergio Pablos, also directing, who set out to design a film that was inspired by the traditional animation styles that used to be dominant, but have since been dropped in favour of computer-based imagery (Pablos, creator of the Despicable Me franchise, has feet in both camps). Klaus has been shopped around for a while now, and finally saw the light of day thanks to Netflix. The effort from Pablos and Netflix is well worth it: Klaus is a fun, and visually pleasing, yuletide delight.

The plot is essentially an effort to come up with an origin story for good old Saint Nick, and nary a crucifix to be found. The journey to get there is certainly unique: Klaus begins with a slapstick Wes Anderson-esque sequence in what I can only describe as a post office factory, before hapless Jesper is exiled to the delightfully named Smeerensburg (loosely based on a real Svalbardian port village), a place of misery in look and inhabitants, more A Nightmare Before Christmas than anything else. To go from this to a more recognisable Christmas tale is quite the feat, but Klaus pulls it off, giving some time for every part of the Santa Claus legend, right down to the naughty list, to be brought to life.

More than that, the film demonstrates an understanding of character that too many animated films don’t care to bother with much anymore. Jesper, ably voiced by Schwartzman) starts as a worthless rich-boy weighed down by expectation (certainly a bit of Kuzco in there), Klaus, equally ably voiced by Simmons, is an embittered loner weighed down by memories (certainly a bit of Carl Frederickson in there) and in the relationship between the two we get to see real growth and change, as Jesper rises to meet his hidden potential and Klaus comes to realise that there is more to life than quiet grief. It is nice to see a film that serves as an ode to the Christmas spirit of giving being a pathway to personal fulfillment and the creation of happiness.

The usual nasty crowd want none of it of course – Joan Cusack, again, and Will Sasso play the respective heads of the main feuding households, who have long since forgotten what they are actually feuding about (despite the museum dedicated to the feud) -b ut it is fair to say that such a conflict is mostly window dressing to what is primarily a story about Jesper and Klaus setting out to change the world for the better.

And the film looks genuinely amazing. More than half the reason Pablos stuck with this project was his apparent desire to show what 2D animation still had to offer: Klaus employs modern techniques in volumetric lighting to make many of its scenes pop, and the backgrounds and characters have obviously been created, and-drawn the old-fashioned way, with real care. The desolate surrounds of Smeerensburg, the warm, lived-in nature of Klaus’ workshop, the emphasis on the Sami people and culture, or the transferred classroom of Rashida Jones’ schoolteacher character (the locals won’t let their kids go to school, so it’s a veritable marine abattoir instead) are all fantastic set-pieces, worthy of acclaim.

This is a really strong effort, and the world of animation could do with taking notice. It could easily have been a half-baked endevour, but it was clearly made with love. It’s refreshingly endearing, and earns what could be otherwise considered a soppy ending. I’m not sure how much of an audience Klaus is likely to find, but viewers looking for some heartwarming, yet thought provoking, Christmas films, would do better in my eyes to consider Klaus over the more shallow Let It Snow or however many new adaptations of A Christmas Carol that are lined up. Highly recommended.

Fast Color

Trailer

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Gotta go fast.

 

In a not-too-distant future afflicted by an endless drought, drifter Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) suffers from seizures that cause supernatural earthquakes. Pursued by shadowy agents that consider her dangerous, Ruth returns to her childhood home where her similarly endowed mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) try and help her to control her powers.

This was a real throwaway watch for me, something I put on while I was doing some work, intended to be little more than background noise. But then the work that I had been planning on doing got abandoned, because the background noise had taken my full attention. Fast Color isn’t a perfect film by any stretch, but it is undeniably captivating, a twist on the superhero formula that is well-worth considering.

The minimalist approach – there are only five cast members of note, and the majority of the film takes place in one rundown farmhouse – serves Fast Color well. Free from the usual super-powered distractions, we are at liberty instead to focus on character, and Fast Color has plenty to showcase there. Ruth, a traumatised individual with murderous powers she can’t control, is on a quest for rehabilitation and redemption, attempting to find it with the representation of her flawed past in mother Bo, and in the potential of her future in Lila. Mbatha-Raw gives a powerful and assured performance as a burned out vagrant, who imbues every scene with a very palpable tiredness and frustration with the world that she has been handed; Toussaint is comparatively under-stated, but still very effective as a matriarch bowled over by the weariness of responsibility, but maintaining an impressive positivity.

Fast Color, despite its limited running time, is a slow burner. There are no traditional super-powered hi-jinks to see here, and the central part of the narrative, wherein a duplicitous scientist (Christopher Denham – not great) tries to track down Ruth, while the local sheriff (David Strathairn, along for the ride) also investigates, fades away for much of the second act. This leaves Ruth alone with her mother and daughter, trying to figure out how she can get a handle on her destructive nature, and this section is undoubtedly Fast Color’s best: it’s finale is probably the worst, when director Julia Hart is forced to actually come up with a satisfying conclusion, and only partly hits the mark, delving a bit too much into abstract notions.

Aside from the minority nature of the cast – which allows for a brief, but surprisingly poignant, commentary on inter-racial relationships at one point – Fast Color has a big focus on women through the prism of superpowers. This genre is chock full of burly men (and on rare occasions, burly women) beating people up and knocking buildings over; rare is the resort to ideas like creativity and the bringing of life. Fast Color lands on those themes squarely, presenting their three gifted women as the carriers of almost divine powers, powers that can be used for more than just personal redemption. The women of Fast Color are tough, hardened and yet still willing to let the light in: while the finale has a degree of scmalsh to it, it can’t be denied that the ultimate resolution ties in effectively to the idea of women as life givers. This is unlikely to make a big impression on the landscape, but is deserving of much praise all the same. Recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix and Codeblack Films).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Squad In Spring 1920

Over the last number of entries we have explored the events of the War of Independence throughout the early months of 1920, as the steady escalation of violence continued. We have largely shied away from the capital in favour of events elsewhere, but in this entry we will reverse that course, to look at how “the Squad”, which had come into existence as a hands-on unit of GHQ in its war against the DMP in 1919along with other elements of the Dublin-based IRA as a whole, continued its activities, before its later existence in 1920 would make it a defining part of the larger conflict.

We have already noted some of the Squad’s earliest jobs of that year. District Inspector William Redmond, moved from Belfast to Dublin in January with the express mission of hunting down Michael Collins and his assassination team, was killed on Harcourt Street shortly after his arrival in the capital, identified all too easily by GHQ’s intelligence wing. In line with the neutralisation of the DMP’s “G” Division in 1919, a few more members of the DMP would be killed in the first four months of 1920.

The Squad were just the last rung in what was becoming an ever more sophisticated ladder of espionage and counter-espionage, where targets of importance, hostile to the Republic and of worth to the enemy, were identified, scouted and then executed. Collins’ intelligence network was growing and growing, and no one in the Crown Forces, whether they were the few remaining G Division detectives or spies working for British military intelligence, could be said to be safe. Even while the military presence in the capital increased, so did GHQ’s operations.

The Squad’s next target was a British soldier going by the name of Fergus Bryan Molloy. Molloy worked as a clerk under Colonel Hill Dillon, then an Assistant Intelligence Chief in Dublin Castle. Despite his English accent, Molloy professed to be a patriotic Irishman, who wanted to use his connections inside Dublin Castle to aid the cause. He drank with Liam Tobin and made contact with Batt O’Connor, a man often employed to be a driver for Michael Collins. Among other things, Molloy offered to get Tobin and others inside Dublin Castle so they could steal valuable files, and also suggested he was in a position to find arms for the movement.

Tobin, and others, were rightly suspicious, and did not take Molloy upon his offer. When they attempted to get Molloy to assist in an assassination of Dillon, the Colonel promptly moved out of his home and into more secure lodgings. This essentially sealed Molloy’s fate, though pro-republican leaks from inside Dublin Castle had pretty much already done so. Molloy, real name Frederick McNulty, was a spy attempting to work his way into an undercover role within the IRA, and his fate was the same shared by others found out between 1919 and 1921. He was shot several times by three members of the Squad on the evening of the 24th March on South William Street, dying a short time later. Despite the attack taking place in broad daylight, the perpetrators were able to make a clean getaway. McNulty’s death showcased the IRA’s growing skill at counter-espionage, and the actual killing showed how dangerous the Squad was, striking quickly and melting away without witness.

The Squad also branched out from purely police or military targets. Alan Bell was a resident magistrate, former member of the DMP, and a current member of the secret service, tasked in 1920 with an investigation into the whereabouts of the actual money being raised by the Dail Loan. It was a job the 70-year-old was well suited too, having undertaken similar work decades previously with the Land League as his target. Bell’s purview allowed him to investigate the inner dealings of banks, and to summon their representatives to appear before a commission. In the first few months of this investigation he had much success, discovering and confiscating tens of thousands of pounds worth of Loan money: his activities also made him a thorn in the side of the Dail and the IRA.

Worried about Bell’s success, and perhaps encouraged by other claims about Bell’s life – that, variously, he had been involved in efforts to forge letters in Charles Stewart Parnell’s name to discredit the man, or had tried to use spies disguised as priests to get information out of republican prisoners – the Squad was given their orders. On he 16th March, Bell was pulled from a tram in Dun Laoghaire while on his way to work in Dublin Castle. Though he himself was armed, he did not have the time or opportunity to react, and was shot several times in the head. There were numerous arrests in the aftermath, but no one of real prominence. For the IRA, it was another clear signal that they had the ability and the means to strike at every facet of the Dublin Castle operations, and a warning for anyone in Bell’s position who thought ht could operate with impunity.

Still, British intelligence continued to try and worm their way into the IRA structure as they had to other militant nationalist groups in the past. In this period a British trade unionist by the name of Jack Jameson integrated his way into the same rooms as the IRA, by way of his apparent socialist credentials and promises to help Collins and the IRA obtain arms and funding. Jameson even got as far as meeting Collins, who was interested in what he had to offer, but others were suspicious.

In reality, Jameson was John Charles Byrnes, a member of the military intelligence set-up whose ties to trade unions were part of previous investigations into communist organisations. IRA staff instituted what we might call a “blue dye” job, wherein false information was given to Byrnes to see what would happen, in this case the location of some sensitive files: when the home was raided a short time later, Byrnes was a dead man walking. When he requested another meeting with Collins – perhaps something that could possibly have led to an arrest, if his cover was still believed – it was members of the Squad who met him, ostensibly to act as an escort, on April 2nd. Getting off a Dublin tram near Glasnevin, on this occasion Byrnes was spared long enough to inform him about what was about to happen, before he was shot in the chest and head. Byrnes either protested his innocence or expressed admiration for the King, depending on who you believe. One of the shooters was Paddy Daly, who briefly fled the country in the aftermath. It was another counter-espionage success.

“Briefly” means briefly: within two weeks Daly was back in Dublin, and back performing jobs for Collins and the Squad. The next target was Harry Kells, a DMP detective recently promoted to (or just temporarily working with, depending on the source) the crippled G Division who was, as far as Collins and GHQ were concerned, engaged in trying to identify republicans imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison in the aftermath of Alan Bell’s death: he himself was firmly identified doing so by the IRA’s Peader Clancy, then imprisoned. The next day – the 14th April, the same day the hunger strikers were released – was Kells’ last. He was intercepted by Daly and a few others- one of them was Hugo MacNeill, nephew of Eoin, who was not a member of the Squad – as he left his Camden Street home that morning and shot in the chest, living long enough to die in a nearby hospital. This killing demonstrates the speed with which the Squad was now able to act, as well as the still somewhat ad-hoc nature of how they operated.

Less than a week later, the Squad struck again. The target was another recent DMP transfer to the increasingly ailing G Division, a constable named Laurence Dalton. Dalton was due to be one of the main prosecution witnesses in a case against J.J Walsh, an Easter Rising veteran and a member of the First Dail. Dalton had been one of the policemen who had raided Walsh’s home and arrested him, but now his dedication proved his end. On the 20th April, while he was engaged in observations of republican movements near the Broadstone rail terminus, he was shot several times by members of the Squad, dying later in hospital.

There were other, national, events and assassinations that Collins was involved with throughout this time. On the 18th February, a British Army veteran named Timothy A. Quinlisk was shot dead in Cork City. Owing to the amount of damage the body took during this attack, it was not until three days later that Quinlisk was identified. He had previously been a member of Roger Casement’s ill-fated “Irish Legion“, but in the time since had swung back to more loyalist sympathies. He had applied to become an undercover agent for Dublin Castle, but was quickly found out after attempting to make contact with IRA officers in Cork. In another blue dye operation, false information linked to the location of Michael Collins when he was to visit Cork was leaked to Quinlisk; a subsequent raid on British mail discovered the same information being leaked to Dublin Castle. Marked for death, Quinlisk was dispatched shortly afterwards. His death was not at the hands of the Squad, but Collins was involved in the identification of Quinlisk as a spy, showing how, even far away in Dublin, Collins’ intelligence service could be wide-reaching.

All the while, the larger Dublin Brigade of the IRA, and the units further out in County Dublin, also engaged in their own activities, such as the ambush of a British military convoy around Merrion Square towards the end of January, the death of a Constable John Walsh in mid-February after an impromptu shoot-out with a DMP patrol and killing of a DMP Sergeant, Patrick Finnerty, in mid-April during a Sinn Fein rally in Balbriggan. The capital continued to be a dangerous place to be in police or military uniform and despite the best efforts of Dublin Castle to round-up and detain as much of the IRA’s structure as they could, by the time the summer of 1920 arrived they still appeared to be losing the war in Dublin.

But now we turn attention back to the war elsewhere, and return to Cork, to examine the next barracks attack of note, in a county that seemed increasingly dangerous to be in if you were a member of the Crown Forces.

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

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Review: Le Mans ’66

Le Mans ’66

Trailer

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It’s a good 24 hours for a drive.

There were three main things that drew me to Le Mans ’66 (better known worldwide by the clumsier title of Ford V Ferrari: yeesh). The first was the subject matter. Dedicated readers will remember my love and appreciation for Ron Howard’s Rush back in 2013, which remains one of my very favourite movies of a sporting theme, and easily the best racing film I’d ever seen. Sports movies, to reiterate a previous refrain once again, should never really be about a sport. Motor racing as a fulcrum also provides the opportunity to look at stripped down rivalries operating at extreme conditions, and the dramatic effects such a dangerous profession can have on someone’s life. Easy land to plough basically.

And there is reasons two and three: the director, James Mangold, who delivered cinema’s most mature superhero film ever in the superb Logan just two years ago (forget Joker and give that another watch) and the central cast. I’ll pretty much watch Christian Bale in anything, and I’ll pretty much watch Matt Damon in anything, and putting the two together, actors who, in this stage of their careers, are erring towards the more experimental roles (Vice for Bale, Downsizing for Damon, to name just one example each), seems guaranteed to produce a two-handed masterclass. At least that was the hope, since these things can easily go the other way due to clashing egos and grabs at prominence. Did Le Mans ’66 get away cleanly, or did it get stuck at the start line fiddling with the clutch?

Following a bitter corporate dispute, racing legend Caroll Shelby (Damon) is tasked by automotive CEO Henry Ford (Tracey Letts) with constructing an endurance car capable of breaking Ferrari’s domination of the Le Mans 24 hours race. Shelby can build a car, but he needs someone to drive it: he turns to British racer Ken Miles (Bale), an incendiary character, and together the two aim to create one of the biggest shocks in motor racing history.

Writing this just after coming out of the screening of Le Man ’66 that I caught, I am in two minds. There was much – actually a lot – about the film that I enjoyed quite a lot. The story, the cast, its sense of pacing. But, at the same time, I cannot pretend that I did not feel a bit underwhelmed. Le Mans ’66 has its problems, and I am not entirely convinced that it has the parts to make the greater whole rise above them.

I think the chief problem is the issue of its alternate title, Ford V Ferrari. That moniker indicates that we are about to witness a battle between nations in American and Italy, a battle between philosophies in Ford’s quantity over quality dynamic and Ferrari’s opposite tack, a battle between substance and flash. Le Mans ’66 sets up that battle well enough in its first act. A scene where “the Great Old Man” (Remo Girone) himself dresses down Ford’s VP (a somewhat miscast Jon Bernthal) is great, as Enzo Ferrari utters the searing insult that his Ford’s current boss should remember he “is not Henry Ford, he is Henry Ford II”. Later, “Deuce” is stone-faced at hearing the comment, before declaring that he’s going to beat “that greasy wop”. Here we go, mano a mano.

But then Le Mans ’66 goes off in a different direction, and instead of being the epic story of Ford vs Ferrari, it becomes instead the story of Ford vs Ford, or maybe Ford vs Shelby. The main drama and driving force of the film is not the interesting conflict between the varying motorsport poles represented by Ford and Ferrari, but instead between the suits and the engineers working underneath Henry Ford II. Essentially, Shelby and Miles are drivers and grease monkeys, who go by their gut and the seat of their pants, with little time for computers, data or taking it easy: they are opposed by Ford’s corporate higher-ups, who like pushing paper and making themselves look big, most notably the company’s senior VP, Leo Beebee (Josh Lucas), who fills in an antagonist role past the half hour point, that was really Enzo Ferrari’s to fill.

The depiction of Beebee is apparently a historically dubious thing, going by some comments in the media, and his friends and family may well have cause to cry foul. In the film, Beebee’s meddling results in Miles being dumped for a time before an underperforming Ford bring him back, and whatever conflict the film has for the rest of its running time is primarily driven by Shelby and Beebee bouncing off one another, all leading up to the infamous decisions taken towards the conclusion of the titular race. But to go from the heart-achingly real emotional drama of Logan to this corporate backstabbing is undoubtedly a disappointment.

The problem is that this conflict simply isn’t an interesting as the one set up between the Americans and the Italians. Le Mans ’66 never does enough to make you care, with a narrative structure that hews a bit too close to the basic, complete with montage. It’s like something that Clint Eastwood would direct, bearing some similarity to the thoughts espoused in his Sully, that all these daredevil renegades just need to be left alone by their bosses, who are too obsessed with regulations, safety and a return on investment. When Miles’ pit crew use a mallet to fix a broken door mid-race, while the preening sycophants toady up to Henry Ford II in the corporate box, we’re supposed to see conflict, but it just isn’t there in substance.

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The film at least gets the racing right.

A film like Rush understood that such backroom clashes are inherently a bit dull and frustrating, and focuses elsewhere (Daniel Bruhl’s Nika Lauda doesn’t even speak to Enzo Ferrari in that film): we’re here for the driving and the rivalries, and at least in its sections on actual racing, Le Mans ’66 gets it dead right. The film is book-ended by monologues from Damon on the singular nature of driving, and how at a certain rate of RPM’s, the driver comes to learn something intrinsically unique about themselves. While there is a hint that such themes are being introduced in too shallow a fashion to be truly effective, they are at least an example of something better that Le Mans ’66 had to say, by way of explaining how Shelby and Miles put up with all that they did from Ford.

Damon and Bale do good, but not stand-out work. Bale presumably enjoys the chance to use something closer to his actual accent, and is fun as the devil-may-care Miles, whose family interactions – with his worrying wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and impressionable son Peter (Noah Jupe) – help ground the film with actual consequences for engine burnouts and car crashes.

Damon is at his best when going back and forth with Bale, the two being too good at their craft to let the opportunity pass them by, even if it isn’t exactly Pacino/de Niro. An early scene where they engage verbally that culminates in a thrown wrench, or an embarrassing old man brawl outside Miles’ house later (his wife pulls up a chair to watch) demonstrates the point. In other occasions, when Damon or Bale are placed opposite Lucas or Bernthal, they are less interesting. Perhaps, given the subject matter, it is inevitable that an audience will be more interested in the actual driver, and not the guy giving him instructions, and Bale is the brighter of the two.

The rest of the cast are too ancillary to make a significant impression, excepting maybe Balfe, who has to work with an odd scene where she takes on the guise of a shrieking harpy – real Skylar White territory – who essentially threatens to kill herself and Miles if he won’t admit he’s considering a job with Ford. She’s the only female character, and the film generally is an undoubted testament to the male ego and a certain kind of toxic masculinity (right in line with efforts like Logan or Walk The Line), whether it is in Henry Ford’s revenge-driven efforts to get one over on Ferrari, or the dangerous lengths to which Shelby and Miles will go for personal glory (it will be interesting to one day see a story in this vein with a woman behind the wheel).

Working with frequent collaborator Phedon Papamichael, Mangold has made a racing film that does capture, in a visual sense, the essence of what makes endurance racing such a fascinating sub-genre of the sport. Shots of the Ford factory, of airport race tracks, of detailed garages and pit lanes, are all very well and good, but is is in the racing that Le Mans ’66 really comes to life, in sequences depicting lesser known hot rod races, the curving track of Daytona, or Le Mans itself, this altogether unassuming stretch of what is largely country road, that has somehow managed to become one of the most pivotal parts of motorsport history and legend.

Mangold’s racing perhaps lacks the thrill of Ron Howard, but still manages to get to the heart of endurance racing: less a matter of overtaking your opponent, and more a battle with yourself, and with the car whose brakes could overheat and explode at any moment. The film carries an old school type of energy, like something out of the late-era 1950’s black and white period piece: Mangold likes putting the camera right inside the car and right in the face of Christian Bale. You get to see the strain, the wear and the nerves that eat away at the driver, which is just as dramatic as seeing the car undertake the tight turns at high speed, with the viewer practically vibrating off their seat as the RPM ticker increases.

In the end, Le Mans ’66 is a film that is able to reach a level above disaster on the strength of Bale’s performance – not so much Damon, which is a shame – and on its racing sequences, but that essentially makes it a one man show mixed with a motorsport highlight reel. The promise of its premise gets lost in a very unfulfilling plot-line of grease-monkeys vs marketing executives, that simply was not on the same level of two automobile titans going at it. It falls far enough that parts of it can only be considered a bit boring, something that really is a cardinal sin when you’re talking hot rod race cars. It’s not the best follow-up to the narrative mastery that was Logan, and neither of the two leads will see their careers defined by such roles. Le Mans ’66 is ultimately, and regrettably, forgettable. Not recommended.

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Much better title anyway.

(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).

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Ireland’s Wars: Hunger Strikes

Hunger striking can be generally defined as the act of refusing food and other nutrients as a form of political protest, usually undertaken by prisoners or anti-government activists as a means of attempting to force some manner of policy change. It is essentially a threat to commit suicide in a particularly slow and grisly fashion in order to cause guilt in those held responsible for the conditions in which the strike is carried out. Variously seen as a desperate ploy or a calculated gesture of defiance, hunger striking was not new to Ireland during the revolutionary period, but in the first half of 1920 it took centre stage for a time, a drama that would dominate headlines at home and abroad, and provide a serious test of the Dublin administration’s mettle.

Hunger striking may not have originated in Ireland, but there is evidence that the practise did exist here in pre-Christian days. To engage in “Troscadh” was to deliberately starve oneself at the doorstep of another who was responsible for some injustice against you: an attempt to shame this individual, by threatening their social obligations of hospitality and guest-friendship. The sources are murky, but the activity may have been part and parcel of the Brehon Law system, though it is unknown if the idea was to starve yourself to death, or to just undertaken a fast for a single day.

Plenty of other cultures since, most notably in India, have undertaken hunger striking as a means of protest, but in the era we are discussing now, it was most popularly associated with the suffragette movement. Women seeking the vote in the United States and Great Britain, imprisoned for their protests, had undertaken hunger strikes as a means of continuing those protests while incarcerated, and some had died in the process. Others suffered lasting physical and mental trauma from both the strike, and the authorities’ efforts to stop them, usual through the process of force-feeding, an extremely invasive and potentially quite damaging procedure.

The first significant hunger strike in Ireland during this period is one we have discussed already, that took place in September of 1917. A number of republican prisoners, arrested again after having previously served stints in various prisons, went on hunger strike to protest the conditions in which they were held. One of them, Thomas Ashe, died after being the subject of force feeding. The others were released shortly afterwards, the British authorities wary of creating more martyrs. Both the nominal success of the act, and how imprisonment could be turned into a other method of hurting the British position in the propaganda war, did not go unnoticed.

April of 1920 was the next chance for the republican movement to put British resolve to the test with such tactics. A large number of Volunteers were being held in Mountjoy Prison, in Dublin, at the time, chief among them Peadar Clancy, the vice-commandant of the Dublin Brigade. In consultation with other members of the Brigade and GHQ, Clancy led a movement that demanded political status for republican prisoners. Aside from such a declaration aiding the Republic’s cause generally, the practical demands were for such prisoners to be separated from “actual” criminals, to not be obligated to work within the prison, and to enjoy a variety of other privileges. The authorities, naturally enough, refused. 90 men went on hunger strike.

The actual effects of a hunger strike are quick enough. The human body, if in relatively good health, can last for three days without food with no major side effects. After that, the body consumes fat for energy, and when that is gone it starts taking what it needs from the organs and bone marrow, which inevitably results in a life-threatening condition for the striker. Within a few days the men in Mountjoy – who, given the nature of their confinement, probably didn’t have all that much in the way of fat reserves – were declared to be in imminent danger of death by the prison’s medical officer.

The Mountjoy strike captured the attention of the public throughout Ireland and Great Britain rapidly enough. It was the subject of bitter debates in Parliament, and condemnation from numerous press outlets. The London cabinet demurred to the Dublin administration to decide matters, but essentially urged restraint. In the meantime, thousands of pro-republican civilians, most of them women, assembled around the prison to protest and to generally act as if they were already mourning the strikers. Military intervention failed to quell these protests, not even when an RAF airplane was ordered to “buzz” the crowds in efforts to disperse them. Sympathetic labour strikes erupted in Dublin also.

John French was loath to concede, but it was pressed upon him that the worst outcome of all would be the men dying: the memory of Thomas Ashe, and the enormous emotional power of his funeral, was brought up again and again. Reluctantly, he conceded to the demands of “political” status, and then to the release of many of the strikers. The strike had lasted only a few days, with no fatalities, but had achieved its goal. Worse for the British, due to a catastrophic administration error, dozens of men were released that should not have been, instantly seized upon by the IRA and Sinn Fein as yet another stunning triumph. Morale among the “Crown Forces”, especially the police, plummeted still further. Other hunger strikes soon began in prisons throughout the country.

It was perhaps the nature of that final humiliation that informed the British approach to the next round of truly significant hunger strikes, or maybe it was more to do with how the war continued to intensify throughout 1920. Either way, the end result was worse. On the 12th August, a number of high ranking figures in the Cork IRA were arrested as a result of a raid on Cork’s City Hall. The British didn’t realise what exactly they had – among those arrested were Sean O’Hegarty and Liam Lynch – releasing all of the prisoners in the following days, except one. The one, was Terence MacSwiney.

Cork City born and bred, MacSwiney was of a hardcore Catholic nationalist family. A playwright and poet when he wasn’t pursuing accountancy, he was one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers in Cork, and served as Tomas Mac Curtain’s right hand man for years, which included Cork’s aborted part in the Easter Rising. After various stints in prison – one of which included a brief hunger strike, inspired by Ashe – he resumed his activities, adding to them membership of the First Dail. Upon Mac Curtain’s death, MacSwiney took a greater role in Cork operations, as well as being elected the next Lord Mayor: in his inaugural address, he notably said “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer”.

Arrested again, MacSwiney was only charged with a relatively minor offence, but refused to cooperate with his jailers or to recognise the authority of their court. Almost as soon as he was detained, he began another hunger strike: he was in the fifth day of it when sentenced to two years imprisonment. An incredible 68 days later, after he had been transferred to confinement in Britain, his strike was still continuing.

MacSwiney’s epic protest captured hearts and mind throughout the world. There were similar hunger strikes from republican prisoners in Cork; Irish media condemned his treatment; mass protests took place throughout Ireland. International opinion was also brought to bear, with threatened boycotts of British goods in the US, protests in continental Europe, appeals from some South American countries for the Pope to intervene, the expulsion of a sympathetic MP from the Australian parliament and a mountain of negative media attention. Numerous figures, from American politicians campaigning in their Presidential election, to a young Vietnamese dishwasher living in the UK named Nguyễn Tất Thành – the future Ho Chi Minh – took note of what was happening. But the British cabinet now dug in their heels, insisting that the rule of law and order could not be allowed to lapse because of such activities, and further arguing that the morale of the police and army in Ireland could not take another surrender to republican prisoners.

The IRA and Sinn Fein used the strike for all it was worth, but as time wore on and MacSwiney’s condition worsened, senior figures realised that this time the British would not be compelled to back down. Michael Collins sent messages to MacSwiney urging him to relent, as he would be worth more to the cause alive than dead, sentiments matched by Arthur Griffith: neither man had much time for hunger striking as a weapon, associating it with what Collins saw as the pointlessness of “blood sacrifice” ala 1916. MacSwiney refused: there is some evidence to suggest that he saw the strike, and his immense suffering, as an atonement for his lack of action in 1916.

Efforts were made by prison authorities to get him to eat voluntarily, which failed, though there was, then and now, suspicions that MacSwiney was being fed somehow, hence the length of the strike. Finally, force feeding was attempted, to no effect (it was often pointless, as both the severity of the act and the actions of the prisoner would result in the food being expelled afterwards). MacSwiney slipped into a coma, and on the 25th October, 73 days after he began the strike, he died. Two of the men striking similarly in Cork, Volunteers named Michael FitzGerald (who had taken part in the Fermoy ambush) and Joe Murphy, also died. MacSwiney’s Dail seat would eventually go to his sister Mary, who would become a significant republican figure in her own right.

Perhaps Lloyd George could be satisfied that they had not given in, but the outcome was a loss for the British. So many, in Ireland and abroad, were outraged by the deaths. MacSwiney’s funeral became another great republican propaganda piece. Clergy placed his name on the same level of Edward FitzGerald, Robert Emmett and Padraig Pearse, and the Dail declared a national day of mourning. The British created more martyrs, and more resentment, as they had done and would again throughout the revolutionary period: while all of this was going on, another drama unfolded that we will cover in time, concerning an 18-year-old Volunteer named Kevin Barry. In a war being fought for the hearts and minds of the Irish people as much as anything, these were self-inflicted wounds by the British.

As for the other strikers, enough was enough. On Griffith’s insistence, they gave up the strike and resumed eating, perhaps satisfied that the point had been made, and knowing that no matter what, they had captured the attention of the Irish population and the world’s media. But it was not the last time in this period that Irish republicans would resort to the measure. The next time of real note, it would be in very different circumstances.

All the while, the more traditional aspects of the war continued. In the next entry we move back to the conflict in Dublin, to discuss the further activities of “the twelve apostles”.

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

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