Review: Little Sister

Little Sister

Trailer

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She’s a rebel, she’s a saint…

Let’s hear it for mumblecore, those quirky little independent dramedies that infest the various strata of streaming options, and, in lieu of anything I really want to see not being in cinemas, have given me the chance to see something new this week, albeit it’s a film that was released in the States back in October. Zach Clarks flick promised a spiritual journey of self-reflection and some serious family problems, and with Addison Timlin in the lead, it stood a half-decent chance of being half-decent. Did it take that chance, or was it just another forgettable indy, to be remembered only if the director goes on to greater fame?

Colleen (Timlin), a twentysomething woman preparing for religious vows, reluctantly returns home for the first time in three years when her older brother (Keith Poulson), mauled by a bomb in the Iraq War, finally comes home himself. While there, she must evaluate her own decisions in life, while dealing with the neurotic behaviour of her once suicidal mother (Ally Sheedy).

When it comes to films of this genre, for me they do or die on the basis of the point they are trying to make, all too often getting lost in a morass of arthouse techniques and inexperienced filmmakers unable to adequately get across what they want to get across. And while Little Sister does struggle a little in this regard, it’s still a worthwhile enough experience, as we follow Colleen’s journey back into her past, as she struggles to reconcile the person she was with the person she is aiming to be.

That sounds a little trite as a write it, and, I suppose, I wouldn’t say that Little Sister is really unpredictable in its plot beats, its unfolding narrative or in its ending. In many ways, it feels like the boilerplate plot of this type of film, interjected with a few unique sequences of only tangential relation. That’s not the worst thing in the world really, and there’s enough on the fringes of Little Sister to keep you engaged.

There’s Colleen’s quest to figure out her own possible future as a nun, in a world where such a choice from such a young woman is seen as abnormal, even in bizarre company: in an early sequence, the performers of an incomprehensible stage show criticising the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the 9/11 attacks throw smug jibes Colleen’s way when she refuses to partake in their “blow”. There’s her mutilated brother, now so far removed from humanity that he can’t connect to anyone: his constant drum playing calling to mind the way the same instrument was used as a metaphor for internal anger and frustration in Whiplash.

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Fan of awkward dinners? You’ll love this.

There’s the brothers sexually frustrated fiancée, who feels trapped in their relationship and doesn’t know what to do. There’s the parents, with all of their own foibles and problems, turning to pot to ease the pain and jibing at their daughter’s choice of vocation, as if it is some kind of adolescent rebellion against their own middle-class liberal values. There’s the former best friend, so lost for some purpose in her own life that she turns to extremist PETA raids, arguing, succinctly, that “people need to be terrorists sometimes”.

The point of Little Sister, through the exploration of all these people and how they attempt to find some peace with each other and with themselves, is that everybody, in their own way, is a little or a lot outside the norm. It’s a gruelling process: Colleen reverts back to her Marilyn Manson days of neon pink hair and goth make-up to try and connect with her brother, who has to deal with well-intentioned but brainless strangers who describe he and his fellow soldiers as “wasted lives”. His fiancée turns to internet chat rooms for some sexual fulfilment. Colleen’s mother veers wildly from loving to cruelly abusive. And in the background, almost like he is looming over everything, is Barack Obama and his message of hope and change (the film being set just before his election in 2008), like some kind of distant deity promising people something that is ultimately only attainable by their own effort.

Obama’s presence all throughout the background of this North Carolina set tale seems especially poignant nowadays: the portrayal of the “Asheville” residents is one of empty lip-service to what Obama is offering, and is rendered with believable expertise by the director. This larger scale denial, that the country’s problems can be solved by a new messianic leader, is as empty as Colleen’s mother referring to her suicide attempt as an “accident”. North Carolina went Trump in 2016.

The film can also be seen as a quiet appraisal of the oft-derided “millennial” mindset, with Colleen and her brother mostly played as pathetic spectators unwilling to give much care to the opinions of the world around them and struggling for any kind of meaning. This kind of stuff is mumblecore’s bread and butter, but can grow tiresome rather quickly: luckily Little Sister knows when to reel back. When it comes to the brother character, perhaps xxx would have been better served going a bit more in-depth: as it is, Little Sister offers only a shallow exploration of PTSD in a modern baby-boomer world, easily fixed and easily forgotten.

Timlin’s quiet reserved performance helps carry some of the lesser sections of Little Sister, as the montages stack -up and you might start to feel that the film is wearing its own short running time thin. She’s endearingly sympathetic with just a look and a half-frown, and, like all good mumblecore protagonists, she succeeds because she isn’t all that far removed from all of us. She’s excellent as a young woman not so much caught up in religious fervour, but in a chance to be part of a unique community service.

Sheedy is the only other cast member of real note, now far from her Breakfast Club days (her other role of note in the last while was a barely noticed cameo in X-Men: Apocalypse) and here she proves that she was always more than the mousy girl who barely talked in detention, given a stirring performance as a mother crippled by her own psychological issues. Between them, they give a tour de force of a parent/child relationship caught in repetitive arguments: Timlin’s quiet reaction to some of her mother’s more awful words is a powerful expression of compassion for someone in need.

In the end, while Little Sister will not long stay in the consciousness of the film watching world, or in my own memory if I am being honest, it’s a sweet film with an endearing central character exploring her life, and that I can tolerate for 90 minutes or so. Shot with reserved patience, cast well and scripted excellently, it’s a fine example of what the indy world can still offer, even if you’ll never get to see this kind of thing in theatres. Recommended.

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Best film of the year (three weeks in)

(All images are copyright of Forager Films).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Land War

In the last entry we discussed the rise of the home rule movement, with the Home Rule League becoming Britain’s first legitimately powerful third party. With that came the attention of the IRB and the so-called “New Departure”. But behind everything that I discussed last week was something that I only briefly mentioned: the all-important, all-encompassing issue of land.

In 1870, the famous set of demands afterwards known as the “3 F’s” had first been bandied about. These called for fair rents, to be set by courts, not landlords. They called for tenants to be given the right of free sale of their interest in land to an incoming tenant, without the interference of a landlord. And they called for fixity of tenure, namely that a tenant could not be evicted from his/her land provided he/she was paying their rent.

The land question simmered alongside every other issue in Ireland. The vast majority of the population remained poor farmers working small farms, who carried bitter memories of the famine. Despite the hardships, tenants still had no legal right to a written lease, and were so entirely at the mercy of landlords that the leading politicians in Parliament realised that something had to change.

I briefly mentioned before the name William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party and, in 1870, Prime Minister. That year he introduced new laws to try and enact fixity of tenure, though with mixed success. Economic prosperity in the 1850’s and 60’s had turned to depression in the 1870’s, and rents that had risen were slow to come down, increasing the amount of evictions. Throughout that decade, the situation in Ireland escalated, with Gladstone’s Land Act largely ineffectual in a country where so many informal leases lasted only 11 months or so. In areas of special penury, rent strikes were sometimes arranged locally, something that happened with increasing frequency, in Connacht especially. These had mixed results: Connacht had less signs of government authority in the form of RIC barracks, but sometimes rent or evictions could still be forced at the point of a baton.

In 1878, the incredibly unpopular Earl of Leitrim, a landlord hated by Catholic and Protestant tenants alike, was murdered while driving home one night: the local community closed ranks and the perpetrators were never caught. This is often seen as the first real blow of what became afterwards known as the “Land War” though the term is a bit of a misnomer: the violence that occurred in this period could be said to be on a par with previous agrarian violence, but it did have a greater degree of organisation, especially when the remnants of the “New Departure” got involved. In 1879, the last of the notable Irish famines occurred in Connacht, though deaths were few thanks to the more active response of the government (pushed by the Home Rule League), better transportation links in the region and the money sent by Irish abroad. Still, the event was an unwelcome reminder of things that had occurred before.

That year, radical politician and former IRB member Michael Davitt founded the Land League, to campaign for the 3 F’s. Parnell was soon its President. Notable Irish politicians like William O’Brien and Willie Redmond got their start organising for the Land League, which was rapidly overseeing a larger amount of rent strikes and agrarian resistance. Naturally, this increased reprisals from authorities and counter-reprisals in the dead of night, in line with previous actions of the Ribbonmen and Whiteboys. The murder of landlords, rent agents and RIC personnel became more and more common as the 1880’s began. In the worst areas, the British Army were deployed to back up local police, with predictable results.

It is this period where the word “boycott” first took on its modern connotation, when the tenants of Mayo landlord Charles Boycott engaged in a rent strike, which escalated to a local shunning of the man, his family and any tenants who agreed to pay their rent. Actively proposed by the likes of Parnell, the “boycott” could work wonderfully well as a protest measure, being effectively impossible to legislate against and likely to make the target’s position untenable. Adding the possibility of those who broke a boycott being killed in the dead of night as a reprisal, and it becomes clear how dangerous the situation could be. Northern Protestants came south to help Boycott’s take in his harvest in 1880, with government funding: the action was so wasteful that Parnell quipped every turnip cost a shilling. Boycott was driven from the area and never returned.

In the 1880 elections, the Home Rule League increased its seats to 63, while the Liberals returned to power (the Benjamin Disraeli led Conservatives had ousted Gladstone in ’74). Gladstone brought in a second Land Act and established a Land Commission that improved the situation somewhat, but agrarian “outrages” continued without much abatement.

In 1881, after a period of consistent written attacks on government policy in regards the land question, Parnell and others were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, where they authored the “No Rent Manifesto”, calling for a national rent strike. The Land League was outlawed, but the outrages and violence continued to increase. Parnell and others were in prison until April 1882, when they were released following the “Kilmainham Treaty”, whereby they agreed to row back on militant rhetoric and fight against agrarian violence in return for an extension of the Land Act to deal with hundreds of thousands of rent arrear cases. The Land League was resurrected as the Irish National League, with Parnell in charge and with a more constitutional focus in its efforts to resolve the land issue. The next year, Parnell was elected the new leader of the Home Rule League, soon re-named the Irish Parliamentary Party. He stood on the verge of being the pivot of power in the British legislative system.

The Land War was not over, though the outrages began to die down as the evolved Land Acts took effect. Agrarian violence would spring up again, but it would take a while for it to be centre stage in Ireland. The violence of 1879-1882 had achieved its purpose though, making Ireland a central issue for successive London administrations, alleviating some of the worst aspects of land policy, and further binding together the various elements of Catholic Irish nationalism. In 1882, Parnell and his new IPP stood as the forefront of this movement, and would only make further gains.

But all the while, the militant side of things was not comatose. There were elements within both the IRB and Clan na Gael unhappy at Devoy’s New Departure, and the Home Rule League’s turn from backing aggressive action. And those elements were not going to sit and wait.

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

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Serenity: Leaves On The Wind #5

After the very lacklustre fourth issue, Leaves On The Wind trundles onward.

Page One

The person River tells the crew to run from in the top panel always looked liked the player character in Bully to me. Anyway, this page is the start a very action heavy chapter, here setting up quickly that River 2 is as bad-ass as the original.

Page Two

Mal gets a very serious looking wound in the neck, while River 2 takes everyone else out. Some good action art here.

Page Three

Continuation of the same, again with good artwork. I like those ending panels, that, digitally anyway, actually create a bit of suspense in a way that this medium often fails to do.

Page Four

Here we begin to get the ol’ “Flashback to set up the twist” explanation, starting with a glimpse into the scene in “Out Of Gas” where Wash set up the recall button, that has since taken on a bit of an iconic aura to Firefly fans.

Page Five

So Mal wants to call Serenity to him. All getting a bit clearer now. Mal’s looking at the button with a wistful parlour on his face is a nice touch. Also good is that ever River seems a tad mystified by what he is intending.

Page Six

Continuing the flashbacks, we’re back with the New Resistance, after the cut-off from the previous issue. Mal cuts the fawning short in this one on one example, but it won’t be long until he needs to go after that adulation. Nice sense of an underground in this page.

Page Seven

Not so much here. Again, how is the New Resistance this popular on one of the core worlds? They try to explain this away later, but it doesn’t work. Still, Mal’s brief speech is a nice one, as is the transition back into the present, through Jayne’s recitation of Mal’s name in both timelines.

Page Eight

I think they sort of miss a trick here, because in that first panel Mal looks straight up dead, and they could have kept the tension going for a while longer. Instead he gets up in the next panel, while River is getting her ass handed to her for the very first time. That’s long overdue to be honest, even in just the comics.

Page Nine

Things are getting really interesting inside, so let’s cut away to this dumbass sideshow. I think the Operative has been really wasted in Leaves On The Wind so far, with his point in the story largely superflous.

Page Ten

Someone liked the finale of Equilibrium, eh? Yuch. And let’s cap off the gore with another line pruned from the existing canon, shall we?

Page Eleven

The Operative is stunned by the female operative walking towards him, sternly ordering Bea to lay down her arms for a chance to live. I wasn’t a big fan of this, if only because River 2 got to show how dangerous she was by beating up River, this woman just gets to walk towards the Operative while he goes into hari-kiri mode. Why can’t Bea shoot her? Bullets are fast. Bea also doesn’t seem like the kind of character to just accept the Operative’s word.

Page Twelve

It would have been awesome to see this kind of fight scene in live-action. Reading again, I was reminded of the Buffy/Faith fight scene towards the end of Buffy’s third season, a really extended piece between two very similar people of similar ability. River has Mal though, and through him a way to end things.

Page Thirteen

The Operative seems happy to go to his death as long as its honourable – which means dying with a sword in his hand I guess – and Bea can just put up with it. But then the cavalry arrives, in a manner not dissimilar to the Reavers appearance at Mr Universe’s moon in Serenity.

Page Fourteen/Fifteen

Very nice spread here of the resulting fight, though for me it went against what I would assume would be the normal Purplebelly/Browncoat dynamic. It should be the Alliance that’s the unnumbered horde beating down their opponents through wave attacks and a human steamroller, and the Browncoats who are the overwhelmed ones. But then again, there’s nothing that says you can’t reverse that, as long as its temporary. Much of this scene depends on the reader believing that the Browncoats would be happy to charge and die in the manner that they do, and while Leaves On The Wind alone doesn’t quite accomplish that, the larger canon does.

Page Sixteen

Mal, Jayne, River and River 2, battered and bloodied, walk back to Serenity, flanked with something akin to an honour guard, an important visual moment if there ever was one, with Mal now easily handing out orders. Looks like he might be fighting the war again.

Page Seventeen

A nice middle panel of the remaining crew together here, though I’m never going to get used to that pinprick eye style. It’s refreshing to see River shaken in the way she appears to be here. The maniacal laughter at the end of the page isn’t so much,

Page Eighteen

At least there’s a nice sense of dread to this monologue session, which otherwise doesn’t feel very natural. His short treatise on the Alliance/Resistance dynamic is good enough I guess.

Page Nineteen

It’s hard to take this page seriously, because its lifting the Operative’s actions from Serenity – “When your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to” – and Ozymandias from Watchmen in its last panel, which is so patently obvious I’m surprised the writer did it with a straight face. Is he going to tell Bea to “Grow up” next?

Page Twenty

Also, this doesn’t excuse that there is even any New Resistance on Shinon. It’s one of the two major core worlds. Super controlled. Super Alliance. Nuh uh. Anyway, Mal is back to fighting the war big time it seems, no more running, aiming to misbehave, etc. A nice sense of focus here with Mal wearing a separate colour to everyone else.

Page Twenty-One

Thump! Seriously, those sound captions. So dumb.

Page Twenty-Two

A really nice ending, save for the fact that Mal should have just said “Then think it” and left it at that: I think the audience would have gotten it with the sight of River in the last panel, no need to add “We’ve got a psychic on-board” any more than saying “and she can read your thoughts” would have helped. Also good is Bea to the side in that last panel, looking defeated and hopeless.

An improvement to be sure, a nice action issue even if the same flaws keep reappearing. Tune in next week for the thrilling finale.

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The Villain Checklist

It is my belief that the world of film has a villain problem.

When I was going through my annual awards, I realised something. I was going through the categories and deciding winners, when I came to “Best Villain”. And looking at it, and looking at the list of films I had seen in 2016, I couldn’t think of any villain or antagonist that I felt worthy of much praise.

Just look at my top ten. Sing Street has Don Wycherly’s Christian Brother, but he’s a small enough part really, merely the most human face of the negative elements surrounding the Conor character. In Krigen, leaving aside the faceless Taliban, the villain might be said to be societal expectations of the military being out of sync with what they can actually do. Hail, Caesar! had Channing Tatum’s secret communist, but he is only revealed as such very late on. Creed has “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, introduced past the halfway point and an antagonist who fits neatly into Rocky Balboa’s declaration that the real opponent is yourself: “The other guy is just in the way”. The Siege Of Jadotville has a French mercenary who, while decent appears only in a small number of scenes, with Mark Strong’s poor performance ruining the only other antagonist character. Anthropoid has no single villain, with the target of the assassination plot appearing only in his assassination scene. Sully has the apocryphal over the top NTSB investigation. Spotlight has societal pressure and cover-ups as its villain. Rogue One had the flashy cape and otherwise empty personality of Director Krennic. Moana has villains that appear only in single scenes.

And should we even mention the superhero genre in 2016? Civil War’s titular character was more villainous consistently than Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo. Lex Luthor was one of the weakest parts of Batman V Superman. Evil wizard in Doctor Strange was a nothing character. The Enchantress and the Joker in Suicide Squad were as much victims of its botched editing as anything else. X-Men: Apocalypse favoured style over substance with its titular bad guy. Deadpool’s Ajax was a sideshow. Only in The Killing Joke, a story based entirely around the villain, did the superhero genre put its antagonists in their proper place.

It would seem that filmmakers are, more and more, interested less in singular recognisable villains, who share a significant part of the story with the protagonist, and instead are opting for the abstract concept as the villain. And in films where they are required to have one, like the aforementioned superhero films, or other blockbuster mainstays – Star Trek Beyond, Ghostbusters, The BFG, Fantastic Beasts, The Magnificent Seven all spring tom mind from 2016 alone – the focus has shifted so much to the protagonist, or the team of protagonists, that the villain is often treated as little more than an afterthought, a vessel to chuck your heroes at during the pertinent beats of the story.

I’ve had a think about this, and I’ve decided that, every few weeks or so, I’m going to expand on what I think makes a good antagonist, in a series of posts that will be based upon the following checklist. I’ve considered the introduction, the traits, the evolution and the resolution that swirls around a good antagonist, and come up with the following 16 points:

Meeting The Villain

  1. Introduction – The moment that the villain is introduced to us must be noteworthy in some way, to single out this individual.
  2. Distinct – The antagonist must be distinct in some way from others, whether it be some physical aspect, or some action in the moment that we meet them, that marks them out as different.
  3. Defining Statement – During or around the villain’s introduction, he/she should have a defining statement, which sums up their character or line of thinking in a simple way.
  4. Kick The Dog – The opposite of the famous “Save The Cat” trope, the adversary should perform some relatively minor villainous action early on in the story.

The Villain’s Character

  1. Goal/Motivation – The villain must have a goal, or a motivation for their actions, which is clear, believable to the audience, and something that this character clearly wants, enough that he/she is willing to do the things that they do to achieve it.
  2. Risk – The antagonist should have something to lose in the course of trying to achieve their goal/motivation.
  3. Consistency – The actions of the villain must have a consistency to them, the same as any character.
  4. Justification – The antagonist should believe that he/she is not the villain of the story.

The Villain’s Traits

  1. Capability – The audience must believe that the adversary, through his/her own power or through the resources they control, poses a threat to the hero.
  2. Credibility – The audience must believe that the adversary is a credible threat with his/her capability, and will use that capability to achieve their goal/motivation.
  3. Sympathetic/Compelling – The villain should be, even in just a very minor and maybe fleeting sense, somewhat sympathetic or compelling to the audience.

The Relationship With The Hero

  1. Contrast With Hero – The villain must in some way, major or minor, be a direct contrast to the hero character.
  2. Equal With Hero – The adversary should be, whether physically, mentally or in some other way, on a par with the hero.

The Villain’s Path

  1. Escalation – The bad guy should, at some point in the story, escalate their efforts and activities to a higher and more dangerous point than they were before.
  2. Defeat – The manner of the adversary’s eventual defeat should be meaningful or ironic in some way.
  3. Consequences – Regardless of their final fate, the actions of the villain should have lasting consequences for the hero.

I suppose I should take the chance now to point out that a villain who encapsulates all these points can still fail, due to problems with script, editing, delivery of lines, etc. Similarly, I don’t think that a villain has to embody all 16 in some way in order to be successful. I’m no film student, just an amateur enthusiast. In the coming weeks and months, this amateur enthusiast will look at some good villains – a certain Dark Lord of the Sith and Clown Prince Of Crime for example, as well as some lesser known ones – and I will look at some bad ones – get ready for plenty of the MCU on that score – too. And together, we’ll look at what really makes a good bad guy, and why too much of modern cinema is getting it wrong.

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Ireland’s Wars: A New Departure

Having spent a great deal of time recently in America discussing the actions of Irish nationalist movements and organisations there, the time has come to swing back to the other side of the Atlantic, to have a look at affairs in Ireland itself. When we last were there, the Irish Republican Brotherhood rebellion of 1867 had ignominiously collapsed shortly after it had begun, leaving that entity in turmoil, and British control of the island as strong as ever.

The 1870’s is when the political side of things really took over and, to a large extent, the struggle for Irish independence was a political one primarily, all the way up to 1916. Those societies still committed to violent action continued to exist – and would continue to take violent action – but the period from 1867 to 1916 is one less synonymous with the word “rebellion”, and more associated with the words “home rule”.

Home rule was the catch-all term for Irish self-government, essentially the re-introduction of an Irish Parliament with firm, albeit limited, control over Irish affairs, while Ireland itself remained under the aegis of Britain. The quest for it would birth numerous political entities, spawn many political crises and prove one of the most divisive events in Irish history when it eventually came close to being implemented.

From the ashes of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement, the Home Rule movement rose, largely spearheaded by Donegal born barrister and MP Isaac Butt. Butt defended Fenians in the aftermath of 1867, but the failure of that rising convinced him that Irish nationalism had hit a dead-end militarily. Instead, he envisioned a federal system for Great Britain, where Ireland would have control of its domestic affairs while imperial matters were left to the control of London. In 1870, Butt founded the “Home Rule Association” to promote this view, using a term that had been first bandied about in the previous decade. In 1873, Butt replaced his Association with the more well-known, and more successful “Home Rule League”.

Butt wanted the League to be more of a pressure group than a political party, but events soon overtook his conservative views. The League proved to be resoundingly popular with the Irish electorate, winning the majority of Irish seats in the 1874 election, the first to take place with secret ballot rules, taking 59 of the 101 available, mostly at the expense of Liberal politicians. In Parliament itself, this amounted to just over 9% of the total representation, making the Home Rulers the first legitimate third party in British history. One year later, in a Meath by-election, a 29 year old Wicklow landowner was elected for the League. His name was Charles Stewart Parnell.

Parnell is an unlikely figurehead for Irish nationalism if one looks at his background. The son of an Eton educated cricketeer and his American wife – with connections to the British royal family – and raised a Protestant, before his election Parnell was mostly known as a well-regarded landlord who had served as the High Sheriff of Wicklow, and later testimonies claim that he never had any great attachment to the history of Irish rebellions and nationalism. Yet this hither-to unremarkable man would go down in history as synonymous with the quest for Home Rule, the “Uncrowned King of Ireland”.

Possibly due to anti-Irish feelings he encountered during his school days, or the fierce anti-English feelings of his mother, Parnell latched on to the Home Rule movement, and his star rose rapidly, aided by the fact that the Home Rule League was not a strictly disciplined political grouping, essentially acting as a loose confederation of mostly like-minded individuals. Butt represented the gentlemanly conservative side of things, who would try and fail to win concessions from the British government for Ireland. Parnell, somewhat of a firebrand, would become the poster-boy for the more radical side of the League, who were willing to try new methods to get the British authorities to listen to their demands.

This amounted to the famous policy of obstructionism that Parnell and others carried out, making lengthy speeches of little relevance of consequence in the Parliament chambers, that significantly reduced the ability of the legislature to get its work done in the limited time it had for sittings. This behaviour horrified Butt, but did successfully get the “Irish Question” on the agenda. Moreover, and connected to the entire point of this post series, it got Parnell and his friends the attention of the IRB.

The Fenians were not blind to both the opportunities presented by the Home Rule movement, and the limitations of their oft-defeated military struggle, and as far back as 1868 some of them had been working to pursue a dual strategy, where the Fenians and the Home Rule associations would work concurrently, independent of one another, but both pursuing the same basic goal of greater freedom for Ireland. The practical effects were obvious: Fenians, while continuing the stashing of arms, the fermentation of uprisings and the training of men, could prove able campaigners and, indeed, candidates for the Home Rule movement. A fight for Irish freedom in secret, and a fight in public.

This alliance of convenience was not without its hiccups, and by 1876 the leadership of the IRB – which included Home Rule MPs like Joseph Bigger – had grown impatient with the lack of practical results that the Home Rule League had been able to win, especially the conservative side of the movement led by Isaac Butt. That year, the Supreme Council ended any agreement it had had with elements of the Home Rule League, ordering its membership to sever ties and expelling Home Rule members from their own ranks.

But the split was only temporary, thanks to the more high-profile actions of Parnell and his radicals, which was exactly what the IRB liked to see. In 1877 Parnell had meetings with Fenians while on a visit to Paris, which paved the way, in early 1878,  for further meeting between Parnell and members of both the IRB and Clan na Gael, discussions that eventually included John Devoy. Devoy and others were impressed by what Parnell and his radicals had to offer, even if Parnell was reluctant to commit to any kind of arrangement with the Fenians or Clan na Gael.

In October 1878 Devoy summed up the ideas behind this movement for a marriage of convenience between the militant and the constitutional, in an op-ed for the New York Herald. Devoy used the term “new departure” to describe the Clan’s willingness to continue their operations, while supporting like-minded candidates for the British legislature.

In 1879, Devoy, in personal meetings with Parnell and others, was able to form a more formal arrangement, though Parnell and others were careful to never commit to anything on paper. The “New Departure” was sealed, with the Clan unofficially committed to supporting the Home Rule League politically, provided the candidates met with their approval. One of the key things was that the aim of a federalised structure be dropped in favour of more all-out self-government for Ireland, and that the Home Rulers take a harder stance on the all-crucial land question (a subject for another entry).

The partnership was unofficial, and resisted by elements of the IRB. But the mutual benefits were obvious, and soon Parnell, in his speeches, was carrying a harder line on the topics of Irish self-government and the divisive land question.

The New Departure was a true stand-alone moment in Irish history, when a variety of factions – conservative nationalists, revolutionary nationalists, pragmatic Home Rulers, constitutionalists and even elements of the Catholic Church – all suddenly found themselves on the same page, fighting a common cause, and making headway. Their activities would become ingrained with that of the Land War, but also helped to catapult the question of Home Rule into the position where it came close to causing a civil war in Ireland a few decades later. The creation of any kind of working relationship between the militant and the political, in Ireland, is something to note. But hard battles, in the fields and in the legislature, would test that new friendship severely.

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

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Serenity: Leaves On The Wind #4

OK, after the last issue’s surprise ending, lets continue on.

Page One

The remaining crew of Serenity, minus Mal, glower down at something. We’ll try and conveniently ignore the fact that Simon’s eyes appear to be looking in two different directions.

Page Two

The reason for the glowering is revealed, as the Operative steps on-board Serenity, for the first time as it happens. Mal’s “Welcome aboard” doesn’t need any sarcastic indicators for the audience to get it. Then, Jayne eagerly asks Mal for a favour.

Page Three

Which happens to be the chance to kill the Operative when all is said and done. There’s a nice sense of energy to this page as Mal goes about the business of getting the ship up and running, not even looking at Jayne as they talk. He has things to do.

Page Four

Which includes murdering Jubal Early in cold blood, but done in such a fashion that his death is not a certainty. “Did Jet just die?” “I don’t know, it was really unclear.” This is another tie-in to the previous Early stuff, attempting to make some kind of repeating trait that you can never be sure if the guy is dead or not, Hakeswill-like. The casual way that Mal and Kaylee commit murder here is extremely jarring.

Page Five

Well, we’re moving on regardless. The crew discuss the plan with the Operative, laying out the basic problems, namely that breaking into the facility for a second time will require some ingenuity. The art in the top panel bothers me a bit, as the strangely drawn Bea, in black and white, doesn’t look like she really belongs in the scene. Probably a deliberate choice, but not a good one in my opinion.

Page Six

Bea offers the opportunity to get a ship, adding a cheap jibe at Mal’s apparent lack of heroism into the bargain, coming off like a spoiled brat in the process. Lower down, Kaylee and Inara start a clumsy conversation meant to explain why Mal is OK with having the Operative on Serenity. The explanation is weak. Everything about this so far is weak, a real “Just go with it” vibe.

Page Seven

A quick montage showing Serenity landing on Sihnon and the crew trekking out. Sihnon’s actually supposed to be one of the two main planets in this galaxy, the other being Londinium, so the apparently easy way the crew land in secrecy here is also bothersome.

Page Eight

Bea leads Mal to a New Resistance cell, which is a bit odd to find in the very core of Alliance territory, but whatever, just go with it. Check out Jayne’s comical grimace in the last panel.

Page Nine

On the Alliance prison colony, Zoe has her situation explained in grim terms, her confinement being on a totally desert planet where the inmates are allowed to interact and kill each other as they will. Yeesh, again, what’s the point of such a facility?

Page Ten

Zoe decides to play peacemaker, of a kind. Wasn’t sure I liked where this was going the first time, but at least the portrait shot of Zoe is great.

Page Eleven

Zoe beats up the guy. Moving right along.

Page Twelve

Mal and Inara share a rather nice, intimate moment before he, the Operative, Jayne and River blast off in their newly acquired shuttle. Simon and Kaylee watch smiling, but we still haven’t had the chance to see much of them doing the same. Slightly strange feeling here, we’ve already established Mal and Inara’s intimacy, why re-iterate it like this?

Page Thirteen

The team arrive at the Academy. A basic set-up page.

Page Fourteen

There doesn’t appear to be any security at the Academy. Could it be a trap? Before you get the chance to yell “Admiral Ackbar”, the Operative confirms that it is, indeed, a trap. We’re flying along in the narrative all of a sudden, this page had the feel of a ending for an issue.

Page Fifteen

It’s our Alliance friends from earlier in the story, whose names we never got. The Operative does the heroic thing, and the rest clamour into the facility. Wait, if it’s a trap, shouldn’t they be running away?

Page Sixteen

Admittedly nice to see Vera return, even if giving the weapon a whole page to show off seems a bit much, ‘Member Vera?

Page Seventeen

Welcome to the horror show, as River confronts one of her former tormentors in a grisly looking medical lab. Not bad. Outside, the Operative squares up to “Denon”, presumably also a Parliamentary Operative.

Page Eighteen

And they are having a straight up swordfight. The Operative’s use of the sword had a certain believability to it in Serenity, as a ceremonial weapon of execution, something he used just to kill and not to engage in combat with. So an actual swordfight like this, outside the realms of a formal duel, in a universe of spaceships and laser guns, seems a tad off. You just want the Operative to pull a gun and say “I am not a moron”.

Page Nineteen

Surprise, surprise, the doctors who worked on River are some the of the creepiest imaginable, seeming to be actually a bit crazy. Not exactly who I would picture the Alliance putting in charge of a project like this.

Page Twenty

River beholds some kind of stasis chamber for a dozen or more girls like she was. Interesting that they are all female, I’m not sure if Leaves On The Wind ever really makes something of that. River’s look of terror tells us all we need to know about what’s coming next.

Page Twenty-One

Jesus, the scientist is actually rubbing his hands while smiling gleefully. A bit much, no? Not exactly subtle. River is confronted by a “complete” version of herself, a shaven, unitard wearing killer. It appears the plan has backfired somewhat.

I hated this issue. It’s full of bad writing, bad artwork, rushed narratives and nonsensical plot decisions. It was at this point that I stopped really caring about Leaves On The Wind as a genuine continuation of the franchise, and started thinking of it instead as a sort of glorified fan-fiction exercise. Would the last third be able to change my mind? Tune in next week to find out.

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Review: Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed

Trailer

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Take a look at the list of video game movies over on Wikipedia, and then sort it via critic ranking. The results are an exercise in depression. Top of the pile via RT is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within on 44%, which was more of an “inspired by” rather than “based on” affair really, and after that it’s the relatively blank canvas of The Angry Birds Movie on 43% followed by Jake Gyllenhaal’s whitewashing exercise The Prince Of Persia on a measly 36%. Beyond that, you’re in the realm Milla Jovovich’s increasingly outlandish Resident Evil films, Angelina Jolie’s one dimensional Tomb Raider franchise and, horror of horrors, the works of Uwe Boll. If one sub-genre has proven time and time again that it can’t be pulled off, it is the video game adaptation, and the reasons are not hard to see. The difference between the two mediums, in terms of viewer/user participation and engagement, is gigantic and what works with a controller in hand cannot be accurately replicated in a cinema seat.

But here we go again. This time, though not for the first time, we have a good director and a very good-looking vast, with Justin Kurzel, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard who wowed me and many others with 2015’s Macbeth. The project doesn’t seem all that far from cinematic either, Ubisoft’s story-driven historical/sci-fi adventure series being the kind of “AAA” game that has successfully meshed differing genres to produce something really breath-taking at times. But it’s still a video game. So, did Assassin’s Creed finally buck the trend for this sub-genre, or was it just another brick in the wall of suck?

After being executed for murder, Callum Lynch (Fassebender) wakes up in Abstergo, the modern day face of the Ancient Knights Templar Order. There, under the supervision of scientist Sophia (Cotillard) and her father (Jeremy Irons), Callum is forced to relive the memories of his ancestors, namely Aguilar, a member of the Assassin’s Order in 1492 Spain as the Templers seek the “Apple Of Eden”, a device that will finally give them the power to destroy mankind’s free will.

It has been a while since I have seen a real disaster of a film. You know what I mean: a film you have expectations for, that has the budget, the director and the cast that it should be able to cobble something together, but then it just doesn’t. Assassin’s Creed is one of those films, a failure on nearly every level, a film I have no qualms, a week in, declaring likely to be the worst film I will see in 2017. My girlfriend, a bigger fan of the video game series than I am, had it right upon credits rolling: “What did I just watch?”

Where to start? It’s hard to decide on just one thing, but how about how utterly dull it all is? From the moment we move from Aguilar’s oath-taking as an Assassin Kurzel’s film is spinning its wheels, from an overwrought prologue featuring a young Callum witnessing his mother’s murder through to the interminable sections set inside Abstergo’s drab colourless facility, part laboratory, part One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest crazyhouse. There are game attempts to inject some life into proceedings as Callum goes back and forth with Sophia, manically sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” or interacts with the other inmates, but they all fall miserably flat: these are exposition dumps where the same exposition, the same message and the same theme is repeated ad nauseam: the dichotomy between free will and violence, liberty and security, Templars and assassins.

You could make something out of that I suppose, but Assassin’s Creed just doesn’t. It tries to make horror-style stuff with the Animus itself and the way Callum is thrust unwillingly into the past, but it’s all just confusing visually and just a delay to the promise of the premise. It tries to be chillingly jaunty with Callum’s erratic behaviour, but it seems more like Fassbender is auditioning for the Joker than giving it his absolute all. It tries to build tension with a cabal of Assassins crafting an uprising within Abstergo, but it’s all so inevitable in its narrative direction that it is only so much tedium. Even the geographically limited present-day sections of the original Assassin’s Creed game had more omph to them. We should feel like Callum is in greater and greater danger every time he goes into the Animus, we should want him to uncover the truth about what Abstergo is after gradually, building to a proper climax. But we don’t get that.

Shockingly, the film only springs to life when we enter the Animus with Callum and start zipping around rooftops in 1492. The kernel of decent characters in Aguilar and Maria is there, as is the kernel of a decent story, as the Assassins race to stop the Templars from using the son of a Muslim ruler as blackmail to obtain the Apple of Eden. Even if it is wrapped up in non-stop parkour and frenetic fight sequences, and looked awful (more on that in a moment) it was more engaging, more entertaining, more fun than any wispy conversations on the nature of aggression from a succession of terribly boring present-day characters. Cameos from famous historical personalities, over the top villains, a setting unique to modern day film: Why couldn’t Assassin’s Creed just be that? I’m not saying it would flip from terrible to brilliant with that change, but it would have been at least passable.

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How was this OK’d?

The film’s pacing is fundamentally off. The bones of the premise are repeated thrice in the opening 20 minutes (starting with an opening crawl, made completely irrelevant since we have to follow Callum learning it all anyway), and it takes a very long time for us to take our first proper trip back to the 15th century. Kurzel lets his camera follow an eagle around cityscapes for a frustratingly long time repeatedly and the balance between the events in Abstergo and the encounters with the Spanish Inquisition is tilted way too much in the wrong direction. In the games, the present sections were the interregnum between meat and bones of past adventures, acceptable in an entertainment experience meant to last far beyond the two hours Kurzel has to work with. Here the past exists mostly so some action scenes can be inserted into the plodding narrative of Callum’s aggressive feelings being sorted out.

Assassin’s Creed winds its way down to a finale where the past and the present sort of merge in a clumsy way, only slightly redeemed by the quality of the fight choreography, which is pretty much the films only saving grace. The ending is a real “Um, how do we close this off?” affair, where the production team seem more concerned with setting up a sequel than crafting an engaging climax. The credits are a relief when they come, providing a chuckle with some of the lyrics to “He Says He Needs Me” that plays over them: “That ain’t right”.

The chemistry between Fassbender and Cotillard, so vital to this kind of film, so important in making Macbeth such an engrossing experience, is lacking here, to put it mildly. Fassbender is somewhat committed to his role and gives it a bit of effort, but Cotillard looks lost, like she’s just here for the director and the leading man. This was apparently a bit of a passion project for Fassbender, a fan of the games, which might explain why he is more into it, especially in terms of the physical aspects of the part, but Cotillard doesn’t seem interested in what’s going on around her all that much, like one of the mindless zombies who have been in the Animus a bit too long.

And the rest of the cast, perhaps taking their lead from the leads, is barely trying to. Jeremy Irons looks like he wants to fall asleep in every scene he is in, Michael K. Williams needed a bit more of that Omar strut, Denis Menochet glowers for a while and Brendan Gleeson may have just done this film, with his son as his younger self, as a favour to a fellow Irishman. Only Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s fellow Assassin/lover impresses from the supporting cast, and she barely talks.

The script is a real humdrum thing, that needed the cast to be giving it a bit more. “Why the aggression?” coos Marion Cotillard. “I’m an aggressive person” Fassbender blandly replies. One of the villains explains that the Templers are happy to use consumerism to convince people to forget about civil liberties, in a character and lines that read like they were written by a first-year college student. Michael K. Williams’ character has that sort of “Magical Negro” quality in every utterance, referring to Callum as “pioneer” for no reason at all. Callum’s backstory, namely why he was Death Row, is waved away with a casual “A pimp” when Sophia points out he killed someone.It’s only in the past sections, done entirely in Spanish, that the script in any way comes alive.

It might help if the film made an effort to look good, but Assassin’s Creed looks truly horrible, with Kurzel taking the sections of Macbeth that were wreathed in smoke as a guideline for how he wants most of this film to look. Where in Macbeth the spared use of the technique created atmosphere and ambiance, here the overuse creates a distracting muddle on-screen, as scene after scene ,especially in the all-important past sections, is covered in smoke and dust. The present too is dark to the point of irritation, light contrasted sharply with shadow in every other scene, not so much gothic as glaringly obvious. This is beyond Burton, beyond Snyder: it’s just sheer tedium in terms of the colour palette, when Assassin’s Creed should be embracing some brightness. I would have expected a bit more from Kurzel, whose direction otherwise is fine, but crucially hindered at every turn by how he is choosing to present his scenes.

Assassin’s Creed keeps it in the family with composer Jed Kurzel and let’s only give a few brief words to his score, a booming, thudding, reverberating bore, that starts off somewhat promising with the electric guitars of the opening before nestling into a bland, overdone mess, in line with everything else I suppose. The game’s soundtrack was great: what happened in the move from one medium to another?

I am more convinced than ever that video games cannot translate into film, at least not without so many changes that they cease to be an adaptation. The mediums are simply too different for the same level of quality to be moved from console to screen. Assassin’s Creed was as set-up as you can arguably get for a film (I would argue only Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and The Last Of Us franchises are better prospects), and the end result is a dreadful movie, as dull as dishwater and as colourful too. The cast can’t be bothered, the script can’t be bothered, the composer can’t be bothered and I can’t be bothered. Ubisoft would be better off limiting their efforts to the video game realm from now on, just like Fassbender and Kurzel should stay away from the same. Not recommended.

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Ugh.

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

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