Review – The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Trailer

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Guess which face most closely matched mine.

It’s practically ancient history when it comes to the modern-day tilt-a-whirl of tent poll franchises, but it’s still a bit surprising to me how much of a revelation The Lego Movie of five years ago turned out to be. I remember watching the trailer for it and thinking it had the potential to be a disaster, more Emoji Movie than what it became, but then it was the year of “Everything Is Awesome” and a stream of imaginative animation that served as a very heartfelt love letter to those little plastic blocks. The years since have seen two big screen spin-offs of the sub-genre, that I both kinda liked without being blown away, but I have to admit that my expectations for The Second Part were, if not quite sky-high, pretty far up. So, is the next instalment of Emmett and co’s adventures a decent edition to the canon or is it a case of, as one of the songs of the production goes “Everything’s Not Awesome”?

Five years on from their liberations of Bricksburg, Emmett (Chris Pratt), Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and their assorted friends – Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Bire), Benny (Charle Day) among others – now live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with everything  happy and colourful instantly destroyed by alien Duplos from the Systar System. When Lucy and his friends are kidnapped by shape-shifting Duplo queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), Emmett embarks on a journey to save them, with the help of edgy hero Rex Dangerfest.

It would only stand to reason that The Lego Movie would be hard to top, and The Second Part can’t credibly claim to do that. While it has plenty going for it, too much can only be adequately described as “More of the same” for it to be considered at that level, and where The Lego Movie was a true stand-out of the genre, The Second Part thus becomes something inherently forgettable.

The truth is that in so many ways The Second Part is re-treading things, be they jokes or a general hero’s journey narrative, played for laughs in its straightforwardness in the first one, but now just par for the course. It’s no surprise that Rex Dangervest and his spaceship crewed by raptors steals the show, along with Watevra, because they are the new elements: Lucy, Unikitty, Benny and the Pirate Captain are all just doing the same thing they were doing before, only now with less time to do it in. Will Arnett’s Batman, naturally, gets far more attention, and the warped love plot between him and Watevra actually is rather good, but even I have to admit that, three movies into his version of the character, Arnett is starting to grate just a little bit.

One of the key things that really struck  me about The Second Part was how so much of its running time, especially the first two thirds or so, seem dedicated to a strange quasi-criticism of the elements that made the first one so memorable. The infectiously happy tone and colour scheme of the first is replaced by the obviously Mad Max-inspired location of “Apocalypseburg”, where the inhabitants are all various shades of miserable, and look back on the good ‘ol days with distant disdain, Lucy wants Emmett to drop the effervescent act and grow up a little bit, and our main character seems to be suffering a bit of arrested development. Emmett himself is frequently upstaged by Dangervest, a newer, cooler, edgier hero with a dark backstory he doesn’t mind dropping. And our apparent villain uses mindless pop music, of a kind that sounds a lot like “Everything Is Awesome”, as a brainwashing tool.

It got to the extent that I was beginning to wonder if the writing/directing crew had changed wholesale, but it does all come right in the end, at least to an extent. Having run the gauntlet of casting aspersions on the tone and themes of The Lego Movie, the final message of The Second Part is a simple, but not unwelcome, treatise on how it’s OK to be happy, to like shiny things and yes, mindless pop synth, because being serious all the time is, well, not awesome. If The Second Part can say anything, it’s that it invites the viewer to contemplate how dull that edgier Lego world would be, before confirming that it’s better for things to remain “Unbelievable, super cool, outrageous and amazing, phenomenal, fantastic, so incredible (woo hoo)”. That’s a bit more palatable than the overblown looks at how childlike innocence inevitably turns to adolescent cynicism, in a way that feels like it’s going for the same thing that Toy Story did, just much more badly. If The Second Part really wanted to do something intelligent, they would have hit down harder on themes of gender dynamics, with the film going places in an early scene where a stuttering Lucy has to explain just why Emmett is the leader, and can’t really come up with anything, only to become mostly subordinate (again).

The wit and cocksure attitude of The Lego Movie is replicated here, not continued. The nods and references to pop culture overwhelm everything, to the point that the film actually skews towards adults. Every actor who had ever played Batman gets namedropped, Pratt’s filmography gets a going over (hence the raptors) there at digs at the absence of Marvel characters (they aren’t returning calls, with the Justice League taking the superhero slots; a Jason Mamoa voiced Aquaman even says “My man!”), Bruce Willis turns up in an air vent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows up as a bridesmaid, the credits sequence features a song about how great it is stick through the credits, on and on it goes, funny in that split-second moment, but becoming increasingly insufferable in the memory. The outcome is more Shrek (director Mike Mitchell helmed the regrettable fourth addition to that franchise) than anything else, and all of the lantern hanging, when characters flat out state the themes of the movie in language only a thirty year old would understand, points to a production team that have lost sight of the actual whim and whimsy that is supposed to be present.

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Tiffany Hadish’s Watevra is as creative as the film gets.

The key flaw of the first one, the radically unnecessary inclusion of a live-action framing device, is extended here, despite the obvious unavailability of Will Ferrell for anything other than VA. His two kids bicker and fight over the Lego kingdom of their father, and this forms the basis for the actual plot of the movie, and it is all so superfluous, repeating the general themes and message of the actual plot in a manner that even a child may find a bit much. Even with Maya Rudolph appearing in a few great scenes, turning a simple step onto a stray Lego piece into a surprisingly excellent recurring joke, it just drags the whole thing down with cloying sentimentality.

Visually, as I have said before, the franchise has lost some of its lustre. The manic energy and vibrancy that made the coming together of all these Lego parts in The Lego Movie has become tired, little more than animated Michael Bay-esque noise and confusion, with only new ideas, like the shape-shifting Watevra, really popping the way you would expect. With such limitations comes inevitable noticing of how little originality is actually in some things, with The Second Part lifting so much from other sources, running the gauntlet of “inspiration” from George Miller to Trey Parker and Matt Stone (one late fight scene visual joke is taken directly from Team America: World Police).

Where The Second Part does get things largely right is the music, which remains as creative as it was before. Emmett opens things with a Garfunkel and Oats rendition of “Everything Is Awesome” while blissfully strolling through Apocalypseburg; Hadish’s apparent villain insists she is nothing to worry about in the hilarious “Not Evil”, cementing her as a likely “Darth Nefarious“; later, she and Arnett have an unlikely romantic duet about the perils and advantages of dating “Gotham City Guys”; “Catchy Song” both mocks and pays tribute to mindless peppy synth filled pop music; and a combination of Beck, Robyn and the Lonely Island play us out with the suitably optimistic “Super Cool”, a sort of happy follow-on to “Everything Is Awesome”.

It’s been a turbulent time for the creative team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who stuck to writing here, lettting Mitchell fill in the director’s chair, between their highly publicised axing from Solo: A Star Wars Story and their subsequent work on the very well-received Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse (and the upcoming adaptation of Andy Weir’s Artemis), so a little bit of a lax result here might be understandable. But in a larger sense, I can’t help but think that we have come to the end of the road, at least insofar as I can stomach more of these. The animation style has become stale four films in, and the idea well is getting shallower. Do we really need a third Lego Movie, or more spin-offs? We don’t, though that isn’t going to stop them from coming and coming.

All you can do is refuse to play the game yourself anymore, and that’s probably what I will end up doing. The franchise will keep going without me, crazy randomness keeping things at least somewhat fresh, and has reached the point of being largely bulletproof critically. You will find much to enjoy here, but sadly from a “Shut off your brain perspective” and not from anything truly worthwhile. Sadly, everything is, indeed, not awesome, and this does not get a strong recommendation.

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The last part, I can hope.

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

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , ,

Ireland’s Wars: South Dublin Union

The western-most fighting within Dublin would belong to the 4th battalion of the Irish Volunteers, and most of that fighting would be done in a large complex called the South Dublin Union, located to the south-west at the city centre, near Kingsbridge Train Station (modern day Heuston Station). The Union was essentially an evolution from the poorhouses of the previous century, now holding a number of hospitals and other medical facilities, along with buildings to house nurses and members of religious orders, with several entrances and high walls surrounding. The 50-acre estate had several obvious strategic advantages that made it the target that it became, not least its proximity to Richmond Barracks and Kingsbridge Station both sources of potential British entanglements for the rebels. By extension, it could also serve as an impediment to any British soldiers that would be sent towards Dublin from the Army headquarters in the Curragh, Kildare.

The man in charge of the 4th battalion was Commandant Eamonn Ceannt. Born in Galway in 1881, son of an RIC officer (the future signatory was apparently born in a police barracks), Ceannt was brought up in an extremely Catholic household, and educated in schools with an extremely Catholic ethos and found his nationalist spirit invoked by events such as the 1798 centenary and the Boer War. After excellent academic results he could have worked for the civil service but choose instead to accept a job with the Dublin corporation, not wishing to work for the British directly. He developed a strong appreciation for the Irish language and Irish music, and it was through the Gaelic League that he was introduced to men like Pearse and MacNeill, and eventually came to join both the Volunteers and the IRB, advancing rapidly through his work as a fund raiser, and in in helping with events like the Howth gun-running. That was the not the limit of his nationalist or left-wing activities however, as he was also a member of Sinn Fein and a committed trade unionist. Ceannt was a member of the IRB’s military council from May 1915, and thus involved intimately in the planning of the Rising; he was well-placed to instigate such plans when he was made the commander of Dublin’s 4th battalion and was important enough to become a signatory.

Of all the garrisons of Easter Week, that of the South Dublin Union may have been the most badly effected by the confusion arising from MacNeill’s countermanding order. Some of those who reported for duty on Monday believed afterwards that only a fifth of the expected number were present, coming to about a hundred men. Ceannt, a respected if untested officer, did his best to soothe the anxieties of his men before they set off from their muster point at Emerald Square.

Such was the built-up nature of the area, Ceannt decided to seize what he hoped would be three vital outposts to bolster the defence of the main South Dublin Union position. These were Jameson’s Distillery on Marrowbone Lane to the south-east under Seamus Murphy, Watkin’s Brewery even further east under Con Colbert (a key figure in Fianna Eireann and the IRB in his own right) and Roe’s Distillery to the north under Tommy McCarthy (St James’ Brewery was also nearby, showing clearly the main industry of the area). All three of these positions were taken with little resistance.

The main attack on the Union, through its northwards facing gate was led by two future national leaders: Ceannt’s second-in-command, a travelling salesman named Cathal Brugha and Lieutenant William T. Cosgrave, a Sinn Fein Councillor. Ceannt entered from the western Rialto gate. The entrances were secured, and then the interior, as much as Ceannt and his limited men were able to do so. The gates were barricaded while Ceannt made his HQ in the nurses home in the centre of the complex: in terms of specific areas of focus a group of Volunteers was dispatched to the grassy ground of the Union’s north-west section, known as McCaffrey’s Orchard, and others to guard the north wall facing Roe’s Distillery. In their fortification efforts the Volunteers had to deal with the unfortunate issue of the Union’s medical and religious staff, not to mention the patients who weren’t in a position to leave. Now stuck in what was to become an active warzone, the best they could do was hunker down in the hospital and ward buildings.

It did not take long for the first engagement with the British military to come. 100 men of the 3rd Royal Irish Regiment, many of whom were just back from France, had been dispatched from Richmond Barracks upon word of the Rising, to help secure Dublin Castle. As they moved past the north side of the Union they saw the defenders; they pressed forward regardless, until the Volunteers opened fire. Some casualties were taken before the Royal Irish found cover, before others headed into the nearby Royal Hospital and used its higher stories and roof as an excellent vantage point to give harassing fire. The men in the Orchard were too exposed to remain where they were, and reluctantly pulled back, leaving dead and wounded behind, with the Roe’s Distillery position offering what cover they could before they too came under withering fire from the hospital.

The Rialto entrance was attacked shortly after by additional companies that were rushed up after news came of the initial engagement, but the British got nowhere fast until a Lewis Gun on the hospital roof was able to focus its attention, hitting several Volunteers and isolating the few men holding the gate. The British soon expanded their offensive: around 50 of the Royal Irish attacked along the southern wall of the Union but were blindsided by the men inside the nearby Jameson’s Distillery, who laid down a lethal amount of fire. The Canal entrance to the south was also targeted, and the smaller gate on Mount Shannon Road. It took several charges to force this gate, with its narrow passage way easy to plug up with fire, but eventually the British broke through, killing or capturing the defenders at that point, while the Canal entrance was also captured. With these positions falling, the Rialto gate was left hopelessly exposed, and this too was taken shortly afterwards.

The British thus had every opportunity to pour into the Union, and with better leadership and luck they may have snuffed out the Union that very afternoon. But here the layout of the Union worked to the Volunteers’ advantage, as the British now had to navigate the various buildings in that section of the complex, a mixture of hospitals, wards and outbuildings that the Volunteers had made sure to occupy, or at least their vital points. It might be an exaggeration to call them a maze, but the level of fire and manoeuvre that the Volunteers were able to employ certainly confused the advanced British units and prevented a wide-scale breakthrough into the rest of the Union.

The fighting was desperate all the same, especially when it moved to the interior of those same buildings, many of which were full of nurses and their patients; the Union had a population of 3’000 at any given time. Here was a close-range fight of butts, knives and bayonets alongside rifles, pistols and bombs as the Volunteers defended numerous hallways and stairwells from the British attacks; even Ceannt was involved in the defence, while Brugha quickly developed a reputation for throwing himself into danger at every opportunity. In the confusion, it wasn’t clear who exactly was winning and losing, as the battle devolved into small-scale firefights between handfuls of soldiers. There were plenty of civilian casualties to add to the terror.

Eventually the superior British numbers told, and the Volunteers were obliged to quit these medical buildings, fleeing in the direction of the nurses home. The exhausted Royal Irish did not pursue. The final major combat of the day was an effort to rescue the wounded and trapped men left behind in the Orchard, which was partially successful, some of the men rescued but other casualties taken in the attempt.

A nervous night passed, before fire resumed on Tuesday morning, with the Lewis gun on the Royal Hospital roof severely limited the ability of the Volunteers to move from position to position, building to building. Ceannt and the others must have fully expected what would have been a final assault. Instead, to the astonishment of both the Volunteers and the British soldiers, the Royal Irish were ordered to retreat from the Union by General Lowe and move from there to Kingsbridge Station. The reason for this has never really been made clear, and the commanders on site only carried out the orders under protest, with the Regimental history dubbing the decision “extraordinary” after the casualties and effort it had taken to get as far as they did. Perhaps Lowe did not wish to risk additional men in a fight for the Union or felt that the Royal Irish could not be reinforced without loss. It has also been suggested that, with Dublin Castle secured, the British leadership preferred to ward against an attack on Richmond Barracks and beyond. Whatever the reason, the British surrendered their only real chance to clear out the Union for the rest of the week, and the Volunteers gleefully took the chance to re-fortify their positions.

Instead of the Union interior, their focus turned to the Jameson’s Distillery position, with elements of the Royal Irish joining cavalry lancers in an effort to pinch it out from the canal side. This was to be a tall order, given the size and strength of the Jameson’s defensive position, with its higher stories and towers well manned by rebel sharpshooters. The attack commenced around 2 p.m, and rapidly turned into somewhat of a bloodbath, as the cavalry found their mounts unsuited to the urban environment, and the infantry found themselves unable to make much progress. After two hours the British withdrew, leaving a large number of dead and wounded infantry and horses behind them.

After getting orders from Major John MacBride in Jacob’s, technically the nearest available officer above him, Captain Con Colbert abandoned the Watkin’s Brewery position, bringing his men to Jameson’s: he was joined shortly thereafter by the men who had been left in Roe’s, those who were able to make the journey at any rate. Their positions were simply too isolated ton be effective, and Colbert was anxious owing to their lack of contact with the enemy; for that reason alone a re-positioning to Jameson’s made sense, though it left the 4th battalion’s overall area of operations contracted.

The rest of Tuesday, and then Wednesday, passed quietly enough, save for the increased activity of snipers in the area, and the sounds of battle in the other parts of the city which, like the other garrison, had little practical effect on the situation, but served to continually harass the Volunteers. The British used the advantage of darkness to dig better positions on the approach to Jameson’s, ready for another attempt to take the distillery on the Thursday.

That morning the amount of sniper fire increased, until it became a cacophony, as the dug-in soldiers joined the chorus: at 10 a.m, the next attack began proper. Again defensive fire took a terrible toll, but this time the volume of British fire allowed some soldiers to reach the distillery walls, before they were driven off by a succession of thrown bombs coming from the hands of Colbert and a group under his command. Again, the attack petered out with the rebels still in control of the distillery.

The bigger drama of the day was taking place in the Union again, as the 2/8th Sherwood Foresters, having just gotten through the bloody business of Mount Street Bridge, were ordered into the fray once more. This time, they were to be at the forefront, while their mauled brethren in the 2/7th formed the rearguard. From positions in the Royal Hospital, they prepared to re-enter the Union from the positions as before.

 

Despite harassing fire from the Union and Jameson’s, they were able to make that entrance, but that was as easy as the operation would get. The Volunteers in the union, probably because of their low numbers, had not firmly secured the previous battleground, but maintained an excellent field of fire from their more central and northern positions. Despite the support of the Royal Hospital Lewis gun, the British took many casualties as they moved towards the new primary target of the nurses home.

This and its surrounding buildings were the scene of grim fighting, as the Foresters pressed and the Volunteers did their best to stand their ground. A repeat of the Monday fighting now took place, as the battle took to the rooms and corridors, with the Volunteers fighting behind pre-prepared barricades, and the British attempting to tunnel between rooms and buildings as bets they could. One of the more notable incidents of the Union fighting occurred here, as Cathal Brugha took a truly extraordinary amount of wounds (25 according to come reports) in single-handedly defending an stairwell, singing as he did so. Despite the grenade and bullet wounds, Brugha prevented the British advance until a Volunteer counter-attack drove them back: as noted, he was somehow able to survive, and would play a bigger part in the revolutionary struggle in years to come.

The strength of the rebel positions eventually told,as  the British, despairing of the casualties they had taken and likely would take if they stayed on the attack, withdrew from the Union yet again. Instead, Lowe decided that, as with Jacob’s and the College of Surgeons, the Union would be surrounded and isolated as much as possible.

The remainder of the week thus passed fairly quietly, as the Union and Jameson’s garrison rested and prepared for future combat, largely ignorant of what was occurring in the rest of Dublin. Morale remained high, and stayed as such, until Sunday, when Commandant MacDonagh arrived at the Union, with the news of the surrender.

The South Dublin Union, while among the lesser noted areas of combat in the Easter Rising, provided some of the fiercest fighting of that week. Twice the British got close enough to the rebels that they engaged hand-to-hand; twice the Irish survived, albeit the first time it was more to do with baffling British decisions than anything else. Both the defence of the nurses home and Jameson’s Distillery demonstrated the strength of the Volunteers when they occupied strong positions, and the stupidity of British commanders who ordered open assaults on such positions. From a military perspective, the South Dublin Union area thus accomplished at least some of its objectives, in pinning down British forces for a time and influencing the general direction of British strategy in the Volunteers’ favour. But like other garrisons, the effectiveness of the Union and Jameson’s declined as the week went on, they failed to put any pressure on Kingsbridge Station and if the British had decided to leave things be on Thursday it is likely that little would have changed.

On a symbolic level, Ceannt also did quite well. His defence of the nurses home was exemplary, and men like Brugha and Cosgrave would benefit greatly in year to come from the reputation they gained that week, with Ceannt also praised for his general attitude and coolness under fire, traits not shared by some other signatories and garrison commanders. Again seasoned British veterans had been mauled by Irish militia, some of whom were implementing tactics that were not entirely unlike guerrilla warfare, and had actually retreated in the face of such opposition.

Our coverage of the Easter Rising is now approaching the end of the battle in Dublin and must now move to the north side of the city. Before we focus on the Volunteer Headquarters, we must look further west, to the fighting around the Four Courts and North King Street.

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

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: All Is True

All Is True

Trailer

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“Oh for a muse of fire, to summon the brightest heaven of invention…”

Man, this film sure knew how to get me interested. Look at this director. Look at this cast. Look at this subject matter. It’s almost like the perfect thespian confluence. You could pretty much take this cast and put them in any Shakespearean adaptation, and I would probably be entertained, but Kenneth Branagh has instead decided to tackle something a bit closer to home for the Bard, in a literal sense. There’s rich opportunity in that, since we know so precious little of Shakespeare’s personal life, especially the time before his death when he allegedly retired to his hometown of Stafford-upon-Avon, so Branagh could go about crafting something altogether unique. But there are risks too, especially the possibility of an overly-reverent character study from a group of actors who owe so much to Shakespeare, not to mention the fact that the screenwriter, Ben Elton, has only recently written a sitcom about the same person. On which side of that scale did All Is True land?

After the Globe Theatre burns down in 1613, William Shakespeare (Branagh) returns to his hometown where he is greeted coolly by wife Anne (Judy Dench), and his daughters, puritan Susana (Lydia) and spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder). There, Shakespeare deals with a succession of mounting personal crises: accusations of infidelity on one daughter, serial unhappiness in the other, his own broken marriage hurt by years of absence, the issue of his inheritance and the deceased son he has only just begun to properly mourn.

A real “Tracey Jordan is: Hard To Watch” exercise, All Is True is very much an Oscar-baitish kind of film, wherein a famous personality gets the specified biopic treatment. But, like with many films unfortunately saddled with Oscar bait terminology, that doesn’t mean it actually isn’t any good. And it is quite good, even if it may occasionally skirt the boundaries of being misery porn.

Will Shakespeare has it bad. His professional life lies in ruins following the burning of the Globe, memorably illustrated by an opening shot of Shakespeare standing in front of its blazing edifice. His family just don’t seem to like him very much, not even the son-in-law who wants his money (a Puritan who is supposed to dislike plays, somewhat awkwardly), and they definitely have little time for his belated grieving over Hamnet.

And Shakespeare himself is stuck in that inevitable late life introspection, as he wonders if the way he has lived his days has actually been worth it, with friends both castigating and praising him for living a lengthy, if “small”, life (as is pointed out, many of his theatrical contemporaries, who mixed playwrighting with espionage, dalliances with subversives and “fucking for England”, died young and violently). When confronted with another adoring fan, he gives a wonderfully humorous recitation of his answers to all the usual questions (“I don’t have a favourite play, I like all my family dramatists equally” he opines quickly and with the dead-eyed emotion that comes with repetition) but quickly settles back into a tired sadness, and a desire for the pressures of both wanting fame, and never being able to have it the way he wants, to be gone from him.

So, it’s a character study then. Branagh’s Shakespeare is a deeply insecure and flawed man, who misses the vibrancy of London in a way, and can’t really settle into countryside life again, not easily. His efforts to do so are hit and miss, and consistently  dragged down by his grief over Hamnet, a black shadows that threatens to consume his sanity and what remains of his family. All Is True really is a story all about grief in that way. Shakespeare becomes obsessed with a garden dedicated to Hamnet (in an early scene, when his wife objects on the grounds that their dead son has no need for one, Will replies softly “Maybe I do”); Judith frets that her father thinks the wrong twin died, and hides her own secrets about her departed brother; and Anne, having grieved and moved on, is quietly exasperated.

As an analysis of deferred grief, it’s quite affecting, thanks in no small part to Branagh. To play Shakespeare after a lifetime of playing his greatest creations must be an actors dream, and Branagh takes it on remarkably well. His Will is a quiet, almost repressed man at times, which makes the thunderous outbursts of brief emotion all the more engrossing, as he slowly comes to realise that the idealised vision of Hamnet that he has kept with himself doesn’t really match reality. He is a man so obsessed with the legacy he leaves for himself and his family that he ignores the fact that his family have largely been covering for his own weaknesses as a patriarch, and no matter how much his genius has resulted in a comfortable life for them financially, that gaping emotional hole needs more work to be filled.

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 ” For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings”

You wouldn’t think him the greatest of all poets until he actually starts speaking. The fear of over-reverence is mostly dashed, as Branagh gives his Shakespeare an obsession for noble recognition while also retaining a self-critical attitude, unwilling to stand-up for himself in the face of insults from his nominal betters. Branagh’s Shakespeare has a way with words, and knows it, but he doesn’t have the ego you might expect.

Judy Dench’s turn as Anne should not be ignored of course. Shakespeare’s return is an unwelcome thing for her really, as she seems to have accepted a quiet country life without much in the way of interruption. The film, in some ways, revolves around her slow journey to accept Will as a husband again, and not just a nuisance; she maintains the stiff upper lip expected of her gender at all times, but Dench is too good an actress to limit herself to just that, hazarding the pitfalls of an illiterate wife whose husband happens to be the great writer in history.

Shakespeare’s family drama, as he contends with a series of increasingly upsetting revelations revolving around his daughters and dead son, smacks a little of soap-opera, but one can forgive this given the incredible production values propping it all up. Branagh and screenwriter Elton delight in the freedom of the unknown, and while you couldn’t call the resulting drama a Shakespearean facsimile – far too visceral for that, being obsessed with the mingling of grief and resentment to form a poisonous melancholy – it is very engaging.

Every family has its secrets, and the Shakespeare’s have a few doozy’s. But there are lighter moments too, such as the attempt to explain the oft-pondered bequeathing of the Bard’s second best bed to Anne upon his death, what some assume to be some manner of final insult, but which Branagh and Elton re-imagine as a sort of final in-joke. The problem is that Branagh wishes to include so much in his limited running time, and so seemingly pivotal plot events are introduced and closed off very quickly, such as accusations that Susanna is a “fornicator” (possibly with the approval of her husband, who can’t provide the heir he needs to get Will’s fortune). It’s a shame, because there are times when you wish Branagh had the patience he shows in other scenes.

All Is True revolves around one such a mid-point scene between Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, played ably by Sir Ian McKellan in what amounts to a film-stealing extended cameo. It could be argued that Branagh and McKellan are the best male thespians still working today, and the scene can be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime acting combat, as the two go back-and-forth with Shakespeare’s sonnets and observations on the nature and possibilities of love. The implications about Shakespeare’s sexuality are barely hidden, with plenty of homoerotic overtures in the way he speaks to McKellan, but that’s only one part of an incredible scene that speaks, perhaps, to the real McKellan: once beautiful, now fading with age, but satisfied in the knowledge that his works and the works about him will keep the beautiful memory of his youth alive for a thousand years. The scene ends somewhat unhappily for Shakespeare, who sees his own lack of self-confidence wrapped up in the rejection of a friend, perhaps lover, another blow to an already fragmented and damaged heart.

Branagh has long since proven his chops as a director, and All Is True is another visual triumph for him. Here, he takes obvious influence from the old masters in the way that scenes are set-up almost like paintings, most notably the Rembrandt-ish nighttime interiors, or Vermeer for the idyllic daytime nature scenes (some of which do go on a bit long, focusing on Branagh simply walking about in what may be an unintended ego trip from the director/lead), or Turner for the exquisite early backdrop of London wreathed in the smoke coming from the Globe. Branagh favors long static shots, sometimes from odd angles, which certainly gives the appropriate impression that one is watching a stage-play. Branagh’s Shakespeare certainly approves, waxing lyrically at one point that any activity can be compared to writing a play if done properly.

Patrick Doyle, Branagh’s long-time musical collaborator, crafts a subdued, minimalist score for All Is True, eschewing period-appropriate instruments for simple strings and horns. The real stand out from an audio perspective is the closing track, a sung rendition of a section from Cymbeline, a treatise on the release granted from death: “Fear no more the heat of the sun”.

Shock and surprise, I did quite enjoy All Is True. Even if it had failing elements, at the end of the day it is still a group of renowned thespians quoting Shakespeare at each other for an hour and a half, and that is worth the price of admission alone. But, as it is, All Is True has few failing elements. The cast is, of course, excellent, the narrative is strong, the visuals are a delight and the whole thing comes together really wonderfully. This year has already offered a lot of really good films, now it has another. Highly recommended.

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“Let your indulgence set me free”.

(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Classic).

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Ireland’s Wars: St Stephen’s Green

St Stephen’s Green had been a public park in the heart of Dublin (as it remains today) since 1880. As a point that the rebels considered when it came to what to seize and what not to, it had many things in its favour; a central position in Dublin; a nodal point for many of the city’s main roads, sure to be favoured by British military; near the already mentioned Portobello barracks; containing its own fresh water supply at its centre; and one of the few places in Dublin that rebels could literally dig into. If the Green could be taken, and some of the key buildings around it also, it could be turned into a very hard nut to crack.

Taking the Green would be the primary responsibility of the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Rising, with the largest force that they contributed to the rebellion stationed there Easter week. While they may have lacked some of the professional veneer of their Volunteer counterparts, the Citizen Army were equally, if not more so, committed to the idea of violent revolutionary action, and many of them had some manner of experience in fighting on Dublin’s streets from the 1913 Lockout.

Their leader in St Stephen’s Green was Commandant Michael Mallin. Born in the Liberties in 1874, he had joined the British Army at age 15, much to the disgust of his nationalist minded father. He served 14 years, mostly in India, where his commitment to the Catholic faith helped ensure he never rose higher than the position of drummer. When he left the service he became a silk-weaver back in Dublin, and rapidly became involved in left-wing organisations, co-founding the Socialist Party of Ireland and a union for his profession. He was one of the leaders of the 1913 strikes, and during that time became a key figure within the newly founded Irish Citizen Army. By the end of 1915 he was its Chief of Staff, and when his commander James Connolly became involved with the planning of the Easter Rising, Mallin was responsible for the implementation of those plans regards the Citizen Army. Mallin was critical of the how static some of the planned operations were but carried them out regardless.

Mallin’s second-in-command for Easter week was Captain Christopher Poole, a Boer veteran, but I feel it is more interesting to talk about Mallin’s third, Constance Markievicz, often mis-designated as the second-in-command. Born Constance Gore-Booth, the daughter of a Baronet and artic explorer, Markievicz was imbued with an affinity for the suffering of the poor from an early age, when her father did what he could to help his tenants during the 1879-80 famine. During her years at an art college in London she became involved in the suffragette movement, later marrying a Polish noble (though his title is disputed). The couple settled in Dublin where Markiecivz quickly became a member of numerous cultural, artistic and political organisations, and by 1908 she had become a committed nationalist, joining Sinn Fein and Maud Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hEireann. In 1909 she co-founded Fianna Eireann with Bulmar Hobson and served on its committee despite opposition on the grounds of her gender, a recurring theme of her career. During the 1913 Lockout she joined the Citizen Army and helped organise food drives for those affected. By 1916 she was intimately involved in the Citizen Army’s planning for a rebellion. In the run-up to the Rising, she can be considered to be one of the most dedicated, radical proponents of revolution, to the extent that she allegedly threatened to kill Eoin MacNeill when she found out about his counter-manding order.

Mallin had barely 40 men on Easter Monday when he marched from the north-side of the city, (other would take smaller outposts, like Harcourt Street Station and Davy’s pub, but would have a limited impact on the fighting, falling back to the Green early in the week). The Green was taken without much difficulty, save the job of turfing surprised civilians enjoying the bank holiday out of it (and taking prisoner some of the British soldiers doing the same). The gates were barred and barricaded, as were the roads leading to the Green, and work commenced on trenches lining the park, at least waist deep, in what would amount to a grim parody of life on the western front. The reasoning behind this has never been made very clear, from who ordered it to what the overall aim was. It didn’t take long for blood to be shed: when a DMP constable attempted to gain entrance to the park he was shot down, allegedly by Markiecivz, and civilians resisting attempts to use their property for barricades were killed also.

Though other Citizen Army men and women would continue to trickle into the garrison for the next few days, Mallin’s options were severely curtailed by the lack of soldiers available. He may initially intended to occupy buildings around the park, most notably the Shelbourne Hotel, whose five floors offered an excellent vantage point on both the Green and the surrounding area. But that morning he crucially decided against it, not unreasonably thinking that he simply hadn’t the men to spread out, and couldn’t withstand the casualties he might incur in the Shelbourne, a hotel that tended to have plenty of British military personnel in it at any given time. He would have cause later to second-guess that decision.

Instead, mindful of being surrounded from the sides and above, he looked elsewhere for a fall-back position, should things go awry in the Green, and found it in the Royal College of Surgeons on the west side of the square. A two-storey-with-basement building, it had the benefit of thick walls, a flat roof with a parapet, limited entrance ways, and a stash of hidden weapons that apparently belonged to the Trinity College OTC. A detachment was sent to seize control of this imposing stone building, should the Citizen Army need somewhere to fall back to.

That night, operating in pouring rain, the British made a very wise counter-move. Having realised the strength and danger of the rebels in the Green, a unit of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, moving from Dublin Castle, secured the Shelbourne through its Kildare Street side, and soon a substantial enough force, heavily armed, were in place on its southward facing side. Another group was placed at the United Services Club, on the north-western corner of the Green.

Early on Tuesday morning, as Citizen Army men continued improving their barricades, the British launched their attack, opening up on the Green positions with machine guns and plenty of rifles. The windows and roof of the Shelbourne and Services Club offered a perfect vantage point, and soon the rebels were pinned down in their makeshift trenches, which allowed only a rudimentary amount of manoeuvrability in the circumstances. Any one putting their head was liable to receive plenty of fire. Some were killed, others broke under the strain and made a run for it.

Mallin was no fool, and after a few hours recognised that the Green positions were now untenable. An assault on the Shelbourne at that point would have been suicidal, and staying put was hardly better; therefore, the only workable option was to retreat to the College of Surgeons. Mallin accomplished this, a rather remarkable feat considering the amount of fire he and his soldiers were exposed to, without taking a single casualty, though a man offering supressing fire from the College was hit. His men used the cover of trees and bushes, and then crossed to the College in small groups, carefully timing the dash to coincide with the Lewis Gun in the United Services Club being reloaded. Most of the Citizen Army were withdrawn, save for a token force that stayed in the northern trenches to deny the British easy movement.

Most of Tuesday was spent in a hurried fortifying operation, as the Citizen Army made the College of Surgeons more defensible. Though more distant than the trenches, it was still within range of the Shelbourne guns, but much safer from them at the same time.

As the day wore on, Mallin planned out an audacious scheme, to tunnel through neighbouring buildings, in order to get men to the north side of the Green, with the overall aim of starting a fire that, with the right spread, could force British soldiers from positions in United Services Club, and maybe even the Shelbourne if things went very well. The plan was put into operation but was then abandoned while in progress; when an element from the Jacob’s garrison fired at the United Services Club from the west Mallin feared the element of surprise was lost, and he withdrew the men engaged rather than risk them being ambushed, surrounded and overrun.

Wednesday saw, like in the rest of Dublin, an increase in the amount of snipers engaged by the British, keeping up a harassing fire on the rebels in the College. That day the British officers in the Shelbourne ordered men into the Green to clear it out and advance the British military position on the area; the Citizen Army men left in the trenches refused to go quietly, and an extended gun fight lasted most of the day, ending with the British no closer to achieving their objective; this small-scale combat would last the rest of the week. The remainder of the day was relatively quiet, even as the noise of battle from elsewhere in the city increased.

On Thursday the Citizen Army had the benefit of an aforementioned sortie from Jacob’s Biscuit Factory that brought badly needed supplies of food, something that was becoming a serious issue; many supplies had been left in the Green and at several points in the latter half of the week Citizen Army personnel had to risk British fire in order to scrounge food from the surrounding area. The British placed a Lewis gun in the University Church on the south side of the Green in an attempt to tip the scales in their favour, and when Mallin ordered a patrol to set fire to nearby buildings, the rebels took several casualties before falling back. Exhaustion now began to play a part in what was occurring, as constant sniper and machine gun fire disrupted any chance of sleep.

On Friday an increase in the amount of harassing fire was noted, leading Mallin and others to expect that a full-on assault on the College of Surgeons was imminent. However, just as with Jacob’s, this never occurred. The British had learned a bit from their experiences during the week, most notably at Mount Street Bridge; they were now less willing to order frontal assaults on well-defended rebel positions, that would inevitably incur a large amount of casualties. Mallin’s garrison were kept on edge the whole day, but no attack came. The College of Surgeons, like Jacob’s, was pinned down and offered little practical threat to British counter-moves in the city. There was no need to attack. Instead, somewhat like Jacob’s, the real enemy for the Volunteers was hunger, tiredness and boredom; the British only shared the last one.

Saturday went by without much in the way of major incident, and the main threat to the College garrison was when personnel made the hazardous journey to look for food. Sunday afternoon brought the sight of Elizabeth O’Farrell bearing a white flag, and a message for Mallin from James Connolly, informing him of the surrender of both the Volunteers and the Citizen Army.

Perhaps of all the rebel garrisons and areas of operation on Easter Week, the St Stephen’s Green position was the most hamstrung due to the lack of men and women that mobilised on Monday morning, though the Citizen Army actually had a better proportionate turnout than the Volunteers. With more men Mallin may well have been able to seize the Shelbourne and a number of other key buildings around the Green, and with those he could have created a really fearsome impediment to British movements from the south. They could also have been directed elsewhere altogether, such as towards the barely defended Trinity College, or the Customs House, just down the road from Liberty Hall. Instead, the effort expended at taking the Green, where Mallin made the questionable decision to engage in rudimentary trench warfare, was largely a waste, and while the defence of the College of Surgeons was admirable in its way, it was far from the grand gesture that had been hoped for in the area. Mallin proved himself a leader who reacted well to immediate adversity, but his strategic acumen, most notably when he ordered the abandonment of the outlying positions under next to no pressure, can be questioned. By Wednesday the usefulness of the Citizen Army to the overall fight had waned significantly.

In symbolic terms however what happened at St Stephens Green was still worth a lot. A very small amount of personnel had seized a large section of some of Dublin’s most well-known land, and fought the British forces engaged with them to what was essentially a standstill, or at least so it could have been perceived (and was, by many). In that ways it was a success, and the Irish Citizen Army would leave the Rising with their heads held high, though they would, it is fair to say, never have as much relevance to the cause of Irish revolutionary nationalism ever again.

In the next entry, we must move across to the western-most fighting in Dublin.

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

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Review – How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Trailer

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Oh yes.

Nearly five years ago I offered a glowing assessment of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, for the strengths of its story-telling, character evolution and visuals. It was something made with care, in a world when animated movies frequently aren’t, and that was worthy of praise. But then, with the exception of a Netflix original series, there was nothing, as Dreamworks struggled with a succession of not so great offerings, and as far as I understand it came close to serious financial difficulty.

Now that the ship has apparently been righted, this is too good of a franchise to lay dormant forever, and frankly it was too good of a story to leave without a conclusion. With the same cast and crew on board, I went into The Hidden World with some great expectations. Were these met, or has How To Train Your Dragon reached its limit?

A year on from the death of his father, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) struggles with the leadership of Berk, an island now dealing with a unsustainable dragon population. The depredations of dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) convince him his people need to find a new home for themselves and for the dragons, but the search for a mythical “Hidden World” is complicated by his relationship with Astrid (America Ferrera) and his dragon Toothless’ encounter with a “Light Fury”.

There was a lot I really liked about the second entry in this series, which I could sum up by saying that it took much of what was introduced in the first and then evolved, expanded and otherwise improved upon it. Well, The Hidden World somehow manages to pull the same trick again, in a production that serves as a surprisingly poignant and very entertaining final instalment to this franchise.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, that it’s refreshing to see an animated series where the characters actually age: this story started with Hiccup as an awkward, unconfident 15 year-old, now he’s 21 and undertaking a difficult coming of age. By the end of it, as was liberally spoiled in trailers, he’s much older. And the great thing is that this isn’t some throwaway gimmick: it’s integral to the story being told, with underlying themes of growing up, accepting responsibility and confronting increasingly complicated adult problems. The Hiccup of The Hidden World is not the same person that he was when the series started. None of the characters are. They’ve changed, through their unique and common experiences, and a three-film narrative that showcases such an evolution, in this genre, is something to be applauded for its sheer uniqueness. In the pantheon of multi-installment CGI animated films, perhaps only Toy Story can say the same, and I really do feel like How To Train Your Dragon is approaching that level.

Hiccup is in difficulty as a leader: Stoic (Gerard Butler, appearing again in a few flashbacks) is a tough act to follow, Berk has overpopulation problems and hordes of pirates are continually on the prowl. He very well might not be up to the task, no matter the support or encouragement of those around him. He struggles as a young man in love, dealing with the pressures of being expected to marry Astrid and what that might mean for the two of them, with she not exactly jumping for joy at the prospect either, a way of approaching their romance that comes off rather well, and isn’t really replicated in many other animated films. And he struggles as a dragon-rider, with a mount who increasingly doesn’t want to be around anymore, not when the possibility of a future with another Night Fury suddenly pops up.

It might surprise you to learn that a large portion of The Hidden World is dedicated to a dragon romance, and it might further surprise you to learn that this isn’t a bad thing. The first and second instalments centered themselves around new emotional attachments being made for Hiccup (Toothless in the first, and his mother Valka in the second) but this time it is the dragon’s turn. The courting between Toothless and the Light Fury is played seriously at times but mostly serves as an opportunity for some well-placed comedy. Mirroring the awkward teen romance that previously made an appearance in the series, it unfolds in a charming way; Toothless, lacking any kind of experience in such matters, proceeds to blunder his way through traditional and non-traditional dragon courtship rituals, most notably in a brilliantly constructed beachside sequence. But that dramatic seam is still there, as Hiccup and Toothless confront the reality they might soon be separated permanently.

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This film, and franchise, is full of emotionally engaging relationships.

The various allusions The Hidden World brings to its narrative are surprising in their maturity. At different points you have commentary on friends drifting apart due to romantic entanglements; the struggles of single parents; lack of self-confidence in one’s appearance, and jealously of others who appear better; the plight of the differently-abled; environmentalism and animal rights, the crushing weight of self-loathing; and the painful reality that love is inherently tied to loss, perhaps the key theme and thesis of the film.

I certainly don’t want to give the false impression that the film is a dramatic slog though. It has plenty of time for levity, with much made here of Hiccup’s assorted hangers on, which is the exact perfect use of comedic talents like Kristen Wiig or Jonah Hill (his character has the darkest joke of the feature, asking Hiccup, annoyed, at one point “Who died and made you Chief?” to the shocked gasps of onlookers). I think it is quite rare to find a film, especially in this genre, that manages to mix comedy and drama as well as it does here, and hosts of other films (looking at you MCU) could take a lesson in the correct application.

The VA cast are old hands with these characters at this point, and while real A-listers like Cate Blanchett, and other well-known figures like Kit Harrington, are left picking up the pieces of vastly reduced roles, the majority are clearly having a lot of fun in comfortable parts here, most notably Wiig, who gets an extended monologue at one point that is one of the film’s more hilarious moments. Ferrera benefits from more agency for Astrid in the third installment, and forms, if I can use the cliche, the heart of the film through her relationship with Baruchel’s Hiccup.

Abraham’s villain is a step-up from Djimon Hounsou’s Drago. A sort of mirror image of Hiccup – the difference being that he killed the first Night Fury he came across, instead of befriending it – his goal is a refreshingly simple and specific quest to complete his personal holocaust of dragons, and not some vague notion of world domination. And while there is a Joker-esque element of “He’s always one step ahead”, he’s at least distinctive in both a character and visual sense, and proves a worthy foil to the young, relatively inexperienced Hiccup, whose own crisis of confidence doesn’t mesh well with the uber-confident Grimmel. The competing philosophies of treating dragons as equals and treating them as pack animals (or sport) isn’t anything new to the series really, but through Abraham’s performance it comes across as a more intriguing battle in the final instalment.

The film builds to a satisfying conclusion for the series, that ties back directly into the idea of love going hand in hand with loss, involving sacrifice and new hope at the same time. Committing to a full-on “XXX years later” ending was a gutsy call, as those can so easily be fan service trash (cough, Harry Potter, cough) but I feel The Hidden World nails it, tying a line between the experiences of its main human and dragon characters as they go through the various stages of life in connected ways. It’s done so well with its treatment of character and emotional story-telling, that I would say it has earned a little leeway in that respect.

Visually of course The Hidden World is the delight that you would have expected. This series has always had a way with colour and general variety, and that doesn’t change here. What could have been a rather lame basic colour alteration for the Light Fury becomes something altogether more interesting when the element of camouflage is introduced; an overpopulated Berk is awash with narrowly built dragon adorned buildings, in imminent danger of collapse; the titular abode of dragons is a crystalline masterpiece of CGI imagery; and the standard work on characters and locales is, as ever, top notch. Perhaps it is because of the patience in instalments, but what should be by now familiar soaring rides on the backs of dragons still doesn’t seem well-worn to me: there is still a thrill to be had through the vicarious flight into the clouds. This franchise finds the right balance between cartoonish and realistic when it comes to its actual cast, and that is something a lot of other films frequently aren’t able to do.

I don’t want to harp on about this kind of thing too much of course, but it bears repeating. We comment on things like colour and inventiveness when it comes to CGI and traditional animation, but there are times when those phrases can appear repetitive or trite. There is some genuine art in The Hidden World, vistas of amazing originality, backgrounds of stunning creativity, looming islands, breath-taking skies, buildings designs that radiate innovation. It’s always been that way, and it really is one of the biggest selling points of the franchise at large.

This conclusion – and by all accounts it is framed as that, though I wouldn’t discount the possibility that Dreamworks decides to milk the cow a little bit more – is a well-deserved one for an excellent franchise, and it does not disappoint. As a stand-alone story and as the third part of a trilogy, it works really well, with excellent VA, script, visuals and general narrative. It’s sadly rare, outside of Pixar anyway, to find animated films that are still treated with this level of care and reverence by their production teams, and for that reason The Hidden World is strongly recommended by me.

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A hell of a franchise.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: Jacob’s Biscuit Factory

(Not counting the supplementary entries I have made on occasion, this is 300th edition of Ireland’s Wars. We’ve come a long way and have yet more to travel but let me once again thank all readers and subscribers for their time and attentions).

To the west of de Valera’s 3rd battalion, fighting in Easter Week centred around St Stephen’s Green and we will get to that in time. But even further west than that was the area designated to the Volunteers’ 2nd battalion, most notably the imposing structure of Jacobs Biscuit Factory.

At first glance Jacobs seems like a strange choice for a fortification, but it did serve some key Volunteer purposes. Like Boland’s with Beggars Bush, Jacobs lay close to several British Army barracks, most notably the major one at Portobello and the nearby Wellington as well, and so it was hoped that a prominent Volunteer position there could help bottle up British troop movements. The factory lay to the south of Dublin Castle and City Hall, and while the garrison would not be in a position to help with the attacks there that took place on Monday, they could exert some pressure on the British administration through their sheer presence. And Jacob’s was also part of a rough line of rebel positions dotting the south of city: leaving the area without any rebel troops would result in the South Dublin Union becoming isolated the moment the rebellion was launched. The factory itself was an old imposing multi-storied stone building, that could potentially withstand some punishment while offering excellent views of the surrounding area.

The man in charge of the 2nd battalion – and actually the Dublin Brigade in its entirety, though on Easter Week he was placed below James Connolly – was Commandant Thomas MacDonagh, who we have mentioned on a few occasions thus far. Born in Tipperary in 1878, he was raised by his parents – both teachers – with a reverence for both education and Irish culture. After considering a religious career for a time he became a lecturer in French, Latin and mathematics in Cork, where he opened a local branch of the Gaelic League, before moving to Dublin 1908. There, he came rapidly to the acquaintance of men like Eoin MacNeill, Joseph Plunkett and Padraig Pearse, the latter of which he joined in the opening of the nationalist school of St Enda’s. His interests branched out to the Irish language, which he tutored other signatories in, unionisation, as he helped to found the ASTI and to women’s suffrage. In 1913 he joined his friends in becoming part of the Irish Volunteers, and rapidly moved up its ranks due in no small part to his education and to his easy-going friendly manner.

MacDonough did not come to Dublin a republican firebrand, but the influence of men like Pearse and the militarisation of society during the First World War told on him: by 1915 he had been sworn into the IRB, and helped plan the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. Still, it took a while for MacDonough to gain the complete trust of the higher-ups in the IRB, and he was only added to the military council planning the Rising very late in the process, just a few weeks before Easter Monday. Whatever issues men like Thomas Clarke may have had with him, he was still the CO of the Dublin Brigade, and it so was useful to have him involved, and as a signatory MacDonough is naturally considered one of the main leaders of the Rising.

MacDonagh’s first second-in-command was his close friend Michael O’Hanrahan, a Wexford born member of both the Volunteers and IRB, but his position was superseded by a surprise arrival on Easter Monday. As MacDonagh’s men prepared to move out from their muster point, they were joined by the well-dressed figure of none other than John McBride, the IRB member and fervent nationalist who had raised and led the Irish commando that fought in South Africa for the Boers 16 years previously. It had been a difficult intervening period for MacBride, owing to a stormy end to his marriage to the famous suffragette and actress Maud Gonne, which included foreign divorce proceedings and accusations (for which he was declared innocent) of molesting Gonne’s daughter by a previous relationship. Returning to Dublin he had become involved in various nationalist organisations but, owing to his popular profile, he was not included in the upper echelons of planning for the Easter Rising. He stumbled into the operation, being out in Dublin that morning on the way to meet his soon-to-be-married brother: when he saw MacDonough and his men mustering he immediately volunteered his services. Presumably aware of MacBride’s experience in actual warfare, the commandant enthusiastically agreed, and “Major” MacBride was elevated into a second-in-command position there and then.

The 2nd Battalion moved out from St Stephen’s Green, leaving behind elements of the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army who were already digging in there. It was a disparate lot, affected badly by the mobilisation confusion, with many elements of the garrison arriving at the last minute or late, and not all of them properly prepared for a week’s worth of fighting. It only took them a few minutes to reach Jacob’s, which was rapidly occupied, upon which a parade of hired hackneys arrived to leave arms and ammunition. The few occupiers were turned out, and the business of fortification began.

Jacobs was not the only garrison in the immediate area, at least on Monday. A smaller group broke off and headed to the south-west, led by Vice Commandant Thomas Hunter and Lieutenant Dick McKee, where they occupied tenement buildings and Barmack’s Maltings, in order to closely observe and guard against British soldiers coming from Wellington Barracks. This would not end up being the best choice for these men, as the area, The Liberties, was full of low-income families many of whom were “separation women”, with husbands, brothers and sons in British uniform serving in the First World War. As such, they were not endeared to the cause of revolutionary nationalism as the Volunteers represented, and they were not shy about making their feelings known, especially when being forced from their homes at the barrel of a gun. Unarmed DMP constables who attempted to intervene were taken prisoner. Given the inherent hostility of the locals, it was only a matter of time before these outposts would become untenable.

In the meantime, MacDonagh and MacBride supervised the fortification of Jacob’s. All the while more people showed up, including members of the Irish Citizen Army fleeing a position at nearby Davy’s pub, and opportunistic members of Cumann na mBan who just happened to be in the area (MacDonagh would only allow them to serve in the kitchens however). The Citizen Army men fled ahead of the first engagement that the Jacob’s garrison had, as an element of the Royal Irish Rifles, moving out from Portobello, came within sight. Caught by fire from multiple directions, they suffered six casualties before retreating rapidly. MacDonough and others now put their men under full alert for what they believed would be an imminent attack; in a recurring theme for the garrison, this would not happen.

More action was happening for Hunter and McKee but not the kind they had prepared for or wanted. Angry crowds of civilians assembled outside Barmack’s and other smaller outposts, yelling insults, throwing stones and refusing to move. Inevitably, violence ensued, and a man who tried to grab a Volunteer rifle away from its owner was shot dead, alongside another DMP official. That cleared the crowds for a time, but they soon returned with renewed hostility. That night, Hunter gladly received orders from MacDonagh to pull back to Jacob’s. They were followed all the way by the same angry crowds, who attempted to free the DMP prisoners. When Hunter and McKee’s men got inside Jacob’s, the crowds stayed outside the main gate, and later attempted to force an entrance: MacDonough ordered blanks to be fired, which finally got the crowd to disperse.

That night MacDonagh ordered two more outposts to be established, in nearby Byrne’s store and Delahunt’spub. It was a fitful night for the Jacob’s garrison, kept awake by the noise of rifle and machine gun fire coming from nearby St Stephen’s Green and Dublin Castle. The following morning another advance came from Portobello Barracks which, after a brief firefight, forced the Volunteers to retreat from Byrne’s and Delahunt. The British advanced further, into the same killing ground as their comrades the previous day, and after another few casualties taken, in fire coordinated by MacBride, they retreated again.

The Jacob’s garrison didn’t realise it yet, but they had just ended their last truly significant engagement of Easter Week. The British decided, either through active analysis or sheer expediency, that Jacob’s was not worth bothering with at the time, and to take an elongated route to their objectives on the north side of the city. As such MacDonough and his garrison became truly isolated and, if we are being honest, increasingly ineffective in terms of the larger battle. Jacob’s, especially its higher points still attracted machine gun and sniper fire, but this was mostly a nuisance that prevented sleep and frayed nerves without any serious threat to the garrison at large.

Tuesday passed in such relative quiet, and Wednesday also, barring a sortie to look for foodstuffs in the surrounding area: the factory was, naturally, full of biscuits and other confectionaries, but these lost their lustre after a while, even for the poorer members of the garrison. Machine gun and sniper fire remained constant, creating the ever-present impression that an attack was imminent, but it would never come. The garrison benefitted from the cool leadership of MacBride who busied himself checking positions and engaging with the men where he could; he perhaps served better than the inexperienced MacDonough who is recorded, like de Valera, of being increasingly unhelpful through sheer tiredness and stress.

On Thursday MacDonough received word that some other garrisons were in need of resupply and decided he would be the one to send the aid. To that end, he sent 20 men towards Westland Train Station, the western most position of the Boland’s Mill area, and around 12 towards the College of Surgeons near St Stephen’s Green. The first petered out in the face of enemy resistance, with the sortie obliged to turn back after an exchange of fire with the British near Merrion Square, with casualties, but the second did get through, though at stage it is debatable what benefit the additional men and supplies were.

The following two days were again quiet, save for the machine-fun and sniper fire. The Jacobs garrison observed the effects of British artillery on the rest of the city and waited continuously for an attack on their own position that never came, much to the frustration of some, and I suppose the relief of others.

On Sunday McDonough first received word of the surrender order from two priests tasked with the job by General Lowe.

The Jacobs position is one of the least-noted in the remembrance of the Easter Rising, on account of the limited amount of actual activity that took place there. As in this post, most of the commentary tends to focus on the men in charge. The strength of the position that MacDonough and MacBride created had both positives and negatives: on the one hand it was strong enough that the British balked from a direct assault, but on the other it became a static irrelevancy that was easily by-passed by an enemy with better things to do. The stated aim of bottling up nearby barracks was only partially successful, and even from the symbolic viewpoint there was little glory to be gained from what occurred there. MacDonough might have been better served with a more direct connection with the positions at St Stephen’s Green; being little more than a threat in being was hardly the best use of the men under his command. It is St Stephen’s Green will be the focus of our next entry, where a large portion of the Citizen Army were engaged.

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

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Polar

Polar

Trailer

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Yarr

More shooty shooty bang bang. Netflix really wanted me to watch this movie, what with all the targeted ads and reminders, so I naturally assumed I was the target demographic for this adaptation of a Victor Santos’ comic book series. I suppose I am a fan of Mads Mikkelsen, and I have waxed lyrical about my high regard for the John Wick franchise, a series of films that Polar will inevitably draw comparisons to. But I couldn’t help but raise my eyes a bit at the choice of director, Jonas Akerlund, a man with an extensive and successful career with music videos and concert films, but little else besides. Bloody looking source material, and untried man at the helm, and a lead better known for his villain roles and selling Carlsberg than being an action star: What could possibly go wrong?

Duncan Visla (Mikkelsen), a highly skilled but traumatised assassin, is only two weeks from retirement, upon which his employer Mr Blut (Matt Lucas) will owe him eight million dollars. Determined to avoid this payout, Blut orders his best assassins to hunt Visla down, putting Duncan’s neighbour Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) in danger, and leading to a quest for bloody retribution from the “Black Kaiser”.

So, Polar isn’t really John Wick, bar a few obvious similarities in general narrative. It makes this clear in a remarkably ham-fisted manner early on in scenes involving a dog. No, it’s very obvious where the tone and tenor that Akerlund wants is finding its primary inspiration in Polar, and it’s Tim Miller’s Deadpool, not Chad Stahhelski’s much worthier assassin-based drama.

You can see it the snarky, self-reverential tone; in the outrageous villains; in the overly sexualised content, and in the copious amount of vulgar dialogue; in the torture pornish scenes; and in the sense that we are stuck watching a drama about an inherently unlikeable central character, where the writers try to hide that unlikability behind a mask of idiotic humour and shallow attempts at sappy sentimentality.

Let’s take those complaints one at a time. The self-reverence is in every edgelord pandering obnoxious shot, scene and script moment that screams “Look at how cool I am!”. It’s an issue of underserved self-confidence, that unfortunately speaks to a director used to having only four minutes per story that he wants to tell, all flash, style and sizzle, without any bang, substance or steak. You need more than colourful costuming and characters who go around acting like Loony Tunes on steroids: in the end, every other person in Polar, and every scene they inhabit, look and feel like something an angsty sex-deprived teenager would come up with.

The outrageous villains are headed by Lucas’ ridiculous Blut, who seems to me to be little more than a facsimile of the “Yellow Bastard” of Sin City, in terms of general manner and appearance. A film of this type needs a slightly better antagonist than this perverted clown, who carries staggeringly little threat through-out, and who never seems likely to get out of proceedings alive. It doesn’t help that Lucas himself is a poor actor who substitutes nuance for high-pitched screaming, and shouldn’t be anywhere near a property like this. The South Park-esque band of antagonists don’t look all that good next to Mikkelsen’s deadly serious grimdark protagonist, with the exception of Katheryn Winnick’s Vivian perhaps, but she doesn’t get near enough attention.

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Oh, if only the film was as cool as it occasionally looked.

The overly sexualised content is the real takeaway from Deadpool infecting every scene and sequence. I mean, the opening scene revolves around a one-note Johnny Knoxville (remember him?) getting an erection. We have numerous, needless sex scenes, featuring lots of female-only nudity (Mikkelsen whips off his shirt, but that’s as far as it goes for the male reciprocation).; an assassin whose modus operandi is to offer oral sex in order to line up her victims for a snipers bullet; and the aforementioned perverted bad guy. Oh, and the film’s narrative structure revolves around a succession of Visla’s past and present lovers, with just about every character with a vagina giving him some variation of eye-fucking. It’s repetitive, it’s tired, it’s lazy, and it makes the film look like something for 13 year olds. The vulgar dialogue isn’t quite as garish, but is noticeable after a time as well: when you feel the need to have your character curse in every other sentence to get across the edgy anti-authority tone, it’s clear you aren’t making something that deserves great consideration.

The torture porn comes across in a few scenes, but especially in a literal extended torture scene, and in the large amount of cartoonish violence that serves little purpose other than to make the viewer, squirm, wince or maybe shudder with pleasure if you are so inclined. Violence should always serve a purpose of plot or characterisation; when you have multiple scenes of people being beaten to death following an elongated trial to plot progression, you’re going down the wrong path, both in terms of the unpleasant depiction of violence as an end in itself, and as a substitution for actual characterisation. Less, in this case, is certainly more. Matching sex and gore in the same scene in this matter points to a director in need of growing up.

The last point is, if you’ll pardon the pun, the real killer. John Wick seemed like a fundamentally decent person who got sucked into a life he didn’t really like and just wanted to be left alone with his grief and his dog. We could root for him as a guy who wanted to punish the bastards who killed that dog, and then disappear. Wade Wilson wanted to have lots of increasingly kinky sex with his girlfriend and fell into his superhero role mostly because of a cancer diagnosis. While I disliked the movie, Wilson still erred towards moral virtue more than evil. Visla, well, Visla has regrets about his past life, and just wants to retire, but you never get that sense that he is a person worth rooting for.

He’s overly-violent, manipulative of those in need around him and is sexually aggressive; his sudden desire to protect the neighbour he barely knows simply does not ring true, and a late-in-the-game attempt to draw a firmer connection between the two is flat and uninspired. About the only thing that makes the Black Kaiser a more likeable character than the army of assassins out to off him is that he doesn’t talk as much and isn’t quite as ostentatious. When you have a main character who appears so unlikeable and so irredeemable, your film loses its ability to engage any audience member with half a brain.

The film is not a total loss of course. There are elements that work, such as when it leans into the cartoonish elements, such as in a scene where Visla teaches a class of very young kids the best ways to sever arteries. Mikkelsen puts in his standard low-volume performance, and from the aura he gives off I do buy him as a dangerous assassins type, he just would have been a better fit as a villain and one can only appreciate his willingness to showcase his body to the amount that he does. The rest of the cast, bar Lucas, have fun in their roles, and Vanessa Hudgens does the best she can with the largely bit part of Camille, while Richard Dreyfuss’s one scene cameo is mildly entertaining if nothing else. The action of the film is shot well, most notably an extended escape sequence relatively late on that borrows heavily from the John Wick style, and other moments that were, unfortunately, liberally spoiled in trailers. The rest of it isn’t shot in any kind of notable way; Akerlund has an eye for flashy colours and contrasts, but none of it really sticks in the mind.

Very regrettably, Polar leaves the audience dangling on the prospect of what seems to be a much more interesting premise given the elements at play that I don’t even mind spoiling all that much: the idea of a survivor of a botched assassination job teaming up with the regretful assassin to track down the person responsible for assigning the hit in the first place. What a warped, yet enticing odd couple idea that is, yet Polar decides that is just the endgame stinger, making its running time little more than prologue. Perhaps we might get that story in time, and if they handed it off to a different director I might actually check it out. It’s just a shame that such potential ingenuity is the full stop to a poorly constructed sentence.

One suspects that Akerlund is a fan of Suicide Squad, another film that tried to cross nominally grim subject manner with a vibrant colour palette (at times) and that failed in many important ways. Polar takes the bad parts and then invents some new ones: the end result is a rather pathetic, dim-witted production, that Netflix may have wanted in order to appeal to a certain underage demographic, but that I would advise any studio should run a mile from in this day and age. Not recommended.

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Brr.

 

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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