Ireland’s Wars: De Valera In America

As already discussed, the international dimension was vital to the Irish War of Independence. The political heads of the Republic were smart enough to know that a complete military victory over Britain was unlikely to occur, and even if it somehow did, it was unlikely to be lasting. If Ireland was to win its freedom and then hold it, the weight of international opinion would have to be brought to bear on London. The efforts to orchestrate this during the Paris Peace Conference had been a failure, owing to the stonefacedness of the American and French delegations, but the Dail and its governing committee were not prepared to stop at that. This entry does not discuss military matters directly, but it is important to give some consideration to this, the most well-known and publicised effort to court that sphere of international opinion all the same, as it was arguably as or more important than any ambush or barracks burning in bringing the conflict to its eventual conclusion.

When it became clear that there would be little to no headway made in Paris, Eamon de Valera, only back in Ireland a short time since his jailbreak from Lincoln, made arrangements to depart and go on a lengthy tour of America. It was, then and now, a controversial move in the eyes of some, who felt de Valera would have been better off, and more useful, being the political leader he was supposed to be in Ireland. De Valera plainly disagreed, thinking that his ability to wow international opinion would be the greatest service he could give, and that others could carry the can at home in terms of political leadership. Critics would say it was his arrogance coming through, and that the tour would be a grandstanding affair mostly for his benefit. There were also emotional reasons for de Valera wishing to go to America: his mother, whom he had not seen in over ten years, was living there, in Rochester, New York.

Other notables from the Dail and GHQ had already been in America for a while acting as envoys, among them Harry Boland, Liam Mellows and Patrick MacCartan, but they would all be superseded when de Valera arrived. He departed Ireland in early June 1919, disguised as a sailor on-board a coal steamer, the S.S. Lapland. He endured a miserable voyage, suffering terribly from sea-sickness and the attentions of vermin. He arrived in New York on the 12th of June, and spent several days with his mother, before being obligated to turn to the official tasks that lay before him.

The stated goals of the tour was primarily threefold: to seek official recognition of the Irish Republic from the American government, still led by Woodrow Wilson; to undertake efforts to obtain financial assistance for the Republic through loans, bonds and contributions; and to make the case for Irish independence to the American public. The tour would last nearly 18 months, and achieve, it is fair to say, only mixed success in terms of pursuing those three goals.

The first was essentially a non-starter before de Valera even arrived in the United States. Wilson’s opinions on the cause of Irish independence had been made very plain by his behavior towards representatives of that cause in Paris, and de Valera’s presence in America was never likely to change that. No meeting between the two was to take place, as Wilson continued to maintain that the Irish issue was an internal matter for Britain, and not something that the United States should get actively involved in.

De Valera’s efforts to pursue the other two objectives were complicated by the situation in America regards the cause of Irish nationalism. Various groups had always existed to advocate for Irish independence and self-government, and those groups were always in danger of internal factionilisation and schism between moderates and radicals. Moreover, many of them had existed for a long amount of time, and their leadership were used to being in positions of authority when it came to Irish independence and the movement to seek it. And then suddenly, a man claiming to directly represent that movement arrived in the country. Indeed, he was referred to as “President of the Irish Republic” soon after he came to America, an inaccurate title – he was really “President of Dail Eireann” – that stuck, which didn’t bother de Valera all that much. The potential for trouble was large.

When de Valera was first introduced to the American press a few days after his arrival, having set-up shop in the eye-raising surrounds of the extremely expensive Waldorf hotel in New York – the expense for it, and for the accouterments de Valera was given, were excused on the grounds of needing to impress – he was introduced by Justice Daniel F Cohalan, and accompanied by John Devoy. Cohalan was the head of the “Friends of Irish Freedom” while Devoy was the longstanding figurehead of Clan na Gael, a Fenian of the old school, who had spent time in prison around 1867, had directed operations against Britain and been an adviser to Ireland’s home rulers of yesteryear. Despite his age – 77 – and his nearly complete deafness, he remained a monumental figure of the movement. The two men were the undoubted leading lights of Irish nationalism in America – the “FOIF” and Clan na Gael went hand in hand with each other – and while relations between them and de Valera seemed to have started off well according to some accounts, they soon turned rancorous.

There were many issues separating de Valera from his America counterparts. Aside from the issue of authority and deference, Devoy and Cohalan felt their higher aim should be the sundering of Britain from America, and to that end were focusing much of their efforts at that time on opposing Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, with a bitter political battle ongoing over whether the United States should even be a part of such an entity (in the end, it wouldn’t). De Valera was less concerned with such things. But, in the end, the primary issue came down to money.

Boland, in the brief time that he had in America when he was left to his own devices, had gotten commitments that a quarter of FOIF funds would be sent to Ireland, but de Valera had larger ambitions. He wanted to float a loan to raise millions, which Devoy and Cohalan thought both unwise legally and probably impossible. But de Valera and his entourage were convinced it could be done, and even more so after he addressed huge crowds during public events in Boston and Chicago, just the most notable stops on a the first of a few cross-country tours where de Valera became essentially a minor celebrity of the period. He addressed crowds in public streets, students in universities, Native American on their reservations, Indian nationalists in private dinners, nearly always to rapturous applause. His message was always the same: recognition for Ireland to be sought from America, in line with Wilson’s pleas for self-determination, and for his supporters to help the nascent Republic financially.

After getting the advice of a New York based lawyer named Franklin D. Roosevelt, de Valera launched the bond drive, careful to arrange the wording just so it could be legally claimed the money was not being used to ferment rebellion in the the territory of an American ally. Devoy and Cohalan began to be more open in their criticism of de Valera and his activities, having come to dislike the man on a more personal level. The American Legion, not at all a supporter of Irish freedom, disrupted some of de Valera’s speaking events, and de Valera himself varied in mood from effervescent with happiness at the attention he was getting, to downcast and fearful over the slow pace of the bond issue.

Things got more fraught in February of 1920, when an interview de Valera made for the Westminster Gazette focused on comments the President made regards ways an independent Ireland could be guaranteed from a security perspective. Elements of the interview were perceived as insinuating that something other than complete independence for Ireland could be acceptable: the comments, though very debatable, were seized upon by Devoy, Cohalan and other opponents of de Valera as evidence that the President could not be trusted.

The FOIF and the Clan continued to clash with de Valera, but the Dail and the IRB backed him up. Meetings that featured Devoy, Cohalan and de Valera were stormy affairs that became full of claim and counter-claim. Outright hostilities took over the American mission as 1920 went on, and de Valera attempted to influence the Republican and Democrat conventions meeting to select candidates for the coming Presidential election, spending large amounts of money to set up camps in the Convention cities and arrange torchlight parades. De Valera hoped to get recognition of an Irish Republic into the manifesto’s of either party: Cohalan felt he was acting as an interfering outsider, and proposed less radical platforms. In the end, the fighting between the two men destroyed the chances of both, and neither party choose to endorse Irish nationhood.

The bond drive continued the whole time, and eventually raised somewhere in the region of five million dollars, though only a portion of that ever made it back to Ireland (the legal wrangling over the money would continue well into the next decade). The raising of such finds enraged Devoy and Cohalan, who continued to increase their criticism of de Valera, to the extent that the President walked out of FOIF meetings. Late in 1920, de Valera had enough, and founded his own organisation, the “American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic” which soon swelled in size, further aiding the bond drive.

By December, de Valera decided his time in America was finished: he was homesick and wanted to be closer to what was occurring in Ireland, which at the time included rumours of secret peace talks. De Valera arrived back in Ireland by the end of 1920, again courtesy of a seasickness filled trip on a steamer, this time the SS Celtic. There were worries the British would intercept him to prevent his arrival; as it turned out, they were actually happy to see him back, for reasons that would soon become clear.

De Valera’s mission certainly raised money, and it certainly raised the profile of the Dail and the IRA’s fight at home. But it failed to achieve any kind of official recognition for the Republic, and it could be argued, and was at the time, that de Valera’s actions ended up being more of a personal publicity exercise than anything else. The rift between Irish and American based nationalist organisations became wider than ever during his time on the other side of the Atlantic, and he often displayed a poor understanding of American culture and politics. Worse, in some ways the months of de Valera’s absence allowed a greater amount of power and influence to coalesce around men like Michael Collins at home, who was often critical of what de Valera was doing in America, which may well have contributed to the coming divide between the two men.

Events in Ireland had continued apace while de Valera was gone, with the war becoming bloodier and bloodier. We must now go back to February 1920. While de Valera was engaged in his verbal conflict in the States, the real conflict was still being fought.

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

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Review: Joker

Joker

Trailer

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“This town needs an enema!”

This pretty much seems to me like the most divisive film of recent times. There is a strict dividing line when it comes to reactions to Todd Phillips’ Joker. On the one hand, you have the “in favour” crowd: the people who think this is the best DC film in years, who think Joaquin Phoenix has delivered an award-worthy performance, who think this is a transcendentally relevant commentary on critical aspects of modern life. And then there are the others: the ones who seem to think Joker is propaganda for mass shooters, who think the film is an ugly, grim mess, a production that ruins the titular character by explaining everything about him.

Where did I stand before I took in Joker? I was unsure. I couldn’t help but be impressed by some of the early critical praise, as much as I was concerned by the much less impressive second waves of reviews. Joker seemed like something of a cultural touchstone, the love-it-or-hate-it media of 2019 that the battlelines are being drawn down on either side of, and I confess that part of the appeal of seeing Joker, aside from the usually impressive Phoenix, was to see on what side I would find myself on. So, was Joker the best DC film since The Dark Knight, or is is just a pale ghost of what Heath Ledger was able to accomplish under Christopher Nolan?

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed down-on-his-luck clown who dreams of being a stand-up comedian, struggling to take care of his ailing mother in an aggressively uncaring Gotham City. When he commits an act of sudden violence, after being picked on one too many times, he is inadvertently propelled into being the face of Gotham’s disenfranchised, even as he descends into greater and greater madness.

Well, I certainly fall squarely down on one side or the other. I went into Joker with some high enough expectations, and came out excessively disappointed. Joker is a disaster on multiple levels, and easily slots in next to Zero Dark Thirty, Bridge Of Spies and The Hateful Eight as one of the most over-rated movies of recent times.

Where to begin on this train-wreck? I was thinking about what bothered me the most about Joker, and I suppose the central irritant comes down to protagonists and antagonists. It’s perfectly possible to make a film where the antagonist is the main character, something in the Macbeth mold, but the absolutely critical thing is that this character needs to be presented as the antagonist, and not the secret hero. Much like Maleficent, another badly thought out attempt to flip alignments on an iconic villain, Joker can’t but place the heroes clothes on its main character.

It does this by making him sympathetic, a sad sack beaten down by the world. There isn’t anything wrong with that. It does this by showing him as having a desire to be liked and loved by the people around him. Nothing wrong with that either. It does this by showing him as a man suffering a mental illness and struggling to be anything other than awkward and off-putting to the people around him. Nothing wrong with any of that.

But then Arthur Fleck starts killing people, and Arthur Fleck starts abusing children and then Arthur Fleck starts developing a bit of a God complex, and then he kills a few more people, and yet still Joker presents him as the hero, literally surrounded by a cheering crowd at the film’s conclusion, a saviour of the underprivileged and the disenfranchised.

Ever and anon in the course of this journey Todd Phillips makes certain narrative decisions that can only be seen as rationalising and excuse making for Fleck’s behavior, making every negative point of his arc somebody else’s fault. The people around him are irredeemable assholes, and Fleck is the target for their bullying until he snaps and becomes an anarchist Spartacus. In the first sequence of the film he gets jumped by a gang of kids for no clear reason (not entirely unbelievable) who then beat him up spouting z-level lines like “He’s weak” and “Beat him up!” (one of several violent scenes that mirror real-life crime, only whitewashed to a troubling extent).

His co-workers belittle and lie to him. His boss thinks he’s a creepy liar. The woman on the bus is rude to him for no real reason. The drunk womanisers that he shoots on the train are mean to him. Thomas Wayne, portrayed as an elitist snob who parrots Ayn Rand as part of a campaign to become Mayor (he also refers to malcontent poor people as “clowns”, and might as well say “deplorables” if the director/writer were more honest with their intentions), is a rich asshole who punches Arthur in the face. The cops who come to question him about the murders give his mom a stroke and later shoot an innocent protester. His mom lies to him all the time, and was abusive to him as a child. Robert De Niro’s talk show host mocks him for cheap yucks. It’s amazing how everyone around Fleck treats him so badly, almost like its an exercise in manufactured reality, a fantasy that has no basis in reality.

All of these characters are negative influences, and almost solely negative influences. They are presented as mean-spirited, rude, abusive awful people, and all so Phillips can present their inevitable comeuppance and demise, sometimes at the hands of the Joker, sometimes at the hands of the mob he inflames, as just desserts, as getting there’s. Thomas and Martha Wayne are not killed here in a mugging gone wrong, they are killed because they are rich and Thomas Wayne is an asshole. Phoenix’s Fleck might be a weird guy, but he has mental trauma and is pushed around constantly, therefore he shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility for his actions. That is the message I feel Joker undoubtedly puts out. At its core it is nothing more than childish revenge fantasy, but that’s been done better: at least Michael Douglas in Falling Down realised he was the bad guy in the end.

There has been a lot of talk in the lead-up to this film of mass shooters, incels and the like, and while the film doesn’t actually do much in terms of incel thinking – perhaps the only part I had time for is a warped romantic plot-line with Zazie Beetz’ single mother down the hall – it most certainly has a lot to do with mass shooters. That’s what Fleck is at the end of the day, a serial killer who turns to serial killing not just out of self-defence, but most assuredly, by the end, out of a desire for fame and social impact. There is nothing wrong with a film about that subject, and critics who say the film shines a light on the issue of young angry white men prone to violent outbursts are correct.

But the issue, my issue, is that the film showcases the resort to mass violence, whether committed by Fleck or encouraged in others by him, as a positive, as his only option and as something that makes him truly happy. It’s disgusting, the film’s conclusion, that shows a murderous Joker thronged by an adoring crowd, reveling in how he has gotten his own way, glorying in the bloodshed he has caused. The idea of getting help, via therapy, drug treatment and a support network, is laughed away in the film, most specifically in the case of psychiatric medications.

This after an unpalatable and unnecessary third act speech that could have been written by a maladjusted thirteen year old, full of infantile jabs at “society”, and barely concealed Netflix special-esque digs at hypocritical liberals and “woke culture”, something the director is on record as despising (but of course: check out Phillips’ back catalogue for some of his other questionable filmmaking, most notably his choice to include serial killer John Wayne Gacey’s artwork in a documentary production). The same speech contains a belatedly, and frankly pitiful, attempt to eschew the film as having a political point. Too late.

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“Did I ever tell you how I got these scars?”

My criticism is, having shone a light on the issue of young angry white men prone to violent outbursts, Phillips’ conclusion shows them that if they act on their violent impulses, to a mass extent, they will be loved, adored and happy in a way they can’t be otherwise. This does not make Joker a censor-worthy film, or illegitimate as art. But it does make it toxic, reprehensible and, if I may be allowed the opportunity to be a little dramatic, potentially quite dangerous.

One does not wish to over-egg the issue. But it is easy to imagine that a section of our society, the angry young white men living in a world no longer willing to completely conform to their desires and wants – the gamergaters, the Blue Lives Matters, the Internet Nice Guys, the MAGAheads and, yes, the incels – rallying behind Joker’s message of self-actualisation and happiness. And in Joker, it is found with your finger behind the trigger and all those that you believe have wronged you being mown down. Joker’s message is that it is all someone else’s fault, be they your parents, social workers, co-workers or peers, and a turn to amoral disorder is the natural next step.

And, from a stricter story perspective, the Joker character gains nothing from an elongated backstory. Kill a frog to see what the insides are like and you’ll understand the frog better, but you still end up with a dead frog. Heath Ledger’s portrayal had gravitas aided by mystery: the character needed no backstory because he was interesting all on his own, turning the very details of how he came to be into a running joke where the story keeps changing. It’s hard to imagine any other version of the Joker where his parentage is an important plot point worth discussing, or a version where he gives the slightest care for what other people find funny or not.

Phillips claims to have been influenced by The Killing Joke, but that doesn’t come through for me, that origin story had a bit more intelligence to it, and tied into the central theme of normality being easily warped by “one bad day”. No, even leaving aside how the finale of Joker is taken right from Frank Miller’s famous tale, there is more of The Dark Knight Returns in Joker than any comic, in its depiction of society as a hopeless gaping maw, and of the Joker as a serial killer people sympathise with for no good reason.

But Joker is not just a failure on these levels. Having garnered so much attention and praise, I was genuinely surprised at how mediocre Phoenix’s performance was. Am I being contrarian, or did my less-than-enamored feelings towards the film in general open my eyes? Phoenix really doesn’t do all that much here other than laugh in a manic high-pitched tone in every scene, smoke in every other scene to the point of distraction and occasionally dance around in an increasingly insane fashion. Replace the laughter with screaming in pain, and this would just be Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, another film where the lead was worse than many were willing to admit.

There are moments when Phoenix, an excellent actor adept at his craft – I was praising him as late as April for his role in The Sisters Brothers – brings the goods. He’s undoubtedly put a lot of prep, (including physically, his Joker being emaciated Christian Bale-style) into the depiction of someone with severe mental health issues, and the best parts of his performance are the moments when he is able to grotesquely contort his body as part of demonstrations of rage or mania. But it always comes back to laughing, smoking and dancing, in a performance that is too repetitive to be considered on the same level as Ledger or even Nicholson. He isn’t helped by a pisspoor script, where his every line is telegraphed, and where the efforts at dark humour are as bad as the jokes Arthur tries to tell in his comedy clubs (and this is easily the least funny Joker on-screen yet: Heath Ledger is watching on and saying “And I thought my jokes were bad”)

The remainder of the cast flounder about with a story and screenplay that maintains Arthur’s position as the centre of the universe, and everyone else as unimportant cardboard cut-outs. They include Frances Conroy as his unravelling mother, Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne and the aforementioned Zazie Beetz. There are very limited roles for women, and limited roles for POC, which should come as no surprise really, if one looks into the director’s stated beliefs and previous films. Robert de Niro’s appearance as a loudmouthed talk-show host injects a bit of verve into the affair, but from the moment he first appears on-screen it is inevitable that he will be just another victim of the Joker’s insanity, the only question is how justified the script will make it.

Visually, Joker is an ugly greyswept affair, with Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher taking so much of their influence from 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King Of Comedy that he might owe Martin Scorsese an apology. Maybe de Niro gave his blessing. Either way, their Gotham is wet, dingy, infested with rubbish bags owing to a refuse collectors strike and full of faceless nobodies. It’s not hard to see a bit of Alan Moore’s New York from Watchmen in here too, only without the more-than-adequate social commentary. Phillips, a man with a background almost exclusively in directing comedies, proves himself average at best when it comes to drama, with a multitude of symmetrical framing shots, elongated sequences of Arthur walking around a perpetually miserable-looking Gotham and no section that can be said to really stand-out.

Where Scorsese made New York an entity that appeared to be living and breathing, albeit it claustrophobic and intense, Phillips’ Gotham is an infantile copy of the same ideas, betraying little in the way of originality. It throws in lots of little details to evoke 1970’s/1980’s New York, but its all been done, and done better. Musically, Phillips drops in a few appropriate classics and hits, then really waves at the edgelords by dropping in “Rock and Roll Part 2”. The creation of a convicted child molester (who may receive royalties for its use), it is heard in a scene where Fleck, fully emancipated from society, dances down the steps from his apartment, in a moment undoubtedly portrayed as triumphant.

I don’t want to overstate the case too much, lest I came across as some kind of rabid hater of the director and Phoenix. I am not, especially not of Phoenix. But this is an awful film. It’s written poorly, its directed poorly and for the most part it is acted poorly. It’s depiction of the subject is far from revolutionary. It’s key themes and messages are repulsive to anyone who thinks that violent white men need to take responsibility for their own actions, and not be portrayed as heroic, excused or justified. There are those who will identify with Arthur Fleck, and where that leads is anybody’s guess.

Moreover, it’s pathetically humdrum and tired message that our societal constructs are undeserving of themselves, and that one must break free from such a system, from morals and social contracts, by ignoring them, is simply beyond me at this point. I am, very happily, 15 years or more removed from the time in my life when such Tyler Durden-esque dross was genuinely appealing. Joker seems to suggest we should just burn it all down: it embraces nihilism to the point of stupidity, and for that it deserves genuine scorn. Phillips has every right to make his film and attempt to draw a discussion on it. Just as I have every right to feel I wasted my time and money, and from the way the reviews have started to turn as the film gets a more general release, I know I am far from the only one. Joker is a shallow, empty experience that has airs and graces it comes nowhere close to deserving: it is very much not recommended, and the faster we move on from it the better in my view.

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“Can’t be too careful with all those weirdos around”.

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

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Ireland’s Wars: The Carrigtwohill Barracks Attack

1920 was to bring a new verve to the IRA’s campaigns. The dispute between the nominal commanders in GHQ and those mid to junior officers “on the ground” would remain, but there was now a greater appetite in Dublin for efforts to expand the war beyond the piecemeal ambushes and independent operations that had taken place up to that point. As previously mentioned, in late 1919 GHQ wanted a larger offensive against the RIC, an entity that had already retreated so much, but it would be the brigades in the localities that would undertake most of the planning and execution of what this meant practically.

The RIC had closed many of them owing to staff shortages and isolation, but the primary symbol of their position in Ireland remained the police barracks, of which hundreds could be found throughout the country even after the contraction of 1919. Those that remained in operation were the ones chosen as the most important, the most defendable. The RIC in rural areas took efforts to shore up the defences of these points in consequence of the IRA’s spread, adding slatted steel windows that could be closed at need, lights that could be turned on at night to highlight any possible attacks, as well as gathering arms and ammunition.

Cork was the place where the war would escalate, specifically with the Cork No. 1 Brigade. Many of its leaders were chafing to expand operations: at a brigade meeting in October 1919 it had been proposed to launch a coordinated attack on every RIC barracks in their operational area. Some officers felt the task would be all too easy, reasoning that most of the barracks were thinly held by unmotivated police. But, unlike others in the country happy to undertake attacks without resort to Dublin, the Brigade OC, Thomas Mac Curtain, preferred to seek GHQ’s approval. Mac Curtain operated on a fine line, his own inaction in 1916 always pressing on him and sowing at least a small bit of dissent in the ranks, but he refused to undertake attacks on his own volition. GHQ initially gave the go-ahead for an attack, but then countermanded the order, with Michael Collins preferring to give most of the attention, and possible publicity, to their attempted ambush on John French.

After the failure of that attack, the proposed barracks assault was revisited. Attacks on every RIC barracks going was discounted, but GHQ did authorise every Cork-based brigade to make an attack on a single barracks of their own choosing. For the No.1 Brigade, the 4th Battalion, that based in the general vicinity of Cobh, was chosen.

The man in charge was Michael Leahy, a veteran of Cork’s aborted mustering in 1916 who had subsequently become a Frongach internee. He had already taken part in several smaller-scale attacks in 1919, as well as spending some time in prison for the cause since his return to Ireland. A close confidant of Thomas Mac Curtain, he was given leeway to pick the barracks to be targeted; his choice fell on the station in the village of Carrigtwohill, a few miles north of Cobh, and east of Cork City. His reasoning was based on the availability of willing men in that area to be engaged in an attack, and its distance from the nearest British Army barracks. It was not an automatic win, being a thick stone building that had been prepared for defence in the manner listed above; the number of RIC men that were inside during the events to be described varies from source to source, but was between five and eleven men, the lesser amount if you believe the RIC, the larger if you believe the IRA.

Leahy’s initial plan was simple: he would use several nearby companies of Volunteers to block roads, cut telegraph wires and isolate the village, before starting an attack on the barracks at both its front and rear entrance, with a demonstration of fire large enough that its garrison would surrender. If that did not occur, he would blow a hole in the barracks wall and initiate a storm. What arms could be taken would be taken, and speeded away in a truck provided by the Cobh company. He had the advantage of committed men and mobility, with the RIC being sedentary and with questionable commitment. The attack was put down for the night of the 2nd January, and would constitute the first major event of the war in 1920, as well as the first GHQ authorised attack on an RIC position.

That night IRA companies from nearby Midelton and Knockraha felled trees to block roads and otherwise stayed on guard and kept a look-out. The actual fighting itself would be undertaken by a mix of men from the three companies, led by Leahy himself, who had assembled at the schoolhouse in the south of the village. Volunteers based in Carrigtwohill were deliberately not used, for fear they would be identified by the RIC and be easily punished afterward. The number actually involved in the attack varies in accounts from either side of the fighting, but may have been around twenty, with perhaps a hundred others blockading the village.

Leahy placed men in houses opposite the front entrance of the barracks, others in a hayshed to the rear, and others behind a low stone wall that went around the barracks. An hour before midnight Leahy, situated in the hayshed, gave the order to open fire, his men having made it to their various positions without detection: a clear sign of the limited ability the RIC now had, of their volition and through the support of the community, to see attacks coming. However, the RIC were not totally without warning, having realised ahead of the first shot that their communications had been cut.

The IRA lay down fire on the doors and windows, and the RIC fired back from slats put into those same windows for the very purpose. Homemade grenades were thrown against the building, to no effect, the walls and steel being too strong to be breached by such improvised weapons, though they presumably made a fearsome noise. Leahy had to be mindful of the amount of ammunition he had – subsequent RIC claims that their barracks had been hit with hundreds of rounds seem fanciful in the circumstances – and after fifteen minutes of exchanging fire without any sign that the RIC were ready to call it quits, he ordered a team of men from the Cobh company to advance to the gable of the barracks and blow open a breach with sticks of gelignite. This took a while to do, as the men moved to the wall, bored holes in it, and then placed the explosive. All the while, the IRA maintained what fire it could, while the RIC used their stock of flare guns to try and signal for assistance.

The explosives laid, the advanced party retreated back to the nearby hayshed and pushed the plunger. The resulting explosion opened up a fair-sized hole in the barracks wall, and prompted the RIC inside to retreat to the first storey. Military defenders may have elected to stay where they were and try and plug the breach with fire, but the RIC were not military defenders. Leahy claims he was prepared to set fire to the barracks via the breach at this point, but was dissuaded by the claim that Volunteer prisoners were inside, something that is not mentioned in other accounts. Instead he ordered the surrounding men to cease fire and entered the barracks with a vanguard, soon realising the RIC were not on the ground floor. Not wanting to attack upstairs, they fired their guns through the ceiling and called for the police to surrender.

IRA accounts state that the wife of the RIC sergeant in command of the barracks, a man named Casey, negotiated a quick end to hostilities, influenced no doubt by the infant she was carrying. The IRA promised they would detain the RIC briefly while they took the guns and ammo from the barracks before setting it alight; Mrs Casey was allowed to go on her way. The RIC men took the offer and laid down their arms, being then handcuffed and assembled outside. Some would later claim they only surrendered as they had run out of ammunition, and one even went as far as to claim they had been the victims of knockout gas. The IRA ransacked the barracks, finding a healthy store of guns and bullets, which were spirited away in the waiting truck. The job completed, without casualties on either side, Leahy assembled his men outside, led a singing of “The Soldier’s Song” and then ordered a dispersal. The RIC were marched a few miles from the village before being released, after being strongly advised to quit the force as soon as possible. The barracks, for whatever reason, was not set alight.

It was a well carried out operation by the IRA. They had reconnoitered their target properly, isolated it and then effectively suppressed the defenders. Upon creating a breach into the building they had swiftly brought an end to the fighting, with no loss of life on either side. The reward was a worthy haul of war material that would be put to good use later, and a severe blow to the already tarnished image of British authority in the area, and in the country at large. On the other side, the RIC did what they could, but were severely outnumbered and hamstrung by their inability to manouvre. The really critical factor was the lack of support from other RIC garrisons or the military.

The first Crown Forces to arrive did not turn up until near noon the following day, by which time the IRA had scattered and the guns had been hidden. Another attack had occurred at the RIC barracks in Kilmurray as part of the effort to coordinate a multi-faceted stroke, but there the attackers would make little headway, and the barracks would survive. A third was aborted. From that perspective, the effort to launch a major coordinated assault was a failure, but with the success at Carraigtwohill, it certainly wasn’t seen like that.

More than one major figure of the period, among them Richard Mulcahy working in GHQ, believed that Carraigtwohill was the real beginning of the Irish War of Independence. It was the end of the unsanctioned randomised violence of 1919 that was taking place in the country at large, and the beginning of something more directed, more politically motivated. In the months to come many more barracks would be targetted, and while a significant number of these attacks would be failures – more than is commonly reported – many of them would be quite successful. The Black and Tans were still a bit away, and the British administration continued not to face up to the magnitude of the problem they were dealing with. Carraigtwohill was the beginning of a time when the IRA offensive went into high gear, and where the British lost any tenuous grasp on the initiative.

Al the while, there were serious political moves occurring. While it was not strictly a military event, the topic of Eamon de Valera’s tour of the United States is one that deserves some consideration in this series, important as it was in terms of providing money for the cause at home, and in how the Republic’s political leader got involved in the internecine feuding of America’s nationalist organisations.

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

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Review: In The Shadow Of The Moon

In The Shadow Of The Moon

Trailer

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“Have you seen this girl?”

After a triumphant return the realm of good in-theatre film-making last week, I thought maybe I might be due a return to the realm of good streaming film-making. This film was something that Netflix had been strongly encouraging me to check out in the lead up to and after its release. Maybe that was because I have racked up a few Boyd Holbrook productions, or maybe because my tastes for Netflix originals err towards the lowish-budget sci-fi side (they pretty much seem like the only studio financing them nowadays). Either way, in lieu of anything else to see this week, I turned to the internet. Funky title, weird premise, mostly decent cast, not a hugely well known director: was this a potent mix for great science fiction, or was it something I ended up wishing I had time travel powers I could use to prevent it from happening?

Philadelphia 1988: as he await’s the imminent birth of his first child, cop Tommy Lockhart (Holbrook) has an encounter with a young serial killer (Cleopatra Coleman) who demonstrates impossible knowledge of the future before her violent death. Every nine years afterwards he encounters her again, as his obsession with figuring out the truth of what is happening increasingly derails his own life.

Listen, I likes me some high concept science fiction that blends with other genres. Take a look at my thoughts on this year’s See You Yesterday, or even the less good Kin. Science fiction isn’t enough some times, and its a genre that really only pops when it wraps itself around something else, whether it be another type of story-telling, or a specific movement, be it artistic, societal or political. In The Shadow Of The Moon tries to do this, with a time travel story that has epic pretensions, attempting to tie itself in to the rising tide of xenophobic and fear-based politics in the United States. It’s not a bad idea. It’s a shame then that the different strands of Jim Mickle’s production aren’t able to excel in their own right, and do not support the whole.

Mickle sets his story in four distinctive epochs, and to his credit manages to make all of them seem a bit different, at least in part. 1988 see’s a grimdark cop drama in the style of Seven or Along Came A Spider, all bloody bodies and chases down alleyways. 1996 is a bit more family-based while retaining strong elements of the gumshoe sub-genre. 2006 sees a descent into more trippy conspiracy-theory stuff, that had me thinking of Zodiac and Looper in parts, and also The Terminator. And 2015 aims for M. Night Shyamalan twist territory, with a smattering of more outright sci-fi. The influences are thus varied and the resulting film can claim to have a bit of a hook. It has ambition, and that should be respected.

Any one of these idea could have been parsed out into something with a bit more substance, and it is fair to say that In The Shadow Of The Moon might have worked just as well or better as a mini-series (one wonders, in the current age of entertainment, if that was the original intention; certainly there is a feel of True Detective-esque episodicness to what takes place). But none of the four acts is able to stand out enough to be really eye-catching. The film is able to just about trip along, but never captures the necessary vim or verve to really make the most out of what I will fully admit is an otherwise interesting premise. All of the constituent parts have an unmistakable lethargy in production,  suffering as they all do from a weak script and a cast that either isn’t really into or not able to be.

The script, from Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock is a serious issue, reading like it went through multiple revisions, getting steadily less daring and intelligent as it went. So we get lots of awkward set-up lines as we move from scene-to-scene, smalshy dream sequences straight out of the Stephen King cutting room floor and the basics of a police procedural mixed with a little bit of The X-Files. At one point, Michael C. Hall’s detective decides to call in reinforcements by saying “If you’ve got a badge on your chest and a gun on your hip, I need you to move right now!”, like he is John McClane; at others, characters weigh the film down with resort to pseudoscientific technobabble hackery.

The end result is a film that seems to be both talking down to its audience with the amount of lantern-hanging, and not talking enough when it comes to some of the more intricate parts of its premise and its final resolution. An effort to really grandstand with a late-in-the-game “twist” falls dramatically short of what is required, again thanks to some bad script-work. Such shocking moments do little to save productions otherwise in trouble, merely calling attention to its flaws.

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Cleopatra Coleman does not get the time or material to make the most out of her part.

Any sci-fi film worth its salt will try and ask an interesting question. Here at least, In The Shadow Of The Moon can garner some partial credit. The premise of the film leads to the idea of how morally justifiable it is to use time travel to achieve non-violent ends in the future: in this case, it is suggested that the murder of innocents can help prevent larger destruction they may, advertently or inadvertently, cause in years to come. In other words, don’t kill Hitler, kill the people who gave him his ideas, or formed him when he was young.

The problem is that, while the possibilities engendered by this idea are interesting, the film introduces the full ramifications and discussions of them far too late, as we approach the finish line. They are more of a twist than a theme really, and for a film that approaches the two hour mark, that’s not really acceptable. For the record, In The Shadow Of The Moon appears to endorse the idea above, giving one seemingly protagonistic character the rather dangerous line of “Some thoughts are meant to be buried”, a sentiment I found rather unappealing. The Terminator didn’t have it right.

Holbrook and Coleman are the main through-lines of the film. For Holbrook, someone I really loved in Narcos, this should be a dream role really, the chance to play a man whose single-minded obsession with the supernatural turns him into an isolated wreck. The film, aiming as it does to be so many things at once, needs a strong, charismatic performances from its lead. But whether it is the direction or the words, Holbrook can’t pull it off. His Tommy comes across less as a man driven to the edge and more as a lackadaisical should-know-better. Holbrook has priors when it comes to playing law enforcement, so I’m surprised that his performance here, especially as the film rounds the first hour and heads into real tinfoil-hat territory, is so leaden.

Coleman isn’t called upon to actually act that much – most of the time she is on screen she is running away from Holbrook – but in those brief critical moments when she needs to offer dangling hooks of exposition and make us care about the mystery of what is happening, she too falters. She is let down by words that sound overly-manufactured, and a third act narration that spells out too much of what is occurring, very much feeling like a test audience alteration. A better film might be one that attempts to tell the story from both ends, cutting down on the maudlin family drama for Tommy in favour of a better glimpse at “Rya”.

The only other notable in the case is Michael C. Hall, whom I haven’t seen much of since Dexter’s ill-fated finale in 2013 (he’s been mostly on the stage since, his biggest screen role being a recurring VA part on Star Vs The Forces Of Evil). He gives it all that he can, but what he has been given to play with – a sort of straight-laced brother-in-law foil to Holbrook’s Tommy character, with an awful hard-to-place accent (sort of part Philly, part British, part southern) – is just a male version of “the Skyler” there to provide an impediment to the main character. A diner scene where he confronts an increasingly ragged and unhinged Tommy about the nature of his private investigations should be a real Heat-esque scene-stealer, but in the end all he gets to do is call Tommy insane over and over. It’s a bad waste of a man who, judging by the earlier seasons of Dexter, was once one of the brightest talents of the day.

While Mickle does his best to make every segment feel like its own unique thing, In The Shadow Of The Moon still struggles to break out from a cinematography perspective. I mentioned a lot of possible influences above, but one over-riding inspiration was probably Blade Runner (when is it not for urban-based sci-fi?), as Philadelphia is made to look like a crowded, dirty Gotham City, all back alleys and chain-link fences to be jumped over, before we depart to more rural climes, but climes still awash in grey and grime. The look is different every nine years, but not different enough really. There’s too many overly-long establishing or travelling shots, that make the film seem padded out. Perhaps there was a budget issue, but for me setting a film across four different time periods is too much of an opportunity for directorial variety to be presented like this.

It can only be described as only all-right. As I said, maybe there was a budget issue that effected things to an extent, but there are non-budgetary problems that were not adequately tackled, chief among them a lacklustre script, that undercuts everything else. The cast aren’t as engaged with the material as you would like, and there hasn’t been an appropriate exploration of how things could have been handled visually. From a thematic perspective, it has some interesting questions to ponder, but the implications are introduced too late, just ahead of an inane twist that does not help matters. In The Shadow Of The Moon, regrettably, can only go down as a missed opportunity. Not recommended.

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The Ron Howard one was better.

 

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Black And Tans

1920 was the year that the Irish War of Independence truly became the conflict that it is popularly remembered as. It was to be a year of ambush and reprisal, of atrocities and war crimes, all in pursuit of an Ireland freed, or an Ireland remaining inside the United Kingdom. Central to this escalation of the conflict were the two new branches of the “Crown Forces” that were introduced to Ireland that year, and in this entry we will discuss the first.

The ending of World War One created a lot of problems, and both the victors and the losers shared a very awkward one: the millions of men who had spent years in uniform fighting, killing and dying, who were now coming home. Those men were returning to homes and countries that had, in many cases, changed radically, whether it was on a social or political level. Work was hard to come by, and many of them struggled to resume their place in a society that had little use for men whose skills were primarily military. Those suffering from PTSD had additional issues reintegrating after the mass demobilisations, as the “Lost Generation” adapted to the new post-war realities.

The issues were more acute in the various new entities that had sprung to life in the wake of the now collapsed German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires. There unemployed soldiers too often found themselves becoming the armed wing of political movements, whether it was from a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary perspective. This contributed to the large scale instability that flooded central and eastern Europe in the post-war years, and served as a precursor to the rise of fascism.

But even the victorious nations, that lacked the internal instability of the new Germany or Russia, still had to deal with the very thorny question of what to do with their millions of demobilised veterans. In Britain, David Lloyd George and his cabinet saw some of the first-hand after effects, with dissatisfaction over the workings of demobilisation, subsequent spikes in unemployment and ex-soldiers being involved in various kinds of small-scale violence and crime. As the conflict in Ireland developed, Lloyd George saw the opportunity to turn a problem into an advantage.

The RIC, in the latter half of 1919, was in bits. I won’t rehash the point again to a great degree, but it suffices to say that the British police in Ireland were hard-pressed, under resourced, suffering from poor morale and clearly not the entity they needed to be to keep control of Ireland. They were crying out for help, those that were still inclined to perform their jobs dutifully. It took a while – too long really – for the British government to answer that call. When they did, it was through those “demobbed” soldiers.

The Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve was officially formed in late 1919, beginning recruitment in Great Britain at the same time. The move was opposed by some, like the RIC Inspector-General Joseph Byrne, who felt the influx of soldiers would make for a disastrous mix, but he was silenced after being removed from his office in late 1919. As the name would indicate, the Reservists were earmarked to be a back-up and force multiplier for the RIC.

Recruitment campaigns warned of a dangerous task ahead of any takers in Ireland, but, bit by bit, the Reserve began to become a more and more popular resort for unemployed former soldiers. The oft-repeated story that the unit was recruited primarily from British prisons is a myth: the Reservists were still becoming members of the police force, something impossible if you had a criminal record (though it is true that, after the conflict was over, two former members of the Reserves would be convicted for murder and hanged). Recruitment increased when RIC pay was improved, and by the end of the War of Independence, nearly 10’000 men had been inducted into the Reserve, though only 7’000 of them would end up serving in Ireland.

Those men received three months of fairly rudimentary training in police work before being shipped to Ireland.  Being realistic, standard police work was not what they were being recruited for. The influx was a welcome one for many in the RIC and the Dublin administration, but the slipshod nature of what was occurring almost immediately created problems that had not been adequately prepared for. The most obvious example was inevitable supply difficulties, especially in terms of clothing. Until much later in 1920 their weren’t enough full RIC uniforms available for every recruit, and so they had to improvise. The Reservists were issued with amalgamations, usually British Army trousers that were khaki, and dark blue RIC or British police tunics and caps. The contrasting colours were certainly noticeable. Christopher O’Sullivan, writing for the Limerick Post newspaper in March 1920, might have been the first to coin the nickname the Reservists became much better known as, comparing their colours to the Beagle dogs of the Scarteen fox hunters: Black and Tan.

That term is as loaded as it gets in Irish popular remembrance. The very conflict where it was coined is still sometimes known as “the Tan War” in parts, probably the most famous ballad to come out of the period is “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” and even today “Tan” remains a pejorative word in Ireland, typically applied to someone from England. That signifies clearly that the “Black and Tans” were an important part of the conflict, and so they were.

There were other notable aspects of the Black and Tans that also garnered immediate attention. Of course they were pre-dominantly English, Protestant and tended to be shorter than the average RIC constable (a consequence of an urban lower class upbringing), all things that were far outside the experience of many of the Irish in rural areas now being patrolled by the Reservists. The IRA was able, very quickly, to paint “the Tans” as a more outward sign of foreign occupation. Their behavior did the rest.

For the British they were the escalation that many on their side had been asking for, there to fight the counter-insurgency war that commanders had been afraid to fight in 1919. For the Irish, they were war criminals, a force of men brought to Ireland to undertake a course of  mayhem, burnings, reprisals and assassinations. As has often been pointed out since, some of what was laid at the feet of the Black and Tans was actually undertaken by the Auxiliaries, who I will discuss in greater detail when we come to their founding. But the Black and Tans were undoubtedly at the heart of many of the War of Independence’s most controversial moments.

As Reservists, the Black and Tans’ nominal job was to undertake the more basic tasks of the RIC – sentry duty, escort duty for government officials, crowd control – freeing up the longer-term RIC to engage the issue of the IRA and “the Republic” more vigorously. In reality, their duties in Ireland would go beyond that, and into the realms of true counter-insurgency. Right from the start, discipline would be a problem. It remains debatable to what degree this was accepted, and even encouraged, by officers on the ground and those further up the chain. It seems obvious that many fully meant to employ the Black and Tans less as a police reserve, and more of an instrument of terror, to try and recoup the losses that the RIC had taken in 1919. I will discuss some individual cases of this in time, but it suffices to say that the Black and Tans signified the beginning of a militarisation of the Irish police, and it is rare in history that such a course has not resulted in undue amounts of violence, especially against undeserving civilian targets.

The Black and Tans had the job of attempting to push back the gains of the IRA, but even while they were being deployed the IRA were initiating a new part of their general offensive against British authority. In the next entry I will discuss an example of this offensive, as the war against the RIC was kicked up a notch.

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

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Review: Ad Astra

Ad Astra

Trailer

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Wait, is this Ex Machina?

It’s been an iffy run of late hasn’t it? Excepting Tarantino and the MCU, films of the summer have struggled to break into my top ten for the year, and there has been a whole lot of drek in-between. I’m crying out for something to buck the trend and indicate we are heading into a fallow period for cinema, and James Grey has come a calling.

I’m not intimately familiar with the director if I am being honest, knowing him more from reputation than by direct viewing. But what I know is positive, Gray being a filmmaker noted for his excellent work with characters, stories about leaving home and in inter-family relationships on-screen. I also know that I liked the look of this cast, and that I will generally watch any film that Hoyte van Hoytema is the cinematographer for, his last effort being my 2017 Film of the Year, and instant all-time Top Five entry Dunkirk. Add in the sense of a Heart Of Darkness-esque fable through the solar system as a hook, and the worthwhile continuation of Hollywood’s recent obsession with realistic space-based dramas, and I was all-in on Ad Astra. So, did we get to go to the stars, or was it more a case of Ad Lutum?

Emotionally guarded Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut of a near-future where humanity has colonised the Moon and Mars, but remain divided. When the Earth becomes the victim of a series of deadly electrical storms, McBride is called upon to undertake a very personal mission: to travel into the reaches of the solar system to send a message to his once-presumed dead father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), whose long-lost mission to Neptune is suspected of being the origin of the storms.

I was thinking of Nietzsche at times during Ad Astra: “And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” The quote’s already been used as fodder in sci-fi – Firefly/Serenity used it as the basis for their Reaver antagonists as one example – but James Gray and Brad Pitt take it a slightly different, and arguably much more fulfilling direction. In Ad Astra, the abyss is symbolic of the void left by an absent parent: Pitt’s McBride stares into that abyss, and through the course of his epic voyage across the stars, must consider whether he will become the monster his father was, or maybe is.

That’s all that Ad Astra is really: a son trying to get past what the lack of a parent in his upbringing did to him, and to avoid becoming a victim of the sins of the father, of becoming the monster in the abyss. It’s a grand journey, it’s a spectacular look at the landscapes of our universe, it’s an interesting glimpse at how the future of space exploration may go; but it has that critical core of relationship drama to form itself around, and that is what makes Ad Astra a good film.

It also helps that it has Brad Pitt, and to a lesser extent Tommy Lee Jones, to get the point across. While some claims that Pitt has given the best performance of his career in Ad Astra are a tad overblown in my estimation, he’s still fantastic: on-screen alone for large stretches, forced to carry proceedings, playing a character where he must balance an outward facade of emotionless professionalism – McBride is noted as never having had an RPM higher than 80 in any circumstances – that is, in fact, hiding an interior full of deep emotional anguish. In essence, Pitt does very well in portraying a very angry man who has become well-versed at pretending not to be. He’s taciturn, calm when facing disaster and dutiful in all things, but his internal monologue is a more wrathful experience. His fixation on his father drives the film forward, and Lee Jones provides a suitable Colonel Kurtz when we finally get to him, a man driven to an irrational degree, with little care for the emotional destruction he has left in his wake.

Ad Astra succeeds well enough as that kind of story, but it has other, equally weighty, things to say as well. The film has a focus on how best to find happiness and fulfillment, both for McBride and for the human race in general. In the “near future”, we’re looking for intelligent life in the stars and putting down cities on the Moon and Mars, but we’re taking all of our problems with us: war (the Moon is the site of running battles over mining zones), commercialism (Subway has taken up residence in Lunar bases, while Virgin charges extortionate amounts for creature comforts on the trip there) and sheer basic inadequacy in the face of crisis.

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It’s a pretty film.

It’s not hard to see how the film is reflective of current responses to the planet’s problems, most notably climate change, which too many treat as something to run away from. Using this kind of sentiment as a cipher, Ad Astra’s point, as basic as it may seem, is that we should rather look inward for happiness, resolving our own personal crises, and in the relationships with those around us, symbolised by McBride’s troubled marriage to Eve (a briefly seen, but effective, Liv Tyler). Some may find this trite, but Ad Astra follows through to the appropriate amount of the idea, with its vision of a universe where mood-altering drugs are a must-have on spaceflight and McBride continually recites a mantra of being reliant only on himself and focusing purely on what will get the job done. It’s a film that is unrepentant in its cynicism but also unflappable in its glimpses of a more idealistic path.

Some may be turned off by the film’s pacing. Promotional material may have indicated that this is more of an action-packed adventure than it actually is: what few moments of traditional tension that exist are taken care of in the first hour, part of a series of episodic adventures that probably justify the comparisons to Hearts Of Darkness most of all. They include a thrilling fall from a destabilised orbital elevator; a running gun battle with Lunar pirates on dune buggys (and which occurs almost soundlessly); a terrifying investigation of a distress call from a stranded biomedical vessel, that does not go the way you would think; and hand-to-hand combat within a weightless environment, with deadly consequences. Such scenes are quick, more pockmarks in an otherwise steady narrative, that becomes a much slower affair as we go past the hour mark. Gray’s film always comes back to the father/son relationship as its raison d’etre, with the struggles along the way to the fulfillment of that plot serving as allegory and narrative tests, and not the point of the exercise in their own right. It’s a patient production, that expects patience from the viewer: Gray develops his story at his own pace.

At times it can be a blunt movie. Some of the themes are stated outright, in a way that would seem almost infantile in another film – a line in its climax is sure to result in some eye-rolling for its unsubtle nature – but which I did not find too distracting in Ad Astra. Maybe it’s because bluntness is required when Pitt is on-screen alone for so long, most notably in a trippy sequence where he travels solo for three months on the later leg of his journey. Ad Astra is generally scripted quite well, giving a plethora of minor characters – Donald Sutherland as an early comrade for Pitt, Ruth Negga as a Martian administrator, Loren Dean as an incompetent spaceflight officer – as much as it can with limited time. Pitt says as much in narration as he does in other characters, but it works as an exploration into the aforementioned dichotomy between outward passiveness and inward turmoil.

The film is a sight to behold. Van Hoytema was always going to give something special, having priors in this genre with his work on Interstellar. Ad Astra is a tiny bit different. Erring towards realistic in some parts, less realistic in others, the overall vision is one that nods to obvious influences like Solaris, 2001, The Martian, Gravity and Apocalypse Now, and less obvious ones like Mad Max: Fury Road (the Lunar buggy fight), Blade Runner 2049 (the lighting and general depcition of Mars) and the recent It films (the aforementioned distress call sequence, with the reveal of the antagonist remarkably similar to a shot from Andres Muschietti’s Chapter One). It’s a fleshed out, living, breathing entity of a universe. But, amid all of the well-realised splendours of this near-future solar system – the elevator into space, the corporate-slogan washed Lunar city, the dusty red-tinted mindmelt that is Mars, the behemoth of Neptune for the film’s final act – the best examples of camerawork in Ad Astra are the human and the personal.

We constantly see McBride’s passive, yet subtlety controlled face as he submits psychological evaluation after psychological evaluation, emphasizing the individual in the void; as he travels alone to Neptune, frenetic editing and discombobulating cuts are matched by repetition in shots and lighting to create a sense of distortion and non-linear time; and the environments of humanity grow sparser and more basic the further out from the home planet that we get, culminating in a rundown old space vessel bathed in darkness and otherworldly light.

At all times it is accompaniment to Pitt and others, who remain the elements of production that Gray clearly wants to be the most important: everything else, as it should be, might be masterful, but secondary, there to prop up the characters and the story. As an example, the opening sequence, wherein McBride falls from the space elevator, disintegrating owing to an energy storm, is used to demonstrate McBride’s eerie ability to restrain his emotions, initially a positive, but later demonstrated as an abnormal repression. In a larger sense, its the first example of humanity’s efforts to reach beyond the cradle turning to disaster.

Ad Astra is a welcome leap in film quality after a few months where the good was exceptional, and the mediocre was commonplace. Pitt gives one of his – not the – best career performances in a role that allows some deep thoughtful explorations of space travel as symbolic for other things. The rest of the cast do good work also, in a lovingly crafted universe that is real enough to feel within touching distance, and alien enough that it’s central theme of looking for purpose beyond our planet is believable. It’s at time thrilling, at others moving, frequently contemplative but always captivating in its emotional story-telling and spectacular visuals. It projects a hopeful vision of a future where we can repair ourselves and our relationships through honest introspection, away from the void of either space or abandonment. Perhaps the rest of 2019 is looking up. Recommended.

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To The Cinema

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

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Review: Kardec, Mayday Life, Tall Girl, Shanghai Fortress

Kardec

Trailer

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Flim shaw.

In 19th century France, disillusioned educator Hippolyte Rivail is disgusted at the rising phenomenon of “spinning tables” and seances, that claim to offer a means of communicating with the beyond. But when he is convinced to undertake a scientific investigation into such things, he discovers there may in fact be some truth to them.

I take full responsibility for this. I should have done some more research before hitting play, I should have even looked up “Kardec” on Wikipedia. I didn’t. I was lulled into watching this, in ignorance of the “spiritualist” originator Kardec, on the back of some slightly dishonest Netflix marketing, but I can’t blame them.

Ignore the summation I wrote above. Let me offer a new one: Kardec is a film about a charlatan becoming a charlatan, it just so happens to present his charlatanism as real. The film decides that spinning tables and seances and communicating with dead spirits is absolutely real, and does next to nothing to present the possibility that it may not be. It’s a propaganda film for dangerous nonsense, dressed up as an ass-kissing biopic.

And perhaps worse than any of that, it’s incredibly dull. At 110 minutes, it really shouldn’t feel as long as it does, but Kardec’s running time is of the time-bending variety, feeling like three hours when it’s under two. The film is replete with bad pacing, poor editing and scenes that stretch on and on for no good reason: awkward conversations between principals are matched by the sheer isolation, with Wagner de Assis’  production apparently having to make do with a deficit of extras.  The dialogue is flat, not aided by what might be an iffy translation job. But I suppose that’s just what happens when you have a Brazilian production making a biopic about a French man, subsequently released to English-speaking audiences.

How exactly all of turned out is probably a more interesting story than that presented in Kardec itself, which isn’t. De Assis apparently had just a week to film in Paris before having to return to Rio, and really bad CGI has to step in to try and make Kardec look like it is actually being filmed in France. They should have saved themselves the trouble and not bothered at all, with anything to do with the film.

Why does this bother me so much? Because seances are bullshit, mediums are bullshit, and these kinds of films promote the aggressively braindead idea that such things are a force for good, or, at worst, “harmless”. They aren’t. They’re scams perpetrated by people who are either deranged or criminals, taking advantage of those of us who are all too easily duped. Maybe Kardec was a nice guy, and maybe he genuinely believed what he was doing was supernatural, as this film of the same name would have us believe. But at the end of the day, he was propagating fantasy. This kind of propaganda is unpalatable, and I wish I had never turned it on. Not recommended. Hardcore not recommended.

Mayday Life

Trailer

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Maydaymania, is running wild.

During the course of their two year worldwide concert tour, Taiwanese rock/pop band Mayday tell the story of five fading superheroes, called out of an ignominious retirement to battle an extraterrestrial enemy, while putting on a unique show for their passionate fanbase.

I suppose that I can only offer an assessment of Mayday Life, a real lazy Saturday-afternoon watch, by splitting it into its two constituent parts. In terms of the actual concert footage, well, I suppose that it is a fun enough experience, if you’re not all that bothered. If I may be a bit blunt, Mayday play a really safe, inoffensive tweener-specific brand of pop/rock, so its hard to express any kind of outward distaste for it, just as much as it is hard to express a great level of admiration. I suppose the absolute worst thing I would be able to say is that it’s just sort of bland, the kind of music that you can tap your foot and nod your head along to, before it instantly vanishes from your memory five seconds after the song ends.

The stagework is well-done, an array of colours and vibrant explosions of energy, matched by some nicely kinetic camerawork. It’s not on the same level of experience as Beyonce’s Homecoming from earlier this year in terms of interest or engagement, but it is a well crafted visual spectacle all the same. It’s obvious that Mayday are an adored group, what with all of the screaming fans, and if Mayday Life does nothing else, it’s at least a good advertisement for the band. I certainly would never have heard of them otherwise, even if one of the concerts on this tour wasn’t all that far away from me.

But then there is the other aspect of the show. Sets of songs are separated by a number of pre-filmed vignettes, wherein the members of the band – whose names are, by the way, Monster, Ashin, Stone, Masa and Ming – appear as various types and forms of superhero, out to battle a collection of different fantastical enemies. The shorts are obviously comedic interludes, and are not meant to be taken all that seriously, replete with questionable CGI, bad one-liners and a brand of humour that is probably designed for the legions of screaming teenage girls in the audience than anybody else. They are perfectly serviceable distractions, though some of them last a bit too long. It’s meant to be a concert after-all, not the Mayday Variety Hour. One wonders if, perhaps, the band or the people behind the band consider themselves a bit too big for their boots, if they attempt to be both musicians and blockbuster-esque film stars, all in the same breath.,

In the end this isn’t really for me, it was just a completely random watch that didn’t work out. Mayday seem like a perfectly nice group of guys playing music that is clearly adored, but it just isn’t my kind of experience. With that said, I suppose I don’t recommend this, unless you’re a Taiwanese tweener.

Tall Girl

Trailer

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Guess who ends up together?

 

Jodi (Ava Michelle) is the titular “tall girl”: the only woman in her high school over six feet, a fact that results in social ostracisation and a degree of self-loathing. When Swedish exchange student Stig (Luke Eisner) arrives in school, Jodi sees her chance for romance, much to the chagrin of her long-time friend/admirer Jack (Griffin Gluck).

I used to be all in on these kinds of romantic comedies, the stereotypical American high school inexplicably populated by twenty/thirty somethings that had the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader and the heroine. I’m not talking the crudity of American Pie, but the more palatable – and frankly, much better and more creative – Ten Things I Hate About You, Get Over It, Never Been Kissed, She’s All That or the parody Not Another Teen Movie. They were easy sells, easy makes and easy watches.

Long after such films have seen their apogee, Tall Girl aims to perhaps reinvent the canon, with a film that slots easily enough into the empty space. There’s the nominally “flawed” but likable heroine, the goofy male love interest, the bitchy rival, the token black friend, the embarrassing parents etc, etc. All the element are here to make something that may temporarily transport you back to the days of the late 90s, when this sub-sub-genre was the King of the box office.

But Tall Girl reminds you of just why these films don’t really hold up all that well. Maybe you need a younger mindset to really buy into the slightly too-old actors, the lack of diversity or the intricate web of high school politics. Maybe it’s just the idea of a girl not being interested in a guy not being taken with the adequate seriousness that the world of 2019 demands. Maybe its the saccharine and homogenised attitude to sexuality (kissing is the goal of all teens here it seems, with an opening scene flirtation set to Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” about as far as Tall Girl goes). Either way, Tall Girl just can’t connect with the audience the way it wants to.

Michelle is a fine actress and does her very best with what she is given. I’m sure the central issue of Tall Girl is a very real and distressing one for many young women, and in that sense the film does a good job of saying the right things about self-perception, self-esteem and rising above degradation. It does a good job at making clear that everyone at this stage in their life thinks they are the marginalised one, even if they really aren’t.

But then there is the other side of things, namely that romance plot-line with Jack (Gluck might have a future in comedy as an aside, as his performance here as a put-upon sad sack is generally terrific). Jack is obsessed with Jodi, to the point of openly stating he’ll wait forever for her, even though she isn’t interested in him as anything other than a friend, something she has enunciated clearly, repeatedly. This, spoiler, changes through the course of Tall Girl, and the way that we get to the inevitable destination is a tad disturbing really, indicating that all a teenage girl really needs to gain an attraction to a guy is unerring persistence mixed with a bit of violence between rivals.

Perhaps I should try and be a little less harsh. Tall Girl has its funny moments – Steve Zahn as Jodi’s trying-to-hard-at-being-supportive father is probably the stand-out, as is her intense beauty queen sister Sabrina Carpenter – and is a serviceable bit of nostalgia-bait. But it just doesn’t land the way that you have expected. Perhaps there is no future in this genre anymore, and maybe film has moved on. Either way, Tall Girl wasn’t the one to reverse the trend. Not recommended.

Shanghai Fortress

Trailer

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Why are these children being sent to fight the aliens?

2035: After finding a potent new energy source in the stars, humanity’s fuel issues appear to have been permanently resolved. That is, until an alien menace attacks the Earth in pursuit of that same energy source. Now, it is up to the defenders of Shanghai, such as plucky recruit Jiang Yang (Lu Han) and Lin Lan (Shu Qi), to find a way to defeat the extraterrestrials and save the planet.

My return to the world of Chinese cinema, after the disappointing The Wandering Earth earlier this year, was a weird one. Again based on a well-regarded Chinese sci-fi novel, Shanghai Fortress at first seemed like a fairly straightforward action blockbuster: alien invaders, valiant human defenders, aerial battles, explosions, heroic sacrifices, maybe some romance if you have the time (oh, and we do, at an excruciating 100+ minutes). You got the feel from trailers of something, if I can be allowed the comparison, of an anime adaptation, something in the same league as Macross.

But while Shanghai Fortress has the requisite amount of alien combat, it takes a very odd tack, with around 30 minutes of what you would expect at the beginning and another 30 minutes at the end. It’s the middle where things go south, when director Teng Huatao turns what really should just be a Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich CGI-explosion fest, and tries to make it into a moving account of a young man declaring his love for (slightly) older woman. The story of Jiang – I suppose the everyman we are supposed to rally behind, although it was hard to tell sometimes, with singer Lu Han not really up for this – and his infatuation with Commander Lin – probably a more interesting character, but only barely – is parsed out to a very lengthy degree, killing the momentum of the film dead after a half-decent, and only half-decent, opening act.

You simply can’t have it both ways here. The romance plot-line is asinine compared to the carnage going on when the alien’s attack, and the alien attack, despite its visual prominence, is treated like the secondary plot-line for too much of the film. The residents of Shangahi go about their daily lives with gleeful abandon, despite the alien robots smashing into their skyscrapers daily. There’s also a sense that I should have already read the book to understand a good bit of what is going on with the setting, with pivotal plot points touched upon briefly before being forgotten altogether. I wouldn’t even repeat my criticism of The Wandering Earth that it seems like a bad facsimile of the Hollywood equivalent: this feels like the director wanted to try something very unique, even daring, but it was simply the wrong call to make.

The rest is what you would expect of Chinese cinema, namely a fetishistic focus on the virtues of military service and sacrificing the self for the greater good of the whole, themes that smack a little of state-influence. In the end, Shanghai Fortress has the potential to be a fun sci-fi romp, but layers itself down with undue amounts of melodrama and hints that you are watching propaganda by proxy. The film was a box office disaster in China apparently, with the director issuing an apology: if the Chinese film industry wants to make good on the international level, they have a long ways to go on the basis of this year’s contributions. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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