Review – Godzilla: King Of The Monsters

Godzilla: King Of The Monsters




It is fair to say that Legendary/Warner Bros/Toho’s “Monsterverse” movies have made a liar out of me. In 2014 I did not recommend Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, on the grounds that it was a plot-lacking piece of spectacle bait, and indicated I wouldn’t be back for more. But I went along to the similarly plot-lacking Kong: Skull Island a few years later, and was similarly underwhelmed. Hell, go back a bit further and see my withering assessment of the dramatically over-rated Pacific Rim. And so, when Godzilla: King Of The Monsters was due for release, you would think going to see it would be the last thing on my mind.

Maybe it was the actually decent cast that got me in the door. Maybe I thought that the third time would be the charm. Or maybe I should be brutally honest with myself and say that spectacle-bait does work sometimes, when you want to go and see a film and the choices are limited. So, yes, I bought in to what will actually be my fourth Godzilla film this year. Was this a Kafka-esque exercise to repetitive futility, or have they finally managed to right the wrongs of the kaiju genre?

During the Godzilla/MUTO battle in San Francisco, Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiga) lose their son, leaving daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) an only child. A few years later, Mark is called back into the fold of Monarch, an organisation dedicated to studying “Titans” like Godzilla, when Emma and Madison are kidnapped by a band of eco-terrorists led by the vicious Jonah (Charles Dance). His goal is the activation of a host of monsters to bring balance to the world, most terribly the three-headed dragon Ghidorah: only the reigning King of the Monsters may stand in their way.

I suppose we should get the very obvious out of the way first. This film takes the general positives of both 2014’s Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island and just injects a straight shot of adrenaline into them. There are more kaiju fights here than in the other two films put together, and more variety in the kaiju’s themselves. The battles are heavyweight title bouts in monster form, and showcase a skill in CGI action and destruction that can claim to be in the top tier of such things. There are some really great looking moments: Godzilla’s “threat display” while swimming towards an underwater base; Mothra emerging from behind a waterfall in a rainbow of colour; Ghidorah’s three heads snapping at each other in a cross between kaiju and Three Stooges; Rodan’s aerial stalking of jet fighters like a hawk hunting some sparrows. It sounds great, it looks impressive and it is your classic “has to be seen on the big-screen” effort.

I’ll go even further than that, and say that the drama involving the Titans is actually one the best parts of King Of The Monsters from a character perspective. The Titans have relationships and rivalries with each other, and while it is understandably simplistic, you actually do get a sense of how this works, and what the results can be. They have presence that goes beyond “big monster”: Godzilla gives off a command and confidence that could be described, dare I say, as magnetism and Mothra has a beautiful allure, while Ghidorah really does feel like the kind of villain who would be cackling maniacally (with an English accent) if he was in human form, with the subservient Rodan as his sniveling henchman. It could be said that King Of The Monsters would be a better film if it was a 60 minute show-reel of monster fights, with additional time for this wordless interaction between Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah (and the other 13 or so Titans who pop up for brief cameos).

So, let it not be said that I do not appreciate the raison d’etre of these films. I am not so jaded that I am completely against the idea of a big budget CGI extravaganza of giant monster fights. With that out of the way, let’s get into it.

This film reportedly cost somewhere between $170 and $200 million dollars to make. You cannot, in my estimation, make a film for that amount of money, and then present something that sacrifices plot for mindless action, and decent performances for sleepwalking, to this degree with a straight face. And yet, not only has this been done, but I have encountered a large amount of counter-points that amount to “What did you expect?”

What did I expect? With this cast, I expected a hell of a lot more than I got, but then again what could they possibly have done with a script this weak and shallow, or a director this inexperienced (Michael Dougherty’s biggest credit to date being the Christmas-themed horror Krampus)? Too many of King Of The Monsters‘ principals are ambling through the production, but there is only so much you can expect from them when the script largely calls for predictable dramatic pronouncements (so many countdowns!) and gazing off screen at some giant thing. The techno-babble and exposition looms large in every scene, crippling any effort to make drama. The human element of King Of The Monsters – the broken family at its centre, the crypto-zoologist organisation at war with itself, etc – is simply broken.

Kyle Chandler, who once wowed me as Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights, spends his lead role engaged in a staring match with Godzilla. Bradley Whitford, of The West Wing and more recently Get Out, is turned into an annoying tech guy who has a line of dialogue implying he likes to record sex tapes. Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs Of A Geisha, has “diversity casting for the sake of it” written all over her part, and is shamefully wasted. Charles Dance is a nothing antagonist, getting to showcase precious little of his presence and authority. Sally Hawkins steps into the “Killed off too early” role that Bryan Cranston inhabited in 2014. And Millie Bobby Brown, so amazing in Stranger Things, is whinging teenager #1.


Bobby Brown is a potential superstar in the making, but not if her early big-screen efforts are like this. 

The ones I want to draw attention to, as their roles point to deeper flaws, are Vera Farmiga and Ken Watanabe. Farmiga gives a really uninspired performance as the film’s surprise villain, responsible for its lowest moment, an elongated monologue where the primary analogy of global warming is laid out so starkly it’s hard to even call it an analogy, and where the truly tired trope of “Humans are a virus and my mass genocide is the cure” rears its ugly and unwelcome head (I’m amazed we didn’t get any kind of “Man is the real monster” line).

King Of The Monsters wants to live up to its predecessor’s ability to be a metaphor for a serious issue in real-life, but in practice it’s akin to the over-the-top nonsense of The Day After Tomorrow. Doughherty treats Emma in a bi-polar fashion, wanting the audience to sympathise with, then hate, then sympathise with her again, despite her being a greater monster than Hitler and Stalin in body-count terms. The possibility of examining the process of radicalisation for an environmentalist goes a begging. Instead, in honour of her son killed by a giant monster, she wants to kill a lot more people with giant monsters. The contradiction is never even pointed out to her.

And then there is poor Ken Watanabe, an actor I really admire, whom I suspect has some reverence for the source material. He’s actually OK here, but is landed with trying to get across some of the film’s most awkward ideas, namely that some of the giant monsters killing everyone and destroying our cities are actually heroic figures. His Dr Serizawa thinks we should be sad when Godzilla dies (don’t worry, it doesn’t take) and horrified at the idea that humanity might be better off if we were to exterminate all of the giant monsters killing everyone and destroying our cities, since there might be some side-benefits to their trampling around once they have (temporarily) finished killing everyone and destroying our cities.

This condescending claptrap, repeated ad nauseum as some variation of “this world really belongs to them”, results in a laughable end credits sequence of news headlines and blog posts discussing things like Titan droppings being a superfuel, as if anybody would be talking about anything other than the mass killing of people and destruction of our cities. There’s also a constant refrain of the Titans being the original gods of the Earth, taken to an eye-rolling visual extreme when Ghidorah, roaring from atop an erupting volcano, is framed against a comparatively less showy Catholic cross.

There are other, more minor, faults – the odd pacing, the repetitive action beats, the overused cliches of emotional manipulations – but these are the big things, and they did not have to be there. For $200 million you can create a better script, hire a better director and get a more engaged cast. I’ve read that King Of The Monsters‘ two hour running time was cut down from a three hour edit, and I’d actually be curious to see what ended up on on the floor. I don’t mind length if what is present is worthwhile, hence why my favourite kaiju-esque flick is Peter Jackson’s King Kong, a film that did manage to have it all, characters, plot, monster action, the lot, just with a length that many found excessive. I suspect that King Of The Monsters may have been cut down, and thus dumbed down, a bit to become more of a mass appeal exercise, but if so why not go further, and make that 60 minute CGI show-reel, and charge people to see it?

So, I do not want to hear “What did you expect?”. If we actively lower our expectations for films that have budgets of this size, if we surrender to the tide of this recent generation of badly written sci-fi trash that the Transformers franchise kicked off in earnest, what we will have is a plethora of soulless spectaculars. Very palatable, action-packed, visually impressive spectaculars, but soulless nonetheless, with little in the way of genuine emotional connection or re-watch value.

Thinking on the other Godzilla film I have seen this year, The Planet Eater, makes me wonder about expectations. I wasn’t a fan of that conclusion to a largely overwrought and difficult to comprehend anime trilogy, but it did try to do the idea differently at the very least. It’s not entirely fair to compare The Planet Eater with King Of The Monsters since they are so radically different (Ghidorah there is, and I quote myself, “an intangible three-headed snake dragon…who thrives on the faith of humans“). But even for all of The Planet Eater’s faults, it left a bigger impression on me than King Of The Monsters. It may not have had much action, it went too far to the other extreme. But it was a more worthwhile artistic effort than this monster fight rumble.

And I fully admit that me seeing King Of The Monsters, and paying money to do so, is just as much a part of the problem. I got sucked in, like so many others who saw this film and disliked it got sucked in. Too often these days it seems that that’s what Hollywood marketing machines are for, to negate the possibly bad effects of word of mouth and get people in the doors quick. By the time this review goes out, King Of The Monsters will already be falling off the radar, and has not done as well financially as it’s earlier editions. I deem this to be no unjust thing: it points to possibility that people do not want a monster film that is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.

They want something more; something inventive, something to connect to. Godzilla: King Of The Monsters is not that film, and I doubt Godzilla Vs Kong, due out next year, will be that either. Perhaps they will be able to wrap a decent narrative around this hyper-heavyweight title fight before they team up to take on Mecha-Ghidorah or whatever that film’s Doomsday will turn out to be. But I doubt it. Not recommended.


They say “Long live the King” twice in this film, in deadly seriousness.

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


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Ireland’s Wars: German Plots

Ireland in April/May 1918 was an island in uproar. The threat of conscription loomed large, and had motivated a unified struggle from nationalist and other groups to oppose it, a struggle that was causing the Dublin administration and London government no end of consternation. Even with better news from the western front, where Germany’s Spring Offensive would peter out over the summer, much of Lloyd George and his cabinet’s attention remained fixed on Ireland. They saw in the war an opportunity to turn things in Ireland to their advantage, which resulted in one of the most controversial aspects of the Conscription Crisis.

We have previously discussed the little remembered “Irish Brigade” that Sir Roger Casement attempted to create prior to the Easter Rising. The effort produced only a small under-resourced and under-trained unit who never got near being the kind of fighting force that Casement envisioned. In April 1918 they were only a few months away from being disbanded. But it was then that this otherwise forgettable piece of Irish military history suddenly spring into prominence.

On the 12th of that month a man named Joseph Dowling came ashore in County Clare. Dowling had been a Corporal of the Connacht Rangers when he became a POW in 1914, during the Battle of Mons. Detained in a German camp for the better part of two years, he joined Casement’s unit when the opportunity arose. Now, a U-Boat had dropped him off with a canvas canoe, which he rowed to the tiny Crab Island. When he realised that this was not the mainland, he was able to signal to fishermen who brought him to nearby Doolin. Dowling claimed to be a survivor of an American ship sunk by the Germans: such a story was not terribly convincing, and he was soon arrested.

The truth, or at least something resembling the truth, came out. Under interrogation, Dowling claimed that he had been sent to Ireland by Imperial Germany to set up a communication channel, for a future landing of arms. He further claimed that he had the additional task of making contact with nationalist leaders. It was a strange claim: Germany at that time were in no position to be sending guns to Ireland, and their previous dalliance with Irish nationalists had not worked out all that well for either side. Dowling specifically claimed he was there to contact leaders of the IPP, which makes even less sense given the situation in Ireland at the time. Dowling was apparently a man given to boasting, and some of what he told his interrogators was not feasible.

He would be tried on various charges and spend over six years in prison before being released. In truth it would have otherwise been a fairly minor episode of the war. Around the same time two Sinn Fein members were arrested in the Irish Sea for attempting to communicate with U-Boats, and Michael Collins also attempted something similar off the coast of Mayo around this time: neither episode is well remembered. But members of the British administration seized on the Dowling incident, believing it to be a great opportunity. Even though Dowling’s tale was so flimsy, and there was precious little to connect him to Sinn Fein, it was decided that this “German Plot” justified the mass arrest of Sinn Fein leadership.

On the night of the 17/18th May, 73 predominant members of the party were arrested. Some were certainly forewarned, by informers within the RIC, that such an event might occur, and some were happy to be arrested, seeing in such things a substantial propaganda opportunity. Among those detained were de Valera, Griffith, W.T. Cosgrave, Joseph McGuiness, Count Plunkett, Constance Markievicz, Denis McCullough and Maud Gonne McBride.

Among those who escaped were Michael Collins and some of his key men, most notably his close friend Harry Boland. His intelligence network was already paying dividends, and he had no intentions of spending more time in British prisons. Many of the more moderate and politically minded members of Sinn Fein were now out of the direct picture: such absences only gave Collins an even greater opportunity to make himself a central figure for Irish nationalism. He was already on the executive of Sinn Fein and was a Director of Organisation for the reborn Volunteers, but now he was a becoming a more recognisable figurehead. Others of a more militant bent, like Cathal Brugha (who was engaged in planning the assassination of British leaders if conscription was enforced) and Richard Mulcahy, also escaped arrest.

The arrests were carried out under the wartime “DORA” legislation, with the Sinn Fein members accused of acting contrary to “public safety”. Lloyd George and others hoped that evidence of the supposed plot would vindicate them in the eyes of the Irish populace and, more crucially for the war effort, in America. But what evidence they had, and what they were able to cobble together, was full of holes and unconvincing. Within days, the “German Plot” arrests became just another stick to beat the British administration with, perceived as being based on total fabrications.

Almost immediately, the effects of public outrage were seen electorally. In June another by-election was contested, this time in East Cavan. It was bitterly contested affair, with the IPP angry that Sinn Fein ran, believing that an agreed neutral candidate should have taken the seat unopposed. Arthur Griffith was the chosen Sinn Fein candidate, who ended up winning easily, riding on a wave of public sympathy following his arrest.

Sinn Fein membership continued to explode (despite on outright ban of it and other nationalist organisations in July), the IPP continued to be diminished, and the legitimacy and authority of the British continued to be called into question. The threat of conscription would pass, and the First World War would end with Allied victory, but these things would not heal the ever greater divides evident in Ireland.

In November, Lloyd George would call the first general election in nearly eight years. It would be the greatest test of Sinn Fein’s popular support, and would prove a last event of consequence before the greater outbreak of violence to come.

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

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Review: Kin




Bang bang

The sibling director pair of Jonathan and Josh Baker, little known for any of their other projects, made a bit of a stir in 2014 with the short film Bag Man, that depicted an African-American youth discovering, and then using, a futuristic weapon in modern-day America. It was an interesting, if limited, science-fiction tale, one that didn’t have all that much in the way of pretensions of depth. But it was an undeniably neat idea, with a minority lead in an exceptional situation.

But was there enough in Bag Man to turn it into a feature length piece? The Baker Brothers certainly thought so, and so did Shawn Levy and Michael B. Jordan, the primary producers of Kin who fell in love with the short film and obviously saw potential. And between them all they were able to assemble a surprisingly decent cast. OK then, I was game: was Kin a sci-fi classic in the making, or a film trying to make too much of too little?

While scavenging derelict sites for copper wire, 14-year-old Eli (Miles Truitt) discovers a strange gun, not of our time. When his adopted father’s (Dennis Quaid) biological son Jimmy (Jack Reynor) is released from prison, he finds himself in trouble with local crime lord Taylor (James Franco) and must go on the run, dragging Eli, and his weapon, with him. All the while, a duo of mysterious figures are chasing that same device.

Kin is, unfortunately, a bit of a mess. I say “unfortunately” because this is a film that I wish that I could like: it’s got a good cast, many of them minority actors, it’s actually scripted quite well to a point and the world could do with more inventive sci-fi, even if it is of the low budget side. But Kin can’t do much with all of its positive elements, letting itself down at every turn.

The key issue is tone. The main story of Kin – an unlikely sibling road trip/coming-of-age drama – and its stand-out element – the “ray gun” and the people who brought it into our world – go together like oil and water. One could easily exist without the other, indeed the original Bag Man short is essentially just the second part. Concocted to flesh things out is that larger story, and I can honestly say that Kin could just be that story.

Have Eli find a shotgun in an abandoned, and you would be able to recreate 90% of Kin. You wouldn’t have any need for recourse to what comes off as an unwelcome intrusive sci-fi accompaniment. That sci-fi element is not used as a commentary on the modern world, or as an effective crux for the overall narrative: it thus seems rather pointless, and stands in stark contrast to the likes of See You Yesterday, which used its science-fiction make-up as effective political commentary. And there is plenty to commentate on if Kin had the mind, not least the idea of a young black man needing a gun to be noticed by the world. Kin doesn’t really make enough of that, about the ray gun being a device of empowerment as much as it may be for destruction.

And the thing is that the 90% of Kin that has no sci-fi bells and whistles is fine, if maybe a little maudlin and overly-sentimental. Eli is a naive under-experienced teenager who is led astray by an older brother who hasn’t a clue what he is doing with his life. The journey takes them to places where the heart of their characters, be it bravery, cowardice, greed or affection, comes to the fore. Nobody is entirely a hero and nobody is entirely a villain (except for James Franco, naturally). Both Eli and Jimmy are well-rounded individuals, trying to do the best they can with moral compasses that are not entirely attuned in the right ways. Both make mistakes and both are redeemable.

Truitt and Reynor are fine, though I for one find Reynor’s bog-average American accent a bit amusing. They have a decent chemistry, and Truitt does especially well considering his age. At least this is a project of his I actually didn’t have major objections to watching, unlike the racist drek that was Dragged Across Concrete earlier this year. Truitt does a praise-worthy job as a young man on the verge of adulthood facing into the complexity of life, naive enough that his willingness to buy into Jimmy’s falsehoods is not that hard to swallow. Even the best actor would struggle with a script and character arc that is as dead-ended as it is here – Eli’s journey doesn’t so much come to a conclusion, as it does hit a brick wall labelled “Sequel?” – but Truitt does OK.


The Baker Brothers fail to make the best of a decent enough cast.

It’s with other members of the cast that problems start to emerge. Dennis Quaid is only here for the first act, but does what is essentially “gruff Dad”, that an actor of his age and level seems largely relegated to nowadays. He’s not bad, he’s just restricted in what he can do. Zoe Kravitz is the film’s requisite girl, and I say that because it seems the only reason she is in the film is because a female presence is treated as a box to be ticked; the character she plays has little in the way of impact on the story. She could have been important, but even though the Baker’s attempt to frame her as some kind of calming presence in Eli’s rapidly turned about life, she still comes across a strange intrusion, that has no real place in the story they want to tell.

But worst of all is easily James Franco. Leaving aside the allegations against him regards emotional and sexual misconduct, which makes seeing him on-screen an uncomfortable experience as it is, this just isn’t the role for him. Taylor is meant to be a dangerous, unhinged and ultimately threatening character; Franco has neither the look, the presence or, I fear, the acting chops to pull that off with his frame and back catalogue (he played a similar role in the similarly disappointing Spring Breakers). As with many villains over the last decade or so, I find myself wondering if Heath Ledger envisioned a cavalcade of rip-offs as he performed the Joker for The Dark Knight, with Taylor being a character that the crew obviously wants to come off as maniacal, unpredictable, uncomfortable and, in the end, viciously capable. But he’s just a copy, and not a very good one at that, with scenes where he attempts to intimidate people – one where his method of doing this is to urinate inside a shop is so tone-deaf I had to laugh – falling very short.

Taylor is also part of the film’s ending problem. The ray gun interjects itself into the story at awkward moments and never seems to fit in, and that goes doubly for the finale, wherein the two brothers, Taylor and his crew, and a lot of police officers find themselves in the middle of a gun battle. There’s too much in it to parse out: why is Eli so focused on saving the man who has lied to him repeatedly, and that he only just met a few days go? Why are Taylor’s men happy to help him assault a police station and kill a load of cops? And why, oh why, did the Baker Brothers decide to go for that awful twist ending?

I don’t want to give too much away, but Kin concludes with a truly risable sequence, featuring a not-so-surprising guest appearance from a new Hollywood heavyweight, a vomiting of exposition regards the origin of the ray gun, and then some badly misguided efforts to set-up a sequel. It has enough nods to a sequence in The Terminator that it becomes more rip-off than love letter. None of it is all that current to the matter at hand, namely Eli’s relationship to the only family he now has left, or him stepping out as his own man, or even a more basic narrative of a young black man having to learn that he doesn’t need a load of firepower to have an identity. Instead, like so much in the film, it comes off like it is from a completely different movie.

I’ll say this though, it at least looks good. I wouldn’t describe the Baker Brothers as cinematography geniuses, but they have been able to direct a slick looking production, on a fairly limited budget for a film of this type. It’s mostly dark and moody, with a splash of neon underworld; scenes and sequences set in the day time are given a contrasting dreamlike quality with over exposure and slow-mo, as if we are to think that it is the brief moments of normality that are the fantasy, while the ray gun stuff is the reality. Special effects are limited enough, as limited as Eli’s uses of the gun, and mostly left for the finale: it is only regrettable that the finale mostly fails to make the best use of them.

Kin deserves some credit for the attempt at least, and it’s clear to me that there is at least one worthwhile story in here. But there isn’t two, and the way that the Baker’s try and mash the conflicting narrative structures together ends up creating an unpalatable chimera, too gritty and based in reality to be sci-fi, too sci-fi and fantastical to be a gritty reality-based drama. The leads are good, but the rest, especially Franco, are mis-cast or mis-scripted. There’s too many positive attributes matched by negative ones, making Kin a somewhat memorable failure, but a failure nonetheless. I’m sure the Baker Brothers will get another chance, and maybe they’ll have learned their lesson. Perhaps they might consider a look at network TV, a medium this kind of idea might have been better suited for. However it turns out, Kin is not recommended.


KINd of bad

(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).

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Ireland’s Wars: Conscription

As 1918 began, it was clear that something akin to a political earthquake was occurring in Ireland, thanks to the rise in popularity in Sinn Fein, both in terms of general membership and electoral victories. That year, with the Great War entering its final phase and Britain again confronted with solving the enormity of the “Irish Question”, Sinn Fein would be granted their best opportunity to gain notoriety, thanks to the blunder to end all blunders from Westminster.

Before that though, there were attempted counter-responses to Sinn Fein, by the British and by an increasingly disheveled looking Irish Parliamentary Party. Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s “Irish Convention”, mentioned briefly in the last entry, would rumble on without any result until April, ignored by Sinn Fein and treated largely as a talking shop by most of its participants, who could come to no firm agreement on the future of Ireland and Home Rule. From Lloyd George’s side, the Convention was as much an effort to find a solution to the Irish political quagmire as it was to mollify American opinion, though he would apparently not care as much about this within a few weeks.

Sinn Fein were unsuccessful in three by-elections early in the year, which many would have taken as a sign that things were reverting to normal, but this ignored the realities: two of the votes were in IPP heartlands in Ulster where their support was more ingrained but less representative of the national picture, while the third, in Waterford, was taken by a William Redmond on the occasion of his father’s death. John Redmond had been a giant of Irish politics for many years, but the combined shock of the Rising, the fragmentation of the IPP and the death of his other son had sent his health into a tailspin from which it would not recover. The remaining leadership of the IPP failed to realise that it was their faux-resurgence that was the fluke, not Sinn Fein’s previous victories.

On the 21st March, Imperial Germany launched what became to be known as the Spring Offensive, and the possibility of the Entente losing the war suddenly became very real, at least in that moment. As we know, the German attack was a doomed affair, lacking the resources to make lasting gains, but in March all that many would have been able to see was a massive breakthrough and the enemy advancing rapidly towards Paris. Taking heavy casualties on the western front, and dealing with a shortage of manpower after four years of fighting, British leadership inevitably turned their eyes to Ireland, where conscription had not been extended.

With hindsight, the decision to try and introduce conscription to Ireland in 1918 is one of the most catastrophic mistakes in the history of British administration over the island, but we should try and understand the rationale. To an extent there was the issue of military necessity, though as I will discuss further down, this was not a uniformly held opinion among British generals. Lloyd George and others may very well have considered the country and their cause to be in an existential battle with the Central Powers, a battle that they now had to use every available means to fight, political issues or no. But we should also not ignore the other dimensions: a bitterness that the Irish had been excluded from conscription in the first place, a hare-brained attempt to rally Conservative/Unionist feeling behind a common cause and a badly misguided belief that nationalist feeling could be extinguished by a spell in British uniform.

The British military in Ireland itself was divided on the topic. The GOC of Ireland, Bryan Mahon, and the military head of the RIC, both outlined fears that enforcing conscription would be a hazardous and dangerous endevour. In order to do so, the British would have to send more troops into Ireland to deal with unrest and resistance, making the entire affair self-defeating. And questions were raised as to what kind of quality the British government was expecting from the conscripted men, many, if not most, of whom would be opposed to the very idea of serving in uniform. And what would happen when the need for the men was no longer present? Was the British military to train and arm men who were then to go home and swell the ranks of republican groups?

On the other side of things was the newly appointed Lord Lieutenant, Sir John French, once involved with the Curragh Mutiny, once the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, now transferring from his role as GOC of “Home Forces”. French took the role with the understanding, and acquiescence of Lloyd George, that he was to act as a military governor, and he firmly believed that conscription could be a success. He planned to arrest nationalist leaders, censor the press and use air power as a terrorising force against pennants of his new regime.

Four days after the German attack began, Lloyd George’s government began steps to extend conscription to Ireland. The law was pushed through over the objections of the IPP, and even some Unionists MP’s, who recognised that conscription would only inflame nationalist feeling. Lloyd George compounded his error by tying the conscription act in with the setting up of Home Rule, something that outraged both moderate nationalists and avowed republicans. The IPP walked out of Westminster.

Very little could have brought the different strands of nationalist feeling together in Ireland, but conscription was that issue. On the 18th April the “Anti-Conscription Committee” was created after a meeting at Mansion House: its members included de Valera, Arthur Griffith, the new leader of the IPP John Dillon and representatives from the All-For-Ireland League, Labour Party and trade unions. Dillon was especially angry, and would outline in private his own idea that Lloyd George was actively seeking to destroy the IPP, so that a rebellious Ireland would allow for a complete military wipe-out of republican elements.

The same day, a meeting of Catholic bishops at Maynooth resulted in a call for all Catholics to resist conscription. The Church had always had a testy relationship with physical force nationalism, but that was changing, with the Conscription Crisis being just the most recent aspect of a different line of thinking. Younger clergy were increasingly radicalised, and carried huge influence among the population. It was a merging of Catholic with nationalist that would dominate much of Ireland’s politics for some time to come. With even some Unionists opposed, a remarkable, and unique, sense of unity had been created.

The tangible reactions came very quickly. There were repeated mass protests organised by all sides; general strikes were called throughout the country, extending even to munitions factories, causing huge disruptions to daily life; huge anti-conscription rallies were organised, with Sinn Fein and the IPP sharing the stage; hundreds of thousands signed an anti-conscription pledge, and subscribed to a “Defence Fund”; appeals were sent to US President Woodrow Wilson, whose “14 Points” had been published in January. And, of course, for Sinn Fein and a resurgent Irish Volunteers (whose re-organisation will be the subject of a later entry), the entire affair proved to be the most lucrative opportunity for recruitment that they could have imagined.

Despite the fact that the IPP were also opposed to conscription, it was Sinn Fein that were viewed more as the primary opponents. They had always been gung-ho against conscription, while the IPP was still viewed by many as the party that had, through Redmond, encouraged enlistment in the British Army. Lloyd George even encouraged this sentiment, stating in Commons debates on the matter that “Ireland, through its representatives, assented to the war, voted for the war, supported the war”. This statement outraged the IPP, but was believed by a great many. What political capital there was to be gained, was going to be gained by Sinn Fein. Such was the situation, that when a by-election came up in Tullamore in April, the IPP chose not to contest: Sinn Fein’s Patrick McCartan, the commander of the Tyrone Volunteers who refused to mobilise in Easter Week, took the seat. 

The big question was how far they should go in resisting. The Church was careful in its calls for resistance not to advocate for violence, and Sinn Fein’s leadership remained ambiguous enough on the same topic. Certainly, if the British authorities had gone as far as trying to force men into uniform, it is likely that some degree of bloodshed would have occurred, but this does not necessarily equate to another 1916. In the end, such possible eventualities did not have a chance to come to pass.

A strange side-story to the while affair was the co-called “Hay Plan”, formulated by British Army Captain Stuart Hay under the auspices of the British Ministry of Information. The plan called for a courting of the Catholic Church so they could be used to convince the Irish to accept conscription, not to the British Army, but to the French one, first as labour battalions, and then maybe for combat down the line. Some moves in a positive direction were made to make this scheme a reality, before a cynical approach kicked in: political rivalries within government departments and suspicions of French intentions brought Hay’s plan to an end.

Even by May, it was clear that the crisis on the western front had passed. The German advances had been stopped and reversed, and the arrival of American troops now made the final result of the war all the more inevitable. As such, the efforts to introduce conscription into Ireland became even more pointless, and before June was over the plans were unceremoniously dropped. But it was too late. Though some government officials tried to maintain the possibility that conscription could be enforced even as late as October 1918, it was soon seen for what it really had been: an utterly disastrous piece of political maneuvering, that did nothing but harm British interests in Ireland and, with the benefit of hindsight, can be seen as only accelerating the process whereby the 26 counties removed themselves London’s domain.

The next entry will discuss an event of this period that deserves some closer consideration. French, Lloyd George and others were not completely content to let Sinn Fein and its leadership march and make speeches as they saw fit. Whether it was in line with the larger war effort or a singular plan to help pacify an increasingly rebellious Ireland, they would attempt to decapitate the leading nationalist group in Ireland, even if they had to make up the motivation for doing so.

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

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Review: See You Yesterday

See You Yesterday



“I call this an absolute win!”

In an era when it seems as if every type of idea, story, narrative structure and trope has been done, re-done, inspired something else and then re-inspired something else entirely, the ability to take a well-worn concept and make something new out of it is very important. This was something on my mind when I saw the premise for Stefon Bristol’s See You Yesterday, which goes back to the miraculously still-not-dried-up well that is the “time loop”, a concept so popular Wikipedia has an entry just for films that use the concept. There are 25 in the last ten years!

Even on this site I can remember my reviews for Edge Of Tomorrow and ARQ as examples of the idea in science-fiction, and the entire planet just saw the Avengers live through their past experiences in Endgame. But See You Yesterday did offer something genuinely interesting as a hook: tying in the idea of the time loop with the very prescient issue of police brutality and racism in America. Suitably intrigued, I was willing to give See You Yesterday some attention: did I want to hit reset, or was I satisfied with my own timeline?

High school science prodigies C.J (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) seek to finalise their research into time travel, hoping their discovery will lead to fame and bright futures. But when C.J’s brother (Brian “Stro” Bradley) is killed in an unjustified police shooting, C.J risks unraveling the time-space continuum in an effort to change the past and save him.

Having just polished off the largely unwatchable drek that was Rim Of The World, it is very good to be reminded that the words “teenager” and “sci-fi” can go together, and go together very well. No need for aspirations of being a big budget galactic warfare movie either: just a decent futuristic premise, commentary on issues very real today, and some truly excellent performances.

But See You Yesterday truly does get off to a not so great start, what with a really unnecessary Michael J. Fox cameo as the two students’ science teacher. He even quotes Back To The Future. That set alarm bells ringing for me, but thankfully See You Yesterday accelerates on with the story it wants to tell, it just wants to take a moment to pay homage to what came before (and maybe Bill Murray wasn’t available). Back To The Future was then, but Black Lives Matter is now. And the story See You Yesterday wants to tell about that is pretty great: ordinary people with realistic problems, suddenly dealing with extraordinary circumstances.

It starts with decent characters. C.J is one of the most well-rounded female characters that I have seen in this genre: a bright, intelligent young woman, with problems related to her temper and mercenary attitude. She’s worldly as a teenage girl in her time and place must be, but still given to wide-eyed idealism when it comes to her work and what it can accomplish, important for the genre and the audience. In the middle stands her single-minded determination when it comes to the problems put before her, whether it is fixing a laptop for some quick cash, or repeating time loops to try and get the perfect result. Opposite her is Sebastian, just as bright, just as intelligent, but with trust issues, and with his finely tuned sense of caution proving both an advantage and a detriment.

The two are friends, with small hints of something more (and no more than that) but clash and spar as teenagers will. They’re a wonderfully balanced pair, and the relationship between the two carries that vitally important sense of reality, important when the time travel starts. I suppose the appropriate word is “authentic”. Much of that is down to the performances of Duncan-Smith and Crichlow, two relatively newcomers who have laid down a marker for the kind of work they might do in the future. Bradley, better know for his musical career, is also affectingly decent as C.J’s brother, who comes to understand what his sister is attempting to do, even as he realises she may be running down a blind alley.


These two, but especially Duncan-Smith, are potential superstars in the making.

Setting a time travel story in this time and place takes some balls, as it should be so hard to pull off, but Bristol makes it look pretty effortless. In a way it sucks that Jordan Peele just got done with an episode of the new Twilight Zone, “Replay”, with a very similar premise, as that is bound to draw attention away from Bristol’s project, and I daresay the latter might be a bit more inventive. In this community of minorities, so many people are desperate to escape, and science projects as a means of doing so does not seem any more abnormal than others.

These are people dealing with a lack of opportunities, over-policing and under-policing at the wrong times, and a sense that they are the bottom rung of a society where 50% of people will happily accept them being gunned down for taking a phone out of their pocket. It’s a timeless problem really, one that not even the ability to hop back and forth through the continuum will be able to solve, nodded at effectively as the brother’s shooter actually changes from timeline to timeline: the result is nearly always the same. The best sci-fi is always a product of the time that it is made, and See You Yesterday rates highly on that score.

When C.J’s brother is shot dead by an uncaring cop, for the crime of being a black man when a nearby newsagent has been robbed by a different black man, the possibilities of using her newly discovered power of time travel is just a bit too tempting. From here, See You Yesterday combines its commentary on racist policing with more familiar science fiction themes of meddling with timelines and having to understand that every action has rippling consequences. C.J’s grief is matched only by her ever renewed willingness to try again, even if she risks being caught in a Groundhog Day of her own design. What is science fiction for, if not to present a challenging answer to questions like “What could I have done to prevent this loss?”

See You Yesterday does not spend too much time on its time travel technobabble, which is for the best, because it obviously doesn’t make any sense at all, just like it doesn’t make any sense for Sebastian to just be talking about college scholarships when his co-discovery is perhaps the greatest in humanity’s history. Instead, it mostly gets right down to the actual time travel: this forms the bulk of the film’s second half, and its the appropriate mix of actually tense film-making and heartbreaking trials towards inevitable conclusions. C.J’s obstinacy is trying to create the perfect timeline drives See You Yesterday forward through it’s surprisingly short running time – 80 minutes or so – and you can feel her frustration at her inability to get everything just right. There is always another problem, another unintended effect, another ripple upsetting the pond.

It’s obviously not a production that is overflowing with money, but Bristol still manages to make it look good. The surrounds of this New York suburb are made to look like a lively, inhabited places, with a great deal of Jamaican influences, and there is no resort to miserable set design to try and over-emphasise the negatives unnecessarily. There is constantly a sense of movement behind the camera, and not in the nervous Michael Bay kind of way, but in manner which really gets into the vibrancy of the setting and the characters.

The special effects are throwaway in terms of actual time travel, and not to be focused on too much. Bristol utilises simple montage in key sequences introducing the neighborhood, reacting to the brothers death and in other moments later on that I shouldn’t go too in-depth into, but simply works here. There is also a very well realised sense of clutter to certain scenes in workshops, garages and elsewhere, to give you the feeling that you are dealing with two scientific geniuses at work in limited circumstances. The actual time machine is just tubing and armbands for iPhones, but See You Yesterday has already done the requisite work to suck you in elsewhere.

See You Yesterday’s soundtrack is also quite good at imbuing procedures with the right feeling, with a nice mix of rap, hip-hop and other contemporary music. The wheel isn’t being reinvented here, but some good curation of songs can help make the difference is certain scenes.

See You Yesterday ends on a nebulous point, wherein the characters stay true to their exhibited personalities and yet things finish in a slightly frustrating manner. But I suppose this is true to the point that the film is trying to make: you can have all the time travel that you want, but racist policing isn’t going away no matter how many times you try to reset things. Such thought-provoking ideas are not what you might have expected from this direct-to-streaming affair, but it’s proof that See You Yesterday should be a much heavier hitter than it is likely to be. An excellent cast, well scripted and very well put together: there is a lot to like here, and very little to dislike. A plot line from the future for a story based very much in the now, See You Yesterday comes highly recommended from me.


See you for the sequel. Maybe.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Review: Homecoming, Grass Is Greener, Raising Kratos, The Wandering Earth, Rim Of The World

It’s the May round-up.




Behold your new God

At the 2018 Coachella music festival, the main act is Beyonce, performing a show entitled “Homecoming”. With a large-scale accompaniment of dancers and musicians, along with some special guests, the show encompasses themes of growing up, female empowerment and black academia. This concert film showcases the entire performance, as well as some backstage vignettes with the artist herself.

There is a line in the recent hit comedy show The Good Place where Ted Dansen’s Michael outlines to Kirsten Bell’s Eleanor the nature of perfection in their percentage obsessed afterlife: “Any place or thing in the universe can be up to 104% perfect. That’s how we got Beyonce.” It’s a suitable bit of witty commentary on how the world has come to view Beyonce Knowles-Carter, from her Destiny’s Child days all the way up to the present day role as a sort of demi-goddess of music and style. Homecoming is being portrayed as one of her serious high-points, a music and dance spectacular: I thought it would be interesting to experience it as someone who basically knows Beyonce just for her hits, and would have little knowledge of concert films in general.

Homecoming is certainly an experience. It’s a vivid, colourful, exotic affair, with a running thread of a college marching band keeping it all together, along with the masterful Knowles-Carter herself, who can certainly count herself as one of those artists as powerful live and is she is in the studio. Beyonce moves through her famous numbers, and a few not so famous (those familiar with her just from the radio might be a bit shocked by “Sorry”, or some of the more explicit lyrics of “Formation”, which never got much airplay over here). There are intricately choreographed dancing sequences, bizarre skits and an utterly raucous crowd that appears to be treating the show as something more akin to a religious ceremony.

I suppose you can enjoy the whole thing just for the music and the energy, but there is a commentary to Homecoming as well of course. The first is how the show is an ode to black education, specifically to black sororities and fraternities in third-level schools. Beyonce places a very key emphasis on the importance, and even nobility, of seeking education for a race of people for whom such opportunities have been routinely denied or subverted. While you can argue the entire show is about race in someway, it is this that comes out strongest.

Secondly, the show is about Beyonce herself, and specifically about her return to music and the stage after her pregnancy, wherein she underwent a fairly gruelling fitness regimen to regain her former appearance, to the detriment of time with her family. This is mostly outlined in backstage segments featuring her, husband Jay-Z (also performing onstage) and baby Blue Ivy, and you really do get that sense of weary toil and effort, just to be able to get up on stage and perform this show. In other words, 104% effort. Recommended.

Grass Is Greener



You know what Gandalf old friend? This is going to be a night to remember.

For many, many years in the USA, one of the cornerstones of the so called “War on Drugs” has been the prohibition of marijuana. In this documentary, Fab 5 Freddy explores the history of the drug in America, the often racist manner in which laws prohibiting it have been prosecuted, and how even the legalisation of its use may yet be badly effected by an inrush of capitalist interests.

I can’t say that I have ever held any strong opinions on the status of cannabis, in this country or in others, aside from a general distaste for its smell. I myself have never used it, and can safely say that my friends who have used it reported no crippling side-effects (excepting on their wallets maybe). It seems like we may be on the road to the legalisation of the drug in Ireland, and I find myself having no serious objections.

To that extent Grass Is Greener is not strictly meant for me, being focused on a country where “weed” has been demonised by politicians and the media for a large amount of time, put on the same pedestal as heroin and crack in terms of perceived social evils. Within those confines, much of the documentary does feel like it must be a rather impotent exercise in preaching to the choir, offering little in terms of changing minds for those who may have the opposite opinion.

As a history of the drug in America, it’s interesting if a little flat. Weed has always been part-and-parcel with the African-American jazz scene, even if it took white people a while to cop-on to who the “Reefer-man” was in some lyrics. From there its use, especially by youth, seemed to take on hellish connotations, must vividly rendered in ridiculous propaganda pieces like Reefer Madness (the musical pisstake of which might be the weed-media I’m most knowledgeable on) before the war on drugs turned its use into a trespass that might be worth a life sentence in prison (provided you were, of course, not white).

It is in its depiction of this last part that Grass Is Greener manages to excel. In a fashion similar to last year’s Survivors Guide To Prison, Freddy outlines, through interviews with convicts and family members of the same, the terrible toil taken on some minorities who have wound up inside America’s utterly broken penal system on account of marijuana use, and it can’t be denied that there are some harrowing tales in here, that contribute to the ever-more solidified sense that the US still contains one of the most racist societies in the free world.

Freddy closes his documentary with some intriguing thoughts on how the tide of legalisation has changed the way the capitalist system views the drug: once something to be reviled, but now something that needs to be marketed and profit-driven. Those who, in some cases, made lots of money selling weed when it was illegal now find themselves pushed to the side by legitimate business-savvy types. There is a plea here for some kind of regulation to prevent a growing shutout of the smaller suppliers, but it seems to me to be a shout into a vacuum: the price of legalising “grass” is that it becomes mainstream, and thus open to market forces it wasn’t subject to before. You can’t put the worms back into the can. More thought provoking in its last half hour than when it started Grass Is Greener is an interesting look at the history, and current status, of marijuana. Recommended.

Raising Kratos



“And that’s when Thor throws his hammer at you…”

In 2013, Cory Barlog returned to SIE Sony Santa Monica with the task of re-invigorating the God Of War video game franchise, by radically changing both its setting and the depth of its bloodthirsty main character, Kratos. Over the course of an at times torturous multi-year development cycle Barlog must balance the needs of numerous teams and an increasingly difficult looking timetable, in order to make the game he really wants to make.

Playstation dropped this surprisingly lengthy project on Youtube the other week unexpectedly, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. As recently as last year Youtube has proven to be fertile ground for feature-length documentaries about the video game industry, but this had great potential in my eyes, to be a propaganda puff-piece for an industry giant that is hardly going to paint it or its client studios in too bad a light.

Luckily, Raising Kratos is actually well-rounded, insofar as it aims to provide a complete glimpse of the hardships of making a “AAA” title. 2018’s God Of War had the unfortunate problem of needing to both be an innovative and rip-roaring piece of entertainment in its own right, but also carried the expectations of being, essentially, a soft-reboot of a beloved franchise that was ailing a bit. The fandom have serious expectations, the deadlines are tight and the industry is unforgiving of mess-ups.

Barlog wants to change Kratos from being an uber-angry violent warrior who just wants revenge on everyone, into a man trying to have a productive relationship with his son (while killing lots of things, it’s still a video game). It’s not hard to see the evolution of Kratos reflected in his makers, who have similarly gone from young video game design Mozart’s to parents in the same time it has taken Kratos to go from Grecian deity to the Norse pantheon. Trying to bring this altogether results in stress and anguish: the behind-the-scenes footage regularly shows the employees of Sony Sanata Monica in an overworked state, Kratos voice actor Christopher Judge is moved to tears by memories of the time he’s missed with his own kids and one interviewee can’t bring herself to talk about how the experience has negatively effected her personal life. Tempers fray as the countdown gets smaller, and Barlog never seems to be completely satisfied with the level of work going on around him.

So Raising Kratos becomes a testament to the hard work and sacrifice needed to create art then. It takes its time too, showcasing a lot of the journey to get to “Gold”: moving buildings, layoffs, play testing, motion capture (featuring, alongside Judge, Sunny Suljic of this year’s Mid90s) trailer releases. If Raising Kratos has a fault it is that it is too long really, with the viewer positively exhausted by the time the game is released and we get the vicarious joy of watching Barlog read the first reviews; some trimming would have been appropriate at points. Still, it’s good to be reminded of the process that goes into these kinds of games. Recommended.

The Wandering Earth



What is happening here?

In the not-too-distant future, with the sun soon to expand and annihilate the solar system, the denizens of our planet initiate the “Wandering Earth” project, turning the globe into a massive colony ship propelled by hundreds of large scale engines built into the surface. But when the Earth’s route inadvertently sets it on a collision course with Jupiter, astronaut Peiqiang (Wu Jing), his son Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and father-in-law Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat) find themselves at the heart of a desperate rescue effort.

This film, based on a set of sci-fi stories by Liu Cixin, is apparently quite a big deal for the Chinese movie industry, their attempt to create a big-budget CGI spectacular that will conquer both the domestic box office and wow internationally. It follows in the wake of things like the Matt Damon-helmed The Great Wall in that regard, and can be considered just as inherently goofy and ridiculous. Without meaning to sound condescending, The Wandering Earth comes off as a poor imitation of the western world’s “Bayhem” (along with Gravity, Sunshine, Interstellar, Star Wars, Snowpiercer and 2001) style of film-making, with nonsensical plot, science and effects all smashing into each other.

This plot is something that is quite hard to wrap your head around. The idea that the Earth could be turned into a spaceship for two and a half thousands years, propelled by hundreds of giant rockets jutting out of the eastern hemisphere (being fuelled by what exactly?) with only a space station for directional assistance, is childishly stupid. My immediate thought was that I was watching something that would be better suited as an (obscure) anime or Saturday morning cartoon. To director Frant Gwo’s credit, he makes probably the correct choice in choosing not to focus too much on the premise, because if he did the entire affair would come screeching to a halt.

You can only really eventuate The Wandering Earth properly based on the quality of its action and CGI carnage, and in that regard is film has ambitions it was unable to reach. The CGI work runs the gauntlet from genuinely impressive to surprisingly sloppy, and I’m unsure if it was all down to the fact that I watched this on my TV. The elemental destruction goes for 2012 levels of over the top-ness, between cascading mountains of ice, meteor showers of surprisingly deadly precision and ignited planetary atmospheres (that don’t cook the planet alive for some reason). Very little of it makes sense, but I suppose that isn’t the point.

In classic disaster film style, The Wandering Earth attempts to frame its narrative around a human core, with the obligatory “family-in-peril” combined with all sorts of archetypes: the grizzled military veteran, the wacky foreigner, the cowardly scientist, the dad. All of them are threadbare in terms of presentation and depth, little more than living props for the director and production team to throw snowstorms at, or to drop down elevator shafts. Without that emotional core, The Wandering Earth is an empty shell of an experience, and doubly so when it’s raison d’etre, the computer generated carnage, is so disappointing in large stretches. If this is an effort to appeal to western audiences, just as well it was dumped in Netflix. Not recommended.

Rim Of The World



Don’t look at it Marian!

13-year-old introvert Alex (Jack Gore) reluctantly heads to the “Rim of the World” summer camp, where he soon becomes acquainted with Chinese runaway ZhenZhen (Miya Cech), bratty millionaire kid Dariush (Benjamin Flores Jr) and mysterious recent arrival Gabriel (Alessio Scalzotto). When an alien invasion suddenly begins, the group find themselves unexpectedly holding the key to Earth’s survival.

When this popped up on the Netflix queue I was probably one of many whose interest was piqued primarily because of the obvious association to be made with the streaming giant’s premier “Young teens face the supernatural” property Stranger Things (can’t wait for season three!). And it had McG directing, so it couldn’t be considered a throwaway project. Right? Wrong. Rim Of The World is trash from top to bottom, which is shocking enough considering the guy at the helm is a fairly well respected producer and has directed some decent big budget fare in his time.

Nothing about this works, starting with the cast. I’ve said before you need to pull your punches with child actors, so I place the blame on McG, who must have been sleepwalking on set to allow this to take place, with a central four who look like they were plucked off the street in terms of ability, and don’t really have a sense of what they need to accomplish. The characters are so non-existent it is difficult to evaluate any of them: timid Alex has no likability, Zhen is reduced to a level of near-muteness, Dariush is just obnoxious (in a bad way) and Gabriel is just sort of there too.

And it’s not like this can’t be done (like with Stranger Things!). It just hasn’t been done here. The four stumble through a series of unfortunate events that make me think this might have been originally pitched as a TV show, which includes repeated encounters with murderous alien monsters mixed in with some murderous escaped prisoners (the latter in scenes that resemble a Mad Max-esque landscape, which has taken hold around an hour after the alien arrives).

The adult nature of some of the movie (one guy gets an alien claw through the chest on-screen, swear words and sexual references abound) exposes the convenient excuse that this is a film for children. I don’t think it was designed as such, at least not primarily. But that would at least explain some of it that veers into very childish territory, such as sequences where Alex needs to learn how to ride a bike or a section inside a shopping mall that was very out of place. Breakfast Club style, everyone has problems and everyone is more alike than they realise, but unlike The Breakfast Club they don’t outline it in a way you might find genuinely interesting.

Rim Of The World wants to have its cake and eat it too: the end result is a tone deaf mess, that I don’t see appealing to anyone really. They obviously wanted to make a 90 minute version of Stranger Things, but missed out on the tone, performances and world building required. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix and Youtube).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Rise Of Sinn Fein

Even while it was still taking place, the Easter Rising was being dubbed “the Sinn Feiner Rebellion”, in reference to the political entity led by Arthur Griffith that was associated with nationalist thinking. This was, of course, an error: Sinn Fein were not involved in the Easter Rising (as an entity anyway, some of their membership certainly were). Indeed, at the time of the Easter Rising Sinn Fein was not even a republican group, instead backing a strengthened form of Home Rule under a duel monarchy system. It was also in dire straits, having failed to make any kind of impact electorally and was struggling financially (Griffith being legendarily lackadaisical when it came to subscriptions).

The Easter Rising, and Sinn Fein’s association with it, led to a transformation in the fortunes of the party, that saw it become one of the leading political organisations of the island, all the way up to the present day. Regardless of whether its leadership wanted to be seen as such, Sinn Fein were perceived as being synonymous with the movement that had led to the Rising, and as such stood to benefit from it. But the process would indelibly change the party too. Arthur Griffith was imprisoned by the British after the Rising despite his disapproval of it; when he was released in 1917, he stepped back into a very changed political landscape.

Reinvigorated nationalists, disillusioned Home Rulers, angry Catholics, dispossessed farmers, suffragette women, anti-partitionist clergy, they all were seeking a means to turn their feelings post-Rising into tangible action. The Irish Parliamentary Party was clearly not that outlet, and the next best thing appeared to be Sinn Fein. Mass sign-ups followed. By the later stages of 1917, the party’s size would have ballooned to over 100’000, with branches in every part of the country (especially in the south) becoming part and parcel of everyday life. It coincided with a partial breakdown in the unity of the IPP, with many of its locals officials defecting, and growing concerns over conscription being introduced in Ireland. The growth of the movement is comparable in many ways to the Gaelic revival or the early days of the Irish Volunteers, a mass representation of political feeling in Ireland following the end of the Easter Rising. And that movement would not be satisfied just with posters and marching.

It began with a by-election in February 1917. Owing to the large number of seats to be filled in Westminister – 670 in 1910 – by-elections were not uncommon as members retired, sought different office or died. Many of them in that time-period would have been uncontested, amounting to little more than the political party concerned picking a replacement, owing to an agreement between political factions on account of the First World War. In 1916 alone, Ireland saw seven take place; in six cases the seat was retained by the party who had previously held it.

The exception was a November vote in West Cork, when the IPP gained a seat from the incumbent “All-For-Ireland League” of William O’Brien. The AIL ran a Frank J. Healy, a Frongoch internee, and the decision to do so provoked rancour in the party. Sinn Fein did not support Healy (though they did not run against him either) and other Frongoch internees refused to recognise him as a representative of their cause, owing to his refusal to confirm he would not take his seat if elected. There was a split, a rival AIL candidate ran, and Healy lost by just 56 votes to the IPP’s Daniel O’Leary. Despite the loss, it was clear, for those with a mind to see, that change was coming to Irish politics.

The bombshell for the IPP came with the death of James Joseph O’Kelly, MP for North Roscommon. In the by-election to replace him, held in miserable snowy weather on the 3rd February 1917, the IPP put a local Councillor named Thomas Devine up for the seat, widely expected to retain it. His opponents were Independent Jasper Tully and Count George Noble Plunkett, father of Joseph, who ran nominally as an Independent, but with the backing of of a large number of nationalists and nationalist groupings, include elements of Sinn Fein.

Plunkett, always a nationalist, had become increasingly radicalised following the execution of his son and imprisonment of his other children. Ostracised from the upper echelons of Dublin society, he had flung himself into the new brand of politics, and benefited from a campaign in North Roscommon backed by an army of locals and Cumann na Mban volunteers as well as the organisation of Fr Michael O’Flanagan, a Sinn Fein member (though Plunkett himself, incarcerated in England for a time, only arrived in North Roscommon two days before the vote). Plunkett was put forward as a representation of the Easter Rising, and stunned the once confident IPP by winning the vote in a landslide. He almost immediately announced he would not take his seat in Westminster. While Plunkett was not a Sinn Fein member at the time, his future membership of the party led to retroactive labelling of the North Roscommon result as the first electoral victory for Sinn Fein.

Plunkett found himself at the centre of republican politics, and took full advantage of the position. In April he called a “Convention” of like-minded individuals, among them Griffith, to discuss how best to move forward. Plunkett, representing the more radical element, and Griffith, a moderate, disliked each other, and a more permanent schism between the two seemed inevitable. But, thanks to the work of men like Fr O’Flanagan, such a divide was avoided, for the time being. A group of men, known sometimes as the Mansion House Committee after where the Convention met, or the Council of Nine, was chosen to forward the cause of nationalism, with Plunkett officially joining Sinn Fein shortly afterwards.

The concordat was important, as more by-elections were forthcoming. The next was in South Longford in May, called upon the death of IPP MP John Phillips. The IPP, after a fractious process of selection, put up a Patrick McKenna, opposed only by Sinn Fein’s Joe McGuinness. McGuinness was an Easter Rising veteran, having fought with the 1st Battalion around the Four Courts, and was then interned in Lewes Prison. Famously, McGuinness did not want to put himself forward, with he and his fellow prisoners, including Eamon de Valera, believing the cause to be pointless. Sinn Fein, buoyed on by Michael Collins and employing the semi-legendary slogan of “Put him in to get him out”, nominated McGuinness anyway.

Collins, now freed, was becoming quite the critical figure, butting heads with Griffith on the matter and actively campaigning in Longford on McGuinness’ behalf. It was the first anniversary of the Rising and the executions, something Sinn Fein campaigners took full advantage of. The IPP was confident of victory, but after a recount, McGuinness took the seat by a scant 36 votes. The result contributed to the British decision to release the remaining prisoners by June 1917, though McGuinness did not, of course, take up his seat in Parliament. British attempts to orchestrate their own political solution for Ireland, through an “Irish Convention” held in July, were ignored by Sinn Fein and ended in no agreement between moderate nationalists and unionists.

The release of the prisoners only galvanised Sinn Fein more. It was de Valera’s turn next, despite his professed reluctance, in East Clare. As previously noted, the seat there was vacated by the death of Major Willie Redmond at the Battle of Messines. East Clare had always been held by moderate nationalists, with the late Redmond holding it unopposed since 1900, but that was going to change. De Valera, having rapidly become the figurehead of the new Sinn Fein owing to his perceived status as the highest ranking survivor of the Rising, ran another active campaign with many speeches and rallies that attracted thousands, with the candidate addressing crowds in Volunteer uniform, as if the point needed to be made. Local priests were also active in the campaign, imbuing the republican cause with that of Catholicism. On election day de Valera won easily from the IPP’s Patrick Lynch (who would join Sinn Fein the next year; in time to come de Valera would appoint him Attorney General of the state).

It was clear now that the political momentum in Ireland had swung decisively away from the IPP, but one more example in 1917 re-emphasised this. John Redmond was already reeling from the death of his brother, and suffered another blow with the passing of Pat O’Brien, a close friend, confident and the IPP MP for Kilkenny. In the by-election held in August the IPP’s candidate, John Magennis, was no match for another spirited Sinn Fein campaign, running another Rising veteran, this time W.T. Cosgrave, who had fought in the South Dublin Union. Cosgrave won easily, beginning a political career that would eventually make him the leader of the country.

Sinn Fein called an assembly, using the term “Ard Fheis”, for October. There, the possibility of a split between the moderate and republicans again threatened to become a reality, but in the interests of continued unity a compromise was reached. Griffith voluntarily stepped down from the Presidency of the party, realising that it simply didn’t reflect many of his own key beliefs any more; he and Fr O’Flanagan became vice-presidents, with de Valera elevated to the top position. Sinn Fein then adopted an outwardly republican position, staying clearly that its primary aim was “securing the international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish republic”, though, as a sop to Griffith, they also committed to allowing the Irish people to decide their own form of government once freedom was achieved. They also did not outline how exactly they planned to get that freedom. Smaller nationalist organisations merged with Sinn Fein, who were able to move forward with a greater show of unity.

The period was not all unqualified success however. The authorities were not totally sedentary in the face of Sinn Fein’s rise, and there were arrests throughout 1917. The most prominent was undoubtedly Thomas Ashe, the Volunteer leader of the Ashbourne skirmish during the Easter Rising. Having been released from internment in June 1917, Ashe was arrested again, on a charge of sedition, after a well-noted tour of speaking engagements across the country. Convicted, he was sentenced to two years hard labour.

In prison, Ashe and others, like Fionan Lynch and Austin Stack, demanded prisoner-of-war status. Refused, they commenced a hunger strike in September. After having boots and beds removed from cells as a punitive measure, the prisoners were subjected to forced-feeding: Ashe died after such a procedure, on the 25th September. The others would be released in November.

Ashe’s funeral called to mind that of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, owing to its a staged nature and the mammoth crowds that attended. Irish Volunteers escorted the casket in uniform, Fr O’Flanagan said the funeral mass and the graveside oratory was given by Michael Collins. With words that obviously seemed to echo those of Padraig Pearse several years earlier, Collins foreshadowed the conflict to come, stating that the voLley of shots fired over the grave “is the only speech which is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian”.

For Sinn Fein, the greatest opportunities were to come. In 1918, things would come to a head on the western front, with dire consequences for the British position in Ireland.

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

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