Ireland’s Wars: Taking Passchendaele

In the aftermath of the disastrous lack of success at Langemarck, Haig side-lined the unfortunate Gough, and gave Plumer and his Second Army the initiative for the remainder of the Third Ypres offensive, that would now pivot to aim at the Belgian village of Passchendaele. The British, despite the terrible losses, were not giving up on the offensive just yet, still wanting to claim the ridges east of Ypres, still wanting to disrupt the German railway lines, still wanting to secure the Belgian coast and still wanting to wear down the Germany Army bit of painful bit. But some sense of reason now asserted itself, as major offensive moves were called off for a few weeks in the latter half of August, to give the rain a chance to stop, and for the ground the infantry had to advance over the chance to solidify, even slightly.

Bu the time September came, Plumer, operating much more conservatively and carefully than the gung-ho Gough, was ready to try things again. The remainder of the campaign would be more in line with Plumer’s preferred “bite and hold” tactics, with smaller-scale attacks designed to seize advantageous ground, hold it against counter-attack, and use it as a set-up for further attacks, all under the cover of creeping barrages and with tank support if available. The trade-off was, of course, that the chance for a large-scale spectacular success was almost nil, but it could be argued this was the standard state of affairs on the western front anyway.

The British started to make some headway with these more limited assaults, starting with the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge in late September, and on to October with attacks at Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. The Allies gained ground in all instances, and repelled counter-attacks, but Plumer refused to be pushed into expanding his aims, constantly (and rightly) concerned that German defence in depth would make such efforts bloody and futile.

All the while, Irish units were engaged, though the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) had been withdrawn. Between the 12th and 16th September, an advanced post of the 2nd Irish Guards, near Ney Copse, was cut-off and surrounded following a German counter-attack, with the men in the pocket forced to defend their position for four days without food, water, sleep or supplies; on the fifth day Lance Sergeant John Moyney of Roscrea won a VC for leading an attack, later covering his men’s withdrawal with a Lewis gun.

A little less than a month later, the Guards were again in serious action, designated as part of the second wave of an attack across the Broembeek River as part of the Battle of Poelcappelle. By then the rains had re-started, once again turning the field of battle into a treacherous bog of mud, but by now the British were at least doing their best to adapt, with attacking units going forward with pre-built bridges and mats to make the ground as passable as possible.

The Guards crossed the River without serious incident, supported by a creeping barrage and with little resistance. They were tasked with taking the final objective of the push, the remains of the Houthoulst Forest (just stumps at this point), and were able to do so, though holding the position became a deadly game of avoiding sniper fire and attempting to improve trenches that were easily destroyed by the persistent rainfall. 228 of them were made casualties, including every company CO, but the Guards held.

The 1st Dublin Fusiliers, of the 29th Division, were part of the Broodseinde action in mid-October, where the division was tasked with seizing heights near a vital railway line and providing cover near the Broembeek. They did this, and even pushed on and captured a few key German positions. When the neighbouring 4th Division was sent scurrying back in the face of a German counter-attack, the 29th, and their Dublins, provided supressing machine-gun fire, that allowed the 4th to slow their retreat, and eventually turn and successfully counter-attack themselves.

By then, even with Plumer’s moderate successes and the advances, the campaign was starting to peter out. The attack was becoming increasingly unpopular among British politicians, who questioned its worth (and would do so for decades) and set-backs for the Italians against the Austrians produced fears that they may soon pull-out of the fighting, leading to a re-organisation of forces so British and French units could be sent to assist. The situation in Russia, where the collapse of the Tsarist government and the success of the communist revolutions would soon lead to an arctic with the Central Powers and the release of German units on that front, was also playing on minds.

The Belgian village of Passchendaele became the finale target of significance, its buildings and environs annihilated in a serious of attacks and artillery bombardments that continued on into November. This section of the fighting is popularly remembered as one dominated by Canadian units, who had the final task of capturing Passchendaele – or what was left of it – on the 6th November. Irish units among the various divisions were not majorly involved in these closing stages, but they played their part, securing trench lines, launching raids to keep the enemy on their toes and undergoing the necessary amalgamations that occurred as a natural by-product of the losses suffered.

But the Irish were intimately involved, with great loss, in the final moments of the campaign, an attack on the 10th November designed to secure Passchendaele by capturing high ground to the east of the village. Three divisions – the 1st, the 1st Canadian and the 3rd Canadian – attacked the heights, with the 1st on the left of the attack. This division contained the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, one of the most battle-experienced battalions the British had, back in serious combat for the first time since the Somme campaign. Unfortunately for them, while the attack generally went well, they were undone when the neighbouring South Wales Borderers veered off their intended course, leaving a gap in the line of advance that the Germans gladly poured through, cutting off most of the Munsters, who had otherwise advanced to their designated points of attack, or beyond. 413 of them would be casualties by the end of the day, while it was left to the Canadians to rescue the situation and secure the overall objective. For the 2nd Munsters, the winter of 1917/18 was yet another where their unit was forced to reorganise and reform, owing to the casualties that had left them with less than 250 soldiers capable of action.

Third Ypres remains one of the most controversial episodes of the First World War. David Lloyd George, by them Prime Minister, dubbed it a “senseless campaign” that was undefendable (yet, as PM, he had authorised the attacks to continue all the way to November). While casualty figures have proven a topic for academic debate, it is likely that at least 250’000 men on each side were killed. At the furthest points of penetration, the Allies had gained around five miles. The Belgian coast was not secured, and German defences further east remained intact.

However, it is undeniable that the Germans suffered more from Third Ypres, as the casualties sustained there were far more damaging than those suffered by the Allies. The coming release of German units from the eastern front would be a boon, but with American soldiers sue to arrive in 1918, German commanders, by now essentially running the country as a military dictatorship, realised that their only chance of success was a return to the doctrine of decisive battle, since a war of attrition was one they could not win. 1918 would see the end-result of this strategic pivot, and the resulting Allied victory has led some to question whether campaigns like Third Ypres were as pointless as they are easily portrayed to be.

But regardless, it was a dismal affair for Irish soldiery, with both the 16th and the 36th left crushed, and other units, like the 2nd Munsters, so badly damaged that they would struggle to be in a fit state to re-enter the lines properly the following year. British commanders were turning more and more against the Irish as reliable units, as trouble continued to flare at home. Such (groundless) suspicion would prove a detriment to the fortunes of Irish units going forward.

But there was still fighting to take place on the western front in 1917. Nearly 80 kms south of the Ypres sector, the Allies were preparing to launch one of the most audacious attacks of the war, intending to fully utilise their advantage in new forms of mechanised warfare. But old-fashioned infantry would be attacking too, and the Irish would be among them.

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

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The Hobbit, Chapter By Chapter: An Unexpected Party

Over seven years ago, upon receiving a nice new edition of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, I started a chapter-by-chapter analysis that has become probably the most read thing on this site (and you can check it all out here!). It was a lengthy labor of love, one that took a long time to write, and then even longer to revise, update and generally improve around two years ago.

And now, I find myself in a similar position again, only this time the shiny new edition I have received for Christmas is of Tolkien’s first masterpiece, 1937’s The Hobbit (the illustrated edition, with art from Jemima Catlin). And I thought that, maybe it was time to indulge a long-held idea, and do the same as I did for The Lord Of The Rings: a chapter-by-chapter look at The Hobbit, discussing its greatness, its flaws, its characters, its themes, its ideas, its structure, and anything else that comes to mind. So come along and join me on this nineteen chapters journey, as we go there and back again

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” It is, quite possibly, the most iconic line in fantasy literature, and one of the most famous lines in literature generally, something Tolkien, according to the popular story, simply wrote down off the cuff on an empty page while marking exam papers one day. This line and the immediately following paragraph of description are not the kind of thing to bring to mind the beginning of an epic tale and a heroic quest, of slaying dragons and fighting mighty battles. But they do root you, very quickly and efficiently, in the world of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and, more exactly, the Shire. Tolkien will repeat this trick in The Lord Of The Rings, wherein the story is framed initially from the position of hearth and home, something worth fighting for in that case, but something worth coming back to here.

It’s also in the opening paragraphs that the humor of the story begins to come out, through the narration of our unseen third-person commentator, and that we are made aware that we are looking at a tale that was, despite its subsequent appeal to all-comers, written primarily with  children in mind, and with that, there is a certain “nod nod, wink, wink” style evident in its narrative. Here, in the midst of Tolkien describing Bag End, he expands on the many rooms that Bilbo has, having an aside where he makes sure to note the existence of multiple larders – “(lots of these)” – also the start of The Hobbit’s obsession with food. Tolkien will be cutting into the text, via brackets, often throughout the unfolding narrative, providing comic asides in a manner that is almost breaking the fourth wall in the way he seems to address the reader directly. Tolkien read the story to his sons as he was writing: the conversational style comes through very obviously in the final text

The opening of the story also sets up the inherent contradiction in its title character: “a Baggins who had an adventure“. While we won’t be spending anywhere near as much time in the Shire as we would in the sequel, and we never form a complete picture of what hobbit society is like (aside from it being an obvious analogy of the English countryside), it is still made clear that we are starting off in a conservative rural environment, where the independently wealthy owner of the big house is the last guy you’d expect to do anything too crazy – until he does. It’s a strange notion, one that fits in a world of “less noise and more green” as the author memorably puts it. Our first glimpse of Bilbo is far from the typical picture of a fantasy protagonist, being neither a plucky orphan, a roguish wanderer or a ferocious warrior. He’s fat, rich landed gentry (though, he bakes his own seedcakes!), and yet he is immediately likable

“An Unexpected Party” also foreshadows some of the narrative for “A Long-Expected Party” by taking the opportunity to delve into Baggins family history in a parochial manner, casually naming the names of illustrious ancestors from other clans and indicating that inter-marriage produces potentially unusual offspring: like a hobbit with the adventurous streak of the Took’s but the hard common sense of the Bagginses. “A Long-Expected Party” will put this kind of conversation in the mouths of actual characters, namely Gaffer Gamgee, Sam and Sandyman as they discuss Bilbo, Frodo and the deaths of Frodo’s parents in the local. Here, Tolkien limits himself to his own narration, but the well-rehearsed nature of the section – like it’s being recited for the umpteenth time at the local – is clear. In story terms, this establishes Bilbo as, essentially, hobbit aristocracy, connected closely to the near-legendary figure of the “Old Took”, and potentially having a bit of his adventurous streak too.

Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s mother, is also the only named female in the entire story, and she doesn’t even really appear (though she is noted as being “famous” for some reason – the Old Took had over a dozen children, so I’m not sure why). This makes it as good a time as any to briefly discuss women in The Hobbit. The lack of women here, only slightly improved in The Lord Of The Rings really, speaks to Tolkien’s male-centric viewpoint, probably influenced by both the society he grew up in and the old tales and stories he immersed himself in professionally and casually, which were often male-centric too. Women exist in Middle-Earth, but outside of a few of The Silmarillion tales, there is only one instance of them being pro-active contributors to the stories (Eowyn) and The Hobbit overlooks them completely. It’s a flaw, one that damns Tolkien and the world he grew up in. And yet, lest we pretend this was an issue of long ago and far away, Peter Jackson’s inclusion of women in his film trilogy adaptation was roundly criticized by purist fans beyond, in my opinion, any sense of reason. I won’t be coming back to this topic much as we go forward (what could I say: this would be a good point to include a woman? and this? and this?) but I want to acknowledge this deficiency of Tolkien’s, and the book as a whole

The references to the Old Took lead us to the introduction of Gandalf, the immensity of his impact on the universe little to be realized from this all too casual entrance to the story, noted specifically in the text. Gandalf’s relationship with the hobbits, which apparently began with an acquaintance with the Old Took, is not something that Tolkien ever elaborated much on, any more than he did on why Gandalf decides to send Bilbo on this grand adventure. The Took’s are always characterized as a slightly “queer” family, and other material indicates that two of Bilbo’s uncles on that side of the family vanished from the Shire on “mad adventures“, possibly instigated by Gandalf (maybe that influenced Belladonna to marry someone solid, respectable and boring).

Gandalf himself, in the larger canon, is noted as arriving in Middle-Earth a millennia before the Shire was founded, and in line with his larger characterization, as a friend to all who want friendship, and a guide to those who need guidance, it makes sense that he reaches out to this little-known species, the same as he does for others. It must be remembered that Gandalf’s “mission” in Middle-Earth is to help rally the forces of good against those of evil: he maintains good relations with all the races of Middle-Earth as part of this, so why not hobbits?

As for Bilbo, Gandalf is the instigator of the plot alright, but his decision-making seems mystical, almost pre-ordained. I’m not sure if Tolkien had Gandalf in mind for an Maiar at the time of writing, but the wizard’s actions have a feel of pre-destination about them, of setting in motion a state of affairs he has more knowledge of than mere assumption. The Hobbit will not eleborate much on why Gandalf choose Bilbo, but Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales does, with its section “The Quest For Erebor” allowing the wizard to outline why he gravitated to Bilbo:

Somehow, I had been attracted to Bilbo before, as a child, and a young hobbit… He had stayed in my mind ever since with his eagerness and his bright eyes, and his love of tales, and his question about the wide world outside of the Shire…Suddenly in my mind these three things came together: the great Dragon with his lust, and his keen hearing and scent; the sturdy heavy-booted Dwarves with their old burning grudge; and the quick, soft-footed hobbit, sick at heart (I guessed) for a sight of the wide world…As soon as I entered the Shire, I heard news of him. He was getting talked about, it seems. Both his parents had died early for Shire-folk, at about eighty; and he had never married. He was already getting a bit queer, they had said, and went off for days by himself. He could be seen talking to strangers, even Dwarves.

So, Gandalf, seeking a 14th member of the company, one with a natural penchant for stealth, turned to Bilbo, a hobbit that he knew was inquisitive, secretly yearning to see more of the wider world, without attachments in the Shire to keep him there, who was already exposing himself to outside influences (Bilbo’s gossipy neighbours even indicate he has been chatting to elves). And maybe, Bilbo also fulfills the role of being a counter-balance to the gold and fame obsessed Thorin. While The Hobbit drops the ball here, and the Unfinished Tales material is a bit of a retcon, the picture of why Gandalf traipsed up to Bag End is apparent.

In what will also be a recurring literary motif, Gandalf’s first line is a riddle-like:

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green.

But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” 

The wizard is clearly looking to discombobulate Bilbo right from the off, to confuse him and leave him susceptible to being an unwitting host without realising it. Such a tactic will come up again in the story, when Bilbo does it to Smaug.

Bilbo bats away Gandalf’s tricky wordplay with politeness but is soon feeling a little under pressure having “decided that he was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away“. This is the conservative Baggins side of Bilbo on full display, feeling awkward and uncomfortable in the face of a looming stranger who isn’t observing the expected social niceties

In the course of their initial conversation, Gandalf eventually reveals himself with the words “I am Gandalf and Gandalf means me“. While, on the face of it, this may seem like just more clever wordplay, it’s not hard to see a little bit of Tolkien’s Catholicism peeking through in the line, which bears a similarity to Exodus 3:14 and it’s burning bush/voice of God: “I am that I am“. To be more exact, it calls to mind Number 207 of the Catechism:

God, who reveals his name as “I AM”, reveals himself as the God who is always there, present to his people in order to save them.

While I wouldn’t want to take the idea too far, Gandalf does serve as a sort of God figure in the text, popping up to save the other characters from seemingly irretrievable situations on numerous occasions: with the trolls, in the goblin caves, in his summoning of the eagles and later ahead of the Battle of Five Armies. Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe” concept will be on full display throughout The Hobbit, and for a time Gandalf will be his main crutch to achieve it. Eventually Bilbo will be taking over as this person in Gandalf’s absence, which may also call to mind another religious titbit: “God helps those who help themselves”. The other thing is general grumpiness and high-handedness of the character, throughout the chapter, using Bilbo’s home as a meeting place and acting very much as the commander of the expedition: Gandalf might not be God, but he doesn’t dislike acting like it

With Gandalf revealed, the Took side of Bilbo comes pouring out suddenly, in an adorable and endearing way, as he stream-of-consciousness’s his way through memories of Gandalf’s fireworks and relationship with the Old Took. The narrator cuts in to note that Bilbo is, obviously less “prosy” than he initially appears (prosy meaning limited imagination if, like me, you didn’t know) and this is our first direct look at the idea that Bilbo may well be more than he appears, an idea that will soon be extended to cover the entire hobbit species. In a moment of verbal comedy, Bilbo lets slip his true feelings: “Bless me, life used to be quite inter — I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time.”

However, he’s still a Baggins, and this Baggins balks at the idea of going on an adventure, even if Gandalf has guessed – or known all along maybe – that what Bilbo really wants is to go beyond the edge of the map. Bilbo’s flustered end to the conversation, wherein he panics, invites Gandalf to tea as a social nicety and then bolts the door, is, somewhat, a far cry from the person Bilbo will be at the end of the adventure. He’ll still get flustered, but by the time we reach the Lonely Mountain, he’s less inclined to run away

Gandalf leaves a mark on Bilbo’s door with his staff, as if he’s Joseph E Campbell creating a threshold for Bilbo to pass on his way to accepting adventure: Bilbo literally won’t leave his home again until he’s chasing after the dwarves in the next chapter. This also serves to show us that Gandalf actually is magical, as you can presume his staff doesn’t have the ability to carve something into a wooden door on its own

What follows is the party of the title, and the whole thing unfolds as a comical tale, that is almost a morality play along Arabian guidelines (though I doubt Tolkien was taking influence from that sort), with Bilbo as a hapless stooge that the universe is ganging up on. Poor Bilbo, a little too haughty for his own good with Gandalf, and generally aloof from everyone, suddenly has 13 dwarves and a wizard turn up at his door in stages, eating and drinking him out of house and home. Tolkien takes his time with all this, making sure to note the name, beard color and clothes color of every single dwarf, and taking the time to note a few of them out: the elder Balin, the younger Fili and Kili and, of course, the most important of them all, that the narrator specifically mentions as being worthy of greater attention: the curiously named Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf of some renown. Of course, reading the whole text will result in the reader remembering this moment later, as the dwarfs are marching up to Beorn’s home in ones and twos at Gandalf’s insistence. He does the same thing here, but Bilbo is the mark.

But the focus here is primarily on Bilbo and his conundrum. Like a fantasy Mr Bean, he’s kept running between one apparent disaster to another: the very first dwarf is already through three cakes before the second turns up; Bilbo keeps expecting Gandalf but keeps getting more dwarfs; he must contemplate the horrific possibility that he may have to go without food to feed all of his guests; his opulent home is suddenly host to a large amount of loud, messy guests; and, most importantly of all, no one feels the need to explain anything to him. Bilbo’s ignorance and increasing bafflement works well as children’s comedy. It culminates in the marvelous image of “pop-gun” Bilbo, hilariously described as “bewildered and bewuthered” angrily opening the door one last time, only a little too fast, leaving a pile of dwarves on his floor

Through all this of course is the very important ritual of guest-friendship being played out, that I have discussed before as part of my notes on The Lord Of The Rings. Very similar to the Ancient Greek concept of xenia, while Bilbo is confused, and even annoyed, at the sheer amount of people turning up at his door, he still lets them in, provides food and drink and, to a point, says all the right things: the text specifically calls out both parties’ repeated offering of “service” and the correct responses, to the extent that when Bilbo forgets to do this with Thorin, he continually apologizes until Oakenshield tells him to drop it. One might well wonder why Bilbo undergoes this at all: why he doesn’t just ask Dwalin who he is and why he is there. Aside from his general fear of confrontation that has already been made clear in the text, the answer may well lie in societal obligations in being a good host to those who turn up at your door.

Of course, it’s supposed to work both ways, and the dwarves aren’t especially nice to Bilbo, albeit they may assume he’s more aware of circumstances than he lets on. Bilbo bends over backwards to accommodate the dwarves in his home, and the dwarves are even willing to help him out with the dishes, but it’s interesting that they don’t do so until Bilbo directly mentions their lack of assistance. Once he does, the dwarven party has his home tidied up in a flash, singing a hilarious song as they do so, but they did wait until asked. That says something about the dwarven attitude to things, and how they are reactive in many ways. And Thorin does nothing “being much too important“, a marked contrast to Bilbo, who despite his obvious means has no servants and does his own cooking.

The dwarves, having cleaned up after themselves, proceed to demonstrate their skill with music, with melody and sing that has an important transformative effect on Bilbo:

…Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill…The dark filled all the room, and the fire died down, and the shadows were lost, and still they played on. And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes…

The song, “Far over the Misty Mountains cold…” acts as an initial exposition for the reader, being a flowery rendition of the story’s prologue, namely the destruction of Erebor by Smaug the dragon. It’s similar in format and feel to the “Song Of Durin” from The Lord Of The Rings‘ “A Journey In The Dark“, and is like the dwarves themselves: a simple, yet deep song, of basic enough structure, but with serious resonance to it. From the surrounding description, you can tell that it’s a song to be played and sung slowly, almost dirge like. The story of the loss of Erebor, and the commitment of those present to gain their revenge and win back their “long-forgotten gold“, is very affecting.

It also brings to mind thoughts of a “promised land” analogy, with the dwarves as the sons of Abraham, Thorin as Moses and the Lonely Mountain as Israel. The comparison is certainly an intention of the author (maybe subconsciously), who would model his dwarven language on Semitic sources, and whose depiction of the dwarves here as honorable, serious, proud and greedy, and further as a disposed people who maintain their own culture and identity within larger societal groups, and even further as people recognized as marvelous craftsmen, is based on medieval depictions of Jews. Going further, we can look at the dwarven greed that led to the return of Smaug and the destruction of Erebor, mirroring the later Old Testament Kings of Israel and their own fall, and the dwarven desire to reclaim the “Arkenstone”, which easily fits the bill of an Ark of the Covenant.

The appropriateness of the comparison is debatable – dwarves are frequently depicted here as money obsessed usurers, with Thorin explicitly noting that Erebor was a place where “the poorest of us had money to spend and to lend” – but Tolkien’s own feelings towards the Jewish people were unequivocal, as can be seen in his (unsent) response to German publishers of The Hobbit, inquiring as to whether he was Jewish himself: “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” Still, as much as it seems there is a promised land theme here, the dwarven mission is more about reclaiming the gold Smaug took, rather than the homeland, with the dwarven identity presented here being wrapped up in their material possessions, and not the home they built from inside a mountain.

We might revisit the topic in time. For now, we should focus back on Bilbo’s reaction to the music and the song, wherein the Took side starts to really come to the fore:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves… he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns.

It’s an important moment, both for showcasing the depth of Bilbo’s imagination and the power of the dwarf song, and for that crucial line about the “fierce and jealous love” held by the dwarves towards “things made by hands and by cunning”. That’s an idea that will come up again in a large way by the time the story reaches its conclusion, and the first indication that Thorin’s quest does not come from completely pure motivations. Bilbo also sees a campfire somewhere in the distance and imagines dragons descending on the Shire, an image that will be played for laughs in Gandalf’s fireworks display in “A Long-Expected Party”.

There follows the exposition dump of the chapter, marking “An Unexpected Party” as similar in many respects to “The Shadow Of The Past” and “The Council Of Elrond.” Thorin has the longest uninterrupted run-on monologue outlining the loss of Erebor to Smaug in more factual terms than the song, and it’s a straightforward enough account from a man who has had long years to think about the events of the day in question.

Thorin is interrupted however by Bilbo having a shrieking fit, screaming about being “struck by lightning”, and needing to be put into another room to calm down. It’s an extreme moment, one that doesn’t really fit into the flow of the chapter all that easily, and seems to be a convenient way to get Bilbo out of the picture so he can, with somewhat more drama, suddenly appear in front of the dwarves again a page later. It’s like a set-up to show Bilbo as the rising hero, facing up to the destiny that’s been placed in front of him, but it’s easily the weakest part of the chapter. Tolkien even feels the need to save the narrative energy, turning away from Bilbo’s fit to discuss “Bullroarer” Took, Bilbo’s great ancestor, who defeated an invasion of goblins while inventing the game of Golf.

Bilbo does come back into the verbal fray however, especially after overhearing some uncomplimentary comments from the dwarves, comments that make him want to be thought “really fierce”: a difficult proposition for someone of Bilbo’s appearance, size and history. But being fierce doesn’t necessarily mean shouting or screaming or waving a sword around. In Bilbo’s case, it means reverting to his grounded common sense style, and treating things the way any serious person would: by “putting on his business manner (usually reserved for people who tried to borrow money off him), and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional”.

That Bilbo is joining up on this adventure, seemingly at random – Gandalf putting a sign on his door can easily have the reader thinking “You there! You look trustworthy! Wouls you like to join our party?” – is easily dismissed and forgotten by the author, especially in the face of Gandalf’s apparent authority. The wizard brooks few challenges from the dwarves, not from Gloin who gets rebuffed for questioning Bilbo’s inclusion, and not from Thorin, whose lack of knowledge on the map the wizard produces creates the first noticeable tension between these two commanding characters. Looking closely, Thorin belittles Gandalf on a few occasions here: rebuffing his command by referring to him as a “friend and counselor“, not an active participant; questioning how Gandalf got a hold of the Lonely Mountain map and the sidedoor key, which the wizard takes offence at; and “taking no notice” when Gandalf points out that the journey to the mountain will be strewn with peril.

In line with the lack of a plan in hiring Bilbo, there is also a general lack of a plan when discussing the produced map, getting to the Lonely Mountain, and slaying the dragon that dwells there. In the end, the party essentially decides to put the crux of the matter off: to get to the secret side-door and think of something there. It’s a section that smells a bit of Tolkien’s usual writing style, which was to make up large sections as he went along and try to cobble together something more seamless later. The man who would go onto to write The Lord Of The Rings would never really allow himself to do such a thing again, to have his party of characters depart on their quest without a clear method on how to achieve it. Well, except for how to get the Fellowship of the Ring to Mt Doom. Just a minor thing really. A repeated issue with Tolkien? Perhaps.

Thorin gets to resume his own narration at this point, and it is a fascinating tale, almost ancient history but for the fact that the person recounting it was actually there. A few interesting things come up in the course of the speech: that Erebor was a fabulously rich, powerful and influential Kingdom that commanded respect from various neighbors and races, before suffering a terrible fall due to its own hubris, a theme Tolkien wrote on over and over (Gondolin, Numeanor, Arnor, etc); that dragons were sparingly common “in those days”, which weren’t really all that long ago (something Tolkien decided to ret-con, or at least ignore, for later in his canon) and that the dwarves of Erebor were a nation of builders, but not of growers, taking all of their foodstuff in tribute from neighboring states, especially the town of Dale, a place of men. House Greyjoy springs to mind. In line with the intended audience, Tolkien is sure to note several times that part of the dwarves craft was toymaking. We might also note the description of Smaug’s coming, which will be repeated by the dragon himself, as he arrived with “a noise like a hurricane”.

Thorin’s story breaks down after the scattering of the dwarves, at which point Gandalf starts to cut in, outlining his discovery of a key to the sidedoor and a map to find it. In a moment of pure Douglas Adams, neither Thorin nor Biblo are especially convinced by Gandalf’s account of how he came by such things: “The explanation did not seem to explain.

It is in being prodded on this that Gandalf reveals he obtained the items from Thorin’s own father, Thror, “in the dungeons of the Necromancer.” Dedicated readers of course know that the Necromancer is Sauron, but that was years away from being written into the fabric of the story when The Hobbit was published. Judging just on its own, the Necromancer is a strange namedrop of a terrible sounding character, that goes on to have almost no bearing on the tale at large. The very term “Necromancer”, meaning roughly “diviner of dead bodies”, is a fearsome title, and Tolkien meant it literally, outlining in letters that Sauron performed this darkest of deeds, communing with, mastering and commanding the “unbodied” in the service of Morgoth and then for his own ends. And yet, this figure, who from a first reading would seem to be someone or something of importance, perhaps a villain to be confronted later, has little other involvement.

His mention does provide us another glimpse of the darker side of Thorin’s personality. All too casually he posits the idea that, having accounted for the goblins of Moria that killed his grandfather (forgetting momentarily the loss this entailed to the dwarves) they should “give a thought” to taking on Sauron. Gandalf quickly shuts Thorin down, claiming that the Necromancer is beyond the entire power of all dwarves, before moving swiftly on to other matters without a pause. The moment is important, in establishing Thorin’s easy dreams of glory for him and the dwarves, and Gandalf’s ability to take command and brook no rivals to his authority.

Bilbo, desperate to bring the nightmare of this party to an end, essentially suggests that the group table any discussions of a plan and get some sleep, and the chapter ends without any firm resolution on numerous issues: how will they get to the Lonely Mountain? How will they get into the Lonely Mountain? How will they slay the dragon? And, most importantly of all, is Bilbo actually going with them? I wouldn’t quite call it a cliff-hanger chapter, but there are enough dangling plot hooks to keep the reader interested.

The chapter ends, like a lot of Tolkien’s chapters, with ominous commentary and foreshadowing of darker things to come. Thorin drifts off still singing his song of seeking fortune and glory in Erebor, a man obsessed. We must remember that Thorin is the last of the direct line of Erebor Kings, his grandfather who lost the mountain killed in battle and his own father dead in the Necromancer’s dungeon. A lot rests on his shoulders, the dreams of an entire race. And yet we may well wonder whether Thorin’s dreams are of a promised land for the dwarves, or for his personal advancement and fame.

For Bilbo, it’s an uneasy end to the day, and a promise of worse to come:

Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day, when he woke up.”

Just as he would over a decade later with The Fellowship Of The Ring, Tolkien does not open with sound and fury, but “An Unexpected Party” is not without a bang.  It has to accomplish a lot of things. The world of The Hobbit must be introduced. The characters of Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin must be firmly established. The point of the plot must be outlined, stakes introduced, dangers elaborated upon. The supporting cast must get their moment. And, most importantly of all, the reader has to be induced to care about it all. In this mostly well-crafted introduction, Tolkien accomplishes the lot, setting up the quest, the pay-off that awaits at the end, and the people who are going to be going on it. Bilbo is a fat, contented hobbit, but enough has been done to make us realise that there is a hidden side to him, without us getting to see what exactly this may entail. That’s enough to be going on with, and the colourful cast of dwarven characters – and one wizard – does the rest. Tolkien takes his time with it – this is the second longest chapter of the nineteen, behind only “Riddles In The Dark” – but it’s appropriate, and not at all a slog: even Thorin’s exposition is limited to a few pages, and you couldn’t call any of it dull with a straight face.

The scene is set, the players have their places. The journey “there” begins with the next chapter.

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Ireland’s Wars: Third Ypres And Langemarck

Following the notable success in the seizing of the Messines Ridge, an operation where Irish soldiers played a significant role, the British eyed up a grander offensive, that would morph into the Third Battle of Ypres, known better in some circles as the Battle of Passchendaele, a Belgian village that would constitute the eventual limit of British ambitions.

The campaign, from its planning, through its execution, to its final result, has been mired in controversy ever since. On the face of it, Third Ypres was the natural next step after Messines, with British commanders hoping to push on after a relative success earlier in the summer. But detail after detail has been the subject of major scrutiny: the decision to place Herbert Gough in command instead of Plumer, the latter’s meticulous planning replaced by a man seen as more straightforwardly pro-active; the decision to attack at all, in the wake of the Nivelle offensives and with American reinforcements on their way the next year; and the manner in which the attack was continued when things started to go wrong.

But such blinding hindsight was all in the future. The plan was to seize the last of the ridges east of Ypres, capture vital German railway centres, secure the Belgian coastline near the front (effecting German U-Boats, an ever more important consideration) and continue to wear out the enemy.

What the Allies didn’t count on was the weather. Starting from around mid-July and continuing on into August, the Ypres sector saw record amounts of unseasonable rain fall all over the battlefield. The earth, already with a high-water table, and churned repeatedly by shells, rapidly became a liquid mess of barely passable mud, and it is this that has become the defining aspect of Third Ypres, more so than other western front battlefield: a place where soldiers of both sides dealt with, slogged through, fought over and occasionally drowned in mud. The longer the fighting went on, the worse it got, limiting the manoeuvrability of troops, and the usefulness of artillery and armour.

Gough’s command, ordered by his good friend Haig, would prove one of the most controversial of the war. We have encountered Gough once before already, as he was a participant in the Curragh Mutiny before the war, though his career hadn’t been too negatively affected. A Waterford native, he had served with some note in the Boer War, and at the time of the Curragh incident he was serving as the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. The war afforded him the opportunity for massive advancement: in 1917, he was in command of the Fifth Army, now earmarked to head the offensive. Unfortunately for Gough, Haig and the soldiers about to undertake the offensive, the Fifth Army’s commander was hopelessly out of his depth.

On the opening day of the offensive, the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, after ten days of preceding bombardment, the 2nd Irish Guards were among the first Irish units into the fray with their larger division, sent against German positions near the Yser Canal. The first two lines of enemy trenches were taken without serious loss, and they captured their final objectives the next morning. British advances would soon become much more difficult. In the opening days of August the 1st Irish Rifles, engaged near the position of Westhoek, lost over 180 men attacking in mud-drenched conditions, while the 2nd Leinsters lost over 240. The 2nd Irish Rifles would soon be sent in also, losing 350 men in boggy terrain marked by concrete pillboxes the Germans had had years to build and maintain. Both regiments were part of a section of the advance where every scrap gained was the subject of serious counter-attack: by the 10th August, negligible gains and exhausted troops meant the advance there could no longer be contemplated. 31’000 casualties had been incurred.

Irish involvement in the early fighting would pivot around the terrible repulse at Langemarck on the 16th of August, when the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions would enter the fighting wholesale, having had a few blessed weeks of quiet away from the front lines following their heroics at Messines. Such was the need for men, that cavalry of the North and South Irish Horse were removed from their horses and turned into infantry to join the Irish divisions. With more troops needed for the Ypres campaign, and experienced soldiers in increasingly short supply, the two Irish divisions were transferred from the Plumer’s Second to the Fifth army to take part.

They were moved into reserve trenches on the 4th August, even while other units were trying to advance and dying. The Irish were earmarked for further offensive operations near the Belgian town of Langemarck, to attack the well-defended  Frezenberg Ridge, but Gough erred in putting them into reserve lines nearly two weeks before they would be called upon to go forward: the subject of constant artillery fire, used to ferry wounded from the front to the rear, expending energy digging and maintaining trench lines and all under ceaseless rain, the fighting strength of the 16th and 36th, both in physical and mental terms, ebbed away before they ever got into combat proper. By the time they would go forward, in the early hours of the 16th August, after several days delay over the rain, a third of either Division was not capable of going over the top.

A full inch of rain fell on the battlefield in the two days before the attack. Generals of the 16th were aghast looking at the sea of mud their men were being asked to cross, but their objections were over-ruled by Gough, supported by Haig. British artillery failed to adequately account for the German pillboxes, and armour was unavailable.

When the Irish and the rest of the British troops, left their trenches on the day of the attack, they almost immediately came under heavy small arms and machine gun fire. Within less than a minute, most of the advanced companies were mown down. The men simply couldn’t move fast enough through the sticky mud, especially having spent the better part of two weeks dealing with limited sleep and the grim realities of trench warfare. Those that were able to cross further than a few meters found themselves funnelled through gaps in barbed wire, and were easy targets for German machine gunners.

Some parts of the advance made headway, but within a few hours, whatever ground had been won was lost, as German counter-attacks swept the exhausted British back to their starting lines. Some units, like the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, managed to gain the heights and hold for as long as they could, but were simply not strong enough. Others found themselves flanked and then cut off in the rear as “mopping up” was not accomplished, leading to more bloodshed during withdrawals. The Irish were only one part of the overall offensive, and their difficulties were repeated elsewhere.

Other units were called upon to maintain the offensive in the aftermath, but these would be far more piece-meal in scope. Gough, furious with the reversals, levelled an extraordinary insult at the 16th and 36th in communication with Haig, laying the failure at the fact that the units “are Irish and apparently did not like the enemy’s shelling”, a sentiment Haig did not share, criticising Gough for using the Divisions’ nationality as an excuse in itself, and noting their obvious exhaustion and lack of effective artillery support. Gough’s words, and the repulse, would sting both the 16th and the 36th going forward, and many of their commanders had lasting resentments over the attack.

In combination with their time in the reserve trenches, the 16th had sustained over 4’200 casualties, the 36th 3’600, an astonishing rate that was around 50%, with 1’200 killed on the the day of the advance alone. More than that perhaps, the morale, and even the reputation, of both Divisions had taken a substantial battering. They were one part of the 36’000 Allied casualties of Langemarck, a battle that largely fizzled out in the face of bloodshed, rain and lack of gains. In the aftermath, both Irish Divisions would need to merge battalions and take in more cavalrymen to maintain the facade of being battle-ready.

Gough’s once rising star began to plummet afterf Langemarck, though he would retain his command for the time being. Haig turned back to Plumer to lead future offensives in the area, with a badly-needed delay agreed in the face of the rain. But the Third Ypres campaign was not over, and when September came, the British Army, and its Irish units, would be going forward again.

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

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The Villain Checklist: Consequences

And so we reach the final curtain. We have followed the villain’s path through introductions, evolutions and action, and even the final defeat (if they are to be defeated). But there remains one final thing to go over, and that is the larger picture, the lasting impact, of the villain’s character and the actions that they have taken. In essence, we need to discuss the matter of consequence. And thus:

Consequences – Regardless of their final fate, the actions of the villain should have lasting consequences for the hero.

This entry ties into issues of meaning and value. The story means nothing really if the hero can just defeat the villain and go whistling into the sunset. There has to be some manner of lasting impact from the villain’s plans and schemes, that affects the hero directly, and the world of the story at large. As with anything, this can vary in size and scope, and should be either intrinsically tied to the villain’s own goals and motivations, or perhaps shine a further light on the character of the protagonist in some way: in other words, the consequences may be entirely hero driven or experienced, and be divorced from the villain’s directly (some examples below).

Once we turn the last page or see the credits roll or turn off the TV, we should feel as if this really was a credible threat and a potent force for nefarious ends, and that the hero(es) are lucky that such a threat was defeated when it was. The best way, the only way, to do that is to make sure that the consequences of whatever the antagonist has done are felt, by the characters in the story and by the audience as well.

The con man who tried to cheat the old lady out of her money might end up behind bars, but maybe he managed to siphon off some or all of her cash before he was caught. Or maybe things turned violent before the end, and the old lady ended up in hospital (or worse). Or maybe the detective who tracked the bad guy down got so wrapped up in the case that their own personal life suffered. The supervillain out to take over the world might be finished off with a quip and a wry smile from the spy, but they were presumably able to cause a few disasters before they went. Or maybe they offed the spy’s lover/family/beloved family pet before they were taken down. Or maybe the journey to stop their doomsday machinations leaves the spy cold, bereaved and suffering from a dose of PTSD. And lastly, the planet destroying galactic emperor might be overthrown by the plucky rebels, but they presumably left said galaxy a somewhat scarred place through aforementioned planet destruction. Or, before they were finally defeated, they managed to cut off the hero’s left hand as a final token of remembrance. Or the lowly farmhand turned galactic savior might stand unready to take the Emperor’s place, with a galaxy in ruins and a lot of people to please.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Our last trip around the villain roster wouldn’t be complete without looking at Vader one more time. In the context of A New Hope, Vader’s actions have lasting consequences in terms of his murder of Obi-Wan Kenobi, that denies Luke a teacher in the Force that’s immediately available necessitating him to travel to Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. But A New Hope, like a lot of first entries in trilogies, has unique properties for this concept, as the villain hasn’t been completely defeated just yet: Vader will be back, and so in a way, the consequences we should be talking about are the consequences of Luke blowing up the Death Star. This action sets Vader on Luke’s trail specifically, leading to their Bespin confrontation in Episode V.

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This guy is feeling the consequences.

Then there is Maul. Sidious’ first apprentice exits The Phantom Menace suddenly and with little fanfare, but he does at least leave some lasting consequences behind him, in the form of Qui-Gon Jinn’s death. It’s one of a dozen things in the saga that leads to the creation of Darth Vader, as in Jinn’s absence its Obi-Wan Kenobi who has to step up and be Anakin Skywalker’s master, and proves himself rather bad at it (a plot thread the prequels don’t do anywhere near enough to explore, but it is something they hint at). Aside from that, there really isn’t all that much to talk about with Maul: but for his killing Qui-Gon, he would have left the stage with little to mark him out long-term. The expanded universe adds additional consequences in the form of Maul’s unlikely survival and return to galactic affairs decades later, but I’m not counting that.
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Maul. I just got it.

A better character but similar circumstances mark the long-term consequences of Skyfall’s antagonist. Silva is killed by Bond at the conclusion, before he can personally gain his twisted revenge on M, but its al for naught: M’s already been fatally wounded by one of Silva’s henchmen earlier in the finale, and expires in Bond’s arms. More than Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon though, is that M’s death is of a deeper consequence for Bond: the whole idea of the escape to the Skyfall estate was to keep M safe as much as to lure Silva out, and her death mark’s Bond’s failure in a way that Obi-Wan isn’t tarnished with. M’s non-literal ghost will haunt Bond into the events of Spectre, as will the general fallout from Skyfall, with Blofeld later revealed to have been bank-rolling Silva. Silva’s visage, among others, is used as a means to torment Bond in the finale of that film, a way of showcasing direct consequences of his actions.
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Rian Johnson-esque

In Quantum Of Solace, the long-term consequences of Green’s plots are more negligible. He was never really targeting Bond directly in the first place, and his plan to hold Bolivia’s water supply to ransom is never something the series is going to re-visit. Green is also largely disconnected from Quantum’s larger role in suborning Vesper Lynd as an agent provocateur within MI6, and his killing of Strawberry Fields – Quantum Of Solace’s throwaway Bond girl – isn’t something that will leave a lasting impression on the audience. In Spectre, Quantum is largely forgotten, subsumed into the larger parent organization, and Green’s visage barely makes an appearance in the same manner that Silva’s does, with Vesper substituting for the most part.
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Still a stupid finale.

Our last entry wouldn’t be complete without one last look at Heath Ledger’s Joker. The obvious consequences for his role in The Dark Knight is his murder of Rachel Dawes, which emotionally cripples Bruce Wayne: following the conclusion of the film, he holes up in Wayne Manor, living as a recluse for several years, haunted by the memory of Rachel and his (mistaken) belief that they were about to end up together before his war on crime turned her into collateral damage. Batman’s withdrawal from the crime-fighting life is also a consequence of the Joker’s other major action that coincided with Rachel’s death – the flip side of the coin as it were – namely, the mutilation and insanity of Harvey Dent. His rampage at the end of the film leaves numerous people dead, including himself: Batman is forced to take the fall so that Harvey’s memory, and life work, will not be tarnished irrevocably, his action serving as the final defeat of the Joker. The Joker presumably is in “a padded cell forever”, but even ignoring his larger effect on Gotham, his actions have left Batman a shell of his former self by the time The Dark Knight Rises comes along.
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Awesome

Compare to another Joker, Jared Leto’s, in Suicide Squad. While not the primarily villain of David Ayers film, he’s still a very important antagonistic force in his own right. yet his impact on the narrative is a thing of diminishing returns. He “rescues” Harley Quinn from the titular team after the half-way point of the film, but this plot point is overturned rather quickly. In the final moments, he breaks into Belle Reeve and rescues her again, killing a few more people in the process. So, I guess the consequences of his actions are that the Suicide Squad are down a member for the next mission? That Joker and Harley will be able to terrorise the world again (if Batman doesn’t just catch them again)?
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Still ugh.

And what about some films I’ve watched, or re-watched, recently? 1994’s action game-changer Speed has Dennis Hopper in the antagonist chair as disgruntled and slightly mad/eccentric ex-cop Howard Payne, who has a penchant for blowing things up as he looks for a bump in his retirement fund. And while an entertaining bad guy, by the laws of standard action fare we don’t really get the feeling that there will be a lot of consequences from his actions. Sure. he’s blown a few people up throughout the course of the film, including poor Jeff Bridges, but Keanu Keeves and Sandra Bullock still get to go off into the sunset at the conclusion, in a final scene that is more overtly positive than negative about the experience that they have been through.
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Pop quiz asshole.

Lastly, lets look at Kylo Ren from The Last Jedi though, as stated, we should be careful to acknowledge the perils of analyzing  the middle thread of a three part story arc. There are major consequences aplenty arising from Ren’s actions, that will presumably be felt on into Episode IX: his assassination of Snoke that will possibly create a power vacuum; his assumption of the “Supreme Leader” title at the head of a resurgent First Order, but with no clear indication that he’s the right man for the job; his part, however tangentially, in the death of Luke Skywalker, whose physical impact on the universe is now ended; his unintentional pushing of Rey towards the Light Side, which refutes the very title of the film. Ren’s no nothing villain, and his deeds have repercussions that will be felt far and wide.
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Cloak optional.

And that’s it then. In the coming weeks, I was thinking I might do some quick case-studies of villain characters that I haven’t previously discussed, going through my points beat by beat, to get an idea of my thinking towards the concept
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NFB’s Top Ten For The Year 2017

Welcome to 2018. As per tradition, outlined below are my top ten posts for the year.

It’s been a busy 12 months for me. Work continues to be busy but, thankfully, full-time. That meant a reduction in the amount of weekly posts to two, focusing primarily on Ireland’s Wars and film reviews, as evidence by the make-up of the top ten. That’s likely to continue for the time being and, indeed, it may even fall further depending on circumstances. But we’re not going anywhere just yet.

10. Ireland’s Wars: The Royal Irish Regiment In The 19th Century

9. Review: Dunkirk

8. The Villain Checklist

7. Ireland’s Wars: The Phoenix Park Murders

6. Ireland’s Wars: The Boer War In Ireland

5. Ireland’s Wars: A New Departure

4. The Villain Checklist: Goal/Motivation

3. Ireland’s Wars: The Land War

2. Review: Their Finest

1. Review: Pilgrimage

As always, I want to give a hearty thanks and appreciation to all readers, commenters and subscribers. This place continues to be a favourite hobby and outlet for me, and honestly I’m not sure what I would be doing without it. Here’s to 2018.

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Film Rankings And Awards 2017

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We can now call it a wrap on 2017 in film. After an up and down year in cinema, here’s my top ten for the year and my annual awards.

10. The Farthest

Emer Reynolds’ brilliant documentary on the Voyager space probes works as a very scientific and a very human, delight. As focusing just on the mundane details of the probes’ construction, launch and voyage would fast get boring, Reynolds peppers interesting asides and titbits throughout, most notably a lengthy section discussing the “golden record”: its genesis, the selection of greetings to be recorded, and then the selection of music. Devoting so much time to this is important, as it turns the Voyager probes from cold machines to bastions of human creativity and art, that maybe might one day be ambassadors for our entire species.

But then there is the actual mission itself, and the glorious photography that the probes were able to send back of worlds beyond. The grainy black and white stills that turn into colourful depictions of spherical behemoths: it is impossible not to be swept away in the grandeur that the Voyager probes depicted and continue to represent. The Farthest vividly captures both the beauty of the outer planets and their moons, as well as the rapturous reaction from those back home, literally growing old in front of the camera as the length of the mission traverse’s decades. And at the end of it all, a suitable focus on Carl Sagan’s famous “pale blue dot” picture, taken not for science, but merely so we could get a stark illustration of just how small we really are in the great cosmic blackness.

While The Farthest is excessively lengthy and, perhaps, refrains from any kind of criticism of the NASA program to the point that it is largely a love-letter, it is still a very worthy documentation of a very important part of human exploration, an exploration that now marks us as having taken the first minor steps into interstellar travel.

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Voyage space probe in The Farthest.

9. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Hollywood can’t get enough of the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. 15 years after Sam Raimi’s version of the character helped to revitalise the superhero genre, and five years after Mark Webb’s attempt reminded us how boring the superhero genre had become, the relatively untested Jon Watts gave the web-slinger a new on-screen home, with newcomer Tom Holland in the titular role.

And it’s undoubtedly the best Spider-Man film in over a decade, if that means anything. While it follows the formula that the MCU has long since established, it does so with successes in every department of its production, and it makes the most of two ballsy but quite correct decisions. The first is ditching any time spent on an origin for Spider-Man and the second is a large focus given to Michael Keaton’s Vulture, the MCU’s best villain since Loki. But it is Holland holding it all together, in a performance that differs from Maguire and Garfield, in that he does his best to actually play Peter Parker as a teen who enjoys what he gets to do. Throw in the good inclusion of Robert Downey Jr, a very welcome multi-ethnic cast and a competent director who has an obvious reverence of the character without drowning in sycophancy, and you have yourself a great experience.

I’ve been turning on the MCU for a while now, but Homecoming did grab me. It reminded me that it’s possible to write a bright, fun superhero movie without it being overloaded with ill-placed comedy, that superheroes can still be unequivocally pleasant to watch, and that villain characters do not have to be cardboard cut-outs. It’s one that leaves me with more optimism for the MCU’s future than I have leaving the theatre of one of its films for a long time.

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Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in Spider-Man: Homecoming

8. Paddington 2

Paul King’s excellent follow-up to the 2014 version of the beloved children’s character is actually that rarest of things, a sequel that is better than its original, perhaps because it doesn’t have to dedicate time to setting up the story it wants to tell. Instead, we are just shown this wonderfully positive, endearingly accepting and just nice to watch bear. A film that so emphasises the simple idea of kindness being a positive force in the community and in society at large is one that deserves some consideration, even if it’s being told through the lens of a clumsy anthropomorphised bear.

The subtler thing here of course is a pro-tolerance message, that feels especially necessary when one looks at modern-day Britain. Paddington’s multi-ethnic neighbourhood contains the malicious Mr Curry, a reprobate who describes Paddington as an “undesirable” and generally acts as a very loud minority that the rest of the residents try to ignore and seem hesitant to speak against. What Paddington is trying to say is not hard to discern.

Beyond that, the film is a delight on every level. The diverse cast is having a ball: Hugh Grant especially just throws himself in the role of villainous thespian Phoenix Buchanan and Brendan Gleeson fits right in as a grizzled prison cook ignorant of the ways of marmalade. It’s written brilliantly, overflowing with warmth, humour and some genuine feeling. And the plot, while hardly an earth-shattering example of the genre, is more than enough to keep you engaged, including a number of bizarre heists, a prison movie send-up (with nods to Wes Anderson) and a surprisingly well-choreographed finale onboard a speeding train.

A wonderful film, that you should check out if feeling even slightly jaded or fed-up with things. It’s impossible not to like this movie or its title character.

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Paddington Bear (Ben Whishaw) in Paddington 2.

7. Get Out

When I saw Jordan Peele’s feature debut come up as ADIFF’s surprise film, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be getting an all-out horror, or a comedy. In the end, I got a little of both, but that’s too simple an explanation to give for Get Out, a brilliant takedown of American race relations as they currently stand, wrapped up in remarkably effective psychological scare-making.

In the best traditions of The Twilight Zone, Peele’s exaggeration of where white appropriation of black culture ends up – and it gets fairly extreme, to say the least – is an incisive method of getting to the core of why such things are problematic in society. The excellent Daniel Kaluuya goes from being mildly uncomfortable with the well-meaning, but racially clumsy family of his white girlfriend, to being freaked out, to being terrified, as it becomes clear that the rich white community they are a part of are a bit too into him, his talents and his skin colour.

Peele keeps the mystery and the tension rising gradually – the opening sequence of a young black man being abducted off the street is masterfully done – and he goes about interspersing things with genuinely horrifying sequences in the “sunken place”, a nightmarish concept that does more to terrify the audience then buckets of gore, an almost Spielbergian understanding of what horror should be.

Peele may err slightly in his balance of comedy and drama – Chris’ friend Lil Rey Howery provides numerous funny asides, but it doesn’t mesh all that well with everything else really – but Get Out rises above such detractions easily enough, in the strength of its symbolism, hard work of its cast, the excellence of its script, and in Peele’s own visual direction. I generally dislike horror movies intensely, but I loved Get Out primarily because it has a brain, and it makes the point it wants to make with the kind of subtly and skill you would associate with a long-term veteran of the craft. In a time of Trumpian hate speech, Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick, film of this type is more important than ever.

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Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) in Get Out.

6. Logan

Ever since the first haunting chords of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” were heard playing over the initial trailer for James Mangold’s Logan, I figured that we were in for something truly special. And so we were. Taking the relatively happy ending of Days Of Future Past and throwing it in the garbage was an incredibly risky move to take, but it ended up being the critical step in one of the best comic book films ever made.

The universe is a bleak one, a grim but not all that fantastical future where mutants are becoming a memory and the world seems barely holding together. But man, it fits, a story where the once immortal Logan is finding himself a man out of time, a samurai without a master, unless you count the deluded ravings of a senile Charles Xavier (an excellent turn from Patrick Stewart). Enter Dafne Keen as X-23, a genetic copy of Logan that sends him on an unlikely odyssey across a changed America, with a host of bad guys on their trail. Forget superpowers, or threats of world domination, or teams: this is the end of the line, and Old Man Logan is the only one holding it.

What could otherwise be exploitative boilerplate is lifted by the performances of the cast – this is Jackman’s best version of the character, most notably in a funeral scene, and Keen is a revelation – and the manner in which the script and the director are willing to take the X-Men universe and pull it apart, in a way that will undoubtedly tug at the audiences heartstrings, but is all the better for it. The film looks and sounds incredible, and while its resort to sometimes mindless bloodshed is a thing of diminishing returns by the conclusion, it’s filled with gritty relentless action, of a kind that this genre could use more of.

Logan builds, through a number of set-pieces taking their inspiration from the likes of Shane, to an emotional climax that serves as an unexpectedly rousing send-off to this franchise, that had people in the theatre with me in actual tears, something I don’t think I can say for any other comic book property ever. In a time when the MCU is in danger of becoming bland, Logan is proof that the superhero genre is not only ready to declare itself mature subject matter, but a thing of continuing relevance.

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X-23 (Dafne Keen) and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in Logan.

5. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

I suppose I will always be the kind of person who will be placing Star Wars this high. While The Last Jedi may well be one pf the most divisive entries in this franchise, it is a film that I genuinely adored, the first time I watched it, in the hours I spent thinking and writing about it, and the second time I watched it too.

Rian Johnson, writing and directing, takes what JJ Abrams set up and then sets off in his own direction, in a multi-layered plot whose primary flaw is that it tries to fit too much into its already lengthy 150+ minute plus running time. But it saves itself by having every sub-plot be of a brilliant quality, be it Rey’s mission to learn of the Force from recluse Luke Skywalker, to the Resistance’s fleets efforts to survive in the face of a relentless First Order assault, to Kylo Ren’s anxiety-fuelled desire to find himself, amid the influence of Snoke and the memory of past decisions.

We are with Rey as she struggles to handle the mysteries of the Force, with Poe as he has to learn to be a leader, with Leia as she deals with a series of crushing tragedies, and with new characters, like Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, offering a look at a universe that is actually filled with war and associated crimes. But this is still Star Wars, and Johnson understands what makes Star Wars great: epic scope with simple plot and great characters, with related scoops of breath-taking action, whimsical adventure and invoking in the audience that sense of wonder, excitement and desire to wield a lightsaber or fly an X-Wing themselves. And Johnson does it while setting the film up as an exploration of a very un-Star Wars thing, that being the idea that failure is inevitable, but that’s OK.

The action and visuals generally are spectacular – a mute sequence at the end of the second act easily deserves iconic status in sci-fi – the script is strong and the film is paced and edited with skill. Parts could still have been cut out entirely, and there are similarities to The Empire Strikes Back, but they are fleeting and mostly homage, and nothing for the hordes to get as upset about as they (apparently) have. This is the kind of Star Wars I want to see more of. You should too. And next, Solo.

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Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

4. Baby Driver

I have long been a fan of Edgar Wrights brand of writing, directing and comedy, at least up until the point of The World’s End, a film I considered a very disappointing let-down from a director that seemed to have almost perfected his craft with Hot Fuzz, and will remain an iconic part of pop-culture with Shaun Of The Dead. And then came Baby Driver.

The film is an exhilarating series of set-piece chase sequences, as Wright shows off his near perfect understanding of cutting, pacing and mise en scene, from the bank robberies that define the plot to the third act chaos as the relationships between the characters start to spectacularly break down. It’s acted with aplomb by the diverse and perfectly cast principals, from Ansel Elgort’s endearing tinnitus suffering getaway driver, through to Jamie Foxx’s rather insane bank robber, and on to Kevin Spacey’s mob boss (and this may be the last time we think fondly of him). It’s scripted excellently, filled with verve, humour and character throughout. While it is let down a bit by Lily James’ disappointing romantic lead, a one-note part that may speak to Wright’s difficulty with female characters, the film was a real humdinger.

And that’s before you consider its use and implementation of its musical soundtrack, which might well be worth the price of admission alone. Utilising a wide selection of classics, hits and some little-known pieces, Wright layers his heart-stopping tale with the kind of auditory delight that goes beyond being nostalgia bait or thumping: Baby Driver is its music, in every drum-focused beat for a foot chase, to every emotionally fraught plucking of guitar chords for more reflective scenes, in every lyrical joy for scenes of soaring highs. So good is Wright’s cultivation of music, that it, in my opinion, basically makes him an expert on the subject.

I don’t mean to make it sound as if music is all that Baby Driver has going for it. But its such a well manufactured part of the experience, it has to be considered the primary success. In line with the excellently structured narrative, the cast, the script, and the strength of Wright’s visual direction, Baby Driver is an intense, emotional and ultimately rather satisfying experience, that puts Wright right back near the top of his field. In terms of traditional Hollywood blockbuster action, there is little that can match Baby Driver.

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Baby (Ansel Elgort), Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) in Baby Driver.

3. Wonder Woman

Well, it finally happened. We got a female lead superhero movie that was great. And we got a DC property adaptation that was critically acclaimed. Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot pulled it off, with panache, with style and with no small amount of power. This is the long-awaited Wonder Woman that we have needed for decades.

Gal Gadot decisively makes the role her own, having the benefit of last year’s backdoor introduction. In every way that she needs to succeed, she succeeds: as a superhero we want to watch kick some ass; as a character that we want to connect with and see thrive; even as a romantic interest for Chris Pine’s supporting spy. But most importantly of all, she succeeds as the feminist icon that the character has been for so long: a strong, confident, assertive female role, who dominates the screen, the action and the narrative, without ever falling into the trap of bland sentimentality, and with a host of other excellent women too.

The World War One setting is an excellent choice, allowing for some differences from a Captain America formula, and for some unique action sequences, most notably a mid-point charge over no-mans-land full of evocative imagery. The action generally is well directed and delightfully kinetic. It has a romantic plot that is neither cobbled together or ill-fitting. The film suffers a bit through its choice of antagonist and the unfolding of their scheme, especially the ending, but the general idea of a feminine force for change seeking to overturn the violent political/military world of men, no matter what the objections are, is something to get excited about.

I may, perhaps, also be influenced in my placing here with just how important this film is. The superhero genre is the undisputed King of the box office for the last decade; it’s past time that Marvel, DC, and anyone else, decided that female characters (and directors, and actresses) deserved as much chance to shine as their male counterparts. Wonder Woman is paving the way, hopefully for the likes of Batgirl and Captain Marvel soon, and then more afterwards, an undisputedly good news story for women in film, in a year when such a subject has become synonymous with the recognition of how despicable their treatment has been for years. And it’s a great film to boot, a rip-roaring adventure story that is all the better for its feminine influences.

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Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman.

2. Their Finest

Lone Scherfig’s World War II dramedy was a stunning revelation when I got the chance to see it as part of ADIFF early this year. I went into it now quite sure what to expect, beyond maybe a rudimentary romcom elevated by its unique setting. But what I got was a wonder, of story, acting and script, that, fair to say, blew me and many others away.

The narrative is layered with intelligence and meaning, from the story of Gemma Arterton’s Catrin’s search for a more engaging role in Britain’s Blitz-spirit era fight, through her disintegrating relationship with her husband to her burgeoning relationship with Sal Claflin’s Tom. And there is plenty else besides: Bill Nighy’s washed up actor struggling to find another role to show off his talent, if he can past his ego and the sense of encroaching death; the various facets of the Nancy Starling production, which covers such diverse issues as women in propaganda films and the need for Britain to appeal to America for political reasons; and the general idea of that Blitz spirit, and a country that needs every bit of help it can get, finding a cipher through the production of this film.

It’s a credit to Scherfig, and the adapted script of Gaby Chiappe, that Their Finest can accomplish effective story-telling for all of the above, and can also be capable of interjecting a healthy and needed dose of dark humour as well, exhibiting an understanding of “Cest la guerre” type mirth making that other recent films have singularly failed to do. That biting, sarcasm filled British wit, meshes so well with the more serious stuff on offer, that includes late in the game plot twists that are sure to cut the audience deep even as they marvel you with their sheer appropriateness to the unfolding story being told.

Arterton, Claflin and Night put in award worthy performances throughout, World War II London is re-created vividly in Scherfig’s direction and the films general production quality, and it all builds and builds to an emotionally satisfying and cathartic conclusion. I was truly stunned by what a near-flawless all-round experience Their Finest was, a film that still deserves a far bigger audience than what it got. It could well have been #1, but it formed one half of an Operation Dynamo 1-2 for 2017, only eclipsed by a film of sheer perfection.

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Tom (Sam Claflin) and Catrin (Gemma Arterton).

1. Dunkirk

To say that Christopher Nolan was already a director I held in very high esteem would be an understatement. To say the various members of the cast for this film that I had previously viewed were highly appreciated by me would be an understatement. To say that the likes of Hanz Zimmer or Hoyte van Hoytema were people whose craft I highly respected would be an understatement. And yet, when I went to see the fruit of their combined labours in Dunkirk, they still somehow managed to reach past my sky-high expectations, and deliver a film that is among the very greatest I have ever seen.

This highly concentrated look at the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 accomplishes so much in its bare amount of time that it cannot but be considered Nolan’s masterpiece. In its deliberately fragmented narrative, we cover the range of drama that occurred on that fateful week: the terrified soldiers on the beach, discovering to what moral grey areas they will go in the all-consuming desire to just survive, abandoning duty to country and comrades if they must; the unbearable stress of command decision making on the Mole as Stukas and U-Boats close in; the men of the RAF in the skies, having to choose between following the warnings of a decreasing fuel gauge or following their gut; the civilians in their little boats, dealing with traumatized survivors who may yet ruin them all. Dunkirk runs the gauntlet of human experience and human characters, extraordinarily doing so without much dialogue, and maintaining a constant sense of dread and tension from the first frame to the last.

Nolan uses every other tool at hand to make his point. The collective cast is absolutely suburb, from new arrivals to the screen like Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, to Hollywood heartthrobs like Tom Hardy, to long-time veterans of stage and screen like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance. Hanz Zimmer’s inventive score, eschewing traditional war film horn and drums for something more technologically sophisticated, imbues every moment with the required amounts of fraught tension, reckless despair and out-right horror, the ticking clock motif among the most simple but brutally effective ideas ever put to film. And what a visual work of art, with Nolan and van Hoytema overloading your senses with their expansive glimpses at a humanity strewn beach, paradoxically claustrophobic dogfights and men and boats struggling to survive in an all-encompassing sea eager to swallow them up.

It is, from my own personal viewpoint, no exaggeration to call Dunkirk the finest ear film ever made, and certainly an effort to place on a pedestal for the medium generally. Superlatives are in increasingly short supply. The contest for this year was over the moment credits rolled on Christopher Nolan’s undisputable zenith.  It is the best film of 2017.

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Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) in Dunkirk.

Honourable Mentions: I wanted to take the opportunity to mention a few of the other films I have seen this year, in no particular order, that, while they may not have made my top ten, were still films that I would heavily recommend. Adam Randel’s iBoy, a Netflix release, was a spin on the superhero origin story that I really enjoyed, through a rather dark young adult lens, and featuring a great supporting performance from Maisie Williams. Brendan Muldowney’s Pilgrimage was a brilliant historical action-drama, set in a very unique time in Irish history, a stunningly re-created period of conflicting faith, languages and cultures. Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter Two actually improved on its originator, both in terms of its relentless action, but in the universe of assassins and intrigue that it was set in, and in giving Keanu Reeves a continuing spotlight. Armando Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin was both a darkly funny take on the chaos surrounding the Soviet dictator’s death, and a potently serious examination of the kind of murky undertakings that define such structures. And Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express was a great adaptation, with Branagh excelling in the lead role.

And to take a brief moment to talk dishonourable mentions, the worst film I have seen this year was actually the very first: Justin Kurzel’s Assassins Creed. The passion project of lead Michael Fassbender, who dragged former collaborators Kurzel and Marion Cottillard along with him, the film was a joyless, murky slog of an experience, that missed the point of its source material spectacularly and had very little else to recommend it aside from that, featuring one of the worst performances I have ever seen from Jeremy Irons, and a colour palette that could charitably be described as “smoky”, and more accurately as a bleak, unfathomable mess.

And so, to the awards.

Best Actor

Awarded to the actor who has impressed the most throughout the year in leading roles.

Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk)

A plethora of good candidates this year, and my choice might surprise some, but Whitehead was outstanding in an outstanding film. Dunkirk isn’t noted as an actors movie by many, perhaps because of its limited script, but Whitehead’s captivating performance as Tommy, a scared, almost cowardly solider who just wants to survive, and is near the breaking point in the process, is the answer to such assertions.

Honourable Mentions: Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver), Hugh Jackman (Logan), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Ben Whishaw (Paddington 2), Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Pilgrimage)

Best Supporting Actor

Awarded to the actor who has impressed the most throughout the year in roles other than the lead.

Bill Nighy (Their Finest)

Any number of Dunkirk alum could have got the nod here, but it’s the home front that wins it. Nighy is a grand old man of the screen now, and was particularly perfect for the role of Ambrose Hilliard, a somewhat washed up arrogant actor having to play “a wreck of a man”, but who goes on to give both Their Finest and The Nancy Starling the very human core that both need.

Honourable Mentions: Anuerin Barnard (Dunkirk), Adam Driver (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Mark Rylance (Dunkirk) Sam Claflin (Their Finest), Chris Pine (Wonder Woman)

Best Actress

Awarded to the actress who has impressed the most throughout the year in leading roles.

Gemma Atherton (Their Finest)

As always, it’s hard to fill up this category with enough candidates, but at least the few that I saw this year were of stellar quality. In the end, Atherton’s turn as Catrin, the propaganda ministry assistant who becomes the main driving force behind a new kind of female friendly movie-making, got the nod, with the excellent Atherton making her the kind of three-dimensional being she easily could have missed being.

Honourable Mentions: Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman, Justice League), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi)

Best Supporting Actress

Awarded to the actress who has most impressed throughout the year in roles other than the lead.

Dafne Keen (Logan)

This is honestly the hardest call of the lot, but I piped for Keen in the end. Child acting is always incredibly hard to do and incredibly hard to direct: add in the feral nature of the character, and the extraordinary violence that she needs to deal out, and it becomes even harder. But with all that, Keen still showed us a person, who by the end of the film had become the beating heart of the experience.

Honourable Mentions: Alison William (Get Out), Anna de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), Maisie Williams (iBoy) Michelle Pfeiffer (Murder On The Orient Express), Carrie Fisher (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi)

Best Ensemble

Awarded to the best cast, generally, of any film during the year.

Dunkirk

It was this or The Last Jedi really, but Dunkirk’s cast were just that bit better. Whitehead we’ve talked about already, but then there’s Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Anuerin Barnard and a host of others putting in the shift of their lives, and often having to do so with a dearth of dialogue.

Honourable Mentions: Their Finest, Baby Driver, Get Out, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Best Director

Awarded to the best director of the year.

Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)

There’s no real debate to be had here. Dunkirk is a visual masterpiece from start to finish, a film that thrusts Nolan, already so accomplished, into the very highest echelons of film-making greats.

Honourable Mentions: Lone Scherfig (Their Finest), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Edgar Wright (Baby Driver), Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049), Rian Johnson (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi)

Best Production

Awarded to the film that has the best production values of the year, in terms of sets, props and other associated elements.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

The Force train keeps on rolling. As ever, Star Wars’ details, its alien worlds, its spaceships, its sense of a fantasy universe that feels lived in, is second to none.

Honourable Mentions: Dunkirk, Their Finest, Wonder Woman, Pilgrimage, Blade Runner 2049

Best CGI

Awarded to the film with the best use of computer generated imagery and graphics.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

It’s not even worth elaborating too much on. From start to finish, Star Wars delivers, again.

Honourable Mentions: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2

Best Score

Awarded to the composer/ film with the best instrumental (non-lyrical) music of the year.

Hanz Zimmer (Dunkirk, Wonder Woman)

The Wonder Woman stuff is great, but Zimmer’s Dunkirk work is so amazing, so pivotal to the experience, I and many others have wondered whether he should be a considered a co-author of the film.

Honourable Mentions: Michael Abels (Get Out), John Williams (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Stephen McKeon (Pilgrimage)

Best Soundtrack

Awarded to the film with the best songs, generally, of the year.

Baby Driver

As I said in my review, comparing Baby Driver to Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 on this score, “Gunn picks songs. Wright fits them”.

Honourable Mentions: Paddington 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Farthest, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2

Best Original Song

Awarded to the best song created for a film of the year.

“Another Day Of Sun” – Cast (La La Land),

Only a few films had decent entries in this category this year and, notwithstanding my general lack of appreciation for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, it was full of great music, and its peppy opener was the best of the lot.

Honourable Mentions: “Yellow Light” – Pharrell Williams (Despicable Me 3), “Evermore” – Dan Stevens (Beauty And The Beast), “City Of Stars” – Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone (La La Land), “A Lovely Night” – Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone (La La Land)

Best Adapted Script

Awarded to the best script adapted from another source of the year.

Their Finest (Gaby Chiappe)

Overflowing with humour, emotion and good ol’ fashioned Blitz spirit, the adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel is a huge part of what makes Their Finest as good as it is.

Honourable Mentions: Logan (Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green), Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jonathan Goldstein John Francis Daly, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers), Wonder Woman (Allan Heinberg, Deborah Snyder, Zach Snyder, Richard Suckle), Paddington 2 (Paul King, Simon Farnaby), The Disaster Artist (Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber)

Best Original Script

Awarded to the best original script of the year.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)

For a film all about the music, Wright sure wrote it well, a love-letter to its auditory influences, it also features a slew of fascinating characters and a number of immense verbal showdowns. Frankly, Wright blows the other contenders out of the water here.

Honourable Mentions: Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan), Rian Johnson (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Get Out (Jordan Peele), Pilgrimage (Jamie Hannigan),

Best Cinematography

Awarded to the best camerawork of any film of the year.

Dunkirk (Hoyte van Hoyten)

Well, duh.

Honourable Mentions: Their Finest (Sebastian Blenkov), Wonder Woman (Matthew Jensen), Baby Driver (Bill Pope), Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (Steve Yedlin), Get Out (Toby Oliver)

Best Make-Up/Hairstyling/Costuming

Awarded to the film with the best combined make-up, hairstyling and costuming work of the year.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Well, duh too.

Honourable Mentions: Dunkirk, Their Finest, Wonder Woman, Logan, Pilgrimage

Best Comedy

Awarded to the best comedic film of the year.

Their Finest

Best Animation

Awarded to the best animated film of the year.

The Lego Batman Movie

Best Romance

Awarded to the best romantic film of the year.

Their Finest

Best Sci-Fi

Awarded to the best science fiction film of the year.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Best Comic Book

Awarded to the best film based on a comic book/graphic novel of the year.

Wonder Woman

Best Documentary

Awarded to the best non-fiction film with a documentarian focus.

The Farthest

Best Historical

Awarded to the best historical film of the year.

Dunkirk

Best Irish

Awarded to the best Irish film of the year.

The Farthest

Best Scene

Awarded to the best, non-action, scene of the year.

The Climactic Rescue – (Dunkirk)

Best Action Scene

Awarded to the best action/fight scene of the year.

Going Over The Top (Wonder Woman)

Best Battle Scene

Awarded to the best large-scale battle scene of the year.

Bombing The Dreadnought (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi)

Best Delivered Line

Awarded to the best written and delivered line(s) of the year.

“Well…it’s got water…it’s got water.”

-Hugh Jackman (Logan)

Best Set-Piece

Awarded to the best single set-piece sequence or segment of the year.

Opening/Onto The Beach (Dunkirk)

Best Hero

Awarded to the year’s best presented protagonist character.

Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman)

Best Villain

Awarded to the year’s best presented antagonist character.

Kylo Ren (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi)

“Diamond In The Rough” Award

Awarded to the actor/actress who gives the best performance of an otherwise bad movie.

Idris Elba (The Dark Tower)

“Bang For Your Buck” Award

Awarded to the best film in the shortest running time.

Dunkirk (106 minutes)

“Inception” Award

Awarded to a film that is still good despite its plot holes.

Get Out

“Walter Mitty” Award

Awarded to a film that is still good despite its clichéd elements.

Their Finest

“Starcrossed Lovers” Award

Awarded to the film with the best romantic plot or sub-plot.

Catrin and Tom (Their Finest)

“Lonely Planet Guide To…” Award

Awarded to the best world/universe building within a film.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

“On The Shoulders Of Giants” Award

Awarded to the best sequel, reboot or remake of the year.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

“Equality Now” Award

Awarded to the film that features the best use of female characters.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

“Surprisingly Tolerable” Award

Awarded to the worst movie idea that turned good.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

“Why Is No One Applauding?” Award

Awarded to the film that has been rated too lowly by the critical community.

iBoy

“We’re Going To That” Award

Awarded to the film with the best trailer(s) of the year.

Dunkirk

“You Can’t Take The Sky From Me” Award

Awarded to the best thing of the year

When the ticking stopped (Dunkirk)

That’s all from me for 2017, and I’ll see you on the other side, where awaits God Particle, Black Panther, Early Man, A Wrinkle In Time, The New Mutants, Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Incredibles 2, Ant-Man And The Wasp, Robin Hood, Venom, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Creed 2, Mortal Engines and Aquaman, among others. Until then. 

(All images are copyright of The Irish Film Board, Sony Pictures Releasing StudioCanal, Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures and Lionsgate).

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Review: The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist

Trailer

Defeat_Tommy

Good doggy.

One last quick review as we head towards the end of the year round-up.

Struggling to fulfil his ambition of being an actor, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) befriends the all-round strange Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) after seeing his “fearless”, yet incompetent, performances in an acting class. Their bizarre friendship eventually leads to Hollywood, and to Sestero getting entangled in The Room, Wiseau’s directorial effort to make it big in tinsel-town, but the would-be auteur’s demented decisions on set soon push their relationship to the breaking point.

The Room will forever hold a treasured place in my heart, and The Disaster Artist, based off Greg Sestero’s book on the filming of the masterpiece, is a movie for fans of The Room, and largely for fans of The Room only. Those who have never seen the adventures of Tommy, Lisa, Mark and Denny will probably be lost here, as Franco’s film veers between being an all-out love-letter to Wiseau and The Room, and an almost documentary lookback at the creation of “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”.

Franco is truly excellent as Wiseau, capturing the inherent strangeness of his utterances, his alien-like demeanour, and that off-putting sense that he might just come out and say or do anything he damn well pleases any time he opens his mouth. His brother, Dave is a suitable foil for Tommy in the role of Greg, decidedly more supplicant and downtrodden. Both are dreamers and both desperate for fame: and while it’s easy enough to get behind Greg, The Disaster Artist struggles in its depiction of Wiseau, in terms of how it presents him as a somewhat charming and likable figure, who will do anything or pay anything to make it big, but contrasts that with his utterly appalling behaviour every other scene. One of the key things that haunts Wiseau is that he wants to be the hero while looking like a villain: The Disaster Artist takes this idea and runs with it, but the end result is a depiction wherein it’s hard to root for Tommy in any way, shape or form.

But, as fans of The Room, you might get beyond that for the dramatic re-enactments of how the whole thing came together: Chris-R’s threatening of Denny is the first scene shot, and neither Tommy or Greg are prepared for the power in Chris-R’s performance (Zac Efron playing opposite Josh Hutcherson), yet Tommy can’t come up with the answer for how old the Denny character is supposed to be. During a sex scene Tommy acts atrociously towards his female lead, Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor), humiliating her in front of the cast and crew for no clear reason. And though he has seemingly inexhaustible wealth with no clear origin, Tommy won’t pay for air-conditioning or water, leading the elderly actress playing Lisa’s mother (Jacki Weaver) to collapse: Tommy asks if she’s fallen asleep.

All of this calls to what the film is largely about. It’s probably at its best when its less about the friendship between Greg and Tommy (that isn’t entirely accurate to the real story, where Sestero did The Room largely for financial reasons, and not out of any devotion to Wiseau) and more about why the cast and crew do the movie, or as an examination of whether unintentional comedy should be celebrated by the creator. But The Disaster Artist is muddled on those points, too obsessed with recreating The Room, as the impressive but largely pointless serious of comparisons that play over the credits demonstrate.

Paul Scheer, who has a role in The Disaster Artist, once described The Room not memorable explicitly because it was a bad movie, but because “it’s a fascinating movie…everything about it is like ‘I would never have thought to do it like that’” and that really does capture why The Room is so well-watched at this point. Everything about it is so strange, so weird, in its origin and execution, that you can’t help but over-analyse it even as you laugh at every “Oh hi” or Tommy’s creepy laugh. The Disaster Artist isn’t a great film in its own right, but for those like me, it’s a nice addendum to The Room, but that’s about as far as it goes. Partially recommended.

tda1

You think of everything!

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

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