Review: The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs


The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs



“He’s in the jailhouse now…”

Well, if there one A-list director (pair) who are willing to embrace the growing tide of streaming movies over traditional theatre options, I guess its the Coen Brothers, though I can’t speak to their enthusiasm. Their follow-up to Hail, Caesar! (which was itself a welcome return to form following, in my eyes, a few less than stellar projects, is a very different beast: a long-planned anthology film of six short stories, all set in the Wild West.

That genre has seen a certain kind of renaissance in recent years with the likes of Slow West in one hand and the remake of The Magnificent Seven in the other, and even fantasy/sci-fi takes in The Dark Tower. American filmmakers remain, it would seem, enamored with both the idea of the untamed west in the process of taming, and presumably with the memory of a classic age of western films. The Coen Brothers are no exception, but is The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs a decent addition to the enormous canon of the genre, or instead a wishy-washy nostalgia fueled passion project?

In “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, a wandering misanthrope (Tim Blake Nelson) engages in gunfights while musing on humanity; in “Near Algodones”, a desperate cowboy (James Franco) robs a bank; in “Meal Ticket”, a travelling impresario (Liam Neeson) struggles with his armless, legless charge (Harry Melling); in “All Gold Canyon” a prospector (Tom Waits) searches for the precious metal; in “The Girl Who Got Rattled” a woman (Zoe Kazan) on the Oregon Trail deals with bereavement and her bleak prospects; and in “The Mortal Remains” five travelers converse on the nature of man in a travelling stage coach.

For this one, I’m going to write about each of the stories in turn before offering some thoughts on Buster Scruggs as a whole. There are indications that the Coen’s may have wanted to present these stories as separate narratives, possibly as a TV show, but they have been packaged together, and so an element of the judging needs to be together.

The opening number, also the shortest I think, is the titular tale, featuring Tim Blake Nelson’s crooning gunfighter, and his encounters with a variety of similar naer do wells (with parts for the likes of Clancy Brown and David Krumholtz). This short film has a certain similarity to the Coen’s magnum opus O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its musical themes and comedically surreal progression. The difference is in the violence on display: while O Brother… was not a pacifistic film, it probably had less bloodshed in its whole running time than “The Ballad…” has in its 15 or so minutes. The blood and gore provides a suitable (and I’m sure, intentional) contrast to the singing, musing and general tomfoolery as Nelson’s Scruggs waxes lyrical in-between songs.

The effect can still be a little disconcerting all the same, and in what will be a recurring issue with the overall film, it’s hard to know what kind of point the Coen’s are trying to make. Scruggs states the apparent message of the piece fairly bluntly near the conclusion, a diatribe on how there is always someone waiting to be the next top dog, but I am afraid any depth to this message was somewhat lost among the bizarre verbal and physical comedy (my favourite being when Scruggs dusts himself off in a dingy supply station, creating a cartoonish outline of a man). Nelson is, as he always is, excellent, stepping neatly back into a singing role as he had in O Brother… and but for his strange sort of magnetism in performance “The Ballad…” might well have fallen badly flat.

James Franco’s contribution in “Near Algodones” might be the most fuzzy in terms of message, as his cowboy suffers through a succession of miserable circumstances – a botched bank robbery, a kangaroo court, a Comanche raid, an elongated hanging and so on and so forth – in another short that mixes the serious with the darkly comedic at will. But you never really connect with the cowboy in any way, perhaps due to his paucity of lines, and if anything a viewer’s interest might be more drawn to Stephen Root’s rapidly speaking bank teller, who takes down a bank robber in a rather unique fashion.

Perhaps the point of “Near Algodones” is that sometimes bad things just happen, or maybe its a grander pronouncement on the inevitability of karma, but such thoughts are grains of sand in your hands for such a short and, unfortunately, shallow narrative, one that is good for a few cheap laughs (the cowboy’s “First time?” line is probably the films best laugh) and little else besides.

The anthology moves on to the truly miserable in “Meal Ticket”. In what is a common feature for the remaining offerings, you spend the majority of its running time waiting for something terrible to happen, and not in a well crafted Hitchcockian sense. The encroaching sense of depression pervades throughout, right up to the murderous implications of its final shot.

But I can’t fault “Meal Ticket” too much, going by the strength of its performances. Neeson spends most of it deathly silent, but showcasing his incredibly talent nonetheless, as this would be charity provider with much more base motivations. But is is Melling, presumably trying to put Dudley Dursley behind him with roles like this, who provides the true revelation, both in terms of his obvious talent at one-man performing, and, like Neeson, in what is portrayed silently in every other scene. The inherent grimness of the narrative can’t cloud what is being portrayed and while “Meal Ticket” will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, it is the kind of thing I would hold up as a stellar example of the actor’s craft.


Zoe Kazan tries to make the best of not great material.

“All Gold Canyon” is a similar sort of production in the limited amount of cast members, but very different otherwise. For one thing, I think it is the only one of the six stories that has anything even close to resembling a happy ending, but more than that, at a time in the production when the offering start to balloon in time, “All Gold Canyon” is the only one where the increasing length actually fits. A treatise on the virtues of patience, it also happens to be the only story with an apparently clear message to impart.

Waits, alone on screen for the majority, gives a great performance as a grizzled old prospector carefully going about his craft in the magnificent surrounds of the titular canyon. Like the other shorts, there is a constant sense of impending doom, but here it really is more a case of expectation based on the previous three adventures, as opposed to anything “All Gold Canyon” is actively trying to instill. The story reaches a suitably dramatic finale that manages to skillfully stick to its central message and allows the Coen’s the chance to really showcase what makes them such proficient visual directors and editors.

The longest of the six shorts – or maybe it just felt like that – is “The Girl Who Got Rattled” – and it is here that the wheels very obviously come off the Buster Scruggs bus. The story of Alice and how she hits a low point on the Oregon Trail – that brings back pixelated memories – only to stumble into a period romantic drama is all well and good, but as with other shorts, but to an extreme extent here, you’re just waiting for the tragedy to occur and oh, occur it will. There’s something particularly unenjoyable about that in this instance, as any genuine interest in the story being portrayed and acted out, any attempt at crafting a connection between character and audience, is overtaken by that sense of dread and inevitable doom.

Zoe Kazan (one of only two female roles of note in all six shorts) I haven’t seen much of lately, but she is decent if reserved here, with cowboy Billy Knapp, played by Bill Heck, being a tad more interesting, a guy who has spent his whole life in the saddle and has reached the point where he can either do that till he dies or attempt to make a familial life for himself. The back and forth between the two is endearingly sweet, but, as stated, it can do nothing against the unpleasant certainty that one or both of them is going to end up dead long before any happy endings come into view. The Coen’s laddle on the Romeo & Juliet-esque tragedy hard in this one, and it gets just a bit too much by the conclusion.

The last short is “The Mortal Remains”, wherein the Coen’s attempt to get their inner Quentin Tarantino to come out and play, in a set-up and narrative that will inevitably draw attention to the opening portions of The Hateful Eight: an elongated dialogue inside a stagecoach. The point of the various musings here appears to be a commentary on the subjective nature of human experiences and human morality, running the gambit between an egalitarian philosophy of “We all need the same things”, a Christian focused moralistic perspective of “There are upright and sinful people” and a more loose “Everyone is different” view.

This is all well and good I suppose, but things move to a dark and rather bizarre place late-on, as the stagecoach ride takes on supernatural dimensions, with indications that at least some of the passengers on-board might no longer be on the mortal plane, so to speak. I feel this was the wrong path to take: if aping Tarantino, go ahead and ape him, but this sort of Twilight Zone experiment comes off as hokey and wholly unsatisfactory. The five players in this Godot-like dialogue all perform well enough, especially Jonjo  O’Neill and the singing Brendan Gleeson, but there was something very unfulfilling about “The Mortal Remains” right down to its final shots of a limbo-like hotel.

Taken collectively it is a bit of an odd mix, with the general message apparently being a commentary on human nature, with the Wild West setting being little more than window dressing really. And human nature is horrible if you go by what the Coen’s depict here: we’re all just a bunch of violent, murdering, manipulating selfish backstabbers who genuinely think we would be better off shooting ourselves than have to deal with the practical consequences of manifest destiny. There isn’t anything wrong with enunciating such a negative viewpoint as a central message, but when done in this fashion, in six separate stories crammed into a two hours and change running time, it feels very oppressive.

But there is also the element of time and how it catches up with you: with the gunfighter Scruggs who knows his time at the top will come to an end eventually; with the cowboy who can’t escape the noose forever; with the impresario whose trade is with fickle audiences with short attention spans; for the prospector whose investment of time in his craft may not be to his own gain; with the frontier folk who see chances for normal lives slipping away day by day; and for those in the coach, who may have already seen all of their time expended. Nothing lasts forever, perhaps why, in “Meal Ticket”, the actor’s opening speech is Shelly’s ode to the impermanence of everything, Ozymandias. You can’t deny that the Coen’s have created a certain consistency across the board, but that doesn’t mean its still fun or thought-provoking enough to watch.

Frankly, it is difficult to stay engaged with this, most notably in the penultimate film, when the weighty musings on mortality and the human experience are presented in so miserable a fashion. Developing an attachment to characters is hard enough in a feature film, and even harder in a short, and when you realise the Coen’s are happy to GRRM their way through their principals, that crucial connection falls apart.

This mixture of satire and homage to the ideals of the pre-revisionist western fails to be as palatable as you would hope. It looks great – when have wild west films ever not recently? – and is even written with aplomb frequently enough, but it peaks way too early  with Tim Blake Nelson’s gunslinging and singing, and ends on a bum note altogether. Perhaps it would have been a better exercise to release these episodes as episodes, in a TV show, when the individual focus may have allowed for elongation where it would have helped and better characterisation elsewhere. The Coen’s aren’t down and out by any means, but they need to do a lot better than this if they are to maintain their perceived place in the directorial hierarchy. Not recommended.


Busted Flush.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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

Ireland’s Wars: The Voyage Of The Aud

When Imperial Germany decided to send aid to those factions within Ireland preparing for a rebellion against British rule, they did not do so with any great enthusiasm or gung-ho attitude. The guns sent were less than what was requested, and were, if not quite obsolete, less than state-of-the-art. No soldiers or officers were to be sent, and at no point does the German High Command seem to have taken seriously the possibility of actually invading Ireland.

But the guns were to be sent, indicating at least a half-hearted belief that something to Germany’s benefit could be gained from the exercise. But getting them to Ireland, and then off-loaded safely, would be a very difficult matter, in wartime, and with the Royal Navy still the undisputed King of the waves.

The Germans proposed to John Devoy of Clan na Gael, one of their primary contacts, to land the arms between the 20th and the 23rd of April and Devoy, without consulting anyone in Dublin, agreed. The task of getting the guns to Ireland fell to Junior Lieutenant Karl Spindler, a 28 year old member of the Kriegsmarine without any truly exceptional service in the war thus far. On the 20th March he was given the assignment: to take a merchant freighter, suitably disguised, to the west coast of Ireland, rendezvous with the U-Boat carrying Roger Casement, unload his cargo of guns, and return home, without any kind of British entanglement.

The freighter he was given to command had spent most of its life as the British merchant the Castro. Captured in German waters on the outbreak of the war it had been requisitioned into the Germany Navy as the Libeau and was now disguised as a ship from neutral Norway, the Aud. Spindler was on his way on the 10th April, with instructions to be in place on the 20th. Spindler tried to be as meticulous as possible with the deception, to the point of even having a dog brought on-board to replicate what he thought was normal practice on a merchant steamer. The German crew wore civilian clothes, decorated their quarters with Norwegian accoutrements, and were warned to speak in “low German” – a vernacular sub-set of German more similar to Dutch – if caught and questioned by any Royal Navy personnel.

Spindler, his crew and the Aud had drama aplenty long before they arrived off the designated point at Tralee Bay. Poor weather endangered the voyage, and they also had to deal with the attentions of several ships of the Royal Navy. That the Aud avoided direct entanglement with the Royal Navy may not be all down to Spindler: though it has never been confirmed it is strongly believed that the British were aware of Spindler’s mission through their intelligence network, and may have allowed it through in the hopes of using an arms landing as an excuse to launch punitive measure against nationalist organisations in Ireland.

The Aud’s route was elongated, up the coast of Norway, then going close to the Arctic Circle and then south near Rockall, due to Spindler’s efforts to avoid detection and to arrive at the right time. In this, he was unaware that events had changed while he was at sea, with Clan na Gael sending radio messages from America asking that the shipment be delayed until the 23rd, having received word from Dublin. It was a confusing message, that seemed to indicate a late preference that the U-Boat head for Dublin if possible, and that the boat bringing the guns not attempt any kind of smuggling. Instead, with the expectation that local Volunteers would control the area after the commencement of a Rising, the military council wanted it done in the open. The problem was that Spindler didn’t have a wireless to receive any kind of message from and was duly off the coast of Kerry on the 20th, as originally ordered.


Spindler, or so he claimed, was in the right place at the right time, but neither the expected U-Boat, nor any kind of pilot boat from the shoreline, was there to meet him. In this, there has been some dispute about Spindler’s account, as U-19 was in the general area at the time, having dropped Roger Casement off ahead of his capture by local police, and it is quite possible that the Aud was not where it was supposed to be.

Either way, there was no signal from the shore at all, with the Aud cruising near the Tralee coast for over a day, coming very close to the pier at Fenit at one point. This is strange enough if Spindler is to be believed, that locals would have exhibited not even simple curiosity about a strange unknown ship parked off the coast during wartime. This may indicate that the Aud was not as close to the rendezvous point as Spindler later claimed. The Aud was boarded though, by the crew of the HMT Setter II, a British scout ship. Its crew were not Royal Navy personnel, and Spindler was apparently able to convince them he was Norwegian, and that the Aud was having engine trouble. Spindler later claimed his opposite number even warned him they were on the lookout for a German vessel.

The local Irish Volunteers, headed by Tralee native Austin Stack, have left little in the way of firm indications they were in any way prepared to assist the landing of arms. Stack spend the weekend of the Aud’s appearance involved in semi-farcical scenes, single-handedly holding up a local RIC barracks to free a Volunteer comrade captured as they had attempted to find Casement, only for the said comrade to be re-captured and for Stack to then hand himself in, spending the rest of the Rising in captivity. He and his local unit would later receive some criticism for making no effort to save Casement, when they undoubtedly had the means to do so, heavily outnumbering the local RIC.

The other aspect of the landward preparations ended in tragedy on the Friday evening. On the direction of Sean McDermott, two cars were sent to the village of Cahirciveen to steal wireless equipment, for the purpose of making contact with the German ships. The second car took a wrong turn and blundered off a pier into the ocean: three of the four occupants drowned, arguably the first casualties of the Rising, with the first car then abandoning the mission.

Spindler, not knowing what else to do, allowed the Aud to drift south-west, where it was eventually discovered by armed British ships. The German officer would later claim he was taken in by a “whole swarm” of British war ships, but this is more than likely an exaggeration. Escorted into Queenstown (Cobh), he choose to scuttle his vessel as it neared the harbour, doing so on the morning of the 22nd. Spindler later claimed his action blocked the harbour for several days, but there is little to back this up. The Aud and its cargo of guns went to the bottom. The remains of the ship were depth-charged during the Second World War owing to an error in identification, but what is still there continues to be a popular destination for local divers.

Spindler and his crew remained as POW’s for most of what was left of the war, being freed as part of a prisoner exchange just before it ended. He would emigrate to the United States shortly after, where he was feted by Irish-American nationalists groups and published a racy account of his voyage. When the Second World War drew in the United States, Spindler was interned, suffered increasingly poor health, and later died in 1951.

There would be no German guns, beyond those brought in on previous gun-runnings, for those about to engage in rebellion. But there was one more connection between the Easter Rising and the Germany Navy, as their attack on Yarmouth and Lowestoft on the 24th April, one of several bombardments of British coastal towns during the war, was partly planned to coincide with the rebellion. It would be grandiose to term it a distraction, as the British military would need far more than that attack to prevent it putting into action a plan to counteract the rebellion.

All that is left before the Rising itself is those final desperate days in Dublin, as the Volunteers became divided against each other, and some of the most controversial events of Irish history took place.

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

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

Review: Creed II

Creed II



Round 2, fight.

I did love me some Creed, Ryan Coogler’s 2016 continuation of the Rocky franchise, which put Stallone on the back-burner in favour of Michael B. Jordan, but still found a way to craft an engaging two-hander with them, mixing in an interesting examination of African-American life, dreams and legacy at the same time. In my review of Creedwhich I rated the 4th best film of that year – I closed by positing that the future of the franchise rested rather heavily on the inevitable sequel, and on whether the same cast and crew could be retained.

Well, the director did move to the producer’s chair, being now a bit more concerned with events in Wakanda, and in his place comes Steven Caple Jr, a respected filmmaker if not quite tested at this level. He does have the same cast to work with, but I would be lying if I said that the premise of Creed II filled me with an abundance of confidence, looking very much like a re-tread of Rocky IV. So, does Creed II keep the franchise moving along nicely, or is it time to throw in the towel?

Three years on from his eruption onto the public stage, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Jordan) celebrates being heavyweight champion with fiancée Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and trainer Rocky Balboa (Stallone). But trouble is on the horizon in the form of Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Victor (Florian Munteanu), who seek revenge for Rocky’s defeat of Ivan over thirty years previously. In the shadow of his father’s death, and soon to become a father himself, Donnie faces his greatest threat yet.

It’s hard not to like Creed II. At its core, it’s a very well put together film about a rise, fall and rise again, with good performances and heaps of interpersonal drama very well portrayed. But, just as Creed felt at times to be like a rehash of Rocky, Creed II takes the Rocky IV formula and largely replicates it with new players, and that is a fairly serious sticking point when it is the second time in a row.

Rocky IV was both cartoonish in its general presentation and pathetically predictable, and Creed II replicates the second sin if not really the first. A cursory look at the general premise is all anyone would need to have a very firm idea of where Creed II goes, from our opening look at Donnie at the height of his personal and professional life, to a crippling second act bout where he does things all wrong, to his attempts to set everything right before the credits roll. Throw in some significant life changes, a marriage proposal straight from a Mills & Boon novel in its scripting, more falling outs with Rocky and a rest in terms of his relationship with the deceased father he never really knew, and you start to get the idea.

And it isn’t that Creed II is a total facsimile. Indeed, it should be praised for its subtle efforts to turn Ivan Drago into an actual character instead of a caricature: probably the best part of the film if I am being honest, this wounded behemoth still seeking redemption thirty years after his greatest failure, and his son who doesn’t really understand why his lifetime of training is being subverted by a quest for Russian approval (the best damn line in the film is Lundgren’s “I lost” when trying to explain why the Russian establishment no longer wanted anything to do with him). Yes, its foundation is the inherently goofy and over the top events of Rocky IV, but when stuff is good stuff is good. Also welcome is the continued focus on Bianca as a character in and of herself and not just an accessory for Donnie. It’s paced well, edited well and does everything you would expect of it.

But we have been here before, in the 1980’s and just a few years ago. Creed and Rocky falling out and reconciling already feels tired, and the nature of the two fights featuring Victor Drago parallel much of Rocky IV, right down to the choices of venues and the focus on nationalist sentiment as a perverse accompaniment. And having gone through one film where he moves out of Apollo Creed’s shadow, Donnie promptly moves back under it, repeating much of the same journey as he did before. I was expecting more of this franchise If I was being honest.


Looking good Sly.

Caple Jr’s answer to the question of where Donnie should go is just revelatory enough. Other films in this franchise go out of their ways to shock or subvert, such as with Rocky and Creed losing the final fights in their respective first films, or with Apollo Creed’s death, or even with how Rocky ends up back at the bottom of the pile in V. Creed II doesn’t have anything like that in itself, not even wanting to risk Donnie losing his opening fight with Victor Drago, a quandary  of plotting that Vince McMahon steps in to solve (if you watch this film and watch pro-wrestling, you’ll understand what I mean).

Rehashing Cold War stereotyping is the wrong choice, when much more potent political targets, like #Blacklivesmatter for example, are right there waiting to be taken advantage of. Perhaps that’s for Creed III but coming off Jordan’s mesmerising turn as the perfectly sympathetic villain Killmonger in Black Panther, Creed II comes off, dare I say it, as slightly gutless in not attempting a similar level of societal and political commentary.

Instead of anything like that, Creed II tries to frame its plot as a tired “What are you fighting for?” question, as if the answer will be anything other than what was given in the first one. In this, Creed II is taking more cues from the past, namely Rocky III, as the hero needs to find a way past ego and bravado to once again reach the top. But he already did all that a few years ago!

As is so often the case, a humdrum plot can be saved by the quality of production and Creed II has quality to spare. Jordan has fast established himself as one of the best in Hollywood and will probably be headlining films for decades to come: for these films, he’s managed to demonstrate an immense dedication to his craft, taking real punches in the pursuit of as much reality as possible. Meanwhile Stallone, now in the twilight of his career, could probably give it all up right now with Rocky and be satisfied with where things have been left. The two still work so well together, and are able, by themselves, to elevate otherwise average material.

Thompson continues to impress as Bianca, and Phylicia Rashad is decent, if understated, as Donnie’s long-suffering mother. Lundgren has never been the best actor but manages to showcase an intriguing enough bond with Munteanu. It’s a well-acted production, though there are some odd inserts here and there, like Russell Hornsby’s seemingly villainous fight promotor who turns up in a few scenes to look vaguely menacing.

And visually. Just as Creed did, the sequel is able to pop. The fight scenes are shot with a visceral intensity, where Caple Jr and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau really make you feel every landed punch, lacerated kidney and broken rib. There might not be anything as inventive as the one-shotter fight from the first offering, but Caple Jr knows what he is about, in the, by-now, traditional montage sequences, in scenes where Donnie adjusts to the awkward reality of being a father, or where Rocky confronts the failure at parenting he has managed to come up with. Still, a certain amount of energy isn’t there like it was a few years ago, and it is fairly noticeable at times.

Creed II is, unfortunately, just one of those films that I like less and less the longer that I think about it. It has a fine cast, decent visual direction and another excellent effort from the musical department. In terms of the depiction of the sweet science, it can count itself among the upper echelon. But it lacks a certain spark of ingenuity, that we experienced in Creed, and too often falls back on well-worn plots and characterisation, seemingly afraid of saying anything truly bold. That might be for an inevitable trilogy round-off, but I fear that Creed is not so much floating like a butterfly than it is starting to treat water. Partially recommended.


They sure are Greedy. II.

(All images are copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures).

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

Ireland’s Wars: The Volunteer Schism

Whatever semblance of a plan the military council had come up with was made, and Germany was sending arms, albeit not in the quantity the IRB wanted. As winter turned to Spring in 1916, the rebellion grew ever more likely to come, but there was still that schism between the more moderate elements and the more militant to confront and overcome.

The council itself appears to have decided that Easter 1916 was going to be the time, at least by late January/early February 1916. It is often thought that Easter was chosen purely for its religious associations with death and rebirth, and it is likely that Pearse certainly viewed it in such terms, but there was the practical advantage to the date in that the previous Easter had seen the Volunteers mobilise, manoeuvre and parade, and so any movement on Easter the following year might well be mistaken, at least initially, for the same. And if a rebellion was going to be carried out, time was of the essence: every day that passed increased the chances of British counter-moves, the suppression of the Irish Volunteers, or a more open conflict with the likes of Eoin MacNeill and Bulmer Hobson.

What was being planned could not be hidden indefinitely, as munitions were assembled, practise manoeuvres were held and, as they always did for Irish rebellions, people blabbed, with Thomas McDonagh telling companies of the Volunteers he addressed in the lead-up to have three days rations ready and to be able to respond to sudden orders. Amid the rank-and-file of the Volunteers, a sense, an intuition and outright knowledge that a rising would happen soon began to spread in the first few months of 1916, and reached a fever pitch in mid-April.

But in those last tension filled days ahead of the planned start – Easter Sunday, the 23rd of April – things began to unravel. We have already noted Casement’s leaving of Germany under a cloud of disillusionment, and his subsequent capture on the Irish west coast. In the next entry, we will look with greater detail on the ill-fated attempt by the German Navy to land arms in Ireland. But for now we must look at the moments when the actions of Pearse and company went from secretive to outright duplicitous

On Wednesday 19th April an extraordinary document was read out to the Dublin Corporation by Sinn Fein Alderman Tom Kelly. Purportedly from the British government in Dublin and sanctioned by military leadership in the country, it authorised the arrest of the leadership of Sinn Fein, the Irish Volunteers and even the Gaelic League, as well as the institution of martial law in Dublin. The document did not say why exactly such actions would be undertaken but reading between the lines it was clearly a measure to eliminate nationalist sedition. It was claimed the order was leaked from Dublin Castle by a sympathiser working within the British Government.

The so-called “Castle Document” caused a sensation, but its authenticity has been in doubt from the moment it was circulated. Some went to their graves insisting it was the genuine article, while others maintain it was a forgery cooked up by Joseph Plunkett. The government certainly claimed it was bogus.

The more likely outcome is somewhere in the middle: Plunkett probably did receive something to the effect that the government had plans for mass arrests of nationalist leaders, but he may then have re-written it for publication to insinuate the action was imminent, and to include additional figures and organisations not originally proscribed. The reasoning would have been simple: to create a united nationalist front out of a common enemy about to undertake a suppressive action.

When Eoin MacNeill was presented with the Castle Document, his reaction appears to have been a mixture of amazement and delight. We must remember that MacNeill was not opposed to violent action, he just felt it should only be taken if success was achievable, or in self-defence. The apparent plans of the authorities would certainly trigger the second justification, and MacNeill, on Wednesday the 19th April, sent orders to all Volunteer units to be in a position to defend themselves from attempts to arrest or disarm them, violently if necessary.

But MacNeill, despite some depictions of him later as a naive fool, was not completely ignorant of what was going on around him and had long suspected plans for a rising were being drafted without his input or approval. Earlier that month, MacNeill had directly asked Pearse about such matters, and had been promised that no plans were being made for an insurrection. Despite warnings from numerous figures, MacNeill chose to take Pearse at his word.

On the night of Thursday 20th April the long hidden divide within the Volunteers finally became manifest. Hobson and MacNeill were informed that orders were being given, without their knowledge, for Volunteer manoeuvres that Sunday, that could only have been the cover for an active rebellion. Sometime around midnight, they confronted Pearse in St Enda’s, and Pearse finally came clean, admitting that an insurrection was planned. O’Neill, opposed to such offensive plans and to the general shape of them as conventional warfare, insisted he would do all he could to scupper such plans, leading Pearse to claim the Volunteers were already entirely in the control of the IRB anyway (something that would turn out to be a bit of an exaggeration).

A furious O’Neill issued orders for Pearse’s commands to be ignored and moved for Bulmer Hobson to be given a more senior position, but the next morning the military council made a belated attempt to smooth the waters, informing O’Neill of the expected shipment of German arms. O’Neill changed his opinion when hearing this news – that undoubtedly was not entirely honest when it came to describing the actual shipment – and decided to back some form of rising, though it remains unclear if that was Pearse’s plan or something more akin to defensive guerrilla warfare, as others called for.

As the weekend began, that was how things stood in Dublin, with an uneasy truce between the Volunteer factions and some manner of rebellion due to begin. But that truce and that rebellion depended in large part on expected guns from Germany, guns that, as we, with the benefit of hindsight know, would never be landed. In the next entry we will look at this infamous voyage, from its beginnings to its unfortunate end.

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

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Perfect Scenes: The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia masterpiece is simply overflowing with scenes that could fill up this series, but if I was asked to limit myself to just one, it would be the very opening of the saga, wherein the undertaker, Bonasera, goes to see Don Corleone, on the day of his daughter’s wedding, to seek an alternate form of justice for his own daughter, abused by two American youths.

The Godfather – “Be my friend…Godfather”

What makes this scene perfect, aside from the generally high quality of performances, cinematography and script, is the amount of detail it manages to tell us about the title character, this behemoth of the “family business”, and the role that he plays in the universe being presented. Consider what we learn about both Don Corleone personally and his position in the course of these few minutes, without any of it being spilled out to the audience in an exposition dump.

The position stuff is masterful: as the head of an organised crime family, the Don offers protection and support to vulnerable immigrants, the kind of protection and support they are unable to get from traditional sources. But the sort of justice the Godfather offers to dole out is not an unrestrained Death Wish-esque affair, it is controlled, operating firmly under the principle of an eye for an eye. His payment for such services is nothing traditional either, being instead a form of unspecified quid pro quo, a favour that may never actually be called in. And he maintains an obvious control over his organisation, to the extent that he only has to gesture his hand to get the undertaker a drink and has to say nothing specific about how his desired justice is to be meted out.

And personally, we learn much about Corleone here: his patience, his taste for the theatrical, his comfort in being in a place of power and his generosity. But the most important thing we learn about is his sense of honour.

As Bonasera outlines his pitiful tale, Corleone occupies himself by playing with his cat (an apparent on-set ad lib from Brando). He appears to not even be paying attention. The only interruption he makes is to ask why Bonasera went to the police instead of coming to him directly, a very loaded query. And then it comes. The anger – restrained yes, but still incredibly potent – that the undertaker would come to him in this fashion, offering to pay money so he will murder someone for him. Corleone isn’t just puzzled by the suggestion, he’s outright insulted. He can’t understand it, why this member of the community – his community – would speak to him in this manner. His very question is not “How could you offer me money to kill for you?”, it’s “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”. And, as we will learn, there is unspoken affront here, as Bonasera is taking advantage of an Sicilian tradition, that a man never refuses a favour on the day of his daughter’s wedding.

Corleone does not want Bonasera’s payment, or his pleading, or even his sob story. He wants his friendship. He wants his respect. He wants him to come willingly into his pocket, and to acknowledge him the head of the community, the Godfather of his people. He knows why Bonasera would have been afraid to get into bed with him, displaying understanding if not acceptance of such a position, but now he calmly takes up the mantle of being Bonasera’s source of law and order.

Corleone and his own empire operate as a state within a state, and the allegiance of men like Bonasera is the playing field for the ideological war he fights with the authorities. The winner of this battle is obvious. Bonasera opens his tale with the line “I believe in America”. He ends it by bowing his head and accepting Corleone as something approaching a liege-lord.

By the end of the scene, we have learned much of importance, about Corleone, about the family business, and about how this other stratum of society operates. More than that, we have been treated to a tense and captivating confrontation, that hooks you in right from the start, setting you up nicely for the three (really nine) hour epic to follow.

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Ireland’s Wars: Casement’s Irish Legion

Roger Casement and Joseph Plunkett were both in Germany seeking support from Wilhelm II’s government for an uprising in Ireland. But while Plunkett’s main focus would be on gaining material support in the form of guns, a goal eventually that he would partially succeed in attaining, Casement had another, far more ambitious, scheme in mind.

Instead of pleading for guns and German soldiers for the cause, Casement instead became fixated on the idea of recruiting Irish soldiers in British uniform captured in the early days of the war from German POW camps to fight for Irish independence, soldiers who would be organised into a new “Irish Brigade”. This unit would be outfitted and trained by Germany and would then be used at the forefront of any effort to liberate Ireland, like the Wild Geese Brigades of old had often been prepared to do.

It was not an original idea, and in the First World War (and after), several units, like Polish and Czech legions, would be formed in countries by distinct ethnicities seeking to fight for the formation of a political homeland. But they were drawn from much larger recruiting pools and generally fought for nations on or very near the borders of their own lands. The Irish equivalent would be drawn from only a few thousand men and were very far from home.

Casement’s plan got official German support by the end of 1914, and he was directed to Limburg prison camp in December. The diplomat found a group of soldiers in poor physical and mental condition, and not really in much of a mood to volunteer for anything.

The reasons for saying no were obvious: aside from the fact that Irish soldiers in British uniform were liable not to be committed nationalists, those who may have been sympathetic to Casement’s cause would have known that, in the event of capture while serving as part of this “Brigade”, they would face accusations of treason and a likely death penalty. Others may simply have wanted to wait out the war in the relative safety, if not comfort, of a POW camp. There was also the reality of peer pressure, with those Irish not interested in volunteering, and those English held in the same camp, subjecting those who did or were thinking about it to their own kind of internal persuasion (though it also happened the other way around)

Casement found many of the men he was trying to convince to be of little to no education, no nationalist persuasion or badly demoralised by their time in confinement. In an effort to boost volunteerism, Casement arranged for those who would do so to be promised better rations, and eventual passage to the United States if the unit failed to materialise into anything worthwhile, something he hoped would quell fears of what would come after the war.

Regardless, of the 2’500 Irish POW’s canvassed, only 55 of the Limburg contingent volunteered, much to the disgust of the German Army (one general commented they had ordered 100 uniforms and couldn’t even find a use for that limited number). Those who did volunteer for the grossly misnamed “legion” received some training from the German Army, mostly in the form of machine guns, as well as German uniforms with some Irish symbols, like the shamrock, attached to differentiate them. Eventually attached to the 203rd Brandenburg Regiment in two companies, they were organised as machine gun corps, though they apparently did not receive any machine guns outside of training. They ended up being partly bankrolled by Clan na Gael, as German enthusiasm waned.

Casement eventually became as disillusioned as some of the soldiers he was trying to recruit, unhappy with the quality of men he was being tasked with convincing, and with the limited support of the German government, which he came to realise had little genuine sympathy or interest in the cause of Irish independence. In 1916 he decided to leave Germany and head for Ireland, being granted the transportation option of a U-boat: none other than U-20, the ship that had sunk the Lusitania the previous year. His goal was to stop a rising from happening at all, being convinced that the arm shipment the Germans had sent was inadequate, if it even managed to land at all.

Three days before the beginning of the Easter Rising, Casement was put ashore by U-20 at Banna Strand, Co Kerry. Ill from a recurrence of malaria, he did not get far, and was soon after discovered by British authorities, who were tipped off by a local. Arrested, Casement faced charges of high treason, and was unable to do anything to further aid or prevent the Rising.

As for Casement’s Legion, the most exciting duty it ever saw was the guarding of Russian POW’s from the eastern front, with many of its membership forced to get second jobs in German factories nearby where they were billeted in order to survive. Some even married into the local community and had children during the war. Caught in a limbo between being outright prisoners and an army without a purpose, morale within the unit fluctuated, then plummeted as the war dragged on, especially after the news of Casement’s fate (many of the soldiers had become fiercely loyal to him), with accusations of desertion, alcoholism (a common accusation to be thrown at Irish soldiers) and thievery dogging them at every turn. A British intelligence report in later 1916 claimed that several members of the unit had applied to be reinstated as POW’s, and that some were actively sharing their rations with British prisoners.

With the collapse of the German government in late 1918, the Legion ceased to exist as well, its membership scattering to the winds, with the most what was left of Germany authority were able to do for them being the provision of fake passports. Some would choose to stay and make new lives for themselves in Germany, having a variety of fates, from suicide to aiding the new German governments crackdown on revolutionaries. Others would eventually return home. That was a difficult prospect, as repatriated prisoners had been all too eager to name deserters, so British authorities were well aware of who had joined the legion, to the point that in some instance benefits to their families had been halted.

Two would be imprisoned in the Tower of London, tried for treason, found guilty, and sentenced to death, only to be receive the King’s pardon, perhaps partly as a result of what was happening in Ireland post-war, and what had happened after the Easter Rising: the smarter British officials had no desire to create even more nationalist martyrs. Some of the Legion veterans would even join the IRA in the years to come and fight in the War of Independence, though it is doubtful their machine gun training at the hands of the German Army would have been all that useful. Still others would actually work for the other side, informing on nationalists and sometimes being executed for their trouble. For the remainder, they benefitted from the fact that treason was hard to prove for anyone who wasn’t actively involved in recruiting: after all, the rank and file could always claim they had joined the legion to seek better opportunities to escape.

The plan of the legion was fanciful from the start, and it’s very limited success was a predictable outcome. Even for the Irish soldiers of a nationalist persuasion, joining such a unit carried an inherently deadly risk outside of combat, and the Germany Army, progressively short on manpower and resources as the war continued, was simply not all that interested in making something worthwhile out of such a formation. Then there are the aspects of the plan that did not even get to be tested: how to transport such a unit to Ireland, what flag it would serve under once there, etc. For Casement, the eventual outcome was a disappointing one, and led him on a final path that would end with him facing the death penalty.

In Ireland meanwhile, the militant IRB was edging closer and closer to a fateful commitment. But we will actually look back at Casement’s Legion one more time, in 1918, when one of its membership’s return to Ireland precipitated yet another crisis, that sucked in some of the most notable names of the time.

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

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Review: Batman Ninja, The 34th, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

Batman Ninja



Battoman (that’s what it is, seriously)

Caught in Gorilla Grodd’s scientific machinations, the caped crusader (Koichi Yamadera/Roger Craig Smith), his extended support network and a collection of his rogues gallery find themselves transported through time and space to feudal Japan. Discovering that the Joker (Wataru Takagi/Tony Hale) has taken over the country, Batman must rally his allies and set things right, as well as finding a way home.

If you had asked me before watching Batman Ninja if I would ever get bored of watching Batman and the Joker fight, I would probably have said no. And boy would I have been wrong. The bluntly titled Batman Ninja is a one-trick pony – the unique setting – and when called upon to fill its amazingly long feeling 82 minutes it resorts to an endless rehash of the same fight over and over again, until you begin to wonder if even Heath Ledger’s version was a bit much.

As far as I am concerned, there is only one reason that a film like this exists, and that is so these well-known characters, somewhat drained dry in terms where you can take them in the conventional canon, can be dropped down somewhere new in terms of setting and, more importantly I would suspect, art style.

And that art style is interesting, spectacular even. Warner Bros Studios does a great job of planting Batman and his various hangers on in Japan, with that anime look, mixing in a few alternative designs here and there, like in a Joker-centric flashback sequence around the mid-point. Takashi Okazaki, the man behind the visuals of Afro Samurai, has crafted something altogether unique and experimental here, a strange yet pleasing mixture of CGI cel-shading and 2D backgrounds, meshing western design in the base characters with Japanese details.

But the plot is just not deep enough, which is bizarre considering how short the film is. We go from Batman vs Grodd to Batman vs Joker to Batman vs Grodd again to Batman vs everyone to Batman vs Joker again, with a very strange interlude in the middle where Joker and Harley go through a reformation of a sort, one that even hoodwinks Batman for plot convenience reasons.

There’s bits about an ancient society dedicated to helping Batman, cute animal sidekicks and Catwoman is around for the requisite flirting and meaningful looks, but at the end of day the point of any scene where fighting is not happening is to get to the part where the fight is happening. I was joking about Ledger before: how many times does Batman actually fight the Joker in that film? About 90% less than here, and guess which film is better off. Problems in the translation between versions may be partly responsible, but I have a feeling this film could have been translated flawlessly and it would still struggle to impress.

At least the fight scenes are…interesting? The steam-punkish megazord battles are so insane that you can’’t help but find them a tad endearing in a Kung Fury kind of way, a creative anomaly that calls to mind the sort of message The Lego Movie was trying to make about the boundless possibilities of pure creativity. But you still need to wrap it around something, otherwise it might as well be a demo reel. It’s memorable, for sure, but not for all the right reasons. Not recommended.

The 34th



Yes for love.

In 2015, Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of the 34th amendment to the Irish constitution, legalising same-sex marriage. The 34th tells the story of this referendum through the eyes of the people who got it put on the table, got it passed and were affected the most by it.

The passing of the SSM amendment remains, and will always remain, one of the greatest moments of popular democracy in the history of this planet: the first time that an electorate not only approved same-sex marriage, but did so in a landslide victory, rejecting an appalling opposition campaign based on falsehoods, fear and outdated, bigoted thinking. It’s past time that we got a documentary that aimed to examine the campaign and the people involved in it.

You want an outline of the struggle and The 34th gives you that. The criminalisation of homosexuality, the casual violence exhibited upon homosexuals, the legal battles to get basic recognition and human rights. It’s a painful and at times sickening process, as we are reminded that we are not all that far from a country where murder exhibited on “sodomites” was something a significant proportion of the population was perfectly happy with.

You want a look at the inside of the SSM campaign, which the film gives you, focusing on the divide between the Marriage Equality organisation and GLEN, with the later characterised as being largely satisfied with civil partnerships, and the subject of much scorn because of it. In truth, I felt some of the veiled and not so veiled criticism of GLEN and its memberships to be decidedly unpleasant, but there is a method to the madness: having spent so long seeking what they are aiming to get, those who seem happy to settle for less are automatically seen as the enemy. The 34th at least crafts an engaging narrative of this enmity, and how it later, logically, turned to a production cooperation.

You want to see the progression of the campaign, which at times was a vicious, hurtful affair. The 34th does not shy away from the prejudice, the lies and the sheer disgrace that was the “No” campaign who plumbed new depths in Irish political depravity in an effort to hoodwink the Irish public, but it is always through the eyes of those being targeted, many of whom, much to their discomfort, took a back seat when it came to the more public kind of campaigning.

And you want to see those people, the Katherine Zappone’s, the David Norris’, the Eoin Collins’ and everyone else, the ones who were obligated to ask the entire nation if they could have the right to get married. The interviews and talking head segments are all strung together quite well, and one can appreciate the extra attention given to Zappone, whose wife Ann Louise Gilligan lived to see the passing of the vote but passed soon after.

If there are problems, it may be simply a matter that the documentary does not have and does not seek any greater revelations or truly in-depth examination but doesn’t really need to discover them. Sensitive, moving and a great tribute to the very human story of the SSM campaign, this comes highly recommended.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead



“Other Wind” would have been a better title.

In the swansong of his career, legendary actor and director Orson Welles finally got the chance to commence production on his dream project: an experimental dual film entitled The Other Side Of The Wind. From inception to filming, Welles’ vision ran into difficulties, and remained unfinished at the time of his death, with both director and film the subject of this documentary.

I could, of course, watch hours and hours about the life of Orson Welles (where is that mini-series HBO?). The man was simply fascinating, and his career ran the gauntlet from medium-defining success in Citizen Kane to car crash mortification in those now infamous wine ads. He personified a certain era of film and a certain type of creative mind, and that is to the forefront of They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (the title being a possible apocryphal quote from Welles, not that he would have minded the sentiment I’m sure), the Alan Cumming hosted affair working as a basic biography of Welles as well as an in-depth look at the near mythical The Other Side Of The Wind.

As a biographical affair, They’ll Love Me… crafts an interesting picture of Welles, obviously focusing on his 1940’s years in terms of both his apogee in Citizen Kane and his nadir with his studio disputes, that led to self-enforced exiles in Europe for large stretches of the following decades. Utterly dedicated to his own visions, Welles saw conspiracy and backstabbing everywhere when challenged on them, probably influenced by a harsh childhood which the documentary briefly touches upon. Some of the key influences on Welles’ later life all get some time, most notably Oja Kodar, who stars in one of The Other Side… more explicit scenes.

As a look at The Other Sid…, things are a bit iffier. The film was as experimental as they come, a look at an aging director making his last film interspersed with that last film, that Welles insisted was not autobiographical. It contained strange and somewhat unwholesome elements, produced sharp dispute between Welles and very close admirers (most notably Peter Bogdanovich, who features prominently) and the Iranian aspects to its financing, halted after the revolution in Tehran, could be a documentary all on its own.

The two sides of the coin produce an interesting character portrait of Welles, obsessed with getting back into a higher level of film-making he felt he had never been too since Citizen Kane, but whose personality and production choices continually prevented him from doing so. His fallings out with certain people, his financial issues and, yes, his weight gain and regrettable dependence on television endorsements, all paint a picture of someone losing control of his life. They’ll Love Me… pulls few punches with Welles, though one suspects the creators might be a touch too reverential when it comes to the film itself, depicted solidly throughout as a lost master-piece, though it seems from a cursory glance that it could be an easily confusing mess.

Welles died at a relatively low point, with one of his last credits being a voice in Transformers: The Movie, which he privately mocked, and with his last attempt at grabbing the film spotlight unfinished. And yet, here we are, still talking about him, and with Netflix providing a home for this final opus, to probably be seen by far more people than it would have been if released in the 70’s or 80’s. This documentary does credit to the man and his vision and will be enjoyable to any film aficionado. Recommended.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, COCO Television, and Netflix).

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