Monday, 19 March 2012


 It is a bold, intrepid filmmaker who dares to throw open Pandora’s Box and take on a film that deals with The Troubles of Northern Ireland. With The wind That Shakes The Barley, director Ken Loach, no stranger to tackling controversial issues, and long-time screenwriting partner Paul Laverty fearlessly step up to the challenge, unleashing a fiercely political picture that is surely designed to ruffle a few feathers.
This incendiary tale of upheaval and rebellion stars Cillian Murphy as Damien O’Donovan, a Cork man who becomes involved with the Irish Republican Army during the Tan War and subsequent Irish Civil War of the nineteen-twenties.  The young doctor abandons a promising medical career to take up arms against the ruthless Black and Tan squads sent from Britain to block Ireland’s bid for independence, the impact of their deplorable behaviour on his village proving too much for many to tolerate.  Damien’s enervation is shrewdly illustrated as the lively, exuberant camaraderie of the picture’s opening hurling competition is abruptly terminated by the arrival of the tyrannical British soldiers, shrilly barking orders at terrified locals. As the Tans brutalise a young man for refusing to answer in English, the helpless villagers’ awful sense of confusion is palpable, echoing the disorientation that outsiders to the reality of The Troubles will doubtlessly share. A ferociously affecting overture, it plunges us deep into the inescapable reality of a nation in conflict.
  Damien is sworn into the flying column brigade commanded by his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), and the struggles of these crusading siblings form the emotional backbone of Loach’s conscientious depiction of the effect this conflict had on small communities. As the signing of the Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty of 1921 splits the nation, with many refusing to pledge allegiance to a British monarchy, Laverty’s screenplay astutely turns brother against brother. Teddy becomes a Free State officer, while Damien pledges allegiance to the anti-treaty IRA, placing the two on an agonising collision course.
  Loach’s film is mercilessly confrontational and unapologetic in its depiction of violence, exploring the lengths men will go to for their beliefs. As Damien ruefully guns down a friend-turned-informant, cascading emotions flicker across his anxious visage. Pulling the trigger with thudding finality, we understand he has come too far to turn back.
  A degrading attack on the community, where Damien’s lover Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) is beaten, her hair humiliatingly shorn by the Tans, we are forced to watch from the helpless viewpoint of the despairing rebels. Hiding on a hillside, we share in the horror, desperately unable to intervene, a cruel reflection of the realities of war.
  The violence is blunt, bloody, real, with one blood-curling moment seeing Teddy interrogated by aggressive inquisitors who gleefully claw at his fingernails with rusty pliers. As fellow prisoners, roused by his caterwauling defiance, chant Republican anthem ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’ in solidarity, we are left in doubt as to where Loach’s sympathies lie. For the outwardly socialist director, all occupiers are aggressors, which may prove too troublesome for some viewers to swallow.
  However unpalatable Loach’s version of ‘The Truth’ may be for some, the director’s realist style certainly lends an authoritatively authentic feel to proceedings. There is a refreshing lack of craic, blarney and Guinness-quaffing, while the use of remorselessly dense Cork accents delivered by predominantly untrained, unknown actors brings a sense of truth lacking from so many cinematic depictions of the Emerald Isle.
  Many scenes appear unscripted and improvised, as when union official Dan (Liam Cunningham) stumbles and stutters through an impassioned speech on the implications of the Treaty. Such adroit methods seduce us into viewing history through Republican eyes, the picture’s beautifully realised, convincing period detail successfully immersing us in lives of these complicated souls.
  Our experience is anchored by a commanding, emotional performance from Murphy. His is a face that expertly channels sadness, anger and frustration via the intense hues of his beautiful, yet fatigued, unfeasibly blue eyes. Though Damien’s swift transformation from unsure, mild-mannered doctor to dedicated guerrilla soldier never completely convinces, the Cork native is nevertheless a powerful, arresting presence, fluctuating between calm contemplation and frightening vein-popping intensity. When, with a defiantly aloof swagger, Damien attempts to mask his torment at executing the informant, he is betrayed by the heart-rending, wounded confusion of Murphy’s trembling, cracked intonation, providing one of the film’s most profoundly affecting scenes.
  Unfortunately, though Murphy impresses, the film’s brother versus brother plotline feels contrived, as Loach never bothers to really take us inside Teddy and Damien’s relationship. Similarly, Damien’s romance with Sinead feels like an afterthought, tacked-on almost, as another succinct reminder that the IRA are real people with feelings too.
  Most problematic, however, is the merciless depiction of the Black and Tan troops, to-a-man portrayed as irredeemable savage, sneering bullies who see the natives as subhuman scum. Though historical accounts indicate that the real-life colonial soldiers were far from squeaky-clean, through relentless scenes of forceful intimidation and reprehensible torture, the Tans are very deliberately never afforded a humanity allowed to the Irish characters. The mercenaries are made all too easy to hate, assaulting defenceless women and haphazardly firing bullets at villagers’ houses with a casual air of effrontery. With little insight or explanation into their psyches, Loach is crucially cartoonish in his depiction of the Brits, making this feel, sadly, like complex, historical allegory boiled down to a simplified tale of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies.’
  Loach plays a dangerous game, not in sketching the Republican Army as sympathetic, living, breathing, vulnerable human beings, but by painting his portrait with such broad brushstrokes of black and white. His film is admirable in its intentions to present a thoughtful, considered view of the IRA, but lamentably, it is a shamelessly unbalanced account. There is much to admire and enjoy, especially in tense, riveting, glimpses of stealthy, guerrilla warfare, but in letting his head rule his heart, the director falls slightly short of the greatness we know he is capable of, evidenced in the hard-hitting triumphs of ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (2002) and ‘Kes’ (1969). Though Loach spins an affecting, gripping tale, the straightforward ‘Truth’ he presents defuses much of the potency of his astute, considered political commentary. War, sadly, does not provide such simple solutions.

Monday, 12 March 2012


The total magnitude of war is beyond the comprehension of language. Though audiences can never fully grasp the pain, politics and emotions of the French-Algerian war, the Criterion edition of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece is nonetheless a staggering achievement.  Such is its timeless impact, …Algiers was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as an illustration of burning issues faced in Iraq. It is easy to see why.
  Pontecorvo masterfully shoots on location in a grainy, documentary style, with untrained actors convincingly illustrating the rise of the Algerian guerrilla National Liberation Front and the colonial powers ruthless attempts to crush them. With harrowing scenes of frighteningly realistic violence, the film succinctly documents the period from 1954 to 1957 when the Casbah of Algiers became a bloody theatre of war. Expertly filmed bombings and shootings seem almost too real, with one explosion in a teenager-packed cafĂ© proving particularly overwhelming.
  Brahim Hagiag exudes moody, urgent intensity as Ali La Pointe, a crook who scales the ranks of the FLN and who serves as the film’s emotional core. If the face is a map of a life, the steely resolve evident in the actor’s eyes, unflinchingly gunning down opponents, convinces us that the freedom fighter will die for freedom.  The excellent Saadi Yasef, a real-life FLN military chief loads further ammunition to the authentic feel, bringing gravitas to a character moulded on his own experiences.
  Pontecorvo’s flair for orchestrating massive crowd scenes, bestows …Algiers with a proper sense of grand scale and significance, a towering example of cinematic realism. The only elements that break the spell are some ropey performances from untrained supporting actors, such as a rebel forced to betray La Pointe, whose glassy stare and uncertain mannerisms prove regrettably distracting.
 It is a minor grumble with a picture, energised by an insistent Ennio Morricone military score, that consistently absorbs and thrills. When the bombs go off it is hard to deny the feeling of history being forged in blood and thunder.
  A barrage of meticulously assembled documentary extras impress, with 1992’s The Dictatorship of Truth and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers offering fascinating insight on the director’s past, politics and views on the conflict’s enduring legacy. Cast and crew reminisce in Marxist Poetry, while Remembering History explores the Algerian experience, through candid, fascinating interviews with surviving FLN members. Etats d’Armes, an excerpt from a 2002 feature on the conflict, offers the French military viewpoint, while Pontecorvo’s fearless methods and his impact on contemporaries like Spike Lee and Oliver Stone is explored in interview featurette Five Directors. Perhaps most fascinating is The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, a short discussion from 2004 between White House counter-terrorism experts, examing the film’s relevance to contemporary terrorism concerns.
  Theatrical trailers, in-depth production gallery and an educational booklet, featuring historical essays and interviews with key players rounds off a superbly comprehensive package. The beauty of Pontecorvo’s accomplishment, reflected in these extensive supplements, is that he gets inside the minds of both sides, presenting an admirably balanced account of war. Never passing judgement, he poses alarming questions, the answers to which continue to elude us.

Saturday, 3 March 2012


All the coolest movie heroes have legendary theme tunes. From Batman to Bond, the credentials of the slickest cinematic titans are solidified by an awesome musical motif that lets audiences know exactly who the baddest cat in the room is. And from the moment Luis Bacalov’s rousing, grandiose, string-laden score kicks in, heralding the arrival of our rugged, stetson-clad hero, it is clear that Django is The Daddy.
  Franco Nero smoulders as the mysterious stranger, swaggering  through a cold, filthy, unforgiving old west, dragging a coffin and blasting any sucker mad enough to get in his way. His spine-tingling entrance sets the tone for Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western, a confident, stylish explosion of macho energy that invites audiences to bask in its audacious badassery. Nero is magnetic, furnishing the gunslinger with an icy stare and a physical composure befitting a character so tough, he squares up for a scrap with two broken hands.
  Seeking vengeance for his wife’s murder, the bronco unleashes hell in a succession of colossal, overblown rucks.  It is unapologetically berserk stuff, with one exhilaratingly choreographed battle seeing Django exterminate all opponents with some gargantuan ordnance that would have Jesse Ventura in Predator (1987) drooling. Though enjoyably demented, Corbucci plays things poker-faced straight, showcasing a flair for action that includes positioning the audience right in the middle of a blistering barroom brawl.
 Eduardo Fajardo is delicious as cold-hearted, Mexican-massacring baddie Major Jackson, though Loredana Nusciak seems underused as the defiant hooker who could be Django’s salvation, but really, plot and characterisation seem almost inconsequential.  Django’s mission is to entertain and it does this in spades, blasting pretensions to smithereens with a .45 calibre bullet.
  Corbucci delivers delirious, no-nonsense thrills and bestows upon us a double-hard, iconic hero for the ages, with a theme tune so stupendous, you may wonder if Batman secretly wears Django pyjamas. 


Like being forced to listen to an over-friendly weirdo on the bus, there is little more excruciating than an orator cheerily oblivious to his captive audience’s complete indifference.   With The King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese invites us into the living daydreams of one such oddball, pipe-dreaming, mediocre stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin, a man so certain of his right to fame he loses his grip on reality.
  Robert DeNiro is unnerving as the unhinged comedian,stalking his talkshow host idol (jerry Lewis), convinced this will lead to success. Disquietly believable, his relentlessly chirpy Pupkin is a restrained, creepy, but altogether different lunatic to Taxi Driver’s (1976)volatile Travis Bickle. The famous DeNiro scowl is supplanted by constant disarming nods, smiles and winks, the method actor fizzing with nervous energy, his fidgety, constant tie-fixing hinting at a dark chasm of need lurking behind the smirk.
  It is easy to spot ‘the crazies’ on the street by a strange emptiness in their eyes, and DeNiro convinces as a man lost in delusion, inviting sympathies with his friendly, courteous demeanour, that swiftly dissolve to discomfort under his unfaltering, shark-like gaze. An old flame is suckered by tall tales of Pupkin’s famous pals and when the comic slips her an autograph it should be funny, but the deftness of the performance renders the scene harrowing. We are utterly assured of his self-deception – the only one not in on the joke, he is chillingly unpredictable.  With events culminating in a reckless kidnapping, the clown tellingly never stops grinning.
  DeNiro is devastatingly effective because he never allows this mask to slip. Eminently watchable, his conviction totally sells us on a stooge who unswervingly believes he is “The King.” Frighteningly, he wouldn’t seem out of place on America’s Got Talent, a phenomenon that depressingly reminds us that there are many dauntless, desperate Pupkins living among us