13 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
A study of the ordinary
25 November 2012
I can't claim to know anything specific about Polish culture or Polish-American culture and I'd assume the slating "Polish Wedding" has got, particularly from Poles, is something akin to how some Irish people view Hollywood films about Irish-American families. Some of it is understandable (ever watch "Far and Away" without cringing?) but most times I think critics read too much into the context and not enough into the film itself.

As an outsider, "Polish Wedding" comes across as a film about white working-class Americans. I can see parallels with some of my own relations - an American community that uses the glue of their shared ethnic origin to bind themselves together. In the film's case, that happens to be Polish and there is an authentic ring to the hothouse bonds of a large family with Catholicism always present in the background.

However, despite its very American setting, "Polish Wedding" is far more European in structure and storyline, a record of ordinary events about ordinary people who don't have heroic aspirations and who adapt the best they can to whatever life throws up. In a way, it's almost like reality TV, a chance to peek into the lives of others without having any influence on the outcome.

While not as intense as classics in that tradition like the "Three Colours" trilogy, it is an interesting take on a theme that has rarely been examined by Hollywood and has enough inter-personal emotion to compensate for the lack of complexity in the story.
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Seven Ages (2000– )
Not very balanced
10 February 2007
Seven Ages was a millennium project undertaken by RTE to document the history of the state that is now the Republic of Ireland from independence in 1922 up to 1990. Each of the seven programmes covered a particular decade and contained archival film and television footage together with commentary from politicians, journalists, historians and economists both living and dead.

Visually, it was very interesting as no such presentation was ever broadcast in a single compilation. There was also a continuity to it that allowed the viewer to see modern Irish history in its entirety rather than as a series of specific events. And because they spanned the period before television was available, coverage of the earlier decades was very interesting.

The last two chapters dealing the 1970s and the 1980s were easier to evaluate because there is far more broadcast material available on them. Not surprisingly, much of it centred on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and their effects on life and politics south of the Border. However, for a historical programme, the accompanying commentary was very one-sided, starting from the premise that the IRA were the problem and that, as a result, all actions taken in the name of opposing them were therefore correct.

Apart from Charlie Haughey, the featured politicians would all be noted for their very anti-Republican positions and the two apparently-neutral contributors, journalist Fintan O'Toole and academic Dermot Keogh, would share that opinion. Now, while everyone is entitled to their point of view, Seven Ages should have made some effort to include the opposing view if it is to be an honest record of the period in question. Indeed, the Peace Process only came about when political leaders in the Republic realised that progress could not be made by clinging to the sterile position of not speaking to Republicans.

Maybe Seven Ages difficulty lies in the fact that it was made in 1999/2000 when the legacy of an iron-fisted political censorship up to just a few years previously still hadn't disappeared. Looking at it on DVD seven years later, it is more an uncomfortable reminder of the Section 31 mentality rather than the comprehensive record of modern Irish history that it could have been.
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Twister (1996)
Rattling good yarn
9 February 2006
No point in navel-gazing about Twister. The plot could be summed up in a sentence and there are no shades of ambiguity anywhere. It's two hours of almost non-stop action, great special effects and bounding along at breakneck pace. Characters fall neatly into good (Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton), bad (Cary Elwes and his gang in their sinister black cavalcade) and wacky (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jamie Gertz) and they all get their just desserts. The only twist (no pun intended) missing is Philip Seymour Hoffman hitting it off with Jamie Gertz - but then, we can't have everything, can we? So, revert back to your childhood and just enjoy.
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Depressing but powerful
3 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
If you want two hours of enjoyment, forget about it. This is one of the most depressing films ever made. Every grim feature of post war North of England is piled on in black and white - chimneys, mean terraces, cooling towers, mucky fields, stunted ambition and rising damp. A contemporary view of the early 1960s, you're given all the warts and none of the glitter.

But both performance and plot reek with power and there is a compulsive attraction to see a story through to a bitter end that you know has no trace of sentiment. The tight coldness of Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), steadfastly refusing to let herself be happy for a second time in her life, grinds against the macho world that Frank Machin (Richard Harris) has climbed into.

It is one of Harris's two great roles and came near the start of his career (the other being Bull McCabe in "The Field" which came near the end) and possibly came closest to the forces that drove him through his life. His skill at and love of rugby gives the sporting dimension of the film a realism that very few others can match. Much of the passion that he showed on the screen came from experiences on the playing field in a career that was cut short through illness before he could realise his full potential. Anger at that lost opportunity is seen better in this film than in any other he made.

There are many other films in this genre when British cinema turned its back on elegance or heroism but none has captured the mood of resentment better than this. More than forty years on, it's still as raw as ever.
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Hope survives against the odds
1 December 2005
Stories of hope, betrayal and disillusion are very common in film but this has the unusual setting of Poland during the 1960s. All the deadening uniformity of the times comes out on the screen as does, what appears to this era, the shoddiness of a planned economy dominated from outside. The story of a doctor condemned to the fringes of his profession by his refusal to embrace the Party orthodoxy is well told and there is a surprising twist to the end of the plot.

Although both main characters suffer from the excesses of petty bullying by officialdom, it is not portrayed in a didactic sense and those who go along with the system are treated with enough ambiguity to show that everyone had his own way of dealing with life back then.

The film is dominated throughout by the superb performance of Janusz Gajos as Dr. Hoffmann. Pushed to the edges of tolerance by an unseen enemy that never forgets, he manages to keep the flame of hope alive despite his almost total withdrawal from life outside his job. Grosz's brooding presence fills every scene and provides a focus of decency when all around appear to have lost theirs.
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A masterpiece of farce, slapstick and backfire humor
13 November 2005
This is possibly the nearest that American cinema has come to producing a classic French farce based on outlandishly unbelievable characters, story and situations. However, what makes it special is the incorporation of staccato New York Jewish humor into the exchanges between the principal players - something like the way the Marx Brothers' ad-libs transformed their early scripts into masterpieces. It is also a beautifully tight production with hardly a single sentence or shot flagging from the breakneck pace and outlandish humor.

The entire film is said to have been shot in just three days and, from the way it turned out, it looks as if Roger Corman just turned on the cameras and let the cast insult the bejasus out of each other.
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Wacky but doesn't grate
24 September 2005
Unlike American films where situation and reaction are usually the dominant elements of comedy, English cinema has a tendency to rely on outrageous or eccentric characterisation. It usually works well on a detailed level with typical stock characters such as irascible colonels, domineering great-aunts and frightfully keen twits but, quite often, individual actors get so caught up in their own characters that the film as a whole loses its sense of coherence.

The Missionary is a very traditional English comedy with the usual over-the-top collection of the innocent, the incompetent, the mad, the prim and proper and the sex-starved but, in this case, the characters lock well into each other like a jigsaw. Maybe it is due to a certain respect that stars like Maggie Smith, Michael Palin and Trevor Howard had for each other as they try to complement rather than overshadow each others' performances.

Once you find the pitch of the humour, this is a gem of a comedy and worth seeing alone for the batty directionally-challenged butler played by Michael Hordern.
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People I Know (2002)
The master in action
8 September 2005
Forget about the plot. This is all about one man's private torment as he hangs onto relevance on the fringes of showbiz. Al Pacino gives perhaps his greatest performance of all as he combines sleaze, cynicism, self-indulgence, obsession and self-deprecation and yet manages to retain a flicker of integrity in spite of the cesspit of decadence that is about to engulf him. Most of the nicer sides of life are totally absent from this world-weary tale yet, when the odd little bit breaks through, it is surprisingly touching. Even as Pacino disintegrates and you know for certain that there won't be a happy ending, you're almost on your feet cheering him on in the face of adversity. Worth watching just to see the master in action and, as an added bonus, a small but beautifully sympathetic appearance by Kim Basinger.
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Strumpet City (1980– )
Powerful angry record of the 1913 Dublin lockout
27 May 2005
"Strumpet City" is based on one of the best-selling Irish novels of the 20th century. James Plunkett's tale of love, loyalty and anger is set against the backdrop of the 1913 Dublin lockout and the political context that surrounded it. When it was published in the 1970s, the period was about to depart from living memory and the emotions evoked by this record of one of the most bitter episodes in the nation's history meant that it would never be forgotten.

Unless a total cock-up was made of the material, the mini-series was bound to command huge public interest in Ireland. At the time, however, such an outcome was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Up to 1979, a year before Strumpet City was first broadcast, the only television available in much of Ireland was six hours a day on RTÉ's single channel. British TV could be picked up in Dublin and along the east coast and cash-strapped RTÉ's output often looked amateurish in comparison.

Nowhere was this more evident than in drama. Although the national broadcaster had produced two well-written soap operas, most of its few attempts at historical fiction were embarrassing to watch. Badly scripted, badly structured and dominated by hammy scene stealing, they were seen more as an attempt to the drama department to justify its underfunded existence rather than as an attempt to entertain.

To make matters worse, the BBC was then in its heyday, producing such blockbusters like "Upstairs, Downstairs", and its success exacerbated the monumental inferiority complex afflicting much of the nation during the 1970s.

With its credibility at rock bottom as a result of a political censorship that rivaled that of North Korea, RTÉ was taking a major chance when, for the first time in history, it ransacked every available budget to come up with the resources needed for a plausible attempt at period drama. And just to make sure, established international stars Peter O'Toole and Peter Ustinov were taken on to prove the seriousness of their intent.

Heavily publicized and amid the usual whinging from nonentities about the diversion of scarce resources, the first episode was promised for a wintry Sunday evening in late 1980. A huge audience tuned in, many of whom half-expected yet another national disaster.

I saw it myself in a pub somewhere in the middle of Ireland as I stopped halfway through a long journey home from a football game. Like the rest of the packed crowd, I stood up and clapped when it was over.

A quarter of a century later, it doesn't look quite the finished article on RTÉ's DVD and betrays the playwright background of Hugh Leonard who adapted Plunkett's novel. Traces of Abbey Theatre mannerisms, which may be fine before live audiences but appear pretentious on screen, linger on as do the occasional excessive wordiness and a tendency to state rather than imply the obvious.

But Leonard still captured the raw spirit of the book, the historical anger of its broad sweep, the private tenderness and kindness of its personal level and the tone and propriety of early 20th century Dublin. I was as moved as I had been a generation ago when, last week, I saw it only for the second time.

Six hours is a lot of viewing but Strumpet City's pace allows it to hold interest right to a bittersweet end. It is helped no end by some outstanding acting, particularly Donal McCann as hard-as-nails carter Barney Mulhall and Cyril Cusack as the sad, boozy, world-weary but decent parish priest, and Angela Harding as Mary retains a credibly beautiful, innocent and resilient presence despite the depressing awfulness of Dublin's disease-ridden and poverty-racked tenements.

And on a visual level, Strumpet City looks great. Big scenes like the fire in the foundry, the royal visit and the riots are taken on and provide the depth of background needed to carry its emotions. That, more than anything else, defined Irish reaction to its original release as it proved to a confidence-sapped nation that, if we put our mind to it, we could do just as well as anyone else.
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Predictable, harmless and enjoyable
18 April 2005
This is a real B movie, right down to the historical imprecision of a location featuring both stage coaches and telephones, its clichéd dialogue, a totally predictable plot straight out of the comics and enough protracted chases and gunfights to fill in the gaps left by a very thin script.

The Duke and his entourage provide plenty of ironic laughs but, if you want to take the movie at face value, it is quite enjoyable. The good guys win, the bad guys get their comeuppance, the Duke gets his gal and Yakima Canutt shows his tricks all in a setting that engrossed generations of schoolboys over most of the 20th century.

The Star Packers should also be of interest to students of cinema as its structure encapsulates the early movement of silent film into the talkies.
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The Four Minute Mile (1988 TV Movie)
Captures an era obsessed with individual achievements
8 April 2005
Beginning with the race to find Dr. Livingstone and ending with the first man on the moon, the century from 1870 to 1970 was obsessed by milestones in individual achievement. Advances in technology and scientific knowledge allowed mankind to attempt feats previously thought impossible and the advent of speedy and reliable transport opened up new worlds to the general population.

Competing against each other in an emerging market for mass communication, the popular newspapers recorded these phenomena and stoked up interest in their own country's successes in order prove their imperialist superiority.

The era peaked between 1948 and 1960. This was also the height of the Cold War when international affairs were dominated by the nuclear stalemate between the opposing blocs and was just after the Second World War when secondary powers like Britain and France also believed that they were serious players on the world stage. However, as most countries had had enough recent experience of blasting each other to bits, jingoism had to find another outlet and the press and the new medium of television obliged by coming up with their headline heroes.

One by one, the barriers fell. Yeager broke the sound barrier, Hillery and Tenzing conquered Everest just in time for the coronation, Gagarin flew into orbit, Roger Maris slugged his 60 homers and Brazil, inspired by 17 year old Pelé, assembled the most awesome soccer team ever for the 1958 World Cup. The longer it took to reach the milestone, the greater the mystique and, when all around was crashing down, the stubborn resistances of the four-minute mile became an object of fascination, first of all to athletes and coaches, and then to the media moguls and the general public.

If there ever was an opportunity to rewrite history, this surely was one. Mile running had reached a new level during the war when, in neutral Sweden, Gunder Haag and Arne Andersen had sliced the record six or seven times between them. But, when Haag departed the scene amid allegations of professionalism after hitting 4 minutes 1.4 seconds in 1945, his mark stood for another eight years.

This is the period in which The Four Minute Mile is set. Not only was there an easily-understood summit to be reached but repeated failure to do so had fostered a belief that man had finally found the limit to his abilities. And this was also a time when track and field was governed by the original Olympic ethos of strictly amateur participation and dominated, particularly in middle-distance running, by gentlemen athletes. The film does capture these themes effectively, showing the difference between the Old World Corinthian ideals of Roger Bannister, New World interlopers John Landy and Wes Santee and Denis Johansson's Scandinavian passion for the sport. Hovering in the background are the coaches, the eccentric Percy Cerruti and the scientifically rigorous Fritz Stämpfl, as well as the news-hounds and the blazered toffs of the governing bodies.

Period is also faithfully represented through the shoestring facilities which would amaze modern athletes (e.g. the barrack-room accommodation at the Empire Games in Vancouver or Bannister's difficulties in getting a track to race on in London). And even though budget probably prevented the a more comprehensive recreation of events like the 1952 Olympic Games, the use of television, newsreel and radio commentary is effective.

The acting and scripting, however, is patchy. Richard Huw's portrayal of Bannister is superb, and the mixture of drive, Oxford University elitism, English understatement, shy awkwardness, private torment on the road to perfection, unquestioning belief in British superiority and guilt at any infraction of his sense of "fair play" resurrects a type of character that once dominated sport but has been extinct for over a generation. If you want to understand what the mindset of those public officials imbued with a sense of duty who ran many Western European countries during the first half of the 20th century, you could do worse than study this performance.

However, apart from Michael York's capture of Stämpfl's polite pre-war Viennese geniality, the other characters fail to make a strong enough impression of their own. Sure, some like Adrian Rawlins as Chris Chataway and Robert Burbage as Chris Brasher who, as Bannister's pace –setters, are foils anyway but the real conflicts of the story could have been better developed by more forceful roles for Landy (Nique Needles) and Santee (John Philbin).

Overall, an excellent sense of time, place and circumstances and, had the supporting roles increased the depth of the plot, it could have been one of the greatest sporting movies ever.
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Captures the mood of a changing Ireland
21 February 2005
It's a low-budget film with little in the way of a storyline and includes some diversions that have little bearing on the overall product. All of this would lead you to dismiss it as a lightweight offering. However, one of the main functions of a movie is to capture a sense of time and place and, in this context, Cowboys & Angels succeeds brilliantly. Even though it was made just two years ago, it has already found a unique position in time that viewers can relate to. It is set in my hometown of Limerick at the turn of the millennium as Ireland was moving from being the poorest country in western Europe to one of the wealthiest. Much of this happened to the bemusement of a population which had grown up on unemployment and emigration and now suddenly found itself surrounded by opportunities it had only dreamed of up to then. And along the way, a certain innocence was lost as a bulging generation of baby-boomers (Ireland's birthrate peaked thirty years later than its neighbours)worked its way through the buzz and the heartaches of transformation. In some ways, it resembles growing-up classics like American Graffiti and Rebel Without a Cause but set in a very different time and place. The main character, superbly played by Michael Legge, captures that wide-eyed innocence that the country was going through at the time while the photography picks up the youthful vitality of the city. While, on the surface, it may be an unremarkable tale about an unremarkable place, the ambiance is absolutely spot-on. Cowboys & Angels is perhaps the most representative contemporary feature film to come out of Ireland during the past decade.
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The sleaziest cast of characters you'll ever come across
7 February 2005
The ultimate low-budget film. A galaxy of of low-budget characters each sleazier than the next. Low-budget camera-work in perfect harmony with the story-line and the clapped-out surrounds of Brooklyn. The mix is flawless. There's a load of big names in the cast - John Truturro as an awesomely OTT disco-dancing refugee from fifteen years earlier, Samuel L Jackson as a crackpot remnant of Vietnam, Steve Buscemi in a role that even Chico Marx would find morally suspect - as well as a number of other Turturros. In fact, Nicholas Turturro as Junior Junior, a shamelessly incompetent car thief/wannabe kidnapper/evangelist, is worth the price of the DVD alone ... I could go on and on ... Just buy it, it's hilarious.
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