Unwelcome (2022) ***- Seen at the Cinema

Cult contender, assuming some basis in Irish legend. Otherwise, Straw Dogs (1971) meets Yoda with a side order of Barbarian (2022) and a touch of Se7en (1995). Someone’s definitely got it in for the Irish this year, but those finger-chopping Banshees have nothing on this little number.

After enduring a home invasion in the city, heavily pregnant Maya (Hannah-John Kamen) and cowardly husband Jamie (Douglas Booth) head for the Irish countryside, having inherited a rundown cottage from his odd aunt. Only thing is, warns neighbor and local publican Maeve (Maimh Cusack). you have to leave out a bit of bloody liver every day beside the back gate to assuage the Redcaps aka little people aka leprechauns aka goblins aka anything else you want to make up.

The story goes said aunt sacrificed her baby to save her dying husband, but it turns out the baby went missing, aged two, and was never found. Frosty reception at the local inn, a la An American Werewolf in London (1981), is a prank but the family of builders headed by a gobby Daddy (Colm Meaney), and his three kids, the gobby one from Derry Girls (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), a thin gobby lad (Chris Walley) – with “the brain of a rocking horse” – and a peeping tom of a giant (Kristian Nairn) are on the malevolent side.

Not content with stealing any spare cash, Jamie’s stash of chocolate biscuits and his beer, and stirring up anti-English sentiment, smoking joints when they should be working and generally acting like workshy cliches, they constantly challenge the milksop Englishman who can thump a punchbag to his heart’s content but finds it hard to raise a finger in anger.

Beyond the gate there’s some kind of magical silent wood and a stone house. And feral creatures, Yoda-shaped, with shark-like teeth who might be able to fly and might have something to do with a nearby castle. A drunk man might have gone missing. Maya might be seeing what isn’t there. It’s that kind of film, mostly suggestive until it suddenly catches fire. Then it’s an onslaught.

And if you can take the Redcaps as being covered in Boy Scout badges and displaying some neat dance moves and a climax that seems relentless with Maya forced to become Final Girl since Jamie is about as helpful as having Jack Whitehall on your team. There’s more rain than in the Seven Samurai, though, to be fair, we were warned it rains 365 days a year in Ireland, Jamie treated as punchbag, the creepy giant trying his hand at rape, the thin one about to make his bones as a murderer, childbirth, the girl full of sexual swagger, decapitated heads in shopping bags, slicing, dicing, shotguns and shillelaghs and, you guessed, it a frying pan, and ending with the barmiest, although to some extent logical, image imaginable.

Like any cult contender, your first reaction might well be to laugh your head off at the preposterous goings-on but strangely enough it does work. While continuing to proclaim his manly abilities, and his sworn duty to defend his wife, Jamie is very much the modern husband, that is to say useless, completely lacking the protection gene, leaving it to the gutsier woman to clean up the mess that his unnecessary bravado creates.

Had I seen this poster which gives the entire game away I wouldn’t have gone.

To her credit, Hannah-John Kamen (Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, 2021) goes the whole nine yards, continually playing the supportive wife to a weakling, turning the paranormal to her advantage, not averse to pulling the trigger should the occasion demand. There’s little backstory to hang her character on, apart from a desperation to conceive given a previous abortion. But she has to deal with a continually changing scenario, negotiation with the wayward family, calming the giant, taking narrative center stage.

And it might be better going into it without cinematic preconception. If you’re of the age of the target audience you might have never seen Straw Dogs, therefore the villainous quartet might not appear descendants of the previous film, and, like Barbarian, you might happily accept the importance of babies to the modern horror picture.

A bit too long perhaps, and at times you might not know whether to laugh or applaud, but in the great tradition of The Evil Dead (1981) you might come back for more. Not a horror film in the gore/splatter league, and not that thoughtful either, but still capable of exerting a cinematic spell.

Belfast (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Except for people trying to kill him, this would be a heart-warming tale of young Buddy (Jude Hill) growing up in a tight-knit community in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. In the vein of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) with war – civil war in this case – seen through the eyes of a child, instead we witness how religious differences taken to the extreme tear neighbourhoods apart.  

With violence taking up so much of the foreground, there was a danger the lives of the characters would be solely dictated by their reaction to the conflict. But, in fact, a whole world of family comes very much alive, mostly in understated and often subtle fashion, with Buddy very much on the fringes of the adult world. Just as a film about childhood it is simply marvellously evocative, the boy wanting to join a secret gang, stealing from a shop, playing in the street, going to the pictures, agog at old westerns on television, dressing up as someone from Thunderbirds. On top of that you had to somehow accommodate the deranged habits of teachers that you accepted without question, priests that scared you half to death and trying to work out in your head the insoluble problems of a universe nobody can understand anyway.

Buddy is at just at the right age of wide-eyed innocence before teenage problems take their toll and his wee romance with the girl he fancies is as cute as this rough-edged movie gets. Romance is a big thing here. Clear-sighted romance, not the kind that sends characters spinning off into passionate delirium or screaming at their partner non-stop. His mother (Catriona Balfe) is a vividly-drawn character, mother most of the time while her husband (Jamie Dornan) is away working, the kind of mother who is forced to be stoic, with bills mounting up, and yet high on romance when the opportunity arises, the Everlasting Love sequence a stand-out.  

The father, except for not paying his taxes, is almost a Gregory Peck of a father, an upright, stand-up type of guy, a fount of wisdom for a son, and yet as a man never backing down. And any grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) that has the savvy to continue a half-century of romance with his wife (Judi Dench) by singing the love song from Camelot will rise in anyone’s estimation. In some senses, this is simply a rite of passage picture, Buddy engaging in first romance, doing some good things and some bad, encountering the death of a loved one.

Some of the scenes of violence are stunning, the tanks rolling through the streets, men patrolling at night with flame-lit torches, the riots. But you are more likely to remember the moments of tenderness and the family coming together whether opening presents at Xmas or thinking they are going to hurtle over the cliff along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang though you were more likely to be interested in duelling dinosaurs at that age than Raquel Welch at her most “Raquel” (One Million Years B.C).

And all of this gets you asking: Kenneth Branagh, what have you been doing all this time? Almost two decades of throwing away your directorial talent and only Hercule Poirot memorable on the acting side. This is a brilliant autobiographical story with a crisp script with superb performances all round.

But why on earth was it in black-and-white? Directors film in black-and-white due to a) artistic pretension b) shortage of money or c) because they disdain the mass audience. Sticking on a few minutes of touristy Belfast stuff in color at the start in order to satisfy the funders seems bizarre. My hope is that worth of mouth will bring it the audiences it deserves and that people are not put off by the arrogance of a mainstream picture being made in black-and-white.

The Blogger Speaks

This weekend I am one of the very few male speakers at the “Doing Women’s Film and Television History” international conference being hosted by Maynooth University, Dublin, on July 10-11. Naturally it is a virtual conference but it is packed with speakers from all over the world who have been researching issues relating to women working in film and television. I am not an academic so it is signal honor for me to be invited to speak at a university-run conference.

My topic is “When Women Ruled Hollywood” which looks at female salaries in the movie business from 1910 to 1970. Although most people think women were hard-done-by in Hollywood and generally considered as second-class citizens, I found this was not at all the case. In the 1910s, Mary Pickford earned double the earnings of Charlie Chaplin. In the 1920s, the top earning star of either gender was Corinne Griffith.s

At the start of the 1930s, Greta Garbo was the dominant figure when it came to salaries. In 1935 Mae West was the second-highest earner in the whole of America, beaten only by William Randolph Hearst, immortalised as Citizen Kane.

In the annual salary league for the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s, Claudette Colbert (twice), Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Deanna Durbin all topped the rankings and in the years when males came out on top the female stars were not far behind.

While female salaries dipped in the 1950s, by the 1960s women were again beating the males at the salary game, Elizabeth Taylor way ahead of everybody, Audrey Hepburn on $1 million a picture, Julie Andrews out-earning Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and newcomer Barbra Streisand reaching unheard-of commercial heights.

I had written a couple of business histories of Hollywood, the research for which took me back to 1910 and in the course of writing those books I discovered information about salaries that would have been out of place in those works, so I dug around some more and came up with the information for this talk.

If you want an idea of my speech, you can check out this short sample on Youtube.

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