Monday, August 09, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021, #5

 (Spoilers. * indicates something watched/read for the first time.) 

Movies

47. The Viking Queen (UK, dir. Don Chaffey, scr. Clarke Reynolds, starring Don Murray and Carita, Hammer/Seven Arts, 1967)

A rewatch because I had a guest spot talking about this movie on Paul Cornell and Lisbeth Myles' Hammer House of Podcast, and, eventually, this movie will feature in my book on Roman Britain on screen. I'm afraid I don't like this movie very much. It's part of Hammer's 1960s flirtation with the epic, that they get into just about the time the bottom falls out of the ancient epic market, and they don't really have the money to do it justice. Don Chaffey, who directed Jason and the Argonauts, does what he's supposed to do; but it needs a better script, and a better cast. Liz Myles liked it, however.

48. 300: Rise of an Empire (USA, dir. Noam Murro, scr. Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad, starring Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, and Rodrigo Santoro, Legendary Pictures/Cruel and Unusual Films/Atmosphere Pictures/Hollywood Gang Productions, 2014)

To be fair to The Viking Queen, it is at least a better movie than this. A #ClassicsTwitterMovie, of course; my Twitter thread is here. Everything that you didn't like about 300 is repeated in this movie, whilst pretty much everything you did like is gone. It's nice that Lena Headey gets a bit more to do, though the movie has to reset her personality for plot purposes. Eva Green does the Eva Green bit of being a mean woman and flashing her boobs (and, of course, has to be motivated by sexual violence in the past, because no other motivation for mean women is allowed), whilst the movie entirely fails to make a star out of Sullivan Stapleton. Absurdity piles on absurdity, with seas that look like they have come out of The Perfect Storm, an oil tanker, and cavalry concealed in the bowels of the Athenian ships. 

49. Antigone (Greece, dir. & scr. George Tzavellas, starring Irene Papas, Norma Film Productions, 1961) *

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My own Twitter commentary was minimal, as I hadn't seen this movie before. It is something I had always meant to get round to, as I wanted to see how Tzavellas handled Greek tragedy, as compared to how Michael Cacoyannis handled it. The prologue is good. Tzavellas very much plays the text as one woman standing up for what is right against an oppressive régime (in the original Athenian context, it's more complex than that, but this is how most modern treatments take the play). Papas is excellent in the central role. But overall, it feels very studio-bound; there are external shots, but they don't exploit the locations very much. The net result is rather stagey, and, I feel, perhaps a bit too respectful towards the text; it's as if Tzavellas knows that he is dealing with an important part of Greek heritage, and as a result, the play doesn't really feel alive. Also, Tzavellas is not as good a director as Cacoyannis.  

50. Electra (Greece, dir. and scr. Michael Cacoyannis, starring Irene Papas, Finos Film, 1962)

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. Just less than a year passed between the release of Antigone and the release of this, yet they are vastly different movies, and Papas' performance in this is very much more advanced. In Antigone, she's excellent; here she's extraordinary. The movie is cinematic in a way that Tzavellas' Antigone just isn't. As it happens, Electra is probably my least favourite of Cacoyannis' Euripidean trilogy; but that doesn't mean it is in any way a bad movie. Far from it.  

51. Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (USA, dir. George Lucas, scr. George Lucas and Jonathan Hales, starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christopher Lee, Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox, 2002)

I put this on the syllabus for my course on Classics and science fiction. I chose this episode because it's the one that you can say most interesting things about Classical reception in, as you get the Roman-derived politics, and Naboo which looks like medieval Rome, and an amphitheatre scene. This does not mean that I rate it particularly highly. Lucas should really have remembered that he was better as a producer and story creator than as a director or screenwriter. And Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker is just whiny all the time, giving little indication how he might eventually become Darth Vader, and indeed, why Portman's Padme Amidala should fall for him.

52. The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (USA, dir. Patrick Hughes, scr. Tom O' Connor & Brandon Murphy & Philip Murphy, starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, and Morgan Freeman, Millennium Media/Nu Boyana Film Studios/Campbell Grobman Films/Film i Väst/FilmGate Films, 2021) *

You may recall my enthusing about The Hitman's Bodyguard earlier in the year, and saying that the only thing really wrong with it was that there wasn't enough Salma Hayek. This certainly corrects that, but overall, we're into the law of diminishing returns. Certainly, there are some good funny bits, but they're a lot fewer and further apart than in the previous movie. The script doesn't really have anything new to do with the relationship between Reynolds and Jackson's characters, and so it hits the reset button, so that things that were settled between them, such as gaining a certain amount of mutual respect, have to be gone through again. Still, if you ever wanted to know how Antonio Banderas would play a Bond villain, this is the movie to watch.

53. Black Widow (USA, dir. Cate Shortland, scr. Eric Pearson, starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, and Rachel Weisz, Marvel Studios, 2021)

At last, the pandemic-delayed Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets underway, though actually, given that it is set before Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, this feels more like unfinished business from Phase 3. I wrote a review of this for FA Online, and don't really have much more to add here. There's nothing particularly wrong with this movie, and it is nice to see Johansson in action as Natasha one last time, but Black Widow didn't excite me as much as I was hoping it might. Also, I am extremely disappointed that the movie does not use Pulp's 'I Spy' over the closing credits, which, is in my head, Natasha's theme song. Having predicted that we'd get Yelena Belova and the Red Guardian, and that the story would take the Black Widow to her Russian roots, I was hoping for three-for-three. (Both these movies were seen at Nightflix, where the screen was a bit dark, so that may have affected my enjoyment of them.)

54. Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (USA, dir. David Leitch, scr. Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, Universal, 2019) *

My pick for virtual film club. I wanted to watch this because I liked the trailer, and it is a movie that links in with my interests in London and the fantastic, as this is very clearly a science fictional plot. In fact, it's a superhero plot, with Idris Elba's Brixton Lore (no, really) being constantly described as 'the black Superman' (he's actually the black Captain America). I enjoyed this, despite never having watched a Fast and Furious movie before, so not having any of the backstory. Johnson and Statham are likeable leads (apparently Statham's character was once a nasty villain, but has been redeemed), and there's plenty of over-the-top action. It's nice that Vanessa Kirby's character gets quite a bit of agency, and isn't just a love interest for Johnson. And Ryan Reynolds plays pretty much the same character as he plays in Hitman's Bodyguard.

55. Dredd (UK/South Africa, dir. Pete Travis, scr. Alex Garland, starring Karl Urban, Entertainment Film Distributors/Reliance Entertainment/IM Global/DNA Films, 2012) *

I happened to mention to John Coxon that I'd never seen Dredd; he told me I must watch it immediately, so I did. Back in 1995 I went to see the Judge Dredd movie that starred Sylvester Stallone. I wrote a review with got published in an apazine, and which I can't lay my hands on at the moment, but I think I said it was the perfect Judge Dredd movie for the first five minutes, up to the moment that Stallone takes the helmet off, and then it just all falls apart. Thank heavens then, for Karl Urban, who here appears very briefly with the helmet off at the beginning, but with his face in shadow, and is then happy to remain in full Dredd uniform throughout. Alex Garland takes a relatively low-key storyline, of Dredd and Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) trying to stay alive in a block, rather than the big corruption plot of the 1995 movie, and Dredd is all the better for that. It's not perfect; the black humour that characterises the comic strip at its best is largely missing. Mega-City One also looks shabbier than one might expect, though that probably works in the movie's favour. Dredd is better in just about every respect than the Stallone movie; the only point where the earlier movie is superior is in the design of the Lawmaster bikes, which seem more like those of the comics in 1995.

Television

7. Star Trek, season 1 (US, TV, created by Gene Roddenberry, starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Desilu/Paramount, 1966–1967)

I embarked on a rewatch of Star Trek, beginning with The Original Series, which I watched in production order, rather than broadcast order. That rewatch has rather ground to a halt of late, but I did get to the end of season 1. Watching it in production order means that I got to see that Uhura began in a gold uniform. And watching the episodes close together meant that I noticed things like Kirk being presented as quite an erudite man, not just a man of action; that Spock isn't half as emotionless as he likes to pretend; that Uhura keeps being given things to do; and that, for all that Next Generation got criticised for everyone having meetings all the time, there are a lot of meetings held on the old Enterprise.

Books

5. adrienne marie brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017) *

Read for the August meeting of the London Science Fiction Research Community. It's a collection of essays and thoughts relating to ways of trying to save the world. I like very much that these ways are inspired by science fiction (amb looks to both Star Trek and Octavia Butler). It's also worth noting that she is primarily an optimist about this, and we need a bit of optimism when the world around us is burning, and western governments still don't seem interested in taking the drastic action that is becoming ever-more imperative. On the other hand, the book is a little on the bitty side, as is probably inevitable given the many different origins of the pieces that go towards the final book. I feel perhaps that a bit more structure might have made it more effective. I also feel it's not for me as much as it is for people from marginalised communities. Nevertheless, I suspect I shall be coming back to this one. 

Virtual theatre

12. From the Machine, King's College London, 2021 *

This year's King's Greek Play, written and performed by a cast of KCL students, supervised by David Bullen, Edith Hall, and Nicola Hewitt-George. This production had, as with everything else, to accommodate itself to the COVID pandemic. The solutions taken were very similar to those used by the Oxford Orestes I talked about in a previous post; cast members performed from their offices and bedrooms, giving a claustrophobic feel. There was a crossover in subject matter with Orestes as well; From the Machine combines elements of several Greek plays, many of them set around the end of the Trojan War and its immediate aftermath. So it includes Orestes and Electra's murder of Clytemnestra and their attempted murder of Helen. Unfortunately, after Orestes, From the Machine doesn't feel as innovative as it might have been, and as with the Oxford play, I found it hard to engage. Anactoria Clarke was excellent, however, as an older Helen.

13. The Frogs, by Aristophanes, directed by Argyro Chioti, Athens Epidaurus Festival, 2021 *

Once again the main play of the Epidaurus festival was screened for free. I'd missed last year's Persians, but managed to catch this. I enjoyed it a lot, and had a big grin on my face. It's unusual for a play in a foreign language, that I'm very familiar with, and which makes few concessions to updating the jokes, to get a laugh out of me. But this did, consistently.

14. La traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi, Glyndebourne. directed by Tom Cairns, conducted by Mark Elder, starring Venera Gimadieva and Michael Fabiano, 2014 *

Virtual theatre club pick, because it's available for free through August. I'm not particularly an opera buff, so not only had I not seen this production of La traviata, I'd never seen any production, though I did recognise a couple of tunes. (My mother was a Verdi fan, though her favourite was Aida.) I enjoyed this. I mean, it all ends tragically, of course, but then it wouldn't really be opera if it didn't. Gimadieva is particularly good in the lead role, both as a singer and as an actress.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021, #4

(Spoilers. * indicates something watched/read for the first time.) 

Movies

29. Bridge of Spies (USA/Germany, dir. Steven Spielberg, scr. Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen, starring Tom Hanks, Amblin Entertainment, 2015) *

Virtual film club pick. Steven Spielberg's homage to the spy movies of the 1960s. There's some excellent direction here, especially in the opening five minutes, as FBI agents trail Mark Rylance's Soviet spy. But Spielberg lacks the cynicism as a director that characterised the '60s movies that inspired him. That is illustrated by the presentation of Tom Hanks' lawyer as an ordinary joe, who happens to get linked up with the trials of Rudolph Abel (Rylance) and the subsequent exchange for Gary Powers. The real James Donovan had been general counsel for the OSS, the wartime predecessor of the CIA. Though the movie suggests that he first met CIA director Allen Dulles when the idea of the swap for Powers came up, Donovan had actually known Dulles in the war, when the latter was head of the OSS's Swiss Directorate. The two were, if not necessarily close friends, mutual admirers, and Donovan had, in fact, talked directly with Dulles when he took the Abel case on. The CIA used Donovan in the Powers negotiations because there was a very real sense in which he was already a Company guy. But that doesn't allow for the dramatic friction between Donovan and the CIA that the movie wants. 

30. Risen (USA, dir. Kevin Reynolds, scr. Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello, starring Joseph Fiennes, LD Entertainment/Affirm Films/Columbia Pictures, 2016) *

A #ClassicsTwitterMovie; the Tweet thread is here. This was the one major entry in the 2014–2016 wave of Biblical movies that I hadn't seen (the others are Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Ben-Hur). It is undoubtedly the best of those, though that's not exactly a high bar. Essentially a variation on a theme already seen in The Robe, the movie is much more interesting in its first half, when it depicts a sceptical Roman tribune investigating reports of the Resurrection, which he hears only second or third-hand. In the second half, the audience are given clear diegetic evidence that the Resurrection has indeed taken place, and the movie becomes much less interesting. It does, of course, get most of the Roman movie clichés in; the movie's barely four minutes old when we get Roman soldiers forming the testudo, and there's plenty of the Fascist salutes that all these movies engage in. There's a nice performance by Joseph Fiennes as the military tribune in charge of the Crucifixion, and subsequently of finding out whether Jesus has in fact risen again. It's nice to see Tom Felton in a decent role, and Peter Firth, who was once young and dashing like Tom Felton, always gives good value.

31. The Prestige (UK/USA, dir. Christopher Nolan, scr. Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, and Michael Caine, Warner Brothers/Touchstone Pictures/Newmarket Films, 2006) 

My pick for virtual film club night, which I chose because I had just read Paul Kincaid's book on Christopher Priest (see below), whose original novel this movie is based on. Probably my favourite of the Nolan movies I've seen (I haven't seen Memento, but I have seen Inception, which isn't half as clever as it makes out it is, and deeply disliked The Dark Knight Rises). I think I had read the novel first, so one of the big reveals was not a surprise to me the first time round. The other reveal is not quite in the novel, though the movie is drawing upon what the novel has; in any case, it is interesting to watch again knowing all the reveals. It's all pretty gripping stuff, with good performances from Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, Andy Serkis reminding us all what a great actor he is, and, astonishingly, a not-shit cameo from David Bowie as Nikolai Tesla. On the other hand, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson are a bit wasted. However, the plot all fits together nicely, and I highly enjoyed this rewatch. Last point: I have always found it interesting that the Nolan brothers didn't write the screenplay together, but, as indicated by the use of 'and' in the credit rather than '&', wrote separate drafts. 

32. Highlander (UK, dir. Russell Mulcahy, scr. Gregory Widen and Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson, starring Christopher Lambert, Roxanne Hart, Clancy Brown, and Sean Connery, Cannon Group/Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, 1986) *

Yes, I had actually never seen this movie before! And now I never have to again. I very much doubt that I shall watch a sillier movie for a while, nor one that is more '80s, in its lighting, music, and everything, really. (But what would you expect from Golan and Globus?) Lambert seems to be constantly dubbed, apparently by up to three different people, and his accent is never consistent, and certainly never Scottish. But then Sean Connery, as an Egyptian pretending to be a Spaniard, is more than enough Scotsman for this movie. Great to see James Cosmo, who always gives good value no matter how dodgy the movie, and a real surprise to see Celia Imrie, who is not the sort of actress one associates with this sort of movie at all. Police Squad! fans may find it hard to take seriously Alan North, the original Captain Ed Hocken, as a Police Lieutenant. Good use of Queen, though. I have very little intention following this up with any other entries from the franchise.

33. All Is True (UK, dir. Kenneth Branagh, scr. Ben Elton, starring Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen, Sony Pictures Classics/TKBC, 2018) *

AKA Upstart Crow: The Movie. Well, it is written by Ben Elton about William Shakespeare, but, whilst it has its share of amusing lines, it is less directed at being funny. Indeed, it's less directed anyway; the story rather meanders, instead of clearly having a point to it. It's all beautifully done, but it's not clear what it's trying to say. Fine performances from Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen, but they are all a bit old for the roles they are playing–57-year-old Branagh as 49-52-year-old Shakespeare is one thing, but 83-year-old Judi Dench as 56-60-year-old Anne Hathaway, and 79-year-old Ian McKellen as the 42-year-old (i.e. younger than Shakespeare) Earl of Southampton (whom I'd just seen in Elizabeth R, played by a dashing young Peter Egan) seems a bit much. Still, a perfectly reasonable diversion.

34. Palm Springs (USA, dir. Max Barbakow, scr. Andy Siara, starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons, Limelight/Lonely Island Classics, 2020)

Virtual film club pick, selected because it is on the Hugo shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. I quite liked this. People will, of course, compare it to Groundhog Day (that the central characters are in a time loop is in the trailer, so I don't consider that a spoiler). However, the movie it reminds me most of is 12:01 PM, a 1990 short with a similar premise but a much bleaker resolution. The sf elements in Palm Springs hang together well enough, though like most time travel movies, it doesn't do to think about it too much. The relationship between the two leads isn't too rom-com insufferable; the two aren't as obviously wrong for each other as is often the case. And I found out I quite like Demis Roussos (or at least I don't mind that I've been earwormed by him). Plus, dinosaurs!

35. Clash of the Titans (UK/USA. dir. Desmond Davis, scr. Beverley Cross, starring Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Claire Bloom, Siân Phillips, Flora Robson, and Laurence Olivier, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1981)

The 2010 remake was coming up as a #ClassicsTwitterMovie, and I thought I should watch the 1981 original, as I hadn't for a long time. A lot of people whose judgment I admire love this movie, but for me it is very much a lesser Harryhausen work, much less engaging than Jason and the Argonauts, or even the two Sinbad movies of the 1970s. Partly, this is because it looks a bit cheap, next to what George Lucas was doing in the Star Wars movies (which is ironic, because Lucas was a huge Harryhausen fan). It also does not help that a number of the cast are not really giving it their all. Laurence Olivier as Zeus is a particular offender, making no secret that he thinks little of the material (though in fairness he wasn't well for most of the last decade of his life). I get the feeling that Olivier agreed to this entirely as a favour to Maggie Smith, who was doing the movie because she was married to the screenwriter (who does give her some of the best lines). Other people (Claire Bloom in particular) then did the movie because Olivier was in it. This means it's got a starrier cast than any other Harryhausen, but I think I'd prefer people who actually cared about the material.

36. Clash of the Titans (USA, dir. Louis Leterrier, scr. Travis Beacham and Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi, starring Sam Worthington, Legendary Pictures/The Zanuck Company/Thunder Road Pictures, 2010)

This was a #ClassicsTwitterMovie, but I have no Twitter thread, because this was the weekend I had my heart attack, so I was in hospital. I don't much like this movie. It's the first of a 2010s wave of Greek mythology done as if they're superhero movies, and while it's far from the worst of this ilk (that would probably be Immortals), it's also very far from the best. Leterrier is otherwise best known for Incredible Hulk, one of the weakest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Here he directs for effect, and cuts just about anything that slows up the action (I mean, what is the point of employing Alexander Siddig if you're then not going to do anything with him?). It could have been a lot better (it has to be said that the deleted scenes do actually allow the story to make a touch more sense). For all its faults, the 1981 version has a charm that this simply lacks.  

37. Topkapi (USA, dir. Jules Dassin, scr. Monja Danischewsky, starring Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, and Maximillian Schell, Filmways Pictures, 1964) *

Should really be Topkapı, of course. I've heard a lot about this movie, made by American director Dassin, who fled to Europe to work when he was blacklisted in the US, and then fell in love with Mercouri, whom he proceeded to cast in most of his movies. But I'd never seen it. It's very much a quinessential '60s heist movie, with big name British character actors (Robert Morley and Peter Ustinov), and a lot of sympathy for the perpetrators, even though they aren't allowed to get away with it at the end. The movie begins with some interesting use of colour filters, as Mercouri talks directly to camera, but it settles down after that, and the narrative is pretty straightforward. What is really great about the movie is the use of locations in Istanbul, which has always been a bit of an underused setting for Anglophone movies. I recommend this.   

38. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (USA, dir. David Dobkin, scr. Will Ferrell & Andrew Steele, starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, Gary Sanchez Productions, 2020) *

Virtual film club pick, selected because it too is on the Hugo shortlist for Best Dramatic Performance. I kinda wish I'd seen it before the nomination; knowing that it's got the nom means I was looking for the element of the fantastic, and that spoils a plot moment. Leaving that aside, on the good side, the pastiches of Eurovision songs and performances are perfect, and Dan Stevens is so much better here than he is in Colossal. But the movie is about 30 minutes too long, and not funny enough. It's at its best when it looks like it's going to turn into the story of McAdams' character Sigrit, but every time it then remembers that Ferrell is its star and writer, and goes back to him. The problem is that his bits don't really have any emotional weight. The movie does have its perfect deeply emotional musical moment right at the end, but somehow it feels like it hasn't quite earned it. 

39. Still Crazy (UK, dir. Brian Gibson, scr. Dick Clement & Ian Le Frenais, starring Stephen Rea, Billy Connolly, Jimmy Nail, Timothy Spall, Bill Night, Juliet Aubrey, and Bruce Robinson, Columbia Pictures, 1998)

Watching Eurovision Song Contest gave me a hankering to watch this again, an undervalued example of Clement and Le Frenais' work. It's one of my wife Kate's favourite movies, as well, so we watched it together. It's funny, of course, and it too has a big emotional song moment at the end. But in this case, the movie has absolutely earned it. All the songs are good (with lyrics written by Chris Difford of Squeeze fame) and evocative of a certain type of 1970s prog rock. And the cast all convince as aging rock stars in a way that Will Ferrell fails to convince as a 50-something Eurovision entrant. This is a movie so good it makes me like Jimmy Nail! (Also, in the silent moment at the press conference, I want someone to burst into Half Man Half Biscuit's 'Used To Be In Evil Gazebo'; if you've seen the movie and know the song, you'll understand.)

40. Wrath of the Titans (USA/Spain, dir. Jonathan Liebesman, scr. David Leslie Johnson & Dan Mazeau, starring Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Edgar Ramírez, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Ralph Fiennes, and Liam Neeson, Legendary Pictures/Thunder Road Pictures/Cott Productions/Furia de Titanes II A.I.E., 2012)

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie: my thread is here. As we all know, sequels are never as good as the originals; except this one is a marked improvement over 2010's Clash. Better casting, better characterisation, and a plot that interestingly blends the standard return of the Titans trope with the passing of the gods. Not the best mythological movie, but it does a lot better than most.  

41. This Beautiful Fantastic (UK, dir. and scr. Simon Aboud, starring Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, and Jeremy Irvine, 2016) * 

Virtual film club pick. Almost textbook 'quirky' London-set British romantic comedy, about a single woman of a non-conformist personality (Brown Findlay) forced to get to grips with her garden, and her relationship with her cantankerous neighbour (Wilkinson). Andrew Scott appears as the neighbour's dogsbody, and Jeremy Irvine plays the eccentric love interest. Naturally, the two neighbours come to an understanding through gardening. It's all terribly heartwarming in the way that such movies are. This is by no means a bad movie. Perfectly good script, perfectly good performances, but it doesn't quite deliver the magical realism that the opening scene suggests. Also, not enough Anna Chancellor as a grumpy librarian.  

42. Scream 2 (USA, dir. Wes Craven, scr. Kevin Williamson, starring David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jamie Kennedy, Jerry O'Connell, Jada Pinkett, and Liev Schreiber, Konrad Pictures/Craven-Maddalena Films, 1997) *  

#ClassicsTwitterMovie time again; my Twitter thread, such as it is, is here. Scream 2 is entirely justifiable as a #ClassicsTwitterMovie; part of the plot involves the putting on of a production of a pseudo-Greek tragedy (it's not actually Euripides' Trojan Women, but it's clearly something inspired by the events of the fall of Troy), directed by David Warner. I can recognise that this is a very good movie of its kind, but slasher movies, even meta slasher movies, are very much not my cup of tea. I don't enjoy watching as the bodies pile up, and just about every character you are introduced to will end up stabbed or worse. Still, I now never have to watch this movie again.

43. Uncut Gems (USA, dir. Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, scr. Ronald Bronstein & Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie, starring Adam Sandler, A24/Elara Pictures/IAC Films/Scott Rudin Productions/Sikelia Productions, 2019) *

Virtual film club pick, and another movie I can admire the technique of without actually enjoying very much. Adam Sandler puts in a terrific performance as small-time Jewish jewellery store owner and gambler Howard Ratner, of the sort that one simply doesn't expect from him, in what is very much not your typical Sandler movie. There are good supporting turns from Eric Bogosian as the loan shark who also happens to by Ratner's brother-in-law, and Judd Hirsch as his father-in-law. The problem, for me, at any rate, is that Sandler's character is utterly unlikeable, and it's hard to summon up any sympathy for the increasingly convoluted lies and deceptions that he gets himself tied up in. I came very close to quitting this movie midway through. In the end, I'm glad that I didn't, but again, I doubt I'll return to this often.

44. Always Be My Maybe (USA, dir. Nahnatchka Khan, scr. Ali Wong & Randall Park & Michael Golamco, starring Randall Park and Ali Wong, Netflix, 2019) *

Another virtual film club pick, and one I enjoyed a lot more. It's a delight. It's basically a fairly standard rom-com of two childhood sweethearts rediscovering each other after sixteen years, but it's well done, has several very funny moment,s is not too clichéd, and it's nice to see a movie that centre the non-WASP American experience. Also, Keanu Reeves' cameo redeems him for almost everything terrible he's ever done; his commitment to sending himself up is admirable. Park and Wong didn't think they'd get him, but Reeves is a fan of Wong's, and his attitude to fitting his cameo into his busy schedule (he was filming John Wick 3) seems to have been 'We'll make the time'.

45. The Eagle (UK/USA, dir. Kevin MacDonald, scr. Jeremy Brock, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, Universal, 2011) 

You may be surprised to learn that this is another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. This is one of my favourite twenty-first century Roman-set movies, though it does make me feel old when I realise that it was released ten years ago. I like it because it's such a rich text; it's not just that it's well-made, but there is so much to talk about—the way it inverts the conventional paradigm by giving all the Romans American accents, and all the oppressed peoples British ones, what it does with Rosemary Sutcliff's source novel, and the interesting engagement with the master-slave relationship, how it removes all female characters from the novel (and thus intensifies homoerotic elements of the Marcus-Esca relationship). Definitely the best of the four Hadrian's Wall movies made between 2004 and 2011, and there wasn't really a better Roman movie until Horrible Histories came along in 2019. If you haven't seen this, you should.

46. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (USA, dir. and scr. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, starring Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O'Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, and Tom Waits, Netflix, 2018) *

My pick for the virtual film club. I like the Coen Brothers, and I like westerns, so I thought I would like this, and I do. It's an anthology movie, with six different stories, all linked by being supposedly tales in a book of short stories. They vary in tone a lot, from the silly title piece through to the altogether more throughtful 'The Gal who Got Rattled'. But almost all the stories end in death, and death is very much a theme that runs through them all. Still, seriously superior movie making.

Books

2. Paul Kincaid, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (Canterbury: Gylphi, 2020) *

Read because it was on the shortlist for the BSFA Award for Non-fiction. This is an excellent piece of work; Kincaid gets to the heart of what's interesting about Priest's work, in a way that I suspect no-one else could. It certainly made me want to read more of Priest than the small smattering of novels (The Prestige, The Separation and The Islanders) that I have. My only disappointment is that there is little here about Priest's writing on other science fiction writers than himself, apart from his attack on Harlan Ellison and The Last Dangerous Visions; for instance, Kincaid makes much reference to Priest being the first to term the Moorcock-edited New Worlds and its associated writers the British 'New Wave', but makes no mention of Priest's essay on the New Wave in the 1978 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I suspect, however, that Kincaid would say, with some justification, that this wasn't the point of the exercise. What stands out here is the quality and perspicacity of Kincaid's writing. It reminds me of how much even the best writing on Classical Reception in science fiction often falls behind the best sf criticism in general, and how much we really need to up our game. Highly recommended.

3. Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine (Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2004)

Reread because I've been revising my paper on the novel for a forthcoming volume on Classics and Artificial Intelligence. Chris Beckett has gone on to bigger and better things since, of course (e.g. winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Dark Eden in 2013), but this early novel, somewhat overlooked (perhaps because it took six years for a UK edition to appear), is a cracker. It is the tale of George Simling, a man living in the near-future technocratic state of Illyria, a last holdout against the religious fundamentalism of the rest of the world (the political background to the novel seems, horribly, much more relevant now than it did in 2004), and Lucy, the sexbot he falls in love with. It's an exploration of humanity, personhood, gender, and the patterns we humans impose on the world around us. And the writing is bloody good as well. Recommended.

4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (2nd edn, London: Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley, 1831)

A reread for my course on science fiction and the Classics, where we were examining exactly why Shelley gave her novel the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, and what that implies. Along the way I was rude about 'that gang of arch-prats that we call the second generation of the English Romantic poets'. Frankenstein is an interesting novel. It's been placed by many as the ur-text of science fiction, and almost as many people have rejected that idea, and I can sort of see why. It belongs much more in the tradition of the Gothic novel than it looks forward to a new genre (if you want to see Shelley really heading out into the uncharted waters of science fiction, go read her later novel, The Last Man). It's also interesting to note how much of what we imagine to be in Frankenstein isn't there at all, but comes from later cinematic adaptations. 

Magazines

1. BSFA Awards 2020 (British Science Fiction Association, 2020) * 

Every year the BSFA produces a booklet that includes the shortlisted short stories (sometimes only extracts, if the stories are quite long), the shortlisted artwork, a list of the shortlisted novels, and extracts from the shortlisted non-fiction. I try to read the short fiction and non-fiction—it's a long time since I've been able to keep up with the novels. This year, the choice of story was very difficult; all of the stories were worthy of winning, and putting them in any sort of order was quite a challenge; my vote eventually went to Tobi Ogundiran's 'Isn't Your Daughter Such A Doll'. I felt that the non-fiction was a little more clear-cut. As you might guess, I believed that Paul Kincaid's The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest was clearly a cut above everything else. The work that actually won, Adam Roberts' It's the End of the World: But What Are We All Afraid Of?, was to me, on the basis of the extract here, the weakest of the shortlist. But, obviously, the majority of voters didn't agree with me there.

Television

5. Elizabeth R (UK, TV, prod. Roderick Graham, starring Glenda Jackson, BBC, 6 episodes, 1971)

Magnificent. It's a shame the BBC didn't combine this with a showing of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, for which Elizabeth R is effectively Season 2. As a result, one doesn't quite get the resonances the original audience would have from knowing who some of the people who appear in episode 1 were. But it's not a big disadvantage, and it is a delight to see a lot of iconic actors in early roles―Robert Hardy pre-All Creatures Great and Small, Robin Ellis pre-Poldark, John Shrapnel pre-baldness. And at the centre is the 34-year-old Glenda Jackson, who takes Elizabeth from fifteen to 69, and never seems to be too old or too young for the part she is playing. It's a hard part for her to play―the script, especially in later episodes, generally presents Elizabeth as unknowable, someone for her council to negotiate around in order to get what they want, and her own agency appears slight. Nevertheless, a grand sign of how ambitious BBC drama once could be; I doubt a series like this would get six 90-minute episodes now.    

6. Helen of Troy (UK/USA, TV, dir. Ronni Kern, scr. John Kent Harrison, starring Sienna Guillory, Rufus Sewell, and Matthew Marsden, Fuel Entertainment, 2 episodes, 2003) *

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie; my Twitter thread is here. About the time that Wolfgang Petersen was making Troy, this miniseries was also being produced. Before watching, I was sure that I had seen this at the time, but evidently this isn't the case. The miniseries doesn't have a good reputation, and it is definitely true that Guillory is a bit insipid in the lead role (and has to do some utterly gratuitous nudity), and overall, it's not terribly well directed, scripted or cast (despite the presence of just pre-fame James Callis and Emilia Fox as Menelaus and Cassandra respectively). But I've seen far worse, and this series definitely has its interesting moments, and makes some interesting choices early on. With regard to my Modern Adaptation of the Trojan War Tropes, it ticks off some (e.g. Helen is blond), but misses others (e.g. we get the sacrifice of Iphigenia). It even finds room for Theseus and Pirithous (played by Stellan Skarsgård and Jim Carter, who deserved their own show). 

Virtual Theatre

8. Jesus Christ Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, directed by Laurence Connor, starring Ben Forster and Tim Minchin, 2012 *

Watched with the virtual theatre crew for Easter. I'd never seen any production of this, or listened to it all the way through. The Guardian hated this production, only really liking Chris Moyles as Herod Antipas (who is basically in it to be Chris Moyles, and if you don't like Moyles anyway, you won't like him here), But there is plenty to like about this production; Melanie Chisholm shows once again that she always was the Spice Girl with the best voice, and Tim Minchin as Judas is pretty good. But the end is horrible; all bright lights and scantily-clad angels, which one feels undermines the message of the Crucifixion. 

9. Orestes, after Euripides, directed by Marcus Bell and Alison Middleton, starring Anwār Omeish, Zakkai Goriely, Ailbhe Sweeney, Abi Watkinson, Grace Akatsu, Syren Singh, Ollie Khurshid, Shreya Dua, Philippa Lang, Oxford Playhouse, 2021 *

This was this year's Oxford Greek Play, produced in a time of COVID, and so assembled in bedrooms and broadcast to the world. This is a highly innovative version of the play, and you can feel the queer energy that the creators brought to it. Which makes me a little sad that it all left me a bit cold. Best bit was Helen talking to Electra, speaking lines of Greek in a deliberately posh British accent. But you shouldn't take my word for it, you should watch it yourself.

10. Orpheus in the Record Shop, by Testament, directed by Aletta Collins, starring Testament, Leeds Playhouse/Opera North, 2021 *

Virtual theatre club pick; part of the BBC's Lights Up series. A fun one-man retelling of the Orpheus myth, relocating the character to a record shop. Rapper Testament gives a remarkable performance, accompanied only by two other actors in small roles, and a small number of musicians. I like the way that the story does not consider itself bound by the myth as generally understood. Still available on iPlayer

11. Pale Sister, by Colm Tóibín, directed by Trevor Nunn, starring Lis Dwan, Angleica Films/Nevision, 2021 *

Another virtual theatre club pick from Lights Out. In this one-woman play, the Antigone story is retold from the point of view of her sister Ismene. That's an interesting idea, but this production never seems to do anything much with it. What in Sophocles' text is a tale of the conflict between loyalty to the state and loyalty to the family and between sacred and profane laws, is reduced here to a family saga.

I have more to write up, but this post is already very long, so I shall save the rest for another time.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

On Latin in state schools

So, the UK education secretary has announced official government backing for a new initiative to introduce Latin into some state schools, in order to make the subject seem 'less élitist'. 

I am deeply suspicious of this, because it's the government and Gavin Williamson, and I am automatically deeply suspicious of both. Obviously, as a Classicist, I'm in favour of increasing the availability of Latin, though I am very much opposed to making it compulsory, or having it as a 'reward' for clever kids, because that leads to students being forced to study subjects they don't want to. 

I have a number of concerns here. One is that, like Grant Shapps' plan for the reopening of railway branch lines, not enough money had been allocated for more than a token gesture. Another is that the government may try to claim the great successes of Classics for All and the Iris Project in already getting Latin into state schools as their own. Undoubtedly, the government are going to be listening to the likes of Harry Mount, who want a return to the old days of grammar-heavy Latin teaching, and can't see how much that was a factor in Latin's downfall, though I am fully confident that those on the coal face of Latin teaching will resist such an approach. A big issue, and that Williamson probably hasn't bothered thinking about, is where all the Latin teachers are coming from. Like Johnson's 'levelling up' agenda, there's a sense of this being all vague big ideas, and no actual practical substance. 

But what really concerns me is the ideological motivation behind all of this. Michael Rosen has a very interesting and very well-judged Twitter thread that doesn't dunk on Latin, but asks 'Why now? Why Latin?' There is a definite sense that Latin is being presented as superior to other subjects. I happen to think that, for the right student, Latin is an excellent subject with which to nurture developing minds. But so, for the right student, is Classical Studies. So, for the right student, is Spanish. So, for the right student, is Mandarin Chinese. So is Media Studies. So is Equine Psychology. Why, then, Latin?

A persistent myth, still wheeled out by the Harry Mounts of this world, is that Classicists used to recognised as very clever people, and this shows the superiority of the subject (when 'properly' taught) for developing young minds. What it actually shows is the power that Classics teachers had in schools, such that they were able to gather up the best students for their subject.

Behind Williamson's initiative is the idea, to which many Classicists have subscribed, that people who studied Latin at private schools are successful because they studied Latin. Whereas the reality is that people who studied Latin at private schools are successful because they went to private schools. Thus, through increasing the availability of Latin, the government can claim to have made the tools for success available to all, whilst not actually addressing the real structural inequalities in our education system, inequalities that they are all beneficiaries of.

Inevitably, as Classicists we are going to welcome the increased availability of our subject in schools. But we must not take out eyes of the real prize. In the practical world of limited school budgets, we risk being sucked into an either/or battle, in which Latin or other Classical subjects can only thrive at the expense of other subjects, and to do that, we are forced into making the argument that Latin is 'useful'. The utilitarian argument for Latin is dangerous. I am opposed to making students study subjects that they have no affinity for simply because the subjects are 'useful'. That, it seems to me, leads to a lot of students with poor results, who are going to find themselves at the back of the queue for any jobs that require the 'useful' qualifications. The real problem is the overall impoverishment of the school curriculum, and fighting for Latin's place within that is a distraction. 

 

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021, #3

(Spoilers. * indicates something watched/read for the first time.)

Movies

16. La caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) (Italy, dir. Giovanni Pastrone and Luigi Romano Borgnetto, scr. Giovanni Pastrone, starring Luigi Romano Borgnetto, Giovanni Casaleggio, and Madame Davesnes, Itala Film, 1911)

A short, sometimes, as this poster shows, known as L'assedio e la caduta di Troia (The Siege and Fall of Troy). Rewatched as research for my Historical Fictions Research Network paper, back in February. It's an interesting treatment. Some of the tropes of modern adaptations are fully in place here, e.g. it tells the whole story of the war, not just the events of Homer's Iliad (in fact, the Iliad doesn't get a look in), and eclecticism runs riot in the design, drawing upon Classical Greece for the Spartan place, but with a very Roman garden, and Egyptian slaves, whilst Troy itself is full of Greek, Persian, Assyrian and Roman elements. On the other hand, this is still treated as mythology, with an active role for Venus in the eloping of Paris and Helen, and no better reason is given for the war beyond the insult to Menelaus dealt by Paris when he ran off with the Spartan King's wife. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Of course.

17. The Dig (UK, dir. Simon Stone, scr. Moira Buffini, starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, Magnolia Mae Films/Clerkenwell Films, 2021) *

I have joined a virtual film night group of friends, and this is the first movie I watched with them. Not surprisingly, this, the tale of the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon ship butial at Sutton Hoo, as the clouds of war gathered, was a movie I wanted to see ever since I became aware of it (which admittedly wasn't that long ago). The Anglo-Saxons are after my period (nasty modern rubbish), but I've done a fair bit of archaeological fieldwork in my time, and I think that this movie gives you some idea of how hard the physical work of excavating an archaeological site can be when you haven't got mechanical diggers to do the difficult and boring bits. Of course, there's a great deal of artistic license in the production of the movie, falling into all-too-predictable patterns (the 'professional' archaeologists all look down on the 'amateur' Basil Brown). I'm okay with most of the license, but I wish it hadn't been necessary to denigrate Peggy Piggott; she is depicted as someone with little experience, who has married an older and more experienced man (it is implied, and I believe made explicit in the original novel by John Preston, that she is a student who has married her tutor). In reality, Peggy Piggott had been digging for six years by the time she turned up at Sutton Hoo, had begin her career working for Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler at Verulamium, and had met Stuart Piggott when they were both students at the University of London, and both in their late twenties. She had more paper qualifications in Archaelogy than her husband did, and had directed her own dig. In a movie that aims at raising up to public attention the work of an archaeologist who, the movie suggests, was overlooked because he was working class, it is a shame that a woman's contribution is downplayed like this. Still, The Dig looks very pretty, and the performances are good. Carey Mulligan does very well playing someone twenty years older than her; though one does wonder, given that there are precious few cinema roles for women over 40, was it necessary to give one of them to an under-40? Despite all my reservations, I nevertheless do recommend this. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: The Ipswich archaeologists are desperate to get Basil Brown to come dig on a Roman villa.

18. Jason and the Argonauts (USA/UK, dir. Don Chaffey, scr. Jan Read & Beverley Cross, starring Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack, Morningside Productions/Columbia Pictures, 1963)

A #ClassicsTwitterMovie that is also in my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course. My Twitter thread is here. I've been writing a lot about this movie over the last few days, for my course, and for an LGBT+ History Month event I did on 23 February. What can more one say here? I have seen this time and time again, and it never gets dull. Certainly Ray Harryhausen's best movie, one of the best movies based on ancient Greece from the great days of the Hollywood epic, and arguably one of the best movies of Greek mythology ever made. Talos is one of Harryhausen's most memorable characters, and I really like that Harryhausen has the courage to delay his first bit of Dynamation to 30 minutes into the movie. Apart from that, there's just loads to enjoy. And it's great to see so many British character actors involved; Nigel Green, Laurence Naismith, Patrick Troughton, Niall MacGinnis, Douglas Wilmer, and that's just for starters. This is the second movie Harryhausen made after moving to London (though he was still under contract to a Hollywood studio), and that really shows through in the casting. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: House! 

19. Early Man (UK, dir. Nick Park, scr. Mark Burton and James Higginson, starring the voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddlestone, Maisie Williams, and Timothy Spall, Aardman Animations/BFI, 2018)

Another virtual film group movie; my pick, in fact. This rather seems to have flown under a lot of people's radars. I remember seeing it in a largely empty cinema, and the movie barely made its money back. I guess the lack of sheep, chickens or cheese-obsessed Yorkshiremen meant it didn't appeal to the wide audience Aardman can usually expect. Which is a shame, because it's really rather excellent. Funny throughout, if you can forgive some extreme punning, and also quite sweet. Tom Hiddleston is almost unrecognisable, and clearly having an enormous amount of fun voicing villain Lord Nooth with an outrageous French accent (please read that in an outrageous French accent). And I love the joke about the dinosaurs called 'Ray' and 'Harry'. Well worth following up, if you haven't seen it. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: the Bronze Age looks remarkably like ancient Rome, with some references to Greece thrown in. 

20. The 300 Spartans (USA, dir. Rudolph Maté, scr. George St. George, starring Richard Egan, Ralph Richardson, Diane Baker, Barry Coe, and David Farrar, 20th Century Fox, 1962)

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie, in case you couldn't guess. The thread starts here. I'm not wholly sure whether I think 300 Spartans is a good movie. I think it's better than 300; it's certainly less racist and dehumanises the Persians far less, even if it doesn't quite have the style of 300's imagery. It's also probably the best movie from the 1950s and 1960s set in ancient Greece, but then there's not a lot of competition, since so few were made. It's definitely not a better movie than the likes of Ben-Hur or Spartacus. Its reconstruction of the Battle of Thermopylae is more accurate than that of 300, but again, that's not saying much. Ralph Richardson brings some much needed gravitas to the movie, but he doesn't wholly give the impression that he's taking it seriously. Richard Egan, on the other hand, is taking things Very Seriously, in the way that William Shatner would later make his own. My favourite moment remains where somebody who is Greek turns to someone else who is presumably Greek, and explains what a Greek phrase means. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: molon lave.

21. Le mépris (Contempt) (France, dir. & scr. Jean-Luc Godard, starring Brigitte Bardot, Rome Paris Films/Les Films Concordia/Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, 1963)

And once again, we are with #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. What a delight it is to watch again this wonderful movie, and to bring it to a new audience. It looks and sounds beautiful, thanks to vibrant colours from cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and the lush strings of Georges Delerue's score. It's my favourite adaptation of the Odyssey (yes, over O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and that is also a movie I love), and probably my favourite adaptation of Homer. I need to watch À bout de souffle and Alphaville again to decide if this is my favourite Godard. Godard is extremely playful throughout this, keeping a minimum of jump-cuts, so the narrative isn't hard to follow, and subverting Bardot's image as a sex kitten, whether through utterly gratuitous shots of her lying naked on thick rugs, or dressing her up to look like Anna Karina (Godard's then wife). Jack Palance is also excellent as the sleazy and violent American producer. If you've never seen this movie, do yourself a favour and correct that. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Jack Palance trying to seduce Bardot by showing her a book of Roman erotica.

22. Troy: The Odyssey (USA, dir. Tekin Girgin, scr. Eric Forsberg, starring Dylan Vox, Lara Heller, Hachem Hicham, David W. Grey, Kelly B. Jones, and Daniel Whyte, The Asylum, 2017) *

I watched this as preparation for my class on versions of the Odyssey. Oh my. I confess to not being terribly familiar with the product of The Asylum before now, having slogged through ten minutes of Hercules Reborn (2014) before finding something better to do with my time, and I have never seen Sharknado. This is essentially a version of the Odyssey that seeks to cash in on Wolfgang Petersen's Troy a mere thirteen years after the Hollywood movie's release. The story appears to be constructed by chopping up Homer and throwing all the bits up in the air, and then adding a few extra bits. There's a Sword of Troy, which Odysseus seems to have go hold of, and is a full-on magic sword. There's a Kraken, because if your knowledge of Greek mythology is entirely based on movies, you probably think that's a Greek beast. There's fighting female Chinese monks guarding Troy, because ... no I can't explain that. Agamemnon, who appears to be a particularly angry Aussie Rules football player, is married to Helen. After Troy is stormed by about a half-dozen Greek soldiers, who vaguely tap at Trojan opponents with spears, in the background while the main cast are doing fight scenes, Odysseus heads home on what would be generously described as an overgrown dinghy. Fortunately, there are only three other Ithacans going home with him, which means there is space to give a lift to the Trojan priestess Circe (I am not making this up!), who decides Odysseus is a good bloke and worth fighting for, for no very good reason. There's Sirens! Who are the same as Calypso! There's a Minotaur in the Paths of the Dead. There's a Cyclops at the other side of the Paths of the Dead. Eventually Odysseus gets home, kills the Suitor and reunites with Penelope, only to have to fight off the Kraken! (I bet you'd forgotten about the Kraken. Odysseus certainly had.) Amazingly, this is not as bad as you might expect it to be. Which is still pretty bad. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Norse! The Kraken is Norse!

23. Colossal (Canada/USA/Spain/South Korea, dir. and scr. Nacho Vigalondo, starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, Colossal Movie Productions, 2016) *

Another virtual film night movie. A weird one here. Colossal is billed on websites as a 'comedy' or a 'black comedy'. It is nothing of the sort. There are no real laughs anywhere in this movie, and it isn't really trying for them. It plays with romcom tropes early on, but halfway through reveals that actually it's a stalker movie. Or at least, that's one of the genres it is trying to bring together; the other is the classic Japanese monster movie (though for geographic reasons in this case, the monster is in Korea, not Japan). The central premise is intriguing, and there's a good central performance here by Anne Hathaway, who certainly gets more to do than usual. But for most of the time, the attempt to blend the two genres never quite works for me, until the very end, which is clever and satisfying, and almost makes up for the weakness of the rest of the movie. It doesn't help that all the men in her life are horrible, and can't respect boundaries, even the one who's meant to be the 'nice' one. So I'm not sure I could honestly recommend this to anyone. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Colossus of Rhodes, innit?

24. Medea (Italy/France/Germany, dir. & scr. Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Maria Callas, San Marco/Les Films Number One/Janus Film und Fernsehen, 1969)

Another movie for my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course, and another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here (due to the US shift over to Daylight Savings Time, I was an hour late to the viewing). I've watched this movie many times, and I'm still not quite sure what I think about it. Which is, I think, Pasolini's intention; he really doesn't want you to have any easy answers here. I use this as my example of Athenian tragedy rendered on screen, though really, only the last half of the movie presents Euripides' play, and in a somewhat truncated form (no room, for instance, for the visit of the Athenian king Aegeus). I actually prefer Michael Cacoyannis' three films of Euripides, but they're difficult to set in a course, as they are not easily got hold of. Nevertheless, this makes a nice companion piece to the portrayal of Medea in Jason and the Argonauts. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: We are not Team Jason here.

25. Mortal Engines (USA/New Zealand/Japan, dir. Christian Rivers, scr. Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, starring Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, and Stephen Lang, Universal/MRC/Wingnut Films, 2018) *

Another virtual film night, and another movie I'd been long meaning to get round to, because of my interest in London and the fantastic. It's been a while since I read Phillip Reeve's novel (and, of course, it's the only one in the series I can't find at the moment), and I don't remember it that clearly. Insofar as I do, this movie seems to treat it with respect, and preserves the main beats of the novel, though I remember that Hester and Tom don't get together until later in the series, and Katherine Valentine dies. I also seem to remember that the buzz around this movie from people I knew was that it was okay, if you didn't go in expecting the book. With this I concur. This movie was mauled by the critics, and flopped at the box office, but it's really not that bad, and the Traction Cities are well-envisaged. Reeve himself likes it. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: The deadly super-weapon is called the MEDUSA.    

26. Chi-Raq (USA, dir. Spike Lee, scr. Kevin Wilmott and Spike Lee, starring Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, and Angela Bassett, Amazon Studios/40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2015)

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie, and the final movie in my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course. The Twitter thread is here. This is an extremely important movie, for reasons that Nadhira Hill discussed briefly in her talk at the Res Difficiles 2.0 conference, the day before we did our viewing. She says 'for the first [and only] time I was seeing people like me [i.e. Black Americans] engaging with Classics'. This is a very important thing to say. It is still all too easy to conceive of Classics as by whites, for whites, and about whites. Chi-Raq says that these texts are part of Black American culture as well, just as Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona's The Island connected Black Africans with Sophocles. It's also a pretty good movie, that deserves to be better known. It negotiates shifting tone from comedy to brutal tragedy effectively, and rather than exploiting Black trauma for the purposes of entertainment, as some accused it of, it uses entertainment to highlight Black trauma. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Essential.

27. Mank (USA, dir. David Fincher, scr. Jack Fincher, starring Gary Oldman, Netflix International Pictures, 2020) *

Another virtual film night movie. The significantly fictionalised story of the creation of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, this has been festooned with Oscar nominations, at least partly, I suspect, because Hollywood likes to celebrate itself, even if this movie does attack the financial duplicity of Louis B. Meyer, and the pro-Republican propaganda of Irving Thalberg. It's beautifully shot, and a nice bit of familial pietas, as David Fincher directs a script by his late father, and Charles Dance is superb as William Randolph Hearst. But Gary Oldman is giving That Gary Oldman Performance, that we've seen before in Leon and Immortal Beloved. It doesn't help that he's about twenty years too old for the role; as the screenplay reminds us regularly, Herman Mankiewicz was in his mid-forties when he wrote Citizen Kane, and his mid- to late thirties for the flashbacks when he was part of William Randolph Hearst's circle, whilst Oldman is in his early sixties. This is not to say that Mank is bad, but I don't think it's as good as everyone else is saying it is. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Mankiewicz's younger brother Joe, depicted in the movie, went on to direct 1953's Julius Caesar and 1963's Cleopatra.

28. Hail, Caesar! (USA/UK/Japan, dir. and scr. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum, Universal Pictures/Working Title Films/Mike Zoss Productions, 2016) 

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here, and I actually reviewed this movie when it came out. It has a lot of the same Old Hollywood vibes as Mank. But it's a much less cynical work, with more of a feeling that Hollywood is doing something worthwhile. Of all the Coen Brothers movies I've seen, it is the one with the least substance. But it's still a lot of fun. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Not just the movie-within-a-movie Hail, Caesar!, but also some of the elements in Scarlett Johansson's Esther Williams routine.

Books

1. Ursula K. Le Guin, Changing Planes (Boston, MA, & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003) *

I've actually read a book this year. I read this for an Ursula K. Le Guin reading group I'm part of. It's a collection of short stories about different planes that can be accessed while waiting for planes. Few of these are straightforward stories with beginnings, middles and ends; most of them feel like entries in a travel guide, if a little more literary. A number of the stories are satirical, particularly one, 'The Royals of Hegn', attacking the British obsession with the Royal Family. Quite a few stories are about the fact that we can never really understand the foreign cultures we visit; in one, 'Feeling at home with the Hennebet', the narrator is unable to understand the meaning of certain words the Hennebet use which are obvious to them, in 'The Nna Mmoy Language' an entire language is incomprehensible, and in 'The Building' locals are unable to explain in a manner that visitors can grasp why they have been working on a building for centuries. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: On one plane, the locals look very much like satyrs. 

Comics

4. Three, by Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles (Image, 2014).

February's entry for #ClassicsTwitterComics. Every year or so, I reread Three. Not because I love it, but to try to find out why I don't. I ought to. It's a reception of ancient Sparta. I'm interested in any form of comics reception of the ancient world, and have been interested in Sparta since my days as a postgraduate, supervised by the man who was the historical consultant for Three. The writing is obviously skillful, and the art superior. Other Kieron Gillen stuff I do love, like Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine. (I also know Kieron and like him; fortunately, he's well aware that Three doesn't quite work for me, and this isn't an issue between us.) When other people talk about why they think Three is so great, on an intellectual level I can absolutely see where they're coming from. Yet every time, I bounce off the story. For some reason, I just don't seem to care that much about the three helots, or King Kleomenes II. I expect, after so many rereadings, there's now very little chance either that I will have a sudden revelation and get it, or that I will finally understand what my problem is with the comic. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: On the plus side the notes and conversation between Gillen and Steve Hodkinson brought me up to date on a lot of Spartan stuff.

5. InSeXts, vol. 2: The Necropolis, by Marguerite Bennett and Ariela Kristantina *

#ClassicsTwitterComics for March. I'm not really familiar either with this series (I haven't read volume 1) or Marguerite Bennett's work, though I've certainly heard her name get mentioned. At the heart of the story are two queer women who can transform themselves into insectoid bodies; it's a bit Ali Smith meets Kafka's Metamorphosis. These two have to make their way in a world that rejects independent women, often in the person of some violent men, who are met with violence. It's an interesting comic, that reminds me a lot of Alan Moore's Promethea, in both good and bad ways; it's beautifully drawn, and the colours, by Jessica Kholinne, are particularly gorgeous. The story is very interested in the occult and magic, and the writing is often very clever, but it does have a tendency to go off on long didactic speeches, conveying messages that need saying, but which one suspects the audience already takes as given anyway. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: That's a Medusa figure on the cover, though she's never actually named as such.  

As a postscript, the reviews of She-Hulk I mentioned in the last one of these posts, have now appeared at The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide. I reviewed Essential The Savage She-HulkMarvel Masterworks: The Savage She-Hulk, volumes 1 and 2The Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne, and Sensational She-Hulk: The Return, and the collected Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne Omnibus. The Savage She-Hulk material is drivel; positively embarrassing. The John Byrne material is very much better. The Return isn't so great; Byrne quickly seems to lose interest, and starts repeating himself, and the gag wears thin pretty quickly. But the collection of his first run is really quite fun. Nothing earth-shatteringly significant at all; just gags about the medium (Deadpool before Deadpool, and less crude), and a series of Marvel's Silliest Villains. But it's not meant to be particularly significant. It's just a bit of fun on Byrne's part. Some people don't like Byrne's artwork; I generally do, though I think he tends to be better with a sympathetic inker than when inking himself, and sometimes (though not really in this material) he can make people look emaciated. Byrne has turned into a horrible man in his old age, but he rescued She-Hulk and gave her a personality, and She-Hulk fans have to acknowledge that. (In fairness, I think that mostly they do.) And yes, I know the colouring on that cover is horrible. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: There's lots of references to Prince Namor, ruler of Atlantis, whom Byrne was writing at the same time.

Additionally, two reviews I wrote of William Messner-Loebs and Sam Kieth's Epicurus the Sage have appeared on the same site, of volumes 1 and 2. As a Classicist, I find Epicurus, with its unashamedly anachronistic mixing of historical figures from different periods and mythological personages, very amusing, but I strongly suspect I am almost exactly the target audience; certainly, some have attacked Epicurus for its niche interests, though other non-Classicists like it, and there is plenty of slapstick to keep the reader entertained. I would also contend, much like Austin Powers, that the later iterations of Epicurus never quite match the sheer invention of the first, and indeed (and much, again, like Austin Powers) it ends up re-using the same jokes. This is not to say that volume 2 is bad; it just isn't quite as good as volume 1. I hope to be writing in more depth about the reception of the Persephone myth in volume 1; you can watch a preliminary version of what I have to say one hour into the video here, but I warn you that this is very preliminary, and there's a lot more work I need to do on this material. Anyway, I think there are far worse receptions of Ancient Greek pholosophy out there. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: There's this cave, with shadows, and stuff ...   

Virtual Theatre

5. Girl on an Altar, by Marina Carr, directed by Susie McKenna and Indhu Rubasingham, Kiln Theatre, 2021 *

This rehearsed reading presented a project that Kilburn's Kiln Theatre are working on, an adaptation of the myth of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra. It takes a lot of liberties with the most commonly known version, but that's allowed. The actual sacrifice of Iphigenia takes up a short amount of time at the beginning, and most of this play is devoted to what happens after Agamemnon returns home, which is considerably extended beyond the version familiar from Aeschylus, with a child of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus being introduced, as well as children of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and full-scale war between Agamemnon on one side and Aegisthus and Clytemnestra's father Tyndareus on the other. The presentation of this is a bit odd; actors are both delivering their lines, and also narrating portions of the story as if it were a book that they are reading out loud. I'm not sure that this entirely works, and it might well work less when everyone is in full costume, though it does allow a lot of information to be conveyed, and a lot of expository dialogue to be omitted. As a whole, this didn't blow me away, but it wasn't awful either. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Agamemnon kills Tyndareus in battle. No, really.

6. Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Erica Whyman, starring Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford, 2018 *

I'm also in a virtual theatre-going group, and this was seen with them, though it was shown on BBC Four as part of their Culture in Quarantine: Shakespeare series; I've put it here as it is a recorded play performance. The plot is pretty well-known to everyone, though I had forgotten the role of Paris in events. This was a good production, with particular standout performances from Gill as Romeo, and Andrew French as Friar Laurence, perpetrator of one of the worst cunning plans in literature. Karen Fishwick's Juliet was a bit over-the-top at first, but I warmed to her as the play went on, and everything got more serious. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: 'You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings.'

7. Medea, by Euripides, translated by Mary-Kay Gamel, directed by Rob Melrose, starring Elizabeth Bunch, Alley Theatre, 2021 *

An interesting comparison with Pasolini's movie, seen with my virtual theatre group (or at least a small subset of them). The production was made by filming all the cast in close-up; none of them interacts physically with anyone else. Mary-Kay Gamel's translation is excellent; vibrant English that still respects the Greek. And there are excellent performances, particularly from Elizabeth Bunch in the title role, and Chris Hutchinson as a loathsome Jason, who clearly believes in the rightness of his actions. This is still available to see until 11 April, and I heartily recommend it. Classical Recptions Bingo Card: Still not Team Jason. 

Audio

1. 'Rosemary Sutcliff and Re-imagining Roman Britain', Coffee and Circuseshttps://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/coffee-and-circuses/1-documentary-rosemary-RQ8mvdpOnTH/ (2020) *

Last year I got invited to contribute to a documentary on Rosemary Sutcliff, which I was delighted to do. But I hadn't listened to it yet. I sound terrible, but lots of other people also contribute much more interesting bits. I found it very useful for filling in some of Sutcliff's background. There are some very poignant reminiscences from her godson, and an interesting light on how she felt about the relationships between men she depicted. (Had I listened to this earlier, I would probably have talked about a Sutcliff novel for my LGBT+HM show-and-tell.) I should be getting round to rereading her books in the next few months, so that will get reported here. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Eagles.

(I have also been listening to a lot of episodes of Hammer House of Podcast, which is fun. I've been working my way from the beginning, and have got up to Bonus Episode 23, and have also listened to the latest five episodes, and, for research purposes, the one on She.)