Monday, August 09, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021, #5

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


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.


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.


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.) 


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.


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. 


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.


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 be 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.