Thanks to the good folks at Orbit UK for hosting my guest post on David Gemmell and the Depiction of the Hero.
Category Archives: Stuff I Like
A fond farewell to Iain M. Banks, possibly the finest prose writer ever to grace the pages of science fiction. And also goodbye to his long term collaborator Iain Banks, who injected a much needed narrative drive and energy into mainstream literature. I wish I’d met them both.
Anyone who’s read Blood Song will know my liking for battle scenes, so I thought I’d list my top ten favourites from the movies – as usual in no special order.
Master and Commander – For the Prize! (2003, Dir. Peter Weir)
Patrick O’Brien’s tales of life in Nelson’s navy are brought to vivid life in Peter Weir’s expertly wrought adaptation. Essentially a chase story, as Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey pursues a French privateer half way around the world with Ahab-like zeal, paid off in spades in a climactic clash of frigates. The final frenetic confrontation of cannon, pistols and hand-to-hand combat brings home the fact that, for all the romance associated with it, war at sea in the Napoleonic era was still war, and it’s never pretty.
Last of the Mohicans – Huron Ambush (1992, Dir. Michael Mann)
Michael Mann wisely eschews much of Charles Fenimore Cooper’s source novel (it’s frankly unreadable to modern eyes, or at least my modern eyes) to craft a compelling epic of high adventure and romance amid the chaos of the Seven Years War. Mann’s eye for spectacular action is given free reign as Huron warchief Magua (Wes Studi) leads his braves in a brutally effective ambush of an entire British army. War clubs, tomahawks and muskets abound as Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis in pre-cobbler days) fights his way towards his imperilled lady love (Madeleine Stowe in pre-collagen days) and woe betide anyone who gets in his way. Simply stunning.
Saving Private Ryan – Omaha Beach (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The immediate cinematic impact of Spielberg’s recreation of the Omaha beach landings makes it easy to forget that there was a time when filmmakers failed to present the experience of modern battle as anything other than a stark horror story viewed through the lens of an over-cranked camera. But, despite its many imitators, the real-time progress of Tom Hanks’ shell-shocked captain across the blasted and corpse strewn shore-line has never been topped for sheer visceral shock value. If you ever wondered what a burst of machine-gun fire will really do to a human body, look no further.
Henry V – Agincourt (1989, Dir. Kenneth Branagh)
Branagh’s directorial debut proved he’s as able behind the camera as he is in front of it. Naturalistic Shakespeare is a tricky thing to pull off but Branagh and cast manage it with admirable aplomb – even Brian Blessed gets through the whole film without a single shouty moment. Crucial to Branagh’s desire to present events within a a believable medieval context is his depiction of the Battle of Agincourt as a mud-spattered slo-mo slogging match. Men in armour assail each other with swords, maces and daggers in a rain sodden charnel house shorn of any pageantry or chivalrous pretensions. Grimly compelling.
Platoon – NVA Night Assault (1986, Dir Oliver Stone)
Long before such crimes against cinema as Natural Born Killers and Alexander, Oliver Stone was a good director, proven in this semi-autobiographical tale of brutalised grunts in the Vietnam War. Stone’s protagonists are rarely heroic, quick to panic and would probably shoot John Wayne in the back if he pissed them off. The graphic depictions of combat and atrocity make for often harrowing viewing, complete with massacred civilians, gang rapes and murderous intra-grunt enmity, stretching the viewer’s nerves to the point that the climactic NVA night assault is actually something of a relief. The subsequent battle is a frenzied mix of cacophonous gunfire and flashing tracer bringing home the random nature of combat. It seems in modern war, cowardice and heroism make little difference to odds of survival. Luckily, most of us will never have to find out if that’s true.
Zulu – Rorke’s Drift Rumble (1964, Dir. Cy Endfield)
US emigre director Cy Endfield’s retelling of the siege of Rorke’s Drift in the first Zulu war is a carnival of British cinema delights; a soaring score by Bond composer John Barry, a stand-out breakthrough performance by Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins playing against stiff-upper-lip type as a drunken missionary “Can’t you see you’re all going to die!!” But the real star of the show is the cinematography, capturing the beauty of a South African landscape marred by the bloody spectacle of thousands of Zulu warriors charging through massed rifle fire.
300 – “This! Is! Spartaaaaggh!” (2006, Dir. Zach Snyder)
Frank Miller’s stylised comic book version of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE is given lavish homage by Snyder as muscular bare chested men in leather pants engage in a mutual admiration fest before embarking on slo-mo Persian slaughter viewed through a series of prolonged tracking shots (for some reason 300 has come to be regarded as having a strong gay subtext, can’t think why). This is an unashamedly non-realist approach to ancient warfare featuring battle-rhinos, giants, grenade throwing alchemists and (if you’ve seen the deleted scenes) midget archers – and all the better for it.
Gladiator – Roma Victa! (2000, Dir. Ridley Scott)
If you know a little about Roman history you’ll be aware that Gladiator belongs more in the ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’ category of historical epic – Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Pheonix) was murdered in his bath-house by a slave nine years after assuming the throne rather than being slain in the Coliseum by a former general (who never actually existed) a few months after killing his father – an event he may well have had no part in. But, despite its factual shortcomings, Gladiator contains probably the most accurate depiction of the Roman army at war as General Maximus (Russell Crowe again) leads his legionaries against the barbarous German tribes. Fire arrows fill the air, ballista bolts pin men to trees and catapults rain down fiery destruction on the uncivilised horde as the legions hack and slash their way to victory. “Roma Victa!” indeed.
The Return of the King – Pelennor Fields (2003, Dir. Peter Jackson)
The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers was a remarkable achievement in itself but even that is eclipsed by the sheer scale of the spectacle offered in Peter Jackson’s final instalment of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s hordes of orcs, easterlings and war elephants bear down on the beleaguered city of Minas Tirith in a screen-filling tide that wouldn’t have been possible even in the days when extras would work for less than a dollar a day. However, thanks to CGI we are treated to an unrestrained and largely faithful depiction of the central clash of armies in Tolkien’s classic. From the Ride of the Rhohirrm to the arrival of the Dead Men this is a wondrous spectacle, made all the more impressive by not allowing the visuals to overwhelm the drama – poor old King Theoden, but it was a good death.
Glory – Assault on Fort Wagner (1989, Dir Edward Zwick)
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry was the first black regiment recruited by the Union Army in the American Civil War and earned a blood-soaked place in history by leading an assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863. Zwick – later to conjure some highly impressive set-pieces in The Last Samurai – brings home the scale of the sacrifice as Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Shaw leads his troops in an ultimately hopeless charge against the Confederate ramparts, braving a hail of cannon fire and musketry to fight their way into the fort at bayonet point. Although the film makes no bones about the fact that this was a military defeat for the Union, the final scene of black troops and white officers being tossed into the same mass grave conveys a sense that it was at least a battle worth fighting.
I’ve always been a sucker for a good action movie, and it’s a shame the genre has declined somewhat in recent years. I guess swearing, guns and blood-squibs don’t cut it in the focus groups anymore. Anyway, as a tribute to a diminished genre, I offer my, in no particular order, list of Top Ten Movie Shoot-Outs:
Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo) – Tea-shop Carnage
Ballet With Guns has become something of cliché these days, but Hong Kong action maestro John Woo fully justifies the term with the opening scene to his most lauded work. The bullet and body count soars as Chow Yun Fat’s maverick cop faces off against arms-traffickers in a tea-shop. Fast, frenetic action counterpoised with perfectly judged use of slo-mo. This is how it’s done.
The Untouchables (1987, Dir. Brian De Palma) – Chicago Central Staircase
Brian De Palma borrows shamelessly from Battleship Potemkin to provide the focus for dramatic tension as a baby in a pram trips down a stair case in a cross fire of slo-mo gunfire. A tour de force set piece with Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness taking down Al Capone’s henchmen aided by Andy Garcia’s crack-shot cop. De Palma tried to repeat the formula with escalator-set gun battle at the end of Carlito’s Way. It was good, but not Untouchables good.
Open Range (2003, Dir. Kevin Costner) – Last Twenty Minutes
Kevin Costner’s western is distinguished by two things, its use of authentic frontier dialogue and a brilliantly staged twenty minute gun-battle. Costner’s war-jaded cow-hand and Robert Duvall’s trail-boss take on Michael Gambon’s thuggish ranchers in a slickly-edited climax that subverts the High Noon template: this time the townsfolk actually join in.
The Long Riders (1980, Dir. Walter Hill) – Town Ambush
Walter Hill’s depiction of the career of the James – Younger outlaw gang is perhaps a little too kind to its protagonists. Despite all the Robin Hood-esque mythologizing, the historical record paints a picture of low-down dirty varmints to a man. But they were to receive well-earned comeuppance in the town of Northfield, Minnesota on September 7th, 1876, when local lawmen and townsfolk set about them with gusto, here envisaged as a blood-spattered spectacle of slo-mo bullet impacts, blazing six-shooters and wheeling horsemen. Walter Hill’s finest hour, though Southern Comfort runs a close second.
The Wild Bunch (1969, Dir. Sam Peckinpah) – Hacienda Rampage
Machine guns and misogyny abound in the bloody climax to Sam Pekinpah’s epic eulogising the demise of the gunslinger. William Holden and his grizzled comrades blaze their way through a hacienda full of Mexican revolutionaries, Holden gunning down a woman in the process with the word “Bitch!” Charming, but at least it’s in character. A classic of action cinema, if you can stomach the misogyny and the frankly rather tedious preceding two hours.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Dir. John Carpenter) – First Attack
The good one – not the 2005 remake. John Carpenter’s urban reworking of Fort Apache sees assorted crims and cops banding together to battle hordes of gang members in a near-abandoned LA police station. The tense first act, enhanced by Carpenter’s heart-beat paced electronic score, pays off in tremendous style as the cast (still mostly unknown) beat back the first wave of attacking yute in a blaze of shotgun fire. One the best examples of the movie editor’s art ever seen.
Matewan (1987, Dir. John Sayles) – Miner Ambush
The only realist entry on the list sees a thoroughly nasty group of Pinkerton strike breakers assailed by justifiably pissed-off mining folk in John Sayles’ true-life inspired tale of industrial strife in 1920s West Virginia. The tightly edited, but convincingly edgy, final shoot-out, known to history as the “Matewan Massacre”, is a masterclass in how to film realistic action.
Kick Ass (2010, Dir. Matthew Vaughan) – Hit Girl Penthouse Incursion
Matthew Vaughan’s adaptation of Mark Miller’s comic book tale of real people attempting a super hero lifestyle is an odd mix of the realistic – you’ll probably just get yourself killed – and the fantastic – an eleven year old girl can slaughter a roomful of drug dealers with a Naginata. Nevertheless, it’s also riotously entertaining, never more so than when Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl two-guns her way through the penthouse lair of Mark Strong’s psycho crime boss to the music of Ennio Morricone and Joan Jett.
The Matrix (1999, Dir. The Wachowski Bros) – Lobby Fight
The Wachowski Brothers’ heady mix of philosophy and sci-fi with virtual reality twist allowed for a certain visual excess in the action sequences, most notably in this perfectly choreographed, SWAT team swatting extravaganza. Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss (Neo and Trinity, surely the best-looking action heroes in movie history) put weeks of martial arts and weapons training to good use in an adrenalized display of acrobatics with guns, an event I’d really like to see make it into the Olympics.
State of Grace (1990, Phil Janou) – Bar Room Show-Down
In the climax to James Cagney’s classic gangster movie Public Enemy, we see him walk across a rain drenched street and into a bar having just stolen two revolvers from a pawn shop. There is two seconds of silence then a thunderous explosion of gunfire. The camera stays fixed on the bar exterior. Silence returns then Cagney emerges, stumbles to the kerb, lays down and dies in the rain. It’s a brilliant moment in cinema and deftly subverted in Phil Janou’s State of Grace as undercover cop Sean Penn walks into a bar in Hell’s Kitchen to settle accounts with Ed Harris’s gang of miscreant Westies. No fixed exteriors here as Penn and co blast away entirely in slow motion amid a welter of blood and exploding whiskey bottles.
Like most of my generation I spent a large portion of my childhood watching cartoons. In an age before Playstation and Xbox (who am I kidding? This was before the Atari 2600), one sure-fire way of keeping sugared-up kids quite for a few blessed minutes was to park them in front of a cartoon, preferably several cartoons. The 2D creations of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Disney and Hanna Barberra were a kind of third parent, a story-telling parent of endless voices, bright colours and (most importantly) consequence free violence. And by far my favourite surrogate parents were a mischievous mouse called Jerry and his uptight feline would-be nemesis Tom.
One of the underrated aspects of childhood is its facility for uncritical enjoyment. As a child I couldn’t have cared less for the underlying socio-economic and racial injustices prevalent in the America of the 1930s and 40s, later so glaringly obvious to jaded adult eyes. I didn’t pause to question the fact that the only human authority figure to intrude upon the endless war betwixt mouse and cat always seemed to be solely occupied by household chores in a strangely luxurious house, nor ponder why she sounded so much like the maid (i.e. slave) who pandered to Scarlett O’Hara’s every whim in Gone With the Wind (my mother made me sit through it, OK?). It was a mouse and a cat inflicting an often insane level of violence upon one another in a never-ending battle of wills. What’s not to love?
Sound is an important element to the success of Tom and Jerry, from the klaxon scream provoked by a thumb in a mouse-trap to the multi-layered full orchestra score. However, the cat and the mouse are, with a view exceptions, essentially silent comedians, descendents of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but capable of much greater excess. Shorn of real-world constraints, animation is a medium which allows full reign to physical comedy and pays great dividends when married to sublime characterisation.
Tom and Jerry featured the painstaking hand-drawn animation and exquisite background paintings typical of the cinema distributed cartoons of the 1940s. Sadly these were only financially viable in a post-depression economy and the story of mass-market animation would be one of ever diminishing visual quality marked by an over-reliance on loops and unimaginative characterisation, only really redressed with the introduction of digital techniques in the 1990s.
The sheer anarchic extremity of Tom and Jerry is perhaps the most salient reason for its failure to be successfully reinvented for a modern audience. Reboots and movies have come an gone over the years, all of them failing to recapture the magic of the original; the magic of excess. In an age when TV companies face mountains of complaints when a news reader inadvertently drops the F-bomb or Janet Jackson shows a nipple, the temporary dismemberment, mallet swallowing and disregard for basic firearms safety evident in Tom and Jerry, can have no place – as famously lampooned in the Simpsons episode where Marge launches a campaign to ban Itchy and Scratchy.
On those rare occasions when I catch a glimpse of children’s television these days I see a lot to admire (Horrible Histories for example – if your kids aren’t watching that they should be and you’re a bad parent), but the overall impression of the animated content is one of message laden, toy-selling mediocrity. There’s little in the way of real fun to it, and certainly no anarchy. Which I think is a shame, after all, a little mallet swallowing never did me any harm.
If I have one addiction it’s podcasts. I confess to using them in an effort to self-medicate my way through the daily commute to and from central London. Where others find happy oblivion in narcotics or, like the man who sat next to me on the train at 8am last Wednesday, cans of cheap but strong lager, my drug of choice comes via the pusher that is I-Tunes, where all of the following are available (the first one’s free, but then so are all the others):
The gold standard in skeptical podcasting. Neurologist and uber-skep Dr Steve Novella and crew dissect the week’s scientific and psuedo-scientific news with humour and clarity. Quack medics, psychics and creationists beware, this really isn’t for you, unless you’re willing to be deprogrammed (and you’re just not, are you?).
Standout episodes – any of the James Randi interviews are well worth your time.
Mike Duncan’s oral chronicle of the Roman Empire from start to finish stands as a monumental achievement in podcast history, sadly to be concluded in a few short months. Presented in modern parlance free of academic burble, this is accessible to anyone with ears capable of understanding English and utterly addictive for Romanophiliacs and neophytes alike.
Standout episodes – nos. 47-53 relating the rise of Augustus following the assassination of Julius Caeser are a real eye-opener for anyone who thought they got the whole story from HBO’s Rome.
Sci-fi/fantasy Author Mur Lafferty presents a bi-weekly guide to writing genre fiction with considerable insight and humour. If you’re a beginning writer this is full of tips, interviews with established authors and, most importantly, encouragement. Listen to just one episode and I guarantee you’ll write something before the day is out.
Standout episodes – any of the Scott Sigler interviews.
Humorist, Anglophile and world’s greatest conversationalist Ken Plume chats to names big and small in the world of entertainment and beyond. Frequently hilarious and occasionally insightful, this is a must-listen for comedy fans.
Standout episodes – too many to mention, though recent episodes should be of interest to Community devotees.
Actor and stand-up comedian Jay Mohr talks to fellow comics, and anyone else he can persuade into his garage, about comedy, religion, addiction and the meaning of life. Acerbic wit, spot-on Joe Pesci impressions and a generally positive view of humanity in a highly entertaining mix.
Standout episodes – the guy from Hoarders and the making of forgotten 1990s romcom Picture Perfect: “Jennifer Aniston was a total bitch, and she made me cry.”
Brit-wits Olly Mann and Helen Zaltzman (plus Martin the Soundman) front this consistently funny attempt to answer questions of scant significance posed by their audience, who frequently leave Skype messages whilst drunk. Many pretenders to the throne of top UK comedy podcast have come and gone, but Answer Me This still reign supreme.
Standout episodes – a recent guest appearance by Jackie Mason.
Brian Dunning takes a critical look at many aspects of popular belief and finds them wanting, or at least lacking in credible evidence. Everything from the supposed benefits of wheat grass to the Loch Ness monster gets a look in, often providing an insight into how belief in something totally absurd can become generally accepted.
Standout episode – the truth about Crystal Skulls (like you needed any convincing the last Indiana Jones movie was a pile of crap).
More Skeptical gubbins, this time on the unkillable subject of crypto-zoology. Oh Bigfoot, when will you die? Experienced investigators, Blake Smith, Dr Karen Stollznow and Ben Radford interview a variety of experts in an attempt to divine the truth behind monsters of myth and legend.
Standout episodes – The Columbus Poltergeist and Unmasking the Ninja.
The only corporate podcast on the list. Economist Tim Harford fronts BBC Radio 4’s fascinating look at the statistics that assault us on a daily basis, often finding that the ‘facts’ presented by politicians, pundits and corporations are at best exaggerations and at worst, total lies.
Standout episode – What the Dickens? a Christmas Carol-esque satire on the causes of the credit crunch (spoiler alert: it turns out lending money to people who haven’t a prayer of paying it back is a really bad idea. Who knew?)
My favourite comedian Richard Herring reads his daily blog posts. Funny, clever and self-deprecating to the point of suspected mental illness. A welcome diversion for those of us who mourn the late Collings and Herrin podcast where Richard was joined for a weekly romp through the headlines with writer and critic Andrew Collins – probably the funniest thing on I-tunes until they fell out and stopped speaking to each other.
Standout episodes: the whole thing really.
The following list is likely to change by next week, but for now, my favourite ten sci-fi novels (in no particular order).
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Or The Canterbury Tales – the Space Opera. A collection of linked stories related by disparate pilgrims to the mysterious, time-twisting planet Hyperion. This is the first volume in Simmons’ epic duology relating the cataclysmic fall of a galaxy-spanning human civilisation linked by a wormhole network. Themes of religion, war, colonialism and paternal love are explored via compelling characterisation and expert plotting. I just wish I knew what the Shrike is…
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Haldeman draws on his own experiences as a Vietnam veteran to imagine a memoir of humanity’s depressingly inevitable war with the first alien race it encounters on venturing into the stars. The time-dilation effects of faster-than-light travel make the experience of war a millennia-spanning nightmare of combat and continuous technological and social change for the narrator. A bleaker ending might have made this the All Quiet on the Western Front of Science Fiction, but still a remarkable achievement.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Novel zero for what became known as Cyberpunk. The sheer amount of critical verbiage heaped upon this book over the years has somewhat obscured the fact that it is, in essence, a hugely enjoyable, fast paced, future-crime thriller (with ninjas). You do need to engage your brain to fully appreciate Gibson’s vision of a net- dominated dystopia, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.
Use of Weapons by lan M. Banks
Possibly the darkest of Banks’s Culture novels. Former rebel general Cheradenine Zakalwe is recruited by Special Circumstances to perform a variety of morally ambiguous interventions in the affairs of potential future member-worlds to the Culture. Bleak, entirely unsentimental and featuring a trade-mark Banks twist, this is a compelling read. Just don’t expect flowers and rainbows at the end.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Richly detailed and featuring one of the most compelling central characters in sci-fi history in the figure of the messianic Paul Atredies. Herbert’s hugely influential epic plays out on a grand scale as feuding noble houses vie for control of the all- important desert planet Dune. Political intrigue, war and religion in the far-future, what’s not to like?
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
If you thought Avatar was an original story (did anyone?), think again. American Civil-War veteran John Carter takes refuge from some injuns in a cave and finds himself transported to Mars where he falls for a martian princess and fights a desperate battle to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Sound familiar? Burroughs’ elegantly efficient prose is a joy, although modern readers may find the commie-bashing allegory that is the Green Martians a little simplistic. Fingers crossed the movie doesn’t suck.
Broken Angels by Richard Morgan
Body-hopping secret agent Takeshi Kovacs traverses a less-than perfect pan- galactic future where identities can be recorded and transferred from one genetically engineered ‘sleeve’ to another. The second novel from the master of SF-noir is an intelligent high-tech actioner expanding the world first seen in Altered Carbon. High-tech weaponry, military jargon and firefights abound, but there is an important question arising from all the carnage: does identity have any meaning or even worth when it only exists as data?
Vurt by Jeff Noon
The book that generated an upsurge in US sales of the Manchester A to Z as American readers puzzled over the plethora of streetnames in Noon’s utterly compelling urban sci-fi. Noon presents a near-future society where gene-enhanced dogs are sentient and high-tech ‘feathers’ offer addictive virtual experiences. Featuring a cast of underclass youths feeding their feather addiction through crime, this could be seen as a sci-fi take on Trainspotting, if it wasn’t a hundred times better.
Voyage by Stephen Baxter
The only alternate history title on the list. Baxter draws on meticulous research to weave a convincing narrative of what would have happened if NASA had attempted to put on astronaut on Mars instead of building the great white elephant that was the Space Shuttle. A fascinating slice of speculative fiction for anyone still pining for the flying cars and moon-bases we were promised.
The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton
The first volume in the Night’s Dawn trilogy ensured Hamilton’s place in the first rank of space opera authors. As much a horror-novel as a fast paced action-filled saga, we are treated to a vision of an advanced human future where the ultimate question is finally answered: what happens when you die? The answer? Suffice to say, it’s not good.