Based on: The Legend of Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus
Produced by: Mark Huffam, Lars Knudsen, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård, Arnon Milchan
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe, etc.
Cinematography Jarin Blaschke
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Robert Eggers is a formidable cinematic talent. His dark visions of folklore and historical fable are steeped in impressive research and a striking attention to detail within his work. Artistically and thematically speaking, Eggers is a major talent, however, one could argue his narratives deny clarity preferring hazy ambiguity. His debut film The Witch (2015) is an arthouse classic, but I just did not connect with the characters, despite the filthy realistic strangeness. His follow-up, TheLighthouse (2019), is a claustrophobic, black-hearted and dirty descent into a watery hell. Both are bravura low-budget films which created two distinct periods. In both films you can almost feel the plague and scurvy in your mouth, presented as they are with such earthy authenticity.
Thus, unsurprisingly, Robert Eggers latest film is NOT a romantic comedy. The Northman (2022) is another obsessively researched and realised historical drama. But because of the reported $70 million budget, his vision of Vikings and blood and revenge and muscle and familial treason and murder screams epic, more epic and even more EPIC! Eggers script and story is inspired by the historical myth, The Legend of Amleth, a narrative which in turn is said to have influenced none other than the quite well known play, Hamlet. Here Eggers has a solid structure for the thunderous battles and mystical manifestations on show. Our hero, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), finds his father, the King (Ethan Hawke) murdered by his uncle (Claes Bang), while he is a boy. Fleeing his village he grows into a scary, ripped and roaring Viking warrior who has never even seen a carbohydrate. A hunger for bread and a desire for revenge on his uncle propels the story powerfully. Intense Amleth must locate his kidnapped mother (Nicole Kidman) and smash the man who did his family wrong.
Eggers is a brilliant film director. In Alexander Skarsgård he also has a battering ram of a physical specimen leading the charge from deathly pillage to bloody battle to fiery hand-to-combat with impressive purpose and power. Amidst the vengeance-fuelled fight sequences and Amleth’s confrontations with the seers and magicians of the land, his journey also encompasses love and marriage to Olga of the Birch Forest, a Slavic sorceress (Anya Taylor-Joy). While Skarsgård’s character is more muscle than charisma, Taylor-Joy breathes ethereal and sensual life into the middle act. Their collaboration battling against enforced slavery gives us something to root for above the familiar revenge plot. Having said that, Amleth is not the easiest of characters to warm to. Despite Eggers genius and Skarsgård’s brutalism I wondered if I really cared about his quest.
I would argue that this story was done far more successfully from an emotional perspective by Ridley Scott’s awesome Roman epic, Gladiator (2000). Russell Crowe was just phenomenal as Maximus and his performance was one of magnetic emotion and charismatic depth. That film had amazing action married to integral character development. However, there is a violent momentum to The Northman (2022), with Amleth’s quest charging like a juggernaut toward the jugular of his foes. Eggers’ image and colour system of Viking costumes, iconography, weaponry, plus human, godly and ungodly beings provide the depth when the characterisation feels thin. And wow, does he know how to stage a battle. Bones crunch, teeth crack, blood bursts and weapons sever, scorch and devastate. As the fire burns in Amleth’s heart and across the landscape, The Northman (2022) rages from the cinema screen with dominant visual ascendancy.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, etc.
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Three hours of darkness, shadows, fireworks, distorted sound and vision, dull emo-bluster, explosions, fist-to-fist combat, choppy chases, limp dialogue, sparse suspense, blaring sirens, mumbling delivery and humdrum sexual chemistry combine to an incredibly stylish yet boring experience. It may be the biggest box office hit of the year, but The Batman (2022) was interminable filmic disappointment for me. Bruce Wayne/The Batman is a miserable cipher here for the action on show. He is also arguably one of the worst detectives I have witnessed on the screen. Yet, be aware it is NOT the filmmaker’s fault. It is mine. I am a bad cinemagoer.
I am as jaded, and world weary as Robert Pattinson’s noir gumshoe in a costume on screen. Except I have earned it. I have lived through dead-end jobs, despair and disappointment. This film starts by asking us to follow Bruce Wayne’s Caped Crusader into the mean streets of Gotham to battle nefarious gangsters and a crazed, riddle-driven terrorist. But why do we care about him? Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale breathed vibrancy and commitment into the DC comic hero. His trilogy, though not faultless, made us root for the rich kid scared of flying rats. Going on a journey of discovery and finding himself an identity in the process, Bale’s Batman was a three-dimensional hero. Matt Reeves eschews all that with The Batman (2022), presenting familiar characters searching for some semblance of plot and characterisation in the dark.
The story is a breadcrumb plot as Pattinson’s suited vermin plods through scene after scene trying to work out who is killing the corrupt officials of Gotham City. There are fireworks and expertly designed action sequences although many of them are difficult to see amidst the cinematographic murk. Moreover, there isn’t really any empathetic characters here. I love a good cinematic anti-hero, but that requires personality and energy. This Batman has neither of those. Although the screen work of Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis and Zoe Kravitz does breathe light and heat into the dull script. Farrell is The Penguin but essentially an Al Capone substitute. His excellent caricature gets buried and almost lost in obsidian and prosthetics.
But as I say, I am to blame. I am a bad superhero cinema person. I am saturated and fatigued by comic book film adaptations and TV shows from Marvel to DC to Vertigo and Image and Icon (yes I know this is Marvel too). I mean the best I can say is The Batman (2022) blasts away the rot that Affleck and Snyder implanted into the Batman franchise. Although that isn’t saying much. Because an obscene $200 million dollars was spent on this hollow vision of a wealthy emo-brat in a dark suit kicking the crap out of shadows. But remember this is my fault. I am old. I am cynical. I applaud Matt Reeves and his talented production team for delivering an impressive visual feast. It’s just a shame that in the bloated running time (15 minutes of that being end credits), they didn’t write any characters worth spending three hours with.
Based on: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous
Produced by: Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, David Lowery, Tim Headington, Theresa Steele Page
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, etc.
Cinematography: Andrew Droz Palermo
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
The quest to see The Green Knight (2021) has seemingly taken longer than Gawain’s mythical journey to meet his ultimate fate. Was it worth the wade through COVID determined lockdowns and distribution delays to the cinema to finally watch it on Amazon? Yes and no I would say as the filmmaking on show is of a visually magical standard. Yet, somewhere in the character’s bones is an emotional brittleness. I will expand.
Written and directed by the formidable filmmaker David Lowery, The Green Knight (2021), is based on the rites-of-passage trials of Gawain (Dev Patel), a young subject within the court of King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) Camelot. Happy getting drunk and flirting with apparently loose women, one of which is Essel (Alicia Vikander), he is then faced with a challenge from the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). Meeting the gamble from this stunningly created craggy work of metaphor head on sets in motion a fight for his life on the road to symbolic discovery. Throw in some exquisite montages of ominous religious and magical subtext and Gawain must face his fears, fate and foes on a dangerous quest.
Once Gawain hits the dirt tracks, bloody battlefields and ghostly houses of this cursed land the The Green Knight (2021) really finds narrative impetus. Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight at Arthur’s court is certainly thrilling, but Lowery spends too much time creating poetic juxtaposition and magical image systems, which while beautiful, really slow the pace of the story. King Arthur’s kingdom and Sean Harris’ performance is somewhat downbeat and drab as less time is spent establishing Gawain’s characterisation.
Dev Patel is phenomenal in the role. He brings both strength and vulnerability. But what was Gawain? Was he a fool to be taught a lesson? Was he a determined individual desiring to prove himself? Was he out for revenge? Was he doing it for love? Who is he saving? What did he want? I was never sure. Thus, The Green Knight (2021) was in danger of collapsing under its own stunning visual pretension. That is until Barry Keoghan’s effervescent thief came along and raised the stakes and energy of the story. After that Gawain’s drive was one of survival as Lowery’s screenplay gave him a succession of devilish, deadly and seductive obstacles to overcome.
David Lowery is an original thinking talent, and someone I categorise as an alternative genre filmmaker. Like Quentin Tarantino, the Coens, Bong Joon-Ho and dare I say it, Stanley Kubrick, he takes familiar content and filters it through his own inimitable style and vision. His masterpiece thus far is the truly remarkable romance, A Ghost Story (2017), a low-budget indie gem. The bigger-budgeted The Green Knight (2021) certainly has scale and magic and astounding cinematic power. But such adventure stories, for my taste and preference, need a hero with a clearer goal. Lowery gives the audience sorcery and existentialism and some nightmarishly beautiful sequences, while overall lacking clarity for Gawain’s personation. I imagine this is actually deliberate to counter genre expectations and make the viewer raise their game and apply meaning. I felt the same about Kubrick’s fatalistic, Barry Lyndon (1975), when I first saw that. Indeed, I have no doubt that on future watches The Green Knight (2021) is likely to be similarly revered as cinematic gold.
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, William Forsythe, Richard Bright, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, Darlanne Fluegel. Larry Rapp, Mike Monetti, Richard Foronji, Robert Harper, Dutch Miller, Gerard Murphy, Amy Ryder, Julie Cohen etc.
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***
If you were, like me, thoroughly absorbed by Martin Scorsese’s recent directorial gangster epic, The Irishman (2019), you should definitely check out another incredible gangster drama, Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It is directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone, he of “Spaghetti Western” fame. Indeed, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), was the first feature film he’d made since A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). Sadly, it was to be his final film.
With a director’s cut running at a behemoth 250 minutes and original theatrical release lasting 229 minutes, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is certainly a marathon viewing experience and fitting epitaph to Leone’s cinematic craft. Yet, the film rarely feels over-long or slow because there are so many memorable scenes, fascinatingly complex characterisations, incredible intrigue and enough narrative density present to satisfy any audience member with the patience to let it absorb you. Structurally, the film is epic in nature too as it cross-cuts between three, arguably four, separate timelines in: 1918, the 1920’s, the 1930’s and 1968. Interestingly, I watched it via Amazon Prime in two sittings and is so long even the original ‘Intermission’ card remains.
Leone and his amazing production cast and crew took almost a year to film Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It’s reported to have had somewhere between eight to ten hours of footage on completion. He originally wanted to release it as a two-part epic, but the studio insisted it was distributed as one film. The almost-four hour theatrical release was received to great critical acclaim in Europe, however, a severely chopped down 139-minute version was put out in America. It was a critical and box office bomb. American critics however, lauded the European version, lamenting the non-release of Leone’s full cinematic vision.
For a filmmaker who was drawn to stories set in the America, Leone would generally film in European studios and locations. While some exteriors for Once Upon A Time in America (1984) were shot on location in Florida and New York, many of the interiors were recreated in Rome’s Cinecitta. Furthermore, a Manhattan restaurant was built in Venice, and incredibly, Grand Central Station was rendered at part of the Gare du Nord in Paris. Having said that, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is so carefully and exquisitely designed and filmed, you would not notice. While possessing more than an air of European arthouse sensibilities, the film, based on a novel called The Hoods, represents Leone’s and his co-screenwriter’s tarnished vision of the American dream. Most significantly is the theme of a loss of innocence. 1920’s New York is presented through the eyes of these Jewish working-class children, many of them sons and daughter of migrants from Europe. These are tough times and the story explores the collision between young innocence and adult corruption by society and humanity. Once Upon A Time in America (1984) is also a story about friendship, loyalty, passion and crime.
The narrative revolves around the lives of young gang of Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn called: Noodles, Max, Patsy, Cockeye and little Dominic. It’s majestic storytelling of the highest quality as we flit between past, present, now and future. Robert DeNiro’s older Noodles reminisces both from 1930 and 1968. There is a sense that he may be projecting from the hazy and drug-addled glow of an opium den. That is open to interpretation though. Thematically, the framework hangs a history of childhood friendships, juxtaposing it with the same people as adults and their victories, losses and betrayals. Further themes include: love, lust, greed, crime, broken relationships, Prohibition, union corruption; as well as focusing on the rise of mobsters in American society.
Noodles as portrayed by an imperious Robert DeNiro is calm on the outside, however, his often-rash actions show him as impetuous, emotional and wild on the inside. James Woods’ Max is much more careful, calculating and ice-cold in his business. But the two forge a friendship as teenagers which continues in adulthood. Their childhood gang subsequently becomes a renowned bootlegging and criminal outfit. Leone does not ask us to like or find sympathy for the characters, but rather respect that they are a product of a ruthless era. Sure, they could have got day jobs, but they decide to become criminals and very successful they are too. Even after Noodles gets out of jail for killing a rival, Max has saved a place for him in their illegal liquor trades. Only later does the true deception occur. Ultimately, while their stories are incredibly compelling, these men are violent lawbreakers who spill blood, bribe, threaten, kill and rape, all in an attempt to rise up the ladder of the American capitalist system.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the story, but safe to say the cast in this classic film are amazing. Along with DeNiro and Woods’ brutally convincing performances a whole host of young and older actors are directed beautifully by Leone’s careful hand. The standouts for me are Jennifer Connelly in a very early role. She portrays the younger Deborah, while Elizabeth McGovern is the older version of the same character. Connelly is a picture of angelic innocence and Noodles is smitten with her from the beginning. It’s sad therefore that when the adult Noodles’ is rejected by Deborah, his reaction is both toxic and unforgiveable.
Undeniably, sex and violence are powerful features in Once Upon A Time in America (1984). Sex especially is rarely, if at all, romantic or part of loving relationship. There are two brutal rape scenes in the adult years. Even when they are kids the character of younger Peggy is shown to use her promiscuity as a weapon to blackmail a police officer. There are some tender moments though, notably during the scene where young Patsy seeks to lose his virginity with Peggy. Her payment would be a cream cake, but Brian eats the cake and saves his innocence. Yet such scenes are fleeting as mob rule, violent robberies, fiery death and murder ultimately dominate the character’s bloody existences.
As I say, the actors all give memorable performances and the supporting cast including the likes of Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Tuesday Weld and Joe Pesci are extremely strong too. A special mention to James Hayden who portrays the older Patsy. He doesn’t have the most dialogue compared to the characters of Max and Noodles; however, he has a quiet power which steals many scenes via strength of personality. The fact that Hayden died of a heroin overdose, in 1983, after completing filming only adds to the cult of tragedy. Dead at 30 years of age, James Hayden never got to see any completed version of Once Upon A Time in America (1984).
Given this review is getting near epic proportions itself I will begin to wrap up by heaping praise on the incredible production design. The costumes, locations, vehicles, props and era are slavishly and beautifully recreated. So much so you can almost smell the smoke as it drifts up from the Brooklyn streets. Moreover, the film is superbly photographed by Tonino Delli Colli. The music! I haven’t even mentioned the sumptuous score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. His score is a masterful symphony of haunting laments for loss of love, friendship, loyalty and life. Much indeed like Once Upon A Time in America (1984) itself, as a whole. In conclusion, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so in the knowledge that Sergio Leone has transplanted that same brutally elegant vision of the Wild West to the American gangster genre with unforgettable emotional resonance and power.
Produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyleretc.
Music: Max Richter
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There’s a moment toward the end when Brad Pitt’s intrepid astronaut, Roy McBride, is floating in space, and he asks himself (via a voice-over), should I carry on? Is there any point? In the vastness of space, nearing the endgame of an epic mission full of danger, he asks himself if it is worth, existentially speaking, continuing. It’s a central theme to the whole film and perfectly encapsulates McBride’s character. Externally he is heroic, however, internally he is perpetually questioning whether life is worth living. I often find myself doing this, but not in space. It’s usually when my alarm goes off in the morning and I have to go to work.
But McBride is not pathetic like me. I cannot even get on a plane for fear of crashing. He is on a mission to save Earth. Because, in the near future, catastrophic destruction is threatening us. Thus, he is given the task of venturing to Neptune, via Mars and experience all manner of space obstacles in order to track down the person or persons who may have caused the beginning of the end. This individual is alleged to be his father, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. So begins McBride’s very personal journey to the stars; to the heart of the darkest space.
A while ago I wrote an article about Hollywood making unofficial “remakes” as part of their film output – you can read the article here. Essentially, I proposed that in amidst their sequel, prequels, adaptations and superhero movie releases, you will get original screenplays and content too. However, sometimes these original ideas are thinly veiled carbon copies of ideas and structures from other films or literary sources.
For example, Star Wars (1977) used The Hidden Fortress (1958) structure and characters as an original starting point. Likewise, James Gray’s stunningly crafted science-fiction drama. Ad Astra (2019) is clearly using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as, not just influences, but total structural replication.
This in no way effected my enjoyment of this enthralling epic. What did happen though is that the story structure felt very familiar. The narrative unfolds in a staccato style with elegantly shot space transportation sequences and McBride’s psyche testing stops, spiked with bursts of action, fighting and surprising twists. When Clifford finally reaches Kurtz, I mean his father, his character and the audience have experienced some truly thrilling and visually spectacular moments. We also experience the psychological and philosophical musings of McBride. But, arguably these are nowhere near as poetic as Martin Sheen’s voice-over from the Coppola war classic.
In most scenes the visuals steal the show. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and production design creates a hive of imagery which, amidst the darkness, bursts with colour and light. I genuinely, especially on Mars, felt like I was in a moving art installation. Having said that, Brad Pitt’s subtle but emotional performance and Max Richter’s sumptuous score also enhance the emotional pull of the story. Pitt, I expect to win a Best Supporting Oscar as Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), but he could also get a Best Actor nomination here.
James Gray directs with a deft and “less is more” hand throughout. While the production itself looks epic, the psychology of the film is one of introspection. His themes of obsession, journey and existentialism drew me in the way they did in his last film, The Lost City of Z (2016). Ultimately, although the film’s screenplay could have ironed out some thin characterisations and plot inconsistencies, Gray demonstrates that the very existence of his films certainly make life worth living.
“Lord of Light! Come to us in our darkness. We offer you these false gods. Take them and cast your light upon us. For the night is dark and full of terrors.“― Melisandre prays to R’hllor
Created by: George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Based on: A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin
Executive Producers: George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Carolyn Strauss, Bernadette Caulfield, Bryan Cogman, Miguel Sapochnik, David Nutter
Producers: Mark Huffam, Frank Doelger, Chris Newman, Greg Spence, Lisa McAtackney, Bryan Cogman, Duncan Moggach
Writers – Season 8: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Dave Hill, Brian Cogman
Directors – Season 8: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Miguel Sapochnik, David Nutter
Main cast: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Liam Cunningham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Alfie Allen, John Bradley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Gwendoline Christie, Conleth Hill, Rory McCann, Jerome Flynn, Iain Glen, Carice Van Houten etc.
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
Those damned bells. The first chime sent a chill in the air. Everything stopped for what seemed like an eternity. The second chime clanged. The third and then the fourth and suddenly the fate of a television show went from glorious triumph to a just about earned pyrrhic victory by the final episode credits. Thus, in the space of a minute or so, and the carnage that followed, Game of Thrones virtually threw seven seasons and 5 episodes under a narrative bus.
I’m of course talking about a key character and plot wrench in Season 8, episode 5, called The Bells. While what followed after Queen Daenerys’ decision to carry out her actions, was as spectacular a television set-piece as you could ever see, unfortunately it led to a badly judged final episode called The Iron Throne. In this final episode the writers gave us a series of baffling creative decisions which flew in the face of character arcs and also many rules of the Westeros world. Don’t get me wrong, strong shocks and massive twists have always been part of the books and show. However, some of the decisions made were just mystifying.
This is a spoiler-free and more emotional outburst so I won’t go into specifics. In my review of Season 7 — found here — I defended the writers, who I believe could be forgiven some sleight-of-hand contrivances and geographical inconsistencies, because the show was still one of the most entertaining programmes around. Conversely, the first seven seasons gave me some of the greatest televisual enjoyment I have ever experienced. Moreover, the novels are an incredible testament to the brilliant imagination, scope and mind of author George R.R. Martin.
In terms of character, plotting, dialogue, action, reversals, twists, shocks, romance, performance, political intrigue, editing, direction and jaw-dropping-heart-pounding-tension Game of Thrones is ONE OF THE GREATEST TV SHOWS EVER! Moreover, as aforementioned, George R. R. Martin’s books are just something else too. Indeed, the third book, A Storm of Swords, is one of the best works of fiction I have had the pleasure to read. But yet, Season 8 had some more amazing action and events too. It’s just THAT ending; THAT final episode.
Highlights of Season 8 were the build up to the attack by the dead. Winter had finally arrived i.e. death. It comes for us all and our heroes were witnessing a manifestation of death via the White Walkers and Others; all led by the ghoulish Night King. Then when battle commenced the third episode called The Long Night, was an incredible action feast, containing moments of high drama, horror and heroism from many characters we have come to love and even some we hate.
I didn’t even mind that the black night meant it was difficult to see some action. Moonlight, fire, the Red Women and dragons lit up the sky enough to see what was occurring. The blackness was in context and added to the doom facing our characters. My issue was that the fight with the Night King was an end-of-the-world event. Surely, this battle should have closed the show. But no, there was more to follow; the final battle for the Iron Throne itself. In my view, anything following The Last Night could be open to anti-climax. So, it proved.
HEROES AND VILLAINS
Let me reiterate: I still loved Season 8 and I DID NOT SIGN A PETITION for the writers to take the black! These so-called fans signing on-line petitions need to get a life and if they want to take a stand need to take a good LOOK AT THE REAL WORLD! But there was no smoke without fire for the online pitchfork hordes. I too did not agree with how rushed the final season was and many of the character choices that were made. During The Long Night and The Bells episodes I witnessed two of the finest television episodes ever seen from a production perspective. They were jaw-dropping. But from a structural stand-point they were as broken as Bran.
It would appear the showrunners were working from George RR Martin’s template as to how it may end. However, we definitely got a bullet-point conclusion; leaving it hitting certain emotional plot events without earning them. Basically, the complexity of characterisation was lost in favour of wrapping up the storylines too quickly. However, I still cannot praise the massive crew and cast who made this TV show. It genuinely made my life worth living from a cultural perspective.
WINTER HAS GONE!
The main reason for watching and loving the show was for the heroism in the face of death and darkness. Life can be shitty and tough and Game of Thrones was about escape for me. Personally, I felt characters such as Jon Snow, Daenerys and Jamie deserved more heroic endings, but instead got disappointing ones. Similarly, Cersei’s visceral flame just fizzled out. I know they aren’t real people but I wanted their conclusions to be more rousing. The likes of Arya, Sansa, Brienne of Tarth, Samwell Tarly; and even Sandor Clegane got somewhat satisfying endings. I guess you can’t have everything, though.
Don’t get me wrong, Game of Thrones has a propensity to surprise and shock and amaze and it definitely did that in Season 8; right up until THAT vanilla ending. Because as the troubadour once sung, “It’s better to burn out than fade away;” so it’s a shame the lord of light diminished somewhat at the end. Still, it’s all about the journey and the quest rather the final destination. Winter and come and winter has gone and it’s a one I will never forget!
SIX OF THE BEST #11 – GAME OF THRONES (S: 1 – 7) – GREATEST BATTLES
Game of Thrones is one of the biggest literary and TV phenomena of recent years. It has entered Western cultures’ psyche offering a glut of: plotting, death, sex, class-divide, war, fantastical beasts and devilish sorcery! I think the main strength lies though in the wonderful writing that stems first from George R.R. Martin’s behemoth tomes and the incredible production values of the show. Plus, the casting, acting and directing is more often than not better than most cinema offerings.
For my latest article on the show I would like to look at six of the best battles. The spectacular fighting and warring is often amazing but what makes it work is the emotional impact you feel during the battles. The writers have always strove to build empathy, sympathy and antipathy with the characters so you feel strongly as to whether they live or die. Heroes, anti-heroes, friends and nemeses are often pitted against each other in the most violent fashion and epic quite frankly doesn’t cut it as a word to describe such rousing and emotional action.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
BLACKWATER (S2 – EPISODE 9)
Arguably the first major battle epic of the whole show found Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) attacking King’s Landing in an attempt to smash through the Lannister’s stronghold and claim the Iron Throne. Shadowed boats float amidst the blaze of wildfire as men cut down other men on the shore. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) gives a rousing speech as the Hound (Rory McCann) spites barbs and curses before finding fear in fire. Within the castle keep Cersei (Lena Headey) gets drunk and bullies Sansa (Sophie Turner) to tears. It’s a dirty, bloody and fiery battle tremendously edited and expertly directed by Neil Marshall.
THE MOUNTAIN AND THE VIPER (S4 – EPISODE 8)
While this fight between the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) and Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) is nowhere near as big as the others on this list, it does not make it any less impactful or brutal. Their hand-to-hand trial by combat is a both a legal fight to determine Tyrion Lannister’s guilt for the crime of murder; and a personal revenge for Prince Oberyn for the death of a loved one. Pascal is absolutely superb in his performance throughout this season and the hatred he for the Lannister’s spits out of his whole being. He is a skilful fighter and linguist too but sometimes that just isn’t enough as hubris proves his downfall. This fight is as unforgettable as it is gruesome and the end is one I will never forget.
THE WATCHERS ON THE WALL (S4 – EPISODE 9)
With the White Walkers march painstakingly forward toward the realms of men and women, The Wildling tribes and their hordes of men, women, barbarians, cannibals, Worgs and giants descended upon The Wall in this brutal episode. Like the battle of Blackwater, Neil Marshall again directs the whole shebang as we get fifty or so minutes of spectacular cinematic action throughout. The brave soldiers of the Night’s Watch essentially re-enact the conflict of Rourke’s Drift – albeit with a massive wall in the way – as they fend off the Mance Ryder’s fierce Wildlings. The emotion is high to as Ygritte (Rose Leslie) once again comes face-to-face with her lover Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), as their savage romance ultimately proves to be a doomed one also. Its fire, it’s ice; it bones crunching and bloody to the end.
HARDHOME (S5 – EPISODE 8)
The walking, running and horse-riding dead finally reach some semblance of civilisation as they launch a vicious attack on the Wildling settlement of Hardhome. It’s a beautifully designed battle sequence which begins with unease between Jon Snow and his Wilding allies, before a deathly silence befalls the area. After which silence gives way to: the slow drumming of feet, the slippage of snow and then the racing army of skeletal men and women smashing toward the living. We knew the first major battle with the Night King and his acolytes would prove deadly and just the beginning of the cold war. As Jon Snow and the flame-haired Tormen take the fight to the zombie foes many Wildling lives are lay waste in the sodden black and red dirt of Hardhome; only for them to rise again.
BATTLE OF THE BASTARDS (S6 – EPISODE 9)
I recall seeing an advert for Sky TV and Game of Thrones at the cinema. They ran with the tagline “Believe in better!” over an image of Jon Snow, sword held in hands, while affront him is an army of Ramsey Bolton’s cavalry charging toward him. It is a moment of sheer breath-taking spectacle. Designing and filming war scenes must be some of the most difficult for filmmakers. The Game of Thrones directors are under added pressure to differentiate their images as well. In the Battle of the Bastards the director, Miguel Sapochnik, and his team of cameras, actors and stunt-people open with these incredible wide shots before taking us into the nitty gritty of the fight. It’s all shot from Jon’s perspective. He fights off foes on foot and horse; mud and blood splashes and soaks him until the Bolton army are pushing the Stark’s army back and back until all seems lost. There’s one further twist before the end of a quite amazing battle set-piece.
THE SPOILS OF WAR (S7 – EPISODE 4)
Season 7, while suffering from pacing issues due to a speeding up of the narrative, was arguably the most cinematic and spectacular season of all. There were so many great battles as in Stormborn, where Euron Greyjoy’s attacked his niece’s Yara’s ships in a burning row under moonlight. Moreover, in the episode Beyond the Wall, the magnificent seven (Hound, Jon Snow, Tormen, Gendry, Davos, Jorah etc.) of Game of Thrones went white-walker hunting and found themselves surrounded by the dead. But, arguably the most exhilarating battle was in The Spoils of War. Having been blindsided tactically by Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) went on a Dothraki and dragon offensive and set about destroying the Lannister army and allies. Like a medieval Saving Private Ryan (1998), we are thrown from the air to ground to right into the faces of the soldiers. The shot where we track Bronn (Jerome Flynn) as he attempts to load the Scorpion catapult is incredible. Emotions are high too as our favourite characters face off against each other as they all perilously come close to losing their lives. Kudos goes to the stunt-team, extras and crew for pulling off one of the most memorable battles ever committed to celluloid.
If you love the show like me, please check out my other articles on Game of Thrones listed below.
SIX OF THE BEST #10 – GAME OF THRONES FINEST HEROES!
According to Christopher Booker’s text The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, there are in essence only a limited number of narratives including the: ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Comedy, ‘Rebirth’, ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Voyage and Return’. Booker echoes too the studies of mythologist Joseph Campbell who argues that the ‘Hero’s Journey’ or monomyth is the common template of most stories.
Christopher Vogler followed on from Campbell’s extensive work in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writer arguing that most popular stories can be narrowed down to a series of basic structures and archetypes. Indeed, while watching Game of Thrones you can certainly identify many of them notably the Heroes Journey!
So, to continue my exploration of the first six seasons of one of the greatest shows ever, I look at some of the more heroic characters in HBO’s TV masterwork.
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS – SEASONS 1 – 6**
ARYA STARK – MAISIE WILLIAMS
A young tomboy at the start of the show Arya’s transformation from fresh-faced waif into a face-shifting-sword-fighting-deadly-assassin has been nothing short of extraordinary. What strikes me as most heroic is Arya’s propensity for bouncing back and that mental toughness has seen her overcome going blind, being enslaved, kidnapped, beaten and left for dead and STILL managing to get revenge on her enemies.
BRIENNE OF TARTH – GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE
I don’t think there is a nobler character than Brienne of Tarth. She is an honest and loyal Knight of the highest order and an incredibly tough swordsperson too. I was surprised more than anything when she defeated the Hound in combat. Furthermore, her unrequited romance with Jamie was very touching. She is probably the hero with the biggest heart and I hope she gets a good ending in the show.
DAENERYS TARGARYEN – EMILIA CLARKE
Daenerys is arguably not as sympathetic a hero as many of the others on the list. Perhaps, her demand and pursuit for the Iron Throne could be seen as power hungry; and in recent seasons her desire for fire and blood have shown a more dangerous side to her. However, her journey has been from a naïve, sold-off bride to a storming Queen; one that has not only commandeered the Dothraki and Unsullied but also defeated the venal Slave-Masters.
JON SNOW – KIT HARRINGTON
Probably the most heroic character of them all as he had outsider beginnings as an illegitimate bastard before growing in stature and experience to become the King of the North. Having made vows to the Nightwatch his desire to form an alliance with the Wildlings became his undoing and only the Lord of Light prevented him passing into the next world. A handsome, rugged and fine fighting specimen, Jon Snow leads by example inspiring those around him to greater things.
SAMWELL TARLY – JOHN BRADLEY-WEST
Samwell is what I would class as a quiet hero. Ridiculed for his larger size on first meeting he slowly, through intelligence and diplomacy, came to be respected by the Nightwatch; notably Jon Snow. However, it is his protection of Gilly which has seen his heroic stock rise. Having rescued her from the evil Crastor; adopted Gilly’s son as his own; fought off a White Walker; he even stood up to his bullying father, proving Sam to be a right decent chap all round.
TYRION LANNISTER – PETER DINKLAGE
Much maligned and ousted from the Lannister family following Joffrey’s deserved death Tyrion has proved his bravery and fortitude in many desperate circumstances. I feel his heroism comes from the determination to never give up despite his physicality and the demonization which occurred when he was born. Be it on during the Battle at Blackwater Bay or when standing up to his father Tywin, Tyrion just refuses to buckle and heroically ploughs on.
Firstly, the evacuation of Dunkirk, France, during World War II was simply put one of the most incredible acts of survival and escape achieved. From the historical articles and documentaries I have read and seen the Allies were on the ropes and pinned back by the German army causing 400,000 beaten, starving and bedraggled human beings to be trapped on the beach waiting desperately for rescue. It’s no spoiler to state that many brave people enabled that rescue creating that well-known phrase “Dunkirk spirit” to enter our vocabulary.
Put yourself in that position for even just a minute and the fear drains one cold and feeling so lucky that I will never have to feel that threatened. These are people, young soldiers fighting against a fascistic foe who are backed into a corner and whose lives are about to be extinguished. So, think about that when you wake up in the morning because Christopher Nolan’s epic film, as do many other films, books and television shows about the war, give your life meaning about how lucky we are to not have to live through that. Count your blessings you’re not in a war and the life we live has relative freedom.
These and many more emotions flashed through my being while experiencing the incredible epic that master director Nolan and team have delivered via Dunkirk. Throwing us immediately into the action we are shown the hell of war from three perspectives: land, sea and air. Nolan works from a simpler focus and premise compared to his other works and this makes it all the more powerful an experience. Where films such as Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and Memento (2000) had complex, shifting narratives relying on heavy exposition, grand concepts and plot twists, Dunkirk deals with one simple sterling idea: survival!
I found the whole experience immersive and pulsating from a cinematic perspective. Christopher Nolan, and his production team, have in the: editing, cinematography, composition, colour, acting, framing, sound, score and movement created pure and poetic cinema. From the safety of my comfy seat I felt real danger, peril and claustrophobia. The narratives’ drive comes from fragmented moments of fear and blasts of explosive danger. The impressionistic style was full of scenes containing quiet doom as well as noisy, confusing and fiery terror. Even the smallest situation such as the locking of a cabin door takes on great significance, sending a chill down the spine. As the enemy closes in from above and below and water fills the screen and lungs of our heroes, then death moves in for the kill.
Nolan eschews the solid build-up of traditional characterisation to create emotion through the visual form with a chopping style which serves to heighten the panic. There are so many haunting images as men and boys are stuck behind doors and ships and in boats and underwater and in the air and on moles and piers, compressed, suffocating and unable to breath as bullets, torpedoes and bombs pepper their souls. The coruscating soundscape, montage and hypnotic score from Hans Zimmer only add to the dread within the non-stop action. The dialogue is spare and at times muffled as character development is also sacrificed due to the compressed timeline. Yet, for me, empathy was garnered through verisimilitude, form and style rather than a conventional storytelling and a simplistic three-act transformational arc.
The characters are archetypes but serve the story very well. Kenneth Branagh’s noble sea Commander brings gravitas while Mark Rylance brings a naturalistic humility to the stalwart and duty bound Mr Dawson. Aneurin Barnard’s silent soldier allows his haunting eyes to dominate, while the pathos emitting from Barry Keoghan’s young George is incredibly powerful. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, while inexperienced actors, represent the palpable fear any young man would exhibit when faced with certain death. Tom Hardy adds star quality in his role of RAF pilot, Farrier, and the image at the end of his plane burning in the sunset is indelibly etched in my mind.
But, overall the film belongs to the masterful direction of Christopher Nolan who, in delivering 106 minutes of pure dramatic exhilaration demonstrates he is more than just a genre filmmaker but a cinematic artist echoing the works of Sergei Eisenstein, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick within this war and disaster film masterpiece. Dunkirk was a savage defeat for the Allies but it rallied the nation against the enemy and Nolan has produced a film that stands as a worthy tribute to those who lost their lives and those brave people who survived.
SCREENWRITER: James Gray (based on the non-fiction book by David Grann)
CAST: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I’m not a great traveller myself. Boats and trains aren’t too bad but I can’t stand flying. If I feel the need to experience the world I am more than happy to either Google a place or vicariously familiarise myself with other worlds and cultures by absorbing it through TV or indeed at the cinema. Moreover, stories about explorers, adventurers, mountain climbers, adrenaline junkies and the like are not always my favourite kind of sub-genre film. Obviously, if it is a story well told then I am open to all genres but more often than not the obsessive and narcissistic characters in pursuit of thrills or far flung places can leave me cold. Not so with James Gray’s epic adaptation of The Lost City of Z which focuses on soldier, surveyor and explorer Percy Fawcett’s dogged search for definitive archaeological proof of a historical Amazonian civilisation.
The story begins at the turn of the 20th Century where Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is a mid-ranked officer in the British Army. Keen to find some serious military action he’s disappointed to be given the job of surveying and mapping the uncharted borders of Bolivia and Brazil. Accompanying him is his guide and aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Pattinson) and what begins as a punishing journey into the heart of darkness becomes, over the course of the film and subsequent expeditions, an obsessive ‘Holy Grail’ type quest for Fawcett. The drama in the jungle gives us Fawcett’s encounters with: the elements, piranhas, rapids, illness, wild animals, starvation, dehydration, cannibal natives and even an Opera concert at a plantation deep in the forest. However, the conflict back in Blighty is just as resonating as Fawcett battles the naysayers who question his belief that the indigenous tribes may have been in anyway civilised or cultured. Indeed, as a historical critique of the old British Empire and their inherent racism the film makes some interesting points.
I watched the film at the Picturehouse Central on a 35mm print and it really added to the old-fashioned, poetic and golden feel of this attractive sprawling epic. Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Tom ‘new Spiderman’ Holland and Sienna Miller all provide excellent performances. Hunnam – who I know from his sterling work on Sons of Anarchy – stood out especially and given the right script choices he’s likely to become a bona fide movie star. His Fawcett is a complex, confident but honest man who, while obsessed with his pursuit of the Lost City, loves his family and stands on the side of the righteous. The director James Gray and his filmmaking team, above all else, deserve special mention for delivering a beautifully shot, acted, paced and edited historical drama. Indeed, this fascinating material deserved more screen time and it was so mesmeric I could easily have watched this film for hours. (Mark: 9 out of 11)