Norse myths and legends, Odin, Thor

Myths and Legends: Origins and Traditions

I’m opening up a new front in These fantastic Worlds: mythology, ancient civilization and their connections to modern gothic and fantastic fiction, art and music.

William Blake, Ancient of Days, myths and legendsObvious examples include William Blake’s prophetic works and paintings with their biblical and Chaldaen inspirations, H. P. Lovecraft‘s Babylonian-leaning weird tales, and the crafty teen fiction of the Percy Jackson series based on Greek Myths. It’s also easy to see the rolling myth-making of the modern comic book and the all-powerful superhero movies (Avengers, Thor, Man of Steel and the rest), with their archetypal story lines: good vs evil, quests, Gods (the powerful) vs the humans, all originating in the myths of ancient civilisations, from  the Sumerians, to the Egyptians, the Greeks, to the multifaceted Indian Vedas.

I’ve recently finished collecting together the stories of the Celts, Greeks, Native American and Norse mythologies for some paperback books which will shortly be published in print and ebook editions. Here’s the foreword to the series.

Myths and Legends: An Introduction

Stretching back to the oral traditions of thousands of years ago, tales of heroes and disaster, creation and conquest have been told by many different civilizations in many different ways. Their impact sits deep within our culture even though the detail in the tales themselves are a loose mix of historical record, transformed narrative and the distortions of hundreds of storytellers.

TJupiter and Thetis, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingresoday the language of mythology lives with us: our mood is jovial, our countenance is saturnine, we are narcissistic and our modern life is hermetically sealed from others. The nuances of myths and legends form part of our daily routines and help us navigate the world around
us, with its half truths and biased, reported facts.

The nature of a myth is that its story is already known by most of those who hear it, or read it. Every generation brings a new emphasis, but the fundamentals remain the same: a desire to understand and describe the events and relationships of the world. Many of the great stories are archetypes that help us find our own place, equipping us with tools for self-understanding, both individually and as part of a broader culture.

Greek and Roman Sources

For Western societies it is Greek mythology that speaks to us most clearly. It greatly influenced the mythological heritage of the ancient Roman civilisation and is the lens through which we still see the Celts, the Norse and many of the other great peoples and religions. The Greeks themselves learned much from their neighbours, the Egyptians, an older culture that became weak with age and incestuous leadership.

It is important to understand that what we perceive now as mythology had its own origins in the intimations of the divine and the rituals of the sacred. The earliest civilisations, in the crucible of the Middle East, in the Sumer of the third millennium BC, are the source to which many of the mythic archetypes can be traced. As humankind collected together in cities for the first time, developed writing and industrial scale agriculture, started to irrigate the rivers and attempted to control rather than be at the mercy of its environment, humanity began to write down its tentative explanations of natural events, of floods and plagues, of disease.

Native American myths and legendsEarly stories tell of Gods (or god-like animals in the case of tribal societies such as African, Native American or Aboriginal cultures) who are crafty and use their wits to survive, and it is reasonable to suggest that these were the first rulers of the gathering peoples of the earth, later elevated to god-like status with the distance of time. Such tales became more political as cities vied with each other for supremacy, creating new Gods, new hierarchies for their pantheons. The older Gods took on primordial roles and became the preserve of creation and destruction, leaving the new gods to deal with more current, everyday affairs. Empires rose and fell, with Babylon assuming the mantle from Sumeria in the 1800s BC, then in turn to be swept away by the Assyrians of the 1200s BC; then the Assyrians and the Egyptians were subjugated by the Greeks, the Greeks by the Romans and so on, leading to the spread and assimilation of common themes, ideas and stories throughout the world.

Only Connect

The survival of history is dependent on the telling of good tales, but each one must have the ‘feeling’ of truth, otherwise it will be ignored. Around the firesides, or embedded in a book or a computer, the myths and legends of the past are still the living materials of retold myth, not restricted to an exploration of origins. Now we have devices and global communications that give us unparalleled access to a diversity of traditions. We can find out about Native American, Indian, Chinese and tribal African mythology in a way that was denied to our ancestors, we can find connections, match the archaeology, religion and the mythologies of the world to build a comprehensive image of the human experience that is endlessly fascinating.

The stories in these new books provide an introduction to the themes and concerns of the myths of each respective cultures, with a short introduction to provide a linguistic, geographic and political context. This is where the myths have arrived today, but undoubtedly over the next millennia, they will transform again whilst retaining their essential truths and signs.

Books in the Myths and Legends series are available from the end of April. Here’s the Amazon link.

Myths and Legends, folklore, mythology

 Other links

The Paintings in this Post

In order of appearance

Odin’s Wild Hunt, painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872
Ancient of Days, William Blake, Europe of Prophesy, 1794
Jupiter and Thetis, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1811
In the Crystal Depths, N.C. Wyeth 1906
Book covers for the Myths and Legends series, Flame Tree 2014

captain america winter soldier, movie poster

Movie Review: Captain America and the Winter Solder

So, who do you trust? And how do you know if you’ve made the right choice? With this central conundrum the new Captain America movie is a feisty, old-fashioned thriller, highlighted by the presence of uber-conspiracy actor Robert Redford (The Candidate, All the President’s Men).

From the beginning we are, literally (yes, I know, but it’s true, in this case), up and running. The set up is brilliant with the fluid running, endurance, and achingly good-hearted exchanges between Cap and a new friend, Falcon. Soon we dive into the cynical manipulations that all expect from the secret services, and we, the knowing audience in a post-Snowden world can feel trust issues leaking from every action.

Captain America Winter Soldier, movie postersWhat’s in a Name?

“Captain America” always makes me a feel a touch queasy. It’s the chest pumping name. However, the naked patriotism is derived from two 20th Century world wars where simple choices were entirely logical; the movie is dealing with raw material that were created around those times. But the Captain America of the Sixties’ comics, and now, the modern movie makers must contend with a more complex world: urban environments are packed with diverse cultures and the debate between town and country is tortured by difference. It’s easy to forget that in the West we’re all immigrants, descendants of multiple invaders: the Celts, Saxons, Vikings, Visigoths, Indo-Europeans. Ultimately we all came from Africa. So, now, if you want to be patriotic, popular entertainment has to be careful: stick to the values of the people, not the governments or its security services and don’t focus on skin colour or gender or religion. And beware of a government that represents its people too willfully.

Thankfully, this movie manages to subvert the baggage of Captain America’s name, and go for what we all want – honesty, decency – and does it with decisive clarity. The plot focuses on this conflict of perspectives, a battle between different versions of ‘doing the right thing’, on behalf of others.

Fantastic Moments

The movie has its faults but it’s a rip-roaring adventure from start to finish. The emotional sub-plots add depth and never get in the way of the action. And while I can’t say that any plot resolve surprised me (I’m not sure that’s why we go to a film like this), it’s a thrilling ride. Black Widow’s flirty joshing with Cap about girlfriends was neat without being cheesy, and Falcon’s running gag “to the left” also added to the character development without hitting too hard.

Of course, there is a lot of hitting hard in this movie, probably too much, but again, it is that kind of movie. Elsewhere I’ve been critical of Man of Steel‘s final third which was overrun by far, far too much exaggerated building crashing, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier strayed into this territory a few times, but the reason Cap wins is not just that he’s a superhero with immense strength, it’s his values that win him friends and colleagues, that make people respect him, and his occasional human weakness (he doesn’t need Kryptonite to incapacitate him) truly brings us to his side. Captain America Winter Soldier Black WidowThere are several great moments in the film: at the beginning we see Cap landing, racing through and swiftly depatching dozens of armed opponents. The marvel is the incredible, fluid sprinting, like floating across water. Also, it’s worth saying, almost every scene with Scarlet Johansson, including a devious reveal towards the end, brings warmth and humanity to what might have been an excessively violent film without her.

Similarly, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon determined modesty makes him a winner in every scene. Of course, the flying is the best, when he takes off for the first time I wanted to cheer (I didn’t. Too embarrassing at my age) There’s also some nice interplay between old and new, bringing the best of the old (the Harley Davidson) and allowing nostalgia to have its wicked way with the treachery of new technologies. There’s a poignant scene where Cap is taken to the deepest underground chamber where he sees for the first time, the vast arsenal of SHIELD, with its superior warplanes and ultimate firepower, but rather than be impressed he questions the validity of those who can control such power. Then he visits the Smithsonian where the simple aircraft of the first and second world wars hang on thin cables, from a Golden age of simpler choices. It’s an obvious message but worth offering in our own world of realpolitick.

Captain America Winter Soldier ShieldThe Cast

All the main characters bring strong performances,  including Sam Jackson acting beyond his usual gravitas, and an unexpected turn from Robert Redford as the delusional senator.

Oh, and the shield. It is a scintillating part of Caps’ body, but a brilliant character in its own right with the irony of the shield vs SHIELD not lost on any of us: in a game of authenticity, is it the man-made titanium, or the corrupted secret service that rings most true?

Thor, Dark World, movie posterThe Marvel Universe

The Marvel universe continues to expand, offering the unique perspectives of individual characters and their worlds, while allowing for acute intersections. Captain America’s action is a long way from Thor’s The Dark World, but they move in the same gigantic space.

There are some good links to the previous movies, without overdoing it, with mentions of the devastation of New York during The Avengers battle and Senator Pierce obliging Nick Fury to send Iron Man to his niece’s party. Of course, there are several links forward, with mention of Stephen Strange, and two post title snippets which propel us into the next phase of the Marvel Universe. We see the twins, (Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch), imprisoned and mad, and Loki’s sceptre, linking us to the Guardians of the Galaxy movie later this year, with its infinity Gem, and the next Avengers movie: Age of Ultron.

So intrigue abounds, and after all the excitement, we can look forward to ever more fantastic entertainment…

Ratings (out of five stars)

Entertainment value: ****
Story rating: ****
So, the overall rating is: A trusty ****

Links

Here are some other movie posts you might like to check out:

2014 SF and fantasy movies

Top 10 Superhero Movies

Jimmy Page, twin neck guitar, top guitar albums

Top 10 Guitar Albums

So, here’s a top guitar album list that spans the generations, Radiohead to Guns n Roses, Led Zep to Nirvana.

This was an impossible task: it’s easy to be swayed by the most recent recordings, or last album heard, or rediscovered, so I’ve tried to keep any eye on ground-breaking albums that had a personal effect on me, as well as the more obvious wider significance.

Parallel Lines Blondie, great Guitar AlbumsThere is inevitable weighting to the 1960s and 70s because that was, in America and Europe at least, when the guitar in all forms, especially the electric, was thrust to the fore, and became the instrument of choice for the young dreamer: prog rock to punk, funk to heavy metal. It’s a striking instrument but can be treated badly and beautifully, it can be used to express every emotion known to humankind, either as a solo instrument or part of a band, Jeff Beck to Paul Weller. In the Sixties and Seventies it was experimented with, tortured, gracefully executed, combined with amplifiers and stage equipment to make unworldly sounds and used to create the widest possible range of sonic landscapes.

The naked guitar, played willfully or passionately (not the same thing) is a rare beast now. If you think Photoshopping has caused a problem for celebrities and body image, just don’t think about the recording industry and the effect that digital editing has had on modern music! It would be impossible for punk to burst through now. It would be prepackaged and edited out of existence. The recent passing of Paco de Lucia, a guitarist who played without effect, overdub or edit, has highlighted the impact of this man of passion and grace, a talent fully realised both by audience and fellow professional: we will never see his like again.

Top Guitar Albums, Garbriela y RodrigoI’m not saying this is a bad thing, because the digital age has democratised music, hauling it from the sweaty hands of the corporate money makers but the massive scale of opportunity has made it difficult for the guitar to shine in the way that it used to (Rodrigo y Gabriela excepted!). So the pure genius of a Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, the collaborative power of Pete Townshend or Peter Green would have to work so much harder to be heard.

Factors

So, factors include:

  • Impact on the popular music, taking new directions, bringing fresh air and light,
  • Listenability. I know there is much respect for  bluesmen such as Robert Johnson but the old mono recordings  are very difficult to consume without struggling to hear the quality of the song.
  • Not all the best guitarist create the best guitar albums. I’m a great fan of Joe Satriani but I can’t, in all honesty put any of his whole albums in this list because they’re not ground breaking, or listenable to anyone other than someone who already loves the music, or the style.
  • It’s not about the solos. Steve Vai is brilliant and fast, but there’s more to playing the guitar than running up and down the neck at speed. Obviously this is a personal choice, and clearly Mr Vai is an amazing guitarist.

Ok, that’s enough preamble, here’s the Top 10, followed by selections of Blues Rock albums, Jazz/Experimental, Rock and Indie/Alternative. If this give you half the pleasure it’s given me in writing this blog, then it’ll be worth it!

top guitar albums, Black Sabbath, Paranoid, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 10
Paranoid, 1970.
Black Sabbath
Producer: Rodger Bain (Judas PriestBarclay James Harvest)
Band: Ozzy Ozbourne, Tony Iommi, Gezzer Butler, Bill Ward

This is something of a guilty pleasure. I remember being thrown off my seat by this album, played very loud at a friend’s house, well after it was released. Unlike Led Zep or Jeff Beck Toni Iommi’s  guitar sounded achievable, and so drew me in. I’ve hardly listened to it over the years but on impact alone it deserves its place in history as one of the first heavy metal albums, and Iommi’s abandoned head banging style  spawned a million air guitarists who suddenly didn’t care that they didn’t have a girlfriend to dance with!

top guitar albums, Guns And Roses, Appetite For Destruction, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 9
Appetite for Destruction, 1987
Guns ‘n’ Roses
Producer: Mike Clink (also produced Megadeth‘s Rust in Peace)
Band: W. Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, Steve Adler

With Sweet Child o’ Mine and Welcome to the Jungle the album is packed with sensational rock songs, driven mercilessly by the hard rock riffing of Slash and co. Sad to say that he clash of egos and all that comes with massive success, and the adrenalin rush of mass audiences destroyed what was a brilliant, iconoclastic band. This album is perfect though and still sounds as glorious as the first time I heard it blasting from every street corner in 1987.

Top Guitar Albums, Rolling Stones, exile on main street frontNUMBER 8
Exile on Main Street, 1972.
The Rolling Stones
Producer: Don Was and The Glimmer Twins (you know who they are right?).
Band: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards. Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor.

Standout track: Rocks Off. Characteristic of the album this is a good-time track with some rollicking guitar work. I must admit it took me years to like the Stones because I find/found Keith Richards guitar sloppy and irritating, but I think I missed the point: his riffing, up-tempo blues is a perfect fit for the engine room of Watts and Wyman, the pomp and grandeur of Jagger and the steady steel of Mick Taylor (then). The album was recorded in Nice and has a happy, anything-goes sort of sound, with the addition of some terrific musicians who add soul and diversity to the sound: Billy Preston, Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, Jim Price,  Al Perkins many others.

top guitar albums, The Who, My Generation, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 7
My Generation, 1965.
The Who
Producer: Shel Talmy (also worked with The Kinks and Cat Stevens)
Band: Roger Daltry, John Entwestle, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend,

The title track of this clattering, brilliant album was awesome live: pulsing, elastic and evocative it captured the frustrations of suppressed youth and spat it out through the lyrics, the music and the performance. The Who are one of those bands who were best heard live, something about the studio, or methods of recording seemed to restrain their collaborative exuberance (Jimmy Page overcame this with his acute recordings of Led Zep). Still, this is still a statement album for any rock guitar enthusiast.

top guitar albums, nirvana, nevermindnevermind, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 6
Nevermind, 1991.
Nirvana
Producer: Butch Vig
Band: Kurt Cobain (guitar/vocals), Krist Novoselic (bass) and Dave Grohl (on drums).

Smells like Teen Spirit is the storm that blew across the smug pop synths of the late 80s. Alternately shocking and intimate the sound of the album is powerfully crisp and would influence many of the bands that cam after.  With its extremes of loud and soft a few years later Radiohead created further complexity from the same social and lyrical concepts. I love the fuzzy beginning, the hypnotic breakdowns and the vivid  blasts of energy. Dave Grohl’s Foo  Fighters continued on this fine, dynamic path.

top guitar albums, Radiohead,The Bends, these fantastic worlds,NUMBER 5
The Bends, 1995.
Radiohead
Producer: Nigel Godrich (Scott Pilgrim vs The World)
Band: Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway

With this, their second album Radiohead found their stride. After Pablo Honey‘s Creep, the weedy whine of stalky, teenage angst that was blasted apart by devastating guitar, The Bends propelled Radiohead to stardom with a run of brilliantly innovative recordings. Almost 20 years later the entire album retains it’s expansive power with the guitar, the voice and the atmospherics pushed to their limits and The Bends remains a must for any guitar orientated listener. Perversely I can’t resist offering this version of Creep as the video:

top guitar albums, Queen, Sheer Heart Attack, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 4
Sheer Heart Attack, 1974.
Queen
Producer: Roy Thomas Baker (YesGuns ‘n’ RosesAlice Cooper)
Band: Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon, Roger Taylor.

Killer Queen, In the Lap of the Gods, Brighton Rock, She Makes Me, there are so many great songs on this album. Queen matched their excruciating pomposity with sublime skill and created an incredible record where guitar, voice, piano meld into a gigantic thunderstorm of rock. Their comeback slot at the LiveAid gig in 1985 marked them out as one of the most outstanding bands of their, and any, generation, they even blew Led Zep of the stage. Close your eyes when you listen to this and you’re transported to another place!

top guitar albums, jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 3
Are You Experienced, 1967.
Jimi Hendrix Experience
Producer: Chas Chandler ( bass player in The Animals, managed Slade too)
Band: Jimi Hendrix, Noel Reading, Mitch Mitchell

The album that launched the phenomenon that was Jimi Hendrix. For many, the greatest guitarist ever (number 3 here!) his upside down, left hand guitar technique was uniquely dynamic, giving him a fresh trebly sound, that standard right hand guitarists, however brilliant (Jeff BeckJimmy Page) simply couldn’t match.  On Are you Experienced we’re treated to a sonic boom of virtuoso guitar playing that emerges from some humble rhythm guitar work in the verses, with Hendrix paying homage to his blues circuit apprenticeship before giving vent to his otherworldly soloing. One of my top albums.

top guitar albums, led zeppelin, physical graffiti, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 2
Physical Graffiti, 1975.
Led Zeppelin
Producer: Peter Grant is credited, but really it’s Jimmy Page
Band: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham, John Paul Jones

With standout tracks such as Kashmir, Trampled Underfoot and Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti took Led Zep into a wider harmonic landscape where their customary assault on the senses now brought the sounds of other cultures to create a bombastic musical journey. Still clinging to their blues rock roots they skillfully turned their experiments into major triumphs and this remains one of the greatest achievements of a guitar orientated rock band.

The video below is not the whole song but an intriguing discussion between Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White about Kashmir.

top guitar albums, friday night in San Francisco, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 1
Friday Night in San Francisco, 1983
Guitar Trio
Producer: Bob Belden
Band: Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlan

Standout tracks? It’s hard to see past Mediterranean Sundance but every single one is awesome; this live album captures the exuberance of three competitive guitarists from different traditions creating an album that’s greater than the sum of its parts, no mean feat when you consider that the three of them were at the height of their considerable ability. They brought intricate acoustic guitar work into the mainstream without compromising their roots and the album is still a joy to listen to now as it was back then. I think this is the album that has inspired me the most of the last few decades and it still thrills me with its muscular

Blues Rock Guitar Albums

  • The Kinks, The Kinks, 1964.
  • The Real Folk Blues, John lee Hooker, 1966.
  • The Yardbirds, Roger the Engineer, 1966.
  • The Truth, Jeff Beck, 1968.
  • Electric Ladyland, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968.
  • Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Derek and the Dominoes, 1970.
  • Led Zeppelin IV, 1971.
  • Sticky Fingers, Rolling Stones, 1971.
  • Bare Trees, Fleetwood Mac, 1972.
  • Corridors of Power, Gary Moore, 1982.
  • Elephant, White Stripes, 2003.

Jazz/Fusion/Experimental Albums

  • Abraxas, Sanata, 1970.
  • The Inner Mounting Flame, Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1971.
  • Velvet Darkness, Allan Holdsworth , 1976.
  • Land of the Midnight Sun, Al di Meola, 1976
  • Hot Rats, Frank Zappa, 1969.
  • Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, Jeff Beck 1989.
  • Garbriela y Rodrigo, Garbriela y Rodrigo, 2006

Rock Albums

  • The Man Who sold the World, David Bowie, 1970.
  • Barnstorming, Joe Walsh, 1972.
  • Argus, Wishbone Ash, 1972.
  • Zuma, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, 1975.
  • Dire Straits, Dire Straits, 1978.
  • Boy, U2, 1978
  • Van Halen, Van Halen, 1978.
  • AC/DC, Back in Black, 1980.
  • The Extremist, Joe Satriani, 1982.
  • The Wall, Pink Floyd, 1989.
  • Rust in Peace, Megadeth, 1990.
  • Pearl Jam, 1994.
  • Experiments in Mass Appeal, Frost* 2008
  • The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories), Steven Wilson, 2013.

Indie/Alternative Rock

  • White Light/White Heat, Velvet Underground, 1968.
  • Never Mind the Bollocks, The Sex Pistols, 1977
  • The Queen is Dead, The Smiths, 1986
  • Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth, 1988
  • Surfer Rosa, The Pixies, 1988
  • The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses, 1989
  • Wild Wood, Paul Weller, 1993
  • The Colour and the Shape, Foo Fighters, 1997.
  • Amnesiac, Radiohead, 2001.

Well, I’m exhausted. I was going to finish with an incredible video of Tamacun from Garbriela y Rodrigobut I’ve put it on a Youtube playlist instead: Top Guitar Albums.

If you like this, there are a couple of other guitar posts you might be interested in: Top 10 Guitarists, ever! and The Guitarists Guitarist: Paco de Lucia.

Thanks for reading. Let me know if you have any different albums that should have been included (Joni Mitchell‘s Last of the Hissing Lawns anyone?)

Troy movie poster, these fantastic worlds

Top 10 Historical Fantasy Movies

History as fantasy makes for a fantastic movie! In these days of lightning-fast internet searches,  the attention span of a social media generation is too short for engaging with the nuances and complexities of history. So the answer is an entertaining movie, steeped in visual detail, revealing  the thrilling dramas of ancient or unfamiliar places.

I’ll admit, because of the problem above my quality threshold is pretty low on this sort of film, if find myself far more critical of an SF film with implausible science (I am Legend), than a historical fantasy with a twisted sequence of events (Alexander). I love history, anything to do with civilisation, mythology, clashes of culture, on a micro or cosmic scale and I’ll be first in line

To make the top 10 these films have to:

  • illuminate a period of history, not just create a tired description, but bring it to life.
  • The history is likely to be ancient, or distant, so giving the audience an objective viewpoint on the drama, and allowing for an element of fantasy or supernatural. Our modern world provides so many explanations  its easy to forget that humanity survived with a slow burn of technology over several millennia.
  • The above rules out some fine  biopics (Lincoln)  and period dramas such as Duchess. I’m not being particularly rational about this, but I need to narrow the field to a create a cohesive list.

Finally, some of the best of these movies tell a great story within a clear historical landscape (GladiatorKingdom of Heaven). Does this require utter historical accuracy critical? Up to a point I suppose, but the films are not documentary, and they tell a powerful drama, within the visual language of a two to three hour movie theatre event, rather than a 400 page book.  So, this list is a celebration of 10 great movies that deliver history in a brilliant and entertaining form.

Kingdom of Heaven, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 10
Kingdom of Heaven, 2005.
Director: Ridley Scott. Featuring Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Liam Neeson.

This squeaked in, perhaps defiantly so. It has mixed reviews and tackles a notoriously polarizing subject: the motivations and actions of the Crusaders. For me the film successfully walks the tightrope between the ideals of faith, and the hypocrital actions of those who follow it to the extreme, or become corrupted by the power of victory and assumption of righteousness. And this is down to Bloom (as Balian de Ibelin) and Scott who bring hard action nuanced by subtle emotional undercurrents. The victories are de Ibelin own, personal triumphs of a decent man, not the Crusaders as a whole, who butchered of Christians and Moslems alike.

300, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 9
300, 2006.
Director: Zack Snyder. Featuring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham.

I’ve written about this elsewhere. I know it’s been criticized for accuracy, but IT’S A FILM! I like the hardcore graphic novel vibe, the heroic absurdity of the ascetic Spartans, and the powerful retelling of a disputed event in ancient history when the Persian Empire swept across the known world. Set in 480 BCE this is the period of The Buddha and Jainism, the first inklings of Roman influence, the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, with the Celtics swarming across Europe and the great Babylonian civilisation being overwhelmed by the Persians. In this bleak landscape where mighty armies vied for land and power, pride was fuelled by supernatural fears and  the courage of 300 Spartan soldiers who stood against the tidal wave of the Persian invasion still strikes a chord today.

Spartacus, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 7
Spartacus, 1960.
Director: Stanley Kubrick. Featuring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov.

At just over 3 hours this is a marathon of a movie, but it’s worth every second. The powerful synthesis of several differing stories of the rebellion of the slave Spartacus is told with a panache and sincerity rarely matched today. I suppose the only reason its not higher up on the its is that occasionally its hard to forget the heavily mannered acting and measured pacing. The story of Spartacus has become an inspiration to many generations of the repressed, from the slaves of deep South America, to Karl Marx and Ronnie Reagan. Once more, it the story of one individual that grabs us, whatever we think is going on around him.

NUMBER 8
Becket 1964.
Director: Peter Glenville. Featuring Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud.

Becket, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worlds

Oh this could have appeared anywhere in the top 10. The magnetic performances of Burton and O’Toole draw us in to the psycho-drama of two friends who find themselves on opposite sides, only this time one is the King of England in 1170 AD, the other is the head of the Church, placed there by his friend, the King. With themes that resonate today (the power of the church, hypocrisy and power hungry leaders) this is based on the brilliant play by Jean Anouilh and retains much of its power.

Lawrence of Arabia, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 6
Lawrence of Arabia, 1962.
Director: David Lean. Featuring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn.

With a screenplay by Robert Bolt ( Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons), the atmospheric direction of David Lean and introducing the scintillating screen presences of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif this is a magnificent film. Although it covers modern period than the ancient history of others on this list , it deals with the conflict of civilizations and the human condition that brings home the impact of the War that was supposed to end all wars, the First World War. Still powerful inspite of its now antiquated cinematography it rewards repeated viewings


Alexander the Great, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 5
Alexander, 2004.
Director: Oliver Stone. Featuring Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie.

Set 130 or so years after the 300 movie Alexander revels in the story of the world’s greatest military commander. Flawed, singled -minded and utterly charismatic he fell victim to his own propaganda but achieved a god-like status in his lifetime. The movie is much maligned but often for the reasons I love it: sprawling, chaotic with endless detail and some painful emotional moments for a 25 year old young man conquering the world from Greece throughout the Middle East until he had gone too far and stretched his own credibility once at the forests and rivers of India

Elizabeth, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 4
Elizabeth, 1998.
Director: Shekhar Kapur. Featuring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston.

Realsed in the same year as the more jaunty Shakespeare in Love (which covers a slightly later period), Elizabeth offers an enthralling insight into the Renaissance world of the 16th century with its conflicts between catholics and protestants, the machinations of court politics and the panEuropean manoeverings of papal kingdoms of Spain,  France, Portugal and England. The darkness, the steely grit of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush’s Wallsingham bring this brutal, crucial period of history into brilliant relief.

Troy, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 3
Troy, 2004.
Director: Wolfgag Petersen. Featuring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom.

A massive, engrossing film that lays bare the petty, testorone fuelled wars of the ancient world. Set in roughly 1200 BCE, the very early days of ancient Greece the story of Helen and Troy is a celebrated love story. The movie creates a grand spectacle and, Brad Pitt’s slightly absurd 21st Century fighting skills aside, offers insights into the minds of the ancient world, packed with supernatural misgivings, drunken decisions of loyal, all-powerful men and the brutal savagery of a landscape dominated by fear of the Gods, war and power.

Gladiator, Movie posters, sf and fantasy movies, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 2
Gladiator, 2000.
Director: Ridley Scott. Featuring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen.

Set in the 2nd century AD, Gladiator is loosely based on themes of the time, but attempts to show the violence, corruption and chaos at the heart of a Roman Empire that’s threatened from all sides. The paranoia of the ruling elite, with its echoes in the war torn parts of today’s world, is everywhere, but the character of the Gladiator manages to blend Ben Hur with Spartacus to provide a thrilling story, offering the unusual twist of Maximus, revered commander of a Roman army being emasculated, renamed and reduced to fighting for his life in gladiatorial arenas. The resonances are picked up even today, with parallels to 12 years a Slave where a respectable man is thrown in to a system that traps him into salvery because of his colour and perceived origins. With an exquisite performance by Oliver Reed (in his final role), Russell Crowe steals the show with his gruff, uber masculine presence, but Joaquin Phoenix delivers a marvellous portrait of an insecure, spiteful and petty ruler.

The Last of the Mohicans, movie poster, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 1
The Last of the Mohicans, 1992.
Director: Michael Mann. Featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means.

This movie still reduces me to tears. With it’s tragic mix of romance, melancholia and teeth grinding battles for survival The Last of the Mohicans stirs brilliant performances from the cast, who work a tight, economical script. Caught between the juggernaut of warring European empires (The English and the French) fighting for land in the new America of the mid 1700s we can feel the slide of an ancient, indigenous people drifting into the glorious sunset, their intimate relationship with the landscape to be lost forever. The Last of the Mohicans is a requiem to the end of a culture of humanity that is lost to us all, now that technology has enhanced the deadly impact of greed. As an adventure, based on the Fenimore Cooper novel its pacy hunt through the narrative offers that rare example of a movie that improves on the original book

Bubbling Under

Some of these nearly made it into the top 10, Ben Hur in particular, but here are the movie posters for the some other fascinating films, based or inspired by historical events (list and credits below).

  • Apocalypto, 2006. Director: Mel Gibson. Featuring Gerardo Taracena, Raoul Trujillo, Dalia Hernández.
  • Ben Hur, 1959. Director: William Wyler. Featuring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd.
  • Braveheart, 1995. Director: Mel Gibson. Featuring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan.
  • Camelot, 2011. Director: Featuring Joseph Fiennes, Jamie Campbell Bower, Tamsin Egerton
  • Centurian, 2010. Director: Neil Marshall. Featuring Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko.
  • Clash of Titans, 2010. Director Louis Leterrier. Featuring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes.
  • The Eagle, 2011. Director Kevin Macdonald. Featuring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland.
  • Excalibur, 1981 . Director: John Boorman. Featuring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay.
  • King Arthur, 2004. Director: Antoine Fuqua. Featuring Clive Owen, Stephen Dillane, Keira Knightley.
  • Immortals, 2011. Director: Tarsem Singh Dhandwar. Featuring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, John Hurt
  • Ironclad, 2011. Director: Jonathan English. Featuring Paul Giamatti, Jason Flemyng, Brian Cox.
  • The Last Emperor, 1987. Director: Bernardo Bertolucci. Featuring John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole.
  • The Last Legion, 2007. Director: Doug Lefler. Featuring Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
  • Mongol, 2007. Director: Sergey Bodrov. Featuring Tadanobu Asano, Amadu Mamadakov, Khulan Chuluun.
  • The Scorpion King, 2002. Director: Chuck Russell. Featuring Dwayne Johnson, Steven Brand, Michael Clarke Duncan.

I’ve been looking at science fiction and fantasy movies over the last few weeks, all of which complement these fantastic historical fantasies. Please take a moment to look at:

Al Di Meola, John Mclaughlin and Paco de Lucia

Top 10 Guitarists, Ever!

Listening to music, whether it’s live or on record, download or streamed, is an essential part of my own creative life.  If I’m writing, or painting there’s music on somewhere, blocking out other sounds, or driving me on. Guitar music, of almost any sort, is my first choice because it’s such a varied instrument, and I play. I’m always listening out for something new, something different but inevitably there are some tracks and artists that continue to live with me .

Choosing the best guitarists has been a joy. And a challenge. Restricting it to a top 10 has helped, curiously, because there are so many good guitarists it becomes impossible to decide if the 17th would be better than the 18th, or any other random number in, say, a top 50.

So, I had a few factors:

  • Guitarists who were more than interpreters, but creators and arrangers.
  • Variety of tone and power. Some of the artists who didn’t quite make it into the top 10, for me, are brilliant speed merchants, but that’s just not enough.
  • The playing comes from the heart, is evocative of people and places, that reeks of dreams and doleful nights.
  • They also have to be good live. In fact, the truly great guitarists are a revelation when you see them live, playing with other great musicians. Often the recording process is so stultifying it can destroy the very thing it’s trying to capture.

In the past I’ve caught myself saying that I don’t like the blues. Looking at the list below that’s clearly not true. I suppose I just don’t like it played badly, or lazily and much recorded material is poor.  By contrast, I’ve seen some incredible local bands in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles that need to be heard by a wider audience offered by a recording contract, but never will be.

Anyway, enough rambling, here is the countdown to the top 10 Guitarists.

Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 10
Peter Green.

The driving force of the original Fleetwood Mac (“Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac”) he played with B. B. King, Peter Bardens, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and several later sessions, including Peter Gabriel‘s Up. It’s possible I’ve put Green in for sentimental reasons: he disappeared for a long time, and on his return as a recovering addict he was half the guitarist he used to be. In the mid to late 60s he was confident, natural, feel guitarist; not flashy, but evocative and powerful, soulful and gut-wrenching. Some of his best work is on the featured album 1968′s Fleetwood Mac.

Steve Hackett, top guitarists, these fantastic worlds

NUMBER 9
Steve Hackett.

The thing about Mr Hackett is that he’s not showy. He invented shredding (oh yes he did, acknowledged by Eddie van Halen) but his appeal lies in the incredible breadth of his work, from early Genesis albums to over 30 solo albums that range from classical music to hard rock, to middle-eastern and spanish, east-european folk to sustain-focused lead work. Albums that show his range include Spectral Mornings  from 1979, the more recent Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth (2009) and the most astonishing success of his reworking of early 1970s Genesis, 2012′s Genesis Revisited II.

Juan Martin, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 8
Juan Martin.

Juan Martin’s flamenco is lively and good-hearted, his passionate lines are carefully controlled. When I was younger, he was a brilliant foil to ferocious intensity of Paco de Lucia, and I worked through his Flamenco instruction book (that took a few years!). He is a brilliant educator, clear and crisp and amongst the many album that live with me is the simply named Solo album.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 7
Stevie Ray Vaughan.

As I said at the top of this post, I’m not a great fan of the blues and much of Stevie Ray Vaughan‘s recorded material is dull and flat, but live he was a different creature. Wild and febrile he used 13s on his guitar (for a big fat sound) and often played so hard his fingers bled at the end of a gig. Texas Flood is probably his best record, but the tech rehearsal below is electrifying.

1’30

Steven Wilson, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 6
Steven Wilson.

Porcupine Tree, No Man, Blackfield, solo albums and extensive work as a producer and remixer, Steven Wilson is an astonishing, eclectic musician, and playing the guitar is only a part of his musical vocabulary. He’s perfectly at home playing restrained, intricate acoustic, and some powerful electric guitar: at 5.10 on the video (Drive Home) below the solo is riveting.

Santana, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 5
Carlos Santana.

Influenced by Jazz as much as rock and the blues Santana is another great guitarist who emerged in the crucible of the late 1960s. He cooked a heady brew of exuberant salsa, jazz and blues at a time when rock music and album sales were taking over from perfectly formed but ultimately limited trajectory of the 45. Carlos made his own spiritual journey and created some fine collaborative guitar work. One of his best albums is Supernatural

with Eric Clapton, live

Jeff Beck, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 4
Jeff Beck.

One of a number of incredible guitarists that were nurtured through the Yardbirds school (Clapton, Page, Green) Beck eventually turned away from the commercial and cleaved to a more technical career. Beck enjoyed monumental success as The Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart in tow, sounding like Robert Plant before Robert Plant sounded like his famous self), with Beck’s Bolero ( Keith Moon on Drums, John Paul Jones on Bass and Jimmy Page on 12 sting) and on 1968′s Truth, Freeway Jam.  Also noteworthy is the entire album from 1975, Blow by Blow which confirmed his instrumental prowess.

Led Zeppelin, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 3
Jimmy Page.

What can you say about Jimmy Page? From Kashmir to Whole Lotta Love Page reached the height of his powers during the series of albums that defined the hard rock sound from the 1970s on. Rooted in the blues Page experimented with a much wider palette of sounds, chords and harmonies, producing and creating a series of ground-breaking albums with three engaging, muscular musicians, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and the mighty John Bonham. As with all truly great guitarists Page competed with the talents of his companions and created some of the best rock guitar songs ever.

As a session musician he had played on hundreds of singles (The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones and, er, Val Doonican), learning his craft before reaching out on his own and conquering the world in the early seventies with the drug-fuelled, talent dripping best rock band in the world, Led Zeppelin. Oh, and there’s a reason why every guitar shop in the world still rings with the irritating sound of badly plucked, Stairway to Heaven: it’s a brilliant, cascading, dynamic song.

Jimi Hendrix, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 2
Jimi Hendrix.

Widely regarded as the best electric guitarist ever, by fans and professionals alike, he exploded onto the London scene in the mid sixties after years of playing the US blues circuit. A parade of grade A guitarists saw him when he first played at the Marquee club, fresh from America, later on he burned Eric Clapton off the stage, and left Jimmy Page, Jeff Becks and Pete Townsend, three of the best and most successful guitarist of their generation, open mouthed with admiration. His playing went beyond exuberance, he was a force of nature, his instinctive left handed, upside down Fender Strat was a weapon of music and every live performance was an exposure to sheer musical energy.

Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland are the the best albums, but Youtube is alive with incredible gigs.

1967 recording.

Paco de Lucia, top guitarists, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 1
Paco de Lucia.

For me, Paco will always be number one. He took a tradition that was ring-fenced in its region of Andalucia and hauled it out to the world stage, devoured influences of jazz and latin rhythms. He brought the complex riffs, the exhilarating energy, the soft and fluid lines of traditional flamenco and showed he world how it could battle with the best. His tours with John McLaughlan and Al Di Meola were a triumph of modesty and talent and for a while they ruled the world. Paco suffered the patronizing slights of lesser technicians in the classical world, and the luddite mentality of traditionalists but he brought his love of the flamenco, his skill and his passion to a grateful world. The featured album is Entre Dos Aguas

At Montreux

From 2010.

Bubbling Under.

Bonnie Raitt, top guiarirsts, These Fantastic WorldsAny of these could have hit the lower reaches of the top 10 and I feel bad for Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend who, in their distinctive ways, are titans of the guitar. But the talents of many others are undeniable:

Duane Allman, Eric Clapton (Cream era), Mick Ronson, John Lee Hooker, Dave Gilmour (Comfortably Numb), Eric Johnson, Brian May (Bohemian Rhapsody), Ed O’Brien (for Kid A), Matt Bellamy, Jack White, Dave Davies (You Really Got Me), Martin Pugh (for Buzzard), Bonnie Raitt (slide!) , Joe Walsh.

Special Mentions.

top guitarists, Orinathi, These Fantastic Worlds There are hundreds of other good guitarists of course, and in any other top 10 list you might find find some of these fine musicians: Trey Anastasio, Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Steve Cropper, The Edge,  Lita Ford, Robert Fripp, John Frusciante, Pepe Habichuela, Karl Hammett, Mark Knopfler, Steve Lukather, Al di Meola, John McLaughlan, Ramon Montoya, Scotty Moore, Tom Morello, Joni Mitchell, Gerardo Nunez, Orianthi (played with Michael Jackson and Santana), Prince, Kieth Richard (on record at least), Carl Perkins, Joe Perry, Nino Ricardo, Robbie Robertson (subtle and more interesting than you might think), Pepe Romero, Joe Satriani, Slash, Richard Thomson, Tomatito, Pete Townshend, Steve Vai, Nancy Wilson.

Just to finish

Three brilliant performances:

From Gary Moore, a terrific version of Parisienne Walkway.

When Eric met Jimi, and blew him offstage

And a live flamenco performance by Gerado Nunez.

If this has piqued your interest, here’s a post on the late Paco De Lucia.

Back to movies, fiction and art next week…

The Guitarist’s Guitarist: Paco de Lucia R.I.P.

paco de lucia, album covers, these fantastic worlds

Paco died yesterday. I’ve listened to his exhilarating, intricate and impassioned music for most of my conscious life. He was my mental route out of the suburbs and, immersed in his music, I listened and tapped, whistled and bashed at my guitar in a style that no-one around me liked or understood. Always, he reached deep into the core of what makes me who I am: I picked up my first cheap nylon stringed guitar because of him, I brought a flame red flamenco guitar in Jerez because of him, I chose a cutaway Ramirez stage guitar and played in bars and clubs around London because of him.

Paco inspired me to extemporize, to link passages of melody, to leap from sharp, bright chords into fluid runs, then pause to hear the guitar strings sing through the hollow of the body, resonating into the pit of my stomach. As a white, English male with slow and stupid fingers, I have found it almost impossible to capture the true essence of flamenco, but boy have I tried, and will keep trying until I die.

Impact and Inspiration

Of course, no-one could play like Paco. Juan Martin, Paco Pena and Carlos Montoya, all admirable and worthy guitarists but even they could not scale the heights of de Lucia, especially when he first arrived on the scene, exploding with new sounds, incorporating jazz and salsa stylings into core flamenco soleares. And he grew in stature as experience lent restraint and consideration to his energy: I have many of his records and watched him so many times on stage over the years, with his troupe and on his own; when I close my eyes I can hear the interplay of his percussive golpe with the footstamps of the dancers, the brisk rasgueos counteracting the rhythms of his fellow guitarists, and the subtle melodies that fall into the soulful spaces of the cante.

Like all true artists Paco’s strengths lay not in his speed (which was phenomenal), or his composition (which was broad and enthralling), or his collaborative work (which was humble and graceful) but the synthesis of all his skills, the range of his work, his power to communicate musical ideas with an elegance and sophistication rarely heard today. Paco was instinctive, drenched in the heat and the sounds of Andalucia and so when he played the occasional classical piece such as Concierto de Aranjuez his voice was eloquent and subtle. But make no mistake, this man was a giant amongst the guitar heroes of the twentieth century, perhaps the best-ever guitarist (Jimi Hendrix was rock’s Paco de Lucia) and he played many stunning concerts with others, particular as part of the Guitar Trio with John Mclaughlan and Al di Meola.

So, I’m a fan, you’ll have guessed that and I’m glad to celebrate his music. Of course there are so many memorable tracks to listen to, but at random, here are three to find on iTunes or Spotify, or at your local indie record store: Luzia (siguiriya), Gitanes Andaluces and Mediterranean Sundance with Di Meola and McLaughlin on 1981′s exuberant, outrageous Friday Night at San Francisco. At the end of this post there’s a link to a Youtube playlist with some other great pieces.

Finally, here’s a selection of Paco’s album covers. As you can see, no fancy designs here, he let his music do the talking.

Top 10 Fantasy Movies!

harry potter and the deathly hallows part two, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsChoosing the top 10 fantasy movies is not straightforward. Early films, even up to the 1990s suffer from serious quality and tone issues (1997′s risible Kull The Conqueror), or while worthy, are not so easy to watch; the much revered, but now severely dated, Wizard of Oz sits squarely in this category.

Also excluded are sf and superhero fantasies (sorry Hellboy) because they have enough fantastic material for their own top 10 lists (sf, see here and superheroes  here). And, no cartoons (Fantasia, Shrek) or other forms of 2D animation (ruling out the excellent Corpse Bride and Coraline); magnificent though they are as slices of fantasy their format interferes with the emotional connection.

So, here the list, it’s pretty broad, but does emphasise watchability and the dark, mysterious places of the mind.

truman show, movie poster, truman show, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worlds

NUMBER 10.
Truman Show, 1998.
Director: Peter Weir. Featuring Jim Carrey (The Mask, Grinch) and Ed Harris, Natascha McElhone (Solaris)

Jim Carrey, a talented actor who generally lacks control both over his limbs and facial muscles transcends this natural inclination to create the performance of a lifetime in a simple, brilliant fantasy about the dangers of a modern life conducted in the glare of the camera. Carrey’s character is born on an utterly believable TV set, and his life is examined, minute by minute, something the Myley Cyruses and Britney Spears of today have had to endure. Remarkably prescient, with cringe-inducing moments of dramatic irony this truly deserves its place in the top 10.

Stardust, Movie Poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 9.
Stardust, 2007.
Director: Michael Vaughan. Featuring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Sienna Miller.

Based on a novel by Neil Gaiman this brilliant movie maintains the exquisite, muscular imagination of its source. This is a modern fairy tale, with falling meteors, hidden worlds, dark threats and imaginative twists that cast a cynical eye on the fantasy genre while revelling in its freedoms. Curiously also includes Henry Cavill (Superman) and narrated by the inestimable Ian Mckellan (Magneto, Gandalf and one of the greatest theatre actors of his generation).

hunger games catching fire, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 8.
Hunger Games, Catching Fire, 2013.
Director: Francis Lawrence. Featuring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson.

I know this is new but it’s a terrific ride and better than the its predecessor. Jennifer Lawrence is active and powerful as the everygirl thrown back on her own resources. The brilliant character acting of Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson, the set piece flames and landscapes, and a silky Donald Sutherland make this hugely entertaining. Not to be missed though is the subversive battle against brutality in a dystopia that pits the downtrodden poor against the lavish lifestyles of the ruling folk; it’s not an original theme but certainly a cautionary tale for the modern teen generation.

angel heart, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 7.
Angel Heart, 1987.
Director: Alan Parker (also writing credit). Featuring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro.

This movie has haunted me for decades. I saw it when it was first released and it made a deep impression on me: the iron elevator doors, the long shadows, the grainy storytelling, the devil dressed smart and sharp. This could easily fit it a crime and mystery top ten but the dark themes, the depths of personal redemption and enigmatic, suggestive visual imagery draws it into the realms of fantasy.

pirates of caribbean, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 6.
Pirates of the Caribbean, The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003.
Director: Gore Verbinski. Featuring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley.

This justifies its place not just on its own, but as representative of the entire series of Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Although the third and fourth were a touch too flabby, this first movie is incredible, with Johnny Depp’s outrageous take on the untrustworthy pirate trope, and the gallery of colourful characters with Geoffrey Rush and Orlando Bloom acting their socks off. It could have been really cheesy, with the inevitable love story dominated by the feisty Keira Knightly character Elizabeth Swann, but add an ancient curse, a deadly search for treasure and the dark, supernatural deeds, and this becomes a thrilling, triumphant fantasy.

Excalibur, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 5.
Excalibur, 1981.
Director John Boorman. Featuring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, and Nicol Williamson.

The legend of Arthur has been tried so many times, (from the brilliant 1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Clive Owen’s turgid King Arthur of 2004), but nothing so powerful, or just plain dirty as Boorman’s dark epic. The decidedly peculiar voice of Merlin still gives me the creeps, and the tension between the grim landscape and the shiny armour of the Knights offers a constant reminder of man’s attempt to conquer the unconquerable. With an incredible cast including Liam Nielsen, Cherie Lunghi, Patrick Stewart and Gabriel Burne it’s lopsided, over suited, but pure magic.

harry potter and the deathly hallows part two, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 4.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, 2011.
Director: David Yeates. Featuring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes and Michael Gambon.

This is a fine film and a worthy end but represents the whole series, which saw improvements in each of the eight outings. The Harry Potter movies had such a grip on a generation of readers and movie goers it’s impossible to ignore. At first the splitting of the final book into two movies seemed to be a cyclical marketing ploy but the final film is solid fantasy action and even teases some passable performances from the main characters. As ever the mood of the film is the killer feature complemented by the stunning old-school talent that graced each of the entire series, from Ralph Fiennes‘ rasping Voldemort to the doddering, arch deputy head Dame Maggie Smith. A fine ending, it holds no punches and finally we have the Harry Potter vs Voldermort we all wanted, with Potter being old enough to hold his own in a proper magical battle.

pan's labyrinth, movie posters, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 2.
Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006.
Director: Guillermo del Toro. Featuring Ivana Baquero.

Oh, oh, this nearly made number one, and i the middle of the night when I dream of dark corridors and deep pits, it still is. It’s mood reminds me of Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson stories of the early 19th Century, full of weird, spooky, hands with eyes, but its starting point is German occupied Spain, 1944 and a young girl’s attempt to escape the awfulness of the life around her. Doug Jones (Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four) makes a fantastic horned faun. A must-see film for any fan of dark fantasy

lord of the rings the return of the king, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 1.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003.
Director: Peter Jackson. Featuring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen.

And so, to the pinnacle, The Return of the King. Another representative of a series of films, Peter Jackson‘s lovingly detailed serving of Tolkein’s vision is as complete and scrupulous as one could ever imagine. Tolkein was a stickler for the realization of the whole world in his novels and surely would have been delighted with the detail and the romance (in a medieval sense) of the films. Of course there are great battles, dark moments, the brilliant Andy Serkis as Gollum, the exhilarating Orlando Bloom, and a truly satisfying end, this is the culmination of over 8 hours of movie watching, and worth every single second. 

Special Mentions

Plenty of really good movies just didn’t quite make the top Ten, and some didn’t make the Special Mentions either:  2005′s Brothers Grimm, (with Terry Gilliam, Matt Damon and Heath Ledger offering a typically skewed view of the original tales), Clash of Titans from 2010 and The Mummy of 1999, were very close indeed. Some of the older movies such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Beauty And The Beast (1946) were groundbreaking but are difficult to watch now, without tearing into the production values of the time. Below the movie posters gallery is the list with directors and actors.

  • Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013. Director: Peter Jackson. Featuring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the voice of the dragon).
  • Serenity, 2005. Director: Joss Whedon (Buffy, Avengers). Featuring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave).
  • Time Bandits, 1981. Director: Terry Gilliam. Featuring Michael Palin, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall.
  • Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1989. Director: Terry Gilliam. Featuring John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley.
  • The City Of Lost Children, 1995. Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Featuring Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet.
  • Delicatessen, 1991. Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Featuring Marie-Laure Dougnac, Dominique Pinon.
  • MirrorMask, 2005. Director: Dave McKean. Featuring Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon. (Neil Gaiman script).
  • Pleasantville, 1998. Director: Gary Ross. Featuring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen.
  • The Fall, 2006. Director: Tarsem Singh. Featuring Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru.
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004. Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grinch.
  • Twilight, Breaking Dawn Part 2, 2012. Director: Bill Condon. Featuring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner.

Family Movies

This fantasy top 10 is heavily biased towards the dark and moody end of the fantastic but there are some fine examples of family oriented, playful movies, from Mary Poppins (1964), Nanny McPhee (2005) and 2007′s enchanting Enchanted.

  • The Wizard of Oz, 1939. Director: Victor Fleming. Featuring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley and Billie Burke.
  • Alice in Wonderland, 2010. Director: Tim Burton. Featuring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005. Director: Tim Burton. Featuring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly.
  • The Witches, 1990. Director: Nicolas Roeg. Featuring Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher .
  • Jumanji, 1995. Director: Joe Johnston. Featuring Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst.
  • Where The Wild Things Are, 2009. Director: Spike Jonze. Featuring Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker.
  • The Dark Krystal , 1982. Director: Jim Henson, Frank Oz. Featuring Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Frank Oz.
  • Willow, 1988. Director Ron Howard. Featruing Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis. George Lucas script.
  • Labyrinth,1986. Director: Jim Henson. Featuring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud.
  • Neverending Story, 1984. Director: Wolfgang Petersen. Featuring Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach.

Well, that’s it for now. I’m sure I’ll shift things around over the next few months, and with the last Hobbit coming at the end of the year, that might affect the top 10.

Other sf and fantasy related posts include:

Please take a look at these and let me know what you think. Thank you.

Top 10 Superhero Movies!

The Avengers Assemble, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsA top 10 list of superhero movies is fraught with danger, ranging from credibility issues to blind, tribal allegiance. I grew up with Marvel and used to hunt for the imports in all points of my local town, cycling far and wide to discover fresh territory: Swamp Thing, Howard the Duck, The Avengers, Green Lantern (DC, I know), Iron Man and the rest. I am inclined to these sorts of movies and don’t load them with critical expectation; I like them to be escapist entertainment, with some thrilling aspect (hopefully flying!), not too much beating up of either the helpless or predictably invulnerable, spiced with a touch of human condition and a recognizable weakness added in somewhere (Kryptonite doesn’t count!).

There used to be a problem of tone in superhero movies. Up to the ground-breaking X-Men of 1999 superheroes were dominated by the likes of Joel Schumacher’s hammy Batman series, where the transition from the excitement of the 2D comic into a 3D thriller didn’t come through unscathed.  X-Men was a proper movie, darker, enigmatic, and a bridge into the current era of fully realized adventures in the form of juggernaut super-movies such as Dark Knight Rises and Avengers Assemble which feature superpowers with a soul, and weaknesses that emerge as an opponent from the inside. In the modern era of multiple superhero movies a character that can outwit, rather than just outblast their opponents is, ultimately, more appealing.

Some, after some agonizing, here’s the top 10, followed by some special mentions, and a few turkeys!

Thor, movie poster, movie trailer,

NUMBER 10.
Thor, 2011.
Director: Kenneth Branagh. Featuring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopins, Idris Elba.

This just scraped in and might have been replaced by  the second movie (Thor: Dark World)  but for the cheesy assault on Greenwich in London and the weak villain. This first movie has some decent otherworldly SFX, plays magnificently with Thor’s mighty hammer (a character in its own right) and brings the arrogant Gods of Norse mythology to bright, brilliant life. The movie explores Gods vs Gods, Gods vs frost giants, Gods vs humans and the perils of invulnerability, and introduces the fabulous Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

Hancock, movie poster, movie trailerNUMBER 9
Hancock, 2008.
Director: Peter Berg. Featuring Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman.

From the bug-eyed movie poster with its apocalyptic reflected views we know this is going to be special. The movie doesn’t quite meet the assumptions of the poster but the exceptional character work of Will Smith (whose 2013 After Earth was a major disappointment), and the unusual twist of an unpopular, layabout, hobo of a superhero keeps us on our toes for most of the film.

Hellboy, movie poster, movie trailer,NUMBER 8
Hellboy, 2004.
Director: Guillermo del Toro. Featuring Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair.

It’s bonkers, so far from any Marvel or DC Universe that it breathes good fresh air over the concept of superheroes, or in Hellboy’s case, a sort of anti-superhero. I don’t like the Nazi vibe, but love the darkness, the underground shots and the brutish humanity of Hellboy himself. And the tone and the cinematography reminds me of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, which is no bad thing.

Watchmen, movie poster, movie trailer,NUMBER 7.
Watchmen, 1985.
Director: Zack Snyder (300, Man of Steel, and, er, Sucker Punch). Featuring Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino.

Another movie that trades in anti-superheroes, Watchmen offers the intriguing notion of superheroes becoming so unpopular that they have to retire. The mood is dark and dirty, the characters are brutal and lack sentiment, but of all the films this one stays with me the most. It’s a very close adaptation of the DC comic masterminded by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and remains one DC’s most intriguing comic book series.

fantastic four, silver surfer, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 6.
Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer, 2007.
Director Tim Story. Featuring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis. Laurence Fishburne as the voice and Doug Jones as the motion capture for the Silver Surfer.

This won’t be a popular choice. The first FF movie did reasonably well at the box office but it’s become the child in the corner that nobody talks about. However, Jessica Alba’s pouting aside any film with The Silver Surfer will make my top 10. Amongst the many terrific and intriguing scenes in this movie the best for me is where the newly determined Silver Surfer defies his cosmic master, Galactus and drives back the planet consuming force. Even that doesn’t quite justify a top 5 slot.

The Avengers Assemble, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 5.
Avengers Assemble, 2012.
Director: Joss Whedon. Featuring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Jackson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston.

This had been my number 1 superhero movie for a while, and might be again, but the competition is fierce. The best thing about the film is its very existence. Somehow Joss Whedon and co managed to harness the choreographed lead-in movies of The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, combine the egos of the immense lead characters, retain their quirks and create a successful movie that hit 1.5 billion US dollars at the global box office. Even the Hulk works well, after two disastrous movies, but I think the success is the mix of thrilling action and a healthy dose of humour; Marvel’s characters revel in exploring the flip side of a super power, teasing at the weaknesses as much as the strengths (Superman please note) and this has translated well onto the silver screen. Of course there are some great performances, particularly Tom Hiddleston who grew into his role as Loki after a solid start in Thor, his star really rises here.

Wolverine, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 4.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2009.
Director: Gavin Hood. Featuring Hugh Jackman.

It’s hard to get past the fact that Wolverine is one of my and my son’s favourite characters. From different generations we find a common bond in this particular hero. He’s not a goody-two-shoes super, he thinks for himself and he has a titanium skelton that forces its way out in moments of range and stress. What’s not to like? Perhaps it’s also something to do with the supressed rage, the ferocity vs the underlying humanity. The film’s pretty good at focusing on the isolation of such a character, and the struggle for companionship versus the danger of the same, a common theme in all the X-Men movies.

Dark Knight, heath ledger, movie poster, movie trailerNUMBER 3.
Dark Knight, 2008.
Director: Christopher Nolan (and co-writer). Featuring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger.

I think its the Heath Ledger performance that makes the difference. Jack Nicholson’s admirable previous performances seem cartoonish by comparison and we’re blown away by the looping madness, the creepy intelligence of Ledger’s Joker. The brooding menace even of Batman himself is also effective, turning the rubber-suited, smart-alec of the old films into a character of real depth, intriguing and self-destructive, as likely to damage as to save. The detail in the performances reward several repeat viewings and that’s rare for a superhero movie.

Captain America, movie poser, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 2.
Captain America, The First Avenger, 2011.
Director: Joe Johnston. Featuring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Samuel L. Jackson.

I don’t like war films and I don’t like firefights with boring shoot-em-ups so I feared for this film. However, it balanced action and adventure with some gutsy, passionate scenes and delved deep into the spirit of the moment, the era and the individual characters. And there are some neat tie-ups, for instance Tony Stark’s father as the technical genius behind the experimental process that turns a 97 pound weakling into a super soldier. Chris Evans is terrific as the Cap, having lost the arrogance he adopted for the Human Torch and becomes a man we admire. Even Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, which quickly became an appalling cliche in the comics, is fabulous. Oh, and the shield; really, it’s all about the shield!

iron man, movie poster, movie trailer, these fantastic worldsNUMBER 1.
Iron Man, 2008.
Director: Jon Favreau. Featuring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges

Well, any of the top 5 could be number 1. This first Iron Man was a game changer. It heralded the series of movies that  successfully created the Marvel Universe on film and became the slingshot that brought 1.5 billion USD for the Avengers Assemble. I think it’s the incredible range of iron suits that make it for me, from the early one built in a cave to the scintillating technology of red and yellow metal skins of the later models. Robert Downey Jr. is smooth and arrogant, flippant and profound, and as good in full flight as he is in exploiting his own impatience when trying on the new suits for the first time. Even Pepper Potts is a success, (thank you Ms Paltrow), and overall I didn’t blink once, even at the big bash and crash at the end.

Special Mentions

Some of these are genuine contenders for the top ten, especially Spiderman (a warm, affecting film), Wanted (fabulously fast and mysterious) and Chronicle (a quirky, distressing movie). The others range from the inventive (Unbreakable) to the witty (The incredibles and Sky High).  If the top 10 list had been longer I’d have covered these movies in more detail (I’d like to defend the excellent Jennifer Gardner in Elektra, for instance), but it’s hard enough shuffling the top ten amongst each other! So here are a number of other good, or singularly amazing movies. The list and basic credits follows the movie poster gallery.

  • Spiderman, 2002. Director: Sam Raimi. Featuring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe.
  • Sky High, 2005. Director: Mike Mitchell. Featuring Kurt Russell.
  • Chronicle, 2012. Director: Josh Trank. Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan
  • Unbreakable, 2000. Director: M. Night Shyamalan. Featuring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson.
  • The Incredibles, 2004. Director: Brad Bird. Featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson.
  • Elektra, 2005. Director: Rob Bowman (X-Files). Featuring Jennifer Garner, Goran Visnjic, Will Yun Lee.
  • Wanted, 2008. Director Timur Bekmambetov. Featuring Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman
  • Man of Steel, 2013. Director: Zack Znyder. Featuring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon.
  • Iron Man 3, 2013. Director: Shane Black. Featuring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce
  • Dark Knight Rises, 2012. Director: Christopher Nolan. Featuring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway.
  • Blade, 1998. Director: Stephen Norrington. Featuring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson.
  • Batman Begins, 2005, Director: Christopher Nolan. Featuring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe.
  • Darkman 1990. Director: Sam Raimi (Evil Dead and Spiderman). Featuring Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Colin Friels.
  • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 2003. Director: Stephen Norrington. Featuring Sean Connery, Stuart Townsend, Peta Wilson.
  • Spiderman 3, 2007. Director: Sam Raimi. Featuring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco
  • Kick Ass, 2010. Director: Mattew Vaughn, featuring Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Nicolas Cage making a rare fist of actually acting on screen.
  • Green Hornet, 2011. Director: Michel Gondry. Featuring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz.

Turkeys

I’m one with Sheldon on this, Green Lantern is the biggest turkey of all, although perhaps he had the good sense not even to try Barb Wire (a perfectly respectable Dark Horse comic). And back to that tone thing of the intro to this post, it’s the Joel Schumacher era Batman that gives the game way: superhero movies are most successful when there’s something for us all to identify with.

  • Green Lantern, 2011. Director: Martin Campbell. Featuring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard
  • Batman and Robin, 1997. Director: Joel Schumacher. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman.
  • Batman Forever, 1995. Director: Joel Schumacher. Featuring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Chris O’Donnell, Nicole Kidman
  • Catwoman, 2004. Director: Pitof (The City of Lost Children). Featuring Halle Berry, Sharon Stone.
  • Tank Girl, 1995. Director Rachel Talalay. Featuring Lori Petty, Ice-T, Naomi Watts.
  • Ghost Rider, 2007. Director: Mark Steven Johnson. Featuing Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Sam Elliott.
  • Barb Wire, 1996. Director: David Hogan. Featuring Pamela Anderson.
  • The Hulk, 2003. Director: Ang Lee. Featuring Eric Bana.
  • The Shadow, 1994. Director: Russell Mulcahy. Featuring Alec Bladwin (whose best role remains the typecasting odious neighbour in Cat in the Hat). Just too hammy and old fashioned to be taken seriously any more
  • The Spirit, 2008. Director: Frank Millar, featuring Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johanssen, Sam Jackson.

I hope you enjoyed this swift run through of the Top 10 Superhero Movies. if you have any  suggestions, please let me know below.

Coming soon, Top 10 Fantasy MoviesTop 10 Horror Movies and more!

Other movie related posts on These Fanastic Worlds include the 2014 Top 10 SF and Fantasy Movies and Top 10 Science Fiction Movies.

Top 10 Science Fiction Movies!

This is the first in a series of Top10 Movie posts. Reading through the last one on 2014 SF and Fantasy movies it struck me (it often dies) that just because a movie is new, that doesn’t guarantee quality, and sometimes an older movie increases in value because the technology that created it has been surpassed exponentially. Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange and ET are still great movies, decades after they were made. Actually these three didn’t make the final cut, but they are fine films in their own right.

Along with sf books, comics, magazines and TV shows I must have watched every single science fiction movie since 1968, either on screen, video, dvd or as a download, so this is a list that’s constantly challenged, but the core remains the same. So, here’s the countdown of my Top 10 Science Fiction movies.

movie posters, sf movies, movie trailersNUMBER 10.
Minority Report
, 2002.
Director: Steven Spielberg. Featuring Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell

A glossy, seductive, thriller, this is another great sf movie based on a Phillip K. Dick story. It’s packed with tension and a killer central idea, that the future can be predicted so murders can be prevented by the police. But one of the detectives (Tom Cruise of course) is cast as a future criminal, and so the movie unfolds. Visually powerful, with immense detail in every shot this is, for me, a worthy top ten movie.

Movie posters, movie trailers, the fifth element.NUMBER 9.
Fifth Element,
1997.
Director: Luc Besson, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker

Stylish, fast paced, crammed with distressed surface technology and a fashion parade of costumes created by Jean-Paul Gaultier, this is one of Luc Besson’s best films, and he teased some brilliant performances from the confused Bruce Willis, Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman (both competing  outrageously for attention) and, in her first major screen role, Mila Javovich, wrapped in strategically placed bandages is both feral and vulnerable. Thoroughly enjoyable. I’d have placed this higher but for Ian Holm’s hesitant, old-school acting which is the only irritation in an otherwise perfect film.

Twelve Monkeys, Bruce Willis, Brad Pit, movie poster, movie trailer,NUMBER 8.
Twelve Monkeys, 
1995.
Director:Terry Gilliam. Featuring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.

The future is history. There was a time when Bruce Willis actually acted in a movie, rather than wandered around in a daze. Here’s one (and Fifth Element). With Brad Pitt he brings us to the brink and forces us to look at the world around us. In a pleasingly mad, Heath Robinsonesque society Willis is sent back in time to find the point in history to help stop the virus that has almost wiped out humanity, leaving them cowering under the surface of a decimated planet. Drugs, authoritarianism, madness and time travel, this is a major triumph for director Terry Gilliam.

Brazil movie, Micahel palin, Jonathan Pryce, Terry Gilliam, movie trailerNUMBER 7.
Brazil,
1985.
Director: Terry Gilliam. Featuring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin and Bob Hoskins.

Written by Gilliam, Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard, this is a beautifully crafted film, ploughing a well-worked dystopian theme with skill, imagination and rare class. Some terrific performances pit the little man against the big state, with so many twists and turns it’s hard to work out whether this is a dream, or a reality; and that’s as it should be! Almost worth it alone for the cast, with Jonathan Pryce, Robert de Nero and Michael Palin thrusting their idiosyncratic characters out and front.

movie poster, Michael J Fox, movie trailerNUMBER 6.
Back to the Future,
1985.
Director: Robert Zemeckis. Featuring Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd

I’ll admit to some nostalgia here. I was mesmerised when I saw this originally on screen and the impact of its sharp, well-observed script, with its madcap Professor, his cool car, and Michael Fox’s confused teen angst all made sense to me. A newish digital print has managed to preserve the charm of the original but bring out some of the 50s period detail as Fox’s character tried to make sure his parents get together, but finds himself deep in trouble. Pure sf entertainment.

Alien, Aliens, movie poster, movie trailer, Ridley ScottNUMBER 5.
Alien
, 1979.
Director: Ridley Scott. Featuring Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt.

In space no-one can hear you scream: what a line, what a movie! A dark, horrific, taut thriller horror Alien set in motion a spin of other great movies, from Aliens (excellent) to Alien vs Predator (so-so) and Prometheus. Nostromo lands on an uncharted planet, answering a distress call, but, finding nothing, eventually lifts off to find it has acquired an alien creature that steadily works its way through the terrified crew. The H. R. Giger set and visual design with its visceral, organic darkness is as much part of the action as the actors themselves.

Star Wars, movie poster, movie trailer, George Lucas.NUMBER 4.
Star Wars,
1978.
Director: George Lucas. Featuring Harrison Ford,

The phenomenon that is Star Wars surfed a zeitgeist that reached far beyond its sf origins. George Lucas pummelled his audience into submission with sweeping landscapes, outrageous characters and a thrilling all-adventure storyline. No matter that the script is a little wooden, and the actors just bit parts in the vision of a universe at war, Lucas slapped a great performance from the buccaneering Harrison Ford and brought a scale of movie-making not seen before. For impact alone this movie deserves its place in any top ten sf movie list.

Avatar, movie poster, James Cameron.NUMBER 3.
Avatar,
2009.
Director: James Cameron. Featuring. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver.

Much criticised for its script and cliche storyline, frankly I don’t care. Like a beloved child with faults and idiosycncrasies, I love this movie. Maybe it’s the best use of 3D ever, maybe it’s the impossible flying, or the deep sense of injustice overturned, or the freedom and the spirituality, or that a man with no legs can find a way of fulfilling his dreams, this movie had a big affect on me. Deservedly the biggest grossing film ever this is essentially the story of the clearance of the native americans from their ancient lands, but transplanted, powerfully into the realism of a space opera. The US/UK movie poster is so well known I thought I’d use this French one instead.

2001 A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke, Stanley KubrickNUMBER 2.
2001 A Space Odyssey
, 1968.
Director: Stanley Kubrick.

Based on the Arthur C Clarke novel this movie now feels a little dated and slow. Technology and science has moved on a thousand fold since then: man set foot on the moon a year after this film was released and has never looked back. But I remember the wonder, the tension between the loneliness of the man in the spaceship, surrounded by the immensity of the universe, I remember the chill of the computer running the ship, but turning on its occupants and I remember the surge of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra which rises as the sun rises, revealing  new worlds, new ways of thinking. Kubrick turned a prescient book into an intense and powerful drama that lives with me still today.

movie poster, The matrix, movie trailerNUMBER 1.
The Matrix, 1999.

Director: The Wachowski Brothers. Featuring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving.

How do you know the difference between the dream, and the real? Will you take the red pill or the blue pill? The Matrix was a sophisticated, cutting-edge movie that teased its audience with visions of a future that was at once bleak, and enthralling. The premise of the movie, that we all live in a grid, plugged in while simmering away in  suspension tanks because the world has been taken over by the machines we create to serve us, is chilling but the the storytelling technique of The Wachowski brothers hits us with impossible tension, stylish camera angles, impossibly cool characters, bullets that we can track, and matter that dissolves into code before our eyes. Keanu Reave’s famed awkwardness is turned here into quintessential cool and we all want his downloaded skills. Still number one for me!

Bubbling Under

All of these were genuine candidates for a top ten place: some are iconic (Total Recall), some have great performances (A Clockwork Orange), some twist a great story (Tron), but not quite enough to peruade themselves into the top ten. Below the movie poster collage is a list in reverse date order, with directors and feature artists. 

  • Inception, 2010. Director: Christopher Nolan. Featuring Brad Pitt.
  • Moon, 2009. Director: Duncan Jones With: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey,
  • District 9, 2009. Director: Neill Blomkamp
  • Star Trek, 2009 Director: J.J. Abrams With: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg
  • Sunshine, 2007. Director: Danny Boyle, Cillian Murphy.
  • Vanilla Sky, 2001. Director: Cameron Crowe. Featuring Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
  • Event Horizon, 1997. Director: Paul W.S. Anderson. Featuring Lawrence Fishburne and Sam Neill.
  • Johnny Mnemonic, 1995. Director: Robert Longo. Featuring Keanu Reeves and Dorph Lungren. (Script by William Gibson.)
  • Total Recall, 1990. Director: Paul Verhoeven. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. (Story by Philip K. Dick.)
  • Tron, 1982. Director: Steven Lisberger. Featuring Jeff Bridges.
  • Dune, 1984. Director: David Lynch. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis. (Original novel by Robert Heinlein.)
  • Terminator, 1984. Director: James Cameron. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • Blade Runner, 1982. Director: Ridley Scott. Featuring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer.
  • Dark Star, 1980. Director: John Carpenter, co-scripted by Dan O’Brien who went on to write Alien.
  • ET, The Extra Terretrial, 1978. Director: Stephen Spielberg. Featuring: Drew Barrymore.
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977. Director: Steven Spielberg. Featuring Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut.
  • The Man who Fell to Earth, 1976. Director: Nocolas Roeg. Featuring David Bowie.
  • Westworld, 1973. Director: Michael Crichton (and written by). Featuring Yul Brynner.
  • Solaris, 1972. Director: Andrei Tarkovsky, Steven Soderbergh. (from ad Stanislaw Lem story)
  • A Clockwork Orange, 1971 Director: Stanley Kubrick. Featuring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee.
  • Silent Running, 1971. Douglas Turnball. Featuring Bruce Dern.
  • Planet of the Apes, 1968. Director: Franklin J. Schaffner. Featuring Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall.

Legacy Movies

Sf movies would not exist without the giants of the past, so here’s list of ground-breaking films, stretching back to 1902, all of which are worth seeking out and watching. There are two posters for the very first of these, Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon), the original poster of which is in the art nouveau style of the fin de siecle, a very long way from the 3D special effects of today!

  • Quatermass And The Pit, 1967. Director: Roy Ward Baker
  • The Time Machine, 1960. Director: George Pal. Original novel by H. G. Wells.
  • Forbidden Planet, 1956. Director: Fred M Wilcox
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956. Director: Don Siegel.
  • World Without End, 1956. Director: Edward Bernds
  • This Island Earth, 1955. Director: Joseph Newman
  • The War of the Worlds, 1953. Director: Byron Haskin
  • It Came from Outer Space, 1953
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
  • When Worlds Collide, 1951
  • Metropolois, 1927. Director: Fritz Lang
  • Le Voyage Dans La Lune, 1902. Director: Georges Melies.

I hope you enjoyed this swift run through the Top 10 SF Movies (and more). If you have any other suggestions or amendments, please let me know below.

Coming soon, Top 10 Fantasy Movies, Top 10 Superhero Movies and more!

Other movie related posts on These Fanastic Worlds include the 2014 Top 10 SF and Fantasy Movies and Top 10 Superhero Movies.

Only Connect: The Naming of Things: Part Two

art and artists, Flora on Sand, Paul Klee 1927Art and Artists

The first post of this two-parter looked at the naming of things in music, fiction and poetry. This one tackles the painted arts, and the philosophy of naming.

Representational art is very popular. It appeals to our sense of the familiar and even when it tackles the big life issues, it offers one redeeming quality: a sense of beauty, either in the subject or the style. And the names, the titles of the pieces leave nothing to the imagination. It’s hard not to enjoy enjoy the line, colour and passion of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Millais’s Ophelia  and Monet’s Impression at Sunrise, and William Morris’ flowing textile designs are seductive and fascinating, but my heart belongs with the modernists of the 20th century, and its many sub-categories, Fauvists, Surrealists, Cubists, Futurists and, above all, Abstract Expressionists. I’m particularly drawn to the raw, internal eye of expressionism, with its exploration of the human condition, through its engagement with the viewer. For me, it teases more from its audience than the classical effulgence of (an admittedly sumptuous) painting by Alma Tadema.

Art and Artists, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvadore DaliArt can be ugly, and exciting (Dali, left), dirty and joyful (Jackson Pollock), dark and elated (Marc Rothko), vibrant and other-wordly (Gerhard Richter). These are artists whose work work draws us in, and demands a response. They require an intimate engagement and reward submersion: the viewer must participate, not passively, but be enveloped, actively interpret, and become part of the process of creating something beyond the two dimensions of the painted form. We are creatures not just of sight, but of the five senses, and emotion: a great piece of art can consume the whole of us. This is not a manifesto for a certain type of art, but a recognition of our response to art; we always interact with a painting, or sculpture, whether we like it or not, indeed painting in a dark cupboard is barely art because it needs to am audience to become fully realised.

Art and Artists, Cupid and Psyche, William BouguereauThe Untitled Title

Descriptive names moved from the heroic and Biblical painting of a long classical period (Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Bouguereau‘s  Cupid and Psyche), through the Impressionists’ charming idylls (see Renoir’s Dance in the Country) and the late Victorian Pre-Raph’s search for the organic and the natural (Arthur HughesEve of St Agnes). Modernism, a phenomenon of the industrial, social and political change around the turn of the 19th Century wrestled with the naming issue because it broke from the past, to fleeing from the face of photography and retreating into the subjective realms of the inner voice. This complicated the naming process because it’s simpler to encapsulate a scene in a name, but more of a challenge to offer the viewer a part in the art.

Art and Artists, Untitled, 1910, Kandinsky. First AbstractThe answer for many of modernists was to use “Untitled” as a name: Kandinsky 1910 painting (left) was  probably the first abstract painting, but others, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Kline to name a few, have subjected their audiences to a title without a name. For some, this seems to go too far, offering nothing to the viewer: the title is so bare it’s almost negative, a vacuum. Others even argue that it’s too easy or lazy to use “Untitled”, but that at least, misses the point, because the artists have a made a clear choice to deny the viewer a way in, to force them to address the painting alone. Neo Rauch (a sort of neo-realist) however calls the use of “Untitled” disrespectful to the viewer, gallery owner even, laying bare the commercial side of the art, and the need to appeal to an audience.

art and artists, Giacometti, Falling ManRauch arrives with respectable friends: Giacometti’s Man Falling, Dali’s Leda Atomica, Picasso’s Girl Before A Mirror. These were rare beasts, these artists so successful in their lifetime. Perhaps the key though, apart from the obvious skill and energy, was their acute sense of the commercial, including the power of a narrative title. Both Picasso and Dali were masters of a name that told a story whether challenging, ironic or subtly undermining. People (i.e. audiences) like a story, they’re engaged by its direction, imagine its world, its endings.

Of course this begins to stray into dangerous territory: is this ‘art’, this descriptive naming, like an illustration, a caption? Is it entertainment, or expression, engagement even? If it’s entertainment the art needs a name with a story, to be commercial, or at least, to play at being popular. But is that ‘art’? Well I don’t think it’s not-art, without meaning to be anti not-art, or “anti anti-art”, as the Stuckists might say.

Art and Artists, Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy, 1964, Marcel DuchampWhich leads us to Marcel Duchamp. For many he pushed  modernism to its logical extreme, for others he brought the travesty of Damien Hurst and modern, elitist non-art art forms. Duchamp created a new perception of art that replaced value in the skill of the artist with a sensibility that could be expressed through objects and concepts, that rejected the limits of the static two dimensional art and expressed the intention of the mind rather than the facility of the hand and eye. His titles played with the expectations of the viewer, Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (above), Fresh Widow, Fountain, challenged and fought for our attention; as such, they’re typically modernist, but Duchamp’s ready-mades and objects speak a different language of art, make us think about our responses. His challenge of the established elite of his time was to be admired, but his legacy has become more questionable and created its own form a form of exclusivity.

The Philosophy of Names

The relative power of a name depends on the purpose of the art, the music, the fiction or the poetry. The naming of us humans and animals teaches the importance of labels that last a lifetime so understanding the processes of naming is useful and offers an insight into the effect that names have on us.

Art and Artists, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, DaliFor some, names have utter and specific significance: naming your child Mohammed signals the clear beliefs of the parents; in a Christian tradition the use of strong biblical names such as John, Peter, Paul are more oblique because they have become detached from their exclusive religious context in a Western society that has eroded its religous core. However, such names still bring references and inferences: a child called Peter is more likely to come from one tradition than another, and that offers clues to their upbringing, and therefore their attitudes and perhaps their character. Of course giving a work of art a descriptive label (such as Dali’s Persistence of Memory, above) brings a wave of resonance to the viewer and informs their engagement. For every form of communicable artistic endeavour its name needs to be understood if it is to achieve any form of success.

Internal Names

If we don’t want the resonances, but a label that intrigues and prompts discovery, perhaps we can use made-up, or ancient names that nobody knows (H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu mythos is an obvious example), which can achieve an association only to the fiction, music or painting, with no other references. Wittgenstein’s thoughts on the internal nature of pain (in Philosophical Investigations) are helpful here because he points out that pain can only be felt internally by the person with the pain, but that we can learn to read the external signs and identify it, name it. A child is the same, understanding the moods and subtle signs of its family’s emotional temperature that might be missed by an outsider. The artist too can make this choice, should the name become part of the intrigue of the work, understood only by the artist? or is it a cosmic can-opener, a gateway into the painting.

It is hard to avoid inference of any sort if familiar language is used; even the bark of a dog is more than just a noise, it has some level of meaning and anyone who knows their own animal will be able to differenitate between a bark that warns, expresses excitement, or one of fear.

Repeated or understood, names bring meaning, even if it take some thought or use to tease it out. Ultimately a name can prompt satisfaction, through recognition, but for a painting this is dangerous because, for my purpose at least, it directs the viewer too obviously.

Conclusions

Art and Artists, Cage 1,2,3,4,5 by Gerhard Richter,So, it is difficult to separate the naming of a piece of work from its potential public. The association of a name with a work of art invests a value in the name and the content or object, and that creates social capital, if not always artistic integrity. Words are like equations, with worlds of meaning either implied or explicit; unlike equations they have an emotional reference, even if they’re objective, and they must either satisfy or intrigue.

Any form of art (fiction, sculpture, song) is only a failure if it does not prompt a response and the name of a work of art attempts to direct that response. Writing, painting, music, fiction, all forms of creativity need an audience; we can’t create in a vacuum, we crave appreciation, but we also worry about “selling out.” At the heart of this are the decisions that lead to the naming of things because although art, in all forms should challenge, entertain and engage, above all, it must be heard and the name of the work offers a starting point, and directs the initial response. Effective names must have some identifiable reference points to have any chance of finding an audience.

Good blogging advice tells me that you’ll be thoroughly bored by now, so although I’ve split the post, it’s still very long! I hope you’ve found it interesting: do you find it hard to name your work? I’d love to hear.

Actually, I have one more post on this topic, but it’s much shorter and relates only the names of my own work, so I’ve separated it out from this more general post.

Thank you for reading.

Links (external)

  • Some excellent Giacometti from Tate links here.
  • A good Marc Rothko link from The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC here.
  • Gerhard Richter home page is here.
  • Neo Rauch links here.
  • For more about the Stuckists (an anti conceptual, anti-ready made art movement), here.
  • For a brutal, interesting view about naming for commercial sale, check here.
  • From the MOMA in New York, an explanation of Marcel Duchamp‘s Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy here.

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