Review: The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven



Well, there is seven. Not sure about the other part.

In amongst the plethora of remakes and reboots, this must be something a bit unique, in that it is both a remake and a reboot at the same time: a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Seven Samurai and a remake of the 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, iconic enough in its turn. John Sturges’ version is a film I am intimately familiar with thanks largely to my father, who adores it in the same way I adore The Lord Of The Rings or Serenity. I’ve watched it many’s the time, and the nostalgia runs strong in me. So, suffice to say that my interest was piqued with news of a new version, several decades after the last of the terrible Seven sequels was released. Not a bad cast, and not a bad director in Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua. And this is The Magnificent Seven: a genuinely difficult thing to mess up, the kind of archetypical story that thousands upon thousands of variations have attempted to copy. So, did it succeed, or was it just another facsimile?

When the ruthless robber baron Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgard) tries to terrorise a small western town into surrendering itself into his hands, it’s people desperately seek help: they find it in the form of grizzled bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) who agrees to assemble a small team to defend the town. It’s a varied bunch: an unhinged gunslinger (Chris Pratt), a mentally scarred sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a knife fighter from the east (Bying-hun Lee), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a wild mountain man (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a roaming Native American (Martin Sensmeier).Together, the seven face into the fight of their lives.

I’ve said before that I generally lack the antipathy that is often directed at reboots and remakes, but even I find my resolve broken on occasion. I gave The Magnificent Seven a fair shot. More than a fair shot. I really wanted to like this movie, because I love the source material and I like the genre. I wanted this to be something akin to last years Slow West as a modern attempt at an old classic. But Fuqua’s effort at bringing some life to this old franchise is a crushing disappointment: a film that both fails on its own merits, and falls so far from the main point of Sturges/Kurosawa’s films that it basically lacks a higher point of its own.

Right from the off, things are iffy, as we are introduced to Rose Creek and its desperate residents – the mixed ethnicity of the seven appears to have been balanced out by dropping the Mexican victims of 1960 – who are caught under the heel of the villainous Bogue, a bad guy so over the top and comically unimpressive, that it’s almost a blessing in disguise that he basically vanishes from the movie for the entire first and second acts. Bogue is one-dimensional at an obvious fault, gleefully terrorising the villagers for monetary reward, and happily killing left, right and centre on a total whim. Calvera he is not: Sturges made an effort to make his villain a small bit sympathetic – he’s robbing the village to feed his own starving men – but Fuqua is so focused on his titular team that the villain is an utter nobody.

But this is The Magnificent Seven, and we want to see a varied team of outsiders come together, so let’s talk about the seven. Denzel Washington I haven’t seen much of lately, though he’s always been an actor I’ve admired: here, he’s serviceable and little more, attempting to be Eli Wallach and just about pulling it off: the same calm demeanour, the same inner hardness that comes out at crucial moments, without ever letting genuine emotion slip. His character patters along as the leader but is mostly just propelled with a series of “badass” moments, and the bare semblance of a deeper plot, a revenge quest that is unfortunately tied to the anatagonist so much that it’s basically dropped for a huge section of the movie.


The films villain, Bogue, is a remarkable weak point.

Stepping into the Steve McQueen role is Chris Pratt, now firmly established as the go-to Hollywood heartthrob action star. But his Faraday is a really bizarre character, who seems to slip into murderous rages in rapid turns, busting out magic tricks to distract goons before he shoots, something that brought thoughts of Heath Ledger’s Joker to mind more than McQueen-esque heroics. It’s so hard to get a read on Faraday that he becomes just another frustrating enigma, a person you can’t decide whether you like or dislike. Pratt too isn’t trying all that hard either, seemingly sleepwalking until he can bust out the charm properly for Guardians Of The Galaxy, Volume Two. Faraday is also at the heart of The Magnificent Seven‘s awkward, weird humour, the kind of thing that stops the momentum of a scene dead.

The third leg of the very rickety plot table is Ethan Hawke’s Goodknight, the former Confederate sharpshooter undergoing a PTSD angle so hackneyed it’s extremely difficult to take it seriously. If he has one of the original seven to base himself on it’s Harry Luck, but Harry Luck was fun: Goodknight is just another dour, unimaginative character, that someone as genuinely talented as Hawke can’t do much with.

The other four are various types of one-note. Lee, in the knifefighter role, is essentially Hawke’s sidekick who throws blades in lieu of being a character. Vincent D’Onofrio is alright as the somewhat mentally ill frontiersmen, but again he’s little behind his initial appearance. Garcia Rulfo as the Mexican outlaw is a Mexican outlaw. And Sensmeier pops up as the Native American with the bow and arrow – thanks Katniss – who seems less an effort to include that ethnicity and more an effort to counteract the evil Indian in Bogue’s employ (because of course there is). Why not have a woman in there somewhere? When it comes to the female sex, The Magnificent Seven just has Haley Bennett as the towns’ resident beauty/secretly great with a gun, who has a revenge plot more or less copied from Sam.

There is a certain camaraderie evident in some scenes, but the script of Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk can’t get the job done enough in that respect. Things like The Avengers, Guardians Of The Galaxy and the Furious franchise have all led efforts to have this kind of seven+ squad of differing personalities that bounce off each other in a funny and occasionally interesting way, and numerous other films have attempted to do the same thing recently, and have failed. The Magnificent Seven is one of those, too obsessed with it’s “cool” moments and letting the seven act as individuals rather than as a team. The script falls down badly at other moments, especially when it simply apes the Sturges version: iconic lines like “If God didn’t want them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep” or the “So far, so good” joke get dropped in without the slightest care for how it cheapens the modern versions efforts to stand apart. You can respect what you are coming from without lifting it completely.

With that mind, the main sin of The Magnificent Seven 2016 is probably that it’s as brainless an action movie as I have seen recently, one where the good guys don’t ever seem to miss a shot – the death toll by the time the credits roll is genuinely jaw dropping – suffer some losses and then ride off into the proverbial sunset. But where both Kurosawa and Sturges’ effectively and engagingly made the point that the gunfighters lost the battle as much of the villain, despite their apparent victory, Fuqua just can’t even make a facsimile of the same idea. It’s such a heartbreaking concept, that it is the farmers, with the ability to make a home, a life and a legacy for themselves, that have it better than the adventure having cowboys, who have the short-term thrills but simply drift away afterwards. It’s one of the main reasons that I think Sturges’ film is as good as it is, because it masquerades as an action heavy western while containing that core depth. Fuqua’s, in comparison, has its body count (something it’s copying from the original when it really shouldn’t), has its empty characters and has a limp ending with a nothing villain getting his comeuppance.

The production of The Magnificent Seven can’t save it either. The usual panoramic s of the wild west abound, that you’ll have seen and digested in a dozen other films. The action scenes are shot with competence and little more, the only variety a laughable section with a perfectly working Gatling gun. And James Horner’s score would be a forgettable accompaniment for any other film, but which stands out in its mundanity here because you can’t help but compare to Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful achievement half a century ago. As many else have noted, it’s really only when the original theme kicks in at the end – right after the film shoehorns in the word “magnificent” into the script in a truly painful moment – that you might even take the slightest bit of notice of the musical side of things.

So, The Magnificent Seven is part and parcel of a period when Ben-Hur or Point Break, and maybe even Ghostbusters in a certain way, are showing that the reboot game isn’t going according to plan. Not critically, and no longer financially, not in the way it was even a few years ago. It is another film where Hollywood has looked to the past for inspiration, and come up with a dud that is both uninteresting in its own right and in no way a fit continuation of a franchise that started so brightly, in Japan and in the United States. The story is sub-par, the acting is so-so, the general production is nothing to write home about. Even the sequels to Sturges’ film deserve more attention than this. Not recommended.



(All images are copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer and Columbia Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: For The Confederacy

On the face of it, one can understand quite well why a significant number of Irishmen would put on a grey uniform and fight for the Confederacy, especially if they happened to be of a nationalist or republican persuasion. Here was, in many ways, the second coming of the American revolution (indeed, more than once I have heard of the American Civil War being described as the last battle of that older conflict), a war where one country and one people rose up against another in defence of what they saw as their God-given right to freedom, the freedom to live as they pleased and pursue life, liberty and whatever else to their hearts content. There is much in such a concept to attract the kind of person who would also have identified with Tone or Emmett.

Of course, all of that pursuit was inherently wrapped up in the ongoing slave trade, and that naked reality should never be forgotten. The leaders in the south went to war to protect their way of life and the rights of states: and that way of life and those rights were primarily to keep people as property.

But that didn’t stop the Irish from marching under the stars and bars. As noted briefly in the last entry, entities like the Fenian Brotherhood were as liable to split as any other over the issue of the American schism: and while it is safe to say that the majority of Irish nationalists would end up siding with the north and the Union, a fair proportion did throw their allegiance southward.

Perhaps the most notable of these men was John Mitchell, one of the most important Irish nationalist voices of the period, who aside from advocating for the complete independence of Ireland was also an unashamed and almost outspoken defender of the slave trade and the benefits that it brought states like Virginia. Mitchell would send three sons to fight for the Confederacy, two of which would never come home: he would maintain his beliefs in slavery and the Confederacy after the war.

But this is not a series about individuals, but about larger units. While the Confederacy lacked any “named” Irish units on the same level as the north had, many of its regiments and “legions”, from throughout its length and breadth, would have a distinctly Irish character.

The cities on the east coast of the Carolinas and Virginia had their fair share of poor Irish Catholic emigrants who found themselves swept up into the military much like their northern brethren, and for similar reasons. But in the south, there would also have been a very distinctive Protestant dimension to its Irish service: men who had immigrated to the United States from places like north-eastern Ulster, who brought their own faith with them. While many Catholics would fight in Confederate colours, it would not be inaccurate to say that it was an army with a more singular Protestant ethos than that of the armies that opposed it.

Regardless, the units that we will focus on in this entry were ones where the Irish were mostly Catholic. Regiments like the 24th Georgia Infantry, the Louisiana Tigers and the 10th Tennessee contained large amounts of Irish for example, who tended to be mostly poorer labourers or dock-workers. But I want to look at one named Irish unit that’s synonymous with the Irish experience in fighting for the Confederacy, in its highs, its lows, and its bitter end.

Company E of the 33rd Virginia Infantry regiment, named the “Emerald Guard” due to the make-up of its soldiery, were largely Irish-American’s recruited from the Shenandoah Valley region, poor men who would have migrated down from the north seeking work on railways and farms. A company in those days and in that army was supposed to number 100 or so men, but it seems unlikely that the Guards ever reached that size, with maybe 60 or so active duty soldiers at its biggest number. However, not withstanding that, they played their part in what would soon become one of the most famous regiments in Confederate service.

At the First Battle of Bull Run, it was the quick and brave action of units under General Thomas Jackson,which included the 33rd, that stopped a Union advance and then took the lead in reversing it, leading to that crucial early victory that kept the Confederacy going in the early stages of the war. The Emerald Guard were in the thickest of the fighting, its first captain shot through both legs in the stand, that earned both the regiment and its general the nickname “Stonewall”. From there, the 33rd would fight over and over again as part of the Army of Northern Virginia, with the Irish participating mostly as infantry, and occasionally as back-up artillery.

In Jackson’s famed Valley Campaign and later in the Peninsula against McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, the Emerald Guard served, though it saw less combat than other parts of the 33rd.,.At Second Bull Run and Antietem, the 33rd fought, in bloody scraps for little gain to the Confederacy: by the end of these battles, the Guard was noted as suffering on nearly every level, in its gear, its uniforms, its discipline and in the matter of those members of the company being absent without leave. It should be remembered that the Army of Northern Virginia, far more even than its Union equivalent, was an army where regiments had a distinctly local flavour, often sprouting up from militias raised just after the war itself had started: after a few engagements with the enemy, and after a taste of what modern combat was actually like, problems like desertion were common place, whatever the romantic gloss later put on the military by sympathetic historians.

At Fredericksburg, the bare remnant of the company, which amounted to 3 officers and and 12 rankers, helped guard the Confederate right flank, while their Irish counterparts on the Union right were being cut to pieces attacking the low stone wall. At Chancellorsville, the 33rd took more casualties, while losing its famous General, who died after losing an arm to friendly fire. By then, despite the many victories that Lee and other tactical geniuses on the southern side had been able to win, the larger Confederate effort was already coming apart, due to the Union naval blockade, the lack of manpower to make up for the losses and the squabbling between the actual states that made up the rebellion.

At Gettysburg, sometimes characterised as the Army of the Potomac’s desperate saving of the Union when it was really the furthest the Confederates ever got or were likely to get, the 33rd advanced on the Confederate left, attacking strong Union positions on Culp’s Hill not far from Gettysburg itself. Numerous assaults were thrown back, and the Emerald Guard lost another captain that day, before retiring to the rear, thankfully to miss out on the carnage of Picket”s Charge on the third and last day of the fighting.

By 1864, after more months of skirmishing and desertion, Company E barely merited the title of a platoon, but was still counted as part of the 33rd and the Army of Northern Virginia. During Grant’s Overland campaign, where the Army of the Potomac repeatedly smashed into Lee’s force, wheeled around and smashed again, what was left of the 33rd was broken to pieces, first at the messy and confused Battle of the Wilderness, and then shortly after at the Battle of Spotsylvania, when the regiment, the Emerald Guard included, had its last bit of genuine battlefield experience, defending a crucial point in the Confederate lines called the “Mule Shoe”. Most of the 33rd was killed or captured in the engagement, the regiment essentially ceasing to exist in the aftermath. A bare handful of Company E’s recruits would continue in Lee’s service, as part of other regiments, but by then even the fiction of the Emerald Guard had ceased to be acknowledged. By the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox, no members of Company E are listed as being present, and the 33rd was only a memory.

The Emerald Guard, grandiosely titled but with a shabbiness underneath, was typical of many Confederate units in the war, who gambled big and won in the early years, but could barely equip themselves by the end, if they still existed at all. Union advantages in industry, ships and most importantly in sheer manpower, were impossible to overcome. Defeat would bring decades of recriminations and “reconstruction”, and well over a century (and counting) of continued racial violence and persecution.

On both sides, Irish had fought. Now, with the war done, some of them looked back across the Atlantic to their original homeland, and resumed the dream of liberation that had been a partial motivator both for their immigration and for their service in the fighting. The Fenians would soon make their own gamble, though with far longer odds of success than the Confederacy ever faced.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Characters In The Serenity RPG

Any RPG player or GM will tell you that your standard RPG party needs to have certain things, whether you are invading the dungeon of the feared Demogorgon (reference!) or robbing a space ship casino. The Firefly/Serenity RPG system is no different in most respects, but the standard premise – that of a ship, with a crew – does mean that a certain refinement is necessary.

Most importantly of all, the crew, and the party, need a leader, that is, a captain. The captain leads: whether its command of a ship or command of a job. They can be a stern Admiral-esque character or have a more relaxed persona, but the captain is a crucial necessity, because there needs to be someone in charge: someone who gives orders, and who the other players will follow. A good captain, wisely picked by the GM (I look for volunteers for the position, which tends to bring up someone who wants the authority, as opposed to randomly picking someone who can’t hack it) will help keep the party on track and make sure nothing stupid happens. And, if things go wrong, chain of command drama is always fun too (to a point).

A captain can also fulfil other roles on the ship if needs be, but I’ve rarely seen that happen. Generally, I find it good for captain’s to overload on leadership and combat skills, with room for specialisation in those general fields. Going too far into the realm of other roles on the ship can cause complications later, and it’s better to encourage players, in my view, to keep their “thing” as separate from other players as possible. This was, everyone has that one special something only they can be trusted to do.

When it comes to literal necessities for running a space ship, there are two roles also required. The first, and I suppose a bit more important, is the engineer. The engineer, aside from making the engine go, is the general mechanical specialist: they fix things, they make things work, and that tends to go beyond the engine room and into the realm of blowing things up (or stopping things from blowing up).The engineer’s I have encountered in various games have often tended towards the same kind of traits: lowly-educated, lower class kind of characters, good in a fight but not so much when it comes to talking to people.

The other necessity is the pilot. They fly the ship, and often they drive the car (or hovermule as you prefer). In my experience they tend to also carry the ships’ technical expertise: they are radiomen, hackers, anything to do with computers. If the engineer often tends towards being a grease monkey, then the pilot often tends toward being the deveil-may-care heroic type. Footloose and fancy free, quick with the witty repartee if not quite so good with their fists.

Beyond that, you are opening off into the more optional things. One thing that I have rarely found an RPG party without is the grunt, also known as the tough, the thug, the bullet sponge, the security, the muscle. This is the Jayne Cobb-type who tend to be to be big on strength, life points and shooting specialities and low on brains. While they are never quite the most exiting character to play, they are often crucial at getting through battles, especially in a system like Serenity, where other players LP can be alarmingly low at the best of times. And there is room for some twists: instead of a dumb lout, you could be a skilled assassin that sacrifices gun-skills for hand-to-hand and sinks other things into covert-type stuff.

Of course there should also be a medic, be they an all out Doctor or something more creative – a plastic surgeon surgeon on the run, a combat medic who can’t escape the war, etc – someone who can patch up holes and keep the party going. I’ve never had a party without an established medic character: indeed, it’s more likely, in my experience, for a party to have both a medic and a back-up medic, rather than go without one at all. Medic’s inherently tend to not be fighters – they often don’t have any time to be actively engaged in gunfights – and, if mixed properly with some other skillset or trait, they can be some of the most interesting types to play.

Lastly is the loosest of the six main roles you will often find on the ship, basically dubbed the “socialite” character. This is the Inara role: it’s a character that is more of an outsider insofar as their part to play goes without a defined role in keeping the ship ticking over. They are the talkers, the persuaders, the seducers. And they really can be anything: a respectable companion, a travelling musician, an ambulance chasing lawyer, the sneaky con-man, an actor from a troop, a preacher, a documentary film-maker, the possibilities are extensive. This makes the socialite a double-edged sword in my view: it’s perhaps the most enticing character to play, but requires the most commitment role-playing wise, which I find tends to scare off players.

So, that’s the six main roles, and I would be lying if I said that any campaign or once-off I have ever run didn’t have parties that naturally fell into these categories. To take an example, let’s have a look at my current RPG group, part of a game that I will go into greater detail on in the next post.

It’s a Firefly of course, with a crew of mercenaries/bounty hunters/whatever is required. The Captain is Jean Marshall, a former Alliance law-man with an intense love for justice (and it’s application). Outside of combat, his specialities are in leadership and investigation, which makes for a good combination when leading a sometimes unwilling crew on manhunts.

The engineer (the second one, after the first had an unfortunate encounter with a rabid bear, long story) is Tom Holden, as omewhat secretive but extremely competent mechanic, who has stuck to the mechanical fields for the most part. The pilot, Fionnula, is s space-born, pet-obsessed type with a mechanical eye, who too tends towards putting the majority of her points into piloting and piloting-related fields.

The tough is Batty, who, while retaining the “High on strength, low on brains” thing, has a nice twist in that he is the disgraced runaway from a blueblood family, who are actually trying to off him through a succession of well paid assassins. The medic is a disgraced, and somewhat insane, former surgeon named Zhao, who has a drug addiction to boot. The socialite role falls to Brondon, a travelling mandolin player who, after a player change, now has an unfortunate case of amnesia to explain away any role-playing differences. The wild-card was Mass, who started the game as the ship’s XO, with a balanced set of skills that included gunfighting, covert and others, that helped explain a mysterious past and a multitude of deadly enemies.

If I was to make three points about characters in RPG’s:

1. If in doubt, make a character balanced between several extremes and see how it plays in practise: specialities can come later.

2. The best archetype is one that bucks the trend in someway: the well-spoken tough, the doctor with a bad case of nerves, the socialite with the right hook.

3. If it isn’t working, scrap it and start over: a good GM won’t mind, and there’s no point playing something that you aren’t having fun with.

Next time, we take a closer look at the adventures of the Osprey.

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Review: The Big Short

The Big Short




Another I missed from earlier in the year – it was actually a late 2015 release in the States I believe – that Netflix has let me catch up with. The Big Short was a surprise award contender in 2016, thanks to its apparently brilliant cast and unique method of examining the financial crisis that has so defined recent world history. Pitt, Carell, Bale, who was not to like here? But then again, is it really possible to craft an effective drama from something as seemingly complicated and immense as the events that overtook the markets in 2008?

In the mid 00’s, a small number of people recognise that the housing market that anchors the American and global economy is about to collapse, due to the out of control greed of financial institutes and the acquiescence of a uncaring government. Unorthodox broker Michael Burry (Christian Bale) goes against the wishes of his investors to “short” the market; Mark Baum’s (Steve Carell) small group of renegade hedge fund managers ponder going into business with the aggressive Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) to do the same; and two young up and comers (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), with the aid of jaded industry veteran Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) decide to try and make it rich quick by taking advantage of the coming chaos.

The Big Short is a very strange movie, at once compelling and engrossing and yet steering so clear of the traditional fictionalised structure you would expect of such a topic that it strikes me more as a particularly well-financed docudrama than a film. It’s long and gets in deep when it comes to the financial minutia that came with the 2008 collapse, but still manages to be weirdly entertaining, director Adam McKay gambling on the premise and winning. While it is all very pedestrian from a visual standpoint, McKay and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd still manage to have fun with things, not least with the well noted cameo appearance from celebrities, as themselves, explaining crucial concepts central to the collapse in cutaways that seem more 30 Rock than Wall Street. The Big Short has a little to thank The Wolf Of Wall Street for – most notably Ryan Gosling’s character – but is ultimately more of a character study, in terms of how characters react to what is happening, than an intense, detailed look at how things unfolded in the mid 00’s.

The film, as stated above in the synopsis, frames itself around three competing narratives, and all three bring something different to the table, unique takes on the crises, what caused it and what was lost (which was far beyond money). In so doing, and in finding the right balance of screentime, McKay is able to make the 2008 financial collapse into a human drama as much as anything else, even if it’s only on the rare occasion that we catch a glimpse of the people who suffer most when things start to fall to pieces. The three divergent paths only cross all too briefly, with the players unaware of each other, The Big Short jumping back and forth between them at its leisure, keeping things clicking over nicely.

Burry is the loner, the tortured genius plagued by bad memories of the past, endlessly frustrated that his investors can’t see what he sees, and that the system later refuses to adhere to his finely tuned predictions. Bale’s performance is typical brilliance from the man, who is able to lose himself so expertly: you have no problem believing that the actor who is best known for a gruff voiced Batman or an overweight con-man is suddenly this kooky, death-metal obsessed lone wolf, who spends the majority of his scenes alone in his office, or engaging in awkward monosyllabic conversations with the few people who work up the courage to talk to him. Burry’s side of the tale is mostly concerned with single-minded initiative and bull-headedness in the face of apparent stupidity al around you, but morphs into something more subtle by the final act, as Burry is left wondering just what being right means, and if such a success is all that it is cracked up to be, a disillusionment with a system so flawed that even the people making money seem inferior to him.


The plot thread of the younger guys trying to make it big is where the film really starts to hit the audience hard.

A more multi-character thread is that surrounding Baum’s team of investment brokers/stock traders, though the focus is overwhelmingly on Baum himself, a passionate and outspoken man whose years in the industry have led him to become increasingly outraged by the greed all around, a feeling magnified by an intense personal tragedy recently suffered. Carell, like Bale, does great in a role you might not immediately see him in – I suppose Baum is sort of like an angrier, less consciously jokey Michael Scott – and has some great workers around him to bounce off of from Hamish Linklater as his more cynical underling to Ryan Gosling’s Wolf of Wall Street-esque outsider, who just wants to make as much money from the coming collapse as possible, even as Baum plumbs the depths of how bad things are gotten. If Burry’s plot was focused around the realisation that people are weak, then Baum’s is that the system is weak, weak morally and legislatively, concerned only with covering up its mistakes and stopping anyone from finding out the skulduggery going on. It’s with the Baum plot-thread that The Big Short gets it’s most scathing: Baum himself might as well be an audience surrogate, barely containing his own rage as he encounters case after case of unregulated financial incompetence.

And then there are the two youngsters buttressed by Rickert’s jaded assistance. Rickert, played with the right sense of weary cynicism in Pitt, sums up the effect that the financial trading business can have on those with a conscience: both he, Burry and Baum are burned men, well and truly, by the time the credits roll, unable to even raise a glass to toast their own success by the end of things. It’s through his two protoges that we see most firmly the primary message that McKay seems to want us to understand, namely a bridging of the disconnect between the financial trading and “shorting” and the absolute horror of the tragedy that is about to unfold. Charlie and Jamie are clean, young go-getter types who worry about their parents futures, work out of a basement, and have a catchy back and forth between themselves and with Rickert, the exact kind of relatable, likeable characters you can get behind. But they exhibit that same greed as the witless morons they are shorting, and through them The Big Short most clearly toys with the audiences sympathies. The two dance and holler after pulling off a major shorting operation, only to be rounded upon by Rickert, who soberly informs them that the death rate of the country will rise by an average of 40’000 people for every 1% gain in the unemployment stats, a truly grim pronouncement that does more than anything else to bring home the true scope of what is occurring.

And what is occurring is nothing less than one of the biggest shams in humanities history, as banks, investment firms, rating agencies and government watchdogs are all depicted as brazenly conspiring to keep the money train flowing when it comes to the “sup-prime” mortgages holding up the housing market, continuing to do so even after it becomes apparent that they have been rumbled, and then going cap in hand to the White House for a bailout when nothing can be hidden anymore. The level of avarice on display is astounding, going hand in hand with a sheer lack of empathy for anyone liable to lose everything they have: one particularly horrifying dinner between Baum and a broker at the heart of the sub-prime crisis showcases the awfulness vividly, as the utterly shameless man brags about how his wage packet proves his necessity to the financial systems about to go belly up. By the end of The Big Short, whatever faith the characters and the audience had in the system has been destroyed twice over, punctuated by a simple “Boom” from Baum as the crash becomes reality.

I note that The Big Short has been packaged in many reviews and in promotional material as a dark comedy, but it never really felt that way to me: there are laughs for sure, but most of them fly by very fast, and can never quite make up for the cavalcade of misery that hurtles at the viewer throughout the two hour plus running time. If it’s a comedy, it’s one that’s trying to make you chuckle in lieu of crying, and Charles Randolph’s script, from the Michael Lewis book of the same name, is good enough that The Big Short actually manges to pull this off, for the most part.

The Big Short is certainly not a happy movie: the aftermath of the collapse was a lesson in hubris and dodging, as the people responsible suffered some humiliation and financial penury of a temporary nature, while others across the globe paid the real price. McKay portrays how this came about starkly but with the right application of wit when appropriate, using this very unique cipher to bring the complicated tale into some kind of clarity. It’s the uniqueness of the approach that really makes The Big Short stand out, and what makes it worthy of recommendation.


A big success.

(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: For The Union

The American Civil War is justly regarded as one of the most noteworthy and tragic episodes in the history of both the 19th century. Over something as tawdry and immoral as slavery, one of the great powers of the world found itself torn in two, and spent five years in vicious combat, spilling blood on a scale that the United States had never seen before and would never see again. On both sides, Irishmen fought. Predominantly, most of them would have found service with the northern or Union Army, and that will be the subject of today’s entry.

As previously discussed, the United States military found a potent recruiting pool within the hordes of Irish arriving in the country, having emigrated for various reasons. The Irish who populated so much of the great north-eastern cities like New York, Boston and Washington D.C., were just the kind of people who tended to fall into military service: working menial jobs for little pay if they could even get that, but still tough, resilient and strong. The attraction of military service was both financial and emotional, in that it offered guaranteed money and adventure. Many Irish jumped at the chance to join both the Army and the various militias that sprang up in cities like New York before the Civil War started: some of these would actually be units organised by entities like the Fenian Brotherhood, a way of gaining military training and drill experience in the open without drawing undue suspicion. Later of course, the Irish population of these cities would be a key part of anti-conscription riots like those that occurred in New York in 1863, proving that enthusiasm for the Union war effort was far from all encompassing. Certainly, it would be inaccurate to say that the majority of Irish soldiers fighting for the Union were great believers in the abolitionists cause.

The war itself was practically inevitable, as many people foresaw. The Union was expanding ever westward, and the divide between those who wished to see an end to slavery, whether it be for moral reasons or because of the economic advantages in offered states to the south, and those who saw the practise as part and parcel of their lives, had long since been fated to end in gunfire and death. The westward expansion, and the creation of new states and territories, brought the issue of abolition firmly to the top of flammable political issues. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, his abolitionist leanings pushed the emergent Confederacy into action, and by 1861, with the assault on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the Civil War had begun in earnest.

Irish service in this war is especially synonymous with one regiment, whose descendants continues to be a part of the United States Army today: the New York 69th, better known as the “Fighting Irish”.

As early as 1849, Irish patriots had been organising militias in New York. One of these, dubbed the “First Irish Regiment” and commanded by 1848 veteran John Doheny, was the nucleus for what would eventually become the 69th, after it was paired or merged with several other Irish militia companies and regiments. Recruited from the poorer areas of New York City, the 69th was engaged in combating civil disturbances throughout the latter 1850’s, and famously did not take part in a welcome parade for the visiting Prince of Wales in 1860 when it’s then Colonel Michael Corcoran – who claimed to be a descendent of Patrick Sarsfield – disobeyed orders and refused to march his unit out. Corcoran was arrested and faced a court martial, before the Civil War intervened.

The 69th was part of the mass movement of troops that were engaged in the first significant clash of the war, the First Battle of Bull Run, where their overall commander was one William T. Sherman. The Confederate victory there set the stage for much of the next few years of fighting, as Union armies were repeatedly outwitted and outfought in the eastern theatre: the 69th formed part of the rearguard action that day, that prevented the collapse of the Union advance from turning into a slaughter. Corcoran was taken prisoner while attempting to capture Confederate artillery. His replacement was none other than Thomas Frances Meagher, the one-time Young Irelander firebrand who had taken part in the events of 1848, before being transported to Australia. Having organised an escape from there, Meagher travelled the United States with the aim of joining the already existing pool of Irish nationalists assembling in numbers in the United States, and soon found himself swept up in the rush of training, recruitment and formation of military units as the war approached and then arrived. At Bull Run, then Captain Meagher had effectively commanded a “Zouve” company – essentially specialised light infantry – and now made a bid for greater recognition.

Meagher applied that the 69th be federalised into a more formal volunteer entity rather than a militia, and be matched with other regiments of an Irish nature to form an “Irish Brigade”. In September of 1861, Lincoln’s government agreed, and Meagher was constituted as the Irish Brigade’s Brigadier General, commanding the 69th, 66th and 83rd Regiments, all New York based and all with a distinctly Irish character. They were later joined by regiments from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The Brigade had Irish symbols and slogans among its identifying labels, and was unique in its Catholic chaplains, something the American military had long forsworn. While there was a common theme in the Brigade in the ethnicity of its soldiers, there was still a great deal of diversity in background: New York dockworkers were serving alongside rural puritans from further north, and the leadership itself included both ardent Irish revolutionaries and men whose sympathies were not altogether with the Union. But they soon gained a fearsome reputation for both their hard campaigning and their unity in battle. The Irish Brigade was part and parcel of the primary fighting force of the Union, the Army of the Potomac, which would go toe to toe with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War’s most notable battles.

In 1862, the “Seven Days” battles, as blow hard Union General George McClellan attempted to take the Confederate capital by a roundabout route, were another set of Union defeats where the Irish distinguished themselves, really now earning that reputation for standing solidly and attacking with vigour, and taking the casualties you would expect. At Meagher’s insistence, most of the Brigade was armed with guns that were largely obsolete, more shotgun than rifle, as the General insisted the regiments would be doing most of their fighting up close, a situation not rectified until the latter stages of the war. This action certainly marked the Irish out, but did mean that they were more fired upon than firing back when it came to actual engagement.

Victory for the south in the Seven Days allowed Robert E. Lee the opportunity to invade the north, a campaign that culminated in the bloody stalemate at Antietem in September of 1862. The Irish, under-manned after the losses suffered previously, had been busy trying to get more recruits in New York when they were suddenly rushed into battle again: at Antietem, they assaulted the road later known as “Bloody Lane” right in the centre of the Confederate position. The casualties suffered were horrendous, but bought other units enough time to flank and capture the position, though the larger battle was essentially a costly draw for both sides, with Lee obligated to retreat south.

The following Battle of Fredericksburg in December was a real watershed for the Irish regiments. It was there that a huge section of the Union Army was dashed to pieces assaulting a Confederate position behind a low stone wall at the foot of a hill: the Irish Brigade suffered incredible casualties in the failed attack, their strength reduced from 1600 to 256 from dead, wounded and missing. According to popular remembrance, one of the Confederate units firing from behind the wall was made up largely of Irish recruits, who included IRB members among their ranks, just as the attacking Irish Brigade did: Lee was worried enough by the similarities in national origin to station reserves nearby in case his Irish refused to fire, but fire they did. It was Lee who allegedly coined the phrase “the Fighting 69th” at that battle. Fredericksburg, another awful Union defeat, left the Irish Brigade in pieces, it’s Brigade status itself largely a fiction that only true on paper.

Meagher, who led the Brigade personally at Antietem but was later accused of being drunk at the time, was continually frustrated by repeated refusal of requests that he be allowed to take his units out of the line and replenish through of a period of active recruitment: after more losses suffered at the Battle of Chancellorsville – yet another Union defeat – he resigned his commission in protest, and was replaced by Patrick Kelly, a Galway native and survivor of Fredericksburg. Meagher would come back to the Union Army later and fight in the western theatre, after which he served as a Governor of the Montana territory before his death by drowning in 1867, after falling overboard a steamer on the Missouri River.

The larger Civil War pivoted around the fighting that took place in the first days of July, 1863. Lee’s army invaded the north again, hoping to draw the Army of the Potomac into a final decisive clash. The Potomac, under new commanders and desperate for any kind of victory, followed. For three days the Confederates attacked Union positions on the high ground outside the Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg, with many of the smaller sections of the battle achieving immortality in their own right: places like the Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield saw both armies crash into each other, with what seemed like the very fate of the United States in the balance. It was in the Wheatfield that the Irish Brigade, now barely at regiment strength, was called into service, moving out from defensive positions on a hill to face the oncoming Confederates, after famously receiving a general absolution from their Chaplin William Corby, a moment since immortalised in art. While they held for a time, Union reversals elsewhere made the position untenable, and the Irish and other Federal troops were soon overwhelmed, though the actions of other units meant the high ground was held. The Union would prevail at Gettysburg after the failure of “Pickett’s Charge” on July 4th: from that day on, the Confederate war effort began to more seriously falter. For the Irish, the repeated bloodbaths and mass casualties could now no longer be made up for.

In 1864, at places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbour the Irish were flung into battle again and again, now under the more steely and determined command of Ulysses S. Grant, a man who understood the numerical advantage of the Union and was was perfectly willing to exploit it in costly assaults that produced numerous Union defeats, or stalemates, but which drained the Confederacy of men they could not easily replace, a weakness the north did not share. The Irish Brigade continued to match its heroism with losses, and when its latest commander, Cavan’s Colonel Richard Byrne, was killed in the failed assault at Cold Harbour, the Brigade was disbanded, with its constituent regiments re-assigned to other units.

The 69th remained with the Army of the Potomac though, with many of its number now draftees from New York ghettos rather than volunteers. At the Siege of Petersburg, which started in June of 1864, Lee’s army found itself bottled up and unable to operate effectively, as the Union Army, the 69th among its number, dug in and waited. In the larger war, the Confederacy was strangled by setbacks in the west and the naval blockade of its coastline. After numerous failed assaults, a breakthrough was achieved in March of 1865, forcing the Amy of Northern Virginia into flight, and the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The eastern theatre of the Civil War drew to a close at Appomattox Court House, where the last desperate section of Lee’s once all-victorious army was cornered and forced to surrender. The badly mauled 69th was present, if not heavily engaged: it was among the regiments that famously gave Lee’s surrendered army the salute as it marched away for the last time. By then a new Irish Brigade had been commissioned, but it’s service was barely needed, the war coming to close by May of 1865. The overall casualty levels experienced by the Irish Brigade were immense, running well into the thousands: only two other Brigade’s suffered higher, and only six regiments endured more loss than the 69th, which remained in being after the war, but relegated to National Guard duty in New York.

The Irish experience of the American Civil War is almost entirely bound up in the story of the Union, primarily because of the service of regiments like the 69th, that would be resurrected for active service later in American military history. But, though little noted on this side of the Atlantic or the other, Irish did fight in grey colours between 1861 and 1865. Their story will be the focus of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Serenity RPG Once-Offs

I have done more once-off Firefly games than I can actually remember. They are a very different challenge to the campaigns, in that you need to make a story, with a beginning, middle and end, and pack it all in to three hours or less, with enough stuff for every character to do. If campaigns are a TV show, once-off are movies: they need to have more of a punch due to the inherent short term nature of them. In this post, I’m going to go through four once-offs that I have written, and talk about it about what worked and what didn’t.

First up is “Stonewall”, which was my attempt to tie in the Firefly universe to the American Civil War much like the Battle of Serenity Valley did. Only, I was more interested in the beginning or things, and so came up with Firefly’s version of the First Battle of Bull Run. I can’t remember too much of what actually too place there, apart from the basics: the crew were a bunch of Independent spy/scouts, infiltrating an Alliance city ahead of a big battle to take place afterwards, with the Browncoats led by famed General Chiek Xun (think about it). It was a fun, simple game, that I recall being punctuated by a riverboat chase at the end of the second act, before the main point, which was stopping a human wave-esque Alliance assault using some howitzer guns, just like Stonewall Jackson’s defence of the Confederate position at Bull Run, that marked the turning of the battle from Union hands into an unlikely southern victory. This was Firefly as a rather brainless action movie, and was played as such: the game lacked any larger point or deep philosophy, but it did have lots of explosions and chase scenes.

The Mark” was a bit different. For many of my games, having learned the necessity of improvisation, I didn’t have detailed notes, limiting things to a basic outline, key plot points, and the backstory on character sheets to flesh things out. But for “The Mark”, which I ran at a convention, I needed better notes because of the possibility of another GM running the same game, so I tried to be a bit more detailed. The story was of a crew of bounty hunters being hired by an M.P., to extract his runaway daughter from a David Karesh-esque cult on the other side of the system, a fairly simple thing. But I micromanaged too much in the notes in basically suggesting pathways for the players to take ranging from an all out assault to a covert infiltration, and when the players playing the actual game tried to take things in their own direction – because no-one likes being blatantly railroaded – I struggled to adapt things, as did the other GM unlucky enough to be left with my unimaginative, if detailed, notes. The game quickly devoled into what I considered to be a rather dull shoot-out that took up nearly the entire second half of the story, which is not the kind of game I usually like to run: while not badly received, “The Mark” made me realise that I needed to be a bit more circumspect when it came to expanded game notes.

Bosworth” was a game that was an effort to combine my love of Firefly with my love of Shakespeare, inspired by things like this. It re-cast the characters of the show into a Medieval setting, depicting the events of Serenity in the same vein as one of the Bard’s history plays, “Bosworth” passed off as a sort of extra chapter after Richard III. Sir Malcolm of Shadow is a veteran of the Yorkist side of the War of the Roses, who lost everything at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and has since taken to piracy/general mayhem on the high seas as the master of the Bosworth, along with a crew that worked as a period facsimile of the “real” Serenity hands: Hoban the tiller with his Moorish wife, a greasy sailor girl making things work, a fugitive apothacary and his touched sister, a whore with a heart of gold, etc. It was very easy to fit them all in, some things remaining generally constant from genre to genre. The plot itself was more Seven Samurai than Serenity in many respects, defending a small coastal village from the ravages of stand-in Reavers, bloody cannibals from a mysterious island far off-shore. This was a fun one to play, though I admit it was hard to got the players into the Shakespearian mood. One of the things I worked on a lot for “Bosworth” was giving every character a sub-plot of some kind: the Doctor had to cure people in the town suffering from a mysterious malady, the tiller had to scout out the Reavers, even the whore had to go seduce a local Robin Hood-type into helping the village. In the end, a violent blowout where the town was saved from the Reaver menace capped it off, and while I wasn’t able to give it the right Bardic flavour that I really wanted, I was still able to count “Bosworth” as a success.

Then there was “This Be The ‘Verse”, the Firefly game that re-ignited my love for the RPG after a few years absence of serious playing. I had just finished the TV show Justified, and was inspired to write something in Firefly that borrowed a few elements, especially the series’ primary antagonist Boyd Crowder. In the game, the crew are sent to stop “The Fang”, a legendary art thief, from stealing a famous sword, unaware that the villain is a former acquaintance of the Captain from his time in the Independent military. Hi jinks abound: a bare-knuckle fist fight in a dingy pub basement, disarming a bomb inside an art gallery, a one-on-one aerial duel, a High Noon-esque showdown and going up against the Fang himself, inside a gigantic storehouse of stolen artwork and cultural treasures. “This Be The ‘”Verse” was a game where I indulged myself in terms of grander story-telling and deeper themes, tying in the fate of the villain to a family drama involving the crews employer, and tying all of that back to the Philip Larkin’s poem that I got the title from. Unfortunately, the problem was that I really put too much into the game, at least too much for a three-hour once off: the one time I was able to get the game going properly, I ended up having to skip much of it due to time constraints. I might one day adapt “This Be The ‘Verse” into campaign of sorts, which would be a better fit for the myriad of ideas and concepts that I had: that, or shave down the existing premise so that it’s a better fit for three hours.

That’s a small taste of what I got up to wth Firefly RPG’s in-between the campaigns. As it happens, I am actually in the middle of a campaign right now, and next time I’ll use that as an example of how Firefly’s general premise works really well when it comes to assembling a party with different skill-sets and roles.

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Review: ARQ



“In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”


Back to the Netflix well this week – man, it does seem like I’m getting my movie watching fix from them at an ever increasing rate, huh? – for what was a relatively under-publicised sci-fi offering. Director Tony Elliot is best known for his work on TV series Orphan Black, but the streaming behemoth gave him the opportunity to bring this pet project to life. Favourable reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival gave me reason to optimistic. Could ARQ rise above its low budget essence, and prove itself an unlikely sci-fi classic?

In a dystopian future dominated by an oppressive corporate entity named Toros, Renton (Robbie Amell) a former Toros employee, reconnects with his once missing lover Hannah (Rachael Taylor). But when Renton’s home is invaded by soldiers of a resistance movement, both he and Hannah are caught in a bizarre time loop, connected to “the ARQ”, a strange technology stolen from Toros, that could hold the key to saving humanity.

The Groundhog Day time loop has become a very, very well-worn sci-fi sub-genre, whose potential intricacies have been long since explored, and explored well. ARQ’s whole hook is wrapped around the concept tightly, and in order for the film to succeed, it needs to find something new worth going after there.

And, to a certain extent, it does. ARQ takes the focus of having two people with wildly different motivations and personalities stuck in the same time-loop, with unpredictable people attacking them, people who might act true to their established nature from loop to loop, but who might, at any moment, reveal something new and very important about themselves. It’s a film loaded down with twists and treachery, but through the use of the time loop concept, manages to keep it all from becoming too by-the-books or overwrought.

Beyond that, it’s actually just a fun film is immerse yourself in. Despite what I can only presume is a tiny budget and the extremely limited shooting locations – essentially just the inside of a dilapidated home, and the majority of the film is in its basement – Elliott manages to craft a well-rounded and believable futurescape, where out of control corporations are the new law, the air outside the walls is poisonous and ragtag resistance movements rely on “scrip” – the corporations own system of money – to survive. Elliott didn’t need flashy CGI, extensive prologues or word crawls at the beginning to get his point across: the majority is simply told through news footage in the background, and the natural dialogue of the characters themselves, who never drop into exposition mode. The script generally is quite strong in that regard, save for when the technological aspects of things threatens to overwhelm the story in the last act.


Taylor doesn’t pull her weight, out-staged by the more dynamic Amell.

The MacGuffin of the piece, even to a layman like me, is essentially magic with science terms attached to it, a perpetual motion device that, for some reason, starts resetting time in a three hour loop around it. While uncovering the mystery of the ARQ and why it is doing what it is doing is an important part of the plot, the film succeeds in making this a sort of tertiary priority of both characters and narrative. Instead, ARQ is more about the fractured relationship between Renton and Hannah, two people who have only just come back into each others lives. ARQ keeps you guessing whether the respectively damaged psyches of both – rather brilliantly teased out as we go along, between Renton’s hidden anger issues and Hannah’s deeper motivations for the reunion – can inter mesh again significantly.

In all of that Amell is doing rather well. Up to now he’s best known as a side character on The Flash, now getting into film at the same time as his slightly more illustrious cousin (this is better than TMNT: Out Of The Shadows though!). Amell illustrates a toughness underneath a more wizened and delicate exterior, and keeps the emotional stakes of the film going throughout, as he reacts to the succession of disasters and backstabbing confronting him in his mission to protect the ARQ. It’s unfortunate then that Taylor is such a drag, far from the good work she did on Jessica Jones, another Netflix property. Here, she lags behind Amell in terms of emotional reach and emotional delivery: when he gets caught up in the time loop, his reactions are perfect but for her, well, there are times when you can really tell that an actor is trying too hard, and Taylor struggles to just relax into the role that she has been given.

The other major part of proceedings is the clear and present danger presented by “the Bloc”, the goons of the local resistance movement, whose inner workings too present ample opportunity for backstabbing and betrayal. While most of the four characters are nobodies in terms of larger impact on the story, you still get a feel for their personalities, be they filled with desperate necessity, youthful naivety, psychopathic sadism or calculated violence. By the time we get to the last half hour, ARQ has concocted a scenario that is truly fascinating, namely, how do you react when you and your enemy are both looping, and both learning from everything that has come before?

Visually, ARQ is a great example of what can be accomplished on limited means. Renton’s home is a dishevelled, abused place, it’s damaged walls and dark corners the perfect analogy for the minds of the people inhabiting the space for the brisk 90+ minutes of screen-time. The windows are blacked out and the lighting is sparse, flashes of neon giving everything an occasionally ghoulish appearance. The only real future tech on display is holographic TV screens that some character pour scorn towards, until late-on of course. Things are kept suitably tight and confined when it comes to the camerawork: third act games of cat and mouse are expertly framed, keeping the tension ticking over.

Given it’s budget and other limitations, I’m happy to pronounce ARQ as a huge success, a film that manages to present a high-concept science fiction story within very defined parameters, intertwining it with a dystopic love story brilliantly. While one half of the leading pair isn’t pulling their weight enough, most of the cast does their job very well, most especially the magnetic Amell. Scripted well and making the very most of its limited means from a cinematography standpoint, ARQ is a film that is well worth your time. Recommended.


Well worth checking out.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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