Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Graveyard Book (by Neil Gaiman)

Thanks to Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams, who ran a contest on her excellent writing blog which I won! Which allowed me to buy this book and also Steven Saylor's Last Seen in Massilia, which I'll read and review after my summer holiday. (I'm also thoroughly enjoying her mystery Delicious and Suspicious and plan to attempt dry rub from the recipies at the back at some point, which will probably go horribly wrong!).

Spoilers follow.

I wasn't expecting to post on The Graveyard Book, which I was desperate to read, but was delighted to discover a Roman lurking around the graveyard Bod lives in, making the book prime blogging material! Caius Pompeius doesn't play a large role in the book, but he does provide some colour at the beginning, emphasising the variety of people in the graveyard - it's not all Grey Ladies and monks (though they are there too).

The main purpose of Caius Pompeius' presence is to emphasise how old the graveyard is. Humans, once we have set aside a certain space as sacred, or as intended for the burial of the dead, or in the case of Christian burial both, tend to like to keep it that way. New religions take over old temples and convert them for their own purposes. In the case of burial, Roman pagans were horrified by the Christian idea that dead bodies should be buried within the town, as they preferred to keep the di manes, the shades of the dead, at a distance (whereas Christians kept the dead close in the hope of bodily resurrection). However, the idea that Caius Pompeius might ask to be buried beside an older burial mound makes perfect sense, as presumably the town boundaries were different in the Roman period and he specifcially says that he wanted to be buried near the even older burial mound already present. Romans used both burial and cremation, with fashions changing at different periods (mostly burial in the first century BC, for example, and mostly cremation in the first century AD) until the wide adoption of Christianity put an end to cremation (because one can't be resurrected in body and soul on the last day if one's body has been burned, according to Christian theology of the period).

Caius Pompeius is the oldest member of the graveyard's community, because the mound he was buried near contains something else entirely (I'm not sure if the Sleer is a fantastic invention of Gaiman's, or related to a mythology I'm not familiar with. Either way, there's not much indication of a ghostly person in that grave, though there must have been someone once). Unlike his companions from the Early Modern period, he speaks modern English, presumably because whereas they continue to speak in the way they did when alive, he has had to learn a new language post-mortem and has kept up with changing idioms (makes sense to me!). We don't get to know much about him as a character, but he's friendly and as an ex-soldier, he has a tendency to take charge. And his pro-consul was called Marcus because, as Chelmsford 123 pointed out, all Romans are called Marcus. (Or Gaius/Caius).

There are a couple of other Classical references in the book (and there's a lot of Latin on the gravestones, of course). My favourite, which actually made me laugh out loud, was Nehemiah Trot the poet's advice to Bod on how to talk to girls. He starts off all right, suggesting that Bod call the girl his 'Terpsichore' (Muse of choral song and dance), which is appropriate enough, but his next suggestion is 'Echo', who is not exactly a role model for successful romance, and his third suggestion is... Clytemnestra. Poor Scarlett nearly does end up being Bod's Clytemnestra, but not on purpose. Trot's suggestions for how Bod should refer to himself include Leander, who was killed trying to reach his lover, Hero, who was Leander's girlfriend (as in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, it's a girl's name) and who killed herself, and Alexander, which is another name for Paris, the man whose romantic relationship/seduction/rape of another man's wife (depending on version) started the Trojan War. Bod thinks to himself 'if you couldn't trust a poet to give sensible advice, who could you trust?' which just goes to show that the poor boy is in desperate need of a more up-to-date education.

Then, of course, there's Miss Lupescu. I will have to stop making excuses about how I didn't work out Remus Lupin's secret from Harry Potter because I hadn't done Latin yet at the time, because this one passed me by as well. I just don't concentrate when I read for pleasure. I rather liked the idea of werewolves as 'Hounds of God' though.

I loved the book - I've been desperate to read it for ages and I wasn't disappointed. It's beautifully illustrated with wonderful slightly creepy, slightly old-fashioned, but not too creepy illustrations by Chris Riddell. I wasn't too sure whether or not I liked the decision to put the illustrations, together with a caption, at the beginning of each chapter - on the upside, this gives the reader a taste of what is to come (I especially liked the drawing of Liza Hempstock, right) but on the downside, it takes away some of the surprise and excitement of seeing what comes next. The story was more bittersweet than I was expecting, though given the subject matter that was pretty appropriate. I wasn't so keen on the ghouls and the ghoul gate sequence, as it seemed a bit too fantastical compared to the rest of the book, but it worked in context, and was necessary for the plot. I loved the sequences featuring Liza the witch and the Danse Macabre, and I loved Silas. This was the sort of book that made me start imagining what happened to the characters afterwards, which is the sort of thing I love to do, and which I think is especially good in a children's book, as it might spark their imaginations!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Party Favours

There's a random Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows spoiler towards the end of this post, so watch out if you haven't read it yet!

We open with Spartacus in such a bad mood he's even being mardy with Neighbours Reject, and are thrown immediately into the arena - so I'm guessing we're in for more blood, fewer tits this week.

The old white haired guy who's been hanging around for a while is arranging a celebration for his son, who is turning 15 (and, I think I remember rightly, putting on his manly gown - they keep saying he will become a man so he must be). A brunette friend of Xena's is starting to wonder where Crassus' cousin is, and Xena explains 'she has been feeling unwell'. 'Nothing serious I hope' says the friend, and Brother replies 'Just... lack of a face.' (Then he said 'she couldn't face it'. He should write Christmas cracker jokes). (Actually, they may have been talking about Paris Hilton, I still haven't worked out everyone's names). Brother also doubts whether, in reality, you could pop someone's head off with a chain, but it's a neat move and Spartacus and NR seem to be very popular, though Spartacus is getting all the credit.

Nasty little goatee guy is trying to get at Crixus, who is resisting so far but may crack soon. The slave girl sent to Spartacus has found NR's wife, who has done for the man who raped her herself (I like her!) and she and NR have a genuinely sweet reconciliation. He has realised he was an idiot and come to terms with the whole thing, and is back in my good books. (I should have seen the end coming at this point).

I'm even feeling sorry for poor old Paris Hilton, who is still feeling pretty rotten about killing Crassus' cousin (and so she should. This feeling will not last long). Xena now feels so powerful in comparison, she hasn't even bothered to change into the blonde wig, but is sticking with her own preferred red while telling PH what to do.

Spartacus and Crixus have to fight each other (though John Hannah impresses upon them that they are not actually supposed to hurt each other, it's only for show - which is good for the story and allows us to see an aspect of Roman gladiatorial games that is hardly ever shown on television or film, show fights in which no one is actually supposed to die or be seriously injured). JH is getting very over-exicted, which can't be a good sign.

Crixus' unfortunate girlfriend is in trouble following her theft of the cell key last week, while JH and Xena actually look like they might have sex with each other for once. I like the board game JH and gnomy guy are playing - I've no idea how accurate it may or may not be, but it's cool.

Crixus is now planning to kill Spartacus, which is really annoying, really stupid and not going to help them make friends. He is out of my good books. Gnomy guy catches Crixus and his girlfriend at it - I'm sure he would have done anyway, since they were at quite close quarters, but really, if you're having clandestine sex in a cell, why remove all your clothes?!

The Crixus fan club

The conversation between Xena and JH about whether or not JH should have been drinking with Spartacus is interesting, and shows up some of the complexities of a master/slave relationship. If Xena and JH agreed on a favourite slave, they might occasionally talk with them, or even offer them a drink (and if you really liked a slave, you could free them). But there are some lines that can't be crossed, and then there are the lines that will cause trouble if you have different favourites. Xena deludes herself that she has some kind of relationship with Crixus because she forces him to sleep with her, but will never share a drink as equals, while JH, who prefers Spartacus, is happy to share a drink but quick to remind everyone where the power lies if Spartacus displeases him. And they would all get on better if the owning couple had the same favourites. One of the problems with studying slave conditions in any society is that conditions vary so much according to personality and situation, and this is neatly summed up here.

Spartacus catches the unpleasant guard attacking his slave-girl friend (partly because he thought she stole his keys) and JH has to break them all up and yell at everyone (except the girl, who gets sent off sharpish). Then back to party planning - 'This night will be etched in the memories of all in attendence' says JH cheerfully. Oh John, John. Have you never read a book or watched TV? That's like that bit in Titanic where Ismay says he wants Titanic's maiden voyage to make headlines.

The guy with the titchy little dreads has been egged on by Spartacus to refuse to surrender and look! Drill Sergeant Guy is hanging around in the background! He's still alive then. He waits long enough to separate Crixus and teeny dreads guy, though apparently letting Crixus mash up his face a bit has earned him the respect of his fellow gladiators.

Paris Hilton declares that 'tonight Numerius becomes a man' and then - ewwwwwwwww. Nowadays that would be statutory rape. (And, as Brother notes, she's had a rather drastic mood swing). Rome did this whole 'the boy must have sex to become a man' thing and it was bad there too, though somehow Octavian having sex with a prostitute was slightly less icky than PH's seduction of a kid not mature enough to shave yet. (Possibly because the prostitute, as far as we know, had no ulterior motive other than money).

Neighbours Reject has actually noted aloud that Spartacus has only one friend, so at least they're both self-aware. Xena, meanwhile, seems to be trying to taunt PH into some kind of screaming flashback to the whole unfortunate murder thing. White haired guy and gnomy bearded guy are plotting about something, but I've lost track of what - Brother thinks JH may be planning to kill White haired guy, but I thought he was talking about the eventual inevitable death of Crixus, so we've not idea what's going on. You have to feel sorry for Crixus, though, when the spotty kid demands Neighbours Reject instead of Crixus for the show fight. JH still doesn't seem to have noticed his wife's extreme preference for Crixus, which makes him a bit slow.

Neighbours Reject and Spartacus are gleefully drawing blood and Mum, Brother and I are agreed that we fear some kind of Hamlet-style sword-poisoning incident. But there's no need - the hideous spotty kid demands death, put up to it by Paris Hilton. JH quite rightly objects, since this was not supposed to be a fight to the death, but no luck, white-haired guy insists and we're back at the traditional gladiator-ordered-to-kill-his-best-friend plot. Spartacus just stands there for ages while NR nobly insists he has no choice and they're surrounded by soldiers, until eventually poor old Neighbours Reject shoves the sword into his own shoulder and begs Spartacus to look after his family (who have gone to Sicily). So Spartacus finishes him off, though he weeps in a manly way as he does it, looking a bit like Aragorn. And JH doesn't even get his political contacts, as white-haired guy has no intention of supporting him because he's too low status.

The last scene is a rather good re-enacting of the beginning of Apocalypse Now, as Spartacus tears apart his tiny cell in grief (he is comforted by the slave-girl, but this is not a lot of help). The vital difference between this and the many other examples of the gladiator having to kill his friend trope is that this is the only example I can think of where the gladiator actually goes through with it. This episode packs a real emotional punch and deals with some of the realities of life as a gladiator and a slave well, and we all agreed that it was very sad, but very good. I never thought I would feel so sad at the passing of Neighbours Reject, but like Dobby the House Elf, he must have grown on me. And we can really start to see the trajectory towards rebellion now, with only a few episodes to go. I just hope there are enough characters, preferably likeable ones, alive at the end of it to keep us going into series 2!

Alas, poor Neighbours Reject. I knew him, Horatio.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Old Harry's Game: Series 2, Episode 3

I'm going away today for the weekend so I won't be able to reply to comments, but I'll be back next week with my regular Spartacus post.

Thanks to Erika for lending me the CDs!

Old Harry’s Game is a radio comedy series that has aired seven series on BBC Radio 4 between 1995 and 2009. It’s written by Andy Hamilton, writer and producer of Drop the Dead Donkey and, more recently, Outnumbered. The series is set in Hell and follows the trials and tribulations of Satan, his personal assistant (Gary the demon in Series 1, Scumspawn from Series 2 onwards), Thomas, the most repulsive human being ever to have lived, and the Professor, a very good man and an academic who has ended up in Hell because he is an atheist. James Grout, who played the Professor, was not able to take part after the Christmas Special that followed Series 4, so Series 5 focuses on Satan’s doings in the world of the living and Series 6 and 7 replace the Professor with Edith, another academic played by Annette Crosbie.

The series’ depiction of Hell basically follows the medieval Christian conception of Hell; Satan has horns and hooves, it’s full of fiery pits where horrible physical tortures are visited upon condemned souls and the demons come in various disgusting shapes and sizes, sometimes with poisonous snot. It does incorporate some elements of the Classical Hades, however, as Cerberus appears occasionally as Satan’s pet, who must be taken for a walk with all his leads.

The early series focussed on the philosophical debates between the Professor, who was convinced that there was some good in everybody and that humans were essentially worthy, and Satan, who disagreed. Considering that just about everyone who has ever lived except for infants and Saint Peter (who seems to have covered some things up) seems to be in Hell, Satan has some pretty strong arguments in his favour, though the Professor usually finds a way to win anyway.

Part of the fun of the series, aside from Satan’s inventive punishments (all the Popes are eternally nine months pregnant, for example) is that it often features famous historical figures, who usually turn out to be less praiseworthy than the Professor hopes. The most fun of these, who crops up briefly in nearly every series, is Jane Austen, who always appears in a terrible temper, screaming abuse (usually ‘tosser’, which is about as strong as you get on Radio 4) and picking fights whenever possible.

One of the ongoing storylines in Series 2 followed Satan’s attempt to find a new personal assistant following the unfortunate insurrection of Gary at the end of Series 1. Scumspawn, a rather pathetic demon played by Gus from Drop the Dead Donkey who is in love with Satan, eventually gets the job, but Satan tries for quite a while to find an alternative and trials several possible candidates, including an evil dolphin and a robot. He also mentions having rejected a hydra whose eight heads were interested in the position as a job-share. One of these candidates, the only mortal, is the Emperor Nero.

The episode in question opens with some athletic Games, which in Satan’s realm, are closer to ancient Roman Games than modern sports, because, as Satan observes, the Romans did know how to enjoy themselves, and there were no queues for toilets at the Collosseum. It is presumably this that gives him the idea to hire Nero as his personal assistant.

Satan describes Nero as a good administrator yet totally ruthless and horribly perverted (and observes that a Roman could maybe put in a few roads). The only mortal to be considered for the job, ‘he murdered his mother and his stepfather, trampled one of his wives to death, burned down Rome for the insurance and fed thousands of innocent people to lions. If that’s not an impressive CV I don’t know what is’ declares Satan. Apart from the bit about the insurance, this is pretty accurate. Satan admires Nero because he doesn’t try to cover up his evil, but is honest about it. When Nero appears, he is just as arrogant and unpleasant as you might expect, wanting to crucify the Professor for not kneeling before him and removing the vocal chords from the country and western singers.

It can’t last, though, because unfortunately, despite some fairly strong evidence to the contrary, Nero thinks he’s a god. Satan tries to point out that just because ‘a bunch of fat Italians wearing sheets give you a certificate’ it doesn’t mean you’re a deity, but to no avail. (The series is based on Christian concepts of Heaven and Hell so of course, anyone who is not a Christian is in for a nasty shock, but so are most the Christians, mainly for ignoring certain commandments involving loving others. Overall, the show displays the most sympathy with the Professor and Edith’s arguments in favour of atheism).

Nero eventually has to be fired after he covers Hell in statues of himself, in one of which he’s shagging Pegasus. And on an unrelated note, this episode ends rather satisfyingly with the Professor punching Thomas several times as his patience is finally stretched a little too far.

The real Nero. The sculptor's done his best, but he wasn't really a looker, was he?!

The representation of Nero here is more or less what we’ve come to expect and is mostly justified, though note again the obsession with Roman emperors having sex with animals, something none of them, as far as I am aware, are ever accused of doing (I suspect this is a comic exaggeration of the story about Caligula wanting to make his horse a senator). Like Spartacus, the series presents Romans as the most depraved of all humans, but since it focuses on their violent side, this is a little more justified than television’s obsession with orgies (which would not be nearly so much fun on radio). It is certainly less surprising to find inhabitants of ancient Rome among the damned than, say, Jane Austen, which is perhaps why they appear so rarely - without the shock factor it's not so funny - but when the series needed to find the most depraved man in history, this was the first place they looked. Ancient Rome is, once again, a byword for depravity. One of these days I'll start some kind of Roman rehabilitation campaign...

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Whore and Inception

Has anyone else seen Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010) yet? It was brilliant - and I think I'd enjoy it even more if I was able to see it a second time, without trying to second guess the plot the whole way through. I'm not sure how much 'pure creation' there is in real dreams - generally speaking, dreams are made up of elements of things you remember, sometimes mixed up together in strange ways. It's pretty much impossible to dream something you have no knowledge of. But still, it's brilliant.

It also features some significant names, some of which seem pretty obvious, others are less clear cut (oh, for a sequel to give us some more answers!). Ariadne has been picked up in most places as the woman who led Theseus out of the maze, which is probably why they went for that, but it's worth bearing in mind that Ariadne was also the woman abandoned on a beach while she was asleep. Like others, I kept mishearing 'Mal' as 'Moll' and wondering if she had something to do with gangsters, but it turns out it's 'Mal' - French for 'bad', 'evil', derived from Latin 'malus', but according to Empire magazine (and verified by Mum) it could also be related to mal'ak, Hebrew for 'messenger' (or 'angel'). Empire also suggested that 'Cobb' might be derived from Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder to heaven.

I also wondered if 'Yusuf' might be related to 'Joseph', who was told what to do in dreams. And King 'Arthur' is said to be sleeping and will wake when England needs him (his absence throughout the 20th century is not explained in legend!). And Micheal Caine's character is called 'Miles', as in 'to go before I sleep', but that's probably taking things a bit far. I keep wondering whether there is a deeper significance to any of these names, or whether Nolan is just messing with all our minds...

Anyway, on to this week's Spartacus.

This episode is called 'Whore' and features full frontal mass female nudity in the first few minutes, so I guess this will be a sexy episode, more than a bloody one (a guess mostly borne out, until the very end). Xena has got as bored of Paris Hilton as the rest of us and is now sucking up to Crassus' cousin, much to Hilton's chagrin. Trouble is, when they're all in their blonde wigs, I find it quite difficult to tell them apart. Xena is much quicker to leap to the lesbian snog in this show than she was in her own. The idea of all Xena's friends coming over to have sex with a gladiator actually does have some basis in historical evidence though. A lot of said evidence comes from Juvenal's satires, which are somewhat exaggerated tirades against anyone who isn't Juvenal, but still, it's something which may actually have happened in ancient Rome, so bonus points for that.

Bonus points immediately retracted for John Hannah randomly having forced sex with a slave - which, as we saw the other week, this programme does not seem to regard as rape, though it is - while having a conversation with his wife, who obviously wasn't in the mood. Trouble is, I was too distracted by explaining this to Brother, who's never seen the show before, that I missed what he was actually saying. (I had warned him that these two are often too lazy to do their own foreplay, and that they have slaves to do everything for him, but he was surprised - and amused - to see that sometimes it isn't just the foreplay that they can't be bothered to do for themsleves). Oh well.

I did like the next scene, which, if memory serves, mirrors a scene from the famous Kirk Douglas film of Spartacus' story, in which a woman (wearing rather more than this one) is sent to his cell to have sex with him and he refuses. I liked the echo of the film, following the 'I am Spartacus!' statement a couple of weeks ago, it was fun to see.

Since when was the gnome-y bearded guy a gladiator? I guess this is why he's so bitter. Is Xena actually bathing in milk of some kind?! I know Cleopatra was supposed to have done that, but I figured it was a story that got exaggerated. I'm not sure why the slave woman didn't just pretend she'd had sex with Spartacus when interrogated, she's not very bright it seems.

Crixus and some new guy have been naughty boys and will be sent to bed without supper. At least Neighbours Reject has seen some sense and calmed down. Xena, meanwhile, continues in her delusion that she and Crixus have some kind of actual relationship. Paris Hilton rather surprisingly looks slightly embarassed about using gladiators for sex, which is unusually human of her.

Xena without her wig is a little bit scary, as is her rage that anyone else might want Crixus, though not as scary as JH saying that soon they will give her a lesson in manners. Neighbours Reject, meanwhile, continues to react in a rather extreme manner to bad news.

I like the all too brief scene between Drill Sergeant Guy and Crixus a lot, where it looks almost as if they might plot against Spartacus. I continue to wonder how on earth Spartacus is going to lead a rebellion when everyone hates him. He's still got Neighbours Reject, of course - as I explained to Brother, they're BFFs. The rather dim slave woman is learning, though still not actually lying, and Spartacus is helping out his buddy, while Crixus teaches his new nemesis a thing or two, so things are starting to look up a bit.

It can't last though. JH seems to have similar tastes to Salome or Caligula, as his slaves have brought him a head as a present, Spartacus is led off to have sex with Crassus' cousin and Crixus goes off on a random jealous rant, only to find his poor girlfriend was flirting with a guard so that she could nick the key and they could finally have sex with each other, instead of Xena or JH. It was nice to see them finally get it together.

At this point, Mum had to remind me of the plot, which I had lost track of, as various double-crossings appear while everyone is wearing masks, along with yet more full frontal female nudity. Paris Hilton thinks she's having sex with Crixus, but it's Spartacus, who thinks he's having sex with Crassus' cousin (which his high morals seem to allow), then the cousin turns up, the masks come off, Spartacus goes mad and tries to strangle Paris Hilton, he is pulled off her, but then she goes mad and kills the cousin by smashing her face in, which is really, really gross. So now Xena and JH have a dead cousin of Crassus on their hands, and yet somehow Paris Hilton is still BFFs with Xena, I think because Xena is covering up her unfortunate murder of the cousin of one of the most powerful men in Rome.

I like the way the show is slowly moving towards actual history - more mentions of Crassus, who will presumably find out about his cousin at some point and possibly think that Spartacus did it, and echoes of the older movie, which isn't exactly historically accurate, but has more history in it than the TV series so far (which is not a criticism, as the series is offering a backstory that otherwise wouldn't exist, just an observation). Spartacus is becoming more leader-like, as he helps out Neighbours Reject, but I'm still hoping for a reconciliation between him and Crixus at some point, they're best fighting together. It's not looking good at the moment though, unless Spartacus can also somehow get Drill Sergeant Guy on side - which, if Crixus' girlfriend reveals what she knows about the death of Barca, might be possible, though unlikely. Here's hoping for more plotting and less really gross face-bashing in next week!

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Two adaptations of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile

I must start with a confession - I love Poirot and Miss Marple, but have only actually read a tiny handful - you could count them on one hand. (I plan to rectify this situation now that I have a bit more time and a couple of long ferry journeys coming up). So, I haven't actually read Death on the Nile, though I do have a copy of the book (in French - I was on holiday and wanted to practise) and a vague knowledge, gained chiefly from Wikipedia, of what happens in it. For today, however, I want to talk about the two adaptations of the book that I've seen, one filmed for cinema and the other for television. Spoilers follow.

Death on the Nile (dir. John Guillermin, 1978) stars Peter Ustinov as Poirot and was the first time he played the role, taking over from Albert Finney, who played Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (which is a gorgeous film). There's no question that Ustinov's Poirot is probably the furthest from Christie's Book!Poirot, but he's also my favourite - funny when he needs to be and deadly serious when he needs to be that, without being as caricatured as Finney. It also stars David Niven, one of my favourite actors from when I was little, as Colonel Race, which I think was his last film appearance (yes, one of my favourite actors when I was little was David Niven. The others were Errol Flynn, Dirk Bogarde, Robert Donat and Kenneth More. My Mum worked from home and we watched what she recommended, so I grew up on a diet of 1950s WW2 movies and the odd 1930s blockbuster). Like Orient Express, it has an all-star cast (check out IMDB for the full list) which I must confess I rather like - I like being able to recognise the actor, since I'm terrible at keeping track of character's names (as anyone who's read my Spartacus reviews already knows!).

Death on the Nile (dir. Andy Wilson, 2004) is part of the Agatha Christie: Poirot series, which I've written about before. In this case, however, the changes made to the book's plot are minimal and the TV adaptation is actually slightly closer to the book than the film. The main reason for this is that the book has an unusually large cast of characters which has to be cut down for the screen, and the television series, despite a slightly shorter runtime, includes a couple more characters and a subplot lost from the film.

The television adaptation is very good and Suchet is excellent as ever, even showing us just a little of Poirot's own emotion and loneliness. Overall, though, the film is more satisfying. With more time and fewer subplots, the film is less rushed than the TV episode, and although the actors in the TV show are very good, they can't match the quality (or genuine American accents) of the film. The character of Jackie, in particular, suffers from problems that are not so much the fault of the actress, Emma Malin - who delivers a perfectly good performance - but from writing and direction choices. TV!Jackie is just too brash, too confident and too in control, so when she shoots Simon and goes into hysterics, it feels like it comes out of nowhere, making the resolution easier to spot. Also, she's up against Mia Farrow. Farrow's Jackie is so fragile, so beautiful and yet so clearly slightly unhinged and capable of malice that she's perfect, both in her role as victim and later when the truth comes out. Her performance is note perfect and would be nigh on impossible to top.

In one other aspect Farrow's Jackie has a distinct advantage over Malin's, and that is the reason I'm covering these adaptations on the blog - Farrow's Jackie gets her facts right! I don't know whether the TV series deliberately gave Jackie incorrect information, which would be a reasonable enough thing to do - she is, after all, a fictional character who is not supposed to have any special expertise in Egyptology and who trots out trivia from Egyptian history as a slightly odd way of tormenting her rival and former friend with her presence. She may have researched these facts and very quickly and she may not be too bothered about their accuracy. Other characters do make deliberate mistakes - when Daisy Donovan's Cornelia describes this as her first trip to Europe, I really hope that's a deliberate mistake! However, there are a couple of things that make me think this isn't what's going on with Jackie.

Firstly, I think Jackie needs to have her facts right. I think a character who will be revealed to be as scheming as Jackie would bother to check what she was saying, and I think her torturing of Linnet works better if she's accurate. The smug, self-satisfied look on Farrow's face as she throws bits of Egyptology at Linnet, especially at the temple of Abu Simbel, is a look of utter superiority, which doesn't work if she's wrong - even though Linnet, who isn't an Egyptologist either, wouldn't know that she was wrong, she ought to know that she's right. (I should confess at this point that I haven't checked every single measurement Farrow quotes, but nothing she says stands out as wrong). Malin's Jackie doesn't describe things in nearly as much detail as Farrow and comes out with very odd ideas - at one point she seems to imply that the sphinx came to Egypt from Greece (which is the wrong way round).

Secondly, Dr Bessner also produces some inaccurate information. Again, the character is not an Egyptologist and might just be supposed to be wrong, but he is a bookish character trying to impress a girl with his knowledge, so why wouldn't he check his facts? Dr Bessner claims that Isis was impregnated by her son's sperm. I study Isis in her Classical form rather than the ancient Egyptian Isis so it's just possible that there is some ancient Egyptian version of her myth somewhere where this is what happens, but the usual version of the Isis myth is that she managed to get pregnant by her dead husband's corpse. (I do, however, love Cornelia's reaction to this story, as she exclaims 'Heavens to Betsy!').

I shouldn't be too harsh on the TV adaptation for a few bits of slightly inaccurate ancient history, and they do get a lot of it right (there's some quite amusing at accurate information provided on Hathor at one point). The trouble is, odd slip-ups tend to take me out of the story, which is always a shame, and I genuinely believe that characters like Jackie and Dr Bessner ought to have accurate information because their characters would take the time to make sure they did. I also love the way Farrow's Jackie throws statistics, measurements and dates at Linnet as if they were weapons, which Malin can't do with her more vague information.

The other advantage the film has is, of course, it's larger budget, which means we get to see beautiful views of the pyramids, the temple at Abu Simbel and other Egyptian sites. You just can't fake the monuments of ancient Egypt, and the film captures them beautifully. It is hardly the TV show's fault that it doesn't have the budget to do that, but it does give the film an extra dimension. On the other hand, the TV show has a rather fun sequence where James Fox's Colonel Race approaches on a camel (I think - might have been a horse) swathed in desert robes and looking like Lawrence of Arabia. That made me smile.

The temple at Abu Simbel. Not my photo, sadly, as I haven't been to Egypt yet!

Both adaptations emphasise this as one of Christie's more romantic stories, and the dramatic setting sets off the love stories, both tragic and sweet, very well. Ancient Egyptian history isn't exactly romantic in and of itself, as Cornelia discovers when Dr Bessner tells her some of its mythology, but the sheer scale of the mouments left behind and the always spectacular beauty of the desert provide a suitably epic backdrop for romance. Ancient monuments and empty desert also emphasise Linnet's essential problem - the fact that she is so very rich. Her elegant gowns next to ancient stones make a nice visual contrast that keeps the reason all her fellow passengers hate her uppermost in everyone's minds. Ancient Egypt, essentially, is little more than a backdrop - but it's a very impressive backdrop indeed.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

300 (dir. Zack Snyder, 2006)

Edited to add, in response to some comments below: I don't have an inherent problem with historical inaccuracy in movies, but I note inaccuracies because I think people are interested in the real story (do let me know if this is not the case!). I do have a few problems with 300 specifically, but I do like it as a film and in general, I record inaccuracy purely for the sake of interest, not because I want to complain about the movie!

When Brother and I went to see 300 at the cinema a few years ago, we had a long, bitter argument in the car on the way back over the politics of it (this being back in 2006, obviously). Brother, who hates my tendency to over-analyse everything, insisted that it was just a big, silly, fun film and not to worry about it (I think – Brother now has no memory of this argument, but this is the sort of thing he often says!). Although I enjoyed the film, I thought the representation of the Greeks (for which, read Westerners) and the Persians (from modern Iran, of course) was so horribly blinkered as to be almost irresponsible. The Spartans, whose constitution was an unusual blend of monarchy and democracy and who enslaved the native inhabitants of the land they conquered so that they could form themselves into perfect soldiers while these people, the helots, did all the work of keeping them all alive, are portrayed as fighting for freedom and democracy. (G Kovacs pointed out in a recent conference paper that the word ‘democracy’ does not actually appear anywhere in the film, which is something, but it does appear in many reviews – the many references to freedom manage to leave the audience with the impression that democracy was included as well). The Persians, meanwhile, are depicted as religious fanatics with a god-king (that was ancient Egypt) who are literally monstrous. They’re covered in piercings, Xerxes is seven or eight foot tall and wears no clothes (but then, nor do the Spartans) they have bizarre rhino-monsters with them and they seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

The essential story the movie is based on does lend itself to some of this – the various Greek city-states were attacked by Xerxes, who wanted to conquer Greece and add it to the Persian Empire. Between Spartan victories on land and Athenian victories at sea, the Greeks managed to fight them off. And Athens, at this time, was the world’s first democracy – assuming you don’t worry about the slaves, resident foreigners, people who couldn’t prove the lineage of both parents and women, none of whom could vote. But this movie goes to such ridiculous extremes, totally ignoring the Spartan enslavement of the helots to claim them as champions of freedom and turning the Persians into religious fanatics, that it is clearly the product of a mid-noughties desire to make Persia look as bad as possible. Most tellingly of all, the famous ‘Go tell the Spartans...’ epitaph is made to refer to their deaths being caused by no one else being allowed to go to fight, whereas in Herodotus, the epitaph refers rather to the Spartans’ legendary refusal ever to give up or surrender.

Mind you, considering Xerxes speaks exactly like a Goa’uld, perhaps the god thing is less surprising and Leonidas should be on the look-out for spaceships... It should also be mentioned that he was a bit eccentric, and apparently he had the Hellespont, the sea between Europe and Asia, whipped because it wouldn’t obey him. So the movie isn’t being totally out of line – but I very much doubt he suffered from gigantism (which weakens the bones, not good in battle) or thought he was invulnerable.

The problem with discussing historical accuracy when it comes to Sparta is that ancient Sparta is something we actually know very little about. We are blinded by the ‘Spartan mirage’, a name for the problem of the nature of the information we have about ancient Sparta, which is nearly all from much, much later sources and none of it from Spartans. Ancient Sparta was a closed society, and no writings from Spartans themselves have survived. Xenophon, who was a mercenary, is probably the best source. We know the story of the 300 from Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, who is fascinating but who is not known for checking his sources (he was convinced there were giant gold digging ants in the Indian desert. Do not start telling me about camel spiders, I do not want to know, I was much happier before I’d ever heard of them!). Much of what we do know is probably closer to how the Spartans wanted to be viewed by others rather than how they really lived. In a way, this gives writers of historical fiction more licence to play, since we have so little knowledge of what Sparta was like that there’s a fair amount of room for invention. This movie, however, enjoyable as it is, goes to some ridiculous extremes and contradicts some of the more reliable stuff that we do know, or think we know, about Sparta.

The set up of the movie itself does not match the oracle and the pattern of events that Herodotus describes, so to save time – you can read Herodotus’ account here.

Much of Faramir’s opening narration, on the other hand, is fairly accurate. According to our sources, the Spartans did indeed expose sickly children, send boys to learn to be soldiers at the age of seven and make them go through various initiation rituals including some interesting oddities like stealing cheese and choral singing. The images that go with the spoken narration, though, go rather excessively over the top (unsurprisingly for a movie which seems convinced that the Spartans wore nothing but tiny underpants and red cloaks). The opening inspection of the baby is very dramatic – the practice, as far as we know, was real but I don’t think the Spartans actually left piles of baby corpses lying around at the bottom of a cliff – they would have been exposed in an isolated area and probably eaten by wild beasts or adopted by helots (the people conquered and enslaved by the Spartans).Then we see the mother crying and having to be restrained as the boy is taken away - why is she making such a fuss when this happens to everybody? This is just what Spartans did. OK, she might cry a bit, but she shouldn’t have to be restrained. And no matter how tough the Spartans expected their kids to be, they wouldn’t chuck them out into the snow with nothing but a loincloth on either, that’s just silly.

Grown-up Leonidas, otherwise known as the Phantom of the Opera, makes a good impression, with an excellent pointy ancient beard, but he has been taking accent lessons from Sean Connery, well known Spanish Russian naval captain. THIS IS SPARTA! is still cool after multiple viewings, perhaps even more so when you realise it’s Drill Sergeant Guy disappearing down the well. Although I do feel the need to point out that this is what really happened to Xerxes’ scout, according to Herodotus:

‘when he had observed all exactly, he rode back unmolested, for no one attempted to pursue him and he found himself treated with much indifference.’ 7.208.

Gorgo is very cool, and, I understand from the conference paper, a creation entirely of the movie. Spartan women did have more freedom than Athenian women, because the Spartans had worked out that a healthy woman who was able to exercise in the open air was more likely to give birth to strong, healthy children, so unlike Athenian women, Spartan women were not kept inside the house and were encouraged to exercise. I’m not sure they had quite as much clout or freedom as Gorgo, but she’s a great character and it’s not totally out of the bounds of possibility. Her story is rather depressing and unpleasant, but does have the best pay-off in the movie, when she stabs Theron to death and reveals his treachery at the same time.

The reference to the Athenians as ‘philosophers and boy-lovers’ is a bit rich coming from a Spartan. It’s true enough of the Athenians – the well known concept of ‘Greek love’, the sometimes sexual, sometimes ‘Platonic’ relationship between an older man and a younger boy, was indeed a common practice in ancient Athens, but equally in Sparta, relationships between men were encouraged because it was thought they would fight better for a lover than for a friend. Mind you, the Spartans preferred their men full grown and manly, so I suppose they might make derogatory comments about the Athenians for preferring boys.

There are no words for the total wrongness of the ephors and the Oracle (presumably the Delphic Oracle, the best known and most important oracle in ancient Greece). I’ve already linked to Herodotus’ account above (Leonidas’ march with the 300 was, according to Herodotus, inspired by an oracle, but it was an oracle that said either Sparta would be destroyed or one of the kings had to die, and he figured it was the lesser of two evils). As for the Oracle and ephors in general, let’s be brief and just say that the ephors were perfectly normal men, were not priests, and were elected annually. Their job was to provide a check and balance to the two kings. The Delphic Oracle was indeed a woman, possibly under the influence of something, possibly not, whose words were interpreted by the priests, but she grew old in her job and she wore clothes while doing it.

Some choice quotes from this section of the movie include, ‘Trust the gods’, ‘I’d prefer you trusted your reason’; ‘Diseased old mystics, worthless remnants... of a senseless tradition’ and so on and so forth. You don’t like religion. We get it.

The whole business with the old guy and his son is also contrary to Herodotus’ account, as Herodotus notes that since Leonidas was convinced he was going to die, he brought only men with living sons to leave behind. ‘Come back with your shield or on it’ is, however, a genuine Spartan phrase according to the sources, so that bit’s nice. I also like ‘our arrows will blot out the sun’, ‘then we will fight in the shade’. Just ‘cause it’s cool.

The whole ridiculous tree of corpses thing is, I discovered at a conference paper a couple of weeks ago, added for the film to make the Persians guilty of war crimes, in order to justify the Spartans’ own unpleasant actions. Epialtes, or Ephialtes, according to Herodotus, was a Malian. Not deformed, not a Spartan, killed later for another reason. Leonidas’ description of how a phalanx works is accurate though, and it is certainly true that someone like the Ephialtes depicted here could not fight in one. Mind you, we don’t actually see much of the Spartans fighting in phalanx formation anyway.

300 isn't the first depiction of the Spartans to insist that they ran around in battle half-naked. This is 'Leonidas at Thermopylae', by Jacques-Louis David, 1814.

At one point Xerxes refers to ‘every Greek historian’ – there weren’t many at this point (none whose work has survived), Herodotus was the first whose work we have. He also keeps referring to the armies of all Asia, which is a gross exaggeration, the ancient Persians were well aware of the existence of India and probably of China too. The ‘Immortals’ were an elite fighting force in Persia, but I don’t think they filed their teeth to fangs, somehow.

The Persian army, in addition to rhino-beasts, also appears to include Oliphants! And then... It’s a goat. Playing an upturned violin. Love isn’t love without an upturned-violin-playing goat. And I think this may be where I give up on relating this movie to reality in any way.

(I presume that this character is supposed to be a man with a goat mask or something on his head. It’s still stupid).

I watched this movie with Brother, who noted that it seems especially fond of nipples (he made no further comment, I’m glad to say). He also pointed out the narration problem – how does Faramir know what happens after he’s left – is he psychic or is he hiding behind a rock somewhere?!

One final historical note – Xerxes apparently chopped the head off Leonidas’ body and crucified it (the body, not the head), so his dying in cruciform shape is, for once, justified, though I suspect that this is not what the filmmakers were thinking of.

I also love the credit sequence. Ever since I saw the 1950s Around the World in 80 Days as a child I’ve been a sucker for a good credit sequence.

In fact, contrary to appearances, I actually like the movie a lot. It’s good fun, the characters are engaging and it’s a big, silly romp. What’s not to love about a bunch of men running around in their underwear fighting rhino-monsters?! The only thing that concerns me about it is that I hope no one thinks this is an accurate reflection of ancient history – which, given the aforementioned rhino-monsters, seems unlikely, so I think we’re safe. I’m not sure how I feel about the fetishisation (hmm, is that a word?) of the Spartans, which seems to fetishize (that’s definitely not a word) war in general, and I don’t like the extreme depiction of the Persians or the constant digs at religion, but as long as you don’t take it seriously, this film is a decent evening’s entertainment, preferably watched with alcohol and friends so it can be laughed at properly.

All references to the conference paper on 300 refer to ‘Truth, Justice, and the Spartan Way: Affectations of Democracy in Frank Miller's 300’, a paper given by George A. Kovacs, Trent University (Canada) at the conference ‘Classics in the Modern World - a Democratic Turn?’, held at the Open University, 18-20 June 2010.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Mark of the Brotherhood

There's a bit in the script for Titanic (which I downloaded and printed from the internet back in '98, no it's not that sad really) where, apparently, Jack is required to lie back, look at the stars and 'think artist thoughts'. If the script for Spartacus was written by the same person, it would say that this episode opens with Spartacus lying in his bed, 'thinking gladiator thoughts'. Which are like artist thoughts but, you know, more bloody.

Oooh, new gladiators! I was starting to worry that Spartacus wasn't going to have anyone left to rebel with. Drill Sergeant Guy has also acquired some rather fabulous new green and yellow britches, which I think he may have stolen from a hobbit. Meanwhile, poor Crixus is having trouble performing, which is unsurprising, given that he was practically chopped in half a couple of weeks ago. This means nothing to his girlfriend, unfortunately, who is so jealous she wants him to tear his stitches trying to do it with her as well as Xena.

Apparently the inspection of new gladiators requires them to remove their underpants and show everyone their penis - which in one case is unusually large (I think I shall call this character Biggus Dickus). I have to confess, this scene reminded me of Carry on Up the Khyber more than anything else (the one with the Third Foot and Mouth, who wear nothing under the kilt because they are 'always ready for action') and I'm not sure a man's attributes really have anything to do with fighting skill no matter how much the man in question may think it does, but the net result is that Paris Hilton claims Biggus Dickus for herself.

Spartacus' idea of a warm welcome back for Crixus is to bitchslap him into his place as no longer the top gladiator (though to be fair, Crixus was randomly denying the new guys food and Spartacus needs to win them over so they can be his Rebel Gladiator Army later). Neighbours Reject continues on his downwards slide, deciding his wife's rape is sufficient excuse for him to bang a random prostitute, and I'm really hoping he comes to a sticky end. Of the new recruits, the guy with the dreads - Biggus Dickus I think - and the guy with the goatee seem the most likely to join Spartacus' Rebel Gladiator Army, assuming they survive that long - which goatee guy doesn't, as Biggus has the same tendency as Spartacus to kill people in practice.

Spartacus has magically acquired people skills and a pretty decent ability to teach, and is busy training his men like Harry Potter training Dumbledore's Army. Except Harry Potter, to my knowledge, did not twist wooden swords in his friends' wounds. Remind me, why are we supposed to root for this guy again?

Crixus is, entirely understandably, pretty pissed off and once again tries, patiently, to explain the whole 'brotherhood' thing, getting nowhere. I really don't think Spartacus should be leading the revolt at all - it should be Crixus leading Dumbledore's Army into the mountains for a two year war. Spartacus is far too selfish and unpleasant to command the loyalty of so many people.

Xena is having a girly party and looking about as comfortable as you would imagine Xena Warrior Princess to look at a girly party. She really ought to find a suitable freeborn orphan or poor boy to adopt though, so they'll stop making nasty digs about children. Spartacus manages to ruin everything with a few remarks about Haldir, Paris Hilton's husband, though since she was slicing him with a knife so they could see if his blood was divine at the time, he was a wee bit provoked.

I think Biggus may actually be from the Third Foot and Mouth, since he seems to enjoy wandering around stark naked. I do love Spartacus' fatherly disapproval of Neighbours Reject's return to gambling though. John Hannah explains that Crassus is Paris Hilton's friend's cousin - did we know that before? It's intriuging anyway - an actual historical person, and the guy who fought Spartacus at that! Brave Girlfriend of Crixus encourages him to go sex the heck out of Xena to prevent him from being sent away - to Damascus I think, which is pretty far away and possibly rather dangerous.

Spartacus, it turns out, is a fully paid up member of Gamblers Anonymous, and has therefore been able to win Neighours Reject's money so he can give it back. Spartacus finally starts to be nice again by pointing out that Neighbours Rejects bears at least some responsibility for what happened to his wife - even if, as he thinks, she was willing - and encouraging him to sign up to the Gamblers' 12 Steps. Crixus rediscovers his mojo in time to impress Xena and even has some energy left to save Spartacus from Biggus Dickus, who has been persuaded to garrote him by Paris Hilton. And there goes the other new guy we knew - but at least Spartacus may finally get the brotherhood thing and make up with Crixus again now. Biggus Dickus was still just about alive at the end of the episode, but he was being crucified, so probably not for long, and Xena and JH are onto Paris Hilton. End of episode.

Definite improvement on the last two, this one - no loss of beloved characters, lots of Crixus, lots of silly, fun stuff and no miserable depressing reality! Spartacus and Crixus' relationship continues to develop and although I wish they would just make friends, it's going in the right direction, while Biggus Dickus was a ridiculous but entertaining character. Shame not to see any actual gladiatorial fights but we can't have that every week. And a mention - very briefly - of Crassus: we'll get to some actual history eventually!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Charmed: Oh my goddess! Parts 1 and 2

With thanks to Amanda for lending me the DVD!

I’ve never watched Charmed in my life before, so I’m afraid I have no idea what’s going on in the wider story here, other than that, since it’s season 5, one of the original three has left and been replaced by a ‘lost’ sister played by the blonde woman from Scream. What follows is more or less a stream of conciousness type record of thoughts that occured to me while I was watching it.

Paige – that’s the woman from Scream – has been having weird dreams about ancient wars, and there’s a weird dude speaking a foreign language that may or may not be supposed to be Italianate Latin – since he wakes up a couple of three thousand year old people in tiny little white tunics, I think that’s what it's supposed to be – it wasn’t Greek, which it should have been. They smite the weird dude, snog, and head off to find and free Cronos.

The bloke appears to be called ‘Demetrius’ – not sure who he’s supposed to be. The woman is called ‘Meta’ or possibly that was just the guy calling her ‘meter’, mother, in Greek (or even ‘mater’, the Latin). Maybe she’s meant to be Cybele, the Great Mother, an eastern deity brought over to Rome and subject of a mystery religion. Or maybe they didn't put that much thought into it.

Wow, Piper is annoying.

The woman can turn people to stone with her eyes (though not automatically whenever she looks at them, unlike Medusa). They wake up a guy in a red sheet who I guess must be Cronos (or rather the Latin Cronus, which is how they’re pronouncing it). He has a very strong jaw... Of course, my understanding of what’s going on would be greatly increased if I knew what a whitelighter was!

As in all science fiction and fantasy programmes (and unlike Greek myth), being turned into stone is not fatal (I think they all like The Chronicles of Narnia a bit too much). The woman who turns people into stone is referred to as a ‘Titan’, so I think the writers may have watched Clash of the Titans a few too many times, though Cronos/Cronus actually is a Titan, so bonus points for including an actual Titan alongside Gorgons and Shakespearian characters. I think they may have watched The Terminator recently as well. Cronos burns and kills stone-eyes woman so I guess that’s it for living statues for a while.

Apparently, when some mortals trapped the Titans, the power went to their heads and they declared themselves to be gods. And the Titans are after the Elders, who appear to be whitelighters and, um, if I watched this show I’d know what that meant. They’re dead already, anyway.

Argh, my ears are actually hurting from that utterly appalling Irish accent from the leprechaun. I may never complain about Angel’s attempt ever again.

Oh, Leo, have you not worked out who the kid from the future is, yet? Don’t you ever watch TV? Nice work on the kid, though, he’s cute. (I spoke with a friend who knows the show afterwards and discovered that the kid was not, as I thought, the baby Piper kept whinging about, but that it was indeed Piper and Leo's future offspring, so I was nearly right).

Apparently, battling the Titans requires the sort of ‘ancient Greek’ costume worn by the goddesses in Clash of the Titans – because now they’re goddesses. Paige is the goddess of war and carries a trident (Huh? HUH? Why????! Surely you only have to have watched The Little Mermaid to know that the trident belong to the god of the sea, not of war). Phoebe is the goddess of love and appears to be armed with her flirting skills, and Piper is goddess over earth and the natural elements. They have drives and urges based on their powers, which causes Phoebe to flirt with the kid, which is really icky. This ‘drives and urges’ thing basically seems to have turned them all into idiots. Also, I think I’m offended that the goddess of love has to be blonde, to the point of wearing a bad blonde wig.

As you can see, Love is blonde, War has her boobs hanging out, but Earth/Hearth just looks motherly

There are some fun scenes with Paige and Phoebe trying out their powers, in which Paige quotes Archimedes ('give me a lever big enough and I’ll move the world') so I guess she has extra knowledge of ancient Greece as well. She also quotes Tacitus. Piper’s powers include... keeping an eye on the other two. My goodness she’s boring. She even has the most boring costume (though she did correctly point out that their costumes are utterly impractical for fighting anybody).

Leo can jingle. Without knowing what that is, it sounds like it’s either rude, or some kind of Christmas carolling power. The girls are utterly helpless and totally useless without him. Hmm, I don’t think I like this show.

(As the show went on, Piper got more and more whingy and I got more and more frustrated with her, particularly as she kept trying to avoid saving the world because she thought she could somehow look after just her family while the rest of the Earth went to heck in a handbasket). Oh for goodness sakes Piper, can you not see what’s staring you in the face? Literally?! (This thought was another reference to the Future Kid being her own son, a possibility that doesn't seem to have occured to anyone). Also, if the world goes to wrack and ruin, does it not occur to you that this will also harm your precious family? And why is an Earth goddess also attached to hearth and home? Why not just make her a goddess of the hearth?

Leo tells them they can do it without him, thank goodness (but boy, these three are whiny – come on people, the world is at stake! Buffy whinged a fair bit, but she wasn’t this bad). He does give them quite a nice speech about how they won’t lose their humanity like the ancient Greeks did.

Way to attack your own future offspring, Piper.

And then – Piper just comes down and blasts the Titans. Just like that. It’s kind of an anti-climax. Then she goes off on some kind of rampage, I think. Causes a lot of storms (she appears to have Zeus’ power as well).

It appears that Leo has ascended to a higher plane of existence (Charmed version. This is a very common trope in telefantasy and science fiction, which I'm thinking of writing an article about at some point). But he is wearing somewhat silly robes, instead of the rather nice cricket jumper Daniel Jackson got when he ascended.

They refer to Paige’s goddess moment as her being ‘warrior princess’, presumably a shout-out to Xena.

Well, that was... something. Chris, the Future!Offspring, appears to have just killed Leo (though I'm told he gets better). I’m curious enough to go look up what happened, so that’s a good sign for genuine enjoyment of the show, but the heroines are way too whiny and dependent on the nearest male for my liking (though I guess if their new whitelighter is evil, that will change). The show doesn't take itself too seriously, which is good, and some of the humour worked and was funny - some of it, unfortunately, did not.

As for the portrayal of the Greek goddesses - like Xena, it's not really worth putting too much energy into comparing them with actual Greek myth, since this is pure fantasy. Greek myth, as far as this show is concerned, consists of women wearing extremely skimpy outfits whose responsibility for various aspects of human life is manifested as throwing magical powers around like Sabrina the Teenage Witch (which was a fabulous show, by the way!). It's strange and rather ironic that Greek mythology - in which goddesses come in three flavours, sex-mad, nagging wife and virgin - should be used in a show that's supposedly about powerful women, but since this show appears to think powerful women wander around crying that they can't do anything without a man, perhaps it makes sense.

I did quite like the explanation of what happened to the gods, which was similar to euhemeristic theories from the ancient world - the idea that the gods were mortals, or heroes. In this case, since the show is about magical powers, these mortals were given powers, but they went to their heads and they lost themselves. It's a genuinely intriguing idea and could be an interesting basis for a story itself...

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Great and Unfortunate Things

First off, my article on Greek mythology in the Chronicles of Narnia has just been published - it's free to view online and you can find it here.

And so, on to Spartacus. Hmm. Well, last week I was concerned that too many unpleasant and depressing things happened for the episode to be funny - but that was nothing compared to this week (a week in which even John Hannah's character says he's had enough death). This week, most of the action was so deeply unpleasant that even Spartacus was unwilling to show it on screen and it somehow managed to be even more depressing than last week. In a way this is a good thing, since the characterisation and action was much, much more realistic this week. Watching it with friends in the city, though, we found ourselves disappointed because we'd got used to switching our brains off and having some fun when we sit down to watch Spartacus together, and this wasn't that sort of episode. It also means that most of this review, unfortunately, is rather more serious than usual, though luckily we still found a few things that amused us over the course of the episode.

This episode revealed something interesting about Spartacus - there is a line between what they will and will not show. They'll show just about any act of violence, but they draw the line at some, very few things. Specifically, the show is perfectly happy to depict the rape of slaves by or at the behest of their masters, but not rape between slaves or between free people. When John Hannah has sex with his slave while talking to Xena, or Neighbours Reject is forced to have sex with another slave, or Xena orders Crixus to have sex with her, that's all rape, but because it's rape conditioned by Roman slave laws, they're willing to show it. Presumably, because this is something that we like to think (incorrectly, I suspect) doesn't happen in our own society, the producers are quite happy to put it on television. In Episode 1, however, the rape of Spartacus' wife by a gang was not shown and here, the repeated rape and violent abuse of Barca's young boyfriend was also not shown. Because these are things that we all know can and do happen within our own society, they are discreetly passed over by the cameras. Slavery, in the minds of the TV producers, is Roman and therefore fair game, but horrific crimes not occuring because of a Roman law are not.

That wasn't all that was uncomfortably real and depressing in this episode - the suicide of Barca's boyfriend was equally depressing, and shot in the same sort of way as this sort of scene is usually shot in serious detective or police dramas. We are also swiftly reaching the point where Drill Sergeant Guy is the only character I care about. Neighbours Reject is no longer on my goodies' list because when his wife told him she was raped by a friend his response was 'Why didn't you stop him?'. Right. Even the Romans were aware of the rather important difference between consenusal sex and rape. (They might have suggested that his wife should commit suicide to erase the shame, as Lucretia did, and she would certainly be damaged goods, and like many modern men they might suggest it was her fault for wearing too much make up or something, but they were aware that a woman cannot stop it from happening). I was very happy to see Crixus recovering, but then he spoiled it by telling Spartacus off for pushing the rapist guy off a cliff, which was one bit of the episode I really liked.

If Spartacus had been this sort of show from the beginning, all this would be fine - we would be conditioned to expect gritty Roman drama and a good heap of misery. But we've been led to expect ridiculous arcing spurts of bright red blood come straight out of a comic book and even more over the top Roman orgies than usual, along with lots of lingering shots of muscular men with no clothes on and Xena's cleavage. Suddenly being presented with gritty drama distinctly short on either the blood or the tits of Spartacus' common name (Spartacus: Blood and Tits) is a bit of a shock to the system, and we missed our weekly opportunity to realx with some very over the top Romans.

Luckily, it wasn't all doom and gloom - there was still some amusing stuff in there. Starting, oddly enough, with Spartacus' wife's funeral, where we were left to wonder why the gladiators don't appear to have access to so much as a cloak to cover their muscly, oiled bodies with for such a solemn occasion. Don't they get cold in winter? (Romans didn't wear black for mourning either, I think it was white they wore). Xena appears to have nicked Rose's kimono form Titanic and, just like her husband, looks really constipated when she's trying to keep a secret. One friend's reaction to Neighbours Reject's plan to be a gladiator for 'only a year' to pay off his debts was 'yes, only a year fighting shaven-headed lunatics in nappies with big swords', which seemed a fair summary. NR's child, meanwhile, was unbelievably creepy - I'm sure the poor child actor looks perfectly nice normally but something about the lighting, or the make-up, or something was really off and he looked like a demon-child of some kind. And the splatty death of the nasty bald rapist was very satisfying.

Paris Hilton turned up again as well. She didn't do anything interesting.

Crixus got some great lines - 'I have awoken to a world of shit' had a nice pathos to it (I think it was like that already, mate). I was also especially fond of 'Have you been making friends again?' Perhaps if he keeps this up I'll forgive him for wanting the horrible bald rapist to get an 'honourable death'.

We weren't quite prepared for the gloom to come at the beginning of the episode, as we were plunged straight into some steamy flashback sex. We were aware that it would need to be fairly sad though, due to Wifey's recent death - Spartacus was always likely to 'spend the whole episode making a dreadful fuss' as one friend put it. At the end of the episode, though, things really started to pick up again. The fight in the arena was historically plausible (gladiators don't always fight each other to the death, but condemened criminals are - well it's in the name!), the comic-book arcing blood was back, the ridiculous, over the top sex was back (loved the couple randomly shagging in the audience - and some pretty decent CG on the audience, by the way, they've got one up on the BBC there!) and most importantly of all, Spartacus himself is starting to really pick up as a character. John Hannah's evil plan has worked - he is no longer focused on getting his wife back and escaping, and has thrown himself into his new life (and will, presumably, 'go Spartacus-y' as my friend put it, i.e. rebel, when he finds out JH did it). Comments during this sequence included the usual 'ew!', 'oooooo!' and 'Finally, a throat cut!'

Spartacus' story is still developing though. The moment where he sees the condemned criminal dressed as a Thracian as himself and then chops his head off ('Don't!' pleads the man - and then he does) is very effective. Meanwhile, Drill Sergeant Guy's warning that next time Spartacus tries to escape, he'd better kill him first was a nice bit of foreshadowing, and we're left to wonder whether Spartacus will, indeed, kill him, or get him on side (which might be possible of Crixus' girlfriend ever tells the truth about Barca's death). Finally, we ended with a very interesting play on the famous 'I am Spartacus!' line, as he declares his identity as a champion gladiator. Whether or not this line - which is totally unhistorical, the real Spartacus was killed in the final battle - will be included when the show finally comes to an end remains to be seen bit this was an intriguing and effective use of it.

All in all, then, things are looking up for the next episode - with Spartacus looking more alive than we've seen in in weeks (and having acquired some nice armour, always a good sign in a fictional - which at this point, he is - gladiator) and the hope that the next few episodes will start to gain momentum as we get ever closer to rebellion, and it starts to become clearer which gladiators are more or less likely to survive to rebel with our hero (if any of them do...).

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Prince of Persia and Shrek Forever After

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (dir. Mike Newell 2010) and Shrek Forever After (dir. Mike Mitchell 2010).

I’m in the city for the week so we had a big cinema outing today to see both these films. Strangely enough though, Brother did not want to see The Twilight Saga: Eclipse – odd, that...

Prince of Persia was better than we expected, which was a nice surprise. I did not agree with Brother that it was as good as The Mummy, but it was good fun, sufficiently intricately plotted that I tried to avoid leaving to use the bathroom and very, very pretty (oh, the costume porn!).

As far as I know, King Sharaman is not a real Persian king, and none of his family is real, so there’s absolutely no way of knowing at which point in the history of the Persian empire this is supposed to be set, apart from a brief glimpse at a map at the very beginning that confirms we’re in the Achaemenid, or Persian, Empire, between 550 and 330 BC. It’s not something to get worked up about, though, as this is not a film that’s too interested in placing itself firmly, historically or geographically. Aesthetically, it embraces all the sorts of things usually associated with Persia – rich fabrics, camels (yay!), those helmets with turbans and pointy bits that I’m not sure where they come from and women wearing bras and baggy trousers and belly dancing (no cats though. I think I did spot a carpet at one point). The king does have a rather beautiful and, from what I could see, vaguely Persian-looking gold death mask at one point. For the most part, though, this is almost as much in fantasy-land as Xena: Warrior Princess.

I’m hoping to do a post on 300 some time in the near future, and while I was watching Prince of Persia, I was reminded of an argument Brother and I had on the way back from seeing 300 a few years ago. I’ll go into more detail when I’ve re-watched the film and can post on it properly, but basically the argument centred around the depiction of the Persians in the film and, well, whether it was OK or not.

In Prince of Persia, we were told a story about a powerful nation who attacked a smaller one because spies had told them the smaller nation were hiding powerful weapons. However, they couldn’t find any weapons, and in fact, there were none, because the spies were under the control of an important politician who wanted a valuable substance that was buried underneath the smaller country. This story will sound familiar.

Then put the bigger country in the geographical area covered mainly by modern Iran. (Goodness knows where the smaller country is, somewhere near the border with India possibly).

I don’t think Prince of Persia is aiming at desperately incisive, biting political satire. But it makes a point, in a similar way to the bit in The Day After Tomorrow where the Mexicans refuse to allow anyone to cross the border. And in both cases, no matter how heavy-handed and possibly a wee bit inappropriate these bits are, I rather like that the scriptwriters put enough thought into their blockbuster script to include a bit of political irony.

We also saw Shrek Forever After. The Shrek series doesn’t include much in the way of classical references, as its fairy tale world tends to be derived from European folk tales and nineteenth century literature. However, there was one bit where we think we spotted a classical reference, though we couldn’t quite decide whether the costume was supposed to look vaguely Roman or Scottish. Whichever it was, as Shrek explored the ruined town, he passed by a small area where the Gingerbread Man was being forced to fight Wild Animal Biscuits (or possibly Wild Animal Crackers). This looked distinctly like a gladiatorial arena to me! (Couldn’t find a proper You Tube clip but there’s a game version clip here). I loved crazy fighter Gingerbread Man and thought the Animal Biscuits thing was especially fun and quite clever.

Also, Fiona’s army of ogres are mostly a cross between Braveheart and Robin Hood’s Merry Men, but I thought there was a touch of Boudicca to Fiona herself as well, as she lead her army with red hair blowing dramatically in the wind. The image of the red-haired warrior woman still has a certain power, or it does if you’re British anyway – it’s possible the American filmmakers didn’t intend it to look that way and it only seems that way to me because I’m British. (A blonde warrior woman, by the way, would look like a Viking, while a dark-haired warrior woman would look, um, possibly like Xena).

Both films were pretty good, I laughed during both (especially during Shrek) and both were well made and held the attention (especially Prince of Persia). And the costumes in Prince of Persia, historical accuracy or lack thereof notwithstanding, really were very pretty!

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Gladiators from Capua (TV adaptation)

As promised, I have managed to get one review of the TV adaptations of The Roman Mysteries up while the show is still on! 'The Gladiators from Capua' was shown last Monday and Tuesday, but you can still see the last few episodes next week, starting with 'The Colossus of Rhodes' tomorrow morning on CBBC. Spoilers follow.

The Gladiators from Capua is my favourite Roman Mystery (so far) so this adaptation had a lot to live up to. This is complicated by the fact that it is almost certainly the adaptation that strays the furthest from the book, as the set-up for the television episode is completely different from the situation at the start of the novel. I’ve also reluctantly accepted that, since CBBC do not have the budget of Gladiator, it was impossible to set the story in the Colosseum, or to show the whole arena flooded to create a lake and filled with crocodiles. I am sad about this, but I accept that it is true.

Having said that, the arena set is impressive (especially on a childrens' show's budget) and the tiger even more so. The tiger provides a nice, neat solution to the problem of Flavia’s adventure in a flooded arena full of crocodiles, as a small arena with one tiger works just as well, even if it is a little less exciting, and the eventual solution – Nubia making use of her knowledge of African wild animals – is more or less the same (similar enough to feel right anyway). In the TV version, the other little girls survive – in fact, even the condemned criminal survives – which is probably also for the best, as the mass slaughter of little girls isn’t your usual family fare. There's only one problem with the action once the Games begin though – where are the audience?! Even I, Claudius managed to put in some sound effects to imply the existence of the audience we never see!

At one point, as the children escape, Domitian asks, ‘Was that meant to happen, Africanus?’ – someone’s been watching Gladiator! He even has a similar expression to Joaquin Phoenix as he says it...

For the most part, the story is reasonably well adapted. There's a subtle change to Caudex's character, from someone unwilling to kill in general terms to someone afraid of his own dark side and therefore unwilling to kill, and it works well enough, though you wonder why someone so ruthless as the gladiator trainer didn't just throw him to the lions (if this was Spartacus, he'd have gone straight to the Pits!). The way the trainer kidnaps Jonathan for the arena is a wee bit less plausible, as he’s just a child – Book!Jonathan was part of a special exhibition of child gladiators for the opening of the Colosseum, which made sense, but which isn’t the case here. On the other hand, the presence of Jonathan’s slave tattoo (from The Assassins of Rome) does make the idea of him being kidnapped by an unscrupulous slaver more plausible, and the trainer has good reason for it.

Some of the changes to the story are really extreme, partly out of necessity, since the mystery of the book doesn’t apply here. Trouble is, it’s hard to get too worked up about Domitian being under threat if you know how he turned out! But the gladiator who looks not unlike Neighbours Reject has a nice little speech where he says that they’ve been brought there to die, they might as well die for a reason, and his death was genuinely tragic. It also fulfilled the gap created by the survival of the girls and the thief by including death in the story's depiction of the arena, which it needed to feel realistic, but by giving the death to one competent, willing adult rather than a group of innocent, ignorent little girls, probably avoided a fair few complaints to the BBC. (In reality, gladiators did not die every time there was a fight, as even the Roman Empire could not provide that many highly trained gladiators! Often the fights were only to the point of surrender. However, some fights were to the death, and a modern gladiator story without anyone dying would probably feel strange to a modern audience who expect to see the extremes of the profession in a fictional representation of it).

Gladiators-eye-view of the arena at El Jem, Tunisia - I'm in the bottom left hand corner!

This is one of those cases where, because I've read the book and because the adaptation is so different, I really need to watch it twice to fully appreciate it, as the first time I spend the whole thing keeping track of all the changes that have been made (this is why I rarely read the Harry Potter books right before the movies come out). Even on a slightly confused first viewing, though, this was a good, solid adaptation and a satisfying story in its own right - if you discount the fact that the whole thing is about saving Domitian! Of course, our heroes have no idea how Domitian will turn out. He was one of the notorious 'bad' emperors, with a particularly violent temper, and may have been responsible for his brother's death - but I think the books cover that later, and I haven't read that far yet, so no spoilers please! Even if our heroes did suspect something, however, they would still have to save him - as several characters point out, they own a debt of loyalty to Rome, to the Emperor and, therefore, to the Emperor's family. Plus, well, if you allow a murder to happen you become partly responisble for it, and that's Bad, especially for children. So there's nothing wrong with this as a story hook - it's just a bit less satisfying for the viewer if you can't help feeling that they'd all be better off if they left him to it!
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