Monday, 27 February 2012

Madonna at the Superbowl

OK, I know that I am waaaay behind on this one. It's all about the Oscars now and this is old, old news. In my defense, I'm a British person; to me, the Superbowl is that thing those episodes of Friends with Julia Roberts and the monkey were named after. Also, sometimes there are nipples (it sounds a bit like Spartacus). Unlike the Oscars, which I unwisely stayed up to watch last night (so glad The Artist won, though I'd have loved to see Gary Oldman recognised for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), the Superbowl really has no relevance outside America, except for American football fans (it's American football, right?!). So I didn't see it.

Anyway, Liz Gloyn and Tony Keen both alerted me to Madonna's Classically inspired performance, but I didn't get the chance to sit down and watch it till today (busy trying to keep up with Spartacus!). First of all, I loved it - Madonna is such a great performer (even when her heels are too high and she can't quite make it up the step). She and Robbie Williams were the highlights of Live 8 (apparently I was totally entranced by Freddie Mercury back during the original Live Aid - I was two, so I don't really remember this, but it may explain my enduring love of Queen).

Madonna appears as Cleopatra-as-Isis from Cleopatra. The first song, 'Vogue', features the most Classical material and I am convinced that this is all about Elizabeth Taylor. Madonna has looked to earlier divas for inspiration throughout her career, particularly, of course, Marilyn Monroe in 'Material Girl' and Marlene Dietrich in 'Vogue' - the music video for 'Vogue' uses the same shot of Dietrich that inspired one of the first really creative music videos, Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' video, and the song is all about high fashion (obviously), celebrity and art, all together.

The Marlene Dietrich image that reappears in the music videos for 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Vogue'

As I'm sure you know, Elizabeth Taylor died last year, and she's been being commemorated throughout awards season (as it happens, she's the biggest name in entertainment to have passed away in the last twelve months, together with perhaps Whitney Houston and Steve Jobs - unpleasant as it seems to rank one deceased human being over another, it's true). Every obituary list I've seen has used that gorgeous clip from Cleopatra of her winking at Caesar, following her ridiculously over-blown entrance, and the Oscar ceremony last night capped off their obituary list with it. It's a lovely memorial to Taylor, and it demonstrates how much that performance, and that scene, stand for her and her place at the top of the Hollywood tree in the cultural imagination (that's a phrase from my thesis. I'm hoping to bring it in to everyday use!).

So Madonna's use of the Classical world, to me, is not about Classics, but about Taylor. Just look at those high '60s boots and that miniskirt! Sure, there are small Classical references throughout the rest of the performance - including the most bizarre Apollo I've ever seen (I assume it's Apollo since the song is an ode to music itself), some cheerleaders with Isis headdresses and some soldiers, with a guy wearing a 'C' that presumably stands for 'Centurion'. And the finish, drifting into Christianity and Gospel choirs with 'Like a Prayer', could be said to represent a re-telling of the end of the Classical world in miniature (sort of. If you squint!). But these are leftovers from that first number, bits of design inspired by the Cleopatra vibe chosen for the opener. 'Vogue' is about celebrity, and female celebrity in particular, and this theme was chosen to honour an icon of female celebrity.

Apollo. He's creepy.

I feel like I should finish with a word of warning to the Superbowl. As I said, I know nothing about it, but it seems to me that its half-time show (much like the Olympic Games opening ceremony - goodness knows what sort of mess we're going to make of that...) has fallen victim to the trap of getting bigger and bigger and bigger every year. Cleopatra was the film that (along with The 300 Spartans and Fall of the Roman Empire) killed the ancient world epic for decades, because it was simply too big (it was the highest grossing film of the year, and still didn't make its money back). Using such a film for inspiration doesn't seem like a very positive sign for the producers of the Superbowl and its half-time show - perhaps they should tone it down a bit next year.

I did a really good job of looking like I might know something about music there, didn't I?!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: Empty Hands

Spartacus: Vengeance continues with another episode that feels a bit like it's all set-up, little development, but that does promise that the good stuff is yet to come.

Slow-motion feet stepping in a puddle are Dramatic. Slow-motion soldiers wandering through the woods like lost extras from Lord of The Rings are even more Dramatic. Spartacus' men (and women) hiding in the undergrowth, ready to leap out and attack from beneath are really, really Dramatic. Unfortunately it's all ruined when Naevia freaks out and runs away screaming. Spartacus, undeterred, leads the attack a few minutes early. The soldier who complains that she made him run, and he hates running, is quite amusing, but he doesn't last long, as GF flies in from a trampoline off to the side somewhere and stabs him repeatedly in the face. What is it with the women of Spartacus and faces?! After the fight, one of Spartacus' men stays behind to bury their one casualty, while the rest get the heck out of dodge.

Haldir has somehow managed to get in trouble for finding Spartacus so quickly. I'm starting to feel sorry for him, just about everyone around him seems to hate him. Paris Hilton invites the slimy guy who'd been touching her up to stay with them at Bartiatus' old House of Death. Haldir and Paris Hilton have a bath together where they argue about Xena (whom he seems to be taking a liking to) and the slimy guy (Varinius).

Spartacus' men whinge that Naevia is slowing them down (apparently they missed the part where retrieving her was the entire point of their little expedition). Although Crixus is (apparently) dead, Spartacus is keeping faith with his promise to him and refuses to leave Naevia behind.

Gnomey Guy tries to convince the head of the next group of Roman sword fodder to respect the gladiators as a real threat, but without much success, as they guy can't imagine slaves posing a real threat to the Roman army (this is pretty much what the sources tell us happened. Without Gnomey Guy, obviously).

Paris Hilton finds Gladiator Groupie and Xena giggling together over Gladiator Groupie's hopes of marrying Varinius. PH is clearly jealous - Gladiator Groupie had better watch out for her pretty face. PH snarks at Xena with the most wonderful look of disgust on her face, like she just swallowed something horrible (Bailey's and lime cordial together, perhaps). Xena offers to pray for PH to get Varinius but PH just calls her 'empty' and stomps off.

A few of Spartacus' men are brought back to their old gladiator training ground including, much to Xena's dismay, Crixus. How he is alive after the apparently fatal wound he acquired at the end of the previous episode is not explained - put it down to the Law of Preservation of Some Element of Historical Accuracy. Plus the man has more lives than a cat. Maybe the Roman soldier just kneed him in the back instead of stabbing him. Xena and PH snark each other some more and PH mocks Xena over the fact she now almost certainly can't have children.

Crixus is feeling guilty about the fact he's got not just himself but several of his 'brothers' back where they started. They are put in a cell next to DSG who mutters bitterly about women being delicate and unfaithful - which doesn't bother Crixus, who just wants Naevia alive.

Which, luckily, she still is, just about. Our heroes are sleeping out in the open, the men still shirtless. Is Italy experiencing its hottest summer nights on record all through this show or what?! Another group of Romans turn up to get killed, and another of our heroes (not one whose name we knew or anything) is taken out in slow motion, so Naevia can feel especially guilty about it. This isn't enough, so The Artist (who we have TWO names for, he's so important!) takes a nasty stab wound saving GF.

All this is too much blood, not enough tits, so we get some almost full frontal female nudity at Haldir's place/Batiatus' House of Death. Party guests keep chattering rather tactlessly about the massacre, causing Xena and PH both to experience ketchup-splattered flashbacks.

While Haldir makes a little speech, the nearly naked entertainers suck each other's breasts and snog. I can't imagine anyone, including the TV audience, is paying much attention to Haldir, and the party-goers all seem keener on Varinius anyway. Haldir then brings in Crixus, DSG and the others in chains, planning to execute them as the crowning bit of party entertainment. Haldir offers Varinius a sword to kill them with, presumably in the expectation that he won't know how to use it. Which he doesn't - he insists they should be executed in the arena (which would be more normal practice anyway). Which means - yay! More gladiator fights! (What is this show doing to me...)

Spartacus and what's left of his little troupe pause by a stream and discuss The Artist's impending death and the problem of the trail of blood he's leaving behind him. The sulky randoms suggest euthanasia and quick burial, but Spartacus is not a fan (and reminding him of the incident with Neighbours Reject is not the way to convince him). Naevia pipes up with the reminder that Crixus improbably survived a similar wound a while back (more lives than a cat...), and suggests 'sealing it with fire' (that sounds like a terrible idea).

Back at the House of Death, the female entertainers are still doing a decent impression of a lesbian orgy, while our guys kneel on the floor in chains, glowering. Gladiator Groupie is looking forward to seeing them bleed, naturally, though Seppius prefers Haldir's plan of killing them now. As a compromise, they decide to choose one runaway and kill him there and then. Haldir suggests Xena should choose which one, since she suffered the most at their hands.

Haldir calls our guys Spartacus' 'jackals', which is nicely mean and somehow evocative. (Oooh, I really like Xena's dress, it's gorgeous). Xena hovers over Crixus, but chooses a random we don't know, somewhat to Crixus' surprise. This leaves only Crixus, DSG and one other random to die in the arena. Xena assures Crixus that she's just saving him till last so she can savour the moment and he stupidly rises to the bait and tells her that Naevia's still alive. Xena isn't that bright either, as she decides Naevia should know of his impending death. This is not going to end well for anybody.

Ewwwwwwwww, someone's sawing off a guy's lip wile he's still alive! Gross! It's been a while since I had to look away from the screen during an episode of Spartacus - such is the effect of watching this show on a regular basis - but this is stomach-turning. How the heck do the writers come up with this stuff?! It seems they're going to chop the guy up bit by bit while he's still alive, taking it in turns. While taking in this twist in the entertainment, PH's father notes that Varinius is much more impressive than Haldir, and PH agrees. She feels it's about time she got rid of the Elf, but Daddy refuses to sanction the divorce while she's pregnant, and since Varinius is obvously interested in Gladiator Groupie he doesn't see the point anyway. GG had better watch out...

Spartacus, GF and Naevia perform some open-air, hot-metal-based surgery on The Artist, to 'close the wound'. He doesn't need a hot sword to the abdomen, he needs Star Trek levels of medical care. Anyway, their fire is spotted by some more Roman sword fodder and they have to hurry it up.

It's Gladiator Groupie's turn with the unfortunate runaway and Varinius takes the opportunity to do that romantic comedy thing where the guy puts his arms round the girl to help her wield the weapon. Haldir suggests to Seppius that he would be a better anti-Spartacus partner than Varinius, because he's not after Seppius' sister (though really, if Varinius is after marraige, he's not doing anything that awful). Somewhat surprisingly, GG can't go through with the mortal wounding, so PH takes the sword and finishes the guy (which is actually reasonably merciful at this point). Quite why she's so proud of her ability to murder people in front a party is unclear, and she'd better hope no one starts asking questions about Crassus' cousin, but it seems to impress Varinius and has the desired unsettling effect on Xena.

Xena pops out to the balcony for a quick chat with PH's Daddy and establishes that his daughter is as much a pain in the neck to him as she is to everyone else. Meanwhile, inside, the nearly-all-female entertainment is still going. Seppius comforts his sister over her inability to torture and murder people and then kisses her a bit too intimately for a brother - ah, we're going for an incest story! We haven't done incest on this show yet (surprising it took so long really). PH catches Varinius making a joke about the size of still-not-appeared-in-person Crassus' manhood and demands servicing in return for her silence, but Varinius isn't really into married, pregnant women. When she suggests her intention to divorce Haldir, he gets a bit keener and indulges her (the Roman lack of underpants is really useful in these situations). He seems pretty keen, though surely he can't be taken in by her suggestion that they'll have wealth and power to rival Crassus - no one has wealth to rival Crassus.

There's then a weird slow-motion sequence, accompnaied by the Wailing Woman on the soundtrack in spooky mode, in which PH just wanders around her party for a while, until eventually she walks in on Xena in flagrante delicto with Daddy, which brings her mood right down.

Spartacus' group is now down to him, one sulky random, GF, Naevia and The Artist. Some more Roman sword fodder turn up and an arm is sent flying up towards the camera in slow motion. Lovely. The final random goes down, stabbed in the back (see what they did there) by Gnomey Guy. Spartacus is now literally a One Man Army, though GF is pretty useful (Naevia just crouches on the ground and cries and obviously The Artist can't help). Gnomey Guy picks up the arrogant soldier from earlier and limps off with him. However, the soldier keep trying to call for reinforcements, so Gnomey Guy smothers him to keep him quiet, because he's decided Spartacus is possessed by the gods and will kill them all. Sulky Random orders Naevia to make sure he didn't die for nothing and corks it.

PH makes her feelings clear to Xena, who defends herself on the grounds she only did what she did to PH out of jealousy - revealing at the same tinme that she remembers everything. PH decides to kill her the same way she killed Crassus' cousin, but Xena stops her by pleading that she's persuaded Daddy to let PH divorce Haldir and marry Varinius, and insists she's sorry and wants to make it all up. Since it looks like she might prove useful, PH lets her off for the time being and snogs her. You know, as you do when one of your friends has done you a favour. If you're on Spartacus, anyway. Poor old Haldir remains totally oblivious as Varinius and Daddy wander off looking incredibly smug.

There's a very pretty shot of dawn over the forest, then we cut to Spartacus and the girls (and what's left of The Artist) approaching Vesuvius. They hear more Roman voices in the background and GF refuses to leave, so they set Naevia to crouch by The Artist at the foot of a tree and the two of them point their swords towards the Romans... who turn out not to be Romans, but Number One and the rest of their horde, running to the rescue in slow motion. Everyone is reunited, including Number One and The Artist, and even the soundtrack is starting to think it's in Lord of the Rings now. It must be all that filming in New Zealand. End of episode.

Not a bad episode. The scenes at the party were especially strong, but the show as a whole is still suffering from the lack of structure that was provided by the ludus and the Games in season 1. And I really just want Gnomey Guy to die NOW, please, as he's long outlived the little interest I had in him. I am looking forward to seeing Crixus and DSG back in the arena, that should be good. I'm also sort of hoping Haldir and Xena end up having a steamy affair - everyone on the show hates Haldir so much, I'm really starting to think the guy needs a break. On the upside, we got to see his naked backside again, and that's always pleasant. Overall, this still feels like more set-up, less action, but we're getting there. And I must admit, I welled up a little bit in that last scene - the slow picking-off of Spartacus' group, culminating in his and GF's lonely stand and the relief as everyone else wanders out of the mist did provide some structure, and a satisfying emotional payoff.


Soldier: You made me run. I f***ing hate running!

Random partygoer: Come on, we want blood! (I think this basically sums up much of the audience's attitude to the show as a whole).

All Spartacus reviews

Monday, 20 February 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More With Feeling

Every time I think I've blogged everything remotely Classical in Buffy the Vampire Slayer I find something else! And I haven't even read Season 8 yet...

I was reminded of this episode because for my 29th birthday, thanks to a competition run by Cineworld and SFX, I went to the SFX Weekender (i.e. a giant geekfest at Pontins). The weekend included a screening of 'Once More With Feeling', the Buffy musical episode that somehow managed to get to No.13 in Channel 4's  viewer-voted run-down of the 100 Greatest Musicals back in 2003 (it's a great episode, but a better musical than Les Miserables, Cabaret and The Phantom of the Opera? Come on!). I love this episode, but I haven't seen it in years, partly because I ignore everything that happened in Season 6 after 'Tabula Rasa'. So one thing this did was remind me just how good it was. I was also reminded that there's more to the Classical references than that one shout-out to Xena: Warrior Princess.

During an early scene, Xander exclaims 'Merciful Zeus!' in the middle of an intense discussion of why everyone's singing and dancing. This is because part of the inspiration for this episode was Xena: Warrior Princess's early musical episode, 'The Bitter Suite'. Some quick internet-based research reveals that Xena was not, in fact, the first show to do a musical episode (there seems to have been an I Love Lucy one). It may, however, have been the first to incorporate a traditional, everyone-bursts-into-song-for-no-apparent-reason musical into a non-musical TV show, rather than the sort of musical where there's a reason for the singing, like a talent show or in-show performance (as in the later Xena episode, 'Lyre, Lyre Hearts on Fire'. I was going to say 'proper musical', but it seems silly to suggest that Cabaret, in which all the songs are performed in-universe and only 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' takes place off-stage, isn't a 'proper' musical). Perhaps more importantly (and I haven't seen it yet, so I'm relying on the internet to tell me this) the writers of 'The Bitter Suite' also ensured that the episode wasn't just a random moment of singing never to be spoken of again, but incorporated important character development into the story, which was one of the guiding principles behind the Buffy musical.

And it seemed like there were only three walls, and not a fourth wall...

So, Xander's sudden affinity for Classical mythology is more to do with Xena's place in popular culture than ancient Greece. But, having been initially inspired by Xena, Whedon seems to have gone with a mythological feel and theme for the story as a whole. There are demons all over the place in Buffy, and more than a few references to Hell-dimensions. But Hinton Battle's demon Sweet seems to emphasize the idea that he's been summoned from below more than most, implying a Classical-Hades-type origin more than a sci-fi-style alternate dimension. More importantly, he insists that he is entitled to take Dawn back with him as his bride.

The show gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of the child bride taken away to the underworld, best known from the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone (it wouldn't surprise me if there were similar myths from other cultures, though none spring to mind at the moment). Among other things, it gets a good couple of laughs out of the idea. I like Anya's observation that she's 'seen some of these underworld child-bride deals and they never end well. Maybe once', which made me smile, though I don't read it as a reference to Persephone and Hades in particular (I always get the impression Persephone is pretty unhappy with the whole thing, or she'd have just told her mother not to worry about it a lot sooner). And of course the whole concept is hilariously subverted when it turns out it was Xander who summoned Sweet and the demon lets them all off because he doesn't fancy Xander.

But the show really plays into the incredibly creepy side of such a story too. Quite apart from the inherent creepiness of the MacGuffin Whedon came up with for the musical, in which he brilliantly makes the very nature of musicals the source of the danger (musicals blow up emotions into huge spectacles, so if all of life becomes a musical, people are overwhelmed and burst into flames), the idea of this older male demon insisting on taking Dawn away to a dark place underground to make her his bride is played in a genuinely unsettling way. The show doesn't directly address the full consequences of such an action, but you get the gist and it's made threatening and spooky (courtesy of the underworld aspect) without drifting wholesale into areas which might be a bit too dark for the overall tone of the episode.

Having said that, the overall tone of the episode is pretty dark. The story arc for the first half of season 6 was mostly focused on Buffy slowly adjusting to the fact that her friends pulled her out of Heaven. Back in the second episode of the season, when Buffy had just crawled out of her grave, she asked Dawn if she was in hell, because that's what the world seemed like to her (and, er, because there were demons and random fires everywhere). This is the other reason for building a plot partly around the Persephone/Hades myth. The realm of Hades (rightly or wrongly) tends to be associated with Hell and this is the episode in which Buffy reveals to her friends just why she's been so depressed since she returned. Just as Sweet wants to take Dawn down to the underworld against her will, Buffy has been wrenched out of Heaven and dragged down to a world that feels like Hell, and this episode reinforces how awful that was for her (it also shows her looking for something to tie her to this underworld through a romantic/sexual relationship which is either really clever or a little disturbing. Maybe both!).

Between Xena and Persephone, the whole episode has a distinctly Classical feel, and Whedon enhances that with another couple of thrown-in lines. Sweet declares that 'I bought Nero his very first fiddle' which reinforces his pyromaniac tendencies and, of course, the association between song and fire. Willow and Tara announce that they need to consult some books on bacchanals as an excuse to go and have sex, which is quite amusing, though perhaps not really helpful in terms of correcting the wild views held in popular culture about either witches/Wiccans (and yes, I know Willow and Tara are nothing like real Wiccans) or bacchants.

I don't think I really need to say how great 'Once More With Feeling' is at this point, do I? After ten years, I think it's been pretty well established as one of the all-time great episodes of television. Without having seen the Xena one, I suspect it's also the most effective TV musical* - I love Scrubs' and Community's musical episodes, but even in those shows, which are pretty out there, it seems slightly weird that everyone is singing and dancing (I could never quite buy Scrubs' excuse that the patient was seeing it all in her head. Just - how would that work? Was everyone just standing there for minutes at a time while she imagined them singing?). Personally, if I was writing a musical episode of a non-sci-fi show, I'd make it a dream or a Cabaret-style in-show musical. But in fantasy, you can get away with a lot more, and Buffy makes this work perfectly. (I'm now trying to picture True Blood: The Musical. Maybe inspired by the Rocky Horror Picture Show?) If you haven't seen it, where have you been all this time?! Rent it immediately.

All Buffy/Angel reviews

*In non-musical shows, that is. Glee and Flight of the Conchords don't count. Nor The Simpsons, which plays with the format all the time and has done several musicals.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: The Greater Good

A cart is pulled through a forest. It looks like something from a weird, twisted fairytale. It's full of slaves being transported. The slavedriver makes the mistake of looking out through the slats when he hears a noise and - ew! Eye! (I'm one of those people who freaks out at the thought of eye trauma).

Number One and The Artist Formerly Known as Tiberius bond over their shared killing of slave traders while Spartacus and Crixus play at Who's the Leader? A slave trader tries to get his life spared by (apparently) telling Number One and The Artist Naevia is dead (which does not work, unsurprisingly). Crixus does the obligatory falling over and screaming which is the accepted reaction to news of this nature (see also: Romeo + Juliet).

Gnomey Guy insists to Haldir that DSG will turn on his former friends and help them while DSG appears to be having a Blue Screen of Death moment. Haldir makes Gnomey Guy cut out his brand from Batiatus, mostly, as far as anyone can tell, because he takes a perverse pleasure from watching him do it.

Paris Hilton's dad and someone called Varinius have turned up to indulge in a giggle fest with her. Haldir is not happy, especially since Varinius seems to be flirting with his wife. Varinius is holding some Games to cheer everyone up (and calm them down - since when have the crowd in Spartacus ever been calmed down by gladiatorial games?!). They demand the use of Haldir's men for the Games (to police them, presumably).

Spartacus and Number One decide to head for Mount Vesuvius, hoping to recruit more men in Neapolis (Naples). Spartacus goes to consult Crixus and Number One whines. I bet Number One lied and Naevia isn't really dead, and he just wanted to get Crixus to shut up about her so they could focus on recruitment.

Spartacus and Crixus have a cheerful conversation about death. Crixus blames himself for Naevia's, while Spartacus tries to persuade him to put his energy into freeing as many slaves as possible (Crixus is unimpressed, possibly because he's brighter than Spartacus and realises that they're not going to end slavery in the Roman world, especially not by killing people, seemingly at random, all over the place).

Number One and the Artist have a whispered conversation in which we learn that they have not told Crixus the truth - whatever happened to Naevia, it wasn't what they said and she probably isn't dead.

DSG has been strung up in his old training ground at Batiatus' place to be sulked at by Gnomey Guy. He is refusing to talk, probably because he'd rather die than hold a conversation with Gnomey Guy, which is understandable. He is also refusing to betray Spartacus and the others. Meanwhile, Haldir has words with Paris Hilton about Varinius and his fondling of her bump, which seems to change in size in every scene. Haldir explains he's too preoccupied to have sex with her, which doesn't impress her at all.

Crixus' Gauls don't like Number One any more than I do, and they're not wild about the Vesuvius plan, which seems to involve 'freeing' as many slaves as humanly possible (i.e. turning them into runaways who will be crucified if caught) but does not involve a plan for how to feed all these hungry ex-slaves. Crixus gives them all an inspiring speech to get them to follow Spartacus' plan. I think these people must be the direct ancestors of those werewolves from Twilight (somehow, I don't know how they got to America, maybe they went with the Vikings and intermarried with Native Americans), because they all seem to be allergic to shirts. Italy really isn't that hot, especially at night, and they must have raided enough villas by now to have got hold of some clothing.

Gnomey Guy is still whipping DSG, insisting he'll give Spartacus and the others away before he dies. Given that DSG had almost been beaten to death in Roman Fight Club already, I'm starting to find his continued survival implausible. According to Xena, there's some kind of prophecy involving DSG, but Gnomey Guy puts the blink on her new-found religious fervour by pointing out it was him that picked her up and stitched up her wound (quite glad that that's cleared up, but really - why?!). She sees him as an instrument of the gods, which makes sense, except I can't imagine what kind of god would want him as an instrument.

Xena suggests breaking DSG with pleasure rather than pain, and thinks she can somehow use her old secret about DSG's wife to get him to reveal where Spartacus is (I'm not seeing the link there, I confess, as Gannicus doesn't appear to be anywhere near Spartacus at the moment). Back at our heroes' hideout, Spartacus' girlfriend declares that she wants to fight alongside him, which I hope means he's going to give her some training rather than just setting her loose with a sword against the best organised and most highly trained army in the world. Then we get a brief sex scene between the two, apropos of nothing much, because the sex scene with Haldir and Paris Hilton earlier got cut off (and frankly, who wanted to see them anyway - I rather like him, even if he is the campest Elf in Elfland, but not so much with her. He needs to find someone nicer to have a hot and steamy affair with).

He's quite yummy. Unfortunately, he's the only character who seems fairly attached to his clothes - though we did get a view of his naked rear end this week.

The Artist is packing supplies while the blonde from last week teases him about the fact he fancies Number One. She herself is going with whoever will get her protection and position. Crixus comes to help him carry the stuff and explains that his initial objection to The Artist was not caused by his attempt on Spartacus' life, but because Crixus has a racist dislike of Syrians (because of Gnomey Guy). He explains that Naevia would not have held a grudge against an entire race this way and offers his hand. This, of course, sends The Artist's guilt into overdrive and he lets the whole litter of kittens out of the bag.

Naturally, Crixus' immediate reaction is to attack Number One (sadly he doesn't get the chance to inflict any serious damage). Apparently Naevia's in the mines - this seems rather unlikely, unless she's being kept as the mine-owner's sex slave (you want men to work in mines, or perhaps small boys for very narrow mine-shafts). Number One points out the mines might as well be death but obviously this holds no water and Spartacus punches him (this is quite satisfying). Number One delcares that he's off to Vesuvius, while Spartacus will go with Crixus to the mines.

DSG comes round, with hot sun now added to Gnomey Guy's torture techniques. Haldir's men turn up while Crixus goes through his previous crimes, for the benefit of the new or forgetful audience. In amongst the rest, he happens to mention Gannicus and DSG's wife, which has the desired effect of drawing a word from DSG ('lie'). Gnomey Guy is, unfortunately, telling the truth, and points out DSG's wife ended up drinking poison because she was with Gannicus. Since this is true, DSG has to face it, but he clings to the fact Gnomey Guy doesn't know the first thing about love and to the idea that Spartacus and Crixus will find Naevia. Of course, this is the information Gnomey Guy needs - Spartacus and Crixus are going south to find Naevia.

Gnomey Guy brings this information to Xena and Haldir, though Haldir complains thart it's not specific enough. Xena, however, knows where Naevia is, and finds it more useful.

Crixus has finally observed their general lack of clothes but no one except Number One and The Artist seem moved to do anything about it. The Artist abandons Numnber One because he has visited mines before and thinks he might be able to help. Crixus and Spartacus have a moment (aw).

There's a sweeping shot over CGI mines, that look just like the mines from the opening of Spartacus. Our heroes disguise themselves as slaves, which is easy enough, as this is the one disguise that requires very little in the way of clothing. The Artist claims the slave dealer expected is dead and offers GF as a present to make up for the trouble. Once alone, she holds a knife to the guy's manhood and interrogates him about Naevia.

Spartacus is fretting about GF, at which point he is recognised by someone who's seen him in the arena, just as GF is forced to do for the dealer when her knife slips. She grabs a map of the mine and heads out to where Spartacus and Crixus have already dispatched a few Romans. They head into the mines.

We cut to Paris Hilton and Gladiator Groupie discussing sex and pregnancy at the Games. Paris Hilton observes that lust fades over time. It can only be a matter of time until those two end up fighting over a man.

Varinius makes a big speech about how awful Spartacus is to kick-start the Games, but Haldir's men are a no-show, since they're busy actually chasing Spartacus (what were they expecting actual soldiers to do in the Games anyway? March around like the Olympics opening ceremony?). Haldir tells the crowd his soldiers are busy, you know, soldiering, which cheers everyone up again. All the women still have their clothes on, though, so they can't be that excited.

Gnomey Guy and Haldir's men turn up at the mine, where Gnomey Guy identifies some of Spartacus' men by killing them. Within the mine, the group splits up to search for Naevia. Crixus has to point out to Spartacus that they can't, in fact, free all the slaves in the mine.

Finally, they find Naevia! Thank Jupiter for that! Just as Crixus is telling her she's safe, they're attacked by Haldir's men and chaos ensues. Crixus spots Gnomey Guy but is pulled away.

The fight in the mine is intercut with the Games, which sort of works, except we don't know or care about the gladiators fighting in the Games, so it doesn't really mean anything, and just gets in the way of the story we're actually interested in, which is Crixus' and Naevia's at this point. Back in the mine, GF is trying to read the map of the mine (everyone else is letting her so clearly these ancient Romans haven't developed jokes about women's map-reading skills yet, though a couple of them make snarky comments).

Crixus sends Naevia ahead with Spartacus while he takes on several Romans at once, because he thinks he is a One Man Army. Just as the episode ends, however, it looks like Gnomey Guy (or all people) might have got him...

This season is still finding it rather hard to get going, partly because we're just waiting for inevitable story events to hurry up and happen. This is something of an unavoidable problem with Spartacus, of course, since we all know how it's going to end, but these last few episodes seem particularly to be dragging their feet as we wait for Naevia to be found, for DSG to get back together with everyone else, and for Gannicus to turn up again. I can't see why on earth a female house slave would be sold to work in a mine, never mind how she's managed to survive in there for so long, but I'll buy it just for the sake of having Naevia back and getting on with the plot. Now, if next week we could just finish off Gnomey Guy and reunite DSG with the rest of the cast, we might be getting somewhere.


GF: (re: Naevia) Her life [was] a slow march towards death.
Spartacus: We all move towards such end. Only the length of the journey differs.
GF: Let us tread it together and show not all go quietly.
(It's good she has this philosophy, since the closest anyone is going to get to a happy ending is that they get to go down fighting. Mind you, as Spartacus' other half, she's got a better chance of survival than anyone else on the show).

Crixus: I was not in favour of your training. Do you know the reason?
The Artist: Because I made attempt on Spartacus?
Crixus: As have I, on more than one occasion.

Spartacus: If a single life holds no value, then none are of worth.

All Spartacus: Blood and Sand reviews

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Top Five Doomed Romances in Classical Pop Culture

I decided a few weeks ago that I'd do a special post for Valentine's Day, on either Lasting Marriages or Doomed Romances, depending on my mood at the time. So, Doomed Romances it is!

5. Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra
Doomed from the start? Depends whether you think Antony ever stood a chance against Octavian - but probably. I'm not sure anyone really stood a chance against Octavian and Agrippa.
Do they set the screen on fire? They ought to, given Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's famous love affair on set. As it happens, the affair between her and Rex Harrison's Caesar is rather better written and comes off better on screen, but Taylor and Burton give it good smoulder for all that.
Is it all set against the backdrop of a Worlde Gonne Madde? Yes, definitely. From the burning ships at Actium to the dead at Pharsalia to, most of all, Cleopatra's ludicrously over-done entrance into Rome, the world behind these two has definitely gonne madde.
Why this version? What with the sheer voyeuristic desire to watch Taylor and Burton fall for each other on screen, this version has to be the most tabloid-friendly of the many versions of this story.

4. Tiberius and Vipsania, I, Claudius
Doomed from the start? Between his ineffectiveness and his mother's ambition, yes, probably. You would have thought Agrippa's daughter would have been a good enough match, but you would have reckoned without Livia.
Do they set the screen on fire? Well, not really, no. And they only have one scene together. But they're very impassioned in that one scene.
Is it all set against a backdrop of a Worlde Gonne Madde? Um, no. It's set against the Pax Augusta, the most politically stable period Rome had experienced in a century.
Why this version? Well, Tiberius and Vipsania's marriage isn't one of the most commonly explored subjects in ancient history in popular culture. But mostly it's Tiberius' sheer impotence in the face of his mother, even when she makes him divorce the woman he loves, and his latent but ultimately powerful desire to be emperor, that makes their relationship here stand out.

3. Spartacus and his wife, Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Doomed from the start? Yes, we all know how the story of Spartacus ends.
Do they set the screen on fire? Their chemistry is fine - not amazing, but not disastrous either. And the graphic nature of the sex scenes in Spartacus: Blood and Tits means that most couplings (and triplings, and so on) set the screen on fire one way or another.
Is it set against a backdrop of a Worlde Gonne Madde? Most of the madess is yet to come, but their village burning is pretty dramatic.
Why this version? Most versions of the Spartacus story include his wife, one way or another, but Blood and Sand, with its longer running time, splits the character into two. In the current series, Spartacus: Vengeance, we see his relationship with a fellow slave from Batiatus' house, but this Spartacus is also a widower from his marriage to his wife in Thrace. From their first, ooey-gooey (in a romantic way, that is) sex scene, it's clear that she's utterly and completely doomed, and by the time she appears just in time to die in his arms, we're all quite relieved that development has been got out of the way. But it's an important relationship, and somehow, you feel it more in Blood and Sand's more prolonged and complex version.

2. Oedipus and his mother, Oedipus Rex (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967)
Doomed from the start? She's his mother. So, yes.
Do they set the screen on fire? Um, OK, I confess, I haven't seen it. Yet.
Is it all set against a backdrop of a Worlde Gonne Madde? There's a plague, so yes, I should think so.
Why this version? Well, er, as I said, I haven't actually seen it. But there aren't that many representations of this story that follow it precisely, though there are some others that are set in the ancient world (as opposed to Pasolini's, set in the twentieth century). And there are other, metaphorical or science fictional, representations, like Code 46 (brilliant film). But Pasolini's is probably the best known adaptation of Sophocles' play. And the romance between a man and his own unknown mother has to make the list.

1. Antony and Atia, Rome
Doomed from the start? Perhaps. Antony is married to a succession of other people throughout (something the series plays down until he marries Atia's daughter Octavia) which can't be a good sign. But it's the double whammy of Caesar posthumously naming Octavian as his heir and Antony coming into increasing contact with Cleopatra that really dooms this love affair.
Do they set the screen on fire? Not always, but they definitely manage a few sparks over the course of season 2.
Is it all set against the backdrop of a Worlde Gonne Madde? Yes, given that this is set against the turbulent death of the Roman Republic. Since it's a TV series, though, epic battles and grand scenes are largely out, and the bulk of the madness lies in poor Atia's increasingly desperate attempts to get Antony's attention.
Why this version? Well, this story was invented for Rome, so of course this is the only version in which it appears. It's not exactly a necessary invention, but as we move into season 2, the tragedy of the faltering affair between Antony and the ought-to-be-dead-by-now Atia becomes one of the most heartfelt and human stories among all the political machinations and... whatever it is Boring and Dodgy are getting up to.

Honourable mention: Pyramus and Thisbe, a great story of doomed romance in ancient literature (chiefly Ovid's Metamorphoses), but usually seen in a comic context in popular culture, as a play performed by the Mechanicals in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

More Top Five Lists

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Cleopatra (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)

Having read a review a few years ago that suggested viewers skip this film and just watch Carry on Cleo, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this. It's best watched on the biggest TV screen you can find, particularly for set-pieces like Cleopatra's entry into Rome, but the three performances at the heart of the film hold it together and stop viewers from getting lost in the spectacle, including Taylor. Playing Cleopatra more as a desperate survivor with a fondness for Roman soldiers and less as a femme fatale may have gone over less well, but she's actually a more human Cleo than most, even if she has lost some of the historical Cleopatra's political know-how (though she doesn't do too badly there either - especially next to Mark Antony, who as usual has all the political know-how of a five-year-old).

One of the nicest things about this film for me was that the writers really know their stuff. There are a few howlers of course - Octavian shouldn't be in the senate, he was a teenager, Caesar and Cleo weren't married in any way, Octavian takes the name Augustus far too early, and Romulus and Remus didn't enter Rome, they founded it. Cleopatra and mark Antony's three children are also written out all together, with the focus entirely on her child with Caesar, Caesarion. I suspect most of these are deliberate though, particularly as regards Octavian - trying to explain his youth and what he was going to become afterwards would make an already extremely long film even longer. Generally speaking, these characters seem truly steeped in their world, reading Catullus, dressing some of the dancers who accompany Cleopatra into Rome in wings reminiscent of the goddess Isis, with whom she identifies, and so on.

Of course, this film is infamous for two things - bringing Taylor and Burton together, and nearly bankrupting Twentieth Century Fox. The huge spectacles are certainly impressive, and it's great actually to see the Battle of Actium for once. This battle is so often talked about in television and Shakespearean versions of this story, but for practical and budgetary reasons, we hardly ever get to see it - it's brilliant to finally see Antony's downfall as it happens (and Octavian's seasickness is both historically accurate and highly amusing). There are too many huge scenes, though, and the film doesn't really need them. Cleopatra's wink to Caesar at the end of her ridiculously overdone entrance into Rome is beautiful and you can see the point - she certainly makes an impression as a Queen and the film makes its mark as an epic. But it's too much, and it goes on for too long. Ultimately, the film would not only be cheaper, but better without it (or with a pared-down version anyway).

I'm not sure how I feel about the scene where Cleopatra sees Caesar's death in the fire, in a vision from Isis. On the one hand, this is a very effective way of showing a scene that is vital to the plot and well known, but which does not involve Cleo - this method both involves Cleo in the scene, watching it happen, and gets through it more quickly, since the vision highlights only the most necessary parts of the scene. On the other hand, this is basically fantasy. Even a dream would be better than the fire - I would find it hard to buy a dream, but I'm a big fan of ghost stories and, as a religious person, a believer in some elements of the supernatural, so I could just about suspend my disbelief enough to imagine that Cleopatra saw what happened to her lover in a dream, but in a fire? No.

This is a film of two very distinct halves (the montage of Caesar and Cleopatra's relationship halfway through was strange, but kind of sweet). Huge scenes with thousands of extras aside, I think this actually works better as a TV mini-series than as a movie. It's two halves cover well over 10 years and although the cast of main characters is relatively small, there's a lot of development of both plot and character to get through. (If only Rome had been able to do this story more fully... sigh).

I found the first half of the film rather more satisfying that the second, both in terms of Cleopatra's characterisation and the central relationship that drives the story. At first, Cleopatra seems to be using a constructed image to get what she wants, deliberately posing as the immoral Bath Queen and, although she appears to feel genuine affection for Caesar, always keeping an eye on her political aims. In the second half, as she messes around in her huge bath while Antony's envoy is stuck behind a screen talking to her, she seems to have become the facade, and slipped into being merely the popular culture representation of herself, rather than the a real person. The changed hairstyles in the second half make her look older, which is good, but they do also look more 1960s - suddenly, you're not watching Cleopatra, you're watching Elizabeth Taylor. The fact that these are the scenes with Richard Burton doesn't help. Her little hissy fit after Antony marries Octavia is all very dramatic, but I'm pretty sure in real life they'd considered such a possibility - or, at the very least, she would have understood it. Suddenly, the careful politician of the first half has become a lovesick girl.

The DVD information notes that Manciewicz deliberately wrote Caesar and Cleopatra's relationship in the style of 'sophisticated high comedy', and Antony and Cleopatra's as more of a sweeping romance. The distinction is palpable, and although I'm not overly familiar with the genre of screwball comedy, it's clear that that's what Harrison and Taylor are aiming at. (Rex Harrison is brilliant, but he is basically playing Rex Harrison. I kept expecting him to burst into half-song, or start seeing the ghost of his dead wife). The only problem with this approach is that Caesar and Cleopatra's relationship, being based on an intimate relationship formed through conversation between two (almost) equals, feels much more real than Antony and Cleopatra's relationship. Despite the well-known advantage of what ought to be pretty fiery chemistry between the stars, Antony and Cleopatra's relationship is too much made up of sweeping decorations of love without showing us any satisfactory basis for that love other than some smoldering, and it pales in comparison to Caesar and Cleopatra's less romantic relationship, entirely free of the word love, but full of what feels like much more genuine emotion.

It's hard to pay much attention to anyone else when the film is so focused on the central trio (plus Octavian), but I have to spare a few words for Agrippa, who's fine, but who doesn't really match the Agrippa in my head. Partly this is because I have quite the thing for Allen Leech and I love his portrayal of Agrippa. To be fair to the film, Agrippa was older than Octavian and their portrayal makes perfect sense. But I just can't buy him as this grizzled old admiral, already leading Caesar's forces. Agrippa, Octavian and Maecenas were friends as teenagers - when Octavian was a teenager anyway - and although Agrippa was a brilliant general, I just can't picture him as a bearded old warrior. Not someone who was so close to the clever, psychotic but not exactly military Octavian. But as I say, this is probably just my weird little thing, and thoroughly influenced by Rome.

Talking of Rome, this film's influence over the series becomes increasingly obvious as you watch it (and not just because the DVD menu appears to have been designed by the same person with a fondness for pillars and bits of red curtain). Roddy McDowell's fantastic performance as Octavian seems a spiritual ancestor to Simon Woods', and certainly an influence on Woods' stylist (though Woods is spared from wearing quite such a ridiculous blonde hairdo - McDowell looks like he's trying to be Mad!Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Perhaps Octavian occasionally veers dangerously towards a two-dimensional bad guy. but if so, he pulls it back at the end in a scene which beautifully book-ends the film. Very near the beginning, we saw Caesar confronted with Pompey's head (somewhat unclearly unfortunately, since it was not so easy to show violence on screen in the 1960s, so possibly lost on any audience members not familiar with the story). We saw his horror at the mis-treatment of his enemy and his desire to honour a fellow Roman in death. This scene plays out again at the end, albeit minus the disembodied head, as Octavian rails at a subordinate who remarks rather carelessly on the death of Mark Antony. It is the first time in the film that Octavian really looks like he might deserve to be the heir of Caesar, and it's very effective.

The one character that really didn't work for me was Octavia. She's a right wuss. If the real Octavia had disappeared and started thinking about wine every time men talked politics, Octavian would never have given her such extraordinary privileges. It's as if the filmmakers couldn't conceive of there being more than one strong female character in one film. Still, the uncomfortable dinner scene between her and Antony gets the state of their marriage across quite effectively. When they're having dinner at opposite ends of a long table, barely speaking, all I can hear in my head is Richard Burton in Under Milk Wood, intoning that 'an icicle forms in the cold air of the dining vault'.

Random observations...  I like the way Caesar kind of seems to be losing it shortly before he's killed, going on about the eyes of statues. Burton's Mark Antony seems to be single-handedly bringing in the mini-skirt, aping Ben-Hur before him. The scene where Antony either drinks too much or is drugged (I wasn't sure which) at Cleo's boat party is seriously unnerving. The bit where Cleopatra makes him kneel before her after he's married Octavia is pretty cool. There's a fascinating conversation between Sosigenes and Cleopatra thrown in towards the end, about the wisdom or otherwise of building huge numbers of warships on the grounds that they are necessary to prevent war. Cleopatra, unlike Spartacus, isn't exactly known for its politics, but it definitely sneaks some in here.

Perhaps this film was simply out of its time - it seems almost made for home cinema. Watched on a big TV in at least two sittings, it works rather well as the sort of Roman soap opera that later TV series would do so well, but with all the advantages of a huge budget, so that we can actually see some of the central battles and other set-pieces. It's certainly not as over-long and dull, viewed in this way, as it's reputation suggests, even if it does drag a little towards the end, and seems to have more endings than The Return of the King. Recommended for long winter evenings.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: A Place in this World

We open on an extreme close-up of someone breathing hard, caked in - mud? clay? make-up? I'm not sure. He's fighting a smug person. Our guy (we know he's our guy 'cause he's an underdog. Maybe that's the Brit in me coming out) gets up and they go at each other. We're back in Roman Fight Club! And women have their breasts out again - truly, we are back in Spartacus-land. Our guy takes a beating but wins with a well-placed knife-bone-thing to the gut. And the throat. And the face. And the eyes - ew. The twitching as the other guy dies is especially gross. Our guy gets up and looks proud while the crowd call him a demon.

Batiatus senior comes in - given that Xena killed him last season, we must be in a flashback and this must be DSG. Batiatus Sr has come to the Pits - Roman Fight Club - shopping for gladiators. I still fail to see why a culture that has embraced gladiatorial games would need a Fight Club, but it was with the episode 'The Thing in the Pit' from season one that the show really started to take off, so whatever, let's go with it.

Back in the present, Haldir is cross. Xena thinks the gods are conspiring against him and suggests that he needs to sacrifice something to them.

Everything's teribly dramatic today - more so even than usual! We see Spartacus and his men putting knives through people's heads in silouette at one point. They interrupt a random slaveowner raping a bored-looking blonde slave girl to kill everyone in sight. Spartacus' girlfriend gets in on the act too - I'm starting to like her. I could have lived without the shot of a sword emerging from someone's mouth though. When only the slaves and the paterfamilias are left (the slaves identifiable by collars - lucky for Spartacus - slave brands that might be covered by clothing, which would be much more historically accurate, would be rather less obviously visible), Crixus takes pater off to question him about Naevia, while Spartacus tries to recruit the slaves.

The paterfamilias idiotically mentions the fact he raped Crixus' girlfriend to Crixus, which does not end well for him. Crixus makes one of those anti-slavery speeches that usually stick out a mile as being historically inaccurate, but in context, it works. Spartacus' girlfriend and the new blonde discuss the sexual inadequacy of Gauls and the confusing non-specified status of Spartacus and the girlfriend's relationship. The Gauls wave their penises at the camera because, well, why not. Spartacus gives a speech about how awful slavery is and how they're free now which still more or less works, but is edging into historically inaccurate now.

See, the problem is, no one in the ancient world ever spoke out against slavery. Christians and Stoics said you should treat slaves well, largely because it was better for your own soul, and Spartacus did pick up many slaves as he roamed the countryside after the revolt - but as far as we can tell, it was Batiatus' bad treatment of the gladiators specifically that sparked it, not a desire to do away with slavery all together. Mind you, to be fair, the historical evidence for this comes from the slave-owning elite, so perhaps the real Spartacus was all about freedom and ending slavery, you never know.

During this speech, Spartacus actually says 'I am Spartacus!' Tee-hee. I thought that moment would be bigger and more dramatic, I must admit, but still.

Paris Hilton is trying to enjoy herself in the bath, with the help of her slave girls and by remembering her boink-fest with Spartacus, but it all gets spoiled just at the climactic moment when her husband walks in. One of her slaves is totally naked too - so that's the second full frontal nudity of the episode, with equal exposure given to male and female minor characters. Yay for equal opportunity exploitation! Haldir asks her to take Xena to market to buy supplies for a religious ritual, and although he doesn't commit to the idea that Xena's a blessed prophet, he's desperate enough to get rid of Spartacus to give anything a try (I like this - I bet lots of people approached religion that way in the ancient world).

Spartacus' girlfriend decides they need to have The Talk, which goes reasonably well until a slave from the household tries to kill Spartacus. The guy points out that he actually had a pretty nice life as a slave and doesn't want to roam the countryside scavenging and killing people. Spartacus refuses to execute him, to try to show how different he is from a slave-owner. I really like this observation that some slaves - a minority, sure, but some - would have been quite happy and led reasonably comfortable lives.

Number One and Crixus aren't impressed with the refusal to punish the guy and agree with each other for once. They're starting to develop almost a Kirk-Spock-Bones thing between the three of them (except that Crixus is single-minded, not unemotional) which I rather like.

DSG, not knowing where to go, is back in Roman Fight Club, once again demonstrating that some people were happy with thier lot, even gladiators, who could get addicted to the thrill of the arena. During his fight, we see a flashback to Batiatus Sr welcoming him and telling him that everyone, slave or free, needs to decide what they're fighting for. Back in Fight Club, DSG finishes off his opponent with what appears to be his signature face-poking move. He demands to face two opponentss at once next even though he barely got through and seems to be trying to commit suicide by Fight Club.

Spartacus trains the reluctent ex-slave and also tells him he should choose what purpose he fights for (neglecting the obvious problem that the guy doesn't want to fight at all).

Paris Hilton takes Xena to market and pesters her about her slowly returning memory. Xena definitely doesn't look very mad any more, though she is slightly taken aback by people wanting her to bless them because she's favoured by the gods. Gladiator Groupie arrives and takes Paris Hilton away from Xena's Messiah act to discuss how miserable she thinks marriage sounds. A hooded figure brings Xena a message.

Seppius is prodding Haldir about Spartacus' ability to get away from him and eating figs Symbolically (I'm not sure what it's Symbolic of, but it's definitely Symbolic of something). They aren't getting on.

The Gauls are having a party. They're singing - well, sound vaguely arranged into something resembling notes is coming out of their mouths anyway. It must be a very hot night, as hardly anyone's wearing very much. Crixus complains that he doesn't think people who joined later and aren't part of the brotherhood (of gladiators) should be treated as equals, but of course Spartacus is all about the equality.

Number One chats to the reluctant slave, who is called Tiberius (now there's a promising name...) Number One makes some random racist comments about Syrians, though Tiberius points out he's more Roman than anything else.

One of the Gauls has his way with the blonde, who still looks bored. Spartacus' girlfriend tries to rescue her, but she points out she had chosen to sleep with him because she hasn't any money and has no other way to pay for stuff - and insists, much to Girlfriend's discomfort, that that's what Girlfriend is doing too.

Xena is sacrificing a goat - I'm pretty sure she should have hired a priest to do that. She mutters about secrets while staring at Paris Hilton in a vaguely threatening way. Not much happens.

DSG asks the head of Roman Fight Club to send someone who'll finish him off. In another flashback, we see Batiatus Sr tell him he's destined for grander things than the Pits, and he says the purpose of his life is to honour the house of Batiatus. Back at the fight, he starts seeing the ghosts of himself and Batiatus Sr. The fight is intercut with Xena extracting the entrails from the goat to read them. Paris Hilton spots a knife and thinks about doing for Xena. DSG is unexpectedly saved by the same hooded figure who approached Xena earlier, and Xena herself is saved by Paris Hilton's slave - who has seen everything - announcing that men are approaching.

Roman soldiers turn up at the villa looking for the owner and Tiberius invites them in to be slaughtered, taking on his birth name again, Nasir. Spartacus clearly missed his calling to be a motivational speaker.

It turns out it was Ashur, the intensely annoying gnomy little man from season 1, who saved DSG, and he takes him back to Haldir, promising to bring them Spartacus - and he's clearly in cahoots of some kind with Xena. End of episode.

Not a bad episode by any means - I especially like the theme of the difficulty of finding a place in the world (the tragedy for these people is that they never will) and of the fact that not everyone wants to be freed, because sometimes, if you were treated reasonably well, there are worse things than slavery. Even the blonde, who clearly didn't particularly want to have sex with her master, is no better off, since now forced into prostitution or starvation. Spartacus waxes lyrical about freedom all the time, but he has yet to convince everyone that they want it.

It still feels a bit like the show is setting things up though. The pieces are still being moved into place, Gannicus hasn't shown up yet, and I really wish they would just find Naevia already so Crixus would shut up and stop whining about it.


Haldir: It is the fault of Seppius. This quote isn't particularly funny, I just like it because it sounds so much like Latin!

Number One: And how do you propose we train this wild little dog?
Spartacus: As Batiatus and Doctore trained me
Number One: ...and that turned out so well
I'm actually warming to Number One, when he's not calling Naevia worthless.

Paris Hilton (re Xena): Is it wise to allow such unsteady hands to play with knives?

Pairs Hilton (when nothing much happens): Hmm. Perhaps another goat?

All Spartacus reviews

Monday, 6 February 2012

The 300 Spartans (dir. Rudolph Mate, 1962)

In many ways, The 300 Spartans is a superior film to Zack Snyder's 300. Xerxes isn't seven feet tall, for starters. There are no man-monsters with claws for arms and nearly everyone is fully dressed at all times. It ought to be unquestionably the superior film. The trouble is, it's just... dull. I had to watch it in three sittings, and I was still bored.

In talking about this film, I know I shouldn't compare this to 300, a film that came so much later and that would mean nothing to the makers of The 300 Spartans. I'm afraid I just can't help it - this story and the way it's portrayed is totally bound up with comparisons to 300 for me. I suppose 300 is just one those films that, like it or loathe it, gets permanently stuck in your head once you've seen it.

The 300 Spartans opens with the standard prologue for films of this period. No nasty pagan Romans to be defeated by virtuous Christians here (the Greeks were pagans too, but '50s and '60s filmmakers don't seem so interested in that) - here, we have the other favourite plot, of virtuous democratic Greeks fighting nasty monarchist foreigners. I gotta say, I think claiming the 300 Spartans were fighting for 'our' freedom, as the prologue does, is really pushing it. Since the battle of Thermopylae, that part of the world has been conquered by Macedonia, Rome and Turkey, and I believe it was occupied by Hitler too. I don't think 'we' really benefited from the Greek victory at Thermopylae, except maybe in the fields of philosophy and drama. And medicine. OK, we did quite well out of it - but we didn't gain or lose any freedom, is what I'm saying.

The film opens with Xerxes and the Persians, which is an interesting choice.We see quite a lot of Xerxes and ex-Spartan king Demaratus before we ever get to see more than one actual Spartan, and we hear about them through their reputation before we see them. This makes them seem less self-aggrandizing, which is interesting - these days I think we're all for soldiers knowing their own skill and being proud of it, but these filmmakers perhaps want more modest heroes. Of course, the other reason for opening with Xerxes is for him to show of how eeeeevil he is, by having people killed for his entertainment and so on.

The film has a tendency to fall prey to terrible expository dialogue, especially near the beginning; there are lines like 'so this is the spartan spy', 'you have no single ruler' and so on. I think that in some cases using an actual narrator  is a rather more effective way of delivering exposition when you have this much of it, especially for explaining complex things like the Spartan legal system.

Athens, and indeed the situation of the independent Greek city-states trying to work out how to deal with an attack together, is much better represented here than in 300. The other Greek cities, and Athens in particular, are part of the plot. We even get a reference to the whole famous wooden walls business (in which an oracle foretold that Athens would be saved by wooden walls, and the general Themistocles managed to persuade the Athenians that this meant they should put their strength into their navy). The drawback to this, perhaps, is that the story is less focused, and it seems to be an age before we're finally introduced to Leonidas himself.

There's an increased focus on Leonidas' actual strategy rather than knee-jerk emotional reactions during the set-up, which is both more sensible and makes the Spartans' actions even more noble. They're not reacting blindly to the fact the Persians have upset them, they're giving their lives to create a diversion and buy Athens time to get the navy ready.

There's a rather sweet love story involving a Spartan who gets disgraced because his father defects, then follows the army with his girlfriend until they let him back. Like 300, and indeed like many stories set during wars in which the fighting is happening some distance from people's homes, filmmakers are faced with the problem of how to get some women into the story. There are a couple of other women, including Gorgo, but Ellas, the girlfriend, is the main female character. She's a little bit whiny at times, but the scenes of the young couple break up the military focus a bit, and give character to a Spartan other than Leonidas, so they're not a bad addition. Of course, it's this guy who gets sent back to bring the message that the Persians have broken through from Leonidas before everyone else gets killed, so all ends well for love. Aw. Ellas also gives Ephialtes a new motivation for betraying the Spartans, by whacking him when he comes on to her, which adds to the drama a bit.

And the main problem with this film is just that it's too long on a film on what's actually a fairly flimsy story (Spartans go to Thermopylae; Spartans die. The end!). Xerxes becomes really over-the-top evil after a while, burying people alove, massacring women and so on. His scenes also have a tendency to turn into excuses to show women dancing in bikinis. There's some pretty dodgy acting going on as well (fists waving haplessly around etc). The actual fight sequences aren't bad, but I'm not sure lying down in front of a cavalry charge and holding your shield over your head to protect yourself would actually work. After Leonidas is killed in the final charge and the remaining Spartans refuse to surrender, they're finished off with arrows, which somehow seems evocative of shoot-outs in later war films or Westerns.

Towards the end, as the 300 are about to go into the breach, prophet Aegisthus sees a vision of the Athenians' eventual naval victory at Salamis, which is quite a nice way of telling the audience the end of the war without going beyond the deaths of the 300. It's also rather sweet in that it allows Leonidas to have some sense of the eventual Greek victory and to promise that they will be watching (sniff!). It's not even particularly implausible really - they all know what Themistocles' plan is here, so it's a fair guess anyway.

There is some good stuff here. Some of the story just lends itself to cool in any context ('our arrows will blot out the sun;' 'we will fight in the shade then!' and 'tell the Spartans that we are staying here, obedient to their word'). Richard Egan as Leonidas is charismatic and convincing. But the whole thing is at least half an hour too long. The sections with Themistocles are quite satisfying to me, but I don't know if they mean much to viewers who aren't familiar with the history - the film might do better to leave out the wooden walls business and focus more on giving some of the Spartans more developed characters so that we care a bit more when they die. The end is quite effective though, with a final shot of Leonidas' face and the famous epitaph - even the unnecessary voiceover about how the Spartans set such a great example by fighting tyranny can't entirely spoil it.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: Fugitivus

Spartacus is back! Yay! With more blood and tits than ever. OK, that's probably not physically possible - with just as much blood and tits as ever. The new subtitle isn't fooling anyone - this is still Spartacus: Blood and Tits.

If you haven't read any of my Spartacus reviews before, I should probably mention that I tend to use nicknames for most of the main characters, partly because I have a Christmas-cracker style sense of humour but mostly because I have trouble remembering everyone's names. There are a few exceptions, of which Crixus is one. He's got an easy name. Anyway, they're mostly fairly self-explanatory, but just in case:

DSG = Oenomaus (it stands for Drill Sergeant Guy, because that's the role he used to play in the ludus in Seasons 1 and, er, 0.5).
Xena = Lucretia (Lucy Lawless)
Paris Hilton = Ilithyia, because her character reminds me of Paris Hilton and tends to provoke similar... emotions... in the audience
Haldir = Glaber (Craig Parker)
Neighbours Reject = Varro, Spartacus' late and not overly lamented friend from the ludus from Season 1

I think that's everyone who appears in this episode.

Obviously, since the tragic death of Andy Whitfield, Spartacus is now played by Liam McIntyre. He actually looks a bit like Whitfield, albeit a little stockier, but that's not really the point. His performance as Spartacus is spot on - the character is a little changed, mostly due to his changed circumstances, but McIntyre slips into the role easily. The physical resemblence is quite useful in that it protects the writers from any temptation to have him say the line 'I'm Spartacus' - this was Rome's solution to a change of actor for much less tragic reasons, but in the case of Spartacus, that line holds so much meaning that under the circumstances such a usage might risk looking disrespectful to Whitfield. Also, I suspect they're saving that line for bigger and better things, particularly given that we were reminded towards the end of the episode that it was a name given to him by the Romans, not his birth name.

As the episode opens, quick headings remind us where we are and reorient us in Spartacus' world - Batiatus' house has fallen and apparently we are a few weeks into Spartacus and his men's rampage through the countryside, 'terrorizing' Capua. A young Roman called Seppius has been sent after them. And with that, we're straight into our first fight scene.

Slow motion horses! Slow motion swords! Quicker horses! It's all very exciting.

Pretty soon, bodies are flying around all over the place - in slow motion, of course - there's blood spattering in front of the camera and Spartacus is defeating ten horsey-helmeted men all at once (the helmets are probably accurate - weaponry and armour isn't my thing - but they look they belong in Lord of the Rings, as does Spartacus' one-man-army trick). People were shocked and impressed by the face-smashing in the first season, so there's some more of that. We know that the battle has finally finished when the speed of the film goes back to normal.

We're in the outside world now, so the whole show has never looked more like a computer game, since it relies so much on computer-generated scenery. Still, the alternatives are I, Claudius' solution (never go outside) or Rome's not-solution (get cancelled in the second season for being too expensive) so I think we can give them this one, even if I do sometimes get the feeling I ought to pick up my controller and move the main characters along the road myself.

Yay, Haldir is back! (OK I knew that would happen cause, you know, history, but still. I'm excited about everything today). Haldir is not overly keen on ever getting involved with Spartacus in any way ever again but he's forced to by some slimy men, one of whom wants to bang his wife (and knowing his wife, will probably get to). Also his father-in-law, the man that gave the world Paris Hilton. He must be shunned.

Spartacus and his group of ex-gladiators, freed slave and assorted poor people (I'm going on the history here, I don't think the episode actually explained this in any detail) seem to be living in a cave of some kind. They're all been out foraging - well, killing and looting - and Crixus' gang seems to have done better than Spartacus'. Spartacus forces them to share their loot and they get very cross, but obey. Apparently they're all Gauls, hence being in Crixus' gang.

Spartacus seems to have an actual relationship going with the woman who fancied him so much now, after messing about for much of last season (at least, I assume it's her). She wants to know why they don't go east where there's more meat and fewer Romans. Before she can get an answer...

Yay! Crixus! I'd be one of Crixus' gang of Gauls I think. If they'd let me in, they seem to be quite racist about the Gaul thing. Anyway, Crixus is not happy (when is he ever?). He has been sneaking into town trying to find out where his girlfriend Naevia (sold off by Batiatus shortly before the rebellion) has got to. They also seem to have lost DSG, who was rather fond of the ludus and has therefore gone off in a sulk.

If you thought the fact all our heroes have escaped from the ludus meant that we wouldn't get to see any more gladiatorial combats or women waving their breasts around in an historically implausible manner, you may be pleased to discover that this is not the case. DSG is, it turns out, watching the fights in a remarkably large arena, and naturally we get to see all the spilled blood in the usual enthusiastic close-up. Also some overhead shots. (The women seem unusually keen on staying dressed so far though). Apparently these gladiators are a bit rubbish, presumably because Batiatus was actually a pretty good trainer and is now dead. Or DSG was, and is now retired.

Seppius and the magistrate are also watching (Seppius is so dull I can't think of a decent nickname for him). His sister taunts the magistrate with Spartacus' latest kills. She's clearly a gladiator groupie (these actually existed in the ancient world). She's also quite keen on the idea of her brother getting killed and leaving her unprotected. No prizes for guessing what general direction this plotline is going in!

As the fight ends, the camera slides down so we get the exact scene from Gerome's famous painting 'Thumbs Down', showing a victorious gladiator receiving the (possibly historically inaccurate) thumbs down sign from the audience. Not to sound snobby or anything, but that's unusually literary (arterary?) for Spartacus. It's rather fun, I wonder if they'll throw in more references like this in the rest of the season.

DSG fights off a guy who wants to turn him in for money. It involves poking out his eye, then stabbing him. As you do. DSG walks off with his cloak - which I think is suppoed to be a disguise - swinging dramatically behind him, like Angel's coat in the opening credits of Angel (if DSG became a vampire, that's totally a show I'd watch).

Neighbours Reject's widow is sulking about the fact she's separated from her son, and about Neighbours Reject being dead. She actually has a bit of chemistry with McIntyre, they'd make a good couple - though I'm guessing the whole he-killed-her-husband issue would get in the way of that. Spartacus gives her all their , money, to fulfil his promise to Neighbours Reject that he would look after NR's family, and tells her to sail away with her son.

A ha! Tits! About time. But they belong to Paris Hilton. Apparently she's pregnant. I've completely lost track of who she'd slept with in season 1, but I don't think her husband Haldir featured very heavily. Paris Hilton doesn't want Haldir to fight Spartacus and she especially doesn't want to go with him, but he reminds her that she murdered Crassus' cousin and therefore they can't really risk rocking the boat, and insists on her coming with him (he probably just wants to make sure she doesn't smash anyone else's face in).

Spartacus' second - who doesn't look familiar to me, but I think I'll name him Number One - doesn't like doing anything Crixus wants. Because he's a Gaul, possibly - this is essentially becoming a race-based gang war between Gauls and... not-Gauls. In other news, Crixus is still not wearing much even though they're free now (actually, no one's wearing that much). Perhaps it's very hot in that cave.

Random full frontal female nudity is random. I think we might be in a brothel. Dildos are involved. And wine, being wasted by being poured all over people's heads. Definitely a brothel. There's a pumping rock soundtrack and everything. One of the brothel slaves is quite clearly very unhappy - we're basically talking about a rape scene not far off something from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but with a pumping rock soundtrack. Suddenly, just as it's getting really nasty, the wine gets mixed with actual blood - it's Spartacus and Crixus, storming in to free all the prositutes! By violently murdering all their customers! It's actually kind of cool and heroic.

One of the girls murders the pimp while Crixus is distracted, but before he dies they question him - for which read, brutally torture what remains of him - and establish that Naevia was handed around the villas of the south. Batiatus was using her to curry favour with rich men in that direction. He also tells them about the Romans coming south to hunt them, led by Haldir.

Have we ever actually seen Crixus smile?

Haldir appears to have set up shop in Batiatus' old house, possibly just to provide a constant reminder to Paris Hilton of what an evil idiot she is. She gets the message and she's not happy about it. He's not letting her leave, though, and actually gives her the job of cleaning up the mess from the massacre she nearly got killed in They deserve each other, those two.

Paris Hilton has everything in the house chucked over the cliff (bet the people living below the cliff will really appreciate that). At least it looks like someone removed the bodies beforehand. She picks up Xena's old mask and we get a flashback to her having it off with Spartacus (I bet it's his kid, though since they didn't have DNA tests in the ancient world, they won't ever actually know).

Then, somewhat unexpectedly (unless you've been reading spoilers) Xena turns out to be still alive! This seems extraordinarily unlikely, but she's gone mad (with hair to match) which is always fun, so what the heck, let's go with it. Seppius suggests that they should use her as a symbol of how it's possible to survive Spartacus, while Paris Hilton want to finish her off.

Meanwhile, back in the cave, those who've joined Spartaus from the countryside are somewhat distressed by the fact the Roman army's after them. Spartacus has obviously grown into the whole leading man thing because he makes a speech. There's cheesy background music and everything. He gets interrupted by the return of DSG, who insists they're all going to die. He reminds them that Doctore is no longer his title. I bet he gets it back as trainer of Spartacus' army by the end of the season.

Xena's got her breasts out again. She's quite excited by the fact she's back in the bath (that woman does love a bath. She's some kind of spiritual ancestor of Cleopatra, perhaps). Paris Hilton asks how she came by her wound (trying to get her to remember presumably) and what I want to know is, who stitched it up?! Xena's still rambling (about them being friends) but I think she's not really mad at all, she's just pretending, mostly so that she doesn't let on that she remembers Paris Hilton's little incident with Crassus' cousin's face. She's also way too interested in Paris Hilton's unborn baby. I bet when it's born she kidnaps it.

Spartacus' girlfriend reckons he's hanging around Capua because he was hoping to get a chance to fight Haldir. She brings up what his wife would have wanted, which seems an odd thing to do when your naked body is draped all over his, but whatever does it for you. She thinks she's convinced him to leave with her. Fat chance.

By morning Spartacus has, of course, gone to the market place to assassinate Haldir. Seppius and his rebellious gladiator groupie sister are there, stirring up the crowd, and then Haldir brings out Xena to cries of 'it's a miracle!'. Xena spots Spartacus in the crowd and starts whispering 'he comes' but since she's (apparently) mad, no one pays any attention. Meanwhile, Haldir has caught Neighbours Reject's wife (because no one gets a happy ending on this show. Yes, including whatshisface from season 0.5, he'll be back) and drags her out to make an example of her (Gladiator Groupie looks way too pleased by the thought of watching her get tortured to death, and she fancies Haldir for some reason).

Naturally, Spartacus leaps out in slow motion and starts waving his big thing around. Sword, that is. The rhythm of these fight scenes is like a foxtrot - slow, slow, quick quick slow... Crixus has followed him and together they fight off Haldir and all his men while everyone else runs away. Number One rescues Neighbours Reject's widow and Xena comes face to face with Crixus (which seems to jog her memory). Haldir hides behind his men and Crixus points out they can't win and should live to take revenge another day.

Back at the cave, Spartacus' girlfriend is quite miffed. Crixus interrupts their domestic to lay into Spartacus himself, pointing out that if they kill a praetor an actual Roman army of thousands will come after them, and he will never get to rescue his girlfriend.

To finish off the episode, we have our first major death of the season - Aurelia, Neighbours Reject's unfortunate widow. She makes Spartacus promise to stay far away from her son, since he's already killed both father and mother (which is a bit harsh, her death was hardly his fault). Numnber One wants to go kill Haldir for revenge, but Spartacus doesn't want Crixus to punch him again so he orders them all to come south with Crixus and look for Naevia, since their only strength lies in numbers. He also promises they'll boost their numnbers with every slave they find along the way, and *then* go and kill Haldir and all his men. Dramatic music. Credits.

When you've gone mad, it's very important to have the hair to match.

There's a lot to pack into this episode, even without needing to get a new actor settled into the lead role. As such, it's a bit of a rush through a lot of plot with the rather abrupt death of a main character stuck into the end. Still, there's some promising stuff here. There's no way Xena should still be alive, but she's a fun character and she's even more fun when she's mad (or pretending to be mad) so I say forget logic and go with it. The best scene is the fight in the brothel, though once again, this scene rests on the awkward line Spartacus walks between sympathy with the victims of rape and using the sexual abuse of slaves as titillation for its audience. Still, a promising opening episode and, as we move into the area of actual history, pretty much accurate to the historical record (bar Haldir setting up shop in Batiatus' ludus and really anything to do with his wife).


Spartacus: I have proven troublesome to kill

Random Roman, possibly Seppius: What has happened?
Haldir: In matters concerning my wife, the gods themselves fear to speculate

All Spartacus reviews
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