Friday, 30 March 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: Monsters

Previously: Spartacus abaondoned Paris Hilton in the woods like a more evil Snow White.

The Artist Formerly Known as Tiberius and some doomed random are guarding our heroes' ruined-temple-squat. Not very effectively, as Naevia ends up having to wake everyone with a warning that they've been invaded by Roman soldiers. Except they haven't - it's Gannicus and Crixus, testing them. This seems like a pretty stupid plan, given most of these characters' tendency to spear through the face first and ask questions later.

Gladiator Groupie is moping by the bath, her unhappy state of mind symbolised by the camera starting off upside down. Haldir doesn't seem to have noticed that her attitude towards him has completely changed. He's also cheerfully confident that Paris Hilton is definitely dead - which is her cue to make a super-dramatic entrance, throwing open the doors like Aragorn at Helm's Deep, hair all messed up like an avenging angel, then ploughing headfirst into the pool in the atrium, since walking goodness knows how far with no food and little sleep while heavily pregnant is not, in fact, all that good for you.

She's not sure whether she's still alive or not when she wakes to find Haldir bending over her (the Romans didn't have a concept of purgatory, or I'm sure she'd have thought she was there). He's not at all happy, but he does take the oppportunity to pump her for information. She doesn't seem 100% sure if the writing she saw at the temple was Greek, which suggests she never paid attention to whoever educated her, because a well-off young woman in this period ought to know Greek. Haldir has also, rather untactfully, stuck her in a new bed so he can continue shagging Gladiator Groupie in theirs - though he points out this is hardly surprising given her previous behaviour towards him.

Spartacus' men are squabbling over whose fault the not-Roman-invasion was, and then they all fight over what weapons they should all use (I love the way Number One holds a warning finger at German Blonde when she insults GirlFriend in German). Spartacus is forced to defend letting Paris Hilton go without letting on it's because she's pregnant with his baby. DSG takes charge and things calm down, because he is awesome. Spartacus realises his speechifying is getting him nowhere - he is starting to turn into Buffy from Season Seven, which is not a good sign. But it's OK - he has a Plan. A cunning one.

Whatever it is, it's unlikely to help him with his current personal situation. It seems to be him who's done the dumping in his broken relationship with GirlFriend, over the attempted murder of Paris Hilton, and because she wants him to love her, which he doesn't. So they have The Conversation and she goes off to train more archers.

(By the way, someone asked me earlier this week if I thought there was a link between Katniss and Artemis because they both use archery. I think archery alone isn't enough of a connection - women, elves and children all get put with the archers in fantasy or historical fiction, because it's the most logical way to have someone smaller and not as strong fight a big tough man with a sword. Artemis/Diana uses a bow and arrow because she hunts, which Katniss also does, but the goddess does it for fun and exercise and because she's deliberately taking part in a traditionally masculine activity, rather than hunting for survival. Anyway, I'm yet to be convinced that there's much of a link there, but it's something I'll keep an eye out for, and that goes for the ladies of Spartacus as well).

Xena and Paris Hilton are reunited and seem genuinely delighted to see each other (which they probably are by this point - though I'm still suspicious of Xena's motives. She wants that baby, I'm telling you...). They catch each other up on all the important developments - the baby is Spartacus', Haldir and Gnomey Guy killed Gladiator Groupie's brother and Gladiator Groupie now knows it, etc etc. They both seem to have matured and grown and understood their past mistakes - it can't last. They cement this bond by plotting Haldir's potential horrible, untimely death.

Haldir and Gnomey, through a combination of plotting Spartacus' attacks and, even more helpfully, getting people to identify Crazy Old Guy's decomposing head, have worked out where Spartacus is and plan a final attack. Which is a shame because Spartacus, it turns out, has finally come round to Gannicus' way of thinking and sent Number One out to steal them all some wine. He gets a party going in which they'll punch out their differences in non-lethal slow-motion wrestling matches, to cheer everyone up, and finally, we get some genuine joy in these characters. Spartacus spoils it all by speechifying again, falling prey to what I'm going to call Buffy Season Seven Syndrome (constant speeches intended to build tension and bond characters, but which actually just bore the pants off the audience and even, in severe cases, the characters themselves). Since Spartacus' creator, Steven DeKnight, was a regular writer on Buffy in the later seasons, this may not be a coincidence...

At this point it was apparently necessary for Gnomey Guy to pick up the Idiot Ball and really run with it. He appears to have totally lost it, as one of the series' most clever and cunning characters decides to tell Xena, the woman he's been repeatedly raping, all his secrets. He tells her that he and Haldir will attack Spartacus that night, where they're attacking (at Vesuvius), what he's getting out of it (freedom) and he finishes the cocktail of idiotic gut-spilling by adding that, once free, he intends to force Xena to marry him and re-open her dear departed hubby's ludus with himself in charge. He seems really to think that they're having some kind of love affair. This does at least explain why he bothered to save her life at the beginning of the season, but still. It's far too dumb for this character.

Haldir's plans are interrupted by the return of Varinius, who tells him the Senate would like politely to suggest that he leave the Spartacus-hunting to someone better qualified and come back to Rome. Paris Hilton emerges to stick up for him, pretending she was never kidnapped (using a fabulously wispy-little-girl voice to do so). She shoots Varinius quite the look as she leaves though. With Gnomey not in the scene, Haldir picks up the Idiot Ball and lets slip that Spartacus is at Vesuvius, and Varinius plans his own attack, telling Haldir again to go home. (I gotta say, the area around Vesuvius is pretty big, so really only Gnomey Guy and Haldir, who have a precise location, should be able to find our heroes).

It turns out Gladiator Groupie sent for Varinius, who now refuses to believe that Paris Hilton was kidnapped at all and is doubting Gladiator Groupie's accusations about her brother - apparently she wants to prosecute Haldir in court, but Varinius refuses on the basis of lack of evidence. Gladiator Groupie is not impressed.

Back at the squat, the slow-motion wrestling is still going on and seem to be working, with everyone venting their anger on each other and then making up afterwards. Even German Blonde and GirlFriend work together to bring down one of the guys. Spartacus then puts Number One with Crixus against Gannicus and DSG. You would have thought these two pairs would hate each other far too much to solve it by beating the snot out of people together but amazingly, it seems to work, and even Number One and Crixus shake hands, while DSG and Gannicus grin at each other. Apparently, if you sleep with your best friend's wife, it's all better and forgiven if you beat up two of your other friends together. Men. Though since this gives us an excuse to see the quite fun spectacle of four of the main characters punching each other for a prolonged period of time, I suppose we should let it go.

Gladiator Groupie is much less happy, sobbing on Xena's lap about Haldir. Xena has given up on subtlety and just gives her a frickin' big knife to go stab him with. Gladiator Groupie really ought to consider why Xena is making her do this, instead of just doing it herself.

The soundtrack starts to get really excited as Xena and Paris Hilton run and stalk about the House of Death, dresses flowing dramatically behind them. Haldir is getting ready to leave for Rome, as ordered, and stripping off his armour (and everything else - woo-hoo, hello tackle!). As he goes over to Gladiator Groupie looking for some sex to take his mind off things, she whacks him over the head with a vase and then prepares to stab him - at which point Paris Hilton jumps her from behind and forces the knife on her instead, stabbing her and then slitting her throat. The camera lingers on the huge amount of blood spurting out from her neck for at least a minute while Paris Hilton waves around dramatically in the background. The director is practically screaming at us, 'Look! Look at this Important death! I bet that's not what you expected to happen, eh? EH?!' (Well, actually Mr Director, it was pretty darned obvious it was never going to be as simple as 'Gladiator Groupie stabs Haldir and that's it'). Gladiator Groupie falls in the bath and Haldir gets absolutely covered in blood but remains alive and well.

Paris Hilton tells Haldir they should give up on feeling affection for each other and just join forces to be totally evil together. She'd mentioned to Xena earlier that she'd give him one last chance, and have blood if he didn't take it - this is his chance. He takes it. They have some blood-covered make-up sex before Haldir rides out to fight Spartacus and show his quality.

Crixus and Naevia are also having some rather more romantic sex, as it seems she has started to recover enough to do so. Gannicus still thinks Spartacus will be the death of them all, but has cheered up because it will be a glorious death. Which is handy, because at that moment a signal appears to warn them that the Romans are coming. Spartacus summons the troops and gives them some hints on how Romans fight before leading them out and both the soundtrack and the director think they're in Lord of the Rings now, with a big pan over the (correctly pointy, as pre-eruption) mountain and swelling music as they leave.

Fighting happens. Our heroes get in the first arrows, then all Hades breaks loose. At one point they trick the Romans into thinking they're retreating, then jump them, which is quite entertaining. The Romans make it into their squat, but another group, led by Crixus, are there to meet them.

It turns out this particular group of Romans is led by Varinius, who is allowed to live because he's the wrong praetor. Spartacus takes him prisoner, steals all his weapons and just as they think it's all over, Haldir attacks them with fireballs (one of which soundly dispatches Varinius - face first, of course). Haldirs' troops are led by the random Egyptian from the well, I think.

As the battle starts to go really quite badly for them, it seems our heroes have an escape tunnel prepared and they start heading towards it (are they bringing a special sword and have they remembered the household gods?!). DSG gets stabbed in the hand and eye, though he still seems to be alive, and they all start heading for freedom while a full choir sings enthusiastically on the soundtrack (this isn't the wailing woman, this is a full on, mostly male voice choir, as if all the miners of Wales got together to make noise as one). Crixus, Spartacus and Number One glare angrily at Haldir and Gnomey one last time, and they run for it.

On their way out, however, they run into yet more Roman soldiers. They manage to escape up the mountain, but Spartacus has to give up on Haldir. They get away up a narrow path, which they manage to hold, and Haldir decides to starve them out. End of episode.

I've been assuming all season that we're working up to killing off Haldir in the final episode, and I still think that's probably the case (he's an historical character, but since we don't know what happened to him after he fought Spartacus, there's plenty of leeway - they've already divided the historical Varinius Glaber into two characters, Varinius and Gaius Glaber, anyway). But I'm even sadder about it than I already was. Glaber and Ilithyia deciding to just be totally evil together, more or less for the lolz but also for power and possibly some money is a fantastic scene. With her scheming and both of them throwing themselves into pure villainy with gusto, this is the sense of over-the-top, ridiculous fun that this season has been lacking (and I'm not especially mourning Gladiator Groupie while she bleeds out behind them, she had promise but not much bite in the end). If I turn out to be wrong, and these two survive to come up against Caesar and Crassus next season, I'll be very happy. He's pretty easy on the eyes, too. Even Paris Hilton doesn't really annoy me any more, she's too gloriously evil.

Talking of next season, I've noticed the body count has been significantly higher among the Romans than among our heroes this season (of course, that may change in the next episode's season finale, but at least a few of them are historical and will probably last out the year). I suspect this is a balance of sorts to last season, when they were dropping like flies both in and out of the arena, and next season - there's a particular historical event I expect next season to lead up to as its season finale, which I won't spoil for the moment. Season Three will also bring us a lot more unkillable Romans with well known historical fates, so I expect Spartacus' group to really start to suffer...

This was a step up - a lively episode with plenty of action, forward movement, some significant secondary characters getting killed off and most importantly of all, a sense of joy, fun and pleasure coming from both Roman and rebel characters. Long may it continue! Well, you know - into next season.


Asher: Together we shall see The Rise of the House of Asher. I laughed out loud at that. I knew the House of Death wasn't done with murder and mayhem yet.

Ilithyia: We are both monsters, Gaius. Let us be so together, and seize the f*cking heavens!

Glaber, echoing the title of the Season One finale: We shall kill them all.

All Spartacus reviews

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (dir. Richard Lester, 1966)

Many thanks to Caroline Lawrence for giving me the DVD of this one!

Funny Thing is a classic musical film with songs by Sondheim, based on Plautine comedy (and, I think, an even better stage show). It's not adapted from any single play by Plautus, but uses elements that crop up a lot in Plautus' plays and combines into one new story. There are sequences added to the show for the the film, including chase sequences in small and fragile chariot-things and lots of physical comedy from Micheal Crawford - I was getting flashbacks to Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em through the whole thing. The performances are all great here, especially Phil Silvers and Zero Mostel. I love the section where Hysterium (dressed as a woman) and Pseudolus re-enact Hero and Philia's love scene from earlier in the film. The horse in the baths, brought in by Hero trying to collect it's sweat, is very funny too.

I also really love the opening (and closing) song, 'Comedy Tonight'. I remember (very dimly) going to see the play as a child, years ago, and that song was so lively and so much fun, it stuck with us for years and I can still sing the chorus. I'm not sure the opening sequence as a whole works quite so well on film. The film breaks the fourth wall all over the place, just like the play, but it pairs that with scenes filmed in a 'realistic' sort of way. During the opening sequence, the director focuses on little moments showing poor Roman citizens doing various things that mark them out as both historical and lower class. It's intended to draw the audience in a reinforce the fact that this is not about grand events, as the song lyrics explain. But the trouble is, it makes Pseudolus' address to the audience direct to camera look a little odd. It's also, of course, just not as infectious when the actor isn't standing in front of you in the same room.

Both ancient comedy and 1960s comedy have something in common - much of humour focuses on the objectification of women. Female characters are pretty girls lusted over by half the cast or old harridans everyone is trying to get away from. I'm sure no one would have batted an eyelid at the time, but it means the film hasn't aged so well as it could have, at least for the grown-ups in the audience. I remember one of my favourite films when I was little was Carry On Follow That Camel, but now, although I still enjoy the film, I always feel distinctly uncomfortable during the numerous jokes based on a woman being coerced into having sex without being asked, and eventually being drugged and dragged off to a man's hareem (though that one is at least viewed as a bad thing). Similarly, there are elements of Funny Thing that just don't quite play anymore, particularly the sequence in which four men sing and dance about how great it is to have a maid who's quiet around the house and fun in the bedroom.

(There's an excellent article on women in Plautine comedy at by the way).

A similar issue comes up with the treatment of slaves. In Roman comedy, many jokes are made around the physical abuse (sexual, but perhaps even more often other forms of corporal punishment) of slaves. This humour is brought into the stage play and then the film, but the idea of a man being beaten or even killed for a minor offence is just not funny to me. Normally, I'm all in favour of a realistic portrayal of ancient master-slave relationships, which this certainly is, but I think it works better in a drama, like Spartacus, than in a broad comedy. In a way, I can take it better in actual Plautus plays because I understand the cultural context, but seeing these jokes made in the 1960s is rather more strange and perhaps a little disturbing.

There have been some changes made to placate a modern audience. Pseudolus, a slave, wants his freedom and the film ends with him being freed. In Plautine comedy, slaves show little interest in winning their freedom, and it only usually happens when a virgin-prostitute is proved to be a free-born girl kidnapped as a child, as Philia is in the film. Plautus' slaves, despite the beatings, are reasonably happy - for a twentieth-century audience however, the only truly happy ending for a story about a slave is to see them freed (though Hysterium is still a slave of course). It's good to see some allowance made for modern sensibilities, and since a number of Roman slaves were freed, it's perfectly historically plausible as well.

There are some less plausible elements. One character insists that it's against Roman law to take one's own life, which is clearly not true - one of the things the Romans were most famous for is their attitude towards suicide and the necessity of suicide in the face of shame or execution (though they might have disapproved of the idea of killing yourself because you can't marry a slave girl from next door). Even more ludicrously, at one point it's claimed that there's a human sacrifice scheduled at the temple of the Vestal Virgins. I'm not sure whether this or Carry On Cleo's depiction of a Vestals as reminiscent of a sex-less harem wins the prize for most ridiculous interpretation of the Vestal Virgins ever, but it's pretty close. The weird dancing and singing at the funeral is pretty strange as well - somehow it looks more like it belongs in a film by Pasolini or Fellini than a comedy.

Buster Keaton is in it too! That's pretty cool.

Despite a few problems, Funny Thing is an enjoyable film. It has catchy tunes and likeable characters. It's also probably the closest you'll ever get to experiencing an ancient form of drama the way the ancients did (since we rarely - though not never - see Greek tragedy complete with masks and the Chorus hardly ever sing). Funny Thing may not represent the plot of a specific play, but just about all the elements of Plautine comedy are here, so if you want to experience a genuine bit of Roman entertainment, you can't do much better than this without hiring some actual gladiators. And that title song is just brilliant!

More film reviews

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross, 2012)

I have seen the film version of The Hunger Games, and it is awesome. Major spoilers for the film and all three books below so don't read on unless you've seen the film and read all three books.

To start with the obvious, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss is absolutely brilliant. She completely captures Katniss' character from the books while making her a likeable and relatable screen presence (not easy with such an introverted character). Everyone else is great too, especially Woody Harrelson as Haymitch (perfect casting), Lenny Kravitz as Cinna and Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones as Caesar Flickerman and that Claudius guy. Both the boys are good too, and Josh Hutcherson is brilliant at doing Peeta's interview routine, looking effortlessly charming in front of the cameras.

I only have one problem with the casting of the guys. In the books, I always felt that Katniss and Peeta were obviously going to end up together, she clearly fancied him (though she was in denial) and Gale was never really on my radar except when shoved there - his crush on Katniss was the one that always felt one-way to me. But in the film, it seems to me that Liam Hemsworth and Lawrence have much better chemistry than Lawrence and Hutcherson, whose romance feels genuinely fake rather than fake-but-actually-genuine (if that makes any sense at all!). Also, to put it frankly and with no offence meant to the actor, I think Hemsworth is quite a bit sexier than Hutcherson. So that was a little bit problematic for me - I want to root for Katniss and Peeta (I refuse to use the word 'team' in this context) but the movie keeps pushing me towards Gale.

The other reason Gale makes more of an impact in the film, of course, is that we see a bit more of him. Because the film isn't told solely from Katniss' point of view, we see Gale watching her and Peeta in the Games, as well as seeing him again at the end, which goes right up to her return to District 12. For the most part, this adaptation is faithful to the point of being too faithful - I like to see something unique to film in an adaptation, like the staircase sequence in Fellowship of the Ring - something that makes me sit up and take notice because I don't know exactly what's going to happen and how, and something that can only effectively be done on film. Still, in addition to cutting the odd minor character, where the film does make slight alterations it does so very well, using the new medium to expand the story a little bit. So, we see Haymitch trying to get sponsors for Katniss, we see a lot more of President Snow and his threats towards Seneca, we see rioting in District 11. We also get Caesar and Claudius as kings of exposition, explaining what trackerjackers are to the TV audience in a way that feels seamless and natural, while flashbacks to Katniss' past are slotted into the hallucinogenic sequence that follows.

The only change the film makes that isn't basically cosmetic (removing unnecessary characters, moving exposition etc) is a particularly interesting one. At the beginning of the film, Gale tells Katniss that if no one watched the Games, that would be an end to them and at no point does anyone state that watching the Reaping or the Games is mandatory. Unlike in the books, beyond the Capitol, the people in the Districts are not being forced to watch the Games, they choose to. This is quite a different thing, making them at least partly culpable in their childrens' fates and reinforcing the central reality-TV metaphor - we know vulnerable people shouldn't be exploited for entertainment, but as long as we keep watching, it will keep happening. It also makes it much closer to Roman gladiatorial games. No one in ancient Rome was forced to watch people fight to death. They wanted to, indeed, they demanded it. The real culprits, the reason the Games happen, are the people in the audience.

The Roman theme isn't, otherwise, overly emphasised. The Capitol's logo is suitably Roman, heavily featuring a laurel wreath, but for this first film that aspect has been largely played down in favour of Collins' evocative descriptions of the mad fashions in the city. We do actually see Seneca sharing his namesake's fate, being forced to suicide, with an eerie shot of an empty room and a bowlful of berries, and I read an interesting interview with Donald Sutherland where he mentioned that he had looked up Snow's namesake, Coriolanus (his first name isn't yet revealed onscreen, as it doesn't appear until the third book). It will interesting to see if, as the theme of rebellion becomes more important over the next two films, we will start to see a more Roman vibe to the Capitol.

It's more likely that it'll end up looking like the Third Reich - like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the designer of this film has decided that, for reasons unknown, all tyrannical regimes force their female inhabitants to wear knee-length dresses in bleached out colours, with pigtails on the young girls. They may also line them up in strict formations. I get what they're doing, but when they make an otherwise modern/futuristic society look like Auschwitz for the Reaping scene, it stops being interesting design and becomes an excessively in-your-face, remember the rulers are Bad! motif. Other than that, the films looks great, and I want Katniss' brown leather jacket from the opening section.

This is a Bad situation. The Holocaust was also a Bad situation. Wouldn't it be clever to make this look like the Holocaust? I bet no one's ever done that before!

There's a lot of hand-held camerawork in the film, much of which is quite jerky and occasionally disorientating. At the beginning, I found this very annoying. I wanted to get a sense of what this world is like and feel some kind of stability in the establishing scenes, while still getting to know the characters. The tight focus on Effie during the Reaping was also a little jarring somehow. But during the Games themselves, these techniques really come into their own, because the close-up, jerky, constantly moving camera is able to depict extraordinary levels of violence without actually showing any blood (or very little). We see a sixteen-year-old beating in a thirteen-year-old's head with a rock or stabbing them with a knife, but because we're so tight in, usually on the winner, the camera can avoid all blood and guts and depict the violence without needing any gore. Quite apart from the basic financial fact that a film based on a Young Adult novel has to have a PG-13/12A rating, I actually prefer this approach. I don't actually like gore much (I watch Spartacus in spite of the gore rather than because of it!) and I really liked this method of depicting the horror and violence of the story without needing bucketfuls of fake blood and equally importantly, without glorifying it either.

As always, there were a few moments that were better in my head than on the screen. I thought it strange that we didn't get at least one reasonably passionate kiss between Katniss and Peeta. In the book, the fact that for a split second she stops pretending is really quite important. I could have lived with it being moved, perhaps to the moment where they've won, but they didn't actually interact much after that. The climactic scene with the berries felt slightly underwhelming as well - I wanted to Katniss to really think about killing Peeta, and then I wanted to see her hold the berries up to the camera, the way she saluted it earlier.

Like the book, the ending feels rather muted - I would have amped up some celebrations after their win, before coming down again through Seneca's death and the return to District 12. I think a film needs a bit of soaring emotion at the end - as it is, the strongest emotional scene is Rue's death. The scene where Katniss mourns Rue is brilliantly done and very powerful - again, my only disappointment is her subsequent rush to find Peeta when the rules are changed didn't seem quite as emotional as it felt in the book (I seem to remember her crying out his name in the book in a way she doesn't on screen). Perhaps it feels this way partly because the preceding scene had been so raw (and she does a good blind panic when the cannon goes off for Foxface later).

All in all, a brilliant film. I would have liked to see something added that was not directly from the book - I felt a bit like I'd just seen the pictures in my head, on the screen, and not quite right, where I would rather see a fresh-ish version of the story (Jennifer Lawrence's performance excepted, because she looked exactly like the pictures in my head, if not better. Her sheer, pants-wetting terror as she stands with Cinna before entering the Games is extraordinary). But it's a very cinematic book, so this is really a minor niggle. The enormous amount of exposition required is handled brilliantly and all the performances are great. How long do we have to wait for the sequel...?

My review of The Hunger Games Trilogy

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: Balance

Balance? As in balanced argument, balanced approach? From this show? Yeah right!

Gannicus is out in the woods, threatening pregnant women, as you do. Well, a woman - Paris Hilton, of course. They meet a couple of randoms who don't buy that they're married, especially when Paris says so outright, and Gannicus very politely apologises and kills them both, fairly quickly.

Spartacus and Girlfriend are hunting deer together, which is probably the most romantic thing they've done all season. Just as the touchy subject of his dead wife comes up again, Gannicus turns up and throws Paris Hilton at his feet, telling him to kill her, take his vengeance on Haldir that way, and give up on Haldir himself so they can all just get the heck out of dodge.

Xena has somehow convinced Haldir that she's innocent of trying to have him (or Paris) killed. Haldir is attempting damage control before Rome finds out he can't even protect his own wife, while Xena insists he ought to care about Paris as a person more than politics (pretty rich - though to be fair, she and Batiatus really loved each other and genuinely put each other's interests first a lot of the time, which is more than can be said for Haldir and Paris Hilton). Gnomey Guy decides he's now risen high enough to give Xena advice and continues to kid himself they're in some kind of relationship.

Crixus conrtinues to teach Naevia sword-fighting, having established yet again how useful it is last week. Apparently she's a natural. Since they're a couple, naturlally, it all gets quite soppy and this is the most romantic thing they've done all season. At least one German seems to speak some Latin, so DSG has happily taken over his old role as, of course, Drill Sergeant Guy. The whole homely scene is interrupted by the arrival of Spartacus, Gannicus, GirlFriend and Paris Hilton. Crazy Old Guy points out going after pregnant women is not really what they should be doing but Spartacus is blinded by his obsession with the treatment of his own wife and ignores him.

Obligatory Brothel Scene. Haldir has resorted to visiting the place and interrogating the pimp himself, rather than relying on Gnomey Guy. When one disgruntled customer demands another drink and a fresh prostitute, one of Haldir's minions breaks his neck, twisting his head right round in an improbably Exorcist-like fashion. The pimp cheerfully informs Haldir that his slave had talked to Gannicus, but Gnomey had her crucified, so Haldir slits his throat. He wipes his sword clean on one of the prostitutes' skin and wanders off.

Paris Hilton points out she had nothing to do with Spartacus' wife's death, to no avail. Just as Spartacus is about to kill her, she finally tells him it's his kid (A-ha! I knew it!). Then she tries to sweet-talk him with how good she is in bed. Spartacus threatens to finish the murder attempt he started when he found out it was her he was sleeping with, but he can't really argue with the central problem that killing her will kill his own child.

Crixus tries to persuade Gannicus to kiss and make up with DSG, and is blissfully optimistic about this, since he doesn't know what the problem was. He also approves of the kidnap of Paris Hilton. I think this is the first time Crixus has shown affection or admiration for anyone other than Naevia, I'm impressed.

Gannicus is unimpressed that he's made himself Rome's Most Wanted for a woman Spartacus refuses to kill, while Spartacus tries to claim his reluctance is because she's innocent (luckily for him, Gannicus doesn't know about Neighbours Reject - though actually I'm not sure Spartacus knows that was her fault either, I can't remember).

Without Paris Hilton, Xena is forced to turn her attention to Gladiator Groupie, and tries to persuade her to send for help from Rome - unsuccessfully, since Gladiator Groupie is no longer interested in Varinius in Rome, but in Haldir. Gladiator Groupie thinks the gods are putting her and Haldir together, at which Xena looks appropriately horrified.

Crazy Old Guy is looking after Paris Hilton, since he seems to be the only person who thinks maybe heavily pregnant women should get, you know, something to eat and drink. He tells her his sob story about losing his land to Sulla (and Crassus, presumably, who made a fortune buying land seized in Sulla's proscriptions). She promises him that if he gets a message out for her, she'll get him his lands back.

Spartacus has told GirlFriend about the baby and she is, well, you can imagine. She demands that Spartacus kill Paris Hilton. Spartacus points out that would make him as bad as Haldir (something he has apparently only just thought of).

Haldir and Gladiator Groupie are getting it on, uninterrupted this time. He's grown some stubble again, maybe he's contemplating more Dark Deeds. He reassures Gladiator Groupie he only cares for the baby, not his wife. He does at least have the grace to look ever so slightly guilty when she mentions her desire to see her brother avenged.

Gnomey Guy has had a hard day smashing people's faces in, shoving swords up every possible oriface (nose, mouth, probably others but he's on this show so he likes to focus on the face) but all to no avail. He goes after Xena again and she slaps him, which does not go well for her (poor Lucy Lawless has had to do deeply unpleasant scene after deeply unpleasant scene this season).

Spartacus is seeing visions of his dead wife again. He hasn't done that in a while. He joins Crazy Old Guy for a friendly stroll while Gannicus mopes to DSG about Paris Hilton's continued existence. He then tries to persuade DSG to kill him and take vengeance, but DSGpoints out Gannicus' constant guilt is a much more satisfying form of vengeance.

Number One and The Artist finally get an actual love scene, but they're interrupted by GirlFriend, who sends them to bed since they're not actually guarding anything. She then heads for Paris Hilton herself. The number of people who want that woman dead, she could be in an Agatha Christie novel. She tries to play the baby card, blissfully unaware that GF is particularly unlikely to want her kid around. GF sets herself on PH and Spartacus turns up to pull her off just in time.

Gladiator Groupie boasts smugly about her night of sex while actually reclining, being fanned by slaves, and eating grapes. It's like she saw a painting of decadent ancient Romans and copied it down to the brushstrokes. She looks less smug when Crazy Old Guy turns up with promises of returning Paris Hilton (and to call Haldir a c*nt, but everyone does that). Spartacus has clearly sent him to get PH back home and keep the baby safe, since half his camp want to kill her. He proposes a trade of PH for some weapons. Gladiator Groupie is all for letting Paris die. Haldir looks grim and still hasn't shaved.

Spartacus insists to the whole gang that they will keep to their word and all the named characters declare that they will come along, with Gannicus coming in DSG's place because DSG is still injured.

Everyone emerges from dark shadows to gentle guitar strains for their exchange. Spartacus starts fantasising about killing Paris to Haldir and declares that he is letting her live because he's not Haldir, who in turn points out that since Spartacus has already carved Haldir's name into some corpses, the high road is not really an option. Spartacus demands his wagon of weapons which is... covered. And closed. It's like dragging a huge wooden horse with just enough room for some top soldiers into your city. Just as Number One goes to open it, Haldir lets on that actually he doesn't care about his wife and is happy to see her die for the sake of getting Spartacus. Out jump the army from the Trojan Wagon and fighting ensues.

Since nearly all of Spartacus' minions on this trip are named characters, several of them historical, Haldir's men get the worst of it. Haldir himself takes a nasty arrow to the shoulder. He runs off, and so do our heroes, except Crazy Old Guy, who is having too much fun shooting bad guys. He dies, naturally. His head goes flying right off his neck. In slow motion.

Back at the House of Death, Xena is horrified that Haldir had decided to sacrifice wife and child for a chance at Spartacus. Gladiator Groupie looks even more smug and Xena looks like she's smelled something nasty. She's got a surprise up her sleeve though - she's nabbed Gladiator Groupie's brother's arm-thing from Gnomey Guy's stuff, which proves that at least Gnomey Guy and therefore almost certainly Haldir were the men who killed her brother.

Gladiator Groupie heads off to her rendevous with Haldir in this bath where she sits on his lap and smoulders.

Spartacus gtakes PH to the woods and taunts her about love (he must have realise by now she's never had any. I'm actually feeling sorry for her for once). He tells her Haldir picked vengeance over her life and declares that this lets her off the hook, death-wise, but inflicts plenty of psychological torture on her. Then he abandons her in the midlde of the woods. She looks like she's fallen out of some strange twisted fairy-tale, like Hansel and Gretal, or a Snow White who's heavily pregnant. End of episode.

There were some... odd things going on in this episode. First of all, our heroes are apparently perfectly happy to murder a heavily pregnant women for their own gain/petty desires. I'm just... not down with that. If they wanted to wait till she'd spawned and then kill her - well, I still wouldn't be OK with it because I personally am not a fan of vengeance in general, and there'd still be the other problem of extracting vengeance on Haldir by harming someone else, but I'd be more able to see where they were coming from (and if Spartacus wanted to kill her in revenge for Neighbours Reject, I still wouldn't agree, but I'd feel positively sympathetic towards him). But no, they want to kill her right now, in revenge for something someone else did, and her unborn child with her. OK, Spartacus pulls back when he finds out it's his, but it shouldn't matter whose it is - it's a baby (OK, a foetus, and yes I know its status is controversial, but the point is if anyone other than the mother kills the child along with her, that's two lives they're taking).

Then there were the scenes between Spartacus and Paris Hilton which were also... weird. She obviously remembers their wild sex fondly, and seems to have largely got over Xena having tricked her into sleeping with Spartacus rather than Crixus - after all, Crixus didn't turn out that great for Xena, and all she really wanted was some hot gladiator sex anyway. But Spartacus hates her, and he must know she was at least partly responsible for forcing him to kill his only friend. He was utterly horrified that he'd slept with her. I get that he wouldn't necessarily want to harm her, but when she starts flirting with him a little bit, he takes her hand and almost seems to feel some kind of affection for her. Still he's pretty cold to her at the end, so I guess it was just a moment of weakness.

Actually, I can see those two having some weird, twisted kind of sexual relationship later, a bit like what the writers wanted to do with Buffy and Spike in season 6 of Buffy. I hated that storyline because I liked Buffy and Spike as a more romantic couple, but here it could work. They'd need a bit more screentime together to fire up the chemistry though.

Other than that weirdness, things more or less continued as normal in this episode. Crazy Old Guy had to go, as he was the least important character on our heroes' mission (I reckon either The Artist or No 1 is down for death next. Then the other one can angst over it). Spartacus and GirlFriend seem to have broken up, sort of - her attempt to kill his unborn child should lead to a pretty big falling-out anyway. Gladiator Groupie knows about her brother's death and is carefully plotting Haldir's. And our heroes are total idiots who somehow fell for the most famous military trick in ancient mythology. I know they're not rich or literate and they come from all over the place, but it's the Trojan Horse, for pity's sake - it's pretty famous. Not to mention you'd have to be really dumb to fall for that trick anyway. So, business as usual, mostly, but with only two episodes left, we can't be far from the grisly, probably face-based demise of both Haldir (booooo!) and Gnomey Guy (yaaaaaaay!).

Image of the Trojan Horse from around 670 BC. You should know this, guys.

All Spartacus reviews.


Number One: (on seeing Paris Hilton): F*ck the gods! (I'm going to miss him if he gets killed off next week. I never thought I'd say that, but Gannicus has been so whiny lately that Number One is our last source of snarky humour left).

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Julius Caesar (dir. Herbert Wise, 1979)

This made-for-TV version of Julius Caesar was produced for the BBC's ambitious project, in the late 70s and early 80s, to produce television versions of all of Shakespeare's plays. It was tackled early on, and directed by Herbert Wise, who directed I, Claudius (and so looks disconcertingly like a strange alternate-world prequel to Clavdivs, in which everyone speaks Elizabethan English!). Wikipedia suggests Wise wanted to film it in Elizabethan dress, but doesn't provide a reference for this (and really, they didn't hire the director of I, Claudius for an Elizabethan version, did they?! Although to be fair, he had also directed an episode of Elizabeth R...).

I don't have a copy of the play on me, but the adaptation doesn't seem to have edited too much out of Shakespeare's play. It includes, of course, the famous incident in which Mark Antony offers Caesar a crown three times and Caesar refuses it. This incident took place at the festival of the Lupercalia. One detail that tends to get left out of film and television depictions of it is that Mark Antony was stark naked at the time, because he was taking part in the festival, and had to run around the Palatine wearing only a girdle, striking women with goat-skin. Cicero, who was presumably an eye-witness, makes quite a thing of it in the Second Philippic and Shakespeare actually alludes to the festival, though the lines are often cut. Here they are kept, so for once, Antony does actually appear undressed - not actually naked, but wearing only a loosely draped sheet. Trouble is, I'm not sure the audience have a clue why he seems to have forgotten to put his clothes on. And, without meaning any offence to Keith Michell, who plays Antony - Mark Antony has been played by Marlon Brando (when he was hot), Richard Burton and James Purefoy, but it's this guy we get to see naked?! At least it wasn't Sid James.

Antony is on the right, Caesar on the left

(To be fair, Purefoy is frequently naked in Rome. Unfortunately, they didn't do the Lupercalia scene, presumably because they needed to make room for Boring and Dodgy and their soap opera).

Caesar's death is fairly well handled, though he takes a while to actually bleed when he dies (maybe I've just been watching too much Spartacus). He does bleed profusely eventually, and bonus points for the gasp he gives as he's stabbed from behind and the breath is forced out of him. It sounds just like the sound made by Christopher Lee as Saruman when he's stabbed in the back in The Return of the King (extended version) which, according to Peter Jackson on the DVD extras, was based on Lee's experience of seeing this actually happen during World War Two. Brutus' bloody hand is a nice touch too - in fact all the assassins, as the dialogue suggests they should (Shakespeare had an obsession), have fantastically blood-covered hands, a whole gaggle of Lady Macbeths.

I quite like the way some of the monologues are done as voiceover. It must be quite hard work for the actors, who have to emote like mad to their own voiceover without mugging, as if in a silent film. It works well though, and is in keeping with the 'realistic' atmosphere set by the costumes and sets - no one stands around pontificating out loud, they just exclaim a bit when emotions are running really high.

Less effective are some of the painted backdrops, which have to be the least convincing bits of painted scenery since Brigadoon. The production uses similar sets and costumes to Clavdivs, and it would perhaps have done better to stick, as Clavdivs did, to interiors and small courtyards, rather than attempting some exteriors and exposing every brush-stroke on the paintwork. At least there's a bit of a crowd assembled for Mark Antony's speech and he doesn't have to give it to a sound effect, as Livia does in one episode of I, Claudius, or indeed anyone in any scene set in am amphitheatre.

Overall this adaptation is nicely done and reasonably well acted, but a bit bland. Unless you're particularly desperate to see Mark Antony with his shirt off (in which case you'd be better served watching Rome anyway), probably better to stick to the 1953 cinematic version. Still, this is a perfectly acceptable and fairly entertaining entry into the BBC's Shakespeare archive.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Top Five Random References to Julius Caesar

I've often wondered who is the most famous Roman of them all - Pontius Pilate or Julius Caesar. Pilate has got to be one of the best known to Christians, and millions recite his name every week, if they happen to belong to a denomination that recites the Nicene Creed regularly. But outside Christian culture, Julius Caesar must be the best known Roman of all time. In addition to a month which either he or Augustus had named after himself (July), he's had all sorts of things named after him, from political positions (Kaisar, Tsar) to methods of child delivery, to salads. If something not particularly connected to Classics or the ancient world is going to randomly throw something Classical into the mix, chances are high they'll be bunging in a reference to Caesar. So, to commemorate (or celebrate, depending on your ancient Roman political persuasion) the two thousand and fifty-sixth anniversary of his death, I've collected some of my personal favourite random references to Julius Caesar from all over pop culture.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'Pangs', 'That's what Caesar did...'
What's the reference? SPIKE: (In reference to the conquest of America)... that's what conquering nations do. That's what Caesar did, and he's not going around saying, "I came, I conquered, I feel really bad about it"!'
Referring to? The inscriptions displayed during Caesar's triumph for the very short Pontic War: VENI, VIDI, VICI, 'I came, I saw, I conquered.'
How random? Well, it's not really, which is why it's down at No. 5 on this list even though it's probably my favourite of all these references. Spike is making a difficult but necessary point and the Romans are a particularly useful tool for him to use to make it, as I discussed when I blogged about it. But I love it far too much to leave it out.
What would Caesar think? He'd agree wholeheartedly with Spike. Caesar and Spike would get on really well, I think.

4. The West Wing, '18th and Potomac', 'Caesar's wife'
What's the reference? MRS LANDINGHAM: (Insisting on paying sticker price for a new car, wagging finger) Caesar's wife must be above reproach.
Referring to? Caesar's wife Pompeia was suspected of having an affair with Publius Clodius, and Clodius had spied on her during a women's-only festival. Caesar divorced Pompeia. Clodius was then put on trial for sacrilege, but when called to testify, Caesar said he knew nothing about it, so he was asked why he divorced his wife if that was the case. This is a loose translation of his reply, which was that he thought his wife should never be so much as suspected of any wrongdoing. (They can't have got on very well. He refused to divorce his first wife even when she was connected with the losing side in a civil war and the winner was trying to get him to divorce her, so he wasn't always so quick to get rid of wives, as long as they were useful and he didn't think they were cheating on him!).
How random? Well, there's something about the image of Mrs Landingham as Bartlett's 'wife' that's really disturbing... The point makes sense, though everyone around Mrs Landingham thinks she's mad. The whole thing's no more than a set-up for her sudden death while driving said new car at the end of the episode anyway.
What would Caesar think? He wouldn't be paying any attention to Mrs Landingham, he'd be too busy trying to seduce Nancy (the blonde White House employee played by Sheen's daughter).

3. Blackadder the Third, 'Sense and Senility', 'Look behind you Mr Caesar!'
What's the reference? Prince George has been thoroughly traumatised by seeing a play in which Julius Caesar was murdered right there on the stage in front of him, and no matter how much Blackadder tries to explain the concept of 'acting' to him, he can't get anywhere. This includes the following exchange:
BLACKADDER: the man playing Julius Caesar was an actor, called Kemp.
PRINCE GEORGE: Thundering gherkins! Brutus must have pretty miffed when he found out.
Referring to? The murder of Julius Caesar, two thousand and fifty-six years ago today. And Shakespeare's theatrical version of it.
How random? Not really too random, any episode about the theatre is bound to throw in some Shakespeare, and Julius Caesar is one of his most famous plays. Prince George's decision to dress in a toga for all public speaking engagements is more random.
What would Caesar think? He'd wonder what on Earth Prince George was doing running an Empire.

2. Community, 'Paradigms of Human Memory', 'Caesar Salad Day'
What's the reference? In a clip show that's not a clip show, we see the Dean entering the study room in a variety of fancy dress outfits, all on rather flimsy excuses. Among other things, he wears a tunic, a bit of red velvet and a laurel wreath to celebrate Caesar Salad Day.
Referring to? OK, this one is cheating a bit as this could be a reference to any Caesar. But I think, generally speaking, if you hear the name 'Caesar' without any other context, you think Julius. Well, I do anyway.
How random? Very, even by Community's standards. The bonkers-ness of this outfit is still beaten, though, by the woman's nineteenth-century Southern belle outfit, complete with bonnet, parasol and huge dress - for a cotillion - that he wears to celebrate getting new windows (calling it 'Gone With the Windows').
What would Caesar think? He'd think Community was one of the weirdest shows ever made. But also one of the most awesome.

1. Aladdin, 'Et tu Brute'
What's the reference? More salad. As the Genie looks into the process of making Aladdin a Prince, he opens a big book of 'Royal Recipes' and pulls out various items relating to the recipes, e.g. when he gets to Chicken a la King, he pulls out a chicken wearing a crown. When he gets to Caesar Salad, a big arm comes right out of the book holding a knife and the Genie, momentarily wearing a laurel wreath and white bit of tunic, gasps 'Et tu Brute!' and quickly turns the page. It took me years to work out what he was saying there.
Referring to? Caesar's death and his much-debated Famous Last Words.
How random? This is a cartoon visualising a bit of Robin Williams improv. It's completely random. And that's why it's top of this list. Plus, Aladdin rules.
What would Caesar think? He'd be busy desperately trying to keep up with Robin Williams' stream of comic genius. Latin is a much simpler language than English and requires far fewer words - Robin Williams in Latin would be weird and he must be really hard to follow for anyone whose English isn't completely fluent.... (On the other hand, if you're in the mood for some Latin comedy, Eddie Izzard in Latin is available here, though the title is mis-spelled).

Honourable mention: Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory has referred to Caesar a few times, in an expression ('Great Caesar's ghost!') and quoting lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar ('Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!'). But my favourite Classical reference of Sheldon's, which is of course quite logical but totally baffling to his audience of one, is his repeated attempt to teach Penny physics in 'The Gorilla Experiment' from the very beginning, i.e. from ancient philosophy onwards. All Penny wants is to understand what her boyfriend does for a living, but Sheldon just keeps saying 'It's a warm summer evening in Ancient Greece...' and making her note down what an agora is. It's funny because it's true.

More Top Five Lists

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: Sacramentum

I was re-watching Gods of the Arena this week, and I realised what it is about this season that's making it a little lacklustre, for me. Not that I'm not enjoying it, but it just doesn't quite have the oomph that Gods of the Arena did. I think that the reason is that it's almost totally without anything joyful or exhilarating.

Spartacus has always been a dark show, thanks to the subject matter, but that always used to be balanced by the excitement of victories in the arena, and by various parties and enthusiastic love affairs. OK, so this is all a fancy way of saying sex and violence - but joyful sex and violence, that allowed the characters to experience emotions other than despair or misery. The new season has had to leave the arena behind (though I think it's no coincidence that the best episode so far went back to the arena) but that isn't the only problem. Where Batiatus and Xena used to have a happy (if slightly twisted sometimes) marriage and put on various events, all the Roman characters are now completely miserable pretty much all the time. Maybe Xena will cheer up when she steals Paris Hilton's baby...

Our heroes among the rebels are no better either. There are three romantic relationships going, but they all lack that sense of joy and fun that you want from a screen romance. Crixus and Naevia are held back by Naevia's (understandable) trauma, while the other two relationships are just underdeveloped. One week we were wondering what Number One's sexuality was, the next suddenly he and The Artist are an item. Similarly, Spartacus had been resisting GirlFriend's advances towards the end of Season 1, but now they're a couple, with no particular explanation. They're a fairly bland couple as well, since Spartacus is clearly still hung up on his dead wife (I'm starting to think GF should give him up and find someone more interesting, or just strike out alone). Basically, our heroes need to have a big party (Gannicus could be sent out for wine) and our romantic couples need to either examine and celebrate their feelings for each other, or just give up and break up.

This episode goes some way towards addressing some of these problems. GirlFriend both thinks about her relationship with Spartacus, and she tries to convince him that they all need to let off steam every once in a while. But it all goes horribly wrong, Naevia gets attacked again (at least she can fight back this time) and despite a new love affair starting, both parties involved are too miserable in general terms to really seem happy.

The episode opens with Number One and some minions freeing a boatload of German slaves (which is nearly ruined by Number One showing off his (modern) German, unaware that one of the slavers speaks it too). For some reason the subtitled German is written in as abbreviated a form as the English/Latin is spoken, which makes no sense if they're speaking modern German, a language perfectly capable of using as many articles as English. Maybe it's supposed to indicate an older form of German? Maybe the writers didn't think it through... We have another new blonde woman as well, to replace the one that got killed last week.

Gannicus is having money troubles, since he didn't actually carry out the last job he was hired to do. He also wants his wooden sword back, but is told to ask Haldir for it. Haldir has obviously found himself at a loose end because he's had time to shave and is now speechifying. Quite how Gannicus thinks he'll get away with appearing without anyone realising he knows where Spartacus is, is a mystery. Haldir is going to crucify anyone who mentions Spartacus' name and has one of his own unfortunate women crucified on the spot to prove it (I'm not sure they crucified women in Rome... oh well). Haldir claims Paris Hilton dobbed her in and PH agrees out of fear of him. The nails are bashed correctly into the woman's wrists, by the way, not her hands, as shown in many a Catholic crucifix - if you bashed the nail into the palms, the weight of the body would pull the nail right through the hand (depending on how much rope you used in addition). Gnomey Guy spots Gannicus, who finally works out that this might be a good time to leave.

Crixus is training Naevia in sword-fighting. The pair of them finally look reasonably happy, huzzah! The Artist thinks Spartacus loves GirlFriend, but she knows that's not really true, so she's less happy. But then DSG emerges and even he looks reasonably happy. It's a miracle!

Crixus’ mood is spoiled, however, by the appearance of hordes of Germans. Half this episode seems to be about racial tension between the French and the Germans which is… a few centuries too early? To be fair, it could be accurate. (And yes, I know the modern French are descended from Franks and these are Gauls, who are different. So perhaps it's about racial tension between the Germans and the Welsh...).

Gnomey Guy has now apparently taken to raping Xena on a regular basis and making her call him ‘Dominus’. He seems to have caught her tendency towards self-delusion as well, having convinced himself she’s starting to enjoy it and bought her a present – a brand new red wig he wants her to wear. The whole thing is unbelieveably creepy – Gnomey has somehow managed to go from irritating to a little bit awesome to slimier than Slimer in three episodes.

Haldir is trying to comfort Gladiator Groupie over the death of her brother, while PH is complaining about the abrupt crucifixion of her slave. Out in the training square, a bunch of new recruits have come in and Gladiator Groupie informs everyone she wants vengeance, not justice – in particular, she wants the people who killed her brother to die horribly. Blissfully unaware of who that was, she flirts a bit with Haldir and is persuaded to stay at the House of Death for a while. Paris Hilton indicates her disapproval by emphatically over-pronouncing the letter t in the phrase, 'your presence offers great comfort'. She confesses to Xena that Haldir does not appear to be as weak as she thought, while Xena insists she must look after the baby. Both of them have had just about enough of beng abused by their respective men.

Number One confesses to Spartacus that he deliberately rescued a boatload of Germans instead of an equal load of Gauls, and Spartacus points out he could really do with men who speak Latin, and to please bear this in mind in future.

Gannicus has gone back to some of his favourite questionable women, one of whom is pleased enough to see him that she offers him a freebie. He tells her that no man is free (how true). She tells him she thinks Spartacus is truly free and he tries to get her to stop saying things that might get her crucified, but too late – Gnomey has overheard. Gannicus is rude to Gnomey, who then takes him on a trip down memory lane to the tail end of Gods of the Arena, and adds that without his rudis, the wooden sword symbolising his freedom (and with a brand) Gannicus can’t prove that he’s free. And with that, it’s back to the House of Death for both of them.

Haldir thinks it’s as suss as anyone with half a brain would that Gannicus is still alive. Xena tries to stick up for him and Haldir gives him back his rudis, but on condition that Gannicus becomes his minion and leads his troops against Spartacus. Haldir insists that Gannicus is free to choose to do what he wants and gives him a few days to decide, then sets one of Gnomey’s minions to follow him and crucify him if he tries to leave.

Xena comes up with a new plan to get her and Paris Hilton out – she cuts her wrist and smears the blood over PH’s skirt, then tells Haldir it’s a sign from the gods that the baby will die if it stays in the House of Death. Haldir agrees to send her back to Rome, apparently oblivious to Xena’s fresh wound in quite a visible place (she slashed her wrist - she really ought to have bled over her clothes a bit). Xena, of course, offers to accompany PH but Gnomey persuades Haldir to keep her in Capua.

DSG has cheered up mightily, but Number One and the Germans have gone off hunting by themselves, which has put Crixus in an even worse mood. When Spartacus and Crixus find out that the Germans attacked someone on the road, they get even crosser. Number One wants to take on the Romans, which Crixus points out they aren’t exactly ready for. Number One apologises to Spartacus but gives Crixus the side eye.

Xena is out doing her messiah act when she spots Gannicus wandering around the street, doing his second favourite thing (drinking). His friend from the other night is, of course, being crucified in the alley (looking already dead, which is rather quick, crucifixion takes days). Xena tries to warn him about Haldir, though the misinterprets it as a threat. She makes her meaning cleaerer by flat out asking him to kill Haldir (not overly wise as Gannicus is drunk and talking rather loudly). She explains that Spartacus has a grudge against Haldir and might go away if Haldir is killed. She suggests a plan of attack while Paris Hilton is being taken away to Rome that night.

The Germans are enjoying German Fight Club while the German Blonde proudly boasts of her ability to swear and wrestle like a man. Everyone except Crixus seems to be enjoying themselves, and Naevia tries to persuade him to look on the bright side. Even DSG gets dragged in to play with some half-naked women. Spartacus whines that they don’t have time for fun and GirlFriend points out that everyone needs a little fun every now and again (she's so right).

Xena tells Paris Hilton that she’s set Gannicus on Haldir, and will have him killed afterwards. Not a good idea Xena. PH has what she wants now, she probably wants to hang on to her husband. She certainly has no further need of Xena. As Paris Hilton leaves, she clearly thinks about telling Haldir everything, but restricts herself to a quick kiss and telling him ‘you shall be missed’ instead.

One of the Germans starts harassing Naevia and looks about to assault her so, understandably, she stabs him. Number One rushes in when he sees what’s happening but Crixus doesn’t realize what started it and watches him get beat up for a while. Luckily Naevia enlightens him and in he jumps, so within minutes there’s an all-out brawl, in which GirlFriend ends up fighting German Blonde, presumably because the producers wanted a bit of girl-on-girl action. So far, this appears to be the entire purpose of German Blonde's character.

Spartacus kicks one guy into a fire and saves Number One from the nasty German by literally chopping off his face. Like, from the mid-chin up. Which the camera lingers on for absolutely ages. It’s like they’d run out of interesting ways to chop people up, and nasty things to do to people’s faces, and sat down and brainstormed exactly how they could do something even worse than anything we've seen over two and a half seasons. And, having come up with something, they wanted to show it off for as long as possible.

Spartacus tells everyone to obey him and not brawl or attack each other, and tells them if they refuse to obey him, they should leave (by now the dead guy is face – what’s left of it – down on the ground, to save on the special effects budget). The Germans are sufficiently impressed that Spartacus killed the big guy that they decide to stay (Spartacus looks really smug at this point).

Back at the House of Questionable Women, Gannicus is playing with his sword. No, the wooden one. No, literally, the type with splinters. Xena, meanwhile, is taking a turn around the villa like the women do when they're bored in Pride and Prejudice, swirling her new blue dress in a suitably dramatic fashion. Gladiator Groupie has wandered into Haldir’s room for a bit of extra-curricular activity – the first so far this episode, so we get to see a bit of it, though not much before an unfortunate soldier has to walk in on them and tell them the wagon taking Paris Hilton to Rome has been attacked by Spartacus. Apparently Gannicus decided to go for the wife, rather than the husband.

There’s a close-up on a bit of intestine lying on the ground and a lot of dead Romans, including the guy who was tailing Gannicus, who has been killed with Gannicus’ rudis through his throat. No dead Paris Hilton though – she’s too valuable a hostage (and our heroes are not in the habit of killing pregnant women). End of episode.

This episode seemed to be trying to lift the mood a bit in places, which is a good sign. We just need someone to have a party that doesn't end in people getting their faces cut off. Or smashed in. Or peeled off and worn as a mask by someone else. Or pulverised with a big wooden beam. Or slowly chopped up for entertainment. Or... seriously guys, just stop with the faces. George Lucas has an arm obsession, try that out for a while, at least that one's vaguely logical (cause you, er, dis-arm the opponent by doing it).


German: We hunt. Catch meat! (I just like this because it sounds like an old Friends quote that always makes me laugh - 'Men are here. We make fire, cook meat. Put out fire by peeing on it, no get invited back!).

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Saturday, 10 March 2012

Medea (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)

There are art films I don't get and am not wild about, like O Brother Where Art Thou? and Fellini Satyricon. And there's at least one art film I both get and love, Orphée. Medea is a bit different. I totally get it and I can see how well made and what a good piece of cinema it is - I just don't like it that much!

It was Euripides' play Medea that really cemented Medea as the wicked witch of Greek mythology. Evidence for earlier versions is patchy, but we know it was Euripides who had her deliberately murder her children (some earlier versions had her kill them accidentally, possibly while trying to make them immortal). Without that plot development, Medea would be a traitor to her own family, but overall a really rather helpful person to the Greeks, with divine ancestry, who was married to a hero for a while. With it, she's the quintessential wicked witch and her betrayal of her father and brother (with or without the detail of her murdering her brother as well) becomes an early sign of the wickedness that is to come. This film is a (very) free adaptation of the play, and Maria Callas plays Medea with a dangerous and slightly mad edge throughout, very effectively.

Euripides' play opens with Jason about to marry Glauce, but Pasolini goes right back, not just to Jason and Medea's meeting and romance, but to Jason's upbringing by Chiron, the centaur. There are reasons for his use of Chiron, which I'll get to in a minute, but as far as the relationship between Jason and Medea goes, I think this is pretty effective. We feel Medea's pain at the disintegration of their relationship much more when we've seen it develop from its beginning (though the sex scenes must be some of the least passionate ever comitted to celuloid! They just sort of lie on top of each other... Maybe I've been watching too much Spartacus).The way Medea keels over and faints when she first lays eyes on Jason looks rather ridiculously melodramatic, but it actually kinda works if you imagine she's been put uner a love spell, or hit by one of Cupid/Eros's arrows, as several ancient versions have it.

Maybe Pasolini was disconcerted by how many Christians loved his Gospel According to St Matthew, because this film largely depicts Medea as a religious fanatic, as opposed to the Argonauts, who all appear to be atheists and much more practical. I'm assuming Pasolini was familiar with JG Frazer, because the whole first section is pure Frazer. Chiron talks about the resurrection of the grain and how it's not needed and there is no god, accompanied by a visual that implies myth (and, by extension, religion) is a lie of childhood, cast aside when we get older. This fits perfectly with the nineteenth century anthropological view of an evolution of thought in human society, from belief in magic (and myth) to religion, to science. Then we see Medea and others crucifying a man, then drinking his blood, in a clear parody of Catholic communion, marking her out as primitive, and something of a religious fanatic (and implying that Catholicism is a relic of an earlier stage of human development).

Apsyrtos, Medea's brother, is represented as a young man here (ancient versions vary on how old he was). He's younger than Medea, so he comes across as a more-or-less innocent victim, who helps her steal the fleece because she's his big sister and he trusts her and loves her (presumably - they don't speak much). Her murder of him is pretty horrible, but the fact that he's nearly an adult and has some culpability in it - having agreed to help her steal the fleece without batting an eyelid - means this is only the prelude to the later horror, so Pasolini can build up Medea's crimes until the final matricide. The murder of Apsyrtos is also unexplained - Medea does it to slow down and distract the people pursuing them, but without the element of magic, it's a bit unclear why finding  Apsyrtos' body should stop them from continung to follow her and the Horse-o-nauts (since Pasolini filmed in the wonderfully weird landscape of Cappadocia, the Argonauts leave their Argo - which is just a tiny raft anyway - and grab some wild horses to ride to Colchis).

Pasolini does not represent any of Medea's magic as real (that wouldn't fit his theme of religion coming up against the more secular attitude of Jason). The representation of Medea's witchcraft as somthing rumoured about her by the Greek women she lives among is very effective. It's rather like the ancient characterisation of Medea in some ways. Medea is the ultimate foreigner, and her witchcraft and magic stems largely from her foreignness (and divine ancestry). The interpretation of rumours of her witchcraft as resulting from the fasincation the Greek women feel for her makes sense and works brilliantly.

The dress Medea sends to Glauce is particularly intresting. It's Medea's own 'vestments' (you know, in case we hadn't aight on to the religious metaphor yet) from Colchis. In Medea's imagination, the dress literally goes up in flames. I was expecting the real dress to kill Glauce with poison, like the dress that kills Kelly MacDonald's character in Elizabeth. But it doesn' - Glauce sees herself in the mirror, dressed as Medea, and kills herself (as does her father when he sees what's happened). Whether Medea put something in the dress - a hallucinogen or misliar - to drive Glauce mad, or whether she's relying purely on head games is unclear (she's a witch after all, so she must be using headology!). It's very effective, albeit a bit melodramatic.

Modern versions of Jason's story usually make him a little more proactive than he is in the ancient epics, and Pasolini does too, though for slightly different reasons. In Greek myth, Jason owes everything to Medea (and Hera). When he leaves her, he really is being spectacularly ungrateful. In Pasolini's version, however, she has convinced herself that he owes everything to her, but he has said outright that the fleece, outside the religious significance allocated to it in Colchis, is worthless. He doesn't owe her anything, because she hasn't actually done anything especially useful - he could have done without the fleece and ended up in the same place (and all the incidents where she saves his life and the lives of other Argonauts have been omitted). She thinks her religious rituals are accomplishing something, but he is equally convinced they're meaningless. So Jason is simply choosing to leave his former lover and re-marry - though he does still leave her in the middle of a foreign country, with the king trying to exile her from that place too, so he's still being fairly heartless.

The most famous part of Euripides' play is Medea's speech in which she agonises over what she's thinking of doing and tries to make her mind up, and during the course of which she explains the very real hardships faced by women in ancient Greece. The sympathy she asks for is somewhat undermined when she goes on to commit infanticide, but still, the speech is justly celebrated as an unusual attempt by a male writer to look at life through a woman's eyes. Here, however, Medea seems to spend very little time making her decision. Dialogue in the film is fairly sparse in general and part of the reason for the lack of speeches is that Pasolini wants to use the visual potential of film, together with the eerie soundtrack mostly made up of chanting, to get his points across. But for me, without that essential aspect of sympathy for the monster and without that insight into Medea's motives, the story is lacking something. The closest we get to sympathy or understanding for her is Chiron's description of her reverse conversion to Jason, recalled a little in her final line, 'nothing is possible any more', but this isn't much. She is too deluded and not logical enough to really inspire sympathy.

The lack of visible/audible deliberation form Medea also rather undermines the love that Euripides makes it clear she still feels for her sons. Here, we see her rock them lovingly to sleep before picking up the knife (the murder itself, in the best tradition of Greek tragedy, is not shown) but without that articulation of her feelings, she just looks, well, batsh*t crazy, really. She's always at least slightly crazy, but without her explanation of why she's doing what she's doing and how much it hurts her to do it, she comes across as so crazy she's less human, and less sympathetic - which for me, takes away from the power of the story a bit (it's also a notable departure from Greek tragedy, which is all about characters very very slowly making decisions though monologues and conversations with the Chorus. Sometimes they make discoveries, but mostly decisions).

The two Chirons, mythical and mature

This film is beautifully, eerily shot and wonderfully acted - Callas' performance is wild and captivating. Although an 'art' film, it has a clear narrative and some clear points to make, and is both comprehensible and effective. But in the end, it's just not really to my taste. Let's face it, a film which implies that religious people, and Catholics in particular, are crazies who, if you question their religion, might go mad and murder their children was never really going to be my thing, was it?!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: Chosen Path

Our heroes return victorious to their hideout, DSG in a stretcher. The Artist appears to have recovered fully and he and Number One are now an item. Gannicus insists that DSG will be just as lucky (healing-wise that is, I don't think those two are going to be going after each other). Crixus and Naevia are finally reunited.

Gannicus points out that the only cause Spartacus and the others are heading for is certain death, and insists he's only there to repay his debt to DSG. GirlFriend thinks Spartacus should have killed Gannicus in the arena. I'm liking GF more and more. She has a ruthless streak Spartacus lacks, but isn't as annoying with it as Number One.

Back in the House of Death, Haldir and Paris Hilton are wearing black for PH's father and listening to his will being read. In those black robes, Haldir looks like a monk. PH is sniffling, while Haldir is growing stubble to demonstrate his move towards the Even Darker Side (he was already well over on the Dark Side when he raided Spartacus' village way back in the very first episode). I think he's had a haircut too. And he's acquired a cool scar. He's still convinced PH's baby is his.

Many of Haldir's men are apparently deserting from fear of Spartacus. Gnomey Guy, who, like Spartacus' group appears to have given up on the wearing of clothes, points out once more that the gladiators are a real threat so Haldir tells him to prove it. Gnomey Guy takes on half the soldiers and somehow manages to win, going for the face again (though not fatally this time). The tooth flying at the screen is an especially nice touch.

Haldir sends Gnomey Guy away and for some reason Gnome-Man chooses this moment to shave. It's all about the symbolic facial hair in this episode. He threatens and rapes Xena before he leaves. Naevia and Crixus try to have sex again, but she experiences flashbacks of what's happened to her since she left and runs away.

New Blonde is upset at the loss of her meal ticket (apparently that was Random 3rd from last week) so she comes on to Gannicus, but he gives her the brush-off and she heads off to greener pastures.

Spartacus, GF, Number One and Crazy Old Guy are Strategising. It emerges that Crazy Old Guy is the only person with any knowledge of archery, given that there isn't much call for that in the arena (actually you might want it occasionally, for a mythical-reenactment-come-execution, but you wouldn't train star gladiators like Spartacus and his men to do that). Spartacus intends to attack the port, possibly with the intention of leaving Italy.

We cut to another brothel, populated by, among others, the most unattractive prostitute ever put on film. Gnomey Guy turns up, watches another guy smash someone's face in - because that's what people do for fun in Spartacus - and says he wants to deal. Xena and Paris Hilton (who is wearing more subtle make-up than usual) have a bath together and plot their revenge on Haldir.

Gannicus looks like he's trying to meditate, sitting cross-legged and staring out into space. Crixus encourages Spartacus to try to recruit him, so Spartacus does the only thing he knows how to do (other than kill people) - he speechifies for a bit. Crixus and Number One are bored enough to start a fight in the back rows. Spartacus was thinking of staying near Vesuvius, but No 1 now wants to head for Naples.

Spartacus takes Gannicus out hunting so he can quiz him over DSG. Gannicus points out he passed up the chance to claim a reward for killing Spartacus and lost his proof of his freedom in the arena. Spartacus lets on his dead wife is the reason he's trying to declare war on all Romans and Gannicus is even less impressed with Spartacus than he already was.

Haldir's latest plan is to see if Xena can get knowledge or help from the gods. Seppius is (understandably) not impressed by this plan. Seppius snubs Haldir, but at Xena's prompting PH invites his sister, Gladiator Groupie, to stay in hopes that she'll sway him. Haldir is impressed and Xena reassures PH that they'll get out of the House of Death together. I bet as soon as the baby's born she kills PH and makes off with it.

He's got stubble and a facial scar now. That means he's Even Darker Than He Already Was.
(Let's face it, it's also a little bit sexier).

Gnomey Guy has gone to fetch an Egyptian from the bottom of a well. This is the sort of thing that happens on Spartacus.

Crazy Old Guy is teaching GF and some others archery. GF lectures New Blonde on the importance of making your own way in the world rather than relying on sexual partners. Gannicus and Crixus chat about which of them can piss higher up a wall (not literally, though I wouldn't put it past them) while Gannicus skins and prepares a big animal (boar?). Gannicus tells Crixus he should take Naevia away before she gets hurt again. DSG wakes up and is not pleased to see Gannicus, who is still guilting, of course, because when anyone on this show runs out of faces to smash or Egyptians to recover from wells, they guilt to pass the time.

Xena, PH and Gladiator Groupie have a little group therapy session over the post traumatic stress from seeing Spartacus in action. Xena imagines that John Hannah is patiently waiting for her on the shores of the afterlife. I bet he's not. I bet even in Heaven (if he managed to go in that direction) Batiatus would be finding some young woman of negotiable affection to have his way with. Haldir interrupts to persuade Gladiator Groupie to speak to her brother for him, and to perv on her a little bit, and she's vulnerable enough that this works. He then goes off to speak to Gnomey Guy

Naevia is playing with Crixus' sword in an ominous fashion. (Her trauma here is very real and understandable, but her lines about being a different person would be less distracting if she weren't being played by a different actress...) Luckily she has decided she wants to learn how to fight, rather than tending towards the suicidal.

Spartacus thinks Gannicus has betrayed him so he picks a fight. At which point it starts to rain, because Jupiter knows what fights are supposed to look like and so do TV directors. GF tries to stop New Blonde, who seems to be the actual traitor, from running away by wounding her, but kills her instead. Spartacus lets Gannicus go. No 1 and GF worry that Gannicus may be a threat and Spartacus says they have faced worse - at which point we smash cut to Gnomey Guy and his new minions murdering Seppius and his household while the soundtrack gets over-excited at the appearance of actual death and bloodshed (there are choirs again).

Haldir corners Seppius, who is bleeding on the floor, and taunts him with the knowledge that Gladiator Groupie will be staying with him at the House of Death from now on as he kills him. Gnomey Guy takes Seppius' armband - I bet that comes back to bite him in the backside later (Gladiator Groupie may yet learn to use a sword). End of episode.

Not a bad episode at all. This installment took some time to deal with some of the horrific things the show has been piling on its characters, which needed to be done. The fight between Spartacus and Gannicus at the end was totally devoid of tension if you know any of the history, and fairly devoid of it even if you don't know any history but have watched TV programmes before. Still, it was partly made up for by the less expected offing of Seppius at the end and the camera lingering on Gnomey Guy taking Seppius' distinctive armband, which will surely lead to his horrible death eventually. Having said that, Gnomey Guy was actually almost a little bit awesome in his fight at the beginning of the episode, so perhaps there's hope for him yet, before Gladiator Groupie skewers him like a stuck pig.

Just one lingering question - who on Earth was the Egyptian? Was I supposed to recognise him?!


Gnomey Guy (having just delivered a serious beat-down to several Roman soldiers): ...and I was considered lowest among the Brotherhood.

Gannicus: You have cock to rival Jupiter himself.

No 1 (re Gannicus): Were the Gauls not f***ing bad enough?!

Gannicus: I seek only wine.
Spartacus: We have none.
Gannicus: Then I truly am among the damned.
(I like Gannicus. I'll even overlook the historically inaccurate use of the concept of damnation for him).

Gladiator Groupie (to Paris Hilton, re Haldir): You are blessed to hold such a man.
Paris Hilton: The gods grant only what is deserved.
(The double meaning of 'deserved' is an old trick, but I like it).

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