Sunday, 29 April 2012

Fringe: Os

After getting a free DVD boxset when I subscribed to SFX magazine earlier this year, I've been working my way through seasons 2, 3 and 4 of Fringe (just in time to catch it's shortened final season with everyone else next year!). Few sci-fi and fantasy shows can get through three or more seasons without some kind of Classical reference popping up and I was delighted to see that Fringe was no exception.

(Some of this may not make much sense if you haven't seen Fringe. I've been deliberately vague about anything relating to the show's overall story arc, to avoid spoiling too much for anyone who hasn't seen it yet - up until the last paragraph, which is majorly spoilery, so don't read if you don't want to know. The show is worth a look, though it lost me a bit after, ironically, season 4's 'The End of All Things'. The moral here is, even if your cast includes one of the stars of The Lord of the Rings, it's still not a good idea to call an episode 'The End of all Things.')

'Os' is not, it has to be said, an especially good episode of Fringe. For one thing, we all have our personal limits for what we can or can't suspend disbelief for, and where the lines are drawn will depend partly on the nature of the show as well (for example I'll buy things in The X-Files, one of Fringe's obvious foreunners/inspirations, that I won't buy on Fringe, because The X-Files is based on the paranormal, not mad science). People floating around in the air is a bit close to the line for me - plus it looks a bit silly. (This is why the one plotline that totally lost me on this show, which I hope is not going to reappear in season 5, was the Porcupine Man. Utterly daft). The episode is also a bit clunky, and features a reveal at the end that both distracts from the rest of the episode, and means that some fairly significant character development was abruptly dropped and, so far, has yet to reappear.

What I did like about this episode, though, was its use of the myth of Icarus. The story of Daedalus and Icarus is one of the best-known Greco-Roman myths, and probably one of the most frequently referenced behind the all-time number one, Oedipus. Aside from overly obvious spaceship-naming (do not get on a spaceship called Icarus and fly towards the sun - it will not end well for you) the story is usually used to symbolise reaching too far in a quest for artistic or scientific achievement and suffering or even dying for it - 'flying too close to the sun'. Given that Fringe is based almost entirely on scientists destroying themselves and/or others (up to and including entire universes) in their quest for scientific advancement, it's just surprising it took them until season 3 to give the Icarus story a shout-out, really.

At first, it looks like Walter's direct references to the Icarus story in his dialogue are just a rather clunky way of trying to make the story more affecting. Formerly wheelchair-bound young men are becoming weightless, but if they don't stay tethered to the ground they'll float off into the atmosphere, in a literal rendition of the Icarus story - and if your story comes from a myth, this always gives it a level of kudos that stops the audience from saying 'hang on, seriously - floating people?' But then the story's resemblance to the Icarus myth is revealed to be even closer than just the flying thing, and that's where it gets more interesting, tapping into an aspect of the story that is often forgotten when it's reduced to the bare bones of 'don't over-reach or you might get burned'.

I can't help it - it looks silly. I draw the line in weird places.

Fringe is a show that is obsessed with relationships between fathers and sons and, more specifically, with the lengths to which fathers will go to protect or help their sons. (Other parent/child relationships get a look-in sometimes as well, and mothers and daughters start cropping up a bit in season 4, but fathers and sons is the focus). This is the driving force behind the show's overall mythology and it crops up in another context in season 3's 'The Abducted' and season 4's 'The Consultant' (though it's weirdly and inexplicably absent from the episodes following 'The End of All Things' - another dropped plotline that continues to annoy me!). At the end of 'Os', it's revealed that Stuart from Spin City has been experimenting on wheelchair-bound young men because he wants to help his own son, who is also confined to a wheelchair. It's at this point that Walter brings up Icarus again, not because of the rather obvious flying connection, but because the reason Daedalus built the wings in the first place was because he was trying to help his son, and the attempt backfired horribly.

In myth, the reason Daedalus built the wings was that he was being held prisoner on the island of Crete, and his son with him. He built the wings so that they could escape - so he wasn't just messing around with things we ought not to mess around with for the sake of Science, Art or the Betterment of Humankind, he was trying to achieve a specific goal to help his son (well, to help himself really, but his son too). In Ovid's version in the Metamorphoses, Ovid places an enormous amount of emphasis on Daedalus' love for his son, the tragedy of the boy (he's quite young in this version) getting carried away and killing himself, and Daedalus' grief at his son's death. Ovid then undercuts this by adding that the partridge uttered a cry of triumph, because the partridge was formerly Daedalus' young nephew Perdix, whom Daedalus murdered (except a goddess turned him into a partridge instead). This rather undercuts your sympathy for Daedalus, and implies that the death of Icarus may be the universe's way of restoring the balance after what Daedalus did to Perdix.

It's this aspect of the story - at least in Ovid's version, which is probably the best known - that really makes it a perfect fit for Fringe. Both Stuart from Spin City and Walter have worked on something to help their own son at the cost of the lives of other people's sons. In myth, Daedalus' callous treatment of someone else's son was balanced by the death of his own son, which is reflected in 'Os' when Stuart from Spin City metaphorically loses his own son as a direct result of his callous treatment of others. All this is, of course, building up to the climax of season 3, in which Walter's son has to die/be wiped out of existence/forced into another timeline/universe/whatever the heck was going on in the season 3 finale, to fix the damage Walter did trying to save him. Walter tells not-Stuart that the wings Daedalus gave Icarus ended up killing the boy anyway - just as his bringing Peter over from the other universe will ultimately 'kill' him. What I like about this is that it goes deeper into the story and pulls out layers from the myth that go beyond the usual 'don't over-reach or you'll get burned' message that gets mentioned so often. I always like it when more obscure or neglected elements of ancient myth are exploited in fresh ways, so for all the flaws in other aspects of the episode (for heaven's sake, just call it a katra already) that one line raised it from pretty bad to vaguely OK.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Rome: Death Mask

What with Spartacus and catching up on several major ancient world films, it's been quite a while since I've posted on Rome. When we left off, Brutus and Cassius had just met their ends at the Battle of Philippi, leaving Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus in control of Rome. We're approaching the point where things suddenly start to speed up due to the untimely cancellation of the series, but that will really start to take effect in episodes eight and especially nine - for the time being, we're still more or less on course. What this episode is especially memorable for is death of Servilia, which is dramatic to say the least.

We open with Servilia mourning the death of her son (Brutus) and refusing sleep, while her body slave tries to comfort her. The unfortunately-named Jocasta is weeping as well, because she's about to married off to Caesar's freedman, Posca. Atia has arranged the marriage for her, presumanbly as her final act of revenge against the poor girl for the whole orgy business. During the wedding, Antony eyes up the various attendant slave girls while Atia pesters him about marrying her (he puts her off by suggesting their wedding would have to be spectacular).

Events are interrupted by Servilia shouting at everyone from outside in the street. She's kneeling in the road while her body slave pours ashes over her head, chanting over and over again 'Atia of the Julii, I call for justice'. I'm sure the writers have dug up this little ritual from some ancient source somewhere, but I have to say it seems a bit implausible to me, and the longer it goes on, the more implausible it gets...

Eirene is refusing to have sex with Dodgy because she thinks it will be bad for their baby. The Godfather has much duller things on hie mind (if he's not careful I'll start calling him Boring again) and is making deals with various unsavoury-looking characters - one of whom is still working on seducing his eldest daughter using creepy-looking dolls.

That night, Servilia is still going in the dark and the rain outside Atia's house. By the following morning, Antony stumbles into a meeting with Octavian and Lepidus, horribly hungover from the wedding. Lepidus mentions that some people think the three of them are setting themselves up as tyrants, to which Antony says they should go look at Cicero's body parts nailed to the rostra - presumably to scare, rather than reassure, them. Octavian organises the splitting up of the Empire between the three of them. Antony gives Octavian Rome and the West and takes Egypt and the East. Octavian is not fooled by this apparently genourous offer, which gives him Gaul and the mob while Antony gets the money and grain supply, so the money is put in a single treasury and Lepidus gets given Africa to keep him happy (not including Egypt).

Servilia is, implausibly, still going and driving Atia mad (Atia also points out, quite correctly, that she wasn't the one who killed Brutus anyway).

Gaia refuses to obey Eirene's orders and when Eirene tries to hit her she physcially stops her so Eirene tells Dodgy to 'beat her dead', and he suggests that Eirene is somehow to blame, which doesn't go down well. Dodgy doesn't want to beat Gaia because she has some kind of relationship with one of their minions (it's very unclear whether he means the minion owns Gaia, or is just sleeping with her), but goes off to do it anyway. Gaia goes on about how Eirene is a mouse who doesn't deserve Dodgy while waving her breasts in his face. Long story short, it all ends in a violent sex scene including hitting, biting, scratching, gagging and whacking each other with pots. Gaia throws in some mad laughter for good measure. Dodgy feels guilty and insists it won't happen again, which disappoints Gaia, who threatens to misbehave again so he'll have to punish her some more. (At least she does correctly point out that he can have sex with his slaves as much as he wants, and Dodgy equally correctly replies that he can kill them too).

Over at Atia's (where for some reason everyone's eating at a tall table again), Servilia is still going, so Atia gives up and goes outside to confront her. Servilia, grey with ash by this time, curses Atia and then stabs herself, followed by her body slave, in front of the gathered crowd of people. Octavia buries her face, in case anyone remembers that they had a thing last season. 'Now that is an exit' remarks Antony.

Apparently mockery of Jews and their one god should be kept to an appropriate minimum because Herod is visiting. This is the young man who will eventually become Herod the Great, a character who could give even the nastiest, maddest, most bloodthirsty Roman emperors a run for their money. Rene Zagger does very well at projecting menace with very few lines, looking suitably ruthless and confident throughout. He asks Antony for help getting the throne of Judea in return for lots of gold and guarantees that he will keep the Jews in line. Posca demands a share of the gold but Antony refuses, as he wants to keep it all to himself - very bad idea. He needs Posca, who does much more actual work than most of the rest of them and whose loyalty to Caesar will not necessarily keep him tied to Antony.

Timon and his annoying brother are loitering, the brother yelling at Herod, whose monarchical ambitions he dislikes. Meanwhile, Maecenas is writing, while being fanned by a slave with a big feather fan. You can always tell how decadent or otherwise debauched a Roman or related character is by how much time he or she spends being fanned with big feather fans. Posca tells Maecenas about Antony and Herod's gold, in return for some money and anonymity.

Octvian is not impressed with this information. You can tell by the way he gets even more still and statuesque, and just chews his lip a bit. Maecenas claims he bought one of Herod's people, successfully protecting Posca, and Octavian demands his share. Octavian accuses Antony of trying to aggrandize himself, at which Antony pooints out that Octavian made his adoptive father a god, and therefore doesn't have much of a leg to stand on in that respect. General mud-slinging ensures, which Antony inevitably wins by yelling that he 'still f****ing your mother!'

Eirene is pleased with Gaia's behaviour since she was beaten and suggests Dodgy should beat her the same way every month, because TV writers love irony. The Godfather's eldest daughter sneaks out to meet her slimy boyfriend, whose friend (the rival making dodgy deals) has arranged to walk in on them. The daughter promises to do anything he wants as long as he doesn't tell the Godfather, so he gets her to spy on the Godfather for him.

Atia and Maecenas have got Octavian and Antony to sit down and hammer out some kind of agreement between them and Atia suggests that, to show everyone that they've made up and calm down the people, they should arrange a marriage between their two houses (meaning herself and Antony, of course). Antony agrees and Atia runs off in a state of exctiement, assuming this means all will go ahead as planned (and we get a quick shot of Octavia and Agrippa having sex, to remind us that that's happening).

Octavian stands and watches Antony and his mother having sex, which is pretty creepy. Atia natters on about their wedding and marriage while Antony tries to find a way to tell her the rather important information that he's not actually marrying her - he's marrying Octavia. The audience discovers this in the following scene, in which we hear the bride and groom making their wedding vows, before the camera pulls round to show us who they are. As Maecenas explains, since they're making a political alliance, Octavian wants to cement it by Antony and his wife having children together, and that's much more likely to happen with Octavia than with Atia. So they have a big plush wedding in which no one looks the slightest bit cheerful (except Maecenas), especially not Antony, Octavia, Atia or Agrippa. Maecenas observes that Atia seems to be genuinely in love with Antony, though he'd always thought she just wanted him for 'practical' reasons, and much of the audience is probably thinking the same thing.

Octavian tries to explain his thinking to Atia, adding that letting her marry her lover wouldn't be much of a statement of political unity, and Antony tries to placate her by saying Octavian wouldn't have anything else. Atia accuses Antony of loving power more than he loves her and does not respond very well to his insistence that he'll happily cheat on her daughter with her.

(Historically, Mark Antony married Octavia a couple of years later, but this has less to do with the series' cancellation and more to do with it's writing out his third wife, Fulvia, who went to war with Octavian while Antony was in Egypt, was defeated, and died a little later).

The wedding celebration moves out into the street, where there is a dancing man painted blue for some reason. Timon's brother wants to assassinate Herod, who is walking in the procession, but Timon refuses because he's fed up of killing, and then ends up killing his annoying brother in the ensuing struggle. How ironic.

Antony and Octavia finally make it to their marital bed, where Octavia lies - well, forward, actually - and thinks of Rome while Antony decides he might as well make the best of things. Atia wanders out into the street hearing Servilia's voice in her head and presumably wondering if the curse is taking effect. Meanwhile, Gaia buys an abortificant drug from a woman who helpfully tells her she won't taste it if she takes it in willow tea. End of episode. There's a character called 'pontifex maximus' in the cast list, which is inaccurate by the way - Lepidus was the pontifex maximus at this point.

This episode is largely about moving piece into position, and structured around two key scenes, the death of Servilia and the marriage of Antony and Octavia. Servilia's death is indeed quite an exit, suitably dramatic and memorable for a major character. The way she does it is so utterly over the top you certainly don't forget it in a hurry, but it's saved from becoming totally laughable by Lindsay Duncan's performance. Duncan absolutely sells the whole thing, completely committed, so that we believe that Servilia is absolutely committed to this curse - or, at the very least, final public humiliation for Atia. It's a fitting end to such a melodramatic character.

The use of Jocasta and Posca's wedding at the beginning to familiarise us with the wedding rites, so that the suspense over Antony's wedding can be dragged out as long as possible, is quite clever. The whole scene revolves around emphasising as much as possible the extent to which Octavian has hurt and betrayed his mother, demonstrating both his absolute ruthlessness and bringing out her softer side - as Maecenas observes, she obviously really does love Mark Antony, something that was far from clear in season 1 but has become increasingly obvious over season 2. Octavia and Agrippa get some screentime as well, but for the moment this is much more about poor Atia, who becomes giddy as a schoolgirl when she thinks she's finally for her way, and whose relationships with both Antony and Octavian are clearly permanently damaged by the end. Rather than the evil matriarch she started out as, she's becoming positively tragic. She's right when she tells Antony he loves power more than her, but the real tragedy is that he loves quite a lot of things more than her, and has never been quite as invested in their relationship as she was, though he obviously cares for her.

All in all then, this episode does what it needs to do to set things up for the end of the series, held together by two major scenes. It also more or less wraps up Timon's story, which is a relief because it was very boring, and sets up forthcoming disasters for Dodgy and the Godfather. A dramatic and interesting end to Servilia, but otherwise more exposition than anything else.

All Rome reviews

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard, 2011)

SPOILER ALERT The writers and director of this film have been asking journalists and reviewers not to give away any details of the film. Thing is, this blog is for semi-academic musings, and those aren't really doable without talking about the film (besides, I'm not a critic who went to a preview but a paying customer, and the film's been out a couple of weeks!)

Certainly, the best way to see The Cabin in the Woods is to know nothing about it, so if you haven't seen it yet, go away and don't come back until you have. All I'll tell you for the moment is that 1) it's a proper horror movie - expect gore, albeit in relatively small amounts (I'm not sure how much, I had my eyes covered) and 2) it's absolutely hilarious.

Of course, if you want to know what on earth the fuss is about but don't like horror movies, read on!

Actually, I have to confess, I wasn't massively surprised by any of the twists and turns in The Cabin in the Woods. Partly, this is because the writers very sensibly put our two office boys, clues to what's actually going on, right in the first scene, so you have some idea where it's going. But more importantly, one thing I did know about this film before I went in was that it was co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (a writer who worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel before writing Cloverfield). And boy, does it show, in various ways. The leads are a group of likeable teenagers. The dialogue is snappy (the presence of Bradley Whitford reminds us that Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon are the joint kings of snappy dialogue), and as I mentioned above, it's absolutely hilarious. The pseudo-military installation the last act of the movie takes place in is the Initiative from Buffy season 4, right down to the small cubic cells with big transparent windows. And the bad guys are a bunch of ancient demon-gods who've been around since who knows when, to whom a succession of teenagers must be sacrificed. All the revelations about what's really going on were very, very reminiscent of Buffy and Angel, especially the later seasons - the ones Goddard worked on.

Brother and I were both expecting something slightly more at the end. (Brother asked if there was a sequel and we agreed that, based especially on the final shot, Wrath of the Titans would actually make quite a good sequel, though it's a vastly inferior movie). We both thought that the brief reference to interference from 'upstairs' implied that in addition to the obviously unpleasant ancient gods 'downstairs' (demons? the Devil?) there was some kind of good force, a god or gods that were rather more benign, 'upstairs'. We assumed that the 'upstairs' gods were trying to end the ritual sacrifices to appease the 'downstairs' gods in favour of a more permanent solution (locking them up in Tartarus, perhaps? Killing them? Ignoring them until they go away? We don't know). In the end, the movie seemed to imply that this wasn't the case, and that the world was indeed doomed, but we like to think there was a Perseus or a Buffy just round the corner, ready to save the day.

The movie makes vague references to the ritual sacrifice of the young in many cultures, across the whole of history. In the Classical world, this only happened in myth (if there was any human sacrifice in the Classical world, it was of, e.g., defeated Gauls, criminals etc). In these myths, often, the young person or persons would have to be sacrificed because of a mistake the parents had made, and often they were sacrificed to a standard god who would be nice again once this particular offence had been sorted out. These myths, several scholars have argued, are explanatory myths that come from initiation rituals, where a young person goes through a symbolic death of childhood before marrying (girls) or becoming an adult male (boys, obviously). The classic example is Iphigenia: her father Agamemnon angers Artemis, so she must be sacrificed at a fake wedding ceremony, becoming a focal mythic figure for young girls on the point of marriage.

The best known group sacrifice from Classical mythology would probably be that of the children sent to be eaten (were they eaten? killed, anyway) by the Minotaur on Crete. The Minotaur exists because of the lust of the queen Pasiphae, and the children/youths/virgins must be sacrificed to keep him content. This would be the closest to the ritual portrayed here, and may have been part of the inspiration for it, but there's still that central difference that the Minotaur existed because of human wrongdoing (and was perfectly killable), whereas here. the implication is that the ancient gods exist independently of humans and may even pre-date them.

Of course, you could argue that any execution or fight to the death in the arena in Rome was a ritual sacrifice, which brings me to another point. This film was made a couple of years ago but there were financial and distribution problems, so it's ended up coming out just a month after The Hunger Games, with which it shares some themes. The constant references to voyeurism throughout the film and the importance of creating a good show (it's unclear who the show is for - either the gods or Sigourney Weaver) and the rather twisted method of having the kids choose how they die is all very reminiscent of throwing a bunch of teenagers in an arena and watching them fight it out (and by the way I still haven't seen Battle Royale, but I'm sure Whedon and Goddard have). The weird area the kids are trapped in is definitely reminiscent of a Hunger Games arena, and this film asks similar questions about how healthy or right it is to enjoy watching people struggle, making bets on how someone will die (it makes a direct reference to reality TV, and later Brother pointed out that all reality TV shows in which a group of people get whittled down to one winner are, essentially, somewhat gladiatorial).

The difference here though is that, while The Hunger Games refers directly to the idea that we are one step away from watching people die for our entertainment, as the Romans did, The Cabin in the Woods is much more about our habit of enjoying watching people pretend to die in horror movies - which clearly isn't quite as dire, though perhaps it's still worth wondering every now and again exactly what we're enjoying (I wonder how Goddard and Whedon feel about torture porn... actually I know the answer to that - Whedon mentioned in an interview in SFX magazine that he doesn't like it). The movie asks us to think about how healthy our attitudes to horror and to the victims in horror movies are (especially the oft-noted attitude towards blonde girls who have sex), and suggests we might want to re-think some of the cultural values these films reinforce.

Having said that, the writers obviously also love their horror, and the references to practically everything in the horror genre were great and very funny - and I'm not all that into horror, so I can't have caught more than half of them (though I was quite proud of catching 'We are not who we are', since I haven't even seen that film). I was mildly disappointed that, of all the possible horrible deaths our gang could have gone for, we ended up with zombies - I know they're very 'in' at the moment, but I just can't get that interested in zombies. I much prefer a good ghost story, or a scary vampire. (I really want to know what the locket the disturbingly-named Jules was about to put on would have conjured up).

The good thing about the zombies from my point of view, of course, was that they were summoned by reading Latin. Genre-savvy Marty begging (ironically-named?) Dana not to read the Latin was a joke straight out of Buffy (or The Mummy), but Brother and I laughed, and it's always good to hear a bit of Latin. If you want a magic spell or mystical incantation, Latin is your language. I also liked the sexy guy reading the Latin later on. Fifteen to twenty years ago, there would be one unattractive, nerdy character who might know Latin and who would probably die halfway through (or if he's lucky, halfway through the sequel). Now, though, being geeky (and wearing hot glasses) is more cool, so there's a stoner to play the nerdy role, and the sexy guy gets to be intelligent and read Latin (loved the bit about how the blonde hair dye is actually destroying Jules' intelligence as well).

There was a definite sense of Joseph Campbell and the idea of the mythic archetype around the roles assigned to the kids, but ultimately most of them are archetypes specifically from Western horror fiction and film, not of literature in general. The Fool is well known as an apparently universal archetype, and I guess you could make a case for the Whore. But this version of the Virgin seemed to me to be more the Final Girl of horror movies, signified by her little panties in her first scene that mark her out as playing the Sigourney Weaver role from Alien, with the anvil hammered in when Weaver actually turns up at the end. Similarly, I suppose the Athlete and the Scholar might be fairly universal, but these versions seemed more to be the classic version of the Jock and an updated, sexy Nerd from American horror.

Brother and I both really enjoyed this film, and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys horror movies (though if you're reading this, I hope you've already seen it!). It's totally mad, but since I thought it was quite possibly the funniest thing I've seen so far this year, I was OK with that (and it was such a Buffy-type of madness, I guess it didn't seem that strange to me). I loved all the random little extra touches, from the Japanese girls who manage to defeat the evil wet-haired girl ghost to Tom Lenk (who played Andrew on Buffy), as an intern, seen in the bottom corner on a TV screen as all heck breaks loose in the facility, holding up cards with something written on them. And whatever the writers intended, I like to think the world didn't end at the end of the film. I'm sure Percy Jackson can take care of it...

More movie reviews

Friday, 20 April 2012

Yes Minister: The Greasy Pole

Another classic bit of poking fun at Classics and Classicists from Yes, Minister. Like most Classics-based jokes in this series, much of the humour here comes from the idea that knowledge of Classics is an entry ticket into Britain's elite, but otherwise almost completely useless.

In this episode, Minister for Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker wants to authorise the opening of a new chemical plant, which will use a chemical called metadioxin. This has upset the local MP from the plant location, because the name of the chemical sounds like a toxic chemical, dioxin, of which metadioxin is an inert compound. The following conversation takes place:

Unfortunately, this clip leaves out the funniest bit, which comes just after; the MP asks what 'inert' means and Sir Humphrey replies that 'it means it's not... ert.' He explains that he doesn't know any chemistry because he went to school on a Classics scholarship (which is an interesting tidbit about Humphrey's background in itself). (I should add that my Double Science GCSE did teach me enough to have a vague idea what 'inert' means).

Hacker's non-Classics-based education at the LSE doesn't come up during this conversation but don't worry, Bernard brings it up later in the episode.

Once again, Yes, Minister demonstrates how entrenched Classics was in the functioning of the British political elite (and may still be - I like to think things have changed, but given that almost nothing in British politics has changed since Yes, Minister was made, probably not). Humphrey and Bernard, Oxbridge-educated, sneer at Hacker and his colleague over their lack of Classical knowledge and use it as a tool to reinforce their own sense of superiority. However, as always, their efforts are undercut by the complete practical uselessness of the subject. They may know all there is to know about the ablative, but they have absolutely no idea what the chemical they're planning to expose half of Merseyside to actually is.

This episode does highlight one area in which Classics is, perhaps unexpectedly, useful, though. Some years ago, I was made reserve for Birmingham's University Challenge team. University Challenge is a British quiz show in which teams from different universities (or, somewhat to the annoyance of the rest of us, just different Oxford and Cambridge colleges) compete against each other. I think the idea was to test whether university students were really learning anything, but as far as testing what you learn on a degree goes, the show is completely irrelevant, because what it actually tests is general factual knowledge. If you take an Arts and Humanities degree, you're not actually there to learn when Caesar was assassinated or how many books Charles Dickens wrote - you're learning how to read a document or novel or painting etc and analyse why it's written the way it is, how different people read it and to learn why you should never trust any supposedly accurate report of anything ever. I don't know much about Science degrees, but I assume they teach you how to formulate and test hypotheses, not just the names of all the chemicals.

Anyway, what University Challenge tests is factual knowledge. The questions are sometimes a little biased towards the Arts and Humanities, which may seem rather unfair, but there is a reason for it. Each team has only four members, so you're not likely to have someone from every field of science (though you could perhaps have, broadly, a chemist, a physicist, a biologist and a medical student or something like that). When it comes to general knowledge, a scientist is much more likely to happen to know something about Shakespeare than an English Literature student is to know something about the inert gases (see, I do remember something from my GCSEs!).

The University of Birmingham University Challenge team, 2007

There are some science-based questions though - and that's why, quite frequently, at least one member of the team will be a Classicist. It's certainly how I managed to become reserve team member. You see, sometimes, the question will ask something about a Greek letter, or about the meaning of a word made partly of Greek and Latin - and if you're a Classicist, you can make a decent guess at the answer (especially if it's 'which Greek letter is used to stand for "micro"' or something like that). Humphrey makes a bit of a hash of 'metadioxin' here, partly because he over-thinks it, and partly because in this particular case the Greek word doesn't seem to bear much relation to the thing it's naming (though presumably it is a compound including dioxin, so 'with dioxin'). But on the whole, this can be quite an effective strategy, and can cover a good few science questions even if you don't have a scientist on your team.

So the moral of the story is, Classics is not necessarily overly useful in terms of understanding how chemistry works, but it comes in handy in any kind of general knowledge-based quiz!

Yes, Minister: The Bed of Nails
Yes, Prime Minister: The National Education Service

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Alexander (dir. Oliver Stone, 2004)

I don't quite know what to say about Alexander. I feel vaguely like there's a good film trying to get out, somehow - but it hasn't quite managed it.

The portrayal of Olympias is interesting. Her relationship with Philip is perfectly plausible and actually fairly intriguing, but it's the emphasis on her as foreign and exotic that's noteworthy. The business with the snakes is presumably inspired by the stories about Philip seeing her sleeping by a snake around the time she conceived Alexander - which were meant to imply that Alexander was the son of a god, usually Zeus. She's portrayed as foreign and exotic, with a pseudo-mid-European accent (as opposed to all the others who have... Irish accents. Hmm. I'll get to that). But although young Alexander refers to all of them as Greeks, Olympias is actually the only Greek - the others are all Macedonians. Since Aristotle, also Greek, has an English accent, logically, so should Olympias (though to be fair, she may have been from a different city-state, I can't remember offhand). In Greek terms, everyone else are the barbarians - she's the Greek. That wouldn't fit Stone's insistence of filming her as an exotic, almost witch-like villainess though. She insists that Alexander is Zeus' son, whereas in reality it's more likely he came up with that idea, or it seems that way to me anyway.

The use of Irish accents for the Macedonians, presuambly resulting from Colin Farrell having trouble doing anything else, results in some rather unfortunate playing into stereotypes. Just as the Greeks characterised Macedonians as semi-barbaric, alcoholic, violently-inclined thugs, as Val Kilmer as Philip literarlly throws Olympias around in a drunken rage, with red hair and bellowing in an Irish accent, the portrayal plays into all those stereotypes of the Irish that Americans seem so fond of. I suppose I should admire the synchronicity of the way the ancient Greek prejudice against Macedonians is directly reflected in the modern prejudice against the Irish, the two nations both related, both speaking the same language but it different dialects, the one displaying a certain scorn towards the other. But, being more-than-half-Irish myself, I just find it annoying I'm afraid.

This film is very oddly structured. It entirely skips over Alexander's conquest of Greece and Egypt, heading straight to the battle of Gaugamela and the conquest of Persia. Military history isn't really my forte, so my reaction to the battle of Gaugamela is as follows - yay, camels! And shouldn't the Greek hoplites be standing closer together? Also, there seems to be more blood in the hospital after the battle than during the battle itself.

I quite like the scenes showing Philip and Alexander bonding a little bit, as Philip teaches him some particularly pertinant Greek myths (Oedpius! Medea! I wonder how they may turn out to be relevant to the plot...). Some of the wall paintings Philip shows Alexander look weirdly like they're styled afrter Picasso or something though, which is odd. The interpretation of Achilles and Patroclus' relationship as described in the film fits how it was interpreted in classical Athens, so accurate historically (though I disagree on the interpretation of Homer).

Ptolemy asks why Alexander took Roxanna as his wife and the audience want to ask the same thing - he's had a big row with his mates about her, but she hasn't had so much as a line of dialogue at that point to show us why he's so taken with her. We've been told she loves him and he seems strangely obsessed with her, but all we've seen them do together is he's watched her dance. They have a less close relationship than Herod Antipas and Salome. Surely it wouldn't have been too much to hear a single conversation between them, or see them relate to each other in some way before Alexander marries her against advice and much to the chagrin of Hephaestion?

I rather like the story between Alexander and Hephaestion, a tragic love story in which they love each other but Hephaestion has to be cast aside for a woman who can bear him sons (hopefully). It's not entirely appropriate for an ancient Greek context, of course. In Classical Greece, a man could marry and have a wife and sons, and have a homosexual relationship with another man alongside quite happily. In Athens, it would be expected that these relationships would only be with younger men, teenagers, but perhaps in other cities, like Sparta, it could be with men of the same age. The ancient world did not have separate terms for 'heterosexual', 'homosexual', 'bisexual' and so on. There was sex - you have it with wives to produce children, with captives to demonstrate power, with boys/men (depending on city-state) for love/lust/affection. Or you're Plato and you try to argue for the superiority of a meeting of minds.

The bit where everything gets tinted red is pretty weird, but I think it's supposed to symbolise Alexander's disoriented state after being shot. Or something (I'm watching the director's cut). Certainly, Ptolemy solemly tells us it was Alexander's bloodiest battle (except it looks kind of pink, so essentially it seems to suggest that Alexander's army is made up of Klingons). I think Stone might be trying to tell a story about hubris - but hubris in the modern sense, as in terrible pride before a big fall (hubris in an ancient Greek context is very hard to define, but refers broadly to a crime against the gods, that dishonours the gods as well as human beings).

The trouble with this film is, it's far too long, the structure is confusing and none of the characters are really likeable enough to hold the interest. By the time you get to the end, you just want first Hephaestion and then Alexander to just die already (and what's he dying of anyway? Syphilis?). The fact the story was told by Ptolemy is kind of nice, as it was his account that was a major source for the surviving biographies, of Arrian in particular. But that's not enough to save it from it's central problem of being just a bit dull. Which, considering it's about a man who conquered half the known world by the age of 33, is probably unforgivable. And I haven't even mentioned that wig...

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Saturday, 14 April 2012

Top Five Parties for Grown Ups

Or orgies, obviously, but I figured I'd be a bit cautious with the title - after all, I also review children's literature on this blog.

At the CA conference this week, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Jo Paul and Monica Cyrino delivered a fascinating panel on the history of orgies on screen. Lloyd pointed out that the tradition of the screen orgy started with Biblical films' portrayals of Babylon, but became part of popular culture's view of Rome through early films like The Sign of the Cross, focused on Nero's court. (None of the orgies popular culture is so fond of are really historical - there are some rumours about exciting goings-on during Bacchic rituals and some Greek vases depict scenes of group sex at drinking parties, but nothing to match the institutionalised orgy film and TV like to imagine existed in Rome. If there ever were that many orgies, they probably took place in Greece, that's where the pots come from).

These days the orgy is found most often, though not exclusively, in a Roman setting, and it's practically obligatory to include one in any film or TV series aimed at anyone over the age of fifteen (there are no orgies in The Roman Mysteries, I'm glad to say. Just a couple of people 'very kissing'). These five are some of the most interesting, extreme or plain funny.

5. Rome, 'Heroes of the Republic'
Context: While Octavian is busy taking over the world, his friend Maecenas and his sister Octavia are living it up at what is, perhaps surprisingly, Rome's only full-on Roman orgy.
Any historical basis to it? No, not really. Maecenas was pretty fond of poetry and probably of parties, but orgies is taking it a bit far.
No Sex Please, We're British! Romans usually speak The Queen's Latin, so the Roman orgy is in some ways an example of British characters engaging in all sorts of sexual naughtiness combined with excessive luxury, just without the need to pretend it didn't happen the next morning. In this particular case, however, although sex seems to be happening, it isn't really the main point of the scene. The focus is more on the orgy as a conduit for teenage rebellion, and rather than sleeping with the other guests, Octavia is indulging in drugs that seem to have a similar effect to LSD (the walls are melting). It's really more of a hippie vibe than the usual orgy - free love and sex is definitely happening, but the drugs and general air of letting go are more important for the development of Octavia's character.
Should I RSVP? It doesn't look that exciting a party, really. The best thing about this orgy, and the reason it makes the list, is the scene that follows, as Agrippa drags Octavia home and she has to admit 'I was at an orgy, Mother.'

4. True Blood, 'Shake and Fingerpop' and season 2 in general
Context: Maryann the several-thousand-year-old maenad exerts her influence over nearly everyone in the town of Bon Temps, causing them to put in black contact lenses and have lots of fully naked outdoors sex with each other.
Any historical basis to it? More than most, as there were various rumours about what maenads got up to and they had a bit of a reputation. The ancients probably exaggerated though, for the same reasons we do, and since the cult of Bacchus/Dionysus was a mystery cult, we'll never know for sure.
No Sex Please, We're British! These aren't British, they're American (though presumably Maryann was originally Greek). And they have lots and lots of sex. There's so much nudity you become immune to it pretty quickly and the whole thing has a rather nasty, cheap feel, made worse by the fact that, since they don't know what they're doing and haven't given consent, the whole town is essentially being raped together.
Should I RSVP? Depends on your preferences, really. If you'd like to have sex with several of your neighbours in someone's back garden, sure. Otherwise, no.

3. Chelmsford 123, 'Peeled Grapes and Pedicures'
Context: The Britons have heard about the feast of Saturnalia, and decide it's time to enjoy some of the benefits of being occupied by the Romans.
Any historical basis to it? The Saturnalia was an opportunity for drinking, feasting and giving the slaves a night off, but the Romans were no more likely to use it as an excuse for a sex party than modern Westerners are to decide to indulge in a key party for Christmas.
No Sex Please, We're British! Actually, lots of sex please, we're British! This episode exploits the other side of the British-Sex-Stereotypes coin, drawing on the tradition of drunken British louts and losers out to get some that comes from 1960s sex comedies, 1980s and 1990s laddish comedies and, well, the behaviour of quite a lot of British young people in Ibiza. This episode is as much about British tropes as Roman ones, which makes it quite a nice subversion of the tradition of the orgy, in a way. And a British sit-com set in ancient Rome could hardly avoid having an orgy at some point.
Should I RSVP? Not if you're a Roman, as Badvok will take advantage of the holiday to depose you and make himself King.

2. Spartacus Blood and Sand, 'The Red Serpent' onwards
Context: We meet Batiatus and Lucretia, in the middle of an orgy. The first of many.
Any historical basis to it? There's no evidence pointing to lanistas using their homes as party-houses/very cheap brothels in an attempt to get more sponsorship for their gladiators, no. On the other hand, there's not much evidence about lanistas' private lies at all, as the elite authors weren't all that interested in them, so who knows?
No Sex Please, We're British! There's lots of sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. Interestingly, in the prequel series Gods of the Arena, we see a much more contained Lucretia and Batiatus, more likely to engage in a private threesome with only their slaves to watch, and Lucretia displays extreme reluctance when ordered to pimp out her slaves to rich callers as if she was a madam and they were prostitutes. The rape of her slaves is also depicted as thoroughly unpleasant. In this first season, though, the slaves are used all the time with little concern for their welfare and Lucretia and Batiatus seem quite happy for their home to resemble a brothel. This seems to be a combination of in-story character development (Lucretia and Batiatus are slowly increasingly corrupted in their desperate attempts to satisfy their ambitions) and external show-running (perhaps it occurred to the writers that they really ought to take the constant sexual abuse of the slave characters a bit more seriously).
Should I RSVP? Again, it depends on your tastes. If you're a slave, you're probably better off slaughtering Batiatus and his family and starting a rebellion.

1. I, Claudius, 'Hail Who?'
Context: Caligula, increasingly unbalanced, opens a brothel in the Imperial Palace. Attendance is mandatory.
Any historical basis to it? Suetonius says Caligula opened a brothel in the Palace to make money. But to be fair, Suetonius says a lot of things. He's a big old gossip.
No Sex Please, We're British! There's lots of sex (shown through kissing and the removal of clothes, because this is the 1970s, but you get the gist). Not everyone is happy about it though.
Should I RSVP? I wouldn't. This scene is top of the list because, while the others represent antiquity as a hotbed of sin and vice for the audience to enjoy vicariously, the orgy here is a traumatic event and a sign of the instability of the regime, coming at the beginning of the episode in which Caligula is assassinated. Where other films and shows revel in the mad emperor as an excuse to see some flesh and indulge in sexual fantasies, I, Claudius presents Caligula as a rather sad, though undeniably dangerous, figure. His orgy is half full of people who want to be there, but the other half are forced to be there, including a woman, rescued by Claudius, who's only just given birth, which is pretty disturbing (and this was pre-Spartacus: Blood and Sand, of course). The atonal music in the background, the content that, for the 1970s, was fairly shocking and Caligula's absolutely unhinged threats to Claudius and others make this a party you do not want to attend.

(Dis)Honourable mention: I haven't seen Caligula. I'm sure the orgies in that film are... quite something.

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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Titanic (dir. James Cameron, 1997) (in 3D)

There's a decent risk that the following admission will lose me a whole pile of blog readers on the spot - Titanic is one of my favourite movies of all time. This isn't like the equally-worrying admission that I'd read Twilight, I'm afraid - that was a guilty pleasure, a piece of candy as Cleolinda Jones would say, the demerits of which I am more than happy to discuss at length. No, this is more like my well-publicised love for Star Trek: Voyager. Except even that, I am willing to admit, might have a few flaws. Titanic, however, was my very first cinema love, that film that blew me away, that turned me into someone who goes to the cinema any week she can rather than someone who'd only seen five films at the cinema in her entire life up to that point. I genuinely believe that Titanic is a great film which suffered an unfortunate backlash thanks to excessive success (no one likes to see someone else doing that well, except perhaps Star Wars fans) and, in my generation's case, a certain level of embarrassment among the girls because this film was the high point of Leonardo DiCaprio-mania, and among the boys, at the very idea of a soppy film starring Leonardo DiCaprio having any merit whatsoever. (DiCaprio himself had to more or less disappear for a while, poking his head up only to make The Beach, though all is forgotten now thanks to Gangs of New York, Inception et al).

Anyway, with the 100th anniversary of the sailing of the Titanic yesterday and the centenary of the sinking coming up on Saturday/Sunday (officially the 15th, but who really thinks of 2am as belonging to the following day?!), Titanic has been re-released in glorious, slightly colour-desaturated 3D. I'm not entirely convinced of the merits of 3D, but I thought Cameron had done a pretty good job here (hardly surprising from the man who made Avatar). All those fabulous shots of the ship sailing/sinking on the ocean look much the same, but smaller scenes made an impact, and there was one especially dizzying shot from the stern as it bobs about at right angles to the water, looking down past the rail to the propellers, the falling people and, eventually, the water that was especially impressive.

For me, though, it wasn't the 3D that especially drove me to the cinema to see it, though I enjoyed it and was curious about it - it was simply the chance to see the film on the big screen again. Titanic is a truly cinematic film and, as much as I love my well-worn DVD (replacing an even-more-worn VHS tape) it just can't compare to the cinema. The sound is something I'd forgotten about over the years - I don't have surround sound at home and the sheer immersiveness of hearing the ship creak and groan around you in the cinema is fantastic. The huge size of the ship is that much more impressive on the big screen and once it starts sinking, you become totally captivated in a way it's hard to replicate at home. Some of the individual shots, particularly of people drowning as the glass ceiling at the grand staircase crashes in, that I've become so used to from basically memorising the entire film over the years, regained a power and effectiveness they don't have in my living room. And when it's dark and you're wearing 3D glasses, it's harder for people to see you bawling like a baby at the screen.

They should really hire me to make those anti-piracy adverts for the wonder of cinema they keep showing before every film, huh?!

Anyway, the, ahem 'reason' (for which read, 'excuse') for blogging this film comes from the music the band play while the ship is sinking. Not 'Nearer My God To Thee,' which Brother reliably informs me is the wrong tune in this film (they play the American melody for the hymn, not the British one, which is featured in A Night to Remember and in our grandmother's old hymnal from the 1920s or 1930s). Earlier on in the film, while the boats are being loaded, the band play more upbeat music, to keep themselves warm and try to lighten the mood. One member wonders if anyone's listening and their leader, Wallace Hartley, encourages them to keep playing anyway. He tells them what to play next - 'Orpheus'.

The full title of the work this music comes from is 'Orpheus in the Underworld', by J. Offenbach, an operetta (which is, um a short opera. I think. Brother is currently unavailable to ask!). I'm not familiar with the operetta, though a quick glance at Wikipedia makes it look fascinating (there's a character called Public Opinion, and Orpheus and Eurydice hate each other). This specific section, 'the Gallop', is better known as the music for the can-can, and is lively, upbeat and cheerful, as all the music the band played except the last hymn was, to keep people's spirits up. There's a reason, though, that Cameron chooses this piece of music to be named by Hartley in the film, to draw attention to this piece among all the others (even 'Nearer My God To Thee' doesn't get name-checked, though perhaps it was thought to be famous enough anyway). And that reason is, of course, the myth of Orpheus.

I don't think the plot of the operetta is relevant here. The music is famous and the myth is famous but the specific plot of the operetta is not, so I don't think we need to worry about that too much. This is a clear reference to the broad outline of the myth of Orpheus, who goes down into the underworld to save his wife, but fails at the last hurdle. As well as being appropriate to the moment it occurs in the film (referred to as 'music to drown by' by Tommy Ryan as our heroes rush past the band) this has obvious thematic similarities with the overall story. Going down to the depths to retrieve someone you love, or pulling someone back from death, happens so often in this film it's almost a motif. When Jack and Rose meet, she is about to plunge down to the underworld, but he pulls her back. During the earlier part of the sinking, Rose descends into the bowels of the ship to retrieve Jack (though she will ultimately be unable to save him). Even Cal walks away from a boat and assured survival to go and get Rose, though possibly with slightly different motivations, and he dooms his valet rather than himself by doing so. And Rose is finally saved by the one man who comes back into the realm of the dead, surrounded by floating bodies, to pull her out and take her back to the living. The attention drawn to the fact that the music the band is playing was written for the story of Orpheus is not just a one-off joke, but a statement about one of the main themes of the film.

If you've never seen Titanic, give it a go while it's back in cinemas. OK, I'll admit, it's rather long (I went to the bathroom during Cal and Rose's fight, Brother during the discussion of lifeboat numbers shortly afterwards - just don't miss the soppy but iconic 'flying scene' right after that!). And it's deeply, melodramatically, romantic, and despite the film-makers best efforts, peppered with historical inaccuracies like the tune of 'Nearer My God To Thee', deliberate practical inaccuracies like the use of electric torches and dubious bits of artistic licence like the death of First Officer Murdoch (which Cameron actually said on the DVD commentary he slightly regrets, due to the hurt caused to Murdoch's family). And I was obsessed with A Night to Remember as a child, so maybe I just have a strange, morbid fascination with sinking ships and icebergs. But whatever you think of the film, it can't be denied that in the late '90s it was a cultural phenomenon and is therefore of some concern to anyone with an interest in popular culture, and you never know - you might be pleasantly surprised!

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Thursday, 5 April 2012

Spartacus Vengeance: Wrath of the Gods

Spartacus' season finale is Dark. Literally - the sun was reflecting off the screen and I had trouble seeing what was happening at first.

As we open, despite their rather desperate situation, GirlFriend seems to have some faith in Spartacus still, jibes about his 'next woman' aside. Aw, sweet.

Gnomey has started regrowing his little beard again. Perhaps it's a Beard of Sorrow over the fact that Xena will never love him. Spartacus, Gannicus, GirlFriend et al save some of the Germans from Gnomey and his minions but GirlFriend becomes the first significant casualty of the finale, axed to death and expiring in Spartacus' arms. That saves me needing to come up with a new nickname for her (or start using her actual name). Spartacus decides he blames some random, while Some Random points out the whole thing is Spartacus' fault in the first place and they're all going to starve anyway if they don't move.

Spartacus decides the answer is to speechify for a bit about their advantages (higher ground) while DSG slightly more convincingly, if not more cheerfully, says you're never too weak to fight if the cause is worth more than your life. Spartacus insists on having the last word because he wants to squeeze a reference to the title 'Vengeance' in there. Meanwhile, Haldir kills one of the Germans who may have had some lines over the last few weeks.

Xena and PH seems to be heading for Rome - or Vesuvius - or Capua - or something. I'm genuinely not sure at this point. They're in a wagon anyway. Paris Hilton had suddenly rediscovered her affection for her husband since they killed a young woman together, and she assures Xena that she'll talk Haldir into arranging a dowry for her. Xena explains that actually Haldir has already promised her to Gnomey, but she plans to murder him (Gnomey, presumably) at Vesuvius. Which seems to be where they're going, en route to Rome. I'm with Xena, that's an insane plan.

Gannicus and some other random have a lovely conversation about exactly how long it will be before GirlFriend's body decomposes (the ground is too hard to bury it). Spartacus is feeling rather gloomy and is all out of bright ideas for how to surprise the Romans and it is generally agreed that they're all doomed. Doomed! Dooooomed!

Gnomey is waxing lyrical about the House of Ashur. He's interrupted by Paris Hilton and Xena (so... they were going home?). Haldir is more pleased to see her than he's been at.. anything really, since the series began. They really do make a great evil couple. He correctly points out that travelling around when she's about to pop is bonkers. On the other hand, she has a point about not wanting to give birth in the House of Death. Haldir says he can't defeat Spartacus without severe loss of men and Paris Hilton decides this is no reason to hesitate, so mass slaughter on both sides it is.

Before she goes, Paris Hilton tells Haldir that it was Gnomey who told Gladiator Groupie about her brother and set her on Haldir, because he wanted to get in with the late Varinius. Haldir's fine with getting rid of Gnomey, but he wants rid of Xena as well. Oops, that was a major backfire. This may come down to who Paris Hilton is hotter for, Haldir or Xena. That's probably a toss-up at this point, but I think Haldir will edge it.

Xena plays along with Gnomey, confident of his impending death (and if there's one thing I can confidently predict about this episode, I think that'll be it. Gnomey will be dead by the end of it). Haldir throws Seppius' bracelet at Gnomey's feet and accuses him outright, which naturally confuses Gnomey utterly. Gnomey offers to take his minions away, but Haldir offers the minions a big pile of money and of course they abandon Gnomey on the spot. Perhaps he should have speechified more.

Spartacus has finally been persuaded to do something abut GirlFriend's body but gets interrupted by the sudden appearance of Gnomey, offering terms for surrender, if they go back to being slaves (otherwise all survivors get crucified - which is of course what will eventually happen, but not for another couple of years). This offer of further slavery is not-so-politely refused but Crixus stops Gnomey on his way back (the 'oh bugger' look on his face as Crixus yells at him is really funny). Crixus decides their answer can be delivered in the form of Gnomey's head.

Since attacking unarmed men isn't Done, and since Gnomey is injured, Naevia decides she's going to despatch him herself in single combat, since he hurt her the most (and presumably she feels this is a fairer match, she not being a champion and all). Crixus is remarkably restrianed through the whole thing, though he looks fairly alarmed (and Spartacus looks like he's completely terrified on her behalf). Gnomey makes the classic mistake of thinking he's won while his opponent is still breathing and Naevia gets him in the balls, which is especially satisfying. Then she gets him in the throat, and somehow he's still talking. He's like a character in a musical who keeps singing while dying of tuberculosis. He manages one final taunt about his rape of Naevia before she chops his head off in three goes (at one point it dangles, like Nearly Headless Nick). There's a last panning shot of the bits of Gnomey on the ground, and he is finally gone.

Naevia looks extrememly pleased with herself, and Spartacus looked relieved. Crixus just looks shell-shocked. Spartacus is reinvigorated enough to go for another mad plan, which involves abandoning their only advantage, the higher ground.

Haldir is really quite pleased to see Gnomey's head brought back to him, which was exactly what he expected. Xena celebrates by chucking away the red wig he got her (she's wearing a very pretty dress in this scene. Maybe she's about to die in it). Xena waxes lyrical about how much she loves Paris Hilton,while standing unwisely on the balcony, oh-so-temptingly near the edge. Just as Paris Hilton is about to push her off, her waters break and she has to give up for the moment (baby-napping surely imminent now!)

Spartacus calls the most importnat characters with names to him (Number One/Agron, Gannicus and Crixus). Crixus cheerfully informs Naevia that they'll meet again soon, in this life or the next. Spartacus can't resist the urge to speechify once more before heading over a cliff, inventing the sport of abseiling. Gannicus and DSG have a moment. Aw. Spartacus reckons they're gods and the Romans will feel their wrath (have they been looking at the posters for Wrath of the Titans?)

Haldir fantasises about Spartacus' death while our heroes work their way through the Roman camp, starting with the sentries. Just as Haldir has produced a complete picture of his future bliss/world domination (he says 'I shall rise above all others' - no that's Caesar, he's coming next season) he sees Spartacus' signal to the rest of his men that it's time to attack.

Paris Hilton is stuck with Xena as a midwife because they don't seem to have a real one and the doctor went off somewhere, since the baby wasn't due for another few weeks. This is not going to end well.

Spartacus, Crixus, Gannicus and Number One stand and face Haldir and his whole army by themselves, which is pretty awssome (Gannicus' gleeful laughter is especially good). At this point, everyone else attacks the Romans from behind and out comes all the blood.

While Paris Hilton moans in an unconvincing way on the bed, Xena finally shows her true colours. She murders all the slaves, making a fantastic appearance in the doorway of Paris Hilton's bedroom, holding a bloody knife and with blood all over her pretty dress. She tells Paris Hilton there's no one left to come between them, looking impressively mad as she does so (it's the smile and the eyes). Xena explains that the baby is a gift from the gods to the House of Batiatus (ha! I knew it!). She goes on to perform a quick Caesarean section on Paris Hilton with the rather sinister note that she wants to unwrap the gift.

Lots of fighting, and DSG finally gets one wound too many. This is very upsetting. Gannicus agrees with me and goes into a battle frenzy which, naturally, involves damage to his enemies' faces. DSG tells Gannicus he and Wife will meet Gannicus in the afterlife, adding 'brother', and he croaks. That's going to be an uncomfortable postmortem reunion some day.

Poor Paris Hilton. I'm actually going to miss her, she'd got pretty interesting this season. And you can't help but feel sorry for her here.

Xena stalks off with the baby, still blood-spattered, while Paris Hilton crawls around on the floor, much as Xena did at the end of last season. Fighting continues while Xena stands dramatically on the cliff edge and Paris Hilton crawls towards her. Xena then somewhat unexpectedly throws both herself and the baby off the cliff - apparently the plan is bring Batiatus a son by plunging herself and the kid straight into the afterlife. Paris Hilton finally keels over.

Meanwhile, Haldir and Spartacus go mano a mano and, obviously, Spartacus kills Haldir. Sadface. They seem to have ended up back at the House of Death, somehow. Haldir points out that the Romans will send legions after him and Spartacus and his whole gang will all come to a sticky end eventually. Spartacus responds by stabbing him through the mouth because, obviously, face trauma has to be involved even though he'd already delivered a fatal body blow. Our heroes stand around in the House of Death while Spartacus speechifies about how they'll face all the legions of Rome. Everyone is very happy except Gannicus, who's just sort of mildly relieved (and possibly sane enough to know that that's not going to work as a plan). End of season.

Well, I always knew Haldir was going to die at the end of this season, but I was still sad to see it happen. I liked him. He was sexy. And he and Paris Hilton did not get nearly enough time to be gleefully evil together. Talking of whom, I wasn't overly surprised that she died (though I wouldn't have called it either way, she was a useful character) but I was surprised that after all that build-up, the baby died too. (Apparently. I wouldn't put it past this show to have the kid land on one of Xena's softer bits and improbably survive, but I think we should assume for the moment that it's dead). After going on and on about it all season, and including the revelation that it was Spartacus', it seems a strange waste to kill it off within minutes of birth. Maybe it really did manage some miracle survival...

I was very sorry to lose DSG. He's an historical character, but one we don't know anything about him beyond the fact he was a gladiator and he was one of Spartacus' subordinate officers, so the show had free reign to do what they wanted with him. I'm really going to miss him, though. The show will be the poorer without his awesomeness, his general sense of calm and the way he was able to project the idea that he actually knew what he was talking about some of the time.

GirlFriend's story had pretty much come to an end and Naevia is there to take over on the female ass-kicking front (plus German Blonde, who I am starting to think of as Glimmer from The Hunger Games, is still alive as well) so she was an obvious candidate to kill off. I hope, though, that the writers give up on their idea that Spartacus can never find happiness with another woman because he's still hung up on his wife. Howard Fast knew that this spectacularly depressing story needs something to provide some light and hope at the end of it, and Spartacus' wife and especially his child surviving him and escaping to freedom is how you pull it back from being the most depressing novel/film/television series ever made (except for maybe Das Boot. Or The Perfect Storm. Don't go to Wolfgang Petersen to be cheered up, is what I'm saying). I really hope Spartacus gets a proper love story with a better outcome next season.

Overall though, the rebels got off pretty lightly here (this will not always be the case...). They only lost GirlFriend, the German who may have had a few lines and DSG, plus Aurelia, Crazy Old Guy and the blonde woman in earlier episodes. All the other rebel deaths this season have been randoms. The Romans, on the other hand, have lost Haldir, Paris Hilton, Seppius, Gladiator Groupie, Daddy, Varinius, Xena, Gnomey Guy (if he counts as 'Roman') and that nasty rapist guy from Gods of the Arena. Basically, there isn't a single Roman character left that we know or care about. I think this may be something of a mistake - I would have left at least one alive to carry the story through to next season (probably Paris Hilton, annoying though she can be). Still, next season we get our introduction to Caesar and Crassus, so the boot will be on the other foot then. I very much doubt we'll see such a light body count (in terms of named characters) for our heroes from now on.

The most satisfying part of this episode by far was Naevia's fight with Gnomey Guy, which was awesome (and of course, I've been waiting to get shot of him for weeks!). I love Naevia and Crixus together, at least partly because theirs is the only romantic relationship that's been properly developed. I hope Naevia survives for a good while (preferably the whole series), we need someone to care about going forward. Also, Gannicus is awesome as ever (love his maniacal laugh going into a fight) and Xena's totally batsh*t insane look as she approached Paris Hilton, knife in hand, was pretty fabulous, only brought down by the narrative waste of her killing both the baby and herself.

All in all, a pretty good finale, but a little too high on the Roman body count for a show that needs to come back next season. Fortunately, Caesar and Crassus are safe (as long as Quentin Tarantino doesn't get his hands on an episode, I suppose!) so I look forward to at least three main characters (Spartacus, Caesar and Crassus) surviving the next season!

I'm going to take a few days off from blogging over Easter to go to church (a lot) and write a conference paper, so have a good holiday and I'll be back next week!


Crixus: To shit with honour!

Naevia, after Asher says killing him will not erase her memories: No, it will not, but it is a f*cking start!

Spartacus, after killing the Roman sentries: We must move quickly, before deed is discovered. Well duh.

Spartacus to Glaber, having been (correctly) informed of their eventual impending doom: Perhaps. Yet it is not this day.

Spartacus to Crixus: Now we wil become an army

All Spartacus reviews

Monday, 2 April 2012

Wrath of the Titans (dir. Jonathan Liebesman, 2012)

Aslan vs Voldemort, Volume II. Titans Will Be Wrathy!

Here's some good news for a start - Cronos is a Titan, so there is an actual Titan in this movie. He doesn't Clash with anyone, but he does look pretty Wrathful, so unlike its predecessor, this film actually does do what it says on the tin. Many major spoilers for the film follow.

By killing off Io before the beginning (I thought she was immortal?) this film restores Perseus to his mythological love interest, Andromeda (though it's a fairly abbreviated love story, one kiss and a few longing looks is all there is to it). That's pretty much where its resemblance to actual Greek mythology ends. I could live with that more happily if it wasn't for the fact that, apart from one easily killed redshirt, Andromeda is the only major character who is female. At the beginning, when Zeus calls all the gods together, 'all the gods' consists of himself, Poseidon, Ares and Hades. No Athena, no Artemis, no Aphrodite. Without them, Andromeda is forced to take on aspects of all three (she leads armies - Athena - she uses a bow and arrow - Artemis, debateably - and when they eventually dig up Hephaestus, he says she reminds him of Aphrodite. I guess being very pretty and wearing impractical earrings into battle covers that one). Change mythology all you want, but don't take away my goddesses!

As for the rest, I've realised I'm going to have to stop whining about Troy killing off Menelaus because within 20 minutes, this film kills off Poseidon. Yes, the god. Yes, the being whose one defining feature in mythology, aside from superpowers, is immortality. That's where all the other gods have disappeared to - they've been killed. By the end, only Hades is left, and he doesn't have any power (what a statement about the universe! only the god of the underworld remains standing...).

I think, buried somewhere in here, is a really quite interesting story about the death of the old gods, something almost worthy of JG Frazer or Pasolini. Our heroes, as usual, refuse to worship the gods and by the end the world belongs to the humans, with all the gods gone, so there's literally nothing left to pray to anyway. Humanity has grown beyond gods and no longer needs them. Unfortunately, the (several) writers of Wrath of the Titans have neither the intelligence nor the logic of Frazer or Pasolini and can't quite pull this off (I was going to say 'subtlety', but to fair, Frazer's The Golden Bough and Pasolini's Medea are about as subtle in their 'religion belongs to the childhood of humanity' theme as being hit over the head with a cricket bat).

In this film, what could have been a very interesting reflection on the place of religion and the gods becomes a total nonsense that I'm sure the lead characters could have solved in the first five minutes. See, Zeus and the others are losing their power because people aren't praying to them any more, right? And the army want to pray to Ares, but they mustn't do that, because Ares has gone over to the Dark Side and wants to release Cronos - OK, fine. So why don't our heroes just tell the army to all pray to Zeus? Wouldn't that restore his power so he could defeat Cronos? Worth a try anyway, surely? But no one ever attempts this. Perseus (who appears to be the only half-human offspring of Zeus around - did Ares or already-dead-Hera kill all the others?) just insists, repeatedly, that no one should ever pray to any gods (also that 'there are no good gods', which is broadly true in this story, but a bit of an over-simplification). Terry Pratchett can pull off the delicate balance required to depict atheist or non-religious characters in a world where the gods are blatantly present and powerful (or, occasionally, reduced to the form of a tortoise, which is what I wanted to see happen to Zeus here) but again, these writers can't.

Oh look! A Balrog.

While we're on the subject of writing, this film contains quite possibly the worst dialogue I've ever heard. Yes, worse than Star Wars. In fact, one of the slightly more memorable lines is nicked right out of Star Wars ('I love you', 'I know', except it's a father and son saying it). Several times you could feel how desperate the writers were to say 'with great power comes great responsibility', but since they don't want to be sued, they settle for something about 'duty' instead. They do manage to incorporate some nice touches of humour, particularly through Agenor and especially Hephaestus, but beyond the jokes, the characters are flat and they say almost nothing beyond explaining the plot and reacting in a desperately obvious way to big monsters and so on. I couldn't tell you a thing about Perseus or Andromeda's personalities based on this film, other than that they both fight quite a bit and would prefer not to die.

Given this situation, the mostly stellar cast react in various ways. I'm not sure what their instructions from their director were, but based on the fact everyone's been allowed to keep their own accents, regardless of origin (so Perseus is Antipodean, he has an English son, Zeus has a distinctly Ulster twang and so on) I'm going to assume he pretty much stuck a camera on them and had them read the lines. As a result, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes simply do Aslan and Voldemort. Neeson is strung up in Christ-like pose for half the film, so he's largely immobile, and he just goes for it. Full on Aslan. Fiennes has an equally flowy robe to swirl and instead of snake-like head movements, he has long snake-like hair to swish around, and out comes Voldemort. This is actually quite fun for a while, but then Hades does a heel face turn halfway through and suddenly Aslan and Voldemort are working together and repeating the word 'brother' umpteen times in case we've forgotten their relationship, and it all gets a bit weird.

In acting terms, Rosamund Pike and Bill Nighy are the stand-outs. Pike really goes for it. With very little meaningful dialogue and a blank character, she does as much as anyone could to bring Andromeda to life - particularly in her early scenes with Perseus in which she makes her feelings for him clear (though goodness knows what she finds so attractive in him). Nighy seems to have fallen straight out of a Monty Python film. He's the only cast member who puts on an accent (it sounds like Micheal Palin's Yorkshire accent to me) and he plays Hephaestus as a mad old coot living alone and talking to the fabulous mechanical owl from the 1981 Clash of the Titans. These are, naturally, the best parts of the film. He has a whole, hilarious, monologue about seducing mermaids that is allowed to go on as our heroes walk away and that I can't help feeling he must have improvised because it's so much better than any of the other dialogue in the film.

Everyone else more or less does what they can with the script. Toby Kebbell as Agenor is quite good, and Sam Worthington is Sam Worthington (I'll defend Keanu Reeves to my dying day, but I can't get worked up about Sam Worthington I'm afraid). The director, meanwhile, seems to have put all his energy into filming the various fight sequences as if he was working on Saving Private Ryan. He's obsessed with shaky handheld camera shots, extreme close-ups, clashing battle sounds and even that thing where you reduce the sound for a few minutes to mimic the effect of an explosion on our hero's eardrums. Except there aren't any explosions in this (except a volcano - they've seen Lord of the Rings as well as Star Wars) because it's set in ancient Greece. I wouldn't mind seeing some of these techniques, designed to make battle scenes feel 'realistic', in Return of the King or something like that - a fantasy film that's really earned the right to use them by making you believe in the created world and its characters, preferably over several hours. Game of Thrones could get away with it, if they could afford it on a TV budget. But Wrath of the Titans cannot. With cardboard characters pitched against daft monsters, it just looks silly, bordering on disrespectful to actual war films.

Rosamund Pike is actually pretty awesome in this, and almost makes up for the total lack of any other major female characters.

Essentially, this is a film where the director gets to play with battle sequences of different kinds for an hour and a half. There's no characterisation, the plot makes no sense and the one bit that looked like it might be really interesting was wasted. (For a moment, it looked like we might see our heroes taunted and teased by their dead comrades in the underworld, which would have been really cool, but instead Perseus has to run through a series of clashing walls for a while and fight a monster in a sequence that looks like it was taken straight from a Super Mario game). There is some humour and I laughed a few times, so if you enjoy watching CG heroes fight CG monsters and cracking the odd joke, you'll enjoy this film. Otherwise, it's probably not for you!

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