Friday, 29 June 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: The Bitter Suite

So I finally saw the Xena musical. And it wasn't at all bad.

This episode was determined to demonstrate how very Dramatic it was being from the start (and I saw why it's so popular when we opened on a shot on Gabrielle's naked behind). I'm not clear quite how Gabrielle survived being dragged so far behind Argo and it seemed a bit extreme even given Xena's background, but there was a nice Classical echo there of the famous scene from the Iliad where Achilles drags Hector behind his chariot for ages, so that was nice. Except Hector was already dead at the time. Even Wrathful Achilles was less brutal than Xena.

Once we got into the Land of Illusia, things started to look more like one of Farscape's wackier episodes (what are they all drinking down there in Australasia?). I wasn't too bothered by the fact that the Land of Illusia was never explained - when your show's mythology includes actual gods, I can take a lot on faith (hah! See what I did there?). TV Tropes offers any number of potential explanations for this sort of thing, from A Wizard Did It to just follow Bellisario's Maxim or the MST3K Mantra. In fact, the phrase 'A Wizard Did It' comes from the Lucy Lawless Halloween episode of The Simpsons, so there you go (I love the end of that episode, where the Simpsons children protest that Xena can't fly and the answer is, 'I told you, I'm not Xena. I'm Lucy Lawless, the actress.' Ever since, in my head, Lucy Lawless is a flying superhero. That would be an interesting addition to Spartacus: Vengeance...). Apparently the costumes are based on Tarot cards, which partly explains all the bright colours and medieval theme.

The most interesting moment, Classics-wise, comes at the end of the episode. Right after Xena has been crucified (because the story is all about the importance of love and forgiveness, lest we forget. Also apparently this is the second time this has happened to her), a waterfall appears over a very small underground stream, with a pretty-looking glade on the other side. Xena's late son Solon is wandering aimlessly in the glade, as the dead have a tendency to do in Classical mythology. Gabrielle leaps over but Xena has to sing another song before she can bring herself to do so. When she does, she has a final hug with her son, who then morphs into Gabrielle as they rejoin the real world (completely minus Gabrielle's fairly serious injuries from the horse-dragging incident. A Wizard Did It).

The important unresolved question here is, what was the river? Was it a tributary of the River Styx, representing the border of the underworld? That would mean that Xena was able to say goodbye to the actual shade of her son and tell him she was his mother, something she never did while he was alive. Or was it just a metaphorical stream produced by the Land of Illusia (suggested perhaps by the fact Xena's hugging Gabrielle when they return to reality)? That would mean Xena managed to make herself feel better, but nothing really changed other than that she and Gabrielle forgave each other. I'm not entirely sure which the writers intended; I suspect they were aiming for the second option, though they may have left it deliberately ambiguous. I rather like the idea of the first option - after all, in a series based on a corpus of mythology in which there are practically regular bus services to the underworld, it would seem a shame if Xena was never able to impart this important information to Solon just because of the minor problem that he happened to be dead.

This is a good episode, though once you've seen the Buffy musical, everything else tends to pale by comparison. The choice to dub some of the actors with professional singers was a good one, as everyone sounds great here (including Lucy Lawless and a couple of others who are doing their own singing). I liked Xena's tango with Ares, every TV musical needs a good tango (that's one thing the Buffy version lacks - a shame, as a Buffy/Spike tango would have been really cool). The advantage Xena has over Buffy is that it has such a small core cast, it can take the opportunity to bring back other regular characters and show them in a fresh light, particularly Callisto and Ares. Joxer was at his least annoying ever - singing suits him. Other familiar faces, though, were a bit wasted as they appeared so briefly I didn't even recognise Karl Urban - it was literally blink and you've missed him. The songs are pretty good and quite catchy and in a way it's rather nice that because the entire point of the episode is emotional resolution, the story basically contains nothing but emotional hand-wringing. Other than the need to get out of Illusia, there's really no plot at all. And since without the Xena musical, there might not be any Buffy musical, we are all forever grateful to it!

Disclaimer: The musical genre was not harmed during the production of this motion picture. In fact, the Producers sincerely hope you were A-MUSE-D by this episode.

Edited to add: Now that I've seen the rest of the series, a lot of the symbolism here - especially Xena's crucifixion by Caesar as her start of darkness, coupled with Gabrielle's impregnation by Dahak - makes a lot more sense. At some point when I get the chance, I'll re-visit this episode, armed with much better knowledge of the series!

All Xena reviews

Monday, 25 June 2012

Julius Caesar (dir. Gregory Doran, 2012)

I've blogged Shakespeare's Julius Caesar before - twice so far! So I won't talk much about the play here, as I think I covered the main points when I reviewed the 1953 film version. This is a specially-filmed TV version shown on BBC4 of the production currently playing at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon and touring from early July.

This is a modern-dress production, but it's more than that. This version hasn't just changed the costumes, it's moved the story to contemporary Africa, with an entirely black cast speaking in accents that are recognisably African (I'm afraid I'm not familiar enough with the area to be more precise than that, but I do know in most cases these aren't the actors' natural accents). Shakespeare's language and dialogue is used, so the story is set in a fictional African state called 'Rome', but otherwise it's been reconfigured as a modern story.

I like modern dress versions of Shakespeare, though when the play is a history play, I think they can be a bit problematic sometimes - I mentioned in my review of Coriolanus that the plot didn't make quite so much sense in a world with television. This particular transition works very well though. The conspirators' anxiety about becoming (metaphorically) 'slaves' has a resonance Shakespeare couldn't have predicted in this setting and the soothsayer perhaps works better than he has for centuries. I know very little about African religion, witch-doctors and so on and I have no idea if the white body paint on the soothsayer represents a specific real-life practice, but the image of the African shamanistic figure has a feeling of reality to it (by which I mean it represents a very real and sometimes dangerous practice, if not the actual supernatural) that the image of the old Roman soothsayer hasn't carried with it for years. The issue of fighting for democracy against a dictator is, of course, relevant and appropriate (it might have been even more so if the play had been set in Arab North Africa rather than black sub-Saharan Africa).

I did find myself getting mildly irritated at the some of the promotional material though. The play was introduced by the TV announcer and is advertised by the RSC as a 'political thriller' (which it is, but it's not just that) and there seems to be a reluctance to mention the fact it's actually about Romans. Shakespearean scholars, directors, actors and promoters are always terribly anxious to assure audiences that the plays are 'just as relevant now as they were then' and are about 'timeless themes', the implication being that something specific to its historical context is of no interest. I can see their point, but sometimes I think they take it too far. Julius Caesar is about historical people who really lived (even more so than Coriolanus, whose characters are legendary). The fact that they lived 2000 years ago doesn't make their lives or actions any less interesting or 'relevant', but I'm not convinced moving their story completely out of context is the way to tell people that. Treating them like a myth or a poem, a 'timeless' story that you can move around at will seems somehow to detract from the fact that these were real people, who really did these things (more or less!) and although we're a long way removed from them, the course of history wouldn't be the same without them.

I suppose the essential problem is, in their desperate attempt to defend the significance of their own discipline, the Shakespeareans tend to implicitly play down the importance of mine. I don't think stripping something of its context automatically makes it easier to understand - in fact, over years of church-going, I've noticed that the more I know about the historical context of Roman provincial parables, the better I understand them. Studying history in its historical context does not make it less interesting or relevant - for me, it makes it more so, as you can get a much fuller understanding of the significance of the story.

Thisversion is a slightly odd hybrid of filmed stage play and TV adaptation. Most of it is filmed for the television, and takes advantage of that in all the usual ways. There are dramatic images of Caesar spitting out blood through the glass of an escalator, Cassius addressing the camera in a mirror and certain sections of monologues given in voice-over as internal dialogue. It also has all the usual problems of TV adaptations - it's as indoor-set-bound as I, Claudius ever was and there's a distinct lack of... people. The crowd scenes, rather than being filmed for the television, are shot directly at the stage production, which is a bit jarring, as the sound quality suddenly decreases and you can see the audience in the background. This is especially problematic at the very end, as Octavian switches in mid-sentence from the dingy stairwell in which Brutus has just met his end to the stage, a very odd decision. It might have been better to use I, Claudius' old trick of having an invisible crowd behind the camera, though with modern fancy camerawork that might look rather strange.

This is a very good production - the performances are great, especially the ever-wonderful onetime Marquis de Carabas, Paterson Joseph, as Brutus, Adjoa Andoh as Portia and Ray Fearon as Mark Antony. There's no denying some images have a particular potency in their modern context, especially the grainy mobile-phone footage of the lynching of Cinna the poet and the bag-over-head brutality of the execution of those condemned under the proscriptions. And I'm really glad to see productions like this, as I can't afford to go to the theatre much and this is the only way to see some of these great productions. I heard on the radio the other day that there'll be some new TV productions of some of the medieval history plays coming out soon, and I'm looking forward to those - on TV is definitely the only I'm going to be able to see the entire Henrys cycle! It makes me quite proud to work for the OU, who are partly behind this, as this is exactly the sort of thing they should be doing, I think. As stilted as filmed stage productions can sometimes seem, it's better than nothing at all!

Friday, 22 June 2012

The Woman in Black (dir. James Watkins, 2012)

I've just been writing a review of The Woman in Black on DVD for Den of Geek (short version: I like it). I went to see it in the cinema back in February and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it even more in a dark, empty house at midnight...

Major spoilers follow so look away now if you're not familiar with the film. Every version of the story has a slightly different ending and there are several new elements in the film, so if you've read the book or seen the TV or stage version but haven't seen the film, you'd still be advised to avert your eyes if you don't want to be spoiled.

I remember being impressed back when I went to see the film by the accuracy of the representation of the corpses (I'm impressed by strange and grim things). The body that is pulled out of the marsh (an impressive model, of course) is reasonably well-preserved with grey-green, leathery skin. It doesn't look quite like a person and the features are obscured but you can still see those features a little and something of the person it once was has been preserved. This matches the preservation of famous 'bog bodies', preserved unusually well due to the water-logged, oxygen-less conditions, like Lindow ManȌtzi the Iceman and Tollund Man.

I'm not sure it would be possible to hug and throw around such a body in the way Daniel Radcliffe's Arthur Kipps does in the film, but you get a sharp reminder of the unusual conditions and preservation of these bodies when Kipps and Ciarán Hinds' Sam Daily dig up a more conventionally buried body and immediately gag due to the smell. Older skeletons don't usually smell, but presumably this body is meant to be sufficiently recent that it hasn't quite finished decomposing (though it seems to me it should be a good few decades old, and maybe shouldn't smell quite so much). According to the director/screenwriter commentary, some viewers were confused by the state of preservation of the bog body, but I was pleased and impressed, as for any viewers who know even a little about Lindow Man and the others, it would be a fairly clunking error if it was a skeleton (not to mention much harder to pull out of a bog with your bare hands).

I was pleased to hear Watkins referring briefly to Classical things a couple of times on the commentary as well. In particular, he makes a vague reference to wanting the cart driver who first takes Kipps across the causeway to Eel Marsh House (fabulous name) to look like the ferryman who takes you across the Styx, which gave me a richer view of the film. This is more due to the vague reference to the Styx than the driver - in fact, the glum, hooded look given to the driver seems more European folktale Grim Reaper-y than Greco-Roman, as Charon the ferryman is usually represented as a more or less normal ferryman with an unusual clientele.

However, I love the idea of the tidal marshland that surrounds the house as the Styx. One of my favourite things about this film is the beautiful location filming around the causeway (somewhere in Essex, apparently). It's probably partly because I love Mont-St-Michel in France so much, but I thought the wide shots of the expanse of marsh and of the water sweeping over and covering the causeway as the tide comes in were gorgeous. I love the idea of this huge, watery wilderness as an enormous border to the underworld and of Kipps' journey to the house and his experiences there as a katabasis, a journey to the underworld (something Radcliffe has done before).

There's an almost Orpheus-like undertone to the story when seen this way. Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman emphasise on the commentary that Kipps, still mourning his wife, is almost looking for the Woman because she represents proof of the afterlife. Seen this way, the story becomes a twisted Orpheus-tale, in which Kipps travels to the underworld looking for his dead wife and encounters a dark Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. There's even an unfortunate incident in which a character looks backwards towards the end. Certainly the haunted house, which was scary enough in the first place, takes on an eerie depth when viewed as the realm of the dead.

I've reviewed the film in more detail for Den of Geek, but I'll say again here that I like it very much. It doesn't do anything particularly strange or innovative, it just does a traditional, spooky ghost story very well, and the performances are great across the board (including Radcliffe, even if he's physically too young for the character). This is the only version of the story I've seen, but I'd love to read the book and I'm even more keen to see the 1980s TV adaptation, which Mum remembers as being great and very scary but which seems to be about £400 (and Region 1 only, though I have a multi-region player) on Amazon at the moment. If anyone knows how to get hold of a copy, let me know!

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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

My Fair Lady (dir. George Cukor, 1964)

I've been reviewing Paula James' excellent book (oops, spoiled the review!) on receptions of Ovid's version of the Pygmalion story for Classical Review this week, and among the many brilliant films Paula discussed was, of course, My Fair Lady.

As an example of the reception of the classical world, My Fair Lady is in an interesting position. It's based on a play called Pygmalion, so clearly it is in some way inspired by the classical myth of Pygmalion and has a closer relationship to the ancient world than, for example, the Buffy episode 'I Was Made to Love You'. On the other hand, there isn't much active use of the ancient world within the musical or the film itself. Although it might be informed by the myth, an audience coming out of My Fair Lady wouldn't have the same sense of having seen something mythically inspired as, for example, an audience coming out of Prometheus.

There are some fun, subtle touches that link the film back to the myth, though. The costume design in particular, together with Audrey Hepburn's performance, suggests the story of Pygmalion creating a statue which then comes to life. When we first meet Eliza Doolittle in Covent Garden, she's wearing fairly dark colours, mostly blues and greys and earthy browns - she looks very natural. She speaks and moves in a very natural and un-self-conscious way, as well as speaking in her own accent and dialect.

Once she's got the hang of the accent, though, the costumes change. The first thing we see her wearing after she gets it right is a white nightgown, then she wears a striking mostly white costume at Ascot and a white dress to the ball which has very simple lines - very '60s, but also a little bit like a column. These white costumes represent her as Pygmalion's statue (which is ivory in Ovid's Metamorphoses, because that makes it slightly off-white and closer to a flesh tone, but for the film, it's white that would remind a costume designer or viewer of the best known, marble, ancient statues). Audrey Hepburn's performance is also highly exaggerated, first at Ascot and then especially at the ball where, despite the fact that the whole point of the exercise was to change Eliza's accent and dialect, she barely speaks. She stands mostly quite still, looking elegant, and when she does speak she does so very slowly and carefully, as if she really was Higgins' living doll.

Finally, when she leaves Higgins and meets Freddy in the street, she's wearing a peachy-pinky coloured costume - i.e., Caucasian flesh tones. She still speaks with the received pronunciation accent, but she behaves in a more natural way. The costume emphasises the idea that the statue has now become a real, living woman, albeit a different woman from the earthy character she started out as. I really like this way of incorporating the myth into the film through design.

Depending how you interpret the ending, the film is also slightly closer to the ancient Pygmalion story than Bernard Shaw's play. In the play, Eliza marries Freddy, which did not go down too well with audiences. Bernard Shaw stuck to his guns and insisted that she couldn't marry Higgins. He wrote a very long explanation and epilogue to a later edition of the play, explaining that Galatea can never really love Pygmalion, because he is too godlike to her (since he literally created her). (Bernard Shaw also provided a whole life story for Eliza, Freddy and Higgins, almost worthy of a Tolkien Appendix).

Personally, I agree with Bernard Shaw, partly because I think Freddy's much more attractive and Higgins is a pain in the neck, but then if I'd been in Pirates of the Caribbean I'd quite happily have married Commodore Norrington, so what do I know. Audiences, however, continued to see the play as a love story, just like the story of Pygmalion - almost the only story in the Metamorphoses that has a happy ending. The film is vaguely open-ended, but it pretty strongly implies some sort of relationship between Eliza and Higgins, going back to the myth and to the core of the story being about a man who creates something and falls in love with it. I find this very depressing, especially since Higgins still seems to expect Eliza to simply pick up after him. I prefer more modern stories which take apart the idea of a man desiring a woman of his own creation and emphasise how spectacularly creepy it is, like 'I Was Made to Love You' and The Stepford Wives.

I don't mean to say I don't like My Fair Lady, which is a classic and has some great tunes, though it's kinda long. My all time favourite scene has to be Ascot, which is a weird and glorious gem anyway, topped off by 'Come on Dover, move yer bloomin' arse!' But I do think the musical, although it keeps most of the play's dialogue as well as its own songs and extra scenes, ultimately misses the point Bernard Shaw was trying to make, which was about the inherent selfishness of trying to make someone else into what you think they ought to be. By putting Eliza and Higgins together (more or less) in the final scene, the film forgives Higgins' selfish behaviour perhaps a little too easily.

More movie reviews

Friday, 15 June 2012

Rome: Deus Impeditio Esuritori Nullus (No God Can Stop a Hungry Man)

Or, the Antony and Cleopatra episode, in which James Purefoy joins the ranks of men who look awesome in eyeliner (along with Johnny Depp and David Bowie).

The Godfather is dreaming of happier times (yay! Niobe!). When he comes to, he realises he's actually in bed with a bald prostitute who's angry with him for stealing the covers. He must be feeling really down in the dumps if he's let go of his precious nobility that was so important to him he turned down the Queen of Egypt (though granted, he was married at the time). It's his monthly debauch, as we discover shortly.

Alexandria is pretty (knowing they were cancelled, did they decide to go mad on the budget?) There are camels!

Posca is, when in Egypt, doing as the Egyptians do, smoking drugs from a bong and wearing eyeliner and earrings. Antony and Cleopatra themselves are enjoying all the most extreme cliches of general madness and debauchery. They're making men dress up as animals while they shoot at them, wearing eyeliner (and not much else) and refusing to discuss important things like the grain supply, which they are witholding from Rome. They're not so out of it, though, as to miss out on insisting on tripling the price of grain and demanding Carthage from Octavian, who is stuck with a starving mob in Rome. Antony cheerfully points out that it doesn't matter what Octavian does, the people love him more, and given how sexy James Purefoy looks right now, he's probably right. He decides to demand Spain as well and the deal is off. Cleo shoots the 'deer' dead, at which point even her old nurse Charmian looks horrified.

The Godfather arranges the cleaning up while Antony and Cleo head off, satisfied that Octavian should now declare war, which Antony refuses to do himself because he knows how bad the PR would be. Their twins appear to look cute and vulnerable (their daughter Cleopatra Selene seems to have been written out). There's an ominous shot of Cleo looking calculating after Antony falls asleep.

Back in Rome, Dodgy and Evil Gaia are having their sleep disturbed by an angry, starving mob. Dodgy, who's in charge of the granaries, tries to explain rationing sensibly to the mob, which goes about as well as you'd expect. The Third Man is still alive, though injured, and Niobe's son Lucius continues to grow at a normal rate while his sisters stay creepily the same age forever. Vorena the Elder is now a priestess because Rome thinks that's the equivalent of joining a nunnery. Dodgy is keeping a man in a cage and feeding him bones because, why not? (I think it's the slimy Other Godfather).

Dodgy reports back to Octavian and his real triumvirate (Agrippa and Maecenas) that the elderly are already dying and everyone else will soon follow. Apparently Lepidus is still kicking around in Africa, which is... I have no idea where we are in time right now. Lepidus should probably be in his forced retirement, which he more or less is, so we'll let it go. The people are blaming Octavian for the famine because they still love Antony, due to his being less robotic than Octavian. Octavian knows what Antony's up to and knows he needs the people's support to declare war, so he sends for his mother and sister (the real Atia was dead by this point, but whatever). We see Octavia's daughter Antonia, who seems to be about 3 or 4, and Atia insists that she still believes that Antony will send for her one day. Instead, she gets the summons from Octavian, which is rather less welcome.

They all have a very uncomfortable dinner in which no one talks to anyone else. So Octavian gets right to the point and asks Octavia to go to Egypt and persuade Antony as his wife to, you know, feed everyone. He wants both women to go, providing 'reality and appearance', since as Octavia points out, Atia's 'his real wife'. Atia demands payment for this favour, in the shape of villas and gladiators, or maybe just cash. Octavian is pretty desperate by now and agrees to pay up.

Sweaty sex scene time! We haven't had a sex scene for fully five minutes. Livia and Octavian are going at it, with her hitting him and then choking him. Clearly she's just as into the S&M stuff as he is, it's a match made in heaven. Their pillow talk is a little interrupted by Octavian barely being able to talk though. Livia declares that they won't serve eggs any more because she doesn't like them, 'unless you object of course'. She asks why he's sending the women to Antony when he knows he will refuse, and then explains for the benefit of the audience that this is a PR move to get the mob to turn against Antony (though if Antony does yield to Atia they'll have the grain and the problem will be solved). Exposition over, Octavian turns over and ends the conversation.

This is mostly a simple exposition scene with extra nudity, but it does also imply that Livia is starting to be the dominant partner within this relationship, just a little bit. She's careful to observe the formality of checking things with him, but since Octavian is literally unable to speak because she's choked him at the time, she seems to be starting to wear the metaphorical trousers, when it comes to egg-buying anyway, and despite his warning to her that he would hit her for sexual pleasure, it's she who's hitting him here. It's a hint at a relationship that has the potential to develop into something quite different from what one might expect from Octavian after his treatment of his mother and sister and it's fascinating. It's such a shame we'll never get the chance to explore it further - though it does fit rather neatly with I, Claudius, which can slot very usefully into the place of the non-existent Rome season 3.

We see Octavia and Atia heading out onto the high sea. Octavia is seasick and Atia tells her she's 'mean and bitter'. She returns that Atia has become 'girlish and sentimental'.

The Godfather is watching Caesarion play by throwing things at helpless underlings, since he's learned from his mother and stepfather. (Caesarion appears to be about ten, which matches Lucius Jr but is historically inaccurate, as he should be around 17 or 18 by the time Antony dies, so he should be at least 16 here). When the kid lobs a ball at the Godfather and tells him to throw it properly, the Godfather whacks him with it to teach him a lesson, which is quite satisfying. Caesarion  asks about his father, wanting to know more than just the basic 'great soldier everyone loved him'. So of course the Godfather starts telling him about his presumed biological father Dodgy (given the lack of DNA tests in ancient Rome it could be either really). This falls apart a bit when Caesarion points out that he's always heard Caesar was abstemious in his diet, when the Godfather has been fondly reminiscing about how much Dodgy liked to eat. It's a sweet scene, showing how much Vorenus misses his friend, and reminding the audience of a rather important plot point from back in season 1.

Antony and Cleo are lazing around in a druggie haze when Posca comes to tell them Atia and Octavia are practically at the door. Antony isn't too drug-addled to miss the significance of this problem, knowing that this is a final choice between Octavia and Cleo and will lead to war, and that it will affect his popularity. But he turns them away anyway, confident of winning the war. Cleo intends to throw a party and be hospitable but Antony, presumably unable to face Atia and unwilling to see her humiliated by Cleopatra, refuses. Cleo points out that's the whole point of the trip, but Antony realises that Atia doesn't actually know that. Cleo suggests killing both women instead, to spare them the humiliation, and he's not down with that either, as that really would destroy his reputation. This leads to a proper fight between the two, with swearing and hair-pullling and throwing priceless artefacts around (though I guess they may not have been priceless back then).

In the end, Atia and Octavia are left waiting outside the door in the heat without water. Jocasta emerges in full Egyptian garb and explains she's been surviving by fitting in and pretending to be 'a little mad'. She explains that only Posca and the Godfather can talk to Antony witout Cleo's permission. Their conversation is interrupted when Posca appears and drags her back inside in a panic.

Antony and Cleo have finished their aperitif of having a screaming row and moved on to the main sex course. Once that's done, The Godfather makes the mistake of sticking his head round the door and gets lumbered with the job of sending Atia packing without seeing Antony (she and Octavia have no idea how close they came to never leaving at all). Atia is, of course, just as humiliated by this as she would have been at a party, not to mention hurt. She tries to insist she won't move, but since it's go or be hacked to death by Cleo's men she hasn't much choice. She slaps the Godfather and starts rather weakly beating him, but gives it up fairly quickly and goes. The Godfather catches Posca and Jocasta also getting the heck out of dodge, but refuses to come with them because of his responsibilities. This is largely another example of him bring noble for the sake of it, but it is also possible that the responsibility he's referring to is less to Antony and more to Dodgy and his increasingly endangered presumed son. The Godfather asks Posca to get Dodgy to kiss his children for him and Octavia chucks her wedding ring out of the window of the boat.

Caesarion is still pestering the Godfather for more information about his father. Antony asks after Atia, assuming she took the news with her usual poise, and actually looks a bit guilty when the answer is no. The Godfather gives him a message from Octavia (who told him to 'tell my husband he's cowardly scum!') with way too much venom, which is very amusing. When ordered to give his own opininon, he says Antony's not a coward but has a 'strong disease in his soul' that will eat away at him until he dies. He doesn't know what it is but he recognises the symptoms becausd he has the same sickness (it's not obvious. Where's his eyeliner?). Caesarion looks understandably confused and the Godfather distracts him by throwing him a 'long one' (I don't think they had 'go long' in ancient Rome. We don't have it here, it took me years to work out what it meant).

Atia gets home and whacks Octavian across the face. She's getting good at that. He has enough human feeling left in him to look a wee bit guilty over manipulating her. Posca has come to see the future Emperor as well (he's a survivor that one). Atia tells her son to 'crush Antony and his Queen' using a present from Posca - Antony and Cleopatra's joint will, which shows how far away from Rome Antony has drifted. Maecenas gleefully reads out how Antony wants to be buried in Alexandria, how he's Osiris and Cleo is Isis and how he wants to leave Roman lands to his and Caesar's children by Cleo. Octavian is so pleased he almost smiles at Posca. Maecenas then watches smugly while the newsreader reveals all this to the mob, and Octavian Speechifies in the Senate on the subject.

Posca gives Dodgy the Godfather's message and Octavian, having established they're still friends, asks Dodgy to come to Alexandria with him in case this should prove useful. During this conversation, he happens to mention that Caesarion, as putative king of Rome, will have to die. Ooops. Dodgy, of course, agrees to come - unfortunately, Octavian just named the only person in the world he has more loyalty to than Octavian.

Dodgy explains things to the Godfather's kids, who will be left with Aunt Her-From-the-BT-Ads, and who are still angry with the Godfather for killing their mother, because apparently they still believe that and he still hasn't put them right. Dodgy also leaves instructions with the Third Man, Evil Gaia and the others. Evil Gaia whines that she wants to go too, because apparently she thinks soldiers travelling with an army can just bring their mistresses along for the ride (Roman soldiers had mistresses at their posts, and officers could bring their wives as Germanicus did, but foot soldiers couldn't marry or bring mistresses on campaigns).

The point becomes moot when Cage Man escapes and attacks Dodgy, and Evil Gaia takes several fatal knife wounds to the gut while defending him and killing the former Evil Godfather. Really, the whole business with keeping the guy in a cage was utterly ridiculous. Who on earth came up with that?! Dodgy is very upset and convinced the gods are punishing him, but when Evil Gaia, becoming suddenly religious, tells him it's a fair return for her murdering his wife and unborn child, he finishes her off himself and dumps her body unceremoniously in a pond. On which rather grim note, the episode ends.

There's a nice symmetry to this episode, as the Godfather looks after Dodgy's son in Egypt while Dodgy looks after the Godfather's children in Rome. It's a little uneven towards the end - the resolution of Gaia's storyline seems to be the place where the rushed conclusion is worst felt, especially as it requires the ridiculous business with Mennius being kept in a cage. But Antony's rejection of Atia is genuinely sad and Vorenus' scenes with Caesarion rather sweet.

The interesting thing about this episode is that it reveals all the thinking behind Octavian's propaganda war against Antony, while simultaneously buying into that same propaganda in its representation of Antony and Cleopatra and their relationship. There's a good reason for that, of course - it's just much more fun to depict Antony as enslaved to an exotic foreign Queen in a debauched court where everyone's on drugs all the time. It also makes Octavian's eventual victory that much more palatable as, vicious and ruthless though he is, at least he doesn't make people dress up as deer and then kill them for fun. I doubt it's all that close to reality really. I suspect Antony and Cleopatra were political allies first and lovers second (which she certainly is here, but he seems generally confused) and considerably less debauched. But that would be boring. All in all, this would probably be a fairly average to good episode - if it weren't for that eyeliner. Which is worth an extra gold star by itself. Yum.


Gaia: What are you gonna do? Bake 'em a cake?
Dodgy: I forget sometimes just what a cold-hearted bitch you really are.
Nice Marie Antoinette moment, and a reminder of just how much Dodgy doesn't know...

Octavian: I cannot remember the last time I made a joke. (Livia saying 'last Monday' is ever funnier).

Cleo: Play the Queen? I am the Queen.

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Monday, 11 June 2012

Top Five Kick-Ass Heroines

There's no shortage of donkey-kicking heroines in science fiction and fantasy literature that take some inspiration from the ancient world - Trinity and Katniss Everdeen are probably two of the most awesome, but you could add Padme Amidala, Lucy Pevensie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and many more. Perhaps surprisingly, there are also a fair few bottom-bothering heroines in yer actual Classical mythology. Most if not all are either at least partly divine or members of entire races of warrior maidens, usually Amazons, but still, they're there - Camilla in the Aeneid is particularly memorable, Medea's magic leaves quite the trail of destruction behind her and of course, Athena is, among other things, a goddess of war.

Popular culture representations of ancient world settings, though, are a bit more lacking in the butt-prodding women department. There are plenty of female characters who kick ass in a more subtle way, within the confines of a woman's role in the ancient world, particularly in Rome. Lucilla in Gladiator is one of my favourites, as she acts entirely within the confines of her position but is strong and powerful nonetheless (I also love it when she tells Maximus 'I'm tired of being strong' but continues to be so anyway). I, Claudius' Livia is dangerous in a different way, building on the ancient Roman stereotypes of the wicked step-mother and of poison as a woman's weapon (for fairly logical reasons, it has to be said). I'm not sure you'd describe either of them as 'kick-ass' though. I don't know if anyone has produced a formal definition of what 'kick-ass' means, but I sense somehow that poisoning people or politically out-maneuvering them is not quite it. These activities are undoubtedly awesome, but perhaps lack the foot-in-backside element of 'kick-ass'.

These, then, are five kick-ass heroines who make the buttocks of bad guys feel sore in some kind of ancient-world setting (some closer to reality than others).

5. Andromeda, Wrath of the Titans
Is our heroine the lead? No, though she's the only female character with any substantial role in the film.
Does she have any special skills? Within the narrative, no, not unless you count the ability to wade into battle wearing large and impractical earrings. However, the main reason she makes the list is Rosamund Pike's ability to out-act everyone else in this film by a country mile. Where Neeson and Fiennes phone it in and Nighy hams it up, Pike commits to this tiny, under-written role, and that's what makes Andromeda just a little bit kick-ass. Also, the earrings are quite cool.
How hard does she prod bottom? Not very, but then, no one does really. She survives a fairly apocalyptic battle, so that's reasonably impressive.
Whose donkey does she kick? Well, she helps defeat Cronus. I think. I'd stopped paying attention by that point, to be honest.
Could she take on Batman? No. He'd distract her by yanking off one of her earrings. This is why Catwoman doesn't wear earrings.

4. Mira, The Last Legion
Is our heroine the lead? No. Like Andromeda, she's the female lead/only female character of importance, and the love interest.
Does she have any special skills? She's been trained in a martial art (Kalaripayattu, according to Wikipedia) in Kerala, and she seems pretty good at it.
How hard does she prod bottom? Pretty hard at first, but she suffers from Eowyn Syndrome; she starts out all tough and kick-ass and gets less so over the course of the film, until she reaches a depressingly domestic happy ending. I heard a good paper on this subject last year.
Whose donkey does she kick? Some randoms near the beginning of the film. Important ass-kicking is reserved for the male lead.
Could she take on Batman? She could probably give him a decent run for his money, but the gadgets might ultimately throw her off, what with her being from the fifth century AD and all. If I remember Batman Begins correctly, some versions of Batman are also trained in some kind of martial art, so this might be one for martial arts enthusiasts to fight out between them.

3. Flavia Gemina, The Roman Mysteries
Is our heroine the lead? Yes!
Does she have any special skills? Not physically, but she's particularly good at solving mysteries.
How hard does she prod bottom? As a young, well brought-up Roman girl in a realistic series aimed at children, Flavia's bottom-prodding opportunities are more limited than the others on the list. However, she brings several people down (or raises them up) through her mystery-solving ability and she survives an encounter with some nasty crocodiles in the arena, with some help from Nubia and a friendly lion. I ummed and aahed over whether this entry should go to Flavia or Nubia, but ultimately decided Nubia is a bit too peace-loving to go on the ass-kicking list - her most extreme actions tend to be motivated by the desire to alleviate suffering rather than cause it. Flavia is not quite as hard-edged as the boys (both of whom consider murder at various points) but as the group's leader she's ultimately the strongest and she'll fight like a tiger for those she loves.
Whose donkey does she kick? Various people in various ways throughout the books, but escaping the crocodiles with Nubia and Monobaz the lion's help is one of the most exciting and requires her to be particularly brave and physically tough.
Could she take on Batman? Maybe when she's older. If she had Monobaz with her.

2. Naevia, Spartacus: Vengeance
Is our heroine the lead? No, but she's a prominent member of a large ensemble cast made up of roughly equal numbers of men and women.
Does she have any special skills? Not at first, but she seems to respond well to Crixus' training, which focuses on sword- and knife-fighting (rather than the potentially more practical but less useful in hand-to-hand combat skill of archery. Presumably because Crixus doesn't know anything about archery).
How hard does she prod bottom? Pretty hard. She's developing a knack for dispatching people with defiant one-liners as well ('No, but it's a f**king start'). Perhaps she's Buffy's distant ancestor.
Whose donkey does she kick? She takes out Gnomey Guy, who has already proved a few episodes back that he wasn't a total loss as a gladiator by beating down several Roman soldiers at once. OK, he's injured, but still, it's pretty impressive. Her getting the b**tard in the balls is especially satisfying.
Could she take on Batman? Probably not, but if he'd done something to really piss her off she might take him out in a frenzy of sheer rage.

1. Xena, Xena: Warrior Princess
Is our heroine the lead! Yes! Of a spin-off probably better known and loved that its precursor.
Does she have any special skills? Lots, though I'm unclear how she came by them. Her use of her discus-thingy as some kind of deadly boomerang, possibly a forerunner of Oddjob's bowler hat, is particularly noteworthy.
How hard does she prod bottom? Six seasons of ass-kicking (maybe someday there'll be a movie). When Xena prods bottom, the bottom in question is sore.
Whose donkey does she kick? Lots of people's. Regular enemies include crazy Callisto and Ares, who is the freaking god of war. Xena kicks his ass regularly. That's some serious mojo she's got there.
Could she take on Batman? Of course she could. One well-aimed discus throw and he'd be down. She might be in trouble if he was in the Batmobile though - Argo's a nice horse, but he's no match for twenty-first century technology.

Bubbling under: Nefertiri in The Mummy Returns. She's fairly kick-ass as an Egyptian princess, but it's her twentieth-century reincarnation as Evie who really gets the job done, and Evie isn't an ancient-world character (granted Xena lives in a peculiar pseudo-medieval never-time, but it's still more ancient than the 1930s).

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Thursday, 7 June 2012

Aurian (by Maggie Furey)

Aurian is the first of four novels in Maggie Furey's The Artefacts of Power series. I read all four as a teenager and I re-read Aurian recently as I was working on gladiatorial combats in speculative fiction.

As a novel, Aurian has its faults. The language is rather forced - for example, using words like 'babe' instead of 'baby' which always sounds faintly ridiculous to me, especially if the novel as a whole isn't written in particularly archaic language. More problematically, the heroine, Aurian herself, is pure Mary Sue. Her only faults are stubbornness and pride, which aren't that terrible as faults, she's brilliant at absolutely everything (a great warrior and one of few Mages whose powers cover all of four key areas) and everyone loves her. The male lead Anvar's grovelling affection for her when working as her servant, in which the narrative repeatedly refers to his concern for 'his Lady' instead of just 'Aurian', is particularly irritating and almost creepy.

However, the novels are impressively fast-moving and feature a huge cast of mostly likable characters (I keep thinking they'd make a really good TV series, with so many characters and locations and a high body count and harsh Anyone Can Die policy as well). They also include some beautiful imagery. I was sucked in on the first page, in which the young Aurian is juggling blue fireballs for fun, and towards the end of the first novel our heroes are forced to cross the Glittering Desert, a huge desert made up of gem-dust and gem stones instead of sand, that shines too brightly to look at by day. I absolutely loved this idea, which is also behind the beautiful cover art. And aside from everyone loving Aurian, the character relationships are reasonably interesting, and shaken up by a genius bit of romantic angst in the fourth novel that my teenage imagination was thoroughly captured by.

The reason I was re-reading it is that, as is fairly common in fantasy novels, Aurian is at one point forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena clearly modelled after the Roman version (while Anvar works as a slave in an environment that sounds like a cross between the popular idea of ancient Egyptian pyramid building and the opening scene of Spartacus). Aurian's gladiatorial combat is fairly typical - she fights various opponents, she eventually teams up with one of them, her life is spared by the prince who takes her off to be his concubine, the usual stuff - but includes a couple of nice inversions. Her final opponent is a big black panther. Conveniently, Aurian has the ability to communicate telepathically with animals, and it's the panther she's able to befriend (after killing several humans - there's a running theme in this book in which Aurian values the lives of animals over those of humans). So, instead of fighting the wild animal, she teams up with it. She also faces a retiarius (a fighter with a net and spear), as all popular culture gladiators must, but rather than one fighter with two weapons, here she faces two men, one with a net and the other with a spear, working together. It's a fresh take on an old idea and an exciting scene - over the course of the novels, Furey includes several increasingly gory set-pieces, and this scene, which doesn't occur until Chapter 23 of the first book, is the first of these. It's a sign of things to come.

Aurian is, ultimately, a fairly standard sword and sourcery novel, but it's good fun and worth a read on a rainy afternoon. And I'm starting the campaign for a TV series here - it could be the next Game of Thrones, I'm sure!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

I finally finished the marking. Yay!

I also just about managed to squeeze in a trip to see Prometheus (hoping to catch Snow White and the Huntsman later this week). I'm not as well up on the Alien franchise as I should be, but I did see the extended Alien at the cinema when it was re-released a few years ago and I'm a big fan of Ridley Scott, so I was excited. Major spoilers follow.

Prometheus is the name of the spaceship because it's basically a rule that spaceship names be ironically related to the plot in some way. During the Exposition Scene, the best known bit of the myth of Prometheus gets a direct shout-out from Weyland (the gorgeous Guy Pearce in layers of make-up - what a waste!), who tells everyone that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to human beings to put them on a equal footing with said gods (and for this, he was chained to a rock and had his liver eaten every day).

It's the rest of Prometheus' story, though, that's much more relevant to the plot. Prometheus didn't just give humans fire - he created human beings from clay and is, therefore, the father of mankind. It's natural, then, that the ship that goes off in search of a race of alien beings Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw believes created us is called 'Prometheus'. Even more importantly, Prometheus is also a Titan, a deity a generation above the Olympian gods. Fellow Titan Cronus was in the habit of eating his children - i.e., destroying his creations - until Zeus escaped and defeated the Titans, imprisoning them in Tartarus. That is to say, the children (metaphorically) killed/destroyed/locked up the parents.

If you've seen the film, I probably don't need to spell out the relevance of this! There's a whole cycle of mutual destruction going on throughout the film, in which the aliens apparently created and then tried to destroy us, so we go and find them and destroy them, and in the process Shaw and Holloway (and David) create a new creature, which will go on to destroy more of our kind... It's a strange, pseudo-Freudian (without the sex part), really rather depressing view of the cycle of life, the exact opposite of the rather more positive trope of the sacrifices parents make for their children, though it's not as simple as the notion of parents killing their children either. Here, both generations are locked into an eternal struggle in which they all seem to want to kill each other. Except David the android, who sacrifices other people to try to save his 'father' (at least, I think that was the idea. To be honest, I'm pretty confused about why he infected Charlie. Which is unfortunate, as that's kind of the point of the film).

As if all this Greek-tragedy-esque ancient myth wasn't enough, this film is also the latest entry into the Hero Archaeologists genre. Noomi Rapace totally kicks ass as Shaw - the scene with her in the medical bed thingy was, for me, the best scene in the film, absolutely horrific and nail-bitingly tense. I remember reading a TV review a while back that suggested that for women, watching weird pregnancy stuff is the equivalent of a man watching a male character get kicked in his special place. I don't think this is true if you haven't actually had a baby - for me it's more like watching a man get kicked in his special place and thinking, 'gosh, that looks nasty, I'm glad it can't happen to me' - except the last part is replaced by '...I wonder if one day that will happen to me.' Still, either way, ew and the scene was fabulous.

More importantly, Rapace kicks ass in a believable way for an archaeologist. At no point does she do anything an archaeologist could not feasibly do - she has no whip and no gun, she doesn't fight anyone or fix a spaceship or suddenly turn out to be the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess. What she does is use quick thinking and intelligence, together with a conveniently impressive medical device (next best thing to an Emergency Medical Hologram, I swear I half-expected it to say 'Please state the nature of the medical emergency') to keep going and, somehow, keep faith. I also loved the film's solution to the problem of the Omnilingual Archaeologist (a variant of, and often over-lapping with, the Omnidisciplinary Scientist). David the android spends two years learning every ancient language on Earth because he's an android and he can do that, and then uses his android brain to speak what is presumably some form of Proto-Indo-European with the big alien dude. It works, it's logical, it solves the problem and nobody has to come with a ridiculously improbable skill set.

Oh, and Charlie Holloway, who's also an archaeologist, is really hot. Best Movie Archaeologists Ever.

I do have to nit-pick a little bit. During the Exposition Scene, Shaw and Holloway wax lyrical about the images of the aliens they've found spread all over the world from different periods. I'm not sure there was much of an ancient civilization on the Isle of Skye, but I think maybe that's the point - it's a new discovery, so I'll let it go. But the Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites and Egyptians were not as solidly separated by time and space as the script implies. The Sumerians and Babylonians are both from Mesopotamia and the Hittites are from modern Turkey - they're separated by time, but not by space. And I'm pretty sure the ancient Egyptians, whose civilization lasted for millennia, traded with all of them. Still, it's totally worth a little inaccuracy to see pseudo-ancient images of funky alien dudes in that pretty hologram thing they have.

I didn't have room to mention these two. They were great as well.

I really enjoyed this film. It's not perfect - there were at least two moments early on where Brother and I said to each other 'that'll come in handy later', the plot devices were so awkwardly and uncomfortably telegraphed. It's pretty great though. It's steeped in the general awesomeness of great science fiction, which is sometimes good, sometimes bad. I suspect the similarity of the medical bed thingy's request to Voyager's Doctor is not a coincidence, and the computer cheerily saying 'Good morning David' definitely isn't. On the other hand, my absolute conviction that when Shaw finds herself in a tight spot towards the end, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy should chirp up and tell her at least life had been good to her so far is probably just my issue, and the fact that, in the final climatic and iconic moments, I was seeing Abed from Community mixed with Red Dwarf's Polymorph in my mind's eye is definitely my problem, and a testament to the enduring power of the first film. And I'm still unclear on what exactly David hoped to achieve in that crucial moment. But all in all, there is awesomeness here. Well worth the wait.

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