Monday, 30 July 2012

Hercules the Legendary Journeys: Let the Games Begin

There is a bandwagon in town, and I must jump on it. Thanks to everyone on Facebook and Twitter who told me about this episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, in which our hero founds the Olympic Games. Although I've been reviewing the spin-off series Xena: Warrior Princess, I've never seen any Hercules, so it was interesting for me to watch this (apparently Hercules makes a stand against the gods. Classical Heracles would probably be fairly baffled by that, but I notice they've kept Hera's legendary hatred of him, so that's cool).

The founding of the Olympic Games was often attributed to Heracles, which works out rather nicely for the show. The inclusion of Atalanta is also a really nice nod to ancient mythology. Atalanta was one of those virgin huntresses who were quite common in Greek myth, and she took part in the famous story of the hunting of the Calydonian Boar (when Meleager's uncles tried to take her prize for drawing first blood, she killed them - don't mess with her). For some reason she seems to be super-strong here - I suppose this was felt necessary to explain how she's able to win so many events.

She was also supposed to be the fastest runner in the world, so her inclusion in an episode about the Olympic Games is perfect. She told her father she would marry a man who could beat her in a foot race, but that anyone who tried and failed would be killed, knowing she would beat them all. (Unfortunately it turns out she was fast but stupid - Hippomenes beats her by throwing goddess-given golden apples at her feet, which distract her). The idea that's she's Spartan is kinda neat too, as not only were Spartans frequent victors in the early years of the Olympic Games, Spartan women were encouraged to exercise (to improve their health and therefore get them to bear stronger, healthier Spartan baby boys) so they were fitter and more likely to be good at sports than Athenian women.

It's great to see Atalanta but I wish she'd been allowed to wear a bit more, especially around the lower half. I know the ancient athletes competed naked, but everyone else here is dressed and I just don't need to see her butt cheeks. (I have no problem with nudity or skimpy clothing in general - I like Spartacus: Blood and Sand and True Blood after all - but I prefer it to be more even-handed. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer have done equal opportunity exploitation better - for every scene of Buffy in a tiny, tiny top there's a scene of Angel with his shirt off). I would also like to have actually seen her win the foot race - the episode cuts off before they get to it.

According to this episode, Hercules founds the Games because he wants to prevent two particularly volatile groups of people from fighting each other, and get them to let out their aggression through sports instead. This relates more to the modern conception of the Games than the ancient Games. The ancient Olympics were held in honour of Zeus - they were a religious festival, like the festival of Dionysus in Athens where the tragedians competed against each other for a prize for drama. Initially mainly won by Spartans, eventually they were open to all Greeks, so they also became partly a statement of Greek identity. All Greeks were allowed to participate but no non-Greeks - when Alexander I of Macedon (not the famous one) came to the Games, some objected that he wasn't allowed to take part because he was a barbarian and he had to prove he was actually Argive before he was allowed to compete. So, they were a rather exclusive event - open to all the disparate Greek city-states, so technically international, but also a marker of Greek identity as opposed to barbarian.

At Salmoneus' suggestion, the Games are called the Olympic Games, because he says this sounds suitably 'majestic' and 'Olympian' ('unless this brings up your family troubles' he adds to Hercules). They all stare at a mountain as he says it, which is presumably meant to be Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, this perpetuates a mistake so common it was made on BBC 3's recent programme Olympics' Most Amazing Moments, Richard Bacon claiming in his narration that the ancient Olympics were held on the slopes of Mount Olympus. The Olympics have nothing to do with Mount Olympus. They were held at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia in the Peloponnese, which is hundreds of miles from Mount Olympus. Although the coincidence of the names works out well for the modern Games, it was originally just a geographic description. From the show's point of view, it doesn't really matter, but this is a bit of a common mistake, so although the writers of this episode probably knew the real origin and chose to change it for the show, it's frustrating to see it as the audience may not know any better.

I quite enjoyed this episode. The show is clearly completely daft (as is Xena) but it's quite amusing and it seems to be genuinely interested in using Greek mythology as a springboard for its storytelling. The Olympic Games as depicted here are clearly the modern Olympic Games - open to everyone, supposed to help prevent war, everyone fully dressed at all times. But I think that's a good thing. This is a fun, family show and much of the audience will be children who don't know much about either the Olympics or ancient Greece. I think it's nice to use the pseudo-ancient Greek setting to talk about the modern Olympics and what they stand for. I still wish we'd got to see Atalanta's foot race though.


Hercules (re fighting): So senseless. When will they ever learn? The ancient Heracles would never have said anything like this and was reasonably keen on fighting, but I applaud the sentiment.

Hercules (to himself, re not sleeping with Atalanta): What is wrong with you?

Some unseen random: No woman's got any business in the Olympics.
Hercules: The Olympics are open to anybody. (Again, totally inaccurate - they weren't open to non-Greeks, and one possible explanation for why the athletes competed naked was to make absolutely sure that no women sneaked in. But again, I applaud the sentiment).

Disclaimer: The nuclear blast that destroyed those fiendish Mesomorphs was purely trick photography. The Mesomorphs are alive and well and living in Poughkeepsie.

Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Sweet Scent of Blood (by Suzanne McLeod)

As you know, I have a bit of a weakness for dappy vampire fiction. So, while I was at the SFX Weekender last winter, my brother and one of the OldestFriends were kind enough to buy me a couple of volumes of Suzanne McLeod's Spellcrackers series.

The series is fun, though you have to be prepared to leave reality entirely behind. Many fantasy series choose to reveal their more magical elements slowly, so you can get used to the world and the characters before suspending your disbelief in a big way. Robin Hobb's Farseer Liveship Tawny Man series, for example, begins with animal telepathy and progresses through human telepathy and animated stone dragons before finally breaking out the big, living dragons. The first volume in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has a zombie or two and three dragons at the end - I don't know how much fantasy will later come into the series as I'm still only halfway through Book 3, but the number of zombies, at least, is steadily increasing and there were some mammoths clearly inspired by Tolkien's oliphaunts in there as well. For the first two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Big Bad was a vampire - it was only in season 3 that the series became focused on a demon bad guy for more than an episode. And the first Sookie Stackhouse novel is about some vampires and one shifter - werewolves don't turn up until Book 3 and witches appear in Book 4.

The is not the approach McLeod has gone for. Within a few chapters, you've already encountered vampires, witches, fairies, a satyr and a troll. I think the troll was the point where I started to really go 'huh?' as for me, trolls belong on the Discworld, not in contemporary London. There's nothing inherently wrong with the Fantasy Kitchen Sink, but personally I prefer the many different elements to be introduced a bit more slowly.

Still, you will have noticed that there's a satyr in there. Satyrs in McLeod's mythology seem to be related to, though not the same as, fairies (going by the more authentic-sounding 'fae') which is an idea I rather like. Britain, Ireland and Gaul had legends about fairies, Greece had satyrs, there's a certain logic to the idea that the two are connected. The first person narrative tends to refer to him as a 'sex god' which isn't strictly accurate unless the protagonist's friend Finn is actually the god Pan in disguise, but I suppose it's close enough. Sex minor deity or sex spirit or sex creature don't have quite the same ring to them.

That brings me to the problem I have, though - the satyr is one of the (several) love interests. In fact, he seems to be filling the love-interest-that's-better-for-you role in a way, a bit like Sam Merlotte in the Sookie Stackhouse series, except there's some kind of problem involving vampire blood infection that I didn't really follow because to be honest, I was paying that much attention and there was an awful lot of mythology-forming information being thrown at me. Anyway, he's certainly the nicest of the love interests.

But - he's a satyr. He's got goat legs. Now, I'm not arguing with this as an interpretation of Greek mythology. Satyrs were associated with Dionysus and with satyr plays, which were light and comic, and associating them with sex is perfectly fair. No, my objection is practical. He's got goat legs. And a tail. And, you know, the whole lower half is that of a goat. Um, ew. This is why I don't get the mermaid thing either. When you add in the satyrs' similarity to Roman fauns, you get a love interest who's basically Mr Tumnus and the whole thing becomes even more disturbing on so many levels.

This is entirely different to werewolves by the way. Werewolves in this sort of romantic fiction are usually either wolf or man and when they're being romantic, they're, you know, man-shaped. Vampires are dead, which is thoroughly disturbing, but they're still human-shaped. Of course, there's plenty of ancient precedent for woman/not-human relations, from Zeus as an assortment of creatures to Pasiphae and the bull to Apuleius' woman/donkey mickey-take of the whole thing in the Golden Ass. And satyrs were forever chasing nymphs. But I don't care how much precedent there is for it, it's weird!

The book is quite fun, in a switch-your-brain-off kind of way. Charlaine Harris provided a cover quote which was generous of her given that the story is about a half-fairy heroine living in a world where vampires, who can mind-control people (I can't even remember McLeod's word for this, I just read it as 'glamour'), have come out and started running nightclubs and their blood has various pharmaceutical qualities (though more like an infection than a drug - there may have been an HIV metaphor going on there that I chose to ignore). I was attracted to the series because it opened in a cafe in Covent Garden, which is apparently where all the witches hang out. I love Covent Garden and I can totally imagine that, if there were witches and magic shops in London, that's where they'd be. So if you're into sappy paranormal romance with some murder and violence thrown in, you'll enjoy this - if not, I probably wouldn't start with this book.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Rome: De Patre Vostro (About Your Father)

And so we come to the final episode of Rome, sadly cut short before its time due to silly little concerns like it costing a fortune. As flawed as the mad rush to the end undeniably is, I'm still glad they did it - this story would not be over until Mark Antony was dead and Octavian on his way to becoming Augustus and it's great to see that happening here, even if it does mean that Niobe's children had to drink from the fountain of youth and stay the same age for ten years.

We open with the Battle of Actium - or rather, its imediate aftermath, since you have to be one of the most expensive films of all time to be able to afford the actual battle. But there's a rather good shot of the wreckage followed by Antony and the Godfather on a boat, looking all mussed up and sexy, so it's pretty well done.

The newreader announces the victory is suitably Augustan style, calling Cleopatra a witch and Antony her slave. Livia calls Antony a coward over dinner, to which Octavia objects while Atia stares off into the distance and wonders where she went wrong in bringing up Octavian (viewers of season 1 could probably tell her at some length).

Antony sends messages to Octavian asking for terms but Octavian wants unconditional surrender. He decides the only way to get through is by making use of the fact he's got Dodgy with him, while the Godfather is holed up in Cleopatra's palace with Antony. He hopes to persuade the Godfather to open up the palace if he promises him safety, demonstrating that he still hasn't got the hang of the Godfather's personality. To ensure the Godfather knows the message is really from Dodgy, Dodgy suggests telling him his children are well, and he hopes his own child is also well, covering this up as a private joke. Oh, Octavian. You trust so few people - what a shame one of them happens to be Caesarion's biological father...

The crane thing they use to get the messenger into the palace is ridiculous and hilarious. Presumably it's an homage to Plutarch's description of Antony's lingering death, which they don't follow here.

Inside Cleopatra's palace, Antony and Cleo are having another orgy, because, well, what else can you do when you've been thoroughly defeated, are at the mercy of a heartless young man you've royally pissed off over the years, and it's the final episode of a TV series set in ancient Rome. We've got to squeeze in a few more gratuitous sex scenes before we wrap everything up. The cameraman, knowing the end is near, gets very over-enthusiastic with the swirling camera movements, to replicate everyone's general drunkenness. Antony's got the eyeliner out again and added some exciting body art as well. Yum. Cleo is much more sober than Antony and wants to escape to the south, but Antony's still too much of a Roman general to be willing to do that. He also, in true Roman style, seems to have developed something of a death wish. He weeps as he points out their army now consists of a gang of sex workers while Octavian's messenger talks to the Godfather.

The Godfather, of course, refuses to betray Antony because he's still too noble for his own good. Antony declares that he wants to challenge Octavian to single combat, which sounds like a battle tactic from Narnia, not ancient Rome. (Actually Narnia was a small town a little north of Rome... but I digress).

Caesarion is concerned that Octavian is going to kill him (because he is). He really is Dodgy's son, he's the brightest one there. The messenger reports that Antony has finally lost it, but Cleo is still scheming and the Godfather is still overly noble. Afraid of riots if he burns down the palace with the Queen in it, Octavian decides to cherchez la femme via the messenger, while Antony practices single combat with the Godfather and without a shirt. He amuses himself killing the slaves for a little while and even the Godfather is in enough of a state of despair to start drinking.

Octavian has offered Cleo her life and a position as a client monarch in return for giving up Antony, alive or dead. If she doesn't, he'll burn the palace the next day with them in it. So Cleo, genuinely distressed and in tears, resolves to give him up just as Antony conveniently suggests that they should kill themselves to save from burning. Cleo tells him they should wait until the morning and kisses him goodbye, having told him, apparently sincerely, that the years with him were the happiest of her life.

Antony and the Godfather sit in the throne room, surrounded by unconcious party-goers, drinking. The Godfather is so fed up he even says 'fuck'. A lot.

Cleopatra's slave gives Antony a note from Cleopatra, having painted a red stain on her clothes. The note claims that Cleopatra has already killed herself and asks Antony to follow, at which he completely breaks down. He recovers enough, though, to decide to die as a Roman, with a Roman sword. He also tells the Godfather to get out and not to die there, and the Godfather holds the sword while Antony impales himself on it. And so he dies, much more quickly than in most versions. Alas, no more sexy James Purefoy (though he has to hang around playing dead for another half an hour). The Godfather wipes off all the make-up and dresses Antony in his Roman armour, then props him up on his throne.

Cleopatra reappears and the Godfather gives her one of his most judgmental Stern Looks. She walks dramatically through Antony's blood in her bare feet and, irritated by the judgment, wants to know why he hasn't done the Roman thing and followed Antony. He tells her he has to get Caesarion out and points out to her that Octavian wants to parade her though the streets in his triumph and that while he will treat her children with Antony well, he will definitely kill any rival son of Caesar. (Cleo is clealry desperate enough that her intelligence is failing her, as this should have been fairly obvious really). She thinks Octavian will spare Caesarion becoasue he's a child (in real life, he must have been about 18 by this point - since Octavian was 18 when Caesar died and 19 when he fought Antony for the first time and may or may not have hastened the deaths of the consuls Hirtius and Pansa, in real life, this argument would have held no water at all). The Godfather reminds Cleo that he knows who Caesarion's real father is because he was there at the time and tells her he plans to take the boy to Dodgy.

Cleo shows off their father's dead body to her twins and to Caesarion ('That is how nobility dies', she says. Er, thanks Mum. That's lovely.) and sends Caesarion away with the Godfather. The palace doors are opened and Octavian comes in. Cleo, who only knows one way to deal with Roman politicians, tries mild flirting but to no avail. Octavian is determined to have her come back to Rome with him and Cleo, with no desire to be paraded in his triumph, finally breaks down completely. She runs back to Antony's dead body, apologises to it and asks for the old woman.

Agrippa points out they should have taken Cleo because she might now kill herself. And indeed, she has got herself dressed up again, sat in the throne next to Antony's corpse, and her personal poisoner produces a snake that will kill her in 'forty breaths'. I kinda love that they went for an actual snake here. The more practical, and perhaps more plausible, option would be to have her poison herself with some kind of snake venom, or use a poison named for a snake, but here she does the full Shakespearean bit and has herself bit on the breast by an actual snake. It's melodramatic, it's ridiculous, it's fantastic. Octavian, Dodgy and a whole crowd of Roman soldiers walk in just in time to catch her last breaths. She tells Octavian he has a rotten soul, grabs Antony's cold dead hand, and dies. Agrippa asks what she said and gives this wonderful abashed look when he hears, as if he's thinking, 'Oh, yeah, there's no denying that really.'

Octavian sends Dodgy to look for the Godfather and Caesarion, at which Dodgy can barely contain his glee. The Godfather and the kid are camping out in the desert and the Godfather is trying to explain to the boy that he needs to forget about the whole being a prince thing. Dodgy rides up to greet them, because apparently he and the Godfather had the foresight, at some time in the past, to arrange a meeting-place in the middle of the Sahara Desert, as you do. They greet each other with the traditional manly hug. Dodgy then proceeds to tell the boy his mother is dead in much the same manner as you might tell someone the grocer was out of carrots, which understandbly goes down badly. Fortunately, Caesarion, still demonstrating intelligence unusual in a TV character, is aware that he cannot survive alone in the desert and stays crying by the fire. Dodgy and the Godfather plan how they're going to get Caesarion away (to Judaea).

I really expected the series to finish at this point, as least as far as these two are concerned. I pictured them riding off into the sunset with Caesarion, living out their lives somewhere in the middle east, growing into grumpy old men together. In fact, this scene is about 45 minutes into the episode, so it's not far off where the conclusion might be in a normal length episode, especially when there's more to be covered with the historical characters. But no, the gods of TV are not that kind. The Godfather has loose ends to tie up in Rome with the children.

Octavia and Atia are eating at their random tall table when Octavian turns up with Antony and Cleopatra's children and tells them that Antony is dead. (Actually he addresses himself to 'Mother' specifically, acknowledging their relationship, which is unusually thoughtful of him). Octavian dumps the kids on Octavia and says he plans to kill Caesarion soon.

Because the gods of TV hate them, Dodgy and the Godfather run into a bunch of Roman guards (Dodgy is in the middle of telling Caesarion a story about biting out a man's tongue and it tasting like chicken, because the old joke that everything tastes like chicken is not going away any time soon. In fact, I am given to understand, human being tastes more like pork - that's why the name given to it by some cannibals is 'long-pig'). Caesarion gives his name as 'Aeneas', which is kind of neat - somehow the idea of the son of Cleopatra taking the name of a Roman hero who dumped an African queen seems strangely fitting). But the child falls for the oldest trick in the book when one of the guards addresses him as 'majesty' in Egyptian and he replies as a king would. In the ensuing swordfight, the Godfather takes a usefully slow but ultimately fatal wound and begs to be taken to Rome to the children so he doesn't die in 'this fucking shithole'. This seems extremely selfish of him given that the leader of Rome wants to kill Dodgy's son, but there you go.

'One month later', Atia is not keen on attending Octavian's triumph. Octavia points out this is what she wanted all along, but this does not help. Dodgy, Caesarion and the nearly-dead Godfather arrive in Rome, where he introduces Caesarion as Aeneas (who chirpily says, 'Blessings!'). They carry the Godfather up to his deathbed, where his children still don't want to see him (my goodness that family can carry a grudge). They finally give in and come to see him when they see him holding hands with Dodgy, and thus we bid farewell to grumpy, occasionally dull, always ridiculously principled Lucius Vorenus.

Livia is throwing her weight around, giving orders to all the women involved in Octavian's triumph, who are processing out to greet the crowd in order of precedence. At this point, Atia appears, all done up in dramatic red and deep blue, and places herself right at the front, putting Livia in her place in the process (calling her a 'vicious little trollop'). She sweeps out and Octavia directs the most fantastic triumphant, cheeky grin at Livia as they follow together. It's immensely satisfying.

Octavian comes by in all his triumphant glory, though minus the red face paint (the dude holding the laurel wreath over his head doesn't seem to be saying anything - maybe he skipped the part where this guy is supposed to say 'remember you're a mortal,' what with planning to become a god and everything). He comes to stand with the women and we get a last couple of shots of Agrippa and Octavia, to remind us that that happened. Mannequins representing Antony and Cleopatra are paraded past them and Atia watches them go by.

Octavian is counting his money or something when Dodgy pops by to assure him he's not dead. Dodgy tells him that the Godfather is dead and that he killed Caesarion himself but threw the head away because it had 'gone bad.' Dodgy accepts a reward for killing Caesarion and immediately heads outside to join the 'Aeneas', who is determined to avenge his mother and 'redeem his father's name'. 'Listen,' says Dodgy, 'about your father...' and the series ends as we see them walk off into the crowd. We never find out exactly what Dodgy says, but since Octavian wasn't assassinated by Caesarion in later life, we can only imagine it was pretty convincing.

Although I would have liked to see Pullo and Vorenus ride of into the sunset together (and my taste is sufficiently cheesy that I might even have done that literally) this is a great end to the series. The scenes featuring Antony and Cleopatra are intense and dramatic. The story follows Plutarch (in which Antony is helped by a man called Eros, because Plutarch was not afraid of hammering his point in with an anvil) via Shakespeare fairly closely, though interestingly omitting any scenes showing Antony dying slowly and having a final conversation with Cleopatra. She talks to his corpse, but he dies instantly. Perhaps it seemed too implausible that Vorenus would do his job so badly, or perhaps Cleopatra's betrayal looks somehow worse when she has only his dead body to talk to, and he can't forgive her.

I love the final scene between Atia and Livia, partly because it is so cleverly written that it works on two very different levels. For anyone only familiar with Rome, this is a triumphant finale for Atia. As Octavia pointed out, she's got what she was after all along, even if the price was higher than she expected. She asserts her dominance and reminds the audience of her victory over Servilia, at the same time showing traditional respect for one's enemy and putting the upstart Livia firmly in her place. On the other hand, for anyone familiar with I, Claudius and/or the more salacious rumours reported by Tacitus and Suetonius, the dirty look Livia gives Atia and Atia's acknowledgement that Livia is certainly now plotting her downfall are a fantastic foreshadowing of future events. In real life, Atia was already long dead, but it's fun to speculate how Livia might have managed to bring her down between here and the start of I, Claudius seven years later, and if you follow this series with a viewing of I, Claudius you can see directly what she does in that series to Octavia, or rather to Octavia's son.

It's such a shame Rome was cancelled and couldn't give us a better-paced version of this story, or show us any of Octavian's reign as Augustus. But this is a great episode and a thoroughly satisfying end to a brilliant series, that seemed to me to get better as it went along. Now, we just have one more season of Spartacus to go before we can do a more or less complete televisual run through of Roman history from around 75 BC (Spartacus: Gods of the Arena) to AD 54 (I, Claudius), and maybe top it off with the years AD 79-81 (The Roman Mysteries). There's something to think about if next summer turns out to be as miserable as this year...


Slave (with Antony's sword in him): Really sir, I must protest!

Cleopatra (re Pullo): Is he a good man?
Vorenus: Define 'good'.

Octavian: She betrayed Antony so that she might live, why would she lose heart now?
Maecenas: You can have that effect on people.
Octavian: No, I was all sweetness and light with her. Charm itself.
Maecenas: Yes, that is your most disheartening manner.

Octavian: Caesarion has escaped with Lucius Vorenus. The man turns loyalty into a vice.

Octavian (to Atia, re Antony): I'm glad you're not upset. A display of grief now would be impolitic.

Atia: I know who you are. I can see you. You're swearing now that someday you'll destroy me. Remember, far better women than you have sworn to do the same. Go and look for them now. (Her final lines in the series).

Octavian (to Pullo): I'm very glad to see you alive. Old friends are a rare commodity. (Oh irony, how ironic you are).

Once more, for old times' sake - THIRTEEN!

All Rome reviews

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007)

Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is not a good film. We all know this. It is too long, rambling in both plot and tone, largely nonsensical with a horribly misjudged opening sequence and a peculiar ending the implications of which no one can quite agree on, partly because some of the necessary dialogue explaining it may have been cut.

However, there is some good stuff in this film. I'm particularly fond of the development of Elizabeth Swann into a pretty kick-ass character and her election as the Pirate King is kind of hilarious, though her battle speech doesn't work for everyone. (It's ironic that pre-battle speeches given by female characters so rarely go down well, considering one of the most famous pre-battle speeches in history was, in fact, given by a woman. Someday films about other women will get it right.) Poor Norrington, the character I would have just married in the first place thus saving everyone a lot of trouble, gets a redemptive heroic sacrifice. The sea battle goes on too long but there's some nice imagery in there somewhere and the wedding is really rather sweet (and very funny). Beckett gets a fabulously melodramatic and visually impressive death scene. And the poster art for this film was gorgeous.

There's one scene especially that I genuinely love, and would like to pick up in its entirety and transpose into a much better film. The early part of the film is dominated by our heroes' katabasis - journey to the underworld - to fetch Captain Jack (who, like Barbossa, can be brought back for reasons I can't quite remember right now. It was a very long and confusing film).

The pirates' experiences in the underworld are surprisingly reminiscent of Odysseus' journey there in the Odyssey, Book 11. The Homeric underworld, as depicted in Odyssey 11 (it shows up again in Odyssey 24 looking a bit different, but that's not the famous bit), doesn't get shown on film as often as Virgil's rather more showy underworld from Aeneid 6. (The underworld in Disney's Hercules, although it includes Charon, is a similar in some ways, is as the underworld in Orphée). Virgil gives us monsters, Charon the ferryman, fields of mourning, Tartarus, the river Lethe, gates of horn and ivory and blissful groves where dead warriors polish their weapons and feast forever (sounds kind of like Valhalla with fewer women - the Romans may have a dodgy reputation, but it was the Vikings who really knew how to have fun). In Odyssey 11, on the other hand, we get ghosts who can't speak until they've drunk sheep's blood, a quick sight of Tantalus and Sisyphus and... that's about it. There's not a whole lot going on in Homer's underworld, which is probably why, having drunk the blood so he can recover enough personality to speak, Achilles seems to regret his 'live fast, die young' attitude from the Iliad and says he's rather be a slave on earth than king of dead. No feasting or chariot-polishing here.

Of course, our heroes in this film are pirates, so they've already reached the underworld by sailing to the end of the world, just like Odysseus (with the added detail, thanks to better geographical knowledge than was available in ancient Greece, that it's freezing cold there). After picking up Captain Jack from his own personal hell, they head out again, eventually realising they need to capsize the ship to get free, because that way the film-makers can blow some more of the special effects budget and get everyone very wet. But before that happens, they sail through night in the underworld, and encounter the spirits of the recently deceased (possibly those who died at sea - it's been too long since I saw the film, I've forgotten the details!).

The ghosts are sailing towards our heroes in small boats. They stare straight ahead, with seemingly limited awareness of what's happening around them and no interest in the whacking great pirate ship in their midst. 'We are nothing but ghosts to them' according to Calypso. This is a bit different to the Odyssey, in which, although unable to speak and only shadows of themselves until they drink the blood, the ghosts are drawn to the blood and fight each other (and Odysseus) to try to drink it, but the lack of personality in the ghosts is very similar. It's only by addressing a ghost by name and yelling at them repeatedly that they can be roused.

We then get the typical tragic scene that crops up several times in the Classical world's regular heroic tours of the underworld, where our hero sees the ghost of a loved one. The Odyssey and the Aeneid both feature a crewmate who can't rest until he's properly buried, but more importantly, they also both meet a deceased parent in the underworld. And again, the Odyssey is the closer parallel, as Aeneas knows his father is dead and looks for him, but Odysseus sees the ghost of his mother and that's what tells him she's dead. The scene between Elizabeth and her father here is genuinely tragic and beautifully done. There is perhaps a bit more hope for a more interesting afterlife in this scene than we get in Homer - Elizabeth's father promises to give her love to her mother and the boats the ghosts are in seem to be going somewhere, hopefully somewhere more interesting, while there's little indication in the Odyssey that there's anything more exciting going on than a big puddle of sheep's blood. But largely, the spooky, blank stares of the ghosts and their dulled reactions are very Homeric. I love the underworld sequence (this bit of it anyway - goodness knows what was going on with all the Captain Jacks) and for me, it's the visually impressive highlight of the film.

I suppose while I'm here, I ought to talk about Calypso, who, technically, is also from Greek myth/the Odyssey. She is, indeed, a beautiful sea-goddess. But in the Odyssey, it's Calypso who keeps Odysseus on land, imprisoning him until forced to release him. She is the one who wants him to marry her and stay put (in on of those stories where the sexual violence so frequent in Greek mythology is directed by a female goddess towards a human man rather than vice versa), and he is the one who wants to leave (so that he can return to his kingdom and his wife). I'm fairly convinced that the main reason the writers chose the name for this character was because of the neat coincidence between the ancient sea goddess and the Caribbean folk music of the same name, though the representation of Calypso as a witch-type character in Dead Man's Chest is interesting, as essentially it makes her a blend of two characters from the Odyssey, Calypso and Circe the semi-divine witch (who also has sex with Odysseus, though he doesn't seem particularly unhappy about it - essentially, they have a confrontation, and coitus ensues). Unlike Circe, this Calypso doesn't turn anyone into pigs though. More's the pity.

I sometimes think, if we could take all the fun bits and the visually impressive bits from At World's End and fill them in with a few extra scenes to try to construct a plot that makes sense, it would be a really rather good film. In fact I suspect someone, somewhere out there on the internet, has already done so. At least it does provide this appropriately spooky underworld sequence and gorgeous imagery. When I first saw the film, mess though it was, I was half-convinced the shot of the ship against a starry night was worth the ticket price by itself!

More movie reviews

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards

I can't decide how I feel about this episode, which is an episode about stories and story-telling, incorporating elements of a clip show. My expectations regarding both these things are, perhaps, a little high since I've been watching a lot of Community lately (their recent Halloween episode, 'Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps', is a very funny deconstruction of both the characters and horror stories, and the clip-show-that-isn't-a-clip-show, 'Paradigms of Human Memory', has basically ruined all other clip shows forever). This episode is good fun and has a lot of really nice elements, but I just can't decide if they add up to a satisfying whole.

One major drawback, of course, is that episode 13 of season 1 is rather early for a clip show. I can see why they did it; it wouldn't really make sense for Gabrielle to be making up new stories when she has plenty of genuinely exciting material to draw on. And there's a big advantage to it as the show uses clips from Xena's origin in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys as well. It's great fun seeing Evil Xena, though it might make you want to watch Spartacus: Blood and Sand, since it's strangely like watching Lucretia wander off into Greek myth. It's also a useful reminder of her backstory for those of us who've never seen Hercules, so it does an important job for the series. Still, thirteen episodes into season 1 just seems far too early for a clip show. I'm not sure you've really earned one until the end of season 2 at least.

I try not to get distracted by issues of historical accuracy with Xena. This is a show that puts Julius Caesar and the Trojan War in the same period, after all, and it's not supposed to be historically accurate. But I do find that sometimes the complete mangling of ancient history takes me out of the story a bit, and that's a problem. So, for the record, the things that I wanted to scratch like an itch and that interrupted my enjoyment of this episode were: The Academy was a school of philosophy, not training for bards. The most famous literary competition in Athens was at the festival of Dionysus and it was for tragic plays. Euripides (I refuse to use the show's incorrect spelling) wrote tragic plays, he wasn't a bard. Obviously, we can't really know how ancient oral storytelling worked, but judging by the Homeric epics, it was probably composed as individual bards sang in dactylic hexameter. You would have to train and learn the metre before you could be called a bard - it's not just about telling an exciting story. Prose would get you nowhere. Also, you'd probably be singing, not reciting - not only did diction matter, you'd need a decent singing voice as well.

I know I shouldn't care about this stuff, it's Xena, not a history lesson. But some of these things are just so fundamental to the actual history of the ancient world, I can't help but feel mildly irritated by it. I don't mind what the writers do to ancient mythology - it's fiction and it's there to be messed about with. But the Academy, the festival of Dionysus and the profession of bard were all real, and their representation is so thoroughly bizarre, historically speaking, that it bugs me.

Also, why did they name one of the bards 'Twickenham?' Just call him Nuneaton and have done with it...


On the other hand, there were a lot of little things about the episode that I really liked. The student who just likes fight scenes is funny, rather like Shakespeare in Love's representation of John Webster. The way all her (male) colleagues admire and support Gabrielle is rather sweet, after her initial meeting with Homer's dad suggested we might be doing a story about institutional sexism (not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's been done). I like the way Euripides seems like he'll be very stuck up and self important, but turns out to be perfectly nice, just incapable of speaking in anything other than extremely flowery and archaic prose. And it's good to know that Gabrielle's already noticed the tendency for likeable men around her to end up injured or dead, and leave her either way.

The way the episode sets up the whole thing as a American college campus is fun and works well. We don't really know the administrative details of how higher education worked in the ancient world, after all and it's always fun transposing something modern into a fantastical context (Terry Pratchett's driving test-style assassins' final exam in Pyramids being one of the best).

I also like the way Homer spends the episode trying to decide on a suitable name to compose under. With all the scholary debate over how many authors contributed to the Iliad and the Odyssey (not to mention the Homeric Hymns) and whether 'Homer' was a single person, or even a real person, it's fun having him be a nameless bard looking for an identity. The explanation for why he's known as 'the blind bard' (ignoring the audience and telling his own story, he closes his eyes while speaking) is very neat as well - nicely done.

Homer's dad's insistence that he should watch his audience reaction and change the story if they look unhappy is, of course, primarily a comment about TV audiences and TV ratings (presumably particularly the ratings, since this show predates the widespread use of the internet for TV commentary. Though I seem to remember being on a Red Dwarf message board in 1995...) It's also a nice shout-out to the ancient practice of composing as you go, possibly by coincidence more than design.

The clips of old movies are fun. They're an interesting way of trying to emulate the nature of ancient literature. Tragic plays and epic poems told stories the audience already knew (though they might make quite drastic changes along the way) and that recognition and fondness for the material was part of their appeal. Modern storytellers can't rely on their audience having that familiarity with these stories, but by using old movie clips, the show can draw on those stories a good number of viewers are familiar with, and remind them that these are stories that have been told and re-told. Outside of comic book series and very long-running franchises (like Star Trek and Doctor Who) it's one of the best ways to try to achieve that effect in a modern context. Spartacus is a good choice for Homer's successful story as well. It's one of the best known of the classic ancient world epics of the 1950s and 1960s and it has a powerful and well-known story, with that iconic final scene easily recognisable. It would seem futile and churlish to complain that there were no gladiators in ancient Greece and that Spartacus, like Caesar, belongs a thousand years later than the Trojan War.

On the other hand, I can't quite shake the feeling that using these clips is cheating somehow. Tell your own stories! But this may be the ruinous influence of the brilliance of 'Paradigms of Human Memory' coming through again.

All in all, a fun episode. I think I'll enjoy it more a second time through, without spending the whole episode keeping up with a host of references to the ancient world, to twentieth century films and to twentieth century television. And Homer's cute, as he always has been in my head, which is good since he's playing the hot dwarf's brother in The Hobbit later this year.


Euripides: The cadence of your words played havoc with the fallen visage of my yearning spirit
Gabrielle: Huh?
Euripides: I liked it a lot

No comedy disclaimer this time, as the space was needed to thank everyone who made Spartacus. There was the usual disclaimer about the photoplay being fictitious, which always strikes me as not entirely true when one of your characters is a real historical figure, but there you go.

All Xena reviews

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Top Five Greek Philosopher Cameos

Philosophy - one of ancient Greece's greatest and most famous exports. Of course the trouble with philosophy, much like the trouble with its descendant academia, is that it is, essentially, a bunch of people sitting around in a room thinking. Occasionally they might talk to each other. It's not really the stuff cinematic thrills are made on.

That's not to say film and television are completely devoid of philosophers. I have some conceptual issues with Agora, but it's an excellent (and certainly dramatic) film about a fascinating ancient philosopher. Aristotle makes an appearance in Alexander. Marcus Aurelius, published Stoic philosopher, is a central figure in Gladiator and Fall of the Roman Empire. If we count natural historian Pliny the Elder as a philosopher, Simon Callow plays him wonderfully and tragically in The Roman Mysteries. And I've restricted this list to film and television - there are philosophers all over the place in novels, including at least one Gordianus book and Discworld novel Pyramids.

What I'm celebrating here, though, is a bit different. These are my favourite five comic cameos by ancient philosophers - Greek ones specifically. I've been fairly flexible in compiling the list - some are a bit more than cameos, some are funnier than others. But the point is, these are light-hearted references to the philosophers which are intended to have a bit of fun with a profession not always considered to be one of the liveliest.

5. Aristotle, The Muppet Christmas Carol
Really Aristotle? No - a Muppet-style bust of him.
Where is he? On a shelf on the wall of Headmaster Eagle Sam's office.
Does he actually do anything? Well, he's an inanimate bust, so no. The shelf falls down at a dramatically ironic moment, that's about it.
Will I understand Life, the Universe and Everything better for having seen this? For having seen Aristotle, no. The film will teach you to value love over money, that's always worth re-learning.
Why bother, then? Because this is simply one of the best films ever made. Certainly it's the best Christmas film ever made. And because the googly-eyed Muppet-style Aristotle head is hilarious.

4. Plato, A Matter of Life and Death
Really Plato? No, a statue of him, though the real Plato is discussed.
Where is he? Standing at the side of the Stairway to Heaven. Or, more accurately, the escalator to Heaven.
Does he actually do anything? Again, he's a statue, so no.
Will I understand Life, the Universe and Everything better for having seen this? Peter and Conductor 71 do discuss some brief bits of Platonic/Socratean philosophy. But they disagree with it, so probably best not to take it to heart.
Why bother, then? Because this film is even higher up the list of the Best Films Ever Made, one of Powell and Pressburger's extraordinary trilogy of Technicolor masterpieces from the 1940s (along with Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes). And because it's an intriguing question - if you needed a lawyer and had everyone who's ever lived and died on Earth to choose from, who would you choose? I agree with Peter - I wouldn't go for a Greek philosopher either. They didn't know the first thing about women.

3. Archimedes, Monty Python's Flying Circus, 'Philosopher's World Cup'
Really Archimedes? Yes, to all appearances - though the owl in The Sword and the Stone probably bears more resemblance to the actual philosopher.
Where is he? Munich Olympic Stadium, at the final of the International Philosophy World Cup. Germany vs Greece.
Does he actually do anything? Archimedes stands out from the crowd in this sketch because he's the only philosopher on either team who does manage to do something. Karl Marx for Germany comes close (my understanding of football is shaky but I think he's right - Socrates' goal was offside). But it's Archimedes who, with less than two minutes to go, shouts 'Eureka!' in celebration of his great idea - that maybe one of them should actually kick the ball.
Will I understand Life, the Universe and Everything better for having seen this? You will appreciate that in some circumstances, it's better not to over-think it and just to kick the ball. It's a decent enough life lesson.
Why bother, then? Accusing philosophers of being incapable of achieving anything practical is a cheap shot but what the heck, it works. And the little gold halos on St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas are brilliant.

2. Pythagoras, Red Dwarf, 'Meltdown'
Really Pythagoras? No, an artificially intelligent wax replica.
Where is he? Er, some planet somewhere. About three million years away from Earth's solar system.
Does he actually do anything? To be fair to Pythagoras, he tries. He's convinced there's a solution, probably involving triangles.
Will I understand Life, the Universe and Everything better for having seen this? Not really, but you'll be reminded that Pythagoras was the name of some random formula involving triangles you learned at school.
Why bother, then? It falls apart a bit towards the end, but this is a great episode of Red Dwarf, playing with the initial concept to give us Caligula teaming up with Rasputin, Gandhi doing push-ups, Lister's version of the history of World War Two and Rimmer finally getting to fulfill his greatest dreams of military command, with predictably diasatrous results. Funniest of all is Lister's attempt to describe the indescribable to the Cat - the execution of Winnie the Pooh. 'That is something no one should ever have to see.'

1. Socrates, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Really Socrates? Yep. Fetched directly from ancient Greece via time travel. (And some regular travel, presumably).
Where is he? After an exciting journey through time and space, he is eventually able, through mime, to deliver his opinion on San Dimas, California, circa 1989.
Does he actually do anything? Quite a lot - for Socrates, the main joy of the experience, and the reason he is so willing to be helpful to Bill and Ted, is that you sense he's doing more living in these two days than he has for a number of years.
Will I understand Life, the Universe and Everything better for having seen this? You'll come to realise that all we are is dust in the wind, dude. Heavy.
Why bother, then? Bill and Ted is one of those great '80s movies that were all about having fun, being a bit silly and building up to a rousing, feel-good ending. Plus, Keanu Reeves. Yum. They just don't make 'em like this any more.

More Top Five Lists

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Roman Mystery Scrolls: The Poisoned Honey Cake

This is the second volume in the series The Roman Mystery Scrolls, a spin-off from The Roman Mysteries for younger readers. In this story our intrepid hero, ex-begger-boy Threptus, is nearly drowned, poisoned and starved, but always comes out of it walking, talking and hungry for Cleopatra soup.

(Cleopatra is a chicken).

These books are great fun and Threptus is a lively and likeable lead character. The narrative includes just the right amount of new words and educational information, but told in a simple and easy-to-read style, and with clear explanations for the more difficult words (there's also a full glossary at the back). The adventure is exciting but not too scary, the plot at once serious enough to really matter (Threptus and his master Floridius will starve if they don't get work) while at the same time being light enough to entertain younger children (Floridius is a soothsayer, so his line of work is entertaining and often funny). There's less toilet humour in this book than the last one, which I have to say I was totally OK with, but kids looking for something to go 'ew!' at will thoroughly enjoy Threptus' second visit to the sewers. There's also some lovely wordplay (the latrine slave reminds people of a thrush, so that's what he's called - the Latin for 'thrush' being turdus).

The approach to divination in this book is fascinating. I must confess, I've always thought that most ancient soothsayers were big old fakes. Maybe some of the dream interpreters believed themselves to be genuine, but for the most part, I tend skeptically to assume that any reasonably successful soothsayer had his methods, like a fortune-teller or a medium, and they weren't prophetic.

There's a great story in Livy about how a keeper of the sacred chickens once falsified a sacred-chicken-feeding report and said the omens were good for battle. When the men found out he'd lied, the general put the chicken-keeper in the front line as punishment for falsifying omens, where he was quickly killed, but went to battle anyway on the grounds that he, the general, had received a good omen, so it was all fine. This tells me several things about Roman divination. 1. You expected to get the right result, probably by starving the chickens, as food dropping from their mouths because they were eating so greedily was a good omen. 2. No general changed his battle plans on account of chickens BUT 3. The soldiers' morale might genuinely be affected by a bad omen. So someone believed in them - but it wasn't the chicken keeper or the general. Essentially, if you're the one producing or relying on the omens, you're less likely to actually believe in them.

Anyway, Threptus is as surprised as I am to discover that Floridius genuinely believes he has some kind of divinatory skill, even though he supplements it by having Threptus spy for him and by making some of his schtick up on the spot. Over the course of the story, most of Floridius' prophecies and related miraculous occurrences have logical, practical sources, usually involving Threptus. However, there are a couple of incidents that don't seem to have any practical solution and that appear to be genuinely divine signs, or at the least extraordinary coincidences. There's also a dream sequence which seems most likely to simply be the product of Threptus' sense of guilt, but which prompts him to ask his still-living dream visitor if it was something more than that in a letter at the end of the book. Perhaps this is, in fact, a more accurate representation of ancient divination than my cynical conviction that all ancient diviners were old frauds. It seems likely that, assuming some people somewhere believed in these things, the diviners themselves might hold on to some belief in the possibility of divine assistance or miraculous foreknowledge, even though they manipulated and controlled their everyday work.

A very sweet Welsh chicken. Divinatory value unknown.

I read this almost in one sitting - it's a breath of fresh air, a short and sweet little story to cheer you up on a dull day (I've been reading George RR Martin lately - this was such a relief!). I'm very much looking forward to the day my pseudo-niece and pseudo-nephew are old enough for me to read it to them! I'll do all the voices and everything...

For more from Caroline Lawrence (who I am convinced must work 24/7 and never sleep), I've also reviewed The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse, the second in her new middle grade series The PK Pinkerton Mysteries over at Fantastic Reads.

All Roman Mysteries reviews

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (dir. Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier, 2012)

We went to see this film the other day almost by accident. There was hardly anything on, we'd already seen Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, our love for Doctor Who and mine for Mickey Smith couldn't quite overcome our sense of apathy towards Storage 24 and although I really want to see it, Brother did not fancy Friends With Kids at all (my friends have kids, his don't!). So I swallowed my concerns about not having seen Ice Ages 1-3 (I was in a room while one of them was playing once, but was paying so little attention I have no idea which one it was) and off we went to be entertained by a mad squirrel-thing for 94 minutes. And to my great surprise and delight, it turned out to have random Greek stuff in it!

Ice Age 4 plays with various jokes and tropes surrounding pirate movies and films about the sea more generally. The 'ships' in this case are big hunks of ice or icebergs, moulded into ship-shape (the shape of a ship, that is. I'm not going to bother wondering how prehistoric animals came up with a design based on a sailing ship that wouldn't be invented for centuries. Just go with it). Our heroes come up against a band of pirates led by a monkey/ape/prehistoric simian with really bad teeth. Hijinks ensue. (Brother did not know said pirate captain was voiced by the ever-awesome Peter Dinklage and therefore did not have my problem of being constantly distracted by mentally picturing Tyrion Lannister ordering a sabre-toothed tiger and an army of chipmunks around).

Where there are ships and pirates and fantasy, there will be Sirens - and indeed there were! As usual, these were only tangentially limited to Homeric Sirens, who lure sailors in with their voices (not their looks) aiming to wreck the ship. These are popular culture Sirens, who lure sailors in visually using their sexuality. Sure, there was some ooo-y music going on in the background and I think I remember Manny the mammoth blocking his ears up a la Odysseus, but it was the visual appearance that was really pulling people in. These were also Red Dwarf-variety Sirens, as they took on the appearance of whatever each individual found most attractive. I was hoping their real appearance would be strange winged women/bird-creatures, as on Greek vases, but they turned out to be more lizard-type things that ate their prey. That fitted in much better with the visuals of the rest of the film though (I wonder if confused kids will now think lizard-sirens are an extinct species from the Ice Age...).

Ancient Greece turned up again right at the end, as we saw the culmination of Scrat's quest for his acorn that seems to have lasted 4 movies so far. Or perhaps it's a new acorn. Anyway, Scrat follows a treasure map (because it's a pirate movie) to the land of Scratlantis, where he is greeted by Patrick Stewart (whose voice is instantly recognisable). Stewart is playing Ariscratle, the leader of a society of talking squirrel-things who wear white tunics and live in Scratlantis, a gleaming white city of pillars and colonnades which contains loads of acorns. Unfortunately for Scrat, the Scratlantians do not actually eat or hoard the acorns. Ariscratle tries to explain to Scrat that the path of wisdom is to resist temptation (or, er, something like that - I wasn't taking notes and can't remember exactly!) but Scrat doesn't listen and in his excitable attempt to grab all the acorns in Scratlantis he pulls the giant acorn that is being used as a plug for the whole floating city and sinks the lot, creating the Southern US desert in the process.

I couldn't find a picture of Scratlantis, the film's too recent. Please enjoy this image of Scrat and his acorn instead!

There's actually an interesting inversion of the Platonic myth here, probably more by accident than design. Plato's story of Atlantis is about a society that, greedy for power, tried to conquer the world, and were punished for it. Here, the Scratlantians are a wise and restrained people who have managed to invent philosophy, clothing and Ionic columns during the prehistoric era but whose civilization is destroyed through one individual's greed. The lesson, ultimately, is the same - don't be greedy, and don't take what isn't yours.

Also the squirrel-thing-Atlantis is really funny.

More movie reviews

My review of The Woman in Black on DVD is up at Den of Geek.

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