Wednesday, 22 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski, 2017)

He got a new dog!

This weekend I ended up, through a combination of timings, movie length and the preferences of my companions, going to see John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Great Wall at the cinema, despite the many other impressive movies I still haven't seen! I am a big fan of Keanu Reeves, who I think genuinely think is under-rated as an actor (OK, there's a certain similarity to his performances, but they work) and John Wick: Chapter 2 was by far the better of the two films.

Spoiler alert! I'm about to discuss the film in detail, including the ending.

The film is, of course, ridiculous. In interviews for the Empire Podcast Spoiler Special on the film, both director and star described it as such, with Reeves accurately describing it as 'ridiculous but fun'. It is over-the-top, totally amoral (enjoy watching people kill each other for money and/or over mafia business!) and, generally, nonsense. But it does what it does well and is an entertaining ride.

It's also a film make with genuine care and attention, regardless of how daft the plot and setting may be. That applies to the care taken in the depiction of guns, cars and martial arts, and the artistic choices made throughout the film. Director Chad Stahelski talks enthusiastically in the interview about his love for Greek and Roman mythology (he even uses the word 'plebeians' in everyday conversation!) and the film is jam-packed with references to Classical literature and ancient history.

These include but are not limited to: the names of Ruby Rose's mute assassin (Ares, the Greek name of the god of war, Mars in Latin), Bridget Moynahan's dear, departed wife (Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world) and Lance Reddick's concierge (Charon, the ferryman to the underworld); the death of Claudia Gerini's Gianna D'Antonio (slashing her wrists in a huge Roman-style bath in the middle of an ancient ruin, rather than allowing herself to be executed, the traditional method of execution/death for disgraced or condemned Roman elites); the setting for the middle act of the film, in Rome with a strong focus on the ancient forums and Trajan's markets between the 19th century Victor Emmanuel II monument and the Colosseum, and the basic nature of the plot, concerning Italian organised crime (which has its roots in ancient Roman culture) and the eternal cycle of violence and vengeance.

It's the eternity and inescapability of this cycle that is main theme of the film, and one of the reasons for the substantial use of Classical allusions. Underneath all the cartoon violence, the film is about the difficulty of escaping a destructive spiral once in it. Unlike the personally motivated revenge story of the first film, in this case, John Wick is pulled back into the cycle of violence by a prior commitment he has no strong feelings about, into a situation with no way out (since the first rule of assassination is to kill the assassin). He tries to break the cycle by getting rid of Santino D'Antonio, but the rules he breaks in order to do so only drag him down deeper.
Hercules and Lichas, by Antonio Canova.
Ironically, the original is actually in Rome.

This is especially emphasised by my favourite Classical allusion in the film, one repeated several times. In a museum in New York City, several conversations take place in font of a series of sculptures of the Greco-Roman gods, with, front and centre, a late eighteenth-century sculpture of Hercules killing Lichas. In Greek mythology, Hercules (or Heracles in Greek) is dying from a poisoned cloak sent to him by his wife, who thought it was imbued with a love potion. The cloak makes him feel as if he is on fire as it slowly kills him. In agony, Hercules catches sight of the slave, Lichas, who brought the cloak to him from his wife. He grabs him and hurls the unlucky slave into the sea.

The statue is a perfect summary of the film itself. John Wick refuses to give up and die, fighting for survival, but he is dying nevertheless; he has lost his home and all traces of his life with his wife, and turned his back on his life as an assassin, and while Winston gives him a stay of execution at the end of the film, it cannot last forever. However, he is determined to take down those who condemned him as he dies, refusing to go quietly but creating as much suffering for those he blames in his rage as he is able to do. It's a dramatic, moving sculpture and nicely lends the weight of ancient myth to the film.

I enjoyed the film a lot, even if sometimes it was for the wrong reasons (I could not stop laughing at the Matrix reunion between Reeves and Laurance Fishburne). John Wick belongs very much to a particular genre, but that is not an excuse for careless film-making, and everyone involved in this is well aware that however silly the story, it still needs to be produced in a way that creates a satisfying experience. Reeves clearly loves what he's doing - I'd recommend listening to the Empire podcast interview, as well as his interview on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's film review podcast, which are both a joy. It's that love and care that make this a thoroughly solid example of the genre and a good night out.

P.S. The Great Wall was pretty much the opposite of this film. Historical objections about the real reasons the wall was built are not really the point - it's fantasy, so of course the wall was built for different reasons in this alternative reality. The thing is, it's silly and reasonably entertaining, but displaying none of the love and care of John Wick: Chapter 2, and featuring millions of the green snot monster from outer space from a particularly poor episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though Pedro Pascal was funny, and I did like Tian Jing's kick-ass commander Lin Mae.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Escape from Rome (by Caroline Lawrence)

Fans of The Roman Mysteries, rejoice! This book is the first in a new series that forms a direct sequel to The Roman Mysteries. Set a few years later and aimed at slightly older readers (as you can tell from the slightly smaller type!), although this story features new, teenaged, lead characters, it also includes appearances from some of the main characters from The Roman Mysteries. While not resolved in this first volume, the series also promises to wrap up the main significant dangling plot thread from the end of that series as well.

The new leads are a likeable group of children descended from an African freedman, forced to run away to Britain when the historically unpopular Emperor Domitian has their parents murdered. I liked the book's treatment of race, which is accurate to the period. Racism certainly existed in the ancient world, and we encounter it towards the end, when a rich black character chooses to keep blonde, pale-skinned slaves (including one albino) in a reaction to a white man who had kept black slaves. However, in the Roman world, status and money were far more important than race, and that is accurately reflected in the book; this also allows the story to showcase a predominantly black cast of main characters in an historical story that is not about Afro-Caribbean slavery or US Civil Rights, which seems to me to make a pleasant change (not that there is anything wrong with those stories, but they do tend to dominate, especially in the Young Adult market!).

Like all Caroline Lawrence stories, the cast of characters also includes characters with disabilities, the less physical ones not well understood in the Roman world (like the Western Mysteries, this series includes a main character on the autistic spectrum). In addition to exploring how the children deal with their disabilities, the story also explores in some depth the effect such challenges can have on other children within the family, and that was nicely done, acknowledging the effect of the problem without ever implying that it was unsolvable or excessively burdensome.

The story also evokes a wonderful sense of place and highlights several sites that children lucky enough to be able to reach them might like to visit - in particular, Fishbourne Palace in south-east England, and the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, which now sits outside the train station for Ostia in Rome (as well as Ostia itself, of course, the main setting for many of the Roman Mysteries). Not being a very visual person, I always find it easier to appreciate a site when I can attach some kind of story to it, and this is a perfect way to get excited about a visit to Fishbourne! (More so than the Cambridge Latin Course, fond as I am of it!).

I also really liked the chapter headings, which are Latin words - a list with translations is provided at the back. Some are guessable from context, others need to be looked up to be understood - and I confess, I had to look one up myself! (For some reason 'fax', meaning torch, not electronic mailing device, has not been a major part of my Latin vocabulary so far). They are definitely a good way to improve anyone's Latin vocabulary. At the same time, it doesn't matter if the reader doesn't understand them or doesn't want to stop to look them up - it might even help to increase the suspense not to know what they mean.

This is a fast-paced, exciting and dramatic story that I really enjoyed. It reminded me of some of my favourite elements from classic children's literature, like the kitten that reminded me of a favourite Arthur Ransome character, and unsurprisingly the whole thing felt very much like a spiritual successor to Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth. I look forward to the next instalment - partly because there's still that dangling mystery from the earlier series that's oh so close to being solved...

All Caroline Lawrence book reviews

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood, 2016): A modern Iphigenia

Greek tragedy often sets a up a moral problem in which the interests of the oikos - the household, i.e. the family and family unit - are at odds with the interests of the polis - the city, i.e. the political state. In some cases, we as a modern audience can understand the dilemma - surely Antigone, for example, should be allowed to bury her traitor brother? And yet, we understand that Creon is tenuously holding on to hard-won power and nervous of any sign of frailty.

In other cases, however, we might find it difficult to see the choice as a real choice. When the goddess Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his young daughter, Iphigenia, so that the Greek army can get the right winds to sail for Troy (for an aggressive attack supposedly intended to retrieve his sister-in-law), it can be hard for a modern audience to sympathise. How could we ever consider killing a young girl in the hope of gaining a better wind?

At least since the publication of Jonathan Shay's excellent Achilles in Vietnam if not before, though, a number of scholars have been working on interpretations of Greek myth as stories which allowed the Greeks to deal with real traumas in a metaphorical way, much like the best science fiction and fantasy does in the modern world. A myth about a hero who is driven mad by a goddess and attacks his family, for example, may be an expression of very real incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder experienced, though of course not diagnosed, by returning Greek soldiers. In myth, the gods are the cause of the trouble, but these divine figures may be metaphors for more human causes.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia does not bear any particular relation to post-traumatic stress disorder, but it may reflect real experiences of Greek soldiers and the agonising decisions they have to make. We see almost the same decision, minus the personal connection, play out in Gavin Hood's excellent Eye in the Sky (which is also Alan Rickman's final on-screen performance, and a fitting swan song for a great actor). In this film, British and American forces face a dilemma - they have a chance to kill a group of dangerous terrorists, but doing so will almost certainly kill or severely maim an innocent little girl. What should they do?

Of course, in ancient Greece, drone warfare did not exist and this exact dilemma could not have happened. But enemy camps would not necessarily have been devoid of women and children, even in the ancient world. Camp followers would have been present, and some of them may have had children. Officers also sometimes brought their wives and children with them - in the Roman period, a group of mutineers were famously pacified when they frightened away the two-year-old Caligula and his mother. It is not inconceivable that an attack that would provide a strong tactical advantage would also kill or harm innocent children, and of course, any attack tended to result in the enslavement of the women and children on the losing side.

Agamemnon's specific dilemma (killing his own daughter) is unlikely to have occurred, just as the specific set of circumstances depicted in Eye in the Sky, while plausible, is fairly unlikely. But both Iphigenia and Eye in the Sky's Alia stand for all the young girls and boys killed or maimed, directly or indirectly, in warfare. The decision-making process in reality may not be so calculated or so personal, but any military attack, especially if it is anywhere near a civilian habitation, may bring with it innocent casualties, and those in the military must weigh up impossible decisions concerning the rights and wrongs of any such attack, decisions the rest of us hope never to have to face. That was a dilemma that affected the ancient Greeks just as much as it affects the modern military, and the fates of Iphigenia and Alia are a reminder of the true weight of those decisions.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Queen of the Silver Arrow (by Caroline Lawrence)

A couple of years ago, I reviewed The Night Raid, by Caroline Lawrence (author of The Roman Mysteries), a book written especially for dyslexic teenage boys and published by specialists Barrington Stoke. Queen of the Silver Arrow is a new companion volume focusing this time on female characters (The Night Raid was a re-telling of a story from Book 9 of the Aeneid, while Queen of the Silver Arrow re-tells a story from Books 7 and 11). Like The Night Raid, the content of the story is aimed primarily at older readers, but in simpler language and shorter sentences, paragraphs and chapters than you might expect in a Young Adult book.

Both books are, true to the source material, fairly downbeat. Without wishing to discuss the ending in too much detail, this volume works hard to produce a satisfying ending from a tragic story, and largely succeeds, mostly by making a point of the changing attitudes of the narrator Acca and her friends to the Trojans. The book is an inverse of The Night Raid in several ways, not just in focusing on characters of another gender, but on characters fighting on the opposite side of the same war, and the books work particularly well if read together, providing two difference perspectives on some of the same events.

The content of this book is not quite as violent as The Night Raid, but it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to battle scenes, and if any young readers catch the brief appearance of Nisus and Rye from that book in this one they might be a bit squicked out. It is interesting to see that the story also explores the use of make-up, clothing and hair-styling for young girls. I remember a (male) friend once complaining to me about the amount of time dedicated to styling in The Hunger Games (a similarly themed story in many ways), but I felt that was an absolutely essential part of the story, because so much of how people respond to young women is determined - however subconsciously - by how they dress, do or don't make themselves up, and style their hair. This story actively explores the use of hair, make-up and clothes to project what the young woman wants to project, and the ways in which that can be manipulated, which is interesting - as well as providing plenty of action and allowing its young heroines to hunt and fight alongside male characters in other chapters.

Classicists will enjoy spotting who's who and reading an enhanced and expanded re-telling of the story of Camilla. Like The Night Raid, the book echoes Virgil's Latin where appropriate, particularly in its description of Camilla's final battle (Virgil, Aeneid, 11.794-835). Most of the names have been kept the same here as they are reasonably easy to read, except Tarpeia, who is called Tarpi, as Euryalus was re-named Rye.

I enjoyed this book very much, and especially in conjunction with The Night Raid, as they make excellent companion pieces. Hopefully boys who enjoyed The Night Raid will be encouraged to read this, and girls who enjoyed this will be encouraged to read The Night Raid!

See my reviews of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries series here.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Imagining the Afterlife

Apologies for having neglected the blog somewhat lately - things have been very busy at work, but I haven't totally forgotten it!

One of the things keeping me busy is organising a conference to take place at Newman and the University of Birmingham next June. The conference is on 'Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World', and is part of a new project I'm working on about how people imagine the afterlife and how that relates (or doesn't) to real world afterlife beliefs. The conference will be inter-disciplinary and cover a broad range of topics relating to how people thought about the afterlife in the ancient world.

I'm planning to do some comparative work for this project, comparing modern Western depictions of the afterlife and how they relate to Christian afterlife belief with ancient depictions of the afterlife and how they relate to ancient beliefs. I may post a few related reviews here, some of which may not be Classical themselves, but useful points of comparison. Suggestions for useful books, films or TV episodes are welcome!

UPDATE: The conference programme is now in place here!

Thursday, 27 August 2015

10 Classics-themed beach reads

A few weeks ago, I contributed to a Den of Geek article providing geek-specific recommendations for beach reads, so I thought it would be fun to do the same with a Classics-based theme as well. I'm aware that most of us the Northern hemisphere have probably come back from our beach holidays already but never mind, it's never too early to start planning for next year!

Other than being good books, these recommendations are based largely on what I'm looking for in a beach read. Although Kindles have made it possible to read even the biggest George RR Martin tome wherever you want, I still think a beach read should ideally be relatively short, so that if you prefer to expose the paperback to sand, sea, salt, and (depending on the beach) rain it's not too huge, and you can reasonably expect to read the whole book during one short holiday.

I also quite like to read something appropriate to the environment when on a beach, so tend to avoid stories set in snow-bound mountains or similar, though again, this depends to an extent on the beach. (Classics-themed novels have an advantage there, of course, as Greece and Rome are quite warm - if you're European, chances are the beach you are on was once part of the Roman Empire).

And they should be reasonably light in tone for the most part, as convulsive crying because your favourite character has been tortured/sacrificed/behaved like a an idiot while reading on a public beach can be a little embarrassing. I've also restricted this list to novels, though I've often enjoyed reading non-fiction (especially travel literature) on a beach as well. There are a lot of mystery novels here, mostly because I like the genre, but also because the stories tend to be self-contained puzzles leading up to the satisfying conclusion of finding out whodunnit, so they work especially well as beach reads. (If you're wondering where my one of favourite Classics-based novels of all, I, Claudius, is, it was discounted for not being quite light enough in terms of readability - all those ancient-historian-inspired digressions - or weight, especially if you wanted both the novel and its sequel, Claudius the God).

I've been pretty broad in what counts as 'Classics-themed' here, so some of these are stories set entirely within the ancient world, while others just use Classical themes or include hints and elements of Classical mythology or culture.

10. The Evil That Men Do, by Nancy Holder

Between TVs in hotels, films on memory sticks, laptops, portable DVD players and so on, two-week holidays with no TV are much rarer than they used to be. But if you want something to read without requiring headphones on the beach, but find you're missing your TV, what better to bring than a TV tie-in novel?! I'm rather fond of official tie-in novels. Essentially fan fiction that's gone through a professional spell check, they're usually light, frothy and often good fun. This particular Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in novel comes with ancient Roman vampires, Bacchae and an amphitheatre - close your eyes to historical inaccuracy and enjoy.

9. Dead in the Family, by Charlaine Harris

I recommended Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries among my suggestions for geeky beach reads, and the same reasons still stand here - nice, hot setting, good pace, a fun and light read. The second, seventh and tenth books all have major Classical elements, and the seventh is one of my favourites, but I'm recommending this tenth volume as a really interesting representation of an ancient Roman character thrown into a modern context. If you haven't read any of these before and just want to give them a go the second book, Living Dead in Dallas, might be a better bet.

8. Poseidon's Gold, by Lindsey Davis

This is the fifth of Lindsey Davis' Roman detective stories told by private investigator Marcus Didius Falco. This story is lighter than the first few and stands more or less alone, and is set entirely in Rome  and Capua - no descriptions of wet and cold Britain or Germania here! It introduces Falco's father, a lively character, and features a plot revolving around stolen art and antiquities and is generally a good read and a pretty good introduction to the series if you haven't read any before (the first book, The Silver Pigs, is the one I think is the best, but doesn't reflect the slightly lighter tone of some of the later books so well).

7. The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still, by Malcolm Pryce

This is the latest entry in another series I'd recommended among the geeky beach reads. Not actually science fiction and fantasy, Malcolm Pryce's Chandler-esque pastiches set in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth are perfect if your type of beach holiday leans more towards windy walks on pebble beaches and bracing gales (as my childhood holidays did) than sand between your toes and bikinis. The downside is you'd be skipping to the end of the series, but the Classical parallels in this story - which features a Welsh Hercules and katabasis ice cream - are good fun.

6. Arms of Nemesis, by Steven Saylor

This is the second full-length novel Steven Saylor wrote about Roman detective Gordianus the Finder (two volumes of short stories are set between the first and second novels, and he has now written two prequel novels). It's set around the Bay of Naples, which was a popular holiday resort for ancient Romans, so it makes great holiday reading, though the plot is pretty heavy in places. As only the second novel written, it doesn't require much foreknowledge of Gordianus or his family, so it's a pretty good place to jump in, though of course, the first novel to be written, Roman Blood, is equally good - but includes more Cicero. For me, that's a bad thing!

5. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I have frequently compared The Song of Achilles to Twilight, and I stand by that comparison. It's fan fiction of the Iliad (which I suppose makes it 50 Shades of Grey rather than Twilight itself, but I haven't read that). The descriptions of Achilles are ludicrously over-done - I know, in the author's defence, that he is literally a demi-god but I don't think we need to hear how gorgeous and god-like his appearance is every five minutes. Two thirds of the book are teenage romance, followed by a final third in which it finally gets to the Iliad and gets really quite good. But, as I've said before, I read and enjoyed Twilight, which does what it does perfectly well, and I enjoyed reading this, too. The easily flowing writing, sweet romantic theme and, in the last third, fast-paced action make this a perfect beach read.

4. The Charioteer of Delphi, by Caroline Lawrence

All of the Roman Mysteries make great beach reads and I have, indeed, read several of them on a beach (or boat in Croatia, as the case may be). They're perfect for a holiday in Greece, Spain or Italy - appropriate setting, short length and fast-paced since they're middle grade books, hinting at a darker reality but keeping the tone reasonably light, again, because they're aimed at child readers. Most of them can be read independently of the others as long as you don't mind spoiling a few plot developments, up until The Slave-girl From Jerusalem, after which the last few books do need to be read in order so you can follow the story arc. The Charioteer of Delphi is the last truly stand-alone of the books before that final group, and the conclusion is one of the most satisfying of all - plus it's got exciting descriptions of chariot racing, which would have been my favourite sport if I'd been an ancient Roman (looking back at my review, I know a lot more about sport than I did when I wrote it, and about various motor sports in particular! I'd totally have been into chariot racing if I'd lived in ancient Rome). My absolute favourite of the books in The Gladiators from Capua, but for a slightly lighter summer read, this is the one I'd recommend.

3. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

OK, so this may not entirely answer the 'light' qualification, I confess. In fact, the first time I read it, I stopped after ten pages and had to be persuaded to continue by the hearty recommendation of OldHousematetheRomeone, because it was too depressing. But as soon as I got to the end of the first chapter I was hooked, because it is very fast-paced, making excellent use of the ancient technique of writing in the vivid present in a story on one of my favourite themes, gladiators. If you want something you can really get stuck into to the detriment of paying attention to anything else while you're on holiday, this is a good choice (and I can add, from personal experience, that hanging around Birmingham airport for hours on end is a considerably less frustrating way to start your holiday if you have this to read).

2. Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass), by Apuleius of Madaura

If you want to read something Classics-themed while you're away, why not read an actual ancient text? There are several ancient Greek romance novels involving pirates, kidnapping and main characters turning out to be African princesses, but I would always recommend this, the only complete surviving novel in Latin, sometimes known as The Golden Ass to distinguish it from Ovid's Metamorphoses (unfairly, I think - I enjoy reading this much more than anything by Ovid, Metamorphoses included. I don't care how beautiful his Latin is, I don't like his attitude). After a few isolated stories to kick us off, the main plot of the novel is about the trials and tribulations of Lucius, who is accidentally turned into a donkey while trying to turn himself into a bird. There's also a lengthy digression into one of the very few Greco-Roman myths with a happy ending. If you want some genuine and genuinely fun ancient literature to take to the beach, this is the one to go for.

1. Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett

Discworld is another series I recommended among my geeky beach reads, and there are several Discworld novels with a heavily Classical theme. The most Classics-y novels, conveniently, are both stand-alone novels that can be read alone without needing to know anything about the rest of the series, Small Gods and Pyramids (also Eric, a spoof of Doctor Faustus which, of course, features the Discworld version of the Trojan War, but which is a much shorter, illustrated novel and part of the Rincewind sub-series). Both are brilliant. Pyramids is slightly earlier in the series, but since neither are part of a wider group that doesn't make much difference. There are two reasons I've *just* given Pyramids the edge here. One is that Small Gods is heavier on the philosophy (both within the text, as in, it features philosophers, and as a reading experience) so for 'light' beach reads, Pyramids fits slightly better. And the other is simply that, though both are brilliant, I prefer Pyramids. If you've ever taken a British driving test, it's certainly a must-read, but even without that, it's a fast-paced, fun and occasionally moving novel, and a pretty good introduction to the Discworld if you haven't read any before.

Although, as you can see, I'm quite fond of children's and Young Adult literature, it's probably noticeable that there's no Percy Jackson on this list. I'm afraid that's because I literally tried to read Percy Jackson while on a beach a couple of years ago and just couldn't get into it. I ended up reading Michael Palin's Pole to Pole instead, which had a nice travel aspect even if not all of it fit the beach atmosphere! I'm sure I'll try Percy Jackson again some day.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

My Favourite Ancient Historical Movies and TV Shows

I'm going to be a guest panellist at Nine Worlds fan convention in London next week, which I'm getting quite excited about, as it looks like it should be a really fun event, and a nice break from textbook-writing, which is how I'm spending my summer (and the reason my poor blog has barely seen anything from me for weeks on end!). I'm speaking at the History and Supernatural tracks on the Saturday.

One of the panels I'm on is 'Favourite Historical Movies: what we like and why', in which four of us professional historians will be talking about - well, you can guess. We won't necessarily be talking about movies that deal with our particular area of research, and I can promise you that this article is not a spoiler for what I'm going to talk about next week, partly because I'm still trying to decide which of the many historical movies I love set in various different historical periods I want to talk about! But I thought it might help me to think about which of the many, many movies and TV shows I've watched featuring ancient Greece and Rome (or other areas of the ancient world) are my favourites, and why. And I realised that despite all the lists I've done over the years, I've never simply listed my favourites! So here they are. Though the whole list will probably have changed by tomorrow...

In an attempt to keep the list down to 10, I've only included things that might be described as 'period drama' and which are set entirely or mostly in the ancient world - so no Star Trek, no Hunger Games, no Stargate SG-1, no random Classical references hiding in The Lord of the Rings, no Narnia or Harry Potter - otherwise we'd be here all day).

Spoilers follow.

10. STARZ Spartacus (2010-2013)

Why do I love it? Spartacus is totally bonkers, but in its own way it's can be one of the most accurate depictions of ancient Rome you could wish for - the dialogue reflects the structure of Latin, the characters' attitudes are, for the most part, recognisably Roman and only on Spartacus can you see characters using an accurately reconstructed Roman public toilet. Of course, it's not all accurate - the many, many orgies, for example, are probably a bit over the top... but then, the whole show is completely, ridiculously, ludicrously over the top. Why doesn't anyone wear clothes? Like, at all? Ever?! But it's that utter ridiculousness - and pumping rock soundtrack - that makes it so much fun.

Favourite character: Gannicus. I love me some Crixus and Lucretia, but Gannicus is not only the only character in the whole show with a sense of fun, he's also the only one with two brain cells to rub together most of the time. Honourable mention for Surfer Caesar, who I desperately want to see more of. Come on Steven DeKnight, there's decades more of Caesar's history just waiting to be given the Spartacus treatment!

Favourite moment: Season Two (Spartacus: Vengeance) is the weak link in the series, as it meanders about a bit trying to find its way before Caesar and Crassus arrive to kick things into gear in Season Three, but the moment in Episode 5 when the grand arena that had been such a focal point in Season One and the prequel goes up in flames is quite something.

Quotable: I am for wine, and the embrace of questionable women! (Gannicus)

9. Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977)

Why do I love it? Zeffirelli's hyper-realistic approach to his material doesn't always work for me - I prefer my Shakespeare a bit more theatrical, for example - but I do appreciate it in this polished and well presented Jesus movie. What really makes it a favourite, though, is the incredible score by Maurice Jarre, which is sweeping, epic and moving. Robert Powell's performance as Jesus, while a bit wide-eyed in places, is also great and it's fun celebrity-spotting in the all-star cast.

Favourite character: Well, Jesus I guess. But I also have a great fondness for Peter Ustinov's wonderfully drawlly performance as Herod the Great (his delivery of 'you maaay saaaay triiiibe' is fabulous) and Rod Steiger's weary Pontius Pilate.

Favourite moment: The whole thing is beautifully shot and modelled after any number of famous paintings, but the moment when Jesus walks in to see Pilate after the whipping, wearing the crown of thorns and haloed (I see what he did there) in light is particularly beautiful.

Quotable: It's mostly Bible quotes so... you know, all the stuff about loving your neighbour and so on. Pontius Pilate says 'Ecce homo - Behold the man!' in Latin for no other reason than the cultural cache of the phrase 'ecce homo', which is quite amusing.

8. The Eagle (dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2011)

Why do I love it? I... I... I just really like Channing Tatum, OK?! And Jamie Bell. And it's beautifully shot, and well paced, and... I just really like Channing Tatum.

Favourite character: Jamie Bell's Esca is fabulously sulky. Not that he doesn't have good reason to be, what with being enslaved and all.

Favourite moment: I'm quite fond of the way our heroes limp out together right at the end.

Quotable: 'How can a piece of metal mean so much to you?' (Esca)

7. The Gospel According to Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Why do I love it? I love that Pasolini (mostly) sticks to one specific source and films that version. It's not that any screen version can ever reproduce the text exactly, but I like the idea that what we're seeing is, as far as possible, the writer of Matthew's version as interpreted by the director, rather than the director's/writer's choice of random selections from different things. You hardly ever see that in historical movies at all, never mind Jesus movies!

Favourite character: Well, again, Jesus... who is distractingly sexy in this version.

Favourite moment: The moment when Jesus tells the leper he just cured not to tell anyone, and in the background we see the former-leper run off waving his arms around excitedly and clearly telling everyone he meets. It's really funny!

Quotable: This film is literally all Bible quotes, mostly from Matthew's Gospel. So, you know, pick a quote. Something nice about love.

6. Rome (BBC/HBO, 2005-2007)

Why do I love it? Amazing production values from set to costume to music, awesome opening sequence, great acting (especially from Max Pirkis as young Octavian and I love James Purefoy as Mark Antony), humour, drama... Rome isn't perfect (it drags in places in Season One and I wasn't as struck on Vorenus and Pullo's story as I was on the actual historical stuff) but it's very, very good.

Favourite character: It's a tie between Mark Antony and Octavian. Though, just as in history, Octavian might just edge it. Both Pirkis and Simon Woods play him as so wonderfully intense, intelligent, Machiavellian and yet just a bit socially shy and uncomfortable and aware of his own oddness. It's a wonderful take on the character. I also love Allen Leech's nervous, nerdy take on Marcus Agrippa.

Favourite moment: Probably the execution of Cicero. Not because I hate Cicero that much (though I really don't like him) but because David Bamber's performance is so good.

Quotable: 'Early stages of an orgy!' (Agrippa trying to defend Octavia to her mother)

5. Hercules (Disney, 1997)

Why do I love it? How many of the songs would you like me to sing to you?

Favourite character: Meg is the other reason I love this movie. She's just awesome, which is why I inflict 'I won't say I'm in love' on my students every. single. year.

Favourite moment: The whole of 'I won't say I'm in love'. It's possible I over-identify with that song.

Quotable: 'You! Are wearing! His! MERCHANDISE?!' (Hades)

4. Jesus Christ Superstar (dir. Norman Jewison, 1973)

Why do I love it? Not only is Jesus Christ Superstar one of my favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (along with The Phantom of the Opera), this film version is brilliantly put together with spectacular performances from Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson as Jesus and Judas respectively, as well as great work from Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate, Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene and Josh Mostel as Herod Antipas.

Favourite character: See above. Saying 'Judas' feels odd, but he is also a brilliant character. And I do love Dennan's sneering Pontius Pilate.

Favourite moment: In the middle of Neeley's heart-wrenching rendition of 'Gethsemane', as the music breaks into dramatic chords, we see a series of classical paintings of the crucifixion which somehow get the torture and horror of it across more effectively than all the buckets of blood in The Passion of the Christ.

Quotable: So many great lyrics, including Pilate's fabulous 'Who is this broken man / cluttering up my hallway?' and Herod's 'Prove to me that you're no fool / walk across my swimming pool', not to mention the hilarious line sung by the disciples in the Last Supper scene, 'what's that in the bread? / It's gone to my head'. But for simple drama and emotion, Jesus screaming 'Just watch me die! / See how I die!' is hard to beat.

3. Monty Python's Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979)

Why do I love it? There are so many, many reasons (the Latin lesson from a Roman soldier, the very precise period setting of 'Saturday Afternoon - Around Teatime', the people at the back who can't hear the Beatitudes, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life...) but let's just sum them all up as: it's hilarious.

Favourite character: Brian, probably. Or the guy about to be stoned to death who points out it can't really get worse and starts yelling 'Jehovah! Jehovah!'

Favourite moment: I absolutely love the sequence where Brian falls off a tower, gets caught by a passing spaceship, is briefly involved in a space battle with aliens, then crash-lands right below the exact same tower. I've been to the tower, too. Lovely place.

Quotable: 'He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!' (Brian's mother)

2. Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)

Why do I love it? This is one of my favourite films of all time. The epic sweep of it, the cinematography, Hans Zimmer's fantastic music, Joaquin Phoenix's wicked performance as Commodus, Juba's final 'Not yet'... it's all awesome.

Favourite character: Djimon Hounsou's Juba. He's remarkably upbeat considering his circumstances.

Favourite moment: You know the one - this moment:

Quotable: 'My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next' (Maximus. Obviously.)

1. I, Claudius (BBC, 1976)

Why do I love it? I, Claudius is one of my all-time favourite TV shows, and I watch it again and again. The performances are great, the story is compelling and it's just over the top enough to be brilliant without going quite as far as Rome or Spartacus.

Favourite character: It's got to be Sian Phillips' brilliant, evil, scheming, completely awesome Livia, though I'm also very fond of John Hurt's interpretation of Caligula and BRIAN BLESSED's put-upon Augustus.

Favourite moment: So, so many. But if anyone ever tells you Blessed does nothing but shout, show them Augustus' death scene. One of the most impressive bits of completely silent and almost motionless acting I've ever seen.

Quotable: 'Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus' (Claudius)

Argh - how was there no room for Carry on Cleo?! Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me...

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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

I read Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell years ago - I can't remember it very well at all, but I do remember that I loved it! I especially loved the Jane Austen-style prose (right down to the spellings) and all the academic-history-style footnotes, which were brilliant. This isn't the only novel to use footnotes of course - all the Discworld novels have them - but the way these were constructed, as fake academic references, was particularly fun.

The BBC's seven-part TV adaptation of the novel just finished, and it was very good - it'll sit happily on my shelf next to Gormenghast and The Chronicles of Narnia (it shares one of the stars, Samuel West - a very nice actor who once took me and my friends out for a beer, and who played King Caspian in the BBC's Voyage of the Dawn Treader). I especially liked Lady Pole's description of the Gentleman's hair as looking like 'thistle-down' towards the end, reflecting his constant epithet in the book. I also loved how the Raven King looked just like Christopher Lee from The Wicker Man - not coincidentally, a reference to idea of survivals of Druidic, ancient magical rites in the UK.

Most of the magic in the story comes from Nothern European folklore, particularly relating to Faerie, to changelings and other worlds and 'Christians' kidnapped from their homes. I'm not much of an expert on folklore that dates later than AD 400, but I suspect the repeated references to 'English' magic at least partially reflect the folklore it's based on, as well early nineteenth century English imperialism. I think it's a mixture of Celtic (particularly Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Irish, and maybe Breton) myth and folklore, and possibly some Anglo-Saxon and more broadly French elements that might go into the mix to create particularly 'English' magic. There's also an emphasis on the North of England as the home of magic, possibly suggesting a stronger Celtic and possibly Viking influence, and less French. (Did anyone else get distracted by mental images of Robb Stark every time they said 'King in the North'? And don't get me started on trying to kill off Thoros of Myr...!)

There are a few Classical elements included though. Vinculus has a Latinate name, which makes me wonder if there's an implication that 'English' magic goes back further than Normans or Vikings or Anglo-Saxons or even the Romano-British Celts left behind when the Romans left - although the Latin name suggests Romans, the fact that the story is set in Britain perhaps implies a Druidic influence there (not that Vinculus is necessarily intended to be an ancient Roman or Druid - though it wouldn't surprise me if he was - but the magic inscribed on his body is perhaps Romano-British or Druidic in its ultimate origin, the magic the Raven King originally drew on).

The Gentleman also knows his Classics, as he shows in the spell he puts on Stephen Black and Lady Pole to stop them from telling anyone about him. The nonsense they speak is a rather nice and thematic re-telling of fairytales from the fairies' point of view, as Honeyfoot and Segundus eventually realise, though somehow no one seems to realise they are all about fairy abductions, and do in fact explain what Lady Pole and Stephen are trying to say, in a roundabout way. But what Segundus sees when he looks at them is a twist on a Classical motif - a rose on their mouths. In Rome, 'sub rosa' meant in secret (which is why Steven Saylor's series of novels about Gordianus the Finder are subtitled Roma Sub Rosa), and this use persisted into English, either remembered or rediscovered during the Renaissance. So a rose over someone's mouth means they are keeping a secret of some kind, or being forced to do so. The Gentleman may simply have known the English use of the term, but it certainly has a Classical origin.

One of Jonathan Strange's spells also has its roots in Classical literature. During the Napoleonic War, in Portugal, Strange reanimates the corpses of some dead soldiers in order to get some information. This use of necromancy for information-gathering is highly Classical, and in particular is reminscent of the gory scene in Lucan's Civil War in which the witch Erictho raises the corpse of a dead soldier to obtain a prophecy (supposedly about the future of Sextus Pompey, though the dead soldier is more interested in prophesying and talking about the underworld in general). As in the series, the corpse is decaying and disgusting, but the dead have knowledge the living do not.

These are just hints and echoes of the Classical world in a story much more concerned with the
history of England since the Norman conquest. It is possible that Clarke and the TV crew were not concerned with using or referring to the Classical world at all. However, the fact that these echoes of the ancient world bleed through, surviving years of history to remain influential, is testament to the enduring impact of the ancient world on the modern, even when we can't see it directly.

Edited to add: As my colleague Louisa Mellor at Den of Geek points out, there's also a definite Orpheus and Eurydice vibe to Jonathan and Arabella's story.

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