Classically Inclined

August 11, 2014

Film review: Hercules (2014)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:32 am
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We’re quite fond of Dwayne Johnson in our house. He’s got good form on historical-ish fantasy films (see The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King), plus he played a tooth fairy opposite Julie Andrews – what’s not to like? So we were looking forward to the new Hercules – Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as Autolycus and John Hurt as Lord Cotys basically have far too much fun chewing the scenery, which is in and of itself utterly glorious. It’s a film that’s having fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which immediately makes it more enjoyable to watch. But I’ve watched plenty of atrocious cinema in the name of classical reception in my time – so why did this not only feel like a more fun viewing experience than Immortals, but also a more successful one from the classical reception perspective?

One thing strongly in its favour is its choice of theme. Some recent films have got, frankly, a bit overawed with the idea of Family as a unifying concept for classical reception films, normally in terms of sorting out questions of Male Identity and Man’s Place In This World, and it gets a bit superficial after a while. (I wrote about this a bit in terms of the Clash of the Titans remake if you’re interested – link to PDF.) Hercules couldn’t care less – we’re not dealing with an identity crisis here, or at least, not one that springs out of a contested identity. What the movie is far more interested in are questions of deception and appearance – how do we know what is true? How do we know what really happened?

This attitude first reveals itself in a wonderful meta-awareness of how ancient myth actually worked, and allows the movie to wear that heritage lightly. Hercules, it turns out, isn’t a one-man show – he comes with a team. One of that team is his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), whose job is to sing the tales of Hercules and thus put fear into his enemies. Except the tales he sings are, shall we say, massaged. They are explicitly not the truth. In them, Hercules becomes the son of Zeus rather than an orphan; he alone slays fantastic enemies, without the help of his team; his skin becomes invulnerable and his lion skin becomes impenetrable. We see the creation of a myth happen in front of us, but as a deliberate choice on the part of the characters who are mainly interested in getting the next paid commission – which is easier if you have good PR. Sure, Hercules is strong and performs feats of strength, but isn’t it more sellable if he’s also a son of Zeus? That lightness of touch means the ‘myth is all created, innit’ feels freer than, for instance, Immortals‘ rather clunky True Origins of the Minotaur story.

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June 5, 2013

Film review: Centurion (2010)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
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This film forms a group of ‘recent films on Roman Britain’, the others being King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007) and The Eagle (2011). There are some interesting resonances starting to develop between these films, but each of them uses the Roman frame to do something rather different as well.

2852-FINAL_CENTURION 70x100op 50 %.inddThis is the first film I have watched for a while where I have felt the hand of the director shaping the material quite as heavily as I did here. The director in question is Neil Marshall, whose work was summed up by mrph2 on Twitter as “visit Scotland, die horribly”. I hadn’t realised that this was a Neil Marshall piece, but watching it, I felt that it had resonances with two particular films – Valhalla Rising (2009), a particularly dreadful Scandewegian piece with Mads Mikkelsen which tries to be Aguirre but fails, and Dog Soldiers (2002), a Marshall film about squaddies becoming werewolves whilst out on a routine military exercise in Scotland. The parallels with the latter were, unsurprisingly, particularly strong, given that the basic plot elements of squaddies, Scotland and people who don’t play by the rules all feature heavily.

But this brings us to one thing that particularly stood out for me in the film, which was its depiction of the squaddies in the Roman army as – well, squaddies. They drank a lot, pissed up against trees, generally did all sorts of squaddie-esque things. Now, there may be some ways in which this is an anachronistic reading of modern soldierly behaviour back into the past, but on the other hand, chatting to one of my colleagues about his research into the Roman army has made me realise that we have plenty of evidence for the sort of behaviour which Marshall puts on screen. There’s a tenderness to the depiction too – at one point, all the soldiers who have survived a Pict attack are sitting in a cave sharing a bit about their backgrounds, and it’s all a bit male-bond-y and reminding us that trained vicious killers are people too – so there’s a nice balance in representing these people are human rather than as either scum of the earth or alternatively as systematically heroic and noble. I can’t think of an example which has bothered to fill in the characters of the average soldier, as opposed to the commanders, as well as this film does.

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March 18, 2013

Film Review: Quo Vadis (1951)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:13 pm
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Although I’ve read a lot and spoken a little bit about this film, I’ve never actually sat down and watched it. So last week, I finally made the time (across two evenings – they don’t make films with that epic spread any more). It turned out to be a surprisingly appropriate film for Lent, because of the significant role played by the early Christian church in the narrative; it also finally made the chariot race in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum make sense! But I now have a better understanding of why Quo Vadis has remained one of the touchstones for classical reception in film, besides its comparatively early production date.

A couple of things about the film surprised me. Although I’d been prepared for it, the way Peter Ustinov played Nero for laughs but then moved the character into a darker and more dangerous place came as a shock. The clowning buffoonish character was sustained throughout the film, ending with a surprisingly heightened emotional scene when Nero had to rely on his spurned lover Acte to help him commit suicide before the mob who have broken into the palace find him. There are moments that are funny despite themselves – “Tigellinus! My robe of grief,” Nero utters as he is about to begin his musical performance over burning Rome, which he has had torched so he can sing convincingly about the fall of Troy. The film clearly aims to show how the spoilt and indulged emperor is abusing his authority, and thus why his fall is justified, but the pantomime aspects sit at odd with the portentous voiceover at the start of the film which labels Nero the antichrist. (I know that label forms part of the historical record and that Christian texts identify Nero in this way, but I wasn’t expecting to hear it in a 1950s introduction.)

The second thing that I was surprised by, and (if I am honest) rather annoyed by, was the relative unimportance of Seneca to the plot and the introduction of the Petronius romance subplot. I have no issues with Petronius having an important role, and with his death being a set piece – after all, it is in Tacitus. I do have issues with the joint suicide of Seneca and his wife Paulina being attributed to Petronius and a slave girl. (Yes, I know Nero’s soldiers saved Paulina from actually dying, the point stands.) It seems to me that Seneca is criminally underused, standing in for ‘template senatorial toady’ who wishes he could resist Nero as Petronius bravely does. Petronius gets to be a creative maverick who can take risks with what he says to Nero, but who unwittingly plants the idea for setting fire to Rome in his mind. Seneca could have been, well, anything – a tutor trying unsuccessfully to bring his charge back to the lessons of his youth; a cynic hardened to the inevitable outcomes of the emperor’s whims despite his philosophy; an optimist who imperils himself through trying to speak Stoicism as Petronius speaks Art. But no, he gets relegated to Standard Representative Of The Senate, thoroughly sidelined, and has parts of his story nicked and given to Petronius to boot. Colour me unimpressed.

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February 7, 2013

Film Review: The 300 Spartans (1962)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:50 am
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Shortly before this film arrived, I had been pointed to this particularly scourifying critique of Frank Miller’s 300 (2006). One of its main objections to Miller’s representation of Thermopylae is that it eradicates the contributions of other Greeks to the conflict and also conveniently ignores the failure of the Spartans to participate in the battle of Marathon ten years previously. Essentially, it’s a rant against Miller’s revisionist and glorificatory representation of Spartan militarism (of which, incidentally, the Spartans themselves would have thoroughly approved). “Gosh,” I thought, “I wonder whether The 300 Spartans, from which 300 descends, has these same kinds of problems with history; I shall pay close attention and see how it goes.”

Frankly, I need not have paid close attention. Unlike its modern counterpart, The 300 Spartans goes out of its way to emphasise the importance of the national war effort made to repulse the Persians, and how the combined powers of Sparta and Athens are necessary to combat the threat. It’s not easy, of course – there are isolationists among the Spartan governing council, for instance, who hold off the departure of the main Spartan force – but in the end plucky Spartan courage and Athenian seamanship win the day. We know they win the day, because the film is carefully book-ended with a historical voiceover that shows us the famous inscription in honour of those who fell at the battle in situ and gravely explains the importance of this event for World History. Just in case we were in any doubt.

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November 22, 2012

Film Review: Sebastiane (1976)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 8:47 am
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Derek Jarman is one of those film makers. He’s a bit of an enfant terrible, especially in this, his first film. There are some deliberate nods to Fellini’s cinematic style, and the whole Italian art house oeuvre clearly had a strong influence on the direction this film took. It’s not got the same directorial voice and chaotic association-by-accident that Jarman develops later in films like The Last of England (1988), and nor does he quite reach the levels of ultraviolence he plays with in Jubilee (1977 – the film which really established Jarman’s cinematic identity, and one of the few films I’ve actually had to stop watching half way through). Of course, what most people reading will know Sebastiane for is not the historic importance of Jarman’s historic role in British cinema, but the porn.

For Sebastiane is, ultimately, a film about homosexual desire, BDSM and nude lads running about a desert without much more than a strategically placed posing pouch between them. And sometimes not even that. For Jarman to have chosen the story of St. Sebastian as a vehicle for these themes is not actually that surprising, given the numerous paintings of the saint supposedly in his death agonies, but in reality displaying off rather well-developed pecs and fair tousled hair. (There’s an interesting article over at the Independent on how Sebastian came to be a homoerotic icon, if you’re interested in the broader historical context.) All that positioning had happened well before Jarman came on the scene, so the choice makes cultural sense. For that matter, a lot of the film actually consists of reconstructions of famous classical paintings by the actors, including a beautiful shot echoing Narcissus looking at his own reflection in a seaside pool.

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September 17, 2012

Film Review: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:01 pm
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I meant to watch this before giving my talk at the Birmingham and Midlands Classical Association branch sixth form conference earlier this year, but didn’t get around to it for various time-related reasons. They have, however, invited me back to speak again next year, and I’m intending to go with my other plan, which was to talk about this film in tandem with the new Clash of the Titans and The Immortals – but that, of course, that means watching this one first.

I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but I came away pleasantly surprised. The plot, based on the first of the best-selling series by Rick Riordan, has the eponymous hero discover that he is in fact the son of Poseidon, that he is suspected of stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt, that there is a whole parallel world for the children of gods, and that he had better find the lightning bolt or else there will be war between the gods. First, however, he must rescue his mortal mother from his uncle Hades… this leads to a road trip across America to collect pearls from various locations that will serve as the escape route from the underworld before a good old fashioned katabasis under the Hollywood sign. It is presumably not too much of a spoiler to observe that the world must survive in order for there to be sequels.

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April 24, 2012

Film Review: The Eagle (2011)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 12:29 pm
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On the Friday afternoon of the Classical Association conference, rather than go on an excursion I decided to stay behind and watch The Eagle (2011), in a showing which at times resembled one of the offerings of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The Eagle is one of four ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ films which have come out in the last ten years – the others are King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007) and Centurion (2010). The Eagle has a literary pedigree, in that it purports to be the film version of Rosemary Sutcliff’s popular book The Eagle of the Ninth, which I have yet to read (so this review will include very little about that aspect of the film). Tony Keen’s theory is that the four films also all aspire to be westerns – but again, I have insufficient knowledge of the western genre to make much of a comment on that, and I await Tony’s further development of his theory with interest.

But what I do have is a bit of a critical eye and a heavy dose of cynicism, on which these thoughts are based. First off – the cinematographers needed to be told when to back off with the whole light/dark/sun/shade thing. Particularly as symbolic of Marcus Flavius Aquila’s battle with his own sense of identity and failure and coming into the light from the darkness. This led to a number of scenes with faces half in shadow looking broody, shots of trees and shade falling attractively, people walking from darkness into incredibly bright light, shots framed so that the sun nearly obliterated everything in them – you get the idea. It didn’t help that the sun-god/Mithras figure object of worship thing at the start of the film was also pulled into this nexus of meaning to add a vague wifty spiritual overtone to it all. I don’t want to sound philistine – I’m all for meaningful cinematography and sensitive mise-en-scène. But that does include knowing when to stop.

The second thing to point out is the whole negotiating identitytheme, done with about as much subtlety as the light/dark theme. There are multiple elements of this – Roman vs. Britain, free vs. slave, father and son, soldier vs. civilian, soldier vs. politician. There’s a lot in there about the importance of naming and speaking (who gets to name whom, the significance of the trinomina when Aquila is passing as a slave among the Seal People, the fact that only Esca can speak whatever it is that’s passing for Universal Briton), which all links together the idea of naming as identity. Aquila spends a period as his slave Esca’s slave once they’re over Hadrian’s wall, thus illustrating the ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes’ cliche rather too tidily, which I think is the most heavy-handed part of the theme – but it fits into a general pattern in recent films set in the ancient world with a male protagonist (i.e. most of them) of a young man at a transitional period working out where he fits in the matrix of the world. In this particular case, Aquila has to cleanse his family name from the shame at his father losing the eagle of the Ninth Legion up beyond the border, but that’s used as a hook upon which to hang a whole load of other contemporary identity issues.

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February 28, 2012

Film Review: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:27 am
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When you get an e-mail from your parents saying ‘did you know that this film was based on the rape of the Sabine women?’, then you don’t really have much choice but to sit down and watch it. (I had been meaning to anyway, but that e-mail was the necessary spur to push the DVD up the rental list.) The people who I’ve spoken to about it have mainly remembered the choreography, which is amazing – there is a barn-raising scene that is simply phenomenal, not to mention a number of other beautifully organised numbers. IMDB tells me this is because the men hired to play the brothers were actually professional ballet dancers and gymnasts, and I can well believe it. The songs are also pretty good, although they do occasionally stray into that trap of the musical, the song which does not appear to be serving any demand of the plot. I am particularly thinking of Lonesome Polecat, where lovesick men chop wood and sigh in the snow. The song includes the line “a man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep”, which apparently (again according to IMDB) only got past the censors as no sheep appeared in that particular shot.

But what I’m actually interested in, aside from the dancing and singing and general silliness (and may I add that Howard Keel makes a very fine backwoodsman protagonist, and that there is a fine collection of facial hair on display throughout), is the classical reception involved in the plot. The film is based on a story called The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Benét, where the title obviously alludes to its classical predecessor, but a colleague informs me that it is also based on an actual event in the American West, where a group of men really did abduct women from the local town and take them up into the hills (whether they had read their Plutarch is uncertain). Their story had a lot less of a happy ending, as it seems to have resulted in a shoot-out with the parents of the women and the death of the abductors – but that wouldn’t make a particularly jolly musical, so the film plays with Plutarch instead.

The classical reception element takes a while to come through, because the plot begins with the oldest of seven brothers, Adam Pontipee, going into town to find himself a wife; he comes back with Millie (Jane Powell). While he seems to view her as essentially a household servant, she has a good influence on the all-male household (never mind the gender stereotypes here, it is the 1950s and I’ve not got the energy to deconstruct them) and attempts to civilize the rest of the brothers so that they too might obtain brides. The opportunity for their first attempts at courtship comes at a barn raising, but it descends into a punch-up between the Pontipee brothers and the men from the township, who are already pretty invested in keeping hold of the few women available.  The brothers, in true musical fashion, have been smitten by the women they have spent an afternoon impressing, and mope. Adam gets fed up and comes up with a solution – they will take their inspiration from the Romans, and just take the women they want! What could possibly go wrong? (She types, with irony.) The brothers mount their expedition, abduct the girls, there is a chase scene, and an avalanche blocks the pass so the girls are trapped on the brothers’ farm. Millie demonstrates outrage and protects the girls, but over the winter their rage softens and when spring comes we have a cheerful song about all the love and flirting going on in the barnyard. Including lambs. When the fathers come to reclaim their daughters, they don’t want to go, and the film ends with six surprisingly happy shotgun weddings.

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December 7, 2011

Film Review: Immortals

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:49 am
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Poor G is putting up with a lot from me in the name of classical reception at the moment – first Castor and Pollux, and now this. I feel I have an academically sound excuse for it, since Immortals looks set to be the third of a franchise trilogy based in the ancient world that the box office is probably going to rely on for the next few years (the other two being the Percy Jackson series and whatever happens to Clash of the Titans, sequel Wrath of the Titans forthcoming next year). While I don’t think it’s ever going to achieve Sunday afternoon/bank holiday cult viewing status, unlike the Harryhausen classical films, it’s part of a tapestry of popular culture that’s informing modern views on what the classical world was like. Or so I said when I argued my case for why we should go and see the film.

From a classical reception point of view, there are some interesting touches. Drawing very much off Dunstan Lowe’s recent paper at the Animating Antiquity conference, I was struck by the narrative of titanomachy that pervades the film; the human antagonist’s chief goal throughout is to release the Titans (echoes of “release the Kraken”, anyone?) and thus bring down the gods. This is a change from the men-as-god’s-playthings narrative or gods-revenging-themselves-on-humans narrative. The film also has an interesting take on how the gods engage with humanity, as Zeus (Luke Evans) is Terribly Keen that no gods should interfere in their godly form in the doings of mortals, going so far as to kill his son Ares (Daniel Sharman) for transgressing this boundary. The re-envisioning of the gods is also quite interesting, as it tries to get away from either the Laurence Olivier in White Toga mode or the Glittering Golden Robes mode (although it can’t quite escape the latter). I was a bit sceptical on Twitter when I saw the screenshots for the gods’ costumes, and I remain heartily scathing about what they had Athena wear, but actually, in context, it works – especially the extravagant headgear. I particularly liked Poseidon’s shell-inspired headpiece (yes, I know the loincloth is dreadful, it looks better when he isn’t standing still). Olympus is also revisioned as a rather decrepid, mouldering villa in the twilight on the side of a lofty mountain – a bit like that in Clash of the Titans 1981 gone to seed.

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November 28, 2011

Film Review: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:38 am
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As part of my preparation for the Animating Antiquity conference, at the urging of Tony Keen I thought it would be a good idea to watch some of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad films. Tony’s argument in his paper was that we can’t separate out Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans from the three Sinbad films in Harryhausen’s filmic corpus, because the mythical overspill from the classical world influences those films too. I have so far only managed to watch two out of the three – The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) – but I can very much see Tony’s point.

Seventh Voyage was the first in the trilogy and as such sets the tone for the other films. The overall trend here is rather more Arabian Nights than classical, at least on the surface; Sinbad, a prince of Baghdad, is to be married to the princess of Chandra in order to cement a political alliance between the two kingdoms. When Princess Parisa is shrunk by a scheming magician, Sinbad must sail to an island in order to recover the shell of a roc’s egg, which is needed for the magic potion to restore Parisa to her full size. Of course, the scheming magician Sokurah has arranged this, after being picked up from said island at the beginning of the film, in order to get hold of a magic lamp and its resident genie. Cue rest of film resolving both the resizing of Parisa and the release of the genie from the lamp.

The roc is a peculiarly Arabian Nights kind of creature, as is the whole Oriental setting and harem trousers worn by the female characters. Ditto magic lamps, which have a fine orientalist tradition. But the film owes an awful lot to the Odyssey as well, especially the encounter that Sinbad and his men have with the island’s resident Cyclopes (an especially beloved creation of Harryhausen’s fertile imagination). At the start of the film, it’s the discovery of the Cyclops, chasing  Sokurah clutching the stolen magic lamp, that signals to us as viewers that we are in the land of fantasy. When Sinbad and his crew return to the island to hunt for the roc’s egg, the Cyclops continues to play out his role as an Odyssean monster by capturing some of the sailors as they raid his treasure store, and putting one of them on a spit over a fire to roast for his dinner. (No brains, I hasten to add, were bashed out in the making of this scene.) Sinbad bravely picks up his Odyssean heritage, blinding the Cyclops by waving a burning brand in its face, and lures it over a cliff edge to its fate. Another Cyclops appears later in the film, but this time its main antagonist is a dragon which Sinbad lets loose from guarding Sokurah’s castle to distract it, and it seems unaware of its proud literary heritage. Still, the retelling of Odyssey 9 in the centre of Seventh Voyage does give the film some narrative tension, particularly about whether Sinbad and his crew will escape the cage (or larder) they’ve been stored in – it’s only the miniature Princess Parisa who is able to get to the bolt and shove it free. (more…)

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