strange_complex: (Me Huginn beak kiss)
A couple of weeks ago, [ profile] ms_siobhan and I spent a very enjoyable evening at the Howard Assembly Rooms in the Grand Theatre building, Leeds. The first half of the evening consisted of a lecture by Christopher Frayling, roaming around the various topics of a book he has recently published, which takes his friendship with the author, Angela Carter, as a spring-board for a miscellany of broadly Gothic topics. I must admit to not having a terribly deep knowledge of Angela Carter's work before we went. I have heard a radio adaptation of her short story, 'The Lady of the House of Love', which I thought was amazing; the film version of The Company of Wolves has been waiting patiently on my Lovefilm list for several years now; and that's about all I got. I definitely came away wanting to get to know her work better, though.

Frayling spoke mainly about their friendship and shared interest in the strange, the fantastic and the Gothic while they were both living in Bath in the 1970s. This was a world in which he had tried to get the local council to extend its series of plaques commemorating the visits of Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and Jane Austen to include Mary Shelley, who spent six months living there in late 1816 while working on Frankenstein, only to receive a snobbish and bureaucratic reply indicating that the author of such a sensationalist novel was hardly worthy of the honour. Yet there, in a pokey little house which she could barely afford to heat, lived Angela Carter, busily redefining both feminism and the Gothic on her own terms. She and Frayling geeked out together over vampire books, screenings of classic films (e.g. Nosferatu (1922)), the ballet and much more, while she kept notebooks of their conversations and used snippets of them years later in her work.

In between the bits on Carter herself, Frayling scattered snippets of his thoughts and experiences on related topics, showing us for example pictures of his visit to Romania in the mid-1970s (most of which looked more or less identical to my own from two years ago) or talking about the film we were about to see: its 18th-century origins, Cocteau's particular take, and how it had directly inspired much of Disney's animated version (e.g. the anthropmorphic household objects). He concluded with some thoughts on how the status of Gothic literature (and, implicitly, film) as a subject of study has changed since his days in Bath with Angela Carter, from the radical and innovative to the new mainstream.

Then, after a short break, it was on to the film itself. It is visually beautiful in a way I can't really do justice to simply by describing it. To 21st-century eyes used to watching a lot of fantastical screen drama, it may only appear averagely creative and opulent, but I'm quite sure it must have seemed incredible in a France only just emerging from the end of a devastating war, and it remains entrancing and engrossing today. The story itself is told fairly straightforwardly, but actually it was the first time I've really sat through a full telling of it in any form, and I spent quite a lot of the time, especially during the early stages of Belle's time in the palace, thinking "Gosh, this is basically Cupid and Psyche, isn't it?" You know - one of three daughters ends up living in a magical palace far removed from normal humanity with a husband who has strange powers, only appears at night and begs his wife not to look at him directly. Indeed, it turns out from the Wikipedia page on the original fairy tale that I was not the only person to have noticed that.

That page doesn't make any mention of Diana in the original fairy tale, however (although I wouldn't take that as proof that she isn't in it!), whereas she is an important element in Cocteau's film. His Beast explains to Belle that Diana's Pavilion in his palace grounds contains the true source of his riches, and entrusts her with a golden key to it which she conscientiously does not use. Her greedy human sort-of-boyfriend, though, has different moral standards, and breaks into it to try to steal the Beast's riches, only to be shot by Diana and transformed into a beast himself. So this looks to me like Cocteau going back past the fairy tale to draw on its Classical antecedents - not straightforwardly or directly, since it is Venus as Cupid's mother who is the source of his power, but rather by choosing an appropriate equivalent figure for the rather different character of the Beast, whose animalistic nature as a hunter is indeed Diana's domain. Besides, Diana had form for turning people into beasts as punishment: ask Actaeon.

There are fairly obvious metaphors going on here about sexual restraint as well, given that Diana-the-huntress is famously virginal. Cocteau makes a big point of the Beast respecting Belle's personal agency and autonomy, for all that she is his prisoner - itself a role she has chosen voluntarily to pay off her father's unwitting crime of cutting a rose for her. He tells her that he will ask her each evening to be his wife, but accepts her repeated refusals with grace and humility, treating her with nothing but kindness and devotion. When the Beast gives her the key to the temple of Diana, asks her not to use it, and she respects that wish, she too is choosing not to violate this potent symbol of his chastity. This is also a shift in their relationship, as he grants her a form of power over him, and she repays his behaviour by respecting him in return. Set alongside all this, though, her left-behind boyfriend, Avenant, stands as a contrasting example, quite happy to break into the virgin goddess' temple and plunder its treasures, and reaping the punishment for doing so.

I have no idea how this sits along the typical themes and concerns of Cocteau's work, because I just don't know enough about him, but anyway, that is how this one seemed to me. I'm certainly up for a bit more of his stuff, should the occasion arise.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
My final film watched of 2015, I recorded this one off the Horror Channel a while ago, and watched it on New Year's Eve. It's a Hammer horror classic, right from their glorious hey-day, in which the Germanic village of Vandorf is troubled by the spirit of a millennia-old Gorgon who comes out when the moon is full and turns people to stone. It is also one of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing's twenty-odd screen collaborations. I have seen it before, but a looong time ago - probably a good 20 years, I reckon.

It is almost really brilliant. Much of the usual reliable production team is here - James Bernard doing the music, Bernard Robinson the sets, Michael Reed the photography, Rosemary Burrows the costumes and Terence Fisher the direction. Quite apart from Lee and Cushing, the cast is great too. Richard Pasco, Michael Goodliffe and Patrick Troughton are all worth the entrance fee alone, but Barbara Shelley particularly shines in a role which really shows her range: kind, gentle and loving, strong-willed yet afraid and internally conflicted, while always remaining entirely convincing as a single, coherent character. I already loved her from Dracula Prince of Darkness (in which she is similarly wide-ranging), Rasputin the Mad Monk and Quatermass and the Pit, but she really excelled herself in this one, and I'm now thinking I should make a point of seeking out some of her other appearances.

What lets it down, though, is a story-line which doesn't fully work through its potential. There's a good idea on the table. But discussing it involves spoilers, and it is best to see this film unspoilt if you can )

I am also going to come right out and say that I don't think Christopher Lee is particularly good in this film either. His character is actually the good guy, who arrives half-way through the story, applies an open-minded rationalism to what is going on, figures out what the villagers are hiding and eventually dispatches the Gorgon. And this is something he is definitely perfectly capable of doing well, as his performance as the Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out shows. But for some reason he evidently decided to give his character in this film a sort of brusque gruffness which just didn't work for me. This isn't to say he's abysmal. He has some good confrontation scenes with Peter Cushing, where there is a lot going on emotionally on both sides of the equation. But of the two, Cushing's depiction of a man who, while rather unlikable overall, elicits our sympathy through the obvious mental anguish caused by his attempts to cover up spoiler's ) crimes, is distinctly more compelling and interesting to watch.

Finally, what can we make of the use of a Greek mythological creature in this film? It's only to be expected, really. Hammer in this period were clearly working their way through every monster they could think of in their search for suitable new material, and they were bound to turn to Greek mythology at some point. It also happens to make the middle entry in a nice trio with The Mummy (1959) and The Viking Queen (1967): Egypt ✓, Greece ✓, Rome ✓ - and I think there is clear hierarchy of priorities at work in the order they went about them, basically working from the culture with the most potential for macabre fantasy stories to the one with the least. The particular choice of a Gorgon I would guess probably springs from a fairly simple pragmatic equation - another spoilery bit here ), and her only non-humanoid attribute is the snakes, making the special effects relatively manageable too. (This film pre-dates Clash of the Titans (1981), so its Gorgon does not have a snaky tail - Ray Harryhausen invented that.) The effects are still pretty poor, and this is a major flaw in the film - but imagine how much more trouble they would have had trying to do the sphinx, harpies, Echidna or similar.

Meanwhile, Bernard Robinson took up the Greek cue in his set design, making a nice replica centrepiece of the Belvedere Torso for the entrance-hall of the castle where the Gorgon likes to lurk, which was used to good effect in turn by Michael Reed's photography:

The Gorgon castle.jpg

On one level, this was a reasonably obvious creative touch for a film about people being turned to stone by a monster from Greek mythology. And the particular choice of the Belvedere Torso is not difficult to explain. It's an extremely famous piece of Greek sculpture (technically a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, but that is true of most surviving 'Greek' art), of the type which you would come across pretty quickly if you picked up any book on the topic. But then again, there would have been lots of other options in the same book too, and homing in on one which expresses anguish and tragedy so eloquently through its twisted pose and fragmentary state deserves credit; as does the fact that its missing limbs and head both resonate rather nicely with what happens to some of the Gorgon's victims, and eventually also the Gorgon herself, over the course of the film. Possibly the Laocoön, with its snaky theme, would have been an even better choice - but then again I see why a replica of that statue would be considerably more time-consuming and expensive to make. Also, it left the stage clear for 28 Days Later to use the Laocoön statue in a very similar way many decades later - maybe even inspired by Bernard Robinson's set designs, who knows?

Overall, worth watching for Barbara Shelley, the Lee-Cushing pairing and the general Hammery goodness, but not in the first rank.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
20. Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb (2014), dir. Shawn Levy

I watched this on DVD from Lovefilm in August while writing my half of a co-authored chapter on Augustus on screen, so that I could check a) whether this latest entry in the franchise cast any further light on whether Octavius (Steve Coogan's character) is meant to have anything to do with Octavian / Augustus or not, and b) what exactly was meant by the character listed on the IMDb cast-list as 'Augustus statue'.

In case you too are burning to know the answers to those questions, I can report that Steve Coogan's Octavius still has no connection to the historical Augustus - it's just a classic case of name-borrowing. There were some distinctly slashy moments between him and the cowboy Jedidiah, though, that were just subtle enough to go unnoticed by children and a certain type of adult, but very definitely there for those of us who like to look for that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the Augustus statue turned out to be a bust of Augustus wearing the civic crown, who shouts to Octavius and Jedidiah from inside his glass case to try to warn them that they are standing inside a model of Pompeii, and are about to be killed in the eruption. In fact, the entire scene is on Youtube, so we may as well have it here:

This film is set in the British Museum, but oddly they don't have a head of Augustus anything like the one seen in this clip. In fact, as far as I can tell, the bust in the film is actually modelled after this one in the Glyptothek, Munich, also known as the Bevilacqua Augustus (after an Italian collection it once belonged to). The British Museum does have a very famous head of Augustus - the Meröe head, which was even the subject of its own little exhibition at the end of last year. So you might ask why they didn't use that. But we flip back and forth between careful reconstructions of actual British Museum galleries and completely invented spaces throughout the whole film, and besides it's not like this bust even needs to be Augustus at all anyway. Titus would have been a rather better choice, given that Vesuvius actually erupted during his reign.

The rest of the film was much as we've all come to expect from Night at the Museum films - fun, but not exactly life-changing. But there was one other scene which deserves noting down here for its Classical receptions relevance. The premise of the film is that Larry (Ben Stiller's character) brings the magic tablet which has been bringing museum exhibits in America to life to the British Museum, where obviously it has the same effect on the exhibits there. So as he and the pals he has brought over from America explore the galleries of the British Museum for the first time on the night of their arrival, all the exhibits around them are also coming to life for the first time - and behaving rather confusedly and erratically as a result. Put that idea together with probably the most famous of all the British Museum's galleries - the one containing the Parthenon sculptures - and what you get is the strange spectacle of figures from the relief friezes groping and leaning outwards, while half-broken marble bodies from the pediments limp and writhe weirdly across the floor.

It's good as an early scene in the film for building up creepy tension before the later and more threatening exhibits, but I also liked the angle it cast on the sculptures themselves. Art historians wax lyrical about how 'mobile' these sculptures are, but seeing them literally trying to move in a fantasy film throws into sharp relief what a rather silly thing that is to say about a solid stone statue. And then we get all caught up in stuff about Greek ideals of bodily beauty, including this recent exhibition which was actually at the British Museum (though after this film came out), which rest very heavily on looking straight past the badly damaged condition of a lot of surviving Greek art to a perfect original which now exists only in our imaginations. So, similarly, seeing these statues as broken bodies moving with a far-from-ideal grace rather punctures all that stuff too, and perhaps allows the statues to be the rather fragile artefacts they actually are, rather than the icons of something else which they are often treated as. So, in short, I came to this film for Augustus, but stayed for the Parthenon marbles.

21. The Wicker Man (1973), dir. Robin Hardy

We've reached late August now, when I went to see this with the lovely Andrew Hickey, miss_s_b and magister at the Hyde Park Picture House. We were so convinced it was going to be the (so-called) final cut which came out two years ago that we got ourselves all confused when it wasn't, and couldn't work out what version we had seen. But I think on sober reflection that it must just have been the short version - i.e. the film as it was originally released in cinemas in 1973. It's just that who ever watches that when you have longer versions available? So to us it seemed strange and unusual - hence our confusion.

It was a really nice, sharp clear print, though, with full rich colours and every tiny detail standing out in bold, eye-catching fashion, so I spend most of the film just wrapped up in small points of set-dressing and the behaviour of extras. I have seen it a lot of times, so as with the Dracula films, it doesn't take me long to tread the familiar paths of thought which the film provokes, and after that I am at my leisure to go off the regular pistes and into strange territories of my own. This time for some reason (perhaps because I was watching it in a gas-lit cinema), I became fascinated with the question of whether or not Summerisle has its own electricity supply. The answer is that although you see plenty of oil-lamps in interior scenes, so the islanders clearly aren't solely dependent on electricity for their lighting at least, Summerisle definitely does have an electricity supply as Howie switches on an electric light using a pull-cord when he breaks into the chemist's dark-room. So we must then ask how it is produced, because I can't somehow see Lord Summerisle entering into any kind of contract with a mainland electricity supplier. I think something like the hydroelectric power system at Cragside in Northumberland provides a suitably independent and Victorian solution, though, except that of course on Summerisle the source of the power would probably be tidal instead.

22. Tempi duri per i vampiri (aka Uncle was a Vampire, 1959), dir. Steno (aka Stefano Vanzina)

Finally, while I was in Whitby with DracSoc only three weeks ago, we had an early dinner on the Sunday evening, and then all piled into one couple's hotel room to watch this. Like so many of Christopher Lee's films, and especially the ones in which he plays vampires, I have wanted to see this for literally decades, so it was very exciting indeed to be hanging out with people who felt the same way. OK, so it is a '50s Italian comedy, with lots of jokes about put-upon men and busty ladies, which I probably wouldn't find interesting in the normal course of things. But what makes it so fascinating is that it features Lee playing Dracula-by-any-other-name (he's actually called Baron Rodrigo), only one year after his first iconic appearance for Hammer, and years before he would play the role again for anybody else. Well done to the Italian director for spotting the commercial potential of Lee in that role so early, and for helping Lee to establish himself as a European, as well as British, film star along the way.

Irritatingly, the English-language version of the film uses someone other than Christopher Lee to speak his lines, so you don't get his trade-mark voice. But the way he plays the ancient and noble Rodrigo is very much in line with his performance as Dracula in the Hammer films - demonic outbursts, anguished looks and all. Indeed, it would I think be possible to slot this film into the Hammer Dracula canon, since it is set at the time of its release, and no other Hammer story occupies that time-period. So this could be a little Italian vacation which the Hammer Dracula enjoys before turning up in London in 1972 to be 'resurrected' by Johnny Alucard. Certainly, he talks of having to move from tomb to tomb and castle to castle (presumably in order to keep his identity a secret), so we only have to add that 'Rodrigo' is an assumed name, and he can easily be Dracula in disguise.

The direction is quite different from the Hammer films, though, and doesn't always lend Lee quite the same gravitas as they managed. I felt the lack of shots allowing him to loom over the viewer, or close-ups of his blazing eyes. In fact, this director just didn't really seem to do close-ups at all. His characters were consistently shot at most from the waist up, and often in full length, almost like an early film. And actually the take on vampirism is pretty different, too. Lee's Baron Rodrigo is tired of his life as a vampire, and half-way through the film manages to pass the curse onto his nephew, meanwhile allowing him to retire to his tomb for uninterrupted eternal rest. I'd reconciled myself to that being it for Lee's appearance in the film, but about half an hour later he reappeared, thanks to a Buffy-like scene in which the nephew shook the curse back off again after a moment of true love, and eventually managed to end the film in happy comedic style, walking off set with an attractive young lady on each arm.

Quite an oddity, then, but I'm very pleased to have seen it, especially in company with fellow aficionados. And actually it turns out the whole thing is on Youtube, so I can give it another look whenever I feel like it. Meanwhile, there's just One More Time and The Magic Christian to go, and I will have seen every Lee-as-basically-Dracula appearance there is. A sad thought. :-(

And for now - that's me up to date! On films, at least. Books are a whole nother matter...

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Last weekend, the lovely [ profile] ms_siobhan and I set off on a Hammer horror-related adventure, the first leg of which took us to Luton. More or less every person to whom I mentioned the Luton part of this endeavour curled up their lips in disdain, from which I gathered that Luton's public image is more or less equivalent to Birmingham's. But, just like Birmingham, Luton is actually well worth visiting for the under-rated treasures it offers to the intrepid visitor. In our case, the main attraction was the Stockwood Discovery Centre - once the grounds of a stately home; now home to a multiplicity of attractions, including gardens, adventure playgrounds, a local history museum and the the Mossman Carriage Collection.

What was so exciting about the Mossman Carriage Collection? Well, it contains more or less every horse-drawn vehicle ever to appear in a Hammer horror film, not to mention at least 50 other films made between 1937 (Doctor Syn) and 1985 (Out of Africa) besides. Basically, if you have ever watched a British-made film or TV production from that period which featured a carriage, the odds are it came from this collection. The man behind it was George Mossman, a Luton businessman born in 1908, who realised just at the time when horse-drawn transport was passing out of regular use that it would be a) fun and b) a good idea to buy up and restore some of the many carriages which were by then languishing away in barns and coach-houses across the country. Lending them out to film companies was of course one way of helping to make back the cost of buying and restoring them, and on Mossman's death the collection passed to the Luton Museum Service in 1991.

Before we went, I spent the best part of every evening for a week screen-capping every single carriage to feature in a Hammer Dracula film, and combing through the pictures on the Mossman Carriage Collection website to try to identify them. I'm glad to say that on arrival, my identifications proved 100% correct, so below each cut which follows you will find historical information about the carriage in question as taken from the website, pictures of it as it appears today, and screen-caps showing it in use within the Dracula films. Any pictures with me in them were of course taken by my trusty travel companion and acclaimed professional photographer, [ profile] ms_siobhan. Oh, and it's important to note that the paint colours on the carriages today don't always match up with how they look in the films, but as the website notes explain for the Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus (first entry, immediately below), Mossman himself was quite happy to repaint them as required for film commissions. In most cases, I was able to confirm what previous colours each of the carriages had been painted by simply looking closely at the inevitable scratches in the finish to see the previous layers.

Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus, about 1880 )

Hearse, about 1860 )

Town Coach, about 1860 )

Victoria, about 1890 )

Brougham, about 1860 )

Round Backed Gig )

So far, so lovely, then. But after this, things got a bit frustrating. Because on arrival, we discovered that a wedding reception was going on inside the largest room of the collection, housing on my estimation at least half of the carriages. And we were not allowed to go in. That's pretty damned annoying when you have travelled all the way from Leeds to get there, I can tell you - especially when there is nothing on their website to warn potential visitors that this might happen. I'm pretty sure that there were at least three more carriages in that room which were used in the Dracula films, but I could only see one of them well enough to get a photograph of. Thankfully, it was the carriage I was second-most excited about seeing after the hearse, but I would really have liked to see it a lot better than I did - to say nothing of the other two which I think were in there.

Travelling Chariot, about 1790 )

There are a number of other carriages in the Hammer Dracula films which I never could identify on the Mossman Collection website, and after having visited as much as I could of the collection and looked through their excellent souvenir brochure as well, I have concluded that this is probably because they never came from it in the first place. From about 1970 onwards, Hammer must have been hiring from somewhere else - or possibly even making their own replicas, which would of course have had the advantage of being able to be bashed about a bit in the course of filming if needed. Certainly, I can't identify the Hargood family coach in Taste, the coach which Paul falls into from the window of Sarah's party in Scars, or the coach from the famous opening chase-through-Hyde-Park sequence at the beginning of Dracula AD 1972.

Meanwhile, the Mossman Collection Carriages of course had a wide and varied film career which went well beyond the world of Hammer. On the whole, I didn't worry about this - indeed, I didn't even worry about Hammer films other than the Dracula cycle. There's only so much film-geekery one brain can manage, after all. But I was excited to stumble across a replica chariot which its information panel informed us had been custom-made by George Mossman for use in Ben Hur (1959):

Replica Roman Chariot )

The fact that I was able to stand in it was in keeping with the collection's general policy, which was that genuine antique carriages had 'do not touch' labels on them, whereas visitors were allowed to sit or stand (as appropriate) in the replicas. This seems reasonable, but on the other hand I'm not sure they have thought hard enough about the heritage value of even some of the replicas, especially where they have appeared in really famous films like Ben Hur. Certainly, they don't draw very much attention to it. Only one small section of the museum mentions it, and this was the only information panel I saw which linked up a specific vehicle with a specific film. Meanwhile, as you can see in the photos, the decorative detail on the chariot is badly degraded. At first we assumed that this was just because it had been made in the first place of materials which had naturally perished over the years, but this is a picture of the same chariot from the collection's souvenir brochure:

Roman chariot from brochure.jpg

And this is it again in a video which was playing in one of the rooms of the museum:

2015-08-15 15.43.44.jpg

Judging by the hair and clothes of the people in the video, it must have been made within the last ten years at most. And meanwhile, when we looked closely at the chariot we realised that all the damage to its decoration is concentrated on the side of it which faces outwards from the arched entrance-way where it stands, and hence towards the elements. So in other words, at some point in the last ten years it has been placed facing into an open courtyard, and the result is that an iconic prop used in one of the biggest block-busters of the 20th century, which was fine ten years ago, has degraded into the state seen in the above pictures.

This makes me feel really sad, not only because it is a neglectful waste, but also because it is surely very short-sighted on the part of the museum management. Film tourism is a real thing, as our own visit proved, and the value of a prop from a film like Ben Hur is only going to grow as time goes by. Imagine being able to say at the time of its centenary in 2059 that you have a chariot used in that film! You know, a film which is famous for its chariot races... Except that a prop which is rotting away in the rain is going to be a lot less of a draw than one which has been kept in good condition.

In fact, I think the Mossman Collection could do with getting some film specialists to collaborate with them asap to draw up a proper and comprehensive list of all the films its vehicles have been used in, complete with screen-caps of the kind I've done here for the Dracula films, which could be displayed on their website and within the museum. They could reach whole new audiences by publicising that information properly - but right now, it is acknowledged only fleetingly and incompletely. It is up to geeks like me to create their own guide to the carriages used in the films they are interested in if that's what they want to see - and while I will do it and enjoyed the results enormously, even I would have been glad of a guide which covered just the other Hammer films at least.

A bit of a sad note there at the end, then, and the wedding reception thing was annoying too. But on the whole I would very much recommend a visit to the Mossman Collection, especially if you are a British film geek. You just might need to be prepared to do your own research in advance...

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
Cor, is it really season finale two-parter time already? This season has gone fast! And although there have been two episodes which I found weak (Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night), on the whole it has been pretty strong - above all for the key themes and motifs developed and explored from different angles from episode to episode.

This episode certainly felt like a logical culmination to the season as a whole, but it also served up plenty of surprises, as well as some interesting plot ideas and some proper emotional weight )

For all that the fact of Missy collecting dead people had been well established throughout the season, I must say I never quite expected Doctor Who to do a katabasis story )

On Missy herself, woo-hoo to the spoilery goodness )

Smaller points )

Finally, obviously I knew the title of this episode from an early stage in the season, which is partly what has encouraged me to keep running Water-and-Breathing Watch )

OK, that's it - I am caught up, and am now off to bed. Looking forward to the final instalment tomorrow!

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Still trying to catch up on reviews, and this one is a quick win, because I don't have all that much to say about it. I think I'm reviewing it a bit out of sequence, because I actually watched it in late August, when I spent a few days in Warwick with my sister and her family, and I have definitely already written up several films which I've watched since returning from that visit. But never mind.

I took this film down with me because Charlotte was spending quite long stretches of time breast-feeding Christophe, so she suggested bringing a few DVDs along so that we could settle down and watch something nice while she was doing it. And this one had been on my 'to-watch' pile for quite some time, since somebody recommended it to me at a conference on receptions of Hercules which a colleague of mine held. They had waxed lyrical about how incredibly funny it was... but I'm afraid we weren't entirely convinced.

The basic plot is that a guy working for a huge corporate cinema chain in Australia gets fired for contradicting his control-freak boss, and decides instead to re-open an old-fashioned single-screen picture palace on the other side of town. He pulls together a team, consisting of himself, a friend and a young lady whom they meet in a bar, and they decide that for their opening night they will show the last film screened in the same cinema: the Italian Hercules movie Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili. In other words, it is basically an early '90s Australian remake of The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), which tells much the same story of small, independent, old-fashioned cinema vs. the mega-corporate conglomerate.

Where this take on the notion differs, though, is in what happens when the opening-night movie is screened. Just as their excited patrons are streaming through the lobby, the team realise that the copy of Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili which they have acquired is in undubbed, unsubtitled Italian. So they have to do the only thing they can do in the circumstances - over-dub the film in English from the projection box, even though they've never seen it themselves and don't know the plot.

On paper, that certainly has potential, and for a while it was quite funny. But Charlotte and I both agreed that the joke wore a bit thin after a while. Looking at the running times for both films, I can see that the original Italian film must actually have been edited down to fit within the Australian film, since the Italian one is 94 minutes long, whereas the Australian one is 82. But nonetheless, from about 20 minutes into the Australian film until about 5 minutes short of the end, you are almost constantly watching a second-rate '60s peplum movie over-dubbed with jokes which basically revolve around giving the characters names like Labia and Testiculi, and making the plot be about which of the muscley strong-men will be able to give the best performance at the local night-club.

It's not that it was awful, but after ten minutes or so, we kind of stopped laughing at the 'satirical' over-dubbing, and agreed that the establishing story about the guy getting fired and the team re-opening the old cinema had been a lot funnier. From time to time, the story broke out of the over-dubbing set-up, to show what was going on in the projection booth - in particular, the team's increasingly ludicrous efforts to reproduce the right kind of sound effects for the film being shown on the screen, such as creating the appropriate sound effects for a hog roast by, well, roasting a hog in the projection booth. But those moments were too few and far between for us, and on the whole we weren't particularly impressed.

Maybe if you were watching it without the inevitable occasional interruptions caused by a small baby, there would turn out to be all sorts of incredibly clever and subtle plays around the relationship between 1990s Australia, 1960s Italy and the ancient Greek world, but if so they were largely lost on us. That said, the whole thing is available for free on Youtube if you want to make up your own mind. Knock yourself out.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Right then - it's time for some more Draculising! I watched this one a week ago with the ever-patient and accommodating [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy, after an absolutely delicious dinner of corned beef hash made by the former, and 'poshed up' via the use of sweet potatoes, mustard and sun-dried tomatoes. Yum! We had to watch it on one of my old-school video tapes, because it sadly isn't available at the moment on a region 2 DVD, which is frankly criminal if you ask me. I'm not saying it's the best Dracula film ever made, but if the whole series could be made available on matching video-cassettes in the 1980s, surely it isn't asking too much to expect the same on DVD now? I demand a boxed set, dammit!

Anyway. The series had made the leap to the 1970s with the previous instalment, Dracula AD 1972, which is one of my absolute favourites, and which for that reason I am saving until last in this run of re-watches. This film stays in the same era and indeed carries over not only Dracula himself but three other characters from the previous film (Lorrimer Van Helsing, Jessica Van Helsing and Inspector Murray) in what must be the most concerted attempt at continuity the series had ever made. But at the same time the secondary genre (as in the one being paired with Gothic horror to lend the franchise a fresh edge and appeal to new audiences) has completely changed. Where AD 1972 was a youth-focused comedy with a dark edge, Satanic Rites is a Srs Bsns Crime Thriller )

Character continuity and the possibilities for further unmade sequels )

Jessica Van Helsing - a half-cocked attempt at an empowered woman )

Dracula - hatches epic plans of pure evil, but can't walk round a hawthorn bush )

Rampant over-interpretation of the fact that Dracula has the reclining river-god Ilissos from the west Parthenon pediment on display in the foyer of his London office block )

As I say, I am vastly over-interpreting and I know I am, but that is half the fun of these films for me - the space which they leave for embroidering the stories to suit my own personal taste. I swear that wouldn't be as much fun if the original fabric wasn't so shot full of holes and rife with embarrassing thread-bare patches that simply cry out for my attentions.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Now that the Great Work of painting my lounge is complete, I have the time to catch up on a few reviews. I saw this film a month ago at the Cottage Road cinema with [ profile] big_daz, [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy, and was very impressed. Although I'm aware that it is a reworking of The Seven Samurai, I haven't seen that, so can't comment on the relationship between them. But this film certainly works in its own right. It has some cracking dialogue, a really strong cast, and a level of characterisation which goes well beyond what you would normally expect from a shoot 'em up Western. Three things in particular struck me about it as I was watching.

Firstly, the unusual prominence of issues of imperialism, interventionism and race. Obviously all Westerns are about the colonisation of wild landscapes, but this film seemed more interested than most in complicating the picture. This starts with the opening scene, in which Yul Brynner's character and a friend ensure that a native American Indian is able to be given a proper burial, as the local townsfolk wish him to, in spite of an armed gang trying to stop the undertaker from doing his job. This is still an essentially racist narrative of Good White Guys vs. Bad White Guys to which non-white people are largely incidental (in this case, literally dead), but at least it acknowledges race as a contested issue which has victims.

The theme is then continued by the fact that the village which the seven gunmen go to defend against bandits is in Mexico (rather than Texas or Arizona). This means that they don't have any social ties to anyone in the village when they agree to go and help, as it is explicitly positioned outside their culture, and huge play is also made of the fact that the villagers have almost nothing at all to offer in payment. The gunmen go partly because they enjoy fighting, but also because they want to protect the honest efforts of the villagers to build a life for themselves by cultivating the land against the dishonest attacks of the bandit Calvera and his gang.

The resulting story of brave, noble, technologically advanced Americans intervening to protect timid, primitive Mexicans is quite racist and / or culturally imperialistic, too, but again it is deliberately complicated. Four of the seven gunmen die in the ensuing battle, leaving Yul Brynner's character to observe that in the end it is only ever the farmers who win, while men like him always lose. So interventionism looks pretty unattractive and futile by the end of it all, and good honest productive labour a rather better prospect.

The second, smaller thing to strike me was how similar the scenes of the seven gunmen training up the villagers to use weapons and defend themselves were to the scenes of experienced gladiators training up runaway slaves in Spartacus (1960). Indeed, the whole stories of the two films are quite comparable, revolving as they do around the efforts of good but powerless people to free themselves from the burdens imposed by malicious powerful ones - though the attempt is more successful in The Magnificent Seven than it is in Spartacus. When I looked up the release dates of the two films to help understand the relationship between them, I found that Spartacus came out just a few weeks after The Magnificent Seven, so I suppose that both the training scenes and the overall narratives of each must reflect shared audience demands and shared production processes in the film industry as a whole at the time. It is yet more support for [ profile] swisstone's argument that what Classicists think of as 'Classical' films are not really viewed as a distinct genre by the people who make or watch them.

Finally, as tends to happen more or less every time I see a Western (which isn't actually very often), I found myself coming out of the cinema fascinated once again by how it is that this genre could have almost entirely dominated the film industry from the 1930s to the 1950s, but then dropped so thoroughly out of favour. I can understand why it was popular in the first place, as the central theme of building new civilisations in the wilderness is clearly pretty close to American hearts. Westerns of course they also offer plenty of opportunities for chases and gunfights, which always seem to be popular. I also understand how, with the advent of exciting special effects in particular, audiences switched their allegiance to things like SF and horror films, and indeed that in some ways the Western never really went away at all but was subsumed into those genres (see e.g. Firefly / Serenity for a particularly clear example).

But there must be more to explain their total reversal of fortunes, mustn't there? Changing gender roles eroding the appeal of the macho cowboy? Increased discomfort with the ideology of colonialism and imperialism at the heart of the stories? Shaken confidence in the American dream after the combined experiences of the Korean and Vietnam wars? The rise of the cold war making gun-fights on horseback look rather old-fashioned? Or, of course, a fatal combination of all of those, and more.

Let me know if you have any theories of your own.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
I never did finish reviewing the most recent half-season of Doctor Who at the time, so here I am belatedly catching up with the final two episodes.

This was Neil Gaiman's second Who story (after The Doctor's Wife), and it's fair to say that it wasn't as good as the first. There were a lot of good elements in there, but they didn't manage to add up to the sum of their parts - a lot like many other Doctor Who stories over the last couple of years.

The re-imagining of the Cybermen was definitely one of the good bits. They now look genuinely technological, rather than like men in suits, and it occurred to me that this change was deliberately referenced in what happened to Angie's phone in the story - a chunky old thing deemed by Cyber technology early on in the story to be in need of an upgrade, which is replaced with a shiny new model by the TARDIS at the end. Yes, these are definitely iCybermen to Cybus industries' old Nokia jobs. The way they constantly upgraded themselves, using software patches as much as hardware, and could move with supernatural speed lent them a new scariness which they always ought to have had, but have never been allowed before, while the scuttling cybermites were genuinely scary - especially when they came out of the chess-playing automaton. I still wish the Cybermen would rediscover their creepy inhuman speech patterns from The Tenth Planet, but I can now see good things being done with them in the future.

Obviously I also liked the Romanesque Imperium, what with its emperor, the Doctor pretending to be a proconsul, the eagle wings and laurel wreath on Clara's badge of command, and the (obliterated) Tiberian spiral galaxy. This was mainly just about conveying the workings of a galactic empire efficiently by using signifiers taken from a familiar real-world equivalent. But having done that smoothly and swiftly it bought space for a nice exploration of what it means to be the single individual with ultimate responsibility for the safety of an empire, who, even with the best of intentions, still sometimes has to do dreadful things for the sake of the majority. Porridge is explicitly coded as a 'good' emperor, and of course as several people pointed out when this episode aired there are certain parallels between his story and Gaiman's stand-alone Sandman comic August, which follows Augustus as he spends a day disguised as a beggar on the streets of Rome, and accompanied by a dwarf actor. But the influence of the 'bad' emperor stereotype (think Caligula, Nero, Commodus) on contemporary popular notions about (Roman) emperors is still clear from his line, "I could have you all executed, which is what a proper emperor would do".

We got some brief glimpses into the dark side of the Doctor, which I usually like, but which here mainly left me with a sense of how much further they could have been taken. I liked seeing him unable to help admiring the cybermites, actually telling one of them 'you are beautiful!' even when he has just warned whoever might be watching him through it that the children are under his protection. And I liked that the Cyber Planner was also able to take control of nearly half of his brain awfully easily, almost as though there's a big part of him which is pretty open to megalomaniacal plans to take over the universe. But on the whole the good Doctor, bad Doctor struggle fell flat for me.

In fairness, psychological battles are not very easy to portray on screen. You can either depict a clear good vs. evil battle or paint a convincing portrayal of a character genuinely torn between two options who might go either way, but not both. This story went for clarity, but in the process it ditched a lot of the potential horror and tension which could have come out of the situation. The 'bad' Doctor was really just the Cyber Planner, while the 'good' Doctor remained himself, always distinct and articulate throughout the struggle. So we never really saw 'our' Doctor being drawn towards evil, or feared that he might succumb to it. And that's before even getting into the awkward shifts between portraying the struggle as seen to external observers and the struggle playing out within his head.

I also didn't think that what I understood to be the moral issue at the core of the story was well enough articulated or worked through on screen. OK, so there's quite a lot of set-up about how the human empire has got into the habit of destroying whole planets in order to contain the Cybermen. This potentially has a lot of resonances for the Doctor, who apparently faced a similar issue himself in the Time War, not to mention with the Daleks in Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways and the Pyroviles in The Fires of Pompeii. But when the issued is raised directly at the end of the story he sounds very casual about it. He's encouraging the emperor to detonate the bomb, saying that surely that's a price worth paying to stop the Cybermen. And that would be fine if we knew that he knew it wouldn't actually kill everyone with him on the planet (including Clara and the children), but merely prompt the Imperium to locate the emperor and pull him (and everyone else) back to his ship. I'm prepared to believe that that was something the Doctor knew all along and was part of his plan, but there should have been at least a hint to that effect on screen at some stage for the moral arc of the story to work properly.

And it's a much more minor issue, but why make a big thing of the Comical Castle being comical, when it fact it wasn't - not even slightly. Just one scene in which a Cyberman came perilously close but then fell foul of a distorted mirror, automated mannequin or false floor would have been enough pay-off from that set-up, but we didn't get it - which looks like poor script-editing to me.

Finally, I was so sure, along with the rest of fandom, that we were getting a sequence of themed references to previous Doctors in each episode of this half-season. But this one, where we should have expected a Sixth Doctor reference, is where the theory fell down. It's not that there weren't any. This is a season working hard to remind us of the programme's past, in keeping with other strategies for the anniversary year like the monthly short stories and BFI screenings. So the Sixth Doctor appeared directly in the montage of past incarnations that the Cyber Planner flicks through within the Doctor's head. But so did all the others, while there was no line or setting with the same ostentatious feel as the references to previous Doctors in the other stories to foreground Six particularly. So I guess that was either wishful thinking from fandom or a genuine intention on Moffat's part which he only half carried through. Like so much else in Doctor Who these days, it's difficult to be sure.

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strange_complex: (Corpus Agrimensorum colonia)
Ludicrous though this may seem, I am still working through my 2011 book reviews. So here's a review of a book I read a year ago. Yay!

I bought this after reading an enthusiastic review of it on [ profile] nwhyte's journal, and was glad I had done so. It tells the lively, funny and yet also tragic tale of Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrant parents living in Roman London at the time of the emperor Septimius Severus. Spoilerific plot summary )

I was a little apprehensive before I started reading about the fact that the book is written entirely in verse, but I didn't need to be. This isn't the dull, pretentious poetry of school anthologies, but lively rhythmic stanzas which rattle along, sparkling with wit and infused with Evaristo's love of language and detail. A fairly typical extract runs thus )

That gives a pretty good idea of how Evaristo captures the feeling of a multi-ethnic empire, blending loan-words from Latin, cod-Latin and several other European languages into Zuleika's English, which itself expresses her unique blend of a street-urchin upbringing and the education which her husband has paid for. The balance varies from character to character, so that Zuleika's Sudanese parents speak with a more obviously exotic accent than she does, her bar-keeper friend Venus is a cheerful cockney who calls her 'ducky', and even the emperor himself uses the halting African accent which the Historia Augusta claims he retained into old age. And modern London is all part of the mix, with it night-life, its people and its place-names recognisable amongst the dinner-parties, amphitheatres and atria of the Roman city. It works well - not over-done or obscuring the differences between the two cultures, but helping to bridge the gulf between present and past, and revealing the cultural differences between the Romans and us all the more strongly for putting them alongside the similarities.

Evaristo wrote this book during a period as writer-in-residence at the Museum of London, and it's clear from the funeral instructions which Zuleika delivers to her life-long friend Alba as she dies that her character was inspired by the occupant of the lavish Spitalfields burial found in 1999. Actually this was recognised pretty much from the start as belonging to the early fourth century AD, rather than the early third when Evaristo's story is set, and DNA testing has also revealed that the Spitalfield lady's ethnic background was probably Spanish rather than Sudanese. But the third-century setting allows Evaristo to bring Zuleika, such a characteristic product of the Roman empire's capacity for enabling ethnic mingling and social mobility while still perpetuating huge social inequalities, face to face with the emperor at the centre of it (himself a product of those same systems), in a way that a fourth-century setting would not. And if the Spitalfields lady herself was not actually an African immigrant who had achieved high social status, then the Ivory Bangle lady from York shows that she had contemporaries on these isles who were.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves Roman history, the city of London, well-developed female characters and / or deftly deployed language.

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strange_complex: (Leptis Magna theatre)
I meant to see this when it came out, fairly obviously given the buttons of mine which it pushes. But I was busy, and it wasn't on release for very long, so I missed the chance. I popped it on my Lovefilm list instead, and its arrival has now coincided usefully with a time when I'm busy thinking about biopics in the context of my research.

As a female biopic, it follows a quite different template from the more conventional one exemplified by the Marilyn Monroe film I saw last week, in that for most of the film there is no conflict between Hypatia's public life and intellectual achievements and her personal life. She finds complete fulfilment in her work on astronomy, her harmonious relationship with her students and father, and her role as semi-official advisor to the prefect Orestes, while the men around her grumble about this occasionally, but in general are happy to leave her to it.

Given how little we really know about Hypatia's life, this is a narrative which is by no means imposed by the sources, and a more conventionally-approached biopic could very well have focused throughout on conflicts between Hypatia and a series of men who want to force her into a more traditional feminine role. I'm very glad that this one didn't - instead, if anything it probably rather over-emphasised the freedom from criticism which even a woman like Hypatia could realistically have enjoyed in the ancient world, and the extent of her scientific achievements. The victimhood which Bingham identifies as characteristic of female biopic stories obviously does intrude, shockingly and suddenly, at the end - as it has to, given that this (sadly) is the main 'hook' that has made Hypatia's story of enough interest to be transmitted to us in the first place. But even then, Amenábar does what he can to spare her suffering, by introducing the (unattested) scene in which Davus suffocates Hypatia in order to save her the pain of being stoned to death.

The film actually reweaves the historical record quite significantly, with the details of how it does so neatly summarised on Wikipedia for anyone who's interested. Most of that I'm perfectly happy about, as Hypatia's own life is not very well-documented, and the shifts of time or geography that are made generally help to build a more compelling story - e.g. linking the library and its destruction with the destruction of the Serapeum. But where I felt it fell down rather for me was in conveying a clear sense of what it was that motivated any of the violent mobs - whether Christian, pagan or Jewish - to behave as they did.

We see Davus, for example, not only converting from paganism to Christianity, but then also joining in with mob violence and eventually becoming an ascetic monk who spends his days brutally rooting out immorality across the city. But I saw too little on the screen to help me understand why he might do this - neither the unrequited nature of his love for Hypatia, nor the characteristics of the Christian religion seemed to be presented as sufficiently traumatic or attractive forces to have this effect. Nor, on the other side, did I feel I'd gathered any real sense of what motivated the pagans to go out and attack the Christians who were insulting their statues. A few words were spoken about not being able to let the insult go unavenged, but to me they felt empty when I hadn't seen any real evidence of their emotional engagement with their religion any more than I had for the Christians. Possibly the point was meant to be that it was empty and futile on both sides - but I couldn't escape the feeling that the conflicts were happening because the historical context demanded it, rather than because the characters were really driven to engage in them.

Never mind. Meanwhile, the sets, the costumes, the make-up, the props and the CGI views of the city were superb. And I loved the way that the shots of Alexandria from far up in the atmosphere, or even of the Earth from out in space, a) fitted the astronomical theme of the film, b) evoked the smallness of human lives and endeavours and c) created a sense of distance from the narrative, gently reminding us that it was taking place in a world far-removed from our own. Joanna Paul, in a paper which she presented at the Cinema and Antiquity conference last June, spoke brilliantly about the scenes showing the destruction of the library, and how they dramatise the random process of textual loss and survival, and literally show the whole world being turned upside-down - and she is absolutely right about how powerful and clever those scenes are. And more generally, how can I fail to like a film which celebrates the achievements of classical antiquity, mourns their loss to ignorance and brutality, reminds us how delicate the balance between the two always is, and revolves around a powerfully self-assured and self-directed intellectual woman? *crushes madly on Hypatia*

It's all the more of a pity in that case that some aspects of the film don't entirely make emotional sense. Some deleted scenes on the DVD help to flesh things out a little - in particular giving us some extra scenes of life amongst the elders of the Serapeum, and amongst the ascetic monks, which allow slightly more insight into their mind-sets. But even they don't quite seem to go far enough, and ultimately perhaps the story the film is trying to tell is too rich and complex to do justice to in only two hours.

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strange_complex: (Augustus)
(Yup, this is me still catching up on 2010 book reviews. The good news now is that there is just this one and another I've already written to go, and then at last I can make a start on 2011! You know, one day before the year ends. Thankfully, the 2011 reviews shouldn't take too long themselves, as I have been so miserable about my huge reviewing back-log this year that I have only read five books. :-/ I'm really looking forward to getting those written up, and being able to return to a more enjoyable regime of instant, enthusiastic reviewing pretty much straight after I've watched / read things. Oh, and sorry for the pedantic page numbers in this review - this one is related to my work on receptions of Augustus, so I may need to be able to return to this review and cross-check details quickly and easily in the future.)

This particular book was recommended to me by my very good friend [ profile] hollyione, on the grounds that it would be relevant to my interest in fictional portrayals of Augustus, and tap into my love of the Art Deco era as well. It manages to tick both boxes by presenting a retelling of the fall of the Roman Republic, transposed to the world of high finance in the 1920s and '30s. The role of the burgeoning Roman Empire is taken by America, where Paul Van Zale as Julius Caesar dominates Wall Street, while Egypt with its fading power and strange ancient customs is represented by England - and particularly the Norfolk Broads - where Dinah Slade struggles against hostile half-siblings and financial hardship to preserve her crumbling ancestral home, Mallingham. I'm sure there are some parallels I didn't spot, but as far as I could work it out (and because no-one else seems to have placed such a list on the internet), these are the equivalencies which I recognised )

Howatch's approach to reception )

Cornelius Van Zale, aka Octavian )

Dinah Slade, aka Cleopatra )

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strange_complex: (Rory the Roman)
Well, that was pretty good fun on the whole, and more satisfying than I expected it to be. I'm not going to comment in any detail on the many plot resolutions )

Back in this story, I loved the cracky mash-up of all of time happening at once )

I liked alt-universe Amy )

Meanwhile, Rory gets to be awesome and warrior-ish again )

What I didn't like, though, was River's role in it all )

Oh, and finally, I guess the mirrors I've been busy spotting never did come to anything terribly substantial, except simply as a symbol for a parallel world (cf especially Alice Through the Looking-Glass). But there was just one more to round us off anyway, which the Doctor leaned up against for a while in Amy's utterly awesome and rather Once Upon a Time in the West-ish train carriage office. Jolly good.

Anyway, there we are. New Sarah Jane Adventures starting on Monday - though watching it will be a terribly, terribly sad experience now.

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strange_complex: (Cicero history)
(This is another instalment in me trying to catch up on unwritten book reviews from 2010. I took a few notes on this one at the time, but they're pretty sketchy, so this review is probably quite unbalanced.)

After reading the first of Harris' Cicero books, Imperium, and being pretty underwhelmed by it, I resolved not to bother reading any more in the series. But I guess the prospect of the young Octavian (later Augustus) appearing in the final volume proved too much of a temptation. Eventually, this series is going to come under the remit of my interest in receptions of Octavian / Augustus, and I want to be ready when it does.

In the meantime, this instalment mainly covers the year of Cicero's consulship and the Catilinarian conspiracy in 63 BC, but Harris also follows up on the consequences of all that for Cicero in the form of his exile in 58. The title of the book, which refers to a purificatory sacrifice performed once every five years, thus refers to the span of time which it covers - though I'd personally have preferred the much prettier alternative term, quinquennium, myself.

Most of my impressions of the first book held true for this one as well. Tiro remains an effective narrator and Terentia a surprisingly-plausible (if minor) secondary character, while the politics is generally deftly handled. But most of the characters are fairly two-dimensional, and the events described lack emotional weight.

Catiline's conspiracy did make for a slightly more exciting narrative than the previous instalment, while I felt that the smells, sounds and topography of the city of Rome were nicely evoked. As for Harris' Pompeii, it was pretty clear that he had written this book, too, with a map of late-Republican Rome in front of him, and had thought carefully about how the spatial relationships between (for example) Cicero's house and the Forum would affect the behaviour of his characters, as well as how the experience of being in the city would change with the seasons and the time of the day or night. I also recognised direct echoes of several of the relevant primary sources, including Plutarch's Caesar and Cicero's own Pro Rabirio, Pro Murena and In Catilinam I, all of which were very effectively used.

But Harris remains fundamentally second-rate as a novelist for me, and for all his (obvious) careful research, a fair few historical errors crept in as well. I noticed that Cicero's daughter, Tullia, was "all veiled and dressed in white" for her wedding (so what of the famous flame-coloured veil?), while the senate seems to have regular daily meetings and a parliamentary-style recess (in fact, it met in this period on an ad hoc basis, whenever summoned by one of the magistrates). I also felt that Cicero seemed far too well aware in advance of the potential consequences of his decision to have Catiline's supporters imprisoned without a proper trial. I can see how his concern would serve as valuable dramatic foregrounding for what does happen later on as a result of this, but I'm pretty sure he just thought he was being decisive and heroic about it at the time, and I would have preferred to see his shock and humiliation at being completely unexpectedly attacked for this by Clodius instead.

In short - not a complete and utter waste of paper, but to be honest I'd still recommend just reading Plutarch's Life of Cicero instead.

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strange_complex: (Obelix boar)
So with all the historicals covered now, and my paper delivered, I can go back and fill in the stories which I had to skip over before the CA conference.

First Doctor: The Savages )

The Doctor as intergalactic hero-figure )

Steven )

Dodo and gender divisions )

Still, on the whole, not a bad effort, and certainly an important step forward in the grand tradition of rebellion-fomenting Doctor Who stories.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
12. Horror Express (1973), dir. Eugenio Martin

I have to admit to not having seen this one before, despite having been a massive Lee and Cushing fan for over twenty years and knowing perfectly well that it was one of their great classics. And I've been really missing out, because it's completely brilliant )

13. 28 Days Later (2002), dir. Danny Boyle )

The screening of 28 Days Later was actually only one half of a double-bill along with 28 Weeks Later. I've seen that before too, and indeed enjoyed it very much, so was sorely tempted to stay and see it again, especially so that I could compare the two films back to back. But I opted for a new experience over a tried-and-tested one - and I've got to say that on this particular occasion it was a real mistake...

14. Mark of the Devil (1970), dir. Michael Armstrong

See, Mark of the Devil sounded great in advance )

In short, this is 90 minutes of solid torture all right. But for the audience, not for the characters. I spent the rest of the weekend having to carefully avoid the director's eye, in case I accidentally blurted out "Your film was embarrassingly dreadful! What were you thinking?" Some horror films are bad in ways which are unintentionally funny, and that is a major source of the pleasure in watching them. But this one was just a huge, steaming crock o' shite, and definitely the low point of the festival for me.

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strange_complex: (Zaphod Holy Zarquon!)
It's taken me a few days to get round to writing this up, but I did think it was a great episode - easily the best of season five so far, even though it was only one half of a two-parter. As in The Beast Below, it was absolutely bursting with fantastic ideas (albeit including a few recycled ones), and I still feel like I could do with seeing a transcript of the first part in particular before I can be completely certain that I've picked up on every nuance of the exchanges with River Song.

The mystery of River herself )

The clerics and their sacred names )

What really happened to the Aplans? )

Getting the hang of Amy )

Television screens and meta-references )

Classical references )

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strange_complex: (Penelope)
Hmm, we have a bit of a Situation here. This time next week, I'll already be in Cardiff for the Classical Association conference, ready to deliver my paper on Doctor Who and historiography on the Saturday. When I submitted my abstract for that paper, I quite assumed I'd have seen and reviewed all the stories up to and including The Highlanders (where my enquiry ends) by the time I needed to deliver it. In fact I've only just finished reviewing as far as The Myth Makers (see below) and watching as far as The Ark - which means I have another eight stories left to watch and eleven to review. In one week, that clearly ain't gonna happen – not with the lengths of reviews I write anyway.

On the plus side, the paper is shaping up fairly well, and given that watching and writing up these stories is part of the research, it's reasonable enough to use bits of my working day this week to get on with the reviewing – that's what I've done today in order to get The Myth Makers finished. So I'll push on as far as I can over the next few days – which is probably going to mean quite an outpouring of Whovianism on these here pages. Then if necessary I can just watch the three remaining historical stories out of sequence, and that way at least I'll have seen all my major source material by the time of the conference.

I've also decided to institute a more fine-detail approach to cut-tagging these reviews, since they're really too long for a single cut to be very helpful. It means no-one can see what sorts of issues I've discussed until they get behind the main cut, and also that I can't link directly to specific bits of earlier reviews when I'm discussing the same issue in the context of a later story. I really wish I'd instituted this a lot earlier (and might start instituting it retrospectively if I get the time), but better late than never, eh?

First Doctor: The Myth Makers )

The source texts as garbled records of real events )

The Myth Makers and The Romans )

Steven and Vicki's integration into local culture )

Vicki's departure )

There are a couple of things I'd like to pursue further with regards to this story – and may try to do so if I have time before the CA. One is Cotton's use of contemporary academic publications, which I learn thanks to a publication by [ profile] parrot_knight is actually quite easy to follow up in this case. Apparently, a 'reading list' still survives for this story, listing items like the relevant volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History and Encyclopaedia Britannica as potential resources. I assume it must be from these that Cotton drew some of the ideas about the historical basis for the Trojan war which appear in the script – e.g. the Trojans as migrants from central Asia who have settled on the coast, or the idea that the Trojan war was really about control of trade-routes through the Bosphorus. I'd also rather like to read the novelisation of this one, since I see from Wikipedia that it takes the very interesting step of having the whole story narrated from the first-person point of view of Homer. I'd love to see what Cotton does with that, since it certainly has the potential to expand even further than the TV version on the relationship between Cotton's story and his source texts. But I strongly doubt I'll have time to fit that in before the CA.

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Weekend doings

Monday, 8 March 2010 11:52
strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
As for the weekend, I spent Saturday sleeping in blissfully, and then lounging around in my dressing-gown on the sofa, drinking coffee, writing about Doctor Who and finally watching the end of Dollhouse. Even the Sci-Fi channel had clearly more-or-less given up on this, as last weekend they stopped bothering to show it one episode a week, and just broadcast the three remaining episodes in one blast after midnight on Saturday. I couldn't watch it at the time due to preparing for my Newcastle paper, but recorded it, and watched the rest over the course of the week.

It was very much about getting the plot finished in the end, to the extent that I found myself caring less and less about most of the characters with each subsequent episode, even though I had two seasons of investment in them behind me. I could have done without the programme's one portrayal of an emerging lesbian relationship appearing as such a very token, last-minute gesture, and it also didn't make much sense to me that those characters who wanted to retain the changes which they had experienced since the mindwipe technology was first applied needed to stay underground for an entire year to escape the potential effects of Topher's 'reset' pulse. All the same, it's nice to see it all wrapped up, and I genuinely did like the way that the relationship between Adelle and Topher was portrayed in the final episode.

Sunday dawned all bright and springy, so I leapt out of bed and cavorted around the house to 1920s music, cleaning and vacuuming, before heading over to Harrogate to spend the afternoon with [ profile] kissmeforlonger in the Steam Baths. This was something I'd never done before, and I really enjoyed it - partly for the experience in itself, but of course also because of its Roman resonances.

The décor was a luxurious Victorian take on Turkish / Moorish architecture: all carved wood, coloured tiles and more-than-semicircular arches. But there were elements which were definitely reminiscent of Roman baths, such as marble benches and in some rooms mosaic under-heated floors. I'm not sure whether these were straightforwardly preserved in the Moorish tradition, or re-integrated into the mix when the idea of steam bathing was re-discovered by northern Europeans. The big difference from Roman bathing is that most of the rooms did not have pools for complete immersion in the water - there was only one, for cold plunging. But the sequences of rooms - warm, hot, steamy and cool - were very much in the Roman tradition. And I made damn sure that I gave myself a good dunk in the cold pool at the end, because this is one of the aspects of Roman bathing which modern observers find hardest to grasp - "What? They sat around in increasingly warmer rooms all afternoon and then jumped in a cold bath? Were they mad?" Actually, though, it was (as [ profile] kissmeforlonger had promised me), very invigorating after all that lying around and sweating, and nothing like as much of a shock to the system as I'd expected, given that I was already so very thoroughly warmed through.

We went to a ladies-only session, which was course again entirely in keeping with Roman practices. And, on a modern level, it was very lovely to just sit around alternately chatting to one another, and listening to the voices of the other women around us lazily reverberating around the tiled walls. There was a lot of just lying there and letting the warmth lull us into a delicious trance; and afterwards when we came out we found that we were both almost too sleepy to think, and just wanted to go home and go to sleep. Which was largely the point, I think.

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