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)
Right then - it's time for some more Draculising! I watched this one a week ago with the ever-patient and accommodating [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com 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: (Cities condor in flight)
And now that I am finally up to date with film reviews and Doctor Who reviews, I can turn my attention once again to my much-neglected book reviews.

I should have read this one years ago, given that I'm a Classicist who loves stories of a fantastical nature, but it took me until 2011 to finally get round to it. And what a fool I was to wait so long, because it is completely ace! I knew that it involved the narrator going on a voyage to the moon, and for that reason has often been viewed as the first (surviving) SF story - but actually he and his companions travel through a whole series of wondrous settings. These include an island with rivers of wine, a giant whale so huge that there are colonies of people living inside its stomach, an island made of cheese, the Isle of the Blest full of Greek heroes, philosophers and writers, Calypso's island, an island inhabited by people with the heads of bulls, an island full of cannibalistic witches and finally a mysterious new transAtlantic continent which he promises to describe - but never does.

In its own time this was probably conceived as a satire on stories of epic voyages like the Odyssey and the Argonautica, so the settings which the narrator experiences are basically an exaggerated parody of places like the island of the Lotus Eaters, Circe's island, the all-female society of Lemnos, or the land of the six-armed giants in those works. Lucian knits his fantastical settings together using the same epic voyage format, but marks his work out as satire by declaring up-front that the entire story is a bunch of lies. This has kept scholars busy discussing ancient conceptions of the relationship between 'fiction' and 'lies' ever since (to little purpose in my view).

Reading from a modern perspective, I found that the succession of wondrous lands full of strange people reminded me more than anything of the Wizard of Oz series. That may simply be because the very lively and engaging translation which I read was published in 1913, though - i.e. right in the middle of the period when L. Frank Baum was writing the original Oz series (1900-1920). Certainly, almost any modern SF series which involves a core group of travellers visiting a succession of fantastical places could be compared to this, including Star Trek, Doctor Who and The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy (which incorporates the satirical element as well) and no doubt many more. Indeed, just as this work in itself relates closely to the Odyssey, the Argonautica et sim., so too do modern works of SF using the same basic voyage format - as Ray Harryhausen surely knew when he closed the circle by positioning Jason and the Argonauts as an SF film. Genres overlap and inform one another, and everything is intertextual.

From the translation I read at least, I can also say that this was a genuinely good read - funny, inventive, and (precisely because it is so fantastical) not really requiring any particular knowledge of the ancient world to 'get' the jokes. The Isle of the Blest section might drag a bit for non-Classicists, because that includes topical humour about particular heroes and thinkers - e.g. Ajax, Theseus and Menelaus, Alexander and Hannibal, Homer, Aesop, Diogenes the Cynic and so forth. But even there the basis of most of the jokes is pretty clear from the context. Otherwise, I can highly recommend this book to anyone - especially since it is available for free right here, and is only the equivalent of a couple of chapters from a modern novel long.

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I should have posted this review nearly two weeks ago now, but was feeling very sluggish at the time, thanks to what [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan calls 'the ladygrims', and just didn't have the surplus brain-power while also greeting new students and finishing articles. I seem to be back to normal now, but still had to prioritise my article until I knew I had managed to meet the deadline for it. Still, any time before the season finale counts, right?

Anyway, this story was pretty damned good for me, and certainly one of the stronger episodes of the season, but I felt it lacked the appropriate emotional weight )

Setting and symbolism )

Rita )

Meh, there's probably other stuff I would have said about this episode if I'd got round to writing it up earlier. It was clever and gripping, made good use of its characters, and dropped in plenty of interesting symbolism and continuity references for geeky types like me to chew over. But I think that will do for now. Here's looking forward to the season finale, and hopefully a few resolutions, tomorrow evening. :-)

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strange_complex: (One walking)
Right then. This is me trying to catch up on unwritten book reviews from 2010. Today, that means reviewing a book which I read last April, and took no notes on at the time. So that's bound to go well...

I've only read a couple of Target's Doctor Who novelisations before, so I'm not intimately familiar with the genre. But my understanding is that they were usually (though not always) written by the same person who produced the original television script, and basically aimed to present the same story for fans to enjoy a second time in a context where home video was not yet the norm.

This one is indeed written by the original script-writer, Donald Cotton, although at a distance of twenty years from the original time of broadcast. And presumably that means even he could not have rewatched the original story when preparing the novel, since it must already have been destroyed by then. Rather cleverly, though, he actually integrates his own distance from the original broadcast into the novel, by having the whole thing narrated in a first-person format by 'Homer', himself looking back over events which he had witnessed some forty years earlier. This means that any deviations from the story as broadcast instantly become excusable - they are simply the effect of Homer's faulty memory. And that in itself fits in beautifully with Cotton's general approach of treating the Greek myths as garbled versions of real events which I commented on in my review of the TV story.

That same approach is at work throughout the novel, too - mainly as applied to the same ideas and events, since the plot is pretty close to the original broadcast story, in spite of the time-lag before it was novelised. But the device of inserting Homer as a character into the story does allow Cotton to be a bit more explicit about what he is doing. At the end of the novel, Homer reports that he later wrote up what he had witnessed at Troy as The Iliad, but explains that he left any references to the Doctor and the TARDIS out because 'the public expects' the gods instead. The implication is that what we have just read is the 'real' version of events, and that they were consciously altered to better suit the conventions of the literary genre when the epic poems were composed.

That said, I didn't find the use of Homer as a first-person narrator entirely satisfactory. For one thing, it means that he needs to witness every event of the broadcast story, on both the Trojan and the Greek sides, in order to be able to recount what happened. Cotton tries to make this work by merging him with the character of Cyclops from the original TV story - a sort of mercenary go-between, who is sent from one side to the other on spying missions. But that isn't really enough to explain the extent to which Homer seems to rush back and forth across the plain of Troy from one camp to the other. The reasons why he might do so began to seem awfully thin and unconvincing before very long.

Cotton also seems to have been rather ham-strung by the fact that the one thing everyone 'knows' about Homer is that he was blind - which is a real problem in a first-person narrator. He seems to have decided to handle this by having Homer blinded, first in one eye, and then the other, during the course of the story. This is mildly clever on one front, since he loses his second eye just before Achilles is killed and Troy is sacked, offering one explanation for why neither event is included in the Iliad or the Odyssey. But it also means that we have to believe that he carries on rushing back and forth between the two camps after having had one eye poked out with a marlin-spike by Odysseus about two-thirds of the way through the novel - which doesn't seem entirely credible, for all the character's references to being in terrible pain and fear as he does so.

Anyway, in the novel, Homer remains behind with Troilus and Cressida-Vicki after the departure of the TARDIS crew and the end of the TV story, so that his narrative is able to tie up a few loose ends which the TV broadcast could not. He relates how the Greek forces carry their booty (including Helen) down to the shore and sail away, while he himself leaves with Troilus, Cressida-Vicki and the other surviving Trojans to found a new city - via, of course, a brief detour to Carthage. And at the very end of the story we discover who the mysterious visitor to whom he has been relating this whole story in an olive-grove actually is - the Doctor, unrecognised by Homer because of his blindness, and come back to catch up on the aftermath of his own adventure. I like the idea of the Doctor in those odd, quiet moments of his which we never see on TV, mooching through time to relive former adventures - and especially to find out what happened to former companions after he had left them behind.

All told, I enjoyed reading this, and certainly felt that it had something more to offer beyond the TV broadcast version of the story. But it's hardly a great work of literature, and given how little and how slowly I read, I don't think I'll be rushing to work my way through the other Target novelisations any time soon. If I do read more, though, I will definitely continue to select from the early historical stories, mainly for the little extra insights they can provide into how the script-writers / authors were thinking about the programme's approach to the past in this period (as I'm very aware is discussed explicitly in the introduction to The Crusaders). Indeed, I already have Marco Polo lined up for that very purpose. :-)

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
Yeah, so - for the fifth time this season, I spent the weekend doing things that stopped me seeing Doctor Who on Saturday night, and then most of the rest of the week writing about them. It's going to happen for the season finale, too, which is a bit sad.

I'm afraid I was quite disappointed by this episode )

The history and geography were a mish-mash, too )

Still, all that said, there was some good material here too, which I believe I will present as bullet-points:
  • I liked the gradual emergence of information about the Krafayis - at first presented just as a straightforward monster, but later something which we develop compassion for as we come to understand it better.
  • Bill Nighy as the art critic was just great - absolutely perfectly cast doing exactly what he does best.
  • The structure of a story which begins with paintings in a Parisian art gallery and later requires a visit to the era when they were painted was a HUGE shout-out to City of Death, for which much win - though poor old Foury never did get to meet Leonardo da Vinci (or not in that story, anyway).
  • It's interesting to note that the Doctor puts particular stress on telling Van Gogh when he is depressed on the bed that the one thing there always is is hope - surely a fore-reference to how the opening of the Pandorica is going to be resolved at the end of the story?
  • On a similar note, interesting also that the casual references to unscreened adventures at the beginning of the story are to visits to 'Arcadia' and the 'Trojan Gardens'. I'm reading those as places in space which happen to have Classically-resonant names rather than actual Arcadia or a garden at the historical Troy - but they still fit nicely with the season's theme of myths and legends, and with the Pandorica, which is presumably another example of the same thing.
  • Bored!Doctor waiting outside the church for the space-chicken to appear was really funny.
In fact, there were some great Doctor moments throughout this episode, and indeed plenty of good individual moments and well-crafted lines for all the characters. I did enjoy watching it, for all I've said above. But I didn't feel that it entirely lived up to its own pretensions.

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strange_complex: (One walking)
I thought this story was better than the circumstances of its production might have suggested. It definitely varies in tone and quality, and wanders quite a long way away from the central plot at times, with the result that I began episode 12 no longer really caring what happened with the taranium core and the Time Destructor. But most of the individual moments in it are enjoyable, albeit often in very different ways. That said, some of the scenes between the Daleks and their allies on Kembel get rather tedious (although I don't doubt they would have been more engaging with the original moving pictures). And I was rather disappointed to find out that the plot-lines set up in Mission to the Unknown got much less of a pay-off than I'd assumed they would. The Doctor has already found out what the Daleks' plan is by the time he discovers and plays back Marc Cory's tape in episode three, so that it is rather pointless by that stage - and this felt like rather a betrayal of the earlier story.

Katarina, Bret Vyon and Sara Kingdom )

Mavic Chen and the Monk )

Fun and frolics in 'The Feast of Steven' )

Silent era Hollywood )

Pharaonic Egypt )

Minor points )

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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 [livejournal.com 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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strange_complex: (Tom Baker)
I've been doing some more painting: this time, the gloss in the back bedroom. It seems to take forever - at least if you don't want to splurge unwanted gloss all over the walls that you have only just finished painting the week before. So I have been working my way through the pick of the last week's worth of Radio 4 comedies, and also the following Who audios:

Radio Play: Regenerations (2001) )

Fourth Doctor: Genesis of the Daleks (1979) )

Fourth Doctor: Exploration Earth: The Time Machine (1976) )

Fourth Doctor: Doctor Who and the Pescatons (1976) )

strange_complex: (TARDIS)
Fourth Doctor: Underworld )

Fourth Doctor: The Invasion of Time )

That now brings me to the end of both Leela as a companion, and season 15 as a whole (for my reference, write-ups of the other stories from this season are here, here, here and here). I'm still underwhelmed by Leela. She's OK when she gets to do a bit of fighting, but that isn't always the case, and otherwise I still find her to be rather a one-note character (as I originally complained). Still, there are plenty of companions who are far worse, and she does have her moments. Meanwhile, season 15 has a slightly higher quotient of weak stories (The Invisible Enemy, Underworld) than the previous three Baker seasons; but then none of those were perfect either (and often for the same reason).

It also seemed to me to have just slightly more in the way of unifying themes to it than most of the previous seasons (though season 12 is tied together by near-continuous action between all five stories) - perhaps an early step in the same, more structured, direction then taken by season 16 (Key to Time)? It probably wasn't originally planned to start with the Rutans and end with the Sontarans (given the production circumstances of The Invasion of Time), but nonetheless that's how it worked out, and it could well have been done consciously for the sake of structure, once the opportunity presented itself. Meanwhile, The Sun Makers and Underworld both present exploited masses who are eventually liberated by the Doctor's intervention, and the manifestation of the Fendahl Core as a goddess-figure in Image of the Fendahl goes nicely along with the religious themes I've noted in the two stories above. It's not quite as structured as the Key to Time arc, but it's recognisably moving in that direction.

Next - season 17.

strange_complex: (Penelope)
I read this book because a) it is about me my mythological namesake, b) my Mum bought it for me two Christmases ago, knowing that it would appeal to me for that reason, and c) I've always vaguely thought I ought to read something by Margaret Atwood.

It's basically Penelope's side of the story, as the title suggests. She is the narrator, speaking from the Underworld, and she tells us how she felt, what she knew when and why she did what she did from her childhood up to the return of Odysseus. There's a special emphasis on the twelve household maids which Telemachus hangs on Odysseus's orders at the end of Book 22 of the Iliad. In Homer, they've been rude and insolent to Eurycleia (Odysseus' childhood nurse) and Penelope, and have slept with several of the suitors. In The Penelopiad, they were Penelope's secret eyes and ears about the house, and most of them had been raped. So Atwood sets out to tell their side of the story, too - and in particular breaks up Penelope's narrative with a series of Greek-style dramatic Choruses, delivered by the maids in formats ranging from the ballad and the sea shanty to the idyll and the court-room trial.

Thing is, that's about it. That's the plot and structure of the book, it's all done perfectly plausibly and readably, and I really don't have anything much else to say about it. There wasn't really anything in it which surprised me, wowed me or challenged me. Well, there was one of the Maids' Choruses, done in the style of an anthropology lecture, where I had to grit my teeth a bit as I was presented with a reading of Odysseus' return as the over-throw of a matriarchal society led by Penelope - an interpretation which Atwood credits in her closing note to Robert Graves' famously *koff* 'creative' The Greek Myths. But apart from that, it was fine. Just fine. Did exactly what it said on the tin.

I suppose I was hoping for something a bit more epic and creative. Maybe the problem is that Penelope - much as I would wish otherwise - is not really the most exciting of characters. Atwood chooses to keep her basically in line with Homer's characterisation, apart from having hidden feelings and motives which Homer and his male characters overlook. So alternate possibilities like her becoming the mother of Pan are out of the window, and you're left with a pretty passive heroine, really - even if you do grant her intelligence that Homer doesn't.

Oh well - anyway, I've read it now. Whether I'll read more Atwood is likely to depend on whether anyone particularly persuasive attempts to talk me into it or not.

strange_complex: (Urbs Roma)
You scored as Clio. You are Clio, the muse of history. You love academic pursuits, but still know to have fun. You're a bit of a tease and a prankster. </td>

Clio

81%

Melpomene

75%

Calliope

75%

Euterpe

69%

Urania

69%

Polyhymnia

56%

Terpischore

50%

Erato

50%

Thalia

31%

Which of the Greek Muses are you?
created with QuizFarm.com
strange_complex: (Default)
I have just been to see Troy with [livejournal.com profile] edling, Cat, Anna and Sam. These are my thoughts on the film, gathered together here under appropriate headings for my sake as much as anyone else's. It's a significant reception of the classical world after all, and I may have to teach it some day! I'm warning you, though - without the cuts this is An Extremely Long Post Indeed.

Overall impressions )

The effects of previous films )

Homoeroticism )

The mise-en-scène )

Anachronisms )

Significant deviations from the standard plot )

Relation to contemporary events )

Missing characters )

Mis-allocated screen time )

Acting and direction )

OK, I think that is all for now... The above is probably full of hideous typos and spelling errors, as I've been doing this for about 2 hours now, and I'm very tired. Please let me know if you spot any, and I'll put them right.

Thank-you for listening.

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