Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Movie Reviews / Thoughts on the Classical World (Updated 4.15.12)

Movie Reviews / Thoughts on the Classical World (Updated 4.5.12)

 To be honest, I think the movie genre that requires the most skill and innovation is the one that depicts events from the Classical and Ancient Era. The movie can be messed up by any number of factors (inaccuracies, cheesiness, overdramatization), but I appreciate those movies that try--hopefully, more movies with classical and ancient themes will be made; anyway here's a personal and tentative critical list of movies that I've seen and my grade of them:

  •  Centurion ( 2010) directed by Neil Marshall. (B) 
    • This was a rough, strange and, at times, mesmerizing depiction of the farthest regions, and most wild, regions of the Roman Empire, northern Britannia. The 9th Legion is completely wiped out by the locals Brits, who can fight better and fiercer, and have kind of a serious grudge against their invaders. The diversity, rawness, and humanity (if you can say so) is apparent and unexpected from the Roman soldiers, played, Michael Fassbender as Quintus Dias, a centurion of the Ninth Legion, and Dominic West as Titus Flavius Virilus, the general of the Ninth Legion, among others. The bad guys are somewhat one-dimensional, although still interesting, particularly the tongue-less assassin Etian,played by Olga Kurylenko . Perhaps the movie is a bit short on story and character depth, but it makes it up with its unique inclusion of details (such as the diversity of the soldiers), and its beautiful cinematography, which seems to capture the harsh beauty of a world resisting and reacting to Roman domination.The love story between Quintus Dias and the "witch" Arianne, played by Imogen Poots, shows potential and closure, but perhaps could have been stronger , as it was a very interesting aspect of the story.
  • Agora (2009) directed by Alejandro Amenábar. (B).
    • A strong film with strong acting, Rachel Weisz is a great actress and delivers a strong performance as the martyr/Greek philosophy Hypatia. The conflict between Christians and pagans, Christians and Jews, slaves and free born, Romans and Alexandrians are delicately intertwined, making a beautiful harmony. However, sometimes the movie seems to lose some focus with all the beautiful shots of Earth from space, dramatic but unnecessary. I love this film's ambiguity, the Christians are the bad guys (but extremely sympathetic as well) of the film, the philosophy school in which Hypatia teaches is a brilliant repertoire of knowledge and learning, only to become divided and dissolved by differences of opinion and beliefs, the slave Davos, played by Max Minghella, is a truly the anti-hero, but absorbs your attention and sympathy for his ability to blend humanity and cruelty in one character. The film would be an A, but for the story's end in which Hypatia is mercilessly killed, thanks to the Christians, who desperately storm the Library of Alexandria and go around the city looking to retaliate against non-believers. It's so sad, and shocking, that it leaves you hanging, wanting to see some bit of redemption in the characters the movie develops so intimately. Alas, it does not...But great film, great production otherwise.
  •  HBO Series, Rome. (2005-2007)  directed by Michael Apted(C). While I thought the production and realism of the series were great throughout the series, I was left simply satisfied, but not thrilled. No battle scenes for the civil wars [I mean, come on at least something for the Battle of Pharsalus could have done wonders]! Also, the story skips from the macrocosm grandiose world of Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, and Augustus (et al.) but then delves abruptly into the lives of the more microcosmic, like those of Lucius Veranus and Pollo, but the transitions aren't as smooth as could be story-wise. A couple of exaggerations are necessary to make history "pop" but the series overdid Octavians' brooding nature (to point of being a cyborg--INSERT DENARIUS HERE), and Livia's crazy power-mongering/nympho character [sorry, but I. Claudius' Livia is a difficult character to match]. Characters done well: Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra (interesting interpretation, getting away from the Elizabeth Taylor model set before). The dramatic crescendos at the end of each series were hit and miss: sometimes perfect, other times leaving you blank staring. Oh by the way, all lottttt of nudity and risque scenes, so a caveat there for the squeamish.  Obviously, I could say a whooole lot more, but...tempus fugit. Overall, not bad, not horrible.

  • Alexander, 2004. Directed byOliver Stone. (B+). Wow, I don't know why everybody hated this movie: I liked this artistic interpretation at least; the costumes and action weren't bad, but I can see that the homosexual undertones (and overtones, I guess) kinda make a lot of viewers skirm. To be honest, though maybe that aspect had a large kernely of truth (see the pederasty and male-male relationships in ancient Greece); anyway, the story was captivating, at least in the latter half of the movie, in my opinion, Angelina Jolie wasn't bad (hehe, though I remember one critic made fun of her Boris and Natasha accent!). Val Kilmer was a good Philip, convincing interpretation, rather than just a one-eyed pirate, arrr. Finally, Colin Farrell didn't do a bad job, given the difficulty in playing a dude who conquered the whole known world before most dudes get a full frock of chesthair.Good musical soundtrack too, nice interpretation of Alex's battles in Bactria/India.

  • The 300 Spartans, 1962. Directed byRudolph Maté. (B-) Kinda cheesy; historical accuracy not bad, but the battle scene makes ya yawn, and wonder when all the 300 Spartans will finally bite the dust. In one scene, I remember Xerxes pimp slaps one of his minions ridiculously, hehe but that was the only scene that made my eyelids not slide down, further and further. Oh well...THIS IS...adequate, I guess.

  • 300, 2006. Directed byZack Snyder. (A-) Man, I was really disappointed: that so many people didn't like this film!!! Ok, ok, the bloodshed, fine, the monsters, fine, the blatant inaccuracies, fine!!!! But, I don't care, cuz this movie was damn good, as an action film! Ok, also the political undertones, hmmm, but still this movie makes you stare and wonder how tough you really had to be a fight as a Spartan. Alright, so the movie didn't get into how man-on-boy the Spartans really were, but like so???? I think the movie was a good interpretation of Thermopylae, and I really did think that the first movie from 1962, though more accurate and plot-based, would just get killed, if both movies were thrown in cage fight together! Only, what was up with the goatman in Xerxes' tent, man that was weird!!! ...a couple of caveats, though, Sparta was not about 'freeDOMM', in fact the concept of slavery was quite acceptable, so the pro-freedom/liberty overtones were little overemphasized. 
  • Gladiator (2002) directed by Ridley Scott, (A+) by THE best classical-themed films, in my opinion, ever made. "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?", asks Maximus almost as if the movie asks you as the viewer in rhetorical fashion. Nobody could have done better in terms of acting ( Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Ralf Möller, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, Derek Jacobi, John Shrapnel and Richard Harris) , and directing and ...everything else. The film is so meticulously directed and produced, it really leaves nothing to the imagination, now that's pretty good! There's no such thing as perfection, but Gladiator...the closest you'll get to it.



I recently had a conversation with a young college student, who happened to be studying business or finance, and he asked me what I had majored in. I told him that I was a Classics major (though really my focus was a Latin more than Greek, art, archaeology per se); his reply was something that made my day because, in my mind, I had already foreseen what he was going to say. Yes, I guess I'm a mind reader. He said, "Latin? Latin? What are you going to do with that? It's not even spoken, man, it's a dead language." Yep, I just thanked him for being only the five hundreth person to inform of that insight, and he went skipping off the B-school. I have the feeling that a lot of people feel this way, and I find it a little, well, amusing.
I mean, I always wonder to myself: Can it be that people really think that Latin, even in this country, is buried and forgotten? Say it ain't so. Well, I don't think everybody believes this, especially people who know two licks about what they're talking, at least.
I once heard a joke that inspired me to give up my promising aspirations of being the president of the United States or an astronaut or NBA All-Star to become one who studies a dead language:
Latin's not dead, it's just Rome-in' around.
-Anonymous Dead Language Genius (sorry I don't know the name of the this joke's true author)

Ok, so the joke doesn't knock you out of your seat, but you can get the point. I don't think Latin is a dead language; instead I'd like to think of it as a zombie language, which died, but came back one night to feast one the delicious brains of other languages.
"Latin's a dead language" seems to be the first response of someone who has a good understanding of English, but not a complete one! In the most simple and general sense, the English language is like a club sandwich: first, you have two warm pieces of French bread; then you have the meat, if you will, the substance that makes the sandwich the darn sandwich in the first place (unless you're a vegetarian, and that's cool too), being Latin; finally you have the optional, but all-so enhancing, cheese, yeah, that's the German aspect of our language.
It's clear that the language we Americans speak here has everything to do with the French language, which has everything to do with the Latin language. In fact, I'll let you prove it to yourselves...go crack a German book open and see how sweet and friendly it looks! Try to crack open a French book, if you don't whopping success with "Buchempfehlungen and his Adventures in Geisteswissenschaften", and see if you can write a long essay on that. Or take out one slice of cheese, and declare to the world that you have made a sandwich. Nope, French is a tricky language, though Romance, and I would bet you that people wouldn't recognize a full sentence of it (unless their cheaters who study French and/or Latin). Finally, take one last try, pull out a dollar bill, and scan the famous lines "E PLURIBUS UNUM" ("ANNUIT COEPTUS/NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM" for extra credit). Hmmmm, why would our whacky government stick something on our own money in a non-living language? Curiously, we would bet that most English-speaking Americans (and Spanish/French speaking ones as well) could easily tell you the rough translation of these phrases.
Oh yeah, and for those still convinced that Latin is dead, go one day without using English words derived from Latin or Old French (the near equivalent of spoken Medieval Latin). I'll help you out by saying you can only use the most simplest, shortest words in the language (he, she, it, hi, bye, see, etc.). At least, you won't strain any muscles in your head, but you might sound like a caveman nonetheless.