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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Welcome... my blog.

It's just a place where I'm going to post, occasionally, reviews, thoughts, links to things and anything else which looks even vaguely interesting (well, if you're reading this, you must have some time on your hands...)

I'm going to kick off with a review of the comedy hit of the year.

Now read on...

Spartacus (Goran Visnjic is Spartacus, as the DVD box has it) is the epic mini-series telling the story of one slave who brought the Roman Empire to its knees.

Once upon a time, there were two successful and well-regarded swords-and-sandals movies: Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, and Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. And lo, the success of the latter begat a TV remake of the former. From the opening shot, where the camera zooms in over a CGI Rome so full of flickery textures it appears to have been rendered on a Commodore 64, the dangers of inbreeding have never been so evident.

We start with a good hefty slab of exposition. With much history to lay out, Spartacus opts for the method that dumps the most information with the least talent or technique required on the screenwriter's part - narration. Varinia tells us what's going on even when we can see perfectly well, for example, that her village in Gaul is being attacked and its inhabitants killed or sold into slavery. (The Romans obviously find them desirable slaves, as they appear to have just stepped out of Hollywood hair and beauty salons.) She does a LOT of narration throughout this film, which suggests to me they tacked it on Blade Runner style to try to make it make sense.

Next we meet our hero - Spartacus! Or, Goran Visnjic off E.R. Sorry, everyone. He first appears breaking rocks in a labour camp, glowering from beneath a shaggy nylon wig and glued-on whiskers, but by the time he's been dragged off to become a gladiator he has settled in to his look for the rest of the film. His hair is perfectly-styled, his stubble never grows any thicker, and his nails are impeccable - manicured, buffed and shining a healthy pink. We soon learn that he's a bit handy with his fists, and he even teaches Ross Kemp, as his trainer Cinna, a thing or two. (Ross Kemp, the pop-eyed heavy on the UK soap opera 'Eastenders' for many years, mainly shouts and hits people, so no change there.)

Meanwhile, in Rome, the Senate is meeting. The Senate is ALWAYS meeting. Whenever the camera tires of gazing into Goran's deep, blank eyes, it is whisked away to Rome for ten minutes of jollity with 71BC's version of C-SPAN. Gasp as Alan Bates, as Agrippa, scores waspish debating points against Angus MacFadyen's Crassus! The bickering sizzles across the screen. To cool down, why not accompany these waddling fatsoes to the Baths as well? How does ten minutes grab you?

Boy those Romans are evil. You can tell they're evil because they are paunchy, they all have British accents, and the more evil they are the more upper-class they sound. Crassus, in particular, who looks like a cross between Russell Crowe and Herbert Lom, speaks in a whiny drawl so high up the social spectrum it shades into some sort of incomprehensible ultraviolet of evil poshness. Ian McNiece's Incredulus Battiatus (I think that was what he said his name was) is just a purely loathsome slave-driver straight from Central Casting. Occasionally, there's a Roman woman who pops up, wearing a ludicrous wig and laughing cruelly, but it's not very often, because the decadent Romans are depicted as either being gay, in comparison to our strapping, red-blooded gladiators, or only interested in raping the slaves. We get to see all of them have loooong evil conversations with each other about nothing very interesting. Sometimes they meet at the Senate. Sometimes they meet at the Baths. Hey, did I mention they like to talk at the Senate a lot?

When we go back to Goran again, he and his hair are falling in love with slave girl Varinia (Rhona Mitra - she's mainly a slave to Pantene, it seems.) They spend the night together and in the morning Goran gets up with exactly the same amount of beard as he went to bed with. Gladiator training is hard; you have to learn to avoid being poked with a stick, and there's lots of practise at slight ducking. But it pays off, because Goran is a demon in the arena. We see a montage of his bloody victories. They trouble him; we can tell because his stubble gets very slightly thicker.

There are really very few other clues to know how he's feeling. If he's being earnest he tends to tilt his chin up a bit; if he's brooding, he tilts it down and probably leans his head against a wall. This is because Visnjic has the emotional range of an anglepoise desk lamp, not to mention the charisma of Cliff Richard. When Visnjic wants to depict raging, unstoppable battle-frenzy, his chiselled features become a chilling mask of peevishness.

After a while, the slaves revolt, under the leadership of the log-like Goran, some assorted muscle Maries, and James Frain, who is apparently playing Lumpy the Elf. The mighty Roman Army is despatched to deal with them. This elite fighting force consists of about twelve panicky men, and they are quickly routed (the battle scenes are apparently filmed under the constraint that there be no more than twelve people in the shot at any time. It does, it has to be said, pose problems; Spartacus' army is supposed to be 70,000 strong, but the battles look like skirmishes at a Renaissance Festival. I kept expecting Hercules and Xena to scamper into view).

The action now shifts into top gear, as Spartacus on the one side, and various Battiatus types on the other, make long speeches. We get to see one speech, followed by another speech. Probably we'll drop in on the baths for some talking, then go see what Spartacus is discussing with his oily, bare-chested generals (something for the ladies!), then swing by the Senate again and catch a debate, I hear the speeches are great this time of year. When there's a fight scene next you can cut the anticipation with a knife !

Yes, Goran's a hell of a general, too, and we get to see him prove it, about sixteen hours in. He develops a strategy by which his rag-tag bunch of freed slaves defeats a Roman legion by luring two or three of their infantry into some trees, and then charging out at them. Flushed with success, Goran broods a bit, then makes an earnest speech.

The film is the approximate length of the Mesozoic Era, so you may decide to skip to the end. Through the machinations of a Sicilian pirate (you Lando, you!) it seems Spartacus' army is doomed. His big-nosed Gaulish friend deserts him and is killed, and his escape route, presumably back to E.R., is cut off. The final battle scene is ominously prefigured; Crassus, commanding the might of Rome, is having strange visions. Now and then, the camera zooms in as he gets a squinty, furtive look, and we cut to - Goran, standing in a cloud of backlit dry ice, like a leather-fetish Bryan Ferry, while haunting Enya music plays. Could it be that he is having premonitions of his own death??!? At the hands of Spartacus???! D'ye think?!?!

Er, no. In the battle, Spartacus gets repeatedly stabbed without coming anywhere near Crassus, who seems quite peeved, and then all the slaves are crucified, ending with Lumpy. But there is at least a happy ending - the evil institution of slavery, which the film rightly rails against, only endured in the West for about another 2000 years, and the evil British, er, Roman Empire fell a mere 400 years later.

I wish I could say this film had a single redeeming feature, but all I can think of is that it has made me laugh more than almost any other film I have ever seen, and I'm not sure they intended that... but, Goran, if you did... the House of Battiatus salutes you!

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