Rome – Season One

DVD review by The Movie Snob

Rome (Season One). I bought these DVDs a long time ago, probably back when I was reading biographies of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. I thoroughly enjoyed them, watching all twelve first-season episodes over four or five evenings. But be warned–for some reason the directors decided they couldn’t tell the story of Julius Caesar without tons of nudity and sex. I’ve never had HBO, but I guess that’s HBO for you. Anyway, just be aware (or beware) that this is NC17 stuff.

Anyway, the series is a saga that unfolds over about 8 years, from 52 B.C. when Caesar has wrapped up his conquest of Gaul (modern France) to roughly the middle of March in 44 B.C. The leading men and women of Rome are accounted for: Caesar, his niece Atia, his great-nephew Octavian, his wife Calpurnia, Mark Antony, Brutus, Cicero, Pompey, and Cato. (Cleopatra also makes an appearance.) Young Octavian, who would eventually become Caesar Augustus, is a particularly interesting character–intelligent and philosophical, but as ruthless as the rest when necessary. But what really draws you in is the focus on two ordinary Roman soldiers in Caesar’s army, a grunt named Titus Pullo and an officer named Lucius Vorenus, who become friends and get drawn into the political intrigue around Caesar as he returns to Rome from Gaul. They are a great pair. Vorenus is intelligent, pious, and honorable, but short-tempered and perhaps a little naive. Pullo is a simpler fellow, generally amoral but loyal and likeable, and less prone than Vorenus to assume that aristocrats are automatically virtuous folk.

Although the story seems “soaped up,” I think it is basically true to the basic facts of history. The series opens with the death of Julius Caesar’s daughter Julia, who was married to his great rival Pompey. With that bond shattered, the two men were put on a collision course that led to years of civil war that raged across Italy, Greece, and Egypt. For Caesar, defeating his enemies militarily was child’s play compared to the challenge of reforming Rome’s corrupt aristocratic “Republic.” It’s all there on the screen–the battles, the intrigue, the filthy streets, elaborate temples and forums, and bloody religious rituals. I was engrossed.

A final note on how HBO generally did a good job of not transposing modern customs and mores onto the ancient Romans. The characters occasionally shock you when, for instance, they treat or refer to their slaves as nonhumans, or children as the property of their father. Compassion is almost an unknown concept, and to the extent it exists it is certainly not wasted on barbarians or even on other Romans of lower birth than oneself. Morality itself was different in many ways–but the same in others, especially as exemplified in the touching friendship between Vorenus and Pullo.

I look forward to watching the second season, although I don’t see how it can be quite as exciting as the first. Well, the contest for control of Rome between Octavian and Mark Antony could be pretty good, but once Octavian became Caesar Augustus my recollection is that he did a very good job of maintaining control without triggering too many rebellions and without ever succumbing to intrigue. We’ll see.

(500) Days of Summer

From the desk of The Movie Snob

(500) Days of Summer (B+). I enjoyed this independent romantic dramedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Stop-Loss) and the ever-quirky Zooey Deschanel (Yes Man). If you’ve seen any trailers or read any reviews, you can’t be too surprised by how the plot unfolds, but I’ll err on the side of caution and put a spoiler alert.

SPOILER ALERT *** SPOILER ALERT *** SPOILER ALERT

The story is not told in chronological order, so you learn really quite quickly that things are not going to work out between the ardent romantic Tom and the doesn’t-believe-in-love Summer. The pleasure lies in watching how it doesn’t work. The tale is told from Tom’s point of view, and we know from the start that he is committed to the belief that happiness is attainable, but only if you find The One You Are Meant To Be With. When Summer takes a job at the greeting-card company Tom works for, it’s easy to see why he decides she’s The One. But she’s honest with him: she’s looking for something casual, nothing serious. He must proceed at his own risk, and he does. To me, the movie generally felt real–the first pangs of infatuation, the giddiness when the early going goes well, the pain of loss are all well handled by Gordon-Levitt. And you can’t really hate Summer when things stop going well. She warned him. And she’s just so darned cute.

The Girl From Monaco

New review by The Movie Snob

The Girl From Monaco (C). In this French import, Bertrand Beauvois (Fabrice Luchini, Molière) is a highly successful criminal defense attorney on the far side of 50. He is a very thoughtful and articulate fellow of unremarkable appearance. He goes to Monaco to defend a woman accused of a lurid crime–the murder of her much younger lover, a Russian who may have had mob ties. Consequently, the woman’s son hires a bodyguard for Bertrand, and this bodyguard, Christophe, is a big dangerous fellow who says little and thinks . . . well, it’s hard to know what he thinks, but he does a good job of looking after Bertrand. Anyway, careful and prudent Bertrand meets Audrey (Louise Bourgoin, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec), a sexy local TV weathergirl maybe half his age, and perhaps to his surprise they start to have a torrid affair. Audrey is not only outrageously attractive but also utterly unhampered by inhibitions, and Bertrand’s ability to defend the murder case is soon in danger of being compromised. And did I mention that Christophe is one of Audrey’s undoubtedly numerous ex-boyfriends? It’s not really a comedy and not quite a thriller, and the ending didn’t really do it for me. But it’s interesting enough, I guess, and the lithe Audrey is certainly easy on the eyes.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Book review from The Movie Snob

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick. This is the fourth novel in the Library of America collection Five Novels of the 1960s and 70s. And I remember reading it and liking it back in high school. In some alternative reality, the student protests of the 1960s became a full-fledged civil war, and now the students have gone underground while those living in society are subject to an oppressive police state of multiple I.D.’s and random checkpoints. Anybody without proper I.D. is nabbed and packed off to a forced-labor camp. Our protagonist is Jason Taverner, a world-famous vocalist with a globally popular TV show. He’s also one of a small number of genetically enhanced human beings known as “sixes.” After Taverner is attacked by a deranged woman, he wakes up alone in a seedy hotel room with no I.D. and a wad of money in his pocket. Things quickly get even more bizarre: no one in the world knows who he is, and the central databank has no record he ever existed. He’ll need all of his genetically enhanced smarts to avoid arrest and figure out how he has been erased from reality. Nice premise for a paranoid sci-fi tale, and it’s a pretty enjoyable ride, but I think the ending is a let-down.

Arrested Development (Season 3)

DVD review from The Movie Snob

Arrested Development (Season 3) (B). Although the abbreviated final season of Arrested Development doesn’t quite hit the delirious highs of the earlier ones, it still packs quite a few laughs into just 13 episodes. The first half of the season is probably the funnier half, featuring a story arc in which Michael (Jason Bateman, Juno) investigates George, Sr.’s claim that some sinister Brits set him up to take the fall for the Iraqi building project. Charlize Theron (Prometheus) has a recurring guest role, and other notable guest stars include Scott Baio (who replaces Henry Winkler as the family’s new lawyer Bob Loblaw), Judge Reinhold, and Justine Bateman in a memorable turn as someone who just might be Michael’s long-lost sister. I hear that there is a movie in the works, and I will definitely turn out for it. Well, if the reviews are good.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

From a shell-shocked Movie Snob

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (D). Maybe I was just confused because I didn’t see the first installment of this franchise, but this very long movie seemed like the most ridiculous thing I have seen on a movie screen in a very long time. It is becoming a perennial complaint of mine that big battle scenes in these summer blockbusters are so fast and so poorly edited that you have no idea what in the world is actually going on. Every fight scene (and there are about nine of them) is a loud and deathly dull blur. I gather that there’s a big war on between two camps of extraterrestrial robots (that can transform), and we are unlucky enough that Earth has become their battlefield. This dud probably deserves an “F,” but there were a couple of decently humorous moments, and I appreciated the depiction of our men in uniform as exceptionally brave and (generally) extremely competent. Although they’re also apparently suicidal, since our finest weaponry seems to have little effect on the diabolical decepticons. Okay, I’ve wasted too much of my effort and your time on this review. SKIP THIS MOVIE.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

From the desk of The Movie Snob

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (C+). I should stop reviewing these things because I am sure nobody in the vast throng of people that watch these movies agrees with me. Nevertheless, the critic must attend to his duty. I think I liked this installment a tiny bit better than some of the earlier ones because of the romantic subplots that are developing as the young wizards start to grow up. Those stories were entertaining enough. The heavy stuff about the terrifying evil wizard Voldemort, and the effects-heavy battles that supposedly advance thee plot just leave me cold. Also, I was confused by the arc of this movie — it seemed like the big question was whether Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, December Boys) was going to be able to get some big secret out of Hogwarts’ newest professor, but then it sort of sounded like Dumbledore had already guessed, or at least half-guessed, the facts that were being concealed.  Oh well.  Hermione (Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is cute.  And Helena Bonham Carter (Alice in Wonderland) seems perfect for her role as one of the evil henchmen.