SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (2015).  I guess I will never tire of reading books about ancient Rome.  This is a good one.  It starts at the very beginning, examining the mythical founding stories of Romulus and Remus and the early dynasty of kings of Rome, and then marches up to the year 212 A.D. when emperor Caracalla made every free male inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen.  Beard doesn’t focus much on the big names of Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus, but Cicero gets quite of bit of ink.  Very readable, but I did get slightly irritated when Beard would interject little comments about how barbaric or how sexist some particular ancient practice seems by today’s standards.  I didn’t really need her to prove her up-to-date sensibilities to me.

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Dying Every Day (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, by James Romm (2014).  Seneca was an ambitious philosopher–poet–politician in ancient Rome.  He became a tutor of Nero, who was heir-apparent to Roman emperor Claudius, and attempted to instill Stoic philosophy and virtue in the young man.  Unfortunately, Nero turned out to be a homicidal maniac who, among other things, arranged for the murder of his own mother.  Things ended badly for Nero, Seneca, and lots of other people in Nero’s orbit, but only after a reign of terror that lasted about 13 years.  It’s definitely an interesting story, and well told by Romm, a classics professor at Bard College.

Of Dice and Men (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, by David M. Ewalt (2013).  This was an impulse purchase at Barnes & Noble.  I’m an old Dungeon Master from the heyday of Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1980s, so when I saw this paperback purporting to tell the backstory to the creation of D&D, I was easily hooked.  It is an interesting story, told by a guy who played D&D back in the day and still plays today with some other grown men.  In addition to explaining where D&D came from, the many lawsuits it spawned over the years, and the meteoric rise and fall of TSR, the company behind the product, Ewart also does some reporting on the “D&D and Satanism” stories that circulated in the 1980s.  Beyond this, he also reports from some gaming conventions and even tries his hand at one of those live-action fantasy experiences out in the woods somewhere.  If you ever played D&D or ever wondered what all the fuss was about, I highly recommend this book.  At 259 pages, it’s a breezy read.

Hercules (2014)

New from The Movie Snob.

Hercules (C).  I did not expect the latest Dwayne Johnson (Get Smart) movie to be a masterpiece, and I was not disappointed.  It had potential.  In this version, the twelve labors are long behind Hercules, and he now leads a small band of mercenaries who wander throughout the known world looking for jobs that will pad their 401(k)’s.  The film shows a little cleverness by gradually revealing that the legendary labors may have been mostly the product of good P.R. work, and that Hercules may in fact be nothing more than a muscularly gifted orphan rather than the son of Zeus himself.  But on the whole it’s a pretty ordinary exercise in the old hack-and-slash.  John Hurt (Snowpiercer) shows up as a king who hires Team Hercules to train up an army and defeat some marauders who may not be what they seem.  The redoubtable Ian McShane (The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising) is underused as the eccentric seer Amphiaraus.  I was mostly distracted by the gal who plays the Amazonian warrior in Herc’s troop, Ingrid Bolsø Bergdal (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters).  She looked an awful lot like a slightly bulked-up Nicole Kidman (The Railway Man), and she even sounded a little like her.  I wonder if she has any more movies coming up . . . .

The Fall of the Roman Empire

A DVD review from The Movie Snob.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (D). Imagine Gladiator stretched out to three hours. Take out all the good parts and substitute some long, boring speeches. Now you’ve got the gist of this 1964 epic starring Alec Guiness (Star Wars) as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) as his unbalanced son Commodus, Sophia Loren (Man of La Mancha) as his daughter Lucilla, and Stephen Boyd (Ben-Hur) as the doughty Roman general to whom Marcus Aurelius intends to bequeath the Roman Empire. As we know from Gladiator (and even from actual history), Commodus became emperor after Marcus Aurelius’s death, and things generally kind of went downhill for the next few centuries. The sets and costumes and epic sprawl are all fabulous, but the script is flatter than a pancake, Loren can’t act, and scenes seems to drag on forever without anything ever actually happening. I watched a couple of the bonus features on the DVD, and they were more interesting than the movie itself. If you see this movie in the bargain bin at Walmart, try to resist the urge to buy it.

A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe, by Christian Meier (Oxford 2012). Seems like I just can’t get enough of those ancient Greeks and Romans. This is a dense book by a leading historian and scholar of our toga-clad forebears. Meier sets out to discover why a “culture of freedom” arose in ancient Greece and seemingly nowhere else. Interestingly, he focuses on the centuries before the part of Greek history that is usually written about—that is, he writes about the centuries before the rise of Athens, before the Greeks’ successful defenses against Persian invasion, and before the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Because the historical record is so thin, there’s necessarily a lot of speculation about what went on roughly 1200-500 B.C., but Meier seems to be the right man for the job. It’s not a fast read, but it’s an interesting and thought-provoking one.

300: Rise of an Empire

A new review from The Movie Snob.

300: Rise of an Empire  (C).  I kind of liked the first 300, a garish and gory spectacle in which Gerard Butler (The Ugly Truth) led 300 mighty Spartans against the entire Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae.  The sequel ups the ante with barrels of gore and a fair number of severed heads and limbs, but somehow it’s just not as much fun as the original.  This time around the focus is on the Athenian naval resistance to the Persian invasion of Greece, and part of the problem may be that Athenians aren’t as cool as Spartans.  Their leader, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton, December Boys), may be a tactical genius, but he’s also kind of a wet blanket, and the rest of the Athenians are a bland bunch indeed.  It’s up to Eva Green (Casino Royale) to liven up the proceedings as the villainous Persian naval commander Artemisia, and she delivers the goods with a wild, over-the-top performance that really must be seen to be believed.  I mean, any old villain can cut off the head of a luckless Athenian prisoner of war, but who would think to give the severed head a passionate and lingering kiss before casually tossing it aside?  Artemisia, that’s who.  And her one-on-one parley with Themistocles right before the climactic battle does strike a few sparks (and cause a few bruises, I daresay).  But when Green’s off-screen, Rise of an Empire is really a fairly dull affair.