June 30, 2003

Caesar (TNT)

Caesar miniseries Caesar

Spoiler Warning One: Contains a very mild 28 Days Later spoiler in the last paragraph; if you've read any other review of that film, you already know this one.

Spoiler Warning Two: Something bad happens to Caesar at the end of the miniseries. Oh no!

"I once read a bowdlerised history book, saw a swords-and-sandals movie, and read a 1960s Ancient Rome pulp novel! I'll use these skills to write a miniseries about Julius Caesar!"

Chris Noth may have been born to play Pompey, but not even his manly arms can save this one from its silly dialogue, fantasised view of history, and confused production values. If it were sword-and-sandals flick length with a rousing Miklós Rósza-Dimitri Tiomkin-Alfred Newman-Bernard Herrmann score, it might be as fun as one of those Technicolor Cinemascope movies I love so much (The Robe, Alexander the Great, Last Days of Pompeii, Victor Mature, Peter Ustinov chewing up the creased-matte-painting-scenery while Rome burns in Quo Vadis, the Joaquin Phoenix parts of Gladiator). Instead, it takes a very long time pretending it's watchable (four hours including commercials, all told—although it's more than the commercial interruptions that kills the S&S vibe), with leaden performances and dialogue that seems written on the idea that repeating things counts as dagger-sharp repartee.

Caesar miniseries
"Strangle him."
"You will strangle him."
"Nuh uh."
"Then, you strangle him."
"Strangle him."
"I won't strangle him."
"You will strangle him."
"Strangle him! Strangle him! Strangle him!"

I exaggerate. But only a little.

At no point do the actors appear to be enjoying themselves in their Roman get-up, treading the paths beaten out by Richard Burton and Kirk Douglass and Fredric March. Even Christopher Walken seems stymied by his role as Cato (and whose idea was it to cast Christopher Walken as Rome's notoriously strait-laced stick-in-the-mud party pooper?). Richard Harris, in his final performance, is given some of the... I just have to say it... stupidest lines ever written for a tunics-and-togas costume epic. Jeremy Sisto plays Caesar, although in most of his scenes I tended to forget he was there. And it isn't over yet. Part II comes on tonight. I will try to stick with it, all for your sake, gentle reader.

Ah well, I'm helpless—I heart Chris Noth, I'll follow Detective Logan anywhere.

If I can bear it, I'll write a review including part II this evening. Frankly, I think you should just read my review of 28 Days Later, where at least the zombies are part of the story, not a by-product of the script and direction.

Caesar miniseries(7:34 pm) Tonight's Installment
Caesar has passed beyond plain awful into laughable. It might just turn out to be a fun movie after all. Not in the way the filmmakers intended, of course.

And, for you military buffs, or for anyone with a small bit of book-learnin' about the Roman legions: The battle scenes disintegrate immediately into disorganised melee. If there was a single proper battle formation in there, or even a pair of Romans sticking together, I didnt see it. Apparently the soldiers didn't take to heart Caesar's less-than-rousing speech about how discipline distinguishes them from the enemy. Gladiator, after a brilliant beginning pitting the mechanised Roman army against the German tribal warriors, collapsed into cinematic running-about, too, so at least Caesar is in good company.

Even as I type, Marc Antony is addressing the rabble. "Why does Caesar stay in Gaul? Why does he live in a tent?" Why is Marc Antony's speech so poorly written and badly delivered? Why is this small-in-stature and small-in-presence actor cast as Antony? Why is the rabble roused by him? They must know Antony's parties always have the best booze. I could use a cup of Roman vermouth myself. Maybe they'll flash Chris Noth's manly upper arms again.

(7:43 pm) Play-by-play coverage
Next missed opportunity: Showing what a real Triumph looked like—all the strange, weird customs that accompanied a victorious general's arrival in town. But that's the historical nitpicker in me complaining. The movie-watching nitpicker in me says, "This bland scene is the best you could come up with? And does Jeremy Sisto have an upset stomach or something?"

The actor playing Brutus seems to have a bit more presence than the poor dope in the role of Antony. I will probably wait until after the movie is over to make any more comments, though. My brain has been pummelled into a stupor.

Caesar miniseries(8:39 pm) Maybe I can switch to Everybody Loves Raymond
And then you reach the point where you're just thinking, Kill him already. You don't have to wait for the Ides....

(9:18 pm) The final assessment
Frankly, I don't know why those responsible didn't bother to do a better—and more entertaining—job with this, other than they just didn't care. All manner of small and large details—historical, visual, cultural—are not so much dispensed with as overlooked; one gets the distinct feeling research (the sort that anyone with a library card could have done), was not a priority. It was clearly kept to a minimum far below the level of those silly, fantasised epic movies of yore. And that is what sinks this miniseries so utterly. A "can't be bothered" attitude toward details that would have enlivened the visuals, a "doesn't matter" attitude toward presenting coherent battles, a "good enough" attitude toward producing a cohesive plot that presents developing characters rather than set pieces imparting little snippets of basic information. "Pompey is grieving; Caesar is crossing the Rubicon; Cleopatra is holding a baby; Portia is vexed; Calpurnia is frantic." A collection of info points doesn't make a story.

Oh, a hint of something almost arises: in the smoke and muddle meant to represent one of Caesar's key battles, he can be seen riding through the undisciplined mess, his deep-red cloak flying behind him, a protective squadron of men in formation around him (okay, no, not really in formation, but at least they're nearby, sort of). What a breathtakingly balletic scene that could have been. Instead: he's here, he's there, sort of, there's some smoke, people hit other people, soldiers mill around, the soundtrack mills around, you wonder if that guy over there is Jon Pertwee's son because you heard he's in this movie, you wonder where Caesar is running away so fast to, and were those stirrups on that horse?

It would be ungracious of me to mention that a great many of the actors had accents that overwhelmed their lines. As I am not feeling gracious this evening, I will mention it. A great many of the actors had accents that made key parts of their dialogue nigh incomprehensible. And, to be fair, I should include the Americans who occasionally slipped into British tones (because, as everyone knows, ancient Romans speak with British accents, or at least Hollywood-British).

The rushed ending seems to indicate the creators somehow thought this might be a love story. Rather than a vague, meandering, zombie fest.

Hopefully there will nonetheless be enough positive buzz—thanks to the presence of the late Richard Harris, the "this looks grand if you've never seen better" sets, and Chris Noth's formidable glares—that this miniseries won't destroy hope for a trend of ancient epics, but will stir up a few more entries in the genre.

Nertz. Maybe the DVD will have extra footage of Chris Noth in the Roman baths....

images from Caesar © 2003 Turner Network Television

Posted by OutsideFood at 12:00 PM | Comments (82)

June 29, 2003

28 Days Later

Irony out the Wazoo

28 Days Later Scare yourself witless. Aw, go on, it'll be fun.

In 28 Days Later, a powerful virus called Rage is accidentally unleashed on the British population; within twenty seconds of exposure it locks an infected person in a permanent state of murderous frenzy. Within 28 days, the country—and, as far as can be determined, the world—is devastated. Into this empty world awakens Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle messenger who was injured in a car accident and spent those 28 days in a deserted hospital.

I am embarrassed to report I spent parts of this movie whispering typical horror-movie warnings at the screen, something I never thought I'd do. "No no no no please please please don't go in there get out of there turn around turn around eeeeeeee!" Ah well. It was worth it.

Now, then: the rest of this review will contain some spoilers. I feel they are quite minor. In fact, you've probably had this part of the movie's overall premise spoiled for you by television commercials and just about every review of the film and interview with the director (Danny Boyle, Trainspotting); but if you already know you want to see this movie and you want to go into it with no prior knowledge of the premise, read no further. I do promise that there are far fewer spoilers in this review than in every other major review I've read so far, some of which tell three-quarters—or all—of the plot, as if it's far more important to give a smug cinema critique, or as if nothing matters but watching the movie for the shocks rather than the unfolding of the (deceptively simple) plot.

The key to this genre is well summed up in a two-sentence horror story within the story "Knock" by Fredrick Brown:

The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door....

Knock Knock
I saw the trailer for this when I went to see The Matrix Reloaded and thought it looked promising. I was upset when I found out that this wasn't going to be one of my favourite genres, Last Man on Earth (cf The World, the Flesh, and the Devil or Quiet Earth), but one of my least favourite genres, Zombie Flick (cf Omega Man). Jim discovers there are still hordes of infected persons on the rampage, in a scene so startling I won't describe it here. These creatures mostly emerge at night (mostly), seeking out uninfected humans to devour. The smallest drop of infected body fluid in a cut or in one's mouth will spread the virus (at least you won't be eaten—the infected apparently prefer fresh meat); and there is a lot of splashing blood. In one of the film's marvellously unnerving touches, Jim cuts his cheek while shaving, exposing himself to possible infection, showing just how fragile humans are in the face of the world's dangers. I spent the next several scenes watching and waiting for those cuts on his face to heal before the blood started splashing again.

But: Don't let any reports of the movie being a simple "gore fest" turn you away; be warned about but don't be turned away by images of the virus' bloody ebola-like symptoms; don't be turned off by comments that the film is just a "SARS-era Night of the Living Dead." Parts of it are an homage to that film, but its relevance is completely modern—or, timeless. To seek a "science is bad" or "military is evil" message, another popular theme in reviews of the film, is to miss the individual humans degenerating—or merely emerging. This is a film about people, humanity, and about what humanity means in a world where you can no longer tell the behaviour of the infected from that of the uninfected. The film's opening sequence—animal rights activists break into a lab where primates are subjected to constant viewing of violent news video—and what may later be a glimpse of understanding and sanity in the blood-red eyes of one of the infected, bring into question from the start whether the Rage virus is nothing more than what already flows through human blood.

Running Time: 108 harrowing minutes. (Apparently it runs 112 minutes overseas. Hmm.)

One Truly Puzzling Moment: What was that Impressionist matte painting of flowers doing in the middle of the movie? Give the film credit for it taking exactly 3 seconds for me to forget about it and get back into a steady state of fear.

Product Placement: I really, really never want to go near a Pepsi can again.

Previews: When Freddie Met Jason or some such similarly titled horror flick; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which title the voiceover seems incapable of saying more of than "League"; something involving Kate Beckinsale in dominatrix leather; and maybe some other horror flick, I forget.

Outside Food: Veggie sushi and a cucumber salad, and relief that I didn't opt to bring meat to a movie involving a lot of cannibalism. Mostly offscreen cannibalism, but still—I was glad that was only a carrot I was munching on.

I have to go barricade the door and light a bonfire now.

Posted by OutsideFood at 11:38 PM | Comments (0)