Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Storm of Swords

Lucy Lawless orders you to "strip" in Spartacus.

* * * (out of five stars)  Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. Created by Stephen S. DeKnight. Available on Netflix. (Spartacus: Vengeance premieres on STARZ on Jan 27, 2012.)
Of all the stylistic spawn of Zach Snyder's 300, the best may be STARZ's Spartacus. Now entering its third season (or more precisely, its second-and-a-half—see explanation below), the series has everything Synder's testosterone-pumped sandal epic had—and then some. For not only do spurts of blood and lopped limbs arc through the air in tender, loving slow motion, and the bronzed sides of masculine beef glisten in the simulated sun, but this Spartacus breaks new ground in its unapologetic, full-frontal sexuality. Classic Hollywood always made the pagan Romans a decadent bunch, but this show leaves virtually nothing to the imagination, including the question "When does a busy gladiator have time to do all that man-scaping down there?" You won't get the answer in the first two seasons (available on Netflix until February), and I'm guessing you won't get it in Spartacus: Vengeance, starting on January 27. But what you do get is eye-opening enough. It’s a fair bet that, like in the previous seasons, you’ll have ample occasion to watch this show slack-jawed, wondering Did I really just see what I thought I saw?

            The show's maximalist aesthetic is not all that makes it compelling television. To get at that, we have to go back not just to Synder's movie, but to the legacy of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. As we all know, Spartacus was a real person, a Thracian gladiator who led a serious uprising against Rome in the late days of the Republic. Kubrick’s film, like its dogged and methodical hero, has earned classic status in the half century since its release. Indeed, with the brutal elegance of its action and the intelligence of its chief players (Kirk Douglas, Laurence Oliver, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov), it actually left some of us (OK, maybe just me) yearning for more. Just who are those guys sharing Spartacus' formative days in the ludus (gladiatorial school) of Gnaeus Lentulus Batiatus? We hear their names (Crixus, Galleno, et al.), but who are they, and what are their stories? We know Spartacus has a thing for the sweet-faced Varinia (Jean Simmons), but what loves and passions drive his comrades in arms? True, these may be questions nobody asked. But this new Spartacus hurtles at maximum warp toward the answers, driving all before it with its pure, pulpy momentum.
            At a time when the craft of politics has a bad odor, it’s not surprising that this contemporary Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is no ideologue, no fighter for principle. Instead, he’s just a barbarian chieftain out for revenge. Betrayed during a joint expedition with the Roman army, Spartacus and his wife (Erin Cummings) are cast into slavery, with the former consigned to the brutal training regimen of Batiatus (John Hannah). A shrewd judge of character, Batiatus knows that Spartacus may be the champion and cash-cow he’s always wanted—if he can be properly motivated. The bargain is struck: if Spartacus will play the obedient slave, Batiatus will reunite him with his wife. Spoiler alert: Batiatus keeps his end of the bargain, but not in the way Spartacus expects.
            For a show that pretends to be about nothing else but blood and sand and cocks (with a little girl-on-girl action mixed in), Spartacus features better performances than it has any right to. Hannah is a social climber of DeNiro-esque intensity, a kaleidoscope of venality relishing the twist of every knife he can stick in his adversaries. Yet he also shows a conditional sort of honor when circumstances dictate. Playing his wife Lucretia, Lucy Lawless would also pretend to be without scruple—except for her devotion to Crixus (Manu Bennett), the school’s champion before Spartacus. There’s no question who wears the pants in their affair (her most frequent command to him seems to be “strip”), but for all its frank portrayal of female lust, this is more femdom than feminism. The stakes rise further when Crixus conceives an unwise love with Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt), Lucretia’s personal servant.
            Under the guise of big-screen spectacle, Dalton Trumbo’s script for the celluloid Spartacus was a cri de coeur against the Hollywood blacklist. The TV show’s original Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, seems a diminished figure compared to Kirk Douglas, both in the modesty of his style and the limits of his motivation. The series’ first season ends just as the gladiators rise up against Batiatus; how it would contrive to make Whitfield into the plausible leader of a universal slave revolt would have been interesting. Alas, the actor was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma after the first season, and passed away in September. The transition from self-motivated gladiator to crusader for freedom will now rest on the thin shoulders of Liam McIntyre, who faintly resembles Whitfield and got his blessing to take his role.
            Spartacus is a show with few pretensions, but the context of tragedy surrounding it (Whitfield was only 39 when he died) lends it a faint wistfulness that humanizes it in a way some much better-written shows rarely achieve. Indeed, in case Whitfield improved enough to return, the show took a detour for its second (half) season, telling the back-story of Batiatus and Lucretia and their school before Spartacus’ arrival. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, as the six episode prequel was called, is as much guilty fun as the first season, and is worth watching first for those who want to get up to speed before the next season begins in late January.
            Purists find much to object to in the show’s portrayal of antiquity’s “peculiar institution”. Though Spartacus (and Gladiator, for that matter) present their fights as always life or death, real gladiators were too expensive commodities to risk losing every time they stepped into the arena. Like modern performers for the WWE, gladiators knew how to put on a good show without necessarily killing each other. Many, if not most, gladiators survived their combats if they fought well. It was actually the Christians, having seeing many marytrs made in the arena, who had an interest in making pagan institutions seem as barbaric as possible.
            Yet some thought has obviously gone into the show: its clunky, stilted dialog seems laughable at first—until you realize that the writers are trying to approximate the sound of spoken Latin. (For example, since the equivalents of common English terms like “thanks” and “sorry” would have sounded more formal in Latin, the characters here say “gratitude” and “apologies”.) Next to the frequent beheadings, this is a small thing, but as a show like Deadwood proved, there can be universes in small things.
            The universe of Spartacus is a coarse place, but it comes by its coarseness honestly, with no apologies or (gods help us) irony. For that, it deserves its fair share of gratias
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Slack Key

Clooney and Woodley are stuck in low gear in The Descendants

* * (out of five stars)  The Descendants. Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Directed by Alexander Payne.  
In Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), the prickly wine aficionado played by Paul Giamatti condemns a lackluster glass of cabernet franc as “hollow, flabby, overripe.” This critic feels similarly let down by Payne’s flabby, overdue follow-up to Sideways, The Descendants. This half-hearted comedy-drama isn’t the worst thing in the world. Let’s call it an unremarkable bottle of wine that took way, way too long to get to the table, and subsequently suffers the consequences of over-anticipation.

            The schlemiel this time is Matt King (George Clooney), a good-hearted but emotionally unavailable family guy who happens to own a few thousand acres of prime Hawaiian real estate. While he is busy deciding how to deal with the bevy of developers who covet his legacy, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) drifts into an affair with another man, and then into the path of a stationary object during a boating accident. She is now comatose and dying, forcing Matt to at last confront the superficiality of his relationships with her and his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is basically the story of a man who belatedly realizes he’s sleep-walked through his life, and is not entirely sure he wants to wake up.

            Payne is at least on to something in the premise. As Matt observes early on, the fact that he is a rich man living in a tropical paradise is no guarantee of happiness. More precisely, his advantages allow him to be as desperately unhappy as anybody else—just on a higher plateau. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he says in the film’s first five minutes, thereby setting us up for something a great deal edgier than Payne delivers.

            Indeed, it’s hard to figure exactly what The Descendants wants to deliver. Aside from some odd moments, it’s not particularly funny. It won’t make you cry. Aside for a brief scene near the end, it offers no dramatic fireworks, no bravura performances that make good clips during the Oscar show. What narrative momentum it does have—such as when Matt decides he must seek out and confront his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard)—is spent in very talky, very civilized scenes that are resolved in very talky, very civilized fashion. In short, it offers nothing like the catharsis in Sideways, as when Paul Giamatti grabs a bottle of bad wine and runs into the vineyards screaming for everyone to leave him alone.

            Mostly, The Descendants seems content to be a somewhat quirky (but not too quirky) semi-comedy that somehow deserves our attention because it has heavy themes. Those themes don’t exactly weigh on its soul, exactly, but lie somewhere in its vicinity. It is to Payne's credit that he has produced a mature story here, for mature minds. But that doesn’t mean it needs to feel like a funeral reception, afraid to be too amusing or too loud—in short, to be too fun.

            Don’t believe the hype that will undoubtedly attend George Clooney’s “slack key” performance. True, he proves he has the integrity to allow himself to be ordinary, to be the guy who wears Hawaiian shirts in Hawaii without irony—but is this really much of an accomplishment? Is his acceptable masculinity, the debonair charm of his Clooniness, really that common in the world that he must prove he can turn it off at will? Having Clooney play the schlump is like watching Scarlett Johansson fill penny-rolls in her sweatpants—possible, but why?

            With its layered performances and rich quotability, Sideways is already on its way to full cult status. Election (1999) is also deservedly remembered. The Descendants isn’t Payne’s sophomore effort (as in “sophomore slump”), but it sure feels like it. Seven years is a long time to wait for a drink that is just “quaffable”.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro