Rome

The Complete HBO Series

 

Rome

Created, Written & Produced by Bruno Heller

Directed by Michael Apted, Allen Coulter, et al

2005-07


Written by Bruno Heller, John Milius, William MacDonald

Historical Consultant: Jonathan Stamp

Music by Jeff Beal

Cinematography: Marco Pontecorvo, Alik Sakharov, et al

Military Advisor: Billy Budd


Cast:

Kevin McKidd: Lucius Vorenus

Ray Stevenson: Titus Pullo

Polly Walker: Atia

Lindsay Duncan: Servilia

James Purefoy: Mark Anthony

Kerry Condon: Octavia

Tobias Menzies: Brutus

Ciarán Hinds: Julius Caesar

Max Pirkis: Octavian (as an adolescent)

Simon Woods: Octavius (as a young man)

Kenneth Cranham: Pompey Magnus

David Bamber: Cicero


Production:

Theatrical: HD Vision Studios, BBC & HBO

Video: Home Box Office


Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Feature film: 1080p

Codec: AVC

Region: Free

BD-50 dual layer x 10

Disc One size: 39.90 GB

Episode 1 size: 17.92 GB

Bit rate (Episode 1): 28.63 Mbps

Runtime: approx 22 hours:

Season One: 12 episodes on 5 discs.

Season Two: 10 episodes on 5 discs


Audio:

English DTS-HD MA 5.1

German DTS-HD MA 5.1

English DTS 2.0

French DTS 2.0

Spanish DTS 2.0

Polish DTS 2.0


Subtitles:

English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, none


Extras

• 13 Audio Commentaries with Cast & Crew

• Friends, Romans, Countrymen – in SD (11:00)

• The Rise of Rome (the series) – in SD (23:30)

• A Tale of Two Romes – in HD (20:30)

• The Making of Rome – Season II (22:50)

• When in Rome – in SD (22:40)

• The Rise of Octavian – in HD (20:30)

• Anthony & Cleopatra – in HD (15:05)

• Shot X Shot: Caesar's Triumph – in SD (23:00)

• Shot X Shot: Gladiator – in SD (23:00)


Interactive features with each episode:

• All Roads Lead to Rome

• Bloodlines


Book with slipcase

Release Date: November 17, 2009

Comment:

I'd like to start by addressing the packaging of this 10-disc set.  Readers of this column know that box design is a particular bugaboo of mine, especially in that DVD box sets are generally much better thought out – even more extravagant in design and execution.  I find this state of affairs inexcusable and irresponsible given the state of the art that HD video and audio has brought us to.  Blu-ray multidisc sets are usually given the flippage treatment, which makes me retch every time one of these fragile, clangy monstrosities shows up on my doorstep for review. (Ever drop one of these?  I did, and now one of the hinges of my Rocky Undisputed set has torn itself from the case and now flops about like a broken wing.) On occasion HBO has tried some semi-creative alternatives: witness the gatefold presentations for John Adams, Generation Kill, True Blood and the metal box assist for Band of Brothers.  But these efforts are routine compared with the imaginative and entirely sensible layout for Rome: a 1.25 inch thick book of fourteen 2mm pages, each page with room for only a single disc (Jupiter be praised!) to be slid easily and securely in place (add lots of incense to that praise), and with plenty of room for all the information necessary about disc contents, including episode synopsis and details re extra features, with stunning full size color stills on the facing pages (perhaps the sacrifice of a bull is in order.)  It astonishes me that it took this long for someone to come up with this idea.  Disney, Fox, and others: please take note.


     


From SF Gate:

It's easy for rival producers making series for broadcast television to claim that HBO is true to its advertising slogan -- that it's really not TV. But for all the boundless artistic license one gets on HBO, there's also an intimidating, righteously fearful standard to uphold. If you put a series on HBO, it will be judged against the best television has to offer -- other HBO series.  As good as "Rome" is -- and it's an epic, multilayered thing of beauty -- it's still not on the level of "The Sopranos" or "The Wire" or "Deadwood." That's almost an unfair comparison, but it's also true. On the other hand, "Rome" unfolds like a marvelously shot big-screen movie, each scene (filmed on location in Italy) dripping with money well spent and a meticulous grandeur that rewards you for paying extra for HBO. – Tim Goodman


Read more of Tim’s review here.


     


The Score Card

The Series : 9

The main adventure in the sadly curtailed two-season drama that is HBO's Rome, is the transition from Republic to Empire, so it makes sense to begin with Gaius Julius Caesar and conclude with the emergence of Octavian, soon to be Augustus Caesar. The story so ingrained in us by one route or another – from Caesar to Brutus to Anthony and Cleopatra is all there, minus the romanticized cinematic impact of a Claudette Colbert or Elizabeth Taylor.


Something that watching this series brings home to us is that Rome, for all its culture and laws, had no constitution and, for centuries, no king either.  Instead, the senatorial rules of order dwelt in the brain of a single man - some centuries old from the look of him.  These rules were honored by all, however much opponents on either side wanted to bend them to their needs.  The issue at hand is: in what capacity should Caesar be permitted to return: as conquering hero, king – the latter anathema to the aristocracy - or traitor, since his successful and popular wars in Gaul have turned the balance of power away from a joint governance by Julius and Pompey?  It is typical of the scope of this series that this single question, and the lines of loyalty it engenders, consumes the first three hours of the first season.


     


All the major players we know from books, plays and cinema are here – fleshed out and dramatized in a context of what historical consultant Jonathan Stamp calls details of “geeky historical accuracy”: Julius Caesar, Anthony, Brutus, Octavian, Cleopatra, Pompey, Cassius, Cicero, and three women that we know far less well: Atia, Julius’ niece, her daughter Octavia, and Servilia, Brutus' mother and Julius' lover. There are two others: the only soldiers Julius Caesar mentions in his account of the Gallic Wars: the centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pollo.


It is through these two men, brought to life and altered in the HBO series as centurion and legionary (officer and enlisted soldier), that the events of the period – from Caesar’s return to Rome after his protracted wars in Gaul, his assassination, the civil war that preceded and followed it, and the entrance of Cleopatra into the history books are seen. But Vorenus and Pollo are no mere time travelers (that extraordinary journey is reserved for us): We, through them, and almost despite all the nudity, fucking, and bloodletting that we come to expect from HBO, almost just seem to happen upon these great events without the usual exclamation points that generally attend, for our attention is always directed to character, dialogue and the detailed sets and costumes. In redefining the class relationship between Vorenus and Pollo, series creator Bruno Heller develops both a dramatic tension and a friendship that extends to and makes that much more credible the relationships among all the other players from senator to slave, soldier and prostitute, brother and sister, husband and wife, king and merchant, crime lord and gladiator.


     


Proof of the involvement of the BBC in this effort, entirely shot in Italy, is the remarkable fact that all of the major players are from the U.K.  The extras, of course, are largely Italian, many non-English speaking, a circumstance that gave the Assistant Director a job worth his paycheck.  Most of these names are relatively unfamiliar to American audiences (Max Pirkis we know from Master and Commander, Polly Walker we might remember from Restoration and Lindsay Duncan from Under the Tuscan Sun and Mansfield Park - along with James Purefoy by the way.) But, for me, with the single exception of Lyndsey Marshall as Cleopatra, the entire cast is marvelous, inventive, perfect. I even liked Purefoy’s randy and dismissive Anthony. (Marshall is a good enough actor, she just doesn’t exude the kind of erotic magic from Cleopatra that I wanted.  Your mileage might be quite different.)  We are immediately engaged by Kevin McKidd as the righteous and breakable Vorenus and Ray Stevenson as the practical, generous and generally sunny Pullo. Max Pirkis as an Octavian smarter than his years, Polly Walker, whose Atia balances an unbridled eroticism with political savvy, and Lindsay Duncan as Servilia, a woman of power scorned, she feels, by the most powerful man in Rome, are exceptional in a field of the exceptional.


     


Image : 8/9

The HBO/BBC series, Rome, is one of the most gorgeously photographed television series ever filmed, but it also demands the highest quality video imaging and playback system.  Rome is shot on film, and has the look of cinema about it.  But more than that, it is lit in a pronounced chiaroscuro with huge swaths of shadow right where a typical made-for-TV show would place the actors.  Between the sharp delineation of light and dark on the one hand and moderate but meaningful shadow on the other, there is ample opportunity for the compression coding and transfer process to engage in digital manipulation for the benefit of the lowest common denominator amongst viewing systems.  Perhaps I was too carried away with the scope and the drama to take much notice, but except for the occasional splatter of noise, what artifacts that were apparent on my computer screen faded into insignificance on my 104-inch front projection screen.  Grain is evident, sometimes pushed digitally, I suspect, for effect.  Filtration - warmish for the rich, cool for the poor – works quite well; blacks are properly opaque; flesh tones, given the filter used, are convincing.  Some of the discs contain two hour-long episodes, others, three, but I noticed no appreciable drop off in quality for the fuller discs.


     


(I confess that at first I judged the image to lack something in coherence and sharpness, and took the opportunity to check on projector focus – and though an entirely electronic affair on my JVC RS10, it had in fact slipped out, quite a bit actually. After the correction, all was well.  Let this be a warning to my fellow front projectionists.)


All this said, I must also admit that the difference between the DVD and the Blu-ray is more subtle and cumulative than striking.  As with our appreciation of the drama itself, it takes a while for the benefits of image integrity, dimensionality, resolution, color discrimination and intensity (especially of dark reds, blues and greens), brightness and motion control to makes itself felt.


     


Audio & Music : 7/8

Though filmed in Rome, the usual practice of looping dialogue in post-production (the thing that drives me a little crazy in the films of Fellini and his contemporaries), the series is photographed and recorded with British and American attitudes and practices to the art, and the difference in immediacy and veracity are palpable.  In this case, the difference between the uncompressed DTS-HD MA here and the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 is at once immediately felt and appreciated.  This is all the more important in such a well written drama where the actors deliver their lines with emotional subtlety and dynamic range.  On the other hand, I felt at times that crowd noises and battle sequences were more arbitrarily configured in the surround mix: though immersive, the cues was not always accurately placed.  Jeff Beal's music is very catchy.  Be warned.


Operations : 10

HBO's design for the box is now the gold standard for multidisc presentations.  Menu operations follow much the same instruction as with the DVD except for their being smart menus and that the new interactive feature "Bloodlines" can be activated during play.  The commentaries can also be cued via the remote or the special features menu.  I might add that the Blu-ray edition manages the entire wealth of the two seasons in a single box whose volume is perhaps 2/3 that of a single DVD season – and you needed space for two of those on your shelf.


     


Extras : 7

Let's get the bad news out of the way: Compared to the DVD editions, the BRD offers only the new interactive feature "Bloodlines" – and it is missing the informative inserts about art direction and The Temple of Jupiter.  So any hopes that new features would be included will not be realized.  On the other hand, I feel what is included is quite sufficient, and a few of the bonus items, the ones from season two, are in HD.


I always felt that the pop-ups for "All Roads Lead to Rome" were large and intrusive (more translucent and smaller font would have worked better) and they are much the same here, albeit clearer.  "Bloodlines is a truly interactive feature that can be optioned at any time during play or in pause.  It's an excellent idea, if a little light on detail: A large grid pops up with thumbnails of the major characters. Click on one and familial relationships are manifest.


     


Though it appears on the first disc of Season Two I recommend you watch "A Tale of Two Romes" before getting into the series.  In twenty minutes historical consultant Jonathan Stamp guides us through what was once Rome, beginning with its founding by Romulus and Remus some 700 years before Julius Caesar, and how the divisions that played out from the rivalry between those ancient wolf-sucking brothers led to the upper and lower classes and everything that made Rome what it was and what it became.  This is a detailed and entertaining feature, shown in excellent HD, and should not be missed regardless of your familiarity with the series.  It includes many brief clips from the show, much of it from season two, but without spoilers.


"When in Rome" – though presented in standard definition – is an excellent follow-up to "A Tale of Two Romes" again with the enthusiastic Stamp leading the discussion, along with lots comments by the cast, who seem to know their history as well as their characters.  A great deal is covered in this twenty-two minute segment about cultural attitudes and practices of the period (religion, cults, women, sex, marriage, slaves) and how they compare with today's mores. Much is made of the influence of Judeo-Christian ethic that took hold in Western Civilization after the events in the series.


     


After you've watched the series, you'll want to check out "The Rise of Octavian" and "Anthony & Cleopatra" – useful appendices in their own right.  "The Rise of Rome" on the other hand, is more about the making of the series as it is about the historical time and place.  In short order, it covers the basic areas of production: art design, costumes, makeup, and sets.


Two of the series' most dramatically compelling scenes are given twenty minutes each to detail what went into the thinking and execution in the Shot X Shot segments: Caesar's assassination in season one and a complex gladiator fight in season two.


     


Thirteen of the twenty-two episodes are aided by commentaries, six by the Cohen Brothers – er, make that series creator, writer and exec producer Bruno Heller and historical consultant Jonathan Stamp, who are head and tail of the same coin (dated 44 B.C. no doubt – sic).  While at times their remarks are more entertaining than informative, the wealth of detail made the many pauses frustrating.  Other commentaries are by the directors (there were fourteen in all, but only three make there appearance in this format) and cast (Ray Stevenson, Kevin McKidd, James Purefoy, separately, and Lindsay Duncan together with director John Maybury).  These commentaries are all idiosyncratic, entertaining and listenable.  Each person comes at the task from whatever strikes them: Ray Stevenson is as bold as his character as he moves from the episode assigned to a treatise on the series. (Start here.) Kevin McKidd's careful remarks are marred by extensive silences.  Director Jeremy Podeswa is detailed in his description of the matters at hand.


     


There are two other duos (besides Heller and Stamp): the director of “Death Mask” John Maybury and its leading lady Lindsay Duncan, and director Carl Franklin teaming with one of the series’ exec producers, John Melfi.  The latter two flesh out Heller and Stamp’s skeleton.  Maybury and Duncan are a pleasure to listen to. Unlike Servilia, Duncan is soft-spoken and comforting. Together they consider character – in particular, Servilia's arc - plot, and various series concepts.  Purefoy, the lone man at the mike for the penultimate episode “Deus Impeditio Esuritori Nullus" (No God Can Stop a Hungry Man) is direct, vigorous and often as funny as he is informative.


     


Recommendation : 9

The main downside to the Blu-ray is how little it offers over the DVD aside from improved, if not perfect, picture and sound.  If you don't own this set on DVD, I urge you not to pass it up.  If you have the DVD, hold breath, tighten your belt and take the plunge.  You won't regret it.  Thumbs Up.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

November 28, 2009


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