Archives for the month of: August, 2014

This is basically Anthony Trollope’s attempt at Little Dorrit, only it’s worse. By this I mean it has to deal with a swindler in the City, wastrel sons, young men who are honest but overseas, and virtuous daughters who are completely out of place in their surroundings. (And that it has neither Dickens’s flair for writing sympathetic characters nor his sense of humor.) In its favor it has what I assume was the vaguely fashionable pro-Jewish streak, like Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (their publication dates differ by a year).

Full disclosure: I find myself completely incapable of reading Trollope. I have tried multiple books on multiple occasions and I just can’t do it. So I cannot comment on fidelity to the original.

Like all other novels in the 1870s, this has multiple stories going on. Most importantly, Mr. Melmotte (David Suchet) is a financier of somewhat shadowy background; he has a marriageable daughter, Marie (Shirley Henderson). She is chased by a penniless and useless young baronet, Sir Felix Carbury (Matthew MacFadyen), whose sister Hetta (Paloma Baeza) is a thoroughly nice girl and has no patience for him, but whose mother (Cheryl Campbell) is at least as unscrupulous as he. Rounding out this little tail-chasing circle are two more men: a middle-aged squire, Roger Carbury (Douglas Hodge), cousin to and in love with Hetta, and Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy), an ambitious engineer whose project is funded by Mr. Melmotte, who is protégé to Roger Carbury…and in love with Hetta, too.

There are political intrigues, sexual intrigues (concerning the oft-jilted Miranda Otto), press intrigues (which get the always-welcome Rob Brydon involved), and prejudice is punished in the form of a rather unlucky and ill-supported young lady. So that’s all to the good.

All in all, it’s capable. It’s more or less clear what is going on at any given time. It’s absurdly nice to see Cillian Murphy in a rôle in which he does not begin or become visibly insane. Fenella Woolgar appears as a clueless, disaffectedly cruel aristocrat, at which she excels. The costumes are good, the houses are gorgeous, and you very much want to kick Sir Felix in the seat of the pants the whole time. And you’re supposed to.

Director: David Yates
Rating: NA
Length: 300 min.
Score: 3/5.

All your favorite old British people–Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, and Ronald Pickup–go to Jaipur. Dev Patel is also there.

I laughed once, when Judi Dench chugged a G&T, thinking it was water.

Director: John Madden
Rating: PG-13
Length: 124 min.
Score: 1/5.

It’s always hard to tell what’s going to happen in a movie about Ireland during the Troubles, or I guess at any other time, too. It might be completely miserable and heart-wrenching and make you watch someone’s fingernails get pulled out (The Wind that Shakes the Barley, e.g.), or it might be political and stirring (Michael Collins) or, apparently, it might be drippy and asinine, like The Last September.

In this film, it is 1920, and Lord and Lady Naylor (Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith) are landed gentry in Ireland; their sympathies are with the English, as is entirely logical. Staying with them is their more-or-less orphaned niece, Lois (Keeley Hawes), whom a young British army officer (a Captain Colthurst, played by David Tennant with an efficient mustache) loves to distraction. Rounding out the house-party are Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency (Lambert Wilson and somebody) and Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw).

This could have been a moderately intelligent film about the death of empire, or what happens to people like the Naylors when their world ceases to exist, or even about the IRA. But it wasn’t. Instead it was a stupid movie about a love triangle, consisting of Lois, poor Colthurst, and a Peter Connelly (Gary Lydon), who might be a member of some revolutionary organization but generally seems to be a free-lance murderer. Now, I hate plots driven by love triangles, because they usually involve somebody being stupid or cruel or both, and so it’s hard to feel any empathy. And it’s worse when the love triangle is frankly absurd, as this one is. Lois apparently grew up with Peter, and harbors tender feelings, but all we see him do is shoot a Black & Tan in the head and try to rape Lois twice (maybe I misread the situation both times, but I don’t think so, and if I did… the director maybe should have made different choices). Now, Black & Tans were horrible, and this one was carefully set up to be hateful, but even so that’s not really a love affair with a future. Colthurst, for his part, is poor and comes from no family at all, but he’s very much in love with Lois and even his mustache is just achingly honest and dutiful.

So of course she prefers Peter, because she is an idiot, and of course she won’t actually give Colthurst his walking papers, because she is cruel, and of course this ends in literally the worst possible way, because, as I said, she is an idiot.

Otherwise Mr. Montmorency and Miss Norton are in love and it’s a bit sad, and Maggie Smith, as is apparently her job, refuses to believe that her world is changing.

Notes:

  • Lambert Wilson’s English is perfect. When he came onto the screen I thought, “He looks awfully French in general and like the Merovingian in particular but it couldn’t be he.” It is.
  • Keeley Hawes is always playing these parts, but she remains likable. Not here, obviously, but it won’t put me off her in future. Also, her fringe is a disaster.
  • Conversely, David Tennant has a lot of ground to make up with me, because “Doctor Who” became unbearable during his incumbency, but this helped, rather. He was just so lost looking and affecting. Well, and the uniform.

Director: Deborah Warner
Rating: R
Length: 103 min.
Score: 1/5.

I am legitimately angry about this film. Partly because I’m an ancient historian, partly because I consider myself largely not-racist and not-misogynist, partly because I have eyes, and partly because this movie is the kind of awful that I find it hard to describe without four-letter words. Also because 300 was silly but enjoyable, and I thought this might come close to that success. But no.

It didn’t seem to involve much care at all, so I’m not going to give it the benefit of an argument, just provide slightly-edited versions of my notes.

Notes:

  • We start off with the rationale for Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, and it is INSANE. It does get us some bitchin’ Marathon footage, in which…okay, the Persians look like Arabs, and Darius looks a tiny bit like Persian kings were portrayed, and then is KILLED BY THEMISTOCLES AT MARATHON WHICH DID NOT HAPPEN AT ALL. His son is there, and that’s nice because it’s pre-androgynous monster and is just as hot as regular Rodrigo Santoro, but bad because…
  • THIS allows Crazy Eva Green (as Artemisia of Caria, sort of, who was indeed a queen and indeed commanded ships at Salamis) to manipulate Xerxes into going insane in the desert and becoming that gold giant we all know and hate, and… now we can literally blame the second Persian invasion of Greece on a witch-like woman, so that’s a blow for feminism and reason. Herodotus blamed it on a woman, too, but way back, and not entirely out of insane personal spite.
  • The Athenians also fight almost naked, of course—but in blue cloaks and in skirts instead of diapers, but we are constantly reminded of the diaper-wearing, ultra-violent, petulant Spartans, so… that’s good too?
  • The effects seem worse, but it is not less stupidly violent. On the plus side, we do get Xerxes’ sweet-ass pontoon bridge across the Hellespont.
  • It gets a little bit hazy here, and all I have is:
    Australian Themistocles… I don’t like it
    HANS MATHESON
    WTF IS HAPPENING
  • It gets a little better when Themistocles goes to ask for (presumably non-existent) Spartan ships? But Gorgo laughs at a united Greece, which… seems questionable; also they can’t afford Gerard Butler or he’s too fat.
  • Oh, right! Artemisia’s backstory. She’s not queen of Caria, here, but instead a woman whose entire family was raped and killed by a roving band of hoplites, and then she was apparently the woman that a slave ship kept around to abuse, and then she was left for dead until she was raised to be a death-obsessed ninja by some Persian aristocrat. Yup, okay. So this one is personal too. Makes total sense.
  • The writing is just catastrophically terrible; literally all the talking is exposition, and it’s clumsy exposition.
  • There is a complete misunderstanding of how Athenian armies AND navies work, which is fun…
  • OH! And then Artemisia tries to suborn Themistocles, with booze and her cleavage and then, of course, they hate-bone, and it’s gross and terrible on pretty much every level.
  • We… had not done our homework on what was on the Acropolis when the Persians burned it, and the Spartans did not arrive like the goddamn US Marines.

ARGH. So I’m very angry, and not just because we only sort of sneezed in the direction of Herodotus. You could make a movie just as good as 300 about Salamis, but you might have to try, and you might have to make the sequence of events intelligible, and you might have to write dialogue, or try to make people make sense, or not embarrass Eva Green, or something.

Director: Noam Murro
Rating: R
Length: 102 min., most of which was battle, and yet, somehow, boring.
Score: 0/5. Honestly, don’t watch it. It is none of the kinds of fun of the first one and all of the kinds of terrible.

Well, this certainly represents a swing back in the conventional wisdom about Winston Churchill. I, at least, was taught that he was a dangerous hothead who was responsible for the pointless slaughter of thousands of Dominion soldiers, and, while he did turn out to be right about the Nazi menace and was a splendid wartime PM, skepticism about his opinion of the German re-armament in the 30s was reasonable because of his past track record of war-mongering bloodlust.

In this, we learn that until Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Churchill was rather hoping they wouldn’t, that he loved his wife very much and she him, that he was an admirable battalion commander when he was sacked and sent to the trenches, and that he was largely responsible for the development and effective use of basically every kind of mechanized weaponry or transport. Even the end-tag observes in an adulatory way that whatever setbacks he encountered in the Great War merely meant that he was able with energy and experience to face the challenges of WWII.

To be sure, this documentary addresses his arrogance and ability to put people off, but only to counteract that with tales of his surprising efficacy as a fairly junior officer, or his stellar efforts in reforming munitions factories, or a tender note to his wife when she writes rather worriedly. Even Gallipoli, the bugbear of his life, passes by in a couple grainy photos of presumably antipodean troops looking slightly nonplussed. The number of Allied dead in that catastrophe is mentioned some minutes later, when the narrative has largely moved on. Of course, this isn’t a film about the Dardanelles campaign, but, when you speak of Churchill’s WWI, it should perhaps loom a little bit larger. You could leave out the bit where your (much too handsome) actor, in his natty Glengarry cap, impresses his Scots fusiliers by standing on the firing step of his trench without a thought for his own safety.

The interviewees are an interesting bunch–a few professors of history, of course, but also some amazing war technology boffins, as well as a former officer in the Grenadiers, who had incisive remarks about Churchill’s time at the front. It was intriguing to see the range of ways of speaking that they had.

Notes:

  • Churchill’s French shrapnel helmet might be my new favorite thing.
  • Look at photos of David Lloyd-George in 1914 and then in 1918. Oof.
  • Blenheim Palace seems nice. Also, I hope you like looking at paintings of the first Duke of Marlborough.

Director: Adam Kemp
Rating: NR
Length: 94 min.
Score: 3/5.

Is it a step forward that we have rom-com heroines who are unlucky in love because they are too good at their jobs? Maybe? Can it never be Katherine Heigl again? Please?

In this installment in the genre, Kristen Bell plays Beth, a tiny, blonde, uptight curator at the Guggenheim who starts off by being dumped for the second time–publicly, and at a work event–by Lee Pace. She sort of goes to pieces, but, in fairness: ouch. To put the tin lid on it, her mean boss, Celeste (Anjelica Huston, about as wasted as she was on “Smash”), is mean to her about it. And everything else.

Then her sister decides to marry an Italian guy she met on a plane, and Beth has to fly to Rome to be in the wedding, where she meets and hits it off with the best man Nick (Josh Duhamel). Now, Nick played football for Syracuse and was hit by lightning during a game and is really embarrassed about being that guy. And this is how you know that no man was ever intended to see this movie, because that is actually awesome and frankly if you were Josh Duhamel’s size and recently played football for Syracuse that’s pretty much your best case.

Annnnyway. Then Beth sees some random woman plant one on Nick, and decides to get drunk in a Roman fountain and steal the coins from it. We’ve all been there. According to rom-com logic, this means that the five guys who threw the coins (Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Danny DeVito, Dax Shepard, and…Josh Duhamel) are now under a spell and in love with her. Hijinks ensue, following her across the Atlantic back to New York.

As a rom-com, it’s capably made. Kristen Bell is really, really charming. Kate Micucci, as her underling/friend, makes me want to spit nails, because she is a deliberate ruiner, but we’re not supposed to mind because she’s so cute and quirky. Barf. The ambient characters are, in fact, mostly caricatures–the philandering dad and constantly annoyed mom, the mean boss, the beer-swilling friend of the dude, the comical Italian priest, etc. And it has the annoying but apparently obligatory bits when the heroine does ridiculously humiliating things at gala events and/or weddings, because she commits to a small misstep and ends up in a disaster. You know, because people don’t just run and hide when that happens.

But, that said, it’s still pretty cute.

Notes:

  • I know Kristen Bell is small, but, like, she is comically shorter than Josh Duhamel.
  • John Heder’s character is a street magician, and Pedro is his assistant. It’s like being hit in the face by sophomore year of college, but in a nice way.
  • According to the bits of Rome we see, everyone in this movie has a kerfillion dollars.
  • Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” usually weirds me out, but it is well deployed here.
  • The credits have a surprisingly cute dance sequence, so if you make it to the end, you should watch it.

Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Rating: PG-13
Length: 91 min.
Score: 2/5. Certainly no worse than most rom-coms, but also not better.

Again, BBC miniseries, and narrated by Tamsin Greig, so, hooray, Tamsin Greig! This one is a documentary, and as documentaries go it’s fine, although it has one glaring problem.

It purports to tell you about how the childhoods and childhood rivalries of the King, the Kaiser, and the Czar were largely responsible for the Great War. That’s how it opens. How it closes, however, is with a shrug. “This would almost certainly have happened anyway,” it seems to say, “and maybe it wouldn’t have if the Kaiser hadn’t been so unloved and so unlovable. But he was, and a bunch of other things were also going on, so Europe definitely blew up.”

If you’re looking to be enlightened, then, don’t bother. If, on the other hand, you are looking for royal home videos or photos of the Romanov children with the Kaiser on holiday and wearing mutinous expressions, you’re in luck.

Notes:

  • An extremely sad observation is made: if Czar Nicholas II had been king of England, he might have been all right. He was an admirable family man and disliked politics, and he looked good in naval uniform. His autocratic tendencies would have been irrelevant. Instead, of course, he was Czar of Russia, and ended up murdered in a basement by drunken Bolsheviks.
  • The Kaiser experimented endlessly with mustache curvature. Not one experiment was successful.

Director: Richard Sanders
Rating: NR?
Length: 122 min.
Score: 2/5. Some nice archival work; not much else.

If you’ve ever asked yourself just how creepy and off-putting Ben Whishaw is capable of being (and, let’s face it, we all have), this is the movie that answers that question. It is rated R for “aberrant behavior,” and the MPAA, she is not joking.

It’s 18th century Paris. Everyone is dirty, wears brown all the time, and smells bad. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Mr. Whishaw, and, no, I am not joking about his character’s name, and, yes, I wish that I was) is born in the worst-smelling part of Paris–the fish market–and eventually as an adolescent orphan works in a tannery. All the other kids hate him because is a terrifying creep who constantly sniffs things because they feel threatened by his god-given unique talent for olfactory sense. Right.

So he smells a girl selling yellow plums, becomes obsessed, startles her badly, inadvertently kills her, then strips her and sniffs her dead body. And then it gets weird. Desperate to capture (her? the perfect? any?) scent, he manages to apprentice himself to Dustin Hoffman as a ridiculously terrible Italian perfumer, where he learns the basics. He then embarks on a killing swath through the south of France so that he can recapture a legendary Egyptian perfume by using eau de dead prostitute. (Thus the subtitle: The Story of a Murderer.)

Then it goes off the rails completely and I can’t really tell you how without spoiling it entirely, and I don’t really want to do that even though I can’t recommend that you watch this movie.

Why? Because it’s just desperately unpleasant. It’s true that the alternatively squalid and opulent portrayal of 1700s France is well done, and that the visuals are often stunning. Alan Rickman bears up pretty well as an actor under the ambient absurdity, but on the other hand both Mr. Whishaw and Mr. Hoffman are emphatically weak. As the film wears on, you find yourself wanting to continue watching, not because you actually have any sympathy with anyone, but because you’re honestly curious how it’ll get itself out of its own coils. I did not find that it did so satisfactorily; you might.

Stray observations:

  • Please wear a shirt, Ben Whishaw. Your air of stylish malnutrition may be appropriate for the part, but people wear shirts. Even crazy people and French people and poor people.
  • As the film barrelled/staggered/wafted towards its close, I seriously considered posting just the word: “What.”

Director: Tom Tykwer
Rating: R. And not the fun kind.
Length: 147 min., which was too long.
Score: 2/5. Stylish, but neither fun to watch nor enlightening.

Yeah, yeah, TV movie, whatever. Also, I didn’t think Going Postal was one of Terry Pratchett’s best, so I’m not going to evaluate the screen version on its fidelity to the original because a) I don’t remember, and b) I don’t care.

So…on the Discworld, which is an amazing universe that you should investigate at the earliest opportunity, there is a city called Ankh-Morpork, which is sort of modelled on Victorian London if there had been magic and wizards instead of TB and Chartists. It’s filthy, it’s bustling, it’s corrupt, it’s fascinating.

In this city, there is a man called Moist von Lipwig (Jeff from “Coupling”), and he is a con man. He is caught, and Lord Vetinari (played by Charles Dance and if you thought Tywin Lannister was devious and arachnid, you are a naïve fool) offers him the chance between death and re-opening the Post Office. Inexplicably he goes for the latter and gets entangled in various plots involving new technology (the clacks, a telegraph analogue), an attractive lady with a cigarette holder (Claire Foy), and golems.

As a movie it is eminently watchable. All of the actors are unexpectedly real (and don’t phone it in), the effects are almost all fine, and the world-building is surprisingly good. There’s a lot of ambient Discworld stuff that’s well executed even though it’s not strictly necessary. As an adaptation I also think it succeeds. It gets the Pratchett spirit to an extent I did not anticipate. The kookiness could easily have veered into irritating territory, but instead it was note-perfect.

Stray observations:

  • The banshee is terrible. Not sure why, since it was the only thing that really fell flat. The vampire was fine; the golems weren’t how I pictured them, but they weren’t bad.
  • Having seen Claire Foy first in eleven hours of Little Dorrit, it’s weird to see her as anything else. At least here she’s not shagging any Nazis.
  • Tamsin Greig! As usual amazing! Go watch “Green Wing” and “Black Books.” Immediately.
  • My biggest problem: Angua is too scary. You’re not supposed to be able to tell she’s a werewolf by looking. That would sort of defeat the purpose.

Director: Jon Jones
Rating: PG, maybe?
Length: 185 min.
Score: 3/5. I enjoyed it but I’m not exactly proud.

There are a million adaptations of Great Expectations, and Alfonso Cuarón’s is not the worst. It is, however, suuuuuuper 90s.

None of the essentials of the story are changed; Pip is now called Finn, and he grows up on the Gulf Coast. The part of London is played by New York, and Finn (Ethan Hawke) is an artist, because I suppose that’s how we update aimless Victorian young men. Estella is still called Estella, and she is still raised to be evil by the delightfully over-the-top Miss Havisham (Anne Bancroft as Miss for some reason Dinsmoor). Gwyneth Paltrow is an excellent choice for the grown-up Estella’s cold beauty.

As an adaptation it’s fine. Ethan Hawke is pretty good at hapless, and Chris Cooper is as usual great as Joe Gargery/Coleman. Robert DeNiro plays…Robert DeNiro, and incidentally also Abel Magwitch, whose adapted name I never caught and doesn’t matter. The Florida visuals are gorgeous, particularly, of course, Miss Dinsmoor’s grand tomb of a mansion. Soho is always rainy, Central Park is always beautiful; these are almost true. The rich ciphers of Finn’s artistic life are appalling. We are meant to be appalled.

So how is it super 90s? Well, Florida seems stuck in the late 80s and early 90s generally, so there’s that. And there is Ethan Hawke’s intermittent (terrible) sensitive facial hair. People still smoke, in buildings, in New York. Everyone (men and women) dresses like a high-powered lesbian. But mostly there is Estella. Gwyneth Paltrow wears every horrible knit outfit, every pair of atrocious mules, every ghastly hairstyle. She looks great (of course). But not only were the 90s a weird, bad time for fashion, they were also a weird, inexplicable time for feminism. Estella’s power, then, is more frankly sexual than we usually see, and she seems more in control, both of which are interesting and probably good. She does not, however, make sense. So…there’s that.

Stray observations:

  • Medium-aged Pip is played by Ethan Hawke in just the worst blond wig, and I’m not sure why.
  • The child actors are phenomenally well chosen, though. Both are eminently believable, and also not irritating as actors.
  • I think I liked the soundtrack. I’m not sure I knew a single song, and the lyrics seemed heavy-handed, often, but, well, Dickens isn’t subtle, and there was no reason for this movie to be so either.
  • Hank Azaria is Estella’s mark. It’s strange not to like or to laugh at him.

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Rating: R
Length: 111 min.
Score: 3/5. Too close yet too far? If you’re doing Great Expectations, you have to do better, or at least differently.