Archives for posts with tag: 3 out of 5

Herman Wouk’s novel about the last few years before the Second World War goes for coverage, both geographically and circumstantially. It smacks, rather, of a modern War & Peace, following several, sometimes overlapping threads. This works better in a book, but this series gives it the old college try.

MV5BMzY1NTEzODA4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzM0NzUyMQ@@._V1_UY268_CR50,0,182,268_AL_Pug Henry (Robert Mitchum) is a career naval officer. His life ambition is to command a battleship. A cursory knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent naval history will indicate that this is an ambition unlikely to be realized. Luckily, Pug has a host of other qualifications, like a working knowledge of German and Russian and an uncanny ability to predict geopolitical developments (he alone of everyone in the world predicts the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, e.g.). He starts out as military liaison in Berlin and ends up a military observer of Lend-Lease efficacy in Moscow.

He has a lot of relatives, and they get into various scrapes. His wife, Rhoda (Polly Bergen), is dumb and shallow but has kept her figure, so that’s going to go badly. His daughter, Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher), is very young and goes into radio; she’s not interesting until later. His elder son, Warren (Ben Murphy), is a naval aviator in Hawai’i; his younger, Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent), is a Columbia grad and naval reservist who finds himself in Siena doing research for a famous author because he can’t settle to anything else.

This introduces the second thread, Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman) and his niece Natalie (Ali MacGraw). Dr. Jastrow is a Jewish author, which will allow the series to follow in detail the declining status of Jews in Europe, because he is stubborn and flighty, which means he refuses to leave when it is simple and then lacks the paperwork and wherewithal when it becomes difficult. Natalie is…an asshole. I had forgotten. She spends all her time keeping men on a leash and then being unpleasant when they venture to be concerned for her welfare. With a better actress in the rôle, it is broadly possible that Natalie would be captivating and impulsive, but…she’s just awful. Also, people keep looking at her askance because she’s so very Jewish-looking, and that is just insultingly silly.

Through Natalie we meet her distant cousin Berel Jastrow (Topol!), a Polish Jew who documents the early activities of the SS Einsatzgruppen. No one believes him, except Leslie Slote (David Dukes), who is a minor functionary in the US State Department and also manages to be in interesting dangerous places at interesting dangerous times. He’s very in love with Natalie and she treats him like dirt. I like Leslie, possibly the best of everyone, because all he ever does is try his best for people and get no credit. Leslie knows Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), a young Englishwoman with a journalist father and an airman fiancé who globetrots around after her dad and incontinently falls in love with Pug. We come full circle!

Apparently no expense was spared in this production, and it was filmed on approximately nine thousand locations. This is a plus, but it doesn’t fix the problem: this was made in the early 80s, when subtlety was unknown and costumes only made a bare minimum of effort. In general, women’s dresses and hats are more or less in the style of the 40s, but in hideous fabrics, and no attempt for verisimilitude is made with respect to hairstyles. Men’s clothes, fortunately, escape disaster by retreating to uniform. The large cast, as usual, results in a quality of acting most generously described as uneven. This is not helped by Wouk’s limited talents as a screenwriter, which pale in comparison to his skills as a novelist.

At about twelve hours, it doesn’t save all that much time over reading the book, and is worse. But it is to be admired for its ambitions and its care.

Stray observations:

  • There is something inescapably 70s about Ali MacGraw, and she doesn’t even try to escape here. Also I think she might be a terrible actress. She’s definitely a terrible Natalie Jastrow.
  • The most affecting moment is FDR’s walk across the gangway to the Prince of Wales to accept Churchill’s invitation to church. Ralph Bellamy is generally excellent in the part.

Director: Dan Curtis
Rating: PGish
Length: 720 minutes
Score: 3/5

This is, naturally, based on the 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning Herman Wouk novel. It is worse than the book–it lacks a lot of its humanity and complication, but that’s not surprising, as the book is very long and the movie is not.

MV5BMTQ4ODg4NzA3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDcwODI5MjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_It is late in World War II, and the USS Caine is a modified destroyer doing minesweeper duty in the Pacific. Newly assigned to the Caine is the young preppy ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis). He left behind in New York a cabaret-singer girlfriend, May Wynn (May Wynn), and an over-bearing mother (Katherine Warren). He’s tall and blank-faced and not nearly as interesting or intelligent as his character in the books. Also on the Caine are the executive officer, Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), and the communications officer, Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray), who is working on a novel in his spare time. Life aboard ship is chaotic and sloppy, and many of the officers are pleased when they get a new captain, Philip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), who is a neurotic martinet.

But it turns out that tucking in shirt-tails and insisting on shaving and going slightly mad about a disappearing quart of frozen strawberries does not actually constitute being a good commanding officer, and the officers start increasingly to resent Queeg. This culminates when Maryk relieves Queeg of his command in the middle of the typhoon, and the rest of the film is dedicated to the court martial for mutiny. Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer) defends Maryk, because in the fifties and sixties every sort of moderately swarthy person was apparently interchangeable.

In the book I was irritated by Willie’s romance with May, and what a doofus he was about it, because I thought it detracted from the human drama of the Caine and the trial. But in the film she’s too vestigial to add anything, and it makes Willie disappointingly one-dimensional. The main problem, however, is (and it pains me to say it) Bogey. In the book, you’re drawn in to the resentment against Queeg, but the choice of Bogey rather precludes that. You’re predisposed to like him, or, at the worst, pity him. It makes it difficult to be on Keefer’s side, and thus the emotional clout of the dénouement is largely lost.

Stray observations:

  • The film is dedicated to the US Navy, which I guess is nice.
  • Issues of class and ethnicity–particularly Judaism–are much more deftly handled in the book, and it’s disappointing not to see them addressed here.

Director: Edward Dmytryk
Rating: PG
Length: 124 minutes
Score: 3/5

To be honest, I enjoyed the hell out of this. Does that mean it’s any good? Yes and no. Look, it’s not my fault if you expected this to be either the happy-go-lucky nonsense of the Brendan Fraser original or an actual proper film. Would either option have been better? Probably.

You know the plot. An Egyptian princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), nearly manages to summon Ultimate Evil into the world, but she’s stopped just in time, mummified alive, and buried in the desert. Some time later, an unscrupulous antiquities looter, Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), his dimwitted sidekick (Nick from “New Girl”), and a beautiful archaeologist, Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), find the mummy, free the mummy, and must defeat the mummy. Since this one is set in the present, there’s more ISIS and science-adjacent goofiness. Neither of these is an improvement.

MV5BMjM5NzM5NTgxN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDEyNTk4MTI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Among the film’s strengths are its energy, Cruise’s commitment, and, occasionally, Nick from “New Girl”‘s comedic chops. One gets the impression that every pitch meeting Cruise attends now ends with him saying, “Sure, but turn it up to eleven.” Mummy not enough for you? Crusader zombies! Tom Cruise has been on screen for seven whole minutes? Drop a missile on him! Archaeologists in films aren’t wifty enough already? Add Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) into the mix! And Edward Hyde (Russell Crowe with less make-up)!

So, yeah, it’s not half-assed. But it’s not really something worth whole-assing. It doesn’t add anything except unnecessary moralizing and special effects. It’s not quite silly enough–one feels the lack of John Hannah keenly. Boutella, one feels, is wasted in her rôle. We all know she’s athletic and beautiful, but Ahmanet could have slightly more personality. And whatever, Jenny. I get that we don’t want to have Evelyn’s cutesy incompetence, but you’re a cipher. And no woman archaeologist wears her hair down in the field.

Everyone told me this was awful, and it wasn’t awful. It was mindless and full of explosions, which is what I expected and wanted. Get a great big bag of popcorn.

Director: Alex Kurtzman
Rating: PG-13
Length: 110 minutes
Score: 3/5

This came out in between A Few Good Men and Interview with the Vampire, and that feels about right. And apparently there was a time when you could cast David Strathairn as Tom Cruise’s black sheep of a brother. The early nineties were weird.

Mitch McDeere (Cruise) works his way through Harvard Law by waiting tables. He is married to Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who is from a well-off family and gave up everything to be with him. This comes up a lot but never pays off. Every law firm wants to hire him, but despite Abby’s Stepford heebiejeebies, he takes a job at a small family outfit in Memphis. They assign him Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) as his mentor.

MV5BMTgxMjM5NDYwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODkzMzk5MDE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Abby’s reservations do not go away, and then people start dying in the Caymans, which, in the nineties, was probably the most suspicious place for inconvenient people to die. To stir the pot unnecessarily arrives an FBI agent in the person of a bald Ed Harris. He wants Mitch to help the FBI take down the eponymous Firm, which launders money for the Chicago mob. But this interferes with Mitch’s honest lawyering! Disclosing those documents would violate lawyer-client confidentiality, which sounds less bad than laundering money for a crime family, but I’m not a lawyer, so I could be wrong.

Meanwhile Mitch’s mom lives in a trailer park and his brother is in prison and he hires Eddie Lomax (Gary Busey) to investigate things. Tammy (Holly Hunter) works for Lomax, because of course she does. And everyone is being hunted by a near-albino man.

Obviously this will proceed in the manner which will allow Tom Cruise to set his jaw the most righteously. And apparently everyone just had Mickey Finns lying around all the time back then, and few qualms about using them. Basically, most of the people in this movie play painfully close to type, which works because most of the plot in this movie is a series of painful clichés. I’d cut it slack for being the Casablanca of overwrought legal dramas, thereby exonerating it from the charge of banality, but it’s not that good even if you correct for that.

Director: Sydney Pollack
Rating: R
Length: 154 minutes
Score: 3/5

MV5BNjM1M2Y3NWUtOWM1MS00YjUzLThiNmEtNjdiMTZmMzg3NTY3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UY268_CR1,0,182,268_AL_An ancestral curse gives Penelope (Christina Ricci) a pig face, and she therefore struggles to find love. Especially because, by the terms of the curse, it is assumed (particularly by her mother, played by the inimitable Catherine O’Hara) that she must marry a rich man. So she needs someone from old money, still rich, who doesn’t mind the pig face. Tricky.

People are bigger assholes than you’d expect, though. The deformity is pretty mild (especially on Christina Ricci, where it’s a bit…on the nose*), and she comes with a lot of money. You’d figure someone would be happy to cope, even if Penelope weren’t fairly interesting and nice, which, of course, she is. Also Richard E. Grant is her dad, which is a 10/10, dad-wise. But Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods) is cartoonishly appalled by her face, and he runs off to a reporter (Peter Dinklage) who’s been trying to get a glimpse of Penelope for years.  The usual shenanigans lead to a mistaken identity gambit in which Edward and the reporter hire Max (James McAvoy) to pretend to court Penelope.

It’s cute. It’s not careful, or especially clever, or particularly original, but it’s cute.

Stray observations:

  • Nigel Havers is in this movie.
  • Reese Witherspoon is also there, to teach Penelope a little sass.
  • Ostensibly, Penelope takes place in the States. But it is very obviously filmed in England, and nearly everyone in it is British.

Director: Mark Palansky
Rating: PG or so
Length: 104 minutes
Score: 3/5

* I am so, so sorry.

This resembles the John Buchan short story in very few particulars and is, I’m sure, worse than the Alfred Hitchcock movie I haven’t seen. Moreover, it is chock full of battle-of-the-sexes clichés and heavy on modern-audiences-don’t-know-what-an-oubliette-is exposition. It is, nonetheless, completely charming.

Summer, 1914. Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) is a mining engineer back in London from South Africa, and he is full of ennui. Just when he’s about to chuck it in and head back, a man (Eddie Marsan) is killed in his flat, having left Hannay with a notebook in code and a lot of stuff about a German spy ring. Naturally, Hannay is suspected of the murder. He goes on the run, concluding that his best bet at not being hanged is to expose the spy ring. Trains, planes, automobiles, suffragettes…

MV5BMTYyMjcxNDExNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzE2MTIwMw@@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard) falls in his way and is somehow not irritating. She tells him off, withholds information, climbs walls, and generally does everything that such a character usually does, and yet is charmingly spunky rather than hamfistedly shrill. Also they have very good chemistry, even when she calls him a “prehistoric boor” and he calls her an “unhinged hysteric.” We’ve seen it all a thousand times, but here it manages to be amusing instead of hackneyed and lame.

Oh, obviously there are spies, and Patrick Malahide is quietly sinister while David Haig flutters about the place. It’s not, you know, good, but it is deeply enjoyable.

Stray observations:

  • At the beginning Hannay is wearing a white necktie with a godawful white waistcoat and a ventless black jacket. No one has ever worn this combination on purpose, and certainly didn’t in 1914.
  • Patrick Kennedy as Victoria’s brother is so much less unbearable than he is as Carstone in Bleak House or McKechnie in Parade’s End.

Director: James Hawes
Rating: PG or so
Length: 90 minutes
Score: 3/5

Somehow, this is a movie about not having an affair with Alexander Siddig. Which seems like the difficult and worse option.

mv5bmzewodmxnjiwnl5bml5banbnxkftztcwmjc0mji3mw-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) is married to a man called Mark (played by somebody, I’m sure) who works for the United Nations in the Gaza Strip. They plan to meet in Cairo, but he is held up, so he deputizes his old bodyguard Tareq (Siddig) to look after her.

She is clueless, and it’s extremely irritating. Patricia Clarkson’s face is natively intelligent, so when Juliette is a big ol’ dummy, it doesn’t work. She appears to know nothing about anything, but enjoys lecturing Tareq about education and women’s rights and his own romantic life. She pulls a stupid and possibly dangerous stunt, and then gets resentful when Mark has the audacity to suppose, in consequence, that she has no concept of reality. She also wears a lot of sundresses, which, with her complexion, seems like a bad call.

Other than that, it’s slow and rather silent, and if Juliette weren’t a moron, I think it would be quite pleasing. The juxtaposition of pyramids with Cairo’s sprawling concrete is visually striking, and Juliette wears a very beautiful turquoise dress, which you see on the cover. Tareq owns a café, and exists in a stylish smoky haze of linen shirts and ironic eyes. Ironic but smoldering.

The best moment is his response to Juliette’s desire to see Alexandria: “You know the library burned down.”

Director: Ruba Nadda
Rating: PG
Length: 90 minutes
Score: 3/5

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.” So begins Rafael Sabatini’s best-known (though not best) novel, Scaramouche. It is the tale of the young lawyer André-Louis Moreau in the early days of France’s (first) revolution, who inadvertently becomes, in order: a firebrand, an actor, and a fencing-master-cum-politician. It is a rollicking tale told with verve and humor.

mv5bmtyxody4mzczov5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjayotyymje-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_This movie is great, and when I first saw it at the age of ten or so at fencing camp, I loved it. Tons of swashbuckling, Mel Ferrer at his most gloriously supercilious, French revolutionary nonsense, Eleanor Parker….

Unfortunately, as with Howl’s Moving Castle, this movie is only great if you have either never read the book or are capable of keeping the book and the movie in different compartments in your brain. It’s not so much that Stewart Granger is a bad André-Louis Moreau as that the script makes no attempt to make him be any kind of André-Louis Moreau. To be sure, it would be bad casting regardless, but he was all right as Rudolf Rassendyll in The Prisoner of Zenda. (Or at least the most abominable miscasting in that film was James Mason as the villainous Rupert of Hentzau.)

In turning André into a middle-aged womanizer, the film misses most of the point of him. It is the touching naïveté underlying the pose of ironic detachment that is his charm, not the pose itself. The real André is both too high-minded and too incompetent to get himself involved in a love triangle, even if presented with the temptations of Eleanor Parker and Janet Leigh, which are many and mighty. The politics–and thus André’s principles–get short shrift as well, but, to be fair, they are complicated, and this movie is not the first to shirk their involvements.

So…a 3 for nostalgia’s sake, and also: who could play André, then or now?

Director: George Sidney
Rating: tame
Length: 115 minutes
Score: 3/5

Jack Reacher is not very good. It’s competent, and sometimes even pleasing. But it half-asses everything. There’s weird family drama, there’s strange unexplained personal mystery, there’s Werner Herzog. Not one of those things goes anywhere.

Because he is a shadowy ex-military type who decides to go in for his own personal brand of morality or justice, Reacher (Cruise, obviously), has no possessions. So he must wash his shirt while speaking to Helen (Rosamund Pike), and doesn’t have another one to wear. So he’s shirtless. She is the DA. That is a thing that happens.

And then Reacher has to be incognito, briefly, so he wears a Pittsburgh Pirates cap. The audience has just enough time to be put off that Tom Cruise is wearing anything other than a Red Sox or Yankees cap before, with a self-aware smile, he hands it to the man next to him. It’s a very strange meta moment.

That’s what I remember about this movie. So, as always, if you like watching Tom Cruise do Tom Cruise things, this is a reasonable installment.

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Rating: PG-13
Length: 130 minutes
Score: 3/5

If you were to tell me that a movie in which Ricky Gervais learned to be a better person both existed and was not terrible, I would laugh in your face. But apparently I am not always right.

Frank (Greg Kinnear) is cheating on his wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni), but then gets hit by a bus and killed. Dr. Pincus (Gervais) is a dentist, and he is awful. Being a dentist insulates him from human contact, because people hate dentists and dentists get to stuff cotton in people’s mouths when people become irritating. Dr. Pincus has to go into the hospital for an operation, and a comically young Aaron Tveit as the anaesthesiologist (which is a completely awful word but apparently the correct one for status reasons) manages to kill him for seven minutes.

Now Pincus can see a bunch of dead people, and they want his help. Frank in particular wants help in keeping Gwen from marrying again. Naturally, Pincus has no desire to help anyone at all, at least until he meets Gwen.

The rest of the film is largely predictable, if appealing. It is not one of cinema’s great triumphs, but it manages to harness Gervais’s bedrock ghastliness while also having you root for him. Which, I think we can all agree, is a major achievement.

Stray observations:

  • Gwen works at the Met, and apparently the Met has big, open, brightly-lit storerooms full of random, picturesque antiquities where anyone can go and poke around. And mummies just lie around for passing dentists to inspect.
  • Pincus’s dental colleague, Dr. Prashar (Aasif Mandvi) is exactly the kind of generous eye-roller I love.

Director: David Koepp
Rating: PG-13
Length: 102 minutes
Score: 3/5