Archives for posts with tag: book movies

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

During the wars against Napoleon, the government, in the person of Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West, who has not aged especially well and who is wearing an awful wig), seeks assistance from a Yorkshireman magician, Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan). Thus events are set in motion.

Mr Norrell is not especially keen on the practice of magic, but he does manage to terrify the French fleet and bring Lady Pole (Alice Englert) back from the dead. To do the latter he must enlist the help of the Gentleman (Marc Warren), who then proceeds to be generally ominous and specifically cruel. This appears to come as a surprise to everyone, which bugged the living crap out of me in the book and did not seem better in the miniseries: has it ever worked out to raise someone from the dead? does that not always come with trade-offs you eventually realize you really didn’t want to make? So she goes bananas and everyone is unhappy about it, particularly her husband and a servant in their house, Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare). Stephen is also being chased around by the Gentleman, and he also hates it.

MV5BOTZkMDViYzQtMGNhNi00N2EyLWI2ZTQtM2FiOWNlNWYyYjEwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjExMjk0ODk@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_Enter another magician, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), who is more engaging than Mr Norrell but less cautious. He becomes the Army’s magician and serves along Wellington (Ronan Vibert) in the Peninsula and at Waterloo. He has a lovely wife, Arabella (Charlotte Riley). His relationship with Mr Norrell is fraught.

A fringe of servants, hangers-on, and academics fill out the cast. Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) is particularly squirrelly and interesting; Mr Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Mr Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) are charmingly naïve and just trying to help. Plus there’s a vagabond street magician, Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who babbles about somebody called the Raven King early, and confuses you. Things become more and more involved and unpleasant, but it never quite loses the plot.

In general, the production is admirable, although blue filters are becoming an irritating crutch. The casting is careful and concerned more with fidelity to the book than good looks, which is unusual. The plot is simplified but manages not to lose essentials; unfortunately it does lose the charm of the dry, academic tone of the novel (your mileage may vary on how charming you find that, I guess).

If you like fantasy without dragons and gratuitous nudity and are not immediately annoyed by a man in a top hat, give it a shot.

Stray observations:

  • Strange encounters a young lady in Venice, a Miss Flora Greysteel (Lucinda Dryzek). Her face is very familiar but hard to place–she was young Elizabeth Swann in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie nearly a decade and a half ago.
  • They cheap out on Waterloo, and it’s incoherent and disappointing. Relatedly, Ronan Vibert is not good-looking enough to play the Iron Duke. But it’s fun to have Jamie Parker around as the honorable and slightly sardonic Major Grant!
  • Edward Petherbridge plays the mad king George! Haven’t seen him around in ages.

Director: Toby Haynes
Rating: TV-MA, probably, for creep factor rather than sex or violence
Length: 7 one-hour episodes
Score: 4/5

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

“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

If you want to watch this for Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s great in it, but be warned: to play Christopher Tietjens properly, he abandons almost all of his vanity and makes his face as unattractive as he is able, and attempts to make his body appear hulking and clumsy.

Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End, as is usual with Ford Madox Ford, has an unbelievably acute sense of how humanity operates, and is not hopeful about it. People cheat, and then manage to be worse to each other when they are not cheating. Totally inaccurate gossip ruins lives because of malice and laziness, not necessarily in that order. And despite the monumental efforts of many, the Great War was unfairly, desperately, but also bureaucratically, horrible. Somehow, Tom Stoppard’s screenplay manages to capture almost all of the novels’ uncomfortable perspicacity without stumbling into clumsy exposition. But that is perhaps unsurprising, because Tom Stoppard is a genius.

Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch) holds a minor but important position in the Department of Imperial Statistics. He is a large blond man from Yorkshire, scrupulously, even maddeningly exact, and unwisely generous. His wife, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), is a perfect portrait of the type of woman who can get away with everything from general obnoxiousness up because she is so exceedingly lovely. She runs away with a poor sap called Potty Perowne (Tom Mison, with a fussy mustache). Christopher always thinks ahead and is unfailingly decent to and about her; that, in combination with her beauty, means that everyone thinks that she is a saint. The same people immediately believe that Christopher has any number of mistresses, including a young suffragist called Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens).

He of course does not. He would like to, but he is too much of the Tory, and nothing at all of the hypocrite. Instead, he does his job, lends money to his friend McMaster (Stephen Graham), helps everyone he can, and finally becomes a reluctant but capable officer. He sounds perfect, perhaps, but there is an excessive rigidity about him that is troubling–in Ford’s perfect description, he is the type of Tory who would never lift a finger except to say “I told you so.”

The production is near-perfect. Time passes in the shapes of skirts and hats; Morris wallpapers cede to muddy trenches; a glitzy party in what I believe is Lord Leighton’s house gives way to a sad billet near the Front. One might find the pacing slightly slow, but it is in the service of actual drama rather than the manufactured kind. As with Brideshead Revisited, a feature film of this would be heavy-handed and dreadful.

Cumberbatch gamely wears a uniform two sizes too large and screws up his face so that it is not ludicrous when Miss Wannop tells him he is not so terribly ugly after all. Hall’s glorious halo of hair makes her believable as the spiteful femme fatale who is never so recognized. Graham and Anne-Marie Duff (as his wife), are by turns arrogantly social-climbing and cringingly pusillanimous. Not grateful parts, but well-acted. The rest of the large cast also performs admirably; a few are in parts that, even in the novel, are slightly two-dimensional to throw the three main figures into sharper relief.

It’s terrific.

Stray observations:

  • Every single thing Rebecca Hall wears is beautiful.
  • Rufus Sewell is perfectly cast as the gorgeous but deranged and oversensual Fr. Duchemin.
  • Denis Lawson has a small part!

Director: Susanna White
Rating: equivalent to TV-MA, I’d definitely say
Length: 287 minutes
Score: 5/5

Technically, this is a rewatch, but I read the book recently, and I wasn’t really paying too much attention on the first watch.

And…you can’t get away from it: Anne Hathaway’s British accent is awful. Sometimes it’s not there, sometimes it’s normal posh, sometimes it’s middle school drama Cockney, and sometimes it swings wildly Yorkshire (its target), usually on the word “money.” It’s not clear why this happens, as she successfully fakes British accents in both Becoming Jane and Les Misérables, but…it is intrusively dire. And in a film that has Jodie Whittaker in the cast! She’s from Yorkshire!

In the shadow of that accent, Emma Morley (Hathaway) and Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) run into each other in vignettes on most every July 15th from 1988 to 2006. In the first, they are graduating from the University of Edinburgh, and almost have an amorous interlude. This is interesting, of course, because Emma is northern and pinko, and Dexter is posh and probably wouldn’t actually spit on Margaret Thatcher. Naturally they become best friends but not romantically involved, because Emma has a crushing lack of self-esteem and Dexter is more or less a shallow cad. We check in on them as Dexter wanders about India and Europe finding himself while Emma slaves in a miserable Mexican restaurant, as they go on holiday to the seaside together (but Rules against Romance), as Dexter becomes an increasingly unpleasant television presenter and Emma is increasingly unpleasant about it, as Dexter marries rich and lovely Sylvie (Romola Garai) and Emma dates failed comic Ian (Rafe Spall), and…well, I think you know where this is going.

It’s really rather well done. Horrible clothes are worn, and dreadful hairstyles abound. The 90s were a sartorial catastrophe, in case you didn’t remember, and Emma’s Doc Martens and round glasses are spot-on for the self-serious anti-nuke would-be writer she is at 22. Dexter is plausibly over-smooth and fashion-victim-y in an hilarious series of jerkier and jerkier haircuts. He becomes really unlikeable. Which is the point.

Aside from the accent, it’s well-acted: Rafe Spall’s Ian is infuriatingly but touchingly useless; Romola Garai’s Sylvie is icily beautiful and deeply humorless. Patricia Clarkson is of course lovely and natural as Dexter’s mother; Tom Mison is disappointingly scummy for fans of “Sleepy Hollow.”

The conceit is slightly cheesy, and the book certainly introduces more shades of grey, but this is an above-competent adaptation, and I don’t understand why people hate Anne Hathaway so much. Sure, the accent is bad, but I’ve heard worse, and she’s otherwise charming.

Director: Lone Scherfig
Rating: PG-13
Length: 107 minutes
Score: 3/5

The Cider House Rules is a lousy book, but it’s probably a worse movie. And that’s before you are even asked to believe that Tobey Maguire could ever get within five feet of Charlize Theron.

Homer Wells (Maguire) is an orphan, brought up in Dr. Larch’s (Michael Caine) orphanage-cum-free-abortion-clinic in the most depressing town in Maine. Homer learns much surgery, including obstetrical procedures, but does not want to perform abortions. And, in case you don’t understand about Chekhov’s gun, yeah, that’ll come up later. At some point, Candy Kendall (Theron) and Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) show up, needing Dr. Larch’s services, and they take Homer back to the coast with them. He starts working on Wally’s family’s orchard, and stays there as Wally goes off to fly in WWII, because he is believed to have a dicky heart. Because Dr. Larch has told him so. Which is a lie. Dr. Larch also forges a medical education for Homer. Which is apparently fine? Because one Maine doctor with an iron sense of his own morality and a lightbox is like actual qualifications.

While at the orchard, we embark on a Wally-Candy-Homer love triangle. It is ludicrous. I can’t decide whether it’s more or less ludicrous than the 600 pages of angsty nonsense in the book. Maybe it’s just more compact. Perhaps more interestingly, but also seeming rather like events that happen in a parallel universe, there are racially charged and otherwise unpleasant interactions with the orchard staff, particularly Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter (Erykah Badu).

Mercifully, the film only takes one generation for matters to play out instead of the book’s two, so…it’s shorter than it could be. It also doesn’t perpetuate the apparently common belief of male novelists that all women are probably lesbians except when there’s a certain man around, so…there’s that.

It does, however, have Michael Caine doing a deeply dodgy American accent. And Tobey Maguire’s face. So it could be a lot better, is what I’m saying.

But Maine is lovely.

Director: Lasse Hallström
Rating: PG-13
Length: 126 minutes
Score: 2/5