Archives for posts with tag: history

This is one of those productions which really makes me wonder how the economics of it could possibly work. Costumes are lush, the cast is frankly amazing, and it can’t have been cheap. But it’s awful. The writing is insulting and incoherent, the battle scenes are worse than nothing, and the directors have no idea how to get their actors to resemble human beings. And since it ran on TV, presumably it had no real way to recoup the outlay? How does this happen?

We open with Catherine’s (Catherine Zeta-Jones) marriage. Mel Ferrer is the priest! She is marrying the heir to the Russian throne, who is a non-entity with smallpox scars. Apparently he’s also incapable in the bedroom, so the Empress (Jeanne Moreau of blessed memory) recruits some slab of a nobleman (Craig McLachlan) as stud. Catherine falls heavily, has a kid whom we won’t see again, and is disappointed when this chap turns out to be gross.

MV5BMjA2Nzg4MTg4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDc1NjkxMQ@@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Then she launches a coup against her husband, the circumstances of which are not clear. That is: I didn’t already know them, and this production did not help me. Brian Blessed and Ian Richardson are there being sinister, but to what purpose it is impossible to say. The army seems to be important, and she has an affair with some guy called Orlov (Mark McGann), whose main skill seems to consist of being so manly he must use a pocketknife to unlace a corset.

Eventually Potemkin (Paul McGann) shows up, and they shout at each other and sleep together and he acquires a stylish facial scar. Approximately two dozen Ottomans make trouble, and Petersburg totters. Meanwhile some peasant (John Rhys Davies) pretends to the throne and both Catherine and Potemkin have a lot of angst about it.

Everyone in this production deserved better. I’m almost mad I watched it.

Stray observations:

  • Yes, the actors who play Orlov and Potemkin are brothers, and there’s actually a third brother as well, and yes, it is jarring. Orlov basically looks like a slightly coarsened Potemkin, and they’re both called Grigory.

Directors: Marvin J. Chomsky, John Goldsmith
Rating: tame TV
Length: 100 minutes
Score: 1/5

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

MV5BN2YyZjQ0NTEtNzU5MS00NGZkLTg0MTEtYzJmMWY3MWRhZjM2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDA4NzMyOA@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_There were a lot of deeply irritating things about this movie, so I’ll just get them out of the way at the start. First, it suffered from having the sound mixing set to “human voices are irrelevant,” like all Christopher Nolan films. Second, it had stupid intertitles and explanatory text. If you can’t figure out that the BEF is trapped on the beach in Dunkirk trying to evacuate, from 106 minutes of a film called “Dunkirk,” either the film is very bad or you are very dense. Third, the chronological fiddling was misguided. The film follows the men on the beach for a week, a boat from England for a day, and three Spitfires for an hour–concurrently. This means that time moves at different rates for the various characters and you watch various events from different points of view at different times. It’s confusing and pretentious. At least once it destroys suspense.

Admirably, the film doesn’t do the thing where it has old men in cigars in a panelled room in London arranging things blithely while young men die. It has only the bored tired disgust of the officers on the ground actually trying to fix the situation: an army colonel (James D’Arcy) and a naval commander (Kenneth Branagh). Also admirably it does not indulge in the modern taste for gore, which largely allows it to avoid a certain kind of cynical emotionalism (Saving Private Ryan, I am looking at you). Instead, Branagh flatly informs D’Arcy that a wounded man on a stretcher takes the space of seven standing men. Bleak.

On the beach too it is miserable, and we see the vicissitudes of a soldier’s life there by following Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he flees German guns and then keeps getting not entirely evacuated. On the way he runs into Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Harry Styles, for some reason. It’s wet.

In the air we have Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) in Spitfires, trying to provide air cover for the evacuation. This consists of the best film air combat I have ever seen: it makes you try to crane your neck to see the enemy planes better. They’re both charming and Tom Hardy’s weird mouth is hidden for most of it, which is a plus.

At sea is the Moonstone, a yacht out of Weymouth, crewed by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and another young man, George (Barry Keoghan). They have joined other small vessels from the south coast to help bring their men off. On the way they pull Cillian Murphy out of the water; he is, as usual, dangerously intense. Mr. Dawson is perhaps a bit too unflappable and good, but it’s earned, and Mark Rylance is a superb actor, so you buy it.

The film’s main and significant virtue is its roundedness. Awful things happen–there is an apparent randomness to death that rings and is true–and men do awful things, which is also true. But amazing things happen, and men and women do amazing things, which, thank God, is true as well.

Stray observations:

  • Very few of the characters in the film have names, and the star is the synecdochic “Tommy.” I can’t decide if I love this or hate this.
  • I have a personal antipathy towards Aneurin Barnard’s face, so I didn’t care a jot about his character; I suspect you are supposed to.
  • This gives the impression that the RAF was composed of literally three Spitfires. That’s a little bit true, of course, but not quite.
  • It is a shockingly dark-haired and brown-eyed BEF. And I know we assume that blonds in films are Nazis, but couldn’t we have had a ginger or two? There were some Scottish accents flying around. (Literally: Collins, one of the pilots, is Scottish. And blond, in fairness. As is Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Glynn-Carney. But that’s RAF, Royal Navy, and civilian respectively. No blonds in the army at all.)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating: PG-13, which is a relief
Length: 106 minutes
Score: 4/5

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

MV5BYWFlY2E3ODQtZWNiNi00ZGU4LTkzNWEtZTQ2ZTViMWRhYjIzL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAyODkwOQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_We begin in a boy’s youth, as his grandfather teaches him to shoot wolves. He hesitates, and the wolf disembowels their horse.

We then launch in medias res, as Soviet recruits are ferried across the Volga to fight the Nazis in what you can already say is the ruins of Stalingrad. Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law) is among them. He is the boy of the earlier incident, but he is not one of the lucky few to be given a rifle before being sent into the hell between the German guns and those that ensure he will not retreat. Vassily starts out with a convincing expression of terrified panic on his face, but somehow Mr. Law manages to escalate as the film goes on.

After that first abortive offensive, Vassily is avoiding the Nazi mopping-up by hiding in a fountain full of corpses. There he is joined by the young political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), whose car has just blown up, whose glasses are broken, whose competence with a gun is merely nominal, and who is generally having a really bad case of the Mondays. He fumbles with a rifle he finds until Vassily takes it from him and rapidly kills every Nazi he can see. Danilov, in true Soviet style, makes Vassily into a Hero of the Motherland, with a new fancy sniper rifle, fanmail, and slightly exaggerated rustic bona fides. They become fast friends, but Danilov also sells the heroism to a young(ish) Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins).

Two complications emerge. The first is a beautiful woman, Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), who can both read German and shoot, and thus bounces back and forth awkwardly between Danilov’s staff and Vassily’s band of miracle-workers. The second is a Nazi sniper, a Major König (Ed Harris), who has come all the way from Berlin to kill Vassily.

It doesn’t seem as though many saw this film, perhaps because in early 2001 it was still fashionable to imagine that we had solved the problem of war. It was particularly unpalatable at the time to consider a war in which neither side was hunky freedom-loving good guys. To be sure, Enemy at the Gates never for a moment questions that the Nazis must be stopped, but it also pulls no punches about the miseries of Soviet life–the wolf has already taken everything you love, the film tells you, but you must continue to fight.

Overlooking this movie, however, was a collective failure in judgement, because it’s rather good. It is affecting without being emotionally manipulative, unlike the vast majority of WWII movies. Everyone, particularly Hoskins and Harris, is well cast; it is difficult to believe that Ed Harris has only played a Nazi officer in one other film, as far as I can tell. You want to like Fiennes, but political officers are necessarily squirrelly. Weisz and Law are impossibly beautiful, and impossibly young, but they are carefully encrusted in dirt, so it isn’t jarring. They joke adorably about how Vassily’s crisp new uniform will probably be taken back directly after a photo-op.

Heads up, though, an entirely plausible number of people die.

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes
Score: 4/5

This movie is both painfully earnest and technically bad. It’s like somebody tried to make The Young Victoria from the other side of empire but had never heard anyone have a conversation or seen a movie. The pacing is atrocious, the dialogue is heavy on exposition and light on verisimilitude, and the message clocks you in the face.

Now, lack of subtlety would be all right if it weren’t incoherent and a little insulting. Admittedly few people are particularly familiar with the circumstances around the annexation of Hawai’i. Clunky speeches and cartoonishly evil nutcases are not the answer. Historical movies exist, even movies about colonial shenanigans. Take cues from a good one; they don’t have to consist entirely of awkward monologues. And if you want to emphasize Ka’iulani’s political boldness, spend less time on her romantic life.

The storyline, such as it is, is fairly classic. Hawai’i is facing American domination, and the young princess (Q’Orianka Kilcher) finds herself being educated in England with MV5BMTY2NDcwNjM2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTE4ODE0Mw@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_a friend of her father’s, Theophilus Davies (Julian Glover, who presumably had poker debts). He has a son, Clive (Shaun Evans), and a daughter, Alice (Tamzin Merchant). Clive serves the excellent purpose of falling in love with Ka’iulani, standing up for her to comically stilted snobs, and then funking it when life gets tricky. Alice is there as a contrast to everyone else in England, who is horrible. Letters come at the most opportune of moments, people find their voices just when they’re about to be shouted down, Ka’iulani is so candid and kindly that people just don’t know how to deal with her… It’s like a storybook written by a moron. A sincere, well-meaning moron.

The cast does its best with the material, but that isn’t a lot. So much is left on the table–Ka’iulani died less than a year after the annexation, presumably of heartbreak. Why not include that, for real emotional weight, rather than the silly teenage soppiness? Why not spend more time with her splendid aunt, the Queen (Leo Anderson Akana)? Why not address how she’s spent most of the film away from Hawai’i, and how that might be complicated?

Director: Marc Forby
Rating: PG
Length: 97 minutes
Score: 1/5

The current trend of biography is lengthy and complicated (see “The Crown,” or “Victoria”), which is possibly admirable. If, however, you are looking for the film biography equivalent of a chocolate soufflé, look no further than The Young Victoria.

As the title suggests, this film deals only with the early, Cinderella-type years of Victoria’s life, when she falls in love and is kind of bad at being the queen, and before she gets jowly and depressing. Helpfully, Victoria’s life was peopled with engagingly cartoonish heroes and villains, and they find excellent avatars here. Victoria (Emily Blunt) is so young, and slightly too pretty, and she is liable to listen to Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) because he is handsome and she is frighteningly sheltered. Her mother (Miranda Richardson) and Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) would like to control her, and have made a decent go of it for the first 17 years of her life. Sir John is so evil, and so delightful. He wears amazing trousers.

mv5bmtm4mjexmdk3nv5bml5banbnxkftztcwmtu3otmwmw-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Enter Albert (Rupert Friend), who is also unbelievably young, and unbelievably Romantically German. His hair! His shirtsleeves! His awkward love of Schubert! His hilariously tolerant brother Ernest (Michiel Huisman)! Apparently Ernest was awful in real life, but here he just rolls his eyes when Albert is adorably dumb about Sir Walter Scott.

To be sure, the most interesting thing about Victoria was not her romantic life, but it makes a good feature film. She and Albert are so young, and so silly, and so in love, and so well dressed. They care just enough about the poor and about progress that you aren’t grossed out by their fake problems. You’re sad when they fight and pleased when they make up, and why can’t some dreamy moron come visit me with a pair of giant dogs?

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Rating: PG
Length: 105 minutes
Score: 5/5

So, I’m pretty sure that the impetus behind this film was that Tom Cruise saw a photo of Claus von Stauffenberg and thought, “I am doing humanity a disservice if I do not make a film about this man.” Also maybe felt that his résumé was lacking a movie where he got to thwart Nazis. Of course, he doesn’t actually get to thwart any Nazis. The Valkyrie plot failed, and nobody got to kill Hitler but Hitler, pace Quentin Tarantino.

mv5bmtg3njc2odeyn15bml5banbnxkftztcwntawmzc3na-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Valkyrie is however a pretty good movie.  While Cruise as Stauffenberg gets to do a lot of jaw-jutting moralizing, the logistical problems–not to mention those of spinelessness–are well handled by everyone else.  Eddie Izzard (Fellgiebel) and Tom Wilkinson (Fromm) in particular waver and falter and smoke nervously in very convincing ways. Tom Hollander (Brandt) is as usual excellent in an as usual ungrateful part.

The film’s main strengths are the small things, though. A switchboard operator has to decide whether to put through the communiqué from the Wolf’s Lair or from the coup leaders, and his face eloquently says how far this is above his pay grade. Thomas Kretschmann, handsome as always and filled with ennui as the commander of a home guard division, likewise is never sure whether it’s a drill or whether the sky is falling and he should arrest Goebbels. Stauffenberg’s a.d.c. (Jamie Parker) is welcomed into the office with an offer of risky involvement in high treason and shrugs a yes. You actually watch the movements of the explosive-laden briefcase with some trepidation.

It’s not subtle. Goebbels (Harvey Friedman) and Goering (Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg) are sneering, evil cartoons. Hitler himself (David Bamber) is insufficiently mad for July of 1944, but still just awful. The ominous mass of greatcoats and jackboots hangs over the film. On the other side, Stauffenberg loves his wife, his children, and Jesus. The Stauffenberg children are relentlessly blond and play soldiers to the accompaniment of a phonograph playing Wagner and Tom Cruise’s agonized eyes. When the members of the plot are all rounded up and shot (spoiler alert!), Terence Stamp as Ludwig Beck gloriously observes, on learning that he is to be spared, that he’d like a pistol. For personal reasons.

And just in case you were wondering if it’s as hell-for-leather awesome as Tom Cruise movies usually are: he is blown up not once but twice within the first six minutes and then has to wear an eyepatch.

Director: Bryan Singer
Rating: PG-13
Length: 121 minutes
Score: 4/5

Tcheky Karyo makes every movie about nine thousand percent better, and this is no exception. Between Karyo and Jason Isaacs chewing scenery, you are almost able to forget about Mel Gibson’s painful earnestness.

Look, you definitely think this movie is stupid and refried Braveheart. You are not wrong. But this movie is also tremendous, because somehow all the emotional beats hit, and also America is awesome.

Which is what it comes down to. The plot is silly, and the romances are unremarkable, and the Brits are ludicrously cartoonish, and Donal Logue recovering from his terminal racism is almost insulting, but…I cry every time Susan speaks to Benjamin, and I love America.

Stray observations:

  • Just…shoot him again, Gabriel. Don’t be dumb.
  • Can someone just make a supercut of all of Jean Villeneuve’s sick burns and mic drops? “I want accuracy and precision!” “If I die, I will die well dressed.”
  • Chris Cooper doesn’t lack for knives in the gut either.

Director: Roland Emmerich
Rating: PG-13
Length: 165 minutes
Score: 1,000,000/5

I really liked the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and Hilary Mantel (their author) was one of the writers for the show, so it is perhaps unsurprising that I enjoyed the show a great deal. It is told (as the book also) from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, whose meteoric rise from vomiting on a Putney street to the court of Henry is the backdrop against which all this happens. We manage to follow events with which we are familiar (Katherine of Aragon will be divorced, Anne Boleyn will be be beheaded) with a certain amount of suspense.

So I’ve also seen all of “The Tudors,” which was rollicking good fun, if also absurd and superfluous. As I have said a million times: Henry VIII was a man who married six women AND had a world-changing fight with the Pope. It’s not strictly necessary to add ludicrous extraneous shagging.

And maybe “Wolf Hall” errs in the other direction, a little bit. Everything is dark, things are only intermittently explained (usually using Thomas Brodie Sangster as Cromwell’s slightly backward ward Rafe), and nothing is overstated. Still, that was most of the charm of the novels, so it’s unfair to complain about it in the series.

It is beautifully produced. Costumes are gorgeous and careful, artificial light is limited, meals are archaically choreographed. Mark Rylance (Cromwell) is excellent, though perhaps slightly too calm. Damian Lewis (Henry) seems to revel in an uncharacteristically petulant and unattractive part, and Anton Lesser also seems to enjoy playing Thomas More as a snake. Claire Foy (Anne) is slightly weak–just hateful, with no touch of humanity, even just before her execution.

This series is a capable adaptation of a pair of excellent novels. It’ll be a little slow for some, and the pacing is unpredictable, but this is in aid of mimicking the chaotic, uncertain nature of Cromwell’s real life. He himself is implausibly humane, but it’s important to have a rooting interest, and it doesn’t really bother you. I actually kept rooting for him to get laid, and was very cross at Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield, apparently condemned to flighty parts forever) for toying with him.

Director: Peter Kosminsky
Rating: R-ish?  Only for the swearing.
Length: 360 minutes
Score: 4/5

Twitter blurb: Tudor moodiness, but with way less sex and violence than usual. Thomas More is your villain, Henry still isn’t fat. Anne Boleyn? The worst.