J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

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Archive for the ‘Period Drama’ Category

The King’s Speech

Posted by J on January 17, 2011

The King’s Speech is about as good as movies can get.  It’s a traditional narrative, but it’s also visually interesting.  It’s about quiet human problems, the conflict in it is minimal, there are no flashy scenes, and yet it’s deeply affecting.

One can hardly imagine how this movie got made.  The initial meeting to pitch the movie could not have gone well. “We’re going to do a movie about a member of the British royalty who stutters.”  “So what’s the conflict?” “Um, well, the stuttering is the conflict.  He needs to learn to speak well.”  And yet the fact that this movie is so darned good is proof that just about anything can be made into a story.

The problem is really that simple. The Duke of York, Elizabeth II’s father, needs speech therapy.  He cannot speak in public, and he rarely speaks well in private.  But the British monarchy, during the days of radio, is becoming increasing public.  As the Duke knows, he must be a kind of actor, able to deliver a rousing speech that will promote the right feelings.  The need to be an actor is pressing, in fact, since the Duke’s Brother will be (and eventually is) a problem king.  As we know, Edward VIII abdicated his throne to marry an American divorcee.  This abdication gave the Duke of York, thereafter King George VI, the crown.

The problem is complicated by the failure of numerous speech therapists to improve the Duke’s speech.  Persistent, the Duke’s wife rings up Lionel Logue, a native Australian who has advertised his services in the cheap Sunday papers.  Logue is respectful of the royal family, but he asks for “complete equality” in his studio.  Such equality is part of the therapy.

The relationship between Logue and the Duke lasts for years.  Lesser movies would’ve treated it with cliches.  You might expect the Duke to learn his lesson, that commoners like Logue are people too, that the Duke should learn to be democratic, that the Duke’s snobby elitism is a high sin.  But there’s nearly none of this here.  The two men become good friends and respect the other’s social status and abilities.  There is no monarchy bashing here; in fact, just the opposite, in recognition that all societies need good, honorable elites as figureheads.  Logue, meanwhile, gets his own praise.  His therapy works pretty well.  Yet he is not credentialed; while the Duke calls him “Doctor,” he is no doctor.  This is an issue later on in the film, but by that point we see that Logue is successful because of intelligence and practical experience.  The movie strongly argues against credentials as means to determine what works and who is good.

This is probably one of the best movies about friendship you will ever see.  It may be also one of the best about kingship and royalty.  The excellence of The King’s Speech is demonstrated by a scene that seems like a throwaway.  Early on, Logue goes to audition for the part of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play.  He begins to recite the famous “winter of discontent” speech, but is quickly stopped after a minute.  The director tells him that he is not kingly, and that his Australian accent is in the way.  Logue cannot be a competent actor, nor can he act the part of the king.  But he can teach a king how to act and how to speak.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 9

Morality: 10


Posted in Great, Period Drama | 1 Comment »

Malcolm X

Posted by J on January 16, 2011

At the end of Malcolm X, we see a succession of contemporary black children declare “I am Malcolm X.”  Yet after three and a half hours of Malcolm’s bio, we are left asking, “So which Malcolm X are you?”  Like all good screen biographies, this one shows the multiple contradictions — indeed, multiple selves — — of a controversial public figure.  Like all screen biographies, it also argues something about its subject.

What it argues exactly is rhetorically complex.  Consider the opening scene.  We hear Malcolm X declare that the “white man,” more or less, is the scourge of human history.  His speech is overblown, ridiculous, and hateful, yet the opening shot is of an American flag.  The reference is to the opening scene of Patton, in which George C. Scott gives a speech in front of an American flag.  Patton, in that scene, is not to be taken seriously, and so the reference implies that we are not to take Malcolm X seriously.  But then intercut between shots of the flag are shots of the Rodney King beating by white, L.A. police officers.  So what’s the argument here?  That Malcolm X has a point?  That Malcolm’s hatred is made legitimate by the King video?  That Malcolm is a better Patton, wacky yet honorable?

The movie shows Malcolm X as a man who grows up intellectually, who moves through various stages of life until he embraces the modern-day notion of sociopolitical diversity and pan-religious ecumenism.  But throughout most of the movie, he is neither a a diversity lover nor an ecumenist.  In the film’s opening third, Malcolm parties and hustles.  He does what some young men do: parties, two-times, and yucks it up with his buddies.  We are shown, however, that underneath Malcolm is a brooding hatred of racism.  This hatred stems directly from his youth, during which his father was harassed and killed by the KKK, and his mother was put in an insane asylum unjustly.  As a boy, Malcolm was basically orphaned, and the white folk tell him that he, a Negro, must learn his place.

When Malcolm goes to Harlem in his 20s, he turns into a gang-banger and robber.  He is caught and sentenced to at least ten years in prison.  There, Malcolm converts to Islam.  The movie teases its viewers (those who don’t know Malcolm’s bio) by hinting that Malcolm at this point will escape racism and crime with his conversion.  But, clearly, Malcolm travels from one kind of foolishness to another.  Malcolm begins to believe the teachings of Elijah Mohammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam.  It is a quasi-cult group.  As well, the reason for Malcolm’s conversion has nothing to do with a religious awakening, but it is entirely racial and sociopolitical.  Once out of prison, after a long period of self-education, Malcolm begins a leadership role in the Nation of Islam that has him prefacing most every sentence with “The Honorable Elijah Mohammed teaches …”

Here the movie shows a split Malcolm.  In public, Malcolm X is a black racist.  Angry and defiant rhetorically, yet calm and educated, Malcolm denounces all whites everywhere.  When a young white girl apologizes to him for her ancestors’ crimes and asks what she can do, he replies “nothing.”  Malcolm’s rhetoric is racialist and separatist, which has appeal to some inner-city blacks.  This sociopolitical change in Malcolm’s outlook is figured by his dress; in his pre-prison days he wore colorful suits, but in his post-prison day he wears black-and-white.  He now is straightforward and binary, and those are the only two colors he seems to see.

However, in private Malcolm X is, bizarrely, white bourgeois.  He lives in an ordinary home, wants to be a good father and husband, deeply cares about his wife, and does all things that a movie dad should do in a those warm comedies about bourgeois life.  What changes him into such a softie is his marriage to his wife, also a member of the Nation of Islam.    This bourgeois Malcolm X is ironic and unexpected, but it greatly helps us viewers in liking him during his racialist years.

After many years, Malcolm discovers that he is in a cult.  As with all cults, sex and power are the major issues.  Elijah Mohammed, Malcolm discovers, has had multiple affairs.  Further, Malcolm’s public image is too powerful for the leaders of the Nation of Islam, who have all (except for Malcolm!) been made rich by the growth of their cult.  Even after Malcolm finds out the truth about Elijah Mohammed, he remains relatively loyal.  But he makes a verbal gaff when, after JFK’s assassination, he describes the president’s death as “the chickens coming home to roost.”  This statement is a PR problem for the Nation, and offers a good excuse for Elijah Mohammed to silence Malcolm X for ninety days.

During this ninety-day silence, Malcolm makes a trip to Mecca.  It is during this trip that he has another conversion.  In Egypt and Mecca, he experiences the world.  He witnesses pan-racial unity.  He has spiritual experiences.  He is, for a time, a “complete human being.”  Once he returns to the U.S., Malcolm dissociates himself from the Nation of Islam.

This begins Malcolm’s final stage in which the Nation tries to kill him, and he submits to assassination.  The movie argues that the CIA, or perhaps FBI, was involved in the assassination.  But it also says that Malcolm himself was involved in it.  The long, protracted final scene in which Malcolm is to give a speech in Harlem is also one in which he submits to death.  Somehow, he knows when he will die, and he chooses to do so in front of his wife and children.  Because of this, the movie argues that he renounces his bourgeous self for a greater purpose: he will become a martyr.

What is he a martyr for?  That is not exactly clear. One of the movie’s ironies is that, even though Malcolm and the Nation of Islam preach against all white people, they end up fighting each other.  These internecine black wars are something that Malcolm renounces but nevertheless helped create.

The movie tacks on an unnecessary tribute to Malcolm X, given by a schoolteacher, children, and Nelson Mandela.  They celebrate him, even though four-fifths of the movie shows him as either a gangbanger or as a racialist.  Which Malcolm X are the children who declare themselves to be Malcolm X?  The racialist?  The bourgeois father and husband?  The self-educated wit?  The Muslim?  The diversity champion? The martyr?  Take your pick.

Posted in Period Drama, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Gone With the Wind

Posted by J on December 9, 2009

If Gone With the Wind serves any purpose, it should illustrate how quickly values can change.  They wouldn’t touch this movie today.  Rhett would have to be a Yankee spy trying to free slaves, and Scarlett would have to have several speeches on the evils of slavery.  It’s a wonder this movie is re-released every few years, this time (in 2009) on Blu-Ray.

This is supposed to be a American Southern epic which focuses on a Southern belle, who lives it up as a coquette during the antebellum years, changes for the worse during the Civil War, and then rebuilds her life after the war is over.  Of course, for her and everyone else, there is nothing like the good old days before the war, when the South flourished.  We are even told during the opening credits that the movie is about the last “Knights and Cavaliers” who roamed the earth, only to vanish forever during the Civil War.

The narrative focus is on Scarlett, which is useful because it means we the audience can follow her wherever she goes.  Since she’s not a man, she’s relatively free to roam because she doesn’t have to go off to battle.  Thus we have a behind-the-scenes Civil War movie.  The war only appears when it has to, when General Sherman’s army marches through Atlanta, which is where Scarlett happens to be.

Scarlett is a complicated flirt, desperate in the early moments of the movie to marry her beloved Ashley Wilkes.  Her problem is that Ashley is pledged to another woman, and then he goes off to war for five years.  Scarlett hangs on to Ashley as a sort of idol, marrying Ashley’s brother, hanging around Ashley’s wife, in part to remain close to Ashley.  In the opening half of the movie, she’s a combination of pluck, vivacity, selfishness, quasi-friendship, and connivance.

Then there’s Rhett Butler.  Like Scarlett he is fairly selfish — getting rich of a for-profit war business while living a luxurious life during the war years.  He’s also happy-go-lucky, and possibly in love with Scarlett.

The Civil War changes both characters in important ways.  Scarlett is taken to what for her is a low point.  She loses her husband and she misses Ashley, she endures the horrors of an army destroying the region she inhabits, her father “turns idiot,” and her Southern plantation, Tara, is reduced to almost nothing.  By intermission we see Scarlett desperate, but determined to rebuild the plantation and work as a farm laborer.  Rhett, on the other hand, gives up his independence and risks his vast wealth to become a Captain in the Confederate Army.

The post-war years feature the love story of Rhett and Scarlett, and since this is an American love story, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen to man and woman in the end (i.e., they can’t stay together).  For Scarlett, the most important earthly possession in the end is her land, Tara, the plantation that was the place of her birth.  When she realizes this, it’s yet another opportunity for nostalgia.

Thankfully, this movie is not quite a soap opera on an emotional level, though it has has many moments where the music swells and the actors overact in love scenes.  The reason to see this movie — whether you hate the portrayals of the old South or of blacks or not — is the Blu-ray restoration.  This is easily one of the best-looking movies we’ve ever seen, due to whatever they’ve done to get it on a Blu-ray disc.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Period Drama, War | Leave a Comment »


Posted by J on April 16, 2009

Though it features the Catholic church, Doubt is a fine morality play about modern Christian churches in general.  Here 200px-doubtposter08you have an authoritative nun, Sister Aloysius, who faces the wind of change blown in the early 1960s by the relatively new priest in her local parish, Father Flynn.  Flynn, in the first sermon we hear from him, channels Paul Tillich by claiming that doubt is the essence of faith.  Flynn says he wants to bring love, compassion, tenderness, and tolerance to the parish and Catholic school, while Sister Aloysius only seems to want to bring hard-headed authority.  Flynn thinks the secular “Frosty the Snowman” would be a fine song to sing at the school’s Christmas pagaent, while Sister Aloysius thinks that the song is purely pagan superstition.  So here’s the age-old fight between the revolutionary and the conservative.

Caught between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius is the young nun, Sister James.  James is innocent and trustworthy.  She’d like to be compassionate to her eighth grade students, who in Aloysius’ opinion would love to turn the wimpy compassion offered by James into rebellion.  James would like to side with Father Flynn, but one day she notices something odd about the behavior of the relatively new black student.  He is called to Flynn’s office in the middle of class, and he returns to class with alcohol on his breath.  She reports this to Sister Aloysius, and here’s where the ball gets rolling.

Sister Aloysius, without firm evidence, thinks something inappropriate has happened between this black male student and Father Flynn.  Aloysius pursues the truth, making firm accusations along the way, but how can she know? She may be completely wrong.  With this scenario Doubt plays with our contemporary knowledge of the recent sex scandals in the Catholic Church.  Father Flynn vehemently denies Aloysius’ charge, and Sister James, a possible witness to the scandal, would really like to believe Father Flynn is innocent.


So from here on I’ll discuss the movie looked at from the ending backward.  You’d think, in a typical Hollywood production, that Sister Aloysius would be typecast as a grim, cruel authoritarian.  To some extent she is, but then the movie makes room for the idea that such a person and position is necessary, especially in a school environment.  Further, Aloysius represents old time values — specifically, for Catholics, the glory days before Vatican II.  Father Flynn is obviously a Vatican II revolutionary, the kind of guy who thinks the church needs to modernize for the sake of … well, what exactly?  Either the church, or possibly himself.

Flynn makes his case for change based on several points that political and religious “progressives” would love to associate themselves with.  For example, absolute civil rights and social tolerance for nearly everyone and everything, including the idea that homosexuals are homosexuals by nature.  While the movie makes room for a viewer’s acceptance of many of Flynn’s beliefs, it associates them with Flynn’s probable pedophilia.  As we all know, being a pedophile today is the worst social sin one can commit, down there in a gutter with being labeled a racist.  So it’s funny that Flynn wants to blow the wind of tolerance through the church — which would elicit a loud Hurrah! from a whole lot of people these days — but he does it while seducing little boys in the rectory.

What is the movie’s point of view? Which character does it side with?  Obviously the writer-director, John Patrick Shanley (whose only other movie as a director is Joe Versus the Volcano, interestingly enough) has crafted a story built on the favorite aesthetic value of writers and artists since the mid-nineteenth century: ambiguity.  What is really true, and who is really right?  The movie does a fine job of leaving these questions open-ended, while humanizing all of the characters — the title of this movie says it all.  We have no doubt that even a few viewers might sympathize with Father Flynn’s pedophilia.  Still, it’s hard to say that — from the point of view of the mainstream in 2009 — Sister Aloysius isn’t ultimately the good guy (or nun).

It’s worth pointing out that there are a few theological howlers in the movie.  It concludes with Sister Aloysius’ doubts, but if she is talking about her faith in God, she has a deep problem. Contra Tillich, doubt is a sin; it is the opposite of faith.  Also, Sister Aloysius claims at least twice that she is “stepping away from God” in order to pursue Father Flynn.  Either she is joking or stupid, because bringing sin to the light — especially such wickedness as Flynn is accused of — could never be called “stepping away from God.”

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 9

Morality: see above, but it’s far tamer than Kids-in-Mind says.

Posted in Great, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

Doctor Zhivago

Posted by J on December 20, 2008

After reading around the web, few movies attract as many conflicting opinions as Doctor Zhivago, and so it was in our drzhivago_asheetown little household.   Was it too long?  Does it praise Zhivago’s adultery? Are the characters’ actions unrealistic? Go elsewhere and others will answer with a raging “yes” or a shoulder shrug and a smile.  We hardly know what to say ourselves.

It’s even hard to say what this movie is really about.  Yes, it’s about a poet/doctor who apparently loves one woman (his wife) but desires another, the lovely Lara, whom the movie equates to yellow flowers and the blazing sun.  Yes, the movie is also about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.  It’s also about poetry versus ideology, Zhivago’s private world of family life and writing versus the political reality of the Bolsheviks.

It’s even arguable that this is about the framing device.  The movie is really one long story told by the Alec Guinness character, a high-ranking Soviet who is looking for his niece.  Finding a girl he believes to be the one, he tells her of the father she never knew, the story of the renowned poet, Doctor Yuri Zhivago.  So the entire movie is a Soviet officer’s romantic tale of events, many of which he may be inventing.  Why exactly is he telling it to this poor worker girl?  We think it’s because the girl is orphaned and the officer is alone, both isolated by the grim ideology of the Soviet system.  The story of Zhivago offers them a rare chance to connect relationally, and the audience a chance to see a Soviet humanized.

But above all else, this movie is about movies.  You will see Lara dissolve into a flower.  You will see several seconds of a completely black screen, as a train travels through a tunnel.  You will see the camera pointed at the tops of trees.  You will see a Russian mansion’s interior covered in ice.  These are formal techniques you won’t find in other mediums.  Attach a sprawling Victorian-era plot, a love triangle, and pretty pictures courtesy of David Lean, and it’s not so unclear why people have always liked this movie, despite numerous features easily characterized as flaws.  Doctor Zhivago feels like an event.

Calling Doctor Zhivago a “love story” would be too hasty.  Zhivago does have a inexplicable obsession with his mistress, and the movie accentuates this obsession by showing us yellow flowers and playing the four-note “Lara’s Theme” over and over and over.  But Zhivago is also obviously an adulterer, a fact which the movie makes clear.  For one, his wife is unwaveringly faithful and sweet.  “How could anyone cheat on her?” C. repeatedly kept saying during the movie.  Also, when Zhivago first considers Lara lustfully, we see him only in the shadows, which suggests the blackness of his desire.  Lara herself, a fallen woman of sorts, has been used and abused by two other men in the movie.  When Zhivago asks one of them about her, before he fully knows her, the man replies that he will give Lara to Zhivago as a wedding present.  So Zhivago is one in a line of men to dominate Lara, who consents after initially refusing him. Most telling of all, Zhivago loses his wife forever and is enslaved in the Red Army precisely because he is returning home from a tryst with Lara.

So Zhivago’s adultery is not necessarily mishandled.  Recall the early scene where Lara goes to church.  After she confesses, the priest reminds her of the story of the woman whom Jesus told to “go and sin no more.”  What happened to that woman,the priest asks rhetorically.  We do not know, he answers, and then he exhorts Lara to heed the commandment.   The rest of the movie offers us a chance to see what happens when the characters do not heed that command.  The ones who suffer most: Zhivago’s family.  In the end, Zhivago collapses and dies while frantically pursuing Lara.  This final scene may be unforgivably sentimental, as Roger Ebert argues, but it is anchored in a relevant moral point.

In the background of Zhivago’s follies is the destructive transformation of an entire nation.  Living under the old Russian czar wasn’t so pleasant, but communism couldn’t be said to be much of an improvement.  The movie presents multiple views of the Russian Revolution, primarily from the eyes of Zhivago’s upper-class family.  At times they praise the removal of the old injustice, but what dominates is the fact that everybody gets really poor, really quickly.  Zhivago’s family is hounded by Bolshevik officials, and Zhivago himself is nearly accused of corruption on multiple occasions, though he has no political affiliation.  So the family travels from Moscow to the deep countryside, fleeing the poverty and political oppression of the big city.  The countryside provides respite, but we find civil war raging even there, and the Red Army’s operation, we discover, are everywhere.  For Zhivago and company, there is no escaping a time of terror.  The movie does a good job of conveying the general feeling of catastrophe and economic loss, and this in fact is probably the best reason to see it.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: somewhere between 2 and 8

Morality: 7 (a couple of risque scenes, and this score will drastically drop if you think the adultery is glorified)

Posted in Great, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Posted by J on November 21, 2008

“This is not Jane Austen,” says C.  She is correct, though the plot is faithful to Jane’s book.200px-prideandprejudice-movieposter But having studied this movie shot-by-shot, we can easily declare it a well-crafted movie.  In terms of applying film technique to an early nineteenth century plot, the movie is a classic.

Austen diehards like C. will undoubtedly have issues.  Some of the actors may seem miscast, or at times inept.  We refer especially to Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennett, whose interpretation of Bennett as a low-key mumbler seems to be different than the sarcastic jokester that Austen had in mind.

Likewise, the movie veers towards a kind of kitsch romanticism that the book never approaches.   But of course it does; it’s a movie, and they all do that.  Consider that Austen’s book is concerned with virtues and manners, with educating readers on the degrees of appropriate conduct and sentiment.  In the book, the first thing that Darcy and Elizabeth do after getting engaged is to talk about what was wrong with how they previously acted, particularly with their manners.  Darcy even goes into a psychiatric evaluation of his childhood, and how that childhood programmed him to act prideful and conceited “in practice, though not in principle.”  This is not the kind of thing that couples do ten minutes after getting engaged, but oh well, it’s a Jane Austen book.

This movie, however, focuses on Elizabeth’s internal emotional state and projects that turmoil onscreen.  There are two or three short dream sequences, one of which has her standing on the edge of a cliff, the wind threatening to blow her off.  The scene in which Darcy famously gives Elizabeth a letter likewise focuses on Elizabeth.  That encounter here is as much fantasy as fact, as much Elizabeth’s baffled, emotional interpretation as a coherent, realistic sequence of events.  This movie is not Jane Austen; it is a romantic fantasy.

Despite this, this version of Pride and Prejudice aims to be the most realistic of all film versions.  The opening sequence swoops through the Bennet household in one take, in which we see the animals in their front lawn and the laundry strung out in front of the house.  Later, at the ball, we watch perhaps a hundred people happily dance, though we can almost smell the sweat and stink of the place.  The sets, when we reach Lady de Bourgh’s and Darcy’s estates, are elaborate and realistic.  Someone spent a lot of money to make what we see look like early nineteenth century England.  Even the ladies appear to have gone lightly on the makeup.

About this film’s craft.  Everyone should notice the extraordinary long takes, in which, for example, the camera swoops through the entire scene of the ball.  This is unusual, perhaps unprecedented for Jane Austen period movies, but it aims to relate the connected intricacies of the English social world.  In that way it is faithful to the book.  Jane is not much one for detail, but she is one for relationships.  Here, the camera has found a way to visually demonstrate those relationships.  In that way, we guess this movie is like Jane Austen.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 10

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Les Miserables (1998)

Posted by J on October 23, 2008

We’re hearing lately about the hot new Christian movie, Fireproof, which is supposedly a heartgrabbing work of spiritual realism.  Except that Kirk Cameron plays a firefighter, which is sort of like casting a munchkin as the Cowardly Lion.  Anyway, we can’t figure out why Christians would waste capital making a TV movie for the big screen when they could simply take a classic like Les Miserables and remake it.  Or better yet, they could save money — the recession is here after all — and just watch this version of Les Mis instead.

Now you have to understand that Victor Hugo’s book is something like 1300 pages long.  Most people don’t read that many pages in a lifetime.  So while Roger Ebert complains that this 1998 version of Les Mis is basically a Classics Illustrated version of the story, which is true, that still makes this movie better and more compelling than 95% of the schlock currently marketed to us. Busy people like us can save time by getting the highlights of Hugo’s story here.  Nothing wrong with highlights.

Best of all, there’s no music in this one.  Whoever thought that Les Miserables would make a great musical should be forgiven, a lot, because he’s caused plenty of unnecessary delusion and suffering.

The story of Les Miserables is, in one sense, filled with the conflicts of grace and law.  Jean Valjean, our hero, receives grace from a priest at the beginning of the story.  Nine years later, the great Valjean — an important official who is hiding his criminal past — grants grace to anyone in need.  Valjean is opposed and eventually pursued by Javert, an inspector with a heart of stone.  Javert tries to observe the law consistently, with a professed personal goal of never breaking it once, and so he tries to make everyone else follow the law too.  Lawbreakers to Javert are anathema.  So what happens when Javert realizes that Valjean was once a criminal?  Take one guess, and you’ll probably be right.

The movie’s best half is its opening half, which whisks along and then turns into a chase scene.  This is far from the pacing of Hugo’s humongous novel, but oh well.  The movie’s second half takes a bad turn in a couple of ways.  One of those is the syrupy treatment of the Parisian revolutionaries, which include the token black guy and a campy treatment of mob violence and warfare.  The other problem is the casting of Cosette, who is played by a young lady who badly fakes a British accent even though she’s playing a French woman.  Still, these problems aren’t enough to overwhelm the compelling dynamic between Valjean and Javert.

The movie — so says C. — is mostly faithful to the book, ending abruptly but still ending as the book does.  You miss all of the ornate description that Hugo gives, which C. loved, by the way.  Realize that this Les Mis is the Hollywood version, preferring classy actors, expensive sets, and chase scenes to the intricacies of character.   But it’s still compelling.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 9

Posted in Period Drama, Pretty Good | 1 Comment »

There Will Be Blood

Posted by J on October 14, 2008

We have finally reached that point.  We finally have a well-regarded story — a movie in this case — in which the villain is the one and only showstopper.  Oh sure, everybody loves Milton’s Satan.  And the Joker has been much beloved twice in recent pop culture.  But in both those cases, there was a hero to counterbalance the villain.  In There Will Be Blood, there is no hero.  There is only Daniel Plainview, a force of nothing, a supreme exemplar of depravity, on-screen.  As viewers, we can feel nothing but disgust.  Plainview is beyond pity.

Reader, if you’re looking for a fulfilling story, do not approach this movie.  Long ago, Aristotle told us what makes a tragic story work for an audience: catharsis.  There is no catharsis in There Will Be Blood.  Plainview has no redeeming qualities, and he is not a great man.  Since there is no joy in the movie either, you will leave this movie feeling like a pile of manure.

Unlike a great movie like Amadeus, in which the villain and main character accidentally enacts a useful morality tale for an audience, There Will Be Blood offers nothing more than the hollowness of Plainview.  Sure, there is lots of vague religious symbolism, underneath the great photography.  But Plainview starts out as a hideous man and grows only more hideous throughout the movie.  We’ve known people like him.  We do not want to be around them long.  So why would we want to spend 150 minutes watching Plainview degenerate into a greedy, isolated husk of a man?  Here, that is all you will see.

The counterpart to Plainview is a charismatic preacher named Eli Sunday.  In typical Hollywood fashion, Sunday represents the nuttiest of the nuttiest that “Christianity” has to offer.  You’d think they could throw us a decent, honest Methodist or Baptist every decade or two.  But no, Sunday has to cast out the demons of arthritic old ladies and shout “I bite you, devil!  And if I don’t have teeth, I gum you!”  Sunday’s church is the Church of the Third Revelation, the place where the local ignoramuses go to hear the new doctrine that Sunday dreamed up two days ago.  He’s a holy roller who’s only in it for money and power, and it’s a wonder that the movie doesn’t depict him as actively searching for paramours.

Sunday, like Plainview, is nothing but a vile man.  Sunday, though, is the more pathetic of the two, a petty hypocrite with an annoying, boyish yell.  Both Sunday and Plainview are slaves to money and personal greed, and the movie’s attempt to be intellectually brilliant is to create an ever-changing power relationship between Sunday and Plainview.  Sunday baptizes Plainview so that Plainview can build an oil pipeline, and Plainview baptizes Sunday, in his own way.  Need we say that neither baptizm is really effectual?

Oh, but what of the plot?  Not that it matters much, since it’s the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis and the nice photography that’s on display for the credentialed critics to “ooh” and “aah” at.  Plainview is an oilman who creates a town called Little Boston in the middle of the California desert, thanks to the participation of poor families like Eli Sunday’s.  Plainview promises to make Little Boston into a boomtown.  This is music to the ears of Sunday, who longs for a larger audience in his Church of the Third Revelation.  The more people to hypnotize each week, the better.

But there’s one problem: Sunday cannot take his mind off the money that Plainview owes him, and Plainview refuses to pay.  You see, the Church of the Third Revelation needs its $5000 smackeroos.  As usual, the church gets greedy, and then gets conned by crooked capitalists.  The Word becomes the servant of Mammon, for it can get rich no other way, so the thinking goes.  Sunday thinks he can serve God and Mammon, while Plainview just thinks that God is a superstition.  These are your heroes.

The movie’s final scene absolutely flounders. It punishes Sunday more than it does Plainview, whose atheism gains something of a conquest as the movie closes.  It is a failed ending of what begins as a promising movie.  The first twenty minutes have no dialogue, just oil prospecting.  These are the best twenty minutes of the movie, with the opening shots alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave.  At the one-hour mark, the movie shifts for the worse, when Plainview’s degeneracy is obvious and painful, and by the time it flashforwards to the 1920s we’ve already long known that Plainview is utterly despicable.   At least twenty minutes needs to be cut from its runtime.

The movie has almost nothing good to say about entrepreneurship or Christianity.  The local townsfolk who get roped into Plainview’s schemes and Sunday’s false church are merely dupes.  Everyone else is a greedy son-of-a-gun.  Only Plainview’s adopted son escapes the madness, and he retreats to Mexico.  Since the movie obviously attacks the idea of the self-made man, the central American myth, this flight to Mexico by the movie’s only honorable man can only mean that the American Dream is a total sham. That dream, so say says the movie, is practiced only by crooked capitalists and stupid holy rollers.  Trust us, if you watch this, there will be pain.

Entertainment: 1-9

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 1 (what morality did it demonstrate?)

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

John Adams

Posted by J on August 16, 2008

Note: This review only covers parts 1 and 2, for reasons explained below.

Remember the way the Joker’s lair looked in the old Batman TV show from the 1960s?  It was always tilted at an angle, as if the level on the camera were somehow broken.  Someone forgot to check the level on the camera that filmed this John Adams series.  The debates at Independence Hall look like the Joker’s lair, angled for no apparent reason, so that you can almost see the Penguin and the Riddler sitting with the Virginia state delegates, cackling wildly while they and George Washington plot to take over Gotham.

That’s not the only directorial problem in a series that suffers from weird shot after weird shot.  There are scenes where there’s an unfocused object in the extreme foreground, for no apparent reason.  There are even plenty of shaky, handheld-type camera movements for those who think eighteenth-century parliamentary procedure needs to look like The Bourne Supremacy.

Maybe the reason for this is to spice up the subject matter, namely John Adams, which is pretty dull at times.  Even Adams tells everyone how bored he is at the meetings of the Continental Congress.  They’d introduce a motion that two plus three equals five, he says, and then debate it for two days before motioning to approve it.  But then, in Episode 2, we see meeting after meeting of the kind of debate and discussion that Adams says he’s weary of.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of watching some Congressional committee go at it on C-SPAN, which no one these days has the patience to watch for two minutes.

So yes, John Adams suffers from being dull.  It’s not as if Adams himself was boring — take a look at his resume sometime — but the way he’s portrayed here should make any viewer wonder why we are watching a series about him.  Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson all come across as much more intriguing characters than Adams here.  The drama of the early Revolutionary War is barely seen, but when it is we are much more interested in it.  Even the Adams’ family’s daily life — Abigail Adams’ floor-scrubbing techniques, the family’s bout with smallpox — are more interesting than Adams’ many speeches about liberty.  At least HBO has created something that will make a better substitute in public high school history classrooms for the next two decades.

Episode 1, “Join or Die,” begins with the Boston Massacre.  Adams famously defended the British soldiers accused of murdering a bunch of Bostonians, so the episode is dedicated mostly to the trial, which comes off as just another episode of Law and Order except that the lawyers wear wigs and use big, Latinate words like “desanguination.”  The main point of this episode is to show that the American colonists were rabble-rousers who tended to use mob tactics.  They form a mob that leads to the Boston massacre, they scream for British blood throughout the trial, and then they tar and feather a British ship captain afterwards.   Above it all is Adams, who looks on the tar-and-feathering scene with disgust and says that most men are weak and need “strong government.”  It isn’t more than a few minutes later, however, that Adams is denouncing British tyranny in a church after just being elected to represent Massachusetts at a meeting of the Continental Congress.  All men have their contradictions, but this Adams doesn’t know what kind of story he is in, or else he’d be screaming for a more coherent representation of himself and his fellow colonists.

Episode 2, “Independence,” is the C-SPAN-like episode we mentioned above.  There are interesting moments, however.  Maybe the best is when Franklin and Adams are reading Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.  Franklin, who is portrayed excellently in this series as a shifty character prone to ironic humor, starts to edit the document.  Jefferson complains that every word was precisely chosen, but Franklin insists that “sacred and undeniable” is pulpit language, and that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” is a much more palatable and pragmatic choice.  You get the feeling throughout these two episodes that church doctrine mattered less to these guys —  it is totally absent, after all — than eighteenth-century philosophical abstractions.

Scenes like this demonstrate that the series should’ve been reconceived as Founding Fathers or From Colony to Nation or something broader like that.  The mix of personalities we’ve known since grade school, portrayed here with a good degree of accuracy, is quite dynamic at times, so that focusing on Adams seems merely opportunistic, coming on the heels of David McCullough’s best-selling, pop biography of Adams as it does.  We couldn’t make it to Episode 3.  Adams’ was a life of debate, negotiation, and politics, and so it seems likely that the rest of the series will have the same problems as the first parts of it.  Let us know if this isn’t true.

FYI: There’s a brief shot of unexpected full-frontal nudity when the British captain is being tarred and feathered in Episode 1.  The series is rated “TV-14,” probably just for that.

Posted in Period Drama, Poignant but Boring, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

Becoming Jane

Posted by J on July 28, 2008

Wouldn’t Jane Austen like to become one of the characters in her stories?  In Becoming Jane, she basically does.  This movie is a lame attempt to make Jane Austen’s life a Jane Austen story, except that the ending is a bit different, in that the female heroine becomes a famous spinster instead of a blissful bride.

Yes, we gave away the ending, but it’s common knowledge that Austen was a spinster.  So you know where this movie is going from the beginning.  She will not really run away with the penniless, rambunctious man whom she loves, even though she wants to.  Why, then, would she choose a mundane life over a wild love affair?

As it turns out, the Jane Austen in this movie is something of a moral hypocrite.  She’s faced with choosing to run away and eloping with her beau, Tom Lefroy, or staying with her family.  Austen at first chooses to run away, but when she finds out that Tom is ditching his responsibility to his own family, she gets upset and chooses to return to Spinsterville.   So Austen is irresponsible to her own family, but she gets put off when her man is irresponsible to his.  The movie basically says that it’s okay to elope when you don’t owe any money to your family.  In other words, pay your debts first, then head to Vegas.

Emotionally scarred for life from this lost love affair, the movie makes it clear that all of Austen’s writings were derived from this event.  She makes makes sure that all of her characters get happy endings and wonderful marriages, the kind of ending she never got.

Ho hum.  The Austen expert in our household described her viewing experience as “very mediocre,” while the other half of our reviewing team picked up a book midway through the movie.  Ladies, listen carefully.  Do not put your husbands through this movie.  Watch it with your friends, or offer to try with your husband the best version of Emma or Pride and Prejudice you can find.  But do not bore your husband so much that he will despise even the thought of coming within 100 yards of an Austen book or movie.  Becoming Jane will leave that bad a taste in his mouth.

Entertainment: 3

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 3

Posted in Period Drama, Poignant but Boring | Leave a Comment »