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Tulip Fever (2017)
Holland in the Golden Age
Tulip Fever (2017) was adapted from a novel by Deborah Moggach, scripted by Tom Stoppard, and directed by Justin Chadwick.
The film is set in Amsterdam between November 1636 and February 1637, during the Tulipmania period of Dutch history. The price of tulip bulbs skyrocketed for those few months, and then crashed precipitously. Fortunes were made by speculators. Some became rich and stayed rich, if they were insightful enough to quit while they were ahead. Others, who stayed in the market, were ruined.
The movie shows us five people involved--directly or indirectly--in the Tulipmania. Alicia Vikander portrays Sophia Sandvoort. Sophia is a young woman whose entire family was saved from poverty when she agreed to marry an older merchant--Cornelis Sandvoort--portrayed brilliantly by Christoph Waltz. Cornelis is very proud of his beautiful wife, and arranges to have their portrait painted by rising young artist Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan). Naturally, the two young people fall in love.
There's a secondary plot that is very much entwined in the primary plot. That involves Sophia's maid, Maria (Holliday Grainger) and a young fishmonger, Willem Brok (Jack O'Connell).
Dame Judi Dench plays the abbess of an orphanage. Sophia was taken from the orphanage to be married to Cornelis. The orphanage appears to be a place where they grow tulips, and also certify that the tulip bulb you are paying for is the tulip bulb you're going to get.
The acting in the film is superb. (Three of the leads--Vikander, Waltz, and Dench--are Oscar winners.)
Production values are very high. I have some sense of what Amsterdam looked like in the 17th Century, because this was the Dutch artistic Golden Age, and many wonderful paintings display what we see on the screen. (This includes street scenes, seascapes, domestic scenes, and tavern scenes.)
Tulip Fever has been scourged by the critics. The reviewer for USA Today criticized the film on many levels. For example, it was badly marketed. That may be so, but that doesn't affect the quality of the movie.
The leads had no chemistry. Wrong--I don't know what film he saw, but it couldn't have been this one.
The film had too much nudity, or the trailer promised too much nudity. This is an R-rated romance. Did he expect to see the young couple just holding hands or playing Monopoly?
The dialog was too plain. A lover says, "You have my heart." His partner answers, "And you have mine." Sounds OK to me.
Finally--and apparently worst of all--is that the movie was about buying and selling tulips! What did he expect from a movie entitled Tulip Fever? It wasn't about selling onions. It was called Tulip Fever because it was about Tulipmania!
Having dispensed with the USA Today review, I have to admit that the film has a dismal IMDb rating of 6.3. It's a much better film than that. I recommend it, if only to see Dench, Waltz, and Vikander act. We saw it on the large screen at Rochester's excellent Little Theatre. It won't work as well on the small screen, but it's still worth seeing.
P.S. Alicia Vikander is emerging as the brightest new star on the screen. I think she is our next Meryl Streep.
A simple man whose life is a mess
Menashe (2017) was co-written and directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein. It was filmed in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The Hasidim are a subgroup within ultra-orthodox Judaism. So, all of the Hasidim are ultra- orthodox Jews, but not all ultra-orthodox Jews are Hasidim. The Hasidim are concentrated in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. There's a mix of many cultures in Williamsburg, but the Chasidim stand out because of their different dress and the fact that they speak Yiddish as their primary language. Another characteristic of the Hasidim--as shown clearly in the film--is the loyalty of each group to their own rabbi. The rabbi has the final say about major events like marriage, as well as many day-to-day practical matters.
Menashe (portrayed well by Menashe Lustig) is a basically decent guy whose life is a mess. He has a low-paying job as a stock clerk in a small Chasidic grocery store. He owes money. He is a widower, which by Hasidic custom means he can't have his son living with him unless he remarries.
He loves his son Fischel, brilliantly played by Yoel Falkowitz. Fischel is a good son, but he is beginning to recognize that Menashe fails at most of what he attempts.
In the film, Menashe is called a "schlimazel." That's a Yiddish word that describes a person who is chronically unlucky. This can often mean that the person is inept and incompetent, and that's why he's unlucky. It's a sad thing to be a schlimazel, and it's no fun being the son of a schlimazel either. The plot of the movie demonstrates those facts.
I enjoyed watching this film because it allows a glimpse into a very different culture from mainstream U.S. culture, and even from mainstream Jewish culture. It's almost an anthropological film, and yet it tells a clear, if unhappy story.
We saw this movie at the excellent Little Theatre in Rochester, NY. It has a terrible IMDb rating of 6.3. It's not a masterpiece, but it's much better than that.
Unmade Beds (1997)
Why would we care about these four people?
Unmade Beds (1997) was written and directed by Nicholas Barker. The basic concept of the film is interesting--find four unmarried New Yorkers, and follow their lives for nine months. All of them want to get married, or to form some lasting relationship, but none of them is succeeding.
The problem with the movie is that all four of the people aren't really people you would want to know, let alone love. One man is arrogant--he won't date "mutts," although he certainly isn't a perfect 10. One man is 5 feet 4 inches tall, and that's a problem in our society. However, he doesn't do much to make himself interesting in a way that would attract women.
One woman is narcissistic. She calls herself "The Sexy Italian." She has no problem demonstrating to us what she considers the outstanding and also the problem parts of her body. She's a chronic shoplifter, and does drugs. Her goal is to enter a relationship in which she trades her body for money.
One woman is whiny. She's very overweight, but when her friend suggests that she try to lose weight, she almost bites her head off. (In fact, the friend is the only person on screen towards whom I could feel any warmth.)
Only 20 years have passed since the film was made, but, in the context of searching for a partner, our society has changed quite a bit. That's especially true about dating ads. In 1997, the basic wide search for a mate took place in the personal ad columns of newspapers and magazines. Computer dating services existed, but they appeared pretty primitive compared to what we have today.
A dating coach tells one of the men to buy a dog, because dogs are "people magnets." OK, but once the magnet has worked, where do you go from there when you have no personality?
If the four people had something attractive about them, we could feel sorry for their lack of partners. However, this film gives us no one to care about. What's the point of a voyeuristic movie if there's really nothing to see?
We saw this film on the small screen, and it worked well. I'm surprised that it has a respectable 6.9 IMDb rating. I think it's a terrible movie, and can't recommend it.
Solid film biopic of a truly great man
42 (2013) was written and directed by Brian Helgeland. It tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball player to play on a major league team.
I grew up in Brooklyn, and we kids thought of the Dodgers almost as members of our family. I watched Jackie Robinson play in Ebbets Field many times. Chadwick Boseman, the actor who portrays Jackie Robinson, looks like Robinson, and has imitated his style on the base paths perfectly. This is the film to see if you want to know what the game of baseball looked like in the late 1940's into the mid 1950's. (Of course, it looked predominantly White, although other Black players soon followed Robinson into the majors.)
Both Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, and Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson give solid acting performances. However, a movie like this rises or falls on the abilities of the star. Boseman has great abilities, and he makes the movie work.
This is an excellent movie to watch with your children or grandchildren. They will find it hard to believe that African-Americans weren't allowed to play major league baseball. It's a great way to bring the segregated universe of the mid-20th Century to their attention. It's also a great way to show them that the right person, at the right time, can bring about a true change in society.
P.S. We kids had no problem at all with a Black player on the Dodgers. All we cared about was winning the pennant and the World Series. We knew that Robinson could help the Dodgers win, and winning was what we wanted!
Our Mutual Friend (1998)
Wonderful adaptation of a Dickens novel--don't miss it!
Our Mutual Friend (1998) is a BBC TV mini-series directed by Julian Farino.
Our Mutual Friend was the last novel completed by Charles Dickens. It deals with issues about which Dickens was always concerned--social inequality, the hard lives of the poor, friendship, and love.
This is one of Dickens' most complicated novels--Wikipedia lists 36 characters. The author gives each one of these characters--even the minor ones--a life and personality of her or his own.
The plots is not only complicated, but somewhat forced and unrealistic. This is a movie to be enjoyed for the acting. In fact, the acting is superb. In my opinion, the best acting came from the supporting players. David Bradley portrays Roger (Rogue) Riderhood. He is a character in the novel who starts out fully evil, and ends up still fully evil. One look at Bradley and you think to yourself that here is an actor who was born to play the role.
Kenneth Cranham portrays Silas Wegg, another character with no redeeming virtues. Katy Murphy is excellent as Jenny Wren, a doll's dressmaker. Although Jenny is small, apparently has scoliosis, and is "lame," she has a warm and kind heart. Martin Hancock portrays Sloppy, a young man who is also warm and kind. He too has disabilities, which he strives to overcome.
The two female leads are both lovely, but in a very different way. Keeley Hawes portrays Lizzie Hexam, who is beautiful in an ethereal, Pre-Raphaelite way. She is one of the only characters who is truly good from the beginning until the end of the novel.
The other female lead, Bella Wilfer, starts out the movie obsessed with obtaining money. In Victorian times, this meant marrying a wealthy man. In the beginning of the novel, a marriage of this type appears fully open to her. However, matters don't go smoothly. Bella is a character who matures and changes as the novel progresses. Anna Friel plays Bella. Director Farino chose a actress with perfect beauty, who can portray a woman with almost no warmth or concern for others.
All the actors in this movie are highly talented. However, I give acting honors to Timothy Spall as Mr. Venus. Venus is a taxidermist and "articulator of bones." There is a calculation in everything he does. You can see it in his eyes and in his mannerisms. The man oozes calculation, desire, and venality. It would be worth seeing the movie just to watch Spall act.
Because this film was made for TV, it works well on the small screen. Because it was produced by the BBC, it has high production values. I was pleased to learn that "Our Mutual Friend" has an IMDb rating of 8.3, which is extraordinarily high. If you love Dickens--or even if you don't--this is a movie you'll want to see. Don't miss it!
Excellent adaptation of a novel by Charles Dickens
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (2001) (TV) is a BBC TV miniseries directed by Stephen Whittaker. It's adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens. It stars James D'Arcy as Nicholas, Charles Dance as Ralph Nickleby, Sophia Myles as Kate Nickleby, and Lee Ingleby as Smike.
Nicholas Nickleby is not considered one of Dickens' greatest novels, but it's perfect for an adaptation for film. Beside the four Nickleby's, there are over a dozen great supporting roles. That's because almost no character in a novel by Dickens is truly a minor character. Everyone who appears in printand on the screenhas a character of her or his own. Everyone has a story, and Dickens gives us that story. When someone adapts a Dickens novel, a skillful screenwriter, director, and cast can make each of those characters come alive.
The only lapse I found in this production was the way Fanny Squeers was presented. This is a fairly grim novel, and the scenes with the unattractive Miss Squeers presumably provide comic relief. However, the scenes are more cruel than comic. When Fanny Squeers is on the screen, the result is more painful than it is funny. Debbie Chazen--who portrays Fanny Squeers-- deserves better.
However, other than that, the movie is outstanding. All of the actors in leading and supporting roles do an impressive job. Charles Dance, as the uncle of Nicholas and Kate, plays the same type of role he played in Bleak House. He's wealthy, intelligent, and very, very cruel. Dance is made for that role.
Lee Ingleby's portrayal of the abused, forlorn young man called Smike is absolutely brilliant. His work stands out, even though the film has many fine performances.
This movie has an excellent IMDb rating of 7.7. It was made for BBC television, so it works well on the small screen. Find it and watch it!
Vanity Fair (1967)
Excellent adaptation of a classic novel
Vanity Fair (1967) was a BBC TV mini-series directed by David Giles. The script was based on the novel by William Thackeray.
Thackeray's novel--written in 1847-184--is a satire in which he exposes the underside of English social life of his day. In fact, the subtitle was "Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society."
The novel is set during the Napoleonic wars. The plot is somewhat complicated, so, if you don't know the novel, I'd suggest reading a summary of it before you see the film. Basically, it follows the lives of two friends, Becky Sharp and Amelia Osborne after they leave boarding school. Sharp has no money at all, and must live by her wits. Amelia comes from a reasonably wealthy family, but they suffer financial setbacks and--ultimately--bankruptcy.
Any movie adaptation of Vanity Fair will rise or fall on the skills of Becky Sharp. In this film, Susan Hampshire portrays Becky, and she is excellent. The role of Becky needs to be played by someone who is beautiful, and Hampshire qualifies on this dimension. However, Becky must not only be beautiful, she must also be intelligent, witty, and, when necessary, deceitful. Hampshire was born to play Becky.
Amelia is Becky's opposite. She's also beautiful, but she's shy, demure, and not as smart as Becky. Marilyn Taylerson does well in the role. I've never seen her on screen before, but I think she was very talented.
Because this is a BBC movie, production values are high. The film was made for television, it works well on the small screen. As I write this review, the movie is carrying an excellent IMDb rating of 7.5. (However, there are only 40 ratings so far.) I strongly recommend that you see this movie. (Also, that you rate it after you see it.)
Jane Eyre (1983)
Extraordinary adaptation of the classic Charlotte Brontë novel.
"Jane Eyre" (1983) was directed by Julian Amyes for the BBC. It's an adaption of the famous novel by Charlotte Brontë. Zelah Clarke portrays Jane Eyre and Timothy Dalton stars as Mr. Rochester.
As we expect from the BBC, production values are high, and all of the supporting players do very well.
My one criticism of this adaptation is an unusual one. Early in the film,
Jane is cast out by her aunt. She suffers horribly at the boarding school to which she is sent. However, we don't see the suffering. At one point she is publicly humiliated, but the school is shown to us as more or less a standard English boarding school of the time. However, we then hear in a voice-over that typhus took its terrible toll because the children lived in squalor and were undernourished. It seems strange to say that they should have shown us more suffering. However, Jane Eyre did, indeed, suffer at boarding school. That's in the novel, and it should be in the film as well.
The casting of the lead roles is interesting. Timothy Dalton is extremely handsome, in a Byronic way. When he asks Jane whether she thinks him handsome, she says no. However, here's what the novel says: "I knew my traveler by his broad, black eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the sweep of his black hair. I recognized his strong nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils; his grim mouth, chin, and jawyes, all three were very grim. I saw his figure, now without a cloak, was athletic, though neither tall nor graceful." Although Dalton is very handsome, he looks enough like Brontë's description to fit perfectly as Mr. Rochester.
In the novel and the film, Jane is described as poor, obscure, plain, and little. Zelah Clarke is small, but she's really not plain. True, Mia Wasikowska has played the role, and she is extraordinarily beautiful. However, Wasikowska must have had to overcome that beauty to portray Jane Eyre. In my opinion, Zelah Clark is perfect for the role. As another viewer has written, "Only Zelah Clark has ever brought the level of fervor, innocence, and intelligence to the role of Jane that makes it believable that Rochester would fall in love with her." Absolutely correct.
Because this movie was made for television, it works well on the small screen. As I write this review, the film has an extremely high IMDb rating of 8.2. Obviously, thousands of other people responded to the movie just as I did. It's a fabulous film. Don't miss it.
Anna Karenina (1935)
Outstanding adaptation of the classic novel
Anna Karenina (1935) was directed by Clarence Brown. The film is an excellent screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's great novel.
The film stars Greta Garbo as Anna. Fredric March portrays Count Vronsky, and Basil Rathbone plays Karenin. March was a great actor, but I thought his Count Vronsky was too cold and unloving. Karenin is supposed to be cold and unloving. Basil Rathbone was a consummate actor, and his portrayal of Karenin was extraordinary.
Greta Garbo was born to play this role. From the moment we see her features appear from within a cloud of steam, until the end of the movie, she's perfect. Of course, her beauty was fabled, but she also was a great actor. Anna Karenina was the perfect role for her, and she played it to perfection. There's no point in going on and on about Garbo. When you see the movie, you'll understand what I mean.
It's interesting that director Brown was never considered to be among the elite directors of his day. However, he was Garbo's favorite director. The person introducing the movie told us that Garbo preferred him because (a) He knew how to film her to bring out her beauty and (b) he basically stood back and let her be Garbo.
Even if Brown wasn't considered to be among the top directors of his time, the film he directed manages to convey the essence of Tolstoy's novel in 90 minutes. The novel is almost 1,000 pages long. Capturing this epic work in 90 minutes, complete with a long dance scene and a scene at the opera, is almost miraculous.
We saw this film at the wonderful Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. We watched a 35mm print, restored at Eastman. Of course, this is how the movie was meant to be seen. However, it will work well enough on the small screen.
I checked the IMDb list, and learned that Anna Karenina has been filmed over 30 times. (Actually, Garbo played Anna in an earlier silent film.) Clearly, it's a novel that works on the screen. As I write this review, Garbo's Anna Karenina has a respectable 7.1 rating on IMDb. There may be other Anna Karenina movies with a higher rating than that. Remember that this version stars Greta Garbo. In my opinion, it's an essential film for people who love literature and movies. Find it and enjoy it.
Very good adaptation of the Austen novel
Emma (1996) (TV) is an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. Screenplay is by Andrew Davies. The film was directed by Diarmuid Lawrence.
Kate Beckinsale portrays Emma Woodhouse, a young woman who is very sure of her social position and her abilities. She isn't basically cruel, but she tends to assume that she has skills that she doesn't actually possess.
As with other Austen novels, marriage is the expected ending for all but the most unfortunate women. A good marriage is better than a bad one, but many women must settle for the husband they can get. I point this out because Emma actually has three female protagonists--Emma, Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) and Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton). The novel's plot involves the pairing of these three women with three appropriate men. Who will end up with whom isn't obvious. That's what makes the novel and the movie interesting.
As you'd expect from A&E, production values are high, and the actors in supporting roles are well cast. Williams and Morton were excellent. I thought Beckinsale's Emma was a little darker in spirit than Austen meant her to be. In a film adaptation of Emma, the actor portraying Emma has to grab and hold your attention. For me, that didn't happen.
This movie was made for TV, so naturally it works well on the small screen. If you're an Austen fan, you'll want to see this film.
Incidentally, I think that the Gwyneth Paltrow version (also produced in 1996) isn't as good. Paltrow if fine, but an absolutely central scene was omitted. This scene involves Emma and the character Miss Bates. It's a pivotal plot moment, but it was left out of the Paltrow version. It's played perfectly in this film.