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This production of Cleopatra, intended originally as a miniseries on television, is a reasonably good production with significant differences from the block-buster Hollywood version starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. Cleopatra here is depicted as someone striving to maintain her own position, not necessarily someone with an eye toward world-wide conquest. Cleopatra is portrayed as an inexperienced person (both sexually and politically) until tutored by the more experienced Romans. She comes to understand her fate is inextricably intertwined with Caesar, then Antony, but her love for Antony keeps her from making the politically expedient move of giving in to Octavian. Apparently two Roman rulers are enough for one lifetime.
Like the earlier film production, this one plays fast and loose with the actual history, albeit in different ways. The figure of Octavian/Augustus is far more present earlier here than he was in history; for a production that goes on the greater part of three hours, remarkably little detail about the history is brought forward, and I found that distracting. The last hour could have easily been recut into a half-hour, and some judicious editing throughout the rest of the film could make it into a much better paced two-hour film.
The acting was tolerable but generally unconvincing. Timothy Dalton as Julius Caesar, Billy Zane (who got top billing) as Marc Antony, and Rupert Graves as Octavian were not up to their usual acting standards in this production. Dalton was not very expressive, and Zane and Graves were overly so (Graves plays an almost flippant character, not at all in keeping with the historical Augustus). Ironically, the title character Cleopatra was played by relative newcomer Leonor Varela, who was probably the best actor in the piece.
The sets are great, as are the costumes (if not always appropriate Cleopatra rarely wore Egyptian garb, preferring her more native Greek), and the music is worthwhile. The battle scenes are pretty typical television fare (with occasional glitches that make these seem more minor skirmishes than great battles). Unfortunately, the sea-going scenes of ships looked far too obviously fake to suspend disbelief.
This is a pleasant diversion, but in the end not a truly memorable production save for bits and pieces here and there. But it is a good thing that such productions are still being undertaken.
The Time Machine (1960)
A timeless tale
George Pal directed this classic from 1960, starring Rod Taylor as the scientist who travels back through time (George, although we are meant to understand that this is a character-cipher for H.G. Wells), and Yvette Mimieux in a very early role (interestingly, she became an anthropologist, the study of which has a concern in the overall plot development and socio-political points Wells was trying to drive home with his novel).
The plot follows Wells' late Victorian novel fairly well. Scientist George invents a time machine, and after making the proclamation to several of his nay-saying friends, including a test with a miniature time machine, takes off on a few journeys. The early journeys are just to test, and we see a few fascinating effects here. But the greater story lies in George's hope for the future, so he sets himself to go nearly a million years in to the future - the year 802701.
Trivia buffs will recognise the date on the machine as October 12, the same date Columbus discovered the new world. George embarks into this new world, finding the human race has evolved into a split species - the above-ground Eloi, and the below-ground Morlochs. The Eloi are carefree airheads for the most part - that is, until the Morlochs threaten, and then they become the hunted. The Morlochs are presented as base creatures, following only their appetites, and afraid to remain above for too long.
The effects of the time machine itself and the transition scenes are quite good for the time - I recall as a child watching this film on television and being mesmerised by the passage of time, the scenery changes through George's window as the time streamed by, and the contrast between the Victorian household set and the future world.
The more recent remake did homage to this classic film by incorporating a few of the same ideas - the scene changes through the windows, for example. Also, Alan Young (who played Filby in the 1960 film) appeared in the more recent film, the only actor to appear in both.
George has a tough decision to make - his time machine is stolen by the Morlochs; does he risk his life to get it back? And does he opt to stay in the future or go back to his own time if he recovers it? Only time will tell.
Fun with Dick and Jane (2005)
Having a little fun...
I recall seeing the original of this film when it first came out, and found it to be a good plot, which was for the most part adhered to, with an interesting twist on the finale.
The names, of course, are a play on the 'Fun with Dick and Jane' series of children's books. In this film version, they even have a dog, Spot - see Spot stop barking (in quite an interesting manner, and yes, I sat through the film to make sure that no animals were harmed). This updated version of the 1977 original film adds elements of the modern American corporate world to the basic storyline, which still works nearly a generation later. In the credits, inspirational credit is given to Enron, Worldcom and a host of other corporations whose financial outcomes did not live up to the fullness of the American dream.
Dick is a mid-level executive with a multinational corporation. His wife Jane is a travel agent, who seems to only attract the customers from hell. When Dick gets the promotion to senior executive, vice-presidential level, Jane sees the opportunity to let her job sail away, and becomes a full-time housewife. Meanwhile, Dick's company does a dot-com bubble burst fast enough to generate a sonic boom, leaving both Dick and Jane without a job in a corporate town where suddenly everyone is unemployed.
The furniture, the car, even the lawn gets sold or repossessed, as Dick and Jane variously look for ways to make ends meet with odd jobs and gray-market tactics. Finally, Dick has had enough. He decides to rob a convenience store. After a few abortive attempts, he finally succeeds in a small score, and both the cash and the excitement propel both Dick and Jane into further and further escapades. However, this is small-time items, and when another couple from the same corporation is caught doing the same thing as Dick and Jane, the couple decide that it is time to retire, but not before making one last retirement heist.
Enter here the twist - in the original film, Dick knew of a safe upstairs in the corporate office that held lots of undocumented cash. In the modern version, Dick discovers a sort of modern equivalent, that being off-shore accounts. Can Dick and Jane find a way to take the loot? The ending here is in some ways predictable, but has a very interesting twist which shows both a generosity of spirit and a justice-will-be-done aspect that is truly well done. Would that the same could be done for the real-life corporations mentioned in the end! Jim Carrey and Tea Leone make a great comedic duo in this film; Alec Baldwin plays the not-quite-as-stupid-as-he-seems corporate leader with good flair. The slip from success to unemployment to armed robbery is not seen as shocking, but somehow natural and understandable in the modern world (which is in and of itself a frightening idea).
Nothing deep or profound, and the script is serviceable if not brilliant, but there is fun indeed with this film.
61 in 61
In the pantheon of baseball movies, this one, 61*, is in my personal top five, and perhaps the top three. Billy Crystal, better known as a comedian or as host of the Academy Awards, took the director's chair for this film, and produced a story that was a grand insight into the personal and professional world of baseball during the era of Mantle and Maris. Produced very shortly after Mark McGwire broke the Maris record, Crystal framed the 1961 story with scenes from the McGwire run.
Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in the 1927 season, and Yankee stadium was still known, a generation later, as the house that Ruth built. In 1961, Ruth's longstanding record seemed secure. Mickey Mantle had inherited the status of 'Yankee favourite' from predecessors Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, but Roger Maris had narrowly beat him in the poll for MVP the previous year, all the more remarkable because Maris was a newcomer from the midwest. The sportwriters were divided in how they reported about the team, but almost all were more focused upon Mantle until the runs began to stack up. However, the press (and often, it seemed, the fans) were still favouring Mantle, and sometimes booed Maris when he would hit a home run.
Crystal did a good job at showing the kind of personal stresses, both family and professional, that Mantle and Maris had to endure going through what should have been one of the most glorious seasons in baseball history. There was a kind of institutional resistance to anyone breaking Ruth's record, but even more resistance to Maris than to Mantle. This is embodied in the asterisk that followed the number 61 in record books (and the title of this film) - Ruth's season was several games shorter, and it was deemed 'unfair' for Maris to take the record, having not hit the same number of runs in the same number of games. Eventually the asterisk would be removed, but not before Maris' death some time later.
Good little touches like Maris' special eggs (which Mantle began to eat with reluctance, but came around when Maris said he hit home runs after eating them), scrap book collections shown periodically throughout the film, the song 'I love Mickey', and other audio-visual pieces of baseball memorabilia make this a baseball trivia-buff treat. The personal stories of the family lives, increasingly under stress as both players come within striking distance of the record, show details most likely fictional, but certainly understandable.
Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane star as Maris and Mantle, respectively, and both turn in great performances as the athletes. They both look like naturals on the field and in the locker room, and do a good job with the personal angle as well, Pepper playing the low-key Maris and Jane playing the hard-living Mantle. They both bear striking resemblance to the men they portray, Pepper especially so. Other performers include Anthony Michael Hall, Richard Masur, and Christopher McDonald in memorable supporting roles. Donald Moffat as the commissioner Frick is especially good. Jennifer Foley (actually, Jennifer Crystal Foley, Billy Crystal's daughter) turns in a good performance as Pat Maris, the long-suffering and supportive wife, struggling from half a country away to be strong for her husband as he faces the stress of success.
Any baseball fan will love this film. Those who aren't necessarily fans of baseball may find a new-found passion for the game.
The Yankee's retired Maris' number 9 in 1984. Maris' bat is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Perhaps some day, Maris will be, too.
The Time Machine (2002)
No time like the present...
I must confess that I march to a different drummer when it comes to this film. I enjoyed it for the most part, and find it very clever in many aspects. The major drawback comes from the plot - it is far too simplistic for the elaborate care that went into both the visual aspect of the film as well as the nice touches at almost every turn.
The plot is rather simple - Alexander Hartdegen, a mechanical physics professor in turn-of-the-century New York (turn of the nineteenth-into-the-twentieth century, that is), has his head in his equations, apart from one thing, his love for Emma. When she is killed in a botched mugging (yes, New York at that time even had muggings in Central Park), Hartdegen drops everything to invent the time machine he'd theorised, in order to prevent Emma's death. He soon makes the discovery that it isn't possible to undo the past (at least not that aspect of the past), but becomes obsessed with finding the reason why. He speculates this is more likely to be answered in the future than in the past or present, and thus goes forward in time. He makes a few stops along the way before arriving at a far-distant future (nearly a million years in the future), in which the human race has evolved into two distinct species - one on the surface, and one below the earth.
So far, so good - departure from H.G. Wells' original classic (a great piece of literature) and from the earlier film, but not beyond the pale. The effects here are truly stunning in many respects - the time machine itself is a marvel (the DVD has a feature on the making of the machine), and the time transformation scenes are very inspiring, up to and including the zoom-away shot from the machine into the air all the way to the city on the moon. The Eloi city along the river is also a remarkable scene. The movie rightly won awards, including the Academy Award, for these effects. Unfortunately, effects do not a movie make. This is where the plot failure comes into play.
Hartdegen seems to give up far too early in trying to change the past, and his relationships (such as we get to see them) in the future are very stilted. Jeremy Irons (himself an Academy Award winner) has precious little screen time, to deliver what is perhaps the most anticlimactic resolutions I've seen in a long time. The overarching question should be 'why?', but seems to transformed into 'what if?' in an unclear way (the deleted introductory scene, available on the DVD, helps to more firmly establish the question, but, alas, it was deleted). Hartdegen remains in the future (like Wells' and the earlier film's scientists, albeit in a different way), perhaps to help transform the future, but we'll never know (a sequel is not likely).
Despite the thin plot, what I found most enjoyable (apart from the special effects) were the clever touches here and there, far too numerous to mention. When Hartdegen arrives in 2030 (prompted by an advertisement proclaiming 'the future is now'), he encounters a user-friendly library computer (personified by Orlando Bloom) with a real sense of humour and humanity. When Hartdegen asks about time travel, the library computer even incorporates Star Trek gestures and sound effects into its discussion (as well as the yet-unwritten musical version of 'The Time Machine', by Andrew Lloyd Weber). One woman in the distant future speaks English (now called the stone language, for the stone engravings that remain from store fronts and the like), but speaks without accent (strange enough, but even stranger that New Yorker Hartdegen sounds more British, as does the Morlock leader Jeremy Irons).
Indeed, there are so many little pieces here is seems that the writers spent more time trying to incorporate bits of cleverness throughout the script than making sure the script as a whole had thorough soundness.
Another piece I really liked was the music. The sombre brass tones, the triumphant orchestral arrangements, the folk/modern synthesis for the Eloi, and the dramatic scoring really enhanced this film beyond measure. The DVD has bits of the score that replay on a loop sequence during menu screens, and I've sometimes left these on to hear the pieces over and over again.
The DVD has one of the better menu sequence set-ups I've seen, simulating the machine effects in visuals and sound, as well as incorporating score elements and special effects. DVD extras include the delete scene, commentaries by many of the crew, several pieces on the special effects (including one on the time machine itself), This is a fairly good film, despite its flaws. Overall I would award it three-and-a-half stars, but will round up to four in honour of the effects, the music, and clever pieces.
Rumor Has It... (2005)
Rumours are flying...
Rumour has it that 'Rumor Has It' is a pretty good film. This will by no means be an Oscar contender, but as a pleasant diversion on a weekend afternoon, or possibly as a date movie (for those who still go on dates), this could be a winning movie. Jennifer Aniston, late of 'Friends', plays a role that is in many ways reminiscent of the Rachel role - she is a transplanted New Yorker, returning home to L.A. (actually, Pasadena, which becomes a running joke) with her as-yet-unannounced fiancé to attend her younger sister's wedding. We learn all of this in the first few minutes, possibly before the credits are done scrolling on the screen - the frenetic pace of 'Friends' is still here.
Rumour has it that there was a family in Pasadena that the film 'The Graduate' is based upon - Sarah (Anniston) fixates upon the idea that this may be her family. She questions her grandmother (Shirley MacLaine, but don't call her grandmother), who tells of a possible affair her mother had with a playboy before her marriage (Kevin Costner, now a dot-com mega-millionaire). Sarah goes off without her fiancé in search of her mother's past, but finds a past of her own, of a sort.
Lots of twists and turns in the film have the characters racing up and down the coast of California in search of the past, the future, and the truth, which ends up being both expected and unexpected in this complicated but easily-followed plot.
There aren't major effects and major surprises here. The situational comedy is very much in keeping with an extended version of a comfortable television show, even with the star power of MacLaine and Costner backing Anniston up. The writing is serviceable with occasional flashes of true wit, and the pace of the film is even and pleasant. In all, this is a good film, well worth seeing for a bit of entertainment. Director Rob Reiner does have a talent for good films, and this is one of them.
Love, lard, and a merchant in Venice...
Casanova is a minor gem of a film. It is carefully bracketed as a memoir of Casanova, who is busy in his old age writing his memories in his famous book. However, this is worth paying attention to, because in a film of masks, deceptions and subterfuge, this too is perhaps the best of all possible masks. Giacomo Casanova may be many things to many people (particularly the women of Venice), but he is a very human being, if he would but know it.
After spending the greater part of his youth in pursuit of being the pursuer ('be the flame, not the moth,' he says as he gives advice to a young man in need of help courting his love) rather than the pursued, he has finally had to promise (the Doge and the Inquisition) that he will mend his ways and marry. But, in typical Casanova fashion, the woman he intends is the unofficial intended of another, and the woman he wants is not his intended, but intended to another. If you can't quite keep pace, you might be on to something. For Casanova's desire (not to be confused with his intended) is intended to another, whose identity Casanova 'borrows' to better woo her.
In the end, this is a fairly standard but well-done costume drama of mistaken identities, plots going awry, and love triumphant (of course it would have to be, for after all, this is Casanova). Heath Ledger plays a very serviceable Casanova (no pun intended, well, perhaps a little intended); Sienna Miller plays the fair Francesca, a woman with a brain far in advance of her time (she is some ways portrayed as a female da Vinci-esquire character). Lena Olin plays Francesca's mother, who has arranged a marriage for Francesca, which certainly does not involve Casanova. Charlie Cox plays Francesca's brother, Giovanni, jealous of the attentions Casanova is paying to his unannounced intended across the canal (in an interesting twist, Charlie Cox played in 'The Merchant of Venice' the year before this film was made, together with Jeremy Irons).
I was very pleased with the role played by Oliver Platt, the merchant of Genoa (coming to Venice, a very subtle, witty reversal on Shakespeare) - he played the intended of Francesca, a pupil of Casanova, a lard merchant of wealth and fame, and in the end one of the good guys. Tim McInnerny plays the hapless but good-intentioned Doge. However, highest praise goes to Jeremy Irons, who plays the papal visitor/inquisitor, Bishop Pucci, who, if he isn't threatening inquisitorial tortures on illiterate philosophers or falling over backwards in boats is promising to restore the virginity of young maidens. Irons provides a delightful mixture of terror and farce that plays in both comedic and dramatic ways, and he looks every inch the post-medieval bishop.
The sets are stunning - of course, this was filmed on location in Venice, so how could they be otherwise? The music is well-selected and drawn into the overall film, using Italian and Italian-influenced compositions of the Renaissance and later periods heavily.
This is a fun film, with an unexpected ending in several ways, but love reigns triumphant, and Casanova (in a very interesting twist) both 'gets the girl' and continues his amorous ways - but I'll not spoil it for you.
A tale for our times?
There are several problems with the film 'Troy', if one is trying to fit it too closely with the literature which inspired it, Homer's Illiad. There are too many deviations from the ancient Greek epic poem for this to be other than 'inspired by' - there are characters missing; there are characters whose fates are different from the Illiad (no spoilers, so you'll have to trust me), and the overall situation is cast in a very different light.
In the film, Achilles (Brad Pitt, looking more bulky than usual) is the greatest warrior alive, with a reputation unparalleled in the world. However, he is a loose cannon, as likely to kill his own leaders as the enemy. Achilles is tempted to the battle with Troy, portrayed as one of the greatest battles in history, by the call of everlasting glory. Achilles is persuaded by no less an ironic character than his own mother, who recounts to him the prophecy of an idyllic life at home should he stay, but then to be forgotten after he dies, or the chance at immortality in legend, despite the fact that he'll die at Troy. Achilles sets sail.
The war with Troy is portrayed as having been going on for a decade; at a peace meeting in Sparta, Paris (younger prince of Troy, Orlando Bloom) falls in love with the fair 'was this the face that launched a thousand ships' Helen, wife Sparta's king, Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). Helen steals away with Paris on the ship returning to Troy; Hector, the elder prince and heir to the throne (Eric Bana) is conflicted as to what to do, but opts to journey on to Troy, and the die is cast.
Agamemnon (Brian Cox) uses the event to band all the Greek city-states together into a final battle with Troy, the greatest rival to his power in the Aegean (and the centre of much of the civilization of the world at that time). This is where the retelling becomes much more modern. The Illiad is not so concerned with economics and hegemonies as with ethics and honour - Agamemnon is portrayed as a Realpolitick power-seeker of the first order, willing to stop at nothing to decimate allies and foes alike for his own power, willing to use honourable pretenses to achieve dishonourable ends. An astonishing armada is amassed and sets sail for the coasts of Troy. Once there, the beachhead is taken, and the first major act is a desecration of the temple of Apollo by Achilles, who nonetheless proves himself the most valuable warrior the Greeks have. At this point, the internal strife becomes as problematic for the Greeks as the front lines, as Achilles disregards the commands of Agamemnon and cares little for the political outcomes of the war.
The intrigues and the plotting of the Greek leaders are cast in high relief against the more pastoral leadership of 'good king' Priam (portrayed by Peter O'Toole with his characteristic panache). Hector is a strong and wise leader under his father; Paris is the foolish and rather cowardly one. (We are missing the back-story of the Illiad of how Paris came to be part of Troy's royal family, and it is assumed that there is no unusual story there.) We rather lose sight of the fact that, indeed, Paris stole the queen of Sparta (again, the modern idea creeps in - in our day, a woman would have the right to choose where she wished to live, but not so in the ancient world; one might question whether the queen of a nation has the right to abandon her role and 'shack-up' with the neighbouring prince at will, but I digress...).
The people of Troy are seen as virtuous despite the fact that they are defending the less-defensible position morally. The Greeks might have right on their side in some respects, but this is lost in their brutality and by the unbridled greed of their leaders, and of course it is the ordinary foot-soldiers, including Achilles, who have to do the fighting and dying for the cause, as their princes exchange gifts of gold, money and priceless art treasures to congratulate themselves on their victories.
The film portrays the battle lasting only a matter of a few weeks; the brutality of the battle scenes is as dramatic as any in modern war films, just as bloody. The single-combat scenes between Achilles and Hector, Hector and Patroclus, and others are extremely well choreographed, introducing various techniques I've not seen before in sword-play films.
I don't think it is a spoiler to give away the major ending here, in that Troy eventually falls, not to military might, but to trickery. The Greek ships have sailed, leaving only an offering to Poseidon behind - a giant horse. The Trojan Horse (if the Greeks built it, why is it always called 'the Trojan Horse?') is carted into the city whose walls cannot be breeched, and the people celebrate their victory. As they rest after the revelry, Greek soldier inside the horse emerge (including in this telling, Achilles), open the gates to the city, and the Greek army swarms in. However, the individual endings of the different characters is still left up in the air - who survives, and who doesn't? This is even more crucial than the pre-ordained destruction of the city.
A nice touch to the film is the hand-off of the great sword of Troy to a young man named Aeneas, with the instruction that so long as a Trojan has the sword, Troy will live on (this connects to the Roman epic poem, the Aeneid, which tells of Aeneas' journey from Troy to Rome, making them the spiritual successors of Troy, particularly meaningful when the Romans then conquer the Greeks).
A meddlesome priest
The tale of Thomas Becket has had many incarnations over time. T.S. Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral' is but the most recent acclaimed literary treatment; each revisitation seems to draw new elements forth from the story. Edward Anhalt won the Oscar for best screenplay (adapted from other material) for this film. This film shows Henry and Thomas Becket roughly equal in age (at variance from history, for in this time the age difference of 15 years is practically a generational difference). Becket is shown as being a guide to Henry, but less from a master/pupil standpoint as it is a clever diplomatic with a utilitarian and almost Machiavellian sense about him. Henry is presented as coarse and unrefined, uneducated and in need of assistance, but historically this is unlikely.
Becket is played admirably by Richard Burton; Henry II is portrayed by Peter O'Toole. Both were nominated for the best actor Oscar, but neither won. In addition to these nominations and the best screenplay award, the film was nominated for nine other Oscars, running the list from costumes, music, directing, best picture, and a best supporting actor nod for John Gielgud, whose cameo as the King of France is rather interestingly presented.
Indeed, the movie has a remarkable realistic feel to it, particularly for a film from the 1960s, when cinema was as likely to portray stylised and idealistic images of the past. The sets are in bare stone with a minimum of ornamentation, as would have been the case in Plantagenet times; likewise, the ceremony around the royal person is much less grand, and the church rather grand, which is both accurate and serves to highlight the underlying conflict of the story in the film.
Becket is portrayed as a man of ambiguous loyalties -- a man of principle who has yet to find principles worthy of loyalty. Finally, in the role of archbishop, he finds a calling from the honour of God (and in so doing is not unlikely many priests who see their path to ordination as the means of spiritual grace; indeed, many are disappointed that the faith does not come with the office). Whether Thomas Becket actually experienced a spiritual conversion that made him a strong champion of the church, or in fact saw the power of the church as a means to an end of dominating the country, we will perhaps never know.
In the film, Becket is often disparaged as being a Saxon; this is perhaps overstated, given his Norman lineage, which is never hinted at in the film. While he does not come from Norman nobility, he is far from being a simple Saxon. Burton's portrayal of Becket shows the change from worldly chancellor to spiritual archbishop in unsubtle terms. Even so, there is an ambiguity that plays out marvelously in both his performance, and the reactions of the other characters who constantly question his sincerity.
O'Toole's performance is not as polished as Burton's; when he plays an older, wiser Henry II in 'The Lion in Winter' four years later, the acting is much more dramatic and effective. It perhaps goes without saying that Pamela Brown does not make the same impression on the screen as Eleanor of Aquitaine as Katherine Hepburn does in the later film, but Eleanor is an incidental character in Becket in any case.
Music in this film is not a prominent feature -- various trumpet and brass flourishes announce events or major scene changes in parts; a lot of chant (long before Gregorian chant achieved popular status) accompanies church scenes -- indeed, I credit this film for giving me my first real taste of Gregorian chant. The scene with Sian Phillips as Becket's love Gwendolyen is accompanied by period string instruments -- again, Phillips is a remarkable actress who is under-utilised in this performance.
Done in a flash-back manner, there is a resolution in the film -- Becket is dead, made a saint, honour is satisfied as the King does penance, and the people are happy. We know what is going to happen, but then, anyone with knowledge of history would likely know the story already. In fact, Henry's reign was rarely without challenge, but he was always powerful, and much more effective after Becket's death than before. Reigning for nearly twenty years after Becket's death, he left a very powerful Western European coalition of lands that soon fell apart, and embroiled England and France in war for centuries later. The tensions between church and state carry forward to this day; while the specifics of the challenges faces Becket and Henry II are very different from issues today, the principle of the relationship between church and state is far from definitively resolved.
Also, the side-line issue of class warfare and racial prejudice (teased out with subtle nuance between the Normans and Saxons, who, ironically, look exactly the same on the screen) are addressed in an interesting, pre-civil rights sort of manner. This issue is never resolved in the film, as indeed it wasn't in the 1960s, either.
This is an intriguing film, with great acting and great production values, and an interesting story that, even if not completely historically accurate, does not alter the history so much that it becomes a parody of the subject.
The American President (2000)
A good survey of the presidents
I thoroughly enjoyed this series on the American presidents. I am a fan of historical programming on television, both on cable channels and on the PBS network, from which this collection comes. Perhaps the most unique feature of this series is that instead of going through the list of presidents in chronological order, it groups them into broad categories. These categories include:
* Family Ties * Happenstance * Independent Cast of Mind * Professional Politicians * The American Way * The World Stage * Heroic Posture * Compromise Choices * Expanding Power * The Balance of Power
These ten categories have four presidents each, save one, Happenstance, which has an extra member of the category, to add up to 41 presidents. (If you recall that the current President Bush is number 43, you would be correct; Grover Cleveland gets two numbers in the listing, his terms of office being non-consecutive). Deriving from the book on the presidents by the Kunhardts, the categories are not definitive, but rather generally descriptive of some of the key aspects of the individual presidents.
For example, the presidents featured under the category 'Heroic Posture' in episode seven were all military leaders. These included Washington, Harrison, Grant, and Eisenhower. While one might question the inclusion of Harrison in this, in fact he was elected in part based on his heroic image, even if he didn't last long. His death early in office provided America with its first 'Happenstance' leader, John Tyler, who set the precedent for vice presidents assuming full authority when a president dies or otherwise leaves office (it is hard for us in the modern day, when such a transfer seems automatic, to image there was a time when it was unclear if the vice president should become president at this event).
The overall narration is given by Hugh Sidey, the recently deceased White House correspondent who served with presidents throughout the last half of the twentieth century. Adding 'colour commentary' is Richard Neustadt, himself a veteran of White House work. No presentation of political figures can ever be apolitical, particularly when issues reach into the current day, but between Sidey, Neustadt and the Kunhardts, a reasonably balanced picture is portrayed of most of the presidents.
There is a necessary limitation to the depth that can be devoted to each figure in this kind of format. Given the balance of presentation, it also seems somewhat strange for William Henry Harrison and Millard Filmore to get equal time with figures such as Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt - after all, FDR's term of office was almost 150 times as long as W.H. Harrison's, yet they both have almost equal time in the documentary. However, the presentation does more than simply present the politics or the personalities of the presidents highlighted, but also give a sense and flavour of the time in the country in which each served.
For later presidents, their own voices and words are heard in part describing their actions and presidencies - some sat for interviews as part of this series (both Carter and Bush gave extensive interviews). For earlier presidents, other notable figures lent their voices to the task - William F. Buckley as Teddy Roosevelt, Walter Cronkite as George Washington, Billy Graham as James Garfield (a clever casting, given that Garfield was the only minister ever to become president), and so forth.
This series will be useful to teachers, students at the high school and undergraduate level, and those who simply want more information. This is more of a survey with some interesting trivia bits than a comprehensive treatment, but in honesty, how many people have time to watch a multi-night documentary on each president? One thing that viewers might draw from this is an interest to do further reading and further viewing on selected topics raised.
The use of art work, natural settings, manuscripts, and archival footage makes for a very interesting presentation. This is a series I watch on a frequent basis to reacquaint myself with aspects of American history.