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Impressive and immortal!
I have been guilty of trashing film adaptations of my favourite books in the past, but honestly, I don't know what the 'Shan fans' expected of Paul Weitz's interpretation of the Darren Shan YA novels. I caught this film on television, without knowing anything about the characters or even that the books existed, and really enjoyed the dark comedy. The film is aimed at a slightly more mature - read: teenage - audience than the books, I think, but there are many levels of both drama and humour for all ages. Only after watching the film did I try the books, which are enjoyable but not as entertaining as the film - sorry, Shan fans! Weitz's treatment is a creative abridgement of the first four books in the series, involving characters and story arcs which evolve slowly over many years in the Shan's novels. Mr Crepsley and Darren find love interests at the Cirque, which actually makes more sense. No, Rebecca the 'monkey girl' is not in the books, but I preferred Jessica Carlson's portrayal of the new character better than Darren's fictional first girlfriend, the overly peppy Debbie Hemlock. Crepsley also has more to do in the film, battling an old foe, and is a slightly more ambiguous figure, tricking Darren and threatening to slap him. John C. Reilly might not look like a manga cartoon, but he is suitably intimidating and blackly humorous in the role. Plus, his measured tones and pointed sarcasm really suit my idea of Mr Crepsley. Chris Massoglia does not have quite the same impact, but I love the 1970s look he has going on. Darren is slightly flat as a character compared to Crepsley, anyway.
Other quirky performances include Ray Stevenson as Murlaugh, whose confused accent - 'Hallo, bag of blood!' - only adds to his charm, and Patrick Fugit as Evra Von. I don't know why, but the 'Americanisation' of Shan's characters actually worked better for me, with the pastel-coloured 'real world' and the flamboyant, southern Gothic 'other world' of the Cirque. The only casting that fails slightly is the criminal underuse of Salma Hayek, Willem Defoe and even Jane Krakowski.
Don't listen to the bitter fans who object to the slightest deviation from Darren Shan's books - the film is darker and different, but also entertaining and enduring. I have the film on loop on my iPod, and I never tire of watching.
Hors de prix (2006)
If you have to ask, you can't afford
Sharp but sweet comedy - gentle humour played with words and expressions, and a surprisingly poignant undercurrent. Diminutive Audrey Tautou looks fragile and endearing, balancing her character's cruel streak, and Gad Elmaleh plays her awkward but earnest swain; both are attractive in a natural, individual style not recognised by Hollywood. Beautiful people, including supporting cast Marie-Christine Adam and Annelise Hesme, in a stunning setting - as product placement, judging by the conspicuous credits, but I'm willing to be sold! The 60s jazz soundtrack adds to the cool sophistication of the whole film - truly a rare gem.
Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) (2000)
A pale imitation
I refused to watch this when it originally aired, treasuring the memory of the late, lamented 1960s series with Mike Pratt and Kenneth Cope, but I can never resist a challenge. I should have known better. Not quite a remake, and more of a parody than a homage, this show didn't quite know how to play it, and plumped with infantile comedy and cartoon plots and characters. The three main characters were little more than caricatures of the actors, and only Emilia Fox could act (Bob Mortimer is painful in a straight role). The supporting cast were merely comedian-acquaintances of Vic and Bob's wanting to be part of the in-joke, and far too aware of the situation to be convincing. And the CGI, though the effects couldn't help be an improvement on those available 30 years earlier, merely dazzled the viewer with lights and camera work, and did little to mask the poor quality of the scripts and dialogue. All style and no substance. (And whereas the 1960s show is mocked for being very much of its time, this 'update' is now also very dated, with 'Matrix'-style fashions, obligatory 'girl power' scenes, and less than subtle tension between the two living leads.)
A hidden TV gem
Five minutes into this film, I was a little wary of the poetic dialogue and eccentric characters, but the story certainly builds - and Natasha Richardson is amazing in the lead role; Zelda's vulnerability and decline are heartbreaking to watch, and are portrayed with subtlety and sensitivity by Miss Richardson. I was in awe. Both she and Timothy Hutton hurtle from comedy to tears so suddenly and so effectively that the Fitzgerald's antics, though amusing, are also sometimes painful to watch. The dialogue, after the rosy glow of the initial romance dims slightly, is also sharp and perceptive, particularly Zelda's lines. I even liked the young actress playing Scottie, the daughter! I would definitely recommend this film, if you can find a copy, and I am now inspired to read up on the real F. Scott and Zelda!
The Pimpernel Triumphs again
The only element this film lacks is 'star quality', other than that, it's a very worthy sequel to the 1934 'Scarlet Pimpernel'. The story is based upon Orczy's 'The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel', with elements of 'Elusive' (Marguerite's arrest and Percy's escape) and even 'Sir Percy Hits Back' (Chauvelin's fate) added to make the action flow better on film. Barry K. Barnes, despite not being as fair or famous as Howard, makes for a passable fop (sounding like Leslie 'Ding Dong!' Phillips with a speech impediment: "Stap me, Senorita, don't dwag me into it!"), a revered leader of the League, and a truly devoted and romantic husband. In fact, this film is probably more in the spirit of Orczy's books than any other, with the characters portrayed nearly exactly as you would find them written; there is a great deal of heart and natural charm in the sequel, which I always find lacking in the Howard/Oberon version. Barnes does not have the commanding screen presence of his predecessor, and as such is sometimes lost amongst the sea of League faces, but he is far more believable as the 'husband in love with his own wife' and as a friend to nineteen brave men. Sophie Stewart is similarly indistinctive as Marguerite, but I think she brings more to the role than Oberon: at once 'the sweetest woman in France', naive and easily lead into danger, and a brave and noble wife, willing to sacrifice her own life for that of her husband's, when she needs to be strong. Diminutive and bright-eyed, Stewart is endearing as a rather more innocent Lady Blakeney. Francis Lister plays a diplomatic and reserved Chauvelin, who fears for his own life as the Terror reaches its peak and Robespierre hunts out 'the men at his elbow', traitors amongst his own supporters. The discredited agent parries words with the dictator, and enlists Theresia Cabarrus, lover of Tallien (a young James Mason, given a rousing speech at the end of a minor role), in a final bid to destroy the Pimpernel. Margaretta Scott is formidable and intelligent as the Spanish double agent who is introduced to Sir Percy and Marguerite as an actress seeking the protection of the English court. Marguerite is of course immediately taken in, Sir Percy is naturally more wary of her motives.
There is some recycled footage (as well as the odd recycled actor), but ultimately this film stands alone from its more well-known and oft-shown stablemate. The neat dialogue flows better, without the heavy-handed patriotism injected into the original story (strange, with World War Two looming even closer); fiction is supported by historical details from the eighteenth century (the popularity of cricket, dancing the cotillion, songs such as 'Aupres De Ma Blonde' and the rousing toast 'Here's a Health unto His Majesty'), which is surely a novelty for such an early film; there is more League action (and three members are actually given names from the book!), as well as more scenes of friendship between Sir Percy and his band of men; plus some excellent disguises (the deaf colonel had me in stitches: "Grilled trout?", "Yes, all right, I'll have half a bottle"). All in all, there is no reason not to watch this compact, entertaining little film, especially now that it's available on DVD, and I consider it a definite must for all fans of the Pimpernel.
The Elusive Pimpernel (1950)
I would wholeheartedly have to concur with the previous - and main, to date - reviewer of this mish-mosh remake: it's a hybrid of the 1934 Howard classic and Orczy's original novel, which does justice to neither. As a gesture of independence, the plot is given irrelevant twists, such as renaming the family betrayed (or not, once again) by Marguerite, introducing a London to Brighton carriage race, and switching Howard's 'Who, Sir? You, Sir' dialogue from a London club to a Turkish bath (a minor complaint of the latter detail being that Niven's physique in no way stands up to such scrutiny!)
David Niven's strongest moments are his flashes of 'Carry On'-style wit as the Pimpernel's various assumed personas, particularly the Cock-er-nee who baits Chauvelin's staff. As the foppish Sir Percy, he sounds, probably unintentionally, like a London bobby instead of a dandy from the ton; as the Pimpernel, sans disguise, he is rather forgettable, blending in with the rest of the confused sea of League characters. Margaret Leighton, with the aesthetic distinction of being the only blonde film version of the character, neither looks nor acts the part. She delivers Merle Oberon's lines - word for word, an annoying laziness on behalf of Powell and Pressburger - as though reading from a cue card, and does not spark with Niven. She also looks considerably too old for the role, and is not helped by the smearing of Technicolour-red lipstick she shares with every other woman in this production. Cyril Cusack as Chauvelin, however, is the real monstrosity - a cross between a stage Hamlet and Marlon Brando as the Godfather, he speaks with a lisping Closeau accent and somnolently glides through the film like the Prince of Darkness.
If this film had been allowed to continue as a musical, it would perhaps have been excusable as a light-hearted, brightly coloured spin on the earlier Howard-Oberon version (it is possible to spot where some of the songs might have slotted in, particularly when Sir Percy and the Prince of Wales recite the famous 'We seek him here' doggerel, and the 'chorus' burst into spontaneous mime to the tune of 'Little Brown Jug', as it sounds like!) The (intentional) comedy is quirky, if a little corny (the effeminate French captain who realises he has been duped into thinking the Pimpernel is Chauvelin), and the beautiful external locations add a touch of authenticity that would have boded well for any other film. But as it stands, this is only a shoddily constructed parody/remake, with inferior stars and unnecessary changes to the story. My final sentence on 'The Elusive Pimpernel' (I also have no idea why they chose this title): I think the 1998 series must have confused this with the 1934 material, when sourcing a 'modern' interpretation! Take that as you will.
The worst part of this is the Scarlet Pimpernel!
Orczy's 'Eldorado' - the rescue of the Dauphin, at least, and not the torture of Percy - meets 'Scaramouche'. I'm very frustrated by this series: if it was an original concept with brand new characters, I would be able to watch it without reservation, but using Sir Percy and Marguerite, and then not developing them fully enough or even following the author's template, seems lazy. If so many elements of the novels bother the writer of this version, why not just leave the story to the 1934 and 1982 adaptations, and write something new? Richard E. Grant seems better suited for the role of Chauvelin, with his dark hair, neat figure, penchant for wearing sombre clothes, and even his talent for delivering snide one-liners - yet he is cast as Sir Percy. Superficial details aside, the Scarlet Pimpernel is even robbed of his talent for rescuing people from the Revolution: one woman he promises to save is later drowned, because Sir Percy interrogates her at her place of work, lacking any attempt at a disguise, in front of a room-full of people! It's almost as if the basic concept of Orczy's romantic hero was deemed too embarrassing to be translated onto modern day screens, and so the whole point of the character has been whittled down, nearly beyond recognition. Marguerite is another failing: Elizabeth McGovern is badly miscast as the young, beautiful French actress, desperately in love with her husband. There is no chemistry whatsoever, and indeed, the Blakeney's marriage is treated as such an aside from the novels that Marguerite dies off-screen at the start of the second series. Grant's Percy actually better suits a bachelor lifestyle, and so I wasn't particularly bothered that such an intrinsic part of Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel series was lost (as I perhaps would have been, with better acting). This reworking of 'Eldorado', giving Chauvelin a meatier, slightly ambiguous role in the rescue of the young Dauphin, works well, aside from the occasional plot hole (in the first episode, Marguerite is on her way to the guillotine before being rescued by her husband, thus making her a fugitive, who probably shouldn't be welcomed back to the stage by Robespierre quite so readily!) Marguerite and Percy's rather too public falling out is a clever trick - at least in this alternate Scarlet Pimpernel universe - which plays with Chauvelin's desires. And I liked the element of truth behind the malicious comments aimed at Marguerite and Suzanne as French émigrés marrying English lords! The best thread of the plot, however, has to be La Touraine as a dual identity to greatly envy Sir Percy's! Suzanne Bertish is fantastic as the arrogant and bitter grand dame of the French theatre, who masquerades as a legendary swordsman - and that this subplot is not to be found in any of the novels perfectly illustrates how this series should have abandoned any claim that it was based on the work of the Baroness Orczy, as being compared to the written version insults what is best about both the books and the show.
"Take my wife - please!"
This is 'based on' at least three of Orczy's 'Scarlet Pimpernel' series - 'Mam'zelle Guillotine', 'The Elusive Pimpernel' (Marguerite being used as bait), and 'Sir Percy Hits Back' (Chauvelin's past) - but only very loosely. Which is why I prefer it to the first Richard E. Grant 'Scarlet Pimpernel': it isn't a retelling of a familiar story, it's a new screenplay working from the key plots of three lesser known novels. I therefore couldn't object as wholeheartedly as I did to the dreadful 'interpretation' of the main story. Overall, this was very exciting and beautifully filmed, but there is still something lacking with the main characters. Richard E. Grant is a very good actor, but he is not Sir Percy - he's far too energetic as the foppish baronet, and too arrogant as the Pimpernel. Anthony Green, here lurking in the supporting cast as Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, would have been a better choice. And Elizabeth McGovern does not live up to the role of the beautiful and impulsive Marguerite: I know the actress had to concentrate on a stiff British accent, but even when she isn't speaking, she struggles with portraying strong emotions (the inane smile as she nursed somebody who was dying, for instance - tears? Anguish?) McGovern doesn't even look delicate and graceful in the lavish costumes she got to wear, thus even failing as a clothes horse! The other cast members, particularly Denise Black as Mam'zelle Guillotine and Ronan Vibert as Robespierre, were much more successful, managing to nail Orczy's descriptions and portray strong characters on screen. I was relieved to find the scene where Sir Percy announces himself as Chauvelin to Mam'zelle Guillotine - a return to the spirit of the book, if a little lacking in creative disguise (leaning heavily on bluff and bluster, rather than dressing the part), although the tension was rather let down by the 'interaction' of McGovern's Marguerite. And the 'seduction' was not out of character for Sir Percy - or rather, the character Sir Percy was playing - as the Scarlet Pimpernel gets rather too close to Gabrielle (albeit in a Victorian sense) in the book as well.
The Affair of the Necklace (2001)
The Americanisation of the Necklace
I wanted to watch this film because of an interest in the period, and in that sense, I wasn't disappointed. For someone without a nitpicky, in-depth knowledge of the era, I thought the 'court' costumes were stunning, and the 'love scene' was made all the more interesting because of the layers of clothes Hilary Swank had to get through!
I wasn't aware of the details of 'true story' beforehand, and so I didn't have any cause to object to the 'Hollywood interpretation', nor would I now. I can recognise the difference between a movie and a documentary, and don't think the former should necessarily sacrifice its magic for each and every fact of the latter. The opening flashback, recounting the events of Jeanne's childhood, however, was a little too formulaic - the hazy, sunset meadow setting, with the young Jeanne on a swing, and her father returning home to his pregnant wife, reminded me of the opening to the dire 'Musketeer', which I started to watch for similar reasons. More 'syrupy' than magical.
I would prefer a film, particularly an adaptation, where French characters are played by French actors. A perfect 'experiment' would be a faithful portrayal of Orczy's 'Scarlet Pimpernel', with an English actor who can break into believable French! Until that ceiling-smashing film comes, however, I think English actors are less 'distracting' in such roles than their American counterparts. At least 'BBC English' can be mentally interpreted as aristocratic French, and (true) Cock-er-nies, or Northern English accents, taken as the language of the 'people'. Hilary Swank's American drawl sat awkwardly with the era and the setting. I know that an American film has every right to select an American actress, but if such a choice is perfectly fitting, then why was Hilary Swank desperately trying to clip her natural speech into a forced British accent? Her lines sounded like a high school recital. Adrien Brody suited the part physically, and I loved the scene with the doctor after he was accidentally shot, although it did seem slightly 'Carry On ..'-esque. The rest of the film seemed to demand he should have been fatally wounded. With the light-weight Simon Baker, I just kept wondering which Australian soap I recognised him from (Heartbreak High).
There were a number of fade outs towards the end of the film where I thought the credits should have rolled - I agree with a previous review, in that there really wasn't enough story to sustain nearly two hours of film - but, in the style of Spielberg's 'A.I.', the bulk of the running time was easy enough to watch.
A superficially well-dressed dramatisation.
Battle of Britain (1969)
'Helmets' as standard for 1960s actresses
The only thing that ruined this film for me was the decade in which it was made. The 1960s and authentic period costume really were incompatible. The male actors weren't quite so bad, but the female leads and support cast screamed 1969 with their hair, especially Susannah York. What's wrong with the odd pageboy bob, or hair rolled back from the forehead and temples, in the wartime style that my grandmother recalls? Were the beehives and backcombing of the late 1960s so set in hairspray that nothing could shake them? Even the make-up was 'of its day'. 'Battle of Britain' is not alone, by any means - and at least the men didn't have sideburns and ear-dusting moptops - but it was a small point that really ruined the effect of the film. It felt like a commentary from the smug sixties, rather than the dramatic historical retelling that it came so close to.