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The White Countess (2005)
Compared to the Japanese takeover of Shanghai as seen in the earlier film Empire of the Sun, this was something of a low-budget, one-or-two camera, plodding disappointment. Contemporary reviews from 2005 are apt only in terms of words of appreciation for Merchant-Ivory production values and a cast of very good (though not in this film "great") actors. While the script and characters are somewhat compelling, my interest in the story itself waned once the climax seemed foreordained.
What disturbed me most, however (and I admit it is more applicable to trivia than to a critique), was the presence in a 1936 or 1937 plot of a 1941 Packard, a 1942 Dodge, and a 1948 Ford. The Packard and the Dodge are perhaps forgivable, but not the Ford.
As noted, the 1987 Empire of the Sun had most such details right, even if the characters were insufferable, unlike those of the White Countess.
The Monuments Men (2014)
It seems to me nearly all of the reviews thus far (Feb. 2014) have at least something good to say about a flawed movie. Seldom is there so much consensus across the spectrum. I viewed it on opening day with great expectations and came away thinking of it as only a curiosity, a tale with two possible aspects. First, I found it just another 1960's style WWII narrative with a slightly lighthearted American perspective to accompany its musical score. But upon further viewing more somber elements took over.
Based on certain historical facts, the script compels a certain suspension of disbelief. In the event, however, the facts as presented seem not only fragmented, but interpreted across the board so as to make heroes of several very ordinary guys trying to do an impossible job: namely, dispelling horrors of war by making sure objets d'art survived intact. Political swipes at all them "furriners" especially Germans and Russians provided an unhappy and distasteful undertone.
Occasionally great cinematic art itself cannot and probably should not survive its critics.
As a back story to the American Civil War, much has been told about events in New York City during the 1860's. The city was booming economically, and immigration, particularly but not exclusively from Ireland, was changing its character in ways not always to the benefit of its old Dutch and Yankee establishment. Anti-war riots and corrupt politics reflected that change, and this relatively new TV series attempts to make use of these elements in promoting a story line that lies somewhere between fact and fiction.
Dramatic exaggeration is normal in a play based on historical material. The greater the mundane is made lively, the greater the audience participates in reliving the past. Even Shakespeare stretched the truth and shaped events to his narrative. But this is not Shakespeare, and Copper has at this point in its second season provided almost nothing by way of believable character delineation. It is populated principally by a gaggle of misfits, stereotypes, and sociopaths.
As to plot, there is precious little. It meanders from one scene of human depravity to another, sparing no inch of bared flesh and no act of vicious physical abuse. One mutes the sound at times so as not to hear its vulgar dialogue, following the depictions fully enough in silence.
Why then do I rate it higher than average? Because it is so indefatigably true to the setting, and its technique is well-crafted. Few period pieces capture a place and time so well. Its darkness is physically compelling, though insufficient to overcome the weakness of its narrative.
Contrary to Copper, it is true that the spring of 1865 on the East Coast was brilliant, marking the end of the war and slavery and a return to summer. Veterans were returning home and business was brisk. Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain and Oliver Wendell Holmes were about to define a new era in American culture.
The Butler (2013)
A great and talented cast is largely thrown away on a script that starts and stops relentlessly. As one who has lived through all the historical periods portrayed, I was regrettably bored by large segments of the narrative, which seemed didactic in the extreme. That is not to diminish its important social and cultural significance to a younger audience, only that I personally found all the Presidents as played much smaller than in life than I remember them. Robin Williams as Eisenhower and Alan Rickman as Reagan seemed oddly miscast, though John Cusack as Nixon caught the essence of the man nicely. The parts showing home life among the main characters was a highlight, however.
In short, a good but not great film, perhaps better with fewer intrusive star-studded cameos and less overt moralizing.
The Borgias (2011)
Worth Watching In Spite of Reservations
No period piece or series is without flaws. Principally, there must be a big name cast (historical big names, never mind the actors) given certain standard things to say and certain ways to say them. All this verges on cliché. The best part of this series is its ability to surprise from time to time with lovely sets and very nice photographic angles. I made use of my cable provider's library to watch the entire first three seasons in relatively quick sequence, which provided a greater sense of continuity than having to depend on weekly teasers.
A comparison with the more fanciful Da Vinci's Demons on the Starz network resolves many complaints one might have about historical verisimilitude. That series turns the same places, characters, and period ( c. 1500) on its head in a kind of cartoonishly pornographic way that The Borgias only hints at. I recommend watching the two in close company with each other.
Jeffrey Irons is a pro. I find no fault with his Pope Alexander. Indeed, I viewed the series in the same week as the installation of Pope Francis and was blown away by how little the papacy has changed in outward appearance in the last 500 years. One can only imagine!
Of the Borgia offspring as presented, Juan overacts horribly, Cesare walks as if the stitching around the crotch of his trousers impairs his mobility, and Lucrezia is far too demure in the role. Micheletto is however spot on as a complex assassin with a tragic flaw.
Interesting in places...just
The sole redeeming quality of the series thus far is that it avoids straying too far from Washington, D.C. Otherwise -- to steal a conceit borrowed from Happy Days -- it clearly jumped the shark a long time ago. To borrow still another aspect of televised dramas, I would say its nearest comparable series is one not usually associated with spy stories and the like. As I was watching it develop, so slowly that it was possible to skip some of the episodes and go three or four more without losing the thread, I was reminded less of the Bourne Supremacy or Manchurian Candidate and more of the soap opera Days of Our Lives. The main characters fail to remain 'in character' as it were but mutate in and out of each others' lives depending on a story line that meanders from one crisis to another.
There are some solid acting skills at work here from time to time, minus antic facial expressions of Claire Danes, so annoying one feels compelled to throw a shoe at the screen were it not for the fact she changes them so rapidly it would likely be misplaced.
Life of Pi (2012)
I have not worn 3D glasses since watching Bwana Devil in the early 50's. It was a surprise to discover that the process has been improved upon. The clumsy paper frame with two plastic lenses, one red and one green as I recall, have given way to what might pass for ordinary sunglasses, and the screen effect is quite satisfying.
I also liked the superb animation in this film. I have no idea at all how it was achieved, having not yet bothered to read other people's reviews. Not only are the various animals made to act in a certain manner consistent with the story line, the visual images seem uncannily true to life.
That said, I found the conclusion of the narrative ever so slightly sententious and disingenuous, suggesting two possible interpretations the viewer might entertain. What had been up to that point an exciting and colorful tour de force became instantly pallid. For what it's worth, I chose the allegorical version.
As a frequent traveler on cruise ships that offer on-board cinemas, I can confidently say this film will never be shown there. My physical response to the maritime scenes even knowing I was actually surrounded by desert bordered on nausea.
A Full House
At a noon screening I sat in a full house of mainly seniors but also some young folks who appreciated the mood and gravity of the narrative as it reflected our own time as it did that of the debate and passing of the 13th Amendment. To my pleasant surprise, the crowd laughed at the right times and remained silent at the right times. Complicated history laid bare as stark reality rarely elicits such insight from a mixed audience. I attributed their discernment, perhaps too generously, to the fact we have good schools and great teachers in our community. A snobbish but natural reaction.
Daniel Day Lewis will almost surely receive an Oscar nomination for his thoughtful performance of Lincoln. Indeed all the main characters may be nominated in one form or another, as will the director and the production staff. This is not merely a good film but a great one.
If I have one reservation, it is that the opening scene in which a group of soldiers ponderously recite parts of the Gettysburg Address seemed curiously staged, rather like having schoolboys stand at a PTA meeting to take turns mouthing patriotic slogans. A jarring departure, and too reminiscent of modern political correctness from an otherwise compelling drama.
I hope the outtakes will someday be available. I could have watched another hour or so without complaint.
Seven Psychopaths (2012)
If you like gratuitous but funny one-liners intermixed with blood and gore, this is a film for you. As a captive of cult-film enthusiasts one evening after dinner last week, I was forced to watch it through to the end. All I liked about it was the backdrop of downtown L.A., a small dog, and the vintage cars employed here and there. The best I can say about the concept is that it reminded me of what a much better written parody of a Quentin Tarantino production might convey,albeit with a skilled cast.
Farrell, Walken, and Harrelson have all appeared in films that did not rely on their stock personae as much as here, propped up in this turkey. I smiled rather than laughed at the jokes.
I may have missed some of the psychopaths. I counted only one and a half.
Stiff Upper Lip in Italy
A kind of mix between mini-series and standard detective fare. The unique aspect is that the very British cast lives in Rome and the detective bit is more Columbo than Sherlock Holmes. It succeeds mainly because of technical filming excellence, acting, and direction rather than any clear sense of originality.
The comparison to early James Bond in looks and feel is likely deliberate. Everything from the credits to music to those creepily retro narrow ties and tight pants fairly shouts 1963. The only nod to 2011 is how cell phones seem to control major parts of the plot. Everything else could just as well be transposed from similar films from fifty years ago, namely the storyline and romantic subplot. To be fair, it is difficult in this kind of fiction to avoid cliché, but I keep hoping that something new will turn up rather than the usual car chase scenes.
Still, the scenery is beautiful and the ambiance captivating. I hope it portends more episodes in the future.