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Style over substance, but quite a lot of style.
Western literature has been mining Greek mythology ever since the time of the Romans, but the last few years have seen a volume of screen adaptations not seen since Ray Harryhausen was in his prime. The start of the 2000s saw a couple of films set in Ancient Greece but without the gods ("Troy", most notably, then "300", though the latter adopted an oft-copied stylized book that had little to do with reality either), which gave way to myth-based adventures (the "Clash of the Titans" remake, the adaptation of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians"; incidentally, though that latter film was bad, I highly recommend the books it was based on). "Immortals" has, based on the trailers, been pegged as a "300" knockoff with the gods present. There are certainly some similarities, but Singh's visual sense is ultimately much different than Zack Snyder's was (there's a lot more beauty and colour in this world, for starters, whereas Snyder's emphasized earth tones and grime. Plot details are discussed hence, so be warned for spoilers.
In Hellenas (Greece), our hero is Theseus (Henry Cavill, the future Superman) - actually, to get this out of the way, the film uses a bunch of mythological characters' names (Theseus, Phaedra, Lysander, Hyperion), but the characters in question haven't any real relation to their mythological counterparts - the bastard son of a village woman. When the evil Heraclean king, Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, surprisingly not out of place in the ancient setting, though the heavy stylization doubtless facilitates that), sacks his village and kills his mother, Theseus finds himself in the company of Phaedra ("Slumdog Millionaire"'s Freida Pinto, on duty as the love interest for the second time this year; she has more to do here than in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", though that was the superior film), the virgin Oracle, who has prophesied that he will play a crucial role in the war between Hyperion and the gods (he seeks to unleash the Titans and end the reign of the Olympians, in revenge for the deaths of his family). Hyperion, meanwhile, seeks Phaedra, who can reveal to him the location of the Epirus Bow, a fabled weapon of immense power. A quite exceptional amount of violence ensues.
As a story with characters, it's pretty minimal, but I imagine anyone going into it expected that. I will, nonetheless, comment on the plot in one aspect: in the past I've encountered films where the hero's only heroism was all about stopping an evil that they had accidentally caused, which often doesn't come across as especially heroic; "Immortals", on the other hand, features a hero who *fails* to stop anything. Theseus would have to be considered the least successful action hero since Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (if Dr. Jones had gone on an extended vacation to Yugoslavia, would the ultimate result have been very different at all?) - in fact, you can build a pretty good case that if Theseus had done nothing at all things would have turned out better, since his only meaningful action was finding the Epirus Bow and then losing it so that Hyperion could use it to free the Titans. The gods defeat the Titans, and Theseus' killing of Hyperion is meaningless since the villain would have been killed along with his armies when Zeus collapsed the mountain. Sure, he was brave, but what did he actually accomplish in the grand scheme of things? Henry Cavill is a credible hero, and has great pecs (certainly, he feels less over-the-top than did Gerard Butler in "300", though I'm not sure whether he actually is). The aforementioned Rourke is a menacing villain, aided by the director letting him do some memorably gory things to make an impression. Freida Pinto, as I said, gets more to do here than in her last blockbuster, and I'd say she does fairly well with the movie's main female part (the movie never pretends that the petite Pinto is an action hero either, which I appreciated after too many movies featuring waifs with the combat skills of a Green Beret), though it's hardly a demanding role. Pinto is also, among the cast, the primary beneficiary of her director's aesthetic skill, as he finds many ways to showcase her beauty (a brief nude scene is not actually her, but there are many stunning images of her in a red dress). The supporting cast includes Stephen Dorff as what I suppose is meant to be a Han Solo figure, Stavros, and Luke Evans, Isabel Lucas, and Kellan Lutz as gods.
Tarsem Singh is the real star of the proceedings, though. He does some remarkable things with his camera, producing quite a few memorable images and setpieces. His use of colour stands out repeatedly, particularly the aforementioned red dress that Pinto wears (which does a great job of staying clean even in the midst of a typhoon of oil that coats everything else). His rendering of Mount Olympus is by far the best I've ever seen on film - there's not a trace of the simple fluffy clouds populated by people wearing bedsheets so often seen in older films; pure majesty. For all the inventive fight scenes, though, I don't understand how Zeus (Evans) could go the whole movie without using his thunderbolt even once (though he proves adept with chains).
As a story, this is lacking in numerous respects, but as a visual experience it's quite a marvel. I came away thinking that Singh could perhaps be a great director if would devote as much care to his stories as to the images used to tell them. As it is, we have a visually stunning mediocrity.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
An entertaining swashbuckler that gives a great character a new lease on life.
Sherlock Holmes has been identified by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the most frequently used fictional characters in history. Appearing first in the 60 stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he has subsequently went on to make hundreds (if not thousands) of appearances in novels, film, television, and radio, with the part essayed by a number of very talented actors, with Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett the most notable. Adventures on the big screen have been slim pickings for a while (the last really notable one was 1985's "Young Sherlock Holmes", obviously a bit of a break with traditional formulas) as TV adaptations have been the go-to medium. This new entry aims to jumpstart a new cinema franchise and introduce Holmes as a living character to a new generation of fans (as opposed to just being a cultural touchstone), with the assistance of talents like Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. This has been met with understandable wariness by longtime fans, but I would say that overall the movie succeeds admirably at its goal. Some spoilers follow.
The bare bones of the plot (summarized in innumerable places elsewhere): Holmes (Downey Jr.) and Watson (Law) crack the case of a series of ritualistic murders and arrest the man responsible, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong; doing a lot of villain-work this year, and looking like a British crossbreed of Andy Garcia and Stanley Tucci). However, even after Blackwood is hung by the neck until dead, trouble continues, and it appears that he may indeed have risen from the grave thanks to the black magic he claimed to possess. Holmes is back on the trail of the seemingly-resurrected villain, while former acquaintance Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) reenters the picture, in the employ of an anonymous stranger. And on the domestic front, Watson is getting engaged to the nice Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) and preparing to move out of his Baker Street bachelor flat, much to Holmes' annoyance.
I would say that this film has been somewhat poorly-represented by its trailers and promotional material (not poorly served, though, if the box office returns are any measure), which plays up the action to a point that will turn off many diehards (though one imagines they'll still see it to feel the joy of bilious outrage). While there is certainly more physicality to this production than to your average BBC adaptation, director Guy Ritchie retains the core of Holmes as a cerebral man (and, truth be told, Doyle's original knew his way around a fight, even if the author didn't spare much prose on depicting it). Tastes change a bit, and, so long as the core of the character isn't lost, it's fine by me to show him in a few scraps.
Downey's Holmes is a brilliant/eccentric mind with addiction issues, and rather poor hygiene (I tend to think of him as being more precise, even when troubled, but whatever). But he's always on top of things. Saints be praised, though, for Jude Law's Watson, who will hopefully go a long way toward rescuing the character from the bumbling ghetto created by Nigel Bruce's characterization and carried on ever since. Law gives us a strong, confident Watson who is an indispensible part of Holmes' operation, and possessed of considerable deductive prowess of his own. The film really hangs on the Holmes/Watson interaction, and Downey and Law hit it off marvelously. The film opens in media res (a smart move, really; it's not like anyone is unaware of who these characters are and how they work), and you get a palpable sense of two people who've been working together for a very long time. The ladies threatening to intrude on this male-bonding exercise, McAdams and Reilly, are both fine, though the writers sometimes seem a bit insure of what to do with Irene (they know enough about the mythos to know that Holmes isn't the romantic type, even if this is a bit more in that direction than most depictions, so this is a fairly mild case of Catwoman). Mark Strong glowers and growls sufficiently as the villain.
While heavier on the action than your typical Holmes story, and a lot grimier in its production design (true to life, one imagines; outside of the upper class, Victorian London wasn't the cleanest of places), Ritchie and his writers retain a lot of the core Holmes story aspects. A villain with seemingly mystical powers must be confronted, and Holmes' logical mind must inevitably pierce the veil and uncover the rational explanation behind it all (outlined in a marvelous little climactic scene). And, as we find out, Holmes has been slowly building his case through the whole movie, but rarely letting anything on. The film also does a pretty good job of making Holmes' end-of-film explanation visually interesting, rather than just a dull monologue.
The film ends with some quite obvious sequel setup, and given the box office numbers, it's pretty likely we'll see a "Sherlock Holmes 2" in a few years; I welcome it.
An Education (2009)
A solid drama with a great lead performance.
"An Education" is a compact little British drama that has been making the rounds in 2009, earning favourable reviews with a particular emphasis on the starmaking performance of its lead actress, which has already been recognized by numerous awards organizations with nominations. Directed by Lone Scherfig, this film boasts considerably more pleasures than just the work of Carey Mulligan, though it is Mulligan's performance that will be remembered in the long-run (hopefully in what will be a lengthy career on the screen). The film comes with a screenplay by popular British writer Nick Hornby, adapted from a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber that describes experiences approximate to the ones depicted here (standard allowances being made for dramatics).
Jenny (Mulligan) is a 16-year-old aspirant Oxfordian in early 1960s Britain (which is more or less still 50s Britain; the era we think of as the "60s" culturally didn't really start until about midway through the decade), whose parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) have been rigourously preparing her to achieve entry into the nation's top university, to the extent of mapping out her life to conform to Oxford's entrance requirements (her father informs her at one point that while she must play the cello, thus enabling her to list it as a hobby, it isn't required that she devote so much time as to actually become really good at it). Jenny is grasping for whatever straws of sophistication she can find in this rather bland atmosphere (anything French, for example; the albums of Juliette Greco) when she encounters David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who soon whisks her into a much more glamorous existence alongside his friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike, the latter having costarred with Mulligan in 2005's "Pride & Prejudice" film; Mulligan was Kitty, Pike Jane). This new world eventually dazzles her parents, but ruffles the feathers of her school authorities (Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams) in different ways. Inevitably, things will go awry.
Mulligan's performance has attracted most of the critical and awards attention, not undeservedly. A minor presence prior to this, this is the sort of performance that opens doors for actors, and one can only hope Mulligan will take advantage of it. That said, she's supported more than adequately by the rest of the cast, with Alfred Molina being particularly strong as her father. Also notable is Rosamund Pike, who's clearly enjoying herself playing the marvelously dim Helen; and Peter Sarsgaard (sporting what appears to be a credible British accent; being Canadian, I will of course defer to the judgment of actual Britons who wish to disagree), who has to walk a particularly fine line. His character is, really, a creep, but he has to simultaneously be charming enough to sell the idea that anyone else would put up with him while creepy enough that the film doesn't glamourize this sort of relationship. He pulls it off. Plot-wise, there are a few weak parts; I thought it was a bit excessive to have David and Danny go around randomly lifting stuff, in addition to their more important morality problems. And, as has been noted elsewhere, the film doesn't end especially well. It doesn't quite seem to know how to wrap things up, and Jenny's recovery after hitting nadir feels rather perfunctory (not to mention, surely it's not just Oxford or bust). Some sort of final reckoning with David would probably have been a better way to go here.
All in all, well worth a viewing.
An enjoyable diversion.
There are any number of reasons why "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" will be frequently compared to 2007's indie hit "Juno", chief among them the presence of Michael Cera, the male lead in that film, again opposite a peppy brunette who isn't quite sure what she wants in life (neither is he, for that matter). While not in the same league as "Juno" in terms of character or story (though possessed of a far less annoying soundtrack), it is worthwhile for anyone looking for an entertaining film about teens.
The titular Nick is the depressed guitarist for a queercore band (meaning, all the other members are gay), and thoroughly depressed over being dumped by his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dzienza); at the urging of his bandmates, he goes to their latest gig, largely because he has learned that his favourite band ('Where's Fluffy?') will be playing at an undisclosed location (which seems counterproductive to selling, to me, but what do I know about hipster music?). Norah, meanwhile, is a nominal friend of Tris' who has never met Nick, but knows of him through the CDs he is continually making and sending to Tris ("Road to Closure, volume 12" the most recent example), which she picks up after Tris discards them. A chance encounter leads to them meeting cute and pretending to be together, sparking a multiplicity of sideplots involving a jealous Tris, Norah's drunk friend Caroline (Ari Gaynor, who deserves some kind of prize for playing one of the least appealing drunks in recent memory), and, of course, the question of "Fluffy".
This is the sort of production that (like "Before Sunrise") hinges on the main actors' performances and chemistry, and Michael Cera and Kat Dennings succeed wonderfully in that regard. Cera, as most reviewers have noted, is basically playing the same character that he played in "Juno", "Arrest Development", and "Superbad"; it's a popular persona, one that he has honed to smile-inducing precision, and, in his defence, he is nowhere near the first actor to develop a schtick (indeed, most of the greats refined a persona and either played to or against type). Cera might try something different in the near future just to give a better idea of his rang (serial killer!), but I won't hold that against him. Kat Dennings, meanwhile, strikes a very individual note; Norah is extremely well-characterized. Dennings does a good job of showing her uncertainties and conveying her frustrated attitudes towards the still-hung-up Nick. The rest of the cast does a good job in small parts. The crew makes the New York nightlife look tremendously appealing.
Recommended as a light entertainment.
The Reader (2008)
Well, Winslet's plan to win an Oscar by starring in a Holocaust film worked.
Stephen Daldry is a director who has started to acquire a reputation for tackling books that are rather difficult to adapt, starting with his 2002 debut, "The Hours". This time, he has chosen as his subject Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel 'Der Vorleser', which was somewhat controversial at the time, attracting accusations of creating too much reader sympathy for a former SS officer. I did not find that to be the case here; what Schlink and Daldry are doing, as I see it, is raising uncomfortable questions and taking the stance that there are no neat answers (which could, I suppose, be called a dodge, or else dramatically unsatisfying).
The film, like "The Hours", has a somewhat intricate narrative structure, juggling timelines in 1958, 1966, spans from the 1970s to the 1980s, and 1995. There are points when this seems unnecessarily complicated, but it generally works well. The most effective sequences are the 1958-1966 span, where Michael Berg (David Kross) finds himself drawn into an affair with Hanna Schmidt (Kate Winslet), a Neustadt tram employee. He is 15, she considerably older. Their relationship is almost a quid pro quo of sex and reading. Then, one day, she vanishes, only to return into his life surprisingly in 1966, when he finds her on trial for her role in the death of 300 Jewish women in the final days of World War II. In the later sequences, an adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes, a long way from Amon Goethe) as he deals with the aftermath of these events.
One of the more prurient items of discussion regarding this film is that it features quite a bit of Kate Winslet naked and having sex (though 1 in every 2 Kate Winslet movies might be said to have the same). There is also plenty from the young Kross (one imagines your average young actor would be thrilled for their first role to involve a lot of time being naked in bed with Kate Winslet). There is in our society something of a double-standard regarding such underage relationships; if this film starred Brad Pitt and Emma Watson, once imagines the reaction of critics and audiences would be rather different. However, "The Reader" conveys with great subtlety the damage this does to Michael (even before the Nazi revelation). In 1958, while the affair goes on, Michael becomes isolated from his friends and ignores the more age-appropriate Sophie; by 1966, at law school, he finds himself incapable of sleeping in the same bed as a fellow law student; in the present day, we find him divorced and struggling to connect with his daughter.
On the issue of the Holocaust, the filmmakers are quite aware of the risk they run in focussing so much on Hanna; the camera tends to create sympathy, particularly as she is so scared an uncomprehending when brought to trial. We feel the temptation to make excuses for her based on illiteracy. And, at the end, the film wheels out a survivor (Lena Olin, wonderful in two scenes) to challenge this directly. Michael, whose story this is and whose views have been transplanted to the audience to an extent, squirms under her questions. As Olin says, the film cannot offer absolution, nor, perhaps, should it (that's up to you, of course).
Berg's guilt comes not just from his inability to resolve the question of Hanna, but also from his own actions in 1966, and what that says about him. On a much smaller scale, he repeats the moral cowardice of Hanna's generation which casts doubt on whether he'd have done any better in her situation.
The cast is excellent. Winslet deserved an Oscar for the work she does here (though it's more properly a supporting role, not a lead); what she does with her facial expressions in the trial scene is impressive. Kross makes a strong impression here as well. There's novelty in the presence of actors from past Holocaust dramas occupying roles much more sympathetic; not just Spielberg's Amon Goethe, but Hitler himself, Bruno Ganz ("Downfall", another film that attracted criticism of too much sympathy for the devil), as a law professor. Overall, a very strong package.
And for those who don't get the title reference, do consider watching the BBC comedy series "Extras".
Hulk Vs. (2009)
Marvel's best animated DVD yet.
Generally, I've not found Marvel's D-T-DVD stuff released so far to be that impressive, but these both really worked, in terms of what they set out to do.
Starting out, I'd say that the Hulk is really just kind of there in both stories; he's worked into the plot, but in both cases the writers basically hijacked the initial idea (Hulk vs. Wolverine, Hulk vs. Thor) to tell some other story. In Wolverine it's "finally, we get to do an R-rated version of Weapon X", and in Thor it's "finally, we get to cram in absolutely every aspect of the Thor mythos that we have any interest in onto animation" (which, given that there's both an animated series and a second D-T-DVD which is trailed here, may have been a bit unnecessary, but it's still good).
Part I: Hulk vs. Wolverine
Basically a big fight scene. Wolverine is called in by Department H to deal with a rampaging Hulk, who has seemingly destroyed an entire town along the US-Canadian border. Wolverine tracks the Hulk down (not really knowing what he is at this point), fights him, and basically fights to a draw (this is the 70s-era version that Wolverine was created to fight), and then are captured by Weapon X (which apparently isn't associated with Department H here). This story is tied into the Wolverine and the X-Men cartoon, so Wolverine, Banner, Sabretooth, and Professor Thornton all have the same voice actors; also here are Lady Deathstrike, Omega Red, and Deadpool. Thornton wants Wolverine back in the program, but Deathstrike and Sabretooth would rather kill him, so they stab Thornton and, well, try to kill him. Big fight, etc. The attraction here is seeing "claw people" (as Hulk calls them) stab each other a lot with blood and stuff; Deadpool's quite funny.
Part II: Hulk vs. Thor
Starting out, I'll say that fans of Thor who were expecting an epic throwdown between the two will be disappointed here; this might more accurately be titled "Hulk walks all over Thor, and so Thor has to find some other way of stopping the Hulk". I personally have never found the uber-godmoder Hulk all that interesting, but it's an established thing, so there you go; getting past that, the story's pretty good, and if you like Thor's world pretty everybody is here.
The story takes place during the yearly Odinsleep, when the All-Father rests and all the villains try to conquer Asgard because Odin is absurdly powerful and they've only got a chance when he's not there. Thor and co. beat up all comers, as usual (Thor's getting rather depressed by this endless cycle). Loki and Enchantress capture Bruce Banner, and turn him into the Hulk; Amora then pulls Banner out the Hulk (and Loki kills him), leaving only the incarnate rage (see Hulk #300 in the early 80s), with Loki pulling the strings. However, the rage becomes too much and breaks Loki's control, and Rage-Hulk is loosed and starts destroying everything. He beats up the Warriors Three and Balder, then pummels Thor to death (to Loki's delight), and heads off towards the city; Hela is about to claim Thor's soul, but Enchantress intervenes and brings him back to life, since her whole motivation for helping Loki was she was angry that Thor chose Sif over her. Thor and Enchantress capture Loki, and Thor makes Loki go with him to Hel to reclaim Banner to put him back in the Hulk, and sends Enchantress to help Sif, who's the End Boss guarding Odin. So Thor and Loki journey thither, while Hulk punches his way through like a bajillion random guards, Brunnhilde and the other Valkyries, etc. on his way there.
As a tour of the Nine Worlds, it packs quite a lot into 40+ minutes (it's the longer of the two); both of these stories just drop you into an established world, which is refreshingly different from how a lot of these films do things; you pick up all the necessary information as you go along.
Gran Torino (2008)
Clint Eastwood: herald of multiculturalism?
Clint Eastwood returns to the screen with his second film of 2008 as a director (and his first acting role since "Million Dollar Baby" in 2004), following the Angelina Jolie vehicle "Changeling", and the result is one of the more interesting features in his filmography. Though the role of Walt Kowalski was apparently not written with Eastwood specifically in mind, it is almost impossible to think otherwise, as so much in the film depends upon the screen persona that Eastwood has painstakingly constructed in the minds of audiences over his several decades of screen stardom (drawing, in particular, upon the four films he did as Detective "Dirty" Harry Callahan, the iconic vigilante cop). The marketing suggests that this is just another such vigilante story, pitting the now 78-year-old Eastwood against another gang of ethnic toughs for the safety of his neighbours (which probably set stereotype alarms off in many a viewer). However, what the trailer suggests is not much like what the film delivers.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a just-widowed retired Ford employee and Korean War veteran living in Highland Park, Michigan. The film opens with his wife's funeral, where he scowls at just about everyone: his two sons, their wives, and their children, especially the eldest granddaughter; and he insults the earnest but inexperienced young priest (Christopher Carney) who, at Walt's dead wife's urging, has committed himself to making Walt go to confession, which the old man has no intention of doing. Walt is just about the last white person living in his old neighbourhood, otherwise populated now by Hmong immigrants. Walt is racist almost to the point of caricature (the film takes refuge in audacity; he's so virulent in his insults that it becomes a genuinely uproarious point of humour with the audience), but he's generally misanthropic, and would rather just be left alone with his dog, Daisy, and his beloved car, the titular 1972 Gran Torino. It is the car, however, that leads to him being dragged into the lives of his neighbours, the Lor family. Thao (Bee Vang) is a fatherless young man without direction in life, who, over the objections of his sister Sue (Ahney Her), finds himself drawn towards his cousin's gang. The price of initiation is the theft of Walt's Gran Torino, which he fails at; the gang attempts to drag him away, but Walt, not knowing Thao was his attempted carjacker, intervenes ("Get off my lawn."), and inadvertently becomes a hero to the neighbourhood, to his annoyance.
Resocializing Walt becomes the project of Sue, the independent-minded and Americanized daughter, who is heedless of Walt's constant insults (firing some of her own back at him, which seems to earn her his respect). In particular, Sue hopes that her brother can find a male role model and some idea of what he wants to do in life. Meanwhile, the gang lurks on the periphery.
This sounds like an extremely cliché and sentimental story of a white guy learning a Valuable Lesson about race, mixed with a standard Clint Eastwood vigilante drama about taking the fight to the local punks, but it is neither. On the former score, Eastwood's style of storytelling (and his presence in the story itself) is relentless in avoiding sentimentality; there is a strongly realistic feeling to the proceedings. There is, however, an unexpectedly high quotient of humour; the middle section of the film is frequently hilarious, making a strong case for Eastwood as the ultimate straight man in a buddy comedy (though he is also the source of most of the humour, a mix of "fish out of water" and audacious "I can't believe they went there" use of racial slurs). On the second count, the story Eastwood is telling here is actually a thorough deconstruction of the "Dirty Harry" persona that he has cultivated over the years, similar to his "Unforgiven" as a take on his old Western roles. Much of Walt's mentoring of Thao concerns views of masculinity, and the ultimate result is something audiences probably won't expect. This story wasn't expressly written with Eastwood in mind, but it's hard to imagine anyone else essaying the part, which ends up drawing so much from audience recognition of Eastwood's own history. One would never have imagined Clint Eastwood as a herald of a new, multicultural America, but that is the image this film presents us with, as the Hmong are the new defenders of traditional American family values, while Walt's family are incredibly shallow (a minor knock against the film, I think; they're so cartoonishly unworthy as to not be very believable), and there's an hysterical attack on the only other young white character as a weak imitator of blacks (or, more specifically, urban gangster/thug culture) (which the blacks don't take kindly to either; African-Americans and Latinos are tangential here, with gangs of each appearing briefly, but the focus is mainly on whites and Asians).
On the acting front, Eastwood turns in another award-worthy performance; whether or not he gets an Oscar nomination, I would count him deserving of one. Eastwood also, per another recent trend, helps score the film, and actually warbles a few bars of the theme song, "Gran Torino", which must be heard to be believed. The primary debate among reviewers of this film seems to be about whether the first-time Hmong actors that Eastwood has cast are great, awful, or something in between. Of the two main Hmong actors, Ahney Her as Sue I found to be extremely compelling; Sue is, after Walt, the film's best-realized character, and one minor issue I had with the film is how she sort of fades from view as the focus shifts to Thao. Vang as Thao is less polished than Sue, and some scenes stretch the limits of his range, but it is a credible debut.
All in all, this is one of the year's best films, and I would highly recommend it.
The Duchess (2008)
A fine period drama.
A lot of people think of British period drama as stuffy and boring, a reputation it occasionally does something to deserve, but history is anything but dull, and if you were under the impression that the past was a place of strong moral values and happy marriages that has given way to our current immoral society full of single parents and extramarital affairs, think again. Consider the subject of the life of Georgiana Spenser Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley).
Married young by her mother (Charlotte Rampling, in a wonderfully controlled performance) to William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), the foremost peer of the realm, she finds quickly that her husband (who she met only twice beforehand) is a cold and distant fellow who is only interested in a male heir. Already tasked to mother his bastard daughter Charlotte, she gives birth to two daughters, to the disgust of the Duke, who has a series of mistresses that she tolerates. The Duchess becomes a social marvel, hobnobbing with Whig politicians like Charles James Fox (Simon McBurney) and Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, later 2nd Earl Grey and Prime Minister) and politician/esteemed playwright Richard Sheridan (Aidan McArdle), whose "School for Scandal" was based heavily on the Cavendishes' marriage. She eventually finds a close friend in Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster (Hayley Atwell), and invites her to live with them, which turns out to have dangerous consequences when the Duke initiates an affair with her, and refuses to expel her. She then finds herself living in a forced menage a trois (subtle humour found in the three of them eating silent breakfasts together). Understandably, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Grey.
The dramatic core of "The Duchess" is an examination of the limited social prospects for women in this period (though, as an aside, one imagines a great many poor women from this period would gladly enter a loveless marriage to live like Georgiana does), and their limited legal rights. Both Bess and Georgiana face adulterous husbands who hold over them the prospect of never seeing their children again as a price of leaving; getting her children back is, indeed, Bess's motive for embarking on her affair with the Duke, who, as a powerful lord, is easily able to finagle it. Georgiana, likewise, initially decides to choose freedom over her daughters, but cannot. The Duke, for his part, is a controlling fellow, raised in a very patriarchal worldview; Fiennes expertly shows his emotional straitjacketing, which at odd moments make him mildly sympathetic, though he mostly is not, particularly at the conception of his long-desired son. He's normally at a loss when called to talk about feelings.
Keira Knightley, once again travelling back in time to the 18th century (her fifth or sixth visit, I believe), does a fine job as Georgiana. Hayley Atwell is likewise very good as Bess, a character who walks the finest line between sympathy and dislike from the audience. There's a curious scene included which seems to suggest at a rather different dynamic between the two women, though this doesn't go anywhere. Fiennes, as mentioned, does his best in a rather staid role. Dominic Cooper as the young semi-radical Grey is suitable, though not of the same calibre as the other actors. McBurney and McArdle are scene-stealers in small parts as Georgiana's sympathetic male acquaintances. The set design, as one would expect, is stunning.
While not in the highest tier of British period pieces, this is a fine addition to the genre.
The latest stab at producing a piece of popular Canadian cinema works pretty well.
A revelatory experience: going to the theatre to see Passchedaele with my friend Lisa, it was, on our arrival, sold out. Not something one expects of a Canadian movie. So we bought tickets for a later showing, which was itself pretty full. So, if the goal was to attract a decent-sized audience in Canada, anecdotally they're off to a good start.
As to the film itself; the setting covers most of 1917, after the Battle of Vimy Ridge and leading to the Second Battle of Passchendaele, although most of the movie is actually set on the home front, in Calgary (Lisa, being from Calgary, remarked on the way home how weird it was to recognize most of the scenery and "they weren't even trying to pretend it was, like, North Dakota or some other western place"). The film opens with the main character, Sgt. Michael Dunne (Paul Gross, writer/director/producer/actor), serving in France; after a brief fight that leaves him injured (physically and mentally), he returns home and is reassigned to recruitment. Back home, he attempts to romance a local nurse Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas, from "Wonderfalls"), whose brother David has asthma, but desperately wants to enlist in order to win the approval of his girlfriend's father (and also for another reason, which I won't mention here, since it's a twist). Eventually, everybody ends up back in France in time for the battle.
Overall, I'd say it's a pretty good effort (and, for a Canadian film, there weren't any moments where they appeared to be insufficiently budgeted, which is a feat in an of itself), although the tone of the production is inconsistent; some parts (the love story, principally) are very sentimental, while others (the battle scenes, which may be the most realistic depiction of World War I trench combat that I've yet seen, as well as a lot of the depiction of wartime homefront society) are determinedly unsentimental (there are at least two moments involving corpses that either must have been described in a letter or else Gross has a very disturbed imagination). The actors are all very good, Dhavernas in particular being lovely and quite believable.
John Adams (2008)
HBO delivers a compelling historical drama.
HBO's special miniseries and projects have been the gold standard in quality television productions in the last decade. They have delivered many popular portrayals of American history, such as the notable mid-90s TV movie with Gary Sinise as Harry Truman, and the recent FDR bio "Warm Springs". The former work made use of David McCullough's excellent biography, and now comes "John Adams", following McCullough's book the same. The result is a quality production overall, though it is a bit slow in places.
Adams was a major player in the American Revolution, and his contribution is deservedly celebrated here, though his life presents some challenges to filmmakers; in particular, he was not really a presence in the field (so no big battle scenes or such moments of martial heroics), so the main drag comes after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when Adams is shuffled off to the Continent to impotently lobby for aid from Europe.
The basic outline of the story begins in Boston in 1774, when lawyer John Adams is recruited by the British to defend the soldiers under arrest for the famous Boston Massacre, when protesters were gunned down. The question is whether their captain gave the order to fire. This first episode plays out like a legal drama; in episode two, the scene shifts to Philadelphia, and we get a new rendition of the familiar scenes of the Declaration being argued-over and drafted, and meet figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Episode three, the weakest of the seven in my opinion, sees Adams in Frnace, doing little of consequence and bemoaning his separation from his beloved wife Abigail. Adams his little talent for diplomacy or the foreign French court, and he often finds himself getting in the way of the more skilled Franklin. Upon his return to the United States in the final episodes, he must deal with the maddeningly inconsequential role of the Vice President, the rivalry between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, his troubled presidency (with the focus being on the prospect of war with France), family squabbles (most of all his drunken failure of son, Charles), and, finally, his physical decline in retirement.
The title role is essayed by Pail Giamatti, who is a rather interesting choice for the main character in a 19th century drama; he is not the sort of heroic type one might expect. This is suited to the Adams of the story, who is, for all his positive qualities, frequently petty and short-sighted, given to bursts of anger. His wife Abigail is played by Laura Linney, who sometimes skirts too close to being a stereotypical Supportive Wife, but other times is accorded more in the way of emotion and personality variance (and Linney is a great actress). Other performances of note are Stephen Dillane as Jefferson and a drole Tom Wilson as Benjamin Franklin.
Given that the story pans from 1774 to 1826, the actors require extensive use of age makeup, and the stuff used here is very good. Giamatti, in particular, spends the last few episodes as an extremely believable elderly Adams. Being HBO, the series makes a point of giving as 'realistic' a setting as possible, rather than the spotless look of movies like "1776". Bad teeth abound as Adams grows older. The series begins and ends with two especially memorable moments of period gruesomeness: the first, a grisly tarring-and-feathering of a British loyalist, the second a wince-inducing depiction of a 19th century mastectomy.
There is a rather bizarre scene where Adams rants about historical inaccuracies in the depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which seems out of place, given that this miniseries takes liberties with history as the average production does (right down the Adams' rant itself, ironically, which he did not give). It's hard to know what to make of that moment.
Regardless, this is overall a very interesting piece of work.