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Fair, if Rushed, Look at Henry's Wives
26 December 2016
Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.

Lucy Worsley goes where many historians have gone before -- but in a unique way, by stepping back in time to illustrate scenes from Tudor life. She spends a decent chunk of the three episodes with Katharine of Aragon, revealing her as the "warrior queen" devoted to her husband's spiritual welfare, dispelling the myth of her as an angry, bitter old woman and instead showing the fire and zeal of a true fighter, who gave Henry 'what for' over seven years.

Her Anne Boleyn is a fair portrait of an intelligent, ambitious woman in over her head, whose flirtations give rise to scandal and set her up for removal.

She defends Jane Seymour as no doormat, but instead an intelligent, clever woman intending to play one in order to survive.

Anne of Cleves is depicted as the one woman who outsmarted all the others, who held out for better things, and died better off by far than any of the others.

Katherine Howard arguably receives the greatest re-imagining, with Worsley raising questions about her affair with Culpepper being the result of blackmail over her previous sexual activities -- and she boldly attacks the presuppositions about Katherine as a "slut" by staring into the camera and asserting that nowadays, we'd call her an abused child.

Katherine Parr is portrayed as the most "intellectually curious" of Henry's wives, with much emphasis placed on her evangelism, her writing of the first book in England published by a woman, and her cleverness in managing to escape an arrest warrant.

It's arguably brief. It glosses over much in each woman's life. You'd need longer than three episodes to explore the first two queens' humanitarian work, or Katherine Howard's compassion to those in need (including poor imprisoned Margaret Pole), but for a brief introductory biography that escapes common clichés and biases, and treats each wife fairly with no hints of favoritism, it's an excellent three hours.
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Ben-Hur (2016)
My Favorite Movie This Year
19 August 2016
This film has taken a beating in the press for daring to "remake" the 1959 award-winning classic; but it's a solid piece of entertainment, and arguably, has far more powerful spiritual themes than any of its predecessors. The cast is terrific, the script never lags, the romance is believable, and the sense of realism in Jerusalem is wonderful. It explores the political upheaval of the region at the time, using the zealot conflicts as a cornerstone for the event that lands Judah in trouble with Rome.

While I do have a few minor nitpicks with the production's historical accuracy (it's a bit shocking to see so many beards among the Romans), the costuming and set design is magnificent. The chariot race isn't the only pulse-pounding moment but it does boast spectacular action scenes (and some gritty carnage). The camera is used to give a sense of claustrophobia inside the ship. The score neither overwhelms nor detracts from the experience.

I wanted a bit more duality in the Roman characters than the script allowed; most of them are simply villains. The audience is left to assume Messala's emotions and motivations, and he doesn't seem to have as much emotional conflict as one would expect, in condemning his former family to death. It is confusing toward the start, as it establishes the zealots, but resolves all its major plot arcs.

Sentimentality may make people consider passing this up, but if they can put aside comparisons and see it as a new take on the novel, rather than a remake, they'll find it a thought-provoking and powerful film.
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Barabbas (2012 TV Movie)
Not Bad, Could Be Better
9 May 2013
I'm a Roman/Judean history nut, so when this came out, I had to see it. Three hours later, I have mixed thoughts.

The Good: the plot! It has its shaky moments but overall, this is a decent script. Barabbas comes across as a cynical, self-serving man who undergoes a change of heart and finds redemption. Pilate's wife, Claudia, also has a decent role, far bigger than any other depiction of her ever made—although I can't say the end of her story made me happy! Wandering in and out of different biblical events was also fun.

The Strange: can someone explain to me why Pilate has a beard? It wasn't fashionable for Romans at the time. He's also much too short to be a believable governor, considering Barabbas is about a foot taller. Why does Ester one minute tell Barabbas fornication is a sin against God, then turns around awhile later after following Jesus around and fornicates with him? Also, even though thirty years have passed by the end (which the film doesn't tell us, and most people ignorant of the time period wouldn't know), no one gets any older except Peter… why is that? The Bad: the acting! I'm not sure if it was foreigners struggling to speak in English rather than Italian that turned in such a crop of mediocre and sometimes downright painful performances, or that they just have no talent, but almost no one in this production is memorable. Zane is better than most but still hams it up a bit; I also wonder why Hristo Shopov is wasted in a minor role. He's played Pilate twice before (in Mel Gibson's film, and in a foreign follow-up), so it's strange they wouldn't let him do it again, particularly given that he has five times the presence and "governor-ness" than "this" Pilate. Also, something is "off" in this Jesus, but I'm not sure what; it's slightly creepy in places.

The Result: is a decent film hampered by its low production values; if you can overlook that, it's enjoyable, moving, and quite often surprising in where it leads.
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The Making of a Lady (2012 TV Movie)
Surprisingly Enjoyable
20 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I admit, my first go-through I wasn't convinced. The plot seemed to rush forward with so much momentum that there wasn't a great deal of character development, and I found the characters themselves utterly obtuse. But, a second watch-through convinced me of what an enjoyable piece of Victorian drama this is -- beginning out with the makings of an unexpected love story (the love comes after marriage, in this case) and turning into a thriller. It won't win any awards but the costuming is gorgeous, the cast is surprisingly good (in spite of any romantic spark between the leads), and it's something I'll watch more than once. Try it, you may be surprised how enjoyable it is.
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Inaccurate But Enjoyable
14 October 2012
"Titanic: Blood & Steel" proves there are still ways to approach material that has been revisited on the big and small screens in new and appealing ways. From the laying of the hull to her departure from Belfast, this is the story of the workers, businessmen, and common Irishmen impacted through the construction process of the most famous ship in history.

It's strengths are its historical figures, such as the open-minded Lord Pirrie (Derek Jacobi at his finest) and the perfectionist, driven Thomas Andrews, who is depicted as I have always imagined him to be, soft-spoken and heroic. Its weaknesses lie in its lack of understanding for the social and sexual aspects of the period, as well as its (for me) rather unlikable leading man.

When it comes to historical accuracy, it relies more on fiction than fact to tell its story but somehow this never seems too troubling. The politics of the era are explored: the struggle to unionize Ireland, the rivalries between Catholic and Protestant fractions, even a foray into the beginnings of the Irish Republican Army. The expense of the miniseries shows not only in the terrific cast but the incredible detail on the ships, their construction, the shipyards, and the lavish interiors.

Some might complain about the ambiguous ending, but I like it, since it allows the audience to make their own conclusions about the fate of the main characters. The series held my attention and gave me twelve hours spent in the company of Lord Pirrie and Thomas Andrews -- as an amateur "RMS Titanic" historian, for that, I'm grateful.
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Stargate Universe (2009–2011)
A Disappointment
24 July 2010
Fist off, yes, I am a SG-1 and SGA fan. That's a given. But I did enter into this series with an open mind. I also stuck it out for fifteen episodes before pulling the plug and finding something else to watch on Friday nights.

There a lot of issues with this show, but first and foremost is its failure to have likable characters. The strength of the original series, and its subsequent spin-off, is that the individuals involved were quirky but also human, and absolutely likable. Over each season, we came to know a little more about them and found yet more reasons to like them as people -- for me, at the end of SG-1, it was like bidding farewell to a small but important circle of friends, with whom I had laughed and cried for many years. Ultimately, they were all heroes, willing to risk their lives for one another and total strangers.

SGU is not like that. With the exception of one or two characters, all of them are self-centered and certainly not heroic. It's more about their needs and wants than what is best for the group. I did not like a single one of them.

I have heard this series compared to "Battlestar Galactica," which is not a fair comparison: BGA is the superior series because it had heroes. Starbuck, Roslin, Adama, Apollo, and all the others might have royally messed up once in awhile, but ultimately they did put others first. They were likable. They were truly human characters.

I entered this show not expecting much. Turns out, I should have expected even less.
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Moonlight (2007–2008)
don't listen to the naysayers
9 October 2007
Most of the complaints people have about this show are from embittered Buffy fans. I love both of those shows, but the truth is that "Moonlight" is more my style, kind of like how the 1979 version of Dracula soothes my romantic senses much more than the version from the mid nineties. If you like more "realism" in your vampire stories, you will love "Moonlight." The main protagonist is Mick St. John, a vampire who was turned by his bride on their wedding night in the mid 1900's. Due to a change of heart and to the disappointment of his mentor Josef (one of the series' best characters), he turns to crime-solving. Unlike Angel, the demons he deals with are human rather than razor-clawed blue monsters. In the background is Beth, a reporter who remembers Mick from her childhood, when he saved her from the evil clutches of an old flame (in more ways than one).

Every girl I know adores this show. I mentioned it once in passing and now all my friends are eagerly tuning in on Friday nights to watch what happens. We like the more natural pace of the programming, the lack of wrinkled prosthetics whenever the vampires pull their angry faces, the cute chemistry between the leads. True, some of the series' success comes from the novels by Stephanie Meyers about a "calm" breed of vampire, but hey, if those terrifying fangirls manage to keep "Moonlight" on air for a season (and if the tremendous ratings have anything to say about it, it'll be here awhile), I can deal with it.

The plots are not too predictable and the show likes to pull the rug out from under us with bringing on revelations much sooner than other series have in the past. But the honest truth is, for a vampire fan like me, this has given me a whole new excitement for autumn programming. Long live Moonlight!
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The Tudors (2007–2010)
a stunner of a bodice ripper
20 July 2007
Having finished the first season and rewatched it a half dozen times as I wait impatiently for Showtime to unveil the second season of "The Tudors," I have to admit that this show has intrigued me in the history surrounding Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives better than any before it. The producers say it's "80% accurate," and that's an apt description, but what impressed me so much was that within that 80% are some little-known and often overlooked moments that make for great drama. Like the fact that the little wrestling match between Henry of England and Charles of France actually did take place, or that the only time Queen Katharine lost her cool in all that she was forced to endure was over the succession, and subsequent threat to her daughter's rights to the throne. Even certain of the dialogue is ripped right from the pages of history.

True, things are pushed out of order so as to move the story along at a more rapid pace, and the worst bastardization of history comes in the form of the preposterous mingling of Henry's sisters Margaret and Mary into one individual (oddly enough, they don't even bother to push through the fact that one marriage lasted eighteen years and produced several children, which would have given them a lead-in for producing a later series built on this one about the heirs to the throne), but the reality is that this is solid film-making. The production value is exquisite, the original score is absolutely gorgeous, and then there are the performances.

It is a downright shame that Maria Doyle Kennedy and Sam Neil were given no mentions in the Emmy nominations, because while the rest of the cast is outstanding, they really deserve critical acclaim. Kennedy's Katharine of Aragon is perhaps the most authentic and sympathetic depiction ever to reach the silver screen, large or small, and the audience has responded to her with overwhelmingly positive emotions. I know that she broke my heart more than once, as much as made me want to stand up and cheer, particularly in the eighth episode. Neil is not quite as unlikable as Wolsey could be, but in the second half of the first season hits his stride and is absolutely phenomenal in the finale.

The one thing that rather disenchanted me was the amount of pointless sex and skin revealed on the part of random ladies of the court. Henry certainly had his flings but they were not as often as depicted, and to be perfectly honest, one is left wondering what he sees in these naked trollops when he has a far more beautiful and enchanting wife lingering in the background. (It also doesn't give the audience much empathy for Henry, who seems incapable of "making love." Even his eventual tryst with Anne Boleyn has more primal boredom to it than wooing.) I know it was a low ploy by Showtime, cashing in on the "sex sells" shallowness of our culture, but the story is much more profoundly lingering without it.
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The Practice (1997–2004)
good drama, imperfect lawyering
23 June 2006
I'm a fan of courtroom dramas, and "The Practice" is better than most. It's a nice little series about a dozen lawyers both in the prosecutor's office and on the other side of the table, but it's primary focus lies with the defense. The characters all either are immediately likable or grow on you with time (there are exceptions, as I'm not partial to several of them) but most of the legal wranglings reveal the inexperience of the writers. Watch any given episode and see emotion argued rather than the law. It's not the fault of the cast so much as the writers, who clearly have no experience in the legal field. There are no citing of cases, no legal arguments, merely proposals and motions based on the emotional involvement of the characters.

It wouldn't hold up in court, but makes for exciting viewing. It's a good show, but compared to "Law & Order," isn't as impacting with its legal strategies.
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Conviction (2006)
not up to standard
20 May 2006
I am not one to slight Dick Wolf's projects. I have the utmost respect for him as a producer and writer, and I absolutely love the flagship, "Law & Order." I was also fond of "Trial by Jury," and watch "Criminal Intent," and "Special Victims Unit" on a regular basis. I had high hopes for "Conviction," but was ultimately disappointed. The characters feel shallow and clichéd. We have the playboy, the workaholic, the ambitious ADA who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and... everyone else.

The best character in the series is Nick Potter, but he is rather overshadowed by the irritating personal lives of his coworkers. Steele is sleeping with Jessica when he's not trying to get inside Alexandra Cabot's pants. Brian loves Christina, but that doesn't stop him from chasing every skirt in sight. There are courtroom cases, but none of them are particularly original (with the exception of the boy bashing his brother's head in, and the female attorney who gives Steele hell) and most consist of bland rape cases.

The best episode was the two-part season finale in which everything came to a head, we saw the characters be heroic (or jerks, based on who you're rooting for), and the show went out in a final blaze of glory. It's not that I disliked it so much as it failed to live up to potential, attempting to tell so many different stories each week that the viewer became lost at some point along the way. The finale showed promise, but by then, it was too late.

From a long-time fan of the original, "Conviction" lacked... well, conviction. One cannot help thinking that Jack McCoy could sit down each and every one of these young prosecutors and teach them a thing or two about the law.
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Exiled (1998 TV Movie)
mostly law, no order
17 November 2005
I admit, having two hours to kill on a winter afternoon puts you in the mood to curl up with a blanket and watch a good crime drama. "Exiled" has its high points, but unless you're an enormous fan of Mike Logan (and I know lots of people that are) this one isn't going to tempt your taste buds much. It follows his "exile" from Manhattan to the outer district, and his attempt through a homicide case to get back into the big leagues, with run-ins with former associates along the way.

Having seen many, many L&O episodes, enough to know the characters pretty well, I felt a lot of them were spot on. Logan's relationship with Lennie seemed plausible after the time the two spent together. I also wasn't nearly as disapproving of his scene with McCoy as others have been -- I felt Jack was the same as usual, a little frustrated with being bullied and not terribly pleased to see Logan again. The hatred Van Buren seemed to have for him was off, but I have to say the bright moments in the script are woven between the regular L&O gang (namely Lennie and Jack's three and a half minute appearance in a mental arm wrestle against Logan's demands that a task force be put into place to solve a crime) and the sadder situations ... a scene close to the end dealing with the crooked cop angle.

It wasn't a total waste of time, but nothing I would go to any lengths to see again.
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Lantern Hill (1989 TV Movie)
good acting, disappointing adaptation
10 November 2005
This was one of my favorite books as a child. I even had the book on tape, read by the same wonderful young actress that portrayed Jane in the film. I spent numerous blissful hours drawing and listening to the tapes, imagining that I was part of Jane's marvelous world. Then the movie came along and as a nine year old, I was thoroughly traumatized as to what they had done to my beloved book.

Years later, an interest in Sam Waterston's acting drew me back, and admittedly out of sheer bias toward his portrayal of Andrew, which may be the only good thing about the movie, I did not hate it as much. But that does not make it a good adaptation. "Jane of Lantern Hill" was never meant to be a ghost story. There was no strange, creepy, gray-haired old woman (witch?) trying to encourage Jane to draw her parents back together. There was no ghost haunting her, nor no sinister nightmares. Beyond that, the first half hour of the film is complete rubbish that only bears a passing resemblance to the book.

I'm not a prude when it comes to adaptations. I can enjoy them even with major changes made so long as the spirit remains true to the author's intention, and the characters are not severely altered in any way. I'm afraid this one doesn't quite hit the mark. I found it enjoyable, but in comparing it to the book, came up short every time. The best thing about the production are the performances by the leading girls and the depiction of a charming, eccentric father. That almost makes it worth it.
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Law & Order (1990–2010)
Maybe it's just that sound...
8 September 2005
I had no idea the show existed until the summer of 05 when I found myself alone in an apartment with time off. TNT just happened to be airing an episode with one of my favorite actresses as a guest star. Though the case itself was unique, it was the take-charge nature of the bold political statements that caught my attention. I went from nil interest to an avid watcher overnight, proving for once and for all that an older show can still nail its target audience. "Law & Order" panders to both sides of political debates and tackles topics that most public television would rather avoid. Over the numerous episodes I have seen, only a handful make the audience fail to question where they stand on harsh issues like abortion, the death penalty, and insanity pleas.

Choose any given season and you can have a retired nun accidentally killing a child in a botched exorcism, a liberal politician attempting to cover up his indiscretions, an AIDs-infected teenage boy deliberately passing on the illness to as many girls as he can, and a suburban housewife going homicidal on a complete stranger. You'll get pro-anti-death penalty debates, arguments on civil liberties, and just about every other hot topic of the times. Should parents be prosecuted for refusing to take their child to the hospital for religious reasons? Should forced sterilization of pathological baby-killers be enforced? The show's first four seasons are stellar, but it's after the fifth and the introduction of the "standard cast" that they became exemplary. Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach became the cornerstones for a magnificent nine-year stretch of controversial, hard-hitting television. Their associates came and went, most of them memorable: Claire Kincaid, the staunch feminist who was involved with McCoy on a romantic level, something the show delighted in hinting at through subtle innuendoes and flirtations. Jamie Ross, the hard-nose former defense attorney who did a roundabout in later seasons and often battled McCoy from the opposite end of the courtroom. Abbie Carmichael, probably the series' most popular ADA: a take-no-prisoners Texas conservative who seemed to bring out the best in Jack's legal strategies. Serena Sutherland, whose personal beliefs often overruled her loyalty and work ethics, and Alex Borgia, a demure presence in the background until her brutal murder.

It's a fascinating look into the judicial system and all the political wrangling and "deals" that go on behind the scenes. It peaked my interest in local politics and the law, and more than that, is a good watch that doesn't require you to leave your brains at the door. You're going to need them.
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"I am Count Dracula."
12 July 2005
This is a nice little documentary (included on the recent re-release of "Dracula" on DVD) that walks us through the basic process of filming. The best interviews are with Frank Langella and the director, both of which show a lot of enthusiasm for the project. There's a lot of focus on Langella's earlier stint on Broadway in the role, but it also delves into the performances by the supporting and leading actors. They talk about the casting and how it took them all by surprise, some of the more difficult shooting days, the eternal war raged between Langella and the studio over whether or not his infamous Count would bare fangs and drool blood (you can guess who won that round, if you've seen the film), and the disappointment when the film failed to do well at the box office, thanks to a summer season accustomed to laughing at vampires.

You'll learn what Langella hates most about the movie (I'll give you a clue: it's what every woman swoons over), be walked through numerous little details that give the film class (ever wonder who chose the perfect height for that cape collar?), and draw the same conclusion that I did: it was a very nicely done little production that pays homage to a fantastic film.
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Dracula (1979)
The Romantic Dracula
17 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
"I wanted to restore the character as a pure, romantic, dignified and elegant man, one who really does want to find one special woman. And as most women want to find one special man... if you're lucky enough ever to have that in your life, you realize how much better it is than anything else." – Frank Langella

That, essentially, is the crux of this adaptation of Dracula. No, it is not entirely accurate to the book. It is not even somewhat accurate to the book. It barely resembles the book except in the names of the characters (and even those have been changed around) and the fact that the Count is in fact a vampire. And don't get me wrong, I love the book for its subtleties and for providing a fascinating glimpse into a Victorian mindset through its symbolism, but only one Dracula movie stands out for me, and this is it.

It is a shame in some regards that the film has become dated, that it was moved into the Edwardian era instead of remaining Victorian, and did not land a bigger budget, because frankly, without some of the cheesy special effects and 70's style of film making, it would improve greatly. I am well aware of its faults, even known to make intentional fun at them, but it's true… I simply love it.

Prior to taking on this role, Langella was performing the same character on stage on Broadway and creating a sensation. Women simply loved him. I actually knew a woman who used to work in the theater and she said she has never seen such a reaction in a female audience before or since those performances. Langella had such tremendous stage presence that most of the women in the audience were madly in love with him before the end of the first act. The movie gives us a taste of this, because Langella embodies something very few men possess –- natural sensuality. It's never forced, it's never aggressive, it's never overbearing or overtly sexual; it's demure eroticism underneath a cravat. He is one of the most elegant men I have ever seen, the kind where you are consciously aware of him in a room even if he is not the central focus of the camera. It is Langella that makes the film –- without him, for all intensive purposes it would be rubbish, a forgettable foray into the lackluster productions that marked the latter half of the 1970's.

Langella approached the project differently from any actor before or since –- he wanted to make the Count a lonely individual who arrives in England suspecting nothing will change, that he will remain indifferent and amused by mere mortals, and instead is powerfully drawn to a woman. It is love that ensnares him and makes him careless, while at the same time Lucy discovers an intensity, a gentlemanly quality, a charm in him that is absent from her aggressive suitor. There's no sensitivity in Jonathan, no lingering caresses, which is not the case with Dracula. The Count makes it all about her, and that makes all the difference.

It's an unusual film in certain regards since it does make the audience naturally side with him, but also does not shy away from enforcing the view that Dracula is indeed evil. He is responsible for death and insanity. He does represent sin and temptation, but at the same time when his end comes about, we are sad. We are angry. We do not want to see him suffer like that. Not that beautiful, charming, mild-mannered Count who, well, just has this tiny flaw of being a vampire. (It's forgivable... isn't it?)

What I like about this film is that it intentionally appeals to women by respecting their boundaries. It's tasteful. There is a little bit of gore, true, but the overall approach is unique and tinged with romanticism. Dracula never reveals fangs. He never has blood on his mouth. The "love scene" is not explicit and contains nothing to detract from its emotional connection. I saw it for the first time at age seventeen and have seen it hundreds of times in the years since. It is not an award-winning film but it doesn't have to be… it makes me delightfully happy and that's all that matters.
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23 March 2004
Of the handful of comments for this extraordinary film, most of them have the story wrong. The tale is not about a man "falling in love with his dead wife's slave." August King becomes involved in helping a young negro girl escape from her cruel owner in the backwoods of South Carolina in the early eighteen hundreds. The love is more sacrificial than sexual, and the film teaches excellent lessons about duty, honor, compassion, responsibility, and making choices. August finds himself through helping Annalees.

It's beautifully filmed and very stirring, with the kind of conclusion that makes many other films seem incomplete and shallow. This is an excellent film. It's also very family-friendly aside from some thematic elements (a slave is cleaved in half, animals are slaughtered, and so forth). I purchased it on a whim and never regretted the twenty bucks I spent. Everyone should see this at least once.
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Deception, Betrayal, and Diamonds
12 February 2004
Reading over the comments for this film, I'm surprised how many people disliked it. They harp because there are no accents, different accents, or partial accents. They complain about wooden acting. I'm wondering of somehow the world is cross-wired, since the film I saw had very fine acting, gorgeous costuming, and excellent period dialogue. I was pleased scriptwriters didn't dive into the vulgar, although some scenes (most particularly the actual bodice-ripping) did push the mark.

As a period film fan, I found this story not only exquisite but also fascinating. The plot is intelligent enough you don't have to check your brain at the door, unlike many other dramas. True, it's not completely historically accurate and they've made Jeanne la Motte much more likable and moral than she was, but that's the point of a MOVIE. It's NOT supposed to be reality, just a loose translation of a historical event. I found it worthwhile and watched it three times in a week... a rarity among films.

If you're not too snobby to put on your thinking cap, give it a go.
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The Missing (I) (2003)
Surprisingly decent
3 December 2003
Note to all ignorant people: Ms. Blanchett's name is spelled with a C, not a K! It's CATE Blanchett. Learn it already.

Review: Since the bygone days of Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, westerns have fallen by the wayside. Ron Howard's attempt to resurrect a bygone branch of classic cinema may not have the critics flocking to the box office but carries a wallop when it comes to delivering rock-solid character development and nail-biting suspense. His style lends a picturesque flavor to a complex storyline without overwhelming the audience with the characters' minute odds of success. Throughout the tale we come to respect and admire the leading roles despite their flaws, while feeling a growing fear and hatred for the villain, an Indian witch-doctor (a barely recognizable Eric Schweig). Overall the film is too long, but most adults and teens could glean some thought-provoking conversation through events as they unfold.

The Missing's strongest appeal comes in the form of the father/daughter relationship, which is fearlessly explored by two exceptionally talented actors. Cate Blanchett has long been worthy of an Oscar, and this role may very well be the one to garner her the respect that goes with a golden statuette. Maggie is emotional and yet restrained, strong when threatened but equally vulnerable. Her past is dark and intrusive, but she overcomes former weaknesses and loves her children deeply. Tommy Lee Jones is also extremely winning as her unrepentant father; we feel a natural affection for him early on, which only increases throughout his attempts to make things right with his daughter. One might imagine the remarkable ends there, but the two young actresses involved -- Evan Rachel Woods and Jenna Boyd -- are also stunning on screen. The cinematography is brilliant, and the musical score lends to the haunting atmosphere.

Without even meaning to, the film offers a strong case for the right to keep and bear arms while taking a subtle dig at corrupt government. At one point Maggie hopes to rely on the rangers to assist them in the capture of the renegades, but the officials are more interested in looting private homes and bearing captured outlaws south than risking their lives to protect US citizens. The ending is bittersweet. The Missing is a good western, and an even better character study, but won't appeal to everyone who sees it.
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Beloved story butchered
26 November 2003
Warning: Spoilers
"The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" was one of my favorite books as a child. I spent long winter afternoons curled up in a corner with a cup of hot chocolate, following the adventures of Bonnie and Sylvia as they attempted to thwart the evil Miss Slycarp. The book was able to give the viewer a sense of the dangerous and otherworldly. The evening they spend too long ice-skating on the stream, the black shapes materializing from the darkness, the violent stops the train must make in order to avoid wolves. All these lent the story its subtle charm. Even as an adult, I still enjoy perusing the familiar pages.

Then came the single TV adaptation to have yet been filmed. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was to find my favorite book had been butchered, wrung out, and completely decapitated. Bonnie is spoiled and bratty. Miss Slycarp isn't at all how she's portrayed in the book. Worst of all, they've attempted to make the orphanage more scary by injecting death into it. One of the girls is dragged to her watery death in a scene guaranteed to give any child nightmares. Then there's the awful ending: wolves in the mansion, some ridiculous snowmobile-like coach, and the bloody end of the villains in the wood. They did this book almost as much disgrace as Sullivan did "Jane of Lantern Hill." For heaven's sake, stay away. More wretched drivel have I not seen.
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Not all tales have happy endings
26 October 2003
There are many films that are so controversial yet so beautiful, they appeal to only a select number of individuals. "Oscar & Lucinda" is one such triumph. It manages to border on heresy and yet sustain profoundness. Altogether a masterful piece of work from one of my favorite directors (Armstrong also filmed "Charlotte Gray," and "Little Women"), with an absolutely stunning, star-studded (before they were "big") cast.

You simply cannot comment on the film without considering the two leading cast members. Cate Blanchett is stunning here. She was beautiful, aloof, and impressive as "Elizabeth," but her role as the uncertain yet adventurous Lucinda is extremely memorable. Note her childish transformation into womanhood -- the discovery that not all tales have happy endings, that love eventually leads to sorrow. Her scenes with Ralph Fiennes literally crackle with intensity. These are two actors who manage to convince us they're not acting. The passion and devotion put into the role gives the film it's sparkle beyond the stunning cinematography and absolutely breathtaking musical score. Ralph Fiennes is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors. He's extremely versatile and never shies away from challenging roles, whether it's a heartless Nazi in WWII, a Cambridge professor caught up in the throes of a quiz show scandal, or the impassioned Evgene Onegin. With "Oscar" we see him literally at his finest. The appropriately-nicknamed Academy Award should have been handed to him the day this sweet little Australian film premiered. His Oscar is passionate, guilt-ridden, complex, and utterly sweet. If you're not in tears by the end, you've not managed to give your heart over to one of the most fascinating literary characters ever created.

The sub-roles are all very good (Richard Roxburg in yet ANOTHER 'villainous' lead, but no one minds his untimely demise; Cirian Hinds in the upper-crust role of a minister shocked by his lady friend's gambling habits, even Geoffrey Rush as the unseen narrorator) and lend themselves to a highly romantic atmosphere. I love a slowly unfolding, deep love story but dislike superficial attachments. In the course of this film you believe Oscar & Lucinda actually get to know one another. They're involved in a series of "narrow hits and misses," which make the ending all the more tragic. They "connect" in a way other people cannot; in a world full of round holes, two square pegs make the perfect match.

The religious aspect of this film is also highly interesting. As a Christian myself, I regard anything bordering on heresy with wary suspicion. At first glance, the film borderlines on blasphemy, as Oscar so prudently considers in a key scene ("... unless it is blasphemy to consider mortal pleasure on the level of the divine!") when comparing eternal salvation to gambling ("It's all a gamble, isn't it?"), but if you take the time to explore it more fully, there are very realistic truths tucked in with the uncertainties. Oscar eventually does find Truth and clings to his beliefs to the bitter end. The rivalry between different denominations is also notable.

Older viewers seeking enthralling but not necessarily uplifting entertainment will find "Oscar & Lucinda" an excellent way to spend a couple of hours, particularly in a group. There is one scene of sexual content that is offensive (although clothed and necessary to the plot; for my own enjoyment, I always skip this provincial scene) but otherwise the film is surprisingly light in content. But it's a movie you shouldn't enter lightly. Out of the group of friends I showed it to one weekend, two out of five found it "depressing." But the rest of us were enthralled.
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13 October 2003
The cinematography on this film is what makes it outstanding. Whether it's Elizabeth Swann preparing to faint from a too-tight-corset on a parapet, or the tattered Black Pearl sailing in the moonlight, there's always something wondrous to gaze at on the screen. One fantastic underwater shot peruses a school of hammerheads as they drift endlessly through an underwater cove of sunken, ghostly ships. The introductory scene is also stunning, one of the most spell-casting experiences I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing. The Interceptor creeping through a mist-shrouded sea, the umbrella floating by, the magnificent horror of seeing a burning merchant ship, and our first glimpse of the Black Pearl as it sails into the fog. This scene alone makes the movie ticket price well worth it... and that's only the first four minutes.

As many profession and personal critics have observed, the film belongs to Johnny Depp's memorable performance as "Captain" Jack Sparrow, the single pirate able to elude the curse thanks to his crew mutinying before the gold could be spent. But the other performers shouldn't be overlooked in his hilariously likable wake. In the role of a very strong, independent heroine, Kiera Knightley manages to be both beautiful and spirited without escaping into cliché. Orlando Bloom is more likable here than as the aloof Legolas he's become so well known for; with some excellent action scenes, he shows his unique skill with a blade as well as has the opportunity to carry off a romantic lead with a keen flair. Geoffrey Rush is at his best; being a fan of his endeavors, it was a pleasure to watch him on screen in a very different, very misunderstood role. He manages to make Barbossa both fascinating, horrible, and yet have a shred of sorrow at the end for his passing. Two extremely underrated actors, Britain's Jack Davenport and Jonathan Pryce, are given the respective roles of Commodore Norrington, Elizabeth's unfortunate fiancée, and her governor father.

For once, scriptwriters haven't copped out and given us an easy decision. While being slightly arrogant and something of an egotist, Norrington is also extremely likable, a perfect gentleman, and one might even go so far as to say, the most noble character by the closing credits. Davenport plays him with just the right amount of lethargic enthusiasm and irritation; his scenes with Depp, always wrought with blatant humor, are some of the film's finest moments. Pryce doesn't have a lot to work with, but the audience cannot help but chuckle over some of his humorous traits, such as fighting a skeletal hand for his magnanimous wig. The music is also first-rate, very mood-setting with a certain sense of dramatic tension even in romantic scenes. The film is well worth a PG13 rating, but is never inappropriate for younger audiences. The mild innuendo will go over children's heads (and most parents as well, for that matter -- only literature history-lovers will pick up some of the sly historical jests), the violence is all quite bloodless, and there's virtually no profanity. The pirates are properly frightening and in various stages of decay, extremely cool from a CGI perspective.

A movie well worth its praise, and one you simply MUST own on DVD for all its subtleties.
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Luther (2003)
Incredible experience
2 October 2003
Possibly one of the most insightful, fascinating, and profound movies to come out in twenty years, "Luther" follows the turbulent struggle between the Catholic church and the country of Germany in the 1500's, revolving around the greatest religious liberator of the middle ages, Martin Luther. Both historically correct in many respects, as well as a fantastically well-written epic with an excessively well-rounded cast (all of which deserve Oscar nominations), the film has many insightful glimpses into one man's journey toward his greatest triumph... the translation of the scriptures into "common" German. If you have any opportunity to view this big-budget Independent film, take it.

From a purely historical standpoint, the film offers a shocking glimpse into power and politics, as Cardinals attempt to bend and wrestle princes and monarchs to their side. It's a shame, but this film will probably not be recognized at the Oscars due to its strong religious tone. Therefore allow it to be said that the center core of actors all deserve Oscars for their performances, particularly Fiennes, Firth, and Ustinov. It was a pleasure to see Fiennes conform to an astonishingly strong, charismatic man who is not faultless, but instead human. The costuming, visual effects, and writing are all fantastic. The dialogue is unusually rich, spattered with direct quotes from Luther's literary works.

The best thing about "Luther" is the quality of the filmmaking. A lot of money was poured into this production, leaving Christian films like Megiddo and Left Behind in the dust. Not only will this receive greater recognition as a "serious" movie, it will also attract larger audiences due to the quality, budget, massive locations, and cast list. Secular audiences will get an open story of salvation. Christian audiences will have the pleasure of finally having a hero to root for in the cinema, a man who stands up for his faith against all odds.
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'A woman? You Chinese are very progressive.'
21 August 2003
Have you ever wondered how Arthur Conan Doyle came up with the name Sherlock Holmes? How Charlie Chapman came to be a silent film star? What happened to Jack the Ripper? Shanghai Knights clears up these mysteries and more in a hilarious action-packed adventure that takes you from the wintry mountains of China at the height of imperialism to the dusty, uncultured wild west and from there into London at the peak of the Victorian era. While leaning on a few plot twists and references to the first film, this is pretty much a standalone project. You will need some knowledge of Chon Wang and Roy O'Bannon going in, but won't be totally lost without it. There are so many literary gags, references to upper-class British Victorian morality, and cameo appearances by infamous real-life individuals, it's almost hard to focus on the real storyline, you're having so much fun.

The film carries a lot of laughs but is fairly weak in the first half. We get the sensation some scenes were planned just so Jackie Chan could show off his karate skills. (Which they were.) It's only after the second half kicks in we begin to understand why we're watching the movie in the first place. That's when the action really takes off and the British gags reach an all time high. The Scotland Yard inspector who uses methods of deduction to an astonishing degree. (His examination of Roy's timepiece is almost a direct copy of the first chapter in The Hound of the Baskervilles.) The wisecracking street-smart pickpocket who in the end turns out to be a famous comedian. Roy and Wang undertaking a 'disguise' and showing up in a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson silhouette in a frosted windowpane, complete with pipe and deerstalker. Lin tangling with Jack the Ripper in Whitehall. There's even a crack at Stonehenge ('Who would leave a pile of stones in the middle of a field?').

Throw in a royal knighting, revolving walls, secret passages, a creepy wax museum, and a climatic duel in Big Ben, and Shanghai Knights delivers the laughs to such a degree you'll be rolling on the floor. The final third of the film is by far the best; it almost makes you forget some of the poor plot twists in the beginning. The ending battle between Rathbone and Wang is nothing short of astounding. The infamous duel (filled in with a breathtaking musical score in the background) fought amongst the workings of the biggest clock in England involves some fantastic chorography. Aidan Gillen uses two and even three blades in a fast-moving attack -- and did all of his own swordplay. There's also a surprisingly realistic twist thrown in at this point which gives the story credibility.

There are some funny anti-British comments that might offend those on the losing side of the American Revolution; but everything is so tongue in cheek (the movie mocks Americans just as much as the British) I doubt very many viewers will be offended. (Parents should be forewarned, the film does have some sexual innuendo and action-style violence.) Despite its flaws, how could you not like a film that makes fun of British Victorian life? That introduces you to the idea behind Sherlock Holmes, famous authors and comedians (even a Dickens character has momentary fame on a sign outside a morgue!), and has a truly rock-solid climax involving everything from a machine gun to double-edged swords? The acting is solid and the plot clever. For viewers looking for some high-action fun, Shanghai Knights is just the dickens.
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The very definition of goodness
30 July 2003
I'm not a puritan. I believe if an adaptation manages to capture the heart and soul of the author's original vision, even if it doesn't follow it page for page, it can improve on an already excellent work. This is what I feel Douglas McGrath has done with Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, a two hour thought-provoking period film with an all-star ensemble cast of some of Britain and Hollywood's finest thespians and a climactic, unexpected, spiritual ending.

Nicholas Nickleby is only the second adaptation and directorial triumph of Douglas McGrath. Based on this and his wonderful success with Emma, I hope he continues to adapt the classics. He is one of the few directors who shows restraint when it is needed, yet does not fail to make the conflicts within the hero's life suitably obvious. He makes us loathe and hate the villains without being subjected to overly graphic material, which is far more effective and shows superior writing talents. The dialogue is poetic, wrought with wit, and always impacting. Interwoven with the deep drama, are splashes of humor -- the theatre troupe's production of Romeo & Juliet, some of the banter between Uncle Ralph and his tipsy but goodhearted clerk, even some dry reactions from the one-eyed Squeers.

Though the moments of lighthearted humor create a restful tranquility between the deep drama, this is not a comedy act. It's a compelling look at the very root of evil and the eventual downfall it brings to a man enslaved by it. Few villains have the distinction of being so purposefully cruel as Ralph Nickleby, a man who chooses to inflict pain for the sheer pleasure of it. The casting is brilliant. Chrisopher Plummer plays Ralph with such tainted pleasure that we learn to loathe him but also in the end to pity the mess he has made of his life. Charlie Hunnam, in the role of Nicholas, is exceptional; few young men can blend in with a Victorian environment. He was born to star in costume dramas. Anne Hathaway, Romola Garai (Daniel Deronda), and Jamie Bell, along with an enormous supporting cast (everyone from Nathan Lane to Nicholas Rowe) were superb. There's not a weak actor in the lot.

The hero is in every way above reproach -- he refutes lies with a swift tongue, takes compassion on his enemies, and displays justice instead of vengeance. Spiritual truths begin to bleed through the fabric of the adaptation, which also has one insightful addition by the director -- a hymn sung about God's grace and glory at a pivotal moment at the climax. I would highly recommend it to both Dickens enthusiasts and those who simply enjoy morality plays. Nicholas' virtue also encourages honorable responses from others -- after witnessing him "defend his sister's honor," another of Ralph's investors retaliates with his own disgust over the situation. We have seen him disturbed before now, but never courageous enough to speak against his partners. (A magnificent display of how not wanting to become "involved" when the issue of morality is at stake can actually lend itself to greater evils.)

What makes the story carry such weight is the fact that all of this is tied to Uncle Ralph -- we wonder at his motivations in subjecting his niece to such immoral company, in his singular cruelty, and at the surprising twist Dickens throws our way in the final half. He's a moral paradox demanding of scrutiny and his black heart burns like a pyre in the background as the story progresses. In the end, we have not only explored the empty bitterness of a life bound by self-inflicted cruelty but also seen the glowing light of virtue. The world would be a far better place if more young men were raised with the same high moral standard of honor, justice, and virtue as Nicholas Nickleby.
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I'm waiting to be impressed.
17 July 2003
I went in prepared to like this movie, but was dissapointed. I hate to side with the self-pronounced 'movie critics' on this one, but LXG really stinks. I spent most of the last half wishing they would have continued in the original costume drama thread ala Sherlock Holmes rather than to forge into some strange post-modern game of cat and mouse. It looked promising from the trailers and for the first half hour was tolerable. Then it turned just plain strange.

The script simply fails to go anywhere -- it doesn't give us any complexities in the characters, seems to wander with no true idea of where it's leading itself, and comes up with a true stinker of an ending. The movie is all about high-action fighting sequences with nothing of depth interspaced between. It's never a good sign when the villain turns out to be the most fascinating character -- and his death isn't even dramatic. (I might also add 'pathetic' and 'below him,' considering just who he turns out to be.)

One plot twist did surprise me, but the other was easily foreseen. Since there's no time for character development, the ending climax wasn't as poignant as it might have been. The special effects are fairly decent but are also grotesque. There were moments when I found the movie enjoyable, but these were few and far between. I found myself wishing they'd taken a much more natural approach and engaged the characters in a psychological battle against evil rather than merely pitting fang against claw. There are some witty lines, but most failed to get laughs.

LXG just doesn't hold a candle against Spider-Man, which has a much better message for teens and doesn't have the troubling elements. My only conciliation is that Sherlock Holmes himself never made an appearance, though heaven knows the League could have used his intelligence and foresight.
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