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Historical/Period Piece

Old school movies about old school stuff, quite often literally about old schools

A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom

What are we looking at again? Is it that thing over there, no wait, ah,
now I see it

dir: Amma Asante

2016

Ah, I love a good pun title. No, actually, I tell a lie. I fucking hate puns.

It’s an amusing perhaps pun, at least, or it’s not even a pun, and is more of an ironic title. The Kingdom referred to in the title isn’t necessarily the United Kingdom as it is known (that dwindling empire of yesteryear, that dwindles ever more with each passing year that the Tories are in charge), but another place divided by strife in Africa that the helpful Brits generously decided to help out of the goodness of their hearts.

That kingdom , that used to be called Bechuanaland, had itself, after World War II, a very merry yet precarious existence. Its status as an independent kingdom was guaranteed by Queen Victoria somehow (meaning it was essentially a vassal state), however changes are afoot, apparently. At least at the time that the flick begins. An uncle, serving as regent ruler, lives in some hut somewhere, and sends the heir to the throne, Seretse (the amazing David Oyelowo), a letter telling him it’s time to come home from Oxford to assume the mantle of kingship, time to rule his people like he was always meant to.

Seretse is, somehow, in 1940s Britain, studying law and getting along just fine down the local pub with his mates. He meets, through a church group, a lovely young Brit called Ruth (Rosamund Pike). They fall in love, have some babies, and lived happily ever after.

Rating:

The Revenant

The Revenant

Even looking like this, well, you know, half the ladies in the audience
(as if there were that many ladies in the audience) wouldn't leave him
for dead in a shallow grave, if you know what I mean

dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

2015

Again, I realise this flick has been out for oh so long, and various awards have been awarded and such, but I enjoyed the flick so much that I felt compelled to write about it.

Regardless of the absurd level of hype, and this was ridiculously overhyped, which is very strange considering what the flick was like and is actually about, this turned out to be a very enjoyable film for me that succeeds despite Leonardo DiCaprio, rather than because of him.

The movie around him, the amazing cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, the relentlessness of the very landscape around them, they all combine to deliver an awe-inspiring vision of frontier times. The story didn’t really resonate with me all that much, but I guess the performances, especially of Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleason and Will Poulter, were solid.

But the real main character? Nature, baby. C’mon, sparkle for me. Work it, sub-zero tundra!

This is set in the early 1800s, and it’s meant to be North Dakota in the States. The thing is, though, I don’t even have to look it up on imdb.com or Wikipedia to know that they must have filmed this in Canada. There is not a shred, a scintilla, a skerrick of a doubt in my mind that it was Canada. Whenever they want to film something that looks this amazing, and which tries to convince the viewer that humans who travel to these regions voluntarily are idiots, they film in these bits of Alberta.

Rating:

Suffragette

Suffragette

How could they not succeed in their efforts when they have access to
such resolute, steadfast facial expressions?

dir: Sarah Gavron

2015

There is a problem inherent in this movie, at least from my perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan both of women voting and of the people who fought for and earned the right (that should have been theirs from the start) to vote in Britain’s stupid, stupid elections.

Wait, why ‘stupid’? Well, tell me what point there is to enfranchising more than half the population of the United Kingdom when the House of Lords, the most transparently undemocratic institution since Robert Mugabe came to power as the ‘democratically’ elected dictator of Zimbabwe that’s only been around and certainly unreformed since, oh, about 1350, still bloody well exists.

It’s like Russian women having the right to vote: you have a dictator for life in the form of Vladimir Putin – who cares if you have the right to vote?

Well, whether it actually means anything, or whether it’s a smokescreen established to hide the fact that we vote for one of two sock puppets operated by the same person (you may have heard of that person, they’re known as The Man), the fact is that at the dawn of the previous century, the sisters in Britain had decided that they no longer wanted to politely ask to be allowed to vote.

Out the window went the cucumber sandwiches and the parasols, and in came blowing shit up, smashing windows, being tortured by the cops and doing what militant actions they could intended to force the government to capitulate.

Rating:

Far from the Madding Crowd

Madding Crowd

Jeez, won't someone make a decision already? Base it on who
has the best facial hair, come on.

dir: Thomas Vinterberg

2015

In this current era of remaking the classics (which seems to have lasted since at least, oh, about 1915 up to the present), this is the most recent of the ‘classics’ of English Literature that I’ve been privileged enough to see, well, this week.

We haven’t exactly been deprived of ‘prestige’ period pieces in the last bunch of years. There were the recent versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights that I got to see and enjoy. The world doesn’t need more Pride and Prejudice versions, but I don’t doubt they’re on the way. I have even less doubt that there are versions of Madame Bovary and a million Dickens redos about to come out too.

It’s all good, they’re classic stories, or should that be ‘classic’. Classic because people say they’re classic. Thomas Hardy is certainly someone from the high school homework section of the literary canon. There haven’t been umpteen versions of this story thus far; this is the second I can think of, so it’s not over-represented, for sure.

As such to many viewers the characters and story could be all shiny and new. To me, it is a book I remember fondly from, like, 25 years ago, and that I still have some affection for.

Rating:

Selma

Selma

I, too, have a dream, that one day I'll be judged not by the content of my
character, but by the colour of my skin, because otherwise I'm screwed

dir: Ava DuVernay

2014

Time for more homework, me guesses.

Selma is definitely homework. Selma is the kind of flick most people only get to see because it gets mentioned at Oscar time (for people like me, I guess). Had it not been nominated for anything, anything at all, no-one would have seen it, and no-one would really have cared. Nor missed it, nor felt its lack in any substantial way, regardless of what Oprah might tell them.

What’s it about? Is it about that most beloved of Simpsons characters, Selma Bouvier and her many husbands, or her perpetual disdain for customers down at the DMV? Is it about Selma Blair, that actress from the 90s who doesn’t seem to have done much else since reaching her pinnacle in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling?

I mean, she did her bit for black/white relations in that harrowing film, but where's her parade?

No. It’s about something far more boring/important. It’s about African-Americans fighting for their right to register to vote in the South in 1965. It’s about them fighting for, and in many cases, dying for, a right most of us take for granted.

Because it’s about a specific event, you wouldn’t really call it a biopic of the very Reverend Martin Luther King’s life, and yet you couldn’t argue that he wasn’t the main character in this flick, because otherwise the main character would be… Selma, Alabama itself.

Rating:

12 Years a Slave

Run, through the Forest, run

Run, through the Forest, run!

dir: Steve McQueen

2013

How can you eat your pudding if you don't eat your greens?

The answer is, of course, you've got to eat your greens first before you have your pudding.

It was not a chore to sit through this flick, at all. It's an amazing, harrowing, sickening flick. But the hardest part for me was motivating myself to start watching it in the first place.

It's the very definition of 'homework', of eating your vegetables before getting your dessert, to see something Awardsworthy because everyone says it's the most Serious Important Film of the Year.

But I still knew I had to do it, chore or not, it had to be done. To do otherwise, as Ellen DeGeneres pointed out, would be to admit that I am deeply racist.

Yes, I'm being facetious. More so, I respect the work of Steve McQueen, who has the singular honour of being the only director who has ever, in the tens of thousands of films that have been made, made a film that could cause me to pass out in shock (being Hunger), who managed to make the pursuit of sex seem dull and horrible (Shame), and who now reminds us that Slavery was Bad, Okay?

No-one else, except for all the other directors who've done the same thing, has dared show just how much of an abomination slavery was, at least not recently. Well, not in the last couple of weeks.

Rating:

American Hustle

American Hustle

Look at them, begging for Oscars. You can see the abject neediness in
their eyes. Just say no, Academy, please.

dir: David O’Russell

American Hustle is one of those big, blousy American movies with American in the title, which virtually guaranteed that it was going to get lots of attention at the Oscars. And, unsurprisingly, it’s got a stack of nominations, most of which I hope it doesn’t get, even though I liked it well enough at the time by the end.

It’s not a flick that gets better the more you think about it, though. The more I’ve thought about it afterwards, the thinner and flimsier it seems, but the bits I found entertaining are still strong.

Problem is, those bits were few and far between.

Two con artists (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) who get busted by the FBI are dragooned into running a scam in order to catch other corrupt people. Some element of this might have actually happened, in this world’s history.

I have no confidence that the real story is anything like what’s depicted here, not that I care. It’s not an important history lesson dressed up in 70s nylon and polyester with the necessary narrative and thematic shortcuts you’d expect from an Important Hollywood Movie. It’s an actor’s showcase, but not in a good way.

Rating:

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Could you smell my finger, please? There's a dear

dir: Joe Wright

There's some virtue to having modest ambitions. When confronted with the prospect of converting Leo Tolstoy's weighty tome into a movie, many have faltered, most have failed, and none have got it right. The book's way too big. It's also on too much of a pedestal for it to come out right to everyone's satisfaction.

Also, where some would obsess with verisimilitude, with period accuracy and historical detail, Joe Wright and the producers here have elected for a way to illuminate the story without having to get dragged into a genuine Russian winter. I mean, it destroyed Napoleon's army, it destroyed the Nazis, so what hope would petty film producers have?

Mother Russia, or at least the time and place of it relevant to this story set before the Revolution, is created for us on a stage. At least, all or most of the story seems to transpire within the confines of a massive old Russian theatre. It's deliberately artificial, as in, they're not trying to hide the fact that it's an inventive and elaborate pantomime. I doubt this approach was budgetary. I mean, I have no idea. Maybe it was cheaper to do it this way, but it doesn't seem likely. Setting up all these elaborate sets on a sound stage so that it looks like it's in on an actual stage is just as expensive as making it look like it's in outer space or in the White House.

Rating:

Lincoln

Lincoln

Come, sit on my knee, and tell me what you wish for Christmas,
as long as it is not an end to my interminable anecdotes

dir: Steven Spielberg

You know, I never thought Spielberg had the balls to do something like this, but he did, and audiences never really punished him for it. He’s taken the most iconic, the most universally admired US President (except in the South, perhaps) and depicted him as a crushing, tedious bore, and people are applauding him for it, and lavishing Daniel Day-Lewis with unending praise and statuettes.

Good for them, I guess. The thing is, I don’t even think it was subtle at all. He actively has characters respond with exasperation whenever Lincoln spins another yarn, while every other person sighs and maintains their steeliest “have to look enraptured for the boss” facial expression. People are active, working, doing stuff, usually arguing before he mutters some kind of non sequitur “It wasn’t like this back when I was splitting rails on the Tallahatchie trail”. Then everyone freezes, and we get the feeling that inwardly, they’re dying a little, and fighting the urge to run and hide in a dark, close place, or cry.

“Please, oh please let it be a short anecdote. Please don’t let this story go on so long that I chew my own leg off to escape. Please let his tongue have a stroke, even if he is the single Greatest Statesman and Raconteur the world has ever known.”

Rating:

Les Misèrables

Les Miserables

Don't suffer the little children: save them
from the Sacha Baron Cohens and Helena
Bonham Carters of this world

dir: Tom Hooper

This might shock you, or anyone else, but I thought Les Misèrables was glorious.

What, I’m not allowed to like a musical? You, of all people, are going to cast aspersions on my sexuality?

Fah, well, obviously I’m not totally comfortable with going out on a limb and praising a hellishly successful film based on a hellishly successful West End/Broadway musical based on a book no-one finishes reading, but I’m a rebel like that. It’s just my way.

I’ve never seen nor heard anything from the musical my entire adult life. If I did (which is probably the case; it’s been impossible to ignore at certain times), then it slid off my brain like lube off a duck’s back, being a topic I never had interest in. 1980s musicals all come down to a horrible agglomeration of Cats / Evita / Starlight Express / Phantom of the Opera, none of which ever sparked any aspect of my curiousity, and I probably know more about rugby than I know about those kinds of icky musicals.

Rating:

The Sapphires

The Sapphires

Sapphires by name, priceless by nature

dir: Wayne Blair

Obscure bits of people’s histories: It’s almost like they happened just to give filmmakers something to make movies about.

I don’t need to be told that this flick is based on a true story, or that it varies significantly from the truthful aspects of the ‘true story’. What matters to me, in this instance, isn’t verisimilitude, it’s entertainment. Australian flicks generally aren’t ever going to be able to get budgets to make something credibly ‘period-piece’ unless it just involves a bunch of people sitting indoors with doilies everywhere and archival stock footage akimbo.

When they do get a huge budget, you get unwatchable crap like Baz Luhrman’s Australia, which was a national disgrace and a true blight upon our history.

Maybe we’re better off with small budgets in that case. I’m sure this flick used its budget well. It looks nice enough, everything’s well shot and in focus, and they had enough money for the music rights to some nice golden oldies from the era. And I hope everyone got paid reasonably well, and that the catering was choice.

Rating:

Lawless

Lawless

There's nothing on the ground. Stop looking at the ground!

dir: John Hillcoat

*dramatic sigh* This is the biggest cinematic disappointment of the year thus far, for me. No, withhold your sympathy, spare me your proffered hankies, tiniest violins and empty consolation, neither I nor Lawless deserve it.

It’s meant to be a can’t-miss proposition, from the dudes who brought us, uh, The Proposition. Nick Cave wrote the script, John Hillcoat directs, quality soundtrack and score with the usual collaboration betwixt Cave and Warren Ellis, but with a whole bunch of other credible musicians as well doing their homages to the hillbilly moonshine era. There’s Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, and quality actresses Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, and there’s extreme violence and nudity and redheads and ‘based on a true story’ cred and and and it all fucking falls over flat, because, I’m sorry to say this, but Nick Cave’s screenplay is absolutely the weakest element of it all.

See, lazier viewers / reviewers would say seriously / joke that it fails because of Shia LaBeouf playing a key role. I don’t think he sinks the flick at all. He doesn’t particularly save it either, but he’s not the one bringing the flick down. No-one else on this planet is going to agree with me, but I actually think he puts in a better performance than Beefcake of the Moment Tom Hardy.

Rating:

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Four score and seven slayings ago, I kicked serious some
serious ass for the Lord

dir: Timur Bekmambetov

And yeah, no-one’s thoroughly sick of vampires yet, not one little bit...

Abraham Lincoln kills vampires. That’s all you need to know, because that’s the entirety of the premise as far as people were meant to care.

Pretty much all you need to read. You could stop here. Walk outside, if it’s nice out. Breath in deeply, enjoy the sunshine/night/hail/plague. Go on, get out of here.

Wait, WAIT! Come back, please, I was just kidding. I swear I’ll try to be more amusing / illuminating than this movie was.

The masses were meant to care all the way into the cinema. I can’t see how they could have cared, really, but maybe there’s a greater pool of history buffs out there that I didn’t know about.

The statesman of American history who kept the nation from tearing itself apart and freed the slaves also killed vampires in his spare time, and actually went into the Civil War with the intention of throwing off the shackles of the shadow aristocracy trying to rule from the shadows by taking away their food supply, being African-American slaves.

Rating:

Hysteria

Hysteria

She's Hysterical! Get that Bedlamite an alienist

dir: Tanya Wexler

Look, I know it’s a period piece set in England in the 1880s, but don’t be disheartened. It doesn’t have Keira Knightley in it, I swear! It has Maggie Gyllenhaal instead!

For some that’s a plus, for others it’s even worse, but for me it’s preferable. Infinitely preferable. I still have nightmares about what Knightley did with her jaw in A Dangerous Method.

Brrrr. No, this is about something far less outlandish. This movie purports to be about the strange time in human history where men didn't believe women were capable of having orgasms or enjoying sex, and where everything women said or felt or experienced was labelled as 'hysteria'. If they were perfectly docile and never complained about their status as third-class citizens, then everything was fine. If they arked up and said, "Wow, this system is fucked and we are totally disenfranchised", then clearly they were hysterical and needed to have their uteruses ripped out.

Rating:

Anonymous

Anonymous

Shakespeare, a fraud? Isn't it more likely that Roland
Emmerich = shameless hack?|

dir: Roland Emmerich

Roland Emmerich has previously been best known for making some of the most explode-y and truly stupid movies the cinema and your eyes have ever played host to. Independence Day, 2012, The Patriot, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC – there are more, and it’s a long, ignoble list of universal infamy.

So why’s he making a movie about the ‘real’ story behind William Shakespeare, when Shakespeare has about as much in common with Emmerich’s cinematic atrocities as Andrew Dice Clay, Pauly Shore or Rodney Rude do?

Who knows? I mean, I could look it up. I’m sure there’s dozens of interviews with him giving what he claims is the real motivation for doing so, but, considering the fact that most of that sort of PR guff is bullshit anyway, I choose not to inform myself in such a manner.

It’s far more tempting to just guess, based on scant or no evidence, as to his deep-seeded desire to tear down someone substantially greater than himself.

If someone like Kenneth Brannagh, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, a literature scholar or one of the Kardashians tried it, you’d think it arose because of their deep connection to and love for Shakespeare’s works, since they’d seemingly devoted much of their lives (or their bandwagons) to him. But because of that connection, there could be an assumption made that they’re not, like Iago from Othello, motivated by just motiveless malice.

Rating:

The Artist

The Artist

Love us, just please love us. We turn to dust if you're not loving us

dir: Michel Hazanavicius

I know this last year was the year of celebrating the early days of the cinematic art form, but, you know, let’s just chill the fuck out, at least a little bit, okay?

The Artist is an entertaining enough flick, there’s no doubt, but it’s not the second coming of Buddha Jesus or the second coming of silent and black & white movies. At least I hope not.

And yes, I’ll even grant that Jean Dujardin does a nice job as the main character, being George Valentin, and that Berenice Bejo is lovely as Peppy Miller, but the manner in which this flick is being lauded to the high heavens is a bit confounding, and more than a tad bandwagonesque.

That this maudlin, melodramatic tale has been nominated for Best Picture is slightly surreal, if not absurd, in this day and age, and speaks more to the way that a whole bunch of critics and reviewers, once a flick gains critical mass, are pulled along almost involuntarily praising something exorbitantly that they know is just ‘pretty good’. It’s like they’re watching an event at the Special Olympics and are getting way ahead of themselves.

Rating:

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

I think there needs to be at least a thousand more versions of
this book before we can stop

dir: Cary Fukunaga

Jane Eyre, eh? Prestige costume drama Oscar bait, eh?

Just imagine all the doilies and lace trimmings and bustles akimbo all over the place.

This just screams of potential audiences climbing over each other’s corpses, desperately trying to get to the box office in order to get tickets to the latest Brontean Blockbuster.

Despite the fact that the book presumably is still all over those high school reading lists for English or English Lit or whatever classes haven’t been cancelled and replaced with Glee-like activities (proudly sponsored by some repellent lip gloss), I’ve never read it, and never seen the dozens and dozens of versions of it that have been expelled onto an unwilling public.

I’d always lumped it in with all that Regency-era frippery like all of Jane Austen’s pap, and always assumed it to be on a par. You know, attractive and spirited but somewhat impoverished young ladies desperate to get married to someone who seems to treat them mean initially, but turns out to be more rad than cad, and who welcomes their spiritedness instead of having them incarcerated in a sanatorium for being hysterical.

Rating:

The King's Speech

dir: Tom Hooper
[img_assist|nid=1360|title=Get out of the road, Ma and Pa Crown Jewels, or we'll run you lisping hemophilliacs down|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=373]
This is what you get when Ham (Geoffrey Robertson) meets Wry (Colin Firth): a tasty, award-winning sandwich.

Could there have been a confection more Oscarbaity than this? Was the public so desperately crying out for more cinematic proof that royal personages are so much better than the rest of us? Eventually we’ll be able to put all these films together into a neat collage that exists to convince us only that as commoners, we really do suck compared to all those kings and queens.

And I get enough of that already, thanks for nothing.

The King’s Speech is an almost clever double-meaning title referring both to a specific speech which apparently saved Europe from Hitler, and the speech impediment endured and surmounted by the reluctant eventual heir to the throne, George VI, ably played by Colin Firth. Colin Firth will so win an Oscar for this performance. It’s not because it’s the performance of the year (something so subjective and unmeasurable in any meaningful way so as to be meaningless), or last year, or because this characterisation is so wonderful and crucial to our understanding of the time involved or humanity general.

Rating:

Agora

dir: Alejandro Amenabar
[img_assist|nid=1333|title=Excuse me, sirs, have you seen my puppy?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=300]
It’s about time there was a biopic about the life, loves and times of Hypatia. You know, the famous 4th century mathematician and philosopher? One of the most renowned and virtually unknown women of antiquity?

Okay, unless you were a desperate and insecure teenage boy who struck upon the brilliant strategy of reading up on feminist icons believing that it would somehow result in some girl with low standards throwing you a pity grope every now and then, you might not have heard of her. But I had, and so when I heard that the director of Open Your Eyes, The Others and the superb The Sea Inside was making a biopic about this Hottie from History, I thought, “meh…”

Still, it’s turned up in our cinemas this week, and in a choice between watching something enjoyable, and watching something edifying, I chose Agora over, let’s say Monsters, or The Town.

More fool me.

Agora is the rare case of a biopic that works despite being about a person who’s not that interesting, and with not one but two ‘wrong’ performances from two of the main characters, but which still gets enough of the feel right and the depiction of the setting looks impressive enough to make you feel like it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Rating:

Robin Hood

dir: Ridley Scott
[img_assist|nid=1308|title=It's grim up North, and especially in Russell's head|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=275]
Give it a rest, Russell, honestly.

And you too, Ridley. Stop pretending you’re all prestigious men of quality deserving awards and kudos. You’re both hacks and you know it.

And now you’ve taken a much beloved myth about some woodsy guy sticking it to The Man, and you've turned it into a grim Braveheart clone. For shame, gentlemen.

A few years ago, I remember reading a headline somewhere scrawled onto the tubes of the internets saying that Russell Crowe would be playing Robin Hood. My first and only thought was, “That’s boring, stop being so boring.”

And then I thought no more of it, until months later I read another buzzy story saying that the flick was going to be called Nottingham, and it would star Crowe in the main role, but that the clever hook would be that Crowe would be playing both the Sherriff of Nottingham, Robin’s classical antagonist, and Robin Hood as well. I don’t mean as twins or clones or anything, just that the role and script as envisaged had the Sherriff masquerading as his own fabricated enemy. Upon reading that I remember thinking, “That actually sounds a bit interesting, I wonder how they’ll pull it off.”

Rating:

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

dir: Peter Weir
[img_assist|nid=1023|title=When I'm not abusing people or getting into fights with service industry types, I take time out of my busy day to act|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=300]
It is no wonder that the film hasn't set the box office alight. It's not a conventional film, with a conventional story and a 5 part structure. There's no love interest, revenge motivation, excessive one-liners, hyperkinetic coke binges in the editing sweet and no saccharine Hollywood ending. There is also little for people who are not anal retentive history buffs or at least fans of movies set in the Age of Sail (being the Napoleonic Wars between France and England et al) to be kept entertained by ultimately in this film.

It is satisfying for me, but then I'm one of the few reviewers that has actually read every one of the 20 Aubrey - Maturin novels written by Patrick O' Brian. And even then the film is satisfying more on an intellectual level than on the visceral / emotional level. Which is a damn shame.

Rating:

Russian Ark

(Russkiy kovcheg)
[img_assist|nid=1053|title=Have you enjoyed the balls this season? Whose balls have you enjoyed the most?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=304]
dir: Aleksandr Sokurov

Usually when people are ambivalent about something they say "I'm in two minds about this". In the case of this film I am in fifteen minds about it.

Reading reviews of this film from the serious chin-stroking film reviewers over the last few months, I was lead to believe that this film is one of the single greatest contributions to cinema in the last 100 years. It only recently received cinematic release here in Australia, and I was eager to see it on the big screen instead of
waiting another month or so to see it on DVD.

Much has been made of both the achievement in cinema this film represents and the artistic conceptual realisation that the film maker strives for. Essentially the achievement is an entire film made without edits. It is one continuous shot, unedited and incredibly well choreographed behind the scenes, with hundreds of extras having to be doing the right thing at the right time. Apparently it took them three attempts to get it right, which must have been quite frustrating for all concerned.

Rating:

New World, The

dir: Terrence Malick
[img_assist|nid=895|title=Who dares call Pocahontas jailbait?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=270|height=400]
Terrence Malick has a rightly earned reputation as a guy who doesn’t like to rush anything. His films, known for their beautiful scenery, leisurely pacing and lack of dialogue, are too few and far between for his isolated, sweaty fans.

The New World is his take on the first, tentative steps the Old World (European pilgrims) took towards its settlement and extermination of the people of the New World (Native Americans). Whilst much of it is historically based, it’s hard not to see everything as allegorical as well. Though she is never named, Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) and her fate could just as easily represent the fate of the tribal nations that would come to be exterminated by disease, genocide and booze at the hands of Manifest Destiny.

Rating:

Memoirs of a Geisha

dir: Rob Marshall
[img_assist|nid=930|title=Japan? Never heard of it. Although I do appreciate the music of David Sylvian|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
I guess this was a highly anticipated adaptation of a bestselling book. To my eye, for the last five years, upon riding and enjoying the many virtues of public transport, if a fellow passenger wasn’t reading a Harry Potter book, or one of Dan Brown’s magnum opuses, they usually held a white book with a vivid set of red lips on the cover.

As something of a fan of Japanese history and culture (read: a pretentious dilettante), curiousity killed and skinned my cat about the whole production. So I endeavoured to read the book before seeing the film. Because it’s nice, occasionally, to have an informed opinion on something.

The book, to my surprise, was not, actually, the memoirs of a geisha. It was a purely fictional story written by an American guy, Arthur Golden, who researched a heap about the life and times of the geisha, and who probably doesn’t look that good in a kimono. So that was my first let down.

Then, as I read, I realised the story was essentially a Japanese version of Pretty Woman, that cinematic classic of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That was my second.

Rating:

Hidden Blade, The

(Kakushi ken oni no tsume)
dir: Yoji Yamada
[img_assist|nid=954|title=The 'hidden' blade is not the one to look out for|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=428]
Just like in The Twilight Samurai, this film follows the adventures of a samurai on the absolute lowest rank samurai can be on without falling off the feudal ladder. Just like in The Twilight Samurai, the noble and impoverished main character is vulnerable to the machinations of those more powerful than him within his clan, who compel him to do something he doesn’t want to do. And just like in The Twilight Samurai he is loved by and loves a woman he cannot be with because of some tenuous, noble, self-sacrificing reason.

But don’t let that give you the impression that it’s a rip-off of Twilight Samurai. Oh, heaven forfend such a perception on your part.

Truth is, though they have many similar elements, right down to the main character being too busy and noble to clean and repair their own kimonos, they are significantly different stories. Regardless of the sheer multitude of similarities.

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Girl With the Pearl Earring

dir: Peter Webber
[img_assist|nid=1001|title=Girl. Earring. Do the math|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=419|height=600]
The camera loves Scarlett Johansson’s face, there is no doubt of that. So much attention, so many shots amount to little more than the camera going into close-up to let her acting play out on the canvass of her face. Her lips and eyes get to do most of the acting. Having little opportunity to speak, true to her role as a poor 17th Century maid working for rich folks in the city of Delft, in the Netherlands, most of her work has to be purely from body language and the little dialogue she’s entitled to. Most of the time she is trying to speak, but because of who she is, where she is, that access to her own ‘voice’ is devastatingly rare. Her struggle to speak rarely countermands her ingrained idea of her ‘place’. More overtly she is specifically told by the lady of the house to only speak when spoken to.

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Gangs of New York

dir: Martin Scorsese
[img_assist|nid=1041|title=Fear the moustache, fear the glass eye or the huge hats I wear. For your sake, fear something|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=300]
History is replete with examples of grand folly. Times where people were inspired by big ideas that outstripped their ability, their budget or the laws of physics and failed spectacularly in ways so tragically overblown that they have become the stuff of legend, despite being remembered, perhaps incorrectly as time stumbles inexorably forward.

As an example, how about the plans of Arthur Paul Pedrick, who came up with a scheme to irrigate the Sahara by flinging giant snowballs from Antarctica using catapults? Or Howard Hughes’ ‘Spruce Goose’, the biggest, goofiest model aeroplane ever constructed, with its seventeen separate engines and its wingspan exceeding that of a football field by 20 metres, and possessing enough cabin space to carry two railroad carriages side by side? Perhaps someone should have told Hughes that railroad carriages already had a way of being moved around. It might have saved him some cash. And time. Lots and lots of time. And glue, probably.

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My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle (La Gloire de mon pere, Le Chateau de ma mere)

dir: Yves Robert
[img_assist|nid=1087|title=Knickerbockers and pinafores akimbo|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=351|height=510]In
1990

These two films are really one big film, in the same way that Jean de Florette and Manon de Sources are really one long film. In common with those other flicks, these are also set in the same area of France, being Provence. More intimately, they also share the same author, being Marcel Pagnol.

In this instance, these movies are based on Pagnol’s own life in the early part of the 20th century, in Marseilles and the hills nearby. As such, since real life rarely has the dramatic consistency and neatness of well-written drama, these flicks have a very different dynamic to the masterpieces that start with Jean de Florette. They share the same lush visuals, having been filmed in the same region, but completely different stories, themes, ideas and resolutions.

In some ways, enjoyable ways, My Father’s Glory is one of the truly most bourgeois films ever committed to celluloid. It focuses on the low-key meanderings of a family from 1900 onwards, seen through the eyes of the eldest son Marcel (Julien Ciamaca). That shouldn’t be seen as a criticism, just a description of the time, the place and the family involved.

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Leopard, The (Il Gattopardo)

dir: Luchino Visconti
[img_assist|nid=1092|title=Like a painting from one of the masters|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=337|height=446]
1963

The Leopard, based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, is a beautiful, languid film that slavishly follows the source material so as to not miss a single scintillating second of Sicilian magic. Only a Marxist director who was an aristocrat himself could so painstakingly reconstruct such a story about the decline of the aristocracy in Italy after the Risorgimento of the 1860s. So a classic story about the death of a way of life, of an entire people, becomes a classic film in the hands of the right director.

The acclaimed Italian director made plenty of other films, some as good and some worse (The Damned comes to mind), but few are as magnificent as The Leopard. The title itself comes from the coat of arms of the Prince Fabrizio di Salina’s prestigious and illustrious family. In the film he is played by Burt Lancaster, that most Italian of movie stars.

Oh, wait a second, he’s not Italian. How can he play a Sicilian aristocrat in that case? With great difficulty, perhaps?

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47 Ronin, The

dir: Hiroshi Inagaki
[img_assist|nid=1006|title=Some alphabet you got there, you suicide-prone freaks|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=662]
1962

Now here’s a blast from the past. For reasons I’m not going to bother to explain, I’ve taken it upon myself to review an ancient Japanese samurai film for my amusement and to a chorus of yawns from the rest of the world. I do love Japanese films, that’s true, but I’m not sure if that’s adequate justification for writing about a film that is over forty years old.

Surely it matters not. Clearly the makers of this flick, The 47 Ronin, didn’t think that the Seven Samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece were enough. Clearly they thought there needed to be plenty more samurai to make a really good flick. After all, just like with sex, cooking or explosives, if something doesn’t work, just add more ingredients.

Actually, that’s got nothing to do with it. The 47 Samurai is one of the fundamental Japanese cultural tales regarding its history and feudal system of vassalage, and the complex and rigid societal / class system known as bushido, which translates to ‘way of the samurai’. Fascinated as I am with Japanese history and culture, this well-made but a bit tiresome epic film is a perfect example of everything that was most insane about this crazy country. And also, most importantly, it says something about why everyone seems to be dead at the end of so many Japanese films.

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