Saturday, October 24, 2009

A History of Britain (Disc 3)

Ever since childhood days in Connecticut, watching New York channels 11 (I think – it was sponsored by the school system or education department) and 13 (WNET, PBS before there was PBS), I’ve had a nagging fondness for “educational television.” So from time to time I sample some on DVD. I like a varied diet of film, so it’s quite a while since I watched Discs 1 and 2 of Simon Schama’s series. Disc 3 includes The Body of the Queen, the last episode of season 1, plus The British Wars and Revolutions, the first two in season 2.

A History of Britain (2000 and after) is a good, and reasonably entertaining, introduction to British history, mingling Schama’s visits to famous places with reenactments and artifacts from the period to keep the viewer interested. Occasionally the reenactments were so realistic that I had to close my eyes. And then there were the times that my eyes closed on their own. To be fair, that was partly physiological and partly because, having taken an excellent course on Tudor and Stuart history, there was little new information for me in these particular episodes, which span the period from Elizabeth I to William and Mary. I do enjoy seeing the places where things happened. And the music that accompanies the series is lovely and haunting. I’ll be watching the rest of the episodes some time in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

I’ve read, I think, three of the four Shopaholic books. (Yes, I admit it, I like a trashy novel now and again.) I am often disappointed in movies of books I’ve read, and Confessions of a Shopaholic (based on the book of the same name and its first sequel, Shopaholic Takes Manhattan) was no exception to this rule. First off, the setting was changed from London to Manhattan and the quite British Becky Bloomwood of the book became an American (although Isla Fisher, who played the part, is also British). I could be wrong, but my dim memory of the book also tells me that Becky was a fairly successful financial journalist when the book opened, and that made her credit problems more ironic. There are various other plot points which were changed, not for the better, that I won’t bother going into.

There was some pretty funny stuff in the movie, especially the scenes with the 12-step program for compulsive shoppers. But there were too many things that didn’t ring true, or were not explained. For example, Alicia, the character played by Leslie Bibb (a tall blonde) whom Becky sees as a rival and who acts quite proprietary to Luke (Hugh Dancy) – at some point Luke just says “Oh, we’re not together” with no explanation of why it looked that way. Becky gets out of her financial troubles by holding a big sale where she sells all the stuff she’s bought for enough to pay off her debts. Hello? Credit cards for shopaholics are a bad idea because (a) you aren’t just paying for the item, you’re paying interest and (b) clothing, like cars, begins to depreciate as soon as you take it home. Even if (unlikely) she sold everything for the price she paid for it, she’d still have been in the hole for the interest.

But really, what spoiled the film for me was the clothes themselves! Despite her passion for shopping and her wish to enter fashion journalism, the Becky in the movie not only has bad taste, but doesn’t seem to know what looks good on her. Each outfit is crazier than the next and makes her look short and dumpy. Perhaps that was supposed to make the audience identify with her, but I don’t watch light romantic comedies for socialist realism.

I did enjoy the performances of Joan Cusack and John Goodman as Becky’s parents, and Wendie Malick as the hard-nosed Shoppers Anonymous facilitator. If you like this type of movie and it comes your way without much effort, go ahead and watch it, but it’s no Bridget Jones nor does it do justice to Sophie Kinsella’s “not-so-trashy trashy novels.”

Thoughts on JFK (1991)

JFK poster This film should have been called “Garrison,” since it is really about Jim Garrison, the New Orleans DA whose theories on JFK’s assassination director Oliver Stone shares. Unlike in Stone’s later Presidential films, Nixon (1995) and W. (2008), no actor portrays the President – we see him only in newsreels at the film’s opening and as necessary later on. (Well, I’m not sure about the autopsy scenes – special effects? And there are two "doubles" listed in the cast list, but they don't have any lines.)

I have a lot of memories around JFK’s assassination: the PA announcement during sophomore English class; scurrying around after school, reporting for the student newspaper; the flags at half-staff throughout our small military housing area for the Commander-in-Chief; watching the funeral on television. In my social studies class that year, we kept journals -- “Intellectual Diaries,” Mr. Strauss called them. I remember writing about not knowing much about Lyndon Johnson, wondering whether he was up to the job. (Yes and no, would be my answer now.) But I also remember this: before all the Lee Harvey Oswald/Jack Ruby story was broadcast, most of the people I talked with believed the assassination would turn out to be the work of the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, or some other far-right person or group. Yet as far as I recall, we believed the initial reports as well as that of the Warren Commission. I think most people still believed the U.S. government and whatever Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley told us on the news, at that time.

Several years later, when I was in college, when we no longer trusted the government (or anyone over thirty except maybe Pete Seeger), when LBJ’s great achievements (civil rights, Medicare) were all but forgotten in the firestorm of Vietnam, a lot of people were reading Barbara Garson’s Macbird. My memory is that it was provocative, designed to shock, and implicated Johnson in Kennedy’s assassination. At about that same time, Jim Garrison’s court case against Clay Shaw was in the news. I was aware of it, but there was a lot of other news going on and I don’t think I focused on it much.

All this is to say that I don’t really feel qualified to judge the legitimacy of the claims Oliver Stone makes in this film, based in part on Garrison’s book as well as another by Jim Marrs. I can say that JFK was a compelling film that kept me glued to my seat for 3 1/2 hours (!). I gather that the version shown in theaters was not quite as long as the Special Edition DVD. I can say also that the evidence Kevin Costner, as Jim Garrison, presents is frighteningly believable. I’ll have to think about whether I want to read Garrison’s book or do further research. I know that for some years, many liberals believed that everything would have been fine had Kennedy not died, but more recently I’ve heard that some revisionist scholars looking at the Kennedy presidency weren’t so enthralled with him, and felt he mightn’t have done any better than Johnson. Yet Stone’s film asserts Kennedy had a plan for a quick exit from Vietnam, which encouraged the military-industrial complex (including Johnson associates Brown-Root – the Halliburton of the Vietnam War) to conspire in his assassination. Will we ever know the truth? Not sure. But I do believe this film was worth the time I spent on it and that I’ll be thinking about it for quite a while.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fortunes of War (1987)

This BBC mini-series stars Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, and in fact is where they met. It’s based on a series of novels by British writer Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, which are part of the Guardian newspaper’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. [Actually, by my count, more like 1070.)

Fortunes of War The 7-episode series opens with newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle (Branagh and Thompson) on a train to Bucharest, Rumania. Guy is an English teacher there – his employer seems to be a British agency similar to the USIA – and Harriet has met and married him during his summer vacation in England. Guy has been chatting in German with a fellow passenger. At a border crossing the other man discovers that his pocket has been picked and he has no identification and no money. As the German-speaker is hustled away, Guy follows and gives him a few pounds – an ineffectual but kindly-meant gesture which is all too typical of his character.

As Guy and Harriet arrive in Bucharest, the Nazis have invaded Poland and Britain has declared war on Germany. Life becomes a strange mixture of the everyday joys and concerns of two young people, and the anxiety of living in a foreign country which is not only poised for invasion by either Germany or the Soviet Union, but also has internal struggles. In fact, soon the Prime Minister is assassinated by the home-grown Fascists, the Iron Guards. Harriet meets a circle of Guy’s friends and acquaintances – Dobson, the head of the British legation; Sophie, the Rumanian girl who may be a rival; Prince Yakimov, an impecunious Russian prince with a British passport who talks like Bertie Wooster; and more.

During the course of the series, Guy and Harriet manage to stay one jump ahead of the Nazis, leaving first for Athens, then Cairo, and Harriet spends some time in Damascus. The series, which was meant to be the BBC’s answer to such ITV hits as Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, was shot on location (although the then Yugoslavia stood in for Rumania) and cost $12 million to make in 1987. It is visually stunning with great costumes (but realistic – Thompson doesn’t have a new dress each time she appears), careful period detail, and some wonderful atmospheric scenes such as an Egyptian funeral and an Orthodox Easter service. As one expects from British TV, the acting is first rate. Although there are many shocking and harrowing scenes, there is humor as well – especially in Alan Bennett’s turn as 'Professor Lord Pinkrose’ futilely attempting to give his lecture on Byron. I really liked the music, too. And, ever since I read my first Helen MacInnes novel, I’ve been a sucker for tales of “romance in a danger zone.”

I’m looking forward to reading the books now, and seeing how they differ. But if you’re not up to reading a six-volume duo of trilogies, you might just enjoy the 407 minutes of this adaptation.

Plus ça change: State of the Union (1948)

310_BIG_-_STATE_OF_THE_UNION_P Imagine a film made by a Republican director/producer in which the Republican candidate is firmly in favor of universal health care, affordable housing, and world government. Sound implausible? Yet, in 1948, that’s the film Frank Capra made. Based on the 1946 play of the same name by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, State of the Union stars Spencer Tracy as the candidate, Katherine Hepburn as his wife, and Angela Lansbury as the girlfriend (mistress? it’s never quite clear), a newspaper owner who wants Tracy as her puppet President.

Tracy’s character is an airplane manufacturer who wants labor, management, agriculture and everyone else to work together for the good of the country. Lansbury and has-been campaign manager Adolphe Menjou want Tracy to be President for their own selfish reasons. As Tracy is setting off for a speaking tour as an unannounced candidate, they tell him he needs to take his wife along, even though they’ve been somewhat estranged for several months. Hepburn plays her usual sharp-tongued “best friend and severest critic” type of wife – but one who has a vulnerability under the bravado, for she wants to win Tracy back from Lansbury. Van Johnson is the ace political reporter who’s assigned to travel with the prickly pair. His initial cynicism is overcome by Tracy’s straight talk. All is going well – from Hepburn’s viewpoint – until they reach Detroit. Tracy’s speech in Wichita socked it to the big labor leaders but went over well with the public. Now he’s about to give business leaders the same medicine, and his behind-the-scenes handlers want none of it. Tracy resists Menjou’s exhortations to change his speech, but then he’s taken into another room of the hotel and emerges ready to compromise. Of course, it’s Lansbury who (unbeknownst to Hepburn) was in the other room and persuaded him. Once Tracy gives in, we start to see a lot of backroom deals with politicians and other leaders who promise to swing convention delegates for Tracy if he’ll promise them something in return. (This was still the “smoke-filled room” era when the nominee really wasn’t known until the convention.) Hepburn, disillusioned, goes home to their Long Island estate, but agrees to host the campaign kickoff, which is to be broadcast on radio and the new medium, television. The combination party and campaign kickoff brings everything to a head with revelations all over the place.

Other reviewers have compared State of the Union with Capra’s other and better-known political film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and found it darker. I’d say it was actually a bit more optimistic, as Capra and the playwrights made the main character more forceful and more realistic. He is a man with no little ambition and with all the enlarged and sensitive ego of the politician, but tempered by pragmatism and with the clear-eyed Hepburn to take him down a peg when he needs it. The deeper moral of the film – expressed several times – is that it is the common voter’s indifference and inertia that allows the bosses and special interests to manipulate not only candidate selection, but lawmaking as well. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Although this is a drama, there’s plenty of comedy as well, including a turn by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer as a bumbling bellboy. State of the Union is worth seeing for a refreshing look back at a time when a Republican candidate could talk sense and not be rejected by his own party. And of course, it’s Tracy and Hepburn.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

dr lao Tony Randall plays several parts in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).  The film is part fairy tale, part romance, part Western. Dr. Lao (Randall) is a “Chinese” medicine man who comes to a small Western town with his circus. We quickly see that he has magical powers when, coming to the newspaper office to place an ad, he is able to repair the balky printing press without laying a hand on it. Dr. Lao also deals out swift but merciful justice to some bullies who are harassing an Indian. Through the various characters in his circus (all played by Randall), he shows people the truth about themselves, enables the townsfolk to stand up to a rapacious land developer, and encourages the romance between the newspaper editor and the widowed librarian. At the end, Dr. Lao disappears into the sunset, leaving the good townspeople better off than he found them.

This would be a good movie for parents and kids to see together. Some things may warrant explanation in light of our modern sensibilities about ethnicity, but the film as a whole has plenty of action and special effects to keep the kids interested, and many ideas that can start some good discussions. Most of the comments and short reviews I’ve seen online were from people who saw the movie as children and have never forgotten it.

Musical Documentary: Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns

Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (2002) focuses on the career of the hard-to-classify singer-songwriter duo They Might Be Giants. Although I’m not a tremendously knowledgeable fan of theirs, I have enjoyed some of their music and the film was well done. However, I doubt it would be very interesting to someone who is not already an aficionado of the group.

TV Detectives: Cadfael, Foyle, and Fraser

As do many other people, I keep some of my Netflix queue for television series that I missed on broadcast or cable. Recently I’ve finished watching two series, and begun watching another which I’d viewed only sporadically in the past.

Cadfael I’ve read all of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series of medieval mysteries, and enjoyed a few on PBS’s Mystery! Now I’m coming back to watch the ones I missed or have forgotten. I haven’t listed them in order as I usually would, since, although there is a character arc, it isn’t so big a part of the story as to present a problem in watching out of order. The episode I watched the other day was The Potter’s Field (1998), in which a potter who has left his wife to become a monk is suspected of murdering her when her body turns up a year later.

I think the most interesting aspect of the Cadfael stories for me is the theme of change and transition which is present in all of them to some degree. The 12th century in England was a time of change – the Cadfael series takes place during the civil war between the forces of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda for the crown of England.  In addition, the social system was changin as serfdom was becoming less common and free artisans and tradesmen gathered in towns. Returning Crusaders such as Cadfael brought their new ideas and experiences back with them. All these aspects of 12th-century life combine with each episode’s murder mystery for an entertaining and – dare I say it – educational program. I noticed that The Potter’s Field was structured almost like a modern police procedural novel, with a number of suspects, dead ends, and the puzzle solved only when Cadfael finally asks the right question.

Foyle's War I said above that I had finished watching the Foyle’s War (2002) series, but just the other day I heard the welcome news that three more episodes, taking the story up to V-J Day, would be filmed soon. Of course, it will probably be some time before they are available here. It has been a fine series and deserves to reach its logical ending point. Although we sometimes found the plots a bit far-fetched, it was easy to overlook that in light of Anthony Horowitz’s talent for bringing wartime England to life on the screen. The cast, as so often in British television, was excellent, both the recurring characters and the guests. Horowitz showed both the heroic and the venal in the actions of Britons (and others) in World War II.

due south The longest of these series, as it began on American TV, is Due South (1994). Canadian Paul Gross is one of my current Top 10 Favorite Actors – also producers, directors, screenwriters – he even sings! The other actors in the series, many of them also Canadian, do a great job as well. In the last several episodes, the writers and cast seemed to be having even more fun than usual – Camilla Scott as Fraser’s boss “Meg Thatcher” gets to sing gospel in one episode, for example. The two-part finale, “Call of the Wild,” wraps up a number of storylines. The real Ray Vecchio (David Marciano) returns, as does Leslie Nielsen as the flatulent Buck Frobisher. In a bit of an inside joke, Gross’s real-life wife, Martha Burns, makes a cameo appearance as the ghost of Fraser’s mother. I was happy to have had the chance to watch this series of gently humorous Ripping Yarns.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

I’ve been a little slow in catching up with Harry Potter – I only read the final book last year. I watched this film in case I made it to the theater for Half Blood Prince, but I guess I’ll be waiting for the DVD on that one too.

200px-Harry_Potter_and_the_Order_of_the_Phoenix_theatrical_poster One of J.K. Rowling’s strengths with this series has been how the characters and plots mature from book to book. Although it’s now a problem for some kids who come of age to read the first book now that all of them are available, it worked very well for that group of children who matured along with the books. The Harry Potter films reflect this maturing as well. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, not only do Harry, Ron and Hermione continue moving through adolescent angst and the pangs of young love, but they also begin to understand more fully that adults – even Harry’s yearned-for and idealized parents – are flawed and fallible human beings.

Neither the book nor the movie is my favorite of the series, and that may well say more about me than about the works themselves. The whole Dolores Umbridge sequence is just too hard for me to take. For some reason – and I can’t recall ever experiencing anything even close to this – the unfairness and humiliation (to say nothing of the actual torture) that Harry undergoes at Umbridge’s hands are almost impossible for me to watch. Umbridge’s comeuppance at the end of the film doesn’t seem a strong enough recompense for her actions.

So, not my favorite, but we still get the charming bits of wizardry, some great broomriding, and the consistent performances of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson. Recommended for older kids, teens and adults.

Tootsie (1982)

Tootsie_imp For some reason (possibly because I had two small children and didn’t get out much!) I missed Tootsie (1982)when it came out. Oh my, is it ever 80s! When actresses are auditioning for a part as a hospital administrator in a soap opera, they all turn up in mannish suits “softened” with a bow at the neckline, à la The Women’s Dress for Success Book, and oversized glasses. It’s enough to bring a shudder to anyone who lived through that time.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the movie. Surely everyone knows the plot – unsuccessful actor Dustin Hoffman disguises himself as a woman to get the above-mentioned part.  He falls in love with co-star Jessica Lange; other men get interested in “Dorothy” (Hoffman’s alter ego); and there are several farcical scenes of quick changes to escape detection.

There were excellent performances all around, but especially by Hoffman. One could almost see how his character could fool so many people into believing he was a woman. But of course, there has to be a deeper meaning, or several. The one I found was also very 80s – Hoffman “gets in touch with” his feminine side, and it makes him a better man and opens the possibility of a relationship with Lange.

I also very much enjoyed the behind-the-scenes glimpse at the actor’s world, both in the soap opera scenes and, even more, at the beginning of the film where Hoffman is teaching a class of other aspiring actors. I was glad to have included this in my mini-festival of Hoffman along with The Graduate and Rain Man.