Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Other Boleyn Girl

Movie Review: The Other Boleyn Girl

Year of Release: 2008
Country of Origin: UK, USA
Director: Justin Chadwick
Cast: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana

Plot outline: Based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Philippa Gregory, it tells a romanticized account of the lives of 16th-century aristocrats Mary Boleyn, one-time mistress of King Henry VIII, and her sister Anne, who became the monarch's ill-fated second wife, though much history is distorted (IMDb).

One of the few facts schoolchildren learn about history is that King Henry VIII had six wives. That's Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. What they don't teach in school is that he also had many mistresses, among them Anne Boleyn's own sister, Mary. In trying to present Anne as a modern heroine the movie puts her very much in charge of her own destiny, revealing little of her terror at the fate she knew must await her if she failed to keep the King's favour. Only in the latter part of it, which is rather rushed, do we see her start to panic, which rather insults her intelligence, suggesting she didn't understand the magnitude of what she was doing (hurting her sister, wrecking a marriage, challenging the authority of the Pope himself and putting her own life in danger in the process - that was always at the core of what made her interesting and sexy, a remarkable individual despite the manipulation she could not escape). Portraying a woman of such character is no easy task, and it's unfortunate that the task has fallen to Natalie Portman. Whilst adequate in the role, she has none of the fire which might explain why Henry's passion for her would echo down the centuries. This might be easier to ignore if she weren't so often onscreen with Scarlet Johansson. Though the part of Mary has been much reduced from the novel, Johansson, all subtle glances and understated body language, is still able to make a great deal of it. Even when relegated to the background of the story, she is a strong and affecting presence. Eric Bana is passable as Henry in a version more sympathetic than the historical figure deserved. His intelligence and his diplomatic skills come through better here than in many previous movies, making him seem more realistic as a ruler. Despite its various flaws, the movie is a highly watchable and entertaining movie. There's drama on an epic scale, with the tension mounting as Anne tries to string the King along and consolidate her own power base. We know it can only end in tears, but it's gripping nonetheless. (JK)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Captain Kidd

Movie Review: Captain Kidd

Year of Release: 1945
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Cast: Charles Laughton, Randolph Scott, John Carradine

Plot outline: Based on the legend of William "Captain" Kidd, the movie tells a story of the infamous pirate who tries to double cross the King of England (IMDb).

Charles Laughton is a credible rascally villain and the supporting cast is chock full of great character actors: Barbara Britton, John Carradine, Gilbert Roland, Henry Daniell, as well as Reginald Owen. To counterbalance the evil that Kidd is, we are given a hero to root for in the person of Randolph Scott. He is a game player but he is rather miscast as a swashbuckler in this role. Nevertheless, he does a workmanlike job, but he is certainly no Errol Flynn, who usually was assigned such vigorous parts. Due to the obviously low budget, the movie focuses more on adventure and intrigue, instead of action and combat. Instead of delivering epic pirate warfare, the producers decided to spend the money on quality actors. An enjoyable adventure movie from an adult perspective, but it may be a bit sluggish for fans of violent action. (GC, DC)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Band Wagon

Movie Review: The Band Wagon

Year of Release: 1953
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse

Plot outline: A pretentiously artistic director is hired for a new Broadway musical and changes it beyond recognition (IMDb).

The story the director tells is largely forgettable and terribly predictable. For instance, he allows misunderstandings between Tony and Gabrielle to stir up animosity between them. Of course, the viewer knows that, in the end, the two will overcome their difficulties and will begin to fall in love. The viewer is also sure to realize both that the play which brings the characters together is sure to be a flop initially, because of Cordova's pretentious changes, and that, thanks to the heroes' resilience, its spirit is bound to be recaptured so that it will be a success in the end. The musical numbers are generally fun to watch, although none of them are really inspired. In fact, a few of the sequences which are performed as routines in the play around which the movie revolves are somewhat disappointing. Most of these particular numbers are presented as though the director were showing clips of some longer routine and, consequently, seem incomplete. This approach, while inventive, sadly does not allow the viewer to immerse himself in the sequences so presented. What is more, a couple of these are just so adorable and saccharine that they are off-putting. Despite such shortcomings, the movie does include a number of pleasant musical numbers. One routine, in which Astaire portrays a private detective, though part of the play, is shown as a whole and is sprightly, exciting, and entertaining. Another, in which Astaire dances with Charisse in Central Park, is genuinely lovely and graceful, and a third, depicting the former's playful antics in a penny arcade is vivacious and charming. Neither these nor any of the movie's other numbers are brilliant, but some of them are sure to make the viewer smile. (KA)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Scarlet and the Black

Movie Review: The Scarlet and the Black

Year of Release: 1983
Country of Origin: USA, UK, Italy
Director: Jerry London
Cast: Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer, John Gielgud

Plot outline: Based on J. P. Gallagher's book The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican (published in 1967), the movie tells the story of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, a real life Irish Catholic priest who saved thousands of Jews and Allied POWs in Nazi-occupied Rome. (IMDb).

Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer are strong in the leading roles, but the edge goes to Plummer. Peck's on-again-off-again Irish brogue is distracting, but he makes an acceptable hero. Plummer, on the other hand, is deliciously wicked - charming on the outside, ruthless underneath. Even so, there are occasional glimpses of a less-brutish man; a man who loves his family and wants them to be safe; a man not entirely content with the horrors he has helped to create. So, when Plummer is forced to ask his archenemy for help, we can feel a bit sorry for his shattered pride and can share some of his resulting disillusionment and despair. One of the really wonderful moments in the movie comes at the end. Kappler is asked a question and the camera moves in for a close-up of his face. He doesn't have to say a word - the answer is in his eyes. Fantastic! The movie does its best to restore Pope Pius XII's reputation - he has been called "Hitler's Pope" - but it is unclear how much he knew of, or even condoned, O'Flaherty's activities. The Pope makes it clear he understands O'Flaherty's motivation while warning him that if he is arrested, he will not compromise Vatican neutrality to save him. This inspiring story of heroism and courage is ultimately about forgiveness and about asking ourselves what we would have done. It's an excellent reminder that one should never under-estimate oneself - one good person can do a heck of a lot! (A)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


Movie Review: Rembrandt

Year of Release: 1936
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Alexander Korda
Cast: Charles Laughton, Gertrude Lawrence, Elsa Lanchester

Plot outline: A look at the life of the famous painter Rembrandt, from the ages of 28 to 63 (IMDb).

While Charles Laughton is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Henry VIII (in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933), many believe that his work in this little-seen historical biopic by Korda is even better. Refreshingly, at just 81 minutes long, the episodic Rembrandt doesn’t try to relate every detail of the famed artist’s life: instead, it starts with the death of Rembrandt’s (unseen) wife Saskia, then moves on to chronicle Rembrandt’s financial struggles, his relationship with his sharp-tongued housekeeper (Gertrude Lawrence), and his scandalized but loving affair with a housemaid (Elsa Lanchester). Korda’s decision not to show Rembrandt’s paintings (with the strategic exception of “The Night Watch” - an essential early plot element) is a wise one; instead, the movie’s impressive attention to visual detail (sets, costumes, and props are all stunning) allows us to feel genuinely immersed in Rembrandt’s work-a-day world of 17th century Holland. It’s Laughton’s central performance that really carries the movie, however: even when simply dictating scripture passages, the world around him literally stands still, and we along with it. While I’m not normally a fan of Hollywood biopics (they tend to take themselves far too seriously, not to mention playing fast and furious with the facts), Rembrandt stands out a notch above the crowd, and remains worthy viewing for all film fanatics. (FF)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 15 February 2010

The Private Life of Henry VIII

Movie Review: The Private Life of Henry VIII

Year of Release: 1933
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Alexander Korda
Cast: Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon, Elsa Lanchester

Plot outline: Tells how the famed English monarch came to marry five more times after his divorce from his first wife (IMDb).

The Private Life of Henry VIII is a wickedly funny historical satire offering a portrait of one of England's most controversial historical figures. The movie slips into standard drama mode every now and then, but the vast majority of the time it has a sparkle of subversive cheekiness. It's incredibly lacking in terms of historical accuracy, but the sheer level of fun to be had here more than makes up for it. The movie skips the King's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, actually opening at the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The tone of the movie is set quite swiftly as we see Anne pondering whether her hair will look good when her head is chopped off. There's an amusing exchange between a Frenchman and an Englishman on which country is better at performing elegant executions, and more amusing conversations between peasants about the execution. "Oh, that's a lovely new dress she has," a woman says. "I haven't gotten a new dress in a year." "Well, you'll get a new dress," her husband replies, "At your execution." :-) The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly the performance of the magnificent Charles Laughton in the title role. Laughton portrays the king as a jovial monster, thoroughly self-serving and selfish at every turn. As the tone of the movie is one of satire, Laughton's performance is primarily geared towards generating laughs rather than inspiring fear, but he does a magnificent job. It's a real marvel to see Laughton sitting at the dining hall chomping on mutton and guzzling wine, throwing bones and goblets behind him as he proceeds with messy glee. My favourite scene comes on the wedding night of Laughton's marriage to Anne of Cleaves, in which the King comes to the horrifying realization that his wife doesn't know what is supposed to happen on a wedding night. A bit of delicately hilarious conversation leads to what must surely be the most mutually satisfying divorce agreement of all time. The movie is only 94 minutes long and attempts to cover a lot of ground, breezing through the life of Henry VIII with energetic efficiency. It's a fun lark that I quite enjoyed. (CD)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 14 February 2010

David Copperfield

Movie Review: David Copperfield

Year of Release: 1935
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Edna May Oliver, Elizabeth Allan, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Barrymore, W. C. Fields

Plot outline: Charles Dickens' classic tale of an orphaned boy's fight for happiness and the colourful characters who help and hinder him (IMDb).

David Copperfield was an outstanding vehicle for supporting actors, as Dickens had stuffed his novel with memorable, colourful characters. Basil Rathbone is particularly good as David's detestable, abusive stepfather. Edna May Oliver's tantrums are often hilarious, while Elizabeth Allan is sweetness personified as David's mother. Lionel Barrymore was the biggest name in the cast, but his character has only a small part. In his heavy 'old fisherman' makeup, he is almost unrecognizable. W.C. Fields is a surprise in the role of Micawber. His distinctive drawl is dropped in favour of an adopted British accent, but his comic timing remains intact. Fields was a late arrival to the cast, replacing Charles Laughton who felt inadequate for the comic role. Writer Hugh Walpole, who helped adapt the novel to the screenplay, makes the only acting appearance of his career. He plays the Vicar. David Copperfield is a great movie, but not a perfect one. Sometimes it is overly sentimental, and little Fay Chaldecott (playing Emily as a child) wasn't much of an actress (I guess it would have been too expensive for MGM to contract Shirley Temple from Fox). (BK)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Most Unforgettable Screen Romances of the Studio Era

Watch the slideshow for TCM's The Most Unforgettable Screen Romances of the Studio Era here.

Monday, 8 February 2010

A Star is Born

Movie Review: A Star is Born

Year of Release: 1954
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford

Plot outline: A movie star helps a young singer/actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral (IMDb).

A Star is Born is a generally entertaining and surprisingly tragic musical that is never quite as captivating as it could have been. Unlike many other movies that were being made at roughly the same time, which are often painfully cheerful and falsely sentimental, A Star is Born is pervaded with a sense of profound loss and sorrow. While the beginning of the movie is filled with hope, with a sense that something wonderful is awaiting the protagonist, there are, even in these scenes, elements which make the viewer aware that her happiness is linked to Norman's and that his life cannot but end badly. The joy the moviegoer feels while watching the movie's earlier scenes is, consequently, mingled with an anticipation of terrible sufferings to come. When these fears are realized, when Norman's drinking does eventually destroy his life, feelings of despair and regret come to dominate the movie. The viewer is thus able to experience both Vicky's sadness and the tragedy of her husband's gradual decline with a real poignancy. Instead of succumbing to a shallow, unaffecting optimism, A Star is Born is a genuinely dolorous movie. The movie is likely to thrill Judy Garland's admirers. Not only does she acquit herself well as an actress, but she also performs a number of songs over the course of the movie, all of which are pleasant to hear. Regrettably, A Star is Born is by no means without flaws. It is somewhat too long and does, frankly, occasionally grow tiresome. A few themes are simply allowed to play out at far too great a length and do bog the story down. Norman's efforts to rehabilitate himself, for example, are so extensively presented that they interrupt the flow of the narrative. These scenes should have been considerably shortened. The movie is rarely boring, but its pacing may test many viewers' patience. Even though A Star is Born never attains greatness, it is a well made, affecting, and entertaining movie. (KA)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Western Union

Movie Review: Western Union

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, Virginia Gilmore, John Carradine

Plot outline: An outlaw goes straight to work for the telegraph company, which puts him in conflict with his lawless brother (IMDb).

Few would guess that this historical western about the spread of telegraph lines across the American frontier was directed by Fritz Lang, an iconic director known primarily for his noir dramas and atmospheric visuals. Loosely based on a story by Zane Grey, Lang apparently wanted to alter the screenplay, but was not given permission to do so; the result is a narrative which never quite rises above mediocrity, and is too often played for laughs. While Randolph Scott’s central dilemma - whether to betray his brother or not - is compelling, it’s constantly interrupted by inane subplots, particularly the underdeveloped “love triangle” between Scott, Young, and Gilmore. As in Lang’s first western (The Return of Frank James), the storyline here is almost entirely fictional; Lang himself noted that “in reality, nothing happened during the entire building of the line except that they ran out of wood for the telegraph poles, and the only other thing that disturbed the laying of the line was the ticks on the buffaloes; the buffaloes got itchy and rubbed themselves against the poles, and the poles tumbled. And that was all that happened.” Personally, I wouldn’t have minded seeing the buffaloes … (FF)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Movie Review: The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Year of Release: 1952
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Henry King
Cast: Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner

Plot outline: As he fights a deadly jungle fever, a hunter remembers his lost loves (IMDb).

Director Henry King gives Ernest Hemingway's 1927 somewhat confessional autobiographical short story a happy ending, something that displeased the writer. Hemingway was also upset that the movie added bits and pieces form his other works, lamenting that he only sold Zanuck the rights to this short story. The embittered writer further states the picture should really be called "The Snows of Zanuck." Screenwriter Casey Robinson, a fan of the writer, expands the short story but in the process stuffs too much into it. Though it was brilliantly shot on location in Paris, Africa, the Riviera and Spain, it was mostly shot in the studio with an enormous painting standing in for the title mountain. The star-studded cast makes the flawed movie watchable, even though it never climbs any mountain for greatness. The movie is shot greatly in flashback. The lavish production gives a big broad treatment of the writer as a romantic adventurer, who tests his courage and manhood by hunting and conquering women. The movie reiterates with gusto the great white hunter/writer's macho philosophy: "Real writing is like a hunt ... a life-long safari; and the prey is truth." (DS)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 1 February 2010

It Started in Naples

Movie Review: It Started in Naples

Year of Release: 1960
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Melville Shavelson
Cast: Clark Gable, Sophia Loren, Vittorio De Sica, Marietto Angeletti

Plot outline: An American lawyer trying to settle his bohemian brother's affairs in Italy falls for one of the man's in-laws (IMDb).

It Started in Naples was Clark Gable's penultimate movie and it is really his swansong as a romantic leading man. Gable began his career playing opposite stars like Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, he would end it with Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. He and Loren work wonderfully together, despite the age difference. Yes, men were - and still are for that matter - allowed to age much more slowly than women on the big screen. Loren does a sexy rendition of "Americano" wearing just a man's dress shirt and her panties. She also demonstrates a great flair for comedy. Gable is great as always. He exudes a gruff self-confidence, which is one of the sexiest assets a man can have. He also seems like he would have made a wonderful grandfather. But, still it is Marietto Angeletti as the precocious Nando Hamilton who easily steals the show. He delivers most of the pathos and laughs with his exuberant mix of world-weariness and innocence. Though the plot may be a bit rusty, It Started in Naples is an enjoyable movie for many reasons. One that I must mention is the scenery. Shot completely on location, the island of Capri is presented as a great place to visit, an exotic, decadent enclave of nonstop parties, with a racially and sexually diverse group of citizens. This provides the perfect setting for romance and culture shock. (EN)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars