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Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

The Benefits of Fiddling with Facts - severe spoilers alert
Strange and wonderful things may be achieved through postmodernism. Since one of the features of the genre (for want of a better word) is making us aware that we're watching fiction rather than fact, anything goes, and Tarantino uses this to great effect in his ninth film. Not much plot is needed as long as we are aware that we are heading for the grizzly Manson massacre on Cielo Drive in August 1969. As in other films that deal with actual events (the Titanic, Gallipoli, etc.), the aspect of "who'll survive" is enough to provide dramatic tension, and in fact, any further plot may appear downright redundant. Our awareness that we are witnessing the final days of our characters will provide depth and put even the most trivial things in a tragic light. When we watch Sharon Tate childishly revelling in the audience's response to her own awful movie "The Wrecking Crew" in a cinema and being so eager to let people know that she's in it, this inspires pity and sympathy for the poor sausage. DiCaprio and Pitt deliver a truly touching double portrait of a fading movie star and his loyal stunt double, a Hollywood Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza, with the dog Brandy thrown in for good measure as Rosinante. DiCaprio is battling a declining popularity, as well alcohol and a sincere and justified doubt in his talent, and Pitt is under a cloud after having caused the death of his wife (but the act itself is elegantly eclipsed since we cut away, sixties style, a split second before it occurs). The Manson gang members are looming in the background and provide a rare reminder that the hippie movement was not only peace and love, but also the hatred of those who made it in Hollywood, which would eventually lead to the slaughter of Tate and her friends, as well as the Labiancas on the following day. We are left wondering, as we move along, if Pitt, DiCaprio and his Italian wife will count among the victims instead of the Labiancas. And then, lo and behold, amid a flurry of other postmodern features (intertextuality, as when Tate buys a copy of Hardy's "Tess of d'Urbervilles" - of which Polanski would later make a film - from a bookseller played by the erstwhile matinée idol Clu Gulager, and little elements of pastiche including commercials and musical numbers), Tarantino spares our main characters when Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and Rosinante step into character and butcher the hateful hippie in graphic details. Just as we were wondering whether Tarantino might let us get through this film without any gore. In this sense, postmodernism can be said to rectify reality (as when Hitler got shot to pieces in "Inglourious Basterds"), but it cannot be said truly to prettify the story by providing historical facts with the happy ending for which Hollywood is traditionally (and often unjustly) blamed - for we still know that Tate and her friends were viciously massacred in August 1969. Postmodernism never claims to tell the true story. What Tarantino has done is rather the reverse of the postmodern "Atonement" (2007) which ends in the long-awaited reunion of the lovers, and then adds, as an afterthought, that this ending is fiction, since both died separately before they were united. Tarantino provides a different kind of catharsis, and we are grateful for it.

By the way, films don't often show us the gritty downside of the hippie culture. In fact, I can only think of one episode of "Mad Men" in which Betty visits a rat-infested, dirty commune in New York. But in "Once upon a Time in Hollywood", Tarantino doesn't pull any punches.

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Part 2
Episode 2, Season 2

The hollowed-out Crown
Well, there isn't much left of Shakespeare's trilogy, is there? Brave Talbot, practically the hero of Shakespeare's part one, is left with only a few lines to speak, and if we want to see more of him, we have to check "deleted scenes", where we find Talbot receiving King Henry on the French coast - but still with no lines to speak. For some reason, the Duke of Somerset has taken the Duke of Suffolk's place in Queen Margaret's bed, and there's no Jack Cade rebellion. I still have to work out why so much has been cut and altered (except for obvious budget reasons and because it seems to have been decided that Cumberbatch was to play Richard of Gloucester, the series opted to include the often-filmed "Richard III" rather than have Henry VI, part 1, 2 and 3). But I do detect the reason for one paring-down: Joan of Arc. We see her merely as a female victim instead of as the chief instigator of the French revolt against the English as she is in the play. Well, after all, Joan has been canonized since Shakespeare wrote "Henry VI", so it won't do to upset the Catholics. The series is watchable, but it's not good. It can't hold a candle to the first "Hollow Crown" series. But the last episode, "Richard III" saves the day (apart from the unwarranted overuse of Queen Margaret).

Revengers Tragedy

This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard ...
Middleton's play, as it is, serves to set off the brilliance of Shakespeare. When hearing the lines in "The Revenger's Tragedy", one is flabbergasted at the thought that this dribble could attract an audience at the Globe and the Blackfriars in between "King Lear", "Macbeth" and "Winter's Tale". All Middleton's characters are utterly one-dimensional, and the villains - of which we have a handful - are so flat that they make Cruella DeVil look like Hedda Gabler by comparison. Dialogue and plot are insipid and inane, playing entirely for shock value as we skip through rape, necrophilia and murder. The dramaturgy is as flat as the characters; we are told the same things over and over, so to say the plot lacks development is in fact a stretch - at times it virtually seems to go backwards, until the final ten minutes when all the characters snuff it - not a minute too soon. Thus much for Middleton's play; this film version doesn't help him one bit. The acting is surprisingly amateurish, even from otherwise great professionals like Eccleston, Quick and Jacobi. "The Revenger's Tragedy" is down there with the razziest works in film history, say, "Reptilicus" and "Plan 9 from Outer Space". And for this reason alone, it's worth a watch. It gives you an opportunity to reflect on what makes a good film good, and why Middleton is no Shakespeare.

All Is True

Not quite ...
"All is True" is a beautiful film with very good acting, of course, what with Branagh, Dench and McKellen in the cast, but the title is a misnomer (as it was in the case of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII" from where it is imported). However, historically inaccurate facts are not really a valid criticism; after all, "All is True" is a movie. What irks me is that the film bends over backwards to include every conceivable morsel from 400 years of Shakespeare myths and facts and views Shakespeare from the romantic angle as the incontestable literary colossus he only became two hundred years after his death - peppered with 21st-century political correctness concerning gender, race and sex. Dramatically, it ends up as a dog's breakfast, a check list of all the myths and questions that have popped up since the mid-19th century. This is a commendable undertaking in itself, but it doesn't make a good drama. We have a dash of Virginia Woolf in the story about Judith Shakespeare who wants to be a poet, we have Beaumarchais' Figaro in Shakespeare's tirade against upperclass twit Sir Thomas Lucy (whom the film has generously permitted to survive until 1613), and we some E.M. Forster, perhaps, in the bittersweet reunion with the Earl of Southampton (a strangely miscast Ian McKellen), in which the poet is accused of acquiring a coat-of-arms for the sole reason of aspiring to be Southampton's lover. Moreover, a young and upcoming poet visits Shakespeare to learn how to be the greatest poet in the world (a status Shakespeare would not obtain until 200 years after his death), and Shakespeare tells the young man to write from his own heart (i.e. the romantic approach to Shakespeare). All this leaves the plotline all over the place, which might be entertaining enough if "All is True" were a comedy in the vein of Stoppard's "Shakespeare in Love". But as far as I can make out, "All is True" is not a comedy. It appears to advertise historical accuracy, and in that case it doesn't deliver. To a Shakespeare aficionado, it is still entertaining, if at times exasperating, and to repeat: the acting is great, and the cinematography is an eyeful. It's definitely worth watching, and it will come in handy in English classes where it may provide heaps of topics for discussion and investigation. I do wish, however, that scriptwriter Ben Elton and Branagh had killed off a score of darlings in cold blood before shooting began. I bought the DVD which, among its extra features, contains an interview with an extremely likeable and modest Branagh and a little documentary refuting some of the film's claims, such as an interview with grand-old-man-in-Shakespeare-research Stanley Wells who believes that Shakespeare didn't absent himself from Stratford for 20 years (as tradition has it), but used his hometown as a home base throughout his career - in which case the old myth which the film repeats about Anne Shakespeare as an embittered grass widow goes down the drain.

Wonder Wheel

One of the better Allens
I saw this film on a flight and, wanting to skip the intro, I skipped too much and completely missed the director's credits - I only learn now, here on imdb, that it is Allen. I found "Wonder Wheel" fascinating and, in hindsight, knowing it's Woody Allen, I applud its restrained use of the narrative voice-over - too many Allen films seem to all voice-over, to the point of making us suspect that he never finished writing the dialogue (which is often poor in Allen's film, but"Wonder Wheel" escapes that, too). The film has a kind of Tennessee Williams feel to it; most of the action takes place in one room, but to an even greater extent, Allen must have been inspired by Lillian Hellman's 1960 play "Toys in the Attic" in which two middle-aged spinsters cause disaster when trying to 'save' their younger brother from the woman he loves. In "Wonder Wheel", however, the ultimate tragedy is only subtly hinted at, and the main character's tragic flaw is not, as in the Hellman play, a direct betrayal but more like a sin of omission. So if Allen was inspired by the Hellman play, as I suspect, he has given the material a clever work-over.

The Voices

A very good year for Ryan Reynolds
Egoyan's "The Captive" together with "The Voices" from that same year, 2014, are very fine examples of Reynold's less-is-more style of acting. While in "Captive" he seems to be doing almost nothing and is disguised behind a full beard, Reynolds reverts to his boy-next-door appearance in "The Voices", and switches effortlessly from comedy into tragedy, or rather: he underplays comedy and turns it into tragedy - a very, very hard thing to do, and he comes through with flying colours. One scene deserves a special mention. His reaction to the two-minute psycho-analysis delivered by his therapist who is talking for dear life while tied up on the hood of his car; serial killer Jerry's cathartic moment. It is absolutely priceless. Of course, Reynolds is greatly assisted by a great script and a wonderful cast. Even the animals are good. The film as such is a gem, and the Bollywood-like ending is reminiscent of Dennis Potter's very sombre depression-era jukebox musical "Pennies from Heaven".

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour - not a bright film
The film gets a lot of things right. It is peppered with authentic Churchill quotes, and if they didn't shoot some of the scenes in the actual War Rooms in Westminster, they had built a pretty convincing set. But, sadly, as a drama the film reminded me of Peter Richardson's old comedy, "The Strike" (1988) in which the 1984 miners' strike was ludicrously distorted in elaborate attempts to turn a political crisis into a touching sob story (of the kind in which the actors sob far more than the audience), complete with historically unwarranted motorcycle chases, courtroom drama, "Daddy, look, I can walk again!" and whatnot. However, "The Strike" was an intentional parody on a melodrama, "Darkest Hour" is altogether unintentional. The film is not at all concerned with showing the real Churchill; it has pulled out all the stops to move us rather than enlighten us, and, as a consequence, we have Churchill, initially (and briefly) presented as an old, cranky and alcoholised curmudgeon, turn into a charming old Scrooge-after-his-conversion who blubbers out Macauley verse on the tube to a girl aged seven (this film's version of Tiny Tim, I suppose) and he is amply rewarded even by his opponents in Parliament with something resembling a ticker-tape parade at the end of the film. Extra drama is supplied by the lousiest secretary in the world (who should have been sacked three minutes into the film) with snippets of "my-brother-died-in-Calais", her bolstering a disheartened Prime Minister and prompting him in his speeches by mouthing his next line from the gallery. This secretary also corrects Churchill when he gets the V-sign wrong because the silly man is too removed from the real world to know that with the palm facing inward, it means "up yours". The film studiously forgets that Churchill was an expert historian. I suspect the people behind the film wished to present Clem Churchill as the strong and independent woman she was, but instead "Darkest Hour" includes a most unfortunate scene which reduces her to an idiot housewife grumbling about household accounts while Europe is being run over by Hitler, thus forcing her husband to reassure her that he has always loved her - which apparently makes everything right again, although the household finances are still a shambles and Europe is still falling under the Third Reich at 200 mph. To me, that scene makes Clem look like a sentimental cow of small intellect. In short, I was disappointed.

Murder on the Orient Express

Murdering "The Orient Express"
Dear oh dear. What an ordeal. The pictures were pretty in some sort of vulgar way, but this film really can't hold a candle to the David Suchet version from 2006 which, in my opinion, exceeds the rather drab 1974 version with Albert Finney (I never saw the 2001 Alfred Molina version).

What's wrong with the new Branagh version? Really, other posters have said it all. The script stinks, mainly because it's as subtle as a kick in the butt, especially in its attempts to be politically correct. Just to name one instance, in this version Mary Debenham is in love with a black doctor, and Hercule Poirot advises her to come clean since "this is not America", as if the US had the market cornered concerning mixed-race marriage. By all means, do let's forget the 1919 race riots in Britain and that the Nuremberg Laws were just around the corner, for all to see, in 1934 when the film is set. And somehow, in between the postcard-pretty pictures and the political correctness, the plot is avalanched. Nobody really cares whodunit or worries one jot about any of the characters, and when Hercule Poirot advises the murderers to shoot him to escape the noose, it occurs to you that it would have been a blessing if they had done so 90 minutes ago. The sporadic forays into action scenes only help to remind us how far Ian Fleming is removed from Agatha Christie. Not that Christie is a master novelist; her plots are often hopelessly contrived and needs help from filmmakers, and never more so than in "Orient Express." Several films have succeeded in coming to her aid. This doesn't.

Hannah Arendt

A Film about Things You Cannot Say
This is a most remarkable film about an article written by a most remarkable philosopher. If von Trotta's film is at all reminiscent of any other film, I'll put my money on Miller's "Capote" (with Philip Seymor Hoffman), about another 60s writer who approached an untouchable subject in a controversial way. But there the analogy stops. Where the earlier film exhibited Capote as preying on his death-row murderers for his own personal gain, von Trotta's and Sukowa's Arendt jeopardizes her academic esteem with her account of the Jerusalem trial of the indefensible Nazi criminal Adolf Eichman. The world in general and Ben Gurion's Israel in particular wish merely to gloat at the downfall of a monster, but Arendt refuses to oblige. In Eichman, she sees a depressingly ordinary man caught up in the atrocities of the Third Reich; a man who was not part of Hitler's anti-Semitic craze but was simply doing his duty by the corrupt laws of a monstrous regime. Stating that "If (Eichman) had not been found guilty before he appeared in Jerusalem, the Israelis would never have dared, or wanted, to kidnap him in formal violation of Argentine law," Arendt exposes the hypocrisy of the Jerusalem show trial and of a world that used Eichman as a scapegoat whose execution would exempt the rest of the world from blame. Arendt ends the article she was commissioned to write for "the New Yorker" with her own rephrasing of the Jerusalem verdict of Eichman: "Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations… we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang."

All hell breaks loose after the publication, but when asked if she would have written the article if she had known what would ensue, Arendt says yes. Her integrity instructed her.

However, the film delves deeper than this, and in different directions, too, which leaves the final verdict up to us. On one hand, we clearly see Arendt's point justified when Israeli government officials inform her that her work will be banned in Israel and she retorts, "You forbid books and you speak of decency?" But, on the other hand, the film gingerly touches upon Arendt's past affair with Nazi sympathizer Heidegger and makes us wonder whether this may somehow have influenced her article, and moreover, we are repeatedly told, by several characters in the film, that she is obstinate and willful to a fault. The film depicts a philosopher at a crucial turning-point in her life, and it leaves her when she is deserted by all her former friends in the Jewish community. The film must be seen at least twice, I think, before it can be determined whether our protagonist is eventually triumphant or defeated.


Nolan's Finest Hour
I can honestly state that no other film has truly given me the feeling of actually being on location, which, in the case of Dunkirk, 1940, is not altogether a pleasant experience. But it's a great, great film. I've never seen anything like it. It is also the most un-theatrical film I have seen to date; it actually comes across as a documentary. The acting is admirably restrained, the dialog all but absent, and the cinematography to die for. The casting is inspired. From the crooked teeth of our main tommy, aptly named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) to Commander Bolton (Branagh, who always looks any part he plays), everyone could be your average Brit in WW2. No gloss, no glitter. Not even elevated rhetorics: Churchill's speech of 4 June '40 is read aloud from a newspaper, with no gusto and interrupted.

Nolan takes the decisive moment of World War II, the evacuation from Dunkirk which was the bleakest hour of the war when it seemed like Germany would win after having subjugated every country in Europe save England. The colossal evacuation, performed primarily by private fishing boats, gave 300,000 men the opportunity to fight again. The subsequent Battle of Britain, one month later, convinced the US about entering the war and aid the allies before fighting in the Pacific, and this was what sealed Hitler's fate.

We may be apt to forget how easily the allies might have lost the war – but Nolan reminds us with a vengeance, especially near the end of film when the survivors return to England as they believe in disgrace. They have done nothing but survive. But their survival turned the tide.

The Captive

I'm trying hard to understand the rage against this film at the Cannes festival and the disapproval of other reviewers. As a mainstream thriller, admittedly, it's a bit weird, but I didn't for a moment think that Egoyan was trying to make a mainstream thriller, and I was riveted. What works, dramatically, to the maximum is the tension between Matthew and Tina (the couple whose daughter has been abducted, which is to say Reynolds who plays a man who refuses to believe that his daughter is dead and Enos playing his wife who tries to get over her daughter's presumed death by blaming her husband who let the girl out of sight for a couple of minutes), and the tension between Nicole and Jeff, the inept investigators who try to find out what has happened to the girl. This would be basic psychological thriller stuff, and it's good. But then there is the very weirdness of the film, its postmodern temporal disruption which forces us out of the thriller genre and into a more existentialist kind of film-with-a-message.

Maybe I'm wrong, but the fact that Matthew and Tina seem to be living in a rural society and have their eight-year-old daughter kidnapped by hi-tech sociopaths who monitor their every move – this appears to be a jab at Facebook and the other social medias in which nothing is private, and which seem to steal kids from their parents and destroy the old-fashioned family idyll. And the psychos are portrayed as meek and mild criminals who are forced to prey on the lives of others since they have no life of their own. What also points in this direction (that the social media is the real villain, I mean) is the fact that the daughter, Cassandra, is not only a captive to the sociopaths but also a willing captive to her pseudo life on the internet. If I understood the film correctly, it picks up a theme from Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" in which Stevens (Ian Holm) tries to cope with the deaths of a busload of school kids by trying to find someone to blame for the irrecoverable loss.

To my mind, two strokes of genius stand out among all the rest (I did remember to click SPOILER, didn't I?). In the few minutes when the captors permit Cass to speak to her father, what she tells him appears to Matthew be non sequitur straight out of the Theatre of the Absurd but is in fact snippets from their last conversation eight years ago when she was abducted, and then her one remaining concern: whether her former skating partner Albert has kept his promise that he would never skate with anyone else (a promise which he has kept). And then, in the conclusive montage in the film, we (or at least I) can't see whether investigator Nicole Dunlap is still alive when they find the van where she is held captive. At least, I can't see her moving when the task force enters. I think it's a brilliant film, but not your run-of-the mill thriller.

La La Land

La la la la la la la
Those who have seen the film will recognize my review title as the theme song. I don't really know what to write about the film, except that I fell in love with it after about half an hour, and I can't put my finger on why. And not being able to set your finger on it may just be a quality that surpasses so many other more verbalizable qualities. Well, the acting was top notch, the story touching and sweet in the best possible sense, the dialogue funny, the musical numbers did not seem out of place (as one might have feared), and if Gosling doesn't have the greatest singing voice ever, he has the ability to make it work to perfection anyway, sort of like the young James Stewart when he soldiered through Cole Porter's "Easy to Love." As for the ending – well, I cried. I don't mind admitting it. Or, yes I do, but I admit it anyway. And I'm an old and unsentimental guy, not unlike Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge, but I did shed a tear. It was when that "la-la-la-la-la-la-la" started again near the end as one might have expected it would, and on came the waterworks. It's funny how movies can make us completely sentimental about things we get so quickly over in real life.

Florence Foster Jenkins

A High Note of Praise
"Florence" is not a big film and doesn't pretend to be, but it triumphs through great performances, plenty of laughs, and a strange and fascinating story. As Tim Burton did in "Ed Wood", Stephen Frears has created a touching portrait of a failed artist with far too high ambitions. However, for all the comedy along the way, I believe the film is about loyalty. We have the unqualified loyalty (career-wise, at least) of Florence Foster Jenkins' husband Bayfield (Grant) and the emerging loyalty of her pianist McMoon (Helberg) set against the turncoat singing coach Edwards (David Haig). As for the laughs, Streep is surely the finest comedienne ever. One wouldn't have believed it in her early career which was characterized by tragic tales, but her Florence is pure genius.


Tragedy without the drama
It's not a bad movie at all, beautifully shot and acted, and the filmmakers' studies in Shakespeare's play have led to many interesting choices, such as exploiting, for instance, Freud's old idea that the tragedy of the Macbeths derive from their childlessness. This idea is carried through with great consistency; the child Macbeth loses in the opening of the film is directly linked to the destruction of the Macduffs who are likewise burnt in Kurzel's film. The dialogue has been taken apart and put together in interesting ways, such as King Duncan's fatal announcement of his son's succession which has been moved to the Dunsinane party while the king is drunk. The Weird Sisters are the kindest witches in the history of the play. Rather than trick the protagonist into mischief, they inform him, with much sympathy, about his unalterable fate.

A lot of the dialogue is missing, though, and for a reason. Fassbender's Macbeth suffers from a post-traumatic stress disorder which renders him emotionally numb. In Kurzel's film, Macbeth starts out at the point at which Shakespeare only lets him arrive in Act III: "I am in blood/ Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o'er". This means no deliberations or vacillations before the murder of Duncan, no fear of reprisals, no feelings – which, by the way, makes his wife's reproach, "Why do you make such faces?" in the Banquet Scene seem out of place, for Fassbender makes no faces at all; he is dead pan for the duration of the film and seems to be courting his own destruction near the end. This, I think, is where the film fails as a version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." Since it starts with the real tragedy, the loss of Young Macbeth (who also haunts Lady Macbeth's Sleepwalking Scene), the film has nowhere to go. Lastly, it irked me a bit that the soliloquies were not done in voice-overs, for everything else fails to work on film, methinks.

Hail, Caesar!

Hail, the Coens!
I saw "Hail, Caesar!" yesterday, and I was baffled. First at the brilliance of the film, then at the grumpiness of several of the reviews and then ultimately, at the film again. It did not escape me, however, that I was the one laughing hardest and longest in the cinema, but this, in turn, puzzles me as well. Perhaps the reason is that Marcuse and the Hollywood Reds are held up to ridicule, but I think that's only fair, as well as rare, for films generally bemoan the fate of the liberal extremists (I haven't seen "Trumbo" yet). My approach to the Red Scare in Hollywood is as follows: if the Hollywood commies had really had their way and socialism had moved into Tinsel Town, which is to say: if their spurious dreams of a socialist paradise had come true and Moscow had invaded Washington, these guys would not only have been out of a job for opposing the government and party politics - they would have disappeared to the Gulags of Siberia or would have been shot, no questions asked. For once, a film does not see them as innocent victims of irrational persecution, but as dupes for a system even more corrupt than Hollywood. I salute that. "Hail Caesar" is an affectionate portrait of a by-gone era and a tribute to the hard-working people who worked under the old studio system. Also, it's hilarious! The film editor (McDormand) who almost does an Isadora Duncan when she gets her scarf in the machine; the studio assistant asking Jesus on the cross whether he's a principal or an extra, and Jesus modestly replying 'a principal'; and the hilarious direction of western idol Hobie when he crosses over into genteel comedies and has to speak unspeakable lines with inane direction; producer Mannix (Brolin) taking confessions on a daily basis for smoking, although it would seem he has a lot more to confess – and yet, what the film ultimately dares to state, after decades of putting down Hollywood as a dream factory and a capitalist Babylon, is that they really had talent back then. And so do the Coens. "Hail, Caesar!" is a masterpiece of pastiche virtuosity, and, as for the politics in this comedy, the Coens, at least to my way of thinking, finally set the record straight.

My Week with Marilyn

I have to review because of one thing ...
I think the plot of "My Week with Marilyn" as such was sweet & predictable, resting largely on what some of us already know about the debacles on the set of "The Prince and the Showgirl," and there were no surprises there. The film is mainly worth seeing because of its many stars, and Dench, Wanamaker, and Jacobi are always worth watching, but what will stay with me after having seen the film is Branagh's absolutely and chillingly spot-on performance as Laurence Olivier. I don't think I've ever seen the like! There were moments - especially at the first rehearsal and later when Olivier was in costume, when I positively forgot it was Branagh. I swear. If the performance at times bordered on parody it was only because Olivier at times appeared to be parodying himself. It was a stunning performance. Branagh is a great actor.

Filthy Cities

Smog vs Smug
Let me open with a disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of Dan Snow's history programmes; they're visually exciting, filled with facts, they have plenty of fun along the way, Snow is a great and charismatic presenter, a reliable historian, and I try never to miss his programmes when they're aired. I should have praised him long ago but have for some silly reason waited till now when I have something to complain about.

And it is this: I was somewhat disappointed in finding that the "Filthy Cities" episode on London seems slightly tendentious and Union Jack-waving when compared with the (US-bashing) episode on New York. I realize that an episode of one hour cannot cover all facts, but the London episode was entirely about the plague in the Middle Ages, and it ends with these words: "London, ONCE a filthy city, would in time become the centre of the richest and most powerful empire in history, and remains to this day one of the greatest cities on earth."

Right. But compare this to the closing words of the New York episode:

"Many of the technological solutions that transformed New York City in the 19th century produced waste that has blighted the 21st. Every fifteen minutes, New York produces enough greenhouse gases to fill the entire Empire State Building. Those gases cannot be contained in the city that created them; now, it's a truly global problem (…) Our battle against our own filth will never be over."

Also true, but this leaves us to conclude that whereas filth in London vanished with the Middle Ages, global concern should now focus exclusively on New York as the main culprit. Snow mentions how the battle against the filth of New York began in 1851 but his London episode never gets to 'the Great Stink' of 1858, when the magistrates of London (seven years behind New York) realized that they had to deal with the filth of the Londoners (I actually thought that the 'Great Stink' would be the main topic of the London episode, with engineer Joseph Bazalgette as the hero who made the new planning of the sewers. But no). While staying conveniently in the Middle Ages with the London episode, Snow's New York episode presents the predictable amount of slum lords, corrupt Tammany Hall politicians and greedy capitalists that left the poor to suffocate and starve in the slums (as they did in London, too, and also here due to the indifference of those in power that ought to have cared).

Facts are these: London is every bit as filthy as New York, both cities ranging at damage level 'low to moderate' on the WHO scale. New York has actually been praised as a role model among cities in the battle against greenhouse gases – and the British are even slower at embracing hybrid cars than the Americans, as a matter of fact. And to return to the ending of the London episode: "London, once a filthy city, would in time become the centre of the richest and most powerful empire in history, and remains to this day one of the greatest cities on earth" – come again? What on earth do political power and world domination (which I would hesitate to brag about in these anti-empire days) have to do with pollution?

But when that is said; Dan Snow is a brilliant presenter and a thorough historian – and maybe he didn't write the script for this series? The credits are not quite clear on this point. Moreover, the above is my only complaint to anything I've seen from Snow.


A Disaster Movie ...
Why waste money on 3D when the characters and the story are 1D? What annoys me the most is that all those ravishing effects (and I didn't even see it in 3D) were spent on nothing. Pompeji and its destruction is such a great backdrop for drama, but here it was all sacrificed for a string of predictable clichés. While being excruciatingly bored during "Pompeji," my mind wandered back to "San Francisco" from 1936 with Jeanette MacDonald, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. By the time the earthquake struck near the end of that old film, I was so engrossed in the plot and the characters that I had almost forgotten about the disaster and didn't mind at all that it looked very much like what it was: a lot of papier-mâché. In "Pompeji," the plot and the characters were so tiresome that I was looking forward to Vesuvius putting an end to my sufferings. Notwithstanding the spectacular special effects, "Pompeji" is indeed a disaster movie but in the wrong sense of the word. The silliest stuff that ever I saw.

Little Big Man

Cursing Columbus
I saw "Little Big Man" when I was eleven, and oh, how I loved it. I was outraged at the treatment of the American Indians and full of contempt for the US cavalry.

Only when my enthusiasm for the film – which I saw numerous times – induced me to study the historical facts of the matter did I realize that this film (along with "Soldier Blue" from about the same time) was actually about the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam war and had very little to do with the 19th century Indians of the Great Plains. The Cheyenne Indians in "Little Big Man" as portrayed by Arthur Penn are kind and peace-loving believers in co-existence, and they wouldn't be out of place on Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s San Fransisco. We are even led to believe that warfare, to the Indians, consisted only of slapping the enemy with a stick (counting coup) and otherwise leaving the foe unscathed.

On the other hand, the film offers no excuse for any of the white people we encounter. Main character Jack's foster father, the Reverend Pendrake, is a religious fanatic, his wife is nymphomaniac (and later turns up in a whorehouse), Jack's sister Caroline is equally sex-starved, his wife is a harpy, and to top it, Jack encounters con men, deranged generals (Custer) and what not. Caucasian culture is depraved and cowardly and murderous, as opposed to the Indians. "Little Big Man" beautifully depicts the hippie-happy dream of life among the Prairie Indians.

For historical facts, such as the thousands of years of warfare among warring tribes on the plains, mutual atrocities and genocide among the natives, we have to look elsewhere. "Little Big Man" just leaves us to curse Columbus, and contemplate the great place America could have been without the white man.

The Tudors

What a load of pop!
What a load of pop!

  • I thought when it dawned on me that Jonathan Rhys Meyers not only plays Henry VIII in his royal youth, but also beyond the years when he should be aged and bloated beyond recognition and decency. Indeed, all the characters known from English history are portrayed by actors that look like fashion models. How unhistorical it appears. The horror, the horror.

And yet. And yet.

When I delved into this display of pop culture, I realized that its historical value is in fact more than half decent. It's actually brilliant. Screenwriter Michael Hirst made terrible historical slips in the two Elizabeth films with Cate Blanchett, but it seems to me now that greater powers prevailed in those cases, and in "The Tudors" he comes into his own. I must admit that I haven't had the chance to watch the entire series, but of what I have seen, this is on a par with David Starkey as far as historical value is concerned. Thanks to Hirst, millions of high school and university students are now familiar with an astounding amount of minor characters from history, such as Robert Aske, Thomas Wyatt and Lord Dacre, just to name a few who would otherwise have been known only to students of English history, A-levels (and perhaps not even then). Great attention to details in the executions of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell as well as the two accidents that crippled Henry and left him monstrously fat - a fate he escapes in this series, however.

And as for Jonathan Rhys Meyers looking like a movie star at a time when Henry was hideously obese, I do believe that this is how this the most disastrous of English kings really always saw himself throughout his scandalous life and six marriages. And quite possibly, his fifth wife Catherine Howard was the Marilyn Monroe-like, heat-seeking little missile she is portrayed as here.

A History of Scotland

It is a well-produced, visually stunning series, but: as much as Neil Oliver wants to avoid it (I believe) his History of Scotland shows the Scots as nation of indecisive, self-serving idiots who seem hell-bent on losing out because of internal strife. From Robert the Bruce, who, when he had the chance to collect Scotland back in the 14th century, instead opted for weeding out his own personal enemies in a mafia-like murderous spree, to the lack of national resolve in 1979 when Scotland lost out to Margaret Thatcher who was – by all accounts – the better man, and deprived Scotland of both oil and home rule.

Neil Oliver starts by stating that since Scotland's history is mostly told by other than Scots, much of it is not trustworthy, but in fact, his own version of the story cannot bear a closer scrutiny either. To name one thing: in the otherwise good episode that deals with Benjamin Franklin and Adam Smith, Oliver makes the mistake of saying: "The new American constitution made good its promise of rights and freedom for all, but it never occurred to its founding fathers to extend those same freedoms to slaves." In fact, if Oliver had been a scrupulous historian and had investigated his subject instead of sacrificing proper studies in favor of glib remarks, he would know that it more than occurred to the founding fathers. He would have found that both Franklin and Jefferson considered it deeply, that Franklin had written an essay denouncing slavery already in the 1750s (long before the Somerset case – also included in the series – brought slavery to the public eye in England and Scotland), and that Franklin still denounced slavery with almost his dying breath in 1790. In fact,in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson accused England of perpetuating the slave trade and slavery was only discarded as an issue in 1776 because it would cause an unaffordable split among the 13 states opposing Britain in the War of Independence.

I greatly enjoy the fact that historical documentaries are so much more visually appealing now than ever before, but I do wish that the visuals were backed up by the thorough studies of for instance a Kenneth Clark (with "Civilization" in the 1960s). As it is, it's as much dazzle as substance, and I deplore that.

But, on the whole, I enjoyed the series; hence, the seven stars.

Andrew Marr's History of the World

PC history & honest marketing
It's a beautifully filmed and cleverly structured series that offers many interesting angles and unearthing of lesser-known facts. It's certainly watchable. And it's honest marketing because its wish to be a feature film (or twenty feature films, in the very least) so blatantly gets the better of scholarly sobriety time and again. I, for one, can deal with that. I don't mind documentaries with actors dressed up as historical persons as long as the costumes are okay and the actors don't get any lines to speak – and in this, Andrew Marr's History succeeds in moderation.

What irks me most about the series is its ill-concealed propagation of our by now all too familiar politically correct gospel that goes: "all white people are ba-ad and greedy, all others are innocent victims." And Andrew Marr's indignant tone of voice and sardonic face don't help matters.

Take his episode on Pizarro's raid of the Incas. According to Marr, the Inca Atahualpa, simply because he had heard that the Bible contained the word of God, blundered into throwing the Bible to the ground, thus giving Pizarro occasion to butcher the whole indigenous Peruvian population. After supplying the Spanish with gold, 'Pizarro had no further use of Atahualpa' and had the poor dear garroted. In so many words, Pizarro is deprived of other motives, such as foreseeing that executing the Inca would bring the entire empire to its knees – and it lies entirely beyond Marr's moral lesson to relate that the Inca Empire just might have been far worse than the Spanish.

One more example from the series will suffice: when relating the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945, Marr follows the usual marring of this event by omitting to mention that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets. One was military head quarters, the other home of the Mitsubishi torpedo factories. That the Japanese chose to surround their military HQs and plants with women and children does not entirely justify the usual footage of children playing in schoolyards as the only 'before shots' of the bombings.

What we don't get in Marr's series, luckily, are the attempts to excuse the communist regimes – excuses that were running rampant until fifteen years ago, oddly enough. Marr is quite explicit on this point, lumping 'reds' together with Nazis, and here I quite agree with him, and I salute the BBC for finally realizing the truth. It took some time. No, Marr's sermon is in praise of Islamic culture. They were (are?) so much wiser and more artistic than the rest, on this point miracle follows miracle and wonders never cease, and then the Muslims had the good fortune of not being wicked westerners. Such as Marco Polo, whom Marr proceeds to strip of all honours, like the compulsory liar he is. I mean Marco, not Marr. Or wait: I'll leave that for others to decide.

The French Revolution

A strange cry for liberty
I fully agree with the former commentators here that the film passes lightly over a complex chapter of history, but for one thing, it is hard to press matters down into two hours, even with a rapid-speaking narrator, and for another thing, I think the expert witnesses called in are very good indeed, and even take opposing views so as to represent at least part of the complexity of the subject matter.

Although I do prefer documentaries that don't stuff extras into costumes to portray historical characters, at least History Channel's The French Revolution don't give them lines to speak. Serious research really goes down the drain when that happens.

No, my major objection to this documentary is its parting words. They go: "Wherever tyranny takes root, the cry for justice can be heard: for liberty, for equality, for fraternity … for revolution!" And this comes in to close off a film that has (accurately, to my mind) depicted the French Revolution as a botched version of the American Revolution which inspired it. A revolution which started in the brutal murder of the innocent Launay who guarded the Bastille, and got gradually worse, what with the September massacres of defenseless prisoners, foreign wars and the wholesale slaughter of the various fractions of its fellow revolutionaries. The French Revolution in itself turned into the worst kind of tyranny imaginable. In spite of staying loyal to this view, and in spite of showing Robespierre off as a madman, the film still baffles me by its ending that seems to be written by someone who hasn't seen the film at all: "Wherever tyranny takes root, the cry for justice can be heard: for liberty, for equality, for fraternity … for revolution!"

I beg your pardon?

La nuit de Varennes

Blixenesque ingenuity
Scola's Nuit de Varennes is a wonderfully composed and compact ... well, drama might be a misleading description, unless it's drama of ideologies. The concept itself is nothing short of brilliant: in 1791, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attempt to flee France and the revolution. They get to the the small town of Varennes, just a few miles shy of the border, where they are arrested and led back to Paris, later to be guillotined.

However, we are not in the royal getaway coach, but in the periphery of the historical drama; in the coach following the doomed royals is a strange melange of ideologies, a motley and cosmopolitan crew of aspects of the world that is about to disappear and that which is soon to come. The new ideology is represented by Thomas Paine (Harvey Keitel) and writer Restif (Jean-Louis Barrault), the ancien regime by Countess de la Borde (Hanna Schygulla), carrying with her Louis XVI's royal parade robe. Marcello Mastroianni portrays an eclipsed and impotent Casanova and Daniel Gelin is De Wende, an unscrupulous entrepreneur who is sure to survive both the revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic wars with his fortune intact.

The very idea of letting the soul of a historical period be represented by characters that, put together, cover all aspects of the matter, is reminiscent of Blixen's (or Isak Dinesen's) tales, such as "The Deluge of Norderney", "The Dreamers" or "The Heroine".

It's expertly done in this beautifully executed film. The scenery, the dialogue and the acting are all masterly. The story loyally refuses to play favorites. The revolution is justified by the sufferings of the people of France, but the children of the revolution - partly represented by a young, hateful and self-righteous student who insults Casanova - have no sense of the noblesse and chivalry they destroy. We clearly sense how the revolution will readily lapse into the mindless brutality of the reign of terror that was shortly to follow. The sympathy that arises across the revolutionary gulf between the royalist Baroness and the modern Thomas Paine is among the most touching things in the film which culminates in Varennes after the collapse of royal power with Schygulla's Baroness kneeling before the royal robes on a dress maker's dummy.

The Hollow Crown

A Conquest for a prince to boast of
"The Hollow Crown" is BBC's magnificent filming of the Shakespeare's second Henriad (Richard II with Henry IV's rise to power, Henry IV, parts I and II, and Henry V). I believe the first three of these have only been filmed in the old 1970s BBC series of Shakespeare's complete works, and although the old series was at its best with its version of Henry IV, "The Hollow Crown" is far above it. Simon Russell Beale is the ideal choice for Falstaff, even with Orson Welles hard on his heels in the Falstaff compilation "Chimes at Midnight", Tom Hiddleston is a great Prince Hal, and Jeremy Irons, never known to err, shines as the guilt-ridden King Henry IV.

There are some interesting comments on the bonus material for Henry IV, part II that explains why the plays come across so successfully in 2012. Thea Sharrock, director of Henry V, muses that people may be shocked at hearing the actors speak in real surroundings (on location), but of course, that's old hat. Even Olivier anticipated that in 1944 with his Henry V. Moviegoers are not that easily shocked anymore. And although Hiddelston is also mistaken in his claim that it has never been done before, he is right in stating that "Shakespeare is at its best when you speak it like you're making it up." Julie Walters adds, "You've got to speak the lines, not in a stilted isn't-the-verse-beautiful kind of way; it's got to be the way you talk"

This natural way of speaking the lines, more foreign to British Shakespeare productions than to American ones, accounts for the greatness of "The Hollow Crown".

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