A Bigger Splash

This is an interesting and beautifully photographed movie — I’m not sure it’s a good one.

A female rock superstar is recovering from throat surgery on an Italian island, with her boyfriend. She gets a phone call from her long-time manager (and, as we soon learn, her former boyfriend), who impulsively decides to visit with his teenaged daughter.   New boyfriend is not so happy.  Teenage daughter is bored and decides to seduce new boyfriend.  Rock star wishes they would all go away.  A pool is involved.

Tilda Swinton is less annoying than usual, perhaps because, as a character recovering from throat surgery, most of her part is in mime.  Dakota Johnson, best known for 50 Shades, shows surprising depth as a young girl who is aware of the fact that her looks drive men crazy, but isn’t quite ready to handle the fallout.  The real standout is Ralph Fiennes, in a role far outside his traditional comfort zone —  he sings!  he dances!  he cracks jokes!  The movie is almost worth seeing for his performance alone.  Almost.

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Allied

Here’s a movie that has an outstanding cast, headed by Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard; an interesting story, based on a real incident, about a married couple working as intelligence agents for the UK in World War II; and a highly acclaimed director, Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Contact, Back to the Future).  Yet the movie isn’t really that good.  How did that happen?

My own theory is that the director couldn’t decide whether he was making a wartime romance, like Casablanca, or a spy thriller.  He decided he wanted to remake Casablanca.   Much of Allied seems intentionally designed to evoke that earlier movie — the early scenes in Morocco, the closing scene on a landing strip, even Cotillard’s costumes.  This was an unfortunate choice. Focusing on the romance, the director spends far too little time on the spy thriller aspects of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.  Important clues and plot twists occur in short, poorly staged scenes, which seem to go by too fast.  By the time you get to the dramatic closing scene, it doesn’t pack the emotional punch it should have had.

Casablanca took an unusual path to success — a second-rate story, with often cheesy dialogue, it happened to catch the national mood, offering an optimistic outlook during the darkest days of World War II.  Bogart and Bergman never appeared together in a movie again — perhaps realizing, as Zemeckis did not, that Casablanca was like a Stradivarius violin — whatever it was that made it great could not be repeated.

Pitt and Cotillard have good on-screen chemistry; I’d like to see them again sometime in a better movie.

Moonlight

A thoughtful and interesting film, about a somewhat smaller and more personal topic than is typical for an Oscar Best Picture winner.  The movie follows the life of a young boy, Chiron, growing up in a poor part of Miami, and is presented in three acts — elementary school, high school and young adulthood.  Chiron is small and quiet, and is often bullied.  He doesn’t get much help at home either — he is being “raised” by a single mother with a major substance abuse problem.  Like most “survivor” children, Chiron finds help from caring outsiders.   This is not a traditional Hollywood “kid succeeds against all odds movie.    But by the end, Chiron has become an honest, emotionally mature adult — whatever happens in the rest of his life, you feel sure he is not going to repeat the cycle of violence and abuse he grew up with.

Barry Jenkins is a relatively young director — this is only his third feature-length film.  His inexperience shows in some awkward transitions.   Characters disappear or have major things happen to them between acts — you might miss them if you’re not paying close attention to what seems like casual dialogue.  (The more experienced Richard Linklater handled similar episodic transitions in Boyhood much more deftly).  The characters of Chiron and his childhood friend Kevin are played by different actors in each act, which is confusing until you figure out who is who.  And the pace is very slow; even for someone like me, with a high tolerance for deliberately-paced movies, some of the scenes, particularly in the second act, tend to drag.  A

These relatively small flaws do not detract from the power of the third act, where a now young adult Chiron confronts some of the characters from his early life.  Suddenly a boy who could barely put three words together speaks powerfully and honestly about his own inner life.  It’s riveting stuff, and it projects a kind of emotional honesty that is rare in movies.

Highly recommended.

Versailles

This French and Canadian co-production about the early years of Louis XIV at Versailles was shot, somewhat surprisingly, entirely in English with Anglophone actors.

Louis, in his mid-20s, is King without question but not yet politically secure.  He conceives the idea of moving the court from Paris to what had been a royal hunting lodge at Versailles, less for the scenery than for the ability to force all the nobles to live at court, away from what might be independent power centers on their home estates.  In this, he was ultimately successful.  Louis literally invented the modern French state, centralized with a strong chief executive — an approach to organizing government that survived the Revolution and still influences the operation of the  French government today.

Is there sex on this show?  Mais oui — we are talking about Louis XIV.  But it’s much more restrained than the Tudors or the Borgias, which bordered on soft-core porn.  And while there are a few kinky interactions, there are no rapes (looking at you, Outlander).  Louis is presented as a stand-up guy who retained some affection for his mistresses even after he tired of them, and provided for their children, which I believe is historically accurate.  And his wife has surprisingly good relationships with his mistresses, which I think is historically accurate too.

As for the rest, the show engages in the “true rumor” school of historical drama.  If a historical personage dies suddenly amid rumors of poisoning, the show treats it as a poisoning.  The female doctor whose medical knowledge was about 200 years ahead of her time was a bit much — perhaps there’s a time-travel subplot they haven’t told us about?  On the other hand, the use of an “advanced” doctor is a pretty common device in period shows — it spares modern audiences the true horrors of period-appropriate medicine.

The interactions between Louis, his brother Phillippe, and Phillippe’s wife Henrietta of England are some of the most interesting in the show.  There is no evidence that Louis slept with Henrietta, but since Phillipe was quite openly gay, who knows?

Phillipe, by the way, was regarded by his contemporaries as a flamboyant dresser.  In an era where “straight” men wore lace collars and cuffs, high-heel shoes and shoulder-length curls, he must have been really something.  The costumers wisely dialed that back a bit.

The cast of lesser-known actors is pretty good.  The plot meanders a bit, but it’s not too hard to keep track of what’s going on.

Best of all, this show looks fantastic. Many of the exteriors are actually shot at Versaiiles; some of the interiors are shot at other French chateaus, including Vaux-le-Vicomte, which had the same architect.

On the whole, pretty entertaining — if you don’t think too hard.

The Crown / Victoria

These two series were produced independently of each other by completely different companies.  I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that they wound up airing in the US at roughly the same time.  But having seen them roughly back-to-back, it’s inevitable that they will be compared.

Each series concerns the early reign of a young, under-prepared girl as Queen of England.  Each shows us the young Queen developing a working relationship with various Prime Ministers, handling the unpopularity of her foreign-born husband, and dealing with the fact that, despite the trappings of privilege, her life is no longer totally her own.  Each features an alumnus of Dr. Who is a leading role (Matt Smith as Prince Phillip; Jenna Coleman as Victoria).  Each features English actor Alex Jennings as the Queen’s busybody uncle (King Leopold / Edward VIII).  Each has a subplot involving the obscure Royal Marriages Act, which seems to have no other purpose than interfering with royal romances.   Each is shot in beautiful period-appropriate locations, with beautiful period-appropriate costumes. And each features a rather surprising rat in the Buckingham Palace kitchen (I think it’s the same rodent, but I wouldn’t swear to it).

Victoria is a little soapier, with some subplots involving “downstairs” characters.  They don’t really add much to the plot, although one relationship is very sweet (it involves the pastry chef).  In The Crown, the senior members of the royal staff, themselves children of the aristocracy, are treated like servants, and the actual servants are treated as though they don’t exist (which I suspect is closer to the truth).

Victoria also has a more romanticized vision of the monarchy.  The Crown is neutral on the subject, but anti-monarchists will find plenty of ammunition.

The Crown probably has a stronger cast (Clair Foy as Elizabeth, John Lithgow as Churchill), but Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne is pretty good too.  The Crown also has better writing, and grittier characters, but perhaps takes itself just a bit too seriously.  Victoria, while lighter fare, is more fun to watch.

Humans (AMC)

The first season of this British TV program about androids designed for robot-like service, a few of whom accidentally develop consciousness, aired in Britain two years ago.  The second season has just started airing in the US on AMC.  In between, HBO aired a big-budget series called Westworld which covered much of the same ground.  This show is better. As is often the case, working with a lower budget forced Human’s  developers to focus on character and plot instead of relying on special effects to build an audience.  As a result, you have a wonderful collection of complex characters and interactions.  Humans have a range of responses to the conscious androids (they’re not all perverts), and the androids have a variety of responses to various humans too.  Best of all, the story follows a single timeline and all the action is presented as factual — a traditional method of storytelling which has become all too rare in an era of multiple timelines and unreliable narratives.

Check it out.

Arrival

I enjoyed this movie, and was tremendously moved by the ending, even though, having read the novella, I knew what was coming.

The story is simple enough — a dozen alien space ships suddenly appear above the earth.  Why are they here?  Various governments put together teams of specialists, from linguists to mathematicians, to attempt to communicate.  Stuff happens.

Amy Adams, as the master linguist, gives a wonderful performance.  It didn’t attract Oscar attention — Oscars tend to go to actors who play damaged people who undergo dramatic transformation.  Here, most of Adams’ character transformation takes place in her head.  But whenever she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her.

Where the film really shines, though, is in its astonishing visual imagery.  It’s not merely pretty — although there are plenty of dramatic vistas. Nor is it merely a matter of special effects — although they way they depict the alien gravity field is remarkable.  It is a tour-de-force of visual imagination — from the odd-shaped “how can that possibly exist” alien spacecraft, to the weirdly beautiful pictograms, even to the fractal earrings your eye barely register.  I guess it’s not that surprising that the director is French, a country whose best art has always been visual   (Not all cultural stereotypes are false.)

Highly recommended.

The Hollow Crown, Part II (BBC)

This British TV series (3 2-hour episodes) provides the rare opportunity to see Richard III together with its prequel, the rarely-produced story of Henry VI.  The production values are very high.  The cast is uniformly excellent, offering top-flight actors even in the smaller roles. The directors used period homes, castles and cathedrals for greater authenticity, and the outdoor scenes are actually filmed outdoors. The language is delivered, for the most part, in a naturalistic, accessible style, without the “declaiming” that mars many British productions.  I have some quibbles with certain of the artistic choices, as noted below.  But in general these productions are very fine.

The three parts of Henry VI have been condensed into the first 2 episodes.  For the most part, that’s a good thing, since these plays aren’t Shakespeare’s best.  They cut out most of the stuff about Joan of Arc (just as well, since she’s written as an unsympathetic character that would be jarring to most modern audiences).  And by eliminating the subplot about Jack Cade’s rebellion, they cut the play’s most famous (and most famously misunderstood) line, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  But I suppose that couldn’t be helped.

The first part of Henry VI is by far the stronger of the two.  Henry VI acceded to the throne upon his father’s death, when he was still an infant.  His uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was named as regent.  Twenty-odd years later, after Henry achieves his majority, other courtiers manage to get Henry to first depose Humphrey, then execute him.  The story of a boy king turning against his uncle as an adult goes a long way towards explaining, though not condoning, Richard’s murder of his nephews some decades later.

The part of uncle Humphrey is played by Hugh Bonneville, best known to American audiences as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.  I had no idea he was such a good actor.

The second part of Henry VI is still tedious, even with all the cuts.  And although the deaths are in the play, the copious amounts of blood are a modern invention.  I’m not sure  it adds anything.

As to Richard III, what can I say?  It’s one of Shakespeare’s great plays, and this version is credible enough.

Here’s where some of the artistic choices started to bother me.  Richard III starts 10 years after the end of the last part of Henry VI. In an early scene,Richard courts Anne, the widow of Henry’s son Edward, Prince of Wales, who was killed at the end of Henry VI.  Many standalone productions of Richard III alter the timeline to show Richard wooing Anne at Edward’s funeral — which is, in fact, closer to the truth. (Richard married Anne a year after Edward’s death, and they had a son, who died young.)    Here, they stick to the play’s text, which implies a 10 year gap between Edward’s death and Richard’s marriage.  Why keep the gap, even though they are presenting the plays together as a continuous whole?  They even have a new actress to play Richard’s mother, which doesn’t sit right, even if it is Judy Dench — especially since all the other parts from the earlier plays are played by the same actors.

The biggest problem with this production, though, is Richard himself.  There are two ways to play Richard III.  The “traditional” route is to play Richard as grotesque monster, a man whose soul is as twisted as his body.  The other route, which I prefer, is to portray Richard as man who might have been great, but whose mental chip on his shoulder eventually deforms his soul more than his physical one — more Michael Corleone than Scarface.  Unfortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch chooses the traditional route.   He is a fine actor, who delivers his lines very well and chews scenery with the best of them.   But his Richard is never a sympathetic character.  You can’t wait for him to hurry up and die already, which means the play doesn’t have the emotional resonance a true tragedy might have had.

Nobel

This is one of a group of Norwegian TV series now available in subtitled form on Netflix.  Unlike Occupied, a political thriller set in a dystopian near future (which I also liked), this series is set firmly in the present.  The protagonist is a member of a Norwegian special forces team deployed to Afghanistan.  Home on leave, he finds himself in the middle of a political firestorm, pitting Norway’s image of itself as a liberal, peace-loving democracy against the realities of a war zone.  (The title refers to the Nobel Peace Prize, which unlike the other awards is administered in Norway; the politics of the award form a minor subplot in the storyline).  The acting and writing quality of this show is pretty high. I particularly liked the scene in which the protagonist tells his 10-year old son what his job really is, and how that squares with his Norwegian liberal values — it had an emotional honesty that is rare in any movie or TV production, no matter what the country. The Norwegian scenery is pretty cool, too.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

The second season, now available on Amazon, goes far beyond Phillip K. Dick’s book, which makes sense, since PKD didn’t really provide an ending.   The three protagonists — Frank, Juliana and Joe — follow their own story arcs this season.  Each character faces his own moral dilemmas,where the “right” decisions — either morally or operationally — are not immediately apparent.  We get a glimpse of life in 1960s Berlin, where the children of the elite dabble in forbidden music and psychedelic drugs.  Meanwhile, the younger generation of Americans is intent on being even better Nazis than the original Germans.

The Japanese trade minister, a hero of the first seasons, spends much of Season 2 wandering around in an alternate universe, which is startlingly like our own.  What’s more, he’s not the only one.  And there may be more than two worlds.  I’m not sure what the alternate universe storyline adds to the overall mix, but unlike certain other recent programs (cough, cough, Westworld), at least when you’re watching it’s pretty clear what timeline you’re on.

One of the strengths of this show is in the interesting, morally complex characters.  You might find yourself more sympathetic to the Japanese police chief than the ethically-challenged, “ends justify the means” Resistance.  Another strong point of the series is the set design. The folks who put this show together really thought about what an America in the 1960s, whose cultural development was retarded by a repressive government, might look like.  In large part, that means technological progress (solid state TVs, supersonic planes) far ahead of its time, but music, art and fashion stubbornly stuck in the early 1950s.  They come up with a look that is very similar to the world we know, but subtly just different enough, much like Battlestar Galactia.  (Speaking of BSG –  three members of the anti-Japanese resistance are played by actors who were human/Cylons on that program).