Tuesday evening, May 31st, we went to the Downer Theater to see the new movie, Love and Friendship, adapted from Jane Austen’s unfinished work, “Lady Susan.” The adaptation was done by Whit Stillman who is also the film’s director.

Unusually for Austen, instead of being set in the 18-teens, the story takes place in the late 1770’s-early 1780’s, as the “American War” is recently over. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed and left penniless. Her primary mission in life is to find an advantageous marriage for her talented but shy daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and secondarily for herself. She complicates matters for herself due to her due to her own desires, since, as the story opens, we see that she is being thrown out of the house of her friend, Lady Manwairing (Jenn Murray), who quite correctly believes that Lady Sarah has been too friendly with her husband.
She is able to take refuge with her late husband’s brother, Sir Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his family, which she uses as a base of operations to continue trying to make a match between her daughter and the wealthy but intractably stupid Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), while cultivating a relationship of her own with the young and handsome Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel).

The course of true love never did run smooth, and that of calculated matrimony even less so, as there are considerable complications before the plot works out.

Mr. Stillman is not quite up to Jane Austen’s level as a writer of dialog, and most of the wit and snark that we look for in adaptations of her novels is missing. This is mostly made up for by Lady Susan’s bottomless fount of invention. A master manipulator, she is never at a loss, even when nearly caught red-handed entertaining one man while keeping another on her string.

The plot works out in what we thought was the sensible fashion, although the denouement is brought about with some off-screen slight of hand, so a bit unsatisfying. On the other hand, the film is shot on location in Ireland, so both settings and costumes are fine to look at. Beckinsale gives a fascinating performance, and the cast of supporting characters, including Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, and Jemma Redgrave, is just splendid, so it all adds up to a pleasant little movie.
On Sunday, June 28th, we drove to the Paine Art Museum in Oshkosh, to see the travelling exhibit, “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times.” (We weren’t able to join the Milwaukee Steampunk Society for the outing on Saturday, so went on our own--.)

This is the exhibit’s second stop in America, having just come from its opening at Biltmore, the palatial home of the famous Commodore Vanderbilt. Curated in conjunction with the show’s production company, it is apparently being shown only in museums such as Biltmore and the Paine, which once were fine homes and provide appropriate settings for the costumes.

In this regard, the Paine Museum is a spectacular success. Construction of the house began in 1925, but it was deliberately designed by the architect to appear to have been constructed and (tastefully) added on to over three centuries of English building styles. As such, the home suits the costumes marvelously, and many are shown in the correct setting: dinner dress in the dining room, travelling clothes in the foyer, formal gowns in the ballroom, and outdoor clothing, such as Lady Mary’s riding habit, Matthew Crawley’s military uniform, and Lady Edith’s bicycling outfit (complete with bicycle) are shown in the specious purpose-built gallery.

The house and its permanent collection of artworks are worth the trip alone, but it was hard to pull ourselves away from the costumes. They are all shown in the open. Most you can get very close to, and many of those that you can’t see the back of have strategically placed mirrors allowing you to see back details. The exhibition includes large color photographs of the costumes as worn, and text identifying the episodes in which they appeared.

The museum gift shop has been totally given over to “Downton Abbey” related merchandise, from tea and wine to jewelry and teddy bears. (There’s no “Carson” bear—yet!) We resisted most of the temptations, but did buy an exhibit catalog, which is very nice.

Of course we dressed Neo-Edwardian, which got us a number of approving comments from visitors and staff. The staff mentioned also that they had very much appreciated the Milwaukee Steampunk Society visit the previous day.

The exhibition remains in Oshkosh through September 20th. The exhibition will be returning to the Midwest later: The Richard H. Dreihaus Museum, Chicago, February-May 2016; The Taft Museum of Art, Cleveland, July-September 2016; and The History Museum, South Bend, Indiana, October 2016-January 2017.
Commencing in 1938, "The Book Thief", based on the novel by Markus Zusak, follows the life of a young German girl, Liesl (Sophie Nélisse), though the early years of World War II. It is a sad, affecting, moving story. Her mother, a Communist, is fleeing the Nazis and surrenders Liesl to foster care. The plan was for her to be with her younger brother, but he dies on the way to their new home, so she is left to the care of strangers, alone.

Her new parents are Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), a sign painter and veteran of World War I, and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson), an angry and disappointed woman. Hans' warmth and gentleness make it possible for him to ride over Rosa's abrasiveness to help make a home for Liesl.

Initially illiterate (presumably due to having lived life underground with her fugitive mother--), Liesl treats books with an almost mystical reverence, that doesn't entirely go away once Hans has helped her learn to read. (That she's lived rough is also implied when, having been teased as a "dummkopf", she takes down the school bully with a solid punch to the head, and follows up with a ferocious attack-no "girly" slaps or hair-pulling for her!)

School life continues with the variations attendant on being in Hitler's Germany: general enrollment in the Hitler Youth (Ms. Nélisse, in an interview, said that wearing the uniform was creepy--), and attending the community book-burning session. This is where she 'steals' one book, a singed copy of "The Invisible Man" rescued from the pyre. (The book would have been condemned because H.G. Wells was well-known as a Socialist at the time--.) This doesn't mean that she has any reverence for Der Fuhrer: she jokes with a friend, imagining conversations between Hitler and his mother; "Who cut your hair?" "What's that on your lip?"

Although the story has elements common to a number of World War II narratives-Hans, Rosa and Liesl hide Max, the son of a Jew who saved Hans' life in the first war-its real strengths lie in showing how the lives of the common people were both similar to, and different from, other nations. The people still feel the losses of the last war, the wounds and the missing sons. In the new war, food and fuel become short; sons, and sometimes fathers, go away; there are air raids. But also, the local Gestapo man is not a cold-eyed stranger, but someone you've known for years, and is dangerous because he's too honestly friendly and knows you too well--.

Given the setting, it's not surprising that it's a sad story, but how completely, and how suddenly, is still shocking. Nevertheless, it's all very, very well done, and well worth experiencing.

Fine, fine performances by Sophie Nélisse, who goes from about age eleven to sixteen by the time the war ends; by Rush, who is charming as only he can be, with none of the smarm found in his "con-man" roles; Ms. Watson, as the woman whose stony façade cracks convincingly; and Nico Liersch, the German "everyboy" who befriends Liesl.

The film looks perfect, with "Heaven Street", where most of the action takes place, looking convincingly like an old, rather run-down European street, neither modern nor picturesquely Medieval. Costuming had some interesting details, such as the boys evidently wearing tights under their short pants when playing soccer in the early winter, and the elegant house coats worn by the Burgomaster's wife when at home.

Highly recommended.
On Friday night, September 6th, we went to Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove to see a concert performance of “Victory for Victoria,” a new musical about the life of Victoria Woodhull, sometime spirit medium, the country’s first woman stockbroker, one of the 19th century’s most notorious advocates for women’s suffrage, and the first woman to run for the Presidency of the United States.

Woodhull, born Victoria Claflin, came to public life early, working with her younger sister, Tennessee, as part of her amoral father’s medicine show. Besides singing and testifying to the efficacy of “Dr. Claflin’s Pure Elixir,” the girls acted as fortune tellers by means of “spirits” whom they claimed talked to them. (The script makes it plain that most of the time they are fraudulent and know it, but also that they both have, from time to time experienced “visions” and spirit voices they believe to be real.)

In order to escape her odious father, she accepts the proposal of Dr. Canning Woodhull, who soon proved to be a disappointment due to his alcoholism. The script depicts Victoria giving birth at home alone while her doctor husband is getting drunk(er) at the nearby saloon.
She is soon shown as leaving Woodhull for the much more supportive Col. James Blood, who became her second husband. (Note: The musical script plays loose with facts for dramatic effect, but also portrays Woodhull in much the same light her opponents shown on her. Records are unclear when she obtained a divorce from Dr. Woodhull, and when she was legally married to Col. Blood, which, given her highly publicized and often deliberately misconstrued stance on “free love”, allowed enemies to argue that she was a bigamist, if not actually living in a ménage a trois with Blood and Woodhull, whom she supported when he became unable to work.)

With Blood’s help, she rescues her sister from their father, and moves t o New York, where they become protégés of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who ultimately helps set them up as the first women to own a stock brokerage. Whether Vanderbilt was more enamoured of their supposedly spiritually inspired stock advice, or Tennessee’s charms is debatable, but he was reportedly interested in both.

The musical deals with Victoria’s rise to becoming the first woman to own and operate a newspaper, the second woman to petition Congress for suffrage, and the first woman to run for President, and her fall, when speaking about “free love” caused her to become a scandal, and her publishing of details of the extramarital affairs of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher resulted in being prosecuted for obscenity by Anthony Comstock.

The concert presentation had an excellent cast of voices, lead by Kerry Hart Bienemann as Victoria and Katy Johnson as Tennessee. A very literate and clever book was supplied by sister authors Susan Peterson Holmes and Peggy Peterson Ryan, and, mirabile dictu, a tuneful and singable score by Alissa Rhode.

We had been particularly interested in the piece because Georgie had done research on Victoria Woodhull and made a presentation about her at TeslaCon. We found it a fascinating and amusing portrait of a truly unique American character, many of whose ideas are still thought radical today. The musical, still a work in progress, has great promise, and we hope one day to be able to see a full professionally produced performance.
On Saturday the 22nd, we went to the Milwaukee Public Museum to take in their current traveling exhibit, "Real Pirates". The exhibition, assembled by the National Geographic Society, centers on the brief but busy career of the pirate ship "Whydah," which ran aground, capsized, and sank in a storm off Cape Cod on April 26, 1717.

The exhibition imbeds the story of the Whydah in a history of piracy in general, in the Atlantic and Caribbean in particular, and in the history of the latter days of the Slave Trade.

The Slave Trade is significant, since the Whydah, commissioned in 1715, was purpose-built by a consortium of London merchants, as a slaver. She made one voyage from Africa to Cuba with a cargo of slaves, in early 1716. After selling that cargo at Cuba, the Whydah and her new cargo of precious metals, sugar, indigo, spices, rum, and "medicinal ingredients" was pursued and overtaken by pirate Sam Bellamy and his ships, the galley "Sultana" and sloop "Marianne". After a three-day chase and desultory exchange of gunfire, the Whydah surrendered, and was taken as a pirate vessel by Bellamy. (Slavers, which tended to be heavily armed, and whose "cargo space" could readily be converted into accommodation for large pirate crews, were prized as pirate ships.)

"Black Sam" Bellamy was an Englishman who had emigrated to the Cape Cod area, and who had "gone on the account" (i.e. become a pirate), according to legend, because he lacked money to be able to marry. In a bit more than a year, he went from being an apprentice pirate to commanding a small fleet, and capturing fifty prizes, which made him relatively, one of the most successful pirates ever. Unfortunately, he couldn't beat the North Atlantic in its rage, and he, 143 of his 145 crew, and all of his treasure went down with the Whydah.

In 1982, a diving crew led and funded by underwater explorer Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of the Whydah, one of the few authenticated pirate ships ever found. Since then, over 200,000 items have been recovered from the wreck site, including the ship's bell, many of her cannon, and chests full of silver and gold pieces.

The exhibit includes a representative sample of the artifacts from the Whydah, a partial reconstruction of the ship, the aforementioned historical material, and a section on the discovery of the wreckage and retrieval of the booty. The exhibit is enlivened by pirate-costumed docents who interact with the visitors in a variety of accents befitting the cosmopolitan makeup of pirate crews.

We found the exhibit very interesting, and fascinating to be able to see closely the remnants of this turbulent time. The exhibition continues at the Milwaukee Public Museum through May 27th, 2013.
Sunday afternoon, September 16th, we went to the Oriental Theatre to see the movie, "Farewell. My Queen" ("Les Adieux a la Reine"). This movie, set in the early days of the French Revolution, gives a rarely seen perspective on the events, that of the regime's loyal followers and servants—gentry privileged to serve the Queen closely, but not the great nobility, nor the commoners. The viewpoint character, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) is a well-born orphan who is "the servant of the Queen's books" or the Queen's reader, whose main task is to read aloud to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) when she desires that sort of amusement. Although essentially a lady-in-waiting, Sidonie is subordinate to the older ladies with grander jobs, and lives in a room in the dingy and neglected backstairs of Versailles, only distinguishable from the commoner servants in that she has a room to herself.

We also see that Sidonie has a serious crush on the beautiful Queen, who, herself, has an apparently homoerotic fixation on the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).

The movie begins the morning after the storming of the Bastille, and it is interesting to see how the news percolates into the insular worlds of the royal enclave, where news and gossip are sought after and the stuff with which favors are purchased. Sidonie and her class are not privy to the great decisions of state, but can only try to ride with the emotional upheavals of rumor and the physical upheavals of the royal family's indecision as to whether or not to leave Versailles, and if so, to where.

This is a rather low-keyed film, since it ends before "The Terror" and the Queen's death, but concentrates more on the day-to-day life of the denizens of Versailles, which is fascinating. We see at night the vast State Rooms empty and dark, while the servant's quarters are a busy thoroughfare teeming with both the noble and the common, some seeking reassurance, and some seeking the titillation of uncertainty.

The film is handsomely mounted if somewhat subdued, which seems more realistic than the costume spectaculars that movies of this period frequently turn into. We see much more of the Queen's bedroom and the backstairs than the ballroom, and much more of the Queen en dishabille than in her grand gowns, and of these, the one we see most of is more casual than the elaborate affairs usually portrayed. From a costume aspect, the outfits worn by Sidonie and the other waiting women are most interesting.

A very interesting portrayal of a familiar time from an unfamiliar viewpoint. In French, with English subtitles. Some nudity, no bad language, and, surprisingly, no violence since all that takes place off camera out of the characters' view.
On Monday, November 14th, we went to the Milwaukee Public Museum to see the exhibit entitled: "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt." Now, it has to be confessed that there's probably only one piece in the exhibition that Cleopatra the 9th actually touched, that being a parchment document granting a tax concession (politics has not changed a lot since Cleopatra's day, evidently,) which bears her "make it so" imprimatur. However, the exhibition does contain 150 artifacts from the Ptolemaic period, most of them recently recovered from Alexandria harbor, where they have lain since that portion of the great city was destroyed by earthquake and tsunami nearly 2000 years ago. This is an era much less seen in museums than that of the Pharaohs such as Tutankhamen, and showed some interesting stylistic differences even in such things as colossal statues that we found fascinating. There was some very handsome jewelry, and a number of very fine coins. The exhibit also contained information new to me on the Queen's convoluted family tree, and on the numerous political intrigues, rebellions, and wars the Queen survived before her final fatal confrontation with Rome.

Very interesting and recommended for fans of Egyptology.
The 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival ended Oct. 2nd, and we went up to the North Shore Cinemas to see "Young Goethe in Love," which deals with a critical period in the life of Germany's most famous poet and playwright. It's not a good time for the 23-year old. In rapid succession, he has flunked out of law school, had a play rejected in humiliating terms, and been told by his father that unless he shapes up and accepts a legal apprenticeship Dad has arranged for him in the backwater town of Wetzlar, there will be no more parental support and he's out on his own. With no other prospects, Johann grudgingly agrees and takes up the grim and regimented life of a court clerk.

Things eventually begin to get better as he builds a friendship with his deskmate, Wilhelm Jerusalem, gains the respect of his superior, Counsellor Kestner, and falls in love with Charlotte "Lotte" Buff, the daughter of a struggling farmer--not knowing that Lotte's father is in the process of arranging a marriage for her with Kestner in order to save the farm.

There's no coincidence in the English release being titled "Young Goethe in Love," since the movie (simply titled "Goethe!" in the original) is giving Goethe the "Shakespeare In Love" treatment--i.e., creating a romanticized and fictionalized story out of events that have a loose relationship to the film plot. That being said, it's a very enjoyable film. It is beautifully shot and looks well, with late 18th Century Germany looking appropriately gritty, sooty, muddy, dusty, and dim (interiors are mostly candle-lit) so that Goethe's escapes to the beautiful countryside are quite easy to understand.

The cast is very fine. Alexander Fehling as Goethe even looks rather like the young author, and deals with his ups and downs very well. As is often the case with European films, most of the cast can out-act typical Hollywood actors without saying a word, as in the scene where Johann and Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu) make the mutually horribly embarrassing discovery that Lotte (Miriam Stein)is both Kestner's fiance and Johann's lover. The profound discomfort all three of them are feeling comes clearly across, although rigid propriety is maintained by the characters.

Good fun, good to look at, and very enjoyable although only a 'biopic' in the loosest sense, although it did inspire me to look up more about Goethe, who was in fact a genius and a fascinating character in his own right.
On Sunday the 21st, we went to the Oriental Theater to see "The Last
Station," which concerns the last days of the author Leo Tolstoy. We
were interested because the trailers looked good, both Christopher
Plummer and Helen Mirren were nominated for Oscars for their
performances, very deservedly as it turns out; also, I knew very little
about the life of Tolstoy and was curious.

The viewpoint character of the film is Valentin Bulgakov, (James McAvoy)
who is hired to act as Tolstoy's secretary overtly, and also to act as a
team member in the tug-of-war between Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti),
the head of the "Tolstoyan movement" and Countess Sophia, Tolstoy's wife
(Mirren). Their long battle is over who has influence and control over
Tolstoy in his last days. Tolstoy has become a near-saint to some, due
to his adoption of an ascetic, collectivist, and non-violent philosophy,
which teaches against private property and in favor of passive
resistance to coercive authority. If this sounds familiar, it is because
Tolstoy's thoughts, set down in "The Kingdom of God is Within You,"
influenced Gandhi, among others. Chertkov is determined to cement
Tolstoy's saintly image by getting him to put his literary work,
including rights to "War and Peace," "Anna Karenina" and other works,
into the public domain as a grand gesture against private ownership.
Sophia, who rightly views these as the family treasure, is just as
determined to hang onto the works she feels she helped create and secure
the rights for herself and her children, and uses every tool at her
command to maintain a grip on her husband's life. Tolstoy (Plummer) is
whipsawed between his principles and Chertkov's moral suasions on the
one hand, and his love for family and Sophia's fierce protectiveness of
her prerogatives on the other. Bulgakov, who comes into the fray as a
fervent Tolstoyan (anarchist, pacifist, vegetarian, celibate), is first
with Chertkov but rapidly begins to have sympathy for the Countess'
embattled position.

Ultimately, the aged Tolstoy, who has come to the "anything for a quiet
life" stage, can no longer stand being caught between Sophia's fiery
passion and Chertkov's glacial pressure and flees his home, taking the
local railway as far south as it goes, to the "last station" of the
title. Although Chertkov is a sincere Tolstoyan (and remained so until
his death in 1936) he comes off the heavy in the film, and, indeed,
although he speaks of "love of mankind" as Tolstoy does, it seems a
chilly kind of love that has no room for "sentiment" or "Romanticism,"
which the character roundly condemns.

Helen Mirren has the stand-out performance here as the scene-chewing
Countess. It's too much, however, to call her character a "drama
queen"-she knows very well what she is doing and uses every lever she
can find to accomplish her purpose, without shame or remorse. Plummer
is just as good as the tired old man who's trying to keep a low profile
in his declining years. They are well supported by Giamatti, McAvoy, and
Kerry Condon as the anarchist teacher who takes Valentin's virginity,
and Anne-Marie Duff as Tolstoy's daughter, Sasha, (Alexandra Lvovna),
who is also wounded in the war raging around her parents.
Highly recommended for fans of historical bio-pics. I thought it was
very well done overall, and is apparently well-regarded by the current
Tolstoy clan, although it does show an earthy side to their 'saintly'
ancestor. The film does contain one sex scene and some tasteful partial
nudity. The performances by Mirren and Plummer are well worth the price
of admission.

Thanks to Henry Osier, we were introduced to this 1996 production based upon Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel. It has a remarkable cast, featuring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gerard Depardieu, Jim Broadbent, Robin Williams, Eddie Izzard, and a very young Christian Bale.

 

“The Secret Agent” is one of the earlier novels of intrigue, and set a thematic path that would later be followed by such authors as Grahame Greene, Somerset Maugham, and John LeCarre. Conrad is one of the first writers to depict the grim realities of espionage, and how those who work in it can be forced into a vice between the conflicting demands of their paymasters, their families, and the society they move in.

 

Hoskins (who also produced) plays Verloc, an immigrant to England who supplements his shop in Soho and his life with his young wife (Arquette) by informing on the activities of expatriate Socialists and Anarchists to the Russian embassy, and also to the Chief Inspector of the Scotland Yard Special Branch (Broadbent).  Things start to go badly wrong for him when the new Russian Ambassador (Izzard) demands that he go further and provoke incidents so that the members of the revolutionary community can be deported back to their home countries, where they will be “safely” killed or executed.

 

Hoskins plays the amoral and cowardly Verloc with the skill we’ve come to expect from him, and is ably supported by the other players, including Williams in an unusual role for him, the monstrous Professor, whose only principle in life is Death, and who’s goal is the creation of “the perfect detonator” for the infernal machines he provides to all comers.

 

A fascinating and very riveting production. Only suitable for adults due to the subtlety of the story, and a few grisly images.

On Sunday the 10th, we went to the Downer Theatre to see the new movie of "Brideshead Revisited," adapted from the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh. With most of the action set in the late 20's early 30's it is one of that generation of pre-war stories written from the post-war perspective.

The protagonist is Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), the only son of an ironically distant middle-class father (mother long dead), whom we first encounter going off to university at Oxford. Ater a very unprepossessing first encounter, he soon becomes fast friends with Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), who is both a notable member of the school's homosexual clique and the son of nobility (Lord and Lady Marchmain, played by Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson). When Sebastian takes him on a visit to the ancestral home, the magnificent Brideshead, he also discovers that the family are part of the minority Roman Catholic English nobility, and that Lady Marchmain rules the house with the kind of Papist tyranny that Elizabeth I warred against.

As portrayed in this film, mainstream British society of the time tended to view Roman Catholicism as what we would now call a "cult," and in reaction to this and centuries of religious warfare and discrimination, the Flyte family has twisted into cultic practices, a chief one being that you can't ever leave the faith--.

Although Charles resists Sebastian's wistful attempts at seduction, Charles does fall hard for Julia Flyte, Sebastian's sister. Julia frankly does not know what she wants, but by the time she decides she might want Charles, her mother has compelled her betrothal to an American (Jonathan Cake), who is a cynical fortune-hunter, but a Catholic one.

The story plays out a braid of sad tales, as Lady Marchmain's efforts to "protect" her children drive Sebastian into alcoholism and exile, immure Julia in her loveless marriage, and cause Charles to rebound into a similarly passionless marriage with a woman who mainly wants to be his artistic manager.

Uniformly nice acting by the young people leavened by veteran actors Gambon as the feckless Lord Marchmain, Greta Scacchi as his worldly mistress, and Thompson as the tyrannous Lady Marchmain.

The film has very high production values. The setting for "Brideshead" is the palatial Castle Howard in North Yorkshire ( http://www.castlehoward.co.uk )
which is the same venue used in the TV miniseries of 1981. Interestingly, despite the script's references to the beauty and desirabilty of the residence, the shooting lingers mostly on the collection of funeral-seeming statuary and a remarkably ugly "Holy Family" which is supposedly Lady Marchmain's favorite. This supports the film's theme, in which Brideshead is a mausoleum or suffocating place to be escaped from. The TV series did not have as dark a tone, and therefore showed off the glories of the property to better advantage.

Although there are no bad words, no violence, and minimal sex (rear nude shots of Charles and Sebastian are more comical than titillating-), the story and themes are for those of adult understanding, dealing as they do with desire, lust, and guilt.

Very well done for a gently paced and sad story, perhaps a good antidote for too many summer superhero movies?
On Sunday afternoon, the 29th, Georgie and I went to the Downer Theatre to see "Mongol," which is reputed to be the first in a trilogy of films chronicling the life of the Mongol Temudjin (sic), better known to the West as Genghis Khan. It was a pity we couldn't manage to see it along with some of our SCA friends in the Great Dark Horde, to see if there was as much moaning and surpressed laughter as the "Elizabeth" movies wrung out of our Ren Faire purist friends.

Being pretty much ignorant of Temudjin's early years, I was free to enjoy the movie without prejudice, although, when the boy warrior survived enough privation, accident, and hostile action to have killed a normal boy six times, I began to suspect we were getting into the realm of legend. (There is some veiled implication of divine intervention--.) However, checking up later, I was surprised to see how much of the movie did follow what is generally accepted about his early life, including the death of his father, and usrpation of his position. However, in typical movie fashion, several clans/tribes that were in opposition at verious times get concatenated into one (the Merkits) and Temudjin's family life is likewise streamlined (extraneous brothers are never mentioned, for example). The movie timeline ends at the year 1206, at which time Temudjin had succeed in uniting the the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Keraits, Tatars and disparate other smaller tribes under his rule, was acknowleged Khan, and first took the title of Genghis.

The movie is a distinctly multinational production, with Russian direction, German financing, and a host of other nations represented, which may account for the casting of Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano as the adult Temudjin. Asano, according to IMDB.com, is considered a cross between "Johnny Depp and Toshiro Mifune" in Japan. Although he does a good stalwart hero, I didn't find his breadth of acting to be all that inspiring. (I note that Asano also played the hired samurai bodyguard Hattori in the 2003 "Zatoichi" film, a distinctly Mifune-esque type of role, but I found I had totally forgotten him in it.)

Actually, we found the actors who played the main characters as children, Odnyam Odsuren as Young Temudjin, and Bayertsetseg Erdenebat as his wife-to-be, Borte, more interesting to watch than their adult counterparts. Both these kids are in their first movies (probably not a lot of work for child film actors in Mongolia) but have lots of potential. Odsuren particularly has lots of screen time, and is a tough kid if he does his own stunts--.

That being said, the adult Borte, Khulan Chuluun, is interesting to watch also, and does a good job of being tough and resourceful when needed, and frustrated when her husband leaves her home with the children again while setting off on another years-long warpath.

There is a very good supporting cast as well, chiefly Honglei Sun as Jamuka, Temudjin's blood-brother and eventual rival, and Amadu Mamadakov as the villainous Targutai.

Another main star is the setting, ranging from the Gobi Desert to mountains to the steppes, at once beautiful and bleak. The moviemakers take advantage of the landscape, using it to shoot an old-fashioned epic with minimal digital effects (only in evidence in the climactic battle scene).

Of course there are a lot of battles, and, unfortunately some of the verisimilitude is a casualty of the movie-making process. In one fight, we see Temudjin and his men hunkered down behind a makeshift barricade, bows drawn. In the next shot, Jamuka's forces are storming the position at hand-to-hand. I suspect something got lost on the editing table here. In the big battle, Temudjin demonstrates innovative tactics by having fifty or so heavy cavalrymen cut through ten times their number of enemy lancers using something that can only be described as a horseborne version of the scythed chariot maneuver. Looks unlikely on film, and even more unlikely in the real world--. A lot of battles result in a lot of blood. The directors tried to be artistic about it, but it seems that every saber-cut comes from up sun, so that the (inevitable) spurt of blood turns to a glittering spray of ruby. Nice, but it pales the third or fourth time you see it.

These are nits to pick: overall the movie was very enjoyable and worth seeing if the subject matter interests you. Rated "R" for violence, (hardly any sex), so leave the little Hordesmen at home, no matter how well they might fit right in--.
I don't very often write about television, partly because I watch so little of it. However, I must remark upon the deep feelings sparked in me by last night's "My Boy Jack," on Masterpiece Classic, the current incarnation of PBS' Masterpiece Theatre. The program, written by David Haig, deals with the Kipling family in 1914 from before the declaration of war with Germany, into 1915, and is distinguished by very fine performances by all the principals.

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We wanted to see a movie Easter Sunday afternoon, and considered an uplifting story about faith and belief, but then decided that "Horton Hears a Who" would probably attract too many small children to an early matinee for comfort. Instead, we went to one about a Jew who dies to the world, goes through Hell and is ressurected--figuratively. This was the winner of this year's Best Foreign Language film, "The Counterfeiters." ("Die Fälscher").

"The Counterfeiters" is based on facts regarding the largest (known) counterfeiting operation in history, the World War II plot by the Nazis first, to destabilize enemy economies by flooding them with fake currency, and then to finance thier own war effort. (I say "known" since Britain and the US at least had similar programs vs the Axis, some details of which are still secret, and there are persistent rumors of the US, the Soviet Union, and China forging one another's money into the Cold War--.)

Following Contents May Cause Mild Spoilage )
On Thursday night, February 21st, we went out to see the new film from India, “Jodhaa Akbar.” This historical romance is set in the reign of Jalaluddin Muhammad, Emperor of the Mughals, (called “Akbar” or “The Great”) and starts shortly after his accession to the throne following the death of his father, Nasiruddin Mohammed Humayun. In real life, Jalaluddin was thirteen when he inherited, but, as the movie announces at the very beginning, this is one of a number of “possible stories”—meaning that they are blithely taking liberties. Not a new thing for us westerners who have seen how many versions of King Arthur? (Or, perhaps more closely, Queen Elizabeth I—see review of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”--). So the young Jalal seems to be more about ten years old when he first challenges his advisors’ ideas of the right way to run an empire. Actually, that being said, the film uses facts as a framework, and the depictions of the Second Battle of Panipat, which secured his throne, the later dismissal of the General and Regent Bairam Khan, the intrigues perpetrated by Jalal’s nurse, Maham Anga, and events surrounding the death of his foster-brother, Adham Khan, are basically in line with known history, although, of course “dramatized.”

When Jalal (played as an adult by Hrithik Roshan) becomes old enough to assert control, he does so, moderating his kingdom’s aggressive expansionist stance to start co-opting the notoriously stiff-necked and warlike Hindu Rajput kings who stand in his way instead of conquering and killing them. In the movie, the Rajput King of Amer (now Jaipur) tries to maneuver his way out of both a troublesome dynastic struggle and what he sees as ruinous war with the Mughals by offering his daughter, Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai, “Bride and Prejudice”) in marriage to Jalal. This is a controversial move since the other Rajput kings view it as cowardice and because the Mughals are Muslims. (The movie implies that this was a “first” although in fact there had been prior royal marriages between Hindu and Muslim rulers, and, indeed, Jalal eventually took several Hindu wives from Rajput princesses.) However, both in film and in fact, this alliance was a pivotal point in increasing the greatness of the Mughal Empire under Jalal.

The romantic portion of the film comes in depicting the somewhat stormy nature of the post-wedding courtship of Jalal and Jodhaa (they do not see or speak to one another until the wedding) as complicated by the jealousy of Maham Anga (Ila Arun), and the scheming of both Jodhaa’s well-meaning but hapless brother Sujamal (Sonu Sood), and Jalal’s ruthless and power-hungry brother-in-law. It is in the course of winning Jodhaa over that Jalal gets the idea that eventually earns him the love of all his people and the sobriquet “Akbar”.

Overall, this is one of the most visually beautiful movies we have seen in a long while: the clothing and fabrics, and the jewels are gorgeous. The photography of the fortresses, especially the Red Fort at Agra and Jaipur, is the best I have ever seen. And, it must be said, the principals are both beautiful as well--. There is also some good swordfighting, and an interesting artillery duel.

Highly recommended as a lovely movie, a good old-fashioned swashbuckling love story, and a (romanticized) insight into a place and period most Americans are ignorant of.

Read more on the fascinating Jalaluddin Muhammad here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akbar_the_Great
Christmas Eve afternoon, we went out to see the highly regarded movie, "Atonement." "Atonement" could hardly be more different than "Sweeney Todd," but it is a horror movie of sorts as well. In this case, the horror is that of having discovered that you have done someone a terrible, terrible wrong, and having no way to set it right.

The movie starts in 1935, at the kind of idyllic country house weekend that figures so prominently in P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. The story's protagonist is Briony Tallis (played at age 13 by Saoirse Ronan), a priggish but highly imaginative girl with a developed sense of drama. She is at that stage of development when sex seems like the most loathsome thing in the world, and primed to put the worst possible construction on the building passion between her worldly older sister, Cecelia (Keira Knightly) and the handsome gardner, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). This situation is worsened by the fact that Briony is totally ignorant of sexual dynamics, as might be expected of a child of that age and time; her too-proper mother and father are no sort of confidants; and everyone else suffers from the stupid "British" reticence to explain anything and instead pretend that nothing happens. Further, Briony had had a child's crush on Robbie herself that was clumsily rebuffed. This builds up to Briony convincing herself that Robbie is a "sex fiend" and must be guilty of sexually assaulting Briony's slightly older cousin, Lola (Juno Temple), and giving evidence against him that sends him to prison.

The story then cuts to 1940. Robbie has been allowed to join the Army out of prison, and is cut off from his unit in France during the retreat to Dunkirk. Cecelia has gone into nursing and has cut herself off from her family. Briony, now 18 (played by Romola Garai), has realized the enormity of her behavior five years earlier, and has followed her sister into nursing practice as a way to support the war effort while trying to get in touch with her estranged sister and find a way to make amends.

I won't give away how the plot works out, but any way it goes, it is a sad story.

The story is beautifully photographed, especially in and around the country manor. it is more graphic when dealing with scenes of suffering in the nursing hospitals, and gets positively Heronimus-Bosch-like in the scenes dealing with the Dunkirk evacuation. I found this part quite remarkable: one usually sees the Dunkirk beaches portrayed from a distance, the resolute British soldiers stoically queueing up to be taken off by the heroic sailors. This was a quite different and probably more real depiction. Some are shown standing guard or grimly digging in for defense; others are kicking a ball around; some having a hymn sing; some have gotten into the local tavern and are drinking themselves stupid; and some have started up a carnival to ride the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel.

"Atonement" has won several awards and nominated for many more, including seven Golden Globes, often touted as an Oscar predictor. The director (Joe Wright) and most of the principals, including, deservedly, Ronan, have been mentioned, but I think the cinematographer and art director should be strong contenders when the Academy Awards come around as well.

Highly reccommended for adults.
On October 17, we went out to see the movie "Elizabeth: The Golden Age", in which Cate Blanchett reprises her role as Elizabeth I of England from 1998's "Elizabeth."

One reviewer referred to the movie as "historical fiction" loosely based on the actual facts. This is certainly true: among the historical inaccuracies are:

Phillip of Spain did not use the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, as a causus belli for launching the Spanish Armada, or, if so, he was a dilatory avenger, since Mary was beheaded February 8, 1587, and the Armada did not set out until May 28, 1588 instead of the events being contemporaneous as the film implies.

The English were not outnumbered: they had two hundred ships plus Dutch allies, to the Spanish 130.

The English lost no ships in the battle of Gravelines.

The fireship attack destroyed no Spanish ships, but did cause the Spanish fleet to scatter, after which they were defeated in detail by the faster and more maneuverable English.

Walter Raleigh was not at sea at that time: he was in charge of coastal defenses as Vice-Admiral of Devon.

Elizabeth wore a steel breastplate during her visit to the troops at Tilbury: the Joan of Arc-like suit of full plate Blanchett wears in the film is fantasy (although beautiful--).

(Thanks to my friend Robert Horne a.k.a. "Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham" for some of these facts.)

All that being said, we still enjoyed the movie (although it would have been fun to have gone with some of our reinactor friends to hear the groaning--).

I have to say I think the title curious, since from Elizabeth's point of view, the times must have been anything but golden. Her soverignty was beset with intrigues within and without, the swarm of opportunists hovering around the Queen of Scots not the least of them, and England was engaged in an undeclared war with Spain, the most powerful Empire on Earth at the time, over English assistance to Protestant rebels in the Low Countries and English sea dogs' depredations against Spain's interests in the New World, including the capture of treasure ships.

While her loyal spymaster, Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, also reprising his role from the first film), fends off treachery including getting the goods on the Queen of Scots (who is shown as an active conspirator against Elizabeth, a point of historical debate), the one real bright spot in Elizabeth's life is her flirtation with Sir Walter Raleigh, played with handsome heroicism by Clive Owen. A few more inaccuracies: Raleigh was knighted in 1585, but did not become Captain of the Guard until 1592. At least he was actually at court during the period of the movie. Blanchett and Owen work well together playing out the tense dynamics of their unconsummated relationship. Elizabeth clearly wants Raleigh, but can't have him, since a liasion with an English knight would do nothing to stabilize political pressures at home or abroad, as well as putting an end to the juggling game she played with her royal foreign suitors. However, she can't bring herself to be rid of him either, and ties him down with duties in England when he would rather be away in Virginia. (A genuine historical fact: Elizabeth did actually keep Raliegh's ships in port on hand to deal with the impending Spanish invasion, which may have contributed to the loss of the Roanoake colony.) This practically pushes Raleigh into the arms of Elizabeth's waiting woman, the young Eizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). Raleigh did marry Throckmorton secretly, and Elizabeth's rage and spite shown in the film may be on point, since he was imprisoned, and his wife dismissed from court. (However, these things happened in 1592, and Raleigh was released from prison for reasons unrelated to the Armada.)

Of course, the climax of the film is the Gravelines battle, and, inaccurate as it may have been, was excitingly shot and Georgie remarked how much some of the scenes resembled historical paintings of the time--perhaps an indicator of the extent to which art triumphs over fact in the entire film.

The chief actors were well supported by the rest of the cast, including Samantha Morton as Mary, Queen of Scots, who bears a passing resemblance to the Queen's portrait, and Jordi Molla as Phillip II of Spain. This last, though a small role, is a striking one. Molla, one of spain's best known actors, plays the fanatical King as a creeping creature who shuns the sunlight, vampiric in his Spanish black. The effect is enhanced by his curious mincing bow-legged gait, which seems to imply that his leather hip boots are too stiff to permit bending of the knees.

The film is artistically beautiful. Elizabeth's armor and the composition of the battle scenes have been mentioned: in addition there were excellent choices of scene and setting. Interestingly, the elaboration of Elizabeth's wardrobe is actually toned down from reality, giving a cleaner line, while her collection of red wigs includes fantasias only possible with modern arts. (I thought Blanchett actually looked her best with simpler styles: she is more beautiful in her armor, with long hair straight and streaming, than in the most fanciful "Gloriana" gowns--but the elaborate coiffures are part of her domestic defensive armament.)

Good fun, as long as you turn your historical editor off.
On Wednesday the 6th, we went to the Oriental Theatre to see "The Legend of Suriyothai," a beatiful epic film set in historical Thailand during a turbulent period about 1526 AD into the 1530's. There is an interesting story behind the making of this film. Apparently, Chatrichalerm Yukol, the writer and director is a member of the sprawling Thai royal family (as is SF/Horror writer S.P. Somtow). The Thais have never been happy with films about Thailand, so much so that neither the Yul Brenner film "The King and I," or the more recent "Anna and the King" have ever been legally exhibited there. Yukol had made several well-respected "art" films. He was attending a family function when the Queen of Thailand asked him why he couldn't make a good film about Thai history. Taking this as a royal command, he spent three years researching and writing this story about a famous past queen. Evidently, going from directing small, intimate, modern films to a full-blown historical epic with thousands of extras, cannon, and elephants was quite a transition. However, the result is lovely.

The story commences as Suriyothai, a young princess, is betrothed to Prince Thienraja, who is virtuous but rather dull. She prefers her childhood friend, Lord Srithep, but agrees to "sacrifice" her own desires for the good of the Kingdom, which is the first of a series of difficult decisions she is called upon to make. We see Thailand as a country with a beautiful and sophisticated culture, every bit the equal of the Japan of the era, but under stress from rebellious provinces and foreign invaders. A series of royal deaths from disease, disaster, and assassination brings about a dynastic struggle in which Suriyothai organizes a rebellion against a usurper that brings her husband to the throne. (As King Mahachakrepat--the way in which people take new names as they gain rank can be confusing.) She then has to don armor and mount an elephant to aid her husband in defending the country from Burmese invaders seeking to exploit the general disorder.

The film was cut from a four-hour Thai original to 185 minutes for Western release, and is consequently somewhat choppy, but still easy to follow if you are attentive. I was fascinated by this bit of history in a region of the world where I had known nothing. English subtitles were easy to follow, because, unlike some French or Japanese films, we've seen lately, it takes longer to say the same things in Thai than English, so the titles stay on the screen long enough to follow. Cinematography and settings were beautiful, and gave opportunity for some unique battle scenes, including one between river galleys, and the climactic fight which involves jousting from elephant back.

I've seen criticisms from other viewers that essentially echoed critiques of films like "Gods and Generals,"--that it lacked plot. Get with it people--history doesn't need a plot, history IS the plot.

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