Category Archives: Period Pieces

The Duchess (2008)

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS:  Keira Knightley stars as Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, in this adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s novel. Unhappily married to the duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes, in a Golden Globe-nominated role), Georgiana indulges in extravagant vices and begins a scandalous affair with politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Director Saul Dibb‘s drama about the aristocratic 18th-century femme fatale received an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.

REVIEW:   Enjoyed this movie. I adored the costumes, sets and locations. Acting was excellent. Story was, as far as I can tell, fairly accurate historically — although I’ll admit it didn’t go into any depth.

I do need to see Ralph Fiennes in a good guy role, though. The Duke was NOT a nice man, and well, Lord Voldemort is pure evil, and with his sexy voice, he so needs a new good guy role. ;-D

Keira Knightley surprised me with the depth she brought to her character. I’ve always thought of her as a kind of bubble head. And we definitely need more of Dominic Cooper.

There were times when the characters irked me, especially Georgiana; but I reminded myself that times were *very* different back then and she did a great deal of trail blazing.

While I likely won’t watch this again (although in 20 years who knows? hehehe) … I still rate this a 3.75 stars.

3.5 stars  (for our star rating)
Kim A

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS:  After their production of “Princess Ida” tanks, Arthur Gilbert (Allan Corduner) and William Sullivan (the wonderful Jim Broadbent) start a cold war that threatens to end their long-lasting partnership. When friends and associates work overtime to bring them back together, the result is their classic play “The Mikado.” Thoughtful and winningly acted, Topsy-Turvy garnered four Academy Award nominations and won for best costume design and makeup.

REVIEW:   Excellent Mike Leigh film about the tumultous relationship between William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, particularly during the time they were creating and putting on “The Mikado.” It’s inventive and rather loosely jointed, in typical Leigh fashion. Several reviewers have commented that the plot is difficult to follow, yet I found the through-line to be easily identifiable. It’s best determined by the overall flow of narrative than the linear sequence of scenes, however. The superb dialog snaps and pops with wonderfully droll and sparky wit. Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent render Gilbert and Sullivan bigger than life, with Gilbert’s artistic frustration and Sullivan’s egotistic intensity nearly leaping from the screen. The supporting cast is delightful as well and depicts the rolling chaos of behind-the-scenes theater life in sharp relief. The movie won Oscars for best costume design and makeup, and received 4 other nominations as well. Finally, and least by no means, there’s the wonderful music and brilliant, zany pageantry of G&S “opera.” Highly recommended for fans of colorful Victoriana, and an absolute must-see for anyone with a passion (or merely a passing interest) in the lives and works of Gilbert & Sullivan.

4 stars
Kym

Apocalypto (2006)

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS: Oscar-winning director Mel Gibson moves on from biblical fare to tackle the end of the Mayan civilization in this gripping action-adventure set just before Spain’s conquest of Mexico and Central America in the 16th century. When an invading force threatens his peaceful existence, a courageous native risks everything to protect his way of life — even if it means leaving his beautiful mate and unborn child behind.

REVIEW: Apocalypto begins and ends w/a hunt, the first by the tribe for a wild boar to feed themselves, the last for a man, by men, for pure sport and, ultimately, revenge. The entire long last act of the film is taken up by that hunt thru the jungle and it’s one of the most exciting and beautifully photographed survival sequences I’ve ever seen. There are extraordinarily filmed scenes, as when a black jaguar chases the hero (named “Jaguar Paw”) as his former captives are also chasing him and they all converge in disaster for the hunting party; another scene has Jaguar Paw trapped and immersed in black quicksand and he emerges from the depths looking like a demon covered in mud; soon afterward he fashions 3 poison darts out of thorns and frog (yes, frog) venom and as he runs thru the jungle w/the thorns held in his teeth like fangs, covered head-to-toe in the black mud, what does he resemble so much but the jaguar? Perfect – Primal Man.

There are so many great, unusual scenes one could go on and on: Trapped in a deep hole, a (pregnant) mother stitches up the cut on her child’s leg by putting black ant’s heads to the gash, then when they bite down and close the wound she snaps off the body so only the head remains holding the flesh together. Later as torrential rains flood the hole and she’s holding her young son above her she goes into labor, the baby is birthed into the water that is about to drown her. At one point during the hunt several characters jump over a waterfall and seem to fall forever, tiny specs against the vastness of the mighty nature of the fall. In the savage Mayan sacrifice sequence an eclipse takes place and covers them all in night and the Sun-worshipers see it as a hopeful sign that the plague and drought that has sickened their civilization is coming to an end, but it really foretells their destruction by the Spanish explorers.

The look of the characters is fascinatingly baroque, their facial tattoos and adornments both beautiful and repellent. And the performances of these actors in their barbarous manifestations is superb. I thought every one of the main characters had charisma, especially Raoul Trujillo as Zero Wolf, the leader of the Mayan hunting party, he has the makings of a star. I don’t think it’s any small acting feat for a modern actor to be convincing as an extremely primitive version of ourselves. Everyone of them is indeed believable to the point that, reading the cast list and seeing that one of the main actors has a name like “Jonathon Brewer”, it comes as something of a shock.

Am I the only person who thinks this is an absolutely beautiful, thrilling adventure movie?

NF Rating: 5 Stars, baby!

Harold

American Gangster (2007)

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS:  From director Ridley Scott comes this tense crime thriller starring Denzel Washington as true-life Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas. Russell Crowe co-stars as the dogged outcast NYPD cop charged with bringing Lucas down. Ruby Dee (in an Oscar-nominated role), Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin and Chiwetel Ejiofor lead the supporting cast in this powerhouse tale penned by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List). Both the theatrical and unrated, extended versions are included.

REVIEW:  It’s fair to say this has been done before: Good cop spends years working to bring down drug lord.  The difference here is in the details, starting with the amazing performances.  Washington and Crowe shine even more than usual, Crowe as Richie Roberts, a cop who walks such a straight line he turns in over $1 Million in cash he finds even as his partner begs him to keep it, and Washington as true-life organized-crime figure Frank Lucas, in the vein of Michael Corleone, who is benevolent to friends and family but deadly to his enemies.  The supporting cast does a terrific job too, highlighted by Ruby Dee as Lucas’ mother, who enjoys the fruits of his success even as she is afraid to question where they come from.  Director Ridley Scott does an terrific job of building suspense gradually as Roberts mounts his lengthy investigation.  The plot does get a bit jumpy at times but the impact is never diminished.  I’m stunned that this film was ignored by the Academy; it’s of the same caliber as The Departed.

4.5 stars
HAWK

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Denzel Washington is mesmerizing as Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, and Russell Crowe turns in a terrific, nuanced performance as his nemesis, cop-turned-prosecutor Richie Roberts. Director Ridley Scott presents a polished film with gritty realism and a compelling and thought-provoking script.  I was impressed with the fact that Scott and Steve Zaillian (screenwriter) show the flip side of the women, money and celebrity glamour that comes with this lifestyle: the violence, the realities of drug addiction (Lucas uses the coffins of dead US servicemen to bring in his product from southeast Asia, his “customers” are poor junkies, and his world collapses amid violence, betrayal and paranoia) – as opposed to Brian DePalma and Al Pacino’s “epic”  Scarface.  I was also impressed that both protaganists, Lucas and Roberts, are flesh-and-blood people.  Lucas isn’t all evil and villainy, he has a “work ethic,” and a devotion to family (however misguided), while “good” cop Roberts is all honesty and light at work but cheats on his wife, neglects his son and treats women like sex objects.  The ending seems a bit rushed and Scott might have edited a bit more in the beginning, but these are minor quibbles. A very good film that is worth a look.

4 stars
Cheryl

Amazing Grace (2006)

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS:  Based on a true story, this historical drama starring Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) tells the story of William Wilberforce, an 18th-century English politician who fought for the abolition of slavery. Despite staunch opposition, Wilberforce waged an aggressive campaign using boycotts, petitions and slogans. Director Michael Apted‘s (Coal Miner’s Daughter) powerful film also stars Albert Finney, Michael Gambon and Rufus Sewell.

REVIEW:  Amazing Grace tells the tale of William Wilberforce, who successfully waged a lengthy campaign to abolish slavery in England in the 1800s.  It’s a worthy story, but somewhat poorly told. The narrative is a bit fractured, hopping back and forth without much warning, and blurring some critical details.  The politics of the era aren’t defined enough for viewers who may not be familiar with English or European history.  As expected with such sensitive subject matter, the script reeks of revisionism.  Although many of the sets and costumes are visually convincing, there are times where the production has a low-budget feel.  The cast is mostly filled with second-tier actors (apologies to the great Albert Finney, who plays John Newton, the ex-slave ship captain who wrote the song “Amazing Grace”), and many of the performances are merely adequate.  Much of the blame may be laid at the feet of noted documentary director Michael Apted (7-Up), who has never convincingly helmed a successful feature film.  The interesting historical aspect of the story is the only thing that keeps Amazing Grace from sinking.

3.5 stars
HAWK

Atonement (2007)

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS:  In this drama based on the critically acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan, a childhood lie irrevocably changes the lives of several people forever. When 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) misinterprets a moment of flirtation between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and a servant’s son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), her confusion causes her to finger Robbie as the perpetrator of a crime. Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave co-star.

REVIEW:  Brillant book, not quite a brilliant film.  Definitely has the Miramax/Minghella look that Golden Globe and Oscar voters love, but still I don’t know that it’s worthy of all that love.  Keira Knightley and James McAvoy certainly look scrumptious but no chemistry whatsoever.  This book has one of the greatest sex scenes ever written, but on screen, frankly, you just keep thinking that Keira needs to eat a bit more at lunch. She is so skeletal it detracts in a big way.  Still, she tries hard and you do feel for her character.  McAvoy shows that his performance in The Last King of Scotland was no fluke – he’s sexy, brave and tragic, all you need from a romantic hero. Saorise Ronan is another great performer in this and she brings to life Briony as the obnoxious, drama-filled 13-year-old troublemaker from the novel. 

The beginning is superb, moves well, nice erotic tension and then BAM!  it just stops like it got hit by a freight train.  The war scenes are certainly great visuals, including the long tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk, but someone needed to bring Joe Wright aside and explain the aesthetics of story and editing to the director. Regardless, it’s a nice-looking film and  it’s a decent adaptation, but the suckerpunch ending loses some of its power, and Briony comes off a bit more contrite and sympathetic than Ian McEwan describes her in the book.

3.5 stars
Cheryl

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***SPOILERS***

Set in 1932, the first act of Atonement opens in the room of 13-yr-old Briony Tallis w/a shot of a model of the Tallis home, then the camera tracks down and along the floor, following a procession of small toy animals that the girl has meticulously arranged in a parade, from largest to smallest, appearing to march towards Briony, whom we first see from behind and below, at her desk typing furiously away on a play. This opening shot gives Briony a kind of God-like presence in her own world, where she governs her toys and the characters in her stories and plays; later, when she and her cousins rehearse the play, Briony is both authoress and director, always in charge. This characterization of Briony as something of a manipulator comes to real-life fruition when, feeling hurt and betrayed, she tells a lie that destroys the lives of two of the people she loves most, her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the son of their housekeeper. That terrible lie, how it comes about and its consequences, is the centerpiece of the film and the theme of “atonement” that revolves around it.

Briony believes herself to be in love w/Robbie. There is an amazing, shocking shot when Briony walks in on Cecilia and Robbie having sex in the library, w/Cecilia up against the wall and Robbie standing in front of her. We see it from Briony’s pov and Cecilia appears to be impaled upon the wall in a Christ-on-the-cross-like pose – to the younger girl it appears an act of violence. This foreshadows and mirrors a later scene when Briony once again happens upon a couple in the act of sex and interprets it as rape. But this time it’s Lola and Paul, her cousin and a visiting friend. Caught in a shameful act, Lola goes along w/the rape charge by an unknown assailant and Briony, seeing an opportunity for revenge, asserts that she saw it was Robbie. There are multiple ironies in this scene, as both girls know it was Paul, but neither knows the other is lying; Lola is also lying about it being rape (and perhaps somewhere in her heart, Briony also know this?), while we in the audience know the truth of all that has actually occurred. Robbie is arrested and put in prison, and later he agrees to join up and fight in the war.

The second act follows Robbie in the war, who is wounded and trying to get home to Cecilia, and the two sisters, now estranged of course, who are both nurses in the aid of the war-wounded. Briony is full of remorse for her act and tries to contact her sister, who refuse to see her. During this sequence there is a deeply moving scene as Briony tries to comfort a wounded soldier; delirious, he talks to her as if she is his lover and Briony, this time in an act of kindness, plays along. When the soldier asks her to loosen the bandage around his head, she unwraps the gauze to reveal an horrific head-wound that surely must be fatal. Even with the best of intentions, Briony’s play-acting is fruitless and he dies, leaving her alone w/her futile fiction.

The final act of the film consists mostly of one long, extraordinary scene of attempted reconciliation, as Briony visits Cecilia and Robbie in their flat, together at last, as she attempts to apologize and set things right between them all. The brilliance of this scene only comes to light in the perspective of the last few minutes of the film, when a very old and dying Briony reveals what actually happened in the story. Even though I’ve put a spoiler warning for those who haven’t yet seen the film, I won’t reveal what occurs, because I think it’s one of the most shocking and profound “twists” that I’ve ever seen in a movie and should be experienced first-hand. I’ve read that some people hate the ending, but that is to miss the whole point of the film. W/o that ending it’s still a wonderful movie, but w/the incredible irony of that denouement I think it fully realizes its profound, heartbreaking themes. For Briony there is not, nor can there ever be, any kind of real atonement.

5 Stars
Harold

The 13th Warrior (1999)

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS:  It’s feast or famine when Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas), a 10th century Arab ambassador, is sent to make peaceful contact with the barbaric Vikings. Soon, he finds himself in the midst of a battle between the Norsemen and the Wendol, fearsome warriors known as the Eaters of the Dead. Ahmed is faced with a daunting choice: fight alongside the Vikings — or die.

REVIEW:  Not everyone likes Beowulf. Michael Crichton wrote the book “Eaters of the Dead” on a dare from a literature professor friend who considered Beowulf one of the greatest bores of the English language. Crichton thought he could make something of it, and since somewhere it is written that all Michael Crichton novels must have movie adaptations, we have “The 13th Warrior.” The book and film tell the story from the perspective of an Arab intellectual, playd by Antonio Banderas, exiled from Baghdad due to some romantic indiscretion. He takes up with some Vikings on the Volga River, and before long he’s heading north with “Buliwyf” and his warriors to fight the “Wendol.” The names are changed, but it’s the same story. The book was a somewhat interesting interpretation, the movie less so, but it held my interest so I rated it 3 of 5. Were I to rate it again today, it might drop to 2.

3 stars
Rich

Black Book (2006)

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS:  Director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Total Recall) brings his war drama based on long-forgotten true events surrounding the end of World War II. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a beautiful Jewish woman hiding out in Holland from the Nazis. When her plan to escape goes terribly wrong, she manages to take on a new identity and infiltrate the enemy. But working for both sides takes its toll — especially when they both turn against her.

REVIEW:  Leave it to Paul “Basic Instinct” Verhoeven to locate a WWII story that satisfies his obsession with everything lewd and graphic. When our Jewish heroine, Rachel Stein, loses her hiding place and is foiled in her attempts to flee occupied Holland, it seems only natural that in short order she dyes her hair (ALL of it) and takes up with the head of the SS, right?  When the head of the resistance movement asks Stein in a leering voice HOW FAR she was willing to go to help the cause, we expect cheesy porn music to start up, along with a pizzaman to make a “special delivery.”  The saving grace is the interesting story and decent acting by two of the leads, although van Houten’s perfomance as Stein is certainly not “star-making,” as one critic gushed, but probably the result of a decent actress being given something to sink her teeth into.  Director Verhoeven gets a D- for being too explicit with material that deserved more subtlety.

3 stars

HAWK

The Tree of Wooden Clogs {L’Albero degli zoccoli (1978)}

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NETFLIX SYNOPSIS: This ambitious effort from Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi spans an entire year, capturing the lives of four peasant families in turn-of-the-century Lombardy who all live in the same farmhouse on the estate of their boss, an often-absent man. The relationships inside each family unit and the members’ interactions with the closely neighboring families are examined. Winner of the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

REVIEW:  I have no idea how to rate this movie.  I’d give it 5 stars for effort — if what you wanted to do was show the daily life of European peasants at the turn of the century.   It was beautiful, filled with major and minor drama.  I even learned why our tomatoes came in early this year — we used chicken manure on the garden last fall.

But we don’t get to hear the voices of the peasants.

Why didn’t the director let the people speak?  He used actual peasants/farmers from the area and they spoke their own dialect — Bergamese.   I wanted to hear them, even if I wouldn’t have understood them.  (The only human voice we hear is the baby crying.)

Their village (if that’s what you call a compound shared by several families) was much too quiet.  We heard the clop of shoes, the sound of wooden wheels and other machinery, but no voices.

It was great as filmed, but could have been even better.

5 stars
Pam G.

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