Category Archives: 2010s

The Remaining (2014)

*. So we’re at this wedding and there are these three dudes (Dan, Jack, and Tommy) and these two girls (Skylar and Allie, for sure!) which means there’s an odd man out (that would be Tommy) and he’s there to hold the camera and everything is going fine except for the fact that Tommy isn’t just carrying a camera but a torch for the girl who isn’t getting married (that would be Allie) and then people start dropping dead from what the news people are calling “instant death syndrome” and fire falls from the sky and it’s a shaky-cam shitstorm and before you can scream Cloverfield! or Rec 3! someone else with a deeper gnosis says “No it’s not zombies or aliens it’s the Rapture!” and so you think is this Left Behind? and now you’re on the right track because who wouldn’t want some of that Christian end-of-days cheddar? but you’re still thinking this would look better with zombies in it so when the alt-chick who didn’t go to church enough to be hoovered up says not to be afraid of a corpse because it won’t bite, you feel a bit disappointed, but to make up for not having zombies you do get the Fallen who are these creatures from Revelation that have a toxic bite that doesn’t turn you into a zombie but does turn your skin a nasty colour and kills you but it doesn’t matter anyway because you already missed the bus didn’t you? and hiding out in a church isn’t going to help much because even if you go to church (or, LOL!, consider yourself to be “spiritual”) it doesn’t matter unless you’re in a right relationship with Jesus, which is something the pastor of the church has just figured out! so you can choose Jesus and it seems like you probably should but you should also know that in getting baptized or confessing your faith you’re going to be the first (well, after the one Black person hiding out in the church, natch) to get torn apart by demons because faith is blood in the water to demons, churches offer no sanctuary, Bibles turn to ash, and the U.S. military isn’t going to be able to save you from these powers of spiritual darkness that have taken over the world and that can strike you dead any instant with a tentacle descending from a cloud so maybe you should reconsider all of this, including why you’re watching a Christian horror film in the first place when Christian rock didn’t work out that well either and though to give them credit the production values are actually better than you’re probably expecting here The Remaining is a crazy mess in terms of its messaging and not very uplifting either which may be why the MPAA PG-13 warning is for “intense sequences of terror, violence and destruction throughout, and thematic elements” because I don’t really know what thematic elements would need a warning here except for the one that says you need to choose wisely when picking what movie you’re going to watch tonight.

Welcome to New York (2014)

*. When you look at the start of Abel Ferrara’s career and films like The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, then middle work like Bad Lieutenant, and stand these alongside Welcome to New York do you see continuity? Evolution? Or only a slightly different kind of monster in a tonier NYC neighbourhood?
*. Welcome to New York tells a story torn from the headlines, being a scarcely veiled fictionalization of the Dominque Strauss-Kahn affair. I won’t go into the details, but it is worth noting that the charges against Strauss-Kahn were dropped and that he threatened the film’s producers for libel. I don’t know how all that worked out.
*. But back to the monster. In this case it’s an apex predator named George Devereaux played by Gérard Depardieu (they kept Depardieu’s initials, not Strauss-Kahn’s, perhaps because Depardieu has had his own issues with rape and sexual assault allegations). Devereaux is a man of ginormous sexual appetites, nicely symbolized here by Depardieu’s gargantuan gut. You get to see all of Depardieu in this movie, including full-frontal nudity, and there is a lot to see. I mean, he’s huge. A veritable mountain of flesh. But it’s what’s inside that counts.
*. And what’s inside? Not much, and what there is isn’t pretty. Is Deveraux pursued by inner demons and addictions, like Harvey Keitel’s lieutenant? Or is he just a hungry, horny hippo in heat? We never find out, and I have to wonder if part of the problem with the role was Depardieu’s obvious difficulty and discomfort with his English lines.
*. I think the point may be however that we shouldn’t expect there to be much there. Devereaux is a balloon, his world the bubble of privilege. The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot these days, most often attached to “male” or “white.” What it’s really all about is the power to shape and fashion one’s own reality, wherein other people are just support staff. In such a world, what’s the difference between a prostitute, a personal assistant, a cleaning lady, and a wife? None that Devereaux can imagine. When he asks the cleaning lady “Do you know who I am?” you get the feeling he could be asking his wife (Jacqueline Bisset) the same. And does even she know who he is? If she doesn’t she’s just been kidding herself. Shades of Carmela Soprano there.
*. Deveraux is no Tony Soprano though, despite puffing on a fat cigar. He doesn’t have, or isn’t given, the same intelligence or depth. This is a shame, as he might have been more interesting as a lily that had festered. The long speech he gives that shows his slide from idealistic professor to disillusioned World Bank official (“I understood the futility of struggling against this insurmountable tsunami of troubles that we face”) comes across as potted and beneath a figure of his presumed intellect. It’s barroom philosophy.
*. It never seems as though he belongs in a world that he’s apparently only married into. The film juxtaposes high and low and, but (as long as he stays quiet) Depardieu looks more at home in the New York penal system than he does in his $60,000/month rental.
*. And that may be the point. That our elites (political, financial, cultural) are really no different than the shoddy types you’d find in any big-city drunk tank or wandering the street looking to buy drugs or sex. Such figures can call themselves individualists or anarchists (as Deveraux does), but this is just casuistry. Which leads to a final question: Where does Deveraux “belong”? Not in one place or the other, but in both.
*. Stylish in Ferrara’s understated way, and with a strong performance from Depardieu to give it the necessary fleshy anchor, Welcome to New York is the sort of movie that doesn’t make a big impact but nevertheless gets under your skin. Deveraux’s conclusion that there’s no changing the world is based on his belief that people don’t want to change or be saved. Even a gentrified New York City is still a sty from top to bottom because people are pigs.

The Red Pill (2016)

*. The Red Pill is a creation of the Internet. I mean several things by that. First of all, it was inspired by documentary filmmaker Cassie Jaye’s being sucked down the “rabbit hole” of the online men’s movement. Second, it was funded on Kickstarter. And third it is very much part of a debate that is mainly taking place online.
*. The red pill movement is an Internet phenomenon, where it’s sometimes designated the manosphere. Jaye’s movie goes to talks and rallies and interviews real people not over the Internet but by sitting down and talking to them, but the world she’s dealing with is a mostly digital one. And in fact you can watch hours of extra footage at the movie’s website, making the whole project an extended online resource.
*. Some explanation of the title is necessary. It comes from the scene in The Matrix where the hero Neo is given the option of taking a blue pill and remaining in a state of comfortable mental torpor fed by illusions, or taking a red pill and waking up to the true nature of reality. This is, of course, Plato’s parable of the cave booted into the world of virtual reality, signifying that most people live in a state of conformity with illusions while a select few are able to see life directly and see it whole.
*. In the context of the men’s rights movement, being red pilled means rejecting the notion of this being a man’s world. It means pushing back against critiques of the patriarchy (or the patriarchy, at its most monolithic). Or at least that’s what being red pilled meant in 2016. Another part of this being a movie born of the Internet is that it is timely in the extreme. Today, red pill philosophy has mushroomed into a whole garden of beliefs, complete with a special language for those possessing the proper gnosis. There are even black pills now for men who aren’t just unplugged but who are living off the grid. It’s also less about custody battles and domestic violence against men these days, which are the main focus of this film, and more focused on dating and relationship advice from PUAs and MGTOW gurus.
*. What’s driving all of this, aside from the power of the Internet at disseminating combative ideas that upset people, are two things: stats and science. In particular: the data gleaned from dating sites and an increased interest in the various “truths” of evolutionary biology. Much of this, however, belongs to a discussion of the red pill community today, and it’s not something that we need dwell on here.
*. Jaye structures her film around the idea of a personal journey. She’s a feminist investigating the world of “toxic masculinity,” with MRAs being a misogynist hate group painted as the gender equivalent of white nationalism. But as she goes on she becomes sympathetic to the messaging of the men’s movement, documenting her own doubts about their demonization in a video diary. By the end she has come to renounce the label of feminist, which seems like a fairly big deal even if it’s not clear what being a feminist means anymore.
*. Without taking either pill, I found it a ramshackle film. Jaye interviews people from both sides of the debate but doesn’t do a lot of fact checking for either. In general the men’s movement interviewees come off a bit better as they are presented as mellow and non-confrontational. Indeed, they seem a very sad and beaten-down bunch of guys. Protestors at men’s rights talks come off less well. “Cancel culture” hadn’t fully blossomed by 2016, but you can tell where things were heading. Indeed, screenings of The Red Pill were canceled at universities all over the world. With enemies like this, you had it made. Just ask Jordan Peterson (a bit conspicuous in his absence from this film, given how much of it was shot in Toronto).
*. Polarization makes money in the new media because it ramps up outrage, which draws eyeballs and engagement. One example of how this works can be seen in the reception given The Red Pill. Just look at the huge gap between critical and audience/user ratings of it on any of the aggregators. Such a division is often taken as evidence of the sort of media bias that the men’s movement calls out. You see: They’re getting the shaft from the mainstream media again because they’re trying to defend men!
*. I call it a ramshackle film though because it doesn’t make a clear case about much of anything and tends to wander around a fair bit. I’m sympathetic with Jaye’s view that infant circumcision is a barbaric practice, but I don’t see why she threw in a couple of minutes of footage of it at the end along with the story of a boy whose penis was mostly severed in a botched job. What did that have to do with anything?
*. Another thing: It’s one thing to mispronounce “perpetrate” as “perpetuate” when you’re reading text that’s right on the screen, but how did that get left in after editing? And totally as an aside, what did the one fellow mean when he said he was teaching his early-teen son who was having obesity issues how to read a scale? Is that something you have to teach kids how to do? Who can’t “read” a scale?
*. I also wish Jaye had pursued some parts of the story a little more. Erin Pizzey suggests that what changed in the feminist movement in the 1970s is that it went from being class-based and anti-capitalism and became focused instead on attacking men as a more direct route to gaining money and power (a very capitalist strategy). And the idea that Boko Haram only turned to targeting women and girls, after killing men and boys for a decade, as a way to get media attention from the woke West was worth developing. I would have been interested in hearing more about this as I remember it bothering me at the time and getting into arguments with people about it.
*. For all of Jaye’s earnestness, empathy, and DIY spirit I didn’t find this a very stimulating or eye-opening documentary. I didn’t think any of the speakers were very persuasive, though they all seemed sure of themselves. I think both sides probably have good arguments and counter-arguments to make, but they weren’t making them, or being allowed to make them here. My feeling is that the MRAs who are trying to help men in need are doing good work, as are feminists trying to do the same for women. When the two sides just go after each other I tune out. Call me a critic going my own way.

Coriolanus (2011)

*. I’m not a huge fan of the play. I don’t think many people are. I believe this is the only feature film adaptation there’s been of it, which is a distinction it may hold for a while.
*. And yet, there’s something about Coriolanus that bugs me, in a good way. It always leaves me with the sense that’s there’s more going on than you get on the surface. Coriolanus himself is so simple and transparent that he bears comparison to Shakespeare’s other noble men of authority (Titus, Brutus, Othello) who are tragically out of their depth in the duplicitous world of politics. But even more than in those other cases I’m left feeling that somehow there’s something more to him. Maybe it’s the awareness of his tragic destiny in his line at the end “But let it come.” Thanks mom! Like Hamlet, he knows that ripeness is all.
*. I think Ralph Fiennes captures this sense of something extra, something deeper in the part, while at the same time giving us a Coriolanus who is the pre-eminent man of action not words. This is all the more important since with the exception of his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Grave), one of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles but still one-dimensional, this play is a one-man show.
*. It’s a proud family. Volumnia’s pride is in thinking she knows her son better than he knows himself. She doesn’t, and he realizes at the end that this is her delusion, one she is herself unaware of. He chooses however to play along with her. I think this is more than just a sense he has, which is how Fiennes describes it in the commentary. But you can judge for yourself from what he gives us.

*. As an updating of Shakespeare to the present day I think it’s great. In almost every regard Fiennes’s translation of the play works, or at least works as well as I could imagine. I especially liked the use of the newscast, with real-life anchorman Jon Snow doing the honours. And the way the robe of humility Coriolanus has to wear in the market place is changed to a suit was perfect.
*. However, it is still an updating of a 400-year-old play and there are always going to be real limits on how much can be done. The idea that one man can be such a gamechanger on a modern battlefield, for example, doesn’t hold much water. But in all such adaptations you have to play along. Shakespeare’s battles weren’t realistic in their day either.
*. The battlefields here are in Serbia, as the film was shot mainly in Belgrade (with Montenegro standing in for Antium). Another plausible update? Sure. What it also leads to is that the proles, who are mostly played by local Serbian talent, tend to speak with accents, which (ironically) makes them seem like immigrants.
*. Some purists objected to the suicide of Menenius, but while this scene is not in the play, it’s not not in the play either and since it’s done without dialogue it seemed fair play on the part of screenwriter John Logan to me. In his book on Shakespearean tragedy Northrop Frye calls Menenius being rejected by Coriolanus, which he sees as “a miniscule version of the rejection of Falstaff,” “an annihilating snub which destroys his self-respect and even his reason for going on living.”
*. While the words are all Shakespeare’s it’s an aggressively truncated text. For example, none of Menenius’s fable of the belly speech remains. But there are few long speeches that are maintained. You can do Shakespeare with a more theatrical sensibility, in a bunch of long takes that let scenes play out as they would on stage. Branagh likes to do this. Or you can edit “aggressively” (Fiennes’s word for what he does here). And if you cut a scene up into a lot of fast cuts you might as well remove some lines while you’re at it. There’s no need to preserve continuity. As a result you keep the big lines but lose a lot of the content and flow of the big speeches. Fiennes thought this made the language more accessible. I’m not so sure, but I guess he may be right.

*. The DVD box has a pull quote hailing this as “William Shakespeare’s Rambo.” Ugh. Who would even want to see that? And yet this was a selling point.
*. For the most part I liked the casting. Fiennes and Redgrave are both solid. Jessica Chastain has nothing to do as Virgilia but that’s the part. Brian Cox is good as the avuncular senator Menenius. I really liked James Nesbitt as the sniveling, trouble-making tribune. I’m ashamed to confess that I couldn’t place Lubna Azabel though I was sure I’d seen her before (she played Nawal Marjan in Incendies). She’s good here, but not at all a sympathetic figure. I have to say the proles don’t fare that well in this production. Which is interesting given that they look like contemporary protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Coriolanus, as usual, appears to be a quasi-fascist.
*. I only really had my doubts about Gerard Butler as Aufidius. I didn’t think he had enough of the schemer about him. The character is obviously a complement to Coriolanus, but he’s not as given to wearing his heart on his sleeve. I wanted to see more of that.
*. Well, as I started out by saying this is likely the only Coriolanus you’re going to see on the big screen for a while. I think it’s a good production of a troublesome play, though one that I think tilts too far toward the fast-pace and abrupt editing of modern cinema, leaving a lot of the language scrambled or in the dust. Updating Shakespeare always runs some risks but I think they came through as well as they could have in that regard. In sum, it’s not without its flaws but it has a couple of strong performances and is successful in giving us a Coriolanus for our time.

The Tempest (2010)

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*. This is one of my favourite adaptations of The Tempest — but I don’t think it’s ever a great movie, despite having so much promise. I don’t care for the play much in the first place, and for all its strengths this version feels too much like a film of its time.
*. Julie Taymor had directed stage productions of The Tempest before this, and as a film director had shown a strong, creative approach to Shakespeare in her interpretation of Titus Andronicus (Titus). In short, she knew what she was doing.
*. The casting is near perfect. I had no problem at all with Helen Mirren as the sorceress Prospera and think she does a marvelous job here, striking just the right note of forgiving but unapologetic sternness. Djimon Hounsou and Russell Brand both give great physical performances (and I love how the camera work matches this in the scene where they hide under the tarp together). Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney (suffering under a hilarious mop) both look pretty as the pair of drippy young lovers. The court party are all good, and I especially like Alan Cumming’s interpretation of Sebastian, making him a bit dimmer than usual and more easily led astray by the charismatic Antonio.
*. The costumes stand out, and the art direction is always interesting. The script is manipulated only a bit, and nowhere in a way that hurts the play.
*. So . . . why do I feel less than enthusiastic about this one?
*. A few little things stand out. The special effects aren’t that good. The devil dogs in particular are totally unconvincing, and I get the sense from listening to the commentary that Taymor thought so too. The Ariel effects were achieved through a complicated process that was not CGI, but still looks like CGI, and not in a good way. Aside from his turn as a harpy he just didn’t turn out right.

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*. Then there’s the setting. It was shot in Hawaii, on the island of Lanai, which is today privately owned by Larry Ellison (he bought it off the previous owner in 2012). Bill Gates was married there. So much for Caliban getting his island back! He may still be out there fetching firewood.
*. It’s a fantastic setting, but not natural at all. There’s nothing wrong with that part, as this is a fantastic play. But Taymor says she wanted a “natural roughness” in some parts and never got it. It all seems too pretty and nice, in a National Geographic style.
*. Also, the music. I guess they were going for a dreamy effect but the results sound insipid to me. The songs in Shakespeare, however, are very hard to get right. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any I’ve heard that I particularly liked (though a lot of movies based on Shakespeare have had great scores).
*. But my real problem, I’m afraid, is that I just don’t like this play very much.
*. Sure it has some great poetry and remarkable passages that rank among some of Shakespeare’s finest. But it is also his least naturalistic, least dramatic work. There are only two interesting characters in it (Prospero and Caliban), the rest of the cast just being types. And there’s no drama to the situation: it’s all just a show being put on by Prospero. Antonio and Sebastian, and Stephano and Trinculo, may plot their coups, but we know nothing is going to come of it. Prospero is too much in charge.
*. The form it takes is the courtly masque. One thing this means is that it’s a play not just featuring but about special effects and other forms of magical artifice. As Julie Taymor puts it in the “making of” documentary Raising The Tempest, “Shakespeare wrote a visual effects piece.” This is certainly our present cinematic dominant mode, so if The Tempest isn’t necessarily a film for our time, it may be a film for our cinema. It’s no surprise that the next big production of The Tempest on film before this, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), was another such visual smorgasbord.
*. It was often remarked (by Roger Ebert, among others) that the effects and the design are over the top, but that’s not how I see it. I think that’s just the kind of play it is (though Ebert would disagree). And the imagery, as strong as it is, doesn’t overwhelm the play for me. It’s supposed to be a spectacle, and Taymor does keep some quiet moments.

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*. Part of the problem with the magical visuals though is connected to what I said about this being a film of our time. This is very close to being a comic book movie. Helen Mirren reminds me of no one as much as Ian McKellen playing Magneto, while Ariel is a combination Nightcrawler and Mystique, and Caliban is The Thing. This too is what comes with being a film for our time.

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*. Part of Caliban’s elaborate body make-up included having Elizabethan swear words scarred on to his skin. I didn’t notice any of this the first time I watched the movie. The second time, looking for it, I still couldn’t make anything out. In one shot I could see the suggestion of writing, but had no idea what the words were. I guess you can chalk that up to another one of those perhaps too-clever ideas that didn’t make much of a difference, though I was a bit surprised Taymor didn’t realize this wasn’t coming through. She could have either made a point of revealing the words or should have dropped it.

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*. I like the way Taymor emphasizes the elemental schematics of the play. We begin with the earth dissolving in water, and then the storm mixes fire and water that makes the seas seem combustible. I was surprised to see the “airy spirit” Ariel jumping out of a pool, and continue to be presented by way of a watery effect, but he later adopts more conventional airy trappings (like transparency). Of course Caliban is a creature of the earth, and seems to have a skin of cracked clay.
*. I’ve called Ferdinand and Miranda drippy, but the play is not without sexual undertones. Taymor mentions on the commentary that there may be something going on between Antonio and Sebastian, and that’s something that does lend the seduction in the forest (one of the better uses of a natural location in the film) an extra spark.

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*. The other sexual force is Heather Mirren’s Prospera. Taymor mentions the charge between the powerful older woman and the androgynous naked young man (Ben Whishaw). Personally, I think this all comes out of Mirren, who is a sexy beast even with minimal make-up. Ariel is the one character in the film I couldn’t get a read on. Of course he’s a spirit and never really one thing or the other, but I didn’t get the sense Taymor settled on giving him a particular identity.
*. I guess what disappoints me the most here is not that Taymor is too wild and free in her interpretation of the play, but too restrained. The preservation of ambiguity is a good thing, but at the end of the day every director of Shakespeare, for stage or screen, has to make hard decisions about what direction they’re going to take things in, what angle they’re going to play up. Like Prospero’s revels, or the magic sounds of the island, the visual magic here is bright and diverting but insubstantial. I was left wondering what, for Taymor, the play really means.
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Lincoln (2012)

*. Pretty much everything I didn’t like about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is contained in the opening scene. A pair of Black soldiers accost President Lincoln and start hectoring him about how they’re not getting paid as much as their white brothers-in-arms. Then a pair of white soldiers show up and recite the Gettysburg Address. They flub the last part, but after they leave the Black soldiers finish it off.
*. This got my back up for several reasons. In the first place it was beyond belief that regular grunts would be complaining about pay to the president, their commander-in-chief, like this. That’s just not how it works in the army. Then there’s the way they all know the Gettysburg Address, a speech that notoriously bombed when it was made. As the Lincoln historian Harold Holzer remarked, “it is almost inconceivable that any uniformed soldier of the day (or civilians, for that matter) would have memorized a speech that, however ingrained in modern memory, did not achieve any semblance of a national reputation until the 20th century.”
*. At which point you might say it’s just a movie. Obviously this is one of those scenes they throw in to humanize history while introducing what will be major themes. But it’s done in such a hokey, transparent way it grates.
*. Later we’ll have the film’s climax, the Congressional vote on adoption of the 13th Amendment, made more dramatic by having it done as a roll call when it apparently was a paper ballot. This allows for lots of long pauses showing battles of conscience followed by wild cheering at the end. It’s very silly in an unhistorical and obvious fashion, but even with the liberties it takes it falls flat. I mean, where’s the suspense? They’ve shown that everyone following the vote is keeping a running tally, so they all know what the result is before it’s announced.
*. So history is being adapted to make it more filmable. No surprise there. “Now he belongs to the ages,” we are told, as Lincoln expires. And to Hollywood. At the end we see Lincoln riding through a massive battlefield without any explanation of where this would be. At this point in the war there were no more massive battles. But I guess this particular battlefield is being made to stand in for the final butcher’s bill of the entire Civil War so it’s a scene that has a dramatic purpose even if no historical referent exists.
*. None of these liberties taken bugged me very much, as liberties. Historians were generally on board with this movie. It wasn’t perfect, but was considered to be close enough. As I say, what needled me more was how hokey it feels. Would it have been less effective a movie if it had been more realistic? I think they might have at least tried a little harder in this regard.
*. For example, Daniel Day-Lewis got a lot of praise for his performance and I think that praise was well deserved. But I think a lot of it was for presenting a Lincoln very much in line with what we know about the man — that is, a “real” Lincoln — right down to his surprisingly high-pitched, almost strangulated voice.
*. Though I think they might have gone a bit overboard with the Man of Sorrows stuff. I wondered if it was possible for a man to walk any slower than he does leaving the telegraph office, and while watching that scene kept imagining Spielberg yelling direction off camera: “Slower, Daniel! Sloooooooower!” But Lincoln was on his way to being marbleized and carved into a mountainside. Is Day-Lewis any more fluid than Raymond Massey? A close call. It’s hard to soften a historical figure whose every utterance not only feels but in some cases actually was engraved in stone.
*. In the accompanying “making of” featurette included with the DVD Spielberg talks about his first encounter with Lincoln being a trip to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington as a boy. It’s hard not to see this as leading to the reverent treatment of the man in this movie. Personally, I would have liked something a little riskier and even friskier. Maybe an appearance by Frederick Douglass. Where did he go?
*. This is certainly a well turned-out production in every respect but it plays dead to me as costume drama. Even the erratic Mary Todd Lincoln (America’s mom Sally Field) struck me as whitewashed (and I don’t mean that in a racial sense).
*. There were chances here for fireworks, but it feels like a damp squib. Many of the compositions, for example, are arranged as tableaux. The lighting is funereal. The dialogue (by Tony Kushner) is lifeless and unnatural. It’s always a struggle bringing sacred history like this to the screen, and it might be an even fiercer struggle today, but all I can acknowledge here is the effort and not the results.

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

*. You can understand why someone would have thought it was an interesting project. The Fischer-Spassky chess tournament was a very big deal in 1972, and a good book and a good documentary had recently come out on it. Then there’s the fact that Bobby Fischer was a nut, and they always play well in biopics. There were a number of fruitful angles to be explored here: mental health, politics, genius, celebrity.
*. Then there’s the fact that movies love dramatizing these classic battles of the titans. Pretty soon we’d be seeing Borg vs. McEnroe, Battle of the Sexes (Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King), Ford v Ferrari, and Godzilla vs. Kong. Pawn Sacrifice was at the start of all this.
*. But there were hurdles to overcome. How was Fischer’s fragile and paranoid mental state going to be presented? And how do you make a chess tournament interesting in such a format? The classic games go on for hours, with little action and moves that a general audience even well versed in chess can’t be expected to understand.
*. Pawn Sacrifice can’t solve either of these problems, and manages to add some new ones all its own. First off there’s the casting. Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer? Anthony Hopkins was more believable as Nixon. Yes Maguire is game, but he’s just not the thing. He was a producer on the project though so I’m guessing it’s something he really wanted to do.
*. Liev Schreiber actually does look a bit like Boris Spassky, and apparently even spoke his own Russian lines, but the cool shades kind of lost me. Were they there to make him seem more villainous? Because wasn’t the real Spassky a more sympathetic figure?
*. Alas, movies about high-level competition need conflict. So we even get an imaginary scene on a Californian beach where Fischer yells at Spassky and his Kremlin handlers “I’m coming for you! I’m coming for you!” Yeah! And as the crowd cheers in the auditorium and around the world at Fischer’s beautiful game 6 (even Spassky himself applauded Fischer) we can almost hear the chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
*. Apparently the title comes from the idea that both Fischer and Spassky were “pawns of their nation” (director Edward Zwick), fighting the Cold War by proxy. This is another angle that is briefly suggested (a phone call to Bobby from Kissinger, for example) but it doesn’t make Pawn Sacrifice a political movie. Although given Fischer’s own paranoid thoughts on political matters any such message would be problematic anyway.
*. So it’s one of those movies that must have seemed a good idea at the time but which turned out to be very difficult to realize. On top of that, Maguire wasn’t right for the part, they make almost no attempt to explain or even represent the chess being played, and the politics comes down to the usual us vs. them stuff. I’m not sure it would have worked even if the stars were in alignment, and in this case they weren’t.

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)

*. At one point in Bobby Fischer Against the World one of the talking heads being interviewed says that in 1972 Bobby Fischer was “better known by the population of the world than anyone except for Jesus Christ.” I don’t know if he was aware of it, but I think this sort of comparison got started with John Lennon’s famous line from a 1966 interview that the Beatles were then “more popular than Jesus.” This has become a go-to line for a lot of celebrities. I remember a while back, when Tiger Woods was the biggest thing that had ever happened to golf, his father saying that he was bigger than Jesus or the Buddha. Because he was affecting the lives of more people, you see.
*. To be sure, the 1972 World Chess Championship between reigning champ Boris Spassky and challenger Bobby Fischer, which took place in Reykjavik, Iceland, was a big deal at the time. It also went on to have a certain cultural afterlife, from the musical Chess to the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice. And of course Fischer’s subsequent retreat from public life meant it took on a kind of mythic stature. Was Fischer the greatest chess player of all time? We’ll never know. I came away less impressed than I’d been previously. Spassky was obviously disconcerted by Fischer’s antics, and if he’d played better might have gutted it out.
*. But I doubt Bobby Fischer is as big as Christ today. Aside from Game 6 I don’t think this match is even remembered much by chess aficionados. In any event, so much of chess is now played and viewed online, and computers (the “engines”) play such a much bigger role in training and analysis, that it’s like a different game now.
*. I knew the basic story, having reviewed the book Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow back in 2004. Liz Garbus has fashioned a solid documentary out of the material, with the focus being on Fischer’s eccentricity. What made him so weird? It seems like he was a lonely and gifted child who found an escape from reality in chess, and then found he couldn’t cope in the real world. But at least he got famous playing chess. Without his celebrity he was destined for a flophouse or prison. The odd feeling I had at the end wasn’t sadness though so much as apathy. Fischer seized his moment. What happened after was going to be anticlimactic anyway.
*. Keeping that initial comparison on the table, it’s thought that Jesus died when he was 33. We can’t imagine him getting old. Meanwhile, chess players peak in their 20s and early 30s. Fischer collapsed in a spectacular way, but for many stars, then and now, it’s hard to manage a long decline.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)

*. There was a time when you could expect to find certain volumes on every cinephiles bookshelf. The time I’m talking about being back when people had bookshelves with books on them. Among these were David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, Halliwell’s Film Guide, and the collection of interviews conducted by François Truffaut with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962 and first published in 1966 as Hitchcock/Truffaut. The silver cover with the orange-to-yellow lettering (this was for the updated edition done after Hitchcock’s death) was iconic in itself.
*. The interviews were refreshingly free of puffery and claptrap, instead focusing on a series of entertaining and informed discussions about the practical creative decisions Hitchcock had made. For students of film and aspiring filmmakers it became a sort of Bible, setting a standard for how we talk about movies.
*. That said, I’m not sure why you’d want to make a movie out of it. Nor am I sure that’s what director Kent Jones was aiming for here. Instead it’s more of a general appreciation of Hitchcock’s major work, using excerpts from the interviews to go with clips from the interviews (there were 27 hours of tape to draw from, so no end of material). Other filmmakers like Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, and Richard Linklater also appear as talking heads to give their thoughts.
*. None of which adds up to much. If you’ve read the book, or really any book on Hitchcock, I don’t see how you’d get much out of this. Frankly, there isn’t much more to say about Hitch than has already been said, and if you want close film analysis on a nearly frame-by-frame level you can find it online with more detailed and perceptive breakdowns. Hitchcock/Truffaut plays more like a slickly-produced tribute video, which is fine as far as it goes but that’s not very far. You’d learn more just from re-reading parts of the book, and if this movie is meant to be a substitute for that then I can’t recommend it.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

*. I’ve always heard, and read, that Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays, though rarely studied even in advanced Shakespeare seminars, were good theatre. Until now, however, I’ve never been able to put that to the test for the simple reason that they’re not often produced. With this BBC production of what’s called the first tetralogy (the Henry VI plays plus Richard III), it seemed I would finally get my chance.
*. Well, I came away impressed. This was great TV. My only reservation is that it’s a free adaptation of the source material. In making it a viewer-friendly, contemporary political thriller (they were aiming to make it “as dynamic and accessible as possible”) a lot of Shakespeare gets left behind, and much of what’s left is transformed. Inevitable? Yes. Responsibly done? Yes. But this is Shakespeare for the twenty-first century.
*. That much would need to be cut was obvious. Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play. Henry VI Part 2 has his largest cast of characters. Something, quite a bit actually, was going to have to give. Henry VI Part 1, for example, comes in at just under an hour. Speeches that go on for dozens of lines are radically pruned to go with a modern editing style. None of Kenneth Branagh’s long takes here! Well, there is one good long take in Richard III as Richard and Elizabeth go walking through the woods together, but I think that was it.
*. The trimming even stretches to a streamlining of the cast, with the characters of Sussex and Somerset, not minor players, being mostly combined into a single figure (Ben Miles, as Somerset). I don’t suppose many people notice this, since I don’t think many people know the plays that well, but it confused me quite a bit.
*. Some cuts are obvious. I don’t think modern audiences can accept speeches that go on for pages. Or take the scene where Henry watches a son mourn his father on the battlefield and a father mourn his son. Anyone seeing that today would likely find it horribly artificial in its formal balance. And so we only get the son who has killed his father. In much the same way the ghosts appearing to both Richard and Richmond, offering up alternating curses and blessings, is almost always cut down to just show the ghosts telling Richard to despair and die.
*. I think in other places the cuts may make us feel a bit shortchanged. In Henry VI Part 1, for example, the conflict between Talbot and Joan of Arc gets short shrift. Talbot’s only big scene remaining is his death at the side of his son, and Joan (who is actually shown killing Talbot) has lost her demons and become a real saint, even going full Falconetti when burned at the stake.

*. Is that being politically correct, or just another nod to realism and authenticity? Seeing as these plays make a hash of history anyway I don’t think there’s much need for it. For example, Eleanor was banished years before Margaret came to England. That cat-fight stuff is in there just because Shakespeare knew it would play well.
*. Another nod to greater realism (or whatever you want to call it) is getting rid of almost all the asides and soliloquies from the Henry VI plays. It won’t do to have actors talking directly to the camera. Of course, this is a decision that had to be jettisoned when the series comes to Richard III, which is built around Richard’s confiding in the audience.
*. I’m all for colour-blind casting, but did they really want to have Sophie Okonedo playing the villainous Margaret, a character who is, to my eye, a close cousin to the ethnic witch Tamora from Titus Andronicus? That doesn’t seem very progressive. Still, it’s a great part.

*. I give Tom Sturridge a lot of credit. Henry VI is a difficult part. The historical Henry VI wasn’t a very impressive figure, by most accounts, and in the play he’s a type of the “holy king” at best (which wasn’t the best kind of king to be) or a dim wimp at worst. Ralph Fiennes played him once and was mainly concerned about his appearing “a weak, dithering fool.” A comic figure even. This is always a danger, but Sturridge really makes Henry believable and sympathetic. No mean feat. I only thought his transformation into Gollum a bit much.
*. Sturridge and Okonedo at least have the luxury of working alone. There aren’t that many performances of Margaret and Henry that audiences would have to compare them to, and almost none on film. Benedict Cumberbatch (a second cousin sixteen times removed of Richard) is playing in a different league, in the shadow of Olivier and McKellen.
*. Physically he’s more grotesque than either, and the opening shot of his naked, deformed back sets the tone. Producer Sam Mendes remarks on the “making of” featurette that “I don’t think you’ve seen Richard with his shirt off.” The prosthetics apparently took over three hours to put on and they add to that sense of realism I’ve mentioned already, going with the mudbowl Battle of Bosworth Field (mud = realism for any depiction of medieval life) and all the shooting on location.

*. One thing about Cumberbatch’s performance that’s really smart is not trying to re-invent the role. He’s very good, but aside from the scene of his naked back it’s not a star turn. If anything he plays some of the hamminess of the role down. What I came away liking best were quiet moments, like his observing Edward and Clarence falling out.
*. Stanley Townsend as Warwick made me think of Brian Blessed. How could you not be reminded of the guy who would naturally fit into that role in the past? Shakespeare had a stable company, and perhaps something of that consistency of players continues into the present day.
*. I started off saying that this is great TV. The hooks at the end of each part reveal a professional showrunner’s sense of timing. There is an attempt made throughout to emphasize a strong through narrative line that works quite well. It’s a treat to see Richard as a character following a real arc.

*. Some of the adaptations made by Ben Power and Dominic Cooke work very well. The death of Clifford, for example, involves wholly made-up scenes between Clifford and Richard and then Clifford and Henry, with both of the latter figures declining to finish him off, though for sharply contrasting reasons. Richard wants him to suffer while Henry can’t because violence sickens him. That’s not in Shakespeare, but it’s a nice touch.
*. Critics made the obvious connection to Game of Thrones, which may be putting the cart before the horse by more than four centuries. I certainly enjoyed these versions a lot more than the old BBC adaptations back when I was in school. Though those products were more faithful, I think perhaps because they were intended partly as study aids.
*. So if you’re looking for the language you may feel shortchanged at times. The dispute in the garden, where the business of the red and white roses is first introduced, often makes reference to the flowers as “dumb [mute] significants.” In this version the line just before the dumb significants line is kept, as is the one after. But dumb significants is lost. A dumbing down? I don’t think so, but it’s an evolution.