Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Year 4, Day 284 - 10/10/12 - Movie #1,274

WORLD TOUR Day 38 - The Netherlands

BEFORE: From the world of classic literature to the world of art - and from one city known for its art to another.  Linking actors tonight is simple, since Helena Bonham Carter from "A Room With a View" was also in "The King's Speech" with Colin Firth.  Hmm, my third film with Mr. Firth this year, I'll class this blog up before I'm done.

Speaking of done, I've got just under a month left before I close up shop for the year.  It turns out that 365 movies in a year is a bit too much for me, and 270 (the number I watched in 2011) is not enough - 300 seems just about right, and I wish I'd realized that three years ago.  Oh, and I'll be taking a break for 4 days later this week to work at New York Comic Con.

THE PLOT:  A young peasant maid working in the house of painter Johannes Vermeer becomes his talented assistant and the model for one of his most famous works.

AFTER:  This seems at first like it would be a really simple story - girl gets job, girl poses for painting, painter paints painting, and there you go.  But it's a bit more complicated than that.  It gets into the relationship that one assumes the painter has with his subject, whether real or imagined, and the impact that has on the world, both in the smaller sense (jealous wife, embittered patron) and the larger (the people who view the art in museums).

It's fictionalized, of course - no one knows the exact relationship between Vermeer and his maid, or between Da Vinci and Ms. Mona Lisa, or Degas and all those ballet dancers.  But there is a very cool examination here of the artistic process - both the technical aspects of it, and the personal.  For example, it makes sense that Vermeer would have a large posable mannequin, since one wouldn't expect a human model to stand still for hours and hours, but I suppose I never really thought about it like that.

Underpainting, the use of the camera obscura, and the complicated process of mixing paints - this is some art history teacher's dream of a film, I just know it.  And it's rare when a peek into the process of making something actually enhances its recognition - I still can't bring myself to watch DVD extras on the making of a film, because I usually don't want to spoil the illusion.  I see enough "behind the scenes" material in the animation world just by doing my job.

Speaking of which, I've been in the film business for over 20 years now, and I've worked for several directors and producers, and I can confirm that mixing relationships with the filmmaking process is a complicated and messy undertaking.  I started out working for a pair of directors who were also husband and wife, though they were separated and each dating another creative person associated with the company.  (This will all be in my "roman a clef" memoirs someday.)  I've run interference for people juggling several girlfriends - on one level, it's all part of the job. 

I tell myself that highly creative people tend to make their own rules - pick any Hollywood couple or rock star relationship in the tabloids and I think you'll see what I mean.   The artists of the 17th century were probably no exception.

I'm a little less interested in the process of the Vermeer family's laundry and other household chores, though.  All of that seemed a little off-topic.

Also starring Scarlett Johansson (last seen in "The Avengers"), Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "Stage Beauty"), Cillian Murphy (last seen in "Tron: Legacy"), Essie Davis.

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  651 miles / 1,049 km  (Florence, Italy to Delft, Netherlands)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   11,810 miles / 19,013 km

RATING: 5 out of 10 pigments

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Room With a View

Year 4, Day 283 - 10/9/12 - Movie #1,273

WORLD TOUR Day 37 - Florence, Italy

BEFORE:  Moving north to Florence, and fast-forwarding in time from the days of the Roman Empire to the early 20th century (?).  Linking from "Spartacus", Laurence Olivier was also in "The Boys From Brazil" with Denholm Elliott (last seen in "Robin and Marian").

THE PLOT:  When Lucy Honeychurch and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett find themselves in Florence with rooms without views, fellow guests Mr. Emerson and son George step in to remedy the situation. Meeting the Emersons could change Lucy's life forever but, once back in England, how will her experiences in Tuscany affect her marriage plans?

AFTER:  Well, I never really caught on with this whole Merchant/Ivory period piece thing, and now I know why - for the most part, this one was boring as dirt.  Perhaps it's due to thematic whiplash, going from "Spartacus" with its gladiator fights and giant battles to a British period piece - but this film made me long for a battle with a barbarian horde, seeing limbs being chopped off and heads severed.  (and wouldn't that be something, right in the middle of afternoon tea?)

I mean, I get it, it's about how a little incident like swapping rooms at a hotel can change a person's life.  Any random meeting with someone can lead to curiosity, and romance, and next thing you know, you're engaged to one person but in love with another.  But jeez, if only these stuffy British people could learn to express their emotions, they wouldn't have these kinds of problems.  If only they married each other based on love, or at least some kind of emotion or interest, and not based on social class or who would logically make the best partner.  Love is illogical some of the time, so you've simply got to account for that.  The heart wants who it wants.

You can't even do a favor for British people sometimes, because that would cause them to have an "undue obligation" to you.  God forbid you help them out or loan them money, because however would they pay you back?  Then they have to spend the next few months avoiding you, because they're too embarrassed about the whole kerfuffle.

And finding a woman beautiful, and kissing her is considered an "insult"?   What a backwards people, they're all repressed sexuality and a genuine unwillingness to be truly happy.    

Also starring Helena Bonham-Carter (last seen in "The King's Speech"), Maggie Smith (last seen in "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit"), Julian Sands (last seen in "Greenberg"), Daniel Day-Lewis (last seen in "The Crucible"), Simon Callow (last seen in "Jefferson in Paris"), Judi Dench (last seen in "Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown"), Rupert Graves.

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  142 miles / 230 km  (Rome to Florence)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   11,159 miles / 17,964 km

RATING: 3 out of 10 carriage rides

Monday, October 8, 2012


Year 4, Day 282 - 10/8/12 - Movie #1,272

WORLD TOUR Day 36 - Southern Italy

BEFORE: I'm finally leaving the British Isles - after covering Muppets, Charles Dickens, and Roman centurions.  Yep, seems about right.   But sticking with the Roman Empire points me in the direction of Italy, just in time for Columbus Day.  Linking from "The Eagle", Donald Sutherland was also in "The Dirty Dozen" with George Kennedy, who according to the IMDB is in here somewhere as a rebel soldier.  (If that seems like cheating, Sutherland was also in "Johnny Got His Gun" with Charles McGraw.)

THE PLOT: The slave Spartacus leads a violent revolt against the decadent Roman empire.

AFTER:  This is one of those big-budget epic films still on my never-seen list - I'll try to get to "Gandhi" and "Gone With the Wind" next year.  With an over three-hour running time, I had to wait for the right day to watch this one.  Even with the help of the holiday, I still had to watch the first two hours early Monday morning and finish up the rest later in the day.  I don't like getting my required four hours of sleep in the middle of a movie, but I'm hamstrung by the shortcomings of the human work schedule.  I tried to tape this one off of TCM and failed twice, so my BFF Andy helped me out last Christmas with a real DVD copy.  Widescreen, so I can see what a 50,000 member Roman army is supposed to look like.

This is a Stanley Kubrick film, but made before he got all weird and artsy on us with films like "2001" and "A Clockwork Orange" - so it has more common with classics like "Ben-Hur" and (I presume) "Cleopatra".  It's also a game-changer in its own way, since without it we might never have had "Gladiator" or "Braveheart".  Essentially it's review-proof, this film's going to endure no matter how many nitpick points I'm able to find.

The plot concerns an army of slaves in the Roman Empire, first formed by gladiators, loosely based on a real slave uprising in the 1st century BCE.  The Romans trained the slaves in the fighting arts, so really, they brought it upon themselves.  Makes sense.

What doesn't make sense is how LONG it takes for the Roman Army to get to Capua to quell the rebellion.  The army marches out of Rome near the start of the film, but they never quite get there.  What the heck, did they walk there backwards?  Didn't they have horses?

My other problem is that though there are a few fantastic battle scenes, it's not necessarily enough to justify the long running time.  Kubrick seemed to have ignored the "Show, don't tell" rule, since much of the plot is advanced via conversations between senators in Roman bathhouses.  "I hear that Spartacus has taken Salerno!"  "Really?"

If you can keep the senators straight, though, and tell Crassus from Gracchus, you do get a look at how military power in the Roman Empire worked, and why so much of it got shifted on to a young Julius Caesar at one point.  Keep your eye on that one, he's going places.  But watching a discussion of the dissolution of the senate, along with a rebellion against the Empire, I can't help but feel like I've seen parts of this plotline before... (Crassus = Palpatine?) 

NITPICK POINT: The background of Spartacus is a mystery, of course, but how did one trained in hand-to-hand combat become such a brilliant large-scale military strategist?

Starring Kirk Douglas (last seen in "Paths of Glory"), Laurence Olivier (last seen in "Marathon Man"), Peter Ustinov (last seen in "The Great Muppet Caper"), Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis (last seen in "Elvis Meets Nixon"), Herbert Lom (last seen in "The Ladykillers"), John Gavin, John Ireland (last seen in "All the King's Men"), Woody Strode (last seen in "The Quick and the Dead").

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  1,407 miles / 2,265 km  (Edinburgh, Scotland to Capua, Italy, then Rome)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   11,017 miles / 17,734 km

RATING: 7 out of 10 pirate ships

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Eagle

Year 4, Day 281 - 10/7/12 - Movie #1,271

WORLD TOUR Day 35 - Scotland

BEFORE: This is a different film on the same topic - the fabled Ninth Legion of Rome, which supposedly vanished in the wilds of Northern Britain.  Yes, Hollywood saw fit to release TWO action movies with similar plots less than a year apart.  Where have I seen that strategy before?  Warner Bros. released "Centurion" in April 2010, and Focus Features released this one in February 2011.  Which studio copied the other's idea?

Linking from "Centurion", Michael Fassbender also starred in a 2001 film titled "Haywire", along with Channing Tatum (last seen in "Public Enemies").  That seems rather fortuitous.

THE PLOT:  In Roman-ruled Britain, a young Roman soldier endeavors to honor his father's memory by finding his lost legion's golden emblem.

AFTER: Well, originally I was going to watch "The Eagle" before "Centurion", and then I switched them at the last minute, which turned out to be the right move.  "Centurion" focuses on the men in the Ninth Legion, and "The Eagle" takes place 20 years later, when a Roman soldier goes into the dangerous kingdoms of the Picts and the Ciels to find out what happened to his father, a member of said legion.  So "The Eagle" could be seen as sort of a loose sequel to "Centurion", with none of the same characters.

Beyond that, "Centurion" was gorier, and I'll say more action-packed too.  It also seemed more relevant to me since the goal was to save the lives of soldiers, and not just to find a non-living symbol.   "Centurion" seems to outshine this one in most major categories, except for box office grosses.

Also starring Jamie Bell (last seen in "Nicholas Nickelby"), Donald Sutherland (last seen in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), Mark Strong (last seen in "Oliver Twist"), Denis O'Hare.

RATING: 4 out of 10 cattle