“Game of Thrones” — “Rome” Meets “Lord of the Rings”

Depending upon the viewer’s tolerance for over-the-top nudity and gratuitous violence (albeit infrequently), this Emmy-nominated HBO series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can be a guilty pleasure. An entrancing, seductive ten-episode TV miniseries, “Game of Thrones” is a compelling, carefully crafted drama about a mythical, magical medieval world.

Nicknamed the American Tolkien, George R.R. Martin has authored the best-selling fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. “Game of Thrones” is based on the first book in the series. Episode One opens with one of the most harrowing and genuinely cold-blooded scenes I can remember ever watching, especially for a fantasy drama. Amputated arms and legs are strewn across a stark, snowy forest glen, filmed overhead with slow, gliding camera movements. A man wanders from his two friends to discover the carnage but when the three men return, the body parts have vanished.

As is true for many sci-fi and fantasy novels, I needed an organization chart and a family tree for each of the main characters and his or her families–in this case seven kingdoms or clans struggling for the Iron Throne of Westeros, a medieval world facing an impending forty-year winter.

I don’t know if it was an intentional casting move to feature Sean Bean as a main character in “Game of Thrones” based on his previous role in “Lord of the Rings”, but the comparison between the two epics is obvious. In both epics all main characters are outliers. In “Game of Thrones” one character is a sole survivor of a family massacre, one is a bastard, one part dragon, one a girl who wishes she were a boy, to name only a few.

Some of the subplots are convoluted too, only to pull this viewer into its recesses. For example, one princess is forced to marry a king of a “barbaric” tribe but she is determined to understand her husband’s culture and eventually…and contentedly… fits into his society. The rape and pillage, not even subtly associated with Attila the Hun, allows the viewer not only to sympathize with the princess but also with her husband–no mean feat!

Arguments can be made that this series reduces some characters to racist or misogynist stereotypes. However, if the viewer focuses on the handful of intricately drawn portraits, especially those of the dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and the heir to the Stark clan (Sean Bean), moral ambivalence about the world they fight to preserve yet wish to transcend is clearly maintained.

I have never been a “Dungeons and Dragons”, Tolkien, or “Watership Down” fan but this fantasy miniseries feels more like an epic history of mythological proportions, analogous to the retelling of the generational conflicts, political intrigue and betrayal in the “Rome” miniseries, also from HBO (2005). All the requisite blockbuster devices of bloody battle scenes, nudity, political corruption, and even humor are present in each episode. However, the superb writing, mostly noteworthy acting, and stunning cinematography contribute to the tremendous appeal of “Game of Thrones”. Like “Rome” or “Dexter”, there may not be a socially redeeming, “intellectual” component, but the story is addicting and highly spell-binding. This is no “Mildred Pierce”, also a strong Emmy contender (see my last blog post) yet the white snow and dark shadows of this story made “Game of Thrones” a winner for me!

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“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!

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2 Replies to ““Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest””

  1. I think your descriptions of the characters – especially Mildred, Veda and Monty – are a bit misleading. The only thing you accuse Mildred of is blindness toward Veda and Monty, while ignoring some of her other major faults. And in Episode 5, Monty himself became a victim of Mildred’s manipulations to get Veda back into her life.

“I Love You Phillip Morris”– “Catch Me If You Can” With a Gay Twist

Let me start by saying I wanted to really love this movie starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. I was sitting on the fence on this one but no more.

This oddball movie is loosely based upon an improbable but true story of a gay conman/grifter, Steve Russell, who continually breaks the law to impress his young lover, Phillip Morris, in a small Texas community. “I Love You Phillip Morris” opens with Russell (Jim Carrey) on a hospital gurney, near death. Up until now he has led a life of pretense –a married policeman whose wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann), is a sweet, caring church-going spouse. But his near-death experience has made Russell realize he’s going to live life as an openly gay man who no longer sneaks out on Debbie at night. His newfound gay lifestyle involves lavish and luxurious habits, which he cannot afford on a policeman’s salary so he turns to a world of crime. Sent to the Texas State Penitentiary where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), Russell begins an outrageous con to free both of them.

Every time Ewan McGregor is onscreen, this viewer lit up at his performance. While Jim Carrey somehow always reminds you that he is first and foremost Jim Carrey, that does not hold true for McGregor who plays the love interest with subtle charm and none of the usual swishy, exploitative cinematic portrayals of gay men. Carrey sometimes feels to me as if he is satirizing Russell, instead of seeing his tortured nature. In one of the most moving scenes in the story, Morris confronts Russell who has implicated him in his crimes: “How does someone who doesn’t exist go on existing?” Morris doesn’t know him, because the chameleonic Russell seemingly has no core.

Even though the main character is a narcissistic sociopathic scam artist, I think he could still have been lovable as was Leonardo di Caprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can.” But I found the story not persuasive as fiction, let alone truth, because the larcenous self-inventing Steve Russell is so hard to understand, let alone feel compassion for. Russell seems to be stunted, but his perpetual emotional postponement, even in the face of the man he loves, is never underscored. To see a more convincing portrayal of the gay man’s situation, I would go see “A Single Man” hands down!

Good actors, some over-the-top homosexual erotic scenes but a movie that ultimately doesn’t realize its potential. Too bad–could have been concomitantly hilarious and touching in almost every way!

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“Rabbit Hole”–A Parallel Universe

Nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Play and a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Rabbit Hole” was released as a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart about six months ago (December 2010). This movie takes familiar territory and creates a classic.

Astutely named, “rabbit hole” refers to a bizarre or difficult state or situation. What gut-wrenching, reality-changing universe can be more brutal and painful than the death of a loved one? A metaphor for adventure into the unknown, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is no clear set of rules for a world turned upside down by grief . In a labyrinth of guilt, self-recrimination, tightly controlled rage and estrangement from oneself, there seems to be no escape.

The storyline is every parent’s nightmare–the death of a child. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) struggle furiously with the deepest of wounds after the death of their 4-year-old son, Danny. The once happily married couple finds themselves displaced. Their marriage on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in a house still infused with death. Where Becca finds pain in the familiar, Howie finds comfort. Their souls are dissolving and dangerously off track.

Becca’s loving but unintentionally inept mother (Dianne Wiest) has also experienced the death of a son and unsuccessfully offers comfort and advice but Becca reflexively refuses. Weekly support group therapy only increases Becca’s inability to heal. Howie finds solace in Gaby, a fellow therapy attendee (played with compassion by Sandra Oh) while Becca stalks a teenager who has written and illustrated a comic book, entitled “Rabbit Hole”, about a parallel universe where Becca believes “somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”

This cinematic character study redirects our sympathies at every turn. Never mordant, though painful, this taxonomy of grief taps a reservoir of feelings common to anyone who has experienced the reality-shifting vacuum left by a death in the family. Anyone who has ever gone through the possessions of a deceased family member or close friend understands instantly the crispness in tone of voice, the touch of the clothing, and the memory of smell portrayed in several of this film’s most memorable scenes. Without flinching, the cast makes it clear that the wound beneath the surface never really stops hurting, but heals by degrees.

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4 Replies to ““Rabbit Hole”–A Parallel Universe”

  1. A friend sent me this comment via personal email and I would like to share it with you:
    “I thought your review was to the point, very informative and had much feeling wrapped around the comments.
    Having experienced a severe loss, it is too hard to read about it, never mind seeing the movie.
    Reading your review made me feel some of the old feelings. I used to feel like Alice falling down the dark hole, never ending…I never knew about “rabbit hole” till now.
    Thanks for the review; it was written with much heart and compassion.”

  2. As I have not heard of this film I’m not sure if it would have register as something to see, but I agree with your friend’s comments. Somethings cannot be revisited.

The Current Digital Divide–Instant Gratification Anyone?

When a link to my daughter’s online wedding registry was sent to some aunts and uncles, it created some confusion. They had never seen an online registry before and couldn’t figure out how to find the gift list or how to purchase something online. This made me start wondering–what is the digital divide between the young “worker bees” and their parents who have to become tech-savvy on the Internet?

The current trend in wedding planning is creating a website–a sort of mini-Facebook page dedicated to posting photos, registering gifts, mentioning the “Save the Date” and wedding reception site plans, as well as giving “updates”. This is how the betrothed communicates in more detail than merely the conventional wedding announcement by snail-mail (still in vogue), telephone calls and face-to-face communication. Now there is constant digital communication with everyone, provided everyone opts to go online to navigate the website.

Much has been said about social networking as an instant but impersonal connection to friends, associates, and strangers. In other words, being endlessly available but seldom really present. There is even a website –Grubwithus–which lets the Internet user browse through lists of dinners in cities, buy a ticket for a particular night, post a few personal facts, and then join strangers at a restaurant for dinner–all in the hope of meeting someone new. It’s “digital barhopping meets personal dining”. The concept fascinates me–picturing small groups of people drinking, eating around the table, all on smart cell phones tethered to the palm of their hands. Does this avoid striking up a conversation in person–a truly scary situation for the shy, and also the not so shy? Does a pre-arranged dinner date with strangers help force the socially awkward to the ultimate goal– face-to-face interaction, so precious and rare? Or does social networking really decrease opportunities for friendship by reducing everyone on your “friends list” to reading the same “updates” that strangers and mere acquaintances also see online?

Those who stubbornly refuse to play are increasingly isolated, the same way that someone without an answering machine or voice mail is (arrogantly?) announcing “stay away” if you can’t take the time to give me a call until you reach me. A new digital divide has been created– between a generation of Internet users and those who still want to go from store to store to buy their wedding presents, appreciate the teller’s smile at the local bank branch, and like the feel of turning the pages of a “real book”.

The upside of digital communications is that the response and the gratification are instantaneous. Our family and friends can know a lot about our daughter’s wedding, even those who cannot attend or were not invited. This lets them know we want to share our excitement. The downside is we are not sharing this information in a more personal way, but can we really do that except with only a very few? Hurt feelings perhaps are diminished with more electronic messages at the same time that a de-personalization of parts of our lives also is happening. An equilibrium still awaits.

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9 Replies to “The Current Digital Divide–Instant Gratification Anyone?”

  1. It’s a quandary, this internet…
    Being gone from “home” (Monterey) for a month now, I should be feeling a little homesick, I think, but with blogs, facebook, email and skype, I do not feel isolated at all. Saying that, I do still have to be aware that I have to snail mail and phone my 91 year old father to keep him in the loop of things – it would be a lot easier if he had email, but the cell phone is even challenging for him. These things just do not make sense to him, just as the microwave oven didn’t make sense to his father. We need to remember what we have now, appreciate what it brings to us and keep in mind the “old” ways of communication if we want to keep in engaged communication.
    I do miss the immediate contact of my friends in Monterey, tho. . .

    1. I agree wholeheartedly! The irony is that the elderly could really benefit from the Internet, especially if they are homebound. Sometimes you can reconnect with longlost friends and family through email and Facebook. Thanks for your comment!

  2. When I was a child in the Bronx, the women came out in the evenings and sat on milk crates.
    There was no air conditioning and few households had Televisions. All was not great but I
    believe there was less Isolation of the individual. The internet is a marvelous tool but, we should
    remember that it is a tool…

  3. My problem with internet interaction is that it takes too much time. For some reason when I get on the computer I find all sorts of things to look up and play with so that the hours go by and I end up wondering what happened to my day. I connect with friends mostly when I need to. Long conservations by email are not my thing. My kids use the telephone more for connecting with me. That can take hours too. If I want to buy something it seems convenient to look up the variations on the theme I’m looking for, but once again I find I have spent a very long time and with many digressions into areas I hadn’t considered before. It’s sort of like the idea that the computer was supposed to use less paper than before. Nothing of the kind! I use more paper than I ever used before. I haven’t tried twitter. My fingers are too big to tap out the needed letters and numbers on my IPhone. I can’t imagine how long and how many retypings it would take to get those 144 letters to make sense. We live in an interesting time. I don’t want to go back, but it’s hard to keep up. Joanne

  4. The Internet is a wonderul tool for accessing information and the speed of communication via email is wonderful. I like to contact friends and enjoy their immediate replies but often there’s a brevity and shallowness about the communication. At times, my email queries go unanswered and lacking in coherent communication. Personal hand -written letters, although less frequent, were carefully composed and thoughtful by comparison. I’ve been spring cleaning lately and have been reading old letters from 30 years ago with an eye to burning them. The authors of these letters spring into life again as I read and bring me close to events I’d forgotten. I wonder if I’d ever bother to re read old emails to re capture the flavour of the past.
    As for the social network via Facebook, I find it invasive, filled with flippant remarks and opportunities to” grandstand”.

  5. Instant communication can be a wonderful fast solution at times, but it does not leave me with the sense of fullfilment that a face to face communication provides. It lacks the rich fibers of human interactions.
    We are living in a fast developing technological world. The speed does not match the evolution of behaviour ethics. People need to learn when it is appropriate to use these tools.

    Evelyn

  6. It is a quandary. It is necessary because we will be totally left behind if we do not participate. However, it does take way too much time. I tend to get stuck on the computer and not get the rest of my life lived. Finding a balance is difficult. Learning new computer relationship software takes up time that could be spent elsewhere.

    Yet, it does help keep connections open in this increasingly isolated world. I am lonely for human connection, but do not have the time or energy to engage in face to face connections the way I used to in the past. I am searching for a way to find some balance with this issue.

    Cheryl

  7. My $.02:
    Is it really possible to have a balanced discussion about social media while using social media? Anyone who truly objects and chooses to abstain will not be represented here to give their point of view.

    Social media is a tool, not inherently good or evil. It can be used effectively or abused horribly; social media is not a substitute for true time, but it can be a supplement. It helps me keep in touch with those in different parts of the world that otherwise would be lost to me.

    What is true, is our culture is much less physically connected than cultures of the past were. We’re not forced to be in a relationship with folks around us anymore. We don’t need to band together for protection or trade with our neighbors for food staples. When there’s a conflict, we don’t need to resolve it as we really don’t need that person anyway.

    We have become self-sufficient islands. We were islands even before Facebook and Twitter. Social media didn’t cause our disconnectedness… it just allowed us to broadcast it more effectively.

    My one real complaint is that this magic it supplies at my fingertips, where I can view and read about art for hours at a time; but then the time has vanished for me to be actively making, doing, creating art.

“Bridesmaids”–Maid of Dishonor, Never the Bride

This is a female version of “Hangover” but much, much better. “Bridesmaids”, the new movie produced by Judd Apatow of “40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” fame, has crisp, brilliant comic writing by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo together with superb comedic timing by Wiig, Maya Rudolph and a perfectly cast team of supporting actresses –a hilarious, knockout performance by Melissa McCarthy especially. McCarthy dominates every scene she’s in with her over-the-top sexual and verbal attacks. For women who enjoy a “girls night out” to roar with snort-laughs that make you cry, and for all men who also enjoy raunchy unexpected gross-out scenes from some of the most talented comediennes today, this movie is for you!

Wiig plays Annie, who has not had much luck –in her love life, her work, her roommates, with her mother or her friends…except for her best friend from childhood, Lillian (delectably played by the winning Maya Rudolph.) The story is a rather simple one rehashed many times before –“girl rivalry”. This time it is the “new girl in town”–Helen (played to perfection by Rose Byrne) who represents change for Annie in terms of who she is and how she identifies herself with relation to her best friend. Comedy and pathos touchingly intermingle as we cringe to see Annie, Lillian’s designated maid of honor, try to compete on unfamiliar turf with Helen: couturier dress selection, fine dining, one-upmanship in gifts, to name only a few of the most hilarious, but also fiercely moving, scenes. The sweet Irish charm of a smitten cop (an endearing role by Chris O’Dowd), only underscores how hurt and out of control Annie really is.

I thought “Bridesmaids” would be silly, maybe even stupid, but the script proved to be brilliant in the most unexpected moments. The screenwriters were astute in not playing only for laughs. The opening sex scene with Kristen Wiig and a wonderfully clueless cad (Jon Hamm) was enough to put this viewer securely on Wiig’s side of the story for the rest of the film, while simultaneously laughing so hard tears rolled down my cheeks so I consequently missed the next set of zingers. Will have to watch this movie a second time to get the full dialogue! The incredibly fast pace of slicing morsels of humor is extraordinary!

This movie is not for everyone. It has vulgar, physical comedy that doesn’t appeal to anyone who cannot channel their “inner teenage self”. However, if you want to see a comedy that heals wounds while making you laugh and watch Kristen Wiig give the performance of her lifetime, then make sure you see this movie. Her brilliant comic talent (and writing) needs to be in more challenging venues than her current long-time gig on “Saturday Night Live”. It’s time for her to move on…to more creative adventures following her debut in this comic gem!

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3 Replies to ““Bridesmaids”–Maid of Dishonor, Never the Bride”

  1. I can sometimes bring up my “inner teenage self”, but I haven’t seen my inner preteen self for a very long time. I thought this movie found itself in that milieu. It wasn’t just vulgar, it was bathroom humor of the 9 to 10-year age group. I was very disappointed.

“Midnight in Paris” – That Was Then, This is Now

Written and directed by Woody Allen, this romantic comedy is vintage Woody Allen. I love Woody Allen, but I don’t really, really, really love Woody Allen to the point that I think everything he does is brilliant and witty. He has had some real dogs. How many people have suffered through “Cassandra’s Dream”, for example, as I have? Nonetheless, there is a lot to like about “Midnight in Paris”.

The story opens with a young couple, Gil Pender (brilliantly played by Owen Wilson), and his fiancée Inez (believably played by Rachel McAdams in an unsympathetic role), traveling to Paris with her parents on a business trip. It is obvious from the outset that the couple is not suited for each other. Gil, a successful but dissatisfied Hollywood screenwriter, hopes to give up his Hollywood gig to write his first novel. Inez does not understand why.

At midnight Gil leaves his fiancée and her family to walk alone on a starry, rainy moonlit night saturated with golden hued tones the camera lovingly lingers onto the City of Light. Gil gets into a vintage 1920s roadster when some friendly partygoers beckon to him and is transported to the golden of cultural icons: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray to name only a few.

“Midnight in Paris” is, most of all, a comic walk down memory lane, for those viewers who can catch literary and artistic allusions to the period. A few examples: Hemingway speaks in sentence structures characteristic of his prose. Dali and Man Ray are called “not normal” surrealists. Gertrude Stein is the matriarch of a cultural elites’ salon with her lover Alice. Adriana, mistress of Picasso, played by the radiant Marion Cotillard, thrusts the pivotal lunge into the heart of this film when she asks Gil why he loves the 1920s. Gil utters the mantra embedded in all of Woody Allen’s movies–“Maybe the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.”

Gil wakes up from his longing for a “golden age” through a series of overdone flashbacks. Like his mediocre movies over the past three decades, Woody Allen doesn’t seem to know when to stop the repetition. Unlike “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, which I loved, this movie is the old Woody Allen genre, overwrought and lecturing like some old academic who has lost his audience. But this film is much better than most in the last ten years or so, perhaps on a par with “Match Point”–that is to say, good but not great. Owen Wilson, who actually channels Woody Allen’s famously high-pitched whiny voice (if you close your eyes,) should star as Woody Allen’s alter ego in all his future work. Who knew Owen Wilson’s delightful voice in rom-coms is an echo of Allen’s?

What, for me, saves this film is that “Midnight in Paris” is a palpable love letter to Paris, not only cinematic clichés of the Eiffel Tower, the River Seine, and the Louvre, but shots filled with so much affection for narrow street cafes and even the bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. This nostalgic tour of Paris together with some of the literary scene of the 1920s is worth the price of the movie ticket!

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10 Replies to ““Midnight in Paris” – That Was Then, This is Now”

  1. Exactly, it’s a love letter as Manhattan was. The time travel concept was appealing.
    Ernest Hemingway talking of big game hunting, F.S. Fitzgerald calling Gil old sport,
    the reference to Prufrock when meeting T.S. Elliot. It is all amusing fun, worth seeing,
    and – overrated. The French love Woody as much as Woody loves the French.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I would definitely recommend the movie to Woody Allen lovers. Others may be more on the fence about the merits of “Midnight in Paris”!

  2. Great review Diana~ I totally agree with your commentary! The thing is, if you don’t have an interest or knowledge of art history it could get a bit boring. I brought my girls and their friends and while they enjoyed it, the first 1/2 hour was challenging because- who are all these people?? But, the romance of Paris completely sunk in and they were prancing around Monterey afterward trying to say Bonjour! and Mais Oui! to each other… completely taken in by the city of lights! Mais oui Cherie.

    1. Glad to hear your girls were good sports about the rather arcane literary and art references. Woody Allen has never been “young at heart” in addressing his love of anything. The City of Lights is mesmerizing, however, and Woody Allen has been a Francophile for a long time. I toast to him for that!

  3. Really liked the film, but really didn’t like Owen Wilson’s Woody Allen imitation. I wished he would have played his character as a unique person, not an obvious imitation. Everything else I really enjoyed.

  4. Yes, Owen is younger, blonder, more handsome and more Gentile than Woody…
    I may have liked the film better if Owen played it closer to his character, an Irish,
    Catholic troublemaker from Dallas, Texas. 😉

  5. I enjoyed your review and agree with you…Paris is the perfect set for any movie…As to Midnight in Paris, I also felt it was typical latter day Woody Allen…He is using the same formula of the doomed relationship and then finding True Love…We are left to wonder if he is writing from his experience with Mia…for those that want the old and very funny Woody Allen I recommend Whatever It Takes starring Larry David…

    1. Hi Eugene, my #1 fan! I already have “Whatever Works” in my Netflix queue and waiting to see it. Thanks for the recommendation. Will move it to the top of my list!

  6. This film was all of the above, but for an old Woody Allen fan it was just fun. Imagine! A film that kept your attention with no guns, no overt sex, no ugliness. It was, I think, Allen making fun of himself. The vocal imitation was just great. But remember “Bananas”? My regret is that we can’t laugh the way we did when we saw that one. Our world has become so grim it’s nice to see something pretty at least.

  7. A nice romantic comedy with some laughs. I have enough background in Hemingway, Fitzgeral, Eliot and Stein to get the jokes, and see them coming. But it’s hardly necessary to have be familiar with these writers. I know nothing about the painters, but I still enjoyed that and got at least some of the jokes.

    Owen Wilson makes a nice stand-in for Woody Allen. He can display all the insecurities of Woody Allen, but he makes a far more better romantic lead than Wood Allen ever did.

    For those looking for the Woody Allen of Bananas, there is one moment ( the fate of the detective spying on Gil ) that ranks with best of the early Woody Allen.

“The Princess of Montpensier”–Where’s the There There?

Based on a 1662 novella, “The Princess of Montpensier” opens with a savage battle scene during the French civil war between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) in the year 1562. Marie de Mézières, a beautiful young princess (who looks like a combination of Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman), reluctantly submits to an arranged marriage to young Prince Philippe, Duc de Montpensier, as dictated by politics and the aristocratic exchange of women for more wealth and power.

Haunted by the handsome lover Henri (Duc de Grise) from her adolescence, the Princess of Montpensier struggles in a romantic drama of duty, passion, religion and war. Romantic love does not exist for her (or for any noblewoman of the period) and the Princess could never hope to marry her lover Henri. But marriage without love encourages love outside marriage. Nonetheless, the princess, at first, struggles to be happy with Prince Philippe.

On their wedding night the young couple have no privacy. In an unsettling scene Marie stands naked in front of her father who inspects her before her husband. Philippe soon leaves for the battlefield, assigning his former tutor and mentor, the Comte de Chabannes, the task of educating Marie in accordance with her new status as a visitor to court. Chabannes is no ordinary tutor. Considered by both Catholics and Huguenots to be a traitor, Chabannes is rescued by the young Prince Philippe and brought to court to tutor the princess. He has rejected war, disgusted with violence in the name of religion. “How can people of the same blood and faith kill each other in the name of Christ?’’ he mourns, recalling his killing of a pregnant woman.

Chabannes falls in love with the intellectually curious young princess as does the Duc d’Anjou, brother to the king and cousin to both the princess and Henri. The Duc d’Anjou is used to taking what he wants and plots a deception worthy of Shakespeare.

From a purely visual perspective, there is exquisite set designs, lighting and costumes which provides rich layers of authenticity of life in mid-16th century Europe. The setting is lush but distant with historical references most of us cannot access: the religious wars, Queen Mother Catherine (who is a Medici) or Catholic theology (references to Gregory Chrysostom, for example). This historical distance demands a story so tightly woven that it can compensate for gaps in knowledge of sixteenth century French history. “The Princess of Montpensier” is intended to be a classic commentary of manners, especially of aristocratic and masculine control over female relatives, draining their souls of love, liberty and hope. However, It’s a subject that other films and television programs have covered to greater effect. To name a few, “The Tudors”, “Rome” and “The Borgias” among historical dramatizations in television and “Elizabeth”, “Mrs. Brown”, and “The Crown Prince” in recent films.

I wanted to like this movie more: to be transfixed, pulled in by the characters, warming to the plight of the princess’s fate. But, the characters never completely develop. Just when this viewer expected the three primary male characters to follow their hearts…or their minds…they contradict their own best interests without explanation as to motive or psychology. I expected to be swept away by the conflict between duty and passion, what Pascal famously asserted less than a century after the novella was written: “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know”. In “The Princess of Montpensier” the evocation of the princess’s heart and the morals of the two dukes, but most notably, Chabannes, are left disjointed and without a pattern consistent with their natures rendered earlier in the film. As the film moves onward, instead of getting better, as I hoped, it unravels, both in terms of character development and in enticing the viewer to understand the sorrows and complexities the story is attempting to unfold.

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3 Replies to ““The Princess of Montpensier”–Where’s the There There?”

  1. This would be a perfect movie for us to see here in Montreal, I think. Dubbed in French, I’m sure. We still haven’t found a movie theater (teatre?) except for the Imax in Old Montreal. Hopefully will find the movies and find this one…

    1. Hi Susie!
      A few of the lines are not dubbed, so we were left to guess what the French dialogue meant. Would be fun for both of you. Also, Carla Bruni Sarkozy has a cameo role and speaks such flawless English. Hope you enjoy movies in Montreal. Recommend some good ones for us!

“Irina Palm”: How Desperate Can You Get?

When I saw the DVD of this movie with the opening menu, I was not quite sure what I was in for. Was this going to be soft porn or an indie film with an unexpected story to tell? As it turned out, “Irina Palm” is so idiosyncratic and original–but not for everyone–that I wasn’t sure if I should recommend it to friends next door who love movies as much as we do. But I did, and they really enjoyed it too!

I’m not quite sure how I found this obscure 2007 movie, but I think it was mentioned in an article I read about legendary rocker Marianne Faithfull (of “As Tears Go By” and Broken English fame) who stars as Maggie, a working-class fifty-or-sixty-something grandmother who is desperate to cover the cost of her critically-ill grandson’s experimental medical operation. Maggie asks for a bank loan but she has no assets to provide as collateral. When denied one loan and prospective job after another, a dejected Maggie resigns herself to exploring the underground sex trade of London and learns to provide “services”. Her no-nonsense boss Miki gives her the “professional” name, “Irina Palm,” the same name as his first girlfriend. Soon men are lining up for Irina, the number-one attraction, so much so that another proprietor offers her an even more generous offer to be his employee at another “salon”.

This movie protrays vividly, without sermonizing, what you will or must do to save the life of someone you truly love. The lack of empathy by those not in such a situation and who cannot imagine what desperation can demand is everywhere–in friends and close relatives. “Irina Palm” presents a range of reactions to Maggie’s work: from her son, his wife, the little boy who knows only that his grandma has a secret, and her close friends. Even a co-worker, who is desperate herself, cannot recognize the degree of desperation that Maggie has encased in every cell of her body.

Co-produced by production companies from five countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, Great Britain, Germany and France), “Irina Palm” premiered, to great acclaim, at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival. In a controlled performance worthy of international recognition, Marianne Faithfull did receive a Best Actress nomination for her role by the European Film Awards commission.

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“The Conspirator”–Is Anyone Listening?

“The Conspirator” opens with a gripping Civil War battle scene and treats us to incredibly imaginative camera angles, shot in sepia tones to time-travel cinematically to the late 1860’s.

This is a story that sits underneath a story we all know– the history-book narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theater. What few of us know is the untold story– of Mary Surratt, (played by Robin Wright), a Southern middle-aged widow who ran the boarding house where Booth and five other conspirators plotted to either kidnap (an important distinction in the movie) or murder not only Abraham Lincoln, but also the vice president (Andrew Johnson), the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of War. Their seditious act was intended to overthrow the government and reinstate the southern states’ hegemony.

Frederick Aiken (superbly played by James McAvoy), is a Union soldier recently recovered from near-fatal wounds at the battle of Appomattox. He is given the insurmountable task of defending Mary Surratt, a civilian, in a trial before a military tribunal, instead of in a civil trial before her peers. Aiken’s revulsion at defending Surratt is palpable. His friends and fiancée’s revulsion is even stronger.

As her defense attorney, Aiken gradually realizes that a military court is trampling Surratt’s rights in order to draw out her son, John, who has fled the state. The viewer does not know whether Surratt is guilty or not, but the evidence is spuriously argued in what is undoubtedly a kangaroo court, and she is unjustly dealt with.

Mary Surratt became the first white female executed under Federal jurisdiction and was photographed in a white hood hanging from a noose alongside her three co-conspirators. This is a tour-de-force courtroom drama with lessons about the U.S. constitution in a time of national fear and war, lessons yet to be learned today. “In times of war, the law falls silent,” one of the military tribunal commissioners, states matter-of-factly. This film is about the unconstitutional acts Americans do when feeling collectively frightened.

I was surprised to find so many critics sitting on the fence on this one. The New York Times called it a “well-meaning, misbegotten movie”. Other critics considered the director, Robert Redford’s treatment of Surratt’s trial heavy handed, undoubtedly due to the parallels the viewer draws between the fear and vengeance of the post-Civil War days and the Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib events of our current political situation. The iconic canvas bags worn over the heads of the conspirators in the film cannot but remind the viewer of the grim photos of Abu Ghraib. The porous border between travesties of justice from the past and those of the present seems to have irked some of the critics.

Robert Redford, as director, has focused on the tragic deceptions people commit in order to save themselves. He has chosen his cast wisely. Robin Wright is the vulnerable pallid-faced prisoner, stoic and fiercely loyal to her son and daughter. The actress is virtually unrecognizable, practically silent throughout, but riveting in conveying subtle expressions weighed down by the burden of grief and bewilderment. At the heart of “The Conspirator,” is the interface between fear and injustice, the crushing of human rights. Who really is the conspirator and who is listening?

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“The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q”–Nothing is Forever

While visiting New York City last week my husband and I had the immense pleasure of seeing two absolutely hilarious musicals, “The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q”, the former premiering on Broadway last March,   the latter still enjoying a seven-year run.

“The Book of Mormon” is the hottest play on Broadway right now.  Nominated for 14 Tony awards–one short of the record, it is irreverent, over-the-top, and politically incorrect as only the creators of “South Park”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, can be.  Yet “The Book of Mormon” is absolutely astonishing for its satire, music, and singing.  Described as “God’s favorite musical,” this show from the co-composer/lyricist of “Avenue Q” features a pair of incompatible Mormon missionary recruits who are sent to Uganda, with a  track record of no converts.   In the course of the show, the two young Mormons gain more insight into themselves as they realize the good nature of the AIDS-plagued, poverty-stricken Ugandan villagers and the deception they are propagating.  Complex moral lessons are sandwiched between outrageously scatological dialogue and raunchy costumes.  If you can laugh at religion’s dark side without feeling wounded, at stereotypes that could be construed as offensive (but no one is exempted), and memorable lyrics in the songs “Turn It Off”, “Man Up”, and “I Believe”, you will find this subversive Broadway show to be amazing.  Its primary comic plot device is the absurdity of religion when it divides and alienates, instead of uniting. Through humor, incredible lyrics, and voices powerful beyond belief, this controversial, heart-stopping musical is a wonder. Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, the two brilliant young performers playing zealous missionaries, and Nikki James as the young Ugandan woman fervently trying to be open to their missionary message, have mesmerizing, crystal clear voices that are a delight to the ear.  To say more would be to spoil this winner from the  “South Park” creators!

Two days after seeing “The Book of Mormon”, we saw “Avenue Q”, the long-running 2004 Tony award winner, at a small Off-Broadway theater, the New World Stage, for a more intimate performance. Laugh-out-loud funny, this seven year-old musical is far from dated, except perhaps for the Gary Coleman character. “Avenue Q” tells the story of a recent college grad named Princeton who moves into a rundown New York apartment on Avenue Q.  Without the prospects of a job in the near future, (how timely is that?)   Princeton meets Kate (the girl next door), Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the internet porn surfer), Lucy the Slut , and other furry characters, all modeled after Sesame Street puppets.

The set design is also straight out of Sesame Street, with the characters sitting on the front stoop singing their tales of woe.  Uniquely designed rooms resembling a large doll house add to the reality/fantasy divide underscored by each actor who holds a Sesame Street-style puppet, manipulating the puppet’s mouth while singing or reciting dialogue.  The dramatic convention is highly original and plays to the major theme: young adults who can’t quite believe they’ve grown up.  They’re no longer  on Sesame Street.

When I saw these two musicals within days of each other, I couldn’t separate them. They felt like two sides of the same story:  Bright-eyed young people hoping for success as defined by their dreams but utterly stunned that their prospects are not what they thought they would be.  In “Avenue Q” the songs “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “Schadenfreude” say it all.  The lyrics are mind-blowing for capturing the time of youth through the eyes of this decade!  Puppets make the real world seem like fantasy.  In “The Book of Mormon”, the animation genius of Trey Parker and Matt Stone comes to life on stage with human characters in the familiar dialogue we associate with “South Park”.  One musical mirrors the other, not surprisingly, since the composer for both musicals is Robert Lopez, and the original director of “The Book of Mormon”, Jason Moore, was the award-winning director of “Avenue Q”.  But the similarity of themes in both musicals can be felt viscerally.  “Avenue Q” just left San Francisco, but it may be brought back by popular demand.   I hope you can see both of these musical spectacles!

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“Road Trip”–a short story

My short  story “Road Trip” has just been released in the Spring 2011 issue of  Calliope,   the official publication of the Writers’ Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. This is a condensed portion of a chapter from my work-in-progress, a novel entitled Things Unsaid.  I really enjoyed writing this “flash fiction” story and hope you enjoy reading it!

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6 Replies to ““Road Trip”–a short story”

  1. That was a great little read Diana. (The story is an echo of my relationsip with my daughter…and learning how to keep my mouth shut!) I look forword to reading more, that was really nice.

  2. Congratulations on your publication!
    I can relate to your story. We have all been there as moms, so true!
    Evelyn