Tag Archive: Period Pieces

A quick comment before I jump into the meat of this review. I’m at my mom’s tonight and may or may not be there tomorrow. We have real internet at my mom’s, and I used that time to watch one of the movie’s on my Netflix Instant Queue. But beyond the obvious convenience of having that option for my movie watching pleasure, there’s one other thing that will make writing this particular review much easier than it’s been writing them at my dad’s with dial-up internet. At my father’s, I actually write the reviews in Open Office and then copy and paste them here on wordpress for fear that I’ll get kicked off the internet while I’m in the process of writing the review and lose half of my review, and then I spend like 40 minutes fighting with the internet to try and find the pictures that I use for all of my reviews. Fortunately, that isn’t a problem at my mom’s, and the whole scenario is just much less stressful. Anyways, back to my review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece ,1987’s The Last Emperor.

The Last Emperor is the true story of Pu Yi, the man who was the titular last emperor of China. Crowned at the unbelievably early age of three, Pu Yi would spend most of his life locked behind the massive walls of the Forbidden City, which served as both his palace and his prison. The film, in a well-implemented non-linear fashion, tells the story of Pu Yi’s years as the Emperor of China, his time as a political refugee after the Empire is dismantled, and his time in a Red Chinese re-education camp. This biography is set against an absolutely stunning and authentic recreation of turn of the century (and eventually mid-century) China.

I’m not normally a huge fan of historical epics and I generally think that biopics are just a cheap way for producers and directors to try and win Oscars. I think Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind are two of the most over-rated films of all time. If a director wants to impress me with a film like this, he has to do something really different. He has to go that extra mile. Maybe I should have known this film was going to be special when I saw that it was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. When I see his name, I don’t think historical epics. I think weird movies about sex and politics like The Dreamers. From top to bottom, Bertolucci gave this film the attention to detail and lavish production that it required while simultaneously delivering one of the most personal and tragic historical epics of all time. It can truly stand along side classics like Schindler’s List.

For a film that spans a man’s entire life of 60 odd years and lasts nearly three hours long, The Last Emperor never once felt like it dragged on or had become an indulgent bit of self-serving and pretentious film making. The film creates such a stark and provocative contrast between the nearly mystical sense of wonder and awe from the film’s Eastern beginnings and the later crushing Western influence that pervades every scene. The costuming and set design are practically unparalleled, although I think the film might have actually shot inside the Forbidden City itself. If you consider yourself at all lacking in your knowledge of Chinese history of politics, this film also serves as an entertaining refresher course in pages of history that are now mostly forgotten.

Ultimately though, what sets this film apart from the rest of the pack isn’t the pageantry or the production values. It is the fact that is an incredibly tender and intimate portrait of Pu Yi, a character full of surprising complexity and heart-wrenching tragedy. You see the entire span of the emperor’s life. You see him as a spoiled and abrasive child who has no right to be on the throne. You see him as a teenager starting to learn more of life and wanting to experience so much more than the walls of his palatial jail. You see him learn at the wing of his Scottish tutor played by the legendary Peter O’Toole. You see him as a grown man who has lost everything he knows but clings desperately to his imperial pride in the face of inevitable destruction. Lastly, you see him as an old man who has been forced to accept his role as a normal, average citizen in communist Russia. At every point, Bertolucci subverts your expectations of Pu Yi (unless you’re familiar with the actual history) and creates such a tragic lead that he could have came straight out of Shakespeare. Pu Yi has quickly become one of the most interesting and thought-provoking historical figures that I have studied in some time.

If you can handle that film is nearly three hours long, you need to just go ahead and watch this one. Normally, I am ambivalent at best towards films that win Best Picture at the Oscars. However, having just gone over the other movies from that year, I can definitely say that this is, if not the best, at least at the very tip top of the mountain. This was an exceptional achievement in film making, and it really sets Bernardo Bertolucci apart as a premier auteur in the realm of high-brow cinema.

Final Score: A


I consider myself to be a romantic. I often find myself far more emotionally invested in many of the fictional romances I see on television, books, or movies than I do with my rather non-existent dating life. I was probably more excited when Pam and Jim kissed for the first time on The Office than I was about finally getting my first kiss a month after I graduated from high school. So, a movie spanning a decade about the romance between two people from the opposite end of the political and social spectrum seemed like a sure winner for me. The Way We Were had politics, romance, and even a little social commentary, not to mention Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand at their primes, but unfortunately, it was incredibly slow and boring and with the exception of the chemistry between its leads, there was really nothing keeping me involved in this film, besides wondering what I would say for this review.

The Way We Were is the love story of Katie Marofsky (Barbra Streisand) and Hubbel Gardner (Robert Redford). Katie is the President of the Young Communist League at her college and is pretty much a proto/archetypal liberal activist. She cares about everything and is ferocious in her beliefs. Hubbel is more of a pretty, golden boy who is a talented writer but joins the Navy after he graduates from school. Later in life, Katie and Hubbel meet up, fall in love, and marry yet their marriage is fraught with the tension between Katie’s fierce convictions and Hubbel’s desire to remain employed in the face of the McCarthy era witch hunts.

With the exception of Meet the Fockers, I had never seen a Barbra Streisand picture and all I knew of her was that she had a reputation for being a bit of a diva. Well, her personality aside, I finally understand what the big deal with Babs is. She’s breathtaking. She didn’t age all that well, but when she was younger, she was just a knock-out. Not to mention, she’s an incredibly talented actress. The sizzling chemistry between her and Redford was probably the only thing this movie had going for it. It’s easy to remember why Robert Redford is one of cinema’s most beloved leading men and why he dominated the 1970’s. However, it was pretty hilarious watching him try to play a college student in the early scenes when he was in his late 30’s when this film was made.

This was one of those movies that I really wanted to like, but it really just wasn’t that good. I’ll take it’s surreal 2000 successor Waking the Dead any day. If you’re a Babs fan, I’d recommend this film but I can fairly well assume that you’ve already seen it. If you’re a Robert Redford fan, perhaps you should watch it, but I would just as easily say to leave this one alone and stick with his better pictures like All the President’s Men or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Otherwise, everybody else can go ahead and steer clear of this one.

Final Score: C+

Politically speaking, I am an unreformed liberal. I’m a radical civil libertarian and my views on economic issues can be considered most similar to European socialism. So a film whose primary hero is a British woman performing illegal abortions in the 1950’s sounded like something that I could really get behind. And while, I found the pro-choice message of the film to be very courageous and the performance of its lead to be absolutely fantastic, the movie was ultimately quite dull and by the half way point of the film, I had picked up my history of the Oscar’s book and was only paying about half-attention to the movie because it had lost me.

Vera Drake is the story of the titular main character (played flawlessly by Imelda Staunton) who is a maid in 1950’s England, and also a loving wife and family woman. However, in her spare time and for no monetary reward at all, she helps women abort unwanted pregnancies by intentionally inducing miscarriages. At this point in England, abortions are still illegal and eventually the police become aware of her activities, and the film becomes a morality tale about the way that a woman’s life can be ruined simply because she was simply trying to help out those in need.

Before I saw this film, my primary exposure to Imelda Staunton’s fantastic acting ability was through her role as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films where she gives perhaps one of the best performances in the entire series if not “the” best performance. Well, now I’ve seen her in another light, in a role that couldn’t be further from Umbridge. She just gives an incredibly under-stated, yet powerfully emotional performance as the lead role. And when her life starts to fall apart, she can’t comprehend how what she did was in any way wrong, and the transformation from this cheery, positive woman to someone whose life is practically over is just heart-breaking and possibly the only redeeming aspect of the film besides its message and theme. Her performance is simply transcendental, and I can’t make up my mind whether or not she should have beat Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby at that year’s Oscar’s. Since I consider Swank to be one of the best female actresses of her generation, consider this a testament to Staunton’s acting chops.

I really wanted to like this film. I had read a lot of great things about it, and I support the sort of message its laying out there. It just needed some serious editing and something to make it feel more alive and to emotionally invest me more in these characters’ lives. If you’re a fan of great acting, you should give this one a twirl because Imelda Staunton is simply amazing. If you’re pro-choice, you should also consider watching it. However, I can’t recommend this to everyone and I probably won’t watch it again at any point in the foreseeable future.

Final Score: B

Well, way back when I started reviewing all of the movies that had been nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, I said something dumb that isn’t true. I thought that The King’s Speech, this year’s Best Picture winner, was the last Best Picture nominee to be released on DVD/Blu-Ray. Well, I’m an idiot. The last film is actually True Grit and it doesn’t even have a release date yet, so that shows how much I know about movies. So, once I finish up reviewing the first nine films that were nominated for Best Picture (I still have Inception, The Social Network, and True Grit to go), it will be a while before I actually get around to that one. My bad. So, without further ado and any more of my inane ramblings, let’s jump into my review of the good but not great The King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech is the true story of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York who will eventually become King George VI of England on the verge of World War II. Prince Albert has a serious problem however. He has an uncontrollable stammer that has plagued him his entire life, and even when talking with his family and loved ones, he can barely spit a sentence out. Speaking in public is as frightening to him as stepping out of a foxhole in a firefight would be to a normal person. Yet, it is his duty as a member of the royal family to be a symbol of strength for his people, so he enlists the help of an unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to help him get over his stammer and lead his people in a time of need.

This movie absolutely reeks of award bait. Biopic. Check. Period piece. Check. Inspirational. Check. Involves a person with a disability. Check. You’ve seen this movie before. The parts might be different. The players might not be the same. And people might talk with a funny accent. But at the end of the day, you’ve seen practically the same story over and and over again. The only scenes in the film that to me have any freshness or real life are the scenes between “Bertie” and Lionel at Lionel’s office. The acting chemistry between Firth and Rush is absolutely superb and they play off of each other fantastically.

This film was carried beyond its source material by acting that can only be described as mesmerizing. Colin Firth was, simply put, spell-binding as King George VI. This performance wasn’t quite as good as his role in A Single Man, but since I consider that to be the second best performance of the ’00’s behind Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, don’t take that as an insult. I still haven’t made up my mind about whether he did a better job in this than Jesse Eisenberg did in The Social Network, but do not doubt that Colin Firth is simply put one of the finest actors of his generation. I imagine it won’t be long at all until he is Sir Colin Firth. Geoffrey Rush is actually tied in my mind with Christian Bale for the best supporting performance of the year. He plays Lionel with just the right charm and stubborness that you would expect from a common man that helped to cure a king. He’s brilliant and every scene with the two of them is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conventional film. Helena Bonham Carter now officially has my vote for best supporting actress however as her role as the Queen. She is such an under-appreciated talent and its a shame that she still hasn’t gotten the major recognition she deserves. She is a rare breed of female actress that can play an astonishingly wide range of roles as well as anyone else.

The movie wasn’t great. It was good, quite good, and grounded in absolutely stellar performances, but this was not the Best Picture of last year. It was in fact, far from it. However, that’s a running theme I have with films that win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. They very rarely pick the film that I actually thought was the Best Film of the year to win, and they often reward directors for some of their least stellar work when they finally decide to recognize them (Scorscese, the Coens, etc.). Should you watch this film? Absolutely. If you love fine acting and an inspirational story, this movie will not disappoint. Just don’t go in with your hopes too high.

Final Score: B+

When I was in middle school, our teacher for one of my classes (It’s been so long that I can’t remember which one) gave us an assignment to read a biography of our choice for the class. Being the over-achiever that I used to be, I chose a book that was probably a little too advanced for me at the time in The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. Picking that particular book for that particular assignment turned out to be one of the most fateful decisions of my life. It was love at first sight, and I’ve read and re-read that book more times than I can count, and I always get something new and meaningful from it each time. Malcolm X is one of the most important and one of my favorite political figures in the history of this country. So, it should come as no surprise that when Spike Lee, the master of the urban film, decided to make a biopic about Minister Malcolm starring none other than Denzel Washingto (perhaps the finest black actor of his or any generation) as Malcolm X, the final product was a spectacular film.

The film chronicles the life of Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. From his father’s murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan to being a street hustler in New York City to going to prison for burglary to his conversion to Islam while in prison to his time as the most fiery and effective minister in Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam to his betrayal by the Nation for being to popular to his conversion to true Islam whilst on the Hadj, the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and finally to his tragic assassination just before his 40th birthday. I would normally complain about the film’s 3 and 1/2 hour length but if ever a man lived an evolving and constantly transforming life, it was Brother Malcolm, and you need to understand the totality of his life to fully appreciate who he was, what he was about, and the greatness of the man that was taken from us too soon.

As spectacular as Spike Lee’s direction is (although perhaps there could have been some editing here and there to scenes that maybe ran a bit too long), this film could only ultimately succeed if the man playing Malcolm X gave a five star performance. Well, Denzel gave the performance of his career. I’ve never seen Scent of a Woman, so I can’t necessarily disparage the Academy’s decision to hand the Oscar to Al Pacino, but his performance would have to have been just one of the best performances ever to beat Denzel in this movie. He becomes Malcolm X. He is fiery, passionate, full of seething anger, and yet charming and likeable at the same time. He delivers those speeches denouncing the white man so well, it almost made me to start to hate myself even though (growing up in a family with black foster brothers and sisters that I am as close to as my biological family) I don’t think I have a racist bone in my body. He sells that fire and passion. It makes you wonder why anybody ever listened to the “turn your other cheek” and “forgive and forget” of other black civil right leaders. This performance is much better than the two performances he actually won Oscar’s for, namely Glory and Training Day.

The film is fully of many (considering its epic length) little moments that let you know exactly what kind of man Malcolm was. Some of my favorites are Malcolm’s trip to Mecca and seeing him interacting and loving and worshiping among people of all colors and races, pretty much any time he gives a speech (I could just listen to Malcolm X’s speeches all day), and when he calls and proposes to his wife, Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), over the phone. However, my favorite moment in the whole film is when a member of the Nation has been brutally beaten by the police for no cause. Malcolm marches right into police head quarters and stares down the racist cops and gets to see his man despite their trying to fight it. When the man has to be taken to the hospital, Malcolm organized a march of his people and others following him to the hospital. A race riot is about to break out (while the Muslims stand calm and collected waiting for Malcolm’s orders) when you find that the beaten man will live. Malcolm gives the order to disperse simply by waving his finger and the crowd breaks up. He was so charismatic, so liked, so powerful that he just had to point and hundreds of people did what he said. It’s amazing.

This is one of the movies, like Schindler’s List, that should be requierd viewing in all high schools. It’s thought-provoking and brings the kinds of message that a mainstream public education will never bring. Yeah, the movie is probably way too long. 3 and a half hours is a really long time to sit still. But, it’s worth it. There are few films that are this powerful, and there are few characters in our nation’s history with the kind of bravery, intelligence, and wit that Malcolm X brings to the table. Reading the book changed my life. Maybe, watching the film could change yours.

Final Score: A