Lucky 13 Film Club: The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for Best Actress as Eleanor of Aquitaine. James Goldman won an Oscar for adapting his own play. John Barry‘s score won for Best Score. It’s 1182 and King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is the scene-chewing roaring lion passionately defending his kingdom while three sons vie for the crown and a sour wife is his greatest adversary.  Ultimately, it’s a love story between a husband and wife whose bitter disappointments in each other flail out to those around them. Their manipulations tarnish the relationships between their three sons. Betrayal is the prominent theme. My heart goes out to son number one, Richard, played to perfection by Anthony Hopkins and Alais, the pretty pawn by Jane Merrow.  

As a conversation starter, I focused on the CINEMATOGRAPHY by Douglas Slocombe (Indiana Jones, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Great Gatsby, Never Say Never Again). It helps when you film at the gorgeous locale of Wales and England. The sweeping battle scene on the beach was impressive with black horses and sardonic son number 2 (John Castle) looking on.  Even in winter with barren trees and frosty glens and a cold castle, the wide angles were beautiful. However, I think his use of close-ups provide a balanced contrast and interesting angles. For example, I liked Eleanor at her dressing table having a monologue in a mirror. The turn of a skeleton key in the dungeon door. The shocked face of Richard behind the curtain as he learns his lover has betrayed him. The face of King Henry on his knees out on the ramparts and the camera pulls away from his face as he looks up to the stars. Did you like the cinematography? How about that pulling back technique Slocombe employs?  Did you find it distracting? 

Please welcome KATE LOVETON who has a great blog and where she shows off her creative writing talents. This was her idea to form a film club where we could discuss with one another a topic and a film. Kate focused on the DIALOGUE, a huge part of the success of the film:

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What a pleasure it was to watch this intelligent film once again. There is so much to like about “The Lion in Winter,” and many aspects worthy of discussion:  staging, costuming, the score.  Best of all is the excellent acting and crisp, often biting dialogue.  It is by turns witty, wise, searing and venomous.
Henry II and Eleanor, once lovers, are now old-age combatants; rather than swords, their weapon of choice is the tongue – and each employs it well. When asked by his mistress how his wife is, Henry (who has kept Eleanor locked away in a nunnery for ten years) responds corrosively, “Decaying, I hope.”
Ah, but Eleanor gives as good as she gets.  She tells Henry’s mistress, “Henry’s bed is his province. He can people it with sheep for all I care. Which, on occasion, he has done.”  Ouch!
Confronted with the treachery and sodomy of her offspring, Eleanor, a master of understatement, dryly remarks, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
I think my favorite line was uttered by Henry after he’d locked his conniving sons up in the wine cellar. (Henry apparently has a talent for locking up family members). His mistress asks where Henry’s sons are. “The royal boys are aging with the royal port,” he replies.
If Henry and Eleanor are masters of waspish dialogue, their sons are masters of deception and murderous intent toward one another. When one of her sons pulls a knife on the other, the would-be victim whines that his brother was carrying a knife. The wearied Eleanor remarks, “Of course he has knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!”
Just so… and now it is 2015, and we are still barbarians.
Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole employ just the right shadings of tone to convey sarcasm, anguish, fear… and the underpinnings of sexuality. Hepburn’s Eleanor is a dangerous woman… and yet beneath the vinegar and venom, one gets the impression that she still burns for Henry. Her lust no longer physical, it plays itself out in verbal jousting.  Her love is a deadly thing. Hepburn makes us pity and admire her indomitable Eleanor, even when we most dislike her.
And Henry? O’Toole does a masterful job. It was a revelation to me to see O’Toole as the expansive, bellowing, manipulative Henry. He chewed up the scenery… yet he never made Henry a clown. When Henry realizes just how estranged his boys are from him, he stumbles away and cries out, “I’ve lost my boys.” In that moment, my heart went out to him.  He never really had them to begin with.

Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the dialogue and cinematography?

Westworld vs. Westworld

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I wonder how closely the 2016 HBO series, Westworld,  advertised as an hour-long, dark odyssey, will follow the Michael Crichton 1973 classic starring Yul Brynner and James Brolin?   In Crichton’s film, robots flood the park and guests sin with no consequences. Within the complex theme park visited by the wealthy who choose to indulge their fantasies either in a toga lounging in Roman gardens; as a knight or lady cavorting in a medieval castle; or as a root’n – toot’n cowboy in the Old West, murder is permissible.

Underground labs and tunnels connect the three sections of the park with robots to guests.
Underground labs manipulate and control the robots. Or do they?

White-coat scientists and technicians monitor and repair the robots programmed with one command–to serve the guests who live out their fantasies without moral or legal ramifications. To those who can afford the $7,000 a day price tag, they buy the freedom to indulge in the seven deadly sins with no worries. If this sounds like a quasi-Disney World/Las Vegas hedonistic theme park to you, you wouldn’t be far off. The low-budget, 1973 Westworld  plays out this science fiction scenario without the gore–just great special effects. With a PG rating, the techno-horror story builds suspense by the creepy performance of Yul Brynner, the first terminator, the A.I. gunslinger who stalks guests John Blane (James Brolin) and Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin). Michael Crichton will replay this theme supplanting robots with dinosaurs in his 1990 masterpiece, Jurassic Park.  

Special Effects 

Pixelization in film began over forty years ago with a two-minute perspective of the robot in Crichton’s Westworld. I enjoyed the story behind the birth of digital effects in David Price’s article, “How Michael Crichton’s Westworld Pioneered Modern Special Effects” in THE NEW YORKER.

It can be difficult for some to watch science fiction in television and film created decades ago. Delivering the future is problematic; most old films representing a hi-tech world look silly through today’s lens. The future is now, and it is easy to pick apart inaccurate predictions and label the production design as juvenile. I avoid this by considering the ethical issues presented. In this case, “What is real and what rights will A.I. have?” It’s a popular theme in science fiction, no doubt because we’re on the brink of the A.I. breakthrough.

What do we imagine our world will be like forty years from now? Most likely, today’s technology will seem quaint. Perspective is everything.

HBO “Westworld” 

Ed Harris, as the 2016 ston- faced gunslinger.

Ed Harris, as the 2016 stone-faced gunslinger.

Here’s a trailer tease of season one:

It’s almost 2016, and the story has a new life in the medium of television. HBO television. I doubt it will carry a PG rating this time. I imagine this version will be a hybrid with a dystopian feel like The Walking Dead combined with the sexiness of Game of Thrones. The principle cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, and James Marsden. Chris Nolan’s brother, Jonathan Nolan, serves as executive producer/writer/director. I haven’t seen his crime drama, Person of Interest, so I can’t comment on his abilities. With J. J. Abrams‘s stamp on the project, I suspect audiences will love it or hate it.  I like the looks of the setting, the cast–love Evan Rachel Wood–so, I will check it out, and see if it sticks with me. In fact, Jim’s brother is prop-master on the show; maybe I’ll get lucky and get to visit the set.

What are your thoughts about the 1973 version and next year’s series? 

Colin Firth and the Strategy of Actors

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Colin Firth is a British actor I never tire watching even if his films are tiresome. His vulnerable, winning portrayals are due to his inquisitive eyes, expressive facial features, and an overall countenance that is understated yet pervasive. His gift combines the trials of an uncomfortable male while exuding a gentleman persona that captures the heart of his leading ladies. Initially you saw him in period comedies and dramas — Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC television series of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Shakespeare in Love (1998), or in the flamboyant film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest (2002) come to mind. Contemporary characters such as Mark in Bridget Jones’s Diary or Jamie in Love Actually, continue his trend of playing the conservative Brit in a wacky situation representing British dry humor for which he is a leader. And he deserved to be nominated for his performance in The King’s Speech (2010) for which he won Best Actor at the Oscars. He has the luxury to pick modern dramas or comedies. So then….

This brings me to ponder, in general, the strategy of the actor and his career. Let’s assume they all crave a forty-year career with stats bearing longevity and accolades to clutter the walls and mantles of their homes, and if British, to be a Sir or Dame would be an honor.

Let’s face it. Firth is a fine actor who plays in too many mediocre films. Does that help or hurt him? Consider Anthony Hopkins. He, too, is a fine actor who has starred in a life time of mediocre films. He’s knighted. He’s prolific. His performances are predictable. I can count on one hand superior performances while sixty others are forgettable. Counter that with the strategy of British/Irish Daniel Day-Lewis (and arguably Leonardo DiCaprio who is adopting DDL strategy) of selecting few roles. Quality vs. quantity. I remember every film DDL has made (and Leo) while the amount of films Colin Firth has made–well, can you remember more than a handful? But is Mama, Mia good?

Nicole Kidman is the female version of Firth.
Nicole Kidman is the female version of Firth.

I recently watched Railway Man. It had all the promise of an outstanding film. It had the cast. The story. And yet, there was something missing. The film was about Eric Lomax’s struggle with PTSD. Decades later. It debilitated not only him, but his mates who survived the torture of the infamous Burma Railway and the Japanese labor camp. Some are suicidal and most are incapable of sustaining emotional connections. The true story has a fantastic twist of forgiveness and closure; it’s the best ending that borders on a fairy tale. How amazing that Takeshi Nagase and Eric Lomax as the torturer and the tortured could become by the end of their lives friends. It’s incredulous, and yet, there it is, nothing short of inspirational.

When you have Firth, Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård in a film portraying true events, I wonder and hope the film has potential to be stellar. But this film is nothing compared to the classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). In The Railway Man, the acting by Firth is fine. Everyone’s acting in the film is strong. So is it the script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson that seems lackluster and paling in comparison to other World War II films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist?  If you want to know the history behind Eric Lomax and The Railway Man, check out this site for differentiating Hollywood truth and fiction HERE.   My point is, The Railway Man is a magical story, and it didn’t come off that way to me. It felt mediocre. That’s a crime.

It made me squirm for Spectre this winter.
It made me squirm for Spectre this winter.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Did you like it? I saw some British dark humor in it that had me chuckling. Like Shaun of the Dead (2004), the scene where Galahad (Firth) swings through a radical congregation with a sword and decapitates the zombies to the tune of “Free Bird”.  Well, it was funny, in a sick way that had me recollecting Monty Python and the Black Knight scene in forest. “Tis but a scratch!” Dark British humor. Gotta love it.  However, the entire time I am watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, I kept wondering why Colin Firth chose to be in it? It was an awkward film. Samuel L. Jackson was horrible. It was a mediocre film at best.  

Because Firth can play comedy and drama smartly, like a favorite doll, I want to pick him up and place him in only great films. He’s a gifted actor who seems to stick out awkwardly in mediocre films. What do you think?

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