Middlemarch Miniseries Review

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Review:

Adapting a novel as rich and multilayered as Middlemarch is a feat that, honestly, I might not have thought possible, but this 6 hour miniseries did a surprisingly good job. It makes a well-acted and enjoyable introduction to the story for those unfamiliar with it, and a pleasant accompaniment for fans of the novel.

However, it certainly doesn’t substitute for reading the book! Naturally, some subplots had to be trimmed or cut entirely and the miniseries never achieves the remarkable psychological depth of the novel, especially with some of the more unlikable characters. Casaubon, in particular, suffers – reading the book, you dislike him but you understand and even pity him to some degree. In the miniseries, you’re stuck at dislike and this makes it harder to understand Dorothea and her choices as well.

The biggest failure of the miniseries is the characterization of Rosamond Vincy, who becomes, of all things, weepy. The Rosamond of the novel could crush that pathetic and annoying creature like a bug. (And probably would!) Most of the other portrayals are pretty true to character, however, and several of the casting choices, most notably Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw, were absolutely inspired. This film was my introduction to Sewell’s work and I’ve been a fan ever since.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Water Movie Review

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Review:

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual abuse

One of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen. I saw in an arthouse theater soon after it came out in 2005 and haven’t seen it since, but I still feel physically ill when I remember certain scenes.

Water was written and directed by Deepa Mehta, a native of Amritsar, Punjab, India who now lives in Canada. It is set in India in 1938, during the rise of Gandhi, but mostly follows the life of a 7 year old child bride who is widowed and sent by her family to live for the rest of her life in an ashram (house of prayer) with other widows. The women are desperately poor and survive by begging and, it turns out, by prostituting the younger and prettier members of the ashram to wealthy men. Starting in childhood.

It does end on a slightly more hopeful note than most of the rest of the film, but overall, it is very hard to watch. Nevertheless, I do recommend watching Water if you can safely do so without triggering yourself. Not only is it a beautifully made and well-acted film, it’s also a very powerful and important one. Call me a bleeding heart, but I think it’s important for those of us with comfortable Western lives to be aware of the struggles of people in general and women in particular in more superstitious and unforgiving times and places. The plight of poor widows in India remains dire. If you feel inspired to try and help, check out The Loomba Foundation and similar charities.

From Time To Time Movie Review

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Review:

This movie was advertised as a family film on Netflix, but my seven year old daughter didn’t get much out of it and we sent her to bed partway through. I think it would probably be better suited to somewhat older children – maybe 10 or 12.

My husband and I thought it was enjoyable, but not as good as its cast. From Time To Time is one of those films that’s like a game of “Who’s The Great British Character Actor?” It’s got the goddess Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall of Harry Potter, Dominic West of The Wire, Carice van Houten of Game of Thrones (I know, I know, Dutch, not British), Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey, Allen Leach of Rome, Harriet Walter of Sense and Sensibility, and more. Unfortunately, none of them were really given a whole lot to do.

The screenplay was written by Julian Fellowes, who also wrote Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, and other favorites of me and my husband, and based on the novel The Chimneys of Green Knowe (aka Treasure of Green Knowe). The main storyline is set in World War II Britain and follows a boy sent to live with his grandmother (Smith) at his family’s ancestral home in the countryside. On his very first night, he bumps into the ghost of one of his Regency-era relatives and soon realizes that he can travel between his own time and hers. When he discovers that his grandmother is struggling financially and may soon be forced to sell the estate, he uses his time travel ability to solve the mystery of some priceless jewels stolen from the ghost’s mother nearly 150 years earlier.

The blending of modern and Regency eras to solve a mystery from the past reminded me somewhat of Arcadia (complete with house fire), but without the play’s brilliant wit. Though Maggie Smith had a few good lines, none were as memorable as her other Julian Fellowes roles, as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey and Countess of Trentham in Gosford Park. The ending may also be a bit of a downer for some children.

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My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

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Rome: The Complete Series Review

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Review:

HBO’s Rome has been on my to-watch list for years, and I finally watched it, so I can now officially add my voice the the chorus declaring it a crying shame that the show was cancelled after just two seasons, rather than the intended five. At least they had enough warning to wrap up the storyline in a coherent and relatively satisfying way, but the second season felt rushed as a result of trying to squeeze everything in before the end. Fortunately, despite its premature cancellation, the quality of the acting and the production values remained outstanding throughout.

In particular, I thought both writers and actors did a great job making ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and their inhabitants both clearly alien to the modern Western audience, yet also sympathetic and relatable. One of the things that especially stood out to me was how brave the Roman characters were in the face of death. Rome has a considerable number of both actual suicides and people preparing for the possibility that they might have to commit suicide (for “honor” or to save themselves from a worse fate), and pretty much every single one is conducted with calm and stoic determination. As were most of the assassinations.

The historical accuracy was mixed at best, and I thought that some of the writers’ choices about when to stick to historical fact and when to switch things up were more successful than others. On the side of the good choices, I especially enjoyed Atia, Octavia, and Servilia, who were all substantially more entertaining than their reportedly pious and matronly real-life counterparts. Most of the changes made to their stories were so fun I didn’t care about the inaccuracies. In fact, Atia of the Julii is one of my new favorite female characters ever. Horrible human being, but so entertaining! Kudos to the writers and Polly Walker for bringing her to such vivid life!

One of my favorite Atia moments

One of my favorite Atia moments

On the other hand, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo had a much more mixed bag. I loved most of their interactions with the historical characters, and of course their interactions with each other (I’m always a sucker for a good bromance), but with the exception of Vorenus and Niobe’s complicated relationship in season one, most of their other non-historical relationships and storylines were kind of a mess. I didn’t like Pullo’s storylines with Eirene or Gaia at all, and the whole thing with Lucius Vorenus running the Aventine as a sort of ancient Roman mob boss also failed to hold a candle to anything he did with Caesar, Antony, or Octavian.

Another non-historical storyline I didn’t like was the incest. Though it was a minor plotline, it disproportionately annoyed me. I don’t have a problem with incest storylines per se, but they have to be justified very carefully for me to suspend disbelief. Incest is a nearly universal taboo, after all. Rome‘s incest seemed to come out of the blue for both characters. It certainly wasn’t as organic to the characters as the incest in The Borgias, which was set up from the very first scene they had together. As a result, it felt more like it was tossed in for shock value than anything else, which, in the context of a show with so much other shocking stuff going on all the time, just seemed cheap.

Overall, I thought that the first season was better than the second, partly because the second season was so rushed, and partly because too much of what little time was left in the second season was taken up by less interesting subplots like Vorenus in the Aventine and Timon the Jew’s fanatic brother. However, when season 2 was good, it was very, very good. The finale was especially spectacular, and a worthy ending to a great series.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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A Royal Affair Movie Review

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Review:

Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” A Royal Affair is the sort of movie that reminds you how right he was.

As frustrating as democracy can sometimes be, imagine what it might be like to try and enact any sort of meaningful reform or change in a country ruled by a king who is weak-willed, unstable, and quite possibly insane. Add in entrenched conservative interests such as a powerful Church and aristocracy, and an uneducated and superstitious populace, and you have the unenviable task taken on by Johann Struensee, an ambitious but idealistic commoner who rose to become the de facto regent of Denmark after becoming the personal physician of King Christian VII. Along the way, Struensee also become the lover of Christian’s queen, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (sister of the hapless King George III, who had his own share of mental problems later in life), which proved the catalyst for his ultimate downfall.

Speaking of helpful reminders, this film is also a pretty good reminder of how much life sucked for the average princess, historically. Caroline is shipped off to a foreign country at the age of 15, her friends and family taken from her, even her beloved books sent back to England due to Denmark’s harsh censorship laws. Married to the aforementioned unstable and possibly insane king, she is all but raped on her wedding night, gives birth at the age of 16, and is left neglected and bored in the palace while he goes off for tours of Europe and wild nights with prostitutes. One can hardly blame her for seeking solace in Struensee’s arms, but the laws of her own time were not so forgiving.

The story of their doomed romance and efforts at reform is beautifully shot, sumptuously costumed (especially given the film’s relatively small budget), and very well acted. Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda have good chemistry together and really make you feel for both characters. I was also impressed by the performance of Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as the unstable but well-meaning Christian. Christian and Struensee’s relationship lacked the UST of Caroline and Struensee’s, but was more complex and ultimately more interesting. It was as sad to watch their friendship fall apart as the more dramatic and involuntary severing of Caroline and Struensee’s relationship.

One minor disappointment – if Wikipedia is to be believed, the real Caroline had a penchant for wearing men’s clothes in public, which scandalized the nation as much as, if not more than, her affair with Streunsee. Although Struensee encourages the film Caroline to ride astride, rather than sidesaddle, there’s no other indication of her cross-dressing habit, which is a pity, really. The real Christian was also notable for affairs with young men, though his most long-lasting and famous extramarital liaison was with a female prostitute.

Despite these and some other emissions and changes, the film overall seems unusually historically accurate for a movie (readers with more extensive knowledge of Danish history are welcome to correct me if this impression is incorrect), yet its accuracy comes without sacrificing good storytelling. Highly recommended.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Gladiator Movie Review

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Review:

To be honest, I think this movie is over-rated, but I picked it out of the $5 movie bin because my husband likes it.

Gladiator has much to recommend it: excellent performances, impressive visuals, classic fight scenes, beautiful score, and cool costumes, among other things. However, I’ve always found the plot a bit paint-by-numbers and predictable to a degree that takes away from the movie as a whole, more so because guy-seeks-revenge-for-murdered-family is NOT a favorite trope of mine.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

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Borgia: Season 1 Review

Review:

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After The Borgias was prematurely cancelled by Showtine, I decided to give this European show (also known as Borgia: Faith and Fear) a try to get my Borgias fix thanks to this intriguing comparison of the two shows by a historian, but found it disappointing.

It was interesting to compare the different choices the two shows made about how to tell the story, but while Borgia did make some choices that I liked a lot (as well as some that were more historically accurate than those made in The Borgias), the acting and characterization killed the show for me and I lost interest midway through the first season.

An international production, Borgia cast actors from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities, and unfortunately the mix of accents made it difficult to suspend disbelief. For example, Rodrigo had an American accent, Cesare had a British accent, Juan had a Spanish accent, and Lucrezia had a German accent. And that was just the Borgia family! Compounding the problem, some of the accents were so thick it was hard to understand what was being said.

In addition to the problems with the accents, some of the actors were simply not very good, and the characterization was sometimes sloppy and inconsistent, and occasionally outright preposterous. In particular, the characterization of Cesare was baffling to me. He came across more like a lunatic than “Il Principe.”

Borgia also had a lot of extremely graphic sex and violence, to an extent that was off-putting for me, and the lower budget forced them to cover some important events by standing around and talking about them rather than actually depicting them. In a rare case where Showtime’s The Borgias was nastier and more graphic than Borgia, the French king’s invasion in The Borgias involved towns being sacked and put to the sword, huge armies on the march, and a bunch of Roman soldiers being sliced in half (literally) by chained cannonballs. In Borgia, the French invasion consisted of about 20 guys running through the streets of Rome with torches.

Though Borgia is worth watching if you’re interested in the family or the period, I think Showtime’s version of The Borgias was both better made and more enjoyable.

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My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Movie Review

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Review:

A tremendous amount of fun, thanks mainly to the iconic performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and the twisty, turny plot, which manages to keep you guessing until the end exactly how it will play out.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

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Gosford Park Movie Review

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Review:

Written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, this movie has the same attention to detail in depicting the everyday life of the family upstairs and the staff downstairs and is brought to life by an outstanding cast, including Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Kristen Scott Thomas, and more. The plot (a murder, with almost everyone having a motive) is of somewhat secondary interest to the personal dramas surrounding it.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

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Les Miserables (2012) Movie Review

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Review:

A more successful film adaptation of a Broadway musical than The Phantom of the Opera thanks to excellent performances from a much stronger ensemble cast, but still vocally disappointing. (I know it’s not really fair to compare the voices of non-musical theater actors with those of musical theater stars, like those who filled the cast of the Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Concert, but I can’t help it!)

At least they were smart enough to cast a bona-fide Broadway star (Samantha Barks) in the role of Eponine. (“On My Own” being the showstopper song you really don’t want to mess up.) I was also impressed by Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which was too quiet and broken to work on stage, but fit the character at that stage of her life perfectly.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

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