Wonder Woman (B). This movie has been riding high at the box office, so everyone who’s going to see it has probably already done so. Anyhoo, I finally got around to seeing it, and I liked it just fine. The plot struck me as kind of wacky–the Greek god of war Ares is supposedly a real being (god?) and he is out there on the loose stoking mankind’s warlike passions. The Amazons are hiding out on some paradisiacal Mediterranean island, but when American WWI pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) crash lands just off shore and brings tidings of the carnage of total warfare, beautiful Amazon princess Diana (Gal Gadot, Batman v. Superman) decides she must leave the island with him so she can track down and kill Ares. There is some amusing fish-out-of-water stuff as Diana makes her way through old-fashioned WWI-era London. Then there are some mean Germans that Steve and Diana have to confront (at the front) in the final reel. All in all, this is a perfectly competent and enjoyable superhero movie, and it didn’t even feel long at 2 hours and 21 minutes. And I must say that Gal Gadot is, like, supernaturally beautiful in the role of Wonder Woman. I certainly noticed her in her small role in Batman v. Superman, but here she just owns the screen. If I were caught up in her magic lasso, I might even have to say she’s more beautiful than Nicole Kidman.
Art: A New History, by Paul Johnson (2003). This 750-page tome is about the size and shape of your old college art-history textbook. But, because it is by Paul Johnson (Churchill), it is probably much more enjoyable to read. Johnson sets out to survey the whole history of art, starting with the surviving fragments of prehistoric art, spending lots of time with the Greeks and Romans, and then gradually working his way up to the present day. Well, maybe not the WHOLE history. The focus is overwhelmingly on Western art; there is very little on Asia, Africa, Australia, or any part of the Americas other than the good old US of A. Subject to that limitation, he covers an amazing number of artists—although “cover” is probably too strong a word since only the really big names like Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Picasso get more than a paragraph or two. But rest assured that you will meet, however briefly, a vast array of interesting artists. There are plenty of color pictures in the book, but Johnson mentions so many more artworks that you’ll probably want to have a tablet handy as you read so you can look up some of the paintings he describes that aren’t reproduced in the book. He also covers architecture in fair detail, which I found interesting. An enjoyable read if you have an interest but no real background in art.
The Beguiled (B-). Director Sofia Coppola is back with another quiet, moody little flick (see, e.g., Lost in Translation, Somewhere). The divine Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm) stars as Miss Martha, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school in 1864 Virginia. (For all my Millennial readers out there, 1864 was during the Civil War.) Most of her students are gone, but a few are still stranded there, along with one lonely teacher, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, Wimbledon). The ladies are getting by, but everything changes when one of the younger students goes out to gather mushrooms and returns with Corporal McBurney, a handsome Union soldier (Colin Farrell, The Lobster) with a nasty leg wound. The ladies’ fascination with the Irishman easily overrides their initial impulse to alert the Confederate authorities, and soon they are all vying for his attention—especially the oldest student, Alicia (Elle Fanning, Super 8). And McBurney quickly figures out the school could be a nice refuge from the rest of the war if he plays his cards right. But can he manage the ladies’ rivalries and his own building passion?
The movie held my interest, thanks mainly to nice performances from all involved—even the younger actresses get a few scenes in which to shine. But the plot is rather slight, there are maybe a few too many languid shots of the stately plantation house and the surrounding forest, and I wasn’t convinced by one of the character’s behavior at the end. Still, it was nice to see the luminous Ms. Kidman in a movie that wasn’t terrible. And at 93 minutes, the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome. Finally, I learned in some long ago trivia game that Elvis Presley’s hit song “Love Me Tender” is written to the melody of a Civil War era song called “Aura Lee.” I had never heard “Aura Lee” before, but I’ll be danged if one of the characters in this movie doesn’t sing a bit of it. Nice.
A new movie review from the desk of The Movie Snob.
The Hero (B-). That voice. That mustache. The unmistakable Sam Elliott (Tombstone) has an unusual starring role in this little indie flick. He plays a washed-up actor who spends his days smoking marijuana with a buddy (Nick Offerman, We’re the Millers) and doing voiceover work for commercials. And, we quickly learn, he’s facing a serious cancer problem. So he wants to reach out to his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter, Big Eyes). He also, somewhat less credibly, starts dating a woman about half his age (Laura Prepon, TV’s Orange Is the New Black). Katharine Ross (The Graduate), who is actually married to Elliott, has a very small part as his ex-wife. All in all, the movie is a little pedestrian, a little predictable, a little off at times, but Elliott managed to keep me invested. And at 93 minutes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
P.S. I forgot to give a shout-out to Max Gail, who has a small part in this movie. I don’t know that I’ve seen him since his glory days at Detective Wojciehowicz on TV’s Barney Miller, but I recognized him as soon as he popped up in The Hero. Judging from IMDB, he has been working pretty steadily since his Miller days.
News from Berlin, by Otto de Kat (English translation 2014). This slim novel is by a Dutch author, of all things. The year is 1941. Dutch diplomat Oscar Verschuur is posted in Switzerland with vague duties. His wife is back in London; his only child, Emma, is living in Berlin with her husband Carl—a “good German,” working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One day, Emma and Carl make it to Geneva, and during her brief visit with her father, Emma drops the startling news that the Nazis are going to invade the Soviet Union on June 22. What should Oscar do with this information? How will it affect his family? I thought this 148-page story was interesting and well written (or well translated). If you like WWII stuff, I think you’d really like this book.
Rifftrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party (B). Last night Fathom Events delivered another live show by the Rifftrax usuals (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) and a slew of guest stars (Mary Jo Pehl, Bridget Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and a fellow who was new to me named Paul F. Tompkins). I assume that by now you know what these shows are–comedians who specialize in riffing on bad movies and other video material. This time around they aren’t riffing a full-length movie, but rather a bunch of “educational” shorts from I don’t know when–roughly the 50s through the 70s. Although this wasn’t one of the riffers’ greatest performances ever, I did think it was a solid outing with plenty of decent laughs. I would say the funniest shorts were (i) an old black-and-white number about a woman who graduates from secretarial school and works her way up in some bland office job, (ii) another black-and-white film about a surly high-school boy whose conscience is trying to get him to stop griping about everything, and (iii) a p.e. film featuring a bunch of dejected elementary-school kids being forced to roll and bounce big rubber balls around for no apparent reason. I know they sound terrible, but they’re pretty funny when the riffers make wisecracks about them throughout! The show will be rebroadcast on June 20, so head on over to fathomevents.com if you want more information.
Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, by Noah Charney (2010). I had the pleasure of visiting Belgium a while back, and one of our tour guides strongly recommended this nonfiction book about the work of art known as the Ghent Altarpiece. Painted by Jan van Eyck and finished in 1432, the altarpiece is an immense, multi-part work, and this book describes the artwork, its creation, and several of the times it has been stolen in whole or in part. Alas, I found the book disappointing. The reproductions of the paintings in the middle of the book are too small, and the reproduction of the interior of the altarpiece goes across two pages so that the central features of the work disappear down into the spine of the book. The writing is not particularly good, in my humble opinion; it is repetitious in some places and obscure in others. A good chunk of the book, at the end, is given over to the tale of the altarpiece’s recovery from the Nazis, some of whom intended to blow up this and many other priceless artworks in the waning days of WWII. There’s some interesting stuff in this book, but on the whole I really can’t recommend it.