Their Finest (B+). It doesn’t have the grabbiest title, but this picture by Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) is my favorite of the year so far. The year is 1940, and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace) has moved from Wales to London with her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But his dour art isn’t selling, so Catrin gets a job as a screenwriter on a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. She clashes with the obnoxious head screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), learns to massage the bruised ego of past-his-prime movie star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, I Capture the Castle), and generally gets a crash course in the trials and tribulations of moviemaking. Jeremy Irons (Appaloosa) pops up unexpectedly as a pompous war minister. The sexism of the era is conveyed effectively without being overdone. On the whole, I quite enjoyed the movie.
Appaloosa (C+). Ed Harris (The Human Stain) directs and stars in this new Western also featuring ViggoMortensen (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain). Harris and Mortensen are long-time pardners Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, out riding the range. We soon come to learn that they are lawmen for hire–when a town sprouts up too far from civilization and gets menaced by forces of evil too big for local law enforcement, it hires Virgil and Everett, who are handy with shooting irons and learned everything they know about law enforcement by watching Gene Hackman’s character in Unforgiven. So they get hired by the town of Appaloosa in the New Mexico Territory to deal with a low-down varmint named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, Dungeons & Dragons) and his gang. But long about that same time, a pretty little widow-woman named Mrs. French moves to Appaloosa and turns Virgil’s head. Adventures ensue. It is a good-looking movie, and you can almost feel the grit of the blowing dust down the streets of Appaloosa, but the story is just not all that gripping. I didn’t even recognize pasty ol‘ Lance Henriksen, the android Bishop from Aliens, as another gunslinger that Virgil ‘n’ Everett have to deal with.
Dungeons & Dragons (D-). Long before I became an erudite and sophisticated movie critic, I was an avid D&Der. Although there were rumors that Hollywood was making a movie explicitly based on the Dungeons & Dragons game way back in the 1980s, they came to nothing until this 2000 release. I heard it was bad and only just now got around to seeing it. Yes, it’s a turkey. The special effects are cartoonish, the dialogue is lame, and the acting is abominable. Somehow they got Jeremy Irons to play the villainous sorcerer Profion; he chews the scenery with insane glee, and for some reason he seems to think that he sounds more evil if he talks like he has a frog in his throat. Thora Birch is absolutely terrible as the idealistic empress who turns up from time to time to deliver a clunky speech about equality and brotherhood; she sounds just like she is reading them from cue cards. One of the Wayans brothers drops in; apparently nobody told him that he was supposed to be a medieval thief and not a character in a late-20th-century sit-com. Absolutely terrible.
P.S. According to reviews floating around the internet, the direct-to-video sequel from 2005 was actually a better movie.
Shakespeare. Need I say more? Throw in some wonderful performances by Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Joseph Fiennes, and relative new-comer Lynn Collins, and you get a very rich and captivating tale. This is a story set in 16th century Venice. Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is the successful merchant. He borrows money from Shylock (Al Pacino) to finance a voyage by the youthful Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) so that Bassanio can court and marry the lovely Portia (Lynn Collins). Because Antonio has treated Shylock, a Jew, with such disrespect, Shylock insists that Antonio secure the debt with a pound of Antonio’s flesh. At the climax of the story, I was on the edge of my seat and I could hear a collective gasp from the audience (or maybe that was all in my mind) when Shylock discovers what his demand has reaped. Although the story and the performances make this film well worth seeing, if you don’t know the story, you may want to prepare yourself for the very definite anti-Semite bent to the story.
Being Julia (C-). They say Annette Bening is gunning for the Best Actress Oscar this year based on her performance in this movie, so I thought I should check it out. I guess her performance was good, but the movie really wasn’t. The setting is pre-WWII London, and Julia Lambert (Bening) is an aging queen of the stage. Her marriage to Michael (Jeremy Irons) is little more than a business partnership, and she is weary of the theatrical grind (or at least she acts like she is; her whole life seems like a performance). Then a young American admirer sweeps her off her feet and into an affair that rejuvenates her — until she figures out that he is also catting about with another, much younger actress. The movie just didn’t work for me. Characters said and did things that seemed inexplicable, and by the end I was pretty confused as to who was cheating on whom with whom. The confusion was heightened by the fact that virtually every character’s sexuality, except for Bening’s and her young lover’s, was rather ambiguous. Not a very good movie.