Shattered Politics #55: The Remains of the Day (dir by James Ivory)


Remains_of_the_day

The 1993 Best Picture nominee The Remains of the Day is a love story.  Actually, it’s a series of love stories.  Every character in the film is in love with something or someone.  It’s just that, with one exception, they’re all so extremely British that it’s sometimes hard to tell.

The one exception is an American congressman named Trent Lewis (Christopher Reeve).  As the film opens in the 1950s, he’s just purchased Darlington Hall, which is one of those country manors that hold so much history and romance for those of us who regularly watch Downton Abbey.  Lewis is excited to have a British manor of his very own.  It even comes with its very own butler, a Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins).

As we see in flashback, Stevens previously worked at Darlington Hall when it was owned by Lord Darlington (James Fox).  In the 1930s, Lord Darlington may have loved Britain but he was also dangerously naive about the rise of Nazi Germany.  Actually, to say that he was naive might be letting Lord Darlington off too easily.  When we first meet Lord Darlington, he seems like a well-meaning but hopelessly out-of-touch aristocrat.  He has so little understanding of the real world that he even asks Stevens to have the sex talk with his godson (played, somewhat inevitably, by Hugh Grant), who happens to be close to 30 years old at the time and, one would presume, far beyond the age when the talk is really necessary. When we first see Lord Darlington, who is hosting a conference on how to best deal with the rise of the Nazis, arguing that Britain should ignore the rise of Hitler, it’s easy to assume that he’s just as clueless about Germany as he is about his godson.  But then, eventually, Lord Darlington orders Stevens to fire two Jewish maids and you’re forced to reconsider everything that you previously believed about him.

And then there’s Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson), who worked as a housekeeper for Lord Darlington.  She loves the repressed Mr. Stevens but continually finds herself frustrated by Stevens’s professional detachment.  Unlike Stevens, Ms. Kenton doesn’t hold back on her opinions but, when she finally has a chance to stand up for her beliefs and defy the status quo at Darlington Hall, she backs down.

And then there’s Mr. Stevens.  Mr. Stevens may be one of the most emotionally repressed characters in the history of the movies but the entire film revolves around trying to figure out what or who Stevens loves.  It’s a little too easy to assume that he’s in love with Ms. Kenton, even though that will be the natural instinct of most viewers.  While he obviously feels affection towards her, he can never bring himself to truly express it.  (That said, getting a letter from her appears to be the only thing that can actually inspire him to leave the safety of Darlington Hall and venture into the outside world.)  While it seems, at times, that he might love Lord Darlington, Stevens himself prefers to say that he respected Lord Darlington and, after the war, Stevens seems to have no trouble staying on at Darlington Hall even after its bought by Congressman Lewis.  Much like the ghosts in The Shining, Stevens has always been the butler and always will be.

Ultimately, Mr. Stevens loves his job.  He loves being a butler. He’s a man so dedicated to his job that he even continues to work even while his father is dying in the next room.   He loves making sure that everything’s perfect at Darlington Hall and he never bothers with worrying about how imperfect the world outside Darlington Hall may be.    In that way, Stevens is a stand-in for all of the European leaders who willfully chose to ignore what was happening in Germany in the days leading up to World War II.  And, much like those European leaders, he finds himself forced to work for an American in the aftermath.

As a film, The Remains of the Day can be frustrating but in a good way.  Mr. Stevens is such a repressed and detached character that, much like Ms. Kenton, we’re always tempted to give up on him.  Fortunately, Anthony Hopkins is one of those actors who can suggest so much with just a pause in his dialogue or a quick glance to the side.  You look at his sad eyes and suddenly, you know everything that Mr. Stevens cannot bring himself to say.  Emma Thompson has a somewhat easier role because Ms. Kenton at least gets to say what she’s thinking but she still bring a lot of depth to the role and has a lot of chemistry with Hopkins.  And finally, you’ve got James Fox who is so comically befuddled that it’s all the more shocking to consider all of the pain that he — intentionally or not — is partially responsible for.

The Remains of the Day is a great film for all of us Downton Abbey-loving history nerds.

James Bond Film Review: Moonraker (dir. by Lewis Gilbert)


For the past two weeks, here at the Shattered Lens, we’ve been reviewing the James Bond film franchise.  We’ve reviewed the good, the bad, and the ugly of James Bond and today, we’re going to take a look at James Bond at his silliest.  Today, we’re going to review the 11th official James Bond film, 1979’s Moonraker.

Moonraker starts out with a genuinely exciting pre-credits sequence.  James Bond (Roger Moore) is on an airplane when he’s suddenly attacked by the stewardess, the co-pilot, and Jaws (Richard Kiel), the henchman with the steel teeth.  All four of them end up falling out of the plane.  In mid-air, Bond wrestles the pilot’s parachute away from him and uses it to safely land on the ground.  The pilot and the stewardess presumably plunge to a very grisly death.  Jaws, meanwhile, crashes into a circus tent and walks away without a scratch.  This scene pretty much establishes the tone of Moonraker — increasingly implausible action sequences that usually end with some sort of crowd-pleasing joke.  In short, Moonraker is Bond as pure spectacle.  Those looking for another From Russia With Love should look elsewhere.

As for the rest of the film, someone’s stolen a space shuttle and James Bond and CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) team up to find it.  It turns out that the shuttle was stolen by Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), who plans to wipe out life on the Earth and start a new society in space.

That’s right, in space!

Moonraker was made in 1979, at the height of the cinematic science fiction boom.  In the late 70s, everyone was going into space and James Bond wasn’t going to get left behind.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Drax has a secret HQ in a space station that’s orbiting the Earth and Bond is not only the world’s greatest secret agent but the universe’s as well!

It also turns out that Jaws is now working for Drax and his girlfriend Dolly (Blanche Ravelec) works in the space station.  I know that a lot of Bond fans hate Moonraker because of this very subplot but seriously, just take a look at the happy couple!  They’re so cute together!

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings on Moonraker.  On the one hand, it’s the most over-the-top of Roger Moore’s Bond films and it’s certainly the silliest.  Your reaction to it will depend on just how seriously you take or want to take your Bond films.  Myself, I appreciate Moonraker as a celebration of excess but, at the same time, I can also understand why so many fans of the Bond franchise consider Moonraker to be a low point for the series.

At its weakest, Moonraker feels almost like a generic Bond rip-off as opposed to an official Bond film.  It’s obvious that most of the preproduction attention was devoted to the film’s special effects.  The rest of the film feels almost like an afterthought and several of the sequences feel as if they’ve been lifted from other Bond films.  Bond’s initial meeting with Hugo Drax is reminiscent of the golf game in Goldfinger and both Drax’s evil scheme and motivation appear to have been borrowed from The Spy Who Loved Me‘s Karl Stromberg.

Especially when compared to his witty performance in The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore appears to be simply going through the motions here and he has next to no chemistry with Lois Chiles.  One gets the feeling that Bond is merely with her so that he can brag to his mates back in London that he actually hooked up with someone named Holly Goodhead.  If her name was Holly Smith, he wouldn’t have any interest in her.

On the plus side, Michael Lonsdale makes for a good villain, the film’s special effects still look good over 30 years later, and I like the way that Jaws’ storyline is resolved.  I know that a lot of people hate the fact that Jaws softens up by the end of this film but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Richard Kiel and Blanche Ravalec are so cute together that you simply can’t help but smile at their unlikely romance.

Finally, how can you not enjoy the curiosity value of having James Bond in space?  I’m not a huge sci-fi fan.  Whenever I hear people mention Dr. Who, Star Wars, or Star Trek, my eyes roll up into the back of my head and I end up zoning out for a few hours.  But there’s just something so odd and vaguely inappropriate about the idea of James Bond floating around in a space station with a laser gun.  If nothing else, Moonraker serves as a time capsule of the late 70s, a time when even James Bond could turn up in outer space.

Much like The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker has little in common with the book that inspired it.  The literary Moonraker featured a villain named Hugo Drax but the Moonraker of the title was a nuclear missile.  Nobody went into outer space and there was certainly no one named Holly Goodhead.  Instead, Bond worked (and fell for) a fellow agent named Gala Brand.  It’s a shame that no one has ever filmed a faithful adaptation of Moonraker because it’s actually one of the best of the Bond novels.  Bond and Gala have a genuinely interesting relationship and the book has a melancholy, rather introspective feel to it.  Surprisingly, the end of the book deals with why none of Bond’s relationships last that long and makes an attempt to deal realistically with the psychological consequences of being the world’s greatest secret agent.

Surprisingly enough, the spectacular, effects-heavy Moonraker would be followed by the much more realistic and low-key For Your Eyes Only.  We’ll take a look at that film tomorrow.

Until then, here’s the Moonraker theme song:

8 Quickies With Lisa Marie: 13 Assassins, Bunraku, The Double Hour, Jig, Meek’s Cutoff, Of Gods and Men, One Day, and There Be Dragons


As part of my continuing effort to offer up a review of every 2011 release that I’ve seen so far this year, here’s 8 more quickie reviews of some of the films that I’ve seen over the past year.

1) 13 Assassins (dir. by Takashi Miike)

The 13 Assassins are a group of samurai who are gathered together to assassinate a sociopathic nobleman in 19th Century Japan.  As directed by Takashi Miike, this is a visually stunning film full of nonstop, brutal action and Miike powerfully contrasts the old school honor of the 13 Assassins with the soulless evil of their target. 

2) Bunraku (dir. by Guy Moshe)

There are some films that simply have to be seen to believed and Bunraku is one of those films.  In the aftermath of a global war, guns have been outlawed but this attempt at social engineering has just resulted in greater societal collapse.  Nicola (Ron Perlman) is the most powerful man on the East Coast but he lives life in paranoid seclusion and instead sends out nine assassins to enforce his will (his main assassin being Killer No. 2, played by a super stylish Kevin McKidd).  Two strangers ( a drifter played by Josh Hartnett and a samurai played by Gackt) arrive in town and, with the help of a bartender played by Woody Harrelson, they team up to destroy the nine assassins and ultimately Nicola himself.  Bunraku, which comes complete with an ominous narrator and sets that look like they belong in a Lars Von Trier film, is a glorious and fast-paced triumph of style over substance, an exciting and fun celebration of the grindhouse films of the past.  With the exception of a miscast Demi Moore (playing Perlman’s mistress), the film is very well-acted but it’s completely stolen and dominated by Kevin McKidd, who can poke me with his sword any time he wants.

3) The Double Hour (dir. by Giuseppe Capotondi)

It took The Double Hour about two years to make it over here from Italy and when it did finally play in American arthouse theaters, it really didn’t get as much attention as it deserved.  That’s a shame because the Double Hour is a pretty entertaining mystery-thriller that’s full of twists and turns and which features an excellent performance by Kseniya Rappoport as an enigmatic hotel maid.  It hasn’t been released on region 1 DVD or blu-ray yet but apparently, there’s some interest in doing an American remake which will probably suck.

4) Jig (dir. by Sue Bourne)

Jig is a documentary that follows several competitors at the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships held in Glasgow in 2010.  I always try to be honest about my personal biases and I have to admit that one reason why I absolutely loved this film is because I not only love to dance but I love Irish stepdancing in specific and, as much as I love ballet, stepdance will always hold a special place in my heart.  I’m not quite sure how to put it into words other then to say that it just makes me incredibly happy as both a participant and a  watcher.  For me, Jig captured that joy as well as showing just how much dedication and sacrifice it takes to truly become proficient at it.  This film — much like Black Swan — made me dance.

5) Meek’s Cutoff (dir. by Kelly Reichardt)

I’ll never forget going to the Cinemark West Plano and seeing Meek’s Cutoff last May.  The theater was nearly deserted except for me, Jeff, an elderly couple, and two women who were, in their appearance and manner, almost stereotypically upper middle class suburban.  As the film’s frustratingly ambiguous conclusion played out on-screen and the end credits started to roll, one of the women angrily exclaimed, “WHAT!?  Well, that won’t win any Academy Awards!”  In many ways, Meek’s Cutoff is a frustrating film.  Based on a true story, it follows a group of 19th century settlers as they try to cross the Oregon Trail while following a guide (Bruce Greenwood) who might be totally incompetent.  Plotwise, not much happens: the settlers kidnap an Indian and demand that he lead them to water, Michelle Williams plays a settler who doubts that any of the men in the party know what they’re doing, and everyone continues to keep moving in search of … something.  The film is, at times, really frustrating and I think it’s been overrated by most critics but, at the same time, it remains an oddly fascinating meditation on life and fate.  Add to that, both Greenwood and Williams give good performances and the film’s cinematography is hauntingly beautiful and desolate at the same time.

6) Of Gods and Men(dir. by Xavier Beauvois)

Of Gods and Men is a quietly powerful and visually stunning French film that’s based on the true story of 7 Trappist monks who were kidnapped from their monastery and murdered by muslim rebels during the Algerian Civil War.  The film imagines the final days of the monks and attempts to answer the question of why they didn’t flee their monastery when they had the opportunity to do so, but instead remained and chose to accept their fate as martyrs.  This meditative film also features excellent performances from Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale and avoids the trap of both easy idealization and easy villainy. 

7) One Day (dir. by Lone Scherfig)

This is another one of those films that was dismissed by almost every critic except for Roger Ebert and you know what?  For once, I’m going to agree with Roger.  I absolutely loved One Day and I think that all the haters out there need to take a chance on romance and stop coasting on the easy cynicism.  One Day follows the love affair of a writer (Anne Hathaway) and a TV personality (Jim Sturgess), visiting them repeatedly on the same day over the course of 20 years.  The film starts with them as college students having a wonderfully awkward one night stand and it ends with Sturgess and their son walking up a beautiful green hill and it made me cry and cry.  Hathaway and Sturgess have a wonderful chemistry together and the film also features some good supporting performances from Patricia Clarkson (as Sturgess’ dying mother) and Rafe Spall (bringing humanity to the thankless role of being the “other guy.”) This is one of the most deliriously romantic films that I’ve ever seen and I loved it.  So there.

8 ) There Be Dragons (dir. by Roland Joffe)

There Be Dragons came out in May and it didn’t get much respect from the critics.  I’ve also read that it was considered to be a box office failure, which is odd because I seem to remember that it was actually in theaters for quite some time.  Anyway, There Be Dragons is an oddly old-fashioned war epic that attempts to mix the fictional story of a Spanish revolutionary (played by Wes Bentley) with an admiring biopic of the founder of Orpus Dei, St. Josemarie Escriva (played by Charlie Cox).  The two stories never really seem mix and instead, they just coexist uncomfortably beside each other.  It doesn’t help that Wes Bentley gives one of the worst performance of 2011.  On the plus side, Charlie Cox gives a good and believable performance as Escriva and the film looks great.  The film is so sincere in its desire to make the world a better place that its hard not to regret that it doesn’t succeed.

Review: Ronin (dir. by John Frankenheimer)


The definition of the Japanese word ronin describes it as a samurai who has lost his master from the ruin of or the fall of his master. John Frankenheimer (with some final draft help with the script from David Mamet) takes this notion of a masterless samurai and brings to it a post-Cold War setting and sensibility that more than pay homage to the great stories and film of the ronin. One particular story about ronin that Frankenheimer references in detail is the classic story of the 47 Ronin. Ronin shows that in the latter-stages of his career, Frankenheimer was still the master of the political/spy-thriller genre. He infuses the film with a real hard-edge and was able to mix together both intelligence and energy in both the quieter and action-packed sequences in the film.

The film begins quietly with the introduction of the characters involved. We meet each individual in this quiet 10-minute scene that shows Frankenheimer’s skill as a director would always be heads and shoulders above those of the bombastic and ADD-addled filmmakers of the MTV generation (Michael Bay being the poster boy). Robert De Niro plays the role of one of the two American mercenaries (or contractors) who instantly becomes the focal point for everyone in the scene. His casual, but attentive reconnoitering of the Paris bar where the first meet occurs helps build tension without being being heavy-handed in its execution. It’s with the introduction of Jean Reno as the Frenchman in the group that we get the buddy-film dynamic as De Niro and Reno quickly create a believable camaraderie born of the times for such men during and after the Cold War.

The rest of the cast was rounded out by an excellent and high-energy turn from Sean Bean as an English contractor who might not be all that he claims and brags to be. The other American in the group was played by Skipp Sudduth who in his own understated way more than kept up with the high-caliber of actors around him. Finishing off and adding the darker and seedier aspects of the cast were Stellan Skarsgard as a former Eastern Bloc (maybe ex-KGB) operative and Jonathan Pryce as an IRA commander whose agendas for bringing this team of masterless ex-spies and operatives together might not be all as he claims. The only break in all the testosterone in the film was ably played by the beautiful, yet tough Natasha McElhone. Like Sudduth, McElhone more than keeps up and matches acting skills with the likes of De Niro, Reno and Skarsgard.

The film moves from the meeting of the group to the actual operation which brought all these disparate characters together. Taking a page from Hitchcock, Frankenheimer and Mamet introduces what would become the film’s MacGuffin. A “MacGuffin” being a plot device which helps motivates each character of its importance and yet we’re left to believe that the item is important without ever finding out why. The MacGuffin in Ronin ends up being a silver case which the IRA terrorists, the Russian Mob and seemingly every intelligence agency in Europe wants to get their hands on.

It’s up to De Niro and his group to steal the case from another party and this was where Frankenheimer’s skill in seemlessly blending spy-thriller and action film shows. From the set-up of the team and their plans, to a near double-cross during an arms deal to the actual operation to take the case, Ronin begins to move at a clipped and tension-filled pace. There’s no overly extraneous dialogue. Mamet’s script fleshes out the story and adds a sense and feel of intelligent professionalism to the characters.

The action sequences mostly involved car chases through the narrow streets of Nice, France to the metropolitan thoroughfares and tunnels of Paris. Frankenheimer shines in creating and directing these sequences. Sequences which he’d decided against the use of CGI. Using what he’d learned and perfected from his own past as a former amateur race car driver and from his own classic film Grand Prix, Frankenheimer used real life cars and drove them through real (albeit choreographed) traffic to give the sequences that sense of reality and speed that one couldn’t get with CGI. The car chase scene within the Paris thoroughfare tunnel against traffic has to go down as one of the best car chase put on film.  With just abit of help from second unit directors Luc Etienne and Michel Cheyko, Frankenheimer pretty much did most of the filming of the car chases.

The story itself, after all the characterizations and high-energy, tense action sequences, was really bare bones and in itself its own MacGuffin. The story just becomes a prop device to help show the mercenaries’ special sense of honor in regards to working with people who might’ve been enemies in the past. The murky world they now live in after the collapse of the black and white sensibility that was the Cold War has become nothing but shades of gray. One little bit of trivia that I found interesting was the fact that Ronin included quite a bit of actors who portrayed past James Bond villains: Sean Bean (Janus), Jonathan Pryce (Carver) and Michael Lonsdale (Drax).

In the end, Ronin became the last great film from a great director. I don’t count Reindeer Games as anything but Frankenheimer picking up a check and the studio dabbling overmuch in the final look and feel of that film. Frankenheimer’s Ronin is a blend of smart dialogue, hard-edged characters, and tense-filled action that he manages to blend together to make a fine and intelligent film. The story’s myseries concerning the MacGuffin might not have been answered in the end, but the journey the audience takes with DeNiro, Reno and McElhone’s character in getting there more than made up for any flaws in the plot.