The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Sean Connery is the epitome of an extraordinary gentleman.

(2003) Action (20th Century Fox) Sean Connery, Richard Roxburgh, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Naseeruddin Shah, Tony Curran, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Max Ryan, Tom Goodman-Hill, David Hemmings, Terry O’Neill, Rudolf Pellar, Robert Willox. Directed by Stephen Norrington

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on a wonderful graphic novel by Alan Moore, had such high expectations among its fans that almost no movie could meet them. Consequently it got terrible reviews and a great deal of Internet drubbing, which is too bad, since it’s quite a nice little movie.

The setting is just before the 20th century. The legendary African explorer and adventurer Allan Quatermain (Connery) lives a semi-retired life, having already found King Solomon’s Mines. He is recruited to save England from a madman, one who is using terrible technology to set world powers against one another in an effort to start a World War.

Queen Victoria is very much against the idea, so she has the mysterious M (Roxburgh) recruit the most extraordinary team of people she can find; Mina Harker (Wilson), who suffers from an unusual blood disease; the brilliant Captain Nemo (Shah), captain of the fabulous Nautilus; Rodney Skinner (Curran), a petty thief who happens to be invisible; and Henry Jekyll (Flemyng), who hides a hideous dark side. They also recruit the fey Dorian Grey (Townsend), a brilliant mind who has seen it all.

Attacked by the goons of their quarry, they escape with the aid of Tom Sawyer (West), a brash American Secret Service agent. Together, as a league, they journey to Venice to prevent the destruction of a peace conference. They are too late to entirely prevent the bombs from going off, but by teaming together they manage to save the city and most of its populace. They find that there is a traitor in their midst, and their adversary is not who they think he is at all.

This film has taken its share of critical abuse, and some of it is deserved. There are some definite leaps in logic; having a sub the size of the Nautilus floating in the canals of Venice is ludicrous at best. The computer-generated Mr. Hyde is dreadful. However, despite the reported problems on the set between Connery and director Stephen Norrington, Connery handles his role like a pro, making a believable Quatermain. He is gruff and irritable but absolutely money in the clutch. This is Connery’s film and he carries it well.

The atmosphere of a Victorian era slightly warped from the reality of history comes off nicely. There are plenty of terrific effects to make this big screen-friendly. The cast, once you get past Connery, is decent enough but nobody really stands out except for Townsend as Dorian Grey, channeling “Project Runway” a bit too much. Wilson, so good in the “La Femme Nikita” TV series, has plenty of screen presence but it’s not really channeled well, more the fault of the filmmakers than the actress.

Does it measure up to its source comic? Depends on what you mean. And it shouldn’t have to. Comparing a movie to a comic is like comparing a car to a plane. They are different media with different qualities. The comic book League is one of the best (IMHO) ever, and the film wisely departs from its storyline. Why compete with greatness when you can, perhaps, establish your own?  Of course, the movie doesn’t really establish greatness but it does try. Seeing all these beloved fictional characters together is a hoot, but ultimately is disappointing; you don’t get the sense of epic adventure their original tales gave us.

The movie actually did better in the global market than it did here in America. Although room is left at the end for a sequel, you will never see one. Moore has divorced himself completely from the movie, which in all fairness, he has pretty much done with every movie made on his source material. Still, it’s a wonderful concept, and the atmosphere combined with Connery as an adventure hero is enough to make this a movie worth seeing – especially inasmuch as this is, in all likelihood, Connery’s final film.

WHY RENT THIS: What is in all likelihood Connery’s final film performance is delivered with all the fire and charisma of all his previous ones. Fascinating concept. A kick to see all those beloved fictional heroes together.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks the epic spirit of adventure of the source. A bit silly in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of action violence, a few bad words scattered here and there and a bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the first five movies to be released on Blu-Ray by Fox.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.3M on a $78M production budget; despite the perception that this was a flop,it actually made a slight profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ice Age: Continental Drift

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The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)


 

The Importance of Being Earnest
Algie and Jack try to make sense of the intricate plot.

 

 

(Miramax) Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey, Edward Fox. Directed by Oliver Parker

 

I find it somewhat depressing that in this day and age, a mind-bending number of Americans have never heard of the great Oscar Wilde, and only a very few have even experienced one of his plays performed on stage. There’s something about it that just seems blatantly wrong.

 

One of his best and best-known plays was The Importance of Being Earnest which was first performed back in 1895. It is the very epitome of the drawing room comedy; most of the action onstage takes place in a drawing room, and like most of Wilde’s work, nearly every line is a gem, a bon mot that stands the test of time. Yes, there are a few topical references but not enough to make a modern audience scratch their head in puzzlement, other than those rubes who would do so anyway.

Trying to describe the plot of the play is time-consuming and in the end is a lot like describing quantum mechanics to a four-year-old. The plot is intricate and full of layers and twists and turns, some of which you can see coming but many that you can’t. The basics are this; Jack Worthing (Firth) is a foundling who was adopted by a country squire; fully grown now, he acts as the guardian to his benefactor’s granddaughter Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon).

 

Jack often travels to London to rescue his ne’er-do-well brother Ernest out of a jam. The problem is that there is no brother Ernest; it’s a ruse calculated to allow Jack to come and go as he pleases. When he is in town, he takes the name of Ernest for himself so that he may remain incognito and as Ernest, he has fallen in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax (O’Connor), the lovely and practical granddaughter of Lady Augusta Bracknell (Dench).  Gwendolyn also returns his affections.

 

Jack also visits his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) who is actually pretty close to the scoundrel Jack makes his non-existent brother to be. He uses the excuse of visiting an ill friend named Bunbury to escape the city when creditors begin to close in on him. On one of these expeditions to the countryside, he winds up at Jack’s home where he takes on the persona of Jack’s fictitious brother Ernest, and promptly falls in love with Cecily (are you with me so far?).

 

That’s more or less the set-up; you can guess that there will be many obstacles that will be tossed in the way of the happiness of both couples, until Love Conquers All in the final act (or in this case, reel). Unlike other similar drawing room comedies of the day, Wilde threw in a lot of observations of the human condition, particularly where it regards class distinctions and sexual politics.

 

This is a lush-looking production, with the bucolic English countryside taking center stage. Parker, who in 1999 filmed the adaptation of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (and would make it a trifecta in 2009 when he filmed Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) knows how to evoke the era visually, with splendid costumes, magnificent estates and staid English manners.

 

It’s a shame he got infected with Anachronistic Music Syndrome. Those of you who’ve seen A Knight’s Tale and basically anything Baz Luhrmann ever directed will know it; it’s the occasion when a movie set in one period uses a musical score that is in the style of a different period. So when the swing music of the 1940s is the background for a Victorian drawing room comedy, it just wipes the mood right off the screen. It’s an offshoot of Look Ma I’m Directing Disease, and not a pleasant one.

 

However, when you have Oscar Wilde writing your screenplay (and Parker utilizes Wilde’s play word-for-word in many instances), you really can’t go wrong. Few writers before or since have had the wit of Wilde, and none the ability to mask social satire with urbane mannerisms.

 

It helps to have a superior cast. Firth and Everett are two dependable performers who both do quite splendidly in their role. Dench was born to play the crusty Lady Bracknell and does so with gusto. Even Witherspoon, the company’s token American, adopts an English accent rather nicely; my only complaint is that she’s so bloody gorgeous that you sometimes get so lost in her looks that you forget that she’s speaking important dialogue.

 

There are a couple of fantasy sequences that Parker (who also wrote the screenplay) inserted into the film that really didn’t need to be there, but in all honesty it’s all right. If you have never seen or read an Oscar Wilde play, this is as good a place as any to acquaint yourself with him. It’s not quite as good in many ways as the 1952 film version (which starred Michael Redgrave as Jack, Michael Denison as Algernon and Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell) that Anthony Asquith directed but it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

 

WHY RENT THIS: It’s Oscar Wilde; nearly every line is laugh-out-loud funny, even more than a century later.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Anachronistic musical score syndrome torpedoes the audience out of the atmosphere and mood.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of drinking and smoking but as you would expect from a play written during the Victorian era, there is nothing here you should feel uncomfortable letting your entire family watch. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actress Finty Williams, who portrays Lady Bracknell as a young dancer, is in reality Dame Judi Dench’s daughter. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.3M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crossing Over

Paris, je t’aime


Paris je t'aime

This annoying Parisian mime has his poor woman beside herself.

(First Look) Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Gerard Depardieu, Marianne Faithfull, Ben Gazzara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Olga Kurlyenko, Emily Mortimer, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Miranda Richardson, Gena Rowlands, Barbet Schroeder, Rufus Sewell, Leonor Watling, Elijah Wood. Directed by Many, Many Directors

Ah, Paris, the City of Light. No other city in the world conjures romance and civilization the way the capital of France does. Visions of sidewalk cafes, the Left Bank, the beautiful architecture and the masterpieces at the many museums make Paris a city where one’s oeuvre for the finer things in life can be properly exercised.

But like any city its size, Paris has more than just one face and more than just one personality. Paris has many neighborhoods, some ethnically arranged and others more lifestyle arranged. One of the joys of exploring Paris is to delve into these neighborhoods, not all of which turn up in guidebooks.

Some of them, however, appear here in this love letter to and from Paris. 18 vignettes have been directed by some of the world’s best directors (or teams, such as the Coen Brothers) like Gus van Sant and Isabel Coixet. Appearing in them is a tremendous international cast, some of whom (but not all) are detailed above.

Each vignette is set in a different neighborhood in Paris and all have something to do with love, which is fitting enough. As with any anthology film of this nature, the segments work to varying degrees but I have to say that I can’t honestly say that any of them are horrible.

The only one that really feels jarring to me is the one directed byVincenzo Natali, whose “Quartier de la Madeleine” is a Gothic vampire romance, with Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko chasing Elijah Wood through fog-shrouded streets. The tone differs from any of the other films here and it felt more like a Parisian Twilight episode which didn’t really work for me.

Other than that one misstep, there is some magnificent work here. In Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa’s “Place de Victoires,” a grieving mother (played with astonishing power by Juliette Binoche) gets a chance to say goodbye to her dead son as given by a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who is acting not unlike Charon on the River Styx, escorting the boy to his final destination. It’s the most powerful segment in the movie in many ways.

Another wonderful piece is “Quartier Latin” by actor Gerard Depardieu and co-director Frederic Aubertin (who also directed the linking segments). Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, veterans of the John Cassavetes stable, play an aging couple who get together the night before they see the lawyer to finalize their divorce. It is bittersweet without being cloying, a tribute to the two actors who pull off some of the more understated work of the movie.

In a different vein, the Coen Brothers direct their Steve Buscemi in the ”Tuileries” segment for slapstick comedy, as a mute tourist is warned not to make eye contact in the Metro station and foolishly does, twice, leading to all sorts of mayhem being perpetrated on Buscemi, who takes more abuse from the Coens than he has since “Fargo.” The Coens do this kind of thing as well as anybody ever has.

Even horror director Wes Craven gets a shot, with his set in the cemetary at “Pere Lachaise” features Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as an engaged couple scouring the cemetary for the grave of Oscar Wilde, with Sewell getting romantic advice from the ghost of the writer himself. While this sounds on the surface to be right in Craven’s wheelhouse, it’s actually a bit of a departure for him, being much more romantic than we’re used to from the auteur of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream franchise.

The great Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron does a stunning job with “Parc Monceau,” shooting the segment in one long continuous shot, allowing Nick Nolte to do his thing as a doting father trying to maintain a bond with his daughter. In “Pigalle,” director Richard LaGravenese need do nothing more than film a conversation slash argument between married couple Bob Hoskins and the extraordinarily sophisticated and beautiful Fanny Ardant.

Alexander Payne of Sideways fame directs the concluding vignette, “14th Arrondissement” with superb character actress Margo Martindale narrating the effect a trip to Paris had on the life of a frumpy Midwestern postal worker. It’s a sweet little coda that ties things together nicely.

As I said, not everything works but most work well enough to be reasonably satisfying and all have at least something to recommend them. All in all, it’s a pleasant little pastry that has been put together with loving care by many of the best chefs in the business, and it’s ready for you to sample and I recommend that you do, even if you don’t love Paris but especially if you do.

WHY RENT THIS: A cornucopia of wonderful vignettes about the City of Light with something of a tasting menu of some of the finest film directors in the world.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the segments flat-out don’t work.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some bad language, a bit of sexuality (it is Paris after all), a few mildly frightening moments and some adult themes. While there’s nothing really that you wouldn’t let your children watch, they would probably be bored to tears unless they’re Francophiles.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intention of the movie was for each segment to represent a specific arrondissement in Paris (there are 20 in all) but this idea was abandoned.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In the special edition 2-disc DVD Steelbox edition of the film, there are 18 featurettes, each devoted to a specific segment of the movie. Oddly, these aren’t available on the Blu-Ray making it a rare instance where a DVD edition has more extras than the corresponding Blu-Ray edition.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Paris 36 (Faubourg 36)