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The Hollow Crown - TV Mini Series [DVD]
The Hollow Crown - TV Mini Series [DVD]
Dvd ~ Ben Whishaw

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Making Shakespeare As Accessible As Any Contemporary Miniseries, 19 May 2014
Having watched many of the old BBC studio-bound productions from 30 years (and more) ago, I was delighted by the new take on filming Shakespeare that a series of modern directors, under the leadership of Sam Mendes (executive producer), has chosen. Thea Sharrock (dir. "Henry V") explained it in the 'Making of . . .' video inclusion: they wanted the iambic pentameter to come out of the mouths of the actors as if those men they were portraying had just this minute thought of that particular phrase or sentence. Tom Hiddleston (who portrays Prince Hal and Henry V in three of the four plays and, in many ways, is responsible for the success of the project) said he would go running with Sharrock and recite his lines. She would stop him in mid-run and make him repeat whatever part of a speech he'd just spoken if she thought he didn't yet know what it meant, fully and in character. In all three of the kings' performances (including Ben Whishaw and Jeremy Irons), I was very aware of the directors' success in this; Shakespeare is as engaging as any contemporary miniseries.

Called "The Hollow Crown" because Henry IV (Irons) usurped the crown from Richard II (Whishaw) and yet it was effectively lost--certainly the major gains in France--by the reign of his grandson and led ultimately to the Wars of the Roses, the series relies on the effectiveness of Tom Hiddleston, only 30 at the time, to carry the viewer's emotional investment. As Prince Hal in "Henry IV, Parts I and II", the callow youth and friend to Falstaff comes across as most often cynical in his attitude towards himself and his baser friends. Director Richard Eyre is quoted elsewhere as having said that, in his own youth, he would've been more likely to have emphasized the joie de vivre of the untamed prince but, directing the plays in his 60's, he chose to pick out those threads of both plays where Hal and Falstaff seem always to be holding back the blacker truths in their so-called friendship. It makes Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff somewhat more pathetic, more vulnerable, than I am used to seeing him. The height difference too exacerbates the apparent inequality inherent in the relationship between the two; at 6'2", Hiddleston makes his Falstaff look a bit like an elfin Santa Claus. Falstaff pleads for his leg up with the future king, rather than asserting it; Hal knows (as he does in the play itself) from his first soliloquy that he will turn on this man. As novel a take on the two as this is, I found myself looking back on Eyre's version of these plays with some unease. This Falstaff, though well-acted, would hardly have reverberated throughout the centuries as one of Shakespeare's most beloved creations. Yet it may be more suitable for a latter-day Hal to be constantly aware that he is wearing the mask of a reveller while underneath is of special breed, rather than the other way around.

Jeremy Irons is wonderful as the breaking and broken Henry IV. His interactions with Hal in awakening his son's better nature are among the best-acted versions of these scenes I've ever watched. Interestingly we have a bit of a leap to make in Bolingbroke too; played by Rory Kinnear in "Richard II" where he is, of necessity, much younger, he manifests little of the soul-searching of his later self (Irons). This is perhaps more a fault of Shakespeare's original; director Rupert Gould has chosen a magnificently colourful and somewhat stylized staging of this difficult play, and Ben Whishaw (who won a Bafta for his portrayal of Richard II) renders a sympathetic version of this lesser-known king.

The triumph, I think, of the series is "Henry V". As a play that carries perhaps the largest weight of all the histories, done (to death?) by all the great Shakespearean actors, it might've been the most difficult to render accessible, to undermine the stilted iambic pentameter of Olivier and the aweful, particularly English, heft of the St. Crispin's Day speech, and to make the play somehow modern and as-if newly minted. Kudos go to (a young female!) director Sharrock and to actor Hiddleston for pulling this feat off with verisimilitude. Hiddleston makes an almost seamless transition from the callow Hal to the perspicacious 'star of England'. A wonderful early choice was to have him come galloping up, as boisterous as a boy, while the Archbishop in his opening speech is reminding us how unfit he was, until very recently, for the gravitas of kingship. Henry's opening interplay with leftover rebels and the French delegation is, in the Shakespeare, handled with equal amounts of power and finesse--Hiddleston does that as well as Branagh, but never actually has to ascend to the throne to do it. His Henry is so comfortable in his skin he speaks the speeches literally as if they came to him as birthright, as casually as he puts on the crown while still in his riding gear. (This too argues for the ever-cynical Hal in "Henry IV"; his birthright was always manifest to himself, if not to anyone else.) Perhaps the only flaw I could identify in this version of the play was the conscious choice by Sharrock and Hiddleston to make the "We happy few" speech only to the handful of lords who are conducting the battle on the English side. Their intent was to make it intimate, to undermine the 'speechifying' which is so evident nowadays in the Olivier version. But it makes the speech somehow too small, too offhand. Perhaps another choice would have been to have it start that way, with the king and the lords on horseback, and slowly to have added more and more of the foot-soldiers who begin by overhearing and conclude with the rallying cry. This speech needs listeners; it should be 'proclaimed', as it would have been in Shakespeare's time, over the heads of the actors and into the audience.

I think I have never found Shakespeare so easy to comprehend--in toto--as I did in this series. This modern BBC choice, in direction, in staging, in delivery, is radically different from the first series years ago. Those I used in the classroom and many were serviceable; this series I urge you to seek out, as you would any good miniseries, for pure enjoyment.

The Fifth Estate [DVD]
The Fifth Estate [DVD]
Dvd ~ Benedict Cumberbatch
Price: £4.91

11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Neither Fish Nor Fowl, 2 Dec. 2013
This review is from: The Fifth Estate [DVD] (DVD)
I looked forward to seeing "The Fifth Estate" at the cinema, not the least because I haven't yet made up my mind on Assange--"Hero or Villain?" as the posters ask. Beyond ongoing press revelations over the years, I was only familiar with the story as a cogent narrative from the book "Wikileaks" by the editors of The Guardian. As a pretty lefty liberal, I'm inclined to mistrust all government and side with anyone who reveals its corrupt interior, but I would've been quite tolerant of a coherent case for Assange as dangerous megalomaniac, given how scattershot the leaks he publishes are. The problem is director Bill Condon decided to give us both. However balanced he (and apparently his star, Benedict Cumberbatch) thought he was being, the result is a long-winded blur of character study, mixed in with a detailed overview of the birth of Wikileaks, and some late-in-the-game international tension. Throw in the petty bitterness which pops up between the author of the other source book ("Inside Wikileaks" by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played here by Daniel Bruhl) and his erstwhile mentor, and you have a movie that leaves you as baffled and unresolved as you were before you paid for your ticket.

As a straight-on character study, untainted by failed idealism via Domscheit-Berg, this film might've been quite something. There gets to be a point where saying any more about how talented an actor Benedict Cumberbatch is makes you sound like one of his 'fangurls', but, as is so common with this actor, his ability to immerse himself in a role is remarkable. Though his face superficially looks nothing like Assange's, he does such phenomenal work with body language and head/eye movements, to say nothing of how his face is transformed by twitches, accent, and prosthetic teeth and hair, that Cumberbatch quite disappears. (I have a theory that this flop might not stick to him, as much for the reason that no one will quite remember he was in it at all, so complete is his vanishing act.) When he is on screen, the movie slows down and you are compelled to watch him recreate. Had Condon just added--with appropriate sub-textual reservations--some of the pettiness of the one-time disciple kvetching, among other things, about how his mentor embarrassed him at mom and dad's over dinner (you expected perhaps the manners of the petit bourgeoisie, Domscheit-Berg?), the movie might have been a real-life "Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" writ large: plenty of blame to go around, no true heroism on either side, a study of the foibles of the near-great and betrayals by those with whom they surround themselves. But no.

Condon (and the writer Josh Singer) has another book to source and so we're also going to be treated to a great deal of information on the development of Wikileaks--from a one-man show to an international 'cause celebre'. Suddenly, there are too many venues, too many characters, and now we're rooting for the boys to outwit the monsters of press and government who are on their heels. And here's where Condon loses sight of the 'vision thing'. First, he introduces, more than half-way through the movie, another sub-plot starring two excellent American character actors: Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney. And they are, well and truly, 'Government'--maybe State Department, maybe CIA. But Linney is trying to save actual people from the fallout of the scattershot Wikileaks revelations, and she will lose her seemingly 'good-guy' job over what the 'boys' of Wiki have been up to.

Though this is the most suspense-filled portion of the movie (from which Assange himself has all-but-disappeared), I am astonished that an experienced director like Bill Condon didn't notice that he was forcing the audience to switch sides emotionally. We were not fully enough vested in these odd-accented, off-the-radar intellectuals he had built the first half of the movie around to relate to them again after the Linney-Tucci mini-movie gave us government-with-heart. In fact, whereas Domscheit-Berg (Bruhl) was only annoying while he was losing his Assange-religion before this, we are now bizarrely asked to root for him to align himself with 'press and government' in order to shut Assange down. All that collateral damage was implicit from the first step he took with Assange. The intrinsic morality (or lack thereof) of Wikileaks didn't change because of what Bradley Manning gave them or what Assange released.

Am I wrong to ask the director (and writer) of the movie to give me a coherent ethical point-of-view, even if I disagree with it? (Indeed, with a subject matter as contemporary as this one, there were always going to be some who disagreed, no matter whether "hero or villain"--and that may have been point enough.) It's harder with biopics, I know, but the usually reliable Cumberbatch may play a bigger role in the movie's pursuing 'balance' at the expense of cohesion than we might think. We know he exchanged emails with Assange on a couple of occasions. And in an article in The Independent which predates the movie's opening, co-star David Thewlis said admiringly of Cumberbatch, "I think he's turned the film around. . . . I think he became more sympathetic towards Julian as the film went on, as opposed to the script [which] changed."

No matter if he was unduly influenced by his gifted star, the buck stops with the director; it was his duty to pursue the 'vision thing' if he wanted this to be memorable for something other the worst box office of 2013. The movie Condon wanted to 'channel', so it is said, was "The Social Network", but there Fincher (director) and Sorkin (writer) did have a moral, even if it was one the Zuckerberg character was destined not to understand. Here, everyone valued the real Assange's understanding too much. No wonder Wikileaks' answer to "The Fifth Estate", a documentary called "Mediastan" and released the same week as the DreamWorks movie, proportionally outperformed the bigger film: Assange was more than willing to use bias for dramatic effect. Why didn't anyone send that memo to Bill Condon?

Parade's End [DVD]
Parade's End [DVD]
Dvd ~ Benedict Cumberbatch
Offered by A2Z Entertains
Price: £4.85

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving Portrait of a Man Dedicated to Ideals Not of his Century, 19 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Parade's End [DVD] (DVD)
**Some Spoilers**
Like "Downton Abbey" (but, in this viewer's opinion, much better), "Parade's End" intends to show how the British upper class took to the advent of the 20th-century with its changing values and mores. But whereas "Downton" presents those struggles largely through plot manipulation (hence the disparaging comment that it's often a costumed soap opera), "Parade's End" is first and foremost a character study. Like the Ford Madox Ford novels from which it was adapted (by the great Tom Stoppard), the five-part series focuses on Christopher Tietjens, a blockish man whose dedication to keep to the ideals that his gentried family has represented for generations, renders him tragically immobile in the face of domestic drama and German artillery. What consistently saves him is that, though we would describe his world-view as 'Tory', those conservative ideals used to have, at heart, a great and noble--a truly liberal--humanity. Tietjens is, in his own way, a great man, a fact finally recognized publicly only in the last act.

I expect most people know of Benedict Cumberbatch these days because of ubiquitous celebrity buzz. Physically he seems an odd choice to play a man Ford describes as "an ox", "a bag of blood". Though the Sherlock cheekbones are mitigated a bit by some weight gain, he is still a fit specimen--and Stoppard, who very much wanted him for the role, kept in frequent references to Tietjens' blockishness. But it works. And it does so largely because of the way Cumberbatch plays him: there is a heaviness to him, an unyielding quality that comes partly from his innate stoicism and again from the way duty and circumstances weigh him down. If, as Sherlock, he is all hands and eyes, cerebral, moving as fleet as the speed of thought, here Cumberbatch is rooted like the oak at the ancestral home, heaviness in the shoulders and thighs, a body inert. You can feel the energy that, as Tietjens, it requires the actor to lift an arm, to get out of a chair, the more so because a very bad marriage has trapped him with a woman who tells him of her spite, goads him with her plans for future villainy. One wants so much for Tietjens to lash out--indeed, as Stoppard has depicted her, so does his wife--but those 18th-century ideals which are his very bone and blood keep him buried alive.

Rebecca Hall does a creditable job as Sylvia, the wife, trapped as much as he is by the morals of a previous century. She lacks a sort of predatory vampish glamour one expects of the character; it's as if Hall can't quite live up to the costumes she's been given. But Sylvia too is defined by her body and its needs and, though she acts on them as a much more modern woman might, she suffers like her husband from the pull of an older moral code. It's his forgiveness and acceptance she needs to mitigate her suffering--the blessings of an 'ancien regime'--but his only response, having been shamed by her and driven from her bedroom, is resignation. When she cuts down the old oak, she is acting out on the landscape what she has done to the man. But Stoppard shows us that was never her intent: her conflict is defined by that oak onto which locals have always hung bright and silly trinkets for good luck. Tietjens treasures the oak for what he values in himself--and that includes the bits of magpie bright which he shares with the locals. Sylvia can only see them as tragic and cheap--and yet, metaphorically, those fragments of hope are precisely what she needs to evoke in the man himself to get the response she tries for, unsuccessfully, with vitriol.

The only magpie bright in Tietjens' life is Valentine Wannop, a spunky suffragette. Played by Adelaide Clemens (who is a dead ringer for Michelle Williams), she is petite and lively, smiling and girlish. Though she does some speechifying which is meant to remind us of her intelligence, she is altogether too small for the role--and too little to be so important to Tietjens as Cumberbatch plays him. Valentine must be the reason he goes through the quiet desperation of every day, the home fire that lights his sufferings in the cold and deadly trenches at the Front. Though Clemens is game--a perfect P.E. instructor, as is her job--she is not radiant. They share two heart-rending moments: the first on a hillside after an adventurous morning lost in a fog when he sees her as the might-have-been and sobs into the neck of his horse; the second, the turning point of the series, when he has decided--with her full encouragement but so radically alien to his rigorous ethics--to make her his mistress, and yet circumstances of the evening and his immediate deployment defer even that hope for a kind of happiness. In both of these scenes, Clemens falls just short of being the kind of woman who could bring light to that self-imposed darkness in which Tietjens labours.

The cinematic sweep of the visuals and the costumes and characters will satisfy the "Downton" fans (Warning: you'll be a bit lost at the end of the first episode: director Susanna White includes the introduction of a few too many scenes and characters which, I believe, accounts for the series being underrated; all will be solved--you'll wonder why you were confused--on a second viewing) and the subtle investigation of this man, an Englishman of the best type who finds himself at the end of the 'parade' that has been Britain at her glorious best from the 1700's to the 1900's, will engage the more literary of viewers. I believe it's been written that Cumberbatch is in almost every scene, so intense a character study is it. Current celebrity aside, the series is his to carry and he does it admirably. "Sherlock" fans will be disappointed; he disappears into this role as he so often does and there is no overlap between the two characters. Tom Stoppard has said they wanted Cumberbatch before his fame but had hoped that the current buzz would attract more viewers. So, highly invested in this production, he would visit the set every day and be disappointed in not seeing Cumberbatch give it something over the top. And then, he says, he saw what the actor had done, close up and on the small screen, and he was overwhelmed. I am too.

Sherlock - Series 3 [DVD]
Sherlock - Series 3 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Benedict Cumberbatch
Offered by A2Z Entertains
Price: £6.73

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed, Compared to S1&2, But Still Much Better Than Most TV--MARCH 8, 2014, 29 Oct. 2013
This review is from: Sherlock - Series 3 [DVD] (DVD)

As I've mulled over what went wrong for me with Series 3, it all comes back to how Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss seem to have let slide their own creation. I've read so much, particularly from Moffat, about how he intended from the first to have his Sherlock be 'dark' and 'Byronic'; Season 1, Episode 1, set that archetype up perfectly. If you go back to look at that intense 12 minutes or so of the cabbie and Sherlock facing off in the educational institute, it fairly throbs. Sherlock is masterful and truly Byronic, with his coat thrown back and his face etched in overhead light in close-up. It's a scene guaranteed to rivet your attention--tense, dark, with something really at stake: not just Sherlock's life, if he trusts his intelligence and takes the pill, but something of his reputation as well, as the cabbie taunts him about his 'real addiction'. (Compare it to the stumbling, drugged scene between Sherlock and the cabbie staged at 221B in the unaired pilot, and the brilliance of the scene in S1E1 will be illuminated.) Watch his cruelty as Jeff Hope lies near death, and Sherlock, desperate to know the name of the man who follows his exploits but is so much 'more' than he is, pushes with his full weight on the gunshot wound until Hope cries out "Moriarity!" with his dying breath. Sherlock, wasting not a moment for human suffering, doesn't even look down but breathes the name with a pensive, almost pleased, look on his face. That was drama! (And, I maintain, the cruelty evinced from the very first predicts accurately and directly the seeming viciousness of Sherlock's actions at the conclusion of "His Last Vow": having made the vow to protect John and Mary at all costs, and having been outplayed by the villainous Magnusson, he does what a different but equally desperate character does to Milverton in the canon--he shoots him dead. Cumberbatch, at the recent iTunes/Apple Store panel discussion, said, rightly, you're not supposed to love Sherlock; he is not a nice man.) I discovered "Sherlock" for the first time just last October, but I fell in love with everyone connected to that show--actors, writer, director, cinematographer--all in that moment at the end of Episode 1.

So I tolerated S3E1 even with the excessive amount of fanservice because it was cute and clever, though, as others have said, it was a shame to waste even one episode on so much comedy when we have so few and have to wait so long for them. There was, however, something meaningful at stake: John's two years of suffering. And Sherlock was just cruel enough, just enough of a 'cock' as John calls him at the end, to make the viewer forget how little plot there was. I gave the writers that one and was suitably intrigued when, as John and Sherlock talked before meeting the press in front of 221B, the latter's response to John's question, "Are you ever going to tell me [us] how you really did it?" was, "You know my methods, John. I'm indestructible." I like the whiff of superhero in there--and it was true at the original Reichenbach Falls too. [Since then I've read that Moftiss intended perhaps a bit of the supernatural as well: John 'prays' at the tombstone, "Please, for me, just one more miracle. Don't be dead." And the camera pans to a live Sherlock, as if the 'prayer' conjured him. Someday someone should tackle a thesis on the Christ motif in "Sherlock" . . . . ]

But so many things went wrong with "The Sign of Three"--and most of them, regrettably, are attributable to Moffat (who wrote the best man's speech) and Gatiss (who wrote the drunken slapstick). [And I should note here I'm NOT Moffat-bashing; elsewhere I wrote a review of "A Scandal in Belgravia", called him 'the real genius of Baker Street', and his episodes have always been my favourites.] To figure out why I was so upset (that I wrote one of the 1200 Guardian comments the night it aired--watching illegally over here in Toronto), I went back to that other dark and iconic scene from the second series: Sherlock's confrontation with Moriarity on the roof of St. Barts. After having been called disappointingly "ordin'ry" by Moriarity throughout this episode, Sherlock circles his archenemy--and mirror--and speaks two lines which should've found their way into the quotable quotes of film and TV along with Jack Nicholson's famous "Do you want to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" from '89's "Batman". Sherlock says, "If you want to shake hands with me in Hell, I shall not disappoint," and "Though I may act on the side of the angels, do not think for one moment I am one of them." (Cue dungeon-like clink of iron and sun flare obscuring Cumberbatch's face while we digest the magnitude of those statements and the true darkness of this unworldly man.) Moriarity certainly no longer thinks he's ordin'ry and takes his own life to prevent the greater darkness that is Sherlock from prising from him the callback codes. (Again, we are not supposed to like Sherlock; in so many ways, he barely lives in our world. And his use? Well, as Mycroft says in "His Last Vow", Sherlock is a dragonslayer and "Here Be Dragons". )

But then what to make of the bumbling and often too sentimental best man who burbles that 'John is the bravest and wisest man he has ever known' (echo of John's forgiving Sherlock in the underground carriage scene--though those words actually were canon), that John is a man who actually knows how to 'do stuff,' and whom he cannot commend on his choice of companions when Sherlock alone is the companion of choice? But I quite literally cringed--and still do--when Sherlock called himself "a ridiculous man". Only in the "ordin'ry" world--which he dramatically and at substantial risk proved he was not of on the roof of St. Barts--would that be true. It is NOT (and never will be) true of the black-coated, Byronic, dark-hearted supersleuth Moffat said he was creating. So those words were written (by Moffat) for the wedding guests and, by extension, for the ordin'ry people who line up for Cumberbatch's autograph and write Johnlock Tumblr blogs.

How did we get here, only a short episode since the decidedly otherworldly Sherlock of "The Reichenbach Fall"? I don't know. I heard Moffat say, when he first read in Conan Doyle that Holmes had become engaged to the housekeeper in order to infiltrate Charles Augustus Milverton's home and then it was just dropped--no apology or explanation, he felt, as a 12-year-old, betrayed. And he rectified that with Janine's tabloid revenge in "His Last Vow". That's how I feel about much of "The Sign of Three": betrayed. And yet Moffat has said he violated the character of his own supersleuth because he thought, if John got married (canon), there was no one else but Sherlock who'd have given the best man's speech "and it must've been hysterical" (ditto the slapstick stag pub crawl and its aftermath, I guess). I feel as if I need to rewrite S3E2 for the same reason Moffat had to provide what he considered to be a more fitting end for Holmes' engagement.

But I do like much of "His Last Vow". Written by Moffat, it has many dark moments and something surely is at stake. For those who insist the show should mostly be about Sherlock's growth as a human being, it has that--including his fight for life when the hallucination of mad Moriarity accidentally pulls him back from death "where no one will ever bother you again" by mentioning John's future peril with that dangerous wife--without rendering Sherlock weak or commonplace. It is true that John too easily ignores and forgives his wife's past--as Magnusson says, Mary's a much bigger villain than he is; after all, he's never killed anyone. And the 4 minutes of Sherlock's exile isn't enough for the magnitude of his decision to kill (though Mycroft's "Well, I hope you learned your lesson" rings true to the series). The 'dragon' Moffat and Gatiss have brought back at the very end of the 3rd episode had better be worth the quick return of England's William Sherlock Scott St. George Holmes or this particular fan, who wants to again admire the heightened reality of S1 & S2 when so much was always at stake, might have to turn to something American and much more "Elementary" for a Holmes fix (whereof there are few enough fans to service).
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