Sunday, January 30, 2011

Films Worth Seeing: "Passchendaele"



Once in a while I like to highlight independent or international films that I’ve seen and liked, but that I feel are little known, especially in the United States. My hope is that someone will read about the film and seek it out.
 
I recently saw the Canadian film “Passchendaele” (2008).  The film was produced, written, and directed by Paul Gross.  Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Gross also stars in the film.  Before watching this film I had only seen Paul Gross in two mostly comedic roles, most recently the greatly funny Canadian TV series  “Slings and Arrows”, and in the American/Canadian 1990’s TV series, “Due South”.



Here are a few introductory facts about the film that I didn’t know before I watched it. According to Wikipedia, The Battle of Passchendaele or Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917) was one of the major battles of the First World War between the troops under British command (including the Canadian Corps) and the Imperial German Army. The battle was for control of the village of Passchendaele (Passendale) in Belgium.   The film revolves in part around the Canadian Corp’s key part in this battle. Another very interesting bit of information I didn’t know before watching the film is that Mr. Gross's grandfather, Michael Dunne, was a soldier in World War I and fought in this battle. The film was inspired by his grandfather’s stories.

The media in the U.S. hardly ever mentions the First World War.  If you came down from another planet and watched the History Channel you would think that history began with World War II.  This movie is a small reminder of that war and of the contribution of our Canadian neighbors.



The movie is a very traditional war time love story in many ways.  A soldier is injured (Paul Gross as Sergeant Michael Dunne) and he’s nursed back to health by an attractive nurse (Caroline Dhavernas as Sarah Mann), and they fall in love.  Because he went inexplicably AWOL after demonstrating bravery in the opening battle scene, our hero Michael is diagnosed with neurasthenia, a word you rarely hear these days, but known more generally as shell shock.  On the brink of court martial he is saved by a concerned officer and put to work recruiting more soldiers for the front.

 The soldier and the nurse meet again of course back in a small Canadian town, but the road to love is not a smooth one due to her immature and conflicted brother David, and the secret of what happened to their father.  Oh, and I must mention that conflicted younger brother David (Joe Dinicol) is also an asthmatic which keeps him from entering the war.  Along the way the script throws in its share of social commentary, which would work if better written, but just seems thrown in as an obligation. Of course, there has to be a way for Michael to return to the war and the Battle of Passchendaele, and it’s because of love and a promise he makes to Sarah.
   
I wish I could say that the dialog was inspirational, and the performances riveting, but sadly that’s not the case.  The plot and the love story are for the most part pretty predictable.  Gross and Dhavernas do acceptable work as the war time lovers, especially after the awkward flirting scenes are through.   Unfortunately for Dinicol as David his story is never believable as anything more than a plot tool to create conflict between Michael and Sarah, and again, to give a reason for Michael to get back to the front.

The film does have a romantic old fashioned feel that despite all the plot and acting problems make the movie very watchable.  I also have to give a special mention to the beautiful scenery of Calgary, Alberta, where the home front scenes were filmed.   It’s really the beautiful mountains and rivers that inspire love.



For me the most dramatically successful parts of the film were the battle scenes at the beginning and in almost all the last quarter of the film.  There’s little dialog, only grey and desolate ground, and the faces and raw emotions of the actors at their best.  Considering that the budget must have been a fraction of what’s spent on your average Hollywood film, the scenes of war successfully immerse the audience in the mud and mire and confusion and madness of trench warfare.



Though not a film that will be included among the list of outstanding war films, it will make you think about the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who were part of what was once called “the war to end all wars.”     


   

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Once Upon a Time with Sinead Cusack



Most Richard Armitage fans know Sinead Cusack for her unforgettable performance as Hannah Thornton in the BBC's 2004 series "North and South".  When I first was lucky enough to watch "North and South" on US TV (aired only once in 2005!) I remembered the name first, and then slowly the face, as someone familiar. You see I once was more than lucky to see Sinead Cusack on stage back in 1985 in the US city I call home.



We're lucky enough in my part of the world to get visits from touring companies from the UK, usually The National Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company.  When I was younger I seemed to have more spare time somehow, and also the tickets were not as expensive as now, and I used to go to the theater from time to time. Imagine my delight when I saw that one of my favorite plays, "Cyrano de Bergerac", would be in town with a great actor I new  and loved well from  US Public Television (PBS) and "I, Claudius", Derek Jacobi.  The only thing I knew about Ms. Cusack before seeing her on stage was her marriage to another wonderful UK actor, Jeremy Irons.  On reading the program and actors bios that evening I was impressed to learn that Sinead Cusack came from an illustrious acting family and was the daughter of Cyril Cusack who I also remembered from many classic movies. (I think you know by now I'm a bit of an Anglophile.)



You may wonder how I remember all of this so many years later, and especially Sinead Cusack as Roxane. Well, remember that "Cyrano" is one of my favorite plays and I've seen the play in different film and TV incarnations and also on stage various times, but that night and that performance by Mr. Jacobi and Ms. Cusack is in my heart and mind as one of the most wonderful performances of the play and most moving and satisfying nights at the theater I've ever had. I don't remember every minute of course, but I can close my eyes and still remember the final scene and the two of them alone on stage.

The production was also filmed and aired on UK TV sometime in 1985.  Below is a scene with Derek Jacobi as Cyrano and Sinead Cusack as Roxane:




Fast forward years later to be lucky enough to see Sinead Cusack in another wonderfully moving performance as John Thornton's (Richard Armitage) strong,willful, loving, mother Hannah in "North and South". Here's a scene between Hannah Thornton and Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe):




I think it must be a challenge to actors to portray the many layers of  emotions and history between a mother and adult son or daughter. The fine tuned and multi-layered performances of Mr. Armitage and Ms. Cusack  are perfect in showing the love and respect between them, but also the challenge for the mother, Hannah, to let go of John's exclusive affection and John's fine balance between pursuing the woman he loves, Margaret, and maintaining loyalty to his mother.  There's not a moment in this series when you can catch either of them "acting" but rather fully feeling and living their roles.



Thank you for letting me share my stroll down memory lane today.  Hope it will encourage all of us to learn more about Sinead Cusack's  illustrious career.



Thank you to RichardArmitageNet and others for photos and screencaps.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Being Human" in the USA


From the moment I heard the news about a US version of the UK BBC series "Being Human" I had doubts that it would work.  I'll admit to a certain bias since I'm a fan of the UK series I'm lucky to be able to watch on BBC America. What makes this drama/comedy/horror series so compelling and wonderful to follow is the charm and skill of the three lead actors. The charm makes it possible for the audience to fall in love with George (the werewolf), Mitchell (the vampire) and Annie (the ghost). Because we like them so, we forgive the horror that we sometimes witness when one of our supernatural friends falls off the "being human" wagon. We always have hope they'll continue their quest to be good citizens again.



Unfortunately none of what I've just said above applies to the new US version. I've just finished viewing Episode 1  of the new Being Human US on the SyFy channel and really don't know where to being on all that is wrong with this series in comparison with the original.  I hope for the actors sake and the investment that has been made by all concerned that future episodes will be better, but I don't plan to watch the series after tonight.

So forgive me if my review is just a list in no particular order of what is wrong with the US Being Human in comparison with the UK series. I know if you haven't seen the British version my list may not make much sense, but I hope it will encourage all to watch the BBC series instead of this sad new version:

1.  No Russell Tovey! This wonderful actor plays werewolf George in the UK series and he is the anchor of the series.  Our werewolf, Josh, is a scary mess, but the actor lacks the considerable comedic and dramatic talents of his UK counterpart. Even so, he's the best actor of the three!!!!!!
2.  There's absolutely no chemistry between the two guys! Another thing that makes the UK series work is the wonderful chemistry between the two misfits: vampire and werewolf. Without the audience believing the deep friendship between these two, the bromance if you will, there is no series.
3. Both US guys look too much alike. There were times when they were together I couldn't tell them apart.
4. The actor who plays our neighborhood  sexy US vampire looks like a thug from the Sopranos cast.
5.  Naming the vampire character Aidan, is not going to help at all, since the actor who plays the US vampire is no Aidan Turner (Mitchell). He lacks the charm, sweetness and vulnerability of Mr. Turner, and without that  it will be difficult for the audience to find any forgiveness for the evil things his character will do when falling "off the (blood drinking) wagon".
6.  US vampire Aidan is not nearly as good looking as UK vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner). Lacks that Turner smile!
7.  The young woman who plays the US ghost, Sally, needs immediate remedial acting lessons. Looking good and no acting talent may be enough for a commercial, but it's not enough to make this ghost come alive.
8. Though this may not be entirely her fault since they've given her the most annoying dialog of the three roles. Instead of  warm and loving UK ghost Annie (Lenora Crichlow), we get annoying, selfish, teenage girl-ghost Sally.
 9. Bishop is  the US version of Vampire leader Herrick. Instead of being scary, dangerous,manipulative, and unpredictable, which makes the UK character ( actor Jason Watkins) so much fun to hate, we get a character that feels like an over-the-hill rock star that just happens to drop in on the set.
10. Bishop gives off no menacing vibes at all and Marcus, his second in command, barely registers.
11. There seems to be  a great deal of emphasis on  the fact the US werewolf, Josh, is Jewish. Maybe because the writers felt a US show needed some religious reference for the audience?  I’m not sure why.
12.  There's a great deal of  dark humor in the UK series from the fact that vampire and werewolf work as orderlies in a hospital.  At least in this first episode the US series seems to miss the dark humor element entirely.

I'm sure the young American actors are trying their best to make this copy of a great UK series work. Maybe in other roles, in another series, they would be fine and I would enjoy their performances. Not so in this American "Being Human".  Not for me at least.

For more about the UK Being Human click HERE.

UPDATE 2/9/11: Season 3 of  the original UK Being Human will begin airing on BBCAmerica February 19 for eight weeks.  For more information on the series, air dates, etc. click HERE.


Good to know someone agrees with me:

In the US, watch the new season of Being Human on BBCAmerica starting February 19.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Eyes Have It




Yes, I'm playing with videos again.

My parents were great fans of Ella Fitzgerald and I grew up listening to her music. A voice like no other. I still uphold the family tradition and listen to Ella, especially when feeling blue. Listening to her version of the song "Angel Eyes" I thought about how television is such an intimate medium and how great actors use the slightest change in their eyes to convey so much emotion.

Of course when thinking about actors and the "eyes as a window to the soul" I thought of Richard Armitage and Lucas North, the role he played so vividly in the series "Spooks" (MI-5).  Below is my video tribute to Mr. Armitage and his expressive eyes:



Thank you for watching.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Hobbit Poll Results - Sexy Middle-Earth Dwarves Win

Happy New Year Everyone!

Poll results are in for Sexy Middle-Earth Dwarves versus Traditional Middle-Earth Dwarves in The Hobbit movie and the results are as follows:

41%  voted for Sexy Dwarves



35% voted to trust Peter Jackson's Decision 

  23% voted to stay true to Tolkien's Vision 



For further information on this important issue see the right hand column. Thank you very much to all who voted. 



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