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Tag Archives: historical-fiction

Hart’s War (2002): Pyrrhic Victory

Hart’s War (Gregory Hoblit, 2002)

[originally posted 7Mar2002]

Willis and Farrell's faces adorn the movie poster.

In 2002, Bruce Willis was the front, and Colin Farrell was the back. Can you imagine?
photo credit:

Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Fallen) gives us the latest film in his inconsistent career with Hart’s War. Hollywood has a storied history of trying, and failing in spectacular fashion, to adapt John Katzenbach novels to the big screen effectively. While Hart’s War isn’t as stellar a failure as Mean Season, it’s not much to write home about, either.

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Henderson’s Spear (2002): Aruba, Jamaica, Ooh I Wanna Take Ya

Ronald Wright, Henderson’s Spear (Henry Holt, 2002)

[originally posted 8Mar2002]

A native woman stares directly from the book's cover at the reader.

Target practice.
photo credit: Goodreads

Liv Wyvern has a problem (well, aside from that of having been beaten up every day after school for having a name like Liv Wyvern). She’s in jail in Tahiti on suspicion of murder, having gone down to track down her father, who’s been MIA since the Korean War. She’s recently been tracked down by her twenty-two-year-old daughter, whom she gave up for adoption shortly after her birth, and is now attempting to write a letter to that daughter explaining the life that is Liv and, in no small part, her extended family. Coincidentally, a few years back, she also found in the basement of her ancestral home a number of notebooks penned by a man with some connection to the family (no one really knows what)—Frank Henderson, who journeyed the Pacific himself with Princes George and Eddy back in the 1880s. There has always been a good bit of scandal attached to Eddy (aside from that supposed Ripper business), and a lot of it centered on a possible side trip Eddy and George made to certain Pacific islands…

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Galileo (1952): Revolver

Bertolt Brecht, Galileo (Grove Press, 1952)

[originally posted 7Jan2002]

A bust of the man adorns the cover of the trade paperback.

Set in stone.
photo credit: Amazon

Publishers who put out “literature” (perhaps I should capitalize the L) have felt it necessary for the past half-century or so to include long-winded dissections of the texts as a part of their editions. No mind is paid, seemingly, to whether these long-winded dissections contain major plot spoilers (they almost always do). Add Eric Bentley’s interminable preface to the Grove Press edition of Brecht’s Galileo to the list. Perhaps Grove assumes anyone reading the thing will either have already read the play or will be so turned off by Bentley’s wooden prose style that they won’t read far enough to get to the spoilers. My advice: go the second route. And book publishers, if you’re putting essays in your editions, PLEASE put them AFTER the actual text, so the novice reader of a given work will be able to approach it without the coloring of another reader’s analysis.

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The Patriot (2000): Braveheart vs. Redcoat, with Expected Results

The Patriot (Roland Emmerich, 2000)

[originally posted 4Apr2001]

Mel Gibson is so dominant in this poster it might as well be called "Mel Gibson and... well, a few other people."

At least he didn’t call it The Last Temptation of Washington.
photo credit: Wikipedia

I’m not sure why I’m mildly surprised this movie wasn’t nearly as good as Braveheart. After all, Roland Emmerich was the brain behind such wondrous projects as Godzilla (1998) and Universal Soldier. Hoo boy. That said, it’s quite amazing that the thing manages to come off as well as it does. The main reason it does is Jason Isaacs, who plays William Tavington, the sleazy British colonel who serves as Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson)’s nemesis. (Did Isaacs look familiar to you? He delivered the immortal “C minus” line in Armageddon—one of the few lines in that movie that made it worth watching.)
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Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999): Everyone’s Said It All Already

Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutton, 1999)

[originally posted 5Jun2001]

Vermeer's painting cits atop the book title and a skyline on the cover.

A painting, a city, a time.
photo credit:

To date, I’ve read only one bad review of this slight novel, and a whole lot of excellent ones. I’m casting my vote on the excellent side. Chevalier took one of Vermeer’s best-known and most enigmatic paintings and built a story around it (there are a series of these novels; Joyce Carol Oates’ I Lock My Door Upon Myself is the only other one I’ve read, and it is similarly excellent). Griet, a sixteen-year-old from the Protestant side of the tracks, becomes the maidservant of the Vermeers after a kiln accident forces her father out of a job, and the story alternately skips between the various tensions within the Vermeer household and Griet’s courting by a somewhat ham-handed, if well-meaning, butcher. It’s subject matter that could have (and has) been screwed up in too many ways to imagine, but Chevalier pulls it off by keeping the prose spare and letting the silences speak most of the necessary lines. ****

Elizabeth (1998): Fool for a Day, Queen for a Lifetime

Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998)

[originally posted 22Oct2000]

A weirdly-eyeless Cate Blanchett dominates the DVD cover, a smaller version of the film poster.

Was Elizabeth undead, or did she just have no pupils?
photo credit: Amazon

I half-figured I wasn’t going to get what everyone else saw in this film when my reaction to the first scene was “okay, I like burning bodies as much as the next guy, but what did that have to do with the story?” And variations on that theme never really left me as the story unfolded. I wondered while picking this up how even a fraction of the tale of Elizabeth’s rise to power could be depicted in two hours; for some reason I’d thought this movie was almost twice that long. And perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or perhaps this film requires repeated viewings to really grasp its brilliance. Or, maybe, it’s a chick flick. (Check the ratings breakdown at Suddenly I don’t feel nearly as bad about not liking this as much as everyone else seemed to.)
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Summer of Sam (1999): Dogs, They Really Excite Me

Summer of Sam (Spike Lee, 1999)

[originally posted 19Jun2000]

photo credit:


Spike Lee, phone home. Where is the man who was able to mix militant political views with fantastic drama to give us School Daze and Do the Right Thing, two of the best films ever made? I don’t know where he went, but the shadow left in his wake who’s handed us the last bunch of godawful films with Lee’s name on them ain’t the same guy. Hopefully, Summer of Sam is the nadir, and he can get back to being himself. For one thing, in the early days, Lee’s acting was always one of the highlights of his films, and in Summer of Sam, it’s almost as if he was trying his best to act badly. (If so, he succeeded in fine form.) And forget that there might have been any other explanation for the killings (Lee obviously did). Add in a plot about the ways that peoples’ opinions change about one another and how fickle “loyalty” can be and you have all the makings of a disaster. The worst part is, this is stuff that Lee handled more than capably in his better films, and one is left wondering whether to blame the director or the scriptwriters for the mess this film is. I’m content to place the blame at half and half and hope Lee pulls himself out of the slump he’s been in. * ½



Bonus video! In case you didn’t get the subtitle ref.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000): Bedanken

Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)

[originally posted 15Feb2001]

photo credit: Wikipedia

Man, this is one of the great posters. Perfect for the tone of the film.

Elias Merhige’s first film, Begotten, is one of Nicolas Cage’s favorite movies. So when Cage started up his production company and financed his first flick, he called Merhige. He had other reasons, of course, but the rather tenuous connection has caused a number of people who have seen both movies to ask why Merhige came out of semi-retirement (and a lucrative business designing stage sets and directing creepy videos for Marilyn Manson) to work on a film that’s as commercially accessible as Begotten was commercially deadly?
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La Masseria Delle Alledolle (The Lark Farm) (2007): Treading the Bounds of Taste, Badly

La Masseria Delle Alledolle (Paolo and Vittorio Traviani, 2007)


photo credit:

Love in the Time of… Genocide?

You’d think it would be tough to go wrong with a movie that has Paz Vega (Hable con Ella) and Moritz Bleibtreu (Lola Rennt) as the top-billed stars, with a stellar supporting cast including such folks as Alessandro Preziosi (Loose Cannons), Arsinée Khanjian (Ararat), Tchéky Karyo (The Patriot), Hristo Shopov (The Passion of the Christ), André Dussolier (Amélie), and Ángela Molina (Cet Obscur Objet du Désir). And yet the Taviani Brothers (Kaos) seem to have done exactly that; they took a novel about the Armenian genocide of 1915 and turned it into… a romance. You can see where problems might arise here.

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Well, there’s the genocide…

Nunik (Vega) and Ferzan (Bleibtreu) are old friends. Ferzan’s got a crush, of course, but could never let her know, because she’s too good for him—her family is rich and famous, and he’s just a cop. Nunik is Armenian, Ferzan is Turkish. All of this is happening in 1915, while underground groups are whipping Turkish nationalism into a frenzy (where it still exists today; even referring to the Armenian genocide within the country’s borders can get you tossed in jail for the crime of “insulting Turkishness”. No, I’m not making this up: google Elif Shafak’s recent trial for that exact charge). Ferzan belongs to one of them, but as the language gets more and more violent, he starts thinking that perhaps he should warn Nunik’s family and get them the hell out of town to their country estate (the Lark Farm that gives the English-language release its name). He does this—and then word gets out, leading to a huge procession of ethnic Armenians trying to get out of the city to seek refuge in the Lark Farm at the same time the Turks are attempting an ethnic cleansing. Panic, of course, ensues.

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…and there’s the love. Score!

…and on top of all this, we have this romance subplot. I’m sure you can see where that was a good idea.

Still, I have to give it that the directors, while taking every possible step wrong they could, are good at what they do, and it would be well-nigh impossible to mask the quality of this cast, so it’s not a completely painful viewing experience (and one can never have too much Paz Vega)—but it is wrong in just about every way, and will leave you wondering what you just watched, and possibly why. ** ½