Week 14 of 2019 (4/1 – 4/7)

4/2A Man for All Seasons1966
4/3The Last Days of Anne Boleyn
Henry VII: The Winter King
4/4King Lear1998
4/6Beyond Sherwood Forest2009
4/7Black Death2010

April 1

Day 91 of the 2019 Movie Challenge! We start off April by watching a film full of fools, or at least foolish choices. 1964’s Becket is a historical drama, adapted from the stage play by Jean Anouilh, with Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket. The two have a falling out after the king names Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, which causes Becket to have a religious reawakening and oppose the king’s power.

This was an interesting film. A little overacted, but that was kind of the style at the time. The film starts at the end, with Henry kneeling before Becket’s tomb and setting up the flashback. Becket is foolish in appeasing his king to the detriment of his deaconship in the church. Then the king is foolish in not only naming Becket his Lord Chancellor, but then making him Archbishop thinking that Becket would do whatever he wanted. From there, the relationship really goes off the rails leading to the unfortunate conclusion.

Both Burton and O’Toole are really solid in these roles, being the theatre veterans they both were. I will say that O’Toole as Henry II had a facial hair setup that made him look like Peter Sellers playing Fu Manchu, and that made me laugh. But he was great at playing the king not unlike a petulant child, raging whenever he didn’t get his way. It’s a great forerunner to future king portrayals by a number of other actors. Burton is great as Becket as well, playing a guy who is just trying to both protect his king and temper his friend’s frivolous tendencies (not to mention his own). It’s a long movie to sit through, but the pace actually works well to make the time go quickly enough. You might consider pairing this with O’Toole’s other outing as Henry II, 1968’s The Lion in Winter.

April 2

Day 92 of the 2019 Movie Challenge! Following on the heels of yesterday’s period drama, we’ve got 1966’s A Man for All Seasons, which won the multiple Oscars, including Best Picture. Paul Scofield stars in his Oscar-winning turn as Sir Thomas More, councillor and friend to Henry VIII.

Much like Becket which we watched yesterday, the two have a falling out over the King’s push against the Church. In this instance, Henry VIII wants to divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn and even coerces Parliament to split off the Church in England from the authority of Rome and create it as a church unto itself, with the King as its head. More tries to actually not say anything openly against the king, which the king takes as an insult, because More also won’t vocally support him. And as you might expect, the usual happens when one man with no support tries to go against the wishes of a king…

I enjoyed this movie. Paul Scofield was riveting as Thomas More, simultaneously taciturn yet jovial at times. I liked his interplay with Wendy Hiller (playing his wife Alice) and Susannah York (playing his daughter, Margaret). Robert Shaw of Jaws fame was also great as Henry VIII, although you see very little of him. Likewise with Olson Welles, who has a few scenes in the beginning as Cardinal Wolsey. This film is also notable for being of John Hurt’s first major film roles, playing the obsequious and conniving Richard Rich. If you haven’t seen this piece, this would be good thematically with Becket.

April 3

Day 93 of the 2019 Movie Challenge! Today we’re staying in that Tudor period of the last couple of days with a pair of documentaries covering different people in that period.

First up is 2013’s The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, a BBC doc that talks about Henry VIII’s second wife and her rapid rise and fall. It combined several talking heads interspersed with some dramatizations for added impact. It fits nicely after watching A Man for All Seasons yesterday, because her marriage to the king was a driving force of that movie’s plot. I especially like that they actually discussed whether she may in fact have been truly guilty of the crimes for which she was executed.

Then we follow that with a documentary from that same year, Henry VII: The Winter King, based on the book by Thomas Penn. Penn himself hosts this documentary almost like a travelogue as he takes us from Henry Tudor’s arrival in Wales to the Battle of Bosworth to take the crown from Richard III (which ended the “Wars of the Roses”). Then he shows Henry VII’s action to secure both his lineage and his legacy by ensuring that his line would rule for generations to come. It’s not a tale that’s been told often, largely because his life has been overtaken in popularity by that of his son (Henry VIII) and granddaughter (Elizabeth I). I learned a lot and really enjoyed hearing the story.

April 4

Day 94 of the 2019 Movie Challenge! It appears we’re staying in old England with today’s film. This is a filmed production(-ish) of the National Theatre’s staging of King Lear back in 1998, with Ian Holm in the title role. When an old king decides to retire, his decision to divide his land and power amongst his daughters leads to no good… because two of them, honestly, are greedy and probably a little evil.

(This is not technically violating the rules of the challenge, because even though I’ve seen King Lear in several versions and read it a bunch, I’ve not seen this particular production before today.)

This is definitely a solid telling of this story. Ian Holm’s take is quite a bit different from some others I’ve seen. His ability to turn on a dime and completely change his demeanor has been put to good use in other films over the years, but fits Lear incredibly well. I’d also want to note great performances by Barbara Lynch, Amanda Redman and Victoria Hamilton as his daughters (Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, respectively).

The production design is also very interesting. Almost the entire first half (up until the famous storm scene) takes place in the same set — one room, bare but for a table and chairs, walls painted a deep red — with scenes kind of overlapping each other a bit, like you would see in some stage productions. Even the outdoors isn’t actually outdoors and they do a good job of conveying different terrain and effects within the limits of a sound stage. It was incredibly effective and speaks to the power of the words and the performers, able to build that sense of place without the visuals of props or set dressing. Great for a theatrical and made-for-public-TV budget. (Co-produced by the BBC and WGBH Boston). For comparison, check out the later co-production the BBC did with Amazon last year, this time with Anthony Hopkins in the role. Very different look, much more like a movie and set in a parallel, more present-day England, as well as a very different take on Lear. Both really good but in very different ways.

April 5

Day 95 of the 2019 Movie Challenge! Our medieval English wanderings continue with Ivanhoe, a 1982 adaptation of the classic novel by Sir Walter Scott. In 12th-century England, a Saxon-born knight returns from the Crusades and has to fight the local Norman lords to rescue his lady love… sound familiar? (More on that later.)

This is a very solid and entertaining movie. It has a number of actors I recognize and respect very much in various roles (including John Rhys-Davies, Stuart Wilson and Sam Neill as the villainous Norman knights) and a fast-paced story that didn’t really feel liked it dragged for any of its two-and-a-half hour length. There were some good elements of humor at points, although some of the bits didn’t quite land, right along side the drama and action. Screen legend James Mason is good as always, this time playing Isaac of York, a Jewish merchant whose place in the story points out some of the anti-Semitism that occurred in the world at the time (and, indeed, is still going on to some degree).

I saw the earlier 1952 film version (w/ a young Elizabeth Taylor in the cast) in my high school English class, and I’ll admit that I’ve still not yet read the book (written not in medieval times, but in 1820). It’s not often mentioned, but the book solidified the popular perceptions and aspects of Robin Hood. Robin of Locksley is a major character in the book and this movie. (Heck, Ivanhoe is badly injured and laid up in bed for about half the running time of the film!) The book helped establish the noble-born origin story seen in recent film versions of Robin Hood, including the ones starring Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe. King Richard shows up as well as he does in Robin Hood films, played in this film by Julian Glover, who most people today will possibly recognize from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The story that they tend to tell is essentially the plot of Ivanhoe with the characters of Ivanhoe and Locksley melded together.

In any case, this is a a great film to see. It has a slightly brighter tone than the one you may want to pair it with, 1981’s Excalibur. But for pairings, I’d match it with the 1991 TV movie version of Robin Hood with Patrick Bergin in the title role. (It couldn’t get a US theatrical release because of the Costner-led Prince of Thieves coming out that same summer.)

April 6

Day 96 of the 2019 Movie Challenge! Building off of yesterday’s pick, today’s movie is… nowhere near as good. 2009’s Beyond Sherwood Forest, a SYFY Original movie, features a fine cast of Canadian TV actors pretending to be British as they fight a shapeshifting hot girl and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I can’t fault the actors for this one. They did what they could with the material, which is almost Asylum-level. Budgets low, CGI cheap and accents fading in and out like crazy. Peter DeLuise does a good job directing this film overall, despite the flaws. The added supernatural elements really just seem pointless, but make sense since a) it’s the SYFY Channel, and b) Robin Hood’s various “adventures” have been scripted to death multiple times. There are probably any number of Robin Hood movies to watch instead of this, but if you’re short on your quota of bad movie watching…

April 7

Day 97 of the 2019 Movie Challenge! Today we finish up our medieval wanderings with the 2010 film Black Death. Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne star as a knight and monk who walk into a bar are sent to investigate a village that appears to completely untouched by… well, the title makes that plain. It’s set in 14th-century England, during the peak of their pandemic.

This movie was released in the US relatively close to the similarly-themed Nicolas Cage vehicle Season of the Witch. I suspect this may be the better of the two, which isn’t saying a lot. Sean Bean is always good on screen, and this character is not too different from his character of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, which premiered not long after this. (I’m actually rewatching the show in advance of the final season which starts next week.) Eddie Redmayne is good as Osmund, a monk torn between his faith in God and his love for a woman. This movie predates both his Oscar-winning turn in The Theory of Everything, which I watched in February, and his big breakout role in the TV miniseries The Pillars of the Earth.

Most of the rest of the film is rather clunky and dull. The plot is not terribly engrossing, although I’ve seen a lot worse. I’m not sure if there was a message in the story or where they were trying to go with it. The camera work feels a little clunky, especially in the fight scenes, with far too much handheld “shaky cam” for my comfort. You can skip this one if you like, unless you’re a major Redmayne or Bean fan and have to see everything they do.