Queen to Play

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In Queen to Play, Hèléne (Sandrine Bonnaire), a cleaning woman in Corsica develops a keen interest in chess when she sees a romantic couple playing on the terrace at the hotel where she sometimes works. Eventually, she convinces a curmudgeon Dr. Kroger (Kevin Klein), whom she also works for, to teach her to play chess.

The plot may not sound like anything special, but the film is due largely to Bonnaire’s performance. The film is strong because it avoids the usual choices. Hèléne’s marriage and work suffer because she plays chess, yet she doesn’t burn any bridges. Her husband may not understand her, but he isn’t a jerk and her marriage remains valuable, worth saving. The film is filled with absorbing scenes like when Helene dances with her rebellious daughter.

Netflix has Queen to Play

Sherlock: The Sign of Three

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Warning, readers: Spoilers below.

John Watson marries Mary Marston in this episode. Yet Sherlock in many ways overshadows the couple, as one would expect. While the secondary characters like Mrs. Hudson are excited for the couple most are worried about Sherlock. How will he handle this change in his friendship with Watson? I’d rather the big question surrounded solving a crime and capturing the criminal.

The episode did have its bright spots: the costumes were splendid as were the settings. I really liked the bright yellow walls in the place where the reception was held.

The episode started with Lestrade desperately trying to capture three elusive bank robbers. A series of scenes shows the police’s near misses over the course of a year. (Why wasn’t Sherlock brought in to help?) Just as Lestrade and his officers are about to make their arrest, he gets a text from Sherlock. “Help!” Though capturing these robbers is crucial to Lestrade, he decides to race over to 221 B Baker Street to help Sherlock. Since he thinks this plea indicates a dire emergency, Lestrade calls the station to send loads of officers over to 221 B.

But wouldn’t you know it was a big misunderstanding? Sherlock just needed a question about John’s wedding answered. If we hadn’t seen this sort of joke before it would be funny. The show’s done this before with John racing to Sherlock’s aid for a false alarm. While Sherlock’s behavior wouldn’t change, those around him would learn and would think twice before sounding the alarm or racing to him. Why didn’t Lestrade call first? He’s not an idiot.

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The show was uneven to me. Because of all the attention paid to the wedding and how Sherlock would cope, I felt the show was off kilter. The first crime we see involves the murder of a Royal Guard and that was undertaken mainly as a diversion to get the boys out of the house.

There were some scenes with Mycroft which seemed superfluous. Since the episode is entitled “The Sign of Three,” and does borrow characters’ names from “The Sign of Four, I’d hoped we’d see some version of the annoying, and humorous Abernathy Jones, whose in that novel. A modern Abernathy Jones could be hilarious or vexing and intrigue us all. We don’t need Mycroft in every story.

The crimes seem tacked on as if its a bother to deal with them, which shouldn’t be the case. They are the crux of the series. Jonathan Small, the murderer, has a personality and back story that’s paper thin. In the original there’s much more dimension to him.

The writers fill the time with sequences that wore out their welcome fast. I didn’t need to see a protracted stag party/pub crawl with Sherlock and Watson getting plastered. Sure, if you must, show them getting drunk, but do it quickly. The humor of the drunk stumbling around is of the lowest order. I can do without the cliché. Also, the wedding speech dragged on. Though it was interspersed with lots of flashbacks, it still dragged. The speech contained some touching moments and did provide some exposition, but it went on far too long.

After last week’s episode, “The Empty Hearse,” which was weighed down by nods to fans and fan fiction, this episode made me long for Jeremy Brett‘s Sherlock Holmes. While I’m fine with the idea of deviating from tradition, I do still want a good story and not a potentially good story hidden amongst easy gags. It seems like writers Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson, are drunk on the show’s popularity and have taken to writing to the giddier fans. I could excuse a fluffy episode like this if we weren’t limited to three Sherlocks a year.

Not to harp too much about the original, but in the novel, we do learn why John so loves Mary. He worries about whether he’s too poor for her as she’s the heir to a fortune. He describes her character and in the end he is able to propose. I have liked the character of Mary Marston played by Amanda Abbington does a fine job, but she doesn’t have much background. She’s a beautiful cheerful woman who doesn’t try to divide these friends, but there’s no sign of why John’s marrying this beautiful, cheerful woman rather than another. In the book, that was clear.

Sherlock, Jr.

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This week’s old movie* is Sherlock, Jr. with Buster Keaton. Though I’d heard Keaton’s name, I’ve never seen any of his films. The story is simple, Keaton plays a shy, awkward man. As the movie opens, the hero is proposing to his sweetheart. It’s all very proper. The funniest part is when she needs a magnifying glass to see the diamond. Soon this woe-begone fellow is overshadowed by a slick guy who drops by and wants Keaton’s girl. This guy frames Keaton making it seem like he’s stolen the girl’s father’s watch to buy the ring.

Later at work as a movie projectionist, the hero starts daydreaming as he watches the film he’s showing about a couple having trouble with their relationship. The story is simple and it’s a silent film so the strength is Keaton’s physical humor. There were several preposterous, hilarious scenes that are timeless. It’s a short film that still entertains.

Downton Abbey: Season 4, Episode 3

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I see Julian Fellows as still finding the story. I suppose it’s harder because history in 1922 isn’t providing a definite event to build a plot on. I still enjoy Downton, the acting is just superb, but last night we just saw life carrying on.

Anna was the main figure for me as she soldiers on after being raped by a servant from a visiting Lord. Though I’m sure it would entail great hardship, I do wish she heeded Mrs. Hughes’ advice and contacted the police. It’s a false dichotomy to assume that if she speaks up Mr. Bates will kill the rapist and get imprisoned again. I know that in this era women didn’t speak up, but some might have and I’d like to see how that process was conducted – even if it was patently unjust. How would the Crawley‘s and the servants respond? By keeping silent, Anna also cuts herself off from the support of those around her. For now she’s keeping Mr. Bates away because she feels “dirty.” Understandable, but to move back to the main house without allowing time to heal seems hasty.

I’m glad Mary rejected Lord Whoever’s proposal. It’s just too soon. There’s no urgency in getting married for her. Though the pool of available men is smaller due to the war, I’m sure Mary can find love in time.

I’m concerned about Edith signing whatever paper the editor Mr. Gregson gave her. Yes, he showed his worth by beating the card sharp and getting all the aristocrats’ debts cleared, but he seems to be up to something. The convoluted marriage problems with his wife who we’re told is mentally ill are so dubious.

Looks like Alfred may take a big test at the Ritz to get into their prestigious training program. Good for him. It did take his seeing Ivy kissing Jimmy to spur him to action.

Poor Tom has been ruminating on Edna’s assertion that she expects him to marry her if she’s pregnant. What a nightmare that would be! Good thing Tom was smart enough to turn to Mrs. Hughes who put Edna in her place and convinced her to leave. Mrs. Hughes is wonderful! Downton would not survive without her.

Looks like Rose will eventually get herself into romantic trouble. She was bound to from the start. Still we only have some hints. In London she was deserted on the dance floor when the black singer sprang into action and took his place. Rose was very impressed, while her chaperone Aunt Rosamund warned her to be careful. It would be good to see more of Lady Rosamund.

So a lot did happen, but for some reason the plot doesn’t have the same momentum.

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1

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Finally, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have returned after a too long Sherlock hiatus. Like all Sherlock fans I was eager to learn how on earth Sherlock survived. My book club read “The Empty House” this month in honor of Sherlock’s return and I’ve got some thoughts on that here.

PBS has a thorough synopsis here so I won’t offer one. I will have spoilers so watch the episode first online if you can.

I did like the parallels I noticed in the modern “The Empty Hearse” episode. While in the original, Sherlock doesn’t fall all the way down the falls and his death is faked, there’s a modern equivalent solution. This modern fall was also faked for the same reason: Moriarty and his cronies had to see Sherlock was dead. The screenwriters Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss accomplish this with a plot wherein Molly Hooper gets Sherlock a body to use to replace his corpse and a set up of 13 eventualities that have Watson’s view obstructed and manipulated. It’s clever and does work.

In the original story in which Roger Adair is murdered in a room that seems to not have been entered by an murderer. In the television show the screenwriter replaces the unentered room with a subway car that is entered but mysteriously exited. The last train leaves one station with a sole passenger, but that man has disappeared by the next stop. Quite clever.

I was delighted to see Sherlock, Watson, Molly, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson again. I welcome Mary, whom Watson is going to marry, as he was in the originals. However, there was one odd point in the story when she’s teasing John about shaving his mustache, which is just awful. The actress seems to take on Moriarty’s tics as she teases. It’s a bit odd and I blame the director – and I suppose the writer too.  I’d like to see Mary have her own career rather than just being Dr. Watson‘s assistant. It is 2013 after all. If John had the wherewithal to set up a practice and is bored with his work, he would have had the energy to date, maybe not the first year after Sherlock died, but later. So give him a girlfriend with her own profession.

I didn’t buy how Anderson, the forensic specialist who dislikes Sherlock, now has become a scraggly fan who leads a Sherlock groupies in conspiracy theory meetings. Also, I miss Moriarty. There will be a new villain, but Jim Moriarty was perfectly despicable and two seasons wasn’t enough.

I wish there was more time given to solving the crime and developing the character of this turncoat terrorist. He didn’t get so much as a line of dialog. A lot of time that was spent on jokes that winked at the fans could have been sacrificed to flesh out the criminal.

The scene on the subway when Sherlock and John must defuse the bomb was tense, but it whimpered at the end when Sherlock saved the day by simply flipping the off switch. Too far fetched for me.

I Was a Male War Bride

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The “old” movie I watched this week as part of my 2014 New Year’s resolution was I Was a Male War Bride starring Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan. Grant plays Henri, a French army officer, who must go on a mission with Catherine, an American officer. In true 1940s romantic comedy fashion, neither wants to go with the other and as they travel to find a German lens maker in a small town, they bicker continually, yet wittily, while encountering one mishap after another. In time they admit that their conflict is simply pent up sexual chemistry with a healthy dash of love, they decide to marry.

In occupied Germany after WWII, the newly married couple face a series of wacky bureaucratic problems when they set off for America on army transport. Theirs was a horrible and comical wedding night and honeymoon.

The film was rather dated and contrived. The actors did what could be done with the stilted story and I guess they were assigned by the studio to do this so so movie in a pre-TV era when new content had to be cranked out.

Imitation of Life

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Lana Turner, whose name I knew, though I’ve never seen her films, stars in Imitation of Life (1959), which shows the life of Lara Meredith a widow with a young daughter who aspires to become an actress. One day while at the beach, Lara loses Susie, her daughter. Frantic, she meets Steve, a photographer who helps her find Susie. I turns out Susie’s been with Annie, an African American woman with a fair skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who befriends Susie.

Since Annie and Sarah Jane are homeless, Lara takes them in. Although Lara’s struggling too, she shares her home with Annie, though not exactly equally. Annie becomes Lara’s nanny/housekeeper, which made sense in the era. One storyline is Lara’s career success. She (almost unbelievably) rises to the highest level of the film world. Because she is so busy with her career, she has no time for Steve, the handsome photographer who’s so good with Susie, Annie and Sarah Jane.

Sarah Jane and Annie

Sarah Jane and Annie

Another, more compelling storyline is Sarah Jane’s life. She distances herself from her mother from her youth. She refuses to go to school when her peers learn her mother’s Black. As a teen, she secretly dates a boy and hides her mother’s race from him. Sarah eventually runs away telling her mother not to look for her because she wants to live as a white person, which breaks her mother’s heart.

The film’s pretty good, but dated. I found the acting rather stilted, but certain directors have their actors speak in a very stately, stagey way, which we don’t see in contemporary films. For some reason in Imitation of Life I noticed this more.

N.B. This film was a remake of a 1934 film with Claudette Colbert.

Downton Abbey, Season 4 Begins

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Mary with a rare smile in episode 1

I’ve seen the first two episodes of Downton Abbey and thought I’d weigh in with my thoughts and opinions. First it’s just so nice to see these characters again after a ten month break. I was eager to see what Julian Fellows would do with them, what everyone would be wearing, how Mary would cope with Matthew gone and what year we’d be in for season 4.

I was surprised and oddly disappointed that O’Brien’s gone. Of course, another villain can always pop up, but O’Brien hit the right note of despicability. Her relationship with Thomas also made her more of a danger. So now we have Edna, which annoyed me. I so wanted Cora to listen to Mrs. Hughes. Actually, I couldn’t believe she didn’t put more trust in Mrs. Hughes’ wisdom of giving Edna a good reference to work elsewhere. No wonder Cora wound up with O’Brien to begin with. She probably disregarded a servant in the past. Cora, I’m sure you’ll regret this.

The first episode seemed rather poorly structured. It didn’t make sense to bring in a troublesome nanny just to get rid of her so quickly. Why is it that getting a new nanny for two children isn’t a major concern at Downton when getting a new lady’s maid was? I can accept that Cora needs a maid as we’ve been shown that in that era it was crucial, but it seems the nanny would really be needed too. Today childcare is the one area where we still need extra paid help.

I thought Mary’s grief made sense. She would be deeply saddened by Matthew’s death and in time people would want to push her out of it. I think a culture signifying mourning through clothes’ color and defined mourning periods is wise. It cues people to be more respectful or patient with someone and while imperfect since grief will vary from person to person it does provide a norm, which helps loved one’s more or less know when it’s time to try to encourage someone to move on. Both Carson and the Dowager’s prompting were well done, though I’ve heard experts say a butler would never have addressed Mary as Carson did.

The question of inheritance was a big matter. No one knew of a will or any document that gave Mary any power over Downton. It looked like Lord Grantham would manage his portion and his grandson George’s, which doesn’t bode well since he has such a poor track record with money. The idea that as a lawyer whose life has been radically changed due to inheritance didn’t have a will was implausible (though Fellows does eventually address this). Luckily, due to some deux ex machina magic, a letter from Matthew expressing his desire that Mary inherit does arise. Perfect! Now Papa will have to listen to Mary, whose ideas differ. There’s sure to be some conflict and tension from this arrangement.

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The house party

The second episode shown in America revolved around a guest party at Downton where a famous Australian opera singer was invited to perform. Even the kitchen servants got to listen. The times they are a’ changing!

Throughout the three day party Tom Branson was very ill at ease with his clothes and making small talk. Violet gave him the occasional tip, but I wish others had done more. Edith, rather than focusing on how your father is ignoring your sweetheart, why not include Tom in a conversation. Both men are of lower social status and they’d probably have plenty to discuss. I’m sure Tom feels out of place, but everyone has his problems and this one isn’t that bad.  Edna’s the only one giving Tom much attention, which makes me nervous. I see her as an opportunist and big trouble.

Edith’s beau did save the day by winning back poker money all the upper crust lost. Lord Grantham lost an unspecified amount, but it seemed hefty. The poor man has no luck or skill with money it seems.

A childhood neighbor came to the party and seems like a candidate for Mary’s heart. He is engaged, but that just adds some conflict to the drama. I’d be surprised if she found someone immediately after mourning Matthew, that seems way too convenient and life’s rarely like that. Also, while he’s handsome, he lacks that je ne sais quoi required of a suitor for Mary.

The biggest event of the party revolved around Anna. One of the guests’ servants was very jovial with her and Bates tut-tutted about the impropriety. Bates just took a disliking to this man. Rightly so, it seems because during the concert, when Anna stepped out for a drink, this miscreant followed her and raped her. It was a shocking scene well presented in that viewers could see how it played out and how no one was downstairs to possibly help. Yet the scenes weren’t graphic. Viewers know what happened to poor Anna, without explicit scenes, which is good since young girls do watch Downton.

I wish Anna didn’t feel she had to hide this crime fearing that Bates would kill the man and wind up in jail again. Anna, there is the option of having him arrested. I would have liked to see how such a crime would have been handled.

Saving Mr. Banks

Chim chiminey
Chim chiminey
Chim chim chiree!
A sweep is as lucky
As lucky can be . . .

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I woke up with this song playing in my head after seeing Saving Mr. Banks last night. With stars Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, I expected a good movie, but those expectations were surpassed. Saving Mr. Banks follows Mrs. Travers as she heads to Disney Studios to finally discuss making her Mary Poppins into a film. Walt has been pursing the rights for 20 years, and Mrs. Travers has resisted. She doesn’t want her characters ruined. She doesn’t want music, animation or silliness. Although we all know how that worked out, we don’t know the story behind it.

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The film is a witty, intelligent look at the creative process and the childhood that formed the author. Though flashbacks can be a drawback, here they’re woven into the story very naturally. I loved Emma Thompson who brings Mrs. Travers, as she insisted on being addressed, to life. Although Mrs. Travers was hard to work with every step of the way, I felt on her side. I could understand the need to make sure the writers got the story right, that Walt actually understands that Mary Poppins didn’t come to save the children. She doesn’t want her story to be changed the way Winnie the Pooh was.

I loved that this drama had wit and often made me laugh and that there wasn’t any cursing, violence or gratuitous sex. Good storytelling doesn’t need such crutches. Since I’ve grow used to the language and scenes in films, I forget how soul draining they are.

Now I’ve got to read the actual novel and perhaps some of the subsequent books. I’ve got to see the film again and find a biography of P. M. Travers.