Month: April 2016

Stone of Destiny

stone of destiny

In 1950, a failed push for Scottish home rule prompted four university students to carry out a daring stunt in the hopes of restoring national pride. The young turks, fearing their countrymen had become resigned to the fact that Scotland was simply “North Britain,” wanted to jolt the nation out of its complacency. The best way to do that – steal the Stone of Destiny, a lumbering block of sandstone that had been used during the coronation of Scottish monarchs for centuries, until it was ferried off to merry England by Edward I.

In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best plan but it worked, which is sort of the opposite trajectory of this movie. There’s a great sense of purpose here, a rousing feeling of national pride rippling through the decades. Watching post-referendum, and post-Outlander (sorry not sorry for my excessive references to that glorious show), I can’t help but to ascribe a more audacious political agenda to it. But Stone of Destiny isn’t a call to arms and maybe was never meant to be. Willing it to be more than it is doesn’t change the fact that even at its very best, this is merely a pleasant film.

In a way, it lacks the boldness of the event and of those who carried it out. Stone of Destiny never feels very consequential because it’s treated like a run-of-the-mill caper with added doses of nationalism. Inoffensive and bumbling, it’s a comedy of errors. Here are four students, led by Ian Hamilton (a likable Charlie Cox), who are about as clueless as they are patriotic, at least when it comes to stealing national treasures. They pose as tourists to case Westminster Abbey, where the stone is tucked snuggly into the Coronation Chair, and, since this is low-tech 1950s, just hide until the lights go out.

It’s an admirable endeavor, and there’s definitely a charm to the whole affair. At one point, Ian approaches politician John MacCormick (Robert Carlyle) for some funds and gets thrown out when he requests a measly £50 – for petrol and fish and chips. The overall tone of the movie is almost too genial and lighthearted though, and it rarely registers any real tension. Their run-ins with police officers and guards are both perfunctory and predictable, with nothing to fill in the gaps between those brief flashes of suspense. I kept waiting for a more sustained charge that mirrored all the enthusiasm and anxiety that they might have felt.

The attempt to cast the students as young idealists in conflict with adults comfortable with the status quo isn’t particularly strong either. Cox finds a hurt puppy in Ian as he gets upbraided by his father for wasting his life on dreams of devolution, but the script doesn’t give room for the actor to expand. Ian’s best friend (Billy Boyd) succumbs to practicality and withdraws when he realizes he could get kicked out of school, lose his fiancée, and be imprisoned. All are serious considerations, and all are dismissed in a pivot towards the students who do end up carrying out the theft. But even those characters, played by Kate Mara, Stephen McCole, and Ciaron Kelly, are only sketches that rely on one or two distinguishing traits. Guess it’s back to Outlander for my Scottish fix.

Released: 2008
Prod: Andrew Boswell, Rob Merilees
Dir: Charles Martin Smith
Writer: Charles Martin Smith
Cast: Charlie Cox, Kate Mara, Robert Carlyle, Billy Boyd, Stephen McCole, Ciaron Kelly, Peter Mullan, Brenda Fricker
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Serendipity (2001)

serendipity 2001

There comes a point in your adult life when exchanging numbers with a stranger is the sensible thing to do. If you’ve spent the evening sharing desserts and skating under the stars, we’ll assume he doesn’t creep you out and that he in fact has a good chance of being normal. Maybe you call him back, maybe you think about it for a few days and then decide you like your boyfriend better, maybe you leave his number stuffed in your purse for another month. Whatever you do, it’s about options. You most certainly won’t brush off the encounter and go on your merry way.

Unless you are Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) and exist in some hyper-adolescent fantasy where life happens only because stars align and pixie dust sprinkles down from the sky. She meets nice guy Jon (John Cusack) when both try to buy the same pair of gloves during the Christmas rush at Bloomingdale’s. After chatting away the evening, he asks for her number, and she, not at all cognizant of how fate works, demurs, arguing that if they are meant to be, they will meet again. He writes his number on a $5 note and she writers hers inside a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, of course, and they wait for chance to do the rest.

At this point, you’re allowed to scream at the telly or turn to something more realistic, like Love, Actually. It’s maddening to see an otherwise intelligent woman cede control of such a major part of her life. It’s not that she isn’t looking for love or doesn’t care about it but that she clings on to a highly romanticized notion of how it works. An unexpected meeting with someone you get on with during one of the busiest times of the year seems pretty serendipitous to me, but what the hell do I know?

The answer is not a lot. The movie skips forward several years later, and the two strangers are engaged to their respective partners. Sara is ready to tie the knot with Lars (John Corbett), a spacey new age musician, and Jon is about to marry the very beautiful Halley (Bridget Moynahan). Their sudden reluctance to head down the aisle sets off a string of chance encounters, near hits, and just so many coincidences that all subtlety vanishes, taking the magic along with it.

I found it impossible to sympathize with such stubborn people, despite or perhaps because Beckinsale and Cusack consistently pull off sensible characters. Not only did Sara’s initial stunt turn me off, but her continued insistence on leaving things to fate was equally nonsensical, as if its magic hands would swoop down and arrange everything in its proper place. Jon didn’t engender positive feelings either when I saw that he was still clinging onto the memory of a girl who so readily played his heart. Who has time for these games? There are so many better options out there.

Released: 2001
Prod: Peter Abrams, Simon Fields, Robert L. Levy
Dir: Peter Chelsom
Writer: Marc Klein
Cast: John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Molly Shannon, Bridget Moynahan, Jeremy Piven, John Corbett, Eugene Levy
Time: 91 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Kate & Leopold

kate and leopold

My recent infatuation obsession with the television show Outlander prompted me to revisit that underappreciated film genre – the time travel romance. First on the list is 2001’s Kate and Leopold, a time capsule of a movie when Meg Ryan was romcom queen, Hugh Jackman’s biceps were normal-person-sized, and executives were still scribbling on Palm Pilots. It surprised me then that the film holds up – as a comedy more than a romance, and the cast should get most of the credit. You really can’t pull off this kind of story without them since the very idea of time travel is so fundamentally absurd. But I suppose you could say the same about true love. Both need total commitment from the storytellers to nudge the film from the realms of fantasy into some semblance of reality, even if it’s just emotional.

The opening sequence establishes the degree of this fanciful conceit. We meet Stuart (a charmingly neurotic Liev Schreiber), a 21st century scientist who has sneaked into the late 1800s to spy on Leopold, Duke of Albany (Jackman). When he tries to return to the present day by jumping off the yet unfinished Brooklyn Bridge into a whirly time portal, the good duke gets pulled in too. The mechanics of time travel don’t really figure into the story because it isn’t so much the act or (il)logical effects of it as it is the travelers themselves that center the narrative.

Very quickly, chaos abounds. Stuart has no choice but to bring Leopold back to his apartment, attracting the attention of his ex-girlfriend, Kate (Ryan), who lives directly below. Since the portal won’t open for another week, they all must try to coexist in relative harmony. Leopold, however, doesn’t know how to navigate these modern times; he’s puzzled by the ringing telephone and appalled by the need to clean up after your dog. These jokes run pretty standard, but some stand out due to their sheer pluck. The sight of a young Hugh Jackman looking like an “escapee from a Renaissance fair” bang on about the madness of a toaster that requires one and a half pushes just makes me laugh.

It’s not technology that has Leopold most confused, and at odds with others, though but the absence of manners and common decency. How degenerate modern society has become. Kate works as an ad executive peddling products she knows are inferior, and this lack of integrity offends Leopold to the core. No longer just a time tourist, he instead morphs into a paragon a 19th century gentleman. At first, Kate and her actor brother Charlie (a very lovable Breckin Meyer) find the visitor’s formality varyingly odd and irritating. But Charlie softens when Leopold dispenses some sound dating advice, and Kate sheds her tough career woman shell when she realizes that men exist in this world who will literally ride in on a white horse to rescue you.

This is where the fantasy takes over. If you buy into the idea that 19th century men are morally superior, or that we all need better manners, then this movie just works and you can enjoy the happily ever after. The alternatives to Leopold simply aren’t appealing. Between the scatter-brained Stuart, irresponsible Charlie, and Kate’s skeevy boss, J. J. (a slimy Bradley Whitford), you’d be stupid not to choose the guy with brocade trim coat and tight white pants. As a 21st century woman, however, I need more than Hugh Jackman to convince me that looking backwards to model appropriate gender relations is a good idea, since when has this ever been the case? Rooftop dinners and handwritten apologies are fine, but pointing out that “a lady in trousers isn’t dangerous, merely plain” will not win me over. There’s a degree of dishonesty to the idea that Kate needs saving – from her sad love life, her exploitative job, her lecherous boss – and that Leopold is the one to do it because men were oh so chivalrous back in the day. Maybe, but maybe not.

Released: 2001
Prod: Kathy Conrad
Dir: James Mangold
Writer: Steven Rogers, James Mangold
Cast: Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Bradley Whitford, Natasha Lyonne, Paxton Whitehead, Philip Bosco, Kristen Schaal, Viola Davis
Time: 123 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016