Monthly Archives: July 2011

Six Great “Fencing” Movies

It’s trivia about me time! As some of you probably do not know, in a not-so-distant past life, I was a fencer. Yeah, like with swords and stuff. I fenced for 17 years (started in high school, on through “adulthood”) and was nationally rated for most of that time. I’ve got some shiny medals, and there might be a few people out there who are still afraid of me. Anyway. As a fencer, I am always interested in sword-fighting in movies, and in having a conversation the other day with my brother, who is himself a fencer and works for awesome fencing supply company Fencing.Net*, we hit upon a great idea for a list: great fencing movies! Now, when I say “great fencing movies,” I’m narrowing it down to a very specific field. Here, even though I know I won’t avoid lots of comments telling me what I left out, are the caveats to this list.

1. We’re talking modern movies, from the past twenty-five years or so. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never seen an Errol Flynn movie. Yes, I’ll fix that post-haste.
2. A more accurate name for this list would be Great “Dueling” Movies. We’re focusing on movies involving sword-fighting that is most like that which spawned “real fencing” (not counting sabre, sorry), and not anything kung-fu or broadsword related.
3. Additionally, while there are some movies that involve “real” fencing (tournament fencing, like what I did), I have an issue with them; that being that while they may start out on a strip, they almost always end up with chandelier-swinging. I have never, ever, swung from a chandelier with an epee in hand. Ever.

And so, in order of release, six great “fencing” movies. Enjoy!

The Princess Bride (1987)
Let’s just start with this one and get it out of the way, shall we? The Princess Bride is, at this point, a classic. It’s got great fencing scenes, and they get bonus points for discussing technique while they’re fencing. As far as I know, Patinkin and Elwes weren’t doing most of their own work, but it’s still a joy to watch. And really, if you haven’t seen this movie, I question whether or not you ought to be reading a blog about movies.

The Three Musketeers (1993)
Yes, the Disney one. I loooove this movie. It’s not the most accurate (but probably not the worst offender, either), and it’s just so darn fun. Everyone looks like they’re having such a good time, and they also look like they’re pretty decent fencers. I read an article some years ago about the training that all of the leads did for this movie, and apparently they all worked quite hard to do their own fighting. While I feel it necessary to showcase the “first fight” scene in which all four good guys can be seen in action, I feel the need to at least mention the final duel between D’Artagnan (Chris O’Donnell) and Rochefort (Michael Wincott), if only because Wincott is an excellent stage fencer. It’s my understanding that he does actually know how to fence, and I think it definitely comes through in his performance here. Across the board, a fun and excellent “fencing” movie. Highly recommended.

Rob Roy (1995)
To be honest with you, I haven’t seen Rob Roy. But, I have always known that it had good fight scenes. To be completely accurate, Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) does fight with a broadsword, but because of the final duel between his character and that of Tim Roth, we’re going to go with it. Although this scene comes at the end, I don’t think it’s really all that spoilery. Tim Roth is almost always a bad guy, after all. The fighting in this scene is really fascinating: Neeson is obviously uncomfortable with the dueling style, but has moments where he shifts to his own techniques, and you can see the change happening. And Roth, if he’s doing his own fencing, is really awesome.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)
I am not an Antonio Banderas fan, but I’m forced to admit that he is fabulous as the legendary Zorro. I was really surprised and impressed by the fighting in the movie when it came out. In one of the scenes where Don Diego (Anthony Hopkins) is training Alejandro (Banderas), he’s shouting out lots of numbers, right? Those are actual positions in fencing. And to the best of my memory, what Alejandro is doing in response are, in fact, the correct positions! That made me happy. The most fun scene, though, is this one between Alejandro and Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Combining fencing and sex appeal? That’s an awesome fight scene.

The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
While the Pirates movies have, at this point, jumped the shark, the first one surprised everyone by actually being a good film. It made a bona fide star out of Johnny Depp, and had a rollicking good time (and made a ton of money) doing it. When my brother and I were considering movies for this list, we tossed out the idea of Pirates, and I couldn’t remember any good fight scenes. Thank goodness for Youtube, since I had completely forgotten the excellent meeting between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp). Many have posited that this fight scene pays homage to the Princess Bride. I can see it, but I think it also stands on its own merit in terms of action, excitement, and humor.

Stardust (2007)
If you’ve been paying attention (not likely), you’ll know that I usually do lists of fives. It just seems like a good number. This one was no exception until yesterday afternoon when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the realization that I was leaving out one of my favorite movies of the past few years. Stardust, based upon the excellent novel by Neil Gaiman, was hailed as the new Princess Bride (it really set the bar for modern-day fantasy movies) upon its release, and I think it’s a worthy successor. It’s got everything, including some excellent fight scenes. The best one, though, comes late in the movie, when evil witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) uses already-dead Septimus (Mark Strong, a BOM favorite) to fight our hero, Tristan (Charlie Cox). Zombie fencing! It’s a brief but impressive scene, especially when you consider that supposedly, Mark Strong did this work himself. I’ve compared him to Michael Wincott before, and it’s an apt comparison, right down to his abilities with a sword.

So there you have it. An action-packed list of some excellent fencing/dueling. I pretty much want to go home right now and re-watch some of these movies. How about you?

*Yes, this is a shameless plug. What of it?

Review: The Heiress (1949)

If, like me, you are a Gone with the Wind fan, the name Olivia de Havilland is likely synonymous with Melanie Wilkes. De Havilland won an Oscar, however, for her portrayal of the title character, Catherine Sloper, in 1949’s The Heiress, and if you want to see another side of this lovely actress, I definitely recommend this movie.

Miss Sloper is a plain, unaccomplished young lady living with her father, a wealthy doctor (Ralph Richardson) in New York during the mid-19th century. Despite having all the best schooling, Catherine is shy, unskilled in social graces, dancing, music … in short, all the things that young ladies were supposed to be able to do at that time. She is a constant disappointment to her father, who despairs of ever finding her a husband. More importantly, he compares her to her dead mother, and finds her extremely lacking. Catherine seems unaware of his disappointment, though, and remains blindly faithful to him, and not unhappy with her rather reclusive lifestyle.

All of that changes when she meets handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who immediately shows a preference for Catherine, and very soon sweeps her off her feet. Her father, given his negative opinion of his daughter, believes Townsend to be a fortune hunter, as Catherine will be very wealthy upon his own death. What ensues is a power struggle between Dr. Sloper and his daughter as she learns to stand on her own feet and makes plans to marry the man she loves. The big question, though, is whether or not he really loves her … or her money.

By way of full disclosure, prior to seeing it, I thought this was a cute, fluffy, romantic movie. I’m not sure why; it is, in fact, none of those things. I’m don’t even really know what to call it, exactly. It’s dramatic, but not overly heavy, and it’s dark, but not at all comedic. It bears a strong resemblance, in some ways, to a thriller, but that’s not right either. What it is is a taut, emotional film with excellent performances. Each of the characters move through a variety of stages over the course of the film: we see Richardson indulge his daughter, then take control of her; he sometimes seems to acknowledge his dislike for her, but ultimately contends that his actions are out of love. Montgomery Clift does a truly remarkable job with the character of Townsend; one moment you’re sure he’s just a sleazy guy out for Catherine’s money, and the next moment you think maybe you’ve misjudged him, and he really does care for her. Both of these actors strike the fine balance necessary to showcase the flaws in their characters, and to keep the plot and the emotional tension of the movie running tight and high.

De Havilland, though, is a revelation. It’s hard to describe the transformation of her character without giving too much of the plot away, but I’ll do my best. In the beginning, Catherine is a loving, obedient daughter, content with life. She’s not at all unhappy with not being the belle of the ball. After she meets Morris, she is a young woman in love, capricious and emotional, and torn between her feelings for her lover and her duty to her father. What comes after, though, is something altogether removed from either of those aspects. She becomes a tower of strength, but at the same time, something so fragile that you fear she might burst apart at any moment. The strength and resolve that she shows do not, one thinks, come from a place of sanity, shall we say? The result is actually somehow terrifying. I can’t say much more than that; you’ll just have to watch it.

And you should watch it. It’s a great piece of film, particularly where the acting and the writing is concerned. I found it to be somehow more modern in tone than expected. It packs quite a punch. The only flaw that springs to mind is that it was clearly very difficult for the make-up and costume crew to somehow make the lovely de Havilland “plain.” They mostly succeed via severe gowns and truly awful hairstyles, but you can sort of tell that it took a lot of work. It’s an enjoyable film to look at as well, and I should also mention that the score is by Aaron Copland. All in all, if you like classic film, you should definitely give this one a try.

Musical Moment

Today would have been Natalie Wood’s 73rd birthday, and as such, it’s only fitting that I include this Musical Moment. West Side Story is not a favorite of mine (we’ll talk about that later), and I’m sorry to break it to anyone who didn’t know, but that’s not actually Ms. Wood singing (the great Marni Nixon was dubbed in), but this is still iconic, so there you have it.

The movie: West Side Story (1961)
The song: I Feel Pretty

Where’s Wonder Woman?

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I managed to get out sans baby and see XMen: First Class. In brief, I thought that it was two movies, one very good, one mediocre, attempting to co-exist. Michael Fassbender was absolutely incredible as Magneto, and James McAvoy was also brilliant (if a lot more subtle) as Xavier, and their chemistry together was fantastic. Kevin Bacon was very good, but somewhat underutilized. The story and effects were good, and not too overdone, in my opinion. All of the other actors, though? Kind of lousy. I get that we had to have “the kids” subplot, and there were parts of it that I enjoyed, but overall I was unimpressed; particularly with the female leads. Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence was so-so, but the other three women featured (Rose Byrne, Zoe Kravitz, and especially January Jones) were, let’s face it, pretty lousy. And that’s all I have to say about that.

About a week or so ago, my husband sort of randomly asked the following question: “So, they’re making all these superhero movies, right? But where is The Flash?” My response? “Forget The Flash; where the !@*#& is Wonder Woman??”

Seriously, Hollywood, what gives? Where are the good female superheroes in movies? The starring vehicles for a comic book heroine have been really, really bad (see: Supergirl, Catwoman, Elektra), and there are notably few of them, particularly when you consider the recent spate of comic book movies. And frankly, the heroines featured in ensemble movies have not fared a whole lot better. The earlier X-Men movies were decent, but clearly focused on the male characters (mainly Wolverine). Jean Grey, played by Famke Janssen, got a chance to shine in the third installment, but the movie overall was not as well-received as its predecessors. The Fantastic Four movies were bad all around, but that still doesn’t mean we should give Jessica Alba a pass. Honestly, the only really good female comic book movie character of note from the last 20 years or so (that’s a long time) that springs to mind is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. She was campy, sure, but she still held her own. I had some hope for Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, but she ended up being relegated largely to standing around looking “sexy” and gazing dreamily at Robert Downey, Jr. (and who can blame her?), with only one scene showing off her abilities. As a result, I don’t have a lot of optimism with regard to her doing much in The Avengers when it comes out next year.

It seems to me that there are two major problems with female superheroes in movies these days. The first is that they are not casting good people. Sure, Halle Berry’s an Oscar winner. But do I need to remind you of how she famously showed up to collect her Razzie for Catwoman? Let’s go back to X:Men first class for a minute. Now, Jennifer Lawrence was cast prior to her Oscar nomination, so I can’t exactly blame stunt-casting, here. But let’s talk about January Jones. Mad Men is a very popular show, currently, and when their original choice (supposedly Alice Eve) didn’t pan out, I bet somebody said “Hey, you know who’s big right now? Betty Draper. And she’s a blonde!” My point is this: instead of going for solid actors, when it comes to the female characters, it seems as though casting agents are going mainly for looks. As a result, the characters are not represented fairly. I don’t have a good answer for why they are not casting actresses comparable to Fassbender or Downey in these movies. Maybe they do ask, and get turned down. I wonder, honestly, if they don’t consider most of the major actresses to be “too old,” which I find to be unfair. Kate Winslet is sort of the youngest of the “serious actresses” at 35, and she would have freaking rocked Emma Frost. But we all know that there’s an age disparity in Hollywood between men and women, so maybe that’s the issue. There are some strong younger actresses out there, like Cary Mulligan or Dakota Fanning. I can’t see either of them as Wonder Woman, necessarily, but you still see my point, I hope. Let’s raise our expectations a little. I know what you’re going to say: “But look at women in comic books! They’re all boobs and skimpy outfits!” While that is true, I would argue that they are also often extremely powerful and are sometimes even the equals of their male counterparts. They don’t just stand around whining about how people don’t think they’re pretty, or looking bored … they’re out there fighting; doing awesome things with their cool powers! Just like the boys.

But that is apparently not what audiences want to see, and that is the second big problem. Based on the movies we’re being given to watch, what we want to see is the men doing all the heavy lifting, and the women standing around looking hot, whether or not they are capable of wreaking their own havoc. Ms. Jones as Emma Frost is a prime example of this in that her character is tremendously powerful, but we only get the slightest sense of that. It’s more about her standing around in lingerie, and honestly, she’s not even that sexy doing that. And for those of you who want to tell me I can’t have it both ways, I will again point to XMen: First Class. Fassbender and McAvoy are very good actors who also happen to be quite easy on the eyes, and between them, they elevated an otherwise mediocre movie to greater heights. And do you really want to have this argument with me when all I have to say is “Iron Man”? I didn’t think so. I think that, for the most part, the women (superhero or not) featured in comic book movies are not the equal of their male counterparts. In the case of the male superheroes and their damsels in distress, that’s ok, I guess (Pepper Potts still rules), but when a chick can fly by herself, why should she be worried about whether or not Wolverine noticed her new outfit? That’s ridiculous.

And so, where is Wonder Woman? There’s been talk of a feature film forever, but nothing concrete has ever come close to panning out. Additionally, every starlet of the day has been “cast” in the lead role, again with what seems to me very little concern for whether or not she might be capable of doing a good job. (Side note: here’s my casting of Wonder Woman. It is brilliant, and perfect, and nobody will ever convince me otherwise. You ready? Here goes. SANDRA BULLOCK. I know. Perfect. Anyway.) This is probably taking the importance of entertainment way too far, but it seems to me that we have done some back-sliding in terms of our attitudes toward women these days. Back in the seventies, when “women’s lib” was still a catchphrase, there was the successful Wonder Woman television show, starring Lynda Carter. I have only vague memories of seeing it, but I recall her being strong and central and doing plenty of superhero-y type stuff. There was supposedly going to be a new Wonder Woman television show premiering this fall, but the only buzz it really generated was about how ridiculous her costume looked, and it got canceled before it even aired.

I’m not saying that we’re just totally doomed when it comes to the equality of women as superheroes. The interesting thing is that the comic books are still there, and still have women kicking butt (as far as I know). Similarly, in the realm of animated film, Wonder Woman has always been rather successful. I’d also point to The Incredibles as a positive example of female superhero-dom. Not animated, but made for kids, too, the movie Sky High (2005) gives a lot more weight to the female characters. That movie’s adorable, by the way, if you haven’t seen it. Outside of the superhero genre, maybe children’s movies in general are a bit more liberated than entertainment for adults these days. Look at How to Train Your Dragon, where Astrid, though still something of a love interest, is actually the best warrior of the young trainees. And to give Pixar another nod, they’ve got that movie Brave coming up, in which the main character is a Scottish princess (with a blatantly Spanish name, but let’s not get into that).

I don’t have any solutions to this problem. For the most part, the comic book movie of today is wildly successful. Sometimes they are solid entertainment with good acting, script-writing, and so forth, and sometimes they’re just big and shiny. Either way, I don’t think that women are being represented fairly in them, particularly where the female “superhero” is concerned. Will we eventually see a “good” Wonder Woman movie? Hard to say. Sadly, to get back to the point of age issues, the excellent choices like Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Connelly (I really should be a casting agent) aren’t getting any younger, and we’ll likely end up with Kristen Stewart (whom I have not seen in anything, and therefore can’t really speak about). But even if the lead can’t be Meryl Streep, I’d still like to see the idea taken seriously. So listen up, Hollywood. Women kick ass too. Let’s work on that, shall we?

Trailer: Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

Sigh. So there’s this. I was disappointed with the first one, so even despite my love of Mr. Downey, I just can’t get that excited. The trailer’s fun though, pretty standard Guy Ritchie stuff. I like the synced music/karate chops bit in the first half. Anyway, check it out.