12/31/07

Undercurrent

Vincente Minnelli ("Gigi" and "Meet Me in St. Louis") directed this 1946 potboiler that featured Katharine Hepburn ("Olly, Olly, Oxen Free") and "Rooster Cogburn") right after her "box-office poison" period.

She is the tomboy daughter of a professor, played by Edmund Gwenn ("Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Trouble With Harry") who has been urging her to find someone to marry and settle down. Bingo! A handsome, single millionaire, played by Robert Taylor ("Ivanhoe" and "Quo Vadis") comes sailing into town, is immediately smitten by her and the deed is done.

Robert Mitchum ("Winds of War" and "Ryan's Daughter") has an appealing role as Taylor's brother. Some corny dialogue, but it WAS 1946...

12/30/07

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

"Mr. Cellophane" himself, John C. Reilly ("Chicago," and "The Good Girl") is Dewey Cox, a fictitious performer whose life story this is supposed to be. This is a send-up of all the musical bios that we have seen over the years. Dewey Cox's meteoric rise to fame and fortune against all odds, is idiotically fast. ...you will recognize situations from "Ray," "The Buddy Holly Story," "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Sweet Dreams," etc.... from the childhood accident (taken from "Ray") that haunts him into adulthood (Dewey cuts his brother in half with a machete...this is in the reviews, it is NOT a spoiler!), to his addictions, ego problems, temper tantrums (every time he gets upset he starts tearing sinks out of bathrooms like Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line"), multiple spouses, personality clashes with band mates, difficulties coping with success, etc., etc., etc.

The creative team behind this project has enjoyed numerous successes: Judd Apatow ("Talladega Nights," "Knocked Up" and "Superbad") and Jake Kasden ("Orange County" and "The TV Set"). This body of work would lead you to expect a goodly dose of raunch, and it doesn't disap- point! Lots of nudity...both sexes, lots of drug use, lots of innuendo.

The part I liked was Dewey's passage through various musical fads; from the Buddy Holly/Big Bopper era to Bob Dylan; from Haight Asbury to the Beatles. The four guys who play the Beatles aren't particularly convin- cing but it's fun, just the same... And so is the clothing for each genre. In addition, they get many, many familiar faces to play well-known per- formers, so you feel you are among friends...you will see John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch from Christopher Guest's repertory group, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Frankie Muniz and Paul Rudd, who are a few of Apatow's regulars. AND they get people like Jackson Browne, The Temptations, Jewell, Eddie Vedder and Lyle Lovett to play themselves! Amazing!

By the way, Reilly does all of his own singing and he is a very competent singer.

I can't rave about this because somehow I don't find drug use or death-by-machete very funny. There ARE humorous moments and naturally I appreciate having equal time as regards nudity...it's time the rest of us got an eyeful, too!

Don't say you weren't warned....

12/29/07

Away From Her

You deserve to see a review of "Away From Her" simply because Julie Christie will probably be nominated for Best Actress for her lead role of a woman stricken by Alzheimer's. I checked the DVD out of the Seattle Library, so I know it is available on your rental lists. The problem I have with this is strictly personal. I watched a dear friend decline over a ten-year period, ultimately to die this year (2007).

Julie Christie ("Doctor Zhivago," "Hamlet" and "Shampoo") plays Fiona, a classically beautiful patient who, to my chagrin, never deteriorates. She remains beautiful, maybe her hair is a bit more tousled, but taste- fully so, clear to the end. Her thought processes are still cogent when they are verbalized and that part I know to be heartbreakingly UNtrue! I concede that they show her to be less and less verbal, but her insight and her social skills remain untouched.

First-time director, Sarah Polley, is a talented Canadian actress, who may or may not have ever dealt with Alzheimer's on a personal basis. I willingly concede that every case can be different...however...

As you may recall, I recently did a review of "Iris" starring Dame Judi Dench and every centimeter of that film was true to life! - NO contest! The eyes, the mouth, the hair, the physical stance, the tilt of the head, the lightly veiled hostility, the anxiety, all were painfully authentic.

Suffice it to say, it is nice to see an Academy favorite still slogging away, but she needs more authentic scripts. I have no doubt that she could rise to the challenge...

12/27/07

I'm Not There

Tedious drivel...

At risk of alienating some of you, I first of all must admit that I was never a big fan of Bob Dylan or 95% of his music, particularly when it was sung...?...by him. This movie, however, did not use ONE song that I recognized! It is my understanding that this is a quasi-biographical movie about him...Right? "Ruminations on the life..." They never used any actual names, so it was mostly a guessing game. I recognized several things:
  • Small town origins
  • Guitar/harmonica combination
  • Overwhelming sense of alienation
  • Heavy drug use
  • Reluctant publicity conferences
  • Big deal when his "real" name was revealed
  • Accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior
  • Motorcycle wreck
  • GREAT authentic-looking wigs on all the impersonators

I did NOT recognize:

  • The little runaway black boy connection
  • The frolic with the Beatles
  • The wife and two daughters
  • The divorce
  • Who were all those people supposed to be?
  • How was Billy the Kid tied in?
  • Where did Henry Kissinger come from?
  • Why a frontier town?

Because I have never followed his life, I had no sense of, "Oh! That is supposed to be Joan Baez!" "Hey, that actress represents Carly Simon!" "Oh! I remember when THAT happened!"

I have to agree that Cate Blanchett did the most commendable job of representing him. Christian Bale WAS him, and Heath Ledger had the awkward marriage/divorce segments. One fellow I didn't recognize at all, but I looked him up and he is another UK actor by the name of Ben Whishaw. Marcus Carl Franklin plays the child and Kris Kristofferson never actually appears, he does the voiceover. Richard Gere was pretty much wasted...What WAS that frontier town all about? The 100% thru-line was the chain smoking. I haven't seen an American movie made in the past two decades with so much cigarette smoke. I was sitting conveniently near the exit and had to fight with myself to keep from availing myself of it for at least the last 2/3 of the movie. It became an endurance test.

I realize the gentle nuances of my opinion may be too subtle...let me come right out and say it: I did NOT like this movie...and that puts me in direct opposition to most of the critics in this country who are practically wetting themselves over it!

12/26/07

Zelary

This one is for fans of foreign films. "Zelary" was nominated for Best Foreign Film - 2004, and although it didn't win, I found it to be affecting and lovely. I obtained the DVD from the local library. I later bought a copy for my own collection.

Our story takes place in early 1940s Czechoslovakia and begins with a nurse and her surgeon-lover who are part of the resistance in that country. As the Gestapo closes in on them, he must flee to another country and she is told she must leave with a patient whose life she helped to save. He is a millworker from the hinterlands and views her with bewildered awe. She is ordered to marry him so she can be con- cealed in his tiny mountain hamlet, where life remains as it was over a hundred years ago.

With only a couple of exceptions, this provincial village accepts her, and slowly she becomes assimilated. He is always courteous, even though her first attempt at cooking is inedible (even the dog won't touch it!), and it dawns on her that there might be more to him that she first suspected. This city-bred, highly educated young sophisticate learns to manage in a cottage with no running water, no electricity, no outside communication; in fact, you know how much she has changed when you see how pleased she is with a new wooden floor he and the neighbors install in their little home. Eventually they begin living as man and wife and you can watch her gradually fall in love with this kind, gentle, barely literate fellow.

There are moments of violence (the Gestapo is involved, after all!), and times when her nursing skills are desperately needed. You become acquainted with the villagers -- good and bad -- and end up very much invested in their fate.

This is a fine film. "The Sea Inside" won the Academy Award that year, but for pure enjoyment, I prefer "Zelary."

12/25/07

The Great Debaters

Every good story is comprised of words. When you are dealing with a story in which the ending is already disclosed, the words become even more important because they are what put the "shine" on a story, the facets on the diamond, so to speak. When it's a movie, the script has to be top notch or things drag.

"The Great Debaters" has an absolutely wonderful script, written by Robert Eisley, who was working from his own story which, in turn, was inspired by true events. The dialog is delicious (it centers around a debate team after all...), and the realities of 1930s Jim Crow south are wrenchingly portrayed. It's legal for vigilantes to hang "niggers" in Texas in the 1930s. Produced and directed by our reliable Denzel Washington ("Antoine Fisher"), this is, in my opinion, his best film yet. The script, the pacing, the humor, the acting, the photography, the depiction of the times, all are marvelously delivered to the audience.

Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College, a small Texas school for blacks. Mel demonstrates intelligence, insight, wit and ambition, not only for his students, but for blacks in general. He inspires his class to form his school's first debate team and they go on to eventually challenge Harvard University. Mr. W. has never been wittier or more charismatic. I found the debates themselves to be delicious! Both sides are ably represented and no one is demonized. Everyone gives as good as he or she gets.

Forrest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland," "Panic Room" and directed "Hope Floats") is James Farmer, a colleague at the school who is much admired by his students, his fellow townspeople, his wife and his family, particularly his son James Jr., played by a young actor, Denzel Whitaker...who evidently is no relation to either of the stars!

It does my heart good to see the aristocracy of Black Hollywood putting out such fine movies. These are movies that promote solid values, intact families, respect for others, good manners, doing homework, reading, etc., etc., etc... I have noticed this to be true of Denzel Washington, (some) Eddie Murphy, (recent) Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and others. Despite Will Smith being one of the major movies stars in the world, his color never seems to be an issue in his movies. These guys don't have to stoop to "Bling," gang-banging, Rap, Hip Hop, jewel-encrusted teeth, and low-riders, the smarmy list is endless. When I go to their movies, I see them very, very well-attended, predominantly by black women with their kids in tow. Good for them! Those kids need to see how far we've come and how far we have yet to go.

I really liked this movie!

Sweeney Todd

This is a huge, masterfully filmed version of Stephen Sondheim's bloody classic. Who knew Tim Burton ("Beetle Juice," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Nightmare Before Christmas") could direct a musical? His confidence leaps off the screen and his eye for the eerie and the repugnant has never been so effective. The first solo by Mrs. Lovett, played by Helena Bonham Carter ("Corpse Bride" and "Fight Club"), about making meat pies (don't ask!) is absolutely teeming with cockroaches and her kitchen should be rated Grade Z! 1800s London is dark, dank and repellent, the people aren't quite clean, the streets are full of manure and rats, chimney pots belch soot and smoke, life is cheap, and death is bloody.

Burton shot several scenes with Todd and Lovett in which he used their reflections in a broken mirror. The effect is unique and spooky. Even the glass in the shop windows is wavy, like very old glass! That really impressed me.

You may already know the story...Young, blissfully happy couple has a beautiful baby girl and an idyllic life, but the husband is cruelly framed and convicted of a crime he didn't commit. He is transported to Australia for fifteen long years. When he finally returns to his old Fleet Street digs in London, Mrs. Lovett informs him that his wife is dead, so his sole focus becomes revenge. Revenge for the past fifteen years, revenge for his lost love and revenge for his broken family. Only the blood of the man who framed him, the dastardly Judge Turpin, played by Alan Rickman ("Something the Lord Made" and "Sense and Sensibility"), will squench his thirst.

The members of the cast were predominantly actors, not singers, but the result was surprisingly good singing. Johnny Depp ("Chocolat" and "Finding Neverland") had originally been in a band, so we knew he could play guitar and was musical, but he was untried as a singer. He went into seclusion for a few months and emerged ready to be "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street." When he holds up the straight razor and extends his arm, he convinced ME as he gloats, "At last, my arm is complete!" In fact, the Bride of Frankenstein streak of silver in his hair makes him seem almost old enough to play this role! Alan Rickman's two duets with Johnny Depp are very well sung and Helena Bonham Carter has wanted to be Mrs. Lovett since she first saw the stage play when she was a child, so she OWNED her pieces. Ed Sanders, the boy who plays Toby, is just loveable enough that you sweat bullets when he is in jeopardy, as Mrs. Lovett croons a liltingly sweet song to him that echoes in the sewer, because YOU know she intends to do him in!

Be warned, there are disgusting body bits, hideous murders and....did I mention blood?

P.S. I Love You

Yup. It's a Chick Flick, but it's tough for me to evaluate. First of all, I really like Gerard Butler ("Dear Frankie" and "300"), so I wanted to SWOON...

As you already know from the trailers, Hillary Swank ("Million-Dollar Baby" and "Iron-Jawed Angels") is Holly, an American college student who is lucky enough to meet Gerry (Butler is Scottish, but playing Irish) on a country road while traveling the Emerald Isle.

Ten years later they have been married for a few years and she is in a snit because he said something to her mother played by Kathy Bates ("Green-Fried Tomatoes" and "Primary Colors") which implied that Holly was not yet ready for a baby. Even though it is true, Holly has a temper tantrum and Gerry tries his best to fix things. All of his attempts fail until he does a comic strip tease, which finally appeases her.

As you know, within two years he is dead of a brain tumor and she starts receiving mysterious letters and packages from him. He has anticipated her reaction to his death and is trying to help her from beyond the grave.

I particularly liked Daniel, played by Harry Connick Jr. ("Hope Floats" and "Little Man Tate") He seems to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger's, so he lacks the internal editor that most of us have which prevents us from blurting out little bits of hurtful truth. He explains to Holly that he is aware of it and is taking medication for it. She ponders that and says, "Pills to cure rudeness?"

Swank gives it all she's got; everyone is attractive; Ireland is appealing; Butler sings and clowns; Harry Connick Jr. is very funny; so why didn't I swoon? I'd have to (reluctantly) say it's a near miss. Maybe it's because the leads are so clearly playing beneath their regular game....Oh well, rent the DVD when it becomes available; you will still find it mildly entertaining...

12/21/07

Charlie Wilson's War

What is it about watching really smart people doing smart things while we in the audience--with benefit of 20/20 hindsight--know they are out- smarting themselves? Are we smug? Could we do better? I think I will want to own the DVD just for the pleasure of watching all those smart people doing all those smart things...smirk...

In the meantime, this movie has a LOT to recommend it. Great stars, starting with hard-drinking, womanizing, mildly corrupt Congressman Charlie Wilson himself, played by Tom Hanks ("The Da Vinci Code" and "The Terminal"), playing off the great, great Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Savages" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead") cast as an angry operative who spent three years learning Finnish only to be assigned elsewhere. Hoffman actually has most of the funny lines. Those two guys did a spectacularly looooong single take, walking side by side, verbally sparring, strategizing and generally conducting Business As Usual in the approved Washington DC manner. Purely from an acting point of view, I haven't seen a single take that long in years! This was how they made movies in the old days: rehearse an entire scene and then shoot it from beginning to end. Performances these days are cobbled together in the editing room, but these two war horses showed the neophytes how it is done! I was dazzled!

The logic of what Charlie Wilson was trying to achieve was beyond reproach...arm the Afghanis so they could fight the Russians for us without providing arms that could be traceable to the United States. They cobbled together an unholy alliance among erstwhile Middle Eastern foes, by using a combination of coercion, bribery and smooth talking. In the approved arc of government funding, they took an initial $5M budget to $500M and watched as Afghani foot soldiers, finally armed with adequate (Russian) weaponry, brought down Russian aircraft and destroyed Russian tanks.

Julia Roberts ("Notting Hill" and "Erin Brockovich") is the glamorous (but not attractive) Texas socialite who initiates the scheme. She seems to be having a ball with her character's over-the-top clothes and jewelry, her big Texas hair, and her twang; spouting Baptist rhetoric and seeing her original meddling brought to official fruition. She and Hanks take turns fondling each other's tush as they exit their scenes.

Amy Adams ("Enchanted" and "Talladega Nights") is Congressman Wilson's able assistant and I was excited to see Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada" and "Dan in Real Life") as a constituent's daughter, but her character went nowhere.

A word to the wise, this movie has implied drug use and its share of nudity in the hot tub at the very beginning...up to and including Mr. H himself (but he'd better not quit his day job...).

This script is witty and full of dazzling minutiae (Un-clumping mascara with a safety pin? The names and calibers of various guns? Did Attorney General Rudy Giuliani ever nail Wilson?). 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I had to admit to myself that had I been in the same situation, I would probably have done exactly the same thing and would have felt really good about it...right up to the time when I DIDN'T.

The Zen koan is excellent.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
For the preview:
* * * * * * * * * * * *

Les Diaboliques

The DVD for this intriguing French movie is VERY expensive in the catalogs, but Simone Signoret ("Room at the Top" and ("Guy de Maupassant") is mesmerizing as the mistress of a school administrator who is married to an ailing wealthy woman, played by Vera Clouzot ("Les Espions").

This little gem features a scruffy detective who might have provided the blueprint for American television's "Columbo." In European movies at the time (1955), people really COULD get away with murder...or could they?

12/12/07

Avenue Montaigne

This was a film I had promised to myself, based on the appealing trailers I saw in the theaters, but then I missed it and forgot about it. When I saw it on the Seattle Library DVD list, I jumped at the chance to finally see it.

This is a sweet little French pastry, a little flaky here and there, but tasty, just the same. It is written and directed by Daniele Thompson ("La Buche" and "Cousin, Cousine"), so in MY book, it comes highly recommended!

You follow a young women, newly arrived in Paris, heartsick, homeless and unemployed. She has an unfailingly upbeat kind of personality though, and makes the area around Avenue Montaigne her new "neighborhood," first finding a job in the local restaurant, then scrambling for a place to stay and inadvertently assuming a part in the lives of the people who work (and eat) in the vicinity.

This is a theatre district, so you meet a slap-dash TV soap star who is doing a Feydeau comic romp but wants to play Simone de Beauvoir in a movie directed by Sydney Pollack (whom she confuses with Martin Scorsese!). She has a real knack for getting herself into embarrassing situations.

You meet a piano player who was originally a child prodigy and is now a world-renowned classical pianist...but who has become weary after a lifetime of dressing up, traveling, abiding by contracts and commitments. His wife has been his business manager, so if he retires, she will be unemployed.

You meet a self-made billionaire, a widowed taxi driver who, along with his late wife, had amassed a business empire and made a second career out of collecting modern art. He is preparing to auction off a lifetime of treasures.

You meet a woman who always wanted to be a performer but had no talent, so she worked behind the scenes in theatre all her life; she has met all the "greats," but is preparing to retire.

This is a Show Business sort of a show, with rehearsals, line readings, set decorations, backstage paraphernalia, egos, costume problems, you know the drill....

I enjoyed every minute of it.

12/9/07

Elvis, The Miniseries

In case any of you doubt the abilities of Jonathan Rhys Meyers ("Bend it Like Beckham," "Match Point" and "Vanity Fair,"), take a look at this 2005 STARZ television miniseries, the only biography authorized by the Presley family. Rhys Meyers won a well-deserved Golden Globe for his portrayal of The King that spans from his early days at Sun Records to his Las Vegas beginnings.

Along with Rhys Meyers, Camryn Manheim ("Dark Water," "An Unfinished Life" and a couple of TV series) is flawless as "Mama" Presley, doting on her Mama's Boy, Elvis, and Robert Patrick ("Shawshank Redemption" and "Terminator II") as Vernon Presley, the overlooked Daddy. Randy Quaid ("Brokeback Mountain" and "Goya's Ghosts") is absolutely smarmy as "Colonel" Tom Parker in all his devious glory.

My only disappointments were that Priscilla wasn't nearly as pretty in the movie as she was in real life and the actress playing Ann-Margret didn't come CLOSE!

Rhys Meyers has the voice, the delivery and the attitude down pat. He is close enough in his appearance that they were able to use clips of the real Elvis on occasion and it didn't grate. You see the beginnings of Elvis's "posse" and how he dealt with almost paralyzing stage fright. You also see the beginnings of his drug usage by doctor's prescriptions. He even had a Pharmacy Guide to keep from making any mistakes! You will appreciate that Rhys Meyers' lip-synching is spot on and his stage movements have been carefully learned.

I'll bet the rental places have this treasure. Give it a try!

12/4/07

The Golden Compass

...The Adventure Begins...

This is clearly Part 1. The end of the movie makes no bones about it, so I hope you are a fan of the book and have a glimmer about this story. In our jam-packed audience last night, there was a significant number of fans of the book. They knew the characters and cheered at the appropriate times. I was as interested by the audience as I was by the Computer Generated Imaging on the screen.

From book to screen, this project has had more ups and downs than a Duncan yoyo; the director was hired, fired and hired again. The adaptation was completed, thrown away, a new adaptation done but modified by the director; young voice actors hired and fired as their voices changed before filming started.

This world is very different from ours and quite complex. Each human is always accompanied by his or her own personal "daemon" who perishes when the human does; if the daemon is choked, the human suffers, etc., etc... The daemons for the men have female personas and vice versa. Ya got that? The main character, a charming little girl named Lyra, played by Dakota Blue Richards in her first film role, is accompanied by her daemon named Pantalaimon, voiced by Freddie Highmore ("August Rush" and "Finding Neverland"). She is entrusted with the eponymous Golden Compass by Lord Asrial, played by Daniel Craig ("Layer Cake" and "Casino Royale") who is in only two or three scenes. It is clear from the ending of the movie however, that he will be playing a significantly larger part in the next chapter.

The villainess is Marisa Coulter, played by Nichole Kidman ("Cold Mountain" and "Birthday Girl"). She is in cahoots with an organization called "The Majesterium" which is a thinly disguised version of the Catholic Church, as they do battle against "independent thought." The plan, which is very convoluted, seems to be that they are kidnapping children, and separating them from their daemons which is horrifying to all parties involved. There is an army of polar bears with the "head bear" (Did I just say that?), Iorek Byrnison, voiced by Ian McKellen ("X-Men" and "Lord of the Rings") leading the final charge into the final (CGI) battle of the movie. The voiceover makes it clear, however, that more battles are to come.

Actually, I thought I was in Narnia with Aslan the Lion, being voiced by Liam Neeson...which by the way, is coming out with its second chapter in 2008. They showed the trailers last night.

I think you had to be a fan of the book...

12/2/07

The Host - 2007

Here's another movie that is totally out of character for me to watch. I read so many glowing reviews of it when it was released in 2006 that I became curious, so when I saw it on the Seattle Public Library list, I decided to take a chance...

The opening scene takes place in a laboratory where the man in charge is instructing one of his underlings to dispose of some controlled substances by emptying them into a sink where they will drain into the Han river. After much debate, the underling is forced to do it and we know that something bad is gonna happen.

This is a Korean SciFi/Horror film that is definitely a notch above the regular run-of-the-mill movies of this ilk. The focus is on one small family: Grandpa runs a snack bar/food shack on one bank of the Han river. One of his sons is supposed to be helping him but he is truly a dim bulb, with a possible case of narcolepsy. Another son was given a college education but isn't sure what he's going to do with it. The daughter is a high-ranking amateur archer who, at the very beginning of the film, misses out on a gold medal and has to settle for a bronze. A ten-year-old granddaughter, the daughter of the dim bulb, helps grandpa with the snack bar and attends school.

This movie has two major assets: 1) The family members clearly love each other. You see them constantly nattering among themselves, arguing and quibbling, but as the chips go down, they will do anything for each other. 2) The film contains a LOT of humor, so as this family squabbles, even their contentiousness is humorous. Grandpa chides his son, saying he had to sell lots of "Pot Ramen" to put him through the university, so he hopes he'll find a job soon. Later in the film as the mutated monster is ransacking the waterfront, they take shelter back in the snack bar. After pouring boiling water into the containers, they all sit patiently, waiting for their ramen noodles to "cook." Then they peel back the tops, grab their chopsticks and dig in.

The movie takes place in contemporary Korea, so the ubiquitous cell phones play major roles, even when the batteries aren't fully charged. Bureaucratic bungles are typical of governments everywhere... In this movie, Korea is no different. The powers-that-be are off on a tangent, searching for a virus that doesn't exist and herding crowds of people into holding tanks where they can try to isolate it.

I suspected I'd like it when I started out with the extras and listened to the director apologizing to a number of people: Soccer fans in a scene that took ten takes and then they didn't use the scene. The two actors who played fishermen but their faces aren't clearly discernable. The actor who had to hang from the monster's tentacle through several painful takes. The actors who played technicians in hazmat suits but their faces are obscured. I saw many, many subtle bits in numerous scenes that might be overlooked but added to their authentic "feel" and more humor. The guy is a GOOD director!

No blowie uppie stuff, but exciting, just the same.

12/1/07

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

For me to really enjoy a movie, there MUST be someone I can root for. I've thought long and hard about this one and the only character I felt even a smidgeon of empathy for was as messed up and cruel as the others. What a tragedy!

First of all, you have a sterling cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote" and "The Savages"), Ethan Hawke ("Hamlet" and "Before Sunset"), Albert Finney ("Tom Jones" and "Erin Brockovich"), plus LOTS of Marisa Tomei ("My Cousin Vinny" and "In the Bedroom"). The movie is directed by Sidney Lumet ("Running on Empty" and "Find Me Guilty") so who am I to find fault?

The two main characters in the movie are totally screwed up. Both of these adult brothers have fouled their own nests, have money troubles, and seem to be amoral as well. Their parents, despite being in their sixties, are still very much in love and dote on each other. Evidently their childrearing left something to be desired: they both showed preference for their more handsome son (Hawke) and this has resulted in BOTH sons being damaged. Hoffman is ambitious, needy and has a bad drug habit. Hawke is indolent, divorced and broke. He also has a drinking problem.

Tomei spends as much time nude as clothed in this thing! It's hard to believe how long it has been since "My Cousin Vinny" but she looks GREAT! She is married to one brother and having an affair with the other.

The plot, which is discussed in all the reviews, consists of the sons' plans to rob their parents' well-insured jewelry store, the idea being it would be a victimless crime. Because each son acts within the constraints of his own personality, the thing goes horribly wrong.

I can't recommend it as entertainment, but this is a bloody, tragic and extremely well-acted movie.

11/30/07

The Jane Austen Book Club

Chick flick alert! Of course this is a Chick Flick...what else did you expect?! With that in mind, the cast includes women we can relate to, not too gorgeous, but believable and attractive, and men we wouldn't mind spending a cozy evening with...reading Jane Austen, naturally!

First of all, they have assembled a terrific cast: Maria Bello ("A History of Violence," "Thank You for Smoking" and "Flicka") plays Jocelyn, who is concerned about her good friend's looming separation and divorce. The friend, Sylvia, played by Amy Brennaman (primarily TV work) has been dumped by her husband Daniel, played by Jimmy Smits (mostly TV series). The many-times-divorced Bernadette, played by Kathy Baker ("13 Going on 30" and "Cold Mountain") talks them into having a book club, particularly focused on the books of Jane Austen. Prudie, a frustrated schoolteacher, played by Emily Blunt ("Gideon's Daughter" and "The Devil Wears Prada") is pulled into the mix. By the time they recruit their sixth member, the only male, they start to wade into each book. The aforementioned male, Grigg, played by up-and-coming British hunk Hugh Dancy ("Ella Enchanted" and "Elizabeth I"), is willing to hang out with a gang of women because he was raised with a bunch of sisters in an all-women household.

In my opinion, something this contrived should have delivered more oomph. There were many things to recommend it, but all in all, I found it somewhat of a letdown. Watch Masterpiece Theatre's "Pride and Prejudice" with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth if you want oomph!

Juno

What a surprise!

This movie had waaay more going for it than the trailers led me to believe. The story was written by a first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody who, as I recall, used some semi-autobiographical information to create Juno MacGuff, played by Ellen Page ("Hard Candy" and "X-Men"). Juno is wryly witty, loves to wisecrack--almost to a fault--but is blessed with an unexpectedly mature and caring father and stepmother. In fact, if every teenage girl could have a stepmother like Allison Janney ("Strangers With Candy" and "The Hours"), the world would be a better place! The audience actually applauded when she sprang to Juno's defense and put the medical technician in her place!

Director Jason Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking" and "Uncle Sam") wisely balances an acid wit teenager with loving and sensible adults. This movie really does not trash anyone although I give Jason Bateman ("The Kingdom" and "Arrested Development") extra credit for tackling the most conflicted adult role.

If you've seen the trailers you already know that Juno, after an abandoned effort to have an abortion, decides to give up her baby. She replies to an ad in a paper and discovers a successful couple who live in an extremely comfortable house an hour's drive from her home. Jennifer Garner ("Catch and Release" and "Thirteen Going on Thirty") is the wife who clearly yearns for a baby. Jason Bateman is the husband.

Juno is actually a grounded kid. She apologizes to her parents for her "shenanigans" and talks to the baby's father, Paulie Bleeker, played by Michael Cera ("Superbad" and "Arrested Development") before agreeing to put the baby up for adoption. She shows consideration and wisdom in her responses to her predicament, even though it was immaturity that got her into it.

The author and screenwriter, Diablo Cody has a life that should make an excellent movie on its own! She was a part-time stripper, living with her boyfriend until she got a promotion at her "real" job with an ad agency. Once she got a taste of main stream success, she realized it wasn't what she wanted and went to full-time stripping followed by a stint as a phone sex operator. Now she lives in the burbs ("where no one strips unless he or she is taking a bubble bath.") with that same boyfriend who is now her husband. They are raising his daughter, which might explain why the stepmother is so fully realized in the movie.

This is a great story, a great script, great actors and a memorable film. I recommend it. (And I got a bright orange t-shirt at the preview!)

American Gangster

No doubt you have already heard plenty about this film. I suspect you are going to hear even more as end of the year wrap-ups begin.

What a pleasure to watch two amazing professionals like Denzel Washington ("Man on Fire," "Philadelphia" and "Inside Man") and Russell Crowe ("3:10 to Yuma," "Cinderella Man," "The Insider" and "Master and Commander") directed by Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator" and "Blade Runner"). The production values are top notch and everyone in the supporting cast is also outstanding.

The story, based on two real-life opponents, is riveting. Washington's character, a fellow named Frank Lucas, is an ultra smart importer of drugs, direct from Vietnam...no middleman, no cutting of purity, no side issues. As a matter of fact, his troubles don't really begin until he agrees to include the Mob in part of his business. Armand Assante plays the capo who eventually engineers the deal. You'll love the reference to dairy farmers...so did Lucas!

Lucas is American to the core; he is a businessman, a capitalist and highly competitive. He takes great pride in his impeccable dress, his low-key public persona and his assertive actions when he deems them necessary. He protects his brand name and doesn't want people to doubt the quality of his product. He will kill without compunction, which establishes his power in Harlem in such a way that no one dares challenge him. He becomes so successful he moves his entire family up from the South where he establishes them in businesses that will provide covers for his profitable enterprise. He installs his mother (Ruby Dee) in a palatial home and takes her to church each and every Sunday, without fail.

On the other hand, Crowe's character Richey Roberts is a scruffy but honest cop who is almost drummed out of the corps because he turned in nearly a million dollars confiscated in a drug bust. Most of the police force was on the take, so this caused an almost fatal rift when he needed backup in an early violent scene and no one would go to his aid. Roberts' life is in the toilet because his soon-to-be-ex wife (Carla Gugino) objects to his hours, his friends and his honesty, which, from her perspective, doesn't seem to be buying him much. He has passed the bar exam, but has problems with public speaking...

This movie makes no bones about the devastation caused by Lucas's business. There are many scenes of drug use: tragic, chaotic and repugnant. Frank's personal code of behavior is slippery. He is consistent in his elegant dress, his fastidious nature and his affection for his mother, but will kill without hesitation and makes millions from the very drugs that are causing such tragedy in Harlem. I LOVED it when Washington, late in the movie, takes an unconscious subtle swipe at a coffee ring left by a take-out cup on a crumby table... Little things....

Josh Brolin has a more prominent spot as one of the crooked cops. Much has been said about this being an Oscar-winning role, but it certainly escaped me. After you see it, be sure to tell me what I overlooked.

The Kite Runner

Even though the movie starts in present-day Los Angeles, the actual story begins in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1978. It is a story of a friendship between two little boys, one is the son of Baba, a well-to-do business- man and intellectual, the other is the son of Ali, the house servant. Despite the disparity of their social levels, the boys are close friends.

Because kite flying is a competitive sport in many countries (each flyer attempts to cut the string of his opponents), and these two boys excel at the sport, they are subjected to harassment by older boys. Hassam, the son of the servant, is by far the braver of the two and springs to the defense of his larger, slightly older and wealthier chum, Amir, whenever the need arises. One day, however, Hassam is cornered by himself and raped by the bullies, with Amir cowering in a nearby hiding place. Naturally Amir becomes overwhelmed by guilt; that means he MUST get Hassan out of his sight so he isn't reminded constantly of his own cowardice. After trying in vain to uncover the basis of the schism between the two boys, Ali reluctantly takes his son and moves away, over the strident protests of Baba, who naturally has no idea the underlying cause of the problem.

Baba is played by an actor named Homayoun Ershadi, who has, beyond a doubt, the most noble eyes, profile and demeanor of any actor I have viewed recently. He is absolutely wonderful.

I found the locations to be endlessly fascinating: Kabul, prior to the Russians, prior to the Taliban, and prior to the Americans. The mountains and high terrain of Afghanistan, first seen in "Babel" but not seen since. The contrast with Los Angeles is stunning. We are treated to a sampling of these folks' lives after they are transplanted to the United States, still speaking Dari...sort of an offshoot of Farsi and Persian, and holding on to their old ways, traditional wedding ceremonies, etc., but working in mini-marts, swap meets, etc.

The director, Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland," "Stranger than Fiction," "Stay" and "Monster's Ball") has done a brilliant job of eliciting amazing work from the children. In addition, he pulls no punches in his depiction of the Russians, the mullahs and the Taliban. Naturally the Taliban has banned the movie and the parents of the little boy who plays Hassam, have tried to get the rape scene removed from the film, as it may be jeopardizing the child's life. Ah, religion...

This movie addresses courage. Who has it? When is it appropriate? What does it accomplish? Even if you haven't read the bestseller on which this movie is based, you will find the storytelling great and the movie extremely well done.

A Good Year

Hey! Russell Crowe fans! I'll bet you caught this one when it was in the multiplex. I missed it, but am making up for it now...

In this 2006 outing, Russell Crowe ("Cinderella Man" and "The Insider") teams up once again with Producer Ridley Scott ("American Gangster" and "Gladiator") to coast through this light-weight frolic. Crowe plays Max, a ruthless London businessman who inherits a vineyard from his uncle Henry, played by Albert Finney ("Erin Brockovich" and "Amazing Grace"). Uncle Henry had provided many a summer respite for young Max, played by Freddie Highmore ("August Rush" and "Finding Neverland") during his chaotic childhood. Despite the affection he held for his uncle, Max hasn't been in touch with Henry for the past ten years. He contacts his real estate agent Charlie, played by Tom Hollander ("Elizabeth, The Golden Years" and "Pride and Prejudice" - 2005) because he intends to sell the property immediately.

He goes to France to check on its condition and things start to unravel...

There were a number of clever and diverting things that happen to him: A hitherto unknown relative shows up claiming to be Henry's daughter. In addition, a fetching waitress in a nearby village catches his eye because she clearly dislikes him on sight. (He had run her bicycle off the road while retrieving his cell phone from the floor of the car, and drove on blithely unaware of his blunder.) I enjoyed seeing Max scooting around in his rental "Smart Car," invariably starting off in the wrong direction, only to wheel around and zip off in another. I liked the Jack Russell terrier that did NOT like Max and showed no compunction in demonstrating his hostility. I enjoyed the tennis game and the swimming pool. Gemma, his lovely and efficient personal assistant in London, was played by Archie Panjabi. Don't be mislead by the name, she was actually born in England.

The fetching waitress is played by Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose" and "Big Fish") who will shock you with how tall she actually is (she was minuscule as Edith Piaf!) and what a winning smile she has. We will hear lots more from this one, mark my words...

This is a relaxing way to spend a couple of hours. With Russell Crowe in the lead and Ridley Scott at the helm, you know you are in good hands... and the French countryside is photogenic, too.

11/24/07

Beowolf

The first thing that tipped me off was the trailers that preceded this movie: Computer Generated Images, violence, fantastical monsters, etc., etc., etc. Because I wanted to save the extra $2.00 surcharge for 3D glasses, I opted for the "plain" version. After all, what could possibly top Vincent Price in "House of Wax?" He was the best!

This Scandinavian epic has been related for centuries, and I suppose this interpretation is as good as some of the others, although this version certainly takes more than one major detour. This movie uses a much-improved "motion capture" technique that we first saw with "Polar Express." Suffice it to say, the faces and expressions are very real, despite being computer generated.

You will hear the voices of Ray Winstone as Beowolf, John Malkovich as Unferth, Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar, Crispin Glover as Grendel, and Angelina Jolie as Grendal's mother. Because of the integrity of motion capture, the faces ARE the faces of the actors, even though you are usually aware you are seeing CGI. Using this technique, the filmmakers are free to create otherworldly settings with wildly inventive dragons, beautifully sculpted anatomies but a few surprisingly bad horses (some are okay). Of course, keeping in mind their target audience, the monster oozes disgustingly slimy stuff, corpses are decapitated, and when the monster bites the head off one victim, it crunches in a very satisfying way as he chews it... Aarghhh!

Have you heard enough? I don't think ponying up the extra $2.00 for 3-D glasses will increase your enjoyment...

Glory Road

For as long as I can remember, college and professional basketball has been integrated. Shows you how much I know! Evidently in 1965/66 an untried college basketball coach, frustrated by his inability to recruit potential players for his El Paso, Texas team, signed the best players he could find, and they were black...from Detroit and from the Bronx. His focus on defense and his determination to win, made his motley little assortment of guys into the 1966 NCAA champs!

This movie stars Josh Lucas ("Sweet Home, Alabama" and "An Unfinished Life") as future Hall-of-Fame coach Don Haskins. Derek Luke ("Antoine Fisher" and "Pieces of April") is appealing as the legendary Bobby Joe Hill, the slickest guy on the court.

This movie is notable for two reasons:

  1. It depicts the beginnings of integration in basketball...and how challenging and scary it really was!
  2. The editing of this movie is some of the best I've ever seen in a sports movie!

This is a feel-good movie in every sense of the word. Disney released it in 2006 and I am positive you can find it on your rental lists.

11/22/07

Enchanted

James Marsden is donning the mantle where Cary Elwes left it... You know...playing sort of dim bulbs, but incredibly good looking, just the same. In fact, "Enchanted" bears a passing resemblance to "The Princess Bride," in that we are watching an unapologetic fantasy, and the characters put everything they have into it. There is no irony, nor should there be.

Here you have Giselle, played by Amy Adams ("Talladega Nights" and "Junebug") a sweet cartoon soprano who sings with the birdies, bunnies, deer, chipmunks, mice, etc., in her enchanted forest, happily awaiting her Prince Charming. Sure enough, handsome, heroic Prince Edward, played by James Marsden ("The Notebook," "Superman Returns" and "Hairspray") hears her trills and comes galloping to her side. His mother, played by Susan Sarandon ("The Banger Sisters" and "Dead Man Walking") will have none of it and tricks Giselle into falling down a magic well.

If you've seen the trailers, you know Giselle exits the well via a manhole in Times Square, right in the middle of traffic! From then on, there is no animation and we are treated to live action and extraordinarily beautiful people. Patrick Dempsey ("Sweet Home, Alabama" and "Iron-Jawed Angels") plays Robert Philip, a divorced divorce attorney, a single parent, who is edging his way toward proposing to his five-year steady...although his six-year-old daughter isn't too thrilled about it.

Through one device or another, Giselle ends up staying with him and his daughter in his place near Central Park, because he can't figure out where to send her and she is utterly confused by "real life!" Naturally, her Prince Charming is hot on her trail and is determined to save her from the dangers he encounters from all sides!

This is a Disney movie in every sense of the word. The audience was charmed, amused and... dare I say... enchanted? I always view taking along a youngster as a good "hall pass" to justify attending these things. Find one.

11/20/07

The Lost Language of Cranes

First of all, the title is based on such a flimsy premise it would be better left off.

Other than that, have you seen this one? This is not for general consumption but I think you would really like it. It is a BBC adaptation of an American novel about a young man who "comes out" to his parents. We can clearly see that his father is also a homosexual. Good performances all around. I got it from the library, so I'm sure it's available in catalogs and for rental.

11/17/07

No Country For Old Men

First of all, let me admit that I am a HUGE fan of Javier Bardem ("Live Flesh," "Collateral" and "Boca a Boca"). I own a number of his Spanish-language films and have been extremely impressed with his range and his abilities for over ten years. Next, I also admit that I appreciate some of the Coen Brothers' work ("Blood Simple" and "Fargo"). But for my "Entertainment Dollar?" Not this one...sorry. It is extremely well done, but it is NOT entertaining!

"No Country for Old Men" is unremittingly grim, bloody, suspenseful and nihilistic. Josh Brolin ("American Gangster" and "Flirting With Disaster") is a resourceful Vietnam vet who is out in the wide open spaces of Texas, hunting antelope. After wounding one, he is in the process of tracking it when he happens upon a grisly cluster of dead men, a dead dog and abandoned pickups. After counting the corpses and the pickups, he ascertains that one man is missing, so he redirects his tracking skills and finds the last man, also dead by now, but in possession of a bag of money. Tommy Lee Jones ("Men in Black," "The Fugitive" and "Coal Miner's Daughter") is the weary sheriff of the Texas county where the slaughter took place. The scene tells him of a drug deal gone bad. He and the sheriff of El Paso County have one of those old-timer laments about what the world has come to.

Bardem's character is -- along with being in the drug trade -- a homicidal maniac. There is little or no logic to his actions, he kills with no remorse (sometimes by the flip of a coin) and is every bit as resourceful as Brolin's character.

Most of the killings are just off-screen (whew!) and some are merely alluded to (Bardem checking the bottoms of his shoes as he exits one house).

Woody Harrelson ("Ed TV" and "North Country") makes a brief appearance, and Tess Harper ("Tender Mercies" and "Broken Bridges"), looking as sweet as ever, is the patient wife of Tommy Lee's sheriff. Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald ("Gosford Park" and "Finding Neverland"), this time out, turns in a convincing Texas accent as Brolin's skeptical wife.

This is high quality, high caliber (sorry) and high anxiety...and I didn't even see this one for FREE! Aarghhh!

11/13/07

Music Within

"Music Within" is one of those well-meaning projects that pretty much works. Ron Livingston ("Office Space," "Adaptation" and "The Cooler") plays Richard Pimentel, a Portland-based Army veteran who, as a result of injuries suffered in Vietnam, became profoundly hearing impaired. Livingston is also one of the producers of this film, which is based on the real-life man who eventually became the ramrod for the Americans With Disabilities Act, which changed the landscape of America and dozens of other Free-World countries, providing access for the handicapped, both to places of business and to employment.

The major kudos for acting, however, go to Michael Sheen who has enjoyed a mini-career portraying British Prime Minister Tony Blair ("The Queen" and "The Deal") but has proven his acting chops again and again in his award-winning roles on stage, screen and television. This time out, he is Art Honeyman, a genius level writer who suffers from a severe case of cerebral palsy. As young men, Pimentel and Honeyman establish a long-term working friendship which illustrates to Pimentel how rudely people treat folks who are "different."

Hector Elizondo ("Pretty Woman" and "Princess Diaries") plays a professor of speech at a Portland institution of higher learning. He "auditions" Pimentel but refuses him as a student because, as he says, Pimental is a brilliant speaker, but has no Point of View. Years later, as Pimentel finds his calling as a spokesman for the handicapped, he reconnects with Elizondo and they agree that now, he DOES have a Point of View!

Things I appreciated:
  • Livingston's aging is handled capably. His body seems to thicken and his gait reflects that of a mature man rather than the callow youth he plays earlier in the film.
  • His interaction with the other characters shows he has no idea what they are saying unless he is facing them and can see their lips. I could relate to his situation very, very well.
  • Mike Stolz as Yul Vazquez, a hair-triggered veteran who is working in Pimentel's job placement office.
  • Rebecca De Mornay (!) as Pimentel's mentally ill mother...We are a long ways from "Risky Business" here!
  • Melissa George ("Mulholland Drive" and "The Limey") is an appealing girlfriend/wife who feels the impact of Pimentel's success.
  • Shots of Portland.
  • I liked the "slow service" line with Honeyman and Pimentel at IHOP.

Things I didn't appreciate:

  • Early scenes in the movie are misleading. You almost think you will be watching a farce.
  • Some of Honeyman's scenes are too long and too icky (I know, I know...don't say it!)
  • I didn't need to watch Pimental as a kid, behead the chicken, although I will admit, it was done tastefully AND provides him with a topic for his first public appearance.
  • His surrender to the siren song of success. The rise and fall and rise again has been done before. I guess it must happen, huh? This is based on Pimentel's biography.
  • If I had seen more successes from his early efforts to find jobs for other veterans, the call from the Oregon Governor's Office wouldn't have seemed like such a surprise.
  • I never like scenes where people are smoking dope and bitching...even when I can understand why!

I liked this movie, but probably more as a rental. Don't dash out to your nearest multiplex... although I really LIKE to support well-meaning projects.

Disturbia

So what does it take for a movie to earn over $200 million? John Hughes used to do teeny bopper movies, usually starring Brat Packers or Molly Ringwald, and even with them, it would be tough.

This year, they took a young fellow who had done some television work, plus a Disney movie ("Holes"), a couple of ensemble pieces ("Bobby" and "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints"), a huge "blowie uppie" spectacular ("Transformers") and put him in this whiz-bang movie that is a combination horny-teenager comedy, genuine suspense and flat-out horror. Shia LaBeouf threatens to be the juvenile lead du jour these days. He will be in the fourth "Indiana Jones" movie and has a couple more already in the can.

Despite his incident at WalMart in November, 2007, I am still hoping he can keep his nose clean and come out the other end a professional actor instead of a has-been by age 25 (he's 21 now).

"Disturbia" opens with an idyllic scene of him fishing with his father. On the drive home, they have a horrific accident and his father dies. When we pick up the story a year later, he is acting out in school, trouble at home and generally a miserable pain in the neck for his mother, played by Carrie Anne Moss ("The Matrix" and "Memento"). Under the circumstances, neither the school nor the judge wants to incarcerate him, so he is fitted with an ankle monitor and sentenced to three months home supervision.

His mother quickly sees that cable TV, electronic games and wireless devices all make his sentence a farce, so she cuts him off from everything so he will actually experience some punishment.

As a consequence, his boredom converts him into a voyeur, monitoring the comings and goings of all his neighbors, both by actual sight and using binoculars. Naturally, he watches his delectable teenage neighbor in her bedroom, he sees the pre-pubescent boys next door visiting porn sites while their mother sits, oblivious, elsewhere in the house, and wonders about a mature single fellow who keeps his yard immaculately mowed and seems to date occasionally.

There have been reports of a serial killer in the city and a Mustang car was identified as somehow involved. Yup, you guessed it, that single fellow...

Suffice it to say, plenty of the scenes are nail-biters, lots of the dialog is excellent and there really IS a classic "Don't-Go-In-The-Basement" scene.

It's too late to add to the ticket sales, but the DVD rentals are still accruing, so if you want to have the pee-waddling damn scared out of you, rent the DVD and turn down the lights.

11/9/07

The Savages

In the social sciences, I think they call a family like this "toxic." The two main characters, a brother and a sister, flawlessly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote" and "State and Main") and Laura Linney ("P.S." and "Mystic River"), are the offspring of a selfish, domineering, hateful old widower, whose girlfriend dies at the very beginning of the film. It seems that the couple had their own version of a "Pre-nup" at her Sun City home, so he is evicted before her corpse has cooled. Her children quickly put her house on the market and his children must rush to Arizona to try to evaluate what needs to be done.

In very short order, they discover that he is bellicose and mentally failing, thus is unwelcome at most facilities that care for the elderly. Hoffmann's character sees things pretty clearly and is prepared to take the necessary practical steps. Linney's, on the other hand, is horrified to think they are going to institutionalize their father and is neither happy nor very cooperative about it.

This is NOT a pleasant film. It is, however, brilliantly written, directed and acted. One actor in particular who is worthy of note, other than the aforementioned Hoffman and Linney, is Philip Bosco who plays their father, Lenny Savage. This guy is one of those familiar faces you have seen in dozens of secondary roles all the way back to 1961. In this one, his pivotal role is amazingly well acted. His explosive temper, his frustrations and his failings all contribute to his children's dilemma. His children, on the other hand, are Boomers to the core. Both have an artistic bent, both are writers who have enjoyed varied levels of success, both love to sample any and all available pharmaceuticals and seem to be the perfect out-picturing of the crippling effects of dysfunctional parenting.

This film is due to be released at Christmas. I'm glad I saw it; you'll have to make up your own mind.

Gideon's Daughter

Okay, I admit it. I have become a real fan of Director Stephen Poliakoff, thanks to my friend Carl, sitting over there in Sweden, pulling the strings.... This is the third film of Poliakoff's that I find myself recommending, the first two being "Friends and Crocodiles" and "The Lost Prince." His films, which he generally both writes and directs, are unlike any others. He tends to focus on a period in history, then plop someone down in the middle of it and "humanize" it for his audience.

"Friends and Crocodiles" leads up to, through and then past, the Dot Com bust. "The Lost Prince" focuses on a decade just prior to World War II. This latest one starts about where "Friends and Crocodiles" leaves off; in fact, one of the characters from "F & C" is the narrator of "Gideon's Daughter" and we focus on the period just before, during and immediately after, Princess Di's car crash in Paris.

Poliakoff writes for the stage, television and the cinema. He never lacks for subject matter because he walks around London and sees stories behind every building, every construction site, every object, every event and every character he encounters. According to the interview with Robert Lindsey ("Friends and Crocodiles" and "Extras"), who plays the narrator of this film, Poliakoff is decisive, rude, opinionated and everyone would kill to work with him. His crew has been with him for decades despite his abrasiveness. This film won two Golden Globes.

Bill Nighy ("Girl in a Café" and "Love, Actually") is Gideon. His estranged wife died years ago and he has raised their daughter to college age. The daughter, played by Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada" and "The Jane Austen Book Club"), wants to experience a traditional "Gap Year" in which she will go to Columbia, South America, to help the people there. Gideon is horrified, as it is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world, so he wants her to go directly to Edinburgh and start college. He is understandably afraid for her safety, but she sees his attitude as unwarranted and interfering. She has resented his absence at the moment of her mother's death years ago and has never forgiven him.

He is a political and business consultant, inordinately successful, but he is losing his focus through his worry for his daughter. He encounters a woman who is working her way through an extended period of grief because her young son was killed on his bicycle a couple of years ago. Stella, played by Miranda Richardson ("The Hours" and "The Lost Prince") works nights in a mini-mart because she doesn't sleep very well and just wants to stay busy.

The less Gideon listens to the concerns of his staff and his clients, the more successful he becomes. Princess Di's automobile crash is woven seamlessly into this piece. I won't tell you how it ends, but I WILL say that Princess Diana dies... Hope that's not too much of a spoiler...

This is a well-crafted, well-acted, well-funded and marvelously cast movie.

11/1/07

Almost Strangers

British writer/director Stephen Poliakoff did it again! In 2001 he created a television mini-series about a family reunion. It's hard to identify which actor is the "star" because so many of the characters figure so heavily in the 237 minutes of this highly involving dramedy. "Almost Strangers" is also called "Perfect Strangers," so be careful when you look for it in your library or on your rental lists. The captions were activated by my DVD remote, not from my TV.

Michael Gambon ("Gosford Park," "The Lost Prince," "Layer Cake" and Dumbledore in "Harry Potter") plays one of the central characters. His son is played by Matthew Macfadyen ("Pride and Prejudice" - 2005 and "Death at a Funeral"). They are invited to a huge family reunion despite living some distance north of London and being considered sort of the black sheep of the family flock. One lovely aunt is played by Lindsay Duncan ("Mansfield Park" and "The Queen of Sheba's Pearls") who portrays an elegant, gracious and capable woman caught in a wrenching dilemma.

Macfadyen meets two cousins of a similar age and the three of them hit it off together. The male cousin is played by one of my favorites, Maggie Smith's son, Toby Stevens ("Tenant of Wildfell Hall," "Twelfth Night" and "Possession"). As we encounter various members of this extended family, we are treated with flashbacks which provide the back stories for them. There are long-kept secrets, long-held grudges, long-hidden love affairs, long-forgotten photographs and long-cherished marriages. We can wonder at the inseparable trio of elderly women, gape at the beautiful estates where the various functions take place and wince at the drunken dinner speech.

This mini-series is involving, entertaining and highly satisfying.

I recommend it.

10/29/07

Dan in Real Life

Steve Carell ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") continues to impress me. This time out, he plays a shy widower with three daughters; he writes a newspaper advice column. They are going to spend some vacation time at his parents' cabin (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) with lots of siblings and in-laws, plus nieces and nephews of various ages. This is clearly a large, happy family and everything is organized to a "Tee." (Although he DOES have to sleep in the laundry room where there is usually a load of clothes in the dryer, WITH tennis shoes!)

On the first morning, his mother sends him to the nearby village to buy a newspaper. While he is in the shop, he sees a woman, played by Juliette Binoche ("Chocolat," "Cache" and an Academy Award for "The English Patient"), who tries to ask the proprietor for some assistance. The proprietor is on the phone and ignores her, so when she sees Dan looking at her, she thinks he works there. He helps her and it isn't until she is ready to make her purchases that he confesses he doesn't. They are having so much fun by then they go to a coffee shop and go on chatting and laughing. This is the first time since his wife died four years earlier that he has been able to relax and talk with a woman so he is smitten. She suddenly realizes she is late getting somewhere and rushes off.

When he finally gets back to the cabin, his brother (Dane Cook) introduces him to his new girlfriend...yup...it's Binoche. Of course he is instantly hurt but has no intention of stealing his brother's girlfriend, so of course the movie is about his turmoil.

The family is determined to drag him out of his grief. At one point, his father comes into the laundry room to have a little father/son chat. The mother soon joins them. Next comes a brother and his wife to start a load of laundry. Finally every adult in the family is jammed into the laundry room with him. They have taken upon themselves to throw him back into the dating pool and have arranged a blind date with a woman he knew many years ago when they were children. At that time, her nickname was "Pig Face." He is so reluctant to go that his brother offers to make it a double date with Binoche...much to Dan's discomfort.

A major European star, Juliette Binoche is a veteran of big films and small. In this one, she is warm, funny and fit. The family dynamics are fun, with everyone participating in the homemade entertainments because there is no television at the cabin and it is up to them to find ways to divert themselves. The diversions range from competitive crossword puzzles to charades. Mom and Dad are always getting help in meal preparation, the kids help set the table, the adult sons do the dishes, everyone does laundry... you get the picture.

Dan's daughters are clearly being raised right. They are doing age-appropriate adolescent stuff, but when Dad puts his foot down, they reluctantly obey. I loved that there was automatically one table for the grown-ups and one for the kids. That's the way it should be and it looked so natural!

I liked this movie.

10/26/07

Cochise County

I just received a DVD, "Cochise County" which describes the turmoil on the Mexican border. The infrared shots of the throngs of illegals running through the mesquite are shocking to say the least! Hundreds and hundreds every night, a constant stream, just along that small section of the border. The citizens of Sonora and Arizona, the two states that abut the border in that area, are all begging for help. Corpses are being found on the southern side of the line, too! And those Sonoran ranch owners aren't any happier about them than the Arizonians.

The statistics are staggering! For example the costs to one local hospital in Bisbee (where my son David was born), in dollars and cents, are amazing! And the health-care workers come across as sympathetic, understanding and humanitarian (some of them are themselves, Mexican immigrants), but they are confronted and confounded by hard, heart-breaking economic facts of life.

Pictures of the debris found in that area are also staggering: maps, copies of the Koran, hypodermics, condoms, clothes, corpses, writings in Chinese, Farsi and other Arabic scripts, Bibles, blankets, water jugs, automatic rifles, ammunition, etc., etc. This debris is abandoned when they see they are going to be picked up by the authorities. The Border Patrol has to focus as much on rescue as on deportation these days.

The increase in drug traffic is phenomenal! Tons! And that's just in the Tucson District alone (which includes Cochise County). Cocaine and marijuana are the top imports, but there are lots of fake prescription drugs coming across, too.

The Minutemen come across as articulate, dispassionate, and law- abiding. They are mad at Bush, at the Governor, and at the Federales on the other side of the border. Bush and the Governor for the funding shortages that have handicapped the Border Patrol, and the Federales for using their high-powered glasses and cell phones to direct the "illegals" to spots where, temporarily, there is no Border Patrol presence. The Minutemen are armed, but it is because the drug smugglers are also armed. The Minutemen use their cell phones as their primary weapon of choice. So far, no shots have been fired...

One of the local Seattle columnists was commenting on some objections the other day. It is no longer politically correct to call these folks "Illegals" but instead the recommended "Undocumented Immigrants." He said if that is what they are to be called, we should call a bank robbery "An unauthorized withdrawal!"

See? The local Seattle fishwrap sometimes has good stuff coming from their uniformly liberal writers!

10/23/07

The Deep End

What a surprise! I finally got around to watching this highly rated 2001 film and was gratified to see how complex, beautifully acted and well-crafted piece this is.

Of course Tilda Swinton ("Michael Clayton" and "Orlando") is excellent, that's no surprise. Her character is a Navy wife with her husband at sea and incommunicado. She is saddled with three active, talented children and is also caring for her father-in-law, who lives with them. You see the day-to-day demands on her time and energy, given freely and unquestioningly. Their waterfront home on Lake Tahoe is a well-organized, capably run enterprise with her securely at the helm.

Her oldest son will soon graduate from high school. He is a talented musician who is tentatively exploring his sexuality at a gay nightclub in nearby Reno. Her daughter is taking ballet classes and will be in a performance of "Swan Lake" in the near future. Her youngest son has Little League baseball and his beloved aquarium to keep him busy. The father-in-law is a fairly undemanding fellow, but he does have bad heart.

Enter the villain, the son's recent lover, come from Reno, a handsome seducer played by Josh Lucas ("Sweet Home, Alabama" and "An Unfinished Life") who tosses pebbles at their windows one evening. The boy sees him, is horrified and takes his lover to the boathouse to try to convince him to leave and not awaken the household. After a tussle, the boy goes back into the house and the next morning, his mother spots a corpse in the water by the boathouse. She recognizes him because she had made an unsuccessful foray to his nightclub in an attempt to make him leave her son alone. She quickly jumps to the conclusion that her son killed him and sets about to dispose of the corpse.,

By the time the blackmailers come onto the scene, Goran Visnjic takes you completely by surprise. This actor was such a vile fellow in "Practical Magic" it is hard to see him in any other light, but scene by scene, as his character is affected by his talks with this hard-working wife and mother, the movie becomes more and more involving. She is certain that her career Navy husband would be cruelly hurt by evidence that their son might be a homosexual. Her sole focus is to try to raise the money and claim the blackmail video. Watching her trying to cope with the bureaucracy of banks, credit card companies and other lenders, while folding the laundry and preparing meals, is a wonderful character study.

No spoilers here. Just watch it and then get back to me. Let me know if you like it as much as I did!

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

This French film was popular here in Seattle when it was released in 2005 but then I sort of forgot about it. I ordered it from the Seattle Library last July (2007) and finally got around to it!

This thriller features a thug doing strong-arm work for his personal real estate deals as well as for his slumlord father. You have to watch as he and his gang clear out tenants when their building is sold (it isn't pretty), and you also see his lowbrow father doing his own version of deal making.

The main thug, Thomas (Romain Duris) is ruthless and successful but he has a small crack in his façade, he has a weakness for classical music; his mother had encouraged him to play when he was a youngster (she was a famous pianist) and he had been scheduled to audition for her manager just before she died. When he encounters the manager years later, he is still willing to allow our "hero" to audition.

The audition is a painful failure and is abruptly terminated. Thomas finds a classical piano teacher who can rehearse him so he can try again. She is a recent immigrant from Thailand, who is an extremely well-trained and demanding taskmaster.

You watch as Thomas's life splits into three very different paths: His love for classical music; his real estate "business"; and his father's selfish and unrelenting demands.

There are no familiar names or faces in this one, so it is easy to convince yourself that these people are real! The performances are excellent and the movie enjoyed uniformly high praise from the reviewers. "Stylish and suspenseful." "...emotions can be spread with a knife." "Brilliant and brutally poignant." "Unpretentiously fantastic!"

Introducing the Dwights

What do they feed the guys in Australia? Can it be canned and sold to blokes who live elsewhere? By the time our youthful hero Tim (Khan Chittendon) finally takes off his shirt, you too, will begin to wonder! Yum!

A movie like "Introducing the Dwights" could never work if they had used second-rate actors in the key roles. If you are anything like me, you already know that Brenda Blethyn ("Undertaking Betty" and "Little Voice") can do ANYTHING! In this, she plays a mother of two young men, one with cerebral palsy from his difficult birth and the other is a young man striving to succeed with his own moving business. She is loving, concerned, sensitive to their needs and has been a single parent far longer than she wants to remember. She works in a commercial kitchen but also is a part-time stand-up comic who really knows how to work a room! Her humor is bawdy and risqué but she has high hopes...

That is where her real passion lies and both of her sons totally "get" her ambitions, they are generous with their time and appreciative of her sacrifices; they go to great lengths to support her and her efforts.

Their absent father is also a performer, a wanna-be Country singer who has just produced his latest CD. He too, has high hopes...

The actor who plays Mark, the brain-damaged brother, has certainly spent some quality time studying Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-nominated performance in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"

Despite the nobility of the mother, she is also self-serving and alarmed when she sees her son Tim becoming very interested in and infatuated with a young woman, played by Emma Booth, who works at a Midas Muffler shop.

The characters in this movie are fully fledged, they are good AND bad, kind AND cruel, generous AND selfish. In other words, they are human in every sense of the word. You know me...I always want someone to root for! I liked it...

10/20/07

5 X 2

Once again, a limited distribution.... If you have seen this one, you will understand why... Like "Betrayal" many years ago, this movie goes backwards. The first episode you see is the couple getting their final divorce decree followed by an upsetting scene with them in a hotel room.

Next you see a dinner party with his brother and his brother's latest studly lover a year or so earlier.

After that you see her giving birth to their son two or so years before THAT.

Get the picture? The "5" stands for five separate key chapters in their relationship. The reason I got this DVD from Seattle Library in the first place was to, once again, enjoy looking at Stephane Freiss ("The Grand Role"). He is soooo good looking and such an accomplished actor, I am willing to forgive him for his characters' shortcomings.

Be advised...this movie is VERY European with graphic sex scenes, nudity, etc. I was a little glitchy until the episode that featured their wedding day/night. For some reason, after that I felt things were in better balance and watched the rest of it with relish. I know, I know, I am a bitch! But have I ever pretended to be otherwise?

10/18/07

Venus

My daughter-in-law used to disdain female Country/Western singers because they was always sang about "Women's Issues." This highly regarded little movie, in my opinion, deals with "Men's Issues."

It's funny, in watching all of the interviews of the men involved, none of them seemed aware of the "ick" factor that jumped off the screen at me, over and over.

Don't misunderstand, the performances are terrific, particularly the delicately nuanced relationship between the two elderly men who play the lead roles. Maybe I was reading between the lines, but I think one of them was gay and the other had been aware of his friend's unrequited love for a lifetime. Peter O'Toole ("The Stunt Man" and "Becket") is the main character who develops an unrequited love of his own for a feisty young woman who has been sent to provide in-home care for his closest friend. By the friend's reaction to the presence of a young woman in his home, it is clear that he finds it repugnant, upsetting and highly unwelcome! By HER reaction to the elderly man, it is clear that she is selfish, rebellious and angry. She clearly is disgusted by O'Toole's affection and is looking for some way to exploit it.

Vanessa Redgrave ("Camelot" and "Atonement") plays O'Toole's wife, abandoned decades ago but never divorced, who was forced to raise their three children by herself. He continues to support her...in cash...from his frequent film roles that he still manages to find. His medical experiences (he has prostate cancer) are pretty graphic and sorta funny, in an icky way....

There were many things to admire in this little film, but I found even more to loathe, so I am NOT distributing this review to my standard JayFlix folks, but instead, am simply posting it.

Have you seen this one? Can we talk?

10/16/07

Michael Clayton

A grownup movie. What a concept! Only one blowie uppie thingie, and IT is an empty car...

George Clooney ("Ocean's" series and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") has turned in his best work to date. This one doesn't have the tongue-in-cheek smirk he uses so often. He plays a guy who is good at what he does...he's a "janitor" or "fixer" for a prominent law firm. In other words, he is the clean-up man when they might otherwise be forced to soil their lily-white gloves. He has no job description, no job security and no job satisfaction.

His old bad gambling habit seems to have been satisfied by a BIG gamble he took with his brother when they opened a restaurant together, which promptly failed. This left him in overwhelming debt and under a LOT of pressure to pay that debt. His relationship with his pre-teen son is nebulous at best, with the kid casting doubtful and skeptical glances his way when he comes by to pick him up for school. He is distracted, worried and preoccupied, so he isn't the best parent right now.

His law firm is negotiating a lawsuit for a huge chemical conglomerate and they are on the brink of settling a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit. Problem is, their brilliant lead attorney seems to have gone off the deep end. This guilt-ridden fellow, played by Tom Wilkinson ("The Full Monty" and "In The Bedroom") is in the process of sabotaging the case and is threatening to come clean. So far the main partner, played by Sidney Pollack ("Avenue Montaigne" and "Tootsie") has managed to convince himself that his firm's defense is justified and that he is on the correct side. He is convinced that his poor lead attorney just needs to get back on his "meds."

The lead litigator for the chemical firm, played by Tilda Swinton ("The Deep End" and "Chronicles of Narnia"), is a tightly wound, ambitious woman who employs "muscle" for those rare times when she deems them necessary. This is one of those times...

This film moves at a deliberate pace, underplayed and quietly spoken. In fact, for my poor ears, when the DVD comes out, I will view it so I can catch much of the dialogue that I missed. Aarghhh! This may be a spoiler, but I will say that it has a satisfying wrap and we all left the theatre happy.

Hamlet - 2000

Here's a movie you probably will never watch (although it has elements of plots we actually DO like...). Last night I watched a modern version of "Hamlet" done in contemporary times but with the Elizabethan language intact. I had the captions on and boy oh boy, did that ever help!

Ethan Hawke ("Training Day" and "Before Sunrise") does the honors in the lead and does NOT embarrass himself; Julia Stiles (the "Bourne" franchise and "Mona Lisa Smile") is an excellent Ophelia; Liev Schreiber ("The Manchurian Candidate" 2004, and "The Painted Veil") is equally good as her brother Laertes.

Denmark is no longer a country, but a massive New York-based corporation that is handed over to a murdered CEO's brother who has married the "grieving" widow within a month of his death. Sam Shepard is the ghost of the victim entreating his son to avenge his death. Hawke's Hamlet does his "To Be or Not To Be" speech in a Blockbuster's, Ophelia's mad scene is in the Guggenheim, etc., etc. It's like they followed one of our morning walks to select sites for key locations. Of course I didn't recognize everything, but it was enough. This is a much abridged version -- Kenneth Branagh's version is the only one to use the full text, as I believe this is one of Shakespeare's longest plays. I missed "Alas, poor Yorick..." and the cautionary advice to the actors about the dangers of over-acting.

As a veteran, I noted whole scenes that were deleted or were alluded to via snippets of black and white videos that Hawke is always watching on his hand-held portable gizmo. The "stage business" was clever and worked perfectly with the text and the characters. For example, when Pelonius, beautifully acted by Bill Murray ("Lost in Translation" and "Rushmore"), is cautioning his daughter about the "heat" of a young man's passion, he notices one of her sneakers is untied, so reaches down and ties it, never missing a word. He does his fatherly advising to Laertes while helping him pack, as he is leaving for Germany. Books, passport, shaving kit, clothes, all bundled into suitcases while chattering away, with Schreiber's expression understated and preoccupied, showing patient tolerance for Dad's verbosity. The play within a play is given as a production in the corporate meeting room and Hamlet has created a composite of old home movies of him, his mother and his father, plus scenes from old silent movies, and I think, some Monty Python.

Bill Murray does a notable job as chatty old Pelonius ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be..." and "To thine own self be true") and the use of limos, high-end residential buildings (no, I did not spot Trump Tower), airports, etc., made it interesting. I realize it is NOT the ultimate version -- I think Laurence Olivier's version gets the most stars, however it is too is abridged -- but for the New York locales and contemporary actors, I liked this one a lot. Take THAT Leonard Maltin!

10/12/07

The Hidden Fortress

Ready for a really OLD classic? Remember, there is usually some good reason why a film is considered a classic!

Akira Kurosawa featured the durable (but hunky in his short-shorts WITH boots!) Japanese star Toshiro Mifune as an honor-bound samurai who has made a self-imposed commitment to return his stranded princess to her kingdom, along with a pile of gold. Kurosawa's admiration of American director John Ford is evident in the way he frames battles, presents approaching armies and films individual fight scenes. The unique thing about this movie however, has nothing to do with John Ford, it is the central focus on two unusual main characters.

Kurosawa presents this entire samurai sword and sandal epic through the eyes of a pair of conniving, bickering, back-stabbing thieves who are out to survive at all costs. It was this unusual spin that inspired George Lucas to feature R2D2 and C3PO in his Star Wars films. (His interview is one of the extras on the DVD.)

I found this movie to be a delight from beginning to end, even though it took just a tad of adjustment to the brash semi-shouts that Japanese language films use for routine dialogue. Otherwise, I enjoyed ogling the appealing Mifune, laughed at the craven ploys of the comic duo and enjoyed the various artifices our embattled little gang used to try to stay out of the clutches of the enemy. For one thing, the head-strong, outspoken princess was forced to pose as a mute! Of course, with Mifune being a samurai, many of those ploys consisted of "hiding in plain sight."

Loved it!

Lars and the Real Girl

Ryan Gosling ("Fracture" and "The Notebook") is phenomenal! Once again he has found a character he can inhabit completely, a character that is flawed, sympathetic, funny, interesting and one we can really, really root for!

Lars is an anti-social, introverted and deeply troubled young man. He is employed in an office but has very little social interaction with his coworkers. He lives in a converted garage behind his brother and sister-in-law's comfortable big house on the outskirts of a small Midwestern town (the film actually was shot in Ontario). His sister-in-law, Karin, played by the wonderful Emily Mortimer ("Dear Frankie" and "Match Point") makes numerous attempts to invite him in to the main house for dinner, to go places with them and to otherwise act like "family." He is awkward, monosyllabic, and painfully shy.

One of his coworkers is looking at life-like sex toys on his computer at work and the next thing you know, Lars has a large box delivered to his garage apartment. Imagine the looks on his brother and sister-in-law's faces when he brings his wheelchair-bound "Russian" girlfriend, Bianca, into the main house to join them for dinner! He maintains that Bianca is very quiet because she is shy, and, because they aren't married, he asks if she can stay in the guest room upstairs in the main house, otherwise "people might talk." The sister-in-law readily agrees despite his brother's sputtered objections. She even offers to take her shopping for clothes!

Lars wants Bianca to have a physical exam because of the rigors of her recent trip, so he and Karin take her to a local doctor, played by Patricia Clarkson ("The Station Agent" and "Miracle"), who is a wise and wonderful woman. The looks on the faces of the other patients in the waiting room are priceless, particularly the little boy who finds himself happily sitting on Bianca's lap!

As the small town starts to percolate with rumor, gossip and snide remarks, an outspoken old biddy lays it on the line. She itemizes the peculiarities of the various "normal" individuals in their church group and starts the ball rolling. The upshot is, everyone in the town, church, mall, hairdressers, doctor's office, and day-care center, all accept Bianca, and go along with Lars's delusion, because he has always been a sweet-natured boy whom they all have loved. You will relish the scene where he gently administers delicate CPR to a coworker's little stuffed bunny!

As a result of Bianca's acceptance, he interacts more with the towns- people because he has to take her places, thus gradually he becomes better groomed, more verbal and more social...he even attends an office Christmas party (WITH Bianca!). You will love the scene of Bianca "dancing" with their befuddled but game host!

When his delusion starts to falter and suddenly he can't detect a pulse or breathing, they frantically call 911, forgetting for a time that this is not a living creature.

There are many delicious lines that went past my poor hearing that the audience heartily enjoyed so I'm positive I will LOVE the captions on the DVD!

This is heartwarming, human, humorous and delightfully entertaining. Ryan Gosling is completely convincing as a sweetly damaged young man looking for a deep, committed relationship and fumbling his own painful way to that end!

Wonderful!

10/10/07

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

We may have forgotten, but while 16th Century Europe was ablaze with the Catholic Inquisition, Protestant England stood apart. Queen Elizabeth I refused to either jail or punish her citizens for their beliefs, only for their actions. As a result, so long as English Catholics were law-abiding citizens, she gave no permission to jail them. Furthermore, she had no intention of converting to Catholicism.

Cate Blanchett ("Bandits," "The Aviator" as Katharine Hepburn, "Babel" and "Elizabeth") returns once again as the legendary Elizabeth I, Queen of England. I doubt if lightening will strike twice; I don't see an Oscar for this turn around the block, although she is once again, her regally professional self and convincingly authentic as the queen who must find her way through a morass of political, familial and religious conflicts that made the Elizabethan Era such a fascinating time. Elizabeth is, in turns, feminine and needy, angry and regal, decisive and heroic.

Clive Owen ("Greenfingers" and "Children of Men"), as Sir Walter Raleigh, is not quite as suave as Errol Flynn's Essex in "Elizabeth and Essex" but he buckles his swash in his most appealing role to date.

Geoffrey Rush ("Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Banger Sisters") - another Aussie - returns as Elizabeth's trusted advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham, who is hoodwinked into entrapping the imprisoned Mary Stuart, into a plot to overthrow Elizabeth. This automatically condemns her to death, thus provides the Catholic King of Spain, Philip II, with a perfect rationale to attack Protestant England. Ya got that so far? This intricate spy network was a little too intricate for THIS viewer... of course court intrigue is always conducted in whispers, and you know my hearing!

Samantha Morton ("Jane Eyre") is perfect as Elizabeth's saintly but conniving cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots...although the scene of her beheading is too long by half!

The scenes of the approach of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent battle are done with a minimum of CGI. And don't last very long...whew!

This is historical drama, no more and no less...granted the historical era depicted determined the direction of our own history... The costumes, scenery and production values are top drawer, so it is what it is. I liked it...sorta...

10/1/07

The Lost Prince

Once again, a GREAT hot tip from one of you guys! It came, once again, from Sweden. Thanks!

In 2003, BBC created a two-part mini-series that examined the brief, interesting life of Prince John, the youngest child of Britain's King George V and Queen Mary, played by, respectively, Tom Hollander ("Pride and Prejudice" - 2005 and "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Miranda Richardson ("Harry Potter" and "The Hours"). This engaging, extremely well-funded spectacular was written and directed by Britain's highly respected Stephen Poliakoff ("Gideon's Daughter" and "Friends and Crocodiles"). I was constantly amazed by the production values, the locations, the costumes and the thoroughness with which every scene was composed and filmed. (Please, please watch the DVD Extras!)

Prince John was born an epileptic at a time (prior to WWI) when even less was known about epilepsy than today, consequently he was sequestered out of sight and deprived of a standard education. This resulted in the family's impression that he was an "imbecile."

His devoted nanny/nurse Lalla, played brilliantly by Gina McKee ("Notting Hill" and "The Forsyte Saga") not only sees beyond his learning disabilities, she has the patience and skill to draw out his potential as a gardener, a musician and an artist. In addition, Johnnie's older brother, Georgie, never falters in his love and steadfast belief in his little brother's worth.

This is a marvelous 179 minutes that illustrate the European slide toward WWI, the Bolshevik Revolution, the genesis of the name "Windsor" and the minutiae of living as a "Royal." Of course, prior to WWI, the royal families of Europe were all related through Queen Victoria, so everyone was a cousin, aunt or uncle. This made it maddeningly confusing to the two little boys observing the machinations of politics. Poliakoff used a terrific device, having the royal family's primary functionary, played by British acting mainstay Bill Nighy ("Blow Dry" and "Love, Actually") explain to the boys, the (fatal) political ramifications of denying sanctuary to Tsar Nicholas and his family, the decision-making abilities of their uncle, the Kaiser, and the adversarial role of Parliament during those chaotic times. They also witnessed Suffragettes chaining themselves to the palace gates, much to the disgust of the queen.

Both the king and queen come across as fully realized people with their own quirks and preferences. For example, as soon as they assumed their crowns, the queen went about reclaiming gifts that had been given out by her predecessors. She then put them on display in the various royal homes and had handwritten catalog cards attached to the bottoms of every artifact. He, in turn, loved small rooms and stamp collecting. Neither one was much disposed to ruling a nation. AND their young son, Georgie can clearly see their shortcomings, as they fumble their way through a period of unprecedented political upheaval.

There are no stereotypical villains, no unnecessary scenes, no wasted dialog. This is a must-see video. Hie thee to a library or a rental outlet and treat yourselves to a rich and satisfying repast!