The Lives of Others

This German film won Best Foreign Film for 2006 at the Academy Awards. It richly deserves its Oscar!

You are transported to a bleak pre-Gorbachev era and follow a Stasi agent as he is assigned to spy on a prominent (and I might add, hand- some) writer and his lovely, devoted, actress girlfriend. The writer has consistently been pro administration, so the agent is a little bewildered as to why they even bother to set up their equipment. He is, however, very good at his job, so he installs microphones all over the apartment and starts to monitor the premises.

As things progress, the agent comes to realize that his boss's boss wants to get something on the writer because he wants to exert more power over his girlfriend, the actress, who has already been pressured into having sex with him...to her utter disgust. Other than that, they have no reason to spy. This can't help but have an effect on the Stasi agent's diligence. In the meantime, the writer too, is forced to face up to some of the brutalities of the government he has supported.

This movie progresses over a number of years and the man who plays the agent is absolutely flawless. He has a bloodless, obedient, un-opinionated approach to everything. You watch him as opinions threaten to form...


The Pursuit of Happyness

Yes, it's misspelled...it matches the misspelling on the sign of the daycare center where Will Smith ("Men in Black" and "Hitch") takes his son, played by his real-life son, Jaden.

"The Pursuit of Happyness" is based on an autobiography written by the fellow who experienced the events we see in this movie. As we watch the events unfold, we watch Smith's character try to explain them to his wife, played by Thandie Newton ("Crash" and "The Trouble With Charlie"), who can only see the frustrating results, not the events that lead to them. Ultimately, she leaves him to struggle alone, trying to support himself and their small son.

As Smith's character sinks lower and lower, finally sleeping in the men's room in a subway station with his little boy, he has decided he will become a stock broker. As he smooth-talks his way into the intern program at Smith Barney, he doesn't realize it isn't a paying position. This means his financial situation isn't going to get better right away!

At no time does this man ever blame his dilemma on anyone else. This movie is about being accountable for your own actions, loving your family, showing tenacity and above all, demonstrating grace under fire. Smith's character never blames "Whitey" and the white folks with whom he interacts are fairly presented and are helpful, fair and supportive. AND Will Smith himself actually solves the Rubic's Cube onscreen with no outside assistance! This was a significant achievement in the biographer's life, which marked a turning point.

Will Smith is a savvy man; he has made intuitive choices that have served his career and his reputation extremely well. This is the fifth or sixth year in a row where he has been featured in a blockbuster. What a guy!

THIS is a movie that is heartwarming!

Shrek III

By the time we reach the third generation of a movie franchise, we have become very jaded and picky. The first movie, "Shrek," the one that inspired the series, had a lot going for it: everything was new; there was a sense of discovery for each character and each location; the satires seemed inspired; everything was brilliant. The second one, naturally, tried to out-do the first...sometimes with great success and sometimes not so great. The second one was successful, so that brings us inevitably to the third.

To call "Shrek the Third" flaccid or derivative, is to take for granted the wonderful artistry that went into this series; however (and this is a BIG however), with the major exception of Eddie Murphy's donkey, all the famous voices (Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Rupert Everett, Mike Meyers, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, etc., etc., etc.) were scarcely recognizable or distinctive, the cleverly named locations had become old hat and the brilliant Pixar technology has become "ho hum." We have come to expect breathtaking animation and I found myself mentally criticizing the way the human characters walked. How picky is THAT!?

In my opinion, the story is carelessly cobbled together and concludes with everyone throwing down their differences in a strictly illogical Hollywood ending ("Death to Smoochy," and "Night in a Museum"), which forces people like me to remind ourselves that this is a FAIRY TALE, nothing more and nothing less. ("Can't we all just get along?")

The gaggle of princesses is nothing more than a gang of self-centered Valley Girl twits...although Sleeping Beauty has a serious case of narcolepsy! Snow White gets to warble a little tune and gather together some birdies and bunny rabbits on cue, plus she loans out one of the dwarfs to babysit; and it turns out that Rapunzel's long hair is a weave! I don't recall Cinderella in any distinctive way. Of course, our beloved Fiona is resourceful and determined...with never a false move.

Part of my dissatisfaction was the extremely poor sound system in the theatre where I saw it; part of it is a general overload of films that don't seem original or entertaining enough. Sorry...

October Sky

Yep, this one came out nine years ago and was lauded at the time. Many of us weren't motivated to go out and spring for the price of a movie ticket, but it's still available to rent, right? Well, THIS time, don't miss it!

When Sputnik was launched in 1957, the whole world was riveted by the event. A small coal-mining town in West Virginia was no different. A teenage boy, played by Jake Gyllenhaal ("Brokeback Mountain" and "Proof"), transfixed by the sight of that tiny light streaking across the October sky, was a kid named Homer Hickam, Jr. He and two other pals hung out, tried to date girls, made medium grades and generally were grooming themselves to follow in their fathers' footsteps into the coal mines. The sight of Sputnik exploded the size of Homer's universe. He decided he wanted to fire off rockets to see how it was done. He and the other two boys suffered through a series of failures which began when he blew up the fence around his mother's cherished rose garden.

They finally recruited the class "geek" to help them with the more challenging mathematics that seemed to be required. You will have the pleasure of seeing these four boys develop the necessary skills, enjoy encouragement from a science teacher (and DIScouragement from the school principal), make spectacular errors and generally act like normal teenagers who are flirting with a dream. The teacher, played by Laura Dern ("Wild at Heart" and "Rambling Rose") tells Homer that he could get a college scholarship if he won the science fair, and she thinks he and his friends might be on the right track. Homer persists, despite resistance from his father, played by Chris Cooper ("Adaptation" and "Lone Star"), who wants him to play football and get a scholarship THAT way, like his brother.

Homer writes a fan letter to Werner von Braun, which, to his surprise, gets him a signed 8 X 10 photo.

This story has amusing bits, the family conflict bits, the awkward adolescent bits, the hazardous mining bits, and then the BIG setback. The movie serves all of them without a hitch. It captures the sense of a dying one-company mining town, owned by the coal company, lock, stock and barrel. Even the school teachers were employees of the mines. The miners' homes, the stores, everything, belonged to the company! By the time of the big miners' strike in 1959, which was nationwide and included my husband's job in the copper mines of Bisbee, Arizona, it was clear that, like many other mining towns, the little West Virginia town was doomed. We know that that way of life was also doomed. This was a time when people never locked their doors; car keys were left in the ignition; no one expected or experienced any thievery. When Homer goes to Indianapolis to participate in a science fair, he doesn't realize he has to secure the important elements of his display and is absolutely thunderstruck when he comes into the area the next morning and finds it has been cleaned out!

You will LOVE the sound track. They must have spent a fortune for the rights to all the oldies! Elvis Presley, Johnny Ray, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, and many, many more. You will recognize every single song!


Little Children

Let me start out by saying I think I must have been uncommonly crabby when I saw this movie. It has received a steady stream of rave reviews and I realize I am out of step with the artistic community, however:

How many movies must we sit through that celebrate men who are controlled by their nether regions? Talk about arrested development!

Kate Winslet ("Sense and Sensibility" and "Titanic") is sympathetic as the wife of a fellow who advances into more and more outrageous masturbatory episodes. She inadvertently catches him in the act up in his office, and is fairly disgusted by the sight. He is angry with her, mostly because he didn't hear her knock and she interrupted him. I couldn't detect any embarrassment on his part...

A stay-at-home father takes his little boy to the same park as Winslet, and on a bet from other pram-pushing mothers, she introduces herself to him, whereupon one thing leads to another...

A child molester, played by Jackie Earle Hailey ("Breaking Away" and "Bad News Bears") has recently been released from prison and is living with his mother in the neighborhood. As required by law, notices have been posted in the vicinity, warning everyone of his presence. A cop who was retired early because of a shooting incident, played by Noah Emmerich ("Beautiful Girls" and "The Truman Show"), goes absolutely ballistic to think a molester is living among them.

Very quickly, you KNOW things are not going to turn out very well. The things I found most shocking were the man-child tendencies of the leads...which were presented as acceptable and normal, for the most part.

If you rent it, at least you will be able to hear (or read) the dialogue. That was another frustration for me. As I said, I must have been crabby that day.

...not heartwarming...



Chick Flick Alert! What a nice, nice movie! AND it has Nathan Fillian, that yummy Canadian actor who starred in "Firefly" and "Serenity." (He also starred in "Slither" but I won't admit I have seen it!)

It also features Keri Russell ("The Upside of Anger") as Jenna, an unhappily married woman whose only delight is creating new pies for the small-town diner where she is a waitress/cook.

The diner is owned by a local wealthy curmudgeon, played by Andy Griffith ("Rustlers' Rhapsody") who is also their most demanding and difficult customer. The other two waitresses in the diner are played by Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly, who also wrote and directed this, her first feature film. Tragically, Ms. Shelly was murdered by a construction worker at her home in NYC before her film debuted at Sundance, so the other actresses had to pinch hit with interviews, etc. Ms. Shelly leaves a four-year-old son and a husband.

After the three gals do a home pregnancy test, they determine that Jenna is pregnant, so she goes to see her doctor, who was also the one who delivered her and has been her doctor all her life. Jenna is not happy about being pregnant, but she does not even consider an abortion. She just wants to leave her husband, enter a pie-baking contest and go into business for herself. To that end, she has been hiding bits of money all over the house from her worthless, controlling husband. Now she can't see how she will be able to leave him if she has a baby to contend with.

Her regular doctor has decided to go into permanent semi-retirement, so Jenna has to see the new doctor instead (Fillian). Thus begins our story...

Keri Russell is luminous, Nathan Fillian is appealing as hell, and Andy Griffith gets most of the good lines.

...and NO blowie uppie stuff! Go see it!


The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Some of you, I already know, are painfully aware of how brutally the British treated the Irish. They defeated the Irish, so they insisted that their tongue, and ONLY their tongue, would be spoken henceforth in Ireland. They discouraged schooling and then derided the Irish for being ignorant. This was the Abu Gihraib Prison, except on a national scale. (Power corrupts.)

Cillian Murphy ("Red Eye" and "Breakfast on Pluto") is forced to watch as his family is brutalized, so he and his brother join the IRA. It is interesting to see that the IRA was an out-and-out military operation, complete with smuggled firearms and ammunition, guerilla warfare training and a support system throughout the area with hideouts, transportation and other clever and somewhat marginally effective measures. When the truce is offered in the 1930s, his brother accepts the terms and stops his resistance activities. This leaves him opposed to the IRA, which continued its bombings, ambushes and other uses of deadly force against the British, and now, against the Irishmen they considered collaborators with the British. (And they valued loyalty above all!)

Brother against brother is always particularly wrenching and this is no different.

My biggest problem was the soundtrack. An Irish brogue, though colorful when telling a lilting comic tale, is indecipherable when used in scenes of screaming hysteria or whispered in an ambush. This movie might as well have been in Norwegian for all I could understand! Captions! Please!

Bottom line:
  • Production values - Brilliant!
  • Acting - Brilliant!
  • Did I like it? - How could I? I couldn't understand four words out of a hundred!

The Black Book

Of all the movies I watched in the past two weeks (and I'm embarrassed to admit how many there have been), this was by far the BEST!

Paul Verhoeven ("Soldier of Orange," "Robocop" and "Starship Troopers") has gone back home to the Netherlands and crafted this wonderful story of love, betrayal, desperation and survival. It takes place during the final days of WWII with Holland still occupied and still resisting. You are the unwilling witness to a brutal massacre of Jewish fugitives with one lone survivor hiding in the reeds until she can creep out and devise some means to survive.

When we thought back and considered all the plots, people and ploys involved, it was nothing short of a miracle that Verhoeven was able to craft a script that was crystal clear, absolutely involving, and with wrenching parts that were truly wrenching. You are never confused; with captions, all the dialog is clear; each character is individuated so there is no wondering, "Now which one is this?"

The production design is flawless, a war-torn Holland, authentic street scenes, period clothing and vehicles, etc., a true sense of a place occupied by loyal Gestapo troops, who are painfully aware that Germany is losing the war.

The actress who plays the lead is riveting. Other performers are also unfamiliar with the one minor (but to me, MAJOR) exception of one of the Gestapo officers, who is played by that handsome fellow who was the actor under surveillance in "The Lives of Others." There isn't a weak performance; every scene and every bit of dialog is vital to the plot. One small warning, as the Jewish gal is preparing to pose as a blonde Dutch cabaret singer, she even bleaches her pubic hairs! Be forewarned... It is a brief scene and necessary to the plot.

See it!

Georgia Rule

"Georgia Rule" is actually a drama, although the trailers implied that it was a comedy starring Jane Fonda ("Monster-in-Law"), Felicity Huffman ("Transamerica"), Lindsay Lohan ("Mean Girls"), Cary Elwes ("Ella Enchanted") and Dermot Mulroney ("The Family Stone").

It was directed by Garry Marshall but lacked his trademark light touch ("Pretty Woman" and "Princess Diaries"). In fact, his touch was downright crude and we were made to feel distinctly uncomfortable at times. The central issue was child abuse and Lohan's character was the perfect outpicturing of a girl who is wise far beyond her years. Before it was over it became soppy and the ending was waaay too pat. You never forgot you were watching five A-List actors in a tawdry movie. ...and I had such high hopes...