Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Buccaneers

Philip Saville, 1996, tv miniseries (8.2*)
In this lesser-known Edith Wharton novel, two wealthy St. George sisters (Carla Gugino and Alison Elliott) are known as new money in the U.S., and since their father made the money with a casino, are shunned by high society. So they head to London with two friends (Rya Kihlstedt and Mira Sorvino, who actually plays a Brazilian) to gain more prestige by hobknobbing with high society there.

There they actually are courted by dukes and lords, and seemingly by anyone eligible, as this four-hour Masterpiece Theater miniseries follows their stories as they "conquest and plunder" (two of the section titles) the mother country, hence the title. Apparently American women are so less reserved than their snobbish British counterparts that they are infinitely more appealing to the men.

If you enjoy the novels of Wharton and Jane Austen, or the lush historical dramas of the BBC, then this will be right up your alley. Perhaps a bit soapy compared to other Wharton novels, this still recalls the best of Austen, with much humor and fine acting sprinkled among the romance and the opulent settings.

Quote: "They're here for the London season." "Don't they have a season of their own?"


Monday, November 22, 2010

Manufactured Landscapes

Jennifer Baichwal, 2006 (8.4*)
Baichwal's visually riveting documentary follows photographer Edward Burtynsky around the world as he takes photographs of man-made landscapes of staggering immensity, from open pit mines to mountains of coal to seemingly miles long factories.

Though Burtynsky's individual photos are works of art, giant museum-sized prints with amazing detail, the landscapes they portray make a visual statement of how out-of-control civilization has threatened to become.

Perhaps the eeriest scenes to me are the giant tankers allowed to run aground in Bangladesh where workers break them up into giant slabs of iron for recycling. Think again where your recycled products end up, as we are shown mountains of recycled materials in China where workers in masks (due to toxins) basically pull out only a few metals, such as aluminum.

This is scary stuff to view, but something we need to deal with if civilization is to survive without turning our planet into a giant toxic refuse dump of unusable waste. The world of Wall-E is becoming a reality.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Education

Lone Scherfig, 2009 (9.0*)

Sundance Audience Award
Carey Mulligan
gives a star-making and Oscar®-nominated performance in this brilliant coming-of-age British romance from Danish director Lone Scherfig. She plays Jenny, a 16-yr old, middle-class honor student, at a prep school for Oxford in 1961 who begins a romance when a thirty-ish man, Peter Sarsgaard (as David), gives her a ride home from school in the rain to 'protect her cello'.

What follows is a very gentle, slowly-paced romance during which David is able to charm his way into her life and show her how 'the other half' lives, attending art auctions, expensive dinners, and real estate sales.

Her best teacher, superbly played as usual by unheralded Olivia Williams, (star of many BBC classics, and the hilarious comedy In The Loop) and her principal, in this case former Oscar®-winner Emma Thompson, are both convinced she is throwing her education and her future away. Meanwhile, her parents, with Alfred Molina terrific as her dad, showing a previously unseen vulnerable (yet still humorous) side, are a little more accepting while becoming friends with David themselves.

For me, this is art at its finest - we see the gradual character growth in Mulligan's face, and don't need dialogue or events to hammer home the point that she is transforming from girl to woman in a few weeks. Lone Scherfig has done a typically understated and brilliant piece of Danish film directing (fellow director Susanne Bier is one of the world's best) that shows romance in a romantic, non-prurient and positive setting, letting the story and character development evolve seemingly on their own. This is all too rare in the last half century.

As proof, An Education was nominated for the best picture Oscar®, as well as screenplay (Nick Hornby brilliantly adapted his own novel), and best actress for Carey Mulligan. She won the BAFTA, the only award it won there out of 8 nominations (including film and British film), and 11 other best actress awards worldwide, many from critics. Overall, it won 15 awards out of 63 nominations, including the Sundance Audience Award.

Director Lone Scherig has 25 wins overall out of 39 nominations, most for Italian For Beginners (2000). Not bad for any director, and she's a Danish woman! I keep telling you, they're way ahead of us..


Monday, November 15, 2010

Martin Chuzzlewit

Pedr James, 1994, 385 min. (8.7*)
Charles Dickens novels need the mini-series treatment, as it really takes about 6-8 hours of film to properly present the richness of his lengthy works, which are noted for a pantheon of eccentric British characters, usually with humorous surnames. This BBC production is six one-hour episodes.

This little-known, and never filmed novel is actually his first. He had not yet built an audience, but this is archetypal of his later works, presenting most of the elements we think of as Dickensian. An wealthy, octogenarian family patriarch, Martin Chuzzlewit, superbly played by Paul Schofield (in his best performance since his Oscar®-winning one in A Man For All Seasons) is failing in health, and stops in a small village near London to recover, while his family begins to gather, anticipating the end. He has disinherited his namesake grandson and hand-picked heir (Ben Walden, in one of the films weaker performances) due to an unapproved romance with his paid secretary-companion (sort of a 'hired surrogate daughter'), Mary (Pauline Turner), who is so kindly and graceful that all men fall for her.

Oscar®-winner Tom Wilkinson has a field day as a local baron of the village named Pecksniff, a widower who lives with and dotes on his two daughters, Mercy and Charity; he befriends the elderly Chuzzlewit during his illness and gains his trust as a family outsider. We get to read many of Pecksniff's inner thoughts and machinations in his expressions alone, as he is not exactly the saintly, selfless gent he presents to society.

This story is full of twists and turns, and even murder, as we follow the trials and triumphs of a plethora of characters. As usual, some minor characters nearly steal the show - in this case a young orphan boy named Bailey who's used as a butler at a rooming house, wonderfully played by Paul Francis; and an alcoholic nurse with a red bulbous nose, played by Elizabeth Spriggs. A third Oscar®-winner, John Mills, father of Hayley, has a small part as a loyal, now senile family clerk still being taken care of by them in his old age. The character of Tom Pinch (Philip Franks), who is liked by everyone but intimately involved with no one (other than as friend to young Martin), appears to be perhaps the personification of the author himself.

This has a much humor as any Dickens novel, with names like Seth Pecksniff, Pinch, Prig, Todgers, Chevy Slyme, Tigg Montague, Mr. Mould, and Mr. Spottletoe. Nominated for an Emmy for television mini-series, and also received several BAFTA nominations, including actor for Schofield, Wilkinson, and Peter Postelwaite.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Temple Grandin

Mick Jackson, 2010 (8.8*)
This engrossing docudrama tells the adult life story of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, wonderfully played by Claire Danes in an Emmy-winning performance. Temple was an austistic who used her unique way of looking at the world to create changes in the way the beef industry treats cattle, making the whole process both safer and more humane, being less fearful for the cows themselves.

We are shown Temple's life from high school forward, when she was encouraged by astute teachers, especially a science teacher wonderfully played by David Straithorn, who received an Emmy for his performance; it was he who spotted elements of genius in Temple's mind. He ascertained that she perceives the world in terms of pictures, not language.

She is also somewhat of a mechanical genius; we see a remarkable ranch gate she made at her aunt's ranch (played by Emmy-nominated Catherine O'Hara) allowing the driver of a car to open a gate that closes by itself, all based on gravity and levers. When she designs a cattle dip system, she watches a mechanical engineer drawing plans (who's too busy for hers) and she draws her own plans overnight so the elaborate system can be immediately built. At the ranch, she sees an inoculation device that 'hugs' the cows in a tight grip so they can be given shots without jerking around, and Temple builds a similar device for herself out of wood, calling it a 'hugging machine'.

One of the most successful made-for-tv movies in history, Temple Grandin was nominated for 15 Emmy awards, winning 7, including actress, director, and film. Julia Ormand also won a supporting actress Emmy as her mother. Temple herself [photo rt] was at the Emmys and hilariously interrupted Claire's acceptance speech with gentle banter. She also taught us much about autism, explaining how her mind works, as most of this story occurs in the 60's, before the affliction was understood by scientists. Her success (a B.S., then an M.S. and PhD at college, she's now a vet) has encouraged many parents and austistic children.
Awards page at IMDB


Friday, November 5, 2010

The Return of Martin Guerre

Daniel Vigne, France, 1982 (8.5*)
This is a much copied true story, and as such must be declared to be the archetypal missing person story. Gérard Depardieu, in one of his best roles, plays a man who returns to his pastoral village in 16th century France after eight years away in a war; most assumed he had died. Not everyone is sure that he is the man he claims to be, yet he knows about most of the people there, so he wins the trust of some, dividing the town.

The wife, wonderfully played by Nathalie Baye, claims it is her husband. However, this was a time when all women, including wives, could not own land outright, and if their husbands died, those widows without a male heir would likely have their land taken by the state. Therefore the question of true and valid identity of the husband becomes a legal as well as social issue, of special interest to the church.

This intriguing and engrossing mystery is actually a case recorded in history, hence both it's survival today and popularity as a theme in films. It was most recently used in the Robin Hood film with Russell Crowe as Robin assuming the missing husband's role for Cate Blanchett as Mirian so she would not lose her land. This beautifully shot period piece is one of my favorite 10 French films.


Thursday, November 4, 2010


Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1954, bw (8.7*)
Famous and often-copied bw classic by Japan's best filmmaker examines a crime from various points of view: from the criminal's, the victim's, the victim's spouse, and an angel present at the time. Of course, no two versions of the crime are exactly alike, which is the point of the film, that our own mindset and point of perspective make objectivity nearly impossible, that the world is shades of gray filtered by our own ego and the mind's preconceptions, making an accurate recollection of 'reality' highly improbable. Maybe the world isn't exactly what you perceive it to be, but what we do perceive is altered by our minds.

This is one of Akira Kurosawa's best films, who often based his films on Shakespeare, like Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth. If you aren't familiar with his work, this is a good beginning film. It may be a bit slow for western audiences, as most of his films slowly evolve rather than rush through the story, but it will reveal artistic rewards for discerning film fans. A classic of his with more action is The Seven Samurai, generally considered one of the best films ever made, and one that is always in my top 10 all time.

A recent film which used this technique is Vantage Point, a 2008 political thriller about the shooting of a U.S. president in a foreign country, which examined the plot from about 10 characters until the entire story was revealed.



Cameron Crowe, 1992 (8.4*)
This early comedy of Cameron Crowe's is about the lives and loves of six Seattle singles living in a common apartment complex. Most of the film centers around the emerging grunge rock scene (there are even cameos by members of Pearl Jam).

Matt Dillon is the funniest as a air-headed leader of an unknown garage band named Citizen Dick in his best comedic performance. He has problems with, and takes for granted, his girlfriend Bridget Fonda. Most will likely wonder why she bothers with him at all, he's so thick - maybe it's the guitar. Campbell Scott (George C's son) has some funny scenes with his emerging romance with new gf Kyra Sedgwick, including one hilarious cameo by an NBA player.

There is a healthy dose of grunge rock in the soundtrack that lends authenticity to the film overall (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, others), and the entire movie seems to lay the groundwork for his later success Almost Famous (click for my recent review of that). A very good romantic comedy overall, of course, if you're not looking for a deep film but some light, fun entertainment. This was one of the first romantic comedies I added to my dvd collection, after Woody's New York Trilogy of Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, of course.

Quote: This negativity just makes me stronger, we will not retreat, this band is unstoppable!
Quote2: I think that, (a) you have an act, and that, (b) not having an act is your act.
Quote3: When my dad left home, he told me to 'have fun, stay single'. I was eight.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Vera Drake

Mike Leigh, 2004 (7.9*)
This is not a pleasant film, nor one for those who can become squeamish (such as the adrenaline shot in Pulp Fiction) during movies. The subject is also abortion, which will make this a film many will want to avoid. In spite of all that, I will have to add that Imelda Staunton is one of the best actresses of our generation, and turned in a performance for all time in this film. If you want to see what powerful acting is all about, then watch this film. However, if you want an action film, or a cut and dry story with its own message to impart, then this will not be a film for you. Nearly all of Mike Leigh's films are on the human, interpersonal drama level, they're not action films.

Staunton plays a simple working-class London mother, who flits about her neighborhood daily, doing simple things for people in need. She epitomizes the term Good Samaritan. However, there is more to her than meets the eye, she has a secret life that even her lifetime husband doesn't know, and certainly not her children, who are now adults still living at home. The story and plot take a u-turn about midway, and that's when Staunton's artistry takes the film by the horns. This is a rare thing to see on film.

Staunton won 17 awards for her performance (and lost 9 other nominations), and would have easily won an Oscar® as well, but she was up against Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, which has to be one of the best 10 performances of all time.
Her awards page at IMDB


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Seven Days in May

John Frankenheimer, 1964, bw (9.2*)
[Posted on Burt Lancaster's birthday, who would have been 97 today]

One of director Frankenheimer's best is also one of the most interesting and rewarding from the long career of impeccable actor Burt Lancaster, Oscar® winner for Elmer Gantry. Here he plays an ultra-patriotic military hero, General Scott, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, a likely future Presidential candidate, and a vocal critic of President Fredric March (who has two well-deserved Oscars® for actor, acting in his last film) and his support of a nuclear disarmament treaty with the USSR.

Leading a surge of anti-presidential sentiment are a phalanx of right-wingers, who use television to stir up the public against the treaty (some things never change). Kirk Douglas plays a staffer of General Scott's who thinks he uncovers some coded messages and a subversive plot within the military. With a countdown style plot, the viewer is in 'edge of the seat' status throughout the entire film. An aging but still classy Ava Gardner adds some romantic interest, which seems a bit superfluous to this plot.

Faithfully adapted from the best-selling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II (with a screenplay from Rod Serling), Frankenheimer has made one of the best political thrillers of all time, in classic black and white, with almost documentary style cinematography from Ellsworth Fredericks. Frankenheimer said that the scene with Fredric March confronting Burt Lancaster in the White House was the most rewarding he ever shot (after March requested many extra rehearsals) - with three Oscars® between the two actors, it's a rare classic mano a mano between two of the best in front of the camera. A very spooky scenario for those who think "it can't happen here".

Lancaster was Frankenheimer's favorite actor, of whom he said "just watching him walk across the room was art in itself". In Frankenheimer's WW2 classic The Train, Burt did all his own stunts, once leaping on a moving train, and often limping badly from an injury that occurred during the shooting.


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Artist, photographer, composer, author, blogger, metaphysician, herbalist

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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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