Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mr. Nobody

Jan Van Dormeal, 2009 (9.5*) 

It's hard to describe this film without making it sound perhaps incohesive and out of control, but quite the contrary, this is a long, complex work of art that is very well constructed, and one which will warrant and reward the true cinema fan on repeat viewings.

What director Jaco Van Dormeal has done here is not new, he shows us alternate realities in one life, similar to the visual style used for the same by Tom Tykwer in Run, Lola, Run - and triggered by one incident involving a train, like Gwyneth Paltrow's character in Sliding Doors. As a child, Nobody is known as Nemo, and at age 9, he must choose which parent to live with when they seperate. The decisive scene takes place at a train platform, and little Nemo must either stay with dad or get on the train with mom. This being a film, he does both, and we see both lives.

This is really a science fiction story, which is about a Mr. Nobody, who is called that because they don't know his name, and he can't remember it, but it's Nemo, which we find out in flashbacks. Nemo is now the last living mortal at age 118, in a world where apparently everyone else no longer ages and dies (at least not naturally, I'm sure you can still blow people up or shoot them down, because, as they say here, "some people just need killin").

The film begins with a professional type suit, who is interviewing Mr. Nobody (for broadcast live to the masses), about his life and how he feels being the last mortal. When Nemo remembers his life, it's not always the same exact story he remembers, and this is the point of the film. It's not "a story" that matters, but that you travel the journey of life not knowing the final destination. This film has as many visual ideas as 10 average films, in fact, Van Dormeal spent nine years on this one project from writing to completion, and it shows.

There are so many mind-boggling images in this, that its best not to describe the film at all, but to urge everyone to watch it, then watch it again. There is one problem: it's not available at Netflix, you'll have to either borrow or buy it on dvd. You also want only the director's cut (it's 157 minutes, the original is 141, so it's hefty in either format), that's the version I saw and it has one added scene I thought particularly important: Nemo is going through a car wash inside his car, and we see closeups of all the action on the windshield, which is uncannily like nebula activity in space: the macrocosm becomes the microcosm. If you don't understand that, then you may not like this film, and you probably didn't enjoy The Tree of Life either, another visual masterpiece.

Jared Leto stars in this, that's him in makeup as the 118 year old man (Mr. Nobody) as well. He had just made Aronofsky's incredible Requiem For a Dream (2000), so apparently he only stars in a director's "magnum opus", or greatest of his work. He should be a better known actor, he's quite accomplished in every film I've seen. Canadian director-actress Sara Polley (Dawn of the Dead, Go, The Sweet Hereafter) plays one of his wives, Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds, Troy) another, and Viet actress Linh Dan Pham (Indochine) the third. All are perfect for what the film required - of the three, Polley is the most accomplished actor having won 31 awards so far, and she shows it here.

This may bore or confuse the more literary cinemaniacs, those who want a beginning, middle, and end of one story. To me, that's like criticizing the impressionists because the realists painted the same scenes more realistically. Do you want life to imitate art, or can art just be the creative expression of an artist's inner philosophy? This film toys with the idea of "string theory", which always baffled me, but the idea is that there may be several universes or realities occuring at the same time, it depends on your choices in life. That's such a scary thought to some, that one reviewer said he couldn't leave his house for three days after seeing this film!

This film is going into my top 100, easily (out of about 10,000 seen, the top tenth of one percent), and also on my short list of must-see science fiction-fantasy films, which is less than 50 at this point. To which I would only say, as Rossanno Brazzi told Katharine Hepburn in Summertime, "You are hungry, senora - eat the ravioli!" EAT THIS MOVIE! Then again, and again..


Friday, August 10, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

John Madden, 2011  (8.1*)

From the director of Shakespeare in Love (1998) comes a more serious film, as a disparate group of seven Brits go to India to live in the hotel of the title, not knowing it's not really open yet, due to the ineptitude of undercapitalized owner Dev Patel, who inherited it when his father died.. 

This is a comedy with some tender moments, and a little drama, but without sentimentality, and with Oscar winners Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and the impeccable Tom Wilkinson in the cast, who is terrific here, it has a high degree of craftmanship..

IF anything, Dench has gotten even better with age.. I 1st saw her topless in Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM in 68 and I've been a big fan ever since (she was a babe!) - her acting is even better now, as tv's BEHAVING BADLY added to the argument that some of her best work may even be for the little screen.. (I think of all the living actresses, I could spend my life with her 1st! sorry, Salma, Scarlett, and Sofia!)

As for Tom Wilkinson, I've never seen even an avg performance from him, you very soon forget he's acting in any role he tackles - he's superb here, steals the acting kudos.. Nighy is good again as usual, Maggie Smith doesn't have much to do, and Dev Patel is easily the most overrated actor in the cast, the other Indian actors are all better in fact (he's an over-actor)

The rest of the hotel's name was "For the Elderly and Beautiful", and the story is from the novel THESE FOOLISH THINGS by Deborah Moggach. Like most, the literature is, no doubt, deeper and richer than the film, which is fine, just not overpowering.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Margin Call

J.C. Chandor, 2011 (8.2*)

Another spooky film about how flimsy and corrupt western capitalism is at the top levels, those megalithic banking corporations that control everyone’s money and who always start what they like to call “investor panic”, when it’s really just the pros themselves making all the panic moves to cover their own assets.

This story involves massive layoffs at the trading floor of a major unnamed banking corporation. As one departs, he tells an underling he was working on something big and to be careful; the the junior risk analyst checks it out, the ripples become immediate and far-reaching.

Stanley Tucci is the laid off analyst, who unfortunately doesn't have a large enough part here. Dr. Spock look-alike Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) is the junior analyst whose work starts the whole cookie crumbling. Simon Baker (British accent and hair and all) is miscast as a division head bereft of any ethics. Jeremy Irons is credible, though untaxed, as the CEO of the entire corporation, who is, of course, self-serving and short-sighted. Demi Moore is perfect in a small part that added little to the story other than a female actor. Kevin Spacey is seeming a little tired in his too familiar part, as a experience trading group manager, a long time corporate employee with a little conscience remaining, since he came from the old school.

This repeating mistake usually involves someone big basically admitting all the “paper” they’re holding is generally worthless, whether it’s corporate bonds, mortgages, credit swaps, derivatives, and other worthless stuff they seem to invent daily while the feds look the other way - so they decide they have to start dumping theirs, and anything else they're holding, before everyone else does, and salvage what they can in the ensuing debacle.

This is sadly the recurring story of western capitalism: people with too much concentrated money and therefore financial power start taking too much risk for the amount of actual money they have. When they either collapse or start liquidating everything, it has ripple effects throughout all financial markets and millions of people lost trillions in wealth in a few hours. For some reason, this sort of sociopathic insanity is not only endorsed but seems to be allowed to control of nearly every western economy – or more accurately, has gained control of every western economy.

This version of the inner workings of high finance will be boring to many, but I found it quite riveting and totally credible. It is rumored to be the story of Merrill Lynch, who basically became bankrupt and was turned over to Bank of America for resurrection. (We don't allow corporate failures, just millions of individual ones by average citizens).

This story has happened far too often in my lifetime of 60 years. After awhile, you realize this is the scam. You extract as much money as you can from a corporation, then declare bankruptcy. If you an figure out a self-sustaining scam, you'll succeed longer - but remember that the world first corporation, The Dutch East India Trading Company (who are the 'bad guys' in the Pirates of the Caribbean series), also declared bankrupcty after years of success, so the pattern and con is as old as the first time it was pulled off. It's the oldest grift in the west and legal if you can get away with it.

First time director J.C. Chandor (left) won seven awards for this, and received an Oscar nomination for screenplay directly for the screen (it lost to Woody’s Midnight in Paris). For a debut film, this is quite professional, and bodes well for the films of Chandor’s to follow.


Saturday, July 7, 2012


Lars von Trier, 2011 (8.4*)
This is a rarity among films, a science fiction film that has little to do, really, with that aspect of the story. Instead, the fact that a hidden planet has emerged from behind the sun and is heading on a path toward earth really is little more than a metaphor for the characters psychogically complex stories.

Von Trier has created his most mesmerizing film to date, full of dreamy, surrealistic images more reminiscent of painters like Magritte, De Chirico, and Dali, than any film references (see film still at the bottom) – except perhaps early Antonioni. 

Kirsten Dunst won five acting awards for her gutsy portrayal of a newlywed bride mired in her own melancholia, and whose dysfunctional personality seems to deteriorate as the planet, named Melancholia, moves closer to earth. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays her long-suffering sister, who seems determined to take care of her sister in spite of the apparent hopelessness of the situation, as her personal demons seems to have no cause or origin.

Like most of von Trier’s films, this one is also slow to develop, and eerily like a Bergman film of introspection and inner turmoil, and may not hold the attention of the average viewer, but if you stick with this one you will be surprised and rewarded, I believe, especially in comparison to his other efforts. This is the type of film rated higher by critics (80 at Metacritics) vs fans (7.2 at IMDB), but those are often the more unique and unforgettable films, as critics see so many of the mundane variety that it takes something different to wake them up from mediocrity.

One of the many surrealistic and artistic images in Melancholia


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Source Code

Duncan Jones, 2011 (7.9*)
Interesting science fiction film that leans more toward the intellectual and less action style, which is a welcome relief on one aspect. However, as usual, you can’t look too deeply at the so-called science aspect of this one.

Jake Gyllenhaal (hey, figure out a better way to spell that, will ya?) plays a man who suddenly comes to awareness on a commuter train to Chicago, but he seemingly has amnesia. As he’s trying to figure out both his own situation and who the woman is that apprarently is his companion, the train explodes, and he awakens to another reality entirely.

He now emerges in a world similar both to that in The Matrix and 12 Monkeys, even Avatar, where a person in one location experiences a digitally based reality through his brain. In this particular case, Jake plays a real life Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, at least in his own memories when they surface - now being used in a top secret experiment in the war on terror. The scientist in control of his world is well acted by Vera Farmiga, but she doesn't have a very demanding part; her character is supposed the be the dispassionate military scientist with only the objective in mind.

This film could have been much better without some useless meandering into pseudo-patriotism that was an unnecessary distraction, and other more sentimental discursions, but it’s still better than most other SF films of 2011 (it was a dismal year for the genre, with dogs like Green Lantern, X-Men First Class, and I Am Number Four).

This film unfortunately reminds one of numerous others, so it’s not very unique. Those who haven’t already should check out 12 Monkeys, Groundhog Day, The Matrix, RunLola Run, Frequency, The Adjustment Bureau, and Sliding Doors (all better than this film) – each of which involves manipulations or alterations of reality in some way.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Artist

Michel Hazanavicious, France-Belgium, 2011 (8.5*)
Best Picture (AA, BAA)

Having won 114 awards so far, second only to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, you would expect this film to be one of the truly great cinematic masterpieces of all time. For me, it’s a good but not great film, not as good a 2011 film as Malick’s The Tree of Life, or Refn’s Drive, but I’d put it in the tier after that (with Midnight in Paris, The Help, Rango, and Ides of March). Most of the film is silent like it’s 20’s film star, George Valentin – even though it’s more like an enjoyable and rewarding romance in the tradition of classic 30’s films like My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, and My Favorite Wife (40’s?). Of course, by now familiarity makes this a fairly predictable ‘boy meets girl’ story.

Director Michel Hazanavicious, who also wrote the screenplay, has created a long overdue homage to films of that era which was also shot in the style of those films, including the same 4:3 aspect ratio of 35mm prints, and of course, black and white cinematography. Of course, we're not forgetting Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, which treaded similar ground regarding creating a visual reference to a classic cinematic style of the past.

The story is nothing new – it combines the boy meets girl story with the “rags to riches” and “riches to rags” stories of it’s two stars. Jean Dejardin won an Oscar (and 13 other awards) for his portrayal of fictitious silent film star George Valentin who bears an uncanny resemblance to the story of Douglas Fairbanks (except for a little average dancing), who was a swashbuckling action star and top box office draw in silent films, but, like many others, who never really made the transition when sound pictures arrived.

His real-life girlfriend, Bérénice Bejo, (photo above) steals the film for me as a young extra, and won seven acting awards for her Oscar-nominated performance as Peppy Miller, who catches George’s fancy in a ballroom dance scene in one of his silent films after stumbling into him outside a movie premiere for all the photographers to catch before that. He’s so immediately struck with her that he has trouble completing a simple scene, but the two part when the filming ends and follow their own career paths.

.. but, of course, George cannot shake her from his mind. At the same time, sound arrives to films, at which he scoffs, like many, thinking it will never catch on with the public – just like I didn’t think 3D would after so many failures in my lifetime.

His studio mogul, played by John Goodman, welcomes the new format but decides to can Valentin, thinking the new younger audience will also want new personalities talking, not aging silent stars. At the same time, Peppy Martin starts moving up the ladder to the stars, and her vivacious personality is a big hit, both within the story, and for Bejo in real life – in fact, for me, her energy, smile, and optimism steal the film as well as Jules/Georges heart.

Uggie is a Jack Russell terrier saved 
from a pound by trainer Omar Von Muller

There’s also a wonderful Jack Russell terrier named Uggie, claiming an award above, who adds welcome comic relief to what could have been a dreary story of the fall of a legend, from wealth to destitution. Uggie was also in Water for Elephants (2011), and What's Up, Scarlett (2005, comma required, lol). He obviously reminds most cinema fans of Asta, the spunky scene-stealing dog from the Thin Man series who starred in 14 films himself in the 30’s and 40’s, including My Favorite Wife.

For me, the one failing here is that half an hour into the film, Georges attends his first sound picture, because it stars Peppy Martin. At this point, director Hazanavicious should have introduced sound into this picture; unfortunately he did not, so we see an early talkie in silence, and we also do not hear the onscreen audiences reactions to the star-making film of Martin’s. By this point in The Artist, the gimmick of silence is wearing thin, and is not helped much by a dream of George's in which he hears the sounds of life but cannot talk himself. The only other sound in the picture is at the very end. I kept thinking that this would be a classic 30’s style film, but those all had sound, so instead this is more like an average 20’s film, very much like a Charlie Chaplin story, with lots of tear-wrenching pathos that keep it on the verge of tragedy, when it could have been more light-hearted and effervescent. It’s touted as a comedy, with a couple of dance numbers that are obviously not Astaire and Rodgers (though still fun in spirit), but spends 90% of it’s time as a tragic drama, relieved by a few humorous touches, mostly in the beginning of the story.

Definitely worth seeing, and an enjoyable if predictable story, but also overrated with this many awards. Malick's The Tree of Life (60 awards, including the Palm D'Or at Cannes) was a bigger hit with critics, and Drive (40 awards) was perhaps the sleeper of the year, both of which seemed closer to unforgettable cinematic art to me. But The Artist was definitely better than the dreariness of The Descendants, and was about on par with The Help, the two other films winning the most awards for the year; also with Take Shelter (31 awards), Woody's Midnight in Paris, and George Clooney’s overlooked The Ides of March.

Let’s hope that for Hazanavicious’ next film, he moves forward with time and adds sound so we can hear the laughter, the dialogue, and the dog barking.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Ides of March

George Clooney, 2011 (8.4*)

This is an intelligent political thriller with a few unpredictable twists. One would say the acclaim is due George Clooney, since he co-wrote the screenplay, directed the film with himself in a lead role.

His character is a new presidential candidate, whose idealistic follower Steven Myers, brilliantly underplayed by Ryan Gosling, is second-in-command of the campaign, which is headed by veteran campaigner Paul Giamatti. None of these men are saints, and over the course of the story we get to see each character in a more revealing light.

It’s hard to describe the film without giving away some important plot turns, but place this film on a short list of intelligent and adult political films, each revealing something about the process of government: Advise and Consent, All the President’s Men, The Queen, Executive Suite, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

This is one of the better films of 2011, for me in that "second tier", with Rango, The Artist, and Take Shelter.


Thursday, March 29, 2012


Gore Verbinski, 2011 (8.8*)
Academy Award, Best Animated Film

I loved this trippy, clever, irreverent film! You know you’re into something heady when a family's pet chameleon character, hilariously voiced by Johnny Depp, falls off the family car on a highway,  and  gets blown by traffic smack into the windshield of the convertible driven by Hunter Thompson with Dr. Gonzo in the back, and Hunter and the lizard are wearing the same shirt ! That’s an indicator right there that this film may be a little induced by altered states.

Director Gore Verbinski directed the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and once again he seems to have fun directing this wacky stuff.

After falling off the car, he meets various desert dwelling critters that give him advice, with Alfred Molina as an armadillo telling him he needs to find the town of Dirt, out there somewhere. When he does, it’s inhabited by an odd assortment of western dressing animals. He meets a snotty girl, tho tells him, after mutual insults, "strangers don’t last long here", but when he discovers the town needs a sheriff and a hero, he volunteers, being lost and having little choice. He picks up his name in a bar, but I won’t spoil how he gets it, it’s mostly visual.

Much of this film is like that, references to classic westerns like A Fistful of Dollars, High Noon, even the later Quick and the Dead. There are also scenes paying homage to Chinatown and Apocalypse Now, and likely others that escaped me.

Ned Beatty gives his best John Huston (a la Chinatown) voice, as the mayor, who may or may not be involved in a plot involving the town’s water supply. British actor Bill Nighy is a dead ringer for the voice of Jack Palance as the villain Rattlesnake Jake. The plot is eerily similar to that of Chinatown, a parched town needs water, it never rains, and for some reason the town’s supply faucet has gone dry, spewing out mud and no liquid, so everyone is about to die of thirst like the crops already have.

Depp is perfect for this, delivering lines like "and stay out of my peripheral vision", and  "we should follow the pipe to it’s hydraulic origin, capture the criminals and solve this aquatic conundrum".

If you like classic westerns, as well as Depp’s irreverent, inebriated style, this will be right up your alley. Perhaps more enjoyable for adults than kids, it’s still a G-rated comedy that the entire family can watch together with many guffaws – though I’m sure the kids will often ask “what did he say?”, just like the background characters do.

There’s an uncanny scene by Tim Oliphant as the voice of Clint Eastwood, delivering the film’s best line.
Depp: “The Spirit of the West. Hey, is this heaven?”
Spirit of the West (as Eastwood): “if it was, we’d be sharing Pop-tarts with Kim Novak.”

I’m sure all the kids are asking, who’s Kim Novak? Well, she and Clint Eastwood are 60’s stars that both live in Carmel, California now – that should clear that up somewhat, and of course, Pop-tarts imply breakfast, which insinuates.. er, the hokey-pokey – that’s what it’s all about!


Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Byron Howard, Chris Williams, 2008 (7.8*)
Another enjoyable Pixar-Disney animated film, with some incredibly realistic graphics, at least the landscape portions (the humans look a little stiff and plastic). Bolt is a small Swiss shepherd who is rescued from an animal shelter in the beginning, when he is being appropriately cute with a rubber carrot toy. His person, as he calls her, is a little girl named Penny.

The story inexplicably then skips forward five years, at a point when Bolt and Penny are the stars of a kids tv show, in which Bolt rescues Penny from various perilous situation, most involving a green-eyed man (voiced by veteran actor Malcolm MacDowell).

The only problem with Bolt is that in order to make the show work, he has been fooled into thinking that Penny is really in danger, he has no idea that it's all a TV show, and everything is make believe. Mistaking Penny to be really in danger while he's trapped in his studio trailer, he manages to escape and immediately gets packed up and shipped away.

He runs into an alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman, perhaps the weakest cast member - I'd have rather heard a pro comedienne like Joan Cusask in this role), and a hilarious hamster in a running ball, named Rhino.

Perhaps the lead roles could have been better cast. John Travolta is just ok as Bolt, he was actually funnier in real action comedies like Get Shorty. Miley Cyrus was just ok as Penny, no doubt selected for her young fan base.

Filmed just after The Incredibles, this has a lot of similar action, but the screenplay isn't quite as good, but it was certainly more entertaining to me than Up, which was Pixar's worst film to date to me, losing their best character in the first 10 minutes, and sticking us with two unlikeable characters for the rest of the film.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols, 2011 (8.5*)

An intense young man, brilliantly portrayed by Michael Shannon, begins having apocalyptic dreams, leading him to think a huge storm is coming. He slowly drifts toward his vision and away from his everyday duties. He begins to spend more time and money building a safe tornado shelter for his family behind their house. 

This descent into obsession could have been ineffective without a performance such as Shannon’s, in his most intense role since his Oscar®-nominated part in Revolutionary Road.

His wife is played by Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain, who had an amazing list of films released in 2011: her nominated performance in The Help; the updated Shakespeare play about the Roman military, Coriolanus, directed by Ralph Feinnes; and perhaps her best acting, in Malick’s The Tree of Life. In my opinion, she was likely nominated for her least unique and most predictable performance.

Director Jeff Nichols handles this with a subtle hand, and the film won 31 awards for 2011, most of them at film festivals. Critics have rated it higher than fans, 85 from Metacritics, 76 from fans at IMDB, far too low, in my opinion – I’m with the critics on this one.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The James Bond Films

The James Bond Films (aka 007)

The James Bond series of films is based on the wildly successful series of novels by British author Ian Fleming, which helped popularize the genre of espionage novels by creating a fictional intelligence agent whose adventures resembled those of swashbuckler films of the 30’s.

The novel Casino Royale was author Ian Fleming’s first, and introduced the world to his glamorous and amorous debonair spy, James Bond. He is given the code name 007, the double-ought series of agents being those with a license to kill in the line of duty. This novel largely revolves around the high-stakes casino card game of baccarat, in which two players go head-to-head like a duel, with money rather than blood at stake. This novel being more cerebral and involving less action and womanizing, it was not filmed until 2006 – more on this film follows below.

The first novel transferred to film was Doctor No, and made an international star out of little-known Sean Connery. Producer Albert Broccoli’s wife had noticed Connery in the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People and suggested to her husband that he would make a dashing and attractive spy. Broccoli wisely followed his wife’s advice, and Connery created a handsome and macho hero equally attractive to both genders. The film also introduced a bikin-clad Ursula Andress to the world and she became the archetype for the subsequent series of what are now called Bond Women.

The second film, From Russia With Love (1963), remains my favorite, as Bond is assigned to woo a secretary at a Russian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, who has agreed to help the British obtain a Russian cryptology decoding machine, which she will turn over to Bond. To me, this is the most realistic of all the Bond films, and introduced the now famous props of spy gadgets that became a mainstay of later 007 films. In this film, it took the form of a briefcase that had disabling gas, hidden money, and weapons, all of which weren’t obvious to the unsuspecting examiner.

After a series of successful Bond films with Connery up through 1968, including the highly popular Goldfinger, he tired of being typecast and let his contract expire. A rather critically successful film was then made with unknown Australian actor George Lazenby, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). This film has some terrific action sequences in its favor, Telly Savalas as the evil villain, and a beautiful post-Avengers Diana Rigg as a Spanish count’s daughter, and who becomes Bond’s only onscreen wife to-date. The film-going public didn’t take to Lazenby in the role, however, and he was cast aside after just one film, which ironically remains superior to any starring the successors to Connery.

The studio, not willing to kill the golden goose, then cast a rather bland and unexceptional Roger Moore as Bond, after an exhaustive series of auditions, one of whom, Pierce Brosnan, was rejected only to be later hired as Moore’s successor. These films are forgettable compared to the Connery vehicles. When Moore became too old, the series was continued with Brosnan, with similar results: a few more un-stellar efforts with more action than plot, usually involving a typical Cold War enemy, some Russian with designs on wreaking havoc with nuclear missiles, or holding the world at ransom using weapons. These were not from novels written by Ian Fleming, which is one reason the plots are lame and stereotypical in comparison.

The series almost died out until the first novel, Casino Royale, was filmed in 2006 after the sudden revival of interest in high-stakes poker on tv. (The title had been previously used in a comedic satire starring David Niven and Woody Allen, but the story had nothing to do with the novel or the series).

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

That first Bond novel, was devoid of gadgets and violence, and most of it revolved around the high stakes European casino card game baccarat, similar to blackjack in that the player’s goal is a point total that one can’t exceed. In this game a player becomes the bank, and goes against another player head-to-head, so it is the ultimate card game of machismo, much like a medieval duel, with wealth and not blood at stake. The studio re-wrote the story to include lots of action, and the rugged, everyman look of actor Daniel Craig revived the Bond series in popularity.

In fact, this spurred a renewal of interest in casino card games worldwide as the Bond series became popular with a new generation of fans. Those who wondered where Bond got his wealth, which was apparently far above the salary of a government employee, had apparently not read this novel, for his luxurious lifestyle is largely funded by his winnings at baccarat.

Like most games that combine chance and skill, such as the now popular Texas Holdem form of poker, it behooves the average player to first develop a strategy that employs the use of mathmatical odds. Baccarat is not for the novice for it is usually the highest stakes game in any casino. In the Casino Royale remake, Craig as Bond has his card duel with Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, in an intense showdown that will leave one of them financially scarred and with designs of vengence.

If you’re thinking of emulating Bond when playing in any casino games, I highly suggest you first educate yourself with strategies and techniques by reading a lot of baccarat strategy articles. Those who don’t will be at a disadvantage to those who have and those with more experience.

My capsule review of this excellent film is posted at 1000 Dvds to See, Casino Royale (2006)

It’s said that the debonair Bond is based on the real life of agent Sydney Reilly, an émigré from Russia to Ireland at the beginning of the 20th centlury, who created his persona before becoming a spy for England, achieving results for them in getting oil leases in Arabia, and stealing German battleship plans before World War I.

In the PBS miniseries, Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983), we see an international traveler of similar sophistication and a womanizer wherever he goes, often obtaining the affections of women like a bored countess, especially if it can help him gain intelligence needed by the British government. This series made an international star out of Sam Neill, who has gone on to have a fine film career.

If looks as if Jame Bond is here to stay, a superhero in the guise of an everyman, covert intelligence agent. He fuels the imagination of those of us stuck in mundane jobs in one locale as we envy anyone who gets employed to be a globe-trotting adventurer leaving a trail of dead villains and broken-hearted beauties in his wake.


Friday, February 24, 2012


Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011 (9.0*)

Ryan Gosling plays a man we see in the beginning of the film driving a getaway car for men pulling a heist. The audience is immediately sucked into this film by having it start in the middle of some tense crime action. We later find out that Gosling also works in a garage, and performs driving stunts part-time for films.

Early in the film we learn a little of his personal side as he helps a young mother, Carey Mulligan, who also lives in his apartment building, when she needs a ride after he car breaks down. (Mulligan's character has little acting to do in this compared to her brilliant role in An Education.) We slowly see Gosling as more than a heartless criminal, and realize his character may be more dimensional than most in crime films.

Interspersed with scenes involving Gosling’s character, we also learn a little about some small time organized criminals, a business owner played by Ron Perlman, and Gosling’s garage manager, played by Bryan Cranston (without the same passion and strength as his role on Breaking Bad). Cranston gets a shady mogul, superbly played by Albert Brooks in a rare dramatic part, to invest in a race car to be driven by Gosling. Brooks has won eight awards for supporting actor for his performance, but was skipped over for an Oscar® nomination.

The audience is slowly drawn into Gosling’s world, as he is drawn into that of Mulligan’s, whose husband is said to simply be away – we later find he was in prison after he is released. On top of that, he became connected with some rather despicable men while incarcerated, and to whom he is now in debt.

For me, this film has enough similarities to George Stevens’ western classic Shane to be inspired by it. It has an heroic outsider, Gosling, coming to the aid of a family facing criminals they can’t control, largely due to his attraction to the wife and her young son. His past is murky, like Shane’s, he may be a criminal himself, but not by choice, and at all times he tries to do the right thing, like a samurai warrior. He’s a warrior, but with a code of ethics and personal honor.

The pace is well maintained by Danish director Nicolas Refn. It never seems forced, slow, or too action-packed, there’s just enough of each element to make it a well-crafted film. In fact, I’m a bit surprised (and peeved) that it wasn’t nominated for best picture since they came up with nine, it could have just as easily been ten. I’m willing to bet without having seen but a couple so far that it was better than at least five of those nine. This is going to be considered a quiet, understated classic over time.

It’s currently ranked #237 on the IMDB top 250, and has won 38 awards out of 94 nominations. Only a handful of other films has won this many awards for 2011: The Artist, The Tree of Life, The Descendents, The Help.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Powwow Highway

Jonathan Wacks, 1989 (8.2*)
This is a funny modern Native American film that also has some points to make about the survival of N.A. traditions in the modern era, and how some manage to walk with a foot in two different eras.

A Martinez (born Adolph) plays Buddy Red Bow, struggling against persecution and greedy capitalist developers to keep his people independent on a Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. His friend Philbert (Ed Farmer), follows and espouses Native American wisdom and lore wherever he find it, sometimes on tv or in the movies. His war pony, is a beat-up, barely running Buick.

Buddy's sister Bonnie (Joanelle Nadine Romero) has been arrested in Santa Fe, so much of this movie involves a road trip from Montana to New Mexico as he and Philbert set off to look after kids and get her out of jail (one way or another). Philbert's faith challenges Buddy's cynical and sometimes violent view of the world.

This film really deals with the realities and dreams of being Cheyenne in the modern, techology controlled US, and manages to make us laugh along the way. As road trip films go, it’s one of the best. As films about modern Native American life, it's one of a handful of must-see films, along with Smoke Signals (1998).


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Downton Abbey

Jim Carter as the butler leads the servant staff (L), while
Hugh Bonneville as the Earl heads the family (R)

Brian Percival and Brian Kelly, directed four episodes each; several others directed two episodes.

Season One: 2010 (10*)
Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, best tv mini-series or movie
During the reign of England’s King Edward, estates of the wealthy aristocrats grew to their ultimate in wealth and power. By the first decade of the 20th century, there were 100 estates that owned over half the land in England. Their wealth came from owning huge amounts of land, then collecting rents from all those who lived on, farmed, or hunted on their land. The patriarch of the estate was usually given the title of Duke, Earl, or Marquis, and the property was always passed on to eldest male heirs, and by law, never to women. If there was no male son, the nearest other male relative became the heir, often cousins.

However, as all things pass over time, this class structure was about to change forever. Cheaper shipping allowed the importation of less costly agricultural products from India and the Americas, and the great estates were in decline, along with the manors or castles of the aristocratic families. The upper class still tried to maintain their lifestyles for as long as possible, or at least the appearance of luxury, which required large staffs of servants. The head cook had her assistant and kitchen maids; the head housekeeper had a staff of housekeeping maids; while the butler was the overall head of the staff, and there were also valets, and the lowest of the male order inside the house, the footmen. Outside the manor were also the gamekeepers and wardens, garden staff, and stables of horses to maintain.

All this cost a lot of money, and without the income from the land, many aristocrats sought new wealth from America. The generally accepted practice was to get a wealthy American heiress, usually the daughter of industrialists or bankers, to marry a titled estate owner, and thus gain a title to provide some hitherto unavailable social status in America, while providing the money to keep the estate going.

This is the setting of the story of one such manor, called Downton Abbey, headed by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, in this work of fiction beginning in the year 1910, created and written by Julian Fellowes. Other works before have explored this system, notably the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited, which actually starts after the era is past but whose story is told as a flashback to a time decades before. Upstairs failed to involve me, I found it boring and passionless.

Brideshead, from the novel by Evelyn Waugh, easily hooked me, largely with it’s terrific cast, which made an international star out of lead actor Jeremy Irons, and included Laurence Olivier, who won an Emmy for his performance as the patriarch, and Clare Bloom as his estranged wife, as well as excellent supporting performances from Julian Glover and the two actors who played the children of Olivier, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick. This is a 'must-see' epic for fans of literature brought to the screen, and runs eleven hours overall.

Downton Abbey is worthy of all the praise and awards it’s receiving. Unlike the two previously mentioned mini-series, Downton is infused with a warmth unseen in previous stories. Fellowes has managed to capture the feel of Charles Dickens literature, with the wit and humor of Jane Austen. When the first telephone is being installed in the manor, the Dowager Countess (the granny of the family), brilliantly played by Oscar-winner Maggie Smith, remarks, “first electricity, now telephones; I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel”.

The story begins with the news of the sinking of the Titanic, and the loss of the hand-picked heirs of Downton, both cousins of the Earl, who has only three daughters and thus no rightful heir of his own. Next in line is a third cousin, who is presently a lawyer in a mid-level corporate legal firm in Manchester – hardly an aristocrat, and someone not especially thrilled at the prospect of changing his lifestyle.

Veteran actor Hugh Bonneville, with
96 titles to his credit, has the role of
a lifetime as the Earl, Robert Crawley

We are swept into the life of the manor in the first five minutes, by following servants awakening and rushing off to their stations with some excellent camerawork that follows people from in front in unbroken shots until the camera turns to follow a different person. From then on you should be hooked on the story.

We see the arrival in the beginning of the new valet, Mr. Bates (brilliant, understated performance by Brendan Coyle) a man crippled from the Boer War, but who has been placed in his new position for being a friend of the earl from the war days, thus bypassing those inside the house who wanted to move up in rank. We are also introduced to the new heir, who meets a different form of disdain, seen as an outsider by the more traditional aristocrats, yet welcome by the younger set, represented by the earl’s three daughters, each single, with the elder two (Mary and Edith) competing as the first across the marriage line. The youngest (Sybil) is more political than social, interested in women getting the vote and finding careers, and uninterested in the traditional woman’s role of wife and socialite.

You know as you watch the dates progress toward 1914 that a world war is coming, so that adds an element of tension to the entire story, which is light on action, but deep in psychological complexity and subtle currents of social change.

British drama doesn’t get any better than this, it’s the ultimate Masterpiece Theater production, expertly filmed and acted. The cast is led by Brendan Coyle as the valet, Mr. Bates. The earl, Robert Crawley is played by Hugh Bonneville, who has a dignified sense of justice. His wife is an American, Elizabeth McGovern (one of the weaker actors), married for her money, needed to keep the estate going. Her money must remain with the estate, else Downton Abbey will not be able to continue.

The eldest daughter Mary, is played by a stern, almost cold-hearted Michelle Dockery. Her conniving, backstabbing younger sister Edith is portrayed as an envious wretch by Laura Carmichael. The youngest daughter, my favorite character, is played by the stunning Jessica Browne Findlay, a former ballerina, and the character with the most spunk.

The Earl's daughters, Ladies Edith, Mary, and Sybil

However, the acting kudos are being stolen by the veteran Maggie Smith, as the traditional and snobbish Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, who is given the lion’s share of great lines. Dan Stevens is passable as the selected heir-to-be, Matthew Crawley, who has trouble fitting into the role of an aristocrat, largely because he’s never been trained to be an elitist, and would rather fend for himself and fulfill some useful career. Veteran actor Jim Carter also shines as the resolute and dignified butler, Mr. Carson, who feels responsible for maintaining a professional staff that can perpetuate this way of life as perhaps Britains contribution to civilization for as long as possible.

The first season has everyone’s appetite whetted for season two, currently airing on PBS, but I wait for the dvd release so I can view the entire season in one sitting. Season one is seven episodes, just shy of seven hours and worth every minute.

This has won 13 awards to date out of 45 nominations, including six Emmys and a Golden Globe, with seven of those awards going to creator and author Julian Fellowes. This has an extremely high rating of 9.0 by just 11,000 fans at IMDB; if it were a film, it would be tied with The Godfather at #2 there, only bettered by Shawshank Redemption's rating of 9.1. It is now one of just 40 perfect 10's I've given on this blog.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Emma (Miniseries)

Jim O’Hanlon, 2009 (9.5*)
Masterpiece Theater version for BBC

There have been a veritable plethora of Jane Austen’s novels put to film, usually 3 to 5 per novel. In fact, this is the fourth version of Emma since 1972, beginning with another BBC miniseries, then a tv film with Kate Beckinsale, then the more famous film in 1996 with Gwyneth Paltrow (trying her best to affect a British accent, see our review here), then finally what I would call the definitive version – this one with the engaging Romola Garai. There was also the updated American adaptation, Clueless (1995), from Amy Heckerling, which retold the story with a spoiled Beverly Hills princess and a hilarious spoof of modern teens, starring a spunky 16-yr old newcomer Alicia Silverstone. (Ok, I confess, this over-the-top version is my favorite one to rewatch, but it bears few traces of Miss Austen.)

Romola Garai, whose name is the feminine version of Romulus, founder of Rome, comes from a Hungarian background, born in Hong Kong, and later relocated to England. Perhaps this outsider’s take on Austen gave her the necessary freshness and naivity that the role ultimately requires.

For the incogniscenti, Emma is born into aristocracy, and in this film Michael Gambon plays her doting and ultra-mindful father with loving humor – he frets about anyone even walking outside catching their death of something - in his mind it's best not to leave home at all. Emma’s mother died when she was “too young to remember her laugh”, and she’s remained by her father’s side ever since.

She’s grown up with a neighbor, a Mr. Knightly, who has been not only her brother-in-law, but like a brother, often scolding her like a parent for her insensitive improprieties. Jonny Lee Miller (yes, the one from the aborted Eli Stone tv show) turns in a remarkably effective and in tune performance as Emma’s longtime friend and confidante; one could argue that he’s the best cast male of any of Austen’s novels put to film.

Michael Gambon, Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller

Not being interested in romance, Emma fancies herself a matchmaking cupid after taking responsibility for getting her governess hitched to a wealthy widower nearby. Spurred on by this achievement, she spends the story trying to advise everyone in her sphere regarding romance, without any firsthand experience herself.

Most people either love Jane Austen or think she’s overblown and trivial; after all, most of her novels are about little more than whether a single woman will ever get married or not. However, primary plots aside, Austen’s forte was in painting a picture of both aristocracy and the common people within their spheres, society’s affect on individual happiness, usually influenced by idle gossip and speculation of outsiders.

This version of Emma was so wonderfully cast that it’s now easily my favorite Austen work put to film. A rather long work at around 270 minutes, it does give the novel ample coverage; it’s been described as Austen’s most complex plot with the most relationships. Emma grows from child to woman before our eyes, yet it’s her childish innocence that makes her so likable, even though Austen herself said of all her heroines, Emma is a person she wouldn’t like herself.

The outing to Box Hill

In this production, she is surrounded by a well-cast supporting group of characters. Blake Ritson was funny and dead on as the local preacher Mr. Elton. The chatty but well meaning Miss Bates was perfectly played by Tamsin Greig. Perhaps only Laura Pyper as Jane Fairfax was too tepid to exhibit even a brief glimpse of personality, dominated by her aunt, Miss Bates.

If you like Austen, you should love this; if you like the BBC’s Masterpiece Theater, this is another stalwart entry in that long-enduring and endearing series. It may not have the wonderful subtlety or complexity of Downton Abbey, but then it’s a novel from a century and a half ago, so in that regard it’s amazing, and a tribute to Austen, that it’s still able to enthrall audiences this far removed from her period in history. No film can capture the beauty and artistry of eloquent prose, but this mini-series in four parts comes as close to Austen as any other to date.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Five Minutes of Heaven

Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009 (8.4*)
Sundance Awards for directing and screenplay.

Based on a true story of the troubles in Northern Ireland. A Protestant worker is ordered to leave a shipyard in Lurgan by Catholics. In retaliation, a teenage gang of four, members of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) orders a Catholic to leave, a man named Griffin. The youths decide to kill him, even though he’s scheduled to leave the yard anyway in just a week.

When they show up at Griffin’s house, unknown to them, the senior Griffin has left the house, but his eldest son is watching tv in the living room, while his younger brother is kicking a soccer ball on the sidewalk out front. The masked hitman, Alistair Little, approaches, looks at the kid on the street staring at him, an image which will haunt him later, and still shoots his brother through the front window and kills him. Nine year old Joe Griffin not only witnesses the attack from just a few feet away, powerless to do anything, but his own mother blames him for not stopping the killing. Both his parents die soon afterwards, neither recovering from the loss of their oldest son.

Thirty-three years later, after serving a 12-year prison term, Little and Griffin are approached by a documentary television show, who sets up a meeting between the two men. Veteran star Liam Neeson plays Little as an adult, who is now a successful politician in Belfast. Griffin is an embittered man still living in the same town of Lurgan, though now he’s married and has two beautiful girls. Due to losing his entire family over the killing, Griffin has never forgiven Little, and wants, as he puts it, just "five minutes of heaven", when he can confront Little face-to-face and kill him.

James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday) steals this film as Joe Griffin. Even though he’s now married with two children, years of torment and anguish are etched on his face in nearly every scene. He makes the audience feel his pain on a visceral level, without ever giving a false note – one feels that Nesbitt himself has gone through something similar in his own life. He steals the acting kudos from Oscar®-winner Liam Neeson in this small film produced by the BBC for television. In all honesty, he has the far meatier role, as a contrite Alistair Little seems almost resigned to giving Griffin the chance he needs for vengance. It’s a crime that Nesbitt wasn’t nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar® for best actor, it’s one of the best performances of the last decade.

Nesbitt with one of his 7 acting awards –
he won 3 for Cold Feet (1997),
and two for Bloody Sunday (2002)

This film deserves a far better rating than the 6.7 given at IMDB (by only 6,000 viewers). More people should watch this film, and all the other good films on 'the trouble' in Northern Ireland. There are excellent films on this subject, notably Bloody Sunday (2002), the Cannes Palm d’Or winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and for PBS, both Naming the Names (which remembers the victims of Bloody Sunday) and Frontline: Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein. Probably the first great film on this subject is John Ford’s classic, The Informer (1935), for which Victor McLaglen was awarded the Oscar for best actor.

Not being from Great Britain, those of us in the U.S., and probably the rest of the world, need to see the films on this subject so we can better understand the history of violence and repression there.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen, 2011 (9.0*)
Woody is back! This is a light romantic fantasy in the same vein as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice, which mixes reality with a fantasy world that obviously comes from the mind of the protagonist.

Owen Wilson is a young American, on a trip to Paris with his domineering fiance, Rachel MacAdams, whose right-wing parents are wealthy capitalists there for a business deal (naturally - why else would capitalists go anywhere but for some tax deductible reason, because the wealthy don't have to pay taxes since they can deduct everything from travel to meals by claiming they are 'for business purposes' - then the rest of us have to make up this shortfall).

Wilson is a screenwriter attempting to write a serious novel, while everyone urges him to do what he's successful at already. He seeks solitude at night by wandering around Paris alone. After midnight, magic happens, and he runs into people he assumes are in costume, but finds out that he's been transported in time to Paris of the 20's, first being found in the streets by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who introduce him to Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). He later meets Picasso, and his beautiful model, played by Marion Cotillard, a muse for all the famous artists of her era. Naturally, the two strike up a platonic romance.

Wilson's fantasy world is centered around creative artists who spent time in Paris: Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Luis Bunuel, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Salvador Dali ("I paint you, with your lips melting into the sand - and of course, a rhinoceros!" - hilariously played by Adrien Brody), Paul Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec are just a few of the famous artists who come alive for Owen Wilson on his post-midnight walks around Paris.

This film is superficially a light romantic comedy, but beneath all that is the underlying and beautiful idea that art not only is immortal, but will influence and inspire future generations of creative people. It also contains the protagonists desire to live in another era (don't we all?) he imagines is greater than his own (for Wilson, Paris in the 20's).

As an artist (painting and writing) this film reinforced my lifelong belief in the power of creativity. Most of the awards are for Allen's screenplay, which should be a favorite for an Oscar®. I would elevate this work above Woody's other output of the last 15 or so years.

Note: in the rating, PG-14, in the beginning, it is mentioned that "features smoking" - holy smoke, are we now warning people when there are cigarettes in films? what's next, "characters eating pork", or "loud noises emitted by fireworks", or "capitalist merchants overcharging for coffee"?


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Lost Horizon

Frank Capra, 1937 (8.2*)
Exotic, unspoiled locales around the world have always appealed to the more daring individuals of more populous regions, such as Europe; just look at the nationalities of all the famous explorers. In 1923, Frenchwoman Alexandra David-Neel was the first known westerner to enter the forbidden Tibetan city of Lhasa. She then published her accounts in her 1932 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet.

Shortly thereafter, novelist James Hilton wrote a short novel about a flight of western travelers that crashes in the Himilayas, and the survivors are rescued and taken to a fictitious hidden city in a mountain valley, called Shangri-La. Basically, this is a story of an exotic utopia untouched by civilization and the ills of modern society. The westerners are treated like welcome guests, and their’s is an adventure of a lifetime.

Frank Capra went out of character for this film of adventure and fantasy, starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, and Edward Everett Horton as the crash survivors, and Sam Jaffe miscast as a Tibetan spiritual master. It's contains none of Capra's homespun humor, nor is it a glimpse at classic Americana. A newer partially restored version has the entire soundtrack, but some scenes are filled in with only still images. It looks like the Hays Commission deleted scenes where people were simply talking, but within their bedrooms - innocent enough unless you're under the cloud of censorship.

The story may also be taken as a metaphor of a spiritual quest to find one’s center within, away from the distractions of the material world. Often we get a peek at this realm, and find it difficult to return due to life circumstances. Like the beautiful Australian film Walkabout, this utopia may exist in one’s past, and you can either remember it nostalgically, or make the physical effort to return to the same location where you once found bliss.

Since the late 1800’s, there have been many accounts by westerners of this little-explored region of earth and it’s philosophies, until during the 60’s it blossumed into an international cultural movement, generally called The New Age. The allure of the Himilayas and it’s mountain people have had a profound effect on western civilization, whether intentional or not. This story was an early entry that added fuel to that fire.

Nominated for 7 Academy Awards for 1937, including picture (a year when there were 10 nominations, the winner being The Life of Emile Zola), it won two, for film editing and art direction.


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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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