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Les Misérables (2012)
This is not a filmed version of the stage musical. I understand that. And while, the rearrangement of the plot is awkward at times, I can forgive that. What I find impossible to forgive is the casting of certain parts. Though his voice isn't as powerful as it should be, Hugh Jackman is good as Jean Valjean. Russell Crowe can't sing worth a damn. Ann Hathaway acts her part successfully but her voice isn't particularly good. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter don't exactly ruin the comic highlights of the musical but neither of them is a singer. To my taste, Samantha Barks as Eponine is the only singer who could have stood up to his or her stage counterpart. Frankly, the only emotion my wife and I felt when the film ended was relief. The highlight of the film is the opening scene where the convicts are hauling a battered vessel into dry dock. After that, it's pretty much a pale imitation of the stage version we saw. I did, however, appreciate the scenes in which Colm Wilkinson appeared. He was "our Jean" Valjean and, though too old to play that part now, a better singer than Jackman.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Better than Argo
I've seen all the reasons viewers (and some critics) dislike this film, but in my opinion it is infinitely superior to ARGO in its authenticity and dramatic quality. The final scenes, when the SEAL team, goes into Ben Laden's house, are brilliantly rendered. The idea of doing it mostly in the dark with flashes of illumination by "night vision" green is a brilliant touch, which most directors would never have attempted.
The performances by Jessica Chastain, of course, Jason Clark and Jennifer Ehle are top drawer and the torture scenes, while brutal, are necessary--because that's the way it happened. Congratulations to Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal for getting it right.
I don't want to put the knock on Argo, because I found it entertaining. But it's artificiality provides a distinct contrast with Zero Dark Thirity's authenticity, and authenticity wins.
The Gatekeepers (2012)
An important film
Like it or not--and some will despise it--"The Gatekeepers" is MUST SEE for anyone concerned about Israel's future. While it is true, as one reviewer has pointed out, that excerpts from the interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's spy agency, have been assembled and, therefore, shaped by the director, what emerges is nevertheless astounding. To be sure there are significant differences of opinion on some issues -- like the efficacy of targeted assassinations, for example--and those differences have been obscured in some reviews of this documentary. But what unites the six is a good deal more significant than what divides them. They all regard the occupation as a disaster. They are all pessimistic about the future. They have contempt for most of Israel's politicians, who, they say, are consumed by tactical considerations but have no strategy. To a man, they want peace and see it slipping away. To a man they blame settlers and extremist rabbis, together with the politicians who have enabled them. (Only Yitzhak Rabin is admired by any of the six.) Yes, it's depressing. But reality is often depressing, and this is a necessary dose of reality from men who have spent their lifetimes in Israel's service.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
One of Woody's Lesser Movies
Woody Allen is more of a schlemiel than usual in Broadway Danny Rose and it's not as hilarious as some of his comedies. However, there are some very funny throw-way lines delivered more or less as a side-dish rather than as the main course. The premise -- Woody as a talent agent with the worst acts imaginable as his clients and one half-way good has-been (Nick Apollo Forte) whose career is revived by a nostalgia craze for singers of yesteryear. Broadway Danny who gives very personal service to his clients wangles an audition for the singer, Lou Canova, with Milton Berle and must bring Canova's mistress to the performance to keep his client in working order. Danny is a "beard" in Damon Runyon terms (a pretend boyfriend to disguise the mistress from the wife). Canova's mistress (Mia Farrow) is also the beloved of a guy who belongs to a crime family and when Danny takes her away, his two-hit man brothers vow to murder this interloper. The mistress, meanwhile, has convinced Lou Canova to abandon Danny for an agent with better connections. Other complications that needn't be recounted ensue, but eventually the mistress regrets what she's done and visits Danny to apologize. The implication at the end is that she and Danny will fall in love. During most of the movie, Mia Farrow wears large sun glasses and a blonde wig in her role as a brassy broad with few morals and no conscience. Only at the end, as she feels sorry for what she's done, do the sun glasses disappear and Farrow emerges as the delicate beauty she was when this movie was made. A typical Allen gesture frames the movie. A number of relatively obscure comedians, playing themselves, are gathered at the famed Carnegie Deli exchanging jokes and comic tales. The movie is launched as an extended anecdote told by one of the comedians about Broadway Danny. This is not among Woody's best but it's still worth seeing if you're a fan of his work.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Artificial but brilliant
The many artifices employed in this version of Tolstoy's great novel, beginning with the opening presentation of the story as a theatrical event, are not only unusual, they are also off-putting for many film goers. In my opinion, they have been used to intensify the action and the emotion at critical points. Anna Karenina defies condensation and previous versions have fallen far short of conveying the overpowering emotion at the heart of the love affair between Anna and Count Vronsky or Anna's tormented decision to abandon her son or her humiliation at the hands of her social circle. This version succeeds on all these counts, I believe. There is, for example, a stop action dancing scene which captures as no other film has done the intoxication that Anna is experiencing during her first real encounter with Vronsky and another scene when they first consummate their love during which the camera whirls around their bodies without fully displaying their nakedness. The passion is unmistakable, more so than if the act of intercourse had been more realistically shown. Maybe I'm prejudiced because I believe Keira Knightley is the most beautiful woman on the planet but I think she is the perfect Anna and a much better actress than most critics say she is. This is the third of her performances with the same director -- Pride & Prejudice and Atonement are the others -- for which I would have given her an Oscar. And both Tom Stoppard who wrote the script and Joe Wright, Knightley's director, have served the story exceedingly well. Three other major achievements: (i) Jude Law makes a very convincing Karenin, establishing the man's stiff moralistic nature and his wounded pride as well as his generosity when he is willing to forgive Anna although she has betrayed him. (2) Count Vronsky is portrayed, as he should be -- a beautiful but shallow lover, unable in the end to sustain Anna emotionally when she finds that she is a social pariah. (3) The important parallel love story between the idealistic Levin and young Kitty, with whom he is obsessed -- as pure as the love between Anna and Vronsky is corrupt -- is beautifully depicted, though perhaps at lesser length than it deserves. I know I'm bucking the trend, but I consider this Anna to be a major achievement and the artificiality in much of the film works for me.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
The Idea Is the Biggest Winner
"Shakespeare in Love" is one of the more decorated films in recent years. Two of its Oscars went to leading lady Gwyneth Paltrow as Shakespeare's love interest, the other in the supporting actress category to Judi Dench for a relatively brief on-screen appearance as Queen Elizabeth. The Motion Picture Academy doesn't give Oscars for conceiving the basic idea of a film, and I don't know if the idea came from screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, who got their Oscars, or possibly from director John Madden, who didn't. But what makes this film unique is its underlying concept: Shakespeare's finding of the beautiful muse who inspires Romeo and Juliet. Suspicion falls naturally on Tom Stoppard. His writerly DNA includes an earlier play, "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," which mingled scenes from Hamlet with plot and dialog focused on two minor characters in Shakespeare's play. In this film, Shakespeare is suffering from writer's block, a common enough problem to be credible even when the author is the prolific Bard of Avon. Ms. Paltrow's character is a young woman disguised as a male because she's obsessed with the theater, and women aren't allowed on stage during the Elizabethan era. The affair between them releases Shakespeare's paralyzed imagination.. Joseph Fiennes is very good as the young Shakespeare, though he didn't win many awards, Paltrow is outstanding as Shakespeare's girl friend/muse, and in addition to Dame Judi, Geoffrey Rush also turns in a fine performance as a rival playwright. But it is again the mingling of Shakespeare's words and plot with the dialog written by Norman and Stoppard that transforms this romance into a wondrous film. I don't know what Mr. Norman contributed but Stoppard is a well-known word magician, whose plays are possibly the most intellectual, inventive and funny body of work since the days of George Bernard Shaw. If I'm giving Stoppard more credit than he deserves, I apologize. In any event, Shakespeare in Love is work of genius in addition to being a lovely, watchable romantic comedy.
You Pays Your Money and Makes Your Choice
Some of us love Tom Stoppard's work; others don't. If you're among the latter, you ought to skip this film. If you admire Stoppard, you've got to see it. This is the first of Stoppard's brilliant plays to make a splash. It interleaves scenes and dialog from Shakespeare's Hamlet with an LSD flavored dialog and plot of Stoppard's invention about Hamlet's two friends who are "summoned" to Elsinore to spy on him and report back to the King and Queen. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't remember which of them is which is merely the beginning of Stoppard's comic conceits. The wordplay between Stoppard's script and Shakespeare's immortal classic are one of the verbal wonders of the world, a kind of literary Taj Mahal. The players whom Hamlet employs to "catch the conscience of the king" also figure prominently in the script, speaking Stoppard's words at times and Shakespeare's at others. Stoppard, who also directed the film, introduces a lot of visual comedy that cannot be duplicated on stage. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth do a great job as the title characters and Richard Dreyfuss is at his (very different) best as the leader of the players. My wife, who's not a great admirer of Stoppard, thought the movie was terrible. You see what I mean.
A dreadful movie redeemed by two features
Songcatcher appropriates the real life story of Alan Lomax, transforms Lomax into a woman, shifts his career into an earlier period in the 20th Century, adds lesbianism to its uninteresting plot and wastes valuable time that could have been devoted to the music of Appalachia. There are, however, two valuable aspects to the film. One is the music which Lomax collected and which is now preserved in the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington and to a considerable extent on recordings drawing upon that collection, The other redeeming feature is Emily Rossum, 14 at the time, a delicate beauty with a wonderful voice. I wish the movie had made more use of her voice in presenting the music instead of having it sung by folks representing the local population. Of course, what Lomax did in part was to record the songs sung by people with not very good voices. Much of the music sung by Pete Seeger, among others, is drawn from the work Lomax did (which also included collecting folk music from Europe). The film is correct in asserting that the music of Appalachia can be traced to its roots in Scotland and England and that, in many cases, the Appalachian versions are "purer" than contemporary versions still sung in Britain. But lots of singers have also recorded the same ballads (like Barbra Allen) in their Scottish or English versions. The music is sometimes identical but the words are frequently somewhat different. The brief period when folk music was highly popular in the United States was filled with Appalachian folk music performed by artists like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, the Weavers and many others. Seeger was one of the Weavers, the group which might be said to have launched the folk music boom. It's a fascinating history -- much, much, much more interesting than this lousy movie.
The Trojan Women (1971)
If You're Interested in Greek tragedy, don't miss this one
If you have any interest whatsoever in Greek tragedy, this is a film not to miss. It's done in English (an Edith Hamilton translation), beautifully filmed and it has four major actresses in the principal roles: Katherine Hepburn as Hecuba, the widow of Priam, Troy's king, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, Hector's widow, Genevieve Bujold as Cassandra and Irene Papas as Helen, whose decision to leave King Menelaus for the visiting Paris precipitates the war. Hepburn has the dominant role and is always in the foreground or the background, but each of the other stars has a moment when she is at the center, and each of them acquits herself in great style. There's also a Greek chorus of women, each striking in appearance. Given the color of their eyes and the differences in their complexions, the members of the chorus are by no means all Greek unless pale skin and blue, green or hazel eyes has become an ethnic characteristic of Greeks when I wasn't looking. Papas, of course, is a classic Greek beauty, and she isn't pale skinned or blue eyed. Hepburn, Redgrave and Bujold don't look very Greek either. But when it comes to the classics, who cares? The dialog is mainly declamatory, as is the case with most Greek tragedies that I've seen, and the action is sparse. But Euripides was a great dramatist and the emotions run both high and deep. Hecuba has lost her husband and all her children except Cassandra who is mad and about to be taken as a slave. Andromache has lost her husband and is about to have her son taken from her and killed before she is forced into slavery. And, the beautiful, seductive Helen, hated by all the Trojan women, is trying to persuade Menelaus that "Aphrodite made me do it"while Hecuba urges him to kill her. Michael Cacoyannis (the way it's spelled on the DVD, though not on IMDb) directs the movie efficiently. Greek drama isn't very fashionable these days but The Trojan Women is a good introduction to a great body of work.
Made in Dagenham (2010)
Well done film but hard on American ears
The story line in this film is based on actual events, and it has the advantage of 2-1/2 excellent performances. Sally Hawkins is excellent as the young female worker who leads the strike for equal pay at the Ford factory. Bob Hoskins is wonderful as the sympathetic union leader who manages to sabotage the union's efforts to quell the uprising. The extra one-half belongs to Miranda Richardson, the real-life Barbara Castle who got the women most (and eventually all) they wanted from the Labour government then in power. Richardson is superb but she has only a minor on-screen presence. The problem, as often in British-made movies, is the mix of accents which makes it difficult for viewers who are not British to understand what's being said. Unfortunately, some of the dialog is virtually unintelligible. Classically trained UK actors know how to make themselves understood to American audiences regardless of the regional accents they are called upon to adopt. Bob Hoskins has that capability. Many other British actors, although very good, aren't able to do that. (I'm sure some regional accents in American movies are equally difficult for non=American audiences). I might easily have given this movie a 10. It's well worth seeing but if you're like me, prepare to be frequently confused. The cable news networks sometimes use subtitles when people are speaking heavily-accented English. British film-makers might be well-advised to do the same.