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This excellent program is really two biographies in one. We get side by side biographies of both Lincoln and Mary. Both of these biographies are then put into context of their societies and the politics and ultimately the war that had an impact on everyone's life and broken families... Just when things seem to be settling down, there is a visit from Mary's confederate half sister.
The pace is methodical, which some might find slow, but it has a real payoff in the moments when we can really savor the richness of Lincoln's words and the choices he makes in the moment. Holly Hunter was a really poor choice for Mary's voice, her lateral lisp is too distracting for voice-over work, and her choice of breathy delivery was off putting. She's a fine actress, just a poor choice for voice-over work, and wrong for this role. A "name" is not always a good solution for a difficult voice casting choice. David McCullough's narration is seamless, as usual, Mr. Morse as the voice of Lincoln really fit perfectly - his voice seemed to be Lincoln and it was "unnoticable" and that is great vocal casting.
The variety of historians is the highlight here, they create a great window - from the Mary Lincoln historian who breathlessly relates Mary's side of things, to the writer who talks about Lincoln's choices as a writer, to the African American historians, one who thinks Lincoln didn't do enough, the other who appreciates that Lincoln evolved and had a good sense of how much and where he could push.
An excellent series, it would make an excellent gift for repeated viewings.
"Torn Curtain" meets "Vagabond"
This is a dark, riveting drama of two Americans who decide to part with their group and take the TransSiberian railway on a leg of their trip home from China. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are the couple returning from a mission trip, who decide to do something different from the normal plan to relieve the dissonance within their marriage.
They end up sharing very tight sleeping quarters with a younger couple, a charismatic Spanish man and an emotionally guarded young American woman who seem to spend their lives traveling free. Somewhere between sympathy, conniving, and shared language, their paths grow together and then someone ends up missing. This is Kafka territory in both the literal and figurative sense when the young wife sees the police beating up a young man on the train with impunity.
The bleak locations, the language and cultural barriers, the police investigation that opens the film, and the really excellent individual character through lines make this film marvelous and riveting. The thriller tone is maintained with great editing and story twists. In some sense, you've seen every element here before, and while individual points may be trite, they are put together in a very fresh way.
It shares some impoverished Russo-Euro feel that Hitchcock's TORN CURTAIN had, and they are the high points of both films. I share with many IMDb reviewers the feeling that "it is so good, why does it feel as if it missed the mark? What is it?"
The strength and the downfall of this film is casting Emily Mortimer. This is a fantastic role, and she is up to every single moment of it. Her performance is really excellent. The irony is, if you really look at the character "on the page"... Emily Mortimer does not look old enough for this role. Isn't Harrelson in his 40s? A woman who APPEARS to be his age, his partner, would have given this entire story tremendous dimensions, in the romantic tensions, in the empathy with the younger girl. It's really hard to feel Mortimer is an older version of the girl when she looks only about 3 years older. (Looking younger is not always an asset for an actress.) It's hard to believe their marriage is that stale when it has to be pretty recent given the details. I admit, I DO usually feel an older, less "cute" actress would be better for almost any role, but this is a specific case where the script REALLY seems to need it. After seeing this film, just imagine Kate Nelligan or a character actress in this role, and THERE's the beef, baby! (By the script details, this is a lead role for a seasoned character actress.)
Amazingly, the other casting problem is the always excellent Ben Kingsley. The role doesn't cover new territory for him, but he's always tops. But when you put him in a small role, immediately we know something is going to happen with that role, and it hurt the film... despite my ADORATION of The Kingsley, this role needed an unknown face (like the actor playing his sidekick).
It's definitely a good thriller, and I highly recommend it... definitely NOT a date film! It has all the mistrust and antipathy of many of last years award winners, but a more human story. Fantastic direction, and the music is so well integrated that you are completely unaware of it! Worth seeing in the theatre while you can.
If you want a little more in this vein, rent VAGABOND by french director Agnes Varda from the 1970s. The American film THE DEAD GIRL was based on VAGABOND, and while it is also a good film, the themes are very different, more sensational and outre. VAGABOND, like TransSIBERIAN is very "slice of life."
Thirty-something ennui in the 1930 somethings
---Who was the target audience of this film? People who were really interested in Parker would have to find this disappointing.----- so...
We spend a lot of time indoors/While Leigh suffers from lockjaw/With boozy loud insufferable boors /That self-indulgent Parker saw
The costumes great, production high,/ But what is that she is saying?/ Parker did drone, but diction, sigh,/ Is needed above the other's braying.
Paltrow, so often wan and fey/ Shows marvelous character actress prospect /She towers above this teeny fray /But her humor and tartness are not lost yet.
Leigh is lovely, dewy and luminous /Her vocal imitation comes and goes/ Will someone unclench her jaw for us /So we can decipher her character's woes?
Leigh's smaller than a umbrella stand/ Matthew Broderick is a lovely pairing /The story only starts when he enters, grand /And sexy and strong and stirring.
Cambell Scott is the backbone of this /Screeching brood, he doesn't contest a fraction. /He calmly settles back in bliss/ And steals every scene, every action.
Parker fans, I think, would largely not/ Feel compelled to this trendy casting spread. / With this posey art, we can bet on spot/ That she's now even more happy that she's dead.
Northanger Abbey (2007)
What fun! Andrew Davies does it again!
This is a really lovely TV/film version of this book, and of course... the script is by master adapter Andrew Davies. He is just magnificent. Carey Mulligen (Bleak House, The Amazing Mrs. Prichard) is a young actress who really understands period drama, and can bring her full self to it without seeming modern. She is excellently cast as the "bad" friend of the lead.
Catherine Walker gives us an excellent interpretation of the "good" friend, and JJ Field gives us the most charming Henry Tilney. He is handsome and smart and fun and good. (The stuff of a girl's dreams, as he is supposed to be.)
Despite the short running time length, everything is here that needs to be here, and the costumes in this are gloriously beautiful, and tell us a lot about the character. We have only to look at the neckline of Isabella & Eleanor's dresses to know all we need to know about them.
Felicity Jones as our lead Catherine is just perfect... all the right notes. I did enjoy the version done in the 1980s?... even though the fantasy sections were very modern pop-punk with music by "art of noise." It worked... but this current one will be much more enjoyed by the purists. ENJOY this masterful adaptation!
John Adams (2008)
HBO matches BBC. Marvelous
This series is an excellent presentation of the complex lives of our founding fathers with the focus, of course, on John & Abigail. The extra feature of "facts are stubborn things" that presents additional historical detail while watching is an excellent feature, and it answers many questions that may arise as you view.
Giamatti does not look at all like the portraits of Adams, and this is disconcerting in the beginning, but he is such a fine character actor - and this role a character actor's dream, that he is completely believable. I usually find Linney too bland for my taste, but her reserve here is excellent, and this may be her finest acting work on film - where she has this role of such depth - social restraint with great intelligence.
This is a real high point for HBO that shows that they can match the quality of BBC miniseries in historical accuracy, fine scripting, no prurient sex scenes, glorious costumes, and the casting of many British stars. But really, when it comes to period dramas, Hollywood has always preferred to cast Brits over the thousands of capable American stage actors that they don't have time to audition. Meow.
I love that this is one HBO film that makes the marital bed seem much more inviting than an affair. This is excellent. I'm buying the set for my father!
Mansfield Park (2007)
Mansfield P. Y'all
For a teenager who has never read Austen, this adaptation might be fine. But only for them. This is a disjointed "Cliff Notes" version of Mansfield Park, and if you have not seen another version or read the books parts of it would be head scratching.
Why has it been so hard to do a good adaptation of this book? The one in the 1990s took such liberties that it barely seemed to be the same book - the mindset was completely modern and prurient.
Here we have Billie Piper who looks like a pretty country wench. She has a charming personality that develops nicely - but she has flagrantly died blonde hair, with black eyebrows and - through much of the pic - dark brown roots. So much for unspoiled cousin. It is incredibly distracting, and the rest of the cast is in the greasy hair, rumpled clothing genre that shows a real disrespect for period accuracy.
One thing is good here - Haley Atwell is the best Mary Crawford of all the versions. She is note perfect, flirtatious without being at all modern or suggestive, flippant and completely without any moral or ethical compass. Henry here is actually good looking enough to be a slight temptation for our heroine.
Jemma Redgrave takes one of the most interesting roles in the story and manages to make her actually boring until her last scene - much too sensible. This is just a production that really missed the mark, a real low for Austen fans.
The only serviceable version is the one with odd duck (perfect for the role) Sylvestra La Touzel (despite the very very gay Henry Crawford - he's just laughable).
Roman de gare (2007)
Complexity that stays with you
ROMAN DE GARE has a lot going for it. Start with one of France's biggest stars, "jolie/laid" (beautiful/ugly) Fanny Ardant. Add Domique Pignon, the brilliant and quirky circus performer turned actor who starred in DELICATESSIN, CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, and AMELIE. Add Audrey Dana as Hugette, a lovely "rocker chick next door" type & hairdresser wannabe, who gives a knock-your-socks-off performance in one of the most interesting victim roles written for a woman in years. Add a fantastic, complex, multi-layered mystery-thriller script that holds your interest and is tight-as-a-drum.
Toss in a serial killer on the loose, a husband who has walked out on his job/wife/and child, a ghost writer for a famous author, a handsome policeman in love with an overweight housewife, a murder, and a brother/sister magic act. Finally, the core of this film takes us to the kind of French countryside we never see... French "hill country" that is like a ramshackle farm in West Virginia, where education is poor, and the house a modified stable.
Instead of being a mess, all of these elements pull together so simply in a way that feels everyday and natural; because ultimately this film is about the complexity of modern life.
For those who like to look deeper, we have the significant, meaningful themes of "wanting to run away from your life," and the modern inability to know who anyone really is - the essential modern mistrust. Ardant's character doesn't even know who she is herself, and it is shown in persistent yet such subtle ways throughout.
For those who don't like to look deeply, the good news is that you don't have to. ROMAN DE GARE glides along and keeps you engaged throughout. It keeps you guessing... we know we are seeing one of the books being talked about, but we don't even know for sure which book we are watching.
The film SWIMMING POOL mined similar territory in the literary world and has a mind-bending ending that alters your perception of the whole film. We are set up for that kind of ending here, and I left feeling disappointed. It is only now, several days later that I feel this is one of the most deft and well orchestrated films I've seen in years. We go from a yacht in Cannes to a highway rest stop, and there is no "comment" on the social contrasts, it just is. To have it all feel organic and natural is the real magicians art - the work of a confident and mature filmmaker.
The production values are as high as you would expect with big stars in the leads. The costuming touches say so much. The hairdresser's trashy trendy high-heeled boots, Ardan'ts frankly fake wigs and obvious foundation makeup are the touches that speak to the inner personality. The fact that "Hugette" is the smallest woman is worth noticing.
Really modern. Really complex. Really entertaining. Really Real. See it.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Brilliant depth below a lurid surface
This Pre-Psycho British thriller (that was banned shortly after it's release and now seems quaint) operates on two different levels, and it deserves it's reputation.
By today's standards it will be considered very tame, but it was groundbreaking in it's day. Like many Hitchcock films, we see the inner working and reasoning of a serial killer in such a way as to understand his motivations, and Carl Boehm gives an excellent and subtle personal portrayal of a soul tormented by his own desires.
On the surface it is a creepy psychological drama - rather kitsch-y by now with the "pin up girls". But when you have Moira Shearer giving possibly her best performance, lively and humorous, as one of the murder victims, you have something special, and something deeper.
This film has a lot to say about the voyeurism and destruction that persists within the industry. About how the industry chews up young women to suit the various perversions of Directors and producers... the purveyors to the public; and how the sickness feeds on itself. Powell's brilliance was to include himself as the demon father in the "home movie" sequences of the child being psychologically abused that caused.
It was ahead of it's time in anticipating how the pornography industry would infiltrate and become accepted within the mainstream media. (Think of the glossy gore movies being produced today by major studios.) It was also ahead of it's time in how "documentary" (think "news reporting") is used to excuse uninvolvement. "I can only film the action," I'm not responsible for getting involved and stopping the horror I'm filming.
This was also an extremely strong indictment of the idea of casting non-actors to achieve "reality." The rage of the new wave cinema of the time was to cast non-actors, and then put them in uncomfortable situations to try to evoke a "real" reaction from them. (Invariably what was - and still is - produced was fairly leaden performances of people who were uncomfortable being on film.) Powell's film uncannily makes the subtle point that a good actor can do a better job with half the effort. Of course all this enraged critics at the time. No one wants to be reminded they've been sold a bag of "magic beans." More shocking then was that it is also an indictment of how psychology - in studying human emotions as a subject - also alienates people from each other as "objects of study" instead of feeling for them and relating to them. Brilliant, and still deeply relevant.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Uneven, morally blank film with high production values.
If this is your kind of film, is a film that is worth seeing in the theatre. If you remember the old film GIANT with Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, this film is similar in the huge vistas and visual scope that is so effective on the big screen. It also covers the span of twenty years or more. Like Giant, it also has some performance unevenness (but Giant was much better balanced than this). This is also the story of an oil man in late 1800s California, a real scrapper and wheeler-dealer, so it is very much one man's story.
Daniel Day Lewis does his usual searing portrayal, but it is seriously marred by his vocal choice to imitate John Huston. It is very distracting, and I and many others found ourselves thinking "whose voice is that" throughout the film. It is such a specific voice to imitate. It's a big role, tempestuous and cranky and on the edge, and that takes it to the edge, and at least one friend found his performance ultimately too hammy. I thought it was pretty true to the character he and the director had created. But his is a bravura stage performance while everyone else is doing this modern blasé under-acting. (That is a directing problem of balancing performances.) Weaker, commercial actors in supporting roles.
Several actor friends and I agreed that this is definitely best picture worthy. As for Lewis, an Oscar worthy ROLE, but maybe not an Oscar worthy performance. (I JUST figured out why... his character doesn't change! We meet him fully formed and the same as the end.) An American actor doing this same performance would have been slammed by every critic he gets an award.
The film is long, 2.5 hours, but it breezes by and never felt long to me. One friend thought it dragged, but she doesn't like to sit down. It actually feels as if it should have been a longer film that was cut down, because near the end, there seemed to be a few pieces missing. Perhaps it shouldn't have been cut, but, like GIANT, it needed an intermission?
What is great here is that while GIANT focused on the melodrama of the family and the emotional workings, this film is much grittier. With almost no dialogue in the first twenty minutes, we have a grimy, working man's view of the way these early oil men worked alone and in small teams in the holes, in the mud, in the oil. This is a working man's film, a man's film, and I recommended it to my father. There are almost no women in this film, and they are completely tangential. Pretty true to life for the 1800s. (That's Hollywood in 2007... the only significant female role is under 14 years old.)
The art direction and cinematography here are top level. The exacting detail of the working conditions, the lifestyle, the problems of the work, is what raises this film up as if it were a documentary of live history. It says volumes without words, and that is great film-making. This also has a really interesting score that grows and changes throughout. It incorporates "noises" in a musical way that is surprising but makes organic sense and I think that is part of why the film moves so well.
The film is based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, and it is really surprising that this is not being made more of in the publicity. I guess they're afraid our national literacy is so low that people would just say "upton who?" Sinclair had a very dark world view, and it shows especially in the portrayal of religion. Unfortunately, I think the casting of the role of the young pastor is very weak. This actor doesn't seem to understand his role; no glimmer that spiritual refection and humility can come from a position of strength and passion. Again, no real growth in the portrayal of this character (and no age makeup at the end he still looks 16). This all throws the strength and focus of the film back to Lewis.
The middle of the story has some nice twists, and perhaps the strongest interactions. Not for everyone, it is a natural fit for the folks who liked 3:10 to Yuma, or classic westerns. If this is your kind of film, it is worth seeing on the big screen.
La baie des anges (1963)
Well crafted, slow character study, microscopic quality.
This film enters with a spectacular high speed tracking shot matched by the hyper circular theme song by Michelle Legrand that sounds both like spinning and falling, and which does indeed represent both the spinning of the roulette wheel and falling in love.
Here we have the side of Jeanne Moreau I don't care for, posey, game playing and artificial... the kind of woman men like and women hate... and that made her perfect in this role. (And her performance her is Infinitely BETTER than in EVA, same type role.) What I like a lot about her casting here is that she looks quite a bit like Marilyn Monroe, but is as different internally as anyone can possibly be - which a lot of the world was doing at this time, being bad Marilyn Monroe wannabees. I love that the platinum hair makes her look much more harsh, older, and very false, and that is, of course, the essence of the character. And this film is mainly a character study, with little story and little explanation.
Our leading man is the young naive everyman sucked into her world in all respects. We feel for his every bad decision, and this is a true and real representation of both the allure and the tawdriness of the gambling world.
Without giving anything away, the ending feels contrived, but in this time period, films wanted "endings"... today a truer ending would just go on spinning like the roulette wheel. Michel Legrand's score is great. Like many of Demy's films, this is a dark story of the current day told with musicality and attention to the games we play with ourselves.