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8/10
A Valentine to the Creative Process, Told in Human Terms
27 April 2018
The terrific character actor Stanley Tucci is also a terrific director, and for evidence of that look no further than his latest directorial effort, "The Final Portrait."

The film is fact-based, about sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti (played by Geoffrey Rush), in 1964, toward the end of his career.

The plot revolves around Giacometti inviting author and arts aficionado James Lord (Arnie Hammer) to sit for one of his final portraits _ considered by many to be his last great picture _ at the Paris studio that Giocometti operates with his brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub).

The result is a finely chiseled character study of the artist and an immensely fascinating depiction of the creative process.

Perfectly understated in every way, from performance to photography, the film is a gently, lilting valentine to all who share in the creative process, in any discipline.

False starts, self-doubt, depression, euphoria _ It's all there.

Rush believably and movingly captures a genius at the end of his days, right down to his shuffling gait and hunched carriage, without overdoing, while Shalhoub, a vastly under appreciated actor, makes every subtle expression and movement poignant and meaningful.

Hammer's young author Lord offers perfect counterpoint, posing questions with a look or gesture, serving as a wide-eyed link between the audience and the man he struggles to understand.

Sylvie Testud as the artist's wife, Annette, brings all the deep love and pain of a complicated relationship in each and every scene, while Clemence Poesy _ recently seen as the icy French detective in the TV series "The Tunnel" _ here shows a distant warmth and complexity as the prostitute who has become the artist's mistress.

The creative process is not a linear or always pretty one, but, as demonstrated here, it is invariably intriguing and can also inspire.

This 90-minute film comes highly recommended.
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Sneaky Pete (2015– )
10/10
Just the Facts, Ma'am _ Subject to Change, of Course
3 April 2018
Amazon's American crime drama "Sneaky Pete" _ created by David Shore and Bryan Cranston, and starring Giovanni Ribisi ("Avatar," "My Name Is Earl") _ is in a league of its own. There's really nothing quite like it.

Edgy, gritty, shocking, ironic, poignant, hilarious _ and ultimately, completely satisfying _ the series, whose second season premiered last month, is binge-worthy in the extreme. In fact, try not to, I dare you.

The second season is even better than the first, which, if you saw the first, seems impossible.

Think "The Sting" meets "The Wire," with a smidgeon of "Pulp Fiction" and "Get Shorty." For those of a certain age, throw in "Maverick" and Jim Rockford, and let it come to a boil. Sprinkle lightly with pixie dust, garlic and a dash of arsenic. There now.

The story revolves around freshly released convict Marius Josipovic (Ribisi), who adopts the identity _ and family _ of his cell mate, Pete Murphy.

Oh, boy, what a family. And what an ex-con. Maybe they deserve each other. And maybe it's a match made in ... no, not up there ... well, anyway, you get the drift.

What a cast: in addition to the incredible Mr. Ribisi, it includes Marin Ireland, Shane McRae, Libe Barer, Michael Drayer, Peter Gerety and Margo Martindale.

Not a weak link in the bunch, or in any of the supporting characters.

A "family" dinner in one of the second season's final installments is so wonderfully bizarre and riveting, with each actor brilliantly reflecting the individual backstories, as conflicting as they are, that it's impossible not to be sucked in and left almost breathless.

I wholeheartedly recommend this. To more fully appreciate it, I suggest watching the first season (you'll binge that too) before getting into the second.

And did I mention that the audience sometimes gets conned, too?

Part of the fun.
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8/10
Piercing the Soft Underbelly of the American Legal System
19 January 2018
In "Roman J. Israel, Esq.," a drama written and directed by Dan Gilroy with Denzel Washington in the title role, the American legal system and the people who must somehow operate within its confines are exposed for what they are: an uneven mix of good and bad, with the tilt toward one or the other dependent as much or more so on the moral compass and grit of the individual as on circumstance, no matter how imposing or seemingly impossible they might be.

When someone asks criminal defense lawyer Roman what the "esq." on his business card is for, he replies _ proudly, with a wry grin: "A little above gentlemen and a little below knight." He might have added, a little below knight in white shining armor and a lot above an uncaring, fee-collecting robot.

Roman has spent his life fighting small injustices on behalf of the disenfranchised, a fight for which he has never been given credit while giving it everything he has, including sacrificing any kind of personal life to do it. He's been the real brains behind a small two-partner law firm he's formed with his former professor, and while tackling unglamorous cases he also has been assembling a brief that will change the class action portions of the justice system forever.

When his partner, in no small way the front man, has a heart attack and is incapacitated, Roman learns that the firm is in fact broke and has been much less altruistic than he was aware, something his former professor kept secret from him.

Roman subsequently applies for a job with slick young attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell), whom his partner put in charge if something were to happen to him. it's an uneasy fit from the beginning, and Roman finds himself almost immediately morally and ethically challenged, not only in his interpersonal approach to clients and cases but in who he can defend and why.

When he tackles the case of a young African-American man arrested and charged with murder during a convenience store holdup, he begins to question everything he is and has done.

What Roman decides to do, and the consequences of his actions, are the core of a story that reflects scores of small real-life dramas playing out across the country well off the front pages, but significant in how they shape our beliefs and culture.

This may be Washington's finest work yet, a quiet if somewhat klutzy Everyman whose legal genius has both separated him from the norm while thrusting him into its very heart and soul.

This also may be Farrell's best film turn to date, an understated performance that stabs at the soft underbelly of our legal system.

The rest of the supporting cast _ including Carmen Ejogo, Amari Cheatom, DeRon Horton, Amanda Warren, Nazneen Contractor, Shelly Hennig, Joseph David-Jones and Andre T. Lee _ are uniformly excellent in their restrained intensity.

At once uplifting and disturbing, "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is outstanding on all counts.
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9/10
A Modern but Timeless Parable About Revenge
18 January 2018
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is promoted as a "black comedy crime film," but the truth is that it's a modern parable about revenge and the only thing funny about it is the sad irony of what can happen by giving in to this most basic of human inclinations, no matter how apparently justified.

Martin McDonagh, who wrote, produced and directed the film, reportedly was inspired after seeing billboards about an unsolved crime while traveling "somewhere down in the Georgia, Florida, Alabama corner."

The film is fictional, but the script and the performances ring as true and as realistic as something that might happen in today's world in any town in America.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a bitterly divorced mother still aching over the unsolved rape and murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, seven months before.

Furious over what she perceives as foot-dragging on the case, she empties her bank account to pay for three billboards just outside of town. They read, successively: "RAPED WHILE DYING," "AND STILL NO ARRESTS?", and "HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?"

Townspeople are upset over the billboards, but none as much as Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whose profane good-old-boy manner belies a complex human being, a doting husband and father at home who is a savvy, tough-as-nails peace officer on the job. He's also dying of pancreatic cancer.

Willoughby is sympathetic to Mildred's plight, explaining the legal constraints he is under, but she will have none of it and refuses to remove the signs. As a result, she and her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, so effective in "Manchester By the Sea") face all sorts of harassment by the townspeople, including that by Mildred's abusive ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), an ex-cop living with a dim but well-meaning 19-year-old Penelope (Samara Weaving), who offers perhaps the most accurate summation of the story with a phrase that she said she read on a bookmark.

In the midst of all of this is Deputy Sheriff Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an ignorant racist who never seems to understand exactly what is happening but overreacts in very much the wrong way to that which he does.

To reveal any more would give away the many surprising twists both in plot and character development.

The film is meticulously thought out and though timeless in its point, is particularly applicable to today's society in which all too many people act out their emotions in a violent way, horrible consequences notwithstanding.

The casting and performances are nigh-on perfect, top to bottom, with McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell especially stunning.

"Three Billboards" is Oscar-worthy across the board, and would stack up against any best picture nominee, past or present.
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I, Tonya (2017)
8/10
An American Tragedy, on Two Levels
6 January 2018
As I wend my way through a plethora of films up for various SAG Awards _ an unusually diverse group including the likes of "The Shape of Water," "Darkest Hour," "Downsizing," "Lady Bird," "Get Out," "The Big Sick," "Call Me By Your Name" and "The Disaster Artist," among others _ I find, much to my surprise, that the one I like the most is the one I thought I would like the least: "I, Tonya."

"I, Tonya," directed by Craig Gillespie from a script by Steven Rogers, is a biographical film about the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding leading up to and including her involvement (or not) in the 1994 attack on her American Olympic teammate Nancy Kerrigan.

The film is a deeply moving study not only of a troubled young athlete and her dysfunctional family, but a convincing treatise about class distinction in the United States and how it can manifest itself in complex, easily dismissed and misunderstood ways.

For example, when the movie-Harding confronts a skating judge after losing a competition she justifiably thought she had clearly won, the judge says the jury's vote was not about skating but about not wanting to be represented by someone from the wrong side of the tracks. Among other things, she makes her own skating costumes, which are clearly not in the class of those worn by the more well-fixed competition.

The movie begins in the 1970s with Tonya, then 4, being shoved down the throat of a local skating instructor by Tonya's mother, LaVona Fay Golden, played by veteran Allison Janney ("The West Wing") as a kind of more obvious and profane Nurse Ratched, the ultimate rotten stage mother incapable of love and caring even when it comes to her own child at her most needy and vulnerable.

When the instructor balks, the mother levels the other skating tots with a coarse putdown usually not reserved for children (strong language permeates this script, another not-so-subtle reminder, and not an unbiased one, of the class distinction motif).

Tonya is played with breathtaking _ and there's no other word for it _ effectiveness by Margot Robbie (who also produced). Robbie, a real beauty, makes herself much less so without the theatricality so often displayed by actresses when they are called upon to play more threadbare characters. Robbie is Harding right down to her toenails, whether providing commentary about her life as she smokes a cigarette at her kitchen table, or skimming along the ice with honest-to-goodness athletic virtuosity.

Sebastian Stan as her boyfriend-turned-husband, Jeff Gillooly, whom Harding marries as much to claim independence from her mother as because of true love, is excellent as he walks the fine line between being physically and emotionally abusive even as he fights to defend her honor.

The attack on Kerrigan is re-created in a chilling, violent street-crime-meets-the-Keystone Kops way that works in showing both its grotesque and tragic possibilities while exposing the ridiculousness of the misguided logic behind it.

Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver and Bobby Cannavale are completely believable and moving in supporting roles.

The film is described as a black comedy that uses occasional mockumentary techniques (like having characters break the fourth wall and speak right into the camera), but I would beg to differ.

This is an American tragedy _ a tragedy in which America itself was complicit.
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Wind River (2017)
8/10
An Engrossing Murder Mystery That Respects Its Subject _ and Audience
16 September 2017
"Wind River" is a gripping murder mystery-thriller written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee for "Hell or High Water") starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene, featuring an unusually strong supporting cast that includes many fine Native American actors.

Renner and Olsen play a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker and an FBI agent, respectively, attempting to solve the murder of a young woman whose body is discovered by Renner under mysterious circumstances as he patrols the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

The film scrupulously avoids clichés and is tightly edited with nary a wasted moment, yet never feels rushed or artificial in performance or plot. Everyone and everything is there for a reason, and best of all, the audience is given credit for being able to keep up and connect the dots.

The violence, which is absolutely necessary, is kept at a bare minimum as a narrative device, explaining and clarifying rather than assaulting the senses.

Every character, even the most heinous, is portrayed as a fully developed human being rather than as stereotype.

We learn how the Native American culture is victimized in a way that takes us inside their world and their souls, but the journey is skillfully handled and never heavy handed.

The photography is perfectly rendered, celebrating the icy Wyoming scenery in a muted style consistent with the mood of the story.

Renner, Olsen and Greene are excellent and believable, but in no small way this is an ensemble piece whose potency and effectiveness derive from the palpable passion and belief of everyone in front of and behind the camera.

This is an engrossing story well worth your time and money, and kudos to everyone involved for having faith that a discerning audience will find and appreciate it.
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Sully (2016)
Quiet Man Caught in a Loud Story
18 September 2016
"Sully" is a very fine if not quite great film "for grownups" about Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), who, on Jan. 15, 2009, attempted an emergency landing on New York's Hudson River after the US Airways Flight 1549 he was commanding struck a flock of geese.

Miraculously _ too miraculously, some FAA investigators believe _ all of the 155 passengers and crew survive the harrowing ordeal, and Sullenberger becomes a national hero in the eyes of the public and the media.

However, despite the accolades, and away from the adoring public, the pilot faces a wrenching investigation that threatens to destroy his career and reputation.

Director Clint Eastwood demands, and gets, natural, realistic performances from his actors, top to bottom, in a film shot in an almost-throwback semi-documentary fashion.

In his typical understated, signature master-storytelling style, Eastwood successfully explores a sobering backstory about the rigors and costs of sudden-found fame, with a subtle indictment of the media and its rush-to-judgment approach that too often becomes a catalyst of the story it's covering.

One of Hanks' best, and Aaron Eckhart, in a welcome relief from menacing villains he plays so well, is excellent as his supportive co-pilot. Laura Linney is her usual superb self as Sully's wife, who tries to manage the ups and downs of the family crisis on the home front while her husband is away.

Enlightening and entertaining, with no dead spots. Well worth your time.
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Elvis & Nixon (2016)
8/10
A Deft, Poignant Retelling of a Dissonant Moment in U.S. History
4 September 2016
When I was in the fourth grade, all the girls loved Elvis, the boys hated him and the nuns told us anybody who bought his records would most likely go to hell.

By the time I got to high school, also a Catholic undertaking, and just a mile or two away, I wound up sitting next to a boy who would go on, years later, to become the CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, hired by Priscilla Presley to dig the late singer's estate out of debt.

Who knew?

Elvis died in 1977, one of a slew of famous people who passed that year, including Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx, Maria Callas, Ethel Waters and Freddie Prinze, to name but a few.

At the large Southern California newspaper where I worked as a writer at the time, Presley's death seemed to shake people the most. He wasn't supposed to die. Ever. Especially not the way he did.

And maybe, in a sense, more than any of the other celebrities who died that year, Elvis has had the greatest staying power. In a way, one might surmise he is still with us.

For that reason, Hollywood, which seldom throws around money strictly on the basis of sentimentality, has invested _ and it turns out, surprisingly enough, wisely _ on a new movie called "Elvis and Nixon," pegged around a famous, or infamous depending on your politics and point of view, meeting between the singer and President Nixon at the White House on Dec. 21, 1970.

I had been avoiding this movie like the plague, partly because the trailer made it look goofy, inflated with unfunny, hackneyed bits that would probably convince me that those nuns back in the fourth grade were right, people who bought Elvis records would eventually shake hands with the devil.

Thus I let out a deep sigh when my wife and daughters convinced me to sit for a viewing of the film (I considered it a bit like a wake, truth to tell). I expected to start reading the newspaper about five minutes into the thing, looking up now and again to say, "Wow, you really picked a good one," as a matter of self preservation.

How wrong I was.

For starters, Kevin Spacey gives the most dead-on depiction of Nixon I have ever seen anywhere, any time, with every understated (and overstated) mannerism absolutely perfect. But don't go thinking this is about mimicry and impersonation.

Both Spacey as Nixon and Michael Shannon as Elvis bring an unexpected level of poignancy and irony to their roles that provide fresh insight, if that's possible, into what made the two men tick, and why they may have bonded, even briefly. Spacey bears a striking resemblance to Nixon in many respects, while Shannon looks nothing like Elvis, really, but convinces us he is him in a beautifully paced characterization.

An important subtext of the film is how Elvis deals with celebrity, how his buddies and handlers deal with him, and how both Elvis and Nixon deal with their public (and private) personas. Neither man seems to realize how bare they leave themselves in making demands and utterances to their underlings. In both instances, that means everybody _ they each had immense egos. And immense hangups. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

If you're looking for an absorbing film experience that will not only entertain you at the moment but give you something to ponder and discuss later on, this is the movie for you.

It may even send you scurrying to read about Nixon _ and Elvis. Can't ask for any more than that.
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The Dresser (2015 TV Movie)
10/10
'The Dresser': A Great Cast Spins Some Gold
6 June 2016
The new BBC-Starz production of Ronald Harwood's 'The Dresser' is a riveting play-within-a-play and then some that throws its arms around the subjects of life, lessened dreams and simply getting on with it.

Directed and adapted by Richard Eyre with a cast headed by Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Watson, the work focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that tours the outskirts of England (very pointedly, not London) during the bombing, quite literally, of that country during World War II.

Each night the troupe performs a different Shakespearean play, come hell or high water. Tonight, it's "King Lear," with Hopkins's character, who is called Sir (for the outside hope that he will one day be knighted by the Queen), in the lead.

Attending him backstage is his loyal dresser _ his costume man _ Norman, played by Ian McKellen.

What transpires is a nigh-on perfect production (Rotten Tomatoes gave it a perfect 100%) that sails along all too quickly with no down spots, not only giving us a dead-on accurate view of the theatrical world and those who dedicate their lives to it if even in the shadows, but as fine a treatise on life and love as you've experienced in any medium anywhere, at any time.

The story opens as we await the arrival of Sir from the hospital, with a conversation between the long-suffering dresser Norman and Her Ladyship (Emily Watson, in another terrific turn), an aging actress pressed into playing one of Lear's daughters, Cordelia, who knows she's too old for the role _ slashing reviews never let her forget it _ but who stays with it because of her love for Sir and the hope he will leave the business and settle down with her.

Ah, but Her Ladyship isn't the only woman in love with Sir. There's also Madge, the tough stage manager. As played by the wildly versatile Sarah Lancashire, whom we've seen portray everything from hard-bitten cops to frazzled shopkeepers, it's a character with more layers than the proverbial onion.

What's wrong with Sir, is it a physical problem or mental? Will he survive? Will he show up?

When the old actor finally does arrive backstage spouting a riff of quotations, his own mixed with Shakespeare's, we worry that he might expire before he can be carted before the footlights.

Watching McKellen and Hopkins in apparently their first performance together is like watching two world-class surgeons at the top of their games doing open-heart surgery on the same patient at the same time. It's overwhelming. But the good news is that the two great actors don't compete for attention and become show-boats. Instead they have a mutual trust and respect for each other that is palpable. The characters benefit greatly from this, and so do we.

One of the production's most effective, poignant and revealing moments is provided by the veteran actor Edward Fox, who portrays a supporting performer trapped in a "play-as-cast" cycle, lesser parts falling somewhere between cameos and spear carriers. His final speech to Sir not only encapsulates the lot of actors universally, but the needs and longings of people outside the business as well.

"The Dresser" has been previously presented in the U.K. and on Broadway, as well as in a 1983 film, but this version takes a back seat to none other and may well be the best offering yet. It comes with the highest recommendation.
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10/10
A Look Inside the World of Iconic (and Idiosyncratic) New Yorker Cartoonists
19 December 2015
I know it's trite, but I'll go to my grave believing it's absolutely true: Comedy and the people who do it come from pain. The more, as the say, apparently the merrier.

After hanging around comedians during my early days in Hollywood, including "the Carson people" and various hangers-on on "The Tonight Show," after writing a package of newspaper stories on what makes comedians comedians, after sitting across from comedians ranging from Bob Hope to Jerry Seinfeld, I'm as sure of it as I can be. (My ultimate assurance on this score came after profiling a psychologist who owned a comedy club _ a working psychologist, not just a guy with a degree or two, who also did stand-up; I'm assuming there was a spillover effect into his therapy sessions.)

So, along comes "Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists," an offbeat documentary now airing on HBO, to totally convince me.

Cartoons that run in The New Yorker magazine are, at least in my opinion, really funny. And really what good, effective humor is all about _ registering with people because of a shared understanding, told almost in kind of a code, giving credit to the reader as intelligent beings who can fill in the blanks, which they usually do.

This documentary directed by Leah Wolchok, which opened recently in New for an Oscar-nomination qualifying run before airing on HBO, is at once hilarious and sobering, even sad. In a word, exactly like the people who bring us these wonderfully crazy cartoons.

Sealing the relationship between humor and pain is the character at the center of this documentary, the magazine's cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff. He leads us through the process, including interviews with wannabe New Yorker cartoonists, getting in some brilliant zingers under his breath (his humor, he acknowledges, like a professional boxer's fists, are a kind of lethal weapon), and only deep into the film do we learn that a year and a half before his son died.

We even are allowed to sit in on a cartoon-selection meeting with the magazine's editor-in- chief, David Remnick, sessions which show _ and I speak here as a former journalist _ of how seat-of-the-pants the entire publication process is at root, and what the long odds are of getting cartoons into this iconic magazine.

Throughout the documentary, we meet an incredible range of personalities whose cartoons have graced the New Yorker pages. Most must have separate careers to sustain them, thanks in large part to the demise of so many magazines, and most seem to draw their humor from pain and occasionally anger. One woman cartoonist, who hates going outdoors for almost every reason imaginable, recalls that as a child she dealt with her abusive mother by agreeing with her person-to-person but withdrawing to her bedroom to draw sharp (and wicked) responses.

Mankoff and Remnick fall head-over-heels in love with the art work of one young cartoonist, who is jarringly revealed as a feather of a man, a whispering blond willow whose favorite color is gray and apparently discovered the magazine while traveling in Vietnam a very few years before, deciding, bang, that's what he wanted to do with his life.

Through it all, the laughs, strangely, oddly _ and thankfully _ never subside. It's enough to make you cry. And laugh. A lot.

The film, which runs 1 hour and 21 minutes, goes fast, even when it stops to be sad. Great comedy does that.
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8/10
One of Two Morality Tales of the Era That Hit a Nerve
22 October 2015
EVERYONE has films that for some strange reason, seemingly completely out of sync with one's age and place and station in life at the time, resonate and then some, impacting that person for years to come.

For me, the two that stand out in that regard are 1968's "The Swimmer" and 1973's "Save the Tiger," both dark character studies dealing with morality, amorality and the twists and turns of complex lives not always so well lived by their middle-aged characters.

Why I identified with these characters at such an early age myself I have no idea, only that their serpentine screen dilemmas provided a kind of moral road map in the real world, at least for me, and did their jobs as cinematic storytellers in staying with me all these years, still.

"The Swimmer," taken from a short story by John Cheever, stars Burt Lancaster as Neddy, an upper-class Connecticut man whom we find lounging poolside with friends in an affluent suburb.

It occurs to him that he can "swim home" by visiting pools of friends and acquaintances, a route that he sees as a kind of "river."

As the man swims, we begin to understand more and more about his life, or think we do, and he evolves through conversations, confrontations and offhand comments, until he winds up ingloriously at a public pool and, finally, standing shivering in the pouring rain before the gates of his mansion in one of filmdom's most surprising endings.

Many fascinating characters people the film, played by many a recognizable face, including Joan Rivers (yes, that Joan Rivers), John Garfield Jr. (son of the great noir star), Janice Rule, Marge Champion (dancer-choreographer Gower Champion's better half), Kim Hunter and Janet Landgard.

The film was directed by Frank Perry (with some scenes overseen by Robert Redford's frequent collaborator, Sydney Pollack, who is uncredited), with a screenplay by Perry's wife, Eleanor.

"Save the Tiger" stars Jack Lemmon as Harry Stoner, a clothing manufacturer who is undergoing the loss of youthful idealism as he weighs whether or not to pay an arsonist to torch his factory so he can survive financially through the insurance settlement. His friend and business partner is played by an extraordinarily effective Jack Gilford, a rubber-faced actor with the saddest eyes you'll ever see best known to a generation as the Cracker Jack man.

Like Lancaster's Neddy in "The Swimmer," Lemmon's Stoner in "Tiger" is undergoing more than an evolution, but a breakdown, not only emotionally, but spiritually as well. Each story is a type of first-person morality play as seen through the eyes of these central characters.

Lemmon won the best actor Oscar for his performance (beating out, among others, Redford, for his turn in "The Sting"), and the film was voted best drama by the Writers Guild of America.

Both films seem to have evaporated into the mists of time, little remembered or considered by generations that came after. But they've stayed with me, I like to think because they were both beautifully rendered and had something worthwhile to say, expressing it uniquely and well. If you're in the mood for thought-provoking character studies that will stay with you long after viewing, and for all the right reasons, I recommend giving them a look.
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The Swimmer (1968)
10/10
One of Two Morality Tales of the Era That Hit a Nerve
22 October 2015
EVERYONE has films that for some strange reason, seemingly completely out of sync with one's age and place and station in life at the time, resonate and then some, impacting that person for years to come.

For me, the two that stand out in that regard are 1968's "The Swimmer" and 1973's "Save the Tiger," both dark character studies dealing with morality, amorality and the twists and turns of complex lives not always so well lived by their middle-aged characters.

Why I identified with these characters at such an early age myself I have no idea, only that their serpentine screen dilemmas provided a kind of moral road map in the real world, at least for me, and did their jobs as cinematic storytellers in staying with me all these years, still.

"The Swimmer," taken from a short story by John Cheever, stars Burt Lancaster as Neddy, an upper-class Connecticut man whom we find lounging poolside with friends in an affluent suburb.

It occurs to him that he can "swim home" by visiting pools of friends and acquaintances, a route that he sees as a kind of "river."

As the man swims, we begin to understand more and more about his life, or think we do, and he evolves through conversations, confrontations and offhand comments, until he winds up ingloriously at a public pool and, finally, standing shivering in the pouring rain before the gates of his mansion in one of filmdom's most surprising endings.

Many fascinating characters people the film, played by many a recognizable face, including Joan Rivers (yes, that Joan Rivers), John Garfield Jr. (son of the great noir star), Janice Rule, Marge Champion (dancer-choreographer Gower Champion's better half), Kim Hunter and Janet Landgard.

The film was directed by Frank Perry (with some scenes overseen by Robert Redford's frequent collaborator, Sydney Pollack, who is uncredited), with a screenplay by Perry's wife, Eleanor.

"Save the Tiger" stars Jack Lemmon as Harry Stoner, a clothing manufacturer who is undergoing the loss of youthful idealism as he weighs whether or not to pay an arsonist to torch his factory so he can survive financially through the insurance settlement. His friend and business partner is played by an extraordinarily effective Jack Gilford, a rubber-faced actor with the saddest eyes you'll ever see best known to a generation as the Cracker Jack man.

Like Lancaster's Neddy in "The Swimmer," Lemmon's Stoner in "Tiger" is undergoing more than an evolution, but a breakdown, not only emotionally, but spiritually as well. Each story is a type of first-person morality play as seen through the eyes of these central characters.

Lemmon won the best actor Oscar for his performance (beating out, among others, Redford, for his turn in "The Sting"), and the film was voted best drama by the Writers Guild of America.

Both films seem to have evaporated into the mists of time, little remembered or considered by generations that came after.

But they've stayed with me, I like to think because they were both beautifully rendered and had something worthwhile to say, expressing it uniquely and well.

If you're in the mood for thought-provoking character studies that will stay with you long after viewing, and for all the right reasons, I recommend giving them a look.
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8/10
Spielberg's 'Bridge': A Believable, Entertaining Reach Across Recent History
20 October 2015
Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies" is great entertainment, especially for those who like their stories painted in deep dark colors, cooled by moody late-night drizzle and starring an enormously appealing and empathetic leading man (in this case, the redoubtable Tom Hanks). It's not bad as history, either. Overall, on a scale of 10, I'd give it an eight _ but advise you to read up on the facts before taking in the film.

To understand the story completely, it's important to know what the United States and the Soviets were up to in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and what they were thinking.

In a nutshell, it was the height of the Cold War and the so-called atomic age, a time when both nations worried about being blown out of existence, when the Soviets scored a public relations coup _ and more _ in launching the Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957. Now, the Americans figured, their sworn enemy could really do them damage, perhaps sending a bomb into outer space.

Indeed, with this in mind, the U.S. had been sending up its super sophisticated spy plane, the U-2, having it fly over adversaries real and imagined, including the Soviet Union. One of these flights over the Soviet Union commenced on May 1, 1960, with Francis Gary Powers at the controls, and was shot down.

It came at an awkward and embarrassing time for the U.S.

President Eisenhower had met with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev the previous September in America, and they were so optimistic about their talks that they planned to meet again later in 1960, this time in Moscow.

Eisenhower, still worried over Soviet armaments, had nonetheless okayed the U-2 flights, even at risk of jeopardizing the upcoming talks. When the shoot down occurred, Ike at first denied the flights. But when plane debris _ and Powers himself, very much alive _ were produced, the jig was up, and Khrushchev angrily canceled the summit (perhaps something he had wanted all along anyway).

On August 17, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to 10 years. On February 10, 1962, he was exchanged, along with American student Frederic Pryor, in a spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher, known as "Rudolf Abel," who had been caught by the FBI and tried and jailed for espionage.

OK, that's the story.

'Bridge of Spies' focuses on the spy exchange on that bridge and how the negotiations came about, with Hanks playing New York lawyer James Donovan, who is first pressed into defending Abel (played with exquisite understated menace _ and appeal _ by Mark Rylance of "Wolf Hall" fame), then in fashioning a deal to have him swapped for Powers (a rather bland and somewhat miscast Austin Stowell). Thrown into the mix is American exchange student Pryor (believably if briefly played by Will Rogers), held by the East Germans, who, according to the film, are eager to establish their own independence from the Soviets while at the same time defying the Americans.

The old-fashioned script (and I mean this in the best sense) _ rewritten, oddly enough, by the usually eccentric Ethan and Joel Coen, from Matt Charman's original script _ gives Spielberg the chance to do what he does best, especially when given actors like Hanks (who by the way is superb) and Rylance, which is to weave a story that engrosses and involves, which this film certainly does.

The movie's spy games seem to tear a page out of Carol Reed's "Third Man" playbook, but instead of shadowy black and white scenes shot at askew angles in post World War II Vienna we have rainy, color-drained nights in early-1960s, newly walled Berlin. It works.

If I have a problem with the film, it would probably be with the depiction of Donovan's home life, obviously intended as counterpoint to the shadowy dealings he apparently was involved in, sometimes at the exclusion of his wife and children (to make matters worse, Amy Ryan as the missus just doesn't seem like his kind of gal). I never quite buy into the family as being real, but rather as a rather heavy-handed attempt to present them as a kind of Ozzie and Harriet content with having the kids watch "77 Sunset Strip" as their father's clandestine life begins to enshroud them and their idyllic existence.

I'm also not sure if I quite believe how Hanks' Donovan and Rylance's Abel bond into frankly inexplicable Cold War buddyism, but the technique sets up an interesting dynamic that helps flesh out the period's blurry political and nationalistic borders that often saw friends and enemies switch places at an alarming rate (just as now _ and perhaps that's the point).

Powers' life, ironically, would be cut short a decade and a half later as the news helicopter he was flying over Los Angeles crashed and killed him instantly. But maybe that's yet another point, intended or not. In the kind of backstreet war _ and world _ this film depicts, the greatest threat to our existence sometimes begins at home.
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10/10
A Great Drama Within a Great Drama _ Both Worth Seeing
12 October 2015
Did you hear? Somebody stole the Mona Lisa! Well, okay _ it happened in 1911. But still.

Filmmaker Joe Medeiros spent 30 years researching and making this documentary, and it's difficult to know which is more fascinating, the original theft _ which has been called the greatest art heist of the century _ or Medeiros's dogged pursuit into why it happened.

At 7 a.m. on Monday, August 21, 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia (1881-1925), a small, nondescript Italian who worked at the Louvre, where the storied Leonardo da Vinci painting was hanging in the Salon Carre', donned the customary white worker's garb worn by the museum's employees, sneaked in when the place was closed for its weekly cleaning, and lifted the little (yup, it's very little) painting off four hooks, removed it from its protective case (Leonardo painted it on wood), wrapped it in his smock, hid near a service staircase, and left through the same door that he entered.

It's important to remember this all happened in a day when not a whole lot of people, apparently, knew exactly what the Mona Lisa looked like. The Washington Post, for example, in reporting the theft ran the wrong picture, this of a nude woman.

Peruggia hid the painting in a trunk in his Paris apartment for two years. The police came by to question him not realizing it was right under their nose.

Next, he returned to Italy, where he also kept it in his apartment in Florence.

Here, stories begin to conflict, but what is true is that he contacted Alfredo Geri, an art gallery owner, expecting to be honored _ and financially rewarded _ for what he regarded as returning the painting to it's "homeland."

Geri then called Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery, who vouched for the painting's authenticity.

Then Poggi and Geri, who took possession of the painting, allegedly for safekeeping, called the gendarmes, who arrested Peruggia at his hotel.

The painting was exhibited throughout Italy, which rejoiced, then was returned to the Louvre in 1913.

Peruggia spent a short time in jail, then got out just time to serve in the Italian army during World War I. The luck.

He later married and had a daughter, Celestina, eventually returning to France, where he continued to work as a painter under his birth name Pietro Peruggia, supposedly so no one would recognize who he was.

He died in his young daughter's arms on October 8, 1925, at age 44, in the town of Saint- Maur-des-Fossés, France. His widow married his brother, which, according to sources in the documentary, was not an uncommon practice back then.

Filmmaker Medeiros became obsessed with why Peruggia did what he did, and equally obsessed with turning the whole story into a movie drama.

Medeiros _ who tracks down Peruggia's daughter, 84 years old at the time of the interview, and various descendants _ boils it down to two theories. Either Peruggia did it for patriotic reasons, thinking it belonged in Italy, and to strike back at French workers at the Louvre who derisively nicknamed him 'Macaroni' in reference to his heritage _ or he did it to get rich.

It's important to note that although Peruggia stated he wanted to bring the painting back for display in Italy "after it was stolen by Napoleon," the fact is da Vinci took this painting as a gift for Francis I when he moved to France to become a painter in his court during the 16th century _ 250 years before Napoleon's birth.

The evidence is pretty strong that Peruggia expected to profit from the venture _ testimony came out at his trial supporting that theory _ but the fact that this was an Italian man, and proud of it, cannot be denied either.

The court apparently took this into consideration in giving him a light sentence of one year and fifteen days, only seven months of which he served. Indeed he was hailed as a patriot of sorts in Italy.

An intriguing theory also arose later, that the theft may have been ordered by a con man named Eduardo de Valfierno who, the story goes, commissioned art forger Yves Chaudron to make copies of the painting, whose value would have risen because the original had been stolen. But the theory was based entirely on a 1932 Saturday Evening Post article by Karl Decker, a journalist for Hearst _ and it's emphasized, quite fairly, that Hearst's style of journalism was shoddy at best. Scratch one theory.

It cannot be stressed strongly enough that Medeiros is relentless and thorough in studying this case, and he does it in a way that is riveting and completely entertaining, appealing to general audiences as well as art aficionados.

This story has been alluded to in film before (Willi Forst in 1931, and in a television miniseries called "The Man Who Stole La Gioconda" with Alessandro Preziosi in 2006, for example), but here's hoping the tale gets the big screen treatment it (and Medeiros) deserve. And by the way, Johnny Depp would be perfect as Peruggia.
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7/10
If You Like Your Ride Thoughtful and Introspective, This Train's For You
11 October 2015
"Night Train to Lisbon," an especially engrossing 2013 film now appearing on Netflix, may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those hungry for a movie without flying cars that instead pulls you in with an unusual plot and thoughtful, incisive performances by an exceptionally capable cast, this one's for you.

The film was nominated for six Sophia Awards _ the national film awards of Portugal _ including best picture, and won three, for best supporting actress (Beatrice Bartarda), best art direction and best make-up.

Directed by Bille August ("Pelle the Conqueror"), "Night Train to Lisbon" was adapted from a philosophical novel by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.

Mercier's quotations are spoken in voice-over by the film's protagonist, Raimund Gregorius, played by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, a quiet, lonely classical studies professor working in Bern, Switzerland, who rescues a young woman about to leap off a bridge and after she disappears, finds himself on a quest to Lisbon, not only to find her but to fully understand the story of a doctor-turned-poet whose book he discovers in the pocket of the coat she leaves behind.

The story isn't as dense or contrived as it sounds, thanks to the deft screenplay by Greg Latter and Ulrich Herrmann, and the uniform commitment to character and plot by Irons and a cast that includes veterans Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling, Christpher Lee and Lena Olin.

It's the kind of story that sucks us in because its a kind of "getaway" piece: Who doesn't daydream in a Walter Mittyish way of getting away from it all and taking off on an historical detective story, which is what this is.

Once in Portugal, Irons' Gregorius sets about on a quest for the author but instead finds his sister, Adriana (Rampling as the mature version, Batarda as the younger), and learns that Amadeu died in 1974 and that only 100 copies of his book were printed. The sister has six of the books and, wondering what happened to the rest, is delighted to find that her late brother's limited edition work found an audience beyond her country's borders. Thus, a tenuous but all-important bond is formed between the soft-spoken, insightful professor and the poet's sibling.

The movie intersperses Raimund's investigation with flashbacks to a past in which we meet the young Amadeu (a superb Jack Huston), a member of the resistance to the dictatorship of António Salazar.

Through Adriana, Raimund meets the priest (Lee) who taught Amadeu, Amadeu's best friend, Jorge (Bruno Ganz in the older version, August Diehl in the younger), and learns of Estefania (the fiery Mélanie Laurent), a resistance fighter who was Jorge's girlfriend until she met and fell instantly in love with the handsome Amadeu.

After Raimund breaks his spectacles, he meets a sympathetic optician Mariana (Martina Gedeck) who by happenstance has an uncle named Joao (Courtenay as the elder version, Marco D'Almeida as the youthful one) who was also a member of the resistance and fills in the story. Late in the film, the strings of the plot are pulled together when Raimund finally meets the mature Estefania (a stunningly beautiful and completely believable Olin).

As I said, "Night Train to Lisbon" isn't for everyone, especially for those accustomed to tons of action and instant gratification via computer wizardry and slam bang eye-for-an-eye retribution, but it did it for me. It's extraordinarily literate and sumptuously photographed to boot, and it's not a stretch to say it contains threads of David Lean's wonderful 1965 film version of "Doctor Zhivago," albeit on a much smaller scale.

I was especially drawn to Irons' professor, a sensationally muted performance that holds the whole thing together.

Since you'll probably be watching this in your living room, "Night Train to Lisbon" is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for a scene of violence and brief sexuality (which really aren't all that bad).
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The Martian (2015)
8/10
How Ridley Scott and Matt Damon Channel Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart _ on Mars
5 October 2015
Some years ago, I accompanied the great director Frank Capra, whose works included life-affirming pictures like "It's a Wonderful Life' and "Meet John Doe," on a nostalgic return to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he had graduated some years before with a degree in chemical engineering.

While there, Capra met with a group of students who had formed an informal film club, for which they shot clever home movies basically for their own pleasure.

Capra patiently waded through the eight-millimeter silent films, which were actually pretty good, and offered some sage advice that applied not only to these little snippets but to movies in general.

First, he said, movies have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, not just be a blurb of cinematic virtuosity that goes nowhere for no particular reason, and second, the characters in the film have to be someone the audience in some way cares about. (He would note during a later meeting I had with him that the reason "E.T." was so successful was that it was, in his words, "a love story between the boy and the alien.")

I mention all of this because a portion of "The Martian," director Ridley Scott's new science fiction movie starring Matt Damon, takes place at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by Caltech for NASA.

It's impossible to watch this film and not be reminded of Capra's words. The bright faces and eager minds on the screen helping us wend our way through the story are not unlike those of the young film students I encountered with Capra at Caltech those many years ago.

Interestingly, Damon has been called the new Jimmy Stewart, whose career was cemented by his association with Capra in films like "It's a Wonderful Life," "You Can't Take It with You" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Damon, like Stewart, is a terrifically appealing actor who meets the Capra standard of being someone audiences really care about.

Even more intriguingly, it's not a stretch to say that Stewart _ a decorated World War II pilot who would go on to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force, and who himself played the ultimate lone-wolf-in-the-sky, Charles Lindbergh, in the 1957 film "The Spirit of St. Louis," as well as the lead in other flight-oriented pictures like "Strategic Air Command," "No Highway in the Sky" and "Flight of the Phoenix" _ might have been greatly interested in this role.

If indeed Damon is the new Jimmy Stewart, then Ridley Scott, at least with "The Martian," might here be called the new Frank Capra.

Like Capra, Scott in "The Martian" emphasizes what is best about man and the human spirit. And like Stewart in those films about flying, Damon is a man who represents mankind.

This film, based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel "The Martian" with a screenplay by Drew Goddard, stars Damon an astronaut named Mark Watney who is left behind on Mars after he is caught in an otherworldly dust storm and presumed dead.

Mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) reluctantly decides to leave the planet with her crew.

Watney, although badly injured, is very much alive, and our story begins.

As luck would have it, he is a botanist and there is enough equipment left on the planet from that and past missions so that he can attempt to survive.

During his efforts, Watney records a video diary in case he doesn't make it, wry and humorous descriptions and asides that are almost a movie within a movie (and it's tempting not to think of how Jimmy Stewart might have handled the scenes as well, in his patented offhanded natural way).

A fascinating parallel story has NASA officials reacting back on Earth, both in all their glory as technological whizzes and pioneers, and at their nadir as techno-politicians reaching for ways to spin the possible impending tragedy of losing an astronaut to their own advantage.

The film has a solid cast, and along with Damon and Chastain in the leads, features in supporting roles Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

If I have a problem with the film, it might be that the dialogue is a little too heavy in technological jargon (that may or may not be accurate), and that some of the plot devices seem a bit contrived.

But then I think about those great Capra-Stewart films, which critics also complained were too contrived, to the point that they derisively labeled them "Capra-corn."

If this is corn, I'll take it any time. It's a luscious, beautiful film, made for all the right reasons. Mainly, it's just plain fun to watch.
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Love & Mercy (2014)
7/10
A Troubling Trip Inside 1960s Musical Genius
14 August 2015
This biography of Brian Wilson, the troubled genius at the heart of the 1960s musical group The Beach Boys, is an effectively stylized portrait in which Paul Dano and John Cusack share the lead role at different times in his life. They mesh beautifully as the story moves from the recording of the group's seminal Pet Sounds pop album to a few decades later when, with the help of his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks), Wilson emerges from his shell into some semblance of normality. The fine character actor Paul Giamatti is chilling as psychologist Eugene Landy, who holds Wilson hostage emotionally. (PG-13, 2:00).
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Mr. Holmes (2015)
8/10
A Small Gem
14 August 2015
You wouldn't think there would be anything left creatively to mine about Sherlock Holmes, that the field had been plowed one too many times, but this film proves otherwise. Ian McKellan is charmingly brilliant as the storied detective at two different stages in his later life, and only a fine actor could delineate between the two in such an absolutely believable and entertaining way. Even those who aren't necessarily Holmes aficionados will have fun with this little whodunnit, which stars the amazingly versatile Laura Linney as his British housekeeper (complete with a sterling British dialect) and Milo Parker as her reliable son who brings out the grandfather in Holmes. Directed by Bill Condon with a sure, deft touch. (PG, 1:44)
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Inside Out (I) (2015)
9/10
A Bi-Level Charmer
14 August 2015
Writer-director Pete Docter has made two movies in one with this animated Pixar feature, both satisfying and both edifying for children and adults alike. On the one level, it's a fun adventure about an 11-year-old girl who must move from rural Minnesota to downtown San Francisco. On the other, it's what goes on in the mind of a child in the midst of life-shifting change. The voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black bring the profundity home in engaging fashion. For parents and children alike, a sure bet to provide grist for fascinating post-viewing conversation too. Well worth your time. (PG 1:42)
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Amy (III) (2015)
10/10
'Amy': A Brief, Sad Journey Worth Taking
5 August 2015
"Amy" is a sledgehammer 2015 documentary portrait of Grammy-winning British pop singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse that gives new, poignant and heartbreaking meaning to the phrase, "Hello, I must be going."

Even though we begin watching this film knowing that Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning, by the time we reach its conclusion we find ourselves praying that the ending will be different, that she will still be around when we leave the theater.

We've taken a revealing, involving, moving journey that we don't want to end.

Director Asif Kapadia opens the film with Winehouse, about 14 at the time and living in suburban northwest London, mugging on video with some friends, including her lifelong buds Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, apparently at the birthday party of one of those girls.

When Amy opens her mouth to sing, effortlessly, "Happy Birthday," and the rich, low tones of a Judy Garland mixed with the soulful, meaning-packed wail of a Billie Holiday come out, we get the director's point instantly: This was an entertainer for the ages.

Using more than 100 interviews artfully mixed with archival footage that ranges from childhood home movies of Winehouse to performances both personal and public, "Amy" will satisfy her fans while informing those not familiar with her work how very much they missed.

Among those interviewed are Winehouse's manager, Nick Shymansky _ who took on the singer when she was 16 and he was only 19 _ Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def), iconic singer Tony Bennett (shown in a tender, heartrending recording session with Winehouse), her father Mitchell Winehouse (in a slashing mini-portrait of a parent gone awry), pals Ashby and Gilbert, and music executives, her ex-husband, a boyfriend, a publicist and a one-time bodyguard.

You'll also see here the likes of Jay Leno, who welcomed her with open arms on his "Tonight Show" when she was at the top of her game, but had no qualms about shafting her later in his monologue when she was having problems with drugs. Heartless and shameful don't begin to cover it.

Leno's use _ and discarding of _ Winehouse also is a stark metaphor for how her peers and the public alike seem to use then trash celebrities at times when they most need us as fellow human beings.

Hearing Winehouse bounce through her song "Rehab," which opens with the lyric "They tried to make me rehab but I said 'No, no, no,'" is an ugly reminder of how troubled she was and how neglectful and complicit we all were in not insisting more be done for her.

"Amy" is important both in setting the record straight about Winehouse and also in warning us not to commit the same grievous mistake with yet another celebrity.

("Amy," which has a running time of 2 hours and eight minutes, is rated R _ under 17, requires accompanying parent or adult guardian _ and contains drug and alcohol use.)
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Woman in Gold (2015)
8/10
Two Historical Dramas Worth Your Time
28 April 2015
IF YOU'RE LOOKING for quality productions and thought provoking themes that carry into post-screening over-coffee conversation and well beyond, two new historical dramas topped by A-list stars are just what the doctor ordered.

"Woman in Gold," starring Helen Mirren as a woman determined to reclaim a lost art work stolen by the Nazis, and "The Water Diviner," directed by Russell Crowe and starring him as a father determined to find his three presumed-dead sons following the Battle of the Gallipoli, are those rare films that handle scope and intimacy with equal adeptness.

In 'Gold," a British-American production directed by Simon Curtis from a script by Alexi Kaye Campbell, Mirren plays the late Maria Altmann, an aging Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles who enlists a young lawyer named Randy Schoenberg (played to perfection by Ryan Reynolds in a bit of Jimmy Stewart channeling) to fight the government of Austria to reclaim Gustav Klimt's iconic portrait of her aunt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," which was stolen by the Nazis from her relatives just before World War II. Altmann took her fight all the way to the United State Supreme Court _ and Austria.

To say much more would spoil the film, but suffice it to say that the writing, directing and acting are so skillfully rendered that the story is both moving and educational without being maudlin or dull.

Mirren is completely believable as Altmann, and Reynolds opens eyes as young attorney Schoenberg. The supporting cast _ Katie Holmes (as Schoenberg's wife), Daniel Bruhl, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern (as a judge!!) and Jonathan Pryce _ show their respect for the piece and its subject matter through wonderfully understated performances.

The film was screened in the Berlinale Special Galas section of the Berlin International Film Festival.

"The Water Diviner," or "Last Hope," an historical fictional drama, is an Australian production directed by and starring Crowe with a screenplay written by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight from a book of the same name by Andrew Anastasios and Dr. Meaghan Wilson- Anastasios.

The film begins in 1919, just after World War I (1914-1918), as Joshua Connor (Crowe), an Australian farmer and water diviner, has discovered ground water on his land and is digging a well. His three sons have left to serve with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at the Battle of Gallipoli five years before and are thought to have been killed in battle.

When Joshua's devastated wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie), commits suicide because of the loss, he vows to bring back their bodies and bury them next to hers. Joshua travels to Turkey and stays in an Istanbul hotel operated by Ayshe (a hauntingly beautiful reed of a woman, Olga Kurylenko), who has been widowed by the war, and grows close to her little son, Orhan (a charming Dylan Georgiades), whose unusual way of bringing Joshua to his mother's hotel is alone worth the price of admission. Ayshe at first is suspicious of Joshua, but after learning about his reasons for being in Turkey, that changes, much to the chagrin of her brother-in-law, who had coveted her as his own.

Ayshe suggests that Joshua bribe a fisherman so he can go to Gallipoli by boat. He does, and upon arriving there, meets all sorts of resistance, especially from the ANZACs, who are taking part in a mass burial detail from which civilians are banned. There he meets Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan in a riveting turn), a Turkish officer who is helping on the mission. The major becomes a friend and ally of Joshua's and we're off to the races.

"The Water Diviner" at times boasts the kind of lush scope used by director David Lean in films like "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago," and like those films, manages to flesh out both character and story with unusual depth and intimacy.

Both "Woman in Gold" and "The Water Diviner" give the audience a run for their money, providing a sense of emotional attachment while offering historical perspective and enlightenment.
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8/10
Two Historical Dramas Worth Your Time
28 April 2015
IF YOU'RE LOOKING for quality productions and thought provoking themes that carry into post-screening over-coffee conversation and well beyond, two new historical dramas topped by A-list stars are just what the doctor ordered.

"Woman in Gold," starring Helen Mirren as a woman determined to reclaim a lost art work stolen by the Nazis, and "The Water Diviner," directed by Russell Crowe and starring him as a father determined to find his three presumed-dead sons following the Battle of the Gallipoli, are those rare films that handle scope and intimacy with equal adeptness.

In 'Gold," a British-American production directed by Simon Curtis from a script by Alexi Kaye Campbell, Mirren plays the late Maria Altmann, an aging Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles who enlists a young lawyer named Randy Schoenberg (played to perfection by Ryan Reynolds in a bit of Jimmy Stewart channeling) to fight the government of Austria to reclaim Gustav Klimt's iconic portrait of her aunt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," which was stolen by the Nazis from her relatives just before World War II. Altmann took her fight all the way to the United State Supreme Court _ and Austria.

To say much more would spoil the film, but suffice it to say that the writing, directing and acting are so skillfully rendered that the story is both moving and educational without being maudlin or dull.

Mirren is completely believable as Altmann, and Reynolds opens eyes as young attorney Schoenberg. The supporting cast _ Katie Holmes (as Schoenberg's wife), Daniel Bruhl, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern (as a judge!!) and Jonathan Pryce _ show their respect for the piece and its subject matter through wonderfully understated performances.

The film was screened in the Berlinale Special Galas section of the Berlin International Film Festival.

"The Water Diviner," or "Last Hope," an historical fictional drama, is an Australian production directed by and starring Crowe with a screenplay written by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight from a book of the same name by Andrew Anastasios and Dr. Meaghan Wilson- Anastasios.

The film begins in 1919, just after World War I (1914-1918), as Joshua Connor (Crowe), an Australian farmer and water diviner, has discovered ground water on his land and is digging a well. His three sons have left to serve with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at the Battle of Gallipoli five years before and are thought to have been killed in battle.

When Joshua's devastated wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie), commits suicide because of the loss, he vows to bring back their bodies and bury them next to hers.

Joshua travels to Turkey and stays in an Istanbul hotel operated by Ayshe (a hauntingly beautiful reed of a woman, Olga Kurylenko), who has been widowed by the war, and grows close to her little son, Orhan (a charming Dylan Georgiades), whose unusual way of bringing Joshua to his mother's hotel is alone worth the price of admission. Ayshe at first is suspicious of Joshua, but after learning about his reasons for being in Turkey, that changes, much to the chagrin of her brother-in-law, who had coveted her as his own.

Ayshe suggests that Joshua bribe a fisherman so he can go to Gallipoli by boat. He does, and upon arriving there, meets all sorts of resistance, especially from the ANZACs, who are taking part in a mass burial detail from which civilians are banned. There he meets Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan in a riveting turn), a Turkish officer who is helping on the mission. The major becomes a friend and ally of Joshua's and we're off to the races.

"The Water Diviner" at times boasts the kind of lush scope used by director David Lean in films like "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago," and like those films, manages to flesh out both character and story with unusual depth and intimacy.

Both "Woman in Gold" and "The Water Diviner" give the audience a run for their money, providing a sense of emotional attachment while offering historical perspective and enlightenment.
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Happy Valley (2014– )
7/10
British Drama at Its Best _ with a Caveat
29 August 2014
"Happy Valley" is testament to many things in today's television world _ the planetary difference between British and American TV drama, an example of the qualitative advantages of a short series, and the all too often limitations and frustrations of the phenomenon of a series-long story arc. The bare bones of this series, and thus this single storyline, are that a rapist who assaulted the late daughter of veteran cop Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) and impregnated the girl with the child that Cawood herself must now raise is back on the streets to wreak havoc. Cawood not only faces the vexations of her dangerous job but also the challenges of raising a little boy who has sad, alarming behavioral problems at school that have Cawood wondering in her darkest moments if he is somehow infected with the same strain of destructiveness possessed by his criminal father. The child has been told his father is dead. The parallel storyline, which will eventually merge with this primary theme, has a mousy bookkeeper (Steve Pemberton), upset that he can't get a raise that would let him send his daughter to a fine private school, setting in motion the kidnapping of his boss's daughter to raise enough money for his own child's schooling. There is no arguing with the quality of the acting here, right across the board. Lancashire is brilliant as the cop-grandma, ricocheting around emotional highs and lows with stunning intensity. James Norton, as the rapist and man who drove Cawood's daughter to suicide, and not incidentally as the father of Cawood's beloved grandchild, is superb as the demented Tommy Lee Royce. Norton does what any great actor hopes to do when playing any character that on paper is almost completely unsympathetic _ he makes us understand the humanity of the person, and what made him that way. Pemberton is absolutely striking as the weak little bookkeeper who drags down the world around him and then blames everyone else for the catastrophe. At times, we can see his reasoning and are pulled into this world of strange logic, which makes his performance all the more compelling and wondrous. George Costigan, as Pemberton's boss, has built a resume of so many fine character etchings that it is nigh-on impossible to know where the real actor lies. He's magnificent _ again. Many, many plaudits, too for fellow cast members Charlie Murphy, Siobhan Finneran, Shane Zaza and Joe Armstrong. Amazing examples, all, of the deep, deep pool of fabulous British actors who put the rest of the world to shame. The writing is top-notch and dovetails brilliantly with the sumptuous cinematography, perfectly drained of brightness and suggesting in itself the presence of happiness once, but not now. The problem with this first season of the series is that the twin story lines must be stretched too thin to cover all six episodes. For example, it just does not seem plausible that Cawood would not treat the situation better when the bookkeeper shows up on the steps of her police station; he's got to get away, or story over. Nor does it make much sense when she allows her little grandson to go out by himself when she realizes the rapist _ the child's father, her violent nemesis _ is out there on the loose, roaming around. So drawn into the story will you be that you'll find yourself shouting at the tube, "What are you doing _ can't you see?" This is both a nod to the incredible effectiveness of the cast and the production as a whole, and a condemnation of it. It's not unlikely that awards will flood this show, especially as pertains to the acting, and that the series will gain a loyal following. But my sense is that over coffee, in a quiet corner, the writers and actors give a sigh and grapple with making the mechanics of that single story arc believable. Overriding that is that the story and the series are dark and as often as not disturbing and depressing. "Happy Days," at its best and at its worst, is a prime example of art doing what it is supposed to do _ provoking thought and debate.
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8/10
Settling the Score for Agatha
27 August 2014
"Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case" is so dark that its star, David Suchet, insisted it be shot out of sequence so that it would not be the last image of the role that he and fellow cast members would have. Yes, it's that dark and sometimes, disturbing. The great irony is that, in reality, it was shot just before Christmas. But you won't find any bright tinsel or warm carols or peace on earth here. The old-fashioned bright Technicolor colors and tongue-in-cheek humor of the central character, especially with his loyal friend and helpmate, Hastings (Hugh Fraser), so often on display in Suchet's "Poirot" films over the last quarter-century, are nowhere to be found. It soon becomes apparent, as it was in another installment of this last season, "Murder on the Orient Express," that Suchet himself is on a mission to set the record straight for his beloved character, and especially for Christie herself. In "Curtain," nearly all color has been drained from the pictures. It is a kind of "noir" in which shadows are far more important than splashes of color. And so it is with Suchet's "Poirot" here, and the plot that steals him away for all time. The plot finds an older, infirm Poirot wasting away at a dank old estate, Styles, where Poirot and Hastings have solved their first murder many years before. Hastings, recently widowed, has come to look in on his old friend, Poirot, who by now has a bad ticker and is wheelchair-bound. In the mix is Hastings' daughter (Alice Orr-Ewing), a headstrong and sometimes disrespectful lass who may also be in danger, and perhaps even a suspect, when three people die, apparently by suicide. To say much more would ruin the surprise, but it's clear from the get-go that Poirot will have to rely more than ever before on those "little gray cells" _ and on Hastings. To be sure, Fraser has never been better in the latter role, and again, one senses a deliberate decision to make him an extension of Poirot more than ever before. He has to do the leg work, literally. The finale might upset and even shock faithful "Poirot" fans who have become accustomed to the splashy, whimsical productions of past years. But it's a fascination to watch Suchet, who has read every shred of Christie's "Poirot" writings and become a sort of self-made scholar on the subject, use his full classically trained might in doing what he considers righting the ship before he lets the role go. That alone is worth the price of admission. American viewers will have to do some leg work of their own to see this episode. Masterpiece won't be carrying this finale, at least for now, for whatever reason _ it's to be found instead on the Acorn subscription service that features British dramas. Viewers who take that step also will be treated to a 45-minute question-and-answer featurette from when Suchet appeared in Beverly Hills to promote the series' last season, itself a wonderful tool in understanding and enjoying the entire Suchet-Poirot experience and the perfect companion to the PBS "making of" short about the series. Hats off to Suchet for making a brave decision about a role that took up a good portion of his career, and truth be told, his life.
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The Comic (1969)
8/10
'The Comic': A Tragicomic Face in the Crowd before Hollywood Found Its Voice
12 July 2014
Carl Reiner's 1969 film, "The Comic," like Elia Kazan's 1957 movie, "A Face in the Crowd," is a cautionary tale about fame and Hollywood. Both deserved more attention, and truth to tell, some awards (or at least some nominations), and gained notoriety years after their release as fans and film aficionados discovered the works amid new appreciation for earlier eras. "The Comic" is arguably one of the most overlooked films of the inside-Hollywood genre, probably because it came along in a period when the film industry was convulsing into a grittier, more realistic phase (indeed a year when John Wayne in "True Grit" competed against both stars of the X-rated "Midnight Cowboy," with Wayne winning best actor and "Cowboy" winning best picture _ talk about a mixed cinematic metaphor). In "The Comic," a roman a clef which was written, produced and directed by Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke plays the fictitious silent film star Billy Bright (the film's initial title was the name) _ a character that in itself has caused some debate as to who it was really based on, with many saying it's a composite of Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel, the latter Van Dyke's hero and friend. Others also have seen shades of Harold Lloyd. Having interviewed Van Dyke some years later when he spoke fondly of Laurel and how they met, describing how he delivered the eulogy at Laurel's funeral, and how anxious he was to discover the whereabouts of the comedian's famed bowler hat that he said he had been promised but never received (I was pretty sure I knew the guy who had it and shared the information), I find it difficult to believe he would have based the character on someone about whom he cared so deeply. At any rate, as a denizen of Hollywood and a fan of the silents who grew up at a time when many of the old comics were still around and re-emerging, I can say without hesitation that Van Dyke got it right and hit a home run in what is perhaps the best work of his career (Van Dyke doesn't get enough credit for the fine work he did in films, largely because he came along at a time when the division between TV and film was great and the film people still looked down upon their TV counterparts, and again, film was in the midst of a great transition). Reiner (known to later generations as Rob Reiner's Dad, but to many of us as the brilliant second banana on Sid Caesar's early-TV "Show of Shows" and one half of the 2000-year-old man comedy team with his friend Mel Brooks) constructs the film beautifully from the opening sequence at Billy's funeral. The latter, an absolute hoot, contains an overhead shot of cars driving on the way to the burial plot that will have you struggling to keep a straight face at every funeral you attend from here on out, and while that isn't a humorous thing, it demonstrates the power and the rightness of the moment. One of the more fascinating elements of the film is a Hollywood story-within-a-story, how Carl Reiner's pacing and sense of comedic irony laced with sadness and the sense of smiling through the tears influenced his own son Rob's acting and directing style. Now there's a subject for a future film. "The Comic" is a keeper and deserves to be seen and more widely discussed, if only to shed more attention on the silent era lest it be forgotten in a time of pyrotechnic overkill.
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