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This is NOT about football!
On the surface, this may sound like it's about football, but it isn't. You don't even get to see more than a few seconds of the match, and even that is poorly shown.
What the film does is put the viewer in the place of young women in Islamic Iran who are banned from attending matches. The national team is about to play Bahrain; if they win, they qualify for the World Cup. A number of girls try to sneak past security, and this film focuses on the girls who get caught and the soldiers assigned to guard them in a sort of impromptu prison.
It's a very indie-sort of film, very visceral and direct. There are no great actors, there's no soundtrack, most of the footage has a raw and almost documentary look to it. But the conversations between the girls and their guards (as well as among the guards) lead to significant questions being asked about the injustice of that society, not only to the women but also the men. We come to admire the passion of these girls for a sport from which they are banned, and yet are willing to risk jail time (or worse? It's never quite made clear) in order to watch this one epic international match.
I also strongly recommend watching the interview with the director, which is one of the extras on the disc. Reveals so much about the making of the film, the hostility of the official government censors, why it couldn't be considered for an Oscar, etc.
On Chesil Beach (2017)
Superb dramatic film with gorgeous chamber music
This was the most moving, powerful, beautifully made film I have seen in years. The two lead actors do such a terrific job, convey all the emotional passion and intensity that is needed, but also the tenderness and sweetness of their romance. The viewer is immediately pulled into their story, and the way is presented, with bits of the present flashing back to bits of the past, it keeps your attention throughout.
The scenery, along the Dorset coast, is used to powerful effect, with many gorgeous shots that satisfy the eye and reinforce the emotions of the moment (particularly loneliness and melancholy).
But the most satisfied will be your ears, because the soundtrack is easily the one great star of this film. It has a sort of bipolar aspect, with bits of 1960s pop to give context, but the emotional punch is in the chamber music with which the film is saturated (the girl is a violinist in a quartet). In the same way that "Moonstruck" left you panting to go see an opera, this film leaves you in the same state of mind for some of the great string quartets and quintets in the repertory. I loved very single bar, and it was all used to perfect effect in reinforcing the emotions of the actors. I was particularly gratified to hear the closing bars of the last movement of Beethoven's monumental op. 59 #3 quartet, which I have always felt to be perhaps the most intense finale of all classical music.
Beautifully shot, beautifully acted, and beautifully presented; sweet and tender, yet ultimately melancholy and tragic; this is a terrific film that lingers in your mind (and ears).
Phantom Thread (2017)
Doesn't live up to the trailer
The trailer hooked me onto this film, but the actual thing was a disappointment in many respects. Daniel Day-Lewis turns in (yet another) superb performance, completely believable and compelling. He allows us to experience the frustrations of a genius/madman who needs his world ordered in a particular way but is dependent on others for keeping it that way. He rules the roost and everyone kow-tows to him. But the young woman he falls for proves to be stubborn, willful, and yet she seems to appreciate his artistry more than anyone else.
This is a story about two people drawn to one another who are clearly really bad for each other. And that's where I lost interest, because it lost credibility. Yes, a genius can mesmerize a young woman, and said woman may abandon everything for a chance at hanging around a genius, but for their relationship to take the turn it finally did in the film is just plain dumb.
There is a lot of creepiness in this film, and the trailer prepares you for it, but it does not prepare you for the actual source of that creepiness. That was a surprise indeed, and my hat's off to the screenwriter for that. The film is artistic, well crafted, and in the case of the protagonist and his sister, superbly acted. But it is also ponderous, self-absorbed, and ultimately not very interesting. There are lots of dead-end bits that you think will lead to something, but they don't. There are a few lovely dresses, but I have to say that even that I found uninspiring; it felt like we were supposed to oooh and aaah when each new dress was shown, but frankly none of them were appealing. Ultimately there just wasn't enough here to justify over 2 hrs of time.
Tensely gripping but hard on the ears
There is much to like in this film, particularly if you like to be held in continuous tension for the better part of two hours. The screenplay interweaves 4-5 different story lines, all happening somewhat simultaneously but presented in not-always-chronological fashion. It's sometimes disconcerting, but there are many moments where you get to view an event from two or three different perspectives, which is very creative and adds interest. The narrative is of course harrowing, but you see it not so much through the eyes of a few individuals, but of the collective whole. In other words, the story doesn't dwell very much on any particular soldier or airman, and the ones depicted pretty soon all blur into one.
The one exception is the Mark Rylance character, the boat owner who takes his sons into a war zone and thereby saves a couple dozen lives. His selfless courage and dedication to his mission is memorable, though I found his stoicism in the face of personal loss and tragedy almost too much to believe.
The movie does an incredible job at immersing you in the battle scene, the confusion and madness and chaos. The air-to-air dogfights were easily the best I've ever seen; just the footage of the Spitfires, Bf-109s, and He 111 were worth the price of admission.
However, there were some serious flaws. Most notably, one's ears are continually assaulted by super-loud noise. Perhaps this was an attempt to be realistic, but it went overboard. Every explosion, every round hitting a metal hull is over-amplified and painfully loud. Even scenes where ordnance is not being detonated come off as too loud, and I found that I could understand only a small fraction of the dialogue. Fortunately there isn't much dialogue and it's not very important, but it's still annoying.
The story line is also fragmented and disjoint, with too many things going on at once. If they had stuck to fewer story lines, focused on a few of the men more closely, then I might have been more drawn to their fate. In the end, when the survivors reach England, I felt elation because of national pride and all that, but not because Private so-and-so made it home alive, since I knew nothing about him or what he was coming back to.
Finally, I wish some aspects of the high-level strategic planning had been depicted. Who decided to requisition the little boats, when, how did they implement that plan, what sort of political dramas were played out among the Admiralty and the Government? This would have added historical depth and relevance.
PS: upon a second viewing, the film got a WHOLE lot better. Definitely need to see this twice.
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Gorgeous and solidly acted
Two disclaimers: I've never read the book (but intend to soon), and I saw this on a tiny screen on an airplane.
Nonetheless, the strengths of this film are self-evident, even in the worst of viewing conditions. The cinematography truly brings out the lush verdure (in summer) and harshness (in winter) of southern England, and it's all lovely to behold.
The story is intriguing, involving a headstrong and independent woman who is courted by three different men. How she holds out against them, and eventually makes a decision for one (with its inevitable consequences) is fascinating to watch unfold.
The acting is stellar in all four main roles, but top honours must go to Michael Sheen for the respectable suitor. His portrayal of the man's hesitations, regrets, impulses, all done with small gestures and non-verbal actions, were wonderful. I wish he had more screen time, he was soooo good!
On the down side, the film does suffer from being too short. Clearly the adaptation tried to jam a much longer novel into a 2-hr screenplay, and the viewer is left wanting more development in the characters, more background, particularly as there are so many (4) principals. And there are a number of stock scenes that might have been done a little more subtly; the adumbrations of romance between our protagonist and each of her suitors, for instance, take about 1.2 seconds to become evident.
Craig Armstrong's soundtrack is marvelous, worth listening to for its own sake. The main theme (and its derivations) just sweeps me away, while the rustic dances have me tapping my toes. A wonderful movie all around.
=================== POSTSCRIPT: Having read the book, I can say that clearly the heroine is presented in a much more positive light by the film than Hardy had ever intended. In the book, she is foolish, headstrong, impulsive, flighty, while in the movie she is more of the modern prototype of an independent woman: strong, decisive, assertive, etc. It's a matter of nuance, but an important one.
The Invisible Woman (2013)
Tedious, tiresome, boring
As an Anglophile, Dickens aficionado, and period movie lover, I had Great Expectations about this movie (wink!). Alas, I was barely able to force myself to sit through to the end.
The movie does little to shed light on Dickens' inner motivations or character, and has even less to say about the authorial process or creative impulse. The romance at the heart of the story falls flat because the female lead (the eponymous Invisible Woman) is not just invisible but for the most part inexpressive: she doesn't talk, she doesn't emote, doesn't communicate.
The plot contains a number of disjoint, unconnected episodes that add nothing to our understanding of the characters. The character interactions are awkward, forced, and unappealing.
On the positive side, the score contains some magnificent cello music; the sets and costumes are lavish; the architecture and landscapes are beautifully presented. Scott-Thomas turns in a solid matronly role as the love interest's mother. But nothing can fill the vacuum left at the heart of this film by Felicity Jones' non- performance. In fact, this is much more of a French film in English clothing, given the minimalist plot, long silences, and generally depressing atmosphere.
Avoid at all costs.
Slow-paced character drama that is a treat to watch
There were so many ways this movie could have gone wrong:
- It could have had a formulaic conclusion
- It could have been all about the food
- It could have dwelt on the organizational prowess of the dabbawalas (Bombay's famed lunch delivery servicemen)
But it did none of the above, and it's a fantastic gem that lingers in your imagination long after you've seen it.
Ila is an Indian wife and mother trying desperately to regain her husband's affection by going to great lengths to prepare his daily lunch, which is delivered to his office. However, Ila soon realizes that the lunch is going to someone entirely different: Saajan, an office worker who is about to retire and be replaced by a young overeager newbie (Shaikh). Saajan loves his lunches, and begins corresponding with Ila via notes left in the lunchbox. Meanwhile, Saajan's initial loathing for Shaikh develops into tolerance and eventually friendship.
Like all great movies, this one excels in its story, its characters, and the prowess of the actors who portray them. We are so drawn to Ila, her anxiety to capture her husband's attentions, and her inner torment as she suspects his infidelity. Saajan is very off-putting at first, but as we learn more about his past, we see him more sympathetically. Their exchange of notes is so full of deep insight and philosophical reflection on the human condition. Shaikh as well turns out to be both more and less than what we had initially expected.
Watching Irfan Khan play Saajan was a treat. The camera stays on him for minutes on end as he opens the lunchbox, unpacks its contents, sniffs each dish, samples from this and that, all at a very leisurely pace. And he is able to convey his appreciation for the food without exaggeration, without overacting, but with subtle signs of growing interest which are so true to life. You can just smell the curries as he tentatively takes a whiff of this and that dish. He definitely deserves an award for this role. Also the way he grows out of his initial antipathy towards Shaikh is just marvelous.
As a side benefit, this movie gives an excellent view into the lives of middle-class Indian families: where they live, what they eat, how they get to and from work.
The film is brooding, melancholy, although it also has an uplifting and optimistic strain woven through its fabric. It does require patience from the viewer, but that patience is amply rewarded. Truly one of the most memorable films I have ever seen, and well worth seeking out.
The Two Escobars (2010)
Riveting blend of drugs, football, and politics
If the recent World Cup has piqued your interest in football (soccer), this documentary will show you a side of the sport that few have ever seen. I can say it was one of the best 5 or 6 documentaries I have ever viewed, and will remain in my memory for ever.
The story focuses on Pablo Escobar, Colombian drug lord, and Andres Escobar, member of Colombia's 1994 World Cup national squad. They are not blood relations, but both grow up in squalor and poverty; one takes the road to crime and racketeering, the other works hard at his beloved sport, develops his innate talents, and becomes a celebrated player. The squad comes to the WC with high hopes, but they lose their first match (to Romania) and then their second (to the US) due to an own-goal scored by the hapless Andres Escobar and are thereby eliminated from the competition.
--SPOILER FOLLOWS-- A few weeks after returning home, Andres is assassinated. Pablo also comes to a violent, bloody end and is also assassinated. These, along with their surnames, are the parallels between these two otherwise radically different people. --END SPOILER--
What was wonderful about this film is that it brought into very clear focus a period of history in a distant country about which I had heard occasional reports, but had never understood the real situation there. This documentary features lots of original video footage which is often very difficult to watch: senseless violence, bodies of victims, etc. It also shows the humanitarian side of the otherwise ruthless Pablo: how he funded soccer programs for poor communities (along with numerous other philanthropic gestures). Pablo and his fellow drug cartel leaders each take an avid interest in football, each cartel sponsors a club, and the underworld rivalries that play out in street assassinations now infect the playing fields.
The entire movie is narrated by people close to the two Escobars: Andres's sister, his fiancée, his coach, his teammates; Pablo's relatives, his top hit man. You couldn't get a more vivid first-hand description. The stories of some of Andres's fellow national squad members are fascinating in their own right, both before and after their 1994 WC exit.
It could have been trimmed by 10-15 minutes without losing its punch, but overall this is top-notch story telling of a real-life tragedy. It leaves one wondering how little one knows of what is happening behind the scenes when two teams take the field for a game of football. If you have memories of the "war on drugs" in Colombia, and have any interest at all in sport, you will not be disappointed by this movie.
For Anglophiles only?
I'm not sure it's essential, but a love of all things English is surely an asset when approaching this movie. Peopled by a menagerie of eccentric, frustrating, and ultimately endearing characters, the movie's appeal lies in the brilliance of its script and the interest it ultimately engenders in its many protagonists.
Set in a stately country home in perhaps the 1930s, the movie covers the events of one morning and afternoon. Dolly is about to wed Owen, yet Joseph turns up the morning of the wedding. We find that there had been a whirlwind romance between Joseph and Dolly the previous summer, that Dolly's mother was against the match, and now Joseph returns at the 11th hour to perhaps intervene?
There are far too many supporting characters to mention, and they are essential to the movie's success, but the emotional focus is entirely on Dolly and Joseph. The story of their past romance is artfully narrated in a series of flashbacks (the colour palette changes each time we flash back) which interweave nicely with the events of the wedding day. The emotion between them is portrayed with sensitivity and realism; their interactions with those around them (who are mostly oblivious to what is going on) are often funny but also laced with pathos. The various zany antics that set the backdrop for this drama are hilarious in themselves, and there is a nice blend of humour and gravity to keep one attentive. The house, the gardens, the fashions are all splendid.
What the movie lacks is some greater theme or message; it's about a particular love story between a particular man and woman, but beyond that, one doesn't leave with anything more substantial. Nonetheless, it's a pleasure to watch.
If you like English culture, if you enjoy scintillating, witty repartee, then "Cheerful Weather" is sure to please. If you find the English upper crust snobby and boring, well, you might be better off staying away.
Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
From its initial sequence to its end, this movie has very little going for it, unless you enjoy gratuitous on-screen carnage. There is so much that is unrealistic, one cannot begin to enumerate the ways. (One very minor example: a shot and wounded president walks out of the White House and is greeted by an escort of soldiers who, rather than putting him on a stretcher and carrying him away, drape his arms on their shoulders and help him walk.) The characters all seem flat and lifeless, and even the better actors (like Morgan Freeman) are just going through the motions. The story line is completely predictable. The film relies on innumerable clichés (e.g., a ticking clock counting the seconds down to nuclear catastrophe, while the hero attempts to avert disaster with only seconds to go).
There is a little interest in the lead character who was unfairly disgraced in a past incident, but now has a shot at redemption. Some of the action sequences are mildly interesting from a technical point of view. But overall this movie is a complete waste of your time and brainpower. My only excuse for sitting through it all is that I was on a trans-Atlantic flight, and it helped kill the time.
A French gem
This is easily the best and most memorable movie I've seen in a very long time. Its formula is simple: the juxtaposition of two people from two radically different backgrounds who, with time, become the best of friends. And oddly enough, there isn't the initial suspicion or antagonism; they hit it off right away. But the relationship grows and deepens until they become inseparable.
The real strength of the film lies in the characters and the men who play them. One is a sophisticated, literate, older white man who is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair; the other a young, lanky, street-savvy black man with naught but the clothes on his back. They have such charisma, such chemistry, it is a tour de force from beginning to end. Particularly the younger man, whose infectious smile and boisterous humour keeps the mood light even in the darker moments.
It's set in France, and you do have to endure subtitles (which are not well done; occasionally the punch line of a joke comes up too soon), but it's well worth it nonetheless. This is the first time I've seen a French film that didn't leave me depressed and suicidal by the end. I hope many more like it will follow.
The White Queen (2013)
This review is based solely on the first episode. From what I've seen, I will not be investing more time in subsequent episodes.
I had high expectations because this is BBC after all, but in this case the result is well below par. Nothing excels, everything is at best average, and the overall concoction is simply a mess.
Plot: I suppose we can fault Ms. Gregory for many of the oddities in the plot lines, but they are there nonetheless. Gratuitous magic/witchcraft which is clearly incongruous with what purports to be a historical drama, inexplicable changes in characters' behavior or attitudes, etc.
Direction: way too many stock scenes and gimmicks (children playing gaily while a threatening person is approaching, virtually all the courtship scenes, the court receiving the arrival of the new queen).
Production: locations all seemed wrong, and the credits explained why--it was filmed in Flanders. Buildings don't look English, the trees and fields don't look English, and then the costumes and armor all are not quite realistic. Close, but no cigar. And an unusually high number of anachronistic elements (e.g., woman's dress with what appeared to be a zipper in the back?).
Acting: everyone seemed to be forced into their roles, no one really fit well. The new queen's mother was perhaps the best, it's a role she's played before, but the heroine/protagonist is not quite convincing in this crucial episode. She has a tough job, making us believe that she can fall in love with the man who had killed her husband (at least indirectly, in battle), but she can't pull it off.
Overall, it looks/feels much more like an American production trying unsuccessfully to reach BBC standards, than genuine BBC. The result is poor indeed and not worthy of your time.
Touching, heartfelt, and beautifully acted
Happened to catch this on a plane ride, and I'm so glad I did.
This is a small, simple movie about a boy, Kari, born with a cleft lip and his life of trying to deal with this defect and achieve happiness in spite of it. We are given the story in little bits, not in chronological order, but after a while one starts to piece things together readily enough. We see him at birth, as a young boy, as a 20-something year old young man, and then again as a mature older man. The main story revolved around his attempts to court a beautiful young girl who takes an interest in him, but her family of course is not quite as accepting of his defects and simple upbringing.
The story is set around the late 1800s in Switzerland, and is presented in German. The individual vignettes of life in the rural and then urban settings are quite charming, though not always pleasant or pretty.
But the strength of this movie is in its story and the three lead actors who do a fantastic job portraying the two main characters (because we see Kari as both a young man and an older man). It's a story about someone who tries to overcome the bad hand that fate has dealt him, is not entirely successful, and yet in later years can look back on that episode with mingled bittersweet feelings, without anger towards his fellow human beings but as a very well-adjusted person who is dearly loved by his circle of intimates. We can read all their internal emotions in their facial expressions, glances, etc.
A small but I think important subplot was the relationship between Kari and his mother, who nursed him to health as an infant and loved him dearly, a love reciprocated by Kari. We see how this first relationship set the stage for his later attempts to find love as a mature young man.
It's a typically anti-Hollywood movie: with depth, sensitivity, creativity, and a strong sense of historical verisimilitude, all artfully and skillfully shot and on a minimal budget. If you can live with subtitles, this is a very rewarding movie to watch. Even better if you have a bit of an ear for German dialects, as the peculiarities of Swiss German come across repeatedly and are quite entertaining. Some may find the story line a bit predictable, but the artistic way in which we are told the story--part in flashback, part in real time, not in a direct linear fashion--more than makes up for that.
En kongelig affære (2012)
Exquisitely made dramatic knockout
A fantastic film about a country whose history is seldom portrayed, A Royal Affair is a historical drama set in the latter half of the 18th century in Denmark. An English girl is sent off to marry the Danish king, only to find out that he's not fully sane. In her loneliness she falls for the king's doctor, and they find they share not only amorous feelings for one another, but a passion for Enlightenment ideas and political reforms.
There are a few caricatures in this movie that keep me from giving it a higher score: the reactionary forces are pure, unalloyed evil; the reformers are probably far more liberal in thinking than would have been possible in that era; and the preaching against established religion is a bit thick. But otherwise, this is a gem of a movie with outstanding performances in all three key roles, particularly the doctor who is portrayed with an incredible intensity and realism. Also noteworthy is the king who is not quite sane yet not totally loony either; the acting here is frighteningly good and utterly convincing. Last but not least, the queen excels in showing real pathos and long-suffering endurance trapped in her destiny, and then comes alive beautifully in her relationship with the doctor.
As icing on the cake, costumes are sumptuous, period settings flawless, and the music is era-appropriate and delightfully arcane. Original music is also quite good, though most of the time one is so engrossed in the story that the music just vanishes. Movie is almost all in Danish with English subtitles, and I felt the size/font choice for the titles was too big, too pushy, you never quite forget that you're reading titles.
This is a tale of exploration of the darker side of the human experience: what does it mean to be sane, how can a divinely ordained monarch be deprived of his wits, to what lengths will a person go to promote his/her progeny into power, are the "unwashed masses" really grateful to those who try to emancipate them? This movie (and its three main characters) will haunt you for many days.
Life of Pi (2012)
Visual feast but difficult to grasp meaning
Visually, this movie is a knockout. Scene after scene produces audible gasps as we see images we never thought possible. The colors just pop off the screen, the various animals shown are incredibly realistic, and the views of sky and sea are just phenomenal. Even if there was no plot whatsoever, you should see it just for the visuals.
There is a plot, of course. A boy/young man is stranded on a lifeboat and is forced to survive for endless days through unbelievable hardships. And if that alone were the plot, I'd be content, but the framework around the shipwreck story claims something more, that this story says something about the human condition, about God and man, about sin and salvation, about how we should live our lives. My problem quite frankly is that I just did not see the connection. Maybe I need it told more directly, I certainly have a low tolerance for ambiguity. So if you can live with agonizingly uncertain outcomes, where you question everything you have just seen, then you will love this. But if you like things told to you clearly, you may walk away a bit puzzled, as I did.
But regardless, this movie redefines the word "beautiful." I was just amazed to see the many, many moods of the ocean as it is portrayed, in fact it becomes one of the primary characters as it is sometimes benevolent, sometimes treacherous; calm or stormy; gray or overflowing with color; etc.
A real classic Bond film
I say "classic" in two senses. First, because I believe all future Bond movies will be compared to this one; second, because this is the first Bond movie (to my knowledge) that doesn't rely on gimmicky sci-fi plot twists, or completely unbelievable gadgets or technological breakthroughs that allow the villain to control the world.
I also say "real" because nearly everything about this movie is very realistic and plausible. You don't ever feel like you are in a make-believe world. There are a few points at which the viewer's credulity is tested (mainly the computers), but for most of the movie, things look and feel completely plausible.
Skyfall has essentially redefined the genre while remaining true to the essential character of the brand. We still have the suave, polished Mr. Bond, but he's now aging, not quite as sure of himself (and thus very real). The villain, perhaps the creepiest ever, is simply a twisted wreck of a human, but still clearly human. All the stock features are there, including a phenomenal opening credits in the standard psychedelic mood but very creatively handled, and with a great song by a top current singer (Adele).
Casting is excellent, and Daniel Craig has already established himself as the best Bond of all time. Bardem in the villain's role is phenomenal, Dench is the best M ever, and while the youthful Q is a bit sophomoric, he does add a nice contrast to the now middle-aged Bond. The introduction of Ralph Fiennes is very good, he fits his role and the entire Bond milieu perfectly.
The plot is straightforward, the tension palpable, and the conclusion has some surprises. Bond is seen to be human and vulnerable, yet still an incredible killing machine. Absolute must see for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the Bond franchise.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Swing and a miss
I've never read the book, but that should not have prevented me from enjoying this movie, as I normally love sumptuous productions such as this. The problem is that the director had some grand artistic vision which completely undermined the telling of the story. For the first half hour I was utterly confused because the story is presented through the artifice of a theater. Eventually the viewer realizes it's not a real theater, but everything that happens is presented in this surreal context, where outdoor scenes are contained in the theater. Visually it's striking, yes, but ultimately it defeats the purpose of storytelling. If the story doesn't have enough drama to hold your interest, then don't bother dressing it up with artifice. This story seems to have plenty of drama but it took a back seat to the presentation. In a way it's similar to what was done with "Moulin Rouge" but somehow that worked; this one just leaves you at first confused, then bored, then frustrated.
On the positive end, costumes are phenomenal, and Keira's face lights up the screen every time she appears.
2016: Obama's America (2012)
Interesting and memorable
Now that we're stuck with Mr. Obama for another four years, this movie has perhaps even greater significance. It's essentially a well thought through analysis of the potential motivations and philosophical underpinnings behind his policies and actions. It presents a fascinating narrative about Obama's childhood and upbringing, revealing many aspects of a history that the mainstream media clearly has no interest in presenting to the public. The premise is true, we really know very little about what motivates Obama, from what worldview his ideals and principles are drawn from, and this documentary makes a plausible attempt to fill those gaps.
I wish it had focused more on his mother (the main focus is on his father), since I find her to be an enigmatic, fascinating figure. And I wish the psychoanalysis had gone a little deeper. Frankly the epitaph about what this means to the future of America was a little weak and not well developed.
Production quality was high but often self-consciously artsy in a way that distracted from the message: too many cuts, too much camera motion during interviews.
The King's Speech (2010)
A touching, historical masterpiece
I rarely rate a movie a "10" but in this case, it is well deserved. Truly, there is no way to improve upon the achievement that this film represents, whether in casting, direction, writing, artistic value, you name it.
The story gives us a fascinating look into the struggles faced by George VI on his way to becoming king of England. The story line is all about his stuttering, but underneath all that are suppressed memories from childhood, growing up in the shadow of an elder brother, perpetual negative reinforcement from a domineering father, etc. It's a psychoanalytical look at a well-known royal family, and while I can't vouch for its absolute veracity, it gives a rare glimpse into the lives of people we wouldn't otherwise observe at this level of intimacy (much like "Queen" did a few years ago).
The contrast between George and Edward VIII is most fruitful. It's the clash between duty and hedonism, fulfilling one's personal quest for happiness vs. overcoming one's worst fears on behalf of your people and country. Edward is typically romanticized and lionized, but here we see him as more of a spoiled, selfish lout.
But the heart of the movie is the relationship between George and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who is helping him overcome his speech problems. Both actors are at the absolute top of their form. Firth is brilliant as the aloof, initially reluctant and distrustful monarch, while Rush shows the same wink-of-the-eye humor and irony that he did as Barbossa, relishing the sheer inequality of their positions yet knowing the extent to which George is dependent on him. Ultimately a true friendship develops between the men, and since they are both such endearing characters, it's a joy to watch.
I should add that Helena Bonham-Carter is also spot-on as the haughty yet practical queen consort. Other more minor roles are effectively played (e.g., Winston Churchill, George V). The entire movie is a perfect blend of history, personal and familial drama, with broader themes of perseverance and overcoming adversity which give it a timeless application.
Lastly, in this movie's case, the "R" rating is for "Ridiculous." The only potentially offensive material is some over-the-top language (including the F-word) which plays a part in one scene, and is clearly used for comic purpose and with great effect. I unhesitatingly took my 13 year old daughter and (depending on the child) might be okay for even younger ones. Don't let that stop you from seeing this gem.
The Young Victoria (2009)
see it for the music and costumes
This movie is all about atmosphere. It very successfully recreates the era of Queen Victoria's early life, just before and after her coming to the throne. The performances by the main characters are generally good though not spectacular. The only ones that I found particularly endearing were King William (Jim Broadbent, has he ever been less than brilliant?) and Viscount Melbourne (Paul Bettany), neither of whom were principal characters. And the story line has some weaknesses: it seems to peak a little early, and ends at what seems like an arbitrary moment in history.
All that being said, there are many good reasons to see this fabulous film: (1) the costumes are just absolutely gorgeous, and there are so many of them. Scene after scene is filled with gowns that are to-die-for. (2) the gardens and palaces at which the movie was filmed are also beautiful; many are recognizable landmarks in their own right (Ham House which stands in for Kensington Palace, Hampton Court). (3) The period atmosphere is impeccably presented, transporting the viewer to another world.
But most importantly, (4) the soundtrack. I was blown away by the way in which the music integrates themes from classic compositions (Handel, Dvorak, Schubert, et al.) and weaves them into new forms that align perfectly with the action of the movie. You hear the music, and for a while you think, "hey, that sounds familiar, have I heard that before?" and soon it transforms itself from a contemporary composition into the actual classical piece. My explanation doesn't do it justice, you'll have to see/hear it to understand.
Altogether, a rich, lush, very romantic movie about the early Romantic period, a delight for both the eyes and ears.
Julie & Julia (2009)
Refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable
Julie and Julia tells two stories. The first is a biopic of famed TV chef Julia Child: how she became interested in French cooking, how she got the idea of writing a French cookbook (for English-speaking audiences), and how she overcame the obstacles in her way to achieve success.
The second tells of modern-day Julie Powell, an obscure office worker who decides one day to cook all the recipes in Child's cookbook in one year, and write about it in a blog. The blog eventually goes viral and leads her to fame.
Of the two, the first story is by far the better. Streep's portrayal of Child is positively spectacular; the cadences of speech, the rise and fall of the vowels are just perfect. But more than mirroring the original, she gives us insight into her character, her desire to break through gender barriers and do something important with her life, rather than basking in idle leisure. Her husband, endearingly played by Paul Tucci, is another delightful character, and their love affair has real chemistry. It was nice, by the way, for Hollywood to show a middle-aged couple really in love, as opposed to the 20-something hormonally driven variety. The settings in post-war Paris are just lovely, and the food just makes you drool (especially that first pan-fried fish)! I'd give this portion a 9/10.
The Julie Powell story is a bit hollow. Yes, she writes a blog, and becomes famous through it, but ultimately when it's all over, what has she really achieved? Her success is a lot like the blog itself: ephemeral and intangible and, as the movie explicitly points out, narcissistic. There could have been more done with her character; an early scene shows her interacting with former college friends, all of whom are overachievers and fabulously successful, but later on when Julie achieves success, she never goes back to reconnect with them. Somehow I never found myself in sympathy with Julie, and I was just waiting for those segments to finish so we could go back to Julia. I'd give this portion a 6/10.
The movie could well be seen as an extended commentary on the changing definition of "publishing." Julia Child's cookbook is a tangible, lasting legacy that will likely be around for centuries. Meanwhile, the blog was entertaining for a while, then soon forgotten. Each Julie(a) achieved fame through publication, but are they truly commensurate?
Big Night (1996)
This movie is like a good poem: it doesn't all make sense, but you love experiencing it, and after you're done you keep thinking about it for days and days.
"Big Night" tells of two Italian brothers trying to succeed as restaurateurs in the 1960s. The bulk of the movie revolves a single "big night" in which they unleash their finest dishes in a culinary extravaganza.
The leads, Shalhoub and Tucci, are joined by Ian Holm (depicting a rival restaurateur) in a really memorable set of performances. All the minor supporting characters are equally endearing and real-to-life. There is a lot of attention given to the food and to its preparation, and the cinematography used to actually depict the meal (and the music superimposed onto it) is fantastically enjoyable. It's like the dishes are actors or characters in the play! The movie's final scene is perhaps deserving of the all-time hall of fame. It plays out over several minutes of complete wordless silence, yet it makes such a lasting impression. Ultimately the scene shows that the movie is not about the food or the striving for success, but about the relationship between these brothers, and that the relationship will outlast any of the trials they are undergoing, no matter how severe.
If you insist on a tidy ending that resolves all the issues, don't look here because the ending is completely hanging. Yet somehow I found it satisfying nevertheless. You'll find yourself recalling scenes and lines from the film for weeks to come.
John Adams (2008)
This 7-part miniseries chronicling the career of founding father John Adams is equal parts history lesson and tense personal drama. It succeeds brilliantly on both levels.
As an introduction to the history of the era, it immerses the viewer in the sights, sounds, smells of life at that time. I can't think of any to equal it in this regard; the production is simply top notch in every detail. Often (about once per episode), this leads to scenes that are disturbing and difficult to watch, particularly when dealing with the medical art of the day. It is also a fascinating depiction of all the major characters of our founding: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, all are portrayed with remarkable facial verisimilitude, and it's a real treat to watch all these personalities interact with all their quirks and foibles. One might say it's like a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, except the people come to life and you can watch history being made. Not to mention, the title visuals and soundtrack are artistically beautiful in their own right.
As a personal drama, the story of Adams' life and that of his family is woven with all the components of tragedy and triumph. The many issues with his 4 children are all interesting to watch unfold, but the most fascinating is the relationship with his wife Abigail. One can easily see how he came to rely so heavily on her for strength, balance, and wisdom.
The acting in every instance is excellent; besides the stellar performances by the two Adamses, Washington and Franklin's portrayals are very ably done. Jefferson plays a large role, and he perhaps is a bit more wooden than one might have imagined. But over and over, I found myself in awe of how the acting carried the story. Many scenes are virtually devoid of dialogue or action, yet one is gripped by what is being portrayed. The viewer certainly comes away sensing the depths of sorrow or betrayal that Adams had to endure. By the end, you are so connected to these two individuals that their death is felt as a true loss.
The series leads you to ponder how the founding of our country is indebted to the huge sacrifices made by him and his contemporaries, and of course their wives and families. It is very poignant to see how this truly great man, who reached the pinnacle of power, ultimately has to endure so much public ridicule and personal tragedy.
If there is one minor gripe, it is the "artsy" use of diagonal camera angles and constant hand-held movement by the camera. But after a while one learns to ignore it, and even this flaw is not enough to detract from a perfect 10/10 score.
Das Boot ist voll (1981)
Tragic but powerful and deeply moving
When the von Trapp family make it over the border to Switzerland, their ordeal is over and all is well (or so "Sound of Music" implies). Not so with the six forlorn refugees of "The Boat is Full." Having reached Switzerland after a perilous escape from Nazi Germany, their ordeal has just begun. They end up in a small village where an innkeeper couple take them in and try their best to provide food, clothing, shelter, and protection from the authorities.
The movie examines the attitudes of the Swiss towards refugees who were escaping Germany and seeking safety in their country. It provides a good insight not only into the official policies regarding which refugees were allowed to stay and which were forced to be repatriated, but also the attitudes of the common people. Some were openly hateful, most were indifferent and callous, many genuinely compassionate and kind.
The overall arc of the story is less important with this movie than the individual scenes and episodes that take place. Each conveys a particular pathos and engraves itself in one's memory with indelible force. The acting is almost totally transparent: you feel these are real people going through real events. The refugees' blank, despondent expressions, the gradual transformation of the innkeeper husband from suspicion to tolerance to outright kindness, the harsh authoritarian attitudes of the policeman, these all contribute to the film's effect.
It's a stark film to watch: there is no score, the colors are heavily muted and drab, and there are few points of comfort or cheer. One is left with a profoundly ambivalent view of the Swiss and Switzerland, which apparently was known as the "lifeboat" of central Europe (hence the irony in the title). The film is basically examining where the line could/should have been drawn between compassion and the need to maintain Swiss neutrality and protect its own borders and feed its people.
Mildly interesting, but ponderous
A documentary about a typeface? For those of us who take interest in such things, of course! But if you're one of those who never bothers to change the default font in your Word documents from Times New Roman, then I'd recommend you stay away from this film altogether.
Unfortunately, even those who are keenly aware of typefaces may find this movie disappointing. My main criticisms:
1. It spends long sequences showing us examples of Helvetica signage used in various contexts. Some are elegant and clean, many are torn old posters, ragged pieces of letters peeling off walls, etc. These sequences were artistic and okay at first, but maybe after the fourth one, you find yourself reaching for the fast-forward.
2. It spends the vast majority of its time in interviews with various designers discussing their impressions of the font's "meaning" or its impact in the history of design. This should have been perhaps 30% of the film, instead it is closer to 80%.
3. It doesn't spend enough time looking at the technical details of the font. There are occasional off-hand references by some of the interview subjects to various features of certain letters, but even those segments are not illustrated. I would have loved to see a side-by-side contrast between Helvetica and similar sans-serif fonts used earlier, or perhaps others created since then. In one sequence, we catch a glimpse of one of the original large-scale drawings for one of the letters; I would have enjoyed seeing more of those, larger on the screen, and with explanation of how the various parts work in relation to one another.
With its current affective emphasis, this would have been an acceptable 45-min. documentary, but at an hour and a half, it is far longer than it needs to be. I hoped to walk away with an understanding of what made Helvetica uniquely popular, but that was never clearly shown in any way.