MOVIES


History of Movies

This is a fascinating site which tracks through the whole history of films by decade or individual year. History of Movies is here.


The Oscars - History Site

Find out all you ever needed to know, and more, about the Oscars, who won, when, and who missed out that should have won. The complete history from 1927 onwards!

Latest Movie Reviews

Roger Ebert's Reviews: Home Page.

Rotten Tomatoes - for a roundup of reviews favourable, and otherwise!

Drop into Web Wombat for the more reviews.

Latest Blu-ray & DVD Releases

Latest releases, upcoming ones, and all sorts of other DVD-Movie stuff can be checked at Movieweb

Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) - find it here.



My Life At The Movies

Separate Page - a roundup by decade of movies I've enjoyed, starting back in the 1960s!


Heimat - see Separate Page

This is the masterwork by Edgar Rietz, now up to three series, and hopefully he'll do a fourth due to the amazing changes in Germany since the last one. The Heimat Page.



A Man Called Ove (2015)

(in Swedish with subtitles, via Netflix, probably elsewhere too.)

This is an unlikely candidate for one of the best films I've seen all year. An old man, a widower, is living in a housing estate, where he's lived for many years. He's irritable, always telling people off for driving where they shouldn't, not picking up rubbish, or anything else that he sees, and he sees a lot.

You'd think this an unpromising start, but the plot is full of light and dark, humour and pathos, all leavened with large dashes of the ridiculous. Even his attempts at suicide (he's depressed at being left alone after his wife's death) end up being farcical.

Some new neighbours provide both new challenges and new friendship. I really couldn't stop watching this one, and we consumed it in one sitting where we often break a movie over two nights.

There's some great car-envy humour as well, with he and his long-time friend and car fancier who lives on the same estate trying to outdo one another with new models over a couple of decades.

Piece by piece, the story of his life is revealed.



An Oldie, and Amazing!

Half way through watching Once Upon A Time In America. Brilliant production, so authentic in all the street scenes, don't know how they managed that. But beware you don't get the cut down version as it's rubbish. The full one is about 229 minutes, but for some reason there was a heavily cut and re-arranged one that lost way too much and changed the sequence of shots. The chronology in the full version jumps around a bit, but that's how it was supposed to be. The DVD set I am watching is on 2 discs!

From Wikipedia:

"The film was originally 269 minutes (4 hours and 29 minutes), but when the film premiered out of competition at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Leone had cut it to 229 minutes (3 hours and 49 minutes) to appease the distributors, which was the version shown in European cinemas. However, the American wide release was edited further to 139 minutes (2 hours and 19 minutes) by the studio, against the director's wishes."

Some may recall director Leone's "Dollars" trilogy of westerns. Perhaps this later film should have been done in full but split up, as has been the practise with some more recent sagas like Heimat or Lord of The Rings.

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Coco Chanel & Stravinsky


A while ago we watched Coco Before Chanel (available fairly cheaply on iTunes), the story of that famous lady up to the point where she started the fashion house. Her origins were modest, with some seaminess of another sort while she and her sister made up a singing and dancing duo in vaudeville theatre.

The second episode, in effect, is this one about her and Stravinsky. You could probably watch them in either order, but I think it's marginally more satisfying this way. By now she is running her business and is doing very well, with a lovely country house and servants.

The film opens with the lead-up to an embarrassing premiere of Stravinsky's (Le Sacre Du Printemps) The Rite of Spring, which has been the subject of many discussions ever since, and some witty plays on the name. It has been called Le Scare Du Printemps or The Fright of Spring.

But suffice to say for now that it caused a riot at the premiere, and didn't help Stravinsky's reputation for some time after. He was down on his luck with a family to feed when Coco offered the whole family a place to live - in her nice country house, practically a Chateau. You might guess that romance is in the air, and indeed it arrives at around the 55 minute mark. But you shouldn't fast forward to the naughty bits, the whole slow-burn story is quite fascinating. And everything is so well done, it must have cost heaps to film.

SBS has this movie up for free on their website SBS On Demand. It's a French production with subtitles. The productions values are absolutely top class, as is the casting and acting.

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4/8/2017 This week's iTunes 99c Hire ...

Arrival (2016) - no, nothing to do with Abba! It's about aliens landing and an expert linguist being hired by the military to try and communicate with them. I haven't watched it yet.


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Florence Foster Jenkins

Both Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant do superb work in this movie. It's a story that people my age (born some six years after the end of WW2) may be half aware of. The half that most of us were aware of was that she was a poor singer, but one who managed to be recorded and who actually did appear at Carnegie Hall, New York.

The other half is what makes this story really interesting. How much of it should I give away? As little as possible, I think. Let's just skate around the core of this emotional volcano.

Florence was born into a wealthy New York family and was a prodigious little girl at the piano. This stood her in good stead later in life when for a while she had to make do with the income from giving piano lessons. Fortune reversed, and as she says "I was back in the will".

So, as a wealthy New York matron she became a patron of the arts, with music as her passion. In the movie you'll see a very creditable cameo by someone who looks for all the world like Maestro Toscanini, greying but still vigorous and commanding.

Her friends, a circle of that golden age aristocracy, turn up to the various arty events and applaud the efforts of all and sundry. Her husband at this stage is an actor played by Hugh Grant - who admits that while he did appear in former years in productions of Hamlet, never in the title role.

Hugh's character is noble in sticking by Florence whatever happens.

And Florence herself, at least in the telling of this story, achieves a nobility of spirit which we never saw coming, because we didn't do the research until after we'd seen the film. Her own struggle was against a force that she had put upon her at the tender age of 18, an evil not of her own making.

I can say no more (not wanting to give too much away) but do recommend that this movie, despite taking some license here and there, is one well worth seeing.



The Man Who Knew Infinity

The iTunes 99c movie of the week are valuable not so much for the low price, but the fact that they do from time to time bring to our attention a movie which is very much worth watching, although one that passed us by, having no big box office profile.

I've run a bit late getting to watch this one, "The Man Who Knew Infinity". Just made it before the month limit ran out. It's another one - based on a true story - that traces the career, short and brilliant, of an intuitive mathematical genius (as in A Brilliant Mind or Rain Man) who transits from a poor background in India to Trinity College, Cambridge, and starts to amaze his mentor (played by Jeremy Irons) while encountering opposition from just about anyone everywhere else. His ability with complex problems is astonishing, but unless he can do the process the university wants, the correct proofs, he will not be accepted as having solved some of the previously unsolvable mathematical issues.

But have no fear that this is a film purely for maths nerds. While you do catch a glimpse of notebooks and blackboards filled with equations that to most of us are no more decipherable than ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, it is a story about people and how they act, or react, to the situations they are presented with. It's not only the academics and some students who give our genius a hard time. Back home in India there are some dark undercurrents in the relationship between his young and lovely wife, waiting for word to come that she can join him in England, and the man's possessive mother.

Ramanujan is played by Dev Patel. There's a cameo by Stephen Fry as a British businessman in India, and one of the portrayed associates of the mentor at Trinity (Mr. G. H. Hardy - Jeremy Irons) is none other than the later famous philosopher Bertrand Russell, while another key character in the play is another eminent mathematician John Edensor Littlewood.

Note: John Maynard Keynes is said to have commented that if G.H. Hardy had paid as much attention to the stock market as he did to the cricket scores he would have become a very rich man. Hardy lived as a bachelor academic all his days and was taken care of by his sister in later life.

This is a movie well worth hiring at the regular price of $4.99.


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New To Netflix: Captain Phillips

This is one of those "ramp up the pressure" suspense movies set in the modern space of the waterways off the Somali coast. Piracy is alive and well, as the crew of the Maersk Alabama find out. Despite the best efforts of the cargo ship crew, the (sometimes) barefoot and largely destitute Somali operatives manage to take over. What happens next, and subsequently, is what makes this particular incident different to many others.

I won't give away any more of the plot. It's available on Netflix so we lapped it up this week. Tom Hanks does an excellent job as usual, and there are plenty of other good performances, including the very skinny Somali leader of the gang - they both have big roles and both do well.

The finale (it was real) was written up in the news years ago. Don't stop until you've seen the whole thing. Plenty of changes in the balance of power, some SEAL intervention, all good stuff.



Golden Oldie - Treasure Island (1990, made for TV)

The classic Robert Louis Stevenson story of blackguards in search of treasure has been filmed a number of times. It's a boy's own adventure, a ripping yarn, with pirates versus the good guys, the "3 years marooned" Ben Gunn, and of course the central character, young lad Jim Hawkins, played by a youthful Christian Bale.

Charlton Heston does a sterling job as Long John Silver, and Oliver Reed plays the rum-addicted and doomed Billy Bones, whose trunk contains the treasure map. Christopher Lee makes a very scary Blind Pew, and among the scurvy crew of "lubbers" and "bilge rats" you might recognise Pete Postlethwaite.

This is exactly the sort of movie you can for most of the year be too busy to watch, but on holidays it is a pleasure. There's more fighting than I recall from many years ago when I read the book! The action swings this way and that as at first the good guys get some advantage, and then the piratical crew under Long John hit back.

The ship Hispaniola is a fine vessel, and there's plenty of authentic-looking work done in the rigging, with well-tarred rope ladders, well-filled sails, and lots of ropes that need hauling.

Being made for TV in 1990, it's in 4:3, but that's ok. In fact I watched it on an old LD, and once I realised it was 4:3 and adjusted the picture it closed up the grain and improved the picture quality quite a lot. With all the embedded processing in the Yamaha receiver and the Panasonic 60" UHD TV, it presented pretty well.

Solid storytelling the way it used to be. Good value. There have been other versions, but this one would be hard to beat.

Footnote: soundtrack is by The Chieftains.



The Crown - on Netflix

Yes, I know, it's a series and not a movie. But you can't tell this story, or a lot of others, in a single movie-length production.

Netflix headed me off at the pass with their latest offering, The Crown. I was set to leave, but after watching the first episode, I can't. They've put a lot of work into this one, and it is just too fascinating to be inside the palace, watching the story develop - even though we may know many of the plot's twists and turns.

It probably helps that I'm of a certain age. When Elizabeth II made her tour of Australia in 1953, I was, I'm told, hoisted up to see her over the heads of the gathered crown in Dubbo. I was two at the time. She has been there for my entire life, and has won so much respect that she's probably as loved as a monarch can be.

In the first part we see a young Princess marry her naval officer, who becomes the Duke of Edinburgh in a ceremony presided over rather briefly and perfunctorily by George VI, he of the stutter as portrayed in The King's Speech. He tells the young man later that it's all about Elizabeth, not Phillip, and he should get used to playing a support role.

The wedding in Westminster Cathedral is packed with the high and mighty, and Winston Churchill ensures that his entrance is not missed. Choirs sing, vows are taken - she promises to love, honour and obey, which raised some eyebrows - and the matter is settled otherwise in a manner befitting a future queen.

So, production values very high, script so far very good, story line does not appear to have been embellished unreasonably - so it runs along lines those of us are familiar with, including some preliminary reference to Margaret's ill-fated love for the King's Equerry, who was a married man as well as a WW2 hero.

I'm hooked. Maybe we can stick to one episode a week, we'll see.


Keeping Mum (2006)

I've been late as usual in catching up with a fun movie.

This is one of those charming British productions of a sort that I have always enjoyed, right back to the Ealing Comedy days, The Wrong Box and numerous others.

The cast is top-rate, with Rowan Atkinson playing it straight as the village vicar, Kristin Scott-Thomas as a convincingly frustrated wife (not to mention very sexy), and Maggie Smith peerlessly playing the housekeeper whose attitude to pests, animal or human, is "exterminate".

As a bone-us for the ladies there's the late, great Patrick Swayze in a role tailor-made for him, the lecherous golf pro, who, not content with pursuing Kristin, has designs on the nympho daughter (played by Tamsin Egerton) as well. A very sticky situation.

Don't be put off by the start, where a language warning might be needed for some viewers - young and old. I've used the German poster as it had the best picture of the cast I could find at short notice.

Can be picked up on DVD very cheaply via ebay. Well worth it.



Pawn Sacrifice - The Bobby Fischer Story

On this week (July 11-14) as the iTunes Movie of the Week at 99c hire!

An absolutely gripping film, even for someone with a basic ability to play chess. This is a psychological thriller.

Another nicely created period piece from the cold war era. We get a lot more info about Bobby, from childhood through some difficult adolescent reactions to his home life, with a mother who he call a communist!

It builds as he takes on the Russians, beating most of them, but with Spassky as his bete noir, his nemesis. The finale in Iceland, with some very edgy moments and some surprises, is handled to perfection.



Netflix Australia - Ho Hum!

My Netflix account has its head on the chopping block as soon as I finish Marco Polo. Update: they have now released series 2! So I'm still there. They have not fulfilled their potential, and we're watching more movies via iTunes, often at 99c hire. Even at full price we can do a movie of the week each week plus one or two at regular price before we get to the $12 that Netflix is costing per month.

If Netflix had kept the movie titles growing at a reasonable rate I'd be staying with them. But the final nail in the coffin was finding that several movies I'd listed as ones to watch just aren't there any more! That just about wraps it up for Netflix Australia, at least for the time being.

I'd say it's time to put that $12 towards a no-contract basic Foxtel package ($25/month) for six months as a trial run and see how we like that. I've always resisted Foxtel for two reasons. One, that they have been too expensive, and two, that we wouldn't watch that much of it anyway. We do two movies a week at most, but the basic package would be handy to have during the election season so we can catch all the political coverage on Sky and Fox, local and USA.

Update

They now appear to be offering access to other countries' lists by means of a VPN. Weird. This was frowned upon not long ago.



Walt Disney Before Mickey Mouse (2015)

All of us of a certain age are well aware of the success of Walt Disney, the growth of Disneyland in California, Disney World in Florida, and the thousands of shows and full-length features produced by Disney Studios dating back to Snow White in 1937.

Walt used to host the weekly Disney Shows that we all watched on TV throughout the 1960s, and he came across as a kindly man with a nice sense of humour and a good feeling for what was entertaining and wholesome. We don't see much these days of the many short films featuring animals that used to run on those weekly shows, and even Donald and Mickey are looking a bit out of date - even though they are still exemplars of the animator's craft, and contain a lot of true observations of human nature - particularly when Donald is getting hot under the collar.

There has been a lot of contrary commentary over the years and Disney for some became a symbol of big business avarice instead of the family-friendly provider of fun. The feature film "Saving Mr Banks", which I reviewed down the page, gave Walt credit for the kind of guy he was. Now, I've just come across another feature: Walt Disney before Mickey Mouse. It was only made last year by an independent maker, and on a tight budget, but it's an engrossing story of the tough times Walt went through before he hit the big time. It takes us from childhood through to the initial draft sketches of Mortimer Mouse, quickly renamed, and on to the finale which is everyone attending the premiere of Plane Crazy, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Walt learned the hard way to eventually make sure his copyrights were his, and never again to let them fall under the ownership and control of his distributor. Nobody remembers Oswald the Rabbit, one character who he lost the rights too, but we all know Mickey and Donald!

You can see this film now via Netflix, and also Saving Mr. Banks, the extended creative and negotiation process which led to the Mary Poppins movie.

P.S. You'll find the origin of When You Wish Upon A Star in there too.



Mongolian Soap - Marco Polo

This is, I'm guessing, Netflix's home-grown answer to Game of Thrones, not that I'm a watcher of GoT. The latter, I'm told, is set in a series of imaginary worlds, while Marco Polo is an imaginary story set in Mongolia and China. I'm enjoying the spectacle of it all, while not expecting anything too cerebral! They must have spent a packet on the production - it looks fabulous. The sets and costumes are very good, and the acting is, while not terribly demanding, adequate for the purpose. Even the titles are nicely done in running (monochrome) watercolour.

Marco was abandoned by his father to be a hostage of Kublai Khan, but is treated well and is often called by The Great Khan for advice on all sorts of things, but particularly as an observer of other tribes, a pair of sharp eyes and a matching descriptive ability. Marco's day seems to be mainly taken up with some martial arts training and a bit of horse riding in between field assignments, leading to an unlikely relationship with the Blue Princess. The script has some good moments and some fairly routine ones, but overall is fair enough for light entertainment!

There are shady characters aplenty, but the main villain is the Chinese Chancellor - played rather well, a truly treacherous character. You just know that eventually the Khan's army and the Chinese army will meet in a decisive battle, but for the bulk of the series (I've seen four episodes so far) it will be the machinations within the two courts that will be the daily fare.

The basic formula for this and GoT is the mix of sex, violence and spectacle, with some intrigue thrown in on most days. The Khan's son is a pretty boy but not his dad's favourite. He's close to being a minor villain. Marco's dad, whenever he shows up, is trouble too. Even the Khan's brother is a bad egg who meets a bad end in a fierce one-on-one sword fight with a rather out of shape Kublai. The great Khan's figure is corpulent, to say the least. But the writers have given him some cunning insight into what everyone might be up to, and how to manipulate outcomes.

At the other end of the physical spectrum we are treated to quite a few naked ladies. The Khan runs a pretty good house with lots of girlies after dinner for the loyal men of fighting age.

The entertainment market is fragmented now into the various online channels, and who has the rights to what is important. Netflix has, with this production, shown that they can play the game. This is just as well, since Foxtel have HBO. They'll need to keep doing it for Australian viewers who can't access the USA version and don't want to pay Foxtel's rates for a lot of stuff they don't need. If Foxtel was seriously troubled they could consider matching Netflix's price for a smaller selection, allowing us to choose which bits we wanted to have.

I don't expect to see it just yet, but maybe eventually ...

What The Critics Say: they mostly hate it. Some after just one episode, some after watching a couple but on a laptop. I'm pretty relaxed about working my way through the episodes, and I'm watching on a recent 60" 4k Panasonic TV with a good surround system , so the full impact of the scenes and the sound work for me. I'm not expecting historical accuracy or deep and involving characterisations or philosophical speeches. As someone with a short fuse and likely to turn off any show that doesn't grab me (my wife knows I have a long history of walking out early from cinemas) I keep coming back for more of this show. Marco is just one of a number of characters, but the naming of the program for him was to give it a time and place in which to happen.

It works for me!



Mirren Triumphant in Woman in Gold

Man cannot live by the 99 cent iTunes Movie of the Week alone! The last few haven't been worth talking about.

This one costs $A8 to rent in HD, but is worth every cent. Compared to the cost of two cinema tickets, it's a steal. Our home theatre is also more comfortable, serves better food and drinks, and if we want to we can split a movie over two nights.

Steal is the key word in that paragraph. It's well known that the Nazis stole everything of value they liked the look of as they took over Europe. Art works and jewellery were sought after, along with gold bullion. Properties were taken over. This movie tells the true story of a woman who went after a famous painting and won it back, despite the Austrian government's determined efforts to stop her.

Klimt's sumptuous art deco Woman in Gold is familiar to anyone interested in great paintings. It remained in the Belvedere museum in Vienna for many years until Maria Altermann decided to enlist a young lawyer to help her get it back. It had been commissioned by her uncle and was a portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer. The Viennese regarded it as their Mona Lisa, a cultural treasure that was irreplaceable. It was valued at the time at $US100 million, and subsequently did sell for $US135 million!

I won't try to explain all the legal wrangling that goes on. That is central to the plot and is explained fully in the film. The production is superb, having some great locations in Vienna, and the acting is likewise, another fabulous performance by Helen Mirren. The scriptwriter had the benefit of that young lawyer himself (Randol Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds), with personal recollections of Maria and of the court cases.

For me, films like this are like treasure among so much trash that is churned out by the industry. You can read more in this newspaper article.

What do the critics say? At Rotten Tomatoes they seem to want something with a bit more Seal Team 6 in it. Great story, told in a rather ordinary fashion say the negative ones. Roger Ebert's opinion is more like ours. Barbara and I both thorougly enjoyed it.



The American Experience - Henry Ford (via Netflix)

Exploring Netflix documentaries reveals some real gems, including some by Ken Burns, a phenomenal doco maker.

The one about Henry Ford is nearly two hours long, quite fascinating, and shows sides of his character that the superficial grab-bag of modern commentary misses. It also shows the scale of his enterprise at Dearborn, Michigan.

Ford wasn't always the "autocrat" of popular myth; he did change over time. He hailed from rural Michigan, and carried with him the notion of a fair go for the workers. He tried to overcome a staff turnover problem by offering double pay, a scheme which shocked his board, and his competitors. But he wanted productivity in return.

Having shown from an early age an ability to take apart and analyse mechanical things, his approach to product development shows some characteristics we have seen in a much more modern company leader - Steve Jobs. Surprising as that may sound, both had a determination to make things work, to refine and develop, and to produce good things at a price many more people could afford. Both had an over-riding notion that they were in the game not just to make money, but to change the world. Both had little or no tolerance for contrary opinions, both wanted to do it their way.

As well as developing the efficient production line system, Ford also justified the increased wages for workers as a way to grow the population of customers! His Model T was ground-breaking in many ways. For the first time, citizens with some degree of liquidity could buy a car, which until then had been the preserve of the wealthy. What's more, it was a reliable and capable vehicle. Ford had put years of trial and error into his various models, and the T was the distillation of all that experience. Interesting to note that even at the early stage of auto development, prior to the model T, Ford could make a pubicity coup and enhance his reputation by winning a one-on-one car race!

We tend to forget now the tyranny of distance which in the old days kept people either mainly in a village or down on the farm. What we take for granted is that we can head off across the country at will. While the railroads had opened up things to a great degree, personal mobility was something that, once offered at an achievable price, was bound to sell like crazy. It certainly did.

Ford went on and super-sized his enterprise at River Rouge, a former farming area. He built not just large new production plants, but made steel, and had rubber brought in from his own plantations in South America. He owned the entire means of production, and it stretched across a vast canvas of industrial might. It was probably the inspiration for the Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times", with that memorable scene on the production line where Charlie is swallowed then spat out by the huge cogs and wheels that run the line.

Ironically, Ford later in life wanted to revisit the farming life he had found boring as a young man. He set up a nostalgic display village, and came to enjoy being there more than in the industrial setting. He had created the modern consumer society, but finally found it distasteful. A lifelong teetotaller, he also disapproved of his son Edsel's more social lifestyle, which included booze!

This is an epic documentary, showing all the aspects of a character who is often portrayed only in the negative. There certainly were negatives, plenty of them. He was a tyrant in so many ways. But a full appreciation of the man and his achievements can only come from a lengthy treatment, which this production provides.

The amount of original black & white film is amazing - partly due to Ford having his own production unit.



3 Movies For 99 cents!

Nebraska is this week's iTunes special, hiring for 99 cents. (The other two are free from SBS!) An entire movie shot in black and white might at first blush seem a waste of opportunity when colour is available, but it suits this movie very well. It's set for the most part in small-town America, and is a film about characters, not an action show. The script is so well written, the individuals so well portrayed, you believe in them quite readily.

It's about a son trying to help his somewhat deluded old dad travel to the next state and collect what he thinks is a million dollar prize. Of course it doesn't turn out, but along the way we meet a number of relatives and other bit players from the little place where the dad grew up and had a business once. This is a story I think everyone can identify with. The B&W cinematography is superb.

Highly recommended, not just by me, but also scored highly at Rotten Tomatoes, where they do a roundup of various critics.

Now to SBS movies online. Ingmar Bergman's epic (3 hours) Fanny and Alexander starts out as a beautiful family gathering at Christmas. Undercurrents start to appear, and as things develop the various family members have some idiosyncrasies exposed. The marriage of Fanny and Alexander's mother to a strict preacher is the start of a terrible period for them. I can't spoil the plot by telling you more, but the tension is turned up to eleven before the end.

I haven't seen all of Bergman's movies, but this one is at the top of the pile as far as I'm concerned. It scores on all fronts: production, acting, photography, and the all-important script. It is a must-see.

Here's part of what Roger Ebert (a very fine citic) had to say: "Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1982) was intended to be his last film, and in it, he tends to the business of being young, of being middle-aged, of being old, of being a man, woman, Christian, Jew, sane, crazy, rich, poor, religious, profane. He creates a world in which the utmost certainty exists side by side with ghosts and magic, and a gallery of characters who are unforgettable in their peculiarities. Small wonder one of his inspirations was Dickens."

I haven't seen this film for many years. I found it pretty intense, and will have to be feeling strong before I go through it again. But it is a masterpiece. I feel much the same way about The Last Emperor (1987 - Bertolucci).

The other one I noticed in their list, La Belle Noiseuse(1991), has been shown by SBS before, but perhaps I didn't see it all. See note below. This version is again a 3 hour effort, so you might want to break it over two or more sessions. It is an older production in 4:3, but that doesn't detract too much. What struck me this time was the fabulous setting, and old stone building in a French provincial town, in summer. It is the home of a famous painter, a gruff sort of chap who I thought could also have been played by the older Anthony Quinn. We meet his much younger wife (artists seem to get much younger wives, somehow) and his art dealer. A young couple are being introduced to the artist, and all stay to dinner. The young lady, Marianne, is suggested as a model to pose for the painter in an effort to complete his masterpiece.

This part is played by a youthful, very pretty Emmanuelle Beart. I'm not spoiling the plot by revealing that she spends much of the film quite naked, which will be recommendation enough for some viewers!

Before we get to that stage, however, I was enjoying the slow pace and the natural way we enter the lives of these people. There is no musical soundtrack, although in one scene we hear a bit of Stravinsky's Petrouchka (one of my favourite pieces by him) as a young woman dances in the garden. The sound of cicadas is the background during most of the outdoor scenes. The sense of a hot summer, hot stonework, and rising emotional temperatures pervades this film. It becomes increasingly a psychological study.

Note: Roger Ebert resolves my comment above about the length varying. It was originally four hours, but there was a director's edited version to two hours, while this current one is three. He says of it: "…the best film I have ever seen about the physical creation of art, and about the painful bond between an artist and his muse. Winner of the Palme d'Or prize at Cannes that year, it ran to a full four hours, and so its theatrical life was limited. Rivette edited a 125-minute version titled "Divertimento," but why bother with it? The greatness of "La Belle Noiseuse" is in the time it spends on the creation of art, and the creation and destruction of passion."


Saving Mr. Banks

Available on Netflix and iTunes, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.

This is the story behind the long struggle that Walt Disney had to convince Mrs Travers to sign over the film rights to her Mary Poppins book. She is shown to be a particularly difficult character to work with, insisting on such a degree of artistic control over all aspects of the production that it took extreme determination to see it through. She even had a tape recorder at each session to take down all that was agreed as they went through each scene and song - some of which were being written there and then.

I'm not one of those who ascribe bad motives to Walt, and he is given an appropriately sympathetic portrayal here. I grew up with him on the TV introducing so many of his shows, and his values are reflected in the niceness of so much that was produced under his command. That included ground-breaking animation, live action films and wildlife documentaries. To take things further creatively, Disney studios interwove many live animals into human stories very effectively.

Walt had promised his daughters that he'd bring Mary Poppins to the big screen, even if it took him twenty years. And it did. Saving Mr. Banks has at its core the twin stories: firstly the production of the movie, but secondly and very importantly the back story, told in flashbacks, of the author's childhood and her erratic but kindly father, a bank manager. I won't give away too much of that plot line, but suffice to say it informed the Mary Poppins tale in many ways.

The conflicts that Travers has with the studio talent and Walt himself stem from conflicts set up in her early life. How this is resolved is a story in itself, and the finale is quite moving. Note: when you watch this, if you do, make sure and wait for all the credits to scroll through. In an astonishing postscript they play prt of one of those tapes she insisted on during production sessions. It is amazing that it survives from the early 1960s, but it totally verifies the reality of her portrayal!

Post Script: Jez Ford (Group Editor of Next Media AV division - Sound & Image, Australian Hifi, and other notable magazines) did an interview in 2010 with Richard Sherman, half of the song writing team (with his brother Robert) who did so many of the Disney songs, including Mary Poppins. The transcript of that interview is available at AV Hub, together with further links to video clips. Highly recommended.

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Chaplin (1992)

Having seen plenty of Charlie Chaplin films during my lifetime, and read stories about his own life, but not much, I was attracted to this 1992 film directed by Richard Attenborough. I've said often that a good film remains a good film, even if I don't get to it for a long time after it was made. This is further proof of that. It didn't take long, probably ten minutes, to realise that it was something special. Robert Downey Jnr. plays the man, with some child actors filling in during the early, more tragic sequences. I won't go into a cast list, that's all readily available at IMDB or just in the poster above! It's a very good cast, and a marvellous coup was getting Geraldine Chaplin to play Charlie's mother, her grandmother. She does it superbly. He was a driven personality, a perfectionist who did astronomical numbers of re-takes, much to the fatigue of cast and crew alike. But as a successful film maker (he and Douglas Fairbanks founded United Artists and had their own studio) he could call the shots.

In the book Chaplin's Girl (see the Books Page) Virginia Cherrill recalls that when she played the blind flower seller in City Lights he re-shot their sequence about 150 times. He felt that at times he was approaching the perfect shot but was not content to fall even a tiny bit short of it. There's a brief segment about the flower girl in this film. How was she to be made to think Charlie was a rich man? She couldn't see him. The answer is in the sound she hears, an expensive car door being shut as Charlie departs. She doesn't know it's someone else's car.

From the early life in London through to his arrival in Hollywood, the scenes are constructed convincingly, and at great expense. The London music halls where his mother performed but failed, and the ones he subsequently appeared in himself, are lovingly recreated.

The arrival in Hollywood is particularly memorable, with a sweeping vista of orange groves and mountains in the background. Stepping off a train into a sunny but dusty film location, he promptly gets in shot to the annoyance of Mac Sennett, the mogul of the silent era, played by Dan Aykroyd.

The succession of very young women that Charlie romances, and usually marries, is central to the plot. Only Oona lasts the distance to enjoy a long marriage and family life - mainly in Switzerland - after Charlie falls foul of the McCarthy Era carry-on which saw him make an enemy of J. Edgar Hoover, the boss of the FBI.

The film ends with a return visit to Hollywood many years later, to receive an overdue Oscar at the Academy awards. Unfortunately, it is only at this last stage that the genius of the man is given some proper exposure with a film collation. There were short snippets here and there, but not enough for me. They served to illustrate how his own life experiences fed into the stories he told. However, given that the film already runs over two hours, too many excerpts would have made it a bit of an epic for viewers. I guess it's enough that we are encouraged to revisit his work. I'll certainly be doing that.

Chaplin: Available via Netflix and iTunes in excellent quality, or a poor quality one with spanish subtitles on You Tube.

Modern Times is here on You Tube. He doesn't speak, but it has a soundtrack and some amazing scenes. Well worth watching, as is The Great Dictator.

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Frank (2014)

How many movies have you seen which contained the line "don't touch my Theremin"? Most people these days wouldn't know what that it is, although they may have unwittingly heard one. It's a basic electronic tone generator which preceded the synthesiser, but remains printed on the race memory by the Beach Boys track Good Vibrations.

Get this 99c iTunes weekly special, for one more day only. This is a movie for music people. It's quirky, not the usual romantic comedy. But it surprised me how well it was put together. The script is smart and amusing, the soundtrack excellent, the surround jumps around in surprising ways, the music is not your usual pop, but is avant-garde in a quite digestible fashion. The characters are all interesting - even though you don't really meet Frank until the end. And, believe me, it's worth waiting until the end, all the way to the final credits.

I'm not going to do a detailed review, just posting this to encourage you to see it at the discount - and you can of course download it at the cheap price with 29 days to actually watch it.

Post Script - the reviews were mostly good, while recognising that it was a bit oddball, or as one amateur critic said (and it more or less agree) that it was like spending an hour and a half with Jim Morrison.

The Best Offer (2012)

With music by Ennio Morricone and a list of credits looking like the Rome phone book, this is certainly a European movie in every way, except for the Australian origin of the star. Set in the world of fine art and antiques, the auction room is the stage upon which Mr. Oldman, the expert collector and auctioneer struts and eventually frets. You know this was not intended to be a box office blockbuster, as there are no concessions to popular, Hollywood-style ingredients. It's about people, not action; centred on art, not parties, or gangsters and fast cars.

Geoffrey Rush does a good job, but is helped by the fact that the reclusive Mr. Oldman shows little emotion most of the time. He is required to be aloof and at time irritable, even rude. But things gradually cause his finely organised world to collapse. It starts with a tempting commission to catalogue and sell Miss Ibbotson's inherited villa-full of furniture and objet. She proves to be a bit of a fruitcake, and his patience is stretched to breaking point before he starts to sympathise and even like her.

There's a sub-plot that I feel owes a little something to the earlier movie Hugo (2010), in which an automaton has a central place. In Best Offer there's a young (possibly too young for the amount of expertise he is supposed to have) restoration mechanic who does the impossible in restoring the old automaton to some semblance of its former glory.

While the plot overall is strange and tests the audience's patience at times too, you are kept involved by the shifting sands, the development of a suspicion that nothing is as it looks, and that things are going to end badly. The art of storytelling is, after all, about luring your audience forward to see how things end. Things do indeed fall apart after looking like Oldman has really won Young Woman. It's the coda, the drawn-out ending of this film which has an ambiguity that may leave you wondering. Is he in the restaurant and will find his quarry eventually, or is he in care, catatonic and incommunicado, with the restaurant merely a flashback. You have to watch to the end. The Night & Day restaurant is a must-see.

Despite failings in plot and labouring of some points, this is worth the time and the money even at the regular hire price - if only for the novelty of a movie set in that world, and the combination of cinematography, sets and art works featured.

What Did The Critics Say: Mostly good, although Roger Ebert said the director Giuseppe Tornatore was a bit too self-indulgent.

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22/3/2015 Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

This week's 99 cent weekly movie from iTunes is well worth watching. It tells the story of the raid on Bin Laden's home/fortress in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but only after a lengthy but necessary lead up story about the CIA types who do all the legwork. We quite often split a movie over two nights, but this was too good to stop.

The heroine Maya looks an unlikely "killer wolf", being of slight build and delicate features, played by Jessica Chastain. When she arrives at the detention/interrogation centre, where the head guy Dan (Jason Clarke) is roughing up and waterboarding the suspects to get info out of them, she looks uncomfortable. At this point you wonder which way the narrative is going to flop. There has been so much carry-on about waterboarding during GWB's Presidency that it could potentially have become an anti-torture movie at this stage. But director Kathryn Bigelow, who previously made The Hurt Locker, doesn't get into that vein.

Instead, we see the CIA under direct attack from "insurgents" with machine guns, truck bombs, car bombs, or simply through the press. The head of their station has to leave when his identity is publicised, probably by Pakistani Intelligence operatives.

Maya toughens up after some of her colleagues are killed in an event which is based on reality - a meeting attended not by an informant but a Taliban bomber. At this turn of the screw she promises to "smoke those who did this, and kill Bin Laden". There is still much work to do. We see firstly the head of CIA having to be convinced that the target is living in that particular compound, then the ultimate approval has to come from the President.

The SEAL Team only get clearance to go on the afternoon of the night they go in. This section is what we've been waiting for, and we're along for the ride in stealth helos, then on the ground we see the room-to-room clearance happening. Doors have to be blown with explosives, people have to be shot, children herded into a safer room while the upstairs main man is hunted. Those SEAL guys have to be able to do a lot of things quickly and correctly to get the job done.

What the critics said: They loved it.

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22/2/2015 - Walk The Line (2005)

This week's 99 cent movie on iTunes is the biopic on Johnny Cash, called Walk The Line (2005, Dir. John Mangold). It stars Joaquin Phoenix as the man in black, and Reece Witherspoon as June Carter. Ginnifer Goodwin plays Vivian, Cash's first wife. More about her later. The production and photography are first rate, and the actors look and act like the real things - no doubt helped by being able to see good footage of actual performances such as this one from 1968.

Cash was from a fairly poor rural family, and the film features the tragic death of his beloved brother Jack. As did Elvis Presley some years later, Cash spent several years in the armed forces in Germany before marrying Vivian and starting a family. He was no good as a door-to-door saleman, but managed to get in the door at Sun Records for an audition, which went poorly at first but came good eventually with some material he wrote himself, namely "Cry, cry, cry". Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two went on tour, rubbing shoulders with other performers destined to be big names, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and June Carter.

But the touring and performing led to booze and drugs, which caused Cash no end of trouble over quite a few years. The movie seems fairly full of this dysfunctionality, as well as painting the first wife Vivian as a shrew, which later evidence would appear to contradict. There's a very fraught section which marks the break up with Vivian, and you can't really blame her for taking the children and leaving. It also paints June Carter as playing hard to get, with a climactic scene mid-concert where he demands that she agree to marry him. Vivian has something to say on how hard to get June was really, in her own book which came rather late, in 2007 - partly in response to this film. If you watch the film, the alternate view told in this article is essential reading.

One huge gap in the narrative has Cash wandering like a hobo after being told by Carter to smarten up, and falling asleep, drenched by rain, then awakening to see a house which he really liked, by a lake. This just after he and Waylon Jennings have no money left to pay the phone bill. With no explanation as to what happened next, he suddenly owns the house and is trying to fill it with family, but interpersonal tensions and drug use remain the big issues. The script suggests that June got him to go clean, and reintroduced him to church (his mother is briefly shown as religious in the film), but that strand is left undeveloped. However here it is, in his own words during an interview (read it all):

SCOTT: If you hadn't had your spiritual experience with the Lord where do you think you'd be now?

JOHNNY: I'd be dead a long time ago. I have a terminal disease called chemical dependency. I can't ever use any medication that alters your mood. One is too many and 1,000 is not enough. I wrote about it in Man in Black. I called these drugs "a demon called deception." And with all the alcoholic/drug treatment centers in the world, if they don't have that spiritual element that returns you to a one-on-one communication with God, then they're not worth the land they're built on… The first time, in 1967, when I got in trouble with my medication, it was the love of God and the love people like June, my mother, and close friends…

I locked myself in my house for a month, and I whipped it. For ten years or more, I didn't have a problem until I had an accident. The doctors gave me pain medication. It stops the pain and makes you feel good, but they don't make pain medication that doesn't alter your mood. It's the old demon called deception. He tells you it's okay and anything this good couldn't be wrong, but you get back on the cycle… All this medication had a way of burning holes inside, and I got bleeding ulcers. I had to have surgery that meant strong medication. I weaned myself off them in the hospital through prayer and daily commitment to refrain from it… And then I went to Betty Ford's center in California to study the disease, to study myself, to go into group therapy, to have a daily counseling session with a clergyman, and to renew my daily commitment to God. It's a spiritual program that gets you back on the right track. They like to say "higher power." I like to say God, and Jesus Christ is my way to Him.

The film gained five Academy Award nominations and Witherspoon won an Oscar for her performance. There were other awards including Golden Globes, as per the picture above. Estimated cost of production was $28m, gross worldwide $186m, according to Wikipedia.

The 99c is neither here nor there - the film is worth the two hours of watching! Dialogue is at times a bit too soft compared to the volume of the music, which is well done too.


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La Vie En Rose (2007) - Edith Piaf

Another in the series "A good film remains a good film, even if you don't catch up with it for years!"

Piaf was a legendary singer of popular and cabaret songs, and her legacy remains in the form of recordings that have been re-issued from LP to CD and now for streaming from online libraries. If you've ever seen a documentary on her, you might know that she came from a poor part of Paris, Belleville, and that she associated with some unsavoury characters, did drugs and gradually made good as a high-profile and much loved performer. Her life story has many chapters, and it's interesting to see how the film La Vie En Rose presents them. It's not always a pretty sight, but always engrossing.

From Belleville where her mother sang on the street, to the circus with her father, a period under the wing of kind-hearted prostitutes, then singing on the street herself back in Paris, there are many sad and difficult moments. The film's editing seems at first rather wayward and disjointed, but you get used to the jumps and can see how the various episodes relate something in the present back to something in the past, such as her youthful vision of Saint Theresa, her own special intercessor.

Possessed of an indomitable spirit, but being small and often in poor health, she didn't make things easier by abusing drugs and alcohol. Just when you think she has reached an acceptable compromise, knowing and accepting that her big love will not leave his wife and children, but being able to see that it was better than nothing, he is abruptly torn away from her just as her loving Titine, the caring prostitute and substitute mother was in her childhood.

Marion Cotillard does a brilliant job portraying this woman, warts and all, who must have been rather trying to have as a friend. Marion got an Oscar for Best Actress for this role. My main regret about the film is that it misses her funeral in Paris. She died of liver cancer aged 47 in 1963. The Catholic church refused to give her a requiem mass due to her reputation, but thousands turned out to see the funeral.

I can recommend this one to anyone with an interest in Piaf and her music. What did the critics say (I've just looked) - mostly favourable at Rotten Tomatoes, and very favourable by Roger Ebert.

Wolf Of Wall Street - Free on You Tube

This three hour Martin Scorcese film is simultaneously hard-going, but oddly fascinating. It's like watching a bunch of reptiles at the zoo, clever reptiles, some pretty female ones too. This story makes Gordon Gecko ("greed is good") look like a boy scout.

There are some funny lines even at the strangest moments. There are scenes that will make you cringe and ask if this is for real, can this have happened? And there's a lot of people you may not care to invite to dinner. But in true Scorcese style, he pulls no punches.

It's rivetting stuff, but I have to admit that if I'd gone out for a nice night's entertainment at a cinema, it might have been a bit much at three hours of relentless bad behaviour.

As it was, I threw it to the big screen using Google Chrome and Chromecast! You can pause it from time to time and get a drink.

SBS Offers 400 Free Movies, No Catch's?

I'm not sure why they're doing it, but SBS has added a sizeable free movie collection to their On Demand download site.

Update: They have placed ad breaks in the movies, making it a proposition for them. Some are not bad, I've had a look at a couple so far. More on them when I've sampled a reasonable number.



Good iTunes Movies At The Lowest Price!

A weekly hire of a movie, downloaded for just US 99 cents?

I've been very pleasantly surprised at the quality of iTunes Movie of the Week, which so far has brought us some great films which we might not have sought out at any price!

I might have sought out this one. The Last Station takes you into the private world of Leo Tolstoy, on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. It is late in his life, and there are various forces vying for the high ground, both intellectually and financially. The Tolstoyist Movement is after his "rivers of gold" royalties, with which they hope to fund their fabian socialist dreams, while his increasingly volatile wife suspects something is up but can't quite get him to admit it or guarantee he won't sign the new will. This was a fine movie in its own right, but made more relevant for me by being still engrossed in the lengthy book about him by Aylmer Maude. I'll eventually review the second half of that, the first is on the Book Page now. It stars Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. Both do very well, but I think she steals the show.

Next was "Goodnight and Good Luck", a well-made period piece following the 1950s story of TV journalist Ed Murrow and his tussle with the anti-communist forces in the USA. The reconstruction of that period is very well done, but perhaps a little too admiring of the newshounds and condemnatory of everyone else. The full story of McCarthy is still emerging, and it might be a while before Hollywood does it properly. But this is definitely worth a look.

I'd never heard of "A Separation", an Iranian movie about a family suffering some mishaps after the wife leaves the home and goes back to live with her mother, but wants them all to emigrate. The husband is trying to look after their teenage daughter and his Alzheimer-affected old dad, while also holding down a job. He has to get a housekeeper, and a lot of complications ensue. The conception, photography and acting are all superb. The story is gripping, the characters convincing, and it's no wonder it won an Oscar in 2012 for best foreign movie, plus a Golden Globe award, among others.

Another foreign-feeling movie from 2013 was next up. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a winner, despite having won only a couple of minor awards. Beautifully produced, it gets you in right from the start with its mixture of Pakistani glitz, arresting music and high drama. Then in flashback mode we see the young man go to America, determined to make good in the world of finance. His success is not without issues, and he is drawn back to his roots after 9/11. This is a remarkable film, not the usual collection of Hollywood good guys and bad guys. There are many shadings in the characters, and the suspense is maintained right to the end. We sat through the credits listening to the extraordinary soundtrack. Worth going back to the start again just to hear those Pakistani musicians and singers do their party piece. As in the Iranian film above, none of the stars are overly glamourous or typecast. They are quite believable.

This week's offering (Dredd) is not for me. But based on the track record to date, I'm confident that there will be more good things coming from iTunes Movie of the Week, at US 99c a pop. I'm giving it 4 out of 5.

Update: wasn't tempted by one recent offering either, so score is 4 out of 6.

To Be Continued.

The Weekly Movies Continue!

Doubt, with Meryl Streep and the late Mr. Hoffman, is a beautifully made film. Reading the synopsis I was a bit apprehensive. It could have turned out to be a dark, anti-religious or anti-catholic piece with a large dash of suspected pedophile thrown in.

But it is way too subtle for that. Each character is drawn with care, and all of the main ones have a mixture of qualities. Sister Aloysius is fearsome to the students because she knows she has to maintain discipline, not because she's bad. She even has a sense of humour, but doesn't reveal that to the kids.

The Father under suspicion is a thoughtful man who delivers concise and effective sermons, and is always pleasant to those around him. The younger sister, a teacher, is trying to be both nice and effective in her role, but gradually sees the need for some stern reproaches when a student gets out of line.

The cinematography is superb, the script is engrossing, and the character development is all too rare a commodity in films these days. Once again, this is a gem which would have gone undiscovered but for iTunes Weekly Movie for 99 cents. Oh, and leave the soundtrack running with the credits at the end - the choral singing is nice, but eventually there's a big burst from the accompanying pipe organ, sounds great.

The Fighter, with Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg started out a bit rag-tag and had me wondering if we'd go the distance with it. But the second half arrived, and we actually watched it in one sitting rather than split over two nights as iTunes allows with rentals. It's the old story about a young up-and-coming boxer, but this one has been on a losing streak. People have become used to him losing, but his brother, a drug-addled but lively character and former boxer too (he had knocked down Sugar-Ray Leonard!) has faith in him. They come from a dysfunctional but large family (mum, dad, and about six sisters, some of them rather unprepossessing) which serves as a backdrop to the plot line and from time to time injects some rowdy scenes. The mother is a piece of work, the father at times ineffectual, the older brother totally unreliable and the sisters mainly straight out of Jerry Springer.

The dreck is relieved by some slapstick humour, and the contender finally gets going and starts to win some fights. You have to then stay to see what happens in the big title fight. This is not a subtle movie, but certainly worth the look at this low price! It has a certain authenticity about it in both the "wrong side of the tracks" setting and the fight scenes. It makes the grade by a short left jab.

Score now 6 out of 8!

Woody Allen's Match Point (link is to Roger Ebert's review - I read the reviews only after writing my own) has a plot that serves him well as a setting for some of his favourite themes: rich people and sexual obsession. He adds to it some murder and mayhem, but in the end, despite the excellent production, it's a flimsy construction which is unconvincing. This doesn't seem to matter in movies - perhaps it's too much to ask.

I found most of the characters to be poorly constructed, and their motivations at times just didn't ring true. But it was visually attractive (not just for Scarlet Johansson), set in some posh homes and a stunner of an apartment overlooking the Thames, with London Bridge and the Houses of Parliament in the background - which all served to carry us through the two hours, and since it cost next to nothing I shouldn't complain too much.

Postscript: The critics for the most part think this is one of Woody's best.

Hysteria was a film I approached with some misgivings. Was the story, set in Victorian England, about the development of the electric vibrator for women, going to be tacky? Fortunately it wasn't.

It's an entertaining film, beautifully realised. The sets, and even an extensive location shot of a street view with lots of horse-drawn vehicles, were great, costumes likewise, acting excellent, and photography of the best quality. It was a mixture of affluence, eccentricity, humour and at its core, a large dollop of good old English socialist idealism. It's sort of Merchant Ivory meets The Full Monty, a better class of kitchen sink socialist film than we're used to from people like Ken Loach.

The soundtrack was particularly good. I enjoyed the huge soundstage they created when there were orchestral swells, particularly the one accompanying the opera singer's test drive of the new apparatus.

Maggie Gyllenhaal carried the spirited persona of Charlotte Dalrymple with all the gusto required, but her face reminded me of that other Maggie, Mrs. Thatcher. Her sister Emily was prettily played by the rather more cute Felicity Jones, while Sheridan Smith had the prostitute-turned-servant-girl Molly down to an afternoon tea, with extras.

Hugh Dancy as the science-based doctor and romantic lead was just right for the part, with a mix of good humour and enthusiasm for his calling. Rupert Everett as the eccentric upper-class inventor added some froth to the mix, including his short summation of what women really want.

In summary, much better than I expected and easily watched in one sitting by us, who are usually more inclined towards an early night with a book, and spreading a movie over two nights!

Postscript: The critics are evenly divided betwen those who saw it as a mostly harmless bit of fun and those who felt it was rubbish. Margaret and David gave it 2.5 stars. Roger Ebert gave it 3 and seemed to like it.

The 2013 remake of Carrie (the original adaptation of Stephen King's novel dates from 1976, with Sissy Spacek in the title role) is not something I would have chosen to watch, and was nearly consigned to the pass over category. I'm not a horror film fan, so we just watched this to see if it had any redeeming features.

It's essentially Mean Girls with extra mean. Throw in the supernatural powers, special effects that have become all-too-easy, stir in a bit of Nutty Christian bashing, and stand by for the big finale where destruction is meted out to all and sundry.

How many movies have there been with the end-of-school Prom as the focal point ? Way too many. This one seems intent on portraying American high schoolers as depraved and lacking any good character. The about-turn in attitude of the leading bimbo is just thrown in without explanation. Somehow she picked up a sense of right and wrong form the ether, then sets about trying to do good by being extremely manipulative and getting her boyfriend to be likewise.

The meanest of the mean girls keeps company with a street thug who has no compunction in killing the pig with a sledge hammer and getting the mean girlfriend to stick it with a knife to bleed it out, cheering her on.

Hollywood has a lot to answer for in perpetuating a poor impression of American culture, unless they are portraying reality. Let's hope not. I'll continue to give Horror a miss. I hear Guardians of the Galaxy is funny. That's what I need next!

The critics gave it a caning, and most prefer the original.

At about the halfway mark I was almost ready to give up on this one - Soul Surfer - and say that it was two duds in a row and that iTunes was stretching things a bit by saying they only recommended things they really like. Really?

But the second half added more depth to the story, and it was on balance a good one.

Soul Surfer is based on real events. A shark attack robs a promising young surfer of her left arm just when she was breaking into the professional circuit, with a sponsorship from Rip Curl. How she deals with this is at the heart of the story, and the developments speak not just of determination but of community support, both received and given to others.

Her family is a church-going one, albeit a fairly casual seaside cabana-type church. But they are committed people and send off a large contingent to help out after the big tsunami hit Thailand. Bethany goes on that trip, and sees people who have lost more than she has, their possessions, even their whole family.

As is the case with lots of films, the actors are incredibly good looking and not your everyday folks, although Bethany herself scrubs up pretty well if you seek out some images online. Along with the end credits, you get to see clips of her and her family, which adds authority to the "true story" aspect.

Soul Surfer will be more interesting to those who surf, but it has a human interest side too. Helen Hunt plays the mother very well, an appropriate enough role for her at this stage of her career, but not showing her capabilities to the full. Nice to see Christianity being treated respectfully, unlike in Carrie where the mother is stereotypically a religious maniac. I note that one critic said there was an overabundance of bible-bashing - not true. It would have been false to leave this element out or to underplay it.

The Critics: divided, as with Carrie (2013). I've seen a lot worse films get better reviews.

The Social Network is the story of Mark Zuckerberg, who developed Facebook. It traces his rise from relative obscurity at Harvard through to the various lawsuits that eventuated once it became evident just how successful it was. It's a very interesting story, and very well put together in this film.

Of course one harks back to Jobs, the movie, for a similar history of the genesis of a tech success. There are similarities in the need for investors to take the idea forward and really make it work. There's also Sean Parker of Napster fame, who helps this process along. But underlying it all, in the case of Facebook and Apple, there are people with premium technical skills. Marrying those to ideas whose time has come, shepherding the development in just the right way, and then taking it all to market with the megabuck payoffs, is all a world away from ourselves, the average viewer.

The people who were actually involved may all say that's not really how it was. But for us, the voyeuristic pleasures of going into the world of Harvard, with its raunchy parties (some of them must be more studious, surely?), or the hothouse development stage as the company grew (with a few more parties thrown in), or the sessions where all the litigants sit around the table and argue why they were entitled, and who stole what form whom, is all part of the fun. Once again the soundtrack via my pretty serious surround system came across very well.

Acting is superb. All the characters were very convincing. Direction also, with some fairly tricky cuts back and forth in time. Update: Mark Zukerberg has publicly stated during a Q&A session that the movie made stuff up, (no surprises there, really) probably for purely dramatic reasons, as the reality of him writing code and wearing the same grey t-shirt all the time wasn't enough tobuild a movie around. Also, the breakup with girlfriend shown as a driving force was not the way it happened. He was already dating current wife!

This one is worth viewing at regular rates, but for $0.99 it was definitely a bargain.

The Critics: Loved it!

Thank You For Smoking (2006) is a very well put together film, very good script, great soundtrack, excellent acting from a cast where I knew only two names, (no, three: Robert Duval, William H. Macy, and Katie Holmes as the journalist) slick editing and, above all, it doesn't try to preach either the pro or the anti-smoking message. It just humorously tells the story of this guy, his adventures/misadventures all the way up to a congressional Senate hearing. He is an expert in spin. He's employed to front the media, flummox the adversaries of the tobacco industry, and other duties as directed.

The scenes where he catches up with his only friends - one each from the liquor and firearms industries - are a scream. His wife has left him for someone milder, but his young son still loves him and tags along on some jobs, picking up a few clues along the way about how to debate or argue a case.

This is another winner, most enjoyable and including quite a few laughs, often of the ironic type; a film you wouldn't know existed unless you're a pretty keen film goer. Credit to whoever is picking the iTunes movie of the week once again! Certainly worth more than the 99 cents we are paying.

What did the critics say? Well, mostly very favourable. In fact, at Rotten Tomatoes page it scored 86% from the critics and 89% from audience reviews.

Starter for 10 was once again an unknown quantity for us, but seeing the names Sam Mendez and Tom Hanks in the lead-in production credits was encouraging. And once again we sat through it all rather than take a break. It's very good fun, although it tortures credibility often. But being a comedy it geta away with it.

Cinematography and acting are excellent. I've always enjoyed the way British shows make the most of minor characteristics, gestures, phrases, even just timing, to bring out human foibles in a comedic way. There's plenty of all of that in this film. It's sometime risque without being crude, and while (as I say above) the credibility of the gorgeous blonde scooping up the lead youngster for a dirty weekend is threadbare, the comedy potential is realised.

The plotline which has a young man from a small seaside village go to university and, due to his lifelong pursuit of answers to TV quiz questions, end up on the Bristol Uni team for University Challenge, has all the possibilities of the university-based crowd, rich in idiosyncrasies (aka weirdness), plus some colourful village chyaracters thrown in for counterpoint.

Well worth the time spent; the price was too small to worry about.

Next: Cabin In The Forest - not really my thing. I know horror sendups have enjoyed success for quite a while (such as the Scary Story series), perhaps going all the way back to The Fearless Vampire Killers, or before, but I've given most of them a miss and am in two minds about whether to watch this one.

Missed two movies in a row for similar reason, but next up will be "Black Swan". After that they've offered us "Spring Breakers", but apart from having four girls in bikinis it looks pretty poor so I don't think I'll bother with it.

Black Swan promised a story where the principal ballerina was judged unsuitable to carry off the dual role of innocent, perfect, virginal White Swan and somewhat evil and seductive Black Swan in the wonderful Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake - which, icidentally, was a landmark composition. It elevated ballet to a higher plane, that of opera. So, does this film do justice to a story so entangled in that grand piece?

Instead of just a ballet company story we got a story of someone with severe mental issues, complete with hallucinogenic misapprehensions of the real world, flights of un-swanlike fantasy and (worse) manipulation of the audience's perception of what's real and what's not. That's a cheap cinematic trick that's been available forever but needs to be used with some judgement and restraint. It was over-used in Black Swan, leaving me with the impression that the makers didn't really give a damn what we, the audience, perceived as right or wrong, just as long as they got to the end of the story they wanted.

What they wanted was a gothic mother/daughter struggle which they then tried to mesh into a ballet company scene, complete with the politics of the principals and the minor tactics of the corps de ballet - who are, after all, young and inexperienced because ballet eats up physical resilience and spits out near invalids. I love ballet, and respect all those who try to fulfil the roles and meet the huge demands it imposes. But at the end of this film I felt there was not the same level of respect from the film makers. They decided to be as manipulative as they portrayed the mother of the prima ballerina to be. They are condemned by that. This is not a ballet film, it is a cheap horror flick.

Satellite Boy

Satellite Boy could have been just another bleeding heart story about disadvantaged people living in remote Australia. The good news is that it didn't just transcend the common stereotypes, but gave us a warm and uplifting story, well told, well filmed, and very well acted by a group of actors that includes David Gulpilil - and some great new talent.

The cinematography is first rate, and we are treated to some landscapes we might have been to, but if not might soon! The rugged Kimberly stone mountains, laminated like fossilised and rounded plywood, have a charm of their own. The runaway boys traipse through chasms and caves, some decorated with the art of the "old people". Then they go to the Gibber Desert, where things get a bit more tense.

At the heart of this tale is the very basic relationship of the boy with his absent mother, and his present grandfather. We can forgive some "romancing of the stone age", because it is done with such charm. The whites, be they police or store-keepers, are not portrayed as vaudeville villains, but as people who look out for everyone.

But just as it shows restraint about the all-too-easy bashing of whites, it perhaps goes a bit too easy on the malfunctioning of remote settlements. I also felt the aspirations of those who wanted to go to the city were diminished, when for many this would be a sensible decision. But as Barbara pointed out, the story was essentially one about the central family relationships. Grandad won the plaudits, and the boy's endorsement in the end.

David Gulpilil made his name with Storm Boy, way back. He is these days more known for living rough with the "long grass people", but can, when required, still be a commanding presence within the frame of a movie camera.

The Critics: 4.5 stars from both David & Margaret!


(Review of The Intouchables could not preceed due to Apple TV playing up! Note: actually it was the network switch, now replaced.)

Blue Jasmine was in the cinemas not long ago. Most of the iTunes weekly 99 cent movies are older than that. Cate Blanchette does an excellent job as the disillusioned woman, forced by circumstances to abandon the upper-crust existence she took for granted and try to remake her life among lesser mortals.

There are the typical Woody Allen raw ingredients - he really doesn't like those upper-crust people, and often portrays them as shallow and unworthy. In some ways the ordinary folk get a better run, but they still have their faults. Allen isn't about happy endings, and the ending of this film is definitely a downbeat one. Blanchette's portrayal of the disintegrating persona of Jasmine is convincing and impressive acting.

Allen's filmic achievements mean he can engage pretty much whoever he wants as a cast, despite his personal life having irregularities. I thought the various actors did well and fitted their roles exactly. I'm reminded that even that huge figure in film directing, Ingmar Bergmann, when interviewed candidly about his life, gave away a fair bit of misogynistic leaning. You don't have to be a straight-laced person to be an achiever in the arts, and in some areas it'd be a handicap.

There's a certain flavour of Greek tragedy as things fall apart for Jasmine, just as she and her new fiancé are about to select an engagement ring. Allen makes an intervention, like a deus ex machina, a vengeful spirit appears. In one short diatribe he rips up her credentials, and the new man vanishes in a puff of (I thought) rather precipitate harsh judgement. There was no "we need to talk", he was off in a split second.

There's a feeling of power, no doubt, in being able to control your characters in story telling. The trouble is, that unless you are very true to what real people do, the seams show. I think Allen faces a difficulty in retailing stories about people and their lives for general consumption. He lives in a particular social bubble himself. I think he was on much safer ground with the not-so-serious, almost comedic, certainly fantasyland "Midnight in Paris". But still, despite any shortcomings, his films are for me way ahead of mainstream Hollywood, which remains fixated on superheros.

Still available until Friday 26/12/14.

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The Cotton Club (1984) - Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Once you start checking how many pictures Coppola was involved in, there were a hell of a lot of them. Everyone knows he did Apocalypse Now, and probably they also know he did the Godfather pictures, three of them. He had spectacular successes, but he also had disastrous failures at the box office. One From The Heart was one of the ones he wanted very much to make, but it was an unmitigated disaster, recouping only a small fraction of its investment. It pretty much ruined him financially, although he has continued to be involved in lots of productions after that.

On the surface you might think The Cotton Club was another one he very much wanted to make. The recreation of that venue is marvellous. The staged routines with a troupe of glamorous dancing girls (each time they appear in what look like authentic costumes), tap dancing duo The Williams Brothers, and assorted singers, are put together with love and probably a great deal of cash. Larry Marshall does a fantastic job as Cab Calloway, and the orchestra is really swingin. But Coppola was asked to direct only late in the piece, and he's reported to have said that the original producer set the extravagance in motion before he became involved.

The cast is star-studded, even though some of them were young and relatively unknown. A very young Nicolas Cage is there, Richard Gere, Bob Hoskins, even Tom Waits. Fred Gwynne (Hermann Munster) has a great role, and the repartee between he and Hoskins after he's returned from being held hostage is a classic sequence. Diane Venora gets to do a cameo as Gloria Swanson, recommending that Gere's character "should be in pictures".

The movie cost about $45m to make, and only recouped about half of that, according to wikipedia. The cost of recreating the venue so well, populating it with all the show people, and then having to weave a gangster story line through the whole thing certainly couldn't be done on the cheap. One can only surmise why it failed to generate more income. It's a beautiful, although darkly shot, tribute to the most famous Harlem nightclub of the time, the early jazz age. The acts are presented with respect, and are not cut to pieces in the editing. This gives the film authenticity, but to some it may have interrupted the flow of mayhem dealt out by vicious psychopaths as they gunned each other down in restaurants or wherever they could. Maybe the audience wanted less of the full nightclub acts, and more gangster action.

Not all the gangsters are portrayed as bad, some were more cruel than others. Hoskins as Owney Madden comes out smelling of roses even as he's put away in the big house. His friends tell him that they're going to set things up so he's comfortable inside. So much so, they say, that getting out could be a let down!

The black characters (mostly singers and dancers) are portrayed lovingly, and there's just a hint towards the end of the story that they ain't gonna take much o dis shit any mo'. Likewise, we see the motley crew of gangsters (Dutch, French, Jewish) being replaced as the Cotton Club comes under the new ownership of Lucky Luciano. Change is in the air.

Perhaps the film fell between two stools, so to speak. Not a gangster movie in the Godfather sense, nor a musical in the usual way. Not a documentary, although the completeness of the acts make it seem almost one. I don't think it's a movie that would be made today, for all sorts of reasons. But I enjoyed it and may give it another viewing, with dinner and a glass of bubbly, to get in the mood.



Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Just caught up with this on Blu-ray, and it was a good night's entertainment despite a plot that belongs in a superhero comic. You could say that the mixture of Wild West and Sci-Fi is straight from the Dr. Who template, but that instead of the cerebral nerd, the sonic-screwdriver wielding Doctor you get James Bond with extra bad attitude while wearing Butch Cassidy's clothes. That's Daniel Craig, the current Bond, of course. Oh, and he has an additional bit of adornment in the shape of a large wrist bracelet that doubles as a deadly ray gun.

The choreography of the first couple of fights is great. The stock villains are hissable, and the good townsfolk are, well, good, and in the case of the bar owner also something of a wuss who takes quite a while to hit anything with a rifle.

The aliens are a bit like Orcs, have a need for gold (like Middle Earth Dwarves) and spend a lot of time being sadistic to the humans they kidnap. They seem to have automated the gold mining and smelting process and so have time on their hands for some gratuitous cruelty. The flying machines that lasso the hapless humans are not so animalistically scary as the Nazguls of Lord Of The Rings fame, but are fairly effective in their task.

Harrison Ford as the nasty capitalist cattleman Woodrow Dolarhyde only lacked the waxed moustache-ends to twirl, and his son Percy (Paul Dano) was suitably spoilt-brat and bullying to have the audience approve each time the hero gives him another harsh lesson.

Olivia Wilde as Ella Swenson gets plenty of opportunity to look gorgeous. Here's another photo (not from the film) which proves that you don't need a big rack to be damn hot!


Nobody in the cast has to spend too much effort getting into these stock characters, although I reckon the Apache Chief channeled Gaddaffi. You can pick the plot to pieces at every turn, but as I said at the outset, the production is good enough to carry it as lightweight entertainment. The soundtrack gave my system a workout, and the system coped very well.

Other Reviews: I don't read these until after watching and writing my own impressions. They are evenly divided between those who found it a big disappointment and those who (like me) were prepared to give it a tick as light entertainment and no more.

Cowboys & Aliens can be rented now via iTunes for $US4.99. It's taken me longer to catch up with it as it used to be purchase only! I gave up on iTunes after the last session of "authorise/de-authorise" crappola and just bought the blu-ray new on ebay. Way to go, new bureaucracy!

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Oblivion - Tom Cruise In Space

I have a bit of a history of not watching films all the way through if I think they're rubbish. So, for starters, I watched this one all the way through, which means it has some redeeming features! But it isn't without flaws.

The images work well. There's the high-tech home in the sky, an architect's delight, a glass box with a whole smart-surface command and control desktop, even a large transparent swimming pool. There's a helipad, and a very cool VTOL aircraft that Tom's character - or perhaps I should say characters, even though they're the same - uses.

There's plenty of action too, with some very aggressive spherical drones patrolling a post-apocalypse Earth, where dangers lurk in caves and buried cities. Morgan Freeman appears as a sort of aged rebel leader, head of a band that reminds you of both The Matrix and Mad Max.

The old, destroyed Earth is symbolised in somewhat clichéd terms by bits of familiar landmarks sticking up through a huge accumulation of dirt and/or ashes. We see the top of the Empire State Building and a suspension bridge that must have been the Brooklyn Bridge.

The plot revolves around identity. Who are your friends, and who are your foes. Are they terrorists or freedom fighters that appear so hostile? Is the supreme commander on your side or not? There emerges a reality paradox that Cruise seems to like in a script, harking back to things he's done before like Vanilla Sky. I'm not a big fan of plots which get too tricky this way, and couldn't stay with Inception for that reason, hence I haven't reviewed it. The ending of Oblivion was stretching things in order to salvage a "Hollywood happy", but left questions as to whether they were too tricky about who the genuine Jack Harper was - the one who gets the girl in the end, or the other one.

He has two leading ladies - and the first of these (Andrea Riseborough) is intended to become second fiddle, so to speak. The "real" love interest (Olga Kurylenko) emerges from cryogenic storage mid-movie, as does a lovely hidden valley and cabin, with all the comforts of 1970s life, complete with LP turntable and stereo, and a wind turbine - the latter added presumably to drive the former.

In the final analysis you might find this movie a bit two-dimensional and derivative. But it's well done, and a good evening's entertainment. Just don't get too hung up on any inconsistencies you spot.

Update: Now that I've written that, I see decidedly mixed reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, but agreement that it looks good, pity about the script! Roger Ebert's critique is less kind!

The Thousand Acres(1997)

I'm fond of saying that a good movie is a good movie, even after some years. The Thousand Acres proves that a bad one remains a bad one as well, and I can do no better a review than that of Roger Ebert. I think he nails it.

It is a tribute to Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange that the movie was watched until the end! They did the best they could with the script, and their professionalism was worth watching even though the movie as a whole did not deserve such attention. Read Roger's review for the full whammo.

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Jobs - The Movie

Biopics are notoriously difficult to make while satisfying your entire audience, particularly if some of the central characters are still around to say "no, it wasn't like that". There's also a fine line to be followed if you don't want lawsuits, I guess. So, was Jobs ever going to satisfy everyone? Probably not. Steve Wozniak feels that the story was presented in too flat a fashion, and that virtually no scene resembled real life. He said that Aston Kutcher got the mannerisms but the script missed the excitement, the inspiration, and, importantly, the flow of ideas from one character to another.

The film certainly presents Steve Jobs as a top-down guy, someone who lays down the law from above, and is the fountainhead of ideas. Wozniak, in his interview with Piers Morgan, seems to be suggesting that ideas flowed both ways. There's no equivocation in the film about Woz developing the operating system that sparked the whole thing off. Jobs's genius was in being several steps ahead of everybody else in seeing the potential of a technology and being able to set a course to bring it to the public and get them enthused about it.

The story about him getting interface ideas from the Xerox PARC establishment are many and varied, but what rings true is this account from the LA Times, namely that both Apple and Xerox were working on similar lines, but Xerox had succeeded in debugging the idea before Apple. Jobs was also reportedly peturbed that Xerox appeared to be slow in taking the graphic interface to market.

The film tells a story with a trajectory, a beginning a middle and an ending, a startup, corporate growth, loss of his empire, the fightback, and the empire regained. At many points there are portrayals of a less than perfect personality. There's meanness, vindictiveness, and payback. It's rumoured that Jobs wanted to destroy Adobe. The film shows him threatening to destroy Bill Gates. The bloodletting after he returned to Apple as CEO is shown. He cuts old friends, Apple workers, out of the public float! He dumps, eventually, the man who originally funded the company.

The final test of any movie is whether at the end of it you feel happy to have spent the time watching it. We can argue over the historical accuracy of so many films, but let's not forget that they are first and foremost an entertainment. Jobs succeeded for me because it told a story well. Kutcher became Jobs for me, just as Josh Gad was a convincing, nerdy, likeable Wozniak. Woz is an articulate guy, but the scene where he philosophises with Jobs about where they started and where they had finished up may have been one of the bits he was referring to in saying it never happened. He was asked to be a consultant to the movie, but says the script was already set by the time he was engaged, and they didn't change it!

Harking back to that interview with Wozniak linked above, I loved the story he tells about the reversal by the script which had him as the Beatles fan and Steve Jobs as the Dylan fan! He says the opposite was the case! I was glad they covered the decision to use the name Apple, which was destined to cause friction with the Beatles label - although I believe they agreed to stay in their respective corners and not impinge on each others territory. I confess I also always wondered if Macintosh was tangentially deriving some kudos from the revered hifi brand McIntosh - and yes, I realise the spelling is different!

You won't learn much about computers while watching this film, and the iPod has only a cameo role. I think it's ironic that Apple made its fortunes in large part due to gadgets rather than PCs. IBM clones dominated the PC market because they were more open to licensing and to opening up the development of software applications, now known shorthand as apps. Apple eventually got it, and apps have made their gadgets the default, for others to emulate.

But let's leave the technicalities and the arguments about accuracy aside. Jobs not a documentary, it's a human story with a backdrop of the early personal computer scene. I can recommend it wholeheartedly! Update: having now looked at other reviews of the movie, it seems that most of them criticise it on the gorunds that it's too short, or truncated, or jumps around, or has boring bits where people solder PCBs, or not enough about genius Jobs! Perhaps they want a series, or at least a mini-series, not a movie. Movies do truncate and compress - always have done. Choices are made what to show, what to leave out.

P.S. - "Store all your movies on your hard drive and stream them to your screen, wherever it is in the home."

How often these days are we regaled with this sort of thing? But how easy is it in practise? No problems for audio CDs, we've been loading them up for years, be it into iTunes or j-river, or any one of a number of media management schemes. But this week I thought I'd have a go at putting at least some of my DVDs onto the hard drive to see how well the process worked.

I'm on the third highly recommended program now, and none of them has succeeded in ripping a single DVD. The first two programs were less than impressive in user-friendliness, and no forward momentum was generated. The third (WinX) looks really easy to use, but only gets you to a sub-screen which offers the platinum version for $29.95, inferring that the DVDs I've submitted must be so darned hard to copy that I need the platinum version. Good upselling tactic, but hardly inspires confidence that I'll get a result even after the expenditure. Perhaps a trial version offer would cut some ice. At least then I could see it working before parting with the money.

If anyone has a favourite utility (one that works even for beginners) they can recommend, please email me.

20 Years On - A Scorsese Masterpiece!

I watched an old film by Martin Scorsese - one that you'd never expect him to make, at least it was a surprise to me. It's a drawing room drama, a study in the manners of the 1870s, and was derived from a book by Edith Wharton.

There is no violence. Restraint and subtlety are the main features of the narrative. But in the sumptuousness of the sets and the dynamism of the soundtrack (opera and Strauss waltzes!) there's something of Scorsese's love of the movies going back to the beginning, as evidenced by his loving creations in the film Hugo.

The Age Of Innocence (1993) is not really about innocence. Michelle Pfeiffer plays a fairly worldly woman, a baroness from the continent who is returning to America after the failure of her marriage. She's not really welcome back in New York, and the moves which are made to try and ease her re-entrance into polite society have a decidedly "political faction" flavour.

Daniel Day-Lewis is captivated by this woman, even though he's about to be married to a very pretty 22 year old (Winona Ryder) of exceptional connections. The movie tracks his attempts to win her while maintaining the semblance of normality to the rarified social stratum he inhabits.

The ending has a twist which you will not see coming. Not violent, neither happy nor unhappy, but reinforcing the code that applied in this layer of New York society.

This film hasn't aged, and is as enjoyable now as when it was made. The attention to detail is amazing, and in particular the set pieces, such as dining tables with actual dishes, beautifully presented, and painterly scenes outdoors. Highly recommended, even if you saw it back in 1993 - it may be that like other things, you'll see it through new eyes due to the 20 years of extra life experience!


The Great Gatsby - How Great?

The book - it's a slim volume, and for the first half of it I found the characters less than engaging. One thing a writer is supposed to do is get you to care about the people, or at least some of them. Fitzgerald was failing in this regard. Where he did succeed was in his use of language.

"Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face" is how he introduces Tom Buchanan. Then soon after that we are in full flight as the two women are painted.

"The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house."

The contrast between the book and the film, even from the early scenes, is quite marked. In the book Tom greets Nick with a cursory walk around the garden of his (and Daisy's) "nice place", whereas the film has him riding wildly around on a polo pony, showing off. Nick's little place next to Gatsby's grand manor house is described in the book as "a weather-beaten cardboard bugalow", but has evolved into a rather nice little home, more like a characterful and historic caretaker's cottage.

Baz Luhrmann likes to embellish, and he does so with gusto in the film. Outings in the expensive cars become wild slaloms, weaving dangerously through the traffic. They were big, heavy vehicles in those days, and the movement of them looks fake. On arrival in New York you see anachronistic scenes of black gansta types cruising along in cars laden with girls and champagne, while similarly anachronistic rap music blares.

At the apartment where Tom entertains his mistress and a few others, the party degenerates into an orgiastic music video, with some token touches from the book, like the girl who refuses a drink and says she feels just as good "on nothing at all".

The parties at Gatsby's are relatively tame in the book compared to the inevitably over-the-top extravaganzas created for effect by Luhrmann. Once again the music is intended to be trendy, but nothing much to do with the 1920s, although the negro dancing girls look as they should, Josephine Baker-ish.

I suppose we need to put each form back into its context. Fitzgerald was writing about a particular era, one which became known as The Roaring Twenties, and the underbelly of the time was the speakeasy, the bootleggers, the criminal activities that were funded then by illicit booze during the abolition period. Today it's various drugs that are illegal, and they still fund a lot of criminal activities.

He was also trying to make his mark as a writer, and his quite arresting turns of phrase would have been his attempt to invigorate his novel, to make it stand out. It worked, but not so well during his lifetime. He thought it had failed. The book becomes more interesting as it progresses towards the denoument, with sudden twists in the plot. Fitzgerald's life had some twists too. But it is firstly a love story, secondly a social commentary, and thirdly, at some point, almost a thriller. It ends on a downbeat note, not just with the demolition of the great one, but with more information about his modest beginnings.

Baz tries to inject a more portentious element by placing the narrator, Nick Carraway, in therapy after some sort of emotional meltdown. The friendly psychiatrist, played by an ageing and weighty Jack Thompson, suggests that he write it all down, which he does. This serves as a prologue and epilogue.

But in the book, Nick ends the story disappointed with the Buchanan's, who break things then retreat to their rich homes and lives, but Nick is not a broken man. He is still looking forward to what the future might bring, while observing that the past bears on us as well.

The sub-plot of Nick and Daisy's golfing friend Jordan Baker, who Daisy was originally lining up to marry Nick, fizzles almost completely. There was room for more development there, but the book is so spare. Even so, Jordan's phone calls to Nick at his city office provide another example of Fitzgerald's descriptive skills.

"… she often called me up at this hour … usually her voice came over the wire as something fresh and cool, as if a divot from a green golf-links had come sailing in at the office window, but this morning it seemed harsh and dry. "

Then Fitzgerald kills off any further contact between them. Perhaps it would have distracted from the main narrative. In a larger work, however, it could have been quite useful.

I haven't yet seen the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow film version from 1974, but may catch it soon for a contrasting approach. Some critics felt it was true to the book in detail but missed the spirit of it. It did win some awards, even so.

I have to say that Luhrmann captures a lot of "spirit", much of it being of his own making, but for me the film succeeds because of two things. One, it's a well-made entertainment, and the actors are very good, and mostly they are cast appropriately. I make brief mention of Meyer Wolfsheim only to note that in the book he is decribed like this: "A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness."

It's not a flattering portrait, and Wolfsheim is clearly intended to be a figure the reader would not wish to associate with. There is some small-talk about other shady types. An interesting link from the early 20th century to this time is the reference to him having "fixed the World Series back in 1919". In the film, Baz casts him as a tall, neatly bearded and reasonably handsome man, more likely of Indian extraction. But the match fixing snippet still works, of course. He "saw an opportunity" that certain people are still seeing today. But was Baz conscious that jew-bashing might not work so well in his film?

Secondly, and importantly for someone familiar with the novel, the film script regularly lifts quotes verbatim from the book, giving it some authenticity. Despite its excesses, it is a good piece of film making.

Heimat - Three Long Movies

Quick - name the top Directors of what was known as the New German Cinema. OK, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, good. Who else? Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotta, Volker Schlondorff. There were others, but as I alluded to one critic's statement in my piece on the TV page The Allure Of The Soap I'll use it again here.

Carole Angier started her article with these words: " In 1984 there were four world-famous German film directors: Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlondorff and Wenders. The suddenly there was a fifth, Edgar Reitz of Heimat." She goes on to do a very detailed analysis of Reitz's career, which is long and littered with projects that didn't earn him any money until recently. He's one of that hardy German breed who feel that making movies is more important than anything else. Werner Herzog is famous for shooting a documentary on an island under direct threat of a volcanic eruption. He and his crew decided that the risk of death was worth it if they were to get the results they wanted, and they did.


Reitz hasn't allowed bankruptcies or lack of critical acclaim to blunt his resolve during a period of film making that started in the 1950s. It was not until the 1980s that the first Heimat was made, and it is still an amazing piece of work. In eleven episodes he lovingly portrays the mainly agricultural people of the small Hunsruck village of Schabbach, to the west of the Rhine and adjacent to Luxemburg. He was born and grew up in this area, and his relatives included a blacksmith and a clock shop owner. The Simon family are the central characters, and they plus their village characters provide a series of snapshots, with each episode located in a particular year, commencing at the end of WW1, and covering about sixty years of developments and changes.

The switching between colour and black & white photography is supposed to have relevance, but I had difficulty seeing a pattern in the timing of the changes. The majority is in black & white, and the cinematography is superb, with those B&W images beautifully captured. Despite its 4:3 framing, this should be a cinema experience, and is, particularly now I've seen it on a 50" plasma, and with good sound. I first watched it on an old cathode ray tube TV, and this time around it was a whole new experience.


One of Reitz's aims was to show the human side of the German people, and he does this to perfection in both the first and second series. In both there are portrayals of local nazi office bearers or sympathisers, giving rise to some sarcastic and humorous moments. In both series there are what my friend Ralph Waters termed "SBS moments", when the female form is shown freely and, I think, tastefully.

At the end of the first series we see Hermann heading off to Munich and the conservatoire, to start his musical studies in order to become a composer, and we see a "flash forward" when years later he returns to Schabbach for his mother's funeral. The second series centres around those years in Munich, first at the conservatoire, and then in employment and marriage. It has a number of main characters, and each in turn gets the primary focus of an episode, without losing touch with the group dynamic. The nazi past haunts the post-WW2 generation, and emerges in several of the main characters in unexpected but believable ways. There's no anguish or recrimination - Reitz is not out to send anyone on a guilt trip, they did that to themselves for a long time. But there's no glossing over the failures of character either.


This time, on the big screen, was my second foray into Heimat 2, as a preparation for Heimat 3, which is the last twenty years of the 20th Century. It was so much more complete than I remember it being, so I may have missed some of the broadcast episodes, but more likely the version which SBS ran here was edited. There seems to be so much more linkage, and I found the sequences of events in the characters' lives more understandable. Sadly, I have just read that Heimat 3 is issued on DVD in an edited form. Now they tell me! I'm about to start that, and would have preferred to see the complete thing. You get to enjoy the longeur of this approach.

Heimat One is set mainly in the small Hunsruck village of Schabbach, and commences at the end of WW1 with the son arriving home to find his old dad, as ever, at work in the blacksmith's shop. It is a rural community, and there are many scenes of simple country life. But there is a keen eye for local politics as well, and ultimately, during the war years, some of the characters become Nazis - although not the scary type, more the buffoon local administrator. Rietz spent his schildhood in just such a place, so there's an element of autobiography here. His fondness for people, while seeing their foibles, is a large part of the charm of this entire work. He's describing Germany by taking a forensic slice and putting it under the microscope.

Heimat 2 conveys the 1960s in detail, with the cars on the road, the characters, the occasional riot and even a cameo by some Baader-Meinhoff gang personnel. Music has a starring role, and the filmed performances are convincing. They vary from some fairly way-out avan-guard things to a stunning version (incomplete as it is) of the Ravel piano concerto for left hand. The other pursuit which has prominence is the emerging New German Cinema. This also receives a light touch, with an autobiographical thread running through it. VariaVision was a real multi-screen project that Reitz was involved in.

In my short piece The Series That Ate Hollywood (see below), about Alan Sepinwall's theory (that TV took over the role of presenting interesting stories, at length, and movies became trashier) the emergence of long series that you can't miss any of is a key element of the "new television". But how new is this really? Casting my mind back to the 1960s, there was The Forsyte Saga, then in the seventies A Family At War, then later we had the excellent Brideshead Revisited. The extending of The Lord Of The Rings into three long movies, (and now even The Hobbit) confirms that longer treatments are not only justified, but saleable.

I will add to this when I've finished watching Heimat 3. But once again, this is a series that hits me every time I watch it. The filming (all on location!), the acting, the feeling for those decades and the German character, the artistic angles. It keeps me coming back for more.

UPDATE - HEIMAT 3 REVIEW


Edgar Rietz's Heimat series is not to be confused with a soapy in the ordinary sense. It covers nearly a century of German history, but zeros in on a family from the Hunsruck region, the Simon family. Rietz is a prime example of not giving up easily. He's been through some ups and downs himself during his long career in film making, and emerged as a fully-fledged filmic genius, up there with the big names of the "new" German cinema. It's not new any more, but he is still going, while some of them are not.

He's a true auteur, writing his own scripts, directing the films - and that term is appropriate. Despite achieving success via television, his work is decidedly cinematic in form, scope and quality - in fact the quality of the writing, direction and cinematography is all of the highest order. If only more films in my local cinema were this good!

I've just finished watching Heimat 3, which starts in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Hermann Simon and Clarissa Lichtblau, the un-starcrossed lovers of series 2. There's a moment of disbelief in the way they meet by chance and pick up where they left off so many years before, but we get over that pretty quickly, because the narrative is bigger than that, and Germany was undergoing a singular experience. He captures to joy of that time, and the gradual adaptation of the East Germans to the new world.

The musical spine of series 2 remains intact, with both Hermann and Clarissa now successful, he as a pianist and conductor, she as a singer. There are numerous short interludes where once again Rietz allows the music to star. But the story rolls onwards and backwards at the same time. Series 2 was for the most part outside the Hunsruck, while series 3 goes right back in there.

They set up house not far from the old village of Shabbach, in a setting with spectacular views over the Rhine River, in sight of the Lorelai Rock. Vineyards slope down from their escarpment position, and the traditional home is restored from a pidgeon-infested ruin to a superb domicile for two professionals.

This is the backdrop for the comings and goings of characters old and new. Some are drafted in from the poorer East, while others from Series 1 come back, which is a particular pleasure. Hermann's brothers, who he has avoided for quite a while, play significant parts in this new series. They are the link back to earlier times, along with Clarissa's mum, and a cameo from Hermann's first wife Waltraud (Schnussen!) and they all give the new series an authenticity which it might otherwise have struggled to obtain with just Hermann and Clarissa.

The look of Heimat 3 is modern, being much more in colour, and in 16:9, whereas the first two series were 4:3 and leaned more towards black and white, with some bursts of colour. That b&w was never a problem, as the cinematography has always been superb, intriguing, and given full rein. It's a gargantuan production which you could watch just for the photography!

The feel of H3 is more fun, even a bit more soapy at times. But it retains its grip on gravitas, and even has echoes of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. Series one and two were haunted by the Nazis while people tried to get on with their lives. The Nazis are well and truly dead by 1989, and the communists are shown the door with all due haste.

Brother Ernst's treasure trove of great master's paintings is hidden underground, and is even referred to in the script as his "Nibelung" treasure. It is subjected to flooding, just as the ring is returned to the Rhine-maidens in a flooding of that great river.

There are deaths too, not only of the old, and a feeling that things are moving on. At the party to celebrate the millennium, some old relationships are reforged, while others are on the point of disintegration. The series ends on a sombre note, which is very European.

When asked whether there'd be more in the Heimat series, Rietz at first said no. But then he thought about it and said that really, a series like this was never completed. History rolls onward, and if he's able, he may make some more of it. I hope so, as I value all of his expertise, and particularly his empathy with people of all sorts, which makes his writing so good.

The Series That Ate Hollywood

I heard film and TV critic Alan Sepinwall on the radio last week, talking about movies and TV and how the virtual abdication by Hollywood of the "interesting script line" and "character" left the opening for TV production houses like HBO to revolutionise the TV series. Further, they created long lines of narrative, spread over a dozen episodes, so you could no longer get a self-contained show, a short story complete and resolved within the hour. You now have addictive series which you can't miss an episode of.

Alan's book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever is a must-read for all fans of TV series from Buffy to Lost, and more.

The importance of social media in generating enthusiasm for these series is also mentioned. After all, social media is just another, more accessible form of word of mouth recommendation. But he said that Lost couldn't have been the huge success it was without social media playing a part.

How did the movies go about leaving this gap? According to Sepinwall, and you can see the sense in his argument, they went for the easy box office. That's why we've had a massive number of movies featuring super-heroes, lots of action, not too difficult a story line, and bankable actors. At the same time, TV production houses became more adventurous. Plots became more interesting, characters more complex, not all-good or all-bad, and they could take a whole series to develop. Happy endings were more scarce if they existed at all. This has been echoed in real life with the untimely death of the lead actor from The Sopranos.

I've always thought that books were condensed too much when turned into movies. The Lord Of The Rings, and now The Hobbit, are examples of at least one director taking this to its next stage and breaking a book into two or three full-length movies. But has Hollywood learnt their lesson as a group? No way. The latest news, announced at the big comic convention Comic-Con is that a new super-hero movie is in the works. This one will have both Superman and Batman. That's Hollywood's answer: more of the same for 2015.

Little Voice Little Heard of


A good movie stays a good movie, even when it was made back in 1998, like Little Voice, or way earlier than that. This one was based on a play by Jim Cartwright, and has a lovely retro look and excellent production. The comedic timing is partly down to the actors, but also to the skilful editing.

This is a gem of a movie, starring Jane Horrocks as the mousy, withdrawn young lady called Little Voice or LV for short (because she's so quiet) who listens to her much loved but deceased dad's collection of classic singers (Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, and others) in her upstairs bedroom. Meanwhile downstairs, the tawdry old mum (Brenda Blethyn) carries on her drinking and chasing after any man in range.

The man in range turns out to be small-time theatrical agent Ray Say (Michael Caine), who drives a big red American car and has a string of low-class, low-talent clients to offer the local club manager Mr. Boo (Jim Broadbent). By chance he hears LV singing upstairs in a perfect imitation of Judy Garland, and decides to promote her career, believing that she's bound for greatness if only he can overcome her shyness.

I'm not going to give away any more plotlines, but the characters in the show resonate for various reasons. There's something of the main character in that old Australian movie Malcolm in the young pigeon-fancier (Ewan McGregor) who takes a shine to LV. The mum's sidekick, an overweight and hardly verbal woman, is reminiscent of Sharon from Kath & Kim, although there's no connection I'm sure.

Jane Horrocks - you might twig to this without my help - also played Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous. She is one talented lady, and performs the songs in the show herself. The big concert is a knockout event.

The only drawback for some viewers might be the ever-present f-word, but apart from that it's a very funny, sometimes sad, sometimes touching, but altogether uplifting show. There's no shortage of "character roles" here, large and small. This is the British film industry paying to its strengths and coming up trumps. If, like me, you'd not heard of it, I can thoroughly recommend it.

It was nominated for about twenty awards, and Jane Horrocks should have won at least one of them. Michale Caine picked up a Golden Globe and a London Film Critics Circle Award for his supporting role. Brenda Blethyn's full-on attack as the awful mum is also one hell of a performance!


Is Region Coding Problem Over-rated?

Is the region-coding of blu-ray movies as big a problem as its made out to be for us in Australia? Possibly not. I was reading through the wikipedia entry on blu-ray and found this interesting section:

"Movie studios have different region coding policies. Among major U.S. studios, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, Sony Pictures, and Walt Disney Pictures have released most of their titles region-free. MGM and Lions Gate Entertainment have released a mix of region-free and region-coded titles. 20th Century Fox has released most of their titles region-coded."

So, if there are so many region-free movies around, what's all the fuss? Next, there's the firmware mods that can be done to players that enables code-switching. That's fine if you are lucky enough to have that mod proceed trouble free, but be warned there can be, in a minority of cases, some glitches with these mods. And, they'll be upset by subsequent firmware upgrades, which all these network connected players can do, even without you being asked!

Next, let's have a closer look at where the regions actually fall.

"The Blu-ray Disc region coding scheme divides the world into three regions, labeled A, B, and C. A includes most North, Central, and South American and Southeast Asian countries plus Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Korea. B includes most European, African, and Southwest Asian countries plus Australia and New Zealand. C includes the remaining central and south Asian countries, as well as China and Russia."

See the link there - the UK, Europe and Australia/NZ are all in the same zone. So ordering your discs from the UK should be no problemo!

Lastly, we are now watching more of our movies as downloads, not from disc. This will continue to increase, even if too slowly for some of us. So let's not have the region code boogie man drive the bus. He can be dispensed with, for the most part. Anyway, I maintain that a good movie is still a good movie years later, so seeing a local edition a few months after release shouldn't spoil it either.



Quite Taken With Neeson

I know I'm late to this party, but never mind. Liam Neeson has now done two movies that I know of along these lines: ex-secret service hit man has daughter abducted by baddies who are in the female sex-slave trade. He goes after them, mayhem ensues!

The first one, Taken (not to be confused with Taken 2), is set mainly in Paris, but for the most part it is the underbelly rather than the glamorous, touristy bits. The daughter and her friend are taken quite brutally, and become commodities which are bought and sold to either common workers or to rich middle-eastern types, depending on the "quality of the goods".

Neeson's expertise is beyond doubt as he works his way along the trail of grabbers and minders, creating a body count worthy of any James Bond thriller, and probably higher. But who's counting? The nastiness of the baddies is well established, making anything he does to them ok, and he does plenty. Some scenes are electrifying, you might say.

He is told that on average there's only about 96 hours from the time the girl disappears to the time the trail goes cold. He has to work fast. His daughter is both pretty and a virgin, and will be sold to a rich sheik. This means an extra layer of bodyguards to be despatched with extreme prejudice!

There's a couple of fast car chases, one very reminiscent of Ronin, being (a) in Paris, and (b) going the wrong way up busy road by the river. There's a bit of gadgetry, but the plot relies much more on the biffo and shooting, so is fairly visceral. To tell the truth it's a lot more satisfying than the last James Bond I saw, which was A Quantum of Solace. I found it less than wonderful, depending too much on supposedly superb control from HQ but not enough realistically gritty action. The plane sequence was an air-bridge too far for me!

The sub-plot of Neeson's broken marriage and the antagonism of the ex-wife works well enough as a backdrop. He's feeling guilty about the times he wasn't there, and this time he's determined to be there until the end. Or until Taken 2, which we'll have to watch now! It's set in Istanbul, so will no doubt draw on the same complexion of baddie.



The Razor's Edge (1946)

You can thank Tony Breen for this one, since he loaned me the disc and asked for a review! I'm doing this review cold, having read nothing about it by other reviewers, nor have I seen the remake from 1984, which may be an interesting follow-on.

It has a stellar cast from the 1940s, and is based on one of W. Somerset Maugham's books, even featuring him as a principal character. The first half of the show had rather too much of the glitz that I think the movies back then were obliged to feature as some form of escapism or vicarious enjoyment by the masses.

It opens in a plush country club at a ball, and the main characters are all introduced. In that era it was obligatory for the older generation to be represented as either a bit too hidebound or a bit indulgent of the young people's tendency to behave in a risqué fashion. Some times it was the old mother's role to be stern while the dad was inclined to be more forgiving, but these roles were easily reversed is a good-cop, bad-cop approach. We have elements of that here too.

Being made in 1946 may be the key to the concerns and characters which emerge from the rather loose plot. The male lead Larry is racked by guilt about having survived the war while a mate had given his life for him. He can't settle to a normal job "selling bonds", and his fiancé lets him go off "to find the answers to a lot of questions" in Paris of all places, at least to begin with.

Paris remained a city full of fascination for Americans after WW2, just as it had been for the literary set like Hemingway before that. The action is placed between the wars, in the aftermath of the stock market crash, and another principal character, Gray, is traumatized by having lost everything. I wondered, cynically, what answers Larry was going to find in Paris apart from la vie boheme, and sure enough he appears in beret and trenchcoat. When the old crowd visit form the USA they all do the rounds of nightspots, some glamorous, some very much lower class, but to the audience of the time it would have all looked very authentic. Now it looks rather caricatured.

In both Larry and Gray there are aspects of what returning soldiers after WW2 would have been going through, various forms of post-traumatic stress. Whether they suffered actual pain as did Gray, or mental detachment and searching for the meaning of life, as per Larry, the inability to settle back into civilian life would have been real for many.

Another character, Sophie, loses her husband and child in a car accident and becomes an increasingly tragic figure in decline, and is treated poorly by Larry's former fiancé Isabel, who emerges as the *villain of the piece. The plot is so complicated that at various points in the film you ask yourself "who is this story really about?"

I concluded that it was really about life, and attitudes to it, rather than about any character in particular. Larry's trip to India at the foot of the Himalayas to study with the wise old bearded yogi, his stay on the mountain top, and the vision of God's heaven shining from the clouds transforms him, are a key part of the script. To us now, it is clichéd nonsense, ripe for ridicule, but back then it would have been relatively fresh and impressive. Enough to get the story from book to film in two years!

The elements of Larry's attitude to life which rang bells for me were (i) rejection of the high life, (ii) the taking of ordinary jobs - living on little money, (iii) the search for meaning, and (iv) the urge to enlighten others (he helps both Gray and Sophie with their "mental" problems, depression on the one hand, and alcoholism on the other).

This rejection of conformity presages the Beat Generation (who in turn gave rise to the Hippie movement, and we know how well that turned out), which had its most famous figure in the shape of Jack Kerouac, although William S. Burroughs and others like Alan Ginsberg were well known too. Kerouac's road trip book On The Road (1949), is a story of travelling across America, with a background of Jazz, Poetry and Drugs. It is a search for meaning and a rejection of American culture in the re-aligning world of the post-war era. Kerouac was for a time on the Merchant marine, and the final scene in The Razor's Edge shows Larry working his passage on a tramp steamer.

Somerset Maugham had also rejected conformity, first qualifying as a doctor but giving it up to become a full-time writer. He was quite successful, but his private life contained many conflicts. His contact with the ordinary London folk at the hospital where he worked gave him insights into human nature, but he was himself a shy and introverted person. He was mainly homosexual, but also had a tumultuous affair with a married woman, being named as co-respondent in her subsequent divorce, and they were later married. It's said that a feature of his work is a *not altogether balanced attitude towards women, and that certainly comes through in The Razor's Edge.

He was an inveterate traveler, and gathered experiences from the late-colonial period in the pacific and far-east; these fed the many short stories he produced in later life.

The Razor's Edge is to me something of a farrago of many parts. The plot is disjointed, the glitz somewhat overdone, the mysticism two-dimensional. But it was a product of its time, and received a lot of Oscar nominations. It hit the target. And yes, Gene Tierney was a great beauty, and the film established Tyrone Power as a dark and handsome leading actor.



Arbitrage - Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon (2012)

My dictionary defines arbitrage as "the simultaneous sale and purchase of the same securities, commodities, or moneys, in different markets, to profit from unequal prices."

Whatever. More about that at the foot of this item. Richard Gere is exactly right for the role of a mover and shaker in the world of hedge funds, mergers and acquisitions, all that stuff for which the name Wall Street has become shorthand.

He plays a man who has achieved much, both financially and personally. He has wealth, a nice family, and is totally in control. At least that's how it looks on the surface. And that's how it might have remained, except for a couple of moves he made which are less than scrupulous. One was to be running an affair with an artist he's sponsoring, hidden from his perfectly amiable wife and family. Here I'm reminded of a line from Auto-Focus (see towards bottom of this page), where the priest tells Crane he should "avoid situations likely to lead to temptation". And in Lantana, the wife tells the erring husband "You met someone? The trick is not to meet someone".

The other one, which threatens his whole enterprise, is some fraudulent accounting. He's on a knife-edge with the deal-making in order to stay one step ahead of disaster. There's a persistent cop on his tail, one of those dogged types who asks all the right questions, and knows where the truth lies. Will he succeed in nailing this guy?

While some critics have complained that there is too much happening in the space of this movie, I'd say it's just right to maintain the pace and tension, and that's what movies like this do. The many critics at Rotten Tomatoes gave it the thumbs up too. I found it somewhat reminiscent of that George Clooney film Michael Clayton, from 2007, which shares the business/thriller style. That's also recommended if you haven't caught it before.

Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki. It's available for rental via iTunes, and surely Netflix if you have access to that. We watched the HD version via iTunes, and it came across very well visually and sound -wise. And to finish, on the subject of arbitrage, here's a cartoon strip from years ago, one of that British series set in the finance world of "Alex".




Revisiting Ken Russell

I'm revisiting some Ken Russell movies, and thought I'd share with you some of the ones that stand up to this day as very fine efforts. Again, not an exhaustive survey, and further background on his long and illustrious career can be found at Wikipedia.

Movies, sex, music, photography, and a bit more sex, were all obviously important to this man, and I'd be the last to say that there's anything wrong with that! His series of films about classical composers reveal an ongoing fascination with the creative spirits - his program on Elgar was innovative for 1962, and I still recall my reaction to seeing Song of Summer, the late-life portrait of Delius and his assistant Fenby, with a cameo role for Percy Grainger. Russell himself had a special fondness for this one, saying he wouldn't alter a single shot.

Women In Love, an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence, broke new ground in 1969 by showing two naked men wrestling, with some evidence of male genitalia. It, and The Rainbow, his other Lawrence effort, are at the core of his work, but for me the composers are of greater interest. The Music Lovers, the tragic tale of Tchaikovsky and his ill-fated marriage, gained much more recognition than the other big one, Mahler. The latter is at times quite surreal, but again so well done that I recommend it to anyone regardless of whether they know the music.

At the other end of the musical spectrum, the film version of Tommy was a huge success, with Ann-Margaret gushing out of a TV screen in a tsunami of baked beans, and Elton John on platform shoes playing the pinball wizard kid. It ran to packed houses for a year, something you don't see these days.

Veering off the composers line (and I haven't seen Lisztomania, so can't comment) the other film I particularly like and am about to revisit (along with Mahler) is Valentino. It stars Rudolph Nureyev as the famous male lead of the silent movie era, and is superbly put together in all aspects - cinematography, script, wardrobe, you name it - but again has a tragic ending. Incidentally, Valentino is most famous for his role as The Sheik - the abduction and seduction fantasy was powerful then, and remained so even in The Wind And The Lion (1975, Sean Connery, Candice Bergen - not a Ken Russell film), another good evening's entertainment in an adventure mode, as is The Man Who Would Be King with Connery and Caine.

Russell's most controversial film is The Devils, which I haven't seen either, not wanting to put myself through the horror of it all - but actually, it seems very few people have seen it all, because it was cut quite a bit by the censors.

But I look forward to revisiting Mahler and Valentino in the coming weeks. Then I'm going to put my large half-sheet (or quad? it's BIG) poster from Valentino up on the theatre room wall - as per picture above.



The Real James Bond

Ian Fleming's James Bond was a composite of several secret agent types who Fleming was familiar with from his time in the cloak and dagger (or gun) world of military intelligence during WW2. I read all those books during the 1960s, when the movies were appearing, starring Sean Connery. I can remember seeing some of them as first releases in city cinemas - like the rather too ornate State Theatre in Market Street, Sydney.

The films were the work of Saltzman and Broccoli, whose franchise over the Fleming books gave the series its grounding. But the Bond story eventually had to depart from Fleming's works in order to continue, as there were only a limited number of Bond books.

I have to admit that my interest in the Bond films was diminished as they progressed through the alternative stars. Roger Moore had been just right as The Saint, but was in no way like the man described by Fleming - Connery was the closest of all, but George Lazenby was also close - but didn't want to continue! The use of the gadgets as a main theme also became a bit overdone. There were technological aspects to the original books, certainly, but the movie world demands more action and gadgetry, so it was for a while piled on without regard for realism.

Something which has continued through the movies and was there in the books is the identification of products, from cigarettes and drinks to pistols and cars. This has become known as "product placement", and in the movies it's a saleable commodity - car companies will always be keen to have their vehicles starring along with Bond.

The books had their mad scientists and master criminals with huge financial resources, but they also had a down-to-earth aspect which got lost as the films became more glitzy, techno-driven blockbusters.

I used to enjoy the everyday detail in the books, like the way Bond had his cigarettes made with a mix of Turkish and Balkan tobaccos by a specialist tobacconist in London, and the discussions with his American friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter about how to mix a good martini, or the relative merits of the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, who were current at that time. Like many Brits, Fleming had a fondness for the Carribean, and set some stories, or parts thereof, in Jamaica and its environs. He wrote most of the books at his home there. The car of choice there was the Sunbeam Alpine, and The Gleaner was the local paper.

Bond's car was a bit more exotic than average, being a Bentley with a Parker-Ward body and a supercharger, which he was warned would damage the motor if used too often.

Although he did drive an Aston Martin DB3 in the novel, the many gadgets were added by the film-makers and the car was updated to the DB5. His favoured gun (after discussion between Fleming and a gun expert led to some changes) was the Walther PPK, but these days no doubt a Glock would get the gig.

With Casino Royale we have a return to a less gadget-driven Bond story. The book, which was the first one Fleming wrote, had very little action, and was passed over by the Saltzman/Broccoli company. It added action, but restored the low-tech sadistic torture by Le Chiffre of Bond which appeared in the book. Most of the plot, however, bears little resemblance to the original. Still, I welcome the change to plots driven by more realistic things like vengeance!

Note: I'm about to belatedly catch up with Quantum Of Solace, and Skyfall, and will add to this piece after I've done that. I've purchased the entire Bond collection on DVD and will be revisiting the early ones too.

Update: Quantum of Solace should have been (at least initially) a focused pursuit of the killer, or whoever it was that we saw at the end of Casino Royale being shot at by a vengeful Bond. Then it could have segued into whatever the next episode was supposed to become.

Alas, it was not to be. There was mention of it in the script, but any idea of a coherent plot line was blown away by the urge to pack as much mayhem as possible into the time available. So, instead of a narrative, we get a loose coalition of characters, an even looser coalition of ideas, and the ongoing action overrules everything.

Where once the British Secret Service would send Bond to find out what was going on, they are now shown as having high-tech control over the world, with touch-screen access to anything, anywhere. Long gone are the days when Bond would sneak into HQ, toss his hat onto the hat stand and have a brief flirtation with Miss Moneypenny before going in to see M and be briefed on his next mission. That old formula had charm.

A strong requirement of so many action movies is that the audience can suspend disbelief. I know that this is part of the entertainment world, and can enjoy doing it as much as the next man - although it may be dangerous to say that now that M is a woman. Class acts don't need that suspension. They defy you to find the flaw in their presentation. I've seen things done live at the Chinese Circus by some old-looking duffer, and still don't know how some of his tricks were done. They defied logic but were there before your eyes.

With Bond's flying-the-plane sequence we really had to suspend disbelief for an extended period, as we did in the hotel fire sequence. I get tired of doing that. I'm giving Quantum Of Solace a 2.5 out of five, and I'm going back to Thunderball and Goldfinger before subjecting myself to Skyfall. I don't care who sings the title song. It's on notice.




Tassie Tiger Stars in The Hunter

I am often a bit hard on Australian films, and this one is no exception. The good bits first - well photographed, great locations, and captures both the sublime beauty of parts of Tasmania as well as the basic Australian feel of small towns, albeit in a rather stylised, made for the movies way.

Dafoe is excellent in his role, and Sam Neil casts off any glamour he may have to be the almost gothic neighbour with bad intentions, a stock character in the Oz movie storybook. In fact I thought all the actors did what was required of them very well.

The plot has as its basic "evil" elements the evil big corporation and the rapacious timber industry, populated by pool-shooting redneck bar-dwellers that could be portrayed as being in Australia or America with minimal adjustment to sets and accents. The re-introduction of e second hunter, a character banished from the group in the opening scene, added some drama, but like other plot failings, it lacked credibility.

Plot credibility took a fall early in the piece, where they try to portray the mother as in some sort of drug-dependent and melancholic coma, only to have her bounce back hale and hearty after a quick bath and some superficial interventions. She quickly becomes the hippie queen bee, and we see the potential for a love interest angle.

As with South Solitary, the children are over-played as precocious potty-mouth in the case of the girl, and withdrawn, mystical, bordeline deranged (non-speaking) in the case of the boy.

This is a very watchable movie, but a reminder as to why I now prefer non-fiction. They just can't get by without the onus being placed back on us, the audience, to suspend disbelief. I know it's a made-up entertainment, but plot credibility is a sign of good writing, and I don't find it nearly often enough in any movie.

To finish on a hifi addict quibble, the stereo and outside music system at the house in the forest also required suspension of disbelief, and it's something movies often offend on. Firstly, the sound they ask us to believe is coming from this rag-tag setup is far too good. Secondly, those speakers hanging in the trees for years in a damp climate would not have survived so well. The chipboard or MDF would have become damp and swollen, the veneers would have peeled off, and the speaker drivers themselves decayed.

But to the hero, it was a simple matter of a couple of wires and the sound was up and running with goodness knows how many speakers runing off one amp, and sounding - well, as good as my fairly expensive surround system!

And that Tassie Tiger - sorry, can't spoil the plot for you. It does have a role to play, and certainly adds to the build up of tension in this eco-thriller. Another non-speaking role, despite Sam Neil's character giving an imitation of the bark he once heard!




Hugo Is A Winner

It's a relief to be able to say this: I've just watched a feature film which really is a work of art - something that is often stated but seldom achieved. It creates an extravagant imaginary landscape, which is entirely appropriate since the film is an extended homage to the film maker George Melies, whose trademark was the creation of extraordinary imaginary landcapes, seascapes, moonscapes, you name it. The plot blends real aspects of Melies' life and career. The glass studio is just like the one he used at Montreuil, and when his business went down the tubes he really did end up in a small candy and toy kiosk at Montparnasse station, Paris. Many of his films were melted down for their celluloid and silver content during WW1. Recognition was slow coming, but arrive it did, rather too late for his fortunes to be revived.

The Hugo movie plot weaves these true strands into a gorgeous pastiche, with all sorts of elements added for colour and movement. The scenes in the station with the various vendors interacting in repetitive cameos are directly reminiscent of Jacques Tati's street scenes from Mon Oncle. Sasha Baron Cohen's ruthless but often comedic Inspector - complete with mechanical leg - has glimpses of Peter Sellers and Peter Cook. He called it the "role of a lifetime", and it is certainly memorable.Ben Kingsley as George Melies looks uncannily like the real thing, and conveys the stern disappointment of a hugely creative man frustrated by his fate. The children (Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz) are perfectly cast and do a wonderful job. Chloe's Isabelle is perfect as the book loving, slightly nerdy but lovely girl who's ready for a bit of Famous Five style adventure. Jude Law as Hugo's father is kindly and engaging, and Ray Winstone as the drunken uncle who apprentices the orphaned Hugo is quite convincing in the Dickensian scenes up in the "apartments" that the station clock maintainers inhabit.

This is a movie that Martin Scorcese has put his heart into. Like Stephen Spielberg, he must have been totally fascinated by the fantasy worlds created on the screens of his youth. Hugo is for him the simultaneous homage and epitaph - it is his "for this I came" statement, and it is something special.

Ultra Movies Direct

Fox is about to break the pattern and release high definition movies for download three weeks before the Blu-ray release!

Solitary Confinement

Watched "South Solitary" the other night, and found it quite good as Australian movies go. Miranda Otto is always interesting, and the whole cast including her dad Barry Otto played their parts convincingly. The cinematography was excellent as well, and I'm happy to recommend it as an evening's entertainment. But it was let down in my view by the weak link in too many Australian movies - the script.

We know that the life of a lighthouse keeper, particularly back in 1928, can be hard and lonely. But it remains appealing for the stark land and seascapes, the at time vicious weather, and the notion of duty done. There's even the chance of romance. Who remembers the old song "I'm going to marry a lighthouse keeper and keep him company"?

The story could have been played in a more realistic way without becoming diluted - it had quite enough dramatic content to carry the plot. Instead, they went for the Gothic approach, and went over the top repeatedly. So what could have been more realistically emotional became over-wrought and unreal. All the characters were tipped towards caricature: the awful family with its bitter wife, sleazy husband, street-gang sons and cynical little girl. Barry Otto as the overly strict uncle, the war veteran as the badly withdrawn and damaged personality hiding out on that island. Miranda was the most sympathetic character, but even she had a lurid past and oscillated between vamp and ingénue.

When you think about it, the tendency to over-egg the script in gothic terms has been a regular feature of Australian films. From "Wake In Fright", "The Cars That Ate Paris" and "Picnic At Hanging Rock" onwards to the rather more enjoyable "Love Serenade" (there's Miranda again!) it's been a national trait to want to inject some jarring unreality into our movies.

A British production might have succeeded in portraying all of these people at South Solitary Island with a balanced sensitivity that brought them into a more realistic focus as people with flaws and idiosyncracies, but with a component of humanity which we would recognize while having a chuckle at their sometimes all-too-human responses. Even a good USA production (and they too produce lots of films with rubbish scripts) might have achieved this, but I am struggling to think of an Australian movie which gets the balance right.

I liked "Proof" (1991), and there have been some great comedies like "Muriel's Wedding" and "All Men Are Liars". But I'm going to give quite a few Australian movies a poke in the eye in another piece on the interminable delay in getting Australia up to the mark with online "subscription" film services.

While talking about movies, check the Articles Page where I highlight Australia's backwater status in the field of online movie and TV subscription services.

The Charm Of Older Movies

We recently caught a free-to-air broadcast of an old 1960 movie called It Started In Naples, and found it completely charming. Yes, it is dated in some ways, but it looked fantastic. Shot on location on the Isle Of Capri, the refurbished print (digitally remastered?) looked as fresh as if it was done yesterday. The scenery is beautiful, and Sophia Loren was totally gorgeous.

Back in those days there was none of the borderline anorexia that has become essential if a girl's to feel good. Whether it's Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe or Gina Lollobrigida, the figure is curvaceous. Clark Gable was really past his use-by date as romantic lead, but still a craftsman, an old trouper who could hit the marks and remember his lines, and still with a measure of charisma. The plot is predictably silly, but given all the local colour, still an enjoyable experience.

Spielberg The Real Superhero

The superhero movie genre has been popular ever since the 1940s, but may be looking a little over worked at this time.

The recent spate of Hollywood movies based on comics might be good news for you, or might just indicate insufficient inventiveness in the scriptwriting ranks, not to mention the risk-averse financiers. The success of the Batman franchise, and before that Superman, has seen them pitching all manner of odd characters at us in the hope some might stick.

I love a good CGI movie, and have really enjoyed all the Toy Story issues plus Horton Hears A Who from the Dr. Seuss catalogue. It has taken all year for me to get excited about a new release, but Tintin is it! From the promos I've seen it looks beautifully produced, as well as having as much if not more action than an Indiana Jones adventure. With Stephen Spielberg plus Peter Jackson working in tandem "full-spiel ahead" mode, how could it fail? I'll be there in the New Year for sure, to see what this superhero of a director does with the charming material of Herge.

In addition to the adventures, there's the retro look of the sets, and the cars! Already I've spotted the Citroen 2CV parked in a Brussels street. The detail will require repeat viewing, something I'm not inclined to for the vast majority of movies.