Movie Reviews I

This page rewviews mostly current movies. Look for additional movie reviews on the main pages. Movie Reviews II deals mostly with older movies.

      Agatha Raisin: The Quiche of Death (2014) [D: Geoffrey Sax.  Ashley Jensen, Oliver Lansley, Mathew Horne] Lame, unfocussed, and badly imagined video of M. C Beaton’s book. The creative crew apparently couldn’t decide whether Beaton’s series is farce or social comedy, so try to have it both ways. It doesn’t work.
     Agatha Raisin in the books is a rather plain, short definitely plump, 50ish ex-PR expert who’s moved to a Cotswold village to live a peaceful life. But of course murders happen and the detective work entangles her, as do her unrequited and occasionally requited loves. The video imagines Agatha as far a too glamourous tall, blond, high-heeled, 40ish ex-PR expert, with almost no character beyond her curiosity. Granted the books become increasingly formulaic and superficial and slapdash, which I why I stopped reading them. But that’s no reason for this video’s utterly mistaken interpretation of Agatha and her endearing self-doubt, attempts at self-improvement, and occasional triumphs over middle-age adversities, not merely murderers (some of whom want her dead, too). Definitely not a keeper. *


      Dunkirk (2017) [D: Christopher Nolan. No stars featured] I don’t like watching war movies. The older I get, the worse it gets. But I thought I should see this one, and having seen it, I think you should see it, too.
     It’s told in three over-lapping stories, which together tell the story of Dunkirk. 1, the evacuation from the mole at Dunkirk (many of the ships were sunk as they left, some even while tied up there); 2, the evacuation by the many, many small craft that came over from England to come in close to shore and pick up the troops; and 3, a Spitfire sortie sent out to destroy the dive bombers that were bombing and strafing the troops, and the Heinkels that were sinking the ships. In the end, over 300,000 men were evacuated. The Army initially expected 35,000, and the Navy thought they could bring out 45,000.
     Each story focuses on a small group of people as exemplars of what was done and what happened. The focus was on the process, on the work being done. Character counted, but was simplified. There was death, there was fear, there was cowardice and courage, there was suffering and relief when it was over. A two hour movie that felt much shorter, well photographed, well-acted, well-edited. The music and the sounds of gunfire and explosions became one soundscape that surrounded and engulfed the people.
     Christopher Nolan’s vision is the cliche that war brings out the best and the worst in people, but essentially it’s the bloodiest and most difficult work that humans engage in. There’s no attempt to analyse its causes, nor even to take sides. In many ways the narrative understates itself, which makes its effect even stronger: war is the best work men do, but for the worst of reasons.
     Recommended ****

     The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) [D: Oliver Parker. Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, et al.] A nicely done version of Wilde’s play, with a semi-successful attempt to make it into a movie by converting some of the dialogue into visuals (eg, the bit about Algy’s greedy love of water-cress sandwiches). But it’s the language that matters, and the artificiality of farce, which Wilde exploited and raised to the level of art. His script has a dark subtext about identity and self-knowledge, about being willing to disguise your true self for the sake of love.  By downplaying the language, the overall effect of this movie is somewhat less that thrilling, on any level. The young folk are nice to look at, Judi Dench delivers a plausibly soft-hearted Lady Bracknell, the acting generally is good, and so on. A nice way to spend 100-odd minutes, a superior entertainment in fact, but a mere entertainment nonetheless. **½


     Wonder Woman (2017) [D: Patty Jenkins. Gail Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright.] Great movie. The story is a mashup of Norse-influenced Greek mythology with the DC Comics Universe of Superheroes. The setting is an alternate First World War, very Steampunk, with better dialogue than usual for comic-book inspired movies. The story keeps the main outlines of the Wonder Woman story, nicely elaborated. The contact with the human world is plausible, given that this is a universe of magic, and Wonder Woman’s education in the ways of mere mortals is touching, funny, believable, and finally tragic. The fight scenes are well done, and for once go on only a little longer than necessary.
     There’s been a fuss about Gadot’s support of Israeli politics vis-a-vis Palestine, even calls to boycott the movie on her account. I think that people who think that actors and other celebrities are experts on politics deserve all the delusions they get from listening to them. The acting, the photography and editing not only tell, they extend the story, an achievement which I credit to Jenkins. This is a director’s movie in the old sense: it embodies her vision of the story. A very well-crafted entertainment, the kind that exceeds its grasp, and makes you think. ****

      Gifted (2017) [D: Marc Webb. Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate,  Octavia Spencer] Single Uncle Frank Adler is raising his first-grader dead sister’s daughter Mary, who’s a math genius. When a discipline issue makes the principal aware of her gifts, Frank’s mother Evelyn is informed, and a custody battle ensues. Evelyn is a stage-mother: she drove her daughter Donna to attempt the solution of one of the Millennium problems, and suicide. Messy. In the end, the Right Decision is made: Mary will attend the Oakes School for gifted children as well as her local school. Frank and Bonnie (Mary’s teacher) will, no doubt, become a couple, Evelyn is faced with her guilt and reforms, and so on. Too TV for me.
     Mckenna Grace is a remarkable actor, Chris Evans et al make a good supporting cast, the director has a clear (but I think a too sentimental) vision, the photography is consistently good or better, the music occasionally intrudes, and all-in-all it’s one cliche after another. But well put together, making for a nice 100-odd minutes of undemanding entertainment.
     Issues of how to best raise a gifted child are touched on, but the movie assures us it’s no big deal. A more thorough treatment of these issues and the family backstory (Frank himself has problems, he was a philosophy professor before picking and moving to Florida with Mary) would have made for a longer and I think a better movie. But not as easy to watch as this one. **½

     Midsomer Murders: Murder by Magic (2015: S17E2) Hannah Altman, pub owner and pianist, dies when Gideon Latimer’s magic apparatus falls on her. The concert and magic show was staged as a church fundraiser. The curate hates it, and also hates the night-time pagan rituals. He’s the next victim. The usual links between suspects (marriage and financial problems, infidelity, mutual secrets, blackmail) make for a nicely done puzzle. The writing is better than usual, so that the solution doesn’t seem as forced psychologically as is sometimes the case. ***

     Downfall (Der Untergang) (2004) [D: Oliver Hirschbiegel. Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lana, et al] The last weeks in Hitler’s Bunker in Berlin. Based on Traudl Junge’s and other people’s accounts. She was one of Hitler’s last secretaries.
     The movie shows how Hitler deteriorates. It’s now known how many drugs Hitler took, there’s no question they were factor in his erratic behaviour. But the fanatical Nazis, such as Goebbels and his wife, Bormann, and others, as well as the Generals who had sworn personal loyalty to the Fuhrer, supported him to the end, and that was a greater factor in the prolongation of the war. The fact that they all had cyanide capsules indicates that they knew that their behaviour was criminal: it was not merely fear of defeat that drove the suicides, it was fear of what would happen to them. What did happen to the surviving top Nazis and Generals was the Nuremberg Trials. Traudl Junge comes across as a naive girl. The three secretaries feel pity for Hitler, they find it difficult to abandon him.
     Some critics have attacked Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler. They say it makes him an object of pity, that he is too human. Well, Hitler was human. It’s easy to think of him as some sort of inhuman monster, but he was a human monster. So were they all. The most depressing effect of this movie is the realisation that humans are capable of evil, that much evil is a consequence of people’s beliefs, of the inability to admit that their view of how the world works is incomplete and mistaken, that logic is a terrible guide to action. For the Nazis were thoroughly logical. The mistook logical consistency for truth. This movie shows us what humans will do when in the grip of a belief that they take to its logical conclusions.
     Does it work as a movie? Yes. ***½

     Midsomer Murders: Last Year’s Model (2006) [D: Richard Holthouse. John Nettles, Jason Hughes, Jane Wymark] DI Tom Barnaby arrested Anne Woodrow for the murder of her best friend Frances Trevelyan, but at the beginning of the trial a remark by Frances’s younger daughter raises doubts. He and Jones reinvestigate, and focus on the testimony of an elderly lady who has an indirect connection to the victim. That link unmasks the murderer.
     This is episode eight of series nine. I like Tom Barnaby, he’s a laid back, soft-spoken but tough copper who doesn’t like loose ends or niggly inconsistencies. The stuff of complicated puzzles. He has a good family life, which develops plausibly throughout the series. Most of the stories are well done procedurals, the kind that show us enough police work to make us believe we’re seeing something like reality. The motivations are sometimes outlandish, the background characters are too often cliched stereotypes, but the quality of the writing and acting create a believable world. Good entertainment. This episode was better than most. ***

     La La Land (2016) [Written and directed by Damien Chazelle.  Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt] A textbook example of the folly of letting a writer direct his own script. I’ve rarely seen such a pretentious, muddled, incoherent mess. The basic problem is that Chazelle doesn’t know whether he’s written a romantic drama or a musical romance. An independent director would have cut and rewritten the script to be firmly one or the other. As it is, two fine actors are wasted, as are some fine musicians and dancers. Worst of all, the movie was boring. BOMB


     The Lady Confesses (1945) [D: Sam Newfield. Mary Beth Hughes, Hugh Beaumont, Edwin MacDonald] A straightforward film noir B movie, nothing special, no attempt to do more than tell the story. Music cues the dangerous bits, so the audience can briefly pause from necking to watch the heroine escape from danger once more. That kind of thing. Dark interiors, night-time setting, etc. Barely an hour long. Perfunctory script and acting, competent editing. It was probably written, shot, edited, and printed in a week. The title has nothing to do with the story. *½

     Sink the Bismarck (1960) [D: Lewis Gilbert. Kenneth More, Michael Hordern, Dana Winter et al] The Bismarck was one of the biggest, baddest battleships ever, the pride of the German Navy. On its maiden mission (to destroy convoys in the North Atlantic) it was sunk by the British navy at the cost of the battle cruiser Hood and several other ships (see the Wikipedia article for the details).
     The movie follows the actual operations quite closely, with both British and German sequences, and both operations HQ and shipboard events. The battle sequences are very well done considering that the movie makers had to work with models. The naval airforce, operating off Ark Royal struck the crippling blow which pretty well guaranteed the destruction of the Bismarck. The human interest bits fit into the story.
     The sequence in which the Bismarck is pounded to bits is especially impressive. All in all, the operation cost more than 5,000 lives, and showed that battleships were no longer worth the investment: a few aircraft could destroy a large ship at relatively low cost. But aircraft carriers in their turn became obsolete when the long range nuclear submarine was developed into a missile platform.
     All in all a well done war movie. ***½

      The Ghost Train (1941) [D: Walter Forde. Arthur Askey,  Richard Murdoch, Kathleen Harrison et al] A vehicle for Askey and assorted other comedians, all of whom seem to be playing their well-known shticks. A gaggle of travellers bound for Truro are dropped at a junction, but miss the connecting train. The station master tells them about a ghost train, etc and so on and so forth. Askey and a couple of other travellers are smitten with the beautiful blonde whose fiance is a cricketer and ex-boxer. Askey and others do a lot of business which the audience of the time must have rcognised. A naive engaged couple carrying a bed frame offers occasion for mildly risque jokes. And so on. What plot there is, is hurriedly tied up at the end when the ghost train turns out to be a gun-running operation. A silly escapist movie, no doubt helping to take the audience’s minds off the war, which by 1941 was going wrong for Britain. Workmanlike movie-making, nothing special. **

     This Island Earth (1955) [D: Joseph Newman.  Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason) Cal Meacham, a scientist and inventor working on a method to make more atomic fuel (understood to be uranium) makes contact with aliens from Metaluma who need more uranium in their war with other aliens. They’ve set up a “secret” underground lab. Meacham is met by Ruth Adams, who at first denies they met in grad school, as she fears being mind-controlled by the aliens. They try to escape, but their plane is drawn up into the flying saucer that’s returning to Metaluma. They arrive just in time for the final phase of the war, which destroys Metaluma. They barely escape with their lives, and Exeter takes them back to Earth, then crashes his flying saucer in the Pacific. He’s the last of his species.
     For its time, a major breakthrough, because the producers took the visuals (set design, costumes, and such) seriously. But the plot is hackneyed, with several implausible redirections of the plot. There’s even a totally gratuitous bug-eyed monster (a “mutant” developed to be a guard) who threatens Adams. Thoroughly pulp fiction in its weak characterisation, creaky plotting, banal philosophising, and resolute violation of the laws of physics. Pretty good sets and special effects, acting a cut or two above the wooden, but naive wow-gee-whiz presentation of science and technology. The overall effect is that the visuals were more important than the story.
     The first few reviews on IMDb praise it as “enthralling” etc, and/or wonder why it has a rep as a bad movie. Well, it is a bad movie, the kind that was made by the hundreds by Hollywood, in every genre. They are often defended as escapist fun, but even escapist fun should be intelligent. This movie just barely makes the cut. As an early example of an attempt to do serious SciFi, worth seeing. It won’t make you groan too often. A year later, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet were released, arguably the first successful serious SciFi movies.
     A couple of oddities: The scientists all address each other as “Doctor”. Ruth Adams has perfectly coiffed hair and makeup throughout. The ray-blasts miss the car every time until Meacham and Adams get out. The mutant guard with supposedly limited intelligence has a huge unprotected brain, and hands with two-finger claws. The Metalumans use the by then standard graphic for an atom, a core surrounded by six loops with li’l dots on them. **

     Atomic War Bride (1960; Czech) [D: Veljko Bulajic.  Antun Vrdoljak, Zlatko Madunic, Ljubisa Jovanovic] An earnest attempt to show the awful effects of war-mongering etc. The hero sets off to be married, encountering troops warning of imminent war along the way. The happy couple is separated when he is dragooned into the army immediately after the wedding. He makes his way back to her, but their reunion is interrupted by an atom bomb. The final scene shows her dying in his arms. Awful movie. Simplistic acting, dreadful dubbing into English, confused cutting, script that tries to make thesis points instead of revealing character or telling the story. I found it online. Don’t waste bandwidth downloading it. The director was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1960, probably because the nominators thought an earnestly moral thesis compensates for bad story telling. BOMB


     Midnight Limited (1940) [D: Howard Bretherton. John King, Marjorie Reynolds] A train robber gets away with loadsadough and murder until Val Lennon (a railroad detective) and Joan Marshall (a victim of crime who persuades Val to let her assist him) get on the case and of course solve it. Laughably awful script, wooden acting (I’ve rarely seen such unconvincing romance), and minimal sets lead you through a movie you probably weren’t watching anyhow.  A movie date back then wasn’t for watching a run-of-the-mill programmer.
     The sound effects of the train are nice, but not well synchronised to the action. The plot has potential: the robberies are planned by a gang that includes the baggage car guy, a hotel clerk who books the Pullman compartments for the victims, and a dead body that isn’t. Not an easy scam to unravel. In better hands, and with a better budget, the story could have made a pretty good product. *


     Broadway Limited (1941) [D: Gordon Douglas. Victor McLaglen, Marjorie Woodworth, Dennis O’Keefe, Zasu Pitts.] The papers headline a baby-napping while a flim-flammy movie director is pulling a PR stunt by announcing his star has a baby. The star’s old flame shows up, and of course the romance flares up again. Second string story: a locomotive engineer books off on holiday, he’s the star’s assistant’s boyfriend. Multiple mixups, misunderstandings, attempts at hiding the supposedly kidnapped baby, etc, ensue. All this happens on the Broadway Limited, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s prestige sleeper-only train running from Chicago to New York.
     Reasonably well-done on-train sets, occasional train noises to heighten realism, some standard publicity shots of the train and its interiors, etc. Not exactly a treat for the railfan, but good enough for the movie. Competent direction, acting, and photography. Zasu Pitts plays the man-hungry spinster (again), the other actors play the roles assigned to them by their fans. Average Hollywood fare for the time. One could write extended notes on the stereotypes, mores, comic shticks, etc. IOW, essay fodder for the film student. **½

     The Quest (2002) [D: D. Jason. David Jason,  Hewell Bennett, Roy Hudd] Coming of age story shown as a flashback beginning when Ronno rear-ends Dave at a stop light. He invites Dave to his retirement party, a at which Ronno, the third of the “three musketeers” also shows up. This sets of a round of reminiscences of their trip up north on motorbikes in search of girls. It’s Charlie, the shy, soft-spoken one, who gets a girl, or rather, she gets him, but she rejects him when he persuades the other two to go to Blackpool where she lives. A nicely done study of horny adolescent males. The girls are of course much wiser, and know perfectly well how to handle the lads. The movie ends with the men leaving a pub and agreeing to get together again.
     Part two begins with Charlie receiving a phone call from Sondra, an old flame. He’s on a ladder fixing the roof, and falls. When Dave and Ronno visit him in the hospital, we see the flash back to the lads’ trip to the Isle of Man, this time to ride the TTC course. But Charlie really wants to find Sondra, whose mother has other plans for her daughter and has forbidden the romance. This movie is much piecier than the first one, there’s no solid central narrative line, things just happen. Charlie of course discovers that Sondra isn’t really interested in him, in fact she’s a little tart, but a nice beauty pageant contestant takes an interest in him, etc. When that episode falls apart, three older women pick up the boys, but the desired rendezvous is kiboshed by the landlady of the B&B at which the women are staying. So that’s that.
     There’s a part three, which I don’t have. I recorded these two parts on VHS years ago from TVO. I’m tossing the tapes, but decided to see what was in this one. If you like mildly amusing nostalgia-inducing movies, you’ll probably like The Quest. It’s resolutely male point of view is unusual. **½ (posted 2016-10-19)


     Farewell, My Concubine (1989) A “much acclaimed film,” as the TVO program blurb says; but one that ends up being oddly unappealing. Set in China, the story is plain enough: two actors bond in acting school as boys suffering from the sadism of the school's director sand teachers. Their careers fuse into a single symbiosis. The one who plays the Concubine is damaged by a homosexual encounter with an admirer, and becomes sexually ambivalent. His partner, who plays the King, is not only aggressively heterosexual, he marries his favourite prostitute, who realises that she must compete with his partner. During the Cultural Revolution, the two actors betray each other and the woman. Many years later, the two actors come together for a last performance (whose venue is never clearly explained). The King wears a real sword that has figured several times in the plot; in the key scene, the Concubine uses it, but since it is not a prop, he dies.
     I don’t like Chinese classical opera. Classical opera all over the world seems to decline into frozen custard, into carefully preserved museum pieces, beautifully restored but dead as mutton. There is something in the opera fan that resents living theatre, that wants to see and hear the same thing over and over again, exactly. Like child that wants to hear the same story over and over again at bedtime, exactly. The Chinese haven’t escaped from this trap, either. The emphasis on elaborate costume and elaborate and exactly repeated acting merely emphasises the lifelessness of a tradition of copying rather than emulating the past.
     It’s sad, really since as theatre, operas are superb. Staged with a sense of theatre, they work very well. I remember an Abduction from the Seraglio in Graz that was lively and drew you in. The music helped, too. Chinese classical music has melody, harmony, and rhythm, but the classical instruments are bloody awful. I wonder why the Chinese clung to those badly tuned, badly made, and awful sounding monstrosities so long. They have recently adopted and adapted European instruments and musical styles to their own traditions, and have produced not only some of the best interpreters of European music, but have also developed wonderful new music of their own.
     The movie has beautifully crafted sequences. The acting is very good, the photography at times eerie in its power. Yet overall, it didn’t work for me. Perhaps the sensibility was too alien, or perhaps the opera simply grated too much, so that I was in no state to fully enjoy the rest of the movie. **  (2002)

     After the Harvest (2001) This film is very loosely based on Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese. It works quite well if one has not read the book, or read it so long ago that one has forgotten all but a few salient details. Marie was in the latter case; I had read the book within the last ten years (scanned it rather, as I did every two or three years when I taught it). The differences between the movie and the book will disappoint anyone who expects to see Wild Geese. But the producers clearly wanted to make a movie inspired by the themes of the book, and used its characters and its situation as a starting point.
     Peppard is very good as a hard, arrogant, and self-righteous Caleb Gare. Amelia is played with a hidden strength that could have made for more a more tense relationship with Caleb than was shown. Judith is a bewildered but determined animal trapped in a situation she cannot understand. The other three children are merely sketched, which is a pity, since they could have enriched the movie. Lind and Jordan have more flaws than they do in the book, which makes their love affair, fight, and reconciliation more believable. The neighbours are reduced in number, and the plot accordingly simplified. All in all, the adaptation suggests that the makers didn’t have the money to make the kind of large scale movie the book demands.
     There are other signs of lack of money. The continuity of landscape is haphazard: at times I wondered whether the farm was in the foothills or on the bald prairie. The town is too obviously a stage set (it was actually a museum site, IIRC) The fire doesn’t convince. But all in all, it’s a good little movie; several of its images linger in the mind, a sure sign that a central vision informed it, and the director knew what she was doing. **½ (2002)

    Encounter at Far Point (1987) I bought this at a Value Village. The first of the Star Trek: Next Generation series, hence a full length movie. It introduces the central characters, and sets up enough hints of their pasts that we expect many future revelations. Also introduces Q, who demands that Picard prove that the human race has progressed somewhat beyond barbarianism, and should be permitted to explore the Galaxy. Picard succeeds, by helping an energy-being rescue its mate from Deneb 4, where the latter was marooned, and exploited by the local race for their own ends.
     Q is a beautifully conceived Satan figure. The Accuser, that is, his role in Job, not the Tempter. He shows that accusation spawns temptation, for one wants to clear one’s name, and that desire itself is a form of pride. Should one not humbly acknowledge one’s sin? Q also provokes the resentment and suspicion of intellect, an attitude first dramatised via Faust. Q’s governing trait is intellectual curiosity: it is his desire to find out what Picard can do, and how, that moves him to grant a delay in the sentencing of the human race. (The sentence will be extinction).
     The special effects are minimal. Gene Roddenberry (who co-wrote the script) chose to focus on character rather than technology. He wants to show both what moves us and what might move us. He believes strongly that our positive drives, such as love, friendship, and loyalty, guarantee our survival. This aspect of Star Trek, found in all its variations, I think accounts for its longevity. This movie is an excellent first outing for the crew of the Enterprise, and worth keeping. It’s also fun to note the subtle differences between this crew and the later versions in subsequent episodes. *** (2002)

     Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone (2001) Based on the book. A boarding school adventure romance, updated in two ways: a) the magic; b) the presence of girls. The magic is convincing in its matter-of-factness, there’s no sex stuff beyond a bit of goofy grinning at the opposite sex (who happens to be an almost insufferably superior sort of female person, but with her heart and ethics in the right place). In the end the bad guy turns out to be the good guy, and vice versa. But the bad guy gets his.
     Lessons are portentously announced, special effects suit the story, the characters are just convincing enough to make you care about them, but the focus is definitely on story. A fun movie, with a few bits a tad too scary for children old enough to imagine the danger that lurks in the shadows, but otherwise good family entertainment. Inoffensive, really, unlike Resident Evil. *** (2002)

     Resident Evil (2002) Some people are trapped in “the hive” when the computer kills everybody because of a serious bio-hazard, an escaped virus, of course. The virus “mutates” of course, flesh creepy-crawls to sounds of rubber stretching and twigs cracking, blood spurts, and so forth, and changes dead meat into reflex-driven quasi-living flesh. Gruesome horror fantasy intended to gross out and scare teenagers. No plot beyond the search for the computer and escaping from mutant humans and dogs. Perfunctory characterisation, inconsistent special effects, etc. Ghastly. But teenagers like this stuff. It would work quite well as a plain old comic book. Maybe better.(2002)

    A Nightingale Sang (1989) (Joan Plowright, Tom Watt, etc.) Wartime story tracing the affair between Helen, older, plainer daughter of a Newcastle family, and Norman, a soldier from London. He’s married, as Helen discovers when she takes a flat of her own so they can set up housekeeping. The family is dysfunctional. Joyce, the younger sister, marries Eric, and is promptly unfaithful to him with a variety of men. The mother is a pious and a more than semi-superstitious Catholic. The father likes to play piano and sing. Well scripted, if somewhat predictable, well acted, and nicely photographed. A nice little movie, the kind that used to provide reliable entertainment at the cinema before television. **1/2 (2002)

     Sophie’s Choice (1982) (D: Alan J. Pakula. Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter McNichol) McNichol plays William Styron’s stand-in, and Streep and Kline play the doomed couple he befriends and wishes to save (especially Streep). The write-ups note that Styron’s novel is autobiographical, but I don’t believe it. That is, I think his book is embellished. Not that Sophie’s terrible choice at Auschwitz is improbable, but that it doesn’t ring true in the context of the movie (and maybe of the book; I haven’t read it).
     The movie drags; it’s a “literary” movie, clearly made to win Oscars. Streep got one for her portrayal of Sophie Zawitowska, but her Method shows, as does Kline’s (her lover Nathan). McNichol is the most believable, partly because the character is such a gormless naif, and partly because he was clearly directed never to steal a scene from his two co-stars. This underplaying works better than Streep and Kline’s attempts to portray extreme and extremely volatile emotions. The structure of the movie also works against it; again, this may be Styron’s fault. The revelation of Sophie’s choice near the end is clearly intended to shatter the audience. Imagine having to choose which of your children will go to the gas chamber! But by then we have seen Streep “confess” so many times (and in deliberately greyed 1930's Agfa colour-film flashbacks, with subtitles, yet) that one more confession just doesn’t make any difference.
     Perhaps a shorter movie would have worked better. Perhaps we would have had greater involvement if we’d known Sophie’s secret at the beginning. The movie would then have built its plot on just how and when the secret was revealed in the USA. As Hitchcock pointed out, there’s vast difference between suspense and surprise. ** (2002)

     Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) (Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard; D: Blake Edwards) Party girl Holly Golightly wants to marry rich, poor struggling writer Paul Varshak wants to marry Holly. That’s the premise. Along the way we meet Holly’s former husband from a former life (played by Buddy Ebsen), an ugly rich American, a handsome rich Brazilian, a wife (Patricia Neal) who likes to keep poor struggling writers in fancy apartments, and an assortment of caricatures. Plus a cat with no name (who I’m sure became Morris the advertising cat in later lives).
     Fun and funny, a fantasy in which the girl gets the right guy despite herself. Audrey’s clothes are wonderful, George Peppard’s eyes are a brilliant blue, the acting is just good enough to make the story work, and as long as you don’t dig too deeply for plausible motivations, it’s a pleasing enough entertainment.
     Edwards is not a first rank director, and one wonders what Billy Wilder could have done with this material. Edwards likes sight gags and crude satire too much, which works fine when he does Pink Panther movies, but doesn’t quite work here. A social comedy must stay tightly focused, for it needs a precise balance between character and setting. Digressions into satire and farce spoil this balance. Moon River comes from this movie; it’s a song that seems to belong to the thirties or earlier. **½ (2002)
 
      The Lord of the Rings I: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) [D: Peter Jackson. Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood] I watched this because Grandson Jonathan noticed the VHS tape on the shelf. I have no idea how well Jackson follows or interprets Tolkien’s books. I found them unreadable. Long-winded, detailed, world-inventing fantasy caters to a very personal taste: Tolkien’s happens not to be mine.
     But the movie is three hours of long-winded, detailed, and world-inventing fun. It’s not especially moving, in fact some of the solemnities seem to me to parody and satirise the medieval chivalric romance conventions, but a willing suspension of disbelief is enough to ensure a pleasurable time. The actors are obviously enjoying their over-the-top roles. I especially liked Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins.
     It was the first time I watched this movie. I bought it thinking I’d wait for all three parts. It’s good enough that now I’ll buy the whole series on DVD. And I'll probably watch this part again: I prefer high definition. But I disagree with most raters, I give it only *** (out of four). (2002)

     To Please a Lady (1950) [D: Clarence Brown. Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck] An old-fashioned romance, competently made, and with good race car stuff for the guys (who after all squired their ladies to these confections). Gable plays a race car driver who’s been accused of cutting off competitors, which led to crashes and death. Stanwyck plays a muck-raking columnist with a tough reputation. After the usual plot twists, they finally get together, after Stanwyck has been chastened by the news that one of her targets has committed suicide, and Gable has been injured after giving ground to a competitor. Kiss and fade out.
     What’s charming about this movie how it uses all the usual cliches, and how the stars, both competent actors, make them sound fresh and meaningful. Undemanding in every way, just right for shopping & a matinee with the girlfriends, or an evening out for couple who were more interested in each other than the screen. I liked the way the closeups on the technical details of the gear in preparation for the Big Race echoed the preparation of the knight for his joust. **

    The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) [D: Otto Preminger. Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker] A movie controversial in its day for scenes that are tame in comparison to what’s routinely shown on TV dramas these days. But it still packs a punch: Frankie Machine’s attempts to avoid being drawn back into the seedy world of illegal poker and drugs are well drawn and well acted. True, the acting style, characterisation, photography, and pacing are very much of their time: Watching the movie on DVD in one’s living room isn’t the same as watching it a 1950s movie theatre. Back then, movies were slower, the acting broader, the plots simpler. Still, the movie works: Frankie is a man with dreams that he can’t fulfill. A combination of virtues (he feels obligated to look after the girl who was lamed in an auto accident he caused), old habits and relationships, and exploitation of his weaknesses by unscrupulous crooks conspire to destroy him. But a bit of luck saves him, and he walks off with his new girl, not into the sunset, but out of the darkness of Chicago’s lower East side. Sinatra was deservedly nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work in this movie. The title music became a hit. **½

     The Dresser (1985) [D: Peter Yates. Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay] Based on a play by Ron Harwood, dresser of Sir Donald Wolfit, an actor-manager of some reputation from the 1930s to the early 1960s. I have no idea how accurately Harwood portrays Wolfit, but the script has the ring of truth. Courtenay and Finney give astonishing performances, which make the movie worth seeing, but once is enough. The story’s simple: A small theatre company on tour during WW2 fetches up in a northern town. “Sir” becomes ill, but refuses to stay in the hospital. Norman, his dresser, cajoles and bullies him into playing Lear. After the performance, Sir dies. The unromantic facts about theatre as a trade or craft are well portrayed, there are hints of tangled relationships among the company, but the focus is on the actor-manager and his dresser. There are glimpses of Sir’s performance both from the front and backstage. Good stuff. The movie/play’s a study of two characters, but in the end it’s unsatisfactory. I didn’t feel that I knew Sir and Norman well enough: the characterisation is thin, constrained and limited by the focus on the last one and a half days of Sir’s life. **½
 
     The Train (1964) [D: John Frankenheimer. Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau] Railroad inspector  and Resistance cell leader Labiche (Lancaster) is drawn into a plot to prevent a Wehrmacht Colonel (Scofield) from stealing  hundreds of paintings. The sabotage is ingenious, the heroics plausible, the Colonel believable. Many people die, and of course the Colonel loses the match. The movie feels shorter than its 2 hours and 13 minutes, the photography (black and white) is very good. The characters are a little thin, but one rarely needs to suspend disbelief. The story was suggested by a real incident: the Wehrmacht did try to remove a trainload of stolen paintings, but the Resistance used paperwork to prevent the departure of the train. That would have made a comedy, not an action movie.
     This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, and this time round a question nagged at me: Is a painting, or any artwork, worth a human life? There was a time when I hesitated answering this question. It seemed to me to be a real question, as if human lives and art works were measured by the same scale. They’re not.
     Great artworks of the past are extant mostly because of luck. For most known art makers, we also know of works that didn’t survive. Are these irreparable losses? Yes and no. It’s a pity we don’t have more plays by Sophocles, for example; and that probably half of Vermeer’s works have disappeared. But there are other paintings, other plays, other poems. There will be many more in the future. There’s no point bewailing lost works: we’ll never experience them, and feeling sentimental about them will merely distract attention from what is there for us to admire and wonder at. For each of us, some of these works will be soul food. Be glad if you come across these.
     A movie worth watching. ***
 

     Gunga Din (1939) [D: George Stevens. Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Sam Jaffe.] Derring-do on the Northwest Frontier, where a nasty cult of Kali plans to destroy the local British army garrison, and then sweep across India. Our heroes stop it, at the cost of Gunga Din’s life. A formula mix of humour, action, and a surprising amount of sentiment. Well filmed, thin story, a Western set in India. One cliche after another, nicely paced. This movie was apparently something of a classic in its own time, but its main interest these days is as an almost perfect example of the Hollywood “actioner”, and a reminder of how Hollywood put in bits to please all segments of the audience. I liked it, but more as a specimen of something rare and strange than as a movie. **½

      I’ve Loved You So Long (2008) [D: Philippe Claudel. Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Sylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius] A woman is released into the custody of her sister after spending fifteen years in prison for the murder of her son. That’s the premise of this movie, but what Claudel has built on it is a story of love and redemption. I won’t spoil the story for you. Thomas does an astonishing job, her acting is a tour de force of understatement that reveals a character and her history until we feel totally engaged in her grief and (finally) her glimmers of hope. The supporting actors are brought along by that performance, so that we believe in their increasing self-knowledge and their changes in attitude, too. The movie demonstrates that the most gripping drama is what unfolds within a person. But I know that many people will think it’s too slow and that nothing happens.  Highly recommended. ****

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