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Les Misérables

Extremely Disappointing
This is not a filmed version of the stage musical. I understand that. And while, the rearrangement of the plot is awkward at times, I can forgive that. What I find impossible to forgive is the casting of certain parts. Though his voice isn't as powerful as it should be, Hugh Jackman is good as Jean Valjean. Russell Crowe can't sing worth a damn. Ann Hathaway acts her part successfully but her voice isn't particularly good. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter don't exactly ruin the comic highlights of the musical but neither of them is a singer. To my taste, Samantha Barks as Eponine is the only singer who could have stood up to his or her stage counterpart. Frankly, the only emotion my wife and I felt when the film ended was relief. The highlight of the film is the opening scene where the convicts are hauling a battered vessel into dry dock. After that, it's pretty much a pale imitation of the stage version we saw. I did, however, appreciate the scenes in which Colm Wilkinson appeared. He was "our Jean" Valjean and, though too old to play that part now, a better singer than Jackman.

Zero Dark Thirty

Better than Argo
I've seen all the reasons viewers (and some critics) dislike this film, but in my opinion it is infinitely superior to ARGO in its authenticity and dramatic quality. The final scenes, when the SEAL team, goes into Ben Laden's house, are brilliantly rendered. The idea of doing it mostly in the dark with flashes of illumination by "night vision" green is a brilliant touch, which most directors would never have attempted.

The performances by Jessica Chastain, of course, Jason Clark and Jennifer Ehle are top drawer and the torture scenes, while brutal, are necessary--because that's the way it happened. Congratulations to Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal for getting it right.

I don't want to put the knock on Argo, because I found it entertaining. But it's artificiality provides a distinct contrast with Zero Dark Thirity's authenticity, and authenticity wins.

The Gatekeepers

An important film
Like it or not--and some will despise it--"The Gatekeepers" is MUST SEE for anyone concerned about Israel's future. While it is true, as one reviewer has pointed out, that excerpts from the interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's spy agency, have been assembled and, therefore, shaped by the director, what emerges is nevertheless astounding. To be sure there are significant differences of opinion on some issues -- like the efficacy of targeted assassinations, for example--and those differences have been obscured in some reviews of this documentary. But what unites the six is a good deal more significant than what divides them. They all regard the occupation as a disaster. They are all pessimistic about the future. They have contempt for most of Israel's politicians, who, they say, are consumed by tactical considerations but have no strategy. To a man, they want peace and see it slipping away. To a man they blame settlers and extremist rabbis, together with the politicians who have enabled them. (Only Yitzhak Rabin is admired by any of the six.) Yes, it's depressing. But reality is often depressing, and this is a necessary dose of reality from men who have spent their lifetimes in Israel's service.

Broadway Danny Rose

One of Woody's Lesser Movies
Woody Allen is more of a schlemiel than usual in Broadway Danny Rose and it's not as hilarious as some of his comedies. However, there are some very funny throw-way lines delivered more or less as a side-dish rather than as the main course. The premise -- Woody as a talent agent with the worst acts imaginable as his clients and one half-way good has-been (Nick Apollo Forte) whose career is revived by a nostalgia craze for singers of yesteryear. Broadway Danny who gives very personal service to his clients wangles an audition for the singer, Lou Canova, with Milton Berle and must bring Canova's mistress to the performance to keep his client in working order. Danny is a "beard" in Damon Runyon terms (a pretend boyfriend to disguise the mistress from the wife). Canova's mistress (Mia Farrow) is also the beloved of a guy who belongs to a crime family and when Danny takes her away, his two-hit man brothers vow to murder this interloper. The mistress, meanwhile, has convinced Lou Canova to abandon Danny for an agent with better connections. Other complications that needn't be recounted ensue, but eventually the mistress regrets what she's done and visits Danny to apologize. The implication at the end is that she and Danny will fall in love. During most of the movie, Mia Farrow wears large sun glasses and a blonde wig in her role as a brassy broad with few morals and no conscience. Only at the end, as she feels sorry for what she's done, do the sun glasses disappear and Farrow emerges as the delicate beauty she was when this movie was made. A typical Allen gesture frames the movie. A number of relatively obscure comedians, playing themselves, are gathered at the famed Carnegie Deli exchanging jokes and comic tales. The movie is launched as an extended anecdote told by one of the comedians about Broadway Danny. This is not among Woody's best but it's still worth seeing if you're a fan of his work.

Anna Karenina

Artificial but brilliant
The many artifices employed in this version of Tolstoy's great novel, beginning with the opening presentation of the story as a theatrical event, are not only unusual, they are also off-putting for many film goers. In my opinion, they have been used to intensify the action and the emotion at critical points. Anna Karenina defies condensation and previous versions have fallen far short of conveying the overpowering emotion at the heart of the love affair between Anna and Count Vronsky or Anna's tormented decision to abandon her son or her humiliation at the hands of her social circle. This version succeeds on all these counts, I believe. There is, for example, a stop action dancing scene which captures as no other film has done the intoxication that Anna is experiencing during her first real encounter with Vronsky and another scene when they first consummate their love during which the camera whirls around their bodies without fully displaying their nakedness. The passion is unmistakable, more so than if the act of intercourse had been more realistically shown. Maybe I'm prejudiced because I believe Keira Knightley is the most beautiful woman on the planet but I think she is the perfect Anna and a much better actress than most critics say she is. This is the third of her performances with the same director -- Pride & Prejudice and Atonement are the others -- for which I would have given her an Oscar. And both Tom Stoppard who wrote the script and Joe Wright, Knightley's director, have served the story exceedingly well. Three other major achievements: (i) Jude Law makes a very convincing Karenin, establishing the man's stiff moralistic nature and his wounded pride as well as his generosity when he is willing to forgive Anna although she has betrayed him. (2) Count Vronsky is portrayed, as he should be -- a beautiful but shallow lover, unable in the end to sustain Anna emotionally when she finds that she is a social pariah. (3) The important parallel love story between the idealistic Levin and young Kitty, with whom he is obsessed -- as pure as the love between Anna and Vronsky is corrupt -- is beautifully depicted, though perhaps at lesser length than it deserves. I know I'm bucking the trend, but I consider this Anna to be a major achievement and the artificiality in much of the film works for me.

Shakespeare in Love

The Idea Is the Biggest Winner
"Shakespeare in Love" is one of the more decorated films in recent years. Two of its Oscars went to leading lady Gwyneth Paltrow as Shakespeare's love interest, the other in the supporting actress category to Judi Dench for a relatively brief on-screen appearance as Queen Elizabeth. The Motion Picture Academy doesn't give Oscars for conceiving the basic idea of a film, and I don't know if the idea came from screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, who got their Oscars, or possibly from director John Madden, who didn't. But what makes this film unique is its underlying concept: Shakespeare's finding of the beautiful muse who inspires Romeo and Juliet. Suspicion falls naturally on Tom Stoppard. His writerly DNA includes an earlier play, "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," which mingled scenes from Hamlet with plot and dialog focused on two minor characters in Shakespeare's play. In this film, Shakespeare is suffering from writer's block, a common enough problem to be credible even when the author is the prolific Bard of Avon. Ms. Paltrow's character is a young woman disguised as a male because she's obsessed with the theater, and women aren't allowed on stage during the Elizabethan era. The affair between them releases Shakespeare's paralyzed imagination.. Joseph Fiennes is very good as the young Shakespeare, though he didn't win many awards, Paltrow is outstanding as Shakespeare's girl friend/muse, and in addition to Dame Judi, Geoffrey Rush also turns in a fine performance as a rival playwright. But it is again the mingling of Shakespeare's words and plot with the dialog written by Norman and Stoppard that transforms this romance into a wondrous film. I don't know what Mr. Norman contributed but Stoppard is a well-known word magician, whose plays are possibly the most intellectual, inventive and funny body of work since the days of George Bernard Shaw. If I'm giving Stoppard more credit than he deserves, I apologize. In any event, Shakespeare in Love is work of genius in addition to being a lovely, watchable romantic comedy.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

You Pays Your Money and Makes Your Choice
Some of us love Tom Stoppard's work; others don't. If you're among the latter, you ought to skip this film. If you admire Stoppard, you've got to see it. This is the first of Stoppard's brilliant plays to make a splash. It interleaves scenes and dialog from Shakespeare's Hamlet with an LSD flavored dialog and plot of Stoppard's invention about Hamlet's two friends who are "summoned" to Elsinore to spy on him and report back to the King and Queen. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't remember which of them is which is merely the beginning of Stoppard's comic conceits. The wordplay between Stoppard's script and Shakespeare's immortal classic are one of the verbal wonders of the world, a kind of literary Taj Mahal. The players whom Hamlet employs to "catch the conscience of the king" also figure prominently in the script, speaking Stoppard's words at times and Shakespeare's at others. Stoppard, who also directed the film, introduces a lot of visual comedy that cannot be duplicated on stage. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth do a great job as the title characters and Richard Dreyfuss is at his (very different) best as the leader of the players. My wife, who's not a great admirer of Stoppard, thought the movie was terrible. You see what I mean.


A dreadful movie redeemed by two features
Songcatcher appropriates the real life story of Alan Lomax, transforms Lomax into a woman, shifts his career into an earlier period in the 20th Century, adds lesbianism to its uninteresting plot and wastes valuable time that could have been devoted to the music of Appalachia. There are, however, two valuable aspects to the film. One is the music which Lomax collected and which is now preserved in the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington and to a considerable extent on recordings drawing upon that collection, The other redeeming feature is Emily Rossum, 14 at the time, a delicate beauty with a wonderful voice. I wish the movie had made more use of her voice in presenting the music instead of having it sung by folks representing the local population. Of course, what Lomax did in part was to record the songs sung by people with not very good voices. Much of the music sung by Pete Seeger, among others, is drawn from the work Lomax did (which also included collecting folk music from Europe). The film is correct in asserting that the music of Appalachia can be traced to its roots in Scotland and England and that, in many cases, the Appalachian versions are "purer" than contemporary versions still sung in Britain. But lots of singers have also recorded the same ballads (like Barbra Allen) in their Scottish or English versions. The music is sometimes identical but the words are frequently somewhat different. The brief period when folk music was highly popular in the United States was filled with Appalachian folk music performed by artists like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, the Weavers and many others. Seeger was one of the Weavers, the group which might be said to have launched the folk music boom. It's a fascinating history -- much, much, much more interesting than this lousy movie.

The Trojan Women

If You're Interested in Greek tragedy, don't miss this one
If you have any interest whatsoever in Greek tragedy, this is a film not to miss. It's done in English (an Edith Hamilton translation), beautifully filmed and it has four major actresses in the principal roles: Katherine Hepburn as Hecuba, the widow of Priam, Troy's king, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, Hector's widow, Genevieve Bujold as Cassandra and Irene Papas as Helen, whose decision to leave King Menelaus for the visiting Paris precipitates the war. Hepburn has the dominant role and is always in the foreground or the background, but each of the other stars has a moment when she is at the center, and each of them acquits herself in great style. There's also a Greek chorus of women, each striking in appearance. Given the color of their eyes and the differences in their complexions, the members of the chorus are by no means all Greek unless pale skin and blue, green or hazel eyes has become an ethnic characteristic of Greeks when I wasn't looking. Papas, of course, is a classic Greek beauty, and she isn't pale skinned or blue eyed. Hepburn, Redgrave and Bujold don't look very Greek either. But when it comes to the classics, who cares? The dialog is mainly declamatory, as is the case with most Greek tragedies that I've seen, and the action is sparse. But Euripides was a great dramatist and the emotions run both high and deep. Hecuba has lost her husband and all her children except Cassandra who is mad and about to be taken as a slave. Andromache has lost her husband and is about to have her son taken from her and killed before she is forced into slavery. And, the beautiful, seductive Helen, hated by all the Trojan women, is trying to persuade Menelaus that "Aphrodite made me do it"while Hecuba urges him to kill her. Michael Cacoyannis (the way it's spelled on the DVD, though not on IMDb) directs the movie efficiently. Greek drama isn't very fashionable these days but The Trojan Women is a good introduction to a great body of work.

Made in Dagenham

Well done film but hard on American ears
The story line in this film is based on actual events, and it has the advantage of 2-1/2 excellent performances. Sally Hawkins is excellent as the young female worker who leads the strike for equal pay at the Ford factory. Bob Hoskins is wonderful as the sympathetic union leader who manages to sabotage the union's efforts to quell the uprising. The extra one-half belongs to Miranda Richardson, the real-life Barbara Castle who got the women most (and eventually all) they wanted from the Labour government then in power. Richardson is superb but she has only a minor on-screen presence. The problem, as often in British-made movies, is the mix of accents which makes it difficult for viewers who are not British to understand what's being said. Unfortunately, some of the dialog is virtually unintelligible. Classically trained UK actors know how to make themselves understood to American audiences regardless of the regional accents they are called upon to adopt. Bob Hoskins has that capability. Many other British actors, although very good, aren't able to do that. (I'm sure some regional accents in American movies are equally difficult for non=American audiences). I might easily have given this movie a 10. It's well worth seeing but if you're like me, prepare to be frequently confused. The cable news networks sometimes use subtitles when people are speaking heavily-accented English. British film-makers might be well-advised to do the same.

The Great Gatsby

So much for naught
The Great Gatsby is a great American novel, and this is a surprisingly mediocre movie in spite of the talents who appear in it. It's been years since I last read the novel but the plot certainly follows the novel's contours as I remember them. A young Sam Waterston is a good choice for Nick Carroway, the observer-narrator. He's the only major character who is well represented. Robert Redford sounds like a perfect choice for Gatsby as does Mia Farrow for Daisy Buchanan. But the combination doesn't work. The chemistry between them just isn't there. Redford is particularly disappointing. Despite a gorgeous setting and all the other trappings of wealth, his Gatsby lacks authenticity. He says his lines but doesn't appear to suffer from his longing for Daisy. Standing on the dock, looking across to the Buchanan residence just doesn't make it. Farrow is better as the beautiful Daisy, concerned only for herself, enjoying Gatsby's attentions but without returning his love for more than a pleasant few moments. Bruce Dern as Buchanan is simply not there, as I suppose he is meant not to be. The garage owner and his slut of a wife are well cast but the murder of Gatsby takes place without much on-screen tension, even if you don't remember the novel's outcome. I can imagine a less interesting rendition of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, but only with a lot of effort and it's equally difficult to imagine that this movie would have sent anyone running to read the book.

The Man Who Wasn't There

A Movie for Fans of the Coen Brothers
Reactions to this interesting black-and-white film noir are likely to depend on whether you like the Coen brothers' sensibility or you don't. It will certainly not be to everyone's taste. The principal character, well played by Billy Bob Thornton, is a taciturn barber in a small California town. He's intentionally a nobody in a nobody setting who gets caught up in a spider's web of interlocking crimes. I won't say anything about the plot, which is a variation on the scenarios of other noir films. It's strength lies in the odd, often humorous perspective that the Coen brothers bring to all their films. This one is different than some of their previous work because the humor is, for the most part, subtler and the principal characters are intended to be ordinary people living ordinary, uninteresting lives in a mostly uninteresting way. But the acting is excellent, drawing on the talents of actors like Frances McDormand who are regulars in Coen films, newcomers to their stable (James Galdofini) and the young Scarlette Johanssen. My wife and I are Coen devotees, so we liked it. Others may find it slow-moving before it finally gets going. There's no one in the movie to like, not even Johanssen in the end. It's in black and white, which many film-goers don't care for. And film noir is film noir -- a passion for some, not so for others. See it or don't accordingly.

The Artist

Very, very close but no cigar
This film is better as a concept than it is in execution. Leaving the actors aside for the time being, what I liked most about it is the moment when stray sounds begin to be heard, heralding the arrival of the talkies, even though none of the on-screen characters is speaking audibly -- only in silent movie captions. It's a brilliant touch, leaving no doubt about what's happening outside the silent film framework. The plot is a cliché: the silent film star fades into obscurity, the obscure actress becomes an overnight sensation. However, the four stars are excellent. Four? Yes. Jean Dujardin as the silent film star, Berenice Bujo as the talkies meteor, John Goodman as the studio head, and the best dog actor I ever remember seeing. It remains to be seen whether Dujardin has a future in a speaking role. Ms. Bejo, a well-established French star, is sensational in this movie. John Goodman is a familiar figure and is outstandingly funny as the fickle movie-maker who abandons his silent film star to make talkies and later takes him back because Peppy Miller, Ms. Bejo's character, now a screen sensation, announces that she won't appear in his next movie without Dujardin as her co-star. The movie concludes with the best dancing scene -- Dujardin and Bejo side-by-side -- to grace the screen in a couple of decades. The two stars execute their routine with a skill that can't be faked (although it might have been filmed numerous times to assure that the coordination was flawless in the final print - - if that's still an appropriate term for what today's filmmakers actually produce). The choreography is superior to anything we've seen since the heydays of Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ray Bolger, Syd Charisse and their peers. I don't know if there's another role for the dog out there somewhere but he/she is a headliner in this movie. There's a major flaw in this film in my estimation. The down period, when the silent film star is experiencing a major depression and is ready to commit suicide even after Peppy Miller first comes to his rescue, lasts longer than it should to make the point. On the whole, however, The Artist is well worth seeing and deserves the prizes it won even if, as critics have noted, it's another occasion for Hollywood to celebrate itself as it has done many times in the past. I'll be looking for Ms. Bejo's French films and hoping that Hollywood will find roles for her as it has done in the past for other French, Italian and Spanish-speaking beauties. I also hope Mr. Dujardin will appear in further films that can make use of his unquestioned talents.

The Bank Job

Well worth an evening
I missed this film entirely in 2008. Don't think I even saw a review. But it was a choice from our DVD rental provider and my wife and I thought it might be interesting. It proved to be excellent. In the Lionsgate tradition (amply demonstrated in previews of other Lionsgate films before the main event arrives), it contains a great deal of violence. However, the violence serves the plot, which is too complicated to describe here in great detail. Essentially it is an allegedly true story about a crime engineered by a British spy agency to retrieve some photographs stored in a London bank vault which show a member of the Royal Family engaged in a sex orgy on a Caribbean island. The small time criminals engaged to execute the break in are recruited by a woman who had been caught smuggling drugs into Britain and coerced into cooperating. The break in brings fatal consequences for some, though not all, of the gang members because several of the safety deposit boxes contain evidence implicating a couple of violent criminals and many members of the London police force. Interestingly, one of those violent criminals is played by David Suchet, who some viewers will recognize as "Hercule Poirot" in the many episodes of Agatha Christie stories that appear regularly on PBS. Of course, he's nothing like Poirot in the movie. But it's a reminder, if any is needed, that Suchet is an excellent actor and -- like many other Britons seen regularly on large and small screens -- extremely versatile. While we liked the movie a lot, watching David Suchet was one of the chief pleasures.

Nine to Five

Worth Watching
Jane, Lily, Dolly and Dabney Coleman have fun in this classic comedy and so will you. It's not about unionization of the work place. That came a little later. But female office workers of a certain age will remember the humiliations inflicted on them by their male bosses and maybe the role played by female tattle tales. We watched 9 to 5 in streaming video and three of us had a good time doing so. The chase scenes with a dead body (mistaken identity) is especially hilarious. All three of the female leads are splendid. I'm not sure, however, that Dabney Coleman doesn't steal the show as their hateful boss. It was a life-saving diversion from all those election ads which we see because we're next door to a swing state. Neither of the Presidential candidates bothered campaigning in Maryland, among the bluest of the blue states. As the most recent of the GOP candidates for governor explained, they've got the organization, they've got the money, they've got the message. What they haven't got is the voters.

Theatre Night: Lady Windermere's Fan
Episode 1, Season 1

Dominated by Two Actresses
This production of Lady Windermere's Fan is dominated by its two female leads, Helena Little as Lady Windermere, and Stephanie Turner as Mrs. Erlynne, a woman with a scandalous past and a gossip ridden present, whom Lord Windermere is seeing regularly and supplying with large amounts of money His young wife suspects the worst. Encouraged by a gossipy visitor, Lady Windermere is convinced that her husband is having an affair with the woman.. Lady Windermere is supposed to be quite young but, if her biographical data is to be believed (and I don't), the beautiful Ms. Little was born in 1970 and therefore only 15 when she performed the role. She looks to be in her early twenties. She manages to capture the range of emotions experienced by Lady Windermere in an altogether winning performance. Ms. Turner is excellent in the somewhat more demanding role of Mrs. Erlynne. It is easy to accept the notion that men would flock to her and that other women would find her both interesting and scandalous. It would be nice to able to report that the other parts in Oscar Wilde's play were handled with equal skill, but that was not the case in my opinion.

There are elements in "Lady Windermere's Fan" that don't quite hang together -- for example, the notion that Lord Windermere would regularly visit a woman whom he despises and that he would not understand why his young wife would object. But Wilde's wit redeems the implausibilities. And this is one Wilde play in a serious rather than entirely satirical vein. If the entire TV film were as good as its two lead actresses, I would have awarded it 10/10


Just Short of Perfect
Were it not for the fact that the plot is tied in too neat a bow at the very end, "Incendies" would be a perfect movie. Told in both the present and the past, the film traces the efforts of twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) to carry out the wish of their dead mother (Lubna Araval) to find and deliver letters to their father and lost brother. The twins go to Lebanon -- Jeanne with conviction, Simon reluctantly. They don't quite know where to begin. The brother, their mother's illegitimate son, was sent to an orphanage. That much is quickly established. But from there on, the film follows the search and also plays back the events in the Lebanese Civil War which separated their mother from her child and from the father or the twins. Once the search was fully under way, this viewer was initially bit confused as to which parts were present and which parts were past because Ms. Desormeaux-Poulin looks at times much like Ms. Araval, so I didn't always know whether I was witnessing the search by the daughter or the war time travails of the mother. It's a minor problem because, soon enough, the two elements -- the search and the war -- diverge and the context identifies daughter and mother. The two women each handle their roles superbly. Simon is a necessary player but M. Gaudette is no more than adequate in the role, which is, in any event, subsidiary to that of mother and daughter.

I won't reveal the ending. However, the war time scenes are depicted with convincing brutality, and the indifference to suffering that characterized the Lebanese Civil War is as appalling on film as it might have been if one had actually been there when it happened. In addition, the cameras are focused on the bleak landscape outside the villages and towns, which adds to the sense that this is as close to real life as it is possible to get.

As suggested in the beginning of this review, I found the ending too pat and much too convenient, but it is certainly dramatic -- and others may find it more convincing than I did.

Dial M for Murder

One of Hitchcock's Best
There are two kinds of murder stories. In those written by Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, the mystery is the identity of the murderer. Hitchcock specialized in the other type where the identity of the killer (or, in this case, the man who tried to arrange the murder) is known from the beginning and the mystery is how he or she will be discovered. Dial M for Murder with Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings is a classic example of Hitchcock's approach, though, of course, the viewer knows for a certainty that Tony Wendice (Milland) will be found out even after his rich, philandering wife, Margot Mary Wendice (Kelly) escapes the hired killer by plunging a pair of scissors into his back. The viewer is likely also to surmise that the third major character, Mark Halladay (Cummings), an American mystery writer and Margot's lover, will play a significant role in establishing her husband's guilt.

Despite the obvious sign posts, Hitchcock manages to sustain the suspense thanks not only to his own skills but also to Frederick Knott, who wrote the screenplay and the play on which the movie is based. Without giving away the secret, the crucial question posed by the death of the hired killer is how did he get into the Wendice apartment? Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) answers this question initially by determining that Margot must have let him in and then murdered him because he was blackmailing her. She is convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. But the chief inspector is not entirely satisfied and, seeking a different answer to the question, ultimately discovers that Tony planned the murder.

Milland and Cummings handle their roles in their customarily efficient style. Dial M is perhaps more notable as a reminder, if any is needed, of how beautiful and how classy Hollywood's own Princess Diana, Grace Kelly, was in her twenties when she became a star. She was, of course, one of Hitchcock's muses and it's easy to see why.


Unlike Any Movie You Will Ever See
Peter Brook, for many years the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has more than once astounded the theater world with his interpretations of familiar plays by Shakespeare and others. Here's the chance for movie-goers to witness his transformative skills in action. Marat/Sade, which I'd seen previously on stage, is a Brechtian political drama about the French revolution performed in a madhouse under the direction of the notorious Marquis de Sade. Brook's retelling takes advantage of the setting by emphasizing the particular insanities of the major players. Marat, portrayed by Ian Richardson, is coldly rational except when he's not. Patrick Magee's de Sade reflects that personality's obsession with cruelty. But the real brilliance of Brook's choices is captured best by Glenda Jackson, who appears as a victim of narcolepsy cast in the role of Charlotte Corday, Marat's assassin. Jackson's character can barely rouse herself to perform. She's confused. Her diction is odd. She's not convincing as Corday, nor is she supposed to be. She's thoroughly convincing, however, an insane person playing someone who is obsessed with Marat. Other brilliant performances are turned in by Michael Williams as the Herald who announces key scenes; Robert Landon Lloyd as Roux a cleric turned revolutionary who is seen most of the time in a strait-jacket because of his violent behavior, John Steiner as Monsieur Depere, a sexual predator who lusts after Jackson's Corday and a quartet of three men and a woman in comedia del' arte garb who comment on the action in song and verse.

It is a bizarre film, difficult to watch at times, but brilliant in its execution. I do not believe there is another director alive or dead who could have done what Brooks did with this script and this talented group of actors. Too bad he didn't do more movies.

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Seen Many Years Later
Thirty years after seeing it for the first time, I revisited this film last night on PBS. I had remembered only two things from it: The quality of Meryl Streep's acting and the famous scene of her standing on the very edge of a stone wave breaker while the sea burst around her. I had forgotten that it was a film within a film. I had forgotten all but the vaguest outlines of the plot. I had entirely forgotten Jeremy Irons. If retention in memory is the hallmark of a good work of art, I'd have to give "The French Lieutenant's Woman" a low mark.

And yet the second viewing of the film was a revelation. I hadn't previously been struck by how beautiful Meryl Streep was when she was young. Nor did I remember how controlled her acting was in this overwrought movie. "The French Lieutenant's Woman" was nominated for five Academy Awards and deservedly lost all five, including Ms. Streep's nomination as best actress. Nevertheless, this was one of the record number of nominations she has compiled and it should be seen if only for that reason. It adds a different dimension to her incomparable portfolio of challenging roles.

Jeremy Irons fares less well in my estimation. Like Ms. Streep, he plays two parts, one as her co-star in the film being made and the other as the lover ruined by his all-consuming love for her film character. Not that Irons does a bad job of acting. He simply fails to be convincing in the second of his two roles. That may be because the story (or the part) is inherently unconvincing, sort of Wuthering Heights without the emotional tide which causes that heavy- breathing romance to seem plausible to many women if not to their menfolk.

It's still not a great movie. Maybe not even a good movie. But if all we ever cared to watch were good/great films, Hollywood would soon be out of business.

The Iron Lady

For Once the Oscars Had It Right
"The Iron Lady" isn't a great picture but Meryl Streep does quite a remarkable job of portraying her, proving once again that Streep is the best screen actress of our time. She captures Thatcher in four distinct stages: early in her political career when her voice was a screech, later when, after coaching, she developed a commanding vocal style, late in her period as prime minister when she bullied her cabinet and ignored contrary views and finally as an old woman whose memory and mind are giving way. In this final period, which opens and closes the film, Street adopts the shuffling gait and whistling voice of the elderly. Whether one admires or detests Mrs. Thatcher, Ms. Streep's characterizations are spot-on. In her last years, to provide drama and, I suppose. to avoid a clinical depiction of senescence, the script has Mrs. Thatcher conducting conversations with her dead husband, Denis, portrayed by Jim Broadbent. Considering that he's a ghost, Broadbent fulfills his role with skill and good humor. Alexandra Roach, who portrays the young Margaret, simply cannot hold up her end in competition with Ms. Streep as her older self.

Two Way Stretch

See Peter Sellers Plot
The sole reason to see "Two-Way Stretch" -- and not a good one -- to watch Peter Sellers at work early in his career. He displays exactly none of the comic ability that later made him famous. Except for Wilfred Hyde White as an outside confederate of Sellers and his two prison companions who regularly visits them disguised as a vicar, the other members of the cast strive entirely too hard, without much success, to provoke laughter. The film has a preposterous premise and a large number of preposterous moments. That would be okay if the preposterous plot, the preposterous moments, and the preposterous characters were funny but they rarely are. The only thing one can say for them is that they get more laughs than Sellers. Based on this film alone, it's hard to understand why his career took off.

The Lady Vanishes

Good, If Somewhat Creaky : POSSIBLE SPOILER
This film by Alfred Hitchcock benefits from excellent performances by Margaret Lockwood as a beautiful young woman en route to London to be married, Dame May Witty as Miss Froy, an older woman who helps her after she's been hit in the head at the railroad station by a falling object, Michael Redgrave in an early role as an itinerant musician and Paul Lukas as a mysterious brain surgeon taking a patient aboard the same train to a hospital for an operation. Unlike later Hitchcock movies, "The Lady Vanishes" is quite predictable. One guesses early on where Miss Froy has vanished, how the pairing of Ms. Lockwood and Redgrave will end up and what the mysterious doctor is up to. Nevertheless, Hitchcock wrings more tension out of this transparent plot than might be anticipated, and he manages to seed the movie with the humor that became a distinctive feature of his long career. One scene made no sense whatever to me. I'm sure I saw a hand pushing the pot or brick that fell on Ms. Lockwood's head. The result of the knock on the head has an immediate connection to the events that follow. But if she was deliberately targeted, who might have done it and why eluded me completely.


A Difficult Tale, Very Well Told
This story about a dark-skinned girl born to white Afrikaners during the apartheid era will come as a revelation to anyone who has forgotten what South Africa was like before the transformation brought about by Nelson Mandela and his colleagues. Not that South Africa is out of the jungle of racial conflict; it certainly isn't. But one hopes that the fate inflicted on Sandra Liang because of her color could happen today.

The story is gripping. The direction and the photography are efficient. The two best known actors in this film, Sophie Okenado ( Rawanda) and Sam Neill, are excellent as the adult Sandra and her Afrikaner father. But other unfamiliar players are also very good

How to Murder Your Wife

Tries Very Hard -- Too Hard
This film strives desperately to be funny and only occasionally succeeds. Oddly, Jack Lemmon mostly functions as a straight man in those moments. The comedy is supplied by one of the other actors: Terry-Thomas as his valet, Eddie Mayehoff as his incompetent, hen-pecked lawyer, Clair Trevor as the lawyer's wife, Virna Lisi as his own wife or Sidney Blackstone as a frequently drunk judge proclaiming that he is "as sober as a judge." The premise -- that Lemmon's character is a dedicated bachelor who accidentally marries the woman (Lisi) that rose out of a cake at a drunken, guys-only party -- might be funny but it usually isn't. Ms. Lisi, an Italian beauty who made a couple of Hollywood films, is asked to be beautiful, speak Italian in rapid outbursts and to perform a sexy dancing routine at one point in the story. She does those three things efficiently. Lemmon's role is absurd to begin with, and it doesn't get a lot better as the film progresses. It doesn't much matter that the story is ridiculous. Many successful comedies are ridiculous. Rather, the film often fails because the effort to provoke laughter is simply too strenuous.

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