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The Crown

Beautiful To Look At, Uneven Historically
The Crown is certainly a beautiful drama. There was no expense spared in replicating some iconic scenes. But from the first episode onward, there are some significant historic inaccuracies that detract from the production.

The most grievous is in the way the writers frame the roles of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. For one thing, it's clearly documented that she fled England before his abdication. She did not sit by his side while he gave the abdication speech. She was in France, sobbing her eyes out.

And, she only met Queen Mary once, at a ball, and only for a moment. However, she took steps to heal the rift, and the Queen famously added a PS to a letter saying, "I send a kind message to your wife." By the 1950s, there was barely any contact between the Palace and the Windsors. They were off in Paris or in New York, and there were no circumstances under which he would have been an adviser to the Queen. This is all fabricated.

Also, one of the writers must have it in for the Queen Mother, because her portrayal is nothing like the friendly, fun loving woman that she was. She's almost unrecognizable.

My advice to anyone watching is to consider this as "inspired by" the life of the Queen, but by no means take it as fact.


Ten Years After World War II, Modern Japanese Life Takes Shape
"Early Spring" is one of the lesser-known Ozu films, but it is worth watching to complete his view of post-war Japan, and the complexities of returning to daily life. When "Early Spring" was released, Japan was two years into its independence from American occupying forces. Tokyo and other major cities were rebuilding. Lives were getting back to some kind of order -- and with that, the challenges of dealing with a group think society also were present.

The relationships in this movie show the influence traditional Japan still held on modern life. The closeness of the wife and her mother; the courtesy that the husband shows the mother in law, even as he simply drops his clothes to the floor for his wife to pick up; the traditional house with few conveniences. For anyone interested in Japanese cuisine, the preparation of oden (a kind of winter stew) is a textbook lesson, but it also weaves in with the plot.

"Early Spring" lacks the humor and grace of "Early Summer" and it is not as masterful as "Tokyo Story" but it offers an interesting look at the lives of the young salarymen and office girls, at a time when Japan's post-war culture was solidifying. It would be interesting to see a remake, because Japanese life has changed, and yet has remained much the same.

Away from Her

Fine performances, but the script lets it down
Away from Her features some fine, achingly accurate portrayals by Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. For three-quarters of the movie, I was alternatively riveted and in tears. My family has thankfully escaped Alzheimer's, but my mother is elderly and has a number of friends who have fallen victim to it. This is a disease that devastates the care givers as much as the patients, and Away from Her tries to give equal time to both.

My main problem with the film was that instead of staying on plot, it veered off into unnecessary directions. Olympia Dukakis was miscast, and her decision to act as sole caregiver to her husband, without any outside help, seemed a stretch. A patient in her husband's condition not only would belong in a nursing home, most likely on the second floor as it's called in the movie, but she would at very least need a day nurse. That aside, the photography is beautiful, Julie and Gordon are worth seeing, and it was an effort to tackle a difficult subject.


A wonderful discovery
I had seen Tokyo Story and respected it. But Early Summer is a charming, poignant and very human movie that stands the test of time. It is the story of Noriko, a 28-year-old administrative assistant who is under pressure from her family to marry. To put this in perspective, in traditional Japan, a woman married by age 25, or she was considered a "Christmas cake "-- nobody wanted it after the 25th! It is not as common in Japan now for women to face such pressure, especially since so many Japanese women are choosing to stay single, now that they have the money to be independent. However, Noriko's case would have been common up until the current generation of women.

While the war is not a character in the movie, there are threads that connect Early Summer to World War II. The movie takes place in 1951, just before Japan emerged from the U.S. occupation, and before Japanese society had its great explosion of wealth in the 1960s. It is a snapshot of a time that no longer exists, although the family conflicts are universal. I plan to add Early Summer to my list of top movies and look forward to viewing it again.


Fine indie film, especially meaningful to musicians (MILD SPOILERS)
If you have struggled to become an artist, or even wonder what that kind of life is like, you will find some real meaning in "Once." The passion with which The Guy plays on the street from the outset is a tip-off that this is going to be a special film. Hollywood would have made a much different, glossier version of this film (and still may, since it has all the elements.) I loved the ragged edges of the story and the unresolved questions: will The Guy make it in London? Will The Girl's marriage work out? Will the band stay together and sell records? Will Paul McGuinness discover them and have them open for U2?

The setting is a grittier Dublin than seems to now exist, so that in itself is a treasure. (I still half-expected Bono to appear in some fashion but there is no trace of him.) My main quibble with the film is that the production values in parts are simply awful, especially during the long flashback scene where The Guy is thinking about The Girl That Got Away. It is more amateurish than it needs to be, especially since parts of the film look just fine. Still, this is a movie for film lovers and music lovers and anyone who wonders if there's a world beyond Pop Idol or American Idol.

La Môme

La Vie En Rose, Thorns and All
I saw this film at the French Film Festival in New York in April, and the memory of it still leaves me shattered. It is a brutally candid portrayal of Edith Piaf, who was known as La Mome, or the Little Sparrow. She had a violent, drug-filled and tragic private life, making Billie Holiday look like a Catholic school girl by comparison. (She was proud of being the same age as Holiday, and often referred to her in conversation.) Marian Cotillard is simply amazing in the role. She captures Piaf's looks perfectly, and her brushes with illness as well as her fame are vividly portrayed. Gerard Depardieu makes only a brief appearance, but the rest of the cast does a fine job. The more I have thought about this film, the more it reminds me of 8 1/2, and wonder if others will see the similarities. The only thing that keeps me from giving it a 10 is that by the end, the audience is completely wrung out, and there seems to be a one-note aspect to it. Perhaps a bit of editing would have done the trick. In any case, this is head and shoulders above most summer fare and any film or cabaret music buff will enjoy it.

Up Close & Personal

A guilty pleasure
As someone who works in the news business, I cringe, laugh and cry when I watch Up Close and Personal. It bears almost no resemblance except for a broad outline of what life in local and network TV news is all about. Broadcast News is a far more apt portrayal of the real pressures of a newsroom. And yet, Up Close and Personal is more fun to watch, especially on a rainy afternoon with a big bucket of popcorn and some Kleenex nearby. Robert Redford, Stockard Channing and Kate Nelligan give good performances while Joe Mantegna has one of the most delightful character names ever in a movie: Bucky Terranova. Michelle Pfeiffer is the weakest link and her prison scenes are ludicrous, but her Miami wardrobe and hair are stunning. She plays well off Robert Redford, who for once loses his wooden quality and actually seems to have some chemistry with her. It's hard to imagine that Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne actually wrote this movie, since it's such a potboiler and nothing like their finest work. But on the other hand, it proves that they really were romantics. I put this in the same category as "The Best of Everything" and "Designing Woman" (the original, starring Lauren Bacall.) You can't call them great movies, but they have charm of their own.

Fauteuils d'orchestre

French Commercial Cinema As Americans Like It!
This is today's French commercial cinema by the numbers: gamin plucky young woman character, check. Over the top if beautiful actress, check. Aging, wise woman, check. Well- preserved dotty grandmother in pearls and Hermes scarf, check. Anguished artist with long- suffering wife, check. Sexy young male actor as counterpoint to gamin plucky young actress, check. Lots of shots of Paris with accordion music, check. Recognizable foreign actor in cameo role, check. Gerard Depardieu -- oops, he missed out on this one. Fire his agent!

All that cynicism aside, this is still an enjoyable, frothy film. It is not quite as imaginative as Amelie, but it is better than much of the French cinema that is being churned out these days. The three plot lines are skillfully woven together and the outcome will satisfy all but the most hard-hearted. Now I guess the question will be, who'll play all these characters when the movie is bought by an American studio and rewritten to take place in New York.

There's got to be something in there for Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Garner, non?

Grey Gardens

Haunting, ground-breaking, poignant look at mothers and daughters
I knew about but had never seen Grey Gardens, before I saw the Broadway musical of the same name. Friends cautioned me that if I had not seen the movie, the musical would not make sense. It did, but it also prompted me to rent the movie. At first, I thought it was a train wreck, full of strange, shrieking characters, and it was exceedingly hard to watch. But being able to stop it, digest it and go back to it made me realize why Grey Gardens is considered to be a memorable documentary.

Both Big Edie and Little Edie are unforgettable and their utter lack of self-consciousness is worth witnessing. Both of them remain beautiful despite their encroaching age. They have a relationship that will chill any woman (and undoubtedly some men) and make you re- examine your own dealings with your mother. In an era when reality television and cinema is commonplace, it's fascinating to see the Mayleses' work from three decades ago, and realize what an impact the film must have had.

I echo what other posters have said: how were they allowed to slip into such squalor by their family? But beyond that, how could two people living in the 1970s be able to escape reality in such a complete fashion? Or were they simply considered too crazy to be helped? I would highly recommend watching this with the commentary track, which gave me additional insight into the film.

Gideon's Daughter

confusing but engrossing drama
I ordered Gideon's Daughter from Netflicks after watching the Golden Globes and seeing awards for both Bill Nighy and Emily Blunt. The movie is well worth watching for anyone who enjoys their work, as well as that of Miranda Richardson. The plot is a little confusing, and what is a throw-away scene at the beginning of the film becomes something that resonates throughout, so it's important to pay attention. Bill Nighy's personality is somewhat at odds with his character, who is supposed to be the most important spinmeister in England. Although there are moments when he lights up, he seems almost too laid back for the role, and it's also hard to believe he would have enough energy to be womanizer as he is supposed to be in the film. But I found his scenes with Emily Blunt to be a road map of the anger and frustration between a father and a daughter. Emily Blunt, in particular, is a revelation and if you only know her from The Devil Wears Prada, this gives a much better indication of what she is capable of doing. It has that high-gloss BBC combination of intellect, intrigue and pathos, and if you are looking for a way to spend an engrossing Sunday evening aside from the usual melodramas I recommend this.

Notes on a Scandal

Good actors but heavy Ick factor
I was drawn to Notes on a Scandal by its three stars -- Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy -- who are among my favorite actors. There is enough material here for a very good movie. Unfortunately, this is not it. The script borders on the melodramatic, and the performances likewise. I could not get past the fact that it was Judi, Cate and Bill up there, I never really was convinced that any of them had become their characters. Bill Nighy has one fine explosion scene that demonstrates he is capable of parts beyond what he has been playing, but the others seem to be competing for who can be the most dramatic, Judi with her strange, wacko spinster teacher and Cate with her ditsy blonde bombshell.

In addition, let's face it, there is a heavy ick factor to the story and it's difficult to watch, especially if you have children or other young relatives the age of the boy in the story. I had hoped this film would be Oscar worthy but it misses badly, and Notes is going to have trouble finding an audience.

The Painted Veil

Stunningly photographed, haunting story, wish more could see it
The Painted Veil is one of the best pictures of the year, but sadly, it may not get the audience that it deserves. It features two strong performances from Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, who also produced the movie, giving their participation in it extra meaning. Norton gives a beautifully crafted depiction of Walter, a doctor who is by turns cruel, intent, vulnerable and passionate. Watts is excellent as always in her role as a spoiled socialite completely unsuited for a journey to rural China, but who matures as the movie progresses. Both these performances are textbook examples of how to present a character. The music and clothes, not to mention the stunning photography, give it the sense of a David Lean or Merchant-Ivory production, yet it has far more honesty. The movie will resonate with people who have traveled to China or who are interested in the role of English missionaries (for Walter is something of a missionary) during the pre-WWII era. Moviegoers who enjoyed The Motorcycle Diaries, who liked Watts in 21 Grams and who appreciate the details of film-making should see this movie.

The Departed

Scorcese is Back at It
The Departed marks Martin Scorcese's return to more-familiar territory after forays into period pictures. This film does not rank with his very best work but easily is among the best films of 2006. Leo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin turn in fine performances; Matt Damon does a good job essentially playing a variation of the same character he played in Syriana, only bigger and broader here. Scorcese almost but not quite reins in Jack Nicholson; perhaps if DeNiro had played Frank Costello as originally planned, the film would have gained at least another star from me. My main objections to the movie are its sloppiness (see the Continuity page for many, many examples) and lack of authenticity. Despite the location settings, it was really shot primarily in New York and that takes away from its efforts to depict the Boston cops and crime scene. Mystic River did a much more accurate job of that. And still, it's nice to have Scorcese back making a picture where his talents can really shine through -- humor, gore, profanity. and moments of real emotion.

Dans Paris

thought provoking
I saw Dans Paris in Paris during October, where it is showing in a number of theaters. It is a thought provoking movie about the relationship between siblings and how it can shape their lives. Part comedy, part tragedy, and at time a mixture of both, it is worth seeing. The photography is beautiful and it has a lively sound track. Dans Paris makes me optimistic about French cinema which has been deteriorating into commercialism. i.e. movies that can easily be ripped off and remade in English. Granted, someone might try to take the plot line of Dans Paris and turn it into a vehicle for the Wilson Brothers. But before that happens, try to see this if it comes your way.

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

More Leonard Would Have Made a Better Movie
This film introduced me to Leonard Cohen, who I vaguely knew as the writer of songs like "Tower of Song" and "Suzanne" but otherwise knew nothing about. In short, he's fascinating, and this film is as much about the art of composing as it is about the songs themselves. But there was not enough Leonard Cohen and too much time devoted to mediocre renditions of his music. Rufus Wainwright is entertaining, but the redeeming feature of the performances is the U2/Leonard collaboration which comes at the very end of the film. It's worth sitting through just for the expression on Larry Mullen Jr.'s face, the obvious worship for Leonard by The Edge and to hear Bono as a backup singer, with Adam Clayton looking bemused. I would only recommend this film to someone who knows music and can appreciate just how much work Leonard puts into his songs; otherwise, you'll be yawning an hour in.

The Illusionist

It should have been better
The Illusionist could have been a much, much better movie. For starters, why are the producers passing off Prague as Vienna? The freshly painted signs in German gave them away. If you're going to make a movie in which Vienna is the central character, please use the real thing, none of this Toronto-passing-for-New-York business. Second, Edward Norton's decent performance is sullied by Paul Giamatti's hammy performance (left over from Cinderella Man, albeit with an Austrian accent.) The movie had potential but instead we got a half-hearted effort. Unless you are itching to see a movie and have no other choices, wait for video on this one.


Worth seeing for Ben's performance
Hollywoodland and The Illusionist are in the same category: okay movies that film buffs go to see at this point in the year because the good films haven't come out yet, but nothing we'd probably bother with at Christmastime. However, I would recommend this movie solely for Ben Affleck's performance. He does not strike a wrong note. He has the looks and the slight air of cheesiness that the role requires, without taking it to satire. Don't expect to stay awake throughout, I thought Adrien Brody was just awful, and this film manages to make Diane Lane look matronly. But the screen crackles when Bob Hoskins makes his infrequent appearances. I

The Shawshank Redemption

Graceful, intriguing Tim Robbins triumph
The Shawshank Redemption is in a league with Casablanca as a movie you can watch over and over, catching different nuances each time and bringing your own life experiences each time you watch it. Tim Robbins gives the performance of his career and this is the movie for which Morgan Freeman should have won an Oscar (a shame he had to wait for Million Dollar Baby.) There are many twists and turns and I defy anyone to watch the ending without tears running down their face. In fact, the entire last third of movie is filled with marvelous scenes. If there is any drawback to this movie, it is that it is a shade too long, meaning it's often butchered when it is shown with commercials on TV. Rent this, or better yet, buy it to get the full thrust of it. Definitely on my personal top 10.

An Unfinished Life

Everyone else makes up for JLo
Having seen a sneak preview, I disagree with pro-JLo comments from other posters. She's no better than any of her other commercial movies, and certainly not as good as Out of Sight. That remains her one good performance and she has not yet equaled it. I mean, what battered wife has that complexion? That said, the rest of the cast is good and they make up for JLo's one-dimensional performance. Damian Lewis is the real surprise. To go from playing Soames Forsythe to a girlfriend-beater (with a perfect Yank accent to boot) is a real stretch and he pulls it off. Morgan Freeman is excellent as always, Cameron Manheim makes the most of her role and Robert Redford comes back from a string of disappointments. It's better than an airplane movie, and definitely something to consider after you've seen the Penguins, Broken Flowers and The Constant Gardener.

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