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Anna Karenina (Blu-ray) DVD

7 Apr

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Synopsis: Director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard’s visually  stunning telling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Featuring Keira Knightley as Anna and Jude Law as Karenin, the story speaks of love, infidelity and consequences in the Imperial age of Russia in the late 1900’s.

Cast

Keira Knightley …………………………………………Anna Karenina

 Jude Law………………………………………………………………Karenin

Aaron Taylor-Johnson…..…………………………………….Vronsky

Kelly Macdonald………….……………….…………………………..Dolly

 Matthew Macfadyen………………………………………………Oblonsky

Domhnall Gleeson………………………………..…………………….Levin

Ruth Wilson Princess Betsy…….……………..………………Tverskoy

Alicia Vikander………………………………..………………………….Kitty

 Olivia Williams……………………….…………………Countess Vronsky

 Emily Watson…………………………..…………………….Countess Lydia

Review: Directed by Joe Wright and written by Tom Stoppard, this version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is both lavish and well acted. Here within lies the conundrum, the film makers can’t seem to decide whether this is an experiment in cinema or an experiment in filmed theatrics.

The story unfolds inside a large theater that through a variety of both synchronized choreography and camera movement becomes Russia in the Imperial era of the mid 1900s.. For example the stage has lavish stage backdrops that depict various landscapes and cities, trains literally go in and out of the theater as it is transformed into a lavish looking train station, then like magic it transforms through rapid set changes into a seat of government or the home of Anna Karenina and her husband Karenin. It seems as each character appears and goes through a stage door some new set is waiting behind it. This experiment in cinema is very distracting when you are trying to understand who each new character is and how they are related to each other.

The time is 1874. Vibrant and beautiful, Anna Karenina has what any of her contemporaries would aspire to; she is the wife of Karenin a high-ranking government official to whom she has borne a son, and her social standing in St. Petersburg could scarcely be higher. She journeys to Moscow after a letter from her philandering brother Oblonsky arrives, asking for Anna to come and help save his marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). En route, Anna makes the acquaintance of Countess Vronsky, who is then met at the train station by her son, the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky. When Anna is introduced to Vronsky, there is a mutual spark of instant attraction that cannot – and will not – be ignored.

The Moscow household is also visited by Oblonsky’s best friend Levin, an overly sensitive and compassionate landowner. Levin is in love with Dolly’s younger sister Kitty. Inopportunely, he proposes to Kitty but she is infatuated with Vronsky. Devastated, Levin returns to his Pokrovskoe estate and throws himself into farm work. Kitty herself is heartbroken when, at a grand ball, Vronsky only has eyes for Anna and the married woman reciprocates the younger man’s interest.

Anna struggles to regain her equilibrium by rushing home to St. Petersburg, where Vronsky follows her. She attempts to resume her familial routine, but is consumed by thoughts of Vronsky. A passionate affair ensues, which scandalizes St. Petersburg society. Karenin is placed in an untenable position and is forced to give his wife an ultimatum. In attempting to attain happiness, the decisions Anna makes pierce the veneer of an image-obsessed society, reverberating with romantic and tragic consequences that dramatically change her and the lives of all around her.

Tolstoy wrote about Russian society, I think most people want Gone with the Wind romance. But why this was so deeply clever was that it cut to the real story which is NOT about a fallen woman, or love. It’s about how lust almost incidentally is the backdrop for the question between whether what is right is good, and in those days that meant religion and society. Keira being so exquisitely beautiful, all the more perfect for the imperfect eye teeth, brought a brittle doll like quality which, just like the sparten but beautiful set, underscored that this is NOT a story about a deep love and sensuality. It’s a story about right and wrong, spirituality, the soul and the meaning of life! Anna feels that lust is the answer to an existentially empty life, but she needs the theatre of society. The battle for her is the social v. lust. We can’t help but understand her plight. Brittle Keira makes the social dominate at the beginning and shatter like a china doll.

It is the acting that in fact redeems this movie. Jude law is steadfast as he battles with God’s law and the laws that society demand of him. He is never angry but never at real peace. There are a few familiar faces in the cast such as Emily Watson of Downton Abbey who plays Countess Lydia, and Domhnall Gleeson as Levin, who you may remember as Bill Weasley in the Potter movies.

Stoppard’s screenplay covers all the bases of Tolstoy’s vision of love, hate, sacrifice and remorse. What was missing for me in all the eye candy, was a real depth of emotion. Was this a masterpiece of cinema risk taking leaving behind the language of cinema story telling or was this a filmed theatrical with over the top melodrama? Don’t get me wrong there are genuine moments of brilliant acting and emotion, the problem is that the design and grandeur of the sets soon become a distraction.

The Blu-ray format enhances a textural movie such as this, the lush seems more luxurious, the colors are so vivid you feel you there watching the story unfold before your eyes.  Available on Netflix, Amazon and at the Red Box.

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Desert Sand PT 2: The Ten Commandments (1956) (Blu-Ray DVD)

30 Mar

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Synopsis: Cecil B. Demille’ epic remake of the film The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston plays Moses in this sweeping telling of the freeing of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt from the Pharaoh Ramses. This lavish production was Demille’s last and has become a classic. The all-star cast includes Edward G. Robinson, Yul Brenner, Charlton Heston, Vincent Price, John Carridine, Anne Baxter and Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Yvonne De Carlo.

Cast

Charlton Heston……..Moses/Voice of the God of Abraham

Yul Brenner…………………………………Pharaoh Rameses II

Sir Cedric Hardwicke…………………………….Pharaoh Seti I

Nina Foch……………………………………Bithiah, Seti’s Sister

Anne Baxter……………………………………………….Nefretiri

Edward G. Robinson……………………………………….Dathan

Yvonne De Carlo………………………………………….Sephora

Debra Paget………………………………………………………Lilia

John Derek……………………………………………………Joshua

Martha Scott……………………………………………….Yoshabel

Judith Anderson…………………………………………..Memnet

Vincent Price……………………………………………………Baka

John Carradine…………………………………………………Aaron

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Review: The Egyptian Pharaoh fearing one day the Hebrew slaves may rise against him orders the death of all firstborn Hebrew males. Yoshebel, a Hebrew Woman, sets her infant son adrift on the Nile in order to save him. The infant is rescued from the Nile by an Egyptian princess Bithiah, (Nina Foch), who decides to adopt the boy even though her servant Memnet, (Judith Anderson), recognizes that the child is Hebrew and protests.

As a young man, Moses becomes a successful general, claiming victory in a war with the Nubians of Ethiopia and then entering Egypt into an alliance with them. Moses loves Nefretiri,(Anne Baxter) who is the “throne princess” and must marry the next Pharaoh. An incident occurs when an elderly woman, who is greasing the ground for the pillar of stone to move easier, is almost crushed to death when her scarf gets caught under the slab of stone, prompting Moses to scold overseer Baka, (Vincent Price). Moses frees the elderly woman from her dangerous chore, not realizing that the elderly woman was his natural mother Yoshebel. While working on the building of a treasure city for Seti’s, (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) Jubilee, Moses meets the stone-cutter Joshua, who tells him of the Hebrew God.

Moses institutes numerous reforms concerning the treatment of the slaves on the project, and eventually Rameses, (Yule Brenner) charges Moses with planning an insurrection, pointing out that the slaves are calling Moses the “Deliverer” of prophecy. Moses defends himself against the charges, arguing that he is simply making his workers more productive by making them stronger and happier and proves his point with the impressive progress he is making. During this time, Rameses has been charged by his father with finding out whether there really is a Hebrew fitting the description of the Deliverer.

Nefretiri learns from the servant Memnet that Moses is the son of Hebrew slaves. Nefretiri kills Memnet and reveals the story to Moses, who goes to Bithiah to learn the truth. Bithiah evades his questions, but Moses follows her to the home of Yoshebel and thus learns the truth.

Moses spends time working amongst the slaves to learn more of their lives. During this time the master builder Baka steals Liliah, who is engaged to the stone-cutter Joshua. Joshua rescues Liliah but is captured himself; Moses frees Joshua but strangles Baka. Moses confesses to Joshua that he too is Hebrew; the confession is witnessed by the ambitious Hebrew overseer Dathan, (Edward G. Robinson). Dathan uses the information to bargain with Rameses for Baka’s house, a post as Governor of Goshen, and the ownership of the slave Liliah, (Debra Paget).

Based on Dathan’s information, Moses is arrested and brought before Seti. Moses tells Seti that he is not the Deliverer, but would free the slaves if he could. Bithiah tells her brother Seti the truth about Moses, and Seti orders his name stricken from all records and monuments. Moses is banished to the desert, but not before, he receives the word that Yoshebel had died before she delivered the piece of a Levite cloth, and Rameses is declared the next Pharaoh.

Moses makes his way across the desert, nearly dying of hunger and thirst before he comes to a well in the land of Midian. At the well, he defends seven sisters from Amalekites who try to push them away from the water. Moses finds a home in Midian with the girls’ father Jethro, a Bedouin sheik, who reveals that he is a follower of “He who has no name,” whom Moses recognizes as the God of Abraham. Moses impresses Jethro and the other sheiks with his wise and just trading, and marries Jethro’s eldest daughter (“Sephora”, the Greek form of her name used in the film).

While herding sheep in the desert Moses finds Joshua, who has escaped from the copper mines that he was sent to after the death of Baka. Moses sees the Burning Bush on the summit of Mount Sinai and hears the voice of God (Heston, who was not credited for this secondary role). God charges Moses to return to Egypt and free His chosen people. In Egypt, Seti dies and Rameses succeeds him as Pharaoh.

At Pharaoh’s court, Moses comes before Rameses to win the slaves’ freedom, turning his staff into a snake to show Rameses the power of God. Rameses decrees that the Hebrews be given no straw to make their bricks, but to make the same tally as before on pain of death. As the Hebrews prepare to stone Moses in anger, Nefretiri’s retinue rescues him; however when she attempts to resume their relationship he spurns her, reminding her that not only is he on a mission he is also married.

As Moses continues to challenge Pharaoh’s hold over his people, Egypt is beset by divine plagues. Moses warns him that the next plague to fall upon Egypt will be summoned by Pharaoh himself. Enraged at the plagues and Moses’ continuous demands, as well as his generals and advisers telling him to give in, Rameses orders all first-born Hebrews to die. Nefretiri warns Sephora to escape with her son Gershom on a passing caravan to Midian, and Moses tells the Queen that it is her own son who will die. In an eerily quiet scene, the Angel of Death creeps into Egyptian streets in a glowing green cloud, killing all the firstborn of Egypt, including the adult son of Pharaoh’s top general, and Pharaoh’s own child. The Hebrews who have marked their doorposts and lintels with lamb’s blood are eating a hasty meal and preparing to depart. Broken and despondent, Pharaoh orders Moses to take his people, and cattle, and go. The Hebrews begin their exodus from Egypt.

Nefretiri goads Pharaoh into a rage so that he arms himself and pursues the former slaves to the shore of the Red Sea. Held back by a pillar of fire, the Egyptian forces watch as Moses parts the waters. As the Hebrews race over the seabed, the pillar of fire dies down and the army rides in hot pursuit. The Hebrews make it to the far shore as the waters close on the Egyptian army, drowning every man and horse. Rameses looks on in despair. All he can do is return to Nefretiri, confessing to her, “His god is God.”

The former slaves camp at the foot of Sinai and wait as Moses again ascends the mountain. During his absence, the Hebrews lose faith and, urged on by the evil Dathan, build a golden calf as an idol to bear before them back to Egypt, hoping to win Rameses’ forgiveness. They force Aaron to help fashion the gold plating. The people indulge their most wanton desires in an orgy of sinfulness.

High atop the mountain, Moses witnesses God’s creation of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. When he finally climbs down, Moses beholds his people’s iniquity and hurls the tablets at the idol in a rage. The idol explodes, and Dathan and his followers are killed. After God forces them to endure forty years’ exile in the desert wandering lost, to kill off the rebellious generation, the Hebrews are about to arrive in the land of Canaan. An elderly Moses, who, however, is not allowed to enter the promised land, because he disobeyed the lord at the waters of strife, not shown in the film, then appoints Joshua to succeed him as leader, says a final good bye to Sephora, and goes forth to his destiny.

The performances are solid, Demille’s imagery is grandiose and the film is a classic becoming the 8th highest grossing film in cinema history.  The Blu-Ray restoration is brilliant and you can see the grandeur in every frame. Demille understood the importance of the work and instilled this in every actor and all the crew that worked on the film. the film literally had thousands of extras. The Blu-Ray disc bonus features include rare interviews with cast members, reminiscing from Demille’s granddaughter who was on the set and a making of documentary.

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Desert Sand Pt 1: Lawrence of Arabia (Blu-ray)

30 Mar

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Synopsis: Directed by David Lean, the film takes on an epic journey by telling us the story of complex man, Thomas Edward Lawrence. Lawrence has been labeled everything from hero, to charlatan, to sadist,  blazed his way to glory in the Arabian desert, then sought anonymity as a common soldier under an assumed name. The story opens with the death of Lawrence in a motorcycle accident at the age of 46, then flashbacks to recount his adventures.  As a young intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916, he is given leave to investigate the progress of the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I. In the desert, he organizes a guerrilla army and–for two years–leads the Arabs in harassing the Turks with desert raids, train-wrecking and camel attacks. Eventually, he leads his army northward and helps a British General destroy the power of the Ottoman Empire.

Cast:

Peter O’Toole………………………………………….Major T.E. Lawrence

Alec Guinness……………………………………………………Prince Faisal

Claude Raines……………………………Arab Bureau Chief-Mr. Dryden

Donald Wolfit………………………………………………..General Murray

Omar Sherif…………………………………………………………..Sherif Ali

Anthony Quayle…………………………………………..Colonel Brighton

Anthony Quinn……………………………………………….Auda abu Tayi

Jack Hawkins………………………………………………..General Allenby

Arthur Kennedy…………..US war Correspondent – Jackson Bentley

Jose Ferrer…………………………………………………………Turkish Bey

 

Review: Originally filmed in Super Panavision  70, the film was meant to be seen in a theater. Thanks to blue-ray, you can now appreciate every sweeping image in detail, beautifully restored to its’ original splendor. For starters the filmed garnered 7 Academy Awards in 1962, including best picture and is considered one of the most influential films of all time.

Peter O’Toole coming from the British Shakespearean stage, makes his film debut as T.E. Lawrence a misfit British Army lieutenant, who is assigned by Mr. Dryden (Claude Raines) of the Arab Bureau, during World War I, to asses the prospects of Arab Prince Faisal’s revolt against the Turks. Although Lawrence’s commanding  General Murray (Wolfit) objects Lawrence is sent straight away.

It is important to note that Lean’s use of sweeping desert imagery, makes the landscape a major player in the film. The desert becomes a supporting character as the very nature nature of the heat and sand brings out the survival instincts of every major character, strengthens their belief in God and even kills the unsuspecting.

Lawrence wins the trust of Faisal and his band of warriors as they win battle after battle against the Turks. he becomes a legend among the people who refer to him as L…Awrence. As a symbol of the trust, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) gives Lawrence the white robes of a prophet and a gold handled dagger. When he puts them on, he walks around a sand dune and looks at his shadow as he realizes the role he must play. In essence as he studies his reflection in the dagger, he feels he is pure and must lead the people for he is been chosen by God to do so.  A similar image is used later in the film as Lawrence bloodied and no longer pure looks at his reflection in disgust. It is a brilliant device that immediately let’s us understand who Lawrence really is. The dagger reflection was purely O’Toole, improvising at Lean’s direction when he was asked, “What would a young man do first with his new found leadership and dressed in the prophet robes?”  O’Toole first looked at his shadow in the desert sand then took out the dagger and looked at himself in it. Lean’s only comment to O’Toole was “Good Boy” and used the dagger again as described above.

Anthony Quinn as Adu abu Tayi, finds Lawrence admiring himself and through Lawrence s audacity gets in Tayi’s good graces. Sherif Ali and Tayi distrust each other but through Lawrence’s logic and intelligence convinces them to join forces in the battle against the Turks.

As things progress US war Correspondent, Jackson Bentley arrives on the scene and interviews Prince Faisal to get an idea where to find Lawrence. He follows Lawrence on his campaigns and makes Lawrence a living legend in the media.

It isn’t until Lawrence is brought to The Turkish Bey played by Jose Ferrer, that he understands his own humanity and mortality. Ferrer manhandles Lawrence, strips him,prods him and pokes him, obviously the Turkish Bey would sexually abuse Lawrence if he could. Lawrence strikes Ferrer and is flogged and thrown into the streets for this. Lawrence is humiliated and feels defeated.

Eventually Lawrence completes his mission for the British Army and is sent home as Major Lawrence. The film is a powerhouse of imagery and complex characterizations all navigated by brilliant actors at the peak of their craft. This film has become a modern classic and well worth your time. Running time is 216 minutes. The original restoration of the film was spearheaded by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

Extras on the Blu-Ray include an interview with Peter O’ Toole who reminisces about the amazing adventure the film was and the role he played in it. His anecdotes are thoughtful and humorous. There is also an interview with Steven Spielberg, and a multi-part making of documentary.

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Les Misérables

25 Dec

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Synopsis: From the novel by Victor Hugo, Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption-a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.

CAST:

Hugh Jackman………………………………………..Jean Valjean

Anne Hathaway………………………………………………Fantine

Russell Crowe…………………………………….Inspector Javert

Amanda Seyfried……………………………………………Cossette

Eddie Redmayne………………………………………………Marius

Sasha Baron Cohen……………………………………Thernardier

Helena Bonham Carter…………………..Madame Thenardier

Review:Go see Les Misérables, it’s that simple. I will not talk about plot points, I feel unless you are a Tibetan Monk, there isn’t an adult on the planet who hasn’t seen the  play or read Victor Hugo’s epic book. The Broadway show was eye candy compared to this realistic, gritty in your face interpretation. Director Tom Hooper delivers outstanding performances from his world class troupe of actors, so this is where I shall begin, from best to least.

Anne Hathaway will take your breath away as Fantine.  As Fantine, mother of Cosette, sacked factory worker turned prostitute, Hathaway delivers the show stopping number I Dreamed a Dream. Her soul searing, gut wrenching, sympathetic, performance of the song, will stay with you long after you leave the theater. Her interpretation of the song is so real, like the way Judy Garland sang, she just doesn’t sing the song she feels every emotion in it. Her performance is so strong when she appears toward the film’s end, her redemption of Valjean fills you with tears. Trust me there wasn’t a dry eye of any gender in the house.  Kudos to Hathaway, whatever awards she has been nominated for she certainly earned them with this performance.

Hugh Jackman no stranger to musical theater, delivers a solid performance as Valjean. Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving baby. Branded a thief, he spends the next 19 years at hard labor. His emotional transformation from criminal, to a man with a heart of gold, is both enthralling, and masterfully navigated by Jackman.  Blaming himself for Fantine’s downfall, he promises her, while she is dying in the hospital, he will find her daughter Cosette, and give her the life she deserves. It is through Cosette, he finds the love in his heart, and the goodness in the world he thought he had lost as a slave. His face says it all.

Sasha Baron Cohen chews scenery with comic timing. He plays Thernardier the pick-pocket, insidious, opportunistic, money grubbing low-life inn keeper, who is Cosette’s guardian. Cohen plays the part with much glee. The song Master of The House tells you everything you need to know about Thenardier. He would sell his own mother if he thought he could make a few francs. He is also quite stupid.

Helena Bonham Carter plays Madame Thenardier, she chews scenery with comic timing as well as Cohen. Together they make a nefarious pair. Madame has a daughter whom she loves, she took in Cosette to get Fantine to pay for her support. Fantine leaves Cosette with the inn keeper and his wife when she is left a single mother, and has to make it on her own. Madame takes full advantage of this and is always sending for more money. Obviously she is using the money to buy her daughter gifts and fine clothes. Cosette, until bought by Valjean, is forced to work as a servant at the inn. Carter is always fun to watch no matter what role she plays. This time she reminded me of her work in Sweeney Todd, with Johnny Depp.

Amanda Seyfried plays Cosette. Here is a young actress with a healthy future before her.  Her Cosette is lovely, innocent and yearning. Her juxtapose between her longing for Marius and her devotion to Valjean is hard to do for a seasoned actor, here she makes it her own.

Eddie Redmayne is Marius and delivers a heartfelt performance. His love for Cosette is real, you feel every twist of his emotions. He is torn between his love of country and his comrades fight for freedom, and his love for Cosette. When he finds out Cosette may be leaving the country, he fights with his comrades behind the barricade. Valjean finds out Marius loves Cosette, so he risks his life to save Marius. The revolution scenes tear at you as the songs of freedom and revolution are sung by Marius and his comrades.

Russell Crowe as Javert was unconvincing. His performance lacked what everyone else had, heart. Even when he sang his arms hung limp at his side, his face stoic , he didn’t reveal through his song his inner demons.  As much as Hathaway and Jackman let you see inside them, Crowe did not. There where times you felt Crowe would rather be anywhere else but playing Javert.  In fact when he struggles with the notion that Valjean represents God’s goodness and he, Javert, perhaps was wrong all along to stick with his sense of duty, you remain unconvinced. Javert final moments should have some sympathy, but not so with Crowe’s performance.

They say true art can change people. If that is truth, then Les Misérables is a work of art. Everyone at the film felt every emotion through the journey Hugo’s story takes you on. Despite what people say about the emotional manipulation of the book and score, the underlying themes of love and redemption are universal.

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The Hobbit an Unexpected Journey

14 Dec

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Synopsis:Based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, the Hobbit follows the adventure of Bilbo Baggins, as he journeys to the Lonely Mountain with a vigorous group of Dwarves to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug. The story steeped in fantasy and history of Middle Earth takes us on an Unexpected Journey of courage and self discovery. Peter Jackson directs this prequel to his brilliant Lord of The Rings Trilogy.

CAST

Ian McKellen…………………………Gandalf

Martin Freeman……………..Bilbo Baggins

Ian Holm……………………………..Old Bilbo

Elijah Wood……………………Frodo Baggins

Hugo Weaving…………………………Elrond

Cate Blanchett……………………….Galadriel

Christopher Lee……………………..Saruman

Andy Sirkis………………………………Gollum

Richard Armitage……..Thorin Oakenshield

Review: The Hobbit an Unexpected Journey is a delight. The story begins with Old Bilbo narrating his adventure as he starts to write his memoir for his Nephew Frodo. The first 45 minutes of the film tells the tale of the Dwarves of Misty Mountain and the treasure of gold they have mined for themselves. We learn about the Dwarve King  Thrór and his lust for gold. The Gold drove him mad as his son Thrain felt helpless. The dragon Smaug arrives and destroys the Dwarve’s mountain Kingdom, the king and claims the gold for himself. The Dwarves forced to leave their home and wander in the country side, fight a battle against the evil Orcs.  Thrór  is beheaded by the Orc Lord,  Thorin son of Thrain tries to stop the Orc Lord but only manages to cut the Orc’s hand off.  Thorin leads the remaining Dwarves into battle and manages to chase the orcs away.  Thorin also blames the Elvin King for not coming to help battle against Smaug, thus without their help the dwarves homeland was destroyed.

This begins the tale of Bilbo’s journey with the remaining 13 dwarves to smite the dragon Smaug. Gandalf the Grey once again played by Ian McKellan convinces the Dwarves headed by Thorin that Bilbo will make an excellent burglar and must join their adventure to reclaim the gold.

Bilbo has many adventures including Orc battles, out smarting Trolls, acquiring his first Elvish blade and learning how brave a homebody Hobbit can be. There are many wonders to behold including the famous riddle game Bilbo plays with Gollum when the Ring of Power, Gollum’s precious, finds it’s way into Bilbo’s hands. The CGI is as good as it gets and Ian McKellen’s performance as Gandalf  proves once and for all he was born to play the part.

Director Peter Jackson shot the film in 48FPS and High Definition. Standard Frames per second is 24FPS. The effect is astonishing, the clarity so clear you can see the pores on Bilbo’s face, the details of the buttons on his waistcoat, and the beauty and wonder of the Middle Earth. Rivendell home of King Elrond is especially breath taking.  Cate Blanchett makes a cameo as Galadriel, Christopher Lee is back as Saruman the White wizard and many familiar faces abound.  The 3D engulfs you into Bilbo’s adventure but does not distract. This is the first of a filmed trilogy and even leaves off with a literal cliff hanger ending.

The music is reminiscent of the Lord of The Rings trilogy in the undercurrent of theme music played. The music brings you right back into the story.

This is a must see for Lord of the Rings fans as Peter Jackson proves his adaptation is master story telling.

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SKYFALL

9 Nov

Synopsis:   Bond: Everyone should have a hobby. Silva: What’s yours?  Bond: Mine is resurrection.

Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

CAST

Daniel Craig………………………………….Bond, James Bond

Judy Dench…………………………………………………………M

Javier Bardem………………………………………………….Silva

Ralph Fiennes…………………………………..Gareth Mallory

Naomie Harris……………………………………………………Eve

Bernice Marlohe………………………………………….Severine

Albert Finney………………………………………………Kincaide

Ben Whishaw…………………………………………………………Q

Helen McCrorey……………………………………….Clair Dowar

Nicholas Woodson…………………………………………..Dr. Hall

Review: Bond is back in his 23rd outing and better than ever. Sam Mendes has directed what is possibly the best Bond film in the franchise. This tightly knit thriller, starring Daniel Craig in his third Bond film, tells the story of a vendetta against M, played by a brilliant Judy Dench. The story opens not with the typical camera iris but instead right in the middle of the action. The screen is unfocused and suddenly the shadow of Bond appears walking forward and into focus. Bond is chasing after his enemy, in Budapest, who has stolen a hard drive from MI6 agents. The hard drive contains all the names and covers for all the MI6 agents world wide. M is following Bond from headquarters through the use of satellite and we see Bond with an ear gadget listening to M as she gives orders as to what to do.  Helping Bond is agent Eve, played by Naomie Harris . After a thrilling chase through a marketplace, many fruit stands turned upside down, Bond finds himself atop a train fighting with the guy who has the hard drive on a chain around his neck. Eve, in a jeep, catches up with the train before it enters a tunnel and has one chance to shoot the guy. She tells M that she may shoot Bond, Bond is literally holding the guy by his neck. She only has a second before the train enters a tunnel, M tells her to shoot the bloody gun, she does, Bond, shot, falls from the train.  Cut to M writing Bond’s obituary.

The title sequence that follows is a feast for the eyes and as with any Bond film outdoes the previous versions. The cornucopia of images of Bond and naked “Bond Girls” tells a chilling story of Bond’s death and resurrection.

The Prime Minister of England is unhappy with M and wants her replaced. Ralph Fiennes plays Gareth Mallory, the man  sent by the Prime Minister to oversee M’s retirement and transition. She will have nothing to do with it until she finds out who stole the hard drive and she gets it back. Who ever stole it, hacks into MI6’s computer network, sends M encrypted messages and blows up M’s office at MI6 Headquarters. M standing in front of the flag draped coffins of her colleagues swear she will find out who did this.

Bond, who is not dead, a has been cavorting on some Caribbean Island. When he hears the news of MI6 headquarters being hit, he returns to England and hides in M’s apartment. She finds him there and asks: “James what took you so long?”  Bond finds his world turned upside down as he comes back to MI6 and must compete with younger agents, Q is a 20 something geek, gadgets like exploding pens are considered dinosaurs, and a Prime Minister who feels the old school spy game needs to be eliminated.

Javier Bardem plays the villain Silva, he is not over the top but creepy from the inside out. His character is demented and psychologically damaged, and wants M dead. He is one of the most convincingly real villains in the Bond franchise.

So who is Silva and why does he want to kill M?  What is SKYFALL and how does it relate to Bond?  Will there be a transition of power at MI6?  What about the hard-drive?

There are plenty tips of the hat to the entire Bond series, musical cues, Q’s new take on old gadgets, the old gun in the headlights, Aston Martin makes a cameo much to the pleasure of the audience, we find there is a new Moneypenny in a very clever way and finally the camera iris dripping blood at the end credits.  The film takes us full circle.  Daniel Craig has finally made the Bond character his own, and it is exciting to watch him go from gruff and unshaven to suave and witty.  I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that is among the best films of the year. Look for the Martini being shaken……

Recommended:

An American in Paris – Blu Ray

17 Oct

Synopsis:  Jerry Mulligan, a struggling American painter in Paris, is “discovered” by an influential heiress with an interest in more than Jerry’s art. Jerry in turn falls for Lise, a young French girl already engaged to a cabaret singer. Jerry jokes, sings and dances with his best friend, an acerbic would-be concert pianist, while romantic complications abound.

Cast

Gene Kelly……………………………………….Jerry Mulligan

Leslie Caron………………………………………..Lise Bouvier

Oscar Levant………………………………………..Adam Cook

Georges Guetary………………………………….Henri Baurel

Nina Foch…………………………………………..Milo Roberts

Review: This Vincente Minnelli directed, Gene Kelly/Stanley Donan choreographed MGM musical is a moving, ground breaking, love poem to artistry and romance. First off the clarity and color of the Blu-Ray disc is astonishingly clear. The restoration and high definition picture draws you in and you start to notice details such as the paint on the Parisian walls etc. in crisp detail.

This film won the Academy Award for Best Picture after it’s release in 1951. The winning score by George and Ira Gershwin sweeps you away with songs like, S Wonderful, Our Love is Here to Stay and I’ve Got Rhythm.  There is something undeniably sublime in watching everyman dancer Gene Kelly, painter Jerry Mulligan, at work here. His roots as a dance instructor in his family’s dance school is in evidence as he works with the children in the I Got Rhythm number. He is delightful and enchanting and the children follow him in grand amusement in hopes of getting some American Bubble Gum.

Leslie Caron a dancer who was trained in Ballet makes her film debut here and it is her charisma and dance craft that carries her through the film. She almost floats as she dances with Kelly in Our Love is Here To Stay. Her charm and warmth appeals every time she smiles.

Oscar Levant is hilarious as struggling self-proclaimed concert pianist Adam Cook. He describes himself in the opening sequence of the film: “It’s not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.”

Georges Guetary plays singer Henri Baurel, who is engaged to Lise,  he is unaware that his friend Jerry Mulligan is in love with her. Guetary’s big number Stairway to Paradise, showcases his singing talents amidst a large lighted staircase and a bevy of beautiful MGM girls. The song is done with artistry and never crosses the line into gaudiness.

Nina Foch plays suntan oil heiress Milo Roberts. She falls for Mulligan and wants to promote his paintings in a legitimate art show. Mulligan at first balks because he doesn’t want Robert’s affections. The relationship never really gets off the ground because Mulligan is truly in love with Caron’s character Lise.

The most celebrated sequence in the film is Kelly’s choreographed 17 minute ballet.  The uniqueness of taking famous french artist’s paintings and bringing them to life with Paris as the background, is contemporaryand brilliant. The ballet tells the story of Mulligan’s love for Lise. Kelly smoothly transitions from ballet, tap and jazz dance throughout the 17 minutes. One gets caught up in the sequence’s use of color, music and dance.

The disc includes a few extras such as the PBS produced American Masters Episode: Gene Kelly Anatomy of a Dancer a vintage MGM Fitzpatrick TravelTalk short, Paris on Parade and a classic MGM cartoon Symphony in Slang.  Overall this is a must have film for anyone’s cinema collection.

Recommended:

Now Voyager

14 Aug

                                                            “The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
                                                              Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.”
Summary:   Based on the novel Now Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty this is a classic Story about a Boston spinster, Charlotte Vale, who under therapy breaks from the heavy hand of her mother and finds romance with a married man. 
                                                                                                    CAST

Betty Davis……………………………………………………….. Charlotte Vale

Paul Heinreid……………………………………Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance

Claude Raines…………………………………………………………. Dr. Jaquith

Gladys Cooper………………………………………………… Mrs. Windle Vale

Ilka Chase…………………………………………………………………..Lisa Vale

Bonita Granville………………………………………………………….June Vale

John Loder……………………………………………………….Elliot Livingston

Lee Patrick……………………………………………………………Deb McIntyre

James Rennie……………………………………………………..Frank McIntyre

Mary Wickes…………………………………………………Nurse Dora Pickford

Janis Wilson………………………..Christine “Tina” Durrance (uncredited)

David Clyde……………………………………………………………………..William

Review:  This 1942 film classic starring Betty Davis as Boston spinster Charlotte Vale, is best known for it’s then controversial depiction of a spinster falling for a married man. Paul Heinreid, (think Casablanca) falls for Vale as well after they meet aboard an ocean liner headed for Rio. The sexual innuendo abounds as Heinreid’s character, Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance so famously lights two cigarettes with one match and gives one to Vale.

Charlotte Vale an unattractive, overweight, repressed, unmarried woman is dominated by her over bearing, dominating mother, an aristocratic Boston widow whose verbal and emotional abuse of her daughter has contributed to the woman’s complete lack of self-confidence. Fearing Charlotte is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her sister-in-law Lisa introduces her to psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith, who recommends she spend time in his sanatorium.

Away from her mother’s control, Charlotte blossoms. The transformed woman, at Lisa’s urging, opts to take a lengthy cruise rather than immediately return home. On board ship, she meets a married man, Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance  who is traveling with his friends Deb and Frank McIntyre. It is from them that Charlotte learns of Jerry’s devotion to his young daughter, Christine (“Tina”), and how it keeps him from divorcing his wife, a manipulative, jealous woman who keeps Jerry from engaging in his chosen career of architecture, despite the fulfillment he gets from it.

Charlotte and Jerry become friendly, and in Rio De Janerio  the two are stranded on Sugarloaf Mountain when their car crashes. They miss the ship and spend five days together before Charlotte flies to Buenos Aires to rejoin the cruise. Although they have fallen in love, they decide it would be best not to see each other again.

When she arrives home, Charlotte’s family is stunned by the dramatic changes in her appearance and demeanor. Her mother is determined to regain control over her daughter, but Charlotte is resolved to remain independent. The memory of Jerry’s love and devotion help to give her the strength she needs to remain resolute.

Charlotte becomes engaged to wealthy, well-connected widower Elliot Livingston, but after a chance meeting with Jerry, she breaks off the engagement, about which she quarrels with her mother. Her mother becomes so angry that she has a heart attack and dies. Guilty and distraught, Charlotte returns to the sanatorium.

When she arrives, she is immediately diverted from her own problems when she meets lonely, unhappy Tina, who greatly reminds her of herself; both were unwanted and unloved by their mothers. She is shaken out of her depression and instead becomes interested in Tina’s welfare. With Dr. Jaquith’s permission she takes the girl under her wing. When she improves, Charlotte takes her home to Boston.

Jerry and Dr. Jaquith visit the Vale home, where Jerry is delighted to see the changes in his daughter. While he initially pities Charlotte, believing her to be settling in her life, he’s taken aback by her contempt for his initial condescension. Dr. Jaquith has agreed to allow Charlotte to keep Tina there with the understanding that her relationship with Jerry will remain platonic. She tells Jerry that she sees Tina as his gift to her and her way of being close to him. When Jerry asks her if she’s happy, Charlotte finds much to value in her life and if it isn’t everything she would want, tells him, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars,” a line ranked #46 in the A.F.I.’s list of the top one hundred movie quotes of all time.

When Bette Davis learned about the project, she campaigned for and won the role. More than any other of her previous films, Davis became absorbed in the role, not only reading the original novel but becoming involved in details such as choosing her wardrobe personally. Consulting with designer Orry-Kelly, she suggested a drab outfit, including an ugly foulard dress for Charlotte initially, to contrast with the stylish, “timeless” creations that mark her later appearance on the cruise ship.

Not surprisingly in 2007, Now, Voyager was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The film is on DVD and may be found on Amazon, Netflix and most major DVD outlets.

Recommended:    

 

Lost Horizon (1937)

21 May

Synopsis:

Before returning to England to become the new Foreign Secretary, writer, soldier and diplomat Robert Conway has one last task in 1935 China: to rescue 90 Westerners in the city of Baskul. He flies out with the last few evacuees, just ahead of armed revolutionaries.

Unbeknownst to the passengers, the pilot has been replaced and their aircraft hijacked. It eventually runs out of fuel and crashes deep in the  Himalayan Mountains, killing their abductor. The group is rescued by Chang and his men and taken to Shangra La, an idyllic valley sheltered from the bitter cold. The contented inhabitants are led by the mysterious High Lama.

Cast:

Ronald Coleman – Robert Conway

Jane Wyatt – Sondra Bizet

H.B. Warner – Chang

Sam Jaffe – High Lama

John Howard – George Conway

Edward Everett Horton – Alexander P. (lovey) Lovett

Thomas Mitchell – Henry Barnard

Margo – Maria

Isabel Jewell – Gloria Stone

David Clyde – Club Steward

Commentary:

The first time I saw Lost Horizon I was a child watching the movie on a local television station. I was wide eyed at the prospect of an adventure in a foreign land and wished Shangra La was a real location.

Directed by Frank Capra, screenplay by Robert Riskin and produced by Capra for Columbia Pictures, the film is based on the book by James Hilton.  Lost Horizon was the most expensive film ever produced up until that time and was problematic  for Capra. The film’s cost overruns and artistic differences between Capra and Columbia boss Harry Cohn are legendary and cost Capra his friendship with screen writer Riskin as well.

Cohn budgeted the film at $1.25 million the highest sum ever for a movie in those days. Capra wanted Coleman for the lead from the start but had to wait for Coleman to become available. After filming Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Coleman became available and the project began. Capra’s first compromise was that he wanted to film in color but since the only stock footage of the Himalayan mountains was in black and white he had no choice but to abandon the technicolor which would have proved to be much more cost prohibitive based on budgetary constraints imposed by Cohn.

Principal photography began on March 23, 1936, and by the time it was completed on July 17, the director had spent $1.6 million. Contributing to the added expenses was the filming of snow scenes and aircraft interiors at the Los Angeles Ice and Cold Storage Warehouse, where the low temperature affected the equipment and caused lengthy delays. The Shangri-La set, designed by Stephen Gooson, had been constructed adjacent to Hollywood Way, a busy thoroughfare by day, which necessitated filming at night and heavily added to overtime expenses. Many exteriors were filmed on location including the Sierra Nevada Mountains, adding the cost of transporting cast, crew, and equipment to the swelling budget.

In the end the film’s budget soared to $2,626,620 keeping the film unprofitable until its re-release in 1942. When finished the final cut of the film was six hours long and the studio considered releasing it in two parts. Not being possible to release the film at the six hour length Capra with the help of  editors Gene Havlick and Gene Milford manged to cut the film down to a three and a half hour running time. The film was previewed in Santa Barbara to a lukewarm reception. People just didn’t want to sit through a three and a half hour epic story.

Following the disastrous preview, Capra made extensive cuts and, on January 12, 1937, re shot scenes involving the High Lama which placed more emphasis on the growing tensions of the world at the time. Still unhappy with the film’s length, Harry Cohn intervened; he cancelled the February 1 priemier and edited the film himself. When it finally premiered on March 2, it was 132 minutes long. During the film’s initial release in selected cities, it was a limited release, with only two presentations per day and tickets sold on a reserved-seat basis. Because the box office returns were so low, the studio head deleted an additional 14 minutes before the film went into general release the following September. Due primarily to the cuts made without his approval, Capra later filed a lawsuit against Columbia, citing “contractual disagreements,” among them the studio’s refusal to pay him a $100,000 semi-annual salary payment due him. A settlement was reached on November 27, 1937, with Capra collecting his money and being relieved of the obligation of making one of the five films required by his contract. In 1985, the director claimed Cohn, whom he described as the “Jewish producer,” trimmed the film simply so theaters could have more daily showings and increase the film’s chance of turning a profit.

There are actually three endings to the film that can be interpreted as different approaches to Conway’s return to Shangra La.

1. Capra’s Ending written by Riskin:

EXT. SOMEWHERE IN TIBET – NIGHT

352. CLOSE-UP

MOVING IN FRONT OF CONWAY – as he walks forward with a steady step – his head held high – his eyes sparkling – snow pelting his face.

353. LONG SHOT

Over his silhouetted back.

As he walks away from the CAMERA, and we STAY WITH HIM a long time as he approaches a hill.

DISSOLVE TO:

ANOTHER LONG SHOT

He has now ascended to the middle of the steep hill – his gait unchanged. THE CAMERA PANS UP to the summit of the incline – and we see that beyond it the horizon is filled with a strange warm light. Conway’s figure – in silhouette – disappears over the hill – bells ring – and as the music begins to swell.

FADE OUT:

THE END

2. Cohn’s ending he required of Capra:

  1. Medium shot of Sondra standing at the railed mountain pass, with the lamasery visible in the distance behind her. Suddenly she seems to notice something.
  2. Long shot of Conway making his way over a snow-covered mountain.
  3. Close shot of Sondra, who joyously waves, calling out “Bob.”
  4. Medium shot of Conway looking up and waving back.
  5. Medium shot of Sondra, as two Tibetans join her from behind, and Sondra says to them: “It is he. It’s Mr. Conway. Go, tell Chang.” They hurry away.
  6. Close-up of Conway.
  7. Close-shot of Sondra, waving and calling out: “Bob, Bob,” then rushing out of frame.

These seven shots are followed by a montage sequence which includes bells ringing in a steeple, the façade of the lamasery and the words “The End.” This was the ending on the prints of the film seen in major U.S. cities during the first half of March 1937.

3. Capra, Riskin and Cohn’s compromise for an ending:

  1. Long shot of Conway, making his way over a wind-swept glacier.
  2. Medium shot of Conway, leaning on an ice axe and looking up at something (off-screen) that has caught his eye.
  3. Conway’s p.o.v.: the familiar stone archway with its wooden railing and the lamasery visible in the background.
  4. Close shot of Conway who visibly reacts to what he sees, finally breaking into a smile.

Cohn wanted a pat Hollywood ending that would bring in the audience but Capra wanted the audience to imagine what happened to Conway as did Hilton in the ambiguous ending to his book.

This classic film was restored by A.F.I. (The American Film Institute) starting in 1973 and the process took 13 years to complete.  Although all 132 minutes of the original soundtrack were recovered, only 125 minutes of film could be found, so the seven minutes of the missing footage were replaced with a combination of publicity photos of the actors in costume taken during filming and still frames depicting the missing scenes.

The film is available on DVD, Netflix and is occasionally shown on TMC (Turner Classic Movies).

Recommended:

Frank Capra

18 May

Bio: Frank Russel Capra born May 18, 1897 in Sicily immigrated to America at six years old.  Capra was considered by his peers as the American Dream personified as he had worked his way through college and ultimately became the creative heart and soul of major award winning films during the 1930’s and 40’s. During his peak years critics called his films “Capra-Corn” for their upbeat sentiments about human nature, the average man’s triumph over corrupt powerful leaders, and peoples innate kindness to others. During these years audiences flocked to his films and Capra’s name above the film title on the marquee guaranteed success.

Commentary: The other day I was watching Pocket Full of Miracles (1961) Capra’s last film, critics were lukewarm and audiences pretty much stayed away. Pocket Full of Miracles is a remake of his earlier film Lady for a Day, both films tell the tale of Damon Runyon’s  Apple Annie and the human kindness that helped the beggar woman become gold in her daughter’s eyes.   After the films lackluster release, at 64 years old, Capra decided he had enough of the film business, ” I’ve done it all and said what I had to say, I’ll leave the business to the younger directors” .  This prompted me to take a look at the sum total of the whole and remind you of why his films still resonate today.

In 1934 Capra directed It happened One Night, this romantic comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable had elements of a screwball comedy but was also the first film to win all five major Academy Awards, Best Picture, Director, Actor Actress and Screenplay. Colbert didn’t hide her disdain for the role saying the part was unladylike and she didn’t want to show her leg in the famous hitch-hiking sequence. Capra claimed, Colbert “had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me,” however “she was wonderful in the part.”After her acceptance speech at the Oscars ceremony, she went back on stage and thanked Capra for making the film. Another foot note Chuck Jones (Famous Bugs Bunny Director/Animator) claimed he based Bugs Bunny’s character on Clark Gable eating carrots from the hitch-hiking scene in this film, ears and all.

The same year he directed Broadway Bill a screwball comedy about horse racing but it was after this he began thinking about adding new dimensions to his films concluding that he needed to convey messages and new thoughts on the human condition to the public. Capra explained his thinking after he had an encounter with a Christian Scientist who inspired him to add dimension to his films. “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other”.  His fantasies of goodwill” won him two more  Best Director Oscars for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take It With You.

In 1939 Capra directed Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” , it is considered to be the one film that truly personified the Capra myth and message. This is a story of a man elected to office and by sticking to his ideals uses democracy to overcome political corruption in congress. It became a source of controversy when war was looming overseas and the powers that be at the time didn’t want the film released in Europe in case America entered the war. When the filming was completed, the studio sent preview copies to Washington. Joe Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the UK, wrote to Columbia head Harry Cohn, “Please do not play this picture in Europe.”  Kennedy wrote to president Roosevelt that “in foreign countries this film must inevitably strengthen the mistaken impression that the United States is full of graft, corruption and lawlessness.” At the pleading of Capra, Cohn released the film anyway and it became the symbol of democratic patriotism both here and abroad. The significance of the film’s message was established further in France, shortly after World War II began. When the French public were asked to select which film they wanted to see most, having been told by the Vichy government that soon no more American films would be allowed in France, the overwhelming majority chose it over all others. To France, soon to be invaded and occupied by Nazi forces, the film most expressed the “perseverance of democracy and the American way.”

In 1941 America was about to step into WWII and America’s future was unsure and people were afraid of what was yet to come. Capra stuck to his ideology although also unsure of what was next for American Democracy and directed what some consider his most controversial film of the day Meet John Doe. Starring Gary Cooper  as a washed up ball player who has lost focus and direction in his life. Cooper is chosen by a news reporter to become the symbol of  “the common man” and is used to capture the imagination of average Americans. The film has been considered ” deliberately made to reaffirm American values”

The perennial It’s A Wonderful Life released after the war in 1946 was the first film he directed under the Liberty Films banner founded by Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler. Although the film was nominated for five Oscars it proved to be a box-office disappointment. It wasn’t until it became public domain and aired on Television that it became a Christmas Classic. Loaded with “Capra-Corn” little guy beats power mad banker, finds love, is helped by a guardian angel, reevaluates his life and overcomes diversity. The American Film Institute claims this as one of its  all time 100 top films. What’s not to like, this is perhaps his best known work.

Capra lived until he was 94 and died in 1991 after living a long and wonderful life. His films are available at Amazon.com, Netflix, and there is also a wealth of books written about this master story teller. If you have Turner Classic Movies (TCM) that is great source for Capra films.