Sunday, February 24, 2013

Richard Briers - A Small Tribute

Richard Briers (14 January, 1934 - 17 February, 2013)

I don't normally comment on the death of actors, I just quietly acknowledge it in my own way. However, the death of Richard Briers last Sunday made me extremely sad.

I've only seen a tiny portion of his work, but two British TV series stand out.

The Good Life (Good Neighbors in the US) ran from 1975 to 1978. It was a situation comedy in which Tom Good (Briers) and his wife, Barbara (Felicity Kendal), attempted to be self-sufficient. Tom quit his job as an architect when he turned 40, and tried to turn his garden into something capable of growing enough food to live on. The two other main characters were Margot (Penelope Keith) and Jerry (Paul Eddington), who were the snobby neighbors who lived next door.

Unlike modern comedies, The Good Life did not rely on shock value and aggressive humor. In fact, it's probably the gentlest comedy I own. I have watched all 30 episodes on at least ten occasions and know that I will keep returning to it. Tom Good had a great marriage, but his character was not without flaws. He was always opinionated and stubborn, but would eventually admit it when he was wrong.

All four actors were perfectly cast and it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles. It would be like watching M*A*S*H* without Alan Alda in the role of Hawkeye, or Frasier without Kelsey Grammer.

North Americans usually mention Are You Being Served, Keeping Up Appearances, or Benny Hill when they are talking about British comedy, but those are pretty weak in terms of the other fantastic series made over the past 40 years. I would recommend Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses, Porridge, Men Behaving Badly, Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Father Ted, and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

However, The Good Life remains my number one choice. Perhaps it's because I watched it as a child with my grandparents? Richard Briers' passing makes me feel like I lost a vital piece of my childhood.

Here's a full episode of The Good Life, from Season 3:

The other series that I would like to mention is Ever Decreasing Circles, which ran from 1984 to 1989. Peter Egan and Penelope Wilton played other key characters in the series, but Richard Briers stole the show as Martin. He played a fussy man, with few friends, who tried to make himself seem important by running as many local clubs and schemes as possible.

Here's an episode from Season 2:

Richard Briers has 122 acting credits on IMDB. He was a respected Shakespearean actor, as well as finding success in comedy. I'll also remember his role in Watership Down as the voice of Fiver.

The Queen attended a command performance of The Good Life, and recognized Briers twice in the Honors List; he received an OBE in 1989 and a CBE in 2003.

Briers hated the character of Tom Good, and was surprised that the British public liked him so much. I suspect that the real man was even more likable than the characters I came to love on the small screen.

He will be missed.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013


Argo (2012)
Drama, History, Thriller, 120 minutes
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin

With one day remaining before the Oscars, Argo looks set to claim the award for Best Picture. The only reason there is any doubt is Ben Affleck's omission in the Best Director category.

Is the acclaim deserved?

Well, it's certainly a good film. The subject matter and the ultimate resolution will please many viewers. The acting is hard to fault at any point. But despite all those good qualities, Argo leaves me feeling a little underwhelmed. Perhaps it's because my expectations were so high?

The film focuses on the struggle to free six American citizens from Iran, after the US embassy had been stormed in 1979. The six were given refuge inside the Canadian embassy, at great risk to all involved. That's the basis for an engaging story. The reason it falls a bit flat is due to the opening half. We see the hostages escape, but they are not a major part of the story. We are shown a few scenes where one hostage might console another, but there's not enough depth to see them as individuals. We want them to be rescued, because it is the right thing to do, but they could be six random people we happened to pass in a supermarket.

Argo is more about the process involved in mounting a rescue attempt than about the hostages themselves, and that process is fascinating. CIA agent, Tony Mendez (Affleck), comes up with the idea of entering Iran posing as filmmakers scouting for a location. His preparation is thorough, and involves creating storyboards, hiring director Lester Siegel (Arkin), and John Chambers (Goodman), who was to be responsible for makeup. The two set up a fake studio and actually go through the motions of filming scenes.

I felt like I was back in 1979 due to the clothing, hairstyles, and generally muted color palette. But, unlike a movie such as Apollo 13 (where the outcome was also known), I was not gripped by the events on the screen for the duration of the film. I appreciate the effort, but I was only truly riveted during the second part of the story and the actual escape attempt itself. There is no need to reveal any more details, because it's better to see events unfold for yourself, even if you know the eventual outcome.

I'm probably making Argo sound like a disappointing failure, and that's not the case at all. I just don't think it is the best film of 2012. It would probably creep into my Top 10, and I'm glad I own it, but I was not fully invested in the plight of the hostages until they were shown trying to escape. It's an important film in terms of subject matter, and I do appreciate the efforts made to free the six American citizens, but I won't be trying to persuade my friends that Argo is an unmissable thriller.

Overall score 4/5

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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Kid with a Bike

The Kid with a Bike (2011)
Drama, 87 minutes, French Language
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring Thomas Doret and Cécile De France

It seems that the best films about human nature, or real topics that actually matter, are made outside the Hollywood system. I suppose anguish and inner turmoil doesn't translate into an exciting viewing experience, or one that will encourage people to pay to see the film. I understand that equation, and it makes me respect filmmakers who attempt to bring to life these rarely shown topics.

The Kid with a Bike is one such film. It sits on the top row of my movie collection right next to Kes, and that's so appropriate. Both films are about childhood, and boys who do not have a loving family environment. Incidentally, both were made in Europe.

The title reminds me of The Bicycle Thief, and I found that to be one of the most touching and realistic portrayals of a father/son relationship. The Kid with a Bike is touching in a different way.

This review contains spoilers, and reveals a similar amount of information as the trailer. If you don't want to know anything else about the story, please stop reading now.

The film is about 11-year-old Cyril Catoul (Doret), who lives in a children's home. His mother isn't mentioned at any point in the story, and his father has abandoned him. The opening scenes show Cyril trying to come to terms with his situation. He doesn't believe that his father wouldn't want him, or that he would move out of his apartment without telling Cyril where he was going. Cyril is angry and aggressive, and only calms down a little when he's shown that his father's old apartment is truly empty.

During his struggles, he grabs hold of a woman. She's Samantha (De France), and wants to help. She locates the man who bought Cyril's bike from his father, and buys it back for him. He refuses to accept that his father would sell it, insisting that it must have been stolen. He barely remembers to thank Samantha for her kindness, but races after her and asks if he can stay with her on the weekends. She says that she will call the home and try to arrange it.

Cécile De France is not a stunning beauty, but she's an incredibly warm actress. If you saw her performance in Hereafter, you'll know what I mean. She has a way of making you believe that she is intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful, and caring. This ability makes her an excellent choice for the role. We are never told why Samantha lives alone, but it partly explains why she might find it important to help Cyril. Is she looking for the kind of love that a child might offer, or does she merely empathize with his plight, and is hoping to give him the kind of love that she didn't have as a child?

Cyril is hard to like for much of the film. He's often angry, deeply mistrustful of adults, and disobedient when he doesn't get exactly what he wants. Samantha manages to arrange a meeting with his father, and Cyril finally learns some difficult truths about the man. I connected with this part of the film because I never knew my own father. Luckily, I grew up in a loving environment with my mother and grandparents. My experiences helped me to understand anger, and the need to be as independent as possible. Cyril doesn't trust adults because he can't be sure they will be there for him when it matters.

One boy in the neighborhood is keen to befriend him, but Cyril is more drawn to an older boy who is suspected of dealing drugs. He's seemingly kind to Cyril, but we know that he's simply trying to gain trust, and that his true motives haven't yet been revealed. It works to some degree because Cyril responds to actions rather than promises.

This is a film about decisions. What are Samantha's reasons for trying to help him? What does his father really want? Should Cyril keep hoping for love that he may never have from his father, or settle for the love that is being offered by Samantha? Will he ever control his anger and become worthy of anyone's love?

The Dardenne brothers ask a lot of questions and provide very few answers, but the closing scene suggests that Cyril has learned something about life, and that his future might not be as bleak as his current existence.

The Criterion package is superb, and comes with a booklet, a great transfer, and more than two hours of special features. If you are interested in the Dardenne brothers, one interview lasts 74 minutes and reveals a lot about their methods.

The Kid with a Bike is not an easy film to watch, and the payoff is implied rather than shown. However, it's a strong, realistic portrayal of childhood, and the performances do it justice. If you like to contemplate life, it's worth your time.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Sunday, February 17, 2013


Headhunters (2011)
Crime, Thriller, 100 minutes, Norwegian Language
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund and Eivind Sander

After watching Headhunters for the second time in two months, I feel compelled to review it. I know that most of you will never see it because it's subtitled, and that's a huge shame. I'm not sure how many thousands of movies I have watched over the years, but this may be the most original script I have ever seen. I don't say that lightly, I can assure you.

Although I know I must review the movie, I also don't want to tell you anything about it at all. It's too surprising to be ruined by a review that gives away any of its many revelations.

So what can I tell you?

Roger Brown is 5' 6" tall and has a wife who is beautiful, successful, and several inches taller than him. She's about to open her own art gallery. He's insecure and almost sure that she'll eventually leave him, so he tries to compensate by giving her expensive gifts and living in a house that is out of his price range. He works as a headhunter, placing people in high-powered jobs, but he supplements his income by stealing paintings.

We are shown how Brown carefully uses his main job to select potential targets for his criminal activities. His accomplice, Ove (Sander) works in security, and helps Brown disable alarms. Brown dreams of the day that he steals something valuable enough to enable him to change his life forever, and an opportunity presents itself when Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau) tells Brown's wife that he owns a Rubens.

I don't want to reveal any more plot points.

Aksel Hennie looks like a more refined version of Steve Buscemi, and has the same sort of charm. Even though he's a criminal, it's hard not to root for him. Some of the situations that he finds himself in are bizarre, but his actions seem logical and intelligent under the circumstances.

The movie is based on Jo Nesbø's novel. I sometimes watch successful movies, such as Avatar, and sit there wondering how such a predictable plot ever ended up being made into a movie. I'm certain that I could do better. But if I had written Headhunters, I would be extremely proud. You won't be able to predict many of the twists and turns taken by this plot. It's nothing short of genius.

I saw some great films in 2012, but even though there was a Tarantino release, and several others worth 4.5 or 5/5, I don't think anything surpassed Headhunters in terms of sheer enjoyment. If you are open to subtitled films, this is a must. If you aren't, maybe this can be your first. An American remake appears to be scheduled for next year. Your other choice is to learn Norwegian. It would almost be worth the effort.

Overall score 5/5

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Monday, February 11, 2013

The Sessions

The Sessions (2012)
Drama, Romance, 95 minutes
Directed by Ben Lewin
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy

Here's a movie that would never have been made 30 or 40 years ago, because of the subject matter. It's based on the true story of how 38-year-old Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) tried to lose his virginity. What complicates matters is that he spends most of his life inside an iron lung, and he can only leave it for two or three hours at a time. He's a polio victim, and while he's able to feel sensation in every part of his body, his muscles aren't strong enough to enable him to stand. In fact, his emaciated body has trouble remaining straight, even with him lying down.

Are you depressed yet? It doesn't sound like a very uplifting story, does it? Actually, it may surprise you.

Although Mark's situation is serious, and is treated as such for the most part, the movie is full of humor. Don't misunderstand me; it's not a comedy, but the story of a man who uses humor to enable him to tolerate his limited existence. If you have ever seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you'll know exactly what I mean. As I enjoyed the humor, I wondered whether that's a common defense mechanism for people with physical handicaps, or a device used by the director to make a grim situation more palatable for the audience.

We see Mark try a series of caregivers, before eventually settling on Vera (Moon Bloodgood). She's friendly and clearly gets on well with Mark, supporting him whenever she can. Mark decides that he wants to experience sex before he dies, but he's a religious man and doesn't feel comfortable pursuing the idea without the blessing of his priest, Father Brendan (Macy). Macy is great in his role, and gives us a way to hear Mark's thoughts, doubts, and ideas. The exchanges between the two provide many of the movie's highlights.

After getting permission to see a sex surrogate, Mark sets up the appointment. This is where things really start to get interesting. He meets Cheryl (Hunt), who is assigned to teach him about sex. There is a lot of nudity from this point on, and the R-rating is justified. If you are squeamish about nudity, or planning on watching it with a young child, it won't be a good choice. The discussions between Cheryl and Mark are frank and to the point, with constant references to sexual practices and terminology. Cheryl says at the outset that she can only meet Mark for a maximum of six sessions, presumably to make it clear that the two aren't entering into a permanent relationship. She's married with a son, and this is her occupation; she's not a prostitute.

Put yourself in Mark's position for a moment. It's a natural human need, so why should he miss out? The movie handles the subject well, keeping things serious when they need to be. If the humor had been misplaced, or too frequent, it would have cheapened the story. But the balance is just about perfect, and I found myself empathizing with Mark and rooting for him.

It's an adult movie that will make you laugh out loud frequently, and perhaps shed a tear. Hawkes is superb in the role and was unlucky not to be nominated. Hunt gained the movie's only nomination, and her performance was faultless. I liked the characters and appreciated everything about the movie. It's one that I'll probably pick up on Blu-ray in the near future.

Overall score 4/5

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Margin Call

Margin Call (2011)
Drama, Thriller, 107 minutes
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Penn Badgley and Simon Baker

It's quite an achievement to make a movie about a boring subject and keep the viewer engaged throughout, but Margin Call does just that. It's a financial drama, depicting events leading up to the last stock market crash in 2008.

The movie begins with a scene showing Eric Dale (Tucci) being laid off. He's in risk management for an investment company. When he's informed of the decision, he's escorted back to his office to pick up his belongings, and then made to leave the building. His phone service is immediately terminated and he's told to forget about anything he was working on as it's no longer his problem. But Dale hands a USB drive to a colleague before he leaves, advising him to be careful.

The colleague is Peter Sullivan (Quinto), who takes a look at Dale's research when everyone else has left the office. His findings set in motion a series of events taking place over 24 hours, during which we are shown how a financial crisis might be handled.

Many scenes involve people looking at computer screens and talking about the worrying implications, but the excellent screenplay makes us anticipate what is coming next. There is a little technical jargon, but it doesn't matter if you don't understand anything about Mortgage Backed Securities. The beauty of the story is in showing the chain of command, and the way in which people respond to the unfolding events.

We see the problem being talked about by Sullivan and a junior analyst, and they decide to tell their immediate superior, Will (Bettany). He then calls in his boss, Sam (Spacey). As the night wears on, a series of meetings take place. Other department heads are called in, and ultimately the man who decides the overall strategy (Irons). Eric Dale cannot be traced, and the decision to terminate his services causes problems to all concerned.

My favorite scene involves Dale talking about his former career as an engineer. He reveals how much of a difference one man can make, and shows some of the traits which earned him his job in risk management.

The movie depicts leadership, reaction to stress, and how a strategy was devised to resolve the situation with as little damage to the company as possible. Ruthless decisions were called for and made, and the story has an undeniable ring of truth at every turn. That's not surprising when you realize that director J.C. Chandor's father worked for Merrill Lynch for 30 years.

Margin Call is a movie that's well-written, well-acted,and surprisingly gripping. It might even make you question your investment strategy. Although I loved Wall Street, I think Margin Call is my favorite story set in the world of finance.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries (1957)
Drama, 91 minutes, Swedish Language
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Max von Sydow

Modern cinema rarely gives us a film as ambitious or thoughtful as Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries. It questions the very meaning of life, and the themes of religion, relationships, isolation, and death. This is made clear during the opening scene, which takes place before the credits. It's here that we meet the narrator and main character, Professor Isak Borg (Sjöström). He's shown sitting at his desk, documenting the following thoughts:

"In our relations with other people, we mainly discuss and evaluate their character and behavior. That is why I have withdrawn from nearly all so-called relations. This has made my old age rather lonely."

Think about the truth in those words. Whenever we meet anyone, we immediately evaluate them. Are they kind, intelligent, or attractive, and do we want to know them? How do you feel knowing that every person who interacts with you is judging you in some way? Many of us want to make a good impression and be liked, while others don't really care what other people think about their worth.

As the film unfolds, we learn that Borg is a doctor who is about to receive an honorary degree. He has a disturbing dream showing a clock with no hands, and a hearse containing his own corpse. After waking at 3am, he decides to drive to the ceremony early, ignoring the feelings of his housekeeper, who wants to leave at 9am as planned. Borg seems to care little for the feelings of those around him. His daughter-in-law, Marianne (Thulin), accompanies him on the trip.

Borg's journey gives him the opportunity to talk to Marianne. He thinks that she dislikes or even hates him because of his indifferent attitude toward the feelings of other people. She even cites an example of such behavior, confirming his suspicions. But as the journey progresses, their conversation reveals things about the character of both people, and they realize that they do like things about each other.

You can see that Borg's musings at the beginning of the film were accurate. Every action he performs is judged. One brief meeting with a gas station attendant (von Sydow) also illustrates that point, but this time in a positive way. Some previous act of Borg's was remembered fondly by the attendant and his wife.

The film contains many dreams and memories, and it's easy to see why David Lynch would like Bergman's work. Borg takes Marianne to visit the house in which he spent the first twenty summers of his life, and we are shown Borg's nine siblings, and the woman he loved. I was reminded of the power of memory, and how it can be stimulated by revisiting places from our past. I am sure everyone can relate to that.

After this interlude, Borg meets three younger people who join him on his journey. Bergman uses the attitudes of these characters to show the contrasting outlooks of different age groups. We also meet two other strangers who are married, but appear to be unhappy. All of these interactions are there to show the possibilities that we have in our future. Will we be happy, lonely, or forced to compromise? Can damaged or broken relationships ever be healed? Why do we do what we do?

Wild Strawberries doesn't contain any profound revelations, but it certainly provokes thought. I mentioned that it's rare to see modern examples of films that explore such areas. A few examples are The Tree of Life, Everlasting Moments, Three Colors Red, and The Double Life of Veronique. If you enjoy exploring your own thoughts, and seeing how events shape our lives and actions, I would recommend all of those films. Wild Strawberries was made more than fifty years ago, and is still relevant today. It was Victor Sjöström's last acting role, and he was very convincing as a 78-year-old man reflecting on his life.

Overall score 4/5

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