More Movie Gems

The Big Short

A little more current than the rest I have surfaced, this movie was released in 2015, with a screen play written by director Adam McKay and  Charles Randolph based on the book written by Michael Lewis about the 2007-2008 financial crisis.  The adapted screenplay won an Oscar.  And there were five additional nominations for Academy Awards.  The cast included Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt (geez, again!) and Marisa Tomei, among others, all good.

“The Big Short” provides a synopsis of the financial crisis.  On the one hand, you see the workings of those involved in high finance (especially those who will profit from “shorting” the market), together with those who attempt to explain just what happened.  Mr. McKay enlists Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie in cameos to educate the viewer.  I liked Margot’s bit the best; done in a bubble bath with bubbly at hand, and with a very simple explanation of sub-prime loans (as in “if you think sub-prime, think shit”).  Then, as if bothered in the middle of her bath, she tells the viewer to “f**k off.”  Lovely.  And she is that …

A.O. Scott, the New York Times reviewer, said of “the Big Short,” that “this is a terrifically enjoyable movie that leaves you in a state of rage, nausea and despair, (but that) … the work of the movie’s sprawling ensemble is never less than delightful.”

For more financial sculduggery watch “Margin Call,” which features Jeremy Irons as a truly cold-hearted Wall Street type, and, dare I say,  Kevin Spacey. 

In Bruges

Martin McDonagh is an acclaimed playwright, a writer for the screen, a producer and a director.  His most recent achievement is “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which he wrote, produced and directed, and which received seven nominations for Academy Awards, winning two (for Frances McDormand as Best Actress and Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor).  Mr. McDonagh earlier won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film, plus a number of BAFTA and Golden Globe awards.  But this is not so much about Mr. McDonagh as it is about Bruges and the two principle characters played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell.  First Bruges: a lovely canal-based city in the north of Belgium, it would be a must stop on any European tour.  However, as portrayed in the film, in the dead of winter and seemingly always at dusk or later, very foreboding.  Bruges below on a sunny autumn day.   

Then there is Mr. Gleeson, “with that noble shambles of a face and heft of a boxer gone to seed, (in the) key role of Ken, one of two killers for hire,” as described by the late film critic Roger Ebert.  The other “killer” is played by Mr. Farrell, who seems to be quite ill-at-ease with his assignment, and who is quite good in his role.  This is Mr. Gleeson below (from his film “Calvary”) in an image that seems to capture his persona.  He is one of my favourite actors and of whom you will read more.

I might mention that the true villain in this movie is played by Ralph Fiennes, with a coldness that matches the evening chill of Bruges.

The Guard

Back to Brendan Gleeson.  In “The Guard” (from the Gaelic “garda”) Mr. Gleeson is the protagonist, a policeman who is no stranger to short-cuts and who is not quite on the level.  But do we mind? 

One might refer to “The Guard” as a buddy movie (typified by “Lethal Weapon” with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, followed by what seems like an endless stream of buddy movies) as Don Cheadle is floated into the “The Guard” as an FBI agent paired with Mr. Gleeson to thwart a major drug deal.  Difficult to fathom why an FBI agent would be sent to Ireland, and why would he need to be black?  Certainly not going undercover.  But I am a Cheadle fan, and I got past it.  And the whole movie works because of Mr. Gleeson.  At one point the Cheadle character says of Mr. Gleeson’s, “  I can’t tell if you’re really (bleeping) dumb or really (bleeping) smart.”

The movie was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh.  As a reviewer said, this movie is “really (bleeping) good.”

Mr. Cheadle and Mr. Gleeson (below) in a less-than-cordial moment.

Amelie

There is something about the ladies of France,  Audrey Tautou (below) being a case in point.  Beauty underscored by a look of innocence, yet with the potential for mischief.  Audrey is the heroine of the 2001 film “Amelie.”  Nominated for five Academy Awards, winning none, but ranked, at that time, as the greatest box office success in French cinema history.

“Amelie” is one of those movies you sit through with a smile, knowing that you have stumbled upon a gem; not quite knowing what to expect, yet expecting nonetheless to be captivated by Audrey’s portrayal of Amelie.  Remarkably, “Amelie” was not screened at the Cannes Film Festival, but was well received pretty much everywhere else.  To me, it is a wonderful representation of French cinema.  There are lots of layers to this movie – all constructed by Amelie.  Most importantly for the viewer, there is Amelie in pursuit of Nino; but more importantly for Amelie, it’s what she does for those around her – whether she is playing cupid for a co-worker; or surreptitiously working to convince her father to travel his way out of his sadness; or gaslighting a store owner to the point where he no longer abuses his employee; and much more.        

As the copy says in the following image, “She’ll change your life.”

Oh, and “gaslighting?”  Had to look it up after seeing it in Wikipedia.  “Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.”  Amelie does a nice job of it.  So do politicians.

American Hustle

You may recall the 1987 film “Empire of the Sun,” which told the story of a young English schoolboy living in Shanghai at the time the Japanese invasion of China.  The schoolboy is separated from his parents and eventually lands in an internment camp.  Without providing further detail, it is a movie worth seeing, directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring 13 year old Christian Bale as the schoolboy.

And that brings me to “American Hustle.”  A movie that was nominated for ten Oscars, winning none (which must be some sort of perverse record).  The cast includes Bradley Cooper (with hideous permed hair, but terrific), Jeremy Renner (terrific),  Amy Adams (also terrific), Jennifer Lawrence (hilarious and a reminder of just how good an actress she is), Robert DeNiro (in a cameo that would strike fear in the otherwise fearless) and Christian Bale (with what must surely be the second worst comb-over ever).  Christian is remarkable and his performance demonstrates just how versatile an actor he is.  He owns two Oscars; one for “The Fighter,” a second for “The Big Short,” together with three appearances as “Batman” and so much more.  “American Hustle” is worth seeing more than once.

The Intouchables

Not to be confused with “The Untouchables,” the 1987 movie starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, “The Intouchables” is a French production starring Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy, neither of whom you may know.  This is a wonderful movie, with M. Sy as Driss, the care-giver for M. Cluzet, as Phillippe, who is a quadriplegic.  The opening scene, with Driss driving Phillippe at high speeds through the streets of Paris in Phillippe’s Maserati, is worthy of any car chase comparison.  And the outcome of that scene is a thing of hilarity.  M. Sy won the Cesar Award (think French Oscar) for Best Actor.  He seems to me to be an engaging combination of a young Eddie Murphy and Dave Chapelle.  M. Cluzet is no slouch either, having won his Cesar in 2007 for the movie “Tell No One.”  I was touched by M. Cluzet’s character as he was able to convey so much emotion despite his disability.  Above all, he seemed to truly relish the performance of his co-star, M. Sy, who is a dude (below).      

Don’t mind the subtitles, as with “Amelie” you will find yourself quickly lost in the charm of the characters.  In the image following, “Driss” takes the wheel of the Maserati, much to the delight of “Phillippe.”

I think I want a Maserati.

Movie Gems

I am a movie buff, and was a buff as a young boy growing up in Winnipeg.  Back then as a 10 year old, I had a 35 cent allowance that covered a return bus trip to downtown Winnipeg, my ticket to the Rialto Theatre on Portage Avenue, unlimited popcorn, two features (usually western schlock), a dozen cartoons, and I still had a nickel left over!  Last week I went to the flicks, got my $10 senior’s ticket, and passed when I saw that a bag of popcorn, coke and a candy bar would set me back an additional $17.95.  I am, after all, a man of some principle.

In any case, and sadly, there are few movies worth seeing right now.   “Red Sparrow” – no – except that Jennifer Lawrence looked very comely.  “You Were Never Really Here” is hard to recommend unless you want to see a very moody Joaquin Phoenix do in very bad guys with a ball pein hammer.  I saw both, the latter with three other people in the theatre.

So, let me save you a few bucks and list here some movie gems that you can watch comfortably at home (rented, on Netflix, or otherwise streamed) and that you may have overlooked.   

“Burn After Reading”

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are prolific, creative and always entertaining.  Their movies include “Raising Arizona” (with Nicholas Cage as a hair-challenged ex-con), “Fargo” (with Frances McDormand.  Frances is married to Joel Coen, by the way), “Blood Simple” (the Coen’s first feature – a good one, but bloody),  “No Country for Old Men” (Javier Bardem as one of cinema’s most frightening villains), and many more. 

“Burn After Reading” might be described as a dark comedy.  According to Wikipedia, Joel Coen said that he and his brother “have a long history of writing parts for idiotic characters.”  They succeeded with “Burn After Reading.”  I won’t spoil the story line for you, except to say that there are many layers that begin to stack up around an espionage plot.  What is truly fascinating to me is the cast.  The Coens recruited an A-list of actors to portray their idiotic characters.  Consider this:  George Clooney (two-time Oscar winner), Tilda Swinton (Oscar winner), Frances McDormand (two-time Best Actress Oscar winner for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” but also for “Fargo” – did you know?),  John Malkovich (two Oscar nominations), Richard Jenkins (two-time Academy Award nominee), J.K. Simmons (Oscar winner), and Brad Pitt (who won an Oscar as a producer for “Twelve Years a Slave”).  Brad Pitt almost steals this movie as a gum-chewing, vacuum-brained personal trainer.  I believe that Brad is a pretty good actor, and then there is his personal life, including a relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow and marriages to Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie.  Not bad, and all over apparently, but I would go with Jennifer if asked.

Yes, that is Brad (with Richard Jenkins) In “Burn After Reading.”  The movie was released in 2008.  Ten years later, it is worth seeing.

“Death at a Funeral”

A reviewer at The Observer said the movie, “in which a fine British cast is wasted on feeble material, is directed by Frank Oz in less than wizardly form.”  A pun at the expense of a very entertaining movie?  I think so.

Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, (the film is) “in the tradition of those classics, in black and white and starring Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness, in which disasters keep piling up, each more drolly funny than the last.”  Good for Ruthe.

And Roger Ebert said, among other comments, “I think the ideal way to see it would be to gather your most dour and disapproving relatives and treat them to a night at the cinema.”  I am fortunate to not have any dour and disapproving relatives.  I am sharing this blog with my relatives, by the way.  And this movie is a treat. 

At the funeral of his father, the son, (played by Mathew Macfadyen) is confronted by his father’s alleged lover (played by Peter Dinklage) who demands a blackmail payment to keep secret his relationship with the deceased father.  In a struggle that ensues, the lover hits his head on a coffee table, and believed to be dead, his body is placed in the coffin along with the father.  It goes from there.

Some of the character bits are truly hilarious.  Alan Tudyk as an unwilling dupe who has ingested what he thought was Valium (it was not);  Peter Vaughan as demanding Uncle Alfie who has continence issues; and not to forget Peter Dinklage, star of the “Game of Thrones,” as the lover.

This movie was remade in 2010 in the U.S., with a predominantly black cast (Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Martin Lawrence) and not nearly as good.  In the image that follows, Peter Dinklage, as the “lover.”   

See the movie – it is very good.

“In the Loop”

Armando Ianucci is a television producer and director and is a Scot.  Yes, despite the name, Armando is a Glaswegian, born of a Neapolitan father and a mother born n Scotland of an Italian family. His most recent effort for the big screen was “The Death of Stalin” – somewhat short of the black comedy description it has been given, but a movie I liked nonetheless.  There are some movies you just appreciate just for the effort, and this was one.  Don’t rush out to see “Stalin” though.  I mean, I loved “No Country for Old Men” but it was not a movie you could urge your mother to go see.

Armando has produced the Alan Partridge series and a British television show called “In the Thick of It” which, in turn, was the precursor for the movie, “”In the Loop.”

“In the Loop” is one of the most profanely funny movies I have seen, without being truly profane.  It is a lesson in politics that pre-dates but somehow predicts the Trump era.  Peter Capaldi is the star (Peter is also the current Doctor Who) who – sorry about that little bit of redundancy – seems to run the entire British government.  Who would dare to stand in his way?  The cast includes Tom Hollander and the late James Gandolfini, he of “The Sopranos” fame. 

  

“Snatch”

“Snatch” was directed by Guy Ritchie, famous for directing “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” – also worth seeing.  Guy is also famous for being to married to Madonna.  Madonna, for her part, was also married to Sean Penn and had relationships with Warren Beatty and Dennis Rodman. Yes, that Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls and self-described “bad boy,” who is also a friend of Kim Jung-un: which leads me to think that knowing Dennis Rodman has been there – that is to say, North Korea and Madonna – neither are places I would want to explore.

But I digress – so back to “Snatch.”

There are two layers to the plot here; one that deals with a stolen diamond, a second about fight fixing.  The cast includes Brad Pitt as a “Pikey” (read Gypsy or Irish Traveller) who is very good with his fists, Jason Statham (soon to be type-cast as an avenger with martial arts skills), Dennis Farina (now deceased, but great in gangster roles – as in “Get Shorty”), and Benicio del Toro.  Benicio won an Oscar for his role in “Traffic” and was prominent in “The Usual Suspects” and “Sicario.”  Of note, Benicio was in a relationship with the daughter of Rod Stewart that has produced a grand-daughter for Sir Rod. 

Brad Pitt is a scene stealer once again.  He is barely intelligible in his “Pikey” role, and the ladies will like his fight scenes where much emphasis is placed on his abs and tats.  That is Brad in the foregoing, enjoying a smoke between rounds with Jason Statham and Stephen Graham.

“Michael Clayton”

Released in 2007, “Michael Clayton” received seven nominations for Academy Awards, and was a profitable film, but seemed to be under the radar.  Did you see it?

George Clooney is Michael Clayton, a “fixer” working for a law firm and who knows all the short-cuts and loopholes that can right the wrongs of his firm’s clients.  Tilda Swinton is the villain here, a lawyer trying to suppress data on a carcinogenic herbicide that would have significant consequences for her employer.  Tilda’s character is described by a New York Times reviewer as “a pitiful creature, as unloved by her writer-director creator as by the genius actress who plays her.”  I felt uncomfortable watching her and she truly deserved the Oscar for her performance.

Tilda is pictured below in a somewhat normal pose.

Tilda is easily transformed.  Not a classic beauty, but she has worked as a model.  Here she is as she appeared in the “Grand Budapest Hotel.”  And then below that, after having her hair done.

The Rules of Civility

One of the best books I have read in recent years is “A Gentleman in Moscow” – a book that tells the story of Alexander Rostov, a member of the aristocracy, who, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, is sentenced to life imprisonment for writing a counter-revolutionary “poem.” The good news for Count Rostov: his sentence is to be served in Moscow’s famed Hotel Metropole, where he is confined to a small attic room. In a 2016 review of “A Gentleman in Moscow” The Washington Post described Count Rostov’s Hotel Metropole as “transfixing, full of colourful characters, some transitory, others permanent: mostly fictional, some historical.” Also that the book has “some derring-do in the latter parts” (and in my opinion, a terrific ending). The Post reviewer wondered, as I did, why Hollywood “hasn’t snapped this (book) up?’’ (It has since been optioned to be produced as a mini-series).

The Post headlined the review, “A Gentleman in Moscow is a charming reminder of what it means to be classy.” That should make it mandatory reading for a number of politicians and so-called “celebrities.” Any come to mind?

The dining room of the present-day Hotel Metropole is shown in the preceding photograph. According to Trip Advisor, a one-night stay at the Hotel will set you back slightly more than 500 bucks U.S.

Amor Towles, wrote “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Mr. Towles holds an M.A. in English from Stanford University, but spent some 20 years as an investment professional before turning to writing full time. He is pictured below – looking every bit the writer.

Mr. Towles first wrote “The Rules of Civility.” While not nearly as engrossing as “A Gentleman” it is a great read in itself. “The Rules of Civility” was described in a New York Times review as a “snappy period piece” in which Towles “resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age of screwball comedy …”

The novel follows Katey Kontent, who in 1966 is transported back three decades to a New Year’s Eve that changed the path her life might otherwise have taken. That night Katey and her friend Eve first met Tinker Grey. Without going into further detail, I will tell you that Tinker (who names their child Tinker?) lives his life according to rules of civility laid down by George Washington. It turns out that Washington, as a 16 year old school boy, copied “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” from 12 year old Francis Hawkins, who had in 1640 translated the “Rules” from French into English. The “Rules” originated with French Jesuits in 1595.

It is remarkable that Washington took the trouble to copy into his notebook the 110 “Rules of Civility.” Not surprising that he went on to do such great things.

The “Rules” are easily sourced, so I won’t reference all 110 here, despite the fact that many of them are rules to live by even today. Here are several of my favourites:

11th – “Shift not yourself in the Sight of others, nor Gnaw your nails.” (On a cross-Atlantic flight years ago, I was seated in business class next to a man, who, as soon as the plane took off, began to chew his nails. I asked him politely if he planned to gnaw them for the next six hours. He wasn’t happy with my question, and moved to another seat to annoy someone else).

15th – “Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean without Shewing any great Concern for them.” (Yes, nails again. And speaking of teeth, Washington was not a model of oral hygiene. Contrary to the myth that he had wooden dentures, the fact is that his false teeth were a combination of gold, ivory, brass, and human and animal teeth).

44th – When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it. (I will try to remember this on the golf course).

54th – “Play not the Peacock, looking every where about you, to See if you be well Deck’t, if your Shoes fit well if your Stockings sit neatly, and Cloths handsomely.” (It is the Peacock part that attracted me to this rule, which takes on a slightly different meaning at my gym where some are determined to wear out the mirrors).

62nd – “Speak not of doleful Things in a Time of Mirth or at the Table …” (It goes on a bit longer, but I am reminded of Count Rostov’s dinner table rule that conversation be steered away from politics, religion and personal sorrows).

89th – “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.” (If politics, religion and personal sorrows are (literally) off the table, and now malicious gossip; future dinner parties are going to be pretty bland).

110th – “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience.”

(Nice place to end. There are 103 more gems here).

Churchill

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill has long been an historical favourite of mine. In my mind he was the most heroic figure of the 20th century. But again, in my opinion, he was far from perfect; a man who overcame his imperfections to lead his country through its “darkest hour.” If you haven’t seen the film, “Darkest Hour,” you should. Gary Oldman won his Oscar, and deservedly so. There is a long list of distinguished actors who have portrayed Churchill – Albert Finney, John Lithgow, Rod Taylor, Brendon Gleeson, and others – but none captured the essence of Churchill quite as well as Oldman.

The movie described a brief, but very critical period of time when the United Kingdom, under the inspired leadership of Sir Winston (having assumed the Prime Ministership at age 65), moved into battle against Hitler’s Germany. I thought that what I would do here is pass along some insights into Churchill, to show what a remarkable man he was.

He was amazingly productive. His capacity for work was without comparison, especially his writing. Sir Winston wrote first as a journalist, covering among other events, The Cuban war for independence, the war in the Sudan and the Boer War. In the 1920s he wrote a six volume history of the Great War; in the 1930s he completed his first autobiography and a four volume biography of the first Duke of Marlborough. Following the defeat of Germany and his own political defeat as Prime Minister, Churchill wrote a six volume history of World War II. Then, in his early 80s, he completed the four volume “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.” Sir Winston was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1953. One historian estimated that over his lifetime Churchill wrote some 8 to 10 million words in various media.

Sir Winston was an accomplished painter of mainly landscapes. Painting may have helped him deal with his ‘Black Dog” – episodic bouts of depression that occurred throughout his adult life. Again, he was remarkably productive, having finished more than 500 paintings over a 50 year span. A painting by Churchill of his goldfish pond at Chartwell (his home) sold in 2014 for 1.8 million pounds.

Churchill was renowned for his oratory, which was underpinned by his skill at putting pen to paper. Of the airmen of the Royal Air Force he wrote and spoke “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Or in his first speech as the new Prime Minister, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Compare that to the eloquence of our young Canadian Prime Minster, who finds it difficult to complete a sentence. Or to Donald Trump who can only complete a sentence with two or more “very, verys.”

Churchill could be brutal in his assessment of people. Of Neville Chamberlain, who sought peace with Hitler, Churchill stated, “He (Chamberlain) was given the choice between war and dishonour. He choose dishonour and he will have war anyway.”

Of Charles De Gaulle, “He looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in her bath.”
Of Lawrence of Arabia, “He was not in complete harmony with the normal.”

And of the Earl of Halifax (portrayed in “Darkest Hour”), “Halifax’s virtues have done more harm than the vices of hundreds of other people.”

But never lacking for ego he said, “We are all worms, but I am a glow- worm.”
He did have a lot of nice things to say about others, but one gets the impression that Sir Winston did not suffer fools. Often, over dinner, and after a number of libations, we ask the question of our guests, “Who would most like to join your dinner table?” My diplomatic answer, after making sure to include those currently sitting at the dinner table, is “my father, and certainly Winston Churchill.” Churchill, of course, would dominate the conversation, but my father would break in and want to know (having spent a number of years in the U.K. during World War II) why all they had to eat at dinner was mutton. That was my Dad. Never one for politics.

There are scores of books written by or about Sir Winston. Biographies by Manchester, Jenkins, and Sir Martin Gilbert, are must reads. So is “The Gathering Storm” (predicting the rise of Nazi Germany) by Churchill himself.

I leave you with this. Learn what you can about Sir Winston. I did, but only later in life. He is an inspiration for all of us, and the young need to understand that, as he did, one should never give up.

The photo above was taken by the Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, and is the most famous image of Churchill. The photo seemed to capture much of the Churchill personality – his imperiousness, his resolve, and his tenacity.

But a few words now about Gary Oldman. This is Gary (below) as Churchill in “Darkest Hour.”
A pretty good likeness that Oldman brought to life with his ability to adopt Churchill’s mannerisms; his impatience, his temper, and Sir Winston’s speaking voice (complete with lisp). Oldman won the Oscar of course, and the BAFTA (British Academy of Film Awards) for best actor. His third BAFTA, by the way.

I regard Oldman as a chameleon. He may be unrecognizable from one role to the next. Do you remember him in “JFK” (as Lee Harvey Oswald)? In “Air Force One” trying to bring down Harrison Ford’s plane? As Dracula in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula?” As Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” series? Or try “The Professional” as one of film’s greatest villains.

Here he is, in the image following, looking dapper in black tie. Quite a stretch from his portrayal of Sir Winston.

Gary Oldman is without question a great actor. But he is also something of a legend as a husband, having been married five times. These unions lasted 2,3,4 and 7 years respectively. The most recent wedding took place in 2017 (wish her luck!). Oldman was once married to Uma Thurman (good on him) and apparently, in between marriages, counted Isabella Rossellini as a “partner.” Good on him again, as Isabella is the beautiful daughter of the beautiful Ingrid Bergman.