Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

I tried to think of a number of movies about the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Hollywood Blacklist I have seen. And to be honest, I can only think of two of which I have never finished and two of which I did. One of those movies I did finish was the 2015 biopic about Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.

Based upon Bruce Alexander Cook’s 1977 biography, the movie covered fourteen years of the screenwriter’s life – from being subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to 1960, when he was able to openly write movies and receive screen credit after nine to ten years of being blacklisted by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Protection of American Ideals. Due to this time period, it was up to production designer Mark Rickler to visually convey fourteen years in Southern California – from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I must say that he, along with cinematographer Jim Denault and art directors Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal did an excellent job by taking advantage of the New Orleans locations. That is correct. Certain areas around New Orleans, Louisiana stood for mid-century Los Angeles, California. But the movie also utilized a few locations in Southern California; including a residential house in northeastern Los Angeles, and the famous Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of Hollywood. And thanks to Denault’s cinematography, Rickler’s production designs not only made director Jay Roach’s “Southern California” look colorful, but nearly realistic. But one of my minor joys of “TRUMBO” came from the costume designs. Not only do I admire how designer Daniel Orlandi re-created mid-20th century fashion for the film industry figures in Southern California, as shown in the images below:

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I was especially impressed by Orlandi’s re-creation of . . . you guessed it! Columnist Hedda Hopper‘s famous hats, as shown in the following images:

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I have read two reviews for “TRUMBO”. Both reviewers seemed to like the movie, yet both were not completely impressed by it. I probably liked it a lot more than the two. “TRUMBO” proved to be the second movie I actually paid attention to about the Blacklist. I think it has to do with the movie’s presentation. “TRUMBO” seemed to be divided into three acts. The first act introduced the characters and Trumbo’s problems with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to his being imprisoned for eleven months on charges of contempt of Congress, for his refusal to answer questions from HUAC. The second act focused on those years in which Trumbo struggled to remain employed as a writer for the low-budget King Brothers Productions, despite being blacklisted by the major studios. And the last act focused upon Trumbo’s emergence from the long shadow of the blacklist, thanks to his work on “SPARTACUS” and “EXODUS”.

I have only one real complaint about “TRUMBO”. Someone once complained that the movie came off as uneven. And I must admit that the reviewer might have a point. I noticed that the film’s first act seemed to have a light tone – despite Trumbo’s clashes with Hollywood conservatives and HUAC. Even those eleven months he had spent in prison seemed to have an unusual light tone, despite the situation. But once the movie shifted toward Trumbo’s struggles trying to stay employed, despite the blacklist, the movie’s tone became somewhat bleaker. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured the screenwriter’s clashes with his family over his self-absorbed and strident behavior towards them and his dealings with fellow (and fictional) screenwriter Arlen Hird. But once actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger expressed interest in ignoring the Blacklist and hiring Trumbo for their respective movies, the movie shifted toward a lighter, almost sugarcoated tone again. Now, there is nothing wrong with a movie shifting from one tone to another in accordance to the script. My problem with these shifts is that they struck me as rather extreme and jarring. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a movie directed by two different men.

Another problem I had with “TRUMBO” centered around one particular scene that featured Hedda Hopper and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. In this scene, Hopper forces Mayer to fire any of his employees who are suspected Communists, including Trumbo. The columnist did this by bringing up Mayer’s Jewish ancestry and status as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. This scene struck me as a blatant copy of one featured in the 1999 HBO movie, “RKO 281”. In that movie, Hopper’s rival, Louella Parsons (portrayed by Brenda Blethyn) utilized the same method to coerce – you guess it – Mayer (portrayed by David Suchet) to convince other studio bosses to withhold their support of the 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. Perhaps the filmmakers for “TRUMBO” felt that no one would remember the HBO film. I did. Watching that scene made me wonder if I had just witnessed a case of plagiarism. And I felt rather disappointed.

Despite these jarring shifts in tone, I still ended up enjoying “TRUMBO” very much. Instead of making an attempt to cover Dalton Trumbo’s life from childhood to death, the movie focused upon a very important part in the screenwriter’s life – the period in which his career in Hollywood suffered a major decline, due to his political beliefs. And thanks to Jay Roach’s direction and John McNamara’s screenplay, the movie did so with a straightforward narrative. Some of the film’s critics had complained about its sympathetic portrayal of Trumbo, complaining that the movie had failed to touch upon Trumbo’s admiration of the Soviet Union. Personally, what would be the point of that? A lot of American Communists did the same, rather naively and stupidly in my opinion. But considering that this movie mainly focused upon Trumbo’s experiences as a blacklisted writer, what would have been the point? Trumbo was not professionally and politically condemned for regarding the Soviet Union as the epitome of Communism at work. He was blacklisted for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Also, the movie did not completely whitewash Trumbo. McNamara’s screenplay did not hesitate to condemn how Trumbo’s obsession with continuing his profession as a screenwriter had a negative impact upon his relationship with his family – especially his children. It also had a negative impact with his relationship with fellow screenwriter (the fictional) Arlen Hird, who wanted Trumbo to use his work for the King Brothers to express their liberal politics. Trumbo seemed more interested in staying employed and eventually ending the Blacklist. I came away with the feeling that the movie was criticizing the screenwriter for being more interested in regaining his successful Hollywood career than in maintaining his politics.

“TRUMBO” also scared me. The movie scared me in a way that the 2010 movie, “THE CONSPIRATOR” did. It reminded me that I may disagree with the political or social beliefs of another individual; society’s power over individuals – whether that society came in the form of a government (national, state or local) or any kind of corporation or business industry – can be a frightening thing to behold. It can be not only frightening, but also corruptive. Watching the U.S. government ignore the constitutional rights of this country’s citizens (including Trumbo) via the House Committee on Un-American Activities scared the hell out of me. Watching HUAC coerce and frighten actor Edward G. Robinson into exposing people that he knew as Communists scared me. What frightened me the most is that it can happen again. Especially when I consider how increasingly rigid the world’s political climate has become.

I cannot talk about “TRUMBO” without focusing on the performances. Bryan Cranston earned a slew of acting nominations for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. I have heard that the screenwriter was known for being a very colorful personality. What is great about Cranston’s performance is that he captured this trait of Trumbo’s without resorting to hammy acting. Actually, I could say the same about the rest of the cast. Helen Mirren portrayed the movie’s villain, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper with a charm and charisma that I personally found both subtle and very scary. Diane Lane gave a subtle and very convincing performance as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, who not only stood by her husband throughout his travails, but also proved to be strong-willed when his self-absorption threatened to upset the family dynamics. Louis C.K., the comic actor gave a poignant and emotional performance as the fictional and tragic screenwriter, Arden Hird.

Other memorable performances caught my attention as well. Elle Fanning did an excellent job portraying Trumbo’s politically passionate daughter, who grew to occasionally resent her father’s pre-occupation with maintaining his career. Michael Stuhlbarg did a superb job in conveying the political and emotional trap that legendary actor Edward G. Robinson found himself, thanks to HUAC. Both John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave colorful and entertaining performances as studio head Frank King and Trumbo’s fellow convict Virgil Brooks, respectively. Stephen Root was equally effective as the cautious and occasionally paranoid studio boss, Hymie King. Roger Bart gave an excellent performance as fictional Hollywood producer Buddy Ross, a venal personality who seemed to lack Robinson’s sense of guilt for turning his back on the blacklisted Trumbo and other writers. David James Elliot gave a very interesting performance as Hollywood icon John Wayne, conveying the actor’s fervent anti-Communist beliefs and willingness to protect Robinson from Hedda Hopper’s continuing hostility toward the latter. And in their different ways, both Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel gave very entertaining performances as the two men interested in employing Trumbo by the end of the 1950s – Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I noticed that “TRUMBO” managed to garner only acting nominations for the 2015-2016 award season. Considering that the Academy Award tends to nominate at least 10 movies for Best Picture, I found it odd that the organization was willing to nominate the likes of “THE MARTIAN” (an unoriginal, yet entertaining feel-good movie) and “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” (for which I honestly do not have a high regard) in that category. “TRUMBO” was not perfect. But I do not see why it was ignored for the Best Picture category, if movies like “THE MARTIAN” can be nominated. I think director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara and a cast led by the always talented Bryan Cranston did an excellent job in conveying a poisonous period in both the histories of Hollywood and this country.

“RED 2” (2013) Review

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“RED 2” (2013) Review

The 2010 adaptation of Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s comic book series proved to be very popular at the box office. Yet, I was surprised that it took another three years for the sequel, “RED 2” to be released in the movie theaters. Unless the movie in question is part of the STAR WARS franchise, it usually takes two years or less for a sequel to appear on the scene.

“RED 2” picks up a few years after “RED”, which finds ex-C.I.A. agent Frank Moses trying to lead a normal life with his girlfriend, Sarah Ross. The effort seems to be a strain for both, although Frank seems to be more successful in accepting a “normal life”. Frank’s former colleague Marvin Bogge interrupts this “idyllic life” by warning Frank that people might be following them. Frank dismisses Marvin’s fears before the latter drives off before his car is blown up. After Frank and Sarah attend Marvin’s funeral, the former is captured by government agents to a Yankee White Facility, where he is interrogated by a C.I.A. operative named Jack Horton. Frank manages to escape the facility with the help of a resurrected Marvin. And the latter reveals that he and Frank were being hunted for being part of a secret operation called Nightshade, which smuggled a nuclear weapon created by one Dr. Edward Bailey, piece by piece into Russia back in the late 1970s or early 80s. Horton is ordered to label Frank, Marvin and Sarah terrorists to other countries. Former MI-6 assassin, Victoria Winslow informs her friends that she has been recruited by her former agency to kill them. She also informs them that former South Korean agent-turned-top contract killer Han Cho-Bai has been hired by the C.I.A. to kill Frank and Marvin. With so many after them; Frank, Marvin and Sarah are forced to learn the truth about Nightshade in order to clear themselves of the terrorist charge.

I had enjoyed “RED” when the movie first came out, three years ago. But if I must be honest, I did not love it. My opinion of it grew over the years. But after seeing “RED 2”, I realize that my views of it will never be as high as “RED 2”. The summer of 2013 seemed to be plagued by box office flops and from what I have seen of the box office take for “RED 2” after it had been in the theaters for three weeks, it is clear that it is a flop. Once again, I am faced with a movie that I seemed to like a lot more than the majority of moviegoers and critics. If I had been younger, I would have taken the public’s rejection of the film personally. But when I think of the number of failed movies that I have enjoyed over the years, I have come to the conclusion that I no longer cared whether the rest of the public share my feelings for a particular movie. As far as I am concerned, I enjoyed “RED 2” very much and look forward to its DVD release.

As in the 2010 movie, “RED 2” featured a past operation that has come back to haunt two of its main heroes – Frank Moses and Marvin Bogges. But in “RED 2”, the circumstances and plot surrounding the Nightshade Operation struck me as more plausible and better written that the covert operation featured in “RED”. Even the villains’ objectives struck me as a lot more plausible. Realizing this has made me wonder why my opinion of “RED” has increased in the past three years. “RED 2” also delved more into Frank’s relationship with his Kansas City-born paramour, Sarah Ross. I found it rather amusing that the ever paranoid Marvin seemed to understand Sarah’s need for action a lot better than Frank, who seemed determined to treat her as a china doll. But as Marvin pointed out – Frank is blinded by his fear of losing Sarah. Their relationship is also tested by Frank’s reunion with a former paramour – a KGB colonel named Katya, and Sarah’s talent for using her feminine wiles to deal with terrorists such as “The Frog” and a Russian Army officer at the Kremlin. Best of all, “RED 2” featured some top-notch villains – including the proficiently murderous C.I.A. agent Jack Horton and one Han Cho-Bai, viewed as the best contract killer in the world. “RED 2” also possess one of the best plot twists I have seen in some time. It certainly proved to be better than any of the plot twists featured in the 2010 movie. Jon and Erich Hoeber did a great job with a complex script.

Did I have any problems with “RED 2”? I had a little problem with Marvin’s ability to fake death. Considering that he was presumably killed due to a car bomb, I was surprised that no one found the idea of a pristine body inside the coffin rather questionable . . . especially Sarah Ross. And who really had been responsible for Operation Nightshade? The C.I.A. or MI-6? Or was it a joint effort? The Hoebers’ script never really made the matter clear.

The performances in “RED 2” were marvelous. Beginning with the three leads – Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker – and down to Titus Welliver, who more or less gave a cameo appearance; the movie rocked with some first-rate acting. For the second time, Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker created comic and romantic screen chemistry as the love-struck Frank Moses and Sarah Ross. Thanks to the actors’ comedic skills, both did a great job in conveying the pair’s relationship struggles of her boredom of being an “ordinary” couple and his penchant for being over protective. Once again, John Malkovich was marvelous as the deliciously paranoid Marvin Bogges, who in this film, also displays a talent for romantic counseling. Helen Mirren not only gave a deliciously witty performance as British assassin Victoria Winslow, she also proved that to be a bad-ass action star in some of the scenes in the movie’s second half. When I had learned that Lee Byung-hun from the “G.I. JOE” had been cast in the film, I assumed his character would be a great deal like the one he had portrayed in the Hasbro film franchise. I proved to be right . . . superficially. Thankfully, the actor’s portrayal of the assassin Han proved to be a great deal more emotional and rather funny, despite being deadly.

The movie also featured an excellent performance from Neal McDonough as the very dangerous and rather cold-blooded C.I.A. agent, Jack Horton. His character’s takedown of the agents at the Yankee White Facility struck me as somewhat creepy. Brian Cox reprised his role as Russian intelligence official, Ivan Simanov. He was funnier than ever – especially in one scene in which he was lovingly admiring Victoria’s form as she rescued Frank, Sarah and Marvin from a Russian firing squad. Catherine Zeta-Jones gave a sly and sexy performance as Frank’s former paramour, Russian agent Katya. David Thewlis made a brief appearance as a techno-terrorist named “The Frog”. Not only did the actor did a great job during a chase scene in Paris, he was absolutely hilarious in a scene in which “The Frog” finally surrendered to Sarah’s wooing during an interrogation. The one performance that really impressed me came from Anthony Hopkins, who portrayed the scientist who first created Nightshade, Dr. Edward Bailey. Hopkins’ performance struck me as strange . . . and I am being complimentary. The actor was superb in projecting Bailey’s eccentricity, which developed after years of being stuck in an assylum by MI-6 for nearly three decades. And it was quite a thrill to see him in his only scene with Brian Cox . . . especially since both actors had portrayed Hannibal Lector with great acclaim.

Box office flop or not, I cannot deny that I enjoyed “RED 2” very much. Not only did it struck me as better than the original 2010 movie, but also proved to be one of my favorite movies for the summer of 2013. And I have director Dean Parisot, a great script written by Jon and Erich Hoeber, and a fabulous cast led by Bruce Willis to thank.

“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

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“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

In 1999, actor Bob Balaban had approached director Robert Altman with the idea of developing a film together. Altman suggested a whodunit set at an English country estate. The two approached actor/writer Julian Fellowes if he could take their concept and write a screenplay. Their collective efforts resulted in the 2001 comedy-drama, “GOSFORD PARK”.

In the movie, a group of wealthy Britons, a British actor/entertainer, an American movie producer and their servants gather at Gosford Park, the country estate of a wealthy industrialist named Sir William McCordle, for a shooting party over the weekend. Sir William is not a popular man. His wife and most of his in-laws despise him. And most of his servants (aside from one or two) dislike him. When Sir William is found murdered inside his study during the second night of the weekend, there seemed to be a list of suspects who have a very good reason to kill him:

*Lady Sylvia McCordle – Sir William’s bitchy wife, who despises him and had married Sir William for his money

*Commander Anthony Meredith – One of Sir William’s brothers-in-law, who is desperate for the industrialist’s financial backing in a venture regarding shoes for Sudanese soldiers

*Raymond, Lord Stockbridge – Sir William’s snobbish brother-in-law, whose wife might be having an affair with him

*Lady Lavinia Meredith – Sir William’s younger sister-in-law and devoted wife to Commander Meredith

*Mrs. Croft – Gosford Park’s head cook and former employee at one of Sir William’s factories, who despised him

*Mrs. Wilson – Gosford Park’s housekeeper, Mrs. Croft younger sister and another former employee of one of Sir William’s factories

*Lord Rupert Standish – a penniless aristocrat who wants to overcome Sir William’s opposition and marry his only child, Isobel McCordle

*Constance, Countess of Trentham – Sir William’s aunt-in-law, who is dependent upon a regular allowance from him

The weekend party include other guests and servants, such as:

*Mary Maceachran – Lady Trentham’s lady maid

*Elsie – Head housemaid whom Mary befriended, and who was definitely having an affair with Sir William

*Ivor Novello – Famous actor/singer and Sir William’s cousin

*Morris Weissman – Producer from Fox Studios

*Henry Denton – Weissman’s valet, who is actually a Hollywood minor actor studying for an upcoming role

*Robert Parks – Lord Stockbridge’s new valet

*Jennings – Major domo of Gosford Park, who has a secret to hide

*Honorable Freddie Nesbitt – A local impoverished aristocrat who had earlier seduced Isobel. At the shooting party, he tries to blackmail her into convincing Sir William to give him a job

*Mabel Nesbitt – The daughter of a self-made glove manufacturer whom Freddie married for her money, before spending the latter.

*Louisa, Lady Stockbridge – Sir William’s other sister-in-law, with whom he might have had an affair

*Probert – Sir William’s personal valet and one of the few who actually grieved him.

Needless to say, the list of characters is a long one. Following Sir William’s murder, the local police in the form of one Inspector Thompson and Constable Dexter arrive to solve the murder. Being incompetent and a complete snob, Inspector Thompson seemed to regard the higher class guests as worthy suspects for the murder of Sir William. Constable Dexter, on the other hand, seemed more interested in Jennings’ World War I past and the clues at hand. In fact, Dexter managed to ascertain that Sir William had been poisoned by one person, before another drove an ax into his back. But it was lady’s maid Mary Maceachran who managed to figure out the culprits in the end.

I cannot deny that after ten years or so, “GOSFORD PARK” remains a big favorite of mine. When the movie first reached the movie screens in December 2001, many admitted to enjoying the film, but predicted that it would age with time. There are perhaps some critics who believe this has actually happened. But I do not agree. Considering the increasingly bleak social landscape of today, I believe that the theme behind “GOSFORD PARK” has remained relevant as ever. Despite my love for the film, would I consider it perfect? Honestly? No. Other critics may be able to find more than two flaws in the film. On the other hand, I was able to find two that bothered me.

The pacing for most of “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be on spot . . . at least for me. It possessed a great set-up for introducing the characters, the setting’s atmosphere and the revelation of the suspects’ motives for wanting Sir William dead. However, the murder did not occur until two-thirds into the movie. Once Inspector Thompson appeared on the scene, the movie’s pacing began to drag. And it did not pick up again until the movie’s last twenty minutes. For me, the pacing during the last third of the film struck me as merely a minor flaw. There was another that proved to be a bigger one for me – namely the Henry Denton character.

I have nothing against Ryan Phillipe’s performance as Denton. Trust me, I thought he did a superb job. But Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of the character left me shaking my head in confusion. According to the script, Denton was an American actor for Fox Studios who accompanied Morris Weissman as his Scottish valet in order to study British servants for a role in a“CHARLIE CHAN” movie. This little deception strikes me as something actors did for a role during the past thirty or forty years . . . certainly not in 1932. The deception ended when Henry admitted his true identity to the police. But the one thing that really disturbed me about the character was his attempted rape of Mary Maceachran during the first night of the weekend. Why did Fellowes include that scenario in the first place? Henry had already made a date for some nocturnal activity with Lady Sylvia McCordle, several minutes earlier. If he had already scheduled a night for sex with the mistress of the house, why have him assault Mary a few mintues later? I suspect that Fellowes wanted to establish a character that most of the characters – aristocratic and lower-class – would dislike. Both aristocrats and servants alike reacted with glee when one of the servants, portrayed by Richard Grant, dumped a cup of hot tea (or coffee) on Henry’s lap. With Henry being an American, I can only assume he made an easier target for the derision of everyone. I can only wonder why Altman and Balaban did not question this heavy-handed characterization of Henry. Regardless of Fellowes’ reason for vilifying Henry, I found the rape attempt as an example of clumsy and unnecessary writing on his part.

Thankfully, most of “GOSFORD PARK” proved to be quite a cherished gem. Not even the flaws I had pointed out in the above paragraphs can overcome my appreciation of this movie. Altman, Balaban and Fellowes took a classic literary device – “country house mystery” – and used it to explore the British class system of the early 1930s. “GOSFORD PARK”revealed the changes that affected Britain’s social landscape by 1932. Aside from Lord Stockbridge, most of the aristocratic characters seemed to be struggling to make ends meet financially in order to maintain a lifestyle they had been born into. Those from a middle-class or working-class background like Sir William McCordle, his “cousin” Ivor Novello, Morris Weissman and Mabel Nesbitt have become successful, wealthy or in the case of Mabel, the offspring of a self-made man. Their success and wealth has allowed them to socialize amongt the aristocracy and upper-class. But their origins continue to attract scorn from the likes of Lady Sylvia, her sister Lady Lavinia and their aunt, the Countess of Trentham. The servants featured in “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be divided into three categories – those who are blindly loyal to their employers; those like Elsie, Robert Parks and Mrs. Croft, who despise their employers; and those like Mary, Jennings and Mrs. Wilson who do not love or hate their employers, but simply take pride in their professionalism.

What I found interesting about “GOSFORD PARK” is that both servants and guests possessed both positive and negative traits. The exceptions to the rule proved to be Mary, who struck me as a bit too ideal for my tastes; and of course, Henry Denton, whose portrayal I had already complained about. Most people would add that Sir William had also been portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. But the humiliations he endured under the snobbish Lady Sylvia and Elsie’s warm recollections of him saved the character from such a fate.

Another aspect about “GOSFORD PARK” that I truly enjoyed was its overall production design. Stephen Altman did a superb job of re-creating the atmosphere of a country manor home in the early 1930s. He was ably supported by Anna Pinnock’s set decorations, along with John Frankis and Sarah Hauldren’s art direction. For me, it was Jenny Bevan’s costumes and the women’s hairstyles that made me realize that the production team really knew what they were doing. I have rarely come across a movie or television production set in the 1930s that was completely accurate – especially in regard to costumes and hairstyles.

There were plenty of first-rate performances in “GOSFORD PARK”. But there were a handful that stood out for me. Both Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayals of Mrs. Wilson and the Countess of Trentham, respectively. Mirren was superb as the no-nonsense housekeeper, whose stoic personality hid a passionate nature that would eventually be revealed upon a discovery she made. In my review of Season One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, I had complained that Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the Dowager Countess of Grantham bore a strong resemblance to her Lady Trentham in “GOSFORD PARK”. I stand by that observation. But there is something about Smith’s portrayal of Lady Trentham that struck me as a lot more subtle and a little more poisonous in her class bigotry. Clive Owen gave a charismatic performance as the mysterious valet, Robert Parks, whose past attracts the attention of both Mary Maceachran and Mrs. Wilson.

Michael Gambon gave one of his more interesting performances as the mystery’s main victim, Sir William McCordle. Superficially, he was as crude and cold-blooded as many regarded the character. Yet, Gambon injected a certain charm into his performance that made it easier for me to see why Sir William had a way with the ladies. Bob Balaban provided some fine comic moments as the droll Hollywood producer that harbored a slight contempt toward his aristocratic hosts behind a polite veneer. I have already pointed out Ryan Phillipe’s portrayal of Henry Denton. I must admit that he did a first-rate job in conveying the portrait of a smooth hustler. Many have commented on Maggie Smith’s wit in the movie. However, I thought that Emily Watson’s portrayal of head housemaid Elsie was equally sharp and sardonic. Alan Bates gave one of his last best performances as the stuffy, yet likable major domo of the McCordle household, who harbored a secret about his past as a conscientious objector during World War I. At the same time, Watson was wonderfully poignant as one of the few people who not only mourned Sir William, but appreciated his friendship and words of wisdom to her. I found it surprising that the movie’s moral center proved to the be the sweet and eventually wise Mary Maceachran, Lady Trentham’s new personal maid. Kelly MacDonald was in her mid-20s when she did this movie and her character was not particularly flashy in compare to many of the other roles. Yet, not only did she held her own against the likes of Maggie Smith and Emily Watson, she did a great job in becoming the movie’s emotional anchor . . . even if her character was a bit too ideal for my tastes.

“GOSFORD PARK” earned a good deal of accolades after its release. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won a Best Original Screenplay for Julian Fellowes. It also earned five Golden Globe awards and Robert Altman won for Best Director. Would I have voted “GOSFORD PARK” as the Best Picture of 2001? Not really. I was more impressed by Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. But thanks to a superb cast, Julian Fellowes’ screenplay and Robert Altman’s direction, it not proved to be one of the cinematic gems of 2001, but also of the entire decade.

“THE DEBT” (2011) Review

“THE DEBT” (2011) Review

Five years ago, Assaf Bernstein directed a movie about three retired Mossad agents confronted by a challenge from their past in a movie called “THE DEBT”. Just recently, John Madden directed a remake of this movie with the same title. Although originally intended for a December 2010 release date, the movie was finally released at the end of August. 

This new version of “THE DEBT” The espionage thriller began in 1997, when two retired Mossad agents, Rachel as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel Singer and Stefan Gold have received shocking news about their former colleague David Peretz. All three have been celebrated by Israel for thirty-one years for successfully tracking down a Nazi war criminal named Dieter Vogel back in 1965-55 in East Berlin. However, the reactions of both Rachel and Stefan and several flashbacks questioned whether or not if the team’s mission was accomplished.

I have never seen the 2007 version. Which means there is no way I could compare this new version to the older one. But I could say this about “THE DEBT” . . . I thought it was one of the best movies I had seen this past summer. In fact, I thought it was one of the best movies I have seen this year. “THE DEBT” is a superb thriller about a dangerous mission to capture a Nazi war criminal – a mission that led to a labyrinth of lies, guilt, regrets and a desire to correct a mistake. The sequences set in Israel and Russia of the late 1990s and in flashback sequences, 1965-66 East Berlin. The three protagonists in the film proved to be a complicated trio, haunted by not only the Holocaust, but also their personal demons and desires.

The central figure in the story is Rachel Singer, a former Mossad agent who gave up her career when she became pregnant with her only child. Rachel spends the years 1965 to 1997 being caught between two men – the team’s charismatic and womanizing leader, Stefan Gold; and the quiet and intense David Peretz. Both of them became attracted to her. But whereas Stefan viewed Rachel as a brief romance, David began falling in love with her. Rachel felt the same, but turned to Stefan for a one night stand – an act that ended up having major consequences in the relationship between the trio. In a very intense and well directed sequence, the agents finally managed to capture Vogel. But a bad encounter with East German guards at the Wollankstraße Station forced them to take Vogel back to their safe house and guard him, until they can find another way to get him to Israel. What followed was a deliciously acted cat-and-mouse game between manipulative Vogel and his three captors. The shocks and tensions continued, once the story shifted permanently to 1997. In that time frame, Rachel was forced to travel to Russia and clean up a mess caused by the major secret created by the three colleagues back in 1966. I wish I could give away the story, but to do so would give away the plot twists. All I can say is that one of the best aspects of this movie are the plot twists.

The acting was superb. Jesper Christensen, who had impressed me in the last two James Bond movies, was even more fascinating in his subtle performance as the ruthless, yet manipulative Dieter Vogel. Both Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds gave solid performances as the older Stefan and David. But the real star of the 1997 sequences was Helen Mirren, who was wonderful as an older Rachel, who believed that she had finally put the past behind her. She also proved that one could still be a first-rate female action star at the age of 65/66. If Helen Mirren was the star of the 1997 sequences, the real stars of the entire movie were Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. In my review of 2010’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, I had not been kind to Chastain’s performance in that movie. A lot of my criticism had to do with how her character was written. But I must admit that she was superb as the younger Rachel, who found herself caught up not only in a deadly mission with a dangerous adversary; but also in an emotionally confusing situation between two men. Cskokas gave an enlightening performance as the colorful and commanding Stefan, whose extroverted facade hid an ambitious drive that made him willing to do anything to maintain his career. It was good to see Sam Worthington in a first-rate role after nearly two years. His portrayal of David Peretz was probably the most intense in the entire episode. Worthington did a superb job of conveying not only David’s quietly expressed desire for Rachel, but also his reluctance to get emotionally involved with others following the loss of his entire family during the Holocaust.

If “THE DEBT” had one flaw – at least for me, it was the ending. I have to be honest. I usually do not mind if a movie ends on an ambiguous or vague note . . . as long as it works. For me, such an ending worked for the 2010 movie, “INCEPTION”. The vague note on which “THE DEBT” ended, failed to work for me. It simply did not feel right and I had the suspicion that either Madden or screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Kris Thykier, Eduardo Rossoff were trying to be just a little too artistic. And “THE DEBT” struck me as the type of story that did not need an ambiguous ending of that kind.

Despite the movie’s unnecessarily vague ending, I must admit that I truly enjoyed “THE DEBT”. It had an exciting and fascinating story that was served well by the screenwriters, director John Madden and a superb cast led by Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. As I had stated earlier, it became one of my favorite movies of both the summer and of 2011 in general.

“RED” (2010) Review

“RED” (2010) Review

Loosely inspired by the three-part DC Comics comic book series created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, ”RED” told the story about a former black-ops C.I.A. agent named Frank Moses, who reassembles his old team in a last ditch effort to survive a series of assassination attempts on him. Thanks to one member of his team, Marvin Boggs, Frank learns that a mysterious figure is sending both assassins and a C.I.A. black-ops agent named William Cooper to wipe out all members of a secret mission in Guatemala that Frank participated in back in 1981.

”RED” turned out to be a pretty solid action-comedy film that greatly benefitted from veteran cast members that included Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss. The cast also included the likes of Mary Louise Parker, Julian McMahon and Karl Urban. Surprisingly, the only members of the cast that seemed to have a persistent presence throughout the movie were Willis (the main star), Parker, Malkovich and Urban. Everyone else seemed to be making cameo or guest appearances in the movie. Regardless of the amount of time spent in the movie, each cast member gave a first-class performance in the movie. I was especially impressed by Willis as the weary ex-agent who is stimulated back into life at the prospect of learning the identity of the person behind the assassination attempts upon him. Malkovich gave my favorite performance as the paranoid Marvin Boggs, who seemingly ridiculous theories about any potential danger end up being correct. And I also enjoyed Helen Mirren as a former MI-6 assassin Victoria, who seemed just as thrilled as Frank to be back in action.

German-born Robert Schwentke displayed a quirky sense of humor in his direction of”RED”. I had expected some humor in the movie, but Schwentke stylized the violence in a way that reminded me of movies like ”PAYBACK” or ”SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD”. Scribes Jon and Erich Hoeber did a solid job in adapting Ellis and Hammer’s comic tale. Some fans of the comic novel may have taken umbrage at their loose adaptation. But since I have never read the three comic books . . . . it did not bother me that much. However, I found the showdown inside the Chicago hotel parking garage rather confusing. The overall action did not confuse me, but the main villain’s reasoning and personal actions did. This did not ruin the movie for me, but it came damn close. Overall, ”RED” was a pretty solid movie, but I have seen better comic films.

“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Below is my review of the 2009 political thriller, “STATE OF PLAY”, starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck:

“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Aside from the Liam Neeson thriller, ”TAKEN”, I must admit that I never found the movies released during the first three months of 2009 that impressive. They were not been terrible. But I did harbor this feeling that I had been wallowing in a sea of mediocrity during those months. Thankfully, this feeling ended when I saw the political thriller directed by Kevin Macdonald called, ”STATE OF PLAY”.

Based upon the critically acclaimed 2003 British miniseries of the same name,”STATE OF PLAY” was about a Washington D.C. newspaper’s investigation into the death of a young congressional aide named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) and centers around the relationship between leading journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and his old friend Robert Collins (Ben Affleck), a U.S. congressman on the fast track and Baker’s employer. When Congressman Collins learns of his aide’s death, he asks his old friend, McAffrey to investigate her death when it is labeled as a suicide. McAffrey and a blogger with his newspaper named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) not only learn that Baker was Congressman Collins’ mistress, but there might be a connection between her death and the private military company that the congressman was investigating.

I have heard a few proclaim that the original British miniseries is superior to this version.  I have seen the miniseries and it is pretty damn good, but I must admit that I found this version of ”STATE OF PLAY” to be just as impressive.  Kevin Macdonald’s solid direction screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Peter Morgan, and Billy Ray created a tight thriller filled with interesting glimpses into the press and Washington politics.  This film never became critically acclaimed as the British miniseries (even if it deserved to be), but it was an excellent, well-acted movie filled with first-rate performances. And its story – unlike previous movies I have recently watched – did not end on a disappointing note. The movie ended with an unexpected twist that surprised me.

Russell Crowe led the cast, portraying Washington Globe journalist, Cal McAffrey. I would not consider his role as interesting as the Ed Hoffman character from ”BODY OF LIES”, Bud White in ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, Jeffrey Wigand in ”THE INSIDER”or his Oscar winning role in ”GLADIATOR” – Maximus Decimus Meridius. His Cal McAffrey is on the surface, an affable, yet slightly jaded reporter who becomes a relentless truth-seeker when pursuing a special story. In the case of Sonia Baker, McAffrey’s relentless investigation seemed rooted in his desire to extract his friend Collins from the gossip slingers over the latter’s affair with the aide and focus upon bringing down the private military company being investigated by Collins. Crowe is at turns relaxed and at the same time, intense and single-minded in his pursuit of journalistic truth.

Several years ago, I had found myself thinking that if there was ever a remake of the 1950 classic, ”SUNSET BOULEVARD”, who could portray the doomed Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis. The first person that immediately came to my mind was Ben Affleck. Actress Nancy Olson once described William Holden at the time that particular movie was filmed as the typical handsome Hollywood leading actor . . . but with a touch of corruption that made his Joe Gillis so memorable. Frankly, I could say the same about Affleck. I saw him display this same trait in movies like ”BOUNCE”and ”HOLLYWOODLAND”. And I could see it in his performance as Congressman Robert Collins. Affleck managed to skillfully project Collins not only as a dedicated crusader who is determined to bring down the private military company with a congressional investigation, but also a flawed man who became sexually attracted to his beautiful aide, while struggling to control his anger at the knowledge of his wife Anne’s (Robin Wright Penn) past affair with McAffrey.

The rest of the cast included Rachel McAdams’ solid portrayal of a popular blogger turned junior political reporter named Della Frye, who finds herself in the midst of the career-making story and mentored by McAffrey. Helen Mirren’s Washington Globeeditor Cameron Lynne is wonderfully splashy and strong, without being over-the-top. I could say the same for Jason Bateman’s performance as a bisexual fetish club promoter named Dominic Foy, who has the information that McAffrey and Frye need. Michael Berresse portrayed a mysterious hitman named Robert Bingham and he does a pretty good job. However, I must admit that I found his performance as a sociopath a little over-the-top . . . especially in his last scene. Although not as memorable as some of the other supporting cast, both Harry Lennix as a Washington D.C. cop and Jeff Daniels as Affleck’s congressional mentor gave solid support to the movie. And there is Robin Wright Penn, who portrayed the congressman’s wife, Anne Collins. Penn gave a complex performance as the politician’s wife who is not only hurt and betrayed by her husband’s infidelity, but wracked with guilt over her own past indiscretion with McAffrey, along with desire for him.

If you are expecting ”STATE OF PLAY” to be the next ”ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” or ”SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”, you are going to be slightly disappointed. I have seen a few political films of slightly better quality.  But I can honestly say that I still found ”STATE OF PLAY” to be a first-rate, entertaining movie filled with intelligence, humor and a strong and steady cast.