If I asked you to think of a movie with a beautiful woman, a suave guy in a white dinner jacket, the brink of World War II, spies, letters of transit, and the term film noir, you would probably come up with Casablanca, the famous Bogart/Bergman film from 1942; and you would be right.

If I then said – move the whole thing from Casablanca to Shanghai would you have a title in mind? Probably not if you live in the USA, because this film will not be released in America until the summer of 2011.

Shanghai is a noir thriller. An American CIA (or whatever they called it back in 1941) operative named Paul Soames (John Cusack) travels to pre-war, Japanese occupied Shanghai to solve the murder of his friend and fellow agent, Connor. He will have to deal with Chow Yun-Fat as a triad leader, Anthony Lan-Ting, who is doing business with the occupying Japanese. Lan-Ting’s beautiful wife Anna is played by Gong Li, and the Japanese Shanghai Chief of Security (read as head of Intelligence) is played by Ken Watanabe.

Cusack, Watanabe, and Chow Yun-Fat will be up their eye balls in tuxedos and dinner jackets, fedoras and trench coats, rain-slicked streets, and the decadent Shanghai night life in smoky night clubs and cafes where the men strutted like peacocks and the women dressed to kill those proverbial peacocks. Soames’ mission was to solve the murder, but along the way he’s going to discover that a good number of Japanese war ships headed toward Shanghai have been diverted – their destination: Pearl Harbor.

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Black Narcissus

Last week I went to the cinema and watched an astounding film  – Black Swan. It took me a day or so to do the review of Black Swan and since then, I’ve spent some time reading other reviews and commentaries about this film. There were a number of references about a similar ballet movie made more than sixty years ago in 1948. That film was called The Red Shoes. Directed by Michael Powell and his partner, Emeric  Pressburger, The Red Shoes, like Black Swan, started conceptually from another source.

In the case of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the source material was the Swan Lake Ballet, and Powell’s The Red Shoes movie. The Red Shoes film itself was inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale or fable of the same name. The similarities of the two films were the obsessions that drove two ballerinas, one in each film, to their deaths.

But I didn’t want to review two ballet films in a row. So I looked into the works of Powell/Pressburger and found another film that they directed that dealt with obsessions as well as external and environmental factors that made people do things which were completely contrary to what they wanted to do.

Our topic for this review is Black Narcissus, the 1947 film which starred Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jean Simmons, and Sabu.

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Black Swan

In ballet, the term Tombe means ‘to glide’. From that one word it isn’t too difficult to create a subtitle for this film review:

Watching Black Swan is to watch a woman glide into madness on West 63rd Street.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a member of the dance company performing in the New York State Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center (for those of you who don’t live in Manhattan, that’s the tie in with W.63rd St) . The company isn’t doing well financially, so drastic measures must be taken. The lead ballerina, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is pushed into retirement. The artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that the new season will open with a modernized version of Swan Lake, and that he will be naming a successor for the lead ballerina position.

It will definitely help you to understand the film if you have a working knowledge of the story of Swan Lake, the ballet. It isn’t a requirement, so if you already know the story you can skip to the next paragraph, or you may read my condensed, truncated, and quite likely inaccurate, version. The story is that a beautiful young princess is turned into a swan called the Swan Queen by an evil sorcerer. The spell can only be broken, if this swan is kissed by a prince with a pure heart who truly loves the Swan Queen. A Prince Siegfried does see the Swan Queen and is smitten. But before the spell can be broken, and the princess returned to human form , the Prince is seen kissing another woman whom he thinks is the Swan Queen. Unfortunately, the Swan Queen sees this kiss and is devastated. So she kills herself.

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True Grit (2010)

I’ve seen dozen of westerns – both the newer ones made in this century, as well as most of the classics. I’d even seen the 1969 True Grit starring The Duke, John Wayne. But in truth, I can’t call it one of my favorites. Wayne wasn’t playing Rooster Cogburn in that film. Instead he was playing John Wayne dressed up as Cogburn, a fat, one-eyed man. Wayne garnered his only Oscar for his performance in that film, but quite likely it was a ‘lifetime achievement award’ dressed up as Best Performance by an Actor

True Grit, the just released today version directed by the Coen Bros., according to the myriad of articles, commentaries, discussions, and interviews – is not a remake of the earlier film. The Coen’s say it is a new film version of the book.

Fine. Whatever. They made the film and can call it whatever they like, or they can describe the finished film however they like. I’m not going to compare the two films because a) I can’t, having not seen the earlier one in quite some time, and b) I won’t because that was then and this is now.

First, the story itself is a simple matter of western revenge/justice. 14 year old Mattie Ross, played spectacularly by newcomer Hailee Steinfield, is on a mission to bring back one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who murdered her father. She can’t do it herself, so she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) because he is the meanest and deadliest US Marshall in these parts of the country (Texas, Arkansas, and Choctaw Nation, a part of the Indian Territories). Joining them on the chase is a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).

Fill yer hands!

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The Sicilian Girl

The Sicilian Girl (2009) was directed by Marco Amenta. The stars are Veronica D’Agostino as Rita, the Sicilian Girl of the title, and Gerard Jugnot as the Judge/Prosecutor who takes up Rita’s case.

What was her case?

The film is taken from the real life story of a Rita Atria, whose  father was shot and murdered on the orders of a rival Mafia chieftan in a small Sicilian town. The real life Rita swore revenge, but was dissuaded by her older brother who counseled her to be patient and to wait. Years pass. The brother also falls victim in another assassination.

It is to this background, that 7 years later, the now grown Rita decides to seek revenge via justice, so she seeks out a Palermo Judge/Prosecutor she long ago admired for his guts.

The film takes us through Rita’s early years to her days in witness protection and then. the trial. This is a powerful story. The Sicilian traditions about honor and revenge, and the overriding element called omerta (code of silence) that not only protects the population to a degree but also enslaves society to the few powerful men who are protected by this silence.

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The Fighter

Yo, Charlene !

I suppose it is inevitable that The Fighter will be compared to Rocky. Only Rocky Balboa was a fictional character, and Irish Micky Ward was real. But from my perspective, this was no Rocky wanna-be. In truth, this wasn’t a Raging Bull wanna-be either. Those films were 180 degrees apart, more on that later.

The Fighter has elements of both, but Director David O. Russell has taken steps that will place this film in neither of those camps. Mark Wahlberg portrays Micky Ward, and going in, I expected him to carry the film. But this is not the case.

In fact, despite Walhberg’s lead billing, he underplays his role, and clearly gives his co-stars an opportunity to shine, and for sure, they do, as the best performances are theirs. While the film will not win a Best Picture Oscar, we just might see a Big O awarded to one or two of the cast.

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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

What next? I feel a distinct void before me now that I’ve seen The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This was the 3rd and final part of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,  with David Fincher directing, and Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara as the leads, is filming at the moment. The targeted release is still more than a year away with December 21st, 2011 being the set date now. So it is going to be awhile before I can get a fresh serving of Salander and Blomkvist

The first of the trilogy TGWTDT was a mystery story. The second one, TGWPWF, was an action thriller. However, this one is neither a full-fledged mystery nor a pulsating action thriller. Instead we shall call it a cross between a conspiracy thriller, a police procedural, and a courtroom drama. Actually it is all of those.

Hornet’s Nest begins where Fire ended. Lisbeth Salander had just been shot and nearly killed by her father Alexander Zalachenko and step-brother Ronald Niederman. As Hornet’s Nest opens, she is medivaced by a helicopter to the nearest hospital. Shortly afterwards we briefly watch a bullet being removed from a skull in a delicate operation.

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The Tourist

Take two of the biggest names in the film world – Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, and set them down in two of the most beautiful and most visited cities in the world, Paris and Venice, and you’ve got two of the most important ingredients for a successful movie. Now if you also have a great script, top-notch acting and direction, then you’re going to have a hit on your hands.

But if all you have is pretty faces and beautiful locations, then you end up with pretty pictures and not much more. Instead of a hit, you have a mediocrity. Or in this case a derivative mediocrity.

Having visited Venice once upon a time I knew what the place was all about. As for Paris, I’ve been there multiple times, and am always eager to see it again. As recently as 6 weeks ago I was aboard a train exactly like the one that Depp and Jolie rode into Venice. There’s much to be said about the Trenitalia which is the name of the train system in Italy. So you might say that I was not only in the mood for a clever thriller, but that I was also very much on familiar turf.

I went in expecting something like North By Northwest with Venice subbing for Mt. Rushmore. I hoped for a film that might approach a bit of cinematic heaven like Charade, which was a cheeky romp in Paris with Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and Walter Matthau, and was directed by Stanley Donen. But the closest we came to ‘cheeky’ were the Jolie cheekbones. This film was sold as a Hitchcockian style European romp, but it wasn’t even close to being in the same league as old Alf. Not even on one his bad days.

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Fair Game (2010)

Fair Game, directed by Doug Limon, who was at the helm of the first of the Bourne trilogy (The Bourne Identity), has seemingly taken reality, and run it through a film processor. The result is that Fair Game is sort of like turning All The President’s Men (1974) inside out.

Back then, two determined reporters, and a fearless newspaper publisher, took on the sitting President’s government, and eventually brought it down, all in the pursuit of the truth. Here, in Fair Game, the truth was squelched, and the voice of the truth was held up as a fraud, a career CIA officer was outed, disparaged, then tossed aside, and we went to war in 2003.

The so-called WMD’s, weapons of mass destruction, turned out to be a different kind of WMD – weapons of a mass deception. At least, this is the intent of the film.

Fair Game is the story of a former CIA officer named Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, a career officer in the State Department’s Diplomatic corps but now an ex-diplomat named Joseph Wilson IV. Each of these people wrote a book about this period of time and their own involvement in what was basically called the run-up to the US-Iraq war.

Since this is a film review, I won’t make any statements about the veracity of the real facts as disseminated by newspapers, magazines, radio and tv. Nor will I make any comments about either of the books as I have not read them. I will say that the two books became the basis of the screenplay for this film, and the screenplay was written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth.

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