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Poirot or not Poirot?
16 March 2019
The headline question is a legitimate one. Of course, being a renowned detective with a Continental accent goes a long way to establish this connection. If that's how it strikes you, so be it, but be prepared (as I wasn't) for some genuine surprises and unexpected twists. This brilliant little film manipulates the viewer like only a masterpiece can.

What is particularly satisfying to see is the opportunity this film affords of providing the great Hungarian character actor Steven Geray with a starring role. Geray has a startling 200 acting credits on IMDb. Yet most of his roles were small, supporting parts, sometime consisting of only a few lines. SO DARK THE NIGHT shows the world what an outstanding and under-appreciated talent Geray was. I'd never heard of him before watching this film. Now I'm a fan. And with 200 credits (at least--IMDb isn't infallible) I look forward to saying "Hey, there's Steven Geray!" during much of my future viewing.

The video essay and commentary will help you appreciate what a masterful film this is. Director Joseph H. Lewis really knew what he was doing and when given the time and resources he needed to construct a great suspenseful film, he could certainly deliver the goods. Bravo!
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Excellent suspenseful and haunting
16 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Honestly, I loved this film. It's circumstances in being produced were at odds with the finished product. To quote from the brilliant and accurate product description: "After a promising start on Poverty Row quickies, Joseph H. Lewis (The Big Combo) made his first film at Columbia and established himself as a director to watch with this Gothic-tinged Hitchcockian breakout hit, which later proved so popular that Columbia promoted it to A-feature status. The morning after Julia Ross (Nina Foch, Executive Suite) takes a job in London as secretary to wealthy widow Mrs Williamson Hughes (Dame May Whitty, The Lady Vanishes), she wakes up in a windswept Cornish mansion, having been drugged. Mrs Hughes and her volatile son, Ralph (George Macready, Gilda), attempt to gaslight Julia into believing she is Ralph's wife, Marion. Her belongings have been destroyed, the windows barred and the locals believe that she is mad. Will Julia be able to escape before she falls prey to the Hughes' sinister charade? And what happened to the real Marion Hughes? A briskly paced and brilliantly stylised mystery that grabs its audience from the start, My Name Is Julia Ross immediately cemented Lewis' place in the noir pantheon, and anticipated the elaborate identity-based deceptions found in future classic thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Brian De Palma's Obsession."

If there is anything to criticize about this film, one might nitpick about things like the occasional bad accents, but given the expectations of this little gem when going into production (that it would be the bottom half of a double feature) such details are forgivable. Production of My Name Is Julia Ross is a "little engine that could" story. It just goes to show that in the hands of a master, like Joseph H. Lewis, anything is possible.

The extras are very good, too, especially the audio commentary and the audio essay "Identity Crisis: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia," by The Nitrate Diva: Nora Fiore. Excellent. Would all the great B films from this era could receive such a careful restoration and distribution!

So, in this viewer's opinion, the film is a terrific thriller worth eight stars on its own, but the excellent restoration and extra features add another star to its over-all value.
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20 December 2018
First, an assumption: you will only watch this film if you are a dog lover...

With that in mind, PICK OF THE LITTER has an advantage over many other films. THE CUTENESS FACTOR! The old warning "never work with children or with ANIMALS" comes to mind here. Fortunately this is not a drama or a comedy, though there are elements of both. And the humans that are part of the story are not movie stars worried about being upstaged, so no one is offended.

PICK OF THE LITTER is a "dogumentary" about a litter of five puppies born into training as service dogs for the blind. It is typical for MAYBE only one dog to meet the rigorous standards that must be met. Herein lies the drama of the film. Who will make the cut? Which dog will you root for?

The personalities of the pooches as they learn and grow are distinct and of course, in each case, completely lovable.

The best thing about PICK OF THE LITTER is we get an up close look at how guide dogs are trained. The love and patience that the handlers and foster parents display is inspiring. The dogs are challenged but never stressed. They are evaluated by qualified, impartial adjudicators who make the hard decisions, such as when to relocate a dog to a different foster home (and the considerable impact this can have on the humans).

Other fascinating bits include the special bond between the dogs and their eventual owners. These beautiful animals serve us in so many ways just as pets, let alone as specially trained guides.

Coming on the heels of the news that a retired police dog in the U.S. was put up for adoption rather than kept by his former handler, PICK OF THE LITTER is a reminder of how much we, as humans, owe these loyal to the death creatures who touch our lives in so many heart-warming and important ways. It is devastating to think that once upon a time, retired military and police dogs were simply euthanized when they got older...

But such considerations are beyond the world of this wonderful documentary. PICK OF THE LITTER is a beautiful, educational, inspiring film made with love, appreciation and plenty of glue-like dog slob to hold it all together.

Ten arfs out of ten.
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Beautiful film--but...
6 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
One couldn't ask for more with this stunning Blu-ray release of the long-neglected Western THE HIRED HAND. It has all the bells and whistles for a premium release: restored picture, sound, extras galore--even an introduction from Martin Scorsese. Well, actually you COULD ask for more. That is, maybe a better movie?

This is not to say Fonda's lovingly-realised homage to the Western is not a good film, I'm just not convinced it is a great movie. The beauty of this release from Arrow Academy is that it allows you to decide for yourself, first by making the film available and second by releasing it as it was meant to be experienced, with pristine picture and sound.

When THE HIRED HAND works, it really works. One sequence--and it is discussed at length by Peter Fonda in one of the extras--is the scene where the great Warren Oates reads Scripture over their fallen comrade. I absolutely love that Fonda was acknowledging the classic Western by having someone read over another (his observation, not mine). The scene is reminiscent of that memorable shot in THE OXBOW INCIDENT (starring Peter's dad, Henry) when the elder Fonda reads the letter written by an innocent man that has just been hanged. The camera pulls in and Fonda's eyes are masked by the brim of Harry Morgan's Stetson: all we see is Fonda's mouth, which of course helps emphasize what he is saying. The scene is similar to THE HIRED HAND when Oates' and Fonda's faces are seen in near-silhouette as Oates reads.

Stunning images like this permeate THE HIRED HAND and are a testament to Fonda's respect for the genre and for having the chutzpah to hire little-known (at the time) cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who finds beauty in such everyday objects as a windmill.

The meandering script by Scottish writer Alan Sharp is the first indication for this reviewer that we might be in for a sloooooow ride but where the film doesn't work as well for me (though it works quite well for many--this is just my opinion) is that overall, rather than have an elegiac feel to it like, say, MONTE WALSH, with Lee Marvin, THE HIRED HAND has a sort of drug aura suspended over it. I thought this was my imagination, given this film was Fonda's follow-up project to his breakthrough film EASY RIDER, but in the extra features themselves mention is made that virtually everyone working on the film at the time was smoking marijuana. Not, Fonda submits, while they were actually working, but everyone knows the stuff stays in your system for some time after consumption. Hence, the hazy cloud of "mellow" that, in my opinion, holds the movie back from being a better film than it is.

It IS a good film, but I'm not convinced it's the masterpiece that is implied by this loving restoration.

One further note, closed captioning is always appreciated by this reviewer. Glad they are available for the film but it would be even better if the extra features were captioned too!
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Brilliant political thriller
30 September 2018
Fourteen years old is a very impressionable age. That's how old I was when I saw THE DAY OF THE JACKAL for the first time-in a movie theatre, where it was meant to be seen. In addition to larger than life images projected on a giant movie screen long before the days of smaller multiplex cinemas, JACKAL also had a largely unknown cast, certainly all unknown to me. That gave this already realistic film involving historical characters (namely, French President Charles de Gaulle) a pseudo-documentary feeling to it and an element of authenticity that transcended that of a normal drama. I'd never heard of Edward Fox. His cool, deadly demeanour as the Jackal is totally believable and even watching the film now on this brilliant new Blu-ray release from MVD entertainment group, he's as real and compelling as ever. Throughout the numerous sequences without dialogue, Fox communicates the calculating, devious mind that drives the Jackal on his murderous quest. Capable of charming men or women one moment or being an assassin the next, Fox dominates the screen with a star-making performance. It didn't hurt that Edward's brother James had been an established star who bowed out of the profession in 1970 for a decade to re-evaluate what was important to him, (namely his spiritual life, but that's another topic for another day). Suffice to say, the Fox name was known, which certainly helped Edward, though his searing talent was and is obvious to this day. Like so many "big break" stories, director Fred Zinnemann had seen Fox in a low-key British film, THE GO-BETWEEN, and was impressed by the way Fox delivered a particular line of dialogue. ONE LINE got Fox the role of a life-time! It is fascinating details like that one that permeate the extra features. A new interview running over 30 minutes with respected author Neil Sinyard is intelligent and articulate. Sinyard shares details about the making of the film as well as Zinnemann's career in general. A couple of vintage behind-the-scenes interviews pale in comparison, although the bits with Zinnemann himself speaking (in French) are interesting. Sinyard, a very highly-regarded film historian, gives an interview the like should accompany all "DVD extras". He increases your appreciation for this fine film with virtually every detail he shares. Back to the film. The other "unknown" actors are a gallery of brilliant performers headed by French actor Michel Lonsdale as police inspector Claude Lebel, who is leading the search for the Jackal to stop him in his attempt to assassinate President de Gaulle. The rest of the actors, certainly the best-known ones, include Derek Jacobi, Alan Badel, Terence Alexander, Anton Rogers, Maurice Denham, Ronald Pickup, Cyril Cusack and many more... Zinnemann's direction is precise and calculated for maximum impact, almost as if he were the Jackal as filmmaker. The pacing, the production values, the performances-everything holds up and surpasses, in this viewer's opinion, most of the films produced today. Zinnemann was a master near the end of his career, still able to deliver the goods, in full awareness of what makes a good film and how to entertain and impact an audience. If you are enthralled by political thrillers, this is one of the best. Ever.
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Frank Serpico (2017)
Never run when you're right
11 March 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The story of Frank Serpico is part heroic, part tragic and part odyssey.

Serpico was a young policeman in New York in the sixties and early seventies. He saw widespread corruption in law enforcement (officers taking bribes, etc.) and his sense of honour and his moral code was offended. But his response did not stop there. He took action. He reported the moral decay he witnessed to his superiors and testified repeatedly to lawmakers to try to initiate change and reform. He stuck his neck out when many others who might be equally disturbed by the corruption around them would not have had the courage to do so.

And it cost him. Big time. Serpico was ostracized, his life was imperiled and the toll it took on him mentally and physically, was and continues to this day to be, siginificant.

This new documentary by Antonio D'Ambrosio attempts to show Frank Serpico, warts and all. Through extensive interviews with Serpico and former friends and colleagues (not to mention enemies) as well as clips from the Al Pacino Oscar-nominated film SERPICO, Serpico's epic journey from rookie to celebrity to chump to whistle blower to outcast and to celebrity is vividly conveyed, sometimes with alarming frankness. One hand-shaking, slap on the back reunion with a former colleague soon deteriorates into an uncomfortable trip down memory back lane when it becomes apparent that the former colleague of Serpico's was one of his detractors. And while it's all water under the bridge now, to this fellow's credit he doesn't back off from his criticisms of Serpico and his relentless drive to expose the New York Police Department as a den of corruption.

One excellent choice by director/producer/writer D'Ambrosio is his use of clips from the Pacino film. Why use re-enactments when you've got the scenes you want already intact, directed by no less a director than the great Sidney Lumet? Anything less than Lumet's gritty, '70's-era approach would have paled by comparison.

Where the film takes a tragic turn is when it becomes obvious that Frank Serpico's bull-headed integrity has taken a terrible toll on him. He truly suffers from PTSD and might even be seen to be a little crazy. D'Ambrosio wisely does not comment, but lets the viewer decide for himself if and how much Serpico is mentally disturbed by his experiences.

Was what Serpico did necessary? To him, yes. Was his approach the best? For him, yes. Was the cost to his physical and mental well-being too great? You decide.

When you live by the credo "Never run when you're right" it is bound to cost. Even when motivated by the unique type of stubborn moral integrity possessed by Frank Serpico, not everyone is going to admire what you do and how you do it. Very few of us could do what Frank Serpico did. Not everyone would want to. This outstanding film shows the rightness, the wrongness, and the everything in between-ness of the cost of personal integrity and morality.
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The inside story of the rise and fall of Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
30 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
During the later part of his career, the great actor George C. Scott turned to television for artistic opportunity, if not fulfillment. One such undertaking was his take on the colourful Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Scott was the right age to play Mussolini in his later years, but is less convincing in the earlier part of this massive two-disc, six hour miniseries. On the other hand, try to find an actor who could convincingly complement Scott for the earlier parts of the story, especially when George is the star name that sold this program in the first place.

There are similar hurdles to get over in order to really enjoy this miniseries for what it is: an American take on a distinctly Italian subject. Despite a first-rate small screen director in William A. Graham (the "other" Billy Graham, he will tell you, with good humour), the production has a bargain basement look to some of its scenes. Even those involving European locations. The background artists also look less than enthusiastic, as if they didn't know why they are doing whatever they are supposed to be doing in any given scene.

BUT--and here is just one man's opinion, George C. Scott is worth seeing in almost anything. Seeing the actor who won an Oscar (and famously refused it) for playing General George S. Patton take on the opposite side of the military coin, as it were, is fascinating. Especially since Scott is best remembered for playing Patton. Was he trying to show his virtuosity as an actor? Was he trying to eradicate the public's pigeon-holing him as one of the U.S.'s most famous warriors?

Given that it was around this time that Scott resurrected Patton in the so-so TV movie THE LAST DAYS OF PATTON, it seems likely he was simply looking for a good role.

MILD SPOILER BELOW! Whatever his reasons, Scott is magnificent as Il Duce, at times despicable (as in his treatment of a female English journalist which would fit right in with current headlines involving men who abuse their power) and at other times tender and loving towards his family.

Scott is limited at times by the production values and especially in the scenes when he is supposed to be younger, but even medium Scott is great Scott, in my books. Scott is well-supported by some big names: Lee Grant as his long-suffering wife, the luminous Virginia Madsen as his mistress, and as his three oldest children, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Gabriel Byrne and, surprisingly and effectively, Robert Downey, before he added the "Jr." to his name. Raul Julia also shows up as Duce's son-in-law, count Ciano, but he pales in comparison to Anthony Hopkin's performance in the same role for another Mussolini miniseries also made in 1985.

The bottom line here is while MUSSOLINI: THE UNTOLD STORY is not in the same league as, say, THE WINDS OF WAR and its even greater sequel WAR & REMEMBRANCE, it is still the canvas upon which the reviled Italian dictator's life is painted by one the 20th-Century's most powerful actors. How much you like Scott will influence how much you like this miniseries. And were it not for these ground-breaking miniseries in the first place, we would likely still be stuck in the old-style weekly series format, emphasizing one main plot per week, instead of allowing room for multiple story arcs and deeper characterizations, which are the norm today.
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Two Viking brothers, separated as children, meet as grown men to conquer or be conquered.
25 September 2017
Warning: Spoilers
One of my favourite movies of all time is the Kirk Douglas-produced adventure saga THE VIKINGS.  I love that movie.

I've known of the Viking film ERIK THE CONQUEROR for years but just never got round to watching it.  I suspect I thought there was no way this Italian-produced spectacle could come anywhere near Douglas' vision.  After all, ERIK THE CONQUEROR is a film that intentionally invites comparisons to the Douglas film.

Well I'm sorry I waited so long! With a beautiful new Blu-ray and DVD transfer from Arrow Video, ERIK THE CONQUEROR can now be enjoyed in all its restored glory.

And what a magnificent film it is!  Directed by the Cinematographer-turned-Director Mario Bava, a cult favourite whose reputation is predominantly based on his being a master of horror films--sort of a Grand Guignol/Italian Alfred Hitchcock--ERIK THE CONQUEROR is packed with glorious compositions, opulent colours and action and spectacle galore.

And of course, being one of the first "Sex & Sandal" films, it has beautiful women in skimpy outfits.  It is when pursuing some of these more questionable elements that it becomes apparent that ERIK THE CONQUEROR is not as good a film as THE VIKINGS.  But it is still a superb film in its own right. (And I have nothing against women in skimpy outfits--I'm just saying that sometimes giving sway to more sensational content can compromise the artistic intent of a film. Sometimes.) Instead of watching with a critical attitude: "Oh, that's a rip-off of THE VIKINGS", it makes much more sense to simply enjoy the comparisons.  One of the extras on the new release does just that, it compares the two movies, sometimes with segments from each film shown side by side.  This is almost as fun as watching the movie.  Yes, there are two brothers at the core of the story whose strained relationship accounts for much of the drama.  Yes, there is a stunning sequence when Erik climbs a drawbridge with the help of strategically-placed arrows from his dead-eye archers, a sequence that is so obviously inspired by (better than "a rip-off of") the scene in THE VIKINGS when Kirk Douglas climbs a drawbridge with the help of several battle axes which have been thrown by his men to help him gain access to the enemy's castle.  ERIK THE CONQUEROR is full of segments like this.

If there is one element that stood out for me as being superior to THE VIKINGS it was the way several shots of the sky looked like paintings, especially during battle scenes.  It is one of the major achievements of ERIK THE CONQUEROR. It brought to mind Kubrick at his visual best, i.e. BARRY LYNDON.

But when you get right down to it, THE VIKINGS remains a superior movie to ERIK THE CONQUEROR.  Why?  Sheer star power.  Kirk-Tony-Ernie-Janet, as well as some solid supporting actors like James Donald and Frank Thring give THE VIKINGS a weight that ERIK THE CONQUEROR simply can't match.  Cameron Mitchell is the only star of note.  He is terrific, though saddled by being 20 years too old for the part. That and having his lines dubbed into Italian while the English subtitles and his mouth movements clearly match.  Some of the Italian actors are terrible, including one sad attempt at comic relief.  Were Cameron Mitchell (a really wonderful actor who never got his big break) supported with actors of greater or equal talent, ERIK THE CONQUEROR may have transcended its status as a B movie.  A brilliant B movie, but a B movie, nonetheless.

Still, ERIK THE CONQUEROR will appeal to action fans as being one of the very best of its kind.
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Capital (2015)
CAPITAL is capital entertainment
6 December 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I really enjoy programming from other countries, particularly the U.K. In recent years, however, many of their series and one-off films have presented material that is so dark it makes you feel like you have a layer of dirt on you for about a week before it wears off.

CAPITAL is a lovely exception. It presents a typical street in London that could really be located anywhere in that there is a cross section of cultures and lifestyles and ages that makes it clear the filmmakers are trying to create a story with a universal theme.

Toby Jones appears once again in a quality production--he is clearly a highly sought-after actor. While he can be bland at times, in CAPITAL he hits all the right notes playing a greedy banker whose life and values are challenged when things go awry in his job. This is one of several sub-plots that serve to show the variety of characters who share one extraordinary, upsetting event in common: they all receive in the mail a postcard saying WE WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. This leads to fear, paranoia, resilience and surprise as the different types find a way to deal with what eventually becomes a disturbing and persistent feature in their lives.

Rachel Stirling as Jones' wife (they appeared together--though were not paired together--in the recent series DETECTORISTS) is so materialistic you can almost see the dollar signs in her eyes. Well, pound signs, as this is set in England. She's outstanding.

Many of the other roles are superbly played, especially the great Indian actress Shana Azmi as a domineering Pakistani matriarch perfectionist. She's brilliant. She's matched by the always wonderful Gemma Jones as an elderly resident on the street whose interactions with her strong-willed daughter (Lesley Sharp) and compassionate grandson (Robert Emms) are an important part of the story-line.

SPOILER While the incidents of the subplots as well as the main dramatic thread (the receipt of the postcards) are compelling, it is the strength of the individual characters that really drives CAPITAL.

I enjoyed it thoroughly and highly recommend it.
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Bravo to the one and only...
18 August 2016
Warning: Spoilers
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Special Effects Titan is a breath of fresh air in documentary movie making the same way Harryhausen's work is a breath of fresh air in the realm of special effects.

Here we have a documentary that spares us the annoying tell-you-what-to-think voice-over that is so typical of this type of film. Instead we are treated to a volley of on camera admirers from Spielberg on down who acknowledge Ray Harryhausen as the innovative genius that he was.

Generous clips from Harryhausen's films illustrate his work even as it is described in such loving detail by his fellow cinematic artists.

Made s few years before his passing and when he was still spry and articulate, RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Special Effects Titian benefits greatly from interviews with the great man himself.

One interesting point of conflict occurs when director James Cameron opines that, if he were working today, Harryhausen would unquestionably embrace the latest CGI technology. Yet in stark contrast to that we hear Harryhausen say that he wouldn't. Cameron, who has pioneered many contemporary special effects, understandably believes that the latest is the best. But Harryhausen has a point. Today's effects might be flawless in terms of execution, but does that very achievement undermine the humanity of it all? Consider looking at a painting generated by a computer then compare it to one of the great masterworks of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Degas, etc. where you can actually see the indentation of the brush hairs--a reminder that a human hand once guided the brush that created the work of art. Perhaps it is a matter of preference and both points of view are valid. If James Cameron or George Lucas stopped making films would there be others who could take their place? Had Ray Harryhausen not been the innovator and genius that he was, blessed with incredible patience, single-mindedness and focus, might another have achieved the same thing? Put it another way, if Cameron and Lucas had come first, would they have inspired Ray Harryhausen? Surely the point of RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Special Effects Titan is that it is a tribute, a work of love and respect and veneration towards the true titan and father of modern special effects. For every fan of fantasy and adventure who loves dinosaurs and sword-wielding skeletons and a Medusa that sends shivers down your spine, RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Special Effects Titan is a must-have. And, while bowing to Harryhausen's genius, the filmmakers never fawn. This is the difference between tribute and treacle.

An extra feature showing the rediscovery of many of Harryhausen's sculpted creatures that have been packed away in crates for years is like a cross between kids opening their much-anticipated Christmas presents and Howard Carter entering the tomb of King Tutankhamun. "Is that really it? Oh my--!!!" Priceless.
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Jack Irish (2016– )
Jack is back!
12 August 2016
Australian author Peter Temple's series of detective novels about Jack Irish have been lighting up television screens since 2012, when the first two adaptations were broadcast. An immediate hit, a third Jack Irish telefilm was broadcast in 2014.

Jack Irish is an emotionally wounded, borderline down-and-outer who had once been a successful lawyer but was professionally and personally derailed when his wife was murdered. Guy Pearce, the star of the JACK IRISH series, brings just the right amount of world-weariness to his role to suggest a classic film noir protagonist. The supporting cast, including Marta Dusseldorp as Jack's on again-off again love interest, Linda (who also stars in two other Autralian series--JANET KING and A PLACE TO CALL HOME) are just as compelling in their own way and the show is as much a series of character studies as it is a detective show.

Now we have JACK IRISH Season 1: BLIND FAITH, the most recent addition to the JACK IRISH canon, which is a six-part mini-series, a format that serves the story well. While not based on one of the JACK IRISH novels, it is as faithful to the original characters as die-hard fans might want it to be. With the increased running time, multiple story-lines can converge and develop without seeming rushed. Given that one of the story arcs focuses on religious extremism, (both Christian and Muslim) it is wise the makers of JACK IRISH recognized they needed a larger canvas to fairly examine the inherently sensitive issues. While it is common these days for people of faith to be portrayed negatively in film and television programs, it is encouraging to see some balance achieved amidst the accusations. Case in point: there is a scene in JACK IRISH--once we've established that a "mega-church" is behind a series of murders and other misdeeds--in which a character points out, while sitting in a soup kitchen, "That fellow there runs this place. He makes $40,000 a year and gives most of it away. He's doing what the others SHOULD be doing." (I paraphrase, but the gist is clear). One can only appreciate such fairness. It is a breath of fresh air, really. Of course, the principle characters are shown specifically to be non-believers, another annoying trend that needs to be addressed in this writer's opinion, but it's a start.

JACK IRISH is notable too for being about people who are older, from forty-somethings, like Irish, to a substantial cast of older, even elderly, characters. The regulars who haunt the bar Irish might call his second home are a great bunch of old codgers. And Irish's furniture-making mentor, an old master by the name of Charlie, whose infinite patience with Irish gives him the much-needed respite he occasionally needs from his problems, is a true rarity on television today. Interestingly, Charlie was portrayed in the first two JACK IRISH films by German actor Vadim Glowna, who passed away before the third film was made. The role is re-cast for the mini-series and features an actor named David Ritchie--who also passed away not long after the mini-series wrapped. Is the role of Charlie cursed? Only time will tell...

While it is not yet known whether there will be more JACK IRISH films/mini-series produced, it's a pretty good bet that there will be. The show is extremely well produced, brilliantly acted, with quirky humour, troubled romance and a world-view that, while sometimes cynical and dark, like the best of film noir, is ultimately life-affirming. Jack is a classic underdog and we want him to succeed, to get his life back together, to rekindle his romance with Linda (Dusseldorp's character).

How many characters on television today do we truly care about? Jack Irish is one of them.
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Verdi (1982– )
Brilliant evocation of the life of the great composer
2 June 2016
THE LIFE OF VERDI is a stunning, beautiful and virtually exhaustive (at about 10 hours) chronicle of the life of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Formerly available on the controversial Kultur label, this new DVD release by Acorn Media is a dream come true for people who appreciate composer biographies, historical epics and, especially, this particular film, which was the last film by Italian director/writer Renato Castellani. The transfer is excellent, whereas the previously available print was mediocre at best. This new release looks crisp and does justice to the film's visual artistry--it looks very much like a series of paintings.

Verdi lived a long, rich life and his output was truly amazing, mostly operas--and most of his operas were masterpieces. There are generous allotments of Verdi's glorious music throughout this film and the period detail is lushly evocative of Verdi's life and times. Ronald Pickup is perfect as Verdi. He is probably the only "name" and face that will be familiar to at least some outside of Europe. Pickup has been in countless films and television programs, including several other composer biographies, though here, finally, he plays the title role. Speaking of names, when THE LIFE OF VERDI was shown on PBS way back in the early eighties, Burt Lancaster was the on camera narrator. I recall this very clearly because I remember being enthralled by the series even back then. In this version--perhaps for the better--Lancaster is not seen on camera (his star power was a bit distracting, if I recall). He does, however, continue to narrate in voice-over. Lancaster was a big fan of opera and his enthusiasm bubbles through in his voice, despite some mispronunciations that some will find distracting.

That's a minor observance compared to the beauty and lovingly re-created world that director/writer Castellani presents. Castellani will not be entirely unfamiliar to North American audiences, though your tastes might have to be a bit specialized to recognize his name and style of film making. One of his first films, from 1954, was a version of Romeo & Juliet starring Laurence Harvey and is a gorgeous evocation of Shakespeare's play, if a bit slowly paced. It even has John Gielgud as the Chorus! It took another Italian, Franco Zeffirelli, to bring Italy and Shakespeare to life for a contemporary audience back in 1968.

A few years before making THE LIFE OF VERDI, Castellani turned his attention to another great Italian, Leonardo Da Vinci, in a five part television film that I recall with great fondness, for it really brought Leonardo to life and gave me a deeper appreciation of his incredible achievements.

But back to THE LIFE OF VERDI. Thank you to the distributors of this magnificent film! The time you invest in watching it will pay dividends, for like any great work of art, it will stay with you long afterwards.
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One of the most important films you will ever see.
23 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
How many times have we been told that a film is "important" or a "must see" or "life changing" or any other word or phrase designed to compel us to watch it? Most of the time it is just hype, often fuelled by a director's sense of self-importance. Thankfully that is not the case with A DOG NAMED GUCCI. This time, it's the truth. Important? Yes. Must see? Yes. Life changing? Yes. Self-important? No. SUBJECT-important? Absolutely.

Even so, it would be easy for a subject-important film to be derailed by its maker's sense of self-importance.

It would also be relatively easy to make a film about animal abuse that forcefully appeals to peoples' sense of decency and compassion. It wouldn't take much to shock the viewer to the point of numbness. Wisely, filmmaker Gorman Bechard takes a different approach. Instead of making us feel outraged or guilty or anything that even suggests manipulation, he presents his story with the purity of the master documentarian, by presenting the facts unadorned as they are, without commentary (from him) and letting his audience respond to them.

Of course there are moments in A DOG NAMED GUCCI when you will cry, especially if you are a dog lover. You are bound to feel outrage at other times. But not because the director wants you to feel that way. When a filmmaker starts telling you what to think and feel about something that becomes propaganda. At times, this is appropriate. Most of the time, it is the easy way out. The "voice of God" director--think Michael Moore--dictates. I prefer the director who relates, assumes the intelligence of the audience and then has the strength of his/her convictions that the material they are presenting for consideration is sufficient to make their point.

In a fallen world, animal abuse remains a constant. As a subject for a documentary film it is horribly relevant. Critics may yell "animal abuse? what about the abuse of children? the elderly? war? etc." But that simply misses the point. The subject of animal abuse will be as meaningful to you as much as your sense of justice, compassion and indignation is engaged. Presented in the way A DOG NAMED GUCCI is presented, the widest possible audience is likely to respond in the way that best serves the subject matter: by being inspired to stand up, speak up and make a difference.

SPOILER Once upon a time an adorable little puppy was ripped from the arms of its young runaway owner, hung by a rope around its neck over a tree branch, slapped and punched, then set on fire. An innocent animal that should have died was instead rescued and nurtured back to life by the love and care of a number of individuals, including his new "dad", Doug James. After recovery, the mission to see the little dog's (now named Gucci) tormentors apprehended and punished was under way.

And therein lies the true substance and value of this film. Woefully inadequate U.S. laws that made it difficult to prosecute let alone alone punish Gucci's perpetrators were gradually challenged and changed through the efforts of Doug James and many, many others. And always, like the truest guide to justice, was the presence of Gucci in the courtroom a considerable factor in appealing to lawmakers' compassion and sense of responsibility. And with Doug James and Gucci leading the way, others, in other circumstances, stood up and were counted as well. A DOG NAMED GUCCI takes a handful of these heart-rending stories and weaves them into the tapestry of the film's fabric. By the end, though we have cried, felt outrage and mourned the loss of so many of God's precious creatures to human cruelty, we are left with an appreciation for those who have facilitated change in the law toward animal abusers. Equally important, we are inspired to have zero tolerance for these criminals if and when we encounter such behaviour in our own experience and in our own country.

And that is why A DOG NAMED GUCCI is one of the most important films you will ever see.
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American Fork (2007)
Help yourself to a heap of Humble Pie.
1 November 2009
Awhile back I received in the mail a box, much larger than that which would normally contain a DVD. Yet that is precisely what it was: a DVD—and a very imaginative press kit. There was a tin plate, a plastic fork, and all sorts of candies shaped like hotdogs, hamburgers, etc. It made me smile and think "how creative".

Well that is precisely the reaction I had to watching this sweet, tender film. Eschewing the scatology that passes as wit in Hollywood these days, HUMBLE PIE displays tremendous wit, compassion and understanding about people. It also establishes the enormous presence of hugely-talented young writer/star Hubbel Palmer, who stars as Tracy Orbison, a gentle grocery clerk who dreams of achieving a higher purpose in life.

Multiple failed driver's tests serve as a metaphor for the challenges Tracy faces in his life. He has a strange home life with his eccentric mother and mousy sister (her hobby is collecting stuffed animals—sort of a Laura character from THE GLASS MENAGERIE, except her frailty is emotional, not physical). His well-meaning boss at the grocery store (the always reliable Bruce McGill) is helpful, but only up to a point. Tracy's friends sometimes let him down. His best efforts sometimes blow up in his face. Through it all, however, Tracy maintains a sunny disposition and a determination that is positively inspiring.

Thus the film follows Tracy's adventures as he struggles to achieve his goals. His foray into drama is made positively hilarious by the inspired casting of William Baldwin as his egotistical acting teacher. I'm not a Billy Baldwin fan by any stretch of the imagination, so it was positively delightful to be won over by his spot on performance as an actor whose ego far exceeds his talent. Baldwin has the best line of the film after watching Tracy play a bit part on television.

If the film has a weakness, in my opinion, it is that the story didn't quite resolve as fully as I would've liked. When Tracy shares his poetry with a colleague from the grocery store, her reaction is not what I thought (and hoped) it would be. Of course, maybe that's the whole point: life is like that, but Tracy is so gol-darned lovable that I wanted a better payoff for him.

Another reason to see this film is to enjoy Kathleen Quinlan's outstanding performance as Tracy's mother. Quinlan was pretty high profile in the seventies before fading into semi-obscurity. Like so many actresses, it seems she was brushed aside when she became a certain age. This dismissive attitude towards women in particular and talent in general, is one of Hollywood's biggest ongoing sins. Quinlan is terrific. True, she was nominated for an Oscar for her work in APOLLO 13 in 1994, but this lady should be much better known than she is.

HUMBLE PIE has its heart in the right place. You will love these characters. Hubbel Palmer is the quintessential underdog. You'll be rooting for him from the first scene.
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The Salzburg Festival (2006 Video)
Another superb documentary from Mr. Palmer
4 September 2006
I never cease to marvel at Tony Palmer's incredible gift for making films. This comprehensive, enthralling film about the Salzburg Festival continues to add to his impressive body of work. While other filmmakers reap more publicity and probably make more money, Tony Palmer quietly produces masterpiece after masterpiece.

If Tony Palmer isn't among the finest filmmakers in the world, then I'll eat my hat: the same hat I've taken off (after Robert Schumann's decree) in acknowledgment of his genius.

Thankfully, more and more of this great artist's work is becoming available on DVD. There are still some masterpieces forthcoming, such as ENGLAND, MY ENGLAND. Keep them coming, is all I can say.

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very, very funny, vintage Don Knotts
29 December 2005
I love this movie. It is hilarious. Don Knotts proves once again why he was so beloved by audiences, especially children. His winning, comedic character is so sweetly vulnerable. He is a great example to today's comedians, who rely on vulgarities and smart-Alec comments to "entertain" audiences. There are many wonderful supporting players on hand, such as Carl Ballantine, Pat Morita and Donald "Red" Barry. And of course the lovely Barbara Rhoades. Seeing this film as a little boy in the theatre, I thought there was no lovelier creature on the planet-- especially in that green velvet dress!

I hope this commentary is more helpful than the inane, pseudo-intellectual ramblings of the previous comment, which, if it was not made in jest, should have been-- there is no other excuse for it. At least we both agree-- this is a terrific film!
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Zulu (1964)
One of the finest films of its type ever made.
4 October 2002
ZULU is an outstanding film of considerable merit for a variety of reasons. First, it tells a factual story quite accurately for the most part. Second, it is beautifully shot, directed, acted and edited. Third, it is unashamed of its bias towards courage and heroism, especially refreshing in our current age of cynicism and complacency. Within the context of its historical setting, ZULU presents a small regiment of British soldiers (mostly Welsh) who, following a disastrous defeat of their main body of men the day before, withstand an horrific onslaught from 4,000 equally brave Zulu warriors for a day and a half. As testimony to the Brits courage, eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to survivors of this famous battle at Rorke's Drift.

The film also features the starring debut of Michael Caine, here sporting a posh upper-class accent. But it is Stanley Baker, the Welsh star and producer, who is the backbone of this film. His portrayal of commander John Chard's calm and cool under fire is indicative of the bravery of these exceptional soldiers.

The terror of battle is conveyed brilliantly and the tactics of both sides are shown, thus making the siege interesting and highly dramatic.

ZULU is my all-time favourite film and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history who likes rousing adventure told with care and intelligence.

You'll never forget John Barry's simple, dramatic and highly effective theme music, either!
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