Pascali: No Man an Island

Dance & Kingsley Top of Acting Game!

 DATELINE:   Extraordinary Movie

Over 30 years ago, we missed Pascali’s Island, one of those “think piece” movies that have already become an extinct movie genre. It was too good for Masterpiece Theatre in 1988, and it is too smart for audiences today.

It’s a spy story set in the Ottoman Empire of 1908 where a lowly informer, Pascali (Ben Kingsley), toils without much appreciation, stuck in a backwater.  Into the mix comes a British archaeologist Bowles (Charles Dance) who immediately charms artist Lydia (Helen Mirren). You won’t trust any of them from the earliest moments.

Mirren was not yet big enough to have her name over the film title, but this is a 3 character drama of high order. Performances are stunning, and direction from James Dearden is top-drawer, and you won’t find a more spectacular setting or production.

It’s apparent that a minor functionary spy is in over his head when it comes to stolen antiquities. He knows he is caught in the middle of intrigue with a Pasha who will execute and ask questions later.

The Greeks are ready to overthrow the Sultan and a bloodbath of revolution is ahead for Pascali, though he won’t accept this fate.

Kingsley is marvelous as the man with nightmares, and spying that borders on voyeurism as he watches Dance and Mirren cavort naked. His own peccadilloes entail the Turkish bath boy who resembles, not accidentally, the 2000 year old bronze boy they dig up and plan to steal.

Kingsley is a tortured soul as Pascali works against himself and ultimately must find meaning in meaningless acts of violence. This is a brilliant film, worth waiting thirty years to see. Alas, there will likely be few more in this genre.

The days of moral turpitude being punished may be over in movies, and in life. This movie hales poetic justice .




Not Exactly Winchester Cathedral

DATELINE:  Helen Mirren, Ghost Buster

Eamon Farren  Eamon Ferren

Nearly every role in Hollywood movies for women over 50 will go to Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, and/or Helen Mirren.

The so-called “inspired” true story of Mrs. Winchester, widow of the gun manufacturer is one such script from that the tandem of aging stars. Helen Mirren should have passed this ghostly horror into the slush pile of scripts.

Mirren accepted, and now has her first ghost/horror movie under her bonnet and on her resume. The actor whose resume should be enhanced is Eamon Ferren, playing a creepy footman (so to speak). He has a bright career ahead as the next Vincent Price.

What’s next? playing a doting granny on a TV series?

Winchester is about as faithful as Johnny Depp’s movie about the Headless Horseman. Docudrama never had it so bad as Mirren taking on bereft Mrs.Winchester in her haunted house. Ghosts patiently wait to shoot up the joint.

The widow lives in abject horror that all those people killed by her late husband’s guns will haunt her. Indeed, she was so terrified she built a house to close off the endless parade of spirits who showed up for a seance some dark and stormy night.

The story goes ballistic on paranormal. You’d find more truth in the Blair Witch Story, or Poltergeist. As someone with first-hand haunting in our own home, we are indignant over nice spirits being given a bad rap by the Psychic Hotline.

We must deal with the hand we have been dealt in this film.

Promise is an ephemeral gift when ghosts deal you the Dead Man’s Hand. We first noticed that white-haired Mirren in widow’s weeds looks Grand Guignol. She does a turn as victim of an Exorcist.

From there it is all downhill and down the creepy hallway. When special effects hit you over the head, you are on the Gong Show, less frightened and more in shell shock.

There was a good movie in here somewhere, lost among the special effects monsters that demand big audiences and bigger profits. Mirren should have called Ghost Busters.

Collateral Beauty: Time for Love & Death to Take a Holiday

 Mirren Kills'em.jpg Mirren Kills’em

DATELINE:  Bereavement Hallucinations

Every once in a while a movie comes along that invites insult and derision. This time it is  Will Smith’s dramedy called Collateral Beauty.

It has echoes of so many other, better stories, that we aren’t sure where to begin the diagnosis.

From the trailer you might believe this is a fantasy film on the lines of Love, Death, and Time, Meet in New York. You’d have been deceived, sort of.

A depressed man, dealing with the death of his child of six, has business associates that want to have evidence to commit him to a looney bin.

So, they arrange for actors to play Love, Death, and Time, to pay him a visit. It’s Gaslight—but as Helen Mirren, playing Death, discovers in the course of the movie, no one remembers that classic film, known for its good acting. No one will remember this one for that same reason.

When you start out with some of the most unlikable characters all woven into one plot, you are already behind the Oscar voting. Will Smith knows about being overlooked for a good performance—and lets his natural gray hairs show his love for acting this time as the movie lay dying.

We presume this is a cautionary tale—but we aren’t quite sure if we are being warned about sneaky business partners, cruel fate, or bloated self-pity. There is plenty of that stuff to go around in this movie. Just call it a sentimental journey.

Here’s the rub: you probably will watch it and hate yourself in the morning, which may be the opposite emotion the film wants you to have. It preaches at the audience enough to cause a backlash.

You may actually begin to think those “actors” playing at Death, Love, and Time, may be the real thing, like a coven of witches hanging out in the Big Apple for laughs.

At one point, Helen Mirren says, “This is not Noel Coward. It’s more like Chekhov.”  Yes, the movie never falls short on lofty pretensions. You could do worse.

People’s Princess v. The Queen

 DATELINE: Ten Years Later

Queen & Country

As docudramas go, Helen Mirren’s movie about Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana is among the best.

Now ten years later, we took another peek at the film called merely The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan. It has that wry detail of Diana looking back at the Queen with an accusing stare.

We don’t know how the creators know what tears, angst, and emotions, were expressed when the Queen was alone.  Mirren provides all this and more. Yes, it surely makes an exciting and intimate film performance.

This is the best of Mirren’s many queen roles, and this is the best of Michael Sheen’s many Tony Blair roles. Blair has to save the Queen from herself and her noblesse oblige family. Mirren’s Queen is witty and ultimately practical, whether this is true of the real people in the movie or not.

Actors re-enacting surely provides powerful insights into the tragic event of Princess Di’s death and the reaction of Her Royal Pains in the afterlife.

We recognized an impressive Roger Allam this time, from his Endeavour TV series, playing the Queen’s personal assistant. James Cromwell is his usual acerbic character as Prince Philip.

Mirren has many stunning moments, such as her shock when the public applauds Di’s brother after giving her eulogy. The Queen’s speech left more to be desired, even with a great actress delivering the same words.

Ryan Reynolds & Helen Mirren Fight for Klimt

DATELINE:  One of the Golden Girls


Ryan Reynolds is Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Man of the Year. He likely won because of Deadpool, but his far better movie of the year is Woman in Gold.

Lacking car chases, fights with super powers and other special effects, the film obviously has had a much smaller audience.

Co-starring with Helen Mirren as the niece of the woman in the famous Klimt painting, Reynolds is a nebbish attorney, grandson of Arnold Schoenberg.

As they confront the dubious art leaders of the museum, Mirren compares her lawyer to Sean Connery and James Bond—an era when technology and special effects supported a good plot.

The true story centers on the efforts of an aging refugee of the Nazi regime in Austria. She is trying to retrieve the $100 million painting that hangs in a Viennese museum. What she encounters are a bunch of crypto-Nazis.

Reynolds represents her as a favor to his mother, against his own law firm’s wishes. Mrs. Altmann feared traveling back to the place where her family died—and her nightmares and rush of memories emerge at every site.

A protracted court case, going to the Supreme Court of the United States, and ending with a hearing in Austria, wears on them. Mrs. Altmann wants to take her Aunt Adele (in the form of the art work) to the United States. Mirren seems a tad young to be a girl from the 1930s in Austria (story is set in 1997).

We will abstain from analyzing the painting, which may not be flattering at all.

A few marvelous actors adorn the film in golden cameos: Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, and Elizabeth McGovern.

In an age of cartoon/comic book tales, the gold Klimt image of Adele Bloch-Bauer may seem like a super-heroic woman—but it is her niece with the determination to finish a battle to honor Adele’s murdered family.

Eaton Place, Gosford Park, Downton Abbey? High Rent Stuff


going gone gosford


With the final season of Downton Abbey nearly a year away, we decided to give ourselves a fix with the movie that helped Julian Fellowes decide to write the hit TV show.

We refer to Gosford Park, which we did not put on our A list back then. It seemed to be too American filtered—with Robert Altman directing like Agatha Christie had decided to redecorate Upstairs/Downstairs.

By far the worst part of the film was Bob Balaban as the intrusive Hollywood producer at the English shooting party. Heaven knows, he was an anachronism then—and remains one now. He just did not fit in, whether it is bonking his beautiful manservant Ryan Phillipe, or calling butler Alan Bates, Mr. Jennings. It seemed too precious for words.

Yet, the overall effect was to pick out all the actors who found work on Downton Abbey—including Maggie Smith, playing well, Maggie Smith as a dowager.

One of the key effects was the all-star cast. It seemed to bring in every actor who had a role in a British miniseries to those who frequented Ivory-Merchant period movies. It was a great idea, making characters jump out instantly. Without the weekly series to bring familiarity to the characters, Altman hit on a highly effective idea.

Of course, there is something insidious going on—and we see the clues everywhere—from bottles of poison to missing knives. There is murder in the air, and we aren’t even close to the Orient Express.

It helps to have a great cast, clever plotting, and a director at his peak of power. We found this bargain basement Downton, but then again Downton is bargain basement Brideshead Revisited.

If you are into the genre, then it all falls into period place. You know where you are and what to expect. We were not as up or down as the first time around. Gosford Park started to feel comfortable.



Everyone’s Face Should Be RED 2


Why did anyone want a sequel to the original comic adventure movie about retired CIA agents? We suppose it gave good salaries to its stars—Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovitch, and now in the sequel, to Tim Piggot-Smith, Anthony Hopkins, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, all along for the long in the tooth ride.

Maybe they just wanted to have fun. Well, if your cup of tea is mayhem, and what dizzy funsters those old assassins really can be, this is your movie.

We hate any movie that is like a cartoon. This one revels in it. The opening credits, and the montages between scenes, are actual morphing into cartoon versions of the action and stars. This is DC Comics writ big, but with geriatric superheroes.

We knew that our tolerance level would be pushed to the limit with this little doozy. Usually we do not review films that we know will win our enmity. Perhaps for a few seconds, we thought this little dismal comedy thriller would transcend the materials. Call us wrong.

Perhaps we thought the aging stars would be hilarious in off-the-wall mode. Nope.

How misguided we were to entertain the notion something good would come this way. This movie is putrid for its violence and cavalier dispatching of human life. We don’t find sociopathic killers among our favorite amusements. If that were the case, we’d be rooting for those laugh riot terrorists.

The film has excellent production values, easy to watch performances, and quick plotting. It’s not enough. Trust us when we say that lugubrious movies with ponderous arty plots, like You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet and Kill Your Darlings, may be excruciating in their pseudo-arty approach, but we will take an effort to say something important over an effort to use chaos as comic relief.

Big budget failures are the worst—because the money would have been better spent in a serious (or humorous) little film. Sure, the producers may have to pay for a vocal coach for Daniel Radcliffe, or security for Robert Pattinson, but if the movie has merit, we applaud the expense.

RED 2 should not inspire another RED. We’d rather have our stars go into genuine retirement than reprise these roles ever again.