Can Winston Churchill be exciting? In this second installment of HBO’s film on Churchill (the first being The Gathering Storm with Albert Finney playing Churchill), the old English Bulldog is pretty darn exciting. Maybe I should preface that by saying the ERA that this film takes place in is much more exhilarating than the timeframe of the Finney film (pre-WWII). Churchill during WWII was a force to be reckoned with. He and FDR formed a powerful, menacing alliance that took the world and Hitler by storm. In The Gathering Storm, Finney did a fabulous job of embodying the Prime Minister, but there was always something a little too “regal” about him. I mean after all, it was Albert Finney under all of that make-up and the years of classical acting seemed to hinder the rough, brash Churchill exterior from coming all the way through. Here, in this film, Irish actor Brendan Gleeson does not have any problem being a true, unadulterated curmudgeon. Gleeson’s performance is truly phenomenal…he’s all fire and brimstone when he needs to be but in the scenes with Churchill and his wife Clemmie, Gleeson shine’s as he lets slivers of Churchill’s soft side peek out. All around, an excellent film about a traumatic time in history…and about the man who made sure Great Britain got though that trauma mostly unscathed.

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When I saw Monster or The Queen, I felt like I had seen movies where the actors (in these cases, Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren respectively) embodied the persona of a real-life person. In La Vie en Rose Marion Cotillard takes it one step forward…she embodies the persona and the SOUL of the Edith Piaf. When I was watching this, I just became immersed with Piaf and this movie. I was in a trance…mesmerized in the performance. I had seen Cotillard in A Good Year, a romantic comedy in which she played the love interest to Russell Crowe. She was a striking, tall, stunningly beautiful woman with close-to-perfect features and almost an ethereal quality. In La Vie en Rose, she is truly Piaf…hunched over, small, course, and beautiful only the eyes of a few select people. What is beautiful, mostly, about Piaf, is her voice. Watching Cotillard, though, makes this short, awkward woman a striking person without an overabundance of physical beauty. Without adding any physical attributes to her, Cotillard brings out the inner beauty of Piaf…in both the depth of the fabulous performance and with the sparkle always shining through Piaf’s eye whenever Cotillard is shown. The movie, itself, is a good deal too long and would be quite tedious if I were not memorized with the performance. I’m sure it could have benefited with some serious time in the editing room…as long as no scenes featuring Piaf were cut out. She’s way too good to leave on the cutting room floor.

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For a moment, I forgot I was watching a movie. It’s more like a captivating documentary. The film takes place (with the exception of a small series of scenes at the beginning when Prime Minister Tony Blair first takes power) all within the span of one week in 1997…from the day Princess Diana died to the day she was buried. This film transported me back to this time and I felt as if I was watching the inner goings-on of the Royal Family and the Prime Minister…on CNN. Maybe one of the reasons for this docudrama feel is that Helen Mirren looks SO MUCH like Queen Elizabeth II in this movie. And, I imagine, the Queen acts pretty much like Mirren does…reserved, official, composed. But, the film itself is an intense piece of work…never dull or slow. I thought it would be tough to fill a whole film based on just one week’s events but director Stephen Frears does a great job of keeping up the level of drama through fast-paced editing and through creating tenuous chemistry between the Queen and Blair. Their political relationship defines the film and keeps things moving. The Queen is a must-see! Hail, Elizabeth!

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My soft spot for this one is that I love Beatrix Potter’s books. And I’m heading to the English Lake District this year on vacation…hoping I will love it as much as I think I will. Aside from that, is this an accurate film of Potter’s life? Um, not by a long shot. But, it is a charming, sweet film that, on its own, stands as a wonderful love story. Renee Zellweger again (as she does in the Bridget Jones movies) plays a great Brit — aside from perfecting the accent, she has the slightly aloof manner down pat. Here, she plays Potter as a woman ahead of her time…independent, aggressive, disobedient and defiant. If you’re looking for a film to watch with the whole family, look no further. If you’re looking to write a biographical report on Beatrix Potter, keep looking.

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This is a hard movie to say I liked because it’s such a hard film to watch. Much is made of the performance by Forest Whitaker as General Idi Amin (at the time I’m writing this, Whitaker has just been nominated for an Oscar – we’ll find out soon if he wins or not). But, the film is much more than just Whitaker’s brilliant performance. It’s the story about a Scotsman who heads to Uganda after medical school because he doesn’t seem to want to follow in his father’s footsteps of a medical practice in Scotland. Once in Africa, he gets entangled with the newly appointed (self-appointed in a coup) Dictator Amin and becomes the General’s personal physician. Once the Scotsman, Garrigan, finds out about Amin’s brutality, it might be too late for him to escape. Powerful performances by Whitaker and James McAvoy as Garrigan make this film a must see for anyone who is interested in political dramas.

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Hugh Grant playing Frederic Chopin??? When I found this out, I had to watch this film. And, Grant surprised me by pulling off the role of the fragile pianist with considerable ease. I bought him as Chopin, just as I bought the other characters in this subtly lavish film. Judy Davis plays unconventional 19th Century novelist George Sand, of whom then film revolves. Her relationships with men, especially Chopin, are chronicles here in a semi-farcical/semi-serious way. Knowing nothing about Sand’s personal life, I was fascinated by her character. She is a true rebel for the day…wearing men’s clothes and having open affairs with a variety of different men. The way the movie tells her story is by not exactly taking it all seriously and, on the same taken, not exactly poking fun of it. All in all, Sand, Chopin and all of the other 19th Century characters make this a fun, interesting look at the France in the mid-1800s.

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Not being a Johnny Depp fan, I avoided Finding Neverland as long as I could. Based on recommendations of several people whose opinions I value, I finally caved. I am very infrequently surprised by films. This one surprised me more than any other film in 2004. I was expecting a stuffy, highfalutin film about an author and his life (I have to confess—I hadn’t read any reviews to come to this opinion). Much to my chagrin, the film is not really about adults or adult problems (even though there are several adult issues). It is about children…being a child, holding on to your childhood as long as possible, never letting your child-like innocence and imagination go…etc. The film is based on the life of J.M Barrie, who was a semi-successful playwright in 1900s London…semi-successful only until he wrote the play Peter Pan. Depp plays Barrie in a very toned down way…quiet and introspective. We really never find out what’s going on in Barrie’s mind until it appears on stage through his plays. But, no offense to Mr. Depp, but the children steal this movie. Kate Winslet, as the widowed mother of four boys, including Barrie’s Peter Pan inspiration, and even a small, comic-relief role by Dustin Hoffman do not bring as much joy to the film as the children do when they are on screen. These children provide Barrie with his inspiration and also provide this film with its heart.

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Not knowing anything more about Maria Callas than that she was an internationally renowned opera sensation, I was particularly interested to see this one. Not really a biographical film, this movie, as it states in the blurb on the back of the DVD case, is director Franco Zeffirelli’s interpretation of what Callas’ last months might have been like if things had gone differently. But, I wondered differently how? After watching the film, I got the impression that even though Zeffirelli worked often with Callas, the film is more about what he personally would have liked Callas to do with her last days, instead of apparently what she did do…which was pretty much…well, nothing. The film is a glorious tribute to Callas as a singer and as a “diva.” French actress Fanny Ardent does a great job of capturing both Callas’ torment at the lost of her voice and the admiration she thrives off once she becomes “famous” again. This film is not especially for someone who does not like or have even a mild appreciate for opera since much of the movie revolves around Callas doing a film production of Bizet’s Carmen. Of course, since Zeffirelli has directed many, many opera productions, he knows how to stage, light and shoot the musical parts. But even if you think you don’t like opera, between Zeffirelli’s beautiful direction and the sound of Callas’ voice in its prime, you might just find that opera is one of your hidden loves. If any film can bring that passion out in you, this one can.

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The Aviator is a good film. It is the kind of film that has epic qualities…large scope, vast landscapes, array of characters, historical, romance, action, drama…things that Lawrence of Arabia and more recently, Braveheart have. But, an epic by Martin Scorsese is guaranteed to have at least one other thing…quality. Basically a biopic of billionaire Howard Hughes in his early movie-making and piloting days, Scorsese choose Leonardo DiCaprio to play his Hughes…and even though my feelings are highly mixed on DiCaprio (basically, I don’t like him as an actor), I admire how Scorsese uses DiCaprio in this film and the chances the actor takes with the role. Though DiCaprio is good, what makes this film a grand epic is the way Scorsese shot it. When Hughes is working on his Hell’s Angels film, Scorsese is able to capture both of determination of Hughes and the danger of the stunts on the screen. Yet, when Hughes’s character retreats into himself and shows the first stages of the recluse he will become in later years, Scorsese also captures that using his camera…the inner pain and turmoil of Howard jumps out at the audience, even though often there is no dialogue to indicate that. In recent years, Scorsese has steered away from making personal films about New York and/or Italian-Americans, such as his earlier works like Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and Goodfellas. Even 2002’s The Gangs of New York, though about his hometown, felt less personal and more epic in scope. The Aviator might not be Scorsese at his best, but I would take his “epic” films any day of the week over some other films out there.

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In the tradition of Once Upon a Time in America or even The Godfather, this film is one of the finest crime sagas I’ve ever seen. From start to finish, I was captivated by both the stories of the criminal and the cop. And, unlike some other crime films of yesterday that had “saga”-like feels to them, this one is based in reality. Yes, it’s violent, but I have a feeling that the violence here is grounded in truth. This very possibly might have been how Frank Lucas’ Harlem streets were back in the 1970s. Lucas is a black man in the white business of heroin… “white” meaning, at the time, only Italian…as in the Mob. Lucas becomes bigger than any mob figure…he owns the Harlem streets. He has Mafiosi begging to work with his organization. Enter cop and wanna-be lawyer Richie Roberts, who makes it his job bring down Lucas and his entire network. The acting really puts this movie over the top…the screenplay and direction are stellar, but the performances make it a classic!

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