Who knew that lighting two cigarettes at a time would be so romantic? I guess Paul Henreid knew, since he did that for Bette Davis in this film. That scene is just one of many tributes to their characters’ love and affection for each other. Davis plays frumpy and wealthy Charlotte Vale, whose mother has a hold over her so strong that Charlotte has a nervous breakdown. While recovering, she also undergoes a physical transformation that takes her from an awkward gal into an elegant, sophisticated woman of the world. Yes, it’s a little cliché and “convenient but Davis makes her character’s sudden transformation work. Charlotte’s relationship with unhappily married Henreid soon becomes the focus of the film and even once Henreid is out of the picture, Charlotte is never able to put him out of her mind. A tour-de-force by Davis, who did many good films, but few as moving and sentimental as this one.

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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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A charming film that is something I would normally term as “sappy.” I usually stay far away from my self-proclaimed “sappy” films but I was drawn to this one because I always had a soft-spot for Kevin Costner. Needless to say, I fell in love with Message in a Bottle (and Mr. Costner, all over again). This is not to say it is not sappy. It is sappy with a capital S, please, don’t get me wrong. But, I just have to admit this is one time I like the sap. Set in Chicago and on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a Tribune reporter heads South to the beach on vacation where she meets a rugged, loner who happens to be handsome. They have some awkward moments at first but mostly, it’s pure chemistry. She goes back home to Chicago and he braves the wilds of the city to come and visit her. Your basic sap…but, this one is just high quality sap…I know that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement but it’s a good love story, trust me. I don’t think Mr. Costner is the ONLY reason I fell for this one. I really have more standards than that, don’t I? Well, you will just have to watch this one and see!

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I have not liked the last several Woody Allen films. I would have to say the last one I didn’t want to turn off in the middle (or even at the beginning) was Small Time Crooks (2000). And, even that one, I only liked…a little. So, when I got Melinda and Melinda, my first thought was, “Why the heck did I put this on hold?” Regardless of the reason, I decided to watch it…mostly since I had no other DVDs to watch at the time. Had this been a week where my coffee table was filled with piles of soon-to-be-due DVDs, I would have probably passed on this one. Well, I’m glad I didn’t pass. The most striking thing about Melinda and Melinda (aside from the fact that it’s actually a funny, original, entertaining Woody Allen film with him NOWHERE to be found among the cast) is the premise, or the gimmick of the plot. Like another film I really liked from 1998, Sliding Doors, Melinda and Melinda’s gimmick is original…involving how ONE plotline pans out in two different ways. Sliding Doors focused on TIME…how a split second of time difference changes the course of everything that happens after. Melinda and Melinda uses a different but just as original twist…the same story told from two different angles—one, a romantic comedy and the other, a drama. The only “like” character in both story variations is Melinda, played in both the comedy and drama by Radha Mitchell. Aside from her, all of the other characters differ in each story, as not to confuse the viewer. In both stories, Melinda is a troubled soul with a good deal of emotional baggage who finds temporary help with a group of friends. I found it fascinating how her personal troubles easily transformed from comic to serious…just by changing some minor elements. Director Woody Allen is able to turn a dramatic character trait of Melinda’s around and use that same trait for comic effect in the other storyline. Pretty original for Allen…and the end result is a funny, touching film that might not be some of Allen’s best work ever but is some of the best work he’s done in recent years.

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OK—everyone has seen it. Everyone knows the story. Some people can even recite the dialogue (I would have to confess, I’m in this category). When you get right down to it, this is a great movie. Sad thing is that it gets so over-watched around the holiday season that many people have the “not again” mentality. PLEASE don’t disregard this movie just because it has been overplayed, colorized and basically abused. What director Frank Capra does here is capture a little slice of Americana—something that Capra excelled in. Unlike Capra’s other Americana films (most notably Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), this one has a dark edge—a hardness that makes us think for a second that maybe America is not all that it’s cracked up to be. That is where Jimmy Stewart’s acting genius kicks in. His portrayal of the lowly, always-disappointed George Bailey has the audience rooting him on, even when he’s at his most weak. I mean, here is Bailey, standing by a bridge, looking down into the icy waters of the river, waiting for the perfect moment to jump. Does anyone really believe he will? No—not with the genuine way Stewart breathes life into Bailey. No one with that much compassion in their heart could really ever end it all? But, that’s why Stewart is perfect as Bailey. He does give Capra a “hard” edge, all while keeping the film, at its core, a feel-good film…one that can and should be enjoyed ANY time of year, not just in the holiday season.

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When I rewatched this one recently, I fell in love all over again with Robert Mitchum’s character (OK — and with Mr. Mitchum himself). This one is a true classic…a film that gets very little attention during the holiday season, but should be up there with those notables Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife. Mitchum plays a wandering ex-Army man, who really just wants to make enough money to move to California and build boats. But, to save for the trip, he works retail stores at Christmas. Janet Leigh plays a widowed single mother who works as a comparison shopper…going from store to store buying things to compare prices at different places. She encounters Mitchum during one of her buys and the sparks start from the get-go. Even though she has a fella who’s sweet on her, she and her adorable son gravitate to the charming and debonair Mitchum. I mean, I sure would. Wouldn’t you?

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The Heiress is a magnificent film that defies 1940s Hollywood logic…the woman and man do not walk into the sunset hand-in-hand. Actually, what is even more defiant for a film of this era is a woman having power over a man. Yes, 1940s were the days of the powerful woman in Hollywood: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, etc. But, the films those women were in were mostly about tough ladies who needed the love of a good man to set them straight. The Heiress is nothing like that. The film begins by setting the stage that shy, naïve Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), the wealthy daughter of a stern New England doctor, played beautifully by Sir Ralph Richardson, will probably never marry. Catherine is plain, timid, and lacks what, as her father claims, men look for in future wives…aside, of course, from her money. Enter Montgomery Clift’s Morris Townsend, who takes a liking to Catherine but her father disapproves and believes Townsend is just an opportunist. By now I’m sure you’re wondering where the “powerful” woman enters the picture. Well, Catherine learns quite a few life lessons over the course of the film and in the end she is a strong, confident woman who knows exactly what she wants and doesn’t want. Even though George Cukor was known in Hollywood circles as being the best “ladies director,” I feel that director William Wyler gives Cukor tough competition here and with some of his other movies (Roman Holiday, Mrs. Miniver, Jezebel, Funny Girl , etc.). This film is a tour de force for de Havilland (she won the Oscar), but Wyler’s brave direction increases both the power of Catherine and the tone of the whole film.

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Mike Nichols’ controversial film about Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman, in his film debut), a recently out of college lost-soul who begins an affair with his parent’s friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), just out of boredom. The affair allows him to procrastinate on other important decisions like graduate school and/or getting a job, much to his parents’ chagrin. More problems occur when he falls in love with the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross). This film did as much for the 1960’s rebellion as it did for both the careers of Simon and Garfunkel and Mike Nichols, who earned an Oscar for his cutting edge direction.

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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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When a 1950s housewife falls in love with her black gardener, her life that was already in shambles threatens to complete fall apart. A great, powerful drama in the same tone of the early 20th Century melodramas, especially the Douglas Sirk-directed melodrama All That Heaven Allows. In All That Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman plays a recent widow with two grown children and Rock Hudson plays her gardener. The catch, in the Sirk film from 1955, was the age difference and that he is a lowly gardener and she is a prominent widow with means. Far From Heaven takes off where the Sirk film began and uses racial tensions as the barrier between the two potential lovers. Even though they are two different films told in two totally diverse perspectives, both of these movies are worthy of being seen for their brilliant 1950s styles and their powerful messages.

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