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The Queen (2006)
Extraordinary Mirren *IS* Queen Elizabeth II
While watching this pitch-perfect character piece unfold on the screen, not for one moment did I think to myself, that's Helen Mirren up there playing the Queen. Mirren has long been of my favorite actresses, and her performance is riveting... so far removed from Prime Suspect's terse and gritty Jane Tennison that it's hard to believe you're seeing the same person. Michael Sheen's Tony Blair starts out seeming a little like Eric Idle playing the Monty Python version of a Prime Minister, but he quickly grows into the role, and as the relationship with his monarch uncomfortably develops, his eventual explosion at his staff's callousness is unexpected and passionate. Among the other members of the royal family, Prince Charles comes off the best, though not without a suggestion of self-interest as his motivation for wanting to do the right thing by the late Diana. Least sympathetic are the perpetually annoyed-by-it-all Prince Philip, convinced hunting will deflect his grandsons' grief (an amusing turn by PETA member James Cromwell); and more surprisingly, Sylvia Syms' oblivious Queen Mother; both apparently devoid of any emotion or real concern that their country sees Diana's death as a personal tragedy. Mirren portrays Elizabeth II as so independent, self-confident, and non-imperious, you wonder why she puts up with them, but of course that's the crux of the drama: she sees it as her duty to maintain a facade of family harmony, something in which Diana failed; and it's the heart of her dilemma: how does she give her subjects the comfort which all her upbringing and respect for tradition tells her is inappropriate?
Rififi à Tokyo (1963)
Terrific Heist Movie
It's unfortunate that this gem is so little known, which I'm sure is due in part to its attempt to trade on the name of the original 1955 Rififi, a genuine certified masterpiece. Still this is a very satisfying caper film in its own right, combining the hard-bitten characters and no-nonsense tone of the earlier Rififi with a target that would not be out-of-place in many recent thrillers, namely a high-tech bank vault in Tokyo. I was fortunate enough to see this on a double bill with Un Homme est Mort (The Outside Man), Jacques Deray's existential French-hitman-in-Los-Angeles picture, which is also highly recommended.
Rings Around the World (1966)
A Real Treat for Circus Fans
This was apparently a spinoff of Don Ameche's stint as host of the TV series "International Showtime" and if the program was anything like this movie, it must have been amazing. These are some of the most incredible circus acts I have ever seen. The moments where performers balance themselves on the points of two knives are particularly astounding; it truly seems to defy both gravity and reality. Most of the featured acts seem to come from various European circuses, so it's definitely not the same old stuff you might have seen from American companies.
Charming & Provocative Love Story Redeems Grab-Bag
I was fortunate enough to see Flow in one of its earliest screenings at Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, with director Quentin Lee in attendance. The film is actually a "portmanteau" affair, beginning with three strange experimental shorts which are visually striking but may leave you cold. Still, hold on for the final segment, a more traditional narrative featurette with rewarding performances, which opens as two male Asian-American students become dorm-mates at a large university (it was shot at UCLA). One is openly gay, almost militantly so, and the other has a girlfriend who feels there's room for only one bitch around her man. The gay Asian has a stereotypically older huskier white boyfriend, which got a good laugh from the audience I was in, since he's a self-professed "potato queen" who would NEVER date another Asian guy. However, things take an unexpected turn when he meets the supposedly straight platonic pal of his roommate's girlfriend. This was really a refreshing opportunity to see characters that you don't find onscreen everyday. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would watch it again anytime.
What's Up, Doc? (1972)
Probably my all-time favorite comedy
When I first saw this with my dad on its initial release, I don't think either of us had ever laughed so much that it literally hurt. Every actor is impeccably cast down to the smallest roles, and even if you don't care for Streisand or O'Neal, they are both very funny and appealing here, which I feel is due in no small part to Peter Bogdanovich, one of our finest American directors. The film hadn't aged a bit when I saw it recently in a revival house, and interestingly, when the delightful main credits were rolling, the biggest audience cheers came at the names of not only Madeline Kahn (who is hysterical), but also veteran tv character actress Mabel Albertson! Watch for her final scene...