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Reviews by Bill Olkowski

We have a great life right now. One of the chief features is our ability to look at movies to our hearts’ content.  With the new feature of instant play at Netflix we have entered a new era.  We used to have to wait for the discs to show up and then sometimes they were all stinkers and we would send them all back right away.  Now in between waiting for discs we dip into the instant play lists.  Of course most movies available are stinkers so it takes awhile to find good ones.

There is no life without theater. But it has to be compelling and funny.  Most of what we have selected to look at on Netflix (regular and instant) does not make it past 15 minutes.  And to even start looking we have already screened out 80-95 percent of what is available.

We select mostly from comedies, British movies and actors, dramas that are not dark or about the break up of marriages or other catastrophes, including people dying.  Its not reality we seek, we have too much already.  We see lots of nature films, and a series or two made for TV (but no laugh tracks, which we find insulting).  And all the war documentaries, I have already seen or don’t wish to visit again, we skip.  We skip all political movies, fantasy or reality.  We are now on virtually a permanent vacation from the news.  We search for realistic fantasy for adults that has depictions of transformation, growth (significant), love in all its manifestations, great photography, good stories, well done with great actors.  No animation stories, no ghosts, etc., no junk science, or science fiction, no robots, aliens or monsters, human or otherwise.

Why are the studio types persisting in using death and dying as a feature or theme?  Are we so bereft of grief counseling that we need to relive someone else’s tragedies.  It’s a cheap device to illicit emotions, add that to your disgust list about current films.  So what follows is a recent, sanitized list.  The one movie that stands out even in such a highly selected group is Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works”.  It’s the best thing he has done, even better than “Deconstructing Harry”. This includes his recent movie: “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, which is fun but not full of fun, like “Whatever Works”, which also has a strong social-political-psychological conclusion.

But subjectivism (is that a new word?), is widespread among one’s friends and never more so than in relation to movies.  So here is the latest top 10 (or so): How many do you agree with as being good?  How many can you add?

The streaming capability at PBS.com is just not easy to use or to find full episodes, but many movies there are great.  I could not yet get HULU to work.  We could watch recent episodes of Bones at the bones site but have to put up with advertisements, something we hate.  We also have an aversion to fox productions as we know their political orientation.

The following are our recent selections and for every one recommended we tossed back at least 10.  We can usually tell if it’s about death and destruction, sad stories about weird people, horror and gore, or too sloppy from the write-ups, but the write-ups are only a partial guide.  So we screen movies and mostly stop after a few minutes as we can see they are stupid, silly, poorly done, have bad sound, or other defects.  Also we can’t view foreign now since H cant read captions very fast so they are a waste.  It’s amazing how many bad movies there are.  Comedies are frequently not funny, and watch out for dark comedies.  People dying or suffering from some disease(s) we avoid.  We avoid political stories as too much speculations and not hopeful enough.  We still have hopes for politics but it is dimming rapidly.

So here are some of our recent best and some oldies we loved.

Whatever Works – this is one of a kind.

This is the best movie of the current batch (except Creation –see below which is from another genre).  Whatever Works is the best of Woody Allen’s whole collection.  This includes our previous favorite, his outrageous autobiographically projection “Deconstructing Harry”. He wrote and directed this funny tale and as usual, set it in New York City with people you would expect to meet in the City.  You can see him making fun about our obsession on current mores, but now he tosses in some ideas being developed in physics and new scientific findings about the nature of reality.  Of course our physical sciences have gone over the edge, of just what, remains to be seen.

Woody Allen doesn’t act in this one, which I find refreshing, but you can hear him speaking thru the actor Larry David.  Larry plays a misanthropic retired physics professor with a poorly repaired limp from an attempt at suicide.  He had jumped out a window trying to kill himself in despair, and hit an awning on the way down.  He complains about the doctors who could not fix his leg properly.  Right at the start Larry has an aside (one of Woody’s theatrical devices so easily worked into the story, real theater).  The professor is hiding from “a violent unfeeling chaotic world”.  Well, I feel the same way, almost. We have friends.

The fun starts when a young escapee waif from a southern state has landed in NYC.  She talks him into letting her stay the night -for humanitarian reasons.  As you can guess she stays longer and longer and meanwhile learns some basic physics lessons which when translated in her young brain comes out just marvelous.  “What are you worrying about? After all, there’s nothing faster than the speed of light”.  And then there’s Woody’s view of love and relationships stimulated by Larry’s flights out the window.  One special high point for me was when the waif is listening to Beethoven’s 9th symphony, at Larry’s insistence as it is superior to a rock and roll thing she likes, but she acquiesces.  While playing it, a knock on the door confuses the waif for a while, then she goes to the door and finds her mother.  What follows is just so, so funny, you have to see it. She was trying to escape from her mother and the disappointment at her arrival is obvious.

The rest is pure fun as only Allen can produce.  It’s hard to make funny movies and it’s hard for me to understand why some friends don’t like Woody’s marvelous productions.  Am I right? There’s no Oscar for comedy?

Gosford Park – a drama mystery

This Robert Altman production takes place in the 1930’s at a shooting party in the English countryside with a host of great actors.  It’s really a mystery tale with surprises all along the way.  It makes fun of the genre, and it’s also a social commentary on Victorian England’s legacy of double standards, class structure and the sorry state of the upper class and its working poor.  We like it because of how well it tells the tale, interweaving just the right number of subplots.  This is a keeper and we have already seen it 5-6 times.  Get a disc so captions are available.

Who am I this Time?

This older hidden gem with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken is a delicate romance about two people who meet while acting in a small town theater production of A Street Car Named Desire.  The actors themselves seemed to love the roles and each other.  They were much younger then.

Blue State

This partial documentary with its political clips brings back the Vietnam era and my post election despair of G.W. Bush’s second term election.  The romance starts when a young gal shows up looking for a ride with a democratic political activist who in despair has announced he is leaving for Canada.  Besides a series of funny and a surprise revelation from the girl (with blue streaks in her hair and a nose ring), the view from Canada tells a whole bunch about the US population and political scene, then and even now.

This movie brought back my memories of a time when we only were spending 90 billion per year on a stupid war without real justification.  The vaporous fears then about Communism makes one think about today’s fears and just how much is manufactured by a bloated military and right wing rhetoric, or maybe just the usual fears from the military.

The Upside of Anger

They call it a comic tale of tangled family ties.  Kevin Costner plays a retired baseball player interested in a neighboring woman (and her daughters) whose husband seems to have run off with his secretary.  We just think he made one of his best movies (next to, of course Bull Durham).  Big surprise at the end, which leaves us with a good feeling about how to handle anger.  After watching it again I still don’t know why we like it but there it is.

I’ll Take You There

You must have patience to see the end of this seemingly puzzling set of circumstances.  A highlight for me is the song: they call it the Bastard Song, first line: Don’t let the Bastards get you down.  I am learning the lyrics now. But the moral seems to me to me: given a choice, love the gal who is willing to take a bullet for you.  A delightful story with good acting and interesting people/characters.

The Golden Boys

The romance is about 3 old retired ship captains who draw straws to see which one is to go after a mail order bride.  Their physical circumstances are easy to see as their collective living experience has degraded to desperation.  Wait to you see who shows up to follow up on their ad.  Rip Torn plays the hapless captain, and the gal makes the right choice.  She is certainly no fool.

Groundhog Day

Most of my friends love this movie, the best thing Bill Murray has done by far.  Its philosophical base is unique and plays to my abstinent obsession to do something over and over until I get it right.  Wish I had the time to do exactly that.  We just had to view it again.

Humboldt County

Set in Mary Jane country on the coast of California where the illegal drug is produced by a rag tag bunch of renegades and down-and-outs informally headed by an expatriate college U.C. professor.  The best line in the movie is by a young daughter who referring to the class one drug, says simply “It’s better than alcohol”.  Another axiom: don’t get greedy and grow too much because the Feds will raid you.  When the raid comes everybody runs to the beach where even the local police and park rangers try to smooth over what is almost an embarrassment.  The real problem is the Feds.  But although it’s clear that MJ is not the problem the federals and local brainless police make it out to be there no real presentation of the good aspects of MJ use.  For that see the movie: The Union.

The Extra Man

Its always fun to see Kevin Kline contort on the stage.  And this wild story gives him lots of room and portrays a far-out bachelor’s life.

Outsourced – a romance.

A cross-cultural touching story about one such outsourcing experience.  More of what I would hope the reality to be but one I fear is hardly the case.

Lovely Still

An unusual portrayal, a very touching story that becomes clear at the end.

Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry

This is a beauty and an oldie.  We had some trouble with the sound quality but the spirit of the women – an older Katherine Hepburn – is admiral and much like the actress herself.  It was a bit disconcerting as her head wobbled like a person with Parkinson’s, or someone getting old.  I like it when the oldies express independence of spirit.

My Brilliant Career

Judy Davis stars in this biographical story about a poor young Australian woman around the turn of the 20th century.  She wants to be a writer and becomes one but the cost is love.  Yet one must praise her guts to go against the zeitgeist.  Then it was easier as all women had to get married and that meant children.  For me it is great to see women who have given up that choice in exchange for a career.  I did it but its easier for a man who does not have the genes for race preservation just the need to release sexual tension, but that maybe too severe.

Music from Another room

A good love story.

Better than Sex

This erotic tale shows two modern people start with casual sex, find it irresistible and rethink their status quo.  Its fun to see two beautiful people enjoying themselves but it’s the commentaries when interviewed and their friend’s comments that are interesting.  Then there is the taxi driver who finds the escapes amusing but plays a big role in their lives.

All Passions Spent

This is a beauty. An older women’s husband dies and she decides to live alone as opposed to what her kids want from her.  A delicate film and uplifting.  Lots of people know what’s good for you and sometimes you just have to decide for yourself and dam the torpedoes.

Dean Spangle

This is an unusual well-acted period piece about Dean Spangley who appears to be either a great wise man or a charlatan.  Coincidence may play a bigger role in life than we would expect, thinking the world is so complex as to defy simple mechanistic explanations.  This movie so skillfully acted that any ideas you care to generate about what is going on may startle you.  It’s great theater with good British actors in British settings.

T.V. Series

Bones

We got sucked into this series, maybe because we are both entomologists and had some experiences with death things.  My old prof, Paul Catts, wrote a forensic entomological manual and gave me a copy before he died.  On our field trips we were always stopping for road kills.  I thought to write some stories about the subject but gave up because I did not want to think about killing people.  The real fun for me in this series is to see the interaction between Bones, the anthropologist scientist and her FBI partner, explained as an intuitive investigator.  Bones, who is a beauty, puts down the religious belief system with style.

Her FBI compadre and she interact – he usually looses because her arguments are so sound – that’s what I think anyway.

He does the dirty work with the criminals and she the dirty work with the bodies and what’s left of them.  They must stink really bad, but with exposure one can acclimated.  Besides its just theater.  There are a great group of support personnel with lots of subplots.  Angela has this great smile that is contagious.  The early forensic worker Zack somehow got taken off the series, but he was great, and for a series of episodes they seem to be trying out different actors to fill his role.  The writing is great, suspenseful and extremely cleaver, sometimes too far out, but always entertaining.  We are waiting for the release of the season 7 discs as we can’t stand the TV streaming with their advertisements.

Bramwell

This is another series we stumbled upon.  The main character is a women doctor who fights the existing dominant arrogant medical male medical people of 1895 London with lots of shots of how bad the society was then.  It’s a love story too and it’s worth seeing just alone for perspective on today’s medical system.  It may be sad today for most people but back then it was bad for everybody and there were no antibiotics, poor analgesics (morphine only), and ugly practices.  Plus lots of stupid people, just like now, but then it was most people.  Now one can find a bit of intelligence here and there, but it takes an effort and constant searching.

Wives and Daughters

Michael Gabon plays the role of a doctor raising a daughter alone in England about 1850.  If things were bad in Bramwell’s time they were worse earlier.  But here the story is about Gabon’s choice of a new wife after his daughter is fully-grown.  It’s about how the two women interact amidst few good choices beyond merely marriage.  Remember women could not vote, own property and divorce was not an option.  And that’s the society we adapted for our own.  Gads!  But the time portrayal is great.

Documentaries

New York and Chicago – both many discs.

These historical series are good reviews even though they are the usual watered down history channel productions.  The pictures they use to show the times are great.  The hyperbole about the cities goes beyond good sense but like everything else one needs to penetrate beyond the superficial to really know what is happening.  The update on the twin towers told me many things I did not know about the towers.  The Chicago series with its great photos of the 1919 World’s Fair and the Haymarket Incident also instructed me about the sorry episodes when the rich ruled thru the police departments in a corrupt democracy.  Something history lessons in High School skip over lightly if they cover it at all.

Blue Gold

This is about the critically important life component called water and how

the political system allows private companies to capture public resources for profit – and how to fight this an ongoing war.  One would hope that the era of thinking that privatization will solve all social problems is over, but don’t believe it.  We are in the midst of a David and Goliath fight for the lifeblood of all living things.  We are David, and corporate systems, particularly international organizations, are Goliath.  Given the disproportionate allocation of resources, particularly legal ones, the biblical analogy is highly apt.  but David slew Goliath, something we have yet to do, or maybe even think about.  How about abolishing the idea that Corporations have the same rights as individuals. We all must die but corporations live on.

The Union

This is a movie many more people will have to see and understand so we could move beyond the current public and legal morass about the Class one drug called Cannabis.  You can hear some of the arguments about why this plant and its products should not be illegal.  But this is not a complete discussion nor presentation, just the film producer’s collection of reasons.  But even those are major.

One reason this stupidity continues to exist is that it does not get enough discussion in the public.  The users do not want to expose themselves.  Plus, all property of a “dealer” or user captured by the law is confiscated.  Who gets this property?  The police get the confiscated property so when you see that the police organizations in CA are against legalization you can understand why.  Here in Santa Barbara the starting salary for an entry level policeman is $80,000.  Note also that the drug lords don’t want legalization because it will reduce the street value of grass.  And why not legalize it and tax it like alcohol, which is way more responsible for more violence and destruction, well beyond what grass is documented or thought to be.  Many police officers are aware of this stupidity but cannot go against the legal system.

Here in SB they are even destroying the systems for distributing legal medical MJ.  I read that 40% of the prison system inmates are drug related and most are MJ related.  At $40,000 per person per year to house, feed and medicate these people no wonder the public coffers are empty.

The Human Family Tree

This scientific documentary tells how we arose in Africa and moved around the world.  The newly discovered genetic information gives a timetable for human movements that is highly reliable and more dense than archeological relics.  We have learned a great deal about early human evolution but most people are not aware of our journey from the apes.  This film helps correct many misconceptions and presents the idea that we are all one family, something no religious group even speaks about – maybe the Unitarians do, but I have not been in a Uni-church in 50 years.  I lump them all into social control systems preaching myths of the past, and without any evidence.

 

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