“Lost in La Mancha” (2002)

They’ve got a story… but have lost the plot. -Tagline for the film

You may’ve heard that some movies languish in “production hell” for years. This is a documentary film from directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe; they’d intended to shoot the development and pre-production of Terry Gilliam’s (long-awaited) movie- The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. After the movie had to shutdown, Fulton and Pepe were wary of finishing their film, but Gilliam commented: “someone has to get a film out of this. I guess it’s going to be you.” The narrator of the doc is Jeff Bridges, one of Gilliam’s favorite actors.

I think he’s a little bit the Quixote. He’s the dreamer, the idealist. The one who sees things that the rest of us humans can’t see. -Benjamin Fernandez, Production Designer

Before filming begins, Gilliam had to move from Hollywood studio to European financing. The budget was cut from $40M to $32M (V high by European standards). Gilliam is a dreamer (like Quixote), so his vision is uncompromising. His department heads will have to do a LOT w/ what little they’ve been given. During pre-production and filming in Spain, what the director can’t foresee ALL the problems that will arise!

Terry, as we all well know, has the tendency of overloading everything. I mean, there is nothing ever simple and plain. -Nicola Pecorini, Director of Photography (D.P.)

I learned that Orson Welles tried to make his own version of this tale, BUT he failed several times! We’re taken through the pre-production, as we learn about what Gilliam and his co-writer (Tony Grisoni) changed around with the classic Cervantes story. A commercial director named Toby (Johnny Depp) gets sent back in time to where Don Quixote (French actor Jean Rochefort) mistakes him for Sancho Panza, his peasant sidekick; they go on adventures through the book’s stories. There is a brief animated sequence where we learn that Gilliam’s films (aside from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) have been risks taken by Hollywood studios, but they made money and received critical acclaim.

[As a storm comes in, disrupting filming] Which is it, King Lear or Wizard of Oz? -Gilliam

There are humorous scenes w/ the (V large/jolly) men auditioning to play giants. We see a young/optimistic Johnny Depp giving input to Gilliam and rehearsing a few scenes; he looks gorgeous! Depp’s former wife, French singer/actress Vanessa Paradis, is mentioned a few times, though NOT seen much in the doc. She was cast as the female lead and did some costume tests. The extras didn’t have time to rehearse. It turns out that the main location (a nature preserve) is where planes make a LOT of noise up above. There is a powerful thunderstorm that pauses filming; the equipment has to be protected and the people race for cover! We hear that 70 y.o. old Rochefort (who’d been learning English for 6+ mos.) has a prostate infection (so it’s TOO painful for him to ride a horse).

Making a film with Terry is like riding a bareback pony. Just grab onto the mane, dig in the heels and the knees, and hang on, ’cause you’re in for the ride of your life. -Phil Patterson, First Assistant Director

The production company (French) is V worried, an insurance company (American) becomes involved, and Gilliam is losing control (and he knows it). Someone has to be let go, so Phil Patterson (who as First A.D. is to handle the other matters while the director works w/ actors) decides to quit instead of being fired. The crew had a good sense of humor and were V committed, BUT the movie had to shutdown. D.P. Nicola Pecorini (Italian) ended up working on the final film- which came out in 2017. He did an impressive job (b/c the cinematography is V beautiful)!

“Lost in La Mancha” is an enjoyable celebration of those who tilt at windmills. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Modern Film Noir: The Dark Side of Life (In Color)

Body Heat (1981)

This film is considered to be an erotic thriller; it is (obviously) inspired by classic noir. So, maybe we can consider this to be neo-noir? Matty (Kathleen Turner) is the femme fatale; she has a secrets in her past. Ned (William Hurt) is the not-so-smart/playboy/lawyer who gets caught in her web.

Read my review.

Blade Runner (1982)

Many critics consider this to be the first sci-fi noir. It is a deep film that makes us wonder re: the nature of humanity. Many have wondered if Deckard (a young-ish Harrison Ford) was a human or a replicant. If you find this interesting, you may also like the sequel- Blade Runner 2049 (starring Ryan Gosling).

Dir. Ridley Scott and D.P. Jordan Cronenweth achieved the “shining eyes” effect by using a technique invented by Fritz Lang (“Schüfftan Process”) where light is bounced into the actors’ eyes off of a piece of half mirrored glass mounted at a 45 degree angle to the camera. Lang is known as a titan of the noir genre.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

This is a lesser-known Coen bros film w/ young-ish Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden (who I saw on the NYC subway years ago) that I really enjoyed. You see fine character actors in a world of their own which is very engaging (as expected from the Coens).

Read my review.

Cape Fear (1991)

This is the remake of the classic film dir. by Scorsese; the stars are Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro (sporting long-ish hair and fake tattoos), Jessica Lange, and a teenaged Juliette Lewis. You will also see cameos from Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum (I got a kick out of that). It’s NOT as good as the original, but still worth a look.

Heat (1995)

This film is loved by many who like action films, but also want strong character development. Fans of De Niro and Pacino will definitely want to check it out!

Read my review here.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

I haven’t seen this movie in a long time- think will give it a re-watch soon! It’s been on “modern noir” lists I looked up.

Fargo (1996)

Perhaps the Coens’ most well-known/loved film; we find quirky characters, dark humor, crime, moments of lightness, etc. Frances McDormand is the pregnant cop who you just can’t help but admire and root for, as she works to investigate some shady events in her small/snowy/usually safe community.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Three young cops w/ different approaches to their work: Russell Crowe (looking hot), Guy Pearce (also looking hot), and Kevin Spacey investigate a series murders in 1950s LA. Kim Basinger revives her career w/ a strong (supporting) role. I will re-watch this soon.

Se7en (1997)

I’ve only seen this film once; I didn’t like it that much (aside from Morgan Freeman’s role). You get to see a young/lonely wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) and her hubby/rookie detective (Brad Pitt); they are newlyweds starting their lives in the big city (Chicago). Of course, the baddie (Spacey) steals the show, as many of you know. We know dir. David Fincher made a big splash w/ this controversial/bloody/creepy film.

Training Day (2001)

You all probably know I’m a big fan of Denzel Washington; I also really like Ethan Hawke. They make a great/unlikely duo in this film, which has good supporting actors, action, dark humor, crime, etc. Denzel is really good as a baddie, though he’s NOT a one-note villain!

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Wow, the Coens really hit it out of the park here! I recall many/diverse viewers commenting that they enjoyed this film; they were also scared (or at least, on edge). I became a fan of Javier Bardem (who they ugly-fied for his baddie role). I also enjoyed seeing Tommy Lee Jones; also, I think Kelly Macdonald should’ve gotten even bigger roles (as she’s good in everything).

Gone Girl (2014)

I saw this film w/ a group of (mostly) single gal pals in one of our local theaters; we were NOT expecting what we saw (LOL)! Is this a farce (as some critics have noted)? Is the depiction of dysfunctional marriage meant to be taken (mostly) seriously? You can hate exurban life in the Midwest (BUT not as much as the wife played by Rosamund Pike)! Ben Affleck had his Batman physique then; I found that somewhat distracting (he’s supposed to be a underemployed teacher/writer). I liked the detective (Kim Dickens) and the defense lawyer (Tyler Perry); they were the ONLY characters that seemed somewhat normal/relatable. Maybe I’m just NOT a fan of Fincher’s cold/slick style? Thank goodness for my single life!

Hell or High Water (2016)

This is a Western neo-noir set in the Southwest starring the (always great) Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine (in a rare non-glam/anti-hero role), and Ben Foster (a fine character actor I’ve admired since he was a teen). The two working-class bros at the center of the story can’t seem to get ahead, so they take a (criminal) turn. A must-see for fans of smart films!

Read my review.

“Les Miserables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary” (2010)

The story is one we know and very simple: a former convict, Jean Valjean (Alfie Boe), tries to rebuild his life w/ adopted daughter Cosette after the death of her mother, Fantine (Lea Salonga). Valjean is pursued for years by a police inspector, Javert (Norm Lewis). Against the backdrop of student rebellions in Paris, a student named Marius (Nick Jonas) and the grown-up Cosette (Katie Hall) fall in love. The songs are also very memorable, incl. Who Am I? and Bring Him Home (sung by Valjean), I Dreamed a Dream (sung by Fantine), and On My Own (sung by Eponine). In a time when there are protests in cities (around the world) calling for racial equality and justice reform, this story still resonates.

Fans of the musical will notice that Salonga previously played Eponine in Great Performances: Les Misérables in Concert (1995)- the musical’s 10th anniversary. The petite (yet powerful) singer is the first full-blooded Filipina to have won the Olivier (1990), the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World Awards (1991) for Best Actress in a Musical for Miss Saigon. In recent years, she was a guest star on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a comedy w/ musical numbers. Most famously, Salonga was the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in the Disney animated movie Aladdin (1992). Not only is she an amazing singer, she also acts out every moment of her role here!

Samantha Barks (Eponine) played the same role in the 2012 film version. Jenny Galloway previously played Madame Thenardier (a crowd favorite) in 1995 and repeated her role in this production. Ramin Karimloo (Enjolras) went on to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert a year later opposite Hadley Fraser (Grantaire) as Raoul. Karimloo (who fled Iran w/ his parents when the shah was overthrown in the early ’80s) made his Broadway debut as Valjean in the 2014 revival and earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Lewis is perhaps best known as Edison, a senator and one of the ex-boyfriend’s of Olivia Pope on the ABC TV series- Scandal. He became the first Black actor to play the phantom in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Unlike most of the other phantoms, he has a baritone voice (which is rich and very impressive).

At the end of the concert, we see the original 1985 cast, the international tour cast, and the current cast. We hear Colm Wilkinson (considered the best singer to portray Valjean), John Owen-Jones, Simon Bowman, and Boe sing Bring Him Home. There is an appearance by Michael Ball (the original Marius in the London production; a big star in the UK), composers, lyricist, and producer (Cameron Mackintosh). You can rent this show on YouTube; it’s a must-see for fans of the theater (esp. since we’re stuck at home)!

The casting of Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, is little more than a casting publicity stunt, and one which almost backfires catastrophically. Quite simply, Jonas is leagues out of his depth, and his voice has not the power nor range to do justice to the role…

So many excellent singers have brought such depth and strength to the character of Jean Valjean and Alfie Boe does an admirable job. His beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home” really proves he has the chops to handle this role.

Norm Lewis, whose subtle facial expressions and genuine passion commanded the stage/screen, sang Javert with such power and depth that I actually, for the first time, empathized with his character.

No other musical has the power to raise hairs and bring goosebumps throughout, and at the same time bring entire audiences to tears…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Mangal Pandey: The Rising” (2005) starring Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Rani Mukherji, & Ameesha Patel

Aamir Khan plays Mangal Pandey passionately with a complete conviction. All the scenes between Aamir and Toby are a delight to watch. Toby doesn’t fail to impress with his acting or his Hindi-speaking lines.

Stephens’ brief speeches about the ruthlessness of a private corporation pillaging a country seem all too relevant to our own time… The film is wildly entertaining, filled with the color and beauty of Bollywood- superb cinematography, epic sets and crowd scenes, music-and-dance numbers that pop out of nowhere, and a love story…

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon.com

This is an epic set against the backdrop of what the British called the Sepoy Mutiny; for the Indians, it was the First War of Independence. It took two years to complete this film b/c of the research that went into its production. “Company Raj” (the British East India Company) had been plundering the country, treating the locals unjustly, and causing widespread resentment. During battle in one of the Afghan wars in the mid-1800s, Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan), an Indian sepoy, saves the life of his commanding officer, Capt. William Gordon (Toby Stephens- son of Dame Maggie Smith). He is indebted, even giving Mangal his pistol. The first act is focused on the friendship; historians have pointed out that this was unlikely. A few years later, the Company introduces the Enfield rifle, which comes w/ a new cartridge rumored to be coated w/ grease from cow and pig fat. This cartridge has to be bitten before it is loaded, which ignites resentment and anger among the sepoys; the cow is sacred to Hindus and the pig is forbidden for Muslims.

The film was offered to Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, but he declined (thank goodness). Director Ketan Mehta first thought of making this film in 1988 w/ Amitabh Bachchan. Hugh Jackman turned down the role of Gordon; this required Stephens to speak w/ a Scottish accent and also in Hindi. A very young Kiera Knightley was considered for the role of Emily Kent, who is new to India and develops a crush on Gordon. After Aishwarya Rai turned down the part of Jwala (due to contract issues), Rani Mukerji was given the script to consider taking the part. Mukherji, however, liked the character of Heera and asked if she could play her instead. Khan requested to cast Ameesha Patel as the young widow, Jwala, after he saw her on a BBC game show. Patel wears no make-up; this was Khan’s suggestion.

We only sell our bodies; you sell your souls. -Heera explains to Mangal re: the difference between her girls and the sepoys

The BJP wanted to ban the film, as it showed Pandey visiting a prostitute (though their scenes are platonic in the movie). As Lol Bibi (veteran actress Kiron Kher) points out, her house is only for white men (mainly the British officers). Though this is not a “typical” Bollywood film, it contains songs and dances. One number by Heera and other nautch (dancing) girls, Main Vari Vari, created controversy due to Mukherji’s outfit (where her cleavage was covered by transparent fabric). This song serves a dual purposes- to entice the British officers and to show how conflicted Mangal feels re: trusting Gordon (and biting the new bullet). A.R. Rahman was the music director on this movie; the music flows w/ the story. My favorite song is below- Rasiya.

In your Ramayana there was one villain “Ravana” who had ten heads, company has a hundred heads and they’re all joined by the glue of greed. -Gordon replies when Mangal asks re: the Company

I think this movie is a must-see, though it is uneven (particularly when it comes to editing). The narration (in Hindi) done by veteran actor Om Puri is repetitive; I think it was used to appeal to Hindi speakers who may not be fluent in English. There is a mix of English and Hindi spoken in this film, which I’m sure was accurate for the period. The bromance is much more stronger than both the romances. The relationship between Mangal and Heera was underdeveloped, but I could see the chemistry between the actors. I liked the wrestling scene and hand-to-hand combat between Mangal and Gordon. The sepoys and villagers confronting the British one night w/ their torches stood out to me. However, the scene where Gordon stops the sati (bride burning) looks disorganized. Mangal Pandey: The Rising was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The screenwriter is British of Parsi heritage- Farrukh Dandy- associated w/ black (as in minority in UK) and left-wing intellectuals and activists.

You have tasted a black man’s loyalty – now taste his fury! -Mangal declares to Gordon

On second viewing, I noticed how colonialism was compared to slavery (which we may associate w/ the American South and West Indies). Hewson beats a waiter and insults him w/ “kalla kutta” (“black dog”). One of the villagers near the cantonment, Kamla, works as a wet nurse for one of the British officer’s wives. When she gets home, there is no milk left for her baby. Perhaps the most direct correlation to slavery is made in the market scene; Emily is appalled to see an auction of men and women (incl. Heera). It turns out that the Company buys girls, too!

“Water” (2005) starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, & John Abraham

[1] The film is lovely in the way Satyajit Ray’s films are lovely and the best elements of Water involve the young girl and the experiences seen through her eyes. – Rogert Ebert (The Chicago Sun-Times)

[2] Not a dry eye in the house by the time the film ends! Unforgettable and grand in my view; a fabulous achievement for all involved!

[3] The beauty of this movie is the incredible acting. The performances are so touching and so eloquent that you are drawn into the story and the feelings of the women.

-Comments from viewers on Amazon

[1] Despite the bleak conditions portrayed in the movie, there are moments of wonder and comedy and great love. 

[2] The script articulates the tragedy and hypocrisy these women must bare, but it also illustrates the quiet revolution we must all experience in order to grow, in order to change. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Water (shot in both Hindi and English) was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 79th Annual Academy Awards. The Vancouver Film Critics Circle named Deepa Mehta (an immigrant from India) the Best Canadian Director of 2006. Many viewers have praised the look of the film. The natural beauty of the setting is captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, a Brit who won an Oscar for his work on Hell or High Water; he worked with w/ Mehta on her other trilogy films: Fire and Earth. The music (which adds to the story) was composed by A.R. Rahman; the lyrics were written by Sukhwinder Singh.

I would prefer to be known as a storyteller. I don’t set out to provoke reactions. I don’t even feel vindicated, but the irony does not escape me. It is like my father used to say: the two things you could never predict were the day of your death and the success of a movie. -Deepa Mehta (on Water‘s success)

Filming began on Water in 2000 with Akshay Kumar and two actresses who worked w/ Mehta before- Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. This film was stalled due to protests in India; sets were vandalized (in organized attacks from Hindu nationalists) and Mehta’s life and those of the actors was threatened. Production was restarted in 2004 in Sri Lanka w/ model-turned-actor John Abraham (before he hit it big in Bollywood), Seema Biswas (an indie/theater actress), and Canadian actress Lisa Ray (who was in Bollywood/Hollywood– also directed by Mehta). Ray studied to improve her Hindi, as it is not her first language; her mother is Anglo-Canadian and her father is an Indian immigrant to Canada.

The unknown girl who plays Chuyia (Sarala Karlyawasam) didn’t speak Hindi; she is Sri Lankan and never acted before this film! She does a great job, as everything comes across as natural and believable. Chuyia (only 9 y.o.) is a catalyst for change and the viewer’s entry into this ashram of widows; she doesn’t know what to expect either. There is a hierarchy among the women who live humble lives of poverty. Chuyia finds a mother-figure in the spiritual Shakuntala (Biswas); she tries to help the child adjust to this bleak life. Chuyia forms a friendship w/ the beautiful young widow, Kalyani (Ray). By chance, Kalyani meets a handsome young man, Narayan (Abraham), who is another change-agent. Chuiyia upsets the order of things w/ her spirited personality; Narayan brings in revolutionary ideas from Gandhi (incl. that widows should be allowed to remarry).