Wednesday, July 8, 2015


While one of my favorite movies of the past year, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, hits Redbox this week I thought it was more important to cover a different movie. Know now that I highly recommend that film (and will write about it on the blog) but that I felt the more important release this week is WOMAN IN GOLD. It may not have set box office records but it is a movie that everyone, especially younger people, should make a point of watching.

Helen Mirren stars in this true story as Maria Altmann, an American citizen who immigrated to the United States when she left Austria during World War II. As the film opens it’s the 1990s and Maria is in the midst of burying her sister who has just passed away. Afterwards she tries to hire Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the son of a close friend, to represent her in attempting to retrieve several paintings by the famous artist Klimt that were taken from her family by the Nazis.

At this time talks were under way to return various pieces to Austrian citizens who found themselves in this situation. But Maria’s case is different on several levels. The first is that the main picture she’s trying to retrieve is a portrait of her aunt which the Austrians now call “Woman in Gold”. Hailed as representative of their culture they aren’t inclined to allow it to go back to her. But she struggles to get it back with Randol’s help. On another level Maria has no concern about the Austrian’s feelings on the matter, still carrying the pain that came from the treatment she, her family and friends all received at the hands of fellow Austrians who easily blended in with the Nazis when they entered the country.

But the story doesn’t just revolve around Maria. Randol was an attorney who failed on his own who has just taken a position with a major law firm. With a wife and child and a second child on the way, he cannot afford to lose his job. While he takes the case and encourages the firm to handle it, when he gets to Austria and connects with his heritage that was scarred by the occupation something stirs inside of him. In the end he takes the case on his own when the firm drops it and him as well.

It would be easy to think that this will be a boring film, a back and forth courtroom drama that offers little more. If you think that think again. The film moves easily back and forth between the present and the past, showing the turmoil that Maria and her family went through both during the occupation and in her escape from Austria to America. While no visible scars or beatings are seen, the psychological damage is painfully obvious.

The reaction of the Austrian government to Maria’s pleas is also quite astounding. Rather than reach an agreement with her to keep the painting on display they continue to force the issue. Using legal maneuvering they set it up so that she’ll need millions just to fight in an Austrian court. But a legal loophole here in the states allows her to sue there, eventually appearing before the Supreme Court.

The movie is a great drama with some amazing performances. Mirren, as always, does a wonderful job. But for me the deeper performance came from Reynolds. As I watched I began to wonder if he couldn’t be considered the Jimmy Stewart of this generation. Thinking back to previous roles and then watching him here it was the image that came to mind more often than not as I watched the movie. The two of them combine to form a combative chemistry that feels as real as it most probably was.

So why is it so important that people see this movie? In the film Maria makes a comment to Randol about how young people have no concept of what happened in the past. While the movie takes place in the 90s I think that’s an idea that has deep roots in the present as well. To try and talk to young people today about the Holocaust is to sit and watch eyes roll in boredom. In not knowing the past they are susceptible for it to repeat itself. The furthest back they go these days is the 60s with very few references to either World War or even the Korean War. How they came about, what atrocities happened during these wars and the sacrifices that were made are things that every young person should be aware of.

In watching this movie I found it difficult not to shed a tear or two while considering all that happened to so many during this war. I found it hard to believe that people could treat one another the way that they did. And yet it happened. My generation may be the last to have been able to hear of these things straight from the mouths of those who lived it. I hope that the current and future generations don’t ignore it and can learn from it, perhaps just by spending a little time watching movies like this one.
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This film takes the tale of the 47 Ronin, alters the location and time it takes place and changes a few more details before the end of the film. The tale of a group of dedicated warriors whose master is killed and who wait for revenge has been used more than once and in some cases more effectively. But this version has its ups and downs, the end result of which is a movie that’s enjoyable for one viewing but perhaps not repeat playings.

In a time unspecified (I would assume the future after war has altered the world since the members of the various members of the group and of the ruling class come from different races and ages), the Emperor rules with the assistance of Gezza Mott (Aksel Hennie), a tyrannical sort who has resorted to not only raising taxes on the people but a more or less blackmail of all feudal lords as well. This does not set well with Bartok (Morgan Freeman), a lord who refuses to pay. In so doing his life is forfeit and his execution at the hands of his lead warrior Raiden (Clive Owen) is called for.

Once his lord has been killed the lands of Bartok are divided among the remaining lords and his family scattered. His warriors are cast aside as leaderless men, tossed aside to find menial positions from which to make a living. Having been cast as warrior elite whose main purpose was to stand in honor for their lord and master, they now have nothing left to be loyal too. Raiden falls the furthest from the group, returning to the drunken life he once led before he became a knight, saved by Bartok oh so long ago.

Gezza Mott remains doubtful and has his own right hand man keep an eye on Raiden. Fearing that attempts will be made on his life with revenge as their intent, he tries to pressure Raiden into acting. But Raiden has fallen deeper than expected, going so far as to sell his sword for the price of a drink. The emperor’s high council member passes and he elevates Mott to this position. Before doing so he tells Mott to discontinue his spying on Raiden. Mott does so and from there things begin to change.

If you know the story of the 47 Ronin then you know what is coming. If not don’t let me ruin it for you. Suffice to say that this telling of the famous story does a decent job once things begin moving forward. But it is in getting to that point that the movie is ruined to an extent. It takes nearly 2/3 of the film, moving at an incredibly slow pace, to get to the best parts. What you would think is an action film has less action than one would expect. A nice sequence at the film’s opening and then in the last 20-30 minutes or so help but not enough.

The acting is a bit higher than most films of this sort with Owens doing a great job in a role he’s become used to over the years having already starred as King Arthur at one time. Freeman is solid in his performance but it is far too short when you consider his name is above the title here. The rest of the cast hold their own as well making them a formidable force not just as the knights but as performers as well.

The movie is better than one would expect in some ways, worse in others and in the end a movie that is worth watching at least once. Those who expect to watch it over and over again are either Owens fans, sword play fans or those whose expectations are not of the highest order. Still, it entertains and is worth a night’s rental.

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It’s quite a treat these days to see movies that lined the shelves of video stores during their heyday finding their way to blu-ray finally. For the most part these movies aren’t classics that will be hailed at some future date in the Library of Congress archives but there were indeed part of the mainstay of those classic mom and pop stores of the past. Shelves then were not just filled with only major motion pictures releases but tons of movies that went direct to video but were quality made product anyway.

Such was the case with several films starring former football pro turned actor Brian Bosworth. His first foray into the silver screen came with this movie, STONE COLD, where he plays a Dirty Harry style undercover cop with the most amazing mullet ever seen on film. Bosworth stars as Joe Huff, a take no prisoners kind of cop on temporary leave of absence for insubordination. When the film opens he’s seen shopping in a grocery store in the midst of a robbery/hostage situation. Ala every tough cop at the time he takes out the bad guys with ease only to be reprimanded because he’s on leave.

When all is said and done Huff is approached by the FBI to go undercover for them on an important mission. A biker gang called the Brotherhood has been increasing their criminal activities to the point where they’ve recently killed a judge who dared to pass sentence on one of their own in a murder case. Having stepped over the line the powers that be want them taken out at all costs. This is where Huff comes in. Riding his own bike, sporting a long black leather coat and endearing himself to the gang by helping in the midst of a fight that breaks out in one of their bars/strip joints, he gets an invitation to one of their outings.

While a weak member of the gang he helped thinks he’d make a great prospect, sergeant at arms Ice (William Forsythe) doesn’t trust him. As Joe “Stone”, Huff makes an impression at the outing by beating Ice in a race and by beating up their biggest tough guy in a hand to hand fight. The group’s leader Chains (Lance Henriksen) thinks he’d be an asset as well much to the displeasure of Ice. He gives Stone/Huff a chance to prove himself while at the same time running a background check on him with his own undercover person in law enforcement.

Stone/Huff helps when needed and finds himself in the middle of a confrontation between the Brotherhood and the local mob. In the middle of this confrontation he comes to the aid of Chains “old lady” Nancy (Arabella Holzbog) and the two begin to form an attraction to one another. In her case he’s a possible way out of the gang, in his a possible weak link in the outfit who he might be able to convince to provide testimony to put them all away.

As the movie progresses the Brotherhood has set their sights on a state politician running for governor on a law and order platform. Promising to rid the state of this illegal biker gang he finds himself the target of their wrath. Just what they plan for him isn’t revealed until the last third of the film. Will Stone/Huff be able to keep his cover long enough to stop this deal from happening? Will Nancy turn states evidence? And will a final confrontation between Stone/Huff and Chains eventually take place?

The movie offers a great combination of action, biker and undercover cop genres. It also presents Bosworth as a decent actor whose onscreen persona fit those direct to video movies, never quite being good enough to make it to major releases but solid enough to make a living as an action star in his own right. As bad guys Forsythe and Henriksen both stand out here showing why their careers have lasted as long as they have. Both continue to make movies and have added some fantastic characters to their list of achievements over the years.

Well made, well shot and filled with plenty of action, this is the type of movie that filled those long forgotten video store shelves that actually rented well when there. It was a time when viewers weren’t sold only on the hottest Hollywood release but actually gave movies like this a chance when checking out the shelves. Many of those movies became cult classics in their own right and this was one of those. Olive Films has done a service to those who remember walking down those narrows sets of shelves that held hidden treasure by releasing movies like this on blu-ray. A fun time for those who loved these types of movies and one to add to the collection for those who miss those days.

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