Category: movie classics

Really? A clever, witty, FUN movie about the US Supreme Court?

Click on the image to buy (multi-region/US version only)

While some hold the view that Hollywood is mostly incapable of producing worthwhile, meaningful films on important matters, First Monday in October  is one of those glorious exceptions that would engage even the most cynical critics of Hollywood.  In other words and in this instance: Yes, this really is a clever, witty, fun movie on the  US Supreme Court.

Made in 1981, this wonderful film addresses serious issues in a way that is thoroughly engaging. The script and the acting are sharp, focused and entertaining and the plot is, interestingly, actually subversive of the view held in the 1980s by male-dominated politics – well nothing’s really changed on that score – ahem – that a woman shouldn’t hold a place on the US Supreme Court of Justice:  This fab film sets the record straight with a firm ruling, and makes clear that such a notion is absurd as it is sexist.

Not only is this a deeply intelligent, humane, funny, well-thought out movie – it is also, continuously, wonderfully engaging – most especially from the star performances of Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh – besides how it addresses the issues of politics, gender and power.

The great dialogue races along, all the while covering a range of subjects as they’re presented in legal form before the Court, in turn thereby addressing genuinely important matters, US capitalism and free speech among them.

First Monday in October is a joy from beginning to end (and, as with all great Hollywood movies, all supporting roles are entertaining and well-cast), besides being a marvellous way of learning about the machinations of the Supreme Court, constitutional politics and the  ‘battle between the sexes’.  The one disappointing note is that it’s only available to buy in the NTSC/US/multi-region DVD version – a great shame and it doesn’t seem to be online (please do let me know if you find a version!).

La Vie En Rose – A stunning movie of Edith Piaf’s life

Click on the image to buy the Region 2 DVD with free worldwide delivery. To buy Region 1, click the link at the end of this review's first paragraph

Unsurprisingly, yet entirely deserved, the actress Marion Cotillard, won the Oscar for Best Actress for her truly bravura performance, capturing Edith Piaf’s sad, tortuous, pained, joyous, complex life (the other Oscar won was for Best Make Up – I presume for when the creative talent had to age her dramatically, plus the colour of her skin from liver deterioration).  A powerful film (2007) about one of the most important 20th century singers, it captures your heart, not only by the quality of the performances all-round of a troubled artist and her peers, but also by the quality of the script by Olivier Dahan (also the director), and Isabelle Sobelman. (Click here to buy the Region 1 DVD.)

It’s a no-holds-barred interpretation of Piaf’s life; it includes Piaf’s most important performances, and makes clear from the outset how her own unique talents led her from the gutters/street life of Paris — typically the way she earned enough just to keep her friend and her going in food, wine and rent – to become the most celebrated singer of France.  Her first success due to Louis Leplee, a Parisian club-owner, played by Gerard Depardieu, fortunately not to be seen peeing anywhere or then later making a pathetic, self-excusing joke of it and himself (oops, sorry,went wobbling off-track there, but my eldest sister said if she was there when he did that, she would have knocked him out. Erm, you don’t want to mess with my sister — I certainly don’t; bless you, Cat, if you’re reading this — eek!), whose instinctive sense for real talent invites her to audition when he finds her singing on a street corner.  Of course, an honest film about Piaf must include her painful self-destruction, and this the film doesn’t shirk from nor does it exploit it salaciously/tabloid-style; the portrayal of Piaf apparently lacking any real core self-worth (contrary to appearances, her fame and some of her grandiose Diva-like gestures), is painful to witness.

However, where she seemed consistently to be resilient, defiant, strong and always true to herself was on stage, singing; in that specific and hugely important regard, it is fair to regard her as a feminist icon; through everything she experienced, she never let go of her voice, its passion and her commitment to singing despite how she felt or what else was going on in her life.  That in itself is remarkable and worthy of recognition as a powerful form of creative and determined self-recognition of value. Unfortunately, as with many truly talented individuals, as with anyone of us, frankly, one positive aspect of one’s life does not necessarily colour those other parts of ourselves that may be negative. After all, who among us can claim to be fully integrated and cohesive selves.  Yet this characteristic failure (a decidedly human one) should not deter us from celebrating Piaf’s incredible attributes as a true artist with a genuinely unique voice (and how refreshing to use the much overused/abused noun/adjective ‘unique’ and know its application here is sincere; unlike endless products and companies and rubbish modern-day ‘celebrities’ who have nothing in common apart from not being unique at all but the opposite).

Beautifully filmed, poignant,  touching with astonishing ‘renditions’ of Piaf’s singing, it is a modern classic about an incredible, enigmatic, troubled artist. It’s difficult to imagine a better film being made about Piaf’s life or a finer performance.  Mind you, I thought that when I first saw Capote (2005), with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s amazing interpretation, only to be then bowled over by Toby Jones’ version in Infamous (2006), the latter film also including a broodingly delicious, intelligently menacing, conflicted Daniel Craig in what I regard as his best performance to date.

Memoirs of a Geisha – What makes it such a great movie?

The only thing that’s incomprehensible about Memoirs of a Geisha, the movie, is that it only won three Academy Oscars (for Art Direction, Costume Design and Cinematography). Anyone who watches this wonderful movie, will also, I’m sure, award it Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (for Ziyi Zhang, who plays the Geisha at the heart of the film, and Michelle Yeoh, respectively; not only are they truly beautiful, but they are terrific actors), besides the fab performances of Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho), and the terrific, touching and – yes! – sentimental– see next paragraph! – musical score by John Williams.

If you have a Region 2/multi-region DVD player, click this image to link you to a Limited Edition special offer for a box set containing both the DVD (Region 2 only) and Golden’s novel. (With apologies to Region 1 users.)

The film is gorgeously sentimental.  Not, I hasten to add blech-icky-saccharine-swallow-a-cup-of-cold-sick-yuckiness-type sentimental. Yes, I confess I’m getting defensive here, because I think there’s a vogue for disdain and ridicule about the term and I believe this misconstrues its meaning.  The majority informal view, it seems, is that it means a somehow frivolous, fake and over the top expression of emotions, thereby demonstrating a shallowness and hypocrisy of personality; that there’s an absence of any real feeling or depth of such; that it comprises an excess of emotions, all of which are fundamentally piffle and surface stuff only (akin to the emotional verbal diarrhoea and personality of the monstrous Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice). But I prefer to side with the definition given by a hugely popular online dictionary – 50 million unique monthly users worldwide, besides other impressive stats about the use of their site –  as being expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia.  So, while there is vulnerability in such feelings, there is clearly no justification for the term and experience itself to merit ridicule. Instead, it is a genuine expression of powerful, deep feelings, as defined. Well, that’s what you experience with this film. Fair enough? Hope so!

Considering the power of the film to make you suspend your disbelief – a rare ability nowadays of many Hollywood films – so that you believe you actually are witnessing the real world of Geishas from the period of the 30s-40s – it is all the more remarkable that none of the writers/producers/director is in any way Japanese: they’re all American.  And I don’t mean this to sound patronising about the abilities of Americans to understand other cultures – eek – I appreciate some of the most famous anthropologists to date have been American. Anyway, as you’ll read in a few seconds below, two of the most important people to impact positively upon the film’s quality are also American (well, three in fact, when you take into count John Williams’ sumptuous music).  Moving on from Williams, since he’s now been cited, how then did the movie manage to do this? First, because it’s based on the wonderful, compelling novel by Arthur Golden, of the same title and, just as importantly, if not more so, is the influence that Liza Dalby, cultural consultant to Memoirs, academic and memoirist, had on the film.

Back in 1975, Dalby was the first female outsider – i.e., non-Japanese woman – in fact – yes! – she’s an American – ever to gain training as a Geisha. (The only other outsider accepted, it seems, was Fiona Graham, an English woman, who entered the world of the Geisha in 2008 – and you’ll see from that link that she was misrepresented as being the first outsider to do so in 400 years of Japanese  history;  in 2011 she was compelled to leave that world and role, apparently, due to ‘clashes with fellow members’.) Not only this, but Dalby went to Japan in 1975 because of her Degree studies in anthropology and because she wanted to research the world of the Geishas.  Not only did she succeed in being accepted into their world to do her research, she was also trained as and experienced the life of a Geisha, and even had a successful career as one. And, of course, all of that led to her highly successful memoir.

So because of her ability, her lived experience in that unique and closed world, and the huge benefit gained from her anthropological perspective, she was brilliant at giving sound advice, training and mentoring to the cast – most especially – and crew about all the elements that go into making a successful Geisha.  From manners, personality, dance, charm, singing, voice, body language and movement, conversation, the culture and atmosphere of entertainment, the patterns of life in an okiya, Geisha dress, make-up, etc., Dalby seems to know it all inside-out and back-to-front. As a result, she was really able to empower the cast and crew to learn about and appreciate the detail and depth of thought and action that goes into that world – if you watch the feature documentaries included with the DVD, you will see the justification of this claim – and thereby the movie is even more convincing than it may otherwise have been without her co-operation (because the world of the Geisha is still effectively closed to outsiders, despite some memoirs).  Thanks to Dalby’s mentoring, she ensures added depth and conviction to the acting, sets, cinematography and music.

The plot

The film focuses on the life of Chiyo, who we see at the start as a girl (nine years old), living with her sister, Satsu, their mother (who is dying from ill-health) and father, in an isolated Japanese village.  The father sells the two girls because he is too poor and desperate to take care of them.  Taking a long train journey, they arrive in Kyoto city and are then sold into two separate Geisha boarding houses in Gion, a renowned Geisha district. Over the course of the movie, we witness her many trials as Chiyo grows up, from being bullied and treated as a workhorse by Hatsumomo, a Geisha of the okiya, to facing the challenges of learning and mastering the ways of the Geisha in a ridiculously short space of time – thanks to being trained by Mameha, a famous Geisha, until Chiyo becomes the most famous of them all in Kyoto.

When Chiyo’s world changes because of the onslaught of WW2, we continue to follow her difficult journey until, at last, years later, she finds true love with a Japanese business man – the very same one whom she first met as a child living in Gion, when at that encounter she felt especially forsaken, sad, and hopeless for her future, and then for a time as a Geisha in training with Mameha, who introduces her to him and his co-business partner – and who was also the only one at that time to treat her with loving kindness.

So is it worth watching? Hello?! (ahem)

The acting, photography, pacing, script – all, and more – make this a sumptuous film to absorb, fall in love with, and absolutely sigh with happiness by the end. It is a touching, passionate (in every sense), romantic, wonderful love story, and for me it inspired the same intense emotions I experienced from reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics), and her sister, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (Wordsworth Classics). The stunning visual beauty of kimonos of the Geishas and their remarkable talents and traditions are all amazing and fascinating to behold. In all ways it is a memorable film and is one of those rarities that, on its own – filmic – terms, not only complements and does justice to the original novel, but also transcends it through its impact on one’s other senses. So is this truly glorious, romantic, inspirational film, filled with tension, heartache, and – ultimately – love requited and achieved – worth watching? Ahem! And it’s much more, besides: it deserves the ultimate accolade of cinema: it’s a movie classic.

Want to learn/read more about Geishas, Japanese culture and society?

For those of you who, like me, absolutely love, love love Japanese culture and would like to learn more about their society, including the world of the Geishas, I would recommend the following excellent true memoirs and various cultural studies – books on art, literature, society and aesthetics. They’re all thoroughly enjoyable and full of insight; of course, this is a purely personal set of favourites, so I would welcome any feedback/recommendations from you about great books you’ve read that I’ve not included, if you can find a mo?). FYI, all links for the books are to Book Depository, the online book retailer, as it ships free worldwide and has an outstanding customer service (besides which, I can avoid the need otherwise to cite separate US/UK editions). As to editions listed, I have referred to those I believe are lowest in price while also retaining a durable quality. I hope this sounds fair.

Geisha Memoirs

Cultural Studies


  • Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology by Donald Keene (note: this was last published in 1994, so there are no authors published after that year. Importantly, however, in his lifetime, Professor Keene was one of the foremost authorities on Japanese literature and he is an excellent guide, with great taste and understanding
  • Two Japanese novelists to cite in particular, out of the thousands (sorry: simple explanation: it’s because they’re my two absolute favourites: they’re both extraordinary and both have been incredibly influential on Japanese literature at different periods, past and present):




  • In Praise of Shadows by Juni’chiro Tanizaki (an excellent, reflective essay by one of Japan’s most famous novelists)

Requiem for a Dream – Aronofsky’s brilliant drug addiction movie

Click on the image to buy the Region 2 DVD with free worldwide delivery

This powerful movie about drug addiction and materialist society is co-written by Hubert Selby, Jr. – and based on his own brilliant, harrowing novel of the same name – and director Darren Aronofsky.  Aronofksy is known for a number of distinctive films, including most recently The Black Swan, besides Pi, his first, best and most controversial film, besides this one here; The Wrestler (which gave Mickey Rourke his come back role and opened the doors for him to Hollywood once again, albeit in a limited fashion compared with his earlier success and fame); and, of course, the highly wackidoodle The Fountain).  Requiem for a Dream, both the film and the original novel are overwhelming, incredible experiences: nightmarish, and provocative, and always convincing about the world of drug-addiction (both illegal and legal). (You can buy the book with free worldwide delivery here and the Region 1 DVD with same delivery here. For a Region 2 DVD, just click on the image to your left. )

What makes this especially disturbing and powerful – though never exploitative or morally judging, like some movies about drug addiction – are the brilliant montage sequences that inter-play between the drama (trauma) of Burstyn’s story and three other lives. These are her son, played by the actor Jared Leto; his co-accomplice drug-dealing and drug-taking friend, played very well by the under-rated Marlon Wayans and mostly known for his silly Hollywood comedies; and a moving performance by Jennifer Connelly, drug-addicted, estranged from her rich parents, girlfriend to Leto’s character, and who gives in to sexual exploitation in exchange for the drugs she so desperately needs. Recommended without reservation; albeit with a caveat…It’s important to note that if you feel you could not cope with the ugly, underbelly reality of drug-addiction, then I’d stay well-clear of the film.

However, should you wish to – and I hope you do – there are three strong justifications reasons to watch it/buy it/rent it and know that it is truly one of the most stand-out films of recent years:

1. It has the most amazing, deservedly Oscar-winning performance for Best Actress, as performed by Ellen Burstyn and is truly one of the best performances ever in cinema, by an actor or actress. She is truly phenomenal as she portrays her character’s devastating downward psychological spiral as a result of doctor-prescribed diet pills. The only disgusting, shameful thing about the Oscars in this regard, is that in 2001, when Burstyn was up for nomination, bizarrely, incomprehensibly, Julia Roberts won for her pathetically easy role as a loud-foul-mouthed lawyer’s assistant in Erin Brockovich (understandably, some critics and bloggers referred to the character as Erin Brockobitch – perhaps a bit strong and it sounds cruel, but I think the term reflects the strength of feeling if injustice in awarding the Oscar to Roberts and not to Burstyn).

2. The ensemble cast works incredibly well together, from Jared Leto, to Marlon Wayans (who should have gone on to do to bigger and better, more demanding roles – he clearly has the talent), Jennifer Connelly (also her best role to date), besides all the supporting cast.

3. The original musical score (by Clint Mansell), cinematography (Matthew Libatique) and editing (Jay Rabinowitz) are truly outstanding. Clearly a tremendous amount of artistic dedication from all involved in the film and energy went into the structuring and filming, to make this the tour de force it undoubtedly is.