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North by Northwest (1959)
Top-notch suspense /adventure film still looks great after 40 years!
For Christmas this year, I received my first to-own DVD: Hitchcock's classic, NORTH BY NORTHWEST. After over 40 years, this rip-racing adventure-thriller still packs a punch and looks great on widescreen. This movie came along during a renaissance period for the Old Master, between masterpieces like VERTIGO and PSYCHO, but this excursion into the world of suspense is so different from anything else Hitchcock had created up to that point. Never did he challenge our endurance to keep still in our seats for such a long period of time, and yet the film's 135 minutes go by so fast it could only be explained by movie magic itself.
Cary Grant is one of those actors that a filmgoer either falls in love with or deeply envies. His debonair manner is displayed to the full in this film, even though the peril that his character goes through would cause any normal dude to break into a maddening sweat. The dialogue Roger Thornhill delivers alongside Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in this film is sometimes too hilarious to be true, but wouldn't any woman fall for it? (I'm merely guessing here) Ernest Lehman's screenplay is so lighthearted and yet very ominous. With all the traps and pitfalls Grant goes through in this film, you would have to find comedy in it. Grant does and to great appeal. I absolutely love the sequence at the auction when Roger tries to get himself arrested by yelling out flaky bids and accusing the auctioneer of selling junk worth no more than $8. I also admire the scenes with Saint on the train to Chicago; I was tempted to jot down some of his pick-up lines, but then I realized it's just a movie (or is it?)
Hitchcock was famous throughout his career of setting up death-defying sequences with major landmarks as backdrops. Here, Mount Rushmore will never be looked at the same again afterwards. We may never enter the United Nations again without peering behind our backs for a notorious knife-thrower. And, I dare say, I will never walk alongside a highway where a cropduster could swoop at any minute. I love the line during the Rushmore incident when Grant says his two ex-wives left him because he lived too dull a life. Go figure!
It has been said that Hitchcock's many films each contain a personal side of the director inside them. The archetypes of the Master of Suspense are here amid the chasing and running across the U.S. The mysterious blonde, played to a tee by Eva Marie Saint, is a common fixture of many Hitchcock jaunts. Saint joins Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren in this feature. The protagonist is again awkward when faced with the opposite sex, but unusually casual when wrapped up in danger. The hero has an attachment to his mother, continually under his nurturing wing. And of course, the macguffin has fun with us again (government secrets my foot!)
Whenever I see action-packed epics today like "The Fugitive" or the James Bond series, they all seem to quiver in comparison to this film. It amazes me that Hitchcock is able to hold the audience in the palm of his hand throughout the whole length of the journey. We become Grant as he runs away from the police and the secret agents who have chosen him as their dupe. But throughout the squabble, we sense that Grant is getting off on the whole jaunt, just as we want the chase to continue, not looking at our watches for a minute. However, it's fascinating to note that Roger Thornhill is not a born adventurer, nor is he an archeologist with a flair for escaping impossible situations. We are experiencing the Cary Grant in all of us, running away from an enemy we do not know they are or what they want. Is this symbolism of some kind? I say who cares; just watch the film and have fun!
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Surprisingly intense and enthralling thriller; RIPLEY is satisfying!
I sincerely hesitated before renting THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY this past weekend. I had heard rumors from others who were dissatisfied with this film, unhappy with their reaction to Anthony Minghella's follow-up to his majorly successful "The English Patient." Just the fact that Minghella directed it made me quiver. "English Patient" has to be one of my most hated films for which much praise was received. However, something compelled me to pick it up. Maybe Minghella deserved another chance in my books. This time, he was using marquee actors of a more popular nature, rather than artsy-type thespians like Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche. The moment I popped the DVD in and viewed this picture, I was hooked and enthralled. "The Talented Mr. Riply" uses just the right amount of artistry and goes thick on plot and method acting to create a thriller which the great Hitchcock would have been proud of.
I must admit the previews made me take interest in this film before I considered looking at it. The plot seemd so fascinating, and it surely is. I'll only mention the minute details of it so as not to spoil anything for those who have not seen it, and also so I don't screw up some of the descriptions. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a bland, ordinary individual who longs to become someone else other than the nobody who is himself. He gets that opportunity when a man named Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) offers him $1,000 to retrieve his son from Europe, whom he suspects is frittering his money and his life away. Ripley takes on the assignment, and surprisingly, as soon as he meets up with Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), he immediately tells him his intentions and quickly becomes his best buddy. His girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) is also very impressed with their new acquaintance. Little do they know that Tom Ripley's main "talent" is impersonating people around him, taking on their identities and making them his own. Dickie's will be his first one to capture.
I mentioned that Sir Alfred would have been pleased to see this film if he were alive today, and while I was watching "Ripley," I couldn't help but be amazed by the technical and narrative similarities to Hitch's archetypes, which today are endlessly duplicated. I found it riveting how the plot and the director focus in on the scheming of Ripley, allowing the audience to be swept up in his improvisation and daring manner of always running under the knife. I don't know if the DVD technology is a considerable enhancement here, but Minghella's direction also takes on a life of its own. The purposeful shading and camera angles take on almost a voyeuristic quality, as if we the viewer are objectively but holistically involved in Ripley's feats of derring-do. The cinematography is fancy, but not overly distracting. Its viewpoint is always set on the characters and how they relate with each other.
The performances are carefully choreographed but consistently drawn to look natural and of-the-moment. Such aspects are especially important in the case of Matt Damon, who takes the character of Tom Ripley and subtly makes him look pathetic but endlessly interesting to watch. Jude Law plays such a three-dimensional character here that his might be the most difficult one to play among the key players. Dickie Greenleaf (the real one) must be outgoing and friendly but also cold and disheartening. We may be repelled by him, but his fate never seems warranted, even during his most tragic hour. Gwyneth is beautiful as always, but also finds the right note for a woman who is unrightfully left behind and deceived by both these leading men. Cate Blanchett also has a small and thankless role as an innocent European traveller who happens upon this happy throng, totally unaware of the deception and indecency that is going on. She was probably my favorite character of them all, a symbol that Hitchcock created many years before.
When critics and film fans remarked that the end of 1999 saw some of the best films in a blue moon hit theaters, I am inclined to believe them. Along with other favorites of mine like "The Green Mile" and "American Beauty," I would vote for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" as one of the best films of the year. It is smart, visually and narratively creative, and on a whole, a truly satisfying entertainment. For thinking viewers, it is a special treat. For casual moviegoers, I believe there is still much to behold in this film, even if you are not one who is used to letting movies soak into your system. Minghella takes his time unwinding this ingenious tale, but the unfolding of the plot and the eventual pay-off is a chilling and fulfilling movie experience. Rating: Four stars
Apt Pupil (1998)
Holocaust and conventional horror do not mix!
When I was a teenager like the character Brad Renfro plays in "Apt Pupil," I had my first encounter with the Holocaust and was compelled to know more. For me, "Schindler's List" provided much of that inspiration. Today, I am still grappling with this past reality, trying to understand how our world could sink to such a despicable low. The key difference between our little friend in this film and myself is I used books and other films to answer my queries. Renfro goes for the preposterous angle: he blackmails a former Nazi war criminal living in the neighborhood to tell him stories of his horrific past. This is not what I had in mind, and it's a good thing I didn't, or else I could have been the subject of a bad film like this one.
Ian McKellen delivers a great performance as the ex-Nazi in question, known as Kurt Dussander but posing under an assumed name. McKellen really digs into the character, physically and vocally. However, his great work is marred by a terribly conventional script that begins with inspiration and turns into a depressing horror melodrama. Not meaning to spoil anything, but why would an ex-Nazi ever be intimidated by a seventeen-year old boy, let alone a homeless drunk? If you are attempting to hide out in America, why let anyone into your residence in the first place? I liked the coldness of his character, but I was also searching for more complexity and insight from him into a subject which I knew quite a bit about. This I did not receive.
To add to this sour picture, I really disliked the Renfro character. If this intelligent brat was really that smart, he would be smart enough not to cross a former Nazi for fear of being killed or alienated too much for his own good. A safer way to research the Holocaust up close would be to interview a Jewish survivor of the blitz rather than one of the perpetrators. There's an almost laughable scene where Renfro walks by an old guy in a hospital bed who evidentally recognizes McKellen as his old nemesis, who happens to be in the bed next to him. Wouldn't it have been easier for Renfro to question this old dude instead of a decrepit Nazi who just wanted to be left alone? I suppose that would be too simple.
Rating: One star and a half.
On Golden Pond (1981)
Veteran actors prove they can still hack it on Golden Pond.
Mark Rydell's On Golden Pond was a surprise hit in 1981, finishing third in box office grosses after Rocky III and E.T. Such an occurrence was unheard of in Hollywood, considering the key players in the film, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, each had not had a hit film in almost twenty years and were both hardly spring chickens in the business. Both these veteran actors proved they could still make it in Hollywood among young starlets, and triumph. Still, when you see "On Golden Pond," you sense that their teaming together for the first time in their careers is purely a special occasion, an opportunity of a lifetime that few actors in their seventies receive. They in turn have left us with a wonderful showcase of movie talent, a film of warmth, good humor, and love.
It always amazes me when I read that Henry Fonda had only received two Oscar nominations during his career, one of which he earned for this film. Like his good friend Jimmy Stewart, Fonda was rarely a boisterous actor. He had a natural ease to his acting, a gift for making audiences believe that every word he uttered was truth. Now, in his final screen performance as Norman Thayer Jr., Fonda had to reach deep into his own personal experience and his advancing years to create a character who struggles with his own mortality. Norman is a grouchy curmudgeon who has memory lapses and heart palpitations. He has a loving and cheerful wife, Ethel (Hepburn), but a difficult relationship with his only daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda). He and Ethel journey back to their cottage on the lake for what may be their last summer. Immediately, Norman comes face to face with his old age and his inability to remember what should be familiar sights. I especially like the scene where he gets lost in the woods looking for strawberries and scares himself when he is unable to find his way back. Ethel has such faith in him, sure he will "get back on that horse" and be as valiant as he once was. What more could you want from a wife?
Chelsea arrives after many years away from her parents, bringing with her a new boyfriend (Dabney Coleman) and his son, Billy (Doug McKeon). You can sense the tension between Chelsea and Norman the minute she walks in the door. This reunion is fascinating not only because we can never tell where the difficulty lies in their relationship, but also the fact that these problems also exist on and off the screen. The father-daughter relationship between Henry and Jane was also very turbulent ever since Jane began her protests in Vietnam, much to the chagrin of her father. This collaboration of the two was meant to mend fences between them. Not often do the personal lives of actors collide so eloquently in Hollywood, but here it seems just about right.
The sequence where Norman and Bill (Coleman) attempt to build a conversation is originally conceived and acted so naturally. He carefully asks Norman if it would be alright if Chelsea and he sleep together in the same room at the cottage. Of course, Norman makes this confrontation as difficult as possible, making Bill nervous and jerking him around. Ironically, Bill comes back at him, not allowing Norman to use him in petty mindgames and hoping they would become friends, which is obviously "not an easy task." This is an unsettling turn for Norman and the audience, but it is necessary for the story to progress and for Norman to respond accordingly to the other characters in the story.
Ethel and Norman volunteer to let Billy stay with them for the summer while Chelsea and Bill head off to Europe. Billy is not pleased with the arrangement at the outset, but gradually bonds with Norman through learning to fish on the pond. While Billy is not necessarily an original character, it is fascinating to see him try to understand Norman, and in turn how Norman learns to associate with the son he never had. It is a learning experience for both of them, even though they are many generations apart.
Many reviewers have remarked that ON GOLDEN POND uses a conventional story and revives it with great performances from the cast. It is interesting to note that the screenwriter, Ernest Thompson, altered his own play in order to escape a bit of the conventionality that the film medium required. The framework may seem as original as an old shoe, but the added touches in the script and its delivery give this film a certain magic that only classical Hollywood films possessed. Fonda has a great way to end a career with this role, placing himself completely within Norman's world and searching within and through the role for his own solutions to life's problems. His Oscar was given to him for more reasons than mere charity. Hepburn is delightful as Ethel, working so well with Fonda that it does not seem as if they are acting. For a couple of old Hollywood actors who never even met before this, they each prove they are true masters of their craft. Jane Fonda takes a supporting role this time, incorporating some of the same motives as her father into her part, and as a result delivers a special performance. Mark Rydell is one of those directors that often gets left off the list of the all-time greats, but proves once again here he is a masterful storyteller. In this project, he allows both the visual elements of the pond and his actors to make magic, a truly memorable combination.
On Golden Pond is not an epic, but what it accomplishes runs close to epic proportions. It is very rare that a stageplay converts so well to the screen like this one. On Golden Pond is vibrant, emotional, and so heartfelt, it is impossible not to like, unless you are a curmudgeon like Norman Thayer. It is also unique that great actors such as these will agree to try again for Hollywood glory so late in their careers. It is up to us viewers to experience this wonder before the chance is lost and these thespians finally close up the cottage and head off to their retirement.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Wonderful, joyous piece of America where dreams are possible!
I truly believe that every once in a blue moon, a film can contain a sense of wonder, magic, and the power of dreams. The title says it all. "Field of Dreams" is destined to become (if it hasn't already) an American classic, and easily one of the most engrossing films of the eighties. Throughout the decade, we have seen a crock of films that capitalized on getting as much of anything the characters could grasp (hence the "me decade"). This film, made in 1989, reaffirmed what we learned from Hollywood in the forties, that dreams can come true and people can be saved by what they choose to believe in. And to top it all off, baseball is its subject. The great American pastime takes on a mystical quality that is nothing but immortal.
Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, a corn farmer that seems to be stranded in his life, only choosing his profession because it allowed him to get away from the idealized dreams of his father that never became reality. One day, while roaming aimlessly through his cornfield, he hears a unknown voice speak to him, saying the words that have become synonomous with the film itself, "If you build it, he will come." He is compelled by the strange message, and even convinces his wife what he heard was real and definite. He believes that the simple words mean he is to build a baseball diamond in his field, and he sets out to do just that, and he indeed does one heck of a job. After at least half a year passes, following endless strains on their patience, who should show up in the field but Shoeless Joe Jackson, the famous alleged criminal from the 1919 Black Sox Scandal who was dismissed from the game of baseball forever, until now...
After all that is said and done, the film takes a back road and curves it into this storyline brilliantly. Ray receives a second message which he deciphers as getting a famous civil rights writer, Terence Mann (played wonderfully by James Earl Jones), to come visit his new ballfield. Of course it is to be expected that Mann begrudgingly resists Ray to join him, but he too becomes propelled by the power of the field's magic, and his life (like Ray's) is changed forever. Even Burt Lancaster shows up out of thin air (literally), but that's a different part of the plot altogether that I wouldn't dare reveal in fear someone reading this review has incompetently not seen this picture.
"Field of Dreams" is one of the strangest films I've seen, and possibly one of the best. When it throws its subject matter at you, you wonder how a story so preposterous can ever work. But somehow, I was deeply moved like Costner and Jones were by the miraculous incidents put in front of me. This film is not like any fantasy film I've seen, but in a way, it is like many that I've encountered. Some of my favorite movies elicited such an amazing feeling of warmth and grace in me that I was afraid to analyse it for fear that it would ruin the awesome impact I received. "Field of Dreams" is exactly like that, an odd piece of moviemaking that overwhelms you with its wonder and positive qualities that in turn leaves no doubt it is a classic, just from the way it moves you while watching it. Therefore, I'm not going to try to pick it apart and attempt to show the world my "field" of brilliance. All I will say is this is the kind of movie Hollywood should be reeling out more often, a tiny masterpiece that lets others be refreshed in their faith and believe in their crazy little fantasies. Ray Kinsella did, and now, so do I. Rating: Four stars.
The Rapture (1991)
Inspired and challenging Christian examination.
Since I have always been a Christian from childhood and agreeably conspire to my faith today, I am always curious about what causes others to "be saved" later in life. "The Rapture" tells this story with fascinating insights into the modern Christian perspective and what scares the public about its predictions. Mimi Rogers (in a heart-wrenching performance) plays Sharon, a telephone operator who leads a tedious and extremely boring life by day, but resorts to group sex and orgies to add excitement to her nightlife. She discovers Christianity through people pamphleting at her door and other employees in her office she never cared to talk to before. They use the imagery of a pearl to describe their experience of being saved, and Sharon longs to discover what it is about this religion that can bring fulfillment to her own life. David Duchovney, before his stint on "The X-Files," co-stars as Sharon's boyfriend and later husband she meets through her reckless "dates," and whom she induces to join her spiritual quest to find God. After their marriage and birth of their daughter, her faith is tested to intense extemes in ways I would not dare describe, but can honestly say are truly harrowing. I was surprised that, even though I am a devout Christian, I was not offended by this film, what can be seen as a blatantly sacreligious movie. I think every religious individual should see it to get a better understanding of what they conspire to, as well as how others may conceive of their faith. "The Rapture" is not a tame flick, and does not shy away from controversial discourse, but all in all, this is a rewarding picture that gets its viewers to think about their lives and what they believe in. No doubt you will be entranced. Rating: Three stars and a half.
Hitchcockian web woven with ludicrous plot.
Wolfgang Petersen has done some good thrillers in the past and has deep respect for classical directors such as Hitchcock, so what better opportunity than to create his own thriller the way the Master of Suspense would have if he were alive. He assembles a good cast, among them Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins (in an enjoyable role), and Greta Scacchi, and creates a story a la Vertigo. What could go wrong? With movies like this, one glitch in the plot could topple the whole film off the bell tower (pardon the Vertigo pun), and this one does just that. A man trying to remember what occurred in his personal life after surviving a tragic car wreck can be enthralling, and at many times this picture is indeed mind-numbing, but three-quarters into the story, you feel as if you have been cheated. Plausibility is a real concern in this thriller, but that's not to say there are not good elements within this confusion. Wolfgang Petersen shows a real expertise for framing his ludicrous story, and I believe Hitch would have been pleased with how Petersen motivates the camera here. Berenger does an okay job as the suffering crash victim, but it is Hoskins that really impresses as the pet store owner/private investigator who helps Berenger discover who he really was. "Shattered" is a nicely lensed film with a good dose of suspense surrounding it, but for a pay-off, I believe Hitchcock could have shown the filmmakers a thing or two about playing it straight with a good ending. Rating: Two stars and a half.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Heartfelt slice of life, filled with genuine feeling.
I've always said that a movie doesn't have to lay itself out like a masterpiece to be a four-star triumph. Good characters, powerful acting, a good story, and pure realism are often the keys to inspired film making. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" fully understands this simple formula for success, and provides the viewer with a honesty that very few films today possess. The strangeness of the title does not match the film's premise. Johnny Depp, an enjoyable presence in film in recent years, plays the title character, a young man who lives a completely selfless existence, but who never gets much of an opportunity to please himself. He has his near-18 year old mentally challenged brother, Arnie (Oscar-nominee Leonardo DeCaprio, in one of his first major roles) to tend to, as well as his 500-pound mother (Darlene Cates), who has not left the house in over seven years. His other two sisters take his sacrifices for granted, leaving Gilbert without much moral support around the house. He works at a second-rate supermarket, whereby he becomes acquainted with a lonely housewife (Mary Steenburgen) who turns to Gilbert for a little more than delivery of her groceries. It is only once a drifting girl named Becky (Juliette Lewis) comes along that he is able to find a true soul mate, someone who can help him momentarily escape from the chaos of his everyday life.
The aspect about Gilbert that I really admired about his character was the fact that he did not think of himself as a particularly good person or even a help to others, but rather someone who was fulfilling an obligation to those around him, whether it be within the home, at the grocery store, or being "friendly" with Steenburgen. He follows what he believes must be followed, and in many ways is trapped, without a sense of freedom. What is even more heartbreaking about Gilbert is that the ones who should have been appreciative of his kindness did not give a damn about whether they were affecting his life. Real emotions are clearly at stake here.
From what I've described about "Gilbert Grape," it would seem that the film is a sobfest. Not so. Leonardo deCaprio deserves a great deal of credit for bringing spirit to the movie, a true innocent within the family. He is so free-spirited that Gilbert, as well as the audience, cannot help but love the guy despite his being a major chore to take care of, and sometimes a real pain in the rump. DeCaprio deserved his Oscar nomination, starting off his prosperous career in Hollywood.
Another thing I was really surprised about was how Gilbert's mother, while being amazingly overweight, is not treated as a stereotype by the filmmakers. Darlene Cates, in her film debut, brings real heart to a role that could have been completely one-sided. She lives a life that she herself never intended, but learns to make the best of it.
Films like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" always let you know when they're working by how much you feel for the characters in its story. I honestly felt for Gilbert and what he had to put up with, and truly hoped he would find a happy ending once the film was over. Of course I would not dare reveal that ending to you, but let's just say there is a sense of satisfaction that arises as Gilbert Grape finds the spirit within himself he thought was never there. Rating: Three stars and a half.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Seems to be brilliant, but does not cross the "red line" of focus.
Every once in a while, there comes a movie that seems to be absolutely brilliant, even amazingly original, and you get kind of ticked off when that brilliance passes you by. Stanley Kubrick's works always seemed to do that for me, along with a few other "artistic" titles that come to mind. It's almost eerie that Kubrick just passed away recently, because "The Thin Red Line" seemed to me to resemble something which Kubrick might have presided over. There are many fascinating sequences and exhilarating spots of cinematography in this new installment of the World War II genre, but a lot of tedious, meandering sequences and a combination of disorganized messages that drift into others, seriously clutter up the story. I could never fully understand what the movie was trying to tell me that was supposed to be the main message of the whole plot. The plot itself passes like a ship on an unpredictable sea, sometimes torrential in its action and suspense but also needlessly dry in other moments. If Terrence Malick's "masterpiece" has one major problem that I can definitely pinpoint, it would probably be its excruciating length. If it ran maybe 45-60 minutes shorter in duration, it might have worked as a tight and alarming picture of war. Instead, it dances around a lot of different meanings and areas of entertainment, from the deeply poetic to the engagingly violent and mysterious. I would like to point out one great performance of the film before I depart. Nick Nolte is one of those actors that takes his time between projects, but always turns out an interesting, if not always likable, character. His work in this entry is just great, a three-dimensional role that receives too little screen time. Call "The Thin Red Line" an epic that is reaching for brilliance and is grasping way too far. Go see "Saving Private Ryan" instead, and get a point and great dramatic strength, something in which "Red Line" falls a tad short. Rating: Two stars and a half.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Robin Williams follows the drag routine well; "Doubtfire" a fine feel-good flick.
I'd just like to point out before I say anything about "Mrs. Doubtfire" that it does not even come close to surpassing "Tootsie" as the best comedy using this "man-in-drag" routine. At the same time, it definitely picked up its concept from the Dustin Hoffman classic, but I sincerely believe it does not attempt to pattern itself on that previous film either. This new entry with a man in a dress has its own story, its own heart tenderly in place, and has a lot of fun in the process. Even though it may not be brilliant like "Tootsie," "Doubtfire" has wonderfully comic moments wrapped up into a heartwarming tale.
Robin Williams stars as Daniel Hillard, a gifted voiceover actor who has a unique fondness for his three children, but is unable to hold down a steady job. When his wife Miranda (Sally Field) asks him for a divorce, Daniel is left in an unfortunate situation. Miranda gets sole custody of the children, and Daniel is able to see them every weekend, but he is not satisfied. He therefore asks his brother (Harvey Fierstein), a expert makeup artist, to turn him into a woman. Enter Mrs. Doubtfire, a 60-year old Brit who quickly becomes a housekeeper for the family. Daniel is able to return to his kids' lives full-time, in some form or another.
This premise may seem a bit contrived, and may get you wondering how he could fool his ex-wife and kids into the whole scheme. The costuming and makeup looks good on Williams, but is it good enough? This is where Williams adds those comic touches and sugary substance to make Mrs. Doubtfire seem genuine. I truly liked both characters Robin plays, even though I didn't get a total sensation that the two were totally different entities. The film makers ask you to go along with it without too much argument, and as a matter of fact, I did.
The movie's real triumph, I believe, is in its realism of divorce and its effect on parents and especially their children. Some may think the film's second act as ludicrous, when Robin Williams tries to chase off Field's new boyfriend, Pierce Brosnan. I don't think it was as much his jealousy over his wife that came into play, but rather being unable to accept another man entering into what was his place in their family structure. Here, you see a quiet nobility in his character, not that we totally dislike Brosnan or consider him a villain, but that we assimilate with Robin's cause. This gives the excessive slapstick and tomfoolery a deeper edge.
I think film critics should have a heart when it comes to "Mrs. Doubtfire." It does have a certain magic to it that is so hard to find in movies nowadays. I was moved by it, I laughed quite a bit, and overall had a good time. When it comes to entertainment, nothing else really matters. Rating: Three stars.
The Piano (1993)
Magnificent, symbolic film masterpiece plays beautifully, like a piano.
There are very few female directors in the film industry that have been given proper acknowledgment or had their works introduced to mainstream filmgoers. Jane Campion is one of these precious few, a director who carefully paces and sculpts her works so that they magnificently flow like a musical interlude. "The Piano" is her ultimate masterpiece, a film of such simplicity, described with calm and tense complexity. Holly Hunter received an Oscar for her fascinating performance as Ada, a mute woman who is forced into an arranged marriage with a New Zealand landowner, played convincingly by Sam Neill, a native Australian actor himself. Ada journeys to New Zealand with her young daughter (Anna Paquin, also an Oscar-winner that year), few other possessions, and her treasured piano, a part of her that amplifies her voice that she cannot express through vocal communication.
I believe it would be wrong to assume that any of the characters are martyrs in this tragic story, nor would it be right to think Sam Neill's character a villain. You may think this is crazy, but I think the piano itself serves as both a good and bad omen for all that are involved. I would relate it to a "Pandora's box" of sorts, a treasure that exposes all the evil and sin in the world, but which also provides hope as well. The piano is Ada's sounding box, a tool that allows her to escape from a world that does not understand her, but that also threatens her moral compass, removing her from marital conventions and forces her to lose herself.
The performances in "The Piano" are particularly good, especially Holly Hunter's. It is interesting to note that all of Hunter's piano playing in the film is actually Hunter herself performing in front of us. You can visually and aurally feel the mood of Hunter's character through the music she plays. We the audience lose ourselves right along with her, lost upon a sea of music. We see why Keitel becomes enamored by her, and why Neill becomes overcome with jealousy and betrayal. Not many films would allow us to enter the emotions of all three main characters, but this film is truly an exception.
Rarely do we witness real beauty captured on film. "The Piano" is such a visually stunning film, it's almost intoxicating how its atmosphere sweeps across the screen. This landscape is equaled by the performances, bringing understanding and mystery to this wonder. Sometimes symbolism of this nature can be distracting to an audience. "The Piano" dares to follow this symbolic path, and hits a bullseye with full emotional force. Rating: Four stars.
In the Line of Fire (1993)
Eastwood strikes again after Oscar win; Malkovich also shines.
Shortly after Clint Eastwood finally won the Oscar for 1992's "Unforgiven," everyone (including myself) was excited to see with what he would follow it up. This time, he steps down from the directorial podium to allow Wolfgang Petersen to take control, and continues a streak he has had in the 90's that is unlike any other star from this decade. His next triumph is called "In the Line of Fire."
Clint reprises his Dirty Harry-type character as Frank Horrigan, a retired Secret Service agent who performs free-lance investigations on the side, assisted by partner Al (Dylan McDermott). When a mysterious caller who is attempting to assassinate the president (Oscar-nominee John Malkovich, in an intelligently evil performance) sets off Horrigan's overreactive intuition, Frank asks to be assigned to the advance team once again. Rene Russo is also along for the ride as a female agent, one who is turned off by Frank at first, but later takes a shine to him.
Malkovich, whom I've always thought as one of the most accomplished supporting actors we have working today, plays this deranged assassin to a tee. He is a frightening character, not so much for his creepy voice on the phone, but because of his challenging intellect and how he uses it to Eastwood's disadvantage. He's one of those villains that is so entertaining but so hated at the same time. We become quite familiar with him by the end of the film, but still cannot crack the mystery that overrides his persona. In many ways, it is a brilliant performance, close to the situation, but also maintaining that edge of impersonality.
Even though we recognize Eastwood as again immortalizing that Harry Callahan image in this film, he is still far outside that classic image at the same time. Frank Horrigan is craggy and arrogant, but still very likable and gallant. He is not always ticked off, but often with a kind disposition, sometimes becoming scared from Malkovich's threats as well as from his own personal demons. The suggestion that Horrigan was present on the Secret Service when Kennedy was killed surprisingly does not seem like a cultural whitewash here, but rather a moment in Frank's life that left him to question what his life would have been like if he had thoroughly done his job and saved JFK's life. This leads us to better understand his ambitious will to catch Malkovich, and as a result, attempt to find meaning again in his lonely life. Clint Eastwood's performance in this newer film may resemble Harry Callahan somewhat, but this portrayal is more calculated and overall more deeply felt.
This is a thriller involving great minds and careful pacing rather than a lot of shooting. There are a couple of good action sequences in the film, but the real excitement comes from the cat-and-mouse game that Eastwood and Malkovich face off in. I have no idea what the real Secret Service thought of this picture and how it reflected their organization, but I believe they would have admired it just for how much "In the Line of Fire" focuses on dignity and taut investigation, instead of a bunch of would-be police officers with a prestigious individual to protect. Clint Eastwood shows us that after the glow of Oscar and at the age of 63, he can still keep on the cutting edge of great filmmaking. Rating: Four stars.
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Taut political thriller, but is something missing?
I admire what Tom Clancy has written over the years, and can appreciate the close detail he puts into his works. He is in tune with American politico and international affairs, but how can he make it more applicable to mainstream audiences? The answer is Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, one of my favorite starring actors, one who is always alert to the atmosphere around him, and always seems coolly affected by his environment. "Clear and Present Danger," the third Jack Ryan movie to date, uses Ford's talents at times to great effect, but at other moments seems to ignore him altogether. It is only after two hours of the film has surpassed that we see Ford command the screen, taking charge of his opponents. He didn't somehow resemble the Jack Ryan from the previous film, "Patriot Games," at all. I'm not used to seeing Harrison in the background as much or noticing him dance around situations like a weakling, so I was kind of caught off guard. I felt a mild tinge of excitement from the film's plot, that of a militant force in Colombia and its threatening power over American affairs. Also, I was quite interested in Willem Dafoe's character and his longing to get out of the field of war, but even he wasn't emphasized to a great extent. The President's intervention in the conspiracy was not clearly brought to perspective enough to matter. "Clear and Present Danger" does have its moments, its turns of excitement and action sequences, but they come few and far between. Harrison Ford delivers a good performance out of what he is given, but I do not think he was used to the fullest advantage. Somehow, there seems to be a great film underneath this web of international intrigue and drug cartels, but I was unable to receive a satisfactory show. Rating: Two stars and a half.
The Fugitive (1993)
One of the best action movies of the decade; Ford and Jones are in top form.
Nothing is more thrilling to see than two characters with superior intelligences, pitting their wits against each other. A thriller does not require a great deal of plot or techno-babble to be involving or complex, although many distributors of blockbusters today seem to think so. For these reasons, "The Fugitive" is a huge blessing for a movie critic such as I. I was just thrilled by the excitement, the performances by Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, and the whole Hitchcockian aura that this sensational film delivered. Even though we have been seeing too many films based on television series come out lately, "The Fugitive" is certainly not one of those that we can add to that routine bushel.
Ford is Dr. Richard Kimble, a vascular surgeon who is wrongfully accused for the brutal murder of his wife (Sela Ward), and therefore sentenced to be executed. After escaping from a bus crash/trash collision, he finds himself running from the Chicago police and especially the U.S. Marshall service, led by Lt. Gerard (Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones). At the same time, Kimble attempts to prove his innocence and in turn discover who did kill his wife. What ensues is a tangled web of medical conspiracies, along with a search for a notorious "one-armed man." As I have stated, this is a simple plot that requires no superficial decoration.
Ford, who has always been a less dramatic presence in movies and more of a subtle but affected persona, fits the part of Kimble perfectly. With this role, the last thing required is a melodramatic actor that sticks out like a sore thumb. Ford casually settles into the role of the man on the run, bringing intelligence and style to a less ostentatious character. Jones, who has never really been considered a headliner until now, creates a character that is extremely humorous but also calmly diligent. His only goal is to carry out the task he is assigned to, and nothing will stand in his way, least of all a rivaling police force or Richard Kimble himself. One of the fascinating Hitchcockian elements of the film is how it allows its audience to not be able to take sides. We are constantly rooting for both Ford and Jones when either of them come into perspective. We familiarize with both of them and are amused by both equally. The film's finale, which I won't dare give away, satisfies both sides of this rooting coin.
I have not previously been a fan of the director Andrew Davis's work, but with this entry, he certainly has sparked my interest. With such films as "Under Siege," "Code of Silence," and "Above the Law," he has been able to work with action stars that are both larger than life (Seagal, Norris). Here, he uses more intrigue and atmosphere to reach his audience, building suspense and excitement through simple film tools rather than things blowing up or guns going off (However, there is a phenomenal opening crash scene to boot). With quick pacing, a never-a-dull-moment storyline, and great actors, "The Fugitive" ranks itself as one of the best action films of this decade, and definitely one of the best films of 1993. Rating: Four stars.
The Paper (1994)
Good actors group together for a story that does not properly articulate itself.
Ron Howard has developed himself into one of the finest young directors in the business today. He has an uncanny knack of telling interesting stories that contain ample helpings of comedy and drama, and always seem to be quite credible. I will admit that I was most excited about seeing his journalism piece,entitled "The Paper," especially after hearing who he got lined up to star in the picture: Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei, Robert Duvall, and Randy Quaid. However, I cannot deny that I turned out being a tad disappointed. Keaton stars as a tough journalist working at a tabloid newspaper, fighting between his job and his personal life with wife Tomei, who just happens to be expecting. Close plays the chief editor at the paper, a tough executive who demands things on time. Duvall is the senior editor at the office who has a crappy personal life and a prostate problem (How ingenious!). The film circles around a day in the life of these involved characters, and eventually what happens when they face a deadline and have to decide what news is fit to print and what is morally right to report. I didn't get too lost through this film, but I was bothered about how the issues in the plot are never properly articulated. I couldn't grasp why their issues were so cutting and affecting to the New York population. I appreciated the way that Ron Howard portrayed the bustling atmosphere behind the scenes of journalism, but why couldn't he catch his breath and particularly indicate what it was that we should be looking for? Outside of Keaton's homelife, the other's lives seem to be just passing fancies, excerpts that seem important but end too quickly before they can take on any meaning. A fine cast is used fairly well, and a certain amount of "realism" is depicted, but this is all in all supposed to be a movie, and not necessarily a docudrama. A few Hollywood cliches might even have worked at some point. At least we could identify them in front of our faces. Rating: Two stars and a half.
Red Rock West (1993)
Fantastic film noir;great actors pitting their wits against each other.
Nicolas Cage was on a roll at this point in his career, choosing high-quality pictures to star in, which resulted in his Oscar win three years later. I was surprised to hear that "Red Rock West" took nearly two years after its release before it was noticed on a theatrical scale. For any movie lover, this film hits the spot immediately. Cage is a drifter, desperately searching for employment. When a bartender (J.T. Walsh) in the town of Red Rock mistakenly assumes Cage is a hitman he has hired to off his wife, Cage doesn't correct him. Before he knows what kind of work Walsh wants from him, he agrees without bias. He is just that desperate! Lara Flynn Boyle is the wife he is told to kill, but who herself has a last card (or cards) to play. Dennis Hopper, who is again in the type of role he practically created himself, is the real killer that Walsh hired, one who does not back down until the job is done. Like the best film noir, a truly American form of filmmaking, loopholes and other unexpected turns occur in this latest addition to the series, keeping the viewer pinned to the screen. I didn't have any problem with figuring out what made each character tick, but I did love their chemistry together. All four of them were highly intelligent individuals (a rarity in any American movie), and it was only against each other that they would eventually foul up. "Red Rock West" reminded me again the reason why I love movies, a necessity in my book to be declared one of the best pictures of the year. Rating: Three stars and a half.
True Lies (1994)
Fun action done with a healthy dose of humour; Arnold rocks again!
James Cameron is well-known, especially because of his "Titanic" blockbuster, for gargantuan special and visual effects in his films, but those spectacles have been always accompanied by serious and/or violent storylines. "True Lies" can be called a new venture for Cameron in that he now chooses to have a lot of fun with his work. One mistake I believe bashers of this movie make is avoiding the fact that it is in many respects a comedy. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cameron are merely just toying it up with explosions, cliffhangers, shootings, and moronic bad guys. And what a fun toy it is to play with. The famous bridge sequence has to be seen to be believed. Fine performances can also be found in this flick, including Jamie Lee Curtis as Arnold's unsuspecting but ready-for-action wife, and Tom Arnold as his wise-cracking but engaging sidekick. I received a real surge from "True Lies," not only because I got to see a lot of stuff blowing up, but that for once, I had a load of fun doing it. Rating: Three stars.
The Lion King (1994)
Animated adventure that is a treat for the eyes and the heart!
I will admit it, I do not immediately run out when Disney or any other company puts out its latest animated feature. It's just not the fare I indulge in often. If I had it to do over again, I would gladly race to the theater to see "The Lion King," a wonderful and moving family film from Disney. Never have I seen an animated film so vibrant and visually stunning. On top of that, the story is not what I'd consider a kiddie fest. The tale of Simba as he discovers his place in the "circle of life" is heartwarming and almost realistic. Could celebrity voices ever be more suitably matched with animated characters? James Earl Jones is fabulous as Mufasa, the king of the jungle, and Jeremy Irons is devilishly villainous as Scar, the jealous brother who longs to take Mufasa's place as king. Whoopi Goldberg is also a surprise in what I believe is the first time she has played a bad guy. This is definitely one of the best films of 1994, and possibly one of the top three best animated adventures from the Disney studios. Cartoons can truly have a life of their own. Rating: Four stars.
Legends of the Fall (1994)
Tremendous cinematography and good acting marred by shaky plot.
It's always a shame when a film such as "Legends of the Fall" looks so good and is so well produced, but its plot and its wholeness cannot measure up. Anthony Hopkins stars as the father of three sons: Alfred(Aidan Quinn), Tristan(Brad Pitt), and Samuel(Henry Thomas). They are a close-knit family without any degree of malice between them. When Samuel brings home a fiancee (the beautiful Julia Ormond), all three sons are enamored by her. With her arrival as well as the coming of World War One, the family is torn apart in shattering ways. The cinematography by John Toll is nothing but tremendous. Alberta's scenery has never looked better, even though it is being represented as Montana. The acting is first-rate, with Hopkins and Quinn standing out as the best of them. The major problems about this film is its grandiose form of storytelling. Some of these legendary plotlines might have worked during the fifties, but seem amazingly contrived today. It is not enough that Ormond has to be involved with one brother in the story, but has "relations" with all three. Does she have no shame? The nomadic lifestyle of Pitt's character also goes overboard, with too much accent on the savage nature of the hunt. He even flaunts this behavior as a soldier, cutting his brother's heart out! Does he have no shame? I will admit I do enjoy a well-written soap opera in the movies. This one tries to be Shakespeare and fails miserably. I highly recommend this epic as a visual feast, but cannot condone some of the plot angles in this mediocre story. Note: Somebody please teach Brad Pitt how to be a credible actor! Rating: Two stars and a half.
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Unconventional thriller with realistic focus.
Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, both in their film debuts, star as Juliet and Pauline, two girls who meet through a boarding school and form a dangerously close friendship, one that disturbs their parents and especially Pauline's mother. Their fantasy creations and playacting causes their parents to question their buddy system, so their friendship is in turn threatened. They resort to plotting murder in order to keep their friendship alive. I particularly liked the way "Heavenly Creatures" did not turn out like so many of these types of thrillers, where one friend ends up as the conspirator or the evil element of the two. Both Juliet and Pauline are part of the crime they commit, an act that could not have been done by one alone. Kudos to the intensely chilling and suspenseful murder at the end of the picture; it will not be soon forgotten. Rating: Three stars.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Dialogue shines in this creative bloodbath, but where's the potatoes?
If Pulp Fiction is going to be remembered for anything one hundred years from now, it will definitely be for the unique intellectual conversations John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson engage in before they blast their next assignment. It will also be memorable for bringing Travolta back to Hollywood with a bang (pardon the pun). I even might recall such terms as "dead n***** storage" and "Royale with cheese." The only thing I cannot understand is where there is enough genius or wonder about this film to declare it as one of the top 100 best films from the AFI. I'm not arguing that Pulp Fiction is not a terribly original and thoughtful trilogy, but why the huge amount of critical hype? (And by the way, I prefer to call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese.) Rating: Three stars.
Nobody's Fool (1994)
Simple film about a simple town becomes one of the best of 1994.
Paul Newman redefines himself as one of the best natural actors of this generation with this wonderful slice-of-life film about real life and real people. Newman is Sully, a lowly 60-year old who moves from one odd job after another. After nearly 30 years, he meets up with and reassesses his relationship with his son and his grandchild. He also has to deal with a sleazy and irresponsible employer (Bruce Willis), as well as a possible romance with Willis' wife (Melanie Griffith). Jessica Tandy also stars as his landlady. This is such a wonderful piece of film-making that only comes around once in a blue moon: honest acting, understandable storyline, and a sense of freshness that only Paul Newman could deliver. A heartwarming, sincere portrait of a town where action does not have to occur accompanied by the sound of gunshots. Rating: Four stars.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Complex and moving Canadian feature; best Egoyan effort to date.
I will admit that I haven't been too impressed with Atom Egoyan cinema in the past. I just cannot understand why he doesn't give us a story without too many frills or excessive symbolism. Here, he tells a compelling and deeply moving story about grief, parenthood, death, and learning to live after tragedy. "The Sweet Hereafter" reminded me a lot of "Fargo" with its "ice-cap" cinematography and its eerie realism. Egoyan's film, however, is much more serious and absent in comedic relief. Ian Holm gives a powerful performance as a lawyer who hopes to offer relief to residents of a small Canadian town after many of their children are killed in a tragic bus accident. He promises to ask for no money until the case is won and those who are responsible pay for their suffering. Sarah Polley, known here in Canada for her recurring role on "Road to Avonlea," plays one of the few survivors of the crash, wanting to forget what happened and is therefore not too excited about the lawsuit. Holm also has personal reasons for wanting to defend the families, since his daughter, Zoe, is a desperate drug addict on the run. I'm truly glad that Ian Holm has finally gotten the opportunity to have a leading role in a film such as this. His acting is incomparable, subtle but affecting. I love how Egoyan is able to give us so much emotion and power in his direction, but also does not give us a great deal of info without confusing us. The film's events do jump around a bit, but there is a reason for it, which I wouldn't dare reveal. The best thing about "The Sweet Hereafter" is it knows its an art film, but restrains itself in its symbolism. It gives us a hard-cutting point, and gives it to us without faltering. The power of visual and contextual material combine to form a fascinating and thought-provoking film. Egoyan has finally found his niche. Rating: Three stars and a half.
Air Force One (1997)
Harrison Ford aces again as the President of the United States!
Harrison Ford is one of those timeless action figures, ranking alongside Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery. He can hold his own after twenty years of being a superstar, so I think he deserves to play such an important role as the President of the United States. He is James Marshall, a great leader who refuses to negotiate with terrorists, and is willing to say so without negotiating with his executive staff. He is forced to put his ideology to the test when a Russian nationalist (well-acted by Gary Oldman) holds the crew of Air Force One hostage, demanding the release of another fellow terrorist from jail. Glenn Close adds fine support as the Vice-President, steady and sure about the power and endurance of their commander-in-chief. William H. Macy and Dean Stockwell also star. This is a high-powered action thriller, full of suspense and violence. The director Wolfgang Petersen, well known for other great action pictures such as Das Boot and In the Line of Fire, shows he can capture grit and energy in his action without losing credibility from his story or his actors. The only thing I would change about "Air Force One" is the ending. It deserves a more suspenseful climax and heart-pounding finale, an aspect I was surprised was missing from this action flick. There is a cliffhanger, but there is enough "hanging" and not enough of the cliff. The acting is stellar, and it's nice to see the President can kick some Commie butt, but we still need a better followthrough to end it all. This is still a nice job, though. Rating: Three stars.
True Crime (1999)
Clint soars again with a good cast, adding lustre to routine story.
I'll be perfectly frank; it's difficult for me not to have bias in my reviews of Clint Eastwood films because I admire his persona as a actor and director a great deal. However, saying that, I never shy away from giving credit when credit is due. I praised "Bridges of Madison County," raved "In the Line of Fire," okayed "Absolute Power," and failed to see the point of "Midnight in the Garden..." Clint's latest effort, entitled TRUE CRIME, is another good mystery that can be added to Clint's stellar works of the nineties. I will admit that it doesn't necessarily give us a story that we haven't seen before, or give us a Clint that we failed to notice previously, but the acting is so top-notch and the story is very well-paced, it's very hard to knock this film. Clint is a journalist for an Oakland paper who is famous for turning print media into crime-solving reports. He is also far from saintly, sleeping around with various women of assorted age groups (one of them happens to be his supervisor's wife), and of course, he drinks up a storm. Amidst all these turn-offs, he still has the guts to prove that a young black man (Isaiah Washington, in a fine performance) is not guilty of killing a convenience store clerk in cold blood. He has less than a day to prove it because, it so happens, Washington is to be executed by lethal injection at San Quentin by a minute after midnight, that very night! Sound familiar? What does work very well in TRUE CRIME is the way in which the film is paced. Clint cuts right to the chase, giving us just the facts, keeping the suspense taut throughout the whole film, and maintaining our interest. His cast is well chosen as always. Washington is a fine new talent, doing an effecting acting job here. James Woods appears in a few entertaining scenes as the head editor of the paper, humorous and stylish as usual. Denis Leary, very subdued this time, is Eastwood's protege. Frances Fisher even turns up briefly as the district attorney who handled Washington's case six years before. TRUE CRIME is a good thriller, told with quick pacing, effective acting, and good direction as always by Eastwood. The only major problem I have is that it doesn't provide us with any new plotlines or intricate complications. But then again, how often do we get something like this from Hollywood anymore? It is certainly not a lot. Rating: Three stars.