1986 – A Room With a View

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A Room With a View – 1986

This was a movie about stuffy British people being stuffy and British.  Sorry, but that needed to be said.  It starred Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Maggie Smith, Simon Callow, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott, and Daniel Day Lewis.  A pretty impressive cast of actors, to be sure, and they each did a fine job.  But it was the dull script that made the movie so slow and stuffy.

In order to explain the film’s title, I’ll describe the first few minutes of the movie.  Smith plays the character of Charlotte Bartlett, an uptight old spinster who is acting as chaperone to her much younger friend, Lucy Honeychurch, played by Carter.  The beautiful young girl has been brought up in an upper-middle-class family but is much more relaxed in her way of thinking.  The two are traveling in Italy on holiday.  Charlotte complains that the room they rented was supposed to have a view, but does not.  As they go to dine, she complains out loud, and is overheard by Mr. Emerson, played by Elliott, and his brooding young son George, played by Sands.  The two gentlemen offer their room, which has a view, to the ladies.  Forbidden romance blossoms between Lucy and George.

The holiday ends and Lucy returns home to Surry in England.  Upon their return, Lucy becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, played by Sands.  He is a jerk who treats Lucy as a valuable object that he will soon be able to display on his arm.  Mr. Emerson and his son rent a home in Surry and George tries to re-kindle his romance with Lucy.  She does her best to refuse him, but eventually realizes that she does not love Cecil.  Against all propriety and sense, she realizes that she loves George and the two end up together.  The end.

The plot was fairly predictable and moved too slowly for my tastes.  I never had any question who Lucy would choose to be with in the end.  There was never any real tension or suspense.  The best and most interesting aspect of the film was the sets and costumes.  It was a period piece, and British films have never been wanting in that regard.  Lucy’s dresses were beautiful, but not too fancy.  The stuffy old ladies dressed like stuffy old ladies.  The men dressed properly in their old-fashioned suits.  They all looked perfectly appropriate whether they were in their costumes or completely naked.

What???  Yes, completely naked.  There is a scene that was incredibly gratuitous and random in its use of full frontal male nudity.  At one point, just after George arrives in Surry, he, Lucy’s younger brother Freddy, played by Rupert Graves, and the local Reverend, Mr. Beebe, played by Callow, decide to frolic naked around a pond out in the woods.  They all strip off, and proceed to run around the pond, splash in the water, and hoot and holler like children.  I still can’t figure out what the strangely homo-erotic scene had to do with the rest of the plot.  Of course, the ladies happen to walk by and see the naked reverend, and are scandalized!

But in typical, stuffy, British fashion, there was no power behind the story’s romance or its drama.  Sure, you could say that it was a portrait into a different time in history, a look into the sexually restrictive nature of the upper-middle class of the Edwardian era.  But really, the biggest message that I got out of that is a truth that can be said of any era and any culture:  Young people are more open minded about sex than old people.  I know, I’m over-simplifying the movie’s message, but its kind-of true.

The film looked visually beautiful, despite its lackluster story.  But it wasn’t a bad story.  It was, for me, just a little dull.  And as I think about it, changing the character of Cecil would have made all the difference.  Cecil is never shown in a good light.  Right from the first moment he is on the screen, I could tell that he was a stuffy man who had no passion for youth, no love for Lucy, and no real likeable qualities.  Therefore, the question as to whether Lucy would end up marrying him was effectively pointless.  But if Cecil had been a good man, or if I had ever thought she had any reason to stay with him, then I could have taken a greater interest in what she might do, which way she might turn.  Or maybe if Cecil had been such a bad man that he found some kind of way to force Lucy to marry him, despite her love for George, it might have made for a more dramatic, or even tragic ending.  But no.  What we got was predictable and bland.

1986 – The Mission

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The Mission – 1986

This really was a great film.  Not only was the casting and the acting spot on, it had great and lofty dramatic themes, one of the most beautiful scores ever written, action, drama, great pacing, inspirational cinemastography, and wonderful directing.  In 1986, it lost the Best Picture Award to Platoon.  I don’t know.  That was a pretty good movie, too, but I would have voted for The Mission.  Robert De Niro was fantastic, as was Jeremy Irons.  Add a couple of other well-known names like Aiden Quinn and Liam Neeson, and you have a wonderful film.

First of all, whenever anyone mentions this movie, the first thing that comes to my mind is the beautiful and haunting score by Ennio Morricone.  To say that the music is incredible is an understatement.  The film score is nothing short of transcendent.  I cannot listen to it without my eyes misting over and tears threatening to roll down my cheeks.  I felt that way about the music long before I ever saw the movie.  It strongly conveys the dramatic themes that are the whole thrust of the movie.  The lofty and ethereal theme known as Gabriel’s Oboe is absolutely gorgeous.

The film takes place in Paraguay, in 1750s South America and is about two men.  One, Father Gabriel, played by Irons, is a Jesuit Priest who establishes a Mission at the top of Iguazu Falls, and helps the native Guarani tribe by protecting them from Spanish slavers.  The other is Rodrigo Mendoza, a slave trader whose job it is to abduct Guarani natives and sell them into slavery.  But after Rodrigo accidentally murders his own brother, played by Quinn, he is filled with such remorse that he voluntarily locks himself in a prison.

Father Gabriel visits him and convinces him to do penance and regain his life.  Rodrigo travels to the Mission and helps them to build a church.  He becomes a part of the Guarani tribe and decides to devote his life to God and become a Jesuit monk.  The main conflict comes when Spain decides to cede the land on which the Mission, and thus the Guarani tribe, live to Portugal.  The Portuguese want all the natives off their land and they send in soldiers to eliminate the native savages.

Father Gabriel and Rodrigo react to the situation in different ways.  Rodrigo refuses to abandon the natives.  Instead, he breaks his vows of peace and fights back to defend the Guarani people.  He is joined by Father Fielding, played by Neeson.  They both die in the battle.  Believing that meeting violence with violence is a sin, but also not willing to abandon the Guarani people, Father Gabriel stays with the Christian converts as they allow themselves to be slaughtered.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that.  The movie is heartbreaking as it explores the absolute cruelties of mankind.  The heartless genocide carried out by the Portuguese soldiers, is matched only by the Spanish government and the Catholic Church who allowed them to do it.  But the film was also incredibly uplifting as the characters of Father Gabriel and Rodrigo meet their fates, each in their own way, with honor and faith.  There is laudable nobility in a man who is willing to fight and die for a cause he believes in.  But there is also a certain kind of honor and courage in a man who is willing to lay down his life as a martyr.

Also, one of the best parts of the movie is the scenes in which Rodrigo is rising from the pits of self-inflicted despair and self-loathing to honor and redemption.  It was inspiring to watch.  So well-done!  And again, the score perfectly reflected and enhanced the feeling of spiritual redemption and salvation.  In hindsight, it made the ending so much more tragic.

The little bit of research I did said that the film was fairly accurate with only minor discrepancies.  For example, the main plot was factual, though the characters of Father Gabriel and Rodrigo were fictional.  And in light of that, in reality, no priests or monks fought with or were killed with any of the Guarani.  They all left the Missions when ordered to do so by their superiors.  The Guarani fought their own war which lasted over three years.

It was a wonderful film that was beautifully done.  It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, but I’m sorry to say, it only took home one Oscar.  It was for Best Cinematography.  None of the actors were nominated, and though Ennio Morricone was nominated for his phenomenal score, he did not win.  Director Roland Joffe was also nominated for Best Director, though he, too, went home empty handed.

1986 – Hannah and Her Sisters

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Hannah and Her Sisters – 1986

I need to start this review by saying that it was a good movie except for one thing.  Woody Allen is insufferable.  For the most part, Allen is a good writer and a good director.  But he is a one-note actor who is so annoying that I just want to reach through the screen and strangle him.  He plays the same character in everything I have ever seen him in, and in 1986, he was still in the habit of putting himself in every one of his films.  Woody Allen’s movies would be great if they didn’t star Woody Allen.  There, I got it out of my system.

Anyway, the rest of the cast was very good, especially Michael Caine and Diane Wiest.  Barbara Hershey and Mia Farrow were also good, as were Max Von Sydow and Julie Kavner.  Farrow played the role of Hannah, while Hershey played her sister Lee, and Wiest played her sister Holly.  Hannah’s husband Elliot, played by Caine, lusts after, and eventually begins an affair with Lee.  Von Sydow plays Lee’s boyfriend, Frederick, who disappears after the illicit affair begins.  Allen, himself, played Mickey, Hannah’s ex-husband who eventually ends up with Holly.

The film actually has very little plot, but is more of a bunch of character studies, delving into the personalities of the ensemble cast.  Typical of Allen’s movies, we hear inner monologues of most of the main cast, giving us a greater sense of their thoughts and feelings.  The plot, itself was very episodic and was made up of little stories that were strung together like pearls.

The main plot follows the affair between Elliot and Lee, going into how it endangers Elliot’s marriage to Hannah.  But the movie also spends significant time, possibly too much time, following Mickey and his neurotic hypochondria.  After all, the movie was supposed to be about Hannah and her Sisters, not Mickey and his search for meaning in his life. Again, we see Woody Allen playing himself.  He tries to show, through his character, how witty and charming he is.  And I have to admit that the writing and the dialogue is more clever than most.  I just don’t buy it coming from the frazzled and overly nervous Allen.

But both Caine and Wiest won the Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress for their efforts.  But an actor or actress will only win those kinds of awards if the script is a good one, and I have to give credit where credit is due.  Woody Allen’s original script was well written and clever.  The dialogue was witty and amusing.  The structure of the film was well thought out and developed.  Allen decided to break the film up into chapters, each with its own title screen.  The story took placed over the course of two years, starting with a Thanksgiving gathering, visiting a second one in the middle, and ending with a third.  The first was set-up for the script’s main plot.  The second covered the over-all conflict.  And finally, the third showed us the resolution.  It was all neat, tidy, and easy to follow.  In other words, there is no denying that Woody Allen is a talented writer.

But if I had to pick a favorite actor out of the cast, it would be Wiest.  Her character, Holly was a former cocaine addict who had so little direction in her life that she was constantly trying new things, new career paths.  But she had so little focus that she rarely remained with a single idea for too long.  We all know someone like that, making her character easy to recognize and identify with.

There were also a number of recognizable faces in the supporting cast that I was pleasantly surprised to see.  Carrie Fisher played April, Holly’s friend or enemy, depending on your point of view.  Then there was Joanna Gleason, Lewis Black, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, J. T. Walsh, John Turturro, Daniel Stern, and Sam Waterston, each playing bit parts with very little screen time.

The research I have done has shown me that many consider Hannah and Her Sisters to be some of Woody Allen’s best work.  But honestly, I‘m not sure.  I’ve never been a huge fan of his movies so I’m not the best person to judge.  The only other Woody Allen Film to be nominated for the Best Picture Award before this was 1977’s Annie Hall, which actually won the coveted honor.  I have since learned that his 2011 film Midnight in Paris was also nominated for Best Picture.  I’ve heard it said that when it comes to Woody Allen films, you either love them or you hate them, but I beg to differ.  I like the scripts.  I just can’t stand Woody Allen.

1986 – Children of a Lesser God

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Children of a Lesser God – 1986

This movie was pretty much what I expected.  It had a good story, a well-crafted script, good dialogue, some excellent acting, and unfortunately bordered on dull.  It was a romantic drama that went almost exactly where I expected it to go.  The rocky tale of the film’s romance was only interesting because of the deaf vs. hearing angle.  Otherwise, it would have been nothing more than average.   It wasn’t a bad movie.  It was just… predictable.

The two leads, veteran actor William Hurt, and in her film debut, Marlee Matlin, both did a great job.  Hurt played James Leeds, a speech therapist and teacher for deaf and hard of hearing students.  He is starting a new job at a school for the deaf in New England.  Matlin plays Sarah Norman, the deaf janitor.  She used to be a student, and is considered to be an angry, simple-minded girl.

It isn’t explicitly stated, but it seems that when James sees her, it is love at first sight.  He almost immediately starts hitting on her under the guise of wanting to teach her to speak so that she can more easily function in a world full of hearing people.  And while that may have been a true motive, his overt romantic intentions could not be mistaken.  He was a bit sleazy, really.  But Sarah resists his advances, at least for a while.

But James is persistent.  Eventually, he wins her over and they begin dating.  The drama comes when he insists that she learn to speak.  She has an intense fear of speaking, saying that if she cannot do something well, she does not want to do it at all.  It is a valid choice that James should have respected.  In fact, he tried, but could not stop himself from trying to get her to speak.

Well, to make a long story short, the tension over this issue builds until two things happen.  One is that she reveals that she has a history of abuse and rape.  The other is that he has a habit of trying to control her and run her life, so she leaves him.  She reconciles with her estranged mother, Mrs. Norman, played by Piper Laurie, and moves back in with her.  But the lovers eventually realize that they love each other, and get back together.  The end.

Unfortunately, as I sometimes do, I can’t help thinking, “what next?”  After the movie ended, what would happen with the characters?  Sure they realized that they loved each other, but the underlying problem was never resolved.  The relationship is doomed face the same hardships and personality conflicts that ended the relationship the first time.  Sure, James promises not to try to get her to speak any more, but he made and broke that promise more than once, a contributing factor to their breakup.  I’m not confident that he wouldn’t do it again.

So anyway, if the story was predictable, and bordered on dull, what made it so good?  It was Matlin.  She was incredible.  I have always liked her as an actress and here, in her first big screen role, she did not disappoint.  She was amazing.  She only had one spoken line in the entire film, and delivered all her dialogue through sign language.  Not only did she portray stronger emotion than her co-star, she demanded my focus whenever she was on the screen.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.  Of course, Hurt did a fine job as well, but for me, she overshadowed him whenever they were on the screen at the same time.

Matlin won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role and she really deserved it.  It is interesting to note that at the time, she was only 21 years old, making her the youngest recipient of the award, and the only deaf woman to ever receive it as well.  These little facts make me even more impressed.  Again, I can’t say enough about how great her performance was.

The film also gave an interesting glimpse into the world of the deaf and the hearing impaired.  Not an in-depth look, but enough to hold my interest on an intellectual level.  There were some intimate underwater scenes in which James tried to experience Sarah’s deafness.  And there was significant time devoted to James as he taught his class, giving personalities to some of his students, and showing us some of his teaching methods.  And it really is a world unto itself, a world which hearing people rarely get to see or understand.