1991 – Beauty and the Beast

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Beauty and the Beast – 1991

This film has the distinction of being the only fully animated film to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Award.  It certainly has its merits and is a good film.  It is one of those films that I have seen many times, but this time I watched it using a more critical eye.  In modern animated features, there is a lot of visible detail that can be seen because of computer generated animation.  But this was made right around the time when that kind of thing was still in its infancy, and most animation was still hand-drawn.  As a result, though most of the animation was very good, there were certain things that still looked… cartoonish.  But I’ll get to that in a bit.

Most people know the plot of the fairy tale, so I won’t go into that too much, but I will mention the great cast of voice actors that gave life to the animated characters.  Paige O’Hara took the lead as Belle, the girl with a heart of gold that longs for adventure.  She played opposite Robbie Benson playing the Beast, otherwise known as Prince Adam.  The egotistical Gaston is voiced by Richard White, and his buffoonish, sycophant sidekick LeFue, is voiced by Jessi Corti.  Belle’s father Maurice is voiced by Rex Everhart.  And then, the Beast’s three main servants, Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts, are played by three well-known actors, Jerry Orbach, David Ogdon Stiers, and Angela Lansbury.

But despite its good qualities, there were most certainly inconsistencies in the animation that ranged from small innocuous things to glaring whoppers.  For example, we first see 5 steps that lead to the front door of Bell’s house, but are shown 15 steps in another shot.  Also, they drew Gaston as having clean boots in one shot, but as he props his feet up on the table, his boots are dripping with mud.   The one that got me was when Maurice is being thrown out of the tavern we clearly see an open doorway with saloon-style swinging doors, but then we are shown a massive wooden door covering the entrance in the next shot.  Did they think we wouldn’t notice?

Well, no, I don’t think most people would.  I only did because I was specifically looking for those kinds of things.  For the most part, it is simply easy to get swept up in the fantasy of the classic story.  And for all their faults, Disney knows how to put on a good show.  Not only was the story well crafted, but it is wonderful entertainment that is appropriate for the entire family, and in this day and age, that is saying something.  And thankfully, they didn’t rely on potty-humor despite the film’s obvious juvenile target audience.

So I realize it sounds like I am being very critical of the film, but there were plenty of good things that have to be mentioned as well.  For example, the voice actors were well cast, and the music was amazing.  In fact, Beauty and the Beast won the Academy Awards for Best Music, Original Score, and for Best Music, Original Song.  The songs were fun to listen to and easy to remember.  Great songs like Belle, Gaston, and Be Our Guest were highly entertaining with fantastic and energetic visuals.  But it was the movie’s title song that really seemed to steal the show.  Beauty and the Beast, sung by Lansbury, was beautiful and touching.  In fact, the entire scene stood out in a number of ways.  The lyrics of most of the rest of the songs in the film had very little subtlety or depth.  But this number was sweet and romantic.  It seemed to transcend the confines of the simple fairy tale and touch on greater themes.

And this scene was the film’s centerpiece in terms of animation as well.  Most of the movie was hand-drawn, done the same way Disney animators had always done.  But they took a chance with this scene, using a computer generated background through which Belle and Beast could dance.  And it is obvious when you watch it.  Suddenly the background had detail and a depth that were not in the rest of the film.  There was also a greater sense of realism, though it was clearly animated.  It really was an amazing sequence, and something that audiences had never before seen in a Disney animated film.  Unfortunately, it also had the side effect of making some of the hand-drawn animation seem primitive and cartoonish by comparison.

But I also have to address one of the biggest plot holes of the whole plot, one which the Disney script writers seemed to completely ignore.  Prince Adam has been the Beast for years, but it is established that the curse must be broken by the time he is 21 years old.  So he must have been cursed when he was around 13 or 14 years old, at most.  And we never see his parents, either in the prologue or the epilogue.  We do not see them as transformed objects either.  So we can only assume that the 13 year old boy was master of the castle without any parental guidance.  Of course he was spoiled.  And then, the enchantress who transformed him into the Beast proceeds to punish the all the inhabitants of the castle for the spoiled Prince’s mistake.  But I guess it served them right.  In the absence of the boy’s parents, they should have showed a firmer hand while teaching the Prince manners when dealing with scary old witches, despite what other Disney fairy tales like Snow White teach us about them.

1990 – Goodfellas

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Goodfellas – 1990

Goodfellas was a better movie than I expected.  The problem wasn’t the movie, it was my expectations.  I was expecting a cookie-cutter, predictable film.  I expected the performances to be over the top and the story to be somewhat farcical.  But it was much more complex, and interesting than I thought it would be.  There was subtlety, humor, and a bit of emotion.  And for me, the most interesting part of the film was the fact that it was told from the perspective of a gangster who really loved being a bad guy.

The main character is Henry Hill, played by Ray Liota.  He provides a lot of narration that was good narration, in that it wasn’t blatant exposition that propelled the story.  It was narration that was told from a first person perspective, developing his character but letting the viewer hear his inner thoughts and feelings.  And it wasn’t until the end of the movie that I learned that it wasn’t simply his inner monologue.  The narration was actually a deposition, of sorts.  Henry Hill was telling the story of his career as a criminal with an air of fond remembrance and nostalgia.  He was in a witness protection program, and was no longer living a life of crime.  And it was clear that he missed it.  Such an interesting point of view.

Add to that the fact that it was based on a true story, and you have a very interesting peek into the mind of a bad guy.  He would continually go on about how much he loved the fast and dangerous life, the thrill of theft and high-stake heists.  He remembered his fellow gangsters with affection.  He loved the money and the women.  He loved the respect and the freedom to do anything he wanted.  Sure, he had to work with psychopaths and murderers, but it was a small price to pay for all the glory and benefits of a life of organized crime.

I loved the scene in which a young Henry is released from his first arrest.  He feels like he has failed because he got caught selling stolen cigarettes, but when he exits the courtroom, he is greeted by all his fellow gangsters with smiles and hugs.  The big boss, Paulie Cicero, wonderfully played by Paul Sorvino, spreads his arms and says, “Hey!  You popped your cherry!”  I had to laugh out loud for that one.

Now, Ray Liota did a great job, there is no doubt.  Especially in the later scenes when his cocaine addiction started becoming a problem.  But it was really Henry’s partner, Tommy DeVito, played by Joe Pesci, who really stole the show.  Tommy was a killer, through and through.  He murdered without a conscience.  He shot people on whims.  He had a deep psychological fear of being laughed at, and anybody who made fun of him in any way usually ended up dead.  The part seemed to have been made for Pesci.  He was so incredibly suited to the role.  He was sometimes hard to watch.  He made me uncomfortable, which is exactly what he was supposed to do.  He was supposed to be scary and Pesci played it brilliantly.  The iconic “Are you laughing at me?” scene was a lesson in dangerous tension.

The film’s other big name was Robert De Niro, Playing Henry and Tommy’s boss, Jimmy Conway.  Again, De Niro seemed to be a natural at playing the part of a gangster.  There is a natural toughness about him that is so believable on the screen.  His character was just as much of a killer as Tommy, but unlike that psychopath, he was not so ruled by his emotions.  He had a brain, but he also had a temper when his orders were disobeyed.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Henry’s wife Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco.  In fact, there were plenty of times when she would take over the narration, which made sense because she had to go into the witness protection program with her husband.  She was also perfectly cast.  She looked good and though she started off as an innocent woman, she had her dark side.  It was very telling about her character that when she first saw Henry use a gun to beat the crap out of someone who had hurt her, she said, “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide.  But I didn’t.  I got to admit the truth.  It turned me on.”

But if Henry was such a successful gangster, why were he and his family in the witness protection program?  Well, his cocaine habit had gotten him into trouble and after Tommy had gotten himself whacked, Jimmy put a price out on Henry’s head.  So he did the only thing he could do.  He made a deal with the cops that put Jimmy and Paulie behind bars for the rest of their lives.  He testified against them in court.  And because he was the gangster that never actually murdered anybody, he was given a full pardon and the chance to disappear.

I’m still not a huge fan of movies that are overtly violent, and this movie certainly had its intense and gruesome scenes.  But Goodfellas impressed me with the great characters and its smart script.  Martin Scorsese, the movie’s director, did a good job and gave us a pretty well-made and memorable film.

1990 – The Godfather: Part III

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The Godfather: Part III – 1990

I’m going to start off by saying that I think this movie has got a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve.  The problem that it is, naturally, compared with the first two movies in the trilogy, and it just isn’t as good.  But that’s saying the third installment is an 8 instead of a 10.  But hey, it was still an 8!  I liked that it was a good story that could have worked, even if it wasn’t part of the Godfather Epic, but the fact that it gave us familiar characters that we knew and a history from the first two movies, just made it more enjoyable.

The movie did a great job of bringing back nearly all the original actors to reprise their roles, the only major exception being Robert Duvall.  He refused to take part in the film because, though he was not the lead, he felt he should get paid just as much as Al Pacino.  But Pacino, Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire, all returned, playing Michael Corleone, Kay-Adams Corleone, and Connie Corleone, respectively.  This time around, they were joined by Andy Garcia, who was awesome as Michael Corleone’s illegitimate nephew, Vincent Mancini/Corleone, and George Hamilton playing the character who replaced Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, B. J. Harrison.  Also, director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia, played Michael’s daughter Mary Corleone.  His son Anthony, was played by the talented singer, Franc D’Ambrosio.  Throw in a few more mafia gangsters like Joe Mantegna as one of Michael’s many rivals, Joey Zasa, Eli Wallach as Don Altobello, and a few supporting roles played by recognizable names like Richard Bright, Bridget Fonda, Donal Donnelly, and John Savage, and you have yourself a pretty good cast.

The film was unique in the epic trilogy in that it was much more introspective than its predecessors.  The main plot was about Michael Corleone’s desire to get out of the organized crime business and go legit.  Unfortunately, his past sins, his past rivals, his past business partners, and his past resentments all came back to haunt him.  It wasn’t a simple matter of walking away.  Michael has become an old man with a long list of regrets trailing behind him, and the scorn of his beloved ex-wife in front of him.

However, Vincent was a young and eager man who had a temper like his father Sonny, who Michael had killed in the first movie.  And I thought it was cool that as a last effort to go straight and get back in Kay’s good graces, Michael claims Vincent as a true Corleone and hands his position as Don of the family to him.  Unfortunately, it was already too late.  There was already a contract out on his life.

I also liked that Talia Shire had a more prominent part in this movie than she’d had in the first two movies.  It was very interesting to see how Connie was just as much of a heartless killer as her brother.  Shire did a great job.  Pacino and Keaton also turned in some great performances, of course, but for me, it was Garcia that was really the stand-out of the cast.  The character of Vincent was strong and powerful, not always smart, but passionate.  He looked good, and he is a skilled actor.

But if he was the film’s main strength, then I have to point at Sofia Coppola as its biggest weakness.  It must have been difficult for her, an unexperienced actress who never really wanted to act, to be put next to the likes of Pacino, Keaton, and Garcia.  But… she just really wasn’t very good.  And I also learned that she only took the part after the several actresses, for various reasons, could not play the part.  Julia Roberts had scheduling conflicts, Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered, Madonna was deemed too old for the part, and Winona Ryder dropped out at the last minute.

Another interesting aspect of the movie was that it fictionalized actual historical events and cleverly made them a part of the story.  For example, (quoted from Wikipedia), “the ending of the papacy of Paul VI,the very short tenure of John Paul I in 1978, and the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in 1982.  Like the character Cardinal Lamberto, who becomes John Paul I, the historical John Paul I, Albino Luciani, reigned for only a very short time before being found dead in his bed.”

But many film consider the film’s ending, apart from Sofia Coppola’s poor performance, to be its weakest part.  And when I say its ending, I mean the last 10 or 20 seconds.  The big climax ended in which Maria is shot and killed.  Vincent shoots the assassin, and Michael and Kay are left, screaming over her body.  We see a montage of all the women Michael has lost during his years as a crime boss, including Mary, Kay, and his first wife Apolonia.  Then the scene cuts to Michael as he sits all alone in the garden of Don Tommasino’s villa.  He is very old, and very alone.  After a few seconds, we see his hand drop just before he slumps out of his chair and falls, face down, on the ground, apparently dead.  We see a few more ominous seconds of his lifeless body, specifically conscious of the fact that there is nobody around to help him or even notice his death.  Some say it detracted from that character’s grand and larger-than-life persona, but I thought it was an ingenious commentary on the wages of a life of sin and vice.

1990 – Ghost

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Ghost – 1990

Ghost was a romantic supernatural thriller.  It was the highest grossing movie of 1990.  Whoopie Goldberg’s fantastic performance won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  The film spawned a Japanese remake in 2010, and a 2011 Broadway musical.  The pottery scene was so iconic that it has been parodied over and over again by more than 17 major television shows and movies. This was a good and very enjoyable movie, but I have to say, it really has a messed-up version of the cosmic justice system.

To explain that, here is a brief synopsis.  Sam, played by Patrick Swayze, and Molly, played by Demi Moore, are a young couple who are in love.  Their friend Carl, played by Tony Goldwyn, is secretly a money laundering criminal who hires Willie, a lowlife thug played by Rick Aviles, to steal Sam’s address book to help him in his fraudulent plans.  Willie accidentally murders Sam who does not go into the spectral heavenly light, but instead becomes a ghost.  Using his new ghost powers, Sam investigates his own murder and protects Molly from Carl and Willie.  To do this, Sam gets the help of Oda Mae Brown, a psychic medium played by Whoopie Goldberg.

That’s basically it.  But what this film says about the afterlife is… a little harsh.  You are either good or bad.  If you are good, you go to heaven.  If you are bad, you go to hell.  It is really a system of absolutes, using the concept of personal karma to judge a person.  If you do bad things in your life, you are doomed, so you better be good so you can go to heaven.  There is no ambiguity, no gray area.

I know I am oversimplifying the movie, but it is hard not to.  For example, what if Oda Mae’s character had died in the movie?  She was a con artist with a criminal record.  She didn’t want to help Sam and Molly, but Sam badgered her until she had no choice.  In the end, though, it became clear that she wanted to help Molly.  So if she had died, where would her soul go?  I know the film implies that she was actually a good woman, but what about all the people she had spent years swindling?

And what about Carl, who did die.  If you think about it, he was just a money launderer.  He never meant for Sam to get murdered.  And the only time he threatened Molly’s life was after Sam and Oda Mae had really put the screws to him by stealing 4 million dollars from him, putting him in a position in which his criminal partners would hunt him down and kill him.  He was desperate.  His financial crime scheme had spun out of control, and so he is doomed to hell?  Think about it critically.  Were his crimes any worse than Oda Mae’s?

Anyway, I have to take a step back and recognize that the cosmic justice system was, by no stretch of the imagination, the focus of the movie.  It was a romance, and the romance between Sam and Molly was well played.  The two had a good on-screen chemistry.  It was a thriller, and there was plenty of great suspense scenes, like the one in which Willie sneaks into Molly’s home, or when we see Willie trying to kill Oda Mae.

And it was most certainly supernatural.  When a good person died, the pure light that showed up to carry their souls to heaven was like an idealized version of unearthly glory.  But when a bad person died, shadow demons arrived to viciously attack the poor soul and drag him off, screaming, to eternal torment. It was pretty horrifying.

And while the ending of the movie was consistently sappy and romantic, it actually made very little sense.  So Willie and Carl die, Molly and Oda Mae are safe.  But then, as the heavenly light comes for Sam again, Molly and Oda Mae are able to see Sam’s ghost.  He says a last tearful goodbye to Molly and the two women see him walk off into heaven.  On the screen, we can see a line of luminous people who are waiting for Sam to join them.  Molly and Oda Mae are now first person eye witnesses into the afterlife.  And knowing that Sam is waiting for her in heaven, how could Molly ever fall in love with another man?  It would have made more sense to me if only Oda Mae had seen into the afterlife.  After all, it was already established that she had the supernatural power to communicate with the dead.   Molly did not.  But I think it was implied that because Sam was such a good guy, heaven was giving him and Molly a special gift.

1990 – Awakenings

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Awakenings – 1990

I loved this movie.  It got so many things right.  It was highly emotional, inspirational, slightly sappy and sentimental, it had some really top-notch acting, a smart script, a perfect cast, and a beautiful message.  Both Robin Williams and Robert De Niro were wonderfully believable in their respective roles.  By the end of the film, my cheeks were streaked with tears.  It got me.

This was a film based on the true story of British Dr. Oliver Sacks, whom director Penny Marshall, of Lavern and Shirley fame, turned into an American, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, played by Williams.  He is portrayed as a brilliant research doctor who is so socially crippled as to be nearly on par with the patients over whom he is given charge.  They are victims of the 1917 – 1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, which leaves the poor soul in a permanent catatonic state.  Right off the bat, the film is dealing with a sad subject which is emphasized by the beautifully melancholy score by Randy Newman.

Dr. Sayer seems to be a social cripple.  He lives a solitary life, doing his best to minimize any human contact.  Nevertheless, his obvious lack of social skills seems to be a benefit, given the nature of his patients.  He can talk with them and interact with them, but they cannot respond in any way.  Or can they?  Soon after taking their cases, he learns that though everybody seems to have given up any hope of reaching them in any meaningful way, they can respond to certain stimuli.  This inspired him to begin researching ways to help them.

Sayers began to believe that trapped inside his patients’ inert bodies, were normal, active minds.  The line that really encapsulated the dismissive attitudes of most doctors and scientists was chilling.  In a conversation with a fellow researcher on the subject, Sayers asks, “What’s it like to be them?  What are they thinking?”  Dr. Ingham, played by Max Von Sydow, replies, “They’re not.  The virus didn’t spare their higher faculties.”  Sayers asks, “We know that for a fact?”  “Yes.”  “Because?”  And Dr. Ingham’s reply was both ominous and frightening.  “Because… the alternative is unthinkable.”

His star patient is Leonard Lowe, played by De Niro.  De Niro was amazing, and I was shocked to learn that he didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor for his stunning performance, though he was at least nominated.  The film actually started out showing Leonard as a child, as the debilitating disease slowly took hold.  With his mother’s permission, Dr. Sayer begins giving Leonard an experimental drug that miraculously brings him back to life.

The film follows Leonard’s amazing process of rediscovering the joy of being alive.  De Niro was fantastic as he portrayed a man who remembers going to sleep as a young child, and awakens as a 40 year old man.  The drug is administered to the entire ward and all the patients respond.  Leonard even meets a girl who falls in love with him.  It seems like a miracle until Leonard begins to show signs of returning to his catatonic state.  The movie is very effectively depressing as we watch him spiral back down into the grip of the disease.  As I said, De Niro did such a phenomenal job of portraying the fear, the courage, and the helplessness that the role required.

But another aspect of the film that I loved was the sub-plot in which, just as Dr. Sayer helps to bring Leonard back to life, Leonard, through his incredible struggle and friendship with Dr. Sayer, helps to bring him out of his fear of social interaction.  And the sweet ending that hints at a possible romance between the doctor and his head nurse, Miss Costello, played by Julie Kavner, was just a tenuous light at the end of a long dark tunnel.  It said that the movie wasn’t just about Leonard’s awakening to the miracle of life and love, but also Dr. Sayer’s.

But De Niro wasn’t the only one that gave a wonderful performance.  Williams was also amazing.  Much as in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society, he gave us a very subdued and intimate performance, which was in great contrast to his wild comedic performances and stand-up career.  He created a character who was almost painfully inept when dealing with other human beings, and yet he was likable and even charming at times.  It just made the hint of a relationship with Nurse Costello believable.

This was a wonderful movie and I would highly recommend it.  Leonard’s wonderful little speech which seemed to sum up the movie’s central message was inspiring and bears repeating here.  He said, “Read the newspaper.  What does it say?  All bad.  It’s all bad.  People have forgotten what life is all about. They’ve forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded. They need to be reminded of what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!”  If that isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is.

1989 – My Left Foot

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My Left Foot – 1989

I’ll start this off by saying that this was an amazing movie that told a phenomenal story.  Daniel Day Lewis was incredible in the role that won him his first of three Oscars for Best Actor.  He plays Christy Brown, an Irish artist and author.  The film is based on Brown’s autobiography, and was directed by Jim Sheridan.

The story is wonderful and inspirational, telling of how Christy was born with cerebral palsy, grew up learning to deal with his disability, and became an accomplished painter and writer.  What I liked about the movie is that it was never negative.  It was always positive.  He did not have the ability to speak or communicate with anybody until he was 10 years old, so everybody assumed that his mind was just as crippled as his body.  Unfortunately, his mother Bridget, played by Brenda Fricker, and his father Paddy, played by Ray McAnally, treat him as if he is severely retarded.

But through sheer force of will, the young boy uses the only part of his body over which he has control, his left foot, to let his family know that he is just as smart as anybody.  He learns to communicate, giving himself a chance at a somewhat normal life.  But not only does he learn to write by holding a piece of chalk between his toes, he discovers that he has incredible talent as a painter.  And if you don’t know, his paintings were incredibly good for any artist, but knowing the artist’s disability, knowing that he did it all using only his left foot, I was just speechless.

Doctor Eileen Cole, played by Fiona Shaw, takes him on as a patient, teaching him how to function normally in society, and greatly improving his language skills.  When she discovers his artistry, she uses her connections to get him his own exhibition in a gallery.  He falls in love with her, but is devastated when he learns that she is engaged to another man.  He works out his pain by writing his autobiography, which becomes an inspiration for others who share his debilitating disease.  And that’s the basic plot.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance was nothing short of genius.  The physical demands of the role must have been bafflingly difficult to embody.  But his focus, his relentless realism, and his incredible skills as an actor, made his Oscar win inevitable.  He was truly amazing.  Fricker also took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and again, it was well-deserved.

But what I came away from the film thinking about was how positive the movie was.  It could so easily have been dramatized as a sob story about a man who had to deal with more than just his disability.  He could have been portrayed as a man who had to struggle with his parents’ scorn, or his siblings’ derision.  He could have had neighbors who were afraid of him or other kids who made fun of him.  But no.  I loved that he was shown as growing up in a very loving home with people who cared for him.  The neighborhood community all watched out for him and he actually had a very good childhood, in spite of the cerebral palsy.

And speaking of Christy’s childhood, I would be remiss if I did not mention the incredible performance of child actor Hugh O’Conor, who played young Christy.  The boy’s performance was every bit as good as Lewis’s.  He was phenomenal in his own right and deserves to be recognized.  Not only was he a good actor, he really looked a lot like Daniel Day-Lewis, enhancing the film’s believability.

But the positive nature of the movie was really highlighted by the bookended narrative.  The movie actually starts out as the adult Christy is waiting in a private room at a charity event that is lauding him as the guest of honor.  Watching over him is a pretty young nurse named Mary Carr, played by Ruth McCabe.  As the two wait for Christy’s moment to appear, Mary begins to read his book.  The main body of the film then shows his life as she reads it.

The film is sparsely punctuated with returns to the room, reminding us that we are watching a flashback of sorts.  And then the movie’s final sequence follows Christy’s attempt to get Mary to break a date to stay with him.  By then, we know that he has been hurt by female rejection on more than one occasion.  We are afraid that it is going to happen again.  But Mary, having read his book and gotten to know him a little, agrees to break her date.

And I loved the final scene in which Mary and Christy leave the charity together.  When it becomes clear that the two have a connection, a little bit of text appears on the screen, letting us know that they married in 1972.  The movie ended there, and I was happy.  But my research revealed a sadder ending.  Apparently, the movie, and Christy and Mary’s relationship, was very fictional.  According to Christy’s siblings, Mary was an abusive alcoholic wife who regularly beat Christy, and was habitually unfaithful to him with both men and women.  But I can see why they left all that out.

1997 – Contact

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Contact – 1997


Spoiler Alert


This is actually one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time.  There are so many things that this film did right.  The casting was spot-on, the acting was incredible, the special effects were phenomenal, the realism of the plot was undeniable, the cinematography was amazing, the musical score was perfect, the script was intelligent, and the climax was exciting.  How’s that for a single movie?

I’ve seen this film over and over, and it never gets boring.  Jody Foster is wonderful as Dr. Eleanor Arroway, a brilliant astronomer and scientist who is obsessed with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.  The film does a great job of developing her character so that when she finds what she is looking for, we really get to understand her actions and beliefs that propel her to the movie’s climactic ending.  Foster turned in a powerful performance.  In my humble opinion, it is one of the best performances of her career, and that is saying a lot.

The film also stars Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, a theologian with whom Ellie falls in love.  And therein lies one of the most fascinating and well-written aspects of the film.  Screenwriters, James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, did an incredible job of looking at the hypothetical situation of human discovery of intelligent life in outer space from both points of view: scientific and religious.  Each side is brilliantly explained in an easily understandable and thought-provoking way.

The film explores what would actually happen if, in our modern world, we actually found such life in the universe.  How would the general populace react to it?  How would religious groups react?  The government?  The scientific community?  In the story, Ellie nearly ruins her career in her impossible search for alien life.  Few people share her beliefs.  But when she hears a radio signal coming from deep space, she is suddenly taken seriously.

James Woods plays Michael Kitz, the skeptical National Security Advisor who is constantly at odds with Ellie as she pursues her science-fiction-like goals.  The signal that she hears is a radio signal that had left earth in 1936, traveled 26 light-years to the star constellation called Vega, and then was sent back to Earth, hugely amplified.  Along with the signal is 60,000 pages of encrypted data that has to be decoded.

Ellie’s main scientific rival is David Drumlin, played by Tom Skerritt.  He is one of the most frustrating characters in the film.  Before the message, he was always the first to ridicule Ellie for her SETI work.  After the message, he swooped in over and over again to take credit for her long years of hard work.  The decoded data turns out to be blueprints for building a mysterious machine.  Eventually, it is revealed that the structure is a fantastic transport device, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Again, the realism of the movie is perfect.  The plot goes into how the government takes over the project and slowly squeezes Ellie out of the picture.  But Ellie’s long-time benefactor, eccentric billionaire and engineer, S. R. Hadden, played by John Hurt, goes out of his way to keep her involved in what he calls “The Game of the Mellenium.”

I loved one of the philosophical arguments that the movie made.  When Ellie says of the aliens, “There is no reason to believe their intentions are hostile,” Kitz responds by asking, “Why is it the position of the egghead stat that aliens would always be benign?  Why is that Doctor?”  She replies, “We pose no threat to them.  It would be like us going out of our way to destroy a few microbes on some anthill in Africa.”  Drumlin chimes in, saying, “That’s a very interesting analogy.  And how guilty would we feel if we went and destroyed a few microbes on an anthill in Africa?”  Things like that which were so cleverly presented just fire my imagination and make me think.  Great dialogue!

The US Government decides to build the machine, and the film goes into the long and arduous process of choosing a single human to go into the transport pod, presumably to be Earth’s first ambassador to extraterrestrial life.  Ellie is on the list, but once again, Drumlin crushes her dreams by taking the position for himself.  But then a cult of religious fanatics, led by a man called Joseph, played by Jake Busey, become terrorists and sabotage the machine, killing Drumlin, in the process.  But Hadden surprises Ellie with the revelation that he has secretly built a second machine of his own.  He chooses Ellie to go.

The design of the machine itself was both fantastical and realistic, at least within the confines of the science-fiction plot.  The gigantic device used spinning concentric rings that generated massive amounts of electromagnetic energy, thus opening a wormhole that would carry the transport pod across the galaxy.  As Ellie was catapulted into space, the special effects went into overdrive.  Her journey through the wormhole was amazingly well done.  I loved how they showed ghostly images of her face emerging from her head, saying dialogue that she hadn’t yet said.  And the phrase, “They’re alive!” was both exciting and ominous at the same time. It made the point that time itself was being twisted.

And the beautiful images of her journey into the unknown were spellbinding.  When she finally reached her destination, the magical representation of a special place that was taken from her mind, a drawing of a beautiful beach she had made as a child, was a feast for the eyes.  The glowing, crystalline water, the swaying palm trees, and the bright, sparkling sky full of stars, was just gorgeous.

Then came the part of the movie that many people didn’t like, but I loved it.  The alien that came to greet her took the form of her long-dead father, played by David Morse.  He spoke lovingly toward her and had a little conversation with her saying, “You’re an interesting species.  An interesting mix.  You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares.  You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not.  See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”  Wonderfully said.

But the movie doesn’t stop there.  It goes on to show that as the transport pod dropped through the machine, it, in fact didn’t go anywhere.  Ellie’s journey to the center of the galaxy, which was supposed to have taken about 18 hours, never took place.  Kits and nearly everyone else on the planet accuse her of making up her entire experience, or at the very least hallucinating it.  And you know there would be skeptics that would refuse to believe her.  A public hearing is held in which she is forced to admit that she may have imagined the whole thing.

But she refuses to deny what happened.  It shows how she, as a woman who has lived her entire life believing only what her senses can show her, now has to believe in her experience through unshakable faith.  And that, for me is the real magic of the movie’s philosophy.  It shows that there is absolutely no reason why science and religion cannot work in perfect harmony with each other, a belief I have long held to be true.  It is something that I think is stated very clearly and very beautifully in the movie.

And one last aspect of the movie that I found fascinating was the fact that Kitz, who is the head of the inquiry attacking Ellie’s fantastical story, seems to be completely aware that she is telling the truth.  The movie makes the point of saying that during the few seconds it took for the pod to drop through the machine, 18 hours have passed for Ellie.  But two things happened in those few seconds that would seem to confirm Ellie’s story.  First is the fact that the chair which had been bolted to the pod’s ceiling had been torn off and crushed against a wall.  This couldn’t have happened in only a few seconds.  And if it had, Ellie would not have had time to unstrap herself from the chair before it was destroyed.  Second was the fact that her camera recorded over 18 hours of static footage.  Kitz knew these things, yet covered up the information in what felt like a government conspiracy.    You know it would happen!!

Other actors in the film who did a great job are Jena Malone, playing young Ellie, William Fichtner as Ellie’s blind co-worker Kent, Geoffrey Blake as Fisher, Ellie’s lab assistant, and Angela Basset as Rachel Constantine, the White House Chief of Staff.  I also loved how they made thing even more realistic by using real celebrities playing themselves like Larry King, Bryant Gumbel, Jay Leno, and even real footage of President Bill Clinton.

And I have to mention the wonderful score by Alan Silvesrtri.  It was exciting and intense when it needed to be, and yet intimate and personal at the other times.  It had a grandeur about it that was perfect for the epic nature of the story.  Silvestri is truly a master of his craft.

As I did my research for the movie I read about a number of different plot holes, most of which were minor enough not to be noticed by anyone but a real aerospace scientist or astronomer.  But one glaring hole that I have always wondered about was the idea that Ellie used the machine to travel to the center of the galaxy, but nobody believed her.  Why did they not use the machine again and send another person through to either confirm or deny her experience.  I mean, here they have this multi-billion dollar piece of technology, and they don’t think to use it again to compare the results?  Of course they would!

I also learned that the book that the movie is based on goes into much greater detail about the science of the fictional plot.  They also explain a lot more about the aliens that Ellie encounters, and goes even further to show and confirm the presence of God in nature and outer space.  As one reviewer wrote, “If you like the movie I’d recommend the book. It gives much more insight on the aliens, and expands the scope as there are a number of scientists that participate rather than just one from America, and goes more in depth into the science. It also attempts to show that religion and science can get along. My favorite part is at the very end of the book where Sagan shows how God hid a message in the very fabric of the cosmos, that we could only read when we were ready.”

It kind of makes me want to read the book now.  Either way, the one catch phrase that the movie makes use of 3 times, is both profound and thought-provoking.  One person would ask, “Do you believe aliens exist?” to which someone else would reply, “I don’t know.  But if it is just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.”

Truer words were never spoken.

1989 – Field of Dreams

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Field of Dreams – 1989

This was a strange movie.  On the one hand, I got it.  It was a fantasy set in modern times in which a bunch of benign ghosts help a man to reconcile his unresolved issues with his dead father.  But on the other hand, I found it personally dull because I have never been a baseball fan.  The biggest problem I had with the film stems from this.  The film takes the stance that there is nothing more purely wholesome and American than the game of baseball.  Therefore, it is a given absolute that everybody loves the sport.  If you are a true red-blooded American, then of course, you love baseball.

Wrong.  I have nothing against the game, and I fully admit that it has been a huge staple of American culture.  But that culture has many staples that can be enjoyed, and I have never been remotely interested in baseball.  I do not have fond memories of playing baseball as a child, and I certainly don’t feel like I ever missed out on anything because I didn’t play catch with my father.

But the movie wasn’t about me.  It was about someone who did embody those interests and issues.  Kevin Costner played Ray Kinsella, a farmer who had once rebelled against the wishes of his father, bad-mouthed his father’s baseball hero, and left home, never to talk to him again.  Now, as he is working in his corn field, Ray hears a disembodied voice utter the famous phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”  Then he has a vision of a baseball field in the middle of his field of crops.  He tells his wife Annie, played by Amy Madigan, who supports his crazy idea.  Ray uses his family’s life savings to build the sports field, complete with electric floodlights for night games, but he brings himself to the brink of financial ruin.  Still, Annie continues to support him.  Ray cannot pay his bills and the bank threatens to foreclose on his mortgage, at which point Annie begins to doubt her husband’s visions.

But then a lone ball player shows up on the field.  Ray recognizes him as Shoeless Joe Jackson, wonderfully played by Ray Liotta.  Now here is what I found interesting about the plot.  When Ray goes out to meet Joe, it is revealed that Joe is aware that he is a ghost.  Apparently, when Joe had been alive, he and 8 other players had been banned from playing baseball because of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.  But Jackson had been wronged because he had been innocent.  Eventually, all 8 of the players begin having practice games on Ray’s field.  Anyway, the disembodied voice returns, leading Ray on a journey across the country to find two men, one of them living, and the other dead.  James Earl Jones plays Terrance Mann, an activist author and poet who, after attempting to rebuff Ray, begins to hear the voice.  Together, the two find the ghost of another baseball player with unresolved issues, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, played by Burt Lancaster in his final film performance, though his younger ghost self was played by Frank Whaley.

To make a long story short, the fantasy continues until Ray finally meets the ghost of the one ball-player he really needed to meet.  After Terrance is invited to leave his earthly existence to join the rest of the ghosts in heaven, Shoeless Joe points out a lone ball player removing his catcher’s gear.  It, of course, turns out to be Ray’s own father, played by Dwier Brown, but as a young man, as he had been before Ray had been born.  Ray calls him Dad, establishing that they are both aware of who the other person is, and they play catch.  This somehow forms a bond and resolves all Ray’s Daddy issues.  Oh, and for some completely unexplained reason, hundreds of cars arrive, ready to pay money to watch baseball on his field, thus providing the money for Ray to pay his bills and keep the farm.

I think that what bothered me about the film is that fantasy, and I’ll also say science fiction, generally only works if ground rules are established and followed.  If they are not, then the viewer is only left with unanswered questions.  For example, the film never explained where the voice came from.  It never explained why only certain people were able to see the ball players while others were not.  I have to ask why Ray’s daughter Karin, played by Gaby Hoffman, and Terrance inexplicably became prophets who were able to convince Ray not to sell his farm to Annie’s brother, Mark, played by Timothy Busfield.   And nobody seemed the least bit bothered by Karin’s near death experience.  Magical things just seemed to happen to suit the story without much rhyme or reason.  It is almost like a child making up a story, saying, “This happened, and this happened, and this happened.”  But why did they happen?  Without some kind of an answer, the story comes across as pretty weak, and dare I say, childish.

And I have to make mention of the movie’s final shot, the one showing the hundreds of cars lined up to watch baseball.  They needed to rethink this one.  Shoeless Joe and the ghost baseball players had left, saying that they would be back the next day.  The only two people left on the field are Ray and the ghost of his father playing catch. Suddenly, all those hundreds of people are shown arriving in the middle of the night.  It would have made more sense for them to arrive the next day when the players had returned.

1989 – Dead Poets Society

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Dead Poets Society – 1989

This was a very good movie on multiple levels.  When one thinks of the film, the first name that might come up is Robin Williams, and he certainly played a pivotal role.  But the movie really had an ensemble cast.  It could almost be argued that either Ethan Hawk or Robert Sean Leonard played the lead.  The movie dealt with some very serious issues like the concept of living your life to the fullest, not conforming to the norms of society, being a free thinker in order to “suck the marrow of life.”  It also dealt with the incredible pressures that are forced upon young men to excel in school, or in other words, to live up to the unreasonable expectations of their parents.

On another level, the film might almost be called a coming of age movie.  It follows the spiritual enlightenment of a group of young boys attending the prestigious Welton Academy, an all-male prep boarding school in Vermont.  The school firmly believes in tradition, discipline, and hard work.  In all honesty, it is a school with wonderful core values.  But the film’s main drama comes not from the teachers, but the parents who cruelly treat their sons like possessions instead of human beings.

Robert Sean Leonard plays Neil Perry, a student at Welton who is a fine and upstanding boy, and a dutiful son with a thirst for knowledge.  He, like any normal young man, longs for independence, a privilege he enjoys whenever his father is not around.  But there’s the problem.  His father, played by Kurtwood Smith, is an overbearing disciplinarian who has absolute control over his son.  He has his boy’s entire scholastic life planned out for him.  He tells him what classes and what extracurricular activities he will take.

Never once does Mr. Perry take into account what Neil, himself, actually wants.  He is so strict that he belittles and threatens Neil in front of his friends, using guilt to force him to submit to his every command.  “I’m only trying to give you all the opportunities I never had,” or “You know how much this means to your mother.”  Even though Neil gets straight As he callously tells Neil to quit working on the school paper, something Neil enjoys because he has decided that it is a distraction from Neil’s other studies.  I focus on this subplot only because it was the most difficult one for me to watch, so much did I hate the character of Mr. Perry.

But the main plot involves Robin Williams playing Mr. Keating, an English teacher who, through his own passion for poetry, inspires the students to latch on to the phrase “carpe diem” or seize the day.  Neil and his fellow students begin to act out with independence, each with varying degrees of success.  Ethan Hawke plays painfully shy Todd Anderson, who has the soul of a poet, and though it is hard to tell, I think the entire movie was really told from his perspective.

Also in the Dead Poets Society, a club made up of the boys in Mr. Keating’s class, is Knox Overstreet, played by Josh Charles, who is inspired to pursue the girl he falls in love with, Chris Noel, played by Alexandra Powers.  Gale Hansen plays Charlie Dalton, the wild one in the Society, who is inspired to rebel by publishing an unauthorized article in the school newspaper, suggesting that girls be allowed to attend the school.  For this he is rewarded with physical punishment, administered by the school’s headmaster, Gale Nolan, played by Norman Lloyd.

The story is powerful and, yes, at the risk of overusing the word, inspiring.  But it is also very hard to watch.  The film has two climaxes.  The first is when Neil, who has finally had enough of living under the cruel and uncaring boot heel of his father, commits suicide.  The second, is when Mr. Keating, who is blamed for the suicide, is fired, and the boys of the Dead Poet’s Society, stand up on their desks, and acknowledge that they do not believe he is responsible.  Headmaster Nolan wants him to leave in shame, but because of the students, he is able to leave with a certain amount of dignity and pride.

William’s performance was wonderfully restrained.  True, most of what the actor is known for is his wild and off-the-wall comedy, but he never fails to turn in incredibly powerful dramatic performances like 1982’s The World According to Garp, and 1997’s Good Will Hunting.  He was an incredibly intense actor, whether he was playing comedy or drama.  But the boys all gave good performances as well, not just Leonard and Hawke.

And lastly, I have to mention the film’s beautiful cinematography and its score.  While neither was nominated for any awards, the filming locations, the late 50s period aesthetics, and the wonderful soundtrack by Maurice Jarre all combined to make the movie fantastic, a feast for both the eyes and the ears.  Even though I wasn’t born until 1973, nor was I ever a part of an elite scholastic society, I almost felt nostalgic for a place like Welton Academy in 1959.  Or maybe it was just my own experiences of being a young man, full of potential.  Either way it was very effective film-making.