1996 – Shine











Shine – 1996

This was an OK drama with some pretty spot-on acting by Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Noah Taylor, Googie Withers, Sir John Gielgud, and Vanessa Redgrave.  The main plot is a biography of the famous Australian concert pianist, David Helfgott, played by Rush.  However, he is afflicted with a mental illness, schizoaffective disorder, which, according to Wikipedia, may include symptoms like delusions, hallucinations, elevated or irritable mood, grandiosity (inflated self-esteem), agitation, risk-taking behavior, decreased need for sleep, poor concentration, rapid speech, and racing thoughts.  This is what Rush had to portray.

And he certainly played it well.  He was good enough to take home the Academy Award for best Actor.  But then again, I’ve never seen Geoffrey Rush do a poor job in any film.  Mueller-Stahl also turned in a good performance, as did Redgrave in her fairly small roll.  As a matter of fact, now that I’m thinking about it, Rush’s part was not as big as I assumed it would be.  The film was a fictionalized biography.  The first two thirds of the movie covered his formative years from around age 8 or so until his completely glossed over induction into a mental institution at roughly age 23.  Rush was only really prominent in a little over a third of the film.

The rest of the time, the teenage David was played by Noah Taylor.  And I have to say that the film’s more dramatic moments were carried out by Taylor.  He covered the violent interactions with his abusive father, Peter, played by Mueller-Stahl, and the more personal scenes with three of his beloved mentors, Mr. Rosen, played by Nicholas Bell, Katherine Prichard, played by Googie Withers, and at the Royal College of Music in London, Cecil Parks, played by John Gielgud.  Taylor also played the fateful Rachmaninoff Concerto no. 3 scene which culminates in the somehow dangerous piece of music shattering his fragile emotional state.

Honestly, the scene was very dramatic, but it was a little heavy handed.  Let me explain.  Throughout the film, David and his father keep trying to get someone to teach him the Rach 3, as they called it.  But everyone kept refusing to teach him, saying that he was not ready, as if to say the music was too emotionally demanding for him, it could kill him.  Huh?  But then when allowed to choose his own music, he attempts the Rach 3, like it is a daredevil stunt that presented a physical danger.

But I guess he should have listened.  The 19 year old David performs the piece as if he was channeling Rachmaninoff, himself.  The scene is overly-dramatized as if he is losing his sanity in the highly emotional music, but cannot stop himself.  By the end, he is drenched in sweat, his hair hanging in his face.  He plays his final chord and the audience is on their feet, cheering wildly.  David stands up and collapses onto the stage, his mind completely gone.

The film then spends only a minute or two showing that David is in a mental institution, receiving electric shock therapy.  Suddenly, ten years have passed, and Geoffrey Rush has taken over the part.  From then on, the character is nothing but clearly mentally unstable, talking so quickly and incoherently, that it is often difficult to understand him, though I’ll fully admit that Rush played it well.  David’s marriage to his wife Gillian, played by Redgrave, and his return to the stage as a concert pianist, almost seemed like an afterthought.  It happened very quickly and very little attention was given to their meeting or to developing their relationship.  Redgrave did a good enough job, but there just wasn’t much for her to do.

Now, of course, I did a little reading and found that the authenticity of some parts of the film are in question.  Most of this controversy is centered around the character of Peter Helfgott.  In the film, he was portrayed as the cause of all of David’s mental instability.  He was cruel and abusive, had no tolerance for failure or disobedience, and held the boy and his talent under an iron thumb.  But members of the real Helfgott family were sorely offended by this inaccurate portrayal.  They say that Peter was a kind man who only held David back out of concern for his young age and fragile emotional health.  The real David’s mother has been quoted as saying that the film haunted her, and she felt that that “an evil had been done.”  But the filmmakers stand by their work, saying that David’s own recollections were accurately taken into account, as were those of every interviewee who had a professional or musical connection with David when he was young.

And in closing I also have to concede the point that the movie is universally considered to be fictional in a single major detail.  Helfgott is not as good as the movie makes him out to be.  Yes, he was a child prodigy, and yes, until he tragically fell under the influence of his mental illness, his teachers all thought of him as exceptionally gifted.  But the movie would have us believe that he is currently on par with the greatest pianists in history like Rubinstein or Horowitz, but from what I have heard from people who have seen him live in concert and from what I have read from music critics, his playing now leaves a lot to be desired.  The film calls Helfgott a genius but the critics all seem to disagree.

1996 – Secrets and Lies











Secrets and Lies – 1996

This was an average movie right up until the climax.  Then it got really messed up.  The movie is about a family in England that is plagued by, you guessed it, secrets and lies.  The main thrust of the plot follows a young, well-educated black woman who, after the death of her adopted mother, decides to search for her birth mother.  But when she finds the woman, she gets a lot more than she bargained for.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Hortense Cumberbatch.  She was really the stand-out actress in the cast.  She did such a good job she was recognized with a nomination for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  She was beautiful and had an emotional depth to her that was sincere and undeniable.  As she learns of her birth mother Cynthia Purley, played by Brenda Blethyn, who was nominated for Best Actress for her part, Hortense goes through fear, excitement, and everything in between.  But Cynthia is a complete mess of a character.  She is uneducated, an emotional wreck, spends most of her time in a manic, tearful state, and is white.  When the two finally meet and their vastly different worlds collide, the extreme awkwardness is palpable.

But the movie spends just as much time following the other members of Cynthia’s family.  We follow her relationship with her other daughter Roxanne, played by Claire Rushbrook.  We also follow the story of her somewhat estranged brother Maurice, played by Timothy Spall and his wife Monica, played by Phyllis Logan.  Roxanne is a sour young woman who seems to be angry at the life she was born into, for which she blames her mother.  Maurice is a good and hard-working man who loves his wife, sister, and niece dearly.  But he and Monica have problems that are threatening to end the marriage.

The plot is fairly average with a lot of set-up and character development, which isn’t a bad thing, though it does make for a slow paced film.  But as I said, the climax really tries its best to make up for it.  Maurice and Monica host a birthday party for Roxanne.  Cynthia, having finally been comfortably reconciled to Hortense, invites her to the party, claiming that she is a friend from work.  While at the celebration, she has an emotional breakdown and tells everyone the true nature of her relationship with the girl.  The entire gathering blows up into a flood of confessions, accusations, and tears.

The scene was so well planned out and perfectly executed.  By the end of the sequence, there doesn’t seem to be a dry eye in the room.  Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste really played their parts well.  Blethyn seemed to carry the bulk of the emotional weight of the scene and she did it by staying true to the unstable character of Cynthia.  Jean Baptiste’s emotional power seemed to dominate the first half of the film.  Both women were very well-cast.

Even Spall got his momentary emotional outburst that caught me off guard.  When Cynthia cruelly lashes out at Monica for not performing her wifely duty to give her husband children, Monica breaks down into hysterical sobbing.  The ever calm and rational Maurice stands up to defend his wife by confessing her shameful secret.  Yelling at his sister, he tells her that Monica is not able to have children.  I’m not exactly sure why that secret was treated as such a source of shame for Monica, though I can understand the intensity of her pain and anger.  Maurice shouts that the three people he loves the most all seem to hate each other, and he feels caught in the middle of them.

I already liked his character but what he did next made my like him even more.  As the family has their meltdown, Hortense can only sit quietly in the background.  She is horrified to be the unwitting catalyst which started all the trouble.  But when the shouting is all over and the tears begin to subside, he makes a point of welcoming the black stranger, the elephant in the room, to the family.  Bless you Maurice.

Now, I feel I have to make special mention of the dialogue, which was all spoken with a heavy British accent.  It wasn’t the high and proper English accent you might hear in a Merchant-Ivory period drama, nor was it a thick cockney accent reminiscent of My Fair Lady.  It was a modern middle-class accent that was, at times, difficult to understand.  But it was appropriate and went a long way to enhance both the realism and believability of the film and its drama.

I was also rather impressed to learn that the film’s dialogue was almost completely unscripted.  The director, Mike Leigh, made the inspired choice to tell his exceptional cast of actors about what was supposed to happen in a scene, and then let them improvise their lines and create their own characters.  With less-skilled actors, the film could so easily have been a disaster, but it worked, and worked beautifully.  To paraphrase Wikipedia, “The emotional scene in the diner, in which Cynthia realizes that she is indeed Hortense’s mother, Brenda Blethyn was not told beforehand that Hortense was black, making her reaction more authentic.”  How very true.

1996 – Jerry MaGuire











Jerry MaGuire – 1996

I had it in my mind that this was a pretty good movie.  I was expecting to like it because I had seen it before a long time ago and I had enjoyed it then, though I didn’t remember any of the details of the actual plot.  I remembered that I liked some of the characters and the message was good, that being that personal kindness and honest hard work will make you a better person than soulless greed and money grubbing.  But upon seeing it again, I have changed my mind.  While it was an OK movie, I found that after seeing it the second time, I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.  Here’s why.

The movie was painfully predictable with a cookie-cutter plot.  The acting was good, though not all of it.  The music didn’t seem to fit the story, though I’ll admit that I can’t exactly pinpoint why.  And the movie shamelessly broke the cardinal sin of movie making.  Cute for the sake of cute is never cute.  Never!  I know.  That last one is actually a plot point, but they went a little overboard.  And on top of it all, the movie is packed so full of that testosterone-laden, sports-minded machismo that seems to be inherent in the sports industry, and self-importance that I kept wanting to roll my eyes.

Tom Cruise played the title character Jerry Maguire, a high-roller sports agent who would basically sell his soul to get his clients multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement deals.  He is successful working for Sports Management International or SMI.  All he cares about is the money instead of about the people he works for.  After a tragic scene involving a severely injured athlete and his scared little son, Jerry, fueled by guilt, writes a mission statement that condemns SMI for focusing too much on the money and not enough on the clients.  Of course, he is fired.

Before leaving he tries to get his clients to follow him as he starts his own sports agent agency, though the only one he is able to get is Rod Tidwell, played by Cuba Gooding Jr.  Rod is a little known football player with a bloated sense of self-worth and an attitude problem.  And this is where we get that famous, though kind-of ridiculous, “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” scene as Jerry begs Rod not to drop him as his agent.  Then, as Jerry leaves the office, he does one of those dramatic and boisterous exits in which he actually uses the “Who’s with me?” line.  At first, nobody responds, but at the last second, single mother Dorothy Boyd, played by Renee Zellweger, agrees to go with him to be his personal assistant.

There’s the set-up.  From there, the plot falls into the completely predictable pattern we have seen in so many other films.  And I’m pointing my finger at rom-coms in particular.  Jerry tries his best to make things work but keeps hitting road blocks.  Eventually things go so badly that he hits rock bottom, gets drunk, and has one of those “I’ve messed everything up” scenes.  Then he is inspired to pull himself out of his slump and he works very hard.  He has an unexpected major success and everything turns out for the best in the end.  And not only has Jerry learned a valuable lesson, but he has become a better person.  Oh, and his trite romance with Dorothy turns out to be true love, and they all live happily ever after.

I know I’m over-simplifying it a lot, but those incredibly predictable tropes are the backbones of the plot.  And along the way we also had to deal with Dorothy’s 5 year-old son, Ray, played by Jonathan Lipnicki.  He was cute overload, and they had him doing things that shoved it down our throats.  He would do such inane things like running to Jerry and hugging his leg.  They had him talking with a ridiculous lisp.  They had him pouting when Jerry and Dorothy were on the verge of splitting up.  But like I said, I understand that Jerry falling in love with the boy was an important plot point.  I just think they could have toned it down or changed a few things so it wasn’t so forced.

And then there was Renee Zellweger’s acting, or lack thereof.  She just didn’t seem to be up to par with her co-stars.  I mean, for all the flack I’m giving the movie, Tom Cruise is actually a good actor, though I feel I’ve seen him play the same character in some of his other films.  So you put Zellweger next to him or Cuba Gooding Jr. and she just isn’t as good.  At least she wasn’t in this film.  She seemed to have the same facial expression, no matter what emotion she was trying to display.  And to me, her acting has always seemed a bit forced, like she was not completely comfortable in front of the camera.  You know how some actors like Robert DiNero or Jody Foster look totally at ease on the screen, like they aren’t even aware they are being filmed?  That isn’t Renee Zellweger.  Still, I did like some of the supporting cast like Bonnie Hunt, Jay Mohr, and Jerry O’Connell, and Beau Bridges.

And I have to acknowledge one final interesting fact about the film.  Several lines from the film have become embedded in the pop-culture vernacular.  Who knew they came from Jerry MaGuire?  Not only did we get “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” but we also got, “You complete me”, “Help me help you”, and “You had me at ‘hello’”

1996 – Fargo











Fargo – 1996

I’d seen this movie before, but I had forgotten just how good it is, how perfectly the story was told.   Joel and Ethan Coen were the masterminds behind the crime dramedy that took us from deadly serious to laugh-out-loud hilarious with a sense of ease and grace that surprised me.  And the music had a lot to do with the film’s genius.  Right from the very beginning of the opening credits, the score by Carter Burwell was soft and creepy like a baby nursery themed horror movie, but it worked.

It is hard to really determine who the film’s lead role was because it was really an ensemble cast.  One might argue that Frances McDormand, playing the part of Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson, was the lead, except that she doesn’t even show up on the screen until 33 minutes into the 98 minute movie.  Add to that the fact that other members of the cast like William H. Macy, playing the part of Jerry Lundegaard, a desperate man who hires Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare to kidnap his wife so that they can demand a hefty ransom from her wealthy father, get just as much screen time as she does.

One fact about the movie that really caught my attention was that all three of the bad guys in the movie were incredibly stupid.  They were profoundly over-the-top moronic, and yet they had just the right amount of realism in them.  Somehow, they seemed perfectly believable, despite their unbelievable idiocy.

The worst of the lot was car salesman, Jerry.  First, He floated a $320,000 GMAC loan to disguise his embezzlements from dealership bank accounts and collateralized it with nonexistent dealership vehicles.  But he starts to panic when GMAC starts asking for VIN numbers.  Then there is his hair-brained plot to have his wife kidnapped to extort money from her father, Wade Gustafson, played by Harve Presnell.  Further still, there is a lucrative real-estate deal which Jerry brings to Wade.  He expects Harve to give him $750,000 so that he can make the deal himself and reap its benefits, then pay back the initial principle.  Harve and his accountant, Stan Grossman, played by Larry Brandenburg, laugh in his face and ask what they would get out of it.  “We’re not a bank, Jerry.”

But everything starts to unravel when Carl and Gaear ineptly kidnap Jerry’s wife, Jean, played by Kristin Rudrüd.  She is tied up and whimpering in the back seat of their car, when they are pulled over.  Gaear ends up violently killing the police officer and two passing motorists who see Carl trying to dispose of the body.  The movie is a black comedy and most of the humor really comes from the moronic antics of the three criminals.

It is at this point that Marge Gunderson is brought in.  She is 7 months pregnant and is a wonderful character.  She is calm in the face of both bloody murder victims and morning sickness.  She can talk about picking up earth worms for her husband’s fishing trip as easily as she talks to two prostitutes who happily had sex with Carl and Gaear.  And it is her easy and rational demeanor which really endears her to the viewer.  In fact, McDormand’s performance was so likeable and well-played that she took home the Oscar for Best Actress.  And strangely, another thing that people remember about the film, something that McDormand really got right, was the distinct regional Minnesota accent used by Marge, her fellow officers, and other locals.  It is hard to describe, but completely unique.

By the end of the movie, Jean, Wade, and Carl get killed off, and Jerry goes on the run.  Carl’s death is the most memorable, simply because of the flabbergasting way in which Gaear is caught trying to dispose of the body.  He chops Carl up and is shoving the pieces into a wood chipper.  Marge finds him and approaches him with her gun drawn.  At first she cannot believe what she is seeing.  There stands Gaear, shoving the leg into the chipper.  Spattered blood covers the snow on the ground.  Carl’s foot, with his sock still on, is still sticking up out of the machine.  The look of calm shock on Marge’s face is perfect.  Dark and disgusting?  Without a doubt.  But I had to laugh-out-loud at the scene’s absurdity.

But I also have to make mention of something that might confuse the movie a little.  At the beginning of the movie, the following words appear on the screen:  “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.  The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1974.  At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.  Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”  But according to the film’s directors, this is a complete lie.  The events were completely fictional.  But why did they try to convince us of the story’s authenticity?  The Coen Brothers said, “The basic events are the same as in the real case, but the characterizations are fully imagined … If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.”  But don’t worry.  During the closing credits, they admit that it was all a work of fiction.

1995 – Sense and Sensibility











Sense and Sensibility – 1995

At first, I thought this was yet another Merchant-Ivory period-drama, but I was wrong.  It was still slow and underwhelming, still had several of the same actors, but the screenplay was actually written by its lead actress, Emma Thompson.  Jane Austin is one of the most beloved authors of the 18th century.  She only wrote 6 major novels, of which Sense and Sensibility is the 1st.  It is a credit to Thompson’s skills as the author of the screenplay to note that this was her first attempt at writing a film script.

The fact that the film was slow with a lack of intensity was not Thompson’s fault.  It was simply the fault of the genre.  If you are a person who enjoys the works of Jane Austen, then you will love this movie.  It was a wonderful addition to the plethora of other such films and TV miniseries.  But if you are not excited about period dramas, then you’ll see the movie as I do. It was entertaining enough, though nothing to write home about.

When Henry Dashwood, played by Tom Wilkinson, dies, his entire inheritance goes to his only son, John, played by James Fleet, and his wife, Fanny, played by Harriet Walter.  He makes John promise to take care of his step-mother and three step-sisters, but he is easily swayed to greed by his evil, money-hungry wife.  Mrs. Dashwood, played by Gemma Jones, must adapt to life with very little money for herself and her daughters, Elinor, played by Thompson, and her younger siblings, Marianne, played by Kate Winslet, and Margaret, played by Emilie Francois.  Now, the young girls must rely on suitable marriages to obtain financial security.

Elinor meets and falls in love with Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars, played by Hugh Grant.  But in order to put a stop to their romance, Fanny drives the Dashwood women away.  They go to live in the country in Devonshire.  While there, the beautiful Marianne catches the eye of two men, the older Colonel Brandon, played by Alan Rickman, and the dashing young John Willoughby, played by Greg Wise.  Marianne falls head–over-heels for Willoughby, though the Colonel knows him to be a womanizing cad.  This is eventually revealed when Willoughby spurns the poor and penniless Marianne to marry a wealthy woman.  She is heartbroken, but no more so than Elinor when she learns that her Edward is engaged to a young woman named Lucy Steele, played by Elizabeth Spriggs.

And there’s the set-up.  Who will end up with whom?  Who will end up alone?  And that’s pretty much it.  The drama isn’t intense or overly intriguing.  It wasn’t bad, just slow and shallow.  That being said, the acting was pretty good, and the costumes were praised for their realism.  The music was passible, but ultimately unmemorable.  However, in addition to the Best Picture nomination, it was recognized for Best Actress for Thompson, Best Supporting Actress for Winslet, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and its only win, Best Adapted Screenplay for Thompson.

In my research, I found that the novel’s title came from the personalities of the two main characters, Elinor and Marianne.  Elinor is shown as a guarded, and almost repressed woman who tends to use her head more than her heart, while Marianne is the exact opposite.  Sense can be interpreted as “sensible”, represented by the elder sister, while sensibility can be interpreted as “sensitivity”, represented by the younger.

And I also learned that Thompson, while remaining true to most of the source material, did take some creative license in order to make the film more dramatic, more accessible to a modern audience, and more appropriate for the medium of film.  Since the male characters in the novel are less developed, Thompson beefed up their parts so the audience would actually care about who the girls ended up falling in love with.  But things like that are needed for a good novel to film transition.

And I also have to make mention of a pair of supporting characters, played by actors who I recognized and liked.  Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton played Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, distant relatives of the Dashwoods.  They both did very well in their respective roles.  And I also have to make special mention of Harriet Walter for her wonderful performance.  Yeah, she was one of the bad-guys we weren’t supposed to like, but she did it so well.

If you like period romances, you’ll love this movie.  But I have to admit.  I have been watching so many of them lately that I have grown a little tired of them.  Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day have all been good films, as was Sense and Sensibility.  I’m not denouncing the film.  But while I have always liked period pieces, I have rarely loved them.

1995 – Il Postino: The Postman











Il Postino: The Postman – 1995

This was a sweet little foreign film from Italy.  It was presented as a romance, and to be sure there was plenty of romance in the plot.  But I believe that the romance was actually a sub-plot.  The real drama of the movie was about the main character as his life is changed by his friendship with the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.  It was a film about the nature of friendship and awakening to beauty.

Massimo Troisi played Mario Ruoppolo, the son of a poor fisherman on the island of Procida in Italy.  He is not very bright, has had very little education, no self-confidence, and no interest in becoming a fisherman like his father.  He takes a temporary job as a postman with a single delivery address.  Pablo Neruda, played by Philippe Noiret, has fled his home country as a political exile, and now lives in Italy with his wife, Matilde, played by Anna Bonaiuto.

The original book by author Antonio Skarmeta, is both cute and original.  In it, Mario befriends the famous poet and develops a love for poetry.  Through his friendship with Neruda, Mario learns to be a more confident man, and wins the love of the beautiful barmaid he has loved from afar.  Beatrice Russo, played by the beautiful Maria Grazia Cucinotta, ignores him at first, but she is soon wooed by Mario’s recitations of Neruda’s love poems.

Eventually, with Neruda’s help, the two marry and Mario begins to have dreams of writing his own poetry.  When Neruda’s exile ends, he returns to Chile, but promises to return some day to visit his friend.  However, his return comes too late.  When he at long last keeps his promise, he is saddened to learn that Mario has died.  His newfound confidence had led him to take part in political activism, and he was killed at a communist gathering in Naples where he was supposed to recite his own poetry.  Beatrice and Mario’s son, Pablito, are left alone to greet Neruda and his wife.

The story was sad and uplifting at the same time.  I think that it had several goals which it accomplished very well.  First, it was saying that poetry has the power to change lives.  Not only did it change Mario’s love life, it gave him the further courage to become a political activist, calling for change in an ineffectual system of government.  Second, it was celebrating the poetry of the real Pablo Neruda, and I’ll explore that a little more in a moment.  And third, it was just plain entertaining.  The plot kept my interest and I felt good about the ending, despite its tragedy.

But doing a little reading about the film, I learned that the tragedy was even greater than just the fictional story.  I learned that Massimo Troisi, who played the lead character, Mario, had a heart condition.  He should have had heart surgery while Il Postino was being filmed.  But he was so committed to making the film that he postponed his medical care until the filming was completed.  Sadly, the actor died of a heart attack the day after filming wrapped.  Consequently, the film was dedicated to him.

Now, I have never been a huge fan of poetry.  I like it well enough on occasion, but it has never been a passion.  But hearing some of Neruda’s poems in the course of the movie, I can quickly understand why he is so loved.  His use of language is beautiful and powerfully descriptive.  His use of metaphor, which is a theme in the film, is amazing and displays the author’s deep passions.  His love of nature and his love of women and romance speak directly to our emotions, drawing wonderful and immediate responses from our hearts.  Neruda was surely a master of his craft.

In fact, I am tempted to buy the soundtrack to the film because I have learned that 14 of Neruda’s poems that were connected with the movie are read by famous celebrities, Hollywood A-listers, and professional musicians like Julia Roberts, Raplh Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Wesley Snipes, Ethan Hawke, Rufus Sewell, Glenn Close, Vincent Perez, Samuel L. Jackson, Willem Dafoe, and Andy Garcia, as well as Sting and Madonna.  In addition to the poetry, the music by Luis Bacalov was gorgeous.  It was tender and endearing, evoking the feel of the romantic little story and the poetry of Pablo Neruda.

And finally, I have to mention the acting.  I have to give special notice to Noiret and Cucinotta, both of whom stood out with wonderful performances.  In fact, the entire cast did a great job, with only one exception: Massimo Troisi.  His portrayal of the timid and lonely postman was just fine.  He really got the emotional core of the character right.  But his enunciation seemed to be… sloppy.  I know what you are thinking.  The film was spoken in Italian, a language which I do not speak.  But I noticed that all the other actors seemed to speak the language clearly.  I might not have understood the words, but I could easily make out the sounds.  But Troisi seemed to be mumbling half the time.  Maybe this was a choice made to show his character’s inherent insecurities, but when he spoke, it sounded like a native Italian would have trouble understanding his dialogue.  Sorry Massimo.

1995 – Babe











Babe – 1995

Dear God.  Oh, dear God.  Please don’t make me ever have to watch this movie again.  I am ashamed that this was nominated for Best Picture.  I haven’t watched such a horrible piece of swill since watching the 1931 nominee Skippy.  I kept wanting to stop the movie and turn it off, but I forced myself to watch it through to the very end.  I have often said that the cardinal sin of movie making is that cute for the sake of cute is never cute.  NEVER.  Every now and then a movie will break this most sacred of rules, but usually in a fairly minor way.  They will have a nice enough movie but they would throw in an adorable little kid whose only purpose is to look cute and pull at the heartstrings of people who love children.  These are the same people who squeal at the thought of baby animals.  Well, that is exactly what this entire movie is based on.

Babe is geared towards a 4 or 5 year old audience.  The story is ridiculously moronic.  The characters are formulaic, the special effects were barely passable, humor was juvenile, the music was often tantamount to what you might hear playing over the crib of an infant, and the plot’s resolution was so fake and fabricated, I wanted to bang my head against a wall.  But all that being said, I get it.  Those are often the earmarks of a good children’s movie.  And as a children’s movie, it was just fine.  It catered expertly to the simplistic minds and emotions of its young audience.  But then, why would such a piece of mindless tripe be nominated for the coveted Best Picture award?  I’ll be honest.  I don’t know.

So, Babe is the story of a pig who wanted to be a sheep-dog.  The moral messages of the movie are actually excellent ones that say, don’t let society tell you what you can or cannot be.  Always be true to yourself, whatever that means.  It also teaches that you shouldn’t mindlessly believe in stereotypes.  And more, it says that you will have a better chance getting people to work with you if you use kindness and cooperation rather than force.  All good lessons for children to learn.  The trick is, I’m an adult.  I learned those lessons a long time ago.

The first 5 minutes of the movie showed the piglet in a nasty and dark pig farm as his mother is taken away from him.  He stands at the gate and watches her go.  With tears in his eyes, he says with the voice of a 4 year old, “Goodbye, Mom,” knowing he’ll never see her again.  After that, different chapters of the film were shown by title cards that were read by field mice with high pitched voices like the Chipmunk cartoons.  And a narrator with a kindly voice moves the story along as if he is reading a fairy-tale.

Fortune puts him on the farm of Farmer Hoggett, played by James Cromwell and his fat, annoying wife, played by Magda Szubanski.  The first time Babe meets Farmer Hoggett, he pees on his shoes.  Funny and cute at the same time… right?  And during Babe’s first night alone in Hoggett’s barn, he cries, saying, “I want my mom!”  Ugh.  As the only pig on the farm, Babe is taken in by the dogs, Fly and her gruff husband Rex, who teach him that sheep are stupid, and that all the varied animals of the farm have to know their places.  But when Babe takes an opportunity to save many of Farmer Hoggett’s sheep from livestock thieves, the farmer takes notice of him and he is trained as a sheep dog.  This sets up conflict between him and Rex, who is getting to old to do his job.  Babe talks to the sheep, and politely asks them to go into their pens.  And they obey him because he saved them from being snatched.  And later Babe saves them from being eaten by wild dogs, too.  OK, that’s not too bad.

But it was the ridiculous ending that really had me rolling my eyes.  Farmer Hoggett enters Babe into a national sheep-herding contest, but the competition sheep don’t know him and won’t listen to him.  So Rex runs back to the farmer’s sheep and tries being nice to them for a change.  He asks them for help to get the other sheep to listen to Babe.  For the kindly Babe’s sake, they give him a sacred password that all sheep know.  Rex gives Babe this secret password which the pig tells to the competition sheep.  Like magic, the sheep calmly walk through the contest obstacle course, going exactly where Babe politely asks them to go.  Meanwhile, the competition judges who had been laughing at Farmer Hoggett for entering a pig into a sheep-herding contest, give Babe perfect scores across the board.  The crowd cheers wildly and Babe basks in the glory of his master’s approval.  The end.

Really?  REALLY??  A magic sheep password?  Stick a fork in me.  I’m done.  But I also have to make mention of the sub-par special effects.  You see, the talking animal effects were accomplished by Rhythm & Hues Studios and Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop.  And we got what you might expect.  Whenever any of the animals changed from live to animatronic, it was painfully obvious.  The jerky and unnatural movements, the phony mouth pieces to simulate speech, and the fact that they were suddenly, oddly stationary whenever they were shown speaking.  All this is perfectly acceptable for a children’s movie, but nowhere close to a Best Picture nominee.  And it won the Oscar for Best Special Effects, beating Apollo 13!  Shame on you Academy of Motion Picture and Arts Sciences!  Shame!

1995 – Apollo 13











Apollo 13 – 1995

This was an excellent movie with a wonderful cast.  Tom Hanks was at the top of his game in the 1990s and could pretty much do no wrong.  But we were also given great performances by Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, and Kathleen Quinlan.  Directed by the ever popular Ron Howard, Apollo 13 gave us the ill-fated story of the infamous third attempt at an American moon landing.

The movie is set in 1970.  Hanks played James Lovell, Paxton played the part of Fred Haise, and Bacon played Swigert.  These were the three astronauts who very nearly died during the mission.  Sinise played Ken Mattingly, the pilot who, at the last minute, was grounded because of the possibility that he might have the measles.  Harris played the Team Flight Director Gene Kranz.  And finally, Quinlan played Mary Lovell, James’s wife.  Other notable actors, Clint Howard and Loren Dean, played important supporting roles.

This was a gripping drama.  It was exciting to watch, even though we all know the story and the outcome.  Ron Howard treated it like a docudrama, staying as true to history as possible.  There were very few deviations from actual events.  In fact, he even kept nearly all of the actual dialogue between the astronauts and the men at Mission Control verbatim.

That’s not to say there weren’t any differences.  For example, in the movie, the explosion that started all the problems with the mission occurs only a few seconds after Swigert follows his instructions to stir the oxygen tanks.  In reality, there was a 98 second lag-time.  Another discrepancy is that in the film, Haise argues with Swigert about who is to blame for the explosion.  In reality, the two didn’t argue at all, but they threw it in to add a little drama.  But I think we can all agree that minor differences like these can be easily overlooked.

But the obscure details that they got right were actually pretty amazing.  I found two such examples, both of which concerned Mary Lovell.  The first was the little scene in which she dropped her wedding ring into the shower drain, though, in reality the ring was caught by the drain trap as opposed to the more dramatic way it was lost down the drain in the movie.  The second was the dream Mary had in which her husband was sucked out of the spacecraft to be lost in outer space.  Just as an interesting note, Lovell has stated that her dream was probably prompted by their viewing of a 1969 movie called Marooned, starring Gregory Peck, Richard Crena, and Gene Hackman, which they had seen 3 months prior to the launch of Apollo 13.

The story itself was amazing on two levels.  First was the exciting story of survival experienced by the astronauts.  The second was the equally thrilling story of the ground crew as they worked tirelessly to save them.  Hanks, Paxton, and Bacon all had to be in top physical shape as they had to act many of their scenes in zero gravity conditions.  They apparently did this using a NASA KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft.  No wires or harnesses were used during filming.  That’s pretty amazing!

And the dramatic tension achieved in the Mission Control sequences was just as exciting to watch.  Again, we knew the outcome because it was already history, but to watch the various ways in which the men at NASA identified and solved impossible problems was incredibly fascinating.  Harris gave us a particularly great performance as Gene Kranz.  He was also the man who gave us one of the film’s 2 big quotes that have gone into the pantheon of the most memorable movie quotes ever.  “Failure is not an option!”  The other, of course was delivered by Hanks as he said, “Houston, we have a problem.”  These movie tag lines were only altered slightly from the actual dialogue transcripts from the event.

While all the actors in the movie did a great job, I have to give special props to Bill Paxton.  His character had the distinction of being sick with a urinary tract infection and a subsequent kidney infection during the flight, causing him to be in pain for most of the aborted mission.  Paxton was very memorable in his performance.  I also thought Sinise was very good as he portrayed the anger and incredulity of the astronaut being told he was being grounded because of a danger that may or may not exist.  And I’d also like to give a quick shout out to Jean Speegle Howard, playing the part of Blanche, Lowell’s aged mother who never once doubted her son’s ability to make it back home alive.  Like I said, the entire cast did a wonderful job.

This was an incredible film because of its spot-on realism.  Attention was paid to every detail from the flight suits to the authentic set design of the spacecraft and the Mission Control Center.  An actual NASA employee who was a consultant said that the set was so realistic that when he would leave at the end of the day, he would look for the elevator before remembering that he was not really in Mission Control. Apollo 13 was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, taking home 2, but not for what you’d expect.  One was for Best Film Editing and the other was for Best Sound.  I thought one would be for Best Director, but Howard wasn’t nominated.

Cloud Atlas – 2012

Cloud Atlas – 2012

This is one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time.  The movie is incredibly profound in its overall theme which is stated so beautifully at several points in the film.  It says, “Our Lives are not our own.  From womb to tomb, we are bound to others.  Past and Present.  And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”  It basically means that everything we do has consequences that can ripple throughout eternity.

Cloud Atlas tells 6 different stories, all at the same time.  The stories are all interesting in their own right, but what makes them so fascinating as they are told in tandem with each other, is that we can follow certain threads that link the stories together.  The first takes place in the Pacific Islands in 1849.  After that, Cambridge and Edinburgh in 1936.  Next is San Francisco in 1973.  Next is London in 2012.  Then we are given Neo Soul in 2144.  And finally, we have Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall in the year 2321.

It is an incredibly intellectual film.  You really have to pay attention to what is going on, what is said, and who is saying it.  You have to watch for hidden clues and meanings.  You have to try to be an objective observer, and yet lose yourself in the subtext of the film’s underlying philosophy.  It is not an easy film to watch.  As a matter of fact, the film generally gets mixed reviews from critics.  Some, like me, believe the movie to be a masterwork of cinematic artistry.  Others just find it confusing and consequently forgettable.

Critic Calum Marsh called it, “a unique and unparalleled disaster,” and that, “its badness is fundamental, an essential aspect of the concept and its execution that I suspect is impossible to remedy or rectify.”  I got this from Wikipedia.  But just calling a movie bad doesn’t make it bad.   See, I love the movie so much that I had to understand why Mr. Marsh hated it so profoundly.  So I looked up the complete review that he wrote.  He lost the first half of his credibility right at the beginning when he said that it had 7 stories going on instead of 6.  He lost the second half when he got through his extensive review without having a single good thing to say about any aspect of the film.  From the script to the acting, from the makeup to the cinematography, from the philosophical themes to the music, from the visuals to the editing, he couldn’t find a single thing about the film that wasn’t horribly awful.  Marsh needs to understand that such an extreme position makes him lose his credibility as a critic.  But then, in his 660 word review, nearly half it was just ranting, insulting, name calling, and verbal bashing.  So I can easily discount his impossibly negative opinion.  No film merits such a review.  Even the most widely panned films of all time like Ishtar, Gigli, or even Manos: The Hands of Fate have some minor merits to their credit.

In my own assessment, there are many reasons why Cloud Atlas was so great.  It is important to note that the phenomenal ensemble cast play various roles, each showing up as different characters in each of the different stories.  The various roles played by a single actor vary in race and gender.  It is profound in showing the idea of reincarnation and souls that are connected lifetime after lifetime.  Characters that know each other in one timeline have an unexplainable sense of recognition in the next.

The stories are all told at the same time with amazing editing that takes us from story to story in sometimes rapid succession.  But it all works.  Each plot has its own look and feel that is quite distinct from the others, making it easy to follow each of the varied narratives.  And through the genius of this broken and overlapping storytelling, the connections between them become quite evident.  The different plots are so complexly interwoven that even though it will take up a significant portion of this review, I would like to copy just the 6 plot summaries from Wikipedia.

“Tribesman Zachry Bailey recounts stories to his grandchildren on an extraterrestrial Earth colony.

Pacific Islands, 1849

Adam Ewing, an American lawyer, has come to the Chatham Islands to conclude a business arrangement with Reverend Horrox and his father-in-law. In Horrox’s plantation, he witnesses the whipping of a Moriori slave, Autua, who later Stows away on the ship. Autua confronts Ewing and convinces him to advocate for Autua to join the crew as a free man. Dr Henry Goose slowly poisons Ewing, claiming it is the cure for a parasitic worm, to steal Ewing’s valuables. As Goose administers the fatal dose, Autua saves Ewing. Returning to the United States, Ewing and his wife Tilda denounce her father’s complicity in slavery and leave to join the abolition movement.

Cambridge/Edinburgh, 1936

Robert Frobisher, a young English composer, finds work as an amanuensis to aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Frobisher begins reading Ewing’s journal, which he has found with the latter portion missing, among the books at Ayrs’s mansion. Ayrs demands credit for “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” and threatens to expose Frobisher’s homosexuality if he refuses. Frobisher shoots Ayrs and flees to a hotel, where he uses the name Ewing. He finishes “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” and commits suicide with a gun just before his lover Rufus Sixsmith arrives.

San Francisco, 1973

Journalist Luisa Rey meets an older Rufus Sixsmith, now a nuclear physicist. Sixsmith tips off Rey to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor run by Lloyd Hooks, but is killed by Hooks’s hitman, Bill Smoke, before he can give her a report that proves it. Rey finds Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith and tracks down a vinyl recording of Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Isaac Sachs, another scientist at the power plant, passes her a copy of Sixsmith’s report. Smoke kills Sachs by blowing up his plane and runs Rey’s car off a bridge. She escapes but the report is destroyed. With help from the plant’s head of security, Joe Napier, Rey evades another attempt on her life, which results in Smoke’s death. With another copy of the report obtained from Sixsmith’s niece, she exposes the plot to use a nuclear accident for the benefit of oil company executives, who are indicted as a result.

London, 2012

Sixty-five-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish reaps a windfall when Dermot Hoggins, the gangster author of Knuckle Sandwich, murders a critic who gave the novel a harsh review, generating huge sales. When Hoggins’s brothers threaten Cavendish’s life for Hoggins’s share of the profits, Cavendish asks for help from his wealthy brother, Denholme, who tells him to hide at Aurora House. On the way there, Cavendish reads a manuscript of a novel based on Luisa Rey’s story, and recalls his relationship with a woman named Ursula. He visits the house where she lived with her parents and discovers that she still lives there. Believing Aurora House is a hotel, Timothy signs papers “voluntarily” committing himself; in fact, Aurora House is a nursing home (in Ayrs’s old mansion). Denholme reveals to Timothy that he sent him there as revenge for Timothy’s affair with Denholme’s wife Georgette. The head nurse, Noakes, is abusive, and contact with the outside world is denied. Cavendish escapes with three other residents. He resumes his relationship with Ursula and writes a screenplay of his experience.

Neo Seoul, 2144

Sonmi-451 is a “fabricant”, a human cloned for slave labor, living as a server at a fast food restaurant in a dystopian South Korea. She is exposed to ideas of rebellion by another fabricant and friend, Yoona-939. After witnessing Yoona being killed for rebelling, Sonmi is rescued from captivity by Commander Hae-Joo Chang, a rebel. He exposes Sonmi to the larger world, including the banned writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a film version of Timothy Cavendish’s “ghastly ordeal”. They are found and Sonmi is captured. Hae-Joo rescues her, introduces her to the leader of the rebel movement, and shows her that clones are not freed at the end of their contract but killed and recycled into food for other clones. Sonmi makes a public broadcast of her story and manifesto. The authorities intervene to halt the broadcast; Hae-Joo is killed in the firefight and Sonmi is recaptured. After recounting her story to an archivist, she is executed.

Big Isle (Hawaii), 106 winters after the Fall (2321)

Zachry Bailey lives in a primitive post-apocalyptic society called the Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Valley tribesmen worship Sonmi-451; their sacred text is taken from the broadcast of her manifesto. Zachry is plagued by visions of a demonic figure called Old Georgie, who urges him to give in to his fears. Zachry, his brother-in-law Adam, and his nephew are attacked by the cannibalistic Kona tribe. Zachry runs into hiding and his companions are murdered. His village is visited by Meronym, a member of the Prescients, an advanced society using the last remnants of high technology. Meronym’s mission is to find a remote communication station on Mauna Sol and send a message to Earth’s off-world colonies. Catkin, Zachry’s niece, falls sick, and in exchange for saving her, Zachry agrees to guide Meronym to the station, where Meronym reveals the true story of Sonmi-451. Returning, Zachry finds his tribe slaughtered by the Kona. He kills the sleeping Kona chief and rescues Catkin, and Meronym saves them both from the returning Kona and is in turn saved by Zachry. Zachry and Catkin join Meronym and the Prescients as their ship leaves Big Island.”

Five actors played parts in all 6 timelines: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving.  For example, Hanks played Dr. Henry Goose in 1849, an unnamed hotel manager in 1936, Isaac Sachs in 1973, Dermot Hoggins in 2012, a Cavendish Look-a-like actor in 2144, and Zachry in 2321.  Berry played a native woman in 1849, Jocasta Ayrs in 1936, Luisa Rey in 1973, an Indian party guest in 2012, Ovid, a medical doctor who removes Sonmi’s slave collar in 2144, and Meronym in 2321.  Hugh Grant played Rev. Giles Horrox in 1849, a hotel heavy in 1936, Lloyd Hooks in 1973, Denholme Cavendish in 2012, Seer Rhee, the slave operator at the fast food restaurant in 2144, and the chief of the Kona cannibals in 2321.

Other wonderful actors like Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, and James D’Arcy also play multiple roles, though they do not appear in every different timeline.  The only lead role played by a lesser known actress was Doona Bae, playing the part of Sonmi-451 in the 2144 timeline.

The script itself is nothing short of genius and was put together by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, based on the incredible book of the same name, written by David Mitchell.  The way the stories are linked is fascinating to put together.  In fact, I have actually read the book and can say that the movie was structured differently than the book.  The film told all the stories at the same time so that the common threads of character and theme in each timeline could be seen to overlap and mingle.  The book broke all the stories except one into two parts.  The pattern can be seen as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, with 1 being the story of Adam Ewing, and 6 being the story of Zachry.  Each telling has its advantages and disadvantages, but each was structured to fit its medium.  The film would not have been so effective if it had been structured like the book and vice-versa.

As each actor passed back and forth between the different stories, they were often unrecognizable as the same person.  And this is all due to the magic of a team of 45 makeup artists.  The makeup, prosthetics, and hairstyling, in addition to the wonderful costume design made for a visually stunning journey.  The special effects were spectacular, especially in the Neo Soul storyline.

And then there was the music.  The film’s score was not only gorgeous and lush, with common themes running throughout the different eras of the movie, but it was also a distinct part of the plot.  The Cloud Atlas Sextet, written by the character of Robert Frobisher in the 1936 timeline, and listened to in the 1973 timeline, and played briefly in the 2144 timeline, was haunting and insightful.  It was yet another plot device that helped to tie the various stories together.

Another such plot device was a recurring, comet-shaped birthmark that showed up on the main character in each story.  It appeared on Adam Ewing’s Chest, Robert Frobisher’s lower back, Luisa Rey’s shoulder, Timothy Cavendish’s upper back, Sonmi-451’s neck, and the back of Zachry’s head.  It was just an intriguing little mark that drew attention to the running theme of reincarnation and the idea of history repeating itself.

Some of my favorite parts of the movie stand out to me as especially well done.  There was the depiction of the soul-mate kind of relationship between Frobisher and Sixsmith, though strangely enough, the two characters never spoke any lines to each other.  I also loved Timothy Cavendish’s daring escape from Aurora House.  Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Nurse Noakes was both funny and frightening.  And the bar fight that allowed him and his friends to get away was so perfect.  Get a bunch of drunk Scotsmen to fight for you, and you can’t lose.

I loved just about everything in the two latest timelines.  Sonmi-451’s tragic and yet inspiring story was one that touched the heart, especially when the horrifying underbelly of the all-too-believable dystopian society is revealed, mirroring the famous tale of Soylent Green, where the dead are secretly turned into food to feed the living.  Doona Bae was wonderful as the doomed fabricant whose courage changed the world and made her a goddess.

And I think my favorite parts of the movie were those that took place in the 2321 timeline.  Hanks and Berry were awesome as Zachry and Meronym.  The language they used was sometimes difficult to follow.  It was as if English had evolved into a broken and half-forgotten dialect.  But the actors spoke it easily, making it sound natural.  The look of the sequences which combined primitive simplicity and savagery with the remnants of fantastic technology was perfectly executed.  Even Hugo Weaving, playing the part of Old Georgie, the devil, according to Zachry’s beliefs, was wonderfully creepy as he constantly tried to get Zachry to give in to his fears and darker impulses.

Cloud Atlas was a phenomenal movie.  It was quite possibly one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinematic history, but the Wachowskis along with Tom Tykwer made it work.  This movie blows me out of the water every time I watch it.  I highly recommend watching it.  But be wary.  Keep in mind that just because it might be difficult to understand, doesn’t mean it is bad.  The movie requires the viewers to use their brains.  And when is that ever a bad thing, especially when there is so much there to think about and imagine?