1999 – The Green Mile











The Green Mile – 1999

This was an incredible movie.  But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me.  The original story was written by Stephen King, and the film was directed by Frank Darabont, two facts that are also true of one of my favorite movies of all time, the Shawshank Redemption.  I know this combination is not always a reliable barometer from one film to the next, but in this case, it works.

I loved The Green Mile because it had an incredible cast, a great score by Thomas Newman, wonderful art direction, and a story that was close to perfection, neatly tying up all the loose ends and yet leaving us with a sense of power and mystery.  The pacing was spot-on, the special effects were awesome, and the sense of justice and satisfaction that the viewer is left with at the end is inspiring.  It was just great entertainment.  It made me think and it made me feel, which is exactly what movies are supposed to do.

Tom Hanks led the cast as Paul Edgecomb, a supervisor in a Louisiana penitentiary.  He and the men serving under him work death row, called the green mile because of the green tile of the floor which lead from the cells to the electric chair.  His men include Brutus, played by a personal favorite of mine, David Morse, Jeffrey DeMunn as Harry, Barry Pepper as Dean, and Percy, played by Doug Hutchison.  Percy is the problem case.  As much as I hated his character, as I was supposed to, I have to admit that Hutchison played him absolutely perfectly.

The death row inmates were Del, surprisingly played by Michael Jeter, Graham Green as Arlen, Sam Rockwell as Wild Bill, and Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey.  These characters could have so easily been throw away characters, but they each had their own distinct and well-thought-out personalities.  And it was John Coffey that was the crux of the entire film.  It was he who moved all the movie’s drama and Duncan played him brilliantly.

Coffey was referred to as one of God’s miracles.   He was a black giant of a man who was on death row for the murder of two young girls.  He was mentally challenged and yet gentle as a lamb.  But he was also telepathic, empathic, and had the power to heal sickness and disease.  If he found a victim quickly enough, he could even raise them from the dead.  He could see into the hearts of men and know them as good or evil.  He cured Paul of a rampant bladder infection, and restored life to Del’s pet mouse, Mr. Jingles, who had been cruelly stepped on by Percy.

The rest of the amazing plot is really too complex, and yet exquisitely crafted, to go into in this review.  Suffice to say, the characters, both the prison guards and the inmates, all get what they deserve in the end.  The phenomenally evil and unrepentant Percy gets his just deserts in a horrifying and yet incredibly satisfying way.  Wild Bill, who apparently was the real rapist and murderer behind the crime for which John was in prison, is shot to death in his cell.  And John is granted death in the electric chair.

“What?!?” you may ask.  Why was the innocent gentle giant allowed to die?  Because his incredible telepathic powers left him vulnerable to the evil in the hearts of his fellow men.  It was a power over which he had very little control, a power which assaulted him whether he wanted it to or not.  In the end, when Paul learns of his innocence, he offers to let him go, knowing that it would cost him his career and quite possibly land him in jail, himself.  But after John had used his powers to heal Paul’s friend’s wife from a brain tumor, he asks to be allowed to die, to end the suffering his powers cause in him.

All the performances in this movie were exceptional.  I point out Michael Clarke Duncan, Michael Jeter, who I am only used to seeing in comedic roles, and who turned in a perfectly played tragic character, and Doug Hutchison as stand out members of the cast.  But I also have to make mention of some other great supporting cast members like James Cromwell, Gary Sinise, Patricia Clarkson, William Sadler, and Bonnie Hunt.  All of them did a great job and deserved to be recognized.

There were some very powerful and intense scenes in the movie that really stand out in my mind as impactful, both morally and emotionally.  The horrific scene in which Percy cruelly, yet purposefully botches Del’s death in the chair, the scene in which John heals the sick woman, and the significant scene in which John transfers some of his power into Paul so that he can see Wild Bill’s true guilt for himself, important because it is eventually revealed that the power has the unexpected side effect of drastically slowing down his natural aging process, were all so well-portrayed and so perfectly directed.  This movie was truly a masterfully crafted film, both in the way it was written and in the way it was made.  It was such a phenomenal movie, one which I highly recommend!

1999 – The Cider House Rules











The Cider House Rules – 1999

OK, it is time to scale back a bit and tell a much more intimate story than those of the previous year.  The Cider House Rules is the story of a young orphan named Homer Wells, played by Tobey Maguire.  He is one of the children who is never adopted, and so grows into a young man in an orphanage in Maine.  The head administrator at the institution is a kindly man named Dr. Wilbur Larch, excellently played by Michael Caine.

The movie is largely about the relationship that exists between the two men, both the highs and the lows.  But it is more than that.  It is also a coming-of-age film for the character of Homer.  Dr. Larch is more than just the man who runs the orphanage.  He is a medical doctor with a number of highly questionable ethics.  The biggest of these is the fact that he performs illegal abortions.  As homer grows into adulthood, Dr. Larch takes him under his wing and teaches him how to be an obstetrician and pediatric physician, capable of delivering babies and caring for sick children.

But it seems to be a role that Homer doesn’t want.  He is mature enough to understand that he has never been to medical school, and when Dr. Larch tries to get him to perform an abortion, he refuses, saying that not only is the procedure illegal and morally questionable, but that he is also not professionally qualified.  When it comes down to it, Homer is dismayed at the fact that he has never been away from the orphanage, and wants to see more of the world.  He knows that if he gives in to Dr. Larch and takes over as the administrator, he will never leave the orphanage.

So when an opportunity comes for Homer to leave, he takes it, thus driving a wedge between him and Dr. Larch.  A young couple comes to the orphanage for an abortion.  Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd play Candy Kendall and Lieutenant Wally Worthington.  After the operation is complete, Homer asks them to take him with them when they go.  They agree, and the three leave together.  Homer is a sweet, good-natured kid who becomes friends with his traveling companions.  Wally gets him a job on his mother’s apple farm, picking apples with a group of African American and Latino migrant workers.  The building in which they reside is called the Cider House.

The movie did a good job of developing Homer’s character.  It showed where he was born and raised, how he learned love and kindness from Dr. Larch, and how he was a hard worker with a solid moral center and a strong code of ethics.  But he was not perfect.  When Wally was called back into service in WWII, Homer starts an affair with Candy.  Maguire did a great job, creating a sweet and likeable character that didn’t make me roll my eyes because of forced innocence or ridiculous naiveté.

I also really liked Dr. Larch, even though his work ethic was, at times pretty messed up.  He did some really bad things that a credible doctor should never do.  He falsified Homer’s medical records to keep him out of the war.  He performed illegal abortions.  He falsified documents to make it appear as though Homer had been to college and lied to the orphanage’s board of directors, claiming that he had never met Homer, a new perspective physician.  He also had a habit of medicating himself with ether to put himself to sleep, an addiction that ended up killing him.

The movie dealt with a number of these moral and ethical issues.  As unethical as Dr. Larch’s actions were, they seemed to be motivated by love and genuine care for the children in his charge, especially Homer.  He loved Homer like a son and wanted, as many fathers do, to pass the boy his legacy.  It is why he was so hurt when Homer left.  And the film made me stop and think.  How wrong was it for him to do what he could to keep Homer happy, safe, and sheltered?  I think his intentions were always good, though his methods were unfortunate.

In the end, Homer is forced to deal with a situation in which fellow apple pickers, Arthur Rose and his daughter Rose Rose, played by Delroy Lindo and Erykah Badu, force him to use his skills as a physician who can perform abortions.  Arthur, who habitually rapes his daughter, gets her pregnant.  Homer decides that an abortion would be a kindness, though after it is done, Rose murders her father to get away from him.  On top of that, it becomes known that Wally has been paralyzed from the waist down in the war, and is returning home.  Homer’s relationship with Candy crumbles to dust.  Again, he shows remarkable maturity and steps aside, not because he doesn’t love her, but because of his friendship with Wally.

The movie is somewhat emotional, though I wouldn’t call it a tear-jerker.  I was happy to see Homer return to the orphanage, ready to take up his mentor’s shingle.  It was a good and unique story, based on the original book by John Irving.  Lasse Hallström’s direction and the pacing were good, as was the score by Rachel Portman.  It was ultimately a good movie, if a little ambiguous about its own moral position.  Just don’t expect too much intensity in the drama.

1998 – The Thin Red Line











The Thin Red Line – 1998

I’ll start this review off by saying that this was not a bad movie.  It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.  The problem is that it thought it was a boundlessly deep, profound, high-brow work of art, and it just wasn’t.  In fact, it could have been incredible, but it was just boring and pretentious.  The pacing was fifteen percent exciting, and eighty-five percent slow and dull.  And most of the movie was just confusing for several specific reasons.

Ok, so it was a movie about the Battle of Mount Austin during WWII.  This was part of the Guadalcanal campaign in the South Pacific.  During this part of the war, American soldiers were fighting the Japanese instead of the Nazis.  It had a long list of Hollywood stars in the cast, some having parts so small as to be considered cameos.  In fact, in doing my research, I found that there were dozens of A-list actors desperate to get roles in this film.  Big names like Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Gary Oldman, Kevin Costner, Matthew McConaughey, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Nicholas Cage, none of whom were in the film, were aggressively pursuing the Director, Terrence Malick, for a chance to be in his movie.

But why?  Why did all these superstars want to be in this war film?  I’m not exactly certain, but I have a guess that might hold some truth.  And it is this possible truth that might hold the key to everything.  It might explain why the movie was so boring, and why it received seven Academy Award nominations, though it didn’t win a single one.  It all has to do with Terrence Malick.  Apparently, he is considered a true artist in an industry that is known for its lack of artfulness.

Malick had only made two films prior to The Thin Red Line.  Then he took a long hiatus from filmmaking.  When it became known that he would be directing again, everyone in Hollywood was tripping over themselves to work with him.  Why?  His work was noted for their lofty philosophical themes.  According to Wikipedia, film scholar Lloyd Michaels says that Malick’s themes include “the isolated individual’s desire for transcendence amidst established social institutions, the grandeur and untouched beauty of nature, the competing claims of instinct and reason, and the lure of the open road.”  Roger Ebert says that his films “have a unifying common theme: Human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world.”

But like many of Malick’s critics, I just found his movie incredibly pretentious and self-important.  The movie screamed out to me, “Look at how deep and profound I am being.  Look at how important my story of how war is a rape of nature is.  Look at how my tales of human cruelties and suffering is emotional, tragic, and yet beautiful, all at the same time.  Look at the imagery.  Listen to the emotionally introspective voice-overs.”  It was like the movie was trying so hard to be deep and artsy that it just came across as insufferable.

Anyway the three hour movie starred an ensemble cast made up of Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Dash Mihok, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney, Nick Stahl, and John Savage.  I’m not even going to bother giving the names of the characters because the movie certainly didn’t make an effort to.  For the most part, I followed them by their faces.  There’s Nick Nolte.  He’s a heartless bastard of a commander who spends most of his time screaming at his men.  There is Ben Chaplin.  He fights to stay alive so he can be reunited with his girlfriend.  There is Jim Caviezel.  He believes in the paradise of the afterlife.  The characters are thrown up in front of you with no introductions, no back stories, and no character developments.  As a result, when they started dying, I didn’t care, because I didn’t know who any of them were.

The movie is about how these soldiers have to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of capturing the heavily defended hill.  Scores of American soldiers are slaughtered, and those who survive are reduced to screaming, sobbing, gibbering puddles of fear and madness.  There is an interesting subplot in which Nolte orders Koteas take his men on a frontal assault of the bunkered hill.  Koteas refuses the order because he knows it would be suicide.  Later, after Cusack somehow takes a small party of volunteers to capture the bunker at the top of the hill, Nolte demotes Koteas and sends him to a desk job in Washington D.C..  Koteas’s men thank him for his bravery in standing up to the raving Nolte, knowing that in sacrificing his career, he saved their lives.

There were a few other barely interesting sub-plots but nothing worth mentioning.  In the end, the good guys won and the evil Japanese were defeated.  And of course, when they are, we are treated to the overly-poetic inner monologues of the soldiers, spouting about how the horrors of war made them lose their humanity.  And strangely enough, I think that is what made the movie so successful.  Many critics actually bought into the deep and profound nature of the movie, thus making it, for them, a true work of art, not just another war film.   But I didn’t.

1998 – Saving Private Ryan











Saving Private Ryan – 1998

This was an incredibly well-made film.  It has been praised by critics and fans as one of the most realistic depictions of WWII and combat ever captured on film.  Many actual combat veterans of D-Day and Vietnam who saw the film were psychologically affected by the first 20 minutes of the movie, and calls and visits to post traumatic stress disorder counselors rose after the film’s release.  But this movie was not known only for its amazingly accurate and realistic battle scenes.  It also had a great cast that turned in some fantastic performances.

Tom Hanks played the lead as Captain John H. Miller, company commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.  In the opening scene which so realistically depicts the Storming of Omaha Beach in Normandy, Captain Miller leads his men to victory, paying the high price in lives to achieve it.  The chaos, the carnage, the blood, the screaming, the sounds of gunfire, and the absolutely intense madness of the historical event was difficult to watch.

Director Stephen Spielberg used certain cinematic tricks to make the audience feel like it was actually there in France on that fateful day in June of 1944.   The use of special cameras that reduced color saturation and using a bleach bypass process on the film negative made it seem like actual news footage from the 1940s.  Also, the use of unsteady, hand-held cameras and a lower shutter timing gave everything a jerky and more abrupt feel.  Actual amputees were hired as extras and 40 barrels of fake blood were used to turn the seawater red.  It was a horrifying scene to watch because it was based on things that actually happened.

But strangely enough, it was a phenomenal scene that had very little to do with the actual plot of the film.  The movie is about a new mission Captain Miller is given three days after Omaha Beach was taken: Saving Private Ryan.  James Ryan is a paratrooper who is the last survivor of 4 brothers, the rest of whom were all killed in action during the war.  To prevent the ultimate suffering of Mrs. Ryan, Miller is sent on a dangerous mission to save her last living son and send him home.

Miller chooses seven men to accompany him.  Tom Sizemore played Technical Sergeant Mike Horvath, Miller’s second in command.  Edward Burns played Private First Class Richard Reiben, a BAR gunner.  Barry Pepper played Private Daniel Jackson, a sniper.  Adam Goldberg played Private Stanley Mellish, a rifleman.  Vin Diesel played Private First Class Adrian Caparzo, another rifleman.  Giovanni Ribisi played Technician fourth grade Irwin Wade, a medic.  And finally, Jeremy Davies played Technician fifth grade Timothy Upham, a cartographer and interpreter.

Together, the eight men search for Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon.  Along the way, Wade and Caparzo are killed in battles with German soldiers.  The others come to resent Ryan, calling the mission a fool’s errand, not worth the lives of their fellow soldiers.  But when Ryan is finally found, they quickly learn to respect him as he refuses to leave his post when ordered to.  The only way for Miller and his men to accomplish their mission is to help Ryan’s company accomplish theirs.  During the following climactic battle to defend a bridge, Horvath, Mellish, Jackson, and finally Miller himself are killed, all to protect and save Ryan.  And the final message of the movie was inspirational.  It was a charge from Miller to Ryan, telling him to be a good man and be worthy of the sacrifices that were made for him.  In a way, it was as if we all are being given the same directive, to honor all the service men and women who have died in the name of freedom.

The action scenes were exciting and intense, but it was the extensive character development and dramatic story-telling that made us care about the men that fought in them.  Hanks was at the top of his game, turning in a dramatic performance that was as believable and realistic as I’ve ever seen him.  I also really liked Sizemore and Ribisi, two actors who I have always enjoyed.  And to give proper credit, the man who wrote the script, Robert Rodat, along with Spielberg, did a great job putting it all together.

I was also surprised by the number of smaller supporting roles played by well-known actors like Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina, Bryan Cranston, Nathan Fillion, Ryan Hurst, and Leland Orser.  They all did a great job and deserve to be recognized.  But just as important as the stellar cast, was the world renowned musician behind the film’s music, John Williams.  It is as if the man can do no wrong when it comes to writing film scores.

Saving Private Ryan was nominated for an incredible eleven Academy Awards including, in addition for Best Picture, nods for Best Actor for Tom Hanks, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Music, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best  Director for Spielberg, Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Effects Editing.  It won the last five and it really deserved them.  It was truly a remarkable film, though not one that was easy to watch, especially that first twenty minutes.

1998 – Life is Beautiful











Life is Beautiful – 1998

This was an Italian film that was subtitled.  It was good enough in its own right, but I didn’t feel like I connected with the strange style of the film.  That doesn’t invalidate what the movie was trying to do, but I think it did blunt its effectiveness for me.  The first half of this movie was ridiculous.  But I get it.  It was set-up for the dramatic moments of the second half, because it was sprinkled with signs and clues about what was to come.  But for my tastes, the first half of the movie was ruined by the film’s writer, director, and lead actor, Roberto Banigni.  I’ll explain.

The movie was about a care-free Jewish man in Italy named Guido, played by Banigni.  He was a ridiculous clown whose style of comedy, which the film tries to pass off as charm, would earn him the anger and ridicule of most sane people.  He ran the gamut of silly Vaudeville comedy from funny stories to slapstick antics and pratfalls.  But the trouble was that it was rarely very funny.  Instead, I was just rolling my eyes because he wasn’t getting beat up or jailed.  Some of his comedy actually reminded me of Red Skelton, or Charlie Chaplin.

The first half of the movie showed his pursuit of a lovely girl, Dora, played by Nicoletta Braschi, Banigni’s wife.  It was a fairy-tale.  It was silly and unrealistic, though I must admit that the writing was clever in the way it tied together many of its silly, random occurrences and characters, to magically make true love blossom between Guido and Dora.  But that brought us to the second half of the film, which follows the blissfully happy couple and their young son, Giosue, played by a 5 year old Giorgio Cantarini.  World War II gets going and the family is torn apart.  Guido and Giosue are taken by the Nazis.  Knowing that her husband and child are being taken to a concentration camp, Dora demands to be allowed onto the same train, and goes voluntarily.  In order to shield his young son from the horrors of the concentration camp, Guido makes surviving into a child-like game that Giosue can understand.  He cracks jokes and pretends that everything is really OK.

The second half of the film was played much more seriously, and the humor, though still clearly present, lost some of its silliness.  The feel of the film became much darker and more intense, culminating in the climax in which Guido, after assuring that his son was well hidden, goes looking for his wife, and is murdered by a Nazi soldier.  As the Nazis are abandoning the camp and leaving their prisoners behind to go free, they fail to find Giosue in his hiding place.  The next morning, after the only remaining people in the camp are Holocaust survivors, the boy comes out of hiding and is found by American soldiers.  Among the other survivors is Dora.  The film closes with their reunion.

Many people thought that the movie was far too insensitive to the true horrors of the Holocaust.  Some of them were hinted at, but never really seen, except for a single frightening shot of Guido standing in front of a smoldering mountain of naked, skeletal corpses.  The gas chambers were mentioned, but our main characters are never forced into them, though I’ll admit that a minor character, Uncle Eliseo, played by Guistino Durano, is shown undressing to go into one.

See, I understand what the movie was trying to do.  It was not about the horrors of the war, but of the power of love, innocence, humor, hope, and courage in the face of the war.  It is a great sentiment, but it was that very thing which blunted the intensity of the dark drama.  The fact that the little boy came through the experience without a scratch, either physically or emotionally, was unrealistic.  His mother survives and he finds her happy and safe.  And though his father died, he fondly remembers him as a courageous savior.

Now, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of other actors who did just fine.  Amergio Fontani played Rodolfo, the mean man who was the accidental target of a lot of Guido’s silly behavior.  For example, after he is a jerk to Guido, Guido clownishly knocks a flower pot onto his head from a second story window.  Then when he runs down to apologize, carrying six eggs in his hands, instead of putting the eggs back in his own pockets, he puts them in Rodolfo’s hat.  The angry Rodolfo thrusts his hat back on his head, getting egg all over himself.  That’s comedy, folks!  Right?  I was surprised he hadn’t gotten a pie in his face before the Nazis took Guido and his family away.  But not to worry.  He got a second egg dropped on his head before that happened.

And then there were the three throw away characters, Horst Buchold, playing Dr. Lessing, a Nazi who liked Guido because he was a challenge at riddles, Dora’s mother, played by Marisa Paredes, and Ferruccio, Guido’s friend in the first half of the movie, played by Sergio Bustric.  These parts could have been taken out of the movie and nothing would have been missed.  Well, maybe Dr. Lessing was there to show how selfish and uncaring the Nazis were.  But they were all overshadowed by Banigni and his Vaudeville shtick in the first half of the film, and his desperate efforts to shield his son from the horrors of the concentration camp in the second.

1998 – Elizabeth











Elizabeth – 1998

This was a good movie.  It isn’t the kind of movie I’d want to watch over and over again, but it was very entertaining.  The pace was a little slow, but only a little.  There was some pretty incredible acting, some great costumes, a number of historical inaccuracies, a great score, and an intense and interesting plot.  As you might have guessed from the title, the movie is about Elizabeth I, played by Kate Blanchett.  It covers the Queen’s rise to the throne and her first few years as the reigning monarch.

I’ll quickly get the historical inaccuracies out of the way first.  Most of them deal with the timeline of events.  The movie takes events that happened in Queen Elizabeth’s 45 year reign and presented them as if they all took place in the first 5 years.  They also scrambled the order of a couple of events.  They also exaggerated certain events and characters to make them more interesting than reality.  And the invented a few personality traits and motivations for the sake of a more dramatic story.  But they kept in enough truth to satisfy most viewers.

Blanchett was fantastic as Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.  Now, of course, she wasn’t actually a virgin.  She’d been having an affair with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, played by Joseph Fiennes.  But when her half-sister, Queen Mary I of England, expertly played by Kathy Burke, died of cancer, Elizabeth, who had been imprisoned in The Tower, is elevated to the throne.  But it is made clear that her Protestant religious affiliations and her sexual relations with Robert were unpopular with a lot of people.

Among her enemies were Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, played by Christopher Eccleston, Mary of Guise, played by Fanny Ardant, Pope Pius V, played by John Gielgud, an assassin monk, John Ballard, played by Daniel Craig, The Earl of Sussex, played by Jamie Foreman, Alvarado de le Quadra, the Spanish ambassador, played by James Frain, and Monsieur de Foix, the French Ambassador, and the French suiter named Henry, the Duke d’Anjou, played by Vincent Cassel.  Her friends were William Cecil, played by Richard Attenborough, Francis Walsingham, played by Geoffrey Rush, several ladies in waiting, one of whom was played by Kelly McDonald, and Robert Dudley, of course.

They all did just fine in their acting, but the only ones that really mattered were Thomas Howard, Francis Walsingham, and Robert Dudley.  And here is the short version of the plot.  After Elizabeth becomes Queen, her enemies seek to have her assassinated.  But she has Walsingham as her personal protector and advisor.  After several failed attempts on her life, Walsingham, at Elizabeth’s acquiescence, systematically finds and executes all her enemies except the pope.  Elizabeth now has a guilt-ridden conscience, but an unopposed monarchy.  In an attempt to separate herself from the necessary bloodshed, she cuts off all her hair, puts on lead makeup that makes her appear to be made of stone, and proclaims herself a virgin.  The end.  Long live the Queen.

There were some very good performances, and a few intense scenes, but nothing to blow your socks off.  The most interesting parts of the movie were the dangerous scheming and intrigue that seemed to surround Elizabeth.  It seemed to be difficult for her to know who to trust.  Everybody pressed her to marry and produce an heir, but she never saw the need.  She was determined to rule on her own.  Blanchett’s performance was powerful, and yet you could always see the frail humanity behind her bold exterior.  In fact, it was good enough to earn her a nomination for Best Actress, though she did not win.

Eccleston and Rush both did well and deserve to me recognized.  Their characters both seemed to be knights on opposing sides of the board.  And they seemed to be evenly matched until Walsingham began slaughtering people.  They both performed their parts with a seriousness and a gravitas that was quite engaging.  Fiennes was alright, but somehow I expected a little more from him.

As I mentioned, the costumes were absolutely fantastic.  The attention to detail was amazing.  Some of the clothes, like the gown Elizabeth wore in her coronation scene, were based on actual paintings of the events.  The costuming was beautiful and Blanchett looked gorgeous.  And I have to make special mention of the wonderful filming locations and beautiful cinematography.  And the haunting score by David Hirschfelder was perfect to set the tone for the film’s bloody climax.

But I have to mention one thing that bugged me a little. Elizabeth’s French suitor was portrayed as a lecherous man with a penchant for cross-dressing.  Apparently this was completely untrue, and I’m going to set the record straight.  Not only did Elizabeth never actually meet him in real life, there is no evidence that he ever wore women’s clothes, either in public or in private.  When I see something as random as that, I have to wonder why the director, Shekhar Kapur, decided that it needed to be in the film.

1997 – L.A. Confidential











L.A. Confidential – 1997

OK, this was a really awesome movie.  I had seen it once a long time ago, and had completely forgotten how incredibly good it was.  It was done in the style of a crime drama or a film noir.  The plot twists and turns in so many different directions.  The casting and the acting were perfect, and the sets and costumes were completely appropriate.  The film-score was exciting, lending a serious and dangerous tone to the whole thing.  Director, Curtis Hanson, really knew his stuff and did a great job paying attention to the aesthetic details that marked the story as taking place in California in the early 50s.

The incredible main cast included two unknown Aussie actors and three well-established American actors.  From Australia, we got Russell Crowe and Guy Pierce, and from the States, we got Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, and Kim Bassinger.  We also got James Cromwell to play a great villain.  But that was one of the things that was so great about the complex plot.  There were so many twists, double-crosses, and misdirections that it was often unclear as to who the good guys were, and who the bad guys were.

The movie presents itself as a crime drama, but it was character driven.  You would expect there to be a specific crime like a murder that propelled the plot, and there was… kind-of.  But the drama of the movie came from following the characters and witnessing the psychological journeys they each took.  This is a notable departure from your typical noir crime drama, which doesn’t often delve into the inner workings of the cops or the criminals.

Arguably, there are three leads.  Pierce plays Ed Exley, a young PD officer who has an idealistic sense of duty and morality with a clearly defined code of ethics.  He has ambitions of rising through the ranks of law enforcement.  Crowe plays Bud White, a muscly thug of a police officer.  He is ruled by his own absolute sense of right, wrong, and the law, and has no problem beating the crap out of those who break it.  Spacey plays Jack Vincennes, a high-profile officer who has long since abandoned his sense of ethics and morality, and who advises a popular crime-based TV show.  He regularly accepts bribes from Sid Hudgens, played by DeVito, the sleazy publisher of the tabloid magazine, Hush-Hush, in order to give him the juiciest crime stories.

The movie starts off in a 1950s-style pitch, advertising Hollywood and Los Angeles as a paradise on earth.  But then it quickly tells us of the seedy underbelly of the City of Angels.  The plot follows gangsters, corrupt cops, violence, pornography, prostitution, drug trafficking, and of course, murder.  But the big questions about which we are kept guessing are who is behind it all and how deep does the corruption go?

Bud White was such a great character.  On the surface, he appears to be a tough guy with no emotions except a special hatred for criminals who abuse women.  But as we get to know him, we learn the reason for that singular obsession, and we discover the softer side of him as he falls in love with a high-class hooker who is made up to look like movie star Veronica Lake.  She is Lynn Bracken, played by Bassinger.  As Bud treats her like a woman instead of a whore, she falls in love with him.  Bassinger took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the roll.

But as much as I liked Crowe’s character and his intense performance, it was Guy Pierce whose character had the best arc.  He starts off as a naïve idealist who would refuse to dispense field justice, or shooting a criminal in the field if he knew that they would get away with their crimes in a court of law.  He believed in the rightness and integrity of his job.  But by the end of the film, he learns to not only break this moral code, but to take advantage of the corrupt system for personal gain.  The character’s transformation is completely believable in light of the way it betrayed him over and over again.

Kevin Spacey is always good in whatever part he plays.  His little character arc follows him as he attempts to keep his celebrity, while regaining the code of ethics that he had lost.  After a sleazy deal with Hudgens goes bad, ending in the death of a bisexual hustler, he develops a conscience and tries to help Exley solve his case, which he suspects is related to the hustler’s death.

And that’s another thing about the script that was so great.  Everything was actually related.  As you watch the movie, there seem to be a slew of unrelated crimes and arrests.  But in the end, they are all tied together and are proved to be pieces in a much larger puzzle, a conspiracy that was huge and complicated, and yet made complete sense.  The plot was incredibly well-crafted and it easily draws you in.  At first, you might not like any of the characters, but by the end, you do.  And it is satisfying.  All the loose ends are tied up and all of the questions are answered.  It was a great movie that was well-paced and exciting to watch.

1997 – Good Will Hunting











Good Will Hunting – 1997

This was an incredible movie.  It had some really powerful performances, some really complex and realistic characters, a smart script with some great dialogue, and a wonderfully inspirational message.  The cast was perfect.  Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were virtual unknowns in Hollywood until this movie made it big and suddenly they were both established household names.  Because not only did they star in the movie, they were behind the writing of the script.  Pretty darn impressive for the young friends.

Apparently, Damon originally started writing the script as a final project for a playwriting class he was taking at Harvard University.  He asked his friend Affleck to help, and the rest is history.  And just as an interesting note, the script was originally a thriller about a super-intelligent thug on the streets of South Boston who is targeted for recruitment by the FBI.  Thank Goodness Rob Reiner got ahold of a copy of the script and convinced him to rework it as a drama.

And man, the drama sure worked.  There were deep moments that were very character driven and even though much of it had a high-brow feel, it was all very accessible and engrossing.  But I think this had just as much to do with the brilliant cast as it did with the fascinating script.  The main character would have been no better than average if Matt Damon had not done such a great job.  The character of Sean Maguire, masterfully played by Robin Williams, would not have been as powerful with any other actor.

Will Hunting is a poor orphan with a history of extreme physical and emotional abuse.  He is a troubled young man who has criminal tendencies.  But he also happens to have a photographic memory and genius level intelligence.  To use an example from the script, he saw high-level and theoretical mathematics as Mozart or Beethoven saw music.  Concepts that the world’s greatest mathematicians spent years proving came as easy as breathing to him.  And yet, because of his tragic background, he had no concept of his own worth, believing that he would be nothing more than a common blue-collar laborer all his life.

In order to keep him out of prison, MIT professor Gerald Lambeau, played by Stellan Skarsgard, makes a deal with the judge.  Will must work with him on mathematics, and see a therapist on a regular basis.  Will agrees to do the math, but makes a mockery of his therapy sessions.  Finally Sean Maguire is brought in.  Sean grew up in the same area as Will, and thus has a rapport with him.  And it is that relationship that is built between Will and Sean that provides the film with most of its drama.  The two challenge each other emotionally and intellectually, each seeming to be a match for the other.  He is the only psychiatrist to which Will responds.

We also follow Will with his relationship with the beautiful Skylar, played by Minnie Driver.  They meet in a preppy Harvard bar and begin dating.  The two fall deeply in love.  Their relations vaguely parallels the relationship Sean had with his wife who had died of cancer.  Driver did a good job and played her part perfectly.  The emotional scene in which Will leaves her is absolutely heartbreaking to watch.

I also have to make mention of the trio of Will’s Southie friends, Chuckie, Morgan, and Billy, played by Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, and Cole Hauser.  They, along with Will, are best friends who are loyal to a man.  When Will gets into a brawl, his three friends fight along-side him without questioning the consequences.  But they, especially Will’s closest friend, Chuckie, are all quite aware that Will is far above them in terms of intelligence.  The point is made quite clear when Chuckie admonishes Will for wasting the rare gift of his intellect on a life that is beneath him, saying that it is an insult to someone like himself who will never have a chance at what Will is throwing away.

But of all the performances in the movie, Robin Williams stood out as phenomenal.  Time and again, Williams has proved that he is a real powerhouse, turning in one wonderful dramatic performance after another.  He was incredible.  His sense of timing, his extreme gravitas, and his total immersion into the emotion of a scene makes him gripping and undeniably fantastic.

The movie was nearly perfect, but I do have to mention one little shortcoming.  I have to admit to being disappointed in the big cathartic scene which ended in tears and hugs, the scene in which Sean gets Will to confront the inner demons which are holding him back from his own greatness.  It was too contrived and too unbelievable.  Sure, it was powerfully dramatic, but it was ultimately unrealistic.  Years of abuse and self-worth issues are not instantly cured after an out-of-nowhere cry-fest, based on the gently repeated phrase, “It’s not your fault.”  Did I cry when Will broke down into sobbing? Yes.  Is that really how true psychological healing works?  I’m guessing, probably not.

1997 – The Full Monty











The Full Monty – 1997

This movie was just plain fun, punctuated by moments of light drama.  In the modern era, it is rare for a comedy to be nominated for Best Picture, so it was impressive in that regard.  But let’s be honest.  It really never had any chance of winning the big prize, did it?  It was up against the juggernaut, James Cameron’s Titanic.  The Full Monty never had a chance.

The movie starred Robert Carlyle, Mark Addy Steve Hulson, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Barber, and Hugo Speer, six men who agreed to bare it all, though as viewers of the film, we never see anything that needed to be censored.  However, it is clear that they actually did “the full monty” in front of the filming crew and 400 extras during filming, something which the actors only agreed to do if it was done in a single take.

The movie was a major commercial success and still gets good reviews to this day.  It takes place in Sheffield in South Yorkshire, England, which is important because the actors all delivered their dialogue with the appropriate accent, which heavily used British slang and the thick dialect of the region, making some lines difficult to understand.  I personally had no difficulty with the language, and I thought it just added to the movie’s charm.

The plot is about six unemployed men in Sheffield, a city which once thrived because of its steel industry, but which has fallen on hard times due to the closing of the steel mills.  The main character, Gaz, played by Carlyle, is about to lose visitation privileges with his son, Nathan, played by William Snape, because he doesn’t have enough money to pay for child-support.  As a way to make some quick money, he comes up with the hair-brained scheme to become a stripper.

Gaz gets his best friend Dave, played by Addy, to help him.  After saving and befriending Lomper, another steel mill employee, played by Hulson, from committing suicide, Gaz and Dave harass Gerald, played by Wilkinson, their former steel-mill foreman, to help them learn how to dance.  Finally, they hire two more men, Barrington “Horse” Mitchell, an old black man who knows how to dance, and Guy, a young man who can’t dance, but apparently has an incredibly large willy.  In order to give the ladies in his audience something that their average chip-n-dale dancer could not, Gaz claims that he and his mates will go all the way, or The Full Monty.

What I loved about the movie was its sense of fun and its likable characters.  I liked that each character had his own moments of both comedy and drama.  I liked that even the drama wasn’t too heavy.  The whole thing had a light-hearted feel and an air of self-empowerment, earned through the courageous and liberating act of public nudity.  It starts off as a desperate and degrading attempt to make some money, and ends up being a way for the men to regain a lost sense of purpose and self-worth.

And each of the dramatic sub-plots in the film were handled so well.  For example, Lomper’s suicide attempt was treated as a comedic moment, He was fighting depression because of extreme loneliness.  But through the attempt, he becomes friends with Gaz and Dave, and the three sit and discuss what would be the best way to kill themselves.  And later it is made clear that a romantic relationship begins between Lomper and Guy, another touch that was perfectly played.

Or I loved Dave’s dramatic turn.  He is overweight, a fact which causes depression and low-self-esteem.  He also feels like a failure as a husband and provider because he cannot find work.  To top it all off, he has issues with impotence.  His wife, Jean, wonderfully played by Lesley Sharp, loves him dearly, but is afraid he has given up on life and on her.  The scene in which she inspires him to do the strip-tease was perfectly played.  Thinking she had caught Dave cheating on her, she is ready to walk out on him, but he confesses the real reason for the incriminating bikini undies.  She says, “You and Gaz?  Strippers?”  He replies, “We weren’t that bad.  Only I couldn’t, could I?”  “Why not?” she asks.  Near tears, he says, “Well, look at me.”  “So?”  “Jeanie, who wants to see this dance?”  And with eyes full of love she says, “Me, Dave.  I do.”  Such a fantastically played scene!  Of course, Dave dances and Jean is right in the front row.

The film was so popular that it was turned into a musical and a stage play.  I’ve actually seen the musical twice, and it is a lot of fun.  But I noticed that there was one significant difference from the movie which concerned Gerald’s dramatic story line.  Having been out of work for six months, he cannot bring himself to tell his wife, played in the film by Deirdre Costello.  He is hoping to get a new job before she finds out.  Of course, she does when the repo men arrive and begin taking all her possessions.  In the musical she loves him enough to stay with him.  In the movie, she leaves him.  An inconsequential detail, but I wonder why they changed it.

1997 – As Good As It Gets











As Good As It Gets – 1997

This should have been an average movie, but it wasn’t.  It was very good.  It was a romantic comedy, a genre which tends to be light and fluffy with a formulaic and predictable plot.  And I’ll admit, it did have a certain amount of predictability.  But it was much deeper than it could have been and it kept throwing me curve-balls.

The male lead was a seriously messed-up character.  He was racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and had a severe mental disorder that caused him to live in his own world, to the complete exclusion of the world around him.  The female lead was bitter and sarcastic.  She had a chronically ill son whose care dominated her life and her emotional stability, to the exclusion of all else.  And the supporting lead often seemed to be the only voice of reason when he wasn’t suicidal.  He was a homosexual who had nearly been beaten to death.  The loss of his physical beauty, his sense of self-worth, and his dignity destroyed his spirit.  A romantic story using these characters should not have worked, but it did.  It really did.

Jack Nicholson played Melvin Udall, a successful romance novelist with obsessive compulsive habits and a fear of change.  Nearly every aspect of his life is based on ritual and repetition.  He has an endless array of phobias and habits.  He also has no filter on his mouth.  Every morning he has to eat breakfast at the same place, sit at the same table, and get served by the same waitress.  Helen Hunt plays Carol Connelly, Melvin’s waitress.  She barely tolerates his cruel and insensitive behavior and comments.  But she is a good woman, and does what she can to handle him.

Melvin’s gay neighbor, Simon Bishop, is played by Greg Kinnear.  He is a successful painter who has the misfortune to hire Vincent, a street hustler played by Skeet Ulrich, as a model.  Vincent’s criminal friends, break into his home to burglarize it.  When he walks in on them, they beat him to a bloody pulp and run.  When he awakes in the hospital, he is horrified at his reflection in the mirror.

There’s the set-up.  The script was very cleverly written, intertwining the lives of the three people.  Melvin and Carol seem like they couldn’t be more different, and the romance that blooms between them seems unlikely, but the on-screen chemistry between Nicholson and Hunt was undeniable.  In fact, they both won Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress for their roles, and I think they were well-deserved.  I was particularly impressed with Hunt’s performance.  The emotional range the role demanded of her was complex and deep.  And Nicholson’s portrayal of the obsessive compulsive disorder was spot-on.  And I have to also give special props to Kinnear, who also had to get through some emotionally powerful scenes.

And as I said, the plot was not stereotypically predictable.  Even at the end of the movie when Melvin and Carol ended up together, I was still questioning whether their relationship would last past the end of the film.  If their love was to work, two things would need to happen.  Melvin would have to continue taking his medication and would have to completely change his attitude and behavior.  Fortunately, this change is already happening, as he befriends Simon and rescues him by giving him a place to stay in his own apartment.  And second, Carol will need to fully accept that Melvin has a mental illness that will never completely go away.

But ultimately, despite all the surprisingly heavy drama, the movie was a romantic comedy.  A comedy.  Right at the very beginning of the movie when Melvin throw’s Simon’s dog down a garbage chute for peeing in the apartment hallway, I was laughing.  OK, it would have been animal abuse in real life.  But in the movies, it was just hilarious.  Of some of the off-the-wall and overtly offensive things that came out of Melvin’s mouth were shocking and funny.  Ultimately, I liked the film because of the realness of the characters.  Because I could see pieces of myself in each of them.  The film’s director, James L. Brooks, did a great job.  And the film’s script-writer, Mark Andrus, really knew his craft.  Together, they created these wonderful characters that each had complete and well-developed arcs.  By the end of the film, no matter where they started, they all became better people because of the newfound friendships and relationships that had blossomed between them.

And the dialogue was very well-written, with lines like “You make me want to be a better man,” or, “You’re why cavemen chiseled on walls,” or the movie’s big romantic climax where Melvin wins over Carol with a fantastic compliment, saying, “I might be the only person on the face of the earth that knows you’re the greatest woman on earth.  I might be the only one who appreciates how amazing you are in every single thing you do, and how you are with Spencer, ‘Spence,’ and in every single thought that you have, and how you say what you mean, and how you almost always mean something that’s all about being straight and good.  I think most people miss that about you, and I watch them, wondering how they can watch you bring their food and clear their tables, and never get that they just met the greatest woman alive.  And the fact that I get it makes me feel good… about me.”  How’s that for a compliment?  Who wouldn’t respond to great lines like those?