2001 – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring











The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – 2001

Put simply, this was one of the best fantasy films ever made.  And it is a rare enough thing when the Academy recognizes anything from the fantasy genre.  The casting was perfect, the sets and costumes were phenomenal, and the music was grand and dramatic.  If the movie had any weak point, it would be the script, but even that was exceptional.  But I’ll address that in a bit.

First, it is important to note that I think it deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar… but it didn’t.  Neither did its first sequel, The Two Towers.  But the third film in the trilogy, The Return of the King, won, and was one of the biggest films ever to sweep the Oscars in 2003.  That film not only won Best Picture, it was nominated for a total of eleven awards, and took home every single one.  It is in a three-way tie for the most Oscars won by a single film with 1997’s Titanic, and 1959’s Ben-Hur.  I only take the time to mention all this, because The Return of the King’s massive victory was for the entire trilogy, not just for itself.

But it was this film, The Fellowship of the Ring, which started the entire franchise off.  It was a gargantuan success.  It did so many things right, the biggest one being that it stayed true to most of the source material, thus holding the loyalty of existing fans of the books, and keeping what made them popular in the first place, thus creating new fans.  J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the original books, has been called the father of modern fantasy.  The fantastic and unbelievably detailed world that he created is like the gold standard by which most other fantasy series are measured.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

That being said, Director Peter Jackson really paid attention to every detail he possibly could.  He really understood the characters, the races, the languages, the style and aesthetics, and the complexity of the narrative.  The basic story follows a Halfling, or Hobbit, named Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood, who inherits a mysterious ring from his uncle.  The ring turns out to contain the spirit of an evil demigod, and must be destroyed.

Aided by the wizard, Gandalf the Grey, played by Ian McKellen, and a ranger named Strider, played by Viggo Mortensen, Frodo and his friends, Sam, Merry, and Pippen, played by Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, and Billy Boyd, make their way to the elven city of Rivendell. There, they gain the help of Boromir, played by Sean Bean, Legolas the elf, played by Orlando Bloom, and Gimli the dwarf, played by John Rhys-Davies.  Together the nine companions go on a quest to destroy the evil ring by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom, deep in the dark lord’s territory.  As they journey across the land, they have to deal with the forces of the evil wizard Saruman, played by Christopher Lee, an ancient fiery demon called a balrog in the underground dwarf city of Moria, and the mysterious elf Queen Galadrial, played by Kate Blanchett, in the elven tree city of Lothlorian.  This is fantasy at its best.

And that’s the basic plot.  The story was complex, but for those of us who love the books, it is familiar.  The changes that Jackson’s script made to the source material were understandable and necessary to bring the book to the big screen at all.  Time lines were shortened.  Unnecessary characters were left out.  In some cases, character motivations were slightly altered.  But these were minor changes made to set a faster pacing for a film, whereas a book has the luxury of taking its time.

I think the only real weakness in the script was the dialogue.  Tolkien created some very memorable characters, and a lot of that was his brilliant dialogue.  Much of it was kept for the movie, but a lot was added.  The dialogue that was added didn’t seem as refined as Tolkien’s, in some places.  But at least it was consistent, creating a slightly more modern feel for the movie.  But this is like saying that the script was a nine instead of a ten.  It was still a nine!

But for me, what really made the movie spectacular, aside from the mind-blowing visual effects, was the cast.  Now, I can’t think of any actor who could have played Gandalf as well as McKellen.  He was incredible.  He really stood out to me as a cut above the rest.  And as a fan of the books, I have always had a special love for the character of Galadriel.  She is, after all, the oldest living elf in Middle earth, having been born in Valinor, kind-of Middle Earth’s version of heaven on earth.

And while I’m talking about her, I have to mention that the first time I saw the movie, I was disappointed with her big scene.  I had a preconceived notion of what the scene should have been, based on the 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated version of the Lord of the Rings.  The nature of Galadriel’s test was different, and I thought the Bakshi version was written better.  I still do, but I can respect what Jackson did, having the power of the ring make a direct assault against her willpower.

Either way, this is a phenomenal story that has been turned into an incredible movie, the perfect set-up for the spectacular movies to follow.  I will never tire of watching it.

2001 – In the Bedroom











In the Bedroom – 2001

The first time I had seen this film in 2001, I was unimpressed.  I thought it was trying too hard to be dramatic.  It seemed to be pushing for an Oscar nomination.  But now I am giving it a little more credit.  The drama was good and the acting was incredible.  Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson both turned some very intense performances.  They were both nominated for Best Actress and Best Actor, but Marissa Tomei was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

The story took place in Camden, Maine, and followed Matt and Ruth Fowler.  They are fine and upstanding members of a middle class community.  Matt is a doctor, and Ruth is a choir director.  And since I’m on the subject, she wasn’t a very good one.  Having been involved in choral music all my life, I thought it seemed like she had just learned the motions for the part and they were not yet comfortable for her.  Anyway, their college-age son, Frank, was played by Nick Stahl.  As the film begins, Frank is dating Natalie, an older woman with two young children.

Everything is going well, the only conflict being that Frank is supposed to be going back to school soon, except that he is falling in love with Natalie.  Then we meet Natalie’s ex-husband, Richard, played by William Mapother.  He is a violent and unpredictable man who seems to have had a history of physically abusing Natalie.  She tries to tell him that she doesn’t want him in her life or the lives of her kids.  He becomes enraged and Natalie calls Frank for help.  When he arrives, a struggle ensues and Richard shoots and kills him.  Natalie hears the gunshot and runs to him.  Tomei’s reaction when she first sees him dead was very well-acted.

The bulk of the movie takes a serious look at the effect this has on Matt and Ruth.  We see how their worlds are turned upside-down. The emotions range from sorrow and depression to anger and rage.  Things are made worse when it becomes clear that because of a technicality, Richard might have an easy jail sentence of maybe five years or so.  This is not enough to satisfy the grieving parents.  They want the murderer to be locked away for the rest of his life.

This is where Spacek and Wilkinson really shined.  Their performances were incredibly polished.  They were both angry, though at times, they seemed to take their anger out on each other for allowing such a tragedy to occur.  Spacek has always been a pretty strong actress, but the only other part I have seen Wilkinson play was in The Full Monty in 1997, a comedic role.  He really turned in a powerful dramatic performance here.

And the film’s end was haunting.  The only way Matt could satisfy his and Ruth’s sense of justice was to find Richard, who was out on bail and awaiting trial, was to murder him.  He got the help of his close friend, Willis, played by William Wise.  Together, the two men made it look as though Richard was jumping bail and leaving town.  But in reality, they kidnapped him, took him out into the woods, and ended his life, and buried the body.  After the deed was done, Matt returned home and found Ruth sitting in bed and smoking a cigarette.  She asks him, “Did you do it?”  He doesn’t answer.  She gets up to casually start her day, making breakfast as if nothing had happened.  Matt seems to be horrified by what he has done and cannot bring himself to speak.  The credits begin to roll.

It was a heavy and enigmatic ending.  But my problem with it was that I’m not sure it was within Matt’s character to commit murder.  Ruth probably could have done it, but not Matt.  Either way, it made me question where justice ended and revenge began.  The line had gotten blurred.  I mean, by that point in the movie, Matt and Ruth had pretty much resolved their anger toward each other, and their relationship was healing.  But maybe that was the point.  Maybe it was that healing and newfound understanding between them that prompted Matt to kill Richard.  He did it for Ruth.

The script was actually very well crafted.  There seemed to be very little that showed up on the screen that didn’t need to be there.  This was thanks to some great directing by Todd Field.  And I also have to recognize the wonderful cinematography by Antonio Calvache.  The distinctly New England look and feel was unmistakable.  And lastly, I have to mention the sad and understated score, written by Thomas Newman.  It was beautiful, melancholy, and tragic.

And as a final thought, I’ll explain the title of the movie.  You see, Frank, before he died, worked as a lobster fisherman.  The back of the lobster trap is called the bedroom.  When catching the crustaceans, if more than two of them end up in the bedroom, they will turn on each other and fight.  And you might say that it was an effective metaphor for Frank, Natalie, and Richard.  But the analogy might also apply to Matt, Ruth, and their grief.  Anyway, it was effective story-telling, even if the overly-dramatic and haunting ending stretched believability a little.  But that didn’t make it any less enjoyable to watch.

2001 – Gosford Park











Gosford Park – 2001

This is a movie with several faces.  It is a stuffy British Drama, but a good one.  It is an examination of the British class system, set in the 1930s.  It is an Agatha Christie style who-done-it.  And it is an ensemble period piece that is very character-driven, heavily dependent on the various relationships between them.  And it is also a perfect portrayal of a British country house, showing the often fascinating roles of wealthy masters and their highly respected servants.

The movie had too many characters, played by well-known actors to spend much time on them all, so I’ll give a quick list of recognizable names who played their parts with skill and depth.  Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggi Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Emily Watson.  And those are just the ones who I have heard of before.

Following in the footsteps of the 1932-1933 Best Picture winner, Cavalcade, and the 1970s TV show Upstairs, Downstairs, we get to follow, with equal focus, both the upper class lords and ladies, and the lower class men and women who served them.  On the surface, it is the upper class who are supposed to be respectable and important.  It is they who we are supposed to emulate.  It is they who make the big decisions and decide the fates of others.  And they do.  But it is also a fact that they are completely dependent on the serving class.  Without the servants, the upper class would be ridiculously inept at everything.  They can’t cook, they can’t sew, and they can’t clean.  They can’t even seem to dress themselves without the help of their personal valets or chamber maids.

A number of lords and ladies are invited to Gosford Park, owned by Sir William McCordle, played by Gambon, for a shooting party.  His wife, Lady Sylvia, played by Thomas, knew of his many affairs with various women of the serving staff, and had regular rendezvous with some of the men.  The lords would hunt for pheasant while the ladies would play cards and have tea.  Each attending guest would bring along their valets and maids.  And then there was the oddball Hollywood producer, Mr. Weissman, played by Balaban, and his valet, played by Phillippe.

Add these people to Sir William’s own resident staff, and you have a wonderful array of characters.  Helen Mirren played Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper, opposite Alan Bates, who played the head butler.  Atkins played Mrs. Croft, the head cook.  Lady Trentham, played by Smith, brought her new maid, Mary, played by Macdonald.  And Lord Stockbridge, played by Charles Dance, brought along his new valet, Robert Parks, played by Clive Owen.  Those seemed to be the major players in the main plot.  The first half of the movie was spent getting to know them all.  The second was all about Sir William’s murder, who killed him, and why.

The film’s director, Robert Altman, and the script writer, Julian Fellows, did a fantastic job of giving each character a distinct personality.  Even many of the minor characters had wonderfully written parts that were unique and realistic, giving the film a rich and fully fleshed-out feel.  The sets and costumes were perfect and very period appropriate.  And the beautiful music by Patrick Doyle gave the movie an almost nostalgic feel.

And as for the mystery of who killed the lord of the manor, I found it to be an intriguing plot.  Nobody particularly liked him, but there were several people who benefited from his untimely demise.  One Lt. Commander Anthony Meredith, played by Tom Hollander, had a business deal with Sir William which he was about to end, leaving Meredith in financial ruin.  Sir William was also about to end the allowance he gave to his Aunt, Lady Trentham, leaving her destitute.  Sir William’s murder left both Meredith and Lady Trentham financially secure.  It also ended the loveless marriage he shared with Lady Sylvia.

The identity of the killer, like many Agatha Christie murder mysteries, came from out of left field.  There was no way to predict who it was until the very end, when vital information was revealed, without which the case could not be solved.  It was Mrs. Wilson.  Apparently 30 years in the past, both she and her sister, the cook, Mrs. Croft, had been impregnated by Sir William during his many adulterous dalliances.  Mrs. Croft’s baby had died, but Mrs. Wilson had given her baby to an orphanage, the same as all of Sir William’s other illegitimate children.  And Mr. Parks, though he didn’t know it, was her son.  He had come to Gosford Park with the intention of murdering his cruel father.  So, to protect her son, Mrs. Wilson murdered the man first.

The movie was very enjoyable to watch and the great cast of actors gave some very skilled and memorable performances.  I especially liked Helen Mirren, Emily Watson as the head maid who was having an affair with Sir William, Clive Owen, and Kristin Scott Thomas.  They all did a great job and produced a very well-made film.

2000 – Traffic











Traffic – 2000

This was actually a better movie than I remember it being.  I saw it when it originally came out and was honestly not impressed.  I remember it being mostly boring because I had little interest in the subject matter.  But I am seventeen years older now, and have a greater appreciation for the dangers that the drug trafficking trade can entail.  This film is quite informative about the industry, looking at it from several different angles, all the while, creating an entertaining story.

Actually the movie tells three stories.  The first takes place in Tijuana, Mexico, where police officer Javier Rodriguez, expertly played by Benicio del Toro, and his partner Manolo, played by Jacob Vargas, make a drug bust which brings them to the attention of General Salazar, played by Thomas Milian.  The two officers get caught up in the rivalries between the Tijuana Cartel and the Obregon Cartel.

The second story takes place in America and follows Judge Wakefield, played by Michael Douglas.  He is the President’s top pick to be the next Drug Czar and lead the country’s war on drugs.  Unfortunately, his over-privileged teenage daughter, Caroline, played by Erika Christensen, gets involved with Seth, played by Topher Grace, another rich kid who introduces her to crack.  She becomes a major addict and loses control, becoming a crack whore and living on the streets.

The third story takes place in San Diego. DEA agents Montel Gordon and Ray Castro, played by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, make a drug bust.  They arrest Eduardo Ruiz, played by Miguel Ferrer, who agrees to become a witness against his boss, Carlos Ayala, played by Stephen Bauer.  Carlos’ wife, Helena, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is horrified to learn of her husband’s true business as a major drug dealer, but she has no idea how to survive without him and the money he brings in.  On top of that, she is threatened by her husband’s unpaid business associates, and has no choice but to try to run his business during his absence.  In order to have his case dismissed, Helena finds people to assassinate Ruiz.

All three of these stories are told at the same time, the narratives cutting back and forth from one plot lint to another in quick succession.  There are a lot of characters to remember and keep track of.  There were a few times when the stories overlapped and characters from three narratives would show up in other plot lines, but for the most part, they were all kept separate.  This had the effect of creating a large tapestry that was held together by invisible threads.

To keep the stories separate and make them easier to follow, director Steven Soderbergh came up with an ingenious solution.  He used different film processes which gave each of the stories their own distinct looks.  For the Mexican plot line, he used tobacco filters and a 45-degree shutter angle, producing a somewhat washed-out yellow image.  For the Judge’s story, Soderberg used tungsten film with no filter, giving the picture a blue monochrome look.  And for the San Diego story, he used diffusion filters and overexposed the film for a warmer image.

The acting was good, but I have to give special notice to Benicio del Toro’s performance.  There was a quiet gravitas to his character that was very appealing.  To add to the film’s gritty realism, all the scenes in which Spanish would have been spoken were actually spoken in Spanish with English subtitles.  This meant the nearly all of del Toro’s dialogue was in a foreign language.  He did a great job, even going so far as to learn the correct accent and dialect for the Tijuana region, though I suppose only a native of the area would be able to pick it up.

I enjoyed the movie well enough, but I was a little disappointed with one small thing.  I’m talking about Caroline Wakefield’s subplot, which I’m guessing was a bit too soft.  I mean she became a prostitute who spent most of her time high on crack.  Her story had a happy ending as the Judge tracks her down and finds her naked in a crack den, high as a kite.  She still looked pretty and didn’t have a scratch on her.  How realistic was that?  Maybe I can forgive it because she had really only been missing for a few days, maybe a week.  But how much more serious would the drama have been if he had found her dead of a drug overdose, or worse if he had never found her at all.

But I think that all the plot lines were supposed to end on a hopeful note.  Javier made a deal with the DEA.  He would give them Salazar, who was setting himself up as a drug lord, in exchange for electricity for his community so that children would have a safe alternative to gangs and drugs in the form of a well-lit baseball field.  Wakefield turned down his position as the Drug Czar in order to pay more attention to his daughter, attending rehab meetings with her, and thus healing his family.  And even though Carlos Ayala was not put in prison for being a drug dealer, Officer Gordon was able to plant a bug in his house, implying that he and his wife would soon be caught.  Even though a few characters got killed off, like Manolo, and Officer Castro, there seems to be hope for the future.  I guess the point is that the drug war, while dangerous, is ultimately not a futile effort.

2000 – Erin Brockovich











Erin Brockovich – 2000

This was a film that was based on true events.  Erin Brockovich is a Legal Clerk and environmental activist living in southern California.  Despite having no formal education in law, she was instrumental in investigating, building a case against, and successfully suing Pacific Gas and Electric Company, PG&E, in the largest direct-action law suit in U.S. history.  This film is a dramatization of those events.

Julia Roberts starred as the title character in what some have called one of the best performances of her career.  She took home the Best Actress Oscar for her realistic portrayal.  And she certainly did a great job.  The character was brash, bold, and foul mouthed, but at the same time, deeply passionate about what she believed in.  The character, and the way Roberts played it, almost seemed over-the-top and bordered on comedic at times.  But there was also a seriousness about her that made the performance real.

Erin was a single mother of three children who was out of work and desperate for a job.  She was injured in a car accident and went to a lawyer to seek legal compensation.  She lost her law suit, and became so angry that she bullied her lawyer, Mr. Edward Masry, played by Albert Finney, into giving her a job.  While there, she began to investigate some real estate cases in which she found that medical records had been included with the paperwork.  Not understanding why property cases required medical records, she went to the people in the town of Hinkley California and conducted interviews.

She learned that PG&E had been using a highly toxic chemical called hexavalent chromium which had been carelessly been allowed to sink into Hinkley’s ground water.  The contaminated water had been causing severe health problems in the town’s residents.  People had been experiencing various forms of cancer, among other serious health problems.  Her investigation uncovered the fact that PG&E knew of the water contamination, but that a massive cover-up and misinformation campaign had been perpetrated against the victims.

Erin and Masry’s legal investigation was the main focus of the plot.  But it was Erin’s personal life that provided the film’s drama.  The character of Erin Brockovich was portrayed as somewhat trashy, based mostly on her hooker-like wardrobe, but moderately intelligent and incredibly hard-working.  Unfortunately, she didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut or her tongue civil.  Sometimes it worked to her advantage, but just as often, it got her into trouble.  Erin’s struggle to excel in her demanding job while trying to take care of her children was inspirational.

On top of all that, she started a relationship with her Harley Davidson biker neighbor, George, wonderfully played by Aaron Eckhart.  Sure, it was great to see Erin blossom into a hard-working legal clerk for the sake of her kids, but I really sympathized with her neglected children, and felt especially bad about her strained, one-sided relationship with George.  He was such a nice guy.  He selflessly offered to take care of her children while she spent endless hours on her holy crusade.  She constantly ignored her children and thoughtlessly took advantage of his kindness.  When he eventually had enough and left her, I was on his side.

Now, granted, it all worked out for her in the end.  She ended up winning the law suit and became a millionaire, able to take care of her children.  But let’s face it.  She got lucky.  There were a hundred ways in which she could have lost the case and gotten nothing.  I understand, she worked hard, which counted for something.  But hard-work only got her so far.  A single judge’s ruling could have easily derailed her entire investigation.  It is hard to feel too confident in a main character who simply won by getting lucky.

The rest of the cast did just fine.  Marg Helgenberger played Donna Jensen, the plaintiff who served as the main focus of the investigation, though there were others.  Tracey Walter played Charles Embry, the deus ex machina of the investigation.  At first he seemed like a scuzzy sleaze who wanted to hit on Erin.  But as it turned out, he provided the final piece of evidence which, at the last minute, provided the needed evidence that assured the law suit’s successful outcome.  I also liked the lawyers Mr. Masry partnered with, Kurt Potter, played by Peter Coyote and Theresa Dallavale, played by Veanne Cox.  They habitually dismissed the uneducated Erin, but were properly surprised when she provided everything needed to win the case.

The movie was a pretty good movie, though the subject matter was a little slow.  I have found that the film was pretty accurate to real events.  The movie’s real saving grace was Roberts and her fantastic performance.  But, of course, this had just as much to do with the strong script by Susannah Grant as with the Robert’s spot-on performance.  It really was, in the end, an engaging and inspirational story.  But I have to admit that there were times I just didn’t like the main character, despite how well Roberts played her.

2000 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon











Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – 2000

This was an incredible movie.  On the surface you might think it is just a martial arts action film, and it certainly has that element.  But it also has drama, romance, and a really cool plot.  It had a great cast of actors, some pretty phenomenal special effects, and spectacular cinematography.    I’ve seen the film a few times previously and am enthralled with it every time I watch it.

The film was an epic, which I love.  Chou Yun-fat played Master Li Mu Bai, a monk who has attained the rank of Master of the Wudang fighting discipline.  It is a mystical art that relies heavily on spiritual enlightenment and calmness of soul.  It gives those who master its secrets supernatural powers like heightened speed, lightning reflexes, and a kind of flight.  Li Mu Bai has in his possession a 400 year old sword called the Green Destiny.  The sword seems almost magical in its strength and sharpness.

Li Mu Bai is getting on in years and is tired of being a warrior.  He wants to retire, even going so far as giving up his vendetta of revenge against a woman known as the Jade Fox who killed his former teacher.  His close friend, Yu Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh, is also an accomplished practitioner of the Wudang fighting style.  The two have a history that is hinted at, but never fully explained.  They are in love with each other, but because of social and career oriented ties and obligations, they have never been able to openly declare their love.

Li Mu Bai asks Yu Shu Lien to give the Green Destiny to a friend in Beijing as a gift.  While there Yu Shu Lien meets Jen Yu, played by Zhang Zi Yi, and her governess, played by Cheng Pei-pei.  Jen Yu is the beautiful young daughter of a governor who is to be married to a man she does not love.  She longs for freedom and feels trapped in a life she does not want.  Soon after the two women meet, the Green Destiny is stolen by a masked thief, and the exciting martial arts fighting begins.

It was like nothing I have ever seen.  It was almost as if the combatants had Jedi powers, flying up walls, floating over rooftops, leaping across courtyards, and walking on water.  The battles were like those in the Matrix, but faster and more intricate.  There were no slow motion cuts, no 360 degrees camera shots.  Just fast and exciting martial arts fighting with both hand-to-hand combat, and a wide array of cool weapons.

We soon learn that it was Jen Yu who stole the sword, and her governess is none other than the Jade Fox, her teacher in the Wudang fighting style.  With the object of his revenge so close, Li Mu Bai resumes his hunt for her, but soon learns that Jen Yu is something of a child prodigy in the art of Wudan fighting, surpassing her teacher.  Li Mu Bai knows she has the potential to be the best fighter ever, given proper training.

The last player in the drama is Lo “Dark Cloud”, played by Chang Chen.  He is the prince of thieves who rules the desert.  A flashback sequence reveals how he had once raided a caravan and stole Jen Yu’s comb.  She chases him into the wild desert to get it back, and the two end up falling hopelessly in love.  Now he has returned to claim Jen Yu before she marries.

The film’s drama was wonderfully done.  It transcended the film’s action sequences and really made the movie something special.  The two romances, Lo and Jen Yu’s and Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien’s are each unique and were beautifully played.  The film’s most powerful moment was its climax when Li Mu Bai finally kills the Jade Fox, but is stuck with a poisoned dart in the process.  It is revealed that the Jade Fox’s target was actual Jen Yu, so he has the satisfaction of knowing that he had saved her live, but before an antidote can be created, he dies in Yu Shu Lien’s arms.   It was a sad and intense moment.

And as I mentioned, the cinematography was incredible.  The beautiful and exotic scenery, the fighting locations, and the exquisite costumes were perfect.  I especially liked the fight in bamboo forest.  And it was clear that the actors really understood their characters giving them depth and dimension.  I especially loved Li Mu Bai.  Chou Yun-fat was wonderful as the deeply spiritual monk whose masterful fighting always displayed a calm exterior and a centered interior.  He was so perfect for the part.

The movie really had no weaknesses.  It was a work of art from beginning to end.  Director Ang Lee really knew what he was doing.  He brought sophistication and spiritualism to a film style that is largely unknown in the United States.  Martial arts films, at least in my own limited sphere of experience, have always been amusing kitch.  They were vaguely interesting, somewhat campy, bordering on goofy at times, but largely forgettable.  But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was done right, and it turned it into something very cool.  This was a great, great movie.

2000 – Chocolat











Chocolat – 2000

This was a fun, light-hearted, comedy.  The humor was subtle and sometimes hard to find, but it was certainly there.  I had seen it many years ago when it had first been released in theatres, and I remember that I was rather ambivalent about it.  It was good but not great, cute but not deep, romantic but not passionate.  Upon this, my second viewing, I am going to have to revise my opinion.  It was a very cleverly written script with some pretty spot-on casting and acting.

Chocolat was a French film, though the dialogue was in English.  It stars Juliette Binoche as Vianne Rocher.  She is the mother of a six year-old girl named Anouk, played by Victoire Thivisol.  The two of them are shown to be wanderers.  They have a history of traveling from place to place, town to town, country to country in search of a home in which to stay.  The film begins as they arrive in the secluded little French village called Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.

The village is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody’s business and secrets are hard to keep.  Alfred Molina plays the town’s mayor, Comte de Reynaud.  He is a man who believes in righteousness through self-denial.  He is strict with the people of the town, but is even stricter with himself.  So when Vianne and Anouk arrive and open up a chocolate shop at the beginning of the Lenten season, he immediately sees her as an enemy of his way of life.  Vianne is such a master of chocolate confections that she begins to seduce the townsfolk into sins of indulgence.

There’s the set up.  But what made the film utterly charming is the way it was portrayed as a kind of fairy tale.  There is a woman narrating throughout the movie, speaking as if she is reading from a story book.  To further enhance the fairy tale feel of the narrative, a plot device is introduced which explains Vianne and Anouk’s constant roving.  As the tale goes, the two have always been compelled to follow the north wind.  It was the wind which directed them to the town, and when it turned, they would know it was time to move on.  And it was taken even deeper, developing its own history and mythology, explaining why they were fated to follow the wind and in the end, it was also explained how the cycle was broken so they could end their nomadic existence.

But the film was so much more than that.  There were serious issues that were addressed, though in a simple and light-hearted way.  The town, under Comte de Reynaud’s unbending leadership and strict moral code, was repressed.  There was no joy and little happiness, though it seemed that the people were longing for release.  So really, the movie was about how Vienne, through her non-conformist ways and her exotic chocolate creations, brought life and love to the villagers.

There were two women who she befriended.  The first was Armande Voizin, played by Judi Dench.  She was the estranged mother of the mayor’s secretary, Caroline, played by Carrie-Anne Moss.  The second was Josephine, played by Lena Olin, the abused wife of Serge, played by Peter Stormare, a violent drunkard.  Vianne’s chocolate seems to take on a magical quality.  It heals hearts, restores relationships, awakens old passions, and encourages new ones.  And behind it all is Vianne’s beautiful, easy smile.

The final player in the little fairy tale is the wandering river rat, Roux, played by Johnny Depp.  He is an Irishman who takes a liking to Vianne and Anouk.  He roams the land like a gypsy, and he and his folk are treated with utter distain by the uptight and repressed townsfolk.  Of course, Vianne falls to his heavy handed charms, but their romance was almost extraneous to the plot.

The movie was delightful and had a feel-good ending.  The bad people were either driven away or became good.  Even the Mayor relents after he loses control and gorges himself on a chocolate window display.  The good people became happy.  And the North Wind finally lost its hold on Vianne and her daughter, allowing them to put down roots in the little village.  And like all fairy tales, there was a moral lesson to be learned, and it was clearly stated by the village priest during his Easter sermon, and I think part of it is worth repeating here.  “Listen, here’s what I think.  I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do.  By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude.  I think we’ve got to measure our goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”  It is a message that is both good and true.

I have always though Juliette Binoche was an absolutely gorgeous woman.  Her flawless features have a very European quality.  Her acting was wonderfully gentle, and I liked the on-screen chemistry between her and Anouk.  But Judi Dench was also incredible, as always.  I should also mention the spectacular production design, which, to my surprise, was not even among its five Academy Award nominations.  Unfortunately, it didn’t take home any Oscars.

1999 – The Sixth Sense











The Sixth Sense – 1999

This was a wonderfully made film.  It had a fascinating story line, incredible directing, perfectly cast actors that did a fantastic job, and a surprise twist in the end.  This is one of the first major films written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.  It was a very big box office success, though unfortunately, most of his films since then have not had as much success.  I say this, knowing that he had other well-liked films such as Unbreakable in 2000, Signs in 2002, and Split in 2016.  I personally loved his 2006 film, The Lady in the Water, though from what I can tell, most people didn’t care for it.

The Sixth Sense was a suspense thriller, something we don’t often see in a Best Picture Nominee.  Bruce Willis plays the lead as Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a successful child psychologist in Philadelphia.  At the beginning of the movie, we see him winning an award, but his celebrating is interrupted by a home intruder.  It is a former patient named Vincent who the good doctor could apparently not help.  In a fit of depression and madness, the grown child shoots Malcolm and then himself.    We then cut to a later time period as Malcolm is taking on a new patient.  His mental problems seem to be very similar to Vincent’s, and Malcolm takes a particular interest in his case.

The film’s creepiness quickly escalates as the boy, Cole Sear, amazingly played by an 11 year old Haley Joel Osment, seems to be haunted by horrific and sometimes violent visions.  He thinks that Malcolm cannot help him, but using his gentle and professional nature, the psychologist develops a bond with him.  Eventually, Cole confesses that he sees dead people, and not just a few.  He sees them all the time.  The child is an unwilling medium.

At first Malcolm has difficulty believing him, but on a whim, he returns to his files on Vincent.  In one of the film’s more creepy scenes, he listens to a cassette recording from one of his sessions with Vincent.  When he turns the volume on the tape machine up to full, he can clearly hear a stranger’s voice in the room with a terrified Vincent, when the boy should have been alone.  It is then that he begins to believe Cole’s unlikely claims.  I love how this also shows how Vincent had been afflicted with the same gift as Cole.

Malcolm teaches Cole how to deal with the ghosts he encounters, suggesting that he talk to them and help them deal with their unresolved issues.  After Cole helps a young girl who had been murdered by her mother, and in the process saving her younger sister’s life, Cole seems to come to terms with the potential benefits and responsibilities of his unwanted gift.  As his work is done, Malcolm and Cole say goodbye.

But there are two more important scenes in the film.  The first is a scene in which Cole tells his mother, Lynn, excellently played by Toni Collette, his secret.  He does so in a way which is emotional and brought both Lynn and me to tears.  He gives her messages from her dead mother, speaking of things that were personal and private, things he would have no way of knowing anything about.  The second is the big twist in the end that Shyamalan seems to love.  We find out in a most shocking manner that Malcolm is among the dead with which Cole has been communicating.  He never survived Vincent’s gunshot wound.

The film was so well directed that the first time I watched it back in 1999, I had no idea that Malcolm was dead.  But if you watch the film with that knowledge, you can see all the obvious signs as plain as day.  It was masterfully directed and excellently edited.  The clothes he wore were always the same.  Nobody ever interacted with him except Cole.  It was all so perfectly put together, an impressive feat of filmmaking.  The movie makes us feel fear over the ghosts and sympathy for Cole as he is forced to see the often bloody and mangled spirits in his waking life.  Both Willis and Osment really turned in a phenomenal performances.

But I also have to give Toni Collette a huge thumbs up as she did a great job, too.  The way she interacted with her son throughout the entire film was a perfect mixture of the frustration and helplessness of a single mother trying to raise a troubled child.  The scene in which she learns of Cole’s horrible powers and is convinced that her mother is speaking to her from beyond the grave is powerfully portrayed.  Well done Toni!

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some other memorable names in the cast that made for a great film.  The role of Vincent, short as it was, was played by Donnie Wahlberg.    Malcolm’s wife, who we think is depressed because her marriage seems to be crumbling, well… until the end of the movie, is played by Olivia Williams.  And Kyra Collins, the little girl who had been murdered by her mother, was played by Mischa Barton.  The entire cast did a great job and if you like supernatural suspense films, you will definitely like this one.

2016 – Moonlight











Moonlight – 2016

This movie was quite unexpected.  I really had no idea what the movie was about.  I had heard from friends who had seen it and everyone kept saying how good it was, but I didn’t really know the subject matter.  The movie actually had a fairly simple plot.  It was split into three acts, each of which told the story of a stage of a man’s life.  The first covers events when he is nine years old or so, the second when he is a teenager, and the third when he is an adult.

The film is based on a play that was written in 2003 that was called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  The play was never produced.  But ten years later, director Barry Jenkins found the script when he was looking to make a new movie.  He brought it to the big screen and the rest is history.

Interesting note:  The original script for the stage-play told all three time lines at the same time, leaving it vague that the main characters in each of the three segments were actually the same character, a fact which was made clear about half way through the play.

In the first segment, called “Little”, we follow a young boy in the hood in Liberty City, Miami, that is first seen running from a gang of bullies.  We don’t know who he is or why he is running.  He is found by Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, the local drug dealer.  Juan takes pity on the boy and convinces him to go with him.  He feeds the boy and takes him to his own house in an affluent neighborhood.  While there, Juan’s girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monae, shows him equal tenderness and gets the child to open up and tell them where he lives.

The boy is named Chiron, pronounced Shy-rone, played by Alex Hibbert.  He is a quiet boy who rarely speaks.  He tells his hosts that he does not want to go home.  But he responds to Juan and Teresa’s kindness.  Little spends the night at Juan’s house, and Juan takes him home to return him to his mother, Paula, played by Naomi Harris.  Paula becomes protective and is understandably angry that Little had not come home the previous night.

But as it turns out, Juan, being the local drug dealer, has been selling crack cocaine to Paula.  He bonds with Little, even going so far as to teach him how to swim.  Little bonds with him, seeing him as a father figure, or at the very least, a positive male role model.  The relationship that grows between them is actually quite touching.

But things fall apart when Juan and Paula argue.  Juan berates Paula for being a bad mother, and Paula lashes back, letting him know he has no business trying to raise her son.  After the confrontation, Paula goes home and takes out her anger on Little, screaming at him and calling him a faggot.  Apparently, Little is a homosexual.

I was surprised at this.  Hollywood has a habit of shying away from open homosexuality.  Gay characters are usually seen in films as either comic relief, prissy nice guys, flamboyant misfits, or tragic victims.  Little was none of those things.  And based on what is shown of him during this first stage of the movie, his sexuality was barely evident.  There was one scene in which he and the other boys are playing soccer and he feels like an outsider, standing apart from the group.  As he wanders off, his friend Kevin, played by Jaden Piner, follows him, and an awkwardly close moment comes and quickly goes.  It was subtle, and handled surprisingly well by the child actors.

In the end, Little goes to Juan and confronts him about two things.  First, he asks what a faggot is.  Juan and Teresa answer him in a kind and loving way, telling him that it is alright to be gay and that he should never let anyone put him down for it.  The second thing he asks Juan about is whether or not he sells drugs to his mother, Paula.  In shame, Juan admits the truth.  Little leaves as Juan breaks into tears.

Mahershala Ali did a fantastic job.  In fact, it was the only segment of the movie he was in, but it was enough for him to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  He really turned in a great performance.  He was strong and loving towards Little, belying his tough exterior.  As the audience, we know that he is ultimately a bad man.  He is a drug dealer, a man who makes his money by ultimately ruining the lives of his clients.  And yet, we don’t hate him.  He shows such kindness and love to young Little, that we almost forget what he does for a living.  Ali really seemed to understand the character and I think he really deserved his award.

This first segment also did a great job establishing the characters.  In fact, I think it was why it was the longest of the three segments.  It was great set-up for the other two segments.  Chapter two is entitled Chiron.  The boy has grown to a teenager.  Apparently, Juan is dead, though we are never really told how or why.  Chiron still visits Teresa because there are times when his prostitute, crack-whore mother turns him out of the house.  Paula’s drug use is escalating and Chiron has dropped the name Little.  He is still an angry young man who doesn’t talk much.

This is the segment in which Naomie Harris really shined.  She really played the spiraling druggie well.  The range of emotions she displayed, especially the scene in which she pressures Chiron into giving her money so she can get her fix.  Harris is actually a very attractive woman, but her makeup artists did a number on her, making her look as if she was slightly crazed and aching for more crack.  Well done Naomie.  She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, though she did not win.

Interesting note:  Harris spent time with actual crack addicts and watched interviews, which allowed her to give a more honest and accurate performance.

By this time, Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders, is in high school, and his sexuality seems to be common knowledge.  He is mercilessly teased and bullied.  It seems his only friend is Kevin, now played by Jharrel Jerome.  He is the kind of boy who likes to brag about the girls with whom he has had sex.  But he is more than a friend to Chiron.  In one of the movie’s most awkward and yet significant scenes, the two boys are on the beach, staring out at the water and smoking a joint.  The conversation turns strangely intimate and they kiss.  Then, Kevin jerks Chiron off.

It is a significant scene that seemed to come out of nowhere, but in retrospect, the signs had been there.  It is Chiron’s first experience in really exploring his sexuality.  And the scene was very tastefully done.  Nothing was explicitly shown.  In fact, the camera cut to a shot of the two boys sitting on the beach from behind.  All we can see is their backs, but we can clearly hear what is happening.

The next day, the worst happens.  The school bully, Terrel, played by Patrick Declie, pressures Kevin into beating up on Chiron.  Chiron allows it and when he is knocked down, Terrel and his friends beat him bloody.  The next day, he walks into class, puts down his book bag, picks up a chair, and smashes it over Terrel’s head.  Terrel does not get up.  And I have to admit that while it was the wrong thing to do, it was very satisfying to watch.  Chiron is arrested and taken to juvie.

The third and final segment, entitled Black, is short and sweet.  Chiron grows into an adult.  Played by Trevante Rhodes, he has taken the name Black, the nickname that Kevin had given him in school.  Black is now a drug dealer in Atlanta.  He has taken on a look that very much resembles Juan.  He seems to have plenty of money.  One day, from out of the blue, he gets a call from Kevin, now played by Andre Holland.  When asked why he called, Kevin can only say that he heard a song that reminded him of Chiron.

This segment was, by far the strangest of part of the movie.  It was good because the brief phone conversation inspires Black to visit his mother, who now resides in a drug rehabilitation facility.  The two reconcile and Black forgives Paula for being a mother with no love for her child.  Then Black drives back to Miami to see Kevin, who now works as a cook in a diner.  Their meeting is once again awkward.  They talk about their lives and Kevin expresses surprise at how Black’s life has turned out.  He also reveals that he has a son.

The two go back to Kevin’s place and Black confesses that he has never been intimate with another person since their experience on the beach.  The film ends with Kevin tenderly holding Black in his arms as the camera pans back.  The last thing we see before the credits start rolling is an image of the nine year-old Little, standing on the beach under the moonlight.  To me, it felt like the movie was saying that the big, tough drug dealer, Black, felt like an innocent child in the arms of the only man he had ever loved.  I found myself wishing that If he had taken on the role of Juan, Kevin could be his Teresa, though for some reason, it seemed very unlikely.  The ending of the narrative was just so vague.  For example, it was unclear whether Kevin was married to his child’s mother.  It was also unclear whether the two men might try their luck at a relationship.  Nothing said those questions had to be answered, but they felt like loose ends or unfinished business.

As you can see, the subject matter was just a little unusual for an Academy Award Best Picture Winner.  But I’m glad to see it covered in a tactful and subtle way.  The film seems to have a bit of social significance as well.  Homosexuality is a touchy subject, but so is racism.  Moonlight was important because it was a film with an all-black cast and an all-black crew.   You might remember the controversy over the previous year’s nominations.  There were complaints that black films and black actors were being purposefully overlooked by the all-white Academy.  I’m not going to comment on whether this was true or not, but many people believed that it was.

But I believe this was a film that deserved to win the coveted Best Picture Award.  It was a well-crafted script that dealt with serious, dramatic themes.  It was very well-cast and wonderfully acted, even by the children.  The actors for both Chiron and Kevin looked perfectly plausible as the same characters in different phases of their lives.  The dialogue was well-written and expertly delivered, especially during the deep and intense scenes of the third act.

Interesting note:  This was the year of the big Oscar Ceremony flub. Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway were the presenters for the Best Picture category, but they were given the wrong envelope.  Beatty opened it and was confused.  Not understanding what he was reading, he gave it to Dunaway, who did nothing more than glance at the card.  She blurted out that La La Land had won for Best Picture.  The cast and crew of La La Land came up to the stage and gave their acceptance speeches.  Then Beatty interrupted them and stopped everything to announce that there had been a mistake.  Moonlight was actually the winner!  The La La Land people were ushered off the stage to make way for the Moonlight cast and crew, who came up to give their acceptance speeches!  Everyone was giving speeches except for me.  I was speechless!

1999 – The Insider











The Insider – 1999

This was a good enough movie, but not as good as I was hoping it would be.  Despite this, I have to give Russell Crowe’s performance two thumbs up.  He really created a great character.  He was the common man who gets pushed up against a wall and is willing to risk everything he has to fight back.  True, he loses it all, but he does it while standing on the moral high-ground.  The question is, is it worth it?

Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, the man who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry.  Al Pacino played Lowell Bergman, the 60 Minutes journalist who got him to do it.  The two actors had a good on-screen chemistry, but Crowe’s performance was much more memorable than Pacino’s.  Why?  First, the character was just more visually memorable.  Crowe put on thirty-five pounds and dyed his hair white in order to emulate the real Wigand.  Second, the character was more pivotal to the story.  And lastly, I think his performance was infinitely more intense than Pacino’s.

Russell Crowe really did a fantastic job and earned himself a Best Actor nomination.  He played it all perfectly, from the initial nervousness of a man who is walking around the edge of breaking the law, to the seriousness of self-endangering intent.  His emotions were always so clear, and yet somehow always subtle at the same time.  It was really an Oscar-worthy performance.  Well done, Russell.

Pacino did just fine, but his performance was nowhere near the level of some of his previous films like Scent of a Woman or The Godfather.  Also, this is not the kind of role we are used to seeing Pacino in.  I applaud him for wanting to do something that was outside his normal comfort zone, but there was a bit of a disconnect in my head which made it an effort to believe in the honesty of his portrayal.  This was in no way Pacino’s fault.  It is my issue in how I perceived his performance.  Really, he did alright, though nothing to write home about.

The movie actually followed Bergman as the lead role.  It began with him and followed his relationship with Wigand, his efforts to encourage him and then to protect him once the tobacco companies started to intimidate him and his family, even going so far as to send death threats if he went public with what he knew.  And the plot continued to follow Bergman after Wigand’s wife, Deborah, played by Renee Olstead, had left him and taken his kids away from him.  Bergman stayed and made sure that all his efforts were not in vain, fighting against CBS, his show’s network who caved in to the money machine of the tobacco companies, refusing to air Wigand’s deposition.  Even the final few scenes in the movie followed Bergman in the aftermath of the pivotal events, not Wigand.

And what was it that Wigand knew that was so dangerous to the tobacco industry?  First of all it is important to understand that tobacco is a multi-billion dollar industry.  They have never lost a law suit because they can out-money anyone who tries to sue them.  They use incredibly strong and threatening intimidation tactics to scare anyone who dares to oppose them.  And the CEOs of the 7 largest tobacco companies had been video-taped in court, swearing that there was no evidence that smoking caused any detrimental health issues.  This was a bald-faced lie, a fact of which Wigand was fully aware, having been the Vice President of Research and Development at Brown & Williamson, one of those big tobacco companies.

Wigand knew that not only were the companies aware that their products were both addictive and harmful, but that the companies added chemicals to their cigarettes to make them even more habit-forming and dangerous.  In the end, Wigand’s knowledge of the lie made him dangerous, and he felt compelled to go public with his knowledge, even going so far as to break his signed confidentiality agreement to do so.  But it wasn’t his concern for public health or safety that motivated him.  It was the very fact that his former employer was trying to pressure him to stay silent.

Unfortunately, the film is somewhat unremarkable.  The subject matter just wasn’t very intense.  The best part of the film is Crowe’s performance.  From what I have read, the movie stayed pretty accurate to the real events which took place in 1996.  Before the ending credits began to roll, some text was put up on the screen, explaining what happened to the characters, and that Wigand’s testimony resulted in the tobacco industry losing around a total of $246 billion in law suits.  It also made a point of saying, “Although based on a true story, certain events in this motion picture have been fictionalized for dramatic effect.”

What this means is that, according to Mike Wallace, the real Bergman’s long-time co-worker at 60 Minutes, played in the movie by Christopher Plummer, two-thirds of the movie is accurate but that he disagreed with how his own motivations were changed for the film, casting him in a more negative light.  So, if the subject of corporate whistle-blowing interest you, then this is a good movie to see.  Other than that, you might be enticed by Crowe’s exceptional performance.  But if not for those two things, this was a fairly unremarkable movie.