2005 – Good Night , and Good Luck











Good Night, and Good Luck – 2005

This was a good movie.  I’m not denying that.  But maybe it wasn’t as good as it thought it was.  It was a movie that seemed to be trying too hard to be socially significant.  It was a passion project for its writer and director, George Clooney, about the significance and responsibility of the media in regards to educating and guiding public opinion towards opposing social injustices perpetrated by the government.  That is a long-winded way of saying that journalists with integrity have a duty to expose the government if it is doing something wrong.

I might be over-simplifying the movie’s main thrust, but the statement remains true.  Edward Murrow, played by David Strathairn, was a journalist who started out in radio.  One of the programs on which he reported the news was Hear it Now, which changed its name to See it Now when it made the change to the new medium of Television.  A pioneer in television news programing, Murrow was a man of honesty and integrity.  His program aired on CBS and was a weekly segment.  The film starts out as he and his co-workers are looking for stories to cover.  Murrow, in a conversation with his co-producer, Fred Friendly, played by Clooney, decided to investigate a man named Milo Radulovich.  Radulovich was being separated from the Air Force without charge, trial, or evidence as a security risk because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper.  According to the film, this was the story that led them into the dangerous waters of the McCarthy hearings.

Honestly, I was unaware of what the hearings were, or what the controversy surrounding them was all about.  So it’s time for a little history lesson.  Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was a man who went on a holy crusade against Communism and Communist sympathizers in the 1950s.  This was around the beginning of the Cold War and the fear of Communist subversion in the Federal Government was high.  McCarthy was a very visible public figure who did his best to root out this threat, often ignoring due process of law, and throwing out reckless and unsubstantiated accusations which hurt a lot of people like Milo Radulovich.

While Morrow was not the only person putting his neck on the line to try to reign in McCarthy and his Red Scare paranoia, he was certainly one of the Senator’s most visible opponents.  On his program, Murrow attacked Senator McCarthy and did so in a way that helped to sway the public opinion, leading to the McCarthy hearings, in which the Senator was eventually censured for his unethical behavior.

Strathairn did a fine job in the role of Morrow and was nominated for the Best Actor award, though he didn’t win.  Aside from George Clooney, the film also had some other big names to its credit like Robert Downey Jr. as Joseph Wershba, a writer, editor, and correspondent for CBS news, Patricia Clarkson as Shirley Wershba, his wife, Frank Langella as William Paley, Chief Executive of CBS, Jeff Daniels as Sig Mickelson Director of CBS News, Tate Donovan as Jesse Zousmer, a reporter, and Ray Wise as Don Hollenbeck, a CBS News journalist accused of being a communist, which ultimately led to his suicide.

The movie was about an hour and a half long.  One of the film’s subplots helped to pad that time, but really had nothing to do with the movie’s overall narrative.  It concerned Joseph Wershba’s secret marriage to his co-worker Shirley.  It was apparently against the rules for co-workers to be married.  Everybody knew of their marriage, but nobody said anything.  But when budget cuts called for lay-offs their little secret was addressed so that one of them could lose their job.

Another device used to pad the run-time of the movie was the music.  Every so often, scenes of a woman singing with a jazz trio was used to help us through montages.  The songs she sang might have been a reflection of the action taking place in the main plot, though sometimes I had to stretch to make the connection.  Granted, Dianne Reeves had an absolutely gorgeous voice, enough to make me want to go out and buy some of her recordings, but it sometimes felt like I was taken out of the story for a few minutes to hear her sing.  I suppose the segments also served the purpose of setting the mood of the narrative.  But removing these segments and the irrelevant Wershba subplot would have cut the film’s run-time down too much.

I liked that the movie used actual news footage from the 1950’s, eliminating the need to cast an actor as Joseph McCarthy.  All footage of him shown in the film was really him.  This had the unfortunate side effect of Clooney deciding to color-correct the movie to be black and white.  I understand why it was done.  It was an artistic choice.  But I think it could have been just as effective a film if only things shown on a television monitor, like the 1950s footage, or the scenes where Morrow is seen on a TV were shown in black and white.

And just as an interesting note, I read that some of the film’s test audiences felt that the man who played Joseph McCarthy played the part too over-the-top, not realizing that it was actual footage of Senator McCarthy.  Now that’s funny.

2005 – Capote











Capote – 2005

The book, In Cold Blood, written by Truman Capote, was a work that is described as a non-fiction novel.  It is a novelization of the true events surrounding the murder of an entire Kansas family, the Cutlers, by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.  But as such, a few fictional details and events were included to enhance the drama of the narrative.  The same can be said of the movie Capote, which is a portrait of the author during the writing of this popular crime novel.  A few of the events portrayed in the film were altered for dramatic effect or completely invented.

But it’s OK.  The real reason we went to see the movie was to see Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as the eccentric author, Truman Capote.  Capote was such an interesting character with a very specific look, distinctly prissy mannerisms, and a unique, feminine way of speaking, and Hoffman really did a fantastic job.  In fact, he won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work, an honor I think he deserved.

But that’s not to say that the whole narrative wasn’t well-written and accurate.  All the major plot points were covered and the details were spot-on.  The movie was a portrait of the novelist and showed how doing the research for In Cold Blood, changed him as an author, and ad a human being.  The emotional journey of Capote as he conducted interviews and gathered information about the infamous murder case was incredible.

The novel is widely considered a work of art, frightening in its brutal description of the horrific subject matter.  Capote even went so far as to befriend one of the killers in order to get to the deep dark heart of the story.  Such total immersion into the mind and life of the murderer, Perry Smith, really messed with Capote’s own emotional stability.  He used his friendship with the convict as a tool, a means to an end, a subject for what he knew would be one of the great works of his career.

When Capote reads of the murders in a newspaper, he becomes instantly fascinated and decides he wants to write about it.  He invites his friend, Harper Lee, author of the famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird, played by Catherine Keener, to join him as his research assistant.  The two travel to Kansas to visit the house in which the murders took place, talk to the police, and conduct interviews with people who knew the victims.  He even befriends Alvin Dewey, the lead detective in the murder case, played by Chris Cooper, in order to gain access to police files and reports.

But when, by chance, Capote meets Perry Smith, played by Clifton Collins Jr., his research becomes more personal.  He spends so much time with Smith that he grows emotionally attached to him.  He goes to the trial where Smith and his partner, Dick Hickock, played by Mark Pelligrino, are convicted and sentenced to death.  Well, that wouldn’t do for Capote.  How could he write his book if the subjects were executed before he could interview them?  So he hires them a lawyer so that they can make appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court.  He befriends Smith and lies to him in order to get his story.  Capote sacrifices his own morals and self-respect to achieve his own goals.

The movie’s big emotional climax came at the very end when the murderers are finally hanged for their crimes.  Smith asks Capote, who he has come to regard as his only friend, to witness his execution by hanging.  Capote is in tears as he says goodbye to Smith and the horrible experience just exacerbates his emotional fragility.  But as he later relays the tale to Harper Lee, he laments that he could do nothing to stop the sentence from being carried out, to which she replies, “Maybe not.  The fact is you didn’t want to.”

I guess, in retrospect, the main thrust of the film asks an important question.  How far will an author, or in this case, arguably, an artist, go in pursuit of his art?  How much of his own integrity as a human being is he willing to compromise to achieve his magnum opus?  In the case of Truman Capote, all the way.  He apparently held nothing back.  It was as if he sold his soul to write his remarkable novel, the likes of which had never been written.  Capote never finished another book.

A significant subplot in the film dealt with Truman’s long-suffering, but always supportive lover, Jack Dunphy, played by Bruce Greenwood.  Capote became so obsessive about writing his book that he neglected Jack, causing a certain amount of tension.  I liked Greenwood’s understated performance, which, I have learned in my research, was perfectly appropriate.  Dunphy was more of a quiet and solitary man, whereas Capote was very much a flamboyant social butterfly.  Their strained relationship was portrayed as romantic, but non-sexual.

But the movie was good.  In fact, I was so engrossed in the story that the two hour movie seemed to take no time at all.  And the entire cast did a great job.  Special props to Keener and Collins, and even Bob Balaban as William Shaw, editor of The New Yorker Magazine, for whom Capote worked.  But they were all outshined by Hoffman’s phenomenal portrayal of Truman Capote.  Like I said, his performance is really what we all came to see.

2005 – Brokeback Mountain











Brokeback Mountain – 2005

This film has come to be known as the Gay Cowboy movie, and while it is that… kind of… it is so much more.  In my mind, it isn’t really a “gay” movie.  It is a tragic romance, first and foremost.  It just happens to be about two men.  And really, I’m undecided as to whether both the main characters were actually gay or not.  If I really had to put labels on them, I’d say that the character of Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, was gay, but living in denial.  Ennis Del Mar, played by Heath Ledger, was bisexual, but leaning towards straight.

The reason I say this is because of their lives outside their relationship, which we’ll get to in a bit.  Jack was shown having sex with other men, and he was eventually beaten to death, presumably because of his homosexual behavior.  The only man Ennis was ever attracted to was Jack.  That being said, it was clear that the two men were deeply in love with each other, both physically and emotionally.

So here’s the story.  Ennis and Jack are strangers when they are hired by Joe Aguirre, played by Randy Quaid, to herd a large flock of sheep through the Wyoming Mountains.  Out in the wilderness, the two men fall in love with each other and begin a passionate affair.  When the job is done, they go their separate ways, though Jack wants to know when they’ll be together again.  Ennis is shown privately weeping at their parting.

Ennis gets married to his sweetheart, Alma, played by Michelle Williams.  They have two little girls.  Ennis seems to be a good husband and a loving father. But his world is thrown into chaos when he gets a postcard from Jack, asking him to go on a fishing trip.  The prospect of seeing Jack again lights up Ennis’ soul and when the two finally see each other again, their passion for each other is immediately reignited.  One of the most awkward moments in the film is when Jack and Ennis are seen kissing each other by Alma.

By this time, Jack has married Lureen, played by Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a wealthy man, and the two have a son together.  But he is ready to throw everything away at the prospect of being with Ennis.  The two begin taking frequent fishing trips just to spend time together.  Their love continues to deepen.  He asks Ennis to throw caution to the wind and buy a ranch with him so they can be together forever.  But it is too much for Ennis, and they argue.

But their love is too strong.  Though Ennis cannot commit to a homosexual life with Jack, he cannot stop loving him.  Even after he and Alma get divorced, Ennis can’t do it.  On their final fishing trip, the two argue again.  Jack blames Ennis for denying what they could have together, and Ennis blames Jack for the difficult way his life has turned out.  It is here that Jack utters that famous line, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”  It is clearly a tale of star-crossed lovers.  They want to be together, but the world is keeping them apart.  Then, when Jack is murdered, Ennis has to deal with loneliness and depression.  But he keeps a memento of Jack and the time they spent together when they fell in love on Brokeback Mountain.

Everyone from the two leads to the women they married did a great job.  I have to give special props to Michelle Williams who gave an especially deep performance.  And I loved the character of Ennis.  There was no trace of Ledger’s native Australian accent.  Instead, he played the Wyoming rancher perfectly.  Though Ennis was a man of few words, Ledger was very convincing in the role.

This was also the year that there was a big upset at the Oscars.  Brokeback Mountain was the favorite to win the Best Picture award, but it lost the honor to Crash.  Having seen both films, I agree, Brokeback Mountain should have won.  So why didn’t it?  Some critics accused the Academy of being homophobic.  Annie Proulx, the Author of the original short story upon which the film is based, even intimated that Scientologists had something to do with the decision.  But I tend to take a more simplistic view.  The Academy just thought Crash was the better movie.  And they weren’t the only ones.  Famous film critic, Roger Ebert, agreed.

Brokeback Mountain was directed by Ang Lee, the same man who directed another well-known Best Picture nominee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  And part of the film’s success is the fact that it followed the source material very closely.  In fact, Proulx has been quoted as saying, “I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire.”  When will filmmakers realize that if you stick to the source material, you will have a better movie?  This seems to be a fact that is proven over and over again in Hollywood, and yet is so often ignored.  There is a reason why the book is popular, so why would you change it.  Well, Ang Lee didn’t, and Brokeback Mountain has become one of the most honored films of all time, winning numerous awards outside the Oscars, all of which were well-deserved.  The film was so well-crafted as to be more than just a movie.  It almost felt like art.

2004 – Sideways











Sideways – 2004

This was a charming and endearing movie.  It is listed as a comedy/drama, and with good reason.  There were a few laugh-out lout moments, but it also had plenty of deep and poignant drama.  It had heart and emotion.  It had realistic characters with both perfections and flaws.  It had the perfect cast of actors, some really incredible performances, and a well-crafted story.  Much of the film had a depressing air, but we were saved by the funny moments and a feel-good ending.

First off, I can’t praise Paul Giamatti’s performance enough.  There was subtlety, nuance, gravitas, passion, intensity, and an extreme realism that few actors have.  He was wonderful.  It was so easy to see myself in him that I found him absolutely captivating.    He never overacted.  He created a character that was depressing and melancholy, and yet believable because of those weaknesses.  Giamatti is just a phenomenal actor.

The movie had four main leads, though to me Giamatti’s character, Miles Raymond, seemed to be the clear protagonist.  He has been divorced for two years, and lives his life in deep depression.  He is an eighth-grade English teacher who is also an aspiring novelist with dreams of being published.  Playing opposite him is his best friend, Jack Cole, played by Thomas Hayden Church.  Jack is a self-centered actor whose career, which was never very big to begin with, is in decline.  He is marrying into money, and as a wedding gift, Miles takes him on a trip through the Santa Ynez Valley to share with him one of his own passions… wine.

The problem is that Jack is an uncouth, uncultured, uneducated man who also happens to be a sex addict.  For Miles, the week-long trip is supposed to be filled with exquisite wine tastings and golf, but Jack treats the holiday as his last hurrah before getting married.  He expects to party, to get laid, and to get drunk.  The comedy comes when the two vastly differing worlds collide.  But despite the arguing, the shouting, and the drinking, it is clear that the two men are true friends.  Jack tries to indulge Miles in his sedate and intellectual passion, and Miles grudgingly goes along with Jack’s wild and reckless behavior.

Along the way, they meet two women.  The first is Maya Randall, played by Virginia Madsen.  The other is her friend Stephanie, played by Sandra Oh.  Maya has known Miles for a while and carries a torch for him.  But when Stephanie and Jack meet, sparks fly and the sexcapades begin.  Jack’s baser self wins out and he abandons Miles to spend time having sex with Stephanie.  Miles is left depressed and lonely.  But when Jack and Stephanie do return, Miles is given the opportunity to spend time with Maya, allowing him to develop feelings for her, while at the same time, forcing him to finally begin letting go of his emotional attachment to his ex-wife.

Maya is so perfect for Miles.  She is obviously attracted to him, and she shares his passion for wine.  She is also his intellectual equal, giving him what Jack cannot.  Unfortunately, Jack forces Miles to keep his impending marriage a secret from the ladies, and you can imagine the drama that comes from that lie.  In the end, Miles ends up completely alone and more depressed than ever.  But Maya, having read a copy of Miles’ novel that he had given her, calls him and invites him to drive back to the Santa Ynez Valley to reconcile with her.  The movie ends with him knocking on her door, implying that the two people who should obviously be together, will be.

Sounds like some pretty heavy drama, right?  It was.  But there were also some pretty darn funny moments as well.  The scene where Jack asks Miles to retrieve his wallet, which contained the wedding rings for his up-coming marriage, from the waitress who he’d been banging the night before, was comedy gold.  Jack had been having sex with the waitress when her husband had walked in on them and drove him out, naked, into the streets.  Apparently this was a planned scenario that the waitress and her husband liked to play out for kicks.  Miles sneaks into the waitress’s house to get the wallet and finds the woman and her burly husband having very rough and very vocal sex.  Without any discrete way to get the wallet, he goes for the direct approach.  He walks right in on them, grabs the wallet, and runs.  The buck naked husband chases him out into the street, threatening to get him.  I was laughing out loud.

Madsen, Church, and Oh all played their parts well, though I felt that Giamatti outshined them all.  I have to mention Church, though I do so grudgingly.  His character was such a horrible jerk that I hated him, which only means that Church played his part perfectly.  We aren’t supposed to like him.  Well done everybody!

And as an interesting note, I learned that after the success of the film, the wine industry was dramatically affected.  Tourism to the Santa Ynez Valley increased.  Miles loved Pinot Noir and hated Merlot, and while Pinot Noir sales increased 16%, Merlot sales dropped 2%.  A similar trend occurred in British wine outlets.  This might not sound like a lot, but in the ten years after the film’s release, Merlot farmers apparently lost over $400 million in revenue.  Who knew?

2004 – Ray











Ray – 2004

Ray was a well-made biopic movie about the career of superstar, Ray Charles.  And I have to start off by mentioning what I liked most about the movie.  It didn’t pretend the blind musical genius was a saint who faced racism, prejudice, or difficulties due to his handicap.  True, those hardships were all parts of his life, but the film portrayed him as he was, a bad husband, a heroine junkie, an adulterer, and a brilliant musician, unparalleled in his charisma, charm, and talent.  Granted, I have never been a huge fan of his genre of music, but even I cannot deny that he was one of the great song writers and entertainers of the 20th century.

Jamie Fox won the Academy Award for Best Actor for playing the title role, and let me say, he really deserved it.  He was phenomenal.  He looked the part, acted the part, and clearly did his research.  His voice, his mannerisms, the way he moved, and the entire performance was spot on, and I’ve seen enough footage of the real Ray Charles to know.  But not only did he have the challenge of portraying the famous and iconic figure, but he also had to play the part of a man spiraling down into the depths of a drug addiction.  He was incredible.  Well done Jamie.

In addition to all that, I have learned that Foxx actually played his own piano for the film.  Whenever a musician is playing an instrument on the screen, it is usually pretty easy to tell if they are actually playing or not.  Foxx, like the real Ray Charles, started learning to play the piano at a very young age.  In fact, as the film was still in the casting stage, Ray Charles met with Jamie Foxx and the two had an intense music session in which Foxx impressed Charles at the keyboard, after which Charles was quoted as saying, “This is it. This kid can do it, see? He’s the one.”

The film follows Ray through the highs and lows, mostly highs, of his career from 1948 until 1964.  It also had a number of flashbacks to his early childhood, showing how he had not been born blind.  He could see until he was about seven years old, not long after the death of his younger brother George, who had died in front of Ray.  C. J. Sanders played the young Ray Charles Robinson.  His mother, wonderfully played by Sharon Warren, out of love for him, forced Ray to be dependent on nobody but himself.  Eventually she sent him away to a school for the blind, demanding that he be an educated man.

He started off as a back-up pianist, but soon his talent outshined those for whom he was playing.  He began writing his own music and making his own recordings, touring, making record contracts and deals, and his career skyrocketed.  But he had a habit of adhering to two vices.  Women, and heroine.  The one woman he eventually fell in love with, Della Bea, played by Kerry Washington, was able to put up with his absence due to his constant touring.  She knew about and grudgingly allowed his constant cheating while he was on the road.  But she seemed to take issue with his drug abuse, and eventually threatened to leave him if he didn’t conquer the addiction.  Among the many women Ray seduced were Mary Ann Fisher, played by Aunjanue Ellis, and Margie Hendricks, played by Regina King, with whom he fathered a child.  But whenever Ray had a break in his performance schedule, he would always return to Della.

The character of Ray was portrayed as being not only talented, but incredibly business savvy as well.  After he began writing his own songs and making his own records, he made a deal with Atlantic Records.  There, he met Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, played by Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff.  After he made a real name for himself, he made a deal with Sam Clark, played by Kurt Fuller, at ABC-Paramount Records, and his success just continued to grow.

Eventually he got into a bit of political activism.  He was contracted to perform at a venue in the state of Georgia.  But as he was walking to the concert hall, an angry crowd convinced him to walk away from the performance, as the audience would be segregated.  He even went so far as to announce that he would not play at segregated halls any more.  For this, the state of Georgia passed legislation which banned Ray from performing in the state.   But in doing my research, I found that this was really the only major fabrication that was invented for the film.  Georgia never banned Ray Charles from performing in the state.  Thus, there was never a dramatic lift of the ban when Georgia took on his famous song, Georgia On My Mind, as the official state song.

And I have to make mention of some other members of the great cast like Regina King, Larenz Tate, playing Quincy Jones, Harry Lennix, Clifton Powell, playing Jeff Brown, Ray’s Band Manager who was eventually caught stealing from him, Terrence Howard as Gossie McKee, the sleazy guitarist in Ray’s first jazz trio, and Bokeem Woodbine as David “Fathead” Newman, one of Ray’s brass players who was also his heroine dealer.  Throw in a bit part of an MC named Oberon, played by Warwick Davis, and Ray’s agent, Milt Shaw, played by David Krumholtz, and you have yourself a talented cast of actors.  But really, Jamie Foxx overshadowed them all in his unforgettable portrayal of the incomparable Ray Charles.

2004 – Finding Neverland











Finding Neverland – 2004

This was a sweet movie.  Sweet, but dull.  There was nothing at all wrong with it that a little shot of caffeine wouldn’t fix.  It is a story based on the author of the play Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie, played by Johnny Depp.  The movie was based on a stage play called The Man Who Was Peter Pan.  Then, following the success of the film, a stage play was produced called Finding Neverland.  Here, they turned it into a musical.

But really, though the film was good enough, I don’t see what all the hubbub is about.  The story moved slowly, the plot was predictable, and the acting was lackluster.  So why was it nominated for Best Picture?  I think the movie had two real saving graces.  The first was the great art direction by Gemma Jackson and Trisha Edwards, and the second was its wonderful score which gave composer Jan A. P. Kaczmarek the film’s only Oscar win out of seven nominations.

The movie seemed to take after the 1998 Best Picture winner, Shakespeare in Love.  In similar fashion, Finding Neverland followed the author of Peter Pan, arguably one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time, as he is writing the original play.  We are shown how the events in his life influence different elements of the story.  Depp’s portrayal of Barrie was typical of Depp’s style of acting.  I have always found him to be competent, but nothing to get too excited over.  He has a low-key and subdued air about him which, I’m sorry to say, often translates onto the screen as low-energy, unengaging, and passionless.  This is especially evident when he is trying to do a serious drama, as compared to some of his more bizarre character portrayals like Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka, or the Mad Hatter.

Though in a way, I suppose one might consider this role par for the course for the actor.   Depp seems to have a knack for playing the man-child archetype, adults with a strong connection to, or at least the emotional capacity of, their inner children.  Fortunately, as Barrie, this worked to his advantage.  Peter Pan could only have been written by someone who had not lost touch with the spirit of youth and its love for fantasy and magic.

Playing opposite Depp are three women and four young boys.  First, there is his wife, Mary, played by Radha Mitchell.  Over the course of the film, we see their marriage dissolve as he spends more and more time with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, played by Kate Winslet.  She is a widowed mother of the four boys, George, Jack, Peter, and Michael, played by Nick Roud, Joe Prospero, Freddie Highmore, and Luke Spill.  Sylvia’s overbearing mother, Emma du Maurier, who sees the childish Barrie as a detriment to her daughter’s future prospects, is played by Julie Christie.  Throw in a ridiculously miscast Dustin Hoffman as Barrie’s producer, Charles Frohman, a man who is supposed to be British, but has a distinct American Bronx accent, and you have yourself a movie.

So, because of a chance meeting in a park, a wonderful friendship develops between Barrie and the Davies family.  As Barrie falls in love with them, he falls out of love with his wife.  The more time he spends with them, the more make believe games he plays with them, the more we see how their imaginary play inspires his new play.  But the first time I heard Sylvia cough, I knew she was destined to die, which, in the end, she did.  It was just the poignant tragedy the plot needed to give the movie some emotional content and keep it grounded in the real world.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  There was the sub-plot concerning Peter.  The death of his father seemed to be more damaging to him than to anyone else.  The seven-year-old boy seemed to have lost his sense of imagination and thought of all make-believe as silly.  In his efforts to help Peter, Barrie seems to form a special emotional bond with him, going so far as to name the main character in his new play after him.  But just as Peter seems to be coming out of his shell, His mother dies, and he seems to retreat back into it.

I don’t know.  The movie was well-produced, but sappy.  It was interesting, but predictable.  It was fanciful, but lacked energy.  And the more I think about it, the more I am of the opinion that the real interest in the film is one of nostalgia.  Everybody loves Peter Pan.  The tale of the boy who never wanted to grow up is a great story.  It can’t help but conjure up memories of childhood and innocence.  And it was that well-loved play that kept my interest, not the weepy death of Peter Llewelyn Davies’ mother.  I wanted to see more of the in-movie play, Peter Pan, in which Peter was played by Kelly Macdonald.

And I have to make mention of one little tidbit of information, that, while not really related to the movie, I found interesting.  The real Peter Llewelyn Davies actually had a rather tragic life, himself.  He hated the notoriety associated with what he called “that terrible masterpiece.”  In response to other unrelated tragedies in his life, he became an alcoholic and eventually committed suicide by throwing himself under a train.  Wow!  Who knew?

2004 – The Aviator











The Aviator – 2004

This was a wonderfully detailed and well-made film.  It is an epic biopic of famous film director and aviation tycoon, Howard Hughes.  But anybody who knows about Hughes, the man, also has to acknowledge his severe obsessive compulsive disorder.  He has an overwhelming fear of germs and disease, though that is only a single aspect of the sickness.  It is a condition that grows worse and worse over the course of the movie until he nearly devolves into a gibbering lunatic.  Leonardo DiCaprio was incredible in his portrayal of the eccentric yet brilliant man.

From the beginning, He was shown as nothing more than just that.  His films enjoyed success because of his singular vision and attention to minute details.  He has money, fame, women, and practically anything he wants.  He has a new Hollywood starlet on his arm every night.  The movie focuses on his relationship with Katherine Hepburn, brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett.  She seems to understand and accept his eccentricities, though eventually they become too much for her.  They, and her relationship with Spencer Tracy, are enough to pull her away from him.  But his deep obsession with airplanes and building his aviation empire consumes his life, leaving little room for something so trivial as a relationship.  And though his failures are gargantuan, his successes are phenomenal.  The crash sequences, in particular, were well-done and exciting to watch.

He buys TWA Airlines and becomes even wealthier.  He begins designing aircraft under government contracts for WWII.  But he is so obsessive compulsive over the minor details of the planes that the war is over before he completes them.  Then, looking to the future of aviation, he changes Transcontinental & Western Air to Trans World Airlines, with the intent to offer international flights.  Unfortunately, the owner of Pan Am Airlines, Juan Trippe, played by Alec Baldwin, has a monopoly on Trans-Atlantic flights.  He bribes Senator Owen Brewster, played by Alan Alda, to introduce a bill to Congress that would give Pan Am exclusive rights to Intercontinental air travel.

In order to block Hughes, Senator Brewster attacks Hughes in public hearings that accuse him of being a war profiteer because he never completed his government contracts for the WWII planes, but kept the millions of dollars he was given.  By this point in the film, Hughes’ disorder has spiraled him down into a pit of paranoia, causing him to lock himself away in a film screening studio for three months, a place he called a germ-free zone.  But his girlfriend, actress Eva Gardner, played by Kate Beckinsale, helps him return to the light of day.  She prepares him for the hearings, which he, with his brilliance, charm, and honesty, weathers and overcomes.  He brings to light the fact that Brewster is Trippe’s crony.  The bill is defeated and TWA is allowed to make trans-Atlantic flights.

Now, while all that is interesting, what moved the film from good to great was the portrayal of Hughes’ disorder.  His case wasn’t mild or chronic.  It was severe.  It was so intense that it compromised the man’s ability to function in the real world.  Aside from the extreme mysophobia, or germophobia, he had other compulsive habits that people would dismiss as eccentricities.  He would order a steak dinner with peas, and all the peas had to be exactly the same size, and arranged in a carefully ordered pattern on the plate.  If any one of the peas were moved, he would become unable to continue eating the meal.

Director Martin Scorsese did an incredible job of leading the viewers down into the dark pit of madness.  In several memorable scenes, Hughes would utter a phrase, but for whatever reason, he felt that it didn’t sound right coming out of his mouth.  His brain couldn’t let it go until it came out right, and he would be helpless to stop himself from repeating the phrase over and over again.  The way DiCaprio played it made it clear that he was completely aware of his crazed babbling.  He would clamp his hands over his mouth, and the terror in his eyes was frightening to watch.

And more than just DiCaprio, Blanchett, Baldwin, Alda, and Beckinsale, the movie had a slew of other recognizable names, a few of them playing yet other recognizable names from old Hollywood.  Gwen Stephani played Jean Harlow. Jude Law played Errol Flynn.  John C. Reilly, Matt Ross, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Adam Scott, Frances Conroy, Brent Spiner, Edward Herrmann, and Danny Huston, all came together to turn in some great performances in this incredible movie.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t make special mention of two of the film’s five Academy Awards.  Blanchett’s Best Supporting Actress winning portrayal of the iconic Katherine Hepburn was flawless.  She had the look, the mannerisms, and the voice down pat.  She was so perfectly cast that I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part.  And I must also recognize the movie’s Oscar for Best Costume Design.  The costumes were magnificent, especially when it came to the glamorous fashions worn by the Hollywood stars of the 1930s.  Perfection!  And it’s easy to say the same for the whole movie.

2003 – Seabiscuit











Seabiscuit – 2003

I’m going to start this off by saying that there was nothing wrong with this movie.  It was well-made, entertaining, and even inspirational at times.  The acting was just fine, the sets and costumes were appropriate, the casting was good, and the directing was competent.  But unless you really enjoy horse racing, it was a little dull, but only because it was so predictable.

The word of the day is underdog.  Who doesn’t enjoy rooting for the underdog?  Well, that is all this movie was.  Every main character was an underdog.  Jeff Bridges played Charles Howard, an incredibly wealthy land-owner in San Francisco around the turn of the century.  His only child dies in a terrible accident and his wife leaves him.  Toby McGuire played Red Pollard, a young boy with a talent for riding horses whose family was hit hard by the great depression.  His parents learn that he can make a living as a horse racing jockey and sell him to a horse trainer.  Chris Cooper plays Tom Smith, an old crackpot of a trainer who seems to be a magical horse whisperer.

And then there’s the horse, Seabiscuit.  Race horses were supposed to be big and sleek and powerful.  But Seabiscuitr was small and thought to be lazy.  Nobody ever expected him to amount to anything.  But you bring all four of these characters together and you get an unbeatable team.   And the moral of the movie was simple.  You don’t throw something away just because it has been damaged.  You don’t put down an injured race horse, you take the time to work with him to heal him.  You don’t discount a jockey with a broken leg.  You work with him to heal him.  The moral could easily be applied to all four members of the team.  Of course, the unofficial fifth member of the team was Mr. Howard’s second wife, Marcela, played by Elizabeth Banks.  It was she who began the entire process by getting Charles out of his depression by getting him interested in horse racing.

My problems with the movie were two-fold.  As I mentioned, it was predictable.  Having never seen the film, I guessed that the plot would go as follows:  Poor boy jockey never gets a break.  Horse never expected to win a race.  The two meet and form a special bond.  They train hard and enter the big race.  They surprise everybody, proving that they are good enough to go the distance.  And I was right.  Every one of those things happened.  The rest was just details

The second thing was that the film seemed to be anticlimactic.  The movie was two hours and twenty minutes long.  The first hour was spent establishing the characters, and the next half-hour was training for the big race, a showdown between Seabiscuit and the giant race horse from New York, War Admiral, owned by the arrogant Samuel Riddle, played by Eddie Jones.  The next half-hour was spent on the race.  In a little surprise twist, Red breaks his leg badly.  Another jockey, George Woolf, played by Gary Stevens is found, and Red gives him instructions on how to ride Seabiscuit.  Woolf follows the instructions perfectly and Seabiscuit wins!

For me, that was the climax of the movie.  They made it exciting to watch.  They even showed a few shots of Red listening to the radio broadcast of the race while he is laid up in the hospital with a cast on his leg.  They tried to make it unclear as to who would win, but, really, there was no doubt.  The little horse that could was the fastest horse on the track.  But the movie didn’t end there.  After trouncing War Admiral and putting his owner in his place, they go even further to drive the point home that you don’t throw something away just because it is broken.

Seabiscuit is forced to stop in the middle of his next race with an injury.  Just as we are told that Red will never be a jockey again, we are also told that Seabiscuit will never race again.  But once the two are reunited, they work hard to overcome their injuries.  The film’s finale then becomes the Santa Anita races, in which they make their comeback.  And did they win?  Of course they did.  Predictable.  And to make it worse, it was shown in slow motion, making the scene so much less exciting than the previous race.  And then there was the sappy voice-over that said, “You know, everyone thinks that we found this broken down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too.”  I’m sorry, but I had to roll my eyes, just a little.  The story would have been so much more inspirational if I thought for just one instant that they might lose.

And as an afterthought, I have to mention one thing that I found really distracting.  There were several scenes where the camera focused on close-ups of the jockeys as they were racing, so we could hear the dialogue between the jockeys.  Those shots looked incredibly fake because the horse’s heads looked ridiculously mechanical.  They moved with a perfectly repetitive and exaggerated up and down motion.  My post-viewing research tells me that the machines used for these shots were called Equicizers.  But when the close-up cut to a wide shot of the real horses running, I could clearly see that their heads and the jockey’s arms weren’t really moving that much, or at least not in the same way.  To me, it just looked painfully obvious.

2003 – Mystic River











Mystic River – 2003

Director Clint Eastwood does it again with this emotionally complex crime drama.  It has a great cast, interesting characters, a captivating plot, and a wonderfully engaging pace.  The movie stars Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harding, Laura Linney, and Lawrence Fishburne.  The movie draws you in right from the very beginning and doesn’t let you go until the final moment.  This was a murder mystery done right.

Before getting into the main plot, I have to describe the horrifying scene at the beginning of the film, the child abduction scene.  Three boys, Jimmy, Sean, and Dave, are playing in the street when a man steps out of a car to scold them for writing their names in wet cement.  He has a badge in his hand and a pair of handcuffs hanging from his belt.  He tells the child who does not live in the area to get into the car.  He is going to take him home and have a talk with his mother about defacing public property.  They were kids.  How were they to know that the man wasn’t a police officer?  I knew right away that they were abducting the boy.  Just the thought of how plausible and easy the abduction was disturbed me.

But the kid escapes and then we flash forward to when he is an adult.  Robbins played Dave Boyle.  He has grown into a man with deep emotional scars caused by his four days being sexually abused by the child rapists.  He is married to Celeste, played by Harden.  Celest’s relative, Annabeth Markum, played by Linney, is married to Jimmy Markum, played by Penn.  Jimmy is an ex-con with a nineteen year-old daughter named Katie, played by Emmy Rossum.  When Katie is found brutally beaten and murdered, police investigator Sean Devine, played by Bacon, and his partner, Detective Whitey Powers, played by Fishburne, take the case.

The three childhood friends who had drifted apart are now drawn back together.  Dave, who had come home from a bar at which Katie had been drinking the night of the murder, with blood all over his clothes and abrasions on his hand, quickly becomes one of the prime suspects.  The mystery kept me guessing until the very end.  The twists and turns of the investigation very well thought out.

So, in the end, who did it?  The murderer came out of left field, but it made sense.  Katie had been planning to run away with her secret boyfriend, Brendan Harris, played by Tom Guiry.  His mute brother, Silent Ray, played by Spencer Treat Clark, was upset that Brendan, the only person who didn’t treat him like a freak, was planning on leaving.  To prevent that, he killed Katie, though the film indicated that it may have been an accident.

And the ending of the movie was powerful.  Believing that Dave had murdered his daughter, Jimmy and his thug friends, the Savage brothers, Val, Nick, and Kevin, played by Kevin Chapman, Adam Nelson, and Robert Wahlberg, corner Dave and execute him.  After the deed was done, Sean arrives and tells Jimmy that Katie’s real killer had been apprehended and had given a full confession, Jimmy realizes that he had killed an innocent Dave, except that Dave wasn’t really innocent.  He had killed a man the same night Katie died.  It was a pedophile, which made sense, considering the nature of his own abduction experience.

By far, the most interesting character was Dave.  The emotional damage which Tim Robbins portrayed was perfectly played.  He took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and I think he deserved it.  Sean Penn took home the Oscar for Best Actor, though his character, while complex, didn’t require such an extreme emotional range.  Neither did Bacon.  But I also have to make special mention of another member of the cast who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Marcia Gay Harden.  I thought her performance as Dave’s scared but devoted wife was incredibly well-played.  There was a clear fragility and vulnerability about her that was believably executed.

The movie was also notable for its score.  It was written by the same man who directed the film, Clint Eastwood.  In fact, the movie was nominated for six Academy Awards.  In addition to Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, it was nominated for Best Director, got a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Marcia Gay Harden, and a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Penn and Robbins took home the only wins.

And finally, I have to make mention of Laura Linney’s strange little character.  Jimmy’s wife, who was largely a silent character throughout most of the movie, had her little moment at the end.  Jimmy, having learned that Katie’s real killer had been caught, comes close to admitting to Sean that he had murdered Dave.  In a state of depression, he goes to his wife and confesses his crime to her.  She tells him that she loves him for what he did.  His crime says that her husband is a man who will stop at nothing to protect his family.  That’s messed up, Annabeth.