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For Christmas this year, I received my first to-own DVD: Hitchcock's
classic, NORTH BY NORTHWEST. After over 40 years, this rip-racing
adventure-thriller still packs a punch and looks great on widescreen. This
movie came along during a renaissance period for the Old Master, between
masterpieces like VERTIGO and PSYCHO, but this excursion into the world of
suspense is so different from anything else Hitchcock had created up to
point. Never did he challenge our endurance to keep still in our seats for
such a long period of time, and yet the film's 135 minutes go by so fast
could only be explained by movie magic itself.
Cary Grant is one of those actors that a filmgoer either falls in love with or deeply envies. His debonair manner is displayed to the full in this film, even though the peril that his character goes through would cause any normal dude to break into a maddening sweat. The dialogue Roger Thornhill delivers alongside Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in this film is sometimes too hilarious to be true, but wouldn't any woman fall for it? (I'm merely guessing here) Ernest Lehman's screenplay is so lighthearted and yet very ominous. With all the traps and pitfalls Grant goes through in this film, you would have to find comedy in it. Grant does and to great appeal. I absolutely love the sequence at the auction when Roger tries to get himself arrested by yelling out flaky bids and accusing the auctioneer of selling junk worth no more than $8. I also admire the scenes with Saint on the train to Chicago; I was tempted to jot down some of his pick-up lines, but then I realized it's just a movie (or is it?)
Hitchcock was famous throughout his career of setting up death-defying sequences with major landmarks as backdrops. Here, Mount Rushmore will never be looked at the same again afterwards. We may never enter the United Nations again without peering behind our backs for a notorious knife-thrower. And, I dare say, I will never walk alongside a highway where a cropduster could swoop at any minute. I love the line during the Rushmore incident when Grant says his two ex-wives left him because he lived too dull a life. Go figure!
It has been said that Hitchcock's many films each contain a personal side of the director inside them. The archetypes of the Master of Suspense are here amid the chasing and running across the U.S. The mysterious blonde, played to a tee by Eva Marie Saint, is a common fixture of many Hitchcock jaunts. Saint joins Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren in this feature. The protagonist is again awkward when faced with the opposite sex, but unusually casual when wrapped up in danger. The hero has an attachment to his mother, continually under his nurturing wing. And of course, the macguffin has fun with us again (government secrets my foot!)
Whenever I see action-packed epics today like "The Fugitive" or the James Bond series, they all seem to quiver in comparison to this film. It amazes me that Hitchcock is able to hold the audience in the palm of his hand throughout the whole length of the journey. We become Grant as he runs away from the police and the secret agents who have chosen him as their dupe. But throughout the squabble, we sense that Grant is getting off on the whole jaunt, just as we want the chase to continue, not looking at our watches for a minute. However, it's fascinating to note that Roger Thornhill is not a born adventurer, nor is he an archeologist with a flair for escaping impossible situations. We are experiencing the Cary Grant in all of us, running away from an enemy we do not know they are or what they want. Is this symbolism of some kind? I say who cares; just watch the film and have fun!
I sincerely hesitated before renting THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY this past
weekend. I had heard rumors from others who were dissatisfied with this
film, unhappy with their reaction to Anthony Minghella's follow-up to his
majorly successful "The English Patient." Just the fact that Minghella
directed it made me quiver. "English Patient" has to be one of my most
films for which much praise was received. However, something compelled me
pick it up. Maybe Minghella deserved another chance in my books. This time,
he was using marquee actors of a more popular nature, rather than
thespians like Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche. The moment I
popped the DVD in and viewed this picture, I was hooked and enthralled.
Talented Mr. Riply" uses just the right amount of artistry and goes thick
plot and method acting to create a thriller which the great Hitchcock would
have been proud of.
I must admit the previews made me take interest in this film before I considered looking at it. The plot seemd so fascinating, and it surely is. I'll only mention the minute details of it so as not to spoil anything for those who have not seen it, and also so I don't screw up some of the descriptions. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a bland, ordinary individual who longs to become someone else other than the nobody who is himself. He gets that opportunity when a man named Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) offers him $1,000 to retrieve his son from Europe, whom he suspects is frittering his money and his life away. Ripley takes on the assignment, and surprisingly, as soon as he meets up with Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), he immediately tells him his intentions and quickly becomes his best buddy. His girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) is also very impressed with their new acquaintance. Little do they know that Tom Ripley's main "talent" is impersonating people around him, taking on their identities and making them his own. Dickie's will be his first one to capture.
I mentioned that Sir Alfred would have been pleased to see this film if he were alive today, and while I was watching "Ripley," I couldn't help but be amazed by the technical and narrative similarities to Hitch's archetypes, which today are endlessly duplicated. I found it riveting how the plot and the director focus in on the scheming of Ripley, allowing the audience to be swept up in his improvisation and daring manner of always running under the knife. I don't know if the DVD technology is a considerable enhancement here, but Minghella's direction also takes on a life of its own. The purposeful shading and camera angles take on almost a voyeuristic quality, as if we the viewer are objectively but holistically involved in Ripley's feats of derring-do. The cinematography is fancy, but not overly distracting. Its viewpoint is always set on the characters and how they relate with each other.
The performances are carefully choreographed but consistently drawn to look natural and of-the-moment. Such aspects are especially important in the case of Matt Damon, who takes the character of Tom Ripley and subtly makes him look pathetic but endlessly interesting to watch. Jude Law plays such a three-dimensional character here that his might be the most difficult one to play among the key players. Dickie Greenleaf (the real one) must be outgoing and friendly but also cold and disheartening. We may be repelled by him, but his fate never seems warranted, even during his most tragic hour. Gwyneth is beautiful as always, but also finds the right note for a woman who is unrightfully left behind and deceived by both these leading men. Cate Blanchett also has a small and thankless role as an innocent European traveller who happens upon this happy throng, totally unaware of the deception and indecency that is going on. She was probably my favorite character of them all, a symbol that Hitchcock created many years before.
When critics and film fans remarked that the end of 1999 saw some of the best films in a blue moon hit theaters, I am inclined to believe them. Along with other favorites of mine like "The Green Mile" and "American Beauty," I would vote for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" as one of the best films of the year. It is smart, visually and narratively creative, and on a whole, a truly satisfying entertainment. For thinking viewers, it is a special treat. For casual moviegoers, I believe there is still much to behold in this film, even if you are not one who is used to letting movies soak into your system. Minghella takes his time unwinding this ingenious tale, but the unfolding of the plot and the eventual pay-off is a chilling and fulfilling movie experience. Rating: Four stars
When I was a teenager like the character Brad Renfro plays in "Apt Pupil,"
I had my first encounter with the Holocaust and was compelled to know more.
For me, "Schindler's List" provided much of that inspiration. Today, I am
still grappling with this past reality, trying to understand how our world
could sink to such a despicable low. The key difference between our little
friend in this film and myself is I used books and other films to answer my
queries. Renfro goes for the preposterous angle: he blackmails a former Nazi
war criminal living in the neighborhood to tell him stories of his horrific
past. This is not what I had in mind, and it's a good thing I didn't, or
else I could have been the subject of a bad film like this one.
Ian McKellen delivers a great performance as the ex-Nazi in question, known as Kurt Dussander but posing under an assumed name. McKellen really digs into the character, physically and vocally. However, his great work is marred by a terribly conventional script that begins with inspiration and turns into a depressing horror melodrama. Not meaning to spoil anything, but why would an ex-Nazi ever be intimidated by a seventeen-year old boy, let alone a homeless drunk? If you are attempting to hide out in America, why let anyone into your residence in the first place? I liked the coldness of his character, but I was also searching for more complexity and insight from him into a subject which I knew quite a bit about. This I did not receive.
To add to this sour picture, I really disliked the Renfro character. If this intelligent brat was really that smart, he would be smart enough not to cross a former Nazi for fear of being killed or alienated too much for his own good. A safer way to research the Holocaust up close would be to interview a Jewish survivor of the blitz rather than one of the perpetrators. There's an almost laughable scene where Renfro walks by an old guy in a hospital bed who evidentally recognizes McKellen as his old nemesis, who happens to be in the bed next to him. Wouldn't it have been easier for Renfro to question this old dude instead of a decrepit Nazi who just wanted to be left alone? I suppose that would be too simple.
Rating: One star and a half.
Mark Rydell's On Golden Pond was a surprise hit in 1981, finishing third in
box office grosses after Rocky III and E.T. Such an occurrence was unheard
of in Hollywood, considering the key players in the film, Henry Fonda and
Katharine Hepburn, each had not had a hit film in almost twenty years and
were both hardly spring chickens in the business. Both these veteran actors
proved they could still make it in Hollywood among young starlets, and
triumph. Still, when you see "On Golden Pond," you sense that their teaming
together for the first time in their careers is purely a special occasion,
an opportunity of a lifetime that few actors in their seventies receive.
They in turn have left us with a wonderful showcase of movie talent, a film
of warmth, good humor, and love.
It always amazes me when I read that Henry Fonda had only received two Oscar nominations during his career, one of which he earned for this film. Like his good friend Jimmy Stewart, Fonda was rarely a boisterous actor. He had a natural ease to his acting, a gift for making audiences believe that every word he uttered was truth. Now, in his final screen performance as Norman Thayer Jr., Fonda had to reach deep into his own personal experience and his advancing years to create a character who struggles with his own mortality. Norman is a grouchy curmudgeon who has memory lapses and heart palpitations. He has a loving and cheerful wife, Ethel (Hepburn), but a difficult relationship with his only daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda). He and Ethel journey back to their cottage on the lake for what may be their last summer. Immediately, Norman comes face to face with his old age and his inability to remember what should be familiar sights. I especially like the scene where he gets lost in the woods looking for strawberries and scares himself when he is unable to find his way back. Ethel has such faith in him, sure he will "get back on that horse" and be as valiant as he once was. What more could you want from a wife?
Chelsea arrives after many years away from her parents, bringing with her a new boyfriend (Dabney Coleman) and his son, Billy (Doug McKeon). You can sense the tension between Chelsea and Norman the minute she walks in the door. This reunion is fascinating not only because we can never tell where the difficulty lies in their relationship, but also the fact that these problems also exist on and off the screen. The father-daughter relationship between Henry and Jane was also very turbulent ever since Jane began her protests in Vietnam, much to the chagrin of her father. This collaboration of the two was meant to mend fences between them. Not often do the personal lives of actors collide so eloquently in Hollywood, but here it seems just about right.
The sequence where Norman and Bill (Coleman) attempt to build a conversation is originally conceived and acted so naturally. He carefully asks Norman if it would be alright if Chelsea and he sleep together in the same room at the cottage. Of course, Norman makes this confrontation as difficult as possible, making Bill nervous and jerking him around. Ironically, Bill comes back at him, not allowing Norman to use him in petty mindgames and hoping they would become friends, which is obviously "not an easy task." This is an unsettling turn for Norman and the audience, but it is necessary for the story to progress and for Norman to respond accordingly to the other characters in the story.
Ethel and Norman volunteer to let Billy stay with them for the summer while Chelsea and Bill head off to Europe. Billy is not pleased with the arrangement at the outset, but gradually bonds with Norman through learning to fish on the pond. While Billy is not necessarily an original character, it is fascinating to see him try to understand Norman, and in turn how Norman learns to associate with the son he never had. It is a learning experience for both of them, even though they are many generations apart.
Many reviewers have remarked that ON GOLDEN POND uses a conventional story and revives it with great performances from the cast. It is interesting to note that the screenwriter, Ernest Thompson, altered his own play in order to escape a bit of the conventionality that the film medium required. The framework may seem as original as an old shoe, but the added touches in the script and its delivery give this film a certain magic that only classical Hollywood films possessed. Fonda has a great way to end a career with this role, placing himself completely within Norman's world and searching within and through the role for his own solutions to life's problems. His Oscar was given to him for more reasons than mere charity. Hepburn is delightful as Ethel, working so well with Fonda that it does not seem as if they are acting. For a couple of old Hollywood actors who never even met before this, they each prove they are true masters of their craft. Jane Fonda takes a supporting role this time, incorporating some of the same motives as her father into her part, and as a result delivers a special performance. Mark Rydell is one of those directors that often gets left off the list of the all-time greats, but proves once again here he is a masterful storyteller. In this project, he allows both the visual elements of the pond and his actors to make magic, a truly memorable combination.
On Golden Pond is not an epic, but what it accomplishes runs close to epic proportions. It is very rare that a stageplay converts so well to the screen like this one. On Golden Pond is vibrant, emotional, and so heartfelt, it is impossible not to like, unless you are a curmudgeon like Norman Thayer. It is also unique that great actors such as these will agree to try again for Hollywood glory so late in their careers. It is up to us viewers to experience this wonder before the chance is lost and these thespians finally close up the cottage and head off to their retirement.
I truly believe that every once in a blue moon, a film can contain a sense
of wonder, magic, and the power of dreams. The title says it all. "Field of
Dreams" is destined to become (if it hasn't already) an American classic,
and easily one of the most engrossing films of the eighties. Throughout the
decade, we have seen a crock of films that capitalized on getting as much of
anything the characters could grasp (hence the "me decade"). This film, made
in 1989, reaffirmed what we learned from Hollywood in the forties, that
dreams can come true and people can be saved by what they choose to believe
in. And to top it all off, baseball is its subject. The great American
pastime takes on a mystical quality that is nothing but
Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, a corn farmer that seems to be stranded in his life, only choosing his profession because it allowed him to get away from the idealized dreams of his father that never became reality. One day, while roaming aimlessly through his cornfield, he hears a unknown voice speak to him, saying the words that have become synonomous with the film itself, "If you build it, he will come." He is compelled by the strange message, and even convinces his wife what he heard was real and definite. He believes that the simple words mean he is to build a baseball diamond in his field, and he sets out to do just that, and he indeed does one heck of a job. After at least half a year passes, following endless strains on their patience, who should show up in the field but Shoeless Joe Jackson, the famous alleged criminal from the 1919 Black Sox Scandal who was dismissed from the game of baseball forever, until now...
After all that is said and done, the film takes a back road and curves it into this storyline brilliantly. Ray receives a second message which he deciphers as getting a famous civil rights writer, Terence Mann (played wonderfully by James Earl Jones), to come visit his new ballfield. Of course it is to be expected that Mann begrudgingly resists Ray to join him, but he too becomes propelled by the power of the field's magic, and his life (like Ray's) is changed forever. Even Burt Lancaster shows up out of thin air (literally), but that's a different part of the plot altogether that I wouldn't dare reveal in fear someone reading this review has incompetently not seen this picture.
"Field of Dreams" is one of the strangest films I've seen, and possibly one of the best. When it throws its subject matter at you, you wonder how a story so preposterous can ever work. But somehow, I was deeply moved like Costner and Jones were by the miraculous incidents put in front of me. This film is not like any fantasy film I've seen, but in a way, it is like many that I've encountered. Some of my favorite movies elicited such an amazing feeling of warmth and grace in me that I was afraid to analyse it for fear that it would ruin the awesome impact I received. "Field of Dreams" is exactly like that, an odd piece of moviemaking that overwhelms you with its wonder and positive qualities that in turn leaves no doubt it is a classic, just from the way it moves you while watching it. Therefore, I'm not going to try to pick it apart and attempt to show the world my "field" of brilliance. All I will say is this is the kind of movie Hollywood should be reeling out more often, a tiny masterpiece that lets others be refreshed in their faith and believe in their crazy little fantasies. Ray Kinsella did, and now, so do I. Rating: Four stars.
Since I have always been a Christian from childhood and agreeably conspire to my faith today, I am always curious about what causes others to "be saved" later in life. "The Rapture" tells this story with fascinating insights into the modern Christian perspective and what scares the public about its predictions. Mimi Rogers (in a heart-wrenching performance) plays Sharon, a telephone operator who leads a tedious and extremely boring life by day, but resorts to group sex and orgies to add excitement to her nightlife. She discovers Christianity through people pamphleting at her door and other employees in her office she never cared to talk to before. They use the imagery of a pearl to describe their experience of being saved, and Sharon longs to discover what it is about this religion that can bring fulfillment to her own life. David Duchovney, before his stint on "The X-Files," co-stars as Sharon's boyfriend and later husband she meets through her reckless "dates," and whom she induces to join her spiritual quest to find God. After their marriage and birth of their daughter, her faith is tested to intense extemes in ways I would not dare describe, but can honestly say are truly harrowing. I was surprised that, even though I am a devout Christian, I was not offended by this film, what can be seen as a blatantly sacreligious movie. I think every religious individual should see it to get a better understanding of what they conspire to, as well as how others may conceive of their faith. "The Rapture" is not a tame flick, and does not shy away from controversial discourse, but all in all, this is a rewarding picture that gets its viewers to think about their lives and what they believe in. No doubt you will be entranced. Rating: Three stars and a half.
Wolfgang Petersen has done some good thrillers in the past and has deep respect for classical directors such as Hitchcock, so what better opportunity than to create his own thriller the way the Master of Suspense would have if he were alive. He assembles a good cast, among them Tom Berenger, Bob Hoskins (in an enjoyable role), and Greta Scacchi, and creates a story a la Vertigo. What could go wrong? With movies like this, one glitch in the plot could topple the whole film off the bell tower (pardon the Vertigo pun), and this one does just that. A man trying to remember what occurred in his personal life after surviving a tragic car wreck can be enthralling, and at many times this picture is indeed mind-numbing, but three-quarters into the story, you feel as if you have been cheated. Plausibility is a real concern in this thriller, but that's not to say there are not good elements within this confusion. Wolfgang Petersen shows a real expertise for framing his ludicrous story, and I believe Hitch would have been pleased with how Petersen motivates the camera here. Berenger does an okay job as the suffering crash victim, but it is Hoskins that really impresses as the pet store owner/private investigator who helps Berenger discover who he really was. "Shattered" is a nicely lensed film with a good dose of suspense surrounding it, but for a pay-off, I believe Hitchcock could have shown the filmmakers a thing or two about playing it straight with a good ending. Rating: Two stars and a half.
I've always said that a movie doesn't have to lay itself out like a
masterpiece to be a four-star triumph. Good characters, powerful acting, a
good story, and pure realism are often the keys to inspired film making.
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" fully understands this simple formula for
success, and provides the viewer with a honesty that very few films today
possess. The strangeness of the title does not match the film's premise.
Johnny Depp, an enjoyable presence in film in recent years, plays the
character, a young man who lives a completely selfless existence, but who
never gets much of an opportunity to please himself. He has his near-18
old mentally challenged brother, Arnie (Oscar-nominee Leonardo DeCaprio,
one of his first major roles) to tend to, as well as his 500-pound mother
(Darlene Cates), who has not left the house in over seven years. His other
two sisters take his sacrifices for granted, leaving Gilbert without much
moral support around the house. He works at a second-rate supermarket,
whereby he becomes acquainted with a lonely housewife (Mary Steenburgen)
turns to Gilbert for a little more than delivery of her groceries. It is
only once a drifting girl named Becky (Juliette Lewis) comes along that he
is able to find a true soul mate, someone who can help him momentarily
escape from the chaos of his everyday life.
The aspect about Gilbert that I really admired about his character was the fact that he did not think of himself as a particularly good person or even a help to others, but rather someone who was fulfilling an obligation to those around him, whether it be within the home, at the grocery store, or being "friendly" with Steenburgen. He follows what he believes must be followed, and in many ways is trapped, without a sense of freedom. What is even more heartbreaking about Gilbert is that the ones who should have been appreciative of his kindness did not give a damn about whether they were affecting his life. Real emotions are clearly at stake here.
From what I've described about "Gilbert Grape," it would seem that the film is a sobfest. Not so. Leonardo deCaprio deserves a great deal of credit for bringing spirit to the movie, a true innocent within the family. He is so free-spirited that Gilbert, as well as the audience, cannot help but love the guy despite his being a major chore to take care of, and sometimes a real pain in the rump. DeCaprio deserved his Oscar nomination, starting off his prosperous career in Hollywood.
Another thing I was really surprised about was how Gilbert's mother, while being amazingly overweight, is not treated as a stereotype by the filmmakers. Darlene Cates, in her film debut, brings real heart to a role that could have been completely one-sided. She lives a life that she herself never intended, but learns to make the best of it.
Films like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" always let you know when they're working by how much you feel for the characters in its story. I honestly felt for Gilbert and what he had to put up with, and truly hoped he would find a happy ending once the film was over. Of course I would not dare reveal that ending to you, but let's just say there is a sense of satisfaction that arises as Gilbert Grape finds the spirit within himself he thought was never there. Rating: Three stars and a half.
Every once in a while, there comes a movie that seems to be absolutely brilliant, even amazingly original, and you get kind of ticked off when that brilliance passes you by. Stanley Kubrick's works always seemed to do that for me, along with a few other "artistic" titles that come to mind. It's almost eerie that Kubrick just passed away recently, because "The Thin Red Line" seemed to me to resemble something which Kubrick might have presided over. There are many fascinating sequences and exhilarating spots of cinematography in this new installment of the World War II genre, but a lot of tedious, meandering sequences and a combination of disorganized messages that drift into others, seriously clutter up the story. I could never fully understand what the movie was trying to tell me that was supposed to be the main message of the whole plot. The plot itself passes like a ship on an unpredictable sea, sometimes torrential in its action and suspense but also needlessly dry in other moments. If Terrence Malick's "masterpiece" has one major problem that I can definitely pinpoint, it would probably be its excruciating length. If it ran maybe 45-60 minutes shorter in duration, it might have worked as a tight and alarming picture of war. Instead, it dances around a lot of different meanings and areas of entertainment, from the deeply poetic to the engagingly violent and mysterious. I would like to point out one great performance of the film before I depart. Nick Nolte is one of those actors that takes his time between projects, but always turns out an interesting, if not always likable, character. His work in this entry is just great, a three-dimensional role that receives too little screen time. Call "The Thin Red Line" an epic that is reaching for brilliance and is grasping way too far. Go see "Saving Private Ryan" instead, and get a point and great dramatic strength, something in which "Red Line" falls a tad short. Rating: Two stars and a half.
I'd just like to point out before I say anything about "Mrs. Doubtfire"
it does not even come close to surpassing "Tootsie" as the best comedy
this "man-in-drag" routine. At the same time, it definitely picked up its
concept from the Dustin Hoffman classic, but I sincerely believe it does
attempt to pattern itself on that previous film either. This new entry
a man in a dress has its own story, its own heart tenderly in place, and
a lot of fun in the process. Even though it may not be brilliant like
"Tootsie," "Doubtfire" has wonderfully comic moments wrapped up into a
Robin Williams stars as Daniel Hillard, a gifted voiceover actor who has a unique fondness for his three children, but is unable to hold down a steady job. When his wife Miranda (Sally Field) asks him for a divorce, Daniel is left in an unfortunate situation. Miranda gets sole custody of the children, and Daniel is able to see them every weekend, but he is not satisfied. He therefore asks his brother (Harvey Fierstein), a expert makeup artist, to turn him into a woman. Enter Mrs. Doubtfire, a 60-year old Brit who quickly becomes a housekeeper for the family. Daniel is able to return to his kids' lives full-time, in some form or another.
This premise may seem a bit contrived, and may get you wondering how he could fool his ex-wife and kids into the whole scheme. The costuming and makeup looks good on Williams, but is it good enough? This is where Williams adds those comic touches and sugary substance to make Mrs. Doubtfire seem genuine. I truly liked both characters Robin plays, even though I didn't get a total sensation that the two were totally different entities. The film makers ask you to go along with it without too much argument, and as a matter of fact, I did.
The movie's real triumph, I believe, is in its realism of divorce and its effect on parents and especially their children. Some may think the film's second act as ludicrous, when Robin Williams tries to chase off Field's new boyfriend, Pierce Brosnan. I don't think it was as much his jealousy over his wife that came into play, but rather being unable to accept another man entering into what was his place in their family structure. Here, you see a quiet nobility in his character, not that we totally dislike Brosnan or consider him a villain, but that we assimilate with Robin's cause. This gives the excessive slapstick and tomfoolery a deeper edge.
I think film critics should have a heart when it comes to "Mrs. Doubtfire." It does have a certain magic to it that is so hard to find in movies nowadays. I was moved by it, I laughed quite a bit, and overall had a good time. When it comes to entertainment, nothing else really matters. Rating: Three stars.
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