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The Majestic (2001)
Capra-Like Film that Misses the Mark--A Bit Too Sacharine for Its Own Good
"The Majestic" is a throw-back to fantasy films of a by-gone era, such as those directed Frank Capra and Henry Koster. Not only is the storyline itself similar to Hollywood fantasies of the late 1940's and 1950's, several scenes ring of old movies. Townspeople often gather in front of the main character and his girl. In some sense, the film is like a film within a film, in which the people of the small town are like the audience and the characters like those on stage. "The Majestic" is an inadvertent realization of "the world is a stage", but unfortunately, as things plays out, the central theme is applied like a bull-dozer. Only in a few scenes do we see the character exhibiting blood, sweat and tears, at the beginning and near the end. For much of the middle of the story, he's almost too happy, things working out too well. There's an old adage of storytelling which says only trouble is interesting. Unfortunately, the trouble takes a back seat to the elation.
The premise could have been concocted straight out of a Frank Capra screen concept. A b-movie screenwriter in 1950's Hollywood, Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey), is accused of secretly harboring communist sensibilities and therefore could be spying for the USSR. His career in film is essentially at an end, and he's being summoned to Washington to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He then takes a trip with his only friend, a little stuffed monkey, up the California coast where he gets into a horrible accident on a bridge. He's washed up on the beach like a crew member of a ship lost at sea. An old man discovers him and helps him to the nearest town, an unassuming small town on the California coast called Lawson which rings similarly to Bedford Falls of "It's a Wonderful Life". Appleton suffers from amnesia and doesn't who he is. He sees pictures in the town windows of local young men who fell overseas fighting in the Second World War.
He happens into a local coffee shop where another elderly gentleman, Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), recognizes him. He's convinced it's his son, Luke Trimble, who went missing-in-action during the war. The local towns folk then reacquaint themselves with who they believe is their long lost soldier, one of the few who has returned. They decide to hold a large celebration in his honor. He even meets Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden) who had been Luke's fiancé. She is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous and yet for nearly a decade she's not hooked up with any other men, which is one of the many problems with the storyline.
Since the town believes he's a hero, he goes along, even though some aspects don't seem right. Although he can't remember, there is a sense that Appleton knows that things aren't they way they seem, which is the best aspect of Carrey's performance. Trimble takes him home and shortly thereafter proposes they re-open the local movie theater which has laid dormant since the war. Of course the name of the theater is "The Majestic", and it gives Appleton, now Luke Trimble, a new sense of purpose and direction. At the same time, the FBI has decided that Appleton must be a communist spy since his disappearance from Los Angeles.
The central problem with this film is that it lacks balance. The joy and elation of the townspeople enjoying the return of their long-lost hero goes on for way too long. Almost no one in the town questions that Luke Trimble is not a war casualty but has returned in the flesh. I was expecting to see more doubt among some of the townspeople. I also wanted to see the darker sides of both characters, Appleton and Trimble, but both seem too perfect. Maybe a curse word from Appleton which would never have been on the lips of Trimble, or visa-versa. Only one towns-person is not happy to see Luke Trimble but not because he doubts it's really him but because he was a rival before the start of the war. It was also difficult to buy the idea that Adele Stanton was not with another man. It would have made more sense if she was with someone else and then flabbergasted concerning Luke's return.
The joy of the town upon celebrating the return of Luke was just a bit too saccharine and forced. When they begin to renovate the movie theater, the entire town pitches in to help. I half-expected them to start singing Kumabya. Again I wanted to see a bit more blood regarding his return in the way there is in the story Martin Guerre, a returned war hero who turns out to be an impostor. Only when the FBI catch up with him is there some meat to the story again, but this occurrence is about 80% through the film. The film was 75% in the bliss department and only 25% in the trouble department. If trouble is what makes a story interesting, "The Majestic" needed to reverse the numbers. By film's end, Appleton/Trimble had not gone through hell and back to make me feel like he's really been through something which significantly causes him to change. In "It's a Wonderful Life", George Bailey goes through hell to get back to heaven. With Appleton/Trimble, it was more like a short-cut.
How An Unassuming Little Man Without Title or Privilege Beat an Empire
If there is a figure who closely resembles the spiritual and peaceful role models of the past, such as Jesus of Nazareth, St. Francis of Assisi, and Frederick Douglass, in terms of both lifetime accomplishments and influence on later leaders protesting injustice, Mahatma Gandhi of India may be the most influential of such leaders in the 20th century. A famous photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shows him standing next to a large portrait of Gandhi, who was King's primary inspiration in engaging in peaceful protest against racial injustice. The two never met, but without the peaceful protests largely instigated by Gandhi to compel the British to end their rule and leave India, the Civil Rights Movements in the United States would have been without a successful model.
In the role of his career, Ben Kingsley offers a tour-de-force Academy-Award winning performance of a man who simply refused to acknowledge the British as the rightful rulers of India. He knew the only means to that ends would be non-violent protests, which he had done in South Africa a few years earlier. Gandhi, whose peaceful demonstrations violence were ahead of their time, showed the world that large change can happen but only if non-violence is at the core. Gandhi understood that only when the instigator of injustice inflicted blows upon defenseless people would they see the ultimate injustice of their laws and system. If they fought back, and sometimes they did, the cause would have been lost. Gandhi's use of non-violent protest to enact social change was later emulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi remains the towering figure of a 20th century non-violent revolutionary.
The film begins with the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 by a Hindu radical nationalist, who believed Gandhi had "sold out" the interests of Hindus in India during the breakup of India into India and Pakistan. The film then rewinds to the late 19th century. Little about Gandhi's early days prior to his arrival in South Africa could predict his later becoming part of two protest movements, one of which would lead to the ending of colonial rule of a European power in an Asian country. Gandhi was born in India, and educated in European-like schools, although his grades and test scores were passable but not outstanding. He was eventually educated in England as an attorney.
The story of Gandhi's life begins with a trip to South Africa in the 1890's. Gandhi was called to South Africa for a case, and bought a first class ticket on a train in South Africa. Even Britain in those days did not have the kind of apartheid rules of South Africa, and when he's discovered in a first class compartment, he's asked to leave on grounds he's a "darkie", even though he's not technically African but Indian. Gandhi refuses, citing he had legitimately bought a first class ticket. As a result, he's thrown off the train, literally. He then learns of the strict apartheid rules of South Africa at the time, where those with dark skin were not allowed to walk on the streets alongside whites. In an interesting confrontation which doesn't escalate, Gandhi walking along with an Anglican priest, Charles Freer Andrews (Ian Charleson), are stopped by a group of uneducated white South Africans who begin name-calling and order the Indian to get off the street. (The most vocal of the hoods is played with startling realism by a very young Daniel Day-Lewis.) However, it's not just being able to walk the streets which infuriates Gandhi. Indians, even if they were brought up and educated in Britain, must hold passes, while whites from other places didn't have to. The government is even allowed to enter houses without cause. Gandhi then holds protests against the requirements on the grounds they are also citizens of the British Empire and should be treated as such. In one of the gatherings, he professes the use of non-violence and even ends the discussion by having the group sing "God Save the King".
On a small level, his successful achievements in South Africa are acknowledged around the world, and he then returns to India. Even though he is an Indian by birth, he doesn't know the country well having left during his teens. Some of the leaders who wish to end British rule there convince him to use the same tactics which were successful in South Africa in India. He explores the country and learns about the economic injustices being enacted by the British, such as Indians being compelled to make certain goods which can't be sold, and then their white landlords demanding rent. He then organizes certain kinds of non-violent protests, such as days of prayer and fasting in which the working infrastructure of India begins to break down right before the eyes of the British leadership. But scattered incidents occur outside Gandhi's parameters of peaceful protest, and some British become victims of mob violence, contrary to Gandhi's intentions. The first half ends with the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre which occurred in 1919 when Reginald Dyer ordered troops to fire upon a group of peaceful gatherers who were listening to speeches because they had, according to Dyer, failed to observe the new martial law forbidding public gatherings. The incident devastates Gandhi who begins to doubt the movement.
This is one of the greatest biographical films of all time. Richard Attenborough, director and producer, spent 20 years funding and finally producing the film. While Kingsley provides an astonishing and spiritual take on Gandhi, the supporting cast is no less than outstanding. Many name talent actors were involved, such as Ian Charleson (of Chariots of Fire fame), Martin Sheen, Trevor Howard, John Gielgud, and Candice Bergen. Honorable mention to Rohini Hattangadi as Gandhi's wife Kasturba and Roshan Seth as Nehru. During filming, some people sensed strange spiritual sensations as if benevolent forces from "on high" were aiding in the film's completion.
The Company You Keep (2012)
Underrated Political Drama-Suspense About 1960's Radicalism
In the 1960's to early 1970's, the United States was involved in an unjustified and un-winnable war which was taking the lives of young Americans, not to mention the lives of many innocent villagers in a land thousands of miles from America, Vietnam. Groups of young people, mostly of college age, took to the streets of America to protest, showing their disillusionment with their government in marches on Washington D.C., flag burnings in Berkeley, California, and demonstrations in Kent State, Michigan. Some ended tragically. While most of the protest groups were non-violent, mirroring the demonstrations by Martin Luther King, Jr., a few groups crossed the line into using violence and intimidation to make their points. One such group was the so-called "Weathermen" or Weather Underground whose goals were not exclusively about fostering political change and shifting social consciousness. Their goals were about overthrowing the United States government.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century. James Grant (Robert Redford who also directs) is a small-town lawyer in upstate New York near Albany with a beautiful daughter. A friend of his from the days of protest, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) has been arrested for complicity in crimes enacted by the Weather Underground in the 1970's. A stalwart and ambitious young reporter, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), begins his own investigation and reveals that James Grant is a false identity. He's actually Nick Sloan, a former Weatherman who has been eluding authorities for over 30 years in connection with a bank robbery gone wrong which resulted in the death of a bank security guard. To elude arrest, trial and possible prison, Sloan created the false identity of Grant in the early 1980's and set up a legitimate law practice.
Grant/Sloan then enacts a highly sophisticated plan. First he compels his estranged brother Daniel Sloan (Chris Cooper) to take temporary custody of his daughter. Then, using fake ID's and disposable phones, he leaves New York and travels to the upper mid-west to Michigan. Two other parties are hot on his trail: Shepard the young reporter, and the FBI. After obtaining the information from Shepherd's reporting, the FBI is now after Sloan as well, desperately trying to resolve a pending case over 30 years old.
The question the film poses: Is Sloan guilty of having been involved with the bank heist or is there some other reason he's on the run? The answers appear to be in Michigan. Shepherd follows Sloan there and meets the locals who seem reluctant to tell him what they know, most strikingly Henry Osborne, a former police chief who originally investigated the robbery. He also meets Osborne's daughter who tells the reporter things which help him piece together the puzzle. Sloan and Shepherd then are trying to find one Mimi Lurie who may have the answers to the puzzle.
A very good film about how Baby-Boomer radicalism didn't die in the 1960's and 1970's but rears its head in the 21st century. Redford is convincing as the mild-mannered-attorney-turned-fugitive. LaBeouf holds his own as the ambitious but naïve journalist who won't quit. As the film progresses we get the sense there's an underlying theme about young people's idealism. Shepherd meets Sloan early in the film before he's on the run, and even says of the young reporter he might have been the type to join the movement back in the 1960's. Shepherd represents the idealism of young people in the 21st century although he can only influence change through online articles. The protest marches are long over. The question is not just about the idealism of young people, be they Boomers, Generation X'ers, or Millennium's, but what they did can also say something about who they are. The question about Sloan's involvement with violent acts poses the question about whether or not he was as bad as the system he was fighting.
A Goofie But Charming Altman Satire of "New-Age" Politics
HealtH by Robert Altman is probably the goofiest film made by the master of improvisation cinema. It is a satire on the many organized associations which have emerged in the modern world concerning better living. Think of the many associations which are linked to industries, such as in sports, food, and medicine. So many of these associations become political entities in and of themselves, not just influencing the politics without but also within. Altman's film pokes fun with the sharpness and sting of a fireplace poker to reveal the insanity of the politics within these associations. In this case, the organization is a fictional health-food organization in which a new president must be elected at their annual convention being held at a Florida hotel.
Three women with polarized demeanors, sensibilities and comportment are vying for the top job. And each has their own strange quirkiness. Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett), who works as a deputy consultant for the US President, is the least confident and least vocal of the three. However, her libido becomes overly active when frightened. In an initial television interview with Dick Cavette (playing himself) along with the two others, she's terrified of the spotlight and constantly gropes Cavette. Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) is the most sober of the three. She is dedicated with a sense of what "should be done" in terms of future plans, but she's not as appealing as her two rivals, barely cracking a smile. Even her female assistant regards the other rivals as "rock stars". Esther Brill (Lauren Becall) is the most flamboyant and outwardly vocal of the three. She claims not only that she's 83 years old but her dog is almost 41. (Burbank whispers to Garnell , asking how many 41 is in dog years, to which Garnell replies that the dog should be dead.) Brill's main gesture is a kind of one-arm salute which, upon occasion, causes her hand to stay in the air, and she loses consciousness.
From the start, we see the nuttiness of the whole operation. The hotel has been decorated like a quasi-Disneyland. People are dressed in costumes of plants and other food-stuffs. The audience and participants are treating the gathering like some cultural event, and yet, it's only about health food. As the film progresses, we see the inner politics, scandals, and back-biting of an organization which is supposed to be centered upon improving people's lives.
This is certainly the nuttiest film in the Altman Canon. The overlapping dialog is ever-present, and there is even overlapping gestures and behaviors. If you can understand Altman's point about health and well-being organizations being overtly political among their own people, this film is a hoot. Everything is applied with the subtlety of a sledge-hammer, but Altman has never been one to shirk from the controversial. It's a riot in a certain Altman way, but not the kind of comedy which is for all tastes.
Friday Night Lights (2006)
Decent Film Which Could have Worked Much Better if It Followed the Book
In 1988, journalist H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger moved to a small town in Texas to cover a local high school football team, the Panthers in Odessa, Texas. There he found a town which was obsessed with its team. The townspeople paid for things like police escorts when the team members would go to their home games and lavish social functions care of the female fans offering tea, coffee and cakes. They even chartered flights to away games. At the same time, Bissinger noticed darker sides of the town's obsession with their team, which included putting for sale signs in the coach's yard when the teams wasn't doing well, and making disparaging remarks about coaches and players who didn't perform up to expectation. He discovers some racist comments regarding African-American players who are not playing up to standard. Realizing this obsession with this high school team was more like the critical analysis of college or professional sports, Bissinger wrote about the experience and the team in a book called "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream".
In 2004, a film adaption of the book was released with Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines, Lucas Black as quarterback Mike Winchell, and Derek Luke as James "Boobie" Miles. While the film is relatively true to the players of the 1988 team, it leaves so much out of what makes the original book so starkly compelling. First off, the film decided to ax the journalist Bissinger from the story. While the story is from Bissinger's eyes in the book, and he was given access to the town and the team in a speech at a game to explain his function to write about the town's cultural obsession with the team, both positive and negative aspects, the film has no such perspective. It meanders from different players, coaches and parents, but never offers us the view of a journalist trying to understand the culture which has over the years developed around the team. Some of the most interesting aspects contained in the book, such as the escorts and charter flights, were completely removed from the story.
From the book, we gather the team is literally the cultural focus of the entire town. While this aspect was very developed in the book, very little of this side of the story is explored in the film. We do hear some radio commentators criticizing the coach and players like an NFL team, but we see the fans of the team very little. We also see the for sale signs at the coach's house but we don't understand that these are disgruntled fans making it known they wish the coach to leave the team. The acting is pretty good, especially Thornton as the coach, and the players. The most interesting aspect is their star player, James "Boobie" Miles (Luke) who sustains a potentially hazardous injury at the beginning of the season. Miles clearly desires to go to university with a football scholarship and probably has his sites set on the NFL. However, as events unfold, all of his dreams may be thwarted.
A decent film which could have been outstanding if they used the perspective of the journalist. Instead, we go from player-to-player and experience their stories, but I felt I wasn't quite pulled in. I needed something a little more substantive to keep me riveted. And Bissinger discovered some racism beneath the veneer which gets little exploration. Some of the town were very upset with the book, as if their dirty little secrets were exposed. I wanted to see some of the secrets exposed as they were in the book, but we get the sense the filmmakers balked at the idea because they didn't want the film to be as controversial as the book. Is it a good film? Generally yes. It is a great one? Could have been. I could picture someone like Tommy Lee Jones playing Buzz Bissinger, but alas, it was not to be.
One the Best and Meatiest Episodes of the Original Star Trek
Has Captain Kirk (William Shatner) not only lost his ability to captain his ship but lost his mind? At episode's beginning, Captain Kirk is irritable, irrational, and nearly insufferable. And then he takes the Enterprise into the so-called "Neutral Zone", an area of the galaxy which is off-limits to Federation fleet ships under current treaty with the Romulans, the nemesis of the galaxy. The Neutral Zone acts as an interstellar buffer between the Federation and the Romulan Empire. Kirk violates the treaty and is immediately confronted by Romulan military starships.
Their commander is a beautiful but highly intelligent Romulan woman, simply called "Commander" (Joanne Linville). She is aware of the violation of the treaty and will not let the Enterprise return to Federation space without making a point. She desires to take the Enterprise and crew hostage, and to execute Captain Kirk as an example to other wayward starship captains. She then finds a strange ally in Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who, after beaming to the Romulan ship with Kirk, confirms that Captain Kirk is suffering from delusion and insanity. An unexpected subdued flirtation evolves between the Vulcan and the Romulan. Both Nimoy and Linville play their rolls perfectly, subtly engaging but never overt. Captain Kirk appears to become more infuriated when the Vulcan appears to have betrayed both him and the Federation.
This is one of the best episodes from the original Star Trek series of the 1960's. It exploits the rivalry of the Romulans and the Federation, and it has some of the best acting of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy combined with a compelling and unpredictable storyline. Highest marks also for Joanne Linville as the Romulan Commander who never raises her voice, even when she condemns Captain Kirk to death.
The Pelican Brief (1993)
A Fine Suspense Film Based on Grisham Novel: Roberts and Washington are Outstanding
Interestingly, about 13 years after the release of the original novel "The Pelican Brief" by John Grisham which centers around the investigations and theories involving the assassinations of two Supreme Court Justices, two Supreme Court Justices' careers also ended close to the same time. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her plans to retire in the summer of 2005 which was followed by the unexpected death of William Rehnquist in the Fall of the same year. It's always a bit spooky when real life follows fiction, although as far as is known, the departure of Rehnquist and O'Connor had nothing to do with "foul play" or political currents, or did it?
In "The Pelican Brief", two diametrically opposed Supreme Court Justices, Rosenberg and Jensen, are assassinated by unknown assailants for unknown reasons. Rosenberg was an aging liberal whose days on the court were probably numbered. Jensen was a conservative in the prime of his judicial career. While the first assassination is advantageous to the current sitting US President who we learn is a Republican, the second assassination makes no sense in terms of the first.
At a law school near New Orleans, an ambitious young law student, Darby Shaw (played with unending believability by Julia Roberts) is dating one of her law professors, Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepherd). After both professor and student learn of the assassinations, Darby decides she can crack the case. (Callahan had interned with Rosenberg when he was a law student.) While law enforcement believes the assassinations were probably enacted as revenge by a disillusioned losing party in a former case, Shaw decides to research deeper to unearth something political which Rosenberg and Jensen might have had in common. She engages in her own investigation of sorts and writes an essay on her findings, a "brief".
She passes her brief to Callahan who doesn't take it too seriously. He takes a trip to Washington D.C. to attend the funeral of Rosenberg where he meets a former classmate, Gavin Verheek (John Heard), who now works in the legal department of the FBI. Callahan offers the brief to Verheek who in turn passes into the FBI. The FBI begins believing the brief is a much more serious theory of the assassinations than either Callahan or Verheek had realized, and the brief ends up in the hands of the president.
Back in New Orleans, Darby is fearing for her life when tragedy suddenly strikes. She believes the brief has opened up a kind of Pandora's Box and doesn't know who's after her nor whose after some of the people around her. Is it the CIA or another secret organization which has decided to kill her because of the brief? She contacts Washington D.C. political reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) to help her. The plot then becomes about whether Darby and Gray can confirm the theory of the brief before they are assassinated themselves, like the Supreme Court Justices.
A very well-done and spot-on political thriller, all from the mind of John Grisham. Julia Roberts is 100% convincing as Darby Shaw, the-opinionated-law-student-turned-political-target whose brief is shaking the foundations of the political hierarchy at the highest levels. Washington is equally as intense as Gray Grantham, a "Woodstein"-type reporter trying to get to the bottom of political corruption wherever it festers. A few name talents appear in smaller roles, notably Hume Cronyn as Justice Rosenberg and John Lithgow as Smith Keen, editor of Grantham's newspaper the Washington Herald. A compelling film from start to finish with an outstanding cast.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
A Smart Comedy-Thriller a Throwback to the 1960's Setting and Culture: Sort of Bond Meets Bourne
Unlike the recent James Bonds films where 007 uses cell phones, laptops and the world wide web (the days of the lethal ballpoint pen are over), the recent film "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." relies on the sensibilities of 1960's thriller films and televisions shows as its setting and culture. Not only are the cars and the old-style phones from a bygone era present, secret agents kiss the hands of beautiful but wicked heiresses, the managers of hotels offer complimentary champagne to their guests in lavish rooms, and everyone dresses as if they just had a shopping spree, spending $1000's at Neiman Marcus. There are even a few split-screen sequences. This was the way these kinds of action films and shows were presented from circa 1956 to 1969 before the counter-culture dismissed them as being elitist. During the era, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Sean Connery, and Diana Rigg often starred in these light-hearted entertainments which often combined action and comedy, and now three new actors have taken the reigns to offer us a recap of these films with higher budgets and high definition.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill ), a dapper Sean Connery-type whose character we learn at the story's beginning had broken some serious international laws is the American's star agent among their counter-intelligence/espionage syndicate. Instead of allowing his talents to waste away in prison, the counter-espionage division has drafted him into their organization. At least he's no longer behind bars. His missions involve rescuing dissidents from the so-called "Eastern Block" controlled by the USSR after World War II. At his disposal are fast cars, automatic weapons, and sarcastic wit, all used equally.
Solo's current assignment is to "liberate" Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an auto mechanic residing in East Berlin, East Germany. The organization wants her rescued, not because the counter-intelligence organization is benevolent and wish her to be "free" in the west, but because she's the daughter of a German nuclear scientist who turned during World War II but has now disappeared. He's possibly working for a criminal syndicate who wants to sell nuclear weapons to the highest bidder, run by a sexually alluring but no-holds-barred baddie name Victoria Vinciguerra. (She could easily date Hans Gruber, the baddie from the first "Die Hard" film.) After a chase in which Gaby and Solo confront and escape from a KGB operative who would give the Terminator a run for his money, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), Gaby and Solo are given an assignment in Rome and paired with another operative. Much to their dismay it's also Illya Kuryakin, the KGB agent who tried to stop Gaby's defection by chasing on foot a car going 45 mph. Turns out the Soviets are just as fearful of this underground syndicate as the Americans, and Kuryakin has been assigned to partner with Gaby and Solo. Which is one of the points of this film: this film has a lot of unexpected twists and turns, this one being the first of many. At times, to show us what's really going on, the film has short flashbacks where a previously unseen nuance is revealed. As this device isn't used too often, strangely it works.
So the three go to Rome with Kuryakin posing as Gaby's fiancé and Solo assigned to find out about Victoria. Many of the devices, settings, and scenarios used in the films and shows of the late 1950's to 1960's are present: the daytime social gathering, in this case an auto race, the lavish hotels, where Gaby and Illya pretend to be a couple in love, and the American agent causing a bit of romantic interest from the evil but alluring woman who runs her crime organization like a dicta-tress. She wears draping silk and chiffon while planning her next Lex-Luther-like endeavor. However, as intriguing as Victoria is, Gaby, on the "good" side, is even more enchanting. Vikander plays Gaby with the vulnerable appeal of an Audrey Hepburn along with the European strength and sexuality of a Sophia Loren, and a little bit of Diana Rigg thrown in for good measure. Even her hairdo is a throwback to the era with a little bit on the top with soft waves cascading down her shoulders. Her personality and demeanor may be closest to Joanne Linville who played the Romulan Commander in the Star Trek episode "The Enterprise Incident" which originally aired in 1968.
Overall, a pure fun and escapist film. There are some moments where while one very dramatic action sequence is occurring, something else, often more mundane but amusing, is happening at the forefront. There are a lot of in-jokes about the films and sensibilities of the action films and shows which were popular several decades ago. An unexpected chemistry evolves from the three leads, Cavill, Vikander and Hammer. What makes it work is they are all somewhat different which makes their interactions interesting and compelling. Solo is the Bond-type who doesn't take things too seriously while engaging in his missions contrasted with Illya whose temper easily flairs when he feels he's being insulted, clenching his fists like a Soviet henchman. Gaby's character lies somewhere between the two, serious but not easily enthralled with the American or the Russian. The three are essentially reluctant bedfellows in a dangerous game, until an interesting twist reveals one of the three may not be "on the level".
Places in the Heart (1984)
To Kill a Mockingbird for Adults: Field, Glover and Malkovich in Possibly Their Best Performances in Rural 1930's Texas
At the risk of sounding like I'm giving too much away, there's a strange bookend at the end. The film begins and ends in a typical south-mid-west Protestant church in America. Two characters who were killed at the beginning and appear again as the final two figures seen. If you haven't seen the film yet, you won't expect where they show up, and hopefully I won't be accused of offering a "spoiler". Endless speculation and debate about their reappearance has been written about ad infinitum, even by reviewers during the time of the film's initial release in the mid-1980's.
The first scene is a Protestant church in rural America where "Rock of Ages" (not the Def Leppard version) is a mainstay of the musical repertoire. Edna Spalding (Sally Field in an Academy-Award winning performance) is the wife and mother in a family of four in the rural south in Texas in the midst of the Depression. She is married to the unquestioned man-of-the-house, Royce Spalding, the sheriff of this small town. As the film progresses, we learn his role in the family was far more than simply the "bread-winner". In addition to providing a good income, he took care of all bills, the finances, the mortgage on their house, even discipline.
However, we don't learn about his role as head of the household by seeing him pay the mortgage and the bills, etc. At the very beginning of the story, Royce is killed at the hands of a young black man, Wylie, who was playing with a gun while drunk, a deadly combination. We get the sense Wylie had no intention of killing the white sheriff, but, as it was in those days, the accidental shooting signed the epitaph of Wylie as well. The two bodies are brought to their respective families and friends, with a brief appearance of the lynched Wylie being dragged behind a truck passed the house of the Spalding residence. This act will change the course of the Spalding family.
After the social gathering mourning the deceased at the Spalding residence has ended, and the fried chicken and coffee cake have been consumed, Edna is dealt a curve ball care of the local bank via their powerless lackey, Mr. Denby (Lane Smith). After stating his willingness to help Edna in anyway, Mr. Denby tells her the bank would prefer if she sold their home and property in order to pay off the loan for the house. Inappropriately, he makes other suggestions about how to temporarily break up her family since they will be effectively homeless. (It is a snapshot into why life insurance became popular in the wake of the Depression.) She declines his suggestions and offers different ideas about how to create income for her family, but Denby rejects all of them, as if a woman was incapable of doing such things. His only concern is about the bank receiving its payment.
However, Edna resolves to make a go of trying to create income for her family. She solicits the help of Moze (Danny Glover in an Academy-Award caliber performance), a middle-age black man who offered his help earlier in exchange for room and board. They decide to plant cotton in the nearly 40 acres of land owned by the Spaldings. Shortly thereafter, Mr Denby returns to the Spalding residence, and being the good Christian that he is, offers an arrangement which will make the bank happier about her keeping the property. He proposes to have his brother-in-law, Will (John Malkovich), a blind man injured in the Great War and currently unwanted by his family, to rent a room at the Spalding household as way to generate income. At first Edna declines the offer until she realizes she's not in a situation to refuse income, and so Will moves in, called Mr. Will by the kids and Moze.
The five members, Edna, Moze, Mr. Will and the children become a new family from the ashes of the old. During the story, Edna learns to do all the things her husband used to do, such as creating income and signing checks, even disciplining the children with corporal punishment. At first, Mr. Will despises his circumstances, but gradually comes to care for and even love the children and Edna and even Moze. When a tornado descends upon the town, the family becomes unified in a way they hadn't expected. And towards the end, Mr. Will defends Moze, and this rings of some of the themes present in "To Kill a Mockingbird", both the book and film.
There is one side story which distracts from the main storyline: Wayne, the husband of Edna's sister Margaret is having an affair with the local schoolteacher, Viola. Several scenes involve these other four characters interacting with one another. Unfortunately, these scenes were not as interesting as Edna et al, and it diminishes their storyline which is really the main focus of the film. As much as I like the talent of Ed Harris, Lindsay Crouse, and Amy Madigan I would have preferred their sequences cut with more screen time offered for the developing relationships between Edna, Moze, Mr. Will and the kids.
Still, a fine film with incredible acting work. This may be the best acting of the three leads, plus honorable mention of the two young actors, Yankton Hatten and Gennie James as the kids Frank and Possum. Field certainly is as compelling as ever, but the other leads Glover and Malkovich not only keep up with her stride-for-stride, but make the story compelling from start to finish. And the two small roles of the sheriff and Wylie reappear at the very end, as if to remind us what led to the paths taken by the main characters.
The Italian Job (2003)
Sort of Ocean's Eleven Meets Die Hard-- Descent Heist Flick But Nothing Special
Ever since the brilliant remake of "Ocean's Eleven" with Clooney, Damon, Cheadle, et al, heist films have been in vogue. There are about two or three per year since circa 2001, a few have been outstanding, most are about average, and a few are duds. They are entertaining, more or less, but sometimes they rely on too many known plot devices. Some of the exceptional ones include the first "Ocean's Eleven" film (not the Sinatra one), "Inside Man", one of the cleverest of such films, and "The Score" (also with Edward Norton, by the way), which keeps you guessing all the way. (If you want to see a really great heist film set in Victorian England, I suggest "The Great Train Robbery" with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland produced in the 1970's.) Some average but descent fair include "Tower Heist", and "The Art of the Steal". Among the less memorable ones include both of the "Ocean's Eleven" sequels, "Ocean's Twelve" and "Ocean's Thirteen", and the remake of "Fun with Dick and Jane". The present film, "The Italian Job", despite a few nice moments, fits into the middle category of being marginally enjoyable but not great.
Mark Wahlberg plays Charlie Croker, an up-and-coming sophisticated thief who uses high tech to achieve his plundering aspirations. His mentor is older thief John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) who helps him plan for a heist to lift $35 million in gold from a safe which happens to be in the hands of the Italian Mafia in Venice, Italy. Like Ocean's Eleven, they use a team of safe-crackers and embezzlers who enact the theft. Everything goes as planned, almost too easy, until after the heist is completed, everything goes wrong.
Without giving away what happens exactly, the thieves lose the gold, which is possibly the best part of the film, The film then focuses on about the thieves finding out where the gold resides and how to retrieve it while also getting revenge on those who stole the gold from them which was stolen originally from the Italian Mafia, who also must have stolen it from other people. They also solicit the help of Bridge's daughter, a crackerjack safe-cracker, to lift the gold. The film then uses a lot of Ocean's Eleven-type devices, describing each of the henchmen which will be involved in the heist to retrieve the gold lost from the original heist.
While the film has a couple of unexpected twists, particularly at the beginning, unfortunately it lapses back into tried and true formulas. There's lots of the standard car chases, some subplots and a few characters get "offed" for their troubles. Despite the shortcomings, Edward Norton offers a stellar performance in the clothes of one of the most ruthless characters I've ever seen him play. His performance saves the film. At the same time, I felt some of the other characters were rather flat, especially Mark Wahlberg as the Danny Ocean equivalent in "The Italian Job". Sometimes I find Wahlberg just a bit too humourless and rather stiff. Clooney in the first "Oceans" film is always playful with lots of unexpected comic relief. The film in question is a descent effort, but again the script needed more work, and the ending was a bit predictable. I was hoping for a major unexpected twist at the end, but it never happens. The film tries to be another "Ocean's Eleven" using its devices but little of its charm. I guess my expectations are too high.