REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

THE STING (1973)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Motion Pictures, S on April 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

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STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Robert Earl Jones, Dana Elcar, Dimitra Arliss

DIRECTOR — George Roy Hill

MPAA Rating: PG

Back in 1974, I went to the Universal Studios Tour (now known as Universal Studios Hollywood), and I took from that experience a few memories that have stuck with me ever since: lifting a van like the Six Million Dollar Man (Hey, I was 9!), the street scene backlot dressed up for shooting Earthquake (which really was the most powerful memory I have of that visit), and watching audience members reenact a chase scene from The Sting. At least, I think it was The Sting. Ah, memories…

Anyway, this 1973 Best Picture Winner marked the second and final collaboration of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill (1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first). It is a movie with crime, gambling, corruption, murder, revenge, the Great Depression… and it delivers plenty of laughs in the process. When a pair of Chicago grifters, Johnny Hooker (Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones) pull a fast one on a money runner for a gambling operation, they discover they have stolen about $11,000 in cash. That night, Coleman tells Hooker he’s hanging it up, moving to Kansas City, and going legit. He instructs Hooker to look up a legendary con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). Later, when Hooker gets roughed up by a cop named Snyder (Charles Durning), he realizes his friend is in danger. He races back to Luther’s place, only to find his dead body on the street below. The next day, he meets up with Gondorff at a local merry-go-round/brothel, and they hatch a plan to pull a con on the man who had Luther killed, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker (Paul Newman, Robert Redford) observe their "mark", Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, background)

Now, this is a movie in which the bad guys are really good guys, the cops are very corrupt, and the “mark” is a tough brute of a man whose look could kill if it wanted to. The con is on, and it’s performed admirably in what is probably the best caper film ever made. The plot moves forward with very few bumps along the way. There are even a couple of twists which, while I won’t reveal them, will surprise those who haven’t seen this movie yet. George Roy Hill seemed to demonstrate a certain efficient energy that sustains throughout. Newman and Redford are great (It’s a shame they made only two movies together), and the entire supporting cast, from Harold Gould as the dapper Kid Twist, to Dana Elcar as FBI Special Agent Polk, are all an excellent fit. This is arguably one of the best-cast movies in motion picture history. But the coup de grâce is casting Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan.

I can remember Shaw in only two movies, Jaws (1975) and this one. I know, he did a lot more, and I am sure I will find him in future films I see. In Jaws, he was, of course, the crusty shark hunter who had met his demise by becoming his prey’s lunch. I had a hard time watching him in that movie, simply because he seemed to drone almost unintelligibly. It was nonetheless a good performance, but not nearly as good as the steely-eyed Lonnegan in The Sting. Here, he was a man of few words, but when he did speak, it meant something. He was tough-as-nails, with the resolve of an attack dog just waiting for the command to kill. By the way, you may notice that Lonnegan walks with a limp in this movie; that is because Robert Shaw had sprained his ankle playing handball right around the time shooting started!

Now, a word about the the now-iconic music of this movie. Composer Marvin Hamlisch decided to  incorporate several Scott Joplin rags into the musical score. While it is admittedly anachronistic with the period of the movie (by about 30 years), it turns out to be one of the few examples of musical genius in motion picture history. Joplin’s music sets the rhythm and tone of the plot so well, that “The Entertainer” is now forever engrained into the motion picture lexicon as the theme song to The Sting. Even as I write this article, I have that song playing in the background, and it just… feels right.

Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, I could even go so far as to say that The Sting makes for a good family film, if the kids are over 10 years old. Yes, there are hookers, gambling, guns, and a couple of dead bodies, but they are balanced with (mostly) clean language, marvelous attention to detail, and a great sense of comedy. This is a solid movie from start to finish, and it will not disappoint.

4 out of 5

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THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

In B, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on April 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm

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STUDIO — Samuel Goldwyn Co.

CAST — Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, Cathy O’Donnell

DIRECTOR — William Wyler

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

Over the last few years, there have been occasional news stories about combat veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who encounter difficulties when making the transition back in “The World” (a term sometimes used by service members deployed overseas when they talk about the U.S.). We hear about spikes in divorce rates, domestic violence, and (sadly) even suicide among combat veterans. This isn’t a new problem, as illustrated in the Best Picture of 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives.

With World War II still fresh on everyone’s mind, The Best Years of Our Lives paints a picture of the hardships of three veterans returning from combat. First, there is Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a decorated captain in the Army Air Corps who wants only two things: a good job and quality time with his wife (whom he married before he shipped out). Next is Al Stephenson (Best Actor Fredric March), a banker with a loving family (Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Michael Hall) who became an infantry sergeant in the Pacific Theatre. Finally, there’s Homer Parrish (Best Supporting Actor Harold Russell), an athlete who joined the Navy right out of high school, but lost both of his hands in a fire on his aircraft carrier. These veterans from the (fictional) town of Boone City meet up early on in the Air Transport Command terminal and share the flight home in the nose of a now-decommissioned B-17. One by one, each man reunites with his family, but the real stories begin after the last tears of joy have been shed.

Homer, Al, and Fred (Harold Russell, Fredric March, Dana Andrews) on their way home from the airport

Fred encounters trouble finding work, while at the same time he discovers that his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) is more interested in money and socializing than she is with building a new life together. Meanwhile, Al is welcomed back with open arms by his family, and he is guaranteed a promotion at the bank he had left years before, yet he is uncomfortable and starts drinking heavily. But the most moving story is that of Homer’s difficulties, both internal and external, because of his disability. On the surface, he’s all smiles and eager to demonstrate what he can do with his prosthetic hooks, but on the inside is a man reeling from the pain of being perceived as some sort of freak.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, this is a movie about veterans made by veterans. Wyler (who had served as a film documentarian during the war) made sure the entire film crew consisted of returning veterans, thus lending a perception of authenticity. The lighting, the sound mixing, the costuming, even the editing were all done by veterans, and their combined effort shows in the movie’s overall “feel”. This is especially evident in a key scene toward the end of the movie, in which Fred wanders through the town’s “boneyard” and crawls inside the dusty hulk of what used to be a B-17. Words cannot describe the flood of emotions in this scene, and taken out of context, it is nearly pointless to do so; it is something you will need to see for yourself by watching this movie from the beginning.

Here is a not-so-commonly known fact about this movie: Harold Russell, who had lost his hands in a training accident, is the only actor in the history of the Motion Picture Academy to receive two Academy Awards for the same role in the same movie. As mentioned earlier, he was the Best Supporting Actor of 1946, but he also received an Honorary Oscar “[f]or bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives”. Russell, who passed away in 2002, went on to become a voice and face for disabled veterans since World War II by helping to create AMVETS, an organization he had led on three different occasions.

After the euphoria of the fall of Nazi Germany and the surrender of Japan, America (and the entire world) needed to heal from this gaping wound with scars buried deep within its soul. The Best Years of Our Lives showed us a society on the mend and, in the right hands, the hope of a better tomorrow. It is emotional and sometimes painful to watch, even 64 years later, and its themes have a new-found relevance to today’s combat veterans. If you or someone you know has served in the Armed Forces (which should be just about all of us), then I strongly recommend this movie. And guys, it’s okay to cry with this one…

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

In Comedy, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, U on April 25, 2010 at 1:23 am

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STUDIO — Paramount

CAST — George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliot 

DIRECTOR — Jason Reitman 

MPAA Rating: R 

If you are reading this review, you have been fired from a job. Whether you were a top-level executive at a Fortune 500 company or flipping burgers at Dairy Queen, somewhere in your lifetime at least one employer handed you a pink slip. It’s never fun. Personally, I have been fired twice in the last ten years. The second time was probably for the best, as it really wasn’t a good fit. But the first time was at a job that I had loved. The hours were bad, the pay was worse, and it was the most fun I’d ever had in my life. We’ve all experienced that, haven’t we? You get called into the office, and in that office, your supervisor/manager/galactic overlord of a boss hands you an envelope and tells you that your services are no longer required. It’s one thing when you are the only one being terminated. But what about those major corporations who lay off thousands of people at a time? In the last couple of years, we haven’t been able to go a week without hearing that Company X is cutting thousands of jobs. Did you ever wonder how they do that?

Natalie Keener, Alex Goran, and Ryan Bingham (Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, George Clooney) at the Miami Hilton

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing specialist based out of Omaha, Nebraska. Ryan spends over 300 days a year flying all over the country to do one thing: fire people. And he is very good at what he does. He walks into an office somewhere in Corporate America, and the employees already know they are on borrowed time. Occasionally, he also does the odd speaking engagement, in which he asks his audience to place everything they own into an imaginary backpack and realize how heavy it is (a metaphor on the burdens of life). One day, he is called back to the home office; big things are on the on the horizon. On the way there, he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another business traveler, and they form a fast… friendship. Back in Omaha, he is introduced to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hotshot young college graduate with a revolutionary new way to fire people, via the Internet. 

Seeing this as a threat to his very existence, Ryan convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) that Natalie needs a taste of what it’s like on the road before this new method of “introducing future possibilities” goes into effect. Soon, Natalie learns how hard it really is to fire a complete stranger, but she eventually finds her groove. Meanwhile, Alex reenters the picture and Ryan grows closer to her. 

To proceed further would spoil the movie, but I can say that Up in the Air is fine entertainment, and it has one of the best endings I have seen in recent memory. Clooney is perfect as Bingham, with his cocksure ways and his arrogance. It almost harkens back to his “heart throb” days when he was on “ER” (Wow, was that really 16 years ago?). I especially like the little moment (seen in the trailer) when Natalie is talking on the phone with her boyfriend, and Ryan overhears her saying “I don’t even think of him that way; he’s old”, prompting him to look in the nearest mirror! We all reach that age sooner or later, when we realize that we are no longer young (though we desperately try to keep thinking that way). Also, Farmiga and Kendrick (both Best Supporting Actress nominees) were great foils to Ryan’s personal and professional lives, respectively. 

There are plenty of messages in this movie: Never settle; The slower we move, the faster we die; Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams. I especially like that last one. It has given me pause to reevaluate my life (which admittedly is not that great) and made me think that I should try to get back on my career wagon again. It’s been a long time, but it’s what I was trained to do, and it’s what I love (and we all remember our true loves, right?). I am not at liberty to discuss this topic any further at this time, but I promise if anything comes of it, I will post it on my News page! Besides, I’m digressing (Gee, haven’t done that in a while). 

Up in the Air is a movie that I would dare say is a modern classic. The timing of its release, with the economic struggles of the last three years, could not have been more fortuitous. In fact, throughout the film, there are several cutaways depicting fired employees; these were real people who had recently lost their jobs (The actors, most notably J.K. Simmons, were the ones who interacted with Clooney and/or Kendrick). That dose of authenticity makes Up in the Air a wonderful time capsule of the turbulent first decade of the 21st Century. 

4 out of 5

DEAD-ALIVE (1992)

In Comedy, D, Horror, Motion Pictures on April 21, 2010 at 1:24 am

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STUDIO — Trimark Pictures 

CAST — Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Ian Watkin, Brenda Kendall, Stuart Denevie, Jed Brophy 

DIRECTOR — Peter Jackson 

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: NC-17) 

Something tells me that, from watching this movie, Peter Jackson was the pride and joy of Fangoria magazine back in the early 1990s. 

This is the second of two requested samples of Peter Jackson’s early work (Heavenly Creatures is the other). Originally titled “Braindead”, Dead-Alive follows the budding romance of Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), a local chap with a penchant for clumsiness, and Paquita María Sanchez (Diana Peñalver), daughter of a local shopkeeper whose store Lionel frequents. But Lionel’s mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody), still thinks that her son is a child, and she still treats her as such. 

One day, Lionel visits the market to place his mother’s order. Paquita, after a Tarot reading by her grandmother, is convinced that Lionel is the man of her dreams, so she delivers the order to Lionel’s house. She then talks him into a date at the local zoo. The next day, at the zoo, while spying on her son, Vera is attacked by a Sumatran creature called a “rat-monkey”. The next day, she dies, and… it kind of goes downhill from there. 

Lionel (Timothy Balme) and Paquita (Diana Peñalver) try to escape zombies

Be warned: This is one of Jackson’s goriest movies among his early work. It is by far the goriest movie I have ever seen. But it is also a movie with a lighter side, both in the setup to how Vera became a zombie, to the film’s inventive climax, including my personal nominations for Most Creative Use for a Lawn Gnome, as well as Most Effective Zombie Weapon. 

Jackson’s handling of the material shows a master in the making, though still a bit rough around the edges. The zoo sequence, with Lionel and Paquita enjoying the day together, played out like it would if this was a silent movie. The smiling, the innocence, even the kissing, all are reminiscent of such a scene with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton. Too bad Mum had to spy on them, get bitten by that… thing, and ruin everything. 

As a “B” movie, it goes without saying that you won’t find anything Oscar-caliber in it. The script has its cheesy moments, and most of the characters are one-dimensional. For example, Ian Watkin is Uncle Les, a greedy slimeball who tries to take Vera’s estate from Lionel. Then there’s Harry Sinclair as Roger, a butcher delivery boy — and rival for Paquita’s affection — who’s obsessed with rugby more than he is with anything else. But what the film lacks is compensated with strong camera and editing work, energetic performances, and irreverent humor (some of it gross, but necessary to offset the goriness of the third act). 

This is the first movie from the horror genre that I had seen in a long time. When I got the DVD in the mail, I read the sleeve, then I checked out the trailer. Finally, I did a quick “sneak-peek” in the scene selection menu. After all of that, I asked myself, “My God! What did I get myself into?” But I pressed “Play” and braced myself for impact. And I am happy to report that I survived what has got to be the bloodiest movie ever made. 

Gross, shocking, gory, funny, energetic, and with enough blood to send the American Red Cross into panic mode, Dead-Alive is a very funny movie of the rancid kind. Hard to believe this came from the same mind that gave us the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you’ve got the stomach for it, then by all means, rent it. Those of you with weak constitutions may want to try something lighter, instead… 

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE (2009)

In Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, P on April 18, 2010 at 1:40 am

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STUDIO — Lions Gate 

CAST — Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton 

DIRECTOR — Lee Daniels 

MPAA Rating: R 

By now, I’m sure many of you have heard of the latest “next big thing” known as Gabourey Sidibe. I am here to tell you that the claim is justified. 

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Sidibe, in her motion picture debut), an overweight 16-year-old girl, pregnant with her second child by her father, and still in junior high school. As if life wasn’t already hard enough, she lives in a fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem with her mother, Mary (Academy Award winner Mo’Nique), an abusive monster of a woman whose sole purpose in life is to make nicey-nice with the social workers by using Precious’ mentally-disabled daughter as a means to keep the welfare checks coming in. 

When her school finds out about her second pregnancy, they have no choice but to expel her. But the principal reaches out by telling her of an alternative education program, where she can work toward a GED. There, she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who can see the inner beauty and intelligence within Precious and, bit by bit, helps her to discover it for herself.

Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) on her first trip to alternative education school

Within the first 15 minutes of this movie, I was taken in and I never let go. I have seen interviews with Gabby Sidibe; she is a charming, funny young lady with a bubbly personality. Her characterization of Precious Jones was so moving, it is very easy to see how she was very likely a strong runner-up in the Oscar race for Best Actress of 2009 (which went to one of my personal favorites, Sandra Bullock). Sidibe’s performance is so captivating, it is truly hard to believe that we are actually watching (to borrow a college football term) a redshirt freshman in the role. I can only see bigger and better things for her down the road. And one might dismiss the movie altogether because the supporting cast features three singers (Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey) and a comedienne (Mo’Nique), but think again. Mo’Nique may have taken home the Oscar, but it was Mariah Carey(!) who really surprised me as social worker Ms. Weiss. Here she is, with no makeup and wearing frumpy clothes, and she looked and acted so much like a real social worker, I almost forgot this was one of the most popular (and most glamorous) singers of the last 20 years! And director Lee Daniels’ cutaways into the fantasy worlds which Precious creates whenever she is abused, whether by her father, her mother, or even some punks on the street, gives us, the viewers, a look into how an abuse victim mentally escapes from the pain, even during the act.

This movie is about the vicious cycle that is the depravity of inner city life, and how one woman gave a girl quickly slipping on that downward spiral the gift of literacy and, ultimately, the power to step out on her own and make a new life for herself and her children. But it was more than just having the right people help her; it’s also a story of finding inner strength. And where there is strength, there is courage, and it is in courage that one develops a positive self-esteem.

The DVD is packed with several features, including Gabby Sidibe’s mesmerizing audition video. Did you know that over 400 women auditioned for the part in a nationwide open call? Did you know that filming of Denzel Washington’s American Gangster (2007) blocked Sidibe’s normal route to school, so she decided to go in the opposite way to the audition instead? Did you know that executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on to promote the movie after the movie was completed? That last little fact debunks the theory that, since Oprah put her name on the project, her show had to be mentioned in the movie. Sorry. While it’s true Precious asks another character if she watches Oprah, the all-powerful Ms. Winfrey had nothing to do with it.

Precious is a gripping and moving motion picture with a powerful message that there is strength in each of us to find the ability to reach out, to love, to learn, and to improve ourselves, all in the face of adversity. There aren’t many films that reach into the bowels of despair, yet convey a strong message of hope. This movie succeeds, and with a payoff for the ages.

3-1/2 out of 5

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

In A, Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Motion Pictures, War on April 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm

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STUDIO — Universal       

CAST — Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Slim Summerville    

DIRECTOR —  Lewis Milestone     

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG-13) 

Once in a while, a motion picture comes along that is ahead of its time and so artistically and socially relevant, that it stands the test of time, even 80 years after it release. All Quiet on the Western Front is such a movie.

Winner of Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone) of 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front follows a young student in Germany named Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), and the events which take place as he and his friends enlist to fight in The Great War (known today as World War I). The movie begins with a professor (Arnold Lucy) stirring up the collective patriotic spirit of his students, while an enthusiastic parade of soldiers marches off to war outside. Swept up in the pomp and circumstance, Bäumer and his friends enthusiastically enlist to fight for the Fatherland.

Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) prepares for battle

Right away, the young men realize that being a soldier is anything but glamorous, when their drill instructor turns out to be Himmelstoß (John Wray — no relation to King Kong’s Fay Wray), the friendly mail carrier from back home, except now he’s a hard-nosed sergeant hell-bent on making his charges forget everything they thought they had known about him. Once training is completed, our heroes deploy to the front lines, where they are introduced to the grizzled veterans Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Sergeant Tjaden (Slim Summerville). They show the rookies the ropes, and prepare them for the war they have come to fight.

As this movie was made before the Hays Code went into effect, it is violent, gritty, graphic, claustrophobic, and quite realistic for its time. In one particularly graphic shot, a shell explodes in front of a soldier at a barbed-wire fence; when the dust settles, all we see are that soldier’s dismembered hands hanging on the wire. We are introduced to the maddening effects of war when rats overrun a makeshift bunker that caves in from the shelling. Watching these footsoldiers lose their cool bit by bit from the constant shelling, the dirt, the lack of food and sleep, and the rats was very effective.

Over the next few years, we see Bäumer change from an idealistic young man to a hardened veteran in his own right. When he comes home on leave, everyone expects him to be the way he used to be, but they don’t understand him anymore, not even his own family. And as for the professor who made that stirring speech so long ago, Bäumer confronts him, too. He becomes a changed man, and in the end, all he wants is peace.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a truly unforgettable movie with an undeniably long reach. A disclaimer at the start of the movie claims that it isn’t statement for or against war, but merely an observation of what it’s really like. And with that unflinching eye, Lewis Milestone drew out battle scenes so realistic, they can be easily confused with actual World War I stock footage. The DVD features a re-release trailer, as well as an introduction from film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. In it, he sets up the movie by giving details of the making and the impact of this movie. For example, because of the impact of this film, Lew Ayres became a conscientious objector when the US joined World War II in 1941. While many people branded him a coward, he still enlisted — and served with distinction — as an army medic.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless classic, and the first truly great Best Picture winner. While it shows its age in spots, it holds up magnificently by showing us the dark, grisly, horrible world of combat with frightening realism and mesmerizing performances. 

HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

In Biography, Crime, Drama, H, Motion Pictures on April 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

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STUDIO — Miramax 

CAST — Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Pierse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor 

DIRECTOR — Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: R 

A reader from New Zealand dropped a request in my lap: Review some of Peter Jackson’s early work. So, I threw a couple of darts at the wall, and one of them landed on Heavenly Creatures, Jackson’s take on the friendship between Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, both in their big-screen debuts), from the time they met at school in 1952, until their murder of Pauline’s mother, Honora, in June 1954. 

The movie starts as a sort of travelogue of Christchurch, New Zealand, an idyllic city which boasts friendly people, beautiful surroundings, and lots of bicycles. Suddenly, we lurch to a moment of terror: Two young ladies running through the woods, screaming in panic and covered in blood. From that moment, we are taken back in time to when these two girls first met at an all-girls preparatory school two years earlier. Right away, the dynamic between these two becomes very apparent. Pauline is very imaginative, but shy and withdrawn, while Juliet is adventurous, outgoing and worldly. But they form a bond right away because both girls had debilitating illnesses when they were young (Pauline had osteomyelitis, and Juliet had tuberculosis), and they became fast friends. 

Juliet and Pauline (Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey) on Easter Sunday, 1953

Prior to making this movie, Peter Jackson was best known for making low-budget horror movies. But when his wife suggested that he try his hand at a movie based on one of most infamous crimes in New Zealand history, little did she know that it would lead him to bigger and better things. But the two of them sat down and wrote the script, using writings from Pauline’s diary as a guide (The title even comes from a passage in the diary). Heavenly Creatures doesn’t focus on the murder and the trial, which were sensational in their own right, but rather it paints a portrait of the two girls’ friendship, the intensity of which brought concerns from both families that they were becoming a homosexual couple (considered a mental disorder at the time). Whether Pauline and Juliet were lovers remains under debate, that aspect of their relationship is explored in a surprisingly innocent way in this movie. 

There is a lot to talk about in Heavenly Creatures. Jackson’s skill as a director becomes apparent in this movie. He weaves a tale in both the real and imaginary worlds, and in such a way as to illustrate how Pauline and Juliet’s friendship grew stronger with each passing day. We, the viewers, are swept into this imaginary “Fourth World”, where James Mason and Mario Lanza are saints, and the girls are king and queen of the fantasy land of Borovnia. Soon, it becomes difficult to see where the real world ends and the imaginary one begins, especially when Pauline and Juliet begin to believe their parents (Pauline’s mother and Juliet’s father, specifically) are conspiring to separate them. 

For the then-newcomers Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, this was a great debut for both of them. Lynskey’s shy and secluded Pauline was both painful and captivating, and Winslet proved she had star power from the second Juliet entered the classroom for the first time. Both of them were perfectly cast for this movie, and both of them have become well-known actresses as a result. They both displayed the youthful exhuberance necessary for girls of that age, as well as their characters’ obsession for each other, and their chemistry together was nearly perfect. 

Heavenly Creatures was shot on location in Christchurch. In fact, Peter Jackson went to great lengths to use as many actual sites of the events portrayed, including the now-demolished tea room where Honora ate her last meal. This lends a degree of authenticity to the movie and holds the viewer’s attention throughout. By the third act, Pauline and Juliet’s friendship had become so close, they began to take on each other’s behaviors, but to devastating effect. Pauline grew so confident so quickly, she overcompensated by lashing out at her mother. And when Juliet’s parents announced they were breaking up, she started suffering from separation anxiety. And this is merely the beginning of what became the two girls’ final act. 

Heavenly Creatures is a look at one of the world’s most shocking crimes of the 20th Century, one I would consider as notorious in New Zealand as Starkweather is in Nebraska, and Manson in California. I do not make this statement lightly, nor does Peter Jackson try to make light of it. Instead, we see two friends willing to do anything for each other, only in this case it went too far. 

3-1/2 out of 5

GOODFELLAS (1990)

In Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, G, Motion Pictures on April 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.   

CAST — Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco  

DIRECTOR —  Martin Scorsese  

MPAA Rating: R   

There is so much I can say about this movie, except that it has most likely already been said before. Goodfellas is, of course, on my short list of favorite motion pictures and, as I did with Patton, I will recount my experience by checking out the two-disk Special Edition of this movie.  

When I received Disk One, I literally watched this movie three times. First, I had to watch the movie itself, which is something of which I will never tire. The kinetic energy throughout this masterpiece grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until long after you’ve seen it (but more on that in a minute). Sure, there are some anachronistic gaffs here and there (A teenaged Henry Hill selling Black Market cigarettes with UPC barcodes on the cartons — in 1959!), but every performance, every characterization, gave me a sense of what life must have been like in the Mafia during its heyday. The whole first half of the movie shows the glamour, the connections, the camaraderie, and the partying, while the second half follows a steady descent into Hell, with drug addiction, greed, murder, and paranoia.  

Goodfellas recounts the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a half-Italian/half-Irish gangster associated with the infamous Lucchese crime family, and how he met up and partnered with two other mobsters, portrayed here as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Academy Award winner Joe Pesci). As you may have guessed by my last statement, some of the names were changed for the purposes of making this movie. Does this diminish the quality of this movie? Not in the least. Anyway, all three performances were mesmerizing, especially Pesci’s. His performance as Tommy was cemented in the now-infamous “You’re a funny guy” scene, and it sustained all way through.  

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) enjoy a night on the town

 Also of note (especially for you fans of  “The Sopranos”) is Lorraine Bracco as Henry’s wife, Karen, and a brief appearance by Michael Imperioli in one of his first film roles, as Spider. Another face to watch for is Samual L. Jackson in one of his quieter roles, as Stacks Edwards. Look for a few famous faces as well, including Jerry Vale, Robbie Vinton (as his father, Bobby), and comedian Henny Youngman, in one of his final film appearances.  

Okay, by now, I’m sure you’re asking “Why the subsequent screenings?” Well, there are two commentary tracks, “Crook and Cop” and “Cast and Crew”. In the “Crook and Cop” commentary, Henry Hill and U.S. District Attorney Ed McDonald (who placed Henry and his family into the Witness Protection Program — and plays himself in the movie) give their insight to the events portrayed in the film from both of their unique perspectives. Hill would fill in some gaps in the story or explain why or how something happened, while McDonald talked about how difficult it really was to pin convictions on some of these wiseguys, problems with surveillance, and how the FBI employed what became known as the “Al Capone strategy” for getting a conviction: If you can’t get them for murder, get them for something else.  

The “Cast and Crew” commentary doesn’t cover the entire length of the movie; whole sections of the movie are skipped during the “silent” parts. But, Scorsese, producer Irwin Winkler, co-writer Nicholas Pileggi, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and cast members Liotta, Pesci, De Niro, Bracco, and Paul Sorvino, among others, all talk about their own perspectives on the making of this movie. Did you know that Ray Liotta and Henry Hill met up for a drink after the film’s release, and each was star-struck to meet the other face-to-face? Did you know that, as written, Goodfellas has no climax? And remember when I said this movie doesn’t let go? Well, did you know that Paul Sorvino, who had struggled for months to find his character, initially hated the completed film? It took a few hours afterward before he realized how great it really was.  

The second disk has a few documentaries, including a short with Henry Hill, called “The Workaday Gangster”. In it, he tells us, the audience, that the essence of what we see in Goodfellas is “99% accurate” from his perspective. Another features several directors influenced by Scorsese and/or Goodfellas, including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and others. As a special treat, there’s even a four-minute snippet called “Paper Is Cheaper Than Film”, which literally illustrates how Martin Scorsese visualized some of the shots by writing notes and thumbnail sketches on the shooting script. 

Many people have argued for years which of Scorsese’s movies is his best. Some say it’s Raging Bull. Others would say Taxi Driver. Another camp might even cry out, “Well, The Departed won Best Picture”. Then there’s the Casino crowd. Exciting, visceral, unflinching, and unrelenting, Goodfellas is not only a classic gangster movie, it is a film for the ages. And to me, this is the epitome of Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking career. 

ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

In Best Picture Winners, Drama, Motion Pictures, O on April 7, 2010 at 2:10 pm

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STUDIO — Paramount 

CAST — Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern 

DIRECTOR —  Robert Redford 

MPAA Rating: R 

When I was in high school, my mother told me about this movie called Ordinary People, and that she all but insisted I watch it. To say it left  a lasting impression is somewhat an understatement. 

This is the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and it features some somewhat unusual casting: two TV actors (Judd Hirsch, who was still shooting “Taxi”, and Mary Tyler Moore), an active Julliard student (Elizabeth McGovern, the first student given permission to work during term), and the son of TV’s Ellery Queen (Best Supporting Actor Timothy Hutton, in his motion picture debut). Only Donald Sutherland was an established motion picture actor at the time, so on the surface, a lot seemed to be riding on whether this movie would be successful. Well, it was. This is an emotional, gripping movie which captured four Academy Awards, including the aforementioned Best Supporting Actor, as well as Best Picture of 1980. 

Conrad (Timothy Hutton) talks to Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) about his mother

Ordinary People follows the lives of the Jarretts, a well-to-do family living in the upscale community of Lake Forest, Illinois. On the surface, everything appears to be normal: Calvin (Sutherland) is a tax attorney in Chicago, his wife Beth (Moore) is more or less a socialite, and Conrad (Hutton) is a high school student in the choir and swim team. Yet, despite all the outward smiles, the Jarretts are dealing with a devastating one-two punch. First, older brother Buck (seen only in flashbacks) drowned in a boating accident, then Conrad tried to kill himself. 

Early on, it is established that Conrad’s suicide attempt was triggered by the boating accident (In flashbacks, we see the two brothers on a sailboat in stormy waters), and that he had spent several months in a psychiatric hospital afterward. Once Conrad leaves the hospital, however, what was once a tightly knit family slowly becomes unraveled. Beth wants desperately to show off to everyone that all is well, Conrad resents her for not seeing things as they really are, and Calvin is in the middle, trying to hold it all together. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the Jarretts through Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), whom Conrad sees on an outpatient basis. 

On all fronts, Ordinary People makes for great character study. The performances by all the principal cast members were very strong, something rarely seen in movies. I think this is in part because Redford’s acting background made for great chemistry on the set. Speaking of Robert Redford, even though this is the first movie he directed, it is also some of his best work (He did win Best Director). And the Oscar-winning script was solid, as well. 

I’d like to focus on two of the performances for a moment, because they show how two different types of people deal with trauma, the aftereffects of which can either make or break a person. Timothy Hutton’s portrayal of Conrad showed us a teen so desperate to find an outlet for his pain, he felt the only way he could let go was to die. But he survives, and we follow Conrad during his recovery, a teen who was once broken, but trying to put himself back together again. Then there’s Mary Tyler Moore. At the time, she was America’s Sweetheart; her eponymous TV show was one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1970s. But as Beth Jarrett, she proved to the world that she could do much more than “turn the world on with her smile”. Beth is not a bad person, but her “solution” to these life-changing events was to simply sweep them under the carpet, as if it never happened (a trait I observed in my own father, as noted in a previous post). But Beth, who had apparently always been a decision-maker, overcompensates for her grief by controlling nearly everything around her, while at the same time shutting out her pain altogether. Like I said, Beth isn’t a bad person, but when you can’t feel grief, you really can’t feel anything. And the conflict in this movie is stemmed from the clashing personalities of both Conrad and Beth. But where Conrad tries to work through his issues, Beth just wants to file it away. 

I have experienced trauma in my life; we all have, at one time or another. It is how we deal with it that defines who we are. So I ask you, the reader, how do you face your trauma? Do you hide, or are you open? Do you act like it never happened, or do you talk about it? Do you turn to drugs or alcohol, or do you do something constructive to work through the pain? It is these questions, and more, which are explored but never fully answered in Ordinary People; the answers are left for you to figure out. 

4 out of 5

IN THE BEDROOM (2001)

In Crime, Drama, I, Independent, Motion Pictures on April 5, 2010 at 9:04 am

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STUDIO — Miramax

CAST — Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother, Nick Stahl

DIRECTOR —  Todd Field 

MPAA Rating: R

Once in a while, a movie comes along and makes you ask yourself how you would change if the unthinkable happened to you. In the Bedroom is one those movies.

Set in coastal Maine, this movie takes its title from a lobster trapping term (which is explained early on). A typical lobster trap consists of two parts, the entrance and the parlor (or “bedroom”). The entrance has a funnel, into which a lobster crawls inside. Next, it enters another funnel leading to the bait inside the parlor. If a trap is left unattended for too long, the parlor might become overcrowded, which may lead to the trapped lobsters fighting among themselves. Therefore, it is best to avoid having more than two lobsters “in the bedroom”. Interesting, the things you can learn in movies, huh?

Anyway, the story is about a middle-aged couple, Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek); he is a physician, and she is a music teacher. They have a son, Frank (Nick Stahl), who wants to become an architect, but he is also considering staying in town at least one more year to work on a lobster boat so that he can stay with his girlfriend, Natalie (Marisa Tomei). It all seems nice and normal, except for one minor detail: Natalie has two children, is nearly twice Frank’s age, and is separated from her abusive husband, Richard (William Mapother).

Okay, kids and age difference aside, Frank and Natalie’s relationship is a perfectly normal one. But Richard, in a fit of jealousy, confronts Frank in Natalie’s kitchen and… Well, let’s say for sake of argument a gun discharges, resulting in Frank being being shot in the face at point-blank range. We, the viewers, are not witness to the shooting, but we do know that Richard had the gun and Frank is killed.

The Fowlers (Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson) in the days after their son's death

But the real story begins with how the Fowlers deal with the sudden, untimely death of their son. Matt experiences internal struggles, to the point that he seems to lose confidence in himself; he also seems to be drinking more than usual. As for Ruth, she appears to be cool and detached, when in fact she seems ready to explode with rage at any moment. These conflicting personalities simmer throughout the rest of the movie, as the Fowlers fight desperately to continue leading normal lives. But left unattended, a simmer gradually builds to a boiling point, and Matt and Ruth eventually learn things about themselves and each other that they had never known before, and they are not pretty.

Speaking from the perspective of someone whose parents have buried a child, I can tell you firsthand that this sort of tragedy is at best traumatic. Without going into detail, I had a brother whose life ended far too early, and my parents were both profoundly affected by it. I was quite young myself, but I recall my mother doing lots of artsy-craftsy things like needlepoint and painting as (I believe) a form of therapy, while my father took nearly all traces of my late brother’s existence and buried it inside a desk drawer, never to openly speak of it again.

This movie brought back some of those memories for me, and I really felt empathy for Matt and Ruth. As for Natalie, she turned into a sort of lost soul. After the shooting, she found herself with a dead boyfriend, and the father of her children accused of the crime. So, I ask you, the reader, the following question: What would you do if you were thrust into a situation like this? Even if you think you know the answer, you really don’t. And In the Bedroom makes you realize this in an introspective way. I have read that this movie is a modern-day tragedy, and I agree with that assessment. It almost plays out as a story written by Shakespeare if he were alive today. High praise, indeed.

3-1/2 out of 5