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Reviews

Running with Scissors
(2006)

Running With Scissors is stranger than fiction
There is dysfunctional, and then there is Running With Scissors. Based on the memoirs of Augusten Burroughs, we are introduced to a home life and upbringing that is almost unbelievable. Whatever portions of Augusten's real experiences are presented on screen, they depict a boy becoming a man in spite of his surroundings. That a productive member of society could emerge from such circumstances is either blind luck or tremendous resolve. The shear magnitude of the obstacles Augusten is forced to endure makes you appreciate that he can not only survive, but thrive.

Running with Scissors documents Augusten Burroughs' 'formative' years. His father is an alcoholic. His mother is a struggling writer, with homosexual tendencies and delusions of grandeur. Dr. Finch, her shrink, and Augusten's adopted father at age 14, is unorthodox at best. At his worst, he is recommending suicide as a way of avoiding school and insisting that his bowel movements are signs from God. Finch's daughters, Natalie and Hope, are either consumed by anger towards or blinded by obedience for their father. Augusten's male lover, Neil Bookman, is a patient of Dr. Finch, a problem in its own right. The sanest character may be the good Dr.'s wife, Anges, and she barely speaks.

The cast is tremendous. Brian Cox portrays Dr. Finch as a quack who truly thinks what he is spouting is profound and helpful to his patients. The calm manner in which he dispenses such rubbish is as entertaining as what he passes for psychiatric counseling. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Finch's dutiful daughter Hope, is a refreshing choice. Many of her roles are level-headed, grounded characters. Hope allows her to play a quietly disturbed character. She is surprising good.

Annette Benning is perfect as Augusten's mother. The role is reminiscent of her character in American Beauty. Both characters were trapped in a loveless, stifling marriage. They both had ambitions of career success that never panned out. And they were easily seduced by strong, confident men who used and summarily discarded them. I don't know what it says about Benning that she brings these characters so brilliantly to the screen. Nevertheless, she fully immerses herself in the character and gives a compelling performance.

People more familiar with Burrough's work can critique whether Joseph Cross brings an accurate likeness of Augusten to the screen. But he seems a perfect compliment to all the other characters. He has significant moments with each of the other major characters and holds his own. Most importantly, he demonstrates that there is a normal teenager in Augusten, somewhere. Though not evident when he is enduring his mother's hack poetry or punching a hole in the kitchen ceiling, his desire to be normal rises up enough to make his character believable.

Overall the movie lacks this same believability. As a memoir, there is the tacit understanding that the film is based in some sort of reality. Throughout much of Running With Scissors, this is hard to see. With the addition of each dysfunctional character and disturbing moment, it becomes harder to take the film seriously. Towards the end, the movie takes an upturn in time to save itself. There is a tender moment between Augusten and Agnes that almost makes up over 90 minutes of lunacy. But this is only enough to make the movie bearable, not exceptional.

In the end, Running With Scissors leaves you with a sense of hope. You hope that Augusten will leave his upbringing behind and become the writer his mother never could be. You hope that the last image of his mother, alone in a diner, is the start of better times and not another downward spiral. That is not the movie's intent, for little that is positive can be gleaned from Augusten's childhood. We are meant to understand how Augusten has suffered for his art. How his experiences have made him the man and writer he is. For better or worse, Running With Scissors succeeds brilliantly.

Halloween
(1978)

Halloween. A great, terrifying film.
Hollywood seems to be prancing out dozens of cookie-cutter horror films. These films are heavy on blood and guts, light on story. It seems more emphasis is placed on how often the filmmaker can shock the audience. Movies that scare an audience are much rarer. Tension and frightening anticipation are much harder to instill. Halloween is a film that permeates fear from the first scene to the last. It puts you on edge and keeps you there until the credits roll.

As the film opens, a teenage girl is brutally murdered on Halloween by her 6 year old brother, Michael Myers. Incarcerated for fifteen years, Myers escapes on Halloween Eve and returns to his home town to continue his killing spree. He quietly stalks Lori Stode and her friends as they babysit on his old street. Dr. Loomis, Myers long time psychiatrist, follows him home in an attempt to stop his latest rampage, before it's too late.

The excellence of John Carpenter's Halloween is demonstrated in the subtle ways he creates a multifaceted mood of terror. Overall, there are few moments of intense action. The entire movie is about building suspense. The audience is left expecting Myers to strike but left wondering when and how. Michael Myers has been patient. He has waited 15 years for this night. Carpenter, in turn, is asking the audience to be equally patient. This anticipation makes the climax that much better.

The theme music, written by Carpenter himself, is an anthem of impending doom. It moves as Myers moves, building as the suspense builds. The music is simply, yet powerful. It perfectly complements the anxious moments on screen. The theme music is always there, another representation of Myers' ominous presence. A soundtrack can instill emotion like no other medium in film. In Halloween, the music adds a constant layer of tension whether we see the killer or not.

Dr. Loomis paints us a clear picture of what type of monster Michael Myers is. He is pure evil. As such, we do not need to see him killing to understand the threat he represents. His very existence is enough. As a result, Halloween can add terror through the simplest tricks. Looking through Myers' eyes as he stalks his prey. Seeing him lurk in the bushes outside an unsuspecting babysitter's house. Hearing his ominous breathing as he patiently waits for his moment to strike.

The classic pale white mask, now a fixture of American horror, was a perfect choice for extracting maximum impact with minimum effort. The mask shows clearly in the darkness. Many scenes were enhanced simply by having the silhouette of Myer's face subtly placed in the scene. His presence is felt, even if his wrath has yet to be unleashed.

Today's generation of horror audiences have been desensitized to violence. There is so much graphic gore displayed on screen that it takes a lot to shock anyone anymore. Halloween has little of this. In a way, Halloween is aided by being an independent film. Without a massive budget for bloody scenes and ghastly killings, Halloween is 'forced' to terrorize its audience with the specter of death. Such necessity makes for a far better film. A film is created that can stand as not only a great horror movie, but simply a great movie. Halloween is a wonderful piece of American cinema. And it's scary too.

Philadelphia
(1993)

Philadephia. A Necessary Film About Difficult Subjects
If Philadelphia were only a legal drama, it would be magnificent. It is more than that. It is a commentary of how the negative perceptions of homosexuality and AIDS permeated society. Some perceptions still do. These taboo subjects are seen as off limits in some circles. But all issues are worthy of serious discussion, however uncomfortable they may be. Under the veil disguise of a courtroom drama, Philadelphia makes that possible.

Andrew Beckett is a talented young attorney at a prestigious Philadelphia law office. By his own account, he is an "exceptional lawyer" who has quickly risen up the ladder at his firm. Beckett is also a homosexual suffering from AIDS; details of his personal life he has kept from his employers. When Beckett is suddenly fired from his job, he attempts to bring a wrongful termination suit. After an exhausted search for willing counsel, he is finally represented by Joe Miller. Miller is an ambulance chasing personal injury attorney leery of taking on a homosexual client with AIDS.

Jonathan Demme is one of those remarkable directors who is never locked into one specific genre. He has the comic credit of Married to the Mob, the psychological thriller Silence of the Lambs and the compelling social drama Philadelphia. Most directors find a niche and stick with it. Demme refuses to do so. Such daring film choice should be commended.

What all his films have in common is strong characters, talented actors and compelling scenes to exhibit their talents. Demme sets the scene, puts his actors in position and allows their gifts to be displayed for the world to see. The results are breathtaking. The scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs carried the film. Philadelphia had similar moments.

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington are two of the most talented actors in film, as their recognition by The Academy would indicate. Both were given opportunity to shine in Philadelphia. The courtroom provided Washington the stage to make his case against fear, hatred and discrimination of those 'different' from us. In the Courtroom it may be called grandstanding. In Philadelphia, Washingtons's scenes are powerful and resonate with the audience; the ultimate jury.

With the multitude of outstanding dramatic roles now in his repertoire, one must remember that Philadelphia was one of Tom Hanks first dramatic performances. This, combined with the intense subject matter, made it an ambitious undertaking. Hanks is tremendous. Hanks' emotional performance in Beckett's apartment, with the Aria playing, is one of the great moments of the film and likely cemented his place as a sensational dramatic actor. The music, lighting and camera work only added to the power of the moment.

Music was another key player in this film. Rock legends Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young open and close the film respectively with tender melodies that act as bookends for this powerful film. The Young song Philadephia together with the touching home movies, close out the film as emotionally as any in recent memory.

At the heart of Philadelphia is the issue of discrimination. At one point in the film Joe Miller has to remind a colleague, despite what they both may think of homosexuality, "a law's been broken here...you do remember the law?". While Beckett's suit balloons into a landmark case, that is not his intention. He only wants "what is fair and what is right". You do not need to be a gay rights activist to support this notion of universal freedom from discrimination.

Ultimately, Philadelphia brings the issues of homosexuality and AIDS discrimination to the forefront of conscience thought. It was the first studio picture to tackle these subjects. Beckett is a successful attorney with a loving partner. He has the support of family and friends. These are wonderful qualities, whatever your sexual orientation. Philadelphia reminds us that, at our core, we all have the same wants and needs. To deny us this is unacceptable. Philadelphia proudly takes up this charge and, in the process, gives us the pleasure of a truly outstanding film.

Four Weddings and a Funeral
(1994)

Enduring Friendship. Pure, simple and very funny
Four Wedding and a Funeral is a fabulous movie even if you hate weddings, funerals or love stories. The film is about friendship, something we can all relate to with fondness. The movie follows seven friends as they experience love and loss, rejection and resolve. But, instead of a British pub, the setting is an English church or a Scottish castle. The film reminds us of the value of having supporting people in our lives. The joy, sadness and general awkwardness each character endures is magnified by these good friends being together through it all. Four Weddings and A Funeral makes us yearn for such relationships in our own lives as we laugh with our new friends on screen.

Charles is the ring leader of this band of serial wedding guests. He is always going to weddings but fearful of any sort of commitment. With a charming smile and debonair wit, he can enchant women but has no intention of settling down. He is in awe of those who commit to marriage but freely admits that he could never take such a dramatic step.

Until he meets Carrie. Carrie is an American who is experienced in love. She is care-free. And she is intoxicating. Charles is drawn to her, like a moth to a flame. It is certainly love at first sight. Unfortunately, opportunities to meet are few and far between. The few social settings alluded by the title are their only chance for interaction. After meeting at the first wedding, Carrie attends the second engaged. Will Charles' first true love be unattainable?

For some reason, Hugh Grant's bumbling English charm rubs a large portion of movie goers the wrong way. His acting can be one dimensional. Grant's characters contain many of the same quirks and mannerisms regardless of the film. Call it being type cast, pigeon holed, what have you. At times, it is hard to argue with this reputation.

But some of his films are far better than others. Four Weddings and A Funeral and Notting Hill are among his finest films. Is his character any different? Not really. But his surrounding cast is. Grant's greatest films surround his clumsy act with a colorful array of supporting characters. With their own distinct idiosyncrasies, Grant's cast makes his faults less demonstrative, less outrageous and part of a delightful hodge-podge of screen chemistry. Alone Hugh Grant cannot carry a movie. But as part of the whole, his persona can play against four or five equally engaging characters with magnificent results.

Four Weddings and A Funeral works because the camaraderie displayed by the seven friends seems absolutely genuine. Screen chemistry is often used as a buzz word for any successful character driven film. But more than others, Four Weddings and A Funeral relies on this chemistry as the basis for the entire film. The audience must believe that these characters truly enjoy each other's company.

It takes more than simply great acting. Script and direction must also accentuate the theme of friendship. The bond shared by the characters must permeate every aspect of the film. Four Weddings and A Funeral succeeds brilliantly. The audience is seamlessly drawn into the friends' inner circle. It happens so fast that it seems an effortless process. Before the first reception is over, we have a perfect understanding of each of the seven friends. Each is unique and compelling. The same appeal that has drawn them to each other draws them to us. As an American outsider and the object of Charles' affection, Carrie becomes a threat to the group. A group of which we have quickly become a part.

We all long for substantial relationships in our lives. Whether romantic or platonic, dependable relationships make life wonderful or bearable. The good times become great; the bad times are a little bit easier to handle. Four Weddings and A Funeral is more than a romantic comedy. Too many romantic comedies involve a boy, a girl and little else. Four Weddings and A Funeral gives us a group of friends who are looking for love. We join their struggle, celebrate their triumphs and share their pain. Four Weddings and A Funeral draws us in as few films can.

Shakespeare in Love
(1998)

Art Imitates...Art? A new telling of a classic tale
Purists may view Shakespeare In Love as a ridiculous fictionalization of a great writer's greatest work. They may not believe that Gwyneth Paltrow can pull off the role of a refined English lady and literary aficionado. They may sneer at Ben Affleck donning a British accent and attempting to portray Mercutio on stage. To focus on these and other minor inconsistencies is to miss the point of this film. Shakespeare In Love is a wonderful romantic comedy set against the back-drop of a historical event; the writing of Romeo and Juliet. We know the story of the star-crossed lovers so well. Still, Shakespeare In Love allows the audience to experience this classic play in a unique and fascinating new way.

William Shakespeare has written some of the most historic plays and beautiful poetry in literary history. However, as Shakespeare in Love opens, he is suffering from writer's block. Commissioned by a struggling playhouse to produce a great new work, he sets out to write a comedy about Romeo and Ethel. He is encouraged to throw in a bit with a dog, as that seems to strike a chord with the illiterate public.

As he struggles with new pages for his play, Shakespeare becomes enchanted by Viola, a proper English lady who secretly yearns for the stage. Disguised as a man, since women were forbidden to act, she auditions at the sorry playhouse and gains the lead role. Once her identity is revealed to Shakespeare, they begin a love affair. Despite Viola being bequeathed to another man, their affair continues and she becomes Shakespeare's muse for one of the greatest love stories of all time.

The cast of Shakespeare In Love is the very definition of ensemble. Joseph Fines, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth and Dame Judi Dench highlight the array of talented British actors lending their craft to this film. Rush, a brilliant dramatic actor, has an equally refined gift for comedy. Shakespeare In Love allows him to let loose, with witty dialog and perfect comedic delivery. Dench exemplifies the dignity of the period as Elizabeth I. Her portrayal is reserved, yet powerful. Though she may have few scenes, she commands every one.

However amongst the litany of English stars, as Viola, Gwyneth Paltrow is able to more than hold her own. There is no need to suspend disbelief regarding her role as an proper English maiden. Her passion and presence command the screen. As a central character of this film, Paltrow must be completely believable. The audience must believe that this 'American actor' is the embodiment of Shakespeare's Juliet. Through Paltrow's Oscar worthy performance, we can.

Much like James Cameron's Titanic, the audience knows the main story and ultimately how it will end. Romeo and Juliet is a timeless classic. The enchanting aspect of Shakespeare In Love is it fictionalizes the process by which a true piece of literature is produced. The movie tries to answer the question of what inspired Shakespeare to write a play that expresses the very nature of love. This film is an interpretation of from where that genius came.

So often we hear about authors writing about their own experiences. Why should Romeo and Juliet be any different? Aspects of Shakespeare and Viola's "real life" work their way into Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare's attendance at the royal ball early in the film, their love affair despite Viola being promised to another man, even her nurse maid's character find their way into his play. The play takes a dark turn into tragedy precisely at the moment when Shakespeare and Viola realize they cannot be together.

It is important to remember that Shakespeare in Love is ultimately a fictional romantic comedy. Being a piece of fiction, the film allows the writer and director's imagination to run wild. This film is the ultimate example of the moniker "based on a true story". Except the true story is itself a piece of fiction. Romeo and Juliet is one of the truest love stories in all of literature. It is a staple of the high school cannon and familiar to millions of people. Shakespeare In Love is a marvelous take on a classic story. Purists can rest assured that not one word of Romeo and Juliet has been altered or diluted. In fact, the timeless play has become the impetus by which another great work has been born. Using the medium of the 20th Century, Shakespeare In Love is a great cinematic work.

Dead Poets Society
(1989)

A tremendous film of passion and independence
A ridged boarding school nestled within the New England countryside. A promising young professor is inspiring his students using unique, if untraditional, methods. A small group of independent boys are challenging the establishment by re-instituting a secret literary society. These are the forces at work in the movie Dead Poets Society. A movie about an independent spirit caged within a structured realm. A movie about the power of learning and the passion that comes from applying what you know to what you love.

Robin Williams plays Professor John Keating a poetry teacher at a traditional male boarding school. His unorthodox methods strike an immediate chord with his students, most notably Neil Perry. Neil is the only son of an overbearing father and driven to excel. Keating's class focuses on the passion of poetry, not the mundane qualities of meter and verse. Keating's enthusiasm is contagious and leads Neil and several of his classmates to create the 'Dead Poets Society', a secret literary club that meets after hours. Such activity is against school policy. Neil is further lead to the stage and his true love, theater. He does so in knowing defiance of his father's wishes.

The conflict in this film is the very height of hypocrisy. The boarding school prides itself on raising the best young men in society. Yet the overseers are threatened by free-thinking youths. They value good grades and accolades, but shun original ideas and independent thought. While applied knowledge and excitement for learning should be embraced, the school views such activities as immature distractions from the greater goal of academic excellence.

Keating is the exact opposite. He values free thinking and expression. He encourages his students to follow their hearts and dreams. It is not that he does not value academia. We know he is an alumnus of the school and understands the rigorous standards by which all the boys are measured. But he is a firm believer that information learned can be information lost without context. As a poetry teacher, the context he gives is to understand the emotion that drives both the author and the reader. As a teacher with a love for the subject, he feels duty bound to instill that energy in his students. He succeeds admirably.

Robin Williams is a master at delivering a dramatic performance while not losing his comic edge. Known for slapstick comedy, he can tone it down when appropriate. Physical comedy is replaced with clever wit. Overblown antics are replaced with perfect comic timing. As a teacher, he is engaging, witty and funny. As a mentor to Neil, he is compassionate, insightful and supportive. The delicate balance between humor and drama that Robin Williams can bring to a role is a talent that he has perfected.

Dead Poets Society is a film with multi-faceted plot layers. We are enthralled by Keating's unique classroom instruction and the backlash unleashed by the establishment. We are intrigued by the secret Dead Poets Society and its mystical qualities. We are torn between Neil's desires to pursue acting and his father's pressures of medical school. No plot line is independent. Each one flows together with effortless fluidity.

The film gels around the central theme of passion; a passion for teaching, a passion for theater, a passion for academic excellence. Every character is passionate, even those we do not agree with. Neil's father is passionate about the road he has mapped out for his son. This is in direct conflict with Neil. Conflict leads to turmoil and ultimately to tragedy. Each character's passion and beliefs is instrumental in stoking that fire.

We applaud people with passion, as too much of daily life is devoid of it. Dead Poets Society reminds us that passion is a powerful force worth embracing. In the same way, Dead Poets Society is a tremendous film worth embracing and enjoying, again and again.

City Slickers
(1991)

The very best kind of comedy. One with heart
City Slickers is a fantastic movie. It is not just a comedy. It's not just a buddy film. Those have been made and remade. City Slickers has heart. Behind the smart cracks and slapstick comedic moments, this is a story of change. Entrenched in the film is the desire to be better; a better husband and father, a better friend and co-worker. The humor and fun of this film does not mask the tender moments of soul searching. Those moments make City Slickers better than most comedies.

Mitch Robbins is a jingle writer in New York City who has become unhappy. He is unhappy with his job, unsatisfied with his family and questioning the purpose in his life. He is a walking mid-life crisis. Encouraged by his two best friends, and pushed out the door by his wife, he embarks on a two week long cattle drive at a vacation ranch. Under the watchful eye of the old trail boss 'Curly', the friends work out their issues while learning to rope cows, ride horses and other cowboy skills.

I am not a Billy Crystal fan as a rule. His comic lines can seem forced at times, like he is trying to incorporate his stand-up routine into a film. But in City Slickers, Crystal is different. Crystal's character is disillusioned. He is withdrawn. Humor is his way of lightening the situation. It avoids the awkward moment. Curly calls him on it after Mitch makes a smart remark. Mitch responds that is "just my way". That one statement encapsulates his character. He is having a hard time communicating with his friends, family and workers. Humor is his disconnect. It seems forced because he is trying to force humor into a serious situation.

The setting of a cattle drive gives City Slickers the opportunity for some great periods of dialog. When you're herding cattle for hours on end, you have a lot of time to think and to talk. We experience the bond between Mitch and his two friends during these conversations. The discussion of their "best day" is one of the best scenes in the film. In that simply exchange, we see into each character's mind. We really understand what makes them click.

Mitch's subsequent conversations with Curly are equally moving. The movie is half over before we truly get to understand Curly's character. He is a true cowboy. He is not part of the experience; doesn't try to be. He is doing what he loves to do. Curly represents what Mitch and so many men like him are looking for. Curly is content and at peace. His life "makes sense", as Mitch puts it. Mitch appreciates that. As an audience, we do to. Most people go through their whole lives trying to make sense of it all.

City Slickers is the kind of comedy I really appreciate. While there are some very funny moments, the film wants to do more than make the audience laugh. It wants to make us think. To think of that 'one thing' that makes life worth living. To think about all the meaningless cares that stop us from seeing the bigger picture. To think about how simple life can be when we focus on what's really important. To not take for granted the special people and moments in our life. City Slickers brings those people and moments into the forefront, amidst the chaotic backdrop of a cattle drive.

So, despite the comic flair, City Slickers is a touching movie about what we value and what we should value. It reminds us that a good and fulfilling life is right in front of us. We only have to do a better job of appreciating what we have, not longing for what we don't. When it comes to living life, we are instructed to "do it better, do everything better". In instilling that message, City Slickers does it better than most comedies and better than most movies in general.

La leggenda del pianista sull'oceano
(1998)

An Enchanting Film. A piano lover's dream
If you love music, you will love The Legend of 1900. If you enjoy enchanting stories, this film fills that need. If you prefer period pieces, the costumes, scenery and music will whisk you back to the turn of the 20th Century. Finally, if you enjoy a movie that leaves you thinking long after the credits have run, this movie does so. It leaves you questioning everything you've just seen, while appreciating everything you've just heard.

The Legend of 1900 is about an orphan boy who is abandoned aboard a luxury ocean liner at the start of the 20th Century. Reared in the underbelly of the ship by one of its workers, he is named Danny Boodmann T.D. Lemon 1900 after his adopted father, the lemon box he was found it and the year he was born. Nicknamed 1900, he soon discovers his natural talent as a pianist and gains notoriety as the ship's piano player. He befriends a traveling saxophone player. The film is told through the sax player's eyes.

While 1900 has never left the confines of the ship, he is not a hermit. He is widely visible and much beloved. He gains fame by beating renowned Jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton in a duel. But no fame can remove him from his home. As such, we see 1900 as a man of limited experiences; not little experience. He has experienced friendship, if fleeting. He has experienced love, if only for a moment. He has experienced celebrity status, if barely outside the boat. It is a contemporary tale of a confined genius whose home is a ship, the sea and his music. The simplicity with which he lives does not mask his talent, it simply binds it.

There are two things that make this movie better than it should be. The first is the music. While a movie about a piano prodigy should have a great soundtrack, the beauty is that the entire score is the story of 1900's life. We are told early on that 1900 writes what he sees. He writes music to complement the actions of the travelers. At times the soundtrack seems to follow the same pattern. The music is not just a peripheral element. It is part of his character. The music accompanies the movie just as it has accompanied 1900 through his entire life.

The second piece that makes this movie work is the story-telling feel. We truly feel that the only way 1900 will be remembered is if his story continues to be told. We believe that not only will the saxophone player further his story, but so will the countless travelers who have come into contact with him. While 1900 comes across as reserved and timid at times, his talent will make him stand out even more than he would want. Though his only recording may have been destroyed, by word of mouth, his legacy will live on.

Tim Roth has a talent for giving emotional performances with a quiet grace that does not overwhelm the scene. He seems to let the character's actions speak for themselves. In Rob Roy, Roth's character is soft spoken, yet his actions are powerful and revolting. As an audience, we would still despise his character even if he never opened him mouth. And his dark eyes seem to project a character that has something to hide. Whether intentional or unintentional, Roth projects a character that is deeper and more complex than he lets on.

1900 is that type of character. As a piano player, 1900 has always expressed himself through his music. Apart from the piano, his actions seem slow and deliberate. His words are simple and carefully chosen, even rehearsed at times. We go through much of the film not knowing what makes him tick. At times he seems scarred by a life at sea. At times he seems completely at peace. At times we feel sorry for him. Other times we applaud him. Such is The Legend of 1900.

A Few Good Men
(1992)

A Tribute to the writer, director and cast. Superb Film.
A Few Good Men is a truly outstanding collaboration between the amazingly talented director Rob Reiner and the masterful screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. They have created a film with both humor and suspense; sly wit and thunderous energy. The murder trial of two U.S. Marines is the backdrop for a wonderful collection of characters to thrive. Cutting dialog makes every scene compelling, memorable and expertly crafted. A Few Good Men is movie-making at its very best.

In A Few Good Men, two U.S. Marines from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are accused of murdering a member of their unit. Their defense is assigned to a cocky rookie naval attorney, Daniel Kaffey. Paired by an experienced member of his office and an idealistic representative from Internal Affairs, he plans the path of least resistance. But as more facts come to light, it becomes clear that higher forces are at work. The Marines are patsies; the results of a Code Red gone terribly wrong. The problem is proving it.

Rob Reiner is as eclectic a director as there is in film. From classic comedies like The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally to gripping dramas like Misery and Ghosts of Mississippi, Reiner has consistently made compelling films. His movies are character based. Few special effects. No slight of hand. He believes that people and experiences are fascinating. The plots are usually simple. But that gives him the freedom to explore his characters. By the end of the film, we truly understand their motives and desires even if we loath and despise what the characters stand for. He puts his players together and let them feed off of each other and the script. And he has had some good material to work with. Stephen King's talents in Misery and Stand By Me come to mind.

Aaron Sorkin is the magnificent writer paired with Rob Reiner for A Few Good Men. They will team up again on The American President, which will pave the way for Sorkin's best work. The West Wing is one of the most critically acclaimed series in television history. Sorkin's writing has everything to do with it. It is crisp, smart, flowing dialog that at times can tire you out. You are forced to pay attention to every word. Eventually, you want to pay attention. You want to grasp every word, everything that is said and not said. His work assumes an intelligent audience. Sorkin forces you to rise to his level, or be left behind. That's fine. Great entertainment should be an experience; one that takes effort.

The cast of A Few Good Men is impeccable. Tom Cruise plays Daniel Kaffee. He is a fine lawyer; but he's a cocky and impassioned. Kevin Pollack is Kaffee's rock. He keeps him pointed in the right direction. Demi Moore is Kaffee's motivation; if only to keep her off his back.

Jack Nicholson plays Colonel Jessep. He is a career military man. He runs his unit the way he runs his unit. He is entrenched in the 'code' of the Marines. Kiefer Sutherland as Lieutenant Kendrick is born out of this same mold. Their military world is an island that Kaffee and company are invading.

A Few Good Men combines the best of everyone involved. A few characters working off of a compelling script leads to one entertaining scene after another. Many have subtle humor; though this is not a comedy. Many have passionate, powerful exchanges; as all legal dramas should. But every scene has its place. Every scene is perfectly written, directed and acted in a tapestry that is marvelous. And while the film's climax has gained notoriety for the classic exchange between Cruise and Nicholson, A Few Good Men should be viewed as more than just one moment, powerful though it may be. It should be viewed as many, many great moments. Such is the way with truly great films. A Few Good Men is one of those films.

Braveheart
(1995)

A Great Epic; one of the best
On the surface Braveheart is an epic film of medieval warfare. A band of Scotts, lead by William Wallace, surges against a cruel and unscrupulous King. They get farther than they should, but ultimately fall short of their goal of a free and independent Scotland. But this movie is far more. It is a story of the human spirit. It is a testimony to the power of conviction; that drive and desire can achieve more than strength of arms. The simple belief that Right triumphs over Evil is the center of Braveheart. As a result, it bands us, as the audience, together for the common good; victory.

William Wallace is a compelling historical character because it was never his intention to be a freedom fighter. He left his homeland as a small boy amidst family tragedy and spent many years abroad. He returns to Scotland a new man. He is smarter than his brethren, not that he flaunts it. Initially, we do not see an idealistic Scottish rebel. He is a simple man with simple desires; to live in peace and raise a family.

Circumstances make that impossible. The circumstance of living in an oppressed country makes a simple life unattainable. This leads to tragedy, which leads to rage. Rage leads to conflict, which leads to victory. Victory leads to purpose. This is where the movie takes shape. The movie takes shape when Wallace realizes that his purpose is no longer exacting revenge. He is meant to lead an uprising.

Braveheart, for all its battle scenes, is a political picture about a desire for "something better", as Wallace describes it. He has seen his people suffer. He has seen the Scottish people accept their place as a second class society and settle. There is no belief that this will ever change. While the uprising begins as a product of revenge, we get the sense that Wallace's initial actions are just an outward expression of the misery all of Scotland is feeling. They're "Mad as Hell" and their not going to take it any more. And while the pen may be mightier than the sword, in 13th Century England the sword was the only means some people had. Scotland needed the courage and will to stand up and fight. Wallace gave them that.

Mel Gibson is at the forefront of Braveheart. He starred in and directed this picture. While he was rewarded by the Academy with Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, his acting role as William Wallace cannot be overlooked. Braveheart is, after all, the story of William Wallace. It could not have succeeded without a tremendous performance from the film's leading man. Mel Gibson was not nominated for his acting, but should have been. He captured the spirit of Wallace. His rousing speech at the start of the first great battle is now a classic in cinema. A scene in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is eerily similar. Every scene he commanded. He not only earned the attention of the characters on screen, but of the audience as well.

Visually, the film is a masterpiece. The rolling countryside makes for a beautiful backdrop. The battles are like expertly choreographed ballets. The meetings in the great halls have an ancient flair. Every set built is detailed and breathtaking. Costume, lighting, make-up; everything comes together flawlessly. In a world where computer effects are used so rampantly, Braveheart still has the feel of a classic epic project where every detail is given expert personal "hands on" attention.

Epic pictures are a credit to film-making. They are many times very big budget productions with a lot of extras, a lot of props and a lot of details that need to be accounted for. To make a great epic is to get everything right at the same time, take after take. Braveheart is one of the best of them.

As Good as It Gets
(1997)

Smart, funny, excellent film
As Good As It Gets is a tremendous film. It has what all good films need, lots of memorable moments. I was reviewing the movie's memorable quotes provided by IMDb. Each one made me smile. Each one confirmed that great writing and great acting will never go unnoticed. The sheer number of noteworthy scenes gave me reason to pause and appreciate just how magnificent this film is.

The film is about three characters; an OCD romance writer, a struggling waitress with a sick child and an out of work gay artist. All of these characters are flawed (that should be obvious). But that is what brings them together. Their problems compel us to watch. Some of their problems are self inflicted. Others are not. With some, there is a grey area. Their problems add to the humor; especially with Jack Nicholson's character. Their flaws make them unique characters in American cinema. While this collection of personalities might seem absurd, great movies not only make it work, but thrive.

It helps to have great actors and great writing. Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear combine comedy and drama flawlessly. The rapore the three actors have is rare in movies. I was particularly impressed with Hunt and Kinnear. Both were relative newcomers to the big screen at the time of As Good As It Gets. But they were flawless and, paired with an icon like 'Jack', seemed to know exactly how to bring the most out of each scene.

James L. Brooks has a history of great work, mostly as a writer. His greatest claims are probably the Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpson, two of the most successful television programs of all time. The writing in those shows is, at times, borderline genius. The quick wit and seamless flow are evident in As Good As It Gets. The dialog is quick paced, yet simple. We don't have to concentrate too hard, but we still grasp the subtle phrasing that makes this film special. Not a word seems forced or out of place. The delivery is perfect. This film is a well oiled machine; a Porsche.

As Good As It Gets is a smart comedy. It does not insult our intelligence by making the comic scenes stand out. It doesn't go out of its way to say "you should laugh here". The funny moments do not surprise us; we laugh and then cannot fully appreciate the scene again. Most slapstick comedies are like that. As Good As It Gets makes us laugh because a well crafted line or exchange strikes us funny. It may not strike everyone, but most.

There are enough serious moments to keep the film honest. Life is not all roses. Good comedies do not pummel us with one funny scene after another. We need to see something real; a sick child, an artist struggling to get by and failing. Make no mistake; this is a funny, funny movie. But it majestically takes us from funny to serious moments at the drop of a hat. It ads tension when needed, and then takes it away with a sly witty reply. Great comedies do that. Great movies transcend genre. They appeal to all audiences; to all types of people. As Good As It Gets is one of those movies.

American Beauty
(1999)

The Beauty of change. A beautiful film.
I saw American Beauty in the theater long before the "award season" buzz and accolades from the Academy stamped the film as an elite achievement. I came away from that evening knowing I had seen something special. A slice of American cinema that was as tender and caring as it was dark and disturbing (but in a good way). It takes the suburban family and turns it on its head. And in doing so, makes us think about the inescapable need for change.

This film chronicles the life of an unhappy, middle-aged man. He has a dead end job, a loveless marriage and a teenage daughter who hates him. He is a nobody. He apologizes when a party guest doesn't remember him. "I wouldn't remember me, either." Not many of us would. He is at a crossroad in his life. But, unlike many of us, he takes a turn.

In what can only be termed a mid-life crisis, he quits his job, buys an expensive little roadster, begins working out and smoking pot (thanks in no small part to the new neighbor's entrepreneur son). He begins to feel more confident, in some respects because he has decided he has nothing left to lose. While we do not always agree with his methods, as an audience, we applaud his motives. He is desperate for change. We relish his transformation as the movie progresses.

Kevin Spacey is one those actors that can make a movie worth seeing. The passion he brings to each role is refreshing. He can be dominating, even overbearing, yet reserved and endearing. And he is a wonderful story teller. It is no coincidence that his two Academy Award winning roles were The Usual Suspects and American Beauty. Those stories are his stories. He leads us on journeys where we are anxious to get to the next chapter. We follow his lead.

The fact that this film is Sam Mendes' first feature film is a tremendous achievement. In the coming years, he will make some good films, but nothing the caliber of American Beauty. The use of shadow and light is expertly done. Dream sequences, which can seem absurd if not pulled off right, add a sensual layer to the film. No one will forget the scene of the plastic bag fluttering in the wind. Though, as an audience, we give credit for that beautiful scene to Wes Bentley, Mendes did direct it. There are a lot of subtle scenes like that which only add to the excellence of this movie.

The best quality of American Beauty is that most of the characters seem to be in a better place at the end of the film than they are at the beginning. A couple characters are not, and their inability to change leads to the downfall of others. While this movie is not exactly uplifting, it leaves us believing that in the midst of transition and upheaval positive change can come. We do not see a lot of positive change through a bulk of this film. But the last moments leave us with a sense of serenity, amid chaos. A perfect combination of joy and loss. These themes are woven into this film in a way that at times makes no sense. Such colliding emotions cannot possibly co-exist. Until you step back and appreciate the entire creation. The realization becomes clear. Amid the ecstasy and pain, love and hate, American Beauty is a truly beautiful film.

Almost Famous
(2000)

A Wonderful Journey of Classic Rock and Classic Film Making
Almost Famous is a semi-autobiographical work by Cameron Crowe. It follows a young boy, living out his dream to cover a rock band on the road for Rolling Stone magazine. Being raised by a conservative mother, he watches his defiant older sister leave home. He is drawn to his sister's music and out of that medium; he becomes a conisurer and critic. His experience, like the film, is a magical mystery tour of sight and sound that grips us from the first moment and does not let go.

William's role as a music writer becomes the central theme of the film. Upon joining the band, Stillwater, William must struggle with a developing friendship with the musicians (and Band Aids) and his responsibility to be truthful to the project. He is, after all, "the enemy". At some points, we forget that. Of course, that's the point. That gray area provides the conflict, mostly internal. Can he write an accurate account of the life of a band on the road? Imagine the exploits of a rock band on the road and his dilemma is easily understood.

As with all Cameron Crowe's films, the music is as important to the development of the story as any of its characters. The classic rock songs that are integrated into the fabric of the film add ambiance and passion to scenes. They make you remember moments as clearly as the characters' dialog and actions. Elton John's Tiny Dancer becomes the theme song for reconciliation. I, personally, will never hear that song again without remembering the tour bus scene. It is at that moment that William becomes a part of their family. The line between journalism and groupie is crossed. The song Tiny Dancer leads the way.

Almost Famous succeeds in creating a web of minor characters around the protagonist, William. The best of these is Lester Bangs, a retired(?) music critic. He teaches William words like "think piece" to keep his editors interested. He has been in the music business a long time. He is encouraging, yet real. He does not sugar coat what the music world is like, or what it takes to be a successful critic.

I think that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most talented actors working today. Rarely is he the central character in films; Capote notwithstanding. Nevertheless, his role is never forgotten. In poor films, he can steal the scenes. In great films like Almost Famous, he adds just what is needed. In Almost Famous, William needs someone to push him to follow his dream. He doesn't get that at home from his mother and there is no father figure. Lester Bangs will never be confused with a father figure, but he doesn't need to be. He is the person William needs to tell him it's alright to be a music critic; as long as he stays a critic. Hoffman delivers this role with delicacy and power.

Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand received Oscar nominations. Well deserved. Billy Crudup has never been better. Every other peripheral character was crucial. But the film does not function unless Patrick Fugit can convince the audience that, behind William's youth and innocence, there exists a true and honest journalist. He is a prodigy. We don't expect someone of his age to be able to handle the life of a band on the road. We know he's book smart; he graduates high school without attending class for the final few months. But the music world is a cut-throat business. He will learn things on the road that no text book or class room can teach him. Can he withstand the influences of sex,drugs and alcohol and emerge the idealistic young writer he was when he started this journey?

We root for him, because he is still a kid. He is innocent in a world that is not. He is principled in a world that is debased. How he will emerge keeps us watching to the end. And then, once the credits have rolled, we watch again. Not to see how it ends, but this time, to appreciate the journey. And it is a wonderful journey.

All the President's Men
(1976)

History and Journalism on Film. Brilliantly done.
As a lover of historical drama and journalism, I find that All The President's Men strikes a cord on several levels. It shows the inner workings of a newsroom. It shows the process of putting together a news story. It shows the desire to be right; not just first. In today's media, it seems that the goal is to throw out a story and see if it withstands scrutiny. Throw it up on the wall, see if it sticks. All the President's Men shows the importance of checking facts, confirming sources and standing by your story if you think it's accurate, whatever the consequences.

Simply put, this film is about the Watergate investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. Woodward and Bernstein were two unknown reporters at the time of a break in at the Watergate hotel, the Democratic Committee's headquarters. But through following every lead and source, they brought to light a conspiracy within the Nixon administration that would ultimately lead to its downfall.

But while such a subject might make an interesting episode of Dateline, this film takes the investigation one step further. The investigation is a 'who dunnit' involving some of the most powerful men in the country. While burglary and wire tapping might not grab headlines, this movie represents a different time. Government was trusted. 24 hour news did not exist. Print journalism still held tremendous weight. It was a big deal to accuse the President's staff, and eventually the President himself, of participation in federal crimes. Oh how far we've come. Such accusations are now a commonplace on the nightly news.

The fact that this movie came out so soon after the Watergate scandal speaks to how much this controversy had gripped the Nation. The investigation culminated in the only resignation of a sitting President, one of the most compelling moments in our country's history. I have read the book by Woodward and Bernstein of the same name. The film is faithful to their account. The film is a testament to what good journalism should be. For every door that closes, and there are MANY doors that close, there is an open window. The Truth is out there. Perseverance is ultimately rewarded.

We follow Woodward and Bernstein as they piece the story together. We watch as they follow leads, call sources and write down bits of information as haphazardly as we might doodle in a college lecture. It's hard to make drama out of such a mundane process, but All The President's Men pulls it off. The movie does not insult our intelligence. It shows how hard the process is, which makes us appreciate the final product.

There are many historical characters at the center of All the President's Men. However Deep Throat, Woodward's anonymous source, is perhaps the most compelling one because he represents the struggle between bringing the truth to light and the firestorm that will result. He wants to see justice, but doesn't want to be the reason for HIS administration's downfall. As a result, he could tell more, but doesn't. He could draw them a map, but instead gives landmarks. He gives cryptic advice that seems to mean nothing, but gets the ball rolling. He is the wise old sage. The oracle, if you will. Every mystical journey has a beacon to guide its travelers. For Woodward and Bernstein, Deep Throat is theirs.

Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards head an outstanding cast. However, the central figure in this film is not the reporters, their co-workers or their sources. It's the Truth. We applaud the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein, because as a society we want to know the truth and it is the media's job to deliver. We rejoice when the breaking story runs. It is like a child being born. Upon being met with criticism, we stand with Post editor Ben Bradlee as he proclaims "We stand by our boys". Where today a representative from his legal department would tell Bradlee to stuff the story in a drawer, Bradlee stands behind his reporters because their ultimate objective was his since he got into the business. Not just to break the story, but to break the Right Story. All The President's Men is a portrayal of the power of the Truth and the desire to find it.

12 Angry Men
(1957)

Fantastic, provocative writing
You wouldn't think that 12 men in a tiny room would produce so much drama, so much passion and such a compelling film. But 12 Angry Men is a unique film. It's a roller-coaster ride that never leaves the jury room.

12 Angry Men presents us with a jury that has been given a murder case. A man has been stabbed to death and his son is the prime suspect. As these strangers take an initial vote to see where they stand, a lone juror stands between them and a quick conviction. Deliberations begin; sometimes civil, sometimes heated as the 12 men attempt to reach a unanimous decision.

I truly admire this film for what Henry Fonda's character represents. He is an idealist. He has convictions (no pun intended). A lone juror standing between eleven men and an easy guilty verdict. He believes in a jury system where they discuss the verdict, not just vote. It would have been so easy to simply agree with the room. The boy is probably guilty. Everyone seems to know it. But he wants to talk. Discuss the case for an hour.

The collection of jurors is perfect because they are so 'imperfect'. A collection of businessmen, laborers and immigrants that makes this jury what juries should be; a representation of society. Every character has his own perceptions, his own biases; and those opinions are brought out through magnificent dialog that is under-appreciated in today's cinema. We know very little about the jurors, in many cases we don't even know their names. But we know many of their occupations and, more importantly, we know their beliefs, manifested in the stance that each character takes, or doesn't take, as they discus the trial.

As excellent as the casting is, I credit the writing for instilling the drama. Every sentence is constructed flawlessly. The flow of this movie is brilliant, again considering that virtually every passionate scene is delivered within a confined space.

This film is simple and real. The jurors get emotional, tired and frustrated; as would be expected locked in a room for hours on end. We understand the stress these men are under. We understand the anger each character is feeling, justified or not. We feel uncomfortable during a racial tirade, as though we were in the jury room unable to escape his bigotry. I think movies that make us feel uncomfortable have succeeded admirably.

In a world where special effects, explosions and profanity are commonplace, excellent writing and flawless delivery is missing; or extraordinary when displayed. A movie where 12 men never leave one room would probably never hold today's audiences. That is a shame. Movies that stand the test of time, as this one has, do so through the emotion that is expressed by the characters and empathized with the audience.

I will leave the bulk of the plot of this film for your enjoyment, although the logic with which Henry Fonda's character reviews the prosecution's case is deliberate and fascinating. The characters are the plot. They drive the story by their actions and words. That is the focus of this film; action and words. Brilliant words.

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