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BY John Prizer
The Insider (1999)
Media conglomerates and big tobacco are everyone's favorite bad guys, and the Oscar-nominated The Insider takes its shots at these fashionable targets with precision and style. Muckraking writer-director Michael Mann (Miami Vice) turns a real-life story about “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) into an atmospheric thriller where the stench of evil comes from the executive suites of CBS News and Brown & Williamson, a Kentucky cigarette manufacturer.
Wigand, a former head of research for the tobacco company, has an attack of conscience about the corporation's use of nicotine and its lies about the substance's addictive powers. However, a legally binding confidentiality agreement keeps him from going public. Bergman persuades Wigand to go on the air anyway only to be double-crossed by his network bosses, who see the story as threatening their corporate interests. Tension builds, and we begin to root for this unlikely duo as they struggle to do the right thing
The Civil War (1989)
Our War Between the States has never ceased to fascinate. Ken Burns' acclaimed nine-part documentary successfully recreates for contemporary audiences the drama of this epic struggle. The visuals are mainly still photos from the period and the soundtrack successfully combines readings from participants' letters with music of the time. The historians interviewed are passionate about their material and all the key figures are all brought to life, from Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee to Frederick Douglas and Stonewall Jackson. Also explored with incisive intelligence are the issues that ignited the conflict — slavery, states'rights and each side's competing financial interests.
But The Civil War's greatest strength is its presentation of the ordinary soldier. Neither side has a monopoly on heroes or villains. We watch the casualties mount and see the pain and suffering in both North and South until we experience the war's tragedy as if we are there.
Finding the right mate is always difficult, and pressure from family and friends to get married when there aren't any prospects sometimes only makes things worse. Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a lonely, overweight, middle-aged bachelor who wrestles with these problems. He lives with his mother and works as a butcher in the Bronx. Desperate for some kind of relationship, he goes to the Stardust Ballroom, where he hits it off with a plain, unmarried schoolteacher, Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair), who's been dumped after a blind date. But when he introduces her to those who are near and dear, they all say she's not good enough.
The Oscar-winning Marty shows us through laughter and tears the conflicts within a close-knit Italian Catholic community in the 1950s. Despite its many shortcomings, its way of life looks good when compared to the present day. Attending Mass on Sundays was the norm, and communities agreed on what was right and wrong.
The Adventur es of the Wilderness Family (1975)
At one time or another every big-city dweller dreams of chucking it all and heading back to the country where life is simpler. The Adventures of the Wilderness Family dramatizes this fantasy with good humor and charm. Blue-collar worker Skip Robinson (Robert F. Logan) and his wife Pat (Susan Damante Shaw) have had it with Los Angeles' crowded freeways and smog. They move to a log cabin in the Rocky Mountains with their son Toby (Ham Larsen), their chronically ill daughter Jennifer (Hollye Holmes) and a dog.
At first this journey back to nature seems idyllic. The fresh air is healthy and the scenery magnificent. Toby and Jennifer make friends with a raccoon. But when they decide to look after some motherless bear cubs, they're menaced by a vicious grizzly and a pack of wolves. This low-budget success was followed by a pair of sequels and a slew of unsatisfactory imitations.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
BY Jim Cosgrove
The Sixth Sense (1999)
This summer blockbuster, nominated for six Oscars, may be the beginning of a welcome trend away from the excessive blood and gore of most contemporary horror films.
Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (Wide Awake) makes sure that most of the terror takes place in the viewer' s mind, not on screen.
The drama is created by its characters, with scary moments that don't depend on flashy special effects. It assumes an ordered, transcendent universe where the forces of good have power as well as the evil ones. Charity and compassion are shown to make a difference.
Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist whose disturbed patient, 8-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), claims to see ghosts.
Cole is being raised by his mom, and Crowe becomes a surrogate father-figure, slowly winning his trust.
The Sixth Sense explores the connections between spiritual and psychological disorders and comes down on the side of the spiritual as the prime behavioral determinant.
Anne of Green Gables 1985
An orphaned girl never has an easy time, especially when the couple which adopts her continually suggests that they could have done better.
The orphan, Anne Shirley (Megan Follows), is raised by Marilla (Colleen Dewhurst) and Matthew Cuthbert (Richard Farnsworth), an elderly sister and brother who own a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada. The action takes place in the early 1900s, when the rules for children were strict.
Marilla claims she always wanted a boy to help work the land and takes out her disappointment on Anne.
The girl's energetic, youthful behavior disrupts the Cuthberts’ ordered life as she links up with a kindred spirit (Schuyler Grant) and acquires an enemy (Jonathan Crombie).
Unhappy with her freckles and red hair, Anne dyes her locks green to assert her individuality.
Anne of Green Gables, a TV-movie based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's successful series of novels, is a funny, heartfelt, coming-of-age story with a strong moral framework.
“Who will rid me of this meddle-some priest?” cries the ambitious political leader when his naked grab for power is challenged by a man of God. The age-old conflict between Church and state was often a life-and-death matter for medieval rulers. England's King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) is always having trouble with the Church and decides to appoint his chancellor and drinking buddy, Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), archbishop of Canterbury. He assumes his old friend will be loyal to him rather than to Rome.
There's talk of war with France and the inevitable corrupt wheeling-and-dealing by the kingdom's rich and powerful. But Thomas proves to be a more formidable adversary to Henry's interests than his pious, bureaucratic predecessors. The Oscar-winning Becket, based on Jean Anouilh's play, is an exciting, subtly drawn study of a personality clash with tragic consequences. Even though it's always clear who's right and who's wrong, both men engage our sympathies.
BY Jim Cosgrove
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington(1939)
America has always loved populist reformers, outsiders who challenge the special interests and business-as-usual politicians. John McCain and Bill Bradley have tried to assume that role during the current presidential primaries. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington depicts the dynamics at work behind that political archetype better than any other pop-culture creation.
Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is an innocent country boy who's appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy.
He throws himself into a bill to create a national boy's camp and discovers that some insiders plan to use the camp's site to build a dam to enrich themselves. When he threatens to go public, corrupt politicians try to make him seem like the bad guy.
Director Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) believes that our system can be preserved if only good men are willing to stand up and fight — a message that still strikes a deep chord in our psyches.
We're taught that winning isn't everything and that how you play the game is what's most important.
However, nowadays, judging from most sports events, nobody seems to believe it anymore.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stal-lone) is the exception. He's a down-on-his-luck club fighter who works for a loan shark but is too soft to use any muscle.
The overconfident heavyweight boxing champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), hopes to grab some good PR by giving an unknown sure-loser a shot at his title.
Rocky is chosen.
Only his feisty trainer (Burgess Meredith), painfully shy girlfriend (Talia Shire) and dog Butkus believe in him. But when he jogs to the top of the steps in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum and thrusts his arms high into the air, we begin to think maybe he has a chance.
The Oscar-winning Rocky, also written by Stallone, is a classic root-for-the-underdog story about a sweet-tempered hero who craves self-respect more than fame.
A Dog of Flanders(1999)
Who'll stand by you when things go from bad to worse and fair-weather friends take a hike? A Dog of Flanders, based on Louisa de la Ramee's classic novel, suggests that sometimes four-legged companions turn out to be the only ones you can trust. Nello (James Kissner) is an impoverished orphan in early 19th-century France whose ambition is to be a great artist. But he's also got a big heart, adopting an abused dog whom he names Petrache.
Nello's milkman grandfather (Jack Warden) and a respected local artist (Jon Voight) encourage him to compete in a local contest for money and an art academy scholarship. But when circumstances conspire against him, only Petrache is left by his side. Although the film's message isn't overtly Christian, it emphasizes that each person's gifts come from God. The boy learns the connection between faith and destiny and the importance of remaining true to his dreams.
BY Jim Cosgrove
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
More than 50 movies have been made about Zorro, a swash-buckling protector of the poor in old California. This fictional hero has two identities. Most of the time, he's Don Diego, a wealthy nobleman. But when the colonial authorities mistreat the peasants, he becomes Zorro, an avenging swordsman in a mask, leaving his famous mark — “Z” — after each adventure.
The Mask of Zorro begins in 1821 with Don Diego (Anthony Hopkins) as Zorro rescuing three peasants from a hanging, with the help of two young brothers who are bandits. In retaliation, the Spanish governor (Stuart Wilson) kills Don Diego's wife and imprisons him. Eventually, the nobleman escapes and trains one of the brothers (Antonio Banderas) to replace him as Zorro and get revenge. The movie successfully mixes self-deprecating humor with old-fashioned derring-do. It's refreshing to see the Church presented as a friend of the poor rather than as a pillar of an oppressive establishment, a false stereotype Hollywood often perpetuates.
The Elephant Man (1980)
Physical deformity is a heavy burden to bear. Sometimes it can break a person's spirit or turn him into a creature of anger and despair. But, occasionally, such a condition can bring out the best in a sufferer's soul, inspiring those around him who are willing to open their hearts.
The real-life John Merrick, born in England in 1873, was deformed at birth by neurofibromatosis, which left him with a twisted spine, a useless right arm and a head twice the normal size. The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch (The Straight Story), begins with Merrick (John Hurt) working as a horrible-looking exhibit in a traveling freak show. The kindly, eccentric Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a celebrated surgeon, rescues the deformed man from a life of ridicule and exploitation, placing him under his care in a London hospital. But Merrick's former promoter (Freddie Jones) wants him back. The deformed man preserves his dignity in good times and bad, radiating a gentle compassion toward all.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
Not every love story is Romeo and Juliet. Mature romances have their own dynamic that involves mutual compromise and emotional support more than fiery passion. The resulting bonds are usually deeper. James Hilton's novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips has been made into a movie twice. This more recent adaptation is less well-known than the Oscar-winning 1939 version starring Robert Donat, but the addition of some musical numbers brings the love story into sharper focus.
Mr. Chipping (Peter O'toole) begins his long career at Brookfield, an English boarding school for upper-class boys, as a scholarly Latin master. Character formation is as important to him as intellectual excellence. But during his early years he becomes an aloof disciplinarian with few friends. His personality is changed when he marries an attractive music-hall singer, Katherine (Petula Clark). Their life together is marked by triumphs, setbacks and tragedy. Under her loving influence, “Mr. Chips” becomes a model teacher, developing a natural kindness toward his students.
Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
At long last the men and women who lived through World War II are getting their due, with hit movies like Saving Private Ryan and best-selling books like The Greatest Generation. Twelve O' Clock High, based on a novel by Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett, is a gripping, suspenseful film made by that generation. It highlights the emotional pressures of combat more than physical bravery. The action is set in 1942 at an American Air Force base in England. The average survival rate for pilots there is 15 missions.
Gen. Savage (Gregory Peck) replaces Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) as commander of a bombing squadron because the latter has gotten too close to his men. The general institutes a regime of ruthless discipline. But a dangerous mission puts him and his men to some unexpected tests. The movie has been used to teach leadership to corporate executives and Air Force cadets.
BY Jim Cosgrove
Ever After (1998)
Some classic tales are indestructible no matter what Hollywood tries to do to them. Ever After is a politically correct reworking of the Cinderella story in which the 16th-century heroine (Drew Barrymore) rises from rags to riches on her own without help from a sappy creature waving a magic wand. Like most post-feminist protagonists, she's a liberated young woman who refuses to wait passively for Prince Charming (Dougray Scott) to make his move. Her favorite book is Sir Thomas More's Utopia, which she uses to lecture the prince on a variety of subjects. At times she seems almost too good for him.
The movie retains a convincing wicked stepmother (Anjelica Huston) who treats the heroine like a servant. Also as in the original tale, only the prince recognizes Cinderella's beauty and virtue and makes a special effort to win her heart. The trappings may be trendy, but we wind up rooting for her to find true love.
The Bear (1989)
Contrary to Hollywood conventions, wild animals are not warm and cuddly in their natural habitats, and their behavior doesn’t resemble that of humans. Nature can be cruel, and even the fittest don’t always survive. The Bear, based on James Oliver Kurwood's 1917 novel, vividly dramatizes these facts. The action begins in 1885 with the birth of a young bear cub whose mother dies in a rock slide, forcing him to survive on his own. He's adopted by an adult male grizzly who teaches him to fish for trout and how to protect himself from a puma. Each bear develops his own distinct personality, as consistent with the realities of animal life.
The grizzlies' most deadly nemesis is man, and French director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire) persuades us to take their side when two hunters (Jack Wallace and Tcheky Karys), enter their wilderness, eager to collect pelts. The suspenseful confrontation that follows is framed by Canadian mountains and forests of breathtaking beauty.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
BY John Prizer
White Fang (1991)
Dog stories (Rin Tin-Tin, Lassie and Benji) used to be a staple of family entertainment. With a few exceptions (the Shiloh series), contemporary Hollywood seems to have forgotten it.
White Fang is the third screen adaptation of Jack London's classic coming-of-age novel set in Alaska during the 1898 Gold Rush. Nineteen-year-old Jack Conroy (Ethan Hawke) travels to the Klondike to work his dead father's claim and hooks up with a grizzled old-timer (Klaus Maria Brandauer). The boy's life is saved from a savage bear by a wolf-dog named White Fang. The canine goes his own way and is captured by a mean youth (James Remar) who makes him compete in illegal dog fights.
Jack risks everything to save Fang and then struggles to win back the dog's confidence. The young hero must learn whom he can trust and that some commitments must be honored. The wintry scenery is eye-catching and the action well staged.
The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
“Home is where the heart is,” goes the lyric of an old popular song. All too often people find themselves living by circumstance in a place alien to their temperament and longing to return to the place of their birth. The elderly Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page, in an Oscar-winning performance) hates the cramped big-city apartment in which she resides with her son Ludie (John Heard) and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn). It's 1947, and she dreams of going back to Bountiful, the small Texas farm town where she was raised. Her daughter-in-law can't stand her “pouting” and constant singing of hymns that are “out of style.”
One day it becomes too much, and Carrie runs away, heading back home on bus, not even sure her birthplace still exists. Based on a play by Horton Foote (Tender Mercies), The Trip to Bountiful dramatizes the difficulties of reconciling long-cherished fantasies with reality. The Watts family loyalties are preserved, but at a price.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epics (Samson and Delilah and The Sign of the Cross) are filled with enough action and romance to satisfy viewers hungry for cinematic thrills. Some might call them overly calculated and corny. But the movies also convincingly communicate God's majesty and power as he intervenes in human history.
The Ten Commandments makes the story of the Hebrews' liberation from Egyptian bondage into a Cold War allegory about the spirit of freedom overthrowing tyranny. A romance between Moses (Charlton Heston) and pharaoh's beautiful daughter (Anne Baxter) is added to the biblical tale.
The special effects used to depict the miracles seem old-fashioned by contemporary standards, but the burning bush, the deadly plagues and the writing of the holy tablets still pack a punch. The parting of the Red Sea is especially awesome. When an old man comments that “God opens the sea with a blast of his nostrils,” you believe him.
The Shop on Main Street (1965)
Tono's (Josef Kroner) belief in himself to “do the right thing” is about to be put to the test. It's 1942, and the fascists have taken over the small Slovakian town in which Tono is a decent, working-class citizen trying to better himself. To please his nagging wife (Hana Slivkova), he takes a job as the “Aryan controller” for a button shop owned by an elderly, deaf Jewish woman, Rosalie (Ida Kaminska).
The first half of the Oscar-winning The Shop on Main Street is a gentle comedy as Tono and Rosalie gradually become friends. The mood turns somber when the Nazis order the deportation of all the Jews. Tono searches for a way to help Rosalie without jeopardizing his relations with the authorities. Director Jan Kadar shows how good intentions aren't always enough and that compromise can produce unintended consequences.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
BY Jim Cosgrove
Every American family has an immigration experience behind it, whether the journey occurred within the past decade or 300 years ago. At its core is usually a drama about the American dream as tempered by the reality of assimilation. Avalon is the best of writer-director Barry Levinson's four Baltimore films inspired by his own family's background (including the current R-rated release Liberty Heights). The story opens on July 4, 1914, with the arrival of Sam Krichinsky (Michael Krauss) from Eastern Europe and spans several generations, chronicling their evolution from ghetto immigrants to suburban Americans. Key to their emotional survival are certain homespun rituals like the annual Thanksgiving dinner.
The affluence of the family's later years is balanced by a sense of loss at the gradual erosion of their traditional values. The replacement of lively, dinner-table conversation with couch-potato tube-watching is symptomatic of the process. Those of the younger generation must figure out what to preserve from their heritage.
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Jim Graham (Christian Bale) is a soloist in a boys choir in Shanghai in 1941 where life was sweet if you were British and rich. The 9-year-old is obsessed with the beauty of airplanes. But the flying machines turn sinister when the Japanese bomb the city and, in the ensuing mayhem, the boy is separated from his parents and incarcerated for four years in a prison camp.
Empire of the Sun, based on J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, sets this vivid coming-of-age story against a background of World War II carnage and social disintegration. Protected in the camp by a seedy American wheeler-dealer (John Malkovich), Jim must develop survival skills not taught in the privileged enclave where he grew up. Director Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) dramatizes the importance of human connections and an indomitable spirit. The boy holds on to his love of airplanes and dreams of God even as he begins to forget what his parents look like.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
Professional baseball is about winning. Losers are quickly cast aside. Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro) is a not-too-bright catcher for the New York Mammoths who lives only for the game. His roommate Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) is everything he's not. A quick-witted, league-leading pitcher, he writes books and sells insurance on the side. When Bruce is diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, he makes Henry promise to hide the truth from team manager Dutch Schnell (Vincent Gardenia) who'll do anything to win the pennant. The illness is incurable but not yet debilitating, and Bruce wants to play until he drops.
Bang the Drum Slowly, adapted from Mark Harris’ novel, treats its life-and-death story about the meaning of friendship with a deft comic touch. The clever, calculating Henry must take some risks to help Bruce keep his secret, and Dutch must learn that there's more to life than victory. This is a warmhearted tale that doesn't pull its punches.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Greed is a sin that consumes rich and poor alike. Even people of great integrity can fall apart when the temptation is too great. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), Howard (Walter Huston) and Curtin (Tim Holt) are Americans down on their luck in Mexico. Each lives by his own rough-hewn set of moral values. When the three pool their meager resources to search for gold in the mountains, their mettle is put to the test.
The desolate environment and marauding banditos force them to fight for their survival. But ironically, it's the against-all-odds discovery of gold that becomes their undoing. The Oscar-winning The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, adapted by writer-director John Huston from B. Traven's novel, is above all a suspenseful adventure yarn. The drama springs from the contrasting ways its characters respond to good fortune. Dobbs becomes avaricious and paranoid, ready to kill to protect his stash. He meets his match in the old-timer Howard, who exudes a fatalistic wisdom.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los