Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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BY Jim Cosgrove
Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)
One of the reasons America so dominates the global economy is that it treats its entrepreneurs with a semi-mythic respect. We're the only society that turns them into culture heroes. Pirates of Silicon Valley, originally a TNT movie of the week, is a well-crafted examination of our latest romance with bare-knuckles capitalism. Computer billion-aires Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) and Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) are depicted as counterculture mavericks — high-tech Davids who slay the corporate Goliaths that get in their way.
Even though this re-creation of the early days of Microsoft and Apple is at times more myth than fact, it does show how these ambitious nerds cut corners and ripped each other off. Their success is shown to be more inspiring than their moral codes, but that doesn't seem to have impeded the growth of their legends — to which this movie, of course, contributes.
Jane Eyre (1996)
When romantic love overcomes suffering and expands to include forgiveness, it sets down deep roots that can survive bad fortune. C h a r l o t t e Bronte's 19th-century novel has been adapted to the screen three times. The most recent version, directed by Franco Zeffirelli (Jesus of Nazareth), downplays the dark, gothic atmosphere to better explore the moral dimensions of an unusual romance.
After spending her formative years in a cruel orphanage, the young Jane (Charlotte Gainsbourg) finds a position as a governess on a large country estate. Its master, the brooding, sarcastic Edward Rochester (William Hurt), is usually absent. But when in residence, he treats her with an intellectual and emotional respect she's never encountered. Her heart is touched, and even when nasty secrets from his past seem to doom their relationship, she responds to all those who wrong her with compassion and charity. Her quiet dignity is deeply moving.
Lean on Me (1989)
Everybody knows our public-school system is a mess and that the poorest students, often minorities, suffer the most. But few are willing to take the drasticaction required to set things right. Lean on Me is the real-life story of principal Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman). In 1967, the New Jersey high school where he taught became an academic success story. After a 20-year absence, he returns as principal to find drugs openly peddled, teachers bullied, and students in fear for their lives. Only a third of the kids have basic skills in reading, writing and math.
Wielding a baseball bat and shouting orders through a bullhorn, he uses a take-no-prisoners discipline to put the school back on top. This makes him enemies in high places. But Clark understands that learning and character formation must go hand in hand — a lesson many public schools still seem determined to ignore.
High Noon (1952)
All of us hope we will have the courage to stand up to evil when we encounter it. Equally important is the ability to discern when to draw the line in the sand and when to back down in hopes of making a better fight at another time.
Like many classic Westerns, the Oscar-winning High Noon dramatizes these issues in easy-to-understand terms. Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is everyone's idea of a hero. As marshal, he cleaned up a small frontier town so that decent folk could raise their families and prosper. But, on his wedding day, an outlaw he'd once locked up returns, seeking vengeance, and none of the townspeople, including his bride (Grace Kelly), will come to his aid. Kane must decide whether to turn tail or face the bad guys alone. Tightly constructed and well-paced, the movie mixes exciting action with a carefully thought-out message.
BY Jim Cosgrove
A Civil Action
Quality galore can be found in A Civil Action, a movie based on Jonathan Harr's nonfiction best seller. Its director is Steven Zaillian, who has a history of thoughtful filmmaking. Its cast is top-notch, with John Travolta as overconfident Boston personal-injury attorney Jan Schlictmann, William H. Macy as his nervous accountant and Robert Duvall as their wily corporate-lawyer opponent. Its production values are first-rate, especially the wintry cinematography that reveals so much about the manufacturing town of Woburn, Mass. Woburn was the home of 12 children who died of leukemia. The youngsters' parents hire Schlictmann to represent them in a case against two multinationals. The parents believe the multinationals contaminated Woburn's groundwater, ultimately causing the children's deaths. Schlictmann and his small law firm throw everything at the corporate legal team, but are outgunned, out-spent and outmaneuvered. A rough justice ultimately emerges, but nobody is happy with the results. It's hard to know how accurate A Civil Action is without prior knowledge, but the film is an engrossing look at a legal and personal imbroglio.
Life Is Beautiful
An Oscar winner, Life Is Beautiful, is a film to love or hate. It opens with the happy-go-lucky Guido (Roberto Benigni) careening through the countryside of 1939 Italy with his brother Ferrucio (Sergio Bini Bustric); they're on their way to jobs as waiters. Then, through a happy misfortune, Guido rescues the beautiful Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) and is immediately smitten. He later discovers that the teacher is unhappily engaged to a pompous Fascist official. After an unusual courtship, Guido finally wins Dora. The movie then flashes forward five years. Dora and Guido have been blessed with a son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), but their life is ripped apart when the Jewish Guido and Giosué are sent to a German concentration camp. Guido attempts to protect his son from the horror by telling him that they're competitors in a special contest. Life Is Beautiful is basically two films—the first is a sunny romantic comedy, while the second is a grim tale of paternal sacrifice. For some, the contrast is illuminating; for others, it's merely irritating.
Our Friend, Martin
Although Our Friend, Martin is basically a hagiographic presentation of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., it tells his story in an unusual manner. Instead of offering a straightforward documentary, the film mixes animation and live-action footage, history and fictional plotting, to produce instructive entertainment designed for grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers. The story highlights Miles, a sports-obsessed, African-American sixth-grader. His best buddy is Randy, a white boy with a credulous streak. Their physical nemesis is Kyle, a white fellow student; their intellectual nemesis is Maria, a brilliant Hispanic classmate. One day, the four sixth-graders go on a field trip to King's boyhood home, where Miles and Randy grab a special baseball mitt that lets them time-travel.
They encounter King at critical moments of his life and quickly learn several important lessons about justice and racial equality. Kyle and Maria later receive a similar educational opportunity. Even though Our Friend, Martin is strengthened by riveting documentary footage and the presence of top actors bringing cartoon characters to life, the simplicity of its historical argument mars its effectiveness.
Loretta G. Seyer is editor of Catholic Faith & Family.
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