Print Edition: March 8, 2015
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BY Jim Cosgrove
Return to Me (2000)
Pious, folksy Irish and Italian Catholic culture is used to refreshingly appealing effect in Return to Me, a sweetly wholesome romantic comedy about love and second chances. Minnie Driver plays Grace, a woman dying of heart failure until she receives a life-saving transplant. Later, she becomes involved with an architect (David Duchovny) who lost his wife in a car crash. What neither knows is that the heart beating in Grace's chest previously belonged to Bob's deceased wife. The fairy-tale implication is their hearts were united literally before they met — that Grace's heart belongs to Bob twice over, and he to it. Driver and Duchovny bring considerable charm and chemistry, and the sentimental logic works.
Carroll O‘Connor and Robert Loggia lead a delightful supporting cast as the owner and chef of O‘Reilly's Italian Restaurant, a picturesque establishment where old men sit around playing cards and arguing the relative merits of Italian and Irish culture. Director Bonnie Hunt and James Belushi round out the cast, providing a hilarious but affectionate glimpse of family life full of foibles and charms.
An unabashedly nostalgic celebration of the Western, Silverado was written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. Kasdan has called Silverado his “Western Raiders,” and it has the same tongue-in-cheek excitement, taut, complex storytelling and wistfully nostalgic innocence. It doesn't have Raiders’ spiritual dimension, but it has a good-vs.-evil storyline, with four heroic gunslingers (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner and Danny Glover) standing up to a corrupt sheriff and an evil clan of ranchers. It's a whirlwind tour of virtually everything you can do in a Western: shootouts, ambushes, jail breaks, posse pursuits, wagon convoys, saloon gunfights, outlaw hideouts, wounded heroes, bucket-line firefighting, a cattle stampede. One significant omission: It includes cowboys but not Indians, since it's hard today to make a feel-good Western about Indians.
The story is sprawling but sturdy, the dialogue razor-sharp, the action rousing and cleverly choreographed. Other neo-Westerns have deconstructed the genre, but Silverado revels in strong heroes who stand up to bullies, pioneer spirit, family ties and loyalty among friends. It also depicts some morally problematic elements of the milieu, though with restraint and discretion.
The Kid Brother (1927)
Harold Lloyd has been called the “third genius” of silent film comedy, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The Kid Brother is an ideal introduction to this forgotten master. By turns hilarious, touching and thrilling, it's rousing, crowd-pleasing entertainment. Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, with their exaggerated, eccentric screen personas, Harold Lloyd had a sweet, boy-next-door quality, as winsome and approachable as Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks. In his trademark spectacles, Lloyd played a mild-mannered underdog hero, too bashful to approach the pretty girl and too slight to take on the brawny bullies, who eventually discovers hidden strength in himself.
The Kid Brother balances humor, sentiment and action in a well-crafted story about the youngest son in a family of burly frontier heroes who must save his family's honor after the theft of public funds in his father's keeping. Standout sequences include an extended game of cat-and-mouse with Harold's bullying older brothers and a rip-roaring showdown aboard a listing steamboat. Great fun.
BY Steven Greydanus
The only superhero movie to date capable of standing with the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, X-Men is as interested in conflicting ideas and ideologies as clashing superpowers or martial-arts moves. Based on the popular Marvel comic books, Bryan Singer's film is bold enough to invoke the Holocaust and the civil-rights movement in its tale of widespread fear and mistrust of a misunderstood minority population, the superpowered mutants.
Patrick Stewart plays Professor Xavier, leader of the X-Men, who wants to see mutants and other humans live together in harmony. Ian McKellen plays Magneto, an embittered Holocaust survivor whose determination to realize his vision for mutantkind by any means necessary ironically mirrors Nazi superior-race ideology. The real star of the large ensemble cast, however, is Hugh Jackman as the popular Wolverine.
Violence is sometimes intense but stylized and seldom deadly (except for a brief but brutal prize-fighting scene); refreshingly, the film finds it unnecessary to kill off the villains. Persecution of the early Church is highlighted in a key scene, deleted from the film but available in special-edition DVD/VHS, that slyly parallels the conversion of Constantine and legitimization of Christianity with Magneto's entertainingly hokey comic-book plot.
As a young man living under Nazi occupation in Krakow, Karol Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II) participated in an underground cultural resistance movement called the Rhapsodic Theatre.
During this time he wrote The Jeweller's Shop, a three-act play mostly consisting of contemplative monologues reflecting the vision of love and personhood that would one day inform his treatise Love and Responsibility.
The film version broadly adapts the soliloquies into a loosely structured drama spanning two decades, two continents and two generations. A pair of young Polish couples embarking on matrimony receive guidance from a Wojtyla-like priest and a mysterious jeweler (Burt Lancaster) whose shop seems to exist on a boundary between time and eternity.
References to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins bookend the drama, highlighting the challenge of preparedness for a lifetime of love and of weathering the whims of circumstance, tragedy, temptation and uncertainty. Small touches of magical realism highlight the indissolubility of marriage, while realistic psychological challenges face a young man growing up without a father and a young woman fearful of commitment due to her parents’ troubled marriage. Ultimately, the film affirms love as the vocation of the person and the hope of the future.
A joyous experiment in pure animation, an ambitious work of imaginative power, a showcase of cutting-edge technique and a celebration of great music, Disney's masterpiece is without precedent and without rival. Originally boldly conceived as “a new form of entertainment,” the film initially met with critical and popular failure. Now a recognized classic, it remains one of a kind.
Essentially a high-minded, feature-length descendant of Disney's classic “Silly Symphony” shorts, Fantasia combines the music of Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky with animated imagery drawn from a far-ranging array of conceptual fields.
The film's many unforgettable images include the magical flowers and pixies of the Nutcracker Suite, Mickey Mouse battling the unstoppable bucket-wielding broom in Sorcerer's Apprentice, the dinosaur showdown of Rite of Spring, the majestic winged horses and flirting centaurs of the Pastoral, and the bizarre ballerina hippos and ostriches of Dance of the Hours.
BY John Prizer
Franchise event-films ruled the summer of '02. Spider-Man, based on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's comic strip, was the season's biggest success story. The good news is that there's nothing in it to offend family viewers. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a nerdy outcast rejected by his high school's in-crowd and ignored by the pretty girl next door (Kirsten Dunst). When he's bitten by a genetically engineered spider, he develops the ability to spin gigantic spider webs. He also becomes super-strong and super-quick.
Director Sam Raimu and screen-writer David Koepp chart Peter's progress in learning how to deploy his unique gifts for the service of the greater good, and he turns himself into the scourge of New York City's worst criminals. The film is an enjoyable roller-coaster ride even though some of its pleasures seem too calculated. Good and evil are clearly defined, but parents should be warned that some of the violence in the action sequences may be too intense for younger viewers.
Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (1991)
American culture encourages people to live out their dreams no matter what obstacles fate may throw in their way. Disney dramatizes this theme in a heart-warming, coming-of-age story set in the 1930s. Sonora Webster (Gabrielle Anwar), a tomboy orphan, runs away from her aunt's farm to seek her fortune in a traveling carnival owned by a crusty old cowboy named Dr. Carver (Cliff Robertson). She aspires to be the rider of a “diving horse” that leaps from a high platform into a tank of water.
Carver's son, Al, teaches her how to perform the stunt, falling in love with her in the process. The young man gets into a fight with his father and leaves, but Sonora becomes the show's star anyway. When tragedy strikes, the young couple is reunited and works against impossible odds to help her realize her dream.
The Gold Rush (1925)
Silent-movie comedy is one of the glories of film history, but far too few present-day buffs have sampled its delights. The era's most popular character was Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, with his black mustache, bowler hat, twirling cane and penguin-like walk. Numerous short films humorously pitted this populist underdog against a sometimes-cruel world filled with unyielding, hostile obstacles.
The Gold Rush, written and directed by Chaplin, was the char-acter's first successful feature. The Little Tramp travels to Alaska during the gold-rush fever and struggles for survival in a desolate Yukon cabin with two grizzled prospectors.
He also falls for a dance-hall girl whose intentions at first seem untrustworthy.
The most famous sequence is the Thanksgiving dinner with Big Jim where the Tramp cooks one of his outsized boots, pretending it's a feast fit for a king.
Equally hilarious is the scene in which the Tramp is trapped inside a cabin that's teetering on the precipice of a cliff.
BY John Prizer
American Experience: Alone on the Ice (1999)
At one time explorers were celebrities. Admiral Richard Byrd was considered one of the greatest, a media-certified hero with three New York ticker-tape parades in his honor. This PBS documentary examines the controversy around this self-promoting scientist, inventor and aviation pioneer. In 1926 Byrd was hailed as the first person to fly over the north pole, a claim some now doubt. Three years later he completed a 1,600-mile flight across the south pole.
In 1934 he launched a second expedition to Antarctica to map territory and conduct scientific research. He lived alone for four months in a hut under arduous conditions. When he had to be rescued near death, it became an international media event. Host David McCullough chronicles Byrd's adventures, combining archival film footage and photographs with interviews with polar experts and some of the expeditions' survivors.
Follow the River (1995)
America's conquest of its indigenous peoples was longer and more closely fought than many of us imagine, with dangerous consequences for the early settlers. This TV movie, based on James Alexander Thom's novel, dramatizes a real-life story set during these conflicts in 1755. Mary Ingles is 23 and expecting her third child when the Shawnees raid her Virginia Colony settlement in the Blue Ridge Mountains, kidnapping her and killing others. (An estimated 2,000 homesteaders like her were abducted during the French and Indian Wars.)
Wildcat, the Shawnee chief, admires Mary and proposes marriage. But she chooses to remain faithful to her husband, Will, back at the settlement even though she's not sure he's still alive. She escapes with her sister, Bettie, and struggles her way to safety across 1,000 miles of uncharted Ohio Valley wilderness. The action revolves around the appealing heroine's indomitable spirit.
Henry V (1944)
Kenneth Branagh's 1989 adaptation of Shakes-peare's epic portrait of kingship emphasized “the fog of war” and its senseless violence.
Laurence Olivier's earlier version of Henry V reflects the more straightforward patriotism of his era, World War II when Britain was under attack. Imaginatively structured, Olivier's film begins with a 17th-century staging of the play at the Globe Theater. The proscenium slowly disappears as the stylized sets give way to realistic battle recreations.
The pageantry and language are glorious.
BY John Prizer
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Vietnam is the war Hollywood loves to hate. We Were Soldiers, based on a book by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, is one of the few films to treat its soldiers sympathetically. In 1965 Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) and 450 men are helicoptered into a highland area where they're surrounded by 2,000 enemy troops and must fight their way out.
Director Randall Wallace also devotes considerable time to the home front. Moore cares as much about raising his five kids with proper values as he does about his career. A practicing Catholic, he teaches them how to pray before they go to bed. When one of his officers (Chris Klein) wonders what is “God's plan,” Moore also prays with him for guidance. As America continues to face up to the challenges posed by Sept. 11, it is important to realize that we can be inspired by our soldiers' performance in Vietnam rather than ashamed. The violence and language are raw, but appropriate for a realistic battlefield drama.
Even animals can be celebrities, and the effects can be beneficial for them in a way it usually isn't for humans. Andre, based on a true-life book by Harry Goodridge and George Dietz, is the story of an orphan seal pup of the same name who's adopted by the Whitney family of Rockport, Maine, in 1962. Papa Harry (Keith Carradine) is the seaport's harbormaster who allows Andre to accompany him while scuba diving. His youngest daughter, Toni (Tina Majorino), also bonds deeply with the creature.
At first the media coverage has a negative impact as Andre becomes a tourist attraction. When a local lobsterman (Keith Szarabajka) complains that the seal is stealing his lobsters, the creature is removed to a Boston aquarium. Andre escapes and returns to Rockport. When the seal rescues one of his human protectors from a life-threatening incident, the resultant publicity forces the authorities to allow him to swim free. Director George Miller (The Man from Snowy River) involves us emotionally while keeping a light touch.
The Lady Vanishes (1936)
Alfred Hitchcock invented the spy movie in a series of British films made before World War II. One of the best is The Lady Vanishes, adapted by Frank Launder and Sydney Gilliat from Ethel Lina White's novel. It's unusual in that the story is told primarily from a woman's point of view. On a train in the Balkans, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), a young English woman, befriends a sympathetic elderly lady, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). When the older woman suddenly disappears during the trip, Iris sets out to find her. But all the other passengers on board deny having ever seen the missing lady.
The only person who believes Iris' story is Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a musician. Together they uncover a spy ring that's connected to Miss Froy's disappearance and they must save her from further harm without fully understanding what she's up to. The story has the genre's key ingredients — mystery, intrigue, romance, suspense-filled action and a secret message — all mixed together with wit and style.
BY John Prizer
Leave it to Beaver (1997)
Movie studios keep turning old TV shows into features, with mixed results. Leave it to Beaver, based on the series created by Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly, is as corny as the original. But there's still some charm left in its wholesome small-town atmosphere and unapologetic embrace of family values. The time frame is moved from the 1950s to the late 1990s. The 8-year-old Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver (Cameron Finley) wants a bike. Eddie Haskell (Adam Zolotin), the best friend of his older brother Wally (Erik Von Detten), suggests he play football to make his dad Ward (Christopher MacDonald) proud so he'll spring for it.
Beaver's grades plummet and when school authorities recommend counseling, his mom June (Janine Turner) imagines her kid is in a lot of trouble. Director Andy Cadiff and screenwriter Brian Levant deliver the gags and one-liners in a spirit of good, clean fun.
The Summer of Ben Tyler (1996)
The segregated South of the mid-20th century has been a fertile setting for coming-of age stories in which an idyllic childhood is disrupted by racism and other evils. The choices made by adults in these situations present the kids with a moral code that sticks with them for the rest of their lives. The Summer of Ben Tyler, a TV movie, continues this honorable tradition. Temple Rayburn (James Woods) is an idealistic lawyer with a lovely wife, Cecilia (Elizabeth McGovern) and a precocious daughter, Nell (Julie McIvaine). Their position in the community is threatened when they take in Ben (Charles Mattock), the mentally challenged son of their deceased African-American housekeeper.
Temple faces further ethical challenges when he agrees to defend Junius Maitland (Kevin Isola), the son of the town's richest citizen (Len Cariou), who's charged with drunk driving and manslaughter. Director Arthur Allan Seidelman uses this courtroom drama to examine the difference between right and wrong and between the law and justice.
Nowadays it's politically incorrect to say anything positive about Spain's conquest and evangelization of Latin America. Captain from Castile, based on Samuel Shellabarger's novel, is hardly a piece of cheerleading for colonialism or the Spanish Inquisition. But it does give these issues a balanced presentation inconceivable in present-day Hollywood.
The aristocratic Pedro de Vargas (Tyrone Power) saves the impoverished Catania Perez (Jean Peters), from the henchmen and hunting dogs of Diego de Silva (John Sutton), the inquisitor general. De Vargas is unjustly imprisoned, and, after sword fights, intrigues and an escape, he and the peasant girl flee Spain to the New World. The scenery and costumes are spectacular, the action is rousing and Alfred Newman's Oscar-nominated musical score stirs the blood.
BY John Prizer
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring(2001)
The Sept. 11 attacks have created a climate in which fantasy tales of good and evil have special resonance. This, the Oscar-winning adaptation of the first of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy of novels, magnificently captures the transcendent dimensions of this kind of conflict. The action takes place 7,000 years ago in Middle-earth, a land populated by men, hobbits, elves, dwarfs and wizards. A hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) has a golden ring coveted by the dark lord Sauron. The wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) understands that evil is also an interior moral struggle and insists that Baggins give it to his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood).
Gandalf and Frodo join forces with a pan-species fellowship of seven warriors to return the ring to its place of origin. They embark on a picaresque journey filled with fantastical and dangerous encounters. Director Peter Jackson dramatizes their quest with moral precision. The grandeur of his achievement will elevate your spirit.
A League of Their Own(1992)
Sports films usually hinge on a series of clichés that revolve around making the team and winning the big game. A League of Their Own breathes fresh life into the genre. The time is World War II, and most of the men have been drafted to fight. A savvy promoter (Gary Marshall) decides to a launch a women's baseball league. Recruited to the Rockford, Ill., team is an Oregon farm girl, Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), who can catch and hit but won't leave without her sister, Kit (Lori Petty).
Their coach is Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), a former home-run king whose career was wrecked through drinking. Kit has a falling-out with Dottie and joins a rival team. In the season's climactic game, the two sisters find themselves playing against each other. Director Penny Marshall (Big) and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel pepper the action with clever gags and one-liners. Although there really were such all-girl teams back them, the story is fictional.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Many film buffs think Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest musical ever made. Co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen (Charade), along with screen-writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, set their comedy in Hollywood in the late 1920s as sound movies are replacing the silents and a whole generation of stars is being discarded. Most of the delightful songs (“You Were Meant for Me,” “Beautiful Girl” and others) are from the same period.
Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the silent era's most popular on-screen couple. Lamont wants their romance to become real, but Lockwood falls for Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who is hired to dub Lina's screechy voice in the first Lockwood-Lamont talkie. Lockwood's former song-and-dance partner, Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), gets caught up in the intrigue. The dazzling pace and improvisational air make you want to sing and dance along with the characters. Most exhilarating is the movie's TITLE song, with Lockwood wearing his yellow slicker, stomping through puddles and swinging his umbrella in joy.
BY John Prizer
Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters & Marvels (2002)
Spider-Man is this summer's biggest hit so far. Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters & Marvels is a biography of the comic-book writer who created that character and many others on which movies and TV series have been based (X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, etc.). Writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks) gets the elder statesmen of comic-book art to open up about the genesis of his ideas and the beginnings of the now-classic Marvel Comics publishing company.
The original intent of Lee and Marvel artists like Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Steve Ditko and John Romita was to sell comic books to teen-age males. But their product evolved into a fictional universe complete unto itself.
They spawned a modern mythology that's characterized by a clear sense of good and evil and defines a certain kind of 20th-century super-hero.
Although the movie's primary emphasis is on Spider-Man, we also get the inside scoop on other Lee creations like The Fantastic Four and Iron Man. This 95-minute documentary is a valuable contribution to our understanding of contemporary popular culture.
Iron Will (1994)
Disney's new management still occasionally makes the kind of movie on which its reputation was built. Iron Will, directed by Charles Haid and written by John Michael Hayes (Rear Window), is an action-packed yarn about dog racing. Will Stonemen (Mackenzie Astin) loses his father in a freak dogsledding accident. As the bank is threatening to foreclose on his family's South Dakota farm, the plucky 17–year-old decides to enter the 1917 Winnipeg-St. Paul dogsledding race, with a $20,000 prize offered by a railroad magnate (David Ogden Stiers).
The adventures that follow test Will's mettle: He must win the respect of Gus, the lead dog who was loyal to his father; on the race course his fiercest rival (George Gerdes) is willing to cheat to win; and a local reporter (Kevin Spacey) smells a potential human-interest story and exploits the teen-ager to sell papers. A few of the plot twists may be predictable, but the story keeps you on the edge of your seat and the snowy landscape is gorgeous.
BY John Prizer
Black Hawk Down (2001)
The United States' 1992-93 involvement in Somalia was the country's most disastrous foreign-policy venture since Vietnam. What is often forgotten is the extraordinary bravery of the American soldiers involved. Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), sets the record straight. A Somali warlord seizes control of food distribution during a famine and, in effect, declares war on the United Nations. The United States considers him a political outlaw and sets out to capture him and his top lieutenants.
A key U.S. operation falls apart when two of its helicopters are shot down. What was intended to be an offensive commando raid turns into a defensive rescue mission, and the audience is viscerally plunged into the horrors and confusion of urban combat. The drama springs from the group dynamics of the American soldiers. Their courage and camaraderie is much like the spirit displayed by the police and firemen at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
Silent Running (1971)
Star Wars wasn't the first movie to feature cute robotic drones as central characters. Director Douglas Trumbull, who designed the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, beat George Lucas to the punch. In Silent Running, he sets the action in 2008, with all plant and animal life on earth destroyed by nuclear radiation. Lowell Freeman (Bruce Dern) is a botanist who's in charge of a spacecraft that shelters the last remaining forest. A stubborn nonconformist, he often rubs his crew (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin and Jesse Vint) the wrong way. His only allies are the drones Huey, Dewey and Louie (Mark Persons, Cheryl Sparks and Larry Whisenhunt). They bond while playing poker.
When the authorities order Freeman to destroy the forest, he mutinies and heads deep into outer space. His goal is to preserve the potential for life for some other time and place. But his human companions have other ideas. Trumbull's primary focus is on the imaginative visual effects and strong ecological message.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935)
Duel-identity heroes (like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man) have been capturing our imagination for generations. The Scarlet Pimpernel, based on Baroness Orczy's novel, has been the inspiration for several feature films and a TV miniseries. It tells the story of a mild-mannered English aristocrat whose secret life thrusts him into the French Revolution, where he boldly rescues condemned nobles.
The best version is the 1935 extravaganza produced by legendary British impresario Alexander Korda. Sir Percy Blakeney (Leslie Howard) is a foppish aristocrat in the London court of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce).
His wife, Lady Marguerite Blakeney (Merle Oberon), holds him in contempt for his languid lifestyle. But she doesn't know that her husband is, in fact, the mysterious master of disguises who has saved many of their friends from Robespierre's (Ernest Milton) guillotine. His signature is a small red flower — a pimpernel that he leaves behind after each rescue. The movie's emphasis is on character and intrigue rather than action and special effects.
BY John Prizer
Snow Dogs (2002)
Disney can still make pro-life, pro-family films when it wants to. Snow Dogs, based on Garr Paulsen's book Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, is a light-hearted, slapstick comedy about a city slicker traveling to the country to discover his roots. Ted Brooks (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is a dentist in Miami who only learns that he's adopted when his birth mother dies and leaves him a cabin and a team of sled dogs in Tolketna, Alaska. The small town's resident curmudgeon, Thunder Jack (James Coburn), wants to buy the canines so he can race them in the region's annual sled race. Ted has never gotten along with dogs, but finds he dislikes the seemingly mean-spirited Thunder Jack even more and becomes determined to win the race on his own.
The two men scheme against each other until they uncover a secret that bonds them together. Adoption is depicted in a positive light, and the choice made by Ted's birth parents not to have an abortion is implicitly applauded.
The Flying Tigers (1942)
It seems likely that future generations will get their history from Hollywood. If so, they may conclude that John Wayne won World War II. The Flying Tigers, the Duke's first war movie, sets the pattern for the films that followed. It's a fictionalized account of the American Volunteer Group, which flew against the Japanese for Chiang Kai-Shek's China under the command of Gen. Claire Chennault before Pearl Harbor. Squadron leader Jim Gordon (Wayne) is a true-blue hero—two-fisted, but fair.
Each pilot receives $500 for every Japanese plane shot down. Gordon's second-in-command, the experienced Hap Davis (Paul Kelly), has failing eyesight. The new recruit, the wise-cracking Woody Jason (John Carroll), is a lone ranger who cuts in on the kills of his fellow pilots to grab the reward. Gordon pulls everything together to make the enemy suffer, grounding Jason until he gets his head right. Director David Miller mixes the personal conflicts with well-staged aerial combat footage. The American pilots come off as mercenary and patriotic, carefree and brave.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Director James Ivory (Howard's End) uses Kazuo Ishiguro's award-winning novel to take an imaginative look at the dark side of English aristocratic culture during the 1930s. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is the perfect butler to the arrogant but seemingly decent Lord Darlington (James Fox). “I don't believe a man can consider himself fully content until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer,” Stevens comments.
Darlington is hosting soirees with Nazi sympathizers in a misguided effort to keep England out of war. He hires a head housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), who's critical of much that she sees around her. Stevens is at first scornful, but later develops deeper feelings for her that he doesn't know how to express.
BY John Prizer
Balto II: Wolf Quest (2002)
An individual's search for his or her true identity is a classic theme of movies and literature. Balto II: Wolf Quest, the entertaining sequel to the 1995 animated hit, explores this subject with sensitivity and depth. Balto (voice of David Carradine), the half-wolf, half-dog of the original, is raising a litter of pups he has fathered in civilization. His daughter, Aleu (Lacy Chabert), grows up feeling like an outsider among other dogs because she looks more like a wolf than her father. She decides she must learn what kind of “music sings inside her.” Balto joins his daughter on her quest back into the Northern wilderness from which their ancestors came.
Balto must defeat a mean wolf for leadership of a wolf pack, and he and Aleu must face down a ferocious bear. But their greatest challenge is surviving in the rugged, natural terrain. Their adventures are inspired in part by traditional Native American songs and chants. Although the movie is primarily for kids, adults will find it compelling as well.
Even in Third World countries, moviemaking is a glamorous profession that tempts weaker souls to violate their moral codes to become part of it. CloseUp, written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami (Life and Nothing More), is an intelligent exploration of these conflicts set in contemporary Iran. Based on an actual incident, the filmmaker uses the real-life people involved to play themselves in cleverly staged re-enactments. Sabzian, an impoverished printer's assistant, is riding a bus, reading a book called The Cyclist by noted Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar). When the book catches the attention of the wealthy Mrs. Ahankhah, seated nearby, Sabzian pretends to be Makhmalbaf.
Sabzian gets himself invited into the luxurious Ahankhah household by promising to use the premises as a location for his next film. The woman's husband and son become suspicious when Sabzian borrows money.
His hoax is exposed, and he's falsely accused of planning a robbery. Kiarostami uses the situation to make subtle comments on class differences and the disparities between rich and poor in Iran.
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BY John Prizer
Oliver Twist (2000)
A six-hour “Masterpiece Theater” adaptation of the novel dramatizes the cruel social conditions that confronted disadvantaged children in early 19th-century England. Oliver Twist (Sam Smith) is an orphan raised in a workhouse for the poor who's determined to rise above his lot. Screenwriter Alan Bleasdale and director Renny Rye cleverly expand the novel's backstory about the lad's dead mother (Sophia Myles) before launching into his adventures.
The Golden Seal (1983)
Based on James Vance Marshall's novel A River Ran out of Eden, this heartfelt, imaginative presentation is set in remote Aleutian Islands off the Alaska Coast. The 10-year-old Eric (Torquil Campbell) is lonely and wants a pet. He bonds with the real-life embodiment of a legendary golden seal who allegedly stays away from humans because of their greed.
The animal visits Eric's island every seven years to bear its young. A bounty hunter (Michael Beck) and Eric's father (Steve Railsback) are searching for the creature because of the $10,000 price on its pelt. But Eric decides to shelter it from its pursuers.
The Fighting Sullivans (1944)
In Waterloo, Iowa railway worker Mr. Sullivan (Thomas Mitchell) and his wife (Selena Royle) are raising five boys. Director Lloyd Bacon (Knute Rockne, All American) and screenwriters Mary McCall, Edward Doherty and Jules Schermer recreate the flavor of small-town life with feeling and depth. After the Pearl Harbor bombing, the five Sullivan sons (Ryan, John Campbell, James Cardwell, John Alvin and George Offerman) join the Navy and insist on serving together.
BY John Prizer
David Copperfield (2000)
The works of Charles Dickens have remained perennial favorites since their initial publication almost 150 years ago.
Each new generation rediscovers the rich characterizations and sharp social observations which unfailingly grab our hearts.
These virtues are fully on display in this PBS miniseries based on David Copperfield. Shot on location in England, it's written by Adrian Hodges and directed by Simon Curtis.
The young David (Daniel Radcliffe) has it rough. After his father's death, his mother (Emilia Fox) marries the paranoid disciplinarian Murdstone (Trevor Eve), who sends him to a cruel boarding school run by Mr. Creakle (Ian McKellen) and then off to work in a London sweatshop. Only his old nanny, Peggotty (Pauline Quirk) and the profligate debtor, Mr. Micawber (Bob Hoskins), are kind to him.
As an adult, David (Ciaran McMenamin) is re-united with his eccentric Aunt Betsey (Maggie Smith) and must outwit the unctuous Uriah Heep (Nicholas Lyndhurst), who tries to swindle them.
This novel was Dickens' “favorite child” as the hero's coming-of-age adventures mirrored the author's. But you needn't be a Dickens fan to admire this video.
Many Hollywood war movies feel the need to improve on history (Pearl Harbor).
Midway sticks to the facts of real-life combat engagements.
Six months after the Japanese destroyed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the maverick Comdr. Joseph Rochefort (Hal Holbrook) cracks the enemy's code and learns that they're planning to seize our naval base at Midway Island, an excellent jumping-off point for an invasion of Hawaii.
Admiral Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda), Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (Glenn Ford) and the legendary Admiral William “Bull” Halsey (Robert Mitchum) lead the Americans to a surprise victory over the Japanese Navy, commanded by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune), even though we're outnumbered four to one.
Director Jack Smight and screenwriter Donald Sanford recreate the mechanics of how military operations are put together better than almost any other filmmakers.
Actual combat footage is skillfully mixed with well-staged battle scenes.
Less compelling is the personal soap opera involving Capt. Matt Garth (Charlton Heston), who intercepted some of the first Japanese communications, and his son (Edward Albert).
Peter Pan (1953)
James Barrie's Peter Pan has been presented countless times on stage, screen and television. Walt Disney's animated, musical version is one of the best.
The stern Mr. Darling (voice of Hans Conreid) disapproves of the stories his daughter Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) tells her two brothers about a mythical boy named Peter Pan. When the older Darlings take off one evening, Peter (Bobby Driscoll) magically materializes in Wendy's bedroom with his attendant, the fairy Tinker Bell.
Peter and Tinker Bell can fly. With a sprinkling of Pixie Dust, Wendy and her brothers soar with them across the evening sky to the wondrous Never Never Land, where Peter lives with the Lost Boys. Wendy and her companions are captured by the pirate Captain Hook (also Conreid), but Peter saves them before they're forced to walk the plank.
Hook is devoured by his long-time enemy, the crocodile who's
swallowed a ticking clock. Wendy returns to London with a new understanding of the meaning of growing up. Both kids and adults will enjoy the movie.
BY John Prizer
The American President (2000)
The events of Sept. 11 remind us of the crucial role each president plays in shaping the direction of our nation. The American President, a 10-hour PBS documentary miniseries, was completed before the election of George W. Bush, but its focus on the relationship between the personal and the political during the terms of his 41 predecessors can help us better understand the significance of Bush's behavior and decisions.
Produced by journalist Philip Kunhardt Jr. and his two sons, Philip III and Peter, the series has wisely chosen a non-chronological structure.
Each one-hour segment picks four or five presidents from different periods and examines what they had in common.
For example, a segment titled “Happenstance” profiles five men who moved from the vice presidency to the White House upon the sitting president's death. “Family Ties” profiles four commanders in chief whose careers were jump-started by their powerful, influential families.
The voices of the presidents from pre-electronic media eras are provided by contemporary public figures like Colin Powell, the Rev. Billy Graham and Walter Cronkite.
Battle of Algiers (1965)
Does this sound familiar? A clandestine Arab political organization that uses a non-hierarchical, cell-like structure to plant bombs to kill innocent Westerners and whose leaders prefer death to surrender. The Battle of Algiers, winner of the Venice Film Festival's Grand Prize, is a passionate dramatization of the real-life rebellion of the FLN guerrillas against French colonialism in Algeria. The terrorists' motives back then were nationalist rather than religious, but their brutality and effectiveness still chill the blood.
It's 1957, and the local French commander, Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), surrounds the apartment of terrorist leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) and asks him and his family to surrender or face death. The revolutionary ignores the warning and is killed. The action flashes back to 1954 as we watch Ali successfully recruit criminals and pre-adolescent boys to his cause. The methods used by the French to hunt him down are as disturbing as the violence he employs. The terrorists' eventual victory despite Ali's death may unsettle contemporary viewers. Australian nurse who challenged the medical establishment of her day. Elizabeth Kenny (Rosalind Russell) works in sparsely populated rural areas at the beginning of the 20th century. She finds a reliable way to rehabilitate polio victims before the discovery of the Salk vaccine. Her methods attract the interest of a big-city physician, Dr. Aeneas McDonnell (Alexander Knox), but the region's top researcher, Dr. Brack (Philip Merivale), initiates a campaign to discredit her. He believes that only doctors are qualified to make findings of that sort.
Kenny's primary concern is to help the physically handicapped children under her care.
She has no time for romance or anything else that will distract her from her cause. She eventually carries her battle to the United States where she gets proper funding and recognition. Her compassion and perseverance are inspiring. The production was a labor of love for its director, Oscar-winning screen-writer Dudley Nichols (The Informer).
BY John Prizer
The Princess Diaries(2001)
Despite the populist trappings of our culture, many young girls still fantasize about being born of royal blood. The Princess Diaries turns Meg Cabot's novel on the subject into a female-empowerment fairy tale that cleverly dissects some of the components of this dream. But director Gary Marshall (Pretty Woman) and screenwriter Gina Wendkos emphasize laughs rather than social commentary. The curly-haired, coltishly awkward 15-year-old Mia Thermapoulos (Anne Hathaway) is a child of divorce. She's been raised by her non-conforming artist mother, Helen (Caroline Goodall), and has never known her father. But his sudden death makes this very Americanized teen-ager the heir to the throne of the independent, Monaco-like principality of Genovia.
Mia's grandmother, the Queen Dowager (Julie Andrews), supervises her royal training. This formal, elderly woman becomes a female authority figure who gently provides the girl with a kind of interior moral structure previously lacking. Mia learns that inner changes mean more than outer ones and that serving others is more important than popularity.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
The Crusades were once perceived to be a time of great heroism, and the virtues of its leaders were thought to have inspired the citizens of Christian nations to demand equivalent justice at home. The Adventures of Robin Hood is an exhilarating, old-fashioned swashbuckling yarn that quietly preaches that message. When the much-admired Norman warrior King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Ian Hunter) returns from the Crusades, he's kidnapped by the Austrians and held for ransom. In his absence, the evil Prince John (Claude Rains), also a Norman, proclaims himself ruler of England and organizes the Norman lords to exploit the Saxon peasants.
Sir Robin of Locksley, a Saxon nobleman nicknamed Robin Hood (Errol Flynn), still holds to Richard's ideals and resists Norman oppression. He's driven into Sherwood Forest, where he and his followers rob rich Normans to feed the Saxon poor and raise money for Richard's ransom. The movie features such colorful characters as Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), Little John (Alan Hale) and the lovely Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland).
Lawrence of Arabia(1962)
Much Islamic fundamentalism springs from the warring tribes of the Arabian peninsula, home to Osama bin Laden. Lawrence of Arabia provides a crash course in some of the region's history and politics. Director David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson craft an epic character study of the eccentric British hero who united the Arab tribes in a successful revolt against the Ottoman Turkish Empire during World War I.
Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) feels out of place in Edwardian England and reinvents himself as a desert warrior. His victories serve Britain's wartime purposes. But that nation also has its own colonial ambitions, and they force him to break his promises to his allies (Sir Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif) about Arab independence. While emphasizing Lawrence's charisma and military leadership, the filmmakers also explore his dark side.
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