The Silence of the Lambs

Silence Lambs 01When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.

The following review contains a detailed analysis of the plot, so be forewarned.

Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) recruits Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) for this job without telling her why: he wants to get Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help them profile Buffalo Bill so they can catch the killer before he acts again.  Even before she can leave Quantico for Baltimore, they are already too late.  Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) lures young Catharine Martin (Brooke Smith) into his van and abducts her, putting her down in an empty well in his basement and forcing her to use lotion to soften her skin while his little toy poodle Precious looks on.  Sitting at a sewing machine, surrounded by rare moths, he sews his collected skin together.

Silence Lambs 03In Baltimore, Clarice meets Lecter’s prison psychiatrist, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), who has taken to using subtle torture to try to make a name from Lecter, who was at one time himself a brilliant psychologist.  Given the antagonism between the two, she requests to see Lecter alone.  As she walks up the corridor to the special cell, one of the other inmates, Miggs, whispers obscene things to her.  In his cell, protected by glass, he is prohibited from contact with anything that might be used as a weapon or to escape, even pens, although he is allowed pencils to complete intricate drawings.  Clarice asks him about an especially detailed drawing of Venice and he remarks that it is his only way of having a view of the outside world.  Fascinated by her, he picks out her perfume and tries to get inside her mind without revealing anything of himself.  Frustrated, he dismisses her, but on the way out, Miggs throws a ball of come at her and this upsets Lecter who yells at her to come back.  He tells her to find an old patient of his, giving a few verbal hints and a fake name.

Clarice unravels his clues and follows them to a self storage garage outside Baltimore with an old car that contains a mannequin and a jar containing the head of Lecter’s former patient.  She revisits Lecter and he reveals that he did not kill the man, but that it is the world of a serial killer in the making.  Using a quid pro quo dialogue, he reveals bits and pieces while learning of Clarice’s youth, including the death of her father and her brief time on a sheep ranch in Montana staying with cousins afterward.

Another body is found and Clarice accompanies Crawford to examine the body.  Although he appears to be playing psychological games with her, Clarice stands up for herself and earns the fair treatment she deserves.  While examining the body, they find the pupa of moth wedged inside the girl’s mouth.  The investigation leads Clarice to university specialists who tell her that the pupa is a rare species of Asian moth.

Back in Quantico, she sees a television report that Senator Ruth Martin’s (Diane Baker) daughter has been kidnapped by Buffalo Bill.  Martin attempts to humanize her daughter to the killer by showing pictures of the girl growing up and referring to her over and over by her name: Catherine.  Oblivious to the broadcast, Bill continues to sew the skin of his victims together.

Silence Lambs 02Promising Lecter a transfer away from Dr. Chilton, Clarice tells him that if he can help them find Buffalo Bill, he will even be allowed some time on a beach.  Recording the conversation, Dr. Chilton checks with Senator Martin and discovers that the FBI has lied to Lecter and no such deal is in place.  He reveals this to his patient and brokers his own deal with Martin.  During his conversation with Hannibal, who is restricted with a straight jacket and face plate, Chilton leaves his pen lying in the office, then leaves Lecter to his assistant with the instruction to clean him up and get him ready for transfer.  In Memphis, Tennessee, Lecter is taken off the plane, but when Chilton goes to sign his release, he can no longer find his pen.  Lecter watches him anxiously until a guard offers a pen instead.

Introduced to the Senator, Lecter gives her false information as to the identity of Catherine’s abductor and is then escorted to a special cell on an isolated floor of the courthouse.  Clarice comes to see him, even though it is no longer her case, to try to find out why he gave the Senator false information and to keep trying to get the real killer’s name.  Playing quid pro quo again, he gets her to reveal that the reason she ran away from the ranch in Montana was that she was awakened by screaming because the spring lambs were being slaughtered.  Appalled, she opened the pen to let them go, but they wouldn’t leave, so she took one lamb and ran away, getting caught several miles from the ranch.  Lecter gets her to admit that she sometimes still has nightmares about the screaming of the lambs.  As Chilton and the officers escort her out, Lecter gives her back her case file and tells her that all she needs to know is there.  When the guards deliver Lecter his dinner, they handcuff him to the bars of his cage, but using components from Chilton’s pen, he unlocks his cuff and kills the two guards, cleverly making his escape.

Silence Lambs 04Piecing together bits of what Lecter has given her, she realizes that the killer might live close to the first victim because in the beginning these killers covet those who are nearby, that they see every day.  With this knowledge, she goes to visit the family of the first victim and stumbles upon the killer.  I won’t revel the ending, even though it is very exciting.

Only the third film to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay, it is also the first horror film to be named Best Picture.  All five awards are richly deserved.

This 1991 film truly established Jonathan Demme as a master of the art of film directing and in The Silence of the Lambs he has created a masterpiece that even Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.  The airtight script by Ted Tally, based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, melds several genres in a stew that is absolutely compelling.  A friend of Harris, Tally’s first draft was accepted by Demme and the film went into production with very little revision.  It is virtually unheard of in the film industry for a script to be so well written is taken on a first draft basis.

Murder mystery, detective story, horror, and psychological drama all work together under Demme’s expert hand.  Running just under two hours, the story is so gripping that it is extremely difficult to pull oneself away.  The music by Howard Shore feels invisible, yet it is coldly calculated to lead the viewer steadily and deeply into the grisly scenario.  Shore said of his score, “I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie.”  Bullseye.

Demme’s use of close-ups in the intense dialogue between Starling and Lecter, especially with the camera moving ever so slowly in tighter and tighter, creates such a feeling of intimacy and gripping suspense as to make it palpable.  In addition, the movie is a prime example of brilliant editing, each scene cut perfectly for the story.

The acting is pure gold.  This is by far Jodie Foster’s best performance in a long and distinguished career and she earned her Oscar by imbuing Clarice Starling with such a rich and subtle layering of character that she was completely believable and utterly compelling.  Opposite her, Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal with such brilliance, both believably intelligent far beyond most people and yet eerily spooky in his madness, one moment perfect British manner, one moment biting someone’s nose off.  Whenever he is present, a scene is elevated to the deepest level of psychological complication.  Great acting!  The supporting cast all do their jobs, each actor invested in their little part of the tapestry.

I’ve now seen this movie six times and each time I still find every single moment of it to be utterly compelling.  It stands the test of time with no effort at all and must be considered deep within anyone’s list of the Top 100 films of all time.

Adults only, this is a must-see movie!!!

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Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy 03This classic 1969 John Schlesinger film, adapted by Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It is the only X-Rated film to ever win Best Picture.  Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in what many consider his signature role, the film is about what happens to our dreams when they are tested against harsh reality.

This review discusses the movie in full detail, so beware spoilers.

Midnight Cowboy 01Joe Buck (Voight) is a young Texan who quits his job as a dishwasher and hops a bus to New York City to become a “hustler,” to sell his body to rich old women and make a ton of money.  He wears a buckskin jacket, beautiful shiny boots, and a black cowboy hat.  As the bus travels north, flashbacks tell the story of how his beautiful young mother dumped him with his grandmother, Sally Buck (Ruth White), who raised him while having a series of affairs.  As a young man, he was involved with a girl named “Crazy Annie” (Jennifer Salt) who repeatedly told him “you’re the only one.”  A gang finds them making love in a car and while some of them hold Joe, the others rape Annie while he is forced to watch.

Midnight Cowboy 06When he arrives in New York, he takes a hotel room and wanders the streets trying to find some woman who needs his services.  A wealthy middle-aged woman (Sylvia Miles) takes him up to her apartment and they make love, but the next morning when he asks for money, she weeps and he actually ends up paying her, by giving her cab fare.

Midnight Cowboy 02He meets Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a street con man that everyone calls “Ratso.”  They have a drink together and Ratso tells him that he knows a pimp who can get him lots of work.  He takes a fee of $20 for setting up a meeting with O’Daniel (John McGiver), then disappears.  O’Daniel tries to get Joe to go down on his knees with him and pray to a plastic Jesus mounted on the back of his bathroom door, but Joe freaks out and runs away.  When his money runs out, he takes to the street.  Seeing young homosexuals on the street dressed in cowboy gear, he agrees to oral sex with a young man (Bob Balaban) in a movie theater, but when the boy tells him he doesn’t have any money, Joe is forced to let him go.  Begging crackers in a diner, he watches a mother playing with her son by running a toy mouse over his face.

One day, walking past a coffee shop, he spots Ratso and tries to get his $20 back, but all Ratso has is some change.  However, he offers to share his room with Joe, a flat in a condemned building that still has running water.  Joe comes back with him and the two of them begin a strange, shaky friendship.  Ratso, whose dream is to one day move to Florida and get healthy, helps Joe to clean up and they try to hijack a male escort service job, but Joe blows it and they are back where they started.

Midnight Cowboy 07Winter arrives and with it an intense cold wave.  Stuck in their flat with no heat and no money, Joe and Ratso barely get by, but things take a turn for the worse when Ratso gets sick.  Sitting in a diner one day, they are approached by a strange pair, who take Joe’s picture and give him an invitation to a party at their flat.  This odd couple show up at a Warholesque scene involving pulsing music and film, decked out art scene celebrities (including Viva, Ultra-Violet, and other Andy Warhol actors).  Joe smokes a joint and then is given a pill, while Ratso fills up his coat pockets with salami from the ample spread provided.  Wandering into a room filled with red light, Joe becomes entangled with Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), a wealthy woman who agrees to take him home and pay him $20 for sex.  Ratso, who is now covered in sweat most of the time, falls down a flight of stairs.  Although he has always been crippled, he is now having difficulty walking.

Midnight Cowboy 04Initially, Joe finds he can’t perform with Shirley, but when she taunts him with being gay, he comes on very aggressively, then is surprised by the aggression she displays, clawing up his back with her fingernails.  Nevertheless, she gives him a referral to one of her friends and Joe thinks he’s finally on the way to becoming a stud.

When he gets back to their flat, however, Ratso is even more sick, so he goes back out and hooks up with a homosexual salesman, Towny (Barnard Hughes).  Worried about Ratso, he tries to get money from Towny, but when the man resists, he beats him and steals the money to buy two bus tickets to Miami for he and Ratso, who can no longer walk.

Ratso wets himself in the bus, so Joe goes to buy them light clothing for the warm weather.  He gets Ratso a Hawaiian shirt with palm trees on it and he throws away his buckskin jacket, boots and cowboy hat.  As the bus nears Miami, Ratso dies in his seat.

There really aren’t enough good things to say about this movie, which today remains one of the best films ever made.  Obviously, it’s for Adults Only, even though the X-Rating was later downgraded to an R.  In spite of the nudity, the thing that really concerned censors at the time was the abundance of homosexuality in the movie, which no longer carries the stigma it once did.  No sex is graphically shown in the film.

Midnight Cowboy 08I think most credit for the success of this movie is the vision of director John Schlesinger whose use of color, unique camera shots, and creative editing creates a look that is almost one of a kind.  Because dreams are so important, the camera itself has a very dreamy quality, whether it is in the flashbacks to Joe’s childhood or Ratso’s dream of a life in Florida.  The dark blue quality Schlesinger gives to New York City makes it a fully separate world, always fearful and eerie and on the edge of society.  At times, he allows the film to move into black and white and then back into color.  In this film, the city itself functions as dream world and that becomes fully apparent when the sun strikes the two friends on their way to Miami.  They have emerged from the darkness into the light.

The cast is full of terrific actors, which I never realized when I first saw it in a theater so many years ago.  You see it now and can only wonder at stalwarts like John McGiver playing a plastic Jesus loony and Barnard Hughes as a simpering fag.  Bob Balaban was virtually unknown at the time, but Sylvia Miles and Brenda Vaccaro were well-respected actors throughout the industry.  Jon Voight is terrific as Joe Buck and he carries a little boy optimism throughout his terrible experiences, but Dustin Hoffman steals the movie with his fully realized Ratso Rizzo.  Even at the time, it had to be considered one of the best performances of all time, but now it clearly shines and withstands the test of time.  He is simply brilliant.

The song that launches the movie, “Everybody’s Talking,” written by Fred Neil and sung by Harry Nilsson, truly gets under your skin and it sets the tone for the movie in the same way that “Sound of Silence” sets the tone for “The Graduate.”  You won’t be able to get it out of your head and that’s not a bad thing.  The entire score is amazing.  John Barry supervised the music and won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme, a haunting melody carried by a harmonica.

Obviously, I recommend this movie strictly for adults, but it must be considered one of the best films ever made, if not in the Top 10, then very, very close.  Brilliant filmmaking!

The First Time

First TimeThe very sweet teen romance written and directed by Jon Kasdan (son of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan) is disarmingly honest, with characters that feel so real there isn’t the hint of artifice.  Centered around two teens who meet by accident, become friends, and each decide to give up their virginity to the other, this film will leave you with a warm, gooey feeling that makes it a worthwhile viewing experience.

Aubrey Miller (Britt Robertson) is a junior in high school.  Leaving a party, she sees Dave Hodgman (Dylan O’Brien), a senior at a different high school, rehearsing a declaration of love for his longtime friend, Jane (Victoria Justice).  In spite of herself, she coaches him on how to do it right, explaining several times that she has a boyfriend and that she hates public displays of affection.  When the party gets busted, he walks Aubrey home and they talk about themselves and what they want to do with their lives.  At the door, she invites him inside and he is blown away by the collages that fill her bedroom.  They have some wine and end up falling alseep on the floor curled up together.

The next morning, they are awakened by a knock on her door.  Panicked, Dave spills a wine glass on his way out the window.  Her parents (Joshua Malina and Christine Taylor) lecture her about drinking, but Aubrey convinces them that its better for her to be drinking at home than at a party or driving.  Through friends, Dave is able to get her home phone number and calls her up, wanting to see her again.  She tells him that she’s going to see a movie with her boyfriend, Ronny (James Frecheville), an older guy who is rather obnoxious.  After the movie, one of their friends invites them to a party at her parents’ house and they all go.

During the party, Ronny tells Dave that he is going to have sex with Aubrey later that night and Dave is depressed that her first time should be with such a putz.  He gets some time alone with Jane, but finds that he is no longer interested in her.  Driving around on his own, he gets a call from Aubrey, who has broken up with Ronnie.  He picks her up and they each reveal that they have feelings for the other.  At her door, they kiss passionately.  The next morning, they go out with his little sister, Stella (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who approves of their relationship.

Aubrey finds out that her parents will be out for the evening, so she invites Dave over.  Although they are passionate at first, when Aubrey gets a condom for him, everything slows down and they both become extremely nervous about having sex for the first time, which leads to an unfortunate experience.  Afterwards, they are both depressed and when he leaves, she tells him that she will call, but they both have the feeling that it is over.  Each waiting for the other call, they obsess about their feelings for each other.

Eventually, as she prepares to leave for school, Dave shows up.  Once again, he’s been rehearsing what he wants to say to her, but it comes out simply: he likes talking to her and he wants to keep talking to her and maybe they can figure out what happens next along the way.  She asks him for a ride to school and they talk about maybe doing everything better in the future.  In spite of her hatred of public displays of emotion, she says to hell with it and kisses him passionately outside her school.

There are several reasons why the movie is successful.

One of them is Kasdan’s script, which is so incredibly simple that it really tugs at the viewer’s heart.  Many script writers of teen romances try to complicate the story by throwing in all kinds of unnecessary complications, but Kasdan relies on being a teenager as all the complication required and it works amazingly well.  His direction is also simple, very clean, with lots of long two-shots where the actors are allowed to carry the story without any gimmicks.

The other reason for the movie’s success is the performance of its two leads.  Dylan O’Brien gives us a character who is incredibly innocent, who wants so much to be in love that he targets his best friend, without realizing how different they are.  Britt Robertson creates a character in Aubrey who sees the world through cynical eyes, but ultimately wants nothing more than to be with someone who cares about her.  They are both rock-solid performances, completely believable, and ultimately very likeable, creating terrific chemistry together.

This film is short, simple, very well-made, and very heartfelt, with just enough comedy to offset the deeper emotions that it evokes.

Dollhouse

Dollhouse 01Dollhouse is an action-adventure series in a science fiction framework that strives to be much more than it actually is.  Created by whiz kid Joss Whedon and produced by its star, Eliza Dushku, the beautiful and well acted series jerks all over the map while consistently delivering fun, action-packed stories that mostly work toward a semi-coherent ending.

The Rossum Corporation (named in homage to the 1920’s play about robots, RUR, Rossom’s Universal Robots) is a gigantic, powerful medical company that takes advantage of their knowledge to manipulate and control active brain function.  They have created a technology that allows them to wipe a brain of all of its permanent memories, recording it onto a “wedge.”  Into this vacant brain, they install an “active” architecture that allows the subject to be implanted with a temporary personality and skills, easily wiped away once their assignment is finished.  They recruit volunteers who wish to forget their lives for a period of five years, during which they will be housed in a secret underground location called a Dollhouse.  Located in major urban areas, there are a number of dollhouses around the world.  They are also not above forcing their enemies into performing this function.  Periodically, each doll is served up a new personality paid for by the extremely wealthy for purposes ranging from a night of steamy sex to enacting a personal fantasy to performing complex business moves or even criminal actions.

The series focuses primarily on the Los Angeles Dollhouse, under the leadership of Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) and Security Chief Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond).  Their principal technician is the brilliant, geeky Topher Brink (Fran Kranz).  Each Active is named according the Greek alphabet.  Unfortunately, Alpha (Alan Tudyk) suffered an accident in which all of his past personalities were imprinted simultaneously into his Active architecture, creating a schizophrenic, homicidal maniac.  He butchers many of the security personnel and some of the dolls before escaping.  Their primary female doll, Whiskey (Amy Acker), survives, but with her face mutilated.  Rather than waste her talents, they imprint her with the personality of a medical doctor (Dr. Saunders) and put her on the staff.  Alpha also spares Echo (Eliza Dushku) who then becomes the primary female doll.

Dollhouse 02Dushku is forceful in driving the series, not only as the leading actress, but also as the producer.  She has matured into a fine actress and her beauty is simply stunning.

The new number one male doll becomes Victor (Enver Gjokaj), who plays a number of roles throughout the series.  Gjokaj displays mad skills as an actor and his performances enhance the series considerably.  His love interest becomes Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a newcomer to the Dollhouse who also becomes a major player in the series.

Discredited FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) attempts to locate the Dollhouse, aided by his beautiful neighbor, Mellie, who also turns out to be doll November (Miracle Laurie).  Rounding out the cast is Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), an ex-cop who becomes Echo’s “handler,” the Dollhouse insider who watches over her to make sure she doesn’t come to harm during her assignments.

Almost every aspect of this is beautiful, from the actors to the sets to the kinetic camera work and direction.  Even the title music is truly memorable.  Every episode flows with a speed and symmetry that makes it almost impossible to turn away, frequently using flashback sequences to fill in the past and once using a flash-forward to show the future.  The series finale takes us into that future to see the effect of the technology on the future.

Dollhouse 04Great acting abounds throughout the series.  Although Dusku’s character Echo always fuels the action, terrific performances by Fran Kranz, Enver Gjokaj, and Dichen Lachman enhance nearly episode.  If you like really good acting, it permeates this show, from the leads down to the smallest recurring characters.  In Season Two, Summer Glau has a really great recurring role as Topher’s other half in the Washington D.C. Dollhouse.

That being said, the show does suffer from a lack of identity.  Whedon and his writing staff waver between science fiction, action adventure, and character studies.  They rely far, far too much on violent fight scenes, rather than serious thought, to propel the story forward.  The fight scenes are all done extremely well, but after a while there is a sameness about them that proves ultimately distracting.  Like many shows of this nature, there are some stand-alone episodes, but it mostly catapults forward toward its ending, building details that all come to fruition at one point or another.  There are times in some episodes, however, when the viewer is led to believe that there will be major changes, only to have the show reset at the end of the episode, leaving the viewer back at the status quo when the next episode begins, so there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about what is going forward and what is remaining the same.  In terms of the style, Whedon admits on one of the special features that he had once considered doing every episode in a different style, one mystery, one crime, one science fiction, one 1940’s throwback, etc.  He didn’t do it, but I think this ultimately leads to a confusion of style that keeps the show from becoming completely cohesive.

Dollhouse 05The 26 episodes that comprise the two seasons would neatly make one full season of Star Trek, either Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager.  In addition to the 26 full episodes, there is a pilot included on the DVD that was never aired on Fox.  A confusing mish-mash of scenes, the pilot was eventually carved up, some of it ending up on the cutting room floor and some of it wedged into the story line of Episode 1.

One thing I generally like about DVDs is the ability to illuminate a show or a movie through interviews with the creators and actors, but the Dollhouse DVD is mostly full of self-congratulatory interviews, which I never like.  There’s something about creators and actors just patting themselves on the back that puts me off.  If you’re going to talk about your show, please talk about the theme, the story, the style, and creative arc.  I know you’re good, you don’t have to keep telling me.

The first season ends with a show that takes the Dollhouse into the future and it is extremely compelling.  At first, it put me off, but the more I watched and later as I thought about it, I came to feel that it made a perfect ending.  If the series had been canceled after one season, I would have been extremely satisfied.  In fact, the second season, however, is quite good, if a bit jerky and it is worth waiting for the ending, when the show moves totally into the future.

I highly recommend this television show for all science fiction junkies, for fans of action-adventure and fight scenes, and, oddly enough, for fans of another television show, Quantum Leap, for having great stand-alone episodes that concentrate more on character and story than on fighting and series-building.  In spite of its problems there is a lot of stuff to be found in Dollhouse and it really does get a high recommendation.

W

waitress adrienne shellyWaitress

Funny, touching, tough: three words that truly describe this vastly underrated 2007 comedy-drama, written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly.  Starring Keri Russell as a pie baker in a terrible marriage, this film is really about standing up for yourself and what is important in your life.


WARM-BODIES_510x317Warm Bodies

There are few films that boast a truly original premise, but Warm Bodies is one of them.  What genre is it?  Well, it’s the only zombie romantic comedy I’ve ever seen.  Written and directed by Jonathon Levine, it stars Nicholas Hoult as a zombie boy who falls in love with a human girl, played by Theresa Palmer.  Great fun!


we_bought_a_zoo_pWe Bought a Zoo!

We Bought A Zoo! is a friendly little movie released in 2011, based on the memoirs of the same title by Benjamin Mee, who bought his own zoo in England.  Starring Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson as Benjamin and his Zookeeper, the movie features an amazingly cute performance by Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Benjamin’s daughter Rosie.


Words and Pictures Juliette BinocheWords and Pictures

Which is more important: words or pictures?

This is at the core of this powerful 2013 film about education and artistic expression.  The script by Gerald DiPego is extremely well written and the direction by Fred Schepisi is outstanding, but the real reason for this movie’s success is in the two great performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as the two teachers who inspire their students to understand and to achieve more than mere talent can produce.


V

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointVertigo

Acrophobia is a perfect psychological ploy for a Hitchcock movie. Always fascinated with little psychological motivations, Hitchcock used fear of heights as the guiding principle of his 1958 movie Vertigo.  The plot, so detailed and involving, has become nearly iconic as the film has worked its way into the American psyche. 

 

Norma Rae

Norma Rae 01Freedom can be understood in many ways, but anyone who ever worked a factory job before the advent of unions understands freedom as the right to be treated as a human being, rather than as a machine part that can be worked to death and then thrown away.  Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie, Norma Rae, shows the difficult road to obtain that freedom.

The following review discusses the entire movie, including the ending, so if you don’t want the movie spoiled for you, I suggest you see it first.

Norma Rae (Sally Field) is a woman in her twenties who works at a textile factory in a small southern town, the only real job available to local workers.  She has been married once and has one child from her ex-husband and another she earned in the back seat of a car with another local boy.  Struggling under minimum wages, she lives with her mother (Barbara Baxley) and father (Pat Hingle), who also work in the factory.  Her only recreation seems to be meeting a traveling salesman for sex whenever he passes through town.  Although all of the workers at the extremely loud factory are upset about their working conditions, Norma Rae is the only one who complains to her bosses.

Norma Rae 02A union organizer, Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) comes to town representing the Textile Workers Union of America to try to organize the workers, but is met with animosity.  Most of the workers fear for their jobs in a town where their jobs are the only jobs to be had.  Norma Rae makes friends with Reuben as he settles in for a long battle.  At a bar, she meets a local man she had known as a child, Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges) and they go out for a beer.  They meet Reuben at the bar and he gives them a ride home because they are too drunk to drive. 

Norma Rae 03Sonny takes Norma Rae out to the lake with her two children and his own daughter from his previous marriage and he proposes to her.  Shortly afterward, they are married and settle into their own home.  The plant manager gives her a promotion and a raise to a job where she spot checks the work of the other workers, but she loses her friends because of it, so she goes back to her regular job on the floor.

When her father dies of a heart attack because his manager won’t let him take a break when he feels breathless, Norma Rae joins Reuben in his fight to establish a union.  She heckles and badgers her neighbors and works tireless hours with Reuben trying to convert people and get enough votes for the union to go through.  The plant managers try a number of tactics to break up the union organizers and one of them is to plant a letter on the bulletin board accusing black workers of running the union effort.  This leads to several beatings of African American workers.  Furious, Reuben asks Norma Rae to get the text of the message.  She tries memorizing it, but that fails and Reuben tells her that she must simply write it down.  She replies that she will be fired, but Reuben assures her the union will stick up for her.

Norma Rae 04She stands at the bulletin board writing down the message when she is confronted by management.  They bring her into the manager’s office and fire her.  She insists on writing down the names of all the managers present and they try to force her to leave.  As they escort her across the factory floor, she turns on them, defiantly proclaiming that they will have to get the sheriff to throw her out.  Standing up on a table, she writes the word “union” on a cardboard sign and turns in a circle showing it to the other workers.  One by one, they shut down their machines in support of her effort.

The sheriff arrives and takes her to jail.  Her one phone call is to Reuben who bails her out and takes her home.  She wakes each of the three children and sits with them on the sofa, explaining what she’s done and reciting her mistakes in life, showing them pictures of their fathers and telling that in spite of all of her mistakes, she has done the right thing in standing up for the union, that her freedom and their future is the most important thing of all.

Her example inspires more people to join the union and when the vote is taken, they narrowly win certification.  Before leaving town, Reuben asks her what she will do now and her answer is simple and concise:  “live.”

Based loosely on a 1975 book, Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann, the script by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch fictionalizes the real Crystal Lee Sutton into Norma Rae Webster, placing the story in a different town, and creating characters different from the real ones in the original book.

Martin’s Ritt’s direction is terrific and one of the reasons Norma Rae is such a good film.  His use of the hand-held camera keeps the movie immediate and kinetic.  The other reason it is a terrific movie is the performance of Sally Fields as Norma Rae.  At the time, she was just beginning to overcome her early type casting as the joyful, innocent girl in the television show The Flying Nun.  Just prior to filming Norma Rae, she had won an Emmy Award for one of the best television dramas ever, Sybil, in which she played a girl with multiple personalities.  Part of what makes her performance so appealing is that she keeps it so down to earth.  Not once during the entire movie is she unbelievable as this uncomplicated, emotional Southern girl who must stand up for her rights.  It is such a good performance that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.  It changed her life and broke her out of the mold she had been set in.

The supporting cast is excellent, including a terrific performance as by Ron Leibman as Reuben.  He was kind of shafted in the credits and advertising.  Beau Bridges was a bigger name and even though he has a much smaller role, he was given billing over Leibman.  Both Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley are terrific, too, as are the children in their smaller roles.

This movie is very powerful and it holds a just place in film history.  It should be seen by everyone, but especially those who are unsure what unions are and how they came to be.  It is an excellent film.

Sense and Sensibility (2008)

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 Elinor MarianneThis 2008 adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel stands out as the best so far, not because it is utterly faithful to the novel, although it is the most faithful of all adaptations over the last twenty-five years, but because it really penetrates the emotional heart of the novel.

This version begins by revealing the two actions that fuel the story.  The first is only alluded to in the novel: the seduction of Eliza Williams by John Willoughby (Dominic Cooper).  It is shown in close-ups lit with the bright red of a fireplace, so it isn’t possible to truly identify either the seducer or seduced.  The second action is the true beginning of the novel: the death of Mr. Henry Dashwood.  On his deathbed, surrounded by his second wife, Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer), and her daughters, Elinor (Hattie Morahan), Marianne (Charity Wakefield), and Margaret (Lucy Boynton), he entreats his son John (Mark Gatiss), from his first marriage, to make sure they are adequately taken care of, given that the English system of inheritance will exclude them from all but a paltry yearly stipend.

John inherits Norland Park and his wife, Fanny (Claire Skinner), immediately wants to move in and convinces him that his promise to his father certainly wouldn’t any kind of financial security.  When the Dashwoods arrive, Marianne is quite upset.  She feels the mansion should be rightfully theirs, but Elinor, the more sensible of the two reminds her that the house is not legally theirs.  Fanny is unbearable.  They decide to look for a new place to live, but Mrs. Dashwood simply has no idea of how little money they have.  Elinor suggests that they will only be able to afford a cottage.

Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens), the oldest son in their moneyed family, comes to visit and he and Elinor are deeply attracted to one another.  Just the opposite of Fanny, he is nice to Margaret and makes friends with Marianne.  Fanny, seeing the attachment between Elinor and Edward, counsels Mrs. Dashwood that Edward is destined to marry a very wealthy, well-placed society woman.  Shortly after that, Mrs. Dashwood receives an invitation from her cousin, Sir John Middleton (Mark Williams), to let a cottage on his estate at Barton Park in Devonshire and she immediately accepts.

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 CharityThe family relocates to a beautiful cottage by the seaside, surrounded by rolling hills and the rough rocky cliffs of the shoreline.  Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett), immediately set about trying to find husbands for them.  They introduce Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey), a wealthy former military man of thirty-five.  He falls in love with Marianne, but she thinks he is too old and lacks passion.  In an attempt to evade him, she takes a fall in the hills and is rescued by Willoughby, who is visiting his aunt at nearby Allenham.  Thinking him very romantic, Marianne falls in love with him, not realizing that he has already seduced Eliza Williams.  Brandon, confronts Willoughby, but the latter proclaims that his intentions toward Marianne are honorable. 

Mrs. Jennings’ nieces, Lucy (Anna Madeley) and Anne Steele (Daisy Haggard), come to visit and Lucy confides in Elinor that she has had a private four-year engagement to Edward.  It comes as a shock, but Lucy swears Elinor to secrecy.  Every time they meet thereafter, Lucy reminds Elinor that’s Edward is her lover.

As the whole group prepares to go on a picnic to Brandon’s estate, Delaford, but receives an urgent letter that causes him to cancel.  He rides off leaving the party confuses, but Willoughby takes advantage of the situation to take Marianne to show her Allenham, while his aunt is away.  Since he has taken a lock of her hair and seems to be completely in love with Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor assume that they are privately engaged, but when it looks like Willoughby will make a formal proposal, he suddenly leaves for London at his aunt’s bidding.

Later, Mrs. Jennings decides to visit her home in London and takes the girls with her.  Expecting to see Willoughby, Marianne writes to him every day, but hears nothing.  Then, at an Assembly, she confronts him and he coldly turns his back on her.  Nearly fainting, she is rescued by Brandon.  He returns all of her letters to her, apologizing for giving the false impression that he may have cared for her.  Marianne is distraught.  Mrs. Jennings then discovers that Willoughby is engaged to a young woman of great fortune and Brandon reveals to Elinor that Willoughby seduced his young ward, fifteen year old Eliza Williams and left her with child.

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 Elinor WeepingThe group goes to a gathering held by Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Ferrars (Jean Marsh), where Lucy Steele hopes to gain the good will of her future mother-in-law, but when Anne accidentally reveals the engagement, Mrs. Ferrars tells Edward that unless he breaks the engagement, she will cut him off from his fortune.  A man of honor, Edward sticks to his promise to Lucy.

Brandon escorts the family back to Devonshire, stopping at Delaford along the way.  Seized by her grief at losing Willoughby, Marianne gets lost in the rain and is found by Brandon.  She is put to bed, but develops a life-threatening fever.  Elinor waits at her bedside while Brandon brings their mother, but Marianne’s fever breaks and she recovers.  Realizing that Brandon loves her and seeing how he has cared for her, Marianne switches her affections to him and becomes engaged.

When Edward returns, everyone assumes that he is married to Lucy, but he reveals that Lucy has also switched her affections to his brother and has married him, leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.  Hearing this news, Elinor tries to cope with her feelings as Edward proposes.  A happy ending is thus concluded, with Marianne happy as the mistress of Delaford while Elinor marries poor Edward in his country parsonage, happier than she would have ever believed.

Sense and Sensibility Lucy BoyntonFans of the book will note that several changes have been made, but nothing truly drastic.  Many other versions of the story have managed to lose characters, such as little sister Margaret, who plays a great part in this version, and Anne Steele, who also plays a big part.  The script is written by Andrew Davies who did such a masterful job with the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which is largely regarded as the best version of that masterpiece.  Even with the few changes that Davies has made, the script remains more faithful to the novel than any other version.  The characters of Elinor and Marianne are beautifully written and take their part at the heart of the story.  Marianne’s passion is appropriately tempered with Elinor’s restraint.

Casting is frequently the cause of either the success or failure of a novel adaptation and that is certainly the case here.  Hatty Morahan’s Elinor is staid, but always, beneath the surface, you see her emotions whirling.  This care to show us how much Elinor feels, while outwardly appearing in control, is simply a beautiful job of acting.  Charity Wakefield’s beauty certainly compliments her passionate view of life and the acting is superb.  These two bring us full circle as Marianne learns some of the restraint of her sister, while Elinor finally opens up her heart and allows us to see deeply inside.  The chemistry of these two as sisters is truly great.  Janet McTeer is marvelous as Mrs. Dashwood and the charming restraint of Lucy Boynton as Margaret is simply delightful.

All the technical aspects are very well done, the sets beautiful and especially landscape of Devonshire is a delight to the eye.  One great little detail is Margaret’s collection of sea shells which she strings together to make a visual motif that the camera repeatedly comes back to.  The beauty of the sea side is lovingly captured.

Sequenced into a three episode series, each episode lasting one hour, it comes out to three hours compared to the five hours of Pride and Prejudice, but compared other movie versions, constrained to a two-hour format, this covers the scope of the book very well indeed.  If watching the DVD, you may as well skip the self-congratulatory “Making of” featurette and go immediately to Disk 2, which has a movie length BBC production called “Miss Austen Regrets.”  This is a fictional biography of Jane Austen and is fairly well done.

I highly recommend this version of Sense and Sensibility and it would make a great addition to any Janite collection.

T

to-have-and-have-not-bacall-bogartTo Have and Have Not

You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”   One can only an imagine an audience in New York in 1944 sitting back with a gasp and then collectively going, “Whoa!”  From her first moment on screen, Lauren Bacall lit up the cinema with her smoky voice and burning eyes, somehow keeping cool, almost mocking, while at the same time beckoning.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that future husband Humphrey Bogart was the man she was looking at.


 To Catch a Thief 01To Catch a Thief

This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.


To Kill a Mockingbird 02To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the greatest films ever made and the years have not diminished its greatness in any way.  It is unusual to see a nearly perfect adaptation of a modern classic novel (Pulitzer Prize, 1960), but the combination of Harper Lee’s story, Horton Foote’s adaptation, Robert Mulligan’s direction, Henry Bumstead’s art direction, Russell Harlan’s cinematography, and Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful music make this film uniquely touching, a deeply penetrating portrait of small town rural life in the 1930’s, in the deep South.


Torn Curtain (1966)Torn Curtain

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 cold war thriller is unique among his films because it contains some of the best filmmaking since he moved to America and also some of the worst.  Paul Newman stars as a physicist defecting to East Germany, with Julie Andrews as his stunned fiancé.


Trouble with the CurveTrouble with the Curve

Released in 2012, Trouble with the Curve is a fun little baseball movie that looks at changes in the world of scouting.  Directed by Robert Lorenz, the film stars Clint Eastwood as an aging scout for the Atlanta Braves nearing the end of his long, successful career and Amy Adams as his smart lawyer daughter who tries to help through the last round.