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.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About NothingIf you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.

The story concerns two young lovers who are both possessed of too much wit for their own good and their sharp tongues frequently cut others to bits, but none moreso than themselves, for Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) constantly cut each other to ribbons.  After sleeping together, the two part ways, then, when the victorious army returns from the war, they continue as if nothing had happened.

Beatrice lives with her uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is the Governor of Messina.  Although they are excessively wealthy, she shares a room with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese).  The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit, bringing with him his disgraced brother, Don John (Sean Maher), and the celebrated war hero, Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick.  No sooner have they arrived at this beautiful villa than Claudio reveals that he is deeply in love with Hero.  Now that the war is over, he wants to marry her and asks Benedick’s advice.  A confirmed bachelor, Benedick can only speak of himself, stating that he will never get married, that it is an odious state that can only ruin a man.  Unperturbed, Claudio tells Don Pedro about his love and the Prince volunteers to intercede with her at the costume party later that night.  He is successful and the marriage is set for a week later.

Don John has brought along two of his associates to help him plot revenge on the lot of them, his girlfriend, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and a vicious young man named Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark).

For his own amusement, Don Pedro hatches a plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together: he and the men will have a conversation that Benedick will overhear in which they opine about Beatrice’s secret love for Benedick.  Meanwhile, Hero and her maidservant, Margaret (Ashley Johnson) will do the same for Beatrice, letting her know that Benedick is desperately in love with her, but is afraid to tell her because of her acid tongue.

When Don John hears of the intended marriage between Claudio and Hero, he tries to find some way to derail the marriage.  Borachio has the answer.  He has been involved in a relationship with Margaret and he can set up a scene where she dresses in Hero’s clothing and they make love in Hero’s room, so that Claudio will believe Hero is unfaithful.

The night before the wedding, local security chief, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) has set out the night watch.  Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John all witness what they assume to be Hero making love with a stranger and Claudio decides to humiliate Hero by exposing her at the wedding.  Later that night, Borachio and Conrade are smoking a joint outside as Borachio brags about how he set up the Count Claudio for a fall, when Dogberry’s watch finds them, having overheard Borachio’s confession of villainy.  Arrested, Borachio and Conrade are brought in for questioning.  Dogberry has a few problems with English in that he frequently says exactly the opposite of what he means, thus confusing the two during their “interrogation.”

Intrigued by what they have heard, each of the other’s secret love, Benedick and Beatrice come together and discover that they really, truly are in love.  They pledge themselves to marry.

At Hero’s wedding, Claudio goes through with his threat and roughly accuses Hero of infidelity before the entire assembled wedding party.  He and Don Pedro race away and Hero collapses of shock.  The minister comes up with a plan that Hero should pretend to be dead, then Claudio will regret his actions and when he finds out she’s alive, they’ll marry anyway.  Beatrice, livid with anger over Claudio’s actions, forces Benedick into a duel with Claudio to prove his love to her.  Benedick confronts Claudio, telling him that Hero is dead and challenging him to a duel which will take place later.

Before there can be more mayhem and mischief, Dogberry brings Borachio and Conrade to Leonato and reveals that Hero was not immoral on the night before her wedding.  And so, there is a double wedding at the end.

There are many things to be loved in this modern day version of the Shakespeare classic.  For one thing, many aspects of the story are clear as a bell, rather than buried in pages of language.  Whedon has created a beautiful black and white modern world for this play to be set in and it looks beautiful, more like a classic French film than anything American.  The actors are all extremely sharp and the characters are extremely well-drawn.  Good, young actors contribute a  great deal to the success of this movie.  Both the men and women are incredibly handsome or beautiful throughout the movie.  I don’t think there is one “normal” looking person in the film, which is something that normally bothers me a great deal.  Does everyone always have to be supernaturally beautiful?  Apparently so.

The movie is quite funny, for the most part, although at times the black and white medium makes it feel like the story is a bit darker than it actually is.  Some of the parts are a bit overdone, such as Benedick’s extremely foolish eavesdropping on the conversation that sets him up with Beatrice.  Fillion plays Dogberry a little low-key for me and many of the lines that are funny in Shakespeare just look a little dumb with Fillion’s dry delivery.

As with all modern dress versions of Shakespeare, language is a problem.  I give full credit to Joss Whedon for doing an excellent job of cutting and compressing the play to get it down into very good length, but when when someone who is apparently modern gives out with “thee” and “thine” and “by my troth” it just doesn’t remotely ring true and frankly, it seems ludicous.  From the DVD special features, it seems that this project was put together very quickly using Whedon’s friends who had often read Shakespeare together as a fun thing to do.  Perhaps if it had been given a little more preparation, Whedon might have rewritten Shakespeare even a bit further and brought the language into line with the way we talk.  But if they just wanted to film friends doing Shakespeare, I guess it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without the language.

This isn’t really Whedon’s fault.  Many others have attempted to set Shakespeare in a modern day environment and each of them ultimately fail because Shakespeare’s language is over 400 years old and it sounds archaic and looks dumb when spoken by people dressed like us.  Much Ado About Nothing is far more successful than most attempts and I found it to be a highly entertaining, well-acting, well-cut film.

Even so, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief that is way beyond my own rich fantasy life.

All is Lost

All is Lost RedfordA man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian Ocean toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?

Robert Redford gives a dynamic, riveting performance as the man fighting for his life in this 2013 film written and directed by J. C. Chandor.  With virtually no dialogue, the viewer is constantly engaged with the action, watching Redford’s eyes to see what he is feeling, trying to figure out from his actions what he is trying to accomplish in all of the little tasks that he takes on to try to survive.  It creates an inner dialogue that glues the viewer to the story, caught up in this extremely honest, thrilling film.

The cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco is extraordinary, catching all the moods of the sea and the storm.  The music, by Alex Ebert, is restrained, working within the overall sound created by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of wind, waves, thunder, rain, grunting, and gasping.

Although the movie won various awards worldwide, it was seriously snubbed by the Academy Awards, though I can’t figure out why.  Clearly, it is one of the best movies of 2013, with a brilliant, gut-wrenching performance by Robert Redford, skillful directing, terrific special effects, great sound, and a story that is completely engaging from beginning to end.

This is a great movie that should be seen by everyone!

To Catch A Thief

To Catch a Thief 01This 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.  The following review contains plot spoilers.

The story is simply an excuse for the beauty.  American ex-patriot John Robie (Cary Grant) is a former jewel thief who was known as “the Cat” before World War II.  He paid his dues by fighting in the French Resistance, killing over 70 Nazis proving his loyalty to France.  After the war, he put aside his thieving ways and lives respectably and very well, thank you, in a villa on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean.  This idyllic life is disturbed when a copycat burglar begins stealing the most expensive jewels on the Riviera.  When the Police come calling, thinking he has renewed his life of crime, he evades them in a breathtaking car chase through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Turning his car over to a woman on the street, he hops a bus and sits next to Alfred Hitchcock.

He goes to see his old friend from the Resistance, Monsieur Bertani (Charles Vanel), who runs a restaurant that is manned by head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli) and more of their old Resistance buddies, who are all suspicious that the Police are right about Robie.  Bertani helps him escape with the aid of Foussard’s daughter, teenager Danielle (Brigitte Auber) who has a crush on him.  She takes him across the water to the Hotel Carlton, where beautiful American tourist Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) sees him.  He makes contact with a British insurance company representative, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), and pleads his case, that he is innocent and only wants to catch the thief to clear his name.  Caught by the Police, Robie is released due a lack of evidence and convinces Hughson to give him the names of his clients who have the most expensive jewels waiting to be stolen.  Abashed at having already had to pay out huge sums, Hughson agrees, also sharing the list with the Police to hedge his bets.

To Catch a Thief 02He begins by meeting rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), mother of Frances, and posing as a rich Oregon timber man.  After a stimulating evening, he escorts the two ladies back to their rooms, but before he can depart, Frances gives him a passionate kiss and arranges to meet him the next day.  While swimming, he runs into Danielle and Frances becomes jealous.  She and Robie take a drive to look at villas and are followed by the Police.  When he asks her to drive a little faster, she speeds up considerably, taking a kind of devilish delight in tempting fate.  They safely evade the Police and find a nice spot overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and she tells him that she’s figured out that he’s actually John Robie.  He denies it, but after lunch the end up kissing again.  She tells him to meet her in her room to watch the fireworks or she will reveal who he really is.

That night, she seduces him again, proposing that they go into business together as burglars.  He continues the façade of being a tourist, but when she goes to sleep, he keeps watch in her bedroom.  During the night, however, the burglar robs Jessie of all her expensive jewels and finally Robie reveals himself to them.  Frances calls the Police on him and he departs over the rooftops as they arrive to search for him.

Hiding out, he stakes out what he thinks is the next target, alerting Hughson and putting the Police on notice.  As he waits in the dark, he is attacked by a man dressed in black.  Struggling, he throws the man over the cliff.  The Police find the body of Foussard in the Sea and announce that he was the burglar, clearing Robie of charges.

At her father’s funeral, Danielle becomes distraught and calls Robie a murder.  Chagrined, Frances again hooks up with Robie and he tells her of his plans to capture the real burglar by attending a fancy costume ball.  The Police follow and also stake out the ball, which Bertani is catering, with Danielle’s help.  After changing disguises with Hughson, Robie waits on the roof for the burglar to show up, but when he does, it turns out to be Danielle.

To Catch a Thief 03On Robie’s hillside villa, Frances kisses Robie again, remarking that her mother is going to love the house.

From beginning to end, the cinematography is stunning, so much so that the film won Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s longtime associate an Academy Award.  Although nominated for her incredible costuming, especially of Grace Kelly, Edith Head did not win.

This film has a different feel than most of Hitchcock’s work.  Although it contains a lot of humor, the film is not a comedy.  There is certainly some mystery as to who the real burglar is, but the film lacks the tension and suspense that mark most of Hitchcock’s movies.  In truth, this is a feel-good romance, concentrating, as it does, so intensely on beauty.  This was the last film he made with Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco and gave up acting and it is appropriate that she shows so well.  Stunning in an array of dazzling Edith Head costumes, the three gowns she wears are all breathtaking.

It moves at a really good clip, coming in at under two hours, and you never notice the time passing because there is always so much beauty for your eye.  It is a fun movie, something you can’t really say about too many Hitchcock films and it transports you to a time and place full of such charm that it can honestly be said to elevate one beyond the every day.

A stunning film!  I highly recommend this movie for all audiences.

A

 Across_the_Universe_3lgAcross the Universe

Conceived, produced and directed by the eclectic Julie Taymor, this film is a romantic musical that incorporates parts of 34 songs composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and the three of them plus Ringo Starr (“Flying”).  Most of the songs are sung on-screen by the characters, though there are some instrumentals.  This places the film in the category of old-style musicals where people seem to burst into song as a part of the story.  To everyone’s credit, it actually seems to work very well indeed.


1-adjustment-bureau-copyThe Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau, based on a Phillip K. Dick story, is a far-fetched, but very engaging film.  David Norris (Matt Damon) is a Brooklyn politician who meets a fascinating woman, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) on the night that he has just lost the Senate election.  When she runs away, he is motivated to give a galvanizing concession speech that will reenergize his career.


AdventurelandAdventureland

Adventureland is a funny and moving teen romance written and directed by Greg Mattola about a group of teens working at a summer carnival.  The main character, James Brennan, is a student who has just graduated from a small college and is saving up his money to go to the Columbia School of Journalism so he can begin a career in travel writing.  Played with both humor and angst by Jesse Eisenberg, James is trying to find romance, but his own geekiness stands in his way.


All is Lost RedfordAll is Lost

A man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian sea toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?


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Amadeus

A terrible way to triumph over God.  These are the words of 18th Century Italian composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) referring to his murder of the brilliant, meteoric Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ((Tom Hulce). He tells the story to Father Vogler (Richard Frank) who has come to hear his confession at the insane asylum to which Salieri has been confined following a suicide attempt.


 american-hustle-posters-sonyAmerican Hustle

Loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM sting operation, this 2013 film was written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer and directed by Russell of The Fighter and  Silver Linings Playbook fame.  Bringing along Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook, he has created a brilliant sting comedy that takes place at the height of disco mania, 1978.


Art of Getting By3The Art of Getting By

In The Art of Getting By (2011), George (Freddie Highmore), a high school senior living in New York City, falls into a fatalistic funk.  Although he is a gifted artist, he realizes that he’s going to die some day and asks himself: What is the point of trying?  Seeing no point, he gives up working on his school assignments, skips class and tests and just skates by as a loner.  Facing this failure, he is placed on academic probation.


Austenland PictureAustenland

The heroine of the movie, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a disheartened Jane Austen fan. Obsessed with the writer, she looks at her own life and sees failed relationships, a dead-end job and no future, so she decides to spend her life savings on a trip to England to resort called Austenland

 

Capote

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Capote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood. The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.

At the heart of the film, though, is a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the diminutive novelist who followed his instincts to a small Kansas town to investigate the murder of the Clutters, a family of four, execution style, in their own home. The way he insinuated himself into their landscape was nothing less than audacious, especially for a flamboyant New York homosexual. Hoffman won the Academy Award as Best Actor for this beautiful, studied performance. He portrays Truman Capote as the consummate artist searching for the heart of the story and finding it in the person of the primary killer, Perry Smith, portrayed with restrained power by Clifton Collins, Jr. The relationship that develops between this unlikely pair is pinned on the fact that both of them had difficult childhoods.

Capote lies repeatedly to Perry to get the answers he needs. The heart of In Cold Blood resides with Perry’s unpredictable rampage that turned a robbery gone wrong into a heartless mass killing. The novelist takes his time to slowly lead Perry to tell the story until time runs out and he must manipulate the killer into telling how everything went down that night at the farmhouse.

A number of subordinate performances are also of extremely high quality, including Catherine Keener as Capote’s research assistant and brilliant novelist in her own right Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) and Chris Cooper as the officer in charge of the investigation.

I urge anyone interested in either filmmaking or the art of the novel to see this movie. It is truly brilliant.