Danny Boyle’s wickedly witty thriller Shallow Grave (B+) features Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor as insular flatmates in search of a fourth, who turns out to have mysterious money and crime connections. Boyle is observant and twisty as his trio of antiheroes confronts some shades of gray that are murkier than ever surrounding their new domicile denizen. It’s entertaining and suspenseful.
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (A) tells a true-life Holocaust-set story of a factory owner (Liam Neeson) who along with one of his trusted advisors (Ben Kingsley) is able to help save many Jews from certain death against incredible odds. Ralph Fiennes plays one of the most villainous characters put to screen as the film’s most prominent Nazi officer. Despite Spielberg’s action and sci-fi masterpieces that have come before, nothing prepared audiences for the pain and poignancy his affecting drama would have. This black and white film is full of individual stories and details that will break your heart but with an engaging narrative pulling the viewer all the way through. Spielberg’s you-are-there flourishes are distressing and vivid, and only the hope that comes from the people that were indeed saved gives viewers solace from this real-life fever dream.
Jane Campion’s The Piano (A+) is a finely tuned masterpiece of moviemaking, transporting the viewer to a rare place in the human heart where love is a classic medley passed down through generations. Filmed in muted, natural colors, this mid 19th century New Zealand set story centers around a mute but passionate main character played by Holly Hunter who communicates with her peculiar daughter (Anna Paquin) in her own special sign language and through the sounds of her beloved piano. When trouble arises in an arranged marriage to Sam Neill and a mysterious settler (Harvey Keitel) arrives near their coastal outpost, a deal involving musical lesssons becomes something far more exotic with shades of betrayal and brutality. This original story has flashes of classic literature and absolutely haunting imagery over the lush music of Michael Nyman.
Tom Hanks brought his American Everyman charisma to the moving central performance of a gay lawyer wrongly fired from his firm when he contracts AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s stirring powerhouse of a film, Philadelphia (A). As good as Hanks is in the role, it’s Denzel Washington as a fellow homophobic attorney who defends him who emotionally transforms and helps change minds. Demme brings some great music choices to the piece, from the signature original tunes by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to an opera aria in one of the most moving sequences in the film. It’s a snapshot of the country at a specific time and place and a testament to real folks learning to find brotherly love in unexpected circumstances.
Director Peter Weir has a talent for dreamy out-of-body moments of passion ranging from wartime friendship and tragedy (Galipoli), primieval joy for the arts (Dead Poets Society) and the purest of love forbidden by tradition (Witness). Weir’s compendium of human epiphanies has a new entry, Fearless (A-), a spiritual drama about the ways two different individuals, played by Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez in career-high performances, react in the aftermath of a tragic plane crash. An incredible odyssey into self-discovery, uncompromising in its starkness as well as its message of redemption, it’s a powerful find of a movie with rejuvenating effect.
Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive (A+), based on the classic TV series of the same name, completely delivers on its intriguing cat-and-mouse premise and is a chase from start to finish. Harrison Ford proves he still has the chops to be an absorbing action hero, and Tommy Lee Jones injects solid comic relief as his tenacious foil.
Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes (A) offers a whistlestop whirlwind into the universal truths of friendship, sisterhood and possibly a whole lot more under the surface of women in the South. Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy are appealing in the framing modern-day empowerment story, but it’s the flashbacks centering on rascally restaurateurs played by Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson that really take hold of the imagination. Several subplots that aren’t fully sketched are eclipsed by the overall emotional impact of a journey that showcases the power of secrets and sacrifice.
The eager but naïve FBI agent played by Jodie Foster and the imprisoned cannibal played by Anthony Hopkins are the serial killer tracking duo for the ages in Jonathan Demme’s riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs (A+). Exploring the deepest reaches of the human psyche with crackling dialogue, impeccable acting and edge-of-your-seat thrills, this is a master class of trying to figure out motivations before a killer or even a fellow hunter makes the next move. Demme intentionally shoots Foster’s character in a way that juxtaposes her as different in world of male-dominated law enforcement officials and female victims, allowing her to hold steady as an amazing protagonist even as vicious villains try to get in her head. Hopkins’ role as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is one of the great onscreen roles and fascinating in his every sequence.
Adding to the charm Harrison Ford brings to the heroic role, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (A) layers in a flashback sequence with River Phoenix as Young Indy and introduces an inspired casting companion: Sean Connery as Indy’s dad. The two Joneses go on a quest to find the Holy Grail (before the Nazis get it, of course!). The family dynamic helps make fresh what might otherwise feel like a retread. We get exotic locales from Italy to Jordan and a highly sentimental set of sequences as father-son bonding and bickering become a major part of the equation. Since Indiana Jones was always Spielberg’s James Bond type franchise, the pairing of Indy with the original 007 is a great casting excavation. It’s a triumphant send-off for a trilogy of outstanding action films; I’ll try to forget that one more misguided sequel happens many years later.
Related link: One of my jobs in the 1990’s was developing the in-store magazine and Website for a video rental chain called MOOVIES. Here’s one of the few remaining sidebars: A run-down of Sean Connery’s movies: Link here.
Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (A-) is a startling drama, all taking place in the confines of a swanky restaurant in which the colors of the characters’ costumes change in each room. This allegory features Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon as the central couple. She is an abused wife (the husband evidently is a symbol of Margaret Thatcher) who falls into the hands of the so-called “lover,” who represents intellectual dissidents. A secret love affair ensues right under the same roof where the brooding husband holds court each night over his feast. Greenaway films the movie in fleshy primary colors and uses Michael Nyman’s orchestral music to propel the story forward during the course of a series of days. All sorts of deceit and decadence are on the menu as the film swells to its stirring conclusion. It’s an obsessive and amazing film, not for the easily offended.
Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (B+) is a marvelous confection about four exterminators of ghastly spirits (droll Bill Murray, goofy Dan Akroyd, uber-serious Harold Ramis and straight man Ernie Hudson) who must save New York from a Pandora’s box of supernatural creatures run amok. Sigourney Weaver is a treat as a possessed love interest, playing giddily opposite Bill Murray’s clowning. Despite the overindulgence in silly special effects, the acting ensemble makes this piece work by playing it super-serious. The biggest laughs are in the reaction shots: Of course that’s a skyscraper sized marshmallow man! And why wouldn’t there be demonic animals running in the street? Leading man Murray is a superb match for this material with his dry wit a ribald rapier to the funky fleet week of ghosts on the loose. Reitman corrals his grinning brigade into hilarious territory as the ‘busters take on haunted New York!
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (A-), directed by Richard Marquand, concludes a magnificent saga with an adventure to save Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, an excursion to a forest planet where Princess Leia confronts some family secrets and a battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader for control of the universe. Treading some familiar territory, we have to blow up another Death Star and endure a few other retreads of movies past. And we may have some Ewok teddy bears as a merchandising tie-in. But it’s still wall-to-wall action, amazing new creatures (Jabba the Hutt! The Rancor Monster! Admiral Ackbar!) and lots of great moments in the details. No matter which of Lucas’ special editions you may be watching, you’ll be humming a tune as you complete the saga – and that tune will include the unspoken lyric, “I just watched awesome.”