I'd like to spank the Academy

Archive for August, 2017

My Left Foot (1989)

downloadDirected by Jim Sheridan

I realized today that writing a post and getting it ready does absolutely no good if you don’t actually schedule it. Sorry for the delay. I promise I’m not always this flakey.

My family went to the movies one night when I was six, and I saw a poster for a movie called My Left Foot. I thought the title was weird, so I asked my mom what the movie was about. She said it was about a painter who used his left foot to paint, because that was the only part of his body that he could move. That explanation sounded so fake to me that I assumed she was lying; the movie must be about some grown-up thing she didn’t want to tell me about. When I saw My Left Foot for the first time 25 years later, I found out that not only was my mom telling me the truth about that bizarre plot, but that the movie was a true story. It blew my mind.

So what’s the story? When Christy Brown is born into a large Irish family in 1932, his parents find out that baby Christy has cerebral palsy. People assume that his parents will put him into a home, but his father refuses to do so. He grows up surrounded by his loving family, most of whom assume that he’s not really bright. Through much practice and perseverance, Christy learns to write the alphabet holding a piece of chalk with his left foot. From then on, Christy blooms into a brilliant painter and writer.

The Good: Daniel Day-Lewis is a brilliant actor. I would go so far as to say that he might be the most talented actor of his generation. I’ve seen him star in several movies without realizing it was him because he submerges himself so deeply into his roles. It’s no different in My Left Foot. Day-Lewis becomes Christy Brown. It’s almost frightening how well he does.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. Brenda Fricker was recognized with an Academy Award for her portrayal of Christy’s supportive, loving mother who refuses to give up on her son. Ray McAnally plays Christy’s father with equal gusto. He may not believe that his son is actually smart, but the love and pride that shines out of his eyes is beautiful to see. While Hugh O’Conor may not be quite as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, he does a fantastic job in his incredibly difficult role of young Christy Brown, showing the audience the struggles of a young boy who just wants the people around him to understand what is going on in his head. Christy’s speech and physical therapist, Dr. Eileen Cole, who is intelligent and sympathetic, is played by Fiona Shaw. Shaw just slips into the role, becoming immersed in Cole’s personality.

Sometimes biopics fall into the trap of making the subject too perfect, almost saintly. The screenwriters of My Left Foot avoided making this mistake. While his achievements were incredible and inspiring, Christy Brown was sometimes still a jerk, and the filmmakers are not afraid to show this side of him. In the movie, he throws fits when he doesn’t get his way. He makes a horrible scene in a restaurant when he finds out that the woman he loves is engaged to someone else. He pesters a woman to go on a date with him even though she keeps telling him no. He has his good side, too, but the writers showed him as a whole person who has ups and downs and good and bad all mixed together. That makes for a wonderful screenplay.

The Bad: I didn’t get much of a sense of passage of time. Sheila, Christy’s older sister, is the only character whose clothes changed with time. I realize that this is a poor family in a place where fashion doesn’t change much, but there could have been other clues. Headlines in the papers? People talking about World War II in the pub? His brothers getting called up, maybe? It’s not a huge deal, but it left me feeling a little bit rudderless.

The Ugly: My Left Foot has nothing bad enough that it can be called ugly.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Daniel Day-Lewis); best actress in a supporting role (Brenda Fricker).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

 

Field of Dreams (1989)

field-of-dreamsDirected by Phil Alden Robinson

I know this review is late; I’ve been putting off writing it. I have such mixed feelings about Field of Dreams that’s it hard for me to know what to say. Field of Dreams is a movie I grew up with. My dad would stick it in the VCR when he was working at home. As soon as the movie finished, Dad would simply rewind it and start it up again. He loved it so much that when my mom started to slim their movie collection down, there were three VHS copies and two DVDs of Field of Dreams among the other movies. I liked it when I was a child, but now I have very little patience for it. I don’t know what changed, but it was a chore to watch this movie.

So what’s the story? Reluctant farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in the cornfield: “If you build it, he will come.” Ray becomes convinced that it means that if he builds a baseball diamond in his fields, long-deceased baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson will be able to come play baseball. Ray takes a leap of faith and makes the baseball field, and miraculous things happen.

The Good: Field of Dreams is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Because I had seen the movie so often, I was excited to read the book in high school when one of my teachers had it on the free choice book list. The book was not so great. I don’t say this often, but the movie is much, much better than the book. The screenplay takes all that is wondrous and beautiful from the novel and makes a much more concise, coherent experience. Making a screenplay that is better than the book is not easy; Phil Alden Robinson did a fabulous job with the adaptation.

James Horner’s score is hauntingly beautiful. It fits the movie so very well, ethereal and peaceful. It never takes over what is happening on the screen, but supports it as a good musical score should.

Most of the actors were perfect. Amy Madigan is amazing as Ray’s scattered, yet down-to-earth wife, Annie. She hits just the right combination of crazy, passionate, supportive, and stable. Annie is a complex character, and Amy Madigan nails it. Although author J.D. Salinger is a character in the novel, Salinger was adamant that he not be a character in the movie. James Earl Jones plays the replacement character, fictional author Terence Mann. At first truculent and reluctant to listen to Ray, Mann slowly turns into a believer and champion of Ray’s mission. Jones subtly portrays the changes of the character and brings Terence Mann to life. The minor characters are also well cast. Gaby Hoffman as Ray and Annie’s daughter Karin, Frank Whaley as Archie Graham, and the great Burt Lancaster as Doc Graham all do a wonderful job. I especially love the kindness that shines from Doc Graham’s face. The minor baseball players whose names I do not know have a good bromance chemistry. Shoeless Joe is played by Ray Liotta. He brings an intensity to the role that makes him believable; you can see the love of the game emanating from him. (Also, Ray Liotta is extremely attractive in this movie. I thought so even as a six-year-old girl.)

The Bad: My view of this may be tainted by personal feelings, but I’m not a big fan of Kevin Costner’s performance as Ray Kinsella. He has his moments (notably his fanboy excitement when he meets Shoeless Joe for the first time and then later during the kidnapping of Terence Mann), but he’s not consistently impressive. Again, this might be my feelings getting in the way. I am not a fan of Kevin Costner the man. I’m not entirely sure why, but he just strikes me as being full of himself.

It is never explained why Terence Mann needed to be brought to Iowa. Yes, he loves baseball, but there was nothing else. He’s fabulous character, and I love that he’s in the movie, but he doesn’t have a why, so it niggles at my brain.

The Ugly: In his introduction, Ray says that he was born in 1952. He and Annie both talk often about “experiencing the 60s,” especially during their college years at Berkley. But they would have turned 18 in 1970; they would only have had 70s experiences in college. They would have only experienced the 60s as teens in high school, and based on the strictness of their families, they wouldn’t have had much of a 60s experience then. That stupid wrong detail has bugged me for years. Come on, people. Details are important!

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best music, original score.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

deadpoetssocietyDirected by Peter Weir

I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time during my sophomore year in high school. My English teacher technically tied it to the curriculum (it’s about a boarding school; we were reading A Separate Peace, which takes place in a boarding school), but I think she really just didn’t want to teach. Either that, or she had a crush on Robert Sean Leonard and wanted an excuse to watch the movie. This theory is not as far-fetched as it sounds; when we were talking about sexual objectification, we watched the volleyball scene from Top Gun.

So what’s the story? A unconventional new teacher inspires a group of teenaged boys at a boarding school in the late 1950s.

The Good: The screenplay for this movie is astounding. There isn’t one main character; Todd, Neil, Charlie Dalton, Knox Overstreet – they all have their struggles, their own voices, their own parts of the movie. John Keating is not so much the main character as he is the eye of the storm, the catalyst for the boys’ growth. All of the boys change, but in their own ways. Charlie finds a constructive way to use his humor and brash personality. Knox learns to stand up for love. Neil finds his passion. Todd finds himself. Keating’s speeches are written perfectly, from the choice of words to the choice of poems used. An entire relationship is shown by the fact that Neil uses the word “father” instead of “dad.” Even after almost twenty years, I hadn’t forgotten the line about being the intellectual equivalent of the 98 pound weakling. The writing is simply brilliant.

I can’t praise the acting enough. Robin Williams gives a magnificent performance as John Keating. The part calls for an actor who can balance slightly zany with inspiring and wise. I can’t think of a better actor for the part. Both Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke had their breakout roles as Neil Perry and Todd Anderson, respectively. (Of course, Ethan Hakwe has changed so much since 1989 that I had to check out his IMDb page to make sure it was the same Ethan Hawke that appears in Gattaca.) Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet), Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton), Dylan Kussman (the traitor Cameron), and James Waterston (Pitts) are each completely believable in their roles. Also, I would like to thank the casting director for not casting 30-year-olds as high school seniors. The young men were all within a year or two of 18. They actually look like high school students. It’s a wonderful thing.

The cinematography adds a fascinating dimension to the film. The scenes where Keating is teaching are shot from different angles so that sometimes the viewer feels like one of boys watching him from a seated position, while other times the viewer feels like Keating, watching the faces of the boys as they learn to think for themselves. The whirling swirling cinematography of the scene where Todd finds a poem in himself allows us to see the Todd’s inner dizziness for ourselves.

The Bad: There isn’t a lot of original music in Dead Poet’s Society, but the themes written for the movie are a beautiful: stirringly inspirational with just a tinge of sadness. However, there is a section where the music is played on a synthesizer. Inspirational music played on a synthesizer does not age well.

The Ugly (Spoiler Alert): I have struggled with depression and despair. I have decided to kill myself more than once; I had plans and suicide notes, but never the guts to do it. I am incredibly grateful to the friend who had the foresight to not leave his handgun at my house when he stored most of his stuff in my closet. I mention all of this because I have learned that it takes incredible bravery to kill yourself. Neil looked ahead and saw a life he didn’t want stretching in front of him, but in my experience, hopelessness and despair (and for such a short time; he hadn’t even talked with his father at a calmer moment) is not reason enough to kill yourself. Maybe Neil had more going on than was shown in the movie, but he had accepted his life up until Keating encouraged his class to be true to themselves. Maybe he could have held out until graduation and then gone and lived his life, but I don’t think that a Neil who looks down the road of his life and believes that he will never have the courage to stand up to his father is a Neil who could have sufficient strength to take his own life. Cinematically, Neil’s suicide is necessary to the movie, but realistically, I don’t think it would have happened.

Oscar Won: Best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Robin Williams); best director.