Summaries - Part 3
The Third Hundred Greatest Films
Summaries - Part 3
(Links to Comprehensive Film Reviews)
of Dreams (1989)
Starring: Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, Gaby Hoffmann, Timothy Busfield, Burt Lancaster
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Just one year after playing catcher "Crash" Davis in Bull Durham (1988), Kevin Costner appeared in this - another baseball-themed film coupled with the religious themes of faith and redemption. This sentimental, modern fantasy classic became a smash hit in its unique depiction of Americana. Idealistic Ray Kinsella (Costner), a transplanted city boy-turned-Iowa corn farmer, hears a ghostly Voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field, to "ease his pain". His wife Annie (Madigan) is semi-supportive but worried about their finances. No one but those who believe can see the ghostly ballplayers who begin to appear. This Capra-esque film recalls Harvey (1950), a film in which its main character believes he is befriended by a giant rabbit that no one can see. (Ray's daughter Karen (Hoffmann) is watching Harvey on T.V. at one point in the film, to emphasize the connection.) Adapted from W. P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe, the film is almost dreamlike (aided by the mystical score by James Horner), as Ray meets with various sad and wistful icons, including the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Liotta) who was banned from baseball for life after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, a disillusioned, reclusive J.D. Salinger-like writer in Boston named Terence Mann (Jones), and a small-town doctor named Doc "Moonlight" Graham (Lancaster) - a rookie player who years earlier yearned to make it into the major leagues. The film reaches its climax with Jones' famous monologue on the place of baseball in American history: "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come." Academy Award Nominations: 3, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay--Phil Alden Robinson, Best Score--James Horner.
Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin
Director: Charles Crichton
One of the cleverest, quirkiest and wittiest madcap caper comedies ever made, that included members of the original anarchic Monty Python troupe with American stars - in a subversive and raucous tale that combined both British and American humor. The film recalls the British Ealing Studio comedies (such as Crichton's own The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955)) and Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941). As the tagline stated, the unexpected hit was "a tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood," in which three eccentric thieves (Curtis, Kline, and Palin) battle the authorities and each other to recover a valuable cache of stolen diamonds. All actors are perfect in their roles, especially the self-absorbed, not-too-bright ("Don't you ever call me stupid") Buddha-misquoting Anglophobe Otto West (Kline) and the stuttering, animal-loving hitman Ken (Palin). Features such bits as Ken's attempts at murdering an old woman that results in the deaths of her dogs (to his horror), Otto's constant tormenting of Ken ("Look! It's K-k-ken coming to k-k-kill me!") and conservative, uptight barrister Archie Leach (Cleese), Wanda Gerschwitz's (Curtis) use of sex to dominate the men in her life and her total arousal to foreign languages like Italian and Russian. The leads would team up again in the comedy Fierce Creatures (1997), in lieu of a sequel. Academy Award Nominations: 3, including Best Director--Charles Crichton, Best Original Screenplay--John Cleese, Charles Crichton. Academy Awards, 1: Best Supporting Actor--Kevin Kline.
Starring: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee
Directors: Lloyd Bacon
One of the three most spectacular musicals in 1933 from Warner Bros. and legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley, alongside 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) - with this entry often considered the best of all three. The film is also notable for its suggestive pre-Hays Code dialogue and scenes. It stars James Cagney in his first, big singing-and-dancing musical role as unemployed yet enterprising Broadway theatrical producer Chester Kent, with Joan Blondell as his loyal secretary Nan Prescott. Its familiar plot, a backstage tale about putting on a lavish show, revolves around the production of live music numbers (called "prologues") for movie theatres to present before features, to give stage performers work who had been rendered unemployed by the advent of the "talkies." The thin plot is basically an excuse to show off the elaborate and extravagant Berkeley production numbers, especially the three showstoppers at the end of the film: "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall" with gorgeous bathing beauties, and "Shanghai Lil" (providing commentary on Paramount's Shanghai Lily character (Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) from the year before)). Cagney's varied career featured him in both tough guy roles, such as Tom Powers in Public Enemy (1931) and Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), as well as in song-and-dance roles such as this one - and perhaps his most famous musical role as real-life Broadway impresario George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). No Academy Award Nominations.
Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Harry and Daisy Earles, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor
Directors: Tod Browning
Tod Browning's disturbing and bizarre follow-up to his horror smash hit Dracula (1931). This cult film redefines the concepts of beauty, love, and abnormality, but was so disturbingly ahead of its time that audiences stayed away in huge numbers, and it was even banned for 30 years in England. MGM was embarrassed by the film, withdrew the film after its initial release, and added a prologue titled Nature's Mistakes before a re-release. Taglines and posters shamelessly promoted the film: "Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?" "Do Siamese twins make love?" "What sex is the half-man, half-woman?" The film avoids being exploitative by establishing itself as sympathetic towards the "freaks," explaining in the apologetic prologue's "Special Message" that as otherwise normal people, they have through the ages been unfairly considered "an omen of ill luck or representative of evil," forcing them to adopt a code. Any crime committed against any one of them will be considered a crime against all of them. The morality play is about a circus sideshow and its odd clique of "freaks," comprised of real-life malformed people, such as dwarves, hermaphrodites, Siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton), a "living torso" (Prince Randlan, a man without limbs who slithers on the ground), a half-man (Johnny Eck with only the upper half of his body), a bearded woman, pinheads, and others. The film follows with a tale about a cold-hearted, full-sized, high-wire trapeze artist Cleopatra (Baclanova) who seduces and marries a circus sideshow midget named Hans (Harry Earles), hoping to inherit his wealth by ptomaine-poisoning him, and then running off with her boyfriend and circus strongman Hercules (Victor). After the film's infamous and macabre "Wedding Feast" scene (with the unforgettable chant: "Gooble Gobble! We accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us!"), she incurs the wrath of the tightly knit, loyal group of "nature's aberrations." When a champagne glass is passed around to signify that the group accepts Cleopatra as one of them, she reacts in revulsion: "You dirty slimy freaks! Get out of here. You filth!"). With Hans' fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles) in support, the freaks set out to avenge their compatriot in a truly horrifying climax that plays itself out in a muddy rainstorm. Hercules is knifed to death, and Cleopatra is pursued from her circus wagon. In the film's opening and ending, Cleopatra's fate is shown, causing people to scream. She is transformed into a squawking, mutilated chicken woman. In the added "happy ending," Hans is now retired and wealthy, reunited with Frieda and living in a mansion. Browning had run away to join the circus when he was 16 years old, influencing his work, and had directed two other circus-related films: The Show (1927) and The Unknown (1927). After this film, Browning's career would never be the same - he directed only a few more films through 1939 before retiring. No Academy Award Nominations.
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Brooks Benedict, James Anderson, Pat Harmon, Hazel Keener, Joseph Harrington
Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
In this silent film satire of college life (aka College Days), bespectacled Harold Lloyd plays the naive, awkward, nerdy Harold 'Speedy' Lamb who goes off to college, dressing and copying the behavior of characters in the movie The College Hero. With youthful optimism, he dreams of becoming the most popular guy on campus and a major football star, but he lacks any apparent talent. After he embarrasses himself during football tryouts, the tough but pitying coach (Harmon) makes him the team's water boy - and the tackle dummy. Harold is under the mistaken impression that he is on the team, and ignorant that he is the butt of jokes. His love interest and dream-girl is a co-ed named Peggy (Ralston) and there's the stereotypical college cad (Benedict). The most memorable scene in the film is the hilarious, climactic championship football game where Harold finally gets to play after every other substitute player has been injured and removed from the game. The football game climax was used again as the opening sequence of Lloyd's and Preston Sturges' film Mad Wednesday (1947), aka The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. The Harold Lloyd Trust claimed that Disney's film The Waterboy (1998) with Adam Sandler was a direct copy of this Lloyd film, and there are resemblances to Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School (1986). Lloyd had previously done hundreds of comedic silent shorts, mostly as his famous characters Lonesome Luke and Willie Work, but his career was overshadowed by silent greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (Keaton's College (1927) has some of the same plot points as this film). His stunt work in Safety Last (1923) remains memorable, however -- especially the scene in which he climbs the side of a skyscraper and hangs from a clock face by its hands.
Metal Jacket (1987)
Starring: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick's thought-provoking Vietnam War film was partly based on Gustav Hasford's 1979 book The Short Timers, and followed in the footsteps of Kubrick's other anti-war films: Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove, Or: (1964). This was Kubrick's first film after The Shining (1980), and it made an underappreciated appearance the year after Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) won Best Picture. Kubrick's film was unsuccessful at the box office -- lost in the spate of mostly Vietnam-related war films that came out in Platoon's wake, including Heartbreak Ridge (1986) (about the invasion of Grenada), Hamburger Hill (1987), The Hanoi Hilton (1987), Casualties of War (1989), 84 Charlie Mopic (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). A two-part drama, the first part of the film takes place at Parris Island training-boot camp in S. Carolina (although the entire film was shot in England), where drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (Ermey, a former, real life Marine sergeant) transforms young Marine cadets into killing machines with twisted sentiments, and verbal, psychological, and physical abuse and torment. The first half climaxes with a chilling, dehumanizing bathroom scene between Hartman, Private Leonard Lawrence (dubbed "Gomer Pyle") (D'Onofrio) - an overweight, misfit cadet driven insane by Hartman's bullying, and Private J.T. Davis (dubbed "Joker") (Modine), who is caught between them. "Joker," a cynical Stars & Stripes military correspondent/journalist, is the bridge to the second half of the film on the nightmarish, violent front lines within Hue City - a cool, unemotional look at urban warfare on the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive at the turning point of the war. Academy Award Nominations: 1, Best Adapted Screenplay--Stanley Kubrick.
Starring: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury
Director: George Cukor
Aka The Murder in Thornton Square, this is a superb, definitive psychological suspense thriller from 'woman's director' George Cukor. [Previous Cukor films that were similar as period dramas included Little Women (1933), David Copperfield (1935), and Camille (1936).] This lavish and glossy MGM film, with authentic Victorian-era production design, was a remake of a taut and subtle film made five years earlier in Great Britain. This earlier version, starring a very sinister Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, was directed by Thorold Dickinson and released in the US as both Gaslight and Angel Street (1940). Both versions were adapted from Patrick Hamilton's long-running, London staged play-melodrama, originally titled Angel Street. The film's plot, faithfully adapted by its screenwriters, is about a diabolical, Victorian criminal husband Gregory Anton (Boyer playing against type) who systematically and methodically attempts to torment and drive mad his bedeviled, shy young wife Paula Alquist (Bergman), while in pursuit of hidden jewels. Bergman was very effective in the role of the vulnerable woman, who becomes helpless as she experiences a debilitating nervous breakdown and near insanity, until saved by her romantic admirer - a suspicious Scotland Yard detective Brian Cameron (Cotten). The film's impressive photography is expressionistic, shadowy, and menacing - as befits the film's ominous plot. Academy Award Nominations: 7, including Best Picture, Best Actor--Charles Boyer, Best Supporting Actress--Angela Lansbury (in her film debut), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography. Academy Awards: 2, Best Actress--Ingrid Bergman (with her first of three Oscars), Best B/W Art Direction/Interior Decoration.
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Jihmi Kennedy, Andre Braugher
Director: Edward Zwick
One of the very best, fact-based Civil war films, and based upon the historical novels Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard. It depicts the overlooked but brave and distinguished participation of all-volunteer, African-American soldiers on the side of the Union in the first all-black 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (composed of runaway slaves and northern "freemen"). The film was based on the letters of the 600-man regiment's idealistic, 25-year old white commander, Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick) from a privileged, abolitionistic family in Boston. The film focuses on the hard training and the troops' battle to earn credibility with prejudiced military authorities to actually demonstrate their courage and determination during combat. The movie climaxes with their final, suicidal assault in 1863 on the impregnable Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina - it fails but ultimately turned the tide of the war. The film also features strong performances by Denzel Washington (in a star-making role) as bitter, ex-slave recruit Pvt. Trip, Morgan Freeman (as Sgt. Major John Rawlins), and Cary Elwes (as Major Cabot Forbes), as well as a Grammy-winning, powerful score by James Horner accompanied by The Harlem Boys Choir. Academy Award Nominations: 5, including Best Art/Set Decoration, Best Film Editing. Academy Awards: 3, Best Supporting Actor--Denzel Washington, Best Cinematography (Freddie Francis), Best Sound Editing.
Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Director: Sergio Leone
The third and final installment (but actual a prequel) in under-rated Italian director Sergio Leone's The Man with No Name epic trilogy, this is perhaps the best-known "spaghetti western" of all-time. 'The Man with No Name' was Eastwood's star-making role, after appearances in the previous A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Elements of his character can be found in his later anti-hero cop "Dirty" Harry Callahan character in Dirty Harry (1971). As with Leone's other westerns, this film is viciously violent and machismo in tone, but buoyed by the classic, instantly-recognizable, twanging Ennio Morricone score. In this sweeping, stylistic, and operatic film, The Man with No Name (but dubbed Blondie) (Eastwood) is the unsmiling anti-hero "Good" guy, Angel Eyes Sentenza (Van Cleef) serves as the vile and ruthless "Bad" guy, and Tuco Ramirez (Wallach) provides the greedy, talkative, clownish and self-centered "Ugly". With very little dialogue, lots of closeups, and vast widescreen landscapes, the film's plot, set during the Civil War, concerns the acquisition of a treasure chest of $200,000 in stolen Confederate gold buried in a grave at a faraway location. All three of the main characters, basically amoral, anti-social bounty hunters, outlaws, and murderers, are forced to form an uneasy partnership or alliance, leading to the film's climactic graveyard shootout in which the opportunistic desperados find themselves facing off one last time for the fortune. [In 2003, a special restored and extended English language version, almost three hours in length with about 15 minutes of previously-cut scenes, was released that used the original Italian release cut, with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach dubbing in their voices to scenes that were cut from the USA release.] No Academy Award Nominations.
Great Dictator (1940)
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jack Oakie, Paulette Goddard, Reginald Gardiner
Director: Charlie Chaplin
In his first full "talkie" (in a film similar to the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933)) and his most financially-successful film, Chaplin plays a dual role as: (1) Adenoid Hynkel, the great dictator of the film's title - the power-mad, despotic ruler and Fooey (Fuhrer) of the fictional European nation of Tomania, and (2) an un-named, humble, amnesiac Jewish barber (with some resemblance to Chaplin's Little Tramp character who was retired at the end of Modern Times (1936)) who returns years after being a soldier in World War I to discover that his long-abandoned shop is now part of the Jewish ghetto, occupied by thuggish Aryan stormtroopers of the Double Cross (rather than a swastika). The Jewish barber is mistaken for the country's tyrannical dictator Hynkel, who is obviously a mocking satire of Adolf Hitler, complete with his squared-off mustache and Nazi-ish uniform. An additional burlesque portrait of Italy's tyrannical Benito Mussolini is in the character of Benzino Napaloni (Oakie), Dictator of the rival country of Bacteria. The film's message was made even more powerful by the satire, making fun of their demagoguery, fascism and anti-Semitism. Chaplin's bold and controversial parody, with its social and political commentary, was banned in occupied Europe, South America and Ireland. Some believed that Chaplin was trivializing the Nazi's violent rise to power; however, the film had entered production in 1938, when most Americans viewed Adolf Hitler as an ally (not an enemy), and were opposed to entering WWII. It was released before the United States' entry into World War II (in 1941) and before knowledge of the Holocaust. One of the film's most famous scenes is Hynkel playing with an inflated balloon-globe of Planet Earth in a graceful, ballet-like sequence; also the pudding scene, and the one of the barber shaving a customer in time to a radio broadcast of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5. The most powerful moment is when the barber (disguised as Hynkel) delivers a six-minute impassioned monologue (often interpreted as Chaplin's own plea) at the end of the film for peace, hope, human rights, understanding and world tolerance. The film earned Chaplin three Oscar nominations. Academy Award Nominations: 5, including Best Picture, Best Actor--Charlie Chaplin, Best Supporting Actor--Jack Oakie, Best Screenplay--Charlie Chaplin, Best Score.
Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky
Director: Harold Ramis
Self-centered, pompous and cynical Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) is forced to repeat his most unfavorite day, Groundhog Day (February 2nd), over and over again in this hysterically-funny, allegorical romantic fantasy-comedy. His assignment, for the sixth year, is to cover the famous Punxsutawney (PA) Phil -- the "official" groundhog -- a furry animal that predicts if Spring will have to wait another six weeks if it sees its own shadow. The thought-provoking story line by co-scriptwriter Danny Rubin, a meaningful existential thesis, was more or less a version of the Oscar-nominated, live-action short film 12:01 PM (1990) by Jonathan Heap, which was later expanded into a feature-length, science-fiction TV film titled 12:01 (1993), directed by Jack Sholder. The exact reason for the countless time-warp loop is never explained as the same day endlessly repeats itself, not even interrupted by Connors' numerous deaths and suicide attempts. As an Everyman stuck in repeating time, Phil's reaction to his situation moves from disbelief and denial, to annoyance and then anger, to chicanery and lustfulness, to despair and depression, and then to bargaining and finally to acceptance and philanthropy, as exemplified by his repeated dealings with the supremely annoying insurance salesman named "Needlenose" Ned Ryerson (Tobolowsky). Perhaps Murray's own Phil must remove the shadow from his own life, change his behavior, and become a better person before he can continue it. His relentless deja-vu experiences gradually change him from a grouch to a decent human being. Perhaps his life's wake-up call and endless reincarnations assist him in perfectly winning the heart of beautiful TV producer Rita (MacDowell). The comedy was part of a series of Bill Murray-starring comedies in the early 1990's, including Quick Change (1990) (which he also co-directed), Frank Oz' What About Bob? (1991), and Mad Dog and Glory (1993). Groundhog Day had fair box-office business and earned good reviews, but was completely overlooked by the Academy. No Academy Award Nominations.
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis
Director: John Carpenter
A genuinely scary, stylistic and tasteful, extremely well-crafted slasher/horror classic from young film director/writer John Carpenter, with the tagline: "The Night HE Came Home!" The efficiently-suspenseful, surprise hit film, with a jarring musical theme, grossed over $60 million - and became one of the most successful independent films ever made. This PG-rated, low-budget film (filmed in only twenty days) invented many of the "slasher" film cliches (along with its predecessors: George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), the big-budget The Exorcist (1973), and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)), but also paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) in the initial murder of the film. The film told about a psychotic, criminally-insane murderer, Michael Myers, who was on a homicidal rampage after escape from an institution, and on Halloween night terrorized his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. It also launched the career of Jamie Lee Curtis (dubbed the "Scream Queen") in her film debut, as resourceful, teenaged baby-sitter Laurie who is terrorized in a house, and starred Donald Pleasence as the obsessed psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (the name of the boyfriend character in Psycho (1960)) in pursuit. Unfortunately, the serial killer slasher film spawned many run-of-the-mill inferior sequels of its own, and other imitation films (When a Stranger Calls (1979), Don't Go In The House (1980), Friday the 13th (1980) and its numerous sequels, He Knows You're Alone (1980), Prom Night (1980), Graduation Day (1981) and Happy Birthday to Me (1981), and more with the character names of Jason and Freddy). No Academy Award Nominations.
and Her Sisters (1986)
Starring: Barbara Hershey, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Max Von Sydow, Woody Allen, Carrie Fisher, Julie Kavner
Director: Woody Allen
Woody Allen's masterful, insightful comedy/drama about contemporary New Yorkers. This episodic film is full of vignettes woven together, and features some of the sharpest direction and writing of Allen's career. The threaded-together, multiple storylines, very typical of an ensemble film, focus on the lives of three sisters during a traditional Thanksgiving dinner gathering: the eldest sister - homemaker and 'matriarch' Hannah (Farrow), the neurotic middle sister - actress Holly (Wiest in an Oscar-winning performance), and the emotional, free-spirited Lee (Hershey), and their relationships in mid-life crisis. There are other fully-developed characters all playing out their neuroses and lives: Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen) who has a despairing obsession with death, illness, and unhappiness; older and cynical Soho artist Frederick (Von Sydow) who lives with Lee; Hannah's adulterous, financial accountant husband Elliot (Caine, also in an Oscar-winning role), who has a torrid but shallow love affair with Lee behind Hannah's and Frederick's backs; and Holly's desperate struggle to prove herself to the world. Even the peripheral characters are believable: the sisters' embittered show business parents (O'Sullivan and Nolan), Holly's best friend and rival April (Fisher), as well as Mickey's assistant and voice of reason Gail (Kavner). Although considered by some to be Allen's best work, it lost to Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) for Best Picture. Academy Award Nominations: 7, including Best Picture, Best Director--Woody Allen, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. Academy Awards: 3, including Best Supporting Actor--Michael Caine, Best Supporting Actress--Dianne Wiest, Best Original Screenplay--Woody Allen.