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Monday, May 19, 2008

Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)

Mr. Holland's Opus was a very touching movie released in 1995, based on the story of a would be composer (trying to create his magnum opus, the piece of music that would become so popular that it would make him famous). Instead, as a result of circumstances, he is forced to take a job teaching music to a generation of students; it is this teaching the properties of music, the love of music, about confidence, respect. This development of his students is his actual legacy, his major achievement in life. Mr. Holland's Opus is a movie that celebrates the noble profession of teaching, where a good teacher can mould his students to become good human beings. The movie went to be a decent commercial success, not of the same level as the action oriented movies, but made a respectable $100 million worldwide.

Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)

The role surely is a role that Richard Dreyfuss will treasure as one of his best performances, and he was nominated for an Oscar for this role (he did not win, the Best Actor role going to Nicholas Cage for 'Leaving Las Vegas'). The movie reviews get 2 different types of reviews: Some see it as a great movie that spans 3 decades of a man's life, his most productive years and sees what he has made of those years (and that accomplishment does not necessarily mean being rich or having a great name); the second type of reviews see the movie as a tear-jerker that plays on one's emotions with a finale scene that is written to bring out the tears of the audience. I agree with both, but see the tear jerker as a natural part of the storyline.
The movie is set in Oregon in 1964 where Glen Holland is an aspiring composer and musician wanting to create his great work of music that will be his glory and lead to success; however, his responsibilities (his wife is pregnant) leads to him having to take up the job of a music teacher at a local high school. Like any other school, he faces a wide group of students, some are willing, some are rebellious, some are very talented and others not so. He strives to inculcate a love of music in them, using this as a method to better their character. At the same time his ambition to teach his son to become a great musician reaches a high level of frustration when he realizes that his son is deaf. He has to conquer this frustration and form bonds with his son while dealing with a wide variety of students, during a time when the US was going through major upheavals - Vietnam, civil rights, the assassination of John Lennon, etc. The movie also showcases the priorities of school life, with sports and science getting a much higher priority over music, and including the cutting of the music budget.
Probably the best way to summarize the theme of the movie is this line:
Mr. Holland might think himself a failure..." one former student laments near the end of the story... "and he would be wrong..."
The soundtrack of the film has the following songs:
1. Visions Of A Sunset - Shawn Stockman (of Boyz II Men)
2. One, Two, Three - Len Barry
3. A Lover's Concerto - The Toys
4. Keep On Running - Spencer Davis Group
5. Uptight - Stevie Wonder
6. Imagine - John Lennon
7. The Pretenders - Jackson Brown
8. Someone To Watch Over Me - Julia Fordham
9. I Got A Woman - Ray Charles
10. Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) - John Lennon
11. Cole's Song - Julian Lennon
12. An American Symphony (Mr. Holland's Opus) - Michael Kamen

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

The Goodbye girl was a movie released in 1977, a urban comedy about an odd-beat romance set in Manhattan (centered about an apartment over there). The twist in the making of the movie was that it was supposed to be starring Robert DeNiro and Marsha Mason (the wife of the screenplay writer Neil Simon (they later divorced in 1981)). The screenplay for the movie was called 'Bogart Slept Here'; but guess what, the movie never got made based on that screenplay. A bit later, Robert DeNiro got written our, and Richard Dreyfuss was brought in, and then the screenplay was dumped; however, Dreyfuss and Mason were kept on as the leading couple and the screenplay was re-written. The movie proved to be very lucky for Dreyfuss, since it led to a Best Actor Oscar for him (in fact, at the time he was the youngest actor to win the Best Actor award).

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

The movie got 4 other Oscar nominations:
- Best Picture nomination - Ray Stark
- Best Actress nomination - Mason
- Supporting Actress nomination - Cummings
- Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen nomination - Simon

The movie is rated both as a great comedy and as a bitter-sweet romance where the couple initially hate each other's guts, get into many scenes with each other, but slowly over a period of time, learn to appreciate each other (or a single incident can also do that in some cases); and finally realize that they do love each other.
The movie is about these 3 characters - Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason), her 10 year old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings), and a young actor Eliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss). Paula and Lucy are staying with Paula's boyfriend Tony, an actor, and he has promised that the next week they will all move to Los Angeles. After a long day shopping, Paula and Lucy come home and realize that this was not to be, like previous cases where Paula has been dropped by other men (many of them actors), Tony has left them high and dry and gone off to Italy.
Paula realizes that they don't have money and she needs to resume dancing, but soon realizes that things are not so easy. She needs to get back into dancing form, and while returning from the class, she is told by the building manager (Mrs. Crosby) that Tony (to add insult to injury) had sublet the apartment and Paula can't do anything about it since Tony owned the apartment. She is by now not terribly fond to actors; so imagine the shock when she finds out that the apartment has been leased to Eliot (another aspiring actor). However, she has to keep her anger and scorn under control, and agrees when Eliot proposes that they share the apartment. Eliot is here to play the title role in the stage production of Richard III (but in the nature of a stereotype homosexual), not something that seems likely to succeed.
They have many clashes, but slowly start adjusting to each other, and Eliot also starts getting closer to Lucy, likely to warm any mother's heart. And they start to fall in love, and then the inevitable, he gets a call for a great opportunity in another city, a very important chance. This has happened to Paula many times, and so it seems like destiny repeating itself; what happens to their relation now ?

The movie also had a song with the same name, and that was super hit (performed by David Gates).

Amadeus (1984)

Amadeus is the middle name of one of the greatest composer of all time, the Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who lived in Vienna during the 18th century. And thus it is pretty natural that a movie on the life of this great composer (and another composer of the same age, Antonio Salieri) should have the name Amadeus in it. The movie, released in 1984 was a drama film about these 2 men, and caught the attention of critics to such a great extent that it cleaned up on the awards, winning 8 Oscars, and a clutch of BAFTA and Golden Globe awards. The movie was also a commercial hit (although on a smaller scale) since it made around $51 million on a budget of $18 million. Inspite of some creative licenses with the truth (the movie assumes that the murder of Mozart is due to a devious plan by Salieri, when this was not a proven fact).

Amadeus (1984)

The movie also served to make a lot more people aware of the life history of Mozart, and his amazing musical skills. The depiction of his talent was pretty good, wrapped in a story that touches all the human emotions of skill, envy, jealousy and anger, distress, depression, hatred and downfall. All of these were exhibited in the inter-twined life history of Salieri and Mozart, down to the downfall of both of them.
The story is all set in flashback, when a priest visiting Salieri in a mental health institution visits him, trying to get a confession from Salieri about having committed the murder of Mozart. Salieri is initially uninterested, but then opens up and discloses the full story, including his role in the downfall of Mozart. Salieri had a troubled start to his musical career, since his father was not interested in letting his son study music, but then his death opened the door to a musical career. Salieri was not an exceptional musician, and was happy being the court composer to the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, believing his talent to be God's gift. And then Mozart burst onto the screen.
Mozart was funny, he was brash, he was lewd, and he was a genius. He started out with taking a work that Salieri had spent time making, and modified that into a new musical work (conversion of "March of Welcome" to "Non più andrai" march from Mozart's opera 'The Marriage of Figaro'). Salieri is sinking into depression, believing that actually god is laughing at him for his mediocre music. In the meantime, Mozart goes through a whole gamut of emotions; feeling happy at his success and with his wife Constanze and his son Wolfgang, and then getting shaken by court rivalry, depression over his father Leopold's death. He starts to fall down as his family expenses increase and the income starts to fall.
And then the ultimate plan. Salieri decides to deceive Mozart, so he disguises himself to be like Leopold (Mozart's dead father), and gives Mozart a down payment to write a requiem mass (also known as a funeral mass). Mozart starts down to write his best piece of work, not aware that the plan was for Mozart to be killed in the end, and Salieri would then appropriate the Mass and deliver it (in a delicious irony), at Mozart's funeral. Mozart drives himself to madness while writing this work, and his wife leaves him along with their son. His condition continues to decline, and he collapses during a performance. Salieri takes him home, and continues to make Mozart work during his illness.
Mozart's fie returns the next morning, and is shocked to see his condition. Salieri has by now abandoned his plan, and he credits Mozart with work on the composition, and Constanze locks the manuscript away. However, all this is in vain, since Mozart dies, and the composition is left incomplete. Mozart is taken away and buried in a pauper's grave (although his body is recovered later and buried more appropriately). The work remains incomplete, and Salieri is driven to the mental asylum with the thought that God would kill Mozart rather than let Salieri share the glory of the beautiful composition.

The music from the movie:

(all composed by Mozart except as noted)

* Disc One

1. Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K 183, 1st movement
2. Stabat Mater: Quando Corpus Morietur and Amen (Pergolesi - performed by the Choristers of Westminster Abbey, directed by Simon Preston)
3. Early 18th Century Gypsy Music: Bubak and Hungaricus
4. Serenade for Winds, K. 361, 3rd movement
5. The Abduction from the Seraglio, Turkish Finale
6. Symphony No. 29 in A, K 201, 1st movement
7. Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, 3rd movement
8. Mass in C minor, K. 427, Kyrie (Mozart)
9. Symphonie Concertante, K. 364, 1st movement

* Disc Two

1. Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 482, 3rd movement
2. The Marriage of Figaro, Act III, Ecco la Marcia
3. The Marriage of Figaro, Act IV, Ah Tutti Contenti
4. Don Giovanni, Act II, Commendatore scene
5. Zaide aria, Ruhe Sanft
6. Requiem, K. 626, Introitus (orchestra introduction)
7. Requiem: Dies Irae
8. Requiem: Rex Tremendae Majestatis
9. Requiem:Confutatis
10. Requiem: Lacrimosa
11. Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466, 2nd movement

Movie awards at the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri), Best Director (Forman), Costume Design (Theodor Pistek), Adapted Screenplay (Shaffer), Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Sound

The Last Emperor (1987)

The Last Emperor was a major award winning epic movie, released in 1987, and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and written by Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci. The movie had some unique distinctions - the Chinese Government allowed shooting in the Forbidden City and gave him unprecedented access (to the extent that when the British Queen visited Beijing, the movie got precedence in The Forbidden City). This was also because the movie mirrored the history of China during the earlier half of the century, and in a form that did not go the vision of history as per the Communist rulers. And the movie cleaned up at the Oscars, being nominated for 9 awards and winning all 9 of them (if that is not a clean sweep :-), then what is ?)

The Last Emperor (1987)

The movie is indeed about the Last Emperor in China, who lived a sheltered life in the Forbidden City, but who also experience the tumultuous years of Chinese history, including the occupation by the Japanese and the atrocities committed in Manchuria, and then moving forward to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's, finally terminating at a time when western tourists are free to visit Beijing (symbolizing China's opening to the World).
The movie starts with the time when the Emperor, Puyi, is returning to China after 5 years of captivity by the Soviet Union (held in the gulag, and as a prisoner after a trial by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal; the movie is totally silent about this time). He was convicted for complicity in the Japanese War Crimes in the Chinese region of Manchuria after being arrested by the Red Army. Given that there was solidarity among the Communist Governments in the beginning, Stalin decided to hand Puyi back to China after it was taken over by the Communists in 1949 (even though Puyi wrote to Stalin pleading not to be sent back).
Once he reaches back to China, Puyi attempts suicide, and in this state, the movie shows his initial history; his sheltered life in the Forbidden City including his marriage and other incidents, and moves onto his prison camp where he learns the extent of Japanese atrocities and accepts responsibility for his complicity in these war crimes. The movie then moves onto the Cultural Revolution of the 60's where Puyi is now a normal citizen, a gardener (also showing the happenings of that time where people could be condemned as not being part of the revolution, and in which many of China's intellectuals suffered). The movie moves on further, showing Puyi now visiting the Forbidden City as a tourist, watching the throne on which he used to sit once, until finally the movie ends with a scene where western tourists are displayed the same scene, and in that sequence, the death of the Emperor is also mentioned.

Oscars won by the movie:
- Best Picture,
- Best Art Direction-Set Decoration,
- Best Cinematography,
- Best Costume Design,
- Best Director,
- Best Film Editing,
- Best Music (Original Score),
- Best Sound and
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Das Boot: The war movie

Das Boot is a movie made on a novel of the same name, written by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. The movie, released in 1981, is supposed to be an authentically correct reproduction of the novel, but even then the author found faults in the portrayal of the characters, finding a great deal of over-acting; he in fact found the treatment by the director (Wolfgang Petersen) to have been over-done resulting in the movie being reduced to a cliche. However, this was not an opinion shared by others, and the movie is widely acclaimed to be one of the best German movies ever made (it was certainly one of the most expensive ones made, costing around 32 million DM). In addition, the song 'Das Boot' became an international hit.
Just as an aside, this blog is about English language films, and yet this movie takes a German movie. Well, this movie is an incredibly well recognized movie, and has won tremendous acclaim. The movie was released in the United States in 1982, and was nominated for 6 Academy awards (Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Writing), however, this was also the year of Gandhi and ET, and they swept most of the awards. Das Boot did not win any of the awards; no matter, most people who see the movie can't fail to be impressed by this anti-war movie.

Das Boot the movie (1991)

This is an anti-war movie, a bit less strongly than the novel, but anti-war none the less. And it does this by depicting the reality of war from the eyes of the soldiers taking part in the war, by de-glamorising the romance of war, and showing the reality (something similar to how 'All Quiet on the Western Front' was another great anti-war movie from another war). The movie features a single submarine U-96 (also called a U-boat). The movie is based on a real life story, that of the crew of a U-boat during the second world war commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (one of the aces of the German side).
The movie is shown from the perspective of the Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), the assigned war correspondent on the U-96. The mission of most of the German U-boats in the second World War was to attack the supply convoys landing supplies to the Allied lines, and this was also hazardous since they were hunted and attacked by both naval aircraft and destroyers. Now a submarine is a cramped quarter, with little facilities for recreation, fresh air, and even simple things such as taking a bath. In such an environment, especially when contact with the enemy may not happen for long or when severe storm can cause the submarine to be tossed around, morale can suffer greatly. In this case, these are dedicated and enthusiastic naval personnel, but not Nazi supporters except for the first weapons officer.
These men go through a series of adventures, but the most common feeling is that of the relentless feeling of being crammed together in a small tube with 40 men (and the director makes the audience share the same feeling, with most of the movie being shot to appear as if inside a submarine). Eventually they are directed to a convoy, but don't get a clear shot, instead they are attacked by depth charges. And then they land into a massive 23 day long storm that saps their energy and enthusiasm. Then they are spotted again, and have to deep dive, causing a mental breakdown in one of the men, and the submarine almost implodes. Then they attack a tanker, but when the surviving British merchant sailors swim towards them, they are forced to back away due to orders and not take any prisoners.
And they are diverted to the Straits of Gibraltar, a very dangerous passage for a submarine since there is a very good chance of detection and attack. Before going there, they get supplies from a German ship in Spain, whose officers have not seen war and are gung-ho about the war. Inspite of their best efforts when passing through the Straits, they are detected and attacked; and soon the boat starts sinking beyond the maximum safe level of 200 meters, and bolts start going off under the pressure; the crew can hear the hull groaning, a really bad sign for the crew. Somehow, with some luck and maximum conservation of oxygen, they are able to make it up again.
They return to their home base of La Rochelle on Christmas Eve, a group of tattered and weary men, less gung-ho about the war than when they had left. And soon British aircraft start bombing the place, killing some members of the crew and finally sinking the U-96.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The American President (1995)

The American President is a sweet romance story set in the midst of the American Presidency and an impending election. The movie was directed by Rob Reiner and written by Aaron Sorkin. The American President (Michael Douglas) has just had some high poll ratings and this gives his team some confidence that they are in a good spot to win re-election. His principal advisor and Chief of Staff (Martin Sheen) and he go back a long way and have an easy comfort. He also does not seem to have any character blemish, being a widower with a young daughter, and no female companions to worry about. The only issue is the contender from the rival party, but they are not really worrying about this.
Things start to change when a new lady Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) comes into town, as one of the main lobbyists for a Green coalition. Her aim is to get a law passed that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions (a target for most environmentalists since that leads to a reduction in fossil fuel consumption and an overall reduction of oil used). She has a pretty good reputation as a lobbyist, being able to get members of Congress to her position. The President also has an objective, to get gun laws modified by a small extent, so that he can claim overall credit for reducing guns in general hands and maybe cause a reduction in violence levels (one of his advisors Michael J Fox wants him to try and do something like that, but the President is unwilling to go beyond a certain point). However, he is not willing to try and stake a lot of political capital in trying to get a comprehensive arms control bill passed.

The American President

And then the President meets her in a accidental meeting at the White House, where she is criticizing the President for his administration's policies in the environmental sphere, not knowing that the President has just walked in. When she finds out, there is a sense of embarrassment, but it passes and he makes a deal with her that if she can get a majority in Congress, the environmental bill will get the support of the administration. The President is taken with her, and invites her to be his date for an official function since he needs a companion; she is a bit taken back, but accepts. The date passes by fine, and she gets closer to the President, but a bit apprehensive since she is after all a political lobbyist and he is the President, imagine the complications. Soon, however, things start to heat up when she spends a night at the White House with the President, and the press corps is outside in the morning to greet her :-). She is the talk of the night shows and the President is slowly becoming the target of the moral groups, and as well the target for his election contender. This heightens when it is discovered that Benning had once taken part in a demonstration in which the American Flag is burnt, and this calls into question the patriotism of the President, and he is severely attacked by his opponent Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss).
Against the advice of his advisors, the President refuses to reply to these attacks, assuming that this will demean his office if he has to respond to such attacks. However, in the end, the President betrays her by trading the votes of some die-hard anti-environmental bill politicians (from Michigan, where Detroit is the center of the car manufacturing corporations and die-hard opponents of the bill). When this happens, and Benning finds out, she is fired from her job since the bill is now dead, and she gives a piece of her mind to the President and walks out. After some introspection, the President finally decides to respond to all the attacks, and gives a rousing press speech where he defends her right as a free American to burn the flag in a demonstration (a freedom enshrined in the bill of rights), commits his administration to fight for the environment and withdraw his arms control bill and float a new one that will actually do something to control arms. This is a rousing speech that convinces her that this is a new President, as well as promise a rousing fight from his side in the election campaign that will take the fight to his opponent.
This is a very liberal movie from a very liberal movie maker, and is worthy of a watch.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Piano (1993)

The Piano is a movie that was released in 1993, and went to earn great critical acclaim, along with a bunch of Academy Awards. The movie was the brain-child of Jane Campion, who wrote and directed the movie (the movie was produced by Jan Chapman). It is a movie that is very different, with the depiction of the silent lady, who has a strong will, and who struggles for her own feelings in a land far away from her own. The movie was a big hit at the Oscars as well, with 3 awards (and a total of 8 nominations), along with a host of other movie awards as well (such as Palme d'Or (Golden Palm), BAFTA, Australian Film Institute, Golden Globe, etc). Holly Hunter, who won the Best Actress Oscar, was only the second actress in the non-silent movie era to get the Best Actress Award.

The Piano (1993)

Academy Awards Won:

* Best Actress (Holly Hunter)
* Best Screenplay - Original (Jane Campion)
* Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin)


* Best Cinematography (Stuart Dryburgh)
* Best Costume Design (Janet Patterson)
* Best Director (Jane Campion)
* Best Editing (Veronika Jenet)
* Best Picture

The movie is set in a harsh, rainy, mid-19th century New Zealand backwater. The subject is one that is not dealt with too often, making this an even more interesting movie - the movie deals with the wishes and aspirations of a young mail order bride who is not able to strike a bond with her husband, but instead becomes closer to her husband's neighbor.
Alistair Stewart (Sam Neill) lives in New Zealand in a frontier backwater and desires a bride. In Scotland, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), who has a daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) marriage is arranged with Alistair and she is sent via ship to New Zealand. Ada can speak, but remains silent, and has done so since she was six years old (the reasons for why she stopped speaking are never clearly outlined in the movie). She is able to make herself understood through sign language (with the help of her daughter), through writing, and through usage of the piano (something she loves). For some special people, they are able to understand her without her needing to use speech, and that includes her former teacher who was also Flora's father.
She reaches New Zealand along with Flora, and spends the night over there along with her luggage (including a piano - something that will form the center-piece of the movie). The next day Alisatair reaches there with a Maori crew to pick her up (having taken the help of his neighbor Baines (Harvey Keitel) to hire the crew). They find that they cannot carry everything, and so the piano is left on the beach. In the marriage, Ada stays distant from Alistair (displeasing him a lot), and her desire to go to the piano is very great, so she asks Flora to talk to Baines to take her to the piano. Baines agrees after some hesitation, and they spend a fine day at the beach; Baines is very impressed by Ada's playing of the piano. Soon, Baines suggests to Alistair that Alistair can have a piece of land that he wants, if he gives the piano along with lessons from Ada to Baines. Ada is shocked, but Alistair goes along with the deal.
Baines then offers a deal to Ada, he will sell her back the piano one key at a time (for a total of 36 black keys) if she lets him do what he likes when she is playing. This leads to a series of intimacies that Alistair soon discovers. Ada has grown much closer to Baines and further away from Alistair, and he furiously boards her inside the house. Baines also returns the piano in order that they can get away from this arrangement, but it may be too late already; they are in love with each other.
Baines is planning to leave soon, and Alistair visualizes a new beginning with Ada, when he discovers (via Flora) a love letter that Ada was sending to Baines in a piano key. He is furious and chops off Ada's index finger, with the promise of doing more if she continues to meet Baines.
Alisatair is soon able to read Ada's face, and discovers that she can only be at peace with Baines, and sends her away on a ship with Baines; at the start of this journey, in a beautiful scene, Ada gets the piano thrown into the water, goes down with it and then comes up again in a sort of re-birth. She settles into a life with Baines in a different town along with her daughter Flora.