Swells to a drama that is riveting

A Passage to India (1984) ***** Starring: Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft. Director: David Lean.

A Passage to India is a fine film. One becomes immersed in the grand sweep. One surrenders to it and hopes it doesn’t become spoiled by some off-putting scene that ruined the lot. The characters, their lives in the old British India, the roles the actors play, and the handsome production swells to a drama that is riveting.

Central to it is young British woman Adela (Judy Davis) who is meeting up with her fiancé in India, who is a magistrate. Along with Adela is his mother Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft). Adela is caught up in the romanticism of the country and is keen to discover more—details like this are so natural and true to life that one can immediately relate.

The Indian country is keenly observed and wanting to be discovered by Westerners. Adela and Mrs. Moore are immensely involved in the search. They are not proud that they are English and don’t look down on the locals. They don’t consider their privileged place in India because of her son being a magistrate as much to be boasted about.

The young woman is distraught, though, when she claims rape by an Indian guide, in a moment that seems uncertain and vague. The guide, Aziz (Victor Banerjee), who is a respected doctor, has the Indian people behind him who are upset by the claims.

East and West meet romantically, but also comes with a hefty dose of realism where East and West clash–the doctor is caught up in a scandal and controversy erupts, casting a blight on the British. The result of the scandal is grief and soul searching with a more abstract issue to consider, but also quite real: forgiveness.

A holiday which turned dramatic and where no one wanted it to. The larger meaning is the relationship between England and colonial India. The human meaning is underlying prejudice and fear of the unknown.

A Passage to India is based on the E.M. Forster novel of the same name, which was published in 1924 during the days of colonial England. The film is beautiful and grand, wonderfully acted, and larger than life-like characters engage vividly and vitally. It is especially recommended for thoughtful audiences and fine film aficionados.


Rubbing off in New York

Revised from the original published at Entertainmentnutz, 2004. 13 Going On 30 (2004) ***½ Starring: Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Judy Greer, Kathy Baker, Phil Reeves, Andy Serkis. Director: Gary Winick. Warnings: some sexual content and brief drug references and some coarse language and one profanity.

Though it’s quite good, the problem with 13 Going on 30 is that it doesn’t quite get it right. By the end, one may be uncommitted to believing it could have happened. Movies are illusions, but making them believable is one of the tricks, leaving us with that satisfied feeling by the end. However, 13 Going on 30 is a sweet, good-natured fantasy comedy.

Shows what teens will do to be popular, but what if that wish came true? It is seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl in a 30-year-old body. Jenna Rink, the girl, is awkward, gawky, but innocent and sweet, she wishes to be the popular girl and she gets her wish with the help of some magical dust.

She is transformed into a thirty-year old who is cool, successful and popular. Yet her 13-year-old-self remains intact with its unworldly lack of sophistication, making her life in New York as a successful magazine editor difficult.

The beauty of her new life, is that the characteristics of her 13-year-old self are still present. Her sincerity, lack of worldliness, and spontaneity rubs off in New York, though mostly everyone else is playing by the world’s rules.

Thematically, seems to be saying that if you’re a nice girl it’s better to be yourself than selling yourself out.

Her first love Matt has moved on, but Jenna doesn’t know that. She comes knocking at his door, wanting someone in her new reality to connect with that she knows.

Mark Ruffalo as Matt works a charm. Matt’s a friendly, down-to-earth friend in her time of need, who comes on board though they haven’t been friends for years.

Jennifer Garner, as the older Jenna, extends her range convincingly from butch chick (in Alias and Daredevil) to naïve 30-something. One may even expect a Golden Globe nomination for comedy actress next year.

Support includes Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) as Jenna’s boss and Judy Greer who plays Jenna’s friend and co-worker.

The soundtrack is like a best of 80s collection and it’s a coup to have Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield.

Though the leap from girl to woman feels at times confusing, and the premise does not fully ignite, 13 Going on 30 is still worthwhile, endearing, human, and involving.


Life can be ‘blue’ or ‘red’, but in between is how one copes

The Color Purple (1985) ****½ Starring: Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey Director: Steven Spielberg. Warnings: a profanity, domestic violence, and sexual situations.

Based on Alice Walker’s diary-formatted novel, The Color Purple is well translated to the screen. It all cohesively comes together. The performances are memorable—Whoopi Goldberg as Celie is outstanding in her subtle and nuanced delivery, Danny Glover is, as always, convincing, this time playing Albert, Celie’s husband by arrangement. Great support comes in all directions, especially Margaret Avery as a singer who shows Celie affection for the first time and Oprah Winfrey storms her way through her role like a powerhouse.

The story begins with the young Celie giving birth to a son and a daughter, caused by incest. When older, Celie is given as the housewife of Albert (Danny Glover), who needs her to look after all the household chores. Though Albert would sooner have married Celie’s sister Nettie.

Celie, they say, is ugly, but knows how to work hard, and Nettie isn’t for “sale”. The hardest thing for Celie to take is when Nettie is thrown out of Albert’s house when she’s visiting Celie. A powerhouse scene shows their separation in its raw emotion.

When I looked closely at the first half of The Color Purple, it is bleak. Hardship abounds in black lives in the South during the early 1900’s. Manhood and masculinity are equated with aggression and abuse to show who’s boss, but it leaves the women in their lives hurting and fighting for survival.

If you look at what’s happening to their lives, which is bleak, it’s not an easy watch in the first half.

However, it shows people doing the best they can in a difficult world. This is someone’s story. This is real.

I looked up the deeper meaning for ‘purple’ and couldn’t find what I was looking for. Basically (and we may find meanings at the most basic level) purple is an intermediately colour between blue and red. This sums up the effect of the first half for me. Life can be ‘blue’ or ‘red’, but in between is how one copes, it’s not flash, but somehow one gets through. It’s the ‘colour purple’. Though purple has other meanings that are transcendent and are better expressed in the second half.

The second half is punctuated with the theme of redemption and confronting the abuse and coming to terms with a relationship with God in their almost hopeless world. The second half is dramatic relief. It’s thoughtful, thematic, dramatic, and transcendent.

As well, the second half broadens the scope of the film, to how black and white interact. Sofia, played with spunk and fire by Oprah Winfrey, comes out worse for ware in her interactions with whites, but Sofia is not one that is easily walked over.

At the forefront of the film, though, are the rich characters and performances.


Caught in a mind bending totalitarian world

Brazil (1985) ***½ Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro. Director: Terry Gilliam. Warnings: occasional profanity, some violence and sexuality.

Brazil does have moments and stretches that are more engaging than the flat patches (of course). The ending is best—it leaves you with something shattering and thought-provoking.

The brilliant ending resonates as it sinks its teeth into a system gone awry. It’s about the danger of going to the extremes by becoming totally controlling and the need to be human in such a soulless existence.

In this retro-future, human beings must submit to the prevailing authorities to get along and have a “life”. Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, Sam works in a precise, regimented, bureaucratic department. Sam’s world is dark, morbid, and colourless. Norman Garwood’s production design of the department is hardened, labyrinthic, insular, and cold, and conversely eye catching which heightens our response: should we even like this world? We shouldn’t. In this world, there is not a purpose to live, except what one does for the system.

But Sam does have a reason to live. His reason to live is in his dreams.

Yet reality is around the corner at every turn.

Sam does not want a promotion, but his preening mother (Katherine Helmond) manipulates it that he will.

Overly focused and business formalities are another dose of reality, unwelcome tradesmen (one played by Bob Hoskins) make a problem worse, and the dead-end consumer culture which you’ve seen somewhere before is a nuisance.

Work, and the system that props it up, is not what it’s cracked up to be. Sam plays the game to get along.

Then the woman he’s dreaming of is real. He tries to get her into his life. Wishful thinking perhaps.

Pryce is brilliant as the frustrated, obedient worker in an autocratic world. Sam’s frustration is hidden behind subtle reactions that are crying out to scream.

The satirical edge is good and the thought that people could one day be caught in a mind bending totalitarian world is thought-provoking and maybe luminous and by the end it’s staggering. Although Brazil’s delivery doesn’t always hit the bulls-eye.


Faithfulness and duty in Dicky Tracy

Dick Tracy (1990) *** Starring: Warren Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo. Director: Warren Beatty.

Warren Beatty’s movie is a stylish film version of the Dick Tracy comic strip from the 1930’s.

Dick Tracy is about organized crime and emboldened detective Tracy is onto it like a bolt.

The Kid (Charlie Korsmo) is an orphan that detective Dick Tracy picks up on a job and takes under his wing. Tracy and his girlfriend don’t live together and have contemplated getting married. When Tracy is tempted by singer Breathless Mahoney, he knows to resist.

Criminal’s names are monochrome as in Big Boy, Flat Face etc. The film features hardened criminals whose clothes fit the times, and so do their noses, which are bent out of shape.

Distortion and facial peculiarity is taken to a new dimension in this film. They come with the most inventive botox of the year, which went on to win the Oscar for best make-up.

You may know Al Pacino from his charismatic style of performance, but you’ll have to look close to see him underneath a sheet of plastered ugliness as Big Boy Caprice, a criminal mastermind. Big Boy throws his weight around as the other colourfully attired gangsters oblige.

Big Boy brings his boys on board in what he says is their quest to be the top dogs in the city, but we know who’s got the ego here. All the same, a solid, reliable hero in Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) who fights back.

Madonna as Mahoney seems to be going through the motions. Yet Dick Tracy is an artfully made matinee style blockbuster and utilizes the framing style of comic strips in many scenes. Art director and cinematographer give the look of the film a winning ambiance.

No swearing and sex, but there are scenes of heavy cartoonish violence and sexual references. The main theme is top notch, it’s about love or duty or both love and duty.

Dick Tracy is innovatively done, but for a blockbuster it is not fun Saturday evening entertainment.


Navigating the fallen world in Witness

Witness (1985) ***** Starring: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Summer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, Danny Glover, Brent Jennings, Patti LuPone. Director: Peter Weir.

While waiting to take a train to Baltimore, young Samuel (Lukas Haas) witnesses a murder in a rest room.

Cop John Book (Harrison Ford) questions Samuel and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) then takes them back to their Amish farm in Pennsylvania. But Book is forced to stay at the farm.

Bringing together two worlds

The intelligence of Witness is bringing together two different worlds, worldly wise cop John Book and an isolated religious community. Drama is Book and the Amish interacting while the thriller elements of the case simmer in the background.

The Amish diverge from the rest of the world as they don’t rely on electricity, phones or fridges. They have rules and regulations that would be strict to outsiders. Book navigates this world sometimes unsuccessfully.

One gets the feeling that they don’t want him there. However, Book stays while working out how to bring the perpetrator in and he makes himself useful with his carpentry skills which goes down well.

Complications arise among the Amish when Rachel, a widow, has feelings for Book, and Book is attracted to her. Meanwhile, a man in the Amish community seems to want to marry her.


The broader theme of Witness is that of a fallen world. Right at the start, when Samuel is seeing the city for the first time, he discovers that the outside world may seem nice at first. But he literally sees it is a fallen one, too, when he witnesses the murder.

What you have seen, you take into your heart, his grandfather tells him. So be separate from them, come out from among them, he continues.

The fallen reality poses a challenge to the Amish who they themselves are facing the stains of the world in their own backyard. Still, there is a necessary presence of good throughout.

If you need to know, there is occasional coarse language, and brief female nudity in a dramatic context and not gratuitous. There’s also a few scenes containing violence. But this is a mature, intelligent film, written for the screen by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley, who with Pamela Wallace came up with the original story. Director Peter Weir takes on consummate films.

From beginning to end, Witness holds your interest. Its qualities of intelligence and intelligent drama, with thriller-packed moments, overcome the nagging doubt that the film is just a bit too lingering.


Slice of life cuts to the heart

Places in the Heart (1984) ***** Starring: Sally Field, Danny Glover, John Malkovich. Director: Robert Benton.

The ending of Places in the Heart was considered by critics as out of place. The ethereal ending in a church where even deceased members of a Texas community in the 1930’s appear again was not logically following the sense of plot, they said. As the living and the dead sat around the communion table to remember the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made, the young black man who accidentally shot the sheriff because he was drunk offer one another a sign of peace by eating, in remembrance, the body and blood of Christ. The young man was lynched for his behaviour by the white males in the community and dragged through the town on a four-wheel drive. But at communion the perpetrator and victim reconcile because that’s what communion is about, how Christ can reconcile others.

The scene isn’t out of place. It resolves the relationship between the young man and the sheriff in the best way possible. The young man didn’t mean for the incident that took the life of the sheriff to happen, but it did, and these two victims come to communion and share forgiveness and reconciliation. They don’t have to be alive. It doesn’t have to be entirely literal and precise. The previous scene showed the problems and obstacles that black people faced in the 1930’s. In the next scene it shows how it can be resolved, around reconciliation.

A black man named Moses comes into the life of the widow of the sheriff although it’s through a sense luck rather than invitation. Blacks were considered second class citizens. Edna Spalding is kind and good at heart and gives Moses work, however unlikely. Moses encourages Edna to pay off the bank this season with his cotton-picking knowledge. Even if Moses must go, because of the Klu Klux Klan in the neighbourhood, she at least will know how to pick cotton next season. Moses, like the Moses of the Bible, is her deliverer.

Yet this inherently well-meaning and substantial story unwraps leisurely as a slice of life. Beautifully rendered storytelling, beautiful cinematography, and a vivid cast of characters in real life situations. Despite the hardships, forgiveness and facing the world with strength and resolve breaks through.

Offside Mozart in dramatic telling

Revised from the original published at Entertainmentnutz, 2000. Amadeus (1984) ***** Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge. Director: Milos Forman.

Amadeus is a compelling tale of the fictional drama of Austrian court composer Salieri and his jealously and revenge on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This fiction has an element of real life to it, in that it could happen in people’s situations.

Jealousy and revenge are the basest of human desires that can seem to worm their way into people’s hearts given the stimulus. Not that it’s condoned. It’s undesirable. Amadeus shows us its insidious effects, leading to a downfall.

In Amadeus, the stimulus to jealousy is Salieri’s inability to match Mozart’s musical level. It is a pride that he should be the best rather than Mozart who seems his moral inferior.

Salieri’s (F. Murray Abraham) confession of jealousy and revenge to a Catholic priest frames the drama, giving a confessional air about proceedings and a sense of tragedy.

All the same, Salieri cannot resist the divine sound and charms of Mozart’s compositions. His music somehow reflects the glory of God, as God has no favorites in which to express his gifts, though questionable is Mozart’s moral life and squandering of money.

Salieri and Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) professional and personal relationship was tainted from the beginning because of Salieri’s innate problems with Mozart.

Every part of a relationship is flawed where serious rivalry is involved. It smolders under the surface but is alive in the heart. Salieri’s characteristics—his ambition and pride—contributed to him following through on the way of the flesh, rather than asking for God’s help and subduing himself.

It takes a while for Salieri to unleash his “demons”—in a sophisticated plot involving the ‘ghostly’ presence of Mozart’s overbearing father and the naïve complicity of Mozart’s wife (Elizabeth Berridge) who is susceptible to Salieri’s good manners. Salieri’s passions had been simmering underneath for a good hour-and-so into the film.

It may be faulted at being too literary minded. However, Amadeus works. The production values are done to the hilt—wonderful to behold, immaculate—and stage operas compliment the drama.


Making things right

The Killing Fields (1984) ***** Starring: Sam Waterson, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich. Director: Roland Joffe.

The Killing Fields is done with a thread of hope and humanity and how things should be made right despite the horror of the atrocities of war.

American Journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson) is covering the conflict in Cambodia in the 1970’s and is indignant at what’s going on.

We’re reminded of the horror of the war when a casual conversation is interrupted by an explosion on a street—it’s shocking and alarming.

The country is slowly but surely being torn apart as Pol Pot and his regime decimate the country with his ‘Year Zero’ cleansing campaign, which aims to re-educate the Cambodian people and eliminate dissenters, which truly off-centers Cambodia, sending it into shock and fear.

Foreigners are leaving the country and Schanberg and his photographer Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) attempt to make up a foreign passport for Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), Schanberg’s Cambodian interpreter, but it’s not easy.

The “mission” to help Pran leave is thrilling and suspenseful, the aftermath a riveting escape attempt from a prison camp.

Pran stayed in Cambodia and is imprisoned, but he attempts to escape the prison camp and flee to safety.

Schanberg is dealing with a guilty conscience over leaving Pran behind and tries to find him.

This is a story truly centered in the good. Loose ends in relationships aren’t forgotten and left behind, but are dealt to. Forgiveness and reconciliation come, despite living in a world beset by violence. The ability to survive and endure through a deathly situation is haunting but is compelling and urging us to agree that one should live.

The Killing Fields contains violence and coarse language, but in the context of war. This is accomplished filmmaking, it’s intelligent, and directed with a sense of urgency and purpose, which is what this great story deserves. Roland Joffe’s directorial debut is outstanding, it’s a film that stays firmly in the memory as something special.


Counting the cost

That Sugar Film (2014) is an Australian documentary that positions itself on the side of the debate that says added sugar in food is not good for you. I agree. In fact, I’m adamant.

I’ve been off juice drinks for almost a year now and don’t miss them. The taste for them has gone. This documentary has motivated me to do more.

There’s a theological rationale for it, too. God the Creator wouldn’t make our bodies react in adverse ways to food that isn’t good for us or isn’t supposed to be there.

One interviewee said that “addiction to sugar” has caused materialism, in that people will buy things that satisfy their cravings for more sugar. Materialism is an artificial way to live as it can leave one feeling empty. But empty for what? More things?