#ThrowbackThursday – Minority Report


Original US release date: June 21, 2002
Production budget: $102,000,000
Worldwide gross: $358,372,926

I actually wasn’t excited about the release of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report in the summer of 2002.  I liked Spielberg.  I liked Cruise.  But the trailer didn’t appeal to me.  And, even worse, it felt like I was forced to watch said trailer before every . . . single . . . movie . . . that I went to see in the months leading up to it.  I was tired of the film before it had even hit theaters.  Funnily enough, the only reason I even went to see it in the theater was because of another movie trailer.  Fox announced that the trailer for 2003’s Daredevil would be attached to every print of Minority Report.  You see, kids . . . back then, you had to actually go to the movies to see movie trailers.  There was no such thing as online marketing.  No high-speed downloads.  No streaming.  And, being the lifelong Marvel Zombie that I was, I was willing to fork out the money to see a movie I had no interest in just to catch the first glimpse at the trailer for the next upcoming Marvel Comics adaptation.

I’m so glad I did.  Minority Report ended up being one of my favorite movies of the year, to say the very least.  Whenever I recall thoroughly enjoying a film that I haven’t seen in a while, I wonder to myself if I’ll enjoy it as much when I next view it as I did before.  I am very relieved to say that, upon my re-watch for this column, Minority Report easily lived up to the reputation that had been crafted for it in my memory.


If you haven’t seen the film, based on the short story by Philip K. Dick, here’s the idea: it’s the year 2054.  Certain individuals have developed the ability to precognitively witness murders before they are supposed to happen.  In response, law enforcement officials in Washington D.C. have secured the use of three of these individuals (appropriately dubbed “precogs”) in order to stop murders before they occur.  And it has apparently worked, as there hasn’t been a single murder in the city in six years.  Naturally, this raises ethical questions.  Should someone be arrested for a crime they haven’t committed?  What if the precogs are wrong?  How would we ever know?  And should we even argue if the results seemingly speak for themselves?

No one outside of those who have been arrested due to this system seems to be interested in challenging the process.  At least, no one is willing to challenge the system until top cop John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is named by the precogs as the perpetrator of the murder of a complete stranger, due to take place in approximately 36 hours.  Anderton immediately makes a break for it (“Everybody runs.”), setting out to solve the mystery of the very crime he is supposed to commit and prove his own innocence.


Minority Report is a story unlike any other that has been translated to the big screen before or since.  And, being the master of his craft, Spielberg nails it on the first try.  On the surface, the film is a fast-paced, nonstop science-fiction thriller that takes its characters and its audience on an exhilarating ride comprised of snappy dialogue, clever uses of technology, unpredictable (yet entirely believable) plot twists, and perfectly staged action sequences.  The film never slows, never slums, and always entertains.  Anderton is thoroughly developed – his every word and action supported by clear motivation.  These characters are all supposed to be intelligent, and they are.  Many viewers want every character in every film to be a supergenius.  They want the fifteen-year-old babysitter being chased by the killer with the hatchet to handle herself the way Amy Adams’s scientist in Arrival would in the same situation.  That’s silly.  But Spielberg knows who should be smart and who shouldn’t and he puts that knowledge to perfect use in this film.

Beyond those obvious characteristics, the film is also an exquisitely crafted mystery.  I actually see some influence from The Ring, which just adds more credibility to the legacy of that film (as if it needs it).  But the way that the detectives analyze the different images from the precogs’ visions and then try to determine from where they originate is very reminiscent of Naomi Watts’s Rachel doing the same with Samara’s cursed video tape.  While I love everything about Minority Report, what I love the most is that when I first saw the film, I never knew what was going to happen next.  Just when one thinks that Spielberg and Dick are all out of surprises, there are two more right around the corner.  And, I’ll repeat: they all make sense.  Not a single one is there without character motivation and storyline justification.

Minority Report movie image Tom Cruise

Spielberg also understands the importance of restraint.  Too often, storytellers ask for too much suspension of disbelief, requiring audiences to buy into ideas such as moon colonization occurring just six years in the future or possibly fully realized human cloning by next March, with everyone simply adapting to it, instantaneously.  While Minority Report takes place far enough in the future to accept some significant technological advancement, the people are still people.  They still drink Aquafina, they still shop at the Gap, and they still watch COPS on Fox (complete with “Bad Boys” theme song).  More importantly than all of that, the people in 2054 all still have the same priority that people have always had: self-preservation.  Minority Report isn’t a film about futuristic people; it’s a film about regular people struggling to adapt to and cope with futuristic technology.

Technically, if one wishes to nitpick, I suppose Minority Report isn’t perfect.  There’s one scene where Cruise’s Anderton pulls himself up from a near-fatal fall without truly having anything with which to gain purchase.  And at another point, he uses a disguise that just looks like poor movie makeup rather than a convincing concealment.  But that’s pretty much it.  That’s all I have as far as criticisms go.  And that’s about as benign as flaws get.  The truth is that Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is a modern science-fiction classic that deserves much more recognition than it gets in today’s film circles.  I’ll even go so far as to declare it an outright masterpiece.  It’s one of Spielberg’s best films (take that in for a moment), it’s one of Cruise’s best films (maybe his very best), and it’s one of the greatest science-fiction films of all-time.  The brilliant story and script, Spielberg’s flawless execution, Cruise’s charisma and presence, the ethical implications behind the law-enforcement methods, and the always-fun philosophical and logistical conundrums that surround the fate-versus-free-will discussion all combine to deliver a mind-blowing viewing experience that still excites and resonates over fifteen years later.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Minority Report

#ThrowbackThursday – The Big Lebowski


Original US release date: March 6, 1998
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $17,451,873

Okay, I’ll admit it: this is my first time seeing this movie.  Honestly, it just never appealed to me.  I was under the impression that the film was a litany of drug humor, which is something that has never struck a chord for me, as it’s easy and essentially a form of pandering that lacks any true semblance of wit or creativity.  Over the years, however, I’ve attained a strong fondness for Jeff Bridges, so I figured it was about time to give this one a chance and see if it lived up to the long-standing hype.  The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, are hit-and-miss for me (and only Joel receives a directing credit with both he and Ethan being credited ad co-writers), but I’d been stubborn long enough; it was time for me to finally watch The Big Lebowski.

For those like me who haven’t seen the film, The Big Lebowski tells the tale of the Dude (real name Jeff Lebowski, played by Bridges) as he gets mistaken for a millionaire with the same name (David Huddleston).  When the millionaire’s daughter (Tara Reid) is kidnapped and held for ransom, the Dude recruits his bowling buddies (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) to help him find her and resolve his role in the situation.


I’m happy to say that my impression that the film was a drug comedy, like some highly-regarded progenitor to Superbad, was way off base.  Yes, the Dude does drugs, but in no way does this permeate the entire film, neither through the humor nor the narrative.  Surprisingly, the drug references are rather sparse and the Coen brothers instead use dialogue and situational humor to earn their laughs, never relying on the cheap jokes and visual gags that drug humor so easily provides.  There’s a little bit of that (including a highly entertaining dance/dream sequence), but most of the comedy is rooted in the script and the performances.  And it’s genuinely funny.

Jeff Bridges turns in a casually endearing performance as the Dude.  The Dude is surprisingly likeable and even more surprisingly level-headed.  He’s a do-nothing slacker, for sure.  And, being perpetually unemployed, it’s not entirely clear how he pays for . . . well . . . anything at all, really.  So, he isn’t contributing to society in any meaningful way.  But it’s clear that he could.  He’s reasonably intelligent and genuinely cares for other people.  It’s difficult to dislike him, even if he seemingly mooches off of society.  Bridges’s performance only compounds the issue as he injects so much sincerity into the Dude’s every line of dialogue and action that one can’t help but feel drawn to him.


In discovering the character of the Dude, I also discovered that, rather than being the druggie comedy I expected, The Big Lebowski is actually a fish-out-of-water crime caper.  The Dude doesn’t really belong anywhere.  Sure, he’s comfortable with his bowling friends, but – outside of that one particular hobby – neither of those guys are very much like the Dude, at all.  Buscemi’s Dave is a well-meaning, weak-kneed putz who’s lucky to have found anyone who will spend time with him in any capacity, at all.  And Goodman’s overbearing Walter puts all of his energy into himself while positing a love for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (reminding me of half of my current Facebook feed, in the process).

And if the Dude doesn’t really fit in with his friends, he’s even more displaced once he gets wrapped up with multimillionaires and career criminals.  The Dude wants his life to be as simple and uneventful as possible.  This film is what happens when he is forced to live a life that is the very antithesis of simple and uneventful.  Yet, even though these adventures have been thrust upon him against his own will and doing, when he sees that other people are in danger, he never hesitates to try to help.  At the same time, he refuses to allow these societal bigwigs and bullies to steamroll him.  This duality is the heart of the character and why he has resonated with so many people for almost two decades.


So, I get it, now.  I understand why people still associate Jeff Bridges with this character and this film.  I understand why people still talk about the film and still make references to it in casual conversation or in other forms of media.  While, for me personally, it doesn’t stand out as any sort of an all-time favorite, I can absolutely see why it does for so many others and I’m glad I finally took the time to check it out.  It’s simply not always the best idea to trust our own impressions of a film, especially when so many others love it.  Sadly, this is another in a long line of films that failed at the box office despite it’s superior quality.  If only America could learn a lesson and start supporting these types of movies more often.  Still, I suppose a post-theatrical-run cult following is better than nothing.  So, if you are like I was and you haven’t checked out The Big Lebowski, follow my lead and give it at least one viewing.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Big Lebowski

#ThrowbackThursday – The Shawshank Redemption


Original US release date: September 23, 1994
Production budget: $25,000,000
Worldwide gross: $28,341,469

Based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont’s more-succinctly titled The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most beloved films in all of cinematic history.  Released in 1994, and garnering a plethora of award nominations in 1995, over the decades, The Shawshank Redemption has garnered a reputation for being one of the greatest films ever made.  In fact, users of the Internet Movie Database have openly declared it as such, as it currently sits in the number one position of all films according to the user ratings on the enormously popular website.  And it has resided in that spot for a long time.  If only that enthusiasm had been there when the film was originally released; the movie was an unquestionable flop at the box office as moviegoers shied away from the low-budget, thinking-person’s drama with no special effects or (at the time) marquee stars.

The Shawshank Redemption follows two penitentiary inmates (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) as they struggle with their imprisonment, their corrupt warden and guards, and their futures (or possible lack thereof).  Long before prison dramas were the cool thing, as they now are, largely thanks to Netflix’s excellent comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Robbins’s Andy Dufresne and Freeman’s “Red” Redding redefined audience’s perspectives on life in the big house by reminding everyone on the outside that those on the inside are people, too.


Those who aren’t among author Stephen King’s Constant Readers (and he has lovingly dubbed his loyal fans) are often under the misconception that King writes nothing but horror schlock with no redeeming social or literary value.  That’s as far from the truth as anything could possibly be.  All of King’s stories – even those that feature a strong horror component, such as It, Cell, or The Dark Half – are about the people first and the genre elements second.  But he has also been responsible for many non-horror stories, several of which have been adapted into very popular and beloved films.  Aside from The Shawshank Redemption, both The Green Mile and Stand By Me were originally Stephen King stories.  He’s a tremendous writer with a bottomless pit of imagination.

Helming the film was then-newcomer Frank Darabont.  The Shawshank Redemption was Darabont’s first feature film as a director.  Believe it or not, he’s only directed three films since then, and two of them were also Stephen King adaptations (The Green Mile and The Mist).  He has since also developed a little property called The Walking Dead for television, though he left the show shortly after its debut.  Led by Freeman and Robbins, the cast of The Shawshank Redemption was comprised of respected actors who were fairly well-known and recognizable but lacked true superstar status.  While this was likely because of the film’s modest budget, it also helps keep the viewer invested in the fictional characters instead of on the reputations of the actors involved.


I like doing these classic films for my #ThrowbackThursday columns but sometimes it can be difficult.  Honestly, what more can I say about The Shawshank Redemption that hasn’t already been said a million other times by a million other people?  This film marks one of those somewhat rare instances where audiences and critics agree: the movie is brilliant.  Everything hits exactly as it should.  Even though the film is relatively long at two hours and twenty-two minutes (counting credits), the script and the performances keep it engaging, never allowing it to drag.  The characters are relatable, believable, and unique unto themselves.  Their arcs play out organically and each character serves a purpose for both the larger narrative and the stories of the two primary leads.

What really hits home is how the themes of the film and the struggles of the characters can be metaphorically applied to virtually anyone.  But few would ever think to apply such ideas to people who have been locked away for years – maybe even decades.  And, often, when considering criminals, those internal struggles can be exacerbated exponentially due to their particular circumstances.  For instance, the very notion of institutionalization would typically be beyond the reach of anyone who has never been incarcerated, but King and Darabont explain it in a way that is not only both beautiful and heartbreaking but also effortlessly accessible.  We see each character wrestling with their own problems and, though we know that most of these men got themselves into the position in which they reside, we also come to understand that people can grow and change.  And maybe some of them deserve another chance at a real life.  But that’s not always as easy as it sounds.


This story could not be told for general audiences by anyone who isn’t a master storyteller.  I’m not going to go on and on about the film.  If you’ve seen it, you know.  If you haven’t, you should.  It lives up to its reputation.  The Shawshank Redemption is a poignant and poetic story about the strength of the human spirit and the unexpected weaknesses to which it may also succumb.  Though we are often unable to control the events of our own lives, we can still control how we process them and what we do with them in our hearts and in our minds.  And if we are able to maintain and come out standing at the end, we all get our ultimate redemption.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Shawshank Redemption

#ThrowbackThursday – The Cider House Rules


Original US release date: December 10, 1999
Production budget: $24,000,000
Worldwide gross: $88,545,092

So here’s another #ThrowbackThursday film that’s a first-time watch for me.  All I really remembered about The Cider House Rules (besides its distinctive title) was that it starred Charlize Theron.  Upon my rediscovery of the film, however (or my first full discovery, as the case may be), I found that the film has much more to offer than the excellent Theron.  Sharing the screen with her are Tobey Maguire, Paul Rudd, Michael Caine, and Erykah Badu in her first major film role.  Michael Caine won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the film in one of the many award nominations it received (including a 2000 Oscar nomination for Best Picture, where it lost out to American Beauty).

I wouldn’t say that The Cider House Rules has been entirely lost or forgotten over time, but it hasn’t exactly remained at the forefront of the public’s memory, either.  It stuck with me to some degree, however – despite the fact that I never saw it – perhaps because it was the only Best Picture nominee from 2000’s Academy Awards ceremony that I had never taken the time to watch.  Well, no more, my friends.


Based on John Irving’s novel (Irving also wrote the screenplay for the film), The Cider House Rules tells the story of Homer Wells (Maguire), an orphan who never receives the gift of adoption.  Growing up in a Maine orphanage and being raised by orphanage director Wilbur Larch (Caine), Homer is trained in the skills of a doctor, though he never receives a formal education.  Growing weary of the emotional toll of living a sheltered life in an orphanage, as well as the stress of performing difficult doctoral duties, including abortions, Homer decides to leave, see the world, and pursue a simpler life, elsewhere.  When a soldier and his pregnant girlfriend (Rudd and Theron) arrive at the orphanage in need of an abortion, Homer hitches a ride as they leave, with hopes for a more fulfilling future in his heart.

As evidenced by the names mentioned above, the cast more than delivers.  Tobey Maguire, still two years away from exploding in popularity following the release of Spider-Man, is the unquestionable lead, with the entire narrative being presented from Homer’s perspective.  Homer has never truly felt loved, despite being thoroughly cared for by Larch.  His sheltered existence has kept him from both the best and much of the worst that life has to offer.  His resulting thirst for discovery and life experience leads to quite a journey and is quenched in some rather unexpected ways.  Maguire does a fine job in projecting complex emotions and conveying Homer’s deep internal emotional growth to the audience.


Michael Caine is excellent as always, winning an Oscar, as I mentioned before.  Charlize Theron’s star was still rising in 1999.  And though she’s now positioned herself as a tough-as-nails, A-list action star (why haven’t you seen Atomic Blonde?!), she has spent her career taking a variety of challenging roles, and her performance here as Candy Kendall was the first that really allowed her to show that she has the talent to back up her presence and charisma.  Paul Rudd is best known for his comedic abilities, but he does a fine enough job as Candy’s boyfriend Wally Worthington, even if there’s not much required of him.  Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X) is also very powerful as migrant worker Arthur Rose, father of Badu’s Rose Rose (that’s not a typo).

Irving’s story is a good one, and a poignant one, although it’s also fairly simple.  That’s not a slight, but I did feel that there wasn’t quite enough story for the running time.  And at 126 minutes (including credits), the film isn’t all that long.  Perhaps had the film been a more brisk 105 minutes, it wouldn’t have felt quite so prolonged.  Only three of the characters have meaningful arcs and while that should be enough to fill a couple of hours with compelling story beats and dialogue, the film sometimes creeps along from one story point to the next, while at other times delivering truly engrossing and riveting character moments and revelations.  All in all, it’s time well spent, but a little bit of tightening couldn’t have hurt, in my opinion.


Aside from those points, The Cider House Rules is a beautiful film that addresses the complexities of life and our resistance to seeing the duality of many hot-button issues when presented with something that challenges our own long-held, personal perspectives.  Homer learns that there’s so much more to the world than what we each encounter on a daily basis and it takes opening our minds and mixing up our routines – if only just on occasion – in order to sincerely grasp and hopefully understand the difficulties that people outside of our own personal circles often face.  A more energetic presentation could have benefited the film and maybe even helped it to reach a wider audience, but an exceptional cast and a poignant message make it a worthy journey.  That’s exactly what Homer was looking for.  He found it, and you can find it, too, in The Cider House Rules.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Cider House Rules

#ThrowbackThursday – The Simpsons Movie


Original US release date: July 27, 2007
Production budget: $75,000,000
Worldwide gross: $527,071,022

The Simpsons is my favorite television comedy of all-time (and my second-favorite television show, altogether, after Lost).  From day one, it’s been a sharp-tongued, envelope-pushing, quick-witted cornucopia of one-liners, sight-gags, satire, and the most memorable characters ever created and designed for in-home entertainment.  Matt Groening’s legendary creation paved the way for virtually every comedy we have on television (in all of its varied forms) today.  The Simpsons and their vast supporting cast are to modern television what Elvis Presley was to music.  So, it was inevitable that they would eventually make their way to the big screen.  And in 2007, twenty years after their debut as a short on The Tracy Ullman Show, they did just that.

Anytime a television show makes the jump to movie theaters, it has to be creatively justified.  It needs to simultaneously feel like the show that audiences have grown to love but also feel grander and worth the trip to the theater and the money that exposure to the product wouldn’t normally require.  It can be a tricky proposition.  The Simpsons Movie accomplishes this on every desired level, both aesthetically and creatively.


While there’s an obvious upgrade in the quality of art and animation, thanks to a higher, film-caliber budget, the video and audio upgrades don’t stop there.  The widescreen aspect ratio adds an extra level of panache and sense of importance.  Less obviously, the omnipresent score in the background contributes a subtle sense of scale and majesty, elevating the production far above its traditional television comedy origins.  Before the narrative even begins to unfold, this feels like the high-quality production that it is.

Yet, it’s still undeniably the Simpsons, with the classic 2D animation and character designs.  Fox and everyone working on the film justifiably felt confident in the property and didn’t make the mistake of using 3D CGI in an attempt to artificially inflate the perceived production values while abandoning the visual core and history of the show.  Other studios would have been tempted because, even in 2007, traditional, hand-drawn, 2D animation was on its way out and struggling at the box office.  It was the right – and only – choice for this film, however, so kudos to all involved in the production.


But what about the story?  Is this movie something that couldn’t be done on television?  Well, “couldn’t” is a strong word, but it would definitely be a tough task.  In the film, Homer inadvertently pollutes Springfield’s water supply.  In response, the (fictional) head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Russ Cargill (voiced by Albert “A.” Brooks) places an impenetrable dome around the town.  Thanks to Maggie, the Simpson family manages to escape the dome and, along with it, Homer’s role in the ordeal.  But that doesn’t stop Cargill from pursuing the Simpsons and developing some nefarious plans to deal with Springfield’s pollution issue.

On television (as established by South Park), The Simpsons has practically done it all.  Coming up with something new, fresh, and high-concept for the film, while not straying from the foundations that had been established in the twenty years prior, could not have been easy.  But this story takes the family and its supporting cast to new locations, puts them in unique situations, and – in true Simpsons form – plays with political and societal constructs through the use of cutting satire.  The film pokes fun at everything and everyone they can manage – including the audience, which hardcore fans are used to and also appreciative of.  If you aren’t in on the joke, then The Simpsons will go over your head.


Speaking of poking fun, the film is exceedingly funny and witty.  I regularly say that mileage varies when it comes to comedies, but, as always, The Simpsons provides intelligent, multilayered humor for informed, well-rounded, sophisticated adults.  There are definitely sight gags, but even the majority of those play out in an unpredictable manner that will tickle the funny bone of even the most stubborn critics of slapstick.  There are clever one-liners coming at a rapid-fire pace (the best line goes to Ralph Wiggum, with Ned Flanders not far behind) and the laughs never truly stop.  Everything lands to varying degrees and the script is an absolute goldmine of comedy that covers every different style for every unique audience member.

I have nothing bad at all to say about The Simpsons Movie.  It was a rare movie that was marketed as a comedy and fully delivered on its promise.  Two decades in the making, audiences turned out in masses, rewarding the film with over half-a-billion dollars in box office returns.  To further demonstrate the love and respect that the producers of the show and movie have for the property, there has been no sequel.  They have been quoted as saying that they don’t want to do one just for the sake of making money.  They want any hypothetical theatrical follow-up to deserve the screens that it will take up and be something worthy of the fans’ time and money.  If and when they feel inspired by an idea, we’ll get another movie.  It’s been ten years since this one arrived and reaffirmed the Simpsons as America’s family and one of the greatest institutions in pop culture history.  Sit back, enjoy Spider-Pig, and celebrate the tenth anniversary of this film along with me.  And just be thankful for the Simpsons and everything that they inspired in the decades since.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Simpsons Movie

#ThrowbackThursday – The English Patient


Original US release date: November 15, 1996
Production budget: $27,000,000
Worldwide gross: $231,976,425

As big of a movie buff as I am, I have spent 21 years dragging my heels when it comes to seeing The English Patient.  There’s a reason for that.  It’s not a good reason, though.  It’s actually a rather stupid reason.  And I can sum it up in two words: Elaine Benes.  Yep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character from “Seinfeld” has kept me from seeing a Best Picture Academy Award-winning film for over two decades.  There was an episode of the series that was appropriately entitled “The English Patient” in which Elaine is repeatedly dragged to see the movie and all she can talk about is how much she hates it.  All Elaine wants is to see the comedy Sack Lunch with her boyfriend, but it just doesn’t happen.  It’s The English Patient, over and over again for poor Elaine.  That episode stuck with me for ever since.  Even long after I knew how silly it was for me to be using the opinion of a fictional character on a sitcom to dictate my viewing habits, I resisted seeing the movie.  But, it’s time.  So, this #ThrowbackThursday is a look back at a film that I, myself, am seeing for the very first time.  Was Elaine right?

Released in late 1996, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient tells the story of a wounded soldier (Ralph Fiennes) during World War II who recounts a torrid love affair (is there any other kind?) for the viewer through a series of flashbacks.  The hook is in the wait to see exactly how the soldier was hurt and what got him to that point.  The film was not only a huge critical success – winning a whopping nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture – but also a box office winner, earning more than eight-and-a-half times its budget in worldwide receipts.  That’s extremely impressive, regardless of whether or not Elaine would have considered it metaphorically sponge-worthy.


The film is long.  It’s very long.  There are others films of equal length.  And there are films that are longer.  But I have to say that there is certainly a pacing issue in The English Patient.  The film is a ninety-minute story told in two hours and forty-five minutes.  Not much of any true consequence happens until the final twenty minutes, or so.  The rest is all there to lay a foundation.  And, of course, any good film needs a foundation.  But there are very few noteworthy events occurring at regular intervals along the way, which is sure to be a problem for certain members of the audience.

If the dialogue had been more dynamic, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But the characters are mostly very sleepy throughout the film, talking in quiet, hushed tones and speaking through immemorable, uninspired conversation.  The rather remarkable cast somehow makes it work, though it can still be an effort to remain focused if one isn’t determined to do so.


But, yes, the cast turns in some motivated and heartfelt performances.  All three leads – Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Juliette Binoche – were nominated for Academy Awards and Binoche walked away with the win in the Best Supporting Actress category.  (I referred to her as a lead, and I feel that she is.  Her screen time probably reflects that of a supporting cast member, but her presence in the film is as prominent as anyone’s.)  This was one of a massively-impressive nine Academy Awards that the film won at the 1997 ceremony including, as I previously mentioned, Best Picture.

I personally would have voted for competitor Fargo over The English Patient for Best Picture, but that’s my personal opinion.  I can understand the divide regarding the love for The English Patient.  Without question, on the technical, artistic, and performance levels, the film is exquisite and deserving of every accolade that has ever been hurled in its direction.  On a narrative level, I found it lacking.  There was significant filler that prevented the film’s story from being conveyed in an efficient manner and caused a lot of boredom – including that of Elaine – in casual audiences.  It was likely offset by the emotional resonance, the performances, and the World War II backdrop, which always adds a layer of importance to a prestige film.  Certainly, something worked because in spite of all the claimed boredom, it made a heck of a lot of money.


I wasn’t personally crazy about The English Patient.  Had it been an hour shorter, I could have gotten much more strongly behind it.  But I can still recognize its virtues and can in no credible way claim that it isn’t a well-made film.  So, this is one for which the mileage certainly varies, depending on mood, personal tastes, and willingness to commit to the film without the guarantee of a satisfying payoff.  Maybe you loved it.  Maybe you hated it.  I fall somewhere in between.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The English Patient

#ThrowbackThursday – Larry Crowne


Original US release date: July 1, 2011
Production budget: $30,000,000
Worldwide gross: $72,008,245

Back in 2011, Tom Hanks released Larry Crowne, a film that he directed and co-wrote, along with Nia Vardalos.  The marketing mostly centered around the fact that the film co-starred Hanks and Julia Roberts.  It wasn’t their first film together, but it was the first where they both played to type.  Despite that, the box office returns were mediocre and the reviews were even worse.  Hanks and Roberts are two of the biggest, most-beloved movie stars of the last thirty years.  How could something that seemed like such a sure thing go so wrong?  What happened?  Was the film really that bad?

Larry Crowne follows the eponymous Larry Crowne, portrayed by Hanks.  Larry is the typical wholesome good guy that has largely defined Hanks’s career – or at least the public perception of his career.  When Larry is let go from his longtime sales position at a mass-market retailing chain for not having a college education (and therefore possessing the least upside of anyone else at the location), he decides to rectify his situation by finally pursuing a degree.  He enrolls at a local community college and learns more about himself than is dictated by any syllabi, just as he affects the other students and his professors by injecting his infectious optimism into their lives.


The role of Larry Crowne does little to nothing to push Hanks to the boundaries of his talents, but it’s still an endearing part and it’s always nice to see Hanks play this sort of fatherly, uplifting character to supplement the more challenging roles that he has also tackled during his career.  He is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, led by Julia Roberts.  Roberts plays Larry’s speech professor, Mercy Tainot.  Mercy is cynical and beaten – her enthusiasm for life stamped out by the people around her.  Her students are uninspired and her husband (Bryan Cranston) sits at home all day, looking at PG-13 photos of women in their underwear (the movie’s interpretation of “porn”).

Backing up Hanks and Roberts is a who’s-who of talented actors – many of whom have gone on to become huge names in their own right.  Included in the cast is the aforementioned Cranston, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, George Takei, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who should be a much bigger star than she is), Wilmer Valderrama, and Hanks’s real-life wife Rita Wilson.  Of this group, contributing the most to the film are Malik and Mbatha-Raw.  As a college professor, myself, I can confirm that Malik’s Steve Dibiasi is the most like a real-life college student.  He provides much of the film’s humor (of which there is quite a bit, and pretty much all of it lands, to some degree) and is supremely likable in spite of Dibiasi’s annoying tendencies and entitled approach to life.  Mbatha-Raw’s Talia is a fellow student who takes an immediate liking to Larry and helps him adapt to modern-day college life.  Talia is an unusually upbeat character for Mbatha-Raw, who typically plays more serious parts.  It’s refreshing to see her smiling and joking and revealing a rarely-seen side of herself, displaying some versatility along the way.  She’s exuberant and adds an element of life and energy to the film that would have been noticeably lacking without her presence.


So, what happened?  Why didn’t the film blow the box office away and rack up $200+ million in worldwide box office receipts?  Three things, I believe:

  1. The reviews.  As I mentioned, the reviews were rather critical of the film upon its release.  Or, at least, on first glance.  Upon further inspection, they generally acknowledge that the film has it’s positives, but plays it too safe.  I can’t argue that it’s not safe.  But it’s also so entertaining and charming along the way that it shouldn’t really matter, in my estimation.  I laughed quite a bit, I enjoyed the performances, and I was invested in the characters.  I can deal with safe.
  2. The title.  Honestly, does Larry Crowne stand out as a title in any meaningful way, at all?  Even when I hear the title, myself, I have to ransack my memory in order to recall which movie it was and what it was about.  Unless the character is already a household name, titling a film with just said character’s name is risky.  I have always maintained that John Carter would have performed at least somewhat better at the box office if it had been called John Carter of Mars.  Sometimes, it works out (such as with John Wick), but it’s a gamble.
  3. The marketplace.  This film was released on July 1, right in the middle of blockbuster season.  What was it up against?  A week prior saw the release of Cars 2.  On the same day as Larry Crowne was released, Transformers: Dark of the Moon also hit theaters.  Midnight in Paris and The Town were also still hanging around, pulling in the adult crowds with counterprogramming.  Had the movie opened in the spring or the fall, I think it would have gotten more attention and performed more admirably at the box office.  Even with mostly-underwhelming reviews, people love Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and want to support them.  But timing matters.


So, while Larry Crowne isn’t an exercise in groundbreaking filmmaking, it’s still a fun, delightful time with laughs and wit abound.  It’s sadly been forgotten in the six years since its release, but it’s an appropriate movie to watch when one is in the mood for something light and uplifting.  And it’s a fun game of Spot-the-Future-Star, to boot!  Larry Crowne isn’t an all-time classic, but it deserves better than its reputation – or its lack thereof – suggests.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Larry Crowne