Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

born

Starring: Tom Cruise, Raymond Barry, Caroline Kava, Kyra Sedgwick, Josh Evans, Frank Whaley, Jerry Levine, Willem Dafoe

Director: Oliver Stone

Summary: A man fights to rebuild his life after losing the use of his legs in Vietnam

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Cruise), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Sound, Cinematography, Film Editing*

This is a movie that works both on a big-picture theme level (about Vietnam, the mindset going into the war and what it was like for veterans afterwards, “macho” male expectations and the idea of having to be a “winner”) and on a more personal level, as a story about a man trying to find purpose in his life after coming back to a country he longer recognized and whose self-identity was forever altered after becoming paralyzed in the war. Cruise is excellent and gives what is probably the best performance of his career, especially considering how radically his characterization has to change over the course of the film. It also succeeds on its technical aspects-the cinematography and editing are outstanding and the sound design is exceptional. It’s not something that usually stands out to me, but they used it extremely well. In particular, the scene at the hospital tent in Vietnam and the scene where he gives the speech and the baby starts crying are perfectly executed. Finally, John Williams’ score is everything you would expect for his work from his prime, and is a highlight. I would say it does overuse period music, although not as bad at this as Coming Home or The Big Chill.

My only real specific problem was that it sometimes it had a bit too much bluster for my tastes, that it went over-the-top in some places when a more stripped-down and strongly realistic approach when have been the way to get the point across best in my opinion. I liked it a lot and thought it was close to or equal the level of Stone’s previous Vietnam Best Picture winner, Platoon.

Rating: A-

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Dead Poets Society (1989)

deadpoets

Starring: Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Robin Williams, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman (his film debut), Kurtwood Smith

Director: Peter Weir

Summary: An English teacher inspires his students to seize the day

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Williams), Original Screenplay*

This one is just alright and I wouldn’t have nominated it for Best Picture considering the glaring alternatives. It makes good use of Williams: a little bit of him goes a long way, and he has a scene and then takes a scene or two off, then pops up again; if he went all-out for 2 hours, he would get to be too much. Williams always had the ability to do both over-the-top big character stuff as well as quieter and more emotional scenes with equal aplomb, and this movie is a perfect showcase for both. The other performances were…okay, but nothing that stood out to me.

The movie’s not aggressively plotted, but the three major student characters all have their own stories and it balances their advancement well; however, the last 20 minutes kind of flew off the rails for me. Certain characters either picked up new traits that were previously not seen, or started acting like cartoons and the plot moves in ways that I didn’t buy. It felt like they wanted a big dramatic, heart-string tugging finale, but they failed to set up the story and characters for the finale they wanted in a proper way, and the movie was already over two hours so they had to rush through it and skip some scenes throughout that would have been immensely helpful. This one disappointed me.

Rating: C

*Driving Miss Daisy (1989)*

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Starring: Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd, Patti Lupone, Esther Rolle

Director: Bruce Beresford

Summary: An old Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur in Georgia have a relationship that grows and improves over the years

Other Nominations: Actor (Freeman), Actress (Tandy)*, Supporting Actor (Aykroyd), Adapted Screenplay*, Art Direction, Makeup*, Costume Design, Film Editing

The clear strength of the movie is the chemistry and performances of its two leads, who are both great and play off each other really well. It plays its characters and story extremely safe (heck, it’s even the last PG-rated movie to win Best Picture). This means that it never really tries to say anything all that interesting about race relations, or at least not anything deeper than “the more people of different colors interact with each other in positive settings, the more understanding there will be and the more willing you are to think about their plight.” I will say however that the film does a nice job of being subtler than most when it comes to character development and I prefer it’s approach in that department as opposed to characters just stating their feelings in dialogue. Finally, the makeup is very good and the aging up of Tandy especially over the course of the movie feels realistic. Overall, the film aims for pleasant and inoffensive entertainment for older white people, and it hits that mark quite well due to the great lead performances.

Rating: B-

Field of Dreams (1989)

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Starring: Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Gaby Hoffmann, Timothy Busfield, Ray Liotta, Burt Lancaster (in his final film)

Director: Phil Alden Robinson

Summary: Mysterious voices tell an Iowa farmer to build a baseball diamond in his backyard

Other Nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Original Score

Full disclosure, I am a lifelong baseball fan so I can’t deny that it probably colors my view of the movie somewhat; with that said, this is a wonderful movie. The screenplay is exceptional for a number of reasons: first, it gets the tone and atmosphere absolutely perfect which is difficult for a semi-fantasy movie (or a fantasy movie that takes place in a realistic setting as opposed to something like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones); second, it’s well-paced, especially at the beginning where we’ve successfully established our out-there premise completely by about 15 minutes in, which gives them more time to develop its themes and subplots about dreams, passions and regrets; finally, it’s an outstanding as an adaptation. In the original novel the movie is based on, there are multiple major characters and subplots that were dropped-the movie feels tighter without them and you don’t lose that much. Even bigger, the revelation that ends the film was actually revealed only about ⅔ the way into the original novel and the change gives us a far stronger ending, one that is still remembered by moviegoers to this day.

The score also has an ethereal quality to it which fits like a glove and enhances the fantastical, dream-like quality of the movie. There are some minor and legitimate complaints: that there are no Negro League players in the film, which is an unfortunate oversight and a missed opportunity, and that sometimes it gets overly-sentimental, which I can understand as a complaint but I personally think it tows the line just right. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, this isn’t really a movie about baseball so much as a movie about following through on your dreams, so I recommend it to anyone.

Rating: A-

My Left Foot (1989)

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Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Ray McAnally, Hugh O’Conor, Fiona Shaw, Ruth McCabe (in her first film)

Director: Jim Sheridan

Summary: A man with cerebral palsy become a celebrated painter and writer

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Day-Lewis)*, Supporting Actress (Fricker)*, Adapted Screenplay

This is an incredibly physically demanding performance from Day-Lewis as Christy Brown, but if it was just that he played a role under extreme conditions, then I wouldn’t have given him an Oscar; however, he does a lot more than that with his remarkable physical control throughout, along with the vitality and character he breathes into the role. What I noticed after a while is how incredibly consistent and readable he is in the role-you can what he’s thinking and feeling at all times without over or under-doing his condition, and he’s very consistent in how much physical and speech therapy he has received at that point in the film. The other big performance is from Fricker, who does well playing steely, warm and well, motherly all at the same time as the emotional pillar of Brown’s life in a “supporting” role (she’s clearly the main actress in the movie, similar to Viola Davis in Fences). These two performances (along with McAnally, who I’m surprised wasn’t nominated for his performance as Brown’s father) make the movie well worth watching.

The film’s big thread is how Brown wants a real, romantic relationship with a woman in spite of his physical condition and the arc plays out well..except in one big detail. They portrayed Mary Carr, Brown’s eventual wife, very positively in the film…which has not aged well, as accounts released after the film came out describe her as physically abusive, habitually unfaithful to Brown and the reason he died an early death. Not the film’s fault, but problematic for someone watching the film in present day (much like watching a hypothetical biopic of O.J. Simpson from the 1980s would be surreal now). Regardless, this is still a very good movie with some standout performances.

Rating: B

1989 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1989

During this period, there were plenty of films about race or racism that got nominated for Best Picture: in 1988, Mississippi Burning got a Best Picture nomination; in 1989 and 1990, Driving Miss Daisy and Dances With Wolves won Best Picture. However, there is a glaring omission here that most people at the time acknowledged as a massive snub: that film is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

This is a film about race that offers no happy resolution, no easy answers; instead, it actually makes you think about the characters: how you feel about them and WHY you feel the way you do about them. It’s a movie where your thoughts about it and what you thought the massage was tells a great deal about your attitudes on race. Both of these are extraordinarily rare for any film on any subject, but when it comes to race, so many take on just one specific viewpoint, have flat characters or boil down their message into something massively over-simplistic and lack depth to their arguments about what the real problems are when it comes to race (some of which have even won Best Picture!). Much like Network, it’s a film that has only gotten more and more relevant and sharp in its insights as time has gone on and it’s a shame I wasn’t able to review the movie as a nominee for this project.

Other Notable Films

Roger & Me

Sex, Lies and Videotape

Batman

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The Little Mermaid

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Glory

Kik’s Delivery Service

The Killer

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Crimes and Misdemeanors

When Harry Met Sally…

Drugstore Cowboy

1989 Nominees in Review

Field of Dreams: A-

Born on the Fourth of July: A-

My Left Foot: B+

Driving Miss Daisy: B- (Won Best Picture)

Dead Poets Society: C

A very good Best Picture nominee field, even if the winner was only my 4th favorite from 1989. Field of Dreams was one of the easiest watches in a while and I’m happy it got nominated, while Born on the Fourth of July is much headier fare but every bit as good as Stone’s previous Vietnam film, Platoon. My Left Foot is a simple character piece with some great performances, Driving Miss Daisy is a perfectly solid movie for your parents to watch and is led by two great performances. Finally, Dead Poets Society is the one that sticks out as undeserving in the field, and the ending annoyed me.

We’re finally out of the 1980s, one of the weakest decades for Best Picture nominees (this year notwithstanding), and are now entering the 1990s, a much better one on paper even if it’s by no means perfect. We have: a movie where Robin Williams’ character administers the same drug (Levodopa) that Williams later used for Parkinson’s near the end of his life; The highest grossing Western of all-time; Patrick Swayze gets the Best Picture nomination he so richly deserved after Road House was heinously snubbed the previous year; a Best Picture nominee solely created because the director desperately needed money; and this is one of two movies about the life of mobster Henry Hill that were released in 1990, where oddly enough the screenplays were written by different members of the same couple, this one by Nicholas Pileggi, the other by his wife Nora Ephron.