Grace of My Heart (1996) Illeana Douglas, John Turturro, Matt Dillon
Spoilers Ahead--I hope not enough to ruin the film for those who haven't seen it yet.
Grace of My Heart is 2/3rds of a good movie, 1/3rd of a bad one, with just a bit left over for a satisfying ending.
The set up is a pretty nifty one, if you think about it. Illeana Douglas (a criminally underused and misused actress) shines as Denise Waverly (nee Edna Buxton), a Carole King type singer-songwriter who goes from being a Brill Building songwriter in the early 1960s to becoming a highly successful singer-songwriter in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Along the way, she constantly hooks up with the proverbial "guy who's wrong for the heroine in some way", ignoring the only unmessed up guy in the film, her producer, played with whip-smart accuracy by John Turturro. I'll give a minor spoiler away by saying they do not hook up in the end. But, I'm rather glad they didn't, as their friendship is one of the more fascinating male/female relationships on film. There's love there, respect, and true knowledge of each other. But, who says those things have to result in romantic love? As the film so wisely shows, having a best buddy who is always there for you so you can eventually become yourself without leaning on relationships for self-esteem may be just as important as having a lover just to keep from being alone. To me, the heart of the film is the insanely good and intelligent chemistry between Turturro and Douglas.
The idea of Grace of My Heart is instead of trying to do a film about a real character and messing it up the way most Hollywood bio-pics do, doing a pseudo-bio pic about characters that might have fit well in the 1960s. At least that way, you don't have this feeling of "hey, that event in so and so's life didn't happen that way", the way you do with, say, the myriad Beatle related bio-pics that are out there (don't even get me started on Backbeat!). The downside of doing a post-modern take on bio-pics is that the movie had to come up with "hit" songs written by the lead character that actually sounded like the hits of the 1960s. These songs are somewhat hit and miss. The ones that sound like "Crying in the Rain" and "You Don't Own Me" work best, I think.
Sadly, the two Elvis Costello numbers in the film do not fit well at all. They have a level of lyrical adultness that really takes one out of the fictional dream of '60s pop from a non-Beatles point of view. For instance, no one would have thought to have written the rambling and lyrically overgrown "God Give Me Strength" in 1966-7 (except maybe Van Dyke Parkes...). Even with Burt Bacharach co-writing it, the work just jars me right out of the movie for those many minutes the song goes on.
The last one-third of the film that I mention almost sinks the movie. In this section, Denise falls in love with a Brian Wilson type (nicely played by Matt Dillon, even though he's given little to work with). The focus of the movie becomes a weird combo of the Beach Boys' real life from the unreleased Smile album to the "Brian is Back" (and has his shrink with him) era of Brian Wilson's life and A Star is Born. A Star is Born has been remade three times (once in an awful rock version)---and the same ending showed up in the 1940s music film Humoresque--so we as an audience sort of deserved something a little better than the convenient "get the other person out of the way" so "the star can find intestinal fortitude and triumph" stuff yet again. Fortunately for the audience, by that time, John Turturro's character comes back and saves the film.
I could also make some minor gripes about anachronisms in the film, but I think that would be unkind, as I wasn't even born during the era. Less unkind and frankly a bit more to the point would be my gripes about how, for a film about a before her time female songwriter, we don't really see any real challenges of discrimination against Denise as a female songwriter in a male world. In fact, in a self-serving move to the movie, often the men in the film tell Denise what a great songwriter she is. Instead of giving her real challenges of a female with a career sort, we often have to satisfy ourselves with the personal substituting for the professional. That is, the story of Denise is actually just the story of her poor choices in men and co-dependent relationships. While that leads to some real growth in the character, I would have liked to have seen more of the real life professional type challenges that a female songwriter had to face in the 1960s in the man's world of the music writing business.
Finally, I have to warn you that if you're a fan of this film already, as I was, you may not be quite so enthused about it if you watch the DVD extras. The deleted scenes were mostly improvised turkeys, especially the one where the Matt Dillon character tries in vain to get the title of the film into one of his speeches about how great Denise is (sheesh, didn't ANYBODY hate this woman?). The documentary about the making of the movie is a smug, self-congratulatory affair that assumes the audience knows nothing about popular music of another era. And the less said about the director's commentary, the better.
Rent this one for Illeana Douglas and John Turturro. Don't expect miracles and you'll probably get along just fine with the problems the film has. It is a bit of a testament to Grace of My Heart that even with its flaws, it's still intelligent and original entertainment.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Olivia de Havilland
I was a tomboy as a kid, so I liked the legend of Robin Hood. But, I didn't see the classic film of the story until I was a teenager. Of course, I'd seen the classic Daffy Duck spoof of the legend (which is spot on). I'd seen the Disney cartoon. Heck, I'd even seen a very badly animated "classics for kids" version of the story that they used to show during holiday season in my part of the world.
In spite of my familiarity with the work, until I saw the 1938 version of the film, I really didn't know what made this classic a classic. After seeing this almost magical, entrancing work, I became hooked. It's now one of my favorite films of all time.
You know the story by now. Evil prince John takes over from his brother Richard the Lionhearted and taxes the poor out of their homes. He's surrounded by like minded, corrupt advisers, such as the sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Who will save the peasants from torture, humiliation, and tyranny? One guess.
Errol Flynn plays a most charming, irreverent version of the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He is roguish, heroic, always funny, always fun hero who does everything to a tee. His performance is as excellent as it is seemingly effortless. There's a story that was told by Bette Davis once. She was in a film with Errol and hated every minute of it because she thought he was a no-talent pretty boy. Years later, she saw the film and thought, "I was wrong. This guy can act." That's actually a fairly typical story about the actor, actually. He made it all look so easy that people didn't see how good the man was at his craft.
Of course, he's supported by one of the highest classed supporting casts that you could have. Claude Rains's Prince John is as effete as he is evil, making for a perfect out of touch with the people monarch. He has an almost spoiled child quality that makes his evil even more awful. Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy is as serious and sullen as he is deadly. He's also an excellent fencer, as you can see from the fight scene with Flynn towards the end. Errol puts his all into it, making for great cinema and less good conventional fencing, while Rathbone sticks to the classics a bit more. It tells something about the characters and the actors. Kudos too to Alan Hale and Eugene Pallette for being two of the best Merry Men around. They don't make character actors like that any more.
Special praise has to go out to young Olivia de Havilland's performance as Maid Marian. She is the personification of the word "lovely," both in face and in acting style. Her work here is as mature and measured as Errol Flynn's is brash and full of life. The chemistry between them is some of the best ever put onscreen.
Oh, there's so much more to praise. The script with its wit and excitement, the costume designs, the set designs, the direction, the three-strip Technicolor that is so much more beautiful than today's more realistic color technology, the film score that makes you want to go out and battle evil yourself, the fight scenes, the...
In other words, it's a great film and you should rent it if you haven't already.
Better yet, if you ever have a chance to see the "restored" version of the film that revival houses have been showing the last few years, go and see it on the big screen. This is one of those rare films that you owe it to yourself to see in a movie theatre if you have the chance to do so.