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It is part of the interest of this film that it is not easily summarized. The present tense of the film is the final year of World War II, the setting a bomb-damaged villa in the hills north of Florence, the action four characters seeking shelter there and attempting to undo some of the damage of the war.
The title character (Ralph Fiennes), whose identity is a mystery at the beginning of the film, was badly burned all over his body when his plane crashed in the desert. He lies in a bed, morphine deadening his pain and loosening his memory, reminiscing about a love affair with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his career in military intelligence as a desert expert
The young Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), emotionally shut down as the result of her work in the war and the death of her lover, has refused to withdraw with her Red Cross unit and lovingly tends to the badly burned patient and develops an intimate relation with Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh munitions expert who by day disarms unexploded mines and bombs. An American nicknamed Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a criminal who has been recruited by military intelligence, shows up and probes with increasing intensity into the mystery of the history and identity of the "English" patient, who he believes in some way responsible for the amputation of his thumbs by the Germans.
Much of the film consists of flashbacks through the point of view of the English patient, who it turns out is a Hungarian count, Laszlo Almasy, an explorer and geographer of the north African desert, who in his deep devotion to Katherine Clifton did in fact commit a treasonous act that indirectly led to Caravaggio's amputations. The film ends with Caravaggio finally forgiving the badly wounded Almasy, Hana granting Almasy's request of a peaceful death, and she herself leaving for Florence, where we expect she will meet Kip, who has just been reassigned there.
Joel Garcia (Eric Stoltz) is a young writer who loses the use of his legs after a climbing accident and faces medical, existential, romantic, sexual, institutional, and social challenges on the way to resuming what is left of his former life. Joel has to acknowledge his condition, decide (as a liberal and Hispanic) how to stand up against the bigoted bragging of his fellow patient the crude biker Bloss (William Forsythe), and, somehow, how to make the right moves with his girlfriend Anna (Helen Hunt), who is married and whose ambivalence about her relationship with Joel is compounded by his disability.
Joel and Bloss come together, toward the end, in an attempt to ease the suffering of a third patient, Raymond Hill (Wesley Snipes), a self-styled ladies' man who conceals the fact that his wife has just left him. The film was written and co-directed by Neal Jimenez, who, according to Roger Ebert, has experienced much of what his main character goes through.
Set in a future when genetic engineering allows many couples to arrange for perfected babies, Gattaca tells the story of one imperfect man's successful fight against the odds. Born "naturally" with several serious imperfections, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) nevertheless grows up dreaming only of being an astronaut. As a member of the genetic underclass, he is able to work only as a custodian at Gattaca, the future version of NASA.
Vincent's frustration drives him to engage a sort of identity broker who arranges for him to appear to change his physical identity with Jerome (Jude Law), a member of the elite who has been paralyzed in an accident. Through this complex deception Vincent finally succeeds in being selected as an astronaut for an upcoming mission to a moon of Saturn. A large part of this future thriller consists of Vincent's heroic attempts to continue to pass as Jerome through a series of genetic checks.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) comes from Southie, a rough district of Boston, and works at night as a janitor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Will writes on some math class blackboards when no one’s looking, and Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers that Will is a natural mathematical genius. Lambeau tries to bring Will out of his go-nowhere environment into the academic world where his talent will be appreciated.
Will half-agrees, but he still hangs out with his tough crowd in Southie (including Ben Affleck as Chuckie), and he winds up getting arrested after a fight. Lambeau keeps Will out of jail through an arrangement that includes his mentoring plus Will’s going for psychotherapy with Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). That course of psychotherapy is the core of the film.
Sean’s treatment of Will in therapy involves lots of risks, but through a combination of empathy, rule-giving, self-revelation, and provocation, Sean manages to bring Will to understand that the severe physical abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his foster parents is not his fault, and that he really is a good person who has a lot to offer. (This can sound corny unless you are the one who is making the discovery.)
Sean gains some credibility with Will when he admits that he, too, had suffered abuse as a child. Will’s realization makes possible a much more positive self-image and a whole new vision of life. He decides to stop denying his talents and to recognize that he might be good enough after all for brilliant and charming (and independently wealthy) MIT student Skylar (Minnie Driver), who loves him, and whom he finally leaves Southie to follow as she heads west for graduate school.
Set in 19th-century Japan, the film’s action centers on the experience of the young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) in his work as an intern at a hospital-clinic for the poor run by the experienced and wise Dr. Kyojo Niide (Toshiro Mifune), nicknamed "Red Beard." Coming from a wealthy and influential family, and fresh from a Western-influenced medical education at Nagasaki, Yasumoto had believed he was on the path to become physician to the shogun (equivalent to a king).
He is initially insulted and deeply unhappy with conditions at the distinctly inglorious clinic. The poverty and suffering (and smell) of the clinic’s patients disgust him, and he tries his hardest to get fired. The mysterious Red Beard, however, is extremely patient, and simply waits. While he waits, we see Dr. Yasumoto slowly being converted as he is brought into close contact with the suffering in the lives of several patients.
Initially rebellious and emotionally unable to watch patients die or assist in surgery, Yasumoto gradually becomes a seasoned and enthusiastic member of the clinic’s medical team and announces that Red Beard is his idol. At the end, when Yasumoto is actually offered the position of physician to the shogun, he refuses, in order to continue his work at the clinic.
Dash provides a visually lush and poetic portrayal of a little-known Gullah subculture existing on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina. Because the small colony is isolated from the mainland and the dominant culture, the extended family exhibits unfamiliar behaviors and patterns of speech associated with their African heritage.
The story occurs on the day prior to the Peazant family's final departure from the island's familiar contours and rich customs. The wise old matriarch and conjure woman keeps both the oral history and a tantalizing box of relics. When her family leaves, not surprisingly, she intends to stay. Some members have already assumed characteristics of the mainland culture, such as Christianity and mainland manners, and are eager to leave; others are more reluctant and even frightened about forsaking the world they know.
Without any careful delineation of specific problems, audiences recognize inherent tensions between an inherited tribalism, and alien belief systems. If the island and the relic box's strange contents reference safety, stories about lynching and rape on the mainland cast a dark shadow for many family members. A breathtakingly beautiful picnic scene at the beach is central because it celebrates and symbolizes the paradisal innocence of the island people.
As this highly original and provocative film once again demonstrates, John Sayles is not a traditional storyteller. Audiences are caught in the detective story focusing at one level on murders and abuses committed more than 20 years ago; but the filmmaker guides their attention to the survivors, the current and very ordinary folks inhabiting the small border town where secrets are closely kept.
Imagine a blank canvas on which seemingly unrelated splotches of paint appear; then imagine those splotches as members of various ethnic groups inhabiting Frontera on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. First, we have custodial white men who hang around the local coffee shop or fish on previously-owned Indian land transformed recently, and with some controversy, into a lake by the construction of a dam. Then we have Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon), a successful business woman and council member who curiously shows little compassion for "wetbacks" and those relapsing into the Spanish language. Her daughter, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña), of whom she is a constant critic, is a school teacher and single mother of two teenagers, a figure whose importance will increase as the composition develops.
Also, there is Otis Payne (Ron Canada), the African-American owner of the town’s black bar, a refuge for that minority group; and there is his estranged son, a rigid and unyielding colonel at the nearby base. Finally and less developed, are the Indians whose land has been claimed by the town’s ruling forces.
As fragments from the past and present provide dimension and meaning, increasingly the disparate colors are transformed into a representational form with clear connecting lines. Shapes and textures gradually become familiar and palpable. Within the context of good and evil, narrative lines blur and thicken. With tantalizing flashbacks, past and present fuse, allowing puzzle pieces to fit together; then engaged audience members realize that the narrative threads have twisted to expose unimagined patterns of sacrifice and love.
This film, like Nair’s earlier films (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala) presents serious social issues for viewers to consider, but the story this time, is set in a happier context. As the title reveals, a wedding is central. Monsoon is added to account for two kinds of turbulence: the weather on the day of the wedding and discomforting family factors such as pedophilia, secret trysts, and class distinctions. For the Punjabi Verma family, it is Father of the Bride with the universal tension, stress, and chaos associated with such happy events, but also with distressing twists that are sorted out or washed away symbolically by the monsoon’s arrival.
Sarah (Whoopi Goldberg) is an African-American woman who runs a bookstore, the "African Queen," in San Francisco. She has an adolescent daughter, Zora (Nia Long), conceived with donor sperm after the death of Sarah's husband, Charlie. Zora believes she is Charlie's daughter until she discovers a discrepancy while learning about blood types in biology class. Sarah tells Zora about her conception and Zora, determined to find out the identity of her "real father," breaks into the computer records of the California Cryobank.
She discovers the name of the sperm donor, Halbert Jackson, and tracks him down, discovering that he is a white truck salesman (Ted Danson). She and Sarah are both horrified (Sarah had requested the sperm of a black man), as is Hal, but after some comic conflict, Sarah and Hal fall in love and Zora begins to think of Hal as her father. They then learn that there was a mix up in the records and Hal is NOT after all Zora's genetic father, but by this point they have nonetheless become a family.
Six childless women from the United States are in an unnamed Latin American country (filmed in Acapulco, Mexico), fulfilling a residence requirement while they wait to adopt babies. The owner of the hotel they stay in (Rita Moreno) and her brother, a lawyer, both make a profit from this delay. The film explores the experiences of the six women and of the people of the place from which their children will come, a place of which they see only a small part of the surface.
The Americans' stories are juxtaposed with that of a young woman who cleans the hotel rooms, who gave up her own baby for adoption "up north," and a pregnant fifteen-year-old middle class girl whose mother takes her to Miami, presumably for an abortion. The film also looks at the implications of political activism which is, for the men in the film, necessary but, for the women, appears to come at the cost of security and domestic stability.
The hotel owner's son criticizes the adoptions as a form of "Yankee cultural imperialism," yet even as we are persuaded by his view, we are swayed by the film's telling contrast between the futures offered by the American women and the lives of the city's glue-sniffing street children. The film ends with two of the women about to receive their adoptive children.