#285. Jennifer Connelly

In the world of child actors, very few last long enough to continue working in the industry. Sure, there are exceptions; actors and actresses who eventually develop their craft into award-winning performances. Most people could count the number of these exceptions on one hand. This begs the question: what helps a child actor eventually arrive at success? It is my opinion that the earlier a child actor can work with an excellent director, the greater their chances are of achieving recognition later in life (should they not be hindered by alcohol or drug addiction before then). One of these anomalies is Jennifer Connelly. Her very first role in film was in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) when she was only 14. She’s only gone up from there. This week’s two films look at Jennifer Connelly’s best roles.

Requiem for a DreamRequiem for a Dream
Year: 2000
Rating: R
Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours

While Sergio Leone’s crime drama was her first role, many consider Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) to be her breakout performance. That being said, there was plenty more to be desired for her acting. Fortunately, she has managed to stay out of the limelight partly because of her heavy involvement in independent films. Granted, this is often seen as the reason why she mostly appears in darker and more nudity-filled films (which may also be tied to shedding the “child actor” label), but it’s what eventually landed her in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). If audiences didn’t consider her a serious actress before this film, they certainly do now. A decade and a half later, she would team up with Aronofsky again for the Biblical epic, Noah (2014), but most claim their previous collaboration as one of their best.

Harry (Jared Leto) spends most of his time shooting heroin with his girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Because it is such an expensive addiction, they decide to turn to drug dealing in order to pay for the habit, as well as to realize their dreams of starting a business, becoming a clothing designer, and moving out of the slums, respectively. At the same time, Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), is convinced that she has been chosen to appear on TV and takes drastic measures to lose weight so she can wear a favorite dress again. Through this process, she becomes addicted to amphetamines while her son and his posse find their own unwholesome fates, including hospitalization, incarceration, and prostitution. In a hallucination, Sara imagines that the world is all right for her, her son, and his girlfriend. That dream is far from the truth.

A Beautiful MindA Beautiful Mind
Year: 2001
Rating: PG-13
Length: 135 minutes / 2.25 hours

Another big-name director who cast Connelly in their films was none other than Ron Howard. We all have forgotten about the regrettable The Dilemma (2011), but Jennifer Connelly likely wouldn’t have appeared in that film had she not impressed Howard earlier in her career with her work in Inventing the Abbotts (1997). This inspiration is what led him to cast her, along with Russell Crowe and Ed Harris, in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001). Not only did this film win Best Picture and Best Director, but it garnered Jennifer Connelly an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She had already worked with Ed Harris on his directorial debut: Pollock (2000), portraying the mistress of Jackson Pollock (who himself was played by Ed Harris), but it took many years before she appeared in another film across from Russell Crowe: the aforementioned Noah.

John Nash (Russell Crowe) is a promising mathematics student at Princeton University in the late 1940’s. Because of the high hopes for his career, he is under large amounts of stress to publish, but he wants to publish something original, not just a derivative work. While at a bar with his mathematics friends, he develops a new idea that leads to his publication of the Nash equilibrium (a modified game theory). Meanwhile, he falls in love with, and eventually marries, Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly). At first, their life together is idyllic, but soon Alicia discovers that John’s roommate in college never existed, and John’s “boss” from the Pentagon also doesn’t exist. Despite John being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and his refusal to take his medication, Alicia stays with him and helps him to an eventual recovery.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 key Jennifer Connelly roles

Bacon #: 2 (A Beautiful Mind / Ed Harris -> Apollo 13 / Kevin Bacon)

Snack Break: Congratulations

What a twist! While I try my best to see all the Best Picture nominees before the ceremony, this year I failed to see the film that (eventually) won Best Picture. I will see it as soon as I can, so I don’t know if I can give an honest review of it yet. Clearly, it had a number of elements that propelled it to win the 89th Acadamy Awards’ highest honor.

I must be honest to say that I had my hopes set on two films this year: La La Land and Arrival. Both spoke to me in different ways, but they both left an impact with their message. When La La Land was initially named the winner of Best Picture, I was excited. When it was taken away due to the presenter’s mistake, it made me wonder how good Moonlight is to win Best Picture.

I know the Academy is often faulted for giving awards to movies that should have won in years past, so I only hope that Moonlight can stand on its own merits, instead of perhaps being a result of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite fiasco. Still, I have not seen this film yet, but that won’t stop me from buying it and adding it to my (nearly) perfect Best Picture Oscar collection. I only hope I can keep an open mind when I do see it.

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Even with this dramatic turn of events, I was glad to see La La Land end up with plenty of its musical awards and Arrival with the awards it deserved as well. Kind of a mixed bag this year, but the winners certainly earned their respective awards.

#267. American Warriors

Partly due to its relatively recent emergence on the geopolitical stage, the concept of an “American Warrior” is mostly unheard of. The United States developed quickly into the collection of cities, towns, and villages that held the majority of its population, spending very little, if any, time in a tribal condition. Most warriors come from tribal or clan-like origins, so the lack of these societal structures in the United States resulted in a lack of American Warriors. That’s not to say that these American Warriors are not completely nonexistent. Part of the American way is the absorption and acceptance of many different backgrounds. If this ideology is run in reverse, it would stand to reason that some Americans might be accepted into warrior cultures, becoming warriors themselves. This week’s two films examine some American Warriors.

The Last SamuraiThe Last Samurai
Year: 2003
Rating: R
Length: 154 minutes / 2.57 hours

Becoming a warrior in an isolated culture can carry quite a lot of culture shock with it. Granted, it couldn’t be any more than the titular character of John Carter (2012) experienced when he became a warrior of Mars, but there’s still a learning curve when discovering what is appropriate and what is not. Fortunately, with the barriers of the world’s countries becoming more and more open, these culture shocks are becoming less and less. Unfortunately, this is also eliminating the need for clan-like warrior cultures. In terms of Japan, we in the United States can thank Commodore Matthew Perry for opening up its borders to us, which inevitably began the process of westernization in the island nation. Shortly afterward, the samurai warriors of Japan found themselves fighting the changes that forced them into the history books.

In an attempt to flee from the memories of the Indian Wars, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is given an opportunity to train soldiers in Japan. However, when his inexperienced troops are ambushed by rebel samurai, he finds himself captured and brought back to the samurai camp. The leader of the samurai, Katsumoto Moritsugu (Ken Watanabe), saw something special in the way that Algren fought and now shows him their way of life and explains that they’re fighting to prevent the westernization of Japan. Meanwhile, Algren is shunned by the widow of the samurai he killed, but she starts to warm up to him as he integrates into her society, even going so far as to protect Katsumoto during an assassination attempt. Clad in the armor of the samurai he had slain, Algren joins the fight against the Imperial Army and soon finds himself to be the Last Samurai.

Dances with WolvesDances with Wolves
Year: 1990
Rating: PG-13
Length: 181 minutes / 3.02 hours

Even though early American settlers came from civilizations that no longer had warriors, there were still plenty of warrior cultures native to North America. Partly due to the mutual distrust between the settlers and the natives, there was very little cross-pollination of their soldiers. There still were a few who did manage to integrate themselves into the native cultures, but they are the exception to the rule. A few examples in film include Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo from The Last of the Mohicans (1992), as well as John Dunbar from Dances with Wolves (1990). Of course, the idea of an individual integrating into a native society, a la Dances with Wolves, has been explored in different ways since its release, the most famous being James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), which was often referred to as “Dances with Wolves in space”.

During the Civil War, First Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is awarded for bravery and given the chance to be assigned to whatever post he wants. His desire to see the western side of the country is granted and soon he finds himself as the lone soldier in charge of Fort Sedgewick. Despite the dangers of residing close to the Sioux, John does not take their intimidation lying down and sets out to talk with them instead of running away. Around the same time, he comes across Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was taken by the Pawnee as a child. While Dunbar and her develop romantic feelings, he manages to become accepted by the Sioux, who notice his partnership with a wolf and give him the name “Dances With Wolves”. Suddenly, Dunbar finds that Fort Sedgewick has been re-occupied and must decide whether he wants to stay as an American or leave as a Sioux.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Western Warriors

#266. The End of a Dynasty

If reading the comments on any piece of internet content are any indication, most people are concerned about being the “first” to do something. This distinction is usually seen as a great accomplishment, as it signifies the entry into a new era where it is possible to achieve something that has never been achieved before. On the flip side of this coin, the end of something is usually a bittersweet moment filled with memories and regrets. Nothing lasts forever, and most of the time the start is brought in with great fanfare, while the end is a quiet fading into history. Speaking of history, most historians will focus on the individuals who are the first to accomplish something. Rarely are the last individuals to a legacy ever recognized. This week’s two films highlight a few individuals who hold the distinction of being the last of their kind.

The Last EmperorThe Last Emperor
Year: 1987
Rating: R
Length: 163 minutes / 2.71 hours

The world changes over time in many ways; not only geologically, but politically as well. While certain societal constructs have been in place for centuries, all it takes is a simple revolution to change everything. Longstanding dynasties filled with generations of rulers can be swept aside in an instant once the culture is ripe for change. Sometimes this change is needed as the advances in technology and ideology outpace the outdated sentiments of established practices. Sometimes the long line of rulers becomes corrupted and a fresh start is needed. Sometimes a stronger outside force overpowers the incumbent government. Whatever the reason, a ruler of a country can suddenly find themselves at the end of a long line of lineage, marking the end of their dynasty and the start of a new political era.

With no way to know of the turmoil that his country would eventually endure, 2-year-old Puyi (John Lone) finds himself crowned as the Emperor of China. This new position is one he eventually grows into, albeit over a long span of time. In that interim, one of his most trusted friends, Reginal Johnston (Peter O’Toole), teaches him about the world at large. Meanwhile, rumblings of this new culture of communism begin to sweep through China, prompting Puyi into exile in Japan. Once he returns, he is captured as a political prisoner and forced to admit that the communist way of doing things is the right way. Despite a suicide attempt, former Emperor Puyi eventually realizes that he can live a quiet life if he just agrees to the changes that have occurred in his country. While it is difficult to watch some of his friends and advisors punished, he still knows in his heart that he was the Last Emperor of China.

The Last SamuraiThe Last Samurai
Year: 2003
Rating: R
Length: 154 minutes / 2.57 hours

There are many dangerous occupations, but none are nearly as dangerous as being a soldier. When your life is on the line for your job, it can be easy to find yourself as the last of your kind. Even whole nations of warriors, like the Spartans in 300 (2007) or the Mohicans in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), can find themselves the victims of enormous massacres leaving very few, if any, of them remaining. Unfortunately, this is merely one of the realities of war: people will die. However, finding yourself as the last of a nation is a difficult scenario in and of itself. Do you rebuild? Do you surrender and become part of the new order (somewhat akin to the aforementioned The Last Emperor (1987))? As the last of a dynasty, is it your responsibility to then be the first to begin the next chapter of its saga?

Despite the numerous actions that now haunt his thoughts from the Indian Wars, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) decides to accept an offer from the Japanese government to train soldiers to deal with a samurai rebellion. When he arrives in Japan, Algren finds that the “soldiers” he is to train are anything but. As such, when the samurai attack a railroad, these poorly trained individuals are sent into battle to die, even despite Algren’s opposition to this decision. While in battle, he manages to kill one of the samurai in such a way that causes the leader of the rebels to take him to their village. Once there, he slowly comes to understand and sympathize with the rebels, eventually joining their forces after proving himself worthy. When the samurai attack the well-trained Imperial soldiers, they initially do well, but are slaughtered by modern technology, leaving Algren as the Last Samurai.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 last legacies

#265. Kings and Emperors

There’s just something inherently romantic about a monarchy. Perhaps this is due to the fairy tales we were all told as children filled with Princes and Princesses, Kings and Queens. Perhaps it is the idea that an individual could have absolute power and freedom, thus leading to daydreaming of what we would do if we were in charge. Mentions of Kings and Emperors conjure up eras of historical significance, where warring kingdoms and empires were just beginning to settle into their newfound borders while still trying to expand and conquer. It is probably due to this historical gravitas that Kings and Emperors always seem more impressive than Presidents. After all, someone would much rather hear about the exploits of King Arthur when given the choice between him and President George Washington. This week’s two films highlight the reins of Kings and Emperors.

The King’s SpeechThe King's Speech
Year: 2010
Rating: R
Length: 118 minutes / 1.97 hours

Even though the King of England rules over the British Empire, he isn’t usually referred by the title of “Emperor”. Initially, this monarch was in charge of his vast Kingdom, but as time passed and democracies developed, the King of England was eventually relegated to merely a political figurehead. While much of the British monarch’s authority is now held by the Prime Minister, they still remain for the ceremonies linked to a royal bloodline. In fact, this public persona has managed to spawn plenty of media for tabloid newspapers for many decades, mainly because people are interested in the personal lives of those individuals who will eventually become King. Of course, this means that any scandals in the royal family are brought out into the open for the whole world to observe and judge.

Prince Albert (Colin Firth), is not a great public speaker by any means. In fact, he has a very severe stutter that his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) thinks could be fixed under the right therapy. Enter Lionel Logue (Geoffery Rush), a speech therapist who attempts to help Prince Albert overcome this speech impediment. While the Prince is unconvinced that he’s making progress, Lionel is sure of it. Meanwhile, after the death of King George V, Albert’s brother (Guy Pearce) takes the throne as King Edward VIII. Unfortunately, because of Edward’s relationship with an American divorcee, he has to abdicate the throne to Prince Albert, thus making him King George VI. Now the most challenging aspect of the King’s reign is the very important Christmas address to the people of England. Calling upon Lionel once again, King George VI prepares for this key speech.

The Last EmperorThe Last Emperor
Year: 1987
Rating: R
Length: 163 minutes / 2.71 hours

In terms of the hierarchy of a monarchy, an Emperor is at the highest tier. Kings are in charge of an individual country, but Emperors rule over any number of countries, each with their own King. An Emperor brings to mind the images of conquering rulers of Rome, but many of the Asiatic nations were led by Emperors as well. These dynasties lasted for centuries, starting before the Roman Emperors and persisting long after the Roman Empire fell. As countries have gained their independence, the Emperors of yore are quickly dwindling away. Currently, only Japan has an Emperor, and it’s more of a figurehead position (like that of the Queen of England). Some countries, like China, have completely abolished the role of an Emperor as they transitioned from monarchies to democracies.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Empress Cixi (Lisa Lu) finds herself dying without an heir. As such, she passes on the rule of all of China to a two-year old boy. This boy, now Emperor Puyi (John Lone), has difficulty adapting to his new lifestyle, as it is different from the one he is used to. Despite many servants and amenities available to him, he has very few friendships. Of those friendships, his wet nurse and a Scottish tutor, Reginal Johnston (Peter O’Toole) are some of his closest. After marrying Wanrong (Joan Chen), Puyi finds himself in exile from China and soon discovers that the underlying communist coup will permanently remove him from his position as Emperor. At this point, he merely wants to live a quiet life, but finds himself as a political prisoner, forced to accept the new China that has arrived, rendering him the Last Emperor of China.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 unique monarchs

#262. Tom Cruise

Say what you will about his personal life, be it the tabloid headline-inducing relationships or his involvement with Scientology, but Tom Cruise has been in a lot of movies. But what seems to be the unique element to his prolific career is the fact that most of his movies were recognized as “Tom Cruise films”; that is, films that star Tom Cruise. While his early career has had a few minor roles, and his later career also includes the occasional bit part (via a cameo), most of Tom Cruise’s roles have been in the leading capacity for the majority of his career. Perhaps the genius of his unique personal life frequently making the headlines of grocery store checkout lines is that we are often reminded that he is starring in a new film sometime soon. This week’s two films highlight some of the varied work that Tom Cruise has done on the big screen.

                                         Mission Impossible: Ghost ProtocolMission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

Perhaps what has given Tom Cruise his success is two-fold: being cast by a lot of legendary directors and a knack for action films. Quite early in his career, he worked with Francis Ford Coppola on The Outsiders (1983), which no doubt opened the door for him working with Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money (1986)), Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men (1992)), Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut (1999)), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report (2002) & War of the Worlds (2005)), and J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III (2006)). While there are plenty of other directors who have tied Cruise into their movies, the theme that is often seen in a fair number of his roles is that he excels at action. One of his franchises that epitomizes this is that of the Mission: Impossible series. With five films under his belt as Ethan Hunt, this 20+ year franchise helped to get him where he is today.

Because of a semi-botched mission to extract some information from the Kremlin that resulted in the famous Russian building being destroyed, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team have been disavowed from the United States via the “Ghost Protocol”. Now it is up to them to find the perpetrator of the Kremlin bombing, a mysterious man who goes by the name of “Cobalt.” In their pursuit, the team finds that Cobalt is attempting to strike up an international war between the United States and Russia since his new target is to obtain Russian launch codes for their nuclear missiles. Intercepting the codes in Dubai, all of the members of the IMF team are prepared to do what it takes to stop Cobalt. Unfortunately, as their plans begin to fail, it’s down to the wire to stop an incoming nuclear missile from detonating on San Francisco.

Rain ManRain Man
Year: 1988
Rating: R
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

While Cruise has proven that he can go the distance for action films, he has also shown that he can excel in dramas as well. In fact, his three nominations for an acting Oscar have been from dramas. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) gave him the nominations from the Academy, but none of them earned him the coveted gold statue. That’s not to say that these (and other) films haven’t won big at the Oscars. For instance, Rain Man (1988) ended up being the Best Picture for that year. Of course, once again the mark of famous directors is at play here, as many of Tom Cruise’s more dramatic roles have been in the films guided by the experienced hands of a skilled director. It’s no wonder that Rain Man also won an Oscar for Director, Barry Levinson.

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is one of those fast-talking, deeply-in-debt scumbags who is always trying to break it big by dealing in less-than-exemplary deals. His recent deal quickly falling through places him many tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which is why he is pleased to hear that his rich and estranged father has died. Unfortunately, none of the money of the estate is bequeathed to him. Instead, this money is willed to a mental institution where Charlie finds he has a heretofore unknown older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Raymond is severely autistic, but also has the qualities of a savant that Charlie tries to exploit to make money in Las Vegas counting cards. While Raymond’s strict routines stresses the brothers’ relationship, they eventually grow close enough that Charlie no longer cares about the money and would rather have a brother than be rich.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 classic Cruise roles

Bacon #: 1 (A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)

#240. Sam Mendes

Many directors have a certain oeuvre that ties closely with a specific genre. There are tons of directors who stick only to action films (e.g. Guy Ritchie), or mafia films (e.g. Martin Scorsese), or comedies (e.g. Mel Brooks), or science fiction (e.g. J.J. Abrams), or thrillers (e.g. Alfred Hitchcock). In sticking to a common theme in their films, these directors can easily jump from one screenplay to the next as long as it’s within their genre. Marketers love these kinds of directors because they can slap on the “from the Director of” tagline onto any movie that follows in the footsteps of their success. That being said, there are directors that defy the limitations of genre. These directors can take any type of film and create a masterpiece, whether it’s a modern war film, historical mobster piece, dark comedy, or action blockbuster. This week’s two films highlight the varied genres of director Sam Mendes.

American BeautyAmerican Beauty
Year: 1999
Rating: R
Length: 122 minutes / 2.03 hours

It’s not often that directors strike gold right out of the gate. In fact, in the Academy’s long history, only six directors have won Best Picture and Best Director with their debut film. Sam Mendes is the most recent member of this list. That’s not to say he hasn’t had experience elsewhere before venturing into the field of celluloid. For many years prior to directing American Beauty (1999), Mendes spent considerable time directing stage plays. And yet, only nine years passed from when he began directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company to accepting his first Oscar for Best Director. The dark comedy about life in the American suburbs was not to be his last foray into the comedy genre, having since directed the comedy-drama Away We Go in 2009. Still, American Beauty stands as a triumph and his most awarded film to date.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) hates his job. Working in an office for many years has finally caused him to snap. One day, he decides it’s time to quit. Fortunately, his exit strategy involves blackmailing his boss for $60,000. With money in hand, he now has time to relax and become infatuated with his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), while working at a local fast-food franchise. He also takes up smoking marijuana that he obtains from Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the kid next-door who is oppressed by the overbearing parenting style of Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper). Learning that his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) is having an affair leaves Lester unfazed as he just doesn’t care anymore. Finally able to follow through with his pedophilic infatuation, Lester realizes that he has responsibilities, but only has a few minutes to change his life plan when he is shot in the back of the head.

SkyfallSkyfall
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 143 minutes / 2.38 hours

Action films often require a certain amount of drama to work well. This broad genre can be further refined to sub-genres, each with their idiosyncrasies. Sam Mendes has directed most of these sub-genres in his short, but spectacular career. While he did direct a film that satisfies the pure drama genre with Revolutionary Road (2008), he has also seen varied success with a prohibition-era historical film (Road to Perdition (2002)) and an Iraq war bio pic (Jarhead (2005)). Both of these are examples of Mendes’ ability to intertwine action with drama. It is then no wonder that he was chosen in 2012 to direct the next installment of the James Bond franchise. Skyfall (2012) proved that these somewhat “pulpy” movies can have backstory and plot that can rival any successful dramatic film. Perhaps Mendes finally found his niche, because he then went on to direct the follow-on Bond film, Spectre (2015).

On a mission to recover a hard drive with vital, personnel information, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) track the mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) to Istanbul. Atop a moving train, Bond is accidentally shot by Eve and falls to his assumed death. Afterwards, M (Judy Dench), while undergoing investigation for the botched mission, avoids a terrorist attack at MI6, thus bringing James out from hiding. Even though he is no longer fit for service, M sends him out to find the mastermind behind the MI6 bombing. Crossing paths with Patrice again in Shanghai, the mercenary dies before he can divulge that he works for Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a disowned MI6 agent out for revenge. To keep M safe, Bond takes her to his boyhood home of Skyfall where they stage a rag-tag opposition to Silva’s relentless attacks.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Mendes masterpieces

Bacon #: 2 (Road to Perdition (directed) / Tom Hanks -> Apollo 13 / Kevin Bacon)