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    Placing Benton's Story

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Moviegoers who took a chance and visited an earlier, harder time in America’s past when Places in the Heart (1984) opened 33 years ago today discovered something unexpectedly meaningful: the connections among family, to the human community outside, and to the places they called home. It’s not that nearly all who experienced writer-director Robert Benton’s autobiographical tale of Depression-era life in his Waxahachie, Texas, birthplace could claim every detail of the everyday struggles and emotions depicted in this delicate but decidedly unsentimental drama. But the precision eloquence of its filmmaker’s written and visual storytelling forged an overarching bond that sidestepped whatever surface familiarities a jaded observer could find with the plot elements of an impoverished widow battling to save the family farm and keep her family together. Consider the actual Benton family lore outlined in this Ellis County Texas History Blog entry here: http://blogforelliscountytexashistory.blogspot.com/2010/10/places-in-heart-real-story.html. Benton, already a seasoned observer of Americana through his varied-genres script collaborations on Bonnie and Clyde (1967), There Was a Crooked Man… (1970), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Superman (1978) and his assured direction of his own screenplays for The Late Show (1977) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, for which he earned directing and screenplay Academy Awards®), carefully described in 1984 for The New York Times interviewer Leslie Bennetts how he processed, adjusted and interpreted his early-years Texas memories here: http://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/07/movies/robert-benton-enshrines-family-memories-on-screen.html?n=Top%2FReference%2FTimes%20Topics%2FSubjects%2FM%2FMotion%20Pictures&mcubz=3

    He gathered a cast of established and rising talents that played his vividly drawn characters with unerring accuracy: Sally Field as the reticent but ultimately resilient family matriarch Edna Spalding (who would win her second Best Actress Oscar®), Lindsay Crouse as her supportive sister, and Ed Harris as her brother-in-law who shares an illicit extramarital relationship with Amy Madigan as a local, also-married schoolteacher. Also, as two isolated souls who find not only a place to call home but also temporarily become fatherly stand-ins to the two Spalding children, there’s John Malkovich as an embittered boarder blinded from war service and Danny Glover as a vagabond who puts himself in jeopardy when he becomes the widow’s unlikely champion in shoring up her farm’s viability in a town where racism casts a formidable shadow. Call it improvised or extended, but they form a devoted and compelling family. A revisiting of the film by its editor Carol Littleton evoked memories of the heartfelt reaction of her mother Mildred, who lived in Shawnee, Oklahoma, during the Depression, in this February 2015 interview with Peter Tonguette at the Cinemontage Journal of the Motion Picture Editors Guild website: http://cinemontage.org/2015/02/carol-littleton-places-heart/. The article concludes with this piercing observation: “The film that spoke to Mildred, for what it said about the past, continues to speak to her daughter [Carol], for what it says about the present. ‘As I came out from work, all these demonstrators – spurred by police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island – were walking down Canal Street, blocking traffic,’ she says. ‘Didn’t we have a civil rights movement? Are we still struggling with this? God, it’s horrible. The notion that we could state the problems of race and poverty in Places in the Heart without one ounce of cynicism is remarkable. There’s a basic humanity that Americans share, and that is so rarely pictured on the screen.’” Places in the Heart (which brought Benton a Best Original Screenplay Oscar®), with a revealing Audio Commentary conversation between Field and Nick Redman, continues making connections between one man’s family remembrances and our collective American story on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.

    Alamo's Hollywood Roots

    In the 1993 Malle on Malle, editor Philip French starts his discussion with director Louis Malle (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre) on his topical mid-1980s project with its touchstone Hollywood roots. He asserted: “Alamo Bay [1985, opening theatrically 32 years ago today] is directly in the tradition of the Warner Bros. social-conscience picture. Darryl Zanuck, who created [...]

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    Melting Pots

    In advance of this week’s hi-def arrival of Robin Williams as a Moscovite musician who decides to defect to America while shopping in Bloomingdale’s Manhattan flagship store in Paul Mazursky’s soulful and open-hearted comedy/drama Moscow on the Hudson (1984), other richly rendered tales of émigrés facing hardship and blowback in their adoptive lands woven into the Twilight Time Blu-ray tapestry [...]

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    Sallying Forth

    Two-time Academy Award® and five-time Emmy® winner Sally Field celebrated her 70th birthday yesterday, after enjoying a warm reception this year to her performance as a shy, repressed office worker who falls for and sets out to seduce a much younger colleague in Hello, My Name Is Doris, about which Rafer Guzman of Newsday commented: “Field hasn’t lost [...]

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    The Prolific Mr. Penn

    As he turns 56 today, Sean Penn remains busy on several fronts. As an activist actor, he’s playing an animated version of himself in an upcoming 15th season episode of the Seth MacFarlane-created Fox series Family Guy entitled Hot Spots, dealing with the hot-button topic of child vaccinations. As an activist director, his latest feature film The Last Face, starring Charlize Theron, [...]

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    A Bay of Today

    Thirty-one years later, the same questions of cultures clashing, assimilation of refugee foreigners and the American Dream still remain. Today, in a contentious election year of flashpoint campaign rhetoric, we debate the plight of uprooted Syrian emigrés and transplants from Muslim countries in which pockets of fanatical jihadist extremists exist to consider how open liberty-loving American want their borders to be. [...]

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    Competing with Himself: Ed Harris

    Actor/director Ed Harris turned 65 over the weekend, but this Jersey boy’s magic digit in the Twilight Time numerological world is four, as in four fabulous and formidable performances in the label’s hi-def Blu-ray library. “One of the first things I learned about acting was,” Harris once said, “the only person you compete against is yourself.” Harris had two [...]

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    Mass Mobsterism

    One of Fall 2015’s most highly awaited movies blasts into theatres today. Black Mass stars Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, the brazen Boston mob boss whose unholy alliance with the FBI as a confidential informant fueled his rise to the top of the criminal underworld. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), it follows in the Warner [...]

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    Achieving Grace After 25 Years; The Game Mr. Gilroy

    Twenty-five years ago today, a gangster film of angry grit and soiled poetry opened to generally positive reviews that praised a top-notch cast (Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Robin Wright and especially firecracker-hot Gary Oldman), lauded an amazing capture of the Hell Kitchen’s milieu (i.e., Irish Westies Gang turf), and saluted the efforts of screenwriter Dennis McIntyre (who died seven months [...]

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