Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animation director who wowed audiences worldwide with his award-winning film Spirited Away, brings another visually spectacular tale of imagination to the screen. Sophie is an 18-year-old girl who toils in the hat shop opened years ago by her late father. Often harassed by local boys, one day Sophie is unexpectedly befriended by Howl, a strange but flamboyant wizard whose large home can travel under its own power. However, the Witch of the Waste is displeased with Sophie and Howl’s budding friendship, and turns the pretty young woman into an ugly and aged hag. Sophie takes shelter in Howl’s castle, and attempts to find a way to reverse the witch’s spell with the help of Calcifer, a subdued but powerful demon who exists in the form of fire, and Markl, who protects the four-way door which can instantly take visitors to other lands and dimensions. Howl’s Moving Castle was released in North America by Walt Disney Pictures, who distributed the film both in its original Japanese and in a dubbed English version; the English-speaking voice cast includes Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, and Billy Crystal. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi
The plot of this Raymond Chandler-esque comedy crime caper from the Coen Brothers (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) pivots around a case of mistaken identity complicated by extortion, double-crosses, deception, embezzlement, sex, pot, and gallons of White Russians (made with fresh cream, please). In 1991, unemployed ’60s refugee Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) grooves into his laid-back Los Angeles lifestyle. One of the laziest men in LA, he enjoys hanging with his bowling buddies, pompous security-store owner Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and mild-mannered ex-surfer Donny (Steve Buscemi). However, the Dude’s life takes an alternate route the afternoon two goons break into his threadbare Venice, California, bungalow, rough him up, and urinate on his living room rug.
From its opening multi-language titles (that sure looks like Swedish) to the closing arrest of the entire Dark Ages cast by modern-day bobbies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail helped to define “irreverence” and became an instant cult classic.
Adapted by James Agee from a novel by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter represented legendary actor Charles Laughton’s only film directing effort. Combining stark realism with Germanic expressionism, the movie is a brilliant good-and-evil parable, with “good” represented by a couple of farm kids and a pious old lady, and “evil” literally in the hands of a posturing psychopath. Imprisoned with thief Ben Harper (Peter Graves), phony preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) learns that Ben has hidden a huge sum of money somewhere near his home. Upon his release, the murderously misogynistic Powell insinuates himself into Ben’s home, eventually marrying his widow Willa (Shelley Winters). Eventually all that stands between Powell and the money are Ben’s son (Billy Chapin) and daughter (Sally Jane Bruce), who take refuge in a home for abandoned children presided over by the indomitable, scripture-quoting Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish). The war of wills between Mitchum and Gish is the heart of the film’s final third, a masterful blend of horror and lyricism. Laughton’s tight, disciplined direction is superb — and all the more impressive when one realizes that he intensely disliked all child actors. The music by Walter Schumann and the cinematography of Stanley Cortez are every bit as brilliant as the contributions by Laughton and Agee. Overlooked on its first release, The Night of the Hunter is now regarded as a classic. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Not only was The Glenn Miller Story one of the most profitable biopics ever filmed, but it also was one of the few to pay more than lip service to the facts. The film traces Miller’s rise from pit-orchestra trombone player to leader of a successful big band.
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel was translated to film in 1962 by Horton Foote and the producer/director team of Robert Mulligan and Alan J. Pakula. Set a small Alabama town in the 1930s, the story focuses on scrupulously honest, highly respected lawyer Atticus Finch, magnificently embodied by Gregory Peck. Finch puts his career on the line when he agrees to represent Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of rape. The trial and the events surrounding it are seen through the eyes of Finch’s six-year-old daughter Scout (Mary Badham). While Robinson’s trial gives the film its momentum, there are plenty of anecdotal occurrences before and after the court date: Scout’s ever-strengthening bond with older brother Jem (Philip Alford), her friendship with precocious young Dill Harris (a character based on Lee’s childhood chum Truman Capote and played by John Megna), her father’s no-nonsense reactions to such life-and-death crises as a rampaging mad dog, and especially Scout’s reactions to, and relationship with, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his movie debut), the reclusive “village idiot” who turns out to be her salvation when she is attacked by a venomous bigot. To Kill a Mockingbird won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Harold, the 20-year-old son of a wealthy, neglectful woman, tries to gain attention for himself with various hilariously staged “suicides.” Obsessed with death, Harold meets a like-minded 79-year-old woman named Maude. Harold and Maude become inseparable friends, both helping each other out of various personal travails.
In the Depression-era deep South, three escapees from a Mississippi prison chain gang: Everett Ulysses McGill, sweet and simple Delmar, and the perpetually angry Pete, embark on the adventure of a lifetime as they set out to pursue their freedom and return to their homes. With nothing to lose and still in shackles, they make a hasty run for their lives and end up on an incredible journey filled with challenging experiences and colorful characters. However, they must also match wits with the cunning and mysterious lawman Cooley, who tracks men, bent on bringing the trio back to the prison farm.
Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (originally released in France as La Belle et la Bte) stars Josette Day as Beauty and Jean Marais as the Beast. When a merchant (Marcel Andr (C)) is told that he must die for picking a rose from the Beast’s garden, his courageous daughter (Day) offers to go back to the Beast in her father’s place. The Beast falls in love with her and proposes marriage on a nightly basis; she refuses, having pledged her troth to a handsome prince (also played by Marais). Eventually, however, she is drawn to the repellent but strangely fascinating Beast, who tests her fidelity by giving her a key, telling her that if she doesn’t return it to him by a specific time, he will die of grief. The film features a musical score by Georges Auric. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi