ReelReviews #107: 1960s Best Picture winner: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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MARCH 6, 2017 SCREENING: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

 

Ah, the motion picture epic.  Lawrence of Arabia has it in spades and is one of the finest examples of “larger than life” movies from that era:  it’s running time is nearly four hours, and includes an overture, an intermission (I watched the movie over two nights and turned it off at the half way mark the first night, unaware that the movie would have done it by itself in ten minutes and announced the Intermission), lush gorgeous color film, huge action sequences,  and a cast of now critically acclaimed A-list actors (most notably was Peter O’Toole, who was an “up and coming” actor at the time). Lawrence of Arabia had everything going for it.

 

Why it is then, that I didn’t care for this movie?

 

Simply put, I found this movie unengaging. For me, it was a classic example of “lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing” To be fair, certain scenes were memorable for me, and I liked some of the dialogue exchanges (for example, in response to T.E. Lawrence noting that Arabs are associated with the dessert, Prince Feisal quips: “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”) The problem for me, however, is that these enjoyable portions of the movie didn’t add up to anything particularly interesting.  The film has a lot of plot twists and interesting characters, but in order to pay attention to what’s happening, you have to be drawn by the story (and to be fair, the story of a impeccable British officer being assimilated into Arab culture and basically becoming one of them IS by nature a very cinematic premise for a movie), and I felt Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t able to accomplish that. It dragged on and on and on, and I just found myself waiting for the movie to finally end.

 

One issue I had with Lawrence of Arabia is that in spite of its timeless look and beautiful big budget filmmaking, it’s very much a product of its time. Apparently much of the controversy about T.E. Lawrence is that the real life figure was possibly gay and attracted to Arab men, but the film has nothing to do with that rumor and its difficult to find the movie version of him interesting in spite of Peter O’Toole’s excellent performance. The Arab characters in the movie are almost exclusively played by non-Arabs, and sometimes very obviously British actors, using eyeliner and mascara to look the part in spite of having blue eyes and other unlikely Arabian features (Hispanic actor Anthony Quinn even apparently wore a false nose for this movie) . For what it’s worth, most of their acting was excellent, but I felt more realistic actors could have been cast in those roles.

 

Lawrence of Arabia is not a “bad” film, it’s just not a film that appealed to me in spite of everything it had going for it. To me, it was a wasted four hours of my life that I’ll never get back, and made me wish I had chosen to watch The Sound of Music (another 1960s Best Picture winner I have never seen) instead.  Apparently, such filmmaking giants as George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg have all cited this movie as some type of masterpiece that inspired them to become filmmakers. All I can is that truly shows that movie reviews are subjective, as I can’t think of a single thing I felt the movie contributed to cinema, no matter how polished and expertly made it was.

 

In one word: Bland.

 

**   out of ****

 

ReelReviews #106: 1920s Best Picture winner: Sunrise (1927)

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MARCH 5, 2017 SCREENING: SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

 

Here’s a little trivia that most people probably aren’t aware of: there were actually TWO “Best Picture” winners at the first annual Academy Awards ceremony in 1929—and it wasn’t because of a tie-vote.  “Wings” and “Sunrise” won for different reasons, in two SEPARATE “Best Picture” categories (one was for “Outstanding” Picture that got the most favorable response from audiences, and the other was for “Unique and Artistic Picture” that was deemed would have the most impact on history). The “Best Picture” winner that everyone remembers that year is the “popular” one:  Wings.   “Sunrise”, though remembered as a classic silent film, is not often remembered as the Oscar winner for Best Picture.  As the forgotten winner of the two “Best Picture” winners that year, I decided to give it its due and check out the movie.

 

“Sunrise” had the more difficult task at winning me over, since it is basically a romantic melodrama, whereas Wings was an action-adventure historical epic with some romance thrown in a subplot.  “Sunrise” also was complicated in that its plot contains material that is very unbelievable and requires the audience to suspend disbelief. Most notably, we have to buy that the husband in the movie would be driven by a sudden impulse to try and murder his wife, and he’d come to his senses, and eventually she’d forgive him and they’d live happily ever after. In spite of all that, Sunrise started off with a slow build and sucked me into its world so well that by the time of the ending shot (naturally, it was a sunrise coming up over the mountains) and ‘THE END’ roll credits scene, I felt compelling to give this 90 year old silent movie a standing ovation at 2 o’clock in the morning.

 

Sunrise has some great direction, cinematography, art direction, and acting from its silent screen actors (Janet Gaynor and the lesser known George O’Brien put in some excellent performances as a sort of “everyman” and “everywoman” average couple). However, where it really shined and rightfully deserved to win “Unique and Artistic Picture” was its use of sound – yes, sound in a “silent” movie.  The Blu-Ray noted that the film was acclaimed for its new “Fox Movietone sound-on-film system”, which I had never heard of and which became obsolete only a year or two later when actual sound movies began to be released. What it meant is that although the movie was indeed filmed without sound and has no dialogue scenes, there was a system used in post-production to synchronize sound effects and music with the entire movie. Since NONE of this sound was recorded live as the movie was being made, they did a truly amazing job and brought the movie to life: cars honk, crowds jeer, and people at an amusement park cheer, thunder roars, and key moments of the movie are underscored with sweeping music cues.

 

Likewise, for a drama, the film is sure to include some fun moments of humor to break up a lot of the tension and provide a more diverse range for the movie.  This becomes more common in the third act of the movie, especially a very funny sequence with a runaway piglet that still holds up 90 years later.

 

“Wings” most likely deserved its Best Picture win as well (disclaimer: I haven’t seen “Wings”), but since Sunrise was not competing with it, I can safely say that Sunrise, more than any other past “Best Picture” I evaluated during the 2017 Oscar season, certainly deserved its win for “Unique and Artistic picture”. It is excellent on all levels, and has stood the test of time.

 

*** ½ out of ****

 

ReelReviews #104: 2010’s Best Picture winner: The King’s Speech (2010)

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MARCH 3, 2017 SCREENING: THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

I choose this film to screen for the “Best Picture” winner of the present decade by default:  2016’s winner hadn’t been announced yet, I didn’t want to see Spotlight from 2015, and I had already seen Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, and The Artist, so that left the first year of the decade as the only film left.  Was it worth it?  In some ways, yes, but following up Driving Miss Daisy with The King’s Speech is not recommended, as these films both come out the biggest contenders for  the “Quietest and Most Boring Best Picture winner” category.

The King’s Speech is an overall good film and solidly made picture, so I will actually start with the biggest problem I had with the film: Colin Firth simply is nothing like King George VI, and the film revolves around him.  His acting performance in the film is adequate (though not deserving of the Best Actor award he received, IMO), but the filmmakers should have gone with another actor that could truly capture the essence of how George VI looked, sounded, and behaved.  Oddly enough, Helena Bonham Carter seems like an odd choice to cast as George VI’s wife (the future Queen Mum during Elizabeth II’s reign), but she looks and sounds remarkably like the Queen Mum during the 1930s, and the child actresses playing the queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret also bear an uncanny resemblance to their 1930s counterparts. Only Firth as George VI sticks out like a sore thumb in this period drama.

The story of a man thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight as King when his brother abdicates is compelling in its own right, and makes for good drama. When the fact he has to speak for the entire nation during World War II is part of the real life narrative, and the film centers around the fact that (unbeknownst to his subjects) he’s a chronic stutterer and is not capable of delivering a public speech, the film has the potential to be quite riveting. However, The King’s Speech is not about high drama or incredible stakes, just about being down to earth and true to history, so much of this conflict is shown in the most mundane and low-key way it can be. This is NOT a flaw of the movie – as the I appreciated the movie’s grounded and approach and attempt to be true to history – but it does make it difficult for a viewer to be engaged by the movie. Oddly enough, it also might make for the example of the mildest “R rated” movie ever, as the film’s “R rating” is almost entirely due to the King uttering a series of F-bombs during his speech training, but this was done more for mild comic relief as he does it to naturally control his speech patterns, rather than start screaming obscenities during a heated emotional argument.

Geoffrey Rush is the real star of the movie, in the thankless “supporting role” as George VI’s speech trainer (who appears to have failed at his duties during numerous points of the film, but ultimately becomes a close friend of the King and an invaluable source of moral support) The very Australian Rush is an underrated actor who is better at playing the quintessential British person than many of the actual British people on screen with him.  The King’s Speech is a very British drama at heart (as an American, it’s hard to empathize with the idea that the useless figurehead monarch of the U.K is the “symbol” of its people) and it is Geoffrey Rush, not Colin Firth, who ultimately gives it that British flavor.

The King’s Speech is a very good, well made film, and certainly deserved some kind of recognition at the Academy Awards. But it’s definitely not my kind of movie.

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #103: 1980s Best Picture Winner: Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

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MARCH 2, 2017 SCREENING: DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

 

Driving Miss Daisy is the ultimate low key movie. It’s easy to see why it’s the kind of film that would win an Oscar, but it’s no Sophie’s Choice or Kramer vs. Kramer type movie that markets itself as an TEAR JERKER MELODRAMA or an HISTORICAL EPIC. Rather, it’s a quiet film about the cultural changes in the deep south from the 30s to the 60s, as shown through the eyes of an elderly white lady and her earnest black chauffeur.

 

The film is almost entirely driven (no pun intended) on character interaction and dialogue between the two main characters.  Dan Aykroyd plays a supporting role as the son of the title character, who has his own life to worry about but functions in this film as a plot device to move the story along (for example, Miss Daisy crashes her car at the start of the movie, prompting Dan Aykroyd to find a chauffeur for her) Given that this movie was made in 1989, it likely started Aykroyd’s transition from mainly comedic roles to mainly drama roles, and it certainly made Morgan Freeman a household name, as it was one of the three iconic movies he starred in that year (the other two were Glory and Lean On Me).  Freeman and Jessica Tandy (as the title character) have to play their characters over several decades, and do so quite convincingly through the help of old age makeup.

 

The film adds a layer of drama by making Tandy’s character a minority herself, as she is a wealthy Jewish widow in the heavily Christian south. This becomes relevant several times in the film, like one December where she finally rewards Hoke (the chauffeur character) with a present, but swears it is not a Christmas present because she is not a Christian. There’s also the drama of one scene where the neighborhood synagogue is bombed. This felt someone forced to me as a plot device to make the main character come face to face with discrimination, but Driving Miss Daisy drives homes its points so subtly that nothing in the film was a distraction or seemed awkward.

 

Like the rest of the movie, Driving Miss Daisy ends not with a bang but a whimper, as the audience is given the suggestion that Miss Daisy died at the end of the film, only to discover (from Dan Akyroyd’s dialogue) that she’s still alive and well in her 90s, but has to go to a nursing home. Hoke has a heartwarming visit with his old boss, and the film simply ends.

 

If Driving Miss Daisy has one sin against it, it’s that the film is quite simply boring. It tells a good story, an important story, and a well made story, but one which I am not compelled to ever see again. Oscar bait, indeed, but a film that does a fabulous job of hiding that behind its humble little “aw, shucks’ presentation.

 

*** out of ****

 

 

ReelReviews #102: 1940s Best Picture Winner: The Lost Weekend (1945)

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 MARCH 1, 2017 SCREENING: THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

 

Well…well…well, here’s an interesting film. The Lost Weekend was one of the first movies to take a serious look at what was pretty much a taboo topic in the 1940s: alcoholism. Before this film, drunken characters in movies were generally played for laughs, but this film attempts to make a serious melodrama about a writer’s struggle with booze. Does it hold up today? Yes and no.

 

Parts of the film still have the same dramatic punch they had in 1945, whereas other parts of The Lost Weekend come across as dated or silly, and sometimes too heavy-handed. Strangely, the effective drama of the movie and the silly 1940s archetypes can sometimes occur in the same scene. Ray Milland’s performance in the film is quite compelling as a man who dives deeper and deeper into his addiction, and Jane Wyman (best known as Ronald Reagan’s ex-wife) is quite attractive as his co-star but not quite as compelling in this dark, bleak story.

 

The most memorable parts of The Lost Weekend occur about 2/3rds of the way in, when the character ends up in a “hospital” against his will that is actually a halfway house for addicts. The film goes into full “cautionary tale” mode and introduces a male nurse character that comes across as a bit sadistic and gleeful (and seemingly a closeted gay man) to modern audiences, and he shows the character what his future will be if he doesn’t quit drinking.  The Lost Weekend has very effective and chilling scenes about alcoholics suffering from hallucinations (“it’s always small animals” remarks the nurse) and these scenes could be lifted right out of a horror film. The music and lighting make these portions quite horrific even by modern standards (though it pales in comparison to perhaps the best known film on addiction, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream).

 

The Lost Weekend has a whole subplot about the alcoholic character planning to write a book about his struggle called The Bottle, which made me wonder if any of the story is autobiographical, since The Lost Weekend was adapted from a bestselling book of the same name. In any case, the book ends on a much more somber note, whereas the film had a sort of rushed and tacked on “happy” ending where the character is able to shake off his demons with the help of his one true love. While tacky, I thought it worked for the movie. Amusingly, many of the modern reviews of the movie noted that they could use a drink after seeing the film, or that they had to get drunk to enjoy it.

 

Perhaps quite telling, The Lost Weekend was the sole “Best Picture” winner I tracked down that has never been released on Blu-Ray. It’s only available on DVD and VHS, which seems to reflect a lack of interest in the film from today’s audiences. While it is definitely a product of its time, and has its flaws, its deserves credit for what it was trying to do, and for much of its artistic qualities.

 

***   out of ****

 

ReelReviews #14: Hugo (2011)

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APRIL 5, 2013 SCREENING: HUGO (2011)

 

I don’t even think it was intentional, but my screening of Hugo” (2011) marked the third of three films in a row where child stars started making the transition to older roles. Hugo is last – but certainly not least – of the three films. Indeed, I would argue that Hugo is the best of the three, but given that the other two were disappointments, that’s not saying much. Hugo is a really well made and innovative film, but I don’t think its deserves much of the critically acclaimed “masterpiece” labeling that it got when it came out. Good film, yes. Classic, no.

Let’s first take a look at what the film did right. Without question, the art direction of the film is its strongest element. This film blew me away with its cinematography and set design. It’s perfectly done – you could randomly freeze frame “Hugo” at at any random moment and you’d have a beautifully rendered still image that you could mount on the wall like a scenic painting. Supposedly Hugo is one of those movies where you “must” watch it in 3D. Well, I didn’t do so – I watched the move in nice old fashioned 2D on a plain, small. flat screen TV – and it was still gorgeous. I don’t know what film won for Best Art Direction at the Oscars that year, or even what other movies were nominated, but in my mind Hugo was the only contender. I haven’t seen a movie in years that looked so beautiful.

Hugo is also a refreshing change of pace for director Martin Scorsese. Although an iconic director, most of Scorsese’s films are about as R-rated as you can get, and filled with extreme violence and adult situations (mob movies are a specialty of his). Lately, Scorsese has also gotten strangely attached to Leonardo DiCaprio as Tim Burton has with Johnny Depp, and it’s really starting to overstay its welcome. Hugo, on the other hand, seemed to be marketed at kids – or at least it clearly falls into the category of “Family Film” – and best of all, Leonardo DiCaprio sat this one out. Instead, the cast includes Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, and child actors Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz. Butterfield went on to Ender’s Game, so this apparently marked his final child role, and he went out with a bang. Incredibly, Moretz did this glossy high budget film the same year she did the last movie I reviewed, Hick. In the latter, she played a fowl-mouthed, flirty southern girl who dressed too sexy for her age. Here, she’s a sweet and charming polite french child. The contrast between the two roles could not be more striking. Kudos to the actors for such a strong performance.

What I found lacking was the rest of the movie. It seems to be marketed as some kind of grand adventure film or fantasy story about clocks, set against the backdrop of the 1930s Paris. Instead, it turns to be some quiet drama that turns into a preachy lesson about film preservation The film ultimately reveals that the main character’s grandfather is forgotten silent film director Georges Méliès of “A Trip to the Moon”  (1902) fame, and ends with some fictional (as in, this didn’t happen in real life) emotional farewell where his films are restored and he receives a standing ovation for his work.

I’m not sure what the audience for this film is. If it’s a kids movie, I doubt kids will care about the storyline or be engaged in the movie at all. For someone like me – who is a big fan of the actors, loves cool special effects, and is actually interested in the niche art-house subject of silent film preservation – Scorsese might have the ideal targeted viewer. But my reaction was lukewarm at best. Sacha Baron Cohen is apparently there as “comic relief” playing a french police officer, but I didn’t laugh once, despite his strong performance. The Georges Méliès revelation didn’t move me either – and I found myself more fascinated by how awesome his 100 year old movies looked when they were fully colorized and restored for brief exerts in this movie, than the surrounding story about the director himself. Perhaps the most distracting element is the fact this is a big budget Hollywood film. Like Les Miserables and many others, the audience is supposed to be escape to the world of historic France, but its difficult to imagine France when every character in the movie speaks with a heavily British accent for the benefit of the English-speaking audience. As an experiment, I actually got tired of hearing the fake British accents and switched the French language dubbing halfway through the movie. I kept it on for the next hour and it actually improved the movie – now Hugo seemed like a charming foreign film instead of a Scorsese movie, and even Cohen’s police office character seemed more believable instead of like Borat wandered unto a new film set.

Overall, Hugo is a well made and incredibly polished film. But who’s film is it? It’s not mine, and I doubt its yours, either.

 

** ½ out of ****

ReelReviews #13: Hick (2011)

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APRIL 4, 2013 SCREENING: HICK (2011)

 

Like the previous film I reviewed, Hick takes another rising young child star (in this case, Chloe Grace Moretz) and gives her the first role of her career where she transition from child star to adult star. She gets to do a lot in the movie that quite frankly shocked a lot of critics, particularly because they were used to her playing innocent characters and here she uses some pretty colorful language and has some pretty risque scenes for a 13 year old. Moretz’s performance is good, and demonstrates the versatility of her acting abilities However, in other respects, its the opposite of the last film I reviewed. Push (2009) was at heart a good movie that inexplicably turned out to be bad in spite of everything it had going for it. On the other hand, Hick is a bad movie, seemingly made up of bits and pieces of good movies.

Yes, Hick is a mediocre movie at best, and none of its characters or situations will leave much impact on you, or any lasting legacy on film. There is an interesting side effect to watching the movie though, and its that Hick will evoke numerous scenes from other, better movies. I must have thought “Gee, this reminds me of so-and-so” over a half dozen times while watching Hick. I doubt this is an intentional effort from the filmmakers to “rip off” earlier movies, it just seems they had a number of good ideas that had been done before, and might have worked here, except they were done poorly. At various times, memories of Lawn Dogs (1997), The Professional (1994), Tideland (2005), Hound dog (2007), Lolita (both the 1962 and 1997 versions!), Black Snake Moan (2006), The Ice Storm (1997), and Badlands (1973) came to mind. There are even more examples that escape me at the moment. It was like someone took me on a tour of “greatest hits” from those movies and tried to re-enact several iconic scenes with new actors and dialogue, producing a far inferior version.

What most of the above films have in common is a basic premise of “underage girl behaving scandalously”, which is perhaps why many of the critics have said that “pedophiles” would enjoy the film Hick. I honestly don’t think anyone will enjoy the film Hick, because while there is the element of Chloe Grace Moretz dressing seductively and acting provocatively for some weird perverts, its not really aimed at the viewer, and the difference between this movie and a film like Lolita or Tideland is that she has zero chemistry with her adult co-star. In this case, its some cowboy hat wearing creep in a pickup that keeps showing up in her over and over again (and again makes me think of similar characters in good movies like Lolita, Pretty Baby, Taxi Driver, etc.), but here the situation goes nowhere and you’ll be hard pressed to remember anything the two characters discussed in the movie. There’s also a “graphic rape scene”, perhaps apeing what happened earlier in Dakota Fanning’s own heavily criticized “Hound dog” (where her 12 year old character is brutally raped), but the “rape scene” here occurs completely off camera, and a far more dramatic scene occurs earlier when Moretz’s character is nearly raped in a bathroom stall. In either case, neither scene seems to have any consequences for later in the movie, or the overall storyline.

The one positive here is that although the movie is called “Hick”, its not about exploiting backwoods country bumpkins for laughs, and although none of the characters are likeable or interesting, they”re all tolerable and believable enough. There’s even one actor I can’t stand (namely, Alec Baldwin) who makes a decent appearance towards the end of the movie. Like all the other scenes, its of little consequence, but Baldwin’s brief scenes are basically a glorified cameo and kept my interest long enough. I’ll rate that as a positive for this film – since I usually want to break my TV whenever Baldwin comes on screen, regardless of what role he’s playing.
Moretz really showed off a dramatically different side to her in this movie. Too bad she was stuck with a worthless script, and a movie that does nothing and goes nowhere. If you want to reminisce about earlier, better movies, then Hick is an interesting experiment to jog your memories. If not, you’ll be wasting two hours of your life.
* ½ out of ****