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 #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 #32: Roots (1988) Part 2.5: The Gift 1775

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FEB 5, 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS: THE GIFT (1988) Part 2.5: 1775

 

 

You’ve probably heard of “deleted scenes” in movies. They generally appear on DVDs and usually consist of little 30 second to 2 minute clips of material that was trimmed from the movie, and it’s easy to see why —  because it wasn’t necessary to the story. In the case of Roots, we essentially have an entire 90 min. “deleted episode”, and its Roots: The Gift from 1988. I’m not sure if any of this was covered in Alex Haley’s novel, but in any case it wasn’t used in the original 1977 miniseries.  Rather, it was retroactively added eleven years later, and chronologically takes place between the second and third episode of the original.  With that in mind, I settled in to watch this story with low expectations, and actually found it quite good.

 

Roots: The Gift features LeVar Burton and Lou Gossett Jr. reprising their roles as Kunta/Toby and Fiddler.  While over a decade passed in real life,  almost the same amount of time passes between the events of episode 2 and The Gift, so the actors’ natural aging actually serves the story nicely here.  Burton and Gossett also effortlessly got back into character and the story seems to flow naturally and fit in nicely into the original miniseries, rather than come across as jarring and unnatural. With that being said, it is indeed basically 90 mins. of “deleted scenes” from the Roots saga.

 

The story it tells is actually pretty nice – it’s the Christmas season, and this episode has the unique perspective that the American Revolutionary War is pretty much shown as a minor background issue since the focus of the events is on the POV of the slaves.  In The Gift, Kunta/Toby has now pretty much learned how to speak American English and settled into life in the United States, but he was born a freeman and years for freedom – something that Fiddler, born a slave, will never understand. Some of the incidents that audiences criticized in The Gift were precisely the reasons I liked this story: a little girl doesn’t understand that slaves are treated as chattel but wants to thank Toby for his willingness to be a camel in her nativity play by bringing him a present, Fiddler agrees to help a group of other slaves escape to their freedom even though he is terrified of what will happen to him if he’s caught, and both Toby & Fiddler agree to stay behind when there is only one seat left on the boat that will take them up north. Others found these scenes out of character compared to the rest of the Roots saga, whereas I found them touching.

 

Where I thought The Gift didn’t work was simply an inaccurate depiction of the setting. This was meant to be a “Christmas movie” special in 1988, so there’s lots of Christmas-y celebration references in the story (hanging decorations, singing carols, nativity plays, etc.) and of course the cheesy tie-in of the slaves getting freedom being the true “gift” of the season.  This came across as 1980s television cliques to me rather than an accurate historical depiction of colonial era Virginia. Indeed, if the filmmakers had researched the place and era, they’d probably realize that public Christmas celebrations and merry-making in 1770s Virginia would have subjected you to a different kind of discrimination: those who did so would be suspected of being “papists” since public Christmas celebrations tended to be Roman Catholic, whereas it was frowned on by others and considered to be a solemn religious event reserved for church. Roots: The Gift does exceptionally well at presenting one part of American culture that was marginalized by the majority at the time, but fails to notice others so it can put a contemporary  “Christmas holiday cheer” spin into a story where it wouldn’t have existed.

 

On an interesting note: This is considered the unofficial “Star Trek” episode of Roots, as four of the cast later went to become regulars in Star Trek. Of course, there’s LeVar Burton (later Geordi  on Star Trek: The Next Generation), but also Avery Brooks (later Sisko on Star Trek: DS9),  Kate Mulgrew (later Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyager), and Tim Russ (later Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager). For that reason alone, I found it worth checking out.

 

Roots: The Gift tells an additional part of the Roots saga that didn’t need to be told, but it still was a good story, and seeing LeVar Burton and Lou Gossett Jr. reprise their roles was worth the price of admission. Not the greatest Roots episode, but a good one.

 

 

** ½  out of ****

 

ReelReviews #31: Roots (1977) Part 2: 1767-1768

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FEB 4, 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS (1977) Part 2: 1767-1768

 

Ah, the forgotten art of the TV miniseries.  Sure, it’s still around today (just look at 2008’s seven part “John Adams” miniseries, or last year’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63), but it just doesn’t have quite the “must see event of the year” dramatic flair that it had in the 70s and 80s.

 

 

(“Roots”, as it originally aired in 1977, was an 8 episode series that curiously had both 45 min. and 90 min. episodes.  For its re-release on video, it was nicely re-edited into 6  90 min. episodes, and that is the version I’m screening. However, I’m also watching Roots in chronological order, event-wise, so this review will be followed by a review of the 1988 TV movie “Roots: The Gift”, given as it’s the next “event” that happens in the story.  But, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get back to the ReelReviews)

 

 

As this story unfolds on DVD, it’s somewhat amusing to see the narrator (correctly) inform 1977 audiences that they’re witnessing a “landmark event in television history”, which I suppose sounded a bit grandiose and egocentric at the time.  In any case, the second episode of Roots was equally engaging, but I felt it didn’t start off as strongly as its predecessor.  The hinted at “slave revolt” was pretty anti-climatic and never left me on the edge of my seat.  The story did continue the “fish out of water” aspect nicely, as Kunta doesn’t understand any English, and the whites don’t understand any African words.  One particular stand out moment early on in the episode is witnesses a slave auction, when poor Kunta is unaware that is being bid on and sold to the highest bidder.

 

 

The story became “fun” (if you can call this kind of stuff “fun” ) again when we’re introduced to Fiddler, a wonderful iconic television character played with relish by Lou Gossett Jr.  Fiddler is a middle aged American born black slave (who appropriately, is known for his fiddle playing) tasked with “civilizing” young Kunta and assimilating him into American culture.  Fiddler’s master tells him he has only 6 months to train the African and teach him to speak English so well that he’s speaking “the King’s English”.   Fiddler sees his new companion as some type of unruly savage and keeps putting him down as a “Guinea Man” and tries to explain to him that “you can’t do that African stuff no more around these parts. You in America, boy!”  From Kunta’s POV, he might as well be on another planet, as he tells a fellow tribe member “If it’s the same moon in the sky, why is everything else different? The people, the animals, the plants, the land… if my father can look up and see the same moon, why can’t he see me?”

 

 

.Although Kunta does eventually learn some basic ways to communicate; he completely rejects the idea the new name he is given by his captors: Toby.   By the end of the episode, (in perhaps one of the most heart wrenching scenes of the entire miniseries) he is chained to a post and whipped mercilessly until he answers “Toby” to the question “What is your name?”  I found the scene reminiscent of the infamous whipping scene in The Passion of the Christ, and although that was even bloodier and more graphically shown, the level of torture was about the same, and that was a highly controversial 2006 R-rated film compared to a 1977 “family event” on television that was equally powerful and brutal.   Roots has shown its age and has some camp value and silly scenes and characters now, but its harshness about slavery remains timeless.  Episode 2 leaves the audience stunned, and I can say that watching for the first time, four decades after it originally aired.

 

 

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #30: Roots (1977) Part 1: 1750-1767

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FEB 3, 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS (1977) Part 1: 1750-1767

After an unintended mighty hiatus of two years, ReelReviews returns triumphantly in Feb. 2017 to look at the most watched television miniseries of all time: Roots (1977).  The occasion seems oddly appropriate: this is the 40th anniversary of the television event, this is black history month, and here I am, a white suburban guy from Chicagoland who grew up in the 1980s and first saw LeVar Burton in Reading Rainbow.  With Roots (1977), Roots: The Next Generations (1978), Roots: The Gift (1988), and last year’s remake of Roots (2016), there’s plenty material to go around.  Today’s review starts off at the very beginning: Episode 1 of the famous franchise.

 

The biggest controversy in Roots is that it is supposedly “Based on a true story” of Alex Haley’s ancestry, dating back to his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte, who Haley explains was kidnapped from Africa in 1767 and sold into slavery.  The problem, of course, is that later genealogists pretty much proved that Haley could not be related to this figure, and indeed, there is now considerable doubt about whether this “Kunta Kinte” figure actually existed.  Thus, its best to classify the first episode of Roots as Historic Fiction – a sort of “what if?” story that researches that was going on at that time and tries to reconstruct what it would be like for this “Kunta Kinte” character if he lived in those times.  With that aspect in mind, I found the episode very compelling and well made.

 

“Roots” part 1 is a fish out of water story about a young African boy (about 16 or so?) who has just completed his initiation into manhood when he finds himself ripped away from his culture suddenly in a strange alien world where he is held captive on a ship.  After his father sees his son taken captive by slave traders, he has to break the devastating news to the boy’s mother with the chilling line that “You still have two sons. But one of them is now forever outside our world”, as she cries in anguish.  “Roots” shows its age at times with some cheesy 70s filming techniques and casting people like O.J. Simpson as a local tribal chief (I thought O.J.’s acting performance was actually pretty decent), but it’s easy to see how this story captured (no pun intended) American audiences in 1977 and held them in suspension (okay, maybe now I’m adding puns) for the next episode.  “Roots” did everything it needed to do to start off a television miniseries right: it creates a compelling world, takes about a relative part of history that Americans should learn about, has dynamic characters, and is action packed and exciting.

 

I’ve previous heard from others (including my parents) that white viewers may find Roots difficult to sit through because there are “no good white people” in the miniseries. I didn’t find this to be the case at all. Since the story is from the POV of those enslaved, the “white people” shown in this miniseries always tend to be the enslavers (later episodes bring up abolitionists and other “good” white people, but that’s not relevant yet).  One particularly good subplot that added some depth was the captain of the slave vessel (Ed Asner) is portrayed as a very devout Christian man who has never commanded a vessel on a slave raid before, and (like any decent person) finds himself disgusted and horrified by many of the things he sees, but ultimately succumbs to the pressure from the culture around him to make it a “successful” mission.   Given Asner’s politics, I generally loathe the man, but his performance here was solid, as was the truly evil other white character who is a slave trader for a living.  Like all good historical dramas, whether it’s the story of the holocaust or Nero throwing Christians to the lions or English sailors capturing slaves, it has to deal with an ugly reality that happened and can’t be glossed over. Roots hits the viewers in the gut, and that’s a good thing.

 

The first episode ends with the hint that Kunta Kinte and his fellow captives will plan an insurrection on the high seas soon, despite all coming from different tribal groups and language backgrounds. While that is problematic from a historical perspective, from a story perspective it worked very well and kept me excited for part two, as I had expected the story to end with the ship arriving in the Virginia harbor and Kunta Kinte seeing America for the first time. Oh well.

 

 

*** out of ****