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 ****

 

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ReelReviews #105: 1990s Best Picture winner: Unforgiven (1992)

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MARCH 4, 2017 SCREENING: UNFORGIVEN (1992)

 

At last, I arranged a screening of Unforgiven. This iconic early 90’s movie is a rare example of a “Best Picture” winner that was actually pretty mainstream and popular with the general public, at least as far as Westerns go (the previous year’s winner, Silence of the Lambs, was likewise an unusual Best Picture winner because it was popular and a horror film).

 

Unforgiven has been described as a “revisionist western” and a “eulogy to the western genre”, apparently because of its treatment of its source material.  Well, it certainly did not end the western genre, as anyone who’s seen The Hateful Eight (2015) can tell you.  Those who described Unforgiven that way may have been referring to the way the film takes the “anti-hero” treatment established by Clint Eastwood’s earlier westerns to the extreme here.  There are no “good” characters in this movie, and a lot of the scenes with Eastwood’s character referencing the “old days” seem to work on another level and are self-referential to his own career in westerns.  While Unforgiven did not kill off Westerns, it was indeed Eastwood’s final Western movie to date, and he’s unlikely to break that streak now that the actor is in his mid 80s.

 

I enjoyed Unforgiven, which was a very difficult feat for the film to achieve, given that I generally avoid Westerns and Unforgiven was deliberately made to be as bleak and depressing as possible.  The cast contains a slew of earlier Oscar winners:  Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, etc., and they create some very memorable characters here. The basic story is about Eastwood and his two companions seeking out two men to assassinate as revenge for those characters beating and mutilating a young prostitute.  Without giving away too much of the plot, the film’s message is basically that killing will not bring peace of mind and will just result in more killing. This simple concept is done in a very compelling and grounded manner, so much so that the execution of the two scumbags (which occurs in different scenes) is done in a sloppy manner (for example, one is killed while reliving himself in an outhouse).

 

Gene Hackman, who plays the local sheriff and symbol of law enforcement, ends up ironically being the most “evil” character in the film, after he arrests and tortures Morgan Freeman’s character to get information about Clint Eastwood.  Freeman’s first appearance in the film to me seemed to be a token attempt to add forced “diversity” to a Western movie, but his role in the story turned out to be well written and pivotal to the film.

 

With its soft opening and ending coda appearing on screen, Unforgiven has a strange “storybook” type of quality for such an ugly and dark movie. While it’s not the kind of film I would want to watch a second time, and some parts seemed to drag or go off in a random direction, most of Unforgiven is very compelling and cinematic.  I’m not sure if it’s the “Best Picture” of 1992 only because its fellow nominees like A Few Good Men and Scent of a Woman were also solid movies in my mind. But what it is, Unforgiven can be forgiven for the aspects of I didn’t like. It’s a first-rate movie.

 

*** 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 ****