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Archive for February, 2015

The 40th Academy Awards: My Verdict

40th_Academy_Awards1967 was a year of turmoil in America. The US was fighting the unpopular Vietnam War, which lead to many protests. There were race riots in Buffalo, Tampa, Newark, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee. It was the year of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Thurgood Marshall became the first African American Supreme Court Justice. Society was changing, and the best picture nominees for that year (well, most of them anyway) reflect that change. Two of the movies were about race relations. Two were about sticking it to the man and living your own life. And one was about a man in 19th century England who could talk to animals.

After I watched Doctor Dolittle, I tried to figure out why it had been nominated. I came to the conclusion that maybe only five movies had been made that year, that every person in Hollywood was so busy working on those five that they didn’t have time to make any more. But that turned out not to be true. Lots of movies came out that year. Then I thought that maybe all the other movies that year were terrible, even worse than Doctor Dolittle. But here is a list of movies that also came out in 1967:

Camelot (although I’m grateful it wasn’t nominated, because I saw it once years ago and have no desire to ever see it again).
Cool Hand Luke
The Dirty Dozen
In Cold Blood
The Jungle Book
Thoroughly Modern Millie (see comment to Camelot above)
To Sir, With Love (which also starred Sydney Poitier. How did he have time to be in so many movies?)
Wait Until Dark

I haven’t seen all of them, but I have seen most of them, and even the worst ones from that list are better than Doctor Dolittle. So now the only explanations I can think of are bribery or nepotism, but I have no proof (or foundation, really) for that bit of conjecture. And now I am done with thinking about that anomaly of awfulness and can go on to the movies that were actually good.

It was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner that started me on this blog journey. It is so amazingly good. When I looked up to see if it had won best picture, I was shocked to see that it hadn’t. But then when I saw the list of nominees, I suddenly wasn’t surprised anymore. I hadn’t seen any of the movies except Doctor Dolittle, which I had seen as a child, but I recognized them all. They have become iconic.

After watching them all, I thought it was interesting that even though the movies were exploring the same themes, they were all so different. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner brought race relations to a simple home setting, while In the Heat of the Night explored bigotry in a southern town. Bonnie and Clyde dealt with people rebelling by going on a crime spree; Ben Braddock in The Graduate chose to rebel by having an affair. But all four of those movies showed people who weren’t going to accept the world they were presented. They were going to do whatever they could to break the chains of tradition that were holding them back from the life they wanted.

Lots of people think that the Academy got it wrong this year. They think that The Graduate should have won. And in some respects, it is a better movie than In the Heat of the Night. It was more innovative in some of its techniques. It played around with editing and cinematography in new and interesting ways. But I think the reason people wish The Graduate had won has more to do with relatability. Lots of people have felt like they wanted something different from life than what their parents expect from them. Many people have been in situations that have made them feel as awkward as Ben. Not as many people have found themselves risking their lives to solve a crime in small-town Mississippi.

But I feel like In the Heat of the Night deserved the win. I partly feel that way because I feel like In the Heat of the Night  had a more important message. Don’t get me wrong. I really liked The Graduate and I could sympathize with Ben, but his problems are more first-world problems. He can’t figure out what he wants to do with his life? That’s a problem, but at least he has options. In the Heat of the Night takes place in a town where many people don’t have options. Because of the attitudes of the people around them, they are stuck with the hard lives they are born in to. I don’t know whether something like message is considered when people actually vote for best picture, but it matters to me. In the Heat of the Night has both good technique and an important message. To me, that makes it the best picture of 1967.

How do I rank the nominees?

5. Doctor Dolittle
4. Bonnie and Clyde
2. The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (tie, because I really can’t decide between them)
1. In the Heat of the Night

Be sure to join me next week for music, epic heroism, mental illness, and truly terrible plaid pants!

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In_the_Heat_of_the_Night_(film)Directed by Norman Jewison

I have a hard time sitting still and doing nothing when I watch movies. I get kind of antsy unless I have another project to occupy my time, so I’ll paint my nails or play a game on my phone or crochet a hat while the movie plays in the background. But doing this project has forced me to change all that. If I want to appreciate good acting or interesting camera work or immerse myself in another time through excellent production design, I have to give the movie my full attention. The first time I watched In the Heat of the Night, I was messing around on my computer. I thought it was a good movie, an interesting movie, but not that great. Then I watched it again on my big TV instead of my little computer screen, and I didn’t do anything but watch the movie. I was blown away. It was a totally different experience, and I understood the (well-deserved) acclaim.

So what’s the story? Late one summer’s night in Sparta, Mississippi, a police officer finds the murdered body of a prominent man lying in the street. The police start searching for the murderer, and they soon find and arrest the perfect suspect: Virgil Tibbs, a black man who is sitting in the train station. However, Virgil says he’s not a transient or a criminal, but a police officer from Philadelphia; he was just waiting for his train home. Sheriff Gillespie, the head of police in Sparta, calls Philadelphia to verify this, and the police chief in Philadelphia tells Gillespie that Tibbs is the best homicide detective in Philadelphia and that Tibbs should help on the case. None of the (white) police officers in Sparta want to accept help from black man, but the widow of the murdered man insists that Tibbs remain on the case. Tibbs and Gillespie now have to overcome their prejudices to work together to solve the murder.

The Good: I always seem to start with the acting, but I think that’s because bad acting ruins a  movie so quickly. There was some good acting here. Rod Steiger won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gillespie. I wasn’t completely convinced that he deserved it over Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner until the scene where the four thugs have cornered Tibbs in the warehouse. At that point, something clicked for me, and I realized what a truly stellar job he was doing. Sydney Poitier is excellent as he always is as Virgil Tibbs. Lee Grant plays the widow; she isn’t in the movie much, but she commands every scene she’s in. Her heartbreak when she’s told of her husband’s death is so painful that it’s difficult to watch.

The story here is excellent. It’s based on a novel that I haven’t read, so I’m not sure what’s been changed and what was original, but it makes a great movie. I love how well-developed all the characters are. It would have been so easy to make Tibbs perfect, but he has his flaws, too, which are shown when he fixates so strongly on a suspect (who is admittedly a terrible person) that he loses all perspective on the case. The story and screenplay are so well done. And this movie gave us a classic line: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”

The cinematography was interesting. I loved the part where Tibbs is examining the body. The camera cuts to his hands to show his skill and confidence as he explains what he will need to do a proper examination. The camera focuses hands in another scene, too. When Tibbs and Gillespie are going to go visit the wealthy cotton planter, they drive past a field of cotton being picked by black workers. Here, the camera’s focus serves to contrast Tibbs’s job and skills with those of the workers. If Tibbs had lived here, it seems to say, this is what he might be doing. At other times, the cinematography feels almost musical. As the cameraman zooms in on a fleeing suspect, for instance, it accentuates the tension almost like a crescendo in a piece of music. It adds a lot to the movie.

The Bad: The only thing that made this movie feel dated was the music. It just screamed the 1960s to me. It might have been groundbreaking at the time, but it feels very old-fashioned now.

The Ugly: The ugliest thing in this movie is the attitudes of the people, from the moment Tibbs is arrested because he’s an unknown black man to the climax where the thugs show up at Mama Caleba’s. But it’s this ugliness that allows the beauty of the eventual mutual acceptance and respect of Tibbs and Gillespie shine through.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best sound; best actor in a leading role (Rod Steiger); best film editing; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best director; best effects, sound effects.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

guess-who's-coming-to-dinner-posterDirected by Stanley Kramer

This is one of the two movies that made me want to start this blog. I had never seen it before last summer. It was one that I had always wanted to see; I had even checked out the DVD from the library a couple of times. I just somehow never got around to watching it. But late one night, I was packing to go on a trip and was looking for something to play in the background while I packed. This movie happened to be streaming on Netflix at the time (although it’s not right now), so I turned it on. My packing didn’t get done until the next morning. I couldn’t tear myself away from this movie. Even though this is a quiet movie about one day in the life of one family, the tension is so great as we wait to find out the parents’ opinions that I couldn’t stop watching.

So what’s the story? Joanna Drayton comes home unexpectedly from Hawaii with a surprise: her new fiancé, Dr. John Prentice, who happens to be black. She is excited for her parents to meet him, and because they are liberals from San Francisco, she is confident that they won’t be upset at the prospect of a black son-in-law. But Joanna doesn’t know something: John has told her parents that if they don’t one hundred percent approve of the marriage, he will respect their opinion and not marry their daughter. Since John is flying to New York and then Geneva soon after, Matt and Christina Drayton only have a few hours to come to terms with this shift in their world.

The Good: There are so many good things about this movie that it’s hard to know where to start. We can start with the acting, I guess. It was a pretty small cast, and everyone was spot on. Sydney Poitier and Katharine Houghton (Katharine Hepburn’s niece) are the engaged couple. Real-life lovers Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are her parents; Roy Glenn and Beah Richards are his. Isabel Sanford plays Tillie, the Draytons’ maid, who disapproves strongly of the relationship. Cecil Kellaway is the Draytons’ family friend Monsignor Ryan, who strongly supports the couple and quotes the Beatles. Everyone is very believable as people who are blindsided by an unexpected situation.

The music really worked for me, too. Background music was used sparingly throughout the movie, which made it feel more real. After all, who really has their own theme song?

The cinematography was fairly straightforward, but because of this, the one time that anything was different really stood out. When Tillie is berating John for thinking about marrying above himself, the camera is at an angle, reflecting her anger and his bewilderment. It was a small thing, but it made an impact.

The Bad: I don’t like the scene where Matt and Christina go for ice cream. It just didn’t seem to fit in the movie somehow.

Joanna’s attitude annoyed me throughout the whole movie. While she obviously realizes that John is black, she doesn’t seem to think about what that means on a daily basis. She seems to have no idea of the ugliness that is racism. She apparently thinks that their love will be enough to protect them from prejudice. I can understand that she’s a young girl in love, but I feel like she has no understanding of what is waiting for her and John in their life together.

Also, no one raised any objection to the fact that Joanna is 23 and John is 37 and that they are getting married after having known each other only ten days. John’s race is a huge deal, but so is that age difference. I would be seriously worried if my daughter brought home some guy fourteen years older than her that she had known for ten days and said it was true love, but the only thing anyone worried about was the race issue.

The Ugly: There isn’t really any ugly in this movie. It’s a well-done intimate look at what happens to people when they are called upon to live up to the ideals that they’ve preached all their lives.

Oscar Wins: Best actress in a leading role (Katharine Hepburn); best writing, story and screenplay – written directly for the screen.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Spencer Tracy, posthumously); best actor in a supporting role (Cecil Kellaway); best actress in a supporting role (Beah Richards); best director; best art direction – set direction; best film editing; best music, scoring of music, adaptation, or treatment.

The Graduate (1967)

the-graduate-poster1Directed by Mike Nichols

When I was a sophomore in college, my roommate and I were talking about movies late one night. I don’t remember how it came up, but I admitted that I had never seen The Graduate. She was shocked. “But Melanie,” she said, “you’ve seen every other old movie out there. How have I seen an old movie that you haven’t seen?” I didn’t want to admit to my more sophisticated roommate that I hadn’t ever watched it because I was so uncomfortable with the subject matter; I had no interest in watching a forty-something-year-old woman and a man in his early twenties have sex. Now that I’ve seen it, though, I’ve learned that I was worried about the wrong thing. Nothing explicit is shown. No, what did make me uncomfortable was how very awkwardly that young man handled the affair.

So what’s the story? Benjamin Braddock has just graduated from college and come home to California. On the night of his welcome home party, his neighbor Mrs. Robinson asks him to drive her home. Once there, she tries to seduce Ben, but he gets spooked and leaves. He can’t stop thinking about it, though, and phones her one night to ask if the offer is still open. They begin to have an affair. It’s all going well until Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and Benjamin’s contemporary, comes home from Berkeley. At the insistence of his parents and her father, who is unaware of the affair, Ben takes her out. But now he has a new problem: he’s starting to fall in love with Elaine.

The Good: Dennis Hoffman is ridiculously awkward as Ben, and it was fun to see William Daniels (without his Bostonian accent!) as Mr. Braddock. But Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross were the standouts for me. I had only seen Anne Bancroft do comedy before, so it was a revelation to see her as an unhappy, alcoholic predator. And Katharine Ross did wonders with the part of Elaine, a girl in a seemingly impossible situation.

The soundtrack is fabulous. It features several Simon and Garfunkel songs, including “The Sounds of Silence”, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, and (of course) “Mrs. Robinson”. Good stuff.

I feel like the cinematography is a standout, too. There are lots of interestingly-composed shots that add to the emotions of moments in the film.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, this movie has an excellent ending. It’s not exactly happy, but it’s not sad, either. It fits the mood and the theme of the movie perfectly.

The Bad: I know that Mrs. Robinson is the villain of the piece, but I wished I had gotten a better sense of her motives. Why was she seducing Benjamin? I understand that she was unhappy, but that didn’t feel like enough of a reason to seduce the son of your husband’s business partner. I would have been better convinced by the movie if I had had more of an understanding of her character.

The Ugly: I get embarrassed for people very easily, and there is a lot to be embarrassed about in this movie. Ben is just so awkward, especially at the beginning of the affair. He is so far out of his depth that it can be hard to watch. I’m pretty sure that that’s what the director was going for, and he definitely succeeded. But man. Sometimes I just want to shake Benjamin and say, “Ben! Stop trying so hard! Also get away from that crazy lady!”

Oscar Won: Best director.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Dustin Hoffman); best actress in a leading role (Anne Bancroft); best actress in a supporting role (Katharine Ross); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best cinematography.

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

doctor dolittleDirected by Richard Fleischer

An actual conversation:

Me: Guess what I watched last night! Doctor Dolittle! The one with Rex Harrison.

My mother (in a horrified voice): WHY?

Me: For my blog. It was nominated for best picture.

My mother: Well, you really took one for the team on that one.

Contrary to the way this conversation makes it sound, Doctor Dolittle is not an evil movie. It is, however, a rather tedious movie in which forty-five minutes’ worth of plot is stretched to fill two and half hours.

So what’s the story? Dr. Dolittle is a kindly country doctor who learns to talk to animals with the help of his parrot, Polynesia. Because he can communicate with animals better than humans, he decides to be a vet instead of a doctor. For reasons not made clear in the movie, he wants to find the Great Pink Sea Snail and talk to it, so after he gets enough money and breaks out of the insane asylum, he goes on a voyage to find it.

The Good: As I watched this movie, I kept thinking what a nightmare it must have been to make. It was the 1960s, so the animals aren’t CGI or puppets, but real live animals. If you count the ducks and the goats and the pigs and the cows and the bears and the ridiculously cute lion cubs and all the other animals, there must be hundreds of animals.  I can’t even imagine trying to orchestrate such a thing. That alone is very impressive.

There was some fun humor. I even laughed out loud a couple of times. I enjoyed the song that Emma sang as she was storming away from meeting Dr. Dolittle for the first time.

I will also admit that Rex Harrison did a good job. Although on the surface the role of Dr. Dolittle is quite similar to that of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (a middle-aged linguist who doesn’t get on well with people), he didn’t play the roles the same way. Dr. Dolittle is much kinder and gentler, and it showed in Harrison’s face.

The Bad: There wasn’t much of a story. The movie kind of meandered around various vignettes. There’s the house scene, where we and Stubbins are introduced to the doctor and his many animal friends. There’s the ugly scene between Bellowes and the doctor. There’s the courtroom scene. There’s the breaking out of jail scene. There’s the voyaging scene and the island scene. I remember being amused by the book when I was a child, which makes me think that there was good source material, but the writers couldn’t seem to find a straightforward linear story from it.

Also, the love triangle was…odd. I could see no reason for Emma to fall for Dr. Dolittle, the middle-aged linguist, over Matthew, the charming young Irishman. I don’t care what My Fair Lady teaches us. Attractive young women do not fall in love with middle-aged linguists who don’t get on with people and can’t sing. I don’t buy it.

The Ugly: It was two and one-half hours long. With fourteen mediocre musical numbers. Enough said.

Oscars Won: Best effects, special effects; best music, original song (“Talk to the Animals”).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best cinematography; best film editing; best sound; best music, original music score; best music, scoring of music, adaptation or treatment; best art direction-set direction.

A Curiosity: Richard Attenborough is in this movie for about as long as Judi Dench is in Shakespeare in Love, but Richard Attenborough sings a song. He got a Golden Globe for best supporting actor for this. I didn’t know he could sing. And I’m not sure that what he did counted as being a supporting actor. I wish I knew how these things are judged.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

bonnie and clyde posterDirected by Arthur Penn

When I was growing up, my family had a book of pictures from classic Hollywood films. One of those pictures was from Bonnie and Clyde; it interested me because it was a picture of a girl with a great hat (that beret!) holding a gun standing in front of a cool old car. I wondered why she was doing that. Later on, I found out about the bank robbers from the 1930s, but still didn’t know very much about this movie going in.

So what’s the story? Bonnie, a young waitress in 1930s Texas, catches Clyde trying to steal her mother’s car one day. Rather than turn him in, Bonnie goes with Clyde into town. When Clyde points out to her that she hates her life and wants more, Bonnie decides to run away with him. They start robbing banks and stores together, always managing to keep one step ahead of the police. Clyde’s brother Buck and Buck’s wife Blanche come to visit and become part of the gang.

The Good: The cast was very good. I had never seen Faye Dunaway in anything. I knew her name, but I hadn’t ever seen any of her movies. She was fantastic as Bonnie. Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for her portrayal of Blanche, which I felt was well-deserved. She did a very good job as a woman who was not happy about associating with criminals at first, but then enjoying the lifestyle as long as the money came in. I grew up watching Gene Hackman in Hoosiers (often, because it was one of my dad’s favorite movies), so it was really fun to see him in such a different role.

The ending was one of the best endings I have ever seen. It wasn’t overdone or cheesy, which would have been easy to do. It was restrained and elegant instead. Perfect.

The Bad: The music got on my nerves. It was probably fairly authentic, but it felt more stereotypical to me – these were hicks from Texas, so they must listen to hick music.

Also, Faye Dunaway’s look was more 1960s than 1930s. I feel like that was a problem for a long time in historical movies, though, and everyone else looked right. I guess they just wanted the leading lady to look more glamorous than 1930s would have allowed.

The Ugly: I had no emotional connection to this movie. I understand feeling stifled by society’s expectations and wanting a bigger life, but going on a crime spree is not a good way to break out of the oppression of everyday life. The Barrow Gang killed lots of innocent people and stole from others. I know it was the Depression and money was scarce, but I’m sure the small town grocers they robbed were struggling, too. I felt no sympathy for Bonnie and Clyde whatsoever, and I hate that this movie made them seem almost noble for what they did.

Oscars Won: Best actress in a supporting role (Estelle Parsons); best cinematography.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Warren Beatty); best actress in a leading role (Faye Dunaway); best actor in a supporting role (Gene Hackman); best actor in a supporting role (Michael J. Pollard); best director; best costume design; best writing, story and screenplay – written directly for the screen.

The 71st Academy Awards: My Verdict

Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench, James Coburn, Roberto Benigni

Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench, James Coburn, Roberto Benigni

These movies were the Oscar nominees when I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember thinking even then how odd it was that all five were historical movies. Not only that, they only came from two time periods: World War II and Tudor England. Filmmakers had all of human history to choose from, and they made that many movies from two time periods in one year? It was just strange coincidence.

At the same time, it made it kind of fun for me to watch them all at once. It was interesting to watch the World War II movies, all of which are about different aspects of that war (Pacific theater, European theater, the Holocaust) and reflect on the very different experiences of people in the same war. Watching Guido fight for his family made me think about Captain Miller and his men, and how they were fighting so that Guido and others like him could live in his town and have a bookshop and be happy. Although the movies didn’t really overlap, together they made me see a bigger picture.

The two Elizabethan pictures, on the other hand, just made me kind of hate Joseph Fiennes. He plays the same role in both movies: a slightly slimy married man having an affair with a naïve young woman who is unaware of his marriage. I’m not sure how he ended up in both movies in such similar roles, but I guess he plays Elizabethan adulterers well. Geoffrey Rush is in both films, too, but the men he plays are polar opposites: Elizabeth’s spy and assassin in Elizabeth; a slightly befuddled producer in Shakespeare in Love. Because they are so different, he makes it work much better than Joseph Fiennes.

But that brings up another issue I saw in all these historical movies. The makeup has to be done very well, or else the viewer will see the actor, not the character. As much as I loved Ben Affleck and Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love, they didn’t look like 16th century men. They looked like Ben Affleck and Rupert Everett in funny clothes. Thin Red Line had the same problem; so did Saving Private Ryan, although to a lesser extent. I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors in Life is Beautiful, so it wasn’t a problem there. Elizabeth was the one movie where I didn’t feel that with any actor. Yes, Joseph Fiennes was obviously Joseph Fiennes, but since I’ve only ever seen him in Elizabethan garb, my first thought was not, “Oh, there’s Joseph Fiennes!”, but “Oh, there’s Shakespeare!” Since I’m not a makeup artist, I’m not sure what would have to be done to fix it, but it is a problem.

So do I believe Shakespeare in Love truly was the best picture of the year? Nope. It was a fine movie. It was a cute love story. But I feel that in order to be the best picture, a movie should be more than cute. A movie needs to mean something, to reveal something about the human condition. And while Shakespeare in Love did many things well, it didn’t have a deeper meaning. Life is Beautiful did. Saving Private Ryan did. I would have accepted either of those as best picture over Shakespeare in Love. The fact that Shakespeare in Love won makes me wonder exactly what Harvey Weinstein did in his campaign to convince the Academy that it was the best movie.

If I could change the past, which would I have picked?  For me, it would have been a contest solely between Life is Beautiful and Saving Private Ryan, but in the end I would have to go with Saving Private Ryan. I don’t like feeling like I’m jumping on a bandwagon, but I really do feel that Saving Private Ryan was unfairly slighted. It is a masterful piece of storytelling and filmmaking. The meticulous recreation of D-Day alone should have been enough to win the Oscar, but it went beyond that. It really is an amazing movie, and in my opinion, the best picture of 1998.

How do I rank the nominees?

5. Elizabeth
4. The Thin Red Line
3. Shakespeare in Love
2. Life is Beautiful
1. Saving Private Ryan

Join me next week for sex, crime, race relations, and talking animals!