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Archive for June, 2015

High Noon (1952)

high noonDirected by Fred Zinneman

I love westerns. It’s probably because I watched so many of them growing up that now they make me feel like a little kid again. Whatever the reason, I’m always glad when they show up on the list of best picture nominees. However, High Noon isn’t exactly a western. It’s a thriller that just happens to take place in the Old West. It’s about relationships and small towns and above all, people. I’ve seen it before, but it’s always exciting to watch.

So what’s the story? Will Kane has just married his Quaker sweetheart and given up his marshal’s badge when he gets a telegram that Frank Miller, a murderer that he arrested, has been let out of prison. He’s set to arrive on the noon train and hell-bent on getting revenge on the man who sent him to prison. Miller’s old gang is already waiting for him at the platform. Realizing that a true man faces his problems, Will refuses to run, but can he get the help he needs from the townspeople he’s protected in the past?

The Good: High Noon happens in real time. It’s about 10:40 when Marshal Kane gets his telegram, and an hour and twenty minutes later in real life, the train comes in. This adds to the tension in a way that very few things could have. I’m not sure if High Noon was the first movie to use this tactic, but it’s very effective.

The editing is fantastic. I love really good editing, but sometimes I feel like good editing can be hard to spot. Every once in a while, though, I’m blown away by it. That’s what happened in High Noon. After all the tension has built up and the train is finally coming into town, there are shots of all the different groups waiting for the train to stop. The editing makes that part of the movie so stressful. It’s awesome.

Once again, the acting is superb (can a movie be nominated for best picture without having at least some good acting?). Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a man committed to his path even though it may cost him the woman he loves. Grace Kelly plays his bride, Amy, who is understandably frightened at the prospect of losing her new husband. Bitter deputy marshal Harvey is played wonderfully by Lloyd Bridges. Even Henry Morgan (aka Colonel Potter in M*A*S*H) has a small role. But the standout actress in High Noon is Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez. She is ridiculously good in her rather complicated role.

Helen Ramirez is actually another wonderful thing about this movie. Minorities in westerns generally only have tiny roles, and they are usually horrifically stereotypical. However, while Helen is a scarlet woman, she is smart, strong, passionate, and fair. She isn’t scared of anything and she doesn’t take anything from anyone. I love her. She’s a great character.

The cinematography is great. It manages to highlight Will’s forced solitude and the attitudes of the people surrounding him. It does what good cinematography should do.

The Bad: There is nothing bad about High Noon. Everything about this movie is either on fabulous or horrifically bad. I suppose I could say that it’s not fun to watch Thomas Mitchell, one of my favorite character actors, not be awesome. That’s just how the story goes, though.

The Ugly: The title song is awful. I think I could have rationalized it as a 1950s cowboy song if it weren’t for the fact of these two lines:

He made a vow while in state prison
Vowed it would be my life or his’n.

I think it should be a crime against the arts (is that a thing? Can we make it one?) to use “his’n” as a rhyme for “prison”. Bad, bad, bad. Even then, I might have been able to make my peace with it if bits of the song (including that line) didn’t keep playing throughout the movie and reminding me of its existence. The musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin itself is very good, but this song… So bad.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Gary Cooper); best film editing; best music, original song (“High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’]”); best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay.

74th Academy Awards: My Verdict

74_academy_awards_posterI don’t have much to say about the 74th Academy Awards. The Oscars were quite spread out that year. No movie won more than four awards, and based solely on what I’ve seen, I feel like the awards went to people who deserved them. I would have picked Helen Mirren in Gosford Park over Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind for best supporting actress, but that’s just my preference. Jennifer Connelly didn’t do a bad job, and I’m not upset that she won. I just would have voted for Helen Mirren. I feel the same way about the award for best makeup. While A Beautiful Mind had fabulous aging makeup and the makeup in Moulin Rogue! was so good I didn’t even recognize Jim Broadbrent, The Fellowship of the Ring would have deserved best makeup just for the Hobbit feet.  I guess there were a lot of technically proficient movies made in 2001. The biggest thing I learned from this year is that I need to watch more movies, because apparently five a week isn’t enough. After watching Russell Crowe’s fabulous performance in A Beautiful Mind, I don’t understand how anyone else could have won best actor. On the other hand, I haven’t seen Training Day; maybe Denzel Washington’s performance is just as amazing. Not having seen all the movies makes it really hard to judge whether or not the Academy got it right. I guess I will just have to content myself with saying that Russell Crowe gave the best performance that I saw from the movies that year.

Man, it is really hard to write my opinions when I feel like the Oscars went to the right people. Controversy makes for much better blogging.

So how do I rank the nominees?

5. Moulin Rogue!
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
3. In the Bedroom
2. Gosford Park
1. A Beautiful Mind

Look, they’re in alphabetical order! That pleases my librarian mind to no end.

Join me next week for gunfights, boxing matches, nightclubs, jousting tournaments, circus performances, and actual controversy in the awards!

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

beautiful mindDirected by Ron Howard

It was late the night I put this movie in the DVD player, and I wasn’t going to watch the whole thing. But even though it’s not the most action-packed movie ever made, A Beautiful Mind is an extremely gripping movie. As it got later and later (or earlier and earlier in the morning), I kept thinking, “I should really turn this off and go to bed,” but I just couldn’t. I needed to know what happened to John Nash.

So what’s the story? John Nash is a genius mathematician from West Virginia. He doesn’t fit in with all the other Princeton graduate students, mostly because he is completely asocial. He makes a great mathematic breakthrough and gets a job at MIT with the Department of Defense. He meets and marries Alicia, but the top-secret decryption project he’s working on suddenly takes a dark turn.

The Good: The acting was superb. I haven’t seen a lot of Russell Crowe’s movies, and I wasn’t expecting much from him in A Beautiful Mind, mostly because what I’ve seen him in lately is clips from Les Miserables (no, I haven’t seen the whole thing yet, because I don’t want to watch it). Anyway, Russell Crowe became John Nash. I’m always impressed when actors can play a person with a mental disability without overacting. I loved his performance. The supporting cast was great, too. Paul Bettany as Charles, John’s crazy-fun roommate; Jennifer Connelly as John’s wife, Alicia; Ed Harris as John’s government contact; Adam Goldberg, Josh Lucas, and Anthony Rapp as John’s mathematician colleagues; and Christopher Plummer as Dr. Rosen, John’s psychiatrist are all wonderful. I don’t think any of the roles could have been easy to play, but all of the actors did very well.

The costume design was well done, especially since the year in which something happened was rarely given. The clothes were a clue to how many years had passed, and I was very thankful for that. The makeup was good, too. The stars were aged well. I didn’t much care for John Nash’s old look, but that’s because he looked uncomfortably like someone I know, and I couldn’t get past that. But everyone looked definitely, believably older (unlike the people in Giant, which is still my baseline of terribleness when it comes to aging in movies).

The screenplay was good. John Nash’s story could not have been an easy one to tell without giving too much away, but the writers did an excellent job.

The Bad: The music was beautiful, but there were some moments when James Horner copied his own music. At the very beginning of the movie, the music sounded exactly like the music from Sneakers, which I wasn’t even aware James Horner had scored. I had to look it up to be sure. Later on, there are bits from Titanic, which has a brilliant score. It makes me sad that someone who is as obviously talented as James Horner reuses his own stuff.

The Ugly: There wasn’t anything ugly in A Beautiful Mind. It’s a well-made movie that takes a hard topic and treats it sensitivity and tact. Ron Howard deserves major kudos for this movie.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Jennifer Connelly); best director; best screenplay, screenplay based on material previously produced or published.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Russell Crowe); best film editing; best makeup; best music, original score.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

moulin rouge!Directed by Baz Luhrmann

I was a freshman in college when Moulin Rouge! came out, and I had a friend who was obsessed with the soundtrack. Whenever we would go and hang out and play games at his apartment, that CD would be playing. It made watching the movie kind of surreal; the music had seeped into my subconscious without my knowledge. I knew all the music, but I had never seen the movie before (overprotective friends again), so I had a strange sense of déjà vu. I’m not sure that helped my general perception of the movie, which was of noise, color, and oddness.

So what’s the story? Young Christian comes to Paris from Great Britain so that he can write about the Bohemians ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love. At the famous nightclub Moulin Rouge, he meets and falls for Satine, a performer/prostitute who has dreams of being a real actress. Will they be able to find happiness in the noisy, colorful life that is Paris?

The Good: There was some good acting. Nicole Kidman did a nice job as Satine, even if I did think she was Amy Adams ninety percent of the time. Jim Broadbent was excellent as Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge, who is sympathetic to Satine and Christian’s love, but who also wants his own dreams to come true. Ewan McGregor is a little bit nondescript as Christian at the beginning of the movie, but he does jealousy and heartbreak well towards the end. Toulouse-Lautrec is played by John Leguizamo, who does a good job of showing the yearning for a love that he will never have.

Before I talk about the cinematography, I want to make something clear. I don’t get carsick. I don’t airsick or seasick or rollercoaster sick. But I have known to get sick from certain visual stimuli. I can’t play first-person shooter games, for example, or any first-person games, really. I have run, not walked, out of IMAX movies because I was about to be sick. Moulin Rouge! did the same thing to me. The jerky, constantly moving cinematography did not make agree with my stomach. Or with my head. So I was watching Moulin Rouge through a haze of headache and stomachache. But just because I didn’t like the cinematography and it didn’t agree with my stomach doesn’t mean the cinematography is bad, per se; it’s creative and different and fits with the whirling gaiety of the nightclub. I just didn’t personally like it. I wish I had a section called “Things I didn’t personally like, but can respect for their artistry.” That would make writing reviews easier sometimes. But I since I didn’t feel it was bad, I’m going to leave cinematography in the good category.

The makeup and costumes and production design were over the top and crazy, but so were the lives of the denizens of the Moulin Rouge. Like the crazy cinematography, it worked for the film and what the filmmakers were trying to do accomplish. Again, I’m not sure I liked it that much, but it was admirable.

The Bad: The music rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, it is very clever to use modern music in a movie that takes place over a hundred years ago, but I feel like the filmmakers were a little too clever sometimes, like they were drawing attention to their own cleverness. I feel like they were saying, “Look how clever we are! We used ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to show how immature all these men are who frequent nightclubs! Aren’t we smart?” It became more of a gimmick than something meaningful.

The Ugly: The story was terrible, unoriginal, and uninspired. It was kind of a cheap rip off of Cabaret combined with La bohème. (Possible spoilers ahead) Christian and Satine fell in love for no reason at all. The Duke was silly and not believable as a real person. Also, if you were coughing up blood in 19th century Paris, you knew you were dying of consumption. Tuberculosis wasn’t uncommon then. And while I’m no expert, I’m pretty sure that if you are about to die from tuberculosis, you don’t have the energy to appear in a musical theater production, especially not one based in India with lots of high-energy dancing. The ending is curiously flat. The movie as a whole feels more like an excuse to do crazy musical numbers with modern music than a movie that has anything meaningful to say.

Oscars Won: Best art direction-set decoration; best costume design.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Nicole Kidman); best cinematography; best film editing; best makeup; best sound.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The_Fellowship_Of_The_RingDirected by Peter Jackson

Although I usually plan out which movies I’m going to watch a couple of weeks in advance, I don’t always. I found myself this week with a couple different years’ worth of movies out from the library; I had choices. I was kind of leaning toward 1997, but I realized on Saturday night that I really wanted to watch Gosford Park. I hesitated, though, because I also knew that that meant I would have to watch another Lord of the Rings movie. I had seen this one before (twice, even), but I had disliked Peter Jackson’s interpretation enough that I didn’t want to see the rest of the movies. My desire to watch Gosford Park overcame my negativity about Fellowship, so here I am trying to write unbiasedly about another movie that is apparently universally beloved, but I don’t quite get why.

So what’s the story? Frodo Baggins, an Hobbit living in the idyllic Shire, discovers that a family heirloom is actually a dangerous artifact belonging to an ancient evil sorcerer. Frodo sets out on a journey with his friends to destroy the ring and save the world.

The Good: The production design is fantastic. There are many different races in Middle Earth, and the design gives each race their own look for everything, from clothing to dwellings. It’s all done very well, very beautifully. I don’t necessarily agree with all their decisions, but I still admire the look of the film.

Howard Shore’s music is beautiful. It captures everything from the naiveté and joy of the Shire to the heroism of Aragorn to the eerie beauty of the Mines of Moria. I may not care much for the movie in general, but I do love the music.

Ian McKellen does some seriously good acting as Gandalf, the wizard who sets the events in motion. The moment where Frodo volunteers to take the ring and Gandalf’s face falls…just beautiful. Gandalf is many things – jolly firework-maker, stern counselor, frightened man betrayed by his master. Ian McKellen shows all of those facets very convincingly. Sean Astin is the other acting standout. He plays Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and faithful friend. He isn’t glad to leave the Shire, but he refuses to abandon Frodo, no matter how dark the journey gets or how scared he is. It’s fabulous work.

The Bad: The Elves all talk like Jareth the Goblin King (aka David Bowie) from Labyrinth. I think they’re supposed to be showing how wise and calm they are, but because they also kind of look like Jareth, especially Elrond, it’s kind of distracting.

I wasn’t a big fan of how much time was spent on Aragorn and Arwen’s love story. I felt like there were other things that must have been cut to explore that at length. Boromir, for example, didn’t get much backstory, only a line or two about how his people are already fighting for survival. This lack of development made it hard to see him as anything but a bad guy, when he was really a proud, desperate Man who wanted to save his city and his people.

Some of the acting in Fellowship of the Ring is good; some is indifferent. But some is downright bad. Elijah Wood never showed much emotion as Frodo; he was just kind of….there. Orlando Bloom was just as wooden as Legolas. He looked nice, but luckily he didn’t have much to do beyond yelling out dangers (“Wargs!” “Orcs!”) in a noble voice.

The Ugly: There were a couple of glaring plot holes and inconsistencies. (Possible spoilers here, although I feel like everyone in the world has seen this movie, so…) For example, if the chain Frodo was wearing the ring on fell off his neck when he stumbled and fell on the mountain, how in the world did it stay on when the lake hydra-creature had him by the ankle and was waving him back and forth in the air? The ring should have been lost in the lake. And why did Pippin and Merry go to Bree and beyond with Frodo and Sam? They had no reason to. And why did Elrond let them go as part of the Fellowship? They had no training in any kind of weapons, no survival skills, nothing. They would really be more of a hindrance than an asset. And why did the Hobbits trust Strider in the first place? He gave them no sign, no reason for them to trust him. It really bugged me. How did Strider know to have four Hobbit-sized swords ready? Pippin and Merry were impulsive last-minute additions. Grrrr.

Oscars Won: Best cinematography; best makeup; best music, original score; best effects, visual effects.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Ian McKellen); best director; best writing, screenplay based on material previously produced or published; best art direction-set decoration; best costume design; best film editing; best music, original song (“May It Be”); best sound.

The part where I get to whine about how different the movie is from the book: Actually, The Fellowship of the Ring follows the book much more closely than The Two Towers does. Things are left out, and Glorfindel is sacrificed to give Arwen more screen time, but at least there is no Aragorn-goes-over-a-cliff-but-is-saved-by-his-horse moment. I wasn’t a big fan of changing Arwen so much, but the lack of female characters in the trilogy could be a concern for this day and age, so it’s kind of understandable. I also don’t like that Tom Bombadil was left out. He himself is perhaps not important to the story, but the Hobbits did need to stumble into the Barrow-Wights to find the swords that can break the spell on the Ringwraiths, and Tom saves them from the Wights. I haven’t seen The Return of the King, so I can’t say how Peter Jackson overcomes that important plot point, but it should have been set up in this movie.

In the Bedroom (2001)

in the bedroomDirected by Todd Field

Even when I recognize the titles of the movies that I’m watching, I don’t always know anything else about them. Sometimes, though, the title gives me a very good idea of what the movie is about. Other times, I am completely wrong. I had never really wanted to see In the Bedroom because I was convinced it was a raunchy sex comedy. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I was surprised to find that it is instead a slow-moving drama about how a family deals with tragedy. I think I will have to stop judging movies based on their titles.

So what’s the story? Frank Fowler is a college student home for the summer. To his mother’s dismay, he starts dating Natalie, an older woman with two little boys. Natalie also has an ex-husband with a temper. As the summer heats up, tensions mount, and tragedy soon follows.

The Good: In Ian McEwan’s (rather dull) novel Saturday, two people are discussing Tolstoy, and one says, “The genius is in the details.” I feel that way about In the Bedroom. Everyone is believable, partly because the screenplay allows for details. When she’s depressed, Ruth Fowler sits on her couch, watching pointless TV and smoking. Matt Fowler likes to meet his son, Frank, for lunch. Natalie makes awkward conversation with her boyfriend’s college-educated parents, trying to get them to like and accept them. These little scenes, while not action-packed, reveal character and make the people real. The realism makes the sadness later much more real.

Because the screenplay moves so slowly, the acting had to be incredible. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are Matt and Ruth Fowler, who are trying to understand and be supportive of their son’s choices, while at the same time not being happy about them. Marisa Tomei is Natalie, a woman who enjoys dating a younger man, but can also see his naiveté. Frank is played by Nick Stahl. He makes Frank a very sweet young man who is enthusiastic about life, but doesn’t really understand that choices have consequences. They are all a joy to watch.

The cinematography was interesting. It would have been very easy to film this movie about a normal family with straightforward camera angles, but instead the filmmakers took the opportunity to use the camera to show that people have inner lives and thoughts. I liked that a lot.

The Bad: Because this movie allows for the details, for the normal conversations between ordinary people, it gets a little boring sometimes. But guess what? Life is boring sometimes. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the ending, though. It might have been too exciting to be believable.

The Ugly: I spent a lot of time being annoyed that Natalie and Frank spent so much time with her boys when both Frank and Natalie kept insisting it was only a summer fling. It seemed like such an irresponsible thing to do, to let kids get attached to a boyfriend you’re only planning on dating for a few months. It made me grumpy.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Tom Wilkinson); best actress in a leading role (Sissy Spacek); best actress in a supporting role (Marisa Tomei); best writing, screenplay based on material previously produced or published.

Gosford Park (2001)

gosford parkDirected by Robert Altman

I read my first Agatha Christie murder mystery when I was twelve. It was the start of a beautiful relationship. Every summer after that, I would check out stacks of Agatha Christie mysteries. The plots were always intricate and watertight, but I also loved the idea of rich British people in country houses dressing for dinner and going shooting and having weekend parties. Gosford Park is basically an Agatha Christie mystery with a twist—it not only shows how the family is affected by the murder, but also how the servants are affected. It could be called Murder at Downton Abbey.

So what’s the story? Sir William McCordle has invited friends and family to Gosford Park for a weekend shooting party. The guests come with their servants, and everyone, both upstairs and down, has a secret.

The Good: The cast reads like a Who’s Who of British actors. Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Stephen Fry, and Kelly Macdonald are all in this movie, to name just a few. Everyone is excellent. There isn’t an actor in the movie who was miscast or who isn’t completely believable in their role. It’s a fantastic cast, and the movie is incredibly well-acted.

The screenplay is delightful. I had to laugh when I was watching the credits and realized why I felt it was similar to Downton Abbey. The screenplay was written by Julian Fellowes, the man behind Downton Abbey. The screenplay is fun and funny. Although there are many characters, the screenplay allows them all to show their personalities and problems. It’s very clever and well-written.

The costume design impressed me. The designer, Jenny Beavan, had to not only design clothes for the wealthy and their servants, but also had to show a range of incomes in those different classes. She did so very cleverly and period-appropriately.

I love the music. It’s buoyant and jolly when it needs to be and unobtrusive when more serious things are happening. The cheery piano music made me want to find the sheet music.

The art direction is also excellent. It drew me in to this country house of the 1930s. The cars, the bedrooms, the servants’ quarters, everything felt realistic to me.

The Bad: I got so mad watching this movie at the way people treated their servants. The servants weren’t treated so much like people as they were like useful machines. They are used and abused at their employers’ pleasure. I felt very frustrated. Based on things that I’ve read, I’m fairly sure the attitudes are accurate. Even in my beloved Agatha Christie novels, the servants are almost always discounted from being murder suspects because they couldn’t possibly have a motive; they don’t know the murdered person well enough. I love that this movie shows the relationships between the rich and their servants; the only one who cries at the news of the murder is a servant. But the treatment of the servants still makes me mad.

The Ugly: It was a little hard to keep track of who everyone was. The relationships of the upper-class people were especially hard to figure out. Everyone is introduced so quickly and shallowly at first that it doesn’t all sink in the first time around.

Oscar Won: Best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Helen Mirren); best actress in a supporting role (Maggie Smith); best director; best art direction-set decoration; best costume design.