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Archive for November, 2015

The 55th Academy Awards: My Verdict

220px-Oscar-1982I chose to review the movies of 1982 this month partly out of vanity. My birthday was this month, and I was born in 1982 (yep, I’m old). When I was young, I always thought of the movies nominated in this year as “my movies,” even though I hadn’t seen any of them except E.T., and hadn’t really heard of Missing or The Verdict. That didn’t matter. Everything that happened in 1982 still belonged to me in some vague way. Yes, I had some funny ideas as a kid, but some of that feeling still remains. I have some awesome movies to be proud of.

There were a couple of awards given that I don’t agree with, but I can understand (or perhaps conjecture would be a better word) why they were given. For example, Jessica Lange won the award for best supporting actress for Tootsie, even though her performance wasn’t particularly special. However, she was also nominated for best actress the same year for the movie Frances. But since she was up against Meryl Streep in her role as Sophie in Sophie’s Choice, there was no way Jessica Lange was going to win. I almost feel like the Academy was acknowledging her work in Frances more than in Tootsie. I could be wrong, which is why I’m going with “conjecture” and reminding everyone that I have no affiliation with the Academy at all.

drew barrymore

Look how cute Drew Barrymore was on the red carpet!

I would also have argued that best art direction-set decoration should have gone to Blade Runner. While recreating a historical time and place isn’t easy, creating an entire world is ever harder. My best guess for that award is that everyone was just blown away by Gandhi and wanted to give it everything they could. Again, “guess” is the operative word there.

One thing I do not understand is the failure to nominate Sophie’s Choice for best picture. It’s a fabulous movie. I accidentally watched the whole thing one day when I took it home from work check whether or not a patron’s complaint that the brand new disc didn’t work was legitimate or not. I was only going to watch twenty minutes or so, but I couldn’t stop. Holocaust movies are never fun, but they are often compelling. I would have put it on the nomination list over The Verdict, which is a fine movie, but not really extraordinary like Sophie’s Choice. I think some people may be surprised that An Officer and a Gentleman wasn’t nominated for best picture, but I have never seen it, so I have no opinion on that.

I will also admit that I have a secret wish that “Eye of the Tiger” had won for best song. It was nominated, so I can feel semi-classy when I listen to it during my morning run (“I’m listening to on Oscar-nominated song today!”), but it lost out to a cheesy 80s love song (“Up Where We Belong”) which, again, might not be so bad in a different arrangement that is lighter on the synthesizer and drums. It’s hard to tell. Maybe someday someone should un-cheesify all the classic love songs of the 80s and see if they actually are good songs.

When I was trying to decide how I would rank the movies, I realized something interesting: I liked Missing better than I liked Gandhi. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been feeling cynical about the state of the world lately or frustrated that people don’t seem to want to open their eyes and see what people in other places going through or if Missing just truly is the better movie. Because I am not a robot, it’s not always easy to put my feelings aside when I’m trying to judge how “good” a movie is. Whatever it is, I’m going to go with how I feel, because it’s my blog.

So how do I rank the nominees?

5. The Verdict
4. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
3. Gandhi
2. Tootsie
1. Missing

With the exception of The Verdict, these movies were very hard to put in order. 1982 was a good year for movies. I will be forever proud to have these movies as “mine.”

Gandhi (1982)

gandhi-movie-poster-1982-1020195902Directed by Richard Attenborough

I always worry when I’m watching a movie about a culture that isn’t my own, especially when it’s made by someone also outside that culture. I worry that I will “learn” something inaccurate or get the wrong idea about that culture. I had seen Gandhi before, but I was probably fourteen or fifteen and impressionable, so I was worried about how Indians view the movie and whether I could watch it comfortably as an American. But the day I picked it up from the library, an Indian coworker of mine said, “Oh, you are going to watch that movie? It is such an excellent movie. So well done.” Later that night, a British friend of mine whose parents are from India and Pakistan asked me what I was doing. I told him I was watching Gandhi. His response? “I love that movie.” So while there might be historical inaccuracies or only part of the story told, I at least know that Indians do not find this movie offensive, which does make me glad.

So what’s the story? Mohandas Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer educated in London, experiences racial prejudice in South Africa and decides that it is unacceptable for anyone to be treated that way. He begins a protest of the way Indians in South Africa are treated. His activism doesn’t stop there, however. He goes back to India and becomes the leader of the long struggle against British rule.

The Good: Ben Kingsley makes an excellent Gandhi, both young and old. He takes us on the same journey that Gandhi made, from rash young man to wise old leader, full of patience and kindness. It is an excellent performance.

I’m not going to name all of the people who did a good job of acting, because in a three-hour movie with lots of small roles filled by famous or soon-to-be-famous people (including Daniel Day-Lewis!), there is lots of good acting. I will mention Rohini Hattangadi, though. She played Ba, Gandhi’s wife, going from a young woman unsure if her husband is doing the right thing or if he has gone crazy to a woman who believes fully in what he does and supports him completely. She was impressive.

I loved the cinematography. There are times when it shows the grandeur of India, the huge scale of that country, and other times when it is intimate, showing how one man was able to make such a difference in such a large, diverse country. If I hadn’t already wanted to visit India someday, the cinematography of this movie would have made me want to go.

The makeup people did an excellent job of making Gandhi and Ba look older as time passed. I might have thought that the old and young were played by different people, especially as Ben Kingsley looks less like himself and more like Gandhi as he “aged”.

The Bad: Those same makeup people who did such a good job on Gandhi did a less-than-stellar job on Gandhi’s associates Nehru, Jinnah, and Patel. They didn’t age at all until the very end, even though they had been working for independence for thirty years. If this was done on purpose to show how much more quickly people age when they are living a lifestyle of poverty, than I suppose it was okay. But even if you are wealthy, you age over time, not all at once.

What happened to Gandhi’s sons? They are shown at the beginning of the movie in South Africa, but then we never see them again. There was nothing about the sons to make them a huge plot point, but I really did have to wonder if they all died, since they don’t seem to be anywhere around Gandhi and his wife for the rest of his life. Leaving them out altogether would have been one thing, but to show them once and then never again is bad storytelling.

The Ugly: I’m not disputing that Gandhi was a great man. He truly was. It takes an amazing kind of person to struggle for independence without fighting and to inspire an entire nation to do the same. His story is an incredible one. But except for one scene where he is angry at his wife, he is shown as having no weaknesses. He is made out to be a saint. I’m not trying to insult anyone or tear Gandhi down, but no one is that perfect, which made me feel like the movie was only semi-factual. I may be wrong; I know very little about the Mahatma. He may have been perfect. But because I was feeling that throughout the movie, I couldn’t immerse myself completely in the experience, so I’m going to stand firm in my belief that it was a weakness for this movie.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Ben Kingsley); best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography; best art direction-set decoration; best costume design; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best sound; best music, original score; best makeup.

The Verdict (1982)

theverdictDirected by Sidney Lumet

I first recognized the existence of The Verdict when it was added to Netflix a little while back. It had Paul Newman! As a drunken lawyer! I had high hopes for it, but when I realized it was a best picture nominee, I made myself wait to watch it until I was actually reviewing the movies of 1982. When I finally got to watch it, I was so disappointed. It’s not terrible, but there’s nothing fabulously special about it, either.

So what’s the story? Ambulance-chasing lawyer Frank Galvin is a rather despicable man. He goes to funerals and tries to drum up business from widows. He spends most of his time drinking and reading the obituaries trying to find his next client. When an ex-partner takes pity on him and sends him an open-and-shut case that will settle out of court, Frank surprises everyone, even himself, when he decides to fight for his client truly deserves instead of taking the easy settlement.

The Good: Paul Newman is fantastic, as always. I’m not used to disliking him, so the first twenty minutes or so of the movie were kind of hard to watch. He’s good at playing a jerk. But the moment that he realizes that his client deserves more was a great bit of acting. I love watching actors show us what is going through their characters’ heads. He does a fabulous job throughout the rest of the movie, showing Frank’s frustration and triumph, nervousness and despair. It’s a very good bit of acting.

The supporting actors were just as good, with Charlotte Rampling playing Galvin’s new love interest, Laura; James Mason playing high-powered opposing attorney Ed Concannon; and Jack Warden as Galvin’s old friend and ex-partner Mickey Morrissey. They were all solid in complicated roles.

I loved the very ending of the movie. It wasn’t the typical ending for a movie like this, and I was glad, because if they had gone with what typically happens, what power this movie had would have been lost. It is so hard to write intelligibly about endings when you are trying so hard not to include spoilers, so please forgive me. But the ending packs a punch.

The Bad: I wouldn’t say it was bad, per se, but the story has nothing new to say. It felt in some ways like a reworking of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with Frank Galvin being incompetent instead of naïve like Mr. Smith. In other ways, it was a completely normal courtroom drama, with just the little twist of Galvin’s alcoholism being added.

The Ugly: Because it was so typical, The Verdict didn’t have much of an impact on me. There was nothing I could get worked up over. I was bothered all the way through the movie that Jack Warden didn’t have a moustache, because he looks like the kind of guy who would have one, but that was just a slight annoyance. I was more puzzled over this movie’s best picture nomination than anything else, and that’s not ugliness, just confusion. I expect more from a best picture nominee.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Paul Newman); best actor in a supporting role (James Mason); best director; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

Tootsie (1982)

tootsieDirected by Sydney Pollack

I had seen Tootsie before, when I was probably ten or eleven. At that time in my life, I just thought it was weird. Why in the world would a man dress as a woman? Why could nobody see that Dorothy was a man? I didn’t understand the gender politics at play, either, so I was just left with an impression of oddness. This is why eleven-year-olds shouldn’t review movies made for adults. Tootsie is fabulous and hilarious and still relevant today, which is honestly kind of sad. There should have been more progress made in equality in the workplace in the last thirty-three years.

So what’s the story? Michael Dorsey is an actor who can’t get work. Even though he’s good, he has a reputation of being difficult to work with. Desperately in need of money, Michael decides to become Dorothy Michaels in order to try out for a role on a soap opera that a female friend didn’t get.  Michael soon finds out that when he puts on his dress and his makeup, he also puts on a different personality as Dorothy, inadvertently becoming a crusader for women’s rights. He also finds himself falling for his female coworker, but he can’t tell her who he really is. Will Michael be able to pull off his deception? Does love really conquer all? And will Michael ever lend his dresses to Julie?

The Good: The screenplay is brilliant. Both funny and meaningful, it manages to show Michael’s growth as a person without ever being preachy or obvious. It’s a tough balancing act, and the screenwriters pulled it off. After I watching Tootsie, I’ve been thinking about why more comedies aren’t nominated for best picture; watching lots of heavy dramas isn’t always the most fun. I’ve decided that it’s because the best movies introduce you to a new idea or make you think, and it is much easier to do that with a dramatic story than with a comedic one. The writers for Tootsie managed that, partly by letting the characters in the movie be real people, who sometimes get off killer zingers and who sometimes have no idea what to say. I love it. (Incidentally, this is one of the few times that I have recognized the name of a screenwriter as it flashed on the screen during the opening scenes: Larry Gelbart is one of the writers and producers of the television show M*A*S*H*, which is grew up watching with my parents and then grew to appreciate when I watched reruns on the Hallmark Channel in college. M*A*S*H* balances comedy with hard topics in the same way.)

The acting is fabulous all around. Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey and Michael Dorsey playing Dorothy Michaels so well that it’s indescribable. It’s a performance that needs to be seen, not just talked about. Teri Garr is wonderful as Sandy, the friend whose role Michael steals. She’s frustrated as an actress and as a woman, but she has hope that maybe things will get better. I love the role, and I love Teri Garr in it. Charles Durning plays Les, a man who falls in love with Dorothy. His reactions later on in the movie are priceless. Bill Murray is Jeff, Michael’s sarcastic playwright roommate. George Gaynes plays John Van Horn, the star of the soap opera who believes that he has the right to kiss all of his female coworkers. Michael’s bewildered agent is played by Sydney Pollack, who also directed the movie. Even the small roles are incredibly well-played. It’s one of those casts that melds together well and plays perfectly off each other. I love it.

The makeup is very good. Dustin Hoffman is listed twice in the credits, both as Michael Dorsey and as Dorothy Michaels. I think that decision was made because Dustin Hoffman is basically unrecognizable when he’s made up as Dorothy. It’s quite the feat.

The Bad: For being a movie about women being powerful, Julie and Sandy are both kind of stereotypical and weak. Sandy gets weepy and hysterical often at the drop of a hat, and Julie doesn’t have much personality. She’s brave to have a baby on her own in the 1980s, and she’s a sweet girl, but she doesn’t go very deep. It’s kind of disappointing that the only woman who is very strong and who bucks female stereotypes is a man.

The Ugly: The soundtrack is everything that is bad about ‘80s music. I’m not sure how it sounded originally, but it hasn’t aged well. The theme song (“It Might Be You”) is over-synthesized, which makes it super-cheesy. It might be a beautiful song if it was a bit more simplified, but it nothing about the 80s was simple or subtle, and the music in Tootsie suffers because of that.

Oscar Won: Best supporting actress (Jessica Lange).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Dustin Hoffman); best actress is a supporting role (Teri Garr); best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for screen; best cinematography; best sound; best film editing; best music, original song (“It Might Be You”).

Missing (1982)

Missing_1982_filmDirected by Costa-Gravas

As I’ve been watching these Oscar-nominated movies, there have been many, especially from the 1970s and 1980s, that I haven’t really known anything about. Some of them have been less than stellar, and I can understand why they have fallen by the wayside, even for someone like me who likes watching good movies, no matter how old they are or what language they are in. Missing is not one of those movies. Missing is so awesome I want to show it to everyone I know, and I’ve been telling random people how sad I am that no one seems to have seen it. Missing makes me want to be a high school history or civics teacher so that I could show it to my class to teach them not to be too trusting of government. It makes me so mad that Missing is not a classic; it completely deserves to be one.

So what’s the story? Charlie and Beth Harmon are an idealistic young married couple who have been living in Chile for a couple of years when a right-wing coupe happens. They are going to leave the country soon, so Beth goes to say good-bye to a couple of friends. She gets stuck overnight because of the curfew. When she finally makes it home, Charlie is gone. About two weeks after his disappearance, Charlie’s conservative businessman father, Ed Horman, comes to help Beth navigate the waters of diplomacy and bureaucracy. What they find out together will change their lives forever.

The Good: I’m tired of starting with acting, so I’m going to start with music today. Vangelis’s score is beautiful and haunting. It’s more orchestral than the music in Chariots of Fire, and where he does use the synthesizer, it fits the time much better. The other thing that is great about the music is that it is not constant. Lots of the movie has no music, so that where there is music, it has a much greater impact.

The acting is wonderful. Sissy Spacek is wonderful as Beth, who changes from a vibrant, loving young woman to a frantic wife to a jaded and accepting woman in the course of just a few weeks. It’s a marvelous performance. Jack Lemmon is fantastic as Ed, who starts out so convinced that he’ll be able to fix everything with connections, but slowly comes to realize the truth. I’ve only ever seen Jack Lemmon in comedies, so this was a revelation. John Shea plays idealistic, happy-go-lucky Charlie. He’s not in the movie much, but he leaves an impact when his character is gone. Government agent Captain Ray Tower is played rather chillingly by Charles Cioffi. He’s so scary in part because he’s so friendly, but you can tell he’s hiding the truth.

This is going to sound silly, but the set decoration was so clever at one point. Beth and Ed are at the US Embassy, trying to get answers about what happened to Charlie. The US Ambassador is telling them that he’s probably in hiding and that they shouldn’t worry about him. While he is talking to them, he is standing directly under a picture of Richard Nixon. This movie takes place in 1973, so Nixon was the president then, but by the time Missing was made in 1982, everyone knew that Nixon was a liar. To see a man appointed by that president standing underneath him subtly, yet effectively, underscored the fact that the ambassador was also a liar.

The screenplay was very good. It made the characters come alive. It also made the movie completely gripping. I was so angry that I had to stop watching to go to work. I wanted to know what happened, and I wanted to know NOW! It was fantastic.

I have no concrete examples of why I felt this way, but I though the directing was very good. It’s hard to define good directing, because it’s hard for me to know how much of a hand the director had in various aspects of the movie, but I really felt good directing at play here.

The Bad: The only complaint I have is that Beth and Charlie’s friend Terry has 1980s poufy hair. As a free-spirited 1970s woman, Terry’s hair should have been longer and straighter. I know, tiny quibble. But it bothered me.

The Ugly: War is always ugly, and there are some shocking images and situations in this movie. It’s not the easiest movie to watch because of this, and also because this is a true story. Art that is great tends to bring up issues that might make people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean that these issues should be ignored. I think it’s better for people to know what is wrong in their world than to believe that everything is perfect when corruption is hiding underneath.

Oscar Won: Best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Jack Lemmon); best actress in a leading role (Sissy Spacek).

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

ETDirected by Steven Spielberg

Even though I am a child of the 1980s, I didn’t grow up with this movie. I’d seen it a few times, but not a lot. My mom didn’t approve of some of the language the kids used, which is fair. (For some reason, people in the ‘80s thought it was really funny for kids to use bad language. I’m so glad that phase of our society is mostly over.) It was interesting to go back and watch it as an adult with a different understanding. I felt like even though E.T. is about kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s only for kids.

So what’s the story? A bunch of aliens come to Earth to collect plants. They are interrupted by a group of alien-hunters, who cut one alien off from being able to return to the ship. He is left behind when the ship takes off. He makes his way to the suburbs, where he is found by Elliott, an unhappy young boy. Elliott and the alien, whom he christens E.T., form an unshakable bond as Elliott tries to keep E.T. a secret from adults and help E.T. return home.

The Good: It’s scary to make a movie about children. Child actors can make or break a movie. The children in E.T. were breathtakingly good. Henry Thomas is completely convincing as Elliott. Little sister Gertie is played by Drew Barrymore; this is the only role of hers that I think she does a good job in. Robert MacNaughton is big brother Mike. He has a couple of rough patches acting-wise, but nothing terrible. The three kids truly act like a family. They squabble, they call each other names, the little sister can’t be trusted with secrets, and they pull together when they need to. They know they can depend on each other when it’s important. That’s what a family is.

Of course, this isn’t only due to the acting; the screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, had a lot to do with that. Her screenplay is fantastic, even if she does occasionally have the kids say things that I don’t think they would say in real life. The story could have been bogged down in cheesiness, but the screenwriter managed to keep the movie balanced on the fine line between heartfelt and ridiculous. She also manages to give a sense of backstory without bogging down the movie, which can be another hard thing to balance.

John Williams’s musical score is glorious. I can’t get it out of my head, but I don’t mind too much because it’s so beautiful. Not only is it beautiful, it fits the movie perfectly. It doesn’t overwhelm the movie at all. Williams is a master at using the orchestra, too. The instruments he uses are always the right ones for his themes.

This movie is thirty-three years old, but the special effects hold up. My brother would say that that’s because they don’t use CGI, and I think that’s a good explanation. As CGI gets better and better, the older CGI things end up looking fake, where a well-done robot alien or the overlay of one shot over another to change the background will always look real. I was impressed.

The cinematography was exceptional, also. Part of the reason the adults are so threatening is that no adults (with the exception of Henry’s mother) have faces until close to the end of the movie. The first scene is especially effective because of this. It’s shown from E.T.’s point of view, and we see that he is an intelligent, but frightened, being trying to reunite with his people. It’s heartbreaking and scary all at the same time.

The Bad: Everything worked well, but it can be stressful to see these kids trying to keep E.T. a secret from the adult world. Kids in danger movies are hard for me sometimes, and in this case, while I completely understood the reasoning behind their actions, that didn’t stop me from wanting to step in and help them. I know that won’t bother everyone, though.

The aforementioned children-swearing thing did bug me. I was glad to know that Henry Thomas actually objected to some stronger language and pointed out that he would never say that, so his character shouldn’t, either. And it’s not so much the language I object to, although it’s not my favorite. I hear worse than that every day at work. It’s just that it makes everything feel less realistic for words like that to be coming out of a nine-year-old’s mouth.

The Ugly: I have to go with “nothing” for this one. E.T. is an incredibly well-made movie.

Oscars Won: Best sound; best effects, visual effects; best effects, sound effects editing; best music, original score.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography; best film editing.

The 25th Academy Awards: My Verdict

The 25th Academy Awards were delightfully controversial. I like it when the Academy gets things wrong, because it gives me more to write about. And who doesn’t like a good gripe session? That’s one of the best things about award season: complaining that the judges got it wrong.

So what went wrong this time? Well, the movie from 1952 that has emerged (or perhaps endured) as a classic of American filmmaking wasn’t even nominated for best picture. It was only nominated for two Oscars at all: best supporting actress and best musical scoring. What is this icon that the Academy almost completely overlooked? Singin’ in the Rain. Yep, Gene Kelly’s classic musical about Hollywood got no recognition in its time. And yet Ivanhoe was nominated for best picture. I will never understand how the Academy works.

The winner for best picture is equally puzzling. The Greatest Show on Earth isn’t a bad movie, but it’s definitely not best picture-worthy. Every other nominee that from that year (with the exception of Ivanhoe) is a better movie than The Greatest Show on Earth. I would have voted for High Noon myself. Even if Singin’ in the Rain had been nominated, I still would have voted for High Noon. Why? Because it’s got so much depth to it. It’s about standing up for what’s right, even if you have to stand alone. Apparently, this was not a message that went over well in Hollywood during the McCarthy hearings, and the writer of the film was blacklisted (and eventually moved to England). That explains why it didn’t win best picture, but it’s doesn’t excuse the Academy for being so very, very wrong.

A third odd thing about these awards is that the movie that won the most Academy Awards wasn’t even nominated for best picture. The Bad and the Beautiful won awards for best supporting actress (Gloria Grahame, who was also in The Greatest Show on Earth that year), screenplay, costumes, and cinematography, and Kirk Douglas, the star, was nominated for best actor. It’s another movie about Hollywood. The Academy currently loves movies about Hollywood. (Birdman and The Artist are two recent films about show business that won best picture.) They must not have been as interested in movies about themselves as they are now, but it really surprises me.

Some awards make complete sense to me. Gary Cooper completely deserved his Oscar for his work in High Noon, and the editing of High Noon was excellent, also. The Quiet Man had beautiful cinematography, and the costumes and art direction of Moulin Rouge bring Paris to life. John Ford did some good directing in The Quiet Man.  On the other hand, I cannot for the life of me understand how The Greatest Show on Earth won for best screen story; it’s a very typical story, and kind of blah. But I haven’t seen any of the other movies that were nominated for that particular award, so it may actually have been the best that year. I also am strongly against the song “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’)”. There are parts that are not horrible, but rhyming “his’n” and “prison” should automatically disqualify you from receiving an Oscar.

I’ve always felt that the Academy Awards should be free from politics. Even if the Academy doesn’t like the message of the movie, greatness should be recognized. The Academy failed in 1952 for the worst of reasons. I hope they have learned from that and voters in the future will refuse to be swayed from voting for the best because of how they think they “should” vote.

So how do I rank the nominees?

5. Ivanhoe
4. The Greatest Show on Earth
3. Moulin Rouge
2. The Quiet Man
1. High Noon

Join me next week for Paul Newman, politics, crossdressers, and aliens!