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Archive for October, 2016

The 51st Academy Awards: My Verdict

51st_academy_awardsThe nice thing about the 51st Academy Awards is that I didn’t have a dog in the fight before I started watching the movies. There was no beloved movie that I was rooting for to win everything because it was the greatest movie ever made. Yes, I had seen Heaven Can Wait often, but it’s not one of the movies from my childhood that makes me feel warm and cozy. I enjoy it, but I have no strong emotions about it. Because of this, it was much easier for me to evaluate the merits of each movie in its own right. Seeing something without knowing much about it prevents disappointment and allows me to catch the full impact of the movie.

What really surprised me about the offerings from 1978 was how good they all were. Like I’ve said before, I’ve seen lots of old movies (that sounds bad; we will say classic movies), but there is a huge gap in my knowledge when it comes to the 1970s and 1980s. With this particular set, the movies kept getting better and better. I watched An Unmarried Woman first, and couldn’t understand how any woman could have done a better acting job than Jill Clayburgh and couldn’t fathom a better screenplay. Then I saw Coming Home, and I understood why Jane Fonda won over Clayburgh. Clayburgh was indeed wonderful, but Fonda was simply better. Midnight Express was a bit of a letdown after seeing An Unmarried Woman, Coming Home, and Heaven Can Wait, but there still was a lot to admire in it, including John Hurt’s performance as Max. However, his acting, along with Jack Warden’s in Heaven Can Wait and Bruce Dern’s in Coming Home, was eclipsed by Christopher Walken’s performance in The Deer Hunter, which is phenomenal. (I have a really great story about how much his performance affected me, but since I’m trying to avoid spoilers, I won’t tell it here.) I thought Coming Home was a fabulous movie about how Vietnam affected people, and I didn’t think anyone could make a better one. Then I saw The Deer Hunter, and I knew that the Academy had made the right choice for Best Picture of 1978. I really don’t have any disagreements with any of the awards given in that year of excellence.

So how do I rank the nominees?

5.The Midnight Express
4.Heaven Can Wait
3.An Unmarried Woman
2.Coming Home
1.The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter (1978)

the-deer-hunterThe Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino

I knew The Deer Hunter was about Vietnam; I didn’t know that it was going to hurt my heart so badly.

So what’s the story? Mike, Steve, Nick, John, Stan, and Axel are a group of regular guys. They celebrate together, drink together, hang out together, hunt together. But then Mike, Nick, and Steve sign up to go fight in Vietnam. Their decision will change everyone’s lives forever.

The Good: In order to hurt the audience so much, the screenplay and actors first had to make us care about this group of very normal friends from a small town in Pennsylvania. Steve’s wedding is the setting to showcase the personalities of this diverse group. Mike (Robert De Niro) is slightly more mature than his friends. He takes things that he cares about very seriously. Nick (Christopher Walken) cares deeply about his friends and his girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep). Steven (John Savage) is so in love and so excited to marry Angela (Rutanya Alda) that he is willing to ignore the opinions that his Russian mother has about his fiance. Stan (John Cazale) is a ladies man who can’t understand anyone else’s point of view. John (George Dzundza) sings in the church choir, runs his bar, and is generally content with his life. He takes it upon himself to be the general peacemaker in the group and feels bad that his bad knees prevent him from going to Vietnam with his friends. Axel (Chuck Aspegren) is a good-hearted goofball who only seems to know one phrase. This extended setup not only makes us care, but it makes it hurt so much more when Mike, Steve, and Nick change so much, which the actors portray so heart-breakingly well. There is more that I want to say about the acting and the screenplay, but I’m trying so hard not to spoil anything for anyone. I will say this: some of the changes that people go through are more subtle than others; Christopher Walken does a ridiculously incredible job as Nick; I was glad that The Deer Hunter only showed some of the Vietnam War, because then you were able to feel the atrocities of war without being overwhelmed by them; and if you watch closely, the story mirrors itself, allowing the viewers to see people’s different reactions to the same or similar events. (If you’ve seen it and want to discuss it with me in the comments, be sure to label it if you put in spoilers.)

The music is beautiful and unobtrusive. The soundtrack is more classical than other soundtracks from 1978; no wailing saxophones here. The use of classical and popular music is managed very well. The chosen songs fit the moment they are in exactly. Stanley Meyers’s original theme, “Cavatina (Theme from The Deer Hunter)”, is fabulous, played quietly by guitarist John Williams (no, not THAT John Williams). It is iconic, one of those pieces that will always be associated with this movie. When I write these reviews, I usually like to listen to the soundtrack of the film I’m reviewing, but listening to “Cavatina” breaks my heart all over again, so I had to listen to other instrumental music so that I wasn’t too sad to write.

The editing was brutally disorienting at times. One moment the gang is all happy at home, and the next, Mike is fighting for his life in Vietnam. These cuts happen throughout the movie, and they can be disconcerting because we have no idea how we got there or what happened between the scenes. But life feels that way sometimes when we suddenly look around and realize where we are in life and then wonder how we got there. It’s also how we tell stories to people. No one ever says, “The ground starting shaking, and so I got in my car and drove down Main and then I turned right onto Elm and left onto High Street, went straight for two miles, and then I saw a monster rising out of the ground!” We leave out things that are not pertinent to the story. That’s why this editing works for this movie; it’s a story about everyday people, and the editing reflects that.

The Bad: Mike was a little too mature and heroic to be believable as a person. He’s too close to perfection for my liking.

The Ugly: Scenes of war will always be ugly and brutal and sad, which is why I’m glad The Deer Hunter acknowledges that no one is unaffected by war, and why I am also glad that the filmmakers were somewhat restrained in how much actual brutality they put into this movie.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Christopher Walken); best director; best sound; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Robert De Niro); best actress in a supporting role (Meryl Streep); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography.

Midnight Express (1978)

midnight_express_ver2_xlgMidnight Express
Directed by Alan Parker

Like most of the other nominees from 1978, I knew nothing about Midnight Express before I watched it. Because it had “express” in the title, just like Murder on the Orient Express, Von Ryan’s Express, and Shanghai Express, I thought I was going to see an exciting train movie. I was disappointed and apprehensive to learn that it was not about trains, but about the horrifying conditions in a Turkish prison. I was fully expecting a movie as brutal as Deliverance, and I was relieved that it wasn’t nearly as bad.

So what’s the story? Young American Billy Hayes is caught trying to smuggle two kilos (or four and a half pounds) of hashish out of Turkey and sentenced to four years in prison there.

The Good: The acting is phenomenal. Brad Davis is truly amazing as Billy as he goes from terror to acceptance to insanity. Randy Quaid plays Jimmy, an inmate who is always coming up with escape plans that go awry.  Norbert Weisser shows subtle sympathy as Kurt the Swede. The sneaky prison snitch Rifki is played with quiet menace by Paolo Bonacelli. John Hurt gives a heartbreaking performance as Kurt, an English prisoner who has been there so long that he has very little hope left to hang on to.

The music is good, with the music in the chase scene being exceptional. It was a bit too synthesized in my opinion, but it’s still good.

I liked that the Turkish wasn’t translated, especially when Billy was first arrested at the airport. It was kind of disorienting, because I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, and that echoed Billy’s experience.

The Bad: Go straight to ugly. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

The Ugly: I couldn’t connect with Billy Hayes. He came off as an entitled spoiled brat. He was smuggling several pounds of hashish out of Turkey, but he seems to believe that he doesn’t deserve any sentence at all for that. Depending on the state he was in, he’d get about five years in prison for that in the US, especially since he admitted that he had the intent to sell. Smuggling carries an even greater penalty, so when he whined about having to stay four years, my opinion of him went down even more. Unfortunately, if you can’t connect with the main character in some way (or at least have some sympathy for him), a movie gets a little dull. You just want it to be over, because you just don’t care what happens.

I was upset when I found out that most of the movie was made up. If you are purporting to tell a true story,there should be more truth to your movie than the very basic plot. According to Billy Hayes, the conditions weren’t nearly as brutal as Alan Parker and Oliver Stone, who wrote the screenplay, depicted. I feel like you shouldn’t defame an entire country just for the drama.

I rarely do spoilers, but I am going to highlight the most brutal moments here so that you can make a more informed decision about watching it (SPOILERS BELOW):

  1. A cat is hung.
  2. One inmate bites off another’s tongue.
  3. A man’s head is squished on a peg and some grossness ensues.

Those are the three most brutal moments; everything else is basically as tame as the things that happen in the TV show Prison Break.

Oscars Won: Best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best music, original score.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (John Hurt); best director; best film editing.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

heaven_can_waitHeaven Can Wait
Directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry

Heaven Can Wait is the only movie from 1978 that I was familiar with before this project of mine, and by “familiar with,” I mean I have it practically memorized. This is another movie that I grew up, one that my dad would play over and over again while he was working at home. It’s both easier and harder to analyze a movie that you’re familiar with. On one hand, because you know the plot so well, you can concentrate more on the film elements. On the other hand, it’s sad when you find flaws in a movie you know so well. When I do find things that are less than perfect, I just have to remind myself that I can still enjoy an imperfect movie.

So what’s the story? Los Angeles Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton has been working hard to get back in the game after a bad knee injury. Just as he is getting back in shape, Joe is killed in a bike accident. When he shows up in the afterlife, however, he finds that he wasn’t supposed to die for another fifty years. Mr. Jordan, the angelic supervisor, offers to put Joe back into his body, but unfortunately, Joe’s body has already been cremated. Joe and Mr. Jordan look at several new bodies, Joe insisting that the new body be in good enough shape to play for the Rams. When Joe spots beautiful Betty Logan, he decides to accept the body of ruthless business mogul Mr. Farnsworth so that he can help Miss Logan out. Will Joe ever make it back to the Rams? Will Betty be able to look past Mr. Farnsworth’s terrible reputation to see Joe inside? Will Mr. Farnsworth’s scheming wife and his private secretary murder him before Joe has a chance to find happiness?

The Good: The screenplay is fun and funny. Joe gets himself into funny situations, which are often met with dry humor or great one-liners from the other characters. The people in Mr. Farnsworth’s life aren’t used to working with a young quarterback, and their reactions to some of Joe’s requests are priceless.

The sets are excellent. Joe ends up in three very different places: his little house where he lives as a football player, the waystation to his final destination, and Leo Farnsworth’s mansion. Each one is very different, and each reflects the person who lives there. It’s a subtle thing that helps to develop the characters.

Heaven Can Wait is a movie in which the supporting actors do a better job than the leads. Jack Warden shows a great range of emotions as Joe’s friend and trainer, Max; he’s happy when Joe overcomes his injury, devastated when Joe dies, disbelieving when Mr. Farnsworth tells Max that he (Mr. Farnsworth) is really Joe. Warden does all that and more perfectly. Mr. Farnsworth’s scheming, hysterical, alcoholic wife, Julia is played to perfection by Dyan Cannon. Charles Grodin is her perfect counterpart as the scheming, yet calm, personal secretary Tony Abbott. Joseph Maher is hilarious as Sisk, the very proper butler who deals with his employer’s new personality with complete aplomb. I’ve always loved the nameless angel who takes Joe out of his body too soon and then throws a fit when Joe won’t believe he’s dead. It turns out that the angel is played by Buck Henry, who is also the co-director of the movie. Too fun! And the calm, stately Mr. Jordan, the angelic supervisor, the played by the great James Mason. The casting of the supporting cast was perfectly done.

The costuming was also very good. The ugly jackets that Max wears, Julia’s over-the-top designer dresses, and Leo Farnsworth’s ridiculous sailing outfits that he wears even though he doesn’t sail all add another dimension to the character’s personalities.

If there were a category for best use of classical music in a movie, I would give the Oscar to Heaven Can Wait. The scene where Joe and Max try to get Farnsworth’s body into pro football shape using the servants as players is great by itself, but the musical accompaniment of Handel’s Sonata #3 makes the scene brilliant. It might be my favorite part of the whole movie.

The Bad: While the original musical score isn’t bad, the instrumentation is dated. Just like in An Unmarried Woman, there is too much saxophone. While it could be a subtle reference to Joe and his badly-played soprano sax, it didn’t age well.

The Ugly: When I was little, I always thought Julie Christie’s hair style was ugly. When I watched it this time, I decided I would be open-minded about her hair. Apparently, it’s ugly no matter how old you are.

Because they are souls without bodies, Mr. Jordan and Joe can walk through walls. The editing for the wall-walking is terrible. My nine-year-old niece literally does better editing on her dad’s smartphone. Yes, technology has changed over time, but there is no excuse for the bad effects.

The copy of Heaven Can Wait that my family had when I was young was copied from TV onto a video that wasn’t long enough, so I haven’t seen the ending as often as I’ve seen the rest of the movie. I’m okay with that, though, because I’m not fond of the ending. It goes on too long, and Joe doesn’t get a very good deal at the end. (Because I don’t do spoilers, I won’t say what bothers me specifically, but if you want to argue that the ending is perfect, we can do so in the comments.)

As I watched the movie this time around, I realized that there is a major plot hole. If the angels know the exact date that someone is going to die, why would they send an angel out to collect his soul at the wrong time? Don’t get me wrong; I still love the plot, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the premise is logically wrong.

The worst thing about Heaven Can Wait is that it is a very obvious vanity project for Warren Beatty. Near the beginning, Joe (who is played by Warren Beatty) says something about how he’s old in the football business, but in any other field, he would just be getting started. At that point, I realized how old Beatty looks in the movie. I checked his age, and he would have been 41 when he made the film. There aren’t very many forty-one-year-old NFL players, and most of them are kickers. Starting quarterbacks that old are few and far between. If the character was supposed to be 41, he wouldn’t be young in another field. Even setting aside the age issue, Joe is just too good to be true. He’s a not-too-bright football player, but he is able to spontaneously come up with brilliant, profitable business ideas that none of the experienced businessmen in Farnsworth’s firm have ever thought of before. Women fall in love with him quickly and with flimsy reasons. In addition to that, he’s a great quarterback. His only fault seems to be his inability to play the soprano sax. This is why I feel that Warren Beatty’s acting is not the best; he’s basically playing himself.

Oscar Won: Best art direction-set decoration.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Warren Beatty); best actor in a supporting role (Jack Warden); best actress in a supporting role (Dyan Cannon); best director; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best cinematography; best music, original score.

Coming Home (1978)

cominghome1Coming Home
Directed by Hal Ashby

 1978 is kind of a black hole in my movie world. This is another best picture nominated movie that I didn’t know anything about. When I picked it up from the library and saw that it was a movie about Vietnam starring Jane Fonda, I wasn’t thrilled. I’ve never been a fan of hers. But then I reminded myself that I loved watching Jane Fonda (and the rest of the cast) in Grace and Frankie, so I tried to put my prejudices aside and just lose myself in the movie, which turned out to be easy to do.

So what’s the story? Sally’s husband, Bob, is excited to be going to Vietnam to actually start doing his part in the Vietnam War. While he’s gone, Sally starts volunteering at the nearby VA hospital, where she reconnects with Luke, whom she knew in high school. Luke was injured in the war and is now a paraplegic. He is angry about the war, so naïve Sally tries to pull him out of his bitter shell. As they both wrestle with the tragic effects of war on so many different people, they find themselves falling in love.

The Good: Against my own expectations, I found myself very impressed with Jane Fonda’s performance as Sally. Sally grows slowly over the course of the film, and Fonda was able to show Sally’s progression from the little wife to a strong, brave woman. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking piece of acting.

John Voight was equally good as Luke. I have prejudices against him, too (the Jim Phelps I know would never, ever betray the IM force), but since the long hair and beard helped disguise his face, I was able to appreciate his acting and feel the sadness, bitterness, and anger of a man returned from war, as well as his excitement when he started to feel that his life might get better.

The supporting actors were just as good as the leads. Penelope Milford played Vi, Sally’s free-spirited friend who worked at the hospital to be near her brother Bill, who came back from Vietnam with severe PTSD. Keith Carradine, who played Bill, and Bruce Dern, who played Sally’s husband, Bob, both portray men who can’t handle what happened in Vietnam, although they deal with it in different ways. Everyone in the movie is touched by the war somehow, and they were all able to show the different facets of living with something that can destroy men’s souls.

Both the music and cinematography in Coming Home were unusual in a good way. There was no original score, only songs that were from the time of the Vietnam War. When a song wasn’t playing in the background, there was no music at all, which added to the realism of the movie and forced the viewer to focus more intently on what is happening in the scene. The cinematography had a similar effect. There were a lot of shots of people’s hands as they were talking, underscoring what they were saying. This really stood out to me in the first scene, where actual veterans are having an unscripted conversation about the war, but it happened at other times, too.

The costuming and hair styles also underscored the changes people were making. As Sally found herself, she dressed in more comfortable, practical clothes instead of the dresses, heels, and pearls favored by the other officers’ wives. She let her hair be natural instead of straightening it. But when she went to Hong Kong to see Bob, she once again assumed the dress and appearance of a proper officer’s wife. It was a nice touch.

The Bad: Once again, I am so glad that I live now. The bad things in this movie are not problems with the movie, per se, but with the times. The attitudes towards women are terrible. Yes, I realize that people with the “men know best” attitudes still exist, but they aren’t as prevalent as they were. I’m also glad that PTSD is better understood and treated than it was in the past. I know treatment isn’t perfect, but it’s come a long way since the 1970s.

The Ugly: Coming Home isn’t a perfect movie, but there’s certainly nothing “ugly” about it.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (John Voight); best actress in a leading role (Jane Fonda); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Bruce Dern); best actress in a supporting role (Penelope Milford); best director; best film editing.

An Unmarried Woman (1978)

unmarried_womanAn Unmarried Woman
Directed by Paul Mazursky

Before I watched An Unmarried Woman, I knew two things about it: that it was about a woman going through a divorce, and that it hadn’t been released on DVD. These two little pieces of information made me assume that it wasn’t going to be very good. There are lots of mediocre movies about divorced women, and if it had never been released on DVD, how good could it be, really? And then I actually watched it, and I was blown away.

So what’s the story? Erica loves her life. She loves her husband, he loves her, and they have an amazing sex life. She has wonderful friends, a great relationship with her teenaged daughter, and the financial freedom to work a part-time job at an art gallery. When her husband tells her he’s leaving her for a younger woman, Erica’s life is turned upside down. She’s been with him for most of her adult life and doesn’t know who she is without him. With the support of her daughter, friends, therapist, and new men in her life, Erica learns for the first time in her life how to be herself.

The Good: The screenplay is amazing. It is so completely real, both emotionally and conversationally. It’s not dated at all; only three things would have to be changed to make it completely up to date: Erica’s friend refers to herself as “manic depressive,” where today we would use “bipolar;” the same friend uses lithium to deal with her mental illness, which is not commonly used today; and Erica’s daughter Patti tells her mother that her friend got an abortion for $200, but (based on an internet search), abortions are more expensive than that now. Setting those tiny details aside, Paul Mazursky’s screenplay could have been written today. It captures exactly what it feels like to be a woman in transition. As a woman whose life has not turned out how she planned it, I could completely relate.

The cast was wonderful. Jill Clayburgh was utterly fantastic as Erica, showing the range of emotions that a woman goes through when the life that she knew was gone. Erica’s husband, Martin, is played by Michael Murphy, who shows the nuances of emotion that people feel when they are trying to make themselves happy, even when it ends up hurting others. Lisa Lucas, who plays Patti, Erica and Martin’s daughter, is equally good at portraying the emotions of a teenager who is dealing not only with her parents’ breakup, but with the minefield of teenage life. Cliff Gorman plays the role of the sleazy artist perfectly. Kelly Bishop gives a wonderful performance as Erica’s supportive, feminist, manic depressive friend Elaine. Another thing I really love about the cast is that besides being incredibly talented, they are all normal-looking. They look like people you could run into on the street in any city in America. I find it much easier to believe a story about normal (albeit fairly wealthy) people when they look like normal people than when they look like models.

The music in An Unmarried Woman reflected the story in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. There is really only one melody (I would call it Erica’s leitmotif), but the instrumentation and key are changed based on the situation. Sometimes it is happy, sometimes it is angry, sometimes sad. It reflects Erica’s mood and emotions throughout the movie.

Because this is a character-driven movie as opposed to a plot-driven one, some of the scenes don’t seem to advance the plot. They are basically little vignettes of moments in Erica’s life. But because of the placement of these little scenes throughout the movie, these moments are able to subtly show Erica’s growth and development as she accepts her new life. That is one of the wonders of editing.

The Bad: Although I loved what the music did, I didn’t always love the music itself. While I loved having the emotions portrayed through one melody, the saxophone-heavy instrumentation was one of the few things that made me remember that this movie came out almost forty years ago. It’s very dated and sometimes distracting.

I had a problem with some of the things that Erica’s daughter Patti said. Some of her lines were flat-out perfect, but I have a hard time believing that Patti, a fifteen-year-old girl, would tell her mother’s boyfriend, whom Patti has just met, that she (Patti) is still a virgin. I was never in the situation of meeting a parent’s new love interest, so maybe some people would do it, but it didn’t feel natural to me. There were a couple of interactions like that throughout the movie that made me feel that although Mazursky apparently understands women incredibly well, he doesn’t know that much about teenaged girls.

The Ugly: Beyond some of the clothes, there is nothing that can be called ugly in this movie. (And the clothes are really more dated than ugly. I think there is a difference.)

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Jill Clayburgh); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Justification: Yes, I fully realize that An Unmarried Woman only comes first in alphabetical order if we throw out one of the rules of alphabetization and don’t ignore the “an”. But it gets to come first because it was the first best picture nominee that I had watched in a long time. So I will stifle my librarian instincts and acknowledge the “an”.

Seizure

I’m sorry I haven’t posted for a while, loyal reader (or maybe it’s readers?). I wasn’t planning on taking a five-month hiatus from my blog. But my brain had other ideas. It decided that it would be really fun to have a grand mal seizure. I didn’t agree, but my brain is in charge, so I had a seizure in early May.

The problem with seizures is that they don’t just make you flail around on the floor for a few minutes; they really mess with your brain. I don’t remember much of what happened for the first few days after my seizure. I know that I went to see Zootopia, but I don’t remember anything about what actually happened in the movie. My sister says she showed me her first-ever tattoo, but the first memory that I have of it is from a couple of weeks later. I found some pictures on my phone that I don’t remember taking; luckily, none of them were embarrassing.

My inability to form memories didn’t last very long, but I still had brain problems. I would be having a conversation with someone, and the words I needed just wouldn’t be there. I had a hard time concentrating on anything. The only entertainment I could handle was comedy TV shows that I had seen before. I binged watched 30 Rock, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and most of Parks and Recreation. Don’t get me wrong; they are all fabulous shows. But although I could watch episode after episode of these shows, I couldn’t handle anything with a plot longer than 45 minutes. Anything deep was also out. Light and fluffy was all my brain could do, so for a few months that’s all I did.

Then one evening, I realized that I wanted something meatier. I wanted to watch a movie that was a little deeper than a TV comedy and analyze it. I was really excited to finish the movies from 1977, too, because I feel kind of on edge if I leave something unfinished. I don’t own any of the 1977 movies, so I got on Netflix to watch The Turning Point, which is the only way I can watch it since it never came out on DVD. I was so sad when I realized that The Turning Point had been taken off Netflix during the past few months; I would have to leave 1977 behind.

As I looked through my list of Oscar nominated movies on Netflix, I realized that An Unmarried Woman was currently on Netflix. This movie has also never made it to DVD, and since The Turning Point was gone, I decided I should watch the other movie that I can only watch on Netflix. I promise I will finish the movies of 1977 when I can, but for now, I’m excited to get back to my blog with the movies from 1978. Hopefully, there are still people out there who are also excited that I’m back.