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Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Field of Dreams (1989)

field-of-dreamsDirected by Phil Alden Robinson

I know this review is late; I’ve been putting off writing it. I have such mixed feelings about Field of Dreams that’s it hard for me to know what to say. Field of Dreams is a movie I grew up with. My dad would stick it in the VCR when he was working at home. As soon as the movie finished, Dad would simply rewind it and start it up again. He loved it so much that when my mom started to slim their movie collection down, there were three VHS copies and two DVDs of Field of Dreams among the other movies. I liked it when I was a child, but now I have very little patience for it. I don’t know what changed, but it was a chore to watch this movie.

So what’s the story? Reluctant farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in the cornfield: “If you build it, he will come.” Ray becomes convinced that it means that if he builds a baseball diamond in his fields, long-deceased baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson will be able to come play baseball. Ray takes a leap of faith and makes the baseball field, and miraculous things happen.

The Good: Field of Dreams is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Because I had seen the movie so often, I was excited to read the book in high school when one of my teachers had it on the free choice book list. The book was not so great. I don’t say this often, but the movie is much, much better than the book. The screenplay takes all that is wondrous and beautiful from the novel and makes a much more concise, coherent experience. Making a screenplay that is better than the book is not easy; Phil Alden Robinson did a fabulous job with the adaptation.

James Horner’s score is hauntingly beautiful. It fits the movie so very well, ethereal and peaceful. It never takes over what is happening on the screen, but supports it as a good musical score should.

Most of the actors were perfect. Amy Madigan is amazing as Ray’s scattered, yet down-to-earth wife, Annie. She hits just the right combination of crazy, passionate, supportive, and stable. Annie is a complex character, and Amy Madigan nails it. Although author J.D. Salinger is a character in the novel, Salinger was adamant that he not be a character in the movie. James Earl Jones plays the replacement character, fictional author Terence Mann. At first truculent and reluctant to listen to Ray, Mann slowly turns into a believer and champion of Ray’s mission. Jones subtly portrays the changes of the character and brings Terence Mann to life. The minor characters are also well cast. Gaby Hoffman as Ray and Annie’s daughter Karin, Frank Whaley as Archie Graham, and the great Burt Lancaster as Doc Graham all do a wonderful job. I especially love the kindness that shines from Doc Graham’s face. The minor baseball players whose names I do not know have a good bromance chemistry. Shoeless Joe is played by Ray Liotta. He brings an intensity to the role that makes him believable; you can see the love of the game emanating from him. (Also, Ray Liotta is extremely attractive in this movie. I thought so even as a six-year-old girl.)

The Bad: My view of this may be tainted by personal feelings, but I’m not a big fan of Kevin Costner’s performance as Ray Kinsella. He has his moments (notably his fanboy excitement when he meets Shoeless Joe for the first time and then later during the kidnapping of Terence Mann), but he’s not consistently impressive. Again, this might be my feelings getting in the way. I am not a fan of Kevin Costner the man. I’m not entirely sure why, but he just strikes me as being full of himself.

It is never explained why Terence Mann needed to be brought to Iowa. Yes, he loves baseball, but there was nothing else. He’s fabulous character, and I love that he’s in the movie, but he doesn’t have a why, so it niggles at my brain.

The Ugly: In his introduction, Ray says that he was born in 1952. He and Annie both talk often about “experiencing the 60s,” especially during their college years at Berkley. But they would have turned 18 in 1970; they would only have had 70s experiences in college. They would have only experienced the 60s as teens in high school, and based on the strictness of their families, they wouldn’t have had much of a 60s experience then. That stupid wrong detail has bugged me for years. Come on, people. Details are important!

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best music, original score.

Lost Horizon (1937)

LostHorizon1937_previewDirected by Frank Capra

I read the book Lost Horizon a few years after I read The Good Earth, but it was still a very long time ago. I don’t remember every bit of the plot, but I did like it quite a bit; the adventure appealed to me, as did the idea of a beautiful place of peace. Being a fan of the book and a fan of Frank Capra, I thought the movie would be wonderful. The adventure and the philosophy that I loved in the book were in the movie, but I had a hard time remembering to watch through 1937 glasses. Shangri-La is not a utopia if you watch through 2017 glasses.

So what’s the story? Robert Conway, a British diplomat, is on the last plane out of a war-torn Chinese town with four other people: his brother, George; Lovett, a paleontologist; Barnard, a crook; and Gloria, a prostitute. Instead of heading to Shanghai as expected, the pilot flies the plane deeper into Asia. The plane crash-lands high in the freezing Tibetan mountains, but the group is rescued by a group of people who lead them to the monastery Shangri-La, where everyone is happy and all is well. But all is not as it seems…

The Good: The acting is good for the most part. It’s really quite fun to watch the change in Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton, who usually scares me), and Gloria (Isabel Jewell) as they go from frightened, selfish people to people who care about making their world better. Ronald Coleman makes a fine Robert Conway, although I would have liked to see a little more contrast in his character as Shangri-La changes him. That’s the screenwriter’s fault, though. John Howard is miscast as George Conway. He doesn’t even try to do a British accent, even though he is supposed to be the brother of the very British Coleman. That said, Howard did bring a lot of energy to the screen, with his growing impatience a contrast to the others’ peacefulness as everyone else settles in. Sam Jaffe makes a wonderful wise High Lama, even though he was only 46, so the makeup artists did a fantastic job, too.

The production design is great. The designers had to bring the east and west together for Shangri-La, which is in “Tibet” but built by a man from Belgium, with treasures from all over the world inside. The valley needed its own look, too. The end result is beautiful and believably peaceful.

Dmitri Tiomkin wrote a beautiful orchestral score for the film that underscores not only the beauty and peace of the valley but also the mystery and uncertainty that everyone finds there.

The Bad: Jane Wyatt is wooden in her performance as Sondra. She is school-girl giggly when she’s around Conway and sad when she thinks Conway is going. That’s all she’s got. It was a little painful to watch.

Chang is played stiffly by H.B. Warner. It may have been the way he was directed, but almost every time he talks, there’s a pause, almost as if he’s trying to remember his lines. He was nominated for best supporting actor, so some people saw something there. I will freely admit that I am not a professional acting judge, so I could be wrong and the performance could be brilliant, but it annoyed me.

The Ugly: There was nothing really ugly about the movie, except that about seven minutes of the movie are still shots instead of motion picture. The movie was edited from when it was first shown, and the original footage was lost. Film restorers looked in vaults all over the world for the missing minutes. They did find a full sound track and some of the missing moving footage, so they used stills from the filming to fill in the film that was lost. Some of the footage they found, though, was not of the best quality, so the movie is uneven in quality, too. It makes me so sad when movies aren’t taken care of. I hate it when art is lost.

Oscars Won: Best art direction; best film editing

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (H.B. Warner); best sound, recording; best assistant director; best music, score.

Why I would not want to live in the Shangri-La of 1937:

     Women have no rights and get very little respect from men.

  1. Conway asks the High Lama what happens if two men both want the same woman. The Lama replies that their manners are so good, that the man who had the woman first would give her to the second man. No one bothers to ask the woman which man she would rather be with.
  2. Sondra is teaching a class of children English when a child asks to be taken to the bathroom. As soon as she leaves to help the child, Conway simply dismisses the class without asking Sondra if she is done for the day. He assumes that she would be happy to spend her time with him instead of teaching.
  3. When Sondra tries to start a philosophical conversation about why people outside of Shangri-La are the way they are, Conway tells Sondra to stop asking why, saying that it is the most annoying question in the English language. He had a chance to actually think about his culture and discuss it with someone who is generally curious, and instead he shuts it down because he is more interested in Sondra physically than he in in honestly answering her questions.
  4. Barnard takes a shine to Gloria when she stops wearing her makeup, telling her she looks wholesome without and ordering her to never wear it again. When George asks if they would like to leave, Barnard says he isn’t going, and then Gloria says “I’m going to stay, too. Is that right, Barney?” (That’s paraphrased a bit.)

   The people of the monastery have no respect for the native people. 

  1. None of the people living in the monastery of Shangri-La are acolytes of the High Lama. Apparently only Europeans and Chang (who is played by a white man) are allowed to study in the monastery and do whatever they so desire, whether it’s playing the piano or riding horses or reading. The only native people living there are the servants. No one thinks to ask if that’s what they want to be doing.
  2. The people in the valley are basically patted on the heads and told what good people they are. They are not taught what is in the books that are brought into the valley. They farm and mine for the monastery because that’s what they have been taught to do. They are more or less slaves, even though they don’t know it. The High Lama even admits that those who live in the monastery rule those who live in the valley.
  3. Shangri-La was founded by a Christian missionary whose goal is to have the “Christian ideal” win all over the world. No, he doesn’t teach Christianity, but he also doesn’t draw on any tenants of other religions, including whatever the natives believed before he got there. While not stated, I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t allow the native religion to be followed in the valley.

Okay, rant over. I know that Lost Horizon came out 80 years ago, and I freely acknowledge that values have changed a bit over the years. That’s why it’s so important to try to understand where and when the filmmakers were coming from. You can’t judge art from the past with the values of today.

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.

Life of Pi (2012)

Life_of_Pi_2012_PosterDirected by Ang Lee

Just as there are movies that I’m watching for this blog that I have been wanting to see for a long time, there are movies for that I’m watching for this blog that I have never had any intention of seeing. These are not the movies that I haven’t heard of before or ones that I think are violent, but movies that for some reason or other I really, really don’t want to see. Life of Pi was one of those movies. I read the book about ten years ago, and I loved it – until the part where Pi comes to the mysterious island. After that happened, I lost my ability to suspend my disbelief. Because of this, I developed an antipathy towards the book, and I really didn’t care to see the movie. But since I make sacrifices to fulfill my goals, I watched Life of Pi.

So what’s the story? Teenager Pi’s family, along with their literal zoo full of animals, is moving from India to Canada. Before they make it to their new home, there is a shipwreck, and Pi ends up as the only human survivor on a lifeboat with four of the animals, including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The Good: Life of Pi is based on a rather complex book. It’s not just the story of a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. His unusual name is explained, as is his conversion to three different religions. I was impressed at how well the book was adapted as a screenplay. The writer, David Magee, managed to fit in the frame story as well as the flashbacks to great effect.

I didn’t see the 3D version of Life of Pi, so I can’t judge that aspect of the cinematography, but what I would call the “regular” cinematography was fabulous. The shots were so beautiful and so carefully set up; it was almost like watching a living painting.

The acting was very good. Pi was played by several different people, young and old, and all were good. Pi’s mother Gita and father Santosh were played by Tabu and Adil Hussain respectively. They made a good couple did a wonderful job playing off each other, the mother trying to protect her son by keeping him safe from the world, the father trying to protect his son by showing him harsh realities of life.

The Bad: I don’t know if it was because I had already knew the book and therefore knew what was going to happen, but I found Life of Pi to be rather tedious. I loved the first hour or so; in fact, it made me wish that I had been born in a zoo in India. But not long after the shipwreck happened, I realized that I was no longer mentally involved in the movie. I’m not sure exactly why I stopped caring about Pi, but I just wanted it all to be over.

I also felt that Pi’s conversion to Islam was glossed over. His first introduction to Hinduism was fully covered, as were the beginnings of his interest in Christianity, but we don’t really know how he became interested in Islam. Since all his religions were important to him, I feel like they all should have been given equal weight.

I was a little annoyed at how small Gerard Depardieu’s role was. He’s an amazing actor, and his part was little more than a cameo. I seem to remember the cook having a larger role in the book, and I wish they had taken advantage of the great actor they had hired and let him do more.

The Ugly: Three years ago, this movie won the Academy Award for best visual effects. Today, it looks fake. This is why I am so against CGI; it just doesn’t hold up well. ET, made over thirty years ago with puppets and green screens, looks more real today than Life of Pi. During many of the ocean scenes, I couldn’t help but think of The Truman Show (1998), where Truman believes himself to be sailing on the ocean but is in reality in an artificial pool of water that is nowhere near as deep as the ocean. The animals were sometimes obviously, disappointingly fake, too. It niggled at my mind and kept me from enjoying the movie as fully as I wanted to.

Oscars Won: Best achievement in directing; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original score; best achievement in visual effects.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best writing, adapted screenplay; best achievement in film editing; best achievement in sound mixing; best achievement in sound editing; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original song (“Pi’s Lullaby”); best achievement in production design.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

beasts-of-the-southern-wild-posterDirected by Benh Zeitlin

The nice thing about doing this project is that sometimes, I get around to watching movies that I’ve been meaning to watch for a while. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those movies. I’ve been wanting to see it since it came out, but I haven’t ever had the time, the desire, and the DVD at the same time. Now that the stars have aligned and I’ve seen the movie, my opinion of it is: huh? I had heard it was a fantasy, so I was expecting something along the lines of Pan’s Labyrinth. It wasn’t like that at all. I liked it, but was left confused (and a little disappointed) when it was over.

So what’s the story? Little Hushpuppy lives with her daddy, Wink, in a poverty-stricken Mississippi River Delta area known as The Bathtub. She loves her community and her daddy, but when the polar ice caps melt, The Bathtub is flooded, ancient animals called aurochs are released from the ice, and Wink becomes desperately ill. Hushpuppy must confront her fears and go on an epic journey to save her daddy.

The Good: The whole time I was watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, a quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept running through my head: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” Quvenzhané Wallis was fantastic as Hushpuppy. She had the most determined, ferocious look I have ever seen on a child. I couldn’t believe she was only five when she did that acting. And she didn’t do a good job of acting for a child; she did a good job of acting, period. It was an incredible performance. I can’t get over it.

The soundtrack fits the movie (and Hushpuppy) perfectly. There are moments of dreamy bells that reminded me of childhood fantasies and imagination. There are some great zydeco fiddles and accordions that are reminiscent of the area. It’s very moving and very well-done.

I don’t know the technical term for this, but I really liked the look of the movie. The blending of the fantastical elements with the more realistic elements of the Southern poverty worked really well. It’s not quite set decoration; maybe art direction fits. Whatever you choose to call, it was artfully done.

The Bad: I don’t like the feeling that I don’t know what to make of this movie. I admired Hushpuppy’s ferocity and determination, the love that everyone had for The Bathtub, but I don’t understand how that translates into their need to blow up the levees. I kept thinking that it reminded me of something like The Odyssey, but it wasn’t quite a direct retelling of that story. The lines were extremely blurred between the reality of Hushpuppy’s situation and the fantasies that she created to cope with reality, so it’s hard for me to know what happened and what didn’t. I really don’t like feeling this way about a movie. Maybe I just need to watch it again someday.

The Ugly: I didn’t find anything bad enough about this movie to make it into the ugly category. Beasts of the Southern Wild is very good as a whole. It’s just a confusing good.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actress in a leading role (Quvenzhané Wallis); best achievement in directing; best writing, adapted screenplay.