Posts Tagged best picture winners

All About Eve

Year of Release: 1950     Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and Marilyn Monroe.

As George Sanders provides his opening voiceover as the conceited theatre critic Addison DeWitt, the camera slowly zooms out from its focus on an aging actor, ignoring the actor – as DeWitt informs us we should – and instead revealing a prestigious awards ceremony, at the center of which is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). That shift of focus is apt foreshadowing of the story which follows, a story of backstage backstabbing, insecure aging actors, rising new stars, occasional romance, and a masterclass in manipulation.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a star of the theatre; she became a star at four years old, and she will always be a star. However, Margo is aging, and at forty years old, she worries her glory days are soon going to end. After all, the good leading roles are twenty-year old characters. Compounding her insecurities are the new starlets whom Addison DeWitt touts, such as Miss Claudia Casswell (Marilyn Monroe in a meta bit of casting before she became famous). However, Margo can be nice to the wannabes; she has far greater acting chops than any of them will ever have, so they’re no real threat to her. But Margo is also reminded of her age by her talented director boyfriend, who as a director and as a man will remain thirty-two for his entire career. And then, there’s Eve, a devoted fan of Margo’s who dreams of an acting career herself.

Unlike the other young actresses, Eve is talented, very talented. With the help of Margo’s good friend Karen (Celeste Holm), playwright Lloyd Richard’s (Hugh Marlowe) wife, Eve soon finds herself in the good graces of Margo and working as her assistant. The only person Eve fails to win over is Margo’s crusty maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who remains suspicious of the young girl who studies Margo’s every move, “as if she were a play or a book.” Given Margo’s insecurity about her age, losing her relevance, and being replaced, she soon subscribes to Birdie’s distrust as well, even as her friends find her actions and her rants more paranoid and insufferable than her usual anxieties.

If this film about the ugly backstage life of insecure famous actors with an eclectic ensemble of vibrant characters, one of whom is an intelligent yet arrogant critic, sounds kind of similar to the recent Birdman (which won the best picture Oscar sixty-four years after All About Eve did), the two films do have some thematic similarities. However, whereas Birdman opts for an ambiguously happy ending that gives all its characters a celebration which may or may not be deserved, All About Eve is unafraid to follow its characters to the end of each of their storylines, where happiness results from suffering and learning from mistakes and selfishness begets more selfishness.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz penned one of his finest screenplays for All About Eve, filled with clever references to stage productions and Hollywood films, and the entire cast turns in fantastic performances, delivering one brilliant line after another, such as “Have you no human consideration?” “Show me a human, and I might have!” This story of killers pursuing their desires of prestige and importance makes a bumpy but thrilling ride. I’m sorry, did I say “killers?” I meant champions.

 

Content Advisory: Some intense discord and discreet sexual references.                              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan.

Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman is a film that is carefully edited to appear to be a single take. The reason is simple: this is a story of a famous Hollywood actor (Riggan Thomas – played perfectly by Michael Keaton) trying to prove his relevance and revive his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s poetry. In order to create the feeling of a single, live performance, Alejandro Inarritu merges the beginning and ends of takes together, much in the same way Hitchcock did in Rope. And like Rope some of those hidden seams are brilliant, and some are obvious and a bit corny. Regardless of how smooth the editing is or isn’t, the technique is very successful at creating the sensation of watching a play unfold live, and all the actors are up to the challenge, turning in incredible performances in long takes.

As Riggan, whose last great role was a masked superhero in a black suit with wings in 1992 (no, not Batman Returns), Keaton perfectly captures the abrasiveness and insecurity of a talented actor who is afraid he is becoming irrelevant. As his costars, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are great at working with his eccentricities, supporting him, and arguing with him. Emma Stone gives what may be her best performance yet as Riggan’s long-suffering daughter who has just gotten out of rehab. And Edward Norton plays against Keaton perfectly as the super talented but borderline crazy actor who threatens to steal Riggan’s production from under him. Both Norton and Keaton are great as their stage lives being to blend with their real lives, albeit in very different ways. Finally, as the manager trying to deal with all these personalities, Zach Galifianakis is great as the straight man in the midst of comedy.

Birdman is clearly an actors’ movie, and the entire cast drives the film, but director Alejandro Inarritu highlights their terrific performances with his unobtrusive camera, making frequent use of behind the shoulder tracking shots and slowly spinning camera. Some viewers may find the style irritating, but for me, the techniques on display enhanced the drama of the film. Inarritu places the viewer right into the world of the film, allowing him to see the brokenness of these characters, their desire for greatness and importance, and their struggles to achieve something worthwhile, a struggle which Sam (Riggan’s daughter played by Emma Stone) cynically insists is futile, because everyone is terrified of the world and ultimately is irrelevant. That desire comes to a head when Riggan confronts the uptight New York Time’s theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) in a scene that is essentially a dare to any critic to dislike this film.

It would be all too easy to apply Riggan’s takedown of Tabitha to someone who writes a negative review of Birdman. Riggan rips into her and her obsession with labeling everything she reviews, and her tendency to pan anything she cannot easily define. He insists that true art, which is what he is doing, is a baring of the artist’s soul, and it defies labels and reflects the messiness of life. Birdman certainly reflects the messiness of a broken family, unstable careers, and jealous insecure actors, but whether the resolution of the critic takedown is a shallow affirmation of every actors’ desire or a profound insight into performing and human nature is debatable. Since I am very enthusiastic about the rest of the film, I am inclined to lean toward the latter, but I would not argue too much with someone who insisted on the former. Either way, the film introduces an idea I find fascinating and worth pondering: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Do these foolish conceited actors have insight to offer us, or is this just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Not only is Birdman driven by excellent performances from a talented cast, it also thoughtfully explores many aspects of performing. It takes an unflattering look at the backstage lives of performers who are overly concerned about their careers and public perception, and it shows human beings who are afraid as they try to do what they know best. Like the seamless editing, these characters struggle to separate their personal lives from the stage, but their ignorance gives birth to a spectacular depiction of heartfelt guts and all performances that are well worth observing.

 

Content Advisory: Sexual references and some obscene language throughout, several shots of men in briefs one involving an erection, drug use, and an attempted suicide.                              MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Forrest Gump

Year of Release: 1994     Directed by Robert Zemeckis.  Starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field, and Gary Sinise.

Or, as I like to call it: Forrest Junk. Be warned, I spoil the entire movie.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood. Maybe I’m just really strange and dislike movies designed primarily to play off the viewer’s emotions. But if you like Forrest Gump, do not read further. This film pulled off the rare achievement of taking everything that annoys me about cinema and combining all those factors into what may have been the most excruciating 140 minutes of my life. I hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie.

It began with the opening music. It was a little sappy, but I smiled and thought the film would be sweet and touching, if overly sentimental. Instead, it was one preposterous situation after another, a cast of characters who ALL make a blade of grass look intelligent, stealing scenes from vastly superior movies (The Princess Bride reference was particularly unforgiveable), grating voiceovers that only repeat what is being depicted, slow tracking shots that do nothing assist the story, a nonsensical tweaking of history, a dating of events that makes some narratives play out too quickly and others too slowly, and stupid metaphors that make no sense at all. Life is NOT like a box of chocolates, and you always know what you’re going to get in a box of chocolates: some nutty, some caramels, some creams, and some dark chocolate, and there usually is a chart so you can identify which chocolates are what.

An example of the lousy timeframe: Forrest and Jenny reunite in the summer of 1968, the last full year of LBJ’s presidency, by whom Forrest was awarded the medal of honor. Therefore, Forrest could not have been in Vietnam for several years, because when he went off to war Jenny ran away to California where she struggled to support herself as a street performer. But that was also in 1968, because during the flashback she was performing outside a theatre which is showing Rosemary’s Baby, which first opened on June 12, 1968. Is the film saying that she spent three or four years trying to get to California, and then hooked up with a band immediately after arriving, right before Forrest came home?)

Also, someone with an IQ of 75, who is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, who has been thoroughly taught segregation his entire life, and makes comments to that extent, is not going to turn around and offer to assist a black woman who drops her books. That’s smug, audience pleasing, patting ourselves on the back propaganda, if there ever was any.

I get it. Dwelling on details like that is missing the point of the story. But let me summarize that story:

Mama becomes whore
To send stupid son to school.
He meets and sleeps with
Jenny, a pretty
Girl abused by her father.
She runs away, and
He lives through hist’ry.
After Vietnam and porn
They reunite in
Old Alabama.
They sleep together once more,
Have sex and a kid.
Then she leaves, because
The film needs sorrow. He then
Runs and runs and runs.
And that is profound,
Since Forrest was once crippled.
Then he finds Jenny,
But their time is brief
Since she was a junkie and
Dies of AIDS. The end.

What is moving and profound about that? A cynical part of me thinks this was so popular only because it was raising awareness for HIV and AIDS. Because there is no other way this could seriously have won best picture over: Quiz Show, Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood, Three Colors: Red, Three Colors: White, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Bullets Over Broadway. Heck, if the academy wanted to select a feel-good crowd pleaser with gratuitous voiceovers, The Shawshank Redemption, for all its flaws, is a hundred times better than this.

As I see it, there are two possibilities 1) all those who love this film have been duped or 2) I am weirder than I realized, and I am missing some basic human emotion gene. I am going to go with 1).

And in conclusion, to call Forrest (and this film) stupid would be an insult to stupid people.

(For those who do not know the reference)

Content Advisory: Several implied sexual encounters, some with partial nudity; references to pedophilia; one strong vulgarity many other milder ones; drug use; some wartime violence; and ham-fisted manipulative dishonestly throughout.                                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: F

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Platoon

Year of Release: 1986     Directed by Oliver Stone.             Starring Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Keith David, and Johnny Depp.

If you are a fan of this movie, I suggest taking your blood pressure medication before reading this review.  For I come to bury Platoon, not to praise it.  The flaws of this film substantially outweigh the tiny amount of good that it debatably accomplishes, good which can be found in other vastly superior Vietnam War films.

Vastly superior Vietnam War films would most notably include Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s flawed but compelling and thought provoking Full Metal Jacket.  Both of those films tell intriguing stories that challenge the viewer and make him consider and think about what he has seen.  Platoon, on the other hand, relies on cheap emotional manipulation and shock tactics to hammer its point home: war is EVIL, and it makes soldiers do EVIL things.  Apparently, Oliver Stone believes we need two hours of lousy, predictable, manipulative storytelling to tell us that war is evil.

Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a wealthy white collar American student who drops out of college and enlists to fight in Vietnam as a way of proving that he can accomplish something on his own and also as a means of rebelling against his parents.  Since he is a new recruit, none of the other soldiers respect him, and they spend much of their time belittling him and giving him humiliating tasks like cleaning the outhouse.

Fortunately for Taylor, one of his superiors, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) takes a liking to him and defends him against some of the rougher soldiers.  Elias welcomes Taylor  and they bond over a shared joint of marijuana when some of the nicer privates invite Taylor to their late night recreational drug party.

Unfortunately for Taylor, the moral and conscientious Elias is locked in a power struggle with the sadistic and power hungry Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), who tries to make life miserable for Elias and his privates.  We know Elias is the good guy, because he criticizes the war and calls it pointless, whereas Barnes loves the war as a way to brutalize both the Vietnamese and American soldiers who question his ruthless tactics.  Barnes has a badly scarred face, while Elias is good looking.  Barnes lies to his superiors, but Elias’ reports contain the truth.  Barnes rapes women and shoots children for fun, and encourages his soldiers to do likewise.  Elias beats up Barnes when he catches him murdering civilians, which causes a fight to break out between the privates who support Barnes and those who support Elias.

As an extension of the conflict between Barnes and Elias, Barnes’ privates make life difficult for Elias’ privates, because they are the villains and that is what they are supposed to do.  In case you were wondering, it was Elias’ privates who invited Taylor to the marijuana party.  Barnes and his privates do not miss an opportunity to bully, humiliate, and outright torture any soldier they do not like.  Soldiers they dislike include nearly all of the African American soldiers, because the bad guys apparently have to be racist as well.

Every character and situation is an extreme caricature.  There is no nuance or subtlety; no complex human beings who struggle with temptations to do evil, sometimes overcoming them, sometimes not.  Instead the brutality becomes increasingly absurd and dehumanizing without any balancing counterpart.  Since there is no sympathetic character to ground the viewer in the story, the brutally graphic violence becomes boring and desensitizing.  It does not come across as horrific, because every situation is so extreme that there is no way for horror to upset the normal order of operations.  If Stone had gone the slightest bit more extreme, Platoon would have been a comedy along the lines of Monty Python’s gory “Salad Days” or dark “Killer Joke.”

After two hours of watching the most contrived scenarios imaginable as soldiers debase themselves and sink to greater moral evils than the Vietnamese that they are fighting, Oliver Stone still fears that the audience is stupid and may have missed the blatant moral message that he has been bludgeoning into the viewer since the first scene.  To explain the moral message that war is bad, Stone employs gratuitous voiceovers from Sheen as Taylor explains that war is horrible because it makes men no different than the enemy that they are fighting.

I beg to differ; in Platoon, the Vietnamese are honorable, family loving, and only depicted as fighting in self defense.  Barnes and his privates are so repulsive, considering the absence of any moral order, the conclusion in which Taylor descends to Barnes’ level is natural and easy to predict well over an hour before it occurs.  Barnes’ actions which drive Taylor over the edge are also obvious long before they happen.

In the film’s defense, I will admit that there were some scenes with very strong camera work that created the claustrophobic sense of oppression from the Vietnam jungle as well as the sense of hopelessness from the seemingly lost cause of the Vietnam War.  However, that hardly saves the film.

Challenging, profound, harrowing, and masterpiece are all words that I have heard used to refer to Platoon.  The words that come to my mind are: emotionally manipulative, predictable, in-your-face preachy, and desensitizing due to absurdity.  I found this film so frustrating that it is one of the rare times that I truly cannot understand what anyone sees in it.  Just because a film is about a tragic subject or contains shocking violence does not make it good.  The way that a film presents its subject (important or not) is the determining factor for its artistic merit.  Even as someone who mostly agrees with Stone’s points concerning the great evils that war can tempt men to commit, his irritating, manipulative, and extreme presentation obliterates any worthwhile message that Platoon might have had.

Content Advisory: Many gruesome and graphic depictions of wartime atrocities, much profane and obscene language, recreational drug use, and fleeting rear nudity.                  MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Overall Recommendation: D+

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Chicago

Year of Release: 2002     Directed Rob Marshall.  Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly.

I have always been disappointed to see the number of Christian movie critics who dislike this film.  Admittedly, the tone of the film is fairly dark, and nearly all the characters revel in various forms of immorality; however, the film carefully examines a world that enables such behavior.

The film is set in prohibition era Chicago among the jazz nightclubs and liquor joints.  Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) idolizes the showbiz lifestyle and dreams of becoming a star performer like her idol Velma Kelly (a phenomenal Catherine Zeta-Jones).  In order to get an inside connection, Roxie is sleeping with an acquaintance who promises to get her started in show business by speaking to his friend about her talent.  Once Roxie discovers that her lover has no connection in show business, she shoots him in cold blood and lands in the Cook County Jail.

While in prison Roxie meets Velma, who is also under arrest for the murder of her sister and husband, whom she caught cheating on her.  Both women hire Chicago’s best lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to get them acquitted.  With his aid, they lie, manipulate, and swindle the justice system, the media, the public, and one another.

I have heard complaints that in Chicago the guilty live happily ever after while the innocent are punished and are losers in general.  That is true, because the entire film is shot from Roxie’s perspective and is meant to showcase her obsession with the razzle dazzle façade of show business.  She also lives in a society that shares her fantasies; consequently, the media and the public have no interest or sympathy for the virtuous.  Well behaved people do not sell newspapers, make headlines, and are too boring to waste the time defending.  However, the darkness and shallowness of a world that defines success by the veneer of fame and celebrity is bitingly satirized over the course of the film.

To emphasize the fantasy of Roxie’s obsession, the musical numbers are shot as an imagined stage performance, complete with stage lights, sexualized nightclub costumes, as Roxie looks on or participates with awe and wonder.  The frequent edits cut from performer to performer as Roxie absorbs the scene, never stopping to examine the squalor that is at the heart of this world that she admires.

At one point, as Roxie dreams about her future as a famous Chicago vaudeville stage performer she sings, “The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be Roxie…They’re gonna recognize my eyes, my hair, my teeth, my boobs, my nose…”  Roxie views herself as an object whose value is determined by her celebrity status.

The opening number, “And All That Jazz,” along with director Rob Marshall’s choreography, perfectly sets the tone for the film.  It is the only song not filmed in the fantasy world of Roxie’s imagination.  Instead she looks on with envy as Velma performs the famous showstopper.  For one note, the film cuts to Roxie performing the song in her imagination, and then returns to her affair, the sole purpose of which is to promote her stage career.  Velma’s dance moves even mirror the motions of Roxie as she begins to make out with her lover.  All of Roxie’s actions during this number are meant to propel her into the world of all that jazz.

Although Chicago is filmed from Roxie’s perspective, the film does not condone it.  The film draws the viewer into Roxie’s fantasy with topnotch production numbers, but via the quick edits from fantasy to reality, the film makes one seriously consider how Roxie is achieving her goals.

When Roxie does receive a warning to the consequences of her actions, she chooses to recede even further into deceit and theatrics.  Perhaps she has trapped herself into this world, or perhaps the celebrity worshipping public has forced her there.  Either way she masters perpetually performing in order to beguile the public.  As Roxie sings at the end of the film, “You can like the life your living, you can live the life you like, you can even marry Harry, but mess around with Ike.  And that’s good isn’t it? Grand isn’t it?  Swell isn’t it?  Nowadays.”  As long as she maintains her swell performing status, nothing else matters to her.

There are many elements of humor in the film, but the humor does not arise because the immorality is funny.  Instead the satire presupposes a moral compass that the actions of the characters are wrong and absurd.  If killing one’s husband by firing a warning shot that happened to go into his head, because he popped his gum too loudly was acceptable, the murderers’ rationalization of their actions would not be humorous.

Two scenes really stand out to me in Chicago.  One is “We Both Reached for the Gun,” when Billy and Roxie manipulate the press, who in turn manipulates the public, into believing her sob story about repentance and self-defense.  The marionettes of the press and Roxie, all controlled by Flynn, perfectly shows how the obsession with celebrity allows people to believe whatever they want to be true.  At the end of the performance to emphasize Flynn’s good nature he gulps down a glass of milk; it is the prohibition after all.

The other scene is “The Cell Block Tango.”  Why is that?  It is the most risqué number in the production, and seemingly the most morally problematic.  The lyrics are a celebration of moral relativism and celebrity-worship carried to an extreme.  As a result, I think it is the number that ties the entire musical together, reinforcing the major flaw of all the characters.  If the purpose of life is to put on the best possible show by whatever possible means, then these murderers certainly have succeeded and are not wrong.

As dishonest and smooth talking Billy Flynn sings, “What if your hinges all are rusting?  What if, in fact, you’re just disgusting? Razzle Dazzle them, and they’ll never catch wise.”  Through Marshall’s quick and careful editing, the movie does catch wise, critiquing any worldview that places fame above all else.

 

Content Advisory: A semi-explicit sexual encounter, several highly suggestive dance sequences, skimpy costuming with partial nudity, some smoking, vulgarity, and brief violence.          MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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