Category Archives: Best Picture Oscar Winners

Unforgiven-1992

Unforgiven-1992

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman

Reviewed January 30, 2009

Grade: A-

Winning the 1992 Best Picture Academy Award, Unforgiven is a beautifully shot, well crafted Western film, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. The film differs from that of classic westerns in that it questions the meaning of violence and is of a moral fiber. Eastwood was clearly influenced by director Sergio Leone.

Eastwood also stars in the film as William Munny, a former cold blooded murderer, is now retired and living as a farmer, a widower due to violence against his deceased wife. He is talked out of retirement to help kill some shady cowboys.

Unforgiven is a dark film and definitely character driven- certainly centering mostly on Eastwood’s character. Why does Munny really come out of retirement? Is he lusting after blood or enjoy the satisfaction of revenge?

The cinematography is second to none with gorgeous western United States locales and beautiful landscapes.

The film admittedly drags a bit at times, but is rich in character development and questions the motives of its central characters, which in itself is much deeper than most western, shoot ’em up style of films.

Moonlight-2016

Moonlight-2016

Director-Barry Jenkins

Starring-Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland

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Reviewed November 6, 2016

Grade: A

Moonlight is a wonderful film, rich with character and grit, that tells the story of one man’s life- from childhood, to teenage years, to adulthood, sharing the bonds he forms, and the demons he wrestles. The acting all around is fantastic and the story poignant and truthful. The film is not preachy, but rather tells a story and leaves the audience to sit and observe- quietly formulating their own opinions. Moonlight is a mixture of beauty and heartbreak and is told very well.

The film is divided into three chapters- in chronological order of the central characters life. Chiron is a shy, docile, young boy of six or seven living in a drug-filled world of Miami, Florida in the 1980’s. He is bullied for being “different” though he knows not why he is shunned. Chiron is introverted and distrusting.  A kind hearted drug dealer named Juan (Mahersala Ali), takes a shine to Chiron, whose own mother becomes more and more absent and emotionally abusive to her son. Naomie Harris plays Paula, mother to Chiron and herself a drug addict. Juan and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae) become surrogate parents to Chiron and share their home with him as needed.

Chapter two focuses on Chiron as a teenager- still bullied and coming to terms with his sexuality and feelings of insecurity. By this time his mother has spiraled out of control and his life is a sad one. He is filled with emotions such as rage, despair, and confusion. He has an experience with his best friend Kevin that changes the direction of his life. Kevin is his saving grace and a decent person amidst his troubled life.

In chapter three, we are re-introduced to Chiron as an adult- having completely reinvented himself and become a changed man, but is he changed for better or for worse? People from his past resurface at this time and Chiron must face various demons and emotions, and come to terms with himself and others surrounding him. Will his story have a sad or a happy ending is the question we are left wondering.

The aspect that left me impressed the most is the storytelling and the ground that is broken with this film. From an LGBT perspective, by this time (2016), we have experienced numerous offerings on the subject, but the fact that Moonlight is not only a character study, but a love story between two black men has not been done to this degree yet in cinema, or arguably at all, especially in mainstream fare. Happily Moonlight is receiving critical praise. The fact that Chiron lives in a macho, male driven society, makes his self acceptance all the more challenging for him.

The direction in Moonlight is impressive and director Barry Jenkins deserves much praise. Quiete scenes of Chiron as a boy asking Juan and Theresa why the bullies call him a certain name are heartbreaking. Another scene, muted and in slow motion, reveal an abusive Paula calling Chiron a degrading name leaving him confused and hurt. Otherwise, tender scenes between Chiron and Kevin are sweet and passionate and told on such a humanistic level.

Moonlight delves into such territory as loneliness and self identity and  is an interesting film to view for anyone who has struggled with these issues or anyone who is empathetic to those who have.  Moonlight breaks stereotypes and molds a film that is subtle and low-key, but speaks volumes.

Terms of Endearment-1983

Terms of Endearment-1983

Director-James L. Brooks

Starring-Shirley MacLane, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson

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Reviewed January 17, 2016

Grade: A

Terms of Endearment is a sentimental favorite of mine, and while I am slightly embarrassed to include this chick-flick to end all chick-flicks on my favorites list, it is also a damned good sentimental film and makes me a bit weepy each time I see it.  It is pure Hollywood mainstream formula, but somehow Terms of Endearment works for me (romantic films are not usually at the forefront) and even won the coveted Best Picture Oscar for 1983. That must say something.

So if it is so sappy what makes it so great? For starters, it has some exceptional acting all around, especially by  leads Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, and Debra Winger. How can you go wrong with talent of that caliber?  In the film, MacLaine and Winger play Aurora and Emma Greenway, a mother and daughter, (the father is deceased) who share a lifelong love/hate relationship, living in the mid-west in present times. Nicholson plays Garrett, a retired astronaut (and womanizer) and the object of Aurora’s affections. The chemistry among all three is apparent- I sinfully find it delicious that Winger and MacLaine apparently despised each other throughout filming, adding a layer of curiosity and intrigue to the film, and during their scenes.

Director James L. Brooks wisely balances the heavy drama with comedy so the film does not become too overwrought. For example, Garrett and Aurora  have a courtship that is humorous, constantly bickering or misunderstanding each other- he a womanizing playboy type and she a domineering, insecure woman- they end up needing each other, nonetheless. Unforgettable is the hilarious drive along the beach scene that the two share.  Even though the duo are tenuous and difficult,  I love them all the same.

The tear-jerker scenes are emotional and especially the death-bed scene at the end of the film. There is so much raw emotion going on at once and, a rarity in film, the child-actors involved  are real, believable, and flawless. The film really feels like watching a true, real-life, drama play out. The heartache feels real and the film as a whole feels very genuine.

Also interesting is Emma’s failing marriage to Flap (Jeff Daniels) and her subsequent affair with kind-hearted Sam (John Lithgow) as well as her departure from her mother’s hometown, the constant phone-calls, and being in one another’s life, just like a real mother and daughter relationship is oftentimes like.

Terms of Endearment has all of the elements that make a good, old-fashioned, dramatic tear-jerker, and I find myself a sucker for it each time that I watch it.

Forrest Gump-1994

Forrest Gump-1994

Director-Robert Zemeckis

Starring-Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise

Top 100 Films-#94

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Reviewed January 22, 2017

Grade: A

Awarded a bevy of Academy Awards in the year 1994, Forrest Gump is a film that is engrained in many people’s memories since the film was a monster hit in the mid 1990’s. Some complained that the unrealistic nature of the film was silly, and the story too saccharine, but the film is an innocent, sweet piece about a simple-minded man’s journey through life and the insurmountable success that he achieves. I adore the film largely from a sentimental standpoint and the memories that watching the film years later, conjures up. I find the film to be a comfort.

Zemeckis, certainly a feel-good film director (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), carves a whimsical tale of a fellow, Forrest Gump (played brilliantly by Tom Hanks), slow-witted, but a gentle soul, from Alabama, and his decades long journey through life. His lifelong love is Jenny (played by Robin Wright), who is a troubled girl and relies on Forrest over the course of their friendship-spanning decades. Forrest is always in the right place at the right time and influences the events of history in his own innocent way.

Forrest Gump is unique in its clever use of editing to incorporate Forrest into real-life historical events, which is a big part of the appeal of the film. In one instance, Forrest meets with Richard Nixon and reveals the Watergate scandal. He also meets President John F. Kennedy after winning a football scholarship. And who can possibly ever forget the numerous lines made famous from the film- “Stupid is as stupid does”, and “Life is a like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.”, to name just two.

What I love most about the film is that it has heart and the relationships that Forrest shares with the central characters in his life are rich. Forrest’s haggard, but kind mother (Sally Field) loves her son and they share a tender, emotional relationship.  When Forrest enlists in the Army during the Vietnam war, his grizzled commanding officer, Lt. Dan Taylor (an Oscar winning performance by Gary Sinise), surprisingly becomes one of Forrest’s closest friends. The film takes a darker turn when we begin to see a more human side to Taylor after a horrible accident, which leaves him without legs. To counterbalance this tragedy, Forrest is comically wounded in the buttocks.

I am not sure if I love or loathe the character of Jenny. Wright is perfect at giving her some vulnerability and her terrible upbringing can excuse some of her actions and taking advantage of Forrest for arguably her own gain. Still she has Forrest’s heart so she cannot be all that bad.

A favorite scene occurs in Washington as Forrest speaks at an anti-war rally. Jenny, in the crowd, recognizes Forrest and their reunion is sweet. Jenny, now a hippee and expelled from school, returns to Forrest’s life.

The fate of both Jenny and Mrs. Gump are scenes that will undoubtedly require tissues to get through as they are tender and emotional as can possibly be. Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump has emotion, sweetness, and heart, and those are nice qualities for a film to have. It is not too sappy or overwrought or manipulative, instead providing an honest story.

Lawrence of Arabia-1962

Lawrence of Arabia-1962

Director-David Lean

Starring-Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif 

Top 100 Films-#82

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Reviewed February 12, 2017

Grade: A

Lawrence of Arabia is quite a grand film and one that must be seen on the large screen in order to fully appreciate the enormous scale of the production. Numerous shots of objects appearing in the distance are featured and the small screen dulls the experience. A wonderful film from top to bottom and groundbreaking at the time by the scope and vast proportions of the production, Lawrence of Arabia achieves its place in the annals of cinema history, and is a treat to revisit from time to time. The film is divided into two parts divided by an intermission as was the case with epics nearly four hours in length.

Peter O’Toole stars as T.E. Lawrence, a bored British Army Lieutenant, who talks his way into a transfer to the Arabian desert. As the film opens, it is 1935, and Lawrence has just been killed in a motorcycle accident. This concept of revealing the ending of the story and working backwards, common in current films, was a novel experience in 1962, when the film was made.

While in Arabia, Lawrence successfully bands together bitter rival tribes to work together in order to unite against Turkish oppression during World War I. While there he meets two young guides, and other central characters such as Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). Much of the film features the many battles that occur between the rival tribes and the peace that Lawrence to achieve. Also, a multitude of location sequences of Lawrence and company traveling across the miles and miles of hot desert are featured.

Some complain that Lawrence of Arabia is too slow moving a film, but to me that is its selling point. I find the scenes of the group languishing across the desert incredibly lush and rich in meaning. The intense heat and the beating sun are fantastic in their cinematic grandeur. The film is meant to take its time- exactly how the experience in the Arabian desert would really be like and the mountainous sand dunes and swirling winds are brilliantly filmed. David Lean is the king of the sprawling epic and Lawrence of Arabia is his crown achievement.

The character of Lawrence is written well and he is a layered and complex individual- he is not easy to describe or to understand and that is also to the films credit. The sheer weight loss that O’Toole went through over the course of the two years that it took to Film Lawrence of Arabia is impressive enough, but he is also a tortured soul emotionally.

An epic film of the grandest proportions, Lawrence of Arabia required a half day of dedicated viewing, but is worth each and every minute. For a reminder of what a true, breathtaking film really looks like- sans the oversaturated CGI and quick edits, one should take a deep breath and appreciate this work of art for its majestic look.

Rebecca-1940

Rebecca-1940

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine

Top 100 Films-#63

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Reviewed February 18, 2017

Grade: A

The only Alfred Hitchcock film to win the coveted Best Picture Oscar trophy, Rebecca is a very early offering in the famous director’s repertoire. His heyday being well ahead of this film (the 1950’s and 1960’s saw his best works), Rebecca is a blueprint of fine things to come and on its own merits is a great film. Shot in black and white, the film is a descent into mystery, intrigue, and madness, with a gothic look to it.

Laurence Olivier stars as rich widower Maxim de Winter, whose first wife, title character Rebecca, has died some time before the story begins. In a clever twist, the character of Rebecca is never seen, but takes on a life of her own through the tellings of the rest of the cast. Joan Fontaine plays a nameless, naïve young woman who meets the sophisticated Maxim and marries him, becoming the new Mrs. de Winter. This development is met with disdain by the servants who work in the grand de Winter mansion, named Manderley, a character in its own right.

Housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in particular, is cold and distant from Maxim’s new wife, and begins to reveal an obsession with the deceased Rebecca, creating jealousy and intimidation for Fontaine’s character- so much so, that, she begins to doubt her sanity and decision making capabilities.

Rebecca is a fantastic, old style film, that provides layers of mystery and wonderment thanks to Hitchcock’s direction. The mansion that is Manderley is central to the story as is the obsession that creepy Mrs. Danvers has with Rebecca. She keeps the dead woman’s bedroom neat and tidy, a sort of shrine to her memory, so much so that, despite the time the film is made, 1940, a lesbian element is crystal clear to attention paying audiences. This aspect may have not been noticed at the time, but in more recent times, this is quite obvious.

The film is also a ghost story of sorts since the central character, Rebecca, is never seen. Could she be haunting the mansion? Is she actually dead or is this a red herring, created to throw the audience off the track? Is the new Mrs. de Winter spiraling out of control? Is she imagining the servants menacing actions? Is Maxim in on the torment or simply seeking a replacement wife to his true love? The pertinent questions not only are asked of the character, but of the audience themselves as they watch with bated breath.

The climax and finale to Rebecca is fantastic. As the arguably haunted mansion is engulfed in flames and the sinister Mrs. Danvers can be seen lurking near the raging drapes, the truth comes to the surface leaving a memorable haunting feeling to audiences watching. Rebecca is a true classic.

The French Connection-1971

The French Connection-1971

Director-William Friedkin

Starring-Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider

Top 100 Films-#69

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Reviewed February 25, 2017

Grade: A

The French Connection had the notable distinction of being the first R-rated film to win the coveted Best Picture Oscar back in 1971. This praise, similar to The Silence of the Lambs being the first horror film to win Best Picture in 1991, is well worth pointing out and is quite honorary. The film succeeds, both for myself and other critics, because of the unique style of the camerawork, shot documentary style and using quick edits. It is much more intricate in every way than the traditional crime thriller.

Gene Hackman stars as the feisty detective, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, who along with his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, (Sheider) are determined to crack the case of a huge heroin smuggling syndicate from France. The narcotics are flowing into New York City and the duo are determined to get to the bottom of the drug ring, figuring out who is the mastermind and defeating their foe. The primary culprit is a suave French drug lord named Alain Charnier, brilliantly played by Fernando Rey. Throughout the course of the film the action is non-stop, traversing throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, via subway, and car, as Popeye becomes more and more obsessed with the case.

Director William Friedkin, who also directed the legendary 1973 film, The Exorcist, deserves a heap of praise for creating a film of this caliber. The French Connection can be enjoyed by all and is well beyond the limitations of a “guy film”- it is much more than that. The editing and frenetic pacing works wonders for the film, all the while not ruining the experience or overshadowing the good plot. Quite simply, the film is a chase across New York City. Friedkin distinguishes the boroughs by making Manhattan seem sophisticated and stylish, and Brooklyn dirty, grizzled, and drug laden. The settings are perfect.

The best scene in the film is the well known car chase throughout New York City. Popeye is determined not to lose his man, the man riding in a subway on an elevated platform. Popeye steals a car and proceeds to chase the subway narrowly missing pedestrians, including a woman with a baby carriage, as he recklessly weaves in and out of traffic at a high speed, to keep pace with the train. This is a phenomenal scene as the excitement and tension continue to build.

The conclusion of the film and the final scene in fact, is cynical and also leaves the audience perplexed and unsure what has transpired. In this way The French Connection is open to good discussion and even interpretation, a novel aspect of the action film.

Providing a tremendous glimpse into 1970’s Manhattan and Brooklyn, The French Connection is an exciting film that oozes with thrills, car chases, and good story. The film is unique in style and still holds up incredibly well- one of my favorites of the action genre.

Titanic-1997

Titanic-1997

Director-James Cameron

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

Top 100 Films-#49

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Reviewed January 26, 2017

Grade: A

1997’s Titanic is a sweeping, gorgeous epic, directed by James Cameron, that is perfection at every level. This film has it all: romance, disaster, gorgeous art direction, and flawless attention to detail. The film will make you laugh, cry, and fall in love with the characters, despite knowing the inevitable outcome. The film is based on the real-life sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 after the ship tragically collided with an iceberg. I have witnessed this film be derided for being a “chick flick” or too “sappy”, but I vehemently disagree, and feel it is a classic for the ages. Titanic successfully re-invented the Hollywood epic.

Jack Dawkins (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a penniless artist who meets high class socialite Rose DeWitt (Kate Winslet) aboard the luxurious Titanic, headed from the coast of England to the United States in its maiden voyage. Rose is engaged to cagey Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Depressed, Rose contemplates diving overboard to her death, but Jack saves her and convinces her otherwise. They spend time together and he draws her portrait. As their romance blossoms, Cal catches on and plots revenge. In the mix are Rose’s snobbish mother, Ruth, played by Frances Fisher. A main theme of the film is social class and the difference that separate the haves from the have nots.

James Cameron desired perfection from this film and he sure got what he wanted. Every detail of Titanic is flawless and historically accurate, from the dining room silverware to the costumes to the set pieces barely visible in the background. Cameron even had a replica of the original Titanic built for filming purposes- certainly with limitations, but what a vast undertaking this must have been. That, along with the smoldering romance between Jack and Rose, are what makes Titanic one of my favorite films.

Two fantastic scenes are when Jack is taken under the wing of Molly Brown, played by Kathy Bates. Molly is not the snob that many of the other upper class is, and lends Jack a tuxedo so that he will look dapper for Rose. She also tenderly teaches him the appropriate way to use silverware. Tragically, the other scene is more melancholy- a gorgeous classical piece plays in the background as the vast ship is engulfed in water and slowly sinks, causing many deaths.

At well over three hours in length, the conclusion of the film is quite sprawling- and one has the feeling of being aboard the ship. By this time I was invested in the characters, both lead and supporting and the tragedy that ensues is both a marvel and heart-wrenching. Titanic is a film that simply must be viewed on the big screen for full effect, and is a timeless masterpiece that has aged perfectly.

The Silence of the Lambs-1991

The Silence of the Lambs-1991

Director-Jonathan Demme

Starring-Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster

Top 100 Films-#31     Top 20 Horror Films-#9

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Reviewed February 9, 2017

Grade: A

The Silence of the Lambs has the honorary achievement of being one of only three films to win the top five Oscar statuettes, having been awarded Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) and Best Actress (Jodie Foster) at the 1991 Oscar ceremonies. This is no small feat, especially considering the film was released in March (not an Oscar happy month) and is a horror film. These elements speak volumes for the level of mastery that is The Silence of the Lambs and the film holds up incredibly well as the years go by. The film was a sleeper hit at the time of release and gradually built momentum throughout the year, becoming a phenomenon and forever a classic.

The film is adapted from the novel of the same name- written by Thomas Harris and, despite being a horror film, contains little gore. The film stars Foster as Clarice Starling, and FBI trainee, sent by her superiors to interview the infamous Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal, “The Cannibal”, is a highly intelligent former psychiatrist who has been banished to a maximum security insane asylum after having been found guilty of killing and eating his victims. The FBI hopes that Hannibal will aid them in a current case involving “Buffalo Bill”, a serial killer who skins his female victims.

Hannibal and Clarice embark on an intense and strange relationship in which he gets under her skin and questions her unhappy childhood in exchange for information about “Buffalo Bill”. This relationship leaves Clarice vulnerable, though the pair develop a strong connection. As Hannibal makes more and more demands in exchange for information, he eventually escapes form custody and a chilling and bizarre escape.

The psychological elements and the intense relationship between Hannibal and Clarice are of monumental importance and Hopkins and Foster share amazing chemistry. Hopkins gives a top notch and downright creepy performance as the cannibalistic killer. His mannerisms stiff and calculating, his tone of voice monotone, he simply embodies his character, making him a legendary and recognizable presence in film history. Two memorable lines that he utters are, “I do wish we could chat longer, but I am having an old friend for dinner.”, and “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”.

The character of “Buffalo Bill” is as terrifying as Hannibal Lecter. Portrayed by Ted Levine, the character is maniacal, sexually confused, and otherwise downtrodden. A tailor, he aspires to make a full “woman suit” costume out of his victims skin. His current hostage, a Senator’s daughter, is kept confined in an old well and terrorized by Bill’s antics. His famous line, “It puts the lotion on or it gets the hose again” still terrifies.

Highly influential, mimicked for years to come, and containing multiple lines and characters permanently etched in film history, The Silence of The Lambs is a classic not soon forgotten. The film was followed by multiple sequels, none of which comes close to the power and psychological complexities of the original.

Spotlight-2015

Spotlight-2015

Director-Thomas McCarthy

Starring-Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo

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Reviewed December 9, 2015

Grade: B+

Spotlight is a film with an important story to tell. A telling of true events that occurred within the Catholic Archdiocese for ages, Spotlight’s focus is specifically on the Boston scandals, as a team of reporters working for the Boston Globe uncover and expose a multitude of child molestation cases committed by priests, subsequently covered up, and leaving victims paid off to keep quiet. The number of proven cases in Boston alone is staggering.

Starring are a plethora of talents including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, who lead the pack. They make up the “Spotlight” team at the newspaper,  an investigative unit who work on special stories as they arise.  As their new boss, Marty Baron (ironically a Jewish man), played compellingly by Liev Schrieber, takes over as head of the department, he quizzically asks why the story is not already a priority. Suddenly it is a hot-burner issue and the film delves into an investigation to uncover the facts.

Spotlight is a minimalist film done very well. There is nothing cinematically unique or razzle dazzle about it, but somehow that is okay. In some aspects the film reminds me of the 1975 thriller All The Presidents Men, starring Dustin Hoffman. For instance the bleak, bare news rooms-sterile in their look, are similar- cubicle after cubicle,  harsh lighting and generic conference rooms. Clearly this is the filmmakers intent. Also, the fast, energetic pacing, successfully emitting the tight deadlines newspaper folks are faced with, transfers perfectly on film.

The sexual abuse scandal is a cold, harsh reality and the film introduces several victims, who, now as adults, are forever scarred. Some attend support groups, some take drugs, one is sadly not “all there”. Another, now a gay man, was singled out by a priest during a vulnerable period in the, then young boy’s, life. It is a heartbreaking reality that many victims in the film are based on real cases.

Let’s focus on Schrieber’s character for a minute.  He gives such an understated yet compelling performance that my fear is it will wind up being an overlooked one. He calmly, yet passionately initiates the case. It is not a showy performance, in fact rather subdued, but a compelling one if enough attention is paid to it. He is a standout.

Unfortunately, the film does not delve much into the defense (if any) of the Catholic church. Did they do anything but deny the allegations? Why were the victims paid off? Not much is noted from the church’s point of view. In real life the Catholic church did, in fact, hide the abuse that transpired- for decades in fact.

A slight negative is that the film does not delve into the characters personal lives very much. Michael Keaton’s character, Robby Robinson, is arguably the lead character, spearheading the case,  though very little is known about him. Is he married? happily? Yes, he is a workaholic, but what else? Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes is separated from his wife, but little is known as to the reasons. Finally, McAdam’s Sacha is probably the most fleshed out- she is happily married and close with her religious grandmother, who is effected by the scandal. But we do not know her in depth either. I found myself wanting to know more about these people.

All in all, Spotlight is a very good film that is deserving of the recognition it is receiving. Intense, gritty and filled with honesty, it is a story that needed to be told and has been told well.

The Greatest Show on Earth-1952

The Greatest Show on Earth-1952

Director-Cecil B. DeMille

Starring-Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, James Stewart

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Reviewed December 10, 2014

Grade: B+

Considered by some critics to be one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time, The Greatest Show on Earth is quite an impressive Hollywood spectacle and tells the story of the world’s largest railroad circus as they launch a tour and travel throughout the United States, with plenty of drama to experience throughout the film. The film stars Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and James Stewart as general manager, acrobat, and clown of the show, respectively.

The film used over 1400 real Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s people in the production as well as hundreds of animals giving it an authentic circus feel. Unfortunately, the film also has a schmaltzy quality to it and not the best acting, which surprisingly does not bother me and, strangely enough, sort of works in a melodramatic way. Various characters have affairs with each other or fall in and out of love rather quickly- it makes for good drama anyway. The main appeal is the extravagant show, of course. While the drama sometimes takes center stage, the lavish production and real circus events shine through.

My favorite, and arguably, only interesting character with any depth in The Greatest Show on Earth is Buttons the clown, played by James Stewart. Buttons wears his clown costume complete with full makeup at all times. He is kindly and mysterious. We learn that he “mercy killed” his dying wife and has joined the circus for protection from the police. A wonderful human being, he was once a Doctor, and tends to anyone in the circus troupe who needs assistance. Later in the film, he plays a very important role after a tragic accident occurs. His heartbreaking, tender conversation with his elderly mother, whom he only sees secretly once a year for seconds as she tearfully and discreetly visits him in the audience, is painfully sad to watch and is such a sweet scene.

The Greatest Show on Earth’s best scene by far though, which still impresses today, is the massive train wreck, close to the conclusion of the film. Made in 1952, the special effects and direction of Cecil B. DeMille are brilliant. The way that the train derails on a dark night is just perfect- highly effective in its enormity, crashing into an approaching train and derailing. The scene does not look silly. The way that all of the drama comes together in this scene- Harry, the crooked midway concessionaire and the vicious elephant trainer, Klaus, responsible for the accident, Buttons true identity being revealed, and a major character in peril, make this scene top notch and a satisfying conclusion to the film.

The films stories involving Brad, Holly, Sebastian, and Angel are soapy and melodramatic and the weakest point of the film- as a viewer I couldn’t care less which character lusted after which or who wound up in bed together, but the film itself is a spectacle and that is my main enjoyment of it. The brightness, the revelry, and the circus performances are all wonderful.

Oliver!-1968

Oliver!-1968

Director-Carol Reed

Starring-Mark Lester, Oliver Reed

Top 100 Films-#55

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Reviewed December 8, 2014

Grade: A

Oliver, a 1968 film based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, which was then adapted into a successful stage musical, the film surprisingly won the Academy award for Best Picture that year. Surprising, not because Oliver is poor, in fact it is magnificent, but it was not predicted to take home the honor. Telling the tale of woeful orphan Oliver, the film wonderfully comes across as a dark musical with a wholesome happy ending feel, largely due to the musical compositions which inevitably make for a cheerier tone.
When the film begins, Oliver lives in a despicable orphanage outside of London. A drawing of straws forces meek Oliver to ask for more gruel. After being deemed a problem child he is sold for cheap to an undertaker where he is bullied. Defeated, Oliver makes his way towards the big city in hopes of finding his fortunes. He then meets sinister characters such as Fagin, the Artful Dodger, and Bill Sykes, as well as the sympathetic Nancy and Mr. Brownlow.

I absolutely love the musical numbers of the film and for me it is the strongest aspect of Oliver. The film would have certainly been much darker had it not been for the musical that it was. Numbers such as “Consider Yourself”, “Food, Glorious Food”, and “As Long As He Needs Me” stick with audiences for miles. The entertaining songs lighten the somber moments- as noted earlier when meek Oliver dares to ask for more gruel, the enchanting “Food Glorious Food” cannot help but be hummed along to, which lightens the mood of the scene. I also enjoy how the film contains the long ago popular trend of containing two acts with an intermission in between- very grand and classy and an aspect of film I wish would return in today’s movies. The London art direction is magnificent, revealing a cold, industrial feel, mixed in with a warm, sunny atmosphere when Oliver stays at the palatial estate of Mr. Brownlow. The bright and enchanting musical number of “Who Will Buy?” is the perfect backdrop for this setting and my personal favorite number.

Nancy is one of the most complex characters- a prostitute, she happily sings, in denial about her life, in “It’s a Fine Life”, secretly wishing her life was better than it is. Later, conflicted over helping Oliver or standing by her man she sings a melancholy number, “As Long As He Needs Me”, which cements her role as a tragic, sad character. However, as she leads a drunken bar room in a dance of “Oom-Pah-Pah”, the drama is thick as she is striving to help Oliver at the risk of putting her own life in severe jeopardy. Shani Wallis fills the character with heart and feeling.

Oliver is a much darker film than one might imagine. Curiously rated G, the film should have at least been rated PG. The films heart is of that of a children’s movie- to me personally a turn-off, but the film is much bolder than that. Certainly, some subject matters are toned down from Dickens novel, but not completely toned down. Examples- the novel made clear overtones of child abuse by the thieves by Fagin, yet there is none of that in the film. Contrasting this, the film blatantly shows the beating death of Nancy- albeit out of camera range, but the audience gets enough of a glimpse to ascertain what is happening. The shooting and swinging death of Bill Sykes borders on brutal.

A glaring flaw of the film is that the voice of Oliver is dubbed by a female singer and not voiced by actor Mark Lester. To me, this seems quite obvious that the voice is not male. The character of Bill Sykes is convincingly played by Oliver Reed, nephew of director Carol Reed.

Perfect around holiday time, Oliver is a terrific musical drama, to be enjoyed for eons to come.

Gone With The Wind-1939

Gone With The Wind-1939

Director-Victor Fleming

Starring-Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh

Top 100 Films-#15

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Reviewed November 29, 2014

Grade: A

Gone with the Wind is the grand masterpiece of the sweeping epic drama. The film is based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel. Set in the south (Georgia) during the Civil War era, it centers on the life of Scarlett O’Hara, southern belle of cotton plantation Tara, and how she must struggle to keep her plantation alive after the south loses the war. Initially, Scarlett cares little about war, instead enjoying her spoiled, narcissistic lifestyle, and romances with many men in the town, all vying for her attentions. She revels in one sunny picnic and ball after another with all eyes on her. As war decimates the south, however, Scarlett must take over the plantation and survive the ravages of war. Mixed in with the war theme is a romance between Scarlett and Rhett, one of cinema’s most recognized and enduring couples. Having gone through three directors (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, and Sam Wood), the film is as extravagant and precise in its style, attention to detail, and set design as films come.

At close to four hours in length, Gone with the Wind is a lavish production that can take an entire afternoon or evening to watch and is divided into two halves- interestingly the first half directed by Cukor, and the second primarily directed by Fleming. It is a film that can be viewed and analyzed over and over again and the set pieces and flawless perfectionism alone, marveled at. The first half is superior to the second, but that is like comparing prime rib to filet mignon- it’s a preference of goodies. The first half is brighter, cheery, and fantastic. The wonderful Tara and neighboring plantation Twin Oaks host southern balls and parties and are filled with romance, gossip and beautiful costumes. War is coming, but it is a delightful time of merriment. The Southerners embrace going to war- they assume it will last for two weeks and they will be victorious. They party and they celebrate.

The second half has a much darker tone. By the beginning of the second half Atlanta has burned, thousands of men have died, and Tara is decimated, Scarlett’s mother dead and father gone batty. The rebuilding of the south is explored, the troubled Rhett and Scarlett marriage commences, their daughter dies, and the world famous line uttered by Rhett to Scarlett, “Frankly my dear…. I don’t give a damn”. Having been now directed by a different person (Fleming), the first and second halves almost seem like two separate films.

Vivien Leigh plays a wonderful role. In 1939 women were rarely strong characters in film, so for that reason Gone with the Wind is groundbreaking for female characters. Scarlett is selfish, yes, but she rises above, is strong, saving her plantation and succeeding as a successful businesswoman- almost unheard of in cinema for 1939. Her undying love for Ashley Wilkes, but unable to obtain him (he is married to his cousin Melanie) gives her a sympathetic vulnerability.

Clark Gable, already a huge star and the people’s choice to play Rhett, is charismatic and handsome. The fact that he and Leigh did not get along make their fights and sexual tension electric. They love each other, but also hate each other and this is transmitted on screen. Rhett is his own man- he defines himself as not a northerner, but not a southerner either. He is a vagabond and spends many nights at the local brothel in the company of Belle Watling. The character of Rhett is independent and strong.

The supporting characters are colorful, lively, and humorous. Aunt Pittypat with her dramatic worrying and smelling salts and Prissy with her insistence on expert child-birthing when in reality she knows nothing, are moments meant to lighten the mood. Mammie, a mother-figure to Scarlett, is a moral, kind, yet tough character. Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) is an even sweeter character in her caring and selflessness. Lesser characters such as Dr. Meade, Suellen, Carreen, India, and Frank Kennedy all serve their purpose and are not throwaway characters.

Bothersome is that over the years Gone with the Wind has been unfairly “feminized” once it began airing as an alternative to the annual Super Bowl, the assumption being that only women would enjoy it, is silly. I do not find this film to be a female film and frankly, some of the battle scenes are quite masculine, with epic fires and guns galore. Is Gone with the Wind now considered a racist film? Perhaps so, and time has made the political incorrectness much more glaring- this point can be debated endlessly. Ashley participates in a hooded Klan organization and is a hero of the film! Certainly the slaves are portrayed as happy, kindly, and comfortable with their place in life all throughout the film, vastly different from what surely transpired. However, Hattie McDaniel (Mammie) won the first ever Oscar for a black actress so that was monumental progress and influence. Using seemingly thousands of extras, the war torn Atlanta scene where the camera rises up and up and up panning down on hundreds of wounded and dead Union soldiers as Scarlett defeatedly walks among them is still heartbreaking to watch and is a reminder of the power and destruction that war is.

Gone with the Wind is an epic masterpiece from long ago that still holds up amazingly well. The sets, the rich characters, and the costumes can be admired and still inspire today.

The Godfather Part II-1974

The Godfather Part II-1974

Director-Frances Ford Coppola

Starring-Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro

Top 100 Films-#3

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Reviewed: November 24, 2014

Grade: A

Frances Ford Coppola’s sequel (and technically also a prequel) to the highly regarded and successful The Godfather is one of the rare sequels to equal and even surpass the original in its greatness, creativity and structure. The Godfather Part II feels deeper, more complex, and ultimately richer than The Godfather- and that film itself is a masterpiece. Part II is much darker in tone. Ford Coppola had complete freedom to write and direct as he saw fit with no studio interference. The results are immeasurable in creating a film masterpiece.

The film is sectioned into two parts, which is a highly interesting and effective decision. The story alternates between the early twentieth century following Don Corleone’s life, now played by Robert DeNiro, as his story is explained- left without a family and on the run from a crime lord, Don escapes to the United States as a young boy and struggles to survive in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City. He obtains a modest job as a grocery stock boy and finally celebrates his eventual rise to power in the mafia. The other part of the film is set in 1958 as Michael Corleone is faced with a crumbling empire, through both rivals and the FBI- investigating him and holding Senate committee hearings in Washington D.C., and a failing marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton). Betrayal is a common theme of the film from Michael’s wife, brother, and mobster allies revealed to be cagey enemies. Michael grows uncertain and mistrustful of almost everyone surrounding him. Is Kay a friend or foe? Is Fredo plotting against him? He even begins lashing out at Tom Hagen on occasion.
What makes The Godfather Part II so brilliant, and in my opinion richer than The Godfather, is that it is tougher to watch- and that is to its credit. Now, instead of being a warm, respected member of a powerful family, Michael is questioned, analyzed, and betrayed. New, interesting characters are introduced- Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasburg, a former ally of Don’s, and Frankie Pentangeli, played by Michael V. Gazzo are intriguing characters and their allegiances are unknown throughout most of the film- are they loyal to the Corleone’s or deadly enemies?

The character of Michael goes from conflicted to all-out revenge minded, including revenge sought on members of his own family. Michael is now a dark, angry character- gone is the nice, decorated war hero with his whole life ahead of him. He is much older and a changed man. Similar to the original Godfather, the opening scene is a large celebration- this time of Anthony Corleone’s first communion celebration. Also in comparison, the finale of the film involves major character deaths one after the other.

Unique to this film are the multiple location scenes- New York, Nevada, Italy, Florida, and Cuba are all featured making for an enjoyable segue throughout and a bigger budget. The blow-up confrontation between Michael and Kay is devastating and shocking in its climax. When Michael punches Kay in a sudden rage, the audience also feels punched. The wonderful scene at the end of the film with the entire family gathered around for Don’s fiftieth birthday in 1942 is a special treat for viewers; familiar faces make cameo appearances. I love these aspects of the film.

The rich history of Don is the greatest aspect of The Godfather Part II as simply known as “Godfather” and patriarch of the family, his life as a boy and young father are explained so we see how he became one of the most powerful men in the crime world. I love how he remains a decent man and helps the poor and the victims of ruthless Don Fanucci, his predecessor. He loves his wife and children, but also loves his neighbors, and helps them, believing in fairness. Ultimately, the characters of Don and Michael are worlds apart.

The Godfather Part II is one of the most complex and well-written films in movie history- studied in film school, discussed, imitated, and championed. It remains vital and should be viewed and analyzed again and again and again.

The Godfather-1972

The Godfather-1972

Director-Frances Ford Coppola

Starring-Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan

Top 100 Films-#10

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Reviewed November 24, 2014

Grade: A

The Godfather is one of the most identifiable and brilliant film masterpieces of all time. It is so ingrained in pop-culture and film history and was such a blueprint of 1970’s cinema that its legend deservedly lives on. The film has not aged poorly nor been soured by over-exposure. It is as much a marvel today as it must have been when originally released in theaters in 1972.

The film revolves around the Corleone family- a mob family living in New York. They are high powered, wealthy, and influential with politicians and law enforcement alike. They are the cream of the crop of the organized crime families. The patriarch of the family is known as “The Godfather”, real name Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. The eldest son is hot-headed Sonny, played by James Caan. Middle son Fredo, played by John Cazale, is dim-witted and immature and clearly the weak link of the family. Finally, the youngest son is the central character in the film. Michael, played by a very youthful Al Pacino, has just returned home from World War II, a decorated and Ivy League educated hero. Throughout the film Michael wrestles with either steering the Corleone family business towards the straight and narrow or continuing the death, blood, and corruption that currently encompasses the family. Rounding out the Corleone family is Tom Hagen, an Irish surrogate son of sorts, who serves as the family attorney. Connie- the temperamental and emotional sister, and Mama Corleone, the passive wife of Don’s complete the main family. The various supporting characters are immense, from family friends, relatives, corrupt mob figures, and characters introduced when Michael lives in Italy.

The brilliance of The Godfather is clearly the richness of the enormous amount of characters on the canvas and the structure and pacing of the film. Even small characters are vital to the film and every scene is important and effortlessly paced so that they neither seem rushed nor drag, and the film is immeasurably character driven. My favorite character is Michael Corleone as he is the most troubled and complex. Pacino plays him to the hilt as, initially, a nice guy trying to do the right thing, going against the grain, and non-traditional- he proposes to a waspy woman who has no Italian heritage. When events develop in a particular way, Michael suddenly becomes the leader of the family, despite being the youngest son, and the complexities of the character deepen from this point. Specifically, the revenge killing sequence is brilliant as the viewer is kept on the edge of their seat through a car ride, a meal in a restaurant, a men’s room scene, until finally, all hell breaks loose, all the while Michael is conflicted, unsure, and intense. Has he veered too far from being a nice guy? Can he salvage the family business without being ruthless? Michael faces a battle of good vs. evil. The scenes are brilliantly structured- the grand opening scene alone is beautiful as the audience is introduced to the entire family- cheerfully dancing and frolicking during a bright and sunny outdoor wedding (Connie’s) at the Corleone estate, while inside a dark interior study, a man begs Don Corleone to help avenge his raped and beaten daughter by having her attackers killed. Several scenes in The Godfather are my personal favorites- the aforementioned restaurant scene, where Michael is faced with a dilemma involving a corrupt policeman and a high powered figure, one can feel the tension in this extended scene. The scene in a Hollywood mansion where poor, innocent, horse Khartoum meets his fate in the most gruesome way imaginable. Later, Michael’s beautiful Italian wife, Apollonia, has an explosive send-off. Towards the end of the film, the improvised tomato garden scene with an elderly Don Corleone playing with his young grandson. Finally, the brutal scene involving Corleone son Sonny at the toll booth is mesmerizing, brutal, and flawlessly executed.

The lack of any strong female characters and the way in which women are treated (either beaten or passively following their husbands) is bothersome, but unfortunately, circa 1940’s mafia, this is the way things were. One could make the argument that Kay Adams, played by Diane Keaton, is the strongest female character as she questions the Corleone family’s motives and attempts to keep Michael honest and trustworthy. She has little in common with the other female characters. Lines such as “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “Don’t forget the cannolis” are unforgettable and quote-worthy.

The finale of the film is breathtaking- a combination of bloody kills mixed in with a peaceful scene of Michael accepting the honor of becoming his nephew’s godfather. As he pledges his devotion to God and denounces Satan, the murders he orchestrated are simultaneously being executed. The character, while complex, suddenly becomes a hypocrite. Some view Michael as strictly a hero whose choices should not be questioned or analyzed- other’s view Michael as not a hero, but rather a complex, tortured, bad guy. One simply must watch The Godfather and The Godfather Part II as companion pieces, as Part I is slightly more straightforward and easier to follow than the more complex and layered sequel.

The Godfather is storytelling and film making at its absolute best and continues to influence films to this day.

Birdman-2014

Birdman-2014

Director-Alejandro G. Inarritu

Starring-Michael Keaton, Edward Norton

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Reviewed November 6, 2014

Grade: A

Birdman is a very unique art film, which happily, has garnered major exposure and publicity, because a movie like this runs the risk of receiving praise and notice only from the art house crowd itself. The film’s star-Michael Keaton, portrays Riggan Thomson, a former action hero superstar from the 1990’s, who was made famous for the “Birdman” character he created. Having made sequels to the film, his career has since dried up and he hopes to establish credibility and prove himself a real actor by writing, directing, and starring in his own play.

The film is set in and around the Broadway theater in New York City. As opening night approaches, he struggles to pull everything together and emit a successful production while faced with an injured terrible actor, a difficult actor, his own insecurities, and a miserable theatre critic destined to ruin his big chance. To make matters worse, his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone is a recovering drug addict who hangs around the theatre distracting actors with her charm and good looks.  Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play Leslie and Mike, other cast members in the production. Watts is sympathetic as the emotional actress with the heart of gold who finally has her dream of performing on Broadway realized. Norton, outstanding as Mike, is blunt yet socially awkward and can only perform truthfully on the stage. Keaton is simply a marvel as he plays a dark and vulnerable man hating and wishing to shed his ridiculous movie persona of yesteryear and secretly cringes when recognized by fans. He communicates with a voice inside his head, the voice he used when he played “Birdman” years earlier.

The uniqueness of the film is the use of what seems like one long take as the action rarely stops and seems to be ongoing. In my opinion, the film belongs to Keaton- he wonderfully relays vulnerability, pain, and fear within with an outward persona of bravery and masculinity. Throughout the film I wondered, is Riggan suicidal? What is real and what is imagined? Are certain scenes foreshadowing for later events? The film has much depth. One marvels at how art imitates life- Is Keaton really portraying himself? Keep in mind that Keaton was the original Batman in the successful superhero franchise beginning in 1989 and his career tanked shortly thereafter. Birdman is a comeback film for him and he is devastatingly good. Norton’s character Mike impressed me- blunt and honest he is also flawed and scared and in some ways addicted to the stage.  Stone has one particularly brilliant scene as she lambasts her father and with regret later on, tells him that the world has moved on without him and that he is irrelevant just like everyone else- it is a powerful scene. In another, Riggan is locked outside of the theater during the performance, clad only in his underwear- how on earth will he return to the stage and complete the show? The quick slights at current Hollywood superstars playing superheroes, specifically Robert Downey Jr. are deliciously naughty.

A dark comedy for sure, it is impossible to predict what will come next and the film is very New York theater style. Keaton’s run in with a theater critic in a cocktail bar is the best scene in the film as the critic’s vicious critique of “You’re a celebrity, not an actor” resonates both pain and tremendous anger for Riggan. Riggan is a sensitive, struggling man and Keaton so wonderfully shows his vulnerability in every scene. Bravo!

 

West Side Story-1961

West Side Story-1961

Director-Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins

Starring-Richard Beymer, Natalie Wood

Top 100 Films-#64

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Reviewed November 1, 2014

Grade: A

West Side Story is a musical from 1961 (based on the Broadway stage production from the 1950’s), during a period in Hollywood where every other film released seemed to be a version of an enchanting musical. This particular film version is much darker than most  contemporaries within this genre. The dreary ending, fantastic and compelling in its dramatic elements, does not dour the rest of the musical and its hum-along tunes. West Side Story was crowned the 1961 Best Picture Oscar winner.

West Side Story is certainly based on the Shakespearean tragedy of Romeo and Juliet- the Capulets and Montagues becoming rival teen street gangs of the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the Polish”Jets”, with the lovesick teens Tony and Maria serving as Romeo and Juliet. And yes, spoiler alert, the story does not end in a happily ever after fashion.

Loads of suspension of disbelief must be taken- How many gangs sing and dance to each other, snapping their fingers in unison to perfectly choreographed beats? Additionally, some of the gang  characters are not so authentic looking- either in clearly dyed hair, bronzed with tan, or some other phony looking get-up, but the film is a cherished friend and these can be overlooked for my enjoyment of the film.

The story, set in 1950’s New York City, pits the Sharks (a gang led by Bernardo) against the Jets (led by Riff), who have been bitter rivals for the turfs of the rough streets of Manhattan’s west side for many years. In tow are the gang’s girlfriends, along with one female, named “Anybodys”- who longs for the day when she will be allowed to join the Jets and fight alongside the boys. The other supporting characters largely include various policemen (Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke) attempting to keep the gangs apart, as well as a local shopkeeper, Doc, who is the moral compass of the story, encouraging the gangs to get along with each other and questioning the logic of gang fights. After a scuffle, the gangs decide to have at it after an upcoming dance and the Jets elect Tony to square off against Bernardo.

The story is surprisingly dark- especially in the inevitable final act. Amid all this darkness, however, lies a musical with cheery and catchy numbers (I Feel Pretty, Jet Song) as well as love struck tunes (Maria and Somewhere). A musical about diversity and rivalry, the story centers on lovesick Maria and Tony, a la Romeo and Juliet and their struggle to be together despite adversity from their friends and family due to their extremely different backgrounds.

Throughout the film we get to know other characters well- Anita, girlfriend of Bernardo, for example, played by Rita Moreno, is the stubborn yet likable, best friend of Maria, who thinks that Maria and Tony are wrong for each other and that things just are not supposed to be that way when you mix cultural diversity.

The film moves along at a quick pace with standoffs, fights, plots to get the other gang, a failed attempt at a dance to co-mingle the two groups and girlfriends, and Tony and Maria sneaking off to meet together. The lack of chemistry between Natalie Wood (Maria) and Richard Beymer (Tony) is quite noticeable, especially upon multiple viewings, but all of these decades later it is also tough to imagine anyone else in either role- so ingrained are the duo in film culture.

The cultural diversity of much of the cast (Rita Moreno was the only Puerto Rican) is interesting, as is the fact that most of the singing was dubbed by other singers. Yet, the film still somehow works very well.

An American in Paris-1951

An American in Paris-1951

Director-Vincente Minnelli

Starring-Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron

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Reviewed June 25, 2013

Grade: B+

A classic film directed by Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris is a musical from 1951, set in marvelous Paris- though, to be fair, the entire film save for the opening scenes of Paris, is shot exclusively on a sound stage.

Gene Kelly stars as a struggling American artist named Jerry Mulligan, who lives in a quiet neighborhood, along with his best friend, Adam Cook. Jerry optimistically sings and tap dances his way through life, befriending neighbors and school kids and spending time in the local cafe, until he is finally noticed by wealthy art buyer Milo, played by Nina Foch. This sets off a quadrangle when Jerry falls for youthful Lise (Leslie Caron), who is already dating a suave French singer, Georges Guetary.  An American in Paris is a cheerful, fantasy film. It is bright, colorful, and filled with musical numbers and dancing. Highlights in this department are “’S Wonderful” and “I Got Rhythm”.

The brilliance of the film is the simply awesome 18 minute epic finale involving Gene Kelly’s ballet throughout Parisian sets of various artists. It is as innovative as anything in film history. The drawback of the film is the lack of chemistry between Kelly and Caron, an aspect of the film I notice more and more with each passing viewing. In fact, there is more chemistry between Kelly and Foch, who is clearly meant to be the odd woman out, and I still find myself rooting for the two of them instead of the intended couple. I do love how none of the four characters involved in the story is considered a villain, which adds to the merry feel of the film.

The predictable ending is wonderful and romantic. An American in Paris won the 1951 Best Picture Oscar, upsetting the heavily favored A Streetcar Named Desire.

All About Eve-1950

All About Eve-1950

Director-Joe Mankiewicz

Starring-Bette Davis, Anne Baxter

Top 100 Films-#84

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Reviewed October 3, 2013

Grade: A

All About Eve is a cynical masterpiece from 1950 set in the competitive world of the New York theater. Insecure Margo Channing, played to perfection by Bette Davis, is an aging actress whose career is on the downturn. She meets naïve Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter, who insinuates herself into Margo’s life and career. One interesting facet of this film is how the opening scene is of an acceptance speech by Eve. The look of anger and disdain from the front table gives a good indication of things to come. From there the film backtracks to the first time the two women meet and the story really begins. It is certainly a dark film and jealousy and back-stabbing are common themes throughout as had never been done before in film set in the world of theater. One by one, each of Margo’s friends catch on to Eve’s plot, but at what cost? This is Bette Davis’s comeback performance as a talented Broadway star and she makes the most of the opportunity as she deliciously utters her famous revenge minded line “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night”. Marilyn Monroe has a cameo role as a debutante in her first film role. The film deservedly won the 1950 Best Picture Oscar.

American Beauty-1999

American Beauty-1999

Director-Sam Mendes

Starring-Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening

Top 100 Films-#65

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Reviewed October 11, 2013

Grade: A

American Beauty is a film that holds up magnificently well and packs the same punch that it did when I originally saw it when it first premiered in 1999. The film won the Best Picture Oscar in 1999, surprisingly so, as it is not a mainstream film and is edgy, artistic, and poetic.

The film is a thought provoking story of the American Dream gone wrong and how most people live ordinary, humdrum, on the surface, happy lives, but in truth are unhappy, damaged, or otherwise unfulfilled. It is a truthful film and reminds me quite a bit of The Ice Storm, a film from 1997. American Beauty is not a downer, but rather is witty, dark humored, and filled with dry sarcasm. Kevin Spacey is tremendous as the central character going through a mid-life crisis and Annette Bening is frighteningly good as his neurotic, controlling wife. Their daughter, played by Thora Birch, has her own teenage angst and falls in love with a neighborhood misfit. Every character, even small and supporting, is troubled in some way.

American Beauty is a film that was loved or hated at the time of its release; some simply did not get it or did not want to invest in the thought it requires, but, to me it’s a work of art, which has achieved a timeless quality.

12 Years a Slave-2013

12 Years a Slave-2013

Director-Steve McQueen

Starring-Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender

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Reviewed November 2, 2013

Grade: A

At the time of 12 Years a Slave’s release, a ton of buzz began circulating. Was it that good? Considered the front runner to win the Best Picture statue, it did indeed win the top honors. The film is not an easy watch- it is brutal and heart-wrenching at times. I will spare the details, but the most intense scene involves a whip. There are scenes of torture, degradation, and cruelty against the slaves by the slave owners. While tough to watch, I applaud the film for not glossing over the atrocities of slavery. Some have criticized the film for being a retread of similar films, but I disagree. It is worlds more intense than watered down versions.  However the film is not a downer. Yes, a class of people are beaten down and victimized, but they also rise above and never give up hope. The fact that it’s a true story and a book was written on the subject by the real Solomon Northup makes it all the more powerful.

The performances are clearly outstanding (Ejiofor, Fassbender, Paulson, and Nyong’o). The look of the film and cinematography are sharp and I loved the distinctiveness of the north and south scenes. The setting is stifling hot and dreary. There are at least 2 scenes where the camera pans on a shot and holds it for seemingly and eternity until an action occurs, which made the scenes effective. While difficult to watch, this film should be viewed by everyone to see how far we have come, but not forget how far we still need to go to eliminate discrimination and victimization.

The Sound of Music-1965

The Sound of Music-1965

Director-Robert Wise

Starring-Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer

Top 100 Films-#29

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Reviewed December 13, 2015

Grade: A

The Sound of Music is a film that most everyone has seen over and over again- undoubtedly ingrained in most people’s childhood memories and, especially, around the holiday season, it is a treasure to watch. It is tough to be objective as I’ve probably seen the film dozens of times and continue to appreciate and love it with each repeated viewing.

Maria (Julie Andrews) is a pretty, young free-spirited woman living in the gorgeous hills of Austria. In fact, we first meet her on a lush hilltop where she sings with the birds and enjoys life. While very popular with other nuns, she does not quite fit in at the Nonnberg Abbey where she studies to become a nun. She is sent to discover herself as the governess to seven children living nearby. They are the children of well-known, and now retired, Georg von Trapp (played by Christopher Plumber). Since his wife died, no life or music exists inside the house. Maria brings life and music to all and transforms everyone to a happier existence. The threat of the powerful Nazis, wishing to recruit a disapproving von Trapp adds tension. In the midst of it all, Maria and von Trapp fall madly in love.

As a musical it is top notch and is the hallmark of all musicals. The songs are tough to get out of one’s head (“The Sound of Music”, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, and “My Favorite Things” are personal favorites), but the list of gems goes on and on.

The political/Nazi story was lost on me as a child, but now I see the film does have a darker tone in the second half and becomes quite serious.  Surely, since it is a family film details are glossed over a bit, but so what? It is more the wonderful music that makes The Sound of Music so great and memorable.

The first half, of course, is wholesomely sugary sweet and safe and, from what I’ve read, extremely loosely based on the real von Trapp family, but this hardly matters as it is escapism galore and that is needed sometimes.

I hate to dissect and over analyze a film like this when clearly it is a fantasy/musical extravaganza meant to be enjoyed. Lighthearted and fun for everyone.

Annie Hall-1977

Annie Hall-1977

Director-Woody Allen

Starring-Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

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Reviewed December 3, 2013

Grade: A

Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s finest work and that is says something as his list of wonderful films goes on and on (Manhattan, Blue Jasmine, and Interiors) are gems. Annie Hall is a witty, intelligent, great comedy. It is sharply written, quirky, and neurotic all rolled into one. Comedy is a tough genre. Romantic comedies are even tougher to get right.

My favorite part of the film is Woody Allen himself. Some might say he plays himself, but he is engagingly hysterical as the neurotic, skeptical, Jewish, cynical New York man named Alvy. He meets and falls in love with equally neurotic Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton. They quarrel, love, and traverse from New York to California and back.

There are some very funny scenes (lobster, movie theater line, and the drive through Manhattan), and the intelligent, crisp dialogue makes this a top notch comedy.

Midnight Cowboy-1969

Midnight Cowboy-1969

Director-John Schlesinger

Starring-Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight

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Reviewed March 16, 2014

Grade: A

Midnight Cowboy is a masterpiece from 1969 that remains the only Best Picture Oscar winner to be rated “X” and, sadly, would probably not be made today. It tells the tale of a friendly, trusting cowboy who moves from Texas to New York City and is challenged to survive the brutal streets any way he can. Throughout the film he meets several interesting, unsavory characters and experiences life in the bowels of NYC as drug use and prostitution are explored. Personally, I did not find this to be as much of a downer as many other people did, but rather, a story of survival.

The grittiness of NYC is wonderfully portrayed with many locales being used (Times Square). Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are exceptionally cast and have great chemistry, though the film is by no means a “buddy movie”. It’s bleak, raw, and intense at times. Sylvia Miles has a memorable one scene feature. This is great filmmaking.

The Apartment-1960

The Apartment-1960

Director-Billy Wilder

Starring-Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine

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Reviewed April 22, 2014

Grade: A-

Another gem by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend), this one is set in 1959 New York City, a setting and time period I just adore. The black and white is highly effective as it portrays a loneliness and bleakness of the characters that are all friendless, sad, and starved for love.

It questions social morality and getting ahead in the corporate world, but goes from drama to romantic comedy, but with no sappiness. Quite the contrary, as the film has dark moments of despair and angst.

The film clearly had a direct influence on “Mad Men”. As with most Billy Wilder films, there is a darkness of humanity, which is fascinating to watch.

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are terrific, but knocked down a notch as I didn’t exactly see the chemistry between them, but an excellent film. This won the 1960 Best Picture Oscar.