Friday, August 29, 2014

The Sting (Best Picture 1973)

The Sting is one of the greatest films of all time. If you haven't ever seen it, you should go to your local library TODAY and reserve a copy. It is fun, dramatic, exciting, and, most important, entertaining.

Paul Newman plays Henry Gondorf, a one-time Big Name grifter (con artist) living in Chicago. Robert Redford plays younger grifter named Johnny Hooker, who with his partner Luther steals money from a money-runner working for the powerful crime syndicate belonging to Doyle Lonnegan. Lonnegan has the patsy killed and orders Hooker and Luther killed as well. Luther is thrown out of his apartment window, but Hooker escapes to Chicago. Crooked cop Snyder (Charles Durning) follows him, wanting his cut of the money.

Together, Gondorf and Hooker plot a way to get back at Donnegan (an evil Robert Shaw). They come up with a con based off of horse-racing, and slowly but surely reel Donnegan in. All the time they are plotting their "sting" operation, Donnegan's assassins are still chasing Hooker. Snyder, too, is in the background making life rough for Hooker. And the FBI appears to want Gondorf on an earlier sting of a Congressman. Will the boys and their gang maneuver through all of the dangers they are facing, or will the plot collapse like a house of cards?

Everything about this film is wonderful. The costumes, the sets, and the cars all evoke the mid-Thirties. Each "chapter" of the film is divided into a different section with "cue card" type introductory illustrations: The Set-Up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut Out, and The Sting. The cast is perfect. Besides Newman and Redford, the cons of note include character-actor Ray Walston (South Pacific, "My Favorite Martian"), Eileen Brennan ("Private Benjamin"), and Harold Gould ("Rhoda"), all of whom add a certain panache to the proceedings. 
My parents took me and my brother to watch this film when we were kids. I was enthralled; I was already a fan of the TV show "Mission:Impossible", but this was creating a "make-believe" story much more in-depth and dangerously than anything I had seen on *that* show! Every time I watch this film I see something new (and it is one of the Best Pictures that I actually own and have seen numerous times). For example, Paul Newman plays poker with Robert Shaw on the NYC-Chicago train, and they both cheat. It's infinitely entertaining to me to watch each of these great actors rip into the scene, yelling "he cheated better than me!" after the action is over!

Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and director George Roy Hill met on the set of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. That film did not win the main Academy Awards, winning only Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography,  Best Score, and Best Song. However,  The Sting was nominated for ten awards and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Score (which included "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin, as adapted by Marvin Hamlisch). Redford was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger). George Roy Hill later directed Redford in The Great Waldo Pepper and Newman in Slap Shot.

The Sting is one of those movies, like Casablanca or It Happened One Night, that never gets old. It is a timeless film that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. The only condition is that you must WATCH it. You can't have it on in the background or half-watch it. To enjoy it totally you need to commit to it. With that stipulation, I absolutely guarantee you will enjoy it.  

The Sting
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1973*
Produced by Tony Bill, Michael Phillips,
and Julia Phillips
Directed  by George Roy Hill
Screenplay by David S. Ward

Gosh, this makes me want to watch it AGAIN...!
Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
American Graffiti
Cries And Whispers
The Exorcist
A Touch of Class
American Graffiti is, of course, the classic "coming of age" story directed by George Lucas that helped create the TV series "Happy Days" and the Star Wars movies. The Exorcist is, of course, the classic horror film about Linda Blair being possessed by a demon. Blair was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Tatum O'Neal (Paper Moon), who at 9-years old was the youngest actor to win a performance award. A Touch of Class is a comedy about a married man falling in love with a divorced woman. Glenda Jackson won Best Actress for her role in this. And Cries and Whispers is a Swedish drama by Ingmar Bergman.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Godfather (Best Picture 1972)

The Godfather is one of the greatest films of all time.

I set that sentence off by itself so that all of my long-time readers will see that I actually DO like and agree with the Best Picture winners on occasion!

The Godfather is great because it is a multi-layered story told well. It is, on the surface, a crime drama about the Corleone Family. It is also, more deeply, a treatment on the effects of Evil, as the Family tries to keep youngest son Michael from "the family business." And it is a story of Honor, as it exists among murderers and thieves, and as it exists among family members. Lastly, it is something close to being a love story, as Michael resists falling for Kay, a non-Italian girl, who is deeply in love with him. The film is successful at telling each of these stories, and that is why you can see something new every time you watch it. And *that* is why it is a great film.
I don't want to talk about the plot of this film in too much detail because I don't want to spoil anything. This is one of those films that the audience should be allowed to watch unfold, without knowing too much about what is going to happen. Basically it is the story of the Corleone Family as they weather ten years or so immediately after the end of World War II. As the film starts Vito Corleone is the Godfather, the "Don" of the Family. He is surrounded by his three sons and his adopted son, who is also his lawyer. He is being asked to do favors because it is his daughter's wedding day, and he soon says the immortal line, "Make them an offer they can't refuse."

If you go in to The Godfather thinking it is a Marlon Brando movie in the same way that Patton is a George C. Scott movie or The French Connection is a Gene Hackman movie, you will be somewhat surprised to find that the story is about the Corleone Family, and not just Brando's character.  It is a testament to the screen presence of Brando that he does own every scene he is in, but that is only about half of the film. What is amazing about Brando is that he interacts with each of the supporting characters differently, depending on their relationship. For example, Robert Duvall  is excellent as the family lawyer, adopted by the Corleone Family but kept implicitly "clean" so that he can make connections with politicians and police-men for the Family. Brando interacts with him in a professional yet affectionate way. James Caan is the eldest son, groomed to be the next god-father until things don't go as planned. Brando interacts with him more fiercely, as a father scolding his son. After Brando's character is shot, the group dynamic changes, and Michael begins to travel the slippery slope into Darkness. Michael is played by a fantastic Al Pacino. It is actually painful to watch him attempt to "stay clean" as he is constantly pulled deeper and deeper into the muck, having to do things because he loves his family. After he kills a crooked police-man and escapes back to Sicily for a few years, he comes back and takes his place alongside Brando, listening and learning how to be "The Don." Pacino as Michael stares at people, watching them...hoping to learn their weaknesses? It is a chilling portrayal, especially when he finally makes his move. In one of the great cinematic choreography, Pacino is becoming his nephew's actual god-father at the same time we see him making his move to shore up his position as "the Godfather." So we get the juxta-position of scenes from a sacred ceremony in Latin and then cut away to a scene where a gambler gets shot in the eye. It's disturbing, but very well done.

There are not very many women in this film, but Talia Shire (of Rocky fame) and Diane Keaton (of Annie Hall fame) shine as Brando's daughter Connie and as Michael's girl-friend/wife, Kay. Both support the men in the film, although Shire plays guilt and jealousy and Keaton plays naivete. They are fun to watch and imagine, "What do they know and when did they know it?"

The Godfather is not a film for everyone. There are scenes of extreme violence, and the story is all about gambling, prohibition, prostitution, drugs, and, of course, murder. Even though I knew that "the horse" and "the murder" scenes were coming, they are still disturbing. If you can distance yourself from this type of violence, however, the film will certainly entertain you.

The Godfather
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1972*
Produced by Albert S. Ruddy
Directed  by Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Based on the book by Mario Puzo

There are a lot of "trailers" for The Godfather on youtube. 
If you don't like this one, pick another....!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Emigrants
This is the first year I vaguely recall in my own memory, as my mother took my brother and I to see Sounder and my father took us to see Deliverance...although that might have been a re-release; not sure. Deliverance is a fun, well-crafted action-adventure film; it made me not want to go out too far into The Woods. Sounder is a sad story about an African-American family during the Depression. I enjoyed it very much and followed the careers of Cicely Tyson (Best Actress nom), Paul Winfield (Best Actor nom), and Kevin Hooks (as the son) from then on. I saw Cabaret in college and thought it was good; Liza Minnelli was very good in it, and earned her Best Actress Oscar. Speaking of other Oscar races, Joel Grey won Best Supporting Actor for Cabaret in a role with no actual lines (he sings all of his part); he beat out Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Al Pacino, who were all nominated for The Godfather and probably cancelled each other out. Also, Cabaret's Bob Fosse won Best Director, keeping Francis Ford Coppola from winning for The Godfather. Lastly, The Emigrants is a Swedish drama starring Liv Ullman as the mother of a family having re-located to  the Midwest.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The French Connection (Best Picture 1971)

I have no idea why The French Connection won Best Picture.

Gene Hackman plays "Popeye" Doyle, a policeman in the Vice Squad, i.e. drugs and prostitution. He and his partner, played by Roy Scheider, are trying to track down who is supplying the streests of New York with the heroin. The "catch a feeling" from two low-level sellers and wire-tap them. From this detective work they see them make a connection with two French men. They trail them because they are sure it's a deal of drugs. One of the French men tries to kill Doyle, so he chases after him, grabbing a pedestrian's car as the would-be assassin escapes in an elevated train. Doyle makes it to the station where the man gets off the train, and then shoots him as he continues to try to escape. The remaining French man parks his car in a dangerous neighborhood, and the police impound it. Doyle is sure that the heroin is hidden inside it, but even after they tear it apart they can't find anything. Finally, they put the car back together and then follow it to the major drug deal. The police manage to capture most of the locals, but the French man escapes.

And that is what happens in this film. 

I didn't notice any especially interesting scenes, although the cat-and-mouse between Hackman and The Frenchman is fun. The story is not that complex. The acting is very straight forward. Gene Hackman, who won Best Actor for this role, only really plays "angry." The scenery in actual New York City is fun. But basically this is just a very well done police melodrama.

Oh, there is that incredibly impressive extended race/chase scene, between Gene Hackman in a battered car and the elevated train. It is a great scene, very well filmed and incredibly well edited. Everyone should watch it as Exhibit A as to how to film on a real location. But is that scene why this film won Best Picture?

I don't mean to imply that The French Connection is not an entertaining piece of film-making; it is. Forty years later, however, it just doesn't seem all that. Maybe this is another example of a film that was ahead of its time, and now new audiences can't appreciate it for what it is/was. If that is the case, then, thank you, French Connection. If that isn't the case, then....

The French Connection
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1971*
Produced by Philip D'Antoni
Directed  by William Friedkin
Screenplay by Ernest Tidyman
Based on the book by Robin Moore

You can see a little bit of "the chase" in this trailer.
If you want to see more, go to youtube. That scene was
available by itself for your viewing pleasure.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
A Clockwork Orange
Fiddler On The Roof
The Last Picture Show
Nicholas and Alexandra of these other films should have won. I tried to watch A Clockwork Orange (having read the book in college) but I just couldn't get through it. The ultra-violence and the super "artiness" of Stanley Kubrick just turned me off. I read up on Nicholas and Alexandra, and it seemed like another of those "epic" films that, sorry, Sixties, I had enough of from you. The Last Picture Show was "the art" piece of the year, winning both Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, respectively). It's a pleasant little film by director Peter Bogdanovich about life in a dying Texas town. That leaves Fiddler On The Roof, one of the greatest musicals ever made. There is no film that so successfully veers between intense happiness and intense sadness. I absolutely recommend this film, and, sorry, but I think it is a better film than The French Connection.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Patton (Best Picture 1970)

This film is absolutely not my kind of motion picture. First of all, the subject holds no interest to me. I am not a big fan of war movies, but if the story is about the generals in control (?) and not "the boys" actually living and fighting and dying, I am absolutely not interested. Give me "Platoon" or Letters From Iwo Jima" over this type of "epic" any day. Then on top of that if the main charcter is loud and obnoxious and difficult to deal with, my interest goes down even more. Such was how I looked forward to watching Patton for the first time.

This film begins with the famous image of General Patton walking up onto a stage in front of a HUGE US flag and giving a speech. It's iconic, but within the context of the film, it doesn't make any sense. Who is he talking to? He says things like, "You boys..." but it's a monologue, and no audience is present. He has all (most?) of his medals pinned to his chest, but he seems to be speaking from a time before he was a "hero." What does it mean? If I were an audience member in 1970 would I know?

As soon as he finishes his speech and walks off the stage, the film begins properly, somewhere in Africa. An army unit with no discipline has been routed by the Nazis. Their new commanding officer (guess who) shows up early and begins to instill Army discipline immediately. For example, he insists the field doctor wears a helmet at all times. Soon, Patton plans a charge to face Nazi General Rommel's forces. His troops rout them, and he begins his ascension in the press. The rest of the film is a series of battles, both military and political. You see, Patton may be a genius on the battlefield, but he is an idiot in the field of public relations. Every time he wins a fight somewhere, it seems, he opens his mouth and says something stupid. The most famous example was when he slapped an enlisted man in a field hospital and accused him of cowardice because the young man was suffering from shell shock and didn't want to fight any more.  The negative publicity surrounding this action creates a situation so bad for Patton that he is ordered to apologize to the man and to the man's entire outfit. In his mind, he is punished by "the brass" for this by not being given any role in the D-Day Invasion. (It couldn't be because he's a self-centered gloryhound?) He is instead shuffled off the main stage to help his rival, British General Montgomery, and his former underling-now superior, General Bradley, in the rear lines. When US troops near the German border need support, he volunteers "his boys" and they make rapid time to the scene of the fighting. Then when his troops run out of supplies, he is stalled, both literally and figuratively. Patton admits that he lives to fight, and resents not being allowed to.
While watching Patton I could not help being reminded of an earlier war-hero biography, Lawrence of Arabia. Both men were egomaniacs, and neither one particularly interested me. Patton read histories, so believed he knew how events were going to transpire based on how they had transpired before. He also read things like Rommel's autobiography, so he thought he knew how the Nazi General thought. There are several scenes where the German forces are shown, talking about how Patton is the Allies' greatest general. Patton also believed in reincarnation; there was one scene where he stopped in a deserted village and talked about how it had faced war thousands of years ago, and that he had been there. So he was something of a sensitive type. On the other hand, when Patton dined with a Soviet General after both sides assisted in the liberation of a French village, it's the Soviet General who was better at politics. The Soviet toasted the US forces and her General, but Patton refused to drink with the Soviet, calling him "a son-of-a-bitch." The Soviet laughs and says, "You are a son-of-a-bitch, too!" This makes Patton laugh, defusing the situation, and the men drink. But this is the kind of man Patton appears to have been.
George C. Scott is a wonderful actor, and he owns every scene he is in. Unfortunately, he's in all of them. Patton is rude, small-minded, self-centered, and lacking in thoughtfulness. These traits over-shadow his intelligence and loyalty. After three hours with him I felt I knew him, and was glad that he won the Academy Award for Best Actor....but I never wanted to see him again. By the way, in true Patton style Scott won the Oscar but refused to accept it, questioning the audacity of the Academy to judge five men and choose one as "best." 

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1970*
Produced by Frank McCarthy
Directed  by Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenplay by 
Francis Ford Coppola & Edmund H. North
Based on the books
Patton: Ordeal & Triumph
by Ladislas Farago
and A Soldier's Story
by Omar N. Bradley

That's all, indeed...

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Five Easy Pieces
Love Story
Of the five nominated pictures, I never got around to seeing Five Easy Pieces. This is the Jack Nicholson drama with the famous diner scene about the sandwich. If you don't know what I mean, go to youtube and you'll find it. By the way, up until the time I did research for this review, I thought the title referenced coins or money of some kind; I was surprised to learn that it references musical pieces. I remember watching Airport as a kid; I loved playful and loveable Helen Hayes, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role as an elderly woman who sneaks onto airplanes and rides for free. Airport as a movie could be blamed (?) for starting the Seventies' "Disaster Movie" trend, but it really is a pretty good film. However, Love Story is not! I  had never seen this weeper but I had heard of it, of course. At only about 90 minutes it's silly and pretentious. And (Spoiler Alert!) who starts a movie about a shocking death by announcing it in the first scene? Lastly, MASH is more famous now as a television series, but the film is definitely cutting edge Hollywood. If you only know MASH from the TV series, you should try watching the film. You will be surprised how dark and different it is. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture 1969)

No other Best Picture starts out in quite the same way that Midnight Cowboy does: in the shower, with a buck-naked Jon Voight! I guess this is director John Schlesinger's way of telling us, we are about to experience something brand new...!

Midnight Cowboy is a relatively straight-forward film about two losers trying to scratch out an existence in New York City in the late Sixties. For all the controversy about the subject matter, this is a pretty simply little film. The fact is that for late-Sixties Hollywood it was controversial to portray prostitution, homosexuality, and drug addiction, three of the experiences our "heroes" encounter during the course of the film. This film initially garnered an "X" rating; it was eventually down-graded to "R" without any cuts to the film itself.
Jon Voight portrays Joe Buck, a self-styled hustler from Texas. He heads to NYC in order to be a male prostitute. In a series of flashbacks we learn that he was abandoned by his mother, never knew his father, and had something of an odd relationship with his grand-mother. So we begin to think he has something of an odd fetish for older women. We also learn that he did have a girl-friend, and that they had had sex before an incident where she or they were raped by a bunch of faceless men. She went crazy and was literally carted away; he eventually decided to go to New York.

When Joe finally gets to NYC his "cowboy charm" doesn't work on any women. One elderly woman he beds insists on getting money from him! Then he meets Rizzo, a dirty, down-on-his-luck handicapped scoundrel played by Dustin Hoffman. "Ratzo," as others call him, promises to introduce Joe to a pimp who will get him plenty of work, but asks for twenty bucks for the help. Joe pays him and heads off. However, the apartment Rizzo sends Joe to to is occupied by an evangelist with a neon Jesus, not a pimp. Joe is angry at Rizzo, to put it mildly. Broke and thrown out of his apartment, Joe finally tries gay prostitution, but the young man who gives him oral sex ends up not having any money. Angry, frustrated, and feeling dirty, he meets up with Rizzo again, ready to beat him for cheating him. However, when he sees that the crippled and sick Rizzo is in even worse shape than Joe is, he walks off. Rizzo is touched by this sympathy, so offers Joe residence in the condemned building he is currently living in. Together they begin a friendship, selling blood or shop-lifting from fruit-stands or foraging for garbage. Rizzo tries to get Joe an escort job, but Joe is too "country" for the assignment and ruins it immediately. One day they are invited to a studio-loft party by Andy Warhol-like characters, where Joe tries his first marijuana. He goes home with a sexy city girl, a young Brenda Vaccaro, who turns out to be his first "trick." Things appear to be looking up for Joe, as she promises to introduce him to all of her office friends. However, Rizzo, who is dying of pneumonia, has taken a turn for the worse. Desperate to move his friend to better weather in Florida, Joe meets up with a suppressed gay tourist and steals his money. Joe and Rizzo board a bus heading south. On the way Joe buys them both new clothes, symbolically throwing away his cowboy hat and jacket. Unfortunately, Rizzo dies just before they arrive in Florida, leaving Joe alone again. 
This film probably won Best Picture precisely because it was like nothing Hollywood had ever seen before. Jon Voight it definitely naked in the opening scene, and then shows us his ass again later. We see various female breasts during the course of the film as well. And we are faced with pathetic homosexual men; it is clear what they are, what they want, and that we should feel sorry for them. The scene in the theatre where the young man goes down on Joe, and Joe thinks back to when he was having sex with his girl-friend, is still a powerful image nearly fifty years later.

John Schlesinger directed the film in a very straight-forward way when the story demanded it, but also showed off his talent when it was appropriate. The very first scene, for example, appears to be a western horizon; it turns out to be a drive-in movie. Later, when the point is to show how confused Joe is in NYC, scenes are filmed through a taxicab and through and around subway cars. Many angles and scene set-ups feel new; almost avante garde. Sure, fifty years later we've seen most of these things done (again? still?) but I guess here was the first time for a lot of them. It also helps that the movie was filmed on location in New York City. That adds an air of authenticity to the proceedings you wouldn't have gotten if it had been filmed on sets in Hollywood.

Dustin Hoffman is especially captivating as the doomed Rizzo. He doesn't look anything at all like his character from The Graduate, for one thing. And he makes Rizzo so believably pathetic, not only because of his personality and situation, but also because he still dares to dream. Jon Voight is equally enticing as Joe. We see his naivete slowly but surely fade into his eventual cynicism, and then we see that slowly replaced by his actual affection for his odd friend. Both men were nominated for Best Actor, but lost to John Wayne in True Grit. 

The film is not for everyone. Obviously, if you loved Oliver! last week you might not be the targeted audience for this film. If you enjoy wonderful character studies, though, especially of people on the outs of society, you will enjoy this film.

Midnight Cowboy
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1969*
Produced by Jerome Hellman
Directed  by John Schlesinger
Screenplay by Waldo Salt
Based on the book by James Leo Herlihy

This trailer reminded me that I got sick of the song by Nillson,
"Everybody's Talking At Me." They use it too much in the film!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Anne of the Thousand Days
Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid
Hello, Dolly!
This was definitely an odd year for nominees. I have seen Anne, another version of the King Henry VIII story, this one starring Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold. Both were nominated for their parts but neither won. The film is good, but a tad dull. Butch Cassidy is, of course, that classic Buddy Picture starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, directed by George Roy Hill. Let's just say that this was not their year. Dolly! is an over-produced movie version of the 1964 musical starring Barbra Streisand. I really wanted to like this film, but just couldn't. And Z is an Algerian film that was also nominated for Best Foreign Film, an award that it won.