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Archive for the ‘Best Picture Winners’ Category

ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

In Best Picture Winners, Drama, Motion Pictures, O on April 7, 2010 at 2:10 pm

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STUDIO — Paramount 

CAST — Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern 

DIRECTOR —  Robert Redford 

MPAA Rating: R 

When I was in high school, my mother told me about this movie called Ordinary People, and that she all but insisted I watch it. To say it left  a lasting impression is somewhat an understatement. 

This is the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and it features some somewhat unusual casting: two TV actors (Judd Hirsch, who was still shooting “Taxi”, and Mary Tyler Moore), an active Julliard student (Elizabeth McGovern, the first student given permission to work during term), and the son of TV’s Ellery Queen (Best Supporting Actor Timothy Hutton, in his motion picture debut). Only Donald Sutherland was an established motion picture actor at the time, so on the surface, a lot seemed to be riding on whether this movie would be successful. Well, it was. This is an emotional, gripping movie which captured four Academy Awards, including the aforementioned Best Supporting Actor, as well as Best Picture of 1980. 

Conrad (Timothy Hutton) talks to Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) about his mother

Ordinary People follows the lives of the Jarretts, a well-to-do family living in the upscale community of Lake Forest, Illinois. On the surface, everything appears to be normal: Calvin (Sutherland) is a tax attorney in Chicago, his wife Beth (Moore) is more or less a socialite, and Conrad (Hutton) is a high school student in the choir and swim team. Yet, despite all the outward smiles, the Jarretts are dealing with a devastating one-two punch. First, older brother Buck (seen only in flashbacks) drowned in a boating accident, then Conrad tried to kill himself. 

Early on, it is established that Conrad’s suicide attempt was triggered by the boating accident (In flashbacks, we see the two brothers on a sailboat in stormy waters), and that he had spent several months in a psychiatric hospital afterward. Once Conrad leaves the hospital, however, what was once a tightly knit family slowly becomes unraveled. Beth wants desperately to show off to everyone that all is well, Conrad resents her for not seeing things as they really are, and Calvin is in the middle, trying to hold it all together. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the Jarretts through Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), whom Conrad sees on an outpatient basis. 

On all fronts, Ordinary People makes for great character study. The performances by all the principal cast members were very strong, something rarely seen in movies. I think this is in part because Redford’s acting background made for great chemistry on the set. Speaking of Robert Redford, even though this is the first movie he directed, it is also some of his best work (He did win Best Director). And the Oscar-winning script was solid, as well. 

I’d like to focus on two of the performances for a moment, because they show how two different types of people deal with trauma, the aftereffects of which can either make or break a person. Timothy Hutton’s portrayal of Conrad showed us a teen so desperate to find an outlet for his pain, he felt the only way he could let go was to die. But he survives, and we follow Conrad during his recovery, a teen who was once broken, but trying to put himself back together again. Then there’s Mary Tyler Moore. At the time, she was America’s Sweetheart; her eponymous TV show was one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1970s. But as Beth Jarrett, she proved to the world that she could do much more than “turn the world on with her smile”. Beth is not a bad person, but her “solution” to these life-changing events was to simply sweep them under the carpet, as if it never happened (a trait I observed in my own father, as noted in a previous post). But Beth, who had apparently always been a decision-maker, overcompensates for her grief by controlling nearly everything around her, while at the same time shutting out her pain altogether. Like I said, Beth isn’t a bad person, but when you can’t feel grief, you really can’t feel anything. And the conflict in this movie is stemmed from the clashing personalities of both Conrad and Beth. But where Conrad tries to work through his issues, Beth just wants to file it away. 

I have experienced trauma in my life; we all have, at one time or another. It is how we deal with it that defines who we are. So I ask you, the reader, how do you face your trauma? Do you hide, or are you open? Do you act like it never happened, or do you talk about it? Do you turn to drugs or alcohol, or do you do something constructive to work through the pain? It is these questions, and more, which are explored but never fully answered in Ordinary People; the answers are left for you to figure out. 

4 out of 5

OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

In Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Drama, Motion Pictures, O, Romance on March 30, 2010 at 12:31 am

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STUDIO — Universal 

CAST — Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Iman 

DIRECTOR —  Sydney Pollack 

MPAA Rating: PG 

In the summer of 1986, I was a strapping young lad of 21, stationed at Camp Red Cloud, in Uijongbu, South Korea. I had a girlfriend at the time named Lynda; she was also in the Army. One day, we were walking by the AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Services) movie theatre on post, when I noticed that Out of Africa was playing. I had heard it just won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, so I suggested to Lynda we go see it. To this day, Out of Africa remains as the only motion picture I had paid to see in a cinema which made me fall asleep. 

Naturally, one can understand my resistance to screen this movie again. But it was placed on my Request List, and I figured it was better to get it over with early on. Well, after watching it again with fresh eyes (and staying awake through the whole thing), I came away with a somewhat surprising opinion of this movie: It’s not as bad as I remember! 

Okay, hear me out. My memories of seeing it in Korea were those of disappointment, to say the least. Visually, Out of Africa is stunning, but the story had about as much “oomph” in it as an Andy Disk right hook. But today, I am different man than I was then. I am more open-minded, wiser, and more… seasoned. And on that note, let’s get into how I see Out of Africa today. 

Karen (Meryl Streep) entertains Denys (Robert Redford) at dinner

The movie stretches over many years, beginning in 1913, when a young Danish lady named Karen (Meryl Streep, in one of her myriad Oscar-nominated roles) enters into a relationship with a Swedish gentleman, Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). He brings her to Kenya, marries her, and they settle onto a nice, large plot of land for their cattle ranch coffee plantation. It quickly becomes a loveless marriage, and Karen is left in charge of the property, while her husband traipses around the far reaches of the Serengeti. Meanwhile, a somewhat free-spirited big-game hunter named Denys Finch Hatten (Robert Redford) quickly becomes enamored with her, and the two soon form a bond. 

If you are looking for action, this isn’t the movie to see. The most thrilling parts involve lions on the hunt, of which there are three, but then again, this is a romantic movie. Without a doubt, Out of Africa is a so-called “chick-flick”, even going so far as to follow certain modern romantic movie formulae. On the other hand, if you are in film school taking a course in cinematography, this movie is required viewing. If there is one good thing I can say about Out of Africa, it’s that it is one of the most beautifully filmed motion pictures I have ever seen, and I doubt few movies will ever top it (Another movie in this elite category is 1990’s Dances With Wolves). 

And speaking of Dances With Wolves, the musical score has a recognizable sound to it. That is because those sweeping violins you hear come from the trademark style of John Barry, who understandably received his third Oscar for musical score (and fourth overall) for his work in this film. As for the script, it is a good one, though some parts found me checking the time upon occasion. Meryl Streep’s performance was very good, and I have a lot of respect for the character she plays in this movie. Here, Karen is portrayed as an independent woman who was willing to work alongside her field workers; I have a lot of respect for bosses who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Robert Redford is charming enough, and he was still a major box office draw in 1985, but I get the feeling the part might have been better served going to Mel Gibson, who at the time was just coming into his own in America, and a “serious” movie at that time would’ve proven him a capable actor who could do more than Mad Max. 

If this movie were to be remade today (2010), I get the feeling that Kate & Leo would reunite to do it. As it stands, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, I got the impression of an “off -the-rack” suit in a tailor-made environment, which I think is the primary weakness of Out of Africa; mediocre chemistry between the leads can hurt a film like this, and in this case, it did. Still, it makes for a beautiful postcard for the African continent, and even 25 years later, women will still swoon over the sparkle in Redford’s blue eyes. 

PATTON (1970)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, History, Motion Pictures, P, War on March 22, 2010 at 1:47 pm

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STUDIO — 20th Century Fox 

CAST — George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Strong, Karl Michael Volger, Richard Münch, Siegfried Rauch, Michael Bates, Edward Binns, Paul Stevens, James Edwards 

DIRECTOR —  Franklin J. Schaffner 

MPAA Rating: PG 

I received a request from a friend of mine shortly after I set up this blog. It read “I would like you to freshly watch what you consider your favorite film and give me a review of it.” Well, since Patton is my favorite movie, and since I already have a copy in my personal collection, I elected to rent the two-disc Special Edition and give it a fresh look. 

The two-disc DVD includes a five-minute introduction by co-writer Francis Ford Coppola (yes, that Francis Ford Coppola), as well as a commentary track by him in the movie itself. Having just viewed the movie again, I came away from it with an observation that I hadn’t noticed before, which is that General Patton (at least, as portrayed in this movie) and I seem to share a dubious trait: Neither of us seems to know when to shut up! To me, a hallmark of a great motion picture is one you can watch again and again, and still notice things you had not seen before. And to me, Patton is such a movie. 

Gen. George Patton (George C. Scott) and Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) discuss Operation: Cobra

This movie opens with one of the greatest monologues ever put to film, as General George S. Patton, Jr. (Academy Award winner George C. Scott) addresses the audience as though they were his troops, in front of a giant American flag. This sets the stage for a motion picture which paints Patton as leader and renegade, romantic and tactician, contemporary and anachronism, pious and profane. To me, this is far and away the best performance I have yet to see out of any actor in any movie. George C. Scott nailed this one, and whomever it was who had recommended him for the part deserves recognition. In my opinion, of course… 

Why Patton? Even when I first saw this movie at the age of 11, I was immediately attracted to the complexity of the character, and of the man himself. Here was a man who, in one of the movie’s most (in)famous scenes, nearly weeps as he silently pins a Purple Heart on the pillow of a severely wounded soldier one minute, then angrily smacks around another with “battle fatigue” the next. The dichotomy of General Patton is reflected throughout the movie, but it is strongest here. Very quickly, Patton became one of my favorite subjects in my spare time, and, by extension, I soon began to absorb as much as I could about World War II as well. 

The cinematography may appear a little dated by today’s standards, but it symbolizes Patton’s solitude, first as a commander, then as an outcast. Earlier, I had alluded to the fact that both Patton and I had a history of our respective mouths being our own worst enemy. I won’t divulge any details here, but I can assure you that when you say the wrong thing, either by accident or by omission, it will backfire on you. In this movie, Patton’s encounters with the press appeared to cause him more trouble and more controversy than all the casualty lists generated under his command. But that apparently did not phase the Germans (at least in the movie), who believed him to be a brilliant commander; they followed Patton’s every move, even while he was little more than a glorified tour guide in the Mediterranean (a decision by Gen. Eisenhower which did prove a successful diversionary tactic in the months prior to the invasion of Normandy, in June 1944). 

As for the supporting cast, Karl Malden is convincing as Omar Bradley, Patton’s friend and colleague who had advanced to become his superior. Michael Bates is a dead ringer for British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, widely regarded as Great Britain’s greatest commander during the war, and portrayed here as Patton’s rival. And though I’m sure this was unintentional, I became a little leery of Patton’s aide and bona fide spin doctor, Lt. Col. Charles Codman (Paul Stevens), who seemed to know exactly what to say and how to say it to his fearless leader. Still, the story is solid, the battle sequences are memorable (and well-done for 1970), and nearly all the performances are spot-on. 

Oh, there are better movies out there, but Patton remains at the top of my list of the most influential movies of my life, and (to me) the standard by which biopics should be measured. I should note that Mr. Coppola drew from several different source materials in order to provide the most authentic and balanced portrayal of both Patton the general and Patton the man. And the score by composer Jerry Goldsmith, with its haunting trumpets that echo into the distance, puts the icing on the cake for this nearly perfect movie. 

THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, H, Independent, Motion Pictures, War on February 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

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STUDIO – Summit Entertainment 

CAST – Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes 

DIRECTOR – Katheryn Bigelow 

MPAA RATING – R 

Welcome to Iraq, the most violent and chaotic place on earth. Director and co-writer Kathryn Bigelow takes us inside the lines and shows us what war looks like today in the guerilla environment of the Middle East. In The Hurt Locker, a team from an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit is on their final days in-country before heading back to the States. When the team leader dies in the line of duty, his replacement, SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) reports to the company to take his place. At first, SGT J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and SPC Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) think James is a loose cannon, but with hundreds of successful missions under his belt, he must be doing something right. 

SGT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, left) and SPC Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) help SSG James (Jeremy Renner) suit up

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, war has been largely portrayed as ugly, gritty, dirty business. The Hurt Locker takes this ball and runs with it by visually telling us that war is literally a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any moment, and no one is ever safe. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow borrows from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook more than once, in that at least two prominent actors in this movie are killed off, and one of the three stars gets wounded (I won’t say who or when, of course). 

This movie is one of those that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Working in EOD is very intense, very stressful, and very dangerous, and to do it, you gotta have a little crazy in you. In one scene, SSG James finds so much explosives packed into the back of a car, he walks back to his team, takes off his explosives suit, and says “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortable”. And I am willing to bet that nearly every EOD and police bomb squad technician agrees with that mentality (though they know they shouldn’t). 

Shot on location in Jordan, The Hurt Locker has built-in authenticity, in terms of locale and environment. In the DVD’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Jeremy Renner says that the sweat on the screen is real sweat. And in a hostile place where nights are no cooler than 90°F (32°C), there is no need for fake sweat! 

One more thing worth mentioning: Anthony Mackie’s performance as SGT Sanborn was also very exceptional. On many levels, I found myself relating to Sanborn, from how “by the book” he is, to how he somehow remains level-headed throughout most of the movie, to his desire to just get the job done. I hope I get to see more of Mr. Mackie in the future. 

Now to Kathryn Bigelow. Historically, war has been the pervue of men, and movies about war have been primarily written, directed, and produced by men. And most of the time, it was men who starred in nearly every movie about war since the beginnings of the motion picture industry. This makes The Hurt Locker a game-changer. Kathryn Bigelow did a superb job helming this movie, thus receiving a well-earned Oscar™ nomination (among the nine nominations for this movie overall, including Best Actor for Jeremy Renner) for 2009. 

Gripping, insightful, painful, reckless, and chaotic. This is an excellent movie, one that demonstrates the madness of combat in Iraq in the early years of the 21st Century. 

THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)

In B, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Motion Pictures on January 29, 2010 at 3:22 am

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STUDIO — MGM

CAST — Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love, Kenneth Thomson

DIRECTOR —  Harry Beaumont

UNRATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

The Broadway Melody marked many firsts in the history of the Academy Awards, save one. It is not the first motion picture to receive the Best Picture award (That honor goes to 1927’s Wings). But it is the first “talkie” to win Best Picture, and it is the first Best Picture winner to spawn sequels (four, in all), and, though not technically a musical, it is the first to feature several musical numbers.

Let me make one thing clear: Lawrence of Arabia, this movie is not! Sound was still a novelty in the late 1920s, and all of the major studios (as well as most movie stars) made the switch to keep with the times. So, while The Broadway Melody is an entertaining spectacle, it suffers from substandard (even for the time) camera work, clunky acting from many members of the cast, and a script so cheesy, I could cut off a slice and put it on a burger.

The Mahoney Sisters (Anita Page, Bessie Love) perform on stage

Does this mean it’s a bad movie? Not necessarily. Anyone who has any interest in old movies will still enjoy it. The Broadway Melody was made for one reason: to entertain. And it does, thanks to serviceable performances by Bessie Love and Charles King. There are also a few running gags in the movie which will keep your attention, including Broadway producer Francis Zanfield’s gang of “yes men”, stuttering Uncle Jed, and a drunk lackey known in the film only as “Unconscious”.

If you know anything about show business history, you probably noticed the name Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane). Yes, it is close to the name of legendary Vaudeville  showman Florence Ziegfeld. Another name that may catch your attention is that of the movie’s antagonist, Jaques “Jock” Warriner (Kenneth Thomson); it is very close to that of Jack Warner (as in Warner Bros.). Ironic that Warner Bros. would later acquire the rights to the MGM motion picture library when they purchased Ted Turner’s televesion empire, but I digress…

The Broadway Melody is the story of the Mahoney sisters, Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page), and their quest to make their big break in show business. Hank’s fiancé, Eddie (Charles King), has assured them an “in” by getting them in Mr. Zanfield’s Vaudeville troupe, but like all well-laid plans, things don’t work out so well. Eddie becomes smitten with Queenie, Queenie falls for Jock, Eddie gets jealous, and Hank gets… Well, you didn’t expect me to spoil the whole thing for ya, now, didn’t you?

The Broadway Melody is an excellent study in early motion picture history, and it is mildly entertaining. For the truly bold and adventurous, you can check out the Special Features on the DVD, which include a short loosely based on the movie and with a canine cast, called (wait for it…) “The Dogway Melody”. Less cringe-worthy are a selection of five Metro Movietone Revues, featuring various musical and Vaudeville acts of the time. And there is a peek at the trailers to the other four movies in the franchise, as well.

3-1/2 out of 5