Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar Reaction!

The 83rd annual Academy Awards was a night of "king" size entertainment as the British period piece "The King's Speech" won the "Best Picture" Oscar.

It was the match-up film critics and movie fans had been debating ever since the Oscar nominations were announced. Was the top prize going to go to "The Social Network", the story of Facebook or "The King's Speech", considered by some a more traditional choice.

"The Social Network" was the odds-on early favorite sweeping every film critics award and winning the Golden Globe. But, late in the game, the mood seemed to have changed. "The King's Speech" started to pick up some momentum winning the SAG award for "Best Ensemble Cast" and director Tom Hooper winning the DGA award.

Quite frankly, if I was a voter, between these two films I would have also voted for "The King's Speech". It was a much better film than "The Social Network" which heavily over-hyped, even drawing comparisons to "Citizen Kane". In some countries such statements are against the law (actually they aren't but they should be. No movie will ever be like "Citizen Kane", no matter how many times you say it). However, of all the nominated films for "Best Picture" the film which I think will be the best remembered film of the year is Christopher Nolan's brain-teaser "Inception", which even made my "top ten" list, neither "The Social Network" or "The King's Speech" did.

Although "The King's Speech" won the top prize, the film didn't sweep the Oscars, despite being the most nominated film of the show, with a total of 12. It won four; "Best Picture", "Best Director" (Tom Hooper", "Best Original Screenplay" (David Seidler, the oldest Oscar winner ever) and "Best Actor" (Colin Firth). It tied with "Inception" for the most wins of the night. "Inception" won "Best Cinematography", "Sound Mixing", "Sound Editing" and "Visual Effects".

As was excepted Natalie Portman won "Best Actress" for her role in "Black Swan". It was the only award the film won. "Toy Story 3" won two Oscars. One for "Best Animated Feature Film", which was also expected, and for "Best Original Song" for "We Belong Together" by Randy Newman.

Some surprises were in the Foreign Film category, the Denmark entry "In A Better World" beat the more popular Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film "Biutiful" which was Mexico's entry. Some thought Roger Deakins would win for his cinematography in "True Grit", which had 10 nominations and lost in every category. And the supporting Acting categories were considered too close to call. In the "Supporting Actor" category it was thought to be a race between Geoffrey Rush for "The King's Speech" and Christian Bale for "The Fighter". Bale was the eventual winner.

In the "Supporting Actress" category Melissa Leo, again for "The Fighter" was considered a favorite but newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit" was thought to be capable of an upset. Leo won the award, becoming the first winner to ever use the "f" word in her acceptance speech. And some people think Hollywood's lost its class!

Besides the awards the Oscar co-host; Anne Hathaway and James Franco have also been getting a lot of press. Mostly negative however. This was expected in my opinion. As much as I like Hathaway, neither she or Franco should have been chosen. Rumor was the Academy did it to win over a younger demographic. Well, we see how that went. Stupid move! These people, for one thing, were far too young. They lack personality. You need a strong entertainer to host an award show. Someone with a commanding presence and who knows how to work a room. In the good ol' days you had someone like Bob Hope, the all-time Oscar host leader. Nowadays we have Billy Crystal. James Franco was too stiff, unprepared and apparently too nervous. Hathaway looks like she fared better. She had more energy.

In fairness I should point out, I didn't watch the Oscars. I stopped many years ago. Read my blog entry on why. But, I have seen some clips on TV and youtube. Also the TV critics have universally slammed them. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called the show the worst Oscar telecast of all time and placed heavy blame on the co-host.

But, I'm not surprised. I was smart enough to stop watching years ago.

For a full list of Oscar winners click here:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Film Review: Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

"Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown" *** (out of ****)

Men are nothing but trouble for women. At least that's what Pedro Almodovar says in his world-wide hit, "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown" (1988).

The "breakdown" referred to in the film's title, which these women face, is caused by men. Men who emotionally manipulated these women. These women were victims to their partner's insensitivity.

The film, as I said, was directed by Pedro Almodovar. Perhaps the most popular Spanish filmmaker today. You could call him the George Cukor of Spain. Cukor, that great Hungarian-American filmmaker, best known for titles such as "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) and "The Women" (1939) was often called "the women's director", due to his directing all the major female stars of the day. Almodovar is also a "women's director" due to the fact his films usually center around female characters and are told from a female's perspective.

And that leads me to one of my problems with "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown". The film seems to be the most cliche-ridden movie I have seen from Almodovar. The movie engages in all sort of female stereotypes. The fiery Latin lover, the indecisive woman, women who are emotionally unstable, women who are always the victim of a man's cruelty, women are portrayed as damsels in distress. Yes, it's true, the movie has a tongue-in-cheek tone but Almodovar usually is kinder in his portrayal of women. I find the women in films like "All About My Mother" (1999) or "Volver" (2006) to be much stronger. More independent. In "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown" their happiness or sadness all relies on a man.

It might be strange for some readers to understand why I, a man, am making a point of this. Why would these stereotypes bother me? I grew up in a house surrounded by women. I have first hand knowledge that women can be strong, commanding, demanding, and yes, sometimes annoying. But, women are not always the victim of men's behavior. Many women are strong and independent.

Almodovar's film revolves around Pepa (Carmen Maura, who has acted in other Almodovar films such as "Matador" (1986) and "Volver"). She was the mistress of Ivan (Fernando Guillen), who has tossed her aside of another woman. Pepa cannot deal with Ivan's rejection and demands to speak to him. Problem is, he won't answer her calls. She goes into a rage, nearly destroying her apartment. Next we have Candela (Maria Barranco). Probably the most annoying character in the movie. She suspects she has slept with a terrorist who is going to blow up a plane. Candela is a whiny, needy woman, who constantly turns to Pepa for help and guidance. And lastly there is Lucia (Julieta Serrano). She is Ivan's husband, and because of his cheating ways ended up in a sanitarium.

All of these women will meet in the course of the film. And each of them will have to resolve their issues with men. But, perhaps now, with me briefly describing the plot, you can see the female cliches Almodovar engages in.

And just so the female viewers don't get too bored (or perhaps even offended) Almodovar throws some eye candy their way. Co-starring in the film is a young Antonio Banderas as Carlos, Ivan's son. All of the female characters throw themselves at him. Showing us, both men and women can be the sexual aggressors.

Still, despite everything "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown" is an entertaining film. It is somewhat humorous and kept me watching until the end. I don't know how female viewers will react to this film though. Will the stereotypes bother them? Or will they take it in good spirits. I have no doubt that was Almodovar's intention. I'm sure he didn't mean to offend anyone. Again, the movie has a very tongue-in-cheek tone. You can't take this material seriously.

The movie marked a turn around for Almodovar. The movie gained international praise and was Almodovar's first widely praised film in America. It was Spain's official Oscar nominee. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe in the foreign language category. It won the National Board of Review of best foreign language film and won two awards at the Venice Film Festival; Best Actress (Maura) and Best Screenplay (Almodovar).

"Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown" is good Almodovar but not his best. For that I'd say watch "Talk To Her" (2002), "Bad Education" (2004), "Live Flesh" (1997) and "Volver".

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Film Reviews: Coquette & It's A Pleasure

"Coquette" **** (out of ****)

With the 83rd annual Academy Awards coming up I thought it would be interesting to write about some of the early Oscar winners. Last year, for instance, I dedicated the month to reviewing a couple of "Best Picture" winners. This year however I've been slightly distracted with other things and sadly haven't been writing on here as frequently as I once use to.

This leads us to "Coquette" (1929). Directed by Sam Taylor and starring silent screen superstar Mary Pickford, making her sound picture debut, it is the story of a love that cannot be (a la Romeo & Juliet or "Pretty in Pink" (1986) if your prefer).

"Coquette" has an unfortunate reputation. Many people believe the film is a disappointment. Normally I would attribute that attitude to an unknowing younger generation, which quite simply, sometimes finds it difficult to appreciate classic films (lets be honest). But, while perhaps there is a bit of that going on, it is not the full story. "Coquette" was dismissed upon its inital release. Too bad I say. I've seen "Coquette" several times and I must say I think it is an emotional, heartfelt tearjerker.

I've written about Mary Pickford on here before. I reviewed her in the fairy-tale romantic silent film "Suds" (1920). Pickford, whom sadly isn't as well remembered today, was a major figure in the early history of cinema. I would put her name alongside Lillian Gish, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks as the foremost silent screen actresses. She is best known for her performance in the title role "Pollyanna" (1920). She was a sweet, naive girl known for her curly hair. At one time she was given the nickname "America's Sweetheart". She also had a good business head. She was one of the founders of United Artist (along with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and husband Douglas Fairbanks).

By the time "Coquette" was made Pickford was an older woman and wanted to erase the "good girl" image which had brought her fame. Naturally audiences didn't approve. This is nothing new. Even today we see this happen when stars try to make a career transition. Viewers like their movie stars to always remain the same. "Coquette" was going to signify something new. Gone were the curls. This time Pickford was going to play a young coquette (flirt in today's lingo). The kind of woman with many admirers who feels nothing for the men in return, but, appreciates all the attention. Lots of people feel this kind of role wasn't suited for Pickford. Better to let Bow or Brooks handle these kind of characters. But I think Pickford pulls it off quite nicely.

Pickford plays Norma Besant, daughter of Dr. Besant (John St. Polis), a wealthy, well-respected southern gentlemen. His wife has passed away and now he must raise Norma and his son, Jimmy (William Janney). He doesn't seem to mind Norma's flirty ways but would prefer if she would marry another southern gentlemen, like Stanley Wentworth (Matt Moore). Instead Norma has fallen for a poor, working class boy, Michael Jeffrey (Johnny Mack Brown). Her father will not allow this. Their difference in social rank is too much to overcome. Dr. Besant is convince Michael Jeffrey is only interested in the family fortune not Norma. So he forbids Norma from ever seeing Michael.

"Coquette" suffers from the same type of problems most early talking pictures suffered from. Staged, wooden performances, as actors try to hit their marks so the microphone will pick up their voice. Johnny Mack Brown has a high squeaky voice, oddly enough he would later have success in westerns. And William Janney is over-acting to levels never reached before. Still, the film seems sincere in its emotions. And while this story of forbidden love may come off as predictable to some viewers I was pulled into the story.

Besides Pickford I was most impressed with Matt Moore. His character is the kind of everyman, the kind of character most men can see themselves in. He genuinely loves Norma. And while she is too busy look elsewhere, we know Stanley will always wait for her. There are scenes in this film when, through simple gestures, we can see his heart break. No exaggerated moments of acting. Just a simple tilt of the head. A distant look in his eyes. A shrug of the shoulders. His actions speak volumes. He doesn't have to say a word. We know precisely what he is thinking and how he feels.

The most famous scene in the movie comes at the end. It is a courtroom scene. Norma is put in a difficult position. Betray her family or praise her love for Michael. Either way, her actions will have serious consequences. Again, some viewers may find the situation overly dramatic but I was caught up in the emotions of the situation.

"Coquette" was the only movie Mary Pickford ever won an Oscar for. Years later the win is looked upon as a "sympathy" Oscar. Her win is suppose to represent her lifetime in movies. Others say politics were at play. Pickford, as I said, was married to Douglas Fairbanks, the Academy's first president. Was there pressure put on voters to let Pickford win? Maybe, maybe not. Who can say? In the end I'm glad Pickford won. I think she gives a very good performance.

As for director Sam Taylor, it is a little odd to see him direct a melodrama. Taylor had a close association with comedian Harold Lloyd. Taylor directed such pictures as "The Freshmen" (1925) and "The Cat's Paw" (1934). He directed the terrific silent romantic comedy "Exit Smiling" (1926), the John Barrymore picture "Temptest" (1928) and "My Best Girl" (1927) also with Mary Pickford. His final film as director was for the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Nothing But Trouble" (1944). Taylor knew comedy, but, here he proves he knew drama too.

Despite popular opinion I'd say give "Coquette" a chance. The movie is only available on VHS (for now). Hopefully that will change soon. Too many great movies have not been put on DVD and too many people have completely rejected VHS not understanding there are so many films which haven't been put on DVD. You still need your VCR! Don't throw them away!

"It's A Pleasure" *** (out of ****)

"It's A Pleasure" (1945) is a much different film, in tone, than "Coquette". This is a Sonja Henie vehicle, but, I wouldn't be so quick as to describe it as a musical. There is lots of figure skating but no singing. However, don't let that stop you from seeing this picture. In some ways it is the best showcase of Henie's skating ability.

Sonja Henie was a gold medalist Olympic skater. For reasons I've never been quite sure of, she decided she wanted to become a movie actress. She wasn't a great actress but 20th Century Fox signed her up. Knowing her limited range Henie correctly kept things simple. Every one of her films revolved around her playing a figure skater. Either by hobby or profession. The movies were generally musicals or light-hearted romance diversions. And it all paid off. For a time Henie was popular. Her films were box-office successes. But, just as quickly as fame came her way, so it went away. "It's A Pleasure" was her first non-Fox movie, RKO released the film upon its initial release.

I've written about Henie before. I reviewed her last 20th Century Fox musical, "Wintertime" (1943) and "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941). Both movies are worth watching. So are "My Lucky Star" (1938) and "Happy Landing" (1938). "My Lucky Star" features a wonderful "Alice in Wonderland" ice-skating interpretation.

In "It's A Pleasure" Henie plays Chris Linden, an ice-skater who works between hockey games, during half-time, dancing on ice. She is in love with hockey star, Don Martin (Michael O' Shea). Don is a drinker and a bit of a tough guy. When he punches a referee for a call he doesn't like, Don is suspended from hockey. What to do? Chris tries to get him a job in her figure skating show, which is run by Don's buddy, Buzz Fletcher (Bill Johnson).

The movie soon takes a turn as Chris and Don get married and vow never to separate, both professionally and personally. But things become difficult when Don's drinking gets in the way and Buzz's wife, Gale (Marie McDonald) has the eye for Don. The film is not too subtle about what is going on between the two of them(!).

When you take out the songs and dancing and leave the romance behind for a moment, "It's A Pleasure" is a good vehicle for Henie's figure skating. It plays a prominent part in the story and she has at least three good showcases to demonstrate her talent. I can't say the same about movies like "Sun Valley Serenade".

The movie was directed by William A. Seiter. Known primarily for musicals and comedies, he directed a few good ones. He was behind the Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth musical "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942), the Marx Brothers comedy, "Room Service" (1938), the Laurel & Hardy comedy, "Sons of the Desert" (1933) a pair of Wheeler & Woolsey comedies; "Diplomaniacs" (1933) and "Peach-O-Reno" (1931), two of their best. Plus, he directed Loretta Young in the comedy "Three Blind Mice (1938), Alice Faye in "Sally, Irene and Mary" (1938) and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical "Roberta" (1935). He wasn't a great director, but he was lucky enough to work with such talented people. Many at the beginning of their careers.

"It's A Pleasure" is a predictable, harmless piece of Hollywood entertainment. It is not a great film but Sonja Henie has a certain charm to her which makes the movie watchable. We like her and therefore are willing to watch the movie. It doesn't go into great dramatic depths with these characters or their story. But it does enough to keep us watching.

Check out the terrific production number for the Brazilian song "Tico-Tico" as Henie skates to it. This is before Carmen Miranda sang it in the film "Copacabana" (1947).

I wonder if this movie was in any way an inspiration for the comedy "Cutting Edge" (1993) about a hockey player who faces suspension and teams up with a figure skater.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Top Ten Favorite "Best Picture" Oscar Winners

I've never hidden the fact I am not a fan of the Academy Awards. If you mention to some people a movie won an Oscar it may in fact intrigued them to see that particular film. In my case it does nothing. It is the wrong approach to take if you want me to see a movie.

A lot of people simply cannot understand my strong anti-Oscar sentiment. It is a award show, it is all in good fun. Most people just like to see what the movie stars are wearing. It is something fun to do on a Sunday night. Sit back, relax, maybe order a pizza and watch the 18 hour show. But, I feel to simply look at the Academy Awards in that light in not fair and completely misses the point. Hollywood, and by way of brainwashing manipulation, society put a lot of stock into the Academy Awards. It means a lot in the business. It is at the very least a terrific marketing device. Look at all the ads in newspapers which proudly display in giant letters "Academy Award nominee". And as I said, it catches people's interest. They will seek out that film if only to see what all the fuss is about.

And that leads to my problem with the Academy Awards. The ceremony is given a great deal of prestige. To win an Oscar is suppose to signify the greatest artistic achievement. It is about honoring the best. But more often than not the Academy does the exact opposite. For several reasons. One of the most disturbing, to me, is how gosh darn political the whole process is. How image conscious the Academy is. It is not about presenting the "best film" or "best director" with an award, but, rather, all about publicity and saving face. What will make the greater headline in the next day's paper.

What you also have to consider are all the ridiculous rules the Academy has created and their bias towards certain films. How is it that no foreign language film has ever won an Oscar for "Best Picture"? But Alex, some of you will say, the Academy Awards are an American show, honoring only American films. That is and isn't true. Some foreign language films have been nominated for the top prize but they never win. My problem is, if we are going to truly celebrate artistic achievement why not play fair and say for this particular year the best film was made in a non-English language country (some smart alec will say a few U.K. productions have won the prize. So I must specify I mean a non-English language film).

Also, you must remember in years past, in the foreign language category voters weren't even obligated to see all of the nominated films! How on Earth can people vote for something when they haven't seen everything which was nominated? The Academy Awards, many times, feel like nothing more than a popularity contest.

But what bugs me the most about the Academy Awards goes along the lines of the popularity contest. How many great artist have not won an Oscar? The Academy tries to back pedal their ignorance and present these people with an "Honorary" Oscar, the Lifetime Achievement Award. This is the Academy's way of saying, "we are sorry we are a bunch of ignorant morons who did not recognize artistic merit when we saw it and instead over-looked you so we could let the latest flavor of the month win". Remember a few years back, Peter O' Toole didn't want their honorary Oscar because he knew what it signified. He felt he still stood a chance at winning a competitive Oscar (he was nominated that year for "Venus" (2006), but naturally lost). Think of all the great artist who never won a competitive Oscar; Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Fritz Lang, Ingmar Bergman, Istvan Szabo, Cary Grant. I can actually do this for days.

Still, despite the Academy's ignorance sometimes they fool themselves and actually allow a great film to win. Believe it or not this has actually happened. Here are my ten favorite "Best Picture" Oscar winners. The films will be presented in chronological order. You'll notice the 1940s is the most celebrated decade with four films from the decade, followed by the 1930s with three films. And I even had room to celebrate two "modern" films from America's last great decade, the 1970s. Here's my list!

1. All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) - The third "Best Picture" Oscar winner is one of the all-time great war films. For my money and time it is better than "Wings" (1927), the first "Best Picture" Oscar winner.

2. Grand Hotel (1932) - A movie years ahead of its time. I reviewed this masterpiece before. It had an all-star cast consisting of; Greta Garbo, John & Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Berry and Joan Crawford. Not just one my of favorite "Best Picture" winners, but, one of my favorite movies of all time.

3. Gone With The Wind (1939) - Maybe the greatest movie of the decade. One of the all-time great Hollywood epics. If anyone ever tells you classic Hollywood films are boring, tell them to watch this. And if they don't like it, simply never speak to them again. Every compliment that has ever been said about this film is true and well deserved. An American classic.

4. Mrs. Miniver (1942) - Another one of my all-time favorite films. The film was actually made mostly to keep up the moral of the British army. England was in the war a lot longer than the United States and the war was starting to take its toll on the people. This great film is about life on the home front. An emotional, sentiment film.

5. Casablanca (1943) - Like "Gone With The Wind" an American classic. That's about the highest compliment you can pay the film.

6. The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) - Made right at the time when soldiers were actually returning home after WW2, here is a film that addressed the problems these men must face. Whether it is psychological, financial or bodily harm. Talk about a movie which represented the times. William Wyler's second films to win a "Best Picture" (he also directed "Mrs. Miniver").

7. A Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) - Seen as one of the first films to deal with anti-semitism, which was a very serious social problem after the war, even in America folks!

8. The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) - In my opinion the 1950s were a low point in cinema. Very few of the "Best Picture" Oscar winners impress me, but, this David Lean epic is an exception. One of Lean's all-time great films.

9. The Godfather (1972) - A no brainer. There was no way I was going to make a list like this and not include this film. One of my all-time favorites. The acting in this film is remarkable. Every performance is near perfect. Who else could play these characters?

10. Annie Hall (1977) - Woody Allen's only film (to date) to win a "Best Picture" Oscar. It too is a film which resents its time period quite well. It is also one of the all-time great romantic comedies establishing the formula for all future romantic comedies. There would be no "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989) if "Annie Hall" wasn't made first.

Egyptian Cinema

If you have been watching the news lately, surely you are aware of what is going on in Egypt. Given that, I'm willing to bet there may be those who may be looking to Egypt for the first time and they may have a sudden interest in their cinema. Perhaps, through cinema, we can come to learn something about these people and their country.

I'm one that firmly believes cinema can teach us about other cultures. Filmmakers usually make films about their society, about issues which are import to the people. Here we see what entertains people, what their interest are, how they live..ect.

So what all of this in mind I'm going to suggest those with a curiosity in Egyptian cinema should watch the films of Youssef Chahine, who was at one time considered the premier Egyptian filmmaker. The two films which I would suggest you watch are "Alexandria...Why? (1978) and "An Egyptian Story" (1982), which is in ways the sequel to "Alexandria".

In "Alexandria...Why?" Egypt is in chaos, it is the beginning of WW2. A young man however finds himself enchanted by Hollywood films. The movie tells the story of a country in political turmoil and how a filmmaker chooses to celebrate his country but also the power of cinema. Clearly the film must be based on Chahine. It is a very personal, rewarding film. A film which I believe would make a wonderful introduction in Chahine's films.

I am going to supply a link for readers to learn about Chahine's films and his life.