I love the Academy Awards and last year I realized how few of the “Best Picture” winners I’d actually seen. So I made it a goal to see all 83 winners and blog my thoughts about them along the way.

Why did it win? Should another movie have won instead? Has it become a beloved classic or do many of you not even recognize the title? I invite you, my friends and guests, to comment along with me. Do you agree/disagree? I should be fair and place a SPOLIER ALERT on this blog since I’ll be writing about various parts of the movie. So read at your own risk…

I have often told people that I have movie amnesia… I can see a movie and forget all about it years later. So for that reason, I am re-watching the 27 I’ve seen before. That said, if no one visits or reads my blog and I basically perform the online equivalent of talking to a brick wall, that’s fine; if for nothing else, it’ll be my own reminder. Enjoy!

And the Oscar goes to…


Monday, February 13, 2012

Shakespeare in Love, 1998










Rated PG-13

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and I was in the mood recently to watch something romantic. I had never seen this film before and I have to say, I was a little disappointed. I must be in the minority though because the critics raved about this film and it rates high on viewers’ polls online. It’s a light-hearted romantic “dramedy” which are few and far between in the Oscar race. I equate it to “Ever After” winning the Best Picture award (you know, the sappy one where Drew Barrymore plays Cinderella), which oddly also came out this year. “Shakespeare in Love” is entertaining and is clever and even funny at times, but it is just not at all Best Picture material in my opinion, especially seeing its competition (keep reading).

This is the story of young Shakespeare who currently has writer’s block. He seems to be unlucky in love and writing lately, and apparently they go hand in hand for him (inspiration, I guess). Not much later, he meets and instantly falls in love with Lady Viola who happens to be his number one fan. He is suddenly inspired to write “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”. Viola decides to disguise herself as a man in order to snag a role in his play, her new name being Thomas Kent. Will confides in Thomas and shares his intense feelings for Viola. (At this point, I literally asked my husband if we were supposed to believe that he didn’t know it was her. I was to assume the shorter wig and stick-on mustache was a brilliant cover. Gee whiz….)

They embark on a passionate love affair and Will is further inspired to write his new NON-comedy “Romeo and Juliet”. Viola is required to marry Lord Wessex and sail for America, but not before she escapes to the theatre to find that she is the only person who can fill in, last-minute, for the role of Juliet. I’m a sucker for happy endings, but in this case, I was satisfied that the two had to part ways. If they had unrealistically ended up together, I would have called this whole story rubbish. Instead, we are content with Viola forever being Will’s muse, who becomes the inspiration for his next play (and comedy), “Twelfth Night”.

The relatively unknown Joseph Fiennes (brother of Ralph Fiennes, aka Voldemort) plays Will. He is a good actor in this film who, ironically, is also in this film’s competitor, “Elizabeth”. He’s much nicer to look at than the pictures that adorned our high school English classrooms, so that was a plus for the casting department.

 I was not a fan, however, of Gwyneth Paltrow as the lead female… and she WON Best Actress! C’mon Academy… over Ms. Blanchett or MS. STREEP? Were no British actresses her age available to play this part? Geoffrey Rush (oddly cast but perfectly acted), Colin Firth, and even Ben Affleck also star in this film and make it more bearable.

Another matter of frustration… not only do we have to sit through about twenty minutes of the actual performance of “Romeo and Juliet” at the end of the film, we have to endure the rehearsals of it as well. I love “Romeo and Juliet”, but that’s not what I expected to watch when I put in this DVD.

Call me a prude, but I think this film should’ve been rated R for its several sexual scenes, nudity, and innuendos. I understand Will and Viola’s love affair was quick and passionate, but it almost seemed unbelievable because of its intensity. There was a cute line after the lovers’ first scene of passion though that I chuckled at: Viola is laying in bed in wonderment and says to Will, “There is something better than a play… and your play.”

I can’t be the only person surprised this film won because it was considered a “major dark horse upset”. It amazingly won seven of its thirteen nominations including Best Costume Design, which it certainly deserved. It was up against “Elizabeth”, “Life is Beautiful” (which is a lovely film that won for Best Foreign Language Film but I don’t think it should have been eligible for both categories), “The Thin Red Line”, and…. wait for it…. “Saving Private Ryan”. Yeah, I know. I shouldn’t have to say more. I mean, I haven’t even seen that movie, and I’m sure it should’ve won. Before the nominations for Best Picture were announced, “Shakespeare in Love” grossed about 1/6th the amount “Saving Private Ryan” did. Granted, the money came rolling in after the nominations and even more so after it won, but even then, the total gross was less than half of that of its main competitor. (Box office receipts are good predictors of Best Picture winners, FYI.)

“American History X” also came out this year… I’m not sure it should have been a contender, but I remember it being hard to watch but powerful. “The Truman Show” was another good one made this year. But my personal favorite film that came out this year though was “Stepmom” starring Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Ed Harris. I watch this touching film every year (because the striking autumn foliage in New York gets me in the spirit for fall). Susan’s and Ed’s characters are divorced and have two children. The new girlfriend (Julia) will soon become the stepmom and discovers she will be their only motherly figure now that the children’s mother is dying of cancer. Hardly anyone I know has seen this film (aside from one of my besties who saw it in the theatre with me)… Please go rent this film- I think it is beautifully done.

LESSONS LEARNED:

I do think it’s important to see Shakespeare’s work brought to life… whether in film form or on the stage. One of my favorite movies is Baz Luhrmann’s film “Romeo + Juliet” from 1996 starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. I especially enjoyed his cinematography and ability to modernize the story while keeping the original dialogue. This enabled him to reach out to students and viewers who may not have understood the language but now had a way to make it personal.

Casting against type can sometimes be a breath of fresh air for a film.

When having “writer’s block”, find inspiration in life.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gentleman's Agreement, 1947










Not Rated

This was one of Hollywood’s first significant attempts at covering the hot topic issue of racial prejudice and bigotry after the First World War. Anti-Semitism was of great concern in society at the time, and the horror of the Holocaust was fresh in everybody’s mind. That said, this was a very good attempt at starting dialogue, but I think it has “too much talk and not enough action”. I’m not saying that in regards to today’s standards (in which case, the story would be really weak); I understand that this was a new and delicate issue, but the plot still lacks gumption.

A “gentleman’s agreement” is one that is formed without writing or even speech; it is one that is quietly understood or assumed. In this story, it’s the silent agreement of the negative treatment or overall ignoring of Jews. Today, a gentleman’s agreement is not all that dissimilar from telling a politically incorrect joke and assuming the person agrees with you.

Phil Green (played by Gregory Peck) is a journalist who just got assigned a series of articles; he’s to write about Anti-Semitism in America- the thing is, he’s not Jewish. He hems and haws over how to approach this article and even considers calling up his friend who’s Jewish (but how do you really ask those types of questions of a friend?). He figures out he’ll become Jewish, so to speak… and he’s even got the title: “I was Jewish for Six Months”. (Interestingly, he doesn’t make it that long.)

Just before this revelation of his, he falls in love with a cute but naïve woman named Kathy (who I immediately recognized as the mother from the Disney film “Old Yeller”.) Although their relationship is a little tumultuous, I loved the way they fought and made up. They apologized so well to each other, realizing what was most important. I know it’s only a movie, but it was touching to me.

During his time “being Jewish”, Phil realizes that he’s not allowed at certain parties and hotels, his own liberal-minded company doesn’t hire Jews, and his son (who he asked to tell others he was “part Jewish” if anyone asked) is being bullied. The climax of the film for me was when he went to confirm his room at a “restricted” hotel for his Honeymoon. He asks to speak to a manager and after muddled words and indirect answers, he is told he cannot rent a room there. I figured that was going to be the last straw for him, but instead he stood there and stared and then walks away seemingly defeated.


The plot is padded a little heavily with the love story more so than the “meat” of the story. Phil did have some good father-child conversations with his son… I wouldn’t expect any less from Gregory Peck. J (My favorite fatherly role of his is Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.) Phil finishes his articles early and although they may be controversial, it looks like they will be a success. (At least we can hope that it gets the ball rolling.)

This film won three awards from its eight nominations including Best Director and Best Supporting Actress: Celeste Holm who was also in the Best Picture winner “All about Eve” and my childhood favorite made-for-TV-movie “Polly”. “Gentleman’s Agreement” was up against “Crossfire”, “The Bishop’s Wife”, “Great Expectations”, and “Miracle on 34th Street”. It is very unusual that a holiday movie is up for nomination, but this last nominee had obviously such a (lasting) impact. I’m sure some would argue that THAT is the Best Picture from this year.

FAVORITE SCENES AND LESSONS LEARNED:

Phil’s ailing mother has a wish for what [this] century will be remembered for… “not the Atomic century, or the Russian century, or even the American century, but Everybody’s century… one in which free people found a way to live together.” This is an ongoing wish of many people. Let’s put our differences aside and learn to live peacefully with one another.

Swallow your pride. Phil’s Jewish friend feels no sympathy for him after a fight with his girlfriend. I love his response to seeing Phil sulking by the phone: “So you’re right and she’s wrong. So what? So she has to telephone you first? Who makes such rules, the Supreme Court? Go on and call her and stop licking your wounds.” I wish apologizing was this easy for me (no matter if I know I’m wrong or if I strongly believe I’m right); it’s not worth hurting the ones you love.

Kathy (again with the help of Phil’s Jewish friend) realizes that in moral issues like this, you need to “fight it instead of getting mad at those who helped it along”. She was taking the passive-aggressive approach by just verbalizing how displeased she was in other’s behaviors. She finally understands that what matters the most to her fiancé, is that he has a “buddy” alongside him to help fight the injustice. (This revelation at the end of the film is a little ironic considering that is my biggest critique of the film: too little action. Perhaps there should have been a “Gentleman’s Agreement 2” made…)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hamlet, 1948










Not Rated
 
“Hamlet” is Oscar’s first non-American made film and the first British production to win Best Picture. It is also the only film adapted from one of William Shakespeare’s plays to win this award. Best Actor winner Laurence Olivier plays the title character in this story and he is the second most-nominated actor in Oscar history (with 10) behind Jack Nicholson (with 12).

I’m sure many of you had to read this famous play in some high school English class (or at least you read the Cliff’s Notes). It is the story of young Prince Hamlet, son of a murdered King. Through a visit from his deceased father’s ghost, he discovers his uncle is the murderer and has now taken Hamlet’s mother as his wife. Hamlet is outraged, disgusted, and out for revenge- a familiar theme in Shakespeare’s writings. Hamlet decides to hire actors to put on a play in the palace that reveals the true murderer. He declares, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!” And if you’re at all familiar with Shakespeare, you know this doesn’t end well.

Hamlet is so disturbed by his mother’s hasty remarriage and accuses her of incest. Perhaps someone can educate me as to the definition or relevance of incest during this time… But if she married her husband’s brother, they are not related by blood, so… is he referring to a “marital family” incest? Other than Hamlet’s understandable revulsion in his mother’s rush to a marriage bed (when she should be mourning her husband), I don’t understand his preoccupation with incest.

Diehard fans of Will may not like this condensed version coming in at two and a half hours long. Important characters such as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras are completely nonexistent and some of Ophelia’s monologues are cut or shortened. If you prefer unabridged versions, I suggest you check out Kenneth Branagh’s version from 1996 clocking in at four hours. It’s actually a very good film and I much prefer that adaptation to this one. (I happen to own it on VHS if anyone wants to borrow it J). Branagh is superb in the role, as is Kate Winslet as Ophelia. Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, and Robin Williams also have minor roles.  But there are few other renditions you could choose from: Mel Gibson was Hamlet in 1990 and Ethan Hawke played him in 2000; I haven’t seen those versions, so I can’t offer an opinion.

I feel the story moves faster in the second half. Perhaps it’s because you’ve had enough time to get used to the Shakespearean dialogue, or maybe it’s just that the story finally gets moving. I spent the first half of the story, thinking What are you talking about??

The Director of photography did a nice job with this film. The angles, shots, and shadows used in order to convey Hamlet’s solitude, desperation, inner turmoil, and madness are appropriate and symbolic (ie. the lookout on a precipice above jagged cliffs and crashing waves; the interior of the vast stone castle looking insanely cold, dark, and foreboding).


I had the pleasurable opportunity to study abroad in Denmark and visit Kronborg Slot, which is considered “Hamlet’s Castle” with my host family. The castle is situated near the town of Helsingor, which Shakespeare wrote as Elsinore in his play (hence the connection of the two). Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, and even Jude Law have all played Hamlet at one point in the castle courtyard there. It is a striking castle/fortress with beautiful grounds. I very much enjoyed my stay in the land of the Danes and can assure you there is nothing “rotten in the state of Denmark”.


This piece of Shakespeare was up against “Johnny Belinda”, “The Red Shoes”, “The Snake Pit”, and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, none of which I’ve seen.

MOST MEMORABLE LINES:

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlet is contemplating suicide in this scene… He is debating whether it’s wiser to “man up” and face conflict (per his ghost father’s request) or rid himself of the pain by ending his life. Ironically, neither choice would yield good results. I think Hamlet should have expressed his feelings in a responsible and appropriate manner and then forgiven his uncle and mother… but then again, my play wouldn’t have sold many copies I’m sure.


“Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” While its Hamlet’s dear friend and confidant, Horatio, who speaks these words to him upon his death, I think it is the most romantic line of the play. (Perhaps that is because when I was in high school, a platonic male friend of mine said it to me before going bed (inserting the word ‘princess’). I thought it was super sweet and I became a fan of Shakespeare after that. J)

LESSON LEARNED:

Jealousy, greed, and anger…. all traits that will lead to trouble. Avoid them.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gladiator, 2000










Rated R

“A general who became a slave. A slave who became a gladiator. A gladiator who defied an emperor… A striking story.” Those are the words of Emperor Commodus to Maximus the gladiator before his final fight- and those words sum up this film’s story. Taking place in 180 A.D., this movie follows the life of Maximus, a powerful and successful general who receives the Emperor’s blessing to become the heir, only to be betrayed immediately by the Emperor’s son. After finding his family brutally murdered, he is sold into slavery and quickly purchased to become a gladiator (which essentially, is still slavery). Maximus, who names himself “Gladiator”, finds himself performing in the awesome Coliseum in Rome in front of the man who ruined his life. Revenge becomes his driving force.

Russell Crowe masterfully plays the role of “Gladiator” and is well-deserving of his Best Actor award. I admire his work as an actor and his ability to play such different characters (this role vs. Professor Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”, one of my favorite films). Joaquin Phoenix plays the immature and evil Emperor Commodus so well that it is easy to hate him. I also applaud his scope of acting (this role vs. Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line”) as he is equally well-deserving of his Best Supporting Actor nomination. The gentleman who plays the elderly Emperor at the beginning of the film also plays Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films and stars in one of my favorite films, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. His voice is magnificent and he seems born to play those types of roles.

I like the cinematography in this film and the use of slow-motion during some of the fight scenes. I think that is something that can seem cliché but in this film, at those moments, it brings moments of clarity without being corny. I immediately recognized that Hans Zimmer was the score’s composer… it sounded way too much like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

I have to warn you that this is another film filled with brutality and bloody images, even more so than my recent watching: “Braveheart”. The film starts with a massive and influential fight scene and poetically ends with an equally massive and influential fight scene, but with different stakes.

The history of this “bloodsport”, as it’s commonly known, makes me queasy. The Roman people at this time had an insatiable thirst for blood with practically no regard for the sanctity of human (and innocent) life. Although, I could argue that audiences gathering to watch blood and violence/fighting is still common today: boxing, bull fighting, even out-of-control mobs at sporting events. I don’t understand the draw to those sports either.

After watching the special features on this DVD, I found out that the thumbs up/down sign came from this era. An emperor held the life of a triumphant gladiator in his hands and literally used his hands to communicate his fate. If the Emperor decided “You’re ok. You’ll live,” he’d give a thumb up. The opposite was true with a thumb down. We still use this gesture socially to say that everything’s ok. I also learned that the gladiatorial events were the only time when people could see exotic animals. These people were not traveling to Africa, so it was a treat to be able to see tigers, alligators, and gazelle in the amphitheatre.


I vividly remember visiting the Roman Coliseum in 2000 while I was studying abroad in college. I was awe-struck standing in a structure constructed in 72 A.D. imagining the horrors that took place there.  I think the CGI department did an incredible job “reconstructing” the greatest work of Roman architecture and engineering. To be able to see it in its complete form on screen is a treat.

   


This film was up against “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Traffic”, “Erin Brockovich”, and “Chocolat”. I own “Erin Brockovich” and think it’s a great movie. I was thrilled that Julia Roberts won Best Actress for her role in that. Even though I haven’t seen the other three competitors, I’m pretty sure the right film won. It walked away with five wins from its impressive twelve nominations including Best Visual Effects which I think is obvious.

MEMORABLE SCENE:

In 2000, my boyfriend (now husband) and I were in a bar in LA when the song “Bawitdaba” by Kid Rock came on the television (MTV? VH1?). I looked up and saw that playing with it was the coolest battle scene from “Gladiator” (the one with the tigers and the enormous masked gladiator). The song and the movements on screen were perfectly in sync and I still don’t know if it was edited that way or not. I remember being in awe and wanting it to play over and over again. I have exhausted every search engine and YouTube for this video and can’t find it; I only find other references to it (supposedly it was an early teaser trailer). I’m telling you, it was extraordinary. If anyone finds it, PLEASE let me know! Ironically, that scene is done in near silence in the film. It is very intense and Maximus sidesteps death every other second. It proves just how bada$$ he is. I can’t help but watch that scene and sing “Bawitdaba” in my head. J


LESSONS LEARNED:

There is a very interesting line near the beginning of the film. The dying Emperor is trying to comfort his son, Commodus (who he just told would not inherit his crown). Commodus emotionally admits that he’s never felt good enough or worthy of his father’s love. His father kneels before him and says, “Your faults as a son is my failure as a father.” At first, I thought it was selfless and endearing that he would take the blame for his son’s feelings of inadequacy. He recognizes that his parenting affected his son’s self-esteem… Perhaps he was too harsh or perhaps he favored others instead of his son. But then I started thinking, Woah buddy, don’t be so hard on yourself. You can’t be the sole influence in your child’s life. Parents, especially mothers I think, can’t help but feel guilty in their parenting: I didn’t do this good enough / I should’ve reacted this way instead/ Am I teaching him about this? / Am I setting the right example?, etc. What we need to do is try our best and be satisfied with that. There are times we feel we fail and times we feel we’re rock stars. Be aware that we (as parents/caregivers/teachers) heavily influence our youngsters’ lives, as do their peers and surroundings. Pray for guidance from the one and only perfect parent, Our Father.


A superb line (and lesson) is from Maximus himself, “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

An American in Paris, 1951










Not Rated

Today marks the one year anniversary of my blog. (I was supposed to have finished watching all 83 winners by now, but it proved too difficult a task. I promise I’ll finish by next year’s award show!) My first post was about one of my favorite musicals, “The Sound of Music”. It just so happens that I’m posting about another winning musical 365 days later. (Although this one didn’t tickle my fancy nearly as much….)

In this Best Picture winner, American Jerry Mulligan (played by Gene Kelly) is an ex-GI living in Paris, the city of l’amour, trying to make it as a painter (since that’s his dream). A wealthy and attractive American purchases two of Jerry’s paintings for her home and basically wants to become his “sugar mama”. He doesn’t seem to catch on that she obviously has a crush on him. Meanwhile, he falls for a young Frenchwoman named Lise who’s actually already in a relationship with Henri who Jerry’s friend Adam introduced him to earlier that day (but he’s not aware of that connection). Confused? It’s just your typical “girl finds guy who finds girl who has guy” story in song and dance form.

As I’m sure everyone knows, Gene Kelly is a fantastic and talented dancer/choreographer. He doesn’t disappoint in this movie, however, I will say I think I preferred him more in “Singing in the Rain” which came out the following year. This was 19-year old Leslie Caron’s breakout role (Lise) and she went on to star in another one of Vincente Minnelli’s musicals and Best Picture winner, “Gigi”, seven years later. I MUCH prefer Minnelli’s musical “Meet Me in St. Louis” starring Judy Garland from 1944, although sadly, there’s much less dancing.

Adam Cook, Jerry’s friend in the film, introduces himself as a concert pianist, which is “a pretentious way of saying [he’s] unemployed at the moment”. He has his five minutes of fame in the film when he daydreams playing the piano during a concert. (He also plays the other instruments in the orchestra while also conducting.) I was pretty amazed at his piano-playing abilities, so I looked him up, and he IS a concert pianist extraordinaire.

The film’s musical score was taken almost entirely from songbooks of George & Ira Gershwin… and I don’t know why. The songs sung (and danced to) were already used in other musicals, so why did they need repeating? (ie. The song “Fascinating Rhythm” is from “Lady Be Good”, “Swonderful” is from “Funny Face”, and there are three songs from “Crazy for You” – I know because I was in two of those musicals.) Why couldn’t there be a whole new fun score for this musical? I guess it’s seen as a “tribute” musical to the Gershwins.

I couldn’t help but notice Gene’s pants and shoes in the film. He wears cream high-water pants, white socks, and brown loafers which is very different from the other men in the film (whose pants and footwear were “normal”). It was obvious to me that the costumer designed that look in order to pull the audience’s gaze down to his fast-moving and gifted feet.  Even if the costume changes, the level of his pants and the stark difference in color of his socks doesn’t. You just can’t help looking down at his feet. I also couldn’t help but think how different that is from one of Danny Kaye’s outfits in “White Christmas” just three years later. On the contrary, he is dressed in gray from head to toe: gray pants, socks, and shoes. This, I believe, is done to actually minimize distractions and force the audience to really appreciate the art of their synchronized dancing.


This was the first full-color film to have come out since “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, so naturally it won for Best Color Cinematography. (I don’t know why there was such a gap in color film production.) And I think it being in color was what had audiences ecstatic about the film. It brought in six awards from its eight nominations (none were for acting though). This film’s fellow nominees for Best Picture were “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Quo Vadis?”, “Decision before Dawn”, and “A Place in the Sun”. I haven’t seen any of these, so I can’t honestly tell you if this musical deserved to win.

The film is famous for the 13-minute long avant-garde dream ballet at the end. It goes against my musical-theatre loving self to say, but it was a bit too long for me. I started to get bored and sidetracked. Sorry Gene. It is referred to as an “uninterrupted” dance sequence… and yes, it appears as if Gene and Leslie dance their way onto new Impressionist-style painted sets without missing a beat, but their costumes change so there are obviously breaks. It reminded me of “Babes in Toyland” for some reason (another film I’m not a huge fan of). Overall, if you’re not really a huge fan of musicals, let me know, I have others I can recommend first.

FAVORITE SCENE:

Jerry sings the Gershwin classic “I’ve Got Rhythm” partly in French and partly in English to a bunch of children randomly gathered around an outdoor flower shop. It was cute and the tap dancing was fun. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvglHa_P9BA - The fun starts around the 1 minute-mark. (The beginning of the clip makes it look like a foreign language film, which it is not. J)


LESSONS LEARNED:

Be true to your heart and follow it. (I’m not going to give away what happens to the love story at the end…)

Costumes make all the difference for a dancer.