Friday, February 28, 2014

Top 5: Best Picture Winners That Should Be Seen On The Big Screen

For my final Oscar column before Sunday's Oscar show, I chose a topic that is near and dear to my heart. An integral part of cinema for the first hundred years of its existence was that it could only be experienced in a movie theater. With the advent of television in the fifties and then home video in the eighties, the moviegoing experience began to dwindle, and with more access to more films at our fingertips than ever, it's become more commonplace than ever to experience a film for the first time at home. Unless you're lucky enough to live in a big city with a theater that will show older films (like The Music Box here in Chicago), it's virtually impossible to see classic films on the big screen. Chains like Cinemark and Regal do their best with their Sunday afternoon retro-features, but they're usually films from the relatively recent past.
When Gravity was released in October, the general consensus was that the only way to see it was on the biggest screen possible, preferably in IMAX. Now that Gravity is a major contender at this year's ceremony, I thought I'd look back on the top five Best Picture winners that should also be seen on the big screen. While it doesn't kill these five films to experience them at home, seeing them in a movie theater is the best possible way to experience them.
5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Perhaps the most epic moviegoing event of my lifetime remains Peter Jackson's original Lord of the Rings trilogy. In retrospect, having only seen the films on home video over the last decade, they don't stand up the way they did on the big screen, and a big part of the reason for that is that home video doesn't really convey the scope of what Jackson was attempting to do. When the third film in the series, The Return of the King, swept the 2004 Oscar ceremony, many viewed it as a victory for the trilogy as a whole, particularly considering that in all actuality it's the weakest of the three films. But seeing it on the big screen, all the build up leading to its release and the catharsis of finishing the trilogy is still one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life. It just isn't the same on the small screen, and many of its flaws vanish when viewed on the biggest screen possible.
4. Gone With the Wind (1939)
When I was in high school I took my grandmother to see Gone with the Wind on the big screen and a film that I couldn't stand took on a new life. While there had been some epic film productions prior to producer David O. Selznick's masterpiece, Gone with the Wind was not only the biggest film to date, it remains one of the biggest films of all time. Just the scope needed for the opening title as it scrolls across the screen to Max Steiner's immortal theme is massive, and loses all of its impact on a television screen, no matter how big. While I still feel that The Wizard of Oz was the better film that year, and time has been much kinder to that film than this one, seeing it on the big screen lets you know why voters were won over by it that year, and why it remains the biggest box office juggernaut of all time (when adjusted for inflation).
3. The Last Emperor (1987)
Bernardo Bertolucci's epic story of Pu Yi (John Lone), the last in a line of emperors that ruled China, is another breathtaking visual masterpiece that can only truly be appreciated in its enormity when seen in a movie theater. While the film doesn't lose its impact when viewed on a television, it's majestic scope can only be appreciated when projected on a big screen. Vittorio Storaro's amazing cinematography complements the sumptuous production design Ferdinando Scarfiotti and the elaborate costume design by James Acheson in such a way as to make the entire film feel wholly authentic. While I do think that the so-called "TV Version" which is extended by a full hour over the original 163 minute running time is a better version of the story, I would welcome any opportunity to see either version on the big screen.
2. The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather was a film I grew up with, mainly thanks to my father's obsession with it. While I certainly know the ins and outs of Star WarsStar TrekMonty Python, and various other pop culture ephemera, I probably know more about The Godfather than any other film. I know the bit players, the walk-ons, the hierarchy, every line of dialogue, all of it. I say all of this because I thought I knew The Godfather like the back of my hand, and I did, until I saw it on Thanksgiving weekend 2009 on the big screen in Chicago. It felt as though I had never seen the film before in my life. Rather than saying lines along with the film or timing my bathroom break accordingly, I was mesmerized. It was as though the film could only be appreciated properly on the big screen. The cinematography came to life in a way it never had before, and the enormity of it all just washed over me, making it seem as though this was the only way Coppola ever wanted anyone to see his masterpiece. I'm not saying don't see The Godfather if you can only watch it on your television, but if you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, take it. You will not regret it.
1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This slot could have easily gone to the other David Lean-directed Best Picture winner Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), but not having seen that one on the big screen, I'm not as swayed by its majesty as I am by Lawrence of Arabia. This is the film that seems as if the big screen was invented solely for, and Lean showed that he was a master of 70mm. The absolutely awe-inspiring illustriousness of this film needs to be experienced on the largest screen possible. There's absolutely nothing small about this film, and the way that it transports you to the desert right alongside T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole, in perhaps his best performance) is amazing. While the recent blu-ray transfer looks impeccable, unless you have a 100" tv or larger, it can't really even begin to compete with seeing this film in a movie theater. I had the chance to see it and 2001: A Space Odyssey at Radio City Music Hall when I was a teenager, and they remain the two greatest moviegoing experience of my lifetime. If this is shown at a movie theater within 100 miles of you, it's worth the trip to see this film the way it was meant to be seen.
[Images via 123456]

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Day 281: Pompeii

"No, my dear Cassia. This isn't sport. This is politics."
There is a law among filmgoers that if a film has more than two writers, one should go ahead and begin subtracting half a star from the film's rating for each additional writer. I'm beginning to think that the same process should apply to studio logos. Any more than two, and the film that follows is likely to be a disaster. It's bad enough having too many writers on a project, but when there are multiple production companies involved, the problems multiply tenfold. It should come as no surprise, then, that Pompeii, the latest film from Paul W.S. Anderson (the visionary director behind the Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat franchises) opens with four studio logos, signifying immediate danger on the horizon.

Opening with quotes from the firsthand account of Pliny the Younger, Pompeii wastes no time in setting up its story. A young boy named Milo witnesses a Roman army commanded by General Corvus (Keifer Sutherland) lay waste to his entire village, and murder his parents. Milo survives and grows up to be a fighter in Brittania known as The Celt (Kit Harington). He is brought to Pompeii where he will compete in the games there, in hopes that his talents will attract large crowds, as he is unsurprisingly the best fighter in Brittania. On the road to Pompeii, he crosses paths with a well-to-do young woman named Cassia (Emily Browning) who is returning home to Pompeii from Rome. Her father Severus (Jared Harris) is a wealthy merchant with big plans to turn Pompeii into the jewel of Italy. 
Milo arrives at the coliseum and soon meets Atticus (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje), the best fighter in Pompeii. The two become fast friends, mainly because the script needs them to, even though they are to fight one another at the games the next day. Corvus is now a Senator who comes from Rome to meet with Severus, and agrees to help fund a larger coliseum if he would promise his daughter Cassia's hand in marriage. Fate has other plans for Cassia, as she once more crosses paths with Milo, and find their "chemistry" too great to ignore. This infuriates Corvus, who wants to put an end to Milo once and for all by rigging the games in which he is to fight. Oh, and also, Mount Vesuvius looks like it's about to explode. 
Pompeii's biggest issue is that it has no identity of its own. It's content to crib from every other doomed romance and disaster story that's ever been told, and it tries to do it all in 100 minutes, which makes matters that much worse. Movie geeks will roll their eyes when they hear a direct quote from the end of Jurassic Park, or are forced to once more endure the eternally stupid line: "I like you. It's a shame I have to kill you." Even those not as well versed in the language of cinema won't help but feel this film trying everything in its power to be Titanic, Gladiator, or Romeo & Juliet, and failing miserably to not only establish its own identity, but also failing to be even a reheated version of a story they've seen at least a dozen times before.
Viewers will also marvel at the stupidity of the event that brings the two doomed lovers together for the first time, an injured horse with whom Milo can communicate, and reunites them, a wild horse with whom Milo can communicate. One might be forgiven for thinking they're watching The Horse Whisperer by about the thirty minute mark. As the film plods along, it begins to feel less like a plot, and more like a checklist of action film cliches they have to tick off the boxes next to: Villain kills hero's parents, check. Girl and hero can't be together because of social status, check. Girl is betrothed to villain, check. Villain becomes an indestructible killing machine that keeps coming back to life, check. Movie can't be over until hero and villain face off with one another hand to hand, check. It's exhausting, and worse still boring. 
And as for the matter of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the film couldn't treat it as more of an afterthought if it just eliminated it altogether. Granted the last thirty minutes or so are a race against time to get away from it, even though characters double back towards it multiple times, but it's used as a major selling point in the advertisements. Those showing up for the eruption are going to be bored to tears by the time it happens. The visual effects aren't even that impressive, particularly in an age where every film seems to just have a third act that is nothing but sheer destruction, leaving this film to feel like the also-ran it most certainly is. 
On the attractiveness scale, Harington falls firmly between Corey Feldman and Orlando Bloom, and he's more or less their equal in acting prowess. He's just not compelling or interesting to watch, and his character is so dour he's impossible to root for. All of the same can be said for Browning who's also pretty to look at, but just dull. Sutherland chews every bit of scenery in sight, but it's all for naught as his character is such a one-note, mustache twirling villain he might as well have tied Browning to railroad tracks at the end. Akinnuoye-Agbaje gives pretty much the only performance worth mentioning as he manages to acquit himself nicely of such a poorly written character. I thought for sure the writers would buck the trend of just turning him into another "Magical Negro" character, but of course there's a sequence where he doubles back during the eruption to save a girl from being trampled like a spectator at a Who concert. 
It would have been an impossible task for any director to make a good film out of this script, but Anderson was hardly the director to turn to in such an instance. There's nothing mildly interesting happening here visually, and it's only dragged down by the overwrought, cliche-ridden dialogue. I am at an absolute loss for words at discovering that Gosford Park and Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes had a hand in this script. My only consolation is knowing that he was either the first writer on it, and the script was drastically re-written, or he was brought in to punch up the dialogue. Either way, his participation is barely excusable. 
Pompeii isn't terrible, it's just merely a dumb, forgettable movie. It's unfortunate that so many films fall into this middle ground where it can't be enjoyed ironically, yet it's far too bad to be enjoyed legitimately. At least Winter's Tale was bat-shit crazy, which made its interminable running time the least of its problems. This just feels like a movie no one wanted to make but made it anyway. Commitment one way or another is the key to making films transcend this middle of the road nonsense that audiences are forced to endure in the doldrums of winter, and if people would stop going to see them, they would stop making them. But I guess it's more likely for two lovers from different social standings to survive the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius than it is for that to happen.  
GO Rating: 1.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Top 5: Directors Never Nominated For A Directing Oscar

Five weeks ago, I took a look at the best living actors never nominated for an Oscar, which was whittled down from a larger piece I contemplated doing about the best people overall in the industry never nominated. This week, I've decided to revisit this, but instead take a look at the best directors never nominated for the Best Director Oscar. Some of these men are nominees for writing, but none of them have ever made the cut for Best Director in a given year. While the list of directors who have never won the award reads like a list of the greatest directors that ever lived: Kubrick, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Renoir, Antonioni, Fellini, Lynch, Lumet, Altman, Malle, Bergman, Cassavetes, Ashby, Kramer, Truffault, Buñuel, and Kurosawa, the number that have never even made the cut is just as surprising. Here is my top five directors never nominated for the Best Director Academy Award, all of whom directed at least five films.
Just missed the cut: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alain Resnais, Brian DePalma, Fritz Lang, D.W. Griffith, David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar Wai, Terry Gilliam, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Satyajit Ray, Jim Jarmusch, Marcel Carné, Tim Burton, Roberto Rossellini, Lars von Trier, Jean Cocteau, Chan-wook Park, and Rainer Werner Fassbender.
5. Sam Peckinpah
It's hard to argue, now that it has been over thirty years since his last film The Osterman Weekend, that Sam Peckinpah is one of the most influential directors that ever lived. While Arthur Penn may have been the director that officially broke down the cinematic violence barrier in American cinema with Bonnie and Clyde, Peckinpah was the one who cranked it up to 11 two years later with The Wild Bunch. But more than the violence, Peckinpah at his best was a director concerned with deconstructing the very notion of masculinity in the 20th century. Straw DogsThe GetawayBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, these are films that redefined what it meant to be a man, and their influence can be felt in the work of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, and virtually every director that has made an extremely violent film. That he was never nominated for directing, particularly the year his screenplay for The Wild Bunch was nominated, is a real travesty, and proof that the Academy often fails to recognize directors when they're in their prime.
Biggest SnubThe Wild Bunch (1969)
Whom He Should Have Replaced: Arthur Penn, Alice's Restaurant
4. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan
No director currently working has managed to balance art and commerce in the last decade better than Christopher Nolan. He is the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg and has been doing consistently strong work for over fifteen years now. He first came to everyone's attention with his mind-bending thriller Memento in 2001, and scored an Oscar nomination for his screenplay (a feat he would repeat on Inception). For as good as his scripts are, they wouldn't amount to a hill of beans if he wasn't so adept at realizing them, making him a filmmaker who manages to weave together multiple story lines and characters in a way that is both emotionally satisfying and brilliantly executed. His day will come, just as Spielberg's did, but it's hard to believe that he has gone this long without any recognition for his work behind the camera.
Biggest SnubInception (2010)
Whom He Should Have Replaced: The Coen Brothers, True Grit
3. Jean-Luc Godard 
The very face of the French New Wave that inspired American filmmakers to break the mold of melodramatic films and musicals that plagued our cinema in the 50s and early 60s, Jean-Luc Godard blazed a trail that everyone followed. That his contemporaries like Truffault, Antonioni, and Fellini were all recognized with directing nominations makes his exclusion all the more glaring. Without Godard there would be no Scorsese, Coppola, Soderbergh, or countless others. Perhaps it was his anti-Hollywood screed Contempt that rubbed tinseltown the wrong way, but they attempted to right the severe wrong done to him by giving him an honorary Oscar in 2011. His films and his legacy will live on for as long as people go to the movies, but his failure to be recognized without even a nomination shows how out of step the Academy can be with the true masters of cinema.
Biggest SnubVivre Sa Vie (1962)
Whom He Should Have Replaced: Frank Perry, David and Lisa
2. Spike Lee
"After Earth" New York Premiere -  Arrivals
Not to delve too deeply into the implications that may surround such a statement, but Spike Lee is undeniably the most important director of color to have ever lived. Much like the hip-hop pioneers who took the language of the street and set it to music, Lee took a side of life that most cloistered white people chose to look away from, and confronted them with it, first in the art house, then in the multiplex. His films are a kaleidoscope of issues confronting everyone, but he gave a voice to African Americans that were under heard and under appreciated, making them feel as if there was finally a filmmaker on their side. While it was John Singleton who finally broke the race barrier with his Best Director nomination for Boyz n the Hood, it was Lee that paved the way for him to earn that nomination. The impact of his screenplay nomination for Do The Right Thing is sadly diminished by the fact that his superb direction was not also recognized, as it wasn't for any number of films like Malcolm XClockers, or 25th Hour. To say he's overdue is an understatement.
Biggest SnubDo The Right Thing (1989)
Whom He Should Have Replaced: Woody Allen, Crimes & Misdemeanors
1. Michael Powell
Any discussion of the greatest directors of all time that does not include Michael Powell is hardly a serious discussion of the art form. Together with producing and writing partner Emeric Pressburger, Powell created some of the best films ever committed to celluloid including, but certainly not limited to, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp, Peeping Tom, The Thief of Bagdad, and Stairway to Heaven (which was most famously homaged in Marvel's 2011 Captain America film). Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and even George A. Romero have openly cited him as an influence. He is perhaps the greatest British director that ever lived, and the legacy of his films lives on not just in his direct influences, but in the directors they in turn impacted. It is a real shame that he was never recognized with a directing nomination, but even sadder that he has yet to receive any recognition in the form of a lifetime achievement award. 
Biggest SnubThe Red Shoes (1948)
Whom He Should Have Replaced: Any of that year's nominees, except the winner, John Huston for Treasure of the Sierra Madre
[Images via 123456]

Friday, February 21, 2014

Day 280: The Wind Rises

"Fighting is never justified."
The release of a new film from Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki is always a cause for celebration, but with rumors swirling that his latest film, The Wind Rises, may be his last, anticipation for the film has reached a fever pitch. Loosely based on the life of Jirô Horikoshi, the man who designed many of the aircraft used in Japan's war effort during World War II, the film is as much a meditation on creation and inspiration as it is a straight forward biopic. Could the film live up to the hype surrounding its release and, at the very least, stand alongside the other masterworks this studio puts out on a regular basis? Read on to find out...
As a boy, Jirô dreams of flying. However, his bad eyesight has doomed him to a life on the ground, as pilots must have perfect vision. At school one day, he is given a magazine profile on the legendary Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni, and that night, he shares a dream with Caproni of magnificent flying creations. Caproni tells Jirô that he could design aircrafts, since he cannot fly them, but he also warns the boy that the majority of aircrafts are designed for war. It isn't long before Jirô has come of age and is traveling by train when the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 hits. He crosses paths with two young women, whom he pulls away from danger, and is reunited with an old friend and fellow engineer Honjo.
Jirô and Honjo accept jobs at Mitsubishi, trying to perfect design flaws in their current fleet of aircraft, which are still being made of wood rather than steel. Honjo laments that they are at least twenty years behind Germany in this regard, but Jirô is consumed with how to fix the flaws in the current fleet. Jirô and Honjo are sent to Germany to study their designs, and during his travels, Jirô is reunited Nahoko, one of the young women he saved on the train. The two fall in love, but Nahoko is dying of tuberculosis and cautions Jirô that she may die soon. His love for fixing and designing is soon challenged by his desire to keep Nahoko by his side, and design a radical new single pilot bomber that the Navy has commissioned Mitsubishi to build,  and one which may have more nefarious purposes than Jirô intended.
While the film combines certain autobiographical details of the real Horikoshi with those of Tatsuo Hori, the author of the story Miyazaki drew his inspiration from, the character is as pure a creation of Miyazaki's as the film itself. It should go without saying that the film is gorgeously rendered, but it earns every bit of praise that can be lavished upon its visual splendor. Jirô's dream sequences are marvels of mid-air majesty that could well inspire the next generation of young engineers in the audience, and the dialogue and interplay between Jirô and his ersatz father figure Caproni in their "shared dreams" are the soul of the film, particularly in the early going. The heart of the film, however, clearly rests in the romantic but chaste love story that springs up when Jirô and Nahoko meet once again. Once the film shifts its focus to their relationship, everything else takes a back seat, showing that this is the story thread for which Miyazaki had the most affection.
While that's not necessarily a criticism, the film's second hour is a much more somber and slow affair than the first. The first hour of the film is luxuriously paced, with an equal grounding in fantasy and reality, but the film's second hour is almost completely grounded in reality, and may be a shock for some viewers that were enamored with the film's more fantastical first half. The earthquake that happens right around the twenty minute mark, perfect placement for the inciting incident of Act II, is the film's highlight. It is an incredibly powerful scene that works on both a visceral and emotional level, and Miyazaki's use of very human sounding tremors and fire is as effective as anything he's done. To say that everything which follows is a bit of a letdown is not entirely true, but it certainly feels like the film's best scene in retrospect.
As for the "political" implications that a film about the man who designed the fighter planes used by the Japanese in their attack on Pearl Harbor, Miyazaki does all he can to soften their impact. He ends up painting Jirô as almost too much of a saint, so much so that he loses much of his humanity in the film's final act as he becomes the de facto representation of the unintended consequences of war. It divides the character a bit too much, making the love story fall oddly flat as it should be packing the biggest punch. There were no easy answers for Miyazaki in depicting this man, and he attempts to both humanize and lionize him simultaneously, ending up not wholly successful in either regard. One example of this is a third act development concerning secret police that is jettisoned almost as quickly as it is introduced, leaving one to wonder why it was included at all. Thankfully the film's final scene drives home the entire point of the film in a way that only animation can, bringing all story threads together in one five minute sequence that perfectly encapsulates the entire film.
While the verdict is still out on whether or not this is his last film, it leaves one with the distinct feeling that it could very well be. There is a finality to the film's conclusion, and a lot of discussion about creativity having a very defined period of time in which it flourishes and then comes to an end. While it may not be his swan song, it bears all of the hallmarks of one, and feels like a very definite period at the end of a sentence. It could also be read as a bold defiance of such limitations, making it seem as if an innovator like Miyazaki is not about to hang it up just because those from whom he drew inspiration did. In this regard, the film does seem to have it both ways.
It would be virtually impossible to call The Wind Rises the best film that Miyazaki has created because the breadth and depth of his previous work speaks for itself, and making such bold assertions after only one viewing is folly. It is an outstanding film visually, and has all the vitality of youth combined with the wisdom of age, making it of a piece with everything he has done. It will be a letdown for some, craving those epic flights of fancy from the film's first hour as it quiets down and becomes a love story, but those willing to give themselves over to the entire experience will walk away from this film feeling nothing but totally satisfied. To paraphrase a line from Amadeus, "What can one say when one sees such a movie but… Miyazaki!"
GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via ComingSoon]

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Day 279: Winter's Tale

"I was an orphan, orphans don't have vanity. I'm not quite sure why, but one needs parents to be vain."
Mark Helprin's dense, nearly 700-page 1983 novel Winter's Tale hardly seems like the kind of tome that can be easily translated into a two-hour film without being divested of most of its meaning. It spans nearly a hundred years and deals with miracles, reincarnation, good vs. evil, and everything in between, including a flying horse and a princess bed. It seemed like pure folly for Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman & Robin) to even attempt to adapt it, let alone choose it for his directorial debut, but nevertheless, here we are.
So could Winter's Tale rise above the insurmountable odds stacked against it, or would it succumb to its own unique brand of un-adaptability? Read on to find out...
Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a thief living in early Twentieth Century New York City. We meet him as he's attempting to outrun a band of literally black-hatted villains that mean to kill him, led by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), when he encounters a white horse that carries him away from danger. Peter attempts to head out of town to avoid any further danger, but the horse has other designs and brings him to a house owned by the wealthy Isaac Penn (William Hurt), whose daughter Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) is dying of consumption and must remain in frigid temperatures to survive. Peter decides to rob the house as it is being vacated by the family for a trip north, but they have left Beverly behind. Needless to say when Peter and Beverly encounter one another, it is love at first sight.
We soon learn that Soames is some sort of demon that is seeking to destroy Peter due to a power that he possesses, and which he fears he may use to rescue the dying girl. Peter and Beverly escape Soames and his men and flee to her father's vacation home. Here Peter makes his intentions known to Isaac, who ultimately fears his daughter's imminent death, but gives his reluctant blessing when Peter saves the house from blowing up. Unable to save Beverly before she dies, Peter is soon confronted by Soames, and is left for dead, but finds himself alive again in the present day, uncertain of who he is and what helped him survive into the new century. 
To say that Winter's Tale is a mess of a film is an understatement. It tries to walk a tightrope between being bug-nuts insane and devastatingly romantic, and manages to do neither successfully. While the film opens with a narration from Findlay about believing in magic against all of your own better judgment, the scenarios it presents are so insane, they may as well have asked you to take your stupid pills while they were at it. The film is absurd, and commits wholly to its own absurdity, but it gives one the distinct feeling that it more than likely worked better on the page where one can conjure up unbelievable flights of fancy without risking the utter stupidity of seeing a horse, that's really a dog, fly or Russell Crowe head butting a man to death. The film opens with Lake's parents placing their infant son into a model ship and dropping him into the Atlantic Ocean, off the side of a boat headed back to Europe, and it only gets more stultifying from there.
A large part of me wants to not spoil the details of the film for fear that you read the previous paragraph and still somehow managed to convince yourself this is a film you want to see. The film's biggest issue (as if to suggest there's only one) is its own mythology, which is hopelessly convoluted and borrows liberally from both the Judeo-Christian notion of angels, demons, and miracles, as well as a grab bag of any other of a half-dozen mythological ideologies from Hinduism to Taoism. It's the kind of film where they introduce the devil, or Judge as he's known here, reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, and then have him expound upon the notion that time is not a fixed concept. It will make your head hurt if you try to think about it for more than a nanosecond. In a 700-page novel, it probably works better, as readers do not mind lengthy bouts of exposition, but on film, it's rendered baffling.
When the film jumps to present day, it gets even worse. It begins to drag on and on, seeming as if there's no end in sight, and anyone that's seen at least one trailer for the film (set interestingly to the song "Wings" by Birdy, which was also used in the trailers for Labor Day) will know that the drawing Peter obsesses over has a schmaltzy connection to a woman (Jennifer Connolly) and her dying daughter (Ripley Sobo) that he just happens to encounter in the present day. I would be remiss if I didn't mention one last thing concerning the film's timeline: Updating it to present day rather than the early 80s setting of the book makes a minor character's existence 100 years in the future borderline impossible, particularly considering this character's vocation. 
Cursed with not one, but two of the worst looking haircuts of his career, Colin Farrell suffers once more from being dragged down by the stupidity of the film he's headlining. Farrell can be good when given good material (see his two collaborations with Martin McDonagh), but he's never been an actor that can rise above mediocre material, and he's simply crushed under the weight of bad material. Findlay and Hurt do the most they can with this pap, but similarly fall victim to its inanity. Connelly should be ashamed for accepting the role she did, as her character is a terribly written and horribly conceived stereotype of a mother who just lets a complete stranger take her sick daughter on a flying horse to be cured of a terminal illness. The entire subplot concerning her character is a nightmare of tragic and misguided wish fulfillment for any parent that has had to suffer the loss of a child to disease, and is a downright shameful plot device.
Which brings us to our old friend Russell Crowe. Crowe is an interesting actor to watch, as he delights in chewing scenery, but as we learned in Les Miserables, when it comes to one note characters, he's simply not the man for the job. A scene where he plays drunk renders his every utterance unintelligible, and the poorly written character he's playing does him no favors. I still hold out hope for his upcoming collaboration with Darren Aronofsky as Noah, but he's slowly burning up every ounce of goodwill I still have for him. Thankfully the film is competently made and Goldsman isn't half as bad a director as he is a writer. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel makes it a nice enough film to look at, and both the production and costume design make for a visually interesting film, but it's the cinematic equivalent of a dumb blonde. 
If you're interested in watching Colin Farrell, with a Moe Howard haircut, ride a magic horse through the centuries, and you don't mind being pandered to and having your common sense insulted, Winter's Tale is your best bet in theaters at the moment. If the story interests you, read the book, but for the love of all that's holy, do not waste your hard earned money on this film. Thank goodness we live in an age where celluloid no longer has to be wasted on films like this, but all the talent involved makes me wonder if this is really the film all of these people signed on for. Groupthink has led to far worse efforts than this (Battlefield Earth), but this is a scurrilous, disparaging film with little to recommend outside of some nice words for the craftsmen involved in its creation. Hollywood can do better than this, and so can you.

GO Rating: 1/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Top 5: Most Deserving Oscar Winners

I've done a lot of complaining in my recent Top 5s about times the Academy has either gotten it wrongsnubbed deserving actors, or doomed them to mediocre films after their wins. However, I should point out that they also have a pretty good track record when it comes to "getting it right" so to speak. For every Best Picture winner that has made me cringe (Slumdog Millionaire, Chariots of Fire, or perennial punchline The Greatest Show on Earth) there are others that are spot-on (Schindler's List, The Godfather, Casablanca). Here are my Top 5 times the Academy one hundred percent nailed an award and didn't play politics (Crash) or succumb to the allure of a well-run campaign by a less-than deserving winner (Shakespeare in Love). 
5. The Usual Suspects (1995): Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey, Best Original Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie
Sadly nominated for only two awards, Bryan Singer's groundbreaking debut film went home on Oscar night 1996 with both of those trophies in a pair of insanely well-deserved wins. Kevin Spacey was a well regarded character actor who had mostly gotten by in under seen films like The Ref and Glengarry Glen Ross, but with his breakout roles in both this film and Se7en, 1995 became the year he went from unrecognized workhorse to Hollywood elite in a win over incredibly talented competition like Brad Pitt (12 Monkeys), Tim Roth (Rob Roy), and Ed Harris (Apollo 13).
And without Christopher McQuarrie's unbelievably tight, economic, and innovative script, none of this would have been possible. His script is credited with giving rise to the "unreliable narrator" trope that has been done to death in the nearly twenty years since this film debuted. While Tarantino may have been the most influential screenwriter of the decade, The Usual Suspects became the screenplay that inspired a generation of writers to put the twist ending into practice, with a seemingly never-ending series of diminishing returns. One of the best films of the nineties remains one of the most deserving Oscar winners of all time. 
4. The 1975 Academy Awards
cuckoo's nest
One of the strongest years in a decade rife with strong years for filmmakers, 1975 brought us a Best Picture showdown that included the likes of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Steven Spielberg's Jaws, Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, Robert Altman's Nashville, and Milos Forman's eventual winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All of these films would go home with at least one award, the big winner being Cuckoo's Nest which also won Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman), the first film to win the "Big 5" since It Happened One Night 41 years earlier.
All of these awards were hard fought winners over equally deserving performances and scripts, but the Academy somehow managed to reward the other Best Picture nominees in all the right places. John Alcott's amazing natural light cinematography for Barry Lyndon, as well as the film's Costumes & Art Direction were rewarded. The amazing editing by Verna Fields on Jaws was rewarded, as was the film's Sound Design and iconic score by John Williams. Dog Day Afternoon took home Original Screenplay honors for its crack script by John Pierson, and Nashville, a film whose music is so central to its plot took home Best Original Song honors for Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy." The Academy spread the wealth around to all of its Best Picture nominees and all in the right places. How often has that happened?
3. Vitorrio Storaro, Best Cinematography: Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981), The Last Emperor (1987)
When talking about the all-time great cinematographers, several names will come up: Conrad L. Hall, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, Freddie Young, Greg Toland, the list goes on. In my mind, however, one name stands above them all, Vittorio Storaro. Winning three Oscars for his work with three different directors, Storaro's first win came for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Coppola allegedly gave him the freedom to run wild and do whatever he wished, resulting in one of the simultaneously most horrifying and beautiful films ever made. His next win came on Warren Beatty's Reds, which inexplicably lost Best Picture to Chariots of Fire, but Storaro's work was breathtaking, combining sweeping vistas with intimate and impeccably lit and framed close-ups.
His best work of all though came with frequent collaborator Bernardo Bertolucci's Best Picture winner The Last Emperor. Once more Storaro managed to combine all of the elements of his previous work, but when coupled with the sumptuous, Oscar-winning Art Direction and Costume Design, as well as the inkiest of blacks one could possibly hope for, it makes for one of the all-time most gorgeous films of all time. He would work with all of these directors again, but the Academy absolutely nailed his three most-deserving films, and rewarded him accordingly. 
2. On The Waterfront (1954): Best Picture, Best Director: Elia Kazan, Best Actor: Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actress: Eva Marie Saint, Best Screenplay: Budd Schulberg, Best Cinematography (black & white), Best Art Direction (black & white)
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, On the Waterfront remains one of the best motion pictures ever made, and the eight Academy Awards it received on Oscar night in 1955 only cemented that fact. Though it sadly suffered from likely vote splitting among its whopping three Best Supporting Actor nominees (Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger), all of whom went home empty handed, the positively electric lead performance by Marlon Brando became his first Oscar on his fourth consecutive nomination. This was one case where the Academy "waiting it out" so to speak paid off brilliantly. 
However, unlike films such as Raging BullTo Kill a Mockingbird, and There Will Be Blood, Brando's powerhouse performance wouldn't be the film's lone major award. Voters were savvy enough to select the film and its director over such distinguished competition as Sidney Kramer's The Caine Mutiny and Alfred Hitchcock for Rear Window. Though it is easy to dismiss Elia Kazan now as a traitor for his cooperation with HUAC, the work he did here was second to none, and Budd Schulberg's screenplay remains one of the absolute best ever written. If you have never seen this film, you are doing yourself a disservice. 
1. Amadeus (1984): Best Picture, Best Director: Milos Forman, Best Actor: F. Murray Abraham, Best Adapted Screenplay: Peter Shaffer,  Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Makeup
Amadeus is a film I have loved since I was very young. I first saw it when I was around seven or eight years old and was captivated by it from that time on. As I've gotten older, and been able to understand its themes of man vs. God, coupled with its incredible use of Mozart's music and Peter Shaffer's absolute command of dialogue, I am more and more blown away by it. I had some fun with F. Murray Abraham's post-Oscar career last week, but make no mistake, his performance is an absolute wonder to behold. It's a shame he couldn't share the award with his nominated co-star Tom Hulce, whose performance as Mozart is no less magnificent, but Abraham steals the show as the jealous and vengeful Salieri. It's a performance for the ages.
While I could rightfully gripe that Miroslav Ondricek's amazing cinematography and the masterful editing by Nena Danevic and Michael Chandler were sadly overlooked in favor of the very well-shot and edited The Killing Fields, I also must praise the virtues of the Academy for spreading the wealth around to some extent that year. Amadeus is a timeless film, one that you would never surmise was made in 1984. It feels as though they purchased a time machine and returned to 18th Century Vienna to film it, when it was in actuality late 20th Century Prague, which had fallen victim to Communist disrepair, remaining largely untouched in over two hundred years. Amadeus is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. There is no better film to have won the Best Picture Oscar, nor do I think there ever will be (except maybe The Godfather).
[Photos via 123456]

Monday, February 10, 2014

Top 5: Actors That Fell Victim To "The Oscar Curse"

An often discussed phenomenon amongst fans of the Academy Awards is the notion that while many actors receive a boost to their career following their win, there are just as many that either fade into obscurity or never achieve the same level of success in their careers again. This has been called The Oscar Curse, and it has struck many, many Oscar winners, not just actors, but as I mentioned in my Top 5 on actors that won an Oscar for the wrong film, with four categories to compete in each year, it happens most often that actors fall victim to this curse. It often takes time to tell who the victims are as well, so while Jennifer Hudson seems like a prime candidate for this list, she only won her Oscar seven years ago, so who knows if an acting comeback is around the corner? (Spoiler alert: It's not). Therefore I limited myself only to people who won an Oscar at least fifteen years ago (one slid in just under the wire). Read on to find out who made the cut...
5. Marlee Matlin: Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God, 1986
After scoring a Golden Globe, Marlee Matlin became something of a surprise favorite in the Best Actress race for 1986, considering her competition was comprised of Hollywood royalty of the day like Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek and Kathleen Turner. When she won, her acceptance speech touched many for its poignancy, considering that the actress was hearing impaired, and signed a thank you to her similarly affected parents. However, as is often the case, Hollywood just wasn't churning out scripts with hearing impaired characters in them, and casting directors foolishly didn't want to take a risk on casting her, so her career stagnated. Despite memorable roles on Seinfeld, E.R., The L-Word and The West Wing, she never really got another chance to stand in the spotlight again, and certainly nothing on a par with the role that won her an Oscar. It's a true shame, but yet another example of an industry that just doesn't know what to do with the differently abled. 
4. Roberto Benigni: Best Actor for Life is Beautiful, 1998
Christ on a cracker, who could forget this Italian sprite's acceptance speeches when he won the Foreign Language and Best Actor Oscars at the 1999 Oscar ceremony? Roberto Benigni was something of an unknown to many Americans when he came onto the scene with his Holocaust dramedy Life is Beautiful in 1998. Italians knew him well, he was a legend there, but American audiences knew him primarily for 2 Jim Jarmusch films, Down by Law and Night on Earth, and as the ill-fated Peter Sellers replacement in Son of the Pink Panther. Though his win for Foreign Language film was well-deserved, his win in the Best Actor category raised a lot of eyebrows, particularly considering the amazingly nuanced work done by Ian McKellen in Gods & Monsters. Unfortunately Benigni's follow-ups were lackluster to say the least, from his baffling 2002 live action version of Pinocchio to The Tiger and the Snow his Iraq War set repurposing of the same story in Life is Beautiful, it's pretty obvious that while he's got charm to spare, he's certainly floundered in the fifteen years since winning the Oscar.
3. Mercedes Ruehl: Best Supporting Actress for The Fisher King, 1991
A lot of the younger readers might be asking themselves, who? And you wouldn't be alone in wondering that. Mercedes Ruehl won her Oscar for a Terry Gilliam film, The Fisher King, which almost compels me to give her a pass. But taking a look at her imdb page, the twenty-plus years since that win places her firmly in the category of victims of the curse. While I happen to think Last Action Hero is secretly brilliant, it's hardly becoming of an Oscar winner to choose it as her follow-up. The years following that include some guest turns on tv series like Law & Order, Frasier, Psych, and Entourage, and a whole bunch of stuff I've never heard of, mostly made for tv movies. And the handful of features she has chosen, like the Owen Wilson serial killer drama The Minus Man just seem woefully misguided. A glance at what she'd been in before The Fisher King reveals classics like Big, The Warriors, Radio Days, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, meaning that she has most assuredly fallen victim to the curse. 
2. Cuba Gooding, Jr: Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire, 1996
The only person whose acceptance speech may have topped Roberto Benigni for sheer, unbridled insanity might be Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s speech at the 1997 ceremony. After winning for his turn as a catchphrase spouting football player in Jerry Maguire, Gooding seemed as if he might stay on the straight and narrow, showing up in James L. Brooks' Academy Award winning As Good As It Gets the following year, but after that, it's a steady slide downhill. Whether he shows up in awards baiting dreck like Radio, Men of Honor, or What Dreams May Come, or flat out nonsense like Snow Dogs, Boat Trip, or Norbit, one can only shake their head in disbelief at what's become of him. The fact that he still manages to turn in good performances in films like Lee Daniels' The Butler and American Gangster, makes his appearances in ludicrous films like Shadowboxer and Daddy Day Camp even more baffling. A man's got to eat, I get it, but come on! 
1. F. Murray Abraham: Best Actor for Amadeus, 1984
The very face of the Oscar curse in my mind has got to be F. Murray Abraham. I must preface this by saying that he is wholly and completely deserving of his honor for Amadeus, a performance I hold in the highest regard in one of my favorite films of all time. Having said that, his work since then leaves much to be desired. He has worked, make no mistake about that, racking up over 100 screen credits in his career, but his choices since Amadeus have been puzzling to say the least. Whether it's questionable decisions like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Loaded Weapon 1, and Thirteen Ghosts, or rubbish films like Finding Forrester, he's floundered in his decision-making to say the least. He even joined fellow cursee Mercedes Ruehl in Last Action Hero. What is it about that movie? Thankfully he seems to be coming out of his tailspin following a hilarious guest turn on Louis C.K.'s show Louie and appearances in Inside Llewyn Davis and the upcoming Grand Budapest Hotel, but the damage that's been done by the curse is irrevocable. 
I leave you with a quote from F. Murray himself that sums up the notion of the Oscar curse, and allow you to decide for yourselves whether it's a flawed notion at all: "The Oscar is the single most important event of my career. I have dined with kings, shared equal billing with my idols, lectured at Harvard and Columbia. If this is a jinx, I'll take two."
[Images via 123456]