Birds of a feather flock together
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is directed by Milos Forman and is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by author Ken Kesey. The film stars Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, William Redfield, Will Sampson, Sydney Lassick, Brad Dourif, and Christopher Lloyd. The film won all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best (Adapted) Screenplay.
Hollywood Golden Age actor Kirk Douglas came across Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest novel in 1961, instantly taking a liking to the novel and securing the film rights to the story. For the next decade however, Douglas failed to find a studio that was willing to make a film adaptation of the story with him, and so, Douglas sold off the rights to his son Michael (yes, that Michael Douglas), who ended up getting the production company Fantasy Films to agree to a film adaptation. Kirk Douglas was also hoping that, after playing the lead character in a 1963-64 Broadway version of Kesey's novel, he could play the lead character in the film version. However, Douglas was deemed too old for the lead role, and thus, the role eventually went to the younger Jack Nicholson.
It's kind of amazing sometimes to read into a certain film's production history and find out people whom you thought could not at all be attached, are actually quite vital to the film's production. In the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kirk Douglas conceived the idea of a film adaptation, while Michael Douglas found a studio willing to make the adaptation. It wasn't the author Ken Kesey nor was it director Milos Forman who came forth about the possibility of the novel getting a film adaptation. No, it was Kirk Douglas and his son Michael: two people you probably would have never guessed were involved unless you paid close enough attention to the credits or have a vast knowledge of Kirk Douglas and/or Michael Douglas's careers.
But anyway, that's about all I'm going to say about the Douglas' and their involvement with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because, oh man: any and all discussions about this film are most likely to be composed of Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Milos Forman, and the other wacky collection of characters on hand. When I do a review of a film that was adapted from a novel, I usually have to state that I did not read the novel- I always fail to find time out of my busy schedule to read a book- but this is a time where that is not true! I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest way back in my junior year of high school, and I still to this day consider it one of the more engrossing reads of my academic years. My first time watching the film version some years back was also a highly engrossing experience, with a recent second viewing being no worse for wear. The 1970's was one of the best decades for Best Picture winners, mostly because the films that won did a magnificent job of capturing a full spectrum of human emotions, while also being grand representations of the decade's cynical attitude and culture strife. Gone were the days of lovey dovey romances, happy go lucky musicals, and biographical snooze fests that, nowadays, would offer nothing but thankless viewings. And while lovey dovey romances, happy go lucky musicals, and biographical snooze fests would eventually creep their way back into the Best Picture scene years later, it is extremely satisfying to come across a film like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, knowing you can watch it in the year 2019 and still feel a sense of elation.
The specifics of that sense of elation would mean massive spoilers, particularly in the way the film ends, so I am left with no choice but to leave that vagueness as is. The story of the film is basically the same as it is in the novel: longtime criminal Randall McMurphy (Nicholson) is sent to be evaluated at a mental institution in Oregon, following a short sentence at a prison farm for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. The mental institution is run by the controlling, passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched, who frequently holds meeting with other patients, in which she tries to make them feel intimidated and basically like they are the scum of the earth. Some of the patients include the stuttering Billy Bibbitt (Brad Dourif), childish Charlie Chaswick (Sydney Lassick), delusional Martini (Danny DeVito), paranoid Dale Harding (William Redfield), and the unruly Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd). McMurphy quickly strikes up a friendship with these patients, while taking a special liking to another patient: the giant Native American "Chief" Bromden, who is thought to be deaf and mute by everyone else in the institution. While McMurphy is not mentally ill by any means, his rebellious mindset earns him the approval of the other patients, and quickly puts him at odds with Nurse Ratched.
The beauty of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is that it's a fairly easy story to analyze, and an analysis of the way the novel/film goes about topics such as mental health, the corruption of bureaucracy, and what confines the human spirit are all worthwhile topics that can still make significant headway today. And while One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not a straight-up message film on the importance of mental health, trying to say, "all people in mental institutions are human beings too", it's an uplifting encouragement about how people should not be prisoners of their own minds, and that, under the right circumstances, it's encouraged to break out of the status quo. This kind of approach is a very interesting one. On one hand, Milos Forman is allowing the film to soak in all the cynicism and rebellious attitudes that permeated throughout American culture in the 1970's, evident in the way that McMurphy earns the trust of the other patients and encourages them to stand up and oppose Nurse Ratched: voting to watch the World Series instead of having the nightly group meeting and questioning the medicine they're told to take every day, for example. On the other hand, Forman is encouraging positive messages about soul-searching and being human, primarily seen through the relationship between McMurphy and Chief. The film's cynical attitude and messages about humanity, you would think, should contradict one another, but they don't. The cynicism and positive messages actually complement one another, as if to say there is good to be had if you know where and when to be cynical and rebellious.
- None of the film's messages would feel worthwhile had it not been for some outstanding performances, primarily Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. McMurphy and Ratched are total opposites: McMurphy is the goofy, fun-loving rebel who tries to encourage everyone around him, while Nurse Ratched is the cold-hearted, all-business enforcer who strictly imposes the rule book on others. When Jack Nicholson is giving his all, he makes sure you know it. There is a not a dull moment to be had when Nicholson is on screen. McMurphy is either going to amuse you by doing/saying something funny, or he's going to explode with frustration and anger (and when he dies, the film takes a sharp dramatic turn). Either way, Nicholson does a great job of giving McMurphy an all-around charming and upbeat feel to him, despite the fact that we know McMurphy's a criminal who we don't want to invite over as the guest of honor to a fancy dinner party.
Fletcher, meanwhile, is magnificent in the way that she makes Nurse Ratched so captivating to watch, and likewise, so despicable when she succeeds. Ratched never smiles or laughs during the film, and in the few times she gets angry or stern, she's very controlled. In the hands of the wrong actress, Nurse Ratched would more likely resemble a robot that is learning how to express emotion, but with Louise Fletcher, she gives Ratched the iron hide she needs without losing that cutting, passive-aggressive edge that makes her performance more human and all the more convincing. Nicholson and Fletcher don't have to be in the frame together in order for their individual performances to thrive. Whether they are on screen together or not, Nicholson and Fletcher show they are fully immersed in their roles, taking the film to soaring heights.
- It's something of a minor spoiler to say that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is light on plot, but but I think, when you add in the fact that the film clocks in at 133 minutes, it speaks volumes of the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Good portions of the film are made up of the meetings involving McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and the other patients, and not once do they ever get boring. That's the other part that makes the lack of plot and longer running time combination more impressive: it's never boring. The dialogue throughout the film gives us engaging and interesting dives into the lives of each patient that come to be in McMurphy's circle of friends, with each and every new meeting becoming more snappy and argumentative. None of the characters go on long monologues about what they've learned in life and what they hope to get out of being in the mental institution. All the conversations are very natural with grounded dialogue, and because of all the different personalities bouncing off one another, it never grows old. Who knows what the likes of Billy Bibbitt or Charlie Chaswick are going to say next? Just when you've think they've said the funniest or craziest thing yet, they might say something new that's even funnier, even crazier, or, hell, maybe both.
- Laughs: that's unfortunately something that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest doesn't end up having nearly enough of. I get why this movie is normally deemed a comedy-drama, but the problem is that the dramatic component overwhelms too much of the comedy component, so much that the movie struggles to balance a more lighthearted tone with a more serious one and thus, it's hard to tell sometimes when you think the movie is being dramatic, it's actually being funny, and vice versa. Nicholson is the film's main source of comedy, but knowing when and when not to laugh at the other patients feels rather dicey, because you run the risk of coming off as a sick human being who takes joy in others' misery. Then again, isn't all comedy rooted in misery? The point is: it's rather difficult to decipher what is supposed to be funny versus what is not funny from anyone that isn't Jack Nicholson. Maybe it's better if you just don't overthink it and, whatever you laugh it, you won't hate yourself later for it.
The other little bit of trivia I should mention as this review comes to a close is this: Ken Kesey hated the film, saying it "butchered" the story. That's a pretty stunning thing to hear from the author of the novel, who likely had optimistic feelings when Kirk and Michael Douglas worked on getting the film into production. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has developed a reputation over the years as being one of the greatest films ever made, on top of already being one of the greatest Best Picture winners of all time. Why should it not be? It's a marvelous feat of acting, directing, and screenwriting, taking the cynicism and rebellion that highlighted American culture in the 1960's and 1970's, and magically spinning it into an uplifting film that provides righteous commentary on how conforming to the status quo can make you a prisoner of your own mind. Nicholson and Fletcher are the obvious stand-outs from the cast, and the strong, natural-sounding dialogue from the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman never let the film become boring. The only place the film struggles is balancing its drama with its comedy, but when the dramatic parts are as good as they are, it's hard to get too upset about not getting enough laugh-out-loud moments. It's everything a Best Picture winner should be, and the decades since the film's initial release have not harmed it one bit. This is one old bird that still knows how to fly.
Recommend? Yes. Highly recommended.
All in the Family
The Godfather Part II is produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, Morgana King, John Cazale, Mariana Hill, and Lee Strasberg. The film was the first sequel to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, while also winning Best Director (Coppola), Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), and Best Adapted Screenplay, going on to win a total of six Oscars out of eleven nominations.
The Godfather is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made in world cinema, so almost by default, any and all sequels could not possibly be as good. It just wouldn't seem humanly possible that someone, even the same people who worked on The Godfather, could extend upon the thought-provoking ideas and cultural influences that the first film introduced to world cinema and somehow make them even better. It would be like a professional athlete having the game of his life, and then to have the coach tell him/her to go out there again and have an even better game. To this day, there are many proud and accomplished movie lovers who won't hesitate to say The Godfather Part II is superior to the first film, and I have no quarrels with people who do believe as such. That is to say that I am not one of those people who will put The Godfather Part II above and beyond The Godfather. In fact, I won't hesitate to say that I do not find the film to be the all-time classic that almost everyone makes it out to be.
Put down your torches and pitchforks for a minute and hear me out:
Not by any stretch of the imagination do I find The Godfather Part II to be any sort of bad film. The acting, screenwriting, and direction are all top-notch and not even close to what you'd find in a bad movie. What I'm saying is that The Godfather Part II is a great film, but not a great great film. The first film was chock full of memorable moments: each and every one having a special meaning and moving the story forward in a powerful way. This film, however, only has a small handful of such memorable moments, although I will admit one of these moments (happening right near the end of the film) is more heartbreaking than anything the first film did. So what this is to say is that The Godfather Part II's mindset is on telling as much of its story as it can fit into its sprawling 200 minute run time, all the while giving us an even clearer picture on who exactly some of these characters are, and how they have evolved from the events that took place in The Godfather.
The Godfather Part II serves as both a sequel and a prequel to The Godfather. The sequel story follows Michael Corleone, who has become fully integrated into his role as Don of the Corleone crime family. After surviving an assassination attempt at his home, Michael travels to Miami to meet with a man he suspects to have planned the assassination: Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). At the same time, Michael must tend to other matters concerning his family's business, such as a Senate committee that is investigating organized crime. Michael's increasingly ruthless behavior and his constant time on the road causes his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) to feel alienated, as well as to feel fearful that Michael is becoming more of an endangerment to their children's' well-being. Meanwhile, the prequel parts of the film tell the backstory of Vito Corleone (De Niro) and his rise to power in the world of organized crime.
Giving a detailed plot synopsis of a Godfather film is a very challenging thing to do, especially as you try to avoid giving away any major spoilers. If someone were to ever ask what is the story of one of The Godfather films, such an explanation would boil down to explaining not necessarily a sequence of specific events that make up the story, but rather a situation that surrounds a select group of characters. Normally, a situation is the last thing you want your plot to be, but The Godfather puts on the guise o a situation so well, that first-time viewers might be a tad stumped that the movie actually does have a long string of events that do make up something resembling a plot. For the first Godfather, that was the transition of Michael Corleone from reluctant family outsider to the unforgiving new head of the family business. In The Godfather Part II, the string of events involves Michael investigating the assassination attempt on his life, and how his investigation leads him to become even more consumed with power and corruption. This is the film that truly defines Michael Corleone as one of cinema's all-time famous villains, memorable not just for his cold-blooded demeanor as the Don of the Corleone crime family, but as a man who shows to still feel something in his heart, even when it seems like his entire world is falling apart around him.
- Al Pacino's performance as Michael Corleone across all three Godfather films deserves all the praise it can get as one of cinema's all-time greatest performances. Pacino's skill with method acting is what brings out the most of Michael Corleone's character, with not one single moment of screen time implying that Pacino is giving anything less than 100 percent. Even something as simple as Michael pacing back and forth in a dark room or sitting down on a couch convey body language to tell us that whenever Michael is in a room, he is the man in charge. I think what I like the most about Pacino's acting as Michael is the intimidating look in his eyes, as if he is staring straight into someone's soul, drawing out their weaknesses, and feasting on them. There is not one single moment during the film in which Michael appears weak or vulnerable, even during more intimate moments when he tries to set things straight with Kay and save their marriage.
It's fascinating to think about that, at various times throughout the film, Michael hopes and prays that he does not have to rely on the immense power he holds, that he can resolve matters with the likes of Kay, Fredo, and Hyman Roth without having to resort to violence and other types of force. I think this is where Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo maintain a bit of Michael's humanity, in that Michael attempts to be fully conscious about who he is ruthless towards, while making sure that the violent and corrupt nature of his business stays as far away from his family as possible. Unfortunately, life doesn't go the way Michael hopes it goes, and it's as scary as it is heartbreaking to see the anger and sadness wash over Michael when he realizes that he has to make some difficult decisions. I'm purposefully being vague about this, because, y'know, giant-sized spoilers. So anyway, the monster that Michael wants to be only when he is conducting business, eventually overtakes him completely, leaving both his business partners and his own family in the crossfires. We only got a glimpse of this in the first film, so it was essential for The Godfather Part II to expand upon Michael's evolution, or should I say, descent, into the all-powerful crime boss he never thought he would become, and the film expands upon it beautifully.
- The editing as the movie goes back and forth between the past and present is as seamless as can be. While the overall plot spends more time on Michael's present-day story than on Vito's backstory, Coppola and Puzo's script make the perfect stopping points when one story pauses and the other continues, like the end of each chapter of a book that is told from several different points of view. Every segment spent with Vito, then Michael, and then Vito again gives us more insight into what drives these men and how the world of organized crime comes to affect their daily lives. It's fascinating to see the juxtaposition of one man having almost everything go to hell while another takes on a rags to riches style of life. One line of business can both tear a man's life apart and bring a man to a position of power he would never have dreamed of obtaining. It's another fine example of how essential editing is to a film production. The 70's is a goldmine of examples of masterclass editing.
- When it comes to those memorable moments that I was talking about earlier, The Godfather Part II can't help but fall short of what the first film did so well, especially in the way The Gdofather used violence to fuel its story telling and create the bridges that allowed the story to go from one point to another. It's not that The Godfather Part II has no memorable moments at all; it's just that, with the exception of one right near the end, they aren't anywhere near as hard-hitting as they should be, mostly because Coppola doesn't allow the creative juices to flow as much as he did with the first film. The kills, this time around, are a lot simpler and more straightforward, not ever transcending beyond anything but simple gun shots or lethal stabbing maneuvers, which sort of detracts from how cunning and unexpected these corrupt people can be. I suppose that's to say that it sort of ruins the organized part of "organized crime", as this time around, the Corleone family and their enemies act more like above-average criminals who know how to at least plan ahead. Unfortunately, they don't take that next step that The Godfather took on several different occasions: catch your enemy at their most vulnerable and strike with absolute precision. You won't find any horse heads or toll-booth massacres here. Just a lot of bloody, old-fashioned killing.
It certainly sounds like a chore to sit through the film's length 200 minutes, but with the seamless editing between the past and the present, as well as another awe-inspiring performance from Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II shouldn't feel anywhere near as long as it is. Trying to extend upon the film that ended up being one of the finest examples of film-making in history certainly sounded like an impossible task. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo rose up to the challenge though, and they delivered a great sequel that gets it right in all the places it needed to, one being the next chapter in the story of Michael Corleone, and the second being the backstory of how Michael's father, Vito, rose to power. What we get this time from Michael is a character that evolves into one of the all-time greatest villains in cinema, one who, despite his unforgiving nature as the Corleone crime boss, never loses complete sight of his humanity. The violence that ensues isn't as hard-hitting and creative as before, which is what I think keeps The Godfather Part II from being on the same level as The Godfather. Still though, there's too much else to applaud, and for that, I have no hesitation to call The Godfather Part II not just one of the best Best Picture winners in history, but also one of the best sequels in cinematic history.
Recommend? Absolutely, and obviously, see The Godfather first.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
The Sting is directed by George Roy Hill and is inspired by the real-life con brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and a book by David Maurer titled: The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. The film stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw.
There is hardly any variation in the types of films that have been blessed with the Academy Award for Best Picture over the decades, which is why it ought to have been a crime that a caper film like The Sting was able to snag the award in 1973. In a decade of film rampant with cynicism, the last thing on peoples' minds should have been enjoying a cheery, old-fashioned crime drama that never takes itself too seriously, one that scored big at the box office and was not only a Best Picture winner, it was an overall resounding success at the 46th Academy Awards, taking home the prizes for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay on top of winning the most coveted Oscar. Indeed, The Sting is a film that had everything going for it, despite looking like a divergent member of the 1970's greatest movie hits.
I shouldn't dismiss The Sting as an anomaly to the 70's, though. The only thing that The Sting is an anomaly to is the series of boring message pictures and sentimental romances that make up too much of the history of the Best Picture Award. In terms of the 70's, The Sting might as well be the perfect movie: it is an immensely rich blend of New Age cynicism and a dislike towards the changing of American societal values, evident through a story in which people are secretly having fun by showing how much they don't trust one another. And yet, it is a film that is constructed to look like something made during the early years of Golden Age Hollywood, with inter-title cards reminiscent of old Saturday Evening Post illustrations and a 1930's lighting style that is tweaked with just enough up-to-date mechanics in order to achieve the stylish visual look that Hill was hoping for. With so many nooks and crannies from so many different periods, it's hard not to think of The Sting as some kind of secret celebration of all these features that have come to shape the history of American cinema.
The story takes place in the late 1930's and follows a grifter named Johnny Hooker (Redford). In the opening scene, Hooker and his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) con $11,000 out of a victim. It's a haul big enough to make Luther announce his retirement and leave Hooker to continue on and learn how to pull off the "big con". Luther advises Hooker to go and meet with his old friend Henry Gondorff (Newman), who can teach him how to pull off the "big con". Unfortunately, it turns out that the victim that Hooker and Luther conned earlier secretly works for the ruthless crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). Lonnegan has his men murder Luther, forcing Hooker to flee to Chicago. In Chicago, Hooker finds Gondorff and is able to convince him to take on the dangerous Lonnegan and help Hooker get revenge for Luther's death. The two team up with a larger crew of con artists and begin to put together a scheme so cunning, Lonnegan will never realize he's being tricked.
- A story like the one that screenwriter David S. Ward put together here would not be complete without an ongoing series of well-designed plot twists. The Sting has such radiant confidence in its twists and turns and is one of the few movies I can think of that so openly embraces the idea of the plot twist. When executed properly, a plot twist can be one of the most powerful narrative techniques imaginable, and Ward understands that he has to be the smartest person in the room in order to pull off whatever double crosses or swindles that will move the story forward. Almost none of the movie's twists are for shock value; they're about finding just the right way to slap a big silly smile on your face and make you wag your finger and say, "Oooooh, they got him there!" The Sting should also serve as an example of how a twist doesn't have to always be for intense dramatic effect; it can be for the sake of pure fun and to achieve a prestige that the likes of magicians and other artistic performers hope to achieve. As you can imagine, the film's ending is advertised as being one of the greatest double crosses in all of film history. Personally, I think of it as a perfectly fine ending that is mildly surprising. It's not the greatest twist ever, but it's definitely one you're not likely to guess on the first attempt.
- Ward's script also deserves praise for how well it tells the story, despite using extensive vocabulary from the field of confidence tricks. Assuming you don't ever start to feel bored, this is a movie that I am confident anyone without the slightest knowledge of confidence tricks can pick up on and easily follow, a lot like how anyone can watch and enjoy L.A. Confidential without any deep knowledge of law enforcement or the world of crime. The most essential parts of the plot are fleshed out extremely well, and it's never too hard to follow what characters are saying and what they're planning to do next. Although I'd say you'd feel better about watching The Sting after you sit down for a few minutes and study some terminology of confidence tricks, there is certainly no kind of prerequisite that would make or break how much you'd enjoy the movie the first time through.
- The Sting does fall short in the pacing department, as the movie sometimes grinds to a halt and elects to be as sluggish as possible. This is especially true in the second half, as we get several scenes of Hooker, Gondorff, and the rest of the con group basically practicing the big con, which gets repetitive pretty fast. There's also several scenes in which Hooker talks with a waitress named Loretta (Dimitra Arliss) from a restaurant, eventually getting romantically involved with her. The whole thing comes off like an unnecessary subplot, but the movie attempts to justify all the time we see Hooker and Loretta together by throwing in a twist involving Loretta right near the end. Overall though, The Sting likes to take its sweet ol' time to get from one important scene to the next scene, as if it's unable to maintain its attention span, getting distracted from time to time by something else that it thinks is fun and exciting.
Fun and exciting: I'll tell you what, that is a rarity of the highest order among older films that have been graced with at least a nomination for Best Picture. Bolstered by terrific performances, an even more terrific script, and a cheerful spirit, The Sting is a delightful caper film that has not lost any of its value in the forty five plus years that it has been a Best Picture winner. Despite coming out in a decade full of cynicism, the movie is a fascinating hybrid of Hollywood's Golden Age and that very cynicism that was growing in American society. It's almost as if The Sting was a last hurrah before Hollywood finally let go of their old way of life. Films were changing, but The Sting proved that they could still be fun. Not a bad way to earn the most coveted Oscar.
'Cause a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man
The Godfather is directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola and is based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. The film stars Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, and Diane Keaton.
A review of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is easily one of the most useless things to be conceived in late 2018. Nothing can challenge the film's status as one of the greatest films in all of cinema, constantly in a tug-of-war match with Citizen Kane and Casablanca for the unofficial title of "Greatest Film Ever Made". Just going with the consensus and lauding the film for all of its film-making achievements and its influence within the crime/gangster genre would make this into a rather hollow review, and yet, that's exactly what I'm going to do anyway because, well, The Godfather is an excellent film from top to bottom, where any and all flaws are rendered useless by what the film does so well.
It's next to near impossible to pinpoint one exact thing that can be said to answer the question, "Why is The Godfather held in such high regard?" The truth is, there isn't one exact thing. As I've mentioned in past Best Picture winner reviews like Gone with the Wind, The Godfather is an example of a great film, the emphasis being on the word 'film' and not 'great'. That's always bothered me a little bit when I hear people say, "that's a great movie!" when talking about an MCU superhero flick or some other fun, entertaining film. Such a statement doesn't necessarily account for everything that is involved with making a film: the directing, acting, writing, editing, music, and so much more. Was said film great because the action was enthralling and it entertained you a lot, or maybe it was because the movie made you laugh a bunch of times? I don't mean to knock anybody's specific preferences in watching films; the statement, "that's a great movie!" just has much more structure and thickness to it when an argument can be made for all of the film's specific film-making components, not just one or two parts. For something like The Godfather, where every film-making component is executed with the utmost of expertise, the statement, "that's a great movie!" is almost an insult. This is film-making that will forever be in the history books, be a major topic of conversation in advanced film studies classrooms, and be influential to the crime and gangster genres for all of time.
Spanning from 1945 to 1955, The Godfather is the story of the Corleone crime family, headed by the Don Vito Corleone (Brando). The film opens with Vito hearing requests on the day of his daughter Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding. Vito's youngest son Michael (Pacino), attends the wedding with his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), though Michael is reluctant to be any part of his family's business affairs. A series of violent events over the years, however, draws Michael into his family's business, and with Vito nearing the end of his career, Michael begins his journey as a ruthless crime lord.
I know, I know. I left out a lot of the specific plot details, which is something I usually don't do. The thing is, The Godfather's story moves like ocean waves; there is a lot of different events happening at once, but the various plot lines are all going in the same direction, working together to move things forward at a steady pace. For a film that's a shade under three hours, the plot is one of the more energetic ones you'll find for any lengthy film. At its core, The Godfather's plot is about Michael's transformation from family outsider to its new head of operations, with a series of interwoven events serving to propel Michael further along that path. The end of one violent act is the beginning of another, but there's a common denominator to it all: Michael is going down a path that he can never return from.
- It's a bit shocking to me that some people consider Vito Corleone the main character, because there's much more evidence available to suggest that The Godfather is the story of Michael Corleone and not Vito. Pacino gets much more screen time than Brando does, and I don't think there's any question that Michael is by far the more interesting character, being elevated by a stellar Al Pacino performance that is easily one of, if not his best performance ever in a film. At the start, Michael is the innocent and "pure-hearted" member of his family, wishing to go on and live a normal American life that is completely free from his family's business. That all changes when an assassination attempt on Vito practically forces Michael to not just stick his toe in the Mafia waters, but dive in head first altogether. The turning point for Michael is when he goes to an Italian restaurant to have dinner and discuss a truce with the drug lord Virgil Sollozzo and the corrupt police officer Captain Mark McCluskey.
Michael's face, moments right before he kills Sollozzo and McCluskey
Pacino's acting, particularly in this scene, is considerably some of the best ever put to film. He speaks no words as his eyes nervously bounce around the restaurant and his mouth slightly twitches, with the sound of a train rolling along in the background. This is the moment Michael knows that his life will change forever, the moment where he will become a permanent member of the world of crime and embrace the destiny that he so actively spent years avoiding.
- An interesting place where The Godfather deserves special praise is its use of violence, not just in how grisly that several character deaths are, but in how the movie uses violence as a mechanism for its majestic narrative. Every major act of violence that occurs in the film does not happen because the movie is trying to bash it into our heads that these are ruthless crime lords who go about their business with a nihilistic philosophy. Whether its waking up to find a horse head in your bed, to Michael killing Sollozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant, or to getting riddled with bullets at a toll booth, The Godfather perfectly places all of its major acts of violence in a way where every single one of them is essential to the progression of one of the plot lines. A character death always means significant consequences for one or more other characters, even if it is the death of a character that we've gotten to know for only a short while. Any time we see someone who looks as if they're about to pull a gun or a knife, it is a moment of extreme tension, drama, and excitement. There is absolutely nothing about the violence in The Godfather that is senseless or dull, and not even the most blood-filled action of an R-rated movie of the 21st century can come close to matching it.
- Yes, I do have a low point for The Godfather, but that's not going to make me downgrade the movie at all, because everything else is so wonderfully executed. Marlon Brando is a bit disappointing as Vito Corleone, which makes me wonder what exactly did the Academy see when they decided to hand Brando the Best Actor Award. Brando mumbles quite a bit throughout the film, and he lacks the poise that a man like Vito Corleone should be showing at all times. A role like this one should be something like Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck at their very best: commanding respect and admiration everywhere he goes, and not needing to say a word to obtain either. Even if he does get nearly shot to death early in the film, the Don of the Corleone Mafia family should not sound like he's impersonating the croaky voice of an elderly man lying on his deathbed. I can only imagine how much better that Vito Corleone would have been had Coppola worked some more with Brando to try and make the character seem more like a dignified antihero and not simply a fatherly boss head.
So then, how to conclude? Should I just go with the usual routine and praise The Godfather as one of world cinema's greatest features along with the likes of Casablanca and Citizen Kane? I could do that. Should I then go on giving endless love for the film's marvelous directing, other-worldly acting, and gruesome acts of violence that deserve immense praise, not criticism, because of how meaningful they are to the film's story? I could also do that. Instead, I'm going to end this review by praising The Godfather in a slightly different way: upon conclusion of watching the film, it's almost impossible to gather the words of what you just witnessed. It is a film that feels as if a divine presence came down and guided the actions of every person involved in the film's production, sort of ironic given the film belongs to the gangster genre. You cannot watch The Godfather in small chunks and think you can still get the same effect if you watch it scene by scene as opposed to setting three hours aside and watching it from start to finish. It is a film that you experience, a film that truly makes the most of the "move" part of what is meant by the word movie. The Godfather reaches a level of cinematic transcendence that only a small quantity of films to ever be conceived have ever been able to reach, and if you think any decent filmmaker of the 21st century can just rub his or her hands together and try to match the film's greatness, you are lying to yourself. The Godfather is the kind of cinematic work that not only transformed all of American cinema, it is living, breathing proof of how film-making is indeed, and always will be, an art form.
Recommend? Everyone should see this film at least once during their lifetime.
1971 Oscars: The time was just right for an out and out Best Picture Winner like this
The French Connection is directed by William Friedkin and is based on the 1969 non-fiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore. The film stars Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, and Marcel Bozzuffi and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also the first R-rated movie to win Best Picture.
As of this review, there are ninety movies that have been graced with the Academy's most prestigious Oscar: Best Picture. Of those ninety movies, not a single one of them can be appropriately labeled as an action film, one in which characters settle their differences with fists, bullets, and pretty much any other form of violence one could concoct. On one hand, the inability of an action film to win Best Picture suggests that the Oscars have a historical dislike for action films, not considering them "artsy" in the way that the Oscars would consider a romantic drama or a lengthy biopic to be "artsy." But on the other hand, it could simply be a matter of the fact that action films have a harder time trying to do everything right: acting, story, editing, etc., and though several action films like Mad Max: Fury Road have been nominated over the years, one has yet to win Best Picture.
The one and only Best Picture winner that resembles the closest an action film has ever gotten to holding up that lovely golden trophy is 1971's The French Connection, which is a gritty, urban crime thriller more than a straight-up action movie. It has elements of an action movie, but it is, in and of itself, not a pure action movie. And while we're on the topic of action movies, it's worth mentioning that about ninety percent of all action movies released during the 21st century couldn't hold a candle to The French Connection, a movie whose visceral thrills have not dated in the slightest.
From start to finish, The French Connection is a fast-paced roller coaster ride that never lets you catch your breath, and even with all of the excitement to be had, there's never a slip up with the writing or the characters or anything else worth noting. Even having seen the film three separate times, I still have a difficult time wrapping my head around the masterful way the movie is able to incorporate high-energy thrills with such a smart and pragmatic story. Filmmakers frequently have it one way: You sacrifice story smarts for the sake of entertaining action, because general audiences mostly love to watch stuff go boom and watch human bodies get blasted to smithereens. And for something like the Mad Max films, you may not have the most layered story of all time, but god damn if those action scenes aren't the coolest things you'll ever see! The French Connection, meanwhile, should serve as an early example of how it is entirely possible to craft an intelligent story while also keeping your film super exciting. The only trouble is, you're not going to do it as well as The French Connection does it.
The plot appears to be basic stuff: New York police detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) are attempting to locate a narcotics ring they believe is running throughout New York, and the two go through a lot of undercover work in order to do so. However, there's much more going on than just Popeye and Cloudy attempting to uncover some secret drug deals and catch a few junkies: In Marseilles, wealthy French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is looking to smuggle $32 million worth of heroin into the United States, doing so by hiding bags containing the heroin inside the car of his unsuspecting friend, Henry Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale). Meanwhile, Popeye and Cloudy begin to tail the young couple Sal (Tony Lo Bianco) and Angie (Arlene Farber) Boca, believing the two are involved in some kind of criminal operation.
Describing further plot details would be entering spoiler territory, and details are something that matter a lot in The French Connection. There are so many names and faces to keep track of, that on a first viewing, I am not sure how anyone could walk away fully understanding every nut and bolt of the plot, especially because of how swiftly the movie moves along. Someone playing devil's advocate might ask how can the story be so good if the movie is going at such a fast pace? To that question I answer: the screenplay by Ernest Tidyman has no gimmicks and doesn't leave anything to chance. Every little plot point and every minor character is accounted for, the movie providing closure to everything by the end. And the way the characters go about their business, there's no time to slow down and take a break. Charnier and his men want to get their operation completed as soon as possible, hoping to be back in France before the police ever realize they were there. Popeye and his team, meanwhile, know that if they don't expose the drug operation in time, all of their efforts will be in vain. Also, Charnier and his mean are no slouches. They are organized professionals and it doesn't take long for them to realize that police are on their tails. Because the characters need to work so quickly, the movie is going to be fast.
- Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, who I'll just call Popeye from here on out, is a massive force on screen, being portrayed brilliantly by Gene Hackman. As the poster says, "Doyle is bad news- but a good cop" and that sums up perfectly the kind of character that Popeye is. At his core, Popeye wants to do the right thing just like any other cop would: stop a gigantic drug smuggling operation and catch the crooks who are running the whole damn thing. But as we see several times throughout the movie, Popeye is a nasty and hot-headed individual, having no desire to wait around and think up a plan for chasing Charnier and his men. At the same time, however, Popeye doesn't make knee-jerk decisions or boast outrageous claims that would land him in hot water. When he believes something in his gut to be true, he sticks with it, no matter what anyone else tells him.
Let's be clear on one thing, though: Popeye is not a protagonist worth cheering for. There's a scene early on in which he and Cloudy go into a bar and force all the people there up on a wall. Popeye claims he's there to make sure the bar is "cleaned up" and in the process, he makes everyone empty their pockets, harassing some of the bar-goers (all of whom were real-life police officers), calling one of them a fat man, and making a "milkshake" out of some of the cigarettes and other crap he finds there. If The French Connection was released sometime within the past few years, there would hardcore, left-wingers and Black Lives Matter activists calling for William Friedkin's head. Anyway, Popeye is as ruthless as they come, Gene Hackman, without question, deserving that Best Actor Oscar.
- Of course we have to talk about that car chase. Considered by many to be one of the finest car chases in cinematic history, the car chase is something of the movie's thesis statement. Roger Ebert put it best in his review of this movie: The French Connection, as a whole, is like a chase, going beyond just its one chase scene. The chase itself concerns Hackman pursuing Charnier's hit man, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), who boards an elevated train after failing to kill Popeye moments beforehand. The flawless editing of the chase is one thing, but the absolute best part is how during the chase, there's always something of note happening outside of watching Popeye drive a car at breakneck speed. Popeye rams his car into a wall and narrowly avoids running over a lady walking with her child. Meanwhile, Nicoli makes his way to the front of the train, holding the conductor at gunpoint when he gets there. Nicoli shoots and kills a police officer on the train and forces the conductor to drive through a station. There's no time for chatter and no time for thinking up a plan. There's not even time to play exciting music, because the movie, like the car chase, is going so fast and doing so at such a heightened intensity.
- If there was any kind of low point in The French Connection, the ferocity of the entire movie would make it completely irrelevant. The movie masterfully executes everything that goes into its thrilling action and fast-paced story, that anything else isn't worth griping about. Sure, characters like Cloudy and Nicoli aren't going to be the most developed characters you'll ever meet, but they function the way they need to, and again, the movie simply doesn't have the time to do something extra like explore its characters deeply.
My most common complaints with the first forty three films to win Best Picture is that too many of those films are boring, overly long, and horribly dated. The vast majority of those forty three films I pray and hope to never ever have to watch again. The French Connection, meanwhile, is the polar opposite of the likes of How Green Was My Valley and A Man For All Seasons. It's a film with heated excitement from start to finish and a type of fast pacing that too many of the older Best Picture winners could only dream of.
I am still to this day completely awestruck by The French Connection. It's not every day you find a movie that can be so fast, and yet be so thrilling and still pack tons of wallop with its acting and writing. It's far from a nice-looking movie: being shot during a cold, depressing New York winter without any set ever being built. The movie is also shot with high levels of film grain, though I admit the Blu-ray version I watched had coloring changes that Friedkin did himself, much to the chagrin of cinematographer Owen Roizman. I don't think it mattered too much, because a movie like this needs to look unpleasant.
I can't praise The French Connection enough: it's a masterpiece of a crime thriller and is still to this day one of the finest films to ever win Best Picture. It won't be any less thrilling fifty years from now, and I could watch it time and time again and never get the least bit bored with it. The French Connection is a must for action movie lovers. In fact, I dare say it's a movie everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.
Recommend? Read that previous sentence again.
Don't smirk Patton. I shan't kiss you.
Patton is directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and stars George C. Scott as the titular General George S. Patton. The film also stars Karl Malden, Michael Bates, and Karl Michael Vogler. Patton won seven Oscars, including Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay alongside Best Picture.
I fondly remember my first ever viewing of the 1970 Best Picture winner Patton, mostly because it was one of the worst experiences that I had of watching a movie in a very very long time. It was the middle of the week. I had an open evening, and this movie was the next one on my "To Watch" list. Now bonehead me did not do enough research beforehand, so when I first learned that the movie was a shade under three hours, I winced a little, because absurdly long running times was a bad habit for older movies, and being stuck watching an incredibly long movie and ending up hating it is nothing short of a nightmare. So as I sat watching Patton for the first time ever, I'd say for about 40 or so minutes I was on board. But then something happened. I don't remember exactly when it happened, but it did.
This agonizing boredom, one I couldn't recall feeling, swelled in me. But this was not your typical, feeling-sleepy boredom. This was boredom where I felt active, intense hatred for what I was watching, because not only did I lose complete interest in what I was watching, but the movie was doing nothing to make me think, "Maybe it will get better. Maybe something will happen that I can remember." And of course, I had to remind myself that the movie was nearly three hours long, so I was stuck, stuck watching a movie I didn't care at all to be invested in, making it feel as if the movie would go on forever.
So when I began doing reviews of all the Best Picture winning movies, I knew that I would come across Patton again, and here I am. You can imagine how much it pained me thinking about having to sit through this movie again, the only happy thought I had was how much I would get to eviscerate this movie in this review.
Except, something happened. A miracle, perhaps? I watched the film for a second time and that agonizing boredom did not return. Dare I say it? I actually came to like Patton? I didn't find it a masterpiece, but it was certainly a much more pleasant experience than the first time around. I don't remember exactly what kind of mood I was in when I watched Patton the first time, but it must have not been a very caring one. I believe a large part of what made me feel such intense boredom the first time was simply a matter of not fully understanding the plot and what the movie was trying to say.
The plot of Patton is simply a depiction of General George S. Patton during World War II. The movie explores the tactics and strategies that Patton undertakes to secure various victories during the war, as well as explore Patton's highly aggressive attitude and how it landed him in some hot water.
My inability to care the first time around prevented me from truly realizing some of the great things that the film provides. And what are those great things?
- The movie's most iconic scene is its opening, in which Patton delivers a speech to a crowd of unseen troops. Patton emerges in a long shot in front of a large American flag, then we cut to a series of close-up shots of all of Patton's major articles of clothing: his boots, his helmet, his uniform, the whole nine yards. What follows is then a speech that lays the groundwork for the rest of the film. Patton opens the speech with what I think is the best quote from the entire film: "Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." From there, the rest of Patton's speech encompasses not only his passion for the Army and his country, but how he intends to display his ruthless attitude on the enemy. The entire speech is the film's thesis statement, summarizing what we are going to see from not only Patton the General, but also from Patton the man.
- Here yet again is a case of a sprawling Best Picture winner that centers on a historical male figure. And as history is destined to repeat itself, the actor portraying that central male figure is nothing short of excellent. George C. Scott's magnificence in the role cannot be stated enough. He is so successfully able to capture Patton's ambitious, tough-as-nails attitude and approach to war that every scene he is in feels like it's the first time we ever meet the General. It's impossible for us to get used to Patton, because Scott so brilliantly refuses to let us accept Patton for who he is, allowing us to watch him with never-ending admiration and a small hint of disdain for his sometimes unforgiving tactics. George C. Scott didn't feel that he fully captured Patton's character, apologizing to director Franklin J. Schaffner on set. Scott also refused to accept his Best Actor Oscar, calling acting competitions unfair. Who'd a thunk Scott would be so humble about his performance?
- No matter how much better my second viewing was compared to the first, it still stands that Patton is, at times, quite boring. That is most to blame on the script, for the movie likes to be highly repetitive of what it allows Patton to actually do, from his discussions of battle strategies with his fellow soldiers to his angry outbursts over the phone. More often than not, scenes of Patton coming up with brilliant ideas is followed by scenes of German soldiers exclaiming how dangerous that Patton is. These German soldiers don't contribute much of anything to the film, other than a brief perspective from the German point of view; their bewilderment not being something you'd need a history book to figure out.
But anyway, back to the repetitiveness. The last half of the movie suffers the most from this, despite Scott's brilliant efforts that manage to keep the movie afloat at all times. There's really nothing new that goes on, which puts a bit of a burden on Scott to find new ways to keep himself so captivating. But Scott shows the tenacity to do so, and had he not delivered such a strong performance, oh man, I can't think of what kind of cinematic crime this film would have turned out to be.
I write this review of Patton kind of stunned. I never would have guessed that I would have two entirely different viewings of the same movie. The first viewing was pure torture, a Saw game for film lovers everywhere. The second viewing was like finding twenty bucks on the ground, you didn't expect it at all, but, hey, you'll take it. Easily Patton's best feature is George C. Scott's truly unforgettable performance, even if his performance is the victim of a limited screenplay that makes the film highly susceptible to boredom. It is a film that requires a great deal of your attention, and if you are willing to give that attention to the film, it may end up being a rewarding experience. Trust me, I've learned that mistake once before.
Recommend? If you are passionate about history or have served in the military, I think the film is worth a look. If not, I'd think real hard before deciding to see it, because there's nothing worse than sitting through a three hour movie that you find boring.
You and I are So Awfully Different
Midnight Cowboy is directed by John Schlesinger and is based on the 1965 novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight and won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The one thing anyone would know off hand about the 1969 Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy is its infamous "I'm walkin' here!" scene, in which Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are walking down a New York street together, then all of a sudden a taxi cab pulls out and nearly runs into Hoffman. According to IMDb, nothing about the incident was scripted. The movie didn't have a permit to close down the street for filming, so the scene had to be set up by a camera in a van driving down the street and use remote microphones for Voight and Hoffman. Fifteen some takes later, everything was going well, until the taxi ran a red light and seemingly killed the take. Hoffman, however, stayed in character and shouted the famous line. Voight, impressed by the way Hoffman handled the situation, managed to stay in character as well.
It's too bad honestly, because that one scene is as good as Midnight Cowboy gets.
The rest of Midnight Cowboy is a rather unpleasant grind, the kind of grind that eventually has you begging and pleading for the end credits to start. It won't take long before you give up all hopes of getting yourself invested in the movie in any way, so it becomes just a matter of time until those sight-for-sore-eyes credits start scrolling and you finally have a legitimate excuse to turn off the movie. Don't get me wrong. Midnight Cowboy is far from a total disaster. Hell, it blows a lot of its previous Best Picture brothers and sisters out of the water. But while there may be some small pockets of good chunks here and there over the course of the movie's 113 minutes, they're largely offset by all the larger, not-so-good chunks that will likely keep you far away from any repeat viewings.
So anyway, Midnight Cowboy tells the story of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man from Texas who quits his job as a dishwasher in order to head to New York City and make a fortune. Things don't start out well for Joe, until he meets and befriends con man Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two develop a powerful friendship as they deal with living on the outskirts of New York.
Yeah, that's about it plot-wise.
- Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman show to be an excellent pair, with top-notch acting performances in their respective roles. This is one of the last films I would recommend if you're trying to put yourself in a good mood. The movie addresses uneasy themes of grim realism and being seen as a lowlife by society, as Joe and Ratso struggle to make themselves relevant in a world that refuses to welcome them with open arms. The New York they are in is a gritty and unpleasant one, but the acting performances have you wanting to see how our two leads will traverse their way through it.
- The majority of other reviews I've read for this film basically say, "yeah, Midnight Cowboy isn't a very nice movie, but those acting performances are just so terrific!" I'm on board with the strength of the acting, but I refuse to accept the ignorance towards a lot of the other parts of the film, particularly the plot. It will dawn on you pretty fast that the plot is paper thin, the script attempting to deceive you into thinking something is happening with petty conversations between Joe and Ratso that lack any kind of bite. There's a lengthy scene in which Joe and Ratso go to a party, but it's mostly highlighted by bizarre hallucinations, ending with Joe leaving the party and taking a girl to spend the night with. Bizarre hallucinations are a recurring part of the movie, with Joe having several different nightmare-ish visions, such as hearing a girl constantly say, "You're the only one, Joe." None of these nightmares/hallucinations add up to much of anything, only serving to fuel the film's unsettling attitude.
- It irritates me that there are claims that Midnight Cowboy is a movie about homosexuality. The extent to which Midnight Cowboy addresses homosexuality is when a girl teasingly suggests that Joe might be gay, as well as Joe and Ratso having a quip about "cowboys being fags." This is easily more of a buddy film. Nothing in the movie, dialogue or otherwise, would suggest that Joe and Ratso are developing romantic feelings for one another. I think there would have been more meat to the drama had the movie gone more in that direction, because it would draw out more details about who Joe and Ratso are, where they came from, and the type of beliefs that the two have. Would Joe be fooling himself into thinking he's actually a ladies man if he did feel some sort of romantic connection with Ratso? How would Ratso react if he knew that, even in the hell he's living, he was able to find someone to possibly share his entire life with? These kind of interesting questions go unexplored, which I can't help but think as nothing short of disappointing.
You can count me out of the fan club of Midnight Cowboy, a movie that I disliked far more than I thought I would. The acting may be stellar, but the acting in and of itself is not going to save this movie from all of its flaws. Shallow plotting limits the impact of the film's drama, and I seriously question Schlesinger's direction, with the movie not going in all the directions it should have. It's a movie that thinks it's a lot more important than it actually is, not addressing all the right themes and not taking well to the power of time. Had the movie been constructed in the right way, I think it would have been brought back into the minds of the people of the 21st century, considering all that is happening with LGBTQ rights. Is that to say I think Midnight Cowboy should have been about homosexuality? In a way, yes. I think being more specific about homosexuality would have done wonders for the film. But it doesn't take that route, at least, not in a notable enough capacity. Instead, the movie goes for some weak buddy drama that isn't very enjoyable to sit through. Midnight Cowboy is an unfortunate dud to end a decade of some superb Best Picture winners.
Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with the beautiful axiom that self-preservation is the first law of nature
Oliver! is directed by Carol Reed and is based on the stage musical of the same name, with both the film and the stage musical being based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. The film stars Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Harry Secombe, Shani Wallis, Mark Lester, and Jack Wild. It won six Oscars among eleven nominations which included Best Director for Reed along with Best Picture.
The 1960s were quite the time for movie musicals, and boy did they love to be the most cheery and grandiose events you would ever see. A whopping four Best Picture winners of the 1960s were musicals, with Carol Reed's Oliver! coming last after West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. It's too bad that Oliver! ended up being the worst of the four, not having the aging capabilities of those other three musicals and also not containing enough robust star power nor memorable musical numbers. And while there are plenty of worse films to be graced with the most prestigious Oscar, Oliver! can't help but now be one of the lower entries on the totem pole.
I must comment on the inclusion of an exclamation point in the title, because titling the movie just Oliver apparently wasn't going to fly for Reed. Oh no, there must be an exclamation point to let us know that the titular Oliver is such a precious gem to be admired by people of all ages. The boy is so wonderful and so one-of-a-kind that an exclamation must be used to let us know that this isn't just any ordinary Oliver; this is the Oliver, and you best not ever forget it. Exclamation points are a rare thing in movie titles, and for something like Oliver!, it implies a sense of self-importance that tells us that the filmmakers were so damn proud of what they made that they feel entitled to the inclusion of an exclamation point.
Anyway, Oliver! tells the story of the young orphan boy, Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), who lives in an unpleasant workhouse with many other orphan boys. During one of the meals, Oliver goes up to the workhouse runners, Bumble (Harry Secombe) and Widow Corney (Peggy Mount), and asks for more food in the famous, "Please sir. I want some more" scene. The outraged Bumble takes Oliver to the workhouse governors to see what is to be done with him. The decision is for Oliver to be sold into service. Bumble sells Oliver to an undertaker named Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter), who plans to use Oliver as a mourner for children's funerals. Oliver attacks Sowerberry's apprentice, Noah (Kenneth Cranham), after Noah insults Oliver's mother. Oliver is then thrown into a cellar, but he escapes after finding a loose grate on one of the windows.
The runaway Oliver eventually makes his way to London, where he meets the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Dodger takes Oliver to his home: a hideout for a group of young boys. The boys are housed by the elderly Fagin (Ron Moody), all who are experienced in the art of pickpocketing. Oliver soon begins to take on the group like a family, until things start to get messy when Fagin's business partner, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), gets mixed up with Oliver and the boys' pickpocketing ways.
- The most impressive thing about Oliver! is its ability to get the most out of its long lineup of child actors, all who possess the acting and music chops to transcend the unacceptably low standards people seem to set for child actors. The one exception is the singing of Oliver, which was dubbed by Kathe Green, the daughter of the film's music supervisor, Johnny Green. Mark Lester was considered "tone deaf and arrhythmic" and therefore incapable of doing his own singing, but considering that Kathe Green's singing sounds like a reedy 10 year old girl giving the worst audition of her life, I seriously refuse to believe that Lester's singing would have been that much worse. Thankfully, Oliver doesn't do a whole lot of singing, and the other boys are more than capable of making up for Oliver's musical shortcomings.
- Oliver! gave me a strange reminder of an older Best Picture film: Mrs. Miniver, a film whose titular character got lost in a focus so wide that she succumbs to the well-meaning but slightly misguided ambitions of the filmmakers. The titular Oliver suffers from largely the same fate. Once all of the major characters are brought into the picture, Oliver is almost relegated to side character, as he spends a good chunk of the time just standing and admiring all of the antics going on around him. During the second half of the movie, poor Oliver spends most of the time getting dragged around like a rag doll by Bill Sikes, and he shows little to no resistance, let alone do much of anything to try and escape on his own. Might I add that this was the same boy who successfully shoved a grown man to the ground within the film's first 20-25 minutes? Oliver gets lost in the crowd, with the majority of the musical numbers going to characters not named Oliver. You can't have a convincing main character if they do nothing but just stand around and watch what's happening around them. If that's all they do, then why are they the central focus of the film?
- Oliver! also suffers from one of the worst problems that a musical movie can have: being too showy and thus looking more suitable for the theater stage. The "Consider Yourself" number is the prime example of this low point, with the number going on and on with as many wacky dances as can be. I especially loved the London police force patrolling the streets by moving together in synchronized dance movements. Wouldn't they be the last ones to partake in the musical dance number that introduces Oliver to one of the pickpocketing thieves? The "Who Will Buy" number is another good example, kicking off the second Act with a circus of people parading the streets with no rhyme or reason, only serving to bloat up the run time with an almost pointless number that fuels no character development nor meaningful plot progression.
I almost wish Oliver! was a lot more terrible than it actually is, because it would go perfectly in line with a lot of previous Best Picture winners that, by this point, I actually kind of enjoy ripping apart. The whole thing has enough acting prowess to pass off as decent, but the movie has an inability to maintain the focus on its titular character and avoid excessive theatrics in order to earn the kind of prestige that a lot of other 60's musicals have. Believe it or not, but this would be the last musical to win Best Picture for over thirty years, despite the fact that several other musicals were nominated over that time span. Maybe Oliver! could have been much, much more than a musical. That's something only time could have told, and unfortunately for Oliver!, time is not its best friend.
Recommend? If you're a huge fan of older musicals, I'd give this one a watch. Otherwise, no.
Black and White Murder
In the Heat of the Night is directed by Norman Jewison and stars Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. It is based on the novel of the same name by John Ball and was the basis for a TV series adaptation of the same name. The film won five Oscars, one being Rod Steiger winning the Academy Award for Best Actor.
A healthy share of the now ninety films to win the Best Picture Oscar can be appropriately regarded as message movies, movies containing a message that comments on any specific economic, social, or religious concern going on in the world, particularly one that's going on at the time of the film's release. One of the first of these message movies that ought to come to mind is 1967's In the Heat of the Night, a movie tackling racism and pretty much anything having to do with racial oppression. It would be quite easy to dismiss In the Heat of the Night as just another dated, product-of-its-time film, having been released during the late stages of the 20th Century American civil rights movement, and therefore giving it the opportunity to capitalize on the heated struggles and fiery emotions between blacks and whites going on at the time. However, people are still making plenty of movies tackling racism in some capacity today, so clearly the messages within In the Heat of the Night are not completely devoid of value nor the least bit dated.
There's another reason though as to how and why In the Heat of the Night transcends the sense of boredom and dated-ness that handicaps several of the other Best Pictue winners such as Gentlemen's Agreement and A Man For All Seasons: it's set against the backdrop of an interesting murder mystery, and how in the world can murder mysteries become dated? There's plenty more to this film than just being a drama about what happens to a black man who finds himself facing oppression from racist white people. We also have a murder that needs to be solved and a killer to catch. Admittedly, it's not the most shocking nor rewarding murder mystery to ever grace the cinema, but I found myself unable to be angry or disappointed because the movie provides a thrill rush all the way through its 109 minutes that the likes of Gentleman's Agreement and A Man For All Seasons couldn't even dream of.
In the Heat of the Night takes place in 1966 in the small, fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi (which doesn't make much sense because there is a real place called Sparta in the state of Mississippi). Police officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) leaves a diner one night and drives his car around on a nightly patrol. While driving around, he discovers the body of Phillip Colbert, a wealthy industrialist who was preparing to build a factory in the town. The police deduce that Colbert has been murdered. Wood finds a black man named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), who is waiting to board a train at the station. Wood arrests Tibbs and brings him in to speak with the officer leading the investigation: Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Tibbs is immediately accused of murdering Colbert, but Tibbs reveals that he is actually a top homicide detective from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and that he was in town because he was visiting his mother. Gillespie speaks with Tibbs' chief, who confirms Tibbs' position and recommends that Tibbs assist the Sparta police force in investigating the murder. Although this idea does not sit well with either Tibbs or Gillespie, the two agree to work together.
The other side of the story is the treatment that Virgil receives from not only the entire Sparta police force, but of the entire town of Sparta. Solving the mystery quickly proves to be only half the battle, as Virgil finds himself to be a most unwelcome guest in the town. The most famous scene in the film, aside from the infamous, "They call me Mister Tibbs!" line is when Virgil is slapped by a white man, only for him to slap the man back. The slap from Virgil was met with shock by mainstream audiences, and it was what convinced Norman Jewison that the film could work just as effectively as a drama as it could a murder mystery. Finally, people could see the black man fight back against the oppression he had faced for too long. And to help Sidney Poitier's character stand out even more, cinematographer Haskell Wexler toned down the lighting, this being the first major color Hollywood film to have its lighting give careful consideration for a black actor.
- This is a movie that is incredibly acted, so much so that I'm not sure how anyone but the most cynical critic would dare to call it preachy. It's one thing for actors to come out and act in a way that they're basically saying to the camera, "Do you get the obvious message that we're trying to tell you" but it's another for the actors to make such good work out of their characters that the result is the likes of Virgil Tibbs and Chief Gillespie seeming completely realistic. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are nothing short of superb in their respective roles as mismatched buddy cops. Poitier speaks his lines with an underlying demeanor that's as suave as it is serious, knowing full well that Virgil Tibbs is always the smartest man in the room, and the sooner everyone shuts up and starts listening to every word he has to say, the better. Tibbs also displays an iron hide, never showing himself to be the least bit rattled by all of the insults and general harassing that he receives. Steiger's Gillespie is a vocal, controlling leader who frequently pushes Tibbs for answers, resulting in the two constantly sparring with one another. The two don't want to work together, but they have no choice. It hurts them inside, until they finally come to understand each other, although just a little bit.
- One special high point goes out to the production design, which I believe is a more overlooked part of the film. In the Heat of the Night utilizes a grimy color scheme, with several locations, especially the police station, looking rundown and visually unappealing. This is representative of the film's general mise-en-scene, as it takes place in a small, racist town that is home to a lot of bad attitudes. Virgil is doing unpleasant work and is also being treated unpleasantly by others, so to match this, it would make perfect sense for Sparta, Mississippi to not look like someone's next vacation spot.
- Alright, so now it would do us some good to dive a little deeper into the mystery component of the film, which is, unfortunately, where the movie suffers the most. Some of the details and conclusions that Tibbs reach remain fuzzy by the time we're supposed to have the mystery figured out. Tibbs has Officer Wood take him on the route he was on the night he discovered Colbert's body, but Wood changes his route, which Tibbs realizes (how he realizes this, I'm still not quite sure). There's also the matter of a 16 year old girl being involved with the murder, but how she got to be involved is not explained well enough. And when the time finally comes that we find out who the murderer is and what led to them murdering Colbert, the payoff is quite weak, not seeming at all like something we've been building up to and likely to cause a, "Really? That's it?" reaction similar to that of discovering who the killer is in Mystic River. On top of that, the true nature of the murder doesn't at all match the context of what the movie is about at its center, and that hurts the ability of the drama component and the mystery component to go hand in hand.
I am hesitant to say that In the Heat of the Night is an all-time classic, because as top-notch as a lot of it is, particularly the acting and production design, the mystery parts of the film end up being shaky and frustrating to piece together. But the fact that the movie has a mystery and is able to keep it exciting and not too predictable is what helps the movie stave off dated-ness, even if its inherent message about racism was inspired by everything going on with the civil rights movement in the 1960's and therefore making the film susceptible to being labeled a product of its time. In the end, In the Heat of the Night may be a message movie, but it's a message movie that tries to do more than just try to tell you, "racism is bad." It's also a mystery thriller, and while far from a perfect one, it still boasts a kind of excitement and level of intrigue that easily make it one of the upper tier Best Picture winners.
A Movie That Feels As Long As All Seasons
A Man For All Seasons is directed by Fred Zinnemann and is based on Robert Bolt's play of the same name. The film stars Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Orson Welles, Robert Shaw, and Susannah York. The film won six Oscars in total, winning Best Director and Best Actor along with Best Picture.
One thing I do after I watch these older Best Picture winners is that I search out every other possible review of the films I can find, because I want to have absolute certainty that it's not just me and that I'm not the only one in the world who expresses disapproval for far too many of these movies. Let's get one thing clear, if it wasn't clear enough from several of my earlier reviews of these Best Picture winners: far too many of these older Best Picture winners are dated, and I mean really, really, REALLY dated. Earlier winners like Grand Hotel, How Green Was My Valley, and Tom Jones have absolutely no appeal to modern day audiences, merely existing in history as products of their times and being heavily overshadowed by the Best Picture winners that are timeless gems and still have at least an ounce of appeal to modern day audiences. Why is this true? Because the Forgettable Best Picture winners - that's a phrase I find myself coming back to time and time again, so keep expecting to see it whenever I'm reviewing a bad Best Picture winner - deal with stories and characters, particularly historical ones, that just don't appeal to a mass market.
Let us apply this reasoning to the 1966 Best Picture winner, Fred Zinnemann's A Man For All Seasons, to further drive the point home. Here is a Best Picture winner taking place in 16th century England, concerning the life of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), the Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw). More sends shock waves throughout England when he refuses to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul the marriage of King Henry and Catherine of Aragon. More also refuses to take what is called an Oath of Supremacy, which would declare King Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Several others push More to change his mind, including the King's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern), but More refuses to budge. More's reputation eventually begins to go into a downward spiral, resulting in him being imprisoned and later brought to trial.
A movie taking place in the 1500's that addresses a historical issue intersecting religion and politics: yes, this is absolutely the kind of movie that people want to be watching and talking about in the year 2018, and one that would definitely have the potential to rack up MCU-level box office numbers if it were released today. Okay, let's be serious now: no studio executive in their right mind today would green light a movie like this, not unless they have a couple million bucks they are willing to throw away. The only people that can find appeal in this movie today are history-obsessed Catholics and passionate English historians, and in this day and age, I refuse to believe such a specific niche market is worth targeting. To simply put it, A Man For All Seasons, like too many of its Best Picture predecessors, is an annoyingly tedious feature that doesn't pack enough punch to be the least bit memorable.
- The only thing you might possibly remember from A Man For All Seasons is an undeniably stellar performance from its lead man in Paul Scofield, portraying a Thomas More who remains as stately as can be, no matter how much others berate him for his decision to deny King Henry's annulment. It's a convincing performance, even if it's one that doesn't require any kind of heated emotion. The one person that does display clear, heated emotion is Robert Shaw, portraying a King Henry VIII who shows to have a sense of humor when he accidentally steps into a thing of mud and gets his feet all dirty. He also yelps very loudly and passionately at More about his decision to deny the annulment, something of an alarm clock if you were half asleep by that point (and if you were, I don't blame you one bit). A strong lead actor in a boring Best Picture winner has been, and will continue to be, a recurring trend. Watch out.
- Biographical films are my least favorite kind of films, mainly because I find these films to be the most susceptible to boredom. My personal pick for the number one, most important rule for a movie is to engage the viewer, because don't you watch a movie with the hopes of getting at least something out of it? With biographical films, especially those that cover specific events within a historical person's life, you can get pretty much the exact same information by reading a book or an article on that person. With a movie, your hopes are that the events covered are dramatized enough so that you can still feel like you've been educated by the time the end credits begin and perhaps feel like you got a miniature rush of enjoyment too.
Such hopes do not exist for A Man For All Seasons. I won't deny that the movie is intelligent and suggest that it is historically inaccurate. But I will suggest that the movie lacks enough interesting conversations between its characters in order to hold your interest for a full two hours. I will also suggest that the movie misses out on a golden opportunity: Thomas More's decision to resist King Henry's requested annulment is played out with the tension of a man whose life is about to fall apart similar to that of The Hunt with Mads Mikkelsen. After a fairly energetic conversation between King Henry and More, the movie becomes just one boring conversation after another, driving your interest straight down the toilet.
Do you ever wonder why Best Picture winners like A Man For All Seasons that feature no memorable quotes are never brought up when we're talking about the greatest films to ever win Best Picture? Because on top of having nothing memorable about them, those winners are also horribly dated, and lack the honor of timelessness that select winners like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca were able to capture so well back in the day. Any and all complaints that I have about A Man For All Seasons revolve around the fact that the movie is utterly boring and has not one single thing that I can possibly recommend to someone who hasn't seen it. It's a movie trapped in its own time period with no hopes of escaping. Whoever said the Oscars were flawless?
Recommend? No. There's nothing to get out of this movie.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: