Tuesday, November 30, 2010

1972: The Godfather

Don Vito Corleone, the patriarch of a crime family, is getting old, but he holds New York City in the palm of his hand.  He gets people to do things for his family and friends by making them offers they can't refuse.  He is generally feared and respected, until he angers his rivals by refusing to start backing the narcotics business.

Surprisingly, I had not seen this movie before, even though it is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.  To fully appreciate it, I think I'll need to watch it again, probably several times.  But my first impression is this: I love the way the film was made, but I really don't like the story.  It's profoundly disturbing the way everyone just kills other people without thinking about it.  They all just consider it part of their business to hold a gun up to someone's head.  I know it's supposed to be unsettling; that's the point.  But that doesn't make it any more enjoyable to sit through three hours of disturbing storyline.

That being said, the movie is put together magnificently.  The framing of the shots, the editing, and the score unite perfectly with the script and performances to create a true film masterpiece.  There are some great scenes, particularly toward the end of the film, that I call "great" not because of what they portray, but how they portray it.  In addition to Best Picture, this film also won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Marlon Brando, who plays Don Vito Corleone to perfection, despite the fact that it's really hard to understand him.  Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, and James Caan were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but they lost to Joel Grey for Cabaret.  This is something that makes me angry: a mediocre film like Gigi won nine Oscars, while this epic, classic film only won three?  But Cabaret, which took most of the Oscars in 1972, is also a really good movie, so I guess it's not the Academy's fault that two stellar films came out the same year.

When I first started watching The Godfather, I fully expected to conclude that it was overrated, at least a little bit.  But after finishing the entire film, even though I didn't particularly like the story, I have to concede that it's one of the most well-done films I've ever seen.

Stay tuned for: The Sting (and afterwards, The Godfather Part II)

Friday, November 26, 2010

1971: The French Connection

Two New York City detectives are trying to uncover a narcotics smuggling ring.  This is made complicated by the fact that their superiors don't really take them seriously, and even more so when the bad guys do everything they can think of - which includes shooting at detectives - to avoid getting caught.

There isn't a whole lot of dialogue in this film; it's mostly the detectives observing people and then chasing them.  This works for the most part, especially with the intriguing camera movement and editing techniques that the filmmakers use.  However, some of the observing scenes drag on a bit too long, and I found my mind wandering several times, almost to the point where I lost track of the story completely.  When there is dialogue, it isn't really that great, so it's kind of nice that there isn't much of it.  The chase scenes are really intense and well done, and there are a few other very good scenes that make this film worth watching.  Gene Hackman plays his role very well.  Fernando Rey is really good, too, especially considering he's a Spaniard playing a Frenchman.  But by far my favorite thing about this film is the score.  The background music throughout the entire movie perfectly enhances the action on screen, and even makes some of the mediocre scenes far more interesting.  At some points, I think anyone listening to the music without even watching the screen would be able to tell what is going on, and I applaud Don Ellis for composing such a remarkable score.

As a whole, I didn't really like this film that much.  The aspects of filmmaking that I usually look for in a superb movie - story, dialogue, character development, etc - are about average at best.  But other aspects - the soundtrack, camera movement, and certain outstanding scenes - are done so incredibly well that I think this film deserves its reputation as a classic.  I'd say it also deserves to be called a Best Picture, though certainly in an unconventional sense.

Up next: The Godfather

Thursday, November 18, 2010

1970: Patton

General George S. Patton, Jr is one of the most controversial heroes in American history.  This film follows him through Europe during World War II, where his primary goal is to defeat the Germans, but his sharp tongue and confrontational manner help him make plenty of enemies among his allies.

The first thing I have to say about this film is that George C. Scott does an absolutely fantastic job of portraying General Patton.  Scott manages to make audiences like him and dislike him simultaneously, which perfectly illustrates the controversies surrounding Patton himself.  This could have been just another war film, but it isn't, thanks to the complexity of its title character and the depth that Scott brings to that character.

There are times when this film drags a bit, and I think it could be significantly shortened.  But the character development is superb.  Even characters who are never seen, like Eisenhower, have clear objectives and distinct personalities.  The filmmakers made an interesting choice in deciding to give us glimpses of the German perspective, which is very effective, especially since they're actually speaking German.  And this film has more than its characters to recommend it.  The camera angles are extremely well thought out, the soundtrack is perfect, and the special effects are actually quite good, even by today's standards.  This movie manages to combine explosions with a good storyline, and I appreciate how rare that is.

This is by no means my favorite Best Picture Winner.  I found it hard to follow and rather tedious at times, and it was definitely on the long side.  But there were other parts that I really liked.  On the whole I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I was going to, particularly since I knew very little about General Patton prior to watching this.  While I'm not entirely sure how historically accurate this film is, it definitely conveys the idea that there are multiple sides to every story, especially this one, so there is no way to make a historical film that will satisfy everyone.  Basically, I liked this film but I didn't like it, which I think is a perfectly appropriate reaction to a film about such a controversial historical figure.

Next Best Picture: The French Connection

Sunday, November 7, 2010

1969: Midnight Cowboy

A young, naive, handsome Texan named Joe Buck moves to New York, hoping to become a hustler.  He is thoroughly unsuccessful, but he meets Ratso Rizzo, a sickly crook who agrees to be Joe's manager.  While trying to make ends meet in an unheated condemned apartment, the two misfits develop a powerful friendship.

While I enjoyed watching the main characters' relationship evolve, I really didn't like the majority of this movie.  For the most part, it's one of those weird, artsy, hippy sex movies, which just really aren't my thing.  But there were moments when I thought, "This is actually kind of good."  Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman both gave stellar performances, but I think without them this film would have little to recommend it, at least for me.  The film techniques were very interesting, but I also found them distracting.  And I didn't like the story very much either.  I kept wanting to yell at Joe, "If this isn't working, get another job, you moron!"  But I did find the end of the film moving.  The last five minutes made some of the earlier bizarre stuff worth sitting through.

This is the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture, although the rating was changed to R in 1971.  Some of the subject matter is pretty scandalous, but today's audiences wouldn't think twice about most of it.  This movie is certainly interesting, but I don't think I'll be watching it again any time soon.

Next Best Picture: Patton

Saturday, November 6, 2010

1968: Oliver!

Oliver Twist is an orphan who is sold from the workhouse to a funeral parlor, from which he runs away to London to seek his fortune.  There he falls in with a group of criminals who want to turn him into a pickpocket.  When he is brought to court for stealing, and proven innocent, the man who accused him takes pity on him and offers to care for him.  But the criminals are afraid that Oliver will turn them in, so they have to steal him back.

The story itself is quite interesting, which explains why the book is considered one of the greatest classics in English literature.  But this movie does a really good job of turning a fascinating story into two and a half hours of boredom.  The pacing is terrible.  Important events happen in the blink of an eye, and then the story comes to a grinding halt for irrelevant 15-minute musical numbers.  The philosophy of this film is: if something bad happens, sing about it; if something good happens, sing about it; if nothing happens, sing about it.  And it helps if you sing in an inconsistent Cockney accent while pretending to have a fit...I mean, "dancing".

I can tell that this film is trying to make a statement about how easy it is to become swept into debauchery if you don't have anyone to care for you, but it's almost impossible to take that statement seriously with all the random singing and awkward dancing going on.  Some of the songs are pretty good on their own, but they drag on and on, and often have very little - if anything - to do with the story.  The performances are okay, but not the best.  The kid who plays Oliver is cute, but his acting skills are not that great, and his singing voice is too high, too soft, and very difficult to understand.

I am appalled that this film won six Academy Awards.  It's entertaining from a "Let's watch a movie to make fun of it" standpoint, but from a "Let's watch a classic Best Picture" standpoint, it's thoroughly disappointing.

Next up: Midnight Cowboy

Thursday, November 4, 2010

1967: In the Heat of the Night

When Officer Sam Wood finds a wealthy white businessman's murdered body in the middle of the street in Sparta, Mississippi, the strange black man in the train depot is immediately arrested.  Wood takes the prisoner to Chief Gillespie, who eventually discovers that this particular black man is actually a homicide expert from Philadelphia named Virgil Tibbs.  Tibbs's chief asks him to help Gillespie solve the case he was initially arrested for.  After a lot of hesitation on both men's part, and several false arrests, they ultimately learn to work together to solve the crime - or, to be more accurate, Tibbs works on solving the crime while Gillespie works to keep Tibbs from being lynched.

This is one of the best films about racism I've ever seen.  Every character in the film makes assumptions about other characters based on race.  Wood and Gillespie assume that Tibbs is a murderer because he is a strange black man.  Tibbs assumes that Gillespie won't accept his help because Gillespie is a white, Southern man.  But the film is hopeful about racial reconciliation.  The initial disdain Gillespie feels toward Tibbs gradually turns to respect as he discovers Tibbs's talent.  The two men develop a relationship that might even be called friendship.  The way this unfolds is far more interesting to the viewer than who killed the businessman, though the murder investigation is always on the characters' minds.

I think Sidney Poitier is a brilliant actor, and this is perhaps his finest role.  And the way he says, "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" ensures that that line remains on lists of greatest movie quotes.  Rod Steiger is perfect as Gillespie, and very deservedly won Best Actor.  The two of them work together incredibly well, and that's why I love this movie.  If you just look at the murder mystery part, this is a pretty good film.  But add racial issues in the 1960s South, Sidney Poitier, and Rod Steiger to the murder mystery, and it becomes a great film.

Coming up next: Oliver! (and, yes, the exclamation point is part of the title)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

1966: A Man for All Seasons

King Henry VIII wants to divorce his first wife and marry his mistress.  When the Roman Catholic Church won't grant him a divorce, the king declares himself in charge of religion in England so he can grant himself one.  But he demands the approval and support of Sir Thomas More, a very religious and almost shockingly non-corrupt man.  To speak out against the king would be treason, but Sir Thomas cannot make himself lie, so he says nothing.  His silence angers the king, and others in power, more than anything he could have said.

I must admit that I found this movie a bit hard to get into at first.  The beginning was mostly different groups of people having the same conversation: the king wants to get divorced, but the Church won't let him.  Then I thought, oh great, it's a film about somebody saying nothing, how fascinating can that be?  After a while, I answered myself: surprisingly, very fascinating.

I'm not sure how historically accurate this is, but at least in the film, Sir Thomas More is portrayed as one of those courageous, heroic men who are never appreciated until after they're dead.  At first everyone seems to like him, but once he takes a stand against the king - even though he insists that with his silence he is taking no stand - he finds himself alone.  The only people who will speak to him urge him to take an oath supporting the king's divorce and remarriage.  But his refusals make the audience feel for him passionately, and cheer him on even though they know it is hopeless.  Paul Scofield's performance is magnificent, and greatly contributes to the effectiveness of this film.  He embodies Sir Thomas More.  His portrayal of the innocent, virtuous, loyal man who refuses to become corrupted is thoroughly moving and convincing, and it won him a much-deserved Best Actor Oscar.  The other performances in this film are also very convincing, but most of the other characters are unlikeable, while Sir Thomas is one of the most likeable characters in any film I've seen.

This film is not full of action or war scenes, but the more subtle war of wills keeps it interesting and engaging, at least after the first few minutes.  And if nothing else, it's worth watching because of Paul Scofield.

Next: In the Heat of the Night