Friday, March 31, 2017

Atlantic City (1980)



Academy Awards, USA 1982

Nominated
Oscar
Best Picture
Denis Héroux
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Burt Lancaster
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Susan Sarandon
Best Director
Louis Malle
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
John Guare

Paramount Pictures
Directed by Louis Malle
My rating: 2 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(DVD, Paramount)

Aging ex-mobster Burt Lancaster runs a poor man's numbers racket among the decaying urban ruins of Atlantic City. He spies on pretty neighbor Susan Sarandon as she indulges in a daily lemon bath. He befriends her estranged husband when he shows up one day at her apartment with a stash of stolen cocaine, but is murdered before he can unload it all. Lancaster is left with the unsold drugs and continues to sell it, using the wads of cash to seduce Sarandon. This slow moving film is populated by selfish, shallow characters with little moral grounding. Sarandon is miscast by her husband, director Malle, who seems more interested in showing off her breasts whenever the chance arises.

The Accidental Tourist (1988)



Academy Awards, USA 1989

Won
Oscar
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Geena Davis
Nominated
Oscar
Best Picture
Lawrence Kasdan
Charles Okun
Michael Grillo
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Frank Galati
Lawrence Kasdan
Best Music, Original Score
John Williams

Warner Bros.
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(DVD, Warner Bros.)

Travel guide writer William Hurt and his wife's marriage is feeling the strain of the death of their teenage son. She moves into her own apartment, while he moves in with his grown siblings after breaking his leg in a fall. He is aggressively pursued by dog trainer Geena Davis, eventually leading to a relationship. His wife shows up at the wedding of his sister, leading to their reconciliation. However, while traveling in Paris, he rekindles the romance with Davis. Slow, subdued comedy drama, with irksome characters, especially Davis, but not without a few rewards along the way.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Zelig (1983)



Academy Awards, USA 1984

Nominated
Oscar
Best Cinematography
Gordon Willis
Best Costume Design
Santo Loquasto

Orion Pictures/Warner Bros.
Directed by Woody Allen
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(DVD, MGM)

Woody Allen plays a man who has the ability to change his physical appearance and traits to those around him in order to fit in. His story is presented through old newsreel footage, both real and recreated, in which Allen inserts himself and the other actors. The gimmick gets old after awhile, and digital technology has somewhat diminished the novelty.

The Fugitive (1993)



Academy Awards, USA 1994

Won
Oscar
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Tommy Lee Jones
Nominated
Oscar
Best Picture
Arnold Kopelson
Best Cinematography
Michael Chapman
Best Sound
Donald O. Mitchell
Michael Herbick
Frank A. Montaño
Scott D. Smith
Best Film Editing
Dennis Virkler
David Finfer
Dean Goodhill
Don Brochu
Richard Nord
Dov Hoenig
Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing
John Leveque
Bruce Stambler
Best Music, Original Score
James Newton Howard

Warner Bros.
Directed by Andrew Davis
My rating: 2 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(Blu-ray, Warner Bros.)

Harrison Ford is wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife, but somehow survives a spectacular train crash on the way to prison. On the run, he is determined to find the real killer. He is relentlessly pursued by Deputy U.S. Marshal Tommy Lee Jones, who tries to anticipate Ford's next move. Beginning with Ford's implausible escape, his freedom relies on increasingly ridiculous last-second escapes, coincidences or other gimmicks. As a result, the film has no credibility, but manages to work as popcorn entertainment. The soundtrack by James Newton Howard is just as overbearing as the plot.

The Cardinal (1963)



Academy Awards, USA 1964

Nominated
Oscar
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
John Huston
Best Director
Otto Preminger
Best Cinematography, Color
Leon Shamroy
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color
Lyle R. Wheeler
Gene Callahan
Best Costume Design, Color
Donald Brooks
Best Film Editing
Louis R. Loeffler

Columbia Pictures
Directed by Otto Preminger
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(DVD, Warner Bros.)

Tom Tryon plays a young priest struggling with his new role advising parishioners on matters of life, death and faith. He is sent to a rural New England community to learn humility, but ends up taking care of an elderly and dying priest. He gets transferred to Europe and appears to have a bright future, but instead has a crisis of faith and is given a two year sabbatical to figure it out. He falls in love with one of his students in Germany, but decides he was meant for the priesthood after all. He eventually becomes a Cardinal at the Vatican. The first half of this long story, which takes place in America, is actually a fairly moving story of a struggling young priest. However, it loses its way in the second half with two stories of racism in the South and Nazis in Germany, which seem dated and forced. Tryon's one dimensional performance doesn't help.

Legendary Champions (1968)


Academy Awards, USA 1969

Nominated
Oscar
Best Documentary, Features
William Cayton

Directed by Harry Chapin
My rating: 2 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

Rare footage of the early days of boxing, including bare-fisted, is the main attraction of this documentary. Much of the footage is blurry and in poor condition, but sketches and photographs manage to fill in the gaps. Jack Johnson stands out among the many personalities presented, his friendly smile and easy going personality belying a tiger-like ferocity when he sets his mind to it in the ring. The late 60s muzak is a major distraction.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lincoln (2012)



Academy Awards, USA 2013

Won
Oscar
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Daniel Day-Lewis
Best Achievement in Production Design
Rick Carter (production designer)
Jim Erickson (set decorator)
Nominated
Oscar
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Steven Spielberg
Kathleen Kennedy
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Tommy Lee Jones
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Field
Best Achievement in Directing
Steven Spielberg
Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay
Tony Kushner
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Janusz Kaminski
Best Achievement in Film Editing
Michael Kahn
Best Achievement in Costume Design
Joanna Johnston
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
John Williams
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Andy Nelson
Gary Rydstrom
Ron Judkins

Touchstone Pictures
Directed by Steven Spielberg
My rating: 3 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(Blu-ray, DreamWorks)

In the early days of Lincoln's second term, the Civil War is winding down and he intends to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery before readmitting the southern states. In order to garner enough votes in the House of Representatives, he must convince highly skeptical and occasionally outright hostile Congressmen to vote for it. He essentially bribes a few with offers of jobs in his new administration, but with others must appeal to their dubious moral ground. He gets considerable help from the influential Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans and fervent abolitionist, played to perfection by Tommy Lee Jones. His wife gives him moral support at home, but her mental stability leads to other problems. There are moments of great joy when the Amendment passes after a suspenseful vote, but they are soon tempered by the president's untimely assassination. The politics can be dense and you might want to hone up on your history before watching, but Spielberg gives it his usual slick production values, perhaps a little too slick at times.

Wings (1927)



Academy Awards, USA 1929

Won
Oscar
Best Picture, Production
Best Effects, Engineering Effects
Roy Pomeroy

Paramount Pictures
Directed by William A. Wellman
My rating: 3 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(Blu-ray, Paramount)

The exploits of two childhood friends who enlist during WWI to become pilots for the Army. Both are in love with the same girl, but she only pretends to be in love with one of them out of sympathy, little realizing that the girl next door, Clara Bow, is the one really in love with him. They go through the usual pilot school routine, eventually going on bombing runs over France. There is a memorable sequence in a Paris nightclub involving champagne bubbles. However, the aerial combat sequences are the real highlight, including hand tinted flame-outs. Highly enjoyable, if occasionally sudsy, silent film that will forever be known as the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The Farm: Angola, USA (1998)


Academy Awards, USA 1999

Nominated
Oscar
Best Documentary, Features
Jonathan Stack
Liz Garbus

A&E Network
Directed by Liz Garbus, Wilbert Rideau and Jonathan Stack
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

A glimpse at life in the nation's largest prison in Lousiana. Most of the prisoners are there for life, with statistics quoted at around 80% will die there. A friendly warden keeps things in perspective, while the prisoners work in the fields, see the occasional visitor and research their cases. While some are obviously guilty, and readily admit it, others make convincing cases for their innocence. Any one of these stories could be enough for their own documentary, but this documentary seems content to just stick with the basic details. There is a follow up feature made 10 years later for the curious.

The Cry of Reason (1988)


Academy Awards, USA 1989

Nominated
Oscar
Best Documentary, Features
Robert Bilheimer
Ronald Mix

Directed by Robert Bilheimer
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

Beyers Naudé, a white Afrikaner and pastor, realizes the inhumanity of the South African apartheid system after a massacre in the early 1960s. He spends the rest of his life as one of the few South African whites to speak out against it, at great personal sacrifice. He gives impassioned speeches while still managing to be humble. One of the more inspirational documentaries of the many that have been made on apartheid.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Promises to Keep (1988)


Academy Awards, USA 1989

Nominated
Oscar
Best Documentary, Features
Ginny Durrin

Durrin Productions
Directed by Ginny Durrin
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

Activists break into a Federal building in DC and use it as a shelter for the homeless. Hundreds show up nightly, but the government tries to shut it down. Mitch Snyder, the leader of the activist group, and others begin a months-long fast to demand action from President Reagan. On the eve of the election, Reagan agrees to make renovations to the building, ending the fast. Months and then years pass with no renovations, prompting more protests. Snyder is a huge personality, single-handedly keeping the cause alive against all odds. His eventual victory is a little anticlimactic, with a Hollywood movie crew starring Martin Sheen (who also narrates this film) showing up at the shelter to make the TV movie, Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Killing Ground (1979)


Academy Awards, USA 1980

Nominated
Oscar
Best Documentary, Features
Steve Singer
Tom Priestley

ABC News Closeup
Directed by Steve Singer and Tom Priestley
My rating: 2 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

Investigative news-style program produced by ABC and written by Brit Hume, exposing illegal chemical dumping in New Jersey, Louisiana and most famously, the Love Canal in Niagara, New York. Unfortunately, it resorts to confrontational interviews with representatives of the companies involved, or innocent government workers. It also incorporates subliminal editing techniques. The stories speak for themselves, so none of that was really necessary.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Isaac in America: A Journey with Isaac Bashevis Singer (1986)


Academy Awards, USA 1987

Nominated
Oscar
Best Documentary, Features
Kirk Simon
Amram Nowak

Direct Cinema Limited
Directed by Amram Nowak
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

A glimpse at the life of Yiddish writer Singer, still alive and kicking at 80 years old in New York City. He visits the same cafeteria which appeared in many of his stories. Later, he visits the neighborhood in Coney Island where he spent his first few years in America as a Polish immigrant. We also see him receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in Stockholm. Singer emerges as intelligent, friendly and with a great sense of humor. Brief, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Card (1952)


Academy Awards, USA 1953

Nominated
Oscar
Best Sound, Recording

General Film Distributors (UK)
Directed by Ronald Neame
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

Alec Guinness plays an enterprising young man from a poor background in a fictional British city. He cheats to get into college, blackmails his way into a job as an assistant to a solicitor and eventually finds wealth as a loan shark to poor people who can't pay their rent on time. Naturally, he turns to politics to complete his ascension to power. He manages to find a wife in pretty Petula Clark, after ditching Glynis Johns who only wants his money. Guinness' friendly persona masks a ruthless character who seizes any opportunity to make a profit. This somewhat blunts the social criticism, not to mention leaving a bad taste in one's mouth.

The Long Way Home (1997)


Academy Awards, USA 1998

Won
Oscar
Best Documentary, Features
Marvin Hier
Richard Trank

Seventh Art Releasing
Directed by Mark Jonathan Harris
My rating: 3 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

Starting at the end of WWII and the Holocaust, the plight of those survivors in the first few years after the war is chronicled. It turns out the defeat of Hitler was not the end of the misery, as the released prisoners had no home, no families to return to, but instead became refugees shuffled from one country to another. Many, ironically, headed toward Germany and the relative safety of the American Zone, but  their ultimate destination was British controlled Palestine. However, the British wanted nothing to do with them and put up obstacles at every opportunity. The refugees tried to enter the country as illegal immigrants, by the thousands on ships at night. Eventually the problem became so desperate that the British pulled out and left it to the United Nations to untangle. This led to the controversial formation of the state of Israel, with President Harry S. Truman playing a pivotal role. Essential viewing to understand the historical background of Israel, with more than a few parallels to contemporary immigration issues.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Seeing Red (1983)


Academy Awards, USA 1984

Nominated
Oscar
Best Documentary, Features
Jim Klein
Julia Reichert

Heartland Productions
Directed by James Klein and Julia Reichert
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

Filmmaker Julia Reichert interviews surviving members of the American Communist Party when it was a viable third party in the 1930s and 1940s. Most are still proud of their accomplishments and dedication, with some great stories to go along with those memories. Pete Seeger gives his perspective and sings some songs. A very revealing look at what was then, and still is, an American taboo, laying the groundwork for today's leftist movement, and never more relevant than in the age of Trump.

Operation Thunderbolt (1977)


Academy Awards, USA 1978

Nominated
Oscar
Best Foreign Language Film
Israel

Warner Bros.
Directed by Menahem Golan
My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

Dramatic reenactment of the hijacking of an Israeli airliner by German and Palestinian terrorists, who force it to land in Uganda where they get help from Idi Amin and his army. Jewish passengers are separated from the others and threatened to be killed unless there demands are met. The Israeli government approves a rescue mission by an elite squad, leading to a final shootout at the airport in Uganda. Klaus Kinski is appropriately over-the-top as the main hijacker, while the actor playing Idi Amin is hilarious.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

To Forget Venice (1979)


Academy Awards, USA 1980

Nominated
Oscar
Best Foreign Language Film
Italy

Cineriz (Italy)
Directed by Franco Brusati
My rating: 3 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

An older man and his young male lover travel to the country house of his sister. They mingle with the sister's care taker and farm hand, lesbian lovers, and have a memorable meal at an outdoor restaurant with a wedding party. They plan a day trip to Venice one day, but the sister is struck with a sudden illness and sent to her death bed. These present day events are intermingled with dreamlike remembrances of the past. It lingers a little too much on the naked bodies and sexuality of the various characters, but that is more than made up for by wonderful cinematography and music.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bizalom (1980)


Academy Awards, USA 1981

Nominated
Oscar
Best Foreign Language Film
Hungary

New Yorker Films
Directed by István Szabó
My rating: 3 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

A woman is given a new identity and sent into hiding as a member of the Nazi resistance in WWII Hungary. Separated from her husband and young daughter, she struggles to adapt to her new living situation posing as the wife of another member of the resistance also in hiding. However, as time passes, and the war creeps into their daily life, they begin a sexual relationship. Neither are particularly guilt ridden, even when she unexpectedly meets her husband for one night, but as the end of the war comes within view must face the reality of their return to their other lives. Well-acted, if talky and a bit claustrophobic, story gives a new slant to "wartime romance".

Khovanschina (1959)


Academy Awards, USA 1962

Nominated
Oscar
Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture
Dmitri Shostakovich

Artkino Pictures
Directed by Vera Stroyeva
My rating: 2 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(YouTube)

More or less faithful adaptation of the Mussorgsky opera concerning a revolt against the ruling Tzars in the 17th century. It will take some preparatory study to fully understand the political and historical context, but basically a Russian prince and his Orthodox religious allies rebel against the modern reformations of the rulers of the day. Add some melodramatic and supernatural elements, and have it all end in a fiery mass suicide, and well, you've got a filmed opera, just not exactly riveting cinematic material.

A War (2015)



Academy Awards, USA 2016

Nominated
Oscar
Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Denmark

Magnolia Pictures
Directed by Tobias Lindholm
My rating: 3 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(Blu-ray, Magnolia)

The commander of a Danish regiment in Afghanistan is accused of a war crime after ordering the bombing of a civilian area without proper identification in order to save a wounded soldier. Back home, he faces a court trial and is apparently ready to admit guilt, until his wife convinces him otherwise for the sake of their own family. The film raises more questions than it answers, and the court trial goes on for too long, but ultimately another passionate reminder of the far reaching consequences of war.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Embrace of the Serpent (2015)



Academy Awards, USA 2016

Nominated
Oscar
Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Colombia

Oscilloscope
Directed by Ciro Guerra
My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4
IMDb Wikipedia
(Blu-ray, Oscilloscope)

A native Amazonian, the last of his tribe, travels with two different scientists, approximately 30 years apart. The first trek is to accompany a German ethnographer, seriously ill, in search of a plant that supposedly has healing powers. The second is with an American botanist, supposedly in search of the same mystical plant. The two stories intertwine almost seamlessly, held together by the younger native who is angry that his tribe has been all but extinguished by the greed of the rubber industry, and his older, wiser self, not so angry but still distrustful. A memorable stop on both trips takes place at a remote Catholic mission, overseen by a sadistic priest who tortures children, then overrun by the same children a quarter of a century later, who have become savages and practice a bastardized Catholicism. Hypnotically filmed in black and white by David Gallego, with the notable exception of a drug-induced animated sequence.