Friday, July 20, 2012

All that Jazz... "Chicago" (2002)

And I’m back! After a hell of a year finishing up Masters I actually have time to write for the blog again. I’m happy to be sharing my return to form with a return to old school Hollywood form; “Chicago” was the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar since “Oliver” in 1968 and personally, I think, deservedly so.

This movie has an interesting history, it started as a play written in 1926 by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter who covered the real-life ‘Jazz Killings’ in 1920s Chicago (she’s represented by Mary Sunshine in the movie version) before it became a silent movie (1927), inspired another movie in 1942 and finally the 1975 original Broadway show and 1996 revivals that the 2002 movie is based on.

From the opening belting bars of “All that Jazz” to the grand finale replete with machine guns and vanity lights, this movie was a show-stopper. Great sets, costumes, songs, orchestrations and a ‘killer’ story. Renee Zellwegger and Catherine Zeta-Jones look and sound incredible, although I have to say that Renee was way too skinny to be a 1920s ‘hot piece of ass’ as Fred Casely puts it just before she ‘caps him’.

Richard Gere is a little clumsy, you can kind of see the work that went into his portrayal and I can’t understand why they didn’t go with someone like Hugh Jackman who was considered for the part. However,  there were some absolute standouts; Queen Latifah was the living, breathing, heaving bosom embodiment of Mama Morton, the musical numbers featured amazing performers and staging and the dialogue is sharp and snappy and so of the time.

The cheeky, irreverent and cynical tone works so well given the subject matter and translates well from the time period it was set to now and contrasts beautifully with the upbeat, cabaret-style musical numbers, although probably explains why 1970s audiences didn’t take to the musical at first. I scored this 85 and Mat gave it 90, as it was thoroughly enjoyable and proof that musicals can still make it!

Friday, July 6, 2012

It's all there in black and white - "The Artist" (2011)

Mat here. I’d been looking forward to seeing The Artist since we saw its trailer before Iron Lady (a movie noticeably absent from this year’s Best Picture nominations). I thought there was no way that the world was ready for The Artist, but I was very wrong.

It almost seems like a movie made in a negative-gearing money making scheme from ‘The Producers’: an old-fashioned, French-made, black & white, silent movie with no bankable lead actors. Where did it go right?

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star at the top. He gives a break to plucky extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and there’s sparks. But alas, The Talkies are upon us and George declares they’re just a fad and turns his back, while Peppy embraces them and becomes an overnight superstar. George pays for his pride and loses everything, but a few characters look out for him during his fall.

Familiar faces show up here and there: James Cromwell plays George’s loyal driver and assistant and John Goodman is the cranky studio boss. These are almost the only reminders that this film was made today and not 85 years ago.

The real scene-stealer is George’s dog, Jack, who must be the finest canine actor(s) in showbiz. Not only does Jack get a lot of laughs, he is secretly the heart of the film. Without Jack, George would be truly alone as he feels, and having his dog there to react and reflect the audience’s feelings gives the happy scenes a lift and the sad scenes an extra layer of poignancy.

To get the most out of The Artist, you gotta love old movies; Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock, Fred & Ginger, and especially Gene Kelly. Dujardin even moves a bit like Gene Kelly, that light-as-a-feather glide as he walks. It would make a great double feature with Singin’ in the Rain.

Extra-authenticity points for The Artist as it was not shot in 16:9 widescreen but 1.37:1 (aka Academy ratio), the same as that used for the old silent films. There are also no ‘zoom’ shots in the film, as zoom wasn’t yet invented when the film was set.

Being a silent film, The Artist leans heavily on its soundtrack and it’s another area where this movie really shines. The score perfectly encapsulates every scene, so much so that you’re able to tell what’s happening on-screen even if you can’t see it (I had to duck out of the room in the middle of a scene and I knew a house fire had started on the screen just by the music).

The Artist did very well at the Oscars with Best Film, Best Actor (Dujardin), Director, Costume and Score.

The Artist ranks as one of the finest films I’ve ever seen – not just Best Picture winners – brilliantly conceived and executed, entertaining, charming and touching. I can’t recommend The Artist highly enough.

I gave The Artist 94.5/100 (just shy of equalling Casablanca’s 95/100 from me) and Danielle gave it 89/100.

Wild West Avatar - "Dances with Wolves" (1990)

I had seen Dances with Wolves way back in the early-90’s, but it was Danielle’s first time. Almost 20 years has passed between viewings so I was looking forward to re-watching Kevin Costner’s opus.

We meet Civil War soldier Kevin Costner on a very bad day. His leg is set for amputation, so rather than live like that; Costner tries to commit suicide by charging the enemy lines. This rallies the troops and Costner becomes an unwitting hero, is awarded the horse and given his choice of posts.

Completely isolated at his new outpost, due to the suicide of his C.O. and the scalping of Kevin’s driver, he befriends a lone wolf and is gradually accepted to the local Sioux Indian tribe. He stops fellow outcast white person Mary McDonnell (the President from Battlestar Galactica) from committing suicide – seems like all the whites are suicidal in this movie – and of course they hook up.

Things are good for a while, but we all know it can’t last. Everything goes to hell for Kev as his two worlds can’t come into contact without one being destroyed. A word of warning to animal-lovers – the animal kingdom fares about as well as the people in Dances with Wolves, i.e. not great.

Special mention goes to use of Lakota Sioux language throughout the film. So much subtitling was very unusual back in 1990, and it really ads to the authenticity of the film.

Whilst being grand, beautifully shot and willing to take it’s time with the story, I do feel Dances with Wolves sells itself short by staying too simplistic in its portrayals: white people (except for Kevin & Mary) are generally horrible and native Americans (except for the early scalpers) are universally good. In trying to portray the horror of the extermination of the Native American people, shortcuts have been taken and at times I felt more manipulated than moved.

In addition to Best Picture, Dances with Wolves won many other Oscars including Best Director (Costner), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound and Score (seven for those keeping score). It had some tough competition that year against Awakenings, Ghost, Godfather Part III and Goodfellas. Whether I agree or not depends on the day, as they’re all good (well, maybe not Godfather III).

I scored Dances with Wolves 74.5/100 and Danielle scored it 74/100.

They call me MR Tibbs - "In the Heat of the Night" (1967)

Mat here. This was another one we enjoyed with my parents – we tend to cram in quite a few Oscar films when they visit...

Sidney Poitier is no stranger to films dealing with race-relations. Here he plays homicide detective Mr Virgil Tibbs, who gets dragged in by a bigoted small town police chief (Rod Steiger) as a suspect in a murder investigation just because he happens to be in the South, and black.

Poitier and Steiger have to put aside their mutual distaste and unravel the mystery surrounding the murder, and a grudging respect forms between the pair. No-one’s happy to have poor ol’ Sid in town, and violence, hate and lynch mobs follow him wherever he goes.

This movie is home to some of the most memorable moments in film history: the scene where the wealthy property owner slaps Mr Tibbs like he was slapping a slave; and Mr Tibbs slaps him right back – electric. And of course the oft-quoted ‘They call me MISTER Tibbs!’ as he stands up for the rights and respect afforded him in the other parts of America.

Watching the film today tends to leave your mouth open in shock, with the ‘n-word’ being casually tossed around and Sidney Poitier being referred to as ‘boy’. Uncomfortable viewing in parts, but they were blazing a trail and sometimes, that’s not pretty.

In the Heat of the Night also received awards for Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Editing, Sound and Adapted Screenplay. Somewhat telling that the times are slow to change, Sidney Poitier wasn’t even nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

This is one of the most deserving Best Picture winners, not just for being an excellent and entertaining film, but for being so important in getting the struggles of the Civil Rights movement onto the big screen.

We gave In the Heat of the Night the following scores: Danielle 81 and Mat 90.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

I'm a hustler - "Midnight Cowboy" (1969)

Mat here. We got together with friend of the blog Jason and settled in for the movie – we all knew of the film but had no idea what to expect from it.

Jon Voight plays Joe Buck, who’s set on escaping his small-town life by moving to New York and becoming a ‘hustler’ – male prostitute. Trouble is, he’s just to nice for this line of work and everyone he meets takes advantage of this poor hustler. Life in the Big Apple is one hard lesson after another for him.

Joe finds an unlikely companion, and occasional pimp, in Dustin Hoffman. The review could also be titled 'Hey, I'm WALKIN' here!' as this is the film where Dustin Hoffman, as the delightfully grotesque Ratso Rizzo utters the immortal New Yorker phrase. According to IMdB, this was an ad-lib from Hoffman as they were filming on a closed street and one cab got sick of waiting, accelerated across the intersection and almost wiped out the two stars. Hoffman doesn’t break character and slaps the cab in anger as well.

Joe and Rizzo stumble from one mediocre sexcapade to another, barely getting enough to live on and calling a condemed building home. New York’s winter threatens the pair and they set thier sights on the golden glow of Florida. Unfortunately the more they reach for a shortcut to the good life, the further away it gets.

The partnership between the two leads is the core of the film, and despite the griminess it is a surprisingly touching and affecting relationship.

The film also puts the excellent song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson to good use, softening the harsh moments and making the light ones more poignant.

In addition to Best Picture, it always won Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Although it seems fairly tame by today’s standards this film was rated ‘X’ back in the day (due to it’s “homosexual frame of reference”) and remains the only X-rated film to win Best Picture.

This movie has a lot of scruffy charm and real heart. A deserving winner.

Danielle gave this 81/100, I gave it 88.5/100 and Jason awarded it 81/100.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rats in the Ranks - "The Departed" (2006)

Mat here.

We saw The Departed right before we started doing our Oscar blog, so it was no big problem to watch this one again with a scoresheet handy. We rewatched this one with my parents, but it was their first time.
I'll try to stay spoiler-free for the folks who have yet to catch The Departed.

Set in Boston, state trooper Matt Damon is secretly working for Irish mob boss Jack Nicholson, feeding him info about raids and being his inside man. Meanwhile, Leonardo di Caprio is also a cop and is recruited by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg to work as an undercover  cop and infiltrate Nicholson's team.

The double dealing and cat-and-mouse (or rat, in the case of this movie) situations create some knife-edge suspense and some gut-wrenching twists and turns. There's a love triangle as well, which is probably the only weak spot in the movie as it strains believability just a bit more than it needs to be.

The entire all-star cast is at the top of their game, and I could watch this movie over and over. The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong series of films Infernal Affairs, condensed and repurposed to Boston.

Director Martin Scorsese was reportedly unhappy with the final film, but I couldn't disagree more - I think it's amongst his finest work. He won Best Director, and the Departed also picked up Best Adapted Screenplay and best Editing. Mark Wahlberg was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, playing a cop that he says is based on all the officers he met as a young car thief.

The Departed is an excellent movie and stands up well to repeated viewing. It was fun watching Mum & Dad gasp and cringe when we knew what was coming!

Danielle and I were tied on 87/100 while mum and dad, ever harsher gave it 82 and 85 respectively.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sharp as ever! - "The Sting" (1973)

Mat here.

My parents and I watch a lot of Oscar winners when they're in town – and both of them are big Robert Redford & Paul Newman fans, so we watched The Sting (1973).

The Sting is a film set in the 1930's about a couple of lovable con artists (Redford & Newman) trying to grift a mob boss (Robert Shaw) for a big payday. Like any good caper movie, there's double dealings and twists, but the viewer is well-informed about the complicated set-ups and can enjoy the ride.

This a very enjoyable Best Picture winner. In a field crowded with dour war movies and serious biopics, The Sting always entertains. The pacing is excellent, broken up into discrete acts with Evening Post-style title cards, and the writing sparkles.

Bizarrely, the script was found in a slush pile (a pile of unsolicited screenplays). The man who discovered the script wrote to his boss saying the script was "the great American screenplay" and "... will make an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film."

The Academy Award-winning music by Marvin Hamlisch needs a mention, with Scott Joplin's piano piece 'The Entertainer' providing a theme that's both memorable and really embodies the upbeat cheeky feel of the film.

The Sting also won Oscars for Directing, Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design, and Editing.

In a shocking display of favouritism, this was the movie to score over 100%, with Lyn awarding the acting 10/10... twice! A perfect ten for BOTH Redford and Newman.

The final scores for The Sting were: Danielle and Mat gave it 88, Michael gave it 91 and Lyn (who really can't be claimed to be objective about this) gave it 110!!