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The Best Picture Winners: Platoon (1986)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
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Review

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The Best Picture Winners: Out of Africa (1985)

Happy New Year!

So, as you know, Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
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When the 1985 Oscars faded into history, the Academy voters had overlooked the work of Steven Spielberg on, by this point, four separate occasions.  Curiously enough, when he lost the Academy Award for directing, it was almost always to a director known for his acting.  He lost his first to Woody Allen, the second to Warren Beatty, the third to Richard Attenborough and in 1985 to Sydney Pollack.

In the biggest “screw you” in the director’s career, his widely-received adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was nominated for 10 Oscars and won nothing – and Spielberg did not receive a nod for directing.  There were varying theories mostly aimed at the industry jealous of the most popular director in history.

Never-the-less they showed their disdain for his success by choosing the work of a director they felt more comfortable with.  At the time, Pollack’s adaptation of Out of Africa was respectable, gorgeous and safely uncontroversial.  Possibly for all of those reasons, today it is largely forgotten.

Based on the autobiographical works of Karen Blixen (who wrote under the pen name Isak Denisen) who married her late husband’s brother just because she liked him and then moved to a British colony in Africa to work on a coffee farm, the film follows her romantic adventures first with her shallow husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and then with a handsome big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) who succeeds at winning her heart.

I’ve seen Out of Africa twice in my life and I always come away with mixed feelings.  Surely, the film is gorgeous, a pictograph of the African savannah unlike anything that I have ever seen.  Yet, as for the story, while I appreciate Pollack’s pacing, I think the film sags after a promising first hour.  After Blixen begins to romance the hunky Hatton after he returns from The Great War, the movie seems to lose its forward momentum and it becomes a bit dull as it grinds toward an somewhat inevitable conclusion.

I was also put off by some of the film’s technical inadequacies in which the long shots display the African landscapes, but in close-ups they are clearly on badly lit sets. This is most evident in the film’s most famous scene in which the two lovers take a biplane over the African countryside. The scenes of the plane flying over the hills and mountains are spectacular but then there are close-ups of the two actors who look as though they are sitting in a mock-plane indoors with artificial lighting.

Out of Africa was nominated for 11 academy awards and won 7. Yet, the film languishes as one of the least screened of all the Best Picture winners.  I certainly admire a great deal of it but there’s too much that I can’t overlook.

 

The Best Picture Winners: Amadeus (1984)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
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For the rest of my life I will thank the lucky stars that Amadeus fell into the hands of Milos Foreman.  Here is a director who has always marched to his own drummer, specializing in films about protagonists who are usually mad and almost always unlikable.  My favorites are his biographies.  He’s made three in his career and whether he’s talking about Mozart, Larry Flynt or Andy Kaufman, they are anything but conventional.

His most popular was Amadeus, and again I thank my lucky stars that Foreman was involved because this could have been the kind of bland, dusty old by-the-number bio-pic that wins a lot of awards and then is quickly abandoned.  That’s not the case here.  Foreman’s intent is to shift focus away from biographical details and focus the story of obsession and jealousy.

The forward momentum of the story settles on the (admittedly fictionalized) jealous streak infecting Anton Salieri (Best Actor winner F. Murray Abraham), a competent Italian composer whose career is a long and frustrating climb to the middle.  In his midst is the young Mozart (Tom Hulce) a ridiculous, impudent prodigy who is able to compose beautiful music almost without trying.  Is God laughing at Salieri?  Has the muse been misplaced?

The alleged curse of The All-Mighty lies very much at the heart of Amadeus, of which very little is about the young composer.  Salieri sees Mozart, in a lot of ways, down the end of his own nose.  Salieri is a man whose hands cannot produce greatness but whose ears can recognize greatness.  That seems to rest at the center of Abraham’s performance which is a triumph of internalizing.  His face twists this way and that conveying a sense of betrayal cast on him by the man upstairs.  His most illuminating scene comes late in the film as he, an old man, speaks to a priest.  “That was not Mozart laughing, Father… that was God. That was God laughing at me through that obscene giggle.”

 

The Best Picture Winners: Terms of Endearment (1983)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


Historically, I have not been exactly kind to Terms of Endearment.  In at least one previous essay, I declared that I was turned off by the cast of pretty unlikable characters.  I’ve seen the movie several times over the years but it wasn’t until recently that I have come to appreciate its great merits.  Maybe it was me.  Maybe it was my age.  Maybe it was my experience seeing a mass of badly written family dramas over the years that shook something loose to make me see that there really is something special here.

What has bubbled up at last from Terms of Endearment that I hadn’t previously noticed was how much of a balancing act this story really is.  It doesn’t drown itself in deep soapy significance nor does it break its leg trying to sitcom itself its audience won’t have to experience anything unpleasant.  This is a story that moves with the patterns of real life, of the ways in which the inevitable tragedies in our lives are greatly tempered by humor.

What is even more of a relief is that this is, for once, a movie about women without the male gaze and without pandering.  It doesn’t even really site the typical female movie tropes.  Instead, the script (by ) allows Aurora and Emma to be individuals who have flaws and inadequacies because they are human and not because they are women.  It sees the  hot and cold 30-year relationship between stubborn widow Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) and her capricious daughter Emma (Debra Winger) with great deal of detail and clarity.

Watching these two I realize that my previous objections had a lot to do with the fact that they tended to be unlikable.  Returning to the film I realize that this is an asset.  I hate movies that allow their characters to be earth-bound saints whose only failings are seen in terms of a television sitcom.  They are flawed, they misbehave.  They act inappropriately with each other and with others around them.

I’m glad I came back to this movie.  I’m glad that I was able to find the greatness in this story.  As a critic, I’m suppose to nail down one opinion and leave it at that.  I’m not suppose to admit that I was wrong.  Is that against the code?

 

The Best Picture Winners: Gandhi (1982)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
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I once, rather recklessly, referred to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as a Broccoli Movie – a term that I invented to describe any movie that is no-doubt very good, but also good for you.  In other words, not the first movie that you would immediately choose to spend a casual evening with.  Over the years I have waffled in that opinion particularly in light of the passion with which it was made.

It is difficult for me to dismiss the pure passion with which Attenborough approached this material.  He spent a decade trying to finance this project and so it was, indeed, his labor of love – all of that is present in the film.  It is also, in a sense, kind of the film’s undoing.  It is hard not to be moved by the story of Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi (played by Best Actor winner Ben Kingsley), the Indian leader who spend half of his life leading his people in a revolt against British occupation of his own country.  But the film is kind of worshipful of Gandhi as well.

In his time, Gandhi was a controversial figure for many of his political stances that the movie glosses over.  That challenge to the audience removed, the film kind of becomes repetitive.  Gandhi stands firm, and the British push back.  Gandhi stands firm again, and the British again push back, and so on until India is free.  Over and over he is brought to trial and imprisoned as the support gets stronger and stronger.

As for the man himself, you see progress being made but since Gandhi is presented as such a saint, it is difficult to detect what changes are occurring in his own soul.  Naturally, he’s angry over what is being done to his people, but what outrage is happening inside him?  Was there ever a moment when he was tempted to pick up a weapon?  I love Ben Kingsley’s hard-working performance, but I found it difficult to get to the all-too human aspects of Gandhi.

Gandhi, to me, feels like a textbook version of the great man’s life.  He is a man who did great things, who achieved independence for his country, but I guess I was looking for a much deeper portrait.  Who is this man?  Who is the man inside?  How do I connect with him?

 

The Best Picture Winners: Chariots of Fire (1981)

Merry Christmas, everyone!

So, as you know, Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


In general, there are only two things that the average moviegoer remembers about Chariots of Fire.  First, it was the movie that bested Raiders of the Lost Ark in the Best Picture race and, second, Vangelis’ memorable score.  Everything else about the film seems to have slipped out of common knowledge.

That’s really too bad because revisiting this film I found it to be deeply engrossing.  In many ways, it is effective in the same way as the early Rocky pictures; its a movie that involves a sport, but it involves us more in the individual lives of those involved.  Chariots of Fire is really not a movie about the 1924 British Olympic track team, it’s really a portrait of the men whose desire to run for King and Country is only trumped by their passion to follow different paths to success.  On one side is Eric Liddle (Ian Charleson), the Scottish son of devout Christian missionaries whose deep religious faith is the engine on which he runs.  On the other is Harold Abraham (Ben Cross), son of a Lithuanian Jew whose life of privilege is curtailed only by antisemitism.

I really grew to appreciate this story, of these men and their passion.  They are admirable, honorable and individual.  In fact, the only flaw in this film, ironically, is the one thing that most everyone remembers – the score.  Vangelis’ theme was all over the place in 1981, and was parodied at every opportunity, but within the film it doesn’t really fit.  So much love and attention has gone into the post-war period detail whenever the modern electronic score kicks in it takes you out of the moment.  Still, it doesn’t soften the impact of the film.  It’s a well-made film that doesn’t go for cheap theatrics.  I got caught up in these stories, these men, and their convictions.

 

The Best Picture Winners: Ordinary People (1980)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


For the second year in a row, the Academy voters took the opportunity to  recognize a film about the the decimation of domestic tranquility.  Ordinary People, like Kramer vs. Kramer was also based on a popular book (this one by Judith Guest) about the deteriorating of a family, this time over the weight of unresolved grief.  Yet, unlike the gimmicky drama of Kramer, Robert Redford’s adaptation was far more grounded, not to mention far more satisfying.

The story examines the Jarret family; father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Conrad (Supporting Actor winner Timothy Hutton) who are unable to pick up the emotional pieces after the untimely death of the eldest child Buck in a boating accident the previous year.  Much of the emotional ice in the family is coming from Beth, who is unwilling to open her heart to anyone.  This has serious repercussions, not only on her marriage to Calvin, but on Conrad whose inability to deal with the situation has bred a suicide attempt.

What strikes me about Ordinary People is how well it deals with the family, pulling up their personalities and their inadequacies not from the machinations of the script but from the core of the characters.  This is a deeply felt movie and Alvin Sargent’s script seems to move with the organic nature of life rather than gimmicks.  It would give all of its players a chance to show their stuff, particularly Mary Tyler Moore, cast against type and proving that she could be more than just a sitcom star.

The movie would mark, of course, the beginning of two brilliant careers.  Timothy Hutton would win the year’s Best Supporting Actor award and go on to a terrific career.  And Robert Redford, one of our national treasures, would begin his directing career with this film (and win the Oscar) going on to direct a body of work that has more quality than quantity.