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Oscar Nominations 2017

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Oscar nominations for last year’s movies this morning. The annual awards ceremony, to be hosted on March 4 on ABC by ABC’s late night show host and political activist Jimmy Kimmel, will be the 90th annual Academy Awards. With each passing year, the popular televised ceremony loses its luster.

The show’s glamour is long gone, as whatever eloquence, beauty, elegance, flair and brightness is on display is perpetually, and increasingly, diminished, contradicted and ridiculed by the dim, grotesque and always vulgar mediocrity, bigotry and blankness of its hosts, presenters, skits and clips. The Oscars have become an annual display of groupthink, like a national political convention — rote coronation, bromides and propaganda — as entertaining and informative as an episode of most of the harping on MSNBC or the pap on Fox News Channel. This year’s Me, Too-driven hysteria, compounding the Academy’s bigotry rationalized by its faith in egalitarianism (cloaked in the terms diversity and inclusion) will surely detract from any celebration of the art and science of movies and having made them.

This year, the Best Picture nominees mostly match the projections. With one exception, I have seen and reviewed each of the nominees, so I’m including the links here for those who love movies as much as I do. Please note that most of these reviews offer negative or mixed estimates of the Oscar-nominated pictures, though I found Dunkirk compelling, and have not seen Lady Bird, which is also nominated. I think the scathing and timely indictment of America’s Me, Too culture of trial by public opinion, I, Tonya, is one of 2017’s best, possibly the best, picture, though I haven’t seen every major movie.

I am glad that The Greatest Showman, Fox’s flawed but enjoyable box office hit — which had an extraordinarily low 12 percent drop in this week’s box office receipts — and a showcase for two rising and extremely talented songwriters, received recognition for its music with its “This Is Me” nomination for Best Song (though almost any of its tunes are better than anything else I heard last year).

Oscar’s nine 2017 Best Picture nominees, with a link to each review, are:

  • Get Out a good comedy-horror movie themed to oppose interracial relationships
  • Phantom Thread an elaborate comedy-horror movie
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a religious folk take detached from reality
  • The Shape of Water a long, lush fantasy depicting an anti-American theme
  • Lady Bird
  • The Post a bland and somewhat dubious but involving account of journalism
  • Darkest Hour an interesting film for its topic, Winston Churchill, alone, lacking in historical sweep, grandeur and drama
  • Call Me By Your Name as with last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, an immersion in evocative pictures; not a love story
  • Dunkirk a powerful three-pronged war movie which underdramatizes its climax

Roundup: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

Classic movies tend to linger. Last month, TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and wrote about here, offered a range of marvelous movies.

I covered festival events, discussions and interviews and watched or reviewed films from every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. Besides my blog, reports and articles appeared elsewhere online. I’m also writing articles for a new, independent film source for future publication. 80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbThis year, I was finally able to see a 40-year-old past Best Picture Oscar winner at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, a film I had never seen in any format. Now, I think every adult should see it. What an inspiring movie.

Besides the new Rocky review, my other TCM festival reviews also include thoughts on the live interviews as applicable. Among the new reviews: thoughts on Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s powerful Boyz N The Hood (1991) featuring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and Vincente Minnelli’s lively, inventive The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire.

Happily, I’ve also discovered Frank Borzage’s restored, Rachmaninoff-themed I’ve Always Loved You (1946), Josef von Sternberg’s striking Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, and I enjoyed seeing Elia Kazan’s insightful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire on the big screen for the first time.

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-themed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about an assassination plot to control the United States of America by a global Communist cabal, was an incredible moviegoing experience—also at the Chinese. It was introduced by Angela Lansbury.

In addition to the interesting discourse on journalism in movies and composer Michael Giacchino’s audio-visual presentation on making the musical score for film, I had the pleasure of watching Faye Dunaway, who’d previously introduced an anniversary screening of another still-timely picture, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, interviewed at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Dunaway, a glamorous movie star whom I found intelligent and discriminating about her career, did not disappoint. At that point, I’d already run into the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, who was there for a screening of All the President’s Men, and met fellow movie bloggers and buffs, including TCM curator Charles Tabesh after a press conference. Socially, the best aspect was trading thoughts with moviegoers from across the world.

Classic film fans might also be interested in new Western critiques of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) co-starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1946 version of The Virginian starring Joel McCrea, both screened at the Autry Museum of the American West.

As much as I enjoy seeing new movies, and I do, I must say that I appreciate the classics more on the larger screens and I think they get better with age. I was filled with a similar rush last year with the TCM-screened movies—film noir Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—and, afterwards, the same sense of motion picture withdrawal.

Good movies leave me wanting more.

Movie & DVD Review: On the Waterfront (1954)


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Redemption through testimony—an individual rising against the mob to exercise free speech and speak out—is the theme of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), which deserves its reputation as a great motion picture. The movie, starring Academy Award-winning Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in her Oscar-winning motion picture debut, is comparable in moral heft to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1962), throwing out radical ideas, questions and challenges for the audience that grant no quarter to half measures, pragmatism and grayness. Everyone should see this film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper articles, and take the test it offers in this wholly absorbing drama.

Beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s somber musical score, On the Waterfront starts with a particular turning point in the life of Terry Malloy (Brando) who has chosen to become “a bum”. Something stirs within this shell of a man, an embittered New Jersey dockworker, when an act of evil with which he is complicit is executed to its logical conclusion—an innocent man is murdered by a gang of criminals—and, as with the East German Communist in The Lives of Others (2006), the guilty seeks absolution.

This Catholic notion, delivered in a secular sense with Catholicism standing in for morality, is encouraged by a decent priest (Karl Malden), opposed by Terry’s brother (Rod Steiger) and assaulted by the mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry’s drive for moral cleansing is ignited, navigated and judged by the woman with whom he falls in love (Saint), a strong and innocent type.

Her name is Edie and she represents the good. The real villain in On the Waterfront is the public, the collective, the others. They—look for Pat Hingle, Nehemiah Persoff, Fred Gwynne, also Martin Balsam as a federal policeman—are the silent killers that sanction the rule of the mob. As Terry falls for Edie and learns how to love himself, really, it’s waterfront subculture, society at large, that governs and accepts or denies Terry’s redemption. The moral dilemma he faces is whether to submit to injustice or speak up and stand against the others.

This central conflict, dramatized throughout anti-Communist whistleblower Kazan’s pictures (Panic in the Streets, A Face in the Crowd, Gentleman’s Agreement, Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata!), is evident everywhere in On the Waterfront. Opposing ideas are peppered in anti-Communist whistleblower Budd Schulberg’s Oscar-winning screenplay: “Don’t say nothin’—keep quiet; you’ll live longer”—”You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions, unless you wanna wind up [dead]”—and, as Terry’s thug-tribalist brother puts it: “Don’t think about it—do it.”

On the Waterfront universalizes its narrowly defined setting with a physically brutal and exhaustive contest between reason and anti-reason. From an urge to “join the congregation” which in this case is a euphemism for submitting to rule by brute, tribal force to the priest’s pressing question “Who killed Joey?” as Brando’s Terry walks in, the mob’s blithely accepted ways and means come to fester in each part of the waterfront. The only consistent avenger besides Malden’s priest and Balsam’s lawman—who are both portrayed with deliberation as strictly limited in their effectiveness—is the initially murdered man’s sister, played by Saint, who is pivotal to grasping and granting Terry’s epic quest and request.

Saint’s Edie is intelligent, kind and able. Edie finds and sees the good in Terry—she is unafraid of the damaged and the dangerous—and she is like the deformed kitten she spares and adopts, willing to be different and stand out. When she first finds intimacy with the self-unmade boxer whom the audience later learns thinks he “coulda been a contender”, she welcomes him with total trust. Terry warns against Edie’s benevolence with the line that his philosophy of life is to do it to others before others do it to you. But Edie, a greedy young woman who insists that she wants “much, much, much more” than what’s offered by the Catholic Church, sees the man’s potential despite himself.

Kazan exploits their scenes beautifully, with pigeons fluttering and whistles blowing—and Malden’s Father Barry bracing Edie with the fact that life is hard and actions have impact—until Edie confronts with horror the truth of what’s been done and, finally, with blood spilling and death looming over the waterfront, Terry takes himself down to lift himself up, whatever consequences may come.

This is Terry’s story and Marlon Brando shines as the piece of meat torn between living for others and living for himself, if it’s not framed as such, using his feeble mind to move his muscle to really power up his mind for the first time—”It’s isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them”, someone says—inspired by an unconquered feminine idealist who dares to go against the conventions, notions and practices of the world in which she lives. When Edie tosses a drink back for the first time, to Terry it’s a dare to ditch his fake self and get right with himself.

Whether he does and what comes of it is what moves the movie’s action. On the Waterfront fully explores what it means to take, mold and re-shape one’s lesser self into a greater man (and what it means to love and have him). Elia Kazan, who by all accounts (including his own) lived by these themes, masterfully conveys and cashes in the everyday struggle to be one’s best—even if it means going up against the whole world—and coming out clean, honest and proud. Kazan’s On the Waterfront stands against the conformity that dominates mid-20th century America with a naturalistic snapshot of what one can do against the irrational. It is not as grand and operatic as audiences have been led to believe. On the Waterfront is small and intimate. Today, this great movie still inspires one to rise, fight and win.

The DVD 

A 12-minute conversation with Kazan is excellent. The one-hour documentary is also informative, though best viewed after seeing the movie. Other extras are also included in this edition.

Buy On the Waterfront

87th Oscars

220px-Oscar_statuetteThe 87th annual Oscars were another freakish mixture of preachy politics, vulgar humor and fading if lustrous glamour. It rained at Hollywood and Highland and the Academy Awards ceremony reflected the dreary fact with a master of ceremonies who made jokes at winners’ expense, including jokes about a filmmaker whose award for a crisis hotline movie was dedicated to her late suicidal son and a documentary about Edward Snowden, whom the host implied is guilty of “treason”. The host, deadpanning Neil Patrick Harris, also made several racist jokes, though these were told with an apparently deliberate attempt to induce guilt among white people, so it was expected to be acceptable.

The unearned guilt trip came on strong, too, in the Best Song category, which featured a rap song from the lackluster Selma by rapper Common and John Legend, who made political speeches when they won after a performance that all but repeated their routine at the Grammys. This after the white host chose an Academy Award-winning black actress, Octavia Spencer (Snowpiercer, Black or White) for a subservient role during the entire show, played for laughs, and mispronounced the name of the lead actor from last year’s Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. But the race-based humor and mistakes are all supposed to be forgiven and forgotten because the snide, pandering host kept admonishing the Academy for not nominating the mediocre Selma more often. Harris also mocked the Best Picture winner Birdman by coming out in his underpants in a new low, even for the Oscars.

Harris had started off the show with a good song and dance number honoring moving pictures, which was well performed with help from Jack Black, Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods) and visual effects that set the right tone with clever shadows that evoked Hollywood’s Golden Age. But left-wing politics quickly intruded once again as Best Supporting Actress winner Patricia Arquette told the audience of the world’s richest women, including powerful billionaire movie producer Oprah Winfrey (The Hundred-Foot Journey) that women aren’t paid enough and don’t have “equal rights”. The way these wealthy show business people preached, one would think that blacks and women don’t have rights in America.

Those who defend rights, soldiers and war veterans, went unmentioned on stage, though American Sniper producer and Best Actor nominee Bradley Cooper recognized them on the red carpet to his credit and so did a few others. Some Hollywood women were simply ignored like the war vets. Among those forgotten in the Academy Awards ceremony were comedienne and red carpet fashion commentator Joan Rivers, despite the inclusion of a film critic few remember and other questionable choices. Joan Rivers was not the only Republican left out of Oscar’s memorial segment; film noir actress Lizabeth Scott, who starred in 22 films, was also dismissed. While Ida won Best Foreign Movie, Whiplash won a few times and what I think is 2014’s best picture, American Sniper, won an Oscar, some of last year’s best movies were not nominated, including St. Vincent, Black or White and A Long Way Down.

Reminding everyone in the audience at Hollywood Boulevard’s Dolby Theatre, a block from Oscar’s first venue, The Roosevelt Hotel, and the billion people watching around the world what really matters fell to the evening’s oddest couple and most elegant, talented and glamorous pair: Julie Andrews and Lady Gaga, honoring a truly great, serious and musical motion picture, The Sound of Music (1965). This is a movie about ideas, family and uniting against evil by bonding based on what one loves.

In paying tribute to its 50th anniversary, Lady Gaga erased the previous segment’s unearned guilt and captivated the audience with a breathtaking display of ability with a beautiful medley of songs from the film. She commanded the hall in her superior voice singing tunes by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for a magnificent movie about escaping from total government control of one’s life, work and music. She was followed by a clearly moved Julie Andrews, who spoke with eloquence and reverence for Oscar’s winner for 1965’s Best Picture. Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews delivered a momentary glimpse of ability and glamour, which lasted no longer than a few minutes. Yet it offered an unforgettable contrast in what it means to achieve in one voice true movie musical glory.

Movie Review: Philomena

Philomena poster

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Philomena dramatizes an act of force caused by faith and ameliorated by an act of trade.

Throughout the picture, on many levels, two parties exchange values. The plot begins with a young, unwed couple having sex during a carnival. It moves to the young, unwed woman giving birth at an Irish convent, where she has been sent as a sinner. There, she is kept until, as most people reading this know, the child is given up for adoption. The woman, Philomena Lee, a real person portrayed here by the indomitable Judi Dench, seeks as an elderly woman to find her stolen son.

His name is Anthony. For most of Philomena’s adult life, all that’s known about him is what memories she gained during her brief time with her son at the convent before he was taken: Anthony clutching a toy airplane. Anthony with his playmate Mary. Anthony with the toy airplane again. A lifetime after he was adopted by an American couple, insatiable Philomena, seeking answers from the Catholic convent, wants to know about his life.

By all evidence, including an intelligent, adult daughter, Philomena has gone on to live a happy, rich life, working as a psychiatric nurse. But this only makes her want to take stock of her son’s life, what became of him, whether he thought about her as she thought about him, and other thoughts that any selfish parent would think. Through her daughter, she meets a cynical, pompous and pretentious journalist (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the script) who worked in left-wing politics and lost his reputation. He reluctantly hears her story out and accepts an assignment to write about Philomena’s search.

Together, these two sinners in politics and religion set out to find facts, lose, keep or have faith and, locate the man who was once a boy known as Anthony. In the end, what they find foremost are lessons from one another. Coogan’s obnoxious writer, Martin, earns self-respect. Philomena finds salvation. As they venture to the United States, relocating Mary (Mare Winningham) and various people connected to Philomena’s son, their trade – his ability to think for her capacity to believe – allows them to form a mutual bond like that of a mother and son. The messiness of three such despised and low, depraved institutions, politics, the press and religion, intervenes. Through it all, Philomena and her researcher-reporter sort the issues in what amounts to an honest, enveloping search for meaning in life.

Yes, Philomena is that serious and that enjoyable. They travel here and there from London to Washington, DC, exploring belief, gossip, doubt, sex, love and life, circling back to their own innermost insecurities and powerful realizations about their shared, fundamental flaw: self-denial. This is a very Catholic idea and this is a very un-Catholic movie, a fact which Catholics I know seem to sense about Philomena sight unseen. But Philomena, made by the Weinstein Company, is not an anti-Catholic picture. To a certain degree, it holds back on judging the evil done to mother and child, a subtle but serious flaw but more about that later.

The pairings – mother and son, church and parishioner, avenged and avenger – continuously and brilliantly loop until the movie comes to America in earnest and goes far and wide, expanding and opening into bright colors, outdoor spaces and glorious discoveries. Philomena in exploring life and one’s fitness for life finds the holy grail: the United States of America. This sacred ground is worshipped here, with reverence for our philosophical forefathers Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and all things American, including the most frivolous joys such as comedy in motion pictures. In America, Philomena searching for her son is enlightened, ennobled and uplifted and finally rejuvenated – and not without wry observations and real pain and rejection – and, intentionally or not, Philomena recognizes the U.S. for its highest achievement: the country founded on the selfish pursuit of one’s happiness and the liberty to live as one chooses.

Without giving away the plot, this is what Philomena discovers about her son. She answers her own central, driving question about her fitness for motherhood and finds and deposits the values she gains from the trade with Martin. All is bittersweet, and unbearable, unlikeable Martin, too, is finally and rightly put in his place. For its part, the Catholic Church gets off easy and this prevents Philomena from achieving greatness. By controversially taking license with the real facts and singling out one nun, the film’s evil Hildegard, whose morality is fundamentally Christian, Philomena turns the other cheek on the Church’s complicity in the injustice done to Philomena Lee. The true story is undeniably much worse than what is depicted in this film; the magnitude of widespread, institutional conspiracy to do evil to fellow men and women is enormous even on Philomena’s terms. To telescope, composite and apparently fictionalize the abbey’s acts of faith and force to one nun minimizes the pure evil done there. What the Church did to this woman is an atrocity. Pinning it on Sister Hildegard lets the Catholic Church off the hook.

Nevertheless, director Stephen Frears has created what amounts to the third piece of a trilogy in movies depicting deep, interesting women of our times. His Mrs. Henderson Presents also gave us Judi Dench bucking tradition in wartime London as a widow and mother in mourning who dared to bring pleasure to the men who fought for England. His film The Queen did right by a strong British woman who is also the queen of England remaking tradition for the good. His treasure Philomena, flawlessly scored by Alexandre Desplat, delivers the tale of an ordinary Irishwoman who goes against the Catholic Church, tradition and, moreover, the looming darkness of modern civilization, for her own knowledge, enlightenment and happiness. With Judi Dench, as she did as a grandmother in Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat, layering scene after scene of a person falling in love with life all over again, Mr. Frears’ Philomena is a triumph.