Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: A Review



THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI

Let's put this out there: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not, repeat, NOT scary in the traditional sense, particularly I figure for today's audiences, who consider something like Insidious or any Paranormal Activity the height of horror.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, however, extremely atmospheric, and a touch frightening in how it creates this mad world of somnambulists and generally crazed people.

Told primarily in flashback, our narrator, Francis (Friedrich Fehere) tells of how his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) became a virtual white zombie.  She, Francis, and their mutual friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) had a solid group, despite the fact both were in love with Jane.  At a fair, Alan and Francis go see a new act, that of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss).  It is to control his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt).  Alan asks how long with he live, and Cesare's answer is chilling: he has until dawn.

True to his word, Alan is found dead the next day, stabbed to death.  Are Cesare and Caligari holders of supernatural powers, or is there something more sinister, more 'insidious' at play? Francis and Jane investigate, and the investigation takes a shocking turn when Cesare abducts Jane and races through the village, chased by a mob.  Cesare dies as a result of shock, apparently, but Dr. Caligari has run off to the safety of an insane asylum.

Going in, Francis asks to speak to the director...who turns out to be Caligari himself!  We learn the backstory to this insanity.  Apparently the good Herr Doctor has been delving into the occult practices of a previous Dr. Caligari and had become obsessed with controlling people's minds, to see if he could get those under his control to go against their own morality and do his evil bidding.  The hospital staff and Francis manage to capture the mad Dr. Caligari.  With that, Francis ends his tale of deranged wickedness.

Then...we go into the asylum, and find that Francis, far from being the hero, may in fact be bonkers himself, for he IS a patient at the asylum.  Furthermore, his fiancée Jane appears not to know him, but claims herself a queen, and Cesare is very much alive, wandering about.  Alan sees the hospital director, who is the same 'Caligari' and goes after him, thinking him the mad scientist.  Restrained in the straight-jacket, the doctor is ready to treat him...but is it the rational asylum director, or Dr. Caligari himself?


When people think 'German Expressionism', they may subconsciously be thinking about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The entire film is not meant to be 'realistic' in any way.  IF you go into the film thinking that it would be like any other silent film (or film in general), be warned of a rude awakening.  The sets in particular, with the off-kilter angles and obviously unrealistic paint make The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari like a fever dream, something that calls to the subconscious, the unreal, the hallucinatory, the surreal.  Expressionism is the perfect term, for we get the ideas that this is a fantasy and fantastical world.

The real genius though is in the script, for the film never lets us know what is real and what isn't.  For the longest time, we took for granted that Alan's tale of a mad scientist and his bewitched minion was true, but we then get that shocking twist.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari so brilliantly twisted our expectations, our sense of what is true and not true.  Even when we get to the end, we still do not know what is the truth and what isn't.  Was Francis' strange tale the truth?  The ramblings of an insane man?  The ramblings of someone warning on the dangers of those in command?

Much has been made about how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may have been prescient on the rise of a totalitarian leader like Hitler, an allegory before the fact of how the leaders, those in authority, are creating a madhouse of murder and mayhem.  If people read that into the film, that works.  I don't see a direct correlation but I won't dismiss it either.



It a bit difficult to judge performances in a silent film because they require a certain level of unreality that now comes across as wildly exaggerated.  However, Krauss and the 'mad doctor' and Veidt as the possessed figure are excellent, bringing the appropriate chills to this bizarre tale.  They are both appropriately creepy.

It seems that every year at the Plaza Classic Film Festival I end up watching a silent film.  Each year, I find that said silent film is absolutely brilliant (Metropolis, Sunrise).  I'm pleased to say that with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, their record remains intact.           

DECISION: A+

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Him Whom Oscar Slaps...

Glenda Jackson:
Best Actress for
Women in Love


TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1970

The 43rd Academy Awards had a score of controversy thanks to curmudgeonly George C. Scott.  Scott had denounced the Academy Awards ever since he lost in his first nomination for Supporting Actor in Anatomy of a Murder.  Nominated the next year for The Hustler, he firmly refused the nomination but no worries: he lost.  Now, with his titanic performance in Patton, it was all but certain he'd win.  Yet, stubborn as always, he again flatly refused the nomination, deriding the whole thing as a "GD meat parade".  Despite this, Scott was voted the Best Actor by the Academy, refusal or no refusal.  If memory serves correct, the Oscar that Scott rejected still sits, uncollected, at the Academy archives.

It seems almost fitting that Scott would reject his Oscar.  He metaphorically slapped the Academy the same way General Patton slapped the shell-shocked soldier, a moment so scandalous that the U.S. was in an uproar when they heard about it, and the once-beloved war hero was forever tainted by this one act.

One person who wasn't going to slap Oscar was Helen Hayes, who became the first person to win Lead and Supporting Actress Oscars for her role in Airport

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1970 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS   

BEST ORIGINAL SONG


Whistling Awa the Dark: Darling Lili
For All We Know: Lovers and Other Strangers
Till Love Touches Your Life: Madron
Pieces of Dreams: Pieces of Dreams
Thank You Very Much: Scrooge

Are they serious?  Till Love Touches Your LifePieces of Dreams?  Why do I get the sense that while music was being radically altered in the late 1960s to early 70s, the Academy held firm in rewarding the squarest choices possible?  Not that For All We Know is some giant step forward: when The Carpenters are the ones singing, you can't say you're particularly avant-garde (and I do like The Carpenters myself).  Still, out of all the nominees For All We Know is a memorable song that people know (though they might not know that it came from a movie).  Out of all the nominees, Thank You Very Much is the only one that is actually worth anything, but I have to ultimately go for the one we can hum along to. 

Despite that, I'm selecting the more adventurous song from the wildest film few people have seen.



Ev'ryone Wants to Be A Cat: The Aristocats
Whistling Away the Dark: Darling Lili
For All We Know: Lovers and Other Strangers
Come and Get It: The Magic Christian
Thank You Very Much: Scrooge

From The Magic Christian, Come and Get It, music and lyrics by Paul McCartney.

The Magic Christian, if memory serves correct, was about how people can be bought rather quickly and easily.  It has Yul Brynner singing Mad About the Boy...in drag! to Roman Polanski!  and Laurence Harvey reciting Hamlet's To Be or Not to Be soliloquy as he strips.  For All We Know...it's a pretty insane film, and the purpose of it all escapes me.  However, while not the best song I've heard, at least it's a damn sight better known than Pieces of Dreams or Till Love Touches Your Life.

BEST DIRECTOR

Robert Altman: M*A*S*H
Federico Fellini: Satyricon
Arthur Hill: Love Story
Ken Russell: Women in Love
Franklin L. Schaffner: Patton

I have no objection to Schaffner's win for the epic Patton.  It was never boring and moved quickly as we covered one aspect of the titanic General's life.  Having said that, I am leaning toward Altman's own war film, where unlike Schaffner's take with war being this grand thing, it was actually something of a dark comedy.  M*A*S*H is now one of the best-remembered war (or anti-war) films, less about Korea than it was about Vietnam. 

Robert Altman: M*A*S*H
William Friedkin: The Boys in the Band
Bob Rafelson: Five Easy Pieces
Franklin L. Schaffner: Patton
George Seaton: Airport

I'm not going to bat for my choice of Rafelson, but I get the sense that he should have been nominated (particularly over the insipid Love Story, which has nothing to recommend it apart from its score).  Seaton gets points for keeping so many stories going together, and Friedkin for just bringing up homosexuality in a film without being opaque on the subject.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Karen Black: Five Easy Pieces
Lee Grant: The Landlord
Helen Hayes: Airport
Sally Kellerman: M*A*S*H
Maureen Stapleton: Airport

A rarity in Oscar history: two actress nominated for the same film don't end up cancelling each other out.  It was thirty-eight years between Oscars for The First Lady of the American Theater as Helen Hayes' cutesy stowaway beat out her costar Stapleton.  If memory serves right, her character was spoofed in Airplane!, but I cannot be sure.  One thing I am sure is that Kellerman's Hot Lips Houlihan is still remembered, which is one reason I'm going with Kellerman.



Karen Black: Five Easy Pieces
Lee Grant: The Landlord
Helen Hayes: Airport
Kim Hunter: Beneath Planet of the Apes
Sally Kellerman: M*A*S*H

So far, again, I see nothing to shift my original choice.    

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Richard S. Castellano: Lovers and Other Strangers
Chief Dan George: Little Big Man
Gene Hackman: I Never Sang for My Father
John Marley: Love Story
John Mills: Ryan's Daughter

It's no surprise John Mills won. "Illness always wins", and what better way to show it than by playing mute?  Ryan's Daughter isn't held in particular esteem if I understand it, a kind of weak David Lean as his career peters out.  Maybe Chief Dan George is better, and maybe my unabashed love for Gene Hackman blinds me.  This is the rare time when I'm willing to say I am playing favorites, but come on...GENE HACKMAN! 



Richard S. Castellano: Lovers and Other Strangers
Robert Duvall: M*A*S*H
Maurice Evans: Beneath Planet of the Apes
Cliff Gorman: The Boys in the Band
Gene Hackman: I Never Sang for My Father

Despite that, for the moment I'm going to lean towards Duvall's pompous and perhaps crazed Major Burns. Duvall has a way with officials who are slightly off-kilter.  He is also one of the best actors still working today.  Just like I advocate for a Kennedy Center Honor for Gene Hackman, I advocate one for Robert Duvall.  

BEST ACTRESS



Jane Alexander: The Great White Hope
Glenda Jackson: Women in Love
Ali McGraw: Love Story
Sarah Miles: Ryan's Daughter
Carrie Snodgress: Diary of a Mad Housewife

The only things I know about Glenda Jackson is that she's British and is a hardline-leftist Member of Parliament.  The fact that she's British I figure helped in her winning the Oscar, as so many in the Academy are convinced a native British accent equals great acting (Example Number 1: Eddie Redmayne).  For right now, I can dismiss McGraw's "love means never having to say you're sorry" performance (and for the record, love means ALWAYS having to say you're sorry).  I am leaning toward Snodgress' troubled woman in Diary of a Mad Housewife but again, not a final decision.



Jane Alexander: The Great White Hope
Sandy Dennis: The Out-of-Towners
Glenda Jackson: Women in Love
Sarah Miles: Ryan's Daughter
Carrie Snodgress: Diary of a Mad Housewife

Again, I'm sticking with Snodgress for now.  I get the sense that Miles must have been like Ryan's Daughter...a bit dull. Is Snodgress' housewife mad as in crazy or mad as in angry?  I think she has reason to be both.

BEST ACTOR




Melvyn Douglas: I Never Sang for My Father
James Earl Jones: The Great White Hope
Jack Nicholson: Five Easy Pieces
Ryan O'Neal: Love Story
George C. Scott: Patton

The fact we have to acknowledge that Ryan O'Neal is an Oscar-nominated actor tells us that the Academy may not be the best judge of good performances.

Douglas, Jones, and Nicholson would each I figure have won in any other year, but Scott WAS Patton in few ways actors have embodied a character.  Yes, he may have turned the Oscar down, but that doesn't take away from the committed, almost unhinged general who was devout and deranged, who loved war and made no apologies for it.



Albert Finney: Scrooge
James Earl Jones: The Great White Hope
Jack Nicholson: Five Easy Pieces
Donald Sutherland: M*A*S*H
George C. Scott: Patton

To many, when people think of George S. Patton, they are picturing George C. Scott.  Scott's performance is wrong in at least one fashion: the real General Patton's voice was more patrician, not this gruff, violent guttural sound Scott gave the slap-happy war lord.  Still, we shouldn't look to films for accurate history.  Scott's portrayal of this complex figure: brilliant, arrogant, who could quote Scripture with sincerity yet also believe in reincarnation makes it one for the ages. 

BEST PICTURE



Airport
Five Easy Pieces
Love Story
M*A*S*H
Patton

Patton is a brilliant film, yet at the same time such a product of its time.  We were in the final stages of Vietnam, a war that divided American (and still does) and which were on the verge of losing.  Yet here is Patton, madly cheering on the idea that "Americans have never lost AND WILL NEVER LOSE a war".  To some in 1970, Patton was a pro-American, pro-war film: one that reminded us of who we really were, fighters, unafraid, determined to stomp out all opposition to achieve victory.  To others in 1970, Patton was an anti-American, anti-war film: one that showed the arrogance and folly of following war-and-blood crazed old men into battle, getting us lost in antiquated ideas of what makes men "men" and the destruction unchecked war lords could unleash.

Patton works however you interpreted it: as a cheer or jeer to America.  That is one of the reasons it is such a brilliant film: it is open to interpretation.  I'm sure to the older generation who saw Patton, who lived through the Second World War, it was a reminder of what made America great: tenacity, grit, courage, determination.  I'm sure to the younger generation who saw Patton, who were living through the Vietnam War, it was a reminder of what made America terrible to them: arrogance, stubbornness, ignorance, a lack of compassion.

Despite the greatness of M*A*S*H, another Vietnam film in all but name, I name Patton the Best Film of 1969.  



Airport
Five Easy Pieces
The Great White Hope
M*A*S*H
Patton

Again, Patton can be interpreted in any way: pro-or-anti America, pro-or-anti war, pro-or-anti Vietnam.  Divorced from whatever interpretation you want to give it, Patton as a film works exceptionally well as a biopic and as an entertaining film.

As such, I name Patton the Best Picture of 1969.

Next Time, the 1971 Academy Awards. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Cruel Intentions: A Review


CRUEL INTENTIONS

After watching the excellent Dangerous Liaisons, I was curious about the 'hip' version, one that exchanges those ancient regime frocks for Gucci.  Cruel Intentions is not a bad film.  It can be quite entertaining, even if it doesn't hit the same levels as its predecessor in terms of well, anything.  I figure that Cruel Intentions serves as a nice, albeit inferior, introduction to this sordid story of seduction and true love, but if it entertains, I cannot fault it for that.

Stepsiblings Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) are a pair of sexually ravenous beings.  It helps that their parents (for whom they have contempt for) are away on holiday.  Kathryn asks a favor of Sebastian: seduce Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair), her naïve rival whom her ex-boyfriend dumped her for.  Sebastian finds such a request boring, for he has his eyes on a bigger prize.  It is Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), the new headmaster's daughter who penned a magazine article about remaining a virgin until marriage.  to successfully seduce a woman who proclaims the virtue of chastity would be his greatest conquest.

Kathryn scoffs that even the talents of Sebastian can best the virtuous Annette and offers a wager: if he fails she gets his prized car, but if he succeeds, he gets the bed Kathryn.  The bet is on.

As it happens, Annette is staying with Sebastian's Aunt Helen Rosemond (Louise Fletcher), and he begins working on charming Annette.  Annette, however, has been warned against Sebastian, and he is eager to find out who has squealed on him.  For that, he gets his openly gay friend Blaine (Joshua Jackson) to pump the information out of the only person Annette knows prior to her move to New York City, the closeted football star Greg (Eric Mabius), whom has made booty calls on Blaine.  A little blackmail later, Greg tells Sebastian that Annette's source is none other than Mrs. Caldwell (Christine Baranski), Cecile's mother.  Enraged, he agrees to help Kathryn ruin the dimwitted Cecile's reputation.

Kathryn hadn't been wasting time waiting for Sebastian, however.  She has been working to get Cecile to hook up with Ronald (Sean Patrick Thomas), her cello instructor.  It hasn't been easy given how clueless Cecile is, but soon love letters are exchanged between them.  Kathryn reveals the letters to Mrs. Caldwell, who promptly expels the black man from her house, then Kathryn and Sebastian offer to serve as intermediaries between the lovers.  Of course, this is the chance for Sebastian to deflower Cecile and for Kathryn to say it is a good way to train for Robert.

Meanwhile, a genuine friendship emerges between Sebastian and Annette, who begins to see Sebastian in a new light (no doubt helped by Greg being forced to feed her wrong information about him).  Sebastian launches a tirade against Annette, accusing her of hypocrisy: she tells people to wait for true love, then when true love comes, she denies it.  Annette then offers herself to Sebastian, but in a twist he is the one who declines sex. Sebastian has done what he has never done with anyone: he has fallen in love.

Annette leaves and Kathryn gloats about her 'victory', but by now Sebastian, too much in love to care, follows Annette, and they make love.  After this, when Kathryn offers herself as he has won the bet, something in Sebastian cannot bring himself to do so.  An enraged Kathryn threatens to ruin his reputation, and in a panic Sebastian ends his romance with a devastated Annette.

Sebastian comes calling back to Kathryn, but finds he's been duped and won't get his time in her bed.  She's also managed to seduce Ronald and fools him into thinking Sebastian raped and beat her.  Sebastian wanders about, begging to see Annette, who won't but who does accept the journal he's been keeping, one that details everything that has gone on...as well as the fact that he has indeed fallen in love and in a sense made love for the first time as opposed to just have sex.

Robert confronts Sebastian about the alleged abuse, and Annette comes across them both.  In the ensuing fight Annette is tossed into the street and nearly run down, but Sebastian pushes her out of the way and takes the full impact of the hit.  As he lays dying he confesses that Annette is the only woman he has ever truly loved and begs her forgiveness.  At his funeral, Kathryn continues her deceptions, until her classmates start handing out copies of Sebastian's secret journal...copies made by a more mature Cecile.  Kathryn's web of evil is exposed, and Annette drives off with the journal, named "Cruel Intentions", headed off to a new life somewhere.



As Cruel Intentions is geared toward teens, we had to make a few changes from the original French novel.  We had to introduce homosexuality, dry humping, and clueless parents.  You add a touch of racism among the elite world our characters live in, and what you have is good trashy fun.

I'm not going to advocate that Cruel Intentions is anywhere near the same league as Dangerous Liaisons, but in fairness the film has some good moments.  They are courtesy of the two best performances in Cruel Intentions: Selma Blair and Reese Witherspoon.  Blair made Cecile believable in her idiocy without being completely idiotic, more a naïve, unaware girl easily duped by everyone around her.  That makes her final scene, where she says nothing but gives Gellar a smirk that shows she has matured, all the more amusing.

Witherspoon is also strong  in the film, and it is possible to see how she is a sincere girl who could eventually fall for the philandering Sebastian, her virtue used against her.  She and Blair made me think that Annette and Cecile could be real (especially given since I've met people like them in real life).

I can't say the same with regards to Gellar and Phillippe.  I think Gellar relished the chance to play wicked to the core.  Whether she succeeded in mastering that 'bitch virtuosity' (to use the term Joseph L. Mankiewicz used to describe Eve Harrington in All About Eve) is a subject of debate.  I think Gellar was a little overt in her "look at me I'm being EVIL" bit, but there is something deliciously wicked in her performance, a touch camp without being wild about it.  In regards to Phillippe, I have never been convinced he's a particularly good actor, and I could never shake the idea that he was attempting to channel some of Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. 

He wasn't particularly good in Cruel Intentions, but he's generally not that good in much, so I'm not going to belabor that point.

I do have some issues with Cruel Intentions.  First, one of the actors, Eric Mabius, who as the closeted jock Greg was cruelly miscast.  At 28, he was one of the oldest of the 'teens', and he looks far too old to be believable as a teenager.  Even stranger is that he is actually one year younger than Sean Patrick Thomas and a year older than Selma Blair, yet they didn't look as old to play teens as he did.  Every time I saw Mabius, I kept thinking 'he looks like he's a college senior, not a high school one', and it was pretty distracting.

Another part that didn't quite work was Greg's story.  His boy-toy Blaine was quickly introduced (with Jackson pretty much playing fey to let us know his character was gay) and then quickly disappears, never to be heard from again.  I don't know why Blaine was there (apart from being a plot device). As for Greg's last scene, he is seen tossing some CDs in a pique of frustration, going through each one.  As he goes through them, he comes across a Judy Garland CD and says to himself, "Judy...no, keep her", and whether it was meant to be funny or not to play up a gay stereotype I don't know.

Come to think of it, do teenagers today know that old stereotype of gay men's fascination with Garland?  Maybe if it had been Cher or Britney (if the latter were popular in 1999, I have no way of knowing).

It's also a bit of a shame that veteran actresses like Fletcher, Baranski, and Kurtz (the only Dangerous Liaisons star to appear in Cruel Intentions in a cameo as Sebastian's therapist who ends up humiliated by Sebastian) had little to do.  I won't begrudge that much since this is purely a teen (or teen-ish) show, and at least Baranski had some fun with Mrs. Caldwell's posh racism ("He so...black", she says astonished when Kathryn reveals Robert and Cecile's 'dangerous liaison', making it amusing).  She was better than Kurtz, who was awful in her one scene, either oozing insincerity or not caring a bit for the film and trying to just get through it.  Maybe her character was suppose to be thoroughly insincere, so I'll cut her some slack.

One thing I think Cruel Intentions is known for is its soundtrack, particularly the closing theme, Bitter Sweet Symphony, which works in a way.  It's not a bad soundtrack, though at times the film may be a bit more interested in what song to put in than in what is in the film itself.

On the whole I can see why Cruel Intentions is a bit of a cult film.  It has entertaining performances (good and bad) and it kept my interest.   As a diversion, it worked well, and every once in a while you need to have a bit of a romp.  Cruel Intentions is nothing more than a delectable, frothy film about the wickedness of sexual games among the elite teens of America, and I'm not going to bash it for doing what it set out to do. 
 
DECISION: C+

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Ben-Hur, Done That. Ben-Hur (2016): A Review



BEN-HUR (2016)

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!

It is a dangerous thing when you remake a film that is not only beloved, but considered among the greatest films ever made.  It is no good pointing out that the 1959 version of Ben-Hur is a remake.  I know that it is, but let's point out also that the original is a silent movie (a great silent movie).  Therefore, sadly it isn't as well-known as the Charlton Heston version.  As such, when people complain about others remaking 'the original', they do not know about the silent version.  I'm not going to be all picky about the lack of knowledge of the 1925 version (or for that matter, about the 2003 animated version or 2010 television miniseries).  None of these versions have so dominated the popular imagination as the Charlton Heston version, so trying to sound clever by drawing attention to the fact that this "tale of the Christ" has been done many times is foolish. For many, the 1959 version is THE Ben-Hur, and I'm not about to be legalistic on that subject.

Yet, I digress.

Ben-Hur makes some simply disastrous choices in terms of structure, plot, action, and characters that consistently bring the film down, down, down.

It is 33 A.D. in Judea.  A chariot race is about to begin between two men who know each other and hate each other...then we go back eight years to when these two knew, even loved each other.  They are Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted brother, a Roman named Messala (Toby Kebbell). Messala feels out of place among the wealthy and influential Hur family: while he has his eyes on his adopted sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia), mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) does not approve.  In fact, she doesn't apparently approve anything Messala does (like pray to idols for Judah's recovery...begging the question as to why the Hurs never took Messala to Hebrew school).

Messala feels out of place within the wealth and joy of the Jewish family that took him in, so he goes off to claim his birthright and join the Roman army, where he goes to fight in Germania and Persia, all for Caesar and to reclaim his family name, one tainted by his grandfather's involvement in Julius Caesar's assassination.  Judah, meanwhile, despite himself goes and marries the woman he loves: one of his slaves, the beautiful Esther (Nazanin Boniadi).  He also has to deal with the rise of the Zealots who want a free Jewish state and some verse-spouting carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro).  

Now Messala comes back to Jerusalem as a commander, the protégé of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), the new governor of Judea.  Some in Messala's company think he's too 'Jewish' for them, too willing to be gentle with these conquered people.  Judah for his part wants nothing to do with the Zealots, even after Esther helps them and he himself treats their injuries.  It all comes to a head when Messala leads Pilate through the streets.  He wants a peaceful march for everyone's safety, and it looks like he'll get his wish.  However, Gestas (Moises Arias), the Zealot that Judah had treated for his wounds and whom he tried to convince to avoid violence, decides the rooftop of the Hur palace is the perfect spot from which to assassinate Pontius Pilate.

No weak falling tiles for the Millennials' Ben-Hur!

Messala and his men storm the palace, and Judah decides to 'confess' to the assassination rather than turn Gestas in.  Esther manages to escape, and the Hur women are sent to prison...and Judah to the galleys.

We go to 5 years later (I really don't want to do the math here in these flashbacks/forwards).  Judah is a slave galley when a battle frees him and he washes upon the shore where he encounters Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman).  Ilderim is wary of this Jewish slave, but after Judah cures his horses he agrees to keep him from the Romans.  Ilderim does one better: take Judah to Jerusalem to race against the master Roman charioteer, one Messala.  Sensing his chance for revenge and to avenge his family (whom everyone believes dead), Judah takes a couple of lessons from Ilderim and is capable of taking his brother on in a race to the death. 

He's also found Esther, who is a follower of the Nazarene, and who urges Judah to not seek his revenge.  Nothing doing, for he tries to kill Messala and fails.  It's now in the race where Judah must find his own justice against Messala, and while he wins the race, Messala is still stubbornly alive.  It is only when Judah goes to the Crucifixion that he sees the need for forgiveness, and goes to a legless Messala to give and offer forgiveness.  Good thing too, for Naomi and Tirzah, imprisoned all these years, are cured of their leprosy and are out of prison just in time for everyone to be reunited, feel good about it, and go off...perhaps for more adventures.

Who here is up for Ben-Hur 2: Damascus Road?



I wish I were a good enough critic to say I can completely avoid knowing what Ben-Hur 2016 cut out or altered from all other versions of the story.  I can't: Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley's screenplay changed so much within Ben-Hur that one sometimes wonders whether in their efforts to stand out, they ended up dumbing down the story.

They for example decided to cut out two important characters found in the novel and subsequent adaptations.  They are Balthazar, one of the Magi who connected Judah with both Ilderim and Christ, and Quintus Arrius, the Roman commander who survives the sea battle thanks to Judah and ends up adopting him.  Perhaps they thought it would simplify the story.  Perhaps they couldn't do to legal reasons (I understand that while the General Lew Wallace novel is in public domain, certain aspects of the 1959 adaptation are still fiercely under copyright protection).  In any case doing this ends up making things more silly than simple.

Quintus Arrius was the entryway for Judah Ben-Hur to be the master charioteer that could challenge his former friend (friend, I repeat) in the race.  It gave him the wealth and power and protection that otherwise would not be afforded a galley slave.  Now, thanks to Clarke and Ridley, the task of preparing Judah for his epic chariot battle is left up to Ilderim.  This results in the highly implausible, if not downright ridiculous idea that in a few quick lessons, a man who had been hunched over an oar for five years and was apparently still adjusting to life in the free air could match someone who had been racing chariots for years if not decades....and best him at it.

Talk about beginner's luck!

By removing Balthazar, the subplot of how Christ interacts with Judah is also excised, and we get a couple of other problems.  First, why and how did Naomi and Tirzah (who had been locked up all these years and gotten leprosy for their troubles) end up being cured?  They did not know Christ at all.  Judah had at most two encounters with Him, so where did Judah's faith in Christ come from?  He wasn't at the Sermon on the Mount, or seen any of His miracles, so it all seems to come out of nowhere.

Judah Ben-Hur has neither asked for or sought Christ's atonement for his sins (let alone had his family or the pagan Messala), so how did God in human form grant it (along with healing of a disease that didn't have anything to do with the story)?

It isn't just in the jumbled story where Ben-Hur flops.  Ben-Hur commits one of those cinema sins that I sorely detest: the voice-over.  Longtime readers know how much I detest voice-over, finding that it rarely works (Blade Runner and Sunset Boulevard being rare examples of good voice-overs).  Ben-Hur not only has voice-over, it has THREE voice overs (Freeman's Ilderim, Huston's Judah, and Kebbell's Messala).  I simply loath whenever a film has to narrate what I'm watching, as if I wouldn't understand what's going on.  Having three of them do it is just insulting.

I consistently thought while watching Ben-Hur that it was a terrible decision on the part of Clarke, Ridley, and director Timur Bekmambetov to try and make Messala a sympathetic character.  Again and again the film seemed to think the title should have been Messala instead of Ben-Hur thanks to how he was given legitimate grievances for being so hostile towards his adoptive family.   As my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. observed to me after we left, Naomi Ben-Hur was 'kind of a bitch' to Messala: constantly belittling and berating him for everything from racing with Judah to looking at Tirzah to worshipping Roman idols.  It's as if he wasn't actually adopted or even part of the Hur household for years, but was more a pesky guest who couldn't take the hint that he was starting to grate on the mistress of the house.

There was never a believable moment when I thought Messala was in any way part of the Hur family.  One would have thought that despite being born a Roman the Hurs would have made him aware of Jewish customs, traditions, and beliefs.  Why would they simultaneously keep Messala a Roman and complain whenever he does what a Roman would do?

Another part of the plot I couldn't figure was why Judah opted to shield Gestas at the cost of his and his family's fortune and safety.  If I had been in Judah's position, I would have said, "THERE'S the man...get him!" 

If we go into the performances, Ben-Hur is a failure.  I don't remember Jack Huston from American Hustle or Hail, Caesar!, and the only film I do remember him from is Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. As such, he is a fresh face to me, and for the life of me I don't understand what Huston or his director were going for.  Huston growls every line, as if he had been asked to do a Russell Crowe impersonation, delivering every bit of dialogue in the same tone, whether he was happy or sad or angry or what have you. 

I don't know whether it's a good thing or not that Kebbell's best performance was as the villainous ape in Dawn of Planet of the Apes (though given he was in the Ian Curtis biopic Control, I'd have to see that again).  With this and Fantastic Four, Kebbell is sinking in my opinion of him as an actor.  He was absolutely dreadful whenever he had some sort of romantic scene with Tirzah, falling into the Huston trap of being weak and emotionless throughout.

Perhaps I can cut both of them some slack given how poorly directed they were and the poor script they had to perform, but a good actor can almost always lift his/her script.  Huston and Kebbell couldn't. 

When someone after the attack on Pilate shouted, "Who shot the arrow?", it took all within me to not shout at the screen, "I, said the Sparrow!"

Freeman has the 'wise elder' part down pat, but his Ilderim was more an instrument to move plot forward than a real figure.  I also add that having Christ speak and be seen is another mistake, especially given that Santoro might as well have come from The Passion of the Christ: English-Language Version.  This Christ comes across as just some nice guy who talks about love, not the Lord & Savior so many believe Jesus to be.

As a side note, while Ben-Hur has been apparently marketed towards the 'faith' market (aka evangelical Christians), I can say that AS an evangelical Christian myself, I found little in Ben-Hur to affirm my faith or in the power of such things as forgiveness.



Let us now move on to the main action pieces: the sea battle and the chariot race (which the film shamelessly teases twice if not more, as if begging us to stay just so that we could get to it in the end).  In regards to the former, the decision to keep it all within Judah's perspective (in the galley) was yet another lost opportunity.  If I am going to get a sea battle, I want to see a sea battle (even if we have to cut away from the slaves' perspective).  By keeping things at Judah's eye-level, we end up being removed from the chaos and excitement of what is going on.  It's akin to hearing a boxing match from across a room while others get to watch it live.

In regards to the latter, there are a couple of moments of good tension, but for the most part the reliance on CGI and chaotic editing (not to mention the perpetually grungy look the film has, so dominated by dark tones) makes it less exciting than it could have been. It was disjointed, confused, CGI-heavy, and worst, boring.  Belting out Marco Beltrami's score during the race was bad enough (I don't need music to telegraph to me whether something is exciting or not).  Ending the film with some sort of love song (The Only Way Out by Andra Day) puts a coda on the jumble the film is.

Sure, the song's nice, and Day is a fantastic singer, but The Only Way Out seems so at odds with both the setting and anything connected with Ben-Hur.  I think maybe The Only Way Out could be Ben-Hur's only real shot at an Oscar nomination (versus the twelve the 1959 version earned, winning a record-setting eleven Academy Awards).

2016 seems to be The Year of the Remake: Ghostbusters, The Jungle Book, Pete's Dragon, the upcoming Beauty & The BeastThe Magnificent Seven, and with remakes of Witness For the Prosecution, Splash, A Star is Born, Murder on the Orient Express, and Clue in the works.  Ben-Hur joins that list, and it's a shame that something good could have come, something original that added to the oft-told tale while not taking away from the best-known version.

Cluttered with a bad script, poor direction, weak performances and no sense of purpose, this Ben-Hur keeps going in circles and circles and circles. 

DECISION: D-

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Death of Supergirl?

 
El-All Air


 
I am neither a Supergirl super-fan or a Supergirl hater.  I enjoyed the episodes that I saw, though throughout the first season there was a constant shadow falling over Supergirl that no matter how hard CBS tried to shake, it simply couldn't.
 
That shadow is known as Superman, Supergirl's Kryptonian cousin.
 
Through most of Supergirl Season One, the Man of Steel was incessantly referenced and name-checked.  The show went out of its way to mention him without actually mentioning him.  In a certain way, it was almost comical how Superman became "He Who Shall Not Be Named".  Most of the time it was a variation of "my cousin", but sometimes it was "the Big Guy", "The Guy in Blue", or maybe even "You Know Who". 

Now, I'll grant you that I have not finished watching Supergirl Season One so I am speculating a bit, but I always understood that Supergirl was going to be her own entity, a figure apart from her more famous relative.  As far as I gathered, Superman was not going to be a part of Supergirl.  Well, perhaps in the future he could be a guest star, but Supergirl was, if memory serves right, suppose to be The Girl (or Woman) of Steel, someone who would function both as well as and distinctly apart from Superman.

Reality, however, soon sat in.



Supergirl got raves (and again, I liked the episodes I had seen), but ratings weren't the greatest.  Try as she might, Supergirl was floundering.  Part of it might have been that CBS was, as some have suggested, the wrong venue: its audience still looking for Murder She Wrote on Sunday nights.  Thus, with a guest appearance by The Flash to help it along (already a sign that the show was not building up its own strength), Supergirl was relegated from the Major Network of CBS to the minor leagues of The CW. 

Part of the problem might have been from how the story was evolving.  I was beginning to worry that the show was slipping into a 'freak-of-the-week' serial, where Supergirl would meet up with a baddie (either from the comic books or a new one) and defeat him/her by hour's end.  That in itself isn't a death knell: for most of Smallville Season One, that was an issue (and a reason I stopped watching). However, Smallville went on for a full decade (whether it should have or not I leave up to those who've seen the entire ten years...how old WAS Lex when it all ended?).

Then again, part of the problem might be that Supergirl, despite what appears to be a generally good cast (with Melissa Benoist and Jeremy Jordan being the standouts), the concept was ill-thought.  Were the people behind Supergirl making a television show that would appeal to a wide market that hungers for more comic book adaptations (in the vein of the more successful The Flash, Arrow, or the not-so-successful Legends of Tomorrow)? Or were they creating a television show to 'inspire girls that they could be the same as boys'?  In short, was Supergirl created to add to the comic book mythos, or to make some kind of point about gender equality?

If the goal of Supergirl were to show that they were boys' equals, it has decided that such lofty and admirable goals are not worth losing their jobs over.  I say this because The Shadow has now taken a discernable form.



For Season Two of The CW's Supergirl, Tyler Hoechlin, formerly of Teen Wolf, will become the newest version of Superman (as a side note, he HAS to be a damn sight better than Henry Cavill.  Roast Turkey can act better than Henry Cavill).  So far, according to IMDB, he is set to be in four episodes, starting with the season premiere, though whether Hoechlin will be in more is left unclear. 

In my view, that's simply four episodes too many. 

Why is having Superman on Supergirl a bad thing in my view?  Quite simply, what might end up happening is that Superman will end up usurping Supergirl.  Clark Kent's alter ego may very well become what River Song was to the Doctor on Doctor Who: become the de facto star of the series and make the title character a recurring, or worse, guest star on his/her eponymous show. 

Already having Superman there, lurking in the shadows, diminishes Supergirl as a character.  Going back to the third episode (!), our Girl of Steel simply wasn't strong enough to do it on her own.  She needed her younger Kryptonian cousin to bail her out.  At least in that episode, Fight or Flight, she was open about her anger and frustration at trying to match Superman and not just failing, but having to have said Kryptonian cousin come in and rescue her...like a damsel in distress.  If memory serves correct, Clark Kent via text/IM said he wouldn't do that again.

Yet, unless the concept of him coming round to rescue his (supposedly) equally strong female relative was introduced in Season One, Superman's appearance so soon into Supergirl's run is a betrayal of all that Supergirl was suppose to have stood for.

Now, I wonder, will Kara again express frustration that Clark Kent is popping up...or will she, horror of horrors, defer to him?  I'm sure that eventually you will see them working together (or would have anyway during the course of the show), but even so, wouldn't that defeat the original purpose of Supergirl (to show that a woman is just as capable as a man if they have the same abilities)?  The show is about Supergirl, her evolution into being what National City needs her to be, not about Supergirl's superhero relatives. 



I am at a loss to understand why Supergirl felt the need to instead of simply detaching itself further from Superman, it is instead bringing him on.  What good will having the one being who could outdo the main character do (apart from maybe, maybe jump-start ratings)?  To me, bringing Superman on board so soon, especially for the season premiere, is a sign of desperation and a tacit acknowledgment that few people are actually interested in Kara Zor-El, but in her famous relative Kal-El.

Bringing him back in any fashion (recurring, guest, or most disastrously of all, regular character) would be worse.  It would be distracting.  It would be diminishing.  It runs the risk of having viewers wait until HE gets back rather than have them invest time and interest in his more klutzy poor relation.  Should they opt to bring Superman in for ratings sweeps, then The Man of Steel would end up being her savior rather than a mentor.  After all, Supergirl would bring him when it needed a boost rather than rely on the title character to do that.

Again, this is total speculation.  Hoechlin may just appear in the season premiere, then (if IMDB is accurate) sporadically later on.  He may even be well-integrated to where my fears are not materialized and he doesn't diminish Supergirl or Benoist.  However, for me, I think bringing Superman to a show called Supergirl will eventually, perhaps irrevocably, take attention from the title character and make her the opposite of what she was suppose to be: independent and strong, one to be judged on her own merits as opposed to what 'the men' could supposedly outdo them in. 

I fear that no matter how good the intentions, how clever the scripts, whenever Superman (in the form of Hoechlin) is there, he will be the center of attention, not the title character (that River Song Problem again).  I cannot really imagine that Superman will defer to anyone, even his cousin.  It would be interesting, even great if he did, if he ceded control to Supergirl, if they truly were equals.  Whether they end up being is still at this point unknown. 

I can only hope that Superman will not eventually slip into a central character/role.  Should that happen, Supergirl will have failed in both her missions: to protect her cousin, and in developing as something distinct from him, serving not as a heroine to little girls, but as proof that when given the chance, girls still can't quite be as good as boys.

Above all else, that would be the worst result of any Superman preeminence on Supergirl.


A New Start, or The Beginning of the End?
  

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Hello, Dolly!: A Review


HELLO, DOLLY!

Contrary to what one might think, Hello, Dolly! is not a musical about former First Lady Dolley Madison (though I'd love to see one).  It is instead the film adaptation of a highly successful musical at a time when Broadway productions were transformed into big, lavish film musicals that somehow failed to translate well.  This is not always the case: film adaptations of The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Funny Girl and My Fair Lady are highly efficient and brilliant translations where whatever changes between stage and screen that only upset purists.  Then again, those films had master filmmakers behind them, craftsmen who knew how to put film together.

Hello, Dolly! on the other hand, had Gene Kelly, a man who was a true genius but who may have been the wrong person to direct such a mammoth production with no one co-directing with him.  That Kelly was given something as massive as Hello, Dolly! to make was one of the bad decisions that brought what could have been a delightful romp (which I figure the original Broadway show was) into perhaps the musical adaptation that finally brought down the movie musical as a genre.  Hello, Dolly! is not a terrible film, but it could have been a good one.

Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) can match anyone, and now she has her eyes on a 'half-millionaire'.  That would be Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), who is generally crabby and uninterested in marriage, except perhaps for Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew), a milliner whom he contemplates a merger.  Dolly had arranged for Irene and Horace to get together, but now she wants to prevent this.  Dolly, as shrewd a woman as ever there was, has come up with a great scheme.

First, she has to work secretly against Horace's wishes and get his niece Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) and 'painter' Ambrose (Tommy Tune) together.  Next, she has to get Horace's two befuddled and naïve employees Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin) out to New York.  Circumstances help as she directs the two clerks to NYC to call on Irene's hat shop, where she and Irene's assistant Minnie Fay (E.J. Parker) can be wined and dined by the two penniless figures.

Now in New York City, Horace discovers his clerks at Irene's shop and promptly calls the impending engagement off (scandalized by seeing so much 'debauchery' going on).   However, Mrs. Levi tells them to go to the Harmonia Gardens, where all will be revealed and the various lovers (including Dolly and Horace) will get things all squared.  Horace again finds himself the stooge of everyone and storms out.

Back in Yonkers, Horace finds that he's only ended up isolating himself from everyone.  His niece, thoroughly in love with Ambrose, has left.  He's fired his two clerks, who come with their new girls to collect their pay and start their own rival shop...across from Vandergelder's.  Dolly too comes, and at long last, Horace recognizes that she is the woman for him.

"Forced happiness" is the phrase that came to mind while watching Hello, Dolly!  This is what I call the idea that this is suppose to be a jolly affair and that I'm suppose to be grinning from ear to ear about it all but that in reality nearly everyone involved is going through the motions.   Hello, Dolly! is supposed to be happy and jolly, with that Jerry Herman music coming at me, and everyone smiling, and people doing elaborate, jolly dancing (courtesy of Michael Kidd). 

However, what came across for me was rather forced and unhappy, as if we couldn't figure that these were real people but yes, actors, going through a series of steps and under a stern taskmaster.  This isn't to put much into stories of on-set feuding and bitterness (though costars Matthau and Streisand had, shall we say, a difficult working relationship).  It's just that for me, Hello, Dolly! is TOO jolly, TOO eager to show how 'fun' everything is without actually being fun. 



Again and again Kelly appears interested in how BIG he can make everything, how LARGE and MASSIVE it can be, that it drowns out nearly everything else (including what could and should have been wonderful, touching moments).  A BIG example is the title number.  Granted, Hello, Dolly! is one of the greatest numbers in Broadway history, a song so well-established in the American songbook that almost everyone knows at least part of it and can recognize it instantly. 

However, the actual introduction seems to go on and on, with such grandiose choreography (and so overly-staged) that it didn't feel so much like a real movie and more like an out-of-control production that wanted to disguise how jumbled it was by throwing more and more and more and more at you.  Honestly, if an army of waiters with brooms came at me, I'd run away in terror from them, not sit passively by as another battalion stormed in, doing cartwheels with obviously fake food, came at me.

Everyone is excited that DOLLY IS BACK!, but given we never got a sense that the Harmonia was a special place for her, why the BIG, BIG, BIG buildup?  Even when we get to the actual Hello, Dolly! number, the whole thing seems forced, as if instead of being a real place, it were a massive movie set.

The only saving grace in that number was in bringing Louis Armstrong to join Babs in a duet of his version of Hello, Dolly!, a great part in a colossal production.  However, having him yell, "ONE MORE TIME!" made me yell, "NO, NO MORE!"

So much is left off, particularly with the Ambrose/Ermengarde subplot.  For all the importance of their story, they played almost no part IN the story.  If you'd cut them out altogether, and made the story about Cornelius/Barnaby and Dolly/Horace, it wouldn't have mattered one way or another.

Another problem with Hello, Dolly! is in the casting.  No slam against Streisand, whose voice is perfection.  However, at 27 she I think was far too young to be this worldly, world-weary, wise widow.  It's a great disservice that despite a previous Oscar nomination, MISS Carol Channing was not brought in to recreate her Broadway triumph.  Streisand did a good job, but sometimes she came across as less a shrewd manipulator than an unhinged chatterbox, constantly flaying about left right and center.


Making things more curious is the casting of Walter Matthau as the love interest.  I'm sure Mrs. Matthau loved him, but how many women's hearts are set aflutter by Walter Matthau?  His weak singing voice (especially compared to Streisand) makes things all the more perplexing.  Given their on-screen (and off-screen) hostility, one wonders how Horace Vandergelder could figure Dolly Levi is THE one to make him give up the bachelor life.

I figure Crawford and Lockin would have been better and stronger with a better and stronger director to guide them, but Kelly just wasn't either.  Still, they were quite a nice pair of simple guys who wanted nothing more than a kiss from girls.  Their female counterparts, McAndrew and Peaker, were dull and flat, so obviously acting that it didn't even warrant interest from them apparently.

Again and again everything felt forced and unnatural, focusing too much on how BIG-BIG-BIG the numbers could be than on whether they were interesting.

Again, there are positives.  Jerry Herman's music & lyrics remain top-notch, so much so that Hello, Dolly!, if remembered now, is due to Wall-E rather than for its own.  The music is great (even if perhaps unimaginatively delivered).

1943-1977
Sadly, there is a tragic coda to Hello, Dolly!  Eight years after its release, Danny Lockin, who played the young and naïve second clerk Barnaby Tucker, was brutally murdered, stabbed over 100 times by a man he'd met at a bar (who picked whom up is still confusing to me).  The brutality of the crime is already horrifying, but the fact that he was stabbed even after he was dead, that he was only 34 when he was murdered, and that his killer got a light sentence due to the inadmissibility of some evidence (and perhaps because as a gay/bisexual man, his murder wasn't that 'important') makes it all the more tragic and terrible.

Ultimately, Hello, Dolly! feels like a deranged anachronism, a big, overblown production when realism was forcing its way into Hollywood.  By no means as horrible as its reputation might be, Hello, Dolly! has more minuses than pluses.  It was the end of the big-budget musical extravaganza, and it makes one think that maybe it can be handled in small Wall-E size bites.     

DECISION: C-

 
Sorry Babs, but There Can Be Only ONE...
Dolly Levi.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Fifty Shades of Oscar

John Wayne:
Best Actor for
True Grit

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1969

The 42 Academy Awards went all over the place, from the most traditional to the most shocking.  In one evening, the Academy gave its Best Actor Oscar to the most conservative person in Hollywood, and its Best Picture Oscar to an X-Rated film.  You can't get any more confused than that.  What a difference a year makes.

Last year, Oliver! became the first (and of today, only) G-rated film to win Best Picture.  Now, Midnight Cowboy became the first (and of today, only) X-rated film to win.  Let's put some things into perspective though.  It isn't as if the Academy decided that such films as Debbie Does Dallas or Deep Throat were suddenly in the same league as Casablanca or Schindler's List.  We are in the early stages of the ratings system, and the X rating did not have the connotation it has now.  The X was given due to the adult themes and the suggestion of homosexual acts (long before the concept of same-sex marriage was ever conceived).  The film, despite its subject matter of male prostitution, sex acts, and drug use, was later reclassified as R.  To be perfectly honest, given how open society is about sex in all (and I do mean all) its forms, I would probably make Midnight Cowboy PG-13. 

This ceremony also included the lavish musical Hello, Dolly! (another film with an exclamation point), which to me represents the last gasps of a genre that was clearly falling out of favor.  When a musical loses to an X-rated film, you know the times, they are a'changing. You had the respectable biopic (Anne of the Thousand Days) and the 'rebellious' film (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).  You also had a very interesting situation with the last entry, Z.  It is the shortest film title to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and it was the first to receive both a Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film nomination (winning in the latter).  There has yet to be a foreign language Best Picture winner.

Finally, none of the acting Oscars went to Best Picture nominees, an extremely rare occurrence.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1969 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS   

BEST ORIGINAL SONG



Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?: The Happy Ending
Jean: The Prime of Miss Jean Brody
Come Saturday Morning: The Sterile Cuckoo
True Grit: True Grit

At least this is one time the Academy isn't embarrassed by the winner.  Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head is a pretty optimistic song despite the somewhat laidback melody.  It is, perhaps apart from Jean and perhaps True Grit, the only song people remember from this list.  One thing that is for certain is that Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head has entered the popular songbook, and there is probably a very small number that either don't know the song or can identify it from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head was an excellent choice, but my heart and mind tell me another song was worthier.



Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Ballad of Easy Rider: Easy Rider
Just Leave Everything to Me: Hello, Dolly!
We Have All the Time in the World: On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Jean: The Prime of Miss Jean Brody

From On Her Majesty's Secret Service, We Have All the Time in the World, music by John Barry, lyrics by Hal David.

Louis Armstrong appeared on two 1969 soundtracks: We Have All the Time in the World and doing his own rendition of the title song from Hello, Dolly!  There is a sad melancholy in We Have All the Time in the World because in both the film and with Armstrong, we know it's not true.  The two lovers don't have all the time in the world, and moreover, Armstrong was very ill when he recorded the song, giving it a sadder rendition. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the best James Bond films, and it would be better regarded if not for George Lazenby in his only performance as 007.  It is also one of the few Bond films to not have a title song.  However, We Have All the Time in the World is a beautiful ballad made more tender by the fact that in this case, love is extremely fragile.

BEST DIRECTOR

Costa-Garva: Z
George Roy Hill: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Arthur Penn: Alice's Restaurant
Sydney Pollack: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
John Schlesinger: Midnight Cowboy

For starters, I never understood the great love for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I don't think of it as a classic mainly because I found it a bit dull.  Despite that, I'm willing to give it a second look.  Right now I see it as a battle between the underside of Times Square and the underside of Greek politics.  As such, I'm leaning now towards Z.

Costa-Garva: Z
Dennis Hopper: Easy Rider
Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in the West
Sam Peckinpah: The Wild Bunch
John Schlesinger: Midnight Cowboy 

That being said, I am a bit at a loss as to why The Wild Bunch was so ignored this year (only two nominations).  Part of me figures that it was the then-graphic violence that so shocked the staid Academy members who preferred the gentle nostalgia of Hello, Dolly!  However, Bonnie and Clyde was pretty violent for its time and it wasn't ignored in major categories.  Perhaps the members were already overwhelmed with the sexual nature of one film to deal with the violent nature of another.  Despite that, I think few people now would dispute the importance of The Wild Bunch.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Catherine Burns: Last Summer
Dyan Cannon: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Goldie Hawn: Cactus Flower
Sylvia Miles: Midnight Cowboy
Susannah York: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

In case you didn't know or just forgot, Goldie Hawn is an Oscar winner.  That's right: THAT Goldie Hawn.  Laugh-In go-go dancing Goldie Hawn.  Giggling Goldie Hawn.  Overboard Goldie Hawn.  Perpetually ditzy/bubbly Goldie Hawn.  This is no slam against Hawn.  I can't say anything good or bad about her or Cactus Flower.  However, I had a bit of a process of elimination.  Miles is out: her what, five minutes screen-time isn't going to cut it for me.  As for the others, perhaps York could be a more sensible choice, but few people remember her or the film.  As a result, I had to rule with the Academy on this one.



Dyan Cannon: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Claudia Cardinale: Once Upon a Time in the West
Goldie Hawn: Cactus Flower
Diana Rigg: On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Katherine Ross: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

That being said, I'm going to go with Rigg's Countess in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the best Bond film you've never seen.  She wasn't coquettish like other Bond Girls, but she was also not a prude.  Elegant, with perhaps a damaged heart, she manages what no other woman could do: tame 007, making her end all the more sad.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Rupert Crosse: The Reivers
Elliott Gould: Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice
Jack Nicholson: Easy Rider
Anthony Quayle: Anne of the Thousand Days
Gig Young: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

After a lifetime of pursuing fame and being known as a comedy actor, Gig Young took things to a dramatic turn as the sleazy Master of Ceremonies at a dance marathon in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  Young had been nominated before, but this was the one that in his mind was going to get him in his own starring vehicles instead of playing second fiddle/banana.  That was not to be: despite his Oscar, Gig Young remained stubbornly second-tier.



Jack Nicholson: Easy Rider
Anthony Quayle: Anne of the Thousand Days
Robert Redford: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Robert Ryan: The Wild Bunch
Gig Young: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The real tragedy of all that was that Young, an alcoholic, never achieved what he so desperately longed for: stardom.  Three weeks after marrying for the fourth time, the 64-year-old actor and his 31-year-old wife were found dead, the victims of an apparent murder-suicide, with Young as the trigger man.  The exact cause for this horror have never been discovered, and it makes the sordidness of the MC look tame.

A tragedy all around.

BEST ACTRESS



Genevieve Bujold: Anne of the Thousand Days
Jane Fonda: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Liza Minnelli: The Sterile Cuckoo
Jean Simmons: The Happy Ending
Maggie Smith: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I get the sense that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the anti-To Sir With Love, showing the dangers of the influence teachers can have on their students.  At the moment I really don't feel that there is much that the other performers can do to knock Smith off the winner's podium.

No Substitutions. 

BEST ACTOR



Richard Burton: Anne of the Thousand Days
Dustin Hoffman: Midnight Cowboy
Peter O'Toole: Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Jon Voight: Midnight Cowboy
John Wayne: True Grit

I think Burton's now getting desperate, going for any Oscar-bait he can lay his hands on.  Wayne's Oscar I think was for Lifetime Achievement rather than for this one role, not that I'm begrudging him his win.  Once again we see how two actors nominated in the same category for the same film essentially cancel each other out.

Now, most people tend to go for Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo, and I'm not about to say his performance wasn't spectacular.  However, after seeing the film again I think it is Voight's Joe Buck that is the better performance.  Voight makes Buck's mixture of innocence and ego almost sympathetic and sad, his delusions of his sexual prowess and desirability crushed by the desperation of turning tricks with men and his haunted past with his girlfriend and grandmother back home in Texas.  His evolution into being a real person and not the caricature he imagined himself to be is as heartbreaking as Ratso's decline.



Henry Fonda: Once Upon a Time in the West
Dustin Hoffman: Midnight Cowboy
William Holden: The Wild Bunch
Paul Newman: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Jon Voight: Midnight Cowboy

However, when I think how good guy Henry Fonda became this frightening figure of evil in Once Upon a Time in the West, I have to go with him.  The coldness in his eyes, the ruthlessness of how easily he kills, even the most defenseless, without remorse or shame, it's I think his greatest performance ever.  Tom Joad was a good man.  Mr. Roberts was a good man. Frank isn't, and even now, I get the chills when I think of him in Once Upon a Time in the West.

According to his son Peter, even Henry was freaked out by the intensity of his performance, which is why he played villains so rarely. 

BEST PICTURE



Anne of the Thousand Days
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Hello, Dolly!
Midnight Cowboy
Z

I'm going to say that Hello, Dolly! shouldn't be here, the last thrusts of a dying genre that held to big, lavish musicals.  I also am dubious of Anne of the Thousand Days.  That leaves three films listed to contend with.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is loved, but I never felt the love myself for it.  Now we have two: the 'porn' film and the 'political' film.  I thought Midnight Cowboy was a great film, though curiously enough a bit dated now. 

That leaves me with one choice, and thus, I name Z the Best Picture of 1969.

 

Easy Rider
Midnight Cowboy
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
The Wild Bunch
Z

I still contend though that there were other, better films that year (sorry, Dolly).  Easy Rider is held as another revolutionary film, though again I wasn't a big fan of it.  I think On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the best James Bond films brought down by George Lazenby.  However, as I look over the year, the violence and horror of The Wild Bunch works on so many levels: both as the story its telling and as allegory about American intervention and violence in Vietnam.

As such, I name The Wild Bunch as the Best Picture of 1969.

Next time, the 1970 Academy Awards.