Saturday, March 29, 2014

God's Not Dead: A Review (Review #623)


It is certainly surprising that people are surprised whenever a 'Christian' film does well at the box office.  God's Not Dead is the new feature film where faith (Christianity in particular) is not belittled or mocked but made out to be something good.  In terms of 'Christian' films, God's Not Dead is miles above those films where the message was heavy-handed and cluttered with bad acting and a far too-tidy ending.  In terms of film itself, God's Not Dead certainly evokes the reactions the film wants its audience to have and in that I cannot fault it.  It is not perfect: sometimes it plays like a commercial for The Newsboys and their single, some of its subplots are weak, and we have a guest appearance that adds nothing to the story.  However, God's Not Dead as a movie in an of itself is entertaining, well-acted, with moments of humor that balance the core story it wants to tell.

Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) is a college freshman who seems to have it all.  He has a girlfriend of six years and a promising career with his major in pre-law.  He needs one philosophy course to fulfill a requirement, and that class is with Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo).  Radisson is a passionate atheist, so much so that he requires all his students to write "God Is Dead" on a piece of paper or defend the indefensible: the existence of a God, let alone the Christian God.  Josh, who is a Christian, cannot write "God Is Dead", thus not only inspiring Radisson's wrath but making this generally quiet individual take a stand for this faith.  His girlfriend is dead set against this, and she dumps him over this.  Josh, however, dives deeper into defending the existence of God.

We have some other subplots that tie into this somehow.  There is Ayisha (Hadeel Situ), a Moslem girl who covers up her face to please her father, but whom we discover is actually a Christian convert.  Once her father finds out, he promptly (though not without some remorse) throws her out of the house.  There is Martin Yip (Paul Kwo), another of Radisson's students, who is from a well-connected Chinese family and finds Josh's defense of a god (let alone God made Flesh in Christ Jesus) fascinating.  There is Amy Ryan (Tricia LaFache), a humanist reporter who holds believers in contempt.  Of particular disdain is Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, whom she ambushes as they are about to attending Services.

Their lives all interconnect in various ways.  Amy's boyfriend, Mark (Dean Cain) dumps her when he finds out she has cancer.  Mark's mother is suffering from dementia, and he'd rather not deal with anything connected to human emotion.  His sister Mina (Cory Oliver) happens to be Radisson's wife...and a Christian too (much to Radisson's cool displeasure).  Both Josh and Mina have as their pastor one Pastor Dave (David A.R. White), who keeps trying to get away for a holiday with his missionary friend but every vehicle he encounters keeps stalling on him.

Divine intervention, perhaps?

In any case, Josh is able to successfully argue his case, we learn where Radisson's hatred towards God comes from, Martin comes to accept Christ, Mina learns that the love of Christ is enough to validate her and leaves Radisson, Amy comes to terms to both her cancer and her own anger at God, culminating in a Newsboys concert where all these stories come together.

Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon's screenplay (from a story by them and Hunter Dennis) is not perfect, and there are things in it I wish they had either changed or dropped.  First and foremost is the near-shameless plugging for The Newsboys (and I'll grant that this may be an odd criticism of God's Not Dead).  It might help to explain that a.) I am well-versed in the realm of Christian music (and am on record saying that Switchfoot has up to recently downplayed their Christianity in order to fit in with the 'secular' world--a case of crossing over without bring The Cross over) and b.) I have not been a Newsboys fan for a long, long time.   The constant emphasizing of this band in the film was veering dangerously close to turning God's Not Dead into a Newsboys infomercial.  Our first sighting of Josh has him with a Newsboys shirt.  There is a Newsboys poster prominently featured in Josh's room (the camera placing it where no one could miss it).  To celebrate their sixth anniversary, guess where Josh is taking his girlfriend (which is where they met six years prior or was their first date)?  Guess whom Amy ambushes in a second interview?  Finally, guess where everyone heads to at the end?

Pity they couldn't have all been going to an Andy Hunter rave, but I digress...

There is something dare I say, crass, about building so much around the Newsboys, but that doesn't compare to having Mr. and Mrs. Robertson pop in for little reason.  Again, I grant I have never seen an episode of Duck Dynasty (and have no interest in doing so, though my brother Gabe loves the show...his favorite is Uncle Si, and given that Gabe has been accurately described as a 'brown cracker', but again I digress).  Since I'm not a fan, their cameos almost went over my head.  Besides, while it sets up Amy Ryan (a poor choice for a name given she shares it with an Oscar-nominated actress...and Josh Wheaton sounds eerily familiar too) and her hostility towards Christians (and apparently, meat-eaters), I think there could have been another way to show she has no faith in faith.

I also think that having Radisson's atheism come from a deep personal hurt as a child rather than it being an intellectual conclusion is both clichéd and a little unfair to those who don't believe because they have reached their conclusions through thought.  I'll admit I have given the idea of faith much thought myself and reached a different conclusion than Radisson and his snobbish set but I cannot shake the idea that the writers lost a great opportunity to have Radisson be an intellectual rather than emotional atheist.

Lest we forget, C.S. Lewis was at one point an atheist who shared a similar background to Radisson.  His conversion (quite reluctant according to him) was done through rational thought.  Would that Radisson come around the same way. 

The other subplots either didn't mash very well (the entire Ayisha storyline came and went without much intro or conclusion) or how they all connected to each other.  Ayisha had been attending Services at Pastor Dave's church for some time, but the idea that she might be unmasked (so to speak) never really entered their minds?  Why would Radisson marry a believer and vice-versa?  I could understand if Mina became a believer or rediscovered her faith after her marriage, but something about all that didn't work for me.  The ending is also a bit of a problem.  I'd like for Radisson to come to a different conclusion than the one he came to. 

Yes, in some ways God's Not Dead doesn't push us as much as it could have. HOWEVER, the film does have some positives.

The center of the film is Harper, and if by 'performance' one means believing that the character is real, then Harper did an admirable job as Josh.  I think the screenplay (again, the screenplay) could have done more to push our reluctant, quiet believer to be more open and outspoken about his faith, but Harper is wonderful as a young man who is a most reluctant warrior for Christ.  I have no knowledge of Harper's religious background, but he convinced me he believed.  Harper made Josh into someone whom you liked, someone whom you wanted to succeed.  I figure this was the case with the audience I saw it with, who cheered and applauded whenever Josh gained confidence enough to throw a witty comeback at Radisson or come up with a rational defense of his theological thesis. 

It's not a 'Christian movie'
without him in it...
Sorbo could have done better as Radisson (though I fault this more with director Harold Cronk than with Sorbo himself), but he made the philosophy professor not a monster but as someone who truly detests the idea of a God but which may be a mask for something deeper.  While Cain's storyline is shorter, when he tells an incredulous Amy why her cancer news couldn't have waited until morning, one is genuinely shocked at Mark's callousness. 

I may mock David A.R. White due to his ubiquitous appearance in so many "Christian" films that have been the main attraction at so many youth groups such as End of the Harvest or Second Glance (and for the record, I was never a part of any Youth Group), but the guy is a professional actor, always giving his very best performance in every film he makes.  He did a strong job as the somewhat weary, somewhat jaded pastor (a side note: given the church I'm figuring Pastor Dave is more mainline denomination like Lutheran or Episcopalian rather than non-denomination or evangelical) who would rather go to Disneyworld but keeps getting stuck at home. 

The scenes of him struggling to find a car that runs, down to having the rental car(s) fail him, provide moments of humor which do work (perhaps because they appear so obvious). 

This is the thing with God's Not Dead.  Atheists or those who have a dislike to downright hate towards God, Jesus, Christians, faith in general, or those who hold any of the above as true will be highly hostile to the film. Conversely, those who agree with the film's worldview will love it.  When Josh asks Radisson, "How do you hate someone if they don't exist?", the audience burst into applause and cheering.  One thing in the film's favor is that it knows its audience.

No, God's Not Dead is not perfect.  However, it is well-acted, flows well, has moments of lightness and drama (Mark's mother has a monologue through the fog of her dementia that is impactful) and in its sincerity the film reaches for the heart and at times, even I, the most stubborn and suspicious of reviewers with some Christianity rattling inside them, got caught up in it all.  I did not hate God's Not Dead, and while I see its flaws I can also extend a little grace.

However, I still wouldn't go to a Newsboys concert.  Thousand Foot Krutch, on the other hand....

I'm Not Ashamed to Speak
the Name of Jesus Christ...


Friday, March 28, 2014

The Very, Very Good Films: 2009-2014

While the B+ Films prior to 2009 were a small group, the B+ Films of 2009-2014 were a massive group: 43 in total.  This should put to rest the idea that 'they don't make them as good as they used to'.  These are also great films, though again, something about them or in them kept them just a hair away from being True Masterpieces. 

I think all these films are excellent and worth watching.  I'd be glad to watch them again.  The range is extraordinary.  You have comedies, dramas, documentaries, animated features, short films, science-fiction and fantasy (and for the record, the particular Harry Potter film found here is the HIGHEST-ranked Harry Potter film in the series).

With that, let us now look upon those that were great, but just a touch short of the finish line.

42 (2013)
127 Hours (2010)

Buzkhasi Boys (Short Film) (2012)
Earth (2009)
An Education (2009)
Ender's Game (2013)

Flight (2012)
Head Games (2012)
The Help (2011)

Henry (Short Film) (2012)

Inside Job (2010)

Life of Pi (2012)
Lincoln (2012)
Never Let Me Go (2010) 
Notorious (2009)

Oceans (2010)
Quartet (2013)

Rabbit Hole (2010)
Ruby Sparks (2012)
Samsara (2012)

Secretariat (2010)
Star Trek (2009)

True Grit (2010)
Uprising (2012)
Win Win (2011)

Next time, those that were Above Average: the B- Films.

Too High?  Maybe Too Low and they deserve to be Masterpieces?  Let me know and I'll take a "Second Look"...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Elementary: The Hound of the Cancer Cells Review


Bell Feels Right At Holmes

Sherlock Holmes' most famous story gets a nod with The Hound of the Cancer Cells, but it's a nod in name only.  No demon dogs in this Elementary tale.  We get a medical mystery, with some great twists and turns and that patented Elementary exploration into the characters lives and emotions thrown in.  The Hound of the Cancer Cells is a strong mystery and a welcome return to our favorite Junior Detective.

That's right, Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) is finally back on the force, having passed his medical and able to shoot straight.  Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is thrilled at this, and is surprised that the party the precinct is throwing for him later that week, Bell not only invites her but asks that her partner, Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) come too.  Watson is surprised given that it was Holmes that put Bell's career in danger in the first place, but Bell seems to be over that (or has come to understand in one of Elementary's best running arcs that Holmes and Bell are more alike and closer than either wishes to admit).  Bell has his own case as well: a young witness in a shooting, Nicole Watkins (Christina Jackson) has gone into hiding, and he asks if Holmes and Watson can serve as an extra pair of eyes.

This is the secondary case, more with Bell than with Holmes and Watson.  The main case involves one Barry Granger (Jason Danieley), whom as Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) wryly observes in a rare moment of quipping from the usual business-like Precinct head, is "M.D., Ph.D., D.O.A.".  He is found dead of an apparent suicide via helium, along with a suicide note stating that 'it's all true'.  This "It's All True" relates to The Hound, a device that Granger was working on, which would be able to detect cancer cells based on breath, operating the same way a breathalyzer detects alcohol.  The company's founder and president, Hank Prince (Mather Zinkel) is shocked that a mysterious figure known as Adam Peer (or A. Peer), a professional whistleblower has targeted his device.  He isn't a suspect because he has an alibi...his mistress.

Granger was seen arguing with a girl on tape, and Holmes tracks her down to a travel agency.  In a surprising turn, the agency is closed within hours of Holmes' visit, and we learn the truth.  The girl in the video, identified as Dalit Zirin (Shiri Appleby) is not a former lover of Granger.  She just happens to be a Mossad agent.   The Israeli intelligence agency has no interest in Granger or The Hound, but Dalit was Granger's college friend whom he had asked to investigate A. Peer, whom she thinks killed him.  Granger was fully aware of Dalit's real job and had hoped she would use her resources to track down A. Peer.  She refused, but now with his death she wants Holmes to find his killer.

Watson is not the target...

Meanwhile, Watson manages to find Nicole, who is being sheltered by her old teacher, Manny Rose (Ron Canada).  The scared and pregnant teen doesn't want to testify, and Watson understands her reasoning.  She does get Bell the message, who uses the opportunity to meet Mr. Rose.  Rose is a legend in the neighborhood for having stood up to bullies and drug dealers, being a force for good in a troubled area.  While Bell doesn't see Nicole, he tells Mr. Rose that he too understands if she won't testify.  Mr. Rose, for his part, hates how these thugs are getting away with things.

Marcus' party is a subject that Holmes is avoiding at all costs.  Watson figures its guilt for his role in Bell's predicament, something to which Holmes doesn't exactly cop to but doesn't quite deny either.  Holmes would rather look for A. Peer, and find him they do. 

Rather, I should say 'them', for A. Peer is two people, one of whom is Granger himself.  Therefore, if A. Peer is Granger, and if A. Peer killed Granger, but Granger didn't commit suicide (let alone accuse himself of fraud), and if A. Peer's partner didn't kill Granger, then who did?  The A. Peer who charged Granger with falsifying his results (and would ruin both his career and Prince's company) was a fake.

We then get the curious case of the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Prince, found shot in her home.  Prince has the same alibi, a most convenient mistress.  Holmes, however, manages to ferret out both the Granger and Mrs. Prince cases, which all tie together in an extraordinary twist. 

Bell's party is in full swing, but he stands outside, cautious.  He has just come from the morgue.  Mr. Rose decided that sometimes one has to take the law into your own hands.  He had gone up to the thug kingpin and killed him, but the thug's henchmen had returned fire, with both of them dead.  Holmes walks up to him, finally having broken down to go to the party.  Both see that being detectives carry heavy burdens, and while one figures they would go to the party in a while, they walk off together to a coffee shop round the corner, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The Hound of the Cancer Cells I think does some things extremely well.  Bob Goodman's script gives us a story that basically twists in on itself.  The opening murder is both surprising and almost comical (hearing a man's final words spoken through a helium-filled voice makes it all so surreal).  It shows Captain Gregson is a sharp detective in his own right: he was the one who suspected Granger was not a suicide in the first place, but not how it was done.  I think that how the resolution all played out worked exceedingly well, except for the second murder, which seems almost thrown in there.

I even enjoyed the True bit thrown in, that pernicious website that Joan still uses to find a date and which provides a valuable clue in solving a case.  I wonder if anyone actually has used

I also enjoyed how the various elements of A. Peer and even the Mossad got thrown in without looking too far-fetched. We get some great guest stars in the story.  Zinkel's Prince in retrospect was the obvious suspect, but he played it all so well that I was thrown for a loop in the end.  I've also been in love with Appleby since Roswell (can I say I was in love without making it sound nutty) and while her role was small (and oddly reminiscent of Keri Russell's character in The Americans), I think her character has great potential.  The Israelis, perhaps?  I'd be very happy to see Holmes work with Dalit again, if only to explore more of both her character (having a spy would be so helpful in cases) and Appleby as an actress.

The Hound of the Cancer Cells also has great quips and lines, of which Miller is among the best at delivering.  Miller seemed to be in top form here: sharp, sarcastic, highly adept at making even the most simple comment tinged with cutting cynicism.  When Watson brings in the framed target that got Bell back on the force, Holmes just looks at it.  "Bullet-riddled man.  Is the décor in here not American enough for you?  We could get some Rockwells, deep-fat fryer," emphasizing the last word to add a coda on his disdain for both American culture and its violence.  He's equally sharp and sarcastic with both Prince and Dalit, finding the Mossad's work in its strongest ally amusing.  However, he also shows how much Sherlock Holmes has changed since we met him a year ago. 

We know he's avoiding any talk of Bell's party and can even figure out why.  When he verbalizes it however, it still impacts us.  "Misanthropy was so easy, Watson," he tells her.  "Elegant.  I miss it sometimes."  I would disagree that Sherlock Holmes (at least the Elementary version) was thoroughly misanthropic, instead I would say aloof and remote, but I digress.  His feelings of guilt about Bell, coupled with his shocking admission that a.) he thinks of Bell as a friend, and b.) he thinks highly of Bell's detective skills (having referred to all the other detectives in the precinct as "Not Bell", show that despite himself he likes Marcus, and finds that his actions have consequences on those he cares for.  This is something Sherlock Holmes struggles with: the conflict between his cold, logical nature and his developing human side.  It has been fascinating to watch and one hopes Elementary continues to chronicle his struggle as a major part of its story.

Hill similarly had great moments realizing that being back on the force has consequences.  He too sees the man he once dismissed as "Harry Potter" as I daresay an equal in the concern to solve crimes and make their worlds better.  They've reached a different level of trust and camaraderie that neither will admit openly, but that is still there.  They've learned to respect each other, appreciate the other's abilities, and understand that they are not that different. 

They may even be friends.

I enjoyed The Hound of the Cancer Cells; though not perfect by any means, the wild twists (even if not strictly logical) to the case and the continuing development of the characters still made it one of the best Elementary episodes so far.  And, with any luck, Demon Dogs may still appear in New York...

Every Good Holmes
Should Have a Bell
Not from this episode, but I couldn't resist...


Next Episode: The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Very, Very Good Films Volume I: 1915-2008

Last time, I wrote about The Masterpieces, those films which earned an A from me.  Now I'm plunging in to those that earned a B+.  These films for me were above average, certainly great films that I would highly recommend.  However, there was something a bit off that kept them from being True Masterpieces.  It might have been a performance, a plot point, weak directing, even art direction or cinematography.  In short, there was a little bit that pushed it down just a touch. 

Still, these films are all great movies. 

I was surprised at how few there were from before the time I started writing in 2009: a mere sixteen.  To me, it indicates that a lot of 'classic' films are so good that they got elevated to the A team (so to speak).  It also says to me that in the next list (those films between 2009 and 2014), we still see many, many great films are being made today.  


Iron-Man (2008)
Midway (1976)

Miss Potter (2006)
Re-Animator (1985)

Next time, the B+ films of this era.

Too high?  Too low?  Let me know so that I can give a named titled a "Second Look" as part of Rick's Café Texan's Fifth Anniversary Celebrations...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Oscars Slightly Out of Sync

Mary Pickford:
Best Actress for Coquette


The Second Academy Awards in 1929 were a remarkably bumpy affair.  The Academy did not handle the transition from silent to sound films well.  In fact, the reaction was rather chaotic, a mixture of panic and ineptness.  There was even talk of having two Best Pictures: a Silent Film and a Sound Film Category.  Fortunately, they opted out of this, but the writing was on the wall.  1929 would be the final year a silent movie would be nominated for Best Picture until The Artist in 2012.

1929 turned out to be the reverse of the previous year.  While all the nominated films from 1928 are highly regarded, none of the 1929 nominees are thought of as 'good'.  The winner (The Broadway Melody) is usually ranked as one of the Worst Best Picture winners (35% on Rotten Tomatoes, 82nd out of 86 in the Online Film Critics Society poll), and the other nominees have a ranking of 43% (Alibi),  40% (The Hollywood Revue of 1929), and 56% (In Old Arizona) respectively.  The fifth nominee has no ranking, because The Patriot (the aforementioned silent film) is now lost (the only Best Picture nominee so affected).  For good or bad, it does have an audience rating of 60% and ONE positive review, so it has that going for it. 

In short, in the mad rush to get in on the latest thing, the Oscars did throw the baby out with the bathwater, and 1929 is seen as not only one of the weaker years in its history, but also one of the worst.  As I cover that year's nominees and winners, it is a sad task indeed.  Few if any of the winners are remembered (let alone the nominees), and if they are remembered at all, it is precisely because they were Academy Award winners or nominees, not for their own artistic or entertainment aspects.

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). 



The Broadway Melody
The Hollywood Revue of 1929
In Old Arizona
The Patriot

Yes, it is all so very strange. 

Alibi, a gritty tale of gangsters, is the only nominated film that is a contemporary story.  In Old Arizona is the first Western to be nominated and the first sound film shot outdoors (a remarkable feat indeed).  Out of all the nominees, the strangest (not just for this year, but perhaps of all time) is The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (also known as just The Hollywood Revue). 

The film lives up to its title: instead of having an actual plot, it is a series of vaudeville-like numbers where nearly the entire MGM roster does some kind of routine (Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, Sr., and Ramon Novarro being the only major stars missing from this all-star extravaganza, I imagine due to Garbo and Novarro's accents and Chaney's steadfast reluctance to go from The Man of a Thousand Faces to The Man of a Thousand Voices).  Sadly, most of the stars are now forgotten (when was the last time Hollywood Revue cohost Conrad Nagel entered into conversation).

The Hollywood Revue was made to show that MGM stars had voices.  Some stars managed to survive (Joan Crawford does a good song-and-dance number, Laurel & Hardy became greater in talkies, and Marie Dressler, despite her looks, became one of MGM's biggest stars). Curiously, while Buster Keaton is in the film, I don't recall that we actually heard HIS voice (which was in reality quite good).

Other stars did not fare so well as those mentioned; along with Nagel, other big names of the time like William Haines and Marion Davies (best remembered as the inspiration for Suzanne Alexander in Citizen Kane) soon faded.  The worst fate was that of John Gilbert, who while possessed of a respectable tenor voice was perceived as not having a good-enough voice to be a leading man.  In The Hollywood Revue, Gilbert joined Norma Shearer in a dramatic performance of the Balcony Scene from Romeo & Juliet, first playing it straight, then spoofing it.  Leaving apart the idea that when watching it is hard to know which was the actual spoof, it must have been more rational than when Shearer played it totally straight in a film version of the Shakespeare masterwork when Shearer was 13 going on 34. 

If The Hollywood Revue is remembered, it is for its big closing number (which was in Technicolor too), a little ditty called Singin' in the Rain.  Curiously, that year's winner also had tunes that would be recycled in the Gene Kelly masterpiece.  Those who watch The Broadway Melody will recognize songs like You Were Meant for Me and the title number (part of the massive Gotta Dance sequence).  Another song that is heard in Singin' in the Rain is The Wedding of the Painted Doll, and The Broadway Melody had this number in spectacular Technicolor.  Sadly, that footage is lost, leaving us with the not-so-spectacular black-and-white version.

This leads us to The Patriot, which like The Wedding of the Painted Doll's color sequence, is also lost. No complete print is known to exist.  That isn't to say that, with any luck, a complete print might turn up, but for the moment, The Patriot is not available to fully appreciate.


George Bancroft (Thunderbolt)
Warner Baxter (In Old Arizona)
Chester Morris (Alibi)
Paul Muni (The Valiant)
Lewis Stone (The Patriot)

Baxter managed the transition from silent to sound films, but time has not proven kind to either Baxter or his performance in In Old Arizona.  It's a safe bet that nobody remembers his role and a strong bet that apart from 42nd Street (where Baxter gave one of the most memorable lines in film, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've GOT to come back a STAR!), nobody remembers Baxter himself.  Out of all the nominees, Muni is the only one to have had a long and respected career afterward. 

Baxter's win sets a bad precedent.  He plays The Cisco Kid, making it the first time that an Anglo receives special recognition for playing a Hispanic.  Curiously, Paul Muni would follow suit when the Yiddish theater star would play Benito Juarez in Juarez (and looking like The Mexican Golem).  The fact that an Anglo played a Hispanic in film in 1929 (complete with thick Mexican accent that even my Mexican-born mother would find unrealistic) is not surprising.  The fact that Anglos play Hispanics in 2012 (example, Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo) is not just surprising, but an absolute scandal. 


Ruth Chatterton (Madame X)
Betty Compson (The Barker)
Jeanne Eagels (The Letter)
Corrine Griffith (The Divine Lady)
Bessie Love (The Broadway Melody)
Mary Pickford (Coquette)

Pickford's win is important for three reasons.  First, it was the first time an actress won an Oscar for playing against type.  Long known as "America's Sweetheart", Pickford had made a wildly successful career out of playing plucky and spunky heroines, more in tune with Victorian virtues.  In Coquette, "The Girl With the Golden Curls" bobs her hair and plays a flirtatious flapper, driving men to distraction and even murder.  Going against one's screen image to win Oscars was a lesson future actors learned well.  Shirley Jones and Donna Reed, both 'girls-next-door', won Oscars for playing women of ill repute in Elmer Gantry and From Here to Eternity respectively.  Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren downplayed their glamour and beauty and went on to win for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Two Women

More recently, good guy Denzel Washington won his second Oscar in part for playing the evil Detective Harris in Training Day, and Matthew McConaughey left his dim-witted, chest-baring himbo persona to play a homophobic redneck struck with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club

Second, it was the first successful Oscar campaign.  Pickford had written a letter to a former employee, "I don't care how I look.  I'm going after the Oscar" (and this was in the awards SECOND year).  She hosted members of the Academy (of which she was a founder) for teas at her palatial estate, Pickfair.  Regardless of how good the other actresses were, the award was in the bag, bought for the price of a good meal and favors called in. 

Third, it is the first de facto Lifetime Achievement Award.  In the documentary Mary Pickford, it is stated that people sensed her career was coming to an end and for everything she had done (fought for more artistic control, co-founded United Artists, made Hollywood both powerful and respectable), she more than deserved the award.  The actual quality of her performance was an afterthought.

Eagles achieved her own history-making with her sole nomination for The Letter.  It was the first posthumous nomination in the Academy's history.  She had died three months after the film's completion, though no one has ever firmly established the actual cause of death.


Lionel Barrymore (Madame X)
Harry Beaumont (The Broadway Melody)
Irving Cummings (In Old Arizona)
Frank Lloyd (The Divine Lady)
Frank Lloyd (Drag)
Frank Lloyd (Weary River)
Ernst Lubitsch (The Patriot)

Yep, Lloyd got three nominations, so I figure this gave him the edge come winner's time.  However, it is so confusing that even the Academy isn't sure if Drag and Weary River count as one or two nominations (it lists Lloyd as having two nominations, but I count three films).  Still, I count progress in that, while the Academy is still handing out multiple nominations at this time, Lloyd was singled out for ONE film rather than two or three.  In the future, this would be the standard, and it would become rare for people in major categories to receive more than one nomination in a single year, let alone in the same category (the last time I remember such a thing in the Director category was when Steven Soderbergh received Best Director nominations for both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning for the latter). 

Curiously, The Divine Lady is the ONLY film to win Best Director WITHOUT receiving a Best Picture nomination.  In the future, the reverse would be true (Best Picture nomination without its director receiving a nod), and while eventually Best Director and Best Picture would tend to go together, the Academy at least this year did spread the wealth around. 

Now that we've covered the categories, let's go over my choices.  I'm throwing in my own Shadow Nominees.


Lionel Barrymore (Madame X)
Harry Beaumont (The Broadway Melody)
Irving Cummings (In Old Arizona)
Frank Lloyd (The Divine Lady)
Frank Lloyd (Drag)
Frank Lloyd (Weary River)
Ernst Lubitsch (The Patriot)
G.W. Pabst (Diary of a Lost Girl)

Alas, one of the great films of 1929, Diary of a Lost Girl, is nowhere on the Academy's radar.  Certainly they could have thrown out one of Lloyd's three nominations and given Pabst one.  However, of the nominated directors, Lubitsch is the only one to resonate with modern audiences.  The Patriot seems a departure for Lubitsch, given he was known more for his sly, sophisticated comedies (hence the term, 'the Lubitsch Touch).  The Patriot is a biopic about Czar Paul I, as far from light, witty comedies as one can get.  Still, to think Lubitsch won only an Honorary Oscar seems a terrible disservice.


Ruth Chatterton (Madame X)
Betty Compson (The Barker)
Jeanne Eagels (The Letter)
Corrine Griffith (The Divine Lady)
Bessie Love (The Broadway Melody)
Mary Pickford (Coquette)
Louise Brooks (Diary of a Lost Girl)

Yes, I have not seen all the performances.  However, I have seen Coquette, and am hard-pressed to think THAT was the best performance of 1929.  Leaving aside the fact that a 37-year-old woman is trying to pass herself off as a girl of 17(!), Coquette has other flaws, major ones at that.  Mary Pickford said it best with narration by one of my favorite actresses (Laura Linney), "...the awkwardness of early sound production showed, and her choice of story was a mistake".  Stagey, lifeless, and oddly idiotic, Pickford if judging by the film either played it as if it were a silent film or just wasn't aware that it wasn't a comedy.  We can see how difficult, if not traumatic, the sudden shift from silent to sound was for all stars, even ones like Pickford, who had theater experience before she began making films.

Scott Eyman in his biography of Pickford (Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart), wrote, "As cinema, Coquette is paralytic, a devastating falling-off from the fluid, entirely satisfying My Best Girl" (her final silent picture).  He adds that if one compares clips from both films, it would be "an example of the terrible toll that was exacted on the cinema by the coming of sound".  He too agrees that her win was probably more for her overall body of work than this one embarrassing feature.  "Mary's Oscar for her inferior work in Coquette surely qualifies as the first Life Achievement Award to be handed by the Academy."  A contemporary review in Photoplay Magazine says it best, "It was a credible good try, but few could be found who would agree with the Academicians that it was last year's outstanding labor before the microphone".

I would have thrown Pickford out altogether and put in Louise Brooks' haunting and devastating work in Diary of a Lost Girl, but without that option I'm going for Eagles' The Letter.  Judging from the clips I've seen, her turn as the murderess who still loves the man she killed is a strong performance. 


George Bancroft (Thunderbolt)
Warner Baxter (In Old Arizona)
Chester Morris (Alibi)
Paul Muni (The Valiant)
Lewis Stone (The Patriot)

I can't say that I'm spoiled for choice.  I'm not particularly thrilled by any of the performances (and with Stone's lost, it is almost impossible to make a total judgment).  However, of the clips I have seen Morris strikes me as the best of a weak lot.  His Chick Williams, ruthless gangster, appears to be a performance that fits the bill.  Cold, calculating, selfish, but in the end terrified, Morris' only nomination, while forgotten and perhaps forgettable, looks better than Baxter's accented pseudo-Mexican.

And Now, My Choice for the Best Picture of 1929 is...


The Broadway Melody
Diary of a Lost Girl
The Hollywood Revue of 1929
In Old Arizona
The Patriot
Oy vey!  Talk about doing the best you can with what you've got.

I'm one of the few people who DOESN'T hate The Broadway Melody.  It's creaky, stagey, and at times perplexing in terms of plot (why would this Bizarre Love Triangle resolve itself so easily?).  Having seen it, I think it would have worked better as a silent film with sound sequences (like the musical numbers), like what The Jazz Singer did.  People forget that The Jazz Singer is not an all-talking film, just a silent film with the musical numbers in sound (after all, who could silence Al Jolson).   

In truth, I think Diary of a Lost Girl was the Best Film that year, but like a lot of good movies, it wasn't nominated.  Of the ones that were, I'm throwing out The Hollywood Revue.  A filmed vaudeville show as Best Picture? 

I brought it down to either The Patriot or Alibi, and it wasn't easy.  I think I might lean more towards The Patriot, but the clips I've seen of Alibi it looks like it could be a good movie.  Not a great movie, and not one that would rank high on the OFCS list.

One last note.  I've noticed that my Shadow Nominees are growing, so much so that I'm considering either a Part II for Tuesdays With Oscar (My Own Nominees and Winners) or a spin-off (Thursdays With Oscar?).  I'm leaning towards a Part II.  After all, Hollywood loves sequels. 

Next week, the 1930 Oscars.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Need For Speed: A Review


I have one memory of video games that date from this century.  It was when Halo was all the craze.  In an uncharacteristic move from my friends, they invited me to play Halo.  I had not come into contact with a joystick since perhaps Mrs. Pac-Man, so this was a surprise.  I did my best but it was clear I wasn't going to help them kill things.  I spent a large chunk of my time trying to figure out how to move my character, and for a few minutes all I could do was spin around in circles because I didn't know which buttons did what (no matter how often others gave vague hand gestures to help me out).  At one point, Nacho (who took Halo FAR too seriously), told me to basically just stay there and not move.  Actually, he said something harsher and in such a forceful manner that everyone just froze for a few seconds.  Needless to say, I got up and stormed out.  Nacho, realizing he'd gone too far, went after me, and it was at this point that I came as close as I hope to ever come to punching someone.  My arm was in position, he was just millimeters from my took all my strength to pull back.

I open my review for Need For Speed this way because I need to let people know that I have no idea what the source material is like.   I don't play video games and really never cared to.  Therefore, how close or far Need For Speed is something I can't say.  The film itself is nothing more than an excuse to show fast cars doing unbelievable things.  There are no actual characters or a real story behind Need For Speed.  Having said that, the film is not good, but nowhere near a disaster.

Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a racing legend in Mt. Kisco, New York, racing in local events.  His garage is having financial trouble, and while he and his crew do their best, things are not going well.  Enter Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper).  Even though he and Tobey have had a difficult relationship in the past, Dino offers a chance for Tobey to get out of debt if he does work on a Mustang to make it go even faster.  At the presentation, Tobey and his little buddy Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) brag about its speed to Julia (Imogen Poots), the car buyer's aide.  It does go fast, and while the car is sold for a bit less than what they hoped for it still fetches Tobey more than enough to get him out of debt.  Dino, however, challenges him to a winner-take-all prize.  Tobey reluctantly agrees, and his little buddy gets in on the race too, especially after he tells Tobey he had a 'vision' of Tobey winning the De Leon, a fabulously expensive underground race.

Pinkman's Revenge?

Well, as Tobey is about to win Pete is killed off in the race by Dino.  Tobey is held responsible, especially since he got out of his car to see about Pete (who had not only had a big rollover but flown off a bridge with his car on fire).  Two years later, he is out of prison for Pete's death, and he now wants revenge.  Somehow convincing the Mustang owner to let him borrow his car (with a reluctant Julia tagging along), they somehow manage to get from New York to California in less than 48 hours.  They do manage this, even stopping to get the old crew back together.  There is Joe Peck (Ramon Rodriguez), Finn (Rami Malek), and Benny (Scott Mescudi), who watches things from various planes and helicopters.  To try and stop Tobey, Dino puts a bounty on Tobey's head, telling others that he will give the person who wipes Tobey out one of his famous cars as payment.  An effort was made, but Tobey and Julia (who by now have fallen in love) do make it.  However, Tobey and Julia are hit just after they arrive in California and have registered in the De Leon.  Julia is forced to go to hospital and now Tobey and Dino must fight it out in the streets.

Curiously, Pete's sisters Anita (Dakota Johnson), who had been Dino's girlfriend and discovers that he had killed her brother, gives Tobey the car that places Dino at the scene of the crime all those years ago.  In the end, Dino gets his comeuppance, Tobey has to serve some time in jail (again) for the street racing and parole breaking, and he and Julia head off into the future.

One thing that I will be extremely negative on with Need For Speed is the 3-D.  I have complained often about 3-D (seeing it as the Work of the Devil).  Here, I found no reason why the film required such gimmicks.  Minus one or two brief moments, there was nothing that Need For Speed added with this cash-grab that wouldn't have worked without it.  Since I didn't pay for this ticket I am not complaining too much, but the film works well enough without 3-D and anyone interested in going to see it should stick with 2-D.

There are other things to point at to show Need For Speed is a dumb movie.  The script by George Gatins (with story by him and John Gatins) makes so many lousy decisions, and some very bizarre moments.  When in Detroit to get Finn back (and the film never answers how Tobey's crew fared after his imprisonment), Finn, who by now has a vague office job, decides to quit then and there.  He does this by slowly stripping off all his clothes (stopping to kiss a girl along the way) and leave the building completely naked.  While it is good to see Malek is in fine physical form, what this has to do with anything (apart from making him look completely insane) we don't know.

Other elements in this movie (far too long in its two-hour plus running time) that are put in are pretty much waste of our time.  The rivalry between Dino and Tobey is suppose to be lifelong, but oddly none of Tobey's friends or Anita think Dino would be capable of murder.  Joe does, since he scowls at Dino during the funeral, but rather than try to exonerate his friend or prove Dino guilty, he pretty much disappears from the screen until needed.  The romance between Julia and Tobey doesn't come across as real, playing as though this were something that is suppose to happen.  Benny's quick quips proved more annoying than endearing, and whenever we are away from the cars the movie sputters (pun intended).

Another aspect in Need For Speed that is lacking is logic.  This De Leon race (which made me think was a version of The Cannonball Run) is suppose to be this secret underground race.  However, its impresario Monarch (Michael Keaton going all-out bonkers) apparently hosts a podcast and broadcasts the race live online.  Making things more confusing is Benny's actions.  He is this ace pilot who manages to take an Apache helicopter, complete with Army co-pilot (how we don't know) and also manages to get the illegal race shown to him in an army jail thanks to a pretty army guard. 

No worries.
I got two Emmys.

I'd say Benny is the most annoying character in his goofy persona (at one point, he manages to take a news helicopter and manages to zoom the camera at three hot women running by the water).  However, given that the performances aren't what one goes for in Need For Speed, we can forgive a lot.  We can forgive Cooper cashing a check as Dino, who is so obviously evil he doesn't bother to try to make him even remotely pleasant.  We can also forgive Keaton also cashing a check.  In his favor, he made Monarch into this bonkers figure who pretty much knew he was crazy and didn't care.   Poots was apparently never sure how she was suppose to come across: as either a bright capable woman or a dim-witted damsel in distress.

As for Paul, well, first I was surprised how deep his voice was.  However, having seen only one episode of Breaking Bad, he might have had that strong voice all this time.  There really was nothing in the script for Paul (or any actor) to latch onto, but in Paul's favor he played it as though he knew the script was weak and did the best he could with it. 

One thing in Need For Speed's favor is the multi-ethnic cast.  As someone who has been highly critical of how minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood, Need For Speed had a full mix of actors whose ethnicity was irrelevant.  There was a Hispanic, an African-American, and even an Arab-American with major parts, and moreover they weren't asked to play up stereotypes or used as tokens.  In short, they were allowed to play characters, not caricatures.  No mention was made that Joe Peck was played by a Latino, or that Finn was Arab.  This I consider a positive step.

There is no getting away from the shadow cast by the Fast & Furious franchise, and while Need For Speed at times plays like F&F's poor relation (yes, right down to the multicultural cast), a big benefit comes from the actual car chases/stunts.  There was virtually no CGI in Need For Speed, which made some of the stunt work all the more impressive.  Of particular note was when Tobey had to have his Mustang filled up as he was driving (not safe in so many ways) and when in Detroit he flies across a tree. 

When it comes to the stunts, director Scott Waugh delivers the goods.  When it comes to everything else (story, performances, plot), he apparently didn't bother.   

I wavered between recommending or not recommending Need For Speed.  I think this is the type of film that knows it's pretty much nonsense from the get-go and makes few if any apologies for it.  This is not a movie one needs to speed to (and especially not for 3-D).  It is far too long and nowhere near justifies its punishing length (stretches of time are wasted on needless things, like Julia and Tobey's getaway in Nebraska).  The situations, plot, and performances are clichéd and dumb.   However, the car scenes and mindless (and I do mean mindless) entertainment value of Need For Speed make it something to watch if nothing else is on and if you just want to images to wash over you.  It won't tax your mind, don't worry about following the story or thinking you will watch great performances (it has none), so just sit back and enjoy the ride. 


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Masterpieces Volume II: 2009-2014

Now we've reached that point, where I must put my reputation on the line.

Which films released since I started reviewing movies do I think rank among the greatest films ever made?

There were only 41 films released since I began writing that I would put as Masterpieces, films that I thoroughly loved and which I think are as close to perfect as possible.  Yes, I am extremely picky.  I am not easily swayed and am extremely tough.  However, given that I am asked to pony up my hard-earned money and am asked to spend time with all these films, I think I should be tough.

I don't trust people who think EVERYTHING is brilliant, nor do I trust those who think EVERYTHING is awful.  I go by whether the film in question did what it wanted to (thrill me, make me laugh, make me cry) and whether it did it well.  That is my primary criteria: did the film achieve what it set out to do?  Also, did it do it well?  Was the story good?  What about the performances?

As it was with our last list, we have many genres to choose from: comedies, dramas, action, animated, foreign-language, documentaries, horror, romance, biopics.  I am not someone who thinks comedies can't be brilliant or horror has no place among Great Films. 

This list is made up of films that earned an A from me.  Enjoy! 

Adam & Dog (Animated Short) (2012)
Argo (2012)
The Artist (2011)
Black Swan (2010)
Citadel (2012)

Curfew (Short Film) (2012)
Death of a Shadow (Short Film) (2012)
The Fighter (2010)
Frozen (2013)
Gravity (2013)
The Hangover (2009)
Her (2013)
Hugo (2011)

Inception (2010)
Jane Eyre (2011)
Nebraska (2013)
Paperman (Animated Short) (2012)
Pariah (2011)

Philomena (2013)
Senna (2011)
The Sessions (2012)
Toy Story 3 (2010)
UP (2009)

I hope that in the following years, I will find more films to which to thrill to.

Again, too high?  Let me know and I would be happy to give the film in question a Second Look. 

Next time, those which earned a B+, films that were close to being Masterpieces but fell just a touch short.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Oscars Take Flight

Emil Jannings:
Best Actor for The Last Command and
The Way of All Flesh


In the first of our Tuesdays with Oscar series, we go back to the very first Academy Awards in 1928.  It's a curious thing that the Academy Awards were not the spectacle they have become.  In fact, there wasn't all that much interest in the Oscars (as they were later to be called) for some time.

The winners had all been announced months earlier, and some, like Herr Jannings, didn't even think it worth their time to attend the celebratory dinner.  He got his Oscar, then left to his native Germany after talking pictures made his German accent highly noticeable.  It's a good thing he kept it though: the story goes that he used it to identify himself after the fall of Nazi Germany, with whom he had worked with in their film industry.  A terrified Jannings is alleged to have walked to American troops waving his Oscar before him, almost as a protective talisman to show he once had been in America and wasn't 'the enemy'. 

Now, it is a strange case this brief review of my own choices.  First, there are certain categories which no longer exist.  The most obvious is Best Title Writing, since the next year sound basically would kill off silent films.  The Academy also had separate categories for Comedy and Drama Directing, which are now lumped into one Best Director. 

Then there is the issue of Most Unique and Artistic Production.  This was a separate category from Outstanding Production, and it has bedeviled retrospectives ever since.  The winner of that category, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, is sometimes listed as a Best Picture winner alongside the Outstanding Production winner, Wings.  The following year, the Academy created ONE Best Picture category, and decided Wings was the Best Picture of 1928, so poor Sunrise was left out.  For this retrospective, I'm going with the Academy and choose to think Sunrise received an Honorary Oscar.

HOWEVER, I'll throw in all six nominees from both Unique and I guess Non-Unique along with all five Best Directors and see what happens.

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). 



The Racket
Seventh Heaven

Of the three choices I figure each is pretty good.  The Racket and Seventh Heaven both have a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, Wings a little behind at 97%.   I've seen Wings, and think it is a fantastic film.   


Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
The Crowd
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Here, I find myself spoiled for choice.  We have Chang (at 100%), The Crowd (at 95%) and Sunrise (at 98%).  In short, each of these films is considered to be extraordinary.  I really haven't heard anyone say anything negative against any of these films.   


Richard Barthelmess (The Noose and The Patent Leather Kid)
Emil Jannings (The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command)

Sadly, The Way of All Flesh has lived up to its title and gone 'the way of all flesh'.   Fortunately, it is the only Academy Award-winning performance which is lost, and I think no other nominated performance has been lost (though don't hold me to that).   In regards to Barthelmess or either of his films, I don't think anyone remembers them.  That to me is important.  Sometimes if a nominated performance is better remembered than the winning one, then history may have given a different verdict than the Academy.  That, however, is for another time.  For the moment in this case, I'm siding with the Academy.

However, I am adding my very first Shadow nominee: George O'Brien in Sunrise.  The fall to temptation from The Woman From the City to his eventual redemption thanks to the love of The Wife is a moving, heartbreaking, and emotional performance (emotional in the good sense). 


Louise Dresser (A Ship Comes In)
Janet Gaynor (Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise)
Gloria Swanson (Sadie Thompson)

It seems a cheat to have one person nominated for THREE performances while the other two nominees only have one to their name.  However, in terms of performances I'm going to err on the side of caution and give the edge to Gaynor.  HOWEVER, I'm giving it for ONE performance, not three. 

I also add another Shadow nominee: Clara Bow in Wings.  In turns flirtatious and innocent, the It Girl gave a beautiful performance worthy of recognition. 


Frank Borzage (Seventh Heaven)
Herbert Brennon (Sorrell and Son)
King Vidor (The Crowd)

I don't think anyone remembers Sorrell and Son, so the battle would be between Borzage's well-respected Seventh Heaven and Vidor's equally well-respected The Crowd.  The Academy opted for Borzage, and I think part of it was because MGM's Louis B. Meyer (which made The Crowd), did not like its gritty realism or downbeat ending.  With that, Borzage may be the first person to win thanks to a negative campaign against another nominee.


Lewis Milestone (Two Arabian Knights)
Ted Wilde (Speedy)

There has been, every so often, a push to get Comedy and Drama categories for the Academy.  It's interesting that in its inception, Directors were split between these two genres.  For the only time in its history, an Academy Award was presented specifically for a comedy.  In future years, the number of actual comedies to win Best Director would be few and far between.

And now, the fun part.  The somewhat chaotic nature of the first Oscars had two categories for Director and Picture.  I have decided to lump them together as if the current rules of one category for each existed.  With that, my own choices for Best Director and Best Picture of 1928. 


King Vidor (The Crowd)
Frank Borzage (Seventh Heaven)
Herbert Brennon (Sorrell and Son)
Ted Wilde (Speedy)
Lewis Milestone (Two Arabian Knights)

First, the failure to not nominate F. W. Murnau for Sunrise is the very first Oscar snub.  I therefore make him a Shadow Nominee.  However, since I can't unilaterally add his name, I go with the ones I have.  Speedy has a special place in my heart because it is a film starring one of my all-time favorites, Harold Lloyd (and frankly, if I had chosen Best Comedy Director, Wilde would have won over  Milestone since Two Arabian Knights isn't as well-remembered as Speedy).  However, of the five men here, I think Vidor has been the most influential and The Crowd the most admired in terms of directing.  Hence, my choice. 

Vidor would receive five Academy Award nominations for Best Director, losing all five times.  He did receive an Honorary Oscar in 1979, three years before his death.

And now, My Choice for the Best Picture of 1928 is...


Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
The Crowd
The Racket
Seventh Heaven
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

1939 is regarded as the Greatest Year in Film History.  I agree: each of those year's Best Picture nominees are extraordinary.  Similarly, 1928 has a whole slew of great films, each regarded as a masterpiece (an idea I won't argue with).  However, which of these films truly is the Greatest of Them All? 

For me, again historic memory plays a factor.  Sunrise is still regarded as a milestone of American cinema, and I say 'American' because the director was German and Sunrise plays like a great German Expressionist film.   Here, we have the classic struggle of the Academy: between the 'artistic' and the 'epic'.  Sometimes the Academy chose a film that is 'art' even if time has weakened the film's influence or artistic merits.  Sometimes it chose the biggest film over smaller productions of greater quality.  I don't argue Wings selection: the film is still wildly impressive with its camera work (the flying scenes especially so). 

However, on the whole of all the nominees, for the moment, my choice is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which is largely forgotten by the Academy.

Next week, the 1929 Oscars.