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Have you ever wondered why some critics review films? They don't even seem to like movies that much from what they write. I LOVE movies, and think about them long after the last credits roll across the screen. My reviews are meant to inform, entertain and never have a spoiler.
Enjoy my reviews and please comment and come back frequently! Thanks for visiting!

The theme for my Blogging A-Z Challenge 2017 focuses on films that won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Usual Suspects

I remember seeing The Usual Suspects when it was first released in 1995. It begins in a kind of film noir setting, the music befitting the line of fire reaching across a boat to an explosion. I didn’t remember all the details of the story before watching it again for the Challenge, just the aha moments.

This time around, I can’t say I liked it any better. The aha moments were still there, but it grew tiresome with the explosions, gunfire, death and crime.

Actors who appear in this film went on to bigger and better films, especially for Kevin Spacey and Benecio del Toro.

Basically, you get five men in a lineup, supposedly randomly thrown together in a jail cell, where they plot their next big job. An unlikely grouping, there is Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), a man with cerebral palsy that others think is stupid, Fred Fenster (Benecio del Toro), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin; whatever happened to him?), Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack).

Verbal gets interrogated by a couple of police officers, Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya) and Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) about an incident, and the story unfolds. Verbal narrates throughout the film, a device that doesn’t always work in a good film, but it does here.

Kevin Spacey won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance. I think the reason this screenplay won at the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay is because it had so many twists and turns to the plot. Just when you think you know what’s going on, another piece of information arises from the police or a victim, or from Verbal himself. And there’s this man named Keyser Soze who comes up.

Who is Keyser Soze? You will wonder about this. Is he like the La Llorona legend in New Mexico? Kids are told scary bedtime stories about someone you don’t want to cross or you’ll have a stroke of misfortune. Someone who doesn’t really exist, just a phantom to give you nightmares.

Or if he really does exist, he is one bad dude and you still don’t want to cross paths with him.

This film received a lot of prestigious nominations for the screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie, and included his winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The Usual Suspects is rated R for violence and a substantial amount of strong language.

Out of the films I’ve reviewed so far, I don’t recommend it. I’ll give you a list at the end of my 26 posts of what I do and don’t recommend for your edification.

I’m just tired of violent films with the f-word thrown around like it’s part of our language. Tired of gun battles and casual murdering of people, as bad as they might be. We need more screenplays that tell good stories about more realistic situations we may encounter, not like these criminals that most of us aren’t.

Did you see The Usual Suspects, and what did you think of it?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Talk to Her (Hable con elle)

Talk to Her (Hable con elle) is a Spanish film from 2002, written and directed by Pedro Almodovar. It won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. It is subtitled, and is rated R for nudity, sexual content and some language.

This is one of the most interesting films I have ever seen. Benigno (Javier Camara) is a nurse working in a private clinic. He is one of two caregivers for the beautiful Alicia (Leonor Watling) who is in a coma following an accident. It has been four years for Alicia in this state, when Lydia (Rosario Flores), a bullfighter, is brought in after being gored. She is in a vegetative state, and her boyfriend Marco (Dario Grandinetti) is distraught at her condition. A friendship develops between Benigno and Marco, the kind nurse attempting to lift Marco’s spirits and get him to just talk to Lydia, despite her comatose state.

Alicia was a ballerina prior to her accident: active, loving travel and cinema, and Benigno lives her life for her by going to dance performances, watching films, doing these things she loved, in a way doing them for her. He tells her all about these experiences in the quiet hours of caring for her.

The dance sequences in the film are fascinating, and the esteemed ballet dancer and choreographer, Pina Bausch, dances in one of them. Alicia’s ballet teacher Katarina (Geraldine Chaplin) visits her often at the clinic. (Geraldine Chaplin is the daughter of Charlie and Oona Chaplin, and the granddaughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. She has had a long career in film, beginning early on with a role in Doctor Zhivago.)

Javier Camara plays Benigno with such innocence and openness, you can’t help but feel for him. I saw another film he was in, Living is Easy With Eyes Closed, reviewed on this site (enter the film’s name on the blog search feature above, and it will take you to my review). This was an excellent film also from Spain I recommend to you.

Pedro Almodovar is known for innovative, unusual film subjects. Talk to Her is no exception, filled with metaphor and symbolism in the way he writes and films his story. The story of Benigno, Alicia, Lydia and Marco unfolds as it moves forward, and also informs us of how these relationships were initiated by taking us into their past. Past and present gives the story is a sort of timelessness. The cinematography is first rate as well.

Will Lydia and Alicia awaken from their comas? How will Benigno and Marco cope with them lying so still in a coma? Almodovar has written a beautiful screenplay about being human, about art and expression, love and relationships, selflessness, and hope.

If you like art cinema and foreign film, you will enjoy Talk to Her. I didn’t care for the bullfighting, but what was shown was minimal and not like it would have been depicted in a more graphic film.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love, released in 1998, won seven Oscars at the Academy Awards. It’s a fictional tale about William Shakespeare, so don’t expect a biography! I don’t think you need to know much about Shakespeare to watch this film. It’s about one man’s muse, how he becomes inspired and creative, and his muse is the beautiful Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow). Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, playwrights with many writing credits to their names, wrote the screenplay. You’ve probably heard of the famous play Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed and filmed stories. That’s all the Shakespeare you really have to know.

Young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has a bad case of writer’s block. He’s not perfect, and not making much money off his career as a playwright. Viola loves the poetry of Shakespeare and dresses as a man to get a place onstage. Meanwhile, her marriage to the gold-digger Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) is pending.

When Will meets Viola, the words flow effortlessly onto the page, even with the added handicap of writing with a quill dipped in ink. Will finds inspiration in every encounter he has with Viola and it comes across in his writing. The language is so rich and beautiful in this film. I appreciated the references to other works of Shakespeare’s, not that I am by any means an expert on his plays.

Other actors play good roles and they later developed long, ongoing careers in film, including Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett, Ben Affleck, yes, Ben Affleck, as an actor who plays Mercutio. Imelda Staunton plays Viola’s nurse and confidant most engagingly.

Gwyneth is luminous in her role as Viola, and Joseph Fiennes is passionate in all he does. The costumes are ludicrous, but well designed for the times. The film serves to point out how little opportunity women had at this time, 1593. We have come a long way, but not far enough as recent events would have us realize.

Does Shakespeare in Love live up to what Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) asked Will for: a play to show the meaning of true love? I think it does. It’s also a story of actors, how they long to play their roles and give it all they’ve got on stage. It’s about the rehearsals, how everyone wants to tell Will how to write his play. The characters are a microcosm of the entertainment world.

In addition to Best Original Screenplay, Shakespeare in Love also won Best Picture, Best Actress and Supporting Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design and Best Original Musical Score. It is rated R for sexuality, an unfortunate rating; I think PG-13 would be more appropriate given the worldliness of teens today. This is a movie that should be watched by all serious screenwriters, as it is a tribute to the trials and tribulations of the writer. Norman and Stoppard have crafted a beautiful script that we can all be entertained by.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Red Balloon (Le ballon rouge)

The Red Balloon (Le ballon rouge) is an interesting exception to a winning Best Original Screenplay in that it is a short film. Released in 1956, it is a French film by Albert Lamorisse, who both wrote and directed this delightful 34-minute classic. It also won the Palme d’Or for best short film at the Cannes Film Festival.

Nearly a silent movie with very little dialogue, it follows the adventures of a little boy, Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse) after he finds a red balloon. The balloon turns out to have magical powers, and follows the boy around the streets of Paris, to school, to his home, and to his childhood playgrounds. The red balloon is almost like a pet, loyal and faithful.

It is beautifully filmed, and the streets of Paris are as narrow and winding as I recall from when I visited this beautiful city. Being filmed in 1956, Paris appears to have not recovered from the war totally. There are lots of crumbling buildings around and vacant lots where boys challenge each other and carry on with their rough games and bullying.

We see Pascal and the red balloon head off to school, the little children joining him in the queue to enter the building, so cute in their school clothes, marching in with child size briefcases. Most of the boys are wearing shorts, and the girls sweet little dresses. There is magic in the air for certain wherever this balloon goes. The musical score nicely complements the adventures of Pascal and his red balloon.

The little boy, Pascal, is the son of the director and writer. His daughter Sabine also appeared in the movie. I imagine the streets where this was filmed now looks completely different some 50 years later.

The Red Balloon is the only short film to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Why this was placed in with the full-length features that year is up for speculation. It was a groundbreaking film at the time, which is why I suppose it was included.

There are Academy Award categories for Live Action Short, Animated Short, and Documentary Short. They can be no longer than 40 minutes in length, including the credits (The Red Balloon was 34 minutes!). This year I was able to watch all three categories of nominated shorts at my local art cinema. I enjoyed them immensely, and I recommend you seek them out next year prior to the awards ceremony. They may be short, but tell a good story in as little as a few minutes. The creativity, skill, and talent that go into these short films amazes me.

It’s interesting that balloons are such a joy to so many children and even to adults. They’re colorful, light and airy, and with helium in them, they float to the ceiling. What is it about them that is so appealing to you? Perhaps you could share a story in the comments below about a favorite memory with balloons in your own life.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Queen

The Queen, released in 2006, was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and Best Original Screenplay. I couldn’t find a film beginning with the letter Q that had won Best Original Screenplay, so resorted to a list of those that had been nominated. Helen Mirren won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. (Best Original Screenplay that year went to Little Miss Sunshine.)

I remember well exactly where I was in my life when I heard that Princess Diana had died. I was shocked and angry at the paparazzi that surely contributed to the fatal accident. I had never been one to follow Diana’s activities with zealous interest, and yet I certainly had heard enough about her to mourn the loss of this special woman.

The Queen examines the week following Diana’s death from the perspective of the royal family, and that of recently elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). The Queen’s initial reluctance to acknowledge Diana’s death publicly was a mistake she was severely criticized for. Some of what is depicted is surely the result of writers/filmmakers’ creative imagination, but it all serves to make a point about Diana’s tragic death. I appreciated the film as one who is not all that familiar with the British monarchy and England’s strange obeisance to a centuries old tradition of honoring this genealogical line. I came away from the film having gained some insight into the tradition that uses God’s will as a reason for this family’s privilege.

The scenery shown as the royal family goes stalking (hunting) in the week following Diana’s death is stark, yet beautiful. It is a part of the British Isles I had not seen before: 40,000 mountainous and mostly treeless acres belonging to the royal family.

The Queen and Prince Philip (James Cromwell) are at Balmoral Castle, along with Diana’s sons and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) and eventually return to London where they see the mourners and tributes that have been left to honor Diana in front of the palace. Diana was the “People’s Princess,” well loved and respected, despite the divorce that seems to have scandalized the royal family more than the general public.

Liberal use of archival footage of Princess Diana is sprinkled throughout the film. I thought that this must have been a very stressful time for Mr. Blair, having just met the Queen and then dealing with the public’s reaction to what appeared to them to be a lack of sympathy for the death of Diana, their heroine.

The film is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. If you remember Diana fondly, I think you will appreciate this film. Helen Mirren is a great actress and her role as Queen Elizabeth is one that likely gave her many challenges, especially being that the Queen is still alive. Although it is the Queen’s story being told here, for me it was really all about remembering Diana. And for that reason, I recommend The Queen.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Piano

Released in 1993, The Piano won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay for Jane Campion, who was also the director, Best Actress for Holly Hunter, and Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin. The Piano also won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize given at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is rated R for moments of extremely graphic sexuality. I don’t know why they didn’t include mention of an extreme violent act in that explanation, as that is what truly deserved the R rating.

The film is alternately depressing, erotic, tense, cruel, and loving. If I could describe it for you in a term often used for a particular genre of novel, I’d say it is literary, and metaphorical at times. Jane Campion has written a screenplay that goes deep beneath the surface of what we see occurring between the characters. It’s a story of love, jealousy, rage and perseverance in an extremely harsh climate in 1850’s New Zealand.

Ada (Holly Hunter) is a mute Scottish woman whose father is marrying her off to Stewart (Sam Neill), a landowner in New Zealand. She and her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) arrive on the tumultuous shores with their few belongings, including Ada’s cherished piano. Ada does not speak, and expresses herself through playing her piano. She uses some type of sign language with her daughter, or writes messages to those around her when she wants to communicate something to them.

She is not enamored of Stewart who initially gives her some distance in order for her to get to know him and hopefully develop some affection for him. A neighbor, quite friendly with the local Maori tribes people, is George Baines (Harvey Keitel). He is attracted to Ada, and this leads to events that change everyone’s lives.

The forests of New Zealand are wet and dreary, filled with mud from downpours of rain, and hardly any sun. It is not a hospitable environment at all, and it looks as if no one ever really dries out. Despite this, Ada and Flora attempt to make the best of it. In contrast, the scenes set ocean side are particularly beautiful, Ada playing the piano while Flora cavorts about doing cartwheels and making patterns in the sand with stones.

Both actresses give really outstanding performances. Holly Hunter doesn’t say a word except for brief voice over’s at the beginning and end of the film. Her actions and facial expressions have to tell her whole story, as does her piano playing, which was actually Holly playing the piano. Anna Paquin has such a strong well-developed character in Flora, and she was only nine years old at the time. Her emotional outbursts contrast nicely with the stolidity of her mother Ada. We never really hear the truth about Flora’s father, or at least I suspect we haven’t, as Flora is a bit of a storyteller.

I have found that people either love or hate The Piano. It’s all up to the subjective tastes of the viewer.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On the Waterfront

Winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and Best Original Screenplay, On the Waterfront is a classic for all time. A black and white film from 1954, it was filmed on the seaside loading docks of New York. The gritty story is still significant today; only the players have changed.

Terry (Marlon Brando) and his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) have gotten mixed up with Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who terrorizes the longshoremen in the union. The corrupt union bosses run the show and says who will and will not work each day, essentially owning them and ignoring any rights the union has granted them.

Terry unknowingly leads a man to his death at the hands of the thugs who are loyal to Johnny Friendly, and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the man’s sister, is on a mission to find the murderers. Terry falls in love with Edie and their tentative relationship is romantic and sweet. Father Barry (Karl Malden) becomes involved fighting the union bosses out of a social conscience, liberally augmented by his Catholicism. He riles up the men working on the docks to stand up to Johnny Friendly and his thugs. This only increases the bloodshed.

Elia Kazan directed the film, and I watched an extra feature on the DVD to learn more about the film and the times in which it was made. There was a fascinating piece interviewing mostly Rod Steiger and James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio, about the famous scene between Charley and Terry, who was a former boxer, in the taxicab. “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody,” Terry tells him. A powerful scene between the two brothers and a movie line that is repeated again and again was born.

In a biography of Marlon Brando I read that he didn’t really hold acting in such high esteem and only did it for the money. If that is true, what he did for the money was of such high quality, you just know he gave every performance all he had.

The other Academy Awards handed out were to Eva Marie Saint for Best Supporting Actress, Best Director for Elia Kazan, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Film Editing. Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay.

On the Waterfront is one film you should watch if you haven’t seen it already, or watch again if you saw it years ago. The message is still relevant to today. The corrupt union bosses, and the crime they brought with them, has been replaced by large corporations who still rob workers of their rightful wages and their rights as workers, and their right to be treated with humanity. The greed of Johnny Friendly equals the greed of any CEO of any corporation that exists today. Working class people just want to live, support their families and experience love like anyone else. On the Waterfront confronts the corrupt system, but who will confront corruption today? Each one of us.