Alfie (1966)

alfie

Starring: Michael Caine, Vivien Merchant (her debut), Jane Asher (aka Paul McCartney’s girlfriend at the time), Julia Foster, Shelley Winters, Millicent Martin

Director: Lewis Gilbert

Summary: A British womanizer refuses to grow up

Other Nominations: Actor (Caine), Supporting Actress (Merchant), Adapted Screenplay, Original Song (“Alfie”)

Positives

-Michael Caine was perfectly cast, as his natural charm (especially during the scenes where he breaks the 4th wall) makes the inherently loathsome nature of his character tolerable to watch when he is the 100% focus of the entire movie.

-While it takes a long time getting there, the movie really does finish out well with the last 35 minutes or so. His character has a lot of growth that feels natural, and the movie it does a good job exploring just how empty his character is.

Negatives

-Until the last act, it really is just a film about misanthrope going from one woman to another without any growth from the character or a lot of new exploration of him from the story once he’s introduced. It’s still better than in Tom Jones because the tone is much more critical of the character and Caine is very good, but it gets pretty monotonous pretty quickly.

-Despite it’s overall moral, all the female characters besides Shelley Winters are painted as weak-willed and almost with a need to be dominated or treated badly. While there are some women like that in the world, it paints a very wide brush and has not aged well.

Overall

It ends on a good note and Caine elevates this way above what it otherwise would have been, it’s still not all that good because of how long it takes to get somewhere with its character and the underlying (and ironic) misogyny.

Rating: C

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*A Man for All Seasons (1966)*

seasons

Starring: Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt, Nigel Davenport, Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw, Susannah York, Corin Redgrave, Orson Welles

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Summary: A devout scholar gets caught in the middle of Henry VIII’s plans to break with the Catholic Church

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Scofield)*, Supporting Actor (Shaw), Supporting Actress (Hiller), Adapted Screenplay*, Color Cinematography*, Color Costume Design*

Positives

-Great performances from most of the cast, but especially Scofield and Shaw. Scofield is understated, but when he raises his voice it means something. He lends the character the dignity and intelligent that is called for in spades and you can see why he won Best Actor. Shaw is a fun ham playing Henry VIII as a giant kid and gives the movie a jolt of energy in the first half when it needs it.

-More is a good character once the story really gets rolling in the second half. He’s a jurist and an Englishman who knows exactly what the law is and upholds the letter of it completely, yet he’s foremost a Catholic who will not compromise his soul for any price. While he very rarely shows passion, his intelligence and rightness of his arguments under the law (if not under God) combined with the strong writing combine for a fairly compelling character.

Negatives

-Before the fat hits the fire and More really has to make a choice about his course of action, it’s not all that interesting and feels dry for the most part. You know the conflict is coming, but it takes too long in getting there and the more entertaining parts of More’s personality don’t show up as much here as they do later. Even in the second half, the pacing is a bit slow, but the first half half is where you really feel it.

-There’s a number of characters who could have been cut out with little to no impact, which isn’t a good thing-Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), and More’s daughter and son in law (York and Redgrave) feel superfluous and add very little to the movie or its themes.

Overall

A good film with a great cast and performances from them along with some really good dialogue as well. The big let-down is how slowly the movie starts without a lot really there to grab onto in the first half.

Rating: B

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)

russians

Starring: Alan Arkin (in his feature film debut), Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford, Theodore Bikel, John Phillip Law

Director: Norman Jewison

Summary: When a Russian sub runs aground in New England, it creates a local panic

Other Nominations: Actor (Arkin), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

Positives

-This was an extremely bold movie for the time in that the Russians (Russian military men even) aren’t portrayed as villainous. It’s a movie about Cold War hysteria and paranoia on both sides and remembering our common humanity with each other-it was one of the rare movies of this period with a political theme that was well-received in both countries.

-Arkin is pretty good as the main Russian from the submarine (and looks a lot like 80s Freddie Mercury) even if I don’t think he should have gotten an Oscar nomination.

Negatives

-This is a movie that tries to be a lot of things and yet never gets any of them completely right. While it has some funny moments, there are long stretches that don’t have many laughs-it’s a madcap comedy that has too much of a point to go whole hog ala It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (which shares some stylistic similarities with this film). It’s only a decent satire on the Cold War mindset, as it doesn’t dig as deep there as it would have needed to be something really good in that direction. Finally, at its core it’s a light-hearted message movie, but it gets heavy-handed and blunt towards the end there, especially with the romance subplot involving Law and the ending with the kid. Points for trying, but it needed to pick a direction (or even just two of them) and commit to being just that to be really effective.

-Carl Reiner’s considerable talents are kind of wasted here, as he only gets one really good scene where he can go all-out humor-wise (the one where he’s tied up in the phone operator room)

Overall

Kudos for going out a limb in politically sensitive times with a good message that isn’t as overbearing as something like a Stanley Kramer movie, but it’s unfortunately not that funny, not that great a satire and sometimes it becomes too sentimental considering the tone of the movie as a whole.

Rating: C-

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

sand

Starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Marayat Andriane (in her debut), Mako, Candice Bergen

Director: Robert Wise

Summary: A naval engineer stationed in 1926 China defies local authorities to rescue a group of missionaries

Other Nominations: Actor (McQueen), Supporting Actor (Mako), Original Score, Sound Mixing, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-Based on the plot summary, the poster, its star (and if I had watched it, the trailer), I was expecting an exciting adventure war movie, ala Guns of Navarone, but boy is this not that. Instead, it’s a gritty anti-war movie (with some strong Vietnam undertones even if they may not have been fully intentional) with some brutal scenes for the time and almost no action or excitement until the last 30 minutes. It took me a while for me to accept that this was a completely different movie than I thought it would be, but the last hour was very good.

-McQueen is never going to emote very much, but he was great at picking the right kinds of roles for himself. Even if this isn’t his most memorable performance, he’s still good and rises to the occasion when he needs to in the film.

Negatives

-I said the last hour was really good, which is true; the problem is that the first two hours are pretty weak. Maybe some of it was because I was expecting something else, but regardless I think it really drags most of the time. You have some big highpoints, but most of it lacks drama, tension, strong character development (beyond “boy, almost everybody in this movie is a horrible person for one reason or another”) or the kind of things that would have made the build to the finale worth watching. This movie would have been improved with another round of editing.

-This was only Bergen’s second ever film role, and she’s not polished at all yet. It doesn’t help that she’s a completely disposable, no personality love-interest, but nothing about her in the movie works well.

Other Stuff

-This cast is full of people who would go on to be remembered for other roles later in their careers: you have John Hammond from Jurassic Park (and the guy who directed Gandhi), Col. Trautman from the Rambo movies, Murphy Brown, the narrator/Japanese guy from Conan the Barbarian, and the woman who would later go on to be credited as the writer of the novel that was the basis of the many Emmanuelle movies (if you haven’t heard of them, I wouldn’t look it up, but needless to say the 70s was different as to what kinds of films could be box office successes); it would later come out that her husband had written the book, although she may have helped.

Overall

Overly long and sometimes tedious war drama that does redeem itself greatly during the last act, and with it’s lead performance and effective anti-war themes at a time when that was still a fairly bold move.

Rating: C+

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

woolf

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis

Director: Mike Nichols (His debut)

Summary: An academic couple reveal their deepest secret to a pair of newcomers during an all-night booze fest

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Burton), Actress (Taylor)*, Supporting Actor (Segal), Supporting Actress (Dennis)*, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Mixing, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography*, B&W Costume Design*, Film Editing

Positives

-It’s amount of strong language and sheer ugliness was what caught the attention of so many at the time of its release, but the film is still a classic today because of its vivid characters, dialogue and themes. Few movies before or since have explored a long-married couple with the kind of raw intensity and depth that this one does-these are two people who in a way hate each other’s guts and cannot stand to look at one another after years of bitter disappointments based on what they expected their lives together to be like; on the other hand, they’re the only ones each other has and each know that they need a partner to delude them to make the pain go away, if for just a little bit. The contrast between the two couples is interesting, with both being deeply flawed in different ways.

-This is one of three movies where the entire credited cast was nominated for Oscars for their performances (Since, Sleuth (Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine) and Give ‘Em Hell Harry! (James Whitmore) also accomplished this), and they are deserved. Picking the glamour couple of Taylor and Burton to play the frumpy George and Martha was basically stunt casting, but the gamble not only paid off, but they are incredible. I don’t consider either of them to be great actors (just good), but they easily give the best performances of their career with a ferocity and emotional power that has rarely seen; Taylor deservedly won, but I would have also chosen Burton over Scofield for Actor. Segal and Dennis have the much less showy parts-I think they’re both really good, although Dennis’ character is easily the weakest of the 4 main characters and given the least to do and I’m surprised she won just for that reason. Nichols was an incredible actor’s director-who else can say their first two films had 7 Oscar nominated performances?

-I watched this movie two years ago and thought it was great, but what I’m picking up on this time is the amazing cinematography which is some of the best I’ve seen from a movie for this project. It makes a movie that takes place almost entirely in one indoor location incredibly interesting from a visual standpoint by capturing every emotion and exchange with flair, but not to the point of being overdone or distracting.

-Alex North’s score is sparsely played, but where it is used it has a lot of impact and is both haunting and beautiful.

Negatives

-Sometimes the movie can be a bit esoteric-the main example for me is how the title itself is used in the last scene. I had to look up what the author of the play meant by the line, and even after doing so, I think it’s a really unlikely leap in logic for a normal audience to make.

Other Stuff

-Along with Cimarron (1931), it’s one of only two movies to ever be nominated for every Oscar category it was eligible for. Its 13 nomination have only been exceeded by All About Eve (14), Titanic (14) and equaled by Gone With the Wind, From Here to Eternity, Mary Poppins, Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Chicago, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Overall

Even though its daring use of language and subject matter may not have the impact it used to, everything else about it has aged tremendously well, with the characters, performances, cinematography and score all being home-runs. Highest Recommendation.

Rating: A

1966 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1966

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Many consider this Sergio Leone’s masterpiece and one of the best films ever made; I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s one of the best Westerns ever and is my second favorite of his movies. All three of the main characters are extremely vivid and play incredibly well off each other, and it is almost a response to some of the John Wayne Westerns in that it de-romanticizes a lot of the old Western tropes that he helped create. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of the all-time greats (“Ecstasy of Gold” is one of the best songs in film history) and the ending builds off of what he did in “For a Few Dollars More” in a great way.

The Battle of Algiers: Highly acclaimed film about the Algerian War for Independence against France, done in documentary-style. It’s probably the best depiction of guerilla warfare on film (much less guerilla warfare in an urban setting) and features Ennio Morricone’s other great score from 1966. #48 on the Sight and Sound List.

Persona: Possibly Ingmar Bergman’s greatest achievement. Essentially a two-woman movie (as they are the only ones who appear for any kind of measurable screen time) with Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann whose own identities begin to breakdown and shift over the course of the film. Ranked as the 17th Greatest film of all-time on the last Sight and Sound Poll

Au Hasard Balthazar: How can you make the life and times of a donkey compelling and moving? That’s the challenge that this French film from Robert Bresson somehow meets, with its themes of human cruelty yet with a heavy spiritual message. #16 on the last Sight and Sound Poll.

Andrei Rublev: Epic historical drama about the Russian painter and Christianity’s place in Russian history (during a time when, in 1966, religion was outlawed there). #26 on the last Sight and Sound Poll.

Blowup: Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language film and was as stylish as Hollywood got at the time-the fashion, art direction, the music (Herbie Hancock did the soundtrack, The Yardbirds actually have a cameo), the total defiance of the production code, everything about it screams 1960s. On paper, the plot sounds interesting: it’s about a photographer who inadvertently captures a murder in a park; in practice, I thought it was pretty aimless and mostly style without substance. However, most people consider it a great film and it might be worth a look for some.

The Endless Summer: One of the seminal surf movies, it’s a laid-back look at two surfers who decide to surf across the world, following the summer season across the equator so that summer for them never ends. In the National Film Registry.

Seconds: John Frankenheimer at the height of his powers teamed up with Rock Hudson in this low-budget, black and white Sci-Fi film about a secret organization that provides people dissatisfied with their lives a “second chance” by having them fake their deaths and assume a new identity through extensive plastic surgery; if this sounds like a familiar plot, it has been lifted in part or full many times since, but this version is the best of the bunch. It features a lot of general eeriness and great and disorienting cinematography. In the National Film Registry.

1966 Nominees in Review

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A

A Man for All Seasons: B (Won Best Picture)

The Sand Pebbles: C+

Alfie: C

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming: C-

I said coming in that this year was a two-film race and it was, although I thought the wrong one won. A Man for All Seasons is good, but it drags on too much in the first half, whereas Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has still held up really well and is consistently great from start to finish. The rest of the films were okay but all had some substantial flaw to them, even if they had some very good central performances.

1967 is where you really start to see the New Hollywood asserting its dominance for the first time, and while Old Hollywood would push back some in the next few years afterwards, the writing was on the wall: things were changing everywhere and there was nothing anybody could do to stop this wave.

In 1967: a film that was groundbreaking in its violence and editing for Hollywood standards; The first film that had extensive merchandising before its release, and its massive failure is probably why the studio would later not think twice about giving George Lucas those rights for Star Wars; One of the most iconic soundtracks of all-time by the legends of folk rock; and two classic films starring Sidney Poitier.

Darling (1965)

darling

Starring: Julie Christie,  Dirk Bogarde, Laurence Harvey, Jose Luis de Vilallonga

Director: John Schlesinger

Summary: A young beauty sacrifices love and happiness to become an international celebrity

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Christie)*, Original Screenplay*, B&W Costume Design*

Positives

-While the movie as a whole hasn’t aged well and the critique itself  isn’t done that effectively, it’s one of the first films to capture some of the major problems with the baby boomer generation (and those who came after them).

-There are some really good tracking shots and the film captures the look of the period in swinging London with its whole production design.

Negatives

-Very much a film of its time and place-mod culture in 60s Great Britain and very chic, and Christie represents concerns about youth in this era being self-absorbed, shallow and immature (but fashionable and attractive!) with difficulty/having no interest in forming truly meaningful and lasting relationships. However, it’s the same critique for 2 hours without any new insight as it goes on, she just keeps getting into fleeting relationships with different men while advancing her career. Reflects the worst parts of European cinema of the time i.e. empty pretension., saying more than what you really are; ironically, it’s as hollow as the kind of people it’s criticizing.

-Christie’s Oscar acceptance speech should have began with “I want to thank the Academy for giving Julie Andrews an Oscar last year”, because there’s no other way she was going to beat her for Sound of Music; on her own merits she’s…not that great. None of the men have much of a personality and don’t add anything, but her performance has to be the backbone of the movie and she must elevate the character to something that’s engaging on some level, but at that she fails. There’s no depth to her character (which is the point) but also to her performance-she’s very one-note; an example of someone with a similar character but still gives an excellent performance (but who is also better written which helps) is Faye Dunaway in Network, a film coming up in about a decade here. While she isn’t bad by by any means, it also isn’t much to talk about and doesn’t save the movie when it was the only thing that could have.

Overall

This was probably something fresh and new in its time, but it has not aged well at all. It makes the same point over and over again for its entire runtime and the characters and performances are nothing to write about. Skip.

Rating: D+