America America (1963)

america

Starring: Stathis Giallelis, Linda Marsh, Paul Mann, Gregory Rozakis, Harry Davis, Lou Antonio

Director: Elia Kazan

Summary: A young Greek in Ottoman Turkey stops at nothing to secure a passage to America

Other Nominations: Director, Original Screenplay, B&W Art Direction*

Positives

-This was a very personal movie for Kazan, as he was the son of Greek immigrants from the same circumstances as the main character, who goes on an epic journey with many twists and turns in his attempt to make it America, the land of opportunity and freedom from oppression of the Turkish ruling class who are basically presented as Nazis (which is reasonable, given the Armenian genocide that happened about a decade or so after the events of the film). Thematically, it’s an interesting movie about whether is it better to be a good man who gets run-over by a cruel world, or a compromised and ruthless man who gets what he wants? Basically, a matter of soul.

-Giallelis was a Greek actor had never acted before he was casted for this role (although he had a movie come out before this one finished due to its length post-production), which fits in with the neorealism movement that was popular in Europe at the time, but was rarely seen in Hollywood. His steely gaze is perfect, and for a first time actor he’s great.

-I’m surprised it didn’t get a B&W cinematography nomination because it’s generally really good with great blocking, although there are some random Dutch angles that stick out as poor choices.

-I liked the score a lot, it felt authentic for the locale and had a consistent melancholy tone that fit well.

Negatives

-At some point, he basically gets what he wanted to begin with, but the main character still has a total drive about getting to America, which doesn’t completely work. Yes,  America is seen as the land of opportunity, but if he doesn’t need an opportunity anymore, why is he still obsessed? The main reason seems to be that he resents being a subjugated person (as a Greek in Ottoman Turkey) and wants a “clean start” in a country where there isn’t a racial ruling class; the problem is that by this time in the movie, we don’t see him being affected at all by his race, it no longer impacts him. You might say it’s for his family (that he says he will bring to America), but that rarely seems like a real motivating factor for him in the movie.

-3 hours a long time for any movie, and this one definitely feels its runtime. The movie is largely episodic, and one or two of the parts could have been removed because they just keep hammering home the same point we’ve gotten already.

Overall

A very unusual movie for Hollywood for a number of reasons, but it’s a good film about a young man fighting against the odds for a chance at living in the land of opportunity even if it’s overly long and his motivations seem strained at times.
Rating: B

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Cleopatra (1963)

cleopatra63

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau, Hume Cronyn, Carroll O’Connor

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Summary: The legendary queen of Egypt leads Julius Caesar and Marc Antony astray

Other Nominations: Actor (Harrison), Original Score, Sound Mixing, Color Art Direction*, Color Cinematography*, Color Costume Design*, Film Editing, Visual Effects*

Positives

-Good lord, the production values. The costumes and sets are unmatched in quality and number-Taylor had 65 costume changes alone, and there are no matte paintings I could see, they just build all these sets in full. The giant parade for Caesar when he comes back to Rome is pure excess in terms of extras, costumes, sets, props, etc. The color is also outstanding and some of the best I’ve seen, along with some great widescreen cinematography that shows off just how amazing these sets are.

-Taylor shows more skin than anyone had in the code-era movies I’ve seen for this project, which is a positive even if she has aged considerably in the last 7 years or so since I saw her in Giant.

Negatives

-At over four hours long, it is the longest movie I will have to watch for this project; to compare, 1934 version of Cleopatra I watched for that year was 1 hour 40 minutes, and the (now lost) 1917 Theda Bara version this was a remake of was 2 hours, 5 minutes. The story did do much for me the first time I saw it, and it doesn’t help to stretch that same story out 2.5x longer. The basics are the same, but “expanded” and we get a lot more of Cleopatra ruining Mark Antony in the second half, along with a couple of big action scenes; ultimately, the first half is actually pretty good, but the second half is mostly awful.

-The acting is very much a mixed bag: Harrison and McDowell are good, Burton is eh, but Taylor continues to disappoint me except for her looks, although she still has one more chance (in a movie I have seen before).

-The dialogue is just awful, which is shame considering Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives) co- wrote and directed the movie. The main reason for this is that there was never a finalized script by the time he got on board the movie and they never gave him time off to properly write one.

Other Stuff

-More people know about the hideous production that almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox than the actual movie, which is fine because it’s more interesting. It started with a $7 million budget with Taylor, Peter Finch as Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Antony with Rouben Mamoulian as director and filmed in England starting in 1960. Filming halted after 16 weeks when Taylor fell ill and almost died, needing a tracheotomy to save her life; in many scenes, you can clearly see the scar on her throat from it, including the load screen for the movie on Netflix Instant (where I watched it). When they resumed, Finch and Boyd had to leave due to other commitments, Mamoulian was fired, and they had to move filming to Italy because the cold English weather was harming Taylor’s recovery and the damp weather was also ruining the sets. By this point, they had already spent $7 million with nothing to show for it. They brought in Mankiewicz, Harrison and Burton, the last of whom started a very public affair with Taylor despite them both being married which caused an uproar. Fox fired Mankiewicz during post-production, but had to hire him back because the film lacked a finalized shooting script and he was the only person who could edit it. Adjusted for inflation, it cost $340 million dollars, which is about $90 million more than Captain America: Civil War cost even though it had no special effects. It eventually did get in the black by 1973 due to international releases, re-releases and sales to TV however.

Overall

This is the grandest movie ever made in terms of sets and costumes, but even that failed to maintain my interest after a couple of hours (or 3 or 4…) because most everything else about it isn’t very good. This is a movie better to watch clips of big scenes from Youtube (like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNjrfXOgZkM) than watch the whole movie.
Rating: C-

How the West Was Won (1963)

westwaswon

Starring: George Peppard, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Robert Preston, Richard Widmark, Lee J. Cobb, John Wayne, Carolyn Jones, Eli Wallach, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Agnes Moorehead, Thelma Ritter, Russ Tamblyn, Spencer Tracy (Narrator)

Directors: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall

Summary: Three generations of pioneers take part in the forging of the American West

Other Nominations: Original Screenplay*, Original Score, Sound Mixing*, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design, Film Editing*

Positives

-The film looks stunning, with some of the best landscape cinematography ever put to film, the color is gorgeous, as by this time Technicolor had hit its peak, and the restored version of the movie on Blu-ray I watched looks better than it did originally in theaters-they managed to remove most of the seams inherent in the Cinerama process (except for the Railroad segment, which is still noticeable). This movie shows off everything great (70mm vs. 35MM regular widescreen, near infinite depth of field) and not so great (fisheye effect, no close ups) about Cinerama.

-The score is a classic of the epic Western style and does a good job of connecting the whole movie tonally.

-The cast list displayed above is one of the most impressive in movie history, and much better than something like The Longest Day, as almost all the people mentioned have substantial parts. As far as performances, they are good on the whole, with Reynolds and Peck being the best.

Negatives

-This is a movie made up of 5 segments (Rivers, Plains, Civil War, Railroad, Outlaws) spanning 50 years from 1839-1889, all involving members of the Prescott/Rawlings family, with a number of cast members showing up in multiple segments. The segments are a mixed bag in terms of quality, with the Outlaws and Plains segments being the best (both by Hathaway), and the Civil War (Ford) and Rivers (Hathaway) being the weakest. I tend to like movies that are focused on a tight story and/or have good character development, and this is not that, so even though the ambition is there, sprawling dramas that look at tons of different characters with equal measure aren’t my favorites.

-The movie tries to be a kind of all-encompassing tale about Westward expansion, which is why it’s a negative that it’s pretty much only the story of white settlers, when there are other very significant perspectives such as those of the Native Americans and the Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroads. The Railroad segment does at least paint a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans, but for the most part, their story is ignored; there’s nothing whatsoever about the immigrants.

Other Stuff

-For those who don’t know, Cinerama was basically the 1960s version of IMAX: a superwide, curved screen that showed a movie using three simultaneously-running projectors that displayed three parts of a single image. Despite its obvious advantages (a huge picture with incredible detail), it had some obvious major problems: the cameras were extremely heavy, the process was expensive, the picture was so big it was difficult to place microphones or keep crew out of the image, it was difficult to have good acting between multiple people because of how the blocking needed to be done with a 3-camera system with a curved screen, that all the projectors had to be perfectly synchronized in the theater and the ever-present seam between the 3 images. For all these reasons, most Cinerama movies were travelogues and there were only two narrative features made using the process: this one, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). There are actually still three theaters that can and do show prints of these films in three-camera Cinerama: the Seattle Cinerama, the Cinerama Dome in LA and the Pictureville Cinerama in Bradford, England.

Overall

The main attractions are watching a movie in Cinerama with its incredible landscape cinematography, along with a great score and a phenomenal cast. Beyond that, there’s some substance beyond the spectacle, but the story is episodic and not a real strength.

Rating: B-

Lilies of the Field (1963)

lilies

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Lisa Mann, Stanley Adams

Director: Ralph Nelson

Summary: An itinerant handyman in the Southwest gets a new outlook on life when he helps a group of German nuns build a chapel

Other Nominations: Actor (Poitier)*, Supporting Actress (Skala), Adapted Screenplay, B&W Cinematography

Positives

-This is a remarkably refreshing Best Picture nominee for this time period: it’s a simple and sweet story that lasts 94 minutes, had a microscopic budget ($1.9 million adjusted for inflation) and shooting took 14 days. In the hands of different people, this could have ended up as a very mediocre sweet life-affirming family movie (ex: The Blind Side, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, McFarland USA), but instead it feels very genuine and never gets to the point of being saccharine or having expository dialogue about the lessons everybody learned at the end. It’s a good example of show don’t tell in that people grow as characters, but most of it requires the audience to make some basic inferences about motivations and attitudes based on the information that comes up organically in the story vs. them just outright saying “this is why I am the way I am or why I am doing this thing.”

-Poitier was the first African-American to win a lead actor/actress Oscar and even if he has had better performances, you can see why he won for this: he’s very charming and likeable, and he plays an extremely safe role that isn’t going to rock any boats or challenge anything. Skala is not a Supporting Actress at all and is clearly the lead, but deserved a nomination for her performance as a pushy older nun who lived a rough life.

-This is one of Jerry Goldsmith’s earliest film scores and I liked it a lot, with its heavy use of the harmonica and horns.

Negatives

-Every once in awhile, the movie feels like slows down a bit too much or takes its sweet time to get to the next major thing that happens. It’s not that big a negative considering the pacing fits the general atmosphere, but I have my tastes after all.

-Building off that last point, while I found this movie to be an easy watch, I tend to like movies with a least some kind of edge to them and other than maybe Poitiers performance, it wasn’t that memorable for me.

Overall

If you like lighter, life-affirming movies, possibly with religious themes, then this is a really great one and is clearly a step above other similar types of movies. If that isn’t something you generally seek out (like me), it’s still good but it probably won’t be one of your favorites.

Rating: B

*Tom Jones (1963)*

tomjones

Starring: Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, George Devine, David Warner (in his feature debut), Joyce Redman

Director: Tony Richardson

Summary: A country boy in 18th-century England becomes a playboy

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Finney), Supporting Actor (Griffith), Supporting Actress (Evans), Supporting Actress (Cilento), Supporting Actress (Redman), Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Color Art Direction*

Positives

-Griffith and Evans had a lot of fun with their roles and were the most entertaining people in the movie; apparently, Griffith was dead drunk throughout the entire filming and almost died when his drunkenness led to him to fall of a horse (which was unplanned, but left in the movie).

-Some of the cinematography is interesting, especially the hand-held camera shots during the deer hunt scene

Negatives

-The pacing is brisk, which I like, but man there’s almost no story or characters here. The story is mostly based on around the escapades of the main character except for two bits (one in the middle and one at the end) that are the only times the plot moves forward in any appreciable way. I could stand this in a good light comedy, but it fails at that because it lacks any real charm, soul, wit or entertaining characters besides the two mentioned above. Tom Jones the character is basically a rapscallion who goes around sleeping a bunch of women when he finds out he can’t get married to the one he loves. He has no character building, growth or anything that makes him likable or all that interesting; York plays his true love and has zero personality. It’s a bawdy, unclever film that doesn’t have much more than that going for it.

-The movie tries to be hip and edgy by constantly reminding you that you’re watching a movie: the editing has many very obvious transitions, it breaks the 4th wall, the movie has a couple of sequences that are like a silent movie, there’s a lot of unnatural camera movement and there’s a Benny Hill chase scene in it. This could work in a different movie, but here it feels obnoxious most of the time and other movies have been much better doing similar things, such as the good Mel Brooks films.

Overall

Stylish but lacking in substance, heart, soul or wit. This is a movie that maybe felt new and different in its time, but has not aged well.

Rating: D+

1963 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1963

8 ½: Federico Fellini’s most celebrated film (which is saying something), it’s fairly autobiographical, about the creative process for a film director who everybody expects incredible things out of. I watched this years ago in less than optimal settings and didn’t really enjoy it, but my tastes have changed since then and I plan on re-watching it at some point. #10 on the Sight and Sound list.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: One of my favorite comedies ever, it’s a madcap movie about a cast of thousands trying to get to the Big W where a dying man says a treasure is buried. Just about every living comedian was in it-Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman and tons and tons of great cameos. Nominated for 6 Oscars (none of the big ones though) and #40 on the AFI 100 Laughs list.

The Birds: Hitchcock’s last universally acclaimed movie and the third of his adaptations of Daphne du Maurier stories (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn; she also wrote the story 70s classic Don’t Look Now is based on). Ub Iwerks got nominated for an Oscar for Special Effects here, one of the only times he got proper recognition for his work: this is the guy who helped design Mickey Mouse and animated Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance, yet nobody knows he is. Iwerks is pretty much the real life Chester J. Lampwick.

The Great Escape: This classic was only nominated for one Oscar (Film Editing), but made Steve McQueen a superstar after his breakout role in The Magnificent Seven. It was based on a real escape by POWs in a Nazi camp during WWII, but this version greatly emphasizes the American contributions and downplays the Canadians’; surely, this would never happen again in a move.

Hud: Nominated for 7 Oscars including Director, Actor (Paul Newman), Actress (Patricia Neal, who won despite only getting 21 minutes of screentime), and Adapted Screenplay, it’s one of the more baffling Best Picture omissions I can think of. It’s still considered a great movie, and I wish I had a chance to watch it for the project.

The Haunting: What does Robert Wise do in between directing Best Picture-winning Musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music? Make a psychological horror film of course. This movie gets tons of praise for it’s atmosphere, growing sense of dread and lack of jump scares, but I’ve watched it twice and it still doesn’t do anything for me. As I’ve said before, The Innocents is a much better film in the same vein from the same time period.

The Nutty Professor: The original version of the movie (well, as original as a parody of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can be), starring Jerry Lewis. Lewis’ nerdy professor Dr. Kelp was the basis for Professor Frink from The Simpsons. In the National Film Registry.

The Pink Panther: The first film in the franchise, David Niven was technically the star, but Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau ran away with the movie and was the main character for the rest of the movies. In the National Film Registry.

Jason and the Argonauts: Probably the most famous of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation movies, it’s most famous for the battle with the skeleton warriors near the end which was mind-blowing for the time.

1963 Nominees in Review

Lilies of the Field: B

America America: B

How the West Was Won: B-

Cleopatra: C-

Tom Jones: D+ (Won Best Picture)

Very weak year with one of the worst Best Picture winners so far. Nothing stood out as a great film in the field, although only two were chores to watch, and there was an incredible contrast between two films, one that cost $340 million and still ended up being upstaged by another that cost under $2 million (both adjusted for inflation). For me, there are some similarities between this time period in movies and where we are now: in the 60s, everything out of Hollywood had to be a big budget epic so that audiences had something to see that they wouldn’t watch on TV; now, TV has caught up and arguably surpassed movies as a storytelling medium, so everything out of Hollywood is a big budget action CG fest because they have to give people can’t see on TV or the internet (that, and big action plays well in all markets). I am REALLY looking forward to the 70s (mainly 1971-1977), but right now things are somewhat grim.

Coming up for 1964: The first of two times Peter O’Toole played King Henry II in a Best Picture nominee this decade; A Best Picture nominee that originally was going to end with a pie fight; the movie Julie Andrews got snubbed for and the movie Julie Andrews did instead that won her an Oscar; and a movie whose composer was a long-time member of Greek Parliament