All the President’s Men (1976)

presidents

Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Summary: Two Washington Post reporters investigate the Watergate break-in that ended Nixon’s presidency

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Robards)*, Supporting Actress (Alexander), Adapted Screenplay*, Sound Mixing*, Art Direction*, Film Editing

Positives

-The screenplay is great and makes a potentially dry subject (realistic political investigative reporting) interesting for the most part. The film moves at a good pace and doesn’t try to sex up the work that was done, getting down and dirty in the routine interviews, phone calls and legwork that was at the heart of the story. It does a good job of showing just how much effort is needed to responsibly investigate a big story, not only to find information in the first place, but to find enough information that the final product can stand up to scrutiny. It also shows the value old media brought to the table that has been forgotten somewhat even if last years Best Picture winner Spotlight was about the same point. As opposed to most internet outlets (which usually rely on hacking or leaks), newspapers and some of the big TV outlets have the kind of resources and clout that allows them to do the kind of good investigative work that is vital to the public.

-The performances are all very solid, even if none of them especially stood out to me-Robards is the most memorable as the Washington Post’s executive editor playing him with gruffness, loyalty and integrity.

Negatives

-The movie gets monotonous after a while, where we see the same kind of scenes (sit down informal interview with a source afraid of implicating powerful people, meeting with Deep Throat in the garage, taking notes during a phone call, usually with someone making a less than believable denial or incriminating themselves, scene in the conference room about where and if they should run the story) over and over again without anything new to freshen it up. Realistic yes, but it does get less and less interesting as time goes on.

Overall

Good political thriller about the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, although it loses steam after a while and is overall not as good as something like Z.

Rating: B+

Bound for Glory (1976)

bound

Starring: David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, John Lehne, Randy Quaid

Director: Hal Ashby

Summary: Story of folk singer Woody Guthrie, who rose to the top while fighting for the rights of migrant farm workers

Other Nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Adapted Score*, Cinematography*, Film Editing

Positives

-The film looks very good-the decision to emphasize browns and tans in the color correction made a lot of sense considering the time and place that’s covered, and the sets all look very authentic.

-David Carradine isn’t known for being a great actor or anything, but he does a good job here and was also able to play guitar and sing better than I expected.

Negatives

-While it definitely picks up near the end once it becomes about Guthrie’s artistic integrity vs. keeping/getting a steady, well-paying job during the Great Depression, it’s very slow getting there and is way too long at about 2 and a half hours. The first 40 minutes especially just feel like a bunch of vignettes that don’t move the story along that much and it takes way too long before he actually gets to California. The big problem with those first two hours is how distant it feels. It covers the exact same ground as Grapes of Wrath (with some scenes even feeling/looking the same), but it’s much less effective than that film was because Guthrie feels like an outsider observing migrant workers and taking note of their plight vs. Grapes of Wrath where our main characters are actually the migrant workers and for that reason I got a lot more emotional punch in that film from that aspect of it (which is pretty central to both movies).

Overall

It eventually becomes a pretty good movie, but it takes way too long getting there and the first two hours or so aren’t that great.
Rating: C-

Network (1976)

network

Starring: Peter Finch (his final feature film), Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight

Director: Sidney Lumet

Summary: Television programmers turn a deranged news anchor into the mad prophet of the airwaves

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Finch)*, Actor (Holden), Actress (Dunaway)*, Supporting Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actress (Straight)*, Original Screenplay*, Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-Paddy Chayefsky is probably on the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood Screenwriters, and for me this is the #1 reason why. This is one of the greatest satires in the history of film, as it’s brutally incisive on where society was heading and a lot of what the film was worrying about came true. Everything from car crash TV (it’s disgusting/horrible, but you can’t help but watch), trash TV, the merging of news and entertainment, that anger sells, the bottom line taking over any and all other societal and human interests and our culture’s desensitization to violence and how things have to get more and more shocking and extreme to get a reaction out of an audience are all addressed way before most people started talking about it (or at least with this kind of clarity and incisiveness), and it’s done in an extremely effective way. The dialogue is generally excellent with tons of memorable lines and speeches (even if the speeches get old after a while), the humor is spot-on and the movie is terrifically paced. While it has its flaws, I take a screenplay like this that shoots for the moon and gets 90% there over something perfectly executed but much less ambitious.

-This was the last film to get 3 Oscars for acting and also the last to get 5 acting nominations, and for good reason-when 70s Robert Duvall gives the 5th best performance in a movie, you’ve got something amazing on your hands. What’s so remarkable about Finch is his intensity and passion that just enthralls you during his long speeches that in the hands of a less committed actor may have lost the audience’s interest. His Oscar was posthumous as he died between the movie’s release and the ceremony, making him the first actor with that distinction (the second being Heath Ledger). I always love Dunaway, and this is her signature performance as this totally amoral, soulless woman who you almost have to admire her (for how good she is at her job and that she’s able to climb to the top of the ladder in a male-dominated media era) as much as you loathe what she represents. Holden gives one of his best performances of his distinguished career, playing sort of the straight man to the insanity and over the top qualities of all the other characters and he injects life into the role. Beatty and Straight each only have one scene with any dialogue, but both got nominations because they’re both powerhouse in those scenes; Straight still has the record for shortest screen time (5 minutes and 2 seconds) for any Oscar winner-I would have given the Oscar to Jodie Foster among the films I watched for this, but there’s no denying she’s great for the time she has. Beatty turns in just about the best days worth of work that’s possible and gives a human thunderbolt-type performance (the cinematography adds a lot to it too).

Negatives

-The Holden/Dunaway subplot is the weak link in the film and honestly doesn’t add much except for a bunch of big, long, blunt speeches with cheesy dialogue that say what the audience could already read from the characters. The other comment I would make is that I think the movie overplays just how much TV changed everything, and I think of it more as an accelerating force for what had been going on for decades already. Sensationalism and trash has always sold, long before TV-it began in earnest with the newspaper rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer which resulted in exactly the same kind of garbage spewing that the movie attacks as something new. TV was different in that it expanded the reach of these kind of things to homes everywhere and picture and sound have a more dramatic effect than just words, I think it’s disingenuous to lay all the blame at the feet of the TV generation.

Other Stuff

-Now, Network has no score (all the music/sounds are diagetic), so they decided to just put a stock song over the main menu of the DVD I rented-it was almost certainly a random song someone found and said “that will do”; while 99.9% of people wouldn’t have had any reaction to the song choice, I am enough of a wrestling nerd to have instantly recognized it as a song the WWE used to regularly play over video packages during the Attitude Era, including the opening of WrestleMania XV, apparently called “Harrowsway”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIJnUHBfKWM&list=LL4Gm6Rhpdkk0i6hv_i35fAQ&index=20. Very random aside, but I couldn’t help but mention it (also, it doesn’t fit with the movie at all, I don’t know why they didn’t just play random TV clips crosscut with one another like they do at the beginning and end of the film).

Overall

This is my second time watching it, and it’s still one of my very favorite films. It’s like a perfect storm of amazing writing, acting and directing that collaborated to create an incredible satire of where we were then and where we were going as a society. Watch it, watch it, watch it if you haven’t.

Rating: A

*Rocky (1976)*

rocky

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers

Director: John Avildsen

Summary: A losing boxer fights to prove he can go the distance against a glamorous champ

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Stallone), Actress (Shire), Supporting Actor (Meredith), Supporting Actor (Young), Original Screenplay, Original Song (“Gonna Fly Now”), Sound Mixing, Film Editing*

Positives

-This is the first movie so far that I’ve seen a number of times previously-I’ve always loved the Rocky movies. This original is objectively the best movie of the whole franchise, even if it’s honestly not my favorite or at least the one I would be most likely to flip to on cable (that’s Rocky III or Rocky IV, or the last 30-35 minutes of Rocky II). There are two very obvious differences between this one and what the series became from Rocky III on: first is how simple and appealing the story is-Rocky is a bum fighter who due to a stroke of fate gets his chance to be somebody. It really does have something to appeal to everybody: it’s a sports movie, it’s very much a romance movie, it’s an underdog story. Second is the tone is general: it’s a gritty, dirty movie with some ugly characters (Paulie in the first one is almost unrecognizable from him in the other movies) and a lot more emotionally resonating moments vs. glitzy and glorious 80s schlok; somehow the same universe of movies has the skating scene from Rocky (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jK4lxjvrhHs) and the Happy Birthday Paulie Robot from Rocky IV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncySiTOMAHc). The later movies did better in specific aspects-Rocky II has a much better final boxing match, Rocky III and IV are better for sheer entertainment value, Rocky II and III do a better job of developing the supporting characters, but the original has a complete character arc (although so do Rocky III, Rocky Balboa and Creed), relatable characters and more heart.

-Bill Conti got nominated for “Gonna Fly Now” (he should have won, over Evergreen, the Love Theme from A Star is Born), but how he didn’t even get nominated for Original Score is one of the most baffling omissions I can think of, as it’s excellent. Not only does it have “Gonna Fly Now”, but I actually like “Going the Distance” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvQkl7qa6RQ) even better and the music throughout is as iconic as any non-musical movie you’ll find.

-Stallone wrote the movie and would only sell his idea if he could star in it, which caused some studios to turn it down; apparently they wanted someone bankable like Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds as Rocky which would have been a terrible idea-you really needed either an unknown or a non-glamorous actor (like Robert De Niro or something) to play this role, and Stallone of course was perfect and deserved his nomination on the basis that the movie wouldn’t have been as good with most any other actor. The other standout is Burgess Meredith, who I forgot wasn’t actually as prominent in the first one as he would be in the next two, but still is super memorable and probably should have beaten Jason Robards for Supporting Actor.

Negatives

-While it does much better than the other Rocky movies at having a real emotional core and realistic characters, there are some aspects that are lacking that the other movies did better. I forgot just how mediocre and how little time is devoted to the fight at the end of the movie and how the training seems more like an afterthought-these are basically the big draws of a Rocky movie and things Rocky II did tremendously well. The budget wasn’t there that the sequels had and that’s your reason, but it still detracts from the movie as a whole. Beyond that, it’s very good but not great-simple, wide appeal, good performances, but there is no way I would call it a great movie or that it should have come close to beating a couple of the nominees from this year.

Overall

Easy watch and a very different (and better) movie than its sequels (much like Stallone’s other big franchise, the Rambo movies) because it has a genuine emotional core, but nothing that’s going to wow you or thoroughly entertain you like Rocky III and IV.

Rating: B+

Taxi Driver (1976)

taxi

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks (his film debut), Leonard Harris (his debut), Peter Boyle, Martin Scorsese

Director: Martin Scorsese

Summary: A loner becomes more and more disillusioned with society in New York City

Other Nominations: Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actress (Foster), Original Score

Positives

-Travis Bickle is one of the most fully realized characters in film, both in writing and performance. He is a perfect view into three things: first is the post-Watergate/Vietnam, pre-Reagan years malaise in America, where a lot of Americans felt the country had been lost and was ruled by degenerates, despite many people indulging in the kind of filth they advocated against (drugs, porn). The second is a delusional power fantasy that is more relevant than ever today considering how similar his way thinking and decline into madness is to many of the mass killers in recent years. Making him a Vietnam vet was a great decision considering it provides a lot of context for why this character feels this way-many war vets feel out of place with the rest of society when they return, and those who returned from Vietnam probably even greater because of how much societal upheaval took place during his tours of duty. De Niro’s performance is rightfully considered legendary-he feels 100% believable in the role, always embracing just how awkward he is while staying toned down when he needs to, but with a simmering anger underneath until it explodes and you can always tell where he is mentally just by looking at his eyes, up to the last frame.

-The script is excellent-it feels like Death Wish played straight (or Death Wish as the novel was originally), showing the thin line between vigilante hero cleaning up the streets and dangerous madman. It’s extremely tight and focused, without a wasted scene to be found.

-The presentation is great. The lighting (mainly red) during the night scenes perfectly reflects New York City at its low point in terms of seediness, when 42nd street, a street known for Grand Central Station and Times Square, was full of porno theaters, pimps and drug pushers. You also have the great editing during the shootout scene that enhances the kind of feverish madness the character is under at the time. The music, Bernard Herrmann’s last work, is really good at expressing Bickle’s mental state at the time along with the surroundings, with harsh tones and saxophones.

-This was Jodie Foster’s breakout performance (along with a great 1976 in general), and you can easily see why-for someone who at the time of filming was 12-13 years old, she completely holds her own with Robert De Niro at the height of his powers and gets the mindset of many prostitutes and why they stay prostitutes.

Negatives

-While it’s not going to be in my Top 10 movies ever list, it’s pretty damn near flawless. Even the relatively weaker performances (Shepherd’s just okay) are completely excusable because her character doesn’t need to have any kind of depth to her, it just needs to be a broad symbol for the main character and a catalyst for his later actions.

Overall

Truly excellent character study with an all-time great lead performance and strong cinematography, editing and score.

Rating: A

1976 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1976

The Omen: After The Exorcist (and Jaws if you count it), this was the 2nd biggest horror film of the decade. This was Gregory Peck’s big comeback movie after years of garbage since To Kill a Mockingbird, and he co-stars with Lee Remick as the unwitting adoptive parents of the antichrist. Besides some excellent individual scenes, the most famous aspect of the film is probably its score by Jerry Goldsmith (which won him his only Oscar out of 18 nominations) and “Ave Satini”

The Outlaw Josey Wales: The 70s was not a great time for Westerns (McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the parody Blazing Saddles not outstanding), but Clint Eastwood was the one person making a number of good films then, and this is probably the best of them, with Eastwood playing a Confederate soldier out for revenge after Union militants kill his wife and son-unlike Death Wish or other similar vigilante revenge films though, it doesn’t glorify the character and he ends up taking a different path at the end than most similar characters do. In the National Film Registry.

The Bad News Bears: One of the all-time great sports movies, it’s the second of the big underdog sports movie from this year after Rocky, and the two even share a similar ending. Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal make the movie, especially Matthau who plays a drunk pool cleaner in charge of managing the rag-tag little league team: how hard is it to pull off somebody who simultaneously should not be in charge of children ever and be totally likable?

Carrie: Breakout role for Sissy Spacek and was the first of a seemingly infinite number of movies/miniseries/TV movies adapted from Stephen King works (including two that I’ll be watching later on for this project). The fact that this, a horror film, got nominated for two Oscars (Spacek for Actress and Piper Laurie for Supporting Actress) is a testament to its effectiveness in combining something relatable (being picked on in high school) with supernatural retribution.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane: Jodie Foster’s big breakout role in 1976 was Taxi Driver, but she also did Bugsy Malone (a gangster movie starring all child actors that somehow works), the original Freaky Friday, and this thriller-atmospheric horror movie that was her top-billed role. I saw this one Halloween when TCM aired it, and was surprised by how good it was considering I hadn’t heard of it before, with the main attraction being an amazing performance by Foster along with a young Martin Sheen. Winner of the 1976 Saturn Award for best Horror Film and Best Horror Film Actress for Foster.

1976 Nominees in Review

Network: A

Taxi Driver: A

Rocky: B+ (Won Best Picture)

All the President’s Men: B+

Bound for Glory: C-

Two phenomenal movies at the top that are some of the best films of all-time…and then you have the Best Picture winner. Seriously, I like Rocky a lot and am a huge fan of the series, but Rocky winning over Network and Taxi Driver is a top 3 or 5 worst Best Picture decision ever just based on how amazing those two films are (mainly over Network, as Taxi Driver never really had a chance). Overall, an outstanding year with the exception of the mostly forgettable Bound for Glory, and in my opinion the last of the high water mark years for the Best Picture nominees, at least in them being consistently excellent slates of films. 1977 is very good as well, but when only 2 of the 5 are really remembered these days, it’s a definite step down.

For 1977: The funniest screenplay of all-time according to the Screen Writers Guild; Herbert Ross of all people becoming one of the three directors in the 5 nominee era to direct two Best Picture nominees in the same year; A film based on a “true story” that was almost certainly fabricated; and the film that changed the game for both audio and visuals.