A Soldier’s Story (1984)

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Starring: Howard E. Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar, Larry Riley, Denzel Washington, Art Evans, David Alan Grier, David Harris

Director: Norman Jewison

Summary: During WWII, an African-American officer investigates a murder that may have been racially motivated

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Caesar), Adapted Screenplay

Initially, this movie looked to be suspiciously similar to Jewison’s previous BP winner, In the Heat of the Night: both involve a black man from the North sent to the deep south to investigate a murder, where the White police/military doubt his abilities and he has to put up with tons of racism despite being by far the most competent person there. With that said however, the films end up being quite different and in this case, I found this movie to be the superior one. For one, the way they are told is very different, with this one having a large chunk of the story told through flashbacks that are quite effective at getting us to know the characters. Second, the mystery aspect of the murder in here is handled a lot better: one of my big problems with ITHOTN was that the mystery is solved in an abrupt and confusing manner at the end, like it’s something they just had to get out of the way, whereas here it develops well and has a number of good twists and turns.

Most importantly though, it has more depth to its themes: ITHOTN was basically a proto-classy Blaxploitation film where the super-smart and dignified black guy one-ups the bumbling racist white hicks, with the white police chief learning a lesson by the end. This movie is really about racial self-hatred, revolving around a Northern, light-skinned black man who hates the Southern black men around him who he sees as ignorant and “holding the race back”, and has an extremely conflicted self-identity. To me, this is much more interesting territory and the film is much stronger for it. I will also say that Adolph Caesar would have been my pick for Best Supporting Actor (over Haing S. Ngor), as he was really outstanding as the murdered military officer.

Overall: Norman Jewison again tackles the subject of racism in the South, but this time his source material is more layered and engaging than that of his Best Picture Winner In the Heat of the Night, and he still has a terrific performance to rely upon (Sidney Poitier in ITHOTN, Adolph Caesar in this film).

Rating: B+

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Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

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Starring: Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D’Angelo, Levon Helm (his first acting role)

Director: Michael Apted

Summary: Musical biography of Loretta Lynn, who fought poverty and pills to become a country western star

Other Nominations: Actress (Spacek)*, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound

One of the better music biopics. The movie on the whole feels very authentic from the locations and sets, to the cinematography (with subdued color which makes a lot of sense), and the performances (well, mostly-the ages for the actors were off especially at the beginning of the movie, with 31 year old Spacek playing a 14 year old being the strangest). Spacek radiates innocence and naivety at the start but is equally adept at being the strong and troubled woman Loretta Lynn grew up into. The relationships feel real and the character arcs with Loretta Lynn and her husband (Jones, who looks strange with strawberry blonde hair) are very well-done with their shifting positions in the relationship and eventual finding of a happy medium. I’m not a big country music fan, so the music didn’t do much for me, but everything else mostly worked for me even if I wouldn’t call it great or anything.

Random note: Beverly D’Angelo (as Patsy Cline) is a dead ringer for Amy Poehler: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/59/72/46/5972460135f9de3259c628f3ac60b715.jpg

Overall: good biopic which has a great lead performance and good characters with a general feeling of authenticity throughout

Rating: B

The Elephant Man (1980)

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Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Freddie Jones, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anne Bancroft

Director: David Lynch

Summary: A 19th-century doctor questions his motives for rescuing a sideshow freak

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Hurt), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Score, Art Direction, Costume Design

David Lynch is famous for being an idiosyncratic director, but even with the inclusion of a couple of surrealistic scenes at the beginning and end, this is one of his few straight-forward films, and is very good. The film boasts an all-star cast with breakout lead roles for Hurt and Hopkins, along favorites Wendy Hiller (who I first saw in Pygmalion all the back in 1938), Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud that are consistently good throughout, especially Hurt given that he has to act under pounds and pounds of prosthetics and makeup. The makeup of course is one of the most memorable aspects, and while sometimes you can tell it’s layered on an unafflicted face, it’s still pretty remarkable given how extreme it is, and led to there being a “Best Makeup” category at the Oscars.

It has some weak spots (with some aspects hammered home after we get it and some not explored quite as well as I would have liked), but thematically it’s a pretty good exploration of human’s tendency to exploit those in a weaker position, and to either laugh at or sympathize with those worse off than us because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Merrick’s quiet dignity and intelligence shines through and for the most part never gets into glurge territory. The movie takes some substantial dramatic license (especially towards the beginning and end), but they mostly end up working well with the story they wanted to tell so I didn’t mind it.

One thing I didn’t like really was the sound design, which is very distinctive-a lot of isolated sounds, where the movie frequently either sounds like it’s underwater or there’s white noise. It’s a bit much, and that a sound design this distinctive didn’t get nominated for Sound Mixing says something.

Overall: The cast, themes and high-quality makeup design make this an interesting look at the life of a man who dealt with his incredible deformities with dignity.

Rating: B+

Midnight Express (1978)

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Starring: Brad Davis (his feature film debut), Randy Quaid, John Hurt, Paul L. Smith, Paolo Bonacelli

Director: Alan Parker

Summary: A young man arrested for drug smuggling fights to survive the horrors of a Turkish prison

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Hurt), Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Film Editing

Positives

-Consistently engaging throughout with good dramatic tension. The movie kicks right off with some outstanding, tense scenes with him trying to get through an airport and I always appreciate a movie that gets down to business immediately and hooks you right at the beginning. The rest of the movie is tightly focused on the main character, his plight and his attempts to get out of prison through legal methods or otherwise and plots out it’s peaks and valleys well so there’s never an extended lull. The screenplay earned Oliver Stone his first Oscar and I can see why even if the adaptation itself had some issues.

-The synth-heavy score feels very ahead of its time (and by that I mean like something from the 80s, or something from John Carpenter I guess) with “Chase Theme” being the highlight.

-I didn’t necessarily think there were any standout performances, but everybody is at least pretty good and Davis and Hurt do a great job of looking more and disheveled as the film progresses, through a combination of makeup and staying up for hours I would imagine (and apparently Hurt just stopped taking showers during the entire shoot).

Negatives

-The movie does for the Turks what The Deer Hunter did for the Vietnamese, except it’s honestly even worse because of how many types of Turkish people we see that are awful-prison guards, prisoners, police, judges, prosecutors and lawyers are all without exception either one-dimensional monsters or useless bums. When the guy who’s real-life experiences as an abused prisoner led to the book the movie was based on says the filmmakers went too far in how they depicted the Turks, that’s a problem.

-The film’s ending feels way more implausible than what actually happened in real life (even if the result was the same)-I don’t know why they made a new ending because what happened in real life was more than exciting and interesting enough.

Overall

Mostly well-written prison drama that’s consistently compelling even if I would have made some different script choices.

Rating: B

Barry Lyndon (1975)

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Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Leon Vitali, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Marie Kean, Murray Melvin, Michael Hordern (narrator)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Summary: An Irish rogue cheats his way to the top of 18th-century British society

Other Nominations: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design*, Song Score*, Art Direction*, Cinematography*, Film Editing

Positives

-This is a film epic that feels very different than most in style and tells a really compelling rise and fall of a deeply flawed man whose life feels like a joke played on him by a cruel god who likes getting his hopes up before dashing them. I mentioned something similar in my review of A Clockwork Orange, but it’s even more pronounced here-despite the character himself not really changing or growing over the course of the movie, your attitude towards him changes a number of time, based mainly on the specific situation he’s in at the point in the story. In some ways, you could also say the same about Lord Bullingdon as a character, and in both cases it makes for an interesting story on an intellectual level (should I really be reacting this way right now?) Finally, the dual scene at the end is fantastic and easily some of the best direction Stanley Kubrick ever did.

-The score, all new orchestrations of classical music pieces, is one of the top 10 best from this project so far, especially the main theme (a version of Handel’s Sarabande) and the selections fit perfectly with the mood of every scene.

-Stanley Kubrick was legendary for his attention to detail, and it’s probably more obviously evident here than in any of his other films. The costumes and sets are gorgeous, the exteriors and countrysides were perfectly selected, and every single shot in the film looks fantastic, many of which were purposely done to reference various English paintings of the period. The movie is also famous for its lighting, where almost all light is natural-either filmed during the day with no added light, or by candlelight which required special camera lenses. It gives the film a distinctive look that’s hard to replicate.

-Kubrick got a lot out of a cast comprised mostly of relative unknowns, but the one that really stood out to me was Berenson. She has almost no dialogue in the film (despite being in the movie a lot), but her facial expressions convey this incredible sorrow and melancholy and you always know what she’s thinking.

Negatives

-This is a long movie (just over 3 hours), and it’s not for everybody-it’s pretty audacious in just how cold and unemotional it is for the most part and how detached it feels from its characters.

Overall

I actually watched this film in January but I liked it enough the first time that I felt like watching it again 6 months later; this time, I think I liked it even more, since I could fully appreciate how great the visuals and score are since I already knew the story. This is Kubrick’s least popular film from his golden period (1957-1987) despite being his most awarded at the Oscars, yet it’s one of his best due to its narrative, visuals and score.

Rating: A

Jaws (1975)

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Starring: Roy Scheider,  Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary (her film debut)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Summary: The sheriff of an island town takes to the seas when a bloodthirsty shark invades the local waters

Other Nominations: Original Score*, Sound Mixing*, Film Editing*

Positives

-The script is perfect, at least from a structural standpoint-it plays perfectly as a thriller-horror film combination. It starts off with a bang so you know the severity of the threat, then the rest of it builds really nicely where the shark starts coming more and more frequently, and almost every time, it’s done for suspense rather than pure shock-you either hear the music, see a shark POV or some other visual cue that the shark is coming soon and you’re waiting for exactly when and where it happens; the few times it does show up as a jump scare, it works well because the whole rest of the film has told you it won’t surprise you, therefore you are actually surprised when something does happen. Making a horror film with a shark is a stroke of genius because, as ridiculous of the idea of a terminator-like shark is, it preys on legitimate (extremely unlikely, but they do occasionally happen) fears about a shark attacking you if you’re in the ocean. Finally, the dialogue is good as well, especially from Quint. In a related note, Shaw is excellent and the only reason I can think of for him not getting a Supporting Actor nomination stems from why he also wasn’t given one for The Sting: he demanded lead billing (he’s billed on the same screen with Scheider and Dreyfuss in the opening credits) and therefore was treated as a lead.

-The score is also legendary, primarily the main theme which is one of the most iconic and effective in all of film, and I can’t imagine how you could make the shark a bigger threat than using that music in conjunction with him showing up. The rest of the score is very good as well, even if it’s overshadowed.

-This is famous as a film immensely improved in editing, and as much as it has been said already, a lot of the suspense and fear of the shark does come from how infrequently you see a good look at it before the climax of the film (although another good reason for the shark’s infrequent appearances is how poorly the shark worked in salt water). I would also like to mention the cinematography and I’m shocked it wasn’t nominated-the shark POV shots were a brilliant decision, there’s a number of great zoom-ins and tracking shots, it’s great all around.

Negatives

-This is pretty much the best this movie could have possibly have been (okay, maybe the shark could have looked better, but I’ll take the mechanical shark over any CG one), but there’s not any greater aspirations than a really well made thriller/horror film-and that’s fine, great even! But I’m not usually going to give a movie with really broad characters and no real themes of significance an A, as good as it is. Note, I will probably break this general rule multiple times with a couple of films I’m thinking of right now, but nevertheless I just can’t give it an A.

Other Stuff

-Just wanted to mention the great Jaws: Special Edition sketch from Robot Chicken that’s an excellent parody of the Star Wars Special Editions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkba-r8NmJk

Overall

The movie that launched Steven Spielberg into superstardom and along with Star Wars a couple of years later, forever changed the industry’s conception of what a blockbuster was by destroying the previous record for box office-few films have had a greater impact on American cinema, and its place of significance is richly deserved.

Rating: A-

Lenny (1974)

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Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner, Stanley Beck

Director: Bob Fosse

Summary: The story of acerbic 1960’s comic Lenny Bruce, whose groundbreaking, no-holds-barred style and social commentary was deemed obscene by the establishment

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Hoffman), Actress (Perrine), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography

Positives

-Valerie Perrine is the best thing in this movie, which came as a huge surprise to me considering 1) it has Dustin Hoffman in it as the main character and 2) she didn’t really do all that much before or after it. She plays Bruce’s wife and embodies the kind of fun yet broken and depressing woman that she eventually became with a lot of emotion and reality to it. Hoffman is pretty good, but I don’t think he should have been nominated (much less over Gene Hackman for The Conversation) and wasn’t able to “make” the movie, something that in a lot of ways fell on his shoulders.

Filming the set at the end where he’s completely lost it all in one long, agonizing take is great and is the one thing in the movie besides Perrine that was perfectly executed.

Negatives

-Something about the whole movie felt underwhelming and sort of lifeless despite its subject’s rise and fall being a potentially interesting story and his career had a big impact on comedy and obscenity laws. Part of it is Hoffman’s performance just being pretty good and not anything more, part of it comes from how episodic it is and another part is how they don’t give any kind of bigger context for Bruce’s career as part of culture. The movie uses a framing device that;s done in faux documentary style (guy offscreen is interviewing some of the people who knew Bruce about his life), which works because it ties together all the episodes, but it doesn’t give us that much more information about who Bruce really was as a person or his impact (an opportunity which feels missed) and the movie being as episodic as it is hurts the movie’s energy and the whole movie in general.

-The movie is the rare post 60’s nominee that was filmed in black and white, but it feels unnecessary, unlike The Last Picture Show or Raging Bull, where the lack of color heightens the dramatic impact and fits the story that’s being told better.

Overall

It’s not bad or anything (mainly because of Perrine’s excellent performance and some of the scenes towards the end), but this is a fairly disappointing biopic.

Rating: C+