Monday, February 18, 2013

A Closer Look: Best Picture 1992




So, in moving on with the Fisti Awards, I’ve been trying to wrap up 1992.  2012 won’t be finished for a few months since I usually don’t get to see the big ‘end of year movies’ until they are released on DVD (kids, wife, work, life all seem to get in the way of trips to the theater), so in the meantime I’ve been working on the 90’s.  I still have about another month before I’ll be finished with 1992, considering that I have a quota to meet (I require at least 50 films to have been seen from the year in question) and I do have a few I really want to see before finalizing anything, but I thought I’d go ahead and post my thoughts on the Best Picture race for 1992.  I’ve seen all five films and must say that despite abhorring one of them and considering another to be truly unremarkable, I’m kind of impressed with Oscar this year.  Three of the five films are astonishing, two of them masterpieces (and honestly I have no qualms with anyone considering all three of them masterpieces and on some days I do too).

I’m not quite ready to post my personal Best Picture ballot, but at the moment all three make my top twelve and two of them are my current #1 and #2 of the year, and I go back and forth with which one I like better almost every day.

Seriously.

So, I figured I’d post my personal reviews for these films and try and get your thoughts on the films in question.  As a bit of trivia, these five films all won pretty impressive awards throughout Awards Season and while I’m pretty sure that Eastwood’s unanimous director wins propelled the film to frontrunner status, something can be said for all five films in contention.  ‘Unforgiven’ obviously won the Oscar (and it also won the DGA and LAFCA as well as a slew of other unimportant critics wins) but ‘Howard’s End’ won the BAFTA and the NBR, ‘Scent of a Woman’ won the Golden Globe and ‘The Crying Game’ won the PGA (which is kind of a big deal).  Oh, and let’s not forget the combination of MTV and People’s Choice Award that ‘A Few Good Men’ won.

LOL, yup…let’s remember that combination since the film probably should have won a Razzie (I haven’t seen ‘Shining Through’, so I can’t really say for sure).

So, with that, we’ll kick off my rankings and reviews:


05/A Few Good Men
*/*****
I walked into ‘A Few Good Men’ knowing that Jack Nicholson’s monologue at the end of the film is considered one of the greatest in cinema and that the whole “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” line is quoted and re-quoted over and over by thousands of people the world over.  That was about it.  I mean, it was a vehicle for Demi Moore and Tom Cruise to try and be serious actors and it was a chance for Jack Nicholson to regurgitate ‘Jack Nicholson’. 

I hated this movie.

Within the first five minutes, so many clichés were thrown all over the screen that I felt like I was watching a Naval version of ‘Forrest Gump’.  The worst part about ‘A Few Good Men’ is that the character development is so miniscule and so skeletal that they are, in a word, unbelievable.  Like I said; clichés.  Tom Cruise plays yet another hot headed arrogant kid.  Demi Moore plays your standard over achieving woman in a man’s world overlooked and prickly because of it.  Jack Nicholson plays himself yet again.  But the issues run deeper.  The story itself is plagued with improbabilities and the development of themes just never makes any real sense or impact.  The depiction of marines is predictable and sadly insulting and the way the film closes is so forced and so manipulative, but not in a successful way.  Instead, it feels like a poorly conceived television movie, and the ‘Matlock’-esque score doesn’t help it any.

I’m floored this was written by Sorkin.


The film centers on a young Naval lawyer who is asked to represent two marines accused of killing a fellow marine.  They claim they were ordered to perform a ‘Code Red’ (seriously, the term alone feels so contrived and lazy), which is where they are asked to perform some sort of brute force against a fellow marine because of their failure to ‘live by the code’.  Their superiors obviously deny the order and so they are fighting against accusations made by more decorated and respected men.  This young lawyer predetermines his course of action, but under pressure from a bitter female Lieutenant he changes his mind and starts to act with ‘honor’. 

This could have been something exciting and fresh, but instead if feels so heavy handed and yet so hollow.  Cruise cheeses his way through his scenes, Sutherland snarls with comical intensity, Nicholson puffs on that cigar like he were a cartoon character and Demi Moore tries really hard to fake competence as an actress.

Poor dialog, embarrassing development and mediocre filmmaking cause ‘A Few Good Men’ to be a forgettable stain of a film.


04/Scent of a Woman
** ½/*****
 As a whole, ‘Scent of a Woman’ is rather endearing and it possesses a level of charm I really didn’t expect.  On the other hand, there are parts of this film that are genuinely terrible.  It’s hard to decide my concrete feelings because the film is wildly uneven.  The entire closing segment (or really anything pertaining to the ‘troubles at school’) is an eye-rolling waste of celluloid, and yet the majority of the antics in New York City (especially that beloved tango scene) are fun and witty and enchanting to tell you the truth.  It’s just that the film loses itself in a sloppy closing (yes, it’s terrible in more than one way) that betrays some of the honesty (if you can call it that) that the film was reaching for.

I’ll yell SPOILERS, just in case.

The film revolves around a retired Lieutenant Colonel named Frank Slade.  Frank is a bitter, blind alcoholic who resents his life and his family.  He is living in a guest house behind his niece’s home since Veteran housing was not to his liking.  He has burnt many bridges in his family, and his prickly demeanor makes it difficult for him to interact with others.  In walks Charlie, a young prep school student looking for some extra cash in order to afford a plane ticket home for Christmas.  He answers an ad to basically babysit Slade for Thanksgiving weekend so that his niece and her family can go on vacation.  Little does Charlie know, but Slade has other plans.  Shortly after his niece is gone, a taxi arrives taking both Slade and Charlie to the airport.  They are going on a little trip to New York City, where Slade plans on reuniting with his brother, eating at a fine restaurant, making love to a beautiful woman and then killing himself.  Charlie isn’t really keen on the whole idea, but the last part especially concerns him.  Frank is very persuasive though (or should I say ‘aggressive’) and so Charlie bends to his wishes.

For the most part, the film excels while in New York City.  The relationship that blossoms between both Frank and Charlie is sweet and sincere.  The fears that corrode Frank’s demeanor are believable; I just wish that they were addressed a little more authentically (his sudden shift at the close of their trip is a little too abrupt for it to feel honest).  Sure, some parts can seem a tad hokey (like the Ferrari scene) but they work in the atmosphere created for the film.  It’s just that the entire ‘school’ subplot is so ridiculous that it drags the entire film into an area it didn’t need to go.  The closing ‘hearing’ itself was kind of disgusting, and Pacino’s monologue is overdone and the reaction afterwards was unintentionally hilarious.  The site reviewer was correct when he made the connection to ‘The Dead Poets Society’ (another film that makes me roll my eyes).  I was just waiting for the students to hoist Frank and Charlie on their shoulders and carry them out of the auditorium. 

And then there is Pacino.  I hate what he’s been reduced to.  He basically plays a caricature of his own persona in every film.  I will say this; I totally understand why he won the Oscar for this.  First of all, he is ridiculously convincing at playing blind.  Second, he has all the right ‘scenes’ to win an Oscar (he tries to kill himself, he insults everyone around him, he gets drunk, he saves the day…HE YELLS).  Third, he was overdue by a large margin.  But, with all that said, if we are basing this on the merit of the performance alone; he was far too uneven here.  In fact, the only scene that really felt genuine and just perfect was that tango scene.  He was marvelous there, but Pacino often reverted to his overacting and yelling and overselling everything to the point where he felt phony.  I understand the whole ‘character’ thing, but there is such a thing as subtlety, and there were so many opportunities to use subtlety to convey a deeper emotion in Frank (especially when he’s breaking down about his life).  A scene that really works thanks to some subtlety on Pacino’s part is the scene at his brother’s home.  I just wish that he had expounded on that side of Frank a little more.

He’s not bad, but Eastwood, Rae, Downey Jr. and especially Washington were all better than him.

At the end of the day, I liked this movie.  I’d watch it again.  I’d even recommend it.  But, the film is not great, and it barely makes ‘good’ when you look at it as a whole.  If you can delete the last twenty minutes from your mind you may have a really good buddy flick.


03/Unforgiven
*****/*****
Watching `Unforgiven' has really made me realize that you should never judge a film before you see it, because you never truly know what's in store for you.

`Unforgiven' opens with a sharp pain of brutality as two men victimize a woman. When the sheriff doesn't do anything more than slap the men's wrists the women of the community put out a reward for the men's head. William Munny, a former murderer turned caring father and widower, hears of the reward and, hesitantly, decides to pursue it in order to better take care of his two children. Along with his former sidekick Ned Logan and an overly confident young gunslinger going by the name of The Schofield Kid, Munny makes his way into town with his horse and his gun and the smell of blood.

Eastwood really went all out with this production. The overall feel of the film is very gritty and dark and adds weight to the moral that is brought to the full as the curtains close so-to-speak. The film is violent, but in a repressed sort of way, allowing the majority of the film to ride on the anticipation of bloodshed and only truly rearing its head in short explosions of brutality. This allows `Unforgiven' to become more than just an action film or a bloodbath but creates a film that is as deep and poignant as it is entertaining.


The acting is also golden here. Morgan Freeman seems to just coast through his scenes, but his companionship with Eastwood is unmatchable. He just has such a natural talent that even when he isn't doing anything exceptional he is still amazing. Clint has never really sold it for me. I was impressed with him in `Million Dollar Baby' because I felt as though he made his harshness work to his advantage. He does that here as well. Next to `Million Dollar Baby' this has got to be his finest performance. Gene Hackman steals the whole show though as Bill Daggett, the ruthless sheriff. His savagery is embellished by his sick sense of justification and that makes Hackman's character development nothing short of extraordinary.

In the end I'm pleased to say that `Unforgiven' stands up as worthy of the praise and attention it has received. I can't say if it was the best film of the year (92 was such a fantastic year for film) but it most definitely ranks in my top ten and surely will stand the tests of time as one of the most effective westerns of all time, defining everything that makes the genre what it is. I may not be an avid supporter of the genre as a whole, but when a western is done right it can be nothing short of amazing. `Unforgiven' is done very, very right.


02/Howard’s End
*****/*****
What could easily be dismissed as a quiet love story (which it most certainly is) should never be dismissed at all, for ‘Howard’s End’ is so much more than meets the eye.  Quiet, yes, but the emotional sentiments ring very loud.  This marvelously crafted tale of love, loss and societies constant manipulations is just an outstanding and engrossing cinematic treat.  Layered with profound and intriguing characters, outstanding performances, intelligent scripting and lush cinematography (not to mention authentic costumes and a beautifully subtle score), this beautiful film is a superb addition to any DVD library.

The film really tells a few stories in one.  There is the budding friendship between Margaret, the eldest of two well-educated sisters, and a sickly matriarch.  There is the romance between Margaret and a wealthy widower.  There is the constant feuding between Margaret and her hot-headed and very opinionated sister Helen.  There is the relationship between Helen and the poor yet charming (and married) Leonard.

There is a lot going on here, but thankfully everything is handled with enough precise detail to make it all understandable, intelligible and memorable.

The film’s main plot revolves around a family home called Howard’s End (thus the film title).  When Margaret makes close acquaintances with the withering Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave in a quietly powerful performance) she never expected the generosity that she would receive, but before her death Ruth made it clear to Margaret that she wanted her to take ownership of Howard’s End, for she thought that she would appreciate it far more than her spoiled children.  Once Ruth has died though, her family is not too keen on this last wish being carried out, and so the recently widowed Henry finds his loyalties tested as he opts to crush Margaret’s plans to take over Howard’s End.

It may seem like a trivial matter, but no matter is trivial when love, loyalty and integrity are at stake.

What really makes this film such a goldmine is the remarkable acting.  Emma Thompson swept the awards circuit back in 92, winning nearly everything all the way up to the Oscar.  Her performance is equal parts witty and charming as well as devastatingly serious.  She has this period down pat, and this is her crowning achievement.  Helena Bonham Carter is marvelous as the impetuous Helen.  Her performance has been labeled shrill and annoying, but she is completely in character and does an effortless job at it.  Vanessa Redgrave may not have deserved the Oscar nomination for her few moments on screen, but she is very, very effective and quite memorable, hauntingly so (the opening sequence of her walking through the dewy surface of Howard’s End is one of my favorite scenes in movie history).  Anthony Hopkins is just splendid here (why was he shafted on Oscar’s supporting ballot?) and proves once again that when he is on, he is ON.  Thompson and Hopkins make a marvelous team and really should consider teaming up again. 


They possess a magic together that is rarely captured on-screen.

With spirited supporting performances by Susie Lindeman, Samuel West and James Wilby, ‘Howard’s End’ is a stewing pot of acting greatness, and should be regarded as such.  Perhaps the greatest performance given is that of director James Ivory (who would work wonders with the two leads again the following year in ‘The Remains of the Day’) who casts a stunning shadow over this briskly paced and effortlessly sunny film.  One of the greatest films of the 90’s, this beautifully crafted romance will leave you begging for more.


01/The Crying Game
*****/*****
If you have yet to see ‘The Crying Game’ and think that you know what this film is about, I promise you that you don’t.  I was completely blindsided, and while I knew the big reveal because of internet spoilers, I must say that it adds a whole new dimension to the film when you see how it plays out.

I don’t really want to give too much away here, for the brilliance of this film comes in the mysterious way in which it all comes together.

I’ll try my hand at this.

The film opens with a rather hurried and chaotic sequence that lands a British soldier named Jody in the custody of the Irish Republic.  They are holding him prisoner in ransom for one of their men, and they plan on killing him if their demands are not met.  Over the course of his imprisonment, he is cared after by Fergus, a man who is obviously struggling with his role in all of this.  The two men form a bond that is severed when Fergus is told to kill Jody.  What happens next proves to be an eye opening (and life altering) event for Fergus, moving him to seek out Jody’s girlfriend, Dil, and attempt to, in a way, live his life for him.  When Fergus’s partner in crime, Jude, finds herself back in Fergus’s life though, things get even more complicated.

What appears on the outset to be a thriller of sorts breaks itself down rather quickly into a character driven piece that rests solely on the shoulders of the incredible cast to create, and sustain, a connective tissue between these people.  The bond that forms between Jody and Fergus is remarkably grounded, even if it only lasts about thirty minutes tops.  The tension that arises between Fergus and Jude is so thick you could cut it with a knife, and the budding love between Fergus and Dil is remarkably believable, down to the last ‘awkward’ detail.

“Details baby, details.”


And that is what this film is all about, subtle yet poignant details.  The actors understood that (can I get a round of applause for Forest Whitaker, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson please) and so did Neal Jordon, who wrote and directed this surprising gem of a film.  The script is phenomenally crafted to be as genuine and as complex as possible without ever losing one to the other.  It is told in a straightforward motion, but it never loses the ambiguity needed to keep you holding your breath.

This is a truly remarkable film, from start to finish, a film that exposes the secrets that lie within human nature and serves as one of the better character studies I’ve seen in a long time.


So what did you think?  What films would make your ballot?  Personally, my top twelve looks pretty varied, with the top three here joining films like ‘Death Becomes Her’, ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘A League of Their Own’, ‘Benny’s Video’, ‘The Player’ and ‘Man Bites Dog’.  I should be finalizing ballots by the end of March, and I’ll let you know once I start posting them.

2 comments:

  1. Love Unforgiven. No argument there. Surprised to see The Crying Game at the top. I haven't seen it in years, so I need to give it another look. I like Howards End, but I think it benefited from a weak year of Oscar nominations. Can't believe Scent of a Woman and A Few Good Men actually got Best Picture noms.

    My ranking of the Oscars:

    1. Unforgiven
    2. The Crying Game
    3. Howards End
    4. Scent of a Woman
    5. A Few Good Men

    My current ballot:

    1. Reservoir Dogs
    2. Husbands and Wives
    3. Glengarry Glen Ross
    4. Unforgiven
    5. Malcolm X

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    1. I really liked Malcolm X...one of Spike Lee's more focused and thus more successful films. I thought Glengarry Glen Ross was a pointless mess, but Lemmon was fantastic and is near the top of my Supporting ballot for this year. Husbands and Wives was very good, but for me it is a tad one sided, which I didn't care for. It felt, in a way, somewhat sexist, which struck me as false. I don't know...maybe I was looking for a flaw while I was watching it. I usually LOVE Woody Allen, and while I loved much about it (especially the performances) I just found the women so vilified and the men somewhat justified, which I didn't like.

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