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Robot Rampages in the Wild West
Michael Crichton has a thing for amusement park catastrophes. 20 years before letting T. Rexes and raptors run amok in a little movie called "Jurassic Park," he wrote and directed this film about choose your own adventure theme parks peopled by robots that malfunction and start slaughtering the guests.
"Westworld" is a pretty entertaining sci-fi flick with modest ambitions, well acted by Richard Benjamin, who plays a nerdy dude who chooses to go to the wild west world and be a cowboy for a few days, and finds that he likes it, at least until Yul Bryner, as one of said robots, goes haywire and starts stalking him like the terminator. The screenplay misses an opportunity to make a seriously interesting character study out of the man Benjamin plays. He's courteous, quiet, and civilized by modern standards, but finds that once he's somewhere that allows him to act without consequences, he enjoys whoring, killing, and letting his id run amok. But, like I said, the movie has much more modest ambitions, and settles for being a straight up man against robot stand off. But what the film does deliver is entertaining, and justifies its status as a cult classic.
Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
Stiff and Sanctimonious, But an Important Film Nevertheless
I have to admit that Elia Kazan's expose of anti-semitism that came out shortly after the end of World War II made me feel pretty ignorant. I didn't realize that anti-semitism, at least to the extreme that it's presented here, was quite so rampant so shortly after the war.
Kazan's film was released at a time when Hollywood was in social issue mode, making one hard-hitting film after another -- "The Lost Weekend" and "The Best Years of Our Lives" won the two Best Picture Academy Awards immediately prior to "Gentleman's Agreement," which won that award itself in 1947. These films seem pretty dated and heavy-handed now, but I think films like this were necessary then and are still necessary now. A film like "Crossfire," which also came out in 1947 and also addressed anti-semitism, is a much more interesting examination of the topic than "Gentleman's Agreement," but there was a whole big movie audience out there who wouldn't ever have watched that film because it was a B noir with gritty production values and a screenplay that doesn't tell its audience how it's supposed to feel. "Gentleman's Agreement," on the other hand, stars the attractive and glamorous Gregory Peck and Dorothy Maguire, and it presents its points in such a tidily wrapped and happy package that an audience can feel both good about the way the film ends and about themselves for being so progressive and open minded for watching it in the first place.
Peck was nominated for Best Actor, and he hits his marks, but he's a boring character, and his performance consists almost completely of sanctimonious speechifying. Maguire was also nominated for Best Actress, and while her character is probably the most aggravating, she's also the most interesting and probably most representative of the majority of filmgoers who would have seen this movie, liberal progressives who voice a lot of outrage but actually enable social injustice when it comes right down to doing anything important about it. The film goes after her for her complacency, and even gives her a pretty frank and blistering soliloquy in which she admits her relief and happiness at not being Jewish, not being poor, etc. -- in other words, an admission that she should feel guilty for her white privilege but doesn't because she likes it. Pretty strong stuff for the time, and crazily relevant today, when people put Black Lives Matters signs in their front yards but then send their white darlings to private schools to avoid having them go to school with blacks and hispanics.
Celeste Holm, one of my favorite actresses of all time, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her small role as a fashion editor who says what's on her mind. She lights up the screen every time she's on it, but the film doesn't give her much to do, and really her character could have been excised altogether without much changing the film. Anne Revere, as Peck's salt-of-the-earth mom, was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
Elia Kazan, who was named that year's Best Director, provides uncharacteristically dull direction; the film is based on a novel, but it wouldn't have surprised me to find that it was based on a play, so stage bound does it feel. The film also scored nominations for Best Screenplay (Moss Hart) and Best Film Editing (Harmon Jones).
"Gentleman's Agreement" sits squarely in the middle of Oscar's Best Pictures in terms of quality -- not nearly as good as some of the Academy's picks over the years, but not nearly as bad as some others.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
A Rousing Animated Adventure Story
A visually inventive animated film about a young boy and his quest to find the tools he needs to defend himself against a family who wants him to follow their destructive path.
The messages in "Kubo and the Two Strings" aren't necessarily anything we haven't seen before -- things like parents' protective love for their children, appreciating the beauty of the world rather than fearing its hardships -- but they're framed by an exciting and involving adventure story with terrific voice work from recognizable actors like Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, and Ralph Fiennes. I particularly appreciated what the film had to say about people who are so fearful of the world as it is that they end up destroying all of the wonderful things about it without ever realizing that they are wonderful in the first place.
Nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Animated Feature Film and Best Visual Effects, a nomination that puzzled me until I saw a brief clip that plays over the end credits and shows how the film was made.
Vivacious Lady (1938)
Tepid Comedy That Wastes the Chemistry Between Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers
I have decided that James Stewart had chemistry with every single actress he was ever paired with. Unfortunately, the sizzle he and Ginger Rogers generate is wasted in this otherwise mediocre comedy.
This film hands its audience a sitcom premise and then expects us to just accept the situations that result, whether or not they really make any sense in context of the characters. The jokes fall flat, and one spends most of the film's running time wondering why the considerable talent amassed for this film, both behind and in front of the camera, couldn't result in something less blah.
"Vivacious Lady" was Oscar nominated for both Best Cinematography and Best Sound Recording, and I have no idea why.
My Cousin Rachel (1952)
What Should Be a Hot Toddy Is Instead a Lukewarm Cup of Tea
Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland scheme, doubt, and swoon in this Gothic thriller based on a Daphne du Maurier novel. It's a handsome looking production and adequately captures its 19th century setting. But despite the good actors, the whole thing never works up much steam, and what should be a juicy costume drama in the same vein as "The Little Foxes" instead remains fairly tepid.
I think the problem is with the casting. Olivia de Havilland is a wonderful actress, but she doesn't have the kind of sex appeal that would make a horny twenty-something go bonkers over her. Without that, Burton's obsession with her doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Burton is good, and if his performance is a bit intensely one note, I attribute that more to the character than any flaw in his performance. He was absurdly nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film, one of the most flagrant examples of category fraud in Oscar history. He is literally in nearly every scene.
"My Cousin Rachel"s attention to period production values paid off, as it was also nominated in the black and white categories for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design, though it went home empty handed.
To Each His Own (1946)
Olivia Suffers with the Best of Them
The big draw for me in watching "To Each His Own" is the fact that it brought Olivia de Havilland the first of her two career Oscars for Best Actress. Not only that, but she beat one of my all-time favorite performances by an actress to do so, that of Celia Johnson's in "Brief Encounter." Well, much as I love de Havilland, I think the Academy got it wrong that year.
"To Each His Own" is pretty standard-issue women's picture stuff of the time, albeit it's pretty racy in its treatment of unwed pregnancy. Olivia suffers as nobly as anybody for her child, which she pretends is an orphan dropped off at a neighbor's doorstep so as to avoid a town scandal and then watches be adopted by another couple who raise the child as their own. De Havilland watches from afar as her child grows into a soldier, snatching fleeting moments with him over the years in the guise of a doting aunt while she becomes a successful businesswoman. De Havilland's character is so confident throughout the entire film that we never really feel like she's in any danger of becoming overcome by her hardships, which is good for her but bad for any dramatic tension the film is trying to build. It's a decent movie but a rather forgettable one, and Olivia was better in all sorts of other things, mostly because she had much better characters to play.
Charles Brackett, frequent collaborator of Billy Wilder, was Oscar nominated for writing the film's original story.
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Engrossing Recreation of a Terrible Moment in American Culture
A blistering and engrossing documentary about the O.J. Simpson murder trial that explores how the sensational event became a symbol for the racial tension that was just waiting to boil over in Los Angeles in particular and the United States in general.
I was in college when the O.J. story happened, and I only half paid attention to it at the time, so it was fascinating for me to watch this film that seemed like a new version of an old story. The film makes no attempt to hide the filmmakers' opinion that the innocent verdict in the case was a gross miscarriage of justice, but I have to admit that, though I've always believed O.J. was guilty too, I would probably have acquitted him myself as a juror based on the dismal way the prosecution handled the case.
But the grossest outrage about the whole event -- I felt it at the time and I felt it again watching the movie -- is that the murders that made the whole trial necessary in the first place were forgotten amid the racial baiting and the defense's willingness to capitalize on the emotions of an angry and disenfranchised black community.
A seven-hour documentary may sound daunting at the beginning, but I challenge you not to binge watch it.
Winner of the 2016 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, a complete no brainer of a win.
The Major and the Minor (1942)
A Delightful Comedy with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland
An adorable screwball comedy with a sitcom premise that involves Ginger Rogers having to pose as a teenager firstly in order to afford train fare back to her Iowa home and secondly to protect the reputation of a military man she meets on the way and falls for.
The man is played by Ray Milland, and he displays some real comic chops as well as a lot of chemistry with Rogers. As films like this always do, it goes around the world and back again to justify the joke at its center, and you can probably guess even without watching it how realistic it is that so many people would actually believe that Ginger Rogers is a fourteen-year-old girl. But suspending disbelief is what movies like this are made for, and to resist its charms is to resist a delightful comedy.
The Invitation (2015)
Intense and Effective Genre Film
A slick and creepy thriller about a couple who answer an invitation to attend a reunion of sorts and find themselves fighting for their lives against a suicide cult.
"The Invitation" understands that it's a B genre film and never tries to stretch its ambitions. The film keeps you guessing and throws in the requisite twists and turns that keep movies like this moving forward. There are some serious themes about grief and the different ways in which people deal with it thrown in to give the film some ballast, but it's mostly interested in ratcheting up the tension, which it does admirably.
The viewer goes into a movie like this knowing that there's going to be some kind of twist ending, and the one in this delivers the goods.
Gripping Film About a Man's Determination to Be Free
"Papillon" stars Steve McQueen in a true story about a man imprisoned and doing time in an island penal colony and his single-minded conviction to eventually gain his freedom.
The character played by Dustin Hoffman was a fictional one created for the film in the attempt to turn it into a buddy movie, and much as I like Hoffman as an actor, it's obvious that he was shoehorned into the screenplay. He drops out for large portions altogether, and the movie isn't much different for it. Also, McQueen and Hoffman didn't get along on set, and it shows in the lack of chemistry they have on screen.
Otherwise, this is a pretty gripping film that perhaps goes on a little too long but never overstays its welcome.
Jerry Goldsmith received an Oscar nomination for the film's score.