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They Won't Forget (1937)
A breathtakingly cynical film from usually dull director Mervyn LeRoy about a man wrongly accused of murder who becomes the symbol of the bitter rivalry between northerners and southerners in Depression-era America.
This film does none of the things films from this time period usually did to appease their audiences. The chief bad guy -- in this film a prosecuting attorney using the trial to further his own political aspirations and played by Claude Rains -- far from going unpunished, is actually rewarded. The hero, in this case the wrongfully accused school teacher, gets beaten to death by an angry mob after being found guilty on trumped up charges. Interestingly, the only character who mans up and does the right thing is a black janitor, who himself is threatened by those in power if he doesn't lie for them. The whole film is like a punch in the gut; it's cynical even by today's standards.
I wish I could say the animosity between northerners and southerners who still haven't accepted that they Civil War is over is a quaint relic, but things don't look all that different in the America of today as they did the America of 1937.
The Connection (1961)
Bizarre and Tedious
"The Connection" gets some points for pushing the envelope for its time, but my goodness what a tedious movie it is.
The end credits reveal that the film was based on a play, which did not surprise me in the least. It's set in one room and follows a bunch of junkies while they're waiting for their dealer to arrive so they can get their next fix. There's a movie director and his cameraman in the room filming the whole thing, so the film we are watching is really the film within the film. Each character gets a moment to monologue about something, but everything is delivered in the same sweaty, rambling style so that it all blends together and no one character is really distinct from another. Meanwhile, a few of the guys improvise jazz in the background for nearly the entire length of the film, which becomes insanely irritating about mid-way through. I think the idea is that it's all supposed to be so cinema verite that we aren't sure what's real and what's not, but the dialogue sounds so scripted, and the acting is so unbelievable, that we never for a moment are fooled into thinking this is anything but fiction.
Free Solo (2018)
Entertaining if not super enlightening documentary about the cult of free climbing.
Despite knowing that the film's subject survives to tell his tale, the movie is still a white knuckler, especially if you have a fear of heights and/or plummeting to your death.
I don't understand the mind set of people like Alex Honnold, the documentary's subject. I don't need to feel like I'm cheating death to feel like I've accomplished something or am living a fulfilling life. Fear (within reason) is an instinctual response in animals that's there for a reason -- it prevents you from doing things you probably shouldn't be doing. And I don't feel compelled to overcome that instinct. But the dude in this movie for some reason does, and I guess good for him that he hasn't yet died. The film didn't really make me understand him, but maybe there isn't anything to understand really.
The Wife (2017)
I'm Glad Close Didn't Win For This
I'm glad Glenn Close didn't win the much predicted Oscar for this film. Not because I don't like Close, or think she wasn't good in the role (she's the best thing about the movie), but because this movie isn't good enough for her. Her winning would have been like Julianne Moore winning for "Still Alice," an actress who deserved to win for about ten previous movies finally winning for something mediocre.
The central premise of "The Wife" becomes too unrealistic to support the film built around it. Close and Jonathan Pryce (also very good) try valiantly to carry the material, and the film is at its best when the two of them are going at it with simmering resentment. But by the end, the melodramatic plot developments had lost me, and I was mostly saddened that Close's considerable talents had been wasted on something beneath her.
And what the hell is with the character of the son in this film? Why is he like 30 years old but acts like he's fifteen? And why does he hang around with his septuagenarian parents all the time? I started the film just being moderately annoyed by him, and ended by being actually skeezed out by him.
Green Book (2018)
"Green Book" is the kind of movie my mom likes, and trust me, that's not a compliment. It's for people who are willing to watch a movie about racism as long as the black character who's the victim of it is whiter than any of the white characters. It's for people who want to pat themselves on the back for being open to a "serious" movie that doesn't challenge a single belief or make them the slightest bit uncomfortable. It's for people who like music cues that tell them exactly what they're supposed to be feeling at every single moment. It's for people who think the answer to racial problems is for whites and blacks to compromise and find some middle ground where they can agree to overcome their differences, as if black people have any responsibility in the fact that they have been marginalized ever since the very first one set foot on American soil. No one who is the slightest bit tuned in to racial problems in contemporary America could possibly stomach this movie.
Personally, I found it to be patronizing and damn near insulting. It consists of scene after scene of our black protagonist getting himself in trouble, only to be saved from the situation by the white guy. By the end, the white guy has taught him how to be more black and embrace his own culture, which in this movie is defined by liking fried chicken, listening to Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, and playing some funky piano. Oh but wait, defenders will say. The white guy learns something too, like how to be less racist and how to write really good love letters to his wife. In fact, the entire guys' racist family learns to not be racist by the end and welcomes the black guy to their Christmas dinner. They're just casually racist, you see, but not racist in ways that really matter. Barf.
Seriously, this is the Sesame Street version of racism. In a year that gave us "BlackkKlansman," "Blindspotting," "The Hate U Give," and "Sorry to Bother You," all movies made by minorities about the black experience in America, it's pretty telling of where we are as culture right now that the race movie mainstream America glommed on to was this piece of feel-good hoo-hah. Mainstream America doesn't want to have its beliefs challenged, and it certainly doesn't want to be told it's part of the problem. Instead, it wants a hallmark movie that makes it feel good about itself.
One thing saves "Green Book" from being an utter waste of time, and that is the performance of Viggo Mortensen.
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
There's been an assassination attempt. The victim is a scientist who holds the key to technology that can shrink things and people down to microscopic particles, which will be useful in warfare. The only way to save him from death is for a team of scientists to be miniaturized by the very same technology and injected into his bloodstream so that they can repair his brain from within. Apparently, being injected into another person's bloodstream isn't as easy as it sounds....go figure....and all sorts of mishaps occur.
This daffy premise is actually an intriguing one, but "Fantastic Voyage" manages to be a bit of a let down. The pace of the film is funereal, and most of the film lacks any kind of musical score. I imagine these choices were made to make the film seem more serious and academic, but this isn't a story that needs to be taken very seriously. In fact, it needs to have a sense of adventure and whimsy, which the film doesn't bring.
A whole slew of famous people are in this one. Stephen Boyd is our hunky leading man, but the little submarine these folks cruise around in has more personality than he does. Donald Pleasance is to the movie what Ian Holm was to "Alien." It would be a spoiler to say he turns out to be the bad guy if you couldn't see that plot twist coming five minutes into the movie. Arthur Kennedy is the doctor we're SUPPOSED to think is the bad guy, while Edmond O'Brien and Arthur O'Connell sit in an office drinking coffee and occasionally telling the audience what's happening, in case we can't follow events on our own. This film launched the career of Raquel Welch, who provides some much needed estrogen. I was convinced she would be stripped down to a bikini by the time this film was over, but I was wrong. They keep things professional and scientific, and they even let the lone woman talk once in a while. When she still hadn't said a word 20 minutes into the movie I was beginning to wonder.
The special effects are a hoot. I'm sure they were state of the art at the time, but they're goofy as hell to look at now. The film is set in, I think, 1995, and it's always fun to compare the visionary future created by older movies to the real thing. In 1966, scientists could shrink a submarine full of people and inject it into another human being, but they couldn't think of a better way to actually track the submarine's progress through the host body than to have a dude literally move around by hand a little submarine on a giant diagram. I kept thinking of "Dr. Strangelove" and the "big board!"
Art Cruickshank won the Special Effects Oscar for imagining what it might actually look like for Raquel Welch to be attacked by a bunch of antibodies. Jack Martin Smith and Dale Hennesy also won an Oscar for the film's color art direction, which goes hand in hand with the visual effects in creating the inner world of the circulatory system. Additionally, the film received nominations for its color cinematography, film editing, and sound effects.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Thank You Paul Rudd
I usually hate superhero movies, but I liked this one. I didn't see the first one, or any of the other Marvel movies that the character of Ant-Man may have been in, so it took some time for me to figure out what was going on. But let's face it, these movies aren't exactly the equivalent of brain surgery, and plot is such an afterthought in most superhero movies anyway (which is one of the things I hate about them), that I didn't have to expend a lot of effort on catching up.
"Ant-Man and the Wasp" is funny, it's short, and it has the huge advantage of starring Paul Rudd, who single-handedly makes the film worth watching. No, I take that back. Michael Pena deserves a lot of credit for that as well.
A Private War (2018)
A Private War
I can't decide whether Rosamund Pike is really good in this movie or whether she's overacting to the high heavens.
At the end of the film, there's some brief footage of the real Marie Colvin, the war correspondent who Pike plays and who serves as the focus of this film about her career and eventual death in Syria. Whatever else might be said about Pike, she certainly looks and sounds like the real woman. As for her performance, Pike tears into the role as if she's daring someone to not nominate her for an Oscar. She goes at it hard in every single scene, playing Colvin as a high strung disaster, which maybe she was. The result is a pretty decent film, but one that's exhausting, since Pike is in virtually every scene and one can only take so much of someone else's mental disintegration. It's also an oddly detached film. I found myself unmoved by Colvin's story or her fate.
The film also stars Jamie Dornan, who manages to keep his clothes on and hides behind a big lumberjack beard to boot.
Call Northside 777 (1948)
Well Made But Not Especially Exciting
"Call Northside 777" is one of those late 1940s police procedural films that often get lumped in with films noir but isn't one really. It looks like one because it's in gritty black and white and it's primarily set in jails and police and newspaper offices. But really this is just a crime drama about the efforts of a journalist to prove a man's innocence, reluctantly at first and then with more and more conviction as the weight of evidence begins to overcome his cynical doubts.
That journalist is played by James Stewart, and of course he's terrific in this, as he was in everything. He alone elevates this from something you could easily miss to something worth seeing. Also standing out in the cast is Betty Garde as a boozy slattern. She only gets a couple of scenes but one of them late in the film is a real doozy. Lee J. Cobb plays Stewart's boss and for once manages to keep himself subdued -- I'm used to Cobb shouting and blustering in everything he's in.
"Call Northside 777" isn't especially exciting. Like many films of its kind, it almost seems more like a semi-documentary about the technology behind forensics and police work. We get a whole scene devoted to an explanation of the mechanics behind polygraph machines, and the climax of the film hinges on whether or not a photo can be blown up enough to unmask a crucial detail. Interesting in its own way, but not exactly the stuff of nail-biting suspense.
Wonder Park (2019)
Lame animated film that feels like it was created by committee, because it probably was. No cliche is too cliche to be included, while not a single joke or sentiment in the film is one you haven't seen a hundred times before in much better films. It's movies like "Wonder Park" that give "movies for kids" a bad name. The thing is, kids have standards too, and mine gave this stinker a thumbs down.
Eating Raoul (1982)
Guess Who's Coming for Dinner
Goofy cult classic about a square, morally righteous couple living in L.A. who fall on hard financial times and decide to solve their money problems by luring perverts to their apartment, killing them, and stealing their money. Who Raoul is and how exactly he gets eaten you will have to find out for yourself, because I don't have the energy to explain it here.
I found it pretty hilarious that this couple who sleep in separate beds and cuddle with stuffed animals have absolutely no compunction about offing any number of people. The film is delivered dead pan all the way through, and I suppose you might have to be in a certain mood in order to enjoy it. It's one of those movies that's best watched on a total whim late at night when the last thing you want is something you have to think too much about. It could have been funnier if the people who made it had really decided to go for it. As it is the execution is a bit too tame for the outrageous premise it sets up. But I can see why this turned into a cult hit.
Too Languorous for Its Own Good
"Burning," to stick with the heat metaphor, builds itself to a low simmer and gradually turns up the heat until the whole thing boils over in the film's last moments. But I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't risk losing me along the way.
If you can't handle enigmas, stay away from this film, because that's all it is. It's fascinating to a point, and I enjoyed its refusal to easily hand over its secrets to its audience. In fact, many of the questions the film poses don't get answered at all, or at least you have to make up your own answer if you want the satisfaction of closure. It's stylish too, I'll give it that. But it's also very slow and languorous, almost too much so, and it ultimately feels like the pay off isn't quite worth the time invested.
The Corn Is Green (1945)
I recorded TCM's airing of "The Corn Is Green," but the recording crapped out on me with about 15 minutes left. I was mildly irritated that I invested that much time in a movie I wasn't able to finish, but mostly I didn't care that much because I was barely able to stay awake for what I was able to watch.
"The Corn Is Green" has a sanctimonious tone that grated on me. I usually like Bette Davis, but her uptight ram rod of a character and her never varying fussy, clipped diction wears thin pretty quickly. You know exactly how the movie is going to play out the second it starts, and while I appreciated its themes of valuing education and the broadening of the mind that education brings, the film is so preachy in making its points that it turned me off.
I was drawn to this film to see the performances of John Dall and Joan Lorring, both receiving 1945 supporting acting Oscar nominations in their respective categories. Neither is especially memorable. I'd never heard of Lorring and I've never seen her in anything else, but Dall gives a much more award worthy performance in a less noble but way more fun movie from a few years later, "Gun Crazy."
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
I always go into these old time literary adaptations hoping for the best but more often than not disappointed. Movies from this time period based on classics were frequently too respectful, too stodgy, too preachy, too self aware of their own prestige. But how fun it is, then, to come across one that isn't any of those things and is instead wildly entertaining.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame," William Dieterle's spectacular adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, is one of these. It's energetic, creative, fun, and above all cinematic, something other movies of its kind so frequently were not. Charles Laughton gives an impressively physical, primarily non-verbal performance as the eponymous Quasimodo, and Maureen O'Hara is unbelievable but no less fetching as the gypsy woman who he falls for. Indeed, I had just seen O'Hara in the dull "The Black Swan" from 1942 and had just about decided that I don't much care for her. This movie changed my mind and made me instead believe that she could be a good actress with the right direction. Edmond O'Brien, crazy young in the role of another man smitten with O'Hara, is a bit of a weak link in the acting department.
The film looks amazing, Dieterle using recreations of the Notre Dame cathedral to great effect. The movie is also unexpectedly relevant. In the first ten minutes, we're treated to conversations about immigrants, educating the masses, and the Earth being flat instead of round. For a moment, I wasn't sure whether this was a 1939 movie set in 17th Century France or a movie about the America of today.
Support the Girls (2018)
Good Enough to Make Me Wish It Was Better
"Support the Girls" is just good enough to make me wish it was better.
Regina Hall shines as the manager of a Hooters-type sports bar. Condescended to by the bar's owner for being a black woman while serving as den mother to the young ladies (some more on the ball than others) who make up the waitress staff, she creates a portrait of a woman who's kept acutely aware of the ways (some major, some minor) in which women and minorities have to deal with a constant flow of disrespect and dismissal.
The film goes off the rails a bit toward the end, when frustrations come to a head and the film lurches awkwardly into female empowerment territory. I didn't have a problem with the message but rather with the clunky execution. It's one of those movies that feels like a man's best guess at what female empowerment feels like rather than the real thing.
Feel Bad Movie of 2018
Good grief, say "hello" to the feel-bad movie of 2018.
Come to think of it, this film's director, Steve McQueen, also brought us the feel-bad movie of 2013, "12 Years a Slave." Does he need to get laid? It's rather ironic that someone named Steve McQueen should have trouble getting laid.
Anyway, "12 Years a Slave" felt necessary, so at least there was a point to making us all feel bad. We SHOULD all feel bad about something like slavery. But "Widows" could have been a slick, entertaining little genre exercise, which is what it's crying out to be, had McQueen and his writers not decided to strive for the Woketopia seal of approval. As it is, they throw in every conceivable issue even remotely related to the treatment of either minorities or women in America, whether or not they organically spring from the material. You name an unfair societal ill perpetuated by white men, and you'll find it in this movie. Though to be fair, African American men don't come off looking much better. This is a movie where all white men are corrupt politicians and all black men are gangster thugs. Meanwhile, all women are victims in some form or other -- cheated on, beaten up, exploited. I knew we were in trouble when, in an early scene, a mom, played by Jacki Weaver as a caricature of a New York mafia moll (despite the fact that we're in Chicago), encourages her daughter to prostitute herself because "women should be taken care of by men." And in the tackiest and most exploitative nod to "wokeness," the film throws in a shooting of an unarmed black youth by police. This plot isn't developed in any way, mind you. It's just a footnote tossed in to check off a politically aware box and a cheap tactic to reap the reward of our outrage without having to earn it the hard way.
And the movie is just. so. ANGRY. I get that these characters are desperate and that cracking jokes might not be their top priority. But it is possible to make a movie about desperate, humorless people without the movie itself being humorless and surly. The catch is that It takes creativity and a deft touch, which McQueen as a film maker has not yet shown evidence of having.
So why did I rate this even as high as I did? Because for all of my complaints, there is quite a bit to like about this movie. Get past its preposterous need to feel relevant and progressive, and the film making itself isn't half bad. McQueen knows how to direct action scenes, and he also knows how to build tension. And the acting throughout is very good, especially from Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, and Elizabeth Debicki. Viola Davis, who anchors the film, is fine but her character is so one note -- and such a dour one note at that -- that she's not given much opportunity to shine. The only misfire in the acting department comes from, of all people, Robert Duvall, who does his best Uncle Leo from "Seinfeld" impression.
A wildly uneven movie at best, but not a total wash.
At Eternity's Gate (2018)
The World Did Not Need This Movie
I'll admit that the only thing that got me to watch "At Eternity's Gate" was the fact that Willem Dafoe received an Oscar nomination for playing Vincent Van Gogh. Otherwise, I was all "Do we really need yet another Van Gogh biopic?" The answer, if this film is any indication, is "no, we do not."
Julian Schnabel tries to make this one different from other versions, like the square "Lust for Life" and the marvelous "Vincent and Theo," by picking a visual style that tries to recreate how Van Gogh experienced the world. I like the idea, but not the herky-jerky execution. Dafoe is pretty good I guess, but he sort of fades into the background despite being in nearly every frame of the movie. Instead, Schnabel's meandering, ruminating aesthetics take center stage, making this film a pretty package with nothing at its center.
With Oscar Isaac as this version's Paul Gaughin.
Den skyldige (2018)
"The Guilty" is one of those one-man show movies that revolve around a single character in a single location working through some sort of dramatic situation. In this film, the character is a cop who's been put on 911 call center duty while he awaits trial for misconduct on the job. The way he handles the emergency that falls into his lap and the way he goes about making decisions, most of them bad ones, tells us a lot about him and how he probably ended up on trial in the first place.
Movies like this are always going to feel to a certain extent like gimmicks and will have to deal with the distractions that come with that (How will it maintain dramatic tension? How will it remain visually engaging?) This one uses a plot twist that serves to both throw the audience for a loop and reveal much about our main character, namely that he makes a whole heap of assumptions when dealing with a crisis scenario, not the best attribute for a police officer.
A slick, effective little thriller that's well worth your time.
Boy Erased (2018)
"Boy Erased" is one of those "preaching to the choir" movies. Those who will bother to watch it will already agree that programs designed to erase homosexuality from young people are stupid and wrong. Those that still need convincing will never watch the movie in the first place.
So, as one who need not have been convinced, I will say that I was pleased that actor/director Joel Edgerton takes a restrained approach and avoids the sentimental histrionics that might have tempted another director. Lord help us all if Steven Spielberg had gotten his hands on the same material. But perhaps, given my lukewarm emotional reaction, the film is a bit too restrained? A cast of good actors, including Lucas Hedges as the titular boy, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents, and Edgerton himself as leader of the program (who ends up being a closeted case himself, a development anyone could see coming from a mile away), all turn in thoughtful, intelligent performances. But the film itself stubbornly remains solidly competent rather than something special. I was never bored, but neither was I ever really moved.
Merrily We Live (1938)
Lesser Known "My Man Godfrey"
"Merrily We Live" is a lesser-known screwball comedy that shares much in common with "My Man Godfrey." Rich society family takes in bum and finds out he's not who they think he is. This one starts out with verve and energy, sags a bit in the middle, and then rebounds at the end with some truly funny physical comedy.
Brian Aherne stars as the "bum" and Constance Bennett as the oldest daughter and love interest, but it's Billie Burke (Oscar nominated as the ditzy matriarch) and Clarence Kolb as the dad who get the lion's share of the film's laughs. Kolb especially is deft at pratfalls.
"Merrily We Live" received a lot of attention from the Academy. In addition to its Best Supporting Actress nomination for Burke, the film scored noms for its art direction, cinematography, sound recording, and its warbly title song, none of which is remarkable. But these were the days of up to a dozen nominees per category and studios were allowed to put forward films for guaranteed nominations, so they're not necessarily indicative of quality.
First Man (2018)
Who Knew Space Was Such a Slog?
Seriously, is the space program really this dreary?
Ok, so Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind director who wowed everyone with "Whiplash" and "La La Land," didn't want to make an astronaut movie in the traditional Hollywood mode of films such as, say, "The Right Stuff." Fair enough. Neil Armstrong was a bit of a reluctant hero, shy of fame and press and motivated more by internal reasons (according to this film, at least) than by the glamour of the space program. Indeed, this movie seems to be saying that the glamour highlighted in other movies is largely a fiction, and that the real story is one of hard and thankless work, drudgery, stress, anxiety, loneliness, you name it. I believe that that's true. But is any of that reason to inflict such a gloomy slog of a movie on us? Was Neil Armstrong really the blank-faced automaton as portrayed by Ryan Gosling? Do we have to drain every ounce of excitement and wonder out of the story just to make it more authentic? Because even if it's not as exciting or dramatic as "The Right Stuff" makes it look, still, space travel is pretty cool, and we should be allowed our sense of awe at seeing a man walk on the moon for the first time.
And Chazelle's directorial choices are irritatingly claustrophobic throughout this film. I get that he wants us to perceive events from the perspective of the astronauts, which accounts for the tight and shaky frames and limited viewpoints, but he sticks so rigidly to his aesthetic that he makes it literally difficult to see what's going on, which just becomes aggravating after a while.
The movie does have one thing going for it, which is Justin Hurwitz's wonderful score. It's the only thing about the film that comes close to being rousing, and it deserves a better movie.
No wonder this one bombed.
A decent premise begins to sag and ultimately collapse under the weight of the implausibilities heaped upon it in this low-budget thriller from Steven Soderbergh.
Claire Foy unwittingly commits herself to a loony bin when she seeks counseling for the stalker anxiety that's consuming her life. The main hook of the film is the ambiguity between fact and fiction -- how much of her character's obsession is justified vs. how much exists in her head? A better film would have teased its audience much more with this is-she-or-isn't-she dynamic, but instead this movie devolves into an unimaginative, literal, and -- worst of all -- ridiculous stalker horror film. Things aren't helped by the fact that Foy makes her character incredibly unsympathetic and unlikable, so I didn't much care what happened to her. That the movie isn't a total loss is due probably to the talents of its director, but at the same time one can't help but wonder why someone who has made such good and provocative films as Soderbergh is peddling in stuff like this.
If this had been a first film by a bunch of people new to the medium, I might have been more generous and given it credit for being a slick if flawed genre piece. But as it is, it felt like Soderbergh and his company were messing around one weekend with a camera (or in this case, iPhone) to see what they could come up, without really caring all that much about a final product. Fun for them, maybe, but not so much for their audience.
The Hate U Give (2018)
The Hate U Give
There were a lot of movies this year about racism, a couple of them ("BlackkKlansman" and "Blindspotting" come to mind) sharper edged than "The Hate U Give." But I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. Its passion about its subject matter and its enough-is-enough attitude help it to rise above its overly-earnest after school special trappings and its determination to look at the topic from too many different points of view. It especially starts to unravel in its final moments, as if the makers of it couldn't figure out how to resolve everything in a way both dramatically satisfying and cinematic, and its roots as a book show most starkly. But otherwise it's a very engaging film with some very good performances, most notably by its young star, Amandla Stenberg, who has the daunting task of carrying the entire film on her young shoulders. She proves herself equal to the task, though, and any immaturity she might have as an actress is used to the benefit of the character, a young lady who's thrust to the center of events she might not feel emotionally ready for.
One of those movies that flew under the radar but that people should seek out.
Bara no sôretsu (1969)
Funeral Parade of Roses
An unsettling and astonishing Japanese film that introduced me to the Japanese New Wave movement.
"Funeral Parade of Roses," like many of the best works of art, defies description or categorization. It dives into the Japanese gay sub-culture of the 1960s, and specifically young gay men who dress and act like women. It blurs the line between fact and fiction; at times, the actors in the movie become actors in a movie within the movie, and the movie itself becomes a documentary about the making of a movie about gay Japanese youths. If you can follow that sentence, then you're on the way to having the right sensibility to enjoy this film.
It's a shocking movie too, going places most other films at the time, and certainly few American movies, would dare. The only big American movie I can think of from that time period that comes even close to tackling subjects that general audiences would find equally unsavory is "Midnight Cowboy," and this film makes that one look like a Doris Day romp in comparison.
A Soldier's Story (1984)
Jewison Returns to the Heat of the Night
"A Soldier's Story" plays like a 1980s version of "In the Heat of the Night," the 1967 Best Picture winner directed by Norman Jewison, who also directed this film. But that's not to take anything away from "A Soldier's Story." It's a very good film in its own right, and if it borrows some of the sultry southern vibe of that earlier film, it goes "Night" one better in remaining first and foremost a movie about black identity rather than a movie in which blacks exist to teach bigoted whites a lesson.
In 2018, the film world was astounded that a black-driven superhero movie could become one of the biggest hits of the year. Hey, news flash, movies about and starring black people can be good too! It's really remarkable to me then that this film came out in 1984. That anyone cared enough to make it or thought there'd be an audience for it. Despite being nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it's not a well known movie, and I hope more people find it.
The film's set up is a murder mystery staged in a military barrack during WWII. But the movie is really much more about blacks struggling to find their place in a country that is happy to have them die for it but won't treat them like equal citizens. And within that, the film is more concerned with the interactions of blacks with each other and their differing opinions about the best way to gain respect and how much of their culture it's ok to efface in order to gain it. As with any stage to screen adaptation, no matter how much the director tries to open up the film, its stage origins show. But it's so well adapted, directed, and acted that it remains pretty engrossing nonetheless.
Adolph Caesar received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing the murdered soldier, and his is a fascinating creation. The film also features Howard E. Rollins, Jr. as the investigating officer, probably the film's weakest link, and a young Denzel Washington.
In addition to Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, playwright Charles Fuller received an Adapted Screenplay nomination.