BEN-HUR (1959)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2019 by cdascher

Ben_hur_1959_posterThis film came with a reputation – of being, shall we say, a lot. I had never seen Ben-Hur and part of why I delayed watching it was that I knew it would be long. Also, my completist partner in crime wanted to not just watch one version – no, we chose to watch THREE. This included the 1959 film this blog is about, the 1925 silent film, of which the ‘59 film was essentially a remake, and a fifteen minute short from the early 1900s. 

I can truly say I got a good sense for Ben-Hur, though I didn’t read the book or check out the comic. There are a few things that really stood out to me about this drama, which depicts conflict when the Romans in their quest for empire take over Judea, causing tension among friends. Chiefly, we follow the story of Judah Ben-Hur, who is a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant from Jerusalem who becomes ensnared in conflict, along with his mother and sister, because of a misunderstanding around a fallen tile from his roof and his own outspoken nature. He is proud of his Jewish faith in a time when the Romans were having none of it. 

When he is taken in as a prisoner of the Romans, he becomes a galley slave for five years. He’s assigned eventually to the Roman Consul Arrius and saves his life after there is an attack on their ship by the Macedonians. Judah prevents him from falling on his sword (more than just a saying in this cinematic journey!), and to show his gratitude, Arrius petitions Tiberius to free Judah and adopt him as a son. Judah spends a year in Rome, enjoying prestige and learning how to chariot race – eventually being asked by an Arab sheik to return to his home of Jerusalem to race in front of the new governor of Judea Pontius Pilate against his old friend Messala (the man responsible for getting him imprisoned). When I speak of the things that stood out for me, though, there are really two: chariot racing and leprosy. 

It felt so sad and uncomfortable to watch how the characters with leprosy were dealt with and I wondered what form that would take in our world and our time. I suppose there are similar kinds of situations, where people are shunned and pushed to the outskirts, but when it comes to human contact being that impossible, I don’t know if there’s anything that can quite compare. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a loved one in that position, and so I must say I remained fairly fixated on that the whole time. We also watched all three versions of this film to get a good sense of it, including the earliest silent version. I love Judah’s character, and I really liked watching the ways in which the different films handling the Jesus representation – particularly decisions to show his body/face or not in various moments. 

Mouse and I also had a lot of conversations about the chariot racing – namely, about how the animals were treated. Mouse knows more about this, but it is my understanding from him that there were many different approaches to documenting this for the different versions. I mostly kept looking at the horses to ascertain, as a former horse girl, whether or not it seemed they felt true terror.  Continue reading

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SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2019 by cdascher

slumdogMost of the time, when you see someone succeed, there is an obvious rationality to it. Some mixture of innate ability and privileged position. Then there are the occasional people you see coming out on top, and you just have to ask: Why them? The people who make you wonder if there is some guiding hand of destiny. This is the question that Slumdog Millionaire poses at its opening, as impoverished Mumbai orphan Jamal Malik prepares to answer the final question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (In multiple choice format, of course.) Is he lucky? A genius? Cheating? Or, “it is written?”

Assuming Jamal to be a cheat, he is arrested and interrogated by the police. He withstands torture, but explains his success. Every question of the game has – quite improbably- echoed episodes of his own life; his childhood on the streets of Mumbai with his brother Salim and fellow orphan Latika, their involvement with exploitative underworld figures, his estrangement from Salim, and his long quest to reunite with Latika. 

It had been a while since I had watched this film and I was as riveted the second time as I was the first time. Maybe it’s just something I was born with – the desire for the “it is written” in the world. The mystical, the preordained – that guiding hand. It’s a subject Mouse and I have disagreed over in the past – whether or not destiny is real. I think this film appeals to me so much because it lands on my side. It is real; it is magical. 

One thing that bothered me a little in the film, though it really was not that big of a deal, was that I thought the different actors playing Latika at different stages were not believable as being one continuous person. I can understand this when you are casting a child and an adult, but the middle-tiered castings were very confusing to me when put against the final actor who plays adult Latika. That’s not here or there, but it really would be my only critique of this film.  Continue reading

THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2018 by cdascher

Broadway_Melody_posterThis is the story of a pair of sisters who hit the Broadway circuit and attempt to make it big. The film is interesting in that it was pre-Code, and the first sound film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1929. This was also the second year of the Awards. The film features Anita Page as Queenie and Bessie Love as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney. Hank prides herself on her mind for business and her talent; Queenie is lauded for her beauty. This sets up a tension in the relationship, both professionally and personally. Eddie, who is engaged to Hank, starts the film off by telling two chorus girls he’s brought the sisters to New York to perform a vaudeville act with him in the latest revue being produced by Francis Zaneville. The chorus girls seem a little jealous and wish they’d have a shot at the gig, but Eddie in his charm still manages to stay in their good graces.

In the next scene, we see the sisters hanging out together and waiting for Eddie. When he arrives, we realize he has not seen Queenie since she was a girl. This part was a little confusing to me, since he’s engaged to Hank and clearly aware of their act as a sister duo, but I tried to suspend disbelief. He’s very taken with her immediately; so much so that it was rather uncomfortable to watch as a viewer – particularly because I liked Hank and her pluck so much.

The timeline of the characters’ backstory may not be the biggest wrinkle in this movie- but we’ll get to that in time. The Broadway Melody was the first talking picture to win Best Picture, and the second overall. I’m not sure if it was the first-ever feature musical, but it was definitely one of the first, and I’ve very much been looking forward to seeing it. Released sixteen months after The Jazz Singer, it is from a time when talkies were a novel artform. In any survey of film history, the introduction of synchronized sound always gets a mention. The Transition to Talkies has become the stuff of legend in Hollywood lore, with the stories of stars like John Gilbert, Clara Bow and Buster Keaton inspiring later classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. But while those later dramatizations are perennial classics, the actual output from this period is little-seen, making it something of a Hollywood ‘dark ages’. And there is something utterly irresistible about an artifact from a dark age. Continue reading

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2018 by cdascher

The_Silence_of_the_Lambs_posterCome with us, back to Valentine’s Day, 1991. All over America, suitors are planning the perfect romantic evening. Dinner perhaps? And look, a new spooky movie opening today. What better than a few scares and the winter chill to send that special someone into your arms! I think this Valentine’s Day is going to end very well, don’t you? Two hours of cannibalism, mutilation, flying semen and lotion-in-the-basket later, I’m pretty sure The Silence of the Lambs ruined thousands of first dates, but it was on its way to becoming a modern classic.

Let me start by addressing the obvious: This is a movie that wouldn’t be made today. It is undeniably transphobic. Jame Gumb – the only manifestly queer character – commits crimes that are inextricably linked to his gender dysmorphia. This is a world where being trans is pathology, and one that can be expressed violently. I want to acknowledge this, but I don’t want to spend too much time belaboring the point, castigating a movie from almost three decades ago. I’ll leave the subject behind by saying that in writing this, I’m genuinely second guessing which pronouns with which to use in discussing the film’s antagonist- evidence that we’re living in a future The Silence of the Lambs could not anticipate.

Silence is a thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock. It plays like a magic show, with audience expectation managed by misdirection. We start with a young woman jogging alone at dawn. Are we about to witness a crime? No, it’s Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) training for the physical requirements of her training. Buffalo Bill cuts off his victim’s clothes. Are we witnessing some sex crime? No, he has an entirely different and macabre agenda. Of course there is the famous switcheroo at the film’s climax, where we think the FBI team is raiding Buffalo Bill’s house, but no – Starling walking alone into the villain’s lair and her comrades are in an empty house hundreds of miles away.

The most crucial act of misdirection, though, falls to an actor. Anthony Hopkins is tasked with giving a portrayal Hannibal Lecter sufficiently engaging that our eyes never wander to the plausibility of a middle aged psychiatrist-turned-cannibal who can pick locks, escape detection and seemingly kill at will despite having no allies and a decade of only whatever exercise could be managed inside a small cell. The veteran actor’s perversely charismatic cannibal snob is what allows the movie to work. It was a career defining- and award winning- performance for a reason. It probably also helps explain why an earlier adaptation of the character, sans-Hopkins was not a success. Continue reading

THE DEPARTED (2006)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2018 by cdascher

Departed234Our most recent Oscars film as part of our red carpet roulette project was The Departed, an American crime drama from 2006 directed by Martin Scorsese. I have to say, the first thing I commented on as we were watching this movie was the all-star cast. I looked at Mouse with each new person on the screen and said, “Wait – he’s in it too?!”

Indeed, it is chock full of heavyweights – Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin. A story about Irish mob boss Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) in Boston, the film was a success both critically and at the box office. While I am not a fan of many of his political ideas, Marky Mark is fan-freakin-tastic in this. He is so Boston I can’t handle it. It’s a film about loyalty, infiltration, trust, family, and ambition. I was prepared to not really care that much about this film, but I have to say it is one of my favorites that we’ve watched so far.

I did have one looming question, though: in a film with so many heavyweight stars, why did they cast a woman who was not nearly as famous as the lead? Vera Farmiga plays Madolyn Madden, the love interest of both Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio). She’s great in the role, but this question did occur to me. Also, as ever, I wished in this epic film that there were more roles for women and that Madolyn herself was better developed.

So much Irish. So much Boston. Are you not clear about that? Just to be sure, we’re going to play Dropkick Murphys and put a shirt on Nicholson that says IRISH.

OK, let’s talk about Marky Mark, since you brought him up. I don’t fault Wahlberg’s acting. If you want a wicked accurate portrayal of a tough Bostonian, whom else would you call? But there’s something about the character of Dignam that I found overblown to the point of being distracting. He’s a ‘tough cop’, the guy who got here by way of hard work and street smarts, not education and high connections. I get it. But at some point I found myself wondering “How does someone this incessantly abrasive get himself into this extremely sensitive position on the police force?” Continue reading

UNFORGIVEN (1992)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2018 by cdascher

Unforgiven_2Allow me to pose a question. Is there any mode of storytelling more fundamentally American than the Western? Not just movies, but literature, visual arts, anything. The cowboy is nearly synonymous with America itself. And so my second question. Why is it that in the 90 years of Academy Awards- largely a celebration of the American film tradition- has that most uniquely American of film genres been awarded Best Picture only three times? In the Awards’ fourth year, Cimarron took the prize, and while I maintain for the record it isn’t as bad as its reputation, I think Cimarron is seen nowadays as a Best Picture in name only. A full 51 years passed before another Western took the Oscar (Dances With Wolves), then Unforgiven two years later. Since then, nary a Stetson has been seen on the awards podium.

In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood (who also directs), plays William Munny, a reformed outlaw now widowed and struggling as a farmer. He is coaxed out of retirement by a young man seeking to carry out a contract on two cowboys who participated in the facial slashing of a prostitute. They’re joined by ex-outlaw Ned (Morgan Freeman) and run afoul of sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) on their way to the job.

You love Cimarron so much, hehe. I think it may still rank as one of my least favorites of the films we’ve watched, but I am glad to have seen it. I have to say I have long held a prejudice against westerns, and this one wasn’t half bad. It’s hard to not despise Eastwood from my perspective because I think he has abhorrent political views, but his character is a compelling one in this film. The scenes where he is with his kids before he sets out on this expedition are my favorite; they tug at the heartstrings, and when you see that he is a bit frail and out of it, you almost feel like you should look away. This is the sort of feeling I got as a kid when my dad would trip or something – there was a sense of not wanting to witness him feeling any embarrassment, though maybe that is connected to some toxic and dangerous ideas we as a society have about masculinity. Continue reading

Best Picture 2017 Added

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 15, 2018 by cdascher

2017 has come and gone and we are still alive to add The Shape of Water to the Ramdomizer. So here we are. Our output slowed  for a while, as we spent a lot of our time checking the news to see if World War III had started. Hopefully our end-of-year flurry of activity brought us back on track and with luck we will complete this project before society collapses.

This year, we did take a break from hiding in our bed and stockpiling canned goods to take a Red Carpet Roulette Family trip to England. I tried to scout out filming locations to visit from our Best Pictures, but there are surprisingly few in London (most of our London-set films were shot on sound stages or back lots). We did visit The Tower of London, which, while not a filming location, was where Best Picture subjects William Wallace and Thomas More were imprisoned.

 

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This is the tower in which More was held before his execution.

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If I understood the Beefeater correctly, the spot where we posed for pictures would have been near where they took Sir Thomas to ax his head off. Close to where the KFC is now.

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Also seen during our travels, is the manuscript for Seven Pillars of Wisdom in Bodleian Library, which is the basis of Lawrence of Arabia.

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Also of Best Picture relevance in Bodleian Library was wireless transcript from the S.S. Virginian of the messages the Titanic sent as it sank. Sorry I didn’t get a photo of that.

Unforgiven coming soon. Thanks for reading, everyone.