Review 34: Cimarron (1931)


Just a heads up: this is going to be the worst review I’ve written so far. Not worst as in the film’s quality (although I did hate this film) nor worst as in the quality of my writing – I’ll be as wry and witty as ever I assure you. No, worst in the sense that by definition this article can barely qualify as a review, because I honestly don’t know what the hell to say.

When I was a child I remember my parents reminiscing about the old, classic films they’d watched as children at Christmas and such, and insisting my brother and I one day see these great, irreplaceable oldies ourselves. Films like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Citizen Kane’ and many others. Anyway, of the countless recommendations they offered, I don’t recall ‘Cimarron’ being amongst them, and for good reason. Full disclosure: I am a complete ignoramus regarding the western genre. And I am this partly by choice, as I have little to no interest in it. If you asked me to name a famous cowboy, I’d say Woody from the ‘Toy Story’ films. In fairness, the western film has more or less diminished, although there have been occasional and largely cringey attempts to bring it back – ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ etc. The genre’s best hope of revival  is Tarantino, who gave it a splendid makeover in ‘Django Unchained’ and fingers crossed, will have another hit with ‘The Hateful Eight’.

If you suspect I’m try to stall the actual review with yammering, you’re correct. Okay, let’s start with the plot. From what I can gather the film is set in 1889 during something called The Oklahoma Land Rush, where thousands of hopeful American fled to seize free land. The main character Yancy, is pipped to the post by a prostitute, who grabs the property he wanted. He decides to move his family to I guess what’s known in cowboy dialect as a one-horse town. As is expected , he gets into a few shoot outs. After cleaning up, he then decides to move again, this time to land that previously belonged to native Americans, until the government gave them some magic beans and told them to get lost. His wife stays and runs the newspaper Yancy owned, while he settles the Cherokee strip. He swans back a short five years later, the length of time I felt I’d been watching this film. The prostitute he shared six minutes maximum screen time with is on trial for public nudity, and for some reason he goes all Atticus Finch on us and defends her. Then some other stuff happens involving gratuitous social commentary on prejudice towards the Indians. I’m going to end the synopsis here, partly because I don’t want to spoil the entire picture but mainly because I’m getting beyond pissed off regurgitating these two hours of boredom.

One thing I will say that really didn’t help my viewing experience was the god-awful sound quality of the copy I watched, the only one I have access to. I mean, not only was it poor, it had that weird fizzing distortion that sounds like heavy rain pounding off sheet metal. I’m not saying without that I would have liked the film itself any better, but I probably wouldn’t have been driven to the state of catatonia I was.

(Oh, you may have noticed I’ve not mentioned any actors that starred in it, or the director. Yeah, that’s because I don’t care. I honestly couldn’t give less of a fuck. Wikipedia it if you’re desperate to know.)

So here’s the problem I have. As much as I hated this film, I can’t call it bad. It’s very much a film of it’s time – cowboys back then were as trendy as zombies are now. Plus, in it’s time it would have been considered a blockbuster or an epic. There’s a reason it isn’t held in the same esteem as the aforementioned classic films: it’s not classic. It’s not timeless. The same way I highly doubt ‘Avatar’ will be in 80 years. But it wowed critics and audiences in its time, so good for it.  I’m not grasping at straws for positive commentary, I’m just trying to be reasonable and keep things in context.

Thankfully, this was the only western film to win best picture, so I’m spared any further hell. Oh that is, unless you count ‘Dances With Wolves’ made in 1991, which I am looking forward to immensely. What’s that? Kevin Costner’s the director? Oh well, I remain optimistic. His skills as a director must surpass his skills as an actor. Huh? He stars in it too? FML.

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PS. There was a remake in 1961 that may be more tolerable. If you ever see it let me know.

Review 33: American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty (1999) Mena Suvari (as Angela Hayes)

This film blows my mind, but not in the way you’d assume i.e. the way it did viewers and critics when released. Rather it evokes a reaction that no other film that I can think of does. See, it’s one thing to be unsure whether a film is good or not (‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ – I loved it but seriously doubt its actual quality). It’s one, albeit rarer, thing to be unsure whether you like a film or not (‘The Accused’ – a great film I thoroughly recommend but can’t say I really enjoyed the viewing experience). It is another thing entirely though to be unsure how much you like a film. This is the conundrum Sam Mendes’s ‘American Beauty’ puts me in: I like this film, that I am sure…but how much and for what reason(s)? The tagline instructs you to ‘LOOK CLOSER’. Challenge accepted.

Most would describe the film as a drama, a genre which covers everything from ‘The Notebook’ to ‘Philadelphia’. Very helpful. Others might refer to it as a black comedy – a term which nowadays can be loosely translated as a funny film where someone dies and/or makes you use your brain and engage emotionally. This now I think about it is actually quite a fair way of describing ‘American Beauty’. In lieu of a synopsis I’ve decided it would be better to give a character list as, although some are far more prominent than others, fundamentally the film is about the hell that goes on behind the close doors of seemingly blissful suburbia. And I would argue there is no one plot, rather many separate ones that thread together to paint a collective picture of the American dream gone wrong.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey): a middle-aged man who has lost the will to live. Not in a suicidal way, more in a going-through-the-motions of crippling emptiness way. His mojo is abruptly awakened when he forms an intense infatuation with his 16 year old daughter’s best friend Angela. Don’t worry, it’s not creepy/paedophilic as long as his fantasies are portrayed incredibly artfully. This new surge of life inspires him to quit his creativity-numbing job and relive his teenage years of pot-smoking and serial masturbation. Believe it or not, this is the hero of the film.

Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening): Lester’s high strung, materialistic and secretly desperate wife. Her real estate business is floundering and her marriage is as dead as fried chicken. While Lester is beating off to his Lolita-esque* fantasy, she finds salvation in an affair with career-rival Buddy, seemingly having bought in to the notion – that if you’re a stressed out woman, a man’s penis is all you need to fix your problems – the media so enjoys force-feeding us.

Jane Burnham (Thora Birch): Lester and Carolyn’s daughter. At first glance an angsty, insecure teen but turns out to be more complex than that (LOOK…….CLOSER). She dislikes her mother and abhors her father (in fairness, he all but dry-humps her best friend right in front of her and accuses her of “being a real bitch just like her mother” when she has the audacity to ask him not to sleep with her underage best friend) She plays the plain, subservient friend when with Angela but allows her own uniqueness and beauty to flourish after forming a relationship with her rumoured-to-be-crazy neighbour Ricky.

Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari): the obscenely beautiful focus of Lester’s fantasy (which she encourages for all she’s worth). Much like Jane, Angela’s surface appearance in deceptive. Her vanity, self-assurance and attention-seeking ways cover up a secret terror of being ‘ordinary’.

Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley): The Burnham’s neighbour and Jane’s classmate. Mysterious, poetic and perceptive…although probably not as much as he (or screenwriter Alan Ball) think. Having supposedly just got out of a mental institution, Ricky has moved back in with his parents (who would benefit from a stint in there as well to be honest), and is watched like a hawk by his tyrannical and obsessive father. Not closely enough though, as along with his unorthodox hobby of filming everything – from unsuspecting people to plastic bags blowing in the wind – he makes a fortune as a drug dealer.

Col Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper): Ricky’s aggressive, old-school, ex-marine, homophobic father. That’s really all there is to him…or so it seems. Blah look blah closer.

I know there’s other characters but I’ve covered the main ones and hopefully in doing so conveyed the numerous themes and strands that run throughout the film. There is no villain in the film. Or rather, every character has hateful qualities. Perhaps one could argue each character is their own antagonist, just as we all are in life. Or maybe materialism and the illusion is the true villain. I don’t really care to be honest. There are so many theories and interpretations you could apply to this film, a popular one being ‘pretentious crap’. This I disagree with. For me, pretentious is something that thinks it’s saying a whole load of meaningful stuff through symbolism and metaphor but in fact is cryptic, indulgent garbage. ‘American Beauty’ though artful, is explicit and accessible. It’s imagery has all the subtlety of the Jesus allusions in ‘Man of Steel’ for God’s sake.

That’s not to say it isn’t laughable at some points. It is an intentionally funny film but there’s a few times I snickered for the wrong reasons during my recent viewing. The plastic bag scene is a little eye roll-inducing now, as is Lester’s epilogue. And I lost it over Lester’s “it’s just a couch!” outburst at Carolyn. It just seemed so uncalled for – the poor lady had a point, it was a damn nice couch and he was going to spill beer on it.

That said, the film definitely packs most of it’s emotional punches well. Carolyn’s private meltdown after failing to sell the house is extraordinarily uncomfortable and saddening to watch. The final fifteen minutes of the film are excellent, I’d even go so far as to use words like exquisite and haunting in some moments. All the actors are faultless, and I must say, there’s a tonality to this film – dark yet uplifting, haunting but hilarious, relatable but twisted – that I’ve never seen captured in any other.

How much do I like this film? I can’t give an official measurement. “Rather a lot” is about as specific as I can get. All I can conclude is that I like it for all the right reasons and all the wrong reasons. When it’s good, it’s fantastic film-making in it’s truest sense, when it’s bad, it’s still brilliantly entertaining. No doubt some will find my personal reading of the film inaccurate or flawed. If this is the case, maybe you just need to LOOK CLOSER. Or write your own review. Whatever. One thing this film has taught me is that Lester’s “haters gon’ hate” attitude is crucial to living your life happily.

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*Lester Burnham is an anagram for ‘Humbert Learns’

Review 32: The Apartment (1960)


Like all good fathers, my dad has inundated me with advice and life hacks in a bid to help me survive and thrive in this cold, unforgiving world. When I sift through them all, numerous and varied as they are, I can more or less sum them up in three bullet points.

  • Never trust anyone
  • Never be a mistress
  • Money can buy you happiness

The film I recently watched ties in with bullet point number two. It does indeed serve as a mildly humorous warning about the disadvantages of being, not just a mistress, but any kind of pawn in someone’s immoral affair. Unfortunately, there’s not much else I gained from ‘The Apartment’.

I know, I know, I’m disappointed too! Practically everyone seems to adore this film – critics and viewers old and new. I keep reading reviews hailing it as hilarious and romantic. Well, okay I smirked three or four times maybe and I guess I was glad when C.C whatever-his-face-was (can’t remember, not a good sign) and Fran got together in the end (that’s not a spoiler, you know it’s going to happen about eleven minutes into the film) but nothing clicked as being especially masterful.

For the record, I was very excited to see this film as I loved Billy Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’ and this one just didn’t come close to that work. I say this for anyone making the inaccurate and offensive assumption I’m the kind of person who can’t appreciate an old film or a film that’s in black and white – in fact, I take umbrage with any self-announced film lover who has that attitude. I just didn’t see what was really that special about this one. I feel like the student in maths class who just can’t get their head round a theorem but everyone else understands it fine. It’s frustrating but eventually you’ve just got to cut your losses.

In fairness, I suppose some themes were near-the-knuckle for 1960, although Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (a movie that actually got him banned from Disneyland) was released the same year which no doubt took the heat off any flack ‘The Apartment’ was getting. The film revolves around an insurance company worker (Jack Lemmon) whose career is skyrocketing for the wrong reason. That being he rents his apartment out to office superiors who need a place to bring their floozies and dames (because apparently it never occurred to these rich, smart executives that there’s such a thing as a motel). In return he is promoted and praised at work. When the boss (Fred MacMurray – who was in ‘Double Indemnity’ in a far better role) finds out, he at first reprimands him then casually hints that he himself will be requiring Lemmon’s service. His mistress however is Fran (Shirley Maclaine). The attractive and witty elevator girl everyone, including Lemmon, fancies madly. She is poorly treated by MacMurray – a married man full of insincere promises to leave his wife. The conundrum is clear, sacrifice his career and win Fran, or lose the girl but be professionally successful.

The film is classed as a black comedy and there are moments, which I won’t spoil, that go into heavy drama territory which your average rom-com won’t touch. Wilder, of course, being one of the original kings of black comedy. I admired that aspect of it. And it was nice to see Shirley Maclaine in her youth. Most associate her with the overbearing, hysterical mother role in ‘Terms of Endearment’ so it was cool to see her play such a likable and wry character.

It saddens me I didn’t seem to have the right key for ‘The Apartment’ but don’t misinterpret me. I make no apology for my personal opinion and never will. Rather I  concede there must be something that doesn’t click with me that totally makes this film a real classic for some. It’s nobody’s fault, and I for one am quite happy to shrug and get on with my wisely affair-free life.

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Review 31: Midnight Cowboy (1968)


If films were food, my relationship to them would be that of a pregnant woman’s. By that I mean the oddest ‘cravings’ for films can strike me at inopportune times. A horror film on Christmas Eve, a historical epic on Valentine’s day…and in this case, for no real reason at all two nights ago, a sudden fiery desire to finally watch ‘Midnight Cowboy’…a bleak drama about the world of male prostitution.

Anyone who has been a frequent reader of this blog  should know me well enough that whenever I say what a film’s ‘about’, my definition is twofold. What a film’s about and what a film’s really about should be separated as quite different things. It’s the same difference as between the look of an orange and the taste of an orange (another food analogy, I must be subconsciously hungry). Let’s make this simple.

What ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is about:

A young, handsome and naïve Texan named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) quits his job to head the big apple to follow his dream of being a hustler. A dream people who know little about the film may snigger and scoff at but Joe’s passion and belief that he has a real gift in pleasuring women, and that this is his calling is as sincere as my writing and academic ambitions. Frankly, I rooted for him. Things don’t quite go quite as smoothly as he anticipated though, a hustler without a manager is like an amateur actor without an agent. He meets a sleazy and conniving small-time thief/conman named Rico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who initially scams him before they form a bond, forged by the scale of their dreams and poverty-ridden living situations. They go through the motions of survival. Rico’s health is continually deteriorating, and the two men decide to relocate once again to Florida where they will renew their ambitions.

What ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is really about:

For me, the prominent underlying theme is those on the other end of the American dream. Those that have to scrounge for money and do so perpetually in a bid to inch their way to success so far out their grasp yet a trick of the light makes it somehow seem close. People who somehow never had a chance. The very image Joe chooses for himself – a cowboy – is the epitome of the American hero. He grew up idolising John Wayne (who in an odd turn of events beat Voight and Hoffman to the best actor Oscar) and aspires to be like his onscreen idol – again, that illusion of something seeming so near – the TV screen – yet being miles away.

I’ve reviewed two Dustin Hoffman films back to back – both in extremely different roles – and cannot stress my awe enough at his versatility and dedication to his profession. I’ve often pondered what his finest acting role was. Most would say ‘Rain Man’ (understandable), or possibly ‘Tootsie’ (a film I wish with all my heart I was reviewing in this blog). One might lean towards his more down-to-earth roles, such as ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ or ‘The Graduate’…for me though, I think I’ve made up mind on ‘Midnight Cowboy’. It’s a role like no other he’s ever played. He makes his character ooze a sort of slimy charisma. He is a fundamentally unlikeable and un-admirable and yet amazingly sympathetic character.

For those who don’t know, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was rated X upon its release. Nowadays it could probably pass for a 15 (in Britain). The sexual content and immoral thread if you will, not to mention the fact that the film breached homosexual themes was too much for censors in the 60’s but seems pretty tame now. But one aspect that most certainly hasn’t changed is the emotional impact. The characters and their situations are just as relevant and devastating now. I can honestly say ‘Midnight Cowboy’ may be the most depressing film I’ve ever watched. Not depressing as in traumatically sad like ‘Sophie’s Choice’ or ‘Schindler’s List’. Depressing as in unapologetically bleak. I’ve seen one other film of director John Schlesinger’s: the British New Wave  movie ‘A Kind of Loving’. While he certainly exhibited his talent with honest and gritty portrayal of real-life in that, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is a crowning achievement, in cinema as well as for him personally.

It may make you deeply melancholy, but you will not regret watching ‘Midnight Cowboy’.

(Oh, and please stop fighting over whether “Hey, I’m walking here!” was improvised or scripted. Who cares, it’s a great moment. And it was improvised. Full stop.)

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Review 30: Kramer vs Kramer (1979)


The past month or so has been eventful for me to say the least. I took another step in my relationship with my other half and spent a weekend in Arran with his family, getting to know them all on a more personal level. Also, my own close-knit family has recently been through some turbulent times and changes (which account for my absence on the blog front…well, that and a computer begging to be defenestrated). In light of all this, I guess it isn’t surprising that when deciding what film to review next, I instinctively reached for the ‘family drama’ genre.

In 1979, an un-extravagant, inexpensive and simple-storied little film about the effects of divorce on a family won best picture. And why? well, in this reviewer’s opinion, whether people even realised it or not, that seemingly straightforward little film awoke in its viewers countless questions about not-so-straightforward topics: gender roles, what it means to be a good parent, the complexities of love and marriage…and in its own straightforward little way, is a revolutionary piece of cinema.

Let me just come out and say ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ is an extraordinary film. The plot is straightforward: an overly career-focused man Ted (Dustin Hoffman) comes home from work to find that his deeply unhappy wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) has had enough of this life and is leaving him and their young son Billy. Disbelieving at first, it slowly dawns on Ted that she’s not coming back and he painstakingly adjusts to life as a single father, along the way realising just how much he took for granted with his wife, and forming a very special bond with his son. A year and half passes when quite out of nowhere Joanna returns. She wants to re-claim custody of Billy to the devastation of Ted and they are forced into a vicious court custody battle.

So yes, the plot is simple, but the themes are certainly not. As well as ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ being arguably the most sensitive and accurate picture of the impact of divorce on a family, it also throws up many issues on gender roles – which of course in the time the film was made was prevalent. The Woman’s liberation had grown – more women were opting to join the workforce than become confined to domestic life, Roe vs Wade in 1973  had legalised abortion and the pro-choice movement had won. Conversely, men were encouraged by literature and society to take a more active role in the care of their children, and being emotional and sensitive was no longer the taboo it was in the 40’s and 50’s. But of course, with change comes confusion and “whose place was where?” was a big question. What did it now mean to be man/woman was hazy as each gender was seemingly crossing over into feminine/masculine territory respectively.

These themes are conveyed perfectly in Ted’s speech when he takes the stand in the courtroom:

My wife used to always say to me: ‘Why can’t a woman have the same ambitions as a man?’ I think you’re right. And maybe I’ve learned that much. But by the same token, I’d like to know, what law is it that says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex? [...] I don’t know where it’s written that it says that a woman has a corner on that market, that a man has any less of those emotions than a woman does.

Joanna Kramer could easily have been set up as the villain of this film, but she is not, and any fair-minded and intelligent person will realise this. She commits the action of abandoning her child based on her genuine belief she is no good for him. Ted, whether obliviously or not, has suppressed and overlooked her throughout their marriage, always putting his ambitions over hers – barely acknowledging she might have had any outside motherhood. Although gender equality was being revolutionised it was by no means a certainty. Nowadays there are still hurdles to overcome but watching this film did make me feel very fortunate I was born into a comparatively equal society. I myself am a woman who is far more interested in having a career and a life (in the sense of utmost freedom) than a child and the identity of someone’s mother. Not to say it definitely won’t happen and if it does I won’t enjoy it, but I know in my heart it alone wouldn’t be near enough for me to feel accomplished.  Joanna’s predicament is one I dread to think of and despite her having less screen time I find her every bit as sympathetic as Ted.

The film primarily however is about the agony of divorce. Hoffman was very recently divorced when the film was pitched and almost refused the role (director Robert Benton claims that when he went to meet Hoffman to discuss the part, the actor purposely stood throughout the whole meeting to make it clear he wanted him to leave as soon as possible). As an extra fun-fact, the women playing the typist in the courtroom was not an actress but an actual court reporter who had recently quite her job because she actually couldn’t bear to witness anymore custody hearings. As someone who has a cripping fear of failure, I reckon to be a failure at your own marriage – to have driven away the person who loved you enough to swear to be with you forever, or failed to love them through hard times – must be one of the worst  kinds of failure there is.

In writing this review, which I think is my most serious so far, and reflected on myself in depth. I appreciate more than ever what a wonderful film ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ is. I am an unmarried 21 year old and any claim I make about relationships are observations I collect and try to learn from. From the character of Joanna I learnt this: the problem isn’t always not loving and respecting your partner enough but rather not respecting and loving yourself just as much as them.

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Review 29: Chicago (2002)


As much as I’ve enjoyed the films I’ve reviewed recently, they have all admittedly been, for lack of a less crude expression,  sausage-fests. I can count on one hand the number of named female characters I’ve come across in recent viewing, and I won’t deny it was a nice change to watch a film where the x chromosome was well-represented. Rob Marshall’s ‘Chicago’ is a sizzling, sexy, stylish but probably totally overrated cinematic treat. People often disregard this though, too fixated on ogling those nifty little sequin outfits that leave just under enough to the imagination.

In case you were unaware, ‘Chicago’ is a musical about fame, murder and jazz…quite a seductive combo. It’s protagonist (if you permit my loose usage of that word) is Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), who desires nothing more than to be on stage, and more to the point, famous. One night, after a session of adulterous coitus with lover Fred, who apparently has links in showbiz, he reveals that actually he has been lying in order to, I quote, ‘get a piece of this’ before giving her ass one last demeaning tap and throwing her across the room. Unfortunately, his biggest-douchebag-on-earth-award is to be accepted posthumously, as in one of the most satisfying movie gun-killings since ‘Thelma and Louise’, Roxie blasts him full of lead in a fit of rage. Her doting, dim-witted and long, long suffering husband Amos has had it up to here with her antics and bails on covering for her, resulting in Roxie going to prison. Among her murderess cellmates is Queen of jazz cabaret Velma Kelly  (Catherine Zeta-Jones), her once idol but soon to be fame-rival. For you see, in Chicago, homicide is a spectacle and the courtroom is a circus. Ringmaster of this particular circus is hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), Roxie’s ticket to both getting her off the hook and getting her name on the front page. The latter is by far her main priority.

In terms of plot, that’s about it. Nothing of didactic substance could be squeezed out even if Marshall wanted there to be. But let’s face it, no one goes to see ‘Chicago’ -on stage or screen- for didactic substance anymore than they go to strip clubs to admire the lighting. It’s the songs and music that make this film, and they are  incredible. So incredible, they dazzled the academy to handing over the most prestigious award given at the Oscars.

Before I start ripping into this film’s best picture Oscar as a joke (which it is) , I should give credit where it’s deserved. I have to say the film’s execution of the musical sequences is pretty brilliant. Rather than have everyone burst into song spontaneously, like in ‘Oliver!’ or ‘The Sound of Music’, Marshall literally stages each number, each character getting a chance to have their moment and own personal set, while inter-cutting between the normal dialogue. The affect is original and well-fitting with the tone, as by giving each song such separate emphasis, the viewer is too captivated by the musical parts to give much of a care about thin plot. All the actors are very good excluding one (I’ll get to that in a moment). Catherine Zeta-Jones tends to steal the show for most people but my favourites are the supporting characters, namely Queen Latifah as Mama Morton, the nicest jail warden you’ll ever meet provided you slip her plenty of fifties, and John C Reilly as Amos, whose wonderful ‘Mr Cellophane’, contradictory to the song’s lyrics, is one of the most memorable numbers of the film (I think).

Furthermore, ‘Chicago’ actually did accomplish something notable. Here’s a challenge: name one prolific musical film that came out in the 80’s or 90’s (excluding Disney flicks). The best I can come up with is probably ‘South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut’. In short, at this point the musical genre was as dead as fried chicken. If  ‘Moulin Rouge’ managed to heal it, then ‘Chicago’ resurrected it for good. Over the last decade, musical films have enjoyed great success, and although this means we’ve had to endure a few suckers (‘Burlesque’, ‘Nine’), and some that think they’re a lot better than they are (‘Les Miserables’…Yeah. I went there.) It’s for a good part been a triumphant comeback.

Glad that’s over with, now on with the fun part.

The not-so-good aspects…

Richard Gere. Let’s talk about Richard Gere. It’s not the worst casting choice Hollywood ever made but it’s in the top twenty I reckon. Do I need to state the obvious that he’s really not a singer? Because he’s not…that’s really all one can say. More than that though is that he doesn’t quite fit the buoyant, playful tone of the film. I’ve got nothing against Richard Gere but the best way I can describe him is a well-dressed cardboard cut-out, and really that’s the only parts he can play really well. Case-in-point the millionaire in ‘Pretty Woman’, which was a great role for him. Billy Flynn is sleazy, slick and arrogant and frankly Gere is too nice (in the blandest sense of the word) to play him.

My main issue with this film winning best picture however is more to do with the other films that were nominated. I’ve not seen ‘Gangs of New York’ but have seen ‘The Pianist’, ‘The Hours’ and ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ and would definitely rank the former two at least above ‘Chicago’, especially ‘The Pianist’. One of the basic requirements of a best picture film is that it should change something – be it the scope of cinema or something intimate in the audience’s viewpoint. ‘Chicago’ doesn’t really do either of these things. It’s fabulous to look at and good fun, that’s as far as it goes. ‘The Pianist’ was Roman Polanski’s harrowing and deeply personal testament to the horrors of what his people endured in world war 2 and leaves one, at the very least, deeply moved if not devastated and changed. Seems a given what film deserved the award.

In fairness, Polanski did at least receive best director which frankly, I’m beginning to view as the more meaningful award. Not to say that the best picture award is not meaningful. It is, but in a different way. It reflects what film people chose to define a year for them. Regarding ‘Chicago’ winning, consider this: in 2002 the wounds from 9/11 were still extremely raw and the media had never been pumping its readers/watchers full of more fear. ‘The Pianist’ and ‘The Hours’ may be finer films but one was about the holocaust and the other features suicide as a prevalent theme. Maybe people had just had enough of doom and gloom and ‘Chicago’ was the shallow, glitzy escape they needed. The choice for best picture in this case, is very forgivable.

(And if I’m 100% honest, that phenomenal ‘Cell Block Tango’ sequence could have bought my forgiveness no matter how shit the rest of the film was).

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Review 28: Amadeus (1984)


This is a film that appears on a lot of top 10 lists, including my mum’s actually. I’ve been intrigued to see it for a long time and having finally got around to it, am pleased to report this is one of those rare and lovely times my expectations for a film have been exceeded. It, quite fittingly, has all the complexity, beauty and intensity of the compositions of the man whose story is being told.

Saying that, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is not the main character, in spite of what the film’s title would have you think. The film begins with two servants pleading to be let in their master’s room, as he has locked himself away. They burst in, and to the audience’s surprise, the man they find sitting in a pool of blood is not Mozart. Oh, okay then. We then cut to an insane asylum, where a priest has come to visit a certain patient – ah, this must be Mozart,  it’s well known throughout his life the stress of genius took a toll on his mind. Wrong again. It’s the same elderly man we just saw.  This mysterious figure is Antonio Salieri, the narrator and main focus of our story. Mozart was his contemporary and rival, and he claims to be responsible for his death. The film is his confession, his story, his turn to be in the spotlight.

Or is it? Mozart is such an immense presence in the film due to Salieri’s obsession that he ends up overshadowing the narrative, one of the many touches of genius from director Milos Forman (who also directed the phenomenal ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’). The build-up to actually seeing Mozart results in a truly unbelievable unveiling. Unbelievable in the sense that this was really not what you expected. You can feel Salieri’s anticipation and nerves as he scans the room pondering whether such talent could be written on a persons face, can genius make a person instantly recognisable? Naturally the viewer can’t help but imagine what he/she will find. Now I speak only for myself, but what I pictured Mozart would be was a man of quiet brilliance, subtly eccentric and a little tortured. A reasonable idea but quite horribly mislead…

You know how in every high school class there’s a small, greasy kid that’s been effectively short-changed on puberty, and to compensate is constantly making really crude, infantile jokes and is tolerated by everyone as just “that immature asshole”…well that pretty much sums up Mozart in this film. Kudos to Tom Hulce (who you’ll recognise as the voice of Quasimodo in Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ ) as his portrayal makes it perfectly understandable to the viewer why Salieri finds him so deplorable.

Perhaps “deplorable” is a little too strong a word but the shock of what Mozart – or “the creature” as Salieri calls him – turns out to be takes a while to adjust to. Salieri’s agony stems from the injustice he feels God has caused. He, a dedicated, passionate, virtuous man who swore celibacy to ensure nothing distracted his musical aspirations, can only achieve mediocrity. Whereas Mozart, a conceited, frivolous, boorish man-child, can knock out a spectacular composition with minimal effort. Salieri is a devout man of God, praying constantly not for guidance but for help in his musical ambition, and it first it seems as though the Lord is obliging. But as Mozart continues to excel, and Salieri suffers more and more humiliations, he turns against God, believing him sadistically laughing at him through Mozart. It is this that drives him to his elaborate plan to destroy Mozart.

The revenge plot would seem the highlight of the film, but what really makes this film special is just the ongoing character arcs of the two main protagonists/antagonists. What is particularly marvelous is how this film divides its audience between the two rivals. I think depending on who you side with will tell you a lot about the kind of person you are. If you’re serious, determined, and perhaps have been a little screwed over by life, you’ll sympathise with Salieri’s plight. If you’re more the carefree, laid-back type, who perhaps has had it a little easier in life you’ll view Salieri as a jaded psycho who needs to get over himself. Which one are you? I know which side I’m on…

Incidentally, the title of the film is cleverer than you realise. The word Amadeus translates as ‘love of God’. It is this of course this that fuels and torments Salieri, so really the film’s title does refer to both of them. It reflects the film perfectly. Salieri is the substance, Mozart is the front.

Concentrating for minute on the look of the film, it is quite stunning. The art direction has a delicately modern touch that really illuminates the melodrama and extravagance without going into Baz Luhrmann territory (not that I don’t love Baz). I’d expect nothing less from Milos Forman and may even, dare I say, prefer this film to ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.

This film rightfully won a boatload of awards when it came out but it also generated a fair bit of controversy over an issue that’s cropped up several times on times blog: historical inaccuracy. Yes, the film is very likely skewing the truth but in honesty I can’t say I care – no disrespect meant if you do – it’s just for me, the film-making is too fine to criticise sources (or lack thereof). And to repeat what I said in my ‘Argo’ review:  it’s Hollywood. What do you expect?

‘Amadeus’ is a rare treat for the eyes, the ears and the mind. You’ll never be able to listen to Mozart quite the same way again.

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