Best Picture Winners. Chariots of Fire (1981)

Director: Hugh Hudson

Starring: Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Ian Charleson, Ben Cross, Daniel Gerroll, Ian Holm

Academy Awards (1982):

Best Picture: David Puttnam

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: Colin Welland

Best Music, Original Score: Vangelis

Best Costume Design: Milena, Canonero

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Ian Holm

Best Director: Hugh Hudson

Best Film Editing: Terry Rawlings

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Based on a true story, Chariots of Fire is the internationally acclaimed Oscar-winning drama of two very different men who compete as runners in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eric Liddell (Charleson), a serious Christian Scotsman, believes that he has to succeed as a testament to his undying religious faith. Harold Abrahams (Cross), is a Jewish Englishman who wants desperately to be accepted and prove to the world that Jews are not inferior. The film crosscuts between each man’s life as he trains for the competition, fueled by these very different desires. (From RottenTomatoes.com)

I’ve owned Chariots of Fire for many years, and it’s a bit surprising that I’m only now getting around to watching it. It was enjoyable to watch, and unique enough to keep me engaged.  It’s one of the few family-friendly movies I’ve watched for this project.

This film stays much closer to the source material than most films based on real events.  From what little research I’ve done, a lot of the characters portrayed, the various runners from each country and so on, are historically accurate.  A few people did not give consent for their names to be used, and a few of the background details, where they attended school, etc., were changed.

Perhaps because it was made in the early 1980s or the fact that it’s a 1920s period piece, Chariots of Fire has a more basic visual approach.  It also focuses on developing conflicted yet strong main characters and less on visual effects and a complex set of characters.

I have a feeling that if Chariots of Fire was released today, it wouldn’t get a second look from the Academy.  The film’s pace is slow and the acting is serviceable though not necessarily spectacular.

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Chariots of Fire‘s charm comes from the inner struggle that Abrahams and Liddell deal with throughout the film.  Abrahams is out to prove himself despite the fact that he is seen as inferior because he is a Jew.  He seems more passionate, though not as focused in direction and purpose as Liddell, even saying “I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I am chasing.”

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Liddell, on the other hand, has a very clear reason and purpose.  “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”  His refusal to race on Sunday made headlines in its day.  The issue was resolved months before the trip to Paris in reality, however pushing back the discovery and changes added for the film’s dramatic effect.  Liddell is a good example of maintaining one’s beliefs in spite of the consequences.  I find that admirable regardless of what one’s convictions are.

chariotsianholmIan Holm earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sam Mussabini in this movie.  He does well as the straight-forward no nonsense trainer.  I like straight-forward no nonsense characters.  They’re blunt and inadvertently add a little comic relief.  Mussabini is almost an 1920s version of Mickey Goldmill from Rocky.

I have mixed feelings about Chariots of Fire.  On the one hand, it did win best picture in a year that also had Raiders of the Lost Ark and On Golden Pond up for the nomination.  It’s a charming film with two protagonists, each with something to prove, however, there’s not much of a re-watchable factor for me.  The film’s score can be set to anything in slow motion and immediately make it awesome.  The score, which earned an Oscar for the film, is probably the biggest and most long-lasting cultural contribution.

This is a film to see once.

My Rating: 3/5 stars.

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Best Picture Winners: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Paul Bettany, Josh Lucas, and Judd Hirsch

Academy Awards (2002):

Best Picture: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Connelly

Best Director: Ron Howard

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Akiva Goldsman

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Russell Crowe

Best Film Editing: Mike Hill, Daniel P. Hanley

Best Makeup: Greg Cannom, Colleen Callaghan

Best Original Score: James Horner

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“Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been.”

A Beautiful Mind explores the life of John Nash (Crowe), Nobel Prize winning mathematician.  Beginning with his graduate studies at Princeton, Nash discovers a new concept of governing dynamics, the Nash Equilibrium.  Following Princeton, Nash works at a research lab at MIT doing work for the Pentagon and teaching on the side.  He meets Alicia (Connelly), one of his students, and the two fall in love.  He is also approached by William Parcher (Harris) to do classified work in decoding a Soviet attack on America.

However, not everything is as it appears.

Based on the book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind is a film that balances a number of movie genres.  It’s got drama,mystery, romance, a little bit of comedy.  The various elements of the film make it insightful, suspenseful, and entertaining on a number of levels.

From a visual perspective, a lot goes on in A Beautiful Mind.  Some of the film’s early scenes, specifically at Princeton, have an older look to them.  I like when a director can add little elements like that.  It helps in contrasting the different time periods throughout the film.  They also do good with showing Nash’s perspective as he sees the various connections and patterns in the math.

abeautifulmind2Though some of the character’s mannerisms were annoying to me, Russell Crowe does a great job of bringing John Nash to life.  I’m probably nitpicking more than anything else.  He does well with portraying the paranoid genius who was given “two helping of brain but only a half a helping of heart.”  The real life John Nash visited the set, and Crowe notices some of his tendencies, hand movements, and things of the sort, and incorporated them into his performance.

A Beautiful Mind was filmed almost entirely chronologically, and I think that helped Crowe’s performance as he became Nash and progressed naturally through the various stages of life portrayed in the film.

Jennifer Connelly, wow, what a performance is all I can say.  Even though she doesn’t command every scene she’s in, she gives a strong performance and more than holds her own.  From the beginning of their love story through the pain and anguish later on, her portrayal of Alicia Nash is believable and genuine.  As I’ve looked at some of the other people considered for her role and Crowe’s, I know Ron Howard made the right call with those two.

abeautifulmind3Paul Bettany is an interesting character to say the least.  Having portrayed Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, an entertaining role, Bettany demonstrated his ability to be a sort of classical funnyman in A Beautiful Mind.  Though a lot of his performance has the comedic undertone, he has nuggets of truth and deep insight throughout the film.  Ed Harris also gives a decent performance.  He excels in the serious no-nonsense roles like Parcher.  I don’t know if I would call him a typecast character, but his most memorable performances are ones like this one.

This is a film I’d recommend seeing twice before forming an opinion about it.  I saw this one twice in the theaters: the first time I hated it, the second time I loved it.  Knowing the major plot twist gives perspective and a different understanding to the first half of the film.   Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer created the world through Nash’s perspective, so the audience experiences the major twist at the same time Nash does.  I remember being very confused the first time I saw it, hence not liking it.

"I need to believe, that something extraordinary is possible."

“I need to believe, that something extraordinary is possible.”

It’s been probably about a decade since I’ve watched A Beautiful Mind.  Having a chance to re-visit it for me was enjoyable and a reminder of how great A Beautiful Mind is.  Russell Crowe brings John Nash’s story to life, has great on-screen chemistry with Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, and most importantly Jennifer Connelly.  Ron Howard has created a great film, one certainly deserving of the Best Picture Oscar.  See this one twice if you haven’t seen it yet.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #108: The Graduate (1967)

Director: Mike Nichols

Starring: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, and Murray Hamilton

Academy Awards (1968):

Best Director: Mike Nichols

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Dustin Hoffman

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Anne Bancroft

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Katharine Ross

Best Cinematography: Robert Surtees

Best Picture: Lawrence Turman

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry

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Recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) doesn’t know what to do with his life.  He spends his days lounging at the pool, and doing the whole, “What’s next for me?” routine.  Mrs. Robinson, Ben’s dad’s business partner’s wife, and Ben eventually begin an almost exclusively physical affair.  Eventually Ben wants more out of it, and they end up breaking off their escapades.  Things change, though, when Ben falls in love with the Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Ross).

The Graduate has drama, romance, and comedy all rolled into one with this coming of age film about a young man trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life.

thegraduate1I thought Dustin Hoffman performed well.  His awkwardness with Mrs. Robinson at the beginning of the movie was great.  There is that transition period in relationships with others as a younger person starts relating to other adults on a more adult level.  At the same time, it takes some getting used to.  Hoffman pulls this off nicely even though Bancroft is only 6 years older than him in real life.  However, Hoffman doesn’t quite have the look of a man in his early 20s, he was 30 when the film was made.

This is the sort of film that I get a little more out of with each viewing.  I’ve been able to see and appreciate a lot of the wit and comedic/satirical elements of this film.

The opening shot of The Graduate with Ben standing on a moving sidewalk in the airport sets a more low-key tone for the film.  It helps establish the “now what” mentality that Ben has as he’s finished college and isn’t sure what to do next.  At times, especially for the first half of the film, I felt a lot like Benjamin, disinterested and bored.

For me, the film picked up and became great once Elaine came into the picture.  Since Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson had become stagnant, adding in a new dynamic was the right move, and while I think Hoffman had great chemistry with Bancroft, it seemed exponentially better with Katharine Ross.  Maybe since their characters were much closer in age, dealing with the same uncertainties and whatnot.  It just seemed like their characters played off each other better.

The soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel plays well throughout the film.  The way their songs were integrated after Elaine went back to school really slowed down the film and added for the dramatic effect.

Ben’s drive to the church to Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Mrs. Robinson” is good, but the fact that it’s been redone shows just how great that whole sequence is.  My personal favorite it the homage in Wayne’s World 2, here.

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The final shot of the film is great and sets the plot apart from your fairytale ending.  In my book that’s a big plus when a filmmaker and performers add that layer of realism.

The Graduate is a gem of a film.  Drama, romance, and comedy sprinkled throughout made this enjoyable to watch.  Balanced acting chemistry between the three leads really showcased the acting talent of Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, and Katharine Ross and made more a memorable film.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #105: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Director: Sydney Lumet

Starring: Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Ed Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber

Academy Award Nominations (1958):

Best Director: Sidney Lumet

Best Picture: Henry Fonda, Reginald Rose

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Reginald Rose

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“It’s these kids – the way they are nowadays. When I was a kid I used to call my father, “Sir”. That’s right. “Sir”. You ever hear a kid call his father that anymore?”

A 18 year old kid is on trial for the murder of his dad.  The case seems pretty straightforward and a guilty verdict seems inevitable.  A first vote produces an 11-1 count in favor of guilty.  Juror 8 (Fonda) is the lone dissenting vote.  As the jurors discuss and dissect the evidence, it becomes apparent that many elements of the prosecution’s case are unreliable and create a reasonable doubt for a number of the jurors.  Though some of the jurors are vocal in their insistence that the defendant is guilty, the most passionate of the group is Juror 3 (Cobb), the film’s antagonist.  He has had a falling out with his own son, who just so happens to be about the same age as the defendant.

Only three of the 96 minutes in 12 Angry Men takes place outside of the jury deliberation room.  By keeping the film here, the story remains focused and deliberate in demonstrating this part of the legal process.  Though some of the elements would not take place in real life, I thought Sydney Lumet did a great job in communicating and portraying the great weight the jurors carry in a murder case.

A wide variety of perspectives and prejudices are represented in the 12 jurors.  It was interesting to see how the various backgrounds, job fields, and life experience played into each juror’s temperament and the various tipping points for each juror to change their vote.  A variety like this helps each juror have some meaningful screen time.

"You lousy bunch of bleedin' 'earts... You're not goin' to intimidate me - I'm entitled to my opinion!"

“You lousy bunch of bleedin’ ‘earts… You’re not goin’ to intimidate me – I’m entitled to my opinion!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I'll kill him! I'll - kill him!" "You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?"

“I’ll kill him! I’ll – kill him!”
“You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”

Fonda and Cobb do well as adversaries.  Though the evidence and merits of the case are discussed by all of the jurors, these two are the leaders of the respective ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ camps.  I thought Fonda really shined as Juror 8, and his relatively calm and collective demeanor throughout helped him contrast with the fiery Jurors such as 3 and 10 (Begley).  It was also interesting that we only learn the names of two of the jurors, and that only happened at the very end of the film.  By keeping it that impersonal, it helps the audience connect with the character traits each juror can represent.

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Though the presentation is very simple, 12 Angry Men does a great job in expressing the significance of jury deliberation in a high-profile case.  Sydney Lumet’s film adaptation of Reginald Rose’s book comes to life with memorable, passionate performances and makes this essentially one-set movie engaging from start to finish.  I enjoyed watching this one again,

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #102: Easy Rider (1969)

Director: Dennis Hopper

Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Antonio Mendoza, Phil Spector, Mac Mashourian, Jack Nicholson

Academy Award Nominations (1970):

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jack Nicholson

Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern

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Following a drug deal in Los Angeles, Wyatt “Captain America” (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) head through the American Southwest en route to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  Along the way they encounter fellow hippies and others who don’t approve of their way of life.  They meet George Hanson (Nicholson), a lawyer who helps them get out of jail in Middle America.  Hanson is intrigued by their lifestyle and joins them for a time.

This film is a mystery for me.  I was born after the 1960s, and thus don’t have firsthand knowledge of a lot of the major themes this film addresses and works with.  I didn’t see the rise and fall of the hippie movement and things such as communal living.  I can understand how it was fresh, new, and had an appeal to the generation depicted in the film.

If you’re looking for a great road trip movie, this is probably one of the first of its kind.  In fact, I felt like half of the film was just Fonda and Hopper riding on their motorcycles while various songs played in the background.  There were lots of nice scenic shots, but I think they needed to cut those scenes back or add something else to it so it’s more than just the two main characters riding their motorcycles.  Easy Rider has a good soundtrack.  I will say I enjoyed the music selection.

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The contrasting portrayals of the two main characters was interesting.  Wyatt’s All-American stars and stripes everything and Billy’s more Native American portrayal added an interesting dynamic.  Though the two are free-spirit hippies, Wyatt seems to be the more rational of the two, while Billy is more skeptical and free-flowing.

In keeping with a countercultural theme, the cinematography in Easy Rider felt like it was cut and paste at times.  The most significant example was the LSD trip the guys and prostitutes have in New Orleans.  The film itself didn’t follow with conventional methods, per se.  Natural light was used during most of the filming, and something like that gives the film a more primitive feel to it.

easyridernicholsonJack Nicholson was great in his limited screen time.  His performance landed him the first of twelve Academy Award nominations for acting.  The quick, blunt wit was present with Nicholson even this early in his career.  Having seen a number of his films, his screen presence and entertaining performance isn’t any surprise to me.  It’s unfortunate he didn’t have more screen time.

It’s noteworthy that Toni Basil (sang the song “Mickey” in 1982) was in this film as a prostitute Wyatt and Billy meet in New Orleans.

Though it was culturally significant when it was released, Easy Rider doesn’t have the same impact it once had.  It tells the story of its time and the countercultural movement and emphasis on freedom and escapism.  Now that society is much further removed from that time period, the film itself hasn’t aged well in my opinion.  I’ve watched this movie twice now.  I don’t plan on watching it again.

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

The Artist (2011)

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller

Academy Awards (2012):

Best Picture: Thomas Langmann

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Jean Dujardin

Best Achievement in Directing: Michel Hazanavicius

Best Achievement in Costume Design: Mark Bridges

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score: Ludovic Bource

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Berenice Bejo

Best Writing, Original Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius

Best Achievement in Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman

Best Achievement in Film Editing: Laurence Bennett, Robert Gould

Best Achievement in Film Editing: Anne-Sophie Bion, Michel Hazanavicius

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The Artist follows the careers of George Valentin (Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bejo) from 1927 through 1932.  Valentin, a champion of the silent film era, sees his star fall while Miller becomes the big star with the invention of the ‘talkie.’

Filmed as a black-and-white silent film, The Artist is both unoriginal and distinctly unique at the same time.  Michel Hazanavicius has made one of the only silent films since the silent film era.  I feel like this would be the result if Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born had a child.  It deals with the transition from silent to sound films, and also maps the rise of a young actress alongside the fall of a legendary actor of his time.  Though it very well could have come out of the silent film era, the fact that it was released in 2011 makes it unique as a significant contrast to virtually everything that’s made these days.

I’ve always been skeptical, and a bit puzzled as to why this film had such critical acclaim.

I get it now.

The story is a bit predictable and cliché, but Hazanavicius has created a story that’s engaging and entertaining.  Though it was frustrating at times when I couldn’t read the actors and actresses lips, Hazanavicius gives the audience enough to get the basic gist of the plot.  Two strong leading performances also help make this an entertaining film.

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Both Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo turn in fantastic performances.  Though neither has had very much exposure to American audiences (Bejo was in A Knight’s Tale), they more than hold their own in a unique to 2011 type of film.  Without being able to be heard, the body language and facial expressions play a much more central role in showing how their characters are coping with the changes that go on throughout the film.  George is dismissive of the talkie, sure of himself that silent films would always be on top, and falls deeper into depression and despair as his fame fades.  Peppy embraces the new era of filmmaking, but still cares for George in a truly genuine way.  Each was rightfully nominated for an acting Oscar, Dujardin winning for Best Actor.

John Goodman works well as the blustering studio executive who is at the mercy of his stars at times, but still willing to assert his authority.  James Cromwell also does well as George and later Peppy’s chauffeur.  He brings that older wise person element to the film.  It’s also noteworthy that Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange and Sprint commercials with James Earl Jones, among others) had a small part as The Butler, a fellow actor/extra that Peppy meets on her first day.

The only thing that really bothered me about The Artist was that it seemed to drag at times.  The first 45 minutes or so seemed like 2 hours.  Sometimes there are movies that I have to watch in phases, but usually that’s only if it’s 3 and a half hours long or longer.  Though I didn’t take any breaks with this one, it sure felt like I would need it.  Maybe it’s because the only sound for most of the film came from background music.

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The Artist is a film I’ve always had my doubts about.  A silent, black and white film in 2011 with as much critical acclaim and commercial success as this one had just didn’t make sense.  Michel Hazanavicius pays wonderful tribute to the silent film era with a true gem that could have easily come straight out of the time period.  Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo work well together on screen and bring this film to life.  While it’s not one I’m going to go out and buy tomorrow, it’s one I would definitely recommend watching at least once.  I may even watch it again in the near future.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie #75: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Director: John Ford

Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, and Russell Simpson

Academy Awards (1941):

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jane Darwell

Best Director: John Ford

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Henry Fonda

Best Film Editing: Robert L. Simpson

Best Picture: Darryl F. Zanuck, Nunnally Johnson

Best Sound, Recording: Edmund H. Hansen/20th Century Fox SSD

Best Writing, Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson

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Tom Joad (Fonda) returns to his family’s farm in Oklahoma after spending four years in prison for homicide.  He finds that his family has packed their things and is preparing to move to California in search of work.  Their journey is representative of many farming families of The Great Depression as they had to deal with homelessness, starvation, greedy company owners, and crooked cops as they searched for a means to provide for their family.

This is an interesting film, to say the least.  The Joad family here, representative of many families of the time, deal with a wide array of issues and problems: starvation, corporate greed, desperation.  At times it was sickening to see to what lengths those in charge would go to maintain control and keep their workforce more or less as indentured servants.

It’s sad how some of those injustices still exist today.

Henry Fonda does great as there strong-willed, though naive at times, leader of the Joad family.  Something Ford did right with this film is how he didn’t take away from the main message of the book for the sake of following the Hollywood formula.  Tom is a flawed hero: dealing with his anger and at times it getting the best of him.  In this film Fonda finds that balance of knowing how to be calm, but also to lose his calm when facing certain injustices.  He lost the Best Actor Oscar to Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story.  I’m not sure the Academy got that one right though.

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Though Tom Joad is the upfront leader of the family, Ma Joad (Darwell) is really where the buck stops with the family.  She puts Tom, and anyone else for that matter, in their place and is the strong voice of reason and rationality most of the time.  The only other film I’ve seen Jane Darwell in is Mary Poppins, and since she plays the bird lady in that film, The Grapes of Wrath is the only one I’ve seen that’s really showcased her acting talent.

Needless to say, she nailed this one.  I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job.  Her command of her scenes is unquestioned, and her constant awareness of the state of the family really grounds the story.

At just over two hours, The Grapes of Wrath does a good job of advancing the story and it kept me engaged throughout.  I had mixed feelings about the sometimes short cut scenes.  There would be a fade in, a 15 to 20 second scene, and cut out.  Though I’m not generally a fan of that, Ford does a good job with these in making the most of the limited screen time for some of these scenes.  They serve their purpose, advance the plot, and communicate the message.

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Having neither seen nor read The Grapes of Wrath, and honestly not knowing a whole lot about the story, I was impressed with this film.  It works well as a historical look at the times and attitudes of farmers from The Great Depression, and presents compelling social observations.  Strong acting and directing communicate the message of Steinbeck’s book and remaining an entertaining film.  While I probably won’t read the book (and from what I’ve read the movie’s ending is a watered-down version of the book’s), I wouldn’t entirely rule it out.  I’d probably watch this again as a teaching tool in talking about the time period.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.