Best Picture Winners, Movie #116: Patton (1970)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young, Michael Strong, Morgan Paull, Michael Bates

Academy Awards (1971):

Best Picture: Frank McCarthy

Best Actor in a Leading Role: George C. Scott

Best Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Best Original Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola, Edmund H. North

Best Art Direction, Set Decoration: Urie McCleary, Fil Parrondo, Antonio Mateos, Pieere-Louis Thevenet

Best Sound: Douglas Williams, Don Bassman

Best Film Editing: Hugh S. Fowler

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp

Best Music, Original Score: Jerry Goldsmith

Best Effects, Special Visual Effects: Alex C. Weldon

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“The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

Patton tells the story of George S. Patton (Scott) throughout World War II from his campaigns in Northern Africa, the Invasion of Sicily, his reassignment and eventual involvement in the Battle of the Bulge.  Though a military genius, Patton finds himself at odds with his subordinate, and later superior, General Omar Bradley (Malden), and in competition with the British General/Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery (Bates).  His candid, tough-love and bruntly honest nature gets him in plenty of trouble, diminishing his role in the Allied upper command towards the end of the war.

George C. Scott’s performance as George S. Patton is truly one of the greatest in film history.  He had some distinct differences from the real Patton, but the harsh, blunt, candid nature comes across throughout the film.  Scott’s performance is engaging and he really portrays Patton as being stubborn to the fault.  He is firm, but also poetic.  He believes in reincarnation, and as they conquer, he visits ancient battlefields proclaiming, “I was there” with complete conviction and sincerity.

Though he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Scott refused to attend and accept the award, saying the award ceremony itself was just a ‘meat market.’  Scott took the role because Patton was a professional, and Scott admired professionalism.  Aside from Dr. Strangelove, this is the only film I’ve seen Scott perform in.  It makes me hesitant to watch him in anything else because of the high standard this performance sets.

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Patton’s relationship with General Omar Bradley, whose memoir was one of the source materials that the script was based on, is an interesting contrast in two very different leadership styles.  Patton was strict, disciplined, and kept his distance and authority over his men.  He was also willing to take great, and sometimes unnecessary risks.  In contrast, Bradley was much more personable and practical.  His calmer more even tempered personality helped him advance to higher commands.  Though the two were very different, it was good to see the great amount of respect each person had for the other.

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Field Marshall Montgomery was also an interesting contrast with Patton.  Patton noted on more than one occasion that they were both prima donnas, though Montgomery wouldn’t ever admit it.  The scene in Messina was humorous.

Though this film is a war movie, there isn’t a whole lot of battle scenes.  Though the movie runs nearly three hours, there is enough drama outside of the actual battles that keep the film engaging and avoids monotony and boredom.  Patton engaging General Erwin Rommel’s forces in North Africa was very well done, and highlights Patton’s respect for Rommel as a General, while exploiting Rommel’s weaknesses.

This time around I watched it in two sittings, the first hour or so and then the rest.  Perhaps it didn’t seem as long and potentially tedious because I broke it down to two viewings.

It was interesting to note the German side of what was happening.  After Patton had been demoted, they were certain it was a trick, not understanding the consequences of Patton’s treatment of a shell shocked soldier that Patton slaps and calls a coward when visiting a field hospital.   They recognized his competence as a leader, and know there is probably no one better to lead the army in the field.

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Patton is one of the best war and biographical films out there.  Winning seven Oscars, this film tells the story of a brilliant but tragically flawed military genius.  I was a bit surprised, though, that it didn’t win for Best Music, Original Score.  Had anyone other than George C. Scott played Patton, it would have slipped into obscurity.  Scott’s professionalism as an actor is emulated in his portrayal as Patton the military professional.  I can definitely watch this one again.  It’s one anyone interested in military history should see.

My Rating: 5/5 stars

Best Picture Winners: Movie #114: Schindler’s List (1993)

From now until Oscar Sunday I will be reviewing Best Picture winners. Enjoy!

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle

Academy Awards (1994):

Best Picture: Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen, Branko Lustig

Best Director: Steven Spielberg

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Steven Zaillian

Best Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski

Best Film Editing: Michael Kahn

Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Allan Starski, Ewa Braun

Best Music, Original Score: John Williams

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Liam Neeson

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Ralph Fiennes

Best Costume Design: Anna Sheppard

Best Makeup: Matthew W. Mungle, Christina Smith, Judith A. Cory

Best Sound: Andy Nelson, Ron Judkins, Scott Millan, Steve Pederson

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As World War II begins, the Nazis move Polish Jews into the Kraków Ghetto.  Businessman Oskar Schindler (Neeson), a member of the Nazi Party, arrives in Krakow to make a fortune.  Bribing local German officials and making connections with the local Jewish black marketeers through Itzhak Stern (Kingsley), Schindler opens a factory producing enamel ware.  He hires numerous Jewish workers, who cost less than Polish workers, and saves those workers from being sent to concentration and extermination camps.

SS officer Amon Goeth (Fiennes) arrives in Kraków to oversee the construction of the Płaszów concentration camp.  Once the camp is completed, he orders the ghetto be liquidated, killing many of the Jews in the process.  Schindler witnesses this from a distance, and shifts his priorities from making money to saving as many lives as possible.

This is Spielberg’s masterpiece.

There are very few films I’ve watched where I just have to sit and really let it soak in once the end credits roll.  Movies like this really put into perspective how pathetic and petty my “struggles” really are.  That’s been the case both times I’ve watched Schindler’s List.

Someone who makes a film about something as significant as the Holocaust has to be all in: directing, motivating performers, production, set design, etc.  Though the full scope of the Holocaust can’t be completely explored in one movie, Steven Spielberg has probably come the closest to accomplishing this.  Filming most of the movie in Poland instead of at a studio, using actors who work best in performing the complex emotions and actions of their characters are a couple of the things Spielberg nails spot on with Schindler’s List.

Stanley Kubrick was in production of his own Holocaust film, Aryan Papers, about the same time that Schindler’s List was released.  He abandoned it, though, in part because of the broad scope of the subject matter.  His critique centered on the fact that Schindler’s focuses on those who survived, a much smaller group compared to the more than 6 million who didn’t.

The black-and-white enhances the gravity of the subject matter.  The way Schindler’s List is filmed conveys the human element that a documentary can’t quite capture while still having that documentary-type feel.

schindlerslist1Liam Neeson gives one of the best performances of his career.  He handles the various emotional stages Schindler goes through authentically.  It’s interesting to see his transformation from a boozing, gambling, womanizing man living the highlife to a man hellbent on saving as many lives as he can.  Witnessing the ghetto liquidation and Goeth’s heartless treatment of the Jews forces Schindler to stop keeping everyone at arm’s length and really take stock in his main purpose.  Though he had done quite a few movies prior to Schindler’s List, he hadn’t had that one great breakout role.  As a result, his star power doesn’t overshadow his performance as could have happened had a more accomplished actor been chosen for this role.

Having already won an Oscar for his role in Gandhi, Ben Kingsley is a grounded, purposeful character with wisdom, insight, and perspective.  His nonverbal expressions provide a continuous reflection of Schindler’s character and his gradual transformation.  Stern acts as Schindler’s conscience to a certain extent.  He also offers perspective that Schindler has saved many lives when Schindler felt guilty for not sacrificing more to save more.

schindlerslistfiennesRalph Fiennes gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the heartless and cruel Amon Goeth.  His intimidation tactics with the Jewish prisoners works well in keeping them in line out of absolute fear.  He seems like the kind of person who keeps pushing to see just how much he can get away with.  It’s good, though, that he can be bribed and Schindler can help set some boundaries with his random and senseless killings.

"Whoever saves one life saves the world entire."

“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

The final scene where the real life Schindler Jews placing stones on Schindler’s grave was especially moving.  I can appreciate someone like Spielberg wanting to tell their story and show the lasting impact that Oskar Schindler had on those that he saved.  The epilogue serves as a time capsule that reaffirms that tangible human connection to those who lived and survived something as horrific as the Holocaust.

Having seen Schindler’s List twice now, I highly doubt I could sit through it again aside from watching it with someone else.  It’s one of those films that is so powerful and moving that it only needs to be watched once.  It is most definitely deserving of the 7 Academy Awards it earned in 1994, and remains timeless as it explored one of history’s darkest events.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. 

Movie #104: Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

As I’m sure you’re well aware, Robin Williams died Monday at the age of 63.  He is certainly a one-of-a-kind actor and a comedic genius.  Dead Poet’s Society is simply brilliant in large part because of Williams’ performance, and it’s one of my favorite movies.  Though he’s primarily a comedic actor, he balances that out with genuine dramatic performances.  I’ve been more surprised at how many stories are now coming out about how caring of a person he was.  It makes me appreciate him even more knowing how he lifted other people’s spirits and didn’t do it for the attention or accolades.  He will be missed.

Director: Barry Levinson

Starring: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Tung Thanh Tran, J.T. Walsh, Robert Wuhl, and Bruno Kirby

Academy Award Nominations (1988):

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Robin Williams

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“What’s the demilitarized zone? It sounds like something from the Wizard of Oz “Oh no don’t go in there!” “Ohhh wee ohh. Ho Chi Minh.” “Oh look you’ve landed in Saigon. You’re amongst the little people now.” “We represent the ARVN army, the ARVN army. Oh no! Follow the Ho Chi Minh trail! Follow the Ho Chi Minh trail!”

“An unorthodox and irreverent DJ begins to shake up things when he is assigned to the US Armed Services Radio station in Vietnam.” from IMDB.com

Good Morning, Vietnam, a film loosely based on DJ Adrian Cronauer, was originally pitched by Cronauer in 1979 as a TV series.  M*A*S*H*, another war-based comedy, was one of the highest rated shows at the time, but Cronauer’s show was rejected.  Eight years and probably a few rewrites later, we got Good Morning, Vietnam.  Though it’s considered a war movie, I think of it more as a comedy set during a war.

Though primarily a comedy, this film was also one of the first to really humanize the Vietnamese on the big screen.  As Adrian pursues a relationship with a local Vietnamese girl, and befriends her brother in the process, there’s a tension and fine line of figuring out who is friend and who is foe.  The Vietnam War is unique for America because it was the first war where the enemy could have been anyone.  In prior conventional wars, there would be one army on one side and the other on the other side and they’d know who the enemy is.  With Vietnam, a kid could set a basket down that has a bomb in it.  Including Adrian’s interactions with the locals adds depth and makes this movie about more than just Williams’ comedic performance.

It goes without saying that Robin Williams’ comedy really makes this film enjoyable.  Most of his radio broadcasts in the film were improvised and frankly, Williams is the only person who could have pulled that off.  This film really showcases his comedic talents.  He balances the comedy out with the more dramatic scenes, though, and it makes his performance so much better.  He can switch the emotions seamlessly and does both sides of the character in a believable, genuine way.

good-morning-vietnam-1987-12-gThere is a great supporting cast in Good Morning, Vietnam.  A young Forest Whitaker holds his own as his character Edward Garlick assists Adrian.  Robert Wuhl, who I usually find insufferable, was actually pretty good in this movie.  He didn’t get on my nerves.

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J.T. Walsh and Bruno Kirby make great adversaries to Adrian.   Kirby’s Lt. Steven Hauk, thinks he’s funny but has horrible comedic timing.  It’s so bad that it’s great when he’s trying to be funny.  Walsh just has that look and feel of the straight-laced, by-the-book hard head.  Dickerson gets his comeuppance in the end though.

Williams lost the Academy Award for Best Actor to Michael Douglas.  That’s a shame.

Good morning ,Vietnam1988Barry LevinsonRobin Williams

I enjoyed Good Morning, Vietnam.  It has a lot of comedy and a good balance of drama and tension.  Robin Williams makes this film great with his brilliant improvisational abilities and helped bring out a lighter side to the Vietnam War.  He is complemented by a great supporting cast, but ultimately Williams is the star.  I’d definitely recommend seeing this one, it’s simply one of Williams’ best.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie #67: Downfall (2004)

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Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Kohler, and Heino Ferch

Berlin: April, 1945.

With the Russian Army approaching and overtaking Berlin, Adolf Hitler (Ganz) and many in the upper regiment of the Nazi Party spend the final days of World War II in the Führerbunker.  Based on the accounts of Traudl Junge (Lara), one of his secretaries, it shows the final downfall of the Nazi Party and the Western Theater of World War II.

A film like this is difficult to gauge.  The content matter itself is tricky.  A criticism of Downfall is how it humanizes Hitler in a way that the Final Solution isn’t addressed.  It somewhat makes sense though since this is the final week of the war.

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I’d find taking a role in this film could be a kiss of death to someone’s career.  Ganz took a tremendous risk with this, but he thoroughly researched his role and performed in such a way that Hitler historians thought he accurately portrayed the Fuhrer in his final days.  He remained defiant to the end, ultimately believing he would not be defeated.   Thankfully he was.  Alexandra Maria Lara does a good job of playing Hitler’s young and naive secretary.  Juliane Kohler also does well as Hitler’s girlfriend, Eva Braun.

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There is also a sense of loyalty in this film that reminds me to an extent of Letters From Iwo Jima.  As the Japanese soldiers killed themselves if they didn’t keep their post, a number of Nazis in this film killed themselves when they knew they had lost and Hitler had committed suicide.  It’s unfortunate, especially in the case of Magda (Harfouch) and Joseph Goebbels (Matthes).  Though Joseph was a chief propaganda officer and his wife was a devout loyal Nazi, they didn’t need to kill their kids.  That’s just wrong in so many ways.

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The film starts and ends with Junge expressing her regret over her role as Hitler’s secretary.  While she says she justified her role at the time, she wasn’t aware of the killing of the Jews, in the end she said that was no excuse.  I’m glad those clips were included in the film.  Junge died in 2002, the same year her autobiography Until the Final Hour was released.  Accounts such as hers are important to have.  They are the firsthand accounts that are being lost as these people die.

Given its historical content, Downfall is a movie that’s an uphill battle from the word go.  A strength of this movie is Ganz’s portrayal of the Nazi Dictator.  This film certainly won’t change people’s’ minds about the man and what he did, no film can.  It does, however, do a small part in humanizing Hitler: he was kind to his secretaries and cook and cared for his dog Blondi.  He had, in the end, lost his mind, and I think Ganz does a good job of balancing and portraying the humanistic and crazy sides of Hitler in the final days of World War II.

This is not a movie I will see again, but these types of movies need to be made.  People need to know about our history, otherwise we’ll only be doomed to repeat it.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #58: The Desert Fox (1951)

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Director: Henry Hathaway

Starring: James Mason

Cedric Hardwicke

Jessica Tandy

Luther Adler

Desmond Young

Told through the eyes and following the research of British Lt. Col. Desmond Young, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel follows the last couple of years of Rommel’s life as he struggles with loyalty to Hitler and the Nazi war effort.  His eventual downfall starts when he disobeys Hitler’s order to stand firm in the face of overwhelming and unrealistic expectations at El Alamein.  He orders his men to fall back, defying his orders because he doesn’t want his Afrika Korps destroyed.

He is approached by a family friend to take part in an assassination attempt, and though he rebuffs his friend at first, eventually he agrees to take part.  This is after he is once again at odds with Hitler prior to D-Day.  After the assassination attempt fails, Rommel is charged with treason and must make a decision to admit guilt and receive an honorable death, or risk his wife and son’s safety by taking his case to public court.

This  movie is pretty straightforward.  It follows a biography written by Desmond Young, a British POW who briefly met Rommel early on in World War 2 and who later went back and learned how Rommel’s war went.  Each scene seems to be done with purpose, and it doesn’t waste time with comic relief and things of that sort.  It sticks with the story, portrays a strong relationship between Rommel and his wife and son.

The acting overall was good.  I especially liked James Mason in the lead role.  I always find it ironic when German characters are played by British actors and there’s no attempt whatsoever to speak with a German accent, let alone use the language at all.  Mason would reprise his role two years later in The Desert Rats, and in it he has a more distinct German accent and is much less likable.  One of the criticisms of this film is that it tries to put a positive spin on a dark part of human history.

Though the film is shot more like a documentary and less romanticized and sentimental, it still feels like it’s going easy on men who performed despicable acts.  I think there was a good balance of the struggle Rommel dealt with and the strength he had to stand and express his thoughts, use his brain, and not just blindly follow Hitler as he got crazier towards the end of the war. The Desert Fox finds a balance of a man with a crisis of conscience who is fighting on the wrong side.

For something somewhat comparable, I’d think of how Robert E. Lee led the armies of the Confederacy in the Civil War.  He wasn’t too particularly crazy about what the Confederacy stood for, but he also could not turn his back on his native Virginia.

The Desert Fox strikes a balance of a decent man caught on the wrong side of history.  I think a film like this really humanizes and tells a story that needs to be told.  Winston Churchill spoke of Rommel in the House of Commons in 1942.  Though they were on opposing sides, Churchill recognized and respected Rommel as a military strategist.  His crisis of conscience and willingness to stand up to Hitler, and ultimately die to save his family, gives a small bright spot to an otherwise dark time in our history.  I’d probably show this film, or parts of it, if I was teaching someone about World War 2 and more specifically Rommel.  Otherwise, I probably won’t watch this film, but I am glad I’ve had the opportunity to see it twice.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Platoon (1986)

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The first casualty of war is innocence.

Charlie Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a green, fresh to arrive recruit in Vietnam.  Platoon follows Taylor and his company as they cope with the hardships of war, and the film brings back the reality of what went on over there to the big screen for the first time since Apocalypse Now (1979).

The unit breaks into two contrasting camps: one with Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), who believes in total war and winning at any cost, and Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), who is battle-tested but gracious in contrast to Barnes.  Each side as plenty of support, and they battle over,  as Taylor puts it, “for possession of my soul.”

As with Attack!Platoon features a whole slew of familiar faces (Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, Tony Todd, Mark Moses), many of which were at the beginning of their careers.

A couple of things added to the authenticity of this film.  Oliver Stone’s experience in Vietnam, woven throughout the characters Taylor encounters, and the preparation the actors went through in making this film.  They trained for two weeks before filming began, building camaraderie as a unit, digging foxholes, encountering “night attacks” to get used to the special effects that would be used.  The familiarity these actors had with their weapons made the actions and emotion seem genuine.

The acting in this film is top-notch.  The characters evoke strong emotions in the audience: you either really like or really hate what a person says or does.  I found myself completely disgusted with some of the men in the Barnes camp as they abused and mistreated both Vietnamese peasants and their fellow soldiers.  An interesting commentary on this came from Taylor as he was airlifted out at the end of the film.  He describes that the Vietnamese weren’t the enemy, instead we were out own enemy.  There is a lot of killing, granted, but more of it being American killing American than one would expect.

I believe I’ve said it before, but Willem Dafoe is probably one of my favorite actors.  This film is one of the reasons for that opinion.  He is a strong, committed character whose performance I felt stood above all the others. I also found it interesting that he never wear a helmet.  Ever.  Tom Berenger, though I don’t agree with his characters outlook and way of carrying himself, brings that type of soldier to life and it fully committed to his character.

Charlie Sheen does very well in this movie as well.  The contrast and how quickly his idealized or unaware outlook at the beginning of the film is quickly shredded and almost gone by the end of the film.  He quickly loses the label of ‘new meat’ and becomes one of the guys.  His judgement and discernment remain, though, which is refreshing and relieving.

It’s interesting seeing John C. McGinley in a role like this after watching him at Dr. Cox on Scrubs, but hey that might just be me.

Platoon is considered one of the best films of the 1980s, it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1987.  It’s authenticity and superb acting both contribute largely to its success.  It’s one I enjoyed, and will probably watch a couple more times sometime in the future.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Attack! (1956)

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Attack!

During the Battle of the Bulge, an incompetent Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert), has daddy issues and feels he needs to prove himself, even if it goes again conventional, and better, judgement.  His buddy, Lt. Colonol Bartlett (Lee Marvin), manipulates Cooney for his own gain.  Caught in the middle is Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance), his second in command Sfc. Tolliver (Buddy Ebsen), and their battalion, with Pfc. Bernstein (Robert Strauss).

Holy cow there’s a lot of name recognition in this film.  Most of these men made a bigger name for themselves in the years following Attack!’s release, but here we have a film where each character plays their part and they all mesh and work well together.

Shot in the 1950s, this film did not receive the cooperation of the US Defense Department, in large part because of its portrayal of certain officers in World War II.  Even though it’s an ugly side of the war: soldiers being used as pawns by incompetent commanders, it’s still a side of war that exists.  It certainly is not something that should be overlooked.

I was disappointed that Lee Marvin was an all-talk character, not going to the front lines, but he was a manipulator, and higher up, so it makes sense.

The real star of this film without any doubt is Jack Palance.  Though he would have to wait another 35 years to receive his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in City Slickers, Palance shows his versatility and strong stage presence in Attack! 

robertstrauss Robert Strauss, a familiar face from Stalag 17.

epsen  Oh hey it’s Buddy Ebsen, aka Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies.

This film was enjoyable, but one of the unfortunate pitfalls about this project is that a lot of films set in the same time period all tend to mesh together and seem the same.  Each one has its own merits, and I know the reviews stay pretty spread out, but they seem to deal with very similar conflicts, and in the case of this film, I’ve seen a number of the actors in other films like this.  Perhaps I’m just impatient or getting bored seeing such similar stories.

Attack! benefits from a cast that is familiar and talented with this type of film.  However, having this type of ensemble cast can make it seems very similar to many other films in the genre.  I’m glad I watched it, but probably won’t watch it again.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.