Sunday, February 26, 2012

7 Times Oscar Got It Right

Yes, I know I’m not supposed to care about the Oscars, but, well, I do, and if you’re reading this, chances are you do, too, maybe just a little bit. Anyway, I’ve done a couple of Oscar things the past week for Vulture – I contributed to this piece prognosticating the winners and suggesting witty things to say when they're announced, and I also wrote this piece about some of the best performances in the worst Oscar bait films over the years But I also wanted to write this list here. We spend so much time grousing about the worst Best Picture winners and whatnot, that sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves of those occasions when Oscar actually gets it right. So, here are the Best Picture winners from the past forty years that I actually agree with, in chronological order. And by “agree with,” I mean, “Yes, that movie actually was -- or was at least close to being -- the best motion picture release of that given year." You will certainly disagree with a couple of these choices. Know that I would probably disagree with a couple of yours. Enjoy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

SEE THIS MOVIE: Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book) Now Available on DVD

Thanks to Glenn Kenny for alerting me (and the rest of the world) to the fact that one of Anthony Mann’s most neglected masterpieces, Reign of Terror, aka The Black Book, is now available in a nice new burn-on-demand DVD from Columbia Classics, which you can order through the fine folks at the Warner Archive. This is joyous news – the film has wallowed in some strange obscurity for years, not just because it was public domain (and hence available in a lot of crappy, fly-by-night editions but no good ones) but also because it’s a bit of an unclassifiable oddity.

Mann would, of course, eventually gain notoriety for his corrosive, psychological Westerns (The Man from Laramie, Man of the West, The Naked Spur, etc.) and darkly operatic historical epics (El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire), but his early career took off thanks to a series of low-budget film noirs, many of them made with the great cinematographer John Alton. Reign of Terror was one of these, but it’s not just a noir; it’s also a period piece. It’s a stylized adventure set amid the chaos of the French Revolution as well as an over-the-top gangster movie where the chief baddie is Maximilian Robespierre, and where the plot is basically a hard-boiled re-imagining of his downfall.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon: A Music Apart from Men

Let’s get one thing very clear: Amadeus is not history. Nor, for the most part, does it pretend to be. Milos Forman’s film, for all its acclaim, has attracted its share of scorn over the years, often from those who find it to be an inadequate portrait of the real-life entity known as Mozart (to say nothing of the real-life entity known as Salieri, an accomplished composer who in his later years actually taught some of the greatest musical minds of all time). Liberties taken with the historical/biographical record are nothing new – especially for a film based not on fact but on a stage play, which itself was based on another play which became an opera. But there is one aspect of Amadeus’s poetic license that’s worth dwelling on, because it reveals something very profound about the film’s intentions – and, just perhaps, brings us around to (gasp) a better understanding of Mozart himself.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon: A Miracle! Amadeus, Critics, and Rock Stars

This entry in the Amadeus blogathon comes from TV producer and erstwhile critic Zach Ralston.

By Zach Ralston

“I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.” – W.A. Mozart

 What do you remember about Antonio Salieri? Chances are, it's not his music – it's his words. And that goes not only for the real Salieri, but for the Salieri character in Milos Forman's magnificent 1984 film Amadeus (titled, of course, after Mozart's middle name, not its protagonist Salieri).

In the opening scene, when Salieri begins what is essentially a 24-hour confession to Father Vogler, “the patron saint of mediocrities” (as he later deems himself) plays a couple of his tunes for the priest, who doesn't recognize them. The third tune he plays is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart. That, Vogler recognizes*, and so do we. Instantly the audience sympathizes with both characters – the priest, for being as familiar with music as we are (no more, no less); and Salieri, for the sadness of having no popular tunes.

But what we do end up remembering from Salieri is how he speaks – and particularly how he describes Mozart's music. Thanks to Peter Shaffer's sensational dialogue (he adapted his own play for Forman's film), we get succinct, fantastic analysis of Mozart's great genius. Salieri describes one concerto as starting off by sounding like “a rusty squeezebox” before an oboe soars high above it all, only to be taken over by a clarinet rescuing the fluttering notes. It's powerful imagery, and underscores Salieri's hidden genius – a music critic.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon: Antonio Salieri's Totally Awesome Eighties Flashback Weekend

This entry in the Amadeus blogathon comes from filmmaker Matthew Wilder.

The Eighties were a rough time to come of age as a movie lover. Almost all the good stuff snuck in through the back door. Brazil, Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in America, The King of Comedy, Southern Comfort, King Lear, Do the Right Thing; the only great moviemaker in that era pulling up to a VIP parking space and whistling while he worked was Steven Spielberg. It bums me out now when today’s retro-minded hipsters go to a revival joint and Get That Eighties Feeling, putting on their rainbow-colored wrist-sweat-bands and covering their torsos in fake Rubik’s Cubes, watching crapola like Legend and Labyrinth and Willow and Just One of the Guys and Lost Boys and Goonies and Satisfaction and—well, all the shit people at the time were cringing through to get to the good stuff. That’s what’s now called “the Eighties.”

One movie that bridged the gap between the high-minded and the genuinely popular was Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Smart teenagers of the time dug it. The gibes against it were obvious. First and foremost, it was “middlebrow”—an adjective John Simon, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann and La Pauline could all agree upon. Based on a play by Peter Shaffer (or wait—was it Anthony?), Amadeus focused on what everyone concurred was a pretty banal theme: the war between cagy, politic, shucking-and-jiving mediocrity, and God-given genius. And yes, depicting mediocrity as hand-wringing, evilly cackling Salieri (a hall-of-fame F. Murray Abraham) and giggly, pottymouthed, infantile Mozart (one-hit-wondrous Thomas Hulce) was cartoonish, simple-minded. And then there was the matter of Milos Forman’s style: the periwigs, the beautymarked boobies, the Barry Lyndonian candelabra, the firehose of Metro Goldwyn Mayeresque excess that the Czech expat spritzed across the stage—er, screen.

Amadeus Blogathon: A Brief Introduction

So, a couple of months ago a few friends and I got into a discussion about Milos Forman’s Amadeus. It seemed to us to be one of the great “Oscar” movies – a grand, award-winning entertainment that was also a genuine work of art. But it was clear that not everyone felt this way. Indeed, Amadeus often pops up on some folks’ lists of the less-deserving Best Picture winners, and it had many detractors at the time of its release as well, particularly among highbrow critics. (We’ll be getting into this a bit with a couple of our pieces.)

So, why not do an Amadeus blogathon, we asked ourselves? To discuss the film in its many aspects – some obvious (say, F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar-winning performance, which, sorry, only a profound cynic could fail to admire) and some not so obvious (you’ll see). That’s when this mildly cracked idea was born.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Forgotten Films: 7 Women (John Ford, 1966)

(For an explanation of the Forgotten Films project, go here.)

You’d think that John Ford’s final narrative film would have greater visibility -- especially since a number of influential film writers consider it to be one of the director’s finest. But it’s very hard to see, with no DVD of it available. (TCM does show it from time to time, and there was a widescreen laserdisc from MGM available back in the 90s.) It was a financial disaster upon its release, relegated to the bottom half of a double bill with The Money Trap -- this despite the fact that many influential critics and filmmakers of the 1960s were at that moment naming  Ford as one of their greatest influences. Why, then, the widespread indifference to 7 Women? Perhaps because it seems, on its surface, such a departure from the prototypical Ford film.