Sunday, July 29, 2012

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT(1983)


TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (DIR: JAMES L BROOKS) (SCR: BROOKS, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME BY LARRY MCMURTRY)

The best picture winner of 1983 was a triumph for writer, director and producer  James L Brooks (who also won Oscars for his direction and script), made even more impressive by the fact that he had never directed a film before.  It's a moving family drama, filled with warmth and humor, and even if it lapses into some maudlin territory towards the end, the terrific performances still make it a winning film.

Brooks first began his career working in television in the mid sixties, eventually going on to produce hit shows like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and TAXI.  His first foray onto the big screen was as writer and producer of 1979's well received comedy  STARTING OVER.  For his directoral  debut he decided to adapt Larry McMurtry's 1975 novel, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.  He bought the rights from movie actress Jennifer Jones, who wanted to play the important part of Aurora Greenway, but  Brooks talked her out of it.  He spent two years on the script while looking for another Aurora; Anne Bancroft and Louise Fletcher were both considered, but finally the role went to Brooks's first choice, Shirley MacLaine.  He also added the character of retired astronaut Garret Breedlove as Aurora's love interest, with Burt Reynolds in mind, Brooks having worked with Reynolds before on STARTING OVER.  Reynolds loved the  part, but he was already committed to making STROKER ACE (talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous!), and Jack Nicholson was picked instead.  Debra Winger, hot off the hit AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, was chosen to play Aurora's daughter Emma, and fine actors Jeff Daniels and John Lithgow were also added to the cast.  The film was shot on several different American locations, and while there was some reported tension between MacLaine and Winger, the shooting was not difficult, and the film was finished for around eight million dollars; it would go on to make over a hundred and eight million. 

The film is about the decades long relationship between the widow Aurora Breedlove (Shirley McClaine)and her daughter Emma(Debra Winger), starting with Emma's wedding day.  Over the years, they both have trouble with the men in their lives and stick by each other.  When Emma is stricken by cancer, Aurora moves to hold her family together.

Shirley McClaine & Debra Winger


When shooting this film, Brooks demanded that it be shot entirely on the various locations that the story is set in and not on Hollywood sets;  this is important to its sense of realism, like when Emma goes to visit New York City for the first time, we can understand her feeling of awe, because we've already seen the kind of places that she has lived all her life. That sense of realism pervades the entire film, which cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak shoots with naturalistic lighting and no fancy editing or camera set ups. This is exactly the right style for  the film's story, which is also completely believable; the characters all feel like real people, real decent, flawed people,  living their lives in an ordinary way.

Working on the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (which was considered groundbreaking for having a female lead that was single, both a rarity in TV at the time) seems to have given Brooks a real affinity for creating likable female characters.  And he couldn't have done better than mama Aurora and daughter Emma, with McClaine and Winger both giving marvelous performances (both were nominated for the best actress award, with McClaine winning).  While certainly neither character is  perfect, they both are likable, funny and relatable; both actresses get big dramatic moments that they deliver wonderfully, and add nice, small eccentric touches to their performances (Winger gets stoned and dances in front of a mirror wearing her bridal veil on the night before her wedding, McClaine tips over while leaning out the window to spy on her neighbor). Most importantly, they share excellent chemistry, even when they're just talking on the phone.  Their bond seems so strong that it is both moving and appropriate that the last thing Emma does before dying is look at Aurora one last time.

After a couple of brief flashbacks, the movie opens with Aurora sternly warning Emma not to marry Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels, who is very good), a college professor.  Aurora even goes so far as to boycott the wedding ceremony (although, in true form, she constantly calls Emma the next day).  And while it would appear that the marital trouble that soon occurs would prove her right, it's to the film's credit that Flap is no villain: he truly does seem to love Emma at first, and he does the right thing when she falls ill.  And while he philanders with at least one adoring student, Emma herself has an affair with likable married local banker Sam Burns(John Lithgow), who, again to the film's credit, is portrayed as a perfectly good man who strays from his wife out of sexual frustration.
As Emma's marriage deteriorates, Aurora finds herself slowly being drawn to her next door neighbor, former Astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).  Now Brooks may not have written the role for Nicholson, but, as usual, Nicholson made it his own, giving the film an energetic shot in the arm and some very funny moments whenever he's on screen (he won a best supporting actor award for the role).  And, can any other actor go from lecherous to charming in a heartbeat the way he often does here?  At first glance, he and Aurora would seem like an odd pairing; her the proper lady, him the leering boozy womanizer, and early in the film, when she seems him drunkenly flirt with two younger women, she seems repulsed.  But she can't stop thinking about him, and although she has several adoring admirers (one of whom is humorously played by Danny DeVito), they lack the animal magnetism of Garrett.  And so, she decides to accept his invitation to a lunch date, even if she's late by few years (Nicholson's reaction to this is classic!).  The date is both a disaster and the film's comic highlight, as McClaine gets wind blown while sitting in Garrett's top down sports car, has Garrett inform her that she needs to get drunk, and then has to sit in his car as he speeds down the beach, sitting on top of the car and steering it with his feet!  And yet, despite all of this, later, on her fiftieth birthday (which may actually be her fifty second) Aurora invites Garrett over to her house, and so begins a most unlikely, but eventually understandable relationship. It's great to see a loving, sexual coupling in a movie  between two people who are not young or physically perfect, and I love how giddy Aurora gets talking about it with  Emma.  Along with his humorous over the top antics, Nicholson also gets to show moments of tenderness, especially when, in the film's most romantic moment, he unexpectedly arrives to provide moral support to Aurora as she cares for the cancer ridden Emma. ("Who would have expected you to be a nice guy?", says Aurora, seeing what she always sensed in him.).

Jack Nicholson


There is some debate to the film's final third, when Emma slowly dies of cancer, with some people dismissing it as an obvious, melodramatic development that sinks the film into TV movie disease of the week territory.  Personally, I don't think the cancer is necessary to a story that already has plenty of drama, but this movie is  too well made and well acted to be dismissed so lightly, especially when the cancer is just one part of the story.  And Brooks shows enough restraint to keep the film from sinking into heavy handedness. For example, he actually allows Winger to truly look sick, instead of flooding her with heavenly lighting and making her look beautiful like director Arthur Hiller so infamously  did to Ali Mcgraw in 1970's LOVE STORY.  He also mostly avoids over the kind of sappy, over the top musical cues that so often drown stories like this in sentiment, even during the powerful scene in which the dying Emma reaches out to her eldest son Tommy(Huckleberry Fox).  And he never allows his sense of  humor to disappear, using it to temper the darker moments, as when a doctor tells Aurora "I tell people to hope for the best and expect the worst" and she responds "And they let you get away with that?".  Most importantly, Emma's illness allows Brooks to make an important point about how friends and family can come together in a crisis and forget their differences, as the actions of both Flap and Garrett show. Unfortunately, this idea is one that proved so influential that it has become a timeworn cliche in movies about families, like 1998's STEPMOM or 2004's FINDING NEVERLAND, (and who knows how many TV movies on the LIFETIME network), so, through no fault of its own, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT has become dated over the years.  Yet I still feel that it a great movie, worth watching just to see two female stars at the top of their game (a rare commodity in modern Hollywood!).

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Just as with 1982's GANDHI, this is another tough call for me, because while I do love TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, I think that another, better film was released that year: Philip Kaufman's outstanding THE RIGHT STUFF, one of the few patriotic movies that I really admire.  But TERMS OF ENDEARMENT is still a fine choice.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

GANDHI (1982)


GANDHI (DIR:RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH) (SCR: JOHN BRILEY)

In awarding GANDHI best picture, the Academy made an obvious choice:  here was an epic biopic with noble intentions about one of the world's most revered historical figures that was a labor of love for director Richard Attenborough, and that featured an impressive performance from a virtually unknown actor in the lead.   It's grand scale is reminiscent of 1962's Best Picture winner LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and it rails against injustices like other Best Picture winners such as  1935's MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and 1937's THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA.  (And also like those two films, the injustices that it rails against are ones that occurred decades before the film was made in other countries, making them safe and noncontroversial choices).  Overall,  I think Attenborough's reverence for his subject occasionally sinks the film into hagiographic territory, but I it's still think it's a  terrific achievement.

The film had been a passion project for director Attenborough since he read Louis Fisher's biography of Mohandas K Gandhi in 1962.  Over the next eighteen years the film bounced from one stage of production to another, with David Lean at one point slated to direct Alec Guiness in the lead role (an intriguing possibility!).  Finally, in 1980 the funding for the film came through, with a combination of both Western and Indian production companies putting up the money, along with Attenborough selling off his share of the long running British play, THE MOUSE TRAP to help raise funds.  For the lead role, little known British TV actor Ben Kingsley was cast, while better known actors like Candice Bergen and John Geilgud were given supporting roles to beef up the film's star power.  Shot almost entirely on location in India, and utilizing literally hundreds of thousands of extras, it's final budget came out to around twenty two million dollars; it would make around fifty seven in the US alone.

The film's story begins in 1948, when the elderly Gandhi is assassinated.  It then flashes back to 1893, when the 24 year old Gandhi, living in South Africa, is thrown out of a first class compartment on a train because he is an Indian.  And so he begins a life long struggle to end English colonial rule of India through nonviolent protest and resistance.  

Ben Kingsley


This was such a  passion project for Attenborough, that his feeling for the material and the character of Gandhi show up in nearly every frame of the film, from its beautiful, sweeping shots of India to its tense action scenes, to the very way that Gandhi practically glows with righteousness.  I find it interesting that it took an Englishman like Attenborough to portray such a negative portrayal of British colonialism and prejudice, and he seems to take a definite pleasure in the way that he punctures the balloon of England's superior nature and sense of entitlement.  Although there is a likable English priest (played by Ian Charleston) who supports and admires Gandhi, the vast majority of Brits in the film are either brutal police and military officers, (like Edward Fox's chillingly vicious General Dyer, who's order to fire upon nonviolent protestors was one of the turning points in the British rule of India),  or they are pompous politicians like John Geilguld's  Lord Irwin, who underestimates our hero's resolve and influence.
John Geilguld

Ben Kingsley won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Gandhi, and even some thirty years later it is still seen as his signature role (in 2000, when he played a sadistic criminal in the film SEXY BEAST, many critics couldn't resist saying that Gandhi had gone bad).  And really, it is a great performance, one in which he is on camera almost throughout the film without ever losing the audience's interest.  Kingsley not only captured Gandhi's look (credit must also be given to the makeup department for pulling off an impressive resemblance)  and the cadences of his  speaking style, but, more importantly, both his charisma and his humility.  He rarely raises his voice, even when giving speeches, but he always holds himself with a quiet dignity that commands the attention of those around him.  And he also ages fifty years believably, never losing his sense of purpose, even as an old man. Bottom line, if we don't buy him as a great, influential leader, than the film doesn't work, and Kingsley more than accomplishes that.  That said, I wish John Briley's script gave him more humanizing moments, and didn't treat him with such reverence, which is the film's greatest flaw: early in the film, Briley has Gandhi quote Jesus, making a decidedly unsubtle comparison.  And from then on, Gandhi the man is always portrayed as a noble, brave, man who is a devout Hindu,  but completely open to other religions, and utterly committed to the cause of nonviolence.  The more controversial aspects of Gandhi's life (like his alleged sexual peccadilloes)are ignored in favor of pure fawning.  It is of course, difficult to portray the entire essence of such an influential figure in world history (a fact that the movie acknowledges in an opening credit), but I prefer my biographical films to show their subjects as real humans, warts and all. Perhaps Attenborough felt so strongly about getting this film made, and about the character of Gandhi that it prevented him from making a more honest portrayal.  It is interesting to contrast this film with another epic biographic film that was a passion project: Spike Lee's 1992 film MALCOLM X, which portrayed its hero in a far more real fashion, making it a film that I think surpasses Attenbrough's. 
Furthermore, I think that GANDHI goes on a bit too long,  with some of its impact lost in the second half of the film.  Also, the stars that are cast in supporting roles to beef up the film's box office appeal are a mixed bag; while Geilguld has fun in the mostly comic role of the dim witted Lord Irwin, Martin Sheen's reporter is not really necessary.  Worst of all is Candace Bergan as photographer Margaret Bouke White, who has so little screen time or impact on the story that she just seems like a distraction.  (Amazingly, Bergen got second billing after Kingsley!).  Still, if their casting was necessary to get funding for the film, then such are the realities of big budget filmmaking, and their presence is far from ruinous.  And it should be pointed that the non famous supporting cast are all uniformly excellent (I particularly like Alyque Padamsee as Mohammed Ali Jinah, the future founder of Pakistan).  So, the combined strengths of the film certainly outweigh its weaknesses and given that this film introduced Gandhi the man to a generation who had never heard of him before, it is certainly praiseworthy.


SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?


When GANDHI is compared to other good films released in 1982,  the difficulty of rating wildly different films becomes all too clear; how, exactly, does GANDHI compare with Sydney Pollack's wonderful comedy TOOTSIE?  Or Ridley Scott's influential BLADERUNNER?  Or my personal favorite, Steven Spielberg's enormously popular ET-THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL?  It's never easy to say, but given how long it took Attenborough to get the film made, and how fine a film it is on the whole, I won't carp about the Academy's choice.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)


CHARIOTS OF FIRE (DIR:HUGH HUDSON SCR:COLIN WELLAND)

The win for CHARIOTS OF FIRE as  best picture of 1981 remains as one of the biggest Oscar upsets in history: somehow, this unassuming, low budget English film, with no big stars won out over Steven Speilberg's rousing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Warren Beatty's sweeping epic REDS, and Mark Rydell's sentimental hit, ON GOLDEN POND, surprising many people on Oscar night, and causing some to think that perhaps the three bigger films split the vote and pushed it over the top.  In any event, director Hugh Hudson's movie remains one of the most unlikely (and least liked) best picture winners ever.  If the film is remembered today for anything at all, it's for composer Vangelis's beautiful soundtrack, one of the most famous in movie history.  Personally, I find the film pleasant enough, hand some looking and well made, but it falls far from greatness, with many slow moments that don't justify its two hour running time.

It began when film producer David Puttman wanted to make a film about someone who follows his conscience, like 1966's best picture winner A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Then, while flipping through a copy of THE OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE OLYMPICS he decided that a movie about the British athletes of the 1924 Summer Games would fit the bill.  ("Sport is such a clean simple metaphor" he would later say).   He hired writer Colin Welland (who had mostly worked in British television) to write the script; Welland researched heavily, interviewing surviving athletes and even getting copies of letters that one of the runners sent home.  (Despite Welland's research, there are somewhat inevitably, a few historical errors in the film). Puttnam felt that it was important to have new faces in the film instead of established stars, even if that would make getting the funding more difficult.  He also made the surprising choice of Hugh Hudson as the film's director, even though Hudson had only directed short films and documentaries up to that point.  Eventually, the film was privately financed by the Allied Stars company, with distribution controlled by Hollywood film companies 20th. Century Fox and Warner Bros.  Unknown actors Ben Cross and Ian Charleson were cast in the leads, and the film was set.  When shooting was completed, Vangelis's all important score (his first) was added.  The finished film was wisely opened in London before reaching America, and good word of mouth aided it's arrival in the states, where it eventually grossed around sixty million dollars on a budget of around six.

The famous opening 

The film's story is about two British runners, the Scottish missionary Eric Liddell (Charleson) and the Jewish Englishman Harold Abrahams, who are rivals before both being picked for the 1924 Olympic games in Paris.   Although trouble comes when Liddell refuses to run on a Sunday for religious reasons,  he is allowed to switch with another runner, and both he and Abrahams go on to win gold medals.

One of the big criticisms of this film is that it feels more like a long episode of the English TV series MASTERPIECE THEATER than it does an actual film, and I think that that is a fair point; like that show, this is a film set in a highly romanticized version of England's past, in which the upper crust live on beautiful estates, attend Cambridge, engage in low key, high toned conversations with muted emotions and dress in dinner jackets  while attending Gilbert and Sulivan performances.   Unfortunately, this also means that the film, like the show, often feels pallid and bloodless when it should be emotional and uplifting.  The movie only really succeeds during the racing scenes, which are excellently photographed by David Watkin and edited by Terry Rawlings.  They contain all of the drama and excitement that the rest of the move often lacks, and, fortunately there are quite a few of them. In one striking moment, the camera shows the race track from the runner's point of view seconds before the race begins, and it seems to stretch out to infinity.   Another great moment comes when Puttnam shows Abrahams racing victory at normal speed, and then immediately flashes back to the same race in slow motion, heightening the hard fought nature of the runner's achievement.
The performances are all fine, especially considering how the actors had to train hard to believably  portray Olympic caliber athletes, but I wish there was a little less classic British stoicism in our two leads and little more sense of feeling.  This is especially true in the romance between Abrahams and singer Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), which is distinctly lacking in passion.  My favorite performance in the film is given by Ian Holm as Abrahams trainer, Sam Mussabini, who's outspoken energy and gruff likability gives the film a needed shot in the arm whenever he's on screen, and who really should have been in the film more.

Ian Holm


I think the film really misses an opportunity in having the characters of Abrahams and Liddel share so little screen time together.  Here you have a Jewish man who's running is fueled by his anger and frustration at being Jewish in a mostly Christian country( he calls running a "weapon"), and a Christian missionary who is willing to give up Olympic glory if it means running on a Sunday.  Surely these two men would have something interesting to say to each other, especially when they go from being rivals to being on the same team.  But the film keeps them mostly apart, even when they are both traveling to the Olympics on the same ship.   I do admire the fact that the film doesn't take sides when they are competing, showing them both as honorable and dedicated men who run for good reasons.
I've already mentioned the excellent score by Vangelis, and really, it's hard to imagine the film without out it, especially in the famous opening shots of the young runners racing down the beach.  Using electronic music for the soundtrack of a film set in the 1920's was a very interesting gamble that pays off, as the music highlights the beauty and tension of the races.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's clear that, apart from the racing scenes, I'm not a big fan of this film, and I don't think that it should have won best picture.  Along with preferring both REDS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, I also liked Louis Malle's ATLANTIC CITY and Karel Reiz's THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN more.