Category Archives: Academy Award Winners for Best Director

Gandhi (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fighting for India independence.

The film follows the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) starting at the age of 23 when he gets thrown off of a train in South Africa simply for being Indian. After spending many years fighting for Indian rights in that country he then moves back to his homeland of India. It is there that he takes up the challenge of fighting for its independence from Britain by advocating for his followers to practice peaceful civil disobedience.

This film project took director Richard Attenborough 20 years in the making as all the Hollywood studios refused to back it. He also went through many different casting choices in regards to who would play the lead and at one time seriously considered Dustin Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins in the title role. Due to the difficulty of finding backers and other hurdles some of the stars that do appear here were offered their parts many years before the filming actually took place including Candice Bergen, who plays Margaret Bourke-White, who first got approached about it in 1966.

Yet the long wait proved to be worth it as the film comes close to being a masterpiece in just about every conceivable area. I was surprised too that for  such a long runtime it hardly ever seems slow and clips along at a brisk pace. The story is filled with many strong scenes even a few harrowing ones like the recreation of the Amritsar Massacre that is quite disturbing, but thoughtfully handled.

After making his film debut a decade earlier as the bad guy in Fear is the Key and then moving back to the stage Kingsley shines in his Academy Award winning performance . The rest of the cast gets filled with a lot of big names, but many of them have brief appearances that almost amount to walk-on parts. My favorite though was Trevor Howard, who plays a judge and despite have little dialogue and only 2-minutes in front of the camera still manages to make the most of it, which is what great acting is all about.

The film though lacks a complete oversight of Gandhi’s character as we only get introduced to him when he is already 23 even though the crucial formative years are during childhood and it would’ve been revealing and insightful to have seen some scenes of him during that period. His family life also takes a backseat. We see only one scene of him with his children and then they just disappear. He also discusses marrying his wife when he was very young, but a flashback showing it would’ve been stronger.

The film also has its share of dissenters who feel it’s biased as it only shows the positive side to Gandhi’s personality. It even instigated three novels, which paints Gandhi in a much different light by arguing that he fought for Indian rights while in South Africa, but not for the blacks and there’s evidence that he had the same disdain for the blacks in that country as the whites did.

Some also argue that his involvement in the push for India independence was much more minimal than the film portrays and that India most likely would’ve eventually broken off from British rule one way or the other had Gandhi existed or not. All of these counter arguments could have some merit, but I don’t think that was the intended point of the film, but instead the focus was on how peaceful non-violent resistance can make a difference and in that regard the movie succeeds nicely.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 6, 1982

Runtime: 3 Hours 11 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Attenborough

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Out of Africa (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: An illicit love affair.

In 1913 a wealthy Danish woman named Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep) gets spurned by the man she is in love with, so on the rebound she decides to accept the marriage proposal of the man’s brother, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) Despite the fact that neither she nor he are in love with the other, but decide to make it a marriage of convenience. They move together to Kenya where they plan to at first start a cattle farm, but it soon turns into a coffee plantation. Through the years Karen’s marriage to Bror begins to sour as he continues to have affairs with countless other women, so Karen turns her attention to the dashing big-game hunter named Denys (Robert Redford) and the two share a passionate and adventurous love affair, but when Karen tries to turn their relationship into a committed one he refuses.

The film, especially the first hour, comes off more like a broad sketch than a fluid story, or a highlight reel taken from a wide outline. I could never really get any type of handle of who this Karen person really was. I never understood why she would want to leave Denmark for Africa, or why she’d be so quick to settle down with a man that she didn’t love. So what if she got spurned by one guy there’s still other fish in the proverbial sea. Why not wait around for someone she could truly be excited about instead of just jumping in with someone that she really wasn’t?

To some degree I did find the marriage-of-convenience idea an interesting one. It’s rare that both parties admit that neither has the hots for the other, but still decide to make a go of it, which seemed like highly modernistic behavior especially for the time period and I was hoping this whole scenario would be explored more, but the film treats this mainly as a side-story that pretty much fades away after the first hour.

The introduction of the Denys character gets a bit botched too as he keeps popping in and out at the most convenient times out of literally nowhere, like when Karen finds herself ready to be attacked by a lion, and then just as quickly disappearing again almost like he were a magical genie.  The fact that Streep puts in so much effort into her Scandinavian accent, but Redford puts none into conveying an English one is off-putting. Supposedly Redford did initially try to speak with a light accent, but director Pollack apparently found it ‘distracting’ and advised him to speak without it, but in the process it makes the acting seem uneven.

It’s during the second-half where the film really comes together as it focuses solely on the affair though in real-life there was only a two year difference between Karen and Denys, but here there’s a 12 year difference between the actors playing the part and it shows, but despite that discretion this segment really works. I loved watching the different things that the couple did like playing a phonograph record to some monkeys and seeing how they responded to it and watching Karen taking an airplane ride for the first time and all the majestic scenery that she takes in.

The cinematography is indeed sumptuous and one of the things that holds it altogether even when the script jumps precariously and sometimes jarringly from one point in Karen’s life to another. The film would’ve worked better had it focused on only one area, like her relationship with Denys, which could’ve helped create a stronger, more immediate emotional impact with the viewer while also cutting down on the excessively long runtime.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1985

Runtime: 2 Hours 41 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sydney Pollack

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Reds (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He fights for socialism.

The film centers on the life of John Reed (Warren Beatty) who was a socialist activist that covered the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and later published his account in ‘The Ten Days That Shook the World’.  He became instrumental in forming the Communist Labor Party of America and marrying noted feminist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) before returning to Russia and eventually dying there becoming only one of three Americans buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

The project was a labor of love for writer/star/director/producer Warren Beatty who first became inspired by Reed’s story in the mid-‘60s and spent over15 years battling to get it produced. Unlike most actors-turned-directors Beatty was notoriously disliked by his cast and crew for demanding many different takes for even the simplest of scenes forcing his friend Gene Hackman, who agreed to appear in the film for free, to do 100 takes to convey only a few brief lines. Beatty also strangely decided to keep the camera running continuously even between takes resulting in three million feet of footage that weighed five tons to ship and if played continuously on the screen would’ve resulted in taking two and a half weeks to complete.

The story is okay and moderately compelling, but I felt too much emphasis was placed on Reed’s and Bryant’s relationship. Supposedly this was a biography on a famous historical figure, but the story gets lodged more on the rocky, unconventional marriage aspect and seemed at times to be more focused on Keaton’s character than Beatty’s.

I was also confused as to what exactly had Reed done that was so special, or elicit us to sit through such a long movie about him. In a normal epic the main character is instrumental in causing the events that we see, but here the protagonist is nothing more than a sideline observer with no direct control on what goes on. Technically he doesn’t change anything and the film is just one long look at how whatever he strived either fizzled or got corrupted before he eventually dies in virtual obscurity, which hardly seems inspiring or worth the time to watch.

The supporting cast helps significantly particularly Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill who has an affair with Bryant. It’s always interesting to seeing Nicholson play a subdued character since he’s usually so flamboyant and Jack makes the most of it, which helps give the story a little extra edge. Maureen Stapleton won the Academy Award for supporting actress even though her character is only seen sporadically, but she probably deserved the Award either way since she became a victim of Beatty’s overzealous need for multiple takes, which so infuriated her that she apparently screamed ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?” when Beatty demanded that she redo her scene for the 80th  time which got the rest of the crew to cheer their approval.

It’s also fun to see Jerzy Kosinski as the communist politician Grigory Zinoviev. Kosinski was best known for having written the novel ‘Being There’, which inspired the film of the same name, but later he was accused of having plagiarized the story from an earlier Polish novel and it was revealed that many of his other stories were ghost written by assistant editors, which is ironic since his character in the film gets accused by Beatty of having tampered and re-written his speeches and writings.

As a whole it’s adequately done, but the pace ebbs and flows. The interviews with people who actually knew Reed, or were connected to his life in some way are a highlight as is the scene where Reed tries to escape Russia by riding on a hand cart along a train track in the dead of winter, but everything else gets overblown.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 3, 1981

Runtime: 3 Hours 15 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Warren Beatty

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Cabaret (1972)

cabaret 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life in pre-war Germany.

Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is a singer at a seedy Berlin nightclub called the Kit Kat Klub in pre-war Germany. She meets and falls in love with Brian (Michael York) who is a bi-sexual. The two begin a relationship only to have Max (Helmut Griem) enter who seduces them both and gets Sally pregnant.

This is a very stylish look at the pre-war years of Germany when it was still under the rule of the Weimer Republic and not yet succumbed to Nazi authority. The dramatic storylines are spliced in-between musical numbers done at the club, which are visually fun and have just the right amount of sensuality and theatrics. In many ways this looks like an obvious inspiration to the later hit Chicago and netted Bob Fosse the Academy Award for best director.

Joel Grey is amazing as the club’s emcee. He has no speaking lines and yet gives a one-of-a-kind performance that also got him the Academy Award for best supporting actor. His distinguished presence gives the film its unique flavor and personality and has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Unfortunately the stories between the songs seem awfully trite. There is nothing really profound or interesting about them and they tend to bog the whole thing down while making Germans look uniformly dopey.

cabaret 2

Minnelli won the Academy Award for best actress, but it is hard to see why. Yes she certainly does command the stage when she is singing and dancing, but seems misplaced otherwise. For the most part she seemed to be continuing the insecure, kooky character that she already created in The Sterile Cuckoo without adding any new spin to it. One really can’t sympathize with her nor really wants to and I felt the character became overdone and pushed the viewer’s patience.

Pairing her with refined English teacher York helps…a little yet their romance seemed hard to believe. Having this educated, good looking guy become jealous every time she talks to another man seemed unnatural given the circumstances.

Technically it is sound with a good eye for detail, but falters dramatically and isn’t strong enough to be anything more than a slight diversion. The only interesting scene to me was when a young clean-cut teen wearing a Nazi uniform gets up and sings an impassioned pro-German song as it perfectly illustrated visually all the rampant nationalism and brain washing that went on and is both creepy and sad at the same time.

cabaret 3

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 13, 1972

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director; Bob Fosse

Studio: Allied Artists Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

lawrence of arabia 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lawrence unites the Arabs.

Due to the death of actor Peter O’Toole on December 14 we will be reviewing each Sunday of this month 4 films that he did during the 60’s with this one be his most famous role and one that jettisoned his career into stardom.

The film chronicles the life of T.E. Lawrence who helped unite the Arab tribes during World War I and allowed them to fight back and eventually overpower the Turks. The film starts out with his motorcycle death in 1935 at the young age of 46 and then flashes back to his days in the army as a young intelligence officer. It examines his unique personality, determined headstrong ways as well as his ability to unite varying warring Arab tribes and get them to work together to defeat a common enemy.

Director David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young are the real stars here. Filmed mostly in the countries of Morocco and Jordan Lean manages to capture the barren, hot landscape of the desert better than anyone else as he gives it an almost surreal and exotic quality that takes over the rest of the story and leaves the strongest impression. I loved the sun slowly coming up over the horizon and onto the flat terrain. I also liked the longshots showing characters enveloped by the majestic landscape and looking almost nonexistent when seen against some of the towering rocky formations. Omar Sharif’s characters entrance while on horseback and seen from a distance as he rides up through layers of heat that rises from the ground is also excellent.

The action is well captured although there isn’t as much of it as you might think. Their raid on Aquba is for my money the best. I loved the bird’s-eye shot of seeing all these soldiers looking almost like ants scurrying from the desert and into the fortress through the buildings and property and then eventually into the sea that sits on the other side. The bloody battle that they rage against an already weakened Turk army near the end is also a strong visual as is the Lawrence’s visit to an unsanitary hospital housing the wounded Turks.

lawrence of arabia 2

O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence was controversial at the time and to some still is. His bright, clear blue eyes makes him look like he is in a trance and the way he says his lines sounds like he was under some sort of spell and gives the character a certain mystique that isn’t quite human. Still I thought the part fit O’Toole’s personality well. My favorite moment of his is when he first tries on the Arab robes that he is given and he goes running around in them in an almost child-like manner. It is also nice seeing a story about a true-life character that isn’t preachy and more open about their flaws particularly his propensity for violence which becomes increasingly more evident as it goes along.

Sharif is excellent is support and in some ways gives the film’s all around strongest performance. I liked the adversarial relationship that his character has with Lawrence. They start out at odds with each other, but slowly become friends and yet continue to have their differences. Arthur Kennedy is good as a glib and detached photojournalist and Alec Guinness was to me initially unrecognizable as Prince Feisal.

The movie does not stay completely accurate to the real life events. Some of these are minor and while others are more major, but are too many to elaborate here. The truth is there is probably no movie pertaining to a true life event that is completely accurate to what really happened and no one should be naïve enough to expect it to be either. On an entertainment and cinematic level this one scores high. My only real complaint is the scene where a character gets swallowed up in quicksand, which in reality is very unlikely to happen, but a prevalent feature in a lot of 60’s movies and the one point where it got a bit too ‘Hollywood’.

lawrence of arabia 4

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1962

Runtime: 3Hours 47Minutes

Not Rated

Director: David Lean

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

kramer vs kramer

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 10 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life after wife leaves.

This is a solid drama detailing the divorce and subsequent custody battle between two young, educated and upper middle class parents (Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep).

To say that this is simply an examination of divorce and its effects on both the child and parents do not do the film justice as this is a very richly textured story that brings out the many variables that come with being a modern day parent. One of the best is the examination of Hoffman’s character’s job and how ‘moving up the corporate ladder’ can have an adverse effect on a man’s home life and his family members. In fact this is a major factor to his break-up and emotional detachment with his wife.

The film also offers a nice glimpse between father and son and the scenes showing this relationship are quite touching especially as they learn to coexist with one another after the mother leaves. Justin Henry doesn’t get enough credit for his performance as the son. Yes, he is adorable in the typical child-like way, but he also manages to create a child character that is diverse and memorable.

Hoffman gives a superior performance and in many ways it is all about him and his adjustment at playing the dual roles of being both a father and mother. He has his aggressive New Yorker persona, but you understand it and really feel for what he is going through. Even watching him frantically running around from place-to-place is interesting.

Streep is also outstanding in what is kind of an unusual role for her. Typically she plays strong-willed women with a strong on-screen presence, but here her character is rather weak and suffers from problems that are elusive, but still intriguing.

Howard Duff is solid as Hoffman’s attorney and Jane Alexander offers good support as the next-door-neighbor although her character is a bit too ordinary and could have been supplied with a few interesting quirks.

The subject itself is still quite topical and everything is kept in a real perspective with nothing getting overblown or clichéd.  Robert Benton’s direction is flawless as it pays attention to the smallest of details and makes them special.  A good example of this is the poor way the father and son try to make French toast when they first find themselves alone together and then the very efficient way they learn to make them at the end. It is also not all serious as there is a really hilarious scene involving Jobeth Williams who plays Hoffman’s new girlfriend and the unusual circumstances onto which she first meets Henry.

There are a few issues to quibble about, but they are minor. One is that you hear Hoffman and Henry peeing in the toilet a lot, but they never seem able to flush it! There is also a scene where Hoffman who is in desperate need for a job applies for one during a holiday party and when he gets it he runs out, grabs a woman he does not know and kisses her right on the lips. If he tried something like that today he would not only be fired on the spot, but have a sexual harassment lawsuit as well.

My Rating: 10 out of 10

Released: December 19, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Benton

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video