Category Archives: Academy Award Winners for Best Screenplay

All the President’s Men (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: They take down Nixon.

In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972 five men are found burglarizing the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Office complex in Washington D.C. The next day a young Washington Post reporter by the name of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is assigned to cover the case. Initially it was considered only a minor story, but as he digs further into the details he finds wider connections including links that lead directly to the White House. Together with Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman),who is another reporter, the two men continue to research and end up battling one roadblock after another in their quest the uncover the truth.

If there is one area where this film really scores in it’s in the way that a journalist’s job gets portrayed. In fact many colleges show this film to their student who are majoring in the field in order to given them a realistic perspective of what the profession actually involves. For me I found it quite enlightening particularly the first hour. The many people and steps that a reporter has to go through just to get one solid lead is interesting as is the protocol system determining which story gets the front page and which don’t.

The layout of the newsroom was also fascinating as it all seemed very authentic and like they were working in an actual one. To my absolute shock I found out later that it had all been constructed on a film set, but so meticulously done that you couldn’t tell the difference. Initially several scenes were filmed in the real office using actual employees in the background, but the knowledge of being on camera made some behave in ways that they normally wouldn’t and this ultimately forced the filmmakers to decide to recreate it on a soundstage and use actors as the office crew.

The performances by the two leads are good, but neither of them resembles their real-life counterparts. Both Redford and Hoffman were already pushing 40 at the time and looking it while Woodward and Bernstein were still in their 20’s when this story occurred so the line that the Jack Warden’s character makes about these two being ‘young and hungry’ and looking for a good story to build their careers on doesn’t make as much sense.

The characters aren’t well fleshed out either. No time is spent on what these guys were like when not ardently following up leads, which is absolutely all we see them doing.  The original screenplay, which was written by Woodward and Bernstein, had a subplot involving the two trying to score with women, which would’ve helped add a comical touch and parts of that should’ve been kept in.

The second half lags as there are too many leads and names that get bantered about that don’t have faces connected to them making it seem like information overload that doesn’t help the viewer get as emotionally involved as they should. Having cutaways showing Nixon and/or is aides becoming increasingly more paranoid as the reporters closed in on them could’ve added that much needed extra dimension.

There is a stunning bird’s-eye shot of the inside of the Library of Congress, which is amazing and the fact that many of the scenes get filmed at the actual sites where the real-life instances occurred is both impressive and commendable. I also enjoyed the wide-array of recognizable faces that show up in bit parts including Valerie Curtain as a frightened source and Polly Holliday as an evasive secretary. They even cast Frank Wills the real-life security guard who broke the case wide open playing himself in the film’s opening scene, which is cool even though for me the film’s second half fails to be as entertaining as the first, which prevents it from being a classic.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: April 4, 1976

Runtime: 2Hours 19Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Learning to move on.

The year is 1928 and Wilma (Natalie Wood) is a high school girl living in a small Kansas town and madly in love with Bud (Warren Beatty). The two share a strong even obsessive relationship and Bud wants to marry her, but his domineering father (Pat Hingle) wants him to wait and go to college for 4 years first. Because Wilma is a ‘nice girl’ he cannot have intimate relations with her before marriage, so in order to alleviate his sexual tensions his father advises that he have sex with a ‘loose woman’ and thus has a fling with Juanita (Jan Norris) who is also one of Wilma’s classmates. When Wilma finds out about this she is devastated and it sends her into a mental breakdown and eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Despite being set in a bygone period the film is hardly dated at all. The characters are real and going through much of the same dilemmas people today have including dealing with parents who push their children to go into fields of study that they aren’t interested in. The film is amazingly frank for its era and director Elia Kazan wisely pulls back by having long takes which allows his eclectic cast to propel the film forward with their performances alone.

Although the setting is Kansas it unfortunately wasn’t filmed there and thus fails to capture the majestic beauty of the plains like Picnic did which was based on another William Inge story. The intention was to shoot it there, but due to a drought it was instead done in northern New York near the Catskills, which has a far different climate and topography. The only exterior shot of the town is that of Wilma’s house, which doesn’t allow the viewer to get any idea of the town’s layout or atmosphere.

All around there are some great performances, but Hingle is a standout in what is quite possibly the best role of his career as he owns every scene that he is in. The only unfortunate thing is that it is never explained what caused the character’s very obvious limp.

Barbara Loden who later went on to marry Kazan in real-life is a scene-stealer as well playing Hingle’s rebellious, flapper daughter Ginny. Her meltdown at a New Year’s Eve party is memorable, but the character then disappears midway through and is never seen again. There is an eventual brief explanation of her whereabouts, but I felt a scene with her at the end was definitely needed.

Wood looks quite possibly at her most beautiful here both with long hair during the first half and then with a short cut during the second part. Beatty makes an outstanding film debut. Usually he is best playing detached characters, but here he plays an emotional one and does it surprisingly well.

The film features a high amount of first time performances from actors who all look very, very young. Phyllis Diller can be seen briefly as a nightclub comedienne. Ivor Francis makes his film debut as Wood’s psychiatrist and Sandy Dennis can be spotted as Wood’s classmate while Martine Bartlett makes her debut as an exasperated English teacher. There is also Zohra Lampert as a waitress explaining to Beatty what pizza is while he tells her about Kansas and you can very briefly spot Eugene Roche and even Godfrey Cambridge.

The film makes some great statements about learning to adjust to life’s twists and turns and living in situations that are not the most fulfilling. Inge, who based many of these characters on people he knew growing up, shows a keen understanding for human nature and his script won a much deserved Oscar.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 10, 1961

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Elia Kazan

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

Becket (1964)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Betrayed by his friend.

King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is finding himself at continual odds with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) particularly in their disagreement of taxing the church to help fund Henry’s war with France when the elderly Archbishop suddenly dies Henry decides to appoint his longtime friend Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) into the position.  Becket had always shown extreme loyalty towards Henry and many times gotten him out of several jams so Henry expects this will continue in his new role, but finds that Thomas takes his position much more seriously than expected and shifts his loyalty from the king to the almighty, which causes serious conflict between the two.

The film which is directed by Peter Glenville is based on the 1959 stageplay written by Jean Anouilh that starred Laurence Olivier in the role as Becket and Anthony Quinn as Henry. This film version isn’t bad, but not quite the epic spectacle that we are so used to from these types of films from that period. The action is quite minimal and there is a definite staginess. I would have liked more camera movements and even a few scenes with a hand-held to help make it seem a little more authentic and less of a filmed drama. The scene where Henry and Becket are seen riding on horseback appears very corny as it was clearly done in front of a blue-screen. There is also too much music one scene has Henry and Becket running away from a farmhouse after being caught fooling around with a farm girl that has a cartoonish sounding melody that seems completely inappropriate especially for the time period.

Having Henry and Becket go from being friends to bitter enemies seemed to happen too quickly. I got the feeling we were seeing the ‘Cliff Notes’ version of events were they analyze only the important plot points and then quickly moved to the next. I realize the runtime of the film is already long, but spending more time showing the friendship gradually devolve would have been more realistic.

Normally I love Sir John Gielgud and his performance as King Louis VII is amusing, but he is clearly British and speaks with an English accent that doesn’t even come close to sounding French. The part of the Pope is given to an Italian, so the King Louis role should have been done by a Frenchman.

O’Toole is excellent. He has brown hair here instead of his patented blonde and his ability to stay in step with Burton by giving an almost comic performance of a King who is nothing more than an overgrown adolescent is brilliant. The royal food fight is good as are the many putdowns that he gives to both his wife and kids and even his own mother.

Burton is fantastic as expected playing a role different from any of the others that he has done. His piercing blue eyes have never been stronger particularly when he becomes the Archbishop.

The killing scenes done inside the church near the end has some nice camera work and Henry’s final emotional speech as well as his flogging by the monks are all strong and make this worthwhile viewing, but I couldn’t help but feel that we have ‘grown-up’ a bit in the way we do period pieces today and this is one that could use a remake.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1964

Runtime: 2Hours 28Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Peter Glenville

Studio: Paramount

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

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

Witness (1985)

witness

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hiding out on farm.

Samuel (Lukas Haas) is a young Amish boy traveling with his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) by train to Baltimore to visit her sister. At the train station he leaves to go to the restroom where he witnesses a murder committed by McFee (Danny Glover) a narcotics cop gone bad. John Book (Harrison Ford) is the policeman investigating the case and when he realizes that there is an internal cover-up and he is now being targeted for blowing the whistle he goes into hiding with the boy and his mother at the farm home of Rachel’s grandfather Eli (Jan Rubes). There John learns to adjust to the Amish lifestyle while forming feelings for Rachel who displays the same for him, but McFee and his henchman doggedly pursue John in an attempt to silence him permanently.

The script by Earl K. Wallace and William Kelley deservedly won the Academy Award and is perfect blend of riveting cop drama and cultural understanding and one of the few films to deal with the Amish culture. It manages to tackle the subject in a non-sensationalistic manner that for the most part shows the Amish community in a positive, but still realistic light. The scenes showing the Amish men getting together and working as a team to hoist up a barn is exhilarating. The part where John punches out a brash heckler who looks exactly like current Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh who is harassing the peaceful people is satisfying as well. The film does also manage to look a bit at the negative side of the religion namely the shunning where if one of their members does not conform completely to their rigid doctrine then they will be literally shunned by the rest of their community even their own family members, which Rachel is told she risks simply by being, in their eyes, too friendly with John.

I remember at the time some critics complained about the scene where Rachel is bathing and turns around to find John peering at her and instead of covering herself up just stands there and exposes both of her breasts. Many people felt that this was not realistic. That a women raised on modesty would not just throw it all away and expose herself to a man who she was not married to and not a part of their community even if she did have some feelings for him and I have to agree. Although I did like the quiet sensuality of the scene I did not feel it was right for his type of picture, but fortunately it is the only time that it ever gets ‘Hollywoodnized’ and for the most part is pretty respectful.

The balance between the potential love angle and the action is surprisingly well done. The film may have one too many romantic moments, but otherwise the pacing is solid. The climatic showdown inside the barn had me on the edge of my seat and one of the best and most creative action finales for a cop movie that I have seen.

Ford is engaging as ever and it is surprising that his role here is his first and so far only time that he has ever been nominated for best actor. It is fun watching him learn how to milk a cow as well as seeing him dressed in an Amish suit with the pants not quite long enough.

Josef Sommar also gives an interesting performance as one of the bad guys. Instead of being the villain that becomes more confident, brazen, evil, and vicious as the pressure mounts he instead begins to behave in a more panicked and confused manner, which is an interesting take on the age-old formula.

Of course the real star of the film has to be Haas who is perfectly cast. He is cute and adorable without it ever having to be forced, or clichéd and one of the main reasons that this film has become so endearing.

The film also features Viggo Mortensen in a non-speaking part as one of the Amish men and Patti Lupone has a brief bit as John’s sister who begrudgingly agrees to take in Rachel and her son for the night in her home. Her reaction when Rachel tells her that she is Amish is subtly amusing.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: February 8, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Peter Weir

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video