Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Amadeus (dir by Milos Forman)


The 1984 film Amadeus is about a man who learns, after it’s a bit too late to really do anything about it, that he is thoroughly mediocre.

When we first meet Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham), he’s an old man who has been confined to a mental asylum because he attempted to slit his own throat.  What should drive Salieri — a respected, if not particularly beloved, composer in 18th Century Vienna — to attempt to take his own life?  As he explains it to Father Vogler (Richard Frank), it’s the guilt of knowing that he’s responsible for death of the greatest composer of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When Mozart (Tom Hulce) first showed up in Vienna, Salieri was already the court composer to the thoroughly vacuous Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones).  At the time, Salieri believed himself to be a genius touched by God.  As he recounts to Father Vogler, he prayed to God when he was a boy and he struck what he believed was an ironclad deal.  God would make Salieri a great composer and Salieri would remain a faithful believer.

But then Mozart shows up and, from the minute that he first hears one of Mozart’s compositions, Salieri realizes that Mozart is the one who has been blessed with genius.  Mozart is the one who is writing the music that will be remembered for the rest of time, long after Salieri and all of his other rival composers have been forgotten.  Upon first hearing Mozart, Salieri suddenly realizes that he has been betrayed by God.  He is a mediocre talent and he’s always been a mediocre talent.

The worst part of it is not just that Mozart’s a genius.  It’s also that Mozart knows he’s a genius.  He’s a bit of a brat as well, with a remarkably annoying laugh and vulgar manners that scandalize proper society.  Despite the efforts of his rivals to dismiss his talent, Mozart is beloved by the common people.  He’s an 18th century rock star and it seems as if no amount of scandal and petty jealousy can slow him down.  Even worse, the emperor takes a interest in Mozart and commissions him — and not Salieri — to write an opera.

Rejecting a God that he feels has betrayed him, Salieri plots Mozart’s downfall….

Goddamn, this is a great movie.  Seriously, everything about Amadeus works.

The ornate sets and the costumes not only wonderful to look at but they also actually tell us something about the characters who inhabit them.  One look at the beautiful but cluttered home that Mozart shares with his wife, Constanze (Elisabeth Berridge), tells you almost everything you need to know about not only Mozart’s tastes (which are expensive) but also his talent (which is undisciplined but also limitless).  The empty-headedness of Emperor Joseph is perfectly mirrored by the pretty but uninspired decor of his court while the grubby chaos of the mental asylum seems to have sprung straight from Salieri’s tortured soul.  As visualized in Amadeus, there’s a cold beauty to Vienna, one that is fascinating but, at the same time, menacing.  As for the costumes, Mozart’s powdered wig somehow seems to be brighter than everyone else’s and his colorful wardrobe demands your attention.  Meanwhile, when a costumed and masked Salieri shows up at Mozart’s door, he’s like the Grim Reaper coming to collect a soul.

The witty script is full of sharp lines and director Milos Forman does a wonderful job of balancing comedy and drama.  The scenes involving Joseph II are frequently hilarious and Jeffrey Jones does a great job of portraying Joseph as essentially being a very influential dunce.  The scene where Joseph tells Mozart that he liked his latest composition but that “there are simply too many notes” is a classic and one to which any artist, whether they’re Mozart or not, will be able to relate.  (“Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”)

The film is dominated by the performances of F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce.  Hulce is wonderfully flamboyant in the early part of the film and, bravely, he doesn’t shy away from portraying Mozart as occasionally being a bit of a spoiled brat.  It’s not just that Mozart can be annoying.  It’s also that he’s often deliberately annoying.  When we first see Mozart, it’s easy to understand why his very existence so grated on Salieri’s nerves and why Salieri considers him to be an “obscene child.”  But as the film progresses, Hulce lets us in and we come to see that Mozart is actually a very vulnerable young man.  When his disapproving father (Roy Dotrice) comes to visit, we suddenly understand both why Mozart is so driven to succeed but also why he is so instinctively self-destructive.

Meanwhile, F. Murray Abraham — well, what can I say about this performance?  In the role of Salieri, Abraham gives one of the greatest film performances of all time.  In many ways, Abraham has a tougher job than Hulce.  If Hulce has to convince us that Mozart has been touched by genius despite the dumb things that he often does, Abraham has to make petty jealousy compelling.  And somehow, Abraham manages to do just that.  Whereas the role of Mozart allows Hucle to wear his emotions on the surface, Abraham has to play a character who keeps most of his thoughts and impulses hidden and the fact that we end up understanding Salieri (if never actually sympathizing with him) is a testament to F. Murray Abraham’s skill as an actor.  Abraham won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work in Amadeus and it was more than deserved.

At the end of the film, Salieri declares himself to be the patron saint of mediocrities and, to a large extent, that’s what sets Amadeus apart from other biopics.  Most people are mediocre.  Most people are not going to end their life as a Mozart.  They’re going to end their life as a Salieri or worse.  This is one of the few films to be made about a runner-up.  It’s interesting to note that, even though the film is more about Salieri than Mozart, it’s still called Amadeus.  It’s not named Antonio or Salieri.  Even in a film made about Salieri, Mozart is advertised as the main attraction.

(It should also be noted that many historians believe that Salieri and Mozart were actually fairly friendly acquaintances and that, beyond the normal rivalry that any two artists would feel, neither held any significant ill will towards the other.  In other words, enjoy Amadeus as an outstanding piece of cinema but don’t necessarily mistake it for historical fact.)

Along with Abraham’s victory, Amadeus also won Best Picture of the year.  Of the nominees, it certainly deserved it.  (My pick for the best film of 1984 is Once Upon A Time In America with Amadeus as a close second.)  It’s a great film and one that definitely deserves to be watched and rewatched.

An Olympic Review: The Cutting Edge (dir by Paul Michael Glaser)


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Hi everyone!

So, I just watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics!  And I have to say that I really enjoyed them but then again, I always enjoy the Olympics and not just the gymnastic stuff that everyone loves.  It’s odd because I’m really not into sports at all.  I guess I just like the idea behind the Olympics.  I like the idea of people from all nations gathered together in one country, linked together in the spirit of fair competition and, most importantly, not killing each other.

Plus, I can’t help but love the spectacle of it all!

I figured that, for the duration of the games, I would attempt to post one Olympic-themed film a day.  Now, I have to admit that this is one of those things that seemed easier when I was thinking about it then it does now that I’m actually trying to do it.  But we’ll see what happens!

Originally, I was going to limit myself to films about the Summer Olympics but then I realized that, by doing that, I wouldn’t be able to write about the 1992 film, The Cutting Edge!  And that would be a shame because I really like The Cutting Edge!

The Cutting Edge tells a story that is both thoroughly predictable and yet thoroughly charming at the same time.  Doug Dorsey (D.B. Sweeney) is a likable and kinda dorky blue collar guy who also happens to be one of the best hockey players in the world.  Kate Moseley (Moira Kelly) is a world-class figure skater who has been totally spoiled by her father (Terry O’Quinn) and whose imperious attitude has managed to alienate every partner that she’s ever had.

At the 1988 Olympics, Doug and Kate run into each other.  Literally, they collide with each other in the arena.  Doug is apologetic.  Kate snaps at him to watch where he’s going.  Later, Doug is injured in a game and is forced to retire from hockey.  Meanwhile, Kate’s latest partner deliberately drops her during their program and Kate is forced to settle for a silver medal.

Two years pass.  Doug is working at a steel mill when he’s approached by a Russian coach named Anton Pamchenko (Roy Dotrice).  Anton explains that Kate needs yet another new partner.  Desperate to return to the Olympics, Doug agrees to skate with her.

And things go about the way you would expect.  At first, Kate hates Doug.  But slowly, Doug starts to win her over and Kate starts to lower her defenses and warm up to him.  Kate teaches Doug how to be a champion figure skater.  Doug teaches Kate how to be nice.  Soon, they’re in love but unfortunately, Kate already has a boyfriend — a lawyer named Stuffy Q. McBorington (Dwier Brown).

(Actually, he might not be a lawyer.  And his name isn’t Stuffy Q. McBorington.  But it might as well be!)

Convincing Kate to leave her boyfriend is actually the easy part.  The hard part is going to be winning the gold!  Doug still has some rough edges and Kate can still be demanding but they love each other and we all know that love conquers all!

The Cutting Edge is one of those movies that used to be on cable all the time when I was growing up and I always loved watching it!  I wanted a boyfriend like Doug and I wanted to wear cute costumes like Kate and I wanted to win a gold medal.

Yes, it’s a totally predictable movie.  Not a single moment or line will surprise you.  But it’s such a likable movie!  Sweeney and Kelly have a really sweet chemistry and the skating action is well-directed and what more can you ask for a romantic comedy about ice skating?

I rewatched The Cutting Edge earlier today.

I still love it!

Enjoy the Olympics, everyone!

 

Lisa Reviews The Oscar Nominees: Nicholas and Alexandra (dir by Franklin J. Schaffner)


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(Depending on how much you know about world history, the review below may contain spoilers.)

It was nearly four years ago that I decided that my goal in life was to watch and review every single film — no matter how obscure or potentially disappointing — that had ever been nominated for best picture.  Of course, that’s not my only goal.  If anything, I may have too many, often contradictory goals in my life.  But seeing all of the best picture nominees was definitely one of them and, all these years later, it’s a goal that I’m still trying to achieve.  With the help of TCM and their nonstop schedule of movies made long before I was born, it’s also a goal on which I am slowly but surely making progress.

Last night, as I scrolled through the guide, I noticed that TCM would be showing Nicholas and Alexandra, a three and a half hour film from 1971.  Now normally, I would be hesitant about watching a film that long, if just because I have ADHD and I doubt I’d be able to concentrate on it.  In a theater, watching the action unfold on a big screen, it wouldn’t be a big deal.  However, it’s totally different when you’re talking watching a movie on TV in a house that is full of potential distractions.  Add to that, Wednesday night is when I usually watch shows like Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen, and South Park.

But, here’s the thing.  The title Nicholas and Alexandra sounded familiar to me and not just because I’m an obsessive history nerd.  I did some checking and I discovered that, regardless of how obscure the film may be today, Nicholas and Alexandra was nominated for best picture.  It lost to The French Connection but it was nominated.

So, of course, I had to watch it.

And you know what?

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It’s not a terrible movie.  It’s certainly not great.  It has multiple flaws and it’s hard to imagine this film being nominated alongside films like The French Connection, Last Picture Show, and A Clockwork Orange.  Watching the movie, I got the feeling it was probably nominated because it was a big, expensive epic and not because it was one of the best of the year.  But, if you stick with the film (which, if we’re going to be honest here, is much easier said than done), it’s not quite as disappointing as you might expect it to be.

Nicholas and Alexandra tells the story of the last monarch of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston).  Struggling to escape the shadow of his father and incapable of understanding what life is like for those not born into royalty, Nicholas is portrayed as being well-meaning but autocratic and blind to the fact that the days of royalty are rapidly coming to an end.  His wife, Alexandra (Janet Susman) is also unpopular with both the Russian citizenry and the royal court on account of being German.

Alexandra spends most her time doting on her youngest son, Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia.  When a flamboyant Serbian monk named Rasputin (Tom Baker) claims that he has the power to heal Alexei, Alexandra immediately brings him into the court.  Soon, rumors are flying across Russia about Rasputin’s relationship with Alexandra.

Meanwhile, men with names like Lenin (Michael Bryant), Trotsky (Brian Cox), and Stalin (James Hazeldine) are plotting to lead a “worker’s revolution…”

If you know anything about history, it’s not really a spoiler to reveal what happens in the second half of Nicholas and Alexandra.  (And if you’re not into history, you probably would not have any interest in watching the movie in the first place.)   Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, plunging the entire world into war.  Russia declares war on Germany and the German-born Alexandra becomes even more unpopular than before.  The rest of the royal court, jealous over the mad monk’s influence, plots against Rasputin.  The Tsar is forced from the throne and Nicholas and his family spend their last days as captives of the people they once ruled.  Now a powerless prisoner, Nicholas finally starts to understand the world beyond his palace walls.  However, in the end, Nicholas, Alexandra, their children, and their loyal servants are taken into a small room and violently executed.  End of movie.

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So, there are a lot of things wrong with Nicholas and Alexandra.  Not the least of the film’s problem is an unwieldy length and generally slow pace.  (The film was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who also directed the still-fun original Planet of the Apes.  Little of the flair he brought to Planet of the Apes is present here.)  This is one of those films that is full of incident with various characters popping up and discussing the intricacies of international politics with little concern as to whether or not any of this is the least bit cinematic or even compelling on a narrative level.  The film has a huge cast but very few memorable characters.

Even worse is that neither Nicholas nor Alexandra never come across as being all that interesting.  The film makes the case that Nicholas’s downfall was largely a result of him being unlucky enough to rule at a time when people across Europe and Asia were rejecting the old ways for the new ways of revolution and industrialization.  Nicholas is continually portrayed as being well-meaning but isolated and that has the potential to be interesting but, at times, the film feels almost as emotionally detached as its characters.

That said, Nicholas and Alexandra does work as a spectacle, as a showcase for beautiful clothing and ornate scenery.  As a character study, Nicholas and Alexandra largely fails but, as a fashion show, it’s actually a lot of fun.    Early on in the film, there’s a lengthy sequence in which Nicholas and Alexandra walk down the red-carpeted hallways of their palace.  It’s shot through Nicholas’s eyes and we see a collection of guards and noblemen and women standing to the side and bowing their heads as the Tsar and his wife walk past.  It’s a good scene and one that perfectly shows not only the life that Nicholas is used to but also why Nicholas doesn’t want to change that life.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the first two hours of Nicholas and Alexandra work best when they focus on the flamboyant character of Rasputin.  Baker does a really go job as Rasputin, delivering all of his lines with a ferocious intensity while staring with obviously unhinged eyes.  When he’s with Alexandra, Rasputin is calculating and coldly conniving, providing just enough comfort to keep her under his control.  When he’s with Nicholas or any of the other male members of the court, he reveals himself to be an arrogant libertine, making profane jokes and bragging about his conquests.  It’s a really good performance but, as with so many other good performances in this film, it occasionally gets lost in the film’s dense production.

The best moments of Nicholas and Alexandra come towards the end, with the humbled Nicholas finally revealing his humanity and the Tsar’s family struggling to maintain their dignity even as their inevitable fate approaches.  At this point, the performers came to life.  The film suddenly had an emotional resonance.  It finally became about something!  For those final 20 or so minutes, Nicholas and Alexandra suddenly seemed worthy of being awarded.

In fact, based on those final 20 minutes, I would even be willing to see a sequel called Nicholas and Alexandra and Rasputin Makes Three.  

(Though I’m not sure how that sequel could ever be made.  As @Kev1Media pointed out when I suggested it on twitter, Adam Sandler would have to be somehow involved.)

As for Nicholas and Alexandra, it’s not a great film but if you’re into history or you’re an Oscar completist like me, the film has its occasional charms.  You just have to be willing to look for them.

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Review: Game of Thrones S2E05 “The Ghost of Harrenhal”


“Anyone can be killed.” — Arya Stark

The first four episodes of the second season of Game of Thrones has been consistently good to great despite the addition of a large number of new characters to a cast already considered massive by tv standards. Last week’s “Garden of Bones” was the weakest of the four and worked more like a set-up episode for the rest of the season. With tonight’s fifth episode in “The Ghost of Harrenhal” we get another set-up episode that looks to be the weakest entry in this new season.

The episode’s title comes from the novel and what Arya calls herself during her stay in Harrenhal. She becomes the ghost of the title as she takes the offer made to her by the engimatic Jaqen H’ghar. But before we get to Arya and her adventures within the cursed halls of Harrenhal we start the episode back at the Renly Baratheon camp where the younger Barantheon entertains Catelyn Stark with an offer to take back to her son Robb in the North. Before the armies of Renly and Robb could come together to fight against their common enemy that the shadowy thing from the end of last week’s episode finally make it’s appearance to end the fight between the Baratheon brothers once and for all.

As Arya comments to Tywin in Harrenhal thus Renly’s fate early in the episode prove her words correct. Anyone can be killed and it would seem anywhere.

The rest of the episode from then on is all about setting up what I can only guess would be the two set piece events for the season. There’s the planned amphibious invasion of King’s landing being planned by Stannis Baratheon with his reinforced army now that Renly’s bannermen has flocked to him after their former liege’s assassination. Then there’s the stuff brewing up north of the Wall with the entire Night’s Watch searching for and preparing for the massive wildling army being formed by former Night’s Watch brother and self-proclaimed “King Beyond the Wall”.

Most of the dynamic writing for tonight’s episode occur down at King’s Landing and Harrenhal where we see both Tyrion and Arya adjusting to the ever-shifting status in both places. With Tyrion he must now contend with an older sister in Cersei who seem to be waking up to the fact that she cannot bully the current Hand of the King and realizes that she too can play the manipulative game as her deformed younger sibling. The fact that a weapon of mass destruction has been in production for quite sometime without his knowing and put into motion by his sister has put the usually cocky and confident Tyrion on his heels. But as we’ve seen since this show began airing the dwarf Lannister is very quick to adjust his footing. It’s going to be interesting how the writers will keep the personal battles between Tyrion and Cersei for control of King’s Landing to not feel like wheel’s spinning in place. Sooner or later one of them will find the chink in the other’s personal armor and make the “killing” stroke.

Further up north we see Arya do her own dance around the shifting circumstance she finds herself in as the personal cupbearer for the man who heads the house she despises and blames for the death of her father. The back and forth between her and Tywin was one of the highlight’s of tonight’s episode even though it didn’t move the story forward, but did add another layer of character growth on the youngest Stark daughter. Maisie Williams as Arya continues to impress in the role. She looked like she belonged in the scene with the older veteran actor in Charles Dance. It’s a small wonder that she’s become one of the show’s favorite characters.

With tonight’s episode we hit the halfway mark of the season and even though there’s still another half to go so much stuff occurred with tonight’s episode that it’ll be a surprise if the season finale gives all of them a satisfying resolution. I haven’t even mentioned the scenes with Theon trying to find his footing with his crew before setting off to raid the coastline near Winterfell as his father has ordered him to do.

If there was ever a weak point in this season it’s that we seem to get a new subplot introduced with each new episode and tonight’s episode was a perfect example. Not saying that tonight was poorly written and acted. Everyone seemed to be in top form, but instead of streamlining what is already turning out to be a season with an ever-growing number of storylines we get more. It’s going to be a wonder how the show’s writers will be able to juggle everything as the season enters it’s second half. Maybe they won’t find a resolution for every thread introduced this season and I’m betting that is how it’s going to pan out, but that could also mean delaying some of these threads for next season.

If there’s one thing people should know about George R.R. Martin’s novels it’s that plots, subplots and side stories only continue to pile on each other even when some past ones get a resolution. Sooner or later the showrunners will have to make a tough decision to abandon certain storylines from the novel even if it means angering and alienating the fans of the books who are already grumbling about some of the changes the show has already made in adapting the series to television.

I’m all for fidelity to the source material, but as Arya said in tonight’s episode, “Anyone can be killed”, and I say the same thing should go in how the show moves on into the second half and beyond. Any storyline can be cut and I’m all for it if it keeps the series from becoming a narrative bloated mess.

Notes

  • Looks like Renly Baratheon will not be able to play at war again.
  • Brienne is not a woman that any man should anger if what she did in Renly’s tent was any indication.
  • Littlefinger and Margaery Tyrell would make for quite a formidable couple if these two manipulative kids ever decide to get together.
  • We don’t see it happen often but Tyrion definitely looks like he’s not in control of the situation during his conversation with Cersei and then later on with Lancel and his talk of wildfire.
  • For all his work to try and protect the people from Joffrey’s madness Tyrion still ends up on the short end of the stick.
  • Stannis is turning out to be quite a conundrum. One second he’s willing to use underhanded tactics to win over his younger brother’s bannermen to his army, then turns around and becomes his rigid self once again. It’s a wonder that he still has Ser Davos’ loyalty.
  • Tywin at Harrenhal with his war council is a major change from the novel, but it makes sense now that we get a sort of confrontation between the Lannister patriarch and Arya Stark.
  • Highlight of the episode has to be Jaqen and Arya making an arrangement where the former shall repay his life-debt to the latter with the deaths of three names Arya will give the enigmatic soldier.
  • Tyrion finally gets his footing on solid ground again as he takes control of the wildfire production from his sister. I’m thinking King’s Landing would be better served to have the volatile wildfire in the hands of Tyrion than his more equally volatile sister and her insane son.
  • Daenerys gets another lesson in the cutthroat world of diplomacy as she gets a tempting offer from Xaro Xhoan Daxos.
  • Her next lesson on how to be a capable ruler comes from her trusted knight and advisor Ser Jorah who thinks Daxos’ offer will contain strings that she may not be able to cut once accepted.
  • Bran’s dreams seem to portent the coming Ironborns and the former ward and friend in Theon leading them.
  • Rickon Stark looks like he’s becoming wilder and wilder with each appearance.
  • A surprise for the lack of any sort of sexposition or even nudity. Might be a first for this show.
  • One down and two to go.