Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

I tried to think of a number of movies about the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Hollywood Blacklist I have seen. And to be honest, I can only think of two of which I have never finished and two of which I did. One of those movies I did finish was the 2015 biopic about Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.

Based upon Bruce Alexander Cook’s 1977 biography, the movie covered fourteen years of the screenwriter’s life – from being subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to 1960, when he was able to openly write movies and receive screen credit after nine to ten years of being blacklisted by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Protection of American Ideals. Due to this time period, it was up to production designer Mark Rickler to visually convey fourteen years in Southern California – from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I must say that he, along with cinematographer Jim Denault and art directors Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal did an excellent job by taking advantage of the New Orleans locations. That is correct. Certain areas around New Orleans, Louisiana stood for mid-century Los Angeles, California. But the movie also utilized a few locations in Southern California; including a residential house in northeastern Los Angeles, and the famous Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of Hollywood. And thanks to Denault’s cinematography, Rickler’s production designs not only made director Jay Roach’s “Southern California” look colorful, but nearly realistic. But one of my minor joys of “TRUMBO” came from the costume designs. Not only do I admire how designer Daniel Orlandi re-created mid-20th century fashion for the film industry figures in Southern California, as shown in the images below:

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I was especially impressed by Orlandi’s re-creation of . . . you guessed it! Columnist Hedda Hopper‘s famous hats, as shown in the following images:

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I have read two reviews for “TRUMBO”. Both reviewers seemed to like the movie, yet both were not completely impressed by it. I probably liked it a lot more than the two. “TRUMBO” proved to be the second movie I actually paid attention to about the Blacklist. I think it has to do with the movie’s presentation. “TRUMBO” seemed to be divided into three acts. The first act introduced the characters and Trumbo’s problems with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to his being imprisoned for eleven months on charges of contempt of Congress, for his refusal to answer questions from HUAC. The second act focused on those years in which Trumbo struggled to remain employed as a writer for the low-budget King Brothers Productions, despite being blacklisted by the major studios. And the last act focused upon Trumbo’s emergence from the long shadow of the blacklist, thanks to his work on “SPARTACUS” and “EXODUS”.

I have only one real complaint about “TRUMBO”. Someone once complained that the movie came off as uneven. And I must admit that the reviewer might have a point. I noticed that the film’s first act seemed to have a light tone – despite Trumbo’s clashes with Hollywood conservatives and HUAC. Even those eleven months he had spent in prison seemed to have an unusual light tone, despite the situation. But once the movie shifted toward Trumbo’s struggles trying to stay employed, despite the blacklist, the movie’s tone became somewhat bleaker. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured the screenwriter’s clashes with his family over his self-absorbed and strident behavior towards them and his dealings with fellow (and fictional) screenwriter Arlen Hird. But once actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger expressed interest in ignoring the Blacklist and hiring Trumbo for their respective movies, the movie shifted toward a lighter, almost sugarcoated tone again. Now, there is nothing wrong with a movie shifting from one tone to another in accordance to the script. My problem with these shifts is that they struck me as rather extreme and jarring. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a movie directed by two different men.

Another problem I had with “TRUMBO” centered around one particular scene that featured Hedda Hopper and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. In this scene, Hopper forces Mayer to fire any of his employees who are suspected Communists, including Trumbo. The columnist did this by bringing up Mayer’s Jewish ancestry and status as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. This scene struck me as a blatant copy of one featured in the 1999 HBO movie, “RKO 281”. In that movie, Hopper’s rival, Louella Parsons (portrayed by Brenda Blethyn) utilized the same method to coerce – you guess it – Mayer (portrayed by David Suchet) to convince other studio bosses to withhold their support of the 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. Perhaps the filmmakers for “TRUMBO” felt that no one would remember the HBO film. I did. Watching that scene made me wonder if I had just witnessed a case of plagiarism. And I felt rather disappointed.

Despite these jarring shifts in tone, I still ended up enjoying “TRUMBO” very much. Instead of making an attempt to cover Dalton Trumbo’s life from childhood to death, the movie focused upon a very important part in the screenwriter’s life – the period in which his career in Hollywood suffered a major decline, due to his political beliefs. And thanks to Jay Roach’s direction and John McNamara’s screenplay, the movie did so with a straightforward narrative. Some of the film’s critics had complained about its sympathetic portrayal of Trumbo, complaining that the movie had failed to touch upon Trumbo’s admiration of the Soviet Union. Personally, what would be the point of that? A lot of American Communists did the same, rather naively and stupidly in my opinion. But considering that this movie mainly focused upon Trumbo’s experiences as a blacklisted writer, what would have been the point? Trumbo was not professionally and politically condemned for regarding the Soviet Union as the epitome of Communism at work. He was blacklisted for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Also, the movie did not completely whitewash Trumbo. McNamara’s screenplay did not hesitate to condemn how Trumbo’s obsession with continuing his profession as a screenwriter had a negative impact upon his relationship with his family – especially his children. It also had a negative impact with his relationship with fellow screenwriter (the fictional) Arlen Hird, who wanted Trumbo to use his work for the King Brothers to express their liberal politics. Trumbo seemed more interested in staying employed and eventually ending the Blacklist. I came away with the feeling that the movie was criticizing the screenwriter for being more interested in regaining his successful Hollywood career than in maintaining his politics.

“TRUMBO” also scared me. The movie scared me in a way that the 2010 movie, “THE CONSPIRATOR” did. It reminded me that I may disagree with the political or social beliefs of another individual; society’s power over individuals – whether that society came in the form of a government (national, state or local) or any kind of corporation or business industry – can be a frightening thing to behold. It can be not only frightening, but also corruptive. Watching the U.S. government ignore the constitutional rights of this country’s citizens (including Trumbo) via the House Committee on Un-American Activities scared the hell out of me. Watching HUAC coerce and frighten actor Edward G. Robinson into exposing people that he knew as Communists scared me. What frightened me the most is that it can happen again. Especially when I consider how increasingly rigid the world’s political climate has become.

I cannot talk about “TRUMBO” without focusing on the performances. Bryan Cranston earned a slew of acting nominations for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. I have heard that the screenwriter was known for being a very colorful personality. What is great about Cranston’s performance is that he captured this trait of Trumbo’s without resorting to hammy acting. Actually, I could say the same about the rest of the cast. Helen Mirren portrayed the movie’s villain, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper with a charm and charisma that I personally found both subtle and very scary. Diane Lane gave a subtle and very convincing performance as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, who not only stood by her husband throughout his travails, but also proved to be strong-willed when his self-absorption threatened to upset the family dynamics. Louis C.K., the comic actor gave a poignant and emotional performance as the fictional and tragic screenwriter, Arden Hird.

Other memorable performances caught my attention as well. Elle Fanning did an excellent job portraying Trumbo’s politically passionate daughter, who grew to occasionally resent her father’s pre-occupation with maintaining his career. Michael Stuhlbarg did a superb job in conveying the political and emotional trap that legendary actor Edward G. Robinson found himself, thanks to HUAC. Both John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave colorful and entertaining performances as studio head Frank King and Trumbo’s fellow convict Virgil Brooks, respectively. Stephen Root was equally effective as the cautious and occasionally paranoid studio boss, Hymie King. Roger Bart gave an excellent performance as fictional Hollywood producer Buddy Ross, a venal personality who seemed to lack Robinson’s sense of guilt for turning his back on the blacklisted Trumbo and other writers. David James Elliot gave a very interesting performance as Hollywood icon John Wayne, conveying the actor’s fervent anti-Communist beliefs and willingness to protect Robinson from Hedda Hopper’s continuing hostility toward the latter. And in their different ways, both Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel gave very entertaining performances as the two men interested in employing Trumbo by the end of the 1950s – Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I noticed that “TRUMBO” managed to garner only acting nominations for the 2015-2016 award season. Considering that the Academy Award tends to nominate at least 10 movies for Best Picture, I found it odd that the organization was willing to nominate the likes of “THE MARTIAN” (an unoriginal, yet entertaining feel-good movie) and “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” (for which I honestly do not have a high regard) in that category. “TRUMBO” was not perfect. But I do not see why it was ignored for the Best Picture category, if movies like “THE MARTIAN” can be nominated. I think director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara and a cast led by the always talented Bryan Cranston did an excellent job in conveying a poisonous period in both the histories of Hollywood and this country.

“THE MONUMENTS MEN” (2014) Review

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“THE MONUMENTS MEN” (2014) Review

A rarely known aspect of World War II was recently explored in this recently released war film. “THE MONUMENTS MEN” told the story about a group of men, established under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943, to recover pieces of art stolen by the Nazi, before they could be destroyed on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

Produced and written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and directed by Clooney; “THE MONUMENTS MEN” began in 1943 in which art conservation specialist and museum director Frank Stokes convinces U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow him to assumble an Army unit compromising of museum directors, curators, and art historians to search for stolen art treasures of the Western world and return it to the rightful owners. Stokes, portrayed by Clooney, assemble six other men:

*Lieutenant James Granger, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Donald Jeffries, British Army
*Sergeant Richard Campbell, U.S.A.
*Sergeant Walter Garfield, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Jean Claude Clermont, French Army
*Private Preston Savitz, U.S.A.

Stokes also recruited a U.S. Army enlisted soldier named Sam Epstein to act as his interpreter and driver. And in occupied France, In occupied Paris, an art curator named Claire Simone is forced to allow Nazi officers like Viktor Stahl to oversee the theft of art for either Adolf Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum in Linz, German; or as the personal property of senior commanders like Herman Goering. She is nearly arrested for helping her Maquis brother unsuccessfully recapture such items. And later, all seems lost when Claire discovers that Stahl is taking all of her gallery’s contents to Germany, while the Allies approach Paris. Stokes’ unit is split up for various objectives throughout Western Europe. While most of them are frustrated by the Allies’ combat units, which refuse to restrict their tactical options for the sake of preserving architecture; Granger, who ends up in occupied Paris, meets Simone and discovers that she will not cooperate with the Allies, whom she suspects of also being art looters.

I suspect that true art lovers – especially those enamored of European art – might find “THE MONUMENTS MEN” to be an emotional and satisfying tale in which the Allies not only persevered over the Nazi Army, but also saved a great deal of important art work from being destroyed. And there are those who were probably disappointed that “THE MONUMENTS MEN” was not some kind of stylish caper film in the style of Steven Soderbergh’s “OCEAN’S ELEVEN” trilogy. How did I feel about “THE MONUMENTS MEN”? I found it entertaining, emotional, and surprisingly old-fashioned. Then again, this is a World War II drama about the preservation of famous Western art, in which the ages of the main stars range from early 40s to early 60s. More importantly, “THE MONUMENTS MEN” was released in February – a movie season that usually feature mediocre or bad films.

I could never regard “THE MONUMENTS MEN” a great film. I found the pacing uneven . . . especially in the movie’s first half. I felt that both Clooney’s direction and the script’s depiction of the men’s separation following their basic training rather confusing. I was especially confused by the whereabouts of the Donald Jeffries character. One minute he was in France with Stokes and Epstein. And in his next scene, he is in Belgium with no explanation in the movie’s narrative of how he got there. Come to think of it, both Campbell and Savitz end up in Belgium . . . without Jeffries. Or was it Italy? Very confusing. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I found Matt Damon’s performance rather flat. It almost seemed as if he was phoning it in – especially in the movie’s first half. In some way, I think Clooney tried too hard to make the movie so profound that it ended up feeling . . . hmmm . . . flacid.

Thankfully, the movie’s second half managed to be an improvement on the first. Especially since the Monument Men encountered more danger and their efforts to find the stolen art seemed to improve. Actually, the second half featured some action sequences that managed to inject some energy into the film’s story. Audiences finally get to see the dangers that the Monuments Men faced in order to achieve their goal – Nazi troops in a Belgian convent, straying into the middle of a battleground that became deadly, an encounter with a lone armed German soldier, and a close encounter with a land mine. The second half also featured a few excellent scenes – including Campbell’s reaction to a recorded letter from home during Christmas, Savitz’s exposure of Stahl, Granger and Claire’s near-romantic encounter inside her apartment, and Stokes’ interrogation of one of the S.S. officers responsible for the attempted destruction of some of the stolen art.

Technically, “THE MONUMENTS MEN” is a beautiful and elegant looking film of the old-fashioned kind. First of all, I have to compliment Phedon Papamichael’s sharp and colorful photography of England and Germany, which stood in for World War II-era Western Europe. Production designer James D. Bissell and his team did an admirable job in re-creating Western Europe during that period. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Bernhard Henrich’s set designs in the sequences that featured the Allied camps near the Normandy beaches and the German mine, site of the first batch of art recovered. Louise Frogley’s costume designs struck me as solid reflections of the years 1943-45. However, I must admit that I was not particularly impressed by Alexandre Desplat’s score. I simply did not find it that memorable.

The performances in “THE MONUMENTS MEN” also struck me as solid, despite the star power featured in this film. I really do not see anyone receiving an award, let alone a nomination, for their work in this film. Hell, I would be surprised if anyone’s performance was particularly singled out by critics or moviegoers alike. However, I did notice that Clooney, as a director, allowed each major character a chance to shine in a particular scene. Clooney got a chance to shine in the scene featuring Stokes’ interrogation of the German officer. Both Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett generated a good deal of heat in the scene featuring Granger’s near romantic dinner with Claire Simone. Bill Murray gave one of the most poignant performances in a scene featuring Campbell’s silent reaction to a recording he had received from his family for Christmas. Bob Balaban was marvelous in the scene in which Savitz exposed Claire’s former “supervisor” Stahl as a Nazi and thief with cold precision. Both John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, who had previously worked together in the Oscar winning film, “THE ARTIST”, managed to create a strong chemistry in two scenes that featured Garfield and Claremont’s encounter with a German sniper and their accidental wondering into a battlefield. But I feel that the best acting moment came from Hugh Bonneville, who did a marvelous job in conveying Jeffries’ passion and sense of danger in a scene featuring the character’s encounter with Germans at a Belgium convent.

Look, “THE MONUMENTS” is no classic. And I do not think it is the best movie I have seen this winter. It might be a bit too old-fashioned for the tastes of some (I can endure it). And if I must be brutally honest, the first half of Clooney and Grant Henslov’s script came off as limpid and confusing. But a strong second half and some golden moments by a talented cast led by Clooney more or less saved “THE MONUMENTS” for me.

“ARGO” (2012) Review

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“ARGO” (2012) Review

Ben Affleck must be at a lucky point in his career. His third directorial effort had recently been released in theaters and is already a commercial and critical hit . . . like his two previous films. And he never struck me as the type who would direct and star in a film about the CIA rescuing American diplomats from the Middle East, let alone co-produce it. But he did and the result is the movie, “ARGO”

“ARGO” began in early November 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took most of the civilian and military staff hostage in retaliation for American offering refuge for the deposed Shah of Iran. At least six staff diplomats managed to get out of the embassy and seek refuge at the home of Canada’s ambassador, Ken Taylor. With the six diplomats’ situation kept secret, the C.I.A. assigns one of their operatives, one Tony Mendez, to find a way to get the diplomats out of Iran before they could be discovered. After dismissing several proposals, Mendez creates a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a science-fiction film.

Mendez and his C.I.A. supervisor Jack O’Donnell, contact John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who has previously crafted disguises for the C.I.A., in addition to his work in the “PLANET OF THE APES” film series. Chambers puts them in touch with a film producer named Lester Siegel. Mendez, Chambers and Siegel set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a “science fantasy” in the style of “STAR WARS” in order to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow frantic inside the ambassador’s residence. Shredded documentation from the American embassy is being reassembled, providing the militants with evidence that there are embassy personnel unaccounted for.

I am going to cut to the chase. I enjoyed “ARGO” very much. What am I saying? I really enjoyed this movie. So far, it is one of the better ones I have seen this year. Once again, Affleck knocked it out of the ballpark with a first-rate thriller that gave audiences a peek into the efforts of the C.I.A. to save those six diplomats who managed to get captured by the militants. Affleck, along with screenwriter Chris Terrio, did an excellent job in setting up the entire story from beginning to end.

One of the movie’s gem scenes featured the actual storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. It is quite obvious that Affleck, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, used a hand-held camera style to film this particular sequence. And although I am not a fan of this particular style, I must say that it suited this particular sequence very well, projecting an effective sense of chaos and panic. “ARGO” featured other memorable scenes, including Mendez’s efforts to recruit both Chambers and Siegel for his mission, a tense encounter between Taylor’s Iranian maid and intelligence officers looking for the diplomats, the humor-filled setup of the Argo Operation in Hollywood, frustrating moments in which Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan came close to shutting down Mendez’s operation, the final escape from Iran by air and a nail-biting sequence in which the same group hit the streets of Tehran for a “location scouting mission” in order to maintain their cover.

There is so much about this movie that I enjoyed that it would take an essay for me to explain in great detail. I do not have the patience for such a project, but I do have to comment on the movie’s technical aspects. Not only did Rodrigo Prieto did an excellent job in re-creating the violence and confusion of the American embassy takeover, he also captured the muted glamour and insanity of Hollywood with vivid color. I could see that a great deal of his work benefited from some outstanding editing from William Goldenberg. In fact, I really have to hand it to Sharon Seymour and her production designing team for their re-creation of the 1979-1980 period in American and Iranian history. Seymour and her team were ably assisted by Peter Borck
and Deniz Göktürk’s art direction, along with Jacqueline West’s realistic looking costume designs.

But “ARGO” would have never worked by Affleck’s outstanding direction and the talented actors and actresses that were part of the cast. Not only was I impressed by Affleck’s direction, but also his subtle performance as C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez, who did not need guns and fighting skills to accomplish his task – merely brains and nerves of steel. John Goodman was marvelous as the witty and slightly cynical make-up artist, John Chambers. He also had great chemistry with both Affleck and Alan Arkin, who portrayed the sardonic and prickly Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel. I was not that kind to Bryan Cranston in my review of “TOTAL RECALL”. But it was great to see his magic again, in his fiery and funny portrayal of Mendez’s C.I.A. supervisor, Jack O’Donnell.

“ARGO” also featured some wonderful supporting performances as well. Kyle Chandler made two brief, but very memorable appearances and President Jimmy Carter’s foul-mouthed Chief of Staff, Hamilton “Ham” Jordan. It is a pity that his role was not longer. I was also impressed by those who portrayed the besieged diplomats – the always entertaining Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé. Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane were especially memorable as a paranoid Joe Stafford and the hilariously sarcastic Lee Schatz. Victor Garber gave solid support as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who gave the diplomats refuge. And Sheila Vand was marvelous in the tense scenes that featured the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall.

Naturally, “ARGO” is not a perfect movie. Not all of it is historically accurate. This was very obvious in one shot that featured a dilapidated HOLLYWOOD sign that overlooks the Los Angeles Basin. The sign was restored to its former glory in November 1978, 14 to 15 months before Tony Mendez’s arrival in Southern California. And I found Mendez and the diplomats’ encounter with the Iranian airport security guards and escape from the country somewhat contrived and manipulative.

Flawed or not, I cannot deny that I found “ARGO” to be one of the most satisfying movies of the year. I enjoyed it that much, thanks to a first-rate script by Chris Terrio, superb direction by Affleck and an excellent cast that included John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. In the end, “ARGO” strikes me as another triumph for Affleck and his two co-producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

“THE ARTIST” (2011) Review

“THE ARTIST” (2011) Review

I must have been one of the few people who had been unaware of “THE ARTIST”, when it first hit the American movie theaters in late 2011. To be honest, I was not paying much attention to the previous awards season. I could not find a movie that aroused my interest. When I discovered that the French-American film had overcome George Clooney’s “THE DESCENDANTS”, to become the Academy Awards front-runner . . . well, color me surprised.

Michel Hazanavicius’ ode to Old Hollywood told the story of a successful silent film star named George Valentin, who seemed to be at the peak of his fame in 1927. At the premiere of his latest hit, he meets a young fan named Peppy Miller outside of the movie theater. She eventually catches the eyes of the press, when a photograph of the two appear in the newspapers, the following morning. It does not take long for Peppy’s career as a movie actress to rise. But when George’s studio boss, Al Zimmer, announces the end of Kinograph Studios’ silent movies production, the actor dismisses the news, claiming that sound is nothing but a fad. George decides to finance, produce and direct his own silent film. Both his new silent movie and Peppy’s new sound film open on the same day as the 1929 Stock Market Crash. While audiences flock to see Peppy’s new movie – making her a major Hollywood star – George’s film becomes a flop . . . and he finds himself financially ruined. Because his rejection of talkies remain steadfast, it is not long before George becomes a broke, Hollywood has been.

Within a few months, “THE ARTIST” managed to acquire near universal acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did the movie win five Academy Awards – including Best Picture, Best Director (Hazanavicius) and Best Actor for leading man Jean Dujardin; the movie also won seven BAFTA awards, six César awards, three Golden Globe awards and two awards at the Cannes Film Festival. I have not encountered a movie this universally acclaimed in years. And if I must say so, it did not deserve a single award.

That is correct. I consider “THE ARTIST” to be one of the most overrated movies I have seen in years. In fact, I find it even more overrated than the 2010 Oscar winner, “THE KING’S SPEECH”.  Perhaps I had exaggerated a bit. There were a few awards that I believe it deserved. I found Ludovic Bource’s score surprisingly impressive. I was also impressed by Mark Bridges’ award winning costume designs and Guillaume Schiffman’s nominated cinematography. And I cannot deny that I was more than impressed by Jean Dujardin’s performance as the ego-centric George Valentin. Did he deserve the Best Actor award? Personally, I would have given Gary Oldman’s performance in “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” the award. But I still believe that Dujardin gave an above-average performance. The movie also featured supporting performances and cameos from Hollywood veterans such as John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller. I thought they all gave solid performances, especially Miller and Cromwell.

Despite my feelings about the costumes, photography, the score and Dujardin’s performance, I still believe that “THE ARTIST” is an overrated movie that did not deserve most of the accolades it received. For me, it was a charming little movie with gimmicks about Old Hollywood. I would equate it at the same level as Blake Edwards’ 1988 Hollywood mystery, “SUNSET”. Okay, perhaps I am being a little cruel. Even “THE ARTIST” is better than Edwards’ film. But I find myself unable to view it as a cinematic masterpiece. For me, it was simply an entertaining, yet mediocre film.

One of the problems I had with “THE ARTIST” was that Hazanavicius’ script never explained why Valentin refused to do a talking picture. Why? Unlike Charlie Chaplin, he was not originally described as a multi-tasked Hollywood talent. Valentin was never regarded as another Emil Jennings, whose Hollywood career ended due to a thick European accent. Granted, Dujardin’s French accent struck me as somewhat thick, but it was never pointed out. And if the Valentin character really had a thick accent, his Hollywood career would have never been revived as a song-and-dance man at the movie’s conclusion. Even Fred Astaire needed a decent voice. Nor was Valentin portrayed as a another John Gilbert, whose career was destroyed by a studio boss that hated his guts. Granted, Valentin managed to annoy Zimmer in his refusal to accept talkies. But Zimmer merely regarded Valentin with mild contempt, not hatred. In the end, Valentin’s refusal to do talkies was never really explored. And this strikes me as bad writing on Hazanavicius’ part.

The movie earned a good deal of controversy when Hollywood icon Kim Novak accused composer Ludovic Bource of incorporating a portion of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film “VERTIGO”. Since I have never seen “VERTIGO”, I cannot comment on Novak’s accusation. However, I have seen “A STAR IS BORN”“SUNSET BOULEVARD”, and “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”. I noticed that “THE ARTIST” incorporated a great deal of story ideas and scenes from these movies. Unfortunately, I believe that Hazanavicius did so in an unoriginal way. Even the happy-go-lucky “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” had ten times the biting wit and a more in-depth, if slightly fictional looking into the transition to sound. Perhaps the reason I found the story hard to accept was because Hazanavicius decided to film the movie without sound. All I can say is . . . why? What was the point? I wanted a look at Old Hollywood during the late 1920s and early 1930s, not a gimmicky ode to the era.

“THE ARTIST” possessed other aspects that did not sit well with me. Hazanavicius cast his wife, French-Argentine actress Bérénice Bejo, to portray rising star Peppy Miller. Bejo received numerous nominations and a César Award for Best Actress for her performance. I cannot deny that she gave a first-rate performance. Unfortunately, she seemed like a 21st century anchorism, stuck in the early 20th century. Bejo simply looked out of place in period movie like “THE ARTIST”. Valentin’s Jack Russell terrier, Uggie, was so cute that I found myself in danger of a sugar overdose, just by simply watching. After viewing the scene in which Uggie saved Valentin from a burning house by summoning a police, I either wanted to throw up or put a bullet in that mutt. As much as I enjoyed Mark Bridges’ late 1920s costumes, I was not impressed by the costumes for the movie’s 1930s setting. Looking at Bridges’ costumes for the early sound era, I found it hard to believe that the film’s second half was set between 1930 and 1932/33. Many people enjoyed Dujardin and Bejo’s dance routine that marked the film’s conclusion. I cannot deny that I found their performance impressive. But it was also a jaw-dropping moment for me . . . and not in a good way. My mind kept reminding me that I should be applauding. Instead, I found myself silently chanting – “What the hell?”

Look, I am not claiming to dislike “THE ARTIST”. How could I? I thought it was an entertaining film about Old Hollywood. It seemed a lot of fun. But a fun movie does not automatically it make a great one. And despite the awards and accolades that it received, I cannot agree with the prevailing view that “THE ARTIST” was a great film. Not by a long shot.

“DIRTY DEEDS” (2002) Review

Below is my review of the 2002 Australian gangster movie set in the late 1960s called ”DIRTY DEEDS”

“DIRTY DEEDS” (2002) Review

Written and directed by David Caesar, the 2002 movie ”DIRTY DEEDS” is a gangster comedy about an Australian mobster who finds himself besieged by the American Mafia when his lucrative casino business, buoyed by the influx of U.S. soldiers in town for R&R during their tours in Vietnam in 1969, attracts their attention. The comedy starred Bryan Brown, Toni Collette, John Goodman, Sam Worthington and Sam Neill.

This quirky and slightly black comedy centered on an Australian mobster named Barry Ryan (Bryan Brown), who seemed to have it all in 1969. He has a successful casino business, a feisty wife named Sharon who loves him (Toni Collette); Darcy, his nephew who has just returned from military service in Vietnam (Sam Worthington) and might be a potential enforcer for him; a needy and beautiful young mistress named Margaret (Kestie Morassi); and Ray, a corrupt police officer in his pocket who can keep him out of jail (Sam Neill). However, all good things usually come to an end . . . or is threatened. And in Barry’s case, this happens when the American Mafia decides it wants a piece of Barry’s action with the casino. Even worse, Barry has to deal with a trigger-happy rival who wants to drive him out of business. The two American mobsters named Tony and Sal (John Goodman and Felix Williamson) arrive and both Sharon and Ray advise Barry to show them a good time, until he can find a way to get rid of them without attracting more unwanted attention from the Mafia. However, Darcy has also proved to be a problem. The Vietnam War veteran seemed to have no taste to become a gangster. And he ends up falling in love with Margaret, Barry’s mistress. And Margret has fallen in love with Darcy.

One of the reasons why I liked ”DIRTY DEEDS” so much was that its plot seemed character driven. I am not saying that the movie was all characterization and no plot. Oh contraire. But Caesar’s script allowed each major character’s desires and fears to drive the plot. Which I definitely enjoyed. And each character – aside from the younger American mobster portrayed by Williamson – found either their livelihoods or lives threatened. And even when certain characters end up as opponents – Barry and Tony over the former’s casino business, Barry and Darcy over Margaret, and Sharon and Margaret over Barry – I found myself rooting for them all. Once again, I have to compliment Caesar’s writing for creating a group of interesting and very complex characters. The one character who failed to win anything in the end turned out to be the trigger happy Sal, who seemed so certain of his superiority as an American and a Mafia hit man that he failed to realize that he was out of his depth before it was too late. And while watching ”DIRTY DEEDS”, I was surprised to learn that Australian soldiers had served in Vietnam during the 1960s.

I also have to give kudos to Caesar for collecting a first-rate cast. I was more than surprised to discover that Australian actor Felix Williamson had been cast in the role of Mafia hit man, Sal. Although Sal is not what one would describe as a multi-dimensional character, Williamson managed to shine in one scene that featured Sal’s chilling and arrogant revelation to Darcy about how the Mafia was able to profit from the American presence in Vietnam. Sam Neill gave a deliciously cynical performance as the corrupt and pragmatic police officer Ray, who decided to bide his time and see who would emerge as the winner in the tug-of-war between Barry and the Mafia visitors. Ketsie Morassi earned a Best Supporting Female Actor award from the Film Critics Circle of Australia for her portrayal of Margaret, Barry’s young mistress. Morassi managed to expertly transform Margaret from the desperate young mistress trying to project a sophisticated façade to the relaxed young woman who found herself falling in love with her lover’s nephew.

When I first saw the summer movie, ”TERMINATOR SALVATION”, it occurred to me that Sam Worthington looked oddly familiar. I finally recalled seeing him in my first viewing of ”DIRTY DEEDS”. In this movie, he gave a relaxed performance as Barry’s charming nephew, the Vietnam War veteran Darcy. Worthington’s Darcy was so charming and forthright that it was easy to see why Margaret fell in love with him. And why Tony started to regard him as a son. But that easy-going nature also contrasted with Darcy’s growing uneasiness that he was not cut out to be a mobster, let alone become his uncle’s new enforcer. And being the talented actor that he is, Worthington managed to convey Darcy’s angst over his relationship with Barry with great ease. John Goodman’s performance as the older Mafioso Tony seemed just as relaxed as Worthington’s performance . . . and nuanced. Unlike the arrogant Sal, his Tony is a weary gangster who has come to regret his decision not to follow in his uncle’s footsteps as a restaurant owner and become a professional criminal, instead. Although he manages to hold his own in his dealings with Barry, Tony senses a kindred spirit in Darcy and tries to prevent the younger man from following into Barry’s footsteps.

Bryan Brown was naturally at the top of his game as the ruthless, yet besieged mobster, Barry Ryan. He is probably one of the few actors I believe is capable of portraying tough and masculine types without overdoing it. And his Barry was tough and very masculine. But Brown also managed to convey Barry’s anxiety that he might not be able to fend off the American takeover of his business . . . or his insecurity over the fact that his mistress prefer a younger man over himself. If I were to choose my favorite character in this film, it would have to be Sharon Ryan, portrayed by the always talented Toni Collette. Hell, the woman almost stole the picture from everyone else as the feisty, yet supportive mobster wife, who turned out to be more ruthless than her husband. She certainly earned a well deserved Best Female Actor nomination from the Film Critics of Australia. If I had my way, I would have handed over the award to her.

By the way, I have to give kudos to production designer Chris Kennedy, art director Chris Batson, and costume designer Tess Schofield for doing an excellent job for saturating the firm in a late 1960s atmosphere. Schofield took it further by conveying the generational differences between the characters in their costumes. Whereas Barry, Tony, Ray and Sharon’s costumes reflected their generation’s more conservative tastes, Margaret and Darcy’s reflected their generation’s participation in the Swinging Sixties. Geoffrey Hall’s cinematography struck me as pretty solid, but I cannot help but wonder how he felt about a certain scene that I found questionable. I am referring to the sequence that jumped back and forth between Tony and Sal’s participation in Barry’s boar hunt in the Outback and Barry’s Michael Corleone’s style murders of the Americans’ allies – his rivals and a traitor in his organization – back in Sydney. Frankly, it did not work for me. I now understand that Tony and Sal’s boar hunting was supposed to serve as a metaphor of Barry’s hunt of his enemies. But the whole sequence struck me as a bit sloppy and confusing . . . and I could have done without it.

Despite my one quibble about the movie, I can honestly say that I really enjoyed ”DIRTY DEEDS”. David Caesar had written and directed quirky and entertaining movie about Australian criminals and the effects of the Vietnam War in 1969. The movie’s cast and the production crew also did an excellent job of projecting the movie’s 1960s setting. I had enjoyed this movie so much that I am now searching for a DVD copy of it to buy. I only hope that I do not have to wait too long.