They're all popular films, so let's get right into the reviews.
Sam Mende’s debut film, the tragic dark comedy American Beauty, was a sensation when it was released in 1999. With its vibrant colors in suburbia reminiscent of a Douglas Sirk film, Beauty had such potential to be one of the classics.
But the only elements that stand out are the performances, though there are only a couple of those. Kevin Spacey was deserving of his Oscar, and gives a brilliant turn as the anti-father of the year, Lester Burnham. Chris Cooper gives a strong supporting turn, as well. But with the good come the bad, with Annette Bening somewhere in between with her over-the-top performance as Lester’s wife. The rest of the cast simply walks around like drones, depressed for one reason or the other. Daddy doesn’t love me! I’m a wannabe-slut cheerleader! My dad’s a pervert!
The root of American Beauty’s failure lies in Alan Ball’s screenplay, which some have called witty and exceptional. When it really boils down to it, the script and the film are one word: pretentious. Ladies and gentlemen, I point you to Exhibit A: the paper bag scene, performed by Wes Bentley like a high school drama student (“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like…my heart’s going to cave in.”). It’s this overanalysis of its scenarios and characters that drags the film down. There is no need to analyze a paper bag. It’s a paper bag, end of story.
American Beauty is an empty effort. The cinematography by Conrad L. Hall is breathtaking, as are a few performances. But no matter how original or clever Ball’s screenplay tries to make itself out to be, the film has no pulse. Sam Mendes invites us to ‘Look Closer…’ at one of the dullest of Best Picture winners.
Ceremony Tidbit: 55 statuettes went missing before the ceremony, with all but three recovered before the show. In actuality, 4 were stolen, and now belong to Sam Mendes, producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, and Alan Ball.
Braveheart (1995) - 3.5 stars
Braveheart is a guy’s film, with a laminated ‘No Girls Allowed’ sign posted somewhere in the opening credits. But you have to hand it to director/star/producer Mel Gibson, who at least tries to give women what they want by having a small romantic angle in the first act…even if it does fail. The film drags along for most of its first hour with its atypical epic movie romance and clunky delivery.
The battle scenes are spectacular and will have most fellas cheering--the work of a man with passion for his projects. Though it’s this passion that seems to deter the film from being great. Gibson’s over-enthusiasm for the project is obvious, and most of the film seems to be the director dying to let us know he’s paying homage to the great epics that the Academy has eaten up in the past.
Watching Braveheart is sort of like watching a classic of the genre. It is filled with patriotism, historical innacuracies, a fairly dull romance, and some stiff acting. But don’t be confused. Braveheart is a fine film, one fueled by passion and mayhem, love and squalor.
Oscar Tidbit: Braveheart topped Empire Magazine’s list of 10 Worst Oscar Winners, beating out A Beautiful Mind, The Greatest Show on Earth, and Ordinary People, among others.
Forrest Gump (1994) - 4.5 stars
Forrest Gump is a magical film directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), often hated for being overly sentimental and typical Oscar-bait. Sure, it’s a bit manipulative, but we’ve forgiven that by the end, as we undoubtedly supply the Kleenex Corporation with more bank.
The film covers the Alabama-born Gump from his days of teaching Elvis some tricks, to his courageous days in Vietnam, to his comedic encounters with JFK, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Realistic? Far from it, but who needs realism when you can’t get a smile off of your face? Gump captures the spirit of the times, and the emotion of the heart.
Gump is a unique film, with no real story or villain in sight. Even so, it’s an emotionally involving film that works on more levels than most Best Picture winners.
Ceremony Tidbit: Ceremony host and late-night jokester David Letterman secured his spot as one of the worst hosts the Awards have ever had. His infamous “Uma, Oprah. Uma, Oprah” bit alone made him look simpler than Gump himself.
Gladiator (2000) - 1.5 stars
“Are you not entertained?” Maximum shouts to the Roman spectators in the Colosseum. I don’t know about them, but us at home? Not so much.
Talented cast; check. Great action director; check. Epic scale; check. So what went wrong?
Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix are fine actors, and two highly sought-after stars. But their acting skills are put to the side, because after all, this is an action movie…and a bad one at that. The two leads don’t seem to care about strong performances and are more focused on a personal challenge of who is more dramatic. Phoenix got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for a performance fit for Broadway…or off-off Broadway. Crowe took home the lead trophy for a simple shift in the accent. Kirk Douglas he certainly is not.
Ridley Scott has directed some of the finest action films in recent cinema. Alien alone is enough to put him towards the top. But here, Scott is too ambitious, even for a project of such epic proportions. Scott goes to great lengths with Gladiator, when all he has to show for it is a simplistic revenge story we’ve seen before.
Even Scott’s battle sequences are dull, even with the camera noticing every flesh wound. Every fight is overblown with buckets of blood—but they’d have to be to distract us from the paper-thin plot. The film works much better as a How-To on filming such scenes than it does as a revenge story.
Yes, the film is visually brutal and handled with vicious intensity. But Gladiator is little more than a third-rate Spartacus, and somewhere on the same level as an HBO movie.
Ceremony Tidbit: Gladiator was the first film since 1949’s All the King’s Men to win Best Picture but not win Best Director and/or Best Screenplay. That’s because it’s terrible.
The Godfather (1972) - 5 stars
A positive review of The Godfather is like a negative review of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s obvious, we know it’s coming, but it has to be done.
The Godfather legacy began in 1969 when Mario Puzo’s wordy yet engaging novel was published. Three years later, the soon-to-be-heralded film was released.
Who can forget the stories about the production from hell? Brando’s reliance on cue cards, Pacino’s fear of being fired, and the constant near-replacements of Coppola.
And who can forget the characters, most of which made it to Pt. II and a few who lasted ‘til Pt. III 18 years later. Michael (Pacino), “Joe College”, who gets mixed in the business after his father, Vito (Brando), is gunned down. Or Sonny (James Caan), who defends his sister’s (Talia Shire) honor like his own. Or the other supporting players, from the naïve Kay (Diane Keaton) to the fragile Fredo (John Cazale)
The Godfather isn’t just a film anymore. It’s an event. Some networks air it every Christmas—you’re telling me you’d rather watch that crazy marathon of A Christmas Story?
Now with The Sopranos and the newly released The Godfather: The Game, the film seems to be born-again, making an encore presentation for new audiences to love.
Ceremony Tidbit: Do we really need to get into the whole Sacheen Littlefeather thing?
Terms of Endearment (1983) - 3 stars
Terms of Endearment is about one step up from a Lifetime movie of the week. Granted, it’s a big step, but Terms is still fairly generic, and has nearly every Lifetime/Oxygen MOW staple there is: adultery, death, divorce, terminal illness, and yes, a slight hint of lesbianism.
Shirley MacLaine gives a moving, yet funny performance as the glue that keeps the Greenway clan together. For her wonderful portrayal as Aurora, she won a Best Actress Oscar, while Smilin’ Jack simply Nicholsoned his way into a Best Supporting Actor statue.
So while some performance are grandslams, and others strike out, the chemistry is what makes this a winning film. MacLaine and Nicholson, in particular, keep the film going when its running time becomes exhausting.
Terms runs a bit longer than it needs to, and at 132 minutes, the viewer may be wishing for a commercial break that is a longtime comin’.
The film has an episodic rhythm to it that feels like scenes were cut. Director James L. Brooks’ answer to his lack of story? Fade out/Fade in, of course.
Terms of Endearment is a film that will please any woman, and catch any man off-guard. With its realistic yet simplistic screenplay (by director Brooks) and touching story, Terms of Endearment is a generic tearjerker and a half.
Ceremony Tidbit: After being announced as Best Actress, Shirley Maclaine reportedly whispered to co-nominee Debra Winger, “Half of this belongs to you,” to which Winger replied, “I’ll take half.”
Titanic (1997) - 3.5 stars
I was one of the 19 people in America that didn’t see Titanic back in 1997. In fact, this was the first time I had seen it, which was probably for the better. Had I see it during its initial run, my view could have been easily washed over by waves of critical and financial praise.
Both Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are soap opera-bad. Winslet gives a particularly stagy performance.
James Cameron can’t direct romance to save his life…or those of 1,500 other people. But wait…the boat still has to sink, right? Sorry for the spoilers. But while Cameron is worthless when it comes to crafting an actual relationship, his action sequences are top-notch.
The film has its flaws, but Titanic isn’t the disaster you may be expecting.
Ceremony Tidbit: Upon receiving the Best Director/Best Picture Oscars, James Cameron belted, “I’m the king of the world!” This is still true today, if IMAX documentaries and cameos on Entourage make you eligible for King of the World status.
Commentary with Director Sam Mendes and Writer Alan Ball: Though it has its share of pauses, this is a very insightful commentary from the Oscar-winners. They cover the alternate ending, making the film, and discuss the symbolism the film has to offer. Mendes and Ball really help the viewer appreciate the film more…but it’s still 2 stars!
Look Closer... (21:51) is a behind-the-scenes featurette that, well, looks closer into the film. We have some of the cast and crew sitting down to chat about the success and impact the film had. Steven Spielberg makes an appearance as well to gloat about the script. Runs a bit long and is pretty standard, except for Spacey’s terrific cheerleader dance.
Storyboard Presentation (61:16) with Sam Mendes and now-deceased DP Conrad L. Hall. This was actually quite interesting, even if it is a bit long. But Mendes and Hall take us through most of the film’s storyboards and how they were brought to life. This features is great for aspiring filmmakers and definitely highlights the disc.
And rounding out American Beauty are 2 Theatrical Trailers, Cast & Crew, and Production Notes, along with some DVD-ROM throwaways.
Braveheart - 2.5 stars
Commentary by director Mel Gibson: Gibson goes solo on his first commentary, providing background information on the real William Wallace, as well as stories of the production days. Many pauses throughout which gets a bit frustrating, but you may want to skip around a bit.
A Filmmaker’s Passion (28:05): The BTS footage alone is worth sitting through…as well as seeing Gibson cleaned up a bit. The director and writer Randall Wallace (no relation) acknowledge the inaccuracies and depths of historians’ view of William Wallace. It’s nice to see the filmmakers show their passion not only for their film, but the historical inspirations.
And of course, Theatrical Trailers.
Forrest Gump - 5 stars
Commentary by Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey, and Rick Carter: Each man covers their area of expertise with sincerity. Worth a listen.
Commentary by Wendy Finerman: Who? Finerman is the producer of Gump. This is a pretty weak commentary and has too many gaps to recommend.
DISC 2 “Behind the Magic of…”
Through the Eyes of… (30:04): A half-hour documentary covering the making of the film, including interviews with director Robert Zemeckis, stars Sally Field and Tom Hanks, among others. While this is mostly a promotional piece assembled back in 1994, it’s quite entertaining and provides some making-of facts, and if you had any trouble seeing the magic in Forrest Gump, this feature will help you find it.
Building the World of Gump (7:18): Production designer Rick Carter goes into great detail on the film’s sets and shooting locations. Carter’s admiration for the film makes this featurette a nice addition.
Seeing is Believing: The Visual Effects of… is a piece on how they accomplished the groundbreaking special effects of the film. There are 11 scenes (some not featured in the film) each running a few minutes long, from Lt. Dan’s legs to George Wallace, each introduced and explained by visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston. One of the best deleted scenes is a comedic run-in with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Through the Ears of… is another effects piece, this time covering the sound of Gump. Sound designer Randy Thom introduces the five clips with in-depth knowledge. Astonishing to see (or hear) how much work goes into something that the audience will typically ignore.
The Magic of Makeup (8:01): Makeup artist and Academy Award nominee Dan Striepeke talks about how he got involved in the picture (he worked on Dragnet, of course!) and kisses the feet of his partners on the “masterful job” they did.
Gladiator - 3 stars
Commentary with director Ridley Scott, DP John Mathieson, and editor Pietro Scalia: Each individual seems to be an expert on the film and provides much detail. They delve into the obstacles they faced, building the sets, insight into the story, and much more that is typically put into commentaries. Nothing too special.
Deleted Scenes with optional director commentary: If you hated the film (like many did), you can skip the 8 deleted scenes. Each comes with a picture and explanation, which should get you through it in a timelier manner. They seem to be cut strictly for pacing issues, though one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find a dozen more in the theatrical version. The final “scene” is a montage of footage cut to Hans Zimmer’s decent score, called The Treasure Chest. Better than the entire film, if you ask me.
My Gladiator Journal is just what it sounds like. Young Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius) kept a collection of writings about his experiences working on such a big film. A bit lengthy, but a fascinating read. Definitely worth a look.
Finishing up this disc are Storyboards for a number of sequences, including an Arena Fight, a Still Gallery divided into 6 sections, Production Notes, and Cast & Crew biographies.
The Godfather - 1.5 stars
Commentary by director Francis Ford Coppola: Coppola is one of the more enthusiast filmmakers to contribute to commentaries. Here, he is lively and passionate, diving into production stories (of course, constantly mention his near-firings) and personal stories of his cast, crew, and family. A perfect piece to watch immediately after the film.
Terms of Endearment - 1.5 stars
Commentary by director James L. Brooks, co-producer Penney Finkelman Cox, and production designer Polly Platt: Like hearing old friends reminisce about one of the highpoints in their lives. The crew provides a soothing atmosphere. A few gaps, but nothing to make you want to fast forward. Worth a listen.
And a Theatrical Trailer.
Titanic - 1 star
Original Theatrical Trailer. Woo!