“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

08.12.28

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2005 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. 

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie is more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that “THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – “COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick. 

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony. 

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt. The movie earned thirteen (13) Academy Award nominations and won three (3). I have no problems with the Oscars that it won, since they turned out to be in the technical categories. But I must admit that it is one of the top twenty (20) movies I had first seen back in 2008.

 

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“DALLAS” Season One (1978): Episodes Ranking

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The first season of the CBS television series, “DALLAS”, aired during the month of April 1978. This premiere season only featured five episode and is regarded by some as a complete miniseries, instead of a season. I regard these five episodes as an entire season and below is my ranking of those seasons:

 

“DALLAS” Season One (1978): Episodes Ranking

(1.05) “Barbecue” – A rehash of the Ewing-Barnes feud, an announcement regarding the Ewing dynasty and a tragedy all combine in this first-rate episode about the Ewings’ barbecue for family, neighbors and friends.

(1.03) “Spy in the House” – Oldest Ewing sibling J.R. suspects Pamela Barnes’ marriage to younger brother Bobby as a ruse, when information regarding a political/business colleague finds itself into the hands of his rival, Cliff Barnes.

(1.01) “Digger’s Daughter” – In this well-made pilot episode, the Ewings are surprised by the marriage of Bobby to Pamela, the only daughter of Jock Ewing’s old rival, Digger Barnes.

(1.04) “Winds of Vengeance” – In this tense-filled episode, a hurricane threatens Southfork, when two men arrive and take the Ewing women, J.R. and foreman Ray Krebbs hostage in retribution for the latter two’s affairs with the women in their lives.

(1.02) “The Lesson” – In this somewhat interesting episode, Pam attempts to win acceptance at Southfork by intervening in Lucy’s life; when she discovers that the Ewings’ only grandchild has been skipping school and having an affair with Ray.

Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“THE TERMINATOR” (1984) Review

“THE TERMINATOR” (1984) Review

Back in 1984, director James Cameron and his fellow co-writers, Gale Anne Hurd and William Wisher Jr., created a science-fiction thriller about a time traveling cyborg assassin in a movie called “THE TERMINATOR”. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield; the movie not only spawned four movie sequels within the next thirty-one years, but also a television series and video games.

The story began in post-apocalypse world of 2029 where artificially intelligent machines controlled by a computer system called Skynet are bent upon the extermination of the human race. Two beings from this era are sent back to 1984 – a “Terminator” or a cyborg assassin (Schwarzenegger) programmed to kill a young woman named Sarah Connor (Hamilton); and a human resistance fighter named Kyle Reese (Biehn) charged with protecting her. Sarah happened to be the future mother of the human resistance leader named John Connor. After the Terminator killed two women with the same name as hers, Sarah came to the conclusion that she might be next on the list of some serial killer. Both the Terminator and Kyle manage to track her to a West Los Angeles nightclub, where Kyle manages to save her from being killed by the cyborg. He eventually told Sarah the truth about her destiny and the reason behind the Terminator’s hunt for her.

What can I say about “THE TERMINATOR”? That it is a first-rate science-fiction thriller that has every right to be considered a Hollywood classic? Well . . . yes. It is. For a movie that has a running time of 103 minutes, it is filled with action, pathos, romance, horror and history. Director James Cameron has stated that “THE TERMINATOR” was inspired by two episodes from the 1960s television science fiction series, “THE OUTER LIMITS”“Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” – both written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Cameron, Hurd and Wisher did such a great job with their story that Ellison threatened to sue them for plagiarism. The movie’s production company and distributor, Hemdale Film Corporation and Orion Pictures, gave him an “acknowledgement to the works of” credit on video and cable releases of “THE TERMINATOR”, as well as a cash settlement of an undisclosed amount.

The movie also boasts some pretty good dark humor – especially in scenes featuring the two Los Angeles detectives (Winfield and Henriksen) determined to save Sarah’s life; and the criminal psychiatrist (Earl Boen), who manages to avoid the carnage at the police station where Sarah and Kyle were taken after their arrest. I also enjoyed some of the action sequences that were well staged by Cameron – Sarah and Kyle’s attempts to escape from both the police and the Terminator on the streets of Los Angeles, the cyborg’s attack upon the police station, its murder of Sarah’s roommate Ginger and the latter’s boyfriend; and the Terminator’s last confrontation with Sarah and Kyle. But my favorite scene featured the Terminator’s attempt to kill Sarah at Technoir, the West Los Angeles nightclub. Not only did it bring back memories of the 1980s for me, I thought it was well staged and acted, despite very little dialogue. The entire sequence was enhanced by the Tahnee Cain & Tryanglz song, “Burning in the Third Degree”.

As much as I enjoyed “THE TERMINATOR”, I had some problems with it. One problem I had were the Los Angeles location sites in the movie. I realize that Cameron did not have a large budget for the film. But did he have to shoot nearly every scene in the eastern half of downtown Los Angeles? Aside from a residential street, the exterior of Sarah’s West Los Angeles apartment, the location where the Terminator meets the three thugs (that include Cameron favorite, Bill Paxton) and the street outside of the Technoir nightclub, just about all of the exterior scenes were shot in the scummy part of downtown L.A. He even used that particular area to serve as West Los Angeles. And how on earth could Sarah Connor, who was a waitress, afford to live in a slightly upscale West L.A. apartment building? The only excuse I have is that her roommate Ginger Ventura (Bess Motta) had wealthy parents. And where did Sarah and Kyle go after their escape from the carnage at the police station? It looked as if they were leaving Los Angeles. Yet, when the Terminator managed to track them down to a motel, it looked as if they had returned to downtown Los Angeles. One last problem I had was – and I cannot believe I am saying this – the character of Kyle Reese. He seemed to have lost any common sense whatsoever, while being held by the police. Instead of keeping his mouth shut or spinning a lie about how he came to Sarah’s rescue from a killer at the Technoir, he tried to warn the cops about the Terminator and the future apocalypse . . . as if they could do anything about it. I can only assume that the last 24 hours and time travel had affected his brain patterns. Because I found his attempt to warn the cops rather stupid.

Arnold Schwarzenegger led the cast as the cybernetic killer, the Terminator. What did I think of his performance? Hmmm . . . by only saying a few words, he managed to convey the image of a ruthless and efficient killer. Otherwise, I found nothing spectacular about his performance. Michael Biehn was intense as the time traveling Resistance fighter, Kyle Reese. There were moments when he threatened to sail into the waters of hammy acting – his scenes at the police station are prime examples – but I thought he gave a first-rate performance. I was really impressed by Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor, the mother of future Resistance leader, John Connor. She managed to skillfully develop the role of Sarah from a slightly mild-mannered and girlish young Californian to a tough and wiser woman determined to survive the future for the sake of her unborn son. Earl Boen – who will end up appearing the next two movies – gave a snide and funny performance as police psychologist, Dr. Peter Silberman, who abandoned all semblance of delicacy to express his belief of Kyle’s lunacy. Both Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen made a funny and sarcastic screen team as Ed Traxler and Hal Vukovich, the two L.A.P.D. detectives who traded insulting barbs, while trying their best to prevent Sarah from being killed. And if you are careful, you might spot future star, Bill Paxton, who ended up appearing in a few other James Cameron productions.

“THE TERMINATOR” is considered one of the best science-fiction movies of all time and among the two best films in the franchise. Do I believe that it deserved this kind of accolade? Well, it is one of my two favorite TERMINATOR films. As for it being one of the best science-fiction movies ever made . . . no. Not quite in my book. I do believe that it is one of the best movies that feature the topic of time travel. In the end, “THE TERMINATOR” is an entertaining and original film that I never get tired of watching. Kudos to James Cameron for kick-starting a well-made franchise.

“DREAMGIRLS” (2006) Review

“DREAMGIRLS” (2006) Review

When I first learned that “DREAMGIRLS”’ eight Academy Award nominations did not include one for Best Picture and a Best Director nod for Bill Condon, it seemed pretty odd to me. The movie, based upon the 1981 Broadway musical, had already won plenty of accolades – including a Best Musical/Comedy Picture and two other Golden Globe awards. Was it possible that “DREAMGIRLS” had failed to live up to its hype?

Several movie critics, including one for “The New York Times” claimed that this might be the case. This critic and others went on to say that although “DREAMGIRLS” was a pretty good movie, it lacked the qualities to be considered as a nominee for Best Picture. Since I had yet to see “DREAMGIRLS”, I began to wonder if my sister – who had highly recommended the movie – had exaggerated its good qualities.

Last weekend, I finally saw “DREAMGIRLS”. Needless to say, I feel that my sister had not exaggerated. The movie not only possessed a rich, in-depth look at the music industry for African-Americans in the 1960s and 70s, it can also boast fine performances and a very unusual direction.

The cast, which included Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover and Jennifer Hudson. Foxx, Knowles and Glover all did competent jobs in their respective roles. I was especially surprised to see Foxx (usually seen in comedy roles and Oscar winner for his portrayal of Ray Charles) portray villainous record producer Curtis Taylor Jr. in such a subtle, yet intimidating manner. Knowles proved that she can be a competent actress – especially in two scenes that feature her character’s (lead singer Deena Jones) growing resentment toward Taylor’s control over her career and life. It was good to see Glover in a substantial role again, after so many years. He was his usual competent self as the more conservative manager of Eddie Murphy’s character, James “Thunder” Early. Another character connected to the Early role was Lorrell Robinson, portrayed by Anika Noni Rose. I must admit that Rose’s portrayal of the young, star-struck Lorrell seemed a little hammy and unconvincing. Fortunately, her performance improved, as her character matured.

Two of the best things about “DREAMGIRLS” turned out to be the show-stopping performances of Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson as R&B singer, James “Thunder” Early and the Dreams’ real talent Effie White. Not only have both performers won Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, both have received Oscar nominations for the same categories. Murphy bypassed his usual comedic performances to portray James Early, a R&B singer doomed to have his raw talent being slowly squeezed to death by Curtis Taylor’s ambition for acceptance by the white audience in 1960s/70s America. Not only did Murphy give a brilliant performance as the doomed Early, he also proved that he could be a knock-out musical talent. “DREAMGIRLS” must have seemed like sweet revenge for Chicago native, Jennifer Hudson. After being dismissed by “American Idol” judges halfway into competition, Hudson managed to win the role of Effie White, a talented and mercurial singer forced to deal with rejection by Taylor because of her“soulful” voice and physical appearance. Hudson’s show-stopping performance of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”combined the best of her acting ability and magnificent voice, and may have possibly rivaled Jennifer Holliday’s performance of the same song in the Broadway version.

Not only did “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” beautifully showcased Jennifer Hudson’s talent, it also proved a theory of mine. I once told a friend that singing in front of a live audience took more than simply holding a microphone and singing. To get the song across to the audience, the performer needed to act out the meaning behind the song through facial expressions and body language. Such expressions through song has been shown before on both the screen and stage, but Hudson took it to a level that left me breathless . . . and almost crying. Not only did the song’s lyrics expressed Effie White’s desperation to maintain Curtis Taylor’s love, but her facial expression and body language effectively did so, as well. I also have to commend Knowles, Foxx, Rose, Keith Robinson (who played Effie’s songwriter brother C.C.) and Sharon Leal (who played Effie’s replacement, Michelle Morris) for their performances in a scene in which they all express their hostility and resentment toward Effie’s volatile behavior. For a moment, I thought I was watching an operetta.

In fact, one felt the sense of watching an operetta, instead of the usual musical. Since the Astaire/Rogers series of the 1930s, movie musicals have perfected the art of movie dialogue seamlessly segueing in a song. In “DREAMGIRLS”, not only does the dialogue segue into song, but sometimes segue back into dialogue in the middle of a song. Or . . . two characters would end either do the following: 1) interrupt the dialogue with a few lines of song; or 2) switch back and forth between song and dialogue. This made “DREAMGIRLS” feel like no other movie musical I have ever seen and I have to commend director Bill Condon for creating this unusual style for any musical.

Now, I find myself back to thinking about the Academy Award nominations. Were those critics right to believe that the Academy was right to withhold Best Picture and Best Director nominations for “DREAMGIRLS”? In the end, those critics are entitled to their own opinions. I had learned from another source that “DREAMGIRLS” had enough votes from the Academy members to receive a Best Picture nomination. But from my personal view, all I can say is . . . ”What the hell was the Academy thinking?”

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.

 

2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.

 

Rush-2013

 

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.

 

4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

 

5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.

 

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.

 

7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.

 

8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.

 

9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.

 

10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.

“ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (1976) Review

“ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (1976) Review

Last May and June marked the fortieth anniversary of a well-known historical event – namely the Watergate burlaries. The ensuing scandal were investigated by two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The pair’s investigations were eventually chronicled in a best-selling book and later, a 1976 movie based upon the book.

As many know, five men were arrested by the police for breaking and entering the Democratic National Committee office at theWatergate Hotel during the early hours of June 17, 1972. At least two other break-ins had occurred. But the arrests of Bernard Barker, Vergilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martínez, Frank Sturgis, and James McCord caught the attention of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their investigations – along with those from Time Magazine and The New York Times – of a series of crimes committed on behalf of the Nixon Administration led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August 1974 and a best-selling book that chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigations.

Robert Redford bought the rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book for $450,000 with the notion to adapt it into a film, with him serving as producer. Redford had no intention of acting in “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN”. But someone at Warner Brothers agreed to release the film only if he co-starred in it. Redford agreed to portray Bob Woodward. He also brought aboard Alan J. Pakula as the film’s director and William Goldman as screenwriter. Redford, Pakula and producer Walter Coblenz hired Dustin Hoffman to portray Carl Bernstein. When Post executive editor Ben Bradlee realized that the film was going to be made with or without his approval; he, Woodward and Bernstein made a great effort to serve as the film’s technical advisers. Bradlee hoped that the movie would have a positive impact upon the public’s view on journalism.

After viewing “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (for the umpteenth time), it occurred to me Bradlee’s hope may have come true. At least for a while. The movie was very effective in conveying the dogged investigation that Woodward and Bernstein underwent to uncover the Watergate scandal. Mind you, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” only chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation from the arrest of the men involved, to their discovery of Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman‘s involvement, and finally to January 20, 1973; the day of Nixon’s second inauguration. In other words, it covered only the first seven months of the scandal, unlike Woodward and Bernstein’s book. And the phrase – “Follow the money” – had been invented for the movie. It was never featured in the book.

But who cares about these minor differences? “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” still managed to be a superb look into both the investigative process for journalists (something that today’s journalists need to study). It also provided great character studies of both Woodward and Bernstein, their interaction as a team, and also those whom they worked for at the Washington Post – especially Ben Bradlee, Harry M. Rosenfeld, and Howard Simmons. One of the more positive aspects of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation in the movie dealt with the journalists’ handling of the various people they interviewed. I really found it fascinating – especially the scenes that featured the team’s interactions with Judy Hoback , Hugh Sloan Jr., Donald Segretti and W. Mark Felt aka “Deep Throat”.

Even though Pakula and Goldman went through a great deal on focusing upon the movie’s portrayals of the characters – major and minor, it never eluded the fact that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation was all about the Watergate break-in and the Nixon Administration. What I found amazing about the movie’s plotting was that it did not focus on Nixon and his men right away. To emphasize the pair’s dogged investigation – especially from their point of view – the movie slowly but firmly widened the spotlight from that final break-in in June 1972 to the array of tricks, plots and crimes that members of the Nixon Administration planned to ensure the President’s re-election in November.

David Shire’s score for “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” struck me as subtle and very fitting for the movie’s themes of subterfuge, paranoia and secrets, while I was watching the film. But I have to be honest . . . it did not strike me as particularly memorable. On the other hand, I was more than impressed by Gordon Willis’ photography. I enjoyed his use of shadows, especially in the scenes that featured Woodward’s meetings with “Deep Throat”. I also enjoyed his use of deep focus photography. I found them very effective in the Washington Post scenes. More than anything, I enjoyed how Willis gave the movie, especially the exterior shots of Washington D.C. a natural look that was the hallmark of 1970s cinema.

But I cannot talk about “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” without discussing the movie’s performances. I tried to think of one performance that seemed out of step or simply bad. And I realized that I could not. The movie featured some truly outstanding performances. One, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” featured cameo performances from those who were known at the time or future stars. First-rate performances came from the likes of Polly Holliday, Ned Beatty, Penny Fuller, Carl Franklin, Valerie Curtin, John McMartin, Lindsay Crouse, Allyn Ann McLerie and Meredith Baxter. But there were supporting performances that I found exceptional. Stephen Collins gave a wonderfully subtle performance as Hugh Sloan Jr., the Republican aide who was disgusted by the illegal activities of the Nixon Administration. Martin Balsam was great as Post editor Howard Simmons, one of those who had nurtured the careers of younger journalists like Woodward and Bernstein. And I especially enjoyed Jack Warden’s colorful portrayal of Harry Rosenfeld, the Post editor that oversaw the Watergate coverage. Jane Alexander received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as Judy Hoback, a bookeeper for CRP. She deserved the attention, thanks to her ability to convey Hoback’s jittery personality in such a subtle manner. And Jason Robards won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of Ben Bradlee. I thought his portrayal of Bradlee would be all over the map. Much to my delight, he managed to keep it tight and entertaining at the same time.

Aside from director Alan J. Pakula, the two men who really held this movie together like glue were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. They were superb as Woodward and Bernstein. It seemed a pity that neither was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. Then again, if that had happened, their nominations would have guaranteed the victory of a third party. If I had my way, I would have allowed them to share the award. Both Redford and Hoffman were like a well-oiled team. The actors not only delved into the individual personalities of their characters, but also made it easy for moviegoers to see how two such men disparate men became such an effective journalistic team. They made one of the best on-screen acting team I have ever seen . . . period. And it is a pity that people rarely acknowledge this.

I am not saying that “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” is a flawless film. There is no such thing as a movie that is flawless in my eyes. However, the only flaws that come to mind is that the movie only covered the first seven months of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation and it utilized a phrase that was never used in real life or featured in the 1974 book. Otherwise, I feel that “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” is one of the best movies to be released in the 1970s. And to this day, I find it hard to believe that of all movies, it turned out to be “ROCKY” that beat it for the Best Picture Oscar.