Across the Universe brings The Beatles music to life. Much like Mamma Mia!, the movie is a jukebox musical that uses over 33 Beatles songs incorporated into the story. The difference is Across the Universe was never a stage production. Even though director Julie Taymor got her start in theater. Across the Universe would’ve honestly made more sense on Broadway, because there are so many songs jammed into a 2 hour & 13 minute movie. Across the Universe bombed hard at the box-office and I have no memory of it coming out.
Characters are loosely tied together, underdeveloped, and their story is very standard. Across the Universe takes place in the 1960’s during Vietnam with characters named after Beatles songs. Jim Sturgess plays Jude from Liverpool, Evan Rachel Wood plays Lucy from America, and Joe Anderson plays her brother Max. Jude falls for Lucy and Max tries to avoid being drafted. They’re joined by a Bohemian assortment of hippies including T.V. Carpio as closet lesbian Prudence, Dana Fuchs as sexy singer Sadie, and Martin Luther McCoy as the Hendrix-like Jo-Jo.
Plus cameos from Bono, Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, and even Salma Hayek. They’re all pretty aimless and free-loving, but they do protest the war. Everything else is centered around musical performances. Some renditions are great and others can’t compare to the original. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” works as a draft song, but “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” doesn’t work as a somber coming out song. One thing Taymor gets right are the trippy and often psychedelic visuals. Across the Universe honors the legacy of The Beatles, but it could’ve used more work.
Hippies sing “Because”
The Reader, I haven’t seen The Reader… until just now. 2008 was a big year for Kate Winslet. She was critically acclaimed in both Revolutionary Road and The Reader. Winning 2 Golden Globes for Best Actress – Drama and Best Supporting Actress for each respective film. Unfortunately, the Academy Awards only recognized her for Best Actress in The Reader. I haven’t seen Revolutionary Road, but The Reader was a very deserving win. Her performance was the most acclaimed part of the movie, since the controversial subject matter was polarizing. Oscar nominated director Stephen Daldry is no stranger to it.
Though The Reader was still nominated for Best Picture with producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack both tragically receiving posthumous nominations. The Reader is based on German novel Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink. Like The Graduate or Harold and Maude, Michael Berg is a 15 year old teenager who enters a passionate love affair with the much older Hanna Schmitz. The Reader is very erotic in the first half as the R rating is exclusively for nudity and sexuality. Winslet is no stranger to nudity, but it’s surprising how much of it she commits to. Their relationship is wrong, but the young David Kross is equally worthy of praise as the confused youngster.
Michael reads to Hanna and it’s only years later that we discover the shocking reason behind it. Hanna is revealed to be a former SS guard for the Nazi Party in a trial for war crimes. A sympathetic portrayal of someone involved in the Holocaust is tricky to say the least. Lena Olin has a dual performance as two of the concentration camp survivors. Adolf Hitler actor Bruno Ganz plays a Jewish professor who leads the law program that Michael attends. Though the cast is mostly German, Winslet is convincing as the older German woman keeping a secret. Ralph Fiennes is dependable as an older Michael, but it’s still Kross who gives the more conflicted performance of the two. The Reader is an engaging character study about the power of reading.
Michael reads to Hanna
Atonement is a tragic period romance. Based on the Ian McEwan book of the same name, director Joe Wright faithfully adapted the original story. Atonement is a book turned movie about writing a book. It was nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design. Only winning for a Best Original Score that incorporates the sound of a typewriter. Atonement takes place in a beautifully shot 1930’s England. At only 13 years old, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan got her first Oscar nomination playing English aspiring novelist Briony.
Though she shares the role with two other actresses, Ronan makes the strongest impression as the mature, yet naive daughter of wealthy aristocrats. Atonement was Wright’s second feature after Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightly taking part in another period romance. She’s a classic beauty who makes an impression wearing an iconic green dress. Cecilia is Briony’s older sister in love with her childhood friend Robbie. James McAvoy has excellent chemistry with Knightly. Though Briony is jealous of her sister and misinterprets every romantic encounter that they have. A very young Juno Temple plays a visiting cousin and a before he was famous Benedict Cumberbatch plays a chocolatier friend of the family.
Briony falsely accuses Robbie of an unspeakable crime and she spends the rest of her life trying to atone for it. The movie transitions into World War II with Robbie escaping prison by becoming a soldier and Cecilia becoming a nurse. WWII is equally well shot with an impressive single take of Dunkirk. An 18 year old Briony also becomes a nurse played by an equally dedicated Romola Garai. Briony seems to atone when Cecilia and Robbie are reunited, but reality tells a different story. Though her scenes are brief, Vanessa Redgrave is a much older Briony who reveals a heart wrenching twist. Atonement gives the writer and the audience the happy ending they desire.
Cecilia waits outside
As Good as it Gets is better than good. It’s one a few romantic comedies good enough to be nominated for Best Picture. It might’ve stood a chance of winning if not for the unstoppable force that was Titanic. Ironically, both movies happen to feature a nude drawing scene. As Good as it Gets is the last film from director James L. Brooks to receive Oscar attention. Brooks managed to direct Jack Nicholson to a third Academy Award win after Terms of Endearment. Nicholson winning Best Actor and Helen Hunt winning Best Actress make them the most current co-stars to win for the same movie. Surprisingly, every female lead won an Oscar alongside Nicholson since Louise Fletcher won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shirley MacLaine won for Terms of Endearment.
Melvin Udall is a perfect character for Nicholson that could’ve missed the mark in the wrong hands. Melvin is a romance novelist who hates and insults literally everybody. His obsessive-compulsive idiosyncrasies include keeping his hands clean, not stepping on cracks, and eating at the same restaurant every day. Carol is the only waitress that tolerates his behavior. Hunt immediately shows her range with an emotional performance. Carol is a lonely single mother trying to care for her sick son Spencer. The third most prominent performance is from Greg Kinnear in a Best Supporting Actor nominated role as Melvin’s gay artist neighbor Simon. All three performances are terrific, but As Good as it Gets also contains a ton of celebrities in big and small roles. Cuba Gooding Jr. followed up his Oscar win with an equally entertaining role as Simon’s agent who manages to break Melvin.
Skeet Ulrich and Jamie Kennedy have an unexpected Scream reunion. Since it’s a Brooks production, Lisa Simpson herself Yeardley Smith has a small role. There’s also Shirley Knight as Carol’s concerned mother and Harold Ramis as a life changing doctor. Brian Doyle-Murray, Lawrence Kasdan, Julie Benz, and Shane Black also have memorable cameos. Not to mention Missi Pyle, Wood Harris, and even Maya Rudolph in their first or second film roles. Melvin is openly homophobic towards Simon, but he reluctantly agrees to watch his adorable dog Verdell after a devastating robbery. The small act of watching Simon’s dog is enough to soften Melvin up and set him on a path of redemption. Though they seem like an odd match, Carol is the one who makes him want to be a better man. And that’s As Good as it Gets in more ways than one.
Melvin picks up Verdell
The English Patient is another standard Best Picture winner. It’s British, nearly 3 hours long, set during World War II, there’s romance, and a sweeping foreign location. I deliberately avoided The English Patient for years, because it was long and sounded boring. I don’t hate it like Elaine did on Seinfeld, but I do think Fargo was the more deserving Best Picture winner. The English Patient was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 9 for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, and Sound. Director and writer Anthony Minghella had the difficult task of adapting Michael Ondaatje’s book of the same name.
The English Patient is told from multiple perspectives with real life Hungarian cartographer Count László Almásy at the center. Though the book and movie are highly fictionalized, Ralph Fiennes delivers a star-making Oscar nominated performance as the mostly unlikable map maker. Almásy spends a lot of time in the Egyptian desert with his friend Madox during WWII. He starts a passionate love affair with the married Katherine Clifton. Though she began her career with a Razzie nomination, Kristin Scott Thomas redeems herself in the Oscar nominated role. Fiennes and Scott Thomas have powerful chemistry, but it is still an affair. Colin Firth plays her husband who supplies an airplane that ends up having harsh consequences.
The only thing that makes The English Patient feel especially long is the fact that the mysterious amnesia stricken English patient is slowly dying from severe third-degree burns near the end of the war. French actress Juliette Binoche won Best Supporting Actress for playing the grief stricken nurse Hana who cares for Almásy. She has her own, much more innocent love affair with Sikh bomb defuser Kip played by the Indian Naveen Andrews. They’re also joined by Willem Dafoe as a Canadian spy seeking revenge from the Germans and possibly Almásy himself. The English Patient is an effective character study that could’ve been tightened up a bit.
Almásy dances with Katherine
The Fabulous Baker Boys is as fabulous as it is sensational. Writer and first time director Steve Kloves took a chance with an old fashioned low budget film about modern day piano players. The Fabulous Baker Boys did fail at the box-office, but it became one of the most beloved movies of 1989. The Fabulous Baker Boys is notable for two reasons. This was the first movie to feature real life acting brothers Jeff & Beau Bridges. It’s far from a gimmick since their natural chemistry is perfect for the Baker brothers. Beau is the older more responsible and optimistic Frank who runs the show, but continues to get them lousy gigs. Jeff is the younger more cynical and disillusioned Jack who’s no longer passionate about the job.
Frank has a family back home, but Jack has a crappy apartment, one night stands, a sick dog, and a lonely young girl who drops by from time to time. After 15 years it becomes clear that the piano players are in desperate need of a singer. A young Jennifer Tilly stands out as one of the terrible potential singers, but it’s Michelle Pfeffer who steals the show. The Fabulous Baker Boys was nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Best Cinematography for its dreamlike Seattle setting, Film Editing for its creative camera work, and Original Score for its infectious mix of jazz and pop standards. It could’ve won either award, but the most shocking loss was Pfeffer for Best Actress. Jessica Tandy winning for Driving Miss Daisy was more of a lifetime achievement award.
Meanwhile, Pfeffer won every other major award with the most mesmerizing performance of her career. Former escort turned lounge singer Susie Diamond is an icon thanks to Pfeffer’s beauty, spunky attitude, and sexy singing voice that she hadn’t done since Grease 2. Susie saves the Fabulous Baker Boys with several memorable performances. The sexiest, most iconic, and often imitated scene features Susie singing “Makin’ Whoopee” in a gorgeous red dress on top of Jack’s grand piano. Jack and Susie fall for each other until they end up making whoopee themselves. That of course breaks up the trio and Jack ends up ruining every meaningful relationship in his life. He apologizes to everyone, but the ending is left ambiguous. The Fabulous Baker Boys is a smooth examination of small time show business.
Susie Diamond sings “Makin’ Whoopee”
Working Girl epitomizes the high powered businesswoman of the 1980’s. From big hair to shoulder pads. Working Girl earned high praise thanks to Oscar nominated director Mike Nichols and a dedicated A-list cast. Best Picture and Best Director went to fellow comedic drama Rain Man, but my mom recommended Working Girl just as much. Partly because it was a much better Best Actress nominated role for Melanie Griffith. Most of her previous work gave me the impression that she was just another sex symbol, but Tess McGill is so much more than that. She’s a New York secretary who just wants to be taken seriously in the workplace. Griffith has plenty of sexy scenes, but Tess has the brains to match. Though she was battling cocaine addiction at the time, Griffith gives the performance of her career.
The rest of the cast was either really big in the 80’s or just starting out. The former includes Philip Bosco as a business owner and Olympia Dukakis as a personal director. The latter includes Alec Baldwin as Tess’ sleazy boyfriend, Oliver Platt as her sleazy former boss, and Kevin Spacey as a sleazy potential boss. Ripley herself Sigourney Weaver is the perfect condescending female boss. Katherine Parker pretends to bond with Tess, but she outright steals her ideas before a freak skiing accident. Tess is only able to prove herself while pretending to be her boss. Joan Cusack plays the eccentric best friend who gives her a professional makeover.
Both Weaver and Cusack were also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but the men are just as notable. Indiana Jones himself Harrison Ford is the perfect kind hearted businessman. Jack Trainer was originally part of Tess’ business plan, but they wind up falling in love. Which complicates things when certain truths are revealed. I don’t fully understand Mergers & Acquisitions or most of the business talk, but it was great to see Tess tell Katherine off and get the respect she deserved. The only Oscar Working Girl won was a much deserved win for Best Original Song. “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon is a spirited tune that makes Working Girl worth celebrating.
Tess comes between Jack and Katherine
Children of a Lesser God speaks louder than words. The title refers to people who are deaf. Based on a 1979 play, Children of a Lesser God was one of the first productions made for and starring a member of the deaf community. The 1986 film adaptation was just as successful and became the first Best Picture nominee directed by a woman. Randa Haines gives equal attention to her cast of hearing and deaf actors, but the movie is mostly from a hearing perspective. Subtitles are actually substituted for the main character translating everything out loud. The Oscar nominated screenplay couldn’t have been easy to write.
Children of a Lesser God focuses on a New England romance that blooms between a hearing man and a deaf woman with all the emotional challenges that come with it. William Hurt continues his Best Actor nominated streak by playing the unconventional speech teacher of a school for the deaf. James Leeds helps the deaf use their voices and read lips. His use of music and other ideologies clash with the school’s beautiful young custodian Sarah Norman. Sarah is mysterious, closed off, and doesn’t believe in using her voice.
Swimming naked helps her relax and sex seems to be the primary language they both understand, but there’s something deeper going on. Through her mother, we discover Sarah’s unfortunate past. This was the second time Piper Laurie was nominated for playing a difficult mother, but the Oscar ended up going to her on-screen daughter. At only 21 years old, newcomer Marlee Matlin became the youngest Best Actress winner and the first deaf person to win an Oscar. Matlin conveys so much emotion through sign, body language, and facial expressions. Children of a Lesser God was a good sign of things to come.
James signs with Sarah
Out of Africa is another nearly 3 hour epic romance with a beautiful backdrop. This time the focus is on Africa, but I don’t think it’s the African set female focused 1985 film that should’ve won Best Picture. That honor should’ve gone to The Color Purple, but the Academy made the safe choice. Both movies were nominated for 11 Oscars, but The Color Purple won nothing while Out of Africa won 7. Including Best Picture, Best Director Sydney Pollack, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, and Sound. Africa is truly breathtaking and the John Barry score helps to romanticize it. It’s just the story that feels like a minor step back. Out of Africa centers around English colonialism in Africa, but it’s not handled the same as Gandhi.
The original book is a memoir by the Danish aristocratic Karen Blixen who spent most of her time in British East Africa (or modern day Kenya). She marries Swedish nobleman Baron Bror Blixen who takes part in big-game hunts and buys them a coffee farm. Karen falls in love with Africa and its people while providing schools, medicine, and work for the local villagers. Though she does keep wealthy friends like Felicity and Berkeley. As I expected, the pace is incredibly slow and the movie didn’t really get interesting for me until the second half. Out of Africa is a little like Doctor Zhivago in how it slowly develops a romance over time. Since Bror is unfaithful, Karen starts to fall for fellow big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton.
He saves her from a lioness and they bond over their mutual love of stories. Though they’re separated by class and views of marriage, nothing can keep them apart. Not even the First World War led by colonist Lord Delamere. Their most romantic scenes are when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair and they ride over Africa in his biplane. Meryl Streep is unsurprisingly committed to her Danish accent and strong-willed Oscar nominated performance. Although English in real life, Robert Redford strangely remains American, but is equally committed to the rugged hunter. Though it was Klaus Maria Brandauer who was nominated as the husband in the middle of their love affair. Out of Africa isn’t exactly timeless, but it does make effective use of its setting.
Denys teaches Karen to hunt
The Goodbye Girl is love at first fight. It’s another romantic comedy nominated the same year as Best Picture winner Annie Hall. The difference is Annie Hall starts off hopeful, then becomes cynical, while The Goodbye Girl starts off cynical, then becomes hopeful. Neil Simon developed the story in the middle of a marriage with Robert De Niro in mind, before settling on the start of a blossoming relationship. Aside from Best Picture, Simon was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
The Goodbye Girl centers around three colorful characters who wind up living together in a sublet New York apartment. Paula McFadden is a former dancer turned cynical single mother whose boyfriend ditches her. Lucy is her precocious 10 year old daughter who stays with her in the apartment. Paula’s boyfriend complicates things by subletting their apartment to Elliot Garfield. Elliot is an eccentric Chicago actor who plays his guitar late at night, sleeps in the nude, and metatates in the morning. Paula and Elliot hate each other at first, but their hilarious chemistry is too good even when they fighting.
The entire trio was nominated including child actress Quinn Cummings who gives a performance worthy of a young adult. Marsha Mason is just as dedicated, but it was rising star Richard Dreyfuss who became the youngest actor ever to win Best Actor for playing an actor no less. Elliot struggles with his career and a particularly bad Richard III performance. Paula struggles with raising Lucy and trusting another man not to leave. I was happy to see them fall in love. As David Gates says, The Goodbye Girl proves “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever.”
Elliot and Paula have a discussion with Lucy