Blind Spot 49: ‘Spartacus’

Happy January! I am so excited to be starting my 5th year doing the Blind Spot project. I can hardly believe I have been keeping it up that long, month by month. So, it seemed appropriate to celebrate this accomplishment by looking at an epic film and few films are more epic than the 1960 historical drama Spartacus.

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The biggest thing Spartacus has going for it is how big it is. Particularly the war scenes are truly epic. In a world where we are used to battles populated by cgi soldiers it is refreshing to see so many extras that it looks like ants moving on the hillsides towards each other rather than humans. The scope of every scene and attention to detail really is tremendous and worthy of praise.

Also the acting is top rate. I particularly enjoyed Peter Ustinov as a cold yet jolly Roman leader named Batiatus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ustinov in a role that he didn’t shine and bring whatever funny he could to the part. All the other acting is great including Sir Laurence Olivier as Marcus Licnius Crassus and Tony Curtis as Antoninus.

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However, that’s where my praise of Spartacus must end. This film is a really long movie to not connect with any of the characters. While the acting is great, the writing and story is pretty bland. I was not drawn into the journey of Spartacus played by Kirk Douglas and found his performance the one miss of the film. I didn’t feel like I got to know him very well, and I wasn’t rooting for him the way that I should for this kind of narrative. Unfortunately, he felt miscast in the role.

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The only female of note in the film is Varinia played by Jean Simmons, and I didn’t think she and Douglas had any chemistry. Her story is as bland as Spartacus and despite some daring scenes she just wasn’t interesting to me (the film as a whole is pretty R rated both in violence and sensuality).

It’s hard to completely skunk a movie as handsomely mounted as Spartacus but when I compare it to other epics of its time like Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia or The 10 Commandments it doesn’t hold a candle to those films. Those films had compelling characters, terrific action and epic set pieces. I love those films. Spartacus? Not so much.

5 out of 10

frown

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Thoughts on the Oscar Best Picture Nominees

This Monday January 13th movie fans held their breath in excitement as the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced in Hollywood. One can certainly argue that too much time and energy is put into the Oscars but it is also a nice way to look back at the year in film and hopefully honor some of the strong films released by both big and small studios. This year I have actually seen all of the nominees for Best Picture, so I thought it would be fun to share my thoughts on each film and what chances each film has to win.

86th Annual Academy Awards - Red Carpet

Ford v Ferrari

I am thrilled to see an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser like Ford v Ferrari get nominated for Best Picture. What’s great about Ford v Ferrari is that it is not just an underdog racing movie (which is a genre I LOVE!) but it is also a wonderful movie about friendship. Christian Bale is excellent as Ken Miles and Matt Damon is great as his bewildered colleague Carroll Shelby. I loved all the supporting cast especially Noah Jupe and Caitriona Balfe as Bales’ son and wife respectfully. The film is a little too long but it’s a highly entertaining watch. I do think it is a long shot to win and comes in at 9th place in my prediction ranking.

Little Women

This new version of Little Women has become quite a part of my life lately. I have seen it twice, written my review, and then been on 2 separate podcasts where I discussed and ranked it. I really enjoyed this take on the classic story of Little Women. In particular the non-linear storytelling (which I usually hate) really worked to help make each sisters choices more valid especially Amy and Laurie. I loved all the performances and filmmaking choices like costumes, production design etc. The script got a little too cute at times and I would have preferred they used 2 Amys but it is still one of my favorites films of the year. Unfortunately with Greta Gerwig getting snubbed for Best Director the odds for it winning Best Picture are small and it is at 8th place in my prediction ranking.

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JoJo Rabbit-

Writing satire is probably the most difficult type of screenwriting. The line between clever skewering of society and an unfunny piece in poor taste is incredibly difficult. Director and writer Taika Waititi managed to do just that with his film JoJo Rabbit where we learn that even the worst of ideologies can be driven out of someone (especially a child) by the power of human connection. I laughed. I cried. I was delighted and I recommend anyone watch it and experience something unique at the theater. However, because the subject matter and approach is not for everyone it is unlikely to win and gets 7th place in my prediction rating.

The Irishman-

Upon its release I was one of the few detractors on Martin Scorsese’s epic mob film The Irishman. There is much to admire in the film especially the terrific period detail and performances. My issue is the story and characters. The lead character Frank Sheeran is an admitted soldier for the mafia, meaning he doesn’t have a lot of moral questioning of what he is asked to do. He dutifully follows orders. It isn’t until the last 30 minutes of a very long movie that introspection happens and things become interesting. It was too little too late and the ponderous pacing made it a tough watch. As far as predictions, The Irishman was a clear favorite back in November, but with the length being a factor, DeNiro not getting nominated, and a general overall lack of awards season buzz all make it an unlikely winner and ultimately 6th place in my prediction ranking.

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Marriage Story-

I must admit I put off watching the new drama Marriage Story from writer/director Noah Baumbach. The idea of seeing a couple go through something as horrible as divorce for 2 hours sounded very unpleasant especially during the holidays. However, I finally watched it and it’s very well done. The writing feels authentic to the characters and I appreciate the script doesn’t pick sides for the male or the female. The acting is tremendous; although, I’m a bit baffled at the awards love being shown to Laura Dern who is fine but nothing extraordinary if you ask me. I think the movie is just too small in scope to win the big prize without a surprise win like Moonlight had a few years ago so it is 5th place in my prediction ranking.

Joker-

Another movie I put off watching is Todd Phillips origin story of Joker. I was pretty sure with the tone and violence it wouldn’t be my taste and after what happened with Shazam I wasn’t interested in facing the angry mob unless I had to for having an opinion. Once it got nominated I watched it and it’s not for me. Basically the Arthur of the film lives in a dystopian where everyone is underhanded, unkind, cruel and bitter. His story wasn’t interesting to me because there never was a valid option for him to chose a different path. Of course he is going to become a supervillain if everyone treats him like complete garbage. This is not a world I connect with or agree with but I’m not a cynical person. Nevertheless, many do seem to enjoy the film and it got the most nominations, so it could win. However, there’s enough backlash and enough comicbook/blockbuster stigma to prevent it. I have it at 4th place in my prediction ranking.

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Parasite-

If I was going to predict a surprise win it would be Parasite. The South Korean thriller by director Bong Joon Ho is the consensus favorite for almost everyone I know. Whether film snob on twitter or everyday moviegoer, we all seem to love Parasite and that’s because it’s a great film. It is entertaining, enlightening, surprising and has something to say without beating you over the head with it. I also think the preferential voting system of the Oscars could help Parasite out the most because even if some don’t have it first almost everyone will have in their top 3. It could be the Green Book of 2020. The downside is some may feel a win in International Film is enough for it and a subtitled film has never won Best Picture before and that is a barrier for some voters. This is why I have it at 3rd place in my prediction ranking.

1917-

These last 2 are very tough to decide between when it comes to predictions. 1917 is an incredible, immersive experience telling the story of 2 soldiers in World War 1 as they attempt to deliver a message across the trenches. It is set up like one take and you really feel like you are there with the soldiers which I found emotionally exhausting and moving. I highly recommend seeing it in the theater if at all possible. It just won the Golden Globe so if it wins Best Picture I won’t be surprised at all but I think the Academy voters are just narcissistic enough to pick the movie which is all about them instead. That makes 1917 in 2nd place in my prediction ranking.

once upon a time

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood-

In director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film he does a lot of things right to peak Oscar interest. First of all, he gets a top notch cast with Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie. Then he has the film set in Hollywood and it be an alternate history of the life of a tragic figure Sharon Tate. You portray the struggle of being famous and a washed up star, which Hollywood loves (hello Birdman...). You have enough gratuitous violence and humor while showing off Los Angeles in 1969, you’ve got yourself a Best Picture winner. I enjoyed the film well enough but thought it was quite self indulgent especially in the long, excessive driving scenes that went nowhere. This isn’t the best film of the year in my opinion but I think it strokes all of the voters ego enough to win Best Picture and it is my top prediction!

So there you have it!  What do you think of the 9 nominees? Have you seen them? Do you think they are worthy choices or do you feel something better was left out? Let me know and what would you prediction ranking be for the winner? Let me know in the comments!

 

Current Mini Reviews

Hello readers! I hope you are  all having a better start to the new year than I am. Unfortunately today I am sick with a wicked case of a sinus infection/virus. In fact, I didn’t get to go to the Doctor Dolittle screening this morning because I was so worried I would fall asleep/cough throughout the film. Nevertheless, I have 3 recent films I need to update you all on my thoughts so here goes.

like a boss

Like a Boss

Hollywood sure seems to struggle in understanding women. So much of what they make for female audiences feels out of touch with any kind of women I know or interact with. For example, so many seem to suggest women spend way more time worrying about their makeup than most do. Most women have a makeup routine and every once in a while try something new and that’s it.

I was one of the only people who liked 2018’s I Feel Pretty (also set in the world of cosmetics and beauty) because at least it had a little bit of a whimsy which appealed to me. But even I will admit the parts involving the beauty industry and supposed female empowerment fell very flat.

Now we have the latest entry, Like a Boss, starring Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish who run (you guessed it) a makeup company. I actually didn’t hate this movie. It had some laughs with Haddish and Byrne hanging out with their girlfriends  (an authentic relatable situation and probably helped by improv).

However, all the elements involving business fell flat especially Salma Hayek as an over-the-top beauty mogul. It is not surprising this film is written and directed by men because the complexities of the female experience in business as presented are so reductive and cringe-worthy. I’m not saying a movie like this needs to be realistic but come on? They can do better than this.

Even though I did laugh at the friends scenes in Like A Boss, I can’t recommend you spend the big bucks to go see it in the theater. Go see one of the awards caliber films in theaters instead.

4.5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Underwater

Next up we have another movie I didn’t hate but was pretty meh on: Underwater. This has its fair share of positives including a good performance by Kristen Stewart. They also do a great job in creating atmosphere with cool production and sound design. Everything felt on the same level as Ad Astra last year in that regard. I also liked that the action gets going right away without feeling a need for backstory or exposition to set up the world.

The problem with Underwater is it felt uneven in the storytelling. One minute the creatures would be attacking and then the next they’d be more quiet and observant. One minute Kristen Stewart would be fighting for her life and the next she’d be back on the ship looking through a locker. It felt like some needed transitions were cut in the editing room.

It is also a very derivative film of movies like Alien which takes some of the edge off of certain scenes. There’s definitely a feeling of ‘we’ve been there done all this before and better’.

Still if you see this airing on cable it’s not a terrible watch but I don’t think I can recommend watching it on the big screen. (Also the excuses they have to get Kristen Stewart in her bra and panties for long segments feels a little gratuitous and absurd).

4.5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Marriage Story

To be perfectly frank I have been putting off seeing the critically acclaimed film Marriage Story despite it being available to watch for several months. Especially at Christmas time the idea of watching a film about divorce did not sound appealing at all.

Well, now I have seen the film and while it isn’t my type of movie it is worthy of praise. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both excellent as our feuding couple and the script doesn’t pick sides on the divorce. They are both petty and passionate all at the same time.

I’m a little confused at the high praise being given to Laura Dern for her performance as Scarlett’s attorney. She was perfectly fine in the role, but I didn’t see anything outstanding or Oscar-worthy but that’s just me. I do think it would be interesting to see this story from the perspective of people who can’t afford $25,000 retainers for their attorneys. Like what about a divorce between a couple who run a failing convenience story or are both teachers? That might be easier to relate with than these directors/actors.

But nevertheless, it’s a good film. I particularly liked Adam Driver singing ‘Being Alive’ from Stephen Sondheim’s Company both because I love that song but also I had no idea he could sing (what can’t the man do?).

I am sure if you have been through a divorce Marriage Story will have more emotional resonance. As for me it is good, just not a favorite or something I will ever watch again.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

My 2020 Blind Spot Picks

One of my favorite parts of this blog is a special series called Blind Spots I have been doing each month since 2016. The idea behind the series is every month I review a classic or well-regarded film I have not seen- my movie blind spots.

Each year in January I declare what my 12 choices will be. I try to make it a variety of films, genres and styles. For instance, last year I did comedies like Garden State, to anime like Tokyo Godfathers to war dramas like Son of Saul.

So, now is the time to declare my blind spot picks for 2020! Please let me know in the comments which of these films you have seen and what you think of my list in general! I would also love if you have a blog or youtuber to participate along with me in the project. It’s really fun!

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January

Spartacus (1960)

I think the coziness of a Winter month makes for the perfect time to finally check the sprawling epic of Spartacus off of my list. This film is directed by Stanley Kubrick and stars Kirk Douglas, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov and more. I love Lawrence of Arabia which came along 2 years later so we will have to see how Spartacus shakes out!

Judy-Holliday-Born-Yesterday

February

Born Yesterday (1950)

It’s always fun to pick a romantic comedy for February, and I have never seen the 1950 classic Born Yesterday. I love Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing and William Holden is super charming. The film is directed by the great George Cukor and it appears to be a political take on the Pygmalion story with Holden being hired to teach the uncouth Holliday social manners. I’m excited to watch it!

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March

Goodfellas

Created by the king of cinema Martin Scorsese I finally need to check his most heralded classic Goodfellas off of my list. I’m honestly not that big a fan of mob movies, which is why I’ve never seen this film. However, I am open to the genre if it is a good film. The story of Henry Hill eventually becoming an informant of the mob certainly has a lot of potential to be interesting and one cannot deny the acting talent. I hope I like it better than The Irishman, which was not my cup of tea (shocking I know).

3 colors

April

The Three Colors Trilogy

For April I am going to be extra ambitious and watch the Color Trilogy by famed director Krzysztof Kieslowski. These 3 films are named after the colors of the French flag: Blue, White, Red and they each follow ordinary people as they face challenges to the 3 morals the flag represents: liberty, equality, fraternity. Evidently the characters from all 3 films come together in Red to make for a beautiful treatise on human behavior. One article I read said this trilogy was the big hipster status symbol of the 90s and that it ‘still holds up today,’ so I will be the judge of that!

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May

Lethal Weapon

I figure after such a heady April I deserve some fun so for May I am watching the first Lethal Weapon movie (yes I’ve never seen any of the series). In this iconic buddy cop action series Mel Gibson plays the young hothead Riggs and Danny Glover plays the old tired detective Murtaugh. They are forced to work together with some classic 80s hair from Gibson. This film is written by writer/director Shane Black who I am not the biggest fan of but we’ll see if he can win me over or maybe I’m too old for this…

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June

Wolf Children

As a huge fan of director Mamoru Hosoda I’m almost ashamed to admit I have never seen Wolf Children. I know many friends who consider this his best film and I’m excited to finally watch it. The story is about a young woman who raises her half-human half-wolf children after their werewolf father dies. My friend Ron said it is his favorite movie of the decade so I definitely have to check this one out!

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July

Private Benjamin

I figure by the time July comes around I will be in the mood for a comedy and one classic I have never seen is the Goldie Hawn film Private Benjamin. So far on Goldie Hawn 80s comedies I liked Overboard and didn’t like Foul Play so we will see how this film lands. It was written by a young Nancy Meyers and is about a wealthy heiress who joins the army after her husband dies only for a very rude awakening in boot camp. I hope it will be a lot of laughs!

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August

House of the Flying Daggers

After really enjoying director Zhang Yimou’s film Shadow this year and admiring his film Hero from 2002 I thought it would be fun to watch another one of his famed works House of Flying Daggers. Evidently this is a love story and a martial arts film so that should be right up my ally and from what I’ve seen the production design, fight choreography and cinematography look stunning. I’m excited to watch it!

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September

Apocalypse Now

War movies are a great choice for blind spot because they are the kind of thing I don’t usually watch without a push. So for September I think it is finally time for me to watch the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now. Released in 1979 this film has an incredible cast including Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper and more. It is about a battalion during the Vietnam War who are sent on a secret mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade officer. I learned a lot about the making of the movie in the documentary I saw last year called Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound and I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Halloween

October

Halloween (1978)

One of my goals for next year is to try and get over some of my reservations when it comes to horror films. If I want to be a full time film critic I know I will need to watch more horror movies and I have been told by several good friends that the original Halloween film by director John Carpenter isn’t very scary. I’ve seen some scary movies like Scream, Psycho, and others so let’s hope I make it through this one! Ahhhh!

last unicorn

November

The Last Unicorn

Honestly the number of classic animated films I haven’t seen is narrowing but there are still some and one of them is The Last Unicorn. This anime released in 1982 tells the story of a unicorn that goes on a journey with a wizard to defeat an evil King that wants to kill all the unicorns. It evidently has some scary and bonkers scenes that were quite shocking for 1980s audiences so I’m anxious to see what I think! The animation looks beautiful and it is a musical with voices of Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Angela Lansbury and more on the dub. We will see what I think!

remember the night

December

Remember the Night

My December pick is a Christmas classic I just learned about this year: Remember the Night. I don’t know how it flew under my Christmas-movie-loving radar but it is from 1940 and stars Barbara Stanwyck (who is one of my favorite Christmas movies Christmas in Connecticut) and Fred MacMurray (who is a scoundrel in the Christmas film The Apartment!). It is written by the great Preston Sturgess who was the king of romantic comedy writing in the 40s. Evidently it is about an attorney  (MacMurray) who ends up going on a road trip of some kind with a petty shoplifter (Stanwyck) while heading home for Christmas. Sign me up!

So there you have it! That’s my 12 films for the 2020 Blind Spot Series. If you have a blog or youtube channel I encourage you to participate in the project. It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding at the same time.

What do you think of my choices? Have you seen any of them? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Happy New Year!