#386. The Three Amigos

Filmmaking, like any creative pursuit, can bring together people with similar goals. This is the foundation of any community. Even within these communities, individuals can bond over their shared past experiences. These bonds are how groups like the “Three Amigos” form. Rising to prominence in Hollywood at the turn of the millennium, the Three Amigos consists of three successful filmmakers from Mexico: Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón. These three directors have dominated the Academy Awards in the last decade, winning five Best Director Oscars in six years. I’ve already discussed the works of Guillermo del Toro in a previous post so this week’s two films will highlight the movies created by the other two Amigos: Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón.

                     Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Year: 2014Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Rating: R
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours

Alejandro González Iñárritu hasn’t been directing as long as del Toro and Cuarón have, but his short list of films have already earned plenty of accolades. His breakout film, Amores perros (2000) was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a feat he would repeat a decade later with Biutiful (2010). Regarding his directing talent, he was first nominated for the Best Director Oscar with Babel (2006), a film also nominated for Best Picture as well. He would go on to win the Best Director Oscar twice, being only the third director to do so in back-to-back years. While The Revenant (2016) earned him his second Best Director statuette, it did not win Best Picture that year. However, the year prior, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) earned Iñárritu three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.

The Broadway play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is the passion project of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who used to be known for his superhero persona, Birdman. To get his play off the ground, he has enlisted the help of his best friend, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) as the producer, his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) as co-star, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as his assistant. Using his actual superpowers to take out one of the cast members, Riggan must then accept that the replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is part of the reason the play is getting any attention from theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). While the previews are disastrous, Riggan achieves a sense of peace before performing the opening night, shooting himself in the head on-stage in an action the critic describes as “super-realism.”

Children of MenChildren of Men
Year: 2006
Rating: R
Length: 109 minutes / 1.82 hours

Of the Three Amigos, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro are perhaps the most similar. Cuarón started his career in the mid-1980s as an assistant director before making his jump to the director’s seat with Sólo con tu pareja (1991). He would go on to direct A Little Princess (1995), and a modern adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations (1998) before Y Tu Mamá También (2001) earned him a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination. Much like del Toro directed Blade II (2002) to help advance his career, Cuarón directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), thus giving his style exposure to fans of the Harry Potter franchise. His next Oscar nominations would come in the form of Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing for Children of Men (2006), but his first wins would be for Best Director and Best Film Editing for Gravity (2013). His latest work, Roma (2018), returns to his Mexican roots.

In 2009, the last baby was born. Almost two decades later, the lack of new children has pushed the world to the edge of destruction. To maintain some semblance of stability, the United Kingdom has evolved into a military state. Since the UK is one of the few functioning societies left, many refugees are seeking asylum. One such refugee is Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young woman who must have someone accompany her for her transit. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is offered a significant amount of money to accompany Kee, who he learns is pregnant with the first child to be born in nearly 18 years. This situation puts Theo and Kee amid a war for this newborn, some of whom want to study it to cure the world’s infertility and some of whom want it as a political statement. In either case, Theo and Kee are able to escape, in part due to the awe of seeing a newborn baby after so long without one.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Mexican movie maestros

Bacon #: 2 (Quantum of Solace (Alfonso Cuarón) / David Harbour -> Black Mass / Kevin Bacon)

#385. Long Takes

Cinematographers use plenty of camera techniques to create the director’s vision for the film. From zooms to pans, these techniques help tell a story and can help the audience understand what’s happening on screen. There are some advanced techniques, like the dolly zoom (also known as the Vertigo (1958) effect), that use the characteristics of a camera to create a sensation that’s impossible to convey in just a single photograph. While we rarely experience life as a series of scenes cut together to form a cohesive narrative, most movies are filmed this way. In fact, many films use too many cuts, which can disorient the viewer. The more natural approach to filmmaking would then be a series of long takes, making the camera its own character that can move around the space of the movie and focus on what it needs to convey the plot. This week’s two films use long takes to their creative advantage.

Year: 2013
Rating: PG-13
Length: 91 minutes / 1.52 hours

One of the benefits of the long take is how much information can be cohesively tied together. Alfred Hitchcock used a long take at the start of Rear Window (1954) to introduce the scene, the characters, and the main reason why the setting will be constrained to the eponymous “rear window.” While this long take works its way around the set, without following anyone in particular, Martin Scorsese uses the long take in Goodfellas (1990) to follow Ray Liotta’s character through a nightclub. Long takes have been increasing in popularity as they have been easier to film. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) uses a long take in an extended action sequence to help convey the peril of the main characters as they try to find safety. It is then no wonder that his next film, Gravity (2013) would use the long take to great effect as well, earning him the Best Director Oscar (it won Best Cinematographer, too).

In Gravity, the camera mostly follows Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she tries to return to Earth after a high-speed cloud of debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer. The only other crewmember to survive is Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who uses his experience as an astronaut to calmly work through the problem. Through the use of his Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), he helps both of them reach the International Space Station (ISS), where they find all the attached spacecraft have already evacuated to Earth. With no other options, and the debris making its 90-minute destructive rounds, Dr. Stone must resort to drastic measures to reach the somewhat nearby Chinese space station, where she can use a lone Russian Soyuz capsule to return home. This is, of course, assuming everything still works and that she can pilot the foreign spacecraft.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Year: 2014Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Rating: R
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours

While long takes are an essential part of a good cinematographer’s toolbox, it can be difficult to shoot the entire film’s plot in a single take. Difficult, but not impossible. Even though movies like the Hungarian version of Macbeth (1982) weren’t entirely one shot, it’s the first instance until Timecode (2000) to successfully perform the technique. Before this accomplishment, films as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) used some clever editing and trickery to make it seem like the movie was filmed in one, continuous shot. With the advent of digital techniques and capabilities (film reels were a limiting factor), this becomes even easier to achieve. Except for a few cuts at the beginning and ending, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) manages to tell a “one-shot” story that takes place over a few days, thus earning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematographer Oscars in the process.

We open on Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) hovering in his underwear in his dressing room, mentally preparing to go on stage to perform the play he has chosen to write and direct as a statement to distance himself from his previous role as the superhero “Birdman.” With opening night a few days away, he’s assaulted with cast changes, foreign reporters, and an ungrateful daughter (Emma Stone). The camera follows the drama as it weaves around the theatre and behind the scenes, capturing the hectic nature involved in any thespian endeavor. While Riggan wants to succeed and become the successful actor and director he wants to be, he is haunted by his past and threatened by the future that is closely guarded by New York theatre critics. In a drastic moment on opening night, Riggan is able to obtain notoriety that is both ironic and fitting.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 continual camera work

Snack Break: Congratulations

There are some years where the Best Picture Oscar is clearly a cut above the rest. Sure, lots of the nominees (albeit fewer than in previous years) were pretty good movies, but none were nearly as great as Green Book.

Green Book

Of this year’s nominees, I still need to see Roma and Vice, and I will get to them eventually. There were also other films that I was not aware of that have now piqued my interest as well. But, in the end, I think Green Book is a timeless story that speaks loudly about the journey of life and getting to know others who might be different from us.

If you want to see what I thought about the other nominees this year (that I did see), you can check out the links below:

#345. Racism

In some ways, the status of race relations today have not changed nearly as much as they should have in the decades since the civil rights movement. The fact that someone would be considered “lesser than” merely because of their heritage or skin color is still an anathema to me. Sure, stereotypes fuel a fear of those who are different from us; but, there are plenty of people who defy these stereotypes and prove they are not some kind of enemy but are instead just ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives. I think this world would be better off if we stopped judging people by our preconceived notions based on their skin color, and instead accepted them as human beings. This week’s two films highlight racism at its worst, so we may all learn to be accepting of others, regardless of the color of their skin.

Year: 2013
Rating: PG-13
Length: 128 minutes / 2.13 hours

It is almost ironic that some of the sports that were once dominated by white men now have these individuals on their teams in a minority capacity. Perhaps this was why so many of them were resistant to the integration of people of color into their athletic clubs: they knew they would be outperformed. While films like Race (2016) highlight the racial discrimination at home in the United States, while also shining a light on the racial discrimination (and eventual genocide) in Germany just before World War II, it’s easy to put Nazis as the antagonists in these stories. What hurts more (as well it should) is when the antagonists in a sports movie, like 42 (2013), are the athletic role models and leaders who are supposed to provide a positive example for generations to come. Their hatred is born of a fear that I hope continues to diminish and vanish with each passing generation.

There seemed to be a time where America’s greatest pastime wasn’t baseball but racism. Sure, black people could still play baseball, but they could only do it in their own league, separate from the white league that held the World Series every year. Sensing the time was right to break this barrier, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), team executive of the Brooklyn Dodgers, recruits Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to play up through the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals. Robinson has talent, but he refuses to be pushed down by others, often resorting to a short temper to prove his mettle. Eventually, he realizes he can quiet his critics, including the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), by playing the best baseball he can, thus helping lead the Dodgers to the World Series.

In the Heat of the NightIn the Heat of the Night
Year: 1967
Rating: Approved
Length: 109 minutes / 1.82 hours

In the Heat of the Night (1967) is likely to be one of the defining films on the subject of racism. Not only did it win Best Picture for that year (a feat similarly-themed Crash (2004) would do decades later), but it has earned a spot on the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 films at #75. Taking a somewhat different approach to the topic than To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) did a few years prior, In the Heat of the Night shows the audience that the color of someone’s skin shouldn’t be an indicator of their professional competence. This theme was also driven home almost 50 years later in the Best Picture nominee, Hidden Figures (2016). Still, the defining moment in this film comes in the form of the line “They call me Mister Tibbs!” which perfectly encapsulates the protagonist’s frustration about being looked down upon and considered of lesser status simply due to the color of his skin.

When the murder of a white businessman hits a small town in the South, the first suspect just happens to be an African-American who is visiting from Philadelphia. Unfortunately, this “Southern hospitality” backfires to an extent when the suspect, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), just happens to be a prominent homicide detective from Philadelphia. This gripping crime drama unfolds to show that some people cannot get past the color of another’s skin, even if that person is the only one who can produce results. Through his expert investigative skills, Tibbs not only exonerates other suspects but refines the timeframe when the murder actually happened. This professionalism eventually endears the white Police Chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to Tibbs, as the black investigator solves the case and heads back home to Philadelphia.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 racism revolutions

Snack Break: Congratulations

Once again, I thought I had this Best Picture Oscar pegged and get surprised with a film that traditionally would not have won. I hope this means we’ll see more representation from other genres than “drama” in the years to come.

The Shape of Water

Of the nine contenders for Best Picture this year, there were plenty that I thought were truly great. It’s tough to choose one over the others, especially with some really thought-provoking and well-made films. Personally, my favorite was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, followed by Darkest Hour, Get Out, Dunkirk, and Lady Bird. The Shape of Water was in that list of favorites as well, but that’s because it was directed by one of my favorite directors: Guillermo del Toro. In fact, a number of my favorite directors had showings this year, including Christopher Nolan and Martin McDonagh.

It’s tough when there’s not necessarily a front-runner for the Oscars, as each category presented proves to be a real mystery. Many of them could have gone a number of different ways, but at least the ones that won were certainly well-deserved.

#321. Marilyn Monroe

What makes someone into an icon? Is it an accumulation of moments and sound bites, or can a single picture cement an individual as a piece of our popular culture? We all know “sex sells,” so perhaps the idea of an icon isn’t as accurate as saying someone is a sex symbol. For whatever reason, Marilyn Monroe is the de-facto sex symbol of American history. A few moments from her career and life have made her into a muse for an enormous amount of artists and entertainers, even if it is occasionally in parody. From her sultry birthday song for former President John F. Kennedy to the famous subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955), her suicide in 1963 only fuels the never-ending obsession with Hollywood’s favorite “dumb blonde.” This week’s two films highlight bookends to Marilyn Monroe’s film career.

Some Like it HotSome Like it Hot
Year: 1959
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 120 minutes / 2 hours

In the decade before the end of her life, Monroe was on a hot streak in Hollywood. She appeared in such films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), which included the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and The Seven Year Itch, with its aforementioned subway grate shot. In the height of her popularity, she even started her own film company, which released The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the filming of which was the main plot of the biopic, My Week with Marilyn (2011). Part of the appeal of her roles in these films came from the “dumb blonde” persona. When she acted like a beautiful girl without a brain in her head, comedy would often ensue. If anything, it perpetuated a negative female stereotype. At any rate, one of her final films was none other than the classic, Some Like it Hot (1959).

Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) is a singer and ukulele player for an all-female ensemble en route to Miami for a gig. When their train leaves from Chicago, they pick up a saxophone player named Josephine (Tony Curtis) and a double-bass player named Daphne (Jack Lemmon). When Josephine and Daphne join in on Sugar’s forbidden drinking, the trio becomes fast friends. Sugar bemoans the fact she can’t find a good man and hopes to turn her luck around with a bespectacled millionaire in Florida. As luck would have it, she finds such a man, but only because Josephine is actually a man named Joe. He and Daphne (nee Jerry) dressed as women to escape the mob. Donning another disguise as Junior, Joe woos Sugar but cannot keep the ruse up for long as the mafia soon finds the two men again. In a rushed kiss during their escape, Sugar learns Josephine is both Joe and Junior and decides to run away with him.

All About EveAll About Eve
Year: 1950
Rating: Approved
Length: 138 minutes / 2.3 hours

Even with half a dozen movies under her belt, Marilyn Monroe was still relatively unknown by 1950. Often, a pretty face will get you in the door, but you need something extra to break through into stardom. By 1953, with such hits as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Niagara (1953), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Monroe had finally grabbed everyone’s attention by simply oozing sexuality. What is interesting about her films before this point is seeing her in minor roles and thinking, “Isn’t that Marilyn Monroe?” Despite many of these earlier films not standing up well over time, All About Eve (1950) still remains culturally relevant. As the Best Picture for that year, All About Eve focuses on what it takes to get ahead in the theatre. Interestingly enough, the heavily Marilyn-influenced TV show, Smash, revealed the same amount of backstabbing in today’s theatre world as well.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is pleased to find an endearing fan in Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) and hires her to run some of the minutiae of her life. During a surprise party Eve set up for Margo’s boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill), Margo gets drunk and soon learns her producer, Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), has agreed to audition the beautiful arm-candy of theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe) auditions with Margo’s new understudy, Eve. Since this was news to Margo, she starts to recognize the warning signs: Eve is trying to replace her. After all, the papers are touting Eve as an up-and-coming star who fits in the roles better than the “mature” actress Margo has become. Now Margo is on full alert, but it is already too late. Eve has played the system and is soon recognized for her accomplishments.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 marvelous Marilyn Monroe roles

Bacon #: 2 (Some Like it Hot / Jack Lemmon -> JFK / Kevin Bacon)

#319. Shirley MacLaine

While there are plenty of comediennes in Hollywood today, this wasn’t always the case. Most of the women who appeared in comedies were either cast as serious characters to offset the hilarity of their male counterparts (as was done in The Marx Brothers’ films) or were used only as naïve damsels who would eventually fall in love with the male main character. It wasn’t until the 1950s when women started to have roles that could showcase their comedic talent. Shirley MacLaine was one of these women, and she has continued to support comedies to this day. With such a long and diverse career, MacLaine has managed to maintain her poise and dignity in a genre that often resorts to slapstick and lowbrow jokes to get their laughs. This week’s two films highlight some of Shirley MacLaine’s best roles.

Terms of EndearmentTerms of Endearment
Year: 1983
Rating: R
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

When it comes to awards, comedies are often at a disadvantage when compared to dramas. It is disappointing to have such a bias toward dramatic stories and roles when there are plenty of excellent comedic films. This bias is also present for the actors who play these comedic roles. Because of this challenge, the comedic actors and actresses who manage to be nominated for their work have overcome much to earn that honor. Shirley MacLaine has received nominations for Best Actress five times during her career. For three decades, she received nominations for Some Came Running (1958), The Apartment (1960), Irma la Douce (1963), and The Turning Point (1976). Finally, in 1983’s Terms of Endearment, a film that also won Best Picture, she took home that coveted statuette for her role as Aurora Greenway.

Despite being alone, Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) readily confides in her adult daughter, Emma (Debra Winger). Both of them are practically in the same life stage: searching for love wherever it may reside. Unfortunately, as Emma finds love with Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), Aurora’s disapproval puts a wedge between them both. Meanwhile, Aurora gets to know her neighbor, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) and falls in love with the retired astronaut. Through some difficult times in Emma’s marriage and journey through motherhood, Aurora is always there for her. Unfortunately, there is little Aurora can do once Emma is diagnosed with terminal cancer. A mother never wants to bury their child, even if said child has had a meaningful and love-filled life up until that point.

The ApartmentThe Apartment
Year: 1960
Rating: Approved
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

From her very first role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), MacLaine soon found herself in many Best Picture winners. Only a year later, she had a role in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), the Best Picture for that year. Four years after that, she would appear in The Apartment (1960), also a Best Picture winner. Along with the aforementioned Terms of Endearment, MacLaine certainly has a knack for appearing in fantastic movies. Of course, when I go back and watch The Apartment, I realize how young she really was. Today, she has aged gracefully into other roles in such movies as Steel Magnolias (1989), Guarding Tess (1994), Bernie (2011), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), and The Last Word (2017). Still, one of her most iconic roles for me was as Fran Kubelik in The Apartment.

Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is an elevator operator in an insurance office. While her job has its ups and downs, the least of which is repeated sexual harassment from some of the men, she eventually runs into Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon). Bud asks Fran out on a date to go see The Music Man at the theatre that night. Fran accepts but never shows up since she first has to meet up with her lover, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Coincidentally, Sheldrake takes Fran back to Bud’s apartment. Bud had been loaning his conveniently-located apartment out to his co-workers so they could have their extramarital affairs in exchange for recommendations to get him promoted. When Bud finally comes home, he finds Fran in his bed, having attempted suicide by a sleeping pill overdose. Over the next few weeks, he helps her get back on her feet, and they both fall in love in the process.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 magnificent Shirley MacLaine roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty / Joey Slotnick -> Hollow Man / Kevin Bacon)