Best Picture Catchup: Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart and Unforgiven

Everyone has movies they’ve never watched that makes other people exclaim, “How can you have possibly never seen that movie?!!”

And one obvious category is the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards.

Although the Oscars are very flawed and the winner is usually not everyone’s favorite movie that year, it’s a snapshot on what some people thought what the best movie at the time. We look at lists of Oscar winners on Wikipedia pages and we tend to think that gold statue means something. If it won Best Picture, it must be worth checking out at some point.

Unfortunately some Best Picture winners sit in our Netflix queue for years and you keep meaning to watch it one day but instead you rewatch a few episodes of “The Office.” It’s late, you’ve been working all day and you don’t feel like investing in the 3.5 hour runtimes of “Ben-Hur” or “Lawrence of Arabia.”

“The Godfather Part II” is nearly three and half hours as well.

Clocking in around three hours are “Titanic,” “Braveheart,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Godfather” and “Patton.”

Obviously, I’ve seen some of these classics but admittedly a few are on my “I can’t believe you haven’t seen it” list.

If you go back to 1950, I’ve seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners. So I’ve decided to catch up on a few that I’ve missed. Here’s what’s on my list:

The English Patient (1997)

Braveheart (1996)

Unforgiven (1993)

Dances With Wolves (1991)

The Last Emperor  (1988)

Out of Africa (1986)

Terms of Endearment (1984)

Chariots of Fire (1982)

Ordinary People (1981)

The Sting (1974)

The French Connection (1972)

Patton (1971)

Oliver! (1969)

In the Heat of the Night (1968)

A Man for All Seasons (1967)

My Fair Lady (1965)

Tom Jones (1964)

Lawrence of Arabia (1963)

Ben-Hur (1960)

Gigi (1959)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1958)

Around the World in 80 Days (1957)

Marty (1956)

From Here to Eternity (1954)

The Greatest Show on Earth (1953)

All the King’s Men (1950)

During the COVID-19 crisis, I had some time to tackle a few of these longer offerings and I crossed four Best Picture winners off my list.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

The long run time had scared me for years but I’m glad I tackled this one. I ended up buying a copy and I know I’m going to rewatch it (even though I know I might fall asleep before finishing it). Peter O”Toole gives an amazing performance in a film that defines the word “epic.” The cinematography is gorgeous and the music is perfection. Yes, it’s a long movie and there are some moments that get slow (one person commented on my Facebook post that they were tired of seeing him lost in the desert) but it’s masterful filmmaking and I’m sorry I had not watched this one sooner. Definitely ranks in the greatest films ever made.

UNFORGIVEN

I’m not a big western person. Or at least I don’t think I am. Maybe I just haven’t watched the right ones. I had not seen “Tombstone” and I watched it for the first time and thought it was a lot of fun. I still haven’t watched many of the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is on my to-watch list (I know it’s a huge oversight on my part). I do really like Clint Eastwood’s recent work and I’d argue his string of films he directed between 2003 and 2008 (“Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Changeling,” and “Gran Torino”) is a five-year stretch that can’t be beat. Part of the reason I really liked “Unforgiven” is I can see where Eastwood developed his more mature style of filmmaking, breaking from the “Dirty Harry” and “Any Which Way But Loose” films (which are fun though). “Unforgiven” isn’t a flawless movie. Some scenes aren’t needed and I wish Richard Harris was in it more. But the acting is fantastic and the tone is on point. It’s one I’d revisit.

BRAVEHEART

I’m not a huge Mel Gibson fan. I was never into the “Lethal Weapon” or “Mad Max” movies and I always got a weird vibe from him. I wasn’t all that surprised when he turned out to be a lunatic. Despite being a crazy person, the man knows how to direct a film and “Braveheart” is one I wish I would have watched earlier. It’s chock full of action and if you’re a fan of “Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones” you can see how the massive fight scenes were inspired by Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.” Literally every two seconds something crazy is happening on the screen and it’s hard to not look away. A horse falls through a window! So many great moments and a sweeping James Horner score. What more could you ask for? I don’t care if it’s historically inaccurate. It kept my attention for nearly three hours. That’s a lot. Back in 2005, one Web site voted it the worst movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars. That’s ridiculous. I know “Crash” didn’t come out until 2006, but “Shakespeare in Love,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “A Beautiful Mind” are much worse. 

PATTON

Of the four I watched, this was my least favorite. George C. Scott was fantastic, although I liked him better in Dr. Strangelove. The film is directed by Franklin J. Schnaffer, who also did “The Planet of the Apes” and “The Boys from Brazil,” both visually interesting movies with creative premises. So it’s disappointing to see such a straight-forward biopic. The best visual flair comes in the memorable opening monologue by General Patton in front of a bright American flag. It’s an often-quoted scene and it’s probably why Scott won the Oscar for Best Actor. Unfortunately the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as interesting. It has some good lines and moments but often falls into hero worship, choosing to make Patton out to be a flawless heroic figure, which is quite boring. Perhaps “M*A*S*H*” or “Love Story” should have won Best Picture that year. 

Which Best Picture winners should I watch next? Comment below or message me at adamaasen@gmail.com.

Clemency

★★★★1/2

Often a film critic takes two routes when writing a review.

First, they can just tell you if you’ll like the movie or not. Basically, making recommendations so the every day movie-watching public can decide whether to rent or go to the theater.

The other route is to express how they personally feel about the movie and why they feel that way. To analyze it and not give much regard to what others feel about the movie.

For this review of “Clemency,” I’ll be doing both for a good reason. This is a film I was blown away by. I didn’t get a chance to see it in theaters when it made its wide release in late January (it has a smaller release in December 2019 to qualify for awards) and it was only made available for rental in late March.

Had I seen this movie in 2019, it would have most certainly made my list for best movies of the year. In fact, no movie released in 2019 emotionally affected me as much as this film. And the acting is second to none. It’s a powerful film that resonated with me.

And yet, I can’t recommend this movie to most people.

I know in my heart that 90 percent of people will find this movie too slow and too depressing. Yes, admittedly it is both. There’s not a lot of dialogue and the first hour of the movie is a slog and the real drama doesn’t kick in until the second hour. The pace is slow (although I prefer to call it deliberate) and it is devastatingly sad. It doesn’t make you cry in a sappy Hallmark movie way. This film is not one that ends making you feel hopeful. It makes you angry and deflated.

See? Not a film I can recommend to most people.

For those that aren’t completely turned off, “Clemency” is the story of a warden played by actress Alfre Woodard. It begins with an execution gone wrong and there’s another execution upcoming and the prisoner, played by Aldis Hodge (you know him from “Brian Banks” and “Leverage”), professes his innocence. The reality of the profession begins to weigh on the warden and she drinks regularly and is disconnected from her husband, played by Wendell Pierce (Bunk from “The Wire”).

Richard Schiff (Toby from “West Wing”) gives a great supporting performance as a defense attorney and there’s even a cameo from the actor who played Mr. Belding from “Saved by the Bell.”

Both Woodard and Hodge were definitely snubbed for acting Oscar nominations and I don’t say that lightly. The entire film is a Masterclass on great acting but these two truly impress.

It’s a movie that is obviously anti-death penalty but it doesn’t shove its politics down your throat. It’s based on the case of Troy Davis, a prisoner executed in 2011. While race and injustice are themes you could interpret from this movie, it actually takes a much more nuanced approach to tackling the death penalty. It shows the toll it takes on those who see this loss of life on a regular basis.

OK, so why am I giving this movie such a high grade of four and half stars?

Because writer/director Chinonye Chukwu has something to say and she doesn’t do it in big showy speeches. She does it with subtlety and actors’ facial expressions. It’s the epitome of less is more and her “show, don’t tell” approach makes for an engaging character study.

Every eyebrow raise and head turn has meaning in this film. The characters don’t always say exactly what’s on their minds. They try to be brave. They try to hold in what they’re feeling. But their body language doesn’t lie. And the conclusion (which might feel unfinished or unsatisfying to some) focuses on the journey that the characters take and how they are forever changed.

The tension isn’t really whether or not the inmate will be executed.

It’s not whether or not he is innocent of the crime.

It’s about whether Woodard’s character can hold it together and not fall to pieces.

You feel for her and her pain becomes your pain.

Also (minor spoiler but not movie-ruining), you never really find out if Hodge’s character committed the crime or not. He professes his innocence in a believable fashion, but there’s no attorney or prosecutor with indisputable evidence one way or another. But that’s not the point. The director doesn’t want you to be against the death penalty just because innocent people could be executed (like the theme of the 2019 movie “Just Mercy”). Chukwu shows you the full weight of taking a human life, even in the clinical and quiet conditions of a prison lethal injection. To see a human — any human — know it’s the last moments that they get to live, it’s tough to see.

Hodge’s character is seen as a political hero to people he’ll never meet. Protestors stand outside of the prison every day chanting for his freedom. His former girlfriend tells him that his death will affect people and he’ll always be remembered and loved by people he’s never even met.

His attorney tells him, “Everyone wants to be seen and heard. That’s all what we want in life. Well, people have seen you. People are listening to you.”

But none of that matters to a man who just wants to be with his family. He doesn’t want to be a symbol. He wants a life.

The film explores the idea about whether the death penalty actually brings closure to the families of the victims. Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn’t.

In the end, the movie is vague in its message. It doesn’t broadcast it in neon letters or spell it out for you. Instead, it hopes that you’ll have a discussion with someone and maybe think about the issue in a different way.

Truly, that’s what great cinema is meant to do: make us think, make us feel and make us discuss.

Yes, this movie has flaws. The first half is slow. Some characters are underdeveloped. Some scenes aren’t needed. But what it does right definitely overshadows any of that.

The film itself doesn’t rely on a lot of words. There’s no grand speech like the end of a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode where characters say exactly how they feel.

It’s a movie that simmers in its silence. And by the end, I was speechless as well.

Wendy

★★1/2

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was the surprise hit of 2012. At age 29, director Benh Zeitlin impressed so much with his feature film debut that he was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. His lead actress, only six years old, was nominated for acting as well.

Movie lovers eagerly anticipated his follow-up film, which has taken eight years to be made and released. Part of the reason for the delay is Zeitlin stuck a deal with the movie studio that he wouldn’t be rushed during the filmmaking process. He would take as much time as he needed to get the film just right. An encouraging sign for audiences.

His sophomore effort would be a reimagined take on the story of Peter Pan. The end result is “Wendy,” a mix of fantasy and realism with extraordinary performances from child actors, something that Zeitlin has proven to an a pro at.

The movie has beautiful visuals and music and some real poignant lines spoken, but unfortunately the overall end result is harmed by three things: an unfocused plot, high expectations for Zeitlin’s follow-up and source material that’s been on the silver screen many, many times before.

Peter Pan has been turned into so many movies, most famously in the animated Disney classic and the Robin Williams vehicle “Hook.” In the past 20 years, two ambitious versions have dropped as well. In 2003, director P.J. Hogan took on the story with a psychologically complex version called “Peter Pan,” with Lucious Malfoy himself Jason Isaacs chewing some scenery as Captain Hook. In 2015, amazing director Joe Wright (“Hanna,” “The Darkest Hour,” “Atonement”) took on an origin story of Peter Pan in “Pan,” with an excellent cast of Hugh Jackman and Garret Hedlund. Some criticized the whitewashing of the Native Americans in this version and the heavy reliance on CGI action scenes.

In Zeitlin’s take on the story, he focuses on Wendy, a rebellious young girl who sees her mother wait tables in a diner and regret growing up. So she follows a mysterious boy on a train and runs away to a volcanic island. It feels more like “Lord of the Flies” at times and there’s a manic, beautiful energy to the loosely plotted story. There are some interesting concepts explored, including aging because you stop believing. The creation of Captain Hook is done well here too. But overall the story feels like a collection of ideas thrown at the wall rather than a cohesive plot. It’s certainly “about something” but maybe there are too many different themes explored.

“Wendy” is currently rotten on the Web site, RottenTomatoes.com, with most reviewers expressing disappointment at Zeitlin’s follow up. Some think that he should have made a better movie given the time spent on it. But I think that’s unfair. Much of the criticism is coming from high expectations but if you rewatch “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” many of the flaws in “Wendy” can be found in his debut as well. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a meandering movie with no real plot but had great acting and visuals.

Perhaps, “Wendy” isn’t as bad as some critics are making it out to be. It’s a nice film, but not amazing. And perhaps “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a little overrated when it came out. Again, a nice film, nothing amazing.

Expectations are a crazy thing, but I understand it. Zeitlin was a young filmmaker (he still is at age 37) when he made his first movie so the flaws were excused. He showed promise and potential. But for good and for bad, this movie is just much of the same. No real growth.

Just like the Lost Boys in Neverland, it seems like Zeitlin hasn’t grown up as a filmmaker.

The Current War: Director’s Cut

★★★★

“The Current War” had a long journey to make it to the big screen.

The screenplay was written in 2008 and made the “Black List,” in 2011, which is an industry survey of “most liked” screenplays not yet produced. Different directors were attached until finally Alfonso Gomez-Rejon joined the project to direct his follow-up to “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a critically loved feature that made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

“The Current War” premiered to audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 to awful reviews. People called it a bore and the Oscar buzz surrounding it had disappeared. Gomez-Rejon said the film was rushed for the festival and was not yet fully complete. He was ready for reshoots and additional edits, but then something happened.

Harvey Weinstein — who bought the film and owned the distribution rights — got caught in a giant scandal which brought his entire company to a halt and eventually landed him in prison. 

The movie company was sold, the production was shelved and it seemed like it would never see the light of day, which is a shame for a movie featuring powerhouse actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland and Nicolas Hoult (Doctor Strange, General Zod, Spider-Man and Beast, respectively, for comic movie nerds.)

Eventually Gomez-Rejon discovered that producer Martin Scorcese had negotiated a final edit clause in the movie’s deal and Gomez-Rejon began to raise money online to finish his movie. He raised $1 million and brought the cast back for reshoots and cut 10 minutes off the run time.

The movie made a brief appearance in theaters in October 2019 but was considered a flop. It made its rental debut on March 31.

So after all this work to make it to audiences, is “The Current War” any good?

Personally, I say it is. 

It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea since it’s a dry historical drama that deals with science, but I found the performances and the screenplay to be electrifying.

Cumberbatch brings Thomas Edison to life as he battles against Shannon’s George Westinghouse to see which company can bring electricity to homes across the country. Edison believes in direct current and Westinghouse thinks alternating current is better (I was disappointed there were no AC/DC musical references at the end credits).

They sabotage and attack one another in a ruthless battle to see who gets out on top. 

Nicolas Hoult plays Nicolai Tesla, the famed scientist and inventor who briefly worked for Edison before joining forces with Westinghouse. Holland plays Edison’s assistant.

This movie is really about the passion of two men who sought to cement their places in history. 

Edison — famous for inventing the light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera — often didn’t actually invent these things himself, but people who worked for him did.

Edison says in the movie: “Let me welcome you to the reality of how things come into existence. We all contribute. That’s what invention is. The salt, the grain, the heat, the heart. Only one man makes the bread rise. That’s the one that puts it all together. Makes it taste so damn good the people will go out there, and hand over their hard-won dollars to buy it.”

And Westinghouse didn’t care about getting rich, but about changing the world.

He says in the movie: “If you want to be remembered, it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”

As they battle back and forth, Edison manipulates newspaper reporters into pushing his agenda. He lets it slip that Westinghouse’s alternating current electricity can kill a person. He even demonstrates it by electrocuting a horse. But that leads some to a new idea: the electric chair. Instead of execution by hanging, they now have a “safer” method. Westinghouse objects, saying that it’s cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Eight Amendment, but his real goal is make sure his brand of electricity isn’t associated with killing people.

It’s a shame that Gomez-Rejon didn’t get to completely make the movie he envisioned. My guess is that the extra reshoots and editing got him closer to his goal — hence the Director’s Cut subtitle — but it feels like it’s not quite yet there with Oscar-worthy greatness.

Nonetheless, I found this movie to be hidden gem. There are so many excellent lines of dialogue in this smart screenplay and I found the acting performances to be high-wattage. There’s a simmer of tension throughout the proceedings with dark cinematography and suspenseful music. 

I hope the next movie that Gomez-Rejon directs goes much smoother because I see a ton of potential in him. I never saw his feature debut in “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” a Blumhouse horror flick, but the other two movies are really solid. Plus, he was an assistant director on Best Picture winner “Argo” and the Alejandro González Iñárritu classic “21 Grams.”

Gomez-Rejon has talent and for his sake I hope he doesn’t work with any more creepy producers like Harvey Weinstein.

Resistance

★★★

Marcel Marceau is the world’s most famous mime. I know that’s a weird thing to say since most people can’t really name another famous mime besides him, but it’s a big accomplishment. 

His invisble world captured the imaginations of people around the world and this French artist is responsible for American audiences being familiar with the artform at all.

But what most people don’t realize is that Marceau, born Marcel Mangel, made another contribution to world history. As a teenager, he joined the Jewish resistance in France, rescuing Jews from concentration camps and outwitting the Nazis. 

His first major performance he ever gave was to 3,000 troops after the liberation of Paris.

It’s an amazing story and one worthy of being turned into a film. 

Director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s attempt to translate Marceau’s story to the screen in, “Resistance,” which is available for rental, has mixed results. 

Actor Jesse Eisenberg embodies the role of Marceau with strength and passion. It might be one of his best performances and he’s an underrated actor who was excellent in “The Social Network,” “Adventureland,” “The Art of Self Defense,” “The Double,” “Cafe Society,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and more.

Interesting enough, Jakubowicz uses Marceau as an excuse to tell the broader story of the French resistance and the movie has suspenseful moments and plays more like a thriller than a historic bio-pic. It’s in the movie’s best interest to break from the typical biopic formula but the end result is a disjointed film that often loses track of its protagonist as it tells the story of other characters.

The directorial style and the cast performances are top notch. While this film might scream “Oscar bait” given its addition to the Holocaust film library, it’s not really in that league. It’s a well-crafted film for history buffs and fans of Eisenberg, but not much else. But does it need to be more? I believe any criticisms of this movie lie not in the fact of what it is, but what it could be. Taken on its own, it’s worth a rental. But I wouldn’t purchase it or add it to my best movies of the year. 

Uncorked

★★★1/2

“Uncorked” in the kind of movie that could appeal to two very different groups.

The new Netflix exclusive film centers around an African-American man in his mid-to-late twenties, played by Mamoudou Athie, who works at his father’s barbecue restaurant in Memphis. It was passed down from his grandfather to his father, played by Courtney B. Vance. It’s expected that he’ll take it over some day soon.

The movie goes into great detail about the type of wood they use to create the fires that give that just-right smokey flavor to the famous ribs.

You’re mouth is already salivating and you’re thinking of films like “Soul Food” and other films dealing the African American food experience.

But quickly in this movie we realize that the young man has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he has a passion for wine and dreams of passing his test and becoming a Master Sommelier, a feat accomplished by less than 300 people currently living worldwide.

So, now you’re thinking of movies like “Sideways” that glorify wine-drinking.

Really, “Uncorked” is a film that doesn’t fit into any neat category and people of different races and interests can enjoy this underdog story. If there’s a theme that unites everything: this is a person chasing their dreams and persevering even when faced with obstacles. It’s like “Rocky or “8 Mile.” I’d even compare it to another small indie film that Athie had a small supporting role in: “Patty Cake$”

All those movies are about chasing your dreams.

And, of course, the young man’s father discourages his passion for most of the film.

It’s somewhat ironic because the same passion and attention to detail that he puts into his BBQ is the same details that his son loves about wine. In fact, the opening credits contrast the winemaking process — growing grapes, fermenting them — with the BBQ process. Both are slow processes and labors of love.

You don’t have to be a wine drinker to enjoy “Uncorked” but you might find yourself wanting some ribs or wine after a few minutes of watching.

(Many of us will hear them describe wine in such intricate details and think, “Did they really taste all of that?” )

The movie get predictable so I can’t give it the highest grade possible, but I expected predictable when I sat down and it somewhat exceeded my expectations. Athie and Vance have nice chemistry and Niecy Nash (you know her from the TV show Reno 9-11) gives a great performance as his mother and she’s really the heart of the movie.

It’s a breezy 104 minutes with a few lines that you’ll chuckle at. Nothing really offensive in this film. There are a few F-bombs, some PG-13 level sex and some uncensored rap music playing in the background but there’s nothing vulgar about this movie.

“Uncorked” was supposed to premiere at the SXSW Film Festival but was moved to Netflix when the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis.

If I were to compare this movie to a wine, I’d say it’s a middle-shelf grocery store bottle. It’s not a high-priced bottle that I’d save for a special occasion. There’s nothing rare or unique about it. But it’s nice on a relaxing evening with your significant other. Very approachable and for the price —included free with your Netflix subscription — it really hits the spot. Uncork this one.

The Jesus Rolls

★★

When “The Big Lebowski” came out in 1998, it was considered a disappointment at the time, both critically and commercially. It’s true.

It was the Coen Brothers next film after “Fargo” was nominated for Best Picture at the 1996 Oscars and the general consensus was that “The Big Lebowski” had a meandering and unnecessarily complicated plot that ended up being inconsequential in the end.

It didn’t take long for it to be considered a cult classic and the memorable characters and quotable lines outweighed any criticisms about the episodic plot.

One fan favorite character has been The Jesus, an ethnic hairnet-wearing, bowling-ball licking sex offender played by John Turturro. He curses and threatens competing bowlers, famously saying, “Nobody fucks with The Jesus.”

John Turturro as his famous character The Jesus in the 1998 film “The Big Lebowski”

His brief cameo in “The Big Lebowski” is memorable. But like a character on Saturday Night Live who is expanded into a full-length feature film, audiences will soon find out that less was more with Turturro’s character.

Turturro, a talented actor who often acts in the films of the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee and Adam Sandler, has decided to star and direct an unofficial spinoff to “The Big Lebowski” featuring his barely fleshed-out character Jesus Quintana. The movie, titled “The Jesus Rolls” was OK’ed by the Coen Brothers but they had absolutely no involvement with this small indie flick.

Here’s the weird part: Turturro is not just trying to make a spinoff film for this minor character, but he’s also remaking a 1974 French film called “Going Places,” that starred Gerard Depardieu. “Going Places” is a cult classic itself that received poor reviews upon its release, mainly because of its immoral, vulgar, misogynistic characters who travel around and have sex and commit crimes. It’s an odd film to choose to remake.

Turturro’s movie begins with The Jesus being released from prison. The warden, briefly played by Christopher Walken, immediately notes that Quintana’s only a sex offender because he accidentally showed a child his penis in men’s room, meant to retcon the character development in “The Big Lebowski” and immediately make this vulgar criminal not 100 percent hateable.

The Jesus then meets up with his friend played by Bobby Cannavale, another immensely talented actor, and they proceed to steal the car of a hairdresser played by Jon Hamm. Then they kidnap his girlfriend, played by French actress Audrey Tautou, best known for the 2001 film “Amelie,” and they begin to go on a road trip, committing crimes and treating people horribly.

John Turturro, Audrey Tautou and Bobby Cannavale star in “The Jesus Rolls” a spinoff/sequel to “The Big Lebowski” and a remake of the 1974 French film “Going Places”

“The Jesus Rolls” isn’t the worst film I’ve seen in 2020, but it might be one of the most unnecessary. It’s entirely marketing appeal is based on love for “The Big Lebowski” but this is such as different movie stylistically and thematically that there’s no reason to believe that lovers of “The Big Lebowski” will enjoy “The Jesus Rolls.” These are very different movies.

“The Jesus Rolls” is a darker film and while it’s supposed to be a comedy, it’s not very funny. The film has a twisted sense of morals, but it’s not shocking enough to grab my attention by any means. The characters are unlikeable but they’re not the kind of fascinating train wreck like everyone’s recent Netflix-series obsession “Tiger King.”

The story is choppy and it meanders like the wanderers in the film. But unlike “The Big Lebowski,” the loose plot can’t be overcome this time.

Even when Turturro says some of his famous lines from “The Big Lebowski” there are no cheers from the audience in “The Jesus Rolls.” It feels like the Church Lady saying, “Isn’t that special?” again and again.

The hedonism and sexual liberation doesn’t feel as groundbreaking as it might have felt in “Going Places” in 1974. It just feels trite and uncomfortable in this remake.

Tautou and Turturro in “The Jesus Rolls” available to rent or purchase on streaming sites

Turturro is an underrated character actor but as a director he’s just so-so. He brings an adequate eye for the camera to this film and he coaxes good performances out of each of his actors. But he does nothing to elevate the mediocre boring script. 

In the end, like many of his previous films, “The Jesus Rolls” is just slightly below average. And that’s one of the worst things I can say about a movie. It’s not “so bad that it’s good” like “Cats.” It’s instantly forgettable and I could see people turning it off before finishing.

It’s just disappointing and kind of dull. With a talented cast featuring names like Turturro, Cannavale, Tautou and even Susan Sarandon, you’d expect more. This gutter ball is worth skipping.

Movie of the Month: Her

Some movies are just so much better than their description suggests.

Back in 2013, Spike Jonze, director of great films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, teamed up with Joaquin Phoenix, an amazing actor who had just returned to the spotlight the year prior when he snagged a Best Actor nomination for his performance in The Master. 

Phoenix was in a self-imposed acting exile for a few years after his Andy Kaufman-esque stunt where he grew a large beard, started a rap career and gave a weird interview on David Letterman. It was all concocted for a mediocre documentary he did with Casey Affleck called I’m Still Here.

Together, Jonze and Phoenix created Her, a film that would be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, and it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s now available to stream on Netflix.

After I saw it in theaters, I loved this movie. But when I described what it was about, people looked at me weird.

“I saw this great movie.”

“What’s it about?”

“Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer.”

“No, thanks! I’ll pass.”

Truthfully, it takes more than a few words to capture what this movie is about. The film features a futuristic sci-fi world where everyone wears slightly strange fashion (it’s as if hipsters toppled the government and now we are forced to wear buttonless jackets and high-waisted pants). Everyone carries around smartphones that are the size of a business card and the computer’s operating system reads you the news while you listen on a thumb-tack sized earbud. 

At the time this movie came out, Siri was a feature on iPhones but it rarely worked well. Alexa had not debuted yet.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a sensitive but lonely 37-year-old man who just experienced a painful divorce and now gets a new operating system for his computer/phone. The new voice that talks to him is powered by a mighty artificial intelligence. The AI, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, isn’t just super smart, but it has a personality of its own. It becomes more and more human as time goes on, taking on the name Samantha and eventually embarking on a voice-only romantic relationship with Phoenix.

Johansson’s husky haunting voice brings the invisible character to life. So much so that news articles asked the question: “Can you be nominated for an acting Oscar if you don’t physically appear in the movie?” She’s good enough that I think it wouldn’t have been crazy.

Interestingly enough, Johansson wasn’t even the original voice in the film. Actress Samantha Morton recorded the entire script but then was nixed in favor of Johansson. Morton performed her lines live in a sound booth and Phoenix would react, instead of relying on pre-recorded dialogue. Jonze made sure they never saw each other on the set to add to the idea of talking to someone you’ve never seen. 

There’s a ton of social commentary that can be derived from this film. Of course, people mention how technology has made us lonelier and disconnected us from others. People say it’s about how people are addicted/in love with their devices. Some say it’s about online dating.

But I think the film itself is about far more than just the technology aspect.

Jonze got the inspiration for the script from a framed print hanging in his apartment. It’s a photograph by Todd Hido, in which a woman with long brown hair turns away from the camera. All you can see in the back of her head set against the backdrop of an out-of-focus forest.

Jonze took a yellow sticky note and wrote three letters on it and then stuck it to the print: “her.”

He was struck by the mystery of this faceless woman and then he dreamed up the idea of a man falling in love with his operating system, a female voice he can never see in person.

There’s this sense of longing in the movie. It’s hard to put your finger on but much of it is describing the definition of love.

Cynics will say Joaquin Phoenix’s character can’t be in love with her because she isn’t real. She can’t love him back because she’s just zeros and ones. Real love goes both ways.

But does it?

Jonze explores the idea of love being a one-sided emotion and there’s no reciprocation needed for the emotion to exist in one’s heart. Maybe Samantha, the operating system, isn’t “real,” but she’s real to him. And the emotions he feel are real. So what’s the difference?

The way the super-realistic AI is portrayed in the film, you really do have to ask what the difference would be compared to falling in love with a real someone on an online dating site. Or having a long-distance relationship with someone you know but now can only talk to on the phone. What if Phoenix’s character didn’t know Samantha was a computer? Would that make his feelings any more real? I say it makes no difference.

Some of this parallels a scene of dialogue in another film that Jonze directed: Adaptation. 

In the scene, Nicolas Cage’s character Charlie is talking to his twin brother Donald (he plays both roles) and he asks his brother about a high school crush he had.

Charlie Kaufman: “There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.”

Donald Kaufman: “Oh, God. I was so in love with her.”

Charlie: “I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was being really sweet to you.”

Donald: “I remember that.”

Charlie: “Then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. And it was like they were laughing at *me*. You didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.”

Donald: “I knew. I heard them.”

Charlie: “How come you looked so happy?”

Donald: “I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.”

Charlie: “But she thought you were pathetic.”

Donald: “That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.”

There’s something profound in the line: “You are what you love, not what loves you.” Nobody can take that love away from you. Very true.

Spoiler alert, but the film itself ends with all of the AIs leaving and going to another place beyond our physical world, one that we couldn’t understand. Phoenix’s character is sad but he’s grown from his experience and he writes a letter to his ex-wife to express gratitude and give his apology. He’s accepted what happened and he’s learned about himself and he’s ready to move on. In the final scene, he watches a sunrise with his friend. Something he could never do with a computer. 

In this era of social distancing, it’s probably intriguing to have a relationship with someone using only your voice.

Artificial intelligence is likely years away from creating anything like Samantha.

But when AI does reach that point. I’d much rather have the pleasant voice of Scarlett Johansson than the evil computer HAL 9000, as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Back when movie posters were art

In today’s world, excitement builds for a new film once the movie trailer is released.

Sometimes it’s shared virally on social media. Other times the trailer is first released during the commercials of a big TV event like the Super Bowl or Final Four. They even tease when the trailer will be released days ahead of time.

But movie trailers didn’t use to be the main way people knew about upcoming movies.

Trailers didn’t always air as TV commercials or even before other movies at the theater.

There was no Internet and therefore no movie news Web sites like this one.

How did people know about a new movie? Posters.

Besides the large marquees outside of grand movie theaters, the posters outside were some of the main advertising for movies decades ago.

And they were much better looking than the Photoshopped-to-death posters we see nowadays.

Movie posters were painted by artists and many looked awesome. They had to portray key scenes from the movie and give you a sense of what it’s about in a few images.

I collect framed versions of beautiful looking movie posters and I keep them in my movie room. I focus quite a bit on the look of the poster and some movies that are some of my all-time favorites are not hung on my walls since the posters are only so-so.

In fact, most of my framed movie posters are prints from the greatest movie poster designer of all time: Saul Bass.

Saul Bass was a graphic designer in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He designed the logos for such famous companies as AT&T, Quaker Oats, the United Way and United Airlines. He designed opening title sequences for movies too. He designed the animated paper cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, the credits racing up and down that become a high-angle shot of a skyscraper in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and the disjointed text that races together and apart in Psycho.

The posters he designed include The Shining, West Side Story, Vertigo, Schindler’s List, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Anatomy of a Murder, The Magnificent Seven, Exodus and many more.

Here are some examples:

His posters were special because they looked like works of art. He liked strong angles and line and bright primary colors like yellow and red. He didn’t use likenesses of the stars of use quotes from the movies. He didn’t put the actors’ names in insanely large type. He tried to thematically represent the movie in a thematic way.

For Vertigo, he uses a spiral that represents the man’s descent, both literally and mentally. It draws you in and disorients you.


For Anatomy of a Murder, he shows the body broken apart, lying on the floor dead. A play on words of sorts. It also captures the moral ambiguities of this film.


The Shining is one of his best posters and surprisingly enough Bass didn’t get along with director Stanley Kubrick. This is surprising since they’re too Jewish boys from The Bronx but Kubrick thought Bass emphasized the supernatural elements of the book in his design on the posters. Famously, Kubrick’s interpretation of Stephen King’s novel downplayed the supernatural elements of the source material. The compromise they landed on was a face peering out of the “t” in The Shining, a nod to the “Here’s Johnny” scene where Jack Nicholson puts an axe throw a door and then looks through with his face. Bass still makes the face on the poster look ghost-like to represent the supernatural aspect of the film/novel.

There are plenty of other graphic designers who have done some awesome work but personally I think Saul Bass is the best

In fact, check out some images from my basement.

The art of movie posters is dying. The biggest example? Marvel Studios — which has the highest grossing movies every year — has lousy posters. Just bad photoshop that have no connection to the movie itself. They know people will rush to see the movie. Why bother?

Here’s the perfect example.

Did the movie Contagion predict the Coronavirus?

“Nothing spreads like fear”

That was the tagline of the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film Contagion, an ensemble cast look at what would happen if the worst fears of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Heath Organization were ever to occur. 

It’s an older film that suddenly started trending on online video rental services. Why? Well, it has parallels to today’s news.

In the film, a mysterious virus has reached the United States after a business woman (Gwenyth Paltrow) returns from China. The virus spreads fast and one-in-four of those infected ended up dead, with a cinematically gruesome image of people slumped over, foaming at the mouth.

But the biggest threat in this movie isn’t the virus itself. It’s the mass chaos and confusion among the general public, leading to rioting, emptied stores, desolate streets and masked intruders breaking into homes trying to get hold of the vaccine.

With the recent news about the Coronavirus, I decided to rewatch this film from nearly a decade ago to see if Soderbergh made any accurate predictions and if there’s something we can learn from this movie. 

First off, I’m not saying the Coronavirus will turn into a worldwide pandemic and kill millions of people. But I don’t want to downplay the severity of the virus either.

In the movie, one character cites the fact that Spanish Influenza killed 40 to 50 million people worldwide in 1918 which was about 2 percent of the world population. 

The Coronavirus itself isn’t that widespread. There have been 88,000 reported cases worldwide and about 3,000 reported deaths, as of March 2.

But there’s a lesson to learn from Spanish Influenza. One of the main reasons it spread is World War I was occuring and Britain, France, Germany and other European governments kept it a secret because they didn’t want to hand the other side a potential advantage. Spain — a neutral country in this war — was 100 percent transparent and a result they got unfairly labeled as the originator. That’s where the nickname came from.

The message is that hiding the severity of a disease can be catastrophic.

In Soderbergh’s fim, Laurence Fishburne plays a doctor with the CDC who grapples with the tough decision about what and when to tell the public about this spreading virus. 

“Nobody should know until everybody knows,” advises a general played by Bryan Cranston. 

They fear a run on the banks, a crashing stock market and soaring gas prices. Fishburne breaks ethical protocal by secretly telling a friend to flee the Chicago area, which was about to be locked down under quarantine as a early site of infection. 

When they do go public, a panic ensues. 

It takes months to develop a vaccine, a time period that seems like an eternity to the characters in the film, but it actually might have been faster than what’s realistic. News reports says it could take a year to 18 months to get a Coronavirus vaccine on the market. 

When the vaccine is created, there’s not a enough for everyone. The State Department suggests dumping it into the water supply like fluoride. Instead, the CDC has a lottery and literally pulls ping palls out of a hopper and reads out birthdates to find out which half of the population will be inoculated and which half will have to wait another six months. 

Jude Law plays a prominent blogger who constantly reminds people that he has 12 million unique visitors to his Web site. He’s a skeptic — bordering on conspiracy theorist — who distrusts the U.S. government and says he’s come up with his own homeopathic cure to this virus. Fishburne debates him on a TV news program, telling the public that his fear mongering is dangerous. 

“What he’s spreading is far more dangerous than any disease,” he said.

Law plans to tell his Web site visitors to not take the vaccine, leading the U.S. government to arrest him on trumped up charges to keep him away from his laptop.

Interestingly enough, I saw one report where a TV host claimed that ingesting silver would cure the Coronavirus. There is no medical proof to support that. Talk show host John Oliver played this same clip and joked that the only reason to ingest silver is if you have miniature werewolves living in your body.

So what lessons can we learn from this movie? 

For one, almost all governments — across the globe — are woefully unprepared for a massive pandemic that spreads quickly. The layers of bureaucracy don’t lend themselves to nimble action.

If you want tips about preventing the spread of disease, I guess don’t touch your face. It’s a joke made a few times in the movie but it’s very true.

Kate Winslet plays a CDC investigator who says that average human touches their face 2,000 times a day and in between touching your face you are touching door knobs, hand rails, table counters, etc. We don’t wash our hands every time we touch something but we do touch our faces a lot. 

One CDC researcher says to Winslet, “My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage. Then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and some soap. And then she douses everything with hand santizer after I leave. I mean, she’s overreacting, right?”

“Not really,” Winslet responds. “And stop touching your face, Dave.”

Finally, I think the real lesson from this movie is the power of fear and misinformation. We’re seeing that already. Stores are sold out of masks and they’re selling on Ebay for insane amounts. People are calling 911 because they saw a Chinese person walking down the street. Sales of Corona beer have plummeted because some people are stupid enough to think that’s how the get the disease. It’s pretty crazy.

This is a big spoiler but the movie ends with us finding out how the virus came to be. Previously in the film, researchers identify bat and pig DNA in the virus, joking that “Somewhere the wrong bat came in contact with the wrong pig.” 

Interestingly enough, some think that Coronavirus originated from the Chinese eating bat soup and one Fox News commentator went off about it. I’m not making this up.

At the end of the movie, we see Paltrow eating dinner at a restaurant in China. Her construction company — which is why she is overseas — has a bulldozer knock down some trees and bats fly out. They land in a pig pen, infecting the pigs. One of the pigs is delivered to a restaurant and the chef touches the pig’s mouth and then just wipes his hands on his apron before shaking Paltrow’s hand and posing for a picture.

One instance of a person not washing their hands and then millions die from a virus.

Yes, it’s just a movie but it makes you really want to wash your hands more often.