Sunday, January 7, 2018

1946 - It's a Wonderful Life

Just over two weeks now until the Oscar nominations are announced, so let's take a quick look at how the lead acting categories are shaping up. Gary Oldman was the early frontrunner for the Best Actor prize for his transformation into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. However, 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet could give him a run for his money due to a star-making performance in Call Me By Your Name. He'd be the youngest winner in that category by several years if he can pull it off. Tonight's Golden Globes (which are in progress as I write this) may boost one of their chances since they're competing against each other in the Best Actor in a Drama category.

The Globes may also provide some insight into the Best Actress race, which is much more unclear at this stage. Sally Hawkins probably has the most buzz so far for her role in The Shape of Water, but Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) have both garnered attention, too. And you can never rule out Meryl Streep (The Post) or her British Oscar-bait counterpart, Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul), though they probably have a more uphill battle.

Back to the 1946 Best Picture race. The next nominee is a staple of Christmas television, and even though we're already a week into the new year, I did indeed watch it (not for the first time) a few days after Christmas, so try to hang on to what's left of your festive spirit as you read my thoughts on...

It's a Wonderful Life
Frank Capra
France Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling
(based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern)
James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls and it seems like almost everyone in town is praying for George Bailey (Stewart) to get a lucky break. God answers those prayers by assigning a fledgling guardian angel named Clarence (Travers) to prevent George from taking his own life. In preparation, Clarence is shown a recap of all the important moments in George's life.

As a young boy, George shows his heroism and honesty. As a young man, he vows to get out of Bedford Falls and accomplish big things. But his plans are thwarted when his father unexpectedly passes away, leaving George in charge of the family's building and loan company. Through the following years, George's dreams slip further and further away, always seeming to take a back seat to his obligations.

Has there ever been a more charming movie than It's a Wonderful Life? A charming story, set in a charming town during a charming time of year with charming characters, this is feel-good cinema in its purest form, the epitome of the classic Hollywood film. Even seven decades later, it all holds up. The script is delightful, a mix of witty dialogue and heartwarming drama, wrapped up in a fantastically creative structure. Perhaps unexpectedly for a film that attempts to be so many different things, It's a Wonderful Life actually succeeds in being a well-rounded picture, finding the perfect balance of each of its elements and covering the gamut of human emotion. There's heart, there's drama, there's humour. Plus, there's some high concept fantasy, a plot device that can so often fail, but is executed perfectly here, never becoming so silly that it diminishes the dramatic realism.

It's impossible to imagine anyone but James Stewart in the role of George Bailey. As arguably the most affable movie star of all time, he embodies the selflessness and wide-eyed ambition of George wonderfully, earning himself a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the process. He's supported by a cast of wonderful actors, including Donna Reed as his supportive wife, the always delightful Thomas Mitchell as his uncle, a wonderfully slimy Lionel Barrymore as the town's rich bully, and the beautiful innocence of Henry Travers (pictured) as the rookie angel.

Along with its Picture and Actor nominations, the film garnered nods for its director Frank Capra (who had already won three Best Director Oscars by this point), as well as for its Film Editing and Sound Mixing, bringing its total nods to five. Sadly, though, this classic walked away with no wins at all.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

1946 - The Razor's Edge

This year's Oscar race is heating up. Most of the critics associations have weighed in with their picks, and the Golden Globes and SAG Awards nominations have been announced as well, so a few frontrunners are emerging. Probably the surest shot at this early stage is in the Best Supporting Actor category. After an esteemed career to date, including two prior Oscar nominations, it seems like this could be Willem Dafoe's year for his performance in The Florida Project. Meanwhile, the Supporting Actress contest is shaping up to be a battle between two horrible mothers - Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird and Allison Janney in I, Tonya. Both are almost guaranteed to earn their first Oscar nominations next month with the scales leaning towards Metcalf for the win.

And now we shift our attention back to the next 1946 Best Picture nominee...

The Razor's Edge
Edmund Goulding
Lamar Trotti
(based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham)
Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, Herbert Marshall
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Supporting Actress (Baxter)

Larry Darrell (Power) returns home from World War I, lucky to be alive after a fellow soldier made the ultimate sacrifice to save him. The event has left Larry traumatised and confused, so much so that he turns down job offers in order to simply loaf around and live off his modest inheritance, something his fiancee Isabel (Tierney) can't quite comprehend. Despite not truly being on board with it, Isabel agrees to postpone their nuptials so that Larry can spend an unspecified amount of time in Paris to clear his head.

The Razor's Edge is squarely in the melodrama genre. High emotion, high stakes, high society. That said, it's captivating melodrama, so while the events are like something out of a soap opera, we remain connected to the characters and their futures. The picture begins with a whirlwind of character introductions, making it initially tough to follow. This is somewhat confounded by the fact that W. Somerset Maugham (the author of the source material) is presented as a character within the narrative, though always on the outskirts of the main action. It's an interesting plot device that works nicely in its own right, but since the audience identifies predominantly with him in the opening scenes, it's unclear at first who the actual protagonist is. Though, to be fair, even by the end of the film, none of the characters really turns out to be wholly protagonist material. As expected in melodrama, each of the characters often see-saws between likable and not.

Despite some heavy-handed dialogue (another hallmark of melodrama), I did enjoy the old-timey slang. When Isabel's uncle is trying to console her after Larry leaves, he promises her that she soon "won't care two straws for him." Later, on a different topic, he exclaims, "I don't care a row of beans." People back then sure had a long list of random, unimportant things they didn't care about.

The cast of The Razor's Edge is uniformly great, delivering cleverly nuanced performances that make us forget how melodramatic the material is. Tyrone Power, in particular, manages to avoid portraying Larry as one-dimensionally meek, despite his being existentially lost for most of the story. Instead, Power instils his character with strength and a confidence that he's got it all together, even when he clearly doesn't. Gene Tierney is also outstanding, swinging back and forth between vulnerable and selfish. And while Anne Baxter (pictured) is admittedly a little showy (not unexpected for 1946, especially in a melodrama) as the scorned alcoholic, she remains utterly watchable. I also particularly enjoyed Lucile Watson's charmingly witty and strong performance, despite a small role.

Apart from its Best Picture nod, the film was also cited for Art Direction and two supporting performances, Clifton Webb and Baxter, the latter earning the film's only Oscar.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

1946 - The Best Years of Our Lives

We now come to the impetus for my recent productiveness on this blog. Last week, one of L.A.'s premier revival cinemas, The New Beverly, held a screening of the eventual winner of this year of review. I've written briefly about the New Bev before and I only wish I had the time to visit it more often. After three years in L.A., this marks only the second time I've been.

In any case, here's my take on 1946's successful Best Picture nominee...

The Best Years of Our Lives
William Wyler
Robert E. Sherwood
(based on a novel by MacKinley Kantor)
Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (March), Best Supporting Actor (Russell)

As World War II comes to a close, three American servicemen meet for the first time on the return trip to their hometown of Boone City. Al Stephenson (March) reluctantly returns to work at his old banking firm while attempting to reconnect with his wife, Milly (Loy). Meanwhile, Fred Derry (Andrews) struggles to find any work at all, disappointing his wife, Marie (Mayo). The pressure puts a strain on the relatively new marriage, as does Derry's falling for Stephenson's daughter, Peggy (Wright). Lastly, Homer Parrish (Russell), who lost both his hands during the war, deals with his own feelings of inadequacy.

A touching story of how returning servicemen cope when rejoining civilian life, The Best Years of Our Lives contains a healthy dose of moving drama, as expected, but it's also rich in humour. That's exactly my cup of tea, so it's fair to say I enjoyed this picture quite a bit. Granted, more modern takes on this theme, like Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July - both of which will be covered on this blog eventually - may dig deeper, but this was the 1940s after all, so a little overly sweet melodrama was just the style of the day. Likewise, the comedy can be a bit broad and unrealistic, but it's still genuinely funny, which is the important thing. I saw the movie with what I can only assume was a room full of like-minded classic film buffs and there were several moments in which the entire audience erupted with laughter.

The film is blessed with a fantastic ensemble cast. There's really not a lemon among them. Fredric March is frequently hilarious, yet genuine when appropriate, earning himself his second Oscar for Best Actor. Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright are both delightfully cheeky, excelling at their sarcastic delivery. Kudos also to screenwriter Robert Sherwood for giving them all such witty things to say.

And then there's Harold Russell, a real-life WWII vet and amputee who was not an actor, though you might not know it because he definitely holds his own among this cast. Perhaps he's a little stiff in the really dramatic scenes, but he laps up the casual banter of his character like a pro.

Interestingly, only two years earlier, Barry Fitzgerald became the first and only actor to be nominated twice for the same performance: Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for Going My Way. The Academy changed its rules so that could never happen again, yet two years later, they befittingly decided to bestow an honorary award onto Harold Russell for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans" fearing he probably wouldn't be successful in his Best Supporting Actor nomination. Lo and behold, he ended up winning the trophy, making him the only actor to actually be awarded two Oscars for the same performance. That's him pictured above with his double golden statues.

All in all, the film itself closed out Oscar night with a pretty impressive strike rate. Not including Russell's honorary award and producer Samuel Goldwyn's Thalberg award, the film won seven of its eight nominations, only missing out on Best Sound.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Best Picture of 1972

Like the previous year of review, there is one picture among these nominees that is clearly held in high regard by film buffs, film reviewers and film historians, so it's tough to look past that. Nonetheless, when making these verdicts, I try to set aside any outside influence and focus on the filmmaking, so let's see where that leads us.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1972 are:
  • Cabaret
  • Deliverance
  • The Emigrants
  • The Godfather
  • Sounder
Three films in that list have continued to enjoy a place in pop culture for the last several decades. The other two are not quite as well remembered. All of them, however, are intensely dramatic in different ways, and they share a common theme: survival.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two least remembered films were also my least favourite. Sounder had some fine moments but overall, it felt too superficial for my liking. The Emigrants was engaging on many levels, but its laboured storytelling is not my cup of tea. If the first hour was removed, it probably wouldn't have affected my understanding of the plot but might have increased my enjoyment of it.

Deliverance and Cabaret are both fiercely captivating for entirely different reasons. As well-deserving as their Best Picture nominations are, they had some stiff competition from The Godfather, a film that has become an icon of modern filmmaking. And so it is that I now officially name The Godfather as my favourite of 1972's Best Picture nominees.
Best Picture of 1972
Academy's choice:

The Godfather

Matt's choice:

The Godfather

Your choice:

The Godfather ranks highly in most polls (of industry and of the general public), so I'm assuming we'll see it triumph in my irrelevant poll as well, but I'm happy to be proven wrong. Cast your vote above. A few days ago, I hinted at the reason for my current spate of blog posts, which was the same reason I chose 1972 as the previous year of review. Back then, it was a local screening of The Godfather. This time, it was the Best Picture winner from 1946, so we head back to the 40s again for our next year of review.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1946 are:
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Henry V
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • The Razor's Edge
  • The Yearling
Several much-loved classics in that bunch, so I'm looking forward to diving in. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

1972 - The Emigrants

This is one of those times when my incessant procrastination pays off. The next film of review has been unavailable in the US until early last year, so seeking it out for a viewing would have been far more difficult before then. Let that be a lesson to you all. Sometimes, if you put something off long enough, it actually becomes easier.

So, let's see what we make of this nominee from the Best Picture contest of 1972...

The Emigrants
Jan Troell
Bengt Forslund, Jan Troell
(based on the novels by Vilhelm Moberg)
Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg, Allan Edwall, Monica Zetterlund, Pierre Lindstedt
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

The Emigrants opens with a series of oddly statistical captions about the Swedish town in which the main characters live. In fact, the subtitling, in general, of the version I watched is more than a bit unprofessional. The English translations are not always grammatically correct, not to mention the frequent typos. But I digress...

In this small Swedish town in the 19th century, the Nilsson family struggles to make their farm profitable. Robert (Axberg) hits on the idea to emigrate to America to pursue a better life, so he offers to sell his share of the farm to his older brother, Karl-Oskar (Von Sydow) in order to pay for the trip. However, Karl-Oskar confides in Robert that he, too, has been considering moving to the States, so he takes the idea to his wife, Kristina (Ullmann), who is not convinced. After all, they have four children and the trip across the Atlantic is long and dangerous.

When one of their children dies due to hunger, Kristina changes her mind and the preparations begin. Joining them on the ship are Robert's friend Arvid (Lindstedt), Kristina's uncle Danjel (Edwall) along with his wife and kids, and former prostitute Ulrika (Zetterlund) and her teenage daughter. After hearing from fellow passengers about the fertile land in Minnesota, the Nilssons decide that will be their final destination, but they'll need to survive the arduous journey first.

This is not a short film. Not by a long shot. At just over three hours, it definitely has an epic feel, but the pacing is often so laboured that it sometimes feels even longer. There I was thinking Sounder was slow but in the time it took Sounder to tell its entire story, The Emigrants hadn't even started emigrating yet. Not that nothing happens. There's a fascinating story being told, but so many of the scenes include lengthy blocks of repetition or inactivity. Sometimes, something will actually happen after the silence, but often, an entire scene will go by without any dialogue or plot progression. There are, for example, several scenes devoted to someone sitting on a swing and swinging for a minute or two.

From the above description, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is one of those artsy films that eschews plot and character in favour of experimental camera techniques and metaphorical dialogue. And while there are indeed some inexplicable fast zooms, the film is, for the most part, a conventional production. However, the score remains an oddity and is mind-bogglingly inappropriate to the action taking place on screen. Thankfully, it's not all that frequent, but when there is music, it sounds like it was composed for a thriller, not an epic drama. There are literally establishing shots of benign landscapes underscored by chilling suspense music. I almost expected a goblin to jump out from behind a tree.

Nonetheless, like Sounder, The Emigrants becomes much more captivating in the second half. The scenes aboard the ship and after landing in America are still sometimes slow, but I suppose we've spent so long with these characters by that point that we can't help but be invested in what happens to them.

Despite the intermittent tedium, the cast, led by Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann (both pictured), are all supremely riveting in their roles, though Ullmann was the only one nominated for her performance. My pick of the bunch, however, is Monica Zetterlund's feisty portrayal of Ulrika. And in an apparent act of nepotism, Zetterlund's on-screen daughter is played by her actual daughter, Eva-Lena.

The Emigrants achieved the very rare Oscars feat of receiving both a Foreign Language Film nomination as well as a Best Picture nod, though unlike the other three films in that exclusive club - Z, Life Is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - The Emigrants took two Oscar ceremonies to accomplish it. Due to Academy rules, Foreign Language submissions need not have been released in the States, so The Emigrants garnered its Foreign Language nomination in 1971, when it initially played in Sweden. Then, when it was eventually released in the US in 1972, it became eligible in all the other categories. Also unlike the other three movies, which were all successful in winning the Foreign Language award plus at least one other, The Emigrants took home no Oscars at all. To cap it off, though, its sequel, The New Land, happened to be competing in the Foreign Language category in 1972, also.