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.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

1972 - Sounder

As this year's Oscar contenders all jostle for position, I'm taking advantage of the available screenings and Q&As. So far, I've managed to see Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound and Darkest Hour, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed and all of which have strong prospects for multiple nominations. It's clear to me why Gary Oldman is the early frontrunner for Best Actor. I also saw The Meyerowitz Stories and though I'm not confident about its chances at the Oscars, hearing Dustin Hoffman and Adam Sandler talk after the screening was probably my favourite Q&A experience of the lot. Additionally, I slummed it to a regular cinema to enjoy Battle of the Sexes and Lady Bird, both of which are highly likely to see acting nominations, too, maybe even wins. Emma Stone is fantastic as Billie Jean King, and while Saoirse Ronan has a good shot at a Best Actress nomination, I think her on-screen mother, Laurie Metcalf actually has a better shot at taking home the Supporting Actress award.

But back to the 1972 Best Picture contenders now as we review...

Martin Ritt
Lonne Elder III
(based on the novel by William H. Armstrong)
Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks, Carmen Matthews, Taj Mahal, James Best, Janet MacLachlan
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

A poverty-stricken African-American family struggle to make ends meet in Depression-era Louisiana. When things get desperate, the head of the household, Nathan (Winfield), steals some meat to feed his family but is later arrested and sentenced to hard labour. His wife, Rebecca (Tyson), sends oldest son David Lee (Hooks), along with his trusty dog, Sounder, on a mission to find the prison camp that Nathan was sent to.

From first impressions, Sounder is slightly melodramatic. Many of the situations, even the ones that ought to be intensely dramatic, are executed in a somewhat superficial way. The dialogue is often cliched with the characters simply saying words at each other, avoiding any genuine connection. Their behaviour, too, seems oddly unmotivated. While some of the more important decisions may be justified, many of the smaller interactions between two characters seem unnatural and staged.

I'm also a little confused as to why the film is called Sounder. I mean, I get that the dog is named Sounder and maybe there's a metaphor about loyalty or something, but the dog is a very minor character, all things considered. He doesn't actively move the story forward in any meaningful way. In fact, he's barely important to the story at all. As it turns out, the book from which the film is adapted, focuses much more heavily on the dog, but since screenwriter Lonne Elder III clearly shifted the main focus to the family, you'd think a different title would have been in order.

Anyway, before you think I'm completely writing it off - and, remember, I did preface all this with "from first impressions" - the film certainly has its merits. The family themes are universal and despite a very, VERY slow-moving first half, the final act is indeed engaging with some genuinely touching moments.

The performances, however, are often as stiff as the dialogue, particularly all the children. Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield are obviously accomplished actors, but even they struggle to rise above the stilted material. As mentioned, though, things pick up towards the end, and there are occasions when Tyson and Winfield truly show off their acting chops. Winfield's heated exchange with his son and the subsequent heartfelt monologue are particularly moving to watch. Kevin Hooks, now a prolific TV director, isn't great, but a darn sight better than the amateurish performances by the kids in his class. For me, though, the most watchable performance in the picture is the one given by Janet MacLachlan (pictured) as Camille, the schoolteacher, who takes David Lee under her wing, genuinely trying to connect with him.

The Academy obviously liked the lead actors since both Tyson and Winfield saw their performances nominated, making it the first time a film received Actor and Actress nods for its African-American leads. (The only other pair is Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett for What's Love Got To Do With It.) They also clearly disagreed with me about the script, because the film also picked up a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

1972 - Deliverance

It seems my only motivation to work on this blog lately is when a Best Picture nominee is scheduled to play locally on the big screen. In a few days, one such screening is happening, so I'm attempting to cram in the last few 1972 nominees beforehand.

So let's rejoin the 1972 Best Picture race and have a look at...

John Boorman
James Dickey
(based on his novel)
Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Four businessmen from Atlanta head north for a weekend of camping and canoeing. From the moment they set foot in the remote Georgia town, the locals give off an unfriendly and unhelpful vibe. That bad vibe turns into a nightmarish one as they not only deal with the violent river rapids but also with some violent locals. Getting back to civilisation with their dignity - and lives - intact becomes increasingly more difficult.

Deliverance is gripping from the first frame to the last, a genuinely edge-of-your-seat experience. As a film buff, particularly of 1970s cinema, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I hadn't actually seen this picture before, though I was, of course, fully aware of its two most famous scenes. The first, the duelling banjos - which is a bit of a misnomer since only one of the duelling instruments is a banjo - appears very early on, so knowing about this scene in advance was certainly no disadvantage. Once the two musicians get into full swing, it's incredibly toe-tapping and entertaining, sure to put a smile on your face.

The other famous scene, however, makes you feel the precise opposite and it's perhaps this scene that is more responsible for cementing the film's place in popular culture. Being familiar with it, I was concerned it would affect my experience of the story. Indeed, I was, in a way, just waiting for the canoe trip to go pear-shaped, but in the end, it's less than halfway through the film, so there's still plenty of nail-biting action that follows. And in any case, despite my awareness of its infamous reputation, the scene itself is some of the most intense few minutes of cinema I've ever seen. My eyes were glued to the screen. Powerful, powerful stuff.

Jon Voight (pictured) is, for me, the standout among the four main performers. His is a wonderfully subtle portrayal of a tortured man, far out of his depth, both literally and metaphorically. Ned Beatty is also great, though I was expecting his character to be more traumatised by his experience. By the end of the film, he seems almost to be able to shrug it off. Burt Reynolds is perhaps less realistic in his performance. His relatively unaffected response to the main event of the film seems somehow inappropriate and not particularly genuine. On the other end of the spectrum is Ronny Cox, who plays it all a bit too over the top. Despite the varied performances, they all get huge kudos for doing their own stunts. There's no mistaking that it's clearly the actors inside those canoes as they roll over the rapids. Voight also apparently scaled that cliff himself - a mighty impressive feat. Lastly, don't miss the source material's author, James Dickey, popping up as the Sheriff towards the end of the film.

As for Academy Awards, there were no acting nominations (though Voight was nominated for a Golden Globe), but the film picked up nods for Picture (obviously), John Boorman's impeccable direction and the meticulous editing by Tom Priestley.