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.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

1972 - Cabaret

Oscar season is not too far away now. Some might even say it's begun already. I've somehow managed to get to the movies a number of times recently, and while there have been some films I've really loved (Baby Driver, Brigsby Bear, Ingrid Goes West, The Big Sick), probably the only real Oscar contender among them is Dunkirk. If it can keep up the momentum, it seems like a good shot for a Best Picture nomination. And if it can convert that into a win, it would be the first 70mm film to do so since Patton in 1970.

But enough of the useless Oscars trivia. Next up, we take a look at another nominee from 1972's Best Picture contest...

Bob Fosse
Jay Presson Allen
(based on the musical play by Joe Masteroff, also based on a play by John Van Druten, also based on stories by Christopher Isherwood)
Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
8 wins, including Best Director, Best Actress (Minnelli) and Best Supporting Actor (Grey)

Berlin, 1931. American Sally Bowles (Minnelli) works as a cabaret singer at the bohemian Kit Kat Club. She befriends Englishman Brian Roberts (York), who teaches English to the locals while he works on his doctorate. The two flirt with romance before eventually taking the plunge, but when a charming baron (Grieme) enters their lives, a complicated threesome is born. All the while, the Nazi party becomes an increasingly violent presence in the city and in the club.

Like most musical films, a TV screen seems too confining for the theatrically extravagant numbers of Cabaret. It's certainly another movie I'd like to be able to catch on the big screen one day. In any case, no matter the size of the screen, all of the songs, right from the opening number, are passionate and emotive. Not to mention toe-tapping. Literally. My toe was involuntarily bouncing to the beat often. And Cabaret is not just a treat for your ears. Your eyes can also feast on the snazzy costumes, moody cinematography and snappy editing. Most of that visual and aural entertainment is limited to the musical numbers in the cabaret club, a setting which obviously allows for such flashiness. However, the narrative story is also very moving and emotional, exploring elements of the human condition in a way that isn't touched upon often, or at least wasn't in 1972.

As I often mention, stage productions that are brought to the screen often fail to appropriately adapt the material for film, but thankfully, that's not the case with Cabaret. While there are still a few lengthy scenes full of only dialogue, the musical scenes in particular make clever use of the medium. David Bretherton's editing deftly splices the cabaret performances together with snippets of germane events taking place outside the club. Bob Fosse also made the brilliant decision to remove all the songs from the stage version that didn't actually take place on the cabaret stage. The result is a musical that retains the sense of realism that is usually lost when characters unrealistically burst into song. Here, the singing only occurs as it would in real life: on a stage in front of an audience.

While the songs symbolically comment on the surrounding scenes, the only direct connection between the cabaret performances and the narrative story is Sally Bowles, and even then, we never actually see her interact offstage with any of the other cabaret performers (apart from a brief suggestive look from the Emcee). On the one hand, this creates a mildly disjointed feeling that we're watching two starkly separate movies. On the other hand, the two movies are cleverly related in that they explore the same themes using opposite techniques - one is a chronological narrative, the other is a series of bitingly satirical musical numbers.

After such engaging passion, the ending is perhaps a little unsatisfying. Not that I'm suggesting a happy ending would have been appropriate, but despite the fact that the mismatched lovers were inevitably not meant to be, the decline of their relationship seemed somewhat sudden. Plus, all the political tension that infuses the film never develops into anything more. I was half expecting the Nazis to storm the club and shut it down in a dramatic climax, but instead, the film ends with only a whimper. Then again, that may very well be the point of it all. The vibrant Berlin culture of the early 1930s never got a proper goodbye. It was gradually diminished as Hitler took over. Perhaps this is symbolised in the final moments of the film as the Emcee sings a suspended farewell that is missing its final musical phrase. He bows and briskly exits the stage as the camera pans to see the distorted reflections of several Nazis in uniform in the audience.

Liza Minnelli is naturally bubbly and energetic in perhaps her most memorable role, earning herself a Best Actress Oscar in the process. Also winning on Oscar night was Best Supporting Actor Joel Grey (pictured) as the Emcee. At first, Grey seems a little over the top, but once you accept that he's playing the part of a vaudevillian cabaret artist, it's actually perfect. I desperately wanted to see his character actually interact with someone off the stage, but nonetheless, he's delightfully naughty and suggestive, precise and detailed in every movement. That's probably in large part due to Fosse's intricate choreography, which is sublimely provocative on many levels. Some of the shapes he makes his dancers take are so unique that I often felt like I'd never seen a person make that move before. And his direction is nothing to be sneezed at either. He won the Best Director Oscar for it, after all. A notable and fascinating feature of his style in this film is his penchant for allowing his characters to communicate without saying anything. It's clear he wasn't afraid to have his actors stare at each other silently for long periods of time. To paraphrase a well-known proverb, a face is worth a thousand words.

Then, of course, there's the music and lyrics. Kander and Ebb are simply masters of the form, both individually and together. The toe-tapping, emotive music combined with witty and moving lyrics is the perfect pairing. They wrote three songs specifically for the movie, but the one that seemed like it would be the most likely to be nominated for an Oscar, "Maybe This Time", was actually adapted from a song they'd written previously, making it ineligible. So in the end, Cabaret didn't receive a Best Original Song nod, but it did find itself nominated in 10 other categories, winning a total of 8 Oscars, the most for any film that didn't also win Best Picture.

Monday, July 31, 2017

1972 - The Godfather

You may remember several weeks ago, when I returned to this blog after such a lengthy break, that I mentioned having watched four movies within the space of as many days. The driving force behind that feat was a screening by Fathom Events, in collaboration with TCM. The film in question was a Best Picture winner that I'd always wanted to see on the big screen, so it was tough to pass up the opportunity. But of course, in order to appease my own sense of order, I felt the obsessive need to finish the previous year of review before starting a new one. Hence, I crammed in the remaining three 1943 Best Picture nominees just in time to treat myself to 1972's winner. And with this review, I'm finally caught up.

So, our first nominee from the 1972 Best Picture race is...

The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
(based on the novel by Mario Puzo)
Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Brando)

Don Vito Corleone (Brando), known as the Godfather, is the head of one of New York's most notorious crime families. While the other male members of the clan are all involved in the family business, Vito's son, Michael (Pacino), keeps himself at a distance. But when the Godfather refuses to make a deal with a rival crime family, a mob war breaks out. In what begins as an attempt to protect his own father, Michael soon finds himself drawn in to the family business, after all.

Both the AFI and IMDb users list The Godfather in the number two spot of their top films of all time, and it's not difficult to understand why. It's a positively captivating film from start to finish, fittingly earning a revered place in cinematic history. From the exquisite cinematography to the powerful performances, there is drama and suspense infused into every frame. Ultimately, though, the story is essentially a heartbreaking character study of a man whose moral compass collapses under the weight of his family loyalty. When we first meet Michael Corleone, he's relaxed and open, making it clear to Kay that he has nothing to do with his father's business. But as he slowly gets pulled in to the family's shady dealings, he becomes more and more humorless and unlikable. Finally, he takes over from his father and Kay is shut out (both literally and metaphorically) in one of the most chilling final shots ever to be filmed (pictured).

A big part of any film becoming such a pop culture phenomenon is its memorable music and quotable quotes, and The Godfather is certainly no exception. While Italian composer Nino Rota's intensely evocative score was initially announced as a nominee for the Best Original Score Oscar, it was later withdrawn due to the discovery that Rota had adapted an earlier score for the film's main theme. Regardless of its origins, the theme has clearly become so closely associated with The Godfather that it scarcely matters what it was first used for. The memorable quotes, on the other hand, weren't heard anywhere before, though they've been mimicked ad nauseam ever since, a clear testament to their emotional resonance. In the screening that I attended, there was audible tittering when Brando uttered the classic, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse," and some louder chuckles at the oft-parodied, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." Even more evidence I was watching with fellow fans was the scene in which Woltz first proudly shows off his racehorse. The audience knowingly snickered with delight at what we all knew was coming.

The performances are fantastic all around. From the comic relief of Lenny Montana's Luca Brasi to the impassioned energy of Talia Shire's Connie. In total, there were four acting nominations. Brando deservedly won Best Actor (though famously refused the award) for an exceptional portrayal of the Corleone patriarch. Powerful, yet understated, but jeez, those cotton balls in his mouth sure are weird. Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan all competed against each other in the Supporting Actor category, but perhaps they split the vote because none of them took home the prize. It would have made for an interesting evening if Pacino had won, though, because he, too, was a no-show at the ceremony, allegedly objecting to his performance being cited as a supporting role. To be fair, he had a point. His performance represented a far greater amount of screen time than Brando's. Certainly not the first or last time that sort of thing has happened, but clearly one of the most egregious cases.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Best Picture of 1943

Well, this verdict is over two years in the making. Since it's been long, it was somewhat difficult to recall the first few viewings, so I've had to rely on my original thoughts as written down in the blog itself. Not that it really matters, to be honest, since this one was pretty much a foregone conclusion from the beginning.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1943 are:
  • Casablanca
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Heaven Can Wait
  • The Human Comedy
  • In Which We Serve
  • Madame Curie
  • The More the Merrier
  • The Ox-Bow Incident
  • The Song of Bernadette
  • Watch on the Rhine
Of the ten nominated films, exactly half of them are contemporary pieces exploring some aspect of the war with varying degrees of patriotism and propaganda. Together with the other half, though, it's quite a diverse group with several genres being represented. All in all, they don't constitute an outstanding collection of cinema, though many of them are captivating. I found particular enjoyment in The Ox-Bow Incident and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

But why waste time. There was very little chance anything would topple Casablanca in my esteem. It's a masterpiece of early filmmaking - great performances, great script, great images - that towers over its competitors and has deservedly earned its iconic status in cinematic culture. And so, to make it official, Casablanca is, without question, my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1943.
Best Picture of 1943
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:


Your choice:

Let me know what your favourite of this year was by voting in the poll above. We move to the 1970s now for a selection of heavy dramas (and one musical drama).

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1972 are:
  • Cabaret
  • Deliverance
  • The Emigrants
  • The Godfather
  • Sounder
You might have deduced from my post a few weeks ago that I've already watched the first movie of this year of review, so I'll be able to opine on that shortly and finally explain why I went on a four-movie binge in the first place. Stay tuned...