Tuesday, April 14, 2015

1943 - In Which We Serve

For as long as I can remember, I've loved hearing behind-the-scenes stories about movie production, whether in books or documentaries or actual behind-the-scenes tours. So with delight, Kat and I joined a visiting friend recently to take the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour in nearby Burbank. The Warner Bros. lot has a lot of history and I always enjoy visiting backlots. There's just something about the fake buildings that fills me with a sense of awe and wonder. The tour also included a stop at the Warner Bros. Museum, which housed special exhibits of the Batman and Harry Potter franchises. But it was the tiny corner dedicated to Warner's past Best Picture winners that had me fascinated. Hint: this blog's current year of review resulted in a win for Warner Bros. so I have a little treat for you when I get to reviewing that picture.

For now, let's have a look at a British entry in 1943's Best Picture race...

In Which We Serve
Noël Coward and David Lean
Noël Coward
Noël Coward, John Mills, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Bernard Miles
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

As the opening narration informs us, this is the story of a ship. Specifically, it's the story of the HMS Torrin, a British destroyer during World War II that is attacked and sunk by German aircraft bombers. As the survivors, including Captain Kinross (Coward), stay afloat in a lifeboat enduring further aerial gunfire, they share tales of their own experiences during the war and reminisce about the history of the Torrin.

The overt patriotism of In Which We Serve is a little off-putting, perhaps only because it's something one would expect from an American military film, not a British one. It's a propaganda film, no question. The sailors love their ship more than their wives, and the wives are pretty much okay with that. It's all for king and country. And the enemy is nothing short of pure evil. Granted, the enemy are the Nazis in this case, so it's hard to argue that point, but from a purely narrative standpoint, it's a detriment to have no single personification of the enemy. We see Nazi planes and Nazi ships, but we almost never see an actual Nazi, which I understand is part of the propaganda to dehumanise the enemy, but all good screenwriting how-to books will tell you that you have to include an antagonist. Even if your hero's main enemy is a corporation or organisation, it's far more effective to have an identifiable character to serve as its representative, rather than leave your hero to fight a nebulous enemy.

I also have to admit that I had some trouble following the action. The plot is somewhat episodic and it is sometimes difficult to figure out who's who, partly because there are so many sailors to keep track of, but also because they're all wearing the same thing! Stupid sailor's uniforms. So, during a flashback, when we see someone in civilian clothes, it takes a little time to recognise exactly who it is. And speaking of the myriad flashbacks, is this perhaps the genesis of the cliched wavy flashback transition? To a modern audience, the watery effect may seem cheesy, but in this instance, I suppose it couldn't be more appropriate.

Not only did Noël Coward (pictured) write, co-direct and star in the movie, but like Chaplin before him and Eastwood after him, he also composed the film's score. So there's no denying this is Coward's baby. As the captain of the ship, his is not your average melodramatic performance of the 1940s. In fact, it could be argued that he goes too far in the opposite direction, making Captain Kinross oddly understated. Playing his wife, Celia Johnson stands out with a charmingly natural portrayal of a woman with bittersweet feelings about her husband's job. And look out for a young Richard Attenborough in his film debut.

In Which We Serve also has a rare distinction in Oscar history, receiving recognition in two separate awards years. It received a non-competitive Honorary Achievement award at the 1942 Oscars, since that was the year it was released in its native UK. Then, one year later, it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, after having its qualifying US theatrical release.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

1943 - Madame Curie

Well, I mentioned the possibility of having to change the next year of review and, indeed, circumstances now require that I do just that. My plan to see The Apartment at the TCM Classic Film Festival was thwarted. It seems too many festival pass holders had the same idea so there was no room for any extras. Fortunately, the festival screens several movies at once, so Kat and I hopped over to one of the smaller venues instead to catch another Best Picture nominee from a different year.

So, we'll come back to 1960 another time, but for now, we begin our review of the Academy's nominated films of 1943...

Madame Curie
Mervyn LeRoy
Paul Osborn and Paul H. Rameau
(based on the book by Eve Curie)
Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Travers, Albert Bassermann, Robert Walker, C. Aubrey Smith, Dame May Whitty, Victor Francen, Elsa Bassermann, Reginald Owen, Van Johnson, Margaret O'Brien
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

In late 19th century Paris, Marie Sklodowska (Garson) is completing her doctorate at the Sorbonne and is in need of some lab space. When she is introduced to physicist Pierre Curie (Pidgeon), he agrees for her to work alongside him. The two share a love of science, which soon turns into a love of each other. Together, they run experiments in order to discover what Marie theorises is a new previously unknown radioactive element.

As a science enthusiast, I'm not deterred by films set in academia but I imagine that such scientific themes could be uninteresting for some. Madame Curie, however, cleverly borrows from other less boring genres to create an engaging story in which science is really just the backdrop. First, the picture is a somewhat traditional boy-meets-girl romance with fleeting glances and bashful repartee. Then, it's a suspense drama as the two lovebird scientists attempt to discover a new mysterious element.

As such, the science is occasionally portrayed in a simple manner, which I suppose is a necessity given the rather complex principles involved. But by incorporating those aforementioned genres, it's always compelling. So when Pierre and Marie have their first in-depth scientific discourse, the concepts they discuss may be difficult for a lay audience to comprehend, but the mutual fondness they both have for chemistry is clear and we watch as the sparks fly. Or when Marie demonstrates her investigation of pitchblende to Pierre by testing its composition in an electrometer, it's a struggle to understand what's actually going on in scientific terms, but the suspense permeating the scene as the experiment unfolds is truly captivating.

Then again, perhaps this method of pushing the science into the background goes a little too far when, on occasion, the renowned scientists appear to miss the absolute obvious. They spend years breaking down the same eight tons of pitchblende in the hopes of extracting the elusive element that they've now named radium. But in a fit of incompetence, they dismiss the stain that remains in their mortar after all the other elements have been removed. Um, maybe the stain is the radium? To be fair, later that night, they return to the lab and stare excitedly at the glowing radiation (pictured), but it took them long enough to figure it out. (By the way, I think I now know what's in that briefcase in Pulp Fiction.)

This is the 1940s so there is definitely some melodramatic acting on display - probably a result of the melodramatic dialogue - but it isn't constant and it nonetheless remains fun and engaging. Greer Garson is fantastic in the title role, which earned her a Best Actress nomination from the Academy. In opposition to the out-dated stereotypes during her era, Marie Curie is portrayed as supremely intelligent and confident, a genuinely strong role model. As her husband and collaborator, Walter Pidgeon - who, incidentally, also played Garson's husband in the previous year's Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver - also received recognition in the Best Actor category for a droll performance of a neurotic but affable man. Also of note is Robert Walker in a funny and bright role as Pierre's lab assistant. And Henry Travers and Dame May Whitty both deliver memorably witty turns as Pierre's parents. Interestingly, Travers and Whitty, along with Reginald Owen, also appeared in Mrs. Miniver. That's no less than five principal actors in common with Madame Curie. Quite the repertory company.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Best Picture of 1996

In sharp contrast to the last year of review, this one has gone from first review to verdict in under two weeks. I haven't managed that in a very long time. I can't guarantee this will last, but let's continue to ride the wave, shall we? Here now are my thoughts on these five fine films.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1996 are:
  • The English Patient
  • Fargo
  • Jerry Maguire
  • Secrets and Lies
  • Shine
Interestingly, four of these pictures are independent movies, produced outside of the studio system. That correlates well with the fact that many of them were helmed by writer/directors. I don't have official statistics at hand, but I suspect it's relatively unusual for 80% of the nominees to fit that category. Additionally, all five pictures feature some brilliant ensemble acting, so all in all, it's a tough bunch to separate.

I genuinely liked each of these films so there's no sense in naming a least favourite. But in order to make my way to a most favourite, I suppose I have to eliminate something first. That honour goes to Shine, but as I said, it's not because I didn't like it. I just didn't like it as much as I liked the others. I saw both The English Patient and Secrets and Lies when they were first released, and I don't think early-20s me appreciated them then as much as pushing-40 me did the second time around. Nonetheless, they too will be set aside for the purposes of this verdict.

Now that I've unpatriotically excluded the Australian and British films, I'm left with two American films, either of which could easily stand as my favourite. As I entered into this year of review, I fully expected that Jerry Maguire would win out, based on my prior fondness for the polished, inspirational and fun movie. And while that fondness has not diminished, the quirkiness of Fargo just tickled my fancy a tad more this time around, along with its fantastic cast and captivating story. Hence, Fargo officially becomes my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1996.
Best Picture of 1996
Academy's choice:

The English Patient

Matt's choice:


Your choice:

Chime in with your favourite in the poll above or the comments below. Next up, we again move to a year that has been chosen exclusively due to the convenience of a local screening. The TCM Classic Film Festival has just begun here in Los Angeles and there are numerous Best Picture nominees on offer. The current plan is to attend a screening of The Apartment this weekend at the world-famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with Shirley MacLaine in attendance, so 1960 will be our next year of review.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1960 are:
  • The Alamo
  • The Apartment
  • Elmer Gantry
  • Sons and Lovers
  • The Sundowners
Of course, this is all dependent on me getting in to the screening. Since I don't want to fork out the hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a festival pass, I'll be taking a chance on buying an individual ticket on the day of the screening. So don't be surprised if the next year of review ends up being something else entirely...

Monday, March 23, 2015

1996 - Secrets and Lies

After an early morning trip to the airport, Kat and Charlie are back home, with my in-laws in tow. As everyone attempts to recover from their jet lag - and at 13 months, Charlie doesn't know if it's day or night, the poor little guy - I managed to write up my thoughts on the last film of this year of review.

Our final contender for the 1996 Best Picture prize is...

Secrets and Lies
Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh
Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

After her adopted mother passes away, London optometrist Hortense Cumberbatch (Jean-Baptiste) - probably not related to Benedict - decides to track down her birth mother. As a black woman, she is understandably surprised to discover that her mother is Cynthia Purley (Blethyn), a white woman who, despite a good heart, has the smarts and social graces of a small puppy. Cynthia and Hortense slowly develop a camaraderie but Cynthia baulks at introducing Hortense to her other daughter, Roxanne (Rushbrook), an ungrateful council worker. Eventually, however, Cynthia invites Hortense to a family gathering, hosted by her somewhat estranged brother, portrait photographer Maurice (Spall), and his wife Monica (Logan). It is at this soiree that the dysfunctional family's secrets and lies are finally exposed.

At first, Secrets and Lies comes across a little like a soap opera, and given the title, that's perhaps appropriate. The secrets and lies in this family are indeed of soap opera quality: life-changing and nothing less. But once you accept each character's predicament, the shades of soap opera fade away and you're left with quite an emotional ride. Writer/director Mike Leigh allows his audience to really absorb these people's lives by keeping an easy pace and often utilising lengthy and static shots in which the action (or mere dialogue, as the case may be) plays out in all its voyeuristic glory. The outdoor barbecue scene is particularly fascinating. There's tension, sure, which has been set up by the prior circumstances, but for the most part, the scene is just a seeming melange of very real and mundane conversations. It's captivating fly-on-the-wall stuff.

Due to the single-shot style, the entire picture would fall apart if the actors weren't engaging, but thankfully, the ensemble here is genuinely superb, working very well off each other. At the centre is a beautifully subdued performance by Timothy Spall (pictured), who many will recognise as Peter Pettigrew, but I first noticed him in a sarcastically memorable guest role in BBC's sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, clearly showing his comedic chops are on par with his dramatic ability. As a woman trying to get some answers, Marianne Jean-Baptiste is intelligent and vulnerable, earning herself a Best Supporting Actress nod in the process. And yes, that's Downton Abbey's Mrs. Hughes, Phyllis Logan, turning in a strong performance as Spall's uptight wife. Stealing the show, though, is Brenda Blethyn with a powerhouse portrayal that could so easily have fallen into caricature. Cynthia is larger than life, for sure, but Blethyn roots her in reality, wearing her emotions on her sleeve. Secrets and Lies also received nominations for Mike Leigh's direction and screenplay, but sadly, the film walked away without any Oscars at all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

1996 - The English Patient

After three weeks away in Australia, my darling wife and child return to LA on Monday. While that will do wonders for my emotional well-being, I suspect it will also mean an end to this notable streak in blog posts. I'll cram one more movie in before they return, but I may not get a chance to write about it immediately. We shall see...

The Academy's choice is up next in our look at the Best Picture nominees of 1996...

The English Patient
Anthony Minghella
Anthony Minghella
(based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje)
Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Julian Wadham, Jürgen Prochnow, Kevin Whately
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
9 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Binoche)

In the war-torn Italian countryside near the end of World War II, nurse Hana (Binoche) tends to a severe burn victim (Fiennes) with an English accent and a horrible case of amnesia. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that our English patient is actually László de Almásy, a Hungarian cartographer who was helping to map the Sahara for the Royal Geographical Society in the months leading up to the war. The expedition is joined by English couple Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton (Firth and Scott Thomas), but during one of Geoffrey's many absences, Almásy and Katharine begin an affair, which to say the least, causes emotions to run high for everyone involved.

It's not difficult to understand why the Academy bestowed its top honour on The English Patient. It's exactly the sort of epic they love: romance, danger, sweeping landscapes. With a tight script, spectacular visuals and expressive performances, it truly is an example of filmmaking at its finest. That said, it may not be to everyone's taste. While it would be hard to ignore the extraordinary artistry that writer/director Anthony Minghella has crafted, I could certainly understand if it didn't strike a chord with all who see it. Maybe I'm even talking about myself here. I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint why exactly, but I can't shake the feeling that I didn't love this film as much as I should have, considering what a brilliant accomplishment it is. Perhaps it's just a matter of taste, but even that seems unfair somehow because I really don't have anything bad to say about the film. It's almost as if I'm trying to convince myself that I didn't like it, when the truth of it is that I actually found it incredibly entertaining on almost every level. Human brains are fickle indeed.

As potential validation of its brilliance, it swept the awards on Oscar night, winning nine in total. Not too surprising since its costume and set design featured both period and foreign elements, two predictors of Oscar success. And where Fargo's cinematography was assisted by blankets of white snow, The English Patient exploits its blankets of yellow sand to exquisite advantage.

The cast, too, are exceptional, many of them using this film as a stepping stone to even greater things. Ralph Fiennes is solid as the charming yet stubborn adventurer who, when suffering from third-degree burns, looks uncannily like another heavily made-up Fiennes character. I also immensely enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas, who is very fluid and available as the emotionally torn lover. Earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Juliette Binoche has the purest heart in the film, although there was perhaps one too many sudden moments of bursting into tears. The always-watchable Colin Firth is as affable as ever (until his final moments, of course). And that's a pre-Lost Naveen Andrews (pictured) as the shirtless, luscious-haired bomb defuser.