Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Oscar Nomination Predictions 2015

It's that time of year again. The Academy Award nominations will be announced bright and early tomorrow morning, so just for fun, here are my predictions for who will see their names listed. I'm quietly confident about most of my picks - most categories have only one or two alternates that could sneak in. But boy oh boy, Best Supporting Actor is a doozy. There are just so many potential variations of the final nominees that I had trouble settling on five. Similar story with Best Documentary (are there enough Scientologists to quash Going Clear's chance of a nom?) and Best Adapted Screenplay (is it ever a good idea to leave out Charlie Kaufman?), so we'll see how everything pans out.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

1943 - Casablanca

Since my last post, Kat and I have a new addition to our family. Emily was born in early November and is already melting hearts everywhere. With two little ones in the house now, finding time for this blog may be even more difficult than it has been (and it was already difficult). Indeed, I watched the movie below well over a month ago and am only now getting around to blogging about it. I have to admit, though, that the transition from one to two babies has not felt as life-altering as becoming parents for the first time. Most likely, that's simply due to the fact that we're already used to the sleep deprivation and constant cleanup of infant waste. And if having a second offspring weren't enough, we also just moved house and are dealing with all that that entails, so ... you know ... you may not hear from me again for a while...

Now, you may remember way back when I began this year of review many, many months ago that I mentioned taking the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour and happening upon an exhibit of their past Best Picture winners. One of those winners is indeed the victor of this current year of discussion and now that I'm ready to review that film, it's time to share the photos I took of that exhibit - one of the sheet music for As Time Goes By accompanied by composer Max Steiner's baton, and the other of a costume worn by Conrad Veidt in the film. Granted, it's probably not so thrilling just looking at the photos, so instead consider these photos as mementos of the brief moment of excitement that I experienced when I saw these items in person ... which I realise is probably even less thrilling for you...

Anyway, as I'm sure you've now inferred, our next Best Picture nominee from 1943 is the classic of classics...

Michael Curtiz
Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
(based on the play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison)
Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay)

When I'm asked to name my favourite movie of all time, I always have trouble narrowing it down to just one, but I do have a few standard responses for when I'm asked for my favourite movie of a particular genre. And Casablanca is, without question, my go-to pick for favourite classic film. (Yes, I know "classic" isn't technically a singular genre, but it was a section in most video stores - and probably on most streaming sites nowadays - and it's a word with a not entirely meaningless definition that a lot of people use to categorise a subsection - or perhaps, more accurately, an era - of cinema, so stop your pedantry.)

For those living under a rock, Casablanca centres on Rick Blaine (Bogart), the owner of a cafe/club in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. He inadvertently becomes the recipient of two letters of transit, important documents for any European refugee attempting to reach the United States. This makes him a concern to the corrupt but friendly French police captain Louis Renault (Rains) and the less-than-friendly German Major Strasser (Veidt) who want to make sure a resistance fighter named Victor Laszlo (Henreid) doesn't get the chance to leave the city. To complicate matters, Rick's old flame, Ilsa Lund (Bergman), happens to be Laszlo's wife. When Victor and Ilsa show up in Rick's establishment (the first time Rick has seen Ilsa since she abruptly abandoned him in Paris many years ago), Rick finds himself torn between helping the cause and dealing with his unresolved feelings for Ilsa.

Clearly, one of the reasons Casablanca has stood the test of time is its clear and captivating story. The plot is easy to follow yet subtle enough to allow the audience to figure some things out on their own, yet another consequence of the Hays Code, no doubt. For instance, when Louis is toying with the wife of a man who needs an exit visa, the insinuations run rampant, but nobody explicitly mentions that it's all about sex.

There are undoubtedly some very serious themes - which is almost mandatory in any story that involves war and Nazis - not to mention the sincere and heartbreaking romance aspect of the story, yet there is an abundance of comic relief, all appropriate and never undercutting the film's gravity. You might even call the film a dramedy, even if that term didn't exist in 1943. During some of the most poignant moments, the film is not afraid to cut the tension with a well-timed giggle. Perhaps my favourite of these is when Strasser orders Louis to find a reason to shut down the cafe. Louis immediately demands everyone leave, exclaiming that he is shocked to hear that there is gambling taking place in the back room. At that very moment, a cashier approaches Louis and very audibly says, "Your winnings, sir," while handing him a wad of cash. Without skipping a beat, Louis thanks the man and continues carrying out his orders.

This comedy-drama quality is enhanced - or maybe even created - by the wonderful dialogue, poetic and stirring at times, and witty and amusing at others. The brilliance of these words - or at least their popularity - is confirmed by the number of memorable quotes that have entered the cultural landscape. The AFI voted six of them into their list of the 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time, twice as many as any other movie. Not included in that list is the lesser-known but hilarious exchange of dialogue - and possibly my favourite such exchange in the entire history of cinema - between Carl and a German couple practicing their English. Rather than describe it here, it's probably better to just direct you to the clip.

The cast is uniformly wonderful, each one solid in their respective roles. As I mentioned in the posts on Watch on the Rhine and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I used to be flabbergasted as to how Bogart and Bergman (pictured) didn't win Best Actor and Best Actress for Casablanca. After seeing those two other films, though, I now understand why, even though I might still disagree. Both their performances here are sublime. Bogart was nominated for his. Bergman wasn't (because she was nommed for Tolls instead). Claude Rains was the other acting nominee, delivering a polished portrayal as the likable, albeit occasionally sleazy, Louis. And for my money, Peter Lorre's is the most delicious performance in the film, playing the pitiful weasel. It's short on screen time but big on character.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

1943 - For Whom the Bell Tolls

It's been over six years now since I began this insane project that I initially thought would last about a year and a half. I suppose, though, if I drag this out long enough, there's at least a tiny chance that I'll make it into the cast of a future Best Picture nominee which, aside from the cool meta nature of having to review a film I'm in, would just be all kinds of awesome.

And in fact, one such opportunity may have already presented itself. Last week, I spent a morning shooting a scene opposite Annette Bening (who was absolutely lovely, I might add) for 20th Century Women, a film directed by Mike Mills. While none of his films have been nominated for the big prize just yet, you may remember that it was his Beginners for which Christopher Plummer won a well-deserved and long-awaited Oscar a few years ago. And Annette Bening is certainly Oscar bait, so it's certainly within the realms of possibility that Mills' latest film could find itself on the Best Picture shortlist. At the very least, Bening herself may be in contention for an award. Of course, judging her performance is difficult since I only have one scene to go on, and it's obviously way too early to speculate - in fact, this film may not be released until next year, making it eligible for the awards season after next, which would mean it's way, way too early to speculate - but this is Annette Bening we're talking about so you can never rule her out.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on 1943's next Best Picture contender...

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Sam Wood
Dudley Nichols
(based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway)
Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff, Mikhail Rasumny, Fortunio Bonanova, Eric Feldary, Victor Varconi, Katina Paxinou, Joseph Calleia

Academy Awards:
9 nominations
1 win, for Best Supporting Actress (Paxinou)

Based on the celebrated novel by Ernest Hemingway (as all the promotional material points out), For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan (Cooper), an American soldier fighting with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He is tasked with assisting a strategic assault against the Nationalists by blowing up a bridge at the precise moment of a planned air raid, and he is given three days to prepare. His local guide is Anselmo (Sokoloff) who introduces Robert to a gang of freedom fighters and Gypsies hiding out in a mountain cave. Robert enlists the help of the disparate gang, including its leader, Pablo (Tamiroff), an unpredictable drunk, and Pablo's wife, Pilar (Paxinou), a strong woman who is essentially in charge due to her husband's weakness. Robert also finds friendship and, later, romance with Maria (Bergman), a young Gypsy refugee with a horrifically sad story.

As has been discussed numerous times on this blog, films adapted from novels often suffer from a rushed feeling that is almost inherent when cramming a full-length book into two hours of screen time. Not so, however, in the case of For Whom the Bell Tolls, likely due to the source material being clear and straightforward in its own right (although, full disclosure, I've never actually read it). The tension in this story is in fact heightened by the fact that it takes its time. There is a single clear mission for the protagonist and, even if some of the details are a little murky, nothing ever feels hurried. Well, nothing except perhaps the speed with which Robert and Maria fall in love. But whirlwind romances and loves-at-first-sight are pretty much the norm for this age of Hollywood, so that hardly counts.

None of that is to say that the film lacks complexity. On the contrary. There is still plenty of nuance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, most of it found in the compelling characters. It's not always clear cut which of these people are the heroes. For instance, El Sordo clearly sides with the protagonists but the perverse pleasure he takes in his enemy's demise, laughing sadistically at their violent deaths, makes it difficult to get behind him as a hero. Conversely, Pablo commits some atrociously dickish acts, displaying a complete lack of consideration for others, yet he later experiences several crises of conscience, which elicits from us at least a tiny amount of sympathy.

As for the cast, it's a surprising display of diversity. Despite the fact that most of the characters are Spanish, the actors hail from Sweden, Greece, Hungary, Malta, Mexico and several from Russia. The only actual Spaniard is Fortunio Bonanova. Regardless of nationality, there are some truly powerful performances. Akim Tamiroff (pictured) is nothing short of superb as the emotionally erratic and conflicted Pablo. Playing his wife, Katina Paxinou also shines. Both were nominated in the supporting categories, but only Paxinou won. Then there's Ingrid Bergman, who is simply wonderful and often heartbreaking as the sweet Maria, earning herself a Best Actress nomination. In my previous post, while discussing Watch on the Rhine, I pointed out how I could never understand why Bogart didn't win Best Actor for Casablanca this year ... until I actually saw Paul Lukas' performance. In similar fashion, I always had trouble figuring out why Bergman wasn't even nominated for Casablanca. But now I understand. While her Ilsa Lund is still one of my favourite portrayals (and we'll get to that film shortly), her performance here in For Whom the Bell Tolls is genuinely captivating, so I can finally accept the omission. Of course, if the Academy just allowed a single actor to be nominated twice in the same category, then there probably wouldn't have been an issue in the first place, but rules are rules, I guess.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

1943 - Watch on the Rhine

With baby number two due in about a month and a half, I'm trying to cram in as many movies as I can before spare time becomes even more scarce. So let's get straight to it.

Here's a look at another 1943 film shortlisted for Best Picture...

Watch on the Rhine
Herman Shumlin
Dashiell Hammett
(based on the play by Lillian Hellman)
Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lucile Watson, Beulah Bondi, George Coulouris, Donald Woods
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Lukas)

It seems somehow appropriate to follow up The Ox-Bow Incident with this picture. Both are confronting tales that deal with serious moral issues, albeit Watch on the Rhine leans more towards the political. Anti-Fascist activist Kurt Muller (Lukas) and his American wife Sara (Davis), arrive in Washington, D.C. with their three children after leaving a devolving Europe behind. They stay in Sara's wealthy family home with her mother (Watson) and brother (Woods), who Sara hasn't seen since she left America 17 years ago. Their arrival is complicated, however, by another house guest, Teck de Brancovis (Coulouris), a slimy Nazi sympathiser who threatens to expose Kurt to his German Embassy friends.

Watch on the Rhine is another in a long list of stage play adaptations that inherently suffers from its source material's wordiness. It's slow-moving, particularly at the beginning as the plentiful characters are introduced (many of whom turn out not to be all that important to the story, anyway). And with very little action, most of the major plot points are revealed merely through shocking announcements. In spite of all that, the picture remains intensely captivating, no doubt due to its grave central issue. Consequently, in what might seem contradictory to the film's slow pace, I hardly noticed its two hours go by.

This happens to be the first time I've seen this film and it had been on my watch list for a very long time, mostly because I've always wanted to see the performance of the guy who stole Bogart's Oscar. Starting with that bias, it's easy to write off Paul Lukas (pictured) as merely adequate. After all, his character is relatively calm and not overly emotional, requiring little nuance from the actor. Ironically, however, this composure only serves to accentuate the powerful intensity that Lukas reveals in the last few scenes of the film. Consider me a convert. I'll always love Bogie's Rick, but I'm humbled to admit that Lukas' performance is also award-worthy.

As the wonderfully pompous woman of means, Lucile Watson received the film's other acting nomination, and deservedly so. She delivers her catty lines effortlessly, but later is afforded the opportunity to show a soft interior, providing a well-rounded characterisation that is a pure joy to watch. Bette Davis, too, turns in a terrific performance in what is essentially an underwritten supportive wife role (despite her top billing). I guess her peers agreed since her performance also went unrecognised by the Academy.

Friday, September 11, 2015

1943 - The Ox-Bow Incident

Well, look at me. I'm posting again only a couple of weeks after the last one. The only explanation I can come up with is that this awards year is not full to the brim with three-hour epics (I'm looking at you, 1956) so it's been a tad easier to find time to watch them. The majority of 1943's contenders are under two hours, and in fact, the following review is for the shortest of the bunch, clocking in at only 75 minutes!

Here now is our next 1943 Best Picture hopeful...

The Ox-Bow Incident
William A. Wellman
Lamar Trotti
(based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark)
Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn, William Eythe, Harry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Matt Briggs, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Marc Lawrence
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

I usually like to avoid spoilers in my discussions of these films, but The Ox-Bow Incident is one of those pictures that is extremely difficult to talk about without referencing the climax, so consider yourself warned: spoiler alert!

It's the late nineteenth century and Gil (Fonda) and Art (Morgan) travel into the sleepy town of Bridger's Wells, Nevada. Almost immediately, they get caught up in a local controversy as a young man frantically enters the saloon with news of Larry Kinkaid's murder by some cattle thieves. With nothing else to go on, several townsmen gather to form a posse, intent on finding the culprits and literally stringing them up, lest the law take their time and allow them to slip away, or worse, be given a fair trial. Old man Davies (Davenport) attempts to dissuade the impulsive men - and one woman (Darwell) - from taking the law into their own hands. After unsuccessfully pleading with them to at least wait for the sheriff to return from the Kinkaid ranch, the mob sets off to find their prey. Davies, along with a few other dissenters and the two out-of-towners, tag along in the hopes of talking some sense into the men bent on revenge.

After happening upon three men, including Donald Martin (Andrews), the posse ties them up, preparing to lynch them. With a few pointed questions, the stoic leader of the posse, Major Tetley (Conroy), uncovers some circumstantial evidence that appears to link these men to the murder of Kinkaid, despite their pleas of innocence. Not wanting to seem unreasonable, Tetley agrees to abide by majority rule. Only seven men oppose the hanging, so at dawn, the deed is done. As the satisfied mob heads back to town, they run into the sheriff coming the other way, who reveals the unfortunate truth that Kinkaid is not even dead and the real cattle rustlers have already been apprehended. Oops.

The wordy opening scenes move pretty fast so you've got to pay attention from the outset. And in fact, at only 75 minutes, the entire tale is told from start to finish without wasting a lot of time. It's certainly well-paced and the story is intensely driven and captivating with its singular burning question - will the posse really go through with lynching these probably innocent men? It's edge-of-your-seat stuff right up to the powerful climax.

The film boasts a great array of colourful characters, including a bunch of engaging villainous archetypes. There's the calm and obstinate military man, the crazy laughing goon, the smug vindictive lawman misusing his authority, and plenty of other meanies, too. Facing off against them are the ineffective good guys - the old and wise voice of reason, the mild-mannered man of the cloth, and the son rebelling against his father's peremptory ways.

It's common to feel minor frustration at unreasonable movie characters. I mean, who hasn't yelled at the screen during a horror film when the protagonist decides to investigate a strange noise. On her own. In the dark. In this picture, however, the behaviour of the impulsively unreasonable mob positively makes your blood boil. The main members of the posse are, quite simply, pig-headed hypocrites who believe what they want and are unconcerned with serious fact-checking. This is all the more infuriating with the knowledge that people like this do, in fact, exist ... and in great numbers. And this aggravation arises regardless of how the story concludes. Even if it turned out that the three men did indeed commit the crime, I'd still be incensed by the posse's attitude. You see, it's not about whether what you believe happens to be true. It's about whether it's reasonable to believe what you believe. And even if these guys killed Kinkaid, there wasn't enough justification for the posse to be sure of that. Certainly not so sure that they were comfortable lynching them for it. (Whew. Movies sure have the power to make you feel things...)

It's also worth pointing out the effective final scene in which Gil reads aloud a letter that Martin wrote for his wife once he accepted his inevitable death at the hands of the posse. It's a heart-breaking sequence but the reason I bring it up is the uniquely interesting framing while Gil reads the letter (pictured above). His eyes are covered by the brim of Art's hat, which I'm sure must be a metaphor for something but I can't figure out what exactly. Either way, it's a beautiful shot and very powerful.

Speaking of powerful, Henry Fonda is insanely watchable in a mostly subdued performance. Effective as his sidekick is Harry Morgan (later of M*A*S*H fame) who is inexplicably credited as Henry Morgan. Dana Andrews is compelling as the sympathetic victim. And in fact, the entire ensemble is impressive, each bringing their unique characters to life with intensity. Look out for the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, as a housekeeper near the beginning.

Despite its powerful screenplay, imaginative direction and persuasive performances, the film was surprisingly only nominated for Best Picture and that's it.