Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Oscar Nomination Predictions 2014

I'm writing this from sunny (and often partly cloudy) Cabo where I'm enjoying a week-long vacation with my family. The internet here is patchy but not one to ruin a tradition, I've hastily put together my predictions for the Oscar nominations, scheduled to be announced tomorrow morning. I'm not entirely happy with these selections since I didn't spend as much time on them as I normally do, but I'll stand by them nonetheless. Let's see how I go...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

1987 - The Last Emperor

Yes, I'm still alive.

Obviously, I've had a lot going on these last few months. The play I mentioned in my last post (over four months ago - yikes!) has come and gone. The Club was our theatre company's final show in New York City (read about it here) before Kat, Charlie and I packed up and moved out west to Los Angeles. It's been a couple of months already so we're settled in now and are not even remotely missing the New York weather.

I figured I should try to squeeze one more review in before the end of the year, so yesterday I watched the film that would take the top prize in the 1987 Best Picture competition...

The Last Emperor
Bernardo Bertolucci
Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci
(based on Henry Pu-yi's autobiography "From Emperor to Citizen")
John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole, Ying Ruocheng, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Maggie Han, Ric Young, Vivien Wu
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
9 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

The monarch of the film's title, Pu-yi (Lone) is a political prisoner in a China he no longer recognises. While his captors interrogate him about his perceived war crimes, Pu-yi remembers his life, from his coronation at the age of two and his confined upbringing inside the Forbidden City where he befriends his British tutor Reginald Johnston (O'Toole) to his association with the Japanese who allow him to return to power as the emperor of occupied Manchukuo.

Without a doubt, The Last Emperor's biggest draw card is its stunning visual style. With luscious production design, lavish costumes and evocative cinematography - including the now iconic shot of a young Pu-yi running towards a billowing yellow curtain (pictured below) - it's no wonder the film won Oscars in almost every design category. Of course, the spectacular locations didn't hurt its cause. Shooting inside the actual Forbidden City certainly lends an air of authenticity.

And while Bertolucci's direction is masterful, his script with co-writer Mark Peploe is perhaps the one element of the film that is lacking. The story itself is incredibly well-structured with its simultaneous past and present storylines but - and I know this is a recurring theme in my reviews - the dialogue is rather basic and straightforward. I'm a sucker for clever dialogue and, unfortunately, the words here are a little uninspired. Then again, the film also won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, so what do I know?

The performances seem somewhat stilted, but only because the actors are given such banal things to say, preventing them from really making the words crackle. The Academy perhaps agreed with me since the picture received no acting nominations, which as it turns out, indirectly helped it achieve the rare feat of winning every category in which it was nominated. Nine Oscars from nine nominations - equalling Gigi's identical take and topped only by the 11-from-11 haul by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Interestingly, neither of those films claimed any acting nods either.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

1987 - Fatal Attraction

Who'd have thought raising a baby would take up so much time? Between looking after Charlie and getting things together for our theatre company's next play (more on that soon), movie-watching opportunities have been negligible. On top of that, we're also organising our imminent move to Los Angeles, so things are busy, to say the least.

I finally found a spare couple of hours to look at another 1987 Best Picture contender...

Fatal Attraction
Adrian Lyne
James Dearden
Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, Stuart Pankin, Ellen Foley, Fred Gwynne
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Dan (Douglas), Beth (Archer) and their six-year-old daughter Ellen (Latzen) are the picture of a perfect family. But when Beth and Ellen take a weekend trip to the country to scope out the new family house, Dan throws matrimonial bliss out the window and shamefully has a brief affair with a work acquaintance, Alex (Close). When he tries to end it, Alex won't take no for an answer and it soon becomes clear that she's far from the fun-loving gal Dan thought he was fooling around with. After trying to manipulate him to stay by slitting her wrists, she eventually takes to stalking Dan and his family, threatening to tell Beth everything.

With a solid place in pop culture, Fatal Attraction is most definitely a thriller, but director Adrian Lyne also imbues the film with many shades of film noir, particularly evident in the steamy lighting and cinematography. And to go one step further, I suspect he was also giving a subtle nod to Hitchcock and his most famous psychological thriller, Psycho, when in the concluding moments of the film, we see close ups of a shower drain, taps and water flowing, followed a few moments later by a knife cutting through the shower curtain.

Despite these homages to cinema classics, the film begins with a distinctly more modern aesthetic. There are several seemingly improvised scenes of casual conversations, creating a very naturalistic atmosphere. This eventually gives way to all the gratuitous thriller tropes, the most frequent of which is the sudden shock as the villain appears "unexpectedly." We even get treated to the old wipe-the-steam-off-the-mirror-to-reveal-a-knife-wielding-maniac-standing-behind-you trick. Although, I must say, even though many of these moments are tired clichés, they're still so effectively creepy ... which probably explains why they get used so often.

In fact, watching the film with the knowledge of what's going to happen (due to both the film's fame and the fact that I've seen it several times before) surprisingly does not diminish its powerful impact. There is a constant dreaded feeling that something bad is about to happen, and even if you know it's coming, the anticipation remains excruciating.

If I had to pick one element which doesn't quite gel, it would have to be Maurice Jarre's score. Perhaps it's simply a result of the uncool 1980s sound, but the legendary film composer seems to have opted for the melodramatic and the obvious, an orchestration that leaves no doubt that we're watching a thriller.

One never expects an intricate plot from a genre whose main goal is ostensibly to thrill, but nevertheless James Dearden's script is mostly engaging, buoyed by the aforementioned extemporisation from the cast. Still, there's a slightly empty feeling when the film abruptly ends after the main thriller plot is resolved. It's almost as if I wanted to see the resolution of the subplot, but then I realised there was no subplot. I'd even say it was a missed opportunity to actually explore the effect this whole debacle had on Dan's marriage. You know, a bit of substance to go with the thrills.

But what the script lacks in substance, the cast more than makes up for with emotional power. Both leads are utterly superb. Michael Douglas delivers an excellently natural turn as the initially charming, then gradually frustrated and finally fed up adulterer. And it's hard to imagine anyone else but Glenn Close (pictured) in this now iconic role. She is nuanced and intense, vulnerable yet psychotic, the portrait of a disturbed mind. I also enjoyed Stuart Pankin as the jolly best friend. Plus, look closely and you'll see Jane Krakowski as the babysitter in a very brief scene at the beginning of the film.

Friday, June 20, 2014

1987 - Moonstruck

This past Sunday was Father's Day here in the United States and, indeed, most other countries around the world. Obviously, it held particular significance for me since it was the first Father's Day in which I was actually a father. Interestingly, however, Father's Day is celebrated in September in Australia - another one of those odd differences between our nations. Even more interestingly, Mother's Day is celebrated on the same day in May in both countries, so since our now international family will do things both the American and the Australian way, Kat will only get one day of honour every year, while I will cheekily receive two.

Let's take a look now at one of the contenders in the Academy's race for Best Picture of 1987...

Norman Jewison
John Patrick Shanley
Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, John Mahoney, Louis Guss
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actress (Cher) and Best Supporting Actress (Dukakis)

Superstitious Loretta (Cher) just got engaged to her humdrum beau Johnny (Aiello). He has promised they'll get married when he gets back from visiting his dying mother in Italy. In the meantime, he asks her to get in touch with his estranged brother Ronny (Cage) to patch up their five-year feud and invite him to the wedding. Unfortunately for Johnny, Loretta finds Ronny far more appealing and, more importantly, exciting.

Moonstruck is a comedy, that's clear. But there's something incongruous in its execution of that comedy. Much of it is larger than life - Nicolas Cage's histrionics, for example - yet so many of the scenes are languid in pace, a trait more often associated with subtle independent comedies. An interesting combination that doesn't quite mesh, in my opinion.

Perhaps consequentially, it's also rather difficult to accept the sudden attraction between the two leads. Well, let me rephrase that. Loretta is perfectly attractive in many ways and it's easy to recognise why a man would fall in love with her. But Ronny is so wildly insane that it's hard to imagine any woman being interested in him so quickly, particularly considering the lunacy he displays when he first meets Loretta. Nonetheless, this is a movie, after all, and suspension of disbelief aids greatly in forgiving the initial conceit, making way for a relationship that is reasonably endearing. However, no amount of disbelief-suspending can alleviate the hastiness with which Loretta's mother forgives her husband's indiscretions. Without really confronting him about it, such abrupt forgiveness is hard to swallow.

Cher is disarming in her starring role, offering warmth and humanity, and very much deserving of her Best Actress Oscar win. The same can't be said of her leading man, Nicolas Cage, who is just plain strange and somewhat obnoxious, which doesn't help with the aforementioned believability issues. His is not the only exaggerated performance, however, with a large portion of the supporting cast depicting a host of Italian-American caricatures. Thankfully, Cher isn't the only one to keep things subdued. Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney also deliver more subtle portrayals, establishing the most affecting rapport in the film. And in case this film didn't have enough Italian-American pedigree, keep a keen eye out for Martin Scorsese's mother in an incredibly brief cameo.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Best Picture of 1934

I can't seem to find an explanation as to why the Academy decided to increase the nominee count to 12 for the 1934 Best Picture category. It's an odd number (well, it's an even number, but you know what I mean), and not at all warranted when you look at the list of films that received those nominations. There are certainly a small handful that could easily have been left off the list and nobody would have complained.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1934 are:
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street
  • Cleopatra
  • Flirtation Walk
  • The Gay Divorcee
  • Here Comes the Navy
  • The House of Rothschild
  • Imitation of Life
  • It Happened One Night
  • One Night of Love
  • The Thin Man
  • Viva Villa!
  • The White Parade
In a time before the Academy shied away from romantic comedies, the genre was well represented among this dozen. For that matter, so were romance films in general. In fact, every nominee features some sort of love story, whether it be the main focus or a supporting character's subplot. Another common theme is the appearance of musical numbers, often gratuitously. While only two of the films could truly call themselves musicals, many more contain at least one song and/or dance sequence. Several of the pictures also share the unfortunate trait of an unsatisfying conclusion. At first, I was willing to ascribe that failure to the learning curve that Hollywood must have gone through at the outset of the sound era. But upon reflection, that excuse can be easily dismissed, since silent movies also required interesting stories and story structures.

And if all that weren't enough, one last shared attribute among many of the nominees is narrative simplicity. Sure, a straightforward plot is great for comprehension, but quite a few of the stories seemed to lack depth and detail. Perhaps, though, this is merely a consequence of the eight decades of storytelling that has followed since these films were released. Back then, these stories undoubtedly seemed fresh and new, but now that everything has been done multiple times, contemporary audiences may perceive them as clichéd and formulaic.

Since there are a dozen films in this batch, I won't bore you by eliminating them one by one. Instead, I'll skip ahead and make it a two-horse race. Not coincidentally, the two films I rate highest happen to also be the two that continue to enjoy high regard today - The Thin Man and It Happened One Night. While both films could potentially be described as simple and formulaic - one a simple detective story, the other a formulaic romantic comedy - their superb execution raises them above their fellow nominees. Both are full of charm and wit with delightful performances. In the end, I am siding with the film that the Academy clearly loved as well - evidenced by their awarding to it the Big Five - and naming It Happened One Night as my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1934.

Best Picture of 1934
Academy's choice:

It Happened One Night

Matt's choice:

It Happened One Night

Your choice:

Where does your preference lie? With 12 films to choose from, this should be an interesting poll. Let's time-travel forward now to focus our attention on the Best Picture contest from 1987, which coincidentally also includes a greater than average number of comedies.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1987 are:
  • Broadcast News
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Hope and Glory
  • The Last Emperor
  • Moonstruck
Stay tuned...