Monday, August 31, 2009

1992 - Howards End

As I draw the second round of Matt vs. the Academy to a close, I have to admit that I'm truly enjoying this project. And as The Carpenters once said, we've only just begun. As expected, these are all terrific movies, and despite the daunting number of films yet to go, I'm honestly looking forward to the months ahead.

And so, the final Best Picture contender of 1992 was...

Howards End
James Ivory
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
(based on the novel by E.M. Forster)
Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Samuel West, James Wilby, Prunella Scales
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay

From Merchant Ivory, the production team whose name has become synonymous with the period drama, comes Howards End, a tale that concerns itself with the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, and their relationships with two other families, the well-off Wilcoxes and the not-so-well-off Basts. Margaret befriends the Wilcox matriarch, who scribbles a last-minute will, bequeathing her family home, the Howards End of the title, to her new best friend. The Wilcox family dismiss this will as the ramblings of a dying woman and throw it on the fire, neglecting to mention it to Margaret. Perhaps as a response to his guilt, the widower Wilcox offers to help the Schlegels find new housing after their lease is up, and, lo and behold, he ends up proposing to Margaret, who graciously accepts.

Meanwhile, Helen befriends Leonard Bast, a struggling clerk of a lower class than she, and takes him on as a sort of project, attempting to better his lot in life. Of course, she ends up offering him more of herself than she first intended ... if you catch my drift.

It's that kind of unspoken innuendo that permeates any good British period film, and Howards End is certainly no exception. The subtext in each word of dialogue could fill volumes. Nobody seems to speak their mind until it's too late. It's all about keeping up appearances, you see. To wit, Henry Wilcox's proposal to Margaret is almost like a business transaction.

It's interesting that I viewed this film, a fine example of a uniquely British genre, immediately after Unforgiven, a fine example of a uniquely American genre. Both contain intense depth to their conflicted characters. Consequently, both are rather moderately paced. Of course, one doesn't expect car chases and exploding buildings in these films, but you do have to concentrate.

As you would expect, the design in Howards End is exquisite, winning an Oscar for its Art Direction, plus a nomination for the Costume Design. Gazing on the lush scenery and wardrobe does indeed assist your imagination in transporting you to another era. In fact, when the film began, I felt a relaxing and pleasant feeling of comfort as I settled in to the story. That may have been the glass of wine I was drinking, but either way, it felt nice.

Another brilliant cast, as well. Emma Thompson won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as the talkative Margaret. And maybe if Anthony Hopkins hadn't won the previous year for playing Hannibal Lecter, he may have had a shot as the obdurate Henry Wilcox. And I can't forget to add my sprinkling of pop culture - Mrs. Fawlty herself, Prunella Scales, plays the Schlegel sisters' prissy Aunt.

So, that was the fifth and final nominee for 1992. Tomorrow shall come the verdict and it's another tough one ... Will there be any other kind?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

1992 - Unforgiven

After a bit more research, I have now narrowed down my list of unavailable Best Picture nominees to just three. It appears that two are bereft of commercial releases - 1930-31 nominee East Lynne and 1934 nominee The White Parade. Both films apparently survive in prints at the UCLA Film Archive, accessible by prior authorisation (whatever that means). The third missing film is genuinely missing. The Patriot, nominated in 1928-29, is simply lost, save for one reel that was found a few years ago in Portugal, of all places. The three-minute trailer still exists as well, housed again at UCLA. Perhaps I can just substitute the missing film for the Mel Gibson war epic of the same name.

This probably means that those three awards years will be left to nearer the end of the project and I'll deal with those films' unavailability when the time comes. But, who knows - maybe, if we're lucky, the rest of The Patriot will show up in someone's attic before I'm done.

Today, it was time for 1992's eventual winner of the Best Picture race...

Clint Eastwood
David Webb Peoples
Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor

A blend of film noir and western, Unforgiven relates the story of William Munny, a retired gunslinger with a shamefully violent past. He learnt the error of his ways thanks to the love of a good woman, but she passed on a few years ago and now it's just him and his two kids, barely scraping by on a farm in 1880s Kansas.

Meanwhile, in the oddly-named town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a local prostitute is repeatedly slashed across the face when she foolishly lets slip a giggle upon witnessing the size (or lack thereof) of a customer's wedding tackle. The town's hard-nosed sheriff, oddly named Little Bill, delivers a relatively lenient punishment to the assailant, oddly named Quick Mike, and his companion, which is deemed less than satisfactory by the whore's madam, oddly named Strawberry Alice. Consequently, she and the rest of the girls in the brothel pool together $1,000 to offer as a reward to anyone who can kill the two ruffians. Unsurprisingly, the hard-nosed sheriff is none too happy about his ruling being ignored, so his nose just becomes harder.

The mission is hastily taken on by a brash young man, oddly named the Schofield Kid, who enlists the help of Mr. Munny after hearing of his murderous ways of yore. Munny, in turn, enlists the help of his old friend, not so oddly named Ned, and the unlikely trio set off to win the reward, unaware of Little Bill's intent to thwart any who try.

The first thing that strikes the viewer on watching Unforgiven is the superbly beautiful cinematography. The vastness of the Western landscapes, the flickering intensity of the campfire light, the sparkly daggers of the heavy rain, and the uniquely imposing shape of Clint Eastwood's snarling face. From the opening silhouette, the visuals take on a role of their own. And it's nice to have something so pleasant to look at while you wait for the story to unfold. For Unforgiven moves at a fairly leisurely pace, right up until the final act. It's not that nothing happens. Not at all. There's always something happening, but there is a languishing intensity that keeps things moving a little slowly, which is something not unusual for this genre. I mean, you can't very well have a fast-paced suspenseful showdown, now, can you?

It is amusing to see Clint playing the inept out-of-practice cowboy. He has trouble mounting his horse. He falls face first into the mud while trying to rustle up his pigs. He can't even shoot a tin can off a stump. But we also see the Clint we know and love - the brooding Clint, the imposing Clint, the calmly confrontational Clint. Supporting him are two legends of the screen, Gene Hackman, exquisitely ruthless in his Oscar-winning role as the sheriff, and Morgan Freeman, brilliant as always, as Clint's only real friend. Plus, we get a treat with Professor Dumbledore ... I mean, Richard Harris, as the sheriff's long-time nemesis, English Bob.

Despite it's deliberate pace, the shootouts and showdowns, obligatory in all Westerns, are indeed riveting. But Unforgiven is first and foremost a thinker. There are plenty of moral ambiguities and internal struggles to mull over once the closing credits roll.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

1992 - Scent of a Woman

As New York provided us with the first day in weeks that hasn't left me dripping with sweat, Kat and I spent a lazy afternoon watching the third of 1992's Best Picture nominees. And, I have to say, 1992 has turned out to be a cracker of a year for film, and as Mike indicated in a comment on yesterday's post, the final five are only a small sampling of the fare available in any given year. (The Player is a favourite of mine, too.) Perhaps one day, I'll manage to start this whole project over again and watch every film ever made in each year to make the project more complete ... or perhaps not. Still, I know I'm missing out on several fantastic films, but I better not start lamenting that now, or I'll never get through this...

Scent of a Woman
Martin Brest
Bo Goldman
Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell, James Rebhorn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gabrielle Anwar
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor

Lt. Colonel Frank Slade has had quite a life. A retired Army officer, he spent time on President Johnson's staff, before forcing his own early retirement, a feat achieved by unsuccessfully juggling hand grenades while intoxicated. Not only was it the end of his military career, but also the beginning of a sightless existence. The Colonel was probably cantankerous before he became blind, but now he is downright irascible.

Charlie Simms, on the other hand, is a mild-mannered prep school boy, receiving a private education despite his unwealthy roots. In order to pay for the airfare home to Oregon for Christmas, he agrees to a sort of babysitting job, taking care of the stubborn Colonel over the Thanksgiving weekend. But Col. Slade has other plans. He's bought tickets to New York City, where he intends to enjoy one last hurrah before blowing his brains out. And he's bringing Charlie along for the ride... as the tagline for the film reveals.

They fly first class, lodge at the Waldorf Astoria, dine at the Oak Room, test drive a Ferrari. The Colonel dances the tango with a beautiful woman and spends a few sordid moments with another. All the while, he manages to convince Charlie from skedaddling. For Charlie has problems of his own. He and another student are the only witnesses who can identify the masterminds behind an embarrassing prank on the headmaster. And if Charlie doesn't spill the beans, he'll be expelled, thereby kissing Harvard goodbye.

Scent of a Woman is most definitely an Al Pacino vehicle. Despite the film containing a great deal more that's worthy of consideration, it is Al, in all his Method acting glory, that makes this so watchable. He takes on the mannerisms of a blind person with great precision and authenticity, and he won a long-awaited Oscar for it. Right from the scene where Frank Slade is introduced, we are enthralled by his characterisation, and through the course of the film, sense his pain and desparation, juxtaposed against his passion. And really, what chance does Chris O'Donnell have alongside such a master? I've never been a huge fan of his, but, in his defense, even if he were the greatest actor of his generation, he wouldn't be able to steal a scene from Al.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his breakthrough performance as the slimy rich kid who all but leaves Charlie out to dry, displays why he has become such a respected actor. Fortunately for him, most of his scenes were sans Al. Also, one of my favourite "who's that guy?" actors, James Rebhorn, appears as the scheming headmaster.

I made mention yesterday of A Few Good Men's cheesy score, postulating that it was a sign of the times. However, Thomas Newman's score of Scent of a Woman proves that the times had nothing to do with it. Newman, in his distinctive manner, manages to capture the mood precisely.

Scent of a Woman is a great ride. A fabulous character study. Perhaps the unfortunate consequence is that the prep school subplot that bookends the picture, although fascinating in its own right, doesn't quite match the emotional potency of Slade's journey. And maybe that's Pacino's fault for being so darn captivating. Once his story is resolved, there's still another 20 minutes left. But at least, he is involved in the resolution of the subplot, and I guess, you could rightly argue, that his character's journey isn't really complete until he takes part in resolving Charlie's issues. Well, I've pretty much given it all away now, so I hope you've seen it already.

At any rate, the final conclusion is just a little too pat and contrived for my liking. I feel a little unfair in saying this, but I almost wish the film had ended 20 minutes earlier.

Friday, August 28, 2009

1992 - A Few Good Men

Another industry meeting tonight, this time with a casting director, who complimented me on my ability to drop my natural Australian accent in favour ... I mean, favor ... of an American dialect. All those years growing up watching American television and films have served me well.

Although, the thought does occur that ninety percent of the actors with which I will be competing for a role can also speak with a flawless American accent, because they are American. So, I'm not quite sure that really sets me apart. Still, the casting director assured me that there are plenty of foreigners in this town that are simply unable to achieve that convincing Yankee sound. Which I guess means that I'm one step ahead when it comes to auditioning for all those foreign-person-with-an-American-accent roles.

Earlier today, I sat down to watch the next in the 1992 Best Picture shortlist...

A Few Good Men
Rob Reiner
Aaron Sorkin
(based on his play)
Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollak, Keifer Sutherland, J.T. Walsh
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Lt. Daniel Kaffee is the hot-shot young Navy lawyer assigned to defend two Marines, accused of murdering a weaker member of their unit. The death of the Private, they claim, was the unintentional result of a so-called Code Red (military slang for an ass-kicking), directly ordered by their platoon commander, the gruff and God-fearing 1st Lt. Kendrick, who is more than clear about his disdain for the victim. But, for anyone who is paying attention, we all know it probably goes much higher up, all the way to Col. Nathan R. Jessup, the stoically arrogant commanding officer, who undoubtedly shares Kendrick's disdain for Marines who complain.

Assisting Kaffee on the case are his trusted colleague Lt. Weinberg, who, all things considered, would rather be at home where his baby daughter is growing up, and the young and sassy Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway, an ambitious Naval investigator with no real experience in the courtroom. What follows are several twists and turns and an adequate number of objections, both overruled and sustained, culminating in a tense climax.

A superb legal drama, A Few Good Men has deservedly won its reputation as a modern classic. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, brings his wit and intelligence to the script, and I must admit, I have a bit of a thing for scenes in which lawyers cleverly outwit their opponents. It's just so satisfying, leaving you with a ridiculously smug grin on your face. It doesn't matter that it's all fictional - there's just something thrilling about seeing a bully get their come-uppance. And Sorkin makes sure there's no shortage of clever little victories amidst the necessary obstacles.

A brief glance at the cast list confirms why this film is so often cited during games of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Plenty of name actors here. Tom Cruise is mostly decent as Kaffee, but still enjoys the occasional melodramatic moment. Keifer Sutherland as Kendrick seems like the evil counterpart of Jack Bauer. Especially enjoyable to watch is J.T. Walsh as Jessup's ashamed executive officer. Frequent Rob Reiner collaborator Christopher Guest (pictured), almost unrecognisable in the most serious portrayal I've ever seen him give, appears as an expert medical witness in fear of losing his job. And then there's Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak and Cuba Gooding, Jr. and a pre-E.R. Noah Wyle. And let's not forget Kevin Bacon himself.

Last but most certainly not least is Jack. Ah, Jack. For the better part of the film, he seems almost too stoic and restrained. But, boy, does he let loose in the courtroom. And even though you know it's coming, there is simply nothing more gripping and exciting than his oft-parodied line, "You can't handle the truth," and the speech that follows. A truly mesmerising moment. Due, in no small way, to Rob Reiner, one of the most eclectic directors of modern cinema. He makes sure the movie contains just the right amount of tension and humour.

The brief resolution is a little sentimental, but once you've been sucked in by the intensity of the preceding scenes, the sappiness just seems to work. Plus, it may just be a product of the era in which the film was made, but the synthesised score was a tad cheesy. Not enough to entirely disrupt the mood, but cheesy nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

1992 - The Crying Game

Thank heavens for the New York Public Library. After doing a relatively brief initial search for the availability of all the movies I need to watch over the coming months, there were a number that seemed not to be anywhere ... until I discovered the NYPL. They have copies of quite a number of the early Best Picture nominees. The only issue, of course, is that a lot of them are only available on VHS, so after getting rid of my seemingly redundant VCR a few months ago, it's now time to buy another one.

At this stage, there are still 10 films that I have been unable to source. (Which is not so bad, considering there are 455 that I have been able to find.) In the next few weeks, I'll post a link on the sidebar to a list of unavailable films and, hopefully, someone out there can help remedy the situation.

Into the second round of Matt vs. the Academy we go. It's 1992, and the first nominee is...

The Crying Game
Neil Jordan
Neil Jordan
Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, Miranda Richardson, Jaye Davidson, Jim Broadbent
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Screenplay

The one big challenge, with which every reviewer must grapple, upon writing about The Crying Game is to discuss the film without giving anything away. For the three people out there who remain unaware of the big twist, I shall try to avoid spoiling it for you ... but I won't try very hard.

The Crying Game centres on Fergus, who is of that most rare breed of anti-heroes: the terrorist with a heart of gold. He's an IRA activist, fighting for Ireland the only way he knows how - by helping to kidnap an English soldier and hold him hostage. But Fergus is the only member of his group who seems to treat their new roommate with even the slightest dignity. So, when Fergus is given the task to kill the soldier, it all goes horribly wrong.

Afterwards, Fergus needs to disappear, so he trots off to London to become invisible. But he can't help thinking of the girl that the English soldier told him about, so he seeks her out. At this point, it's probably best for me to stop summarising the plot, but suffice it to say, there are plenty more complications.

Now, despite the fact that the main shocker occurs approximately half way into the film, it does somewhat lessen the effect of the first half if the viewer is aware of it (as I was the first time I saw this film many years ago). I mean, it's all so bleedingly obvious when you know. But, as it happens, there is, in fact, a whole new enjoyment level to experience from the persepective one gains by possessing this secretive knowledge. Small gestures, half-finished sentences, words oddly emphasised. They all take on a much deeper meaning. You gain an insight into the characters' emotions that is simply not there when you don't know what's really going on.

Writer/director Neil Jordan crafts an intense drama/thriller and deservedly won the Best Original Screenplay for his script. He also assembled a wonderful cast, including Stephen Rea, Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent. Forest Whitaker is powerful as the English hostage, with an accent that was so convincing, I actually thought he was an English actor for many years. And for an American, he has quite an impressive bowling arm. Jaye Davidson is impossibly sultry as Dil, the soldier's girl. There's also a very interesting rendition of Stand By Your Man played over the closing credits, performed by Lyle Lovett.

One final note: As much as the producers attempted to thwart anyone from blowing their film's twist, it must have felt rather bittersweet when Jaye Davidson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Best Picture of 1966

The first five films of Matt vs. the Academy have been viewed, so now it's time to deliver the first verdict of the project. Perhaps working backwards may be the most efficient method of arriving at a conclusion. However, let me preface this discussion with the honest claim that I found all five nominees to be excellent examples of the power of cinema. They, each in their own way, managed to engage me in their stories. And I suspect that is a sentiment that may repeat itself many times during the course of this project.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1966 are:

A Man for All Seasons
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
The Sand Pebbles
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Three films based on plays and two on novels, the shortlist for 1966 is an impressive one. And quite a mixed bag, too. Everything from sweeping epic to intimate drama. Despite Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? leading the nominations race with thirteen citations, the Academy chose A Man for All Seasons as the winner of the Best Picture award. And I must choose just one favourite as well, so that is what I shall do.

The first film I knocked out of the running was The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Despite being a wonderful comedy, it's contrivances slightly set it apart from the other nominees. Next to go was Alfie, mainly because of it's sprawling storyline. And then The Sand Pebbles, not for any particular reason.

Left with A Man for All Seasons and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I genuinely had a tough time separating them. I was engaged in both films from beginning to end, but the eventual victor in my insignificant opinion is A Man for All Seasons. Without taking anything away from the other nominees, the story of Thomas More simply grabbed me with its focussed yet subtle storytelling.

Best Picture of 1966
Academy's choice:

A Man for All Seasons

Matt's choice:

A Man for All Seasons

Your choice:

Well, that's one down. Only 80 more to go! For the next round, I will be watching the films from 1992. Feel free to join me and post your comments. It's quite a collection of films.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1992 are:

The Crying Game
A Few Good Men
Howard's End
Scent of a Woman

Until next we meet...

Monday, August 24, 2009

1966 - The Sand Pebbles

Yesterday, my sweet beloved and I hopped on the Long Island Rail Road to visit some friends. Along our way, we passed a station frighteningly named Locust Manor before we disembarked at the pleasantly named Valley Stream to transfer to another service. Whilst waiting for the next train, we were treated to several recorded announcements reminding us to be train smart. Nothing unusual about that. Announcements of that nature are certainly commonplace. Except these ones all began with the sentence, "Hi, I'm Steve Guttenberg." And it was indeed the voice of Sgt. Mahoney himself that proceeded to warn us of the possible death trap that is the gap between the platform and the train.

Now, despite the fact that I have enjoyed several of Mr. Guttenberg's films, he does seem to hold the reputation of maintaining a less than illustrious career. So, I am left to ponder why he chose to lend his vocal talents to a series of public transport messages. Surely, even he does not believe that stressing the importance of keeping one's belongings in sight at all times is somehow a renowned and sought-after role.

But maybe I've got it all wrong. Perhaps he's genuinely passionate about train safety... Yes, that's probably it.

And now, to round out the first round of Matt vs. the Academy, the final nominee for Best Picture of 1966 is...

The Sand Pebbles
Robert Wise
Robert Anderson
(based on the novel by Richard McKenna)
Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
0 wins

If you're interested in Chinese politics in the early twentieth century, then The Sand Pebbles will be right up your alley. Or maybe not. I can't vouch for its historical accuracy. Nonetheless, the political themes serve only as a background to what is quite a suspenseful and gripping story. Jake Holman is an engineer in the Navy and he's just been transferred to the San Pablo (called the Sand Pebble by its crew), a gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River, protecting US citizens. The ship's captain allows a few non-standard practices, including the employment of Chinese men below deck to do all the manual labour, thereby freeing up the crew's time for other activities. Jake likes to run the engine room himself, however, so he quickly creates enemies amongst the crew, who prefer the status quo.

From the music over the opening credits, you know that The Sand Pebbles is going to be serious. Chinese politics serious. There's plenty of back and forth bantering about the state of affairs in the region, and undoubtedly, the ship's unwelcome presence on the river is supposed to mirror the US Forces' presence in Vietnam (a hot topic at the time the film was released). Fortunately, the heavy-handed political discussions make way for several truly eyes-glued-to-the-screen sequences. And I mean several. But then, at three hours long, there's plenty of room for that.

Steve McQueen as Jake is the king of brooding (as evidenced in this picture), and the ramblings he constructs in an attempt to communicate with one of the Chinese labourers are a wonderful thing to witness. Richard Attenborough costars as Jake's only friend on the ship, who falls for a local Chinese girl and vows to rescue her from forced prostitution. The rest of the cast is like a who's who of pop culture. Murphy Brown star Candice Bergen appears as the missionary's assistant that Jake falls for. Rambo's Richard Crenna is the ship's stubborn captain. And speaking of ship captains, The Love Boat's Captain Stubing, otherwise known as Gavin McLeod, is a member of the ship's crew. And for the keen-eyed, Chinese crime boss Victor Shu is played by James Hong, who, despite having a great many credits, is immortalised with the lines, "five, ten minutes" from the Chinese Restaurant episode of Seinfeld. Hmm, I think that gives you a small indication of the way my brain works.

An interesting point to note is that director Robert Wise had spent years trying to bring The Sand Pebbles to the screen. As he waited for pre-production to be completed, the studio convinced him to make another film in the meantime. So he casually helmed The Sound of Music and won an Oscar for it.

So, that concludes the first round of nominees. Well, almost. In the next post, I will deliver my first verdict on which of 1966's Best Picture nominees is my favourite. Will it match the Academy's choice? ... Yes. But now I've gone and ruined the surprise...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

1966 - Alfie

What is it about spotting a celebrity in public that is so darn fascinating? It's a bit like seeing an animal in the wild. You don't want him to know he's been spotted for fear he may crawl back into his burrow. So, when you see him from a distance approaching, you surreptitiously elbow your wife and point your nose in his general direction, giggling like a schoolgirl. And yet, Greg Proops is just a person, like any other. He's not a god. But somehow, seeing him casually walking down the street, as I did yesterday, is still a minor thrill. I mean, hey, I've seen that guy on television!

At the risk of revealing my geekishness, I've had several such thrills over the years, unsuccessfully photographing Joe Pantoliano at the baggage carousel, narrowly avoiding injury from Meryl Streep's umbrella, accidentally pushing my wife into Alan Rickman, freezing F. Murray Abraham's fingers with my cold handshake, being called a "tit man" by Toni Collette. Good times, good times.

Next on 1966's nominee list is...

Lewis Gilbert
Bill Naughton
(based on his stage play)
Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, Millicent Martin, Vivien Merchant, Denholm Elliott
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

Alfie is one of the most abhorrent mysogynists you're likely to encounter. He not only mistreats women romantically, but also calls them "it" rather than "she", all the while proclaiming he only wants to make them happy. Which is somewhat misguided since none of the women he dallies with during the course of the film seem to be all that happy with him. Except for one. Ruby is the female version of Alfie, and the only woman with which he could actually see himself settling down. But Alfie leaves a trail of women behind, creating mess after mess, until he finally realises he's had enough of moving around.

It's a sprawling story with many subplots that all seem to have the same resolution - Alfie leaves. And it's this scattered nature that prevents the film from being something really engaging. Don't get me wrong, there are some downright powerful scenes in amongst the light-heartedness, but because we keep swapping from one girl's story to another, there's never any time to settle. But perhaps that's the point. Alfie never has time to settle, either.

Michael Caine is fantastic in the title role, directly addressing the camera to narrate his inner thoughts. (A few times, it occurred to me how similar he is to Jude Law, who, almost forty years later, recreated the role in the remake.) Shelley Winters stands out as Ruby, who, whilst embracing her curves (pictured), Alfie refers to as being in "lovely condition". And Denholm Elliott makes a superb but brief appearance as a somewhat grumpy abortion doctor.

One last thing: why is it, in movies, that when two people start fighting in a bar, it immediately erupts into an all-in brawl? I mean, were all the other patrons in the establishment just waiting for an excuse to throw bottles at the bartender and smack their drinking buddies over the head with a chair? Their violence is just so confusingly indiscriminate.

Anyway, despite it's sprawling nature, Alfie is a wonderful film, full of humour and pathos. Another film worthy of its Best Picture nomination.

Friday, August 21, 2009

1966 - The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

Before I begin today's instalment of Matt vs. the Academy, allow me this brief diatribe on the utter frustration that is pan and scan. I'm fairly certain I'm preaching to the choir, but for the uninitiated, pan and scan is that hackjob technique that, until recently, was commonly employed to convert the image of a widescreen film to conform to the squarish shape of most television sets. This visual deformation results in a film where the sides of people's faces inexplicably drop off the edge of the screen, camera moves are introduced into previously static scenes and the frame's composition is utterly destroyed. Reference this frame from The Music Man.

The whole experience becomes all the more frustrating when viewed on a widescreen television, the square image leaving two black voids on either side of the screen. It's like watching the movie through a keyhole, constantly shifting your head to find the best view. Except someone else is controlling your head. A frustrating experience, I hope you'll agree. But don't take it from me, take a listen to what some of cinema's greatest directors have to say about the subject.

Ever since the advent of DVD, and also with the saturation of widescreen televisions on the market, pan and scan has become almost obsolete. Certainly, new films transferred to DVD maintain their original widescreen format. It must be quite rare nowadays for them to even bother creating a pan and scan version. But evidently there are some copies of older movies that still exist in this annoying format. Unfortunately, the copy of the next nominee from 1966 that I watched today was one such annoyance. Still, like a professional, I persevered and tried my darnedest not to let it interfere with my enjoyment of...

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
Norman Jewison
William Rose
(based on the novel "The Off-Islanders" by Nathaniel Benchley)
Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

When discussing The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, it's probably pertinent to understand the Cold War hysteria that gripped the United States when the film was released. Sadly, I don't. But I think I get the general gist. The movie begins with a Russian submarine that accidentally runs aground on a small island town off the coast of New England. Nine of the submariners venture into town on the hunt for a motor boat that can tow their vessel back out to sea. But false rumours begin to spread around the island about parachutists and naval attacks, so the townsfolk, conveniently forming themselves into a crazed unreasonable mob, vow to stop the Russians from leaving.

You may not be able to tell from that brief synopsis (although you ought to be able to guess from the title) that this film is a comedy. And a fine one, at that. Alan Arkin is brilliantly funny as the exasperated leader of the Russian landing party, complete with an absolutely convincing fluency in Russian (well, since I don't actually speak Russian myself, I can't back that up, but it sure sounds authentic). And since there are no English subtitles during the foreign language scenes, the viewer is forced to become very adept at reading body language. I do enjoy it when films leave you to figure out stuff on your own. It's much more rewarding than being spoon fed all the important messages. But, unfortunately, that rewarding feeling didn't remain through the entire film. There's a cheesy romantic subplot between one of the younger Russian men and a beautiful blonde American girl, who, during a moment of subdued passion, exclaims, "It doesn't make sense to hate people. It's such a waste of time." And right away, it's clear what message the film is intending to send.

The film didn't quite perfect the mix between comedy and drama with several brief serious moments that seem slightly out of place, if only because of their brevity. And the ending is horribly contrived. But there's plenty of laughter to keep you entertained, including a great sequence when the Russians disguise themselves in American clothes, proclaiming to the townspeople, "Emergency. Everybody to get from street!"

Oh, and the young boy who played Carl Reiner's son in this film was more annoying than the pan and scan.

It's always nice to see comedies nominated for Best Picture (it's such a rare occurrence) but I can't help thinking that the political climate at the time helped get this one over the line. Still, it's worth a look and I definitely got some chuckles.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

1966 - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Everyone has a film that they unconditionally adored during their childhood. You'd watch it over and over, and laugh or cry, or whatever you were meant to do, in all the right places. Now, as a fully grown adult, the nostalgia you feel for the film seems to overpower any critical thinking, and you simply won't have anyone speak ill of your favourite little filmy-wilmy. It's your film-baby. We all have one. Last night, my beautiful wife Kat introduced me to her film-baby, a whodunit farce entitled The Private Eyes. You may not have heard of it, and there's a fairly good reason for that.

It stars Tim Conway and Don Knotts as a pair of bumbling detectives attempting to solve a series of murders at an English manor. It comes complete with all the comedy cliches, including a revolving false wall and even a "Walk this way" gag. But it was made in 1980, so I guess it's all forgivable.

When the film ended, I was half expecting Kat to turn to me and say, "Hmm, it's not as good as I remember," but alas, she simply sighed with nostalgia and forced me to admit that I loved it, too.

Now, so as not to contradict my post from a couple of days ago (when I mentioned that I love ALL movies), I must confess that it had its moments. And I must have been at least a little engrossed because I still wanted to find out who, indeed, had dun it. In fact, if I were to be perfectly honest, I can definitely picture myself loving this as a child, too. It has all the elements that make children squeal with laughter. And taking a quick look at the user comments on the film's IMDb page, it's clear that there are plenty of people who have loved it since they were children, too.

Nevertheless, as much as I love my wife (and I do love her very much - I wrote her a song for our wedding!), The Private Eyes is not going to find a place in my top ten list and I'm glad to get back to the Best Picture nominees. But if you ever see her, icks-nay on the iticism-cray. Just tell her I loved it.

Now, wait 'til I show her Electric Dreams.

Back to the Best Picture race of 1966. The second film in the shortlist is...

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols
Ernest Lehman
(based on Edward Albee's play)
Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
5 wins, including Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress

Well, if you ever needed a reason to stop drinking, just sit down and watch Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This intense drama follows one night at the household of George and Martha, a couple with some issues to sort out. He's a history professor. She's the daughter of the president of the university. And she's not subtle about her disdain for her husband, summed up beautifully in lines like, "If you existed, I'd divorce you." After coming home a little tipsy from a faculty party, they for some reason prepare for guests at 2 o'clock in the morning. The guests arrive in the form of Nick, a newly appointed biology professor, and his wife, Honey. All four go from tipsy to drunk to completely shit-faced in the space of a few hours. And unfortunately, the younger couple inadvertently become pawns in the game of tit-for-tat spitefulness that George and Martha have going on. Although, Nick and Honey aren't entirely free of their own issues.

The whole drama is absolutely captivating. It's real fly-on-the-wall stuff. These characters at first seemed completely devoid of any redeeming qualities, at each other's throats constantly, but by the end, there is a certain empathetic sadness that makes the whole story rather heartbreaking.

When the film started, it almost seemed as if Elizabeth Taylor was a bit over the top, but once it becomes evident that she's a bitter, snarky alcoholic... well, how else could she play it? Richard Burton is perfectly understated, until he doesn't need to be any more. And George Segal is so far from Jack Gallo, it's uncanny. Rounding out the cast is the impressive Sandy Dennis (pictured) as the drunkest woman ever to appear on celluloid. All four were nominated for acting Oscars, but only the two ladies won. Poor old Richard Burton - seven nominations without a win. Topped (or should that be bottomed) only by Peter O'Toole with eight. But Pete's still alive, so you never know.

It's the script and the performances that really shine in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There are no fancy special effects or spectacular visual elements. Just good old-fashioned drama. Not to take anything away from director Mike Nichols, who obviously steered everybody in the right direction. The result is another great inspirational film. (You're all going to get sick of me calling every film inspirational, aren't you?)

So, two down, three to go, before the first verdict. 463 to go before the end...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

1966 - A Man for All Seasons

Last night, I had a meeting with an actor's agent here in New York. It went well. I performed a monologue. We had a nice chat. And then it was over...

I know I shouldn't expect anything to happen immediately. Perhaps I'm just too impatient. But in my head are visions of agents falling to their knees, waving contracts and begging me to sign with them on the spot. Surely, that's not an impossible scenario ... Okay, shutup.

In any case, I was on the subway back home, in the midst of my failing attempt to ignore the grubby 11-year-old girl who seemed to be under the mistaken impression she was auditioning for a pole dancing club, when I began to fill my mind with great scenes from great movies. And I realised the other reason for beginning this project - I want to be in a great scene from a great movie. Not that this project will somehow lead me to that goal. I guess I just expect that there will be lots of great scenes for me to watch in the coming months.

And I wasn't wrong. Today, I sat down to watch the very first film of the project, which was...

A Man for All Seasons
Fred Zinneman
Robert Bolt
(adapted from his stage play)
Paul Schofield, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Susannah York, John Hurt
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
6 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor

Part period piece, part legal drama, A Man for All Seasons is like the lovechild of Merchant-Ivory and David E. Kelley. It tells the story of Sir Thomas More, a 16th-century goody-two-shoes who resigns the post of Lord Chancellor of England rather than accept King Henry VIII's self-appointed title of Supreme Head of the Church of England. Poor old Thomas is then persecuted like crazy, but being a wily lawyer himself, he's always got a clever answer for every charge they throw at him.

Tommy sticks by his morals, choosing to believe that nobody can usurp the Pope's authority. Besides, he knows that Henry's new church was borne of lust, rather than religion. If Catherine of Aragon was half as sexy as Anne Boleyn, none of this would have happened. In fact, if Catherine had given birth to a boy that survived, that would have been enough. But, no, Henry wanted a divorce and he wasn't going to let a trivial thing like religion get in his way. And Tommy just didn't agree with that. He didn't disagree, mind you. Because that would have been treason. He just didn't take the Oath. Clever man, see.

I found this film genuinely gripping, particularly the final courtroom scene. Great start to my project. Paul Schofield is superb as Thomas More. So subtle. So exciting to watch. A fat, slovenly Orson Welles appears as a fat, slovenly Cardinal Wolsey, looking like an over-ripe tomato in his red robes. John Hurt's hair and moustache seemed a little out of place, though. (That's him holding the goblet.) I didn't think there were any hippies in the 16th century. But with a character called Richard Rich, what can you expect? And what a delight for 70s British sitcom fans to see Yootha Joyce (best known as Mildred Roper) pop up in a couple of scenes. I kept waiting for her to scream, "George!"

Such a witty script by Robert Bolt, too. In one sentence, he can express moral fortitude and insult the entire nation of Wales, without batting an eyelid. And then he can make you feel the desparation in lines like "I wish rainwater was beer." However, there is still the unfortunate misinterpretation that inevitably rears its ugly head whenever older movies make use of words that have redefined themselves over the years. Thomas exclaims to his daughter, "You're very pensive," to which she replies, "You're very gay." We all know what she means, but amusing, nonetheless... in a completely puerile way.

So, the first film is out of the way, and I must say, I'm beginning to really get excited about this project. A Man for All Seasons was just the kind of inspiration I was referring to in my previous post. A well-made, exquisitely acted, gripping film. Makes me love movies even more. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fade In...

After much deliberation on how to introduce this ridiculous project, I have come to the conclusion that said project is not merely ridiculous, but also, for the most part, arbitrary and irrelevant. For all intents and purposes, this project has very few intents or purposes. In simple terms, I plan to sit down and watch (not in one sitting, obviously) all 465 films that have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (although, by the time I am finished this project, that number will have increased to 485).

I could rattle off some cliches about how many times I've been inspired by the art of cinema and, though that may be true, I don't really believe that's why I'm doing this. Or I could pretend to be disillusioned by the Academy's choices over the years, condemning their politically and financially fuelled corruption, and so, off I go, heroically righting those wrongs by awarding my own Best Picture. But, the truth of the matter is I don't actually care enough about the winners to lay claim to any disillusionment. Despite my fanatical love of the Oscars, I'm perfectly aware of the innate subjectivity of the process. Besides, I love movies. All movies. Even the bad ones. (Yep, I enjoyed Ishtar... and Waterworld.) Consequently, I find it difficult to come up with an example of a Best Picture winner that I've hated. Which is not to say that I haven't preferred another movie over the eventual winner, just that I've never really felt that any winning film was so devoid of cinematic quality that Oscar should hang his golden head in shame.

So, why then?

Perhaps it's just because I've always bemoaned the fact that I don't watch enough classic cinema.

Perhaps it's because I have the spectacularly misguided fantasy that this will somehow make me famous.

Perhaps it's simply a gigantic procrastination, providing me with an excuse to avoid the things I really ought to be doing for my career, like writing an indie screenplay, or mounting a production of Othello.

Perhaps it's something to occupy my currently unemployed days as yet another struggling actor in New York City. After all, I like making lists and crossing things off them. A real sense of achievement. And once a task is set, it doesn't really matter how utterly useless it is. As long as you get it done, you've achieved something, right? ... Right?

Or perhaps, just perhaps, it is that cliche about movies being inspirational. In all honesty, I do genuinely get a shiver of excitement when the lights go down before the movie starts. And it's not a rare occasion that I exit the cinema having been truly moved. And perhaps the greatest self-referential irony of all is that the reason I even contemplated this project in the first place was as a direct result of seeing Julie and Julia last week. Probably not destined to be a classic, but it did what every film should aspire to do - it inspired its viewers. (Well, it inspired me at least, but I figured it would sound a tad narcissitic if I said every film should aim to inspire me specifically.) So, I guess you could say this is a blog inspired by a film inspired by a blog. It's already beginning to sound like a Charlie Kaufman screenplay.

So, that's it, then. The reason I'm embarking on this insane journey is because of cinema's power to inspire... And probably the procrastination thing.

Now, on to the practicalities...

I had considered doing the whole thing chronologically, but in the interest of giving the project a bit of variety, I thought better of it. So, instead, I will jump back and forth through time, like a movie-blogging Marty McFly. However, I will always watch all nominees from a particular year before I move on to another year, thereby making it possible to deliver my own verdict on the best of that year (or, more accurately, my favourite of that year). Plus, in order to be able to make a fair comparison, I will watch every single movie on the list, regardless of whether I have seen them before this project began.

I'm giving myself the arbitrary deadline of the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony, which is as yet unscheduled, but will undoubtedly take place in late February or early March of 2011. By my calculations, that means I will need to view roughly six movies each week.

I also encourage you to take part as well. I will announce ahead of time which awards year I will be moving on to next, including a list of the movies in contention that year. So feel free to join in the movie-watching bonanza and give your own opinions on my verdict.

I will be starting with the nominees from the year 1966, a choice arrived at solely for practical reasons - four of the five nominees are available to watch instantly on my Netflix account.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1966 are:

A Man For All Seasons
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
The Sand Pebbles
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Let the movie marathon begin...

Update - January 11, 2010

After a valiant attempt at sticking to the timeframe mentioned in this inaugural post, I have slipped by the wayside and it is now becoming increasingly impossible to meet the deadline. However, Matt vs. the Academy is most definitely still alive and kicking. It is just currently deadlineless. As explained in the Jan. 11, 2010 post, the Best Picture nominees will continue to be watched and enjoyed, just at a more leisurely pace.