Thursday, October 29, 2009

1956 - Giant

An interesting thing is happening as I review the films from 1956. As I mentioned previously, along with the Best Picture nominees, I am also watching the nominees from the Supporting Actress category for a Smackdown to be posted this Sunday at StinkyLulu's blog. The interesting thing is that I seem to be enjoying the supporting actresses' films more than the ones nominated for Best Picture. Written on the Wind and Baby Doll, for example, had me engaged on a deeper level than any of the Picture nominees so far. Not that I've specifically disliked any of them. I guess, as an actor, I'm simply bound to be drawn to films that contain more Oscar worthy performances.

Interestingly, the next film in Matt vs. the Academy, is not only the sole film to appear on both the Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress nominations list, but it also stars actors from the two films I mentioned above, namely Rock Hudson from Written on the Wind and Carroll Baker from Baby Doll. Coincidence? Probably. The film in question, which I viewed today, is...


Giant
Director:
George Stevens
Screenplay:
Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat
(based on the novel by Edna Ferber)
Starring:
Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
1 win, for Best Director

As its title suggests, Giant is a big film about a big family living in a big state. The Benedicts are a wealthy Texan family with acres of ranch land. When the head of the family, Bick, brings home his new bride from Maryland, things become a bit rocky. Leslie is a bit of a feminist and Texan men are not in the mood for changing their traditions. Ranch handyman Jett is somewhat unpopular, but when Bick's sister dies, leaving a small piece of land to Jett, Bick can only stand by as Jett discovers oil, becoming wealthier than the Benedicts ever could have imagined. Time goes by and Bick and Leslie have three children, but it's his only son that Bick dotes over, expecting him to take over the ranch one day. But Jordy has other plans. Not only does he want to become a doctor, but he also falls for a Mexican-American woman, both cause for his father's disdain.

At well over three hours long, Giant certainly lives up to its name. It is a saga. But it's an intimate saga. Although the ranch is massive, the people living on it are still subject to the same human condition. They love, they fear, they fight, they learn. Director George Stevens is constantly obscuring his characters from view, behind newspapers or in darkness, as if to highlight how small they become amongst such a grand landscape.

Perhaps also it is symbolic of how hidden they are from each other. The main couple, Bick and Leslie, have opposing ideals. He is a traditionalist, she a progressive. Bick lives in a world where men are men and women are not. Leslie, with her feminism and humanitarianism, doesn't seem to fit in, but even she has her own prejudices. For instance, when her daughter shows an interest in ranching, Leslie is downright against it, preferring her to pursue a more refined career, one more suitable for a lady.

The film explores the dichotomy between our plans for the future and the reality. Bick, especially, struggles with letting go of tradition in a changing world. He is denied his vision of passing on the reins (literally) to his son. To add insult to injury, his ex-handyman becomes the richest man in Texas. In the end, however, he learns to adjust. Where once he supported the segregation of Mexican-Americans, he now stands up for their right to eat in the same diner as everyone else.

For its righteous themes, however, Giant contains a great deal of seemingly unnecessary fistfighting. As was standard in those days, throwing a punch seemed to be the only respected way to resolve an issue. I thought perhaps Bick had finally learned his lesson when he felt ashamed after a fight, but his shame was not from resorting to violence, but that he lost. He is buoyed by his wife, who even describes the altercation as "glorious", proud that her husband stood up for a worthy cause. It's as if to say, "Well, you may not have won, but at least you threw the first punch." Really? Is this sort of caveman attitude to be glorified? Or perhaps I misunderstood and the whole point was to represent the flaws in this kind of masculinity, especially in Texas.

James Dean, in his final role, exudes a unique energy, enough to garner him his second posthumous Oscar nomination. Elizabeth Taylor gives a mature performance beyond her years. She was just 23 years old when the film was shot, one year younger than Carroll Baker, who played her daughter. We are also treated to an impressive (and very young) Dennis Hopper as Jordy.

Only one more picture from 1956 to go, the longest one yet. Longer, in fact, than the first two 1956 nominees I watched put together!

Monday, October 26, 2009

1956 - The Ten Commandments

Braving Saturday night's miserable weather here in New York, Kat and I enjoyed a tasty meal in Little Italy before heading to an improv show. Not just any improv show, mind you. This one comprised of two stars of television's Whose Line Is It Anyway?, namely Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood. As an improviser myself, I always feel a tinge of envy watching other performers bring the house down, and these two were certainly no exception. It was positively inspirational to be witness to their quick-witted minds. The highlight is their grand finale, a backwards alphabet scene. Not so spectacular, I hear you say, but before the scene begins, stage hands littered the floor with 100 mousetraps. The scene is then performed with Colin and Brad barefoot and wearing blindfolds. Nothing short of hilarious. They have an extensive list of tour dates around the country, so definitely check them out if they come to your town. Tour dates are on their website.

Sunday was a lazier day, despite the weather being much more agreeable. In the afternoon, we had the chance to watch the epic that is the next nominee from 1956's Best Picture race...


The Ten Commandments
Director:
Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay:
├ćneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank
(based on three separate novels by J.H. Ingraham, A.E. Southon, Dorothy Clarke Wilson)
Starring:
Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Special Effects

A film of literally Biblical proportions, The Ten Commandments oddly begins with the director himself delivering a personal introduction. Stepping out from behind a majestic curtain, Mr. DeMille, with no hint of irony, announces just how important the following presentation is. After his absurd yet sincere plea for his motion picture to be considered alongside the Bible itself, the opening credits continue the grandstanding before the film finally begins.

Little baby Moses is reluctantly abandoned by his mother, who fears for his safety when the Pharaoh decrees that all Hebrew babies shall be killed. With a stroke of luck, it is the Pharaoh's own daughter who discovers the child, taking him in as her own to live the life of an Egyptian prince. Thirty years later, Moses is being considered for the throne along with his cousin, Rameses, who feels a sense of entitlement on account of the fact he is the current Pharaoh's son. With the throne also comes the hand of the beautiful Nefretiri, who has already given her heart to Moses, more fodder for Rameses' dislike of him. Moses' successful construction of a new city, partly attributed to his respect for the Hebrew slaves, wins the favour of the Pharaoh. However, before he is offered the throne, his true identity as the son of Hebrew slaves is revealed, forcing him to be ejected from Egypt. After a chat with the Almighty himself, Moses realises his destiny as the man to free the Hebrew people from slavery.

I am compelled to admit that I had a little difficulty with The Ten Commandments. Although I found the monumentally epic nature of the film entertaining, I struggled to keep my personal views on religion at bay. Perhaps if it were any other story, I may not have cared so much, but I guess I took exception at DeMille's own claims of authenticity. In his defense, there is a great deal of attention to detail put in to the historical accuracy of the time period, but to claim to have any more than one source for the religious elements of the story is simply ludicrous. Plus, at the risk of offending any Biblical inerrantists, if this were any other story, we'd all be commenting on the film's plot holes.

Okay, now that I've got that out of the way, I freely confess that the film's enormity is very impressive. Being a Cecil B. DeMille picture, we are graced with several awe-inspiring sequences involving thousands of extras and grand locations. Some of the film was, in fact, shot in Egypt using colossal sets built into the sweeping desert landscapes. Even the Oscar-winning special effects, which are fairly unconvincing by today's standards, must have been astonishing to a 1950s audience.

There is no denying, of course, that the story is a classic one - a tale of good versus evil with heroes and villains galore. Moses is almost portrayed as an action hero, diving to save an old woman from a crushing block of stone or swooping in to protect young Midian women from Amalekite bullies. His perfectly windswept hair constantly appears as though he just stepped out of the salon. The stark white, not grey, beard of old Moses, however, is perhaps a little laughable. Nonetheless, his words - and everyone else's, for that matter - are very poetic. There's a classic lyrical quality to the dialogue that creates quite a distinguished feel.

Yul Brynner, in opposition to the pantomime quality he brought to The King and I, shows versatility here in an intensely restrained performance as Rameses. Still, the Academy chose to award him the Best Actor Oscar for playing a Siamese King, rather than an Egyptian Pharaoh. And that's Charlton Heston's own son playing the baby Moses.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

1956 - Friendly Persuasion

Cupcakes. Mmm, cupcakes. Kat and I have discovered a New York chain of cupcake stores (now all over the country) called Crumbs. If there's one in your town, stop reading this and go there immediately. Just take a look at their website, if you need convincing. The original store is directly across the road from where I'm currently rehearsing, which, although convenient, is dangerously tempting.

In fact, after rehearsal last night, I picked up a White Hot Chocolate and a Caramel Apple to share with my darling wife as we watched the next film on 1956's Best Picture nominee list...


Friendly Persuasion
Director:
William Wyler
Screenplay:
Michael Wilson
(based on the novel by Jessamyn West)
Starring:
Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Richard Eyer, Robert Middleton, Phyllis Love, Peter Mark Richman, Marjorie Main
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

The Birdwells are a Quaker family living in Civil War Indiana. Being Quakers, they live a simple existence, foregoing such pleasures as music, dancing and using the word, "you". But the world is changing and these forbidden activities become more and more intriguing, especially to Jess, the Birdwell patriarch, who is tempted to purchase an organ much to his wife's dismay. The ultimate test of their faith, however, comes when Union soldiers request the help of Quaker men in the fight against the Confederacy. The Birdwells' eldest son, Josh, is particularly tormented as he struggles to reconcile his feelings of responsibility with his faith's principle of pacifism.

Friendly Persuasion is a pleasant enough film. Nothing ground breaking, but pleasant. A pleasant mix of humour and sincerity. A pleasant slate of characters who are interesting and conflicted. A pleasant director who had already won two Oscars and would take his third in just a few more years. See? Pleasant. All the right ingredients for a satisfying cinematic experience. And it is satisfying. Which really should be enough, but perhaps alongside the vast catalogue of brilliant films at the heart of this project, Friendly Persuasion simply becomes shadowed by their greatness.

Maybe it's because more than half the film is occupied by comic relief. If it were an out-and-out comedy, this may not matter so much, but the style of comedy is that of a serious film lightening the mood after a dramatic scene. Except the dramatic scenes in this film mostly appear at the end, which results in a large portion of the film containing scene after scene of comic relief without a break. It's like it needed, dare I say it, some dramatic relief.

Don't misconstrue me, however. The comedy is entertaining and well-played. Pleasant, you might even say. Gary Cooper's portrayal of Jess with all his awkwardness is especially joyful to witness. But as amusing as it is to watch him explain to his wife his purchase of a musical instrument, the potential for emotion clearly sits with the Quakers' torment as they struggle to remain non-violent in a land rife with war. A young Anthony Perkins (pictured), whose character Josh carries this side of the story, delivers a particularly commendable performance.

At first, the constant use of the word "thee" is a tad distracting, but once you become acclimated, it becomes quite natural. But there's still the issue of its grammatical usage. Perhaps it's because I'm in the midst of rehearsing a Shakespeare play that I recognised the script's misuse of the word. Sometimes when they say, "thee", they should be saying, "thou". However, upon further investigation, this was apparently how Quakers used the word, so it's not the screenwriter's mistake after all.

Speaking of the screenwriter, this film and its script became embroiled in a fascinating period in the history of the Academy Awards. In 1956, scribe Michael Wilson was blacklisted as a result of the McCarthyism hysteria gripping the nation at the time. Consequently, his name did not appear in the film's opening credits and, according to Academy by-laws, he was ineligible to be nominated for an Oscar. The screenwriting achievement itself was eligible, however, and indeed, received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay without Wilson's name attached. The final ballot sent to Academy members only included the other four nominees, so Friendly Persuasion, despite having six official nominations, only had the opportunity to win five. Nonetheless, since it didn't succeed in any of the other five categories, it seems unlikely it would have won the Screenplay award. In 1996, Wilson's credit was restored to the film and, in 2002, the Academy reinstated his name into official nomination records.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

1956 - The King and I

When searching the blogosphere for similar projects to Matt vs. the Academy, I came across StinkyLulu, who is pursuing a similar goal to mine. We are differentiated only by the awards category that bears our focus, StinkyLulu choosing to turn his attention to the Best Supporting Actress nominees. Each month is dedicated to the nominees of a different year, culminating in a Supporting Actress Smackdown, which involves guests rating each performance. The numbers are tallied and a winner is announced. The site is well worth a gander.

As you may have deduced by now, I will be one such Smackdown guest for the month of October, which will see the Supporting Actress nominees from 1956 under review. Hence, I have chosen that same year for my next review of Best Picture nominees. As it happens, though, only one film appears on both shortlists, so I will have a few extra movies to watch over the next few days. I will remind you, lovely readers, when the Smackdown is posted (scheduled for November 1) and, no doubt, I will take part in future Smackdowns too.

Today, the first of the Best Picture nominees from 1956 took a ride in my DVD player...


The King and I
Director:
Walter Lang
Screenplay:
Ernest Lehman
(based on the stage musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein)
Starring:
Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson, Terry Saunders
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
5 wins, including Best Actor

Based on the popular Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway musical, which was in turn based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which was in turn based on the memoirs of the real Anna Leonowens, The King and I has undoubtedly lost some of its historical accuracy through each fictionalised interpretation. But historical accuracy is probably not the main concern of a movie musical as charmingly saccharine as this one.

A schoolteacher from the United Kingdom of the mid-19th century travels with her son to a vastly different kingdom, that of Siam. She has been invited by the King to teach his many children the ways of the English, both language and customs. She quickly discovers, however, that the King is a stubborn and arrogant man who could do with a few lessons himself. In that cloying style that only musicals from the 1950s can get away with, Anna attempts to soften the King's heart and, in doing so, comes to a few realisations herself.

As with most musicals of this era, The King and I is clearly more about escapism than anything else. It's good old-fashioned family entertainment. Music, dancing, extravagant sets and costumes. Not that it doesn't attempt to offer some thought-provoking themes. It's just that those serious issues, like sexism and slavery, while not presented insincerely, tend to be somehow undermined by all the schmaltz.

We also encounter what can easily be perceived as an arrogant disrespect of another culture. The Siamese traditions are portrayed as inferior to those of Western culture. Buddhism is horribly misrepresented. Not to mention that the casting director seems to be unaware of the difference between Asians and Latinos. (In their defense, I guess Thai actors were hard to come by in 1950s Hollywood.) But all that seems to blissfully slip into the nether reaches of your mind as you marvel at all of the beautiful colours and movements. In fact, the sequence that most perverts the beliefs of Buddhists happens to also be the most stunning visual feast of the film - a cleverly entertaining ballet adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, patronisingly yet adorably named Small House of Uncle Thomas.

Despite its sentimentality, The King and I remains an engaging story with some delightful music. Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner both received acting nominations, the latter taking home the prize for his portrayal of the King - a more cartoonish Oscar-winning performance you'll be hard pressed to find. If it were in anything other than a 1950s musical, it may not have been so charming. As it stands, however, Brynner's inclination towards melodrama not only fits right in but actually adds to the enjoyment of this awkwardly innocent yet extravagant musical.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Best Picture of 2001

For the first time, I am as yet undecided as I sit down to write the verdict. Rather confusingly, my enjoyment level for most of these films shifted since first seeing them. Since the films themselves have not changed, I can only assume that my prior expectations infiltrated my open-mindedness. Two of the films, which I had previously held in high regard, suffered from this cruel phenomenon, while a third emerged with a more favourable opinion than I had originally placed upon it. Consequently, I'm in a bit of a quandary, and I will sort this mess out as I write.

The nominees for Best Picture of 2001 are:

A Beautiful Mind
Gosford Park
In The Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge

Most years, the slate of films nominated for Best Picture are quite diverse, but for some reason, it seems particularly evident for 2001. Comparing an epic fantasy with an internal drama is difficult at the best of times, but adding a musical gala, a period satire and a powerful biopic to the mix is just ludicrous. So, how to separate them...

Firstly, let me consider Moulin Rouge. On the plus side, this visual and musical feast is entertainment at its purest. Fun and beautiful. Conversely, there is a certain lack of substance underneath all that eye and ear candy. Similarly, The Fellowship of the Ring is a magical fantasy evoking awe and wonderment, but for all the spectacle, the emotional content is somewhat superficial. However, I won't preclude either of these films from victory just yet.

Then we come to Gosford Park, which is the film that I found more satisfying the second time around. A clever and insightful take on the British class system. And being a period piece, it is not without its own visual grandeur. Also impressive is its seamless combination of period drama and murder mystery.

Likewise, A Beautiful Mind mixes a dramatic character study with several thriller elements. However, on second viewing it loses some of its impact, a fate that also befalls In the Bedroom. Despite an intense mood of suspense and tension, it failed to live up to the expectations I developed from my first viewing of it. On reflection, though, my slightly lower opinion (and it is only slight) of these two films on their repeat viewings somehow seems irrelevant since the purpose of this project is to see these films in the light in which they would originally have been seen. With that in mind, perhaps it should be my initial response to each of these movies that should take precedence. But that also seems a bit bizarre.

Right, well... I don't think I'm any closer to making a decision after all that. I wish Memento had been nominated. But, alas, I must forge ahead. So, what to do, what to do...

Thinking about how I feel about naming each one my favourite, Moulin Rouge seems to be the only one that definitely doesn't sound right to me. So, let's knock that out. I've seriously considered each of the other four, however, so now what? In the Bedroom seems too small to be named the best, but that's just callous. Granted, it lacks some of the impressive production values of the others but it makes up for that in its thick subtext. Still, for lack of a better reason, I'll toss it aside as well. And I suppose Gosford Park kinda falls into that category as well.

Hmm, I didn't like doing that. I liked both of those films a great deal. But enough of the past. Onwards and upwards. Of the final two, The Fellowship of the Ring is the most spectacular, but I think, because of its one-dimensional characters, I just didn't feel as deep a connection with it as A Beautiful Mind. So, it seems I'm selecting the same film that the Academy chose. I was not expecting that. My favourite Best Picture nominee from 2001 shall be A Beautiful Mind.

Best Picture of 2001
Academy's choice:

A Beautiful Mind


Matt's choice:

A Beautiful Mind



Your choice:



Whew, that was gruelling. I'll be very interested to hear everyone else's opinions on this year. I'm still unsure of my pick so I'm looking forward to seeing which film leads the poll. For our next review, we will be heading to 1956, a year with quite a few grand films in competition.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1956 are:

Around the World in 80 Days
Friendly Persuasion
Giant
The King and I
The Ten Commandments

Plus, not only will I be watching the Best Picture nominees, I will also be making some guest comments on another blog - one which is not dissimilar to this one - on the Best Supporting Actress nominees of the same year. But more on that next time...

Friday, October 16, 2009

2001 - In the Bedroom

A couple of days ago, I finally got around to seeing Inglourious Basterds. Quite the powerhouse movie. I think it may be Tarantino's best yet. And a potential Best Picture nominee for next year. What's with the weird spelling of the title, though? Anyway, it seems to have got me excited for the slew of Oscar bait films that will be released in the coming months prior to the nominations.

Immediately after seeing it, I had the opportunity to be inspired by another piece of entertainment. One of the perks of my ushering job is that I occasionally get to work during a special preview performance of an upcoming show. On Thursday, I sat in on a rehearsed reading of a new musical entitled Red Sox Nation. A very moving show indeed. But more than that, it co-starred Cousin Larry! I grew up on Perfect Strangers, so standing not two feet from Mark Linn-Baker was somewhat of a minor thrill.

Yesterday, I watched the final 2001 Best Picture nominee...


In The Bedroom
Director:
Todd Field
Screenplay:
Rob Festinger and Todd Field
(based on the short story "Killings" by Andre Dubus)
Starring:
Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

If you haven't seen In the Bedroom, I recommend you see it first before reading my thoughts because this is yet another film that is difficult to discuss without revealing important plot points. Right, so, if you're still reading, I'll assume you've either seen it already or don't give a tinker's cuss if I ruin it for you. So, here goes...

Set in a small coastal town in Maine, In the Bedroom follows the story of Matt and Ruth Fowler, an average couple who endure a suffering to which no family should be subjected. Their son, Frank, who should be off to college shortly, is dating Natalie, an older woman with two cute kids and a violent ex-husband. None too pleased that he's been replaced by the young whipper-snapper, Natalie's ex trashes her home and in an ensuing argument, kills Frank. The Fowlers are obviously devastated, but when legal proceedings result in the killer being released on bail until the criminal trial, Matt and Ruth find themselves cooped up in a small town with the man who murdered their son, a hardship that begins to unravel their marriage.

Well, the fact that this film and The Fellowship of the Ring were nominated for the same award does seem somewhat ridiculous. They are opposite ends of the film-making spectrum. The former is big, loud and fantastical, while the latter is small, quiet and subtle. Both legitimate and entertaining, but near impossible to compare with one another. But I'll discuss more of that in my next post when I have to somehow choose a winner.

In the Bedroom contains basket loads of that stuff I missed in Fellowship - subtext. There is so much going on underneath the words and so much bubbling under the surface of the characters that the audience has to figure things out on their own. Nothing is forced down our throats. In fact, quite the opposite. Some scenes are just left to our imagination. When Matt has the unthinkable task of informing Ruth of their son's death, we are only shown his arrival at the school where she works. He sees her in the middle of a choir rehearsal and that's it. And yet that's enough. From these subtle images, we understand just how impossibly tough this is going to be for Matt. Brilliant storytelling.

And that kind of storytelling is utilised often throughout the film creating a constant mood of tension. Yes, it takes its time and I confess I did wish on occasion that things would move along a tad quicker, but that was partly due to the discomfort one experiences when watching these events unfold. A positive side effect of this method of film-making is it is truly unpredictable. Although, having seen this film once before, it obviously lost some of its unpredictability, but the tension most definitely remained. But I do think that, once again, like A Beautiful Mind, I enjoyed this film just a little less this time around.

There is no doubt, however, that this genre of film is right up my alley. Probably because it is very much an actor's movie. So much subtlety and naturalism. And this cast does not disappoint. Oscar-winners Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei both received nominations here, as did Tom Wilkinson. I especially enjoyed Celia Weston's performance as a friend of the Fowlers.

Well, the verdict is up next and this one is going to be a doozy. No idea yet which way I'm going to fall.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2001 - A Beautiful Mind

Today, I went to the gym for the first time in ... well, ever. I've never been a member of a gym before. I suppose I figured exercise was something that could be done anywhere, so why pay through the nose for a room full of equipment you don't know how to use properly when you can just go for a jog. Of course, I never went for a jog either, but it was the perfect justification for not going to the gym. Kat and I had a stationary bike at home in Sydney, which for me, was the ideal way to exercise, because I could slip a DVD into the player and watch a movie while I shed the pounds. But, alas, no bike here in Astoria, so we needed to look elsewhere for our fitness needs. And since our insurance pretty much covers the entire cost of membership, we joined a gym on the weekend. We have to visit it at least 50 times within six months to receive the insurance rebate, so let's see how that pans out...

Not wanting to stray too far from the exercise-movie relationship, after the gym, I slipped a DVD into the player and watched another Best Picture nominee from 2001...


A Beautiful Mind
Director:
Ron Howard
Screenplay:
Akiva Goldsman
(based on the book by Sylvia Nasar)
Starring:
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, Christopher Plummer, Adam Goldberg, Josh Lucas
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
4 wins, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay

Based on the life of a Nobel Laureate, the beautiful mind of the title belongs to John Nash, a brilliant mathematician with a slight problem when it comes to social interaction. He thinks in proofs and formulae about everything, from the behaviour of pigeons to the best method to get laid. His phenomenal aptitude at code breaking piques the interest of the Department of Defense, who put him to work on a top secret assignment uncovering patterns in newspapers and magazines. Alicia, his wife and former student, notices Nash's increasing paranoia and he is soon diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Armed with this new perspective, our nerdy hero struggles with determining what in his life is real and what is just a hallucinatory symptom of his condition.

Here's another one of those films that is inevitably less powerful the second time around. I remember being completely taken in by Nash's hallucinations the first time I saw A Beautiful Mind, even though I knew the main character was schizophrenic. I accepted his experiences as they became more and more implausible, so it took some time before I realised what was going on. But unlike a thriller or mystery that may leave clever clues to the twist that can be enjoyed on repeat viewings (like in The Sixth Sense, for example), this film is a drama, so the focus is on character, before and after the twist is revealed. Thus, since the delusions that Nash experiences are extremely real to him, director Ron Howard makes them a reality for us. This means that, although you get a different perspective on the events if you've seen the film before, there's not really anything new to glean from them.

That said, some of the hallucinatory scenes are still particularly gripping, whether you're aware of their reality or not. Plus, the smart and subtle use of visual effects as Nash's mind spots patterns and calculates formulae works very nicely. But this film is a character study if ever there was one. As Nash's psychiatrist ponders during his treatment, "Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been. What kind of hell would that be?" Don't worry, though. The dialogue doesn't hit us over the head like that very often, but even though that line is a little manipulative and sentimental, it is certainly food for thought.

Being a character study, the actor playing that character has his work cut out for him. Here, Russell Crowe isn't bad as Nash, but perhaps I'm only convinced by his performances when he plays the rough around the edges roles. Think Romper Stomper and Proof of Life and especially Gladiator. Tough guys who say things as they are. Just like Crowe himself. However, dress him up as a middle-aged tobacco industry whistle-blower or, in this case, a meek and socially awkward academic, and for some reason, I just don't buy it. Perhaps it was the false teeth. Or maybe the false accent. Still, the old-age make-up at the end of the film is incredibly impressive, on both Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, who gives a top notch Oscar-winning performance as Nash's long-suffering but supportive wife.

It has certainly been tough for me to comment on A Beautiful Mind because I know I was honestly taken aback on my initial viewing. I still enjoyed it this time but I guess you can never get back that sense of wonder you feel when you are genuinely surprised. And it happens to the best of them. Even Psycho, with all its brilliance, is never quite the same after that first time...

Monday, October 12, 2009

2001 - Gosford Park

Can someone please tell me where to buy some decent fruit in New York? I just don't understand why there is so much sub-par fruit in this city. In Sydney, the supermarket was more than satisfactory for your produce needs, and the innumerable fruit and veggie shops in our neighbourhood were just an added bonus. But here in New York, the supermarket's fruit section is less than appetising. I know there are farmer's markets around, but must I travel to Union Square every weekend to find a peach that actually smells like a peach? And perhaps I've been spoilt with Queensland bananas, but the soft yellow sticks they call bananas in this city just don't cut it.

Well, at least my appetite for fried food is easily sated.

Today, I watched the third of the nominees from the 2001 Best Picture contest...


Gosford Park
Director:
Robert Altman
Screenplay:
Julian Fellowes
Starring:
Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillipe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Screenplay

An interesting twist on the classic English manor murder mystery, Gosford Park begins as an intricately woven tale of several characters who converge on the country house of Sir William McCordle for a weekend of fine dining, respectable music and good old-fashioned bird murder ... I mean, pheasant-hunting. Upstairs, the wealthy folk enjoy these spoils whilst downstairs, the servants potter about after them. Then, the unthinkable happens when Sir William is discovered dead in his study, apparently murdered twice. A police investigation ensues and everybody's secrets are revealed.

I don't remember thinking very much of this film the first time I saw it, but perhaps I've matured because it really tickled my fancy this time around. It's a positively fascinating exploration of the differences and similarities between the two classes represented. All sorts of relationships are going on both upstairs and downstairs, and sometimes between the two, and there are struggles, doubts and fears on both sides of the coin. It seems it's not easy being a servant, but it's not easy being a part of respectable society, either, with all that etiquette one must follow.

Being a Robert Altman film, there are, of course, myriad characters, which is a little complicated at first, but once you've figured out who's who, there are plenty of secrets to be discovered behind closed doors. In fact, it just gets more and more complex as the film proceeds, with people's lives intertwining in all sorts of surprising ways, that you do need to keep on top of it all.

If Gosford Park were just about the class system of 1930s Britain - which is, in fact, just how the film initially presents itself - it would be fascinating enough, but what is particularly satisfying is that the first half of the film turns out to be an elaborate and clever set-up for what is to come. Not only do we witness the class struggle, but also littered throughout are subtle hints and whispers of motives and means. And most cleverly, the whodunit style of the second half still retains the exploration of the societal themes.

The large cast are extremely talented at underplaying all the subtleties and it would be hard to single out any of them ... but I will, anyway. The Academy deservedly gave Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith nominations for Best Supporting Actress. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Fry's bumbling inspector, as well as Clive Owen's suave servant. And imagine Michael Gambon's Sir William with a long grey beard and you have Professor Dumbledore #2.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

2001 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The next film in Matt vs. the Academy, along with its two sequels, hold the special honour of being the only Best Picture nominees in which I have auditioned for a role. Yep, about ten years ago, I got the call from my then agent that I would get the chance to play Samwise Gamgee. At the time, of course, I had no idea that The Lord of the Rings trilogy would become the giant that it has, but I still knew it was an important audition. Unfortunately, I didn't get to read directly for Peter Jackson (but again, he wasn't particularly renowned back then - have you seen Meet the Feebles?), and perhaps it wouldn't have made much difference if I had. For I didn't get the role. Not even a callback, as it happens. But who needs it anyway? What's Sean Astin ever done since then?

Okay, sour grapes aside, this film really should be experienced on the big screen, but my humble 32-inch widescreen TV set had to suffice for this viewing. I also decided to watch the original theatrical version in lieu of the extended edition. Although both were available to me, I reasoned that, for the purposes of this project, I should consider the same version that the Academy voters considered... Plus, it's 30 minutes shorter...

With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the 2001 Best Picture nominee...


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Director:
Peter Jackson
Screenplay:
Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens & Peter Jackson
(based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkein)
Starring:
Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
4 wins, including Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects

You don't get much more epic than The Lord of the Rings. The first instalment of the Tolkein trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, introduces us to Frodo Baggins, a young hobbit who, thanks to his uncle Bilbo, is lumped with the task of disposing of a very powerful and magical ring forged by the evil wizard Sauron. Coming along for the ride are three of his young hobbit friends, who are mostly interested in eating rather than staying out of trouble. And trouble is exactly what finds them as Sauron sends all sorts of nasties in an attempt to reclaim the ring. Friendly wizard Gandalf introduces the hobbit gang to what can only be described as the United Nations of Middle-Earth, a council that assigns an Elf, a Dwarf and two Men to accompany Gandalf and the hobbits on their dangerous journey to destroy the ring, thereby destroying Sauron himself.

All the stops are pulled out in this fantasy tale. The production values are simply spectacular, from the stunning sets and costumes to the majestic music and sound. The visual effects are also phenomenal, but ironically, they are almost too good. As impressive as they are, it's a tad distracting to constantly wonder, "How do they do that?" when you should be concentrating on the story. Adding to the list of breathtaking qualities is the cinematography, which owes a lot to the diverse landscapes New Zealand has to offer. The Kiwi tourism board will never find better promotional material.

Now, it's lucky the film has all these wonderful visual and auditory elements because, just like Moulin Rouge, it suffers from a certain superficiality with respect to its characters and dialogue. Everyone just seems so one-dimensional. The language may be pleasantly poetic, if a little flowery, but it doesn't make up for the lack of depth. Why must everything be so black and white? Is it too much to ask for a bit of subtext beneath all those hollow words? It's just not real. Now, before you start saying, "But, Matt, it's not meant to be real - it's fantasy," I understand that. And the fantasy elements of the story are excellent. It's not the wizards and goblins and orcs I have a problem with. Even with fantasy-land characters, there still needs to be emotional content. They may not be human, but we are, so if you hope to engage an audience at a deeper level than just, "Wow, that looks amazing," then you'll need characters that are less plastic than this.

In spite of all that, I did find myself drawn in to the magic and fantasy of it all. In retrospect, it was mostly the sequences that had very little or no dialogue that had the most impact. The battle sequences were particularly gripping and all those sweeping shots of the Fellowship on their journey do make for a rollicking adventure. I definitely can't fault the cast, either. There are several moving scenes for which the performers, along with the stirring score, deserve credit. Ian McKellen, with his classical actor presence, is notably affecting as Gandalf. Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean also manage to forge their own depth to their characters despite the script. Hugo Weaving occasionally becomes reminiscent of Agent Smith, which is unfortunate. And Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett are just perfect as Elves, if only because of their ever so slightly unconventional beauty. I mean, they just look Elvish.

So, just to be clear, I still believe that The Fellowship of the Ring is a well-made film. It's just the general lack of real substance in the dialogue that bothers me. The film has some lofty themes - friendship, love, bravery, destiny, good vs. evil. But they are just treated too artificially for my liking. Fortunately, all the other elements of film-making combine to create something that is entertaining to watch. Just goes to show what you can do with a bit of money...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

2001 - Moulin Rouge

Living in New York, there are plenty of tough working class men around, so I expect to be witness to the odd spitting-in-the-street incident now and then. Today, however, I experienced something I never expected. As I walked through the streets of Astoria, I passed a short middle-aged Chinese lady who hocked a loogie right in front of me. Granted, her somewhat dainty action produced a less thick and globular result than the one from the man I passed on the previous block, but still, that's not something you see every day.

On that rather repugnant note, let's move on to the first Best Picture nomination from 2001...


Moulin Rouge
Director:
Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay:
Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Starring:
Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
2 wins, for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design

Visually stunning and musically anachronistic, Moulin Rouge self-confesses to be, above all things, a story about love. Christian is an English writer who moves to turn-of-the-20th-century Paris to mix with the Bohemian crowd. He quickly becomes involved in the exciting underworld of the hottest nightspot in town, the Moulin Rouge. It is here that he meets the star of the show, Satine, who also happens to be a courtesan (which is really just Bohemian for 'prostitute'). The two fall in love but when the fate of the Moulin Rouge is left in the hands of the Duke, who also fancies Satine, the lovers find themselves struggling to stay together.

I've never known quite what to make of Moulin Rouge. It's certainly unique in its extravagance and it is one hell of a spectacle. However, I suppose the simple fact of the matter is that it's just not my type of movie. Part music video, part cartoon, part acid trip, I just found it exhausting. The story is simple enough, but each scene moves at such a breakneck speed with such farcical exaggeration that, for the vast majority of the film, I couldn't help thinking all the bells and whistles were just disguising the lack of emotional content. But that's probably a bit unfair. The second half of the film engaged me much more with several touching scenes, which I believe can be attributed to its slower sensibility. Once I could take a breath and allow myself to feel something for the characters rather than the visual spectacle, it became more palatable. Still, the Looney Tunes sound effects and MTV editing were waiting in the wings to snap me back into non-reality.

Having said all that, there is no doubt that Moulin Rouge is entertainment, pure and simple. The design elements alone are enough to elicit oohs and aahs, so it's no wonder the two Oscars that the film won were for its sets and costumes. On top of that, the music throughout the extravaganza is positively extraordinary with its deliberately anachronistic use of pop and rock'n'roll - everything from Nat King Cole to Nirvana. There's an inspired tango version of The Police's Roxanne, plus a strange male duet rendition of Madonna's Like a Virgin. And since it's a musical, we accept a world in which people break into song, so the fact that the songs are of a different time period doesn't really affect its plausibility. Although, the moon singing opera is perhaps stretching it. Yes, that's right. The moon. Singing opera. Larger than life is putting it mildly.

A rare Best Picture nomination for an Australian film (Babe is the only other one I can think of, off the top of my head), Moulin Rouge features a host of well-known Aussie names. Well, they're well-known in Australia, at any rate. Garry McDonald, Jacek Koman, Kerry Walker, David Wenham, to name a few. And our beloved Kylie Minogue briefly appears as the Green Fairy. Richard Roxburgh particularly stands out as the Duke. Jim Broadbent, not from Down Under, is also wonderful as the owner of the cabaret. As for John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec, I just couldn't get past his ridiculous speech impediment.

And can someone please teach Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor how to pronounce "Moulin Rouge"?

The 1952 Best Picture shortlist also contains a film with the title Moulin Rouge, unrelated to this story. Let's see if that one manages to tickle my fancy any more.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Best Picture of 1976

Time again to deliver my verdict. This time, you will also have a chance to make your voice heard. Below my assessment of the contest is a poll in which you can vote for your favourite from 1976's crop of Best Picture nominees.


The nominees for Best Picture of 1976 are:

All the President's Men
Bound for Glory
Network
Rocky
Taxi Driver

Four of these nominees have stood the fabled test of time, each holding quite an important place in film history. The fifth, Bound for Glory, while an impressive film in its own right, clearly has a smaller stature. At the risk of seeming like a pompous film connoisseur, I tend to concur with history's interpretation. Thus, it is a relatively easy decision to knock it out of the running.

So that leaves four very well crafted and affecting films. Not an easy task to separate them. But you know I'm about to do just that, so I guess it wasn't that difficult. There are definitely two that I enjoyed more than the other two. Rocky, the Academy's choice, is certainly inspirational, but its lapses into melodrama, albeit infrequent, are enough to remove it from my list also. Similarly, Network, with its heavily satirical tone, will not be walking away with my blue ribbon due to its brief forays away from naturalism, something the final two nominees have in spades.

Taxi Driver and All the President's Men, although very different cinema experiences, share a brilliantly captivating use of realism. Either would be worthy, in my opinion, of taking the top prize. However, I must be brutal, so because it manages to make even the most extraordinary events believable and enthralling, Taxi Driver will be named my favourite of the 1976 nominees.

Best Picture of 1976
Academy's choice:

Rocky


Matt's choice:

Taxi Driver



Your choice:



Don't forget to vote for your favourite. See how you all compare with my decision. For our next journey into Best Picture land, we're moving a little closer to the present as I take a look at the year 2001. There are only a small number of films whose sequels were also nominated for Best Picture and it would be nice to be able to view them in the right order. Hence, I'll begin the Lord of the Rings trilogy now and get to the nominees from 2002 and 2003 later on. A similar strategy shall be employed for the Godfather films.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 2001 are:

A Beautiful Mind
Gosford Park
In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge

Check back soon as we visit the 21st century for the first time...

Friday, October 2, 2009

1976 - Network

After four months in the city, I have finally landed my first theatrical role. My New York stage debut will be in the York Shakespeare Company's upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, performed in repertory with Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta in November and December. So, while Jude Law is playing Hamlet down the road on Broadway, I will be playing Solanio in Merchant and Ferneze in Malta, and I'm very much looking forward to treading the boards again, especially in the Big Apple. I've always had an interest in Shakespeare, which began in high school, I think, when during our studies of Othello, the teacher allowed me to read the part of Iago, which remains my dream role to this day. Then, watching Olivier's Hamlet solidified that interest and I now look forward to the handful of Shakespeare adaptations that this project will throw my way.

Today, I viewed the last of the 1976 nominees...


Network
Director:
Sidney Lumet
Screenplay:
Paddy Chayefsky
Starring:
Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
4 wins, for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay

About as scathing as satire gets, Network explores what happens when television executives take control of reality. With the lowest rating news program in the country, the network heads at UBS give long-time news anchor Howard Beale his walking papers. The next night, Mr. Beale announces live on air that, during his final show next week, he will commit suicide on national television. Inevitably, the ratings skyrocket, and before he has a chance to end his life, the brains behind UBS exploit Beale's deteriorating mental state by substituting traditional news programming with a hyped-up variety-style show with Beale's insane ravings as the headlining act. Each episode, Beale's rants conclude with him collapsing on the stage from some kind of mental exhaustion whilst the audience applauds with enthusiasm. Soon, the entertainment division of the network, led by the cold-hearted Diana Christensen, has completely taken over the news department, developing all sorts of morally decrepit programs.

He couldn't have realised it at the time, but Paddy Chayefsky's much lauded script is probably more accurate now than it was in 1976. In fact, considering the current slate of sensationalist programming, it may be fair to say that the TV industry's integrity has declined quite a bit since then. Mind you, as discussed last week, there is also a large number of very clever and thoughtfully entertaining shows on air, so it goes both ways, I guess. Nonetheless, I would love to have seen Chayefsky's reaction to shows such as Jerry Springer and The Biggest Loser and World's Wildest Police Videos and the seemingly endless array of Judge Judy rip-offs. The exploitative nature of these manipulated reality shows is exactly what he was writing about. Not to mention the tabloid journalism passed off as news and current affairs on some networks. It's all about the ratings and the truth just gets in the way.

At times, though, the satire within Network plays out a little too cartoonish and unbelievable. That might be due to my direct comparison with the brilliant naturalism found in the two previous films in this project, namely Taxi Driver and All the President's Men, but I still feel that Network could have benefited from a little more subtlety. It's certainly a preachy film, and it doesn't let the general public off the hook, either. They're just as accountable as the network heads. They're the ones watching all this crap.

Despite its moralising, the drama is still very gripping. The events of the snowballing story unfold in such a captivating way that you often think it couldn't get any more crazy ... and then it does. Right up to the very end. The final scene (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know how it ends) displays the ultimate exploitation. The network has terrorists kill Beale live on air and, as his body slumps to the ground, instead of a chaotic scene of TV crew members scrambling for cover, the main studio camera simply rolls closer to the bleeding mess in order to capture the perfect close-up.

Despite a spectacular year of acting performances, the cast of Network managed to secure five acting Oscar nominations, winning three of them. Peter Finch won his posthumously, and his famous "I'm as mad as hell" speech is particularly inspired. And as implausible as his character may seem, he's really only one step away from Bill O'Reilly and some of his colleagues. Faye Dunaway gave the standout performance, in my opinion, as the wonderfully arrogant yet ultimately insecure head of the entertainment division, who seems to be sexually aroused by high ratings. Finally, Ned Beatty appears in his second 1976 Best Picture nominee (along with All the President's Men) delivering an almost evangelical tirade.

So, another year down. The verdict for 1976 is up next...