Thursday, November 26, 2009

1944 - Wilson

For my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! For everyone else, have a good Thursday. As I write this, Kat and I are about to head off with an Australian friend to another Australian couple's place to celebrate the entirely non-Australian holiday. But there's a large turkey involved, so how can we pass it up.

Yesterday, on Thanksgiving Eve, I watched a somewhat forgotten Best Picture nominee, namely...


Wilson
Director:
Henry King
Screenplay:
Lamar Trotti
Starring:
Alexander Knox, Charles Coburn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
5 wins, including Best Original Screenplay

Not a prequel to Cast Away, Wilson is a concise exploration of the political career of Woodrow Wilson from his days as President of Princeton University through his post as Governor of New Jersey to his election as the 28th President of the United States. Along the way, he must deal with the question of America's involvement in the Great War while simultaneously coping with the loss of his wife. When up for re-election, he balances the possibility of a second marriage with the possibility of a second term.

Unless you are a political historian, there is little doubt that this biopic will teach you a great deal about Woodrow Wilson. Whether or not these facts are accurate, I have no idea. But the script sure seemed delicately researched. For instance, did you know that it was Wilson who was behind the act assuring an eight-hour work day? Or that Wilson was instrumental in setting up the League of Nations? Or that Wilson's re-election campaign slogan was "He kept us out of the war"? There are also several speeches throughout the film that, I imagine, are probably ripped directly from the actual speeches Wilson delivered.

All of this information unfortunately makes the film seem a little like a detailed dramatisation in a historical documentary. As fascinating as it is to know about Wilson's political achievements, the film sometimes struggles to be emotionally engaging. However, when the story concentrates on his personal life, it becomes more satisfying, especially as his personal life becomes entwined in his political life. The most compelling sequence occurs when his marriage to Edith Galt just over a year after his first wife's death puts his re-election in jeopardy.

Two favourites of mine who prominently featured during the 1939 Best Picture race, Thomas Mitchell and Geraldine Fitzgerald, are both impressive in their roles. And Alexander Knox (pictured) is perfectly cast in the title role, portraying Woodrow with both strength and wit. I wonder, though, exactly how flawless the man was. If this film is anything to go by, Wilson was the most honest and morally righteous man that ever existed. Perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that this was the pet project of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who appeared to have a bit of a thing for President Wilson. It's also interesting to note that, despite ten Oscar nominations and five wins, plus a fair amount of critical praise, Wilson was quite the box office disaster. Which might also explain why it has never received a DVD release.

Wilson's final speech is made all the more poignant considering the film was released during the thick of World War II, and, in fact, the words are still potently appropriate today. With stoic intensity, he freely imparts his optimism for a world without war. If only...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

1944 - Gaslight

Without a washing machine in the building, Kat and I are forced to look elsewhere for our laundry needs. The easiest option is to take advantage of our local laundromat's highly convenient wash'n'fold service. Perfect for lazy husbands everywhere. You simply drop off your clothes in the morning and, just like magic, they are clean smelling and neatly folded when you pick them up in the evening. Now and then, I'll use the self-service washing machines to save a bit of money. Since the machines only take quarters, there is a handy change machine in one corner of the room. Pop in a dollar bill and out pop four quarters ... or so you would expect. Recently, upon operating this simple piece of machinery, I was mildly elated to receive five quarters for my one dollar investment. Ah, for the little wins...

Yesterday, I embarked on the 1944 Best Picture journey by watching...


Gaslight
Director:
George Cukor
Screenplay:
John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston
(based on the play by Patrick Hamilton)
Starring:
Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, including Best Actress

Renowned opera singer Alice Alquist has just been murdered in the home she shared with her niece, Paula. Understandably devastated, Paula leaves London for Italy, where, ten years later, she meets Gregory Anton. The two soon fall in love and marry, and he persuades her to move back in to her aunt's house. Once there, however, Paula is haunted by the memory of that fateful night. Strange occurrences abound as Paula misplaces objects, hears footsteps at night and witnesses the gas lamps in the bedroom dim inexplicably. Her doubt in her own sanity is reinforced by her sinister husband, who grows increasingly impatient with her, eventually shutting her off from the outside world.

The mood of this film is divine. The mystery. The suspense. The shadows. The fog... Ah, the fog. There's something about a scene of a finely dressed gentleman, cane at his side, strolling through the fog past a gas lit lamppost in the dead of night. It made me feel nostalgic for the 1940s, which is somewhat absurd considering I wasn't born until three decades later. But it just feels so classic Hollywood, despite the fact that it is set in England and the play on which it is based was written by an Englishman.

There is, unfortunately, one major flaw with this film - it's just so bleedingly obvious that Gregory is behind all the mysteriousness. Right from the outset, we are spoon-fed his evil nature as Charles Boyer, playing the mischievous husband, delivers glassy stares by the bucket load. There was a short period in which I wondered to myself, "What is he up to?" but it didn't last long and, soon, I was mildly disappointed in Ingrid Bergman's Paula for falling for his transparent trickery.

Luckily, being one step ahead of the plot doesn't substantially affect one's enjoyment of the film. The atmosphere created by the Oscar-nominated cinematography and Oscar-winning art direction is pure joy. Bergman won the film's other Oscar for her role as the crazy but sane Paula. Also, a fresh-faced Angela Lansbury makes her film debut as the Antons' maid. And an impressive debut it is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Best Picture of 1984

One more collection of nominees out of the way and, as I've come to expect from this project, not a dud among them. However, this decision proved to be a little easier than recent verdicts, for which my tired brain is grateful.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1984 are:
  • Amadeus
  • The Killing Fields
  • A Passage to India
  • Places in the Heart
  • A Soldier's Story
Contrary to the diversity of some of the previous years I've examined, these five films can almost be similarly categorised ... well, perhaps with a little manipulation. Each deals at some level with the dastardly deeds to which human beings can subject one another. Racism features prominently in four of the pictures, the fifth being a more personal account of hatred. Consequently, 1984 was a powerful year for the Best Picture award.

To be completely ruthless, A Soldier's Story left the smallest impact on me, which is more a credit to the other four films than a criticism of the Norman Jewison picture, for it is undoubtedly a poignant film. Nonetheless, it will be the first casualty of my selection. Next to go is A Passage to India which, although gripping in its latter half, suffered slightly from a slow start.

The final three all seem capable of claiming my top honour. But one of the trio was clearly the primary tickler of my fancy. So, I'll say goodbye to The Killing Fields and Places in the Heart, through no faults of their own. Both are extremely moving films. Coincidentally, the only non-racism themed picture is the sole survivor. Although, perhaps it is Amadeus' intimacy that touched me most. Whatever the reason, I now officially declare Amadeus to be my favourite 1984 Best Picture nominee, thereby agreeing once more with the Academy's decision.

Best Picture of 1984
Academy's choice:

Amadeus


Matt's choice:

Amadeus



Your choice:



Vote for your own favourite using the poll above. Some very fascinating results from previous verdicts. At last count, the 2001 race is almost a five-way tie. And Gone With the Wind has perhaps unsurprisingly swept all but one vote from the 1939 election. The next round of nominees belongs to 1944, containing a host of classic Hollywood fare...

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1944 are:
  • Double Indemnity
  • Gaslight
  • Going My Way
  • Since You Went Away
  • Wilson
See you again soon...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

1984 - A Soldier's Story

As I write this, the sun is almost below the horizon and it's only a quarter past four in the afternoon. Having lived my whole life, save the last six months, in Sydney, I'm used to daylight until at least well after five, even in the dead of winter. Here in New York City, however, I'm beginning to think, come January, it'll be dark by noon. I've never quite understood why Daylight Savings time isn't simply employed the whole year round. I mean, if it's okay to screw around with the time zones for the summer, why not for the rest of the year as well? In fact, why don't we just adjust the time zones themselves? Then we could dispense with Daylight Savings altogether... One day, I'll change the world.

Just before the city was drawn into darkness, I viewed the final entry in the 1984 Best Picture race...


A Soldier's Story
Director:
Norman Jewison
Screenplay:
Charles Fuller
(based on his play "A Soldier's Play")
Starring:
Howard Rollins, Jr., Adolph Caesar, Art Evans, David Alan Grier, Denzel Washington
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Louisiana, 1944. A black sergeant has been killed and black army lawyer Capt. Davenport is sent to uncover the truth. Being the first black officer that most of the white soldiers have ever encountered, Davenport is a little less than welcome, given only three days to bring the murderer to justice. As he interviews the victim's troops, a picture is painted of an unpopular and despicable man with a long list of enemies. But Davenport's job is made all the more difficult by the lack of cooperation from the local chain of command.

A Soldier's Story is a somewhat formulaic film that almost seems more suitable for television. It has a very episodic nature about it. Think JAG. There are suspects and motives and the pertinent information is revealed gradually until the murder is solved. Now that I think about it, though, I'm not quite sure why that style of storytelling should be exclusive to the broadcast industry. Perhaps it's simply because that's what we're accustomed to.

On the other hand, I highly regard A Few Good Men, which is built with a similar structure. So, I guess it's more to do with how cleverly that whodunit formula is employed. A Soldier's Story just seemed a tad straightforward. Which is not to say it is predictable or badly written. I don't claim to have known from the beginning who the culprit was nor do I think it was a boring film. I suppose it just didn't grab me in the same way that other films of the genre have.

Just like the other Best Picture nominees from 1984, this film is heavily steeped in gravely important themes. The racial tensions are certainly well depicted, despite the pat ending. It definitely holds its own amongst its competition as far as that is concerned.

Denzel Washington (pictured) is fiercely impressive in his first major screen role as one of the Privates with a personal vendetta against his Sergeant. Adolph Caesar, who portrays the murdered man in various flashbacks, is perhaps playing a caricature, but it may just seem like that because of his cartoon-sounding voice. And Howard Rollins, Jr. is powerful as the attorney with an uphill battle. On the whole, not a standout film, in my opinion, but a worthy contender, nonetheless.

So, that concludes the nominees from 1984. Next up is the verdict...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

1984 - The Killing Fields

One of the many benefits of living in New York City is that you can discover a new eatery every night (if you were so inclined) without ever having to dine at the same place twice. And there are restaurants specialising in just about everything. Yesterday, after a quick Google search for a place to eat near the location of our later plans that evening, Kat and I dined at S'MAC, a quaint little establishment whose menu consists entirely of variations of macaroni and cheese. Artery clogging, I'm sure, but delicious nonetheless.

Before that culinary delight, I watched another nominee from 1984's Best Picture line-up...


The Killing Fields
Director:
Roland Joffé
Screenplay:
Bruce Robinson
(based on the New York Times Magazine article 'The Death and Life of Dith Pran' by Sydney Schanberg)
Starring:
Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Supporting Actor

The Killing Fields relates the true story of New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg as he covers the effects of the Vietnam War on neighbouring Cambodia. By his side is Dith Pran, his interpreter, guide, co-reporter and friend all rolled into one. As the situation in the war-torn country progressively deteriorates and Pran's life becomes more and more endangered, Schanberg and his other journo buddies desperately attempt to keep him safe in the midst of their evacuation.

As you can probably tell by that brief description, this is one hell of a serious film, made all the more sombre when considering its basis on reality. It takes a short while to become engaged with the story but once you're hooked, it's like a roller-coaster ride ... that is, if the roller-coaster was continually screaming further and further downwards. Every time you think there's rising track ahead, it seems to just sink deeper into the ground. Not that the film is completely depressing. I mean, it is, but not completely. There's plenty of hope and friendship and moments of courage. But the tension as Pran's dire circumstances become direr consistently deliver genuine "What's going to happen now?" moments. All the way to the end.

The Oscar-winning cinematography is simultaneously gorgeous and gritty. Mike Oldfield's score is a strange blend of electronica and choral music, but it somehow works. And the decision not to include subtitles for any of the foreign language dialogue cleverly adds to the tension. Plus, when you consider that Haing S. Ngor, who portrayed Pran, essentially suffered through the same experience in his own life, it makes for a truly harrowing film. His moving performance earned him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Not bad for a guy who had never acted before.

A pre-Law and Order Sam Waterston provides humanity to Schanberg, the journalist with integrity. John Malkovich is at his outbursting best as Schanberg's photographer. The token Aussie reporter on the scene is played by the King of Australian television, Graham Kennedy. It was especially gratifying to hear him use some Strine. The word "bung" is not a word I've heard since leaving Down Under, and I didn't realise how much I missed it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

1984 - Amadeus

I know I'm a week late to be discussing baseball, but has it not occurred to anyone in upper management at the MLB that it's possibly a bit of a misnomer to be calling the league's final battle the World Series. With only one team in the league that hails from outside the United States (and they're in nearby Toronto), it seems somewhat farcical to acclaim the winning team as the world champions. I guess when the MLB began, no other country was playing baseball, but even so, a bit of humility wouldn't go astray. World Series. I mean, really.

Right, now that I've insulted America's pastime, which, incidentally, I enjoy watching in lieu of my beloved cricket, let's move on now to the latest Best Picture nominee from 1984 to be viewed, which was...


Amadeus
Director:
Milos Forman
Screenplay:
Peter Shaffer
(based on his play)
Starring:
F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice, Simon Callow, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
8 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor

One of the greatest essays on jealousy ever written, Amadeus is the tale of 18th century Austrian Court Composer Antonio Salieri and his bitterness at being outshone by a younger composer with the manners and graces of a nine-year-old. The younger composer is, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and as soon as he enters Salieri's world, Salieri is consumed with jealousy of his musical genius. However, Salieri has a more pressing rivalry - that with God. Convinced that God is mocking him through Mozart, Salieri vows to destroy the famed composer in a treacherous attempt to show the Almighty who's boss.

Amadeus falls into that genre of film in which the protagonist essentially doubles as the antagonist. Salieri is the audience's main point of contact and, indeed, the story is told in flashback by Salieri himself. Just as he is conflicted by his genuine awe of Mozart's innate talent and his utter disgust at Mozart's buffoonery, we, too, are conflicted in our perception of Salieri. On the one hand, he elicits great sympathy by his desperate and unfulfilled longing to create memorable compositions. However, his diabolical plot to bring down Mozart at every turn tests the limits of our empathy. The result is an absolutely delicious portrayal of jealousy at its most primal, an emotion to which I'm sure we all can relate, no matter how much we are disinclined to admit it.

Most of this captivating deliciousness occurs in the first half of the film with jealous discovery after jealous discovery yanking our emotional strings. There is an unfortunate lull during the latter half of the film, but, in spite of that, all the other elements of this fine picture guarantee its entertainment value. For instance, the extravagant design is exactly as spectacular as you would expect from a period piece of this calibre. And then there's the music. Granted, you can hardly go wrong using Mozart's emotive compositions, but to make each selection perfectly appropriate for the images it is supporting, as is the case here, is a fine skill indeed.

F. Murray Abraham claimed the Best Actor Oscar for his sublime portrayal of Salieri, perfecting the many subtle crestfallen expressions of insecurity required of him. His co-star Tom Hulce received a nomination, too, supplying Mozart with a combination of irreverence and passion. Although etched in my mind as Ferris Bueller's principal, Jeffrey Jones is utterly delightful as the Austrian Emperor. Keep an eye out for Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon as the Mozarts' maid. And keep the other eye out for the man inside R2D2, Kenny Baker, appearing in an operatic parody.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

1984 - A Passage to India

After a frustrating experience with the frustrating New York City transport system which left me waiting, frustrated, on a platform for thirty frustrating minutes before being told the train would never arrive, I was forced to call my director to explain why I was absent from today's rehearsal. Frustrating. The subway system here is usually more than satisfactory, especially in comparison to Sydney's equivalent, but then something frustrating like this happens and I lose all faith in it. Anyway, the frustration was alleviated when Kat and I walked to the nearby Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden for a bite to eat. Too cold for the impressive outdoor beer garden, we dined inside on the scrumptious Czech and Slovak food. As a schnitzel aficionado, I simply couldn't go past the Bohemian Schnitzel, a breast of breaded chicken stuffed with ham, cheese, egg and garlic. Simply heaven. Although, my arteries may have something to say about that.

After a quick stroll through Astoria park, we arrived back home to watch another 1984 Best Picture nominee...


A Passage to India
Director:
David Lean
Screenplay:
David Lean
(based on the novel by E.M. Forster and the play by Santha Rama Rau)
Starring:
Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
2 wins, for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Score

A Passage to India is one of those films that I've always been meaning to see because of its pedigree, but never quite got around to because ... well, honestly, it just seemed like it would be boring. The subject matter simply didn't appeal to me. Then again, I really didn't know much about its content, so I'm not sure why I came to that conclusion. The lesson? Don't judge a book by its cover ... or a film by its poster, as the case may be.

Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore head to British colonial India in the 1920s to visit city magistrate Mr. Heaslop, both Miss Quested's fiancé and Mrs. Moore's son. Dismayed by the local Britons' lack of interest in Indian culture and their disrespect of Indian people, the two women accept an invitation by Dr. Aziz to take a somewhat gruelling journey to some legendary caves. The elderly Mrs. Moore soon becomes exhausted and decides to remain with the main group while Miss Quested and Dr. Aziz continue with a local guide. After a short time, however, Miss Quested scampers away from the caves in clear distress. Once back in town, Dr. Aziz is charged with attempted rape, resulting in a controversial trial that incites hostility between the Indians and the British.

With David Lean as the director, you know to expect some beautiful sweeping landscapes and this film does not disappoint in that regard. There are some truly majestic scenes to which a humble TV screen hardly does justice. The first half of the story unfolds in a relatively leisurely pace but there is gratification in meeting the vivid characters, especially the excitable Aziz, who delivers some of the film's most amusing lines. For instance, upon describing his late wife, he proclaims, "She was not a highly educated woman ... or even beautiful."

At approximately the halfway point, things become much more engaging. The events in the caves are deftly treated with plenty of mystery and the trial is just as engrossing. The characters become a tad black and white, though, as it is painfully clear as to which side of the proceedings each person is leaning. There is simply no middle ground.

Despite the occasional melodramatic moments in performance, the cast are all superb. Aussie Judy Davis delivers a captivating portrayal as Miss Quested, and Alec Guinness is almost unrecognisable as an Indian religious scholar. All in all, a very pleasant film.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

1984 - Places in the Heart

Celebrity sighting #34: Whilst performing my ushering duties, Isabella Rossellini entered the theatre to be seated in the second row, which unfortunately meant I could only see the back of her fairly distant head owing to the fact that I was positioned in the back row. My colleagues assured me over the walkie that it was indeed the daughter of Ingrid Bergman, so I took their word for it.

(For the record, the number 34 is entirely fabricated. I am not, in fact, keeping a tally of my star-struckedness.)

Moving on...

The epic movie marathon that was the 1956 Best Picture race is now over and I must admit that, when I sat down to watch the next film for Matt vs. the Academy, it was nice to know that I wouldn't be spending over three hours in front of the television screen. The first of 1984's nominees was...


Places in the Heart
Director:
Robert Benton
Screenplay:
Robert Benton
Starring:
Sally Field, Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, John Malkovich, Danny Glover
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay

In Waxahachie, Texas, during the Great Depression, Edna Spalding is attempting to recover from the devastating loss of her husband. In order to keep her two children housed and fed, she desperately needs to earn some cash. Since she is unable to afford the mortgage repayments, the bank manager urges her to sell the house. But Edna has a better idea. On the advice of a friendly unemployed black man named Moses, she plants cotton on her farm. The bank manager is unconvinced of this solution, so he persuades her to take on his blind brother-in-law as a tenant to help with the repayments. Battling a tornado, a slump in the cotton market and all sorts of prejudices - racism, sexism and blindism - this unlikely group must work together to bring in the crop.

Places in the Heart begins with a very slow pace. It's the deep South. It's the Depression. Understandably, things are slow. Even the accidental death of Edna's husband only heightens the film's energy briefly. However, the characters are so intriguing that it's enjoyable to spend time with this unlikely collection of acquaintances. I was definitely hooked by the story's powerful intensity. The tornado sequence, in particular, was genuinely heart-stopping, as was the tension created when Mr. Will, the blind man, attempts to rescue Moses from a Ku Klux Klan gang.

Speaking of the blind man, perhaps I've been spoiled by Al Pacino, but John Malkovich's eyes were not quite convincingly sightless. Maybe that's being picky, though. Sally Field (pictured) is affecting in the role that won her a second Oscar, prompting her famous acceptance speech, "You like me!" Also noteworthy is Danny Glover as Moses. Plus, for Lost fans, Terry O'Quinn, a.k.a. John Locke, appears in a supporting role.

As if the themes of death, the Depression and racism were not serious enough, writer-director Robert Benton also includes a major subplot involving the infidelity of Edna's brother-in-law. Heavy. It all works perfectly, though, without slipping into melodrama. One of the most moving scenes in the entire film is the very final shot. I'm not entirely sure I understood the exact meaning behind it, but it was powerful, nonetheless. That's precisely what I love about the art of film. It can make you feel all sorts of unexpected things without having the foggiest clue as to why you're feeling them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Best Picture of 1956

Not one of the five previous verdicts over which I have pondered has been an easy task. The decision for the Best Picture of 1956 is certainly no exception. Due to my involvement in StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Smackdown of the same year, three more films from 1956 crept into my viewing schedule and, as I already indicated, some of these additional films had me wishing they were in the Best Picture race. Nonetheless, I am to choose from the five films the Academy selected and so it shall be done.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1956 are:
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Friendly Persuasion
  • Giant
  • The King and I
  • The Ten Commandments
1956 was certainly a year for epic films. Three of the contenders clock in at over three hours, but interestingly, these three epics are of completely different genres - one is Biblical, another comic adventure, the third an intimate family saga. So, as always, it becomes difficult to compare them with each other. As for the two shorter films - which are both still over two hours - we have a Broadway musical adaptation and a film which I'm not quite sure how to categorise since it contains elements from several genres - western, drama, war, comedy, family. For that reason, and the fact that it simply emits a less important vibe than the other four, I will remove Friendly Persuasion from my shortlist first.

Of the remaining four, any could be labelled my favourite. They each succeeded in their own particular way. The King and I is charming and beautiful, yet it remains overly sentimental. Around the World in 80 Days is certainly a fun adventure, offering some stunning cinematography, but its tendency to draw out certain sequences makes for an erratic pace. The Ten Commandments is a spectacle of design and visual effects with a weighty sensibility, but it is perhaps this self-important weight that left a funny taste in my mouth.

That leaves us with Giant, although, honestly, it's a very close call. Giant is not without flaws, but it emerged with more engaging emotional content than the others, largely owing to its performances. Hence, Giant shall be named my favourite of 1956.

Best Picture of 1956
Academy's choice:

Around the World in 80 Days


Matt's choice:

Giant


Your choice:



Don't forget to make your own voice heard by voting for your favourite 1956 Best Picture nominee above. Some of the previous votes have become very interesting, so check out those results, too. You can access them on their respective verdict pages by clicking on the years on the sidebar to the right. Next up we move to the 1980s...

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1984 are:
  • Amadeus
  • The Killing Fields
  • A Passage to India
  • Places in the Heart
  • A Soldier's Story
Join me as we continue the ride through Academy Awards history with a year full of movies dealing with some fairly serious subject matter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

1956 - Around the World in 80 Days

As I complete the Best Picture nominees from 1956, make sure you check out the Supporting Actress Smackdown for the same year, which StinkyLulu has now posted. A lively discussion of the nominees for that race can be found there, including my own musings. Fascinating stuff, indeed.

Saturday night was my first Halloween in New York and an impressive sight it was. The effort that the people of this city go to is spectacular. The weather was atrocious and yet the party-goers were out in droves. Kat and I joined the multitudes lining Sixth Avenue to catch a glimpse of the parade. That experience was less than pleasant, mostly due to the discomfort provided by the rain and the crowds, but observing the array of creatively attired people wandering through Union Square more than made up for it. Some very inventive costumes everywhere we looked. We felt quite inadequate with our witch's hat and skeleton mask.

In my previous post, I erroneously cited the project's next film as the longest of the nominees due to the equally erroneous information on Netflix's website. In any case, to conclude the 1956 Best Picture contest, yesterday I watched...


Around the World in 80 Days
Director:
Michael Anderson
Screenplay:
James Poe, John Farrow & S.J. Perelman
(based on the novel by Jules Verne)
Starring:
David Niven, Cantinflas, Robert Newton, Shirley MacLaine and dozens of star cameos
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture

Similar to fellow Best Picture nominee The Ten Commandments, producer Michael Todd's grand opus Around the World in 80 Days begins oddly with a hosted introduction. Unlike DeMille's picture, however, the introduction is not by the film's director, but by popular broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, the first of a great many cameos in the film. He throws to clips of the silent classic A Trip to The Moon, considered to be the first science fiction movie ever produced, before the main feature begins.

Phileas Fogg is a wealthy English gentleman of the 19th century with far too much time and money on his hands. While at his gentlemen's club playing whist with his peers, the discussion turns to the advances in long-distance passenger transportation. Fogg comments that it would now be possible to circumnavigate the globe within eighty days, a claim doubted by his colleagues. A wager is set and the race is on. To accompany him on the trip, Fogg brings along his new valet, the highly resourceful and multi-talented Passepartout. Following them closely is Inspector Fix, who intends to arrest Fogg on suspicion of robbing the Bank of England. Using various methods of transport, they travel through Europe, Asia and North America, experiencing the local customs, in their attempt to return to London in time to win the bet.

Around the World in 80 Days is a charming adventure with a great deal of humour. My biggest gripe about it, though, is not so much the length itself, but the fact that it is an unnecessary length. There are simply too many sections that are drawn out gratuitously. The introduction is a prime example. We are shown clips of a classic French short film. The link to the main feature that follows is tenuous. Both stories are based on works by Jules Verne, but I imagine, just like The Ten Commandments, it is intended to instill in its audience a sense of wonderment and grandeur. Perhaps this is simply a convention to which a modern audience cannot relate, because I found myself merely wishing for the film to begin already.

Thankfully, once the introduction is complete, the story begins quickly. Fogg and Passepartout are in a hot air balloon (pictured) before you know it, having begun their race around the world. But the excitement from the thrill of the deadline does not last long. Once in Spain, there is an elongated bullfight scene that, although comical, could easily have been shortened by half without affecting the plot. And it continues this way through most of the film. With myriad sequences of local sights and customs, it almost feels like a geography lesson.

It's a double-edge sword, I suppose. On the one hand, the episodic feel of the film allows for an interesting and enjoyable diversity. On the other, we only catch a glimpse of each new mini-story and its characters that we are simply not invested enough in the outcome. However, I'm not convinced this is the source material's fault. The lingering shots of the dazzling locations are at the expense of much needed detail in the subplots.

After spending the majority of my review complaining about the film's gratuitousness, let me shift gears now in order to avoid giving the wrong impression. On the positive side - and there are honestly plenty of positives - the humour in the film is delightful and it is chock full of clever adventure. Fogg is constantly needing to be innovative to overcome the various obstacles. Plus, no method of transport is left undiscovered, allowing such gems as, "Follow that rickshaw," to be followed a few minutes later by, "Follow that ostrich." The final hour of the film regains some of that exhilarating urgency as they approach the conclusion of their journey. There is a particularly exciting action sequence on the train to New York, involving some stereotypically hostile Native Americans, made all the more amusing when several arrows miraculously bounce off Passepartout's body.

David Niven is highly amusing as the snobbish Phileas Fogg, the perfect complement to Cantinflas' adorably entertaining Passepartout. A young Shirley MacLaine plays an Indian Princess saved from a fiery death. Although from the subcontinent, her character got her education in England, and it seems she may have gotten her complexion there, as well. And then there are the numerous cameos. In fact, this film is often credited with coining the term 'cameo'. My favourite was Peter Lorre as the Asian steward of an ocean liner. And don't blink or you'll miss Frank Sinatra.

That concludes the nominees for 1956. The verdict is up next and, like my previous verdict for 2001, no one film is standing out as a clear favourite. So, yet again, my brain has its work cut out.