Tuesday, December 29, 2009

1999 - American Beauty

As another year comes to a close, it is inevitable that we each assess our achievements of the past twelve months. This has undoubtedly been a massive year for me and Kat. Married in January, moved to a new country in May. As far as landmark events go, those two are certainly way up on the list of life-changers. Plus I also managed to sneak in my New York stage debut in December, so that takes care of a career achievement as well. Now, we move into 2010, which sounds more like a science-fiction movie than a year ... in fact, it is a science-fiction movie. And we only have to wait five more years for hoverboards.

Today, I watched a favourite of mine, the third film nominated for Best Picture of 1999...


American Beauty
Director:
Sam Mendes
Screenplay:
Alan Ball
Starring:
Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor

Lester Burnham (Spacey) is enduring a whopping midlife crisis. He is stuck in a joyless marriage, hates his job and his daughter thinks he's a loser. Giving the rules a punch in the face, he sets out to change his life, beginning with blackmailing his employer for a huge severance package. He starts to work out in order to impress his daughter's best friend while smoking weed with her boyfriend. Meanwhile his wife Carolyn (Bening) is having a crisis of her own, beginning an affair with a rival real estate agent.

After watching American Beauty, my movie-reviewing notepad was inexplicably bare, indicative of my level of captivation. Considering the fact that I've seen this film several times before, that is no mean feat. And even though there are a few minor twists, of which I was obviously aware, I still found myself moved by them, a testament to the way in which the scenes were assembled. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball deliver an emotional and funny story that is enhanced by the striking cinematography. Despite being a suburban drama, legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall's beautiful images make the film anything but suburban.

One thing I hadn't noticed in my previous encounters with American Beauty was the artificially polished feel to some of the dialogue. Each line seems almost too perfectly constructed for its purpose, sometimes beautiful and poetic, sometimes clever and funny, sometimes simple and direct. Then again, taking into account the major theme of the story, that of keeping up appearances, it is perhaps just another layer to an already well-layered script. Each character is not exactly as they seem. There's a secret or at least some kind of deeper level to their personality and it makes for some utterly fascinating drama. The tagline on the film's posters is "Look closer" - in fact, that phrase even pops up as a postcard pinned to Lester's office cubicle - so if you follow directions well, you'll notice that there's a lot more going on underneath the surface.

A huge part of the hypnotising effect this picture had on me was due to the incredible score by Thomas Newman. At once quirky and touching, the music simply fills each scene with an almost haunting mood. One minute, it is eccentrically upbeat with melodic percussion, and the next, it is wistfully moving with piano and strings. The music plays such an important part in so many scenes, particularly the now iconic image of a plastic bag dancing in the wind. Yes, a pretentious concept, no doubt, but it is somehow mesmerising, if only for the fact that it's hard to believe that you're actually watching a plastic bag blowing around for a whole minute and a half.

Despite centering on Kevin Spacey's character, this really is an ensemble piece and the eclectic cast all do a magnificent job. If I were forced to single out one, it would be the delightfully crazy yet poignant performance by Annette Bening. And for those who really "look closer", you can spot John Cho, better known from the Harold and Kumar movies, in a wordless role as one of Carolyn's potential home buyers.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

1999 - The Sixth Sense

It seems fitting that on the same day that my darling wife Kat and I watched one of the creepiest films to be nominated for Best Picture that we would also experience our very own real-life creepy moment. When travelling home last night, we shared a train car with an obviously unstable man, unintentionally impersonating the grunting chuckles of Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade character. He proceeded to pull out a lighter and repeatedly attempt to set fire to his own shoe before smelling his fingers. The incident was perhaps made slightly less frightening due to the fact that the carriage was crowded with several other similarly bewildered passengers, eventually releasing a communal sigh of relief when the strange man disembarked ... Ah, the joys of the New York subway system.

Earlier yesterday, Kat and I subjected ourselves to the next nominee from 1999's Best Picture contest...


The Sixth Sense
Director:
M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay:
M. Night Shyamalan
Starring:
Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

In discussing my thoughts about The Sixth Sense, I find myself a little confounded. In a way, I wish I wrote about it ten years ago when I first saw it. I was one of the lucky ones. I managed to make my way to the cinema fairly early on in its original theatrical release with no knowledge of its earth-shattering twist. If only it were possible to harmlessly erase my memory before watching it a second or third time. More than any other film, I think, this supernatural thriller loses a lot of its tension and surprise on repeat viewings, so if you are fortunate enough to have avoided hearing of its twist and you have yet to see it (an unlikely state of affairs, I'll admit), I suggest you read no further until you have done so.

Now, since the rest of you are familiar with the film's secrets, it seems vaguely redundant to offer my usual summation of the plot. Nonetheless, to refresh the memories of those who may not have seen it recently, Bruce Willis plays child psychologist Malcolm Crowe, who after witnessing a former troubled patient (Wahlberg) commit suicide in front of him, sets out to help young Cole Sear (Osment), who is experiencing similar symptoms.

Nothing about that summary immediately suggests horror or thriller, thus exposing the inherent problem of reviewing this film ten years after I first saw it. As soon as I add to the synopsis that Cole sees dead people and that Crowe is unaware that he is one of those deceased, an entirely new perspective is placed on the events. And those two truth bombs are not alone in losing their impact upon rewatching. I remember being spooked for days by visions of ghosts appearing unsuspectingly, particularly the sequence in which Cole runs into his play tent for safety, only to realise he is sharing it with a young ghostly girl who proceeds to vomit all over herself. When you know this scene is coming, it is simply not half as fun.

However, this is not to say that the picture is devoid of worth in its subsequent viewings. It's just that with such a massive twist, there is no way it can ever live up to its original shock value. Unlike for instance, The Crying Game, in which the twist, occurring midway through the film, acts as a catapult pushing the story forward, in The Sixth Sense, the twist is the climax. Luckily, director M. Night Shyamalan is successful in creating a frightening atmosphere regardless. The use of breath sounds to punctuate the soundtrack is particularly inspired. Still, there is no doubt that watching The Sixth Sense with absolutely no knowledge of its content is the ultimate way to experience it. In fact, I would also have recommended avoiding the trailers at the time of its release, since they made it clear that this was a film about ghosts. But Cole's special talent is not revealed until the movie's halfway point, by way of the now immortal line, "I see dead people." Mind you, knowing that there are going to be ghosts at some point certainly creates tension and Shyamalan is clever to keep the apparitions off the screen for the first act, a technique well mastered by Spielberg in Jaws. Great film-makers are aware that the audience's imagination can often be a hell of a lot scarier than anything you can create on screen.

Crowe's relationship with his wife Anna (Williams) is probably the most affected aspect of the story on a repeat viewing. The poignant dinner scene in which Anna seems cold and upset by her husband's neglect of her is made even more poignant with the fresh perspective that she is actually dining alone, pining for him, not because he is distant, but because he is dead. Then again, there is a somewhat hard to accept logic in the fact that Crowe doesn't realise his own non-existence, considering his wife doesn't say a word to him for months on end. But I guess, in a film in which a nine-year-old converses with fatal fire victims, it is probably superfluous to dissect the story's foothold in reality.

It would be remiss of me not to at least mention the mature (and Oscar-nominated) performance of Haley Joel Osment. I recall that, in interviews at the time of the film's release, I found him to be precociously annoying, but it is hard to deny the effectiveness of his portrayal as the tormented Cole. Former New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg shatters his teen idol image with a raw and moving performance of a very troubled man. And for fans of The O.C., that's Mischa Barton throwing up her guts in that tent.

So, as I related when I began this review, my thoughts of The Sixth Sense are difficult to analyse. Ten years ago, I was genuinely unnerved by it and it haunted me for days. And, despite the fact that it undoubtedly lost a lot of its punch this time around, there is still plenty left to be impressed by.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

1999 - The Insider

Things I have learned about New York City in December:
  • It is cold.
  • Freshly fallen snow is soft, fluffy powder, perfect for making snow angels. Two days later, it is wet, brown sludge, perfect for making your socks damp.
  • It is very cold.
  • When walking down the stairs at the subway station after a recent snowy downfall, it is necessary to hold on to the railing with both hands in order to avoid the inadvertent use of your bottom as a toboggan.
  • It is freaking cold.
  • Visiting Macy's in Manhattan at six o'clock on the evening of December 23rd is akin to inviting 700 people into your living room.
  • It is very freaking cold.
On the other hand, there is beauty, too. From the vantage point of our high-rise apartment, we can see snow, still pristine and sludge-free, atop the roofs of nearby buildings.

Today, I began the review of a year that is perhaps my favourite year of film amongst the last few decades: 1999. The first Best Picture nominee to be considered was...


The Insider
Director:
Michael Mann
Screenplay:
Eric Roth & Michael Mann
(based on the Vanity Fair article "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Marie Brenner)
Starring:
Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

A story of corporate intrigue and journalistic integrity, The Insider is based on the real events surrounding tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe). After being fired by his employer, Wigand is recruited by 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino) to decipher some tobacco related documents. However, Bergman's keen sense for a story notices that Wigand has a lot more that he desperately wants to reveal if only he weren't stifled by the confidentiality agreement he has with his previous employer. Once Bergman convinces Wigand to spill the beans and, therefore, put his family at risk, Bergman must then fight lawyers, corporate bigwigs and even his own network to ensure Wigand isn't left out to dry.

The Insider is a wonderfully gripping film with suspense that never lets up. The story is constantly moving forward, each step filled with its own frustrating obstacles. At the heart of the story are two men, both painted with high morals and integrity. Wigand sacrifices almost everything to let the world know about the evils of the tobacco companies. Bergman is unrelenting in his attempt to maintain truth in journalism. Undoubtedly, there are many dramatisations in the picture, so one wonders how flawlessly moralistic these men actually were, but it certainly makes for great entertainment. On the other hand, one of the downfalls of Wigand being portrayed with such righteousness is that his wife comes across as a tad unreasonable and unsupportive.

Russell Crowe (pictured) received a great deal of acclaim for his performance as Wigand and perhaps rightly so. After all, he gained weight for the role and made himself less attractive and Oscar loves actors who do that. Nonetheless, Al Pacino, as always, is so undeniably watchable that I've never understood how Crowe took all the press away from him. Yes, it was Crowe's breakout role, and one year later, he'd become a mega-star and win an Oscar thanks to Gladiator, but, to me, he is simply not in the same class as the great Al.

Michael Mann's direction accomplishes a brilliant tone for the film, not to mention the amazing cast he assembled. Christopher Plummer is fitting as 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace and Philip Baker Hall makes yet another impressive turn as the CBS News executive Don Hewitt. There is also a long list of talented names filling out smaller roles, all delivering great performances, namely Michael Gambon, Debi Mazar, Gina Gershon, Colm Feore and Stephen Tobolowsky.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Best Picture of 1927/28

So it was back to year one for Matt vs. the Academy as I looked at the very first contenders for Oscar's main prize. Not having been an avid viewer of silent films, I must say, I have grown a fond appreciation for them from these fine examples. Choosing my favourite from the trio is another story.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1927/28 are:
  • The Racket
  • 7th Heaven
  • Wings
Watching pictures from the silent era certainly requires a different mindset. The images are regularly interrupted by the white on black titles. On the other hand, this procedure does force the film makers to be economical with the dialogue, creating simple and accessible storylines. Still, one wonders why it never occurred to them to use subtitles instead.

The three classics nominated for the first Best Picture award, then known as Outstanding Production, are all worthy of their citations. In selecting my favourite, I managed to remove The Racket from contention early on, not through any major flaws, but simply because the other two were particularly engaging.

That leaves us with 7th Heaven and Wings. A tough pair to separate. The former has an intimately captivating story, but the latter's epic spectacle is hard to ignore. I'm still deciding as I write these words. I think perhaps I'm going to side with 7th Heaven, maybe because it seamlessly manages to incorporate some elements of slapstick and action alongside the drama. But Wings is a very close second.

So, once again, I will be disagreeing with the Academy's choice by selecting 7th Heaven as my favourite from the Best Picture nominees of the 1st Academy Awards.

Best Picture of 1927/28
Academy's choice:

Wings


Matt's choice:

7th Heaven



Your choice:



I suspect not as many of my readers are familiar with those three films, but in any case, the poll for your selection is above for those who are so inclined. For my next year of review, I have chosen one of my favourite years of film in the last few decades: 1999. Even though only one of my actual top five from that year was nominated for Best Picture, the Academy's shortlist is still an admirable one.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1999 are:
  • American Beauty
  • The Cider House Rules
  • The Green Mile
  • The Insider
  • The Sixth Sense
See you soon...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

1927/28 - Wings

Awards season is in full swing now with the Golden Globe nominations announced on Tuesday and the SAG nominees announced this morning, plus several critics associations releasing their picks of the year as well. And as is often the case, there are several names that keep popping up. I love awards season (as this project probably indicates) but I find this early part of the season particularly fascinating - watching the favourites emerge. There is always buzz around certain films and actors, but until the announcements are announced and the press releases released, it really is just conjecture. But now that the honouring has begun, the ultimate guessing game - that of the Oscar winners - becomes much more interesting. I had considered prematurely offering my Oscar predictions here and now, but after a decent amount of deliberation, I can simply not pick a front-runner for any category as of yet. Perhaps over the next few weeks, as I see more of the contenders, I'll share my thoughts on each of the major categories.

For now, however, I'll stick to the past and comment on the final Best Picture nominee from Oscar's inaugural year...


Wings
Director:
William A. Wellman
Screenplay:
John Monk Saunders, Hope Loring & Louis D. Lighton
Starring:
Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
2 wins, including Best Picture

Another classic from the silent era, Wings follows Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) as they enlist in the American Air Service in World War I. They begin as bitter rivals, both in love with the same woman. Jack mistakenly believes his love is requited, consequently ignoring advances from an actual admirer, the sweet Mary Preston (Bow). Once enlisted, however, the rivalry quickly turns to lasting friendship as the two fighter pilots battle alongside each other in daring feats of air combat.

Wings begins with a touch of pantomime. But most silent films lean in that direction, so I can let that one go. Besides, once the spectacular war scenes begin, all the ham acting of silent film stars is easily forgotten. I recently expressed my admiration of 7th Heaven's battle scenes, but Wings completely blows them away. The aerial action in this picture is simply phenomenal, comparable to anything you might see in a modern flick. In fact, if they had today's technology, they probably wouldn't have been so authentic. The flying is real. The crashes are real. The exploding blimps are real. There is even a jaw-dropping scene in which we see real missiles explode on a town, all from the point of view of the plane dropping the bombs. The whole thing is made all the more impressive when you discover that Rogers and Arlen piloted planes themselves for all their close-ups.

Along with the standard dialogue titles, there are also a large number of narration titles, creating a sort of storybook feel to the picture, which at first just seems a little childish. In particular, the narration during the first aerial battle is somewhat reminiscent of sports commentary. Nonetheless, once the story has you hooked, it is actually quite effective. There are also some fancy superimposing tricks that brighten up that boring white text on a black background. Plus, we are treated to some cool bubble effects during Jack's drunken stupor.

Watch out for Gary Cooper in one of his first credited roles as a flying ace who fatefully scoffs at good luck charms. And being a pre-Code film, Clara Bow (pictured) is able to offer some mild titillation to her fans by showing a little skin, an image that somehow always seems out of place in old movies.

Monday, December 14, 2009

1927/28 - 7th Heaven

Dear Commuter,

I understand that you are in a rush to get home or to your girlfriend's place or to the bar. I fully appreciate that you have been waiting on the platform for a good five and a half minutes before this train arrived. I even empathise with you for the cold temperature you must endure in this badly ventilated subway. But is it not possible to step aside for three more seconds to allow me to exit the carriage before you elbow your way inside? Must I squeeze between you and your fellow impatient commuters in order to avoid the avalanche of limbs? Is it really that important that you are the first one to board? I mean, the train is not going to leave without you. In fact, if you made way for the exiting passengers, we would be out of your way a lot sooner. Instead, you force us to file out one at a time, allowing the possibility for the weakest among us to be caught up in your stampede and fail to exit altogether. Poor thing.

Humbly yours,
An Exiting Passenger


Last night, I watched the silent classic and nominee for Best Picture of 1927/28...


7th Heaven
Director:
Frank Borzage
Screenplay:
Benjamin Glazer
(based on the play by Austin Strong)
Starring:
Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard, Albert Gran, David Butler
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
3 wins, including Best Director and Best Actress

Chico (Farrell) is a poor Parisian sewer worker who dreams of a better life. For some reason, his heart is set on becoming a street washer, which I guess is one step up from the sewers, so who am I to argue? Diane (Gaynor) is a poor Parisian prostitute who dreams of a life without her abusive big sister. One day, as Diane endures yet another beating, Chico intervenes to help her. Then, when the cops begin rounding up all the prostitutes and taking them away, Chico once again saves the day by claiming that Diane is his wife. In order to keep up the ruse, Chico reluctantly allows Diane to live with him and, like all good romance stories, the fake love slowly grows into genuine affection. However, World War I forces them apart again as Chico is called into the French army. Despite their separation, they maintain a strong connection as they wait to be reunited.

7th Heaven almost defies categorisation since it borrows from several genres. Mostly, it is a drama, but there are a few slapstick comedy sequences thrown in for good measure, and later, once the war has begun, it becomes an epic special effects-laden action flick. At its heart, though, it is a love story, plain and simple. Our two protagonists have struggled in their lives and they learn from each other how to improve themselves. Diane learns the art of optimism and Chico finally abandons his atheism. Yes, these messages of faith and confidence are somewhat shallow, especially the religious elements, but the film is just so darn cute that it somehow gets away with it.

The war sequence is particularly engrossing and it seems no expense was spared in the production of those scenes. Even by today's standards, the explosions and voluminous extras are quite spectacular. It even took me a while to figure out the hundreds of cars driving towards the front were only models.

A large part of the film's aforementioned cuteness is thanks to Janet Gaynor, who is simply adorable as the meek and innocent Diane. As almost everyone around her succumbs to the melodramatic emoting that is fairly standard for the silent era, she manages to remain subtle, making smart use of stillness. Also worth noting is Albert Gran, who creates a wonderfully endearing comedic character.

Friday, December 11, 2009

1927/28 - The Racket

New York is cold! As I write this, it is slightly below zero outside. That's zero degrees Celcius, although it might as well be zero degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, taking into account the wind chill factor, it's probably zero degrees Kelvin. It's not snowing tonight, but New York experienced its first snow of the season a few days ago, which looked marvelously romantic as I watched it float delicately against the bright neon lights of 42nd Street ... until I stepped outside, when it immediately lost all its romance by smacking me in the face, melting on my nose and dribbling down the back of my neck. Conclusion: snow is better experienced from indoors.

Today, I rugged up and watched one of the original Best Picture nominees from Oscar's freshman outing...



The Racket
Director:
Lewis Milestone
Screenplay:
Bartlett Cormack
(based on his play)
Starring:
Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim, Marie Prevost
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

It is perhaps a stroke of fortune that I began this project when I did, because had I embarked on this journey a little over five years ago, the silent gangster film The Racket would have been near impossible to get a hold of. In fact, the picture had been considered lost for decades until a print was uncovered in the vast personal collection of the film's producer, Howard Hughes, leading to a restoration that was eventually completed just a few years ago when it first aired on TCM.

The story begins with organised crime boss Jack Scarsi (Wolheim) attempting to scare incorruptible police captain James McQuigg (Meighan) out of town. McQuigg tries to shut Scarsi and his crew down, but since they own almost everyone in the justice department, McQuigg is thwarted at every turn. Finally fed up with McQuigg's constant badgering, Scarsi orchestrates his transfer to a distant and quiet precinct where he can be no nuisance. But when Scarsi's brother is nabbed for a hit and run in this new precinct, McQuigg uses this as leverage and the tides begin to turn.


Like most people, I don't often watch silent movies and, when I do, it's probably Chaplin or some other slapstick fare. So, I was pleasantly surprised at The Racket's success in holding my attention. More than that, it was genuinely engrossing. Since there is no sound, I shouldn't be surprised that the filmmakers would concentrate on the visuals, but director Lewis Milestone is particularly smart in his use of striking images and evocative framing, foreshadowing many of the film's successors in the crime genre.

The titles delightfully exploit every stereotype of 1920s gangster slang and, while it may not be precisely how they actually spoke, it sure is fun to hear a man call his enemy a "dumb harp" or a "big balloon". It was also especially amusing to see a nightclub singer using a bullhorn. I guess I hadn't contemplated how singers made themselves heard before the advent of microphones. Finally, in a fascinating coincidence, the character played by Marie Prevost goes by the name of Helen Hayes, not to be confused with The First Lady of the American Theatre who would herself win an Oscar only a few years after this film was released.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Best Picture of 1944


Although the nominees from this project's current focus are an enjoyable bunch, the decision to choose my favourite from amongst them has possibly been the easiest to date. Not because the other four are particularly weak, but simply because one film clearly hijacked my brain for a couple of hours ... in a good way.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1944 are:
  • Double Indemnity
  • Gaslight
  • Going My Way
  • Since You Went Away
  • Wilson
Quite a diverse group. One feel-good musical, one epic melodrama, one political biopic, one classic noir and one noir-ish. As I stated above, there is one clear winner for me, so I will dispense with my usual back and forth. In no particular order, the four non-winners are as follows:

The Academy's pick, Going My Way, is a lovely film that put a smile on my face but nothing more. Wilson is wryly fascinating but occasionally dry. Since You Went Away is striking at times but mostly sappy and overly sentimental. Gaslight has a few elements that are similarly possessed by my favourite, namely the mystery and the noir cinematography. However, the suspense is undermined by the film's predictability making it slightly inferior in my eyes.

Those with decent deductive skills have already figured out which film has taken my first place. Its intrigue and tension combined with its evocative visual style helped it to stand out above the rest in my humble opinion. Therefore, it may now be officially declared that Double Indemnity is my favourite of the Best Picture nominees from 1944.


Best Picture of 1944
Academy's choice:

Going My Way

Matt's choice:

Double Indemnity


Your choice:



As always, you can vote for your own favourite using the poll above. For the next year of focus, I had considered studying 1971 for the sole reason that the IFC Center here in New York was presenting A Clockwork Orange with midnight screenings this weekend and I figured it might be nice to take this project to the big screen. But, alas, the snowy weather kept me away. That and the fact that my lovely wife loathes the film and the thought of a midnight screening on my own was not so appealing. So, I'll save 1971 for later, and instead go back to where it all began by reviewing the very first Academy Award nominees for Best Picture (or Outstanding Picture as it was known then).

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1927/28 are:
  • The Racket
  • 7th Heaven
  • Wings
A short shortlist, to be sure, but it contains the only silent films to be nominated for the big award, so it will be an interesting week ahead. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 4, 2009

1944 - Going My Way

I've talked previously about the small differences in Australian and American language. Yesterday, however, I came across another difference that has me somewhat baffled. Backstage after my show, I witnessed a cast member grab his fellow performer by the arm, twisting his hands in opposite directions in a display of pretend torture. He referred to the prank as an Indian Burn, which was clearly a term comprehended by everyone in the room. An Indian Burn? In Australia, it is commonly known as a Chinese Burn. How on earth does that happen?

I've also discovered that the popular children's game in which a secret is whispered from one participant to the next down the line is known in the US as Telephone. Back home, we refer to it as Chinese Whispers. Either Australians are racist or the Chinese-American community is very good at damage control.

Today, I completed the Best Picture round of 1944 with...


Going My Way
Director:
Leo McCarey
Screenplay:
Frank Butler and Frank Cavett; story by Leo McCarey
Starring:
Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh, Risë Stevens
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor

Father O'Malley (Crosby) is sent to St. Dominic's parish to help steer the church out of financial trouble. The only catch is the current pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Fitzgerald), is unaware that he is no longer in charge. The gruff old veteran has been with the church since its construction 45 years ago and, therefore, is not easily accepting of change. In order to raise the funds to clear the church's debt, O'Malley uses his musical talents to form a boys' choir.

Going My Way is a pleasant and charming family film that has 'feel-good' written all over it. Almost everything about the picture exudes a sense of niceness. Nice story. Nice songs. Nice characters. Even the nasty characters turn out to be nice deep down. And so do the wayward characters. Oddly enough, though, I didn't pick up an overly sweet tone from the film. It wasn't over-the-top in its sentimentality at all. It was just ... nice.

The scenes trundle along with only rare moments of excitement. A number of seemingly irrelevant digressions give the rambling storyline a slow feeling. The extremely sparse score may also have something to do with that. Its absence is especially noticeable during the scene transitions. Conversely, the film contains several pleasant songs scattered throughout. No showstoppers, but plenty of songs that are ... nice.

The characters don't burst into song randomly as in a traditional musical, but instead the numbers are naturalistically incorporated into the story. It's sort of a non-musical musical. The film won a Best Song Oscar for Swinging On A Star, which is very cute and, well ... nice.

Director Leo McCarey assembled a very enchanting cast, each amiable for their own reasons. Frank McHugh as the neighbouring priest has a most infectious laugh. Stanley Clements as the young ruffian with a soft side is very entertaining, especially due to his serious face-slapping ability. Jean Heather (who also appeared in another 1944 Best Picture nominee Double Indemnity) as a rebellious teenager turned good is sweet and winsome. William Frawley (a.k.a. Fred Mertz) shows up as a music publisher. And, of course, the great Bing Crosby croons his way delightfully through the film. His naturally genial persona is just so ... nice.

Then there's Barry Fitzgerald as the irascible Father Fitzgibbon. Another delightfully pleasing performance. Incidentally, he is the only person to have been nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same performance. He won the latter, and then the Academy amended the rules so that couldn't happen again. Nice.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

1944 - Double Indemnity

In a city of over eight million people, one certainly doesn't expect to randomly bump into anybody one knows on the street, let alone someone from one's home town 16,000 kilometres away (that's 10,000 miles in American). And yet, that's precisely what happened yesterday as I strolled up 5th Avenue. Upon passing a young man on his mobile phone (that's 'cell phone' in American), I silently pondered how similar he looked to a friend I knew from Sydney. Five metres further down the street (that's about 16 feet in American), I heard my name and turned around to discover that the reason the phone-wielding man looked so similar to my friend was that it was my friend. Small world, indeed. (That's Planet Earth in American.)

Today, I viewed one more Best Picture contender from 1944...


Double Indemnity
Director:
Billy Wilder
Screenplay:
Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
(based on the novella by James M. Cain)
Starring:
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

One of the, if not, the most classic entry in the film noir genre, Double Indemnity is told in confession by Walter Neff (MacMurray), an insurance salesman who gets himself involved in a messy situation. After meeting the sultry and unhappily married Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), he quickly falls for her beguiling ways and agrees to help her knock off her husband for the insurance money. The plan is elaborately conceived in order to fool Neff's work colleague, the clever and determined claims investigator Barton Keyes (Robinson). Once the plan is set into motion, however, several twists and turns must be dealt with for the two lovers to literally get away with murder.

It's easy to understand why Double Indemnity is often cited as the cornerstone to which all other films of the genre are compared. It is about as noir as it gets. The perfect lesson in how to create a stylish, moody, gripping story. Voice over narration, a femme fatale, a clever murder plot, with lashings of mystery and intrigue and breath-holding tension, all created with such subtlety and intelligence. The subtext is almost a character of its own. It's all in the eyes, you see. A simple look can reveal so much. There's no need to hit the audience over the head with expository dialogue. We understand it all with the slightest of indicators.

And speaking of the dialogue. You could drown underneath the wonderfully colourful metaphors and double entendres. Each line is wittier than the last. For example, when Neff first meets Phyllis, she is wearing only a towel. He talks to her about not being "fully covered" but, of course, he's referring to her husband's insurance policy... or is he? When he is offered a glass of iced tea, he responds with the gem, "Yeah, unless you got a bottle of beer that's not working."

The music is the perfect complement and the cinematography is simply sublime. The shadows and the shafts of hazy light create the ideal mood. The three lead actors could hardly go wrong with this material. Just speak fast and nonchalantly and the words will do the rest. Still, Fred MacMurray as the average guy with the bad boy streak seems a little too wholesome to really pull it off. Perhaps it is just hindsight after a 12-year stint in a wholesome sitcom that prevents him from being truly convincing when he demands, "Shutup, baby" and then forcefully plants a kiss on Barbara Stanwyck.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

1944 - Since You Went Away

After weeks of rehearsal, my New York stage debut has finally come and gone. Ah, the smell of the crowd, the roar of the greasepaint. We have three more weeks of shows, so for those of you in the neighbourhood, come check me out.

Of course, with last week's mad rehearsal schedule, the Matt vs. the Academy project took a bit of a back seat, so along with my stage debut, the project's 100th day and 50th post have also come and gone. A small and arbitrary feat. But even though my initial deadline for this project is becoming more and more elusive - a matter that I will address at a later date - I am still as excited as ever about this nonsensical enterprise.

Today, I continued with the 1944 Best Picture shortlist by watching...


Since You Went Away
Director:
John Cromwell
Screenplay:
David O. Selznick
(based on the novel by Margaret Buell Wilder)
Starring:
Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Monty Woolley, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Walker, Hattie McDaniel, Agnes Moorehead
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
1 win

If you're looking for melodrama, Since You Went Away should be right up your alley. Tim Hilton is doing his patriotic duty in the armed services during World War II. But this film is not about Tim. In fact, we never even see him. Instead, the focus is on his wife, Anne, and their two daughters, Jane and Bridget. At first, the family struggles to make ends meet, so they take on a curmudgeonly old retired Colonel as a lodger. The Hilton sisters, unlike their modern namesakes, are the picture of innocence. But things become complicated when elder sister Jane begins a romance with the Colonel's grandson.

This one is definitely melodrama, folks. Despite being a film about war, there are no fighting scenes. It all takes place in and around the home of a family coping with the absence of their husband and father. The somewhat episodic nature of the storyline tends to make the film seem a bit like a soap opera. Add to that a dose of patriotism and religion and you've got yourself a heavy-handed message film. In fact, sometimes - not often, but occasionally - it even borders on propaganda.

Scattered throughout the melodramatic dialogue are several accounts of artificial sobbing by all three of the main actresses. A little disappointing considering two of them, namely Colbert and Jones, had already won Oscars by this point. The third, a teenage Shirley Temple, was probably the least convincing weeper, but hey, she's Shirley Temple.

Despite the fake tears, Colbert's performance is still pleasant, and the rest of the cast manage to overcome the sappy lines they are forced to utter. Always an enjoyable actor to watch, Joseph Cotten is particularly charming here. And Monty Woolley as the retired Colonel is amusing, especially when he puts a left glove on his right hand, something that obviously went unnoticed by the rest of the film crew. Playing yet another maid, like she did in Selznick's Gone With the Wind, Hattie McDaniel is delightful as Fidelia. Also impressive is a pre-Bewitched Agnes Moorehead as a gossipy bitch.

And why is it that, in old movies, a married couple is never depicted as owning a double bed? Was there anyone who actually thought they didn't have sex? I mean, they had two children, for crying out loud.