Monday, December 20, 2010

1951 - Decision Before Dawn

Happy holidays, everyone! On Wednesday, Kat and I will be flying home to Sydney to visit family and friends for the first time since we moved to New York a year and a half ago. That coupled with the holiday season will undoubtedly slow down the pace of Matt vs. the Academy for the moment. No fear, though. We will complete the current slate of nominees prior to my arrival in Los Angeles in mid-January, at which time I will visit the UCLA Film Archive to view the first of the 1930-31 contenders.

Today, though, I took a look at another 1951 Best Picture nominee...


Decision Before Dawn
Director:
Anatole Litvak
Screenplay:
Peter Viertel
(based on the novel 'Call It Treason' by George Howe)
Starring:
Richard Basehart, Gary Merrill, Oskar Werner, Hildegarde Knef, Dominique Blanchar, O.E. Hasse, Wilfried Seyferth, Hans Christian Blech
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

During the final days of World War II, the U.S. Army recruits German prisoners-of-war for espionage duties. For a particularly important information-gathering mission, Col. Devlin (Merrill) assigns U.S. officer Lt. Rennick (Basehart) to accompany German soldier Sgt. Barth (Blech), codenamed Tiger. Simultaneously, Cpl. Karl Maurer (Werner), ironically codenamed Happy, is given the dangerous task of discovering the whereabouts of Germany's 11th Panzer Corps. While attempting to achieve his covert goal, Happy must also elude the Gestapo, who do not take kindly to traitors.

While it may not seem clear at first, the main character in Decision Before Dawn is Happy. There is a decent amount of set-up before we get to the crux of the film's story, in which we follow Happy as he nervously makes his way from one incident to the next, attempting to maintain under the radar. The tension in this section alone is enough to forgive the film's other flaws. Director Anatole Litvak achieves a genuine sense of loneliness for Happy. He is paradoxically an outsider living among his own kind, stranded in his home land.

I could have done without the voice-over memories, however. Whenever Happy finds a quiet moment to himself, the camera moves in closer as he directs his gaze upward and we hear the voices of those Happy has encountered repeating their important words. Granted, this clichéd convention does help to highlight Happy's isolation, but it is slightly overused here. Ditto the constant reference to cigarettes. I couldn't quite figure out the intended symbolism of all this talk about smoking. Nor could I figure out the meaning of the film's title. There are certainly decisions made during the course of the narrative, and many of them are made before sunrise, but is there one of particular importance?

Oskar Werner (pictured) delivers an effectively understated performance as the troubled German soldier, although there is a fine line between the character appearing stoic and the actor appearing dull. Fortunately, Werner leans towards the former. Richard Basehart and Gary Merrill as the American officers portray mostly stereotypical machismo. As such, the German actors shine, especially Wilfried Seyferth as the punchy SS courier.

Despite all my nit-picking, Decision Before Dawn remains an engrossing film and well worth a look.

Friday, December 17, 2010

1951 - An American in Paris

My new job as an events waiter is proving to be quite the boon for associating with the rich and famous. Yesterday, I worked on an event for Lincoln Center, in which John Guare gave a speech. Coupled with Monday's sighting of Susan Sarandon, I now have a double connection to one of the film's already reviewed for Matt vs. the Academy - Atlantic City was written by Guare and starred Sarandon. An entirely meaningless connection, I know, but it's the little things...

Earlier today, I watched the Academy's eventual choice for Best Picture of 1951...


An American in Paris
Director:
Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay:
Alan Jay Lerner
Starring:
Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary, Nina Foch
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
6 wins, including Best Picture

The man of the title is Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), a struggling artist who has moved to Paris for inspiration. His good friend, Adam Cook (Levant), an accomplished concert pianist who has never played a concert, introduces him to French cabaret singer Henri Baurel (Guétary) and the three spend most of their time hanging out in the café near Jerry's apartment. Enter Milo Roberts (Foch), an American art aficionado who has the money to make Jerry's art dreams come true. While on a date with Milo, Jerry meets and flirts with Lise Bouvier (Caron), who happens to be the fiancée of Henri. Jerry and Lise begin a romantic affair that is inevitably hampered by the secrets they don't want to share. Then, everybody dances.

An American in Paris is a spectacle - there's no doubt about that. It's a daydreamer's paradise. Not only does the audience experience the wonder of the make-believe, but the characters on screen seem to be fantasising in vibrant colour every chance they get. Set the whole thing to a bunch of familiar toe-tapping Gershwin tunes - I Got Rhythm, 'Swonderful, Embraceable You, to name just a few - and you've got yourself a fun piece of entertainment that requires nothing more from you than to simply relax and enjoy.

Each of the musical numbers is built upon a unique concept and crammed with imagination. All the elements combine to reach a pinnacle of creativity - impressive sets, extravagant costumes, atmospheric lighting and incredibly inventive choreography (tap-dancing always inspires awe and Gene Kelly's gracefulness makes it look so easy). It's lucky these numbers are so entertaining because they are certainly not brief. The final dance extravaganza (pictured) is over fifteen minutes, which apparently left only about sixty seconds to wrap up the storyline. Consequently, the conclusion is abruptly contrived and utterly inexplicable. That said, the script by Alan Jay Lerner (of Lerner & Loewe renown) is witty from the get-go, as evidenced when Adam Cook introduces himself by acknowledging, "It's not a pretty face, I grant you, but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character."

Being an extravagant musical, the majority of the performances are suitably exaggerated. But it's the dancing that we're here to see and Gene Kelly's smooth footwork delivers, as does Leslie Caron's exquisite ballet technique. Meanwhile, Oscar Levant provides the humour. For fans of classic television, keep an eye out for Noel Neill - Lois Lane to George Reeves' Superman - as a sidewalk art critic, and Hayden Rorke - Dr. Bellows from I Dream of Jeannie - as an art dealer acquaintance of Milo.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

1951 - A Place in the Sun

December must surely be the busiest month of the year - holiday parties aplenty; my new musical improv group, The Boombox Kids, has performed several gigs around town; I started a new job with a high-end catering company (at which, after working only one event, I have already rubbed shoulders with the likes of Susan Sarandon, Edward Norton and David Lynch); and in a week, Kat and I will be heading back home to Sydney for a brief visit, the first such visit since we moved to New York a year and a half ago.

You will notice there is no poll to decide the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. As previously discussed, I'll be stopping in L.A. for a few days before I return to New York, so I will take that opportunity to pop in to the UCLA Film Archive for a viewing of two Best Picture nominees that lack home video releases. Thus, 1930-31 is the chosen next year of review.

For now, we begin looking at 1951's slate of Best Picture nominees, starting with...


A Place in the Sun
Director:
George Stevens
Screenplay:
Michael Wilson and Harry Brown
(based on the novel 'An American Tragedy' by Theodore Dreiser and the play of the same name adapted by Patrick Kearney)
Starring:
Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Keefe Brasselle, Raymond Burr, Herbert Heyes
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
6 wins, including Best Director

George Eastman (Clift), not the photography pioneer, but a poor young man with high ambitions, accepts work in a clothing factory run by his wealthy uncle (Heyes). Despite the company policy prohibiting any fraternising with the female employees, George begins a discreet affair with fellow factory worker Alice (Winters), a mostly sensible and well-meaning girl. Their relationship is strained, however, when George's family connections begin to afford him certain advantages.

At one of the Eastman family's fancy soirées, George meets pretty and confident socialite Angela Vickers (Taylor) and the two hit it off immediately. Soon, George is leading a double life, placating Alice while inconspicuously gallivanting off with his true love Angela. The situation is further complicated by Alice's rather inconvenient pregnancy.

A Place in the Sun is based on the novel 'An American Tragedy', a title that is its own spoiler. Cleverly, though, George Stevens (or someone involved in the film's production) decided not to retain the novel's title for the film, but unfortunately, the opening credits name the source material in large letters, so the damage is still done. Nonetheless, the picture is extremely engaging and Stevens exploits this sense of foreboding brilliantly with the help of the Oscar-winning score (which turns a simple close-up into a chilling insight into the thoughts of a desperate man) and the Oscar-winning cinematography (which adds mystery by keeping the actors' faces in complete darkness during critical moments).

Being the early 1950s, almost the very thought of portraying sex on film was outlawed, and I'm always intrigued by how filmmakers of that era conveyed to their audience that two characters have done the deed. The artistically inventive solution in A Place in the Sun is to depict George and Alice dancing intimately in her apartment before the camera pans to the window overlooking her porch. Night slowly dissolves into morning as the rooster crows ... and George quietly sneaks down the porch steps having spent the night. Scandalous.

Montgomery Clift (pictured) earned a Best Actor nomination for his superb portrayal of George - hunched, brooding and sincere (paving the way for another gone-too-soon George Stevens collaborator, James Dean). Shelley Winters was the film's only other Oscar nominee, garnering a nod for Best Actress for her versatile performance as the downtrodden Alice. Elizabeth Taylor (also pictured) is also worth noting as the vivaciously forward Angela. And Perry Mason fans will be pleased to see Raymond Burr in the courtroom as District Attorney Marlowe.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Best Picture of 1986

The Academy's eclectic tastes are hardly more evident than in 1986's shortlist: drama and comedy, contemporary and period. Stylistically, these five films have very little in common with each other, yet they each excel in their own right. Nonetheless, choosing a favourite was not as difficult as one would expect.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1986 are:
  • Children of a Lesser God
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • The Mission
  • Platoon
  • A Room with a View
The nominee with the most visible flaw is Children of a Lesser God. Despite its touching story, the general conceit of a hearing man repeating everything his deaf lover utters is hard to overcome, so Marlee Matlin's debut film is first to be struck off the list.

The next two to go are Hannah and Her Sisters, a fine contemporary comedy exploring the human condition (otherwise known as a Woody Allen film), and its polar opposite, The Mission, a fine adventure drama exploring politics, religion and racial relations.

Finally, we have two more immensely contrasting pictures, the graphically anti-war Platoon and the exquisitely period A Room with a View. Both are expertly produced and fulfil their genres' expectations satisfyingly. But, for me, it is Oliver Stone's Vietnam story that has the slight edge, so, just as the Academy did, I officially award Platoon top honours in the 1986 Best Picture contest.

Best Picture of 1986
Academy's choice:

Platoon


Matt's choice:

Platoon



Your choice:



Don't agree with me and the Academy? Make it known by voting in the poll above. We now move back to the 1950s, and as per your wishes, we will focus on the following five contenders.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1951 are:
  • An American in Paris
  • Decision Before Dawn
  • A Place in the Sun
  • Quo Vadis
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

1986 - A Room With a View

Here's a tip for the unaware...

When at the supermarket browsing bottles of wine, it may be worth looking more closely at the labels. Although the label on the bottle you purchase may, at first glance, have a design that is indistinguishable from the labels on more expensive bottles found in boutique wine shops, don't wait until you get it home to read the small text that describes the contents as "Wine Product." Not the same thing...

To wrap up the viewing of 1986's Best Picture nominees, yesterday I watched...


A Room with a View
Director:
James Ivory
Screenplay:
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
(based on the novel by E.M. Forster)
Starring:
Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Denholm Elliott, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Simon Callow, Judi Dench, Rosemary Leach, Rupert Graves
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins, including Best Adapted Screenplay

Just as Platoon is not for those with an aversion to war films, it seems safe to say that those lacking passion for period pieces would be well advised to stay away from A Room with a View. Lucy Honeychurch (Bonham Carter) is a young impressionable Englishwoman at the turn of the 20th century. Escorted by her chaperone, the neurotically proper Charlotte Bartlett (Smith), Lucy's horizons are widened on a holiday in Florence. Here, she meets George Emerson (Sands), who, along with his father (Elliott), is unperturbed by the repressive social etiquette of the day. In fact, in a moment of spontaneity, George boldly plants a passionate kiss on Lucy while picnicking in the Italian countryside.

Lucy's tingly feelings are short-lived, however, for when she returns to England, she soon accepts a marriage proposal from the stuffy but dependable Cecil Vyse (Day-Lewis), whose kissing technique is decidedly awkward. Not to worry, though. George and his father coincidentally move into the neighbourhood, which evokes romantic memories in Lucy, who now attempts to suppress her desire for him.

As a Merchant Ivory production - and one of their biggest hits, to boot - A Room with a View is unmistakably a lavish period piece. The costumes, the sets, the locations are all enchantingly beautiful, and each sequence is preceded by delicate title cards with text taken from the original novel's chapter headings. The result is a kind of storybook effect, successfully transporting the viewer to another time and place.

All the familiar themes of a period drama - social standing, keeping up appearances, repressed love - are present in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's exquisitely written script, her first of two E.M. Forster adaptations to nab her the Adapted Screenplay Oscar, followed a few years later by Howards End. In fact, with three Best Picture-nominated adaptations from his work (A Room with a View, Howards End and A Passage to India), E.M. Forster is one of the Academy's most represented authors.

The most amusing scene in the picture comes as George takes a swim in a pond with the local vicar, Mr. Beebe (Callow) and Lucy's brother, Freddy (Graves). The three men, naked as the day they were born, splash and jostle in and out of the water with a genuinely care-free attitude. Initially, it is a strange interlude in an otherwise family friendly film, but the scene soon becomes hilariously awkward when Lucy, Cecil and Mrs. Honeychurch (Leach) stumble upon the nude trio.

Helena Bonham Carter, youthful and pretty, portrays Lucy's awakening adorably. Daniel Day-Lewis is almost unrecognisable as the prissy Cecil. My favourite performance was by Denholm Elliott as the charmingly goofy Mr. Emerson, which garnered him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Maggie Smith received the film's other acting citation - for Best Supporting Actress -for her delightful turn as the uptight Charlotte.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

1986 - Platoon

Kat and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Miami with a couple of fellow Aussie ex-pats. We walked along Miami Beach, we shopped on Lincoln Road Mall, we lay by the hotel pool, but mostly, we ate at restaurants. It was essentially three days of eating ... in beautifully warm weather. Back to the cold climes of New York City now...

Next up in 1986's race for Best Picture is...


Platoon
Director:
Oliver Stone
Screenplay:
Oliver Stone
Starring:
Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Reggie Johnson, Mark Moses, Corey Glover, Johnny Depp
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

Drawing from his own experiences during the Vietnam War, director and writer Oliver Stone tells the story of Chris Taylor (Sheen), a young soldier arriving in Vietnam for a one-year tour of duty. As the newbie, he struggles to acclimate to the poor conditions and his fellow soldiers. Making matters worse is the fact that his superiors seem to be constantly locking horns. The hostile and facially scarred Sergeant Barnes (Berenger) lacks respect for his own superior, the unassertive Lieutenant Wolfe (Moses), and is also at loggerheads with Sergeant Elias (Defoe), seemingly the only soldier who tries to remain compassionate and reasonable.

If you're not a fan of war films, you probably shouldn't bother with Platoon. Its intense battle scenes are violent and often gory. But the graphic depiction of the war is not the only reason to laud this as a great film. Platoon succeeds because of its characters. The platoon of the title is composed of a variety of soldier types - the tough soldier, the frightened soldier, the corrupt soldier, the takes-it-as-it-comes soldier, the I've-had-enough soldier. In fact, that last type could probably refer to a number, if not all, of the members of the platoon.

There are times when the story seems to ramble. The company moves from mission to mission, fighting battles and losing some of their own. But, undoubtedly, this chaotic and unsettling narrative is representative of the war itself. It also serves to highlight how war can change a person. There is moral ambiguity in a great deal of the platoon's actions and each soldier makes at least one questionable decision, none more so than Sergeant Barnes, whose depravity acts somewhat as the story's through-line. Besides, the entire picture is so captivating that I hardly noticed that two hours had passed.

Georges Delerue's arrangement of Samuel Barber's stirring "Adagio for Strings" is powerfully moving, especially as used over the now iconic image of Elias' dying arms in the air. And Robert Richardson's Oscar-nominated cinematography infuses beauty into otherwise disturbing images.

And then there's the cast - an eclectic mix to match the diversity of the characters. Willem Defoe and Tom Berenger (pictured) both merited their Best Supporting Actor nominations. At the beginning of his career, Charlie Sheen was well-suited to play the naive new recruit who receives a trial by fire. Other up-and-comers at the time that appeared as platoon members were Kevin Dillon (you know him from Entourage), Mark Moses (you know him from Mad Men and Desperate Housewives), Forest Whitaker (you know him from The Last King of Scotland), Keith David (you know him from a lot of movies), John C. McGinley (you know him from Scrubs and most of Oliver Stone's other films) and Johnny Depp (you just know him). McGinley is especially fun to watch, playing a rather eccentric but eventually human Sergeant.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

1986 - Children of a Lesser God

It's Thanksgiving week here in the United States. That generally means people are flying home to be with their families. Kat and I will be doing that next month instead when we fly to Australia, so for this holiday, we've chosen Miami as our destination. And I'm sure we'll be giving thanks for the warm weather down there. Happy Thanksgiving to all my U.S. readers!

Yesterday, I viewed the next in 1986's lineup of Best Picture nominees...


Children of a Lesser God
Director:
Randa Haines
Screenplay:
Hesper Anderson and Mark Redoff
(based on the play by Redoff)
Starring:
William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, Philip Bosco
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Matlin)

James Leeds (Hurt) is the new speech teacher at a New England school for deaf children. While his unorthodox methods raise some eyebrows, he is very successful and much loved by his students. As he teaches them to speak (and even sing!), he finds himself smitten with the school's deaf janitor, Sarah Norman (Matlin). A former student herself, the bitter Sarah stubbornly refuses James' offers to help her speak, but does not refuse his romantic advances, albeit after some initial hesitation.

Children of a Lesser God could be a beautifully moving film if it weren't for one rather distracting flaw. James translates aloud everything Sarah signs as she is signing it. Sure, it conveniently allows those of us in the audience who do not know sign language (the majority, no doubt) to understand what she is saying, but it is such a phony dramatic device that it merely makes James seem fake. I understand that studios are reluctant to use subtitles for fear of audiences staying away from movies they have to read, but they really should have bitten the bullet in this instance. In fact, it may not even have required subtitles. Simply leaving the audience to infer Sarah's meaning from the context of James' side of the conversation would have been far less superficial.

It's a shame, really, because the story has the potential to be a lot more intimate. As it stands, though, the relationship between the two main characters feels somewhat distant due to James' insistent repetition. Consequently, the love story, which is otherwise personal and touching, seems a little rushed.

William Hurt puts in an admirable effort despite being given the short straw. His Oscar-nominated performance is especially commendable considering he is essentially speaking for two characters. He is slightly cheesy at times, but that is easily justified by his character's geeky sincerity. In her film debut, Marlee Matlin (pictured) delivers a heart-breakingly honest portrayal, earning her the Best Actress Oscar at the age of 21, which remains the record for the youngest winner in that category. The third acting citation for the film went to the richly deserving Piper Laurie for her tender performance as Sarah's estranged mother.

Despite my harshness in highlighting this film's main shortcoming, it remains an engaging film. I'm just disappointed because it could have been so much more.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

1986 - The Mission

As promised, the poll for the next year of review is now running (in the right sidebar). You may notice that the list of years available in the poll does not include films from the 1930s as I mentioned in my last post. Here's my excuse... Kat and I will be heading home to Sydney over the Christmas/New Year period and then, on the way back to New York, I'll be stopping in L.A. for about a week. This seems like the perfect opportunity to check in at the UCLA Film Archive for a viewing of one or two of those hard-to-find Best Picture nominees. Since all those rarities are from the 1930s, I figured it best to spend time with another decade for now and leave the 1930s for January.

Meanwhile, we continue with 1986's contest by taking a look at the following Best Picture nominee...


The Mission
Director:
Roland Joffé
Screenplay:
Robert Bolt
Starring:
Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Ronald Pickup, Chuck Low, Liam Neeson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Cinematography

In 18th century South America, well-meaning Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Irons) sets up a mission in an area of the jungle accessed only by a precarious waterfall climb. He introduces Christianity to the indigenous Guarani tribe with the help of his fellow priests. The newest recruit to the Jesuit order is Rodrigo (De Niro), a former mercenary and slave-trader with a violent streak, who joined the priesthood as penance after a bout of fratricide.

Everything is hunky-dory for a while until politics gets in the way. The Spanish and Portuguese governments have decided to play around with which parts of the continent they claim as their own and the mission, previously in Spanish territory, is now considered Portuguese. Since Portuguese law is sympathetic to slavery, this is bad news for the Guarani. Enter Cardinal Altamirano (McAnally), a Papal emissary assigned the task of determining whether the Vatican will protect the mission or deliver it to the Portuguese.

My first thought after watching The Mission is how incredibly gruelling the shoot must have been for all involved. Shot on location in and around the rivers, waterfalls and jungles of South America, the natural beauty on display is hard to miss, but nature is not always convenient for film-makers. Nonetheless, convenient or not, the result is a feeling of true immersion in the jungle environment. No wonder the film's only Oscar came for Cinematography.

I am somewhat torn, however, in regard to the film's score. Composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone, The Mission's score includes some genuinely beautiful and moving music, but despite the score's justified long-term critical recognition, some of the tracks seem oddly inappropriate, particularly the thriller-like themes in the film's first act. While these are evocative tunes in their own right, their placement within the film results perhaps in the wrong emotion being evoked. The scenes they underscore are so intensely dramatic as written that the addition of such overtly suspenseful music is overkill, almost cartoonish. Luckily, the tender brilliance of the other more inspirational themes is what is remembered.

The Academy didn't see fit to nominate any of the cast despite some magnificent performances. Jeremy Irons portrays the calm Father Gabriel with strength and passion. Robert De Niro (pictured) is likewise powerful as the volatile Rodrigo, arguably the most physically taxing role in the film. He spends several scenes hiking up muddy inclines attached to an enormous bundle of metal. The cast weren't entirely without accolades, though. Ray McAnally nabbed BAFTA's Best Supporting Actor award for his nuanced turn as the conflicted Altamirano.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

1986 - Hannah and Her Sisters

We launch into another year of review, which is normally the time I put up the poll to decide the next year of review after that. I'd like to offer you some options from the 1930s again, but before I do that, I need to figure out which films are more easily available to me from that decade. Hence, I may need another few days of research. Stay tuned...

On another note, many of you may be aware of my previous website creation years ago - a weekly film quiz. Perhaps if I ever manage to complete this current project, I'll return to that concept, but in the meantime, I couldn't help myself. I created a couple of quizzes on Sporcle (Verbose Movie Titles and Verbose Movie Titles 2) for a bit of fun. Enjoy!

Yesterday, I began my look at the Best Picture contenders of 1986 by revisiting...


Hannah and Her Sisters
Director:
Woody Allen
Screenplay:
Woody Allen
Starring:
Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O'Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max von Sydow, Dianne Wiest
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Original Screenplay

Unsurprisingly, Hannah and Her Sisters is about a woman named Hannah (Farrow) and her two sisters, Lee (Hershey) and Holly (Wiest). Also prominent in the story are Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen) and her current husband Elliot (Caine), plus her parents (Nolan & O'Sullivan). But I suppose Hannah and Her Sisters and Her Husbands and Her Parents was a little too long-winded as a title ... Not that Woody Allen is averse to long-winded titles. But I digress...

The film follows the trials and tribulations of this family of characters. Although married to Hannah, Elliot is head over heels in love with her sister Lee. Other sister Holly is insecure about how her business partner April (Fisher) is more talented and more attractive than she. And hypochondriac Mickey fears the worst when doctors suspect he may actually have a fatal disease.

Here's how you know that this is a Woody Allen film:

* The opening titles are white text in Windsor font on a black background, underscored by an upbeat piece of early jazz music. This, perhaps more than any other Allen trademark, elicits a familiar sensation of comfort.

* Rather than one major theme, the story examines several fundamental issues of the human condition - fidelity, mortality, insecurity, religion, love. For this film, these subjects are explored with the clever and illuminating use of inner monologues. Through voice over, the audience becomes privy to each character's private thoughts.

* Witty and very quotable one-liners permeate the script, often related to one of those fundamental issues being explored, particularly philosophy and religion. Here, we are treated to such gems as, "If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up," and, "I was in analysis for years, nothing happened. My poor analyst got so frustrated, the guy finally put in a salad bar."

* The visual style is relatively basic. There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule within Allen's body of work, but Hannah and Her Sisters falls pretty squarely in the 'simple images' category. Which is appropriate, mind you. The material is based on those raw and honest feelings we all experience - or at least a slightly exaggerated version of the same - so the photographic simplicity is the perfect complement.

* The cast is dense with renowned actors delivering naturalistic performances. There is an almost improvisational style to each scene. People talk in half-sentences, cutting each other off constantly. The emotional displays are subtle and reserved, except perhaps for Allen's own neurotic histrionics.

* Along with the plethora of established performers in main and supporting roles, there are numerous minor roles portrayed by actors of future renown. Here, we have John Turturro, J.T. Walsh, Richard Jenkins, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Even comedian Lewis Black makes his film debut.

* The script and the actors fared well with the Academy. For Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar (his second after Annie Hall), while both Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest received awards for their supporting roles. Wiest's second Oscar eight years later was for Bullets Over Broadway, also directed by Allen. Interestingly, though, the last decade has not been so kind to Allen and his casts in this regard. Only one writing nomination (for Match Point) and one acting nomination (for Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which she won).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Best Picture of 1962

The trend of incredible (and lengthy) films continues. I found all five contenders in 1962's competition to be thoroughly engaging. Yet another hallmark year for this project.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1962 are:
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • The Longest Day
  • The Music Man
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
My first move in this verdict is to split these fine films into two groups. In the bottom section is The Music Man, a spectacularly entertaining film, perhaps only disadvantaged by its lack of substance in comparison with the other four nominees, which all deal with very powerful material. Joining the musical, I have placed To Kill A Mockingbird. I know, I know. Most people love it. And I did, too. Just not as much as its competitors.

The three films on the upper branch, coincidentally or not, happen to be the three longest nominees - each running at least three hours - and are also all based on true stories. First, we have Mutiny on the Bounty, an intense battle of minds complemented by beautifully photographed scenery, shot on location in Tahiti. Then, The Longest Day, a compelling D-Day re-enactment complemented by beautifully photographed scenery, shot on location in Normandy.

That leaves us with the highly lauded Lawrence of Arabia, which was not a particularly difficult decision. However, I doubt my own ability to ignore the pressures of almost 50 years of critical acclaim. Aside from winning the Academy's Best Picture award and appearing on many critics' lists of the all-time greatest, the British film also inexplicably made it into the top 10 of the AFI's list of the greatest American films. It's hard not to be influenced by such widespread praise. In any case, whether I came to this decision independently or not, I am now declaring Lawrence of Arabia my pick for 1962's Best Picture of the year.

Best Picture of 1962
Academy's choice:

Lawrence of Arabia

Matt's choice:

Lawrence of Arabia


Your choice:



You may exercise your right to vote by using the poll above. Matt vs. the Academy now moves back to the 1980s with a very eclectic selection of nominees.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1986 are:
  • Children of a Lesser God
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • The Mission
  • Platoon
  • A Room With a View
Stay tuned...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

1962 - Mutiny on the Bounty

I'm writing this in the few remaining hours of Daylight Savings in New York City. Tomorrow, the darkness creeps in an hour earlier. Subsequently, each day will see the sunset arrive sooner than the day before... Well, okay, that makes it sound far more foreboding than is necessary. Still, I'll be hotfooting it soon to the other side of the equator, where not only is the day getting longer, but warmer too. Kat and I have a visit home to Sydney planned for Christmas and New Year's. But more on that later...

Yesterday, I viewed the last in the shortlist for 1962's Best Picture crown...


Mutiny on the Bounty
Director:
Lewis Milestone
Screenplay:
Charles Lederer
(based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall)
Starring:
Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris, Hugh Griffith, Richard Haydn, Tarita, Percy Herbert
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

Based on a novel which was itself based on a true story, Mutiny on the Bounty is apparently not entirely accurate in its portrayal of the famous maritime feud. Nonetheless, the film is a remarkably successful application of the adage, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

In 1787, the British Royal Navy sends the H.M.S. Bounty and its captain, William Bligh (Howard), on an expedition to collect breadfruit from Tahiti. The captain's cruel and inconsiderate treatment of the crew hits a nerve with the ship's first mate Fletcher Christian (Brando), but he holds his tongue for the moment. After spending five months in Tahiti waiting for the new breadfruit crop to yield (and making the most of the island lifestyle, if you know what I mean), the crew take on board dozens more plants than they originally intended to make up for lost time. Unfortunately, there is not enough water on board to keep all the plants alive, so Bligh reduces the crew's rations. Problem solved. This, along with a few more heartless acts, slowly pushes Christian over the edge and, with the aid of some of the unhappier members of the crew, he orchestrates a mutiny. (I know. I've just given away a major plot twist. In my defense, though, it is in the title. Clearly, the producers of the Mel Gibson version knew better.)

There is never a dull moment in Mutiny on the Bounty, which is no mean feat for a three-hour movie. But it's not just because of the thrilling action scenes. A big part of the film's power comes from the intense psychological battle between the two main characters. Both men are loyal to their country but their ideas on how best to affirm their patriotism are polar opposites, as are their leadership techniques. Their disdain for each other is apparent due to several bitter yet contained exchanges. Indeed, the script is clever enough to keep their conflict simmering on low heat until the right moment, resulting in some utterly engaging drama. The witty and refined dialogue doesn't hurt either. For example, when asked about his feelings regarding the mutiny, Christian remarks that he does not regret his actions "except for a slight desire to be dead which I'm sure will pass."

The seductive nature of the love story between Christian and his Tahitian girlfriend, Maimiti (played by Tarita), seems slightly gratuitous, akin to the absurdity of Captain Kirk's alien conquests. Maimiti's father, who happens to be the tribal Chief (and is peculiarly portrayed as a giggling buffoon), delivers an ultimatum barring the Britons from taking any breadfruit unless Christian sleeps with his daughter. Still, the real Fletcher Christian ended up marrying Maimiti, plus Brando married Tarita, so stranger things have happened, I guess.

Marlon Brando is obscenely watchable as the head mutineer. Affecting a flawless British accent, his natural mannerisms and constant thought processes are nothing short of captivating. He is matched by Trevor Howard's strong turn as the stubbornly tyrannical William Bligh, expertly delivering his many biting lines. Also compelling is future Hogwarts principal Richard Harris as Seaman John Mills. And as glad as I am to see legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty in the cast, his broad Australian accent is more than a little inappropriate for the time period. British settlement of the land down under did not occur until 1788.

The other Australian connection to the film is the fact that William Bligh eventually became the 4th Governor of my home state of New South Wales. His horrid luck with insubordination continued, however, when he was deposed in a military coup known as the Rum Rebellion. Clearly not meant to be a leader.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

1962 - The Music Man

Don't forget to vote for which year Matt vs. the Academy should tackle next. You can do so by selecting one of the options in the poll on the right. For my American readers, consider it a warm-up for the voting muscles you will be exercising on Tuesday... unless, like me, you are not a U.S. citizen and are therefore ineligible to vote ... in which case, just vote in my poll anyway.

Today, in lieu of any Halloween festivities, I watched another contender in 1962's Best Picture race...


The Music Man
Director:
Morton DaCosta
Screenplay:
Marion Hargrove
(based on the Broadway musical by Meredith Willson)
Starring:
Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold, Pert Kelton, Ron Howard
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Score (Adaptation)

Popular on Broadway, Meredith Willson's The Music Man centres on a travelling salesman who calls himself Professor Harold Hill (Preston). Arriving in River City, Iowa, Hill attempts to con the townsfolk into buying instruments and uniforms for a boys marching band that he promises to lead. Only thing is: he has absolutely no musical ability whatsoever (although, he does appear to be able to sing and dance). With the help of an old pal (Hackett), Hill evades the scrutiny of the Mayor (Ford), but for the plan to really work, he has to keep the town's only musician, piano instructor Marian Paroo (Jones), from exposing him. He decides seducing her will be his best bet.

'Extravagant' is the first word that comes to mind when watching The Music Man. Brightly-coloured sets and costumes, super widescreen cinematography, familiar toe-tapping tunes (Seventy-Six Trombones and Ya Got Trouble, for example), larger-than-life characters. It's one extravagant musical number after another. The result is that River City and its inhabitants appear to have a polished veneer. Yet this feeling of make-believe - common to Broadway musical adaptations - is incredibly amiable, thanks to a delightfully humorous tone.

Meredith Willson's music is imaginative and fun with many tracks distinguished by their brisk rhythm and almost mechanical melody. Lyrically, the songs are clever and interesting, sometimes downright strange. I mean, who names a song "Shipoopi"? (I have to shamefully admit that I was not even aware of that song until I heard Peter Griffin's rendition of it.)

Clearly, it was an enormous task converting this stage success to film, and director Morton DaCosta uses some innovative camera techniques for certain sequences, including several extended takes. However, there are other times when it seems that he doesn't make the most of his medium. Despite the energetic choreography, certain shots feel unusually static because of the simplified camera placement. It's almost as if the actors are performing like they would on stage, all huddled together facing the audience.

Nonetheless, the cast all embody their characters perfectly. Robert Preston is smooth and charming as the swindler who grows a conscience. The Partridge Family's matriarch Shirley Jones is sweet as Hill's love interest. The supporting cast, including Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold and Pert Kelton are all delectably comic. And little Ronny Howard (as he was known prior to his Richie Cunningham days) is adorably impressive, complete with outrageous lisp.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

1962 - To Kill A Mockingbird

I always enjoy seeing classic movies on the big screen. The cinema experience will always trump the home theatre experience, I guess, until the day that the cinema experience is the home theatre experience (i.e. when I own a house big enough for a private screening room). Among others, I've been lucky enough to see 70mm prints of Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur, and I got my sci-fi geek on for the reissues of the first three Star Wars films in the late 1990s. But last weekend was a particularly personal thrill for me as I attended a special 25th anniversary screening of Back to the Future. I had never seen it on the big screen before (I was only nine years old during its initial release) but, through video and DVD, it became one of my all-time favourite films, one which, I'm glad to say, still holds up today, despite its mathematically erroneous pronunciation of 1.21 gigawatts. Seeing it in a room full of like-minded fans created an electrifying atmosphere - there were cheers when George knocked out Biff - and since I had already seen Parts II and III in the cinema, this recent screening finally makes the trilogy complete for me.

Yesterday, I took a look at another classic from 1962's Best Picture race...


To Kill A Mockingbird
Director:
Robert Mulligan
Screenplay:
Horton Foote
(based on the novel by Harper Lee)
Starring:
Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford, John Megna, Frank Overton, Brock Peters, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Robert Duvall
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actor (Peck) and Best Adapted Screenplay

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel made its way into most high school English classrooms, including the one I attended at Gymea Technology High School, making it a familiar story to most. For some reason, though, my main memory of the book is of the rabid dog. That and the wacky names of all the characters: Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill. Even the Sheriff's name is Heck.

In a small Southern town during the 1930s, lawyer Atticus Finch (Peck) raises his two children, Scout (Badham) and Jem (Alford). The kids befriend their neighbour's visiting nephew, a young boy named Dill (Megna), and the three make their own fun on the streets, mostly by making up stories about the mysterious Boo Radley (Duvall), their reclusive neighbour that none of them have seen. Meanwhile, Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson (Peters), a young black man accused of assaulting a white girl named Mayella (Wilcox). The girl's father, Mr. Ewell (Anderson) is not particularly happy about Tom receiving any kind of defense and he has a gang of likewise angry townsfolk on his side. Atticus attempts to keep the situation in the town under control as he mounts his case for Tom's innocence.

Atticus Finch may well be the most morally upstanding character in fiction. He is considerate, compassionate and incorruptible. Calm under tense situations, he stands up to bullies with a mild and rational temperament. A loving father, he teaches his children to adhere to the same moral code. And since it is typically a character's flaws that make him a fascinating study, Atticus comes across as entirely uninteresting as a lead character because he appears to be flawless. Don't get me wrong. We still love him and want him to succeed, but the truly interesting elements of To Kill A Mockingbird lie elsewhere.

To be honest, though, Atticus probably isn't the lead character anyway. The novel is written in the first person by Scout (and the film is narrated by the adult version of her, voiced by an uncredited Kim Stanley), so it would seem plausible to call her the lead. The story can certainly be considered her coming of age tale. Indeed, both Finch children learn a great deal over the course of the picture, the first half of which concentrates on their adventures.

Then, there is the grand courtroom scene. Even if Atticus himself is prosaically simple, the battle that he inevitably faces in court (and outside the court, for that matter) is dramatic and affecting. It is no secret that I love legal dramas, particularly those gotcha moments when a lawyer wins a point against his opposition. Atticus certainly has no shortage of those moments. However, the events in the courtroom seemed somehow unbelievable. Granted, I don't have a great knowledge of U.S. criminal law in the 1930s - and perhaps it is due to my familiarity with modern legal dramas both on the big and the small screen - but there were several moments during both lawyers' cross-examinations that I expected to hear the other yell, "Objection!" Some of the claims being presented seemed legally spurious. Nonetheless, the direction and the cast help to retain a tense atmosphere.

Gregory Peck won his only Oscar for this iconic role and despite my misgivings about the character's dramatic appeal, Peck's portrayal is strong and grounded. Both Brock Peters as the accused man and Collin Wilcox as the accusing woman deliver powerful performances making the most of their brief moments on the witness stand. And yes, that's a young Robert Duvall making his film debut as the mute Boo Radley.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

1962 - Lawrence of Arabia

Here's a little anecdote to illustrate precisely how neurotic I am...

I recently endured my first cold of the season. The sore throat and the runny nose passed relatively quickly, leaving me in the niggling cough stage. A few nights ago, while sitting in an acting class, I felt a potentially disruptive coughing fit simmering just under the surface, so in an attempt to minimise the disruption, I instead released a short, sharp and perhaps oddly high-pitched hack. To my surprise, the girl sitting next to me kindly whispered, "Bless you," seemingly unaware that my audible expulsion was not, in fact, a sneeze. Not wanting to be unappreciative or rude, I let her error pass. However - and here comes the neurotic part - rather than risk another awkward blessing of a cough, I made a conscious effort henceforth to make my splutters sound more cough-like by invoking at least two or three distinct barks in rapid succession. Yep, I actually adapted my own coughs in order to avoid an embarrassing situation. Coincidentally, the monologue I had prepared for class that night was written by Woody Allen.

Yesterday, I undertook the epic task of watching an epic film nominated for Best Picture in 1962...


Lawrence of Arabia
Director:
David Lean
Screenplay:
Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Starring:
Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
7 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

We are introduced to T.E. Lawrence (O'Toole) on his motorcycle speeding down a quiet country road. Suddenly, he swerves to avoid hitting a couple of meandering bicyclists, fatally crashing into the adjacent greenery. Yep, he's dead within the first five minutes of the film. But don't let that fool you. There's at least three and a half hours to go.

Flashback to about twenty years earlier and young Lt. Lawrence is stationed in Cairo during World War I. The other British Army officers don't take him too seriously, but his knowledge of the desert-dwelling Bedouin people is enough for his superiors (Wolfit and Rains) to send him to meet with Prince Faisal (Guinness). While crossing the desert, Lawrence's guide is killed by a feuding tribe member, Sherif Ali (Sharif), unhappy with the guide's use of his well. Lawrence survives on his own, eventually reaching Faisal. Defying his orders, he recommends a battle plan to the Prince in his fight against the Turks, which involves more desert crossing and working alongside Ali and yet another feuding tribe member (Quinn), who is also protective of wells. Through a few more battles and a few more desert crossings, Lawrence gradually develops a fondness for these nomadic people who, in turn, begin to reciprocate his respect.

To be perfectly honest, it is hard to explain what I like about Lawrence of Arabia. Sure, it is a fascinating study of a complex man. Sure, the script is eloquent and expressive. Sure, Peter O'Toole is engaging in the title role. But I'm not entirely sure I noticed any of those things while I was watching the film. For the fact is this picture is so incredibly epic that all those other elements seem to almost fade away. The epic landscapes. The epic battles. The epic duration. It's hard not to be genuinely impressed by the epic feat it must have been to get this film made.

The locations alone are spectacular to behold - a vast expanse of desert as far as the eye can see. Freddie Young's Oscar-winning cinematography is beautiful yet simple. Although, when it comes to stunning exterior shots, I've often wondered how much credit should go to the cinematographer and how much to the location itself. I mean, if nature presents you with breathtaking views, all you need to do is point the camera and shoot, right? But, obviously, I am rather offensively simplifying the cinematographer's art. Either way, the visuals are moving and effective. And considering the number of times that the characters cross the desert during the course of the picture, there is plenty of screen time devoted to its majesty.

Despite this grand scale, there is still room for intimacy, which is predominantly provided by Peter O'Toole's expert performance. Nuanced and passionate, he is certainly the audience's personal connection amidst all that epicness. Plus, anyone who can withstand the amount of grit that surely embedded itself in his face during filming deserves to be commended. Anthony Quinn was the other standout for me, portraying a proudly unrefined tribe leader.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

1962 - The Longest Day

In an attempt to get ourselves out of the house and experience more of the diverse offerings available to us in this great city, last weekend Kat and I participated in a unique production known as Accomplice: New York. It's hard to describe exactly what it is. Part interactive theatre, part treasure hunt, part film noir. Kind of a cross between Tony n' Tina's Wedding, The Amazing Race and The Sopranos. Along with a handful of other participants, our group was sent traipsing through the city, meeting our "contacts" and deciphering clues to solve a deeper mystery. The whole production is incredibly innovative and loads of fun. Highly recommended for those of you in New York, plus they also have shows in L.A. and London.

The latest poll is ready for you to collectively decide which year becomes the next focus of review. Just move your eyes over to the right. Meanwhile, we begin our look at the nominees in the Academy's Best Picture race of 1962...


The Longest Day
Directors:
Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki
Screenplay:
Cornelius Ryan, Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, Jack Seddon
(based on Ryan's book)
Starring:
Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Sean Connery, Mel Ferrer, Henry Fonda, Gert Fröbe, Curd Jürgens, Alexander Knox, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, Kenneth More, Edmond O'Brien, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Rod Steiger, Richard Todd, Robert Wagner, John Wayne, and a whole lot of other people
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
2 wins

The term "ensemble piece" was never more appropriate than as a description of The Longest Day, unmistakably a gigantic collaboration. It relates the real-life events surrounding the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, the 6th of June, 1944. The story is told from the perspectives of all sides - the British, the Americans, the Germans and the French. Literally dozens of characters, from top military leaders to the soldiers in the thick of it, engage in battles on beaches, in towns, on cliffs and on bridges. Meanwhile, Hitler sleeps.

As that rather lazy synopsis might indicate, it is difficult to capture the plot of The Longest Day for one very simple reason - it is immensely intricate. In fact, the picture's use of narrative is more akin to a sketch comedy show, except the comedy is only occasional and, of course, there is a single theme to every sketch. But essentially, the scenes are each brief episodes detailing a specific element of the famous military operation, many of which are only indirectly related to each other. While there are several subplots that carry through the length of the film, the majority of characters have relatively little screen time, sometimes only a scene or two. Subtitles are employed to display the name and rank of each new major character as they appear, which is only marginally helpful since there are just so bloody many of them!

The picture is based on a military history which was itself based on numerous interviews with actual participants in the events, some of whom acted as military consultants during production. Consequently, the film's authenticity is hard to deny. Indeed, many of the briefest episodes are easy to imagine as anecdotes told by someone involved. Adding to the authenticity is the fact that the German and French characters all speak their native language, plus the English-speakers emit a diverse range of seemingly authentic accents. (I suspect most, if not all, the actors were using their natural dialect.)

Despite - or perhaps because of - the film's employment of three directors (more proof of its collaborative nature), the visual craft on display is spectacular. In particular, the battle sequences are a sight to behold, brilliantly and elaborately staged. It is no wonder then that the film's two Oscar wins came in the categories of Black-and-White Cinematography and Special Effects.

Fittingly for an ensemble, the actors all deliver equally effective performances. A few of my favourites, however, were Robert Mitchum (pictured) as a casually stubborn American Assistant Commander, Richard Burton as a brooding British Flying Officer and Curd Jürgens as a frustrated German General. Coincidentally, Jürgens is not the only future Bond villain (he later played Stromberg) to appear in the film. Gert Fröbe (Goldfinger himself) plays an officer named Kaffeekanne, which is German for "coffee pot", the item he is never without. As if two Bond villains weren't enough, the original 007, Sean Connery, delivers his last pre-Bond performance as a Scottish Private.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Best Picture of 1994

The battle for Best Picture of 1994 included a particularly impressive selection of nominees. I realise that assessment is one that has prefaced almost every verdict I have delivered so far in this project, but this time I really mean it. In a decade and a half, four of these five films have achieved a rather prominent place within pop culture. Nothing to sneeze at.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1994 are:
  • Forrest Gump
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Quiz Show
  • The Shawshank Redemption
Five very accomplished films, all with bucket loads of merit. The sole romantic comedy of the bunch, Four Weddings and a Funeral, is the first one out of the running for my top honours. Partly due to the innate unfairness that labels comedies as less significant as other genres, and partly due to its saturation of slightly underdeveloped supporting characters.

The other four pictures are much harder to separate. Quiz Show, the nominee with the least success cementing its place in film history, suffers mildly from the ambivalence that is elicited by its likeable but morally questionable lead character. Nonetheless, the film is still immensely engaging. Forrest Gump, Oscar's choice for Best Picture, offers a somewhat passive lead character, yet remains emotionally impactful with plenty of charm to boot. Pulp Fiction is, on occasion, gratuitously wordy, but its humour and inventiveness far outweigh any flaws.

Thus, we are left with the film that IMDb users have voted their number one film of all time, The Shawshank Redemption. It may not necessarily take that crown in my all time list, but it certainly has my support as 1994's best. It is a masterly film that succeeds on many levels, drawing the viewer in with humour, pathos and suspense.

Best Picture of 1994
Academy's choice:

Forrest Gump

Matt's choice:

The Shawshank Redemption


Your choice:



Your opinion can be made by using the poll above to select your favourite 1994 nominee. Soon, we will begin our next year of review. We head to the 1960s again to take a look at the following bunch.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1962 are:
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • The Longest Day
  • The Music Man
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
Stay tuned...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

1994 - The Shawshank Redemption

Last chance to vote on the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. The poll is in the panel over to the right. Since there is currently a tie, there is rather a good chance that the next person to vote will single-handedly decide the result. Unless, of course, that person creates a three-way tie, but let's not put ideas into his head.

Last night, Kat and I sat down to watch the last of the nominees from 1994's Best Picture contest...


The Shawshank Redemption
Director:
Frank Darabont
Screenplay:
Frank Darabont
(based on the novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" by Stephen King)
Starring:
Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, Mark Rolston, James Whitmore
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

In 1947, softly-spoken banker Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is convicted of the cold-blooded murder of his cheating wife and her country club lover. Despite his adamant claims of innocence, he is given a life sentence and shipped off to Shawshank prison, where he initially has trouble with a gang of sodomising bullies. Soon, he befriends fellow inmate Red (Freeman), known for his ability to smuggle in any item from the outside. Upon request, Red acquires a rock hammer for Andy, ostensibly so he can carve chess pieces. Thanks to his financial knowledge, Andy also gets in good with the prison guards, doing their taxes each year. This eventually leads the cruel and corrupt warden (Gunton) to utilise Andy's smarts to help him launder money.

I sincerely wish there were a way to forget about the story of The Shawshank Redemption in order that I may view the film again with fresh eyes. When you know they're coming, all those wonderful little surprises have the edge taken out of them just a tiny bit. However - and here's where this picture excels - even for those who are familiar with the plot's details, the sequences are executed so impeccably that the emotional manipulation is retained. I still found myself moved by the plight of long-term inmate Brooks when he is finally released. I still found myself shocked by the warden's heinous plan to subvert Andy's chances for a new trial. And I still found myself amused by Andy's final revenge.

It's a testament to Frank Darabont's script and direction that this stands as a rare example of a film that continues to be an enjoyable experience upon multiple viewings. In fact, perhaps it is because I have seen it a few times before that I felt as though as I was in safe hands. I realise that sounds a bit arty-farty, but I don't really know how else to explain it. There is a comfortable feeling as you watch the events unfold - as if you are being guided through this journey by a protector preventing you from any personal danger ... Okay, now I sound like an idiot, so let's move on...

Shawshank becomes yet another nominee from 1994 with brilliantly provocative music. The effective score is provided by Thomas Newman in his unmistakably haunting style - soft sustained strings overlayed with intoxicating piano chords. You may also recognise the inspirational end credits theme, which has since been borrowed for numerous film trailers.

Tim Robbins leads the cast with a mostly restrained portrayal of a frustrated man waiting for his moment. The always brilliant Morgan Freeman scored the only acting Oscar nomination for the film with a superbly amiable performance. The ensemble is filled out with an array of engaging character actors, including Bob Gunton delivering an elegantly evil turn as the warden, and James Whitmore supplying a great deal of the film's pathos as Brooks, the elderly inmate who doesn't want to leave.

Monday, October 4, 2010

1994 - Forrest Gump

One of the lesser known perks of being a SAG member is that I now have the opportunity to join the SAG Film Society (for a nominal fee, of course), which allows me to attend any of their four or five screenings per month that take place at the DGA Theater. Mostly, they are films that have just hit the cinemas, but occasionally there is a preview screening of an upcoming release. At the risk of sounding elitist, I have noticed something fascinating from the couple of events that I have attended so far. Somehow, these screenings are a much more pleasant affair than watching a movie with the general public. Perhaps it's because of the near capacity attendance, so the communal atmosphere exudes excitement. Perhaps it's because of the odd rule restricting any food or drink inside the theatre, so the distracting crackling sound of candy wrappers is absent. Perhaps it's because the industry audience are more respectful of the film-going experience, so there is nary a whisper during the course of the picture. Which, I guess, means that I am an elitist.

Yesterday, Kat and I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon watching another 1994 Best Picture contender...


Forrest Gump
Director:
Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay:
Eric Roth
(based on the novel by Winston Groom)
Starring:
Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
6 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Hanks)

As Forrest Gump (Hanks) sits down on a bench to wait for his bus, he begins talking to the stranger next to him. He tells her of his childhood growing up in Alabama with his very supportive mother (Field) and his best friend Jenny (Wright). Although intellectually slow, he inadvertently becomes an influential part of U.S. history during the 60s and 70s, meeting most of the Presidents along the way. He's a college football star, a war hero, a ping pong champion, a shrimp boat captain and a distance runner. All the while, Jenny pops in and out of his life, but she always remains on his mind. As the people at the bus stop come and go, he continues his story undeterred, talking to whoever will listen to his simple tale.

It would be easy to dismiss Forrest Gump as just a mindless piece of fluff. Things just seem to happen to the main character with very little action on his behalf. Most of his major accomplishments are not achieved due to any hopes or desires that he may possess, but rather those around him shove him into the spotlight. He becomes a football star because the coach notices he can run fast, but Forrest has no clue what he is doing. He inadvertently sets the Watergate scandal in motion, not because he feels a sense of duty to report the burglary he is witnessing, but because he can't sleep with all those flashlights shining into his room. Even when he saves his entire platoon by carrying them safely out of the jungle, it is more of an act of necessity than genuine heroics.

Yet somehow, Forrest's complete lack of awareness of his influence on the world around him merely makes him more adorable. Yes, the story is fluffy and rambles on from sequence to sequence with no real direction, but Forrest's puppy dog behaviour and oddly enchanting vocal inflection more than compensate to create a sweet and funny film. Plus, the relationship between Forrest and Jenny, a subplot full of charm and poignancy, acts as the story's spine, preventing the picture from becoming totally aimless.

Alan Silvestri's music is nothing short of divine. Some may call it sappy but Kat and I didn't choose it to feature in our wedding ceremony for nothing. The entire score is touching and inspirational. Not to mention the soundtrack full of provocative hits of the era, perfectly selected to match the images on the screen, including Everybody's Talkin', a song written for another Best Picture winner, Midnight Cowboy, and heard in this film during an homage to Dustin Hoffman's famous "I'm walkin' here!" scene.

Tom Hanks earned the second of his back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for the title role. He plays the simpleton with heart, delivering a very moving final speech. Robin Wright's performance as the troubled Jenny is intelligent, never slipping into cliché. Gary Sinise offers a touchingly raw portrayal of Lieutenant Dan, and with the help of some incredible visual effects, he is utterly convincing as an amputee. And before he saw dead people, Haley Joel Osment appears briefly here as Forrest Junior.