Saturday, January 30, 2010

1964 - My Fair Lady

Okay, let's get down to the nitty-gritty. My predictions for the Best Actor and Best Actress categories, followed by the big one, Best Picture.

Up In The Air's George Clooney had the edge up until recently, but now it seems that the Best Actor Oscar will probably end up in the hands of Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart. I expect Colin Firth to also receive a nomination for his role in A Single Man, and Morgan Freeman should pick up a nod for portraying Nelson Mandela in Invictus. Barring any upsets, the fifth spot will most likely go to The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner.

Best Actress was almost wide open until a couple of weeks ago when Sandra Bullock seemed to take the edge for The Blind Side. The woman with the most acting nominations of all time, Meryl Streep, is looking fairly certain to add to her collection for Julie & Julia. Two newcomers should also pick up nominations, Gabourey Sidibe for Precious and Carey Mulligan for An Education, leaving one oldcomer to take the final slot, Helen Mirren for The Last Station.

Despite a fair amount of discontent with the Academy's decision to raise the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, I actually like the idea. For one thing, it certainly makes this predicting game a lot more interesting. If there were only five nominees, this year would be quite simple. Avatar, The Hurt Locker and Up In The Air (one of which will win), joined by Precious and Inglourious Basterds. Up will now have the chance to become the second animated film to be nominated for the top prize. The last four positions are a little vague, but let's go with Invictus, An Education, A Serious Man and District 9. As with most of the other categories, I have several alternatives, but I'll stand by these predictions for now.

In a rather exciting coincidence, I was notified this week of my success at being cast as Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady, one of two productions in which I will be performing at the Allenberry Playhouse for their summer season. How I'm going to keep up this project while I'm in Pennsylvania for two and a half months, I'm not sure. But that's another story. Last night, I completed the list of Best Picture nominees from 1964 by watching My Fair Lady with a slightly different perspective...


My Fair Lady
Director:
George Cukor
Screenplay:
Alan Jay Lerner
(based on the stage musical by Lerner & Loewe, and the play "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw)
Starring:
Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
8 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Harrison)

A classic film adapted from a classic stage musical adapted from a classic play, My Fair Lady is indeed a classic tale. Professor Henry Higgins (Harrison) is a pompous and elitist phonetics expert, able to pinpoint a speaker's geographical background based on their dialect. Disgusted by the way in which Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn), a Cockney flower girl, butchers the English language, Higgins makes a bet with fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Hyde-White) that he can transform her into a refined lady with an eloquent upper-class accent within six months.

My Fair Lady is jam packed with oodles of familiar songs to get your toes tapping - Wouldn't It Be Loverly?, The Rain in Spain, Get Me To The Church on Time - to name a few. And although these numbers are a lot less gratuitous than those from Mary Poppins, the story is still a little slow to progress, the whole film coming in at a tad under three hours. Most of the drag is near the beginning, giving way to a more entertaining latter half.

As with any musical, the contrived convention of characters bursting into song for no apparent reason is taken for granted, but there a few instances in My Fair Lady that seem to take that practice one step further. The opening of the Ascot scene is particularly surreal. And in more than one scene, the extras freeze mid-motion in unison, a pretension that probably looks fabulous on stage, but seemed somehow odd here.

Nonetheless, both cast and script combine to create some wonderfully witty moments. Rex Harrison, despite his renowned speaking style of singing, is charmingly cheeky as Higgins. Such a perfectly dry sense of comic timing. And the lyrics he gets to deliver are sublimely clever. Who thinks to rhyme 'Budapest' with 'ruder pest'? The exquisite Audrey Hepburn is quite simply a delight as Eliza, even if her singing voice is dubbed. She's so magnificently annoying before her transformation, eliciting from me an involuntary cringe each time she screeched, "I'm a good girl, I am!" And even though I know less than nothing about fashion, her gown at the Ascot (pictured) is absolutely stunning. And that hat! Later, in the ball scene, her hair seems to defy gravity. The hair and make-up and costume departments really went to town on Ms. Hepburn.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

1964 - Mary Poppins

Don't forget to vote for which year you would like Matt vs. the Academy to look at next. The poll is on the right.

Meanwhile, less than a week to go before the Oscar nominations are announced. Clearly, I'm not going to have a chance to discuss every category, so let me speed up the process by opining about a few categories today.

Firstly, the Supporting Actress award. Here's another category with a clear frontrunner, and that is Mo'Nique for her powerful portrayal of a very troubled mother in Precious. Also expect citations for two ladies from Up In The Air, namely Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga. The final two spots are a little trickier, but I'm pegging Julianne Moore to be recognised for A Single Man and fresh from her win in this category last year, Penelope Cruz should get a nomination for her role in Nine. I have about four or five other names that could take the place of either Moore or Cruz, but I'll hold my tongue for the moment.

Now, for the men. The leading contender in the Best Supporting Actor race is Christoph Waltz for his fine performance in Inglourious Basterds. After that, it's all a bit murky. My best guesses are Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones, along with Alfred Molina for An Education and Matt Damon and his South African accent for Invictus. For the final spot, I'll predict Woody Harrelson for The Messenger, but again, there are a handful of actors waiting in the wings to take that spot.

To finish off today's fortune-telling endeavour, let's take a look at Best Director. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I would have said that Kathryn Bigelow would become the first woman to ever win the trophy for The Hurt Locker. Now, I'm not so sure. She will certainly get nominated, though, making her only the fourth woman to have that honour. Her biggest competition, however, seems to be her ex-husband, James Cameron, for a little film called Avatar. Also expecting nominations are Jason Reitman for Up In The Air and Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds. The fifth slot could go to any number of directors but I think it will most likely be either Lee Daniels for Precious or Clint Eastwood for Invictus. I'll put my money on Eastwood.

Phew! In the meantime, today I watched another classic from the Best Picture contest of 1964...


Mary Poppins
Director:
Robert Stevenson
Screenplay:
Bill Walsh & Don DaGradi
(based on the books by P.L. Travers)
Starring:
Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
5 wins, including Best Actress (Andrews)

Considering its immense popularity, including a current Broadway musical incarnation, it seems almost redundant to offer a synopsis for Mary Poppins. Still, the story is exceedingly simple, so it won't take long anyway. Perennially naughty children Jane and Michael Banks have gone through nanny after nanny, seemingly to get the attention of their workaholic father (Tomlinson). When a mysterious woman named Mary Poppins (Andrews) literally blows in, she takes on the job of sorting the little tykes out. With the aid of jack-of-all-trades Bert (Van Dyke), they take the kids on some magical adventures, while attempting to get Mr. Banks to reconnect with his children.

This beloved family film is certainly magical, bringing out the kid in all of us. Sequence after sequence, we are treated to visual and musical delights. The songs and adventures may not move the story forward in any meaningful way, but the gratuitous entertainment is just downright fun, especially the cleverly choreographed chimney sweep dance routine. Although the story takes place in early 20th century London, it's a magical world with talking umbrellas, Tardis-like carpet bags and merry-go-round horses that can fly on their own. In fact, there's a whole lot of flying by everybody in this picture. Mary flies with an umbrella, the kids fly up the chimney and everybody flies when they have a good belly laugh.

The Oscar-winning special effects must have been rather awe-inspiring in pre-Avatar times, particularly all the interaction with animated characters. It is quite a novelty to see Bert dance with penguin waiters (pictured), all of whom are in perfect time with him. And considering all that flying, I didn't see the strings once.

Dick Van Dyke is charming as the lovable chimney sweep despite his atrocious attempt at a Cockney dialect. And Julie Andrews transferred her success as a Broadway star to make her film debut, winning a Best Actress trophy to boot. She infuses Mary with heart and determination while also retaining the character's mystery. And Mary Poppins is definitely a mysterious character. With all that telekinesis and levitation, it would be easy to imagine the children being totally terrified of her (as this spoof demonstrates).

Of course, being a pleasant family film makes it almost impossible to compare it to some of its fellow Best Picture nominees. It's less like comparing apples and oranges than it is like comparing apples and spaceships. How on earth do you sit Mary Poppins and Becket side by side?

Friday, January 22, 2010

1964 - Dr. Strangelove

More of my Oscar predictions. Let's take a look at the race for the two Screenplay awards. The frontrunner for Adapted Screenplay is clearly Up In The Air, having recently taken a Golden Globe for its script. The buzz around the film is waning slightly (very slightly), but even if it doesn't take out Best Picture, I suspect it will take this category comfortably. Precious seems to be the only other film that has a strong "Oscar nominee" vibe about it. For the other three spots, there are several films that could be contenders, including, believe it or not, Star Trek, which recently picked up a nomination from the Writer's Guild. I'm not sure the Academy will go for it, so I'm going to predict An Education, District 9 and Fantastic Mr. Fox to round out the Adapted Screenplay shortlist. Its cousin, Best Original Screenplay, proves to be a tougher nut to crack. The Hurt Locker is perhaps the strongest contender for a nomination. Tarantino's script for Inglourious Basterds ought to join it, as should the Coens' A Serious Man. Let's trust the Academy's penchant for nominating Pixar films in this category and go with Up as the fourth nominee, which leaves one spot left. There's no guarantee James Cameron will receive a nod for Avatar despite the film's rising buzz, and I personally won't be disappointed if his name is left off the list. So, instead I'll put (500) Days of Summer as the final nominee, but exercise my prerogative to keep Avatar as a backup. Also, I would not be completely surprised if The Hangover is nominated. Yes, that's right, I said The Hangover. It could happen, people.

My next film for Matt vs. the Academy was a classic from the 1964 Best Picture contest...


Dr. Strangelove
Director:
Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay:
Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George
(based on the novel "Red Alert" by Peter George)
Starring:
Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

By the title alone, you might be excused for thinking Dr. Strangelove is a James Bond film. Until, of course, you take into account the whimsical sub-title, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. Then it becomes clear that this is a delightfully irreverent satire of the apocalyptic fear encapsulating the world during the Cold War. When a U.S. Air Force general (Hayden) loses his marbles and orders an unprovoked nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, his British executive officer (Sellers) unsuccessfully attempts to recall the planes. In the Pentagon's War Room, the President of the United States (Sellers again), with the aid of General Buck Turgidson (Scott), tries to find a way out of this potentially awkward political situation. Unfortunately, the Soviets inform them of an automatic doomsday machine set to annihilate all life on earth in the event of an attack on Russian soil. Weapons expert Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once more) is also of little help to the President as one B-52 crew continues on their path to drop the bomb.

One is struck immediately by the absurd character names featured in this classic black comedy. General Buck Turgidson, President Merkin Muffley, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, Colonel Bat Guano, Lieutenant Lothar Zogg. Even the locations are caught up in the mayhem - the story begins at Burpelson Air Force Base. What makes this lunacy work so well is the dry style in which it is all delivered. And it's not just the ludicrous names. All sorts of odd and quirky things litter the serious predicament in which these characters find themselves and yet no mention is ever given to them. Dr. Strangelove struggles to keep his seemingly independent right arm from jerking itself into a Nazi salute, but nobody calls him on it. At one point, George C. Scott literally falls over backwards in the middle of a line, but he rises again just as swiftly and not a word is said about it.

The dry wit permeates all aspects of Dr. Strangelove. The now famous line, "You can't fight in here, this is the War Room," is one such example. Another scene involves the British officer attempting to phone the President with news of how to recall the planes only to discover he doesn't have enough change to make the call. His interchange with the operator is a pure delight. This practice of setting mundane everyday life experiences against the gravely important situation that is unfolding is superbly executed.

Adding to the acerbic nature of the film is the surreal set design by frequent Bond film designer Ken Adam. The War Room (pictured) is an evocatively dark and looming room that is somehow both claustrophobic and spacious. With the dozens of men sitting around the circular table crowned with low-hanging lights, there is a definite sense that something ridiculously important happens here.

George C. Scott's performance in this film can only be described as wild. Apparently he resented director Stanley Kubrick's insistence that he overact, but the craziness is so wonderfully playful that it's hard to imagine it any other way. In a lesser actor, it might indeed seem over the top, but Scott manages to root his character in a deep sense of truth and seriousness that you buy the whole thing, pratfalls and all. However, it is Peter Sellers that steals the show here with his Oscar-nominated portrayal of three very different characters. His Dr. Strangelove is genuinely fantastic and traditionally the most memorable, but I found his other two characters even more entertaining. By most accounts, he improvised a lot of his dialogue, which only makes it more impressive, particularly the scenes in which he speaks to the unseen Soviet Premier over the phone. It almost feels like a lovers' spat. Keep an eye out also for James Earl Jones in his first film role as one of the crew aboard the B-52 plane.

Despite the thoroughly entertaining style of Dr. Strangelove, I did find the ending somehow unsatisfying, maybe just because it is so abrupt. Then again, that's probably the point.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

1964 - Becket

With the not-as-irreverent-as-usual Golden Globes in the past and this year's Oscar nominations only a couple of weeks away, it is time now to delve into the impossible world of awards prediction. For today, I'll devote my thoughts to a relatively easy race, that of the Best Animated Feature. It seems increasingly clear that Pixar's justified domination of this category will probably continue. In the last five years, their films have won four trophies, and I expect that the utterly delightful Up will make it five out of six. In all, twenty animated films are eligible for this year's award and, according to Academy rules, that means the nomination shortlist can contain up to five features. So, joining Up will most likely be four films all based on previous material: Wes Anderson's unique retelling of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox; the cute adaptation of the classic children's book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs; the horror-fantasy stop-motion film based on popular sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman's Coraline; and Disney's return to hand-drawn animation with the classic fairy tale of The Princess and the Frog. Time will tell if my deductive powers are acute.

Earlier today, I watched the second nominee from 1964's Best Picture competition...


Becket
Director:
Peter Glenville
Screenplay:
Edward Anhalt
(based on the play by Jean Anouilh)
Starring:
Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
1 win, for Best Adapted Screenplay

The politics of religion are at the forefront of this 12th century tale of two men with a very complicated friendship. Thomas Becket (Burton) is the right hand man of King Henry II (O'Toole). Despite differing backgrounds, they are seemingly the best of friends, enjoying evenings of debauchery. But where the King is a childishly tyrannical ruler, Becket is considerate and contemplative. After the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who stubbornly opposed the King on several matters, Henry appoints Becket to the holy post, hoping it will lead to easier control of the Church. Unfortunately for Henry, Becket takes his position seriously, declaring loyalty to God over his monarch, thus incensing Henry. So begins a bitter struggle between two clever and obstinate adversaries.

With all its political maneuvering, Becket unfolds like a chess game. Each move is deliberate and strategic. Interestingly, only minutes after I perceived this chess metaphor, it became seriously blatant as two characters indeed play a game of chess while referencing a knight toppling a bishop. The metaphor is also featured in later dialogue, but I swear I put it all together myself first. I could so be a writer.

The picture does an excellent job of immersing its audience in all things medieval, a large testament to its production design. The script contains various philosophical, political and religious arguments, making the film literally thought-provoking. Despite these serious themes, there is much wit in the dialogue, including a persuasive exchange on the redundancy of forks.

But it is the powerhouse performances of the film's two leads that truly hold one's interest - the kind of exhilarating display unique to classically trained British actors. And Burton and O'Toole (pictured) complement each other beautifully. Burton's stoic and pensive Becket is the perfect companion to O'Toole's maniacally insecure Henry. They both received Best Actor nominations for their work on this film, yet with 15 career nominations between them, they are both without a trophy. Burton may have passed on, but the 77-year-old O'Toole is fond of declaring that he still has a chance. Other cast members worth noting are John Gielgud who received the film's third acting nomination for his relatively short turn as the French King Louis VII, and, although he wasn't nominated, Donald Wolfit delivers another accomplished portrayal as the Bishop of London.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

1964 - Zorba the Greek

As promised, I'm going to experiment with a little reader interaction by introducing a poll for you to vote on which awards year I should tackle next. So, during the review of 1964's Best Picture nominees, I will keep said poll on the sidebar to the right and when the time comes to move on, whichever year has the most votes will be selected as the next year of review. (As if you didn't understand how polls work.) To begin with, I've selected five Best Picture races from the 1980s, so choose your favourite and maybe you'll see that race on Matt vs. the Academy in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, the review of the 1964 race began with a viewing of Best Picture nominee...


Zorba the Greek
Director:
Michael Cacoyannis
Screenplay:
Michael Cacoyannis
(based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis)
Starring:
Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, Sotiris Moustakas
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Supporting Actress (Lila Kedrova)

Responsible for numerous Greek dancing parodies, Zorba the Greek explores the friendship between an unlikely pair. Basil (Bates) is an uptight English writer who travels to Greece to open a mine on his father's land. On his way, he meets Zorba (Quinn), an enthusiastic - some might say mildly crazy - Greek peasant who persuades Basil to take him along to work on the mine. When on Crete, Zorba attempts to teach Basil to loosen up by encouraging him to pursue a local widow (Papas), while Zorba himself begins an affair with a mad French hotelier (Kedrova).

Perhaps I'm the only one, but I got a distinct spaghetti western feeling when watching Zorba the Greek. Maybe it was the long silences and elongated glares between enemies. Maybe it was the prolific use of the close-up. Or maybe it was just the foreign accents. Whatever the reason, there is something slightly odd about the film. You never entirely understand what's going on. The characters often act incomprehensibly, especially the villagers, who are downright despicable on occasion, stoning a woman for spurious reasons and looting another woman's home while she is dying. A love scene between Basil and the widow seems almost like interpretive dance in its abstractness. Then there's the village idiot, a character so baffling that in order to come up with the right adjective to describe him, I searched an online thesaurus for words synonymous with 'incomprehensible'. The second suggestion offered was the word 'Greek'. Indeed.

Perhaps also it is the range of genres that are attempted here. There are several moments of comedy, sometimes approaching slapstick, combined with a great deal of tragedy. Add a few political themes and other non sequiturs and the result is a bit of a mish-mash.

And yet, through it all, the film is somehow infectious. Especially the famous music, which never fails to lighten the mood. The most infectious element, though, is the title character. Anthony Quinn gives Zorba such an exhilarating passion for life that it is hard not to go along for the ride. His warped wisdom is the source of most of the humour in the film with such gems as, "To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble." There are moments, however, when he seems vaguely threatening, although probably unintentionally. Lila Kedrova, too, is a delight to watch, earning a well-deserved Academy Award for her performance. Her Madame Hortense is intensely exuberant yet deeply heartbreaking. Kedrova and Quinn together (pictured) are a unique force on the screen, creating much amusement.

Keep your earplugs on hand for the most annoying collection of cackling toothless old ladies ever to appear on screen. And in the interests of irrelevant trivia, it is useless to note that in an alphabetical list of every Best Picture nominee, Zorba the Greek comes in last.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Best Picture of 1999

With very little doubt, 1999 brought with it a slew of incredible films. Personally, I consider it to be the finest year for cinema in recent decades, primarily due to the pictures' originality. Whether it was a portal into John Malkovich's brain, a red pill that reveals the truth, frogs raining from the sky or a club for men to punch the crap out of each other, it's hard to deny that 1999 left an indelible mark. The five pictures nominated for that year's Best Picture Oscar were no exception and I immensely enjoyed revisiting them for this project.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1999 are:
  • American Beauty
  • The Cider House Rules
  • The Green Mile
  • The Insider
  • The Sixth Sense
Since this is a year I hold in great esteem, I've had occasion to ponder my favourite nominee several times before, so it was somewhat of a foregone conclusion which film I would pick. Nonetheless, I shall go through the motions and contemplate all the contenders.

The surprising thing about these five movies is that they didn't seem to suffer the not-so-unusual phenomenon of a greatly diminished appreciation on a repeat viewing. Having watched all of the nominees ten years ago, I would say The Sixth Sense is the only one that dropped in regard in any significant manner and that is only the expected lack of surprise that is unavoidable when rewatching big twist films. Conversely, I found myself succumbing to the charms of The Cider House Rules, about which I was originally more complacent.

Both The Insider and The Green Mile are gripping, albeit in different ways, and viewing them again this time around reminded me of what fine examples of cinema they really are. I guess in a year full of fine examples, I had forgotten their brilliance. But it is the suburban dramedy American Beauty that captured and inspired me a decade ago and remains on top today. Truth be told, Fight Club is probably my favourite film from 1999, but American Beauty is a very close second, thereby claiming the title of my favourite Best Picture nominee of the year. Another match with the Academy, this being the fifth time out of ten verdicts, making it an even 50% so far.

Best Picture of 1999
Academy's choice:

American Beauty


Matt's choice:

American Beauty



Your choice:



Polls are now open above for you to express your opinion. And speaking of polls, I may introduce a voting system to decide which year takes the project's focus next. Seems a little unnecessary since I have to cover every year eventually, but it might be fun. So, look out for that in the (very) near future. For now, though, I'll decide the next race myself as we revisit the 1960s with another diverse slate of contenders.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1964 are:
  • Becket
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Mary Poppins
  • My Fair Lady
  • Zorba the Greek
And stay tuned also for some musings on the current awards season which is developing rather nicely.

Monday, January 11, 2010

1999 - The Green Mile

It's been just over a week since my last post, which I believe is the longest hiatus I've taken thus far since the project began. So, perhaps this is an opportune moment to discuss the details of my arbitrary deadline. As mentioned in my inaugural post, I had intended to wrap up my movie-watching duties by next year's Academy Awards ceremony. The viewing rate began admirably but it soon became a little impractical to be devoting six days a week to sitting in front of the television (and then, today, I read this). Now, with only a little over ten percent of the films crossed off my list, the rate would have to be increased to more than one film a day for me to meet that deadline. Which is clearly preposterous. But I'm not going to set a new deadline. Instead, I'll enjoy the process without a date looming over my head. Although, I'll try not to leave a week in between posts, either.

Finishing off the slate of films vying for the 1999 Best Picture award was...


The Green Mile
Director:
Frank Darabont
Screenplay:
Frank Darabont
(based on the novel by Stephen King)
Starring:
Tom Hanks, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Clarke Duncan, James Cromwell
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

A rare pairing of prison drama with supernatural thriller, The Green Mile is related in flashback by an elderly man recalling his years as a Death Row prison guard in Depression-era Louisiana. Whilst suffering a horrendous urinary tract infection, the young Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) oversees the arrival of a new inmate who is as simple-minded as he is thickset. Convicted of raping and murdering two young girls, John Coffey (Duncan) requests that the prison lights be kept on at night to alleviate his fear of the dark. After he cures Paul's painful peeing problem and follows that up by resurrecting a dead mouse, Paul begins to understand there is more to John than meets the eye.

The Green Mile begins and ends with a relatively slow pace and much of what is in between follows suit, but the film never feels slow. Rather, it is like a comfortable three-hour stroll through an interesting part of town. There are ups and downs, but there is always exactly the right amount of time to see each neighbourhood and you never linger longer than necessary. It travels well. Despite ample coverage of Tom Hanks urinating, which in theory should elicit cringes, the only genuinely uncomfortable scene involves a botched execution in which the electric chair occupant is literally set on fire. And even then, it is like the carnage you witness as you drive past a car accident. There's something so profoundly, instinctively fascinating that you simply can't look away. Throw in the image of a rundown prison building at night during a thunderstorm and the mood is complete.

Perhaps it was my Jewish upbringing, but I didn't notice the Christian parallels the first time I saw this a decade ago. A faith healer who feels the pain of other people and can take on that pain himself. And his name is John Coffey. J.C.? Get it? He even performs a resurrection. On a rodent, granted, but a resurrection nonetheless. Plus, his biggest advocate is a decent man named Paul. After that, the analogy seems to fall apart and, to be honest, I'm not quite certain I fully comprehend the purpose of it all anyway. I know that I enjoyed the story. Beyond that, you're on your own.

As is my usual practice, I'd like to list some of the standout performances from this picture. However, in this case, the list may turn out to include the entire ensemble cast. I'm aware I may have praised other casts as spectacular, but this time, I really mean it ... really. Tom Hanks is the only star name in the mix and I'm an admirer of his work. And his is not in any way a lacking performance, but it is the long list of career supporting actors that really shine in The Green Mile. As the other prison guards, we are presented with David Morse, Barry Pepper and Jeffrey DeMunn. All superbly subdued. There are stunning cameos from Gary Sinise, Graham Greene and Patricia Clarkson, as well as a hilarious turn by Harry Dean Stanton. Bonnie Hunt is solid as Paul's wife. James Cromwell is brilliantly layered as the warden. Doug Hutchison is particularly impressive as the weaselly Percy (whose name, pronounced with a Southern accent, sounds suspiciously like Pussy, which I suspect may be intentional). Then there are the inmates. Three fearless performances that are mesmerising to witness. Michael Clarke Duncan (pictured) imbues John with mystery and sympathy. Sam Rockwell unleashes the crazy as the bad-to-the-bone Wild Bill. And my favourite of them all, Michael Jeter, who portrays a different kind of crazy. A somewhat innocent crazy. Simply inspiring.

Like I said, a long list of names. Still, I would encourage you to search IMDb for all those actors and seek out anything in which they feature. Lastly, I'll just mention that, like fellow 1999 nominee The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile also references a previous Best Picture contender. The guards treat John to a private screening of 1935 nominee Top Hat.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

1999 - The Cider House Rules

Happy New Year, my dear readers. May 2010 bring you just enough of what you dream of to keep you satisfied, but not so much that you have nothing left to dream about. Kat and I spent a quiet evening at home on New Year's Eve, avoiding the freezing temperatures outside. We also wanted to test the view from our apartment, which happily provided us with an uninterrupted look at the fireworks over the Manhattan skyline. A dazzling sight, without question, but the pyrotechnic display didn't hold a candle (no pun intended) to Sydney's music-synchronised spectacle. Granted, New York doesn't quite have the open spaces that Sydney Harbour affords, so that's to be expected, I guess. Plus, it is summer in the southern hemisphere at the moment - another reason to pine for home.

The first Matt vs. the Academy film for the new year was another Best Picture nominee from 1999's contest...


The Cider House Rules
Director:
Lasse Hallström
Screenplay:
John Irving
(based on his novel)
Starring:
Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, Michael Caine
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, for Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay

After two failed foster care incidents as a baby, orphan Homer Wells (Maguire) is returned to his remote Maine orphanage where he is taken under the wing of the orphanage's director, Dr. Larch (Caine). Despite his ether addiction, the good doctor is actually a caring father figure to the children. Grooming Homer to eventually take over the orphanage, Larch teaches him the ins and outs of gynaecology, as well as how to perform illegal abortions. But Homer has other plans. After a young couple, Wally (Rudd) and Candy (Theron), come to Dr. Larch for an abortion, Homer follows them back to Wally's family's orchard, where he begins work as an apple picker. Life away from the orphanage is inevitably full of life lessons as Homer attempts to figure out what the rules of life are and when they can be broken.

When I first saw The Cider House Rules upon its original release, it didn't strike me as particularly memorable. However, this time, I confess, it left a more emotional impression. Still not spectacular, but a good solid tearjerker nonetheless. The drama rambles a little, but that is almost expected from films based on novels, which tend to have the advantage of more extensive narratives. However, considering that John Irving, who adapted the script from his own novel, cut out chunks of the plot to accommodate the film's two-hour running time, the story is surprisingly accessible.

The drifting storyline had me slightly puzzled as to it's themes until the last half hour or so, when I actually considered the film's title. The rules of Homer's workplace act as a metaphor for the rules of life and he learns to judge when it's okay to break them. He even literally burns the rules at one point. The feeling of pride at decrypting the film's message was brief, however, because soon after my discovery, one character exclaims, "Sometimes you gotta break some rules to put things straight." Well, now you've just given it away, Mr. Irving.

I'm not sure why Michael Caine won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film. Not that it's a bad performance, per se, but it didn't seem to me to be a particularly demanding role. Charlize Theron, however, is supremely watchable as a woman who doesn't know how to be alone. And Tobey Maguire, as minimalist as ever, hardly opens his mouth when he talks. He is intriguing, nonetheless, as he almost defies you to guess what he's thinking.

For the trivia hounds, The Cider House Rules makes reference to not one, but two prior nominees for Best Picture. Candy and Homer watch the winner from 1940, Rebecca, on the silver screen and earlier they are seen exiting a cinema discussing another Olivier picture, Wuthering Heights.