Thursday, April 22, 2010

1975 - Jaws

The poll for the next year of review is now up, so have your say - it's over there on the right.

Kat and I had the chance to get out of the city last weekend with my parents, who are here visiting for a couple of weeks. We didn't go too far, though - only about an hour north of New York City to the town of Sleepy Hollow, named after the Washington Irving story. In fact, the town was known as North Tarrytown until 1996 when they decided to change the name to honour its most famous resident. We visited Irving's home as well as his grave in the ominously named Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Although I've seen the Johnny Depp movie, I've never actually read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and upon visiting the author's home, I am reminded of how little classic fiction I have read. Well, at least my complaint about not having seen enough classic cinema is being remedied. Perhaps when I finish this project, I can move on to Matt vs. the Pulitzer ... or not.

Last night, I was excited to join my wife as she experienced for the first time the modern classic and 1975 Best Picture nominee...

Steven Spielberg
Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
(based on the novel by Peter Benchley)
Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
3 wins, including Best Original Score (John Williams)

Often considered the father of the modern blockbuster, Jaws is Steven Spielberg's first big hit. The iconic film is set on idyllic Amity Island, a popular summer vacation spot. When a young woman is devoured by a shark during a late-night beach party, the Chief of Police, Martin Brody (Scheider), wants to shut the beaches down. Mayor Vaughn (Hamilton) resists the decision, claiming the town relies on summer tourism. The beaches remain open, but when the shark returns, causing more deaths, Brody teams up with Quint (Shaw), an eccentric old salt, and Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss), a shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute. Together, the three set out on Quint's boat to capture the shark.

Right from the start, Jaws is all about the tension. The opening scene is simply chilling. As an audience, we are constantly waiting for something horribly nasty to happen and that agonising suspense is what makes this movie so darn watchable. Adding to this fear of the unknown is the fact that the shark itself only appears in glimpses for the most part. Apparently, this shyness is a lot to do with the complications involved in filming an often defective mechanical shark. But whatever the reason, the result is an amazing manipulation of the audience's imagination.

Certainly, Spielberg can be credited with the creation of an impressive thriller, perhaps influenced by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, the dolly zoom, a camera technique pioneered in Vertigo, is used with powerful effect in Jaws, highlighting Brody's worst fears. However, it would be improper not to recognise the other collaborators in this film's success, particularly Verna Fields and her Oscar-winning film editing, and John Williams and his Oscar-winning score. A relatively simple yet immensely effective orchestration that has embedded itself in popular culture.

The script, too, is well-constructed, the dialogue, at times chaotic, enhancing the sense of mayhem in the town. That frenzied feeling can also be attributed to the exceptional cast. Roy Scheider, in particular, perfectly represents a desperate man in over his head. Richard Dreyfuss portrays the expert with passion and humility. And Robert Shaw is absolutely delightful as the gruff but oddly lovable fisherman. His speech about the USS Indianapolis is surely one of the greatest monologues on celluloid.

Spielberg himself did not receive a nomination from the Academy for his direction of this film. However, Jaws won three of its four citations, only missing out on the big one itself, Best Picture.

Friday, April 16, 2010

1975 - Nashville

Apologies for the short delay in starting the next year of review. The IRS (that's the American equivalent of the ATO, for my Aussie readers) was in need of my money, and for some reason, this country has the most unnecessarily complicated tax system in the world. Thus, it took a short time to figure it out. I have also been hard at work performing in a pilot for an upcoming dramatic web series, named Pioneer One, which is shooting this week. It's a very innovative and suspenseful story with the makings of a cult sensation (if I do say so myself). I'm quite chuffed (that's the Australian equivalent of proud, for my American readers) to be involved. Check out the hype at the official website.

You may notice there is no poll to decide the next year to review. Fear not, I will add it soon. Just ran out of time today. I did, however, find a small window of time today to begin the review of 1975's Best Picture nominees, starting with...

Robert Altman
Joan Tewkesbury
Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Lily Tomlin
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Song ("I'm Easy")

One of Robert Altman's signature slice-of-life pictures, Nashville follows 24 characters over the course of a few days in the country music capital of the world. Rather than trying to summarise the story on my own, I'll let the film's trailer speak for itself.

As might be evident, there's a lot going on in Nashville. Most of the scenes are not traditionally structured. There's not much beginning, middle and end action going on - it's mostly just middle. We hear snippets of conversations and then, just as quick, we're on to the next conversation. And they are mostly rather ordinary conversations. Which is not to say nothing interesting happens. (Within the first twenty minutes, for example, there's a multi-car pile-up on the freeway.) It's just that none of those interesting things end up meaning anything. Something else just happens immediately after ... and then something else ... and then something else ... Just like life.

And therein lies the fascination with Nashville. The fly-on-the-wall type narrative is utterly mesmerising. Apparently, the story is based on the travel diary that screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury kept during a short visit to the country music mecca, which may explain its rambling nature, but it's those little details that keep you glued to the screen. Who could honestly look away when the mysterious motor-tricyclist (played by Jeff Goldblum) is discovered shaving in a rear-vision mirror at a school bus depot. Totally random. And considering this random rambling lasts for two hours and forty minutes, it's a rather impressive feat that it holds your attention. Although, it must be said, the story's intensity and cohesion increases as the film continues and its climax is especially captivating.

There is a fair amount of concert footage padding out the film's length, but even if you're not a fan of country music, there is plenty of emotional subtext during the songs. The Oscar-winning "I'm Easy" is particularly heart-string-pulling. The womanising singer (played by Keith Carradine, pictured) introduces the song with an ambiguous dedication, resulting in at least four women thinking that he is singing to them. Interestingly, a lot of the songs in the film were written by the actors who perform them, and oddly, there is also one by Gary Busey, who does not appear in the film at all.

Improvisation was encouraged by director Robert Altman and that is certainly evident. The cast are all extremely adept at the naturalism required of them. Lily Tomlin, better known for her comedic roles, proves her accomplished dramatic talent in her turn as a dissatisfied housewife. I also particularly enjoyed Michael Murphy's performance as the smooth campaign organiser. Jeff Goldblum shows his sleight of hand (literally) in this mute role, one of his very first appearances on screen. And adding to the film's realistic feel, Elliott Gould and Julie Christie make cameo appearances.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Best Picture of 1937

And we finally reach the conclusion of the 1937 race for Best Picture. It's been a long road (the longest since I started this project) but quite a satisfying one. Lots to admire with this pack, but my favourite was relatively easy to single out.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1937 are:
  • The Awful Truth
  • Captains Courageous
  • Dead End
  • The Good Earth
  • In Old Chicago
  • The Life of Emile Zola
  • Lost Horizon
  • One Hundred Men and a Girl
  • Stage Door
  • A Star Is Born
I managed to discover something inspiring in each of these ten nominees, but for some, the inspiration was limited to a few scenes. The Good Earth is clearly at the bottom of the pack for me. Heavily superficial, even the engaging riot scene doesn't redeem it. Similarly, Dead End contained one gripping sequence, but otherwise, it pales in comparison to greater film noir stories.

The rest of the nominees utterly deserve their place on this prestigious list, featuring some truly engrossing or entertaining (or both) cinematic elements. Stage Door's lightning comic style is particularly captivating, even though it feels a little samey. Lost Horizon and Captains Courageous have very compelling beginnings. In Old Chicago and A Star Is Born have very compelling endings. And the Awful Truth nails the screwball comedy genre.

Nearly taking my top spot, One Hundred Men and a Girl was a thoroughly beguiling piece of light-hearted entertainment. But ahead of it, in my estimation, is the consistently engaging The Life of Emile Zola. Not without its flaws, its depth and emotion were enough to sway the Academy to give it their seal of approval, and likewise, I am naming it my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1937.

Best Picture of 1937
Academy's choice:

The Life of Emile Zola

Matt's choice:

The Life of Emile Zola

Your choice:

Vote for your own favourite with the poll above. Selecting the next Best Picture race for Matt vs. the Academy has required a touch of controversy. After my call earlier this week to resolve the tie that had emerged between 1970 and 1975, a few more votes trickled in. Unfortunately, both years picked up an extra vote and so the tie prevails. Hence, I will make the executive decision to go with the year that my beautiful wife voted for.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1975 are:
  • Barry Lyndon
  • Dog Day Afternoon
  • Nashville
  • Jaws
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Once again, an impressive collection of cinema to look forward to over the next couple of weeks.

Monday, April 5, 2010

1937 - Captains Courageous

Last chance to vote on the next group of Best Picture nominees to which Matt vs. the Academy will direct its focus. It's currently a dead heat, so somebody could theoretically decide the fate of this blog's next couple of weeks with one vote. The poll is over to the right.

Today, I rounded out the 1937 Best Picture race by taking a look at the last of the nominees...

Captains Courageous
Victor Fleming
John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every
(based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling)
Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Charley Grapewin, Mickey Rooney, John Carradine
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Tracy)

Based on popular British author Rudyard Kipling's 19th century novel, Captains Courageous is the coming of age story of Harvey (Bartholomew), the spoiled, arrogant son of wealthy businessman Frank Cheyne (Douglas). With a deceased mother and a father who has little time for him, Harvey has become quite the brat. But after landing in trouble at school, Cheyne Sr. catches on to his son's Machiavellian ways and vows to spend more time with him to straighten him out. Why he thought bringing his son on a business trip to Europe would help, I don't know. No sooner have the two boarded the ocean liner than Frank deserts his son once more. As predicted, Harvey gets himself into another predicament, but this time the consequences are more serious. He falls overboard.

Picked up by a Portuguese fisherman named Manuel (Tracy), Harvey finds himself trapped aboard a fishing trawler that won't be returning to land for another three months. With no other option than to work with the crew, Harvey learns some valuable life lessons from Manuel who proves to be the father figure he always needed.

There is something very engaging about the first act of Captains Courageous, mostly due to the corrupt nature of such a young boy. Freddie Bartholomew delivers a spectacularly mature performance for a twelve-year-old, displaying his character's evil ways with the kind of simple stoicism that made Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber so fascinating. Of course, Harvey is no thieving terrorist, but it's easy to imagine he might grow up to be one. Sure, he's bratty and his insecurity is clear, but he lies, bribes and manipulates without a second thought.

It's almost disappointing that he has to mend the errors of his ways. He's a far more fascinating character as a budding villain. Unfortunately, the reasons behind how he came to be that way are not explored in any meaningful way apart from the standard he-had-no-role-model excuse. But, I thirsted for a deeper exploration. In any case, Bartholomew still turns in an impressive performance as his character develops, turning on the waterworks several times over.

The middle section of the film drags a little. Once all the excitement and movement of the first few scenes are over, we are left with the relatively simpler boy-learns-how-to-fish story, which is, of course, a metaphor for boy-learns-how-to-live. It's a nice story, don't get me wrong, but a little bland.

Spencer Tracy won the first of his back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for his role as the strong and sensitive Manuel. If you can get past the ridiculous accent, you'll find some powerful moments in his portrayal. Melvyn Douglas, as Harvey's well-meaning but inadequate father, delivers another great performance from a very long and distinguished career. And you can also spot two actors from two fellow 1937 Best Picture nominees: Charley Grapewin, much more suitable here as an old salt than as a Chinese patriarch in The Good Earth, and Billy Gilbert, who delivered my favourite line in One Hundred Men and a Girl, appears, sans funny accent, as a soda jerk.