Friday, May 28, 2010

1950 - Father of the Bride

You really haven't lived until you've witnessed first-hand the Christopher Walken mid-sentence pause. He is currently starring on Broadway in Martin McDonagh's new play A Behanding in Spokane, which I saw during the week. I lost count of how many times he surprised me by adding more words to a sentence that I had thought was conclusively over. His relaxed, dry delivery is so intensely entertaining that he hardly needs to speak for the audience to erupt with glee. Add Sam Rockwell to that equation and you've got yourself a very fine show, I assure you. Granted, the story is a little weird but with actors like that, they could be reading the nutritional information on the back of a cereal box and I'd be enthralled.

This evening, I watched nominee number four from the Best Picture shortlist of 1950...

Father of the Bride
Vincente Minelli
Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
(based on the novel by Edward Streeter)
Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor, Don Taylor, Billie Burke
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Father of the Bride opens with Stanley Banks (Tracy) sitting pensively in the aftermath of the wedding reception for his daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) and her beloved Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor). Stanley then recollects the trials and tribulations that led to this special day: the casually shocking engagement announcement, the not-too-formal talk with his soon-to-be son-in-law, the nerve-wracking first meeting with the in-laws, the chaotic wedding rehearsal. And while Stanley worries himself into a knot about the expense of the wedding preparations, his real anxiety stems from his inability to say goodbye to his only daughter.

1950 sure was a stellar year for witty dialogue. In Goodrich and Hackett's script of Father of the Bride, we have yet another Best Picture nominee filled with humour. Of course, that is entirely unsurprising in this case since it is clearly a comedy. Nonetheless, clever writing is always worth mentioning, especially when it contributes to such a pleasant viewing experience. And 'pleasant' is an apt way to describe this sweet and funny film. Just like the recently discussed King Solomon's Mines, Father of the Bride is also well aware of its own genre and is successful precisely because it is simple and straightforward.

With the release of the 1991 Steve Martin remake, the comparisons are inevitable, especially considering both were big hits at the box office. Having the benefit of a modern sensibility, the newer version might be considered more accessible to a modern audience. However, the original stands up very well. For a film from 1950, it doesn't feel as old-fashioned as it could. Plus, the original garnered three Oscar nominations - three more than the remake.

Spencer Tracy carries the film superbly. From the opening monologue, his casual style creates an incredibly affable character which makes it that much easier to take this journey with him. It also accentuates the 'aww' factor when Stanley recognises that he is losing his daughter. At eighteen, Elizabeth Taylor was already an experienced actress and she is charmingly sweet as daddy's little girl. And yes, that's Glinda the Good Witch, Billie Burke, as Buckley's mother.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

1950 - King Solomon's Mines

Am I wrong to assume that, when I order a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Sundae from Dunkin' Donuts, the server will know what ingredients to use without having to ask me? I mean, I didn't come up with it. It's on the menu. Is there not some kind of training that you are given when you are hired? Training that shows you how to make each menu item? ... It might also help if you gave me a spoon.

Rant aside, don't forget to be counted in the vote for Matt vs. the Academy's next year of review. The poll can be found over there on the right hand side of the page.

Today, I took a look at another nominee from 1950's Best Picture race...

King Solomon's Mines
Compton Bennett & Andew Marton
Helen Deutsch
(based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard)
Deborah Kerr, Stewart Granger, Richard Carlson
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
2 wins, including Best Color Cinematography

H. Rider Haggard's literary creation Allan Quatermain (Granger) is an intrepid adventurer who has been working as a safari guide in Africa for the past fifteen years. Ready to throw in the towel, Elizabeth Curtis (Kerr) persuades him to go on one final expedition in order to find her missing husband, who disappeared eighteen months ago in search of a legendary diamond mine. Quatermain leads the expedition, which includes Elizabeth and her brother John Goode (Carlson), into uncharted territory, where they encounter stampedes, heat exhaustion and unfriendly natives.

I find it especially exciting to know very little about a film before I sit down to watch it and that was the case with King Solomon's Mines (which, sadly, betrays my shameful lack of literary knowledge). Being entirely unfamiliar with the story, I was pleasantly surprised. A simple, straightforward adventure, this picture is very easy to watch. There is no dilly-dallying. Within a few minutes, the excitement and adventure have begun.

Part nature documentary, the film is given an enormous advantage by being shot on location in Africa. The crew must have endured hell during some of the scenes but it is all worth it to see the amazing array of animals - elephants, giraffes, rhinos, tigers, lions, zebras, snakes, monkeys, hedgehogs, anteaters, gazelles, crocodiles. The over-sized tarantula crawling onto Deborah Kerr's jacket was the only obvious fake, but as an arachnophobe, even fake spiders send shivers down my spine, so it still had the desired effect on me.

Like any good adventure flick, a decent dose of humour is provided in the clever script. My favourite line comes when Quatermain tells the others not to worry about the pride of lions passing nearby because they're not hungry. When Elizabeth asks him how he knows this, he replies, "Well, if they eat you, they're hungry." Along with humour, the other necessary element of an adventure story is romance, and King Solomon's Mines is not lacking in that, either. It even includes the obligatory sequence of sexual tension when the hero catches the damsel as she stumbles down a steep rocky incline, ending up face to face with each other, tantalisingly close, with their lips in prime kissing vicinity.

Deborah Kerr fights hard to play a woman who is part princess, part tough as nails. Stewart Granger is ideal as the great adventurer, providing the perfect amount of nonchalance and an impressive handle on African dialects. Plus, the large number of African tribesmen that appear lends another air of wonderment to an already breathtaking picture.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

1950 - All About Eve

There is a discussion among two characters in the film I have reviewed below about "blowing one's own horn" and I trust you will forgive me as I do just that. Yesterday, just under a year after arriving in the country, I am proud to say I officially became a member of the Screen Actors Guild, the distinguished union representing actors working in film and television. Quite a milestone, I assure you. Even though I have been a member of the Australian performers' union for almost 20 years, joining SAG still feels like an accomplishment. Of course, in Australia, there is only one union covering actors in all areas of their careers. Americans like to do things bigger, so there are at least three unions that an actor can join here - SAG for film & TV, Equity for theatre and AFTRA for TV & radio. One down, two to go...

Today, I watched another classic Best Picture nominee from 1950...

All About Eve
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe
Academy Awards:
14 nominations
6 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

Eve Harrington (Baxter) is a seemingly sweet, innocent yet strangely obsessed fan of Broadway star Margo Channing (Davis). After hanging out at the stage door one night, Margo's best friend Karen (Holm) invites Eve inside to meet her idol. Soon, Eve is working as Margo's assistant and buddying up to the playwright (Marlowe) and the director (Merrill), who also happens to be Margo's beau. Those close to her don't seem to recognise Eve's manipulative ways, and with the help of consummate theatre critic Addison DeWitt (Sanders), Eve slyly wheedles her way up the ladder of success.

Despite intriguing opening narration (by two separate narrators!), All About Eve's first act is just short of bland. It is only when we receive the first indication of Eve's sneakiness - she arranges a birthday party for Margo's lover without her knowledge - that things really start to get interesting. From that point on, what once we saw as sweet and lovely becomes annoyingly coy. Eve's false modesty and sly tricks, subtle as they are, make for some delicious anticipation. I kept waiting to see Eve secretly allow a suspiciously evil smile to cross her face. But all credit to Anne Baxter as she keeps the facade going almost to the very end.

Like Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve features an aging actress at the forefront of its story, but that's where the similarity ends. Although Margo Channing succumbs to several prima donna moments, she is nowhere near as maladjusted as Norma Desmond. That role is taken up by Eve. Still, it could be argued that Margo's jealousy and paranoia, justified though they may be, allowed Eve's cunning tactics to succeed. But at least Margo learns her lesson, graciously bowing out of competition at the film's conclusion.

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz must be commended on his clever script, despite the disarming nature of the double narration - both Karen and Addison alternately act as narrator throughout the length of the film. All of the performances are superb, five of them receiving Oscar nominations. The only winner was George Sanders for his supporting performance as the sharp-tongued critic, but Bette Davis (pictured) is particularly excellent here as Margo. I also enjoyed Thelma Ritter's performance as Margo's cynical maid. Plus, as a wannabe actress, relative unknown Marilyn Monroe comes into her own, giving us a peek at the persona that would make her famous.

All About Eve set a new record by garnering fourteen nominations at the 1950 Academy Awards, tied only by Titanic 47 years later. It also shares the record (with eight other films) for the most acting nominations.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

1950 - Sunset Boulevard

Last week, I accompanied Kat and her parents, who are in town visiting, to take in a Broadway show. We chose A Little Night Music, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. One of them was making her Broadway debut. The other decidedly was not. Five-time Tony Award winner Lansbury (whose screen debut, incidentally, has already featured in this project) was an absolute delight to watch. Although all her stage time was in a wheelchair, she was spirited and sprightly, bounding out of the chair for her curtain call. Not bad for an 84-year-old. I can only hope I am as prolific at her age.

You can now vote for the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy by selecting one of the options in the poll on the right.

Meanwhile, we begin taking a look at the Academy's contenders for Best Picture in 1950, starting with...

Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder
Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman, Jr.
William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
3 wins, including Best Writing, Story & Screenplay

A classic amongst classics, Sunset Boulevard tells the tragic tale of down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden), who reluctantly accepts a writing assignment from fading silent film star Norma Desmond (Swanson). Norma is desperate to make her return to the big screen in an adaptation of Salomé, once Joe has fixed up her poorly written first draft. In return, she provides him with a room to stay in, a wardrobe full of expensive suits and all the champagne and caviar a man could ever want. Joe becomes the definition of a kept man, and as Norma's delusions grow, so too does Joe's desire to escape from her confining clutches.

Joe serves as the narrator for the film and, in the opening scene, he introduces us to his own bullet-ridden body floating face down in a swimming pool. We then flashback to several months earlier as Joe narrates the story of how he came to such a violent end. Interestingly, when I first saw Sunset Boulevard - on late-night television many years ago - I missed this opening scene, understandably resulting in a somewhat different viewing experience. Seeing Joe's murder at the end of the picture was quite a shock, to say the least. I mean, how was he narrating if he was dead? (American Beauty had not yet been released.) Anyway, I learnt my lesson and so began my near obsessive habit of refusing to watch a movie unless I see it from the very beginning.

On the subject of Joe's narration, it would be easy to criticise the film for having too much of this film noir device. At times, the narration seems to stretch on for pages and pages, linking scenes and just being generally expository. But it also has an oddly engrossing effect. By constantly hearing Joe's voice, we get the eerie feeling that we are experiencing the whole story right there alongside Joe himself. Undoubtedly, this quality is in large part attributable to the sharp script.

Now a cinematic icon, the character of Norma Desmond is a fascinating study. Gloria Swanson (pictured), herself a silent film star, portrays Norma with such wide-eyed melodrama that it is abundantly clear why Swanson never quite made the transition to talkies. As Swanson gets more and more histrionic, Norma seems more and more crazy. Therein lies the genius of the casting.

William Holden is also perfectly cast as the smart and decent man in a desperate situation. Erich von Stroheim is just shy of creepy as Norma's stoic butler, Max, who is rather complicit in Norma's deterioration - after all, when Norma finally gets her close-up, it is Max who is her director again. I also enjoyed Nancy Olson's performance as the sweet but determined script reader, Betty. A handful of cameos litter the film, too. Famed director Cecil B. DeMille is more than competent in front of the camera as well. And look out for Buster Keaton, also playing himself.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Best Picture of 1975

Once again, I am confronted with five very worthy contenders for the Best Picture crown. As is the case with most of the awards years of this decade, the films on 1975's shortlist could each plausibly have been my pick in some other year. Despite this abundance of cinematic excellence, I had little trouble selecting my favourite.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1975 are:
  • Barry Lyndon
  • Dog Day Afternoon
  • Jaws
  • Nashville
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Five classics of 1970s film-making from five accomplished directors whose films feature heavily in this project. With the exception of perhaps Barry Lyndon, the only period piece in the mix, all these films achieve their engaging mood mostly through realistically conversational dialogue. Characters talk over each other and there is a general feeling of chaos. Understandable when you consider some of the circumstances - a bank robbery, a mental institution, a shark-induced panic. In any case, each of these films are certainly compelling so it simply comes down to degrees of compulsion.

In Nashville, Altman compellingly explores the country music industry with a fascinating fly-on-the-wall style and no shortage of characters. In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick compellingly studies 18th century social climbing with an austere attitude and a leisurely pace. In Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet compellingly relates the true story of a bizarre bank robbery with both tension and empathy. In Jaws, Spielberg compellingly presents a maritime thrill ride with genuine compassion and edge-of-your-seat suspense. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Forman compellingly examines mental health with a sincere sensibility and an utterly gripping climax.

With such a well-structured story and deft direction, Jaws comes very close to taking my top prize. But, like the Academy, sombre material often trumps action thrillers (or comedies, for that matter). Why? Probably because it is human nature to take serious matters more seriously than fun and excitement. Totally unfair, but what can you do? So, like the Academy, I am choosing One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest as my pick for the Best Picture of 1975 for its sheer powerfulness.

Best Picture of 1975
Academy's choice:

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Matt's choice:

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Your choice:

Vote for your own favourite with the poll above. As to your collective wishes, we will now be moving to 1950 for our next five review subjects.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1950 are:
  • All About Eve
  • Born Yesterday
  • Father of the Bride
  • King Solomon's Mines
  • Sunset Blvd.
Some fun films in that group, so stay tuned...

Monday, May 10, 2010

1975 - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

A colleague at work asked me the other day whether my wife was a nerd. My initial response was to suggest that she is as much of a nerd as I am. That is to say, only slightly. I then proceeded to list some of the slightly nerdy things we do together, concluding with the fact that we are currently in the midst of completing Lego Star Wars on the Wii. I paused to comprehend what I had just said. Lego. Star Wars. Wii.

Yes. My wife is a nerd. As am I.

Today, I concluded the review of the Best Picture nominees from 1975 with my watching of...

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Milos Forman
Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
(based on the novel by Ken Kesey)
Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Will Sampson, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Dean R. Brooks
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Nicholson) & Best Actress (Fletcher)

Transferred from prison to a mental hospital for evaluation, Randle Patrick MacMurphy (Nicholson) stirs things up from the get-go. The subtly oppressive head of the ward, Nurse Ratched (Fletcher), almost immediately develops a strong dislike for MacMurphy, shooting down his suggestion to change the schedule in order to allow the patients to watch the World Series. MacMurphy's closest ally inside is the beefy but silent Chief Bromden and the two hatch a plan to escape to Canada, but not before causing some trouble first.

When I began watching One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, I had slightly miscalculated how much time I had in order to see it through to the end before having to leave home for a prior engagement. With about twenty minutes of the film remaining, I really ought to have switched the television off and come back to it later. However, so gripping is the film's final act that I literally could not pull myself away from the screen. Not an especially good excuse for tardiness, but gripping nonetheless.

Actually, the entire film is riveting, but those last few scenes are hauntingly powerful. When you despise a character as much as you despise Nurse Ratched - possibly the coldest bitch to appear on film - the conclusion becomes painfully tragic. Even though MacMurphy's methods are questionable, he brings excitement and adventure to the lives of his fellow patients, in complete opposition to Ratched's mind-numbing routine of emasculation. The one small consolation as a viewer is that whenever anyone calls Nurse Ratched by name, it almost sounds like Nurse Rat-shit. I'm juvenile, I know.

Despite other actors being offered the role before him, MacMurphy really is the perfect role for Jack Nicholson and he pulls it off with dangerous alacrity. On the surface, the character of Nurse Ratched seems like it does not require more than a soft voice and a stern look, but Louise Fletcher's simplicity is very effective. A young Danny DeVito gives a well-mannered performance as the delusional Martini. Christopher Lloyd (pictured) makes his feature film debut as the excitable Taber, although somehow, Taber doesn't seem half as insane as Doc Brown. Also premiering on the silver screen is Brad Dourif, delivering a spectacular performance as the young man with the most unfortunate name for someone with a stutter - Billy Bibbitt.

Cuckoo's Nest became only the second film to take out Oscars in all five major categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay) after It Happened One Night achieved the feat 41 years earlier. The Silence of the Lambs has since joined that very elite club.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

1975 - Barry Lyndon

Have you ever eaten waffle fries? If not, find some now and eat them. They're just like regular fries, only shaped to look kind of like waffles. I'm not entirely sure how that happens. I assume it's some kind of latticed pressing implement. But whatever the method, it takes regular slices of potato and turns them into crispy waffles of deliciousness. My local diner makes them and, if it weren't so detrimental to my arteries, I could live off them.

Today, I viewed another Kubrick entry into the Best Picture nominated family, this one from 1975...

Barry Lyndon
Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick
(based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray)
Ryan O'Neail, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Leon Vitali
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
4 wins, including Best Cinematography

Redmond Barry (O'Neal) is an 18th century Irishman with a crush on his own cousin who, despite her initial reciprocation, shuns him for a well-to-do English Captain. After a pistol duel, Barry is forced to flee his small village in search of a noble life. He winds up in Europe, fighting in the British Army during the Seven Years War. Not thinking much of that game, he deserts but is caught by a Prussian Army Captain (Kruger), who soon puts him to work on an espionage mission with a crooked gambler (Magee). Barry's dreams of nobility lead him to wed Lady Lyndon (Berenson), making an enemy of his new stepson (Vitali).

Barry Lyndon (the film, not the character) is certainly in no rush. It begins very earnestly with dramatic pauses, lingering looks and sweeping landscapes. Each line is so desperately important, it almost feels like a period soap opera. But this sincerity grabs hold of you and you find yourself swept away into another world. A world with plenty of rules, and just as many schemers willing to break them.

Ironically, despite the film's crawling pace, there are several segments which seem oddly rushed. A scene will last several minutes, involving lengthy pauses, only to be followed by a scene that takes place weeks or months later. This is particularly evident in the film's relationships. On more than one occasion, Barry meets a new character in an intense and prolonged scene and, one scene later, thanks to some convenient narration, they have a fully developed relationship. And since it's a Stanley Kubrick film, you can expect that some of those characters will be at least mildly enigmatic. (A particular favourite of mine is Captain Feeney, a highwayman with a deadly gaze and a polite tongue.)

When watching Barry Lyndon, your eyes are certainly treated to an extravaganza of design. Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction and Costume Design were understandably lavished upon the film, not to mention the stunning locations. The film's other Oscar was for Leonard Rosenman's arrangement of compositions by Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert and Mozart, amongst others, back when the Academy presented an award for a score adaptation. (Rosenman made it two for two the following year when he won again for adapting the songs of Woody Guthrie for Bound for Glory.)

Barry Lyndon's other three nominations went to Kubrick himself, for writing, directing and producing the film. Sadly, he won none of them. In fact, despite numerous nominations in each of those categories, the only Oscar he ever won was for Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

1975 - Dog Day Afternoon

Once again, I have been waylaid from my duties here at Matt vs. the Academy. And once again, it is due to an exciting work opportunity.

This week, I spent time in Peekskill, New York, on the set of Mildred Pierce, an upcoming HBO mini-series, based on the novel by James M. Cain. Coincidentally, this production is linked to this blog for two reasons. First, it is based on the same source material as the 1945 Best Picture-nominated Joan Crawford film of the same name, which will be reviewed right here in due course. Second, it stars Kate Winslet, who appears in a number of films on the Best Picture honour roll.

The character I played had the not-at-all demeaning moniker Starched Collar Man #2, which perhaps gives you an indication of his importance to the plot. Nonetheless, the entire experience was incredibly exciting, if for no other reason than I rubbed shoulders (and will share the screen) with Ms. Winslet. Although I did not have the chance to chat to her at length, I did have short conversations with co-star Mare Winningham and director Todd Haynes.

I will attempt to catch up on lost time by speeding up my movie-watching agenda (no promises, though). Today, I found some time to watch another 1975 Best Picture nominee...

Dog Day Afternoon
Sidney Lumet
Frank Pierson
(based on an article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore)
Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, James Broderick
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Screenplay

On a hot summer's day in 1972, Sonny Wortzik (Pacino), along with two accomplices, walks into a bank in Brooklyn, New York, in order to steal some cash to pay for his boyfriend's (Sarandon) sex-change operation. Within minutes, one of his accomplices chickens out, hightailing it out of there. The other, Sal (Cazale), is a bundle of nerves, dangerously close to blowing everyone's brains out. What should have been a quick theft quickly turns into a media circus once the cops arrive, headed first by Detective Meretti (Durning) before being turned over to the FBI and Agent Sheldon (Broderick). With dozens of cameras and hundreds of onlookers, Sonny attempts to outwit the scheming cops while dealing with his nervous accomplice, his hysterical ex-wife, his overbearing mother and his suicidal lover.

In different hands, Dog Day Afternoon could easily have been a laugh-out-loud farce, but director Sidney Lumet and his talented cast play every scene entirely straight. On paper, the unfolding events are absurd. Indeed, if it weren't based on a true story, it would be utterly implausible. Yet, the absurdity of the story is its most fascinating attribute. And since it is not played for laughs, it is all the more humorous.

This film is also a particularly interesting character study. Pacino (pictured) is nothing short of superb in his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Sonny, perfectly capturing both his righteousness and his insecurity. And Sonny is a complex guy to play. Not your typical protagonist, his own desperation confuses him. He tries to be tough, but his compassion always seems to get in the way. He's well-meaning, but he's obviously made a horribly stupid mistake. In the end, we find ourselves sympathising with a bank robber and not minding that we're doing so.

The anti-establishment tones throughout the film are highlighted by the way in which the gawking crowd tease the cops as they try to negotiate with Sonny. It could also be said that this sideshow event was, in a way, an early version of reality TV. The events unfold on the news, bringing more and more people down to the bank to get a look at the "stars". When a pizza delivery boy arrives on the scene, he is absolutely overjoyed to be a part of the spectacle.

Pacino is supported wonderfully by John Cazale, showcasing the brooding and potentially explosive nature of Sal. Chris Sarandon earned an Oscar nomination for his emotional turn as the confused Leon. Charles Durning's sincere performance as the detective reaches its captivating heights during an amazing exchange with Pacino after Sonny fires a shot. And James Broderick owns his stoic portrayal of the no-nonsense FBI agent. Also look out for The Sopranos' Dominic Chianese playing Sonny's father.

Even though the real Sonny was serving time in prison by the time the film was released, he still received money from the production company for the rights to his story. In the final irony to this whole saga, that money was used to finally get his boyfriend that sex-change operation. You can't make this stuff up.