Tuesday, June 29, 2010

1940 - The Long Voyage Home

Rehearsals are in full swing here at the Allenberry Playhouse in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. Fortunately, I have found some free time to continue this silly little project of mine. The poll to decide the next year of review is ready for your input and, considering there are ten nominees in the current year, I suspect you will have plenty of time to vote.

We begin the review of 1940's Best Picture contenders with...

The Long Voyage Home
John Ford
Dudley Nichols
(based on the four Glencairn Plays by Eugene O'Neill)
John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter, Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfrid Lawson, John Qualen, Ward Bond
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

One of two John Ford films nominated for Best Picture in 1940, The Long Voyage Home follows the crew of the freighter SS Glencairn as they sail from the West Indies back home to Mother England with a shipment of explosives that they are secretly transporting to aid in the Allies' war effort. The motley crew consists of an Irish troublemaker (Mitchell), a simple Swedish farmboy (Wayne), a furtive ex-alcoholic (Hunter), a caustic steward (Fitzgerald) and a neurotic teetotaler (Qualen), amongst others. They battle through rough seas and enemy fire and, at one point, suspect one of their own of being a spy. Their onboard antics keep them sane, however, as they attempt to make it through ... (wait for it) ... the long voyage home.

Since the script is based on four one-act plays, the story feels decidedly episodic. All the "episodes" involve the same characters so there is still a sense of continuity, but at the same time, the picture is somewhat disjointed. However, taken on their own merits, each vignette stands up very well. In particular, the storyline revolving around the crew's suspicions of a spy in their midst is especially engrossing. Its climax contains the film's most moving moments.

There are several sections in The Long Voyage Home that play out with very few words spoken, making for some captivating cinema. Director John Ford is extremely adept at telling the story visually. In addition, the special effects employed during the storm sequence are effectively simple. Dumping vat loads of water on to the set is all it takes.

John Wayne, in the role of Olsen, is billed first, yet he hardly speaks two sentences until the final act. And the way the other characters treated him, I initially thought that Olsen was slow. Turns out he's just Swedish. Anyway, The Long Voyage Home is clearly an ensemble piece and the cast is very capable. Particularly memorable are John Qualen, Barry Fitzgerald and Thomas Mitchell (pictured). Qualen and Fitzgerald expertly provide the humour. And watching Mitchell has been one of the great joys of this project. Here, he adds to his other Matt vs. the Academy appearances with an absorbing portrayal of the unpredictable yet loyal Driscoll.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Best Picture of 2002

It's hardly worth mentioning any more, but yet again, I have reviewed five more excellent films. The 2002 crop of Best Picture contenders is an impressive assortment worthy of their nominations. My pick of the bunch was not an incredibly difficult decision, but it was a close call, nonetheless.

The nominees for Best Picture of 2002 are:
  • Chicago
  • Gangs of New York
  • The Hours
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • The Pianist
The fascinating thing about this collection is the level of disillusionment one takes away from each film. Despite their artistic and entertainment value, each picture presents a relatively bleak view of life, sometimes leaving the audience with little faith in humanity. They each retain the positive aspects of their respective genres while introducing some darker themes to boot. Of course, there's nothing wrong with dark themes. The films are all very effective and touching. It's just interesting that they were all nominated together, that's all.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers achieves the awe and wonder inherent in a good fantasy film, but adds to it a good dollop of evil, which occasionally produces some surprisingly naturalistic pathos. The sole musical of the bunch, Chicago, succeeds in providing its genre's greatest assets. Indeed, its enthusiasm and excitement won over the Academy, yet it features as its leads a host of rather despicable characters. The Hours takes on depression as its main area of exploration, particularly the depression associated with the fear of leading a wasted life. It's hard to leave that one with a smile on your face.

Gangs of New York wears its violence on its sleeve, and its protagonist, although motivated by the desire to honour his father, could be more accurately described as being consumed with revenge. Finally, in The Pianist, we are presented with ignorant bigoted genocide, a more depressing theme is hard to find. While it may not have garnered Oscar's top prize (although, the Academy is not shy about its respect for Holocaust films), for its emotionally powerful journey, The Pianist will be declared my choice of Best Picture of 2002.

Best Picture of 2002
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:

The Pianist

Your choice:

Vote for your own favourite with the poll above. We move now to another year of ten nominees by reviewing the films up for consideration in 1940, a collection which happens to include a number of classics.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1940 are:
  • All This, and Heaven Too
  • Foreign Correspondent
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Great Dictator
  • Kitty Foyle
  • The Letter
  • The Long Voyage Home
  • Our Town
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Rebecca
My current rehearsal schedule may begin to encroach on my movie-watching duties, so please don't be surprised if there is a short delay before we get to these fine films. I'll do my best to keep the hiatus to a minimum.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

2002 - The Pianist

Well, I'm settled in here at the Allenberry Playhouse in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. Music rehearsals began yesterday and, for those of you familiar with My Fair Lady, you'll know that Col. Pickering is not required to flex his singing muscle all that much. Consequently, I have had a grand total of 45 minutes of rehearsal time in the past two days, which is good news for Matt vs. the Academy because it meant I could watch another film today. This wealth of free time will not last forever, though. In fact, tomorrow, we begin rehearsing scenes and again, for those familiar with My Fair Lady, you'll know that Col. Pickering, despite his sparse dialogue, spends a great deal of his time sitting in the background.

Last chance to vote for the next year of review. The poll is waiting for your mouse to click it.

Earlier today, I viewed the last of the 2002 Best Picture nominees...

The Pianist
Roman Polanski
Ronald Harwood
(based on the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman)
Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Maureen Lipman, Frank Finlay
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Director and Best Actor (Brody)

Based on the autobiography by noted Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist relates his unthinkable struggle for survival as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. In 1939, when the SS first enter Poland, Szpilman and his family are subjected to greater and greater humiliations in the form of official decrees that essentially ban Jews from leading normal lives. Soon, they are imprisoned inside a Jewish ghetto with hundreds of thousands of others, starving and desperate.

As crowds of Jews are being forcibly shoved onto cattle trains headed for the Treblinka concentration camp, Szpilman is saved at the last minute by a family friend. He spends the next few years scrambling from place to place, hiding from Nazi officers with a little help from members of the Jewish uprising and the Polish resistance. As the war rages on around him, he witnesses all sorts of inhumane atrocities, managing to barely maintain sanity by playing imaginary pianos.

I previously commented on the bleakness of The Hours but it is now evident that the bleakness crown sits well atop the head of The Pianist. The first act of this powerful Holocaust drama presents the slow descent of Warsaw's Jewish population into a horrendously debilitating predicament. First, they are limited in their wealth. Then, they are denied access to parks and certain restaurants. Then, they are forced to wear armbands, publicly labelling themselves as Jews. These scenes are carefully presented one by one, ominously capturing the incremental debasement of Nazi policy, intended to lessen the incidence of resistance. Each demeaning decree is such a small step from the last that the injustice is almost unnoticeable - kind of like the growth of a fingernail. Nobody suspects that the conclusion will be fatal, so before they know it, the Szpilman family are in line waiting to be sent to their deaths.

Although the first third of the film is devoted to these unfolding events that affect the entire Jewish population of the city, the rest of the film is a very personal journey of survival. As people come in and out of Szpilman's life to either help or hurt him, it is painfully clear that he is on his own. Despite his incredible survival instinct, however, he is a somewhat passive character, a perfectly understandable trait given his circumstances. He requires the kindness of others plus a bit of luck in order to survive. Many battles and uprisings occur in his vicinity while he attempts to remain inconspicuous. Director Roman Polanski accentuates this point by allowing us only to see these battles from a distance, just as Szpilman does, watching the violence through a window. Still, once all of Szpilman's contacts have inevitably abandoned him, passiveness is no longer an option and he finds a way to keep going, spurred on by the memory of music.

It is certainly a tad disheartening to concede that humans are capable of inflicting this sort of blindly stupid cruelty on each other and The Pianist is such a simply told story that this message is so easily accessible. Depressing, perhaps, although the film balances its evil characters with a fair number of brave and selfless ones as well. In fact, the point is also made that you cannot always be sure of who is good and who is bad. Szpilman suffers due to neglect from a man who is supposedly working with the resistance, while at another time, he is aided by a Nazi officer.

As Szpilman, Adrien Brody (pictured) is superb in his breakout role, reportedly studying piano technique fiercely prior to shooting. His playing is definitely realistic despite the fact that the actual recordings (and some of the close-up shots of hands) were provided by classical Polish pianist Janusz Olejniczak. It is difficult to single out any other performance, partly because Brody is so prominent and partly because the supporting actors are equally impressive. So, instead you will have to trust me when I say that the rest of the cast support Brody wonderfully. Truly, the casting is spectacular.

The images in The Pianist are unmistakably powerful. Undoubtedly, however, I am more deeply affected by this subject matter due to my own Jewish heritage. I imagine it is something akin to the way an African-American must feel when watching a film about slavery. There is an inexplicable affinity in witnessing this persecution knowing that your own ancestors suffered similar adversity. Having said that, though, the film is still required to be well-made and avoid any trivialising of the issue. And on those counts, The Pianist succeeds.

Friday, June 18, 2010

2002 - The Hours

This may be the last entry for a short while. It may not be, but I thought I'd better lower your expectations just in case. Next week, I leave New York to spend the summer at the Allenberry Playhouse performing for Pennsylvanians ... and anyone else who cares to stop by. Hopefully, my rehearsal and performance schedule won't cause too much of a disruption to normal proceedings here at Matt vs. the Academy, but if you don't hear from me in a while, you'll know why.

By the way, the poll for the next year of review is still taking votes, so make your voice heard. Just glance over to the right.

Today, I watched another nominee from the Best Picture slate of 2002...

The Hours
Stephen Daldry
David Hare
(based on the novel by Michael Cunningham)
Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Stephen Dillane, Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly, Toni Collette, Ed Harris, Allison Janney, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Kidman)

If you're in the mood for a pick-me-up, probably best to steer clear of The Hours. It follows one day in the lives of three rather unhappy women. Well, three days, actually - one day for each woman. Virginia Woolf (Kidman) is in England in 1923, depressed as she writes Mrs. Dalloway. Laura Brown (Moore) is in Los Angeles in 1951, depressed as she reads Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) is in New York City in 2001, depressed as she behaves like Mrs Dalloway.

Virginia, coping with mental illness, is bored with her suburban existence in Richmond and dreams of moving back to London, but her husband, Leonard (Dillane), won't hear of it, fearful of another suicide attempt. Laura, also unhappy with her marriage to reliable but boring Dan (Reilly), spends the day looking after her young son and trying to quell her suicidal thoughts. Clarissa, preparing for a party for longtime friend Richard (Harris), slowly unravels throughout the day as she begins to question why she bothers doing anything.

The unique narrative technique of The Hours is easily its most conspicuous element and the three stories intertwine with a great deal of thematic parallels - lesbianism, existentialism, eggs. Yes, eggs. You see, not only are the three plots similar - each of the women is desperately unhappy with her mundane duty-bound life - but often, there are complementary images and actions just to drive the point home. We cut from Laura lying on her side to Virginia lying on her side, or from Virginia sighing to Clarissa sighing. And at some point in each story, eggs are cracked into a bowl. While this narrative device could easily come across as spoon-feeding, it is just subtle enough to merely enhance the cohesion of the film.

Undoubtedly, it is easiest to relate to Clarissa's story, possibly because of its contemporary setting. Unlike Virginia and Laura, she has the benefit of living in an era (and a city) where she can be openly gay. Plus, the disillusionment that she shares with the other women is somehow milder in its manifestation, if only due to the fact that she seems not to contemplate suicide as much as they do. And, in a way, Clarissa's lessons are learnt through the struggles and contemplations of the older women.

Any way you look at it, though, The Hours is an emotionally draining picture, a sentiment that would seem to be confirmed by the haunting score, and in lines like, "If it's a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death." Not a glowing advertisement for Richmond.

With such a noteworthy cast, it is unsurprising that there are such noteworthy performances. Of the three female leads, Meryl Streep is the standout. Interestingly, however, she was the only one to miss out as both Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman received Oscar nominations. Kidman and her prosthetic nose (pictured) took away the Best Actress prize. Ed Harris also garnered a citation for his supporting role as the AIDS sufferer exhausted with living. Miranda Richardson and Claire Danes also shine in their roles, as does English actor Stephen Dillane, who delivers an intensely stirring performance as the frustrated Mr. Woolf. And this marks the third 2002 Best Picture nominee for John C. Reilly - quite an achievement. It is also the third time he has inhabited a character who nobody seems to respect. Poor guy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

2002 - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Although my interest in soccer mostly died out after my stint in the Under 8's, I have to admit that I've still come down with a bit of World Cup fever. My parents are a little more devoted and are currently in South Africa on a tour, where they will attend all the matches featuring the Australian team. While it must have been difficult for them on Sunday to be first-hand witnesses to the Socceroos' humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of the German team, imagine how Kat and I felt as we watched the game at the Bohemian Beer Garden. Although the venue is technically a Czech and Slovak pub, the painted German flags on patrons' faces made it clear which team had more support. Not to mention the four rousing cheers that erupted. Yes, that's right. Four.

Today, I watched another nominee from 2002's Best Picture shortlist...

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Peter Jackson
Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Peter Jackson
(based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkein)
Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Ryhs-Davies, Ian McKellen, Bernard Hill, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, including Best Visual Effects

Picking up where The Fellowship of the Ring left off, Frodo (Wood) and Samwise (Astin) continue to make their way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring. On their way, they encounter one of the ring's previous owners, the emaciated and bipolar Gollum (Serkis), who acts as their guide. Meanwhile, Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd) escape the Orcs and find themselves riding a talking bearded tree named Treebeard.

But the Hobbits take a relative back seat in this instalment as the story focuses on the other surviving members of the Fellowship, the imposing man-elf-dwarf combination of Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (Rhys-Davies). The three soldiers, with a little help from Gandalf the Wizard (McKellen), take up the task of assisting the Rohan, led by King Theoden (Hill), in defending themselves against Saruman's (Lee) army in the Battle for Helm's Deep.

There is something slightly odd about reviewing the three Lord of the Rings films separately. They were all shot simultaneously with the same key creative crew, so it seems unlikely that there would be any major differences between them, certainly in respect to the film-making process. The cinematography is still spectacular this time around, utilising New Zealand's landscapes admirably. The make-up is still remarkable, especially the Uruk-hai. And the visual effects are still mind-blowing. Thus, one is left with the differences in story and the additions to the cast.

Perhaps it's a sign of my television habits, but I was a little disappointed that The Two Towers did not begin with a voice over (by Ian McKellen, let's say) announcing, "Previously on ... The Lord of the Rings," followed by a recap. It certainly would have been helpful to me. Nonetheless, the opening does replay one sequence from the first film before the action begins in earnest.

Story-wise, The Two Towers and its predecessor hold similar ground - they could both be described as action/adventure. However, whereas The Fellowship of the Ring leaned a little towards the adventure, its sequel falls towards the action. The battles are more epic and more violent, involving a great deal more participants. Plus, this focus on action has an added bonus. It allays an issue with which the first film struggled, namely superficial dialogue. With more screen time devoted to battle sequences, we are spared some of the overly sentimental moments. They still exist, but there are fewer of them.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the amazing technological feat that is the character of Gollum (pictured). We got a taste of him in Fellowship, but here, he is something to behold. Although it is abundantly clear that he is entirely computer-generated, the exquisite detail in his facial expressions almost allows you to forget that fact. No doubt, Andy Serkis is a large part of Gollum's effectiveness.

Some of the cast from the first film are given the chance to shine a bit more in The Two Towers, particularly Dominic Monaghan, who gives us a rare glimpse of a pissed-off Hobbit. John Rhys-Davies supplies a lot of the picture's humour with short person jokes aplenty. Incidentally, he also provides the voice of Treebeard. Bernard Hill joins the main cast for this film with a moving performance as the King in an impossible predicament. He is accompanied by two fellow Australian thespians, Miranda Otto as the strong but sweet Eowen, and David Wenham as the proud Faramir. Most impressive, however, is Brad Dourif, whose sinister gazes are the embodiment of evil. Is there any other way to play a character named Grima Wormtongue?

Friday, June 11, 2010

2002 - Gangs of New York

Uncharacteristically, I failed to notice that the previous post (reviewing Chicago) was the 100th post of Matt vs. the Academy. Surely, a celebration is in order. Perhaps I could follow in the footsteps of 80s sitcoms and have a clip show, highlighting the best moments of the past 100 posts ... or not. I'm also fast nearing 100 films watched, as well. Plus, next week, this project will mark its 300th day. Meaningless milestones all around.

Last night, the next 2002 Best Picture nominee was popped into the DVD drive...

Gangs of New York
Martin Scorsese
Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan
Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
0 wins

New York, 1846. In the slum known as Five Points, two rival gangs prepare for a territorial battle. On one side are the American-born "Natives", led by Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis), nicknamed The Butcher for two reasons - one, he is particularly fierce when it comes to murder, and two, he is actually a butcher. Challenging the Natives is the gang of Irish immigrants called the "Dead Rabbits", led by Priest Vallon (Neeson), who is not actually a priest. The two groups viciously murder each other, culminating in Cutting's fatal stabbing of Vallon, a grisly sight witnessed by the eyes of Vallon's young son Amsterdam, who is then shipped off to an orphanage.

Sixteen years later, Amsterdam (DiCaprio), now a grown man, returns to the Five Points with vengeance on his mind and a genetically convenient change in appearance, just enough so as to make him unrecognisable to Cutting. With the help of old friend Johnny (Thomas), Amsterdam wheedles his way into Cutting's inner circle, gaining his trust and falling for one of his playthings, Jenny (Diaz). As he waits for the opportune moment to strike, the country meanwhile is in the midst of the Civil War and New York City comes closer and closer to civil unrest due to President Lincoln's new military draft, disliked by the poor immigrant population.

The opening pre-battle scenes of Gangs of New York are intensely suspenseful as they segue into a battle sequence that has all the elements of a good grunge music video. In fact, Scorsese uses a somewhat stylised technique throughout. There is a dream-like quality that pervades the picture, chiefly due to the starkly interesting design which consists primarily of browns and greys punctuated with well-placed splashes of colour. For instance, in battle, the "Natives" are all dressed in bland earth tones with a strong blue ribbon somewhere on their person. The "Dead Rabbits" are similarly attired but with red stripes featuring on their clothing. It's almost like Survivor.

Most of the publicity material for the film seems to indicate that this is a story about the birth of America, with specific regard to its violent in-fighting. Oddly, though, I felt the personal stories of the main characters were far more substantial. So much so that the idea of national legacy hardly occurred to me. Granted, there is great reference to the Civil War and to immigrants and to class struggles. Plus, the film's final images are of the Lower Manhattan skyline as it appeared through the years, dissolving chronologically from 1862 through to present day. If that weren't blatant enough, the closing credits feature a U2 song called "The Hands That Built America", followed by sound effects of modern day New York, car horns and sirens blazing. Nonetheless, the more intimate themes of personal vengeance and loyalty gained a far deeper hold on me. Sorry, Marty.

Gangs of New York also marks the first in a recent string of collaborations between Scorsese and DiCaprio, a highly successful pairing considering three of their four outings have garnered Best Picture nominations. The fourth, Shutter Island, will be eligible for next year's Oscars and could very well make it a perfect score. Scorsese's previous favourite lead actor, Robert De Niro - who, incidentally, has also appeared in three Best Picture-nominated Scorsese films - has no reason to feel dismissed, though. To some extent, he still has a presence in this film in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis (pictured) who appears to be doing an homage to the Taxi Driver star. Imagine Robert De Niro playing Tony Soprano. That's the sensation one gets when watching Day-Lewis portray Bill Cutting, squinty eyes and all.

DiCaprio is an often underrated actor due to his pretty boy persona, which I've never quite understood, considering the majority of his roles are actually quite gritty. Here, he is affecting yet restrained, especially alongside Day-Lewis' extravagant portrayal. Cameron Diaz finds her own, avoiding her regular giggly characterisation. The rest of the principal cast also deliver strong performances, including the always brilliant Brendan Gleeson, and two of my favourites, Jim Broadbent and John C. Reilly. And keep an eye out for a cameo from Scorsese himself, appearing very briefly as an upper class patriarch.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

2002 - Chicago

The new poll to decide Matt vs. the Academy's next year of review is up. Five different years from the 1940s to choose from. One of them has ten nominees, all the others have five.

Meanwhile, let's get cracking on the nominees from 2002. Yesterday, I had the occasion to watch the first of the contenders for Best Picture that year...

Rob Marshall
Bill Condon
(based on the stage musical by Kander & Ebb)
Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
6 wins, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones)

Chicago, 1927. Roxie Hart (Zellweger) is bored with her meek husband Amos (Reilly) and dreams of fame as a vaudeville star. She begins an affair with a man who promises her important introductions, but when he admits that he has no connections, she impulsively murders him. This crime of passion lands her in jail, where she awaits her trial. In prison, she meets her idol Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), who happens to also be a murderess, just with a lot more press. Velma's unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere) takes on Roxie's case as well, promising to make her a star in the process. As the film's poster proclaims, "If you can't be famous, be infamous."

There is an inevitable oddity in characters randomly bursting into song, a fate applicable to most musicals. However, Chicago manages to get around this by staging all of the musical numbers as inner thoughts or fantasies, thereby allowing the drama to unfold a tad more naturalistically. It is a very effective convention, cleverly employed so as to combine theatrical extravaganza with cinematic intimacy. And Chicago is a big, brassy, theatrical show, clearly suited for a big stage, so Rob Marshall is to be commended for his extremely creative direction, taking every advantage of his medium.

From the outset, Chicago promises to be a toe-tapping and sexy picture, maintaining its raunchy energy right to the final frame. The imaginative choreography (also by Rob Marshall) is spectacular to witness. In one number, Renée Zellweger literally walks in mid-air, her legs held up by male dancers, while in another number, female dancers inventively shape themselves into a car that is "driven" by Richard Gere. These stunning visual elements are complemented by the equally stunning design (costume, production and lighting).

The story uses the circus as a recurring theme to great effect. One song sees Flynn act as ventriloquist to Roxie's dummy (pictured), representing his puppetry of her image. Another sees Andy singing as a sad clown. Most poignantly, the hanging of one of the female inmates is inter-cut with a high-diving routine. The whole metaphor is summed up nicely by Flynn's rendition of Razzle Dazzle, explaining how the world loves a spectacle. It is this theme of fame and attention that is most prevalent in the script. Roxie just wants her fifteen minutes of fame, but at what cost?

Catherine Zeta-Jones won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her sultry portrayal of Velma Kelly. Three other cast members were also nominated for awards, namely Zellweger, Latifah and Reilly, all entertaining performances. Also impressive in smaller roles are Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs and Christine Baranski. For Grey's Anatomy fans with very keen eyesight, Sara Ramirez appears in the dancing ensemble.

The film itself was the first musical to take out Best Picture since Oliver! in 1968, a feat that could partly explain the return in popularity of the musical film (even if most of the recent film musicals have been adaptations of Broadway shows). And despite all the songs from the stage version being ineligible for Best Original Song, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb were nominated for their collaboration on I Move On, a new song written specifically for the film, albeit only heard during the closing credits.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Best Picture of 1950

As I venture further and further into this project, I am consistently blown away by the enormous quality of film-making that I am experiencing. 1950 is certainly no exception. Another year filled with spectacular cinema, including a number of fine classics.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1950 are:
  • All About Eve
  • Born Yesterday
  • Father of the Bride
  • King Solomon's Mines
  • Sunset Boulevard
It's an entirely unfair consequence of comparing films of different genres, but if they are each of similar artistic and creative quality, the drama will more often than not emerge as superior to the comedy ... or the action or the science fiction or the western or the adventure ... and the list goes on. I suppose it is the drama's greater potential for emotional stimulation. Other genres thrill and amuse and generally entertain, but at the end of the day, powerful subject matter tends to more effectively stick in the audience's minds. Like I said, entirely unfair. (It even occurs within sub-genres of the drama category. Just look at how successful epic dramas have been with the Academy.)

Three of 1950's Best Picture nominees fall prey to this unfortunate disadvantage. They are immensely enjoyable films, accomplished examples of their respective genres, but they are overshadowed by the other two nominees for no other reason than they are not dramas. King Solomon's Mines is an exhilarating adventure. Born Yesterday is a whimsical comedy. Father of the Bride has its moments of poignancy, but is still at its heart a comedy, and a delightfully charming one at that.

All three are solidly entertaining films that find themselves up against two dramatic pictures that have both since become classics - All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. I bounced back and forth between these two intensely personal and moving films. The former won the Academy's top honour, but I eventually came down on the side of the latter. So, I now officially name Sunset Boulevard my favourite of 1950's Best Picture nominees.

Best Picture of 1950
Academy's choice:

All About Eve

Matt's choice:

Sunset Boulevard

Your choice:

Vote for your own favourite with the poll above. Next up, we will be travelling to a more recent era to take a look at Oscar's picks from 2002.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 2002 are:
  • Chicago
  • Gangs of New York
  • The Hours
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • The Pianist
Another diverse bunch to sink our teeth into.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

1950 - Born Yesterday

Last week marked one year since Kat and I left our home in Sydney to try our luck in the Big Apple. The opportunities for an actor in New York are certainly greater than back home and these past twelve months have definitely brought some great opportunities my way. But this week, in an ironic twist of fate, my biggest opportunity yet came knocking ... via my Australian agent. It appears the Australian casting director of The Hobbit wanted to see me for a role. The wonders of the modern age allowed me to record my own audition here in New York and send it back to them online. Now we wait...

And considering the accolades received by The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's a fairly safe bet to assume that The Hobbit will also garner a Best Picture nomination in the year of its release. If so, and if I manage to score a role in it, then this project will have come full self-referential circle.

This morning, I rounded out the 1950 Best Picture nominees with a viewing of...

Born Yesterday
George Cukor
Albert Mannheimer
(based on the play by Garson Kanin)
Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Holliday)

Cranky and corrupt millionaire Harry Brock (Crawford) arrives in Washington to broker a shady deal with a congressman. Along for the ride is his fiancée Billie Dawn (Holliday), an ex-chorus girl with the social graces and intelligence of a lamp-post. In order to prevent any embarrassing incidents, Brock hires local journalist Paul Verrall (Holden) to give her some learnin'. But Billie's newfound knowledge causes problems for Brock when she begins to question his business activities.

Along with its fellow Best Picture nominee Father of the Bride, Born Yesterday is a pleasantly clever comedy. It hits all the right notes - witty dialogue, strong characters, some romance, a little drama and plenty of laughs. It is, however, quite clear that this film's source material is a play, perhaps more so than other stage adaptations. The vast majority of the story takes place in the same suite, containing several lengthy scenes of dialogue. Still, none of that really detracts from the film's enjoyment, thanks mostly to one Judy Holliday.

After originating the role on Broadway, Holliday (pictured) absolutely shines here, bringing to life one of the quirkiest characters ever written. She manages to successfully avoid caricature by imbuing Billie with great sincerity despite her hilarious stupidity. Such superb comic timing and so incredibly endearing. For her efforts, she took home the Oscar for Best Actress, beating out two classic screen performances by Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson. That's no mean feat and, for my money, I think she earned it.

Broderick Crawford, fresh from his own Oscar win the year before, leans a bit more towards caricature in his performance as the temperamental tycoon. Then again, all that blustering does suit the character and, when you think about it, the audience isn't supposed to like him very much anyway, so mission accomplished. William Holden rounds out the starring trio with a subtle portrayal of Paul, the only normal man amongst a band of crazies. The swift way in which he falls for Billie is a little tough to buy, but slow romances are not common on the big screen, especially in the olden days, so we'll let that slide.