Friday, September 24, 2010

1994 - Pulp Fiction

This post marks the 100th film to be reviewed for Matt vs. the Academy, a milestone that took a lot longer to reach than I first expected. If nothing else, it is pleasing to know that I haven't yet thrown in the towel. So, thank you for following along as I journey through Academy history and here's to the next 100!

Yesterday, I watched a modern classic from the 1994 Best Picture shortlist...

Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary
John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Madeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Screenplay

Essentially three episodes cleverly interwoven, Pulp Fiction jumps around in its chronology as it follows a few days in the lives of some less than savoury characters. In the first episode, Vincent Vega (Travolta), a well-dressed henchman of gangster Marcellus Wallace (Rhames), spends an evening with Wallace's wife Mia (Thurman) at his request. Vega is supposed to entertain her while Wallace is out of town, but her narcotic habit causes a few issues when she carelessly snorts some heroin. Episode two sees boxer Butch Coolidge (Willis) on the run after winning a fight in which Wallace had paid him to take a dive. He meets his girlfriend Fabienne (de Medeiros) in a motel, but is later forced to return to his apartment at great risk to fetch a forgotten family heirloom. Vega returns in the final episode with partner Jules Winnfield (Jackson), who vows to retire from his life of crime after the two miraculously survive a barrage of bullets from an unfriendly shooter. Before he gets the chance, though, Vega accidentally shoots their informant in the face while they are driving away. They hide the car in the garage of a friend (Tarantino) while waiting for assistance from the Wolf (Keitel), a clean-up expert.

A cult classic, Pulp Fiction features Tarantino's signature conversational dialogue. The conversations are often irrelevant to the plot and some lengthy scenes are unnecessarily wordy, but it's all so downright entertaining. And it's entertaining for different reasons at different times. Sometimes, it's gripping as when Jules intimidates his prey by babbling about tasty burgers. Other times, it's endearing as Mia and Vincent flirt over dinner. But mostly, it's just plain funny. (Do I even need to mention the discussion about the names of French McDonald's burgers?) Besides, this loquaciousness is not at the expense of the action. In fact, a great deal of Butch's story is told visually and there are plenty of tension-filled moments throughout.

Being a Tarantino film, you can also expect some eclectic music. Devoid of orchestral underscoring, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack is replete with provocative tunes, each perfectly appropriate in its placement. Most of the songs were once obscure but, thanks to the success of the film, they are now pleasingly familiar. The mood of the picture is set almost immediately when the sounds of Dick Dale's Miserlou warble over the opening credits.

Pulp Fiction sports another superb cast. John Travolta's (pictured) career was given a new direction after a smooth performance as the simple and nonchalant Vincent Vega, earning him a Best Actor nomination. In the supporting categories, Samuel L. Jackson received a much-deserved nod for his steely-eyed portrayal of the no-nonsense Jules, as did Uma Thurman for her alluring turn as the boss's wife. The great Christopher Walken appears in just one scene delivering a monologue that is intensely moving before suddenly turning absurd, the perfect vehicle for Walken. D-lister Kathy Griffin shows up in a very minor role as a passerby and is curiously credited as "Herself".

Now, if you'll indulge me for just one second, I'll relate my dubious connection to the film. Susan Griffiths, one of the world's foremost Marilyn Monroe impersonators, appears as the sultry star in Pulp Fiction's diner scene. About a year prior to the film's release, she was flown to Australia to star in a McDonald's commercial in which yours truly was an extra. To my great surprise, a Youtube search produced a fuzzy version of the spot, which is missing the first ten seconds or so. Rather unfortunately, it is these first few seconds that I could be seen. Still, I think one of those blurry bodies walking behind her is me. Just squint and imagine a younger version of me with more hair.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

1994 - Quiz Show

The next year of review is finally under way, which means the new poll to decide the year of review after this one is ready for your votes. Just shift your eyes over to the right.

Yesterday, I began the task of sorting out the Best Picture nominees from 1994 by watching...

Quiz Show
Robert Redford
Paul Attanasio
(based on the novel "Remembering America" by Richard Goodwin)
John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Based on the real events surrounding the game show scandal of the late 1950s, Quiz Show follows the charming and intelligent Charles Van Doren (Fiennes) as he decides to take a shot at being a game show contestant. The producers at Twenty One (Paymer & Azaria) love his all-American vibe and the fact that his father (Scofield) is a Pulitzer prize-winning poet. Not to mention he would be a far more ratings-friendly champion than the current schlub Herb Stempel (Turturro). So, in order to make sure Van Doren ousts Stempel, they offer to ask Van Doren questions to which he already knows the answers. On moral grounds, he declines, preferring to beat Stempel fair and square, but the producers ignore him and go ahead with the deceitful plan anyway.

It's show time and host Jack Barry (McDonald) asks Van Doren a familiar question. In the heat of the moment, he pretends to contemplate the question and eventually answers correctly. And so begins a moral slippery slope as he agrees to be fed the answers prior to each show. A bitter Stempel attempts to blow the whistle on the scandal but he is all but ignored. His crowing, however, is enough to gain the attention of Harvard lawyer Dick Goodwin (Morrow) who then begins a Congressional investigation into the matter. Van Doren's fraudulent success on Twenty One eats away at him, but he continues to deny any allegations of corruption, a state of affairs that is further complicated by the cordial friendship he and Goodwin establish.

Quiz Show is one of those internal dramas that seems to defy the rules of dramatic tension. All the good screenwriting books will tell you to break up your story into action scenes and dialogue scenes to keep the pace of the narrative ebbing and flowing. Sometimes it's rapid-paced, then there's a breather. But before the audience falls asleep, you wake them up again with an exciting action scene. Put simply, when your characters have been talking for a while, throw in a car chase. However, Quiz Show contains almost no physical action whatsoever. In fact, major turning points in the film occur with just about every character on screen in a seated position. Almost paradoxically, though, there is a genuine sense of swift forward motion. The film is intensely gripping due to the internal struggles of its characters.

Robert Redford's exquisite direction creates a deliciously intriguing atmosphere. The morally ambiguous producers of the game show are introduced in darkly lit rooms and most of the back-room dealings are treated similarly. Redford makes clever use of the dolly zoom (as referenced in my musings on Jaws). But, whereas Spielberg caught Brody front on to accentuate the horror of what he saw, Van Doren's big moment is internal and hence, Redford places the camera behind him. But enough with the film-making lesson...

Redford also manages to maintain a very amiable tone despite the picture's intensity. Although, much of the credit for that belongs to screenwriter Paul Attanasio, whose script embodies another paradox: the funny drama. Consider Stempel's response to his wife when she craves more attention from him: "You want to be worshipped? Go to India and moo."

Ralph Fiennes (pictured) delivers a terrific performance as the conflicted Van Doren. But here's the film's (possibly only) flaw. Even though Fiennes succeeds in making Van Doren so incredibly likable, the character is a liar and a cheat. Yes, he feels guilty about the whole thing but he still tried to cover it up. The result was that I was torn about what I should feel about this guy. I could see he was troubled and ashamed by what he had done but I still felt icky about liking him. Don't get me wrong, it's a spectacularly fascinating study of a complicated man, but there was something slightly dissatisfying about the fact that he was the lead character. Of course, one could argue that Goodwin is the conscious of the film, but despite a superb portrayal by Rob Morrow, it's hard for an audience to fully get behind what is essentially an underwritten character. Goodwin is, in some ways, a mere observer. Mind you, none of that really matters considering how engrossing the picture is as a whole.

Adding to the film's intrigue is its curiously innovative casting, so I'll now spend a little more space than usual commenting on it. I've already mentioned the talented turns from Fiennes and Morrow. Rounding out the central characters is Herb Stempel, brilliantly portrayed with innocent volatility by John Turturro. Supporting that trio with comically sincere performances are David Paymer and Hank Azaria as the reprehensible producers. Then, in a delightfully ironic twist, Redford, who is far better known as an actor, fills two roles with actors who are far better known as directors. Martin Scorsese ably plays the slimy sales-focussed sponsor of the show and Barry Levinson is casually off-beat as NBC Today host Dave Garroway. To top it all off, the film is peppered with several familiar faces in minor roles, some of them unknown at the time, including Calista Flockhart as an adoring fan. The most curious cameo of all is an uncredited Ethan Hawke, whose twenty seconds of screen time is mostly spent off camera talking to Van Doren, Sr. Which brings us to the only performance in the film to be nominated for an Oscar, that of Paul Scofield, whose portrayal of the elder Van Doren is refreshingly simple yet immensely effective.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Best Picture of 1940

I'm now back in New York City after an exciting summer in Pennsylvania. My busy schedule during that time meant that reviewing this current selection of Best Picture nominees took well over two months, but after a much-needed recap of my musings, I'm now ready to make my decision on which of these entertaining films is most worthy of the top award.

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
There's something to admire in each of these ten pictures. They all capture their respective moods very nicely, some more than others. A few have a slightly inconsistent atmosphere, though. In Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock occasionally shines with some thrilling scenes, but not consistently enough for my taste. The Long Voyage Home contains some gripping sequences but feels disjointed as a whole. Likewise, Our Town has its moments, particularly towards the end, but its other flaws leave it a little wanting. Next out of the running is Kitty Foyle. While I would place it above the previous three films, it also suffers from a slight case of the not-quite-spectacular-enoughs.

Providing a stronger sense of direction are four classics that have stood the test of time - seven decades of time - and two rarely discussed and therefore surprisingly enjoyable pictures. All This, and Heaven Too is an intensely subtle romance tale, well worth a look for lovers of forbidden love stories. The Philadelphia Story is a classic screwball comedy, full of fun and humour, topped off with a charming cast. The Grapes of Wrath is a heartfelt story of one family's struggle that is both exciting and touching.

Then, there are two brilliantly moody mysteries. The classic, and eventual Oscar winner, Rebecca, is a filmmaking masterclass in how to create tension. The lesser known of the two, The Letter, deserves a greater place in film history than it received. Both are incredibly entertaining. But, for me, the winner is Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator with its ingenious blend of heart-wrenching emotion and slapstick comedy.

Best Picture of 1940
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:

The Great Dictator

Your choice:

As always, you may voice your opinion on this slate of films by using the poll above. Next up is a selection of five films, most of which are extremely popular, so I foresee another difficult decision ahead of me.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1994 are:
  • Forrest Gump
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Quiz Show
  • The Shawshank Redemption
Hopefully, we can resume a normal tempo of movie-watching again. Then again, I probably shouldn't promise anything...

Friday, September 10, 2010

1940 - The Great Dictator

My time here in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania is coming to a close - only three more days left. It has been an incredibly illuminating summer for me. Regional theatre in Australia does not operate the same way that it does in this country (mostly due to the smaller population) and hence, this was my first regional theatre experience. While I missed my home and, more importantly, my wife in New York City, it was definitely nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life for a few months. And, believe me, there is very little hustle and almost no bustle in Boiling Springs. Quiet living, for certain. The two shows in which I have performed have been a lot of fun. There's no denying that I love the stage. It's also been a welcome challenge to perform in musicals, a genre I rarely participated in until recently. Of course, it is the people with whom I have worked alongside that I will miss the most. It is those new friendships that have made my time here so pleasurable. Although, most of them are also based in New York, so there's really no need for this sentimental crap. Anyway, I will be glad to get back to the Big Apple next week and I eagerly await my next adventure.

It's been a long journey but I finally reached the end of the 1940 Best Picture competition by watching...

The Great Dictator
Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moskovitch
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

Charlie Chaplin's parody of the Nazi regime, The Great Dictator follows the inner machinations of the Tomanian dictatorship, led by Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin). Aided by his ministers Garbitsch (Daniell) and Herring (Gilbert), Hynkel aims to reduce the Jewish population of his country to second-class citizens, restricting them to a ghetto. Hynkel also seeks the support of Benzino Napaloni (Oakie), the dictator of neighbouring Bacteria, in his planned invasion of Osterlich. Concurrently, a Jewish barber (Chaplin again), once a soldier in the Tomanian army, now copes with persecution, along with love interest Hannah (Goddard). Strangely, the barber happens to look exactly like Hynkel, a coincidence that later proves to be incredibly convenient.

The Great Dictator is a fascinating study for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is Chaplin's first genuine talking picture, despite the new technology being available for more than a decade. However, he didn't completely let go of his beloved silent comedy techniques with several sequences in The Great Dictator devoid of dialogue. Indeed, the film speed is increased during some physical comedy scenes, reminiscent of silent era technology. Plus, Chaplin's familiar Tramp character is clearly represented in his portrayal of the Jewish barber, oversized clothing and all.

The most intriguing aspect of this seminal picture is its seamless blending of comedy and tragedy, and you don't get much more tragic than the Jewish Holocaust. Even though the worst atrocities had yet to be committed at the time of the film's release (in fact, production began only a week after war was declared), there are several very sobering scenes of human persecution to which Chaplin very cleverly introduces humour without making light of the situation. A key example is the scene in which the barber is forced by a couple of Hynkel's men to paint the word 'Jew' on his shop window. In lieu of a spoken refusal, the barber throws paint on the men and a slapstick routine ensues. The conflicting emotions felt as one watches this scene create quite a confounding sensation. And if this tragicomic mix weren't enough to sate your emotional appetite, there's a sweet love story thrown in. Roberto Benigni has a lot to thank Chaplin for.

Then, there is the fearlessness with which the Nazis are ridiculed. (Although, years later, Chaplin commented that, had he known the true extent of Hitler's atrocities, he could not have made the film.) Chaplin was defiantly critical of the Nazis at a time when the notorious party was at its most powerful. The U.S. had not yet declared Nazi Germany an enemy, yet Chaplin was clearly not afraid to speak out. While the names of the leaders are all changed for satirical purposes, as are the names of the countries, interestingly the term 'Jew' is retained, so there's no mistaking what this film is really about. To make the message even more abundantly clear, the powerful final speech lays it all out in no uncertain terms, almost as if Chaplin himself is speaking directly to his audience (pictured).

The film showcases Chaplin's brilliance superbly. He is impeccably silly during the hilarious faux German speech. His comic timing is on display during a delicately choreographed shave of a customer to the tune of a Brahms composition. And, of course, there is the well-known ballet dance with a balloon globe, a hypnotic and moving, yet cleverly metaphorical routine. He is well supported by the rest of the cast, in particular Jack Oakie, sporting an equally amusing silly accent as the faux Italian dictator. Billy Gilbert, a charmingly comical performer who enchanted me as the garage owner in One Hundred Men and a Girl, delivers a highly entertaining array of facial expressions as Hynkel's mostly incompetent Minister of War.

The actual narrative of the film remains somewhat unresolved, but perhaps this was an attempt to encourage the viewer to be active in changing the outcome of world affairs. If only...

Thursday, September 2, 2010

1940 - The Grapes of Wrath

A few nights ago, I joined some of my cast mates to frequent a local Central Pennsylvanian bar. Unfortunately, I was turned away at the door for not having the correct I.D. You see, the law states that not only must all patrons be over the age of 21, but they must also be carrying an appropriate form of identification in order to confirm their age. Even if you clearly appear to be of age, you must still carry one of three acceptable forms of I.D., namely a military I.D., a passport or a state-issued I.D. (which includes a driver's licence). Well, I'm not in the military, my passport is back in New York and my driver's licence is from Australia. So, no luck there. I did, however, have my Green Card with me, but the gentleman behind the bar was kind enough to inform me that it was not state-issued. True. In fact, it is federally-issued, which you would think would hold more weight than mere state-issued items, but alas, his hands were tied. To add insult to injury, he made it clear that he could tell I was older than 21. "Way older" were his exact words. Thanks...

So, we went to another bar around the corner where the rules were more lackadaisical.

Yesterday, I managed to fit in another nominee from the 1940 Best Picture race...

The Grapes of Wrath
John Ford
Nunnally Johnson
(based on the novel by John Steinbeck)
Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Darwell)

Paroled after four years in prison, Tom Joad (Fonda) returns to his family's Oklahoma farm only to discover they are being driven out by greedy landowners. Such is life during the Great Depression. In search of work, the Joads load up their poor excuse for a vehicle and head for California, an area that they have heard is in dire need of fruit-pickers. The journey along Route 66 is far from smooth sailing and life in California is no picnic either. The family hops from town to town trying to make ends meet, fighting the working class fight.

A classic American film based on a classic American novel, The Grapes of Wrath is best described as solid. Solid story. Solid performances. Solid direction. The narrative is eventfully robust, teeming with activity at every turn, yet despite the action's varying nature, the picture still retains a strong sense of unity. One might even call it solid.

All this solidness does have its downfall, however, since it is partly achieved through highly stylised dialogue. It makes for some clean and delicate moments, but it also feels a tad methodical. Nonetheless, the Joads' action-filled journey kept me involved, outweighing the saccharine taste of the dialogue.

Henry Fonda in a comfortable newsboy cap (pictured) leads the cast with a strong portrayal of a determined man, chalking up his first Oscar nomination. It was co-star Jane Darwell, however, who won a Supporting Actress award for her affecting turn as the Joad matriarch. For pure entertainment value, it's hard to go past Charley Grapewin's antics as Grandpa Joad.