Wednesday, November 24, 2010

1986 - Children of a Lesser God

It's Thanksgiving week here in the United States. That generally means people are flying home to be with their families. Kat and I will be doing that next month instead when we fly to Australia, so for this holiday, we've chosen Miami as our destination. And I'm sure we'll be giving thanks for the warm weather down there. Happy Thanksgiving to all my U.S. readers!

Yesterday, I viewed the next in 1986's lineup of Best Picture nominees...

Children of a Lesser God
Randa Haines
Hesper Anderson and Mark Redoff
(based on the play by Redoff)
William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, Philip Bosco
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Matlin)

James Leeds (Hurt) is the new speech teacher at a New England school for deaf children. While his unorthodox methods raise some eyebrows, he is very successful and much loved by his students. As he teaches them to speak (and even sing!), he finds himself smitten with the school's deaf janitor, Sarah Norman (Matlin). A former student herself, the bitter Sarah stubbornly refuses James' offers to help her speak, but does not refuse his romantic advances, albeit after some initial hesitation.

Children of a Lesser God could be a beautifully moving film if it weren't for one rather distracting flaw. James translates aloud everything Sarah signs as she is signing it. Sure, it conveniently allows those of us in the audience who do not know sign language (the majority, no doubt) to understand what she is saying, but it is such a phony dramatic device that it merely makes James seem fake. I understand that studios are reluctant to use subtitles for fear of audiences staying away from movies they have to read, but they really should have bitten the bullet in this instance. In fact, it may not even have required subtitles. Simply leaving the audience to infer Sarah's meaning from the context of James' side of the conversation would have been far less superficial.

It's a shame, really, because the story has the potential to be a lot more intimate. As it stands, though, the relationship between the two main characters feels somewhat distant due to James' insistent repetition. Consequently, the love story, which is otherwise personal and touching, seems a little rushed.

William Hurt puts in an admirable effort despite being given the short straw. His Oscar-nominated performance is especially commendable considering he is essentially speaking for two characters. He is slightly cheesy at times, but that is easily justified by his character's geeky sincerity. In her film debut, Marlee Matlin (pictured) delivers a heart-breakingly honest portrayal, earning her the Best Actress Oscar at the age of 21, which remains the record for the youngest winner in that category. The third acting citation for the film went to the richly deserving Piper Laurie for her tender performance as Sarah's estranged mother.

Despite my harshness in highlighting this film's main shortcoming, it remains an engaging film. I'm just disappointed because it could have been so much more.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

1986 - The Mission

As promised, the poll for the next year of review is now running (in the right sidebar). You may notice that the list of years available in the poll does not include films from the 1930s as I mentioned in my last post. Here's my excuse... Kat and I will be heading home to Sydney over the Christmas/New Year period and then, on the way back to New York, I'll be stopping in L.A. for about a week. This seems like the perfect opportunity to check in at the UCLA Film Archive for a viewing of one or two of those hard-to-find Best Picture nominees. Since all those rarities are from the 1930s, I figured it best to spend time with another decade for now and leave the 1930s for January.

Meanwhile, we continue with 1986's contest by taking a look at the following Best Picture nominee...

The Mission
Roland Joffé
Robert Bolt
Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Ronald Pickup, Chuck Low, Liam Neeson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Cinematography

In 18th century South America, well-meaning Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Irons) sets up a mission in an area of the jungle accessed only by a precarious waterfall climb. He introduces Christianity to the indigenous Guarani tribe with the help of his fellow priests. The newest recruit to the Jesuit order is Rodrigo (De Niro), a former mercenary and slave-trader with a violent streak, who joined the priesthood as penance after a bout of fratricide.

Everything is hunky-dory for a while until politics gets in the way. The Spanish and Portuguese governments have decided to play around with which parts of the continent they claim as their own and the mission, previously in Spanish territory, is now considered Portuguese. Since Portuguese law is sympathetic to slavery, this is bad news for the Guarani. Enter Cardinal Altamirano (McAnally), a Papal emissary assigned the task of determining whether the Vatican will protect the mission or deliver it to the Portuguese.

My first thought after watching The Mission is how incredibly gruelling the shoot must have been for all involved. Shot on location in and around the rivers, waterfalls and jungles of South America, the natural beauty on display is hard to miss, but nature is not always convenient for film-makers. Nonetheless, convenient or not, the result is a feeling of true immersion in the jungle environment. No wonder the film's only Oscar came for Cinematography.

I am somewhat torn, however, in regard to the film's score. Composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone, The Mission's score includes some genuinely beautiful and moving music, but despite the score's justified long-term critical recognition, some of the tracks seem oddly inappropriate, particularly the thriller-like themes in the film's first act. While these are evocative tunes in their own right, their placement within the film results perhaps in the wrong emotion being evoked. The scenes they underscore are so intensely dramatic as written that the addition of such overtly suspenseful music is overkill, almost cartoonish. Luckily, the tender brilliance of the other more inspirational themes is what is remembered.

The Academy didn't see fit to nominate any of the cast despite some magnificent performances. Jeremy Irons portrays the calm Father Gabriel with strength and passion. Robert De Niro (pictured) is likewise powerful as the volatile Rodrigo, arguably the most physically taxing role in the film. He spends several scenes hiking up muddy inclines attached to an enormous bundle of metal. The cast weren't entirely without accolades, though. Ray McAnally nabbed BAFTA's Best Supporting Actor award for his nuanced turn as the conflicted Altamirano.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

1986 - Hannah and Her Sisters

We launch into another year of review, which is normally the time I put up the poll to decide the next year of review after that. I'd like to offer you some options from the 1930s again, but before I do that, I need to figure out which films are more easily available to me from that decade. Hence, I may need another few days of research. Stay tuned...

On another note, many of you may be aware of my previous website creation years ago - a weekly film quiz. Perhaps if I ever manage to complete this current project, I'll return to that concept, but in the meantime, I couldn't help myself. I created a couple of quizzes on Sporcle (Verbose Movie Titles and Verbose Movie Titles 2) for a bit of fun. Enjoy!

Yesterday, I began my look at the Best Picture contenders of 1986 by revisiting...

Hannah and Her Sisters
Woody Allen
Woody Allen
Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O'Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max von Sydow, Dianne Wiest
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Original Screenplay

Unsurprisingly, Hannah and Her Sisters is about a woman named Hannah (Farrow) and her two sisters, Lee (Hershey) and Holly (Wiest). Also prominent in the story are Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen) and her current husband Elliot (Caine), plus her parents (Nolan & O'Sullivan). But I suppose Hannah and Her Sisters and Her Husbands and Her Parents was a little too long-winded as a title ... Not that Woody Allen is averse to long-winded titles. But I digress...

The film follows the trials and tribulations of this family of characters. Although married to Hannah, Elliot is head over heels in love with her sister Lee. Other sister Holly is insecure about how her business partner April (Fisher) is more talented and more attractive than she. And hypochondriac Mickey fears the worst when doctors suspect he may actually have a fatal disease.

Here's how you know that this is a Woody Allen film:

* The opening titles are white text in Windsor font on a black background, underscored by an upbeat piece of early jazz music. This, perhaps more than any other Allen trademark, elicits a familiar sensation of comfort.

* Rather than one major theme, the story examines several fundamental issues of the human condition - fidelity, mortality, insecurity, religion, love. For this film, these subjects are explored with the clever and illuminating use of inner monologues. Through voice over, the audience becomes privy to each character's private thoughts.

* Witty and very quotable one-liners permeate the script, often related to one of those fundamental issues being explored, particularly philosophy and religion. Here, we are treated to such gems as, "If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up," and, "I was in analysis for years, nothing happened. My poor analyst got so frustrated, the guy finally put in a salad bar."

* The visual style is relatively basic. There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule within Allen's body of work, but Hannah and Her Sisters falls pretty squarely in the 'simple images' category. Which is appropriate, mind you. The material is based on those raw and honest feelings we all experience - or at least a slightly exaggerated version of the same - so the photographic simplicity is the perfect complement.

* The cast is dense with renowned actors delivering naturalistic performances. There is an almost improvisational style to each scene. People talk in half-sentences, cutting each other off constantly. The emotional displays are subtle and reserved, except perhaps for Allen's own neurotic histrionics.

* Along with the plethora of established performers in main and supporting roles, there are numerous minor roles portrayed by actors of future renown. Here, we have John Turturro, J.T. Walsh, Richard Jenkins, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Even comedian Lewis Black makes his film debut.

* The script and the actors fared well with the Academy. For Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar (his second after Annie Hall), while both Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest received awards for their supporting roles. Wiest's second Oscar eight years later was for Bullets Over Broadway, also directed by Allen. Interestingly, though, the last decade has not been so kind to Allen and his casts in this regard. Only one writing nomination (for Match Point) and one acting nomination (for Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which she won).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Best Picture of 1962

The trend of incredible (and lengthy) films continues. I found all five contenders in 1962's competition to be thoroughly engaging. Yet another hallmark year for this project.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1962 are:
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • The Longest Day
  • The Music Man
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
My first move in this verdict is to split these fine films into two groups. In the bottom section is The Music Man, a spectacularly entertaining film, perhaps only disadvantaged by its lack of substance in comparison with the other four nominees, which all deal with very powerful material. Joining the musical, I have placed To Kill A Mockingbird. I know, I know. Most people love it. And I did, too. Just not as much as its competitors.

The three films on the upper branch, coincidentally or not, happen to be the three longest nominees - each running at least three hours - and are also all based on true stories. First, we have Mutiny on the Bounty, an intense battle of minds complemented by beautifully photographed scenery, shot on location in Tahiti. Then, The Longest Day, a compelling D-Day re-enactment complemented by beautifully photographed scenery, shot on location in Normandy.

That leaves us with the highly lauded Lawrence of Arabia, which was not a particularly difficult decision. However, I doubt my own ability to ignore the pressures of almost 50 years of critical acclaim. Aside from winning the Academy's Best Picture award and appearing on many critics' lists of the all-time greatest, the British film also inexplicably made it into the top 10 of the AFI's list of the greatest American films. It's hard not to be influenced by such widespread praise. In any case, whether I came to this decision independently or not, I am now declaring Lawrence of Arabia my pick for 1962's Best Picture of the year.

Best Picture of 1962
Academy's choice:

Lawrence of Arabia

Matt's choice:

Lawrence of Arabia

Your choice:

You may exercise your right to vote by using the poll above. Matt vs. the Academy now moves back to the 1980s with a very eclectic selection of nominees.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1986 are:
  • Children of a Lesser God
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • The Mission
  • Platoon
  • A Room With a View
Stay tuned...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

1962 - Mutiny on the Bounty

I'm writing this in the few remaining hours of Daylight Savings in New York City. Tomorrow, the darkness creeps in an hour earlier. Subsequently, each day will see the sunset arrive sooner than the day before... Well, okay, that makes it sound far more foreboding than is necessary. Still, I'll be hotfooting it soon to the other side of the equator, where not only is the day getting longer, but warmer too. Kat and I have a visit home to Sydney planned for Christmas and New Year's. But more on that later...

Yesterday, I viewed the last in the shortlist for 1962's Best Picture crown...

Mutiny on the Bounty
Lewis Milestone
Charles Lederer
(based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall)
Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris, Hugh Griffith, Richard Haydn, Tarita, Percy Herbert
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

Based on a novel which was itself based on a true story, Mutiny on the Bounty is apparently not entirely accurate in its portrayal of the famous maritime feud. Nonetheless, the film is a remarkably successful application of the adage, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

In 1787, the British Royal Navy sends the H.M.S. Bounty and its captain, William Bligh (Howard), on an expedition to collect breadfruit from Tahiti. The captain's cruel and inconsiderate treatment of the crew hits a nerve with the ship's first mate Fletcher Christian (Brando), but he holds his tongue for the moment. After spending five months in Tahiti waiting for the new breadfruit crop to yield (and making the most of the island lifestyle, if you know what I mean), the crew take on board dozens more plants than they originally intended to make up for lost time. Unfortunately, there is not enough water on board to keep all the plants alive, so Bligh reduces the crew's rations. Problem solved. This, along with a few more heartless acts, slowly pushes Christian over the edge and, with the aid of some of the unhappier members of the crew, he orchestrates a mutiny. (I know. I've just given away a major plot twist. In my defense, though, it is in the title. Clearly, the producers of the Mel Gibson version knew better.)

There is never a dull moment in Mutiny on the Bounty, which is no mean feat for a three-hour movie. But it's not just because of the thrilling action scenes. A big part of the film's power comes from the intense psychological battle between the two main characters. Both men are loyal to their country but their ideas on how best to affirm their patriotism are polar opposites, as are their leadership techniques. Their disdain for each other is apparent due to several bitter yet contained exchanges. Indeed, the script is clever enough to keep their conflict simmering on low heat until the right moment, resulting in some utterly engaging drama. The witty and refined dialogue doesn't hurt either. For example, when asked about his feelings regarding the mutiny, Christian remarks that he does not regret his actions "except for a slight desire to be dead which I'm sure will pass."

The seductive nature of the love story between Christian and his Tahitian girlfriend, Maimiti (played by Tarita), seems slightly gratuitous, akin to the absurdity of Captain Kirk's alien conquests. Maimiti's father, who happens to be the tribal Chief (and is peculiarly portrayed as a giggling buffoon), delivers an ultimatum barring the Britons from taking any breadfruit unless Christian sleeps with his daughter. Still, the real Fletcher Christian ended up marrying Maimiti, plus Brando married Tarita, so stranger things have happened, I guess.

Marlon Brando is obscenely watchable as the head mutineer. Affecting a flawless British accent, his natural mannerisms and constant thought processes are nothing short of captivating. He is matched by Trevor Howard's strong turn as the stubbornly tyrannical William Bligh, expertly delivering his many biting lines. Also compelling is future Hogwarts principal Richard Harris as Seaman John Mills. And as glad as I am to see legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty in the cast, his broad Australian accent is more than a little inappropriate for the time period. British settlement of the land down under did not occur until 1788.

The other Australian connection to the film is the fact that William Bligh eventually became the 4th Governor of my home state of New South Wales. His horrid luck with insubordination continued, however, when he was deposed in a military coup known as the Rum Rebellion. Clearly not meant to be a leader.