Monday, December 20, 2010

1951 - Decision Before Dawn

Happy holidays, everyone! On Wednesday, Kat and I will be flying home to Sydney to visit family and friends for the first time since we moved to New York a year and a half ago. That coupled with the holiday season will undoubtedly slow down the pace of Matt vs. the Academy for the moment. No fear, though. We will complete the current slate of nominees prior to my arrival in Los Angeles in mid-January, at which time I will visit the UCLA Film Archive to view the first of the 1930-31 contenders.

Today, though, I took a look at another 1951 Best Picture nominee...

Decision Before Dawn
Anatole Litvak
Peter Viertel
(based on the novel 'Call It Treason' by George Howe)
Richard Basehart, Gary Merrill, Oskar Werner, Hildegarde Knef, Dominique Blanchar, O.E. Hasse, Wilfried Seyferth, Hans Christian Blech
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

During the final days of World War II, the U.S. Army recruits German prisoners-of-war for espionage duties. For a particularly important information-gathering mission, Col. Devlin (Merrill) assigns U.S. officer Lt. Rennick (Basehart) to accompany German soldier Sgt. Barth (Blech), codenamed Tiger. Simultaneously, Cpl. Karl Maurer (Werner), ironically codenamed Happy, is given the dangerous task of discovering the whereabouts of Germany's 11th Panzer Corps. While attempting to achieve his covert goal, Happy must also elude the Gestapo, who do not take kindly to traitors.

While it may not seem clear at first, the main character in Decision Before Dawn is Happy. There is a decent amount of set-up before we get to the crux of the film's story, in which we follow Happy as he nervously makes his way from one incident to the next, attempting to maintain under the radar. The tension in this section alone is enough to forgive the film's other flaws. Director Anatole Litvak achieves a genuine sense of loneliness for Happy. He is paradoxically an outsider living among his own kind, stranded in his home land.

I could have done without the voice-over memories, however. Whenever Happy finds a quiet moment to himself, the camera moves in closer as he directs his gaze upward and we hear the voices of those Happy has encountered repeating their important words. Granted, this clichéd convention does help to highlight Happy's isolation, but it is slightly overused here. Ditto the constant reference to cigarettes. I couldn't quite figure out the intended symbolism of all this talk about smoking. Nor could I figure out the meaning of the film's title. There are certainly decisions made during the course of the narrative, and many of them are made before sunrise, but is there one of particular importance?

Oskar Werner (pictured) delivers an effectively understated performance as the troubled German soldier, although there is a fine line between the character appearing stoic and the actor appearing dull. Fortunately, Werner leans towards the former. Richard Basehart and Gary Merrill as the American officers portray mostly stereotypical machismo. As such, the German actors shine, especially Wilfried Seyferth as the punchy SS courier.

Despite all my nit-picking, Decision Before Dawn remains an engrossing film and well worth a look.

Friday, December 17, 2010

1951 - An American in Paris

My new job as an events waiter is proving to be quite the boon for associating with the rich and famous. Yesterday, I worked on an event for Lincoln Center, in which John Guare gave a speech. Coupled with Monday's sighting of Susan Sarandon, I now have a double connection to one of the film's already reviewed for Matt vs. the Academy - Atlantic City was written by Guare and starred Sarandon. An entirely meaningless connection, I know, but it's the little things...

Earlier today, I watched the Academy's eventual choice for Best Picture of 1951...

An American in Paris
Vincente Minnelli
Alan Jay Lerner
Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary, Nina Foch
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
6 wins, including Best Picture

The man of the title is Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), a struggling artist who has moved to Paris for inspiration. His good friend, Adam Cook (Levant), an accomplished concert pianist who has never played a concert, introduces him to French cabaret singer Henri Baurel (Guétary) and the three spend most of their time hanging out in the café near Jerry's apartment. Enter Milo Roberts (Foch), an American art aficionado who has the money to make Jerry's art dreams come true. While on a date with Milo, Jerry meets and flirts with Lise Bouvier (Caron), who happens to be the fiancée of Henri. Jerry and Lise begin a romantic affair that is inevitably hampered by the secrets they don't want to share. Then, everybody dances.

An American in Paris is a spectacle - there's no doubt about that. It's a daydreamer's paradise. Not only does the audience experience the wonder of the make-believe, but the characters on screen seem to be fantasising in vibrant colour every chance they get. Set the whole thing to a bunch of familiar toe-tapping Gershwin tunes - I Got Rhythm, 'Swonderful, Embraceable You, to name just a few - and you've got yourself a fun piece of entertainment that requires nothing more from you than to simply relax and enjoy.

Each of the musical numbers is built upon a unique concept and crammed with imagination. All the elements combine to reach a pinnacle of creativity - impressive sets, extravagant costumes, atmospheric lighting and incredibly inventive choreography (tap-dancing always inspires awe and Gene Kelly's gracefulness makes it look so easy). It's lucky these numbers are so entertaining because they are certainly not brief. The final dance extravaganza (pictured) is over fifteen minutes, which apparently left only about sixty seconds to wrap up the storyline. Consequently, the conclusion is abruptly contrived and utterly inexplicable. That said, the script by Alan Jay Lerner (of Lerner & Loewe renown) is witty from the get-go, as evidenced when Adam Cook introduces himself by acknowledging, "It's not a pretty face, I grant you, but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character."

Being an extravagant musical, the majority of the performances are suitably exaggerated. But it's the dancing that we're here to see and Gene Kelly's smooth footwork delivers, as does Leslie Caron's exquisite ballet technique. Meanwhile, Oscar Levant provides the humour. For fans of classic television, keep an eye out for Noel Neill - Lois Lane to George Reeves' Superman - as a sidewalk art critic, and Hayden Rorke - Dr. Bellows from I Dream of Jeannie - as an art dealer acquaintance of Milo.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

1951 - A Place in the Sun

December must surely be the busiest month of the year - holiday parties aplenty; my new musical improv group, The Boombox Kids, has performed several gigs around town; I started a new job with a high-end catering company (at which, after working only one event, I have already rubbed shoulders with the likes of Susan Sarandon, Edward Norton and David Lynch); and in a week, Kat and I will be heading back home to Sydney for a brief visit, the first such visit since we moved to New York a year and a half ago.

You will notice there is no poll to decide the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. As previously discussed, I'll be stopping in L.A. for a few days before I return to New York, so I will take that opportunity to pop in to the UCLA Film Archive for a viewing of two Best Picture nominees that lack home video releases. Thus, 1930-31 is the chosen next year of review.

For now, we begin looking at 1951's slate of Best Picture nominees, starting with...

A Place in the Sun
George Stevens
Michael Wilson and Harry Brown
(based on the novel 'An American Tragedy' by Theodore Dreiser and the play of the same name adapted by Patrick Kearney)
Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Keefe Brasselle, Raymond Burr, Herbert Heyes
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
6 wins, including Best Director

George Eastman (Clift), not the photography pioneer, but a poor young man with high ambitions, accepts work in a clothing factory run by his wealthy uncle (Heyes). Despite the company policy prohibiting any fraternising with the female employees, George begins a discreet affair with fellow factory worker Alice (Winters), a mostly sensible and well-meaning girl. Their relationship is strained, however, when George's family connections begin to afford him certain advantages.

At one of the Eastman family's fancy soirées, George meets pretty and confident socialite Angela Vickers (Taylor) and the two hit it off immediately. Soon, George is leading a double life, placating Alice while inconspicuously gallivanting off with his true love Angela. The situation is further complicated by Alice's rather inconvenient pregnancy.

A Place in the Sun is based on the novel 'An American Tragedy', a title that is its own spoiler. Cleverly, though, George Stevens (or someone involved in the film's production) decided not to retain the novel's title for the film, but unfortunately, the opening credits name the source material in large letters, so the damage is still done. Nonetheless, the picture is extremely engaging and Stevens exploits this sense of foreboding brilliantly with the help of the Oscar-winning score (which turns a simple close-up into a chilling insight into the thoughts of a desperate man) and the Oscar-winning cinematography (which adds mystery by keeping the actors' faces in complete darkness during critical moments).

Being the early 1950s, almost the very thought of portraying sex on film was outlawed, and I'm always intrigued by how filmmakers of that era conveyed to their audience that two characters have done the deed. The artistically inventive solution in A Place in the Sun is to depict George and Alice dancing intimately in her apartment before the camera pans to the window overlooking her porch. Night slowly dissolves into morning as the rooster crows ... and George quietly sneaks down the porch steps having spent the night. Scandalous.

Montgomery Clift (pictured) earned a Best Actor nomination for his superb portrayal of George - hunched, brooding and sincere (paving the way for another gone-too-soon George Stevens collaborator, James Dean). Shelley Winters was the film's only other Oscar nominee, garnering a nod for Best Actress for her versatile performance as the downtrodden Alice. Elizabeth Taylor (also pictured) is also worth noting as the vivaciously forward Angela. And Perry Mason fans will be pleased to see Raymond Burr in the courtroom as District Attorney Marlowe.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Best Picture of 1986

The Academy's eclectic tastes are hardly more evident than in 1986's shortlist: drama and comedy, contemporary and period. Stylistically, these five films have very little in common with each other, yet they each excel in their own right. Nonetheless, choosing a favourite was not as difficult as one would expect.

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
The nominee with the most visible flaw is Children of a Lesser God. Despite its touching story, the general conceit of a hearing man repeating everything his deaf lover utters is hard to overcome, so Marlee Matlin's debut film is first to be struck off the list.

The next two to go are Hannah and Her Sisters, a fine contemporary comedy exploring the human condition (otherwise known as a Woody Allen film), and its polar opposite, The Mission, a fine adventure drama exploring politics, religion and racial relations.

Finally, we have two more immensely contrasting pictures, the graphically anti-war Platoon and the exquisitely period A Room with a View. Both are expertly produced and fulfil their genres' expectations satisfyingly. But, for me, it is Oliver Stone's Vietnam story that has the slight edge, so, just as the Academy did, I officially award Platoon top honours in the 1986 Best Picture contest.

Best Picture of 1986
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:


Your choice:

Don't agree with me and the Academy? Make it known by voting in the poll above. We now move back to the 1950s, and as per your wishes, we will focus on the following five contenders.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1951 are:
  • An American in Paris
  • Decision Before Dawn
  • A Place in the Sun
  • Quo Vadis
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

1986 - A Room With a View

Here's a tip for the unaware...

When at the supermarket browsing bottles of wine, it may be worth looking more closely at the labels. Although the label on the bottle you purchase may, at first glance, have a design that is indistinguishable from the labels on more expensive bottles found in boutique wine shops, don't wait until you get it home to read the small text that describes the contents as "Wine Product." Not the same thing...

To wrap up the viewing of 1986's Best Picture nominees, yesterday I watched...

A Room with a View
James Ivory
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
(based on the novel by E.M. Forster)
Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Denholm Elliott, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Simon Callow, Judi Dench, Rosemary Leach, Rupert Graves
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins, including Best Adapted Screenplay

Just as Platoon is not for those with an aversion to war films, it seems safe to say that those lacking passion for period pieces would be well advised to stay away from A Room with a View. Lucy Honeychurch (Bonham Carter) is a young impressionable Englishwoman at the turn of the 20th century. Escorted by her chaperone, the neurotically proper Charlotte Bartlett (Smith), Lucy's horizons are widened on a holiday in Florence. Here, she meets George Emerson (Sands), who, along with his father (Elliott), is unperturbed by the repressive social etiquette of the day. In fact, in a moment of spontaneity, George boldly plants a passionate kiss on Lucy while picnicking in the Italian countryside.

Lucy's tingly feelings are short-lived, however, for when she returns to England, she soon accepts a marriage proposal from the stuffy but dependable Cecil Vyse (Day-Lewis), whose kissing technique is decidedly awkward. Not to worry, though. George and his father coincidentally move into the neighbourhood, which evokes romantic memories in Lucy, who now attempts to suppress her desire for him.

As a Merchant Ivory production - and one of their biggest hits, to boot - A Room with a View is unmistakably a lavish period piece. The costumes, the sets, the locations are all enchantingly beautiful, and each sequence is preceded by delicate title cards with text taken from the original novel's chapter headings. The result is a kind of storybook effect, successfully transporting the viewer to another time and place.

All the familiar themes of a period drama - social standing, keeping up appearances, repressed love - are present in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's exquisitely written script, her first of two E.M. Forster adaptations to nab her the Adapted Screenplay Oscar, followed a few years later by Howards End. In fact, with three Best Picture-nominated adaptations from his work (A Room with a View, Howards End and A Passage to India), E.M. Forster is one of the Academy's most represented authors.

The most amusing scene in the picture comes as George takes a swim in a pond with the local vicar, Mr. Beebe (Callow) and Lucy's brother, Freddy (Graves). The three men, naked as the day they were born, splash and jostle in and out of the water with a genuinely care-free attitude. Initially, it is a strange interlude in an otherwise family friendly film, but the scene soon becomes hilariously awkward when Lucy, Cecil and Mrs. Honeychurch (Leach) stumble upon the nude trio.

Helena Bonham Carter, youthful and pretty, portrays Lucy's awakening adorably. Daniel Day-Lewis is almost unrecognisable as the prissy Cecil. My favourite performance was by Denholm Elliott as the charmingly goofy Mr. Emerson, which garnered him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Maggie Smith received the film's other acting citation - for Best Supporting Actress -for her delightful turn as the uptight Charlotte.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

1986 - Platoon

Kat and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Miami with a couple of fellow Aussie ex-pats. We walked along Miami Beach, we shopped on Lincoln Road Mall, we lay by the hotel pool, but mostly, we ate at restaurants. It was essentially three days of eating ... in beautifully warm weather. Back to the cold climes of New York City now...

Next up in 1986's race for Best Picture is...

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone
Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Reggie Johnson, Mark Moses, Corey Glover, Johnny Depp
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

Drawing from his own experiences during the Vietnam War, director and writer Oliver Stone tells the story of Chris Taylor (Sheen), a young soldier arriving in Vietnam for a one-year tour of duty. As the newbie, he struggles to acclimate to the poor conditions and his fellow soldiers. Making matters worse is the fact that his superiors seem to be constantly locking horns. The hostile and facially scarred Sergeant Barnes (Berenger) lacks respect for his own superior, the unassertive Lieutenant Wolfe (Moses), and is also at loggerheads with Sergeant Elias (Defoe), seemingly the only soldier who tries to remain compassionate and reasonable.

If you're not a fan of war films, you probably shouldn't bother with Platoon. Its intense battle scenes are violent and often gory. But the graphic depiction of the war is not the only reason to laud this as a great film. Platoon succeeds because of its characters. The platoon of the title is composed of a variety of soldier types - the tough soldier, the frightened soldier, the corrupt soldier, the takes-it-as-it-comes soldier, the I've-had-enough soldier. In fact, that last type could probably refer to a number, if not all, of the members of the platoon.

There are times when the story seems to ramble. The company moves from mission to mission, fighting battles and losing some of their own. But, undoubtedly, this chaotic and unsettling narrative is representative of the war itself. It also serves to highlight how war can change a person. There is moral ambiguity in a great deal of the platoon's actions and each soldier makes at least one questionable decision, none more so than Sergeant Barnes, whose depravity acts somewhat as the story's through-line. Besides, the entire picture is so captivating that I hardly noticed that two hours had passed.

Georges Delerue's arrangement of Samuel Barber's stirring "Adagio for Strings" is powerfully moving, especially as used over the now iconic image of Elias' dying arms in the air. And Robert Richardson's Oscar-nominated cinematography infuses beauty into otherwise disturbing images.

And then there's the cast - an eclectic mix to match the diversity of the characters. Willem Defoe and Tom Berenger (pictured) both merited their Best Supporting Actor nominations. At the beginning of his career, Charlie Sheen was well-suited to play the naive new recruit who receives a trial by fire. Other up-and-comers at the time that appeared as platoon members were Kevin Dillon (you know him from Entourage), Mark Moses (you know him from Mad Men and Desperate Housewives), Forest Whitaker (you know him from The Last King of Scotland), Keith David (you know him from a lot of movies), John C. McGinley (you know him from Scrubs and most of Oliver Stone's other films) and Johnny Depp (you just know him). McGinley is especially fun to watch, playing a rather eccentric but eventually human Sergeant.