Sunday, December 11, 2011

Best Picture of 1929/30

One of the things I'm enjoying about this silly little project is the opportunity to watch some of cinema's early offerings, an activity that I previously did not engage in very frequently. While it is clear to me that my tastes lie with slightly more modern filmmaking, I am always pleasantly surprised by how fascinating I find some of these vintage pictures, and even more surprised when I come across a forgotten gem. I may not have uncovered one of those gems with the current crop of films under review, but they each contained elements worth appreciating and I'm genuinely glad to have experienced them.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1929/30 are:
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • The Big House
  • Disraeli
  • The Divorcee
  • The Love Parade
When sound was introduced to moving pictures in the late 1920s, it forced a change not only in the obvious technical aspects of filmmaking but also in the conventions that cinema used to tell a story. It took a few years for those conventions to be perfected - in fact, the style and form of cinema is constantly evolving - and the five films up for Best Picture here unfortunately show some signs of that lack of experience. Technique issues aside, however, they each manage to offer an engaging story.

The Love Parade includes many funny moments but its main flaw is that it is musically dull, rather a fatal issue for a musical. Disraeli is a fascinating study of a political figure but its wordiness can be a bit trying at times, especially in light of its mostly static staging. Prison genre pioneer The Big House possessed the potential to be far more gripping but it nonetheless includes an exciting climax.

The two nominees left to duke it out are the straightforward storytelling of The Divorcee, a personal exploration of a troubled relationship, and the epic storytelling of All Quiet on the Western Front, a personal exploration of troubled soldiers. The latter was the Academy's choice and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the only film of the five that has retained any decent recognition among modern audiences. As an epic, it is arguably the most theatrical of the nominees, but in spite of that - or perhaps because of it - it is also the most emotionally powerful. Thus, as so often is the case, the bigger film wins out. All Quiet on the Western Front shall be named my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1929/30.

Best Picture of 1929/30
Academy's choice:

All Quiet on the Western Front

Matt's choice:

All Quiet on the Western Front


Your choice:



I suspect many of you may not have had the chance to see all five of these films, but it seems incredibly unlikely that every Academy member sees all the nominees before they vote so I'm certainly not going to disqualify you from taking part in the irrelevant poll above. Next up, we move back to much more recent times with fine selection of modern cinema.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 2006 are:
  • Babel
  • The Departed
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • The Queen
Unlike the previous year of review, all of these films are very easily accessible so why not follow along with me. In fact, all five of the 2006 nominees are available to watch instantly on Amazon. Just click on the links below.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

1929/30 - The Big House

I'm very happy to report that The Artist is a fantastic and innovative film, certainly worthy of its recent recognition. Thoroughly enjoyable, the film makes clever use of its genre and, let's face it, it's difficult not to be unique when you make a film in a genre that hasn't been around for 80 years. Anyway, you should do whatever you can to see The Artist. Undoubtedly, this clever film will be mentioned a lot in the coming months.

As we wind down the current year of review, don't forget to cast your vote for the next one. The poll is in the sidebar on the right hand side of your screen. But you knew that already.

The final film for us to have a look at from 1929/30's slate of Best Picture nominees is...


The Big House
Director:
George Hill
Screenplay:
Frances Marion, Joe Farnham, Martin Flavin
Starring:
Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, George F. Marion, J.C. Nugent, DeWitt Jennings
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
2 wins, including Best Writing

Kent (Montgomery) arrives in prison for his first day of a ten year sentence for manslaughter after a drunk driving accident. His cellmates are two hot shots of the block, the intelligent and level-headed Morgan (Morris) and the uneducated murderous thug Butch (Beery). Kent struggles to fit in at first and finds himself further ostracised when he sets up Morgan to take the blame for a hidden knife. The incident results in Morgan being sent to solitary the day before he is due to be released on parole. He vows to get even with Kent and, after cleverly escaping prison, he tracks down Kent's beautiful sister Anne (Hyams). However, his desire for vengeance slowly dissipates as he falls for Anne and realises how important Kent is to her and her family.

While an engaging story, The Big House has some pacing issues. Potentially gripping dramatic conflicts are often glossed over far too quickly, occasionally leaving the feeling that we are merely watching a series of plot points. It would be far more interesting to see the characters struggle with their decisions and actions but too often they are given a less than appropriate time frame to do so.

It's actually quite a shame because the narrative otherwise holds our attention well and the climax is incredibly exciting. So, if there had been more emotional depth to the way the characters were written, this picture could really have been a classic. As it stands, however, the film still holds a place in film lore as being somewhat responsible for the popularity of the prison genre. It was one of the first of its kind to explore the harsh conditions of prison life and, in that regard, it is successfully fascinating. Nonetheless, some of the questionably superficial dialogue doesn't help its cause. When the warden tells his assistant that the inmates are planning an uprising at noon, the assistant checks his watch and exclaims, "Noon? That's one minute!"

Chester Morris (pictured, with Beery) is the stand out among the cast with his confident presence as Morgan. Wallace Beery's constant "Who? Me?" catchphrase is mostly caricature but he is appropriately cast, earning the film's only acting nomination. And Robert Montgomery is effective as the foolishly naive Kent. Both Montgomery and Morris also appeared in fellow 1929/30 Best Picture nominee The Divorcee, playing roles with interestingly similar social statuses to their characters here. Incidentally, after I downloaded this film from iTunes, I noticed they had incorrectly listed the director of The Big House as George Roy Hill (famed for helming The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) rather than its actual director, known simply as George Hill.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

1929/30 - Disraeli

Awards season has begun, which unashamedly makes me giddy. I've already seen a lot of the films that could potentially be recognised over the coming months but there are still plenty to go. One that I am particularly looking forward to is The Artist, especially after being named the favourite of the New York Film Critics yesterday. I'll be attending a screening of it (sadly, sans Q&A) on Friday, and will report on its merit soon.

Time now to discuss another nominee from the 1929/30 Best Picture contest...


Disraeli
Director:
Alfred E. Green
Screenplay:
Julien Josephson
(based on the play by Louis N. Parker)
Starring:
George Arliss, Joan Bennett, Florence Arliss, Anthony Bushell, David Torrence, Ivan F. Simpson, Doris Lloyd
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Arliss)

19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Arliss) is having a tough time of it. His political rival, William Gladstone, has helped to undercut Disraeli's plans for a more far-reaching British Empire. But when Egypt puts the Suez Canal on the market, Disraeli sets his sights on purchasing it in order to secure control of India. Only trouble is the head of the Bank of England (Torrence) won't release the needed funds. Not one to give up, Disraeli calls upon wealthy Jewish banker Hugh Meyers (Simpson) for a loan and, with the help of his aide Charles (Bushell), Disraeli makes every last effort to ensure the transaction is successful.

With a generous helping of dialogue, the film's genesis as a play is unmistakable. There is very little action among the mostly political discussions until at least an hour into the story when a sense of urgency is finally introduced. At this point, the tale becomes exponentially more involving. Interestingly, the plot devices used are incredibly similar to those of farce, just without the humour. Disreali observes a foreign agent sneak an important piece of paper into her sleeve and excuse herself so she can secretly read it. Our inimitable hero ushers one of his allies to pester the rival, making sure she is not alone. It's like a doorless version of Noises Off. While exciting, this sequence is clearly far from historically accurate, along with much of the film's story, I imagine. The spy element, in particular, seems rather unlikely. Nonetheless, the picture is certainly not intended to be a documentary.

One of the more realistic elements of Disraeli, namely his apparent struggle against anti-Semitism, is treated with subtlety. The film does, however, present an interesting take on women's rights. Disraeli seems somewhat enlightened in terms of allowing women to remain present when political secrets are being discussed, yet his wife tells the story of how she suffered in silence after having her finger slammed in a door. She stifled her anguish, not wanting to bother her husband. With no sense of irony, everyone agrees that this was a "wonderful thing" for her to do.

You will probably find parts of this picture dull, but it is certainly worth watching, if for George Arliss's (pictured) intelligent performance alone. He became the first British actor to win an Oscar, and was arguably also the first to benefit from the Academy's penchant for transformational character work.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

1929/30 - All Quiet on the Western Front

As a member of the Screen Actors Guild, I get invitations to all sorts of special screenings during awards season, no doubt intended to influence my vote at the SAG Awards. Idealistic as I am, I remain staunchly subjective, despite being offered free popcorn and soft drinks. I mean, I'll take the free popcorn and soft drinks - and anything else you're willing to offer me, for that matter - but no amount of bribery will make me write your film's name down on my ballot ... except, perhaps, if you offered me a role in your next film. That might do it.

In the last couple of weeks, I've heard fascinating insight into the makings of three films vying for accolades this season. First, Albert Nobbs, a moving but rather contrived film. Its flaws are forgiven, however, due to impressive performances by Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, both present for the Q & A. Next, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a complicated and moody spy thriller, made all the more complicated by a terrible viewing perspective in the front row. Some faces were seemingly distorted so drastically that it was difficult to distinguish actors from each other. Nonetheless, a front-row seat meant that, during the Q & A, I was closer to the cheekily relaxed Colin Firth and the surprisingly stuttering Gary Oldman. Finally, Hugo, a visually breathtaking 3D extravaganza that is part children's movie, part homage to early cinema. Clearly, the producers took out all the stops for this screening. It was held at the magnificent Ziegfeld in Manhattan, where guests were treated to free popcorn and drinks, followed by a Q & A attended by no less than five of the cast - Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Chloe Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield - plus the screenwriter, John Logan.

We now take a look at the Academy's pick for Best Picture of 1929/30...


All Quiet on the Western Front
Director:
Lewis Milestone
Screenplay:
George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews
(based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)
Starring:
Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis, Jr., Walter Rogers, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Richard Alexander, Harold Goodwin, Slim Summerville
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
2 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

Paving the way for many anti-war films that followed, All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a bunch of German high school boys who enlist in the army at the outset of World War I after an impassioned and patriotic speech by their teacher. At basic training, the young men are naively itching to get to the action, but once on the front, they quickly discover that war is not in the least bit exciting. It is tedious and dirty and psychologically damaging. The men are often hungry and tired, continually questioning the purpose of their exhaustion.

From the opening caption, there is no question as to what message this picture conveys. There is a veritable onslaught of "war is bad" moments and the poignancy with which that message is presented is rather overt. Nonetheless, it is indeed poignant. It is difficult not to be moved by the plight of Paul (Ayres), who after stabbing an enemy soldier in a foxhole, is forced to watch him die over the next few hours.

For a film of its era, it is commendably realistic in its portrayal of warfare. The in-your-face style of its battle sequences surely makes it the Saving Private Ryan of its day. The realism is, however, almost shot to pieces by the simplistically written characters. All the new recruits are naively idealistic and barely distinguishable from each other. So much so that they often behave as one, ducking in unison at the sound of artillery shells and complaining of hunger in a simultaneous barrage. In fact, when a couple of characters eventually become recognisable as distinct personalities, their most distinguishing trait is that they are not dead.

Furthermore, the performances are largely over the top, even for 1930 standards. Ayres (pictured) is particularly exaggerated, though he redeems himself late in the film during a touching scene in the classroom. Louis Wolheim and Slim Summerville deliver the most memorable performances for my taste, possibly because the humour of their characters allows them to get away with more theatricality.

Despite my criticisms, All Quiet on the Western Front is a thoughtfully directed and provocative film with many significantly powerful moments. Its issues may simply be a sign of its times.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

1929/30 - The Divorcee

More celebrity shoulder-rubbing stories from this past week at work. I poured some water for Andie MacDowell, was thanked by Jimmy Fallon, and witnessed a live performance by Coldplay. Other attendees that I spotted at these events were Julianna Margulies, Taraji P. Henson, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John McEnroe, Lorne Michaels, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Here endeth the name-dropping.

Don't forget to vote for the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. The poll is in the right sidebar.

Next up in the contenders vying for 1929/30's Best Picture prize is...


The Divorcee
Director:
Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay:
Nick Grindé, Zelda Sears and John Meehan
(based on the novel "Ex-Wife" by Ursula Parrott)
Starring:
Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Robert Montgomery, Florence Eldridge
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Shearer)

You would be hard pressed to find another film with such a spoiler for a title. The leading lady, Jerry (Shearer), doesn't actually become a divorcee until two-thirds of the way into the story. After marrying former lothario Ted (Morris), she is devastated to learn of his infidelity. Ted is remorseful, asserting that his fling meant nothing and that an affair need not end a marriage. His opinion is quickly reversed, however, when Jerry confesses to an affair of her own. They are summarily divorced and Jerry must now figure out what she really wants out of life.

The Divorcee is melodrama, but it is good melodrama. One might even say that it is restrained melodrama, if that's not an oxymoron. Granted, it is laboured at times. There are even a couple of instances in which dramatic pauses have been quite obviously inserted artificially by the editor. However, the result is a healthy amount of dramatic tension that, for the most part, remains subdued. Yes, the characters are emotionally volatile but there is a pleasing lack of over-the-top explosive arguments.

With a mostly straightforward storyline that grows a little more complex in the final act, The Divorcee is essentially an in-depth exploration of a relationship tainted by infidelity. The script itself is cleverly written and infused with wit. Note, for example, the way in which Jerry admits her adultery by using the phrase, "I've balanced our accounts." Then again, that wit is occasionally offset by some downright strange lines, such as the romantically intended, "I'd like to make love to you 'til you scream for help."

On DVD, The Divorcee is featured in a collection entitled Forbidden Hollywood (which you can buy by clicking on the Amazon link below - pardon the seamless plug), a set that includes films with subject matter that would undoubtedly have been unacceptable once the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced in Hollywood in the mid-1930s. However, as far as Pre-Code films go, this picture is relatively tame. In fact, director Robert Z. Leonard utilises some clever visual techniques that were in abundant use once censorship outlawed anything sexual. When Jerry commits her unfaithful deed, all the audience sees is a curtain closing over the bedroom window. Later, when Jerry is enjoying her bachelorette lifestyle, there is a montage which consists solely of close-ups of her hands being held by a series of different men. Of course, while these scenes themselves may have satisfied the Code's guidelines, the promiscuous behaviour enjoyed by the main character would certainly have been a no-no. Particularly since that behaviour goes unpunished.

Norma Shearer (pictured) won a Best Actress Oscar for her astute portrayal of a woman dealing with life's punches. Her supporting cast delivers a number of intelligent performances, but my favourite is Robert Montgomery, who is shrewdly funny as the calmly neurotic (another oxymoron?) Don.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

1929/30 - The Love Parade

Last Friday, I finally got around to redeeming a gift certificate that my darling wife had given me for my birthday in February. Yes, I am the king of procrastination. The gift certificate entitled me to a full body massage at a local spa, which, through no fault of the massage therapist, turned out to be an entire hour of cringing discomfort. To be fair, that's essentially how I've felt every time I've received a professional massage. It's not that I'm prudish. Oddly, lying almost naked while a stranger rubs his hands all over me doesn't really bother me. It's the pain that bothers me. The digging, the pinching, the grinding - all actions I'd rather not experience. You might ask, "Well, Matt, why don't you just ask the massage therapist to give you a softer massage?" Well, that would involve confrontation, silly. Instead, I just lie there with my face, hidden from my tormentor's view, scrunched in near agony. And when it's not unbearably painful, it's unbearably ticklish. For some reason, the backs of my knees are unusually sensitive. But, again, rather than risk the inevitable embarrassment of flinching when his hands tickle my knee-backs, I concentrate with every fibre of my being to remain uncomfortably still. The entire experience is, in a nutshell, full of tension, both physically and metaphorically, which is surely the exact opposite of the intended result. I am possibly the only person on the planet who requires some relaxation after a massage.

Kicking off our look at the Best Picture contest of 1929/30 is...


The Love Parade
Director:
Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay:
Guy Bolton and Ernest Vajda
(based on the play "The Prince Consort" by Jules Chancel and Leon Xanrof)
Starring:
Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette McDonald, Lupino Lane, Lillian Roth, Eugene Pallette, E.H. Calvert, Edgar Norton, Lionel Belmore
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Paris - the most romantic city in the world. Perfectly suited to the philandering lifestyle of Count Alfred Renard (Chevalier), the military attaché to the Sylvanian Embassy. His womanising exploits cause much scandal, however, eventually boiling over when he is caught in a romantic encounter with the Ambassador's wife. He is sent back to Sylvania to answer to Queen Louise (McDonald), who is conveniently unable to find a suitable husband for herself, mostly because no man desires to live in deference to her. Alfred and Louise quickly fall for each other, but making a royal marriage work proves difficult for the former Casanova, especially as he is given little respect and no power.

There are several genuinely funny moments in The Love Parade, beginning with a chuckle-worthy opening scene involving a fake suicide. The rest of the film features some great visual gags (an entire military squadron ordered to tiptoe as they march so they don't wake the Queen) and even some clever wordplay (Alfred's ludicrous explanation of why he has a French accent). Thus, as a comedy, The Love Parade succeeds quite well. As a musical, however, not so much.

Even taking into account the fact that the musical film genre had not quite perfected itself yet, there is something unsatisfying about most of the musical numbers. The lyrics are almost at the level of a Gershwin or a Berlin, but the music is bland and not at all catchy. Plus, the static visual style in which the songs are presented is a missed opportunity. I understand that, at a time when talking pictures were still a novelty, simply hearing people sing on film must have seemed interesting enough, but in this case, the audience might as well have been listening to a gramophone. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that this film is director Ernst Lubitsch's first foray into sound. The only exception to all this musical drabness is the number Let's Be Common, which features the humorous acrobatics of an energetic Lupino Lane.

Maurice Chevalier (pictured) exudes a boyish charm that is hard to dislike and his comic talents are finely displayed, earning him a Best Actor nomination. Jeanette McDonald is surprisingly natural in her debut film, after several years in the theatre. Here, she is provided with the opportunity to showcase what an amazing set of pipes she has. Also of note is Lupino Lane, who is as funny as he is agile.

All in all, The Love Parade is a relatively simple story that, despite some slow points, is worth viewing. If you can get past the flat musicality and the questionably chauvinistic resolution, you will more than likely find plenty to make you laugh.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Best Picture of 1998

I remember the 1998 Best Picture race well. Saving Private Ryan was the hot favourite to win for most of the season, right up until just before the ceremony. I recall reading the predictions of a possible upset by Shakespeare In Love but couldn't believe it would happen. The Spielberg film was my pick, both for my own personal favourite and for the Academy's favourite, and it just made no sense that a light-hearted period rom-com would best it. Having watched all five nominees again over recent weeks, let's see if my feelings have changed.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1998 are:
  • Elizabeth
  • Life Is Beautiful
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Shakespeare In Love
  • The Thin Red Line
Two of these contenders take place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but that is about all they have in common. The other three take place during World War II, two of which are ripe for comparison. Both The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan deal with the personal journeys of soldiers in battle, and somehow these two films created a pseudo-rivalry for film buffs. You're either a Thin Red Line kind of movie lover, or you're a Saving Private Ryan kind of movie lover. Whatever the implications, I think I can attest to the fact that I am not the former. I struggled with The Thin Red Line. It contained some gripping sequences but its rambling nature left me wanting. Elizabeth is next to be removed from the running. While still a fascinating film with terrific production values, there is something about it that doesn't quite hit the spot. Not a particularly intelligible reason, I know, but nonetheless, we are left with three.

Due to my support of Saving Private Ryan, I think I may have irrationally held a grudge against Shakespeare In Love for many years. Watching it again, I am happy to be reminded of what a charmingly enjoyable film it is. While I still wouldn't select it as my favourite, I am content with the Academy's decision. The year's Best Foreign Language Film winner, Life Is Beautiful, is next to go, despite being a superbly unique film that is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

I must point out how close both Life Is Beautiful and Shakespeare In Love came to taking my top prize, much closer than I remembered. Ultimately, however, I am sticking with my pick from 13 years ago and calling Saving Private Ryan my favourite from 1998. Although heavy with sentimentality, the D-Day sequence alone is almost enough for me to declare it the winner.

Best Picture of 1998
Academy's choice:

Shakespeare In Love

Matt's choice:

Saving Private Ryan


Your choice:



What kind of movie lover are you? Vote for your favourite 1998 Best Picture nominee above. I'm very interested in the results of this one. Next, we head back to the early days of the Oscars.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1929/30 are:
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • The Big House
  • Disraeli
  • The Divorcee
  • The Love Parade
Some of these titles are a little harder to find than others. They're all available from Amazon in some form or another (just click on the links below), but undoubtedly, there are other places to go if you don't want to buy a box set just for one movie.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

1998 - Saving Private Ryan

As a waiter for a catering company, I am not usually called upon to do anything too tricky. I don't have to balance several plates along my forearm and I don't have to memorise a table full of orders. On the whole, the service is relatively simple. Occasionally, however, a client will request French service for their event, which requires a little more effort. Last night, I worked on one such event.

French service is inefficient, inconvenient and wholly unnecessary. Instead of sensibly serving plates with the food already placed on them by a professional chef, French service begins by serving empty plates to the guests. Then, the waiter carries a bulky tray of food and, while awkwardly squeezing between the seated guests, serves them individually at the table. In order to achieve this, it is necessary for the waiter to twist the fingers of one hand around two oversized serving utensils in a sort of demented chopstick fashion and scoop the food directly onto the guest's plate. It's awkward and uncomfortable for both server and guest. Just ask the lady into whose lap I placed a lamb chop.

The final nominee to review from 1998's Best Picture list is...

Saving Private Ryan
Director:
Steven Spielberg
Screenplay:
Robert Rodat
Starring:
Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
5 wins, including Best Director

When three brothers in the same family are killed in action during World War II, the US Army decides to give a reprieve to the fourth brother in the family, Private James Ryan (Damon). But first they have to find him. Heading the mission to locate Ryan is Captain Miller (Hanks), fresh from helping to secure Omaha Beach on D-Day. To achieve his mission, he brings along a diverse mix of soldiers, including his second in command (Sizemore), three riflemen (Burns, Goldberg, Diesel), a sniper (Pepper), a medic (Ribisi) and a translator (Davies). As they close in on Ryan's location, they deal with other deadly skirmishes, causing them to question the rationale in risking all eight of their lives in order to save one.

After a brief prologue, Saving Private Ryan begins with some of the most riveting cinema available to experience. The D-Day scene plants the audience right in the thick of the action, and subjects it to a barrage of constant intensity that does not let up for at least twenty minutes. A genuine tour-de-force of filmmaking, all the elements are brought together to create a phenomenally gripping sequence. Historically replicated art direction, unrelenting cinematography, emphatic sound design, energetic editing and harrowing special effects. The result is simply mind-blowing.

Undeniably, the picture wears its emotions on its sleeve. Right from the start, the prologue sets a particular tone, clearly intended to elicit action from our tear ducts. Perhaps not unfairly, the film has been criticised for its sentimentality - and it is, indeed, dripping with Hollywood sentiment - but those familiar with this blog will know that sentimentality goes down well with me. Besides, it is difficult to deny Spielberg's mastery, specifically his understanding of how to present a scene. And when compared to that other World War II film in competition for Best Picture in the same year - and such comparisons are rife - there is clearly a stark difference. Whereas The Thin Red Line was a rambling tale punctuated with poetry, Saving Private Ryan has a very clear story that the audience can get behind.

Tom Hanks offers a fine performance in a role which saw him nominated for Best Actor, the film's only acting citation. The motley band of soldiers are a great mix of young talented actors, a lot of whom were relative unknowns at the time - Burns, Pepper, Goldberg, Diesel, Ribisi, Davies, Damon. The underrated Tom Sizemore is terrific in a role that could be described as the sidekick. And Paul Giamatti is a treat, showing up in a small role.

Monday, October 17, 2011

1998 - Shakespeare In Love

All too often, if given the choice, I would rather stay home and relax than go out and do something. Lazy? Probably. Hence, I'm always surprised at how much I actually enjoy going out and doing something. And living in New York City offers me many somethings to go out and do, and the more unique those somethings, the more I seem to enjoy them. On Friday afternoon, Kat and I took a trip to Lincoln Center to see the IBM Think Exhibit, an interactive multimedia presentation celebrating the way in which modern technology enriches our lives. Utterly fascinating. Later, we travelled downtown to catch a friend perform the title role in one of Shakespeare's most violent tragedies, Titus Andronicus. The following evening was spent attending another friend's performance of the wonderful O Sole Trio, a musical group offering a cabaret of opera, jazz and musical theatre with an Italian twist. Finally, on Sunday morning, we met some friends for brunch at the charming Silent Era-themed Astor Room, adjacent to the historic Kaufman-Astoria Studios. In fact, the restaurant stands on the site of the studio's former commissary. One can only imagine which stars passed through those walls.

Next to review of the 1998 nominees for Best Picture is the eventual winner...


Shakespeare In Love
Director:
John Madden
Screenplay:
Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Starring:
Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow) and Best Supporting Actress (Dench)

As the title would suggest, Shakespeare In Love centres on the romantic exploits of the world's most famous playwright, William Shakespeare (Fiennes), and you know it's a comedy because our titular hero is referred to throughout as Will. As the story begins, he is suffering from a bad case of writer's block, struggling to develop his latest comedy, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. Philip Henslowe (Rush), the theatre owner who has commissioned Will's latest play, has some problems of his own, mostly financial, so he is in dire need of a big hit.

Meanwhile, the beautiful Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow) is simply itching to be an actress, thwarted by the seemingly insurmountable fact that only men are allowed on stage. Disguising herself as Thomas Kent, she auditions for and wins the role of Romeo, and when Will discovers this deceit, the two begin a forbidden love affair. Will is married, albeit estranged from his absent wife, and Viola has been promised to the stuffy Lord Wessex (Firth). Nonetheless, with his new muse, Will's creative spark returns to him and, with a much-needed title change, Romeo and Juliet begins to take shape.

Shakespeare In Love is undeniably fun. A light-hearted and romantic romp through the Elizabethan stage, it is filled with theatre humour and Shakespearean in-jokes, which, perhaps because I am an actor myself, I especially appreciated. (A particularly amusing moment occurs during a rehearsal, when the actor playing Tybalt swaggers in speaking his line with exaggerated vigour. Ned Alleyn as Mercutio breaks character, scoffs at his scene partner and says, "Are you going to do it like that?") While there are obviously many liberties taken with the story of Shakespeare's life, one can still glean a few nuggets of truth among the dramatic license. In fact, the entire tale is in effect a "what-if" story.

As expected with such period pieces, the design is sumptuous. It is interesting, however, to contrast this design to that of the other Elizabethan film in contention for Best Picture, Elizabeth, whose design is equally extravagant, yet with a dark focus that suits that film's mood. In Shakespeare In Love, the sets and costumes are bright and playful, adding an appropriate cheerfulness to the film.

Joseph Fiennes (pictured) and Gwyneth Paltrow are pleasant leads, lending the story an affable charm. Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar which, in many people's opinion, including mine, should probably have gone to Cate Blanchett for her magnificent turn in Elizabeth. Still, Paltrow's performance here is hard to fault. She is warm and natural and altogether appropriate for the genre. With one of the shortest performances to be awarded an Oscar, Judi Dench was named Best Supporting Actress for her gleefully icy portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. The only other acting nominee was Geoffrey Rush, delivering my favourite performance of the film as the sublimely goofy Philip Henslowe. The rest of the cast is filled with delightfully whimsical performers delivering delightfully whimsical performances - Colin Firth, Simon Callow, Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett, Imelda Staunton, Martin Clunes, Mark Williams. Even Ben Affleck successfully joins in the fun.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

1998 - Life Is Beautiful

Another name-dropping story: I once again had the simultaneously exciting and humbling experience of rubbing shoulders with celebrities while serving them dinner. At a charity event last night, I presented plates to both Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, who very politely offered a simple, "Thank you." See, kids? Fame doesn't mean you have to dispense with manners.

This past weekend, Kat and I sat down to watch another Best Picture contender from 1998...


Life Is Beautiful
Director:
Roberto Benigni
Screenplay:
Roberto Benigni
Starring:
Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano, Sergio Bustric, Madre di Dora, Horst Buchholz
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actor (Benigni) and Best Foreign Language Film

Fun-loving Italian Guido Orefice (Benigni) and his good buddy Ferruccio (Bustric) arrive in Arezzo to try their luck in a big city ... well, biggish city. Almost immediately, Guido has a chance meeting with the beautiful schoolteacher Dora (Braschi), bumping into her (literally) a few more times before falling head over heels (literally) for her. Unperturbed by her engagement to a jerk, he rides in on a painted horse and sweeps her off her feet (literally).

Years later, the two are married with an adorable young son named Joshua (Cantarini). But their happy life is soon turned upside down by the horrific realities of World War II. Because they are Jewish, Guido, Joshua and Guido's uncle Eliseo (Durano) are taken away to a concentration camp. Dora, although not Jewish, demands to be sent with them so that she can be with her family. While at the camp, Guido insists to Joshua that the entire experience is one large game with a tank as the first prize. Through imaginative, and often brave, acts of quick-thinking, Guido attempts to shield his son from the tragic truth of their situation.

In a way, Life is Beautiful is two films in one - a slapstick romantic comedy with a drama as its companion piece. Both are equally captivating and they are perfectly matched, seamlessly switching from one to the other. The first half is unabashedly silly and romantically sweet. Roberto Benigni's old-fashioned style of slapstick is starkly Chaplinesque, as if the Holocaust-themed comedy needed another reason to be reminiscent of The Great Dictator.

At the midway point, the film takes a surprisingly smooth turn to the serious. Cleverly, though, the comedy is not entirely pushed aside. Quite the contrary. The improvisational nature of Benigni's character, that was so delightfully set up during the opening scenes, pays off dividends in the film's latter half. In fact, the entire premise succeeds precisely because of Guido's personality. He is essentially the glue that sticks the two potentially incongruous genres together.

Any film in a language that is foreign to me - which, embarrassingly, is every language other than English - has the unavoidable setback of requiring me to read the dialogue. In this instance, it is particularly unfortunate due to the loquaciousness of the main character. I'd much rather be looking at Benigni's face than at the bottom of the screen. It is, then, a testament to the power of the film that it is still so remarkably effective on an emotional level.

Benigni won the Academy's Best Actor prize for his buffoonish performance (delivering an equally buffoonish speech when he accepted the film's Foreign Language Film win). But his buffoonery is just so ridiculously charming, and he is extremely adept at recognising when to turn it off. His face when he realises Dr. Lessing's nervous discomfort is only due to a particularly hard-to-solve riddle is nothing short of heartbreaking. Benigni's real-life wife Braschi serves well as his foil in the comedic moments of the first half, even if she is mostly relegated to longing looks in the second. And what a find is Giorgio Cantarini, the adorable young boy who plays Joshua. Praise clearly needs to be given to Benigni yet again for directing such a young child to such an amicable performance.

Friday, September 30, 2011

1998 - Elizabeth

Since I last wrote, two rather major (and hopefully, fruitful) career accomplishments have occurred. I joined Actor's Equity, the prestigious performer's union with jurisdiction over theatre. Plus, I have finally signed with my first American talent agent. I'm pretty sure this now means I'll be on Broadway next month. That's how it works, right?

The next on 1998's list of Best Picture nominees is...


Elizabeth
Director:
Shekhar Kapur
Screenplay:
Michael Hirst
Starring:
Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Kathy Burke, John Gielgud, Fanny Ardant, Vincent Cassel
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Makeup

Queen Mary I (Burke) is reigning over a religiously divided England in the 16th century. She's Catholic and she's dying. Her advisers urge her to order the execution of her half-sister Elizabeth (Blanchett), the next in line to the throne, because of her Protestant sympathies. Fortunately, Mary saves her head and Princess Elizabeth becomes Queen Elizabeth I, much to the annoyance of the Duke of Norfolk (Eccleston), who remains staunchly opposed to her. Once on the throne, Elizabeth takes the ruthless Francis Walsingham (Rush) as her main adviser and the only person she truly trusts. But her troubles are far from over. She contends with assassination attempts and disrespectful counsellors. She carries on a secret love affair with Lord Robert Dudley (Fiennes) while rejecting the French Duc d'Anjou (Cassel). All the while, she is determined to unite England.

Elizabeth is a private look at a very public figure. While the production is a grand one, it maintains an intimacy as it explores the life of a powerful woman in a man's world. But it is, by no means, one of those quiet, upper-class, tea-and-scones types of period piece. In fact, all the elements of an intense drama are present - passion and lust, power struggles and corruption, violence and murder. And what use is a story about British royalty without a good beheading or two ... or three.

Undeniably, the film is very artistic. Not only are the sets and costumes extravagant and the cinematography exquisite, as you would expect for a film set in Elizabethan England, but also director Shekhar Kapur has composed each shot like a painting - interesting angles, candles in the foreground, half-hidden faces. It is genuinely a feast for the eyes.

Speaking of eyes, many of the cast engage in a great deal of steely-eyed acting, particularly Eccleston and James Frain. French footballer turned actor Eric Cantona seems somehow out of place. And there are an inordinate number of scenes in which Rush creepily sneaks into shot from behind a pillar and stares at something. However, in the role that introduced her to international audiences, Australian Cate Blanchett (pictured) is divine, carrying the film superbly and earning a well-deserved Best Actress nomination.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

1998 - The Thin Red Line

Perhaps I should have reconsidered attending a screening of Contagion while suffering from a cold. My coughs and sneezes may have offered those in my vicinity a whole new level of interactive experience.

Though I enjoyed the topically fascinating film, I was not entirely taken by the script. However, the fantastic cast and impressive direction did well to suppress those niggling doubts.

But what I really want to discuss is Jude Law's attempt at an Australian accent. It's disastrous. Perhaps non-Australians won't appreciate the full extent of its disastrousness, but trust me, disastrous it is. What's interesting, though, is that there doesn't seem to be any reference whatsoever to his character's nationality, which begs the question: why bother? I'm hesitant to suggest that a naturally Australian-accented actor should have been cast in the role. After all, my own opportunity for work in this country would be severely limited if actors were never allowed to play characters with accents that differed from their own. However, if the otherwise talented Mr. Law was incapable of perfecting an Australian cadence, then surely it would have been more prudent to simply make his character English.

In Law's defense, the Aussie drawl does seem to be one of those accents that is simply too difficult for a foreign actor to master. Robert Downey, Jr. came close, and Meryl Streep was moderately successful, but even those two accomplished performers didn't quite nail it. Unfortunately, though, Jude Law's effort has to rank as one of the worst.

Beginning our tour of the Best Picture nominees from 1998, we take a look at...


The Thin Red Line
Director:
Terrence Malick
Screenplay:
Terrence Malick
(based on the novel by James Jones)
Starring:
Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, John Travolta
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

As Edwin Starr asked and then immediately answered: War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. That seems to be the message in Terrence Malick's meandering The Thin Red Line, a World War II story whose primary focus is the Battle of Guadalcanal. Brigadier General Quintard (Travolta) orders C Company to seize a hill on which the Japanese have set up a bunker. Lt. Colonel Tall (Nolte) is the bad-tempered commanding officer determined to succeed. Captain Staros (Koteas) is the disobedient captain looking out for his men. Private Witt (Caviezel) is the unenthusiastic soldier recently put back into service after going AWOL. Private Bell (Chaplin) is the depressed soldier, only surviving by daydreaming about his wife back home. And that's not even half of the characters we meet and follow. They each have their own back stories and perspectives, but one thing is common to them all - the recognition and disdain of the unpredictability of war.

The artistry within The Thin Red Line is difficult to deny. Assisted by some breathtaking locations - many of which are to be found in Australia, I might add - the cinematography is exquisite. Nature plays a big role in the film and it is captured beautifully. Juxtaposing that beauty are the plentiful components of a bloody war. A violent explosion in the middle of a reedy hill is a gruesomely fascinating image. The stunt team are also to be congratulated for creating incredibly convincing effects. There are moments when it appears the stunt performer is literally in the middle of the explosion. Along with these aesthetically pleasing aspects of the film, there is a cerebral element that gives the picture a sense of poetry. In fact, the voice over narration, which is shared by several characters, is undeniably poetic, complementing the film's prettiest images.

However, if you're anything like me, your response to all this beauty and poetry may be limited to mild appreciation. Perhaps it is the unfair bias many of us have towards the mainstream, but sincere voices expounding on their emotions can easily come across as pretentious. (And yes, I'm aware of the irony of decrying pretentiousness with such pretentious language - just deal with it.) Nonetheless, The Thin Red Line still contains many traditionally narrative sequences amid its mostly rambling plot. In fact, the film is at its most captivating during the section devoted to the actual mission. The butting of heads between Tall and Staros is particularly gripping.

While featuring numerous characters mainly contributes to the film's tangentiality, it does offer the opportunity for a plethora of cameos. In fact, there were many more famous faces that were left out of the final cut. Suffice it to say, the picture features several powerful performances, and due to the nature of the film, many of those performances are far too brief, particularly those of Adrien Brody and John C. Reilly, both of whom I wanted to see more. Also worth individual mention is Jim Caviezel for his pensively touching portrayal.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Best Picture of 1967

This is one of those nominees lists that seems overstuffed with films that have stood the test of time. Well, not completely overstuffed. There's one obvious misfit. But among the other four, it was a mildly difficult task to separate them. In the end, though, one picture pushed its nose in front.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1967 are:
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Doctor Dolittle
  • The Graduate
  • Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
  • In the Heat of the Night
One of these things is not like the other. In making my verdict, I easily set aside Doctor Dolittle from the outset. While it has a fun vibe and a few entertaining moments, it is an essentially silly movie providing little competition to the other four contenders. In fact, if ever there was fodder for those critics who decry the Academy's weakness in allowing itself to be influenced by Oscar campaigning, Doctor Dolittle and its nine nominations is certainly it.

The four remaining pictures each hold a fairly high place in film lore as well as popular culture, and my own personal ranking of them leaves little room between each one. Thus, it is only with the slightest of margins that I release the next two films. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is incredibly endearing with a heartwarming story, and Bonnie and Clyde succeeds as an exciting action flick with a fascinating central relationship.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), we are left with the Academy's Best Picture winner and its Best Director winner. In the Heat of the Night is a tense racially-charged drama with superb leading actors, but my pick is Dustin Hoffman's breakout film. With its witty script and subtle performances, The Graduate takes away Matt vs. the Academy's favourite Best Picture nominee of 1967.

Best Picture of 1967
Academy's choice:

In the Heat of the Night

Matt's choice:

The Graduate


Your choice:



Please go ahead and vote for your own favourite by using the poll above. Next up, we move to the 1990s to a group of films with an interesting connection. All five are period pieces and, between them, they only depict two time periods. Two set in the Elizabethan era and three set during World War II.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1998 are:
  • Elizabeth
  • Life Is Beautiful
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Shakespeare In Love
  • The Thin Red Line


If you want to play along with Matt vs. the Academy while supporting the project, check out Amazon's DVDs and Instant Videos of 1998's nominees.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

1967 - Doctor Dolittle

Hurricane Irene swept through New York City on the weekend and it looks like we got lucky. Kat and I in particular hardly noticed a thing. As the top of the hurricane hit, the bulk of the wind force seemed to come in from a north-easterly direction. Rather fortunately, the windows in our apartment face south and west. I imagine the other side of the building felt the barrage considerably more. By the time the wind changed direction as the tail end of the hurricane arrived later on Sunday, its strength had weakened and the rain had all but stopped. It could not have been a more convenient chain of events.

As the stores reopened and the subway trains began to roll again, I watched the final nominee from 1967's Best Picture competition is...


Doctor Dolittle
Director:
Richard Fleischer
Screenplay:
Leslie Bricusse
(based on the novels by Hugh Lofting)
Starring:
Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard Attenborough, Peter Bull, Muriel Lander, William Dix, Geoffrey Holder
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
2 wins, including Best Song (Talk to the Animals)

In the English seaside town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, local Irish merchant Matthew Mugg (Newley) introduces a naive young boy named Tommy Stubbins (Dix) to the greatest animal doctor who ever lived. Doctor John Dolittle (Harrison) began his career as a regular medical doctor, but soon tired of human contact, preferring to spend time with animals instead. With no apparent formal training, Doctor Dolittle simply switches specialties and becomes a veterinarian and, thanks to the teachings of his pet parrot, he has now learned nearly 500 animal languages and can freely communicate with the dozens of animals in his care.

When Dolittle is delivered a Pushmi-Pullyu, a rare beast akin to the llama except for its two heads, the three friends trot off to the local circus to share it with the world. After a horrible misunderstanding in which two men mistake a seal for an old woman and then witness Dolittle throw it into the sea, he finds himself in court up against an unsympathetic judge (Bull) who sentences him to an insane asylum. Matthew and Tommy aid his escape and, along with the judge's pretty but brusque niece Emma (Eggar), the four set sail in search of the wandering Sea-Star Island as well as Dolittle's ultimate find, the Great Pink Sea Snail, a creature most experts believe to be mythical.

Doctor Dolittle is very much a children's movie. It's silly, fantastical and plays like a pantomime. The central conceit itself, that of a man who can converse with animals, is obviously pretty ridiculous. Peppered throughout are several childish gags, including a horse with glasses reading from an eye chart. While it would not be unfair to label this picture as immature, that is not necessarily a criticism. It's just that you may need to still have your baby teeth to get the most out of it. I mean, what ten-year-old wouldn't like a story about a giant pink sea snail? Curiously, though, with such a clever and witty rhyming scheme, the lyrics seem decidedly advanced for the little ones to truly appreciate. The Academy certainly appreciated them, however. They awarded Talk to the Animals their Best Song award.

Visually, it is an impressive film. With some aesthetically pleasing locations and a host of interesting designs, Doctor Dolittle at times is genuinely majestic. It also scored an Oscar for Special Visual Effects, and while there are indeed some effects worthy of oohs and aahs, some of the puppetry is afflicted with a slight case of lifelessness. However, the most incredible feat of the film is undeniably the animal wrangling. Kudos to the trainers who succeed in eliciting charmingly anthropomorphic performances from their pets. Animals of all shapes and sizes adorn the set, often dozens at the same time. I shudder to think of the clean-up that was required afterwards. It must have been a smelly set.

Now, what can I say about Rex Harrison (pictured) and his talky singing? It may have worked well for him in My Fair Lady, perhaps due to the loquaciousness of the lyrics he was given to perform, but it falls rather flat here. The effect is similar to watching a rehearsal, so much does it take away from the numbers' musicality and from Harrison's otherwise delightful performance. Anthony Newley - who is also known for his musical collaboration with Doctor Dolittle's composer and screenwriter, Leslie Bricusse - delivers an amiable performance as the Irish charmer. Also watchable is a young (well, younger) Richard Attenborough as the circus owner, Mr. Blossom.

Ultimately, Doctor Dolittle is a fluffy, silly movie, which makes it all the more surprising that it made the Best Picture shortlist. Mind you, they loved their musicals back then, so perhaps it's not as surprising as it would be if it were to happen today, but still a little puzzling.