Saturday, February 26, 2011

2005 - Brokeback Mountain

Another Oscar day has arrived. Since I'm writing this late Saturday night, most of you will be reading this on (or after) Oscar day. Here in Las Vegas, I will be hosting a small party for the cast and crew of Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion. I may not have had time recently to discuss this year's awards race as I had hoped, but for those interested, here are my 2010 Oscar predictions.

As we wait to hear the announcement for the latest Best Picture winner, we look at another nominee from 2005...

Brokeback Mountain
Ang Lee
Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
(based on the short story by Annie Proulx)
Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins, including Best Director

Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) get hired to tend some sheep in the Wyoming mountains over the summer of 1963. Through the lonely months, the two men develop a friendship that slowly blossoms into passionate intimacy. Knowing that their bond will likely be frowned upon back home, they part ways at the end of the summer. In Wyoming, Ennis marries Alma (Williams) and they raise two daughters. Meanwhile, in Texas, Jack meets and marries Lureen (Hathaway) and they raise one son. After four years, Jack visits Ennis and, under the guise of a fishing trip, they rekindle their romance. Unable to go public, the two men must make do with periodic "fishing trips" while attending their families.

The opening act of Brokeback Mountain exudes a very comfortable mood. Life in the mountains seems quiet and easy, the perfect complement to a budding romance. The Oscar-nominated cinematography not only includes stunningly beautiful landscapes but also a stunningly beautiful (if a little misplaced) shot of Heath Ledger brooding in front of a colourful fireworks display. Adding to the feeling of comfort is the affectingly simple score, touching and romantic.

The Oscar-winning script also takes advantage of simplicity, maintaining an efficiency of dialogue. The pleasant pace of the opening scenes as Ennis and Jack's relationship develops is counteracted by a certain swiftness when it comes to other major life events. Before we know it, the two men have found wives and are already starting families.

Much has been said by reviewers far more competent than I in regards to which label should be given to the leading men's sexuality. Clearly, popular culture refers to the film as the gay cowboy movie, but both men freely engage in sexual encounters with women and appear to be just as affectionate, so it would seem not too inappropriate to identify them as bisexual. Having said that, the story paints a picture of two men who are trying to discover exactly what it is they feel, so perhaps labels of any kind are useless.

Director Ang Lee won an Oscar for his delicate touch guiding a fine young cast, three of whom received Oscar nominations - Heath Ledger as the emotionally stunted Ennis, Jake Gyllenhaal as the frustrated Jack, and Michelle Williams as the humiliated Alma. Although without a nomination, Anne Hathaway is delightful and fun as the playful Lureen. All four of these actors play their characters as they age some twenty years. Despite such stirring portrayals, it becomes somewhat tough to accept these 20-something performers in their roles once their characters are in their mid-forties.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2005 - Capote

Quite a jam-packed week it's been here in Las Vegas. With Valentine's Day, my birthday and a weekend visit from my darling wife, I've been just a little busy. I also managed to squeeze in two more shows - front row seats to probably my favourite magic act, Penn & Teller, who did not disappoint, and then a fun and raucous night at the medieval jousting show Tournament of Kings. And there's still a gazillion other shows on my wish list...

In the midst of all that activity, I took a look at the next nominee from the Best Picture race of 2005...

Bennett Miller
Dan Futterman
(based on the book by Gerald Clarke)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr., Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Mark Pellegrino, Chris Cooper, Amy Ryan
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Hoffman)

Fresh off the success of his novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, author Truman Capote (Hoffman) comes across a newspaper article about the brutal murder of a family in Kansas. Deciding this will be the subject of his next book, he travels to the area with close friend Harper Lee (Keener), herself an author, waiting for her first novel To Kill a Mockingbird to be published. Capote acquaints himself with the lead detective on the case, Alvin Dewey (Cooper), who is initially reluctant to disclose any information despite Capote's inquiries. However, Dewey allows Capote to visit the two main suspects, Perry Smith (Collins) and Richard Hickock (Pellegrino), in their holding cell, and Capote begins to develop an unlikely bond with Perry, which goes so far as helping them find a lawyer for their upcoming trial, much to Dewey's disdain. Over the next few years, sometimes at the expense of his relationship with Jack Dunphy (Greenwood), Capote continues to help the murderous pair in the hopes that Perry will give details about that fateful day that he can use in his book.

Despite its leisurely pace, Capote is intensely engrossing. Fascinating characters with fascinating motivations - the necessary ingredients for a fascinating story. With such personal subject matter, the film easily hangs on to its audience's attention. Mychael Danna's haunting score deserves a big part of the credit for that, as does Bennett Miller's sensitive direction. He lets the film breathe. The aforementioned leisurely pace is certainly no accident.

Like Good Night, and Good Luck, Capote is an actor's piece. Both scripts boast strong lead characters surrounded by plenty of engaging minor roles, a recipe for many a juicy scene. Not coincidentally, both were written by actors. You may remember Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman as the son of gay lovers played by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. Futterman's script is subtle and concise, yet another element of the film that enhances the pensive mood.

Notwithstanding the brilliance of all those other collaborators, Philip Seymour Hoffman (pictured) is arguably the film's greatest success. His innately watchable demeanour, complete with Truman Capote affectations, is both infectious and captivating, particularly in his character's attention-seeking party scenes. A plethora of impassioned supporting performances, including Catherine Keener's sensible Harper Lee, Chris Cooper's reticent Dewey and a breakout performance by Clifton Collins, Jr. as the conflicted Perry Smith, contribute to an already absorbing picture.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

2005 - Good Night, and Good Luck.

Another week of shows has passed here in Las Vegas - both as performed and as seen. While I've been treading the boards of the V Theater at Planet Hollywood in Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion, I've also managed to see some other shows on the Strip. Fellow Aussies Human Nature have an incredibly slick and entertaining Motown show at the Imperial Palace. And I also was blown away by two Cirque du Soleil shows - the creative and moving Love at the Mirage, which features the music of the Beatles, and the spectacular and awe-inspiring Ka at the MGM Grand, which features theatrical stunts that boggle the mind, including indoor fireworks ... Indoor fireworks, I tell you!

As we launch into another year of nominees, the poll for the next year of review has now been posted. Let me know which 1970s shortlist you would like to see next by voting in the poll on the right.

Last night, I began my review of 2005's Best Picture contenders by having a look at...

Good Night, and Good Luck.
George Clooney
George Clooney & Grant Heslov
David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey, Jr., Frank Langella, Ray Wise
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Using real footage of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Communist-hunting Senate investigations, Good Night, and Good Luck centres on the newsmen who publicly criticised his questionable tactics. As the host of the news magazine series See It Now, Edward R. Murrow (Strathairn) is stoically honest. He and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) decide to tackle McCarthyism by first airing a show about Milo Radulovich, an Air Force lieutenant kicked out of the military because of his family's political leanings.

Although Murrow and his colleagues were careful to avoid a direct attack on the Senator, the controversial episode catches the attention of network executive Bill Paley (Langella), who warns the journalistic team that they are in dangerous waters. He explains that, since the viewing public mostly wants entertainment, news programs like See It Now are teetering on the edge. When Radulovich is reinstated, Murrow and Friendly take the plunge and begin putting together an episode that will expose the Senator himself, knowing the backlash may jeopardise the show and their careers.

In a way, Good Night, and Good Luck is a very simple film. At only 93 minutes, the narrative is concise, echoing Murrow's own straightforwardness. There is little in the way of physical action, and the entire film takes place indoors, often in small television studios and claustrophobic offices. The black and white cinematography, rife with close-ups and a steady flow of cigarette smoke, accentuates the simplicity, creating a constant feeling that our characters are in the middle of something big.

Despite this narrative economy, the picture somehow manages to squeeze in a couple of equally intriguing subplots. News anchor Don Hollenbeck's (Wise) story of demise is agonisingly poignant. And there is some light tension in watching Joe and Shirley Wershba (Downey and Clarkson) vainly attempt to conceal knowledge of their marriage, which is against company policy. The script by movie star George Clooney and his business partner Grant Heslov is frank and sincere, with more than the occasional witty quip. When Murrow offers to pay for his show's advertising himself with Friendly's help, he laments that Friendly may not be able to afford to buy Christmas presents for his children. The news director points out that Friendly is Jewish, to which Murrow replies, "Well, don't tell him that. He loves Christmas."

In the lead role, the underrated David Strathairn (pictured) as the audacious reporter is expertly subtle, almost stolid, earning his only Oscar nomination to date. Frank Langella delivers another strong performance as the network head forced to administer some tough love. The rest of the accomplished cast - Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, George Clooney - all excel, but Ray Wise is simply heartbreaking as a man expending all his energy pretending not to be sad. And for the trivia buffs, Edward R. Murrow himself has already appeared in Matt vs. the Academy, delivering the introduction to 1956 Best Picture nominee Around the World in 80 Days.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Best Picture of 1930/31

There have been numerous verdicts during the course of Matt vs. the Academy that have been maddeningly difficult due to an abundance of quality cinema. Choosing my favourite nominee from 1930/31 is likewise difficult, but for the opposite reason. The shortlist is perhaps the weakest that I have covered to date, with no film jumping out as a clear winner.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1930/31 are:
  • Cimarron
  • East Lynne
  • The Front Page
  • Skippy
  • Trader Horn
Clearly, with the advent of sound, motion picture production took some time to adjust and the kinks were still being ironed out a few years later. Without dialogue, silent films essentially relied on melodrama to communicate their stories. Once sound arrived, melodrama was no longer required but it stuck around anyway. The five films above are not entirely without merit, however. While each picture fails to size up to later classics, they each excel in at least one aspect.

Adventure story Trader Horn is perhaps the most melodramatic, its performances especially. The footage of African wildlife shot on location is utterly gratuitous, yet still fascinating. As a drama, East Lynne's schmaltz is perhaps a little more fitting, but it still comes across as a soap opera. Nonetheless, Ann Harding in the lead role delivers an engaging performance well worth a look. Cimarron is one of those epic yet personal tales that has so often gained favour with the Academy. No great surprise, then, that it went on to win the Best Picture trophy. Its action scenes are particularly spectacular, but again, melodrama gets in the way.

Thus, we are left with two comedies. Whereas in later years, comedic films struggle to be noticed amongst powerful dramatic content, here the three dramas suffer from too much sentimentality, leaving The Front Page and Skippy to be remembered. The snappy dialogue in The Front Page is amusing and energetic, but Skippy's charm, both in its witty script and its child performances, makes it a slightly more fun experience making it my official pick of the 1930/31 Best Picture nominees.

Best Picture of 1930/31
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:


Your choice:

Have your say by voting for your favourite of the nominees using the poll above. Next, we move back to a more recent Best Picture race by taking a look at the contenders from just a few years ago.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 2005 are:
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Capote
  • Crash
  • Good Night and Good Luck
  • Munich
Stay tuned...

Friday, February 4, 2011

1930/31 - Trader Horn

The first few shows of Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion are under our collective belt and word is spreading of our improvised insanity. On stage this week, I have drowned on a water-slide, sung about gum-scrapers and confessed to stealing a cat with Lindsay Lohan. What happens in Vegas...

We've reached the end of the current crop of nominees so make sure to get your vote in for the next year of review. The poll is over there on the right hand side of the screen.

Last night, I caught the final nominee from the 1930/31 Best Picture race...

Trader Horn
W.S. Van Dyke
Dale Van Every, John Thomas Neville, Richard Schayer, Cyril Hume
(based on the book by Ethelreda Lewis and Alfred Aloysius Horn)
Harry Carey, Edwina Booth, Duncan Renaldo, Mutia Omoolu, Olive Golden
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

In Africa, we meet a man who calls himself Trader Horn (Carey), presumably because he is in the business of trading elephant ivory. He and his companion Peru (Renaldo) along with a native guide they call Ranchero (Omoolu) run into missionary Edith Trent (Golden) who is searching for her long-lost daughter Nina (Booth), captured by a local tribe years ago. When Mrs. Trent is killed, Horn and company continue the search encountering perilous wildlife and unfriendly natives.

Classifying Trader Horn as an adventure film seems the most appropriate, yet perhaps one could argue another way. Despite its renown for being the first fictional film to be shot on location in Africa, at times it plays out like a nature documentary. Several sections of the narrative see Horn pointing out various species of African wildlife and offering his travelling partner a brief description of the animals' behaviour. We also witness Horn interact with the local tribesmen, all played by actual African natives.

Since many of these scenes are gratuitous, offering little in the way of moving the plot forward, one wonders why they didn't just make a documentary. However, the images captured are indeed fascinating. Seeing all these animals in their natural habitat is often spectacular, especially when we witness displays of aggression. Had the American Humane Association had their Film & TV Unit in operation at the time, no doubt they would have had a field day with the scenes in which hunters shoot rhinos or throw spears at lions.

The picture occasionally expounds some racist ideas, which is unfortunate. I suppose that's what you get when you base your story on the life of a 19th century white ivory trader. Nonetheless, there are a few tense moments within the drama, specifically when our heroes are suddenly tied upside-down by the natives. Although, they are released almost immediately so the tension passes quickly.

Like East Lynne from the same year, Trader Horn managed to secure a Best Picture nomination without receiving a single other nod. Clearly, the safari spectacle was enough for voters to push it over the line. The cast, led by Harry Carey as the intrepid adventurer, are mostly melodramatic, not an uncommon occurrence for pictures of this era.