Monday, April 25, 2011

Best Picture of 1973

Another set of nominees in the can and another verdict to be made. I must say that the decision this time around was one of the easiest I've had to make in quite some time. In my mind, there was a clear frontrunner that was simply the most enjoyable. Consequently, my verdict below is possibly the shortest I've yet written.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1973 are:
  • American Graffiti
  • Cries and Whispers
  • The Exorcist
  • The Sting
  • A Touch of Class
Forget about trying to compare this bunch. Nominee shortlists have been diverse before, but 1973's selection is ridiculously multifarious. A 1960s coming-of-age comedy, a foreign arthouse film, a supernatural horror, a 1930s heist flick and a quirky romantic comedy.

Although, perhaps these films' commonality, with one exception, is in their sense of fun, albeit for entirely different reasons. American Graffiti's youthful fun is borne out of nostalgia. A Touch of Class delights with its witty and romantic fun. For those who get a kick out of a good fright, The Exorcist provides a fun and scary ride. On the other end of the spectrum, Cries and Whispers is intensely sombre. A fascinating film, but not one that many people would describe as fun.

The most fun of all, however, is The Sting. Playful and clever, it is terrifically entertaining cinema. From the script to the design to the cast to everything else in between, The Sting succeeds as a charming piece of escapism. So, just as the Academy did, I officially declare The Sting my Best Picture of 1973.

Best Picture of 1973
Academy's choice:

The Sting

Matt's choice:

The Sting

Your choice:

Please feel free to voice your opinion using the poll above or the comments section below. For our next adventure, we move back to the 1940s for yet another diverse selection of pictures. Your votes resulted in a tie between two contests, so I used my blogger's prerogative to settle the stalemate.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1948 are:
  • Hamlet
  • Johnny Belinda
  • The Red Shoes
  • The Snake Pit
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
This week, I'm heading back to Las Vegas for another stint with the Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion. But fear not, the Oscar-nominee-watching shall continue...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

1973 - A Touch of Class

Last chance to vote for which year from the 1940s we will investigate next. The poll is over there on the right and down a little.

Closing out our current shortlist, the last nominee from the 1973 Best Picture race is...

A Touch of Class
Melvin Frank
Melvin Frank & Jack Rose
George Segal, Glenda Jackson, Paul Sorvino, K Callan, Hildegard Neil
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Jackson)

In the classic screwball style of 1940s Hollywood, A Touch of Class follows the shamelessly unfaithful Steve Blackburn (Segal), an American living with his family in London. By chance, he meets divorced English designer Vicky Allessio (Jackson) and, after sharing a flirtatious cab ride, they arrange a date. A couple of rendezvous later, Steve takes Vicky to a hotel for some, ahem ... action. Apparently unperturbed by beginning an illicit affair, Vicky is more concerned that a hotel room is not the ideally romantic place for it. No sooner does she suggest a weekend getaway together than Steve is on the phone organising a trip to Spain. After making excuses to his wife (Neil) and her visiting parents, Steve and Vicky head to the airport, where they hit a small stumbling block. An annoying old friend of Steve's named Walter (Sorvino) is flying to the same vacation spot. Encountering various other hindrances on their romantic getaway, the two forbidden lovers do their best to keep their affair fun and frivolous while trying to avoid the big question - what happens when they get back home?

Despite the overtly 1970s hair and fashion, A Touch of Class is reminiscent of those fast-paced screwball comedies of decades gone by. It's not difficult to imagine, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as the two smitten lovebirds, trading witty barbs and throwing clothes at each other. There are plenty of hilarious misunderstandings and slapstick pratfalls to keep the audience's journey fun and amusing. There are even elements of British farce, not surprising given the London setting. Yet, the film avoids venturing too far into the absurd, managing to convey sincerity when necessary.

What sets this picture apart from the screwball genre, however, is that Hollywood in the 1940s would never have gotten away with such blatant infidelity - certainly not when the adulterous man escapes the affair with no consequences. Granted, there are clearly psychological consequences as Steve alludes to in his telegram, but his wife is none the wiser about the whole ordeal, so presumably, they continue to play happy family. Which brings us to the film's unavoidable pitfall. As a romantic comedy, one expects the traditional happy ending, but when one of the participants in the romance is married with two kids and shows no desire to leave his wife, a traditional happy ending is out of the question. Things are going to get complicated. And that's more the territory of romantic drama, not romantic comedy. Of the two women in Steve's life, the audience has just spent an hour and a half getting familiar with the other woman, hardly getting to know his wife at all. Consequently, the conclusion is a little unsatisfying, if perfectly inevitable.

George Segal and Glenda Jackson both deliver the snappy dialogue with just the right amount of nonchalance. Jackson won her second Oscar (and a Golden Globe) for her intelligent performance, despite it not being traditional Oscar bait. Segal won a Golden Globe but received no love from the Academy for a portrayal that he does so well, that of the neurotic but likable everyman. Also endearing is Paul Sorvino as the bothersome but ultimately insightful friend.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

1973 - The Exorcist

This week, I was fortunate enough to be working at an event at which Steve Martin was in attendance. I managed to serve him a plate of salmon while fighting the urge to hand him my headshot and resume. Along with last week's sighting of Alec Baldwin at a similar event, I have now rubbed shoulders with both of the hosts of last year's Oscars ceremony. (See? I managed to bring it back to the topic at hand.)

Yesterday, for the very first time, I closed the curtains to watch a modern horror classic that was nominated for Best Picture for 1973...

The Exorcist
William Friedkin
William Peter Blatty
(based on his novel)
Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
2 wins, including Best Adapted Screenplay

In keeping with previous decisions regarding which version of a nominee to review when there is more than one available, I snubbed the extended edition of The Exorcist - subtitled The Version You've Never Seen - in favour of the 25th Anniversary DVD, which appears to be the closest to the original theatrical release. Alas, I missed out on the famed spider-walk, a deleted scene that was restored for the 2000 re-release.

Film actress Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) has her hands full when her typically sweet 12-year-old daughter Regan (Blair) experiences occasional bouts of profane and violent behaviour. A team of psychiatrists offer mostly unhelpful solutions, dismissing Chris' insistent suggestion that her daughter may be possessed by an evil spirit. After the suspicious death of the director (MacGowran) of her latest movie, Chris suspects that her daughter's newfound demonic strength may be responsible. As Regan's condition worsens, Chris calls in the help of Father Karras (Miller), the Catholic church's resident psychiatrist, who, in turn, calls in a specialist, Father Merrin (von Sydow).

The Exorcist certainly takes its jolly time setting the scene. There is a rather extended period at the beginning of the film that is without a great deal of action. It's all important back story and character development, but since Regan's possession is such a gradual process, the film lacks the usual catalyst that kicks a story into gear... And that is almost definitely not an accident. As in all good horror movies, this long set-up provides the perfect amount of suspense, slowly building the tension so that when we finally glimpse Regan in all her possessed glory, it is that much more effective.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not a picture for the faint of heart. 'Disturbing' only begins to describe the creepy and disgusting things that appear on screen. In fact, Cries and Whispers is not the only 1973 nominee to feature the self-mutilation of female private parts. However, in this instance, it is a 13-year-old girl and the weapon of choice is a crucifix. Kudos to the special effects team who very effectively augment the distastefulness in this scene and several others. Nor is this a picture for the faint of ear. Some of the things that come out of that little girl's mouth would make Melissa Leo blush.

Director William Friedkin has worked hard at imbuing the story with a sense of realism despite its supernatural themes. (In fact, on the DVD, Friedkin introduces the film by rather laughably claiming it is loosely based on true events.) For the most part, this realism enhances the terror. However, I have to take issue with the utter ineptitude of the character of Lt. Kinderman, played by Lee J. Cobb. He appears to be the least thorough police detective on the force. During his investigation of a suspicious death, he dismisses natural causes out of hand despite admitting the albeit tiny possibility. When he asks Chris whether there may have been any visitors to the house, such as tradesmen, she explains that her housekeeper Karl takes care of those things. Rather than investigate further, Kinderman merely laments that the theory was a remote idea and not worth seeing through. To top it all off, before he leaves, he very unprofessionally asks Chris for an autograph. That's meticulous detective work right there.

The cast successfully do their part with naturalistic performances. In particular, young Linda Blair shows a flair for the natural in her pre-possessed scenes. She is then suitably freaky when called for, earning herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Jason Miller's brooding turn as the priest/psychiatrist is very impressive, worthy of his Supporting Actor nod. The third acting nomination went to a committed Ellen Burstyn as the highly distressed mother whose constant irritability, although completely justified given the circumstances, is a little ... well, irritating. Nonetheless, Burstyn is, as always, magnificent. Previous Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge provides the voice of the possessing demon. And look out for the writer himself, William Peter Blatty, in a cameo as the producer of the film that Chris is shooting.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

1973 - Cries and Whispers

During a lovely stroll along the High Line on Manhattan's West Side, Kat and I stumbled upon a rather sad sight indeed. Is there anything that could elicit more sympathy than a five-year-old girl holding a limp piece of silver ribbon and crying with devastation as she watches her balloon fly off into the upper atmosphere? Reminded me of this.

Yesterday, I took in a classic Swedish film from 1973, a rare foreign-language Best Picture nominee...

Cries and Whispers
Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman
Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson, Henning Moritzen, Georg Arlin
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Cinematography

If you don't like artsy foreign films, probably best for you to steer clear of Cries and Whispers. From acclaimed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, the film centres on three estranged sisters, one of whom, Agnes (Andersson), is dying slowly ... painfully slowly. Her flirty sister Maria (Ullman) and her morose sister Karin (Thulin) are relatively useless at comforting her during this rough time. Thankfully, however, the family maid Anna (Sylwan) shares a particularly special bond with Agnes, managing to calm her down when her misery is at its worst. Through a series of flashbacks, we also get an insight into each sister's predicament in life.

It would be easy to label Cries and Whispers pretentious. From the prolonged opening scene, the picture is rife with lingering shots of emotional faces complemented by lingering shots of characters performing mundane tasks. Even the simple act of changing into one's nightdress is treated with laboured intensity. Granted, a terminally ill family member can make things around the house a tad sombre, but Bergman never lets up. The intensity is constant.

Coincidentally, only hours before I watched this film, I had read an article in which Woody Allen discusses Bergman's influence on his film-making, making reference to the Swede's poetic style of cinema. That poetry is clearly evident in Cries and Whispers. Words are sparse, but when they are spoken, they are often heard via a lengthy monologue that, on the page, must surely have read like poetry. Only through this approach could one get away with lines like, "It's but a tissue of lies."

But the artiness doesn't stop at the dialogue. Metaphors abound throughout the film, from the audacious reds and whites of the production design to the myriad close-ups of ticking clocks. Not to mention the agonising cries and disembodied whispers of the title. Furthermore, the narrative features several odd events that would leave most avant-garde performance artists to shame. One such oddity involves Karin cutting herself in the you-know-where with some broken glass before smearing her own blood across her mouth.

Despite all the surrealism, the cast deliver incredibly natural performances, mostly understated except for those agonising cries. But even this naturalism can not prevent the film being decidedly unrealistic. I found myself constantly scrunching my face in confusion ... until it hit me - it's not supposed to be realistic. The dream-like atmosphere is intentional. (Certain paranormal events near the end of the story make it difficult to draw any other conclusion.) And just like a dream, there is symbolism amidst the strangeness. Eternal truths and observations about life can be depicted through metaphor, allowing for a different perspective. When looking at life through this ornate lens, it suddenly becomes fascinating in unexpected ways. Of course, it's not everyone's cup of tea - and, sadly, I think I may fall into that category - but with all its intensity, it is certainly engaging. You just have to make it past the initial niggling feeling that nothing is happening.

On a separate note, I stumbled upon an unfortunate distraction during my viewing of Cries and Whispers. Since the dialogue is entirely in Swedish, I watched the film with English subtitles, preferring that over watching the dubbed version. However, with Bergman's penchant for close-ups, the subtitles frequently appeared directly over somebody's mouth, corrupting the careful framing. Thus, in this instance, it may actually be preferable to watch the version that has been dubbed with English dialogue, especially considering the voices are mostly that of the Swedish cast.

Friday, April 1, 2011

1973 - The Sting

This past Sunday, I made my U.S. television debut in the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce, starring Kate Winslet. If you missed it, here's a screen grab of my turn as the obviously integral Starched Collar Man #2. (I'm on the right.) In fact, even if you watched the show on Sunday night, you may still have missed it, that brief was my appearance. For those of you with HBO, I believe you can now watch the first two episodes on demand, so fast forward to about 43:15 into Part One and keep your finger poised on the pause button.

The poll for the next year of review is now up, situated to the right of your screen. Coincidentally, the Joan Crawford version of Mildred Pierce is in the running.

Yesterday, I looked at the eventual Best Picture winner from 1973...

The Sting
George Roy Hill
David S. Ward
Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, John Heffernan, Dana Elcar, Jack Kehoe, Dimitra Arliss, Robert Earl Jones
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director & Best Original Screenplay

During the Great Depression, small-time grifter Johnny Hooker (Redford) and his accomplice Luther (Jones) successfully con a gangster out of $11,000. Unbeknownst to them, their mark was a crony of Irish crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). When Lonnegan has Luther killed, Hooker flees to an old friend of Luther's named Henry Gondorff (Newman), a big-time con artist who can teach Hooker how to pull off more lucrative scams. Together, they plan a high-stakes con of Lonnegan, which involves employing dozens of  accomplices, constructing a fake betting parlor and painting half a Western Union office. As the sting progresses, Hooker must also avoid the trail of corrupt police Lieutenant Snyder (Durning) who Hooker earlier paid off with counterfeit cash.

The Sting is undeniably a fun piece of cinema, full of playful energy. Central to that playfulness is the cunning trickery that the film's con men employ. With so many clever twists and turns, one sometimes joyfully experiences a mild confusion in separating what is genuine and what is merely part of the con. It is, therefore, a tad disappointing to have foreknowledge of these twists, as I did on this repeat viewing of the film. Being aware of the final twist is especially unfortunate, although it does bring a new perspective to those subtle glances between characters. In any case, there is certainly more than one twist during the course of the story and I didn't remember them all, so there were still a few surprises remaining for me to delight in.

Enhancing the picture's jaunty atmosphere are the brilliant 1930s-inspired production values. Each aspect submerges the audience deeper into the period - quaint sets, dapper costumes, slangy dialogue. And that music. Scott Joplin's popular rags, headlined by the smile-inducing The Entertainer, are wonderfully evocative.

As the leader of the confidence team, Paul Newman is at his charming best. He squeezes every drop of wit from an already incredibly witty script. Especially enjoyable is his character's fake drunkenness. Robert Redford's natural gift of subtlety gives Hooker a sarcastic sincerity that is, as always, innately watchable. Robert Shaw brings his stoic intensity to his portrayal of Lonnegan. Charles Durning is, likewise, brilliant. As are Ray Walston, Harold Gould, Dana Elcar, Jack Kehoe, Eileen Brennan, and I could go on. The entire cast all slip seamlessly into their characters, helped along by the excellent script, no doubt, but that's not to diminish the effectiveness of their performances. And if Luther looks familiar to you, imagine him as a Sith Lord saying, "I am your father!" Those words actually ring true since Robert Earl Jones is, indeed, the father of the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones, who is the spitting image of his dear old dad.