Thursday, May 26, 2011

1948 - The Red Shoes

My bruised rib and I are back in New York City once more. While it continues to heal, I have already started rehearsing for another show - another fast-paced, energetic production rife with rib-bruising opportunities. Performing as part of the NY Comic Book Theater Festival, Batz follows a bunch of nerdy office workers as they pay homage to the Dark Knight by re-enacting classic Batman comics using only office supplies for props and costumes.

After a short hiatus, I continued yesterday with my review of 1948's nominees for Best Picture by watching...

The Red Shoes
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger and Keith Winter
(based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson)
Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, Albert Bassermann, Esmond Knight, Ludmilla Tcherina
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
2 wins, for Best Art Direction and Best Original Score

Before Black Swan grabbed the tragic ballerina mantle, there was The Red Shoes. This much-revered classic of British cinema centres on the Ballet Lermontov, a touring company headed by perfectionist taskmaster Boris Lermontov (Walbrook). New to the company are Vicky Page (Shearer), an up-and-coming ballerina with an innate love of dance, and Julian Craster (Goring), a budding young composer hired as the orchestral coach. Soon, Julian is entrusted with composing the score for a new ballet based on the tragic story The Red Shoes, which will see Vicky dance the leading role. When Vicky and Julian fall in love, Boris is furiously opposed to the affair, believing romance to be a fatal distraction for any artist.

With its spectacular design and cinematography, The Red Shoes is visually stunning. The vibrant colours are particularly striking for a film of this vintage. As a film about ballet, it unsurprisingly also features a great deal of delightful music and dancing, including an elongated sequence that presents an actual staged ballet, which brings us to the subject that will occupy the majority of this review.

Now, I'm by no means a ballet fan, but it's hard to deny that the presentation of The Red Shoes as a ballet is simply exquisite. Extravagant and innovative, it utilises creative special effects along with accomplished choreography to produce a truly magical experience. Gratuitous, but magical nonetheless. Undoubtedly, this picture paved the way for the final dance sequence in An American In Paris three years later, a similarly spectacular yet gratuitous display.

The problem, if you can even call it a problem, is mostly due to the way in which this sequence oddly disassociates itself with reality. As visually pleasing as the cinematic effects are, they push the film into surreal territory by presenting instantaneous costume changes on stage and stunning visions of beach scenes superimposed over the audience. On their own, these events add to the magic of the sequence, but in the context of a live staged performance, they are a little confusing. Yet, we don't appear to be in the world of The Red Shoes, either, since Vicky experiences hallucinatory visions during the performance of Craster and Boris, who are clearly not characters within the narrative of the fairy tale. So, are we in the world of the fairy tale or the world of the Ballet Lermontov? The answer seems to be "neither".

Once the ballet sequence has concluded, the story kicks into gear becoming especially engaging. The stakes are high and the characters are forced to make gravely important decisions about art and love. Particularly compelling is Boris' internal struggle. His passion for Vicky and her potential is most probably merely that of a mentor, but it could perhaps also be interpreted as unrequited love. No doubt, my fascination with this character was influenced by Anton Walbrook's passionate and nuanced performance. While Moira Shearer (pictured) is sweet and delectable as the prima ballerina, for me, it is Walbrook that steals the film.

I am left in two minds about The Red Shoes. I genuinely enjoyed both the magical ballet sequence and the intriguing narrative. Considered separately, they are equally engrossing, yet somehow, they don't quite fit together perfectly.

(For an interesting perspective on the similarities between The Red Shoes and Black Swan - apart from the similar publicity shots - check out Andrew O'Rourke's article on The Playground.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

1948 - Hamlet

Matt's tip of the day: Don't ever get a bruised rib. It hurts to cough. It hurts to sneeze. It hurts to go from lying down to sitting up. It just hurts. And it's not really worth the three seconds of laughter that you might get from an audience who witness your pratfall.

Since rest is pretty much the only suggested remedy for a bruised rib, last night I rested as I watched the victor among 1948's Best Picture contenders...

Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier
(based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Norman Wooland, Felix Aylmer, Terence Morgan
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Olivier)

Laurence Olivier's iconic adaptation of Shakespeare's most famous work, Hamlet centres on that angst-ridden prince of Denmark with the funny name. Hamlet (Olivier) is depressed. His father is dead, murdered by his uncle Claudius (Sydney) in order to take the throne. To make matters worse, Claudius, now the King, married Hamlet's grieving mother, Gertrude (Herlie). When a troop of travelling actors come to town, Hamlet has the ingenious idea of pushing Claudius' buttons by orchestrating a play that exactly mirrors the new King's murderous act. Meanwhile, the object of his affection, Ophelia (Simmons), is slowly going mad. And, like any good Shakespearean tragedy, by the story's conclusion, almost everyone is dead.

I still vividly remember the moment of clarity I experienced the first time I saw Olivier's masterpiece. It may well have been the first time I truly understood Hamlet, or possibly any of Shakespeare's plays. Olivier (along with his outstanding cast) is extremely adept at making accessible Shakespeare's poetically complicated language. Granted, in order to achieve simplicity, he had to excise a few characters along with a sizable chunk of the dialogue, but what remains is the essence of Hamlet's psychological drama.

As director, Olivier utilises his medium with ingenuity. Acknowledging that a screen adaptation can allow for presentation techniques not available to a stage production, the picture features several innovative elements. For instance, as the Ghost of Hamlet's father narrates the true details of his death, we are shown a re-enactment of the event. Also, some of Hamlet's intimate soliloquies are only heard through voice over, as if the audience is directly listening to his inner-most thoughts. This particularly seems like an appropriate manifestation of Shakespeare's intent, perfectly achieving that insight into the character's internal contemplations.

If unfamiliar with Shakespeare, you may be surprised as to how many Shakespearean phrases you already know. Hamlet, in particular, is incredibly quotable. I began to count all the well-known lines but quickly realised there are far too many. Not to mention the proverbs that Shakespeare coined - "brevity is the soul of wit," "the play's the thing," and "neither a borrower nor a lender be."

Adding to the film's comprehension are the superb performances by the cast. Directing himself to a Best Actor Oscar, Olivier (pictured, with Yorick) displays a natural intensity and commitment to the role of Hamlet. He also displays amazing proficiency with the sword during a very impressive duel with Terence Morgan as Laertes. Basil Sydney is brilliantly detestable as Claudius and Eileen Herlie's portrayal of the Queen is gentle and sorrowful. But the only other acting nomination went to Jean Simmons, recognised in the Supporting Actress category for her turn as the unbalanced Ophelia. As the Gravedigger, that's Stanley Holloway (a few years before he immortalised the role of Alfred Doolittle) delivering a witty performance. Delightful as Osric is Peter Cushing, perhaps better known from his Hammer Horror appearances, as well as Star Wars. And for Doctor Who fans, if Cushing's non-canonical portrayal of the Doctor isn't good enough, that's the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton as the Player King.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

1948 - The Snake Pit

Keep those votes coming in for the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. The poll remains in the right-hand sidebar for your voting pleasure.

Yesterday, my look at 1948's Best Picture nominees continued with a viewing of...

The Snake Pit
Anatole Litvak
Frank Partos and Millen Brand
(based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward)
Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Sound

As The Snake Pit begins, Virginia Stuart (de Havilland) is confused and anxious, seemingly unaware that she is living in a mental institution. She barely recognises her own husband Robert (Stevens) when he visits and only vaguely remembers the events of the past few months. With the help of Dr. Kik (Genn), she is treated with a variety of psychiatric therapies, including shock treatment, hydrotherapy and hypnosis. Her condition fluctuates as she moves from ward to ward, coping with brusque nurses, impatient doctors and the rambling behaviour of her fellow inmates. All the while, Dr. Kik continues to get to the bottom of her psychosis, uncovering psychological traumas in her past.

By today's standards, The Snake Pit is rather melodramatic, which is an unfortunate distraction from what is apparently a relatively accurate portrayal of the state of mental health practices in the United States at the time. The depiction of the asylum's horrific overcrowdedness comes as a result of reportedly intense research by director Anatole Litvak. One wonders, however, whether the wards within were so disparately appointed as they are here. The Snake Pit's sanatorium is positively labyrinthine; there's a fancy one-patient-per-room ward, a cluttered room-full-of-beds ward, and the messy pack-'em-in-like-sardines ward of the title.

Despite a semblance of reality in regards to the ways mental institutions were operated, the more specific details of individual patients' conditions is a little dubious. Several of Virginia's fellow inmates are bloated stereotypes of crazy people. Mind you, from my experience of the New York City subway system, I am perhaps being too critical. Also, while the treatments depicted in the film are probably authentic for the time, there are some inconsistencies in Virginia's recovery. Using my questionable knowledge as a psychiatrist's son, the patient initially presents with schizophrenic symptoms - paranoia and hallucinatory voices - yet her eventual recovery is more indicative of post traumatic stress disorder. While psychotherapy is indeed important in the management of schizophrenia, it seems unlikely that the delusions would dissipate without medication. But I'm nitpicking. The doctors in question are entirely unaware of the ill effects of smoking, perpetually offering patients cigarettes, so it is obviously unfair to expect them to consider as yet undiscovered psychiatric treatments.

Although clearly a drama, The Snake Pit's conclusion is very much akin to a whodunit mystery. Using voice-over narration as we see flashbacks, the detective (in this case, Dr. Kik) exposes the culprit (in this case, the cause of Virginia's condition), summarising the solution to the crime. It's a realistically complex solution with many factors coming into play to cause her illness.

Sporting an almost constant look of fearful confusion, Olivia de Havilland (pictured) is certainly animated. Despite her histrionics, the performance remains effective. Leo Genn (last seen here in Quo Vadis) is wonderfully natural as the kindly doctor. Also worth a mention, Helen Craig delivers a delectable performance as the disdainful nurse, paving the way for Nurse Ratched.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

1948 - The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Well, I'm back in Las Vegas, making stuff up on stage with the rest of the cast of Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion. The weather is certainly much more agreeable than in New York City, but the trade-off is the increased static electricity due to the dry desert air. And, unfortunately, it is next to impossible to avoid touching metallic objects, so the sparks are flying.

You can now put your request in for the next year of review by using the poll over there on the right. You have your choice from a bunch of fine 1980s films.

For now, let's begin our look at the Best Picture nominees from 1948 by discussing...

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
John Huston
John Huston
(based on the novel by B. Traven)
Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Alfonso Bedoya
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
3 wins, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Huston)

Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) and his new buddy Bob Curtin (Holt), both down on their luck, spend a few weeks working construction but their employer (MacLane) skips out on them before they get paid. After a chance meeting with veteran gold prospector Howard (Huston), the three set off to find a small fortune in the Mexican mountains. They quickly hit pay dirt, but as their gold intake increases, paranoia begins to take over. Dobbs is especially distrusting of his partners, frequently imagining they plan to steal away with his share. The trio contend with bandits, nosy Americans and each other as they attempt to make it home with their treasure.

It is no surprise that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has become such a classic. A well-crafted, easy-to-follow story, the script is tight and engaging. The action sequences are brief but thrilling, from a tense three-way fight scene (despite awkwardly low volume sound effects) to an unexpected mine collapse.

Clearly, the narrative is aiming to study the dark psychological effects of greed. Dobbs serves as a sad reminder of what money can do to people. However, his transformation from subservient humility to arrogant paranoia is improbably swift. One minute, he's reasonable. The next, he's certifiably insane. Curtin, on the other hand, remains circumspect, a far more subtle and realistic response. But notwithstanding the fact that the Dobbs character borders on caricature, it is jolly good fun to watch as he unravels.

Bogart is compelling despite the exaggerated nature of his character. His snarls (pictured) are ferocious and his laughter is discomforting. Walter Huston won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his amiable performance as the seen-it-all prospector. Tim Holt portrays Curtin's likeability with affecting subtlety. And, as the comic relief, Alfonso Bedoya is delightful as the leader of the bandits, delivering the now iconic (and oft misquoted) line regarding "stinkin' badges".

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre did well for the Huston family at the 1948 Oscars. Along with Walter's win, the film also garnered two wins for his son John for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. In fact, of the film's four nominations, its only loss was for Best Picture.