Thursday, June 23, 2011

1982 - The Verdict

As I write this, I am surrounded by boxes and bags, full of Kat's and my belongings, in preparation for our apartment move next week. I cannot express how much I abhor moving, and yet somehow, I seem to have moved every couple of years. Interestingly, even though we are staying in the same neighbourhood - our new apartment is only about a mile away from our current one - the move from Australia to the States seemed somewhat easier. Sure, there were all sorts of administrative things to worry about then, but the actual transport of our belongings was rendered much simpler by the fact that we just bought all our furniture anew. Thus, all we really brought with us from Sydney were clothes. Now, we have a whole apartment of stuff to schlep. How did we accumulate so many things in just two years?

Next up in 1982's selection of Best Picture nominees is...

The Verdict
Sidney Lumet
David Mamet
(based on the novel by Barry Reed)
Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason, Milo O'Shea, Lindsay Crouse
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

Frank Galvin (Newman) is barely a lawyer and mostly an alcoholic. When he's not at the bar drinking and playing pinball, he scours for business at strangers' funerals. Yep, he's an ambulance-chaser, and he's not even very good at that. Fortunately, his friend Mickey (Warden) sets Frank up with a case he can't lose - a medical malpractice suit involving a young woman who fell into a coma. Both the hospital and the victim's family are keen to settle out of court, but Frank unexpectedly refuses the generous settlement to take the case to trial - something about "doing the right thing". With the ruthless Ed Concannon (Mason) as opposing counsel and the unsympathetic Judge Hoyle (O'Shea) presiding, Frank has his work cut out for him. Somehow, amid this incredible workload, he also manages to begin a relationship with the intelligent yet mysterious Laura Fischer (Rampling), who is not entirely who she seems.

I must admit, I do love a good Sidney Lumet film. The sadly Oscarless director was nominated for his deft hand here, another fine example of his subtle style. Nothing is ever forced down the audience's throat. On the one hand, he uses abundant wide shots, allowing us to witness the entire scene unfold. On the other hand, he lingers on simple yet meaningful looks, leaving us to solve the puzzle on our own. The credit for the effectiveness of those wordless moments must also be given to Oscar-nominated scribe David Mamet and his artfully expressive screenplay.

If I were to find fault anywhere in this fine picture, it would have to be with the initial stages of Frank's relationship with Laura. This subplot's connection to the rest of the narrative seemed somehow strained. I even pondered whether Charlotte Rampling's character was even necessary at all. Until, of course, the twist that makes Laura's existence in the story abundantly clear. Only then does she become a truly fascinating study. Perhaps part of the problem early on is that unusually grave and overly dramatic score underneath the scenes between Frank and Laura. So much like a horror movie score, in fact, that I almost expected Laura to peel off her face and reveal an alien underneath.

In any case, that's a relatively minor issue in what is honestly an excellent film. Paul Newman (pictured) carries the film superbly with a reflective and sensitive (and Oscar-nominated) performance. The ever watchable James Mason also garnered a nomination for himself delivering a delightfully restrained portrayal of an obstinately driven lawyer. Rounding out the cast are Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden and Milo O'Shea, each with exceptional performances. And keen-eyed viewers will spot a pre-stardom Bruce Willis appearing as an extra in the final courtroom scene.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

1982 - Missing

Our friends at the Academy have announced a change to the recently-adopted rule concerning the number of nominees for Best Picture. After only two years of a ten-horse race, next year's shortlist will consist of anywhere between five and ten nominees, depending on how many films receive the requisite five percent of first-place votes during the nominating procedure. After studying the hypothetical results that this method would have produced in the past decade, it appears we may consistently have seen greater than five nominees, but fewer than ten. In other words, forcing only five nominees sometimes may have left some worthy films by the wayside, yet making it compulsory to cite ten films for the top award may have allowed one or two less than stellar pictures to sneak in.

Undoubtedly, this new change will have its critics. Some will certainly say that the Academy is changing its rules too often. Indeed, it seems plausible that this announcement is in response to criticism of its move to ten nominees two years ago. However, for me, at the risk of once again sounding like an Academy lackey, I'm going to put my hand up in support of this development. Each year presents us with a different number of excellent films, so it makes sense not to constrict the number of nominees. In that context, this approach seems the most appropriate way to gauge Academy members' opinions.

Meanwhile, we kick off our review of 1982's nominees for Best Picture with a look at...

Costa-Gavras & Donald Stewart
(based on the book by Thomas Hauser)
Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron, John Shea, Charles Cioffi, David Clennon
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Adapted Screenplay

Beth (Spacek) and Charlie (Shea) are living in a politically volatile South American country when things get shaky. With a curfew in place, Beth is unable to get back home from visiting friends when she misses the last bus. The next morning, she arrives home to an empty house and her neighbour tells her that Charlie was arrested yesterday by the country's military officers. Attempts at some answers from the U.S. Consulate prove fruitless and soon Beth is joined by her father-in-law Ed (Lemmon) who has travelled from New York to help find his son. A conservative man with little respect for his son's leftist leanings, Ed initially rubs Beth the wrong way. But the two must learn to work together to unravel the mystery of exactly what happened to Charlie.

Even before the mystery of Charlie's disappearance becomes the focus, Missing's opening act is somewhat mysterious itself. As a result of the filmmakers' attempts at avoiding explicit references to certain real-life people and places, I found myself a little confused as to where exactly the film was set and, more importantly, why on earth the protagonists were there in the first place. Perhaps it is my lack of knowledge on South American history, for only a very small amount of research is needed to discover that the film's location is Chile during the coup d'etat of 1973.

There is an overt sincerity to this picture, right from the opening caption and accompanying narration that espouses its basis on documented fact. Declassified documents released well after the film was made seem to indicate that the U.S. government did actually have some involvement in the Chilean coup and yet, the film's sincerity still resembles the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist. Most, if not all, the government types are painted as corrupt and they are alleged to be complicit in Charlie's disappearance after he learns too much about the U.S. military's presence in the region. These details may indeed be accurate - my admittedly limited research revealed some compelling yet inconclusive circumstantial evidence - but, either way, the characters are a tad too black-and-white for my liking. Despite some superficial dialogue, the intense subject matter and the captivating suspense keep the narrative dangerously engaging. A little anti-climactic, perhaps, but the Academy saw fit to bestow a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on the film.

Missing also boasts a superb cast. Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon (pictured) work extremely well together, resulting in them both being nominated for lead Oscars. Then, there is the cornucopia of well-known faces from television. As the subject of the film's title, John Shea (known to Lois & Clark fans as Lex Luthor) is charming and passionate. Melanie Mayron (an Emmy winner for thirtysomething) plays the inquisitive and supportive friend. Joe Regalbuto (famed as Frank Fontana in Murphy Brown) portrays another victim of the new regime. Finally, Jerry Hardin (known for his role as Deep Throat in the definitely conspiratorial-themed The X-Files) appears as a U.S. Army Colonel.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Best Picture of 1948

Yet another genuinely difficult decision has befallen me. Although these pictures explore different themes, they are surprisingly similar in genre. Along with their evenly matched quality, the task of separating them is by no means an easy one.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1948 are:
  • Hamlet
  • Johnny Belinda
  • The Red Shoes
  • The Snake Pit
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Five excellent films, each full of passion and intensity, covering a range of thought-provoking material. From greed and ambition to depression and mental illness, 1948's shortlist is one of the more contemplative the Academy has seen. Without exception, each nominee could easily be described as a psychological study.

Due to this abundance of stimulating cinema, I simply cannot bring myself to name one - let alone two or three - as specifically inferior. Yet, my task is to single out one film as my favourite. Thus, for purely finicky reasons, I will eliminate The Snake Pit first, though there is no meaningful order to this culling. Despite its well-researched depiction of the then current state of mental institutions, its happy ending betrays some medical inconsistencies. Continuing with the hairsplitting, I will also release The Red Shoes from the competition. With an incredibly engaging story and an incredibly engaging ballet sequence, these two components didn't quite mesh perfectly. Also out of the running is Johnny Belinda for ... well, I can't even think of a legitimate reason. It's a well-crafted and entertaining picture that perhaps only suffers from being too pleasant.

Two classics remain. Hamlet and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Since my system for this verdict has been to quibble about relatively minor details, I'll rule against the latter for the too swift transition from sane to paranoid that Bogie's character experiences. Consequently, I am siding with the Academy once more in declaring Laurence Olivier's inventive and accessible adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet as my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1948.

Best Picture of 1948
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:


Your choice:

As usual, your vote can be registered by using the poll above. Next up, we move to the 1980s for a particularly eclectic bunch of movies.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1982 are:
  • E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Gandhi
  • Missing
  • Tootsie
  • The Verdict
Stay tuned...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

1948 - Johnny Belinda

Last chance to vote on the year that Matt vs. the Academy tackles next. It's still a close race, so make sure you have your input using the poll on the right hand side of the screen.

The final nominee from our look at 1948's Best Picture contenders is...

Johnny Belinda
Jean Negulesco
Irma von Cube and Allen Vincent
(based on the play by Elmer Harris)
Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead, Stephen McNally, Jan Sterling
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Wyman)

A deaf-mute since she was a baby, Belinda McDonald (Wyman) seems content performing menial tasks for her father Black (Bickford) and aunt Aggie (Moorehead) on the family farm in Nova Scotia. Known as "The Dummy" by the less polite members of the community, Belinda is not considered to ever be able to contribute intelligently to society. Not even her own family gives her any credit... Until the new town physician, Dr. Richardson (Ayres), takes it upon himself to teach the outcast sign language. As Belinda learns to communicate with those around her, she and the kindly doctor must deal with the ugly rumour mill and the town bully, Locky McCormick (McNally).

Johnny Belinda is a relatively simple story well told. With its straightforward and engaging narrative, the picture is a generally pleasant movie experience. A solid script with solid performances, it is genuinely difficult to find much fault here beyond a questionable legal precedent and a ridiculously fake performance by the town violinist (repeatedly tapping the bow on the strings is not how you play the violin).

It perhaps falls short of being a brilliant film - although I'd be hard-pressed to explain why - but it is absorbing in exactly the way good movies should be. Perhaps in support of its general appeal is the fact that the film was nominated in almost every category at the 1948 Academy Awards, twelve citations in all. However, its only success was for Jane Wyman's accomplished performance as the amiable deaf girl. While her character's gentle demeanour - with that ever-so-subtle hint of a smile - may seem like a simple portrayal, any actor worth his salt will tell you that listening is of the utmost importance. And Wyman (pictured) places her attention on her surroundings and her fellow actors with acute earnestness. Although, I suppose her task was made easier since she had no lines to remember. Either way, it makes for a captivating performance.

Along with Wyman's Best Actress win, three other cast members received nominations, allowing Johnny Belinda to join an elite group of pictures boasting a nomination in each of the four acting categories. Lew Ayres rightly received a Best Actor nod for his affable turn as the compassionate doctor. And both Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead (known to TV audiences as Endora from Bewitched) collected Supporting nominations.