Friday, July 29, 2011

Best Picture of 1982

I've come across some eclectic shortlists over the course of this project, but none more so than 1982's bunch of nominees. Usually, the larger the difference between each film, the more difficult it becomes to compare them, and while that sentiment remains true here, it was, nonetheless, relatively easy to choose my favourite.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1982 are:
  • E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Gandhi
  • Missing
  • Tootsie
  • The Verdict
A science-fiction family film, a historical biopic, a political suspense drama, a legal character study and a comedy classic. A diverse group, no question. Selecting a favourite should have been complicated, yet I deliberated only briefly.

Missing was eliminated early on. Though an involving story, its overly sincere attitude gives it a conspiratorial feel. Harder to dismiss is Tootsie. Funny and poignant, it succeeds on many levels, only slightly hindered by some convenient plot points, particularly the pat conclusion.

Thus, we are left with three extremely worthy films. The least well-known of the trio, The Verdict is thoroughly engaging, containing little with which to find fault. Reluctantly, I remove it from the running for barely justifiable reasons. The Academy's choice, Gandhi, is epic yet intimate, a fascinating character study with a deservedly lauded lead performance. But my pick is the evocative and stunningly beautiful E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. A classic loved by young and old alike, E.T. is exceptional in both its story and its technique. Cinema at its finest.

Best Picture of 1982
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Your choice:

You may choose your favourite, too, by voting in the poll above. Next up, we examine a year of many classics from the 1960s.

And 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

As I approach final rehearsals for The 39 Steps, there will undoubtedly be another short hiatus before the next round of reviewing begins. Stay tuned...

Monday, July 25, 2011

1982 - Gandhi

Yet again, I am writing to you from somewhere other than New York City. (Perhaps if I updated this blog more often, this wouldn't happen as frequently.) I am currently in the very sleepy town of Naples in upstate New York, rehearsing The Thirty-Nine Steps for Bristol Valley Theater. A parody of the classic Hitchcock film, the play consists of dozens and dozens of characters but only four actors - one man to play the lead, one woman to play three female characters and two other actors (referred to in the script as Clowns) who play everyone else. I have the fitness-inducing pleasure of playing one of the madcap clowns.

On a break from rehearsals, I found the time to watch the last of 1982's nominees for Best Picture...

Richard Attenborough
John Briley
Ben Kingsley, Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Martin Sheen, Ian Charleson, Athol Fugard, Gunther Maria Halmer, Saeed Jaffrey, Geraldine James, Alyque Padamsee, Amrish Puri, Roshan Seth, Rohini Hattangadi
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
8 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Kingsley)

Spanning more than five decades in the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Kingsley), the critically acclaimed biopic certainly covers a lot of ground. In South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, the London-trained attorney-at-law experiences first-hand the discrimination rife in the British Empire. As an Indian, he was not allowed to travel first-class or even walk on the pavement. Rather than wallow in disillusionment, Gandhi leads a non-violent campaign to protest the injustices, eventually winning some concessions from the British government. Back at home in India, he begins the arduous task of gaining India's independence from Britain. Over the years, he endures several imprisonments, witnesses horrific incidents of oppression and initiates one or two hunger strikes, yet Gandhi remains steadfast in his conviction that violence is never the answer.

Despite a running time of just over three hours, Gandhi is surprisingly concise. The narrative is consistently clear and easy to follow, giving a comfortable accessibility to our protagonist's growth. As with most underdog stories, there is plenty of powerfully emotional content and our empathy for Gandhi's plight is quickly realised through several scenes depicting his or his people's oppression. The massacre scene is particularly evocative and almost difficult to watch.

One potential pitfall of presenting a story about such a revered historical figure is the temptation to depict the subject without flaws and foibles, making him seem somehow superhuman. This picture is certainly not ashamed of glorifying its subject but, thankfully, it also allows Gandhi a few moments of hotheadedness. When he loses his temper with his wife, he becomes more of a regular guy with which we can all identify, rather than just the constantly serene nothing-ever-rattles-me saint of the rest of the film. These revealing moments are perhaps too few and too brief, but they make for a fascinating study nonetheless. Mind you, from another perspective, his moral tenacity could easily be seen as another flaw. Gandhi is so dogmatic in his pacifist beliefs to the point that he almost kills himself by refusing to eat. In any other human being, such stubborn behaviour would be considered stupidity. Again, these issues only help to create a more well-rounded character on screen, far more interesting than a cut-and-dry do-gooder.

Ben Kingsley (pictured) carries the film with a powerhouse performance that earned him the Best Actor Oscar. Playing one man over the course of fifty years is never easy and Kingsley is just as believable as the 70-something Gandhi as he is as the 20-something Gandhi. He is supported by an eclectic array of talented actors, including plenty of esteemed British greats, who pop in for a scene or two - Trevor Howard, John Mills, Edward Fox, and my favourite, John Gielgud as the peevish Viceroy of India. Ian Charleson, appearing in his second consecutive Best Picture winner after 1981's Chariots of Fire, is amiably subtle as the Christian Reverend that Gandhi befriends. Not English, but also impressive are Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and particularly Roshan Seth, expertly portraying the love and frustration that goes along with being Gandhi's close friend and political colleague. To satisfy my penchant for picking out the yet-to-be-famous actors in relatively minor roles, the film offers several instances of such - Nigel Hawthorne appears briefly; Harry Potter fans will recognise Richard Griffiths; although not immediately discernible, Daniel Day-Lewis' trademark intensity as a South African thug gives him away; and everyone's favourite mailman from Cheers, John Ratzenberger, shows up as a military driver but his voice is dubbed (by Martin Sheen, reportedly), ironic since Ratzenberger is now also very well known for his prolific voice work, mostly with Pixar.

Friday, July 15, 2011

1982 - E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Well, I'm back from a week in Delaware, where I was shooting Fridays, a short film that centres on an 11-year-old girl named Jenny, who, once a week, visits her terminally ill best friend in hospital. I play Jenny's concerned and protective father, David, who is somewhat unsure how to help his daughter deal with such a sobering predicament. It was quite a rewarding, if a little exhausting, shoot, and I will certainly keep you all abreast of the film's progress on the festival circuit.

Back in New York, our desktop computer has been rather uncooperative of late, shutting itself down at seemingly random moments. The obnoxious whirring noise that used to fill the room each time the computer was in operation has now entirely subsided. Thus, it seems relatively clear that we have a lazy fan unwilling to fulfil its cooling duties, thereby allowing the system to overheat and pack it in.

Miraculously, though, the computer survived long enough for me to watch the entirety of the next Best Picture contender from 1982...

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg
Melissa Mathison
Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
4 wins, including Best Original Score

After his spaceship makes an emergency take-off before he has boarded, a lonely and frightened alien is stranded in northern California. Taking shelter in a nearby backyard shed, he is soon discovered by a young boy named Elliott (Thomas), who secretly hides him in his bedroom. Elliott introduces his new friend to his older brother Michael (MacNaughton) and his younger sister Gertie (Barrymore), who begin to find ways to communicate with E.T., as they come to call him, while keeping him hidden from their mother (Wallace). As Elliott and E.T. become psychically attuned to each other's feelings, Elliott realises that E.T. pines for his own home and helps him build a communication device that will signal his people.

This is how you make a movie. The epitome of modern Hollywood, E.T. is simply captivating on almost every level and I struggle to explain why (which is horribly inconvenient since that is precisely for what this blog is intended). Despite being almost entirely wordless, the mesmerising opening sequence is crystal clear and immediately moving. It is as great an example of the cinematic style of storytelling as you are likely to find. Smartly written, beautifully shot, intricately edited.

Although I endeavour to view the original theatrical release of each nominee for the purpose of fairness, Netflix delivered the 20th anniversary edition of E.T., which includes a slightly longer cut with additional scenes and visual effects enhancements. These modern additions make for an interesting experience. On the one hand, seeing E.T. as a CGI character is a little unsettling, aware as we are that such technology was not in existence in 1982. On the other hand, it allows for a much more expressive E.T., particularly when viewed alongside the comparatively limited facial animatronics of the original. As it stands, E.T. is an immensely accessible character. One can only imagine how much more lovable he might have been were the film made today. That said, there is something mysteriously charming and perhaps nostalgic about the now seemingly primitive puppetry. These minor distractions, however, do little to disrupt the story and it all simply confirms my notion that I should always watch the original theatrical cut during this project, making such discussions moot. So, feel free to ignore this entire paragraph.

Spielberg is quite honestly at his masterful best here. In collaboration with cinematographer Allen Daviau, each shot is exquisitely composed, crafting a moody and evocative atmosphere. Toss in the delicate editing by Carol Littleton and the magical score by John Williams and the result is a masterclass in the emotionally manipulative effects of movie-making that even the best film schools would struggle to teach. Granted, there is a glossy Hollywood feeling to the picture, but it is undoubtedly intended to be a fantasy film. In that context, the pure movie magic is overwhelmingly appropriate. The important thing, however, is that it is always rooted in reality. The circumstances may be fantastical, but the characters' reactions are deeply human.

As is his wont, Spielberg assembled yet another naturally gifted cast, including many children. Carrying the film with one of cinema's most impressive child performances is Henry Thomas, finding the perfect mix of childishness and maturity. Playing the big brother, Robert MacNaughton likewise delivers a nuanced performance, mature beyond his years, while Drew Barrymore, as the young innocent sister, is impossibly cute. As the only adult face we see for the vast majority of the movie, Dee Wallace is amiable and touching. For the keen-eyed viewers, C. Thomas Howell can be seen in his big screen debut as one of Michael's friends, and also in her film debut, that's former Baywatch babe Erika Eleniak as the young girl that Elliott romances.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

1982 - Tootsie

In my last post, I bemoaned the tribulations of moving house. For most, the discomfort of the move is, at least, offset by the excitement of the new surroundings. However, Kat and I have unfortunately managed to experience that discomfort with no subsequent excitement. I won't bother with the frustrating - and somewhat humiliating - details, but suffice it to say, we found ourselves involved with a rather shady real estate broker. Luckily, the ordeal ended with no monetary loss on our part, but the annoying result is that we packed everything into boxes only to unpack it all at the same apartment. Yep, we're not moving after all.

I am now currently in Delaware to shoot a short film for a week (more details at a later time) but with my one day off yesterday, I shunned the Diamond State's sights to stay in my hotel room and watch the next of 1982's Best Picture nominees...

Sydney Pollack
Larry Gelbart, Don McGuire, Murray Schisgal
Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, Sydney Pollack, George Gaynes, Geena Davis
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
1 win, for Best Supporting Actress (Lange)

Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is a struggling actor in New York City, making ends meet by teaching acting classes and working in a restaurant. His desperation is apparent on audition after audition, but his reputation as difficult to work with is perhaps his greatest barrier. Even his agent George (Pollack) has all but given up, claiming that nobody wants to hire him. Almost in defiance of his agent's words, Michael boldly transforms himself into Dorothy Michaels to audition for a female role on a popular soap opera, and winds up landing the part. Keeping up the charade is a constant battle as he begins to fall in love with his co-star Julie (Lange) who only sees him as a close girlfriend.

Tootsie is a lovable film. It is at once witty and heartwarming, the perfect balance of comedy and sentiment. Perhaps some of the farcical elements are a tad on the cheap side, but somehow the slapstick never gets in the way of the film's earnestness. The humour is always rooted in truth, so we remain invested even when Hoffman's character defends his antics on the set of a commercial in which he played a tomato by remarking, "I did an evening of vegetables on Broadway."

The cheesy theme song is a little hard to bear, but it is the 1980s, after all. Also forgivable are the somewhat unrealistic depictions of the entertainment industry. Perhaps it's just me, but after many, many years of auditioning, not once have I ever heard the producer confirm that I had the part three seconds after I finish the read. As much as I wish it did, it just doesn't happen that way. Nor would a soap opera ever decide to record an episode live to air with only half a day's notice. Logistically, that would be near impossible. In any case, the overall charm of the piece easily makes up for all of these sketchy and convenient plot points. Well, all but one. The all-important climax plays out far too quickly to be believable. Then again, considering the incredibly awkward and unforgivable situation in which our protagonist finds himself, I'm not sure there is any satisfactory way to resolve this story. At least Michael himself seems aware of the depth of his predicament when he confusingly confesses, "I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man." Funny, but not really enough to make me buy that Julie would forgive such a humiliating deception so instantaneously.

Nonetheless, despite the improbable ending, the picture is delightfully appealing. And, in a rare occurrence for a comedy, the Academy bestowed ten nominations on the film. Dustin Hoffman (pictured) received a Best Actor nod, delivering a masterfully honest performance in a role that could so easily have been played for silly laughs. Both Teri Garr and Jessica Lange garnered Best Supporting Actress citations for their respectively wacky and touching portrayals, the latter winning the prize. Bill Murray turns in yet another amusing performance full of wonderfully dry wit. Not only does Sydney Pollack helm the film with aplomb, but he also appears on screen, holding his own in several word-sparring scenes with Hoffman. In her film debut, Geena Davis is quirky and cute, and see if you can spot a pre-Golden Girls Estelle Getty in a bit part.