Wednesday, August 31, 2011

1967 - Doctor Dolittle

Hurricane Irene swept through New York City on the weekend and it looks like we got lucky. Kat and I in particular hardly noticed a thing. As the top of the hurricane hit, the bulk of the wind force seemed to come in from a north-easterly direction. Rather fortunately, the windows in our apartment face south and west. I imagine the other side of the building felt the barrage considerably more. By the time the wind changed direction as the tail end of the hurricane arrived later on Sunday, its strength had weakened and the rain had all but stopped. It could not have been a more convenient chain of events.

As the stores reopened and the subway trains began to roll again, I watched the final nominee from 1967's Best Picture competition is...

Doctor Dolittle
Richard Fleischer
Leslie Bricusse
(based on the novels by Hugh Lofting)
Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard Attenborough, Peter Bull, Muriel Lander, William Dix, Geoffrey Holder
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
2 wins, including Best Song (Talk to the Animals)

In the English seaside town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, local Irish merchant Matthew Mugg (Newley) introduces a naive young boy named Tommy Stubbins (Dix) to the greatest animal doctor who ever lived. Doctor John Dolittle (Harrison) began his career as a regular medical doctor, but soon tired of human contact, preferring to spend time with animals instead. With no apparent formal training, Doctor Dolittle simply switches specialties and becomes a veterinarian and, thanks to the teachings of his pet parrot, he has now learned nearly 500 animal languages and can freely communicate with the dozens of animals in his care.

When Dolittle is delivered a Pushmi-Pullyu, a rare beast akin to the llama except for its two heads, the three friends trot off to the local circus to share it with the world. After a horrible misunderstanding in which two men mistake a seal for an old woman and then witness Dolittle throw it into the sea, he finds himself in court up against an unsympathetic judge (Bull) who sentences him to an insane asylum. Matthew and Tommy aid his escape and, along with the judge's pretty but brusque niece Emma (Eggar), the four set sail in search of the wandering Sea-Star Island as well as Dolittle's ultimate find, the Great Pink Sea Snail, a creature most experts believe to be mythical.

Doctor Dolittle is very much a children's movie. It's silly, fantastical and plays like a pantomime. The central conceit itself, that of a man who can converse with animals, is obviously pretty ridiculous. Peppered throughout are several childish gags, including a horse with glasses reading from an eye chart. While it would not be unfair to label this picture as immature, that is not necessarily a criticism. It's just that you may need to still have your baby teeth to get the most out of it. I mean, what ten-year-old wouldn't like a story about a giant pink sea snail? Curiously, though, with such a clever and witty rhyming scheme, the lyrics seem decidedly advanced for the little ones to truly appreciate. The Academy certainly appreciated them, however. They awarded Talk to the Animals their Best Song award.

Visually, it is an impressive film. With some aesthetically pleasing locations and a host of interesting designs, Doctor Dolittle at times is genuinely majestic. It also scored an Oscar for Special Visual Effects, and while there are indeed some effects worthy of oohs and aahs, some of the puppetry is afflicted with a slight case of lifelessness. However, the most incredible feat of the film is undeniably the animal wrangling. Kudos to the trainers who succeed in eliciting charmingly anthropomorphic performances from their pets. Animals of all shapes and sizes adorn the set, often dozens at the same time. I shudder to think of the clean-up that was required afterwards. It must have been a smelly set.

Now, what can I say about Rex Harrison (pictured) and his talky singing? It may have worked well for him in My Fair Lady, perhaps due to the loquaciousness of the lyrics he was given to perform, but it falls rather flat here. The effect is similar to watching a rehearsal, so much does it take away from the numbers' musicality and from Harrison's otherwise delightful performance. Anthony Newley - who is also known for his musical collaboration with Doctor Dolittle's composer and screenwriter, Leslie Bricusse - delivers an amiable performance as the Irish charmer. Also watchable is a young (well, younger) Richard Attenborough as the circus owner, Mr. Blossom.

Ultimately, Doctor Dolittle is a fluffy, silly movie, which makes it all the more surprising that it made the Best Picture shortlist. Mind you, they loved their musicals back then, so perhaps it's not as surprising as it would be if it were to happen today, but still a little puzzling.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

1967 - In the Heat of the Night

My first earthquake and my first hurricane all in the same week! While my earthquake experience merely consisted of feeling the building wobble for a few seconds, I suspect Hurricane Irene may cause a slightly larger impact. We are not in the evacuation zone, but to prepare for the impending storm, Kat and I have stocked up on groceries and have a "go bag" ready. There is one dilemma, though. The authorities tell us to stay indoors and keep clear of the windows to avoid potential flying debris. Since we live in such a small apartment, that essentially means we may have to sleep in the bathtub. But they also say to fill the bathtub in order to have water with which to flush the toilet in the event that the plumbing is shut off.

Kat and I are now preparing for the longest bath-time in history.

The Academy's pick for Best Picture of 1967 is our next film to go under the microscope...

In the Heat of the Night
Norman Jewison
Stirling Silliphant
(based on the novel by John Ball)
Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates, James Patterson, William Schallert, Beah Richards
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Steiger)

When a dead man is discovered in the wee hours of the morning in Sparta, Mississippi, the police chief, Bill Gillespie (Steiger), orders Sergeant Sam Wood (Oates) to sweep the town for suspects. Waiting at the train station is a black man, Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), who quickly becomes suspect number one. Gillespie's suspicions prove unwarranted, however, when it becomes clear that Mr. Tibbs (for that is what they call him) is actually a police officer himself - a homicide detective, no less. When Gillespie confirms this with Tibbs' superior in Philadelphia, Tibbs is ordered to stay in Sparta to help the small town police force with their investigation. Neither man is particularly happy with that arrangement, but the two reluctantly work together, which often consists of Gillespie asserting his certainty of a suspect's guilt before Tibbs explains how he's wrong. With racial tensions high amongst the town's residents, Tibbs must try to stay safe while earning Gillespie's respect.

'Tense' is the first word that comes to mind when viewing In the Heat of the Night. Not only are there several moments of potential (and actual) violence that keep you on the edge of your seat, plus a genuinely absorbing police procedural storyline, but the main thrust of the narrative - that of the relationship between a white Southern police chief and a black city-dwelling homicide detective - is a particularly intense display of mutual obstinacy. The two men butt heads consistently, staring each other down with glassy eyes on many occasions. The film's languidly rousing music is the perfect complement to this tension - including the sultry theme song sung by Ray Charles - yet is used sparingly, allowing the tensest scenes to cleverly remain unscored.

Perhaps my only major criticism of the picture is the final moment. The gripping tension of the previous couple of hours deserves a better climax than the somewhat cheap smiles that Tibbs and Gillespie present to each other as Tibbs leaves. Sure, they have developed a mutual respect now, we get that. But I think I would have preferred a simple understated nod that at least acknowledges the history of their strained relationship rather than the Hollywood-style all-is-forgiven wrap-up that comes across as a little cheesy and unnecessary, especially considering it takes place in the space of about ten seconds. Not that Poitier's and Steiger's smiles are overstated by any means, so perhaps I'm being too harsh. It could have been a lot worse. After all, they don't actually confess their feelings in words. I suppose I just like my touching conclusions to be as subtle as possible.

Sidney Poitier's strong presence is perfect for the bullheaded Virgil Tibbs, but he unfortunately missed out on an Oscar nomination. Not so, Rod Steiger, whose gum-chewing grumblebum with the yellow-tinted sunglasses is a brilliantly fascinating portrayal to watch, very much deserving of his Best Actor win. The supporting players' performances border on stereotypical small-town hicks, but they all serve their purpose well. Beah Richards, who played Poitier's mother in the same year's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, is superb here as a sassy back-room abortionist.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

1967 - The Graduate

I am now back in New York City, happy to be home with my beautiful wife once more. After months of sporadic trips to various parts of the country for work, it is nice to be settled in again. It makes for a nice change. Speaking of change (see what I did there?), you may have noticed some slight additions to the website. In a bout of enthusiasm, I created a Google AdSense account to see if this silly little hobby of mine might actually earn me some pocket money. The enthusiasm continued when I also became an Amazon Associate, allowing to me offer product links to DVDs and perhaps other appropriate items. With a recent (minor) increase in this blog's traffic, I thought I would try these things out and see how it fares. So, if you see anything interesting, go ahead and click, and I might make one-third of a cent. No need to worry, though, dear reader. Matt vs. the Academy is not going anywhere. Whether or not this little experiment is successful, the Best Picture nominee reviews will continue.

For purposes more practical and less greedy than those above, I've also added links to make it easier to subscribe to this blog, as well as to share it with your friends. In the sidebar on the right, you'll find ways to subscribe to posts and/or comments through the blog reader of your choice, or you can submit your email address to receive each post by email. Plus, at the bottom of each post, there is now a row of lovely social networking buttons.

Whew! With that administration out of the way, let's get to the next review, a classic Best Picture nominee from 1967...

The Graduate
Mike Nichols
Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
(based on the novel by Charles Webb)
Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Director

The graduate of the title is Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman), recently returned from college without a clue as to what to do with his life. His parents (Daniels & Wilson) are throwing him a graduation party and all their friends have suggestions for his future. One word: plastics. One of his parents' friends, Mrs. Robinson (Bancfroft), has a more deviant idea. She persuades Benjamin to drive her home after the party and, once inside, proceeds to seduce him. A flustered Benjamin rejects her advances but, several days (or perhaps weeks) later, his boredom and loneliness and curiosity get the better of him and he calls Mrs. Robinson to take her up on her sordid offer.

The two begin a secret affair. Soon, however, Benjamin is unsatisfied with the purely physical nature of their relationship and wants to have an actual conversation with Mrs. Robinson. That turns out to be not such a good idea, after all. Their conversation quickly turns into an argument when Mrs. Robinson gets rather agitated at the idea of Benjamin taking out her daughter, Elaine (Ross), a thought that had never crossed his mind until she made him promise not to do it. Naturally, when Elaine visits during a college break, Benjamin's parents pressure him into asking her out and he reluctantly obliges. Benjamin's idea of sabotaging the date by taking Elaine to a strip club fails miserably and he finds himself in the extremely complicated situation of falling in love with his lover's daughter.

The Graduate is undeniably a product of the 1960s. The groovy decor and fashion, the hippie music from Simon & Garfunkel, even the prolific use of the zoom lens. In fact, in his sophomore film as director, Mike Nichols - who had made Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? only one year earlier - makes good use of his camera, presenting us with some uniquely artistic visuals. Sometimes, we see characters through their reflections on a coffee table. Other times, we see characters talking but are unable to hear their words due to loud music or crowds. We feel Benjamin's isolation through a POV shot as he scuba dives into a backyard swimming pool. We feel his confinement through the now very famous shot of his body literally trapped in the frame by Mrs. Robinson's leg. Then, there is the rapid-fire series of brief shots when Mrs. Robinson presents her naked self to Benjamin, a sequence oddly reminiscent of the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho.

Clearly, The Graduate was written as a comedy. But what's interesting is that, despite the genuinely funny script, Nichols and the cast don't overplay it. Quite an achievement since there are some very jokey jokes in there, which would be just as at home in a Marx Brothers movie. Dustin Hoffman remains deadpan when given just one strange word of advice, "plastics". Nor does he mug when inadvertently uttering a sexual pun, "wood". And he is very much sincere when suggesting his plan of marrying Elaine is "completely baked".

This restraint is incredibly effective, allowing the film to comment on social issues with honesty. Indeed, The Graduate captures the feeling of uncertainty that is the fate of people like Benjamin Braddock, who are stepping into the real world for the first time after a lifetime of school, a feeling that probably hasn't changed all that much since the 60s. The final few minutes of the film are particularly captivating. We cheer on Benjamin and Elaine as they frantically jump on a bus laughing and smiling, on a high from their exhilarating and spontaneous moment of defiance. The camera lands on the two sitting at the back of the bus, still smiling as they look behind them at the aftermath of their actions. But the shot lingers. And their smiles slowly fade. And it is a wonderful summing up of the whole film. Three words: what happens now?

As mentioned, rising star Dustin Hoffman carries the film with understated perfection, earning his first Oscar nomination. Remaining subtle in the face of farcical elements seems to work well for him (see Tootsie). Anne Bancroft, also nominated, succeeds as the nonchalant cougar. (Iinterestingly, she was only six years older than Hoffman.) The film's third nominee, Katharine Ross, is movingly gentle. Also of note are William Daniels as Benjamin's well-intentioned father and Murray Hamilton (last seen here in Jaws) as the cuckolded Mr. Robinson. Finally, two bit part players have gone on to bigger and better things. Mike Farrell, famous for M*A*S*H, appears very briefly as a bellhop. And also from Jaws - amongst many, many other things - that's Richard Dreyfuss as the boarding house resident eager to call the cops.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

1967 - Bonnie and Clyde

Another show is over. The final performance of The 39 Steps at the Bristol Valley Theater came and went today, and I am currently packing up and getting ready to head back to New York City tomorrow. And for the first time this year, I do not have any immediate plans for any upcoming performing ventures. With an improv show in Las Vegas, an off-off-Broadway show in New York, a short film in Delaware and a play in Naples, it's been a busy year so far. Let's hope the next project is just around the corner...

Next up in the review of 1967's Best Picture nominees is...

Bonnie and Clyde
Arthur Penn
David Newman & Robert Benton
Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Denver Pyle, Dub Taylor, Evans Evans, Gene Wilder
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
2 wins, including Best Supporting Actress (Parsons)

It's the Great Depression and young Clyde Barrow (Beatty) is fresh out of prison for armed robbery. While attempting to steal a car, he is interrupted by the pretty Bonnie Parker (Dunaway). The two hit it off right away and, before you know it, they're planning bank robberies. At a gas station in the middle of nowhere, they pick up oddball C.W. Moss (Pollard), who agrees to join them on their criminal escapades. Soon, the gang grows in number again with Clyde's older brother Buck (Hackman) and his reluctant wife Blanche (Parsons). As their robberies become more violent, Bonnie and Clyde begin to attract the attention of law enforcement as well as the national media, who turn them into infamous superstars.

Bonnie and Clyde doesn't waste any time up front. The beginning moves at a swift pace with our two heroes (or, more accurately, anti-heroes) meeting in the first scene and running away together almost immediately. Even their first recruit, C.W. Moss, doesn't seem to require much time to think things through. He steals from his boss and hops into Bonnie and Clyde's car after knowing them for less than a few minutes. With such a fast-paced set-up, there is little time to familiarise ourselves with the situation but, since the couple's life subsequent to their meeting is very much the whirlwind, the speedy first act is actually quite appropriate, not to mention exciting.

What makes the story particularly interesting is its central relationship. In fact, it would be reasonable to describe the film as a story about a unique relationship, rather than a story about Depression-era bank robbers. Sure, they are bank robbers and this certainly plays a role in their relationship, but the film is clever to focus on how Bonnie and Clyde interact and grow. It is a fascinating affair - Clyde suffers from some kind of sexual dysfunction and Bonnie is bothered by the resultant lack of intimacy. In fact, with the gang always around, the two rarely find themselves alone, so it is more than merely sexual intimacy that they are forgoing.

Then there is the issue of celebrity. The newspapers write sensational stories about them, attributing far more robberies to their name than they actually committed. The hype reaches such heights that even their surviving victims are excited to be swamped by photographers and journalists listening to their tales. It seems this craving for a good story at the expense of the truth is not just a modern predicament.

Bonnie and Clyde is one of several films to share the record for the most acting nominations among its cast. Five actors received nods, the first such acknowledgement for each of them. The picture's two stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (pictured), both up-and-comers at the time, work well together, delivering a convincing portrait of the infamous couple. Michael J. Pollard snagged his only Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actor category for his suitably quirky portrayal of C.W. Moss. In the same category, Gene Hackman - who barely looked any different then than he does now - was recognised for his fine work as Buck Barrow. The only winner of the five was Estelle Parsons, who nabbed the Supporting Actress award for one of the most annoying characters ever to appear on screen. Blanche's constant screeching and complaining are played with delectable perfection by Parsons. And then there's Gene Wilder, appearing in his film debut. Wilder's piteous persona and unique delivery are superbly applied to his role as the undertaker that Bonnie and Clyde kidnap for a brief time.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

1967 - Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

The 39 Steps has opened and is as much fun as it is exhausting. My lovely wife Kat came to visit on the weekend to see the show and take in Naples' sights, which consist mainly of quaint places to eat. With a couple of days off before we head into our final week of shows - yes, it's a very short run - some of the cast and crew took to the local vineyards for some wine tasting yesterday. Let me just say that I'm glad we didn't have a show yesterday...

While Kat was here, we watched the first of the nominees from 1967's Best Picture race...

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
Stanley Kramer
William Rose
Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton, Cecil Kellaway, Beah Richards, Roy E. Glenn
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actress (Hepburn) and Best Original Screenplay

With an undoubtedly topical subject matter for 1967, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner takes place in the home of the Draytons, Matt (Tracy) and Christina (Hepburn), over the course of one principle-testing evening. Their sweet young daughter, Joey (Houghton), is excited to be bringing home the man she fell in love with while on a recent trip to Hawaii. The only thing is: he's black.

While Joey is oblivious to any potential problems, her new fiancé, John (Poitier), is a little more circumspect, aware that his new in-laws may be shocked by the interracial affair. He respectfully explains to Matt and Christina that, unless they wholeheartedly approve of his marrying their daughter, he will walk away, adding that he will need an answer before he flies to Europe after dinner. Christina is for the idea, but, despite his mostly liberal attitude, Matt has a few reservations. As if the time pressures weren't enough, Matt is also forced into the role of host when Joey spontaneously and naively invites John's parents (Richards & Glenn) over, despite John's desire to break the news to them himself.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a very endearing film with very endearing characters. While I'm sure interracial marriage is still taboo in many areas, the issue is certainly not as shocking as it was over 40 years ago. Back then, I imagine the film may not have seemed so endearing, or at least, the endearing tone would have been offset somewhat by the story's tackling of the tough social issues of the day. Modern audiences, however, may even describe the film as quaint. Having said all that, it is still abundantly clear how serious the issue is to the characters within the film and the whole subject is dealt with delicately and earnestly.

Featuring such an abundance of dialogue, one would be forgiven for assuming the picture is an adaptation of a stage play. Not to mention that the action takes place predominantly in one location over the course of one evening. However, William Rose wrote the script directly for the screen, winning the Academy's Best Original Screenplay award in the process. His script is at times farcical, at times sentimental, but never too much of either. And while there is obviously a sincere message, Rose cleverly manages to maintain a lighthearted attitude, mostly through the creation of such lovable characters.

Indeed, the characters' lovableness must also be attributed to a cast who deliver some delightful performances, particularly by frequent co-stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (pictured). As the doddering old father, Tracy is affable, even when he's harsh. This marked his final screen performance and he was deservedly Oscar-nominated for it. Hepburn picked up her second Best Actress Oscar for her sweet and moving portrayal of the respectful mother and voice of reason. Surprisingly left off the nomination list was Sidney Poitier (who also wasn't cited for his other significant role in the same year from In the Heat of the Night - perhaps these two performances split the vote). Nonetheless, he is charming and engaging as the impossibly honest fiancé. As the happy-go-lucky daughter, Katharine Houghton is a little cheesy, but I suppose her character is intended to be naive and cheerful. Nominated in the supporting categories were Cecil Kellaway, delivering an entertaining portrayal of the Draytons' clergyman friend and Beah Richards, turning in a strong and touching performance as John's mother.

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