Friday, September 30, 2011

1998 - Elizabeth

Since I last wrote, two rather major (and hopefully, fruitful) career accomplishments have occurred. I joined Actor's Equity, the prestigious performer's union with jurisdiction over theatre. Plus, I have finally signed with my first American talent agent. I'm pretty sure this now means I'll be on Broadway next month. That's how it works, right?

The next on 1998's list of Best Picture nominees is...

Shekhar Kapur
Michael Hirst
Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Kathy Burke, John Gielgud, Fanny Ardant, Vincent Cassel
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Makeup

Queen Mary I (Burke) is reigning over a religiously divided England in the 16th century. She's Catholic and she's dying. Her advisers urge her to order the execution of her half-sister Elizabeth (Blanchett), the next in line to the throne, because of her Protestant sympathies. Fortunately, Mary saves her head and Princess Elizabeth becomes Queen Elizabeth I, much to the annoyance of the Duke of Norfolk (Eccleston), who remains staunchly opposed to her. Once on the throne, Elizabeth takes the ruthless Francis Walsingham (Rush) as her main adviser and the only person she truly trusts. But her troubles are far from over. She contends with assassination attempts and disrespectful counsellors. She carries on a secret love affair with Lord Robert Dudley (Fiennes) while rejecting the French Duc d'Anjou (Cassel). All the while, she is determined to unite England.

Elizabeth is a private look at a very public figure. While the production is a grand one, it maintains an intimacy as it explores the life of a powerful woman in a man's world. But it is, by no means, one of those quiet, upper-class, tea-and-scones types of period piece. In fact, all the elements of an intense drama are present - passion and lust, power struggles and corruption, violence and murder. And what use is a story about British royalty without a good beheading or two ... or three.

Undeniably, the film is very artistic. Not only are the sets and costumes extravagant and the cinematography exquisite, as you would expect for a film set in Elizabethan England, but also director Shekhar Kapur has composed each shot like a painting - interesting angles, candles in the foreground, half-hidden faces. It is genuinely a feast for the eyes.

Speaking of eyes, many of the cast engage in a great deal of steely-eyed acting, particularly Eccleston and James Frain. French footballer turned actor Eric Cantona seems somehow out of place. And there are an inordinate number of scenes in which Rush creepily sneaks into shot from behind a pillar and stares at something. However, in the role that introduced her to international audiences, Australian Cate Blanchett (pictured) is divine, carrying the film superbly and earning a well-deserved Best Actress nomination.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

1998 - The Thin Red Line

Perhaps I should have reconsidered attending a screening of Contagion while suffering from a cold. My coughs and sneezes may have offered those in my vicinity a whole new level of interactive experience.

Though I enjoyed the topically fascinating film, I was not entirely taken by the script. However, the fantastic cast and impressive direction did well to suppress those niggling doubts.

But what I really want to discuss is Jude Law's attempt at an Australian accent. It's disastrous. Perhaps non-Australians won't appreciate the full extent of its disastrousness, but trust me, disastrous it is. What's interesting, though, is that there doesn't seem to be any reference whatsoever to his character's nationality, which begs the question: why bother? I'm hesitant to suggest that a naturally Australian-accented actor should have been cast in the role. After all, my own opportunity for work in this country would be severely limited if actors were never allowed to play characters with accents that differed from their own. However, if the otherwise talented Mr. Law was incapable of perfecting an Australian cadence, then surely it would have been more prudent to simply make his character English.

In Law's defense, the Aussie drawl does seem to be one of those accents that is simply too difficult for a foreign actor to master. Robert Downey, Jr. came close, and Meryl Streep was moderately successful, but even those two accomplished performers didn't quite nail it. Unfortunately, though, Jude Law's effort has to rank as one of the worst.

Beginning our tour of the Best Picture nominees from 1998, we take a look at...

The Thin Red Line
Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick
(based on the novel by James Jones)
Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, John Travolta
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

As Edwin Starr asked and then immediately answered: War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. That seems to be the message in Terrence Malick's meandering The Thin Red Line, a World War II story whose primary focus is the Battle of Guadalcanal. Brigadier General Quintard (Travolta) orders C Company to seize a hill on which the Japanese have set up a bunker. Lt. Colonel Tall (Nolte) is the bad-tempered commanding officer determined to succeed. Captain Staros (Koteas) is the disobedient captain looking out for his men. Private Witt (Caviezel) is the unenthusiastic soldier recently put back into service after going AWOL. Private Bell (Chaplin) is the depressed soldier, only surviving by daydreaming about his wife back home. And that's not even half of the characters we meet and follow. They each have their own back stories and perspectives, but one thing is common to them all - the recognition and disdain of the unpredictability of war.

The artistry within The Thin Red Line is difficult to deny. Assisted by some breathtaking locations - many of which are to be found in Australia, I might add - the cinematography is exquisite. Nature plays a big role in the film and it is captured beautifully. Juxtaposing that beauty are the plentiful components of a bloody war. A violent explosion in the middle of a reedy hill is a gruesomely fascinating image. The stunt team are also to be congratulated for creating incredibly convincing effects. There are moments when it appears the stunt performer is literally in the middle of the explosion. Along with these aesthetically pleasing aspects of the film, there is a cerebral element that gives the picture a sense of poetry. In fact, the voice over narration, which is shared by several characters, is undeniably poetic, complementing the film's prettiest images.

However, if you're anything like me, your response to all this beauty and poetry may be limited to mild appreciation. Perhaps it is the unfair bias many of us have towards the mainstream, but sincere voices expounding on their emotions can easily come across as pretentious. (And yes, I'm aware of the irony of decrying pretentiousness with such pretentious language - just deal with it.) Nonetheless, The Thin Red Line still contains many traditionally narrative sequences amid its mostly rambling plot. In fact, the film is at its most captivating during the section devoted to the actual mission. The butting of heads between Tall and Staros is particularly gripping.

While featuring numerous characters mainly contributes to the film's tangentiality, it does offer the opportunity for a plethora of cameos. In fact, there were many more famous faces that were left out of the final cut. Suffice it to say, the picture features several powerful performances, and due to the nature of the film, many of those performances are far too brief, particularly those of Adrien Brody and John C. Reilly, both of whom I wanted to see more. Also worth individual mention is Jim Caviezel for his pensively touching portrayal.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Best Picture of 1967

This is one of those nominees lists that seems overstuffed with films that have stood the test of time. Well, not completely overstuffed. There's one obvious misfit. But among the other four, it was a mildly difficult task to separate them. In the end, though, one picture pushed its nose in front.

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
One of these things is not like the other. In making my verdict, I easily set aside Doctor Dolittle from the outset. While it has a fun vibe and a few entertaining moments, it is an essentially silly movie providing little competition to the other four contenders. In fact, if ever there was fodder for those critics who decry the Academy's weakness in allowing itself to be influenced by Oscar campaigning, Doctor Dolittle and its nine nominations is certainly it.

The four remaining pictures each hold a fairly high place in film lore as well as popular culture, and my own personal ranking of them leaves little room between each one. Thus, it is only with the slightest of margins that I release the next two films. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is incredibly endearing with a heartwarming story, and Bonnie and Clyde succeeds as an exciting action flick with a fascinating central relationship.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), we are left with the Academy's Best Picture winner and its Best Director winner. In the Heat of the Night is a tense racially-charged drama with superb leading actors, but my pick is Dustin Hoffman's breakout film. With its witty script and subtle performances, The Graduate takes away Matt vs. the Academy's favourite Best Picture nominee of 1967.

Best Picture of 1967
Academy's choice:

In the Heat of the Night

Matt's choice:

The Graduate

Your choice:

Please go ahead and vote for your own favourite by using the poll above. Next up, we move to the 1990s to a group of films with an interesting connection. All five are period pieces and, between them, they only depict two time periods. Two set in the Elizabethan era and three set during World War II.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1998 are:
  • Elizabeth
  • Life Is Beautiful
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Shakespeare In Love
  • The Thin Red Line

If you want to play along with Matt vs. the Academy while supporting the project, check out Amazon's DVDs and Instant Videos of 1998's nominees.