Saturday, June 30, 2012

1971 - Nicholas and Alexandra

After several months of planning, my talented wife Kat and I have finally launched our theatre company. Australian Made Entertainment will concentrate on producing Australian plays in New York City (and, considering my love of film, we will inevitably branch into movie-making as well). We have a theatre booked for our first show later this year, so stay tuned for more details. This blog will undoubtedly feature more announcements on behalf of the company but, in the meantime, visit our website, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Kicking off our look at the Oscar nominees for the Best Picture of 1971 is...

Nicholas and Alexandra
Franklin J. Schaffner
James Goldman
(based on the book by Robert K. Massie)
Michael Jayston, Janet Suzman, Harry Andrews, Tom Baker, Michael Bryant, Maurice Denham, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Curd Jürgens, John McEnery, Roderic Noble, Eric Porter, Michael Redgrave, Alan Webb, Irene Worth, Laurence Olivier
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design

Presenting the final years of the Russian monarchy, the story of Nicholas (Jayston), the Tsar of Russia, and his wife Alexandra (Suzman) begins with the birth of their only son, Alexei (played as an older child by Noble), who is quickly diagnosed with haemophilia. Nicholas is eager for his son to take the reins of the monarchy upon his death, but two main issues stand in his way. First, Alexei's condition will probably see him die before his father, a possibility made more likely as Alexei's daredevil behaviour turns somewhat suicidal. Second, Russia's volatile political situation means there may not be a monarchy for Alexei to take over anyway. Nicholas' stubbornness leads him to ignore his advisors' consistent warnings of an uprising, and he chooses instead to believe that his subjects want and need a traditional monarch to keep them satisfied.

As its two design Oscars attest, Nicholas and Alexandra is visually splendid, following in the footsteps of the many sweeping epics of the 1960s. And as with all good epics, its extravagance is carefully balanced with introspection. In fact, at its heart, this is a personal portrayal of a family man struggling to hold on to his dying dynasty.

The picture's tone is unmistakably British. Everything is presented with such weight and sombre importance, leading to a highly effective final scene that pushes the boundary of how many times you can cut between people's faces and still call it suspense. It turns out the answer is quite a few. And it's those stoic British faces that make the film so compelling. Almost everyone's performance, even down to the young Roderic Noble, contains heavy emotion, but it's all behind steely eyes. It's as if they were specifically directed to keep any movement of facial muscles to a bare minimum.

Not to mention the power of the British accent. Instead of the expected Russian accent, all of the Russian characters speak with a perfect British cadence. And, to be honest, if you accept that they're speaking English, it's not such a big leap to accept their accent. In any case, the suspension of disbelief required is well worth the effect.

As mentioned, the cast consists of a great number of actors who perform their roles with piercing gravity. Indeed, there is a veritable cornucopia of well-known British thespians appearing in smaller roles, including Michael Redgrave, Irene Worth, Jack Hawkins, Eric Porter and the great Laurence Olivier. Classic Doctor Who fans will get a kick out of seeing Tom Baker (pictured) in his film debut as Rasputin. You may not recognise his face behind that fluffy beard, but his commanding voice is a giveaway. A young Brian Cox also makes his film debut as Leon Trotsky. Ian Holm, in an early screen role, competes for the most stoic performance of the film. He is trumped, however, by the film's lead, Michael Jayston, who remains the king of stoicism. Jayston carries the film brilliantly, delivering an incredibly moving outburst of shame in one pivotal scene. At his side for most of the story is Janet Suzman as Alexandra, who likewise offers an outstanding performance, achieving the film's only acting nomination.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Best Picture of 1959

The last year of review took me about three and a half months. I've knocked off about a month this time around, so hopefully that's a sign that things will move at a swifter pace from here on in... But don't quote me on that.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1959 are:
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Ben-Hur
  • The Diary of Anne Frank
  • The Nun's Story
  • Room at the Top
Five nominees with vastly disparate subject matters, united by their intensity and thought-provoking themes. Despite this excess of gripping drama, it was the epic that presented itself as the clear front-runner, no doubt due to its legacy.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the other four films all offer conclusions that could in some sense be described as unsatisfying - not because of any error in the filmmaking, but rather that they're simply just downers of varying degrees. Each of the lead characters essentially fails to achieve what they really want, or if they do, they then realise it wasn't actually what they wanted. Don't get me wrong, though. The climaxes are inevitable given the stories. These four films needed to end the way they did, a large part as to why they are each so provocatively compelling.

It is ironic, then, that Ben-Hur's unsatisfying ending is indeed a story problem - a deus ex machina, to be precise. Nonetheless, the picture's epic nature somehow outweighs such flaws. While its intensity may not quite match the thoughtfulness of its fellow nominees, Ben-Hur is such a cinematic achievement in so many other ways that it's difficult not to call it my favourite Best Picture nominee of 1959.

Best Picture of 1959
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:


Your choice:

Were you likewise swept away by Ben-Hur's glory, or did you find one of the other four nominees more worthy? Vote for your favourite in the poll above. It is time now to move forward a few years to the early 1970s to review yet another collection of modern classics.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1971 are:
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • The French Connection
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Nicholas and Alexandra
If you'd like to follow along with me, check out these titles at Amazon.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

1959 - Anatomy of a Murder

On Sunday night, my short film, Clicked, had its screening in competition at the Hoboken International Film Festival, although technically, the cinema at which it screened was actually located in Hoboken-adjacent Jersey City. As could be expected late on a Sunday evening in Jersey City, the turnout was not spectacular, a circumstance accentuated by the large auditorium. Nevertheless, the few movie-goers in attendance seemed to enjoy themselves and, post screening, I was even able to speak to one such attendee, who was modestly complimentary of the film, so I'll take it.

A light rail and four trains later, Kat and I made it back to Astoria, stopping in for an early breakfast at our favorite local haunt, Sanford's. Nothing quite like an egg, bacon and cheese sandwich at two in the morning.

Now we turn to the final nominee from the race to the 1959 Best Picture Oscar...

Anatomy of a Murder
Otto Preminger
Wendell Mayes
(based on the play by John D. Voelker)
James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Orson Bean, Russ Brown, Murray Hamilton, Brooks West, Joseph N. Welch
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

In a small town in Michigan, ex-district attorney Paul Biegler (Stewart) has been laying low for a while when Army wife Laura (Remick) requests his services as a defense lawyer for her husband Frederick Manion (Gazzara), who has been charged with the murder of local barkeeper Barney Quill. Manion admits the killing, thinking it might be able to be justified by the fact that Quill raped his wife, but after subtle direction from Biegler, the two settle on an insanity plea. In the courtroom, Biegler contends with the local D.A. (West) who has brought in the big guns in the form of respected prosecutor Claude Dancer (Scott).

With smart dialogue and an even smarter story, Anatomy of a Murder falls cleanly into the gripping legal drama category. Its central case is intriguingly complicated with many ups and downs, full of those clever and manipulative cross examinations that swing the pendulum back and forth between the defense and the prosecution. As one would expect, there's a lot of talking and very little action in the courtroom, yet the mood is never far from sultry thanks to Duke Ellington's inspired jazz score.

Despite the film's captivating charms, there is one relatively large sticking point that leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. While it's easy to get behind the affable defense attorney (and, as played by James Stewart, could he be anything but affable?), the same does not apply to the defendant himself. Ben Gazzara's Manion is a little creepy, but the performance is not the problem. The main issue is that it's clear from the outset that Manion is guilty and that he's essentially inventing the insanity plea just to get off. It's never particularly convincing and, even with all the potent emotion surrounding his motive, the vengeful murder of his wife's rapist remains immoral.

Ultimately, the ending (yes, spoilers are imminent, so if you haven't yet seen the movie, skip this paragraph) confirms our initial suspicions. The jury finds in favour of the defendant, who doesn't even bother to pay his legal fees, leaving Biegler a sarcastic note instead. The implication, of course, is that Manion literally got away with murder. What makes it worse, however, is that Biegler's reaction is somehow inappropriately flippant. He just achieved an acquittal for a guilty man and merely shrugs it off. All that said, I suppose it's a testament to Preminger that the film remains so gripping despite such an unsatisfying conclusion.

Complementing Gazzara's effective portrayal of the devious Manion is Lee Remick as his alluring and enigmatic wife. Her sultry confidence in such unsettling circumstances is fascinating, making it consistently difficult to figure out how she's really feeling. George C. Scott shows his effortless power once again as the lawyer from the big city, earning his first Oscar nomination. Joining him as a Supporting Actor nominee is Arthur O'Connell, natural and amiable as the drunken comic relief. And then there's James Stewart (pictured), with his aforementioned affability, playing the determined and respectable lead, earning himself a Best Actor nod to boot.