Thursday, December 19, 2013

1934 - Imitation of Life

Awards season is heating up, which means I have a lot of movies to catch up on. I've only seen two of the major contenders so far - Gravity and Blue Jasmine. The former seems certain, at this stage, to garner multiple Oscar nominations, if only for the mere fact that it covers all its bases. It has the potential to be cited in both the creative and technical categories, along with Best Picture and perhaps even a Best Actress nod for Sandra Bullock. Perennial screenplay nominee Woody Allen may add another notch to that belt with Blue Jasmine. In addition, the film may give Cate Blanchett her second Oscar. At the very least, a nomination is almost certain.

While the 2013 contenders shuffle for position, we continue our look at the 1934 Best Picture nominees...

Imitation of Life
John M. Stahl
William Hurlbut
(based on the novel by Fannie Hurst)
Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Widowed mother Bea Pullman (Colbert) struggles to hold on to her late husband's maple syrup business while raising her daughter Jessie. When African-American housekeeper Delilah (Beavers) shows up looking for a job, Bea reluctantly accepts the help in exchange for room and board for Delilah and her mixed-race daughter Peola. Soon, Delilah's delicious pancakes give Bea the idea to open a pancake shop, which eventually grows into a lucrative pancake flour business thanks to the business savvy of Elmer Smith (Sparks) and a giant neon sign (pictured below). But the two mothers have their hands full with their respective daughters as they grow into young women. Jessie (Hudson) falls for Bea's dapper boyfriend Stephen (Wililam), while Peola (Washington) pushes her own mother away, embarrassed by her skin colour.

It may seem odd to say, but as a whole, I found Imitation of Life to be a relatively simple tale. Granted, it includes some complex themes, but the story itself is rather straight-forward, and for some reason, it just didn't grab me. As is often the case with stories that span so many years, the story is inevitably a little rushed, preventing the audience from truly investing in any of the subplots. In a way, even though plenty of important events occur, we only really see snippets from each event, resulting in a feeling that nothing much is happening at all.

All of this is not to say that the film is boring. In fact, being as uncomplicated as it is, the story is pleasantly easy to follow. It's just that perhaps the drama could have been furthered. Despite some genuinely fascinating subplots - particularly Peola's resistance to her own heritage - they mostly felt somewhat unexplored.

Gladly, the cast are all capable in their roles. Claudette Colbert - in one of three starring roles in Best Picture nominees this awards year - is almost overly affable, laughing at everyone and everything, bordering on patronizing at times. Still, her charm lets her get away with it. Playing opposite her is the dashing Warren William, who delivers a delightfully elegant portrayal, making me wonder why he never rose to the heights of Gable or Grant. Unusually fascinating is Ned Sparks as the matter-of-fact business manager. His delivery is often motionless, in both body and face, yet his distinct vocal quality produces quite a captivating lilt, repetitive though it may be.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

1934 - The White Parade

Finally back in New York now, just in time for the snow. Sure, it's pretty, but after spending a few weeks in Australia and then Southern California, I'll take warmth over pretty any day. While in Los Angeles, I got the chance to visit the UCLA Film Archive again. Almost three years after my first visit there to watch Skippy and East Lynne, I went back to view another title exclusively held on this campus.

Hence, the first nominee to be reviewed in the behemoth Best Picture contest of 1934 is...

The White Parade
Irving Cummings
Rian James, Jesse L. Lasky, Sonya Levien, Ernest Pascal
(based on the novel by Rian James)
Loretta Young, John Boles, Dorothy Wilson, Muriel Kirkland, Astrid Allwyn, Frank Conroy, Jane Darwell, Sara Haden
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

The copy of The White Parade that is available for general viewing at the UCLA Film Archive, while in DVD format, is not exactly in pristine condition. The DVD has been created directly from the surviving film reels, so in addition to the expected film artefacts and glitches caused by missing frames, there is a somewhat distracting fuzzy image throughout. Humorously, the DVD contains the entire footage from each reel, including some frames with the words "End of Reel" emblazoned in large text.

Despite a title that sounds like the sequel to The Birth of a Nation, The White Parade actually refers to the nursing profession (even though none of my nurse friends had ever heard that expression before). A group of young women converge on a teaching hospital to spend three years in training to be nurses. The story mainly focuses on June Arden (Young), who in an attempt to fit in with the popular girls, pretends to be the fiancee of the wealthy Ronald Hall III (Boles) after seeing his picture in the society pages. When one of the other girls questions her, she agrees to meet with Hall to prove it. Luckily for her, the two actually fall for each other, and so the deception morphs into reality. But as June approaches the end of her training, she has to decide whether she wants to pursue a life of caring for sick people or a life with a family. (Apparently, in the 1930s, it was impossible to have both. Again, my nurse friends might have something to say about that.)

Initially, it's a little tough to keep track of all the characters. The opening scenes introduce us to a number of nursing students all at once - including a largish woman who everyone casually refers to as "Pudgy" with seemingly no awareness of any potential offense - so it's difficult to retain interest without a singular story to follow. Fortunately, it doesn't take too long for June to clearly emerge as our heroine and the story finds its feet and becomes rather involving.

The script is witty in only that way that 1930s films can be, bolstered by elements of screwball comedy. And speaking of elements common to the 1930s, you won't be surprised to hear sexist attitudes from the men, as when Ronald attempts to persuade June to give up nursing to be his wife, explaining that it's just as honorable to serve one as it is to serve many. Surprisingly, though, the conclusion defies the stereotype and June sacrifices married life for her career.

One further criticism is the lack of music scoring in the film. I hesitate to bring that up in case it's just a matter of the score never being included on the surviving print. Perhaps the original theatrical release contained more music. If not, it seems like a missed opportunity. Several scenes felt awkwardly silent.

Loretta Young (pictured, with John Boles) as the strong-willed June delivers a brilliant performance, charming and passionate. You won't find a lot of other well-known faces (which may explain why it's never received a commercial home video release). Perhaps the most recognisable performer after Young is Jane Darwell (the matriarch from The Grapes of Wrath) as the nurses' guardian inexplicably nicknamed Sailor.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Best Picture of 1961

This year of review has certainly taken its time to complete, but despite that, the verdict was a relatively quick decision to make. Most likely, that's due to one of the films lining up almost perfectly with my taste in genre. Still, here's my explanation.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1961 are:
  • Fanny
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • The Hustler
  • Judgment at Nuremberg
  • West Side Story
Selecting my least favourite of the 1961 Best Picture contenders was even easier than choosing my winner. Fanny is artificial and, though it has its charms, it is clearly overshadowed by its four competitors.

Each of the remaining films would be a worthy victor. The iconic musical West Side Story is thoroughly entertaining, enough to win over the Academy and be chosen as their Best Picture. The Guns of Navarone excites with its masterful action and adventure. And Judgment at Nuremberg engages its audience by laying bare some heavy philosophical issues.

But it's the gritty and absorbing drama The Hustler that wins my vote for the best of the year. With its electrifying performances and a story full of both tension and humour, this classic hits all the right notes. Thus, I now officially proclaim The Hustler as my favourite 1961 Best Picture nominee.

Best Picture of 1961
Academy's choice:

West Side Story

Matt's choice:

The Hustler

Your choice:

Don't agree with me? Then let me know by voting in the poll above for your favourite of 1961. We now move back to 1934 for reasons that will be explained in the next post. The most notable thing about this awards year is the record 12 films that were nominated for Best Picture. So, it looks like we're in for the long haul.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1934 are:
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street
  • Cleopatra
  • Flirtation Walk
  • The Gay Divorcee
  • Here Comes the Navy
  • The House of Rothschild
  • Imitation of Life
  • It Happened One Night
  • One Night of Love
  • The Thin Man
  • The White Parade
  • Viva Villa!
Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 1, 2013

1961 - Judgement at Nuremberg

With our Australian visit behind us, Kat and I are now relaxing in Los Angeles for a few days before heading back to New York. Almost immediately after arriving back in the States, America's penchant for large food portions became obvious. That's what you get for eating at The Cheesecake Factory, I guess.

And now, the final movie to review from 1961's Best Picture race...

Judgment at Nuremberg
Stanley Kramer
Abby Mann
Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner, Werner Klemperer
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actor (Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay

Soon after the end of World War II, a down-to-earth judge from Maine, Dan Haywood (Tracy), arrives in Germany to fill his post as the chief judge in a military tribunal. Accused of crimes against humanity, the defendants are four German judges, including the internationally renowned Ernst Janning (Lancaster). The jurists are all represented by German attorney Hans Rolfe (Schell), while leading the prosecution is Colonel Tad Lawson (Widmark). Along with the testimony in court, Haywood converses with Germans outside of the courtroom, including Frau Bertholt (Dietrich), the widow of a German general, in order to gain a deeper understanding of how such blatant atrocities could have occurred in a seemingly civilized country.

This one's definitely a courtroom drama, folks. It's over three hours long and most of that takes place inside the courtroom. Director Stanley Kramer keeps things from getting dull, however, with some creative camera tricks, including sudden zooms and long circular pans. But even if these gimmicks were absent, the subject matter alone is certainly enough to keep you invested. It's deep and often unsettling stuff, particularly when the prosecution shows disturbing real-life footage from the concentration camps.

It may sound odd to liken this film to fellow nominee The Guns of Navarone, but despite the lack of action sequences in Judgment at Nuremberg, both films wax philosophical about sensitive moral issues. In this case, the focus is drawn towards how much responsibility should be held by those who enforce immoral laws. Were the defendants at the centre of the story justified in carrying out their government's orders to save their own skin? Or should they be considered complicit in all that followed? That theme is further explored by asking questions of ordinary civilians. Were average Germans aware of the atrocities their government was committing? And if so, how should they have dealt with that information?

Representing the two sides of this debate are the prosecution and defense lawyers in the trial. It may just have been due to the respective actors' performances, but during the opening statements, I felt as though the film was guiding my moral pendulum towards the defense. Richard Widmark's portrayal of prosecuting attorney Colonel Lawson struck me as unreasonable and self-righteous, whereas Maximilian Schell's defense attorney Hans Rolfe takes the persona of the sincere underdog. My sympathies didn't remain there for long, however, since Rolfe almost immediately becomes a little smarmy. Nonetheless, Lawson's brattishness prevented me from ever fully siding with him either. The posturing from both sides makes things slightly muddy, but the final act leaves no doubt as to which conclusion the film makers would like us to draw. It's most likely the right conclusion to draw, of course, but it is hindered somewhat by Widmark being overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Schell's passionate and ultimately Oscar-winning performance.

Along with the two lawyers, Judgment at Nuremberg boasts a star-studded cast. As the judge at the head of it all, the always calm and amiable Spencer Tracy represents the audience, trying to make sense of everything he hears. He is supported by strong performances from Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift and particularly Judy Garland, who delivers an incredibly heartbreaking turn on the witness stand. Also look out for two soon-to-be television stars. That's Star Trek's William Shatner (pictured, with Tracy) as Judge Haywood's charming aide Captain Byers, and despite Werner Klemperer's steely portrayal of defendant Emil Hahn, I couldn't help imagining him as Colonel Klink bellowing, "Ho-o-ogan!"

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

1961 - The Guns of Navarone

After a busy few months, Kat and I are currently on holiday in Sydney, catching up with friends and family, and enjoying the sunshine (when it appears). And since we're only here for a short time, I've been trying to cram in as many of those Aussie things (mostly food items) that are unavailable in the States. So far, I've managed to feed my nostalgia with a packet of Toobs, an Oporto meal, a KFC Zinger burger, a sausage roll from the servo, a pizza with more than one topping (NYC, your cuisine is amazing, but you really need to learn how to top your pizzas), my mum's homemade schnitzel and dumplings, my father-in-law's barbecue, a burger with the lot, and boxes and boxes of Shapes. I also got the chance to plonk myself down in front of the TV to watch some cricket and witness the Aussies dominate the Ashes, both of which haven't happened in a long time (i.e. the watching and the dominating). Suffice it to say, it has been a very pleasant trip so far.

The night before flying to Australia, I caught one last movie. Another Best Picture nominee from the 1961 contest...

The Guns of Navarone
J. Lee Thompson
Carl Foreman
(based on the novel by Alistair MacLean)
Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle, James Darren, Irene Papas, Gia Scala
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Special Effects

I have a confession to make. I had heard the title of this film many times over the years but never really investigated further as to what it was about or who was in it. So up until now, I have always just assumed that The Guns of Navarone was a western. I suppose there is an argument that could be made that the film possesses some qualities of a western, but it certainly isn't a wild, wild West shoot-'em-up type of movie and there are no cowboys nor saloons, as I had imagined.

Rather, the story centres on a team of Allied soldiers during the Second World War, given the task of destroying the large havoc-wreaking German guns strategically positioned on the island of Navarone. The commanding officer is Major Franklin (Quayle) with mountaineer Captain Mallory (Peck) as second in command. They are joined by a Greek Colonel (Quinn), an explosives expert (Niven), a Greek-American (Darren) and an engineer (Baker). After successfully navigating by sea to the island, Mallory skilfully maneuvers the team up the perilous cliffs. Franklin is injured, however, leaving Mallory to take charge of the mission.

One of the elements this picture shares with Westerns is its sense of adventure. Our team of protagonists moves from one predicament to the next, keeping the tension high, a testament to the deft hand of both the director and the editor. And despite the obvious use of scale models, the explosions are exciting. Indeed, the film won its only Oscar for those special effects.

As I've come to discover, when the Academy nominates war films (or any kind of action film, for that matter) for Best Picture, it usually is a sign that the film is more than a mere string of exhilarating action sequences. No doubt, The Guns of Navarone focuses heavily on the main mission and it is at its most gripping when the gang is on the move, but the story is peppered with myriad philosophical discussions about the ethics of war and the effects of combat on the human psyche.

In spite of a wonderful cast who all suit their roles perfectly, the film did not receive any Oscar nominations for its actors. Gregory Peck impresses with his language skills, speaking Greek and German flawlessly (well, at least to these ears). David Niven is his usual nonchalant charming self. And that's a young Richard Harris (pictured) as an irritated Australian squadron leader, doing a remarkably accurate Aussie accent, complete with liberal use of the word "bloody."

Thursday, October 31, 2013

1961 - The Hustler

Well, this current year of review is certainly taking its time. At this rate, I'll never finish this project. But as long as I review more films in 2013 than are nominated next January, I'll take that as a win...

To be fair, it's been a busy few months. In July, I went to Baltimore to guest star in an episode of the second season of House of Cards. Look out for that on Netflix early next year. In September, Kat's and my theatre company produced (and she starred in and I directed) a successful run of an Aussie musical called Once We Lived Here. And I'm currently starring as Puck in a crazy production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which all the other actors draw their characters from a hat at the beginning of each performance. (I get to play Puck every night, though.) But the biggest news of all is that Kat and I are expecting our first child in March, so I'll be trying to get as many reviews in before then. In fact, the due date is right around the Oscar ceremony this year, so I may finally find something that trumps my viewing of the Academy Awards.

Let's move on now to another Best Picture nominee from 1961...

The Hustler
Robert Rossen
Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen
(based on the novel by Walter Tevis)
Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick, Murray Hamilton
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
2 wins, for Black-and-White Cinematography and Art Direction

Fast Eddie Felson (Newman) is a brash pool hustler, excited to take on nationally renowned Minnesota Fats (Gleason). After initially winning over $10,000, Eddie's inability to quit while he's ahead combined with his alcoholism result in him finishing the day-and-a-half pool marathon with only $200 to his name. Scrounging around for more games to play, Eddie eventually strikes up a relationship with fellow alcoholic Sarah Packard (Laurie), but the romance struggles as Eddie's focus remains on figuring out a way to raise the stakes to challenge Fats to a rematch.

The Hustler is the kind of movie that makes aspiring filmmakers sick. Everything just falls into place so expertly that it hardly seems fair. It's riveting and tension-filled, yet it delivers all of this with a wry smile throughout. In fact, it's almost as if there are two movies happening at the same time. One is a pseudo sports film, complete with tense game-play and surprising outcomes. The other is a gritty relationship drama, full of emotion and struggle. Together, they are story-telling at its most brilliant.

Indeed, the very first scene is so well-structured and clever that it's hard not to smile as you watch it. It's only a shame that the film's title gives away what's going to happen. However, despite this knowledge, it's still enjoyable to watch it unfold. And in a way, it sets up a sort of fake-out for the rest of the movie. There were several scenes in which I wasn't entirely sure whether Eddie was genuinely losing or just waiting for the right moment to reveal the hustle. I suppose you could say that the film hustled me.

Most of the performances are small and noir-like, which hits the spot for my liking. Paul Newman (pictured) is ahead of his time with a superbly natural portrayal of this issues-riddled man. Jackie Gleason, too, is surprisingly subtle for a man known for his histrionic comedy. And both possess impressive pool-playing skills. It's actually them making most of those shots. Piper Laurie is a much-needed shot of estrogen in an otherwise testosterone-heavy movie, overcoming the occasional 1960s sexist caricatures of her character by presenting an interesting and flawed woman. It's always a pleasure watching George C. Scott, and his performance as the charming yet ruthless manager is fantastic. The main cast receives wonderful support from seasoned character man Murray Hamilton (previously seen on this blog in The Graduate and Jaws) as an eccentric millionaire, who almost seems like a Bond villain with his calm demeanour and unique way of holding cigarettes. And yep, that's boxing champion (and Raging Bull subject) Jake LaMotta as the bartender in the opening scene.

Monday, July 1, 2013

1961 - West Side Story

I'm back. Another long hiatus, I know. It's hardly worth acting surprised about it any more. I won't bother with excuses. Nor will I make empty promises that it won't happen again. Instead, let's get straight into our next review.

It's the eventual Best Picture winner from the 1961 race...

West Side Story
Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Ernest Lehman
(based on the musical play by Arthur Laurents & Jerome Robbins)
Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
10 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Moreno)

Inspired by Shakespeare's tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story moves the action from medieval Verona to contemporary New York City, and the Montagues and Capulets are replaced by two rival street gangs - the Jets, a bunch of white American hoodlums, led by Riff (Tamblyn), and the Sharks, made up of immigrant Puerto Ricans, led by Bernardo (Chakiris). The star-crossed lovers of this tale are Tony (Beymer), Riff's best friend who has had enough of gang life, and Bernardo's sister, Maria (Wood). Upon meeting at a local dance, the two fall in love at first sight (literally) and pursue a romance despite the disapproval of their respective friends. Oh, and it's a musical.

Film musicals have a certain undeniable theatrical style that takes some getting used to and West Side Story is no exception. In fact, in this case, the style takes a little more getting used to than normal, since not only are we asked to accept that people will burst into song and dance to express their feelings, but we are asked to accept that tough guys will burst into song and dance to express their feelings. And despite their menacing demeanour, there's something decidedly nonthreatening about suavely dressed men gracefully dancing down the street. It's also tough to take a fight scene seriously when the brawling participants are executing perfect pirouettes.

Having said that, the dance sequences are certainly fascinating art, thanks to the unique innovation of Jerome Robbins' choreography. Add to that Leonard Bernstein's memorable music and Stephen Sondheim's witty lyrics, and you've got yourself some delightful entertainment. And the cinematography complements it all beautifully, capturing the musical numbers in a way that live theatre could never do. In fact, what works so well here is the fact that, while the picture is undoubtedly theatrical, it makes the most of its medium, rather than merely filming a stage show. Many scenes take place on location on the streets of New York, and there are some interesting visual effects (for its time), particularly when Tony and Maria first meet. As the two lovers lock eyes, they lose focus of everything that is happening around them, as does the camera image. Tony and Maria are in sharp focus while the image surrounding their bodies is a complete blur.

For those familiar with Romeo and Juliet, it's a fun exercise in how to adapt a Shakespeare play for a modern setting. Although the ending is mathematically only half as tragic as the original, most of the famous scenes are still there but given a contemporary twist. The unmistakable balcony scene, for instance, takes place on a fire escape (pictured).

When assessing the performances, one has to factor in the tendency of films of yore to embrace a somewhat melodramatic style of acting, coupled with that same tendency in musicals of any era. But while some of the performances are hammy, there is enough genuine heart here to offset any histrionics. Of particular note is Rita Moreno who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Anita, the girlfriend of George Chakiris' Bernardo. Chakiris himself nabbed the award for Best Supporting Actor. Also worth a mention is the underrated Simon Oakland, who delivers a superb turn as Lieutenant Schrank, the hard-nosed cop who doesn't take any crap from anyone. And John Astin, better known as TV's Gomez Addams, is fun in his uncredited role as the dance hall leader.

All up, West Side Story took home a whopping 10 Oscars from 11 nominations. Ernest Lehman's adapted screenplay was the only loser. The directing team of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins shared the Best Director gong, the first time the award was presented to more than one person. In addition, Robbins also received a special honorary award the same year for his contribution to choreography on film.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

1961 - Fanny

How is it already May? And while we're at it, how is it already 2013? I actually watched this next movie over a month ago, but once again, other things got in the way. One of those other things was a short film that I wrote and directed called Homesick. It's the story of an Australian couple who moves to New York with their six-year-old daughter, Molly. When Molly stops talking due to a serious bout of homesickness, her father takes her on a day trip around New York City, pretending they're back home in Sydney. Kat and I played the Aussie couple, and it was quite a surreal experience having auditions for our daughter. But we found a girl with enough red hair and freckles to pass as our progeny. The film is complete now, post production and all, and has already been entered into its first film festival, so I'll keep you all updated on its progress.

We now begin our look at the nominees from the Academy's 1961 Best Picture contest. First off...

Joshua Logan
Julius J. Epstein
(based on the play by S.N. Behrman and Joshua Logan, and the Marseilles Trilogy by Marcel Pagnol)
Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, Horst Buccholz, Georgette Anys, Salvatore Baccaloni, Lionel Jeffries, Raymond Bussieres, Joel Flateau
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

It's the early 1920s in the port town of Marseilles, France. Young French girl Fanny (Caron) finds herself rejected once again by her long-lasting crush Marius (Buccholz), who has his heart set on a life at sea. When Fanny's mother (Anys) promises her daughter to the much older, but incredibly wealthy, Panisse (Chevalier), Fanny resists, but the news seems to do the trick for Marius, who confesses his love for her, and the two spend a night together, even though the next day he is setting sail for five years.

Once Marius is gone, Fanny discovers she is pregnant. Worried that she will never be able to escape the shame of being an unmarried mother, she is relieved to hear that Panisse still wants to marry her, and indeed, is excited at the prospect of having a son to carry on his family name. Fanny and Panisse get married, but upon Marius' return, things get truly complicated.

The irony of Fanny is that, even though it removed all the songs from its Broadway musical source material, it is as hammy and theatrical as anything you're likely to see on the Great White Way. The drama is mostly heavy-handed, and in a further irony, the one place the picture could have milked its sentiment is the one place it is avoided. The story could have concluded with sweeping romantic music as Fanny and Marius fall into each other's arms. Instead, we are given the albeit touching, but far less romantic, scene of a dry letter being dictated to our heroine. On the other hand, Marius is particularly broody, and often comes across as selfish, which hinders our desire for him to win the girl anyway.

The performances are over the top across the board, especially the supporting characters. Georgette Anys, in particular, is giving it all she has, so it is unfortunate that her entire performance has been dubbed - rather badly, I might add - because her own voice might actually have been a more humorous fit for her expressive face. The usually subdued Charles Boyer even succumbs to some play-acting at times. Nonetheless, his was the only performance from the film to receive an Oscar nomination. Maurice Chevalier is borderline creepy at first (there's over four decades between him and Caron - I mean, come on!), but he eventually grows on you and is genuinely funny. Finally, the star of the film, Leslie Caron, manages to retain her loveliness and charm. Thankfully, considering she has to carry the movie, hers is probably the most subtle performance in the film.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Best Picture of 1942

Choosing which Best Picture nominee I would have voted for is always challenging, but when there are ten contenders, as is the case for 1942, the difficulty obviously increases. As such, the possibility exists that my decision will be inadvertently influenced by a film's longevity and position in cinematic history. There's a good chance that subconscious phenomenon has occurred for this verdict, but so be it.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1942 are:
  • Kings Row
  • The Invaders
  • The Magnificent Ambersons
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • The Pied Piper
  • The Pride of the Yankees
  • Random Harvest
  • The Talk of the Town
  • Wake Island
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy
Since 1942 was the first full year in which the U.S. participated in World War II, there were understandably a great deal of pictures that dealt with war themes. Four of the Best Picture nominees use the war as a main focus, while Yankee Doodle Dandy's unabashedly patriotic style features the war towards the end of the film.

Separating these films is certainly no easy task, but I managed to at least divide them into two groups, thereby leaving half of them out of the running. In no particular order, the bottom five are Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pride of the Yankees, Wake Island and Yankee Doodle Dandy. A lot of quality cinema right there. Indeed, many of those films are considered classics, yet for whatever reason, I found myself more fascinated by The Invaders, The Pied Piper, The Talk of the Town, Random Harvest and Mrs. Miniver.

In the end, however, and perhaps partly due to the Academy's influence, my choice for Best Picture of 1942 is the same as theirs, Mrs. Miniver.

Best Picture of 1942
Academy's choice:

Mrs. Miniver

Matt's choice:

Mrs. Miniver

Your choice:

What's your pick? Vote in the poll above for your favourite of 1942. You may have noticed that, during my review of 1942, I did not have the usual poll to allow for my readers to select the next year of review. That was mostly absent-mindedness, but towards the end of the review, I had hoped to be wrapped up in time to go see most of 1932/33's nominees at the Film Forum, an independent cinema here in New York which recently held a month-long retrospective of pre-Code films from 1933. Alas, I didn't come close to finishing this review, so instead, due to one of its nominees having a screening soon nearby, we'll now take a look at the 1961 race.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1961 are:
  • Fanny
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • The Hustler
  • Judgment at Nuremberg
  • West Side Story
Stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

1942 - Random Harvest

In all the post-Oscars excitement, I forgot to link to this in my last post, so here it is now: the menu from my annual Oscars party.

The final nominee in the Best Picture contest of 1942 is...

Random Harvest
Mervyn LeRoy
Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, Claudine West
(based on the novel by James Hilton)
Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Philip Dorn, Susan Peters, Henry Travers, Reginald Owen, Bramwell Fletcher
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

Due to shell-shock from World War I, a British soldier (Colman) is now a patient in an asylum without any memory of his past life. Known now as John Smith, he escapes the asylum and befriends Paula (Garson), who immediately takes a liking to the amnesiac, taking him under her wing. After nursing him back to mental health and encouraging him to pursue his talent for writing, the two fall in love and get married. The fairy tale is destroyed, however, when Smithy is hit by a car in Liverpool and gets his memory back. Well, almost all of it. He now draws a blank as to what he's been doing with the past three years of life since the shell-shock. No memory of the asylum, no memory of his new-found writing skills and, sadly, no memory of Paula. Nonetheless, Paula tracks him down, becomes his secretary and patiently waits for him to regain his memory of her and their happy life. You know, what any girl in love would do.

With all its twists and turns, Random Harvest is certainly an engrossing story. Admittedly, to enjoy the tale, you must first accept the conceit that Paula would drop everything so immediately, including her career, to care for a stranger. Then, of course, there's the conceit that Paula's tender loving care would transform Smithy from a stuttering simpleton into an intelligent suave gentleman. While the transformation takes place over several months, the movie-going audience experiences the change in a split second. Still, that's not the most challenging conceit. We are then asked to concede that a second bump on the head would inexplicably reverse Smithy's memory, returning the memories of his life before the initial accident, while leaving him with no recollection whatsoever of the intervening three years. And I haven't even mentioned the conceit that Paula would reinsert herself into her lost love's life without even mentioning who she is.

The most fascinating part of this concoction of absurd unlikelihoods is that it is truly captivating. No matter how far-fetched the plot, it is always treated seriously and the result is engaging drama. With the love story at the forefront, I challenge you to watch this film without feeling an irresistible need for the two leads to end up together.

That need is undoubtedly fueled by the immense amiability of both stars. Colman is superb in the film's opening sequences as the simpleton version of his character, earning him a Best Actor Oscar nod. Garson is likewise charming and powerful, the Academy choosing instead to give her a Best Actress nomination (and win) for Mrs. Miniver this year. (Academy rules disallow a performer to receive two nominations in the same category.) Speaking of Mrs. Miniver, Garson is not the only connection between these two films. Both MGM films, Random Harvest and Mrs. Miniver share the same writing team (including James Hilton, who co-wrote Miniver and wrote the source novel here), as well as the same producer (Sidney Franklin), and many key crew members. Along with Greer Garson, character actors Henry Travers and Reginald Owen also appear in both pictures, as do several bit players. Mrs. Miniver was the darling come Oscar time, though, winning six awards from 12 nominations, while Random Harvest didn't manage to secure one from its seven nods.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

1942 - Mrs. Miniver

Another Oscars ceremony over and I managed to predict 18 of the 24 categories correctly, which equals my previous best, so I'll take it. No major surprises this year. In the end, it seems Argo comfortably took the Best Picture award after all. So since I love statistics, why don't I just list my favourite Oscar stats from this year's awards...

  • Argo became only the fourth film to win the big prize without achieving a Best Director nomination (after Wings, Grand Hotel and Driving Miss Daisy).
  • Ang Lee's directing win is notable for the fact that he now has two Best Director Oscars for films that did not win Best Picture (previously winning for Brokeback Mountain, which lost to Crash), a rare feat.
  • Daniel Day-Lewis is now only the sixth performer to have three Oscar statuettes, all three of his wins for lead roles (second only to Katharine Hepburn with four Best Actress awards).
  • Christoph Waltz achieved his second acting win from only his second nomination. And since both his wins came for Quentin Tarantino films, he is now only the third person to win two acting Oscars for films by the same director (Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest both won twice for Woody Allen films). [edit: Turns out this stat isn't quite accurate. See the comments below the post.]
  • The tie for Best Sound Editing is only the sixth such occurrence since the Oscars began, the first in this category. (Perhaps the most famous of the ties was in 1968 when Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand shared the Best Actress award for The Lion in Winter and Funny Girl, respectively.)
  • Pixar Animation Studios continued their domination of the Best Animated Feature award, winning for Brave, their seventh award (plus two more nominations) since the category was introduced 12 years ago.
  • As one of the producers of Best Picture winner Argo, George Clooney won his second Oscar, his first for Best Supporting Actor for Syriana. This makes him only the second person to have won an acting Oscar and a Best Picture, along with Michael Douglas, who won Best Picture for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Best Actor for Wall Street.

And now to the eventual Best Picture winner from 1942...

Mrs. Miniver
William Wyler
Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West
(based on the novel by Jan Struther)
Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Richard Ney, Henry Wilcoxon
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
6 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Garson), Best Supporting Actress (Wright)

Another 1942 nominee dealing with World War II, Mrs. Miniver shows us the effects the war has on a small village in England. The Minivers are a happy and well-to-do family whose lives get caught up in the war in numerous ways. Mrs. Miniver (Garson) looks after the house and her two youngest children while her husband Clem (Pidgeon) lends his assistance and his boat to the British Navy's Dunkirk evacuation, and her eldest son Vin (Ney) does his part as a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force. The war creeps ever closer to home, however, as Germany invades London, forcing those in the village, including Mrs. Miniver and Vin's fiancee Carol (Wright), to experience it firsthand. It even comes right into the Minivers' home when a wounded German pilot holds Mrs. Miniver at gunpoint for some food and milk.

Not your typical war film, Mrs. Miniver is low on battle sequences, choosing instead to tell the story from the perspective of the civilians. We focus on life back in the village while the war rages on across the continent. Nonetheless, as the war makes its way into the village itself, we're treated to a fair share of tense and gripping scenes, just as tense and gripping as if we were following the combatants themselves. We watch on with our hearts in our mouths as the family hides in an air raid bunker as the bombs explode around them. We're on the edge of our seats as Mrs. Miniver deals with an enemy intruder in her home. And we can't look away as the aerial assault takes place directly above the town, stranding Mrs. Miniver and Carol as they attempt to drive back to the house.

Some of the cast struggle a tad with the English accents, particularly Walter Pidgeon and Richard Ney. But with a handful of British actors filling in the supporting roles, the damage is more than alleviated. Greer Garson, a Brit herself, is excellent in the title role, touching and real, earning her a Best Actress Oscar. Meanwhile, the adorable Teresa Wright garnered the Best Supporting Actress award for her strong portrayal of Carol. Almost stealing the film is Dame May Whitty (pictured), brilliantly acerbic as the upper-class Lady Beldon. The similarities to Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey are amusing, made all the more apparent when considering an almost identical storyline involving a flower show seems to have made its way into an episode of the British drama.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

1942 - The Magnificent Ambersons

This year's Academy Awards ceremony is now less than 24 hours away, so my giddy excitement is a-brewing. While working on my predictions, I went back and forth on a number of categories, eventually contradicting some of what I wrote in the last few posts. The fact that the Best Picture winner is not at all clear (it's a tight race between Argo and Lincoln) is brilliantly exciting, especially for all those office Oscar pools, whose winners may well be decided on the last category of the night. Here are my humble predictions.

From the 85th Academy Awards to the 15th, here's my take on the next Best Picture nominee from 1942...

The Magnificent Ambersons
Orson Welles
Orson Welles
(based on the novel by Booth Tarkington)
Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

The wealthy Amberson family is the talk of a small town in the late 19th century when daughter Isabel (Costello) rejects the love of her life, automobile pioneer Eugene Morgan (Cotten), in favour of the boring Wilbur Minafer. Many years later, Eugene returns to town a widower with his beautiful daughter Lucy (Baxter). Isabel has a child, too - a terribly spoiled brat of a son, George (Holt), who takes as much a liking for Lucy as he does a disliking for Eugene. When Wilbur dies, Eugene and Isabel begin their love affair anew, much to the annoyance of Isabel's sister Fanny (Moorehead), who always harboured a thing for Eugene. Mind you, Fanny's disdain of Isabel's and Eugene's relationship doesn't hold a candle to the possessive deep-seated rage that George expresses.

The Magnificent Ambersons holds an interesting place in film history. Its acclaim as a classic is tainted somewhat by the controversy over the film's final cut. Writer/director Orson Welles lost a battle for control to RKO, the studio that financed the film, outspokenly decrying the version that was released to the public. While it is true that RKO excised a great deal of footage from the film and even reshot the ending without Welles' participation to give it a slightly more upbeat closing moment, it still can't be considered a happy ending by any stretch of the imagination. And in fact, the ending that exists is apparently more faithful to the source novel, anyway. Furthermore, it turns out that Welles' own rough cut fared poorly when presented to preview audiences, so perhaps a little snip is what it needed, especially considering it now holds a place in the US National Film Registry.

In any case, Welles' pioneering style undeniably remains in the picture. He doesn't shy away from having his actors talk over each other and innovative camera techniques abound, including some beautiful lengthy tracking shots. Welles himself can be heard as the film's narrator, even during the closing credits, which instead of scrolling text, consist of Welles somewhat indulgently announcing the cast and crew individually before signing off. In his defense, he was a radio star at the time, so this was clearly less an exercise in self-indulgence as it was his standard way of closing a show.

A pre-Bewitched Agnes Moorehead (pictured) steals the show as the down-trodden Fanny. She is consistently natural and delivers a heartbreaking climactic scene, enough to garner her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Joseph Cotten also shines as the amiable Eugene. Adding to the film's drama is Bernard Herrmann's beautifully expressive score. Although, Hermann requested his name be removed from the credits due to a sizable portion of his music being edited or replaced, so I can't be entirely sure that what my ears enjoyed was his work. Nonetheless, the music is striking, whoever wrote it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

1942 - The Invaders

I'd like to write at least one more post before the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, but if the past is anything to go by, I'd better write about the Best Director and Best Picture races now, just in case.

As I've mentioned previously, based on precursor awards alone, it would not be unreasonable to predict Argo and Ben Affleck to take out the Oscar double. The film and its director have cleaned up at the major awards (Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Critics Choice, and both the Producers and Directors Guilds). However, there's one fatal flaw in that prediction - Affleck wasn't nominated for a Best Director Oscar. So that award is now up for grabs. Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin, helmers of Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild, respectively, seem unlikely winners. Likewise, David O. Russell hasn't been talked about much in this category so his work on Silver Linings Playbook will most probably go unrewarded here. That leaves Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee, both previous Oscar winners, whose films this year received the most nominations overall - Lincoln nabbed twelve while Life of Pi was cited for eleven. Despite its across-the-board support, I just don't feel Life of Pi has the same momentum as Lincoln, so I'm inclined to suggest Spielberg will take home his third Oscar this weekend. I won't rule out an upset, though.

As for Best Picture, Argo was indeed nominated for that, so it still has an incredibly good shot at winning the top prize, given its success this season. However, without that Best Director nomination, it's by no means a foregone conclusion, rare as it is that Picture and Director are awarded to separate films. Furthermore, Lincoln is perhaps exactly the kind of movie the Academy loves, so maybe the safe bet is that Lincoln will claim both these two awards.

Back to the 1942 Best Picture race now and let's take a look at...

The Invaders
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger and Rodney Ackland
Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
1 win, Best Original Story

A British film set in Canada, The Invaders was known in its country of origin (and everywhere else in the world, for that matter) as 49th Parallel. At the outset, a Nazi U-boat makes its way into Canadian waters with the intention to invade. However, it is sunk by British planes, but not before six men escape to land. Through the ubiquitous use of map graphics, the abandoned party, led by Lieutenant Hirth (Portman) travel across Canada, finding themselves in various sticky situations, including an extended stay in a Hutterite community.

As a propaganda film, writer-director team Powell and Pressburger, made The Invaders in part to encourage the US to finally enter the Second World War. Revisiting the picture seven decades later without the perspective of a global war is undoubtedly a different experience, predominantly due to its lead characters. In most stories, film or otherwise, the character central to the plot is usually the protagonist, someone with which the audience can empathise. Here, however, the focus is on a group of Nazis on the run in Canada after a failed invasion. On the one hand, cinematic conventions create a subconscious urge to root for the main characters, particularly since we follow their adventures for a full two hours. On the other hand ... well, they're Nazis and they shoot people. It's a strange feeling. I suppose, then, that is where the film's cleverness lies. These unpleasant men, carrying a misguided patriotism and delusional views of world domination, insidiously weasel their way through scenario after scenario, yet we remain intrigued and captivated by their fate. The suspense as they attempt to avoid capture is in no way lessened by the fact that we don't care for them. In fact, in a way, it is amplified, since we still clearly have a stake in the outcome.

It is somewhat confusing at the beginning of the film to hear all the Germans speak with such eloquent British accents. While the convention is accepted soon enough, there still remains an odd verisimilitude. One imagines that Germans speaking English in Canada would be found out immediately due to their accents and broken English, yet time and time again, the Canadians are entirely unaware that these men are anything out of the ordinary, well spoken as they are.

Despite the three names above the title in the film's poster, Eric Portman is without a doubt the lead, and he carries the film superbly. His Nazi Lieutenant is frighteningly passionate, yet it is a subtle performance that finds its way under your skin without being obviously evil. The great Laurence Olivier (pictured) could be rather hit and miss in his early days, and his tendency for larger than life characters is distinctly on display here as an excitable French-Canadian with an excitable accent. And come to think of it, why does he have an accent when the German characters don't? Leslie Howard also shines as a happy-go-lucky British writer who discovers his own courage. And speaking of the poster, why on earth the main image is of Olivier carrying the young Glynis Johns, I have no idea. Both are undeniably supporting players. Not to mention the fact that they never share the screen together.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

1942 - Wake Island

A few days ago, I offered my thoughts on the supporting performance categories at this year's Academy Awards. Today, let's look at the two leading actor categories.

The Best Actor award is Daniel Day-Lewis' to lose. His performance in Lincoln has swept just about every industry and critic's award so far this season. An Oscar win this year would not only earn him a rare third acting Oscar (only five others have achieved that feat) but it would also mean he had won thrice in the leading role category, placing him second only to Katherine Hepburn, whose four awards were all for Best Actress. Hugh Jackman is perhaps his closest rival for the award, but it doesn't look good for Wolverine.

Best Actress is more competitive, essentially a toss-up between Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. Both won Golden Globes for their performances, but Lawrence won the SAG award. (Unexpectedly, Emmanuelle Riva won the BAFTA, but I rate her chances for an upset at the Oscars rather low.) It's tough to separate these two fine actresses, but knowing the Academy's lack of love for comedy films - and despite Silver Linings Playbook's dramatic overtones, it is still far more comedic than any other major Oscar contender this year - the pendulum may well swing towards Chastain.

Meanwhile, our review of 1942's Best Picture Oscar nominees continues with...

Wake Island
John Farrow
W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler
Brian Donlevy, Macdonald Carey, Robert Preston, Albert Dekker, William Bendix, Walter Abel
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Wake Island is the true story of the US Marines attempt at securing the eponymous island at the heels of constant Japanese attacks. Released within a year of the actual events depicted, the film centres on two Marines, Private Doyle (Preston) and Private Randall (Bendix), two troublemakers who dream of life after the war. The new man in charge, Major Geoffrey Caton (Donlevy), commands coolly yet sternly, locking horns with civilian Shad McClosky (Dekker), who has a military contract to build the squadron's trenches. The day Randall is scheduled to be discharged, word arrives that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and thus the prolonged battle begins for those stationed at Wake Island.

There's certainly no denying Wake Island is an action film. The battle scenes are plentiful and epic. Initially, though, they feel slightly by-the-numbers, more concerned with presenting as many explosions as possible rather than delivering genuinely exciting action. It doesn't help that these sequences are a tad difficult to follow - there are so many individual shots of planes flying around and closeups of pilots, without any wide shots to properly identify everyone's relative location. And when all we see is a closeup of a bomb being released followed by an explosion, it's somewhat unclear as to which plane released the bomb and which one exploded. To be fair, this confusion is perhaps the result of budgetary and, more likely, technological constraints, rather than lacklustre direction. On the other hand, a lack of money and technology is no excuse for a seated man, when shot at close range, to rise out of his chair before fatally falling to the floor. That's just cheesy.

Nonetheless, the action eventually hits it stride in the sequence in which Major Caton waits for the Japanese ships to approach before ordering his men to fire. As the ships get closer and closer, the suspense is almost unbearable. The film effectively holds on to this suspense as the squadron continues to hold off the Japanese assault, attack after attack, for the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately, however - spoiler alert - the Marines ultimately fail. Not being well versed in this aspect of World War II history, I guess I assumed this picture would be another patriotic tale of American military success. While the Marines do indeed flex that famous US military might, and granted, the film is undoubtedly patriotic, the ending remains an abrupt letdown. I suppose, given the actual result, it's hard to fault the film for being historically accurate, yet other war films manage to create satisfying conclusions despite a military loss. Of course, those war films tend not to be as patriotic, which is perhaps Wake Island's main focus.

Robert Preston (20 years before The Music Man) and William Bendix (pictured) are a fun duo, and do well to hold the film together, providing the comic relief. Bendix, in particular, is charming and likable, despite his oafishness. Brian Dunlevy is also strong as the disciplined yet respected commanding officer.

Monday, February 11, 2013

1942 - The Pied Piper

Ben Affleck's frustration over being denied a Best Director Oscar nomination is once again alleviated (or enhanced, depending on your perspective) after his win at the BAFTAs yesterday. His film Argo also took out the Best Film, so the conundrum I discussed in my last post continues...

Anyway, as this year's Academy Awards ceremony rapidly approaches, let's take a deeper look at some of the races, starting with the Supporting categories.

The Supporting Actress Oscar has all but been engraved with Anne Hathaway's name on it. She has won almost all of the precursor awards for her role in Les Miserables and is a clear favourite. Lincoln's Sally Field is perhaps the only possible upset but I don't put her chances very high at all.

Supporting Actor is a bit more complicated. At one time, I had my money on Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, who had taken a whole bunch of the critics' prizes. But Django Unchained's Christoph Waltz won the critic's awards that Hoffman didn't, plus the Golden Globe. And now, with his win yesterday at the BAFTAs, he may be the frontrunner. Don't rule out Tommy Lee Jones, though, who won the SAG Award for his performance in Lincoln, and in fact, Robert De Niro is never a name to dismiss, so there's even a small chance he could walk away with the trophy for Silver Linings Playbook. Having said all that, I still think Waltz is the greatest chance for a win, which would give him two wins from two nominations, both Tarantino films.

More discussion next time, but for now, we movie on to another 1942 Best Picture nominee...

The Pied Piper
Irving Pichel
Nunnally Johnson
(based on the novel by Nevil Shute)
Monty Woolley, Roddy McDowall, Anne Baxter, Otto Preminger
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

If you're expecting the fairy tale version of this story, you'll be disappointed. Although, happily this picture has a far less nasty ending than the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Based on a novel, this version follows Englishman Mr. Howard (Woolley), whose fishing holiday in France is interrupted by the German invasion of WWII. He reluctantly agrees to chaperone two young children on his journey back to England, but soon his travelling party increases in size as more and more orphans and otherwise abandoned children tag along. Howard's initial dislike of children slowly gives way to affection as he attempts to keep them all safe on the treacherous passage through occupied France.

The Pied Piper offers a clever mix of humour and drama, a rare dramedy of its time. There is no mistaking that the stakes are high and a few sequences don't shy away from the horrors of the war. Yet, the central character's familiar stereotype - the grumpy old man - is rife with comedic opportunity and Nunnally Johnson's witty dialogue takes full advantage. Exhibit A: When Howard is arguing with an official at the train station, he exclaims that he has two small children. The official responds, "At your age, monsieur, that is undoubtedly magnificent," and walks away.

After watching Kings Row and hearing its gloriously expressive score, the music in The Pied Piper seemed decidedly dull. The main theme is a variation on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which, appropriate as it may be for a film about children, is not the most exciting melody.

Monty Woolley (pictured, with Baxter) epitomises the grumpy old man with a heart of gold. He is bitingly acerbic, yet soft enough that we are always on his side. Renowned director Otto Preminger (of Laura and Anatomy of a Murder fame) is brilliantly slimy in a rare on screen role as the Nazi Major.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

1942 - Kings Row

For the first time in a long time, I actually have some spare time, which increases the chances of more movies being reviewed for this blog. Time will tell...

It also allowed me to cram in a bunch of the current awards season's movies before I missed the deadline to vote in the SAG awards. Still a few more Oscar contenders to see, but I've caught up a little bit.

The most fascinating aspect of this awards season is Argo's domination of the major awards so far. Since its director, Ben Affleck, was left off the Academy's Best Director shortlist, that seemed to close the door on the film winning Best Picture, yet it has won the main gongs at the Critic's Choice, Golden Globe and Producer's Guild ceremonies. Plus, it won the SAG's Ensemble award and Affleck himself took out the Director's Guild's top prize. Quite the conundrum.

More on this year's Oscars in the next couple of weeks, but for now, on to the next review, which is another nominee from the 1942 Best Picture race...

Kings Row
Sam Wood
Casey Robinson
(based on the novel by Henry Bellamann)
Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, Betty Field, Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, Judith Anderson, Nancy Coleman, Kaaren Verne, Maria Ouspenskaya, Harry Davenport
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

It's almost impossible to outline the plot of Kings Row without using major spoilers, mostly because so many life-changing events happen to each of the characters, but I'll give it a try. In the small town of Kings Row in the late nineteenth century, a young boy named Parris Mitchell spends his free time getting to know pretty outcast Cassie. Her father, Dr. Tower (Rains), unexpectedly removes Cassie from school and confines her to their house. Years later, the adult Parris (Cummings), now studying to be a psychiatrist under the tutelage of Dr. Tower, begins a secret obstacle-laden love affair with Cassie (Field), who is still essentially homebound. Meanwhile, Parris' best friend, suave rich kid Drake (Reagan), also struggles to build a lasting relationship with another doctor's daughter Louise (Coleman). Her father, Dr. Gordon (Coburn), forbids the relationship, so Drake eventually falls for ex-tomboy Randy (Sheridan). 

The aforementioned life-changers help to make Kings Row quite a captivating story, full of mystery and a fair share of twists and turns. There's love, there's a near-fatal accident, there's murder. And if that weren't enough for this cast of characters to deal with, they all seem to be mortified of getting a bad reputation. Whether it's from mental illness, physical disability, or associating with a lower class, it's all about keeping up appearances for this bunch and not subjecting their name or their family's name to any perceived shame. Sort of like a Merchant-Ivory film, but without the accents or the sumptuous sets and costumes.

Erich Korngold's score for Kings Row is grand and evocative, adding greatly to the film's appeal. As I listened to it, I immediately heard a striking similarity to John Williams' legendary Star Wars main theme. The first phrase of both films' themes are almost identical, as one YouTube user has also pointed out. However, the music is clearly where the similarity between this film and the sci-fi blockbuster ends.

As an old-fashioned Hollywood movie, Kings Row does contain some old-fashioned Hollywood dialogue. Consequently, some of the performances occasionally feel cheesy or melodramatic, but in a way, this style suits the larger than life story well. Indeed, by the end of the film, it's hard to even notice. The one exception to the hamminess is Claude Rains, whose portrayal of the strict Dr. Tower is subtle and fascinating. Also worthy of mention is future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who is lively and charming as Drake.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Oscar Nomination Predictions 2012

I think that in the three and a half years I've been running this blog, this is the first time since the introductory post that I've posted something that is not a review of a nominee or a verdict. But I just couldn't resist getting my Oscar nomination predictions out into the world. And since I haven't watched another nominee from the current year of review and the Oscar nominations are announced in merely hours, I'll just have to post my predictions on their own. So, without further ado, here they be.

I can't say I'm completely satisfied with them this year. I didn't really spend as long on choosing them as I usually do. But no excuses, I stand by them anyway. I can't wait for the ceremony this year. It feels like there isn't really a front-runner in so many of the categories, so it truly will be a surprising year. Then again, we have the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, plus all the guilds to come before the Oscars, so it may not be so surprising come February.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

1942 - The Pride of the Yankees

Happy New Year to all my readers! It would perhaps be a little obvious if I were to make a resolution to pick up the pace of this project, but I sincerely hope to do so in 2013. (Otherwise, it may take decades to complete!)

Anyway, 2012 was a big year for other activities in my life. I started a theatre company with my wife. We produced two successful shows, our most recent even receiving a positive review from the Huffington Post. I also made my U.S. network television debut with a small role on Law & Order: SVU. Well, technically, I suppose, the debut will be when it airs on January 9th on NBC, so set your DVRs.

The last film watched for Matt vs. the Academy in 2012 was another nominee from 1942's Best Picture contest...

The Pride of the Yankees
Sam Wood
Jo Swerling, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Paul Gallico
Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth, Walter Brennan, Dan Duryea, Elsa Janssen, Ludwig Stossel
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
1 win, for Best Film Editing

A touching biopic that covers the life and times of legendary baseball player Lou Gehrig (Cooper), The Pride of the Yankees follows him from his start in college baseball through to his record-breaking career with the New York Yankees. With the encouragement of his father (Stossel), the eventual acceptance of his controlling mother (Janssen) and the ongoing support of sportswriter Sam Blake (Brennan), Gehrig became a baseball star with wife Eleanor Twitchell (Wright) by his side.

It is somewhat fitting that The Pride of the Yankees came directly after Yankee Doodle Dandy in this project. Aside from the presence of the word 'Yankee' in their titles, they both are fascinating biographies of much-loved American heroes, one a song-and-dance man, the other a baseball legend. While they may seem to be two disparate careers, they are linked by the way in which they so successfully captured the hearts of their fans. They were also both extremely dedicated to their respective crafts, giving all their time to their chosen professions.

However, the similarities perhaps end there. Whereas Cohan was brash, confident and extroverted, Gehrig was shy, quiet and introverted. Gehrig also had his fair share of obstacles on his way to the top, the lack of such I lamented in Cohan's story. Gehrig's struggles, consequently, are what make The Pride of the Yankees the more fascinating of the two biopics.

If I were to find flaw in The Pride of the Yankees, I suppose it would be in the occasional shifting of genres. The majority of the picture is clearly a dramatic biography with a love story at the forefront, yet some overblown comedy creeps in, specifically in the characters of Gehrig's parents. The drama, too, sometimes feels overwrought and contrived, particularly when Gehrig's mother displays her overbearing nature towards Eleanor. Nonetheless, the final portion of the film, while admittedly sentimental, is both moving and inspiring.

Gary Cooper (pictured) is wonderfully cast in the lead, his awkward yet amiable persona earning him a Best Actor nod. Teresa Wright also delivers a strong performance as Gehrig's wife, nominated for Best Actress, and while she didn't win this one, she won a Supporting Actress Oscar the same year for Mrs. Miniver. The real surprise in the cast is Babe Ruth. Yep, that's actually Yankees legend Babe Ruth playing himself, pulling off one of the most natural performances by an athlete-turned-actor. Ruth appears very comfortable in front of the camera, lively and fascinating to watch.

Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to mention Ludwig Stossel, who plays Gehrig's father, only because this is the man who, in another film, utters what is possibly my favourite line in cinematic history. When we get to reviewing 1943, I'll elaborate, but for now, enjoy this.