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
Director:
Orson Welles
Screenplay:
Orson Welles
(based on the novel by Booth Tarkington)
Starring:
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
Director:
Michael Powell
Screenplay:
Emeric Pressburger and Rodney Ackland
Starring:
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
Director:
John Farrow
Screenplay:
W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler
Starring:
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
Director:
Irving Pichel
Screenplay:
Nunnally Johnson
(based on the novel by Nevil Shute)
Starring:
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
Director:
Sam Wood
Screenplay:
Casey Robinson
(based on the novel by Henry Bellamann)
Starring:
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.