Tuesday, December 30, 2014

1987 - The Last Emperor

Yes, I'm still alive.

Obviously, I've had a lot going on these last few months. The play I mentioned in my last post (over four months ago - yikes!) has come and gone. The Club was our theatre company's final show in New York City (read about it here) before Kat, Charlie and I packed up and moved out west to Los Angeles. It's been a couple of months already so we're settled in now and are not even remotely missing the New York weather.

I figured I should try to squeeze one more review in before the end of the year, so yesterday I watched the film that would take the top prize in the 1987 Best Picture competition...


The Last Emperor
Director:
Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay:
Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci
(based on Henry Pu-yi's autobiography "From Emperor to Citizen")
Starring:
John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole, Ying Ruocheng, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Maggie Han, Ric Young, Vivien Wu
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
9 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

The monarch of the film's title, Pu-yi (Lone) is a political prisoner in a China he no longer recognises. While his captors interrogate him about his perceived war crimes, Pu-yi remembers his life, from his coronation at the age of two and his confined upbringing inside the Forbidden City where he befriends his British tutor Reginald Johnston (O'Toole) to his association with the Japanese who allow him to return to power as the emperor of occupied Manchukuo.

Without a doubt, The Last Emperor's biggest draw card is its stunning visual style. With luscious production design, lavish costumes and evocative cinematography - including the now iconic shot of a young Pu-yi running towards a billowing yellow curtain (pictured below) - it's no wonder the film won Oscars in almost every design category. Of course, the spectacular locations didn't hurt its cause. Shooting inside the actual Forbidden City certainly lends an air of authenticity.

And while Bertolucci's direction is masterful, his script with co-writer Mark Peploe is perhaps the one element of the film that is lacking. The story itself is incredibly well-structured with its simultaneous past and present storylines but - and I know this is a recurring theme in my reviews - the dialogue is rather basic and straightforward. I'm a sucker for clever dialogue and, unfortunately, the words here are a little uninspired. Then again, the film also won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, so what do I know?

The performances seem somewhat stilted, but only because the actors are given such banal things to say, preventing them from really making the words crackle. The Academy perhaps agreed with me since the picture received no acting nominations, which as it turns out, indirectly helped it achieve the rare feat of winning every category in which it was nominated. Nine Oscars from nine nominations - equalling Gigi's identical take and topped only by the 11-from-11 haul by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Interestingly, neither of those films claimed any acting nods either.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

1987 - Fatal Attraction

Who'd have thought raising a baby would take up so much time? Between looking after Charlie and getting things together for our theatre company's next play (more on that soon), movie-watching opportunities have been negligible. On top of that, we're also organising our imminent move to Los Angeles, so things are busy, to say the least.

I finally found a spare couple of hours to look at another 1987 Best Picture contender...


Fatal Attraction
Director:
Adrian Lyne
Screenplay:
James Dearden
Starring:
Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, Stuart Pankin, Ellen Foley, Fred Gwynne
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Dan (Douglas), Beth (Archer) and their six-year-old daughter Ellen (Latzen) are the picture of a perfect family. But when Beth and Ellen take a weekend trip to the country to scope out the new family house, Dan throws matrimonial bliss out the window and shamefully has a brief affair with a work acquaintance, Alex (Close). When he tries to end it, Alex won't take no for an answer and it soon becomes clear that she's far from the fun-loving gal Dan thought he was fooling around with. After trying to manipulate him to stay by slitting her wrists, she eventually takes to stalking Dan and his family, threatening to tell Beth everything.

With a solid place in pop culture, Fatal Attraction is most definitely a thriller, but director Adrian Lyne also imbues the film with many shades of film noir, particularly evident in the steamy lighting and cinematography. And to go one step further, I suspect he was also giving a subtle nod to Hitchcock and his most famous psychological thriller, Psycho, when in the concluding moments of the film, we see close ups of a shower drain, taps and water flowing, followed a few moments later by a knife cutting through the shower curtain.

Despite these homages to cinema classics, the film begins with a distinctly more modern aesthetic. There are several seemingly improvised scenes of casual conversations, creating a very naturalistic atmosphere. This eventually gives way to all the gratuitous thriller tropes, the most frequent of which is the sudden shock as the villain appears "unexpectedly." We even get treated to the old wipe-the-steam-off-the-mirror-to-reveal-a-knife-wielding-maniac-standing-behind-you trick. Although, I must say, even though many of these moments are tired clichés, they're still so effectively creepy ... which probably explains why they get used so often.

In fact, watching the film with the knowledge of what's going to happen (due to both the film's fame and the fact that I've seen it several times before) surprisingly does not diminish its powerful impact. There is a constant dreaded feeling that something bad is about to happen, and even if you know it's coming, the anticipation remains excruciating.

If I had to pick one element which doesn't quite gel, it would have to be Maurice Jarre's score. Perhaps it's simply a result of the uncool 1980s sound, but the legendary film composer seems to have opted for the melodramatic and the obvious, an orchestration that leaves no doubt that we're watching a thriller.

One never expects an intricate plot from a genre whose main goal is ostensibly to thrill, but nevertheless James Dearden's script is mostly engaging, buoyed by the aforementioned extemporisation from the cast. Still, there's a slightly empty feeling when the film abruptly ends after the main thriller plot is resolved. It's almost as if I wanted to see the resolution of the subplot, but then I realised there was no subplot. I'd even say it was a missed opportunity to actually explore the effect this whole debacle had on Dan's marriage. You know, a bit of substance to go with the thrills.

But what the script lacks in substance, the cast more than makes up for with emotional power. Both leads are utterly superb. Michael Douglas delivers an excellently natural turn as the initially charming, then gradually frustrated and finally fed up adulterer. And it's hard to imagine anyone else but Glenn Close (pictured) in this now iconic role. She is nuanced and intense, vulnerable yet psychotic, the portrait of a disturbed mind. I also enjoyed Stuart Pankin as the jolly best friend. Plus, look closely and you'll see Jane Krakowski as the babysitter in a very brief scene at the beginning of the film.

Friday, June 20, 2014

1987 - Moonstruck

This past Sunday was Father's Day here in the United States and, indeed, most other countries around the world. Obviously, it held particular significance for me since it was the first Father's Day in which I was actually a father. Interestingly, however, Father's Day is celebrated in September in Australia - another one of those odd differences between our nations. Even more interestingly, Mother's Day is celebrated on the same day in May in both countries, so since our now international family will do things both the American and the Australian way, Kat will only get one day of honour every year, while I will cheekily receive two.

Let's take a look now at one of the contenders in the Academy's race for Best Picture of 1987...


Moonstruck
Director:
Norman Jewison
Screenplay:
John Patrick Shanley
Starring:
Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, John Mahoney, Louis Guss
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actress (Cher) and Best Supporting Actress (Dukakis)

Superstitious Loretta (Cher) just got engaged to her humdrum beau Johnny (Aiello). He has promised they'll get married when he gets back from visiting his dying mother in Italy. In the meantime, he asks her to get in touch with his estranged brother Ronny (Cage) to patch up their five-year feud and invite him to the wedding. Unfortunately for Johnny, Loretta finds Ronny far more appealing and, more importantly, exciting.

Moonstruck is a comedy, that's clear. But there's something incongruous in its execution of that comedy. Much of it is larger than life - Nicolas Cage's histrionics, for example - yet so many of the scenes are languid in pace, a trait more often associated with subtle independent comedies. An interesting combination that doesn't quite mesh, in my opinion.

Perhaps consequentially, it's also rather difficult to accept the sudden attraction between the two leads. Well, let me rephrase that. Loretta is perfectly attractive in many ways and it's easy to recognise why a man would fall in love with her. But Ronny is so wildly insane that it's hard to imagine any woman being interested in him so quickly, particularly considering the lunacy he displays when he first meets Loretta. Nonetheless, this is a movie, after all, and suspension of disbelief aids greatly in forgiving the initial conceit, making way for a relationship that is reasonably endearing. However, no amount of disbelief-suspending can alleviate the hastiness with which Loretta's mother forgives her husband's indiscretions. Without really confronting him about it, such abrupt forgiveness is hard to swallow.

Cher is disarming in her starring role, offering warmth and humanity, and very much deserving of her Best Actress Oscar win. The same can't be said of her leading man, Nicolas Cage, who is just plain strange and somewhat obnoxious, which doesn't help with the aforementioned believability issues. His is not the only exaggerated performance, however, with a large portion of the supporting cast depicting a host of Italian-American caricatures. Thankfully, Cher isn't the only one to keep things subdued. Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney also deliver more subtle portrayals, establishing the most affecting rapport in the film. And in case this film didn't have enough Italian-American pedigree, keep a keen eye out for Martin Scorsese's mother in an incredibly brief cameo.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Best Picture of 1934

I can't seem to find an explanation as to why the Academy decided to increase the nominee count to 12 for the 1934 Best Picture category. It's an odd number (well, it's an even number, but you know what I mean), and not at all warranted when you look at the list of films that received those nominations. There are certainly a small handful that could easily have been left off the list and nobody would have complained.

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
  • Viva Villa!
  • The White Parade
In a time before the Academy shied away from romantic comedies, the genre was well represented among this dozen. For that matter, so were romance films in general. In fact, every nominee features some sort of love story, whether it be the main focus or a supporting character's subplot. Another common theme is the appearance of musical numbers, often gratuitously. While only two of the films could truly call themselves musicals, many more contain at least one song and/or dance sequence. Several of the pictures also share the unfortunate trait of an unsatisfying conclusion. At first, I was willing to ascribe that failure to the learning curve that Hollywood must have gone through at the outset of the sound era. But upon reflection, that excuse can be easily dismissed, since silent movies also required interesting stories and story structures.

And if all that weren't enough, one last shared attribute among many of the nominees is narrative simplicity. Sure, a straightforward plot is great for comprehension, but quite a few of the stories seemed to lack depth and detail. Perhaps, though, this is merely a consequence of the eight decades of storytelling that has followed since these films were released. Back then, these stories undoubtedly seemed fresh and new, but now that everything has been done multiple times, contemporary audiences may perceive them as clichéd and formulaic.

Since there are a dozen films in this batch, I won't bore you by eliminating them one by one. Instead, I'll skip ahead and make it a two-horse race. Not coincidentally, the two films I rate highest happen to also be the two that continue to enjoy high regard today - The Thin Man and It Happened One Night. While both films could potentially be described as simple and formulaic - one a simple detective story, the other a formulaic romantic comedy - their superb execution raises them above their fellow nominees. Both are full of charm and wit with delightful performances. In the end, I am siding with the film that the Academy clearly loved as well - evidenced by their awarding to it the Big Five - and naming It Happened One Night as my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1934.

Best Picture of 1934
Academy's choice:

It Happened One Night

Matt's choice:

It Happened One Night


Your choice:


Where does your preference lie? With 12 films to choose from, this should be an interesting poll. Let's time-travel forward now to focus our attention on the Best Picture contest from 1987, which coincidentally also includes a greater than average number of comedies.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1987 are:
  • Broadcast News
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Hope and Glory
  • The Last Emperor
  • Moonstruck
Stay tuned...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

1934 - The House of Rothschild

Milestone time! The following review represents the 200th film I have screened for this project. It's sobering to think the 100th film (Pulp Fiction) was reviewed just a touch over one year after the project's commencement, yet the subsequent 100 films took over three times as long to get through. But who's quibbling?

And now we close off 1934's record-setting 12-way Best Picture race with...


The House of Rothschild
Director:
Alfred L. Werker
Screenplay:
Nunnally Johnson
(based on the play by George Hembert Westley)
Starring:
George Arliss, Boris Karloff, Loretta Young, Robert Young, C. Aubrey Smith
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

As an old Jewish money changer in 18th century Prussia, Mayer Rothschild (Arliss) is forced to deal with many injustices from the government. After being gouged by the tax collector, his dying request to his five sons is to head up a bank in each of the major cities across Europe. Thirty years later, Nathan (also Arliss) is running the London branch and becomes financially involved in the war effort against Napoleon. His help is not welcome by all, however. Count Ledrantz (Karloff) stubbornly refuses to do business with Nathan due to his being Jewish, but Nathan uses his wealth, power and cunning to strike a deal on his own terms.

The House of Rothschild treads a fine line between portraying its protagonist as a sympathetic character who is plagued by anti-Semitism and a scheming miser who fulfils the unflattering Jewish stereotype against which he is fighting. Consequently, I found myself bouncing back and forth between pitying Rothschild's persecution and deploring his deviousness.

On the surface, this seems like the kind of character flaw that makes for great cinema, but unfortunately, I couldn't shake the niggling feeling that this was actually a flaw with the production. There's a good chance the film-makers merely accentuated the stereotype of the Jewish money-grubber for effect. Then again, it would be understandably difficult to avoid painting Rothschild as avaricious since the real Rothschild was one of the wealthiest men in England.

Despite all that, George Arliss delivers a sincere performance as Nathan Rothschild, genuine in both his frugality and his indignation. Best known for his horror movie roles, Boris Karloff (pictured, with Arliss) is imposing as the bigoted Count Ledrantz, largely due to his striking eyebrows.

It's also worth noting the somewhat sketchy attempt at a colour sequence. Obviously, colour film technology was still in its infancy in 1934, so the lavish sets and costumes of the film's final scene initially seemed to me to be the victim of a horrible post-production colourisation, but it turns out it was actually one of the first scenes ever to be shot using three-strip Technicolor. Lastly, The House of Rothschild, like Here Comes the Navy, also joins the Only-Nominated-for-Best-Picture-and-Nothing-Else Club. Surprisingly, though, the film still placed third in the Best Picture race (the Academy announced runners-up back then).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

1934 - Here Comes the Navy

Every now and then during this project, particularly while reviewing years prior to 1940, there is a movie that proves a tad elusive to get my hands on. I've visited the UCLA Film Archive twice (once for this current year of review, as it happens) to view three separate films and have had to find some "creative" ways (*cough* YouTube *cough*) to view others. When I began the current year of review (five months ago, shamefully), this next film had been given no home video release. It was also nowhere to be seen via my usual illicit channels, so I simply threw caution to the wind and hoped that TCM would schedule it soon.

As luck would have it, they have indeed scheduled it ... for July. As more luck would have it, the Warner Archive Collection added the film to its list of distributed titles just a couple of months ago, making it available to order. Serendipitous, indeed. Considering I only have two films left in this current year of review, it seemed silly to wait another two months for the TCM broadcast, so I decided to shell out the cash to buy the DVD, only the second such time I've done so for this project.

Interestingly, it's also only the second time I've bought a DVD at all since moving to the United States almost five years ago. I had quite the DVD collection back home in Australia, but being predominantly region 4 discs, it seemed unnecessary to bring them with me, so they currently just gather dust at my in-laws' house. And with the emergence of services like Netflix that offer streaming movies as well as DVD rentals by mail, it has also become unnecessary to purchase new titles. It's sad to think that Netflix has essentially replaced my DVD collection, but it's certainly lighter on my wallet.

And now, here are my thoughts on the penultimate nominee from 1934's race to Best Picture...


Here Comes the Navy
Director:
Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay:
Eric Baldwin and Ben Markson
Starring:
James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Gloria Stuart, Frank McHugh
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

In a vaguely similar story to the also-nominated Flirtation Walk, Here Comes the Navy features a firebrand who impulsively joins the military to prove a point to an adversary. Chesty O'Conner (Cagney), a blue-collar civilian, loses a fistfight to naval officer Biff Martin (O'Brien), and subsequently enlists in naval training to show him what's what. Not having thought it through properly, Chesty predictably ends up with Martin as his superior, allowing Martin to make life as difficult as possible for his nemesis. To complicate their relationship further, Chesty falls for Martin's sister, Dorothy (Stuart), nonchalantly risking his job to win her heart.

In one sense, Here Comes the Navy bucks the trend of many of its fellow nominees by not including any gratuitous musical numbers. Well, there are a couple of scenes in which characters intentionally sing badly (at least, I hope it was intentional), but it's safe to assume they are for comic relief, rather than any genuine attempt at musical entertainment.

However, in another sense, the picture provides yet another example of what has been a common theme among this year's shortlist - a less than satisfactory conclusion. In its defense, we are at least given a wedding ceremony for our romantic leads. It's just that it comes completely out of nowhere. The last we heard, Chesty wanted nothing to do with Dorothy, then all of a sudden, they're getting married. No explanation. Just an assumption that his recent heroic act must have somehow softened his heart. Then, to top it all off, the final moment of the film features the atrocious singing of the groom's best friend's mother. Granted, it's a callback to an earlier setup, but it's still an odd feeling to leave the film with a character we've never seen before.

With a reputation for playing tough guys, James Cagney's portrayal of the hotheaded Chesty is certainly larger than life, probably due in part to some pretty contrived dialogue throughout. To some extent, the character is difficult to truly get behind since he spends most of the film being a conceited, impulsive dick. Donning blackface certainly doesn't help his cause, even taking into account the fact that that sort of thing was not as taboo among mainstream audiences back then. Holding her own opposite Cagney is Gloria Stuart (more than six decades before her sole Oscar nomination for Titanic) as the confident Dorothy. And speaking of sole Oscar nominations, Here Comes the Navy joins that elite group of films with the seemingly paradoxical feat of receiving a Best Picture nomination and no other.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

1934 - The Gay Divorcee

As I mentioned in the last post, I'm now officially a published author. Well, an e-published author. A handful of reviews from Matt vs. the Academy have made their way into the Take2 Guide to Steven Spielberg. And now, the good people at Take2 Publishing are offering a discount to Matt vs. the Academy readers. So, if you want to read what dozens of bloggers and reviewers have to say about Spielberg movies, you can now get 20% off the regular price by visiting this link and applying the discount code mva2020 during checkout. Enjoy!

Let's take a look now at another contender for 1934's Best Picture prize...


The Gay Divorcee
Director:
Mark Sandrich
Screenplay:
George Marion Jr., Dorothy Yost and Edward Kaufman
(based on the Broadway musical "Gay Divorce" by Dwight Taylor, Kenneth Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein)
Starring:
Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Alice Brady, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Song

After an impossibly adorable meet-cute in London, famous dancer Guy Holden (Astaire) is besotted by fellow American Mimi Glossop (Rogers). She, however, is entirely uninterested in him. After a second chance meeting, Mimi, still impervious to Guy's charms, reluctantly accepts his phone number. Excited, Guy waits impatiently by the phone for weeks to no avail.

Meanwhile, Mimi is in the midst of attempting to secure a divorce, employing the services of a somewhat incompetent divorce lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald (Horton), who also happens to be Guy's best friend, unbeknownst to Mimi. On Egbert's advice, Mimi agrees to travel to Brightbourne, a seaside resort where Egbert has hired a guileless Italian (Rhodes) to act as her lover, hoping this will convince Mimi's husband to grant the divorce. Unaware that Mimi is in fact the mysterious woman that Guy hasn't stopped talking about for weeks, Egbert invites Guy along to Brightbourne, causing an inevitable spanner in the works.

Yet another romantic comedy from the not-so-short list of 1934 Best Picture nominees, The Gay Divorcee finds its humour by engaging that classic farcical trope, the misunderstanding. And it does it rather successfully, eliciting some solid laughs from its audience. It is also unashamedly musical. Of course, what else would you expect from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? But unlike some of the other films with which it competed for the Academy's top honour, this picture doesn't try to surreptitiously insert gratuitous musical numbers into an otherwise naturalistic style. The Gay Divorcee, by contrast, wears its musical style on its sleeve. There are larger-than-life dance numbers and emotional solos, and people break into song and dance for no particular reason.

Despite its liberal serving of music and choreography, however, many of the songs seem irrelevant to the story. Some, even, are clearly just filler - silly interludes with no other purpose than to entertain. (So, I suppose this film is also guilty of gratuitous musical numbers, after all.) One such culprit is the picture's featured song, The Continental. It may have won the Academy's first ever Best Song award, but from my perspective, the lyrics and melody are a little bland, and considering it's not a particularly well-known song today, it evidently didn't stand the test of time. Thankfully, though, the song is followed by a grand dance sequence that is pure delight.

What is perhaps most disappointing about the film's soundtrack is that only one song from the original Broadway musical made its way to the screen - all the more astonishing when you realise that Cole Porter was the composer and lyricist of the stage version. His classic Night and Day is the sole number that survived the adaptation, and it shines as the most memorable song in the film.

Fred Astaire's agility and charisma are on full display, as you would expect from such a spectacular showman. His tap dancing prowess is especially phenomenal, and his ability to make it appear so easy is simply astounding. He seems amazingly comfortable when he moves, obviously enjoying himself. Together with Ginger Rogers, the couple (pictured) are elegant and graceful, divine to watch. The same cannot be said for their costar Edward Everett Horton. While he is a delightfully funny and amiable actor, his vocal and movement skills leave much to be desired. He seems awkward and uncomfortable in his only song, a silly and superfluous duet with a pre-famous Betty Grable. Paving the way for Rex Harrison, Horton half speaks the lyrics and is often out of time. Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore, both reprising their roles from the Broadway musical, deliver playfully entertaining performances as the clueless Italian would-be lothario and the eager British waiter, respectively.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

1934 - Flirtation Walk

Last year, I was approached by Take2 Publishing for permission to use several of my blog posts in their Guide to Steven Spielberg. The e-book is now on the e-shelves and four of my Spielberg reviews made their way into the guide. If I'm calculating my royalty percentage correctly, I believe I will receive the enormous sum of 1.4 cents for every copy sold. Who said blogging doesn't pay? They also made a fun video with some of the contributors wearing iconic hats of Spielberg characters. I think I'm Indiana Jones?

We now continue reviewing the behemoth that is the 1934 Best Picture competition with...


Flirtation Walk
Director:
Frank Borzage
Screenplay:
Delmer Daves & Lou Edelman
Starring:
Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Pat O'Brien, Ross Alexander, John Arledge, John Eldredge, Henry O'Neill, Guinn Williams
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

Stationed in Hawaii, enlisted army man Dick Dorcy (Powell) is assigned to chauffeur the general's daughter, Kit (Keeler), to a reception. They never make it, though, and are found later that evening in a romantic embrace, having presumably fallen in love at first sight. Dick plans on quitting the army for Kit, but she prevents him from doing so by falsely denying that she loves him. In what can only be described as an act of impulsive arrogance, Dick decides to apply to West Point in order to become an officer. But when Kit arrives in Dick's final year at the Academy, their feelings are put to the test.

If nothing else, this project has taught me that audiences of the 1930s must have loved to see songs in movies. It doesn't seem to have mattered to which genre the film belonged. As long as there was at least one musical number in there - whether it broke the story's reality or not - then that's entertainment. Flirtation Walk is no exception. It's even billed as a musical, despite the fact that the majority of the film is without music. There's one gratuitous song at a luau early on, then towards the end of the picture, several songs are performed as part of a stage musical revue. Granted, the comedy/romance style of the non-musical scenes is not incongruous to the musical genre, but with such large chunks of the movie passing without a song, it takes some getting used to when all of a sudden you realise it's actually a musical you're watching.

Nonetheless, the story held my attention throughout, which I suppose indicates that it wasn't boring. Certainly not a brilliant tale, but nothing to complain about either. Well, almost nothing. Similar to the previously reviewed It Happened One Night, the conclusion of Flirtation Walk deprives us of the one thing romantic comedy audiences want to see: the two lovers falling into each other's arms. Sure, they end up together, but we never actually see it. In fact, that's not the only reason that the ending is less than satisfactory. Along with almost losing the girl, our protagonist almost misses out on graduating from West Point. Rather than affecting any change himself, his nemesis simply shows up to tell him that everything has turned in his favour. The girl is his and he can graduate, after all, and he didn't have to lift a finger. Now, that's a deus ex machina if ever there was one.

Dick Powell (pictured, with Ruby Keeler) creates one of those charming, authority-disrespecting characters who later shows he has depth and maturity - a very watchable portrayal. But I was most drawn to the performance of Ross Alexander. His engaging charisma and natural comic delivery seem ahead of his time. Sadly, upon researching more about him in order to discover what other films I could watch him in, I was dismayed to learn he committed suicide before he was 30. I will, however, see him again when this project covers the 1935 Best Picture nominees - he appears in both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Captain Blood.

Monday, April 14, 2014

1934 - It Happened One Night

I recently ventured into the realm of viral videos (sort of) by creating a montage of movie characters screaming, "I'm walking here!" in homage to Dustin Hoffman's famous delivery in Midnight Cowboy. I don't really know why I took the time to make this, but if you're a film buff and you want a brief smile, check out the video here and then share away.

The next film up for discussion is 1934's eventual Best Picture winner...


It Happened One Night
Director:
Frank Capra
Screenplay:
Robert Riskin
(based on the short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams)
Starring:
Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Gable) and Best Actress (Colbert)

Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy businessman (Connolly), held against her will on a boat off the coast of Miami while her father attempts to annul her recent elopement. Escaping by jumping overboard, Ellie then attempts to make her way to New York to her new husband. But wily reporter Peter Warne (Gable) recognizes the missing heiress when they sit next to each other on the bus. Seeing this as his chance to pick up the scoop of a lifetime, he makes a deal with Ellie, promising not to call her father if she'll give him her exclusive story. The two spend the journey in each other's pockets, which ... well, it's a romantic comedy, you can figure out the rest.

It's hard to deny the excellence of It Happened One Night. A pioneer of screwball comedy, and romantic comedy in general, everything just comes together sublimely. Interestingly, what I so lamented with fellow Best Picture nominee One Night of Love, namely the formulaic plot, works brilliantly here. It just goes to show how much of a story's success is in the execution. Where One Night of Love felt run-of-the-mill with average performances, It Happened One Night uses a similar formulaic structure but imbues it with interesting characters, witty repartee and dynamic performances. Plus, it includes such entertaining - and now sadly obsolete - phrases like, "Holy jumping catfish!"

If I had to find one gripe about the film, though, it would have to be its conclusion. In typical romantic comedy fashion - spoiler alert - the leading couple end up together at the end, a fittingly satisfying wrap-up for films of this genre. However, It Happened One Night accomplishes this without actually showing it on screen. We see Ellie bolt from her wedding before saying, "I do," to the wrong man, then we later cut to a hotel in which the owners are discussing the newly married tenants. One last close-up of the "Walls of Jericho" falling and ... The End. No passionate embrace, no smiles of relief, no longing gazes. As an audience member, I felt somehow robbed of a final cathartic moment.

A large portion of the film is two-handed scenes between our protagonists. No surprise, after all, considering the story is all about Ellie and Peter, and their relationship. Thankfully, they are played by two stars of great charisma and amiability, and despite the initial egotism of their characters, the performances of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (both pictured) and their chemistry together are divine. A particularly brilliant moment unfolds when the two pretend to be a bickering married couple to avoid nosy detectives.

Both Gable and Colbert won Oscars for their roles, as did Frank Capra and Robert Riskin for their direction and writing, respectively. Rounding it all off was a win for Best Picture, giving the film five for five. And not just any five. That's the Big Five - Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Only One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs have repeated that achievement. Yet despite all the accolades, It Happened One Night still failed miserably to match their stunt bus driver to the actor playing the easily distracted coachman. Not even close.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

1934 - The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Not content to demand constant attention at home, my six-week-old son, Charlie, has now taken it upon himself to upstage my acting career. Well, technically, his mother and I took it upon him, since his decision-making capabilities are still rather limited. Nonetheless, Charlie has now trumped my two-decade career by sharing the screen with Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin in a scene for the upcoming Still Alice. He plays (if you can call it that) their grandson, coincidentally also named Charlie. While you may not actually see his face through all the blankets, you can be guaranteed that the baby in Kate Bosworth's arms is indeed our little man.

Moving on now to another 1934 Best Picture contender...


The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Director:
Sidney Franklin
Screenplay:
Ernest Vajda, Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart
(based on the play by Rudolf Besier)
Starring:
Norma Shearer, Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, Katharine Alexander
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

Published English poet Elizabeth Barrett (Shearer) is gravely ill and confined to her room in a house occupied by her overbearing father (Laughton) and her many siblings. A visit from another poet, Robert Browning (March), lifts her spirits, especially when he confesses his love for her, a love that grew solely from reading her beautiful words. The two begin a sweet and loving affair despite the insistent disapproval of her father, who unreasonably demands her affections remain only with him.

A relatively stock-standard drama, The Barretts of Wimpole Street presents an emotional family story. However, the tension is occasionally alleviated, perhaps incongruously, with bursts of silliness in the form of visiting cousin Bella and her heavy rhotacism.

Set in the mid-19th century, the period costumes are obviously sumptuous, but otherwise the picture leans toward the visually bland side. Perhaps an unfair assessment considering the number of sets was necessarily limited - not only is it based on a play, an art form generally short on location changes, but it's based on a play about a mostly housebound woman.

Norma Shearer delivers a subtly sincere performance, earning herself a Best Actress nomination - the only other citation the film received aside from Best Picture. It is Charles Laughton (pictured with Shearer), however, who commands the most attention with his portrayal of a deliciously callous father, the king of guilt trips. But the casting of his many sons is a bit of a curiosity - all six brothers appear to be of a biologically impossible similar age.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

1934 - Cleopatra

It turns out that being up all night to look after a newborn baby creates the perfect opportunity for some movie-watching. I don't want to speak too soon, but there's a good chance I'll storm through the rest of this review year. Which is a good thing, considering I almost took a step backwards this past 12 months. Between last year's Oscars ceremony and the one just gone, I only reviewed a total of 11 films for this project, while the Academy added another 9 to my list. So, unless I plan on living another 150 years or so, I better get a wriggle on.

So, here's a look at another contender from the Best Picture race of 1934...


Cleopatra
Director:
Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay:
Waldemar Young and Vincent Lawrence
(based on an adaptation of historical material by Bartlett Cormack)
Starring:
Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, Gertrude Michael, C. Aubrey Smith
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Cinematography

As the title suggests, Cleopatra tells the story of the ancient Egyptian queen, played by Claudette Colbert, specifically covering the period of her two dalliances with Roman leaders. First, she seduces Julius Caesar (William), thereby ensuring she gets control of Egypt over her brother Ptolemy. But when Caesar's paranoid senators assassinate him, Cleopatra's broken heart is healed by meeting Marc Antony (Wilcoxon). Initially reluctant to her charms, Antony eventually falls for the queen despite the disdain of his countrymen.

With Cecil B. DeMille at the helm, you know it's going to be grand. And this picture epitomises 1930s Hollywood entertainment. There's a little bit of singing, a very impressive war montage - particularly the sea battle sequence using model ships - and they even manage to get in a circus act/dance number. The costumes are extravagant, some quite revealing, which is a little unexpected since the film begins with a title card confirming the production's adherence to the Hays Code. The code had only just taken effect, though, so I guess in the early days, studios got away with risqué clothing on their female stars.

The film does not include the most satisfying of endings. Instead, it is rather tragic and hopeless, but I suppose you can only fiddle so much with a historical story. And despite the fact that it was arguably eclipsed by the other epic adaptation in 1963 (which will also be covered by this blog at some point), this version's spectacle did indeed translate to box office success.

Also of its time is the acting style, seemingly out of place for a story set in ancient Egypt, particularly when the tone occasionally becomes reminiscent of screwball comedy. Then again, such was the standard in the 1930s, so what seems like screwball comedy to a modern movie-goer like myself was probably just par for the course to audiences of the time. Claudette Colbert is superb in the title role, oozing seductive charm while retaining a grounded power. Yet, despite the juicy Oscar-bait role, Colbert did not receive a Best Actress citation for this performance. Instead, she was nominated (and won) in the same year for a true screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (which will also be covered by this blog in the very near future). Joseph Schildkraut (pictured with Colbert) also delivers a brilliant, yet brief, turn as the devious Herod.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

1934 - One Night of Love

So, parenthood. Who would have thought it would be so exhausting? But after you've spent an infuriating hour trying to get the little man to sleep, he flashes a smile and it all seems worth it. Of course, the smile is undoubtedly not actually a smile, and probably just an involuntary facial reaction to a satisfying bowel movement, but hey. Evolution sure knew what it was doing making babies cute.

Anyway, the Oscars are well and truly over now, but it would be remiss of me not to mention them briefly. I predicted 20 correct winners, my greatest result ever. Which is not actually that impressive considering this year's awards ceremony provided no real surprises. Just about every favourite won.

A couple of quick (Down Under-themed) statistics: With her Best Actress win for Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett became the first Australian to win a second acting award after her Supporting Actress victory in 2004's The Aviator. And designer Catherine Martin is now the most decorated Australian after winning both Production Design and Costume Design for The Great Gatsby. With her dual wins in the same categories for Moulin Rouge! in 2001, that brings her total Oscar count to four.

And now, we finally make our way back to 1934 to look at another Best Picture nominee...


One Night of Love
Director:
Victor Schertzinger
Screenplay:
S.K. Lauren, James Gow, Edmund North
(based on the play "Don't Fall in Love" by Dorothy Speare and Charles Beahan)
Starring:
Grace Moore, Tullio Carminati, Lyle Talbot, Mona Barrie, Jessie Ralph, Luis Alberni
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, plus a Technical Achievement Award

After failing to win an opera contest in which she could have won the tutelage of a famed vocal coach, Mary Barrett (Moore) decides to move to Milan to pursue her career on her own. As fate would have it, that very same vocal coach, Guilio Monteverdi (Carminati), discovers her singing in a bar and takes her on anyway. His only condition: that she not fall in love with him. Over the years, Monteverdi sculpts her into the perfect soprano specimen, providing Mary with much fame and renown, but perhaps at the price of her independence. Oh, and of course, she falls in love with him.

One Night of Love is a relatively run-of-the-mill romance. There are occasional witty moments, such as when Mary tells her parents she's moving to Italy, to which her mother disapprovingly replies, "Why, that place is full of Italians." But, on the whole, the story and script are rather cliched and formulaic. Boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy almost screws it all up, boy gets girl in the end. Granted, it's possible to make that formula fascinating, but this picture sticks to the storytelling standards.

I suppose, then, the film's unique point is its somewhat gratuitous opera singing. It's only 83 minutes long, but a significant portion of that is taken up with opera performances. Still, as the nice man from TCM mentioned in his introduction to this film, Grace Moore (pictured) was an international radio and stage star at the time, so seeing and hearing her sing classic opera tunes is exactly why people went to see this movie.

And while her acting is merely adequate, Moore's voice is certainly something to behold. Her leading man, Tullio Carminati, also fails to impress with an average performance. His sidekick, Luis Alberni, steals the scenes in which he appears, clearly enjoying a thoroughly silly character. And Jane Darwell - appearing in her second Best Picture nominee in 1934, after The White Parade - also delights in a small uncredited role as Mary's mother.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscar Winner Predictions 2013

In order to get my predictions in ahead of the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night, I'm adding another non-review post since I haven't watched another film yet. And considering I am now a new father, I suppose that was to be expected. Yep, on February 14th at 9:32 a.m., Charlie Albert Foster was born. Kat and I are over-the-moon and very much in love with the little man.

And if that wasn't enough, Valentine's Day also saw the release of the second season of House of Cards, in which I appear in a small role. If you have Netflix (or whatever you need to view it outside of the US), you can find me in episode 5 (titled "Chapter 18") at around the 41:30 mark, and again a little later on.

Now, to the task at hand. Another interesting year for Oscar, particularly for the Best Picture and Best Director categories. 12 Years a Slave is the current favourite for top honours, but Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron is leading the pack for Best Director. While it's not too uncommon for Picture and Director to be awarded to different films, it's a strong enough tradition that it compels me to consider that director Steve McQueen may find himself at the podium instead. Alternatively, Cuaron will indeed win the trophy for his direction and then also see Gravity take away the main prize. The latter scenario is bolstered by the fact that the sci-fi epic will almost certainly be crowned with the most awards on Oscar night, since it is the clear frontrunner in many of the technical categories. Nonetheless, I've remained sensible with my predictions and stuck with the favourites. We'll see how it pans out. For those of you remotely interested, here's what I've chosen.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

1934 - Viva Villa!

The Oscar nominations are in, and my predictions achieved a success rate just above my average but far better than the previous couple of years, so I'll take it. No huge out-of-the-blue surprises in the major categories. Perhaps Jonah Hill's Supporting Actor nod for The Wolf of Wall Street took some off guard, although it wasn't entirely unexpected. It's also interesting to see Hong Kong's The Grandmaster receive two artistic nominations (Cinematography and Costume Design) yet miss out on a citation for Best Foreign Language Film, despite being shortlisted in that category. And some interesting choices in the Makeup & Hairstyling category. Who would have thought we would ever hear the phrase, "the Oscar-nominated Bad Grandpa"?

Another fascinating statistic is that this marks the second year in a row that a David O. Russell film has received four acting nominations, one for each category. Last year, Silver Linings Playbook supplied nominations for leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, as well as Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver for their supporting roles. This year, Cooper and Lawrence were cited for their supporting turns in American Hustle, while Christian Bale and Amy Adams represented the film in the lead categories. While an acting nomination sweep was a semi-regular occurrence in the earlier years of Oscar history, it hadn't been achieved in over 30 years prior to Silver Linings Playbook. And now Russell becomes the only director to be able to claim this achievement twice, let alone in consecutive years.

Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, the 23-year-old is now the youngest person to have received three acting nominations. That's one year younger than previous record holder Teresa Wright, who incidentally was never nominated again after receiving her three nominations within two years. Furthermore, since Lawrence won Best Actress last year, a win in March would give her the title of youngest ever two-time Oscar winner.

Now, back to the 1934 Best Picture contest to review another nominee...


Viva Villa!
Director:
Jack Conway
Screenplay:
Ben Hecht
(based on the book by Edgecumb Pinchon and O.B. Stade)
Starring:
Wallace Beery, Leo Carrillo, Fay Wray, Donald Cook, Stuart Erwin, Henry B. Walthall, Joseph Schildkraut, Katherine DeMille
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Assistant Director

In late 19th century Mexico, a young Pancho Villa witnesses his father suffer a fatal whipping at the behest of a Spanish aristocrat. In revenge, Villa murders the responsible party and spends the next couple of decades hiding in the hills. The adult Villa (Beery), now a kind of Mexican Robin Hood, has his antics recorded by American journalist and new friend Jonny Sykes (Erwin) who happily exaggerates reports in Villa's favour. Soon, Villa agrees to assist revolutionary Francisco Madero (Walthall) in ending the unjust rule of the current government. He easily rounds up an army to help with the fight but his brutal tactics earn the disapproval of Madero.

The opening title card tells us that much of what is known about Pancho Villa is unconfirmed and possibly mythical, yet it still asserts he was a heroic figure. Alas, what follows does not entirely live up to that introduction. The portrait that is painted is of a man who is decidedly unheroic. Granted, his unnecessary brutality does not in itself disqualify him from hero status. Many heroes might be guilty of that, and this is a biopic, after all. And what good is a biopic if it's not a warts-and-all biopic.

But what is harder to swallow is his comically dumb nonchalance. Wallace Beery's portrayal of the Mexican revolutionary, amusing as it might be, makes him out to be an almost stereotypical clueless bully, ignorant and unintelligent. Not the stuff of heroism at all. And, of course, in true Hollywood style, the slovenly and unattractive man still draws admiration from sexy women.

Despite this somewhat incongruous depiction, Beery (pictured) is indeed entertaining. Stealing the show, however, is Stuart Erwin, whose comic delivery as the reluctant journalist is spot on. As a team, Beery and Erwin develop a quite touching relationship by the film's conclusion. One final thought: why did nobody teach film actors in the 1930s how to realistically handle firearms? The bandits wave those guns around so wildly, it's amazing they have any accuracy at all.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Oscar Nomination Predictions 2013

As expected, I was so busy trying to catch all the current awards season's films (particularly the SAG Awards nominees before my voting deadline on Friday) that I didn't get a chance to watch another film for the project itself. So, once again, I present this rogue post in order to share my Oscar nomination predictions. After working most of the day on them (yes, I'm that obsessed), I've managed to settle on my picks. And not a moment too soon, either. The announcement is set to be made in about seven hours.

I've put them vaguely in order of likelihood, as I see it for each category. If I had my way, though, there would be more rhyming nominations than the two potentials this year. One is very likely - David O. Russell, American Hustle. The other is not - Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks ... And on that note, here are my predictions.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

1934 - The Thin Man

Happy New Year, everyone! Things are definitely getting exciting in this year's Oscar race. I've managed to catch a few more contenders (although I still have plenty left to see), all potential Best Picture nominees:

American Hustle is a fun romp and should see itself mentioned several times when the nominations are announced this coming Thursday morning. Along with a likely Best Director nomination, David O. Russell will probably garner nods for a few of his actors, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, particularly, both of whom have Oscars on their mantles from previous Russell films.

August: Osage County is another ensemble acting feast. Meryl Streep seems assured of yet another nomination, and Julia Roberts could receive her first nomination since her Erin Brockovich win well over a decade ago.

12 Years a Slave is to slavery what Schindler's List is to the Holocaust, and knowing the Academy's penchant for epic tragedies of this nature, I expect many nominations for Steve McQueen's beautiful film. In fact, its beauty makes it a real contender in several of the technical categories, too.

Lastly, Philomena may scrape in to the Best Picture list, but it's screenplay has a far better shot, as does its star Judi Dench, who delivers a brilliant performance from start to finish.

It seems unlikely that I'll manage another post before the Oscar nominations are announced, but at the very least, I'll try to get my nomination predictions posted by Wednesday night. Let's see how much of a fool I make of myself this year.

Time now to take a look at another Best Picture nominee from the 1934 race...


The Thin Man
Director:
W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay:
Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
(based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett)
Starring:
William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Former detective Nick Charles (Powell) is approached by inventor's daughter Dorothy Wynant (O'Sullivan) to investigate the disappearance of her father. With the aid of his wealthy wife Nora (Loy) and his trusty dog Asta, Nick reluctantly comes out of retirement, partly for a lark and partly because he can't bear to see the police screw up the investigation.

As a detective story, there's nothing too extraordinary about the plot. Granted, there are some clever twists and turns, but it's relatively brief, rather straightforward and includes the stereotypical detective-invites-all-the-suspects-to-dinner-to-reveal-the-real-culprit conclusion. You might even say that The Thin Man has elements of a procedural TV show if it weren't for the fact that television didn't exist when it was produced.

Nonetheless, this picture is overflowing with charm. The murder mystery merely serves as a backdrop for the light-hearted antics and wry, caustic wit of its leading players. William Powell (pictured) is particularly charismatic with his biting sarcasm and devil-may-care attitude. And although the constant charm perhaps works to the detriment of a few dramatic moments, which aren't clearly executed (then again, that may just be my modern viewer sensibilities), the overall entertaining tone of the film made me crave more. Luckily, there are five sequels for me to feast on.

Powell steals the show, despite some occasional hammy moments, including several scenes which he ends by sporting a gaping open-mouthed expression. I also felt slightly concerned about his possible alcoholism, but he nonetheless scores plenty of laughs from his drunken behaviour, so ... all's well that ends well?