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!
Jack Conway
Ben Hecht
(based on the book by Edgecumb Pinchon and O.B. Stade)
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
W.S. Van Dyke
Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
(based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett)
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?