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
Sidney Franklin
Ernest Vajda, Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart
(based on the play by Rudolf Besier)
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...

Cecil B. DeMille
Waldemar Young and Vincent Lawrence
(based on an adaptation of historical material by Bartlett Cormack)
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
Victor Schertzinger
S.K. Lauren, James Gow, Edmund North
(based on the play "Don't Fall in Love" by Dorothy Speare and Charles Beahan)
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.