Wednesday, December 20, 2017

1946 - The Razor's Edge

This year's Oscar race is heating up. Most of the critics associations have weighed in with their picks, and the Golden Globes and SAG Awards nominations have been announced as well, so a few frontrunners are emerging. Probably the surest shot at this early stage is in the Best Supporting Actor category. After an esteemed career to date, including two prior Oscar nominations, it seems like this could be Willem Dafoe's year for his performance in The Florida Project. Meanwhile, the Supporting Actress contest is shaping up to be a battle between two horrible mothers - Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird and Allison Janney in I, Tonya. Both are almost guaranteed to earn their first Oscar nominations next month with the scales leaning towards Metcalf for the win.

And now we shift our attention back to the next 1946 Best Picture nominee...

The Razor's Edge
Edmund Goulding
Lamar Trotti
(based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham)
Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, Herbert Marshall
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Supporting Actress (Baxter)

Larry Darrell (Power) returns home from World War I, lucky to be alive after a fellow soldier made the ultimate sacrifice to save him. The event has left Larry traumatised and confused, so much so that he turns down job offers in order to simply loaf around and live off his modest inheritance, something his fiancee Isabel (Tierney) can't quite comprehend. Despite not truly being on board with it, Isabel agrees to postpone their nuptials so that Larry can spend an unspecified amount of time in Paris to clear his head.

The Razor's Edge is squarely in the melodrama genre. High emotion, high stakes, high society. That said, it's captivating melodrama, so while the events are like something out of a soap opera, we remain connected to the characters and their futures. The picture begins with a whirlwind of character introductions, making it initially tough to follow. This is somewhat confounded by the fact that W. Somerset Maugham (the author of the source material) is presented as a character within the narrative, though always on the outskirts of the main action. It's an interesting plot device that works nicely in its own right, but since the audience identifies predominantly with him in the opening scenes, it's unclear at first who the actual protagonist is. Though, to be fair, even by the end of the film, none of the characters really turns out to be wholly protagonist material. As expected in melodrama, each of the characters often see-saws between likable and not.

Despite some heavy-handed dialogue (another hallmark of melodrama), I did enjoy the old-timey slang. When Isabel's uncle is trying to console her after Larry leaves, he promises her that she soon "won't care two straws for him." Later, on a different topic, he exclaims, "I don't care a row of beans." People back then sure had a long list of random, unimportant things they didn't care about.

The cast of The Razor's Edge is uniformly great, delivering cleverly nuanced performances that make us forget how melodramatic the material is. Tyrone Power, in particular, manages to avoid portraying Larry as one-dimensionally meek, despite his being existentially lost for most of the story. Instead, Power instils his character with strength and a confidence that he's got it all together, even when he clearly doesn't. Gene Tierney is also outstanding, swinging back and forth between vulnerable and selfish. And while Anne Baxter (pictured) is admittedly a little showy (not unexpected for 1946, especially in a melodrama) as the scorned alcoholic, she remains utterly watchable. I also particularly enjoyed Lucile Watson's charmingly witty and strong performance, despite a small role.

Apart from its Best Picture nod, the film was also cited for Art Direction and two supporting performances, Clifton Webb and Baxter, the latter earning the film's only Oscar.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

1946 - The Best Years of Our Lives

We now come to the impetus for my recent productiveness on this blog. Last week, one of L.A.'s premier revival cinemas, The New Beverly, held a screening of the eventual winner of this year of review. I've written briefly about the New Bev before and I only wish I had the time to visit it more often. After three years in L.A., this marks only the second time I've been.

In any case, here's my take on 1946's successful Best Picture nominee...

The Best Years of Our Lives
William Wyler
Robert E. Sherwood
(based on a novel by MacKinley Kantor)
Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (March), Best Supporting Actor (Russell)

As World War II comes to a close, three American servicemen meet for the first time on the return trip to their hometown of Boone City. Al Stephenson (March) reluctantly returns to work at his old banking firm while attempting to reconnect with his wife, Milly (Loy). Meanwhile, Fred Derry (Andrews) struggles to find any work at all, disappointing his wife, Marie (Mayo). The pressure puts a strain on the relatively new marriage, as does Derry's falling for Stephenson's daughter, Peggy (Wright). Lastly, Homer Parrish (Russell), who lost both his hands during the war, deals with his own feelings of inadequacy.

A touching story of how returning servicemen cope when rejoining civilian life, The Best Years of Our Lives contains a healthy dose of moving drama, as expected, but it's also rich in humour. That's exactly my cup of tea, so it's fair to say I enjoyed this picture quite a bit. Granted, more modern takes on this theme, like Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July - both of which will be covered on this blog eventually - may dig deeper, but this was the 1940s after all, so a little overly sweet melodrama was just the style of the day. Likewise, the comedy can be a bit broad and unrealistic, but it's still genuinely funny, which is the important thing. I saw the movie with what I can only assume was a room full of like-minded classic film buffs and there were several moments in which the entire audience erupted with laughter.

The film is blessed with a fantastic ensemble cast. There's really not a lemon among them. Fredric March is frequently hilarious, yet genuine when appropriate, earning himself his second Oscar for Best Actor. Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright are both delightfully cheeky, excelling at their sarcastic delivery. Kudos also to screenwriter Robert Sherwood for giving them all such witty things to say.

And then there's Harold Russell, a real-life WWII vet and amputee who was not an actor, though you might not know it because he definitely holds his own among this cast. Perhaps he's a little stiff in the really dramatic scenes, but he laps up the casual banter of his character like a pro.

Interestingly, only two years earlier, Barry Fitzgerald became the first and only actor to be nominated twice for the same performance: Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for Going My Way. The Academy changed its rules so that could never happen again, yet two years later, they befittingly decided to bestow an honorary award onto Harold Russell for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans" fearing he probably wouldn't be successful in his Best Supporting Actor nomination. Lo and behold, he ended up winning the trophy, making him the only actor to actually be awarded two Oscars for the same performance. That's him pictured above with his double golden statues.

All in all, the film itself closed out Oscar night with a pretty impressive strike rate. Not including Russell's honorary award and producer Samuel Goldwyn's Thalberg award, the film won seven of its eight nominations, only missing out on Best Sound.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Best Picture of 1972

Like the previous year of review, there is one picture among these nominees that is clearly held in high regard by film buffs, film reviewers and film historians, so it's tough to look past that. Nonetheless, when making these verdicts, I try to set aside any outside influence and focus on the filmmaking, so let's see where that leads us.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1972 are:
  • Cabaret
  • Deliverance
  • The Emigrants
  • The Godfather
  • Sounder
Three films in that list have continued to enjoy a place in pop culture for the last several decades. The other two are not quite as well remembered. All of them, however, are intensely dramatic in different ways, and they share a common theme: survival.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two least remembered films were also my least favourite. Sounder had some fine moments but overall, it felt too superficial for my liking. The Emigrants was engaging on many levels, but its laboured storytelling is not my cup of tea. If the first hour was removed, it probably wouldn't have affected my understanding of the plot but might have increased my enjoyment of it.

Deliverance and Cabaret are both fiercely captivating for entirely different reasons. As well-deserving as their Best Picture nominations are, they had some stiff competition from The Godfather, a film that has become an icon of modern filmmaking. And so it is that I now officially name The Godfather as my favourite of 1972's Best Picture nominees.
Best Picture of 1972
Academy's choice:

The Godfather

Matt's choice:

The Godfather

Your choice:

The Godfather ranks highly in most polls (of industry and of the general public), so I'm assuming we'll see it triumph in my irrelevant poll as well, but I'm happy to be proven wrong. Cast your vote above. A few days ago, I hinted at the reason for my current spate of blog posts, which was the same reason I chose 1972 as the previous year of review. Back then, it was a local screening of The Godfather. This time, it was the Best Picture winner from 1946, so we head back to the 40s again for our next year of review.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1946 are:
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Henry V
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • The Razor's Edge
  • The Yearling
Several much-loved classics in that bunch, so I'm looking forward to diving in. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

1972 - The Emigrants

This is one of those times when my incessant procrastination pays off. The next film of review has been unavailable in the US until early last year, so seeking it out for a viewing would have been far more difficult before then. Let that be a lesson to you all. Sometimes, if you put something off long enough, it actually becomes easier.

So, let's see what we make of this nominee from the Best Picture contest of 1972...

The Emigrants
Jan Troell
Bengt Forslund, Jan Troell
(based on the novels by Vilhelm Moberg)
Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg, Allan Edwall, Monica Zetterlund, Pierre Lindstedt
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

The Emigrants opens with a series of oddly statistical captions about the Swedish town in which the main characters live. In fact, the subtitling, in general, of the version I watched is more than a bit unprofessional. The English translations are not always grammatically correct, not to mention the frequent typos. But I digress...

In this small Swedish town in the 19th century, the Nilsson family struggles to make their farm profitable. Robert (Axberg) hits on the idea to emigrate to America to pursue a better life, so he offers to sell his share of the farm to his older brother, Karl-Oskar (Von Sydow) in order to pay for the trip. However, Karl-Oskar confides in Robert that he, too, has been considering moving to the States, so he takes the idea to his wife, Kristina (Ullmann), who is not convinced. After all, they have four children and the trip across the Atlantic is long and dangerous.

When one of their children dies due to hunger, Kristina changes her mind and the preparations begin. Joining them on the ship are Robert's friend Arvid (Lindstedt), Kristina's uncle Danjel (Edwall) along with his wife and kids, and former prostitute Ulrika (Zetterlund) and her teenage daughter. After hearing from fellow passengers about the fertile land in Minnesota, the Nilssons decide that will be their final destination, but they'll need to survive the arduous journey first.

This is not a short film. Not by a long shot. At just over three hours, it definitely has an epic feel, but the pacing is often so laboured that it sometimes feels even longer. There I was thinking Sounder was slow but in the time it took Sounder to tell its entire story, The Emigrants hadn't even started emigrating yet. Not that nothing happens. There's a fascinating story being told, but so many of the scenes include lengthy blocks of repetition or inactivity. Sometimes, something will actually happen after the silence, but often, an entire scene will go by without any dialogue or plot progression. There are, for example, several scenes devoted to someone sitting on a swing and swinging for a minute or two.

From the above description, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is one of those artsy films that eschews plot and character in favour of experimental camera techniques and metaphorical dialogue. And while there are indeed some inexplicable fast zooms, the film is, for the most part, a conventional production. However, the score remains an oddity and is mind-bogglingly inappropriate to the action taking place on screen. Thankfully, it's not all that frequent, but when there is music, it sounds like it was composed for a thriller, not an epic drama. There are literally establishing shots of benign landscapes underscored by chilling suspense music. I almost expected a goblin to jump out from behind a tree.

Nonetheless, like Sounder, The Emigrants becomes much more captivating in the second half. The scenes aboard the ship and after landing in America are still sometimes slow, but I suppose we've spent so long with these characters by that point that we can't help but be invested in what happens to them.

Despite the intermittent tedium, the cast, led by Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann (both pictured), are all supremely riveting in their roles, though Ullmann was the only one nominated for her performance. My pick of the bunch, however, is Monica Zetterlund's feisty portrayal of Ulrika. And in an apparent act of nepotism, Zetterlund's on-screen daughter is played by her actual daughter, Eva-Lena.

The Emigrants achieved the very rare Oscars feat of receiving both a Foreign Language Film nomination as well as a Best Picture nod, though unlike the other three films in that exclusive club - Z, Life Is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - The Emigrants took two Oscar ceremonies to accomplish it. Due to Academy rules, Foreign Language submissions need not have been released in the States, so The Emigrants garnered its Foreign Language nomination in 1971, when it initially played in Sweden. Then, when it was eventually released in the US in 1972, it became eligible in all the other categories. Also unlike the other three movies, which were all successful in winning the Foreign Language award plus at least one other, The Emigrants took home no Oscars at all. To cap it off, though, its sequel, The New Land, happened to be competing in the Foreign Language category in 1972, also.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

1972 - Sounder

As this year's Oscar contenders all jostle for position, I'm taking advantage of the available screenings and Q&As. So far, I've managed to see Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound and Darkest Hour, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed and all of which have strong prospects for multiple nominations. It's clear to me why Gary Oldman is the early frontrunner for Best Actor. I also saw The Meyerowitz Stories and though I'm not confident about its chances at the Oscars, hearing Dustin Hoffman and Adam Sandler talk after the screening was probably my favourite Q&A experience of the lot. Additionally, I slummed it to a regular cinema to enjoy Battle of the Sexes and Lady Bird, both of which are highly likely to see acting nominations, too, maybe even wins. Emma Stone is fantastic as Billie Jean King, and while Saoirse Ronan has a good shot at a Best Actress nomination, I think her on-screen mother, Laurie Metcalf actually has a better shot at taking home the Supporting Actress award.

But back to the 1972 Best Picture contenders now as we review...

Martin Ritt
Lonne Elder III
(based on the novel by William H. Armstrong)
Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks, Carmen Matthews, Taj Mahal, James Best, Janet MacLachlan
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

A poverty-stricken African-American family struggle to make ends meet in Depression-era Louisiana. When things get desperate, the head of the household, Nathan (Winfield), steals some meat to feed his family but is later arrested and sentenced to hard labour. His wife, Rebecca (Tyson), sends oldest son David Lee (Hooks), along with his trusty dog, Sounder, on a mission to find the prison camp that Nathan was sent to.

From first impressions, Sounder is slightly melodramatic. Many of the situations, even the ones that ought to be intensely dramatic, are executed in a somewhat superficial way. The dialogue is often cliched with the characters simply saying words at each other, avoiding any genuine connection. Their behaviour, too, seems oddly unmotivated. While some of the more important decisions may be justified, many of the smaller interactions between two characters seem unnatural and staged.

I'm also a little confused as to why the film is called Sounder. I mean, I get that the dog is named Sounder and maybe there's a metaphor about loyalty or something, but the dog is a very minor character, all things considered. He doesn't actively move the story forward in any meaningful way. In fact, he's barely important to the story at all. As it turns out, the book from which the film is adapted, focuses much more heavily on the dog, but since screenwriter Lonne Elder III clearly shifted the main focus to the family, you'd think a different title would have been in order.

Anyway, before you think I'm completely writing it off - and, remember, I did preface all this with "from first impressions" - the film certainly has its merits. The family themes are universal and despite a very, VERY slow-moving first half, the final act is indeed engaging with some genuinely touching moments.

The performances, however, are often as stiff as the dialogue, particularly all the children. Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield are obviously accomplished actors, but even they struggle to rise above the stilted material. As mentioned, though, things pick up towards the end, and there are occasions when Tyson and Winfield truly show off their acting chops. Winfield's heated exchange with his son and the subsequent heartfelt monologue are particularly moving to watch. Kevin Hooks, now a prolific TV director, isn't great, but a darn sight better than the amateurish performances by the kids in his class. For me, though, the most watchable performance in the picture is the one given by Janet MacLachlan (pictured) as Camille, the schoolteacher, who takes David Lee under her wing, genuinely trying to connect with him.

The Academy obviously liked the lead actors since both Tyson and Winfield saw their performances nominated, making it the first time a film received Actor and Actress nods for its African-American leads. (The only other pair is Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett for What's Love Got To Do With It.) They also clearly disagreed with me about the script, because the film also picked up a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

1972 - Deliverance

It seems my only motivation to work on this blog lately is when a Best Picture nominee is scheduled to play locally on the big screen. In a few days, one such screening is happening, so I'm attempting to cram in the last few 1972 nominees beforehand.

So let's rejoin the 1972 Best Picture race and have a look at...

John Boorman
James Dickey
(based on his novel)
Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Four businessmen from Atlanta head north for a weekend of camping and canoeing. From the moment they set foot in the remote Georgia town, the locals give off an unfriendly and unhelpful vibe. That bad vibe turns into a nightmarish one as they not only deal with the violent river rapids but also with some violent locals. Getting back to civilisation with their dignity - and lives - intact becomes increasingly more difficult.

Deliverance is gripping from the first frame to the last, a genuinely edge-of-your-seat experience. As a film buff, particularly of 1970s cinema, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I hadn't actually seen this picture before, though I was, of course, fully aware of its two most famous scenes. The first, the duelling banjos - which is a bit of a misnomer since only one of the duelling instruments is a banjo - appears very early on, so knowing about this scene in advance was certainly no disadvantage. Once the two musicians get into full swing, it's incredibly toe-tapping and entertaining, sure to put a smile on your face.

The other famous scene, however, makes you feel the precise opposite and it's perhaps this scene that is more responsible for cementing the film's place in popular culture. Being familiar with it, I was concerned it would affect my experience of the story. Indeed, I was, in a way, just waiting for the canoe trip to go pear-shaped, but in the end, it's less than halfway through the film, so there's still plenty of nail-biting action that follows. And in any case, despite my awareness of its infamous reputation, the scene itself is some of the most intense few minutes of cinema I've ever seen. My eyes were glued to the screen. Powerful, powerful stuff.

Jon Voight (pictured) is, for me, the standout among the four main performers. His is a wonderfully subtle portrayal of a tortured man, far out of his depth, both literally and metaphorically. Ned Beatty is also great, though I was expecting his character to be more traumatised by his experience. By the end of the film, he seems almost to be able to shrug it off. Burt Reynolds is perhaps less realistic in his performance. His relatively unaffected response to the main event of the film seems somehow inappropriate and not particularly genuine. On the other end of the spectrum is Ronny Cox, who plays it all a bit too over the top. Despite the varied performances, they all get huge kudos for doing their own stunts. There's no mistaking that it's clearly the actors inside those canoes as they roll over the rapids. Voight also apparently scaled that cliff himself - a mighty impressive feat. Lastly, don't miss the source material's author, James Dickey, popping up as the Sheriff towards the end of the film.

As for Academy Awards, there were no acting nominations (though Voight was nominated for a Golden Globe), but the film picked up nods for Picture (obviously), John Boorman's impeccable direction and the meticulous editing by Tom Priestley.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

1972 - Cabaret

Oscar season is not too far away now. Some might even say it's begun already. I've somehow managed to get to the movies a number of times recently, and while there have been some films I've really loved (Baby Driver, Brigsby Bear, Ingrid Goes West, The Big Sick), probably the only real Oscar contender among them is Dunkirk. If it can keep up the momentum, it seems like a good shot for a Best Picture nomination. And if it can convert that into a win, it would be the first 70mm film to do so since Patton in 1970.

But enough of the useless Oscars trivia. Next up, we take a look at another nominee from 1972's Best Picture contest...

Bob Fosse
Jay Presson Allen
(based on the musical play by Joe Masteroff, also based on a play by John Van Druten, also based on stories by Christopher Isherwood)
Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
8 wins, including Best Director, Best Actress (Minnelli) and Best Supporting Actor (Grey)

Berlin, 1931. American Sally Bowles (Minnelli) works as a cabaret singer at the bohemian Kit Kat Club. She befriends Englishman Brian Roberts (York), who teaches English to the locals while he works on his doctorate. The two flirt with romance before eventually taking the plunge, but when a charming baron (Grieme) enters their lives, a complicated threesome is born. All the while, the Nazi party becomes an increasingly violent presence in the city and in the club.

Like most musical films, a TV screen seems too confining for the theatrically extravagant numbers of Cabaret. It's certainly another movie I'd like to be able to catch on the big screen one day. In any case, no matter the size of the screen, all of the songs, right from the opening number, are passionate and emotive. Not to mention toe-tapping. Literally. My toe was involuntarily bouncing to the beat often. And Cabaret is not just a treat for your ears. Your eyes can also feast on the snazzy costumes, moody cinematography and snappy editing. Most of that visual and aural entertainment is limited to the musical numbers in the cabaret club, a setting which obviously allows for such flashiness. However, the narrative story is also very moving and emotional, exploring elements of the human condition in a way that isn't touched upon often, or at least wasn't in 1972.

As I often mention, stage productions that are brought to the screen often fail to appropriately adapt the material for film, but thankfully, that's not the case with Cabaret. While there are still a few lengthy scenes full of only dialogue, the musical scenes in particular make clever use of the medium. David Bretherton's editing deftly splices the cabaret performances together with snippets of germane events taking place outside the club. Bob Fosse also made the brilliant decision to remove all the songs from the stage version that didn't actually take place on the cabaret stage. The result is a musical that retains the sense of realism that is usually lost when characters unrealistically burst into song. Here, the singing only occurs as it would in real life: on a stage in front of an audience.

While the songs symbolically comment on the surrounding scenes, the only direct connection between the cabaret performances and the narrative story is Sally Bowles, and even then, we never actually see her interact offstage with any of the other cabaret performers (apart from a brief suggestive look from the Emcee). On the one hand, this creates a mildly disjointed feeling that we're watching two starkly separate movies. On the other hand, the two movies are cleverly related in that they explore the same themes using opposite techniques - one is a chronological narrative, the other is a series of bitingly satirical musical numbers.

After such engaging passion, the ending is perhaps a little unsatisfying. Not that I'm suggesting a happy ending would have been appropriate, but despite the fact that the mismatched lovers were inevitably not meant to be, the decline of their relationship seemed somewhat sudden. Plus, all the political tension that infuses the film never develops into anything more. I was half expecting the Nazis to storm the club and shut it down in a dramatic climax, but instead, the film ends with only a whimper. Then again, that may very well be the point of it all. The vibrant Berlin culture of the early 1930s never got a proper goodbye. It was gradually diminished as Hitler took over. Perhaps this is symbolised in the final moments of the film as the Emcee sings a suspended farewell that is missing its final musical phrase. He bows and briskly exits the stage as the camera pans to see the distorted reflections of several Nazis in uniform in the audience.

Liza Minnelli is naturally bubbly and energetic in perhaps her most memorable role, earning herself a Best Actress Oscar in the process. Also winning on Oscar night was Best Supporting Actor Joel Grey (pictured) as the Emcee. At first, Grey seems a little over the top, but once you accept that he's playing the part of a vaudevillian cabaret artist, it's actually perfect. I desperately wanted to see his character actually interact with someone off the stage, but nonetheless, he's delightfully naughty and suggestive, precise and detailed in every movement. That's probably in large part due to Fosse's intricate choreography, which is sublimely provocative on many levels. Some of the shapes he makes his dancers take are so unique that I often felt like I'd never seen a person make that move before. And his direction is nothing to be sneezed at either. He won the Best Director Oscar for it, after all. A notable and fascinating feature of his style in this film is his penchant for allowing his characters to communicate without saying anything. It's clear he wasn't afraid to have his actors stare at each other silently for long periods of time. To paraphrase a well-known proverb, a face is worth a thousand words.

Then, of course, there's the music and lyrics. Kander and Ebb are simply masters of the form, both individually and together. The toe-tapping, emotive music combined with witty and moving lyrics is the perfect pairing. They wrote three songs specifically for the movie, but the one that seemed like it would be the most likely to be nominated for an Oscar, "Maybe This Time", was actually adapted from a song they'd written previously, making it ineligible. So in the end, Cabaret didn't receive a Best Original Song nod, but it did find itself nominated in 10 other categories, winning a total of 8 Oscars, the most for any film that didn't also win Best Picture.

Monday, July 31, 2017

1972 - The Godfather

You may remember several weeks ago, when I returned to this blog after such a lengthy break, that I mentioned having watched four movies within the space of as many days. The driving force behind that feat was a screening by Fathom Events, in collaboration with TCM. The film in question was a Best Picture winner that I'd always wanted to see on the big screen, so it was tough to pass up the opportunity. But of course, in order to appease my own sense of order, I felt the obsessive need to finish the previous year of review before starting a new one. Hence, I crammed in the remaining three 1943 Best Picture nominees just in time to treat myself to 1972's winner. And with this review, I'm finally caught up.

So, our first nominee from the 1972 Best Picture race is...

The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
(based on the novel by Mario Puzo)
Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Brando)

Don Vito Corleone (Brando), known as the Godfather, is the head of one of New York's most notorious crime families. While the other male members of the clan are all involved in the family business, Vito's son, Michael (Pacino), keeps himself at a distance. But when the Godfather refuses to make a deal with a rival crime family, a mob war breaks out. In what begins as an attempt to protect his own father, Michael soon finds himself drawn in to the family business, after all.

Both the AFI and IMDb users list The Godfather in the number two spot of their top films of all time, and it's not difficult to understand why. It's a positively captivating film from start to finish, fittingly earning a revered place in cinematic history. From the exquisite cinematography to the powerful performances, there is drama and suspense infused into every frame. Ultimately, though, the story is essentially a heartbreaking character study of a man whose moral compass collapses under the weight of his family loyalty. When we first meet Michael Corleone, he's relaxed and open, making it clear to Kay that he has nothing to do with his father's business. But as he slowly gets pulled in to the family's shady dealings, he becomes more and more humorless and unlikable. Finally, he takes over from his father and Kay is shut out (both literally and metaphorically) in one of the most chilling final shots ever to be filmed (pictured).

A big part of any film becoming such a pop culture phenomenon is its memorable music and quotable quotes, and The Godfather is certainly no exception. While Italian composer Nino Rota's intensely evocative score was initially announced as a nominee for the Best Original Score Oscar, it was later withdrawn due to the discovery that Rota had adapted an earlier score for the film's main theme. Regardless of its origins, the theme has clearly become so closely associated with The Godfather that it scarcely matters what it was first used for. The memorable quotes, on the other hand, weren't heard anywhere before, though they've been mimicked ad nauseam ever since, a clear testament to their emotional resonance. In the screening that I attended, there was audible tittering when Brando uttered the classic, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse," and some louder chuckles at the oft-parodied, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." Even more evidence I was watching with fellow fans was the scene in which Woltz first proudly shows off his racehorse. The audience knowingly snickered with delight at what we all knew was coming.

The performances are fantastic all around. From the comic relief of Lenny Montana's Luca Brasi to the impassioned energy of Talia Shire's Connie. In total, there were four acting nominations. Brando deservedly won Best Actor (though famously refused the award) for an exceptional portrayal of the Corleone patriarch. Powerful, yet understated, but jeez, those cotton balls in his mouth sure are weird. Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan all competed against each other in the Supporting Actor category, but perhaps they split the vote because none of them took home the prize. It would have made for an interesting evening if Pacino had won, though, because he, too, was a no-show at the ceremony, allegedly objecting to his performance being cited as a supporting role. To be fair, he had a point. His performance represented a far greater amount of screen time than Brando's. Certainly not the first or last time that sort of thing has happened, but clearly one of the most egregious cases.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Best Picture of 1943

Well, this verdict is over two years in the making. Since it's been so long, it was somewhat difficult to recall the first few viewings, so I've had to rely on my original thoughts as written down in the blog itself. Not that it really matters, to be honest, since this one was pretty much a foregone conclusion from the beginning.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1943 are:
  • Casablanca
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Heaven Can Wait
  • The Human Comedy
  • In Which We Serve
  • Madame Curie
  • The More the Merrier
  • The Ox-Bow Incident
  • The Song of Bernadette
  • Watch on the Rhine
Of the ten nominated films, exactly half of them are contemporary pieces exploring some aspect of the war with varying degrees of patriotism and propaganda. Together with the other half, though, it's quite a diverse group with several genres being represented. All in all, they don't constitute an outstanding collection of cinema, though many of them are captivating. I found particular enjoyment in The Ox-Bow Incident and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

But why waste time. There was very little chance anything would topple Casablanca in my esteem. It's a masterpiece of early filmmaking - great performances, great script, great images - that towers over its competitors and has deservedly earned its iconic status in cinematic culture. And so, to make it official, Casablanca is, without question, my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1943.
Best Picture of 1943
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:


Your choice:

Let me know what your favourite of this year was by voting in the poll above. We move to the 1970s now for a selection of heavy dramas (and one musical drama).

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1972 are:
  • Cabaret
  • Deliverance
  • The Emigrants
  • The Godfather
  • Sounder
You might have deduced from my post a few weeks ago that I've already watched the first movie of this year of review, so I'll be able to opine on that shortly and finally explain why I went on a four-movie binge in the first place. Stay tuned...

Monday, July 3, 2017

1943 - The Human Comedy

Finally, after over two years, we reach the end of the current year of review. I sincerely hope I'm able to avoid that sort of lengthy timeframe in the future. Life as a parent may put up a fight, though.

The final entry in 1943's competition for the Best Picture is...

The Human Comedy
Clarence Brown
Howard Estabrook
(from a story by William Saroyan)
Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, James Craig, Marsha Hunt, Fay Bainter, Ray Collins, Van Johnson, Donna Reed, Jackie Jenkins
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Story

The effects of the distant war are felt in small-town California as teenager Homer (Rooney) takes on the role of provider for his family due to the recent death of his father (Collins) and the deployment of his older brother (Johnson). Homer begins working for the local telegraph office, alongside senior telegrapher Willie (Morgan). Meanwhile, the office manager (Craig) frets over the impending introduction to his future in-laws, Homer's sister (Reed) and a friend enjoy a night out with soldiers on leave, and Homer's brother faces Army training.

The Human Comedy wears its heart well and truly on its sleeve. It's overly sincere and plenty preachy with scene after scene of characters waxing philosophical about life, love and, most of all, war. A product of its era, I guess.

That said, the picture's multiple storylines each capture the attention of its audience. We end up caring for all the characters in this town, which is attributable to the ensemble cast. However, it's Mickey Rooney (pictured, with Frank Morgan) that is the standout, proving he wasn't a box office draw for nothing. He displays an affable boyish exuberance, paving the way for the Michael J. Foxes of the world.

Relevant to this blog, it's always fun to come across a Best Picture nominee that makes reference to an earlier Best Picture nominee. In The Human Comedy, one scene sees several characters exit a cinema after having seen the previous year's Best Picture winner, Mrs. Miniver.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

1943 - The Song of Bernadette

Well, despite having three more viewings in the can, I'm apparently still taking my time to blog about them. So let's get straight to it.

Here are my thoughts on another 1943 Best Picture nominee...

The Song of Bernadette
Henry King
George Seaton
(based on the novel by Franz Werfel)
Jennifer Jones, William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper, Anne Revere, Roman Bohnen
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
4 wins, including Best Actress (Jones)

In a rural French village in the mid-19th century, a timid teenager named Bernadette (Jones) tags along with her sister and a friend to collect firewood for their families. When Bernadette is separated from the other two, she waits at a cave where she sees a clear vision of a saintly woman. The apparition asks Bernadette to return to the same spot every day for the next couple of weeks, and as Bernadette complies, she attracts the attention of the nation. Despite not being visible to anyone else, many believe Bernadette is communicating with the Virgin Mary and flock to the site in hopes of being healed by the miraculous spring water now flowing from the ground. Many others, including her own parents (Bohnen and Revere) doubt her story. Even the Catholic Church takes their time to come around, subjecting Bernadette to many years of investigation before proclaiming the visions as an official miracle.

The Song of Bernadette initially unravels a lot like a mystery. Did Bernadette really see the Virgin Mary? Or is it a hoax? Or is she just delusional? The well-structured script creates some tight conflict around this mystery with barely anyone believing her at first. Slowly, though, more and more people become believers and her detractors are portrayed in such a way that they are clearly the antagonists. And since the film's verisimilitude makes plenty of room for the miraculous, it's fairly obvious which conclusion the audience is supposed to reach: yes, the visions are real. In fact, anyone with a modicum of familiarity with religious-themed films, especially of the classic era, could probably have guessed that from the outset.

The anti-intellectual trope is a common cinematic theme that has always rubbed me the wrong way. Scientists are often painted as stubborn and closed-minded. Which is ironic, really. In reality, science is self-correcting, always incorporating new evidence as it comes to light, whereas religion is rigid and inflexible. I suppose, though, that Hollywood is only reflecting the culture. I guess I just don't quite understand how society decided that simply believing should be considered a virtue, but thinking critically about extraordinary claims is arrogant and dismissive? Surely, dispassionately weighing all the evidence before jumping to conclusions will produce more reasonable outcomes than blind acceptance of dogma. Okay, this is getting way too philosophical. Back to the movie...

Since the characters are essentially divided between believers and doubters, the cast often slips into heavy caricatures, either the kind-hearted supporter or the obstinate foe. Nonetheless, the film garnered four acting nominations, but only Jennifer Jones took home an Oscar for what amounts to a relatively simple portrayal of a softly-spoken and innocent girl. To my mind, though, Vincent Price (pictured) as the Imperial Prosecutor and Lee J. Cobb as the local doctor gave the most captivating and natural performances despite the lack of recognition from the Academy.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

1943 - The More the Merrier

Whew, it has been a year and a half since my last review, which was just after my daughter was born. Emily is now 19 months old and Charlie is almost 3½. I can't really explain how I found the time to come back to this blog, but let's just ride the wave, shall we? And I'm back with a bang, too. I've watched four movies in the last three days. Yep, you read that right. Four movies in three days. (I'll explain why when I get to the fourth one.) Of course, now I have to write about them, so the delays may still continue, but one step at a time.

So, after a loooong hiatus, we now continue our review of the 1943 Best Picture nominees by taking a look at...

The More the Merrier
George Stevens
Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster
Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn, Richard Gaines, Stanley Clements
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Supporting Actor (Coburn)

Thanks to the war, Washington, D.C. is experiencing a housing shortage so Connie (Arthur) decides to do the patriotic thing and offer half her apartment for rent. Benjamin Dingle (Coburn) weasels his way into the lease, despite Connie not being too keen on having a male roommate. The next day, without Connie's knowledge or permission, Dingle rents half of his half of the apartment to Joe Carter (McCrea), a young soldier preparing to be shipped overseas next week. In record time, Connie and Joe fall in love, but Connie's long-term engagement to the boring but stable Charles Pendergast (Gaines) prevents anything but fleeting romantic moments between Connie and Joe ... at least for a while.

It's somehow fitting that one of the themes in The More the Merrier is one's patriotic duty to help the war effort in any small way one can. After directing the film, George Stevens did just that by joining the US Army Signal Corps as a documentarian, gathering harrowing footage from the D-Day landings and Dachau concentration camp, among other things. The experience clearly shifted his outlook because The More the Merrier was the last of the mostly light-hearted films he was known for during the 30s and early 40s. The second half of his career is filled with much more dramatic fare.

And perhaps that was for the best. Stevens certainly is more deft at drama than comedy. Not that The More the Merrier is unfunny. On the contrary, the witty dialogue and slapstick pratfalls definitely put a smile on your face, but there are certain moments in which the director's comic timing leaves a bit to be desired. Maybe it's just a result of the time period and we're now just too used to cutting away from a punchline immediately, but Stevens holds way, way too long on Coburn when he can't find his pants. Both times. Watch the movie and you'll know what I mean.

There are definitely some contrived moments and characters behaving in somehow unmotivated ways, but all in all, it's a nice bit of fluff. They certainly don't nominate these kinds of romantic comedies very often anymore.

Charles Coburn (pictured, looking for his pants) won the film's only Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and it's not entirely undeserved. He is indeed very entertaining in this role. But while I'm now at peace with Bogart and Bergman not receiving Oscars for Casablanca, I can't say the same for Claude Rains' loss. As entertaining as Coburn is, Rains would have been my pick. Leading couple Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea also deliver amiable performances - she was nominated, he wasn't - though like the film itself, they're not amazingly memorable but enjoyable nonetheless.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscar Winner Predictions 2016

Well, after one of my best years ever for predicting the nominations, I'm less confident about my predictions for the winners. It seems there a few more close races than usual, and even the categories that seem like locks are not as tightly locked as you would expect. So the possibility for upsets is great this year, I think. That said, I've pretty much gone with the favourites in each category, even if they're not the favourite by much.

So, here are my predictions on who will take home each award. We'll know soon enough if I've played it too safe.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Oscar Nomination Predictions 2016

Ugh! An entire year without a post. Well, the less said about that, the better. I'm back (briefly) to release my predictions for the Oscar nominations which will be announced in just a few hours. I realise it doesn't really leave any time for discussion. Indeed, I doubt anyone will actually read this before the nominations are announced, so I suppose this is just for posterity. Without further ado, here are my nomination predictions for the 2016 Oscars. Enjoy!

EDIT: Oops. I guess I misread the calendar. Today (Friday) is when the nomination voting closes, not actually when the announcement is made. So I guess there is indeed time to absorb my predictions. Though, I reserve the right to change them before Tuesday morning when the actual nominations will be announced.

2nd EDIT: Well, after seeing a few more contenders, I have indeed made some changes ahead of tomorrow morning's announcement, but only in the Best Picture category. Let's see how I do...