Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Music in My Heart (1940)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Music, Original Song: Chet Forrest and Bob Wright for "It's A Blue World"

The Academy Award ceremony held in 1941, like the other ceremonies held in the era, must have been full of musicians.  Nine films were nominated for Best Original Song, 17 films for Best Original Score, and nine more for Best Score.  The old Academy rules allowed for large numbers of nominations in several categories, giving scores of musicians the designation "Academy Award nominee."  While this was no doubt a great thing for those nominated, for the Oscar completist it can be a mixed blessing.  Many of the films nominated in these categories, particularly Best Song, tend to be light and frivolous films that would have had no chance of an Oscar nomination without the music categories.  Sometimes this allows me to watch fun and lighthearted comedies that I would have otherwise missed, but more often I am stuck watching dreadful films with one halfway decent song.  Thankfully, "Music in My Heart" is an example of the former.

Starring Tony Martin and Rita Hayworth and directed by journeyman director Joseph Santley, "Music in My Heart" is a lighthearted romance with a plotline so forgettable that just 24 hours after watching it, I am having a tough time recalling it to write this post.  The pleasure of "Music in My Heart" comes not from the story, however, but instead from a charming leading performance by Tony Martin and some entertaining songs, including the nominated "It's A Blue World."  Though not the best song in the film, "It's A Blue World" is a pleasant tune worthy of its nomination, but it had little chance against the Oscar winning "When You Wish Upon a Star."

I'll completely forgot that I watched this film in a month, but it was a short, enjoyable movie and it made for a pleasant afternoon.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

List of Academy Award nominations and reactions

The Oscar nominees are in.  Below is a complete list along with my thoughts in each category.  This year has been a busy one for me, so I've seen less of the films than I have at this point in any other year in recent memory.  Without a clear runaway winner, this year promises to be an interesting one for Oscar watchers.

Films I have seen are in bold.

Best Motion Picture of the Year
12 Years a Slave
Gravity
Dallas Buyers Club
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
The Wolf of Wall Street

I am woefully underqualified to comment on this category, having seen only two of the films.  Of the two I have seen, Gravity was by far my favorite.  12 Years a Slave is the likely winner, though don't count out American Hustle for a late run at the trophy, especially after receiving ten nominations, including noms in each of the acting categories.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Bring Back Droopy!

Okay, I admit this one's a little far out, but after recently watching "One Droopy Knight" I was reminded just what a great character Droopy is and how he has fallen into neglect in recent generations.  I started a petition at The Petition Site, and we're collecting signatures calling for the production of a new Droopy cartoon.

Are there better things in the world to petition for?  Of course.  But that doesn't mean we can't call for a brand new Droopy cartoon.  So pass the word and let's get as many signatures as we can, calling for a new Droopy cartoon.

Sign the petition at: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/351/145/965/bring-back-droopy/#

Valgaften (Election Night) (1999)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Short Film, Live Action - Kim Magnusson and Anders Thomas Jensen



Anders Thomas Jensen has a knack for creating Oscar fare.  Three of his short films have been Oscar nominated for Best Short Film, Live Action: "Wolfgang," "Ernst & Iyset," and "Valgaften," and the latter won the statuette.  Since then, he has written the Best Foreign Language Film winning In a Better World and The Duchess, which won an Oscar for costume design and received a nomination for Art Direction.

While he's helped others win Academy Awards, the sole Oscar awarded to Jensen came for his short Valgaften or Election Night, a film about a man desperately trying to make it to the polls to vote before they close, but disgusted by the prejudices of those he meets along the way.  Initially shocked by the bigotry he sees in those he meets, he first becomes overwhelmed by it and eventually finds himself unexpectedly making an unintentional yet hurtful bigoted comment of his own.

Riding in a taxi sure must be a trying experience in Denmark.  Though I have heard a cab driver or two espouse bigoted comments, it certainly hasn't happened with frequency or to the same degree that the protagonist endures.  Of course, the frequency of the bigotry encountered is meant to prove a point, though I'm not quite sure what the point is.  Is it that we are all prejudiced in our own ways, and it's just a matter of degree?  Perhaps, though the prejudice he shows is hardly on par with what he hears from cab drivers.  Is it that he overreacted to the initial somewhat prejudiced comment he heard, and after seeing what serious prejudice looks like he is less certain in his self righteousness?  Perhaps, though that would be a pretty cynical interpretation.  Or maybe it's that despite our best intentions, there will always be bigotry in the world, so we might as well accept it, which would be the most hopeless interpretation of all.

I'd love to read any comments regarding what you took away from the short.  Am I completely missing an obvious explanation?

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Finian's Rainbow (1968)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Sound
Nomination: Best Music, Score of a Musical Picture (Original or Adaptation) - Ray Heindorf


Finian's Rainbow French Poster
Photo Courtesy PetulaClark.net
Finian's Rainbow is a film of clashing generations.  It is directed by one of the leaders of New Hollywood filmmaking but starring one of the most famous faces of Old Hollywood, bold enough to discuss racial issues but backwards enough to use blackface to do so, and exciting in its use of location filming but also far too reliant on silly looking sets.

Finian's Rainbow was first performed on Broadway in 1947, and had a film been made in the 1940's or 1950's it probably would have worked much better.  But by the time of the film's release in 1968, the culture had experienced such enormous shifts that the film films more like a strange relic of the past trying too hard to fit into the present day.  You know when old people attempt to use modern slang to relate to their grandchildren, but it just makes them look older?  That's Finian's Rainbow.

Tommy Steele plays the leprechaun Og, and his performance is a bit of a mess.  My only previous exposure to Steele's work was in The Happiest Millionaire, a performance I quite enjoyed.  The Happiest Millionaire was just silly enough to allow for Steele's mugging and silliness, but in Finian's Rainbow he plays the role far too broadly, and the performance crosses the line from silly to strange.

Despite all of its weaknesses, Finian's Rainbow is worth watching, if for no other reason than Francis Ford Coppola's direction.  Yes, he certainly overdirects at times, but it is the overdirection of a talented youth bursting with ideas rather than the overdirection of a hack filmmaker.  Coppola worked with cinematographer Philip Lathrop to free the camera, and what results is the sense of constant movement, giving the film the feel of a lively pace despite its long running time.  Some of the shots Coppola creates are silly, but it was good for him to get those out of his system before the film he'd make four years later, The Godfather.

The sound work in the film by M.A. Merrick and Dan Wallin is strong, and unlike many musicals that for some reason undeservedly get nominated for sound Oscars, Finian's Rainbow was well deserving of its nomination.  Ray Heindorf's score was a solid effort as well, though it never stood a chance against Johnny Green's score for Oliver!

Mondays at Racine (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Short Subjects - Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan

I can't remember the last time I was as moved by a documentary short as much as I was moved by "Mondays at Racine."  The film offers a look at Racine Salon & Spa in Islip, New York, a salon that opened its doors to women with cancer on the third Monday of every month (the spa is now open for women with cancer every Monday).  This generous act is meant to "ease the pain and trauma of cancer and cancer treatment," by providing both spa services and helping women shave their hair when it falls out due to chemotherapy.

Director Cynthia Wade uses the Racine Salon & Spa as a window into the world of a few women who are suffering with cancer, focusing on two in particular, one who had been battling the disease for years and the other recently diagnosed.  Other women are introduced and talk about the effect of cancer, but by focusing on just two women at different ends of the cancer spectrum, the film is able to have maximum emotional impact.  Wade shows the devastating effect the disease has had on the women, and also explores the often overlooked effect on the family.  The film's tagline asks "When your life is at stake, why is losing your hair so hard?"  As a man, I probably would have asked the same question before watching "Mondays at Racine."  After watching it, the answer is obvious.

Pretty much any film made about the effects of cancer is going to be emotional.  Unlike many documentaries that focus on rare diseases or issues affecting far-flung regions of the world, we have all been touched by cancer and all bring our own emotional histories to a film such as "Mondays at Racine."  But "Mondays at Racine" is so expertly executed that audiences will not only respond to the film through the lens of their own emotional history, but primarily through the lenses of the women shown in the film.

Learn more about the work of Mondays at Racine at http://mondaysatracine.org

Monday, December 30, 2013

Real Steel (2011)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Visual Effects - Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Danny Gordon Taylor, and Swen Gillberg

The opening credits of Real Steel are an elegantly beautiful, Americana-drenched Spielbergian vision of the countryside.  Alexi Murdoch's cover of the great Nick Drake song "All of My Days" plays as Charlie (Hugh Jackman) drives his truck across sunset-drenched fields, a glowing carnival reflecting in his windshield as day turns to night.

Then there are fighting robots.

Real Steel plays like a film written by someone working from a thoroughly dog-eared copy of Syd Field's Screenplay.  The beats are all there, the characters develop at the right time, and even the inevitable montage is placed in the right moment.  Real Steel perfectly follows the "ideal structure" of a sports movie.  There's nothing wrong with this structure, and when employed with a degree of sincerity and feeling, a strong film can result.  Released in the same year as Real Steel, Warrior was a surprisingly good effort that thrived in a similar structure due to strong acting and an avoidance of a cheap reliance on pathos.  But in Real Steel the structure feels phony and cloying, and without the heart of a Rudy or Hoosiers, the predictability of the genre is all too noticeable.

At times throughout Real Steel, director Shawn Levy seems to be screaming out "I'm capable of more than this nonsense!"  Levy is one of the busiest directors in Hollywood, directing nine feature films since 2000, with two more on the way next year (Night at the Museum 3 and This Is Where I Leave You).  Real Steel is his first non-comedic effort, though the film has plenty of unintentional comedy.  Levy's talent has never been particularly evident to me, as his efforts have thus far ranged from uninspired (Date Night) to unwatchable (Cheaper by the Dozen 2).  Like his comedies, the direction of Real Steel is capable, and there are some moments of real beauty.  The problem is that he just doesn't have much to work with the script, and he's not able to elevate a mediocre script into a good movie.  Levy is like the coach of an NFL team with a record of 8-8, good enough to keep his job, not good enough to make the playoffs.  Perhaps if he had better players he could make something happen, but he doesn't have enough on his own to win without great talent surrounding him.

But perhaps it's unfair to criticize the film's screenplay or direction in this blog, since I watched the film for its special effects.  On this criteria, the film succeeds wildly.  The robotics work by Jason Matthews at Legacy Effects is jaw-dropping, and the visual effects team and Shawn Levy made the wise move to use real elements in addition to computer effects.  Not only does this make the robots feel more real and less digital, but it also prevented the filmmakers from going too wild in designing the robots.  Unlike the robots in Transformers (the third film of the series was also nominated in the category), the robots in Real Steel feel like the robots we might expect to see in the not too distant future.  Some of the robots are a bit over the top, namely the champion Zeus, but for the most part the filmmakers succeeded in designing compelling robots that move with a beautiful fluidity and maintain a sense of semi-realism.  I would have agreed with the decision of the Academy to award the Oscar to the visual effects team behind Hugo, but the visual effects team behind Real Steel were well-deserving of their nomination.